Tony is walking down a corridor.
In the official records, the first thing Steve Rogers ever says to Tony Stark is, “Why didn’t you warn me?”
Tony lifts up his faceplate and says, “Have we met?”
It’s a matter of perspective.
On a hard drive in a safe in a bunker, there is a video that only three living people have seen.
There are men with guns. There is another man kneeling at their feet.
“You did not tell us the great Tony Stark was a witch!” the man in charge exclaims, and when he snaps his fingers, two of his companions thrust the kneeling man’s head under the water.
He thrashes, and thrashes, and then he is gone.
“Listen to me,” Tony hisses, grabbing Steve by the elbow and tugging him – Steve jerks his arm out of Tony’s hold, but follows him anyway – deeper into the recesses of the jet.
Tony looks around at Loki, who is watching them intently, and at Black Widow, who turns her head away. He grabs Steve’s arm again.
“You listen up,” he says, voice low and quick. “Whatever the hell I apparently said or didn’t say in your past, it’s still my future and I don’t wanna know. And if you think that’s confusing, try living it.”
“I’ve got some idea how confusing time travel is,” Steve snaps. “No thanks to you.”
“Don’t wanna hear it. And that?” he adds, jabbing a finger at the star in the centre of Steve’s chest. “That wasn’t time travel, pal, that was a guy taking a really long nap.”
Steve clenches his fists and draws in a breath, but whatever he’s going to say is drowned out by that first great roll of thunder, that incoming storm.
When Tony is four years old, Howard Stark looks dead into the centre of a camera lens and he says, “Tony.”
When Steve is six years old, and in bed with the flu, he dreams a man in a funny-looking suit appears in the middle of his bedroom.
“You aren’t meant to be here,” Steve dreams he says.
The man straightens his shirt cuffs. The whole suit looks wrong, like no clothes Steve has ever seen before, but the cufflinks are the strangest part; they’re faintly glowing.
“Well, would you look at that?” the dream man says, and then he looks down at Steve and begins to laugh, until Steve, feverish and offended, begins to cry.
“Oh, hell,” the man says. “No, stop, I’m sorry. I’m not – I’m laughing with you, not at you, okay? This is the smallest I’ve ever seen you. We’ll laugh about this in the, uh - in the future.”
“Go away,” Steve shouts through his tears. “I’ve got the flu.”
“Ninety years from now, you’ll laugh too, I promise.”
The man sucks in a breath and looks at his watch and says, “I’ll make it up to you in, uh, ten months, I think. And five seconds. And ninety years, wow, this never gets less confu-”
When Maria is eight months pregnant and Howard is smoking an after dinner cigar, a man crashes through their dinner table, naked and wet and shivering. Maria shrieks and knocks her chair over, and a maid comes running and begins to scream too, but Howard—
The man is choking, coughing out water and clawing at the strange glowing thing in his chest, but as he coughs he rolls over in the wreckage and looks Howard straight in the eye and he croaks, “Dad?”
The man’s eyes are dark and frightened. With one hand reaching out towards them, he disappears again.
Howard remains frozen, remains absolutely frozen with his cigar still burning down to his fingers, until Maria grabs hold of his elbow and begins to cry.
“The baby,” she sobs. “Howard, I think the baby’s coming.”
For a while, the baby, the hospital and Maria’s sickness consume everything, but when Howard comes back to himself, he’s holding his son in his arms. His greatest creation. Howard looks down into Anthony Edward’s eyes and knows with absolute certainty that he has seen these eyes before.
Tony remembers vaguely, over the incredible pain and half-consciousness, a familiar voice. The most familiar voice.
“There’s no time to explain, Yinsen, just trust me. I’m a trustworthy guy, this is my trustworthy face, I’ll – he’ll explain it all to you later. Just put this in now, before I...”
There is something cold inside the heat inside his chest. There is the most familiar hand on his shoulder.
“It’s okay. Dad solved - We solved it. It stays with us whenever we go. We’re a genius. See you in a few weeks, Ton-”
Tony goes home. A few seconds later, Tony goes as well.
The first thing Steve Rogers ever says to Howard Stark, his voice shaking with uncertainty and pent-up emotion, is “Tony?”
The lab is loud and busy, and in ten minutes a spy starts shooting and a simple case of mistaken identity leaves everyone’s minds. Howard thinks nothing of it.
Thirty years later, Howard thinks of it.
Tony is four and he can’t sleep, although it’s long past his bedtime.
Tony is four and tip-toeing, in his matching bathrobe and slippers, past the door of his father’s study, when a ghost appears at the end of the corridor – a boy who looks a lot like Tony, except he’s pale and naked and covering his mouth with his hands like Tony does when he’s trying not to cry.
They stare at each other, frozen. Tony is still deciding whether to run back to bed or to shout for his mother, when through the door daddy says, “Tony! How many times do I have to tell you-”
Tony jumps in fright. When he looks back at the end of the corridor again, the ghost has disappeared. He’s going to be in so much trouble. He begins to push the study door open and he hears an unfamiliar voice.
“You won’t be telling me anything anymore.”
“Oh, we’ll see about that, my boy.”
There’s the sound of a scuffle. Through the crack between doorframe and door, Tony sees daddy grab an older boy by the arm. The boy has no clothes on, and he shouts and struggles, hitting at daddy wildly with his fists.
“That is enough,” daddy says, his voice quieter and angrier than Tony has ever heard it before.
The boy stops fighting altogether and begins to loudly cry. He sits down on the floor of the study and daddy sinks down before him.
“Mom didn’t want to go! She didn’t want to but she went anyway, because you - Why didn’t you remember this? You left me nothing!”
Daddy says, “What are you talking about?”
“You left me nothing,” the boy sobs. “You left me, you’re gone, you left.”
Daddy hisses, “Quiet. Be quiet, you’ll wake Tony. You know he hasn’t started yet, you’ll scare him-” gripping the boy tightly by the shoulders.
Tony can see that daddy is shaking.
The boy looks up. He looks over daddy’s shoulder and right at Tony. His eyes are red and wet, his nose is streaming. He laughs wildly.
“I’m already scared, dad,” he says.
Daddy looks around. When he sees Tony, his face goes pale and his eyes go wide and he swears louder than Tony has ever heard him swear before. He lets go of the boy’s arms and reaches out for Tony.
“Dad,” the other boy says quietly, beginning to cry again.
Tony presses his hands over his mouth, trying not to cry himself, because even the ghost wasn’t as scary as this, nothing has ever been as scary as this, and he’s starting to feel dizzy.
“Wait,” daddy’s saying, “dammit, wait,” reaching back for the other boy with one hand and reaching forwards for Tony with the other.
Tony takes a step towards him and whispers around his fingers, “Daddy, I’m-”
“Now would be,” Tony grits out through clenched teeth, the armour rattling around him because it was built to blow up bombs, not to carry them. He can feel the weight of it, he can feel the creaking joints. The city is shrinking, the portal is growing, the sky is rushing down to meet him.
One-way trip, Steve had said, so uncertainly, because Tony’s meant to have a future; Tony’s meant to have Steve’s past, apparently.
What Tony has is a bomb behind him and the stars before him.
“Now would be a perfect time to disappear,” he says.
But he doesn’t look back.
All ten of Howard’s fingers close on empty air.
“Obie,” Tony gasps.
He reappears an inch above the cot, in a cave in Afghanistan. He crashes down onto it, naked and wheezing and clawing at the thing in his chest, catching his fingers under the rim and pulling and –
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
“What have you done to me?” Tony says when he is capable of speaking again.
“I don’t know,” Yinsens says. “You are the one who did it.”
He hands Tony a pile of neatly folded clothes, with a car battery and a tangle of bloody wires balanced on top, and then he sits down on the edge of the cot and looks at Tony very hard.
He says, “What an interesting day we are having, Mr Stark.”
“This doesn’t mean you’re on the team, Stark. Consulting only.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Tony says mildly, leaning forwards with his hands on the edge of the conference table. “I think you’ve got me confused with some other guy. You know, some guy who didn’t do the vertical tango with a nuclear missile to save your ass.”
“Stark, Banner practically is a missile, and he’s still more reliable than you.” Fury fixes Tony with a stare, then adds, gentler, “Look, you did good. I’m not denying the good you did. But suppose next time, you go temporal walkabout and that missile drops on my city. If you can’t control it, you sure as hell can’t guarantee it won’t happen.”
Tony looks around the table. Hill is staring at her hands, and Barton is staring at Fury, but Black Widow gazes back at him, unflinchingly. Pathologically and physiologically unreliable, her report on him had said.
One moment he’s there and the next he’s gone, it had said.
“Screw you all,” Tony declares.
Kicking his chair away, he climbs to his feet and points a finger at Fury. “I’m going to control it.”
He shoves his way out of the conference room, the door swinging shut behind him not quite quick enough to keep Fury’s words from floating out after him.
“Well damn, Stark, what took you so long?”
“Never had the time,” Tony shouts back.
Tony is four and standing naked at the end of the corridor, shaking, staring at another little boy standing in front of daddy’s study door. When daddy shouts, he runs away, until a hand takes hold of his and a friendly voice says, “Hey, hey, it’s okay now. Come with me, I’ll tell you a story.”
Tony is five, and six, and seven, and eight, and when he hears that other boy begin to cry, he runs and hides until it’s time to go back home again.
Tony is thirty-five and standing in the corridor, in the shadows, where he can watch the four-year-old disappear, the empty bathrobe falling suddenly to the ground and all ten of Howard’s fingers curling into fists.
In the grounds, Tony is twenty-one and turns away from the study window; is twenty-six and watches Howard’s hand cover his mouth; is forty, with a blue light glowing in his chest, watching only himself this time.
Tony is thirty-nine and there for barely a split second, choking on water and digging his fingers into the lawn so hard, tomorrow the gardeners will search for a stray dog.
Tony is seventeen and crying, still crying, as he disappears.
Tony is forty-two when he takes a little boy by the hand at last, turning him gently away.
“So,” Yinsen says. “You are a man who has everything and nothing but time.”
“Tony,” Howard says into the camera. “On the day you were born, I saw – you, I believe, with something strange inside your body. Something you had brought with you instead of leaving behind-”
Tony is walking down a corridor in the dark.
Steve is seven, kicking a pebble down the alley and pretending it’s a soccer ball and he can run as fast as anyone, when a naked man falls into the trashcans. It’s definitely not a dream this time.
“Where’d you come from?” Steve demands. “Why’re you naked?”
“That’s your most pressing question?” the man groans, climbing out of the trashcans. He grabs a lid and holds it up in front of his legs, peering down at Steve. His nose is bleeding, his chest is glowing, and there are wires coiled all around his body.
Steve picks up his pebble. It’s a good one; he might need it.
“I left my clothes behind. Not on purpose,” the man quickly adds. “I didn’t leave my clothes behind on purpose. I’m not a flasher. Uh – Steve?”
“Yeah.” Steve glares up at him. “What do you want, mister?”
“Okay, good, good to know I’m not just terrorising random kids. You’re irritatingly vague about where I meet you. Try to grow up less vague this time, okay?” The man wipes his nose and realises it’s bleeding. “Don’t punch me so hard either. You got a tissue? A hanky?”
“I never punched you!” Steve protests, but he passes the man his handkerchief automatically. He rolls the pebble between his fingers.
“It’s okay, don’t sweat it, my first suggestion was a kick in the balls.”
“That’s a bad word,” Steve hisses.
The man throws his hands up in mock-surrender. “Sorry, sorry, my bad.”
“Who are you? Last time you had clothes.”
“I did? Oh, now that’s promising. What else was different?”
“I dunno. You were talking crazy. Are you a ghost?”
“I’m a time traveller.”
The man says it with a straight face, dabbing at his bloody nose with Steve’s handkerchief.
Steve throws the pebble at him as hard as he can. It’s not so hard, all the same, because Steve is skinny and the doctor thinks he might have asthma, but it bounces off the man’s forehead and he stumbles back, exclaiming, “Ow! Dammit, Steve-”
He trips over the trashcans and falls backwards with a crash. Steve screws his eyes shut, throwing his hands over his ears until the alley falls silent. He lowers his hands and opens his eyes.
“Mister?” he whispers. “Hey, mister?”
He looks up and down the alley, then around the corner out into the busy street, but the man has gone.
Tony leans his full weight against the buzzer and waits, ankles crossed, with his elbow on the button and his head propped up on his knuckles. He stares right back at all the passers-by who double-take at the sight of him.
The intercom clicks on.
“Yeah, hi, I’ve changed my mind, tell me everything.”
There’s a pause before Steve says, “Tony?”
The intercom crackles as Steve begins to laugh. Tony waits, resting his chin on his hand.
“And you want me to...tell you-?”
“My future. Come on, it’s not rocket science. Do I have to cross your palm with silver before you’ll let me in or what?”
Steve doesn’t answer, but with a click the door unlocks.
Steve is twenty-six, or ninety-four, and sketching idly on the back of a bank statement when he hears a clatter from the kitchen. He lowers his pencil.
“It’s me,” Tony shouts. “Not a poltergeist.”
“Good to know.”
Steve turns to face the door and watches till Tony appears in the doorframe, wrapped in tinfoil and looking sheepish. He tugs at his neckline and the whole costume rattles.
“That’s a new one,” Steve says.
Tony grimaces. It’s almost Steve’s Tony, he can tell. The Tony who he knows so well from the past and can only barely catch a glimpse of in the present; with slightly longer hair and a slightly restyled goatee and the ability to stand comfortably in Steve’s presence.
“Yeah, this – this seemed like a better idea at the time,” Tony says. “Hey, it works! But I look like a fourth grade production of the Wizard of Oz.”
“I think even fourth graders could do better. When are you from?”
“Not long now,” Tony says, vaguely. He moves fully into the room and peers out the window.
“I wish you’d told me,” Steve says, picking his pencil up again. “Not – not about Bucky and the ice. I can understand that, now, I guess. But that you didn’t like me.”
“What? Come on, I like you.”
“Now, I mean. In the present.”
“He likes you now. He just has a unique way of showing it.”
Tony pushes the window open and sticks his head out, looking down into the street.
“Hey,” he calls back. “You remember that tiger drawing? When you were, I dunno, ten, eleven?”
“You were short.”
“Yep,” Steve says. “Yeah, I remember the tiger.”
“That was a damn good tiger.”
Tony falls silent, turning his attention back to the street below. Sound drifts through into Steve’s apartment: the susurrus of a million voices and a million vehicles in motion. Someone in the street shouts to a friend. A car comes to a halt and a car door slams.
Tony pulls his head back out of the window and tugs it shut. He twists the blinds cord back and forth between his fingers, winds it around his knuckles.
“Listen,” he says, speaking quickly, “you’re gonna have to trust me. Him. The other one. I dunno if I’m breaking the rules here or if my you – future you - had this same little chat, but screw it. Let’s be the masters of our temporally fucked universe, just this once. Trust him.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “I do trust you. All of you, whenever you’re from.”
Huffing out a breath of laughter, Tony rubs the back of his neck, his fingers still twisted in the cord.
“Okay,” he says. “That works. I’ll see you in a couple minutes.”
“What-” Steve begins, but Tony takes a step back, pulling an uncomfortable face.
Steve quickly closes his eyes. Ever since it registered to him, in his teens, that Tony probably was a real person disappearing into thin air, he hasn’t been able to stand to watch it. But he can feel the air shift. He can hear, or maybe just imagines he can hear, the faintest pop when Tony goes.
He keeps his eyes closed for a moment longer, until down on the street Tony rests his elbow on the buzzer and lets it ring, and ring, and ring.
They bring Tony back wet, so Yinsen brings him a blanket and then, when Tony doesn’t stop shaking, he brings him some tea.
“They held me underwater,” Tony says, his teeth chattering. “I went home.”
“Ah,” says Yinsen.
“When I got back, everyone was kinda freaking out.”
“I rarely see eye to eye with our esteemed captors, but in this instance I think I can understand their reaction.”
Tony laughs. He clasps his hands tighter around his knees until, at last, the shaking subsides and he continues.
“But once they’d stopped shouting and, you know, questioning their sobriety, they realised they’d got a bomb-building, genius, freak of honest to god nature on their hands. It’s like terrorist Christmas out there. I’m pretty sure I saw some dancing. Dancing was – definitely a feature.”
Yinsen pours himself a cup of tea. He holds it between both hands and blows gently on the surface of the steaming water.
“And then?” he asks.
“And then what?”
“And then what else?”
“The usual freak of nature stuff,” Tony says. He closes his eyes. “They want me to carry bombs with me. Can’t be done. I told them – I – They don’t know it’s time travel, but they know I’m going somewhere. Hard to miss, right? So now the million dollar question is do they wanna use me as transport or a weapon?”
“Can’t be done,” Tony says again. “But they’re gonna keep trying anyway. They’re go-getters.”
He keeps his eyes closed. He raps his knuckles blindly against the arc reactor. “What if I don’t make this? Go back to that past, knocking-on-heaven’s-door me empty handed?”
There’s a pause before Yinsen slowly speaks. “No, I don’t think that will work. You have one, so you must make one. What’s done can’t be undone. We can’t go back.”
Tony rubs his thumb along the rim of the arc reactor. He remembers, vaguely, Obie’s hand reaching down. He hears Yinsen let out a soft breath.
“No, Stark, even you can’t do that.”
They thrust Tony’s head under the water and he disappears-
They thrust Tony’s head under the water and he disappears-
They thrust Tony’s head under the water and he disappears-
Tony is walking down a corridor in the dark, towards the sound of voices.
“- I don’t know what happens,” Howard says, “but I know Maria and I don’t have much time left-”
Tony is drunk. Thirty three and very drunk, when he finds himself on the floor, bleeding from the chest – no, bleeding from the edges of the thing that’s in his chest.
Downstairs, the housewarming party is still in full swing, but Tony checked out of the celebrations hours ago; the people in his life are old and boring, whereas his house is new and beautiful. He fine-tuned JARVIS’ installation for an hour or two, and then he fine-tuned the liquor cabinet, and then he appeared on the bedroom floor.
He stares down at himself.
He says, “JARVIS, you seeing this too?”
He pulls his shirt off – he didn’t like it much anyway – and he presses it over the other’s chest. He presses his hand over the metal in his other chest.
He hears familiar footsteps in the corridor. Obie sticks his head around the door.
“Hey, Tony-” he begins, before seeing the other Tony and smoothly adding, “Hey, Tonies. You’ve got a party to host. Everything okay in here?”
“Obie, I’m either too drunk or not drunk enough for this.”
Tony lifts his hand away and lifts his shirt away to let Obie see, and Obie steps fully into the room. He kneels next to Tony, at the other Tony’s side, and he taps a finger over the glowing glass.
“This is new. I thought nothing could travel with you.”
“So did I. You know me, full of surprises.”
Together, they move the other Tony onto the bed, where he lies quiet and still. Tony has a headache; Tony, who has been drinking since one pm, has the beginnings of a hangover and his fingers feel numb. The other Tony looks dead.
“This looks like the arc reactor,” Obie says, checking the other’s pulse. “Miniaturised. I never saw Howard come up with anything like this.”
He spreads his palm over the miniature reactor. He can cover it with his whole hand. His fingers curl under the rim, digging in.
“Well, let’s get a closer look,” he says, twisting it and –
The other Tony’s eyes snap open and he grabs at his own chest, knocking Obie’s hands away, sucking in a deep, shuddering breath.
“Obie,” he gasps.
He disappears, leaving Obie’s fingers curling in the air.
“Damn,” he says. He lets his hand drop. “Still, at least now we know what we’ve got to look forward to. If you can really make the arc reactor viable, Tony, there’ll be no stopping the company.”
“Yeah,” Tony says, looking down at the blood on the shirt in his hands. “Can’t wait.”
For the first time since his parents died, he thinks of the story another Tony had told him almost thirty years ago. He’d forgotten about it. The other Tony had had a light in his chest then too.
Ignoring the headache, wondering about his dad’s arc reactor blueprints and how Tony would make it that small - because he knows he’d never trust anyone else to put something like that in his body – Tony barely feels it when Obie’s hand lands on his shoulder and squeezes affectionately.
His fingers dig in. Obie’s never known his own strength.
In Steve’s crummy little apartment, Tony leans forward in Steve’s crummy little chair, scribbling notes on the back of a crummy little envelope.
“Look, a couple years ago I had some, uh – firsthand experience with a device that subdued the whole time-travelling thing. I mean, probably. It wasn’t exactly a scientific trial but considering I was literally in the middle of a slow, painful death and I stuck with the present – and normally,” he adds, pausing in his string of notes to look at up at Steve, “evading painful deaths is the only thing this party trick is good for, so I think we can reasonably assume some correlation there.”
“Wait,” Steve says. “There’s something out there that you think actually stopped you travelling? Why aren’t you using it already?”
Tony hesitates, pen to paper. The tip bleeds slowly onto the envelope, the letters behind it merging back into the spreading ink.
“Let me see, how to explain it in forties-speak? Well golly gee, Cap, stopping the time-travel was just a dandy side-effect of the super swell temporary paralysis. Gee whiz.”
Lifting his pen up from the paper at last, he swipes his thumb over the wet patch of ink, smearing it. He wipes his thumb on his jeans and smirks up at Steve. Steve stares stonily back at him.
“Just speak English,” Steve says.
“It deployed a sonic pulse that stopped people moving,” Tony says, licking his thumb. “I was an added extra. The prototype was destroyed, anyway, and somehow I never really felt like revisiting it. But that frequency’s a starting point.”
Steve nods, although he’s frowning. He looks away from Tony, gazing out the window, before he speaks. “You told me once that you were trying to – measure what you did, somehow. You wore all these crazy wires. But...”
He trails off. In the quiet, Tony can hear people shouting in the street and someone moving around in the apartment over their heads.
“Dunno how people live like this,” he mutters, before he sighs and lowers his pen and says, “But what?”
“I don’t understand why... Why has it taken you so long to try and work this out?”
Tony snorts, shaking his head and picking his pen back up again. “Come on, do I seem like the kind of guy who works on his flaws?”
“Maybe not, but from what I’ve heard, you’re more like the kind of guy to embrace them.”
“This one,” Tony says, eyes on his notes, “never seemed so embraceable.”
“-or at least,” Howard says, “we don’t have enough time-”
They thrust Tony’s head under the water.
He disappears, he disappears, he disappears.
“It’s some kind of bizarre-o survival reflex,” Tony says as he twists the last coil of wire together. He thinks of Yinsen’s steady hands. “Fight or flight, et cetera. I figure my body chose flight without consulting the rest of me.”
“I think the rest of you chose fight,” Steve says wryly. “Constantly.”
“Do nothing by halves, my old man used to say.”
He flashes Steve a bright, bright grin and watches as Steve’s eyes dart away. Smirking, Tony slots the end of the wire into position, then winds the coil down his arm to the sensors at his wrist. He stands back and spreads his arms.
“Well?” he says.
The wires crawl up and down his body, attached to sensors, branching out from the arc reactor at the centre of it all. He can feel them tingle against his skin in time with his magnetic pulse. Metal veins for a metal heart.
“I don’t know,” Steve says. “I don’t know which was your first attempt. It didn’t always work properly, I don’t think.”
He passes Tony his t-shirt and with a nod Tony takes it.
Steve rubs a hand across his mouth. “This never seemed real from my end of things. You were such a strange part of my life, I don’t think I ever really thought of you as real. Not properly. It’s a funny thing to wrap my head around, that I’m going to be sharing it with someone now.”
“Yeah.” Tony slowly wraps his shirt around his fingers, frowning down at it. “Well, if I wind up stark, hah, naked in the middle of old-time New York and cause a riot, I’m blaming you. Put it on my tombstone. Here lies Tony Stark, Steve Rogers’ fault.”
He unwinds his shirt, now creased and twisted, and tugs it over his head. Voice muffled in the fabric, he adds, “No, better make it Captain America’s fault. Adds gravitas. Anyway,” his head re-emerging, “you’re going to have to kick me in the balls or something.”
“Stamp on a foot, then? Right hook? Use your imagination.”
At Steve’s mulish expression, Tony rolls his eyes. “I can’t just turn it on, you know. Really, cannot. Believe me, I’ve tried. It’s a reflex. Needs stimulus to trigger a reaction. Think of it like you’re testing my knee with a hammer. Or we could get Thor,” he adds, with a smirk. “And his hammer.”
“Definitely not,” Steve says.
He sighs, turning away from Tony, rubbing the back of his neck as he looks around the space they’ve cleared in Tony’s workshop. His feet shift back and forth as if he wants to walk away.
“Seriously, if you don’t wanna play in the time travel experiments game, we could grab Thor. Okay, maybe not Thor. Not sure I wanna be lost and naked in Asgard, but...”
“We both know it has to be me.”
Tony shrugs. “I like to think the future isn’t set entirely in stone.”
“The past is, though,” Steve says, still staring down at his feet. “Isn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” says Tony.
Tony is thirty-nine. Tony is pulling apart his bombs to build himself a heart. A heart for his past self. The heart he should have had in the past, people would probably call it.
A magnet, he thinks to himself as he works. A magnet, a magnet.
“D’you think the magnetism makes it travel with me?” he asks.
Yinsen, twisting wires together, shrugs and does not look up. His hands are quick and steady as he works. “I can honestly say I have no idea how it works. How can time travel work? How can you possibly exist?”
“Not the first time I’ve heard that question,” Tony says. He smirks. The welding iron showers a steady rain of sparks over his fingers, each touch bright and biting. “What do you think would have happened – if I’d travelled without something holding the shrapnel in place?”
Yinsen twists a wire around a wire around a wire. His fingers don’t falter.
“It’s hard to tell, when it has no basis in known scientific fact.”
“I imagine... the shrapnel would probably have ripped out of you when you disappeared. I imagine then you would have died.”
“Yeah.” Tony nods. He winces as a spark lands on the back of his hand, but bats it away without comment. His hands have always been scarred from his work. “Yeah, that’s what I was imagining, too.”
“It doesn’t sound like a pleasant death.”
“Never thought I’d die pleasantly.”
Yinsen lowers his fistful of wires and looks up at Tony over the rim of his little round glasses. He smiles faintly and says, “I’ve found that people rarely do.”
Tony is thirty-nine. His hands are covered in scars. Beneath the scars, he’s learning, they’re covered in blood.
There’s a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye, but when he looks up it’s already gone.
Tony is walking down a corridor in the dark, towards the sound of voices. He turns left.
Steve stares around the workshop, with his jaw clenched and his hands in his pockets, while Tony fixes the last wires into place. He can feel Steve moving around behind him as if he’s giving off a force-field of disapproval.
At last, Tony throws down his screwdriver and exclaims, “What? Did you see someone being unpatriotic on the way here or something?”
Steve jumps. He breathes out heavily, lifting his chin.
“I’m not going to hit you again,” he says. “That was dumb.”
“I did tell you to do it.”
“Then it was dumb of me to listen to you.”
Tony rolls his eyes, picking his screwdriver up again. He tightens another fastening. Steve’s presence, behind him, feels ten feet wide. It itches between his shoulder blades.
“Okay, fine,” he says, rotating his wrist. “This doesn’t need to be a two-man job from here, if you want out.”
“I want to help,” he hears Steve say softly, moving closer. “I just don’t want to hurt you.”
“Well, unless that stick up your ass is a magic wand…”
Tony pushes away from his desk and climbs to his feet, because the sensors are as ready as they’re ever going to be and Steve’s pressure between his shoulder blades is growing unbearable.
“What?” he adds
Steve is staring at him with something in his eyes that Tony can’t read. At Tony’s question, he shakes his head and looks away.
“Is it all… ready?” Steve asks the wall.
“Prepped and cocked and full of gunpowder,” Tony says, smirking. He throws his arms open. “Just waiting for the trigger.”
Steve sighs. While Tony stands and waits, his arms spread wide, Steve paces slowly around him. He scans the floor and then drifts over to the desk, looks over the mess on it and picks out Tony’s narrowest screwdriver.
“Really?” Tony says.
“Close your eyes.”
“Are you serious?”
“I’m trying,” Steve snaps. “I know it’s not much of a trigger, but if you close your eyes and relax... If you don’t see it coming…”
Tony stares at him.
“Please trust me,” Steve says.
Tony holds the stare a little longer, raising an eyebrow. Steve holds his ground and stares back, until Tony shrugs. He shakes out his arms and lowers them to his sides.
“Anything for science,” he murmurs.
Shoulder blades itching, he closes his eyes.
“So if you’re really a time traveller, prove it,” Steve says, swinging his feet where they dangle over the edge of his chair. He’s eight. His feet don’t touch the ground. His mom promises he’ll have a growth spurt in a few years.
“I’ve appeared and disappeared multiple times right in front of you. Isn’t that proof enough?”
Steve stares up at the man until he snorts and shakes his head, saying, “Fine, not proof enough. I can’t tell you what’s gonna happen in the future, that’s cheating. Hey, what year is it? I could tell you who wins the World Series.”
The man shrugs, making the wires strapped to his shoulders rattle. He glances sideways at Steve.
“Trust you to be a toddler with principles,” he says. “What happened, did the righteousness form in utero?”
Steve knows his mom still has some of his dad’s clothes tucked away somewhere, but he doesn’t know where, so the man’s wearing one of Steve’s old blankets, fiddling with the edges, toying with loose threads.
“What happened to your cufflinks?” Steve asks. At the man’s blank look, he adds, “They glowed. It was neat.”
“I – haven’t made them,” the man says. “Yet. Not yet. But obviously now I will. You dumbass – not you, sorry. Grown-up you, who never mentioned anything glowing.”
Steve swings his feet. He bounces his heels against the leg of his chair.
“What’s your name?”
“Tony,” the man says, slowly.
“What year are you from?”
The man smirks and shakes his head. “Don’t cheat.”
“Okay.” Steve looks down at his hands, wiggling his skinny fingers. “What am I like in the future?”
There’s a pause. Steve lifts his head. He watches the man, frowning, scratch at a stain on the corner of the blanket.
“Bigger,” he says, eventually.
“-I’m limited by the technology of my time,” Howard says, “and I know now that I can’t wait for it to catch me up-”
“So I need to know who won all the World Series when you were a kid,” Tony says when Steve picks up the phone.
“What? What do – Tony, it’s three am. I was sleeping. Don’t you have the Google in your telephone?”
“Yeah, Steve, I have ‘the Google’ in my phone. And I have the boredom in my head.”
Drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair, he hears Steve groan and mutter and shift around so his sheets rustle.
“Okay, first off, you only need to know 1927. That’s the one you told me. New York Yankees. I was nine. I was pretty mad at you afterwards.”
“What, you didn’t even bet on it?”
“I was nine.”
Tony snorts and, down the phone line, Steve too begins to chuckle.
“I did, uh – I did bet Bucky a candy bar that I knew who would win. I felt kinda bad about it afterwards, though.”
Steve pauses. He breathes into the phone. He says, “You meet him – Bucky – a couple times.”
“Yeah? Well, that’s something to look forward to.”
“Tell me what you think of him.”
Fifty feet in the air over the desert, with every bone in his body rattling and the jet pack blasting and great billowing clouds of fire from the Ten Rings compound licking at his heels, Tony feels the familiar dip and swoop in his stomach.
“No,” he shouts, words inaudible over the explosions. “Not yet, just stay, just sta-”
He lands in water, the heavy metal suit immediately dragging him down, but for a second he sees blue skies and grassy banks, a man standing in the shadows of the trees and a little girl with red hair running full pelt down towards the shoreline, while the water closes over his head and -
He lands in the sand, coughing, hacking. He spits up water. The suit weighs him down, but as he begins to crawl out of it he can feel that parts are missing, left behind to be eaten up by fire or to fall out of the sky, but some of it stayed. Some of it stayed.
“Okay,” Tony croaks. “That’s a start.”
Later, he watches Pepper touch a hand to the battered edge of the helmet. She sucks in a sharp breath.
“I’ve seen this before,” she whispers. “Years ago.”
“Enough,” Tony says as soon as his feet unsteadily hit the ground. He grabs a bunch of wires and tugs. “Enough science, okay? It’s sunny, birds are probably singing somewhere. Let’s get out of here. Pick somewhere to go. I mean it, I’m giving you free rein here.”
Shaking his head, Tony sidesteps Steve. The air in the workshop is cold and still and Tony moves quickly through it, removing the sensors and hissing when they pinch at his skin. He unplugs the wires and undoes the fastenings and slowly, slowly, sheds it like a skin, dropping it all piece-by-piece onto the floor behind him. He feels raw, pink and new underneath. He pulls a change of clothes from a desk drawer and tugs them on.
“Are you okay?” Steve asks, walking towards him.
“Me? I’m fine. JARVIS-”
“JARVIS, did you get all those readings okay?”
“Indeed, sir. I have added the day’s results to the main database. The trend remains consistent.”
“I love the smell of a consistent trend in the morning,” Tony says. He turns to Steve and raises an eyebrow. “Come on, I’m waiting.”
And that makes Steve draw to a halt, crossing his arms and frowning. “Well, so am I.”
Tony sighs. Bending down, he picks up the clump of wires nearest to his feet and sets about slowly untangling them. He watches his fingers move.
“Look, you – your mom had just died and you were, what? Fifteen? It was bad. I couldn’t deal with my own teenage grief, let alone someone else’s, so let’s just – go to the zoo.”
Tony glances up. Steve is still standing there, halfway between when Tony appeared and where he now stands. His frown is fading away, lost in thought.
“That’s it? Oh?”
“That was a long time ago,” Steve murmurs.
“Well, it was five minutes ago for me.”
“And eighty years ago.” Steve shrugs, smiling faintly, a little wistfully. “And eleven. It’s fine. You did fine.”
“I did what?”
“At dealing with my... teenaged grief. I remember. You did fine.”
Moving forwards again, Steve picks up the scattered pieces as he goes, wires and sensors, clips and fastenings. He doesn’t try to untangle them, just lays them down on the desk next to Tony.
“Mom took me to Breezy Point a few months before she passed,” he says. “I could go for another visit.”
“You want Breezy Point, we’ll do Breezy Point. I’ll buy Breezy Point.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
Tony throws his straightened wires down onto the pile on the desk. Waving a hand, he leads Steve through the workshop and to the garage, to the car. He feels jittery. He thinks, too often, of Steve’s closed suitcase on the kitchen table, of Howard’s slightly open study door. When he glances back over his shoulder, with his hand on the car door handle, Steve has stopped walking. He’s standing and smiling at the car as if it’s the punchline to his favourite joke.
“This is it, isn’t it?” Steve says. “The one you drew for me?”
“What?” Tony says again, blankly.
“Never mind, I guess that’s still to come for you.”
But Steve still pauses, on his way round to shotgun, to touch a hand reverently to the gleaming red roof before he gets inside, and he smiles again, smiles with such great affection.
“You can’t laugh at in-jokes from the future,” Tony says, sliding into the driver’s seat. He turns to glare at Steve. “It’s cheating.”
Steve just smiles at him, that affection lingering.
There’s a crash from somewhere behind Tony. He’s thirty-nine and he’s spent enough of his life around loud noises that he carefully lowers his soldering iron and pulls away from the gauntlet prototype he and Dummy are working on, before he turns around to see.
“Next Thursday,” the other Tony says, levering himself up with the edge of a desk. He pulls open one of the bottom drawers and digs out a spare pair of jeans and a holey t-shirt. “Watch out for the screwdriver on the floor.”
“Thursday, screwdriver, got it.” Tony picks the soldering iron back up again. “Get over here and hold this wire steady, would you?”
“You’re gonna wanna move the Cobra first.”
Tony raises an eyebrow, but he learned long ago to trust his future selves, so he thrusts the soldering iron at the other Tony and heads over to the car.
“How’s the suit in next Thursday?” he calls from the driver’s seat.
“A little further to the left,” the other Tony says without looking up from his soldering. “Trust me.”
“The suit works,” the other adds. “Quit it, Dummy, I’ve got this one. You’ll see.”
“I swear I didn’t ask this many questions. Yeah, it travels. Where are the pliers today?”
“Second drawer down,” Tony says, parking and climbing out. He looks back at the empty space the Cobra had occupied. The other Tony pushes the pliers into his hand. “Thanks. And the-?”
“The hydraulics are fine.”
“Flight stabilising? Terrific.”
“And it all really-”
“Really, truly, deeply.”
Tony glances up at himself. He’s smirking down at the wire he’s soldering.
“Smartass,” Tony says. He pauses, reaching around the other Tony to tidy up the wiring. “Does Pepper... know?”
“No,” the other Tony murmurs. “Not by next Thursday, anyway.”
With an almighty crash that makes them both jump, a red and gold robot falls down from the ceiling and lands in the empty parking space. The concrete cracks beneath him.
“I’d say don’t forget about the ice problem,” the third Tony says, lifting up his faceplate and scratching his nose, “but we all know we’re gonna forget about the ice problem.”
He disappears again, leaving the dust to settle.
“It works,” Tony breathes. “We’re awesome.”
“Told you so.”
They’re halfway to Breezy Point when Steve, still gazing out the open window at the world that rolls by, murmurs, “I kept that drawing for the longest time.”
He says it so quietly that Tony doesn’t know if he’s meant to have heard it or not, but he looks around anyway.
“You old sentimentalist.”
“Guess so,” Steve says, glancing sideways at him. He props his chin on his hand and smiles, first at Tony, and then out at the sky through the window. Tony’s driving fast and the neighbourhoods are rushing past, but there’s the sky, as blue as it has ever been, unmoving.
Pepper, touching the edge of the helmet, whispers, “I’ve seen this before. Years ago. Have I really spent my whole life watching you almost die?”
Tony is walking down a corridor in the dark, towards the sound of voices. He turns left.
“Hey,” he says reaching out a hand.
Steve is twelve, sprawled on his stomach on his bed, industriously colouring in a tiger’s dark stripes. He coughs. He had his tonsils out a couple weeks ago. He listens to the companionable scratch of Tony’s borrowed pencil on Tony’s borrowed paper, over the patter of the rain against the window.
“Do you ever appear here when I’m at school?” he asks.
Tony’s pencil falters. “Nah, I think I’m pretty much tuned to when you are. Where you go, I follow.”
“So if I went to the North Pole, or Africa, or the moon...?”
“I dunno, maybe.” Tony pauses, then adds, “Don’t test this theory, okay? Especially not the moon part.”
Snickering, then coughing when it irritates his sore throat, Steve digs through his messy array of coloured pencils – some sharp, some blunt, no two from the same place – and pulls out a medium blue. He begins to gently shade in the tiger’s belly. He feels the mattress shift as Tony peers over his shoulder.
“Interesting colour choice.”
“It’s shadow, Tony,” Steve says. “The orange goes on top.”
“Giving Van Gogh a run for his money, huh?”
“Mom says practically anyone can run fast, but not everyone can draw someone running.”
The springs shift back into place again and there’s a pause before Tony clears his throat. “How – how is your mom? She okay?”
“She’s swell. Why?”
Steve pushes his pencils and paper aside and sits up so he can peer at Tony. Tony frowns down at his drawing intently, tapping the point of his pencil against the paper. A dozen little marks form in its wake.
“Why?” Steve asks again.
Tony shakes his head, then rolls his eyes. “What, I’m not allowed to enquire after the health of people now?”
“Well – she’s fine. She’s gotten a cough, is all, because of the damp. But she’s fine. Doctor Harris says it’s nothing.”
Spreading his fingers, he rubs his palm over his pencils, so they roll back and forth together beneath the press of his hand. The orange gets caught in the folds of his bed linen, but Steve leaves it there. He pushes himself up onto his knees, craning his neck at Tony’s sheet of paper.
“What are you drawing, anyway?”
“Can’t draw people running, so I went for a car.”
Tony shrugs. He turns the paper around in his lap so Steve can get a better look. “I’ve designed a couple.”
Steve stares down at it. He tugs the paper out of Tony’s hands and lifts it up to his face. The drawing has definitely got four wheels, but that’s about all he can say for certain.
“It doesn’t look like a car,” he says, doubtfully. “It looks like a spaceship.”
“What? Give me that.” Snorting, Tony grabs the paper back from him. He smoothes a crease out of the corner. “Just you wait, kiddo. Got any reds?”
There is one, barely two inches long and going blunt, nestled between sky blue and dark green. Steve plucks it out carefully and holds it out to Tony.
“Don’t use too much,” he says.
“I won’t. Time-traveller’s honour.”
Nodding, Steve lets him take the red pencil. He watches while Tony lightly shades in the front – Steve assumes – of the car, his hand moving impossibly fast compared to Steve’s own careful, meticulous colouring. The blanket he’s wearing catches on his wires every time he moves.
“Does everyone wear wire in the future,” Steve asks, “or is it just you?”
Tony laughs so hard he drops the red pencil.
“Just me,” he says, leaning down to fish it out from under the bed. He rolls it between his fingers.
“What, did you think I was wearing all this for fun? It’s for science. I’m trying to, uh-” He waves a hand, motioning at the glowing circle in his chest. “Find a way to control myself. These wires are for measuring all the stuff that happens to my body when I go. Normally when I time travel, I leave everything behind, but because I have this magnet in my body now, any metal I connect to it becomes kind of a – part of me.”
“Wow,” Steve breathes.
“Well, I’m glad somebody appreciates it.” Tony rubs a hand over the magnet. “I have a suit of armour I wear for... my work, but I can’t wear it all the time. A, it’s bulky and b, you wear armour all day and people start to question your sanity. So sometimes I just gotta go naked.”
“Wow,” Steve says again. “Are you a knight?”
“I’m from the future, not the round table.”
Rolling his eyes, Steve turns back to his drawing. He plucks the orange crayon out of the bed linen and says, over his shoulder, “Well, wearing a whole suit of armour is dumb if you aren’t a knight. Perhaps you should wear chainmail instead.”
“A downgrade, huh?” Tony says. “That’s not such a bad idea.”
Reappearing is never the easiest part. For a moment, Tony staggers, his knees jarring at the impact, and he sinks down onto the floor. He rests his elbows on his knees and then, letting out a slow breath, he rests his forehead on the backs of hands.
Steve says, “Hey, Tony?”
Tony listens to the sound of Steve’s footsteps coming closer. The workshop is cool and dark and he listens, too, for the sound of the rain before he remembers that was the time he left behind. He lifts his head.
“I’m fine,” he says. “Bumpy landing, you know how it is.”
Steve looks down at him for a little while, his forehead creased and his lip twitching in some internal debate, but then he nods and holds out a hand. After a moment, Tony takes it, letting Steve heave him up onto his feet.
Tony’s fingers clench and release around the little horseshoe magnet still nestled against his palm. He huffs out a breath of laugher than earns him a questioning look from Steve.
“Good news,” he says.
He takes Steve’s wrists and turns his hand over, dropping the magnet into his upturned palm. Steve’s fingers curl around it automatically, then slowly uncurl. Steve sucks in a breath.
“The experiment was a resounding success,” Tony says.
He grins up at Steve until Steve, shaking his head, begins to laugh. The sound of it echoes around them, surrounding them, layer upon layer upon layer.
There is the sound of footsteps.
“You have been nothing,” Obie says, moving around to stand in front of Tony, “but the giant, time-travelling albatross around my neck. Oh, come on, don’t look at me like that, kiddo.”
He laughs. He pats Tony on the shoulder. “You’re a brat. You know you’re a brat. What, did you think I found it charming? Get real, Tony. You’re about as charming as a kick in the teeth.”
Standing, he moves outside of Tony’s frozen field of vision.
“But now it’s time do what I have been waiting for. Do you remember your Malibu house-warming? You might not, you were pretty drunk that night – but then again, I suppose your little gate-crashing was only a few months ago for you, wasn’t it? And I saw what you’d created, what I had to look forward to, and I waited and waited for your arc reactor tech to appear. But you-”
Suddenly Obie’s voice is right down by Tony’s ear, his breath on Tony’s neck, and Tony’s heart jumps for all that the rest of him remains motionless.
“You’re a waste, Tony,” Obie hisses right into his ear. He takes hold of Tony’s chin and turns his head towards him. “Your mind, your ability – my god, it’s irritating, but I have to admit it’s impressive. And you waste it! It’s like you’re not even trying. Six long, tedious years I waited until I just – couldn’t - wait – any longer.”
Obie stares down at him, breathing heavily, his grip on Tony’s face growing tighter. Tony blinks. Tony breathes. It’s all that he can do.
“Hey,” Steve says.
He shoves his paper and pencils to one side and leans down over the edge of the bed. The top of his head hits the floor. Steve laughs. Reaching under his bed, the blood rushing to his head and dust getting up his nose, he sneezes, then winces and laughs harder. He stretches his fingers as far as they can go, until at last he snags the edge of the wooden box and pulls it out.
He heaves himself upright again, red-faced and panting. He coughs and wheezes, but when Tony shoots him a questioning look, he grins.
“I have an idea,” he says, flipping the lid of his box open. “Let’s do an experiment.”
“Anything for science,” Tony says.
Rummaging through his treasures, Steve feels Tony shift closer for a better view. In among the collection of feathers, and pebbles, and the yo-yo with the broken string, and the nickel with a hole right through the middle, Steve fishes out a small horseshoe magnet.
“See if you can take it back with you,” he says, thrusting it at Tony.
When Tony doesn’t move to take it, he pushes it at him harder, adding, “It’s an experiment.”
“Okay, okay, geez. Don’t blame me if it opens some kind of paradoxical magnet wormhole.”
But Tony takes the magnet from him, slowly, and he closes his fingers around it. With a satisfied nod, Steve rolls over and turns back to his tiger. He colours the background in green, adding giant tropical leaves in every shade of blue, and green, and yellow he can find. He hears, after a little while, the scratch of Tony’s pencil picking up again.
And then suddenly it’s gone. Steve whips around in time to see the pencil roll across the floor, the paper fluttering down to fill the space where Tony had been.
He catches it before it hits the ground, and turns it over. The spaceship car is only half-coloured, the hood as shiny and solid as if it were really metal, but the colour beyond that quickly fades away; all the free space around it has been filled with strings of numbers and letter. It’s like math, but no math Steve has ever seen.
He stares down at it for a while, trying to understand the sums and then, when that doesn’t work, pretending it’s a secret code that contains a secret message. That doesn’t work either.
Carefully, Steve folds the sheet of paper in half and slips it into his wooden box, along with the stub of red pencil.
He looks for the magnet, but he never finds it.
Slowly, Obie releases his grip and pats Tony on the side of the face, chuckling again. He stands, straightens his cuffs and breathes out deeply.
“Are you wondering if that sonic pulse has paralysed the time-travel as well? ‘Cause I have to tell you, Tony, that’s what I’m wondering right now. So let’s-”
He moves out of sight again.
The click of a case opening.
“-a little more-”
Obie reappears and, in one smooth motion, without hesitation, he slots a metal device over the arc reactor. It clamps down tight. Something jolts in Tony’s heart when Obie draws the arc reactor back out of his chest.
“-interesting,” he breathes, lifting the reactor right up to his face with the softest smile. “Ah. This is your masterpiece, Tony. I mean it. Even Howard would have been proud.”
Tony can feel the chill fill up the space inside his chest. It spreads into his lungs.
Obie smiles down at him. He puts the arc reactor, and its extractor, back into his case and snaps it shut.
“Well, I would love to stay and find out if you die here or in the past, but I’m afraid I just don’t have the time.”
Tony blinks. His mouth twitches. His body is turning to ice. Picking up the case, Obie bends down and touches, so gently, the side of his face.
“Now you, on the other hand, Tony,” he says, “you have got all the time in the world.”
“-Tony,” Howard says, “I don’t truly understand why you are – the way you are, and you’re too young to understand this right now-”
“Stay,” Tony whispers when his lips can move again.
Tony carefully undoes his tie and pulls it free and folds it around his fingers. He slips out of his jacket and hangs it over the back of a chair. His shirt, he takes off slower, button by button, tossing it onto his bed when he’s done. He kicks his jeans across the floor, tugs off his socks and tugs down his boxers.
“Come on, then,” he says. “I’m ready for it.”
He closes his eyes and, after a moment’s indecision, thinks of Breezy Point Tip. He thinks of how he had wandered up and down the beach, grumbling, sand in his shoes, trying to find the strongest wifi signal. When he had looked back over his shoulder, he had seen Steve standing by the shoreline with his hands in his pockets and Tony had thought again, then, of Steve’s crappy suitcase on his mother’s kitchen table, and the sun had been shining in his eyes.
His stomach dips.
“Go,” he whispers, “Go on, go.”
He swears for a second he can taste salt on the air.
He swears for a second he can hear gunfire in the cave.
“Sir, Captain Rogers requests entry to the workshop.”
Tony’s eyes snap open, in his Penthouse, in New York.
“Fuck!” he shouts. He kicks the bedpost, bare toed, and then sinks down onto the mattress with a pained snarl. He grabs his shirt, tugging it on.
“What’s the goddamn point of it,” he says, “if I can’t use it?”
He breathes in and out.
“Captain Rogers is waiting, sir.”
“Yeah, yeah, let him in. Tell him I’ll be down in a minute.”
Tony scrubs his hands through his hair. His skin is tingling and his heart is thumping. His body, every inch of skin and hair and nails, cells and DNA, feels very, very - present.
“Stay,” Tony whispers when the feeling comes back into his fingers.
Steve is fifteen. He stares down at the backs of his hands where they’re resting on the kitchen table. He never had that growth spurt. The table wobbles on its rickety legs with every small movement of every breath he takes, so he’s trying to hold himself as still as possible. The apartment and its furnishings never were in great condition, but it was cheap and it was home and that was all they had ever needed.
His suitcase is packed, closed, on the kitchen table.
“Did you know she was going to die?” he says at last.
He listens to Tony shift around in his creaky chair. When it had broken last summer, he and his mom had taken turns eating standing up - when they were both around for meals at the same time, anyway - until Bucky had tried to fix it. It had worked, mostly, but creaked ever since.
“Yeah,” he says. “You mentioned it.”
Steve breathes out slowly. “I guess even if you’d – Knowing it was going to happen, before Doctor Harris said she - That would probably have been worse.”
Tony shifts again and the chair creaks. Steve looks up at him. Tony is sitting with his arms and legs crossed, staring at the wall opposite like he’s trying to see through it.
“Waiting for her to – pass on,” Steve continues, his voice sounding alien to his own ears. “That would have been worse, right? Even if I could have...”
“You couldn’t have,” Tony says to the wall. “Trust me, you couldn’t have changed a thing. It doesn’t work like that.”
“Maybe I could have gotten a better doctor.” Flushing, Steve looks back down at his hands. “I mean, Doctor Harris, he – he did what he could, but he was so busy and mom wasn’t... important.”
He cuts himself off, swallowing quickly, before he adds, “Maybe if she’d just had someone fighting for her.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Tony move sharply, his hand lifting and then dropping in some aborted gesture.
“You,” Tony says, instead. “I mean, she had you. Fighting. For her.”
“Didn’t do a whole lot of good,” Steve whispers.
Tony moves again, reaching out a hand. He touches Steve on the shoulder. He clears his throat.
“Like that’s ever stopped you,” he says.
What if, Tony has never said out loud to anyone but thinks about all the damn time. What if one day he travels back in time to the wrong side of an explosion or a bullet or a car crashing through the barriers on a dark, wet night?
What if one day he travels back in time to the wrong side of a closing portal?
The back of Tony’s chair creaks when Steve rests his elbow on it. Ignoring the new weight that presses between his shoulder blades, Tony pulls up the data and points a finger at it.
“See this?” he says, tapping the blue line on the graph. “That’s the frequency of time travel. I should win a Nobel prize.”
“So that’s...” The weight against Tony’s shoulder blades shifts and the chair rocks as Steve leans forwards for a closer look. “That’s it? What you’ve been looking for?”
“Pretty much. A pulse at this frequency sent through my body should induce a – what should I call it in the research paper, a temporal incident? Suppress the frequency and, yada yada, in theory it’ll suppress the incident too.”
“You’re not actually going to write a paper on this, are you?” Steve says, tapping Tony’s shoulder with his knuckles, his breath gusting over Tony’s hair.
Tony can see Steve’s face out of the corner of his eye. He stares up at his readings.
“Nah, too risky. It’d be like submitting a paper on my dick. Everyone needs a secret weapon.”
“I’m not so sure your… that is a secret weapon.”
“And that right there is why you’re never going to win a Nobel prize.”
Steve grins, Tony can see it, that flash of white teeth at the corner of his vision. He can see Steve turn, slightly, to look at Tony.
“I’ve got a prototype,” Tony says. “I’ll need you. Don’t wanna mess with the arc reactor until I’m sure it’s gonna work, so today buttons need pushing.”
Steve taps his shoulder again, nods, then straightens up and moves away.
“Stay,” Tony whispers as he crawls off the couch, his legs still numb, and measures the distance down the stairs and to the workshop door.
He fastens the electrodes gently to his wrists. The wires lead out to the device in Steve’s hands, cradled as carefully as a baby’s head while he watches Tony with a solemn expression.
“I’m thinking cufflinks next,” Tony says.
“You’ll need a suit then.”
“I’m working on it.”
He carefully releases his hold on the electrodes and flexes his wrists. They stay in place. He looks up at Steve with a grin.
“I’d push the big, red button myself,” Tony says, “but obviously then I’d disappear and drop it, so the honour falls to you. Ready?”
“I’m ready. Think of somewhere nice.”
“Doesn’t work like that.”
“This is a new way of doing things. You won’t know unless you try.”
Tony rolls his eyes, but then, rolling his shoulders back and lowering his arms to his sides, he closes his eyes. He lets out a breath. Flexing his fingers, he thinks of the beach at Breezy Point. The sand in his shoes, the sun in his eyes. He wonders if it will feel new or familiar, or if it will work, or if it will hurt –
in the corner of the cave, it’s the scent that hits him the hardest, the heady mix of sand and metal and two bodies in close quarters. He staggers, lurching into the wall and letting it hold him up because his legs sure as hell cannot.
“I’ve found that people rarely do,” Yinsen says, looking up and meeting Tony’s eyes; he doesn’t look surprised, but then even death came as no surprise to Yinsen. He nods infinitesimally and Tony digs his fingers into the wall.
The other Tony begins to lift his head, but Tony can already feel his body reacting, fading, running away –
watching Pepper, a little girl, running down to the shore of the lake, where the water is still rippling from the almighty splash. The first armour shines in the sunlight even as it sinks beneath the water and disappears, Pepper running as far as hers legs can carry her.
She skids to a halt at the water’s edge, shielding her eyes from the glare of the sun and staring out for a long while. She props her hands on her hips and looks around. Tony, in the trees, backs further out of sight.
“Ginny?” someone calls. “Virginia?”
“I saw a robot!” Pepper shouts back. “But it’s – I think it drowned.”
Shaking her head, looking back over her shoulder with every step, she turns and runs back the way she came, towards the sound of voices. Tony lets out the breath he was holding. He lowers himself down into the undergrowth, leans back against a tree trunk and closes his eyes.
“Sun, sea and sand,” he says. “Okay. That’s a start.”
“-but I built this for you,” Howard says, “and one day you’ll figure it out-”
“Stay,” Tony whispers, crawling to his other heart.
Rhodey heaves the last bolt of fabric onto the desk and, lifting his faceplate says, “This had better be good. I’m a pilot, not a courier.”
“I think it’s about time you diversified,” Tony says, “don’t you?”
He runs his hands over ach roll of fabric, pulls a face, pulls out the ends and rubs them between his finger and thumb. Clicking his tongue, he unwinds a larger strip from one of the rolls and cuts it off, quickly, with a laser.
“Okay,” he says. “I’m done.”
Rhodey stares at him.
“That’s it? I flew out here with government research for, what? ” He plucks the sample from Tony’s hand, pulling it taut. “Ten by forty inches?”
“You got all your permission slips signed first, didn’t you?”
“You made it sound,” Rhodey says, his voice heavy but unsurprised, “like an emergency.”
Tony hesitates, looking away. He grabs the fabric sample back from Rhodey and, draping it around his neck, begins to pull the bolts off his desk and onto the floor.
He says, “You’re right, I’m sorry, I guess I did. Got over-excited. It’s-” Heaving the last roll onto the floor, he drops his sample onto the empty work surface and spreads out a sheath of drafting paper. “It’s something kinda important. You know me, asshole at the best of times, right?”
Rhodey rolls his eyes.
“You are. The apology’s new, at least.”
“I’m... trying out some new things.”
Rhodey steps closer to take a look at the designs, upside down at first, but as his expression shifts and grows serious he pulls the papers out from under Tony’s spread hands. He turns them right way up, looks closer.
“No kidding,” he says. “This is...”
“A magnetic suit,” Tony says. He leans against the edge of the desk and folds his arms. “Itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny flexible iron filings. For the man who has everything.”
Leaning in, not looking up, Rhodey says, “This is pretty big, huh?”
“Bigger than Jesus.”
“And you think it’ll work?”
Tony shrugs. He pulls his designs back out from under Rhodey’s fingers and rolls them up tight.
“Gotta try,” he says.
“You should give Van Dyne a call. You used to go on playdates with her, right? She’s with R&D now. Textiles are her specialty.”
Straightening up, Rhodey casts an eye around the cluttered workshop, the wires, the prototypes, the reams of data printouts, and he adds, “But first, you owe me a drink.”
Steve is drunker than he ought to be. He’s sitting sideways on Bucky’s bed with his back to the wall. He is nineteen and he has Bucky’s father’s whiskey, and he has Bucky, kneeling on the floor, bandaging his fingers with only slightly unsteady hands. Bucky has always held his liquor better than Steve.
“Can it,” Bucky says, smacking Steve’s knee. “You’re an idiot.”
“If not doing nothing makes me an idiot,” Steve says, “then I guess I’d… rather be an idiot than not not do nothing.”
“They grabbed Mr Berenbaum’s wallet. Y’know he can’t fight guys like that anymore.”
“And you can’t fight guys like that at all, which is so much better,” Bucky says, but he pats Steve on the knee, gentle this time, and tightly ties the loose ends of his bandage. “Idiot.”
Leaning his head back against the wall, Steve closes his one good eye – the other too puffy and tender to open - and he grins. He listens to Bucky snort and mutter more insults, making Steve chuckle, and then Bucky touches his shoulder. Steve peels his eye open again and gazes up at him.
“I’m going to get some ice,” Bucky says. “For your-” He waves a hand. “Face.”
“’Kay,” Steve mumbles, closing his eye again.
He listens to Bucky pause and breathe and then leave. He wiggles his fingers, which hurts, but only barely now, lost in the comfortable haze of Mr Barnes’ borrowed whiskey. The bedsprings creak next to him, beneath the weight of another body.
“Tony,” Steve says.
“Not a guess,” Steve says, grinning. “You smell like... warm pennies. ’S always you, anyway.”
Next to him, Tony snorts. Steve keeps his eyes closed, fuzzy and content, and feels Tony take hold of chin and turn his face into the light.
“Should I see the other guy?” Tony says.
“Got in a fight.”
“You lost a fight, by the look of it. Twice.”
“Yeah.” Steve smiles under Tony’s fingers. “But I got Mr Berenbaum’s wallet back.”
“You’re a regular action hero, aren’t you?”
Steve opens his good eye and squints up at the shape of Tony, his vision wavering in the dim light.
“I don’t want to be the kind of fella,” he says, slowly, shaping his words with extra care around his clumsy tongue, “that chooses to stand by and do nothing.”
He twists his head to glare up at Tony, until Tony laughs softly. He lets go of Steve’s chin and pats the side of Steve’s neck, before pulling his hand away. Sighing, Steve closes his eye again.
“How old are you, Tony?” he asks.
Tony clears his throat.
“How old’m I?” Steve asks. “In your time?”
There’s a moment of silence, measured in the throb of Steve’s bruises, in time with Steve’s heart.
“You’re born before me,” Tony says, softly.
“Wow,” Steve mumbles. He wonders whether Tony is from the sixties, or the seventies, or even the eighties. His head is spinning. His mouth feels numb. He wonders where Bucky is, with that ice.
“Sorry,” he thinks he hears Tony say, but when he lifts his head back up and squints again into the light, Tony is long gone and Bucky is kneeling on the mattress next to him.
“Hold still,” Bucky is saying, pressing a towel wrapped in ice to the side of Steve’s sore face.
Steve holds still. The towel is damp and distracting, icy water dripping down his jaw and down his neck. There was something important, but – he forgets.
“Give me a hand with this, would you?” Tony says, thrusting his right arm out into Steve’s face.
He’s peripherally aware of Steve huffing out a breath – part sigh, part laughter – while Tony turns his attention to the other cuff. Steve takes hold of the wrist Tony shoved under his nose, gently straightens the cuff and twists the cufflink tightly closed. It clicks when it locks, magnetically, into place.
Straightening his left cuff with his teeth, Tony lifts his eyes to watch as the connection with the arc reactor is forged and the right cufflink tentatively begins to glow.
“Bingo,” he mutters around the fabric between his teeth.
He flexes his fingers. His wrist is tingling.
Steve tugs the cuff out of Tony’s mouth and deftly fastens the other cufflink too, stepping back quickly when Tony raises his eyebrows at him.
“I just wanted to see-”
“See?” Tony says, holding his arms out. He turns his hands over, palms up. The left cufflink, connected to the circuit, glows as well now, the same bluish-white as the arc reactor and pulsing, faintly, in time with his heartbeat.
Steve lets out his breath. “You look like the first time I saw you. It’s surreal.”
“Well, surreal is the story of my life,” Tony says, fastening his watch. He flexes his fingers again, rotates his shoulders, his wrists. He feels electric. “What year was that, again?”
“The first time?”
“Yeah, come on, the vibranium should have a stabilising effect. Let’s test it.”
“Twenty-four,” Steve says, smiling faintly. “I was six. I thought I was dreaming.”
“Nightmare, more like.”
“No,” Steve says.
Tony glances up at him but Steve is staring down at Tony’s wrists. Tony takes a deep breath. Nineteen twenty-four. He presses the button on the side of his watch. He closes his eyes.
Dangling from a girder in the roof of the Miami factory, Tony can feel it when Pepper hits the system overload button. He feels it in a moment of stillness that settles down over his whole body, leaving him gasping for one – split – second –
Before the rush, before that great rush of energy bursts upwards, crackling like a storm. The suit is buzzing with electrical discharge and Tony’s hair stands on end. He can hear it coming.
“Go!” he hisses to some inner part of himself, and he feels his body rising up, or his stomach swooping down. He imagines, for a heartbeat, that he is pure electricity.
Somewhere down there, Pepper screams.
He whispers, maybe, “Stay.”
The discharge of energy hits him. His body slams back down onto the roof and – over the ringing of his ears and the gasping of his lungs – he hears Obadiah shout. He hears Obadiah fall. He pictures the trajectory of that great body in motion, down into the innards of the factory’s heart, and Tony knows a second blast is coming.
But Tony stays. Tony is present.
A bomb beneath him and the stars overhead.
“-and, Tony,” Howard says, “I promise…”
“-confusing,” Tony says as his feet hit the ground.
He looks around the workshop until he catches Steve’s eye and then he starts to laugh again, clutching his sides.
“It worked, then?” Steve says when Tony pauses for breath.
“Sorry,” Tony says. He starts to snigger again and Steve’s lips twitch. “Sorry I laughed at six-year-old you.”
“Six-year-old me got over it.”
Clearing his throat, Tony looks down at his wrists. He twists one of the glowing cufflinks around between finger and thumb. It’s warm to the touch.
“When now?” he says. “Come on, you’re my guide to the future. Past. My future, your past, whatever you wanna call it.”
Steve hesitates, before he says, “I think you only came from this moment one more time.”
Steve shakes his head. Frowning, Tony looks up. He lets go of his cufflink, holds his hands still.
“What’s the problem?” he asks. “It’s going to happen. It’s already happened, right? So if it’s when I go next then it’s... when I go next. Right?”
“Is it really so set in stone?” Steve says, but then he shakes his head again, slowly, as if clearing his thoughts, and he says, “Forty-three, I guess. You told me then you’d just seen me at six.”
“So that was only, what – a year or two ago for you, huh?”
“Yes,” Steve says, his expression wretched. “It was that last time I saw you.”
“Huh,” Tony says.
After he stares at Steve for a little while, and Steve stares back at him, Tony adds, slowly, “I don’t have to go now. What’s the worst that could happen? Time and space crumbles and Steve Hawking sends me a really angry email? I can stay.”
“I don’t think you can,” Steve says.
Steve is twenty-four, and he lingers too long at the suspended monorail, beneath the giant globe that shines in all the light and colour of the fireworks. When he lowers his head and looks around himself again, Bucky has disappeared.
“Oh, heck,” Steve sighs.
He crams his hands deep into his pockets, staying put. He knows he’s too damn short to search for Bucky in a crowd like this, and here is where they last saw each other; the least he can do is make it easier for Bucky to search for him.
Overhead, fireworks go off with a bang, and Steve tilts his head his head back to watch them. For once, he doesn’t hear the moment when Tony arrives.
“Hi,” Tony says from behind him.
Steve whips around to see Tony with his hands in his own pockets, his face turned up towards to the sky. A rocket shoots up with a whistle and a bang and a shower of bright blue sparks, and Tony grins.
“Hey, you got your suit back!” Steve exclaims, then thinks and frowns. “Or... you only just got it?”
“From when you were six, right?”
Tony’s grin broadens and he pulls his hands out of his pockets, holds his arms out to show Steve. The glowing cufflinks, the strangely cut suit, come rising up in Steve’s mind like the memory of a dream.
“That was just five minutes ago for me,” Tony is still saying. “Weird, I know. It’s like I’m the well-dressed bread on a time-travel sandwich. So, this is nineteen forty-three, huh?”
“Welcome to the World Exposition of the Future,” Steve says. He looks around himself and wonders for the first time – “I guess some of this stuff must seem pretty commonplace to you?”
Tony’s grin fades. His mouth twists.
“Some of it, yeah,” he says.
Catching hold of Steve’s wrist, he tugs him deeper into the shadows at the base of the globe.
“Listen,” he says. “I’ve gotta tell you-”
And then he stops, opening and shutting his mouth. Steve stares up at him and then, when Tony shakes his head and glances away, he tilts his head back further and stares up at Antarctica. He can see right through the globe to the Arctic and past that the night sky.
“This is the last time,” Tony says.
Steve looks around at Tony, and Tony looks back at him. A whole load of mixed-up emotions flash across his face, too fast for Steve to read them, as if he hadn’t known until he’d opened his mouth just what it was he had to tell. Then he nods sharply, once, and clenches his jaw in resolution.
“This is the last time you see me,” he says, barrelling on. “In your time, I mean. I’m still gonna see you – I know I still have a World Series to ruin for you – but that’s. All happened by now. To you.”
Steve stares at him, but Tony’s jaw stays clenched on whatever else it was he might have had to say. Steve feels something clench inside of him.
“Boy,” he says. He runs his hand through his hair, then, when his fingers keep on flexing, shoves his hands back into his pockets. “Okay. I guess – I guess I knew it was gonna happen sooner or later. Can you…?”
He pauses. A rocket explodes over the globe over their heads, and Steve breathes out slowly.
“Can you tell me when I’m going to actually meet you?” he says, after a little while. “Or is that cheating?”
“It’s only a year or two-” Tony begins, before he cuts himself off abruptly.
He shakes his head, starts again.
“It’s a long time. It’s a really long time.”
“Okay,” Steve breathes. “Okay.”
They’re both silent after that, Steve because he’s still processing it, or because he has no air left in his lungs. Everything inside of himself seems to have slowed down to a halt. He feels himself shake his head.
“Okay,” he says again, flatly.
He clenches his jaw. He looks around them, over his shoulder. Nobody is looking their way.
Tony is not a tall man, but he’s still taller than Steve, so Steve has to reach up a hand, has to close his fingers on the back of Tony’s neck and pull him down to Steve’s level. He kisses him quickly, sharply. His lips are dry, his hand is shaking. He feels Tony’s fingers brush against his jaw.
They don’t have time.
Steve is the one to pull away, taking a quick step back and looking around. He lowers his hand in one moment, then lifts it back up again in the next, to comb his fingers shakily through his hair. Tony is staring at him, frozen where Steve left him, with his mouth open and his shirt so rumpled.
Did I do that? Steve wonders.
He clears his throat.
“Goodbye,” he says, only a little unsteadily. “That was a – goodbye, then, I guess.”
“Hey!” someone shouts from behind them.
They both flinch. Steve takes another, automatic step back from Tony, before he lifts up his chin and he turns around. Bucky, taking the steps up to the globe two at a time, runs up to meet them.
Slinging an arm around Steve’s shoulders, he exclaims, “You trying to give me a heart attack?”
“Well, you know me,” Steve says. He forces a smile. “I’ve always wanted to see the world.”
Bucky laughs and punches him lightly in the arm. He nods to Tony, cranes his head back to stare up into the globe and whistles through his teeth. There are still fireworks exploding overhead, as if the world hasn’t changed irrevocably.
“Now, come on,” Bucky is saying. “You’ve left your date waiting long enough. Rumour has it Stark Industries have got a flying car round here somewhere.”
At that, Tony unfreezes. He takes a step forwards and makes some kind of sudden, jerky motion that Steve only barely catches, out of the corner of his eye.
He says, “I have to go now.”
“You,” Tony says, not looking at Steve. “You’re Bucky, right?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says. “We’ve met. I’ve met you, anyway.”
“I guess I’ll see you earlier, then. Keep an eye on Steve,” he adds. “I’ve gotta go now.”
“I always do,” he says, squeezing Steve’s shoulder.
Tony lifts his gaze at last, to meet Steve’s eyes. His mouth twists and he shrugs with one shoulder, lifting his hand in goodbye.
Steve says, “I’ll see you later.”
Tony nods. Steve doesn’t stick around to watch him disappear.
He follows Bucky down the steps. His ears are ringing. He wants to look back. But instead, he offers the girls a piece of candy and he lets the tide of movement, surging all in one direction, draw him deeper into the audience. Bucky tugs him on towards the flying car.
The chorus girls dance and sing, and Howard Stark lifts up his goggles to address the crowd, and Steve goes cold again. Despite what Tony told him - a long time, a really long time - he pushes forwards for a better view.
Howard Stark looks about twenty years younger than Tony. Howard Stark’s red car looks more like a spaceship.
Steve feels Bucky’s fingers on his shoulder, and he hears Bucky whisper, “Hey, doesn’t he look like…?”
“Tony,” Steve says, the second he reappears.
Tony shakes his head, rubbing a hand across his face. The ground beneath his feet no longer feels solid. The lights of the fireworks are still flashing in his eyes.
“Hey, it worked again,” he says. “That probably means it’s…”
Looking up at Steve, he trails off. His voice sounds, to his ears, like someone else’s voice. A Tony from a different time, perhaps, staring across at Steve. Steve half-rises from the desk he’s sitting at, then lowers himself back down again, clearing his throat and looking away. He touches a hand, briefly, to his mouth.
“You kissed me,” Tony says.
Steve nods rigidly, eyes forward. His back is very straight.
“But I thought you... The agent?”
“Agent Carter,” Steve says, expression softening. “Peggy. But you know I didn’t meet her until after you were… gone. I loved her one hell of a lot. If I’d had a chance to go on that date with her…”
“Right,” Tony says.
Steve lifts his head, looking up at Tony again. “I wasn’t waiting for you. You never really seemed real, back – back then, you know. You were like some crazy dream. I guess Peggy was, too. We never had time. There was always gonna be the ice, right? You came to me, so I was always gonna come to you.”
Tony’s voice is still not his own, and nor are his mouth, lips, tongue, forming words on their own over the white noise in his brain, the fireworks in his eyes.
“I tried to tell you, but - How do you warn a guy of that? It’s a serious gap in the greeting card market.”
He touches a thumb to a cufflink. He runs his fingers around the face of his watch. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches Steve stand.
Steve says, “I don’t think I would’ve wanted to know. Not really. How could I have lived, a thing like that hanging over me? Always waiting for the future to grab hold of me?”
“Like a timebomb.”
Tony grins at his own joke despite himself, sharp and bright, and Steve watches him. Steve stands and watches him, with something sharper and brighter in his eyes.
“Look,” Tony says in a rush. “I’m sorry that the future grabbed you.”
“Then I’m sorry I messed up your past.”
“Would you just let me apologise?” Tony snaps. “I’m sorry you never had a chance, a choice.”
Steve takes a step forwards. His voice is soft and urgent, when he speaks.
“There’s always a choice,” he says. “Look, maybe – maybe my life is so tied up with yours that if I did it all again without you things would be different, but if the guy without you wasn’t the kind of guy who’d choose the ice and the future over a smoking hole in the ground, then I’m glad I never met him. And if he was the kind of guy to choose it, then he would’ve wound up here, anyway. If that is not having a chance or choice then, well, I’m glad.”
He grows louder and more forceful with every word, pacing towards Tony and then away again, but when he pauses for breath he goes still.
He goes soft again, saying, “And I chose to kiss you, didn’t I? I know, I know, how could have I, if you hadn’t been there? But it – was a choice, trust me, and I’m glad of that, too.”
Lifting his head, he stares up at Tony with those bright, sharp eyes, like that little kid who had stared angrily out at him from the dark.
“Stay,” Tony whispers with his own voice.
He clears his throat, shakes his head and points a finger at Steve, saying, “You, stay. Hold that thought, stay there. There’s something important I need to do. I’ve been waiting for – but what the hell, I’ll do it now, while I know I can. These cufflinks could explode tomorrow or something, or-”
He backs up a step, closing his eyes in preparation. He can see Steve’s face on the insides of his eyelids. He opens his eyes and there Steve is.
Tony moves back in again, grabbing hold of Steve’s face with clumsy, graceless hands and he pulls Steve down to him. Steve catches on in the same moment and his fingers close once again on the back of Tony’s neck, pulling him up, so they meet, inexorably, halfway. It’s a clumsy, graceless kiss, with Steve’s mouth closed and Tony’s mouth dry, and Tony begins to laugh, breathlessly, against Steve’s lips.
He pulls away again. He closes his eyes, with Steve’s hands on his face.
Tony is walking down a corridor in the dark, towards the sound of voices. He turns left.
“Hey,” he says, reaching out a hand. “Hey, it’s okay now. Come with me, I’ll tell you a story.”
The other Tony stares out at him from the dark, his eyes wide and damp, but he follows easily along when Tony gives his hand a tug. After a few steps, the Tony in Howard’s office begins to cry, the sound of it echoing down the corridor, and the Tony holding his hand stumbles. He looks back over his shoulder, uncertainly, at the way they came.
“It’s okay,” Tony says again.
He has to lift the other Tony up when they reach the stairs, a sweeping expanse of mahogany that had never been practical in a house with a child in it. The other wraps his arms around Tony’s neck automatically, clinging on tightly and sniffing and mumbling, at last, “That one creaks,” right before Tony almost puts his foot down on the wrong step.
Tony had forgotten. There’s a lot in here that Tony had forgotten.
He sets the other Tony down on his old bed in his old bedroom and he kneels down in front of him. The other Tony reaches out automatically to touch the arc reactor glowing through his shirt.
“Okay, listen,” Tony says. “Once upon a time there was a little boy who was never on time. The boy’s you, in case that wasn’t obvious. It’s me, too. You’re going to have a weird life and parts of it are gonna suck. Sorry about that. It’s too late to change any of it now, so just... remember this moment, okay?”
He unbuttons the first few buttons of his shirt and tugs it open. He raps his knuckles on the glass. The other Tony, scooting forwards on his knees, does the same.
“Okay,” he whispers, spreading his fingers over the arc reactor. His hand is still too small to cover it.
“You’re gonna be alright,” Tony says. “You just have to trust me on this one. You have the choice. It’ll be weird and it’ll hurt, but in the end, you’re going to be alright.”
“I should probably let Fury know,” Tony murmurs. “At some point. God knows I’ve got the coolest powers of the lot of you.”
Steve laughs. He presses an open-mouthed kiss to the side of Tony’s jaw. His hand is warm on Tony’s stomach.
“Not yet,” he says.
“Sure, giant green rage machine is cool. And being the actual god of storms, that’s impressive. But I…”
Tony trails off. He can feel Steve’s breath, even warmer, on the back of his neck. He can feel the fingers of Steve’s other hand trailing down between his shoulder blades.
“Tell me about the past,” Steve says, and when his mouth moves Tony can feel that, too.
He twists around as best he can, nudging Steve’s chest with his shoulders, until he can see Steve’s face out of the corner of his eye. Steve kisses his cheekbone.
“Well, let’s see,” Tony says. “Big bang, dinosaurs, invention of the wheel. You were born somewhere around 1800, I believe. The air always seemed to smell of exhaust fumes, but I kinda liked it. Your apartment was crummy though.”
“Yeah,” Steve says. “But I kinda liked it.”
His hand creeps back up Tony’s chest and down his arm, tracing where the veins are – where the wires used to be – until he reaches Tony’s wrists. His fingers, where they touch Tony’s skin, are warmer than the cufflinks could ever be.
Tony can see Steve’s face, out of the corner of his eye.
“You know I can’t control it when I’m not wearing those suits,” he says.
“SHIELD says I’m pathologically and physiologically unreliable,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll just disappear.”
“I know,” Steve says again, his fingers warm on Tony’s wrist. “But stay.”
When he tugs, Tony rolls over to meet him.
When Tony is four, Howard Stark looks dead into the centre of a camera lens.
“I promise I won’t leave you nothing,” he says.
“Now tell me about the future,” Steve whispers.
Tony doesn’t look back.