"I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once."
― Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again
Steve can't believe what he's hearing. And once he'd heard Dr. Erskine say he wanted to take his fifteen-year-old asthmatic ninety-pound self and turn him into a superhero.
Nicholas Fury could gi— could have given Dum-Dum Dugan's poker face a run for his money. Fury's face stays constant: blank, impassive. As immoveable as his positions if his adamant refusals of Steve's very reasonable requests are any sort of indicative yardstick.
"Times have changed, Steven," Fury says.
"Steve," Fury allows. "It's not the forties. We're not so desperate for a miracle that we'd shove a kid out onto the battlefield, even one with a healing factor and enhanced speed, strength and reflexes. And we're more accountable now than we've ever been. We operate behind the law and below the law, but we do not operate above the law."
"What does that even mean?"
"The Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division is not authorized to employ any individuals under the age of twenty-one."
"I'm almost ninety."
Fury levels his one eye at Steve. "Not according to our scientists. The ice—"
Steve shuffles automatically at the word ice. He can't help it. He feels a few degrees colder just from the word. Even though SHIELD say that Steve's fully defrosted, Steve doesn't feel it. It feels like there's still a shard of ice, locked inside him, deep in his core. Steve grips onto the arms of his chair.
"—combined with the serum preserved you the way you were when you went under the water," Fury continues. "The reports are already with the committee."
Steve juts his jaw in an expression Bucky had a song about once upon a time. It was very alliterative. Stubborn Steve, stuck on the stairs.
Thinking about Bucky is almost as bad as thinking about the ice.
"What does this mean for me?"
"It means that until you're twenty-one," Fury says, "that you can't be Captain America."
Steve thought he'd been cold as the ice crept around him, but that cold had nothing on Fury's expression; nor on the fear that's starting to pool in the pit of his stomach. He is Captain America. Nobody cared during World War II that he was a teenager.
"With respect, sir—"
"That phrase rarely leads to anything even vaguely respectful."
"I don't know how things worked back in your time," Fury says, finally changing his face a little: narrowing his eye. "My pops ran a tight ship, made some dubious decisions; it was the war. And maybe they pulled some shit that saved the day. But this is the future you fought for, Steven." Steve's jaw tightens even more. "That includes the freedom and time for children and young adults to gain an education and find their path in life."
"I'm not a child."
"Funny. That's what a child would say."
Steve stares. "But what am I supposed to do?"
Fury shrugs. "It's up to you, son. Except for one caveat."
Steve shuffles, because of course there's small print. "Yes, sir?"
"The world can't know Captain America's alive," Fury says. "The world would panic, and it's scared enough as it is. So until then, you'll be provided a cover identity and somewhere to live until you turn twenty-one and then I can consider your application to work for SHIELD."
"Consider?" Steve repeats, trying not to scowl too deeply.
Fury stares. "Of course, if you let your real identity even slip a little, your next job will be at SHIELD."
Steve perks up.
"After being detained in the deepest, darkest, most reclusive room in the most remote SHIELD facility I can find for you, so I can deny and cover up the truth," Fury says. "And so you're aware, that's a process that might take even longer than the three years it'll take for you to reach twenty-one." Fury smiles, and it's as painful as his words. "Are we on the same page, Mr. Grant?"
Steve opens his mouth to protest, but the display behind Fury's head shifts to display his new cover identity. GRANT, STEVEN. From Ohio? Someone somewhere has a sense of humor, at least.
"We are," Steve says.
"Good," Fury says, either missing the fact that Steve's gripping the chair arms enough to crack them, or plain ignoring it. Steve gets up to leave, noticing that Agent Coulson has come to escort him out. "And I mean the slightest hint will get you benched," Fury calls, as Steve moves to leave. "Your real name, your enhanced senses, any of it - one tiny hint of it and you'll be locked somewhere dark and dank before you can say star spangled man with a plan."
Steve grits his teeth and forces a smile. "Won't be a problem," he says, and lets Coulson lead him back towards his SHIELD quarters. As Steve settles down in the bland beige room, he pulls open the laptop Coulson gave him, and loads up the Internet and opens the tab he'd been looking at earlier.
GENIUS STUDENT REED RICHARDS INVENTS ACTUAL WORKING TIME TRAVEL DEVICE!, screams the Daily Bugle headline.
Steve looks at it contemplatively, ignoring the CITY SCOUNDREL SPIDER-MAN WILL PROBABLY STEAL IT AND DESTROY THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE subheading below it. Yeah, he'll follow Fury's orders for now. Hopefully, he won't have to follow them for too long.
"They gave you free rein, and you willingly chose this?"
Steve shrugs over at Sam and continues unpacking. Not that he has a lot of stuff to unpack. He has a lot of money; somehow being frozen for decades has allowed him a ridiculous amount of hazard pay. Yet Fury wouldn't take "they don't give an eighteen-year-old seventy years' worth of back pay" as an argument for re-instating him as an active agent.
"It keeps me in New York," Steve says.
"They won't activate you," Sam says. "Even if you're here and able and the skies are full of alien warriors." His voice is gruff with bitterness when he says, "Trust me on that," and sinks onto his bed.
Steve looks over his shoulder, nodding at Sam in commiseration. Sam's ability is amazing, so if he isn't working for SHIELD, Steve's less unique abilities will hardly be called to action. "I work on hope. It's the only way I know how to live."
"I used to read the comics about you," Sam says, drawing his legs up and sitting cross-legged, watching Steve unpack. "They said you used to draw a lot."
Steve twists back to his bag so Sam doesn't see the flicker of grief cross his face. Even now, his fingers ache for a pencil. But this plan is the best plan. "Trying to stay away from how weird it is that there are comics about my life," he says, trying to keep his voice from sounding too thick, "they weren't accurate. I mean, for a start, they depicted me as in my mid-twenties."
"Did the Howling Commandoes know you were just a kid?"
"Not at first. But with my skills, they didn't care."
"But you could just bum around for a couple of years, see the world," Sam says. "And you chose that school instead?"
"I might not even go into SHIELD," Steve says, although that's a lie — he craves action already and the time at this school will be hell, because even though sports are popular where he's going, he won't be able to take part. Not at full strength. He has to hold his strength back everywhere. Sam has clearance to know about him because Sam's special too, but out in the streets of New York, in the hallways of his new school, Steve will have to do his best to be Steve Grant, regular boring plain old Steve from Ohio. "The world's so different now. I might actually be good at modern technology or science."
"Well, buddy, good luck with that," Sam says. "I promised I'd help mom do the veg for dinner — that's in an hour if you want to chill out." Steve flinches even though he doesn't want to, the ice in his core sharp and stabbing, and Sam's eyes widen. "It means relax."
"You okay to be by yourself for a bit?"
Sam's concern is nice, it is, but Steve feels his cheeks threatening to burn in embarrassment. He doesn't want to be alone. But he doesn't want to let people know how vulnerable he is at the moment — even if Sam seems to have realized Steve needs to be asked before being left alone or not.
"Yeah," Steve says, and hope it sounds convincing. "I'll, uh, surf the web a little more. The faster SHIELD realizes I'm not going to be yelling gosh golly gee whiz in public, the faster they'll stop forcing me on these remedial modern history 101 classes."
"You need one or two more," Sam says. Steve makes a wounded noise in his throat. "You said that Google was the cat's meow yesterday."
"If the wind changes your face will stick like that," Sam warns him, getting up from his bed and heading to the door.
"We said that in my time."
"Yeah, but it happens literally now," Sam says. "The Great Wind Face Epoch of 1972. Google it."
"You're lying," Steve says. "I can tell."
"I'll call you when it's time for food," Sam says, and disappears through the door.
Steve watches the empty door for a moment, swallowing. Sam's bedroom - now Steve's to share thanks to the Wilson family's generosity for the year - is in the basement, and if there was a flood, this whole room could fill right up to the ceiling with water in no time, and there's no window, and the water would block up the door—
He forces himself to still, and to breathe, deep breaths, letting the panic calm away. Steve hates this. He hates how uncertain he feels, how unanchored he is to this place and this time.
When his panic fades, he pulls out the last item from his bag — the laptop Agent Coulson let him keep — and flips it open. It loads up the tabs he'd been looking at earlier.
The Tomorrow Academy. The New York school infamous in modern times for its emphasis on science and technology. After Steve voiced that the school was his preference and the only place he'd agree on, Fury arranged for a handful of teachers to coach him through the entrance exams, and his bank account more than covers the substantial fees. Steve's sure he'll be able to keep up with the classes — the serum enhanced his brain and his body.
It's important to him. The Tomorrow Academy is his best chance. He flickers across to the other open tabs — the Internet is amazing, and it's something Steve's going to miss. His eyes graze over the information he's found about Reed Richards and his time machine. The Tomorrow Academy is Steve's best, only hope to get back to the past. All Steve has to do is infiltrate the Academy, get into Richards' good books, and convince the genius to build a time portal to get Steve back to the forties. That's all.
Steve takes a deep breath, glancing around Sam's room for a moment, at the unfamiliar culture references and the homely touches. He'll miss Sam. He'll send him a letter from the past as a thank you when he gets back there.
Until then, Steve just has to stay focused and make sure he can keep his cover. If as much as his real birth year is discovered, SHIELD will yank him out of there faster than you can say the Midnight Racer. His best option is to get as up-to-date on the present as he can get, and to do his research.
If the first thing he Googles is "The Great Wind Face Epoch of 1972", well... no one has to know.
"Your first day of modern school and you're wearing that?" Sam asks, incredulous, as he jogs downstairs from the family bathroom. His hair is wet, and he's shrugging on a red and white leather jacket that makes him appear ten years older; Steve tries not to be jealous, but if he had that skill, Fury might have let him pretend to be twenty-one and do real work.
If Steve could take up the Captain America mantle in this time, there might have been a chance he would have given the idea of staying in the twenty-first century a try. But without the chance to make a difference, in a time that sorely needs more positive role models and protectors... Steve feels too lost. No. He needs to go back in time. There's nothing here that makes him want to stay, apart from Sam. But Sam was fine before Steve got here, and he'll be fine when Steve leaves, too.
"What's wrong with what I'm wearing?" Steve asks, tugging at his shirt, suddenly self-conscious. Sam's mom had taken him shopping last weekend, and Steve had trusted her judgment. Maybe that was a mistake.
"Nothing, I'm just messing with you," Sam says.
"Where are you going?" Steve asks, because Sam's pushing his brown bag into a beaten-up rucksack and toeing his sneakers on.
Sam shoots him a grin. "Uh, going with you?"
Steve blinks, several times, in a row.
"Did I forget to mention that my new sport scholarship is at the Tomorrow Academy?" Sam says, straightening and splaying one hand on his chest. "Wow, I guess it slipped my mind."
"Slipped your mind," Steve repeats.
Sam grins at him. "Couldn't let my boy walk into the lion's den on his own. Besides..." He leans over and puts his arm around Steve's shoulder. "You need all the help you can get."
Steve thinks he should protest, especially at how much Sam's already rearranged his life to fit Steve in, because Steve's not planning to be part of Sam's life for much longer, if he can help it. But he feels selfishly pleased. Besides, his research has made it clear how good the Tomorrow Academy is. Sam won't have hurt his education by transferring there.
He's glad that Sam's by his side when the bus comes along, burnished reflective steel and a thrumming engine that Steve can feel through his whole body; having someone to sit next to makes all the nerves in his stomach disperse.
And he is nervous. More nervous than parachuting into a HYDRA facility without the parachute. But that's because he remembers school, and back in the late thirties it hadn't been a pleasant place for a too-short kid with a growing list of allergies and illnesses. And according to some of the "must-see" movies Steve's been subjected to since being defrosted, high school hasn't changed much at all. School's just something else to endure.
One thing that's definitely changed, though — namely, in this case, the excuses available to give to the teachers to explain tardiness.
The bus comes to a screeching halt and for a moment Steve thinks it's just a traffic jam, until the bus trembles beneath them from side-to-side, and Steve can hear screaming from outside the bus. He tilts his head so he can see down the center of the bus and out to the street ahead. There is a traffic jam, and it's orderly close to the bus, but further away, cars are stopped at different angles and people are running in their direction, away from something large that's moving.
Something large and with metallic tentacles.
Steve's gut clenches, and he resents that he had to leave his shield with Fury. He wants to run out there and help regardless, but something must show on his face because Sam puts an arm across his chest and hisses, "No."
"But—" Steve starts.
"We're just normal kids," Sam whispers. Steve slumps, only glaring because Sam's right. He glances around surreptitiously, but no one seems to be listening to them, more interested in the metal octopus flailing around in the distance.
"Are they going to evacuate us?" Steve asks, looking back over his shoulder — the amount of traffic would make backing up difficult.
"There should be— Ah, yeah, there we go," Sam says. "The cavalry's arrived."
Steve frowns, and strains to see over the heads over everyone who's moved into the aisle of the bus to see the unfolding scene; he manages to get a good view just in time for a red and gold figure send a bolt of fire into the metal octopus' main body. He blinks in consternation, and the red and gold figure continues to dart around, gracefully blasting at the villainous creation. So Steve's not hallucinating, then.
He can't look away and there's the jealousy crawling up his throat, because he wants to be out there fighting alongside whatever that is. Not that even Captain America could compete with the graceful figure of the red and gold hero.
"Who's that?" Steve asks, transfixed.
"Dude, he doesn't know who Iron Man is?" a girl hisses from the other side of the aisle.
"He's been in Europe for the last couple of years," Sam explains.
That's Iron Man? Steve stares. He lowers his voice a little to a volume only Sam can hear. "I thought it was a movie."
"Naw, man," Sam says, chuckling a little. "He's real all right. At least, we think there's a real guy in the suit."
"So it could be a robot," Steve says. The future continues to blow his mind.
"Guess so," Sam says. There's a little more bitterness in his voice when he adds, "Guess it's also obvious why they're not hot on letting us out there."
Yeah, Steve agrees silently. Because why would they need Sam's gift, or Steve's enhanced abilities, when they have an Iron Man out there?
Iron Man makes swift work on defeating the villain, and Steve feels something weird in his chest when he realizes that Iron Man has stayed behind to assist the cops in getting the traffic moving after the battle's over, hovering in the sky, his chest glowing as bright as the sun.
The bus moves close to where Iron Man's still hovering and Steve just lets himself stare as they drive past, trying to think about the brief things he read about Iron Man on the Internet (the things he's done sounds like it deserves to be a movie - but then, you could say the same thing about Steve's life so far.) He thinks about Sam saying there's probably a guy in the suit, a guy who SHIELD allow to be out and about and saving the world.
Ugh. The age limit on being a superhero in modern times is just about the worst thing ever.
Okay, school's tougher now than in the 30s. Steve's pretty sure. Or maybe it's just the Tomorrow Academy. Or maybe it's because most of his teachers used to assume he'd probably die young, so they went easy on him.
Math is a nightmare. History's only bearable because it's the 1880s, a period that Steve's studied before. Gym's a master-class in disappointment, because he has to hold back, and that includes letting himself be overtaken by a muscled teen who is unironically and actually named Flash — Steve had been such a fan of Flash Gordon when it came out, it was one of the strips that made him think about becoming a comic artist, but he never thought there would come a time when kids would have it as a formal name. A sports nickname, maybe. But an actual birth certificate name? The future is so weird, Steve cannot think that enough.
Chemistry is a nightmare before Steve steps through the doors, because he's checked, and it's only Chemistry, Biology and English Literature where he shares classes with Reed Richards. He's focused on the three with his cramming, because if he can at least not appear like a raging fool in front of Richards, he'll have a chance at getting on the genius' good side— but Chemistry is tough. Steve's brain just isn't wired right for it, he thinks. Even if Chemistry is what turned him from five foot nothing into six foot plus overnight. Well, over afternoon. Chemistry is terrifying enough on its own... and that's before the teacher announces that there's going to be a semester-long project and they have to work in pairs.
Steve and Sam gravitate together in a shared moment of sheer relief and then the teacher continues by saying assigned pairs, which makes the whole class make noises that Steve last heard in 1942, when Dino found the underground tunnels that led into Baron Blood's castle were filled with giant rats.
For a few blissful seconds, Steve lets himself believe he'll be paired with Richards - because sometimes the universe works in his favor, like being young enough for Dr. Erskine's serum to work on him - but that hope dies when Richards is the first to be paired off, with a Felix Alvarez - a guy who Steve remembers from Gym as a wannabe lawyer. Like there aren't enough villains in the modern world, Steve thinks with disgust.
He's so busy sulking that he doesn't even land Sam - he's been paired with a guy named James on a baking soda volcano project - that he almost misses who his assigned partner is.
"Grant, Steve," the teacher intones. Sam has to kick him under the table. Steve belatedly raises his hand. "Ah, there you are. You'll be working with Anthony Stark."
Steve blinks. And blinks again. When the teacher ran the register at the start, he doesn't recall what Anthony Stark looked like.
"Dude," Sam whispers, but falls silent at a glare from the teacher.
"I'm afraid Mr. Stark's absent, Mr. Grant," the teacher says, flashing an apologetic glance at Steve. "Don't worry, check your e-mails; I'll arrange a time with him for us to discuss your project title."
"Thank you," Steve says, bewildered.
"I'll fill you in later," Sam mouths as the teacher continues with, "Hogan, Harry."
"That's Happy," a pleasant-looking boy with a Leland the Owl shirt on says from the back of the class.
"You'll be working with Felicia Hardy, exploring exothermic reactions," the teacher says. Happy looks thrilled - a blonde girl making eyes at another boy wearing glasses shoots a dirty glare at the teacher, showing she - like Steve - had different hopes for her partner-in-crime.
As soon as the assignments are given out, the teacher then launches into what's supposed to be an introductory lecture on organic molecules, and Steve's lost - he takes notes and tries to make himself seem smaller, which in his serum-improved body is damn difficult; he still remembers the Gym teacher's expression from earlier when he realized Steve's muscles appear not to translate to his ability on the field.
Steve's misfortune continues when the teacher calls on him to name the aromatic compound on the board. Steve stares. Is that something he's supposed to know? He glances at Sam, who just shrugs.
"Mr. Grant," the teacher sighs, in the most disappointed tone Steve's heard for the longest time — although Steve can't say out loud that the last time someone sounded that disappointed in him, it had been 1940.
"It's phenyl benzenecarboxylate," a voice rings out from the doorway. The whole class turns to see who spoke, Steve included; he's eager to see who his rescuing hero is. It takes Steve an embarrassing moment to realize the newcomer is a student too, and therefore must be his once-absent project partner, Anthony Stark — and it's because he's distracted by a fresh-looking bruise on the guy's right cheekbone. Stark seems to suit him as a name — his skin is pale, and that's emphasized by his dark shock of hair, a pardon-the-pun stark contrast. Stark looks like he doesn't get to see outside often. "Sorry I'm late, Dr. Connors. It won't happen again."
"It will," the teacher - Dr. Connors - says with a fond eye-roll as Stark moves into a free seat at the back of the class near a redhead who seems to answer to Pepper, and a guy named Rhodes who Steve thinks is Sam's partner on the partners project. "Stay after class, Stark, you missed the partner assignation."
"Gotcha," Stark says.
"You too, Grant," Dr. Connors says, and Steve nearly forgets that means him. "Might as well see you both after class."
Steve stares at the teacher. Sam squeezes his shoulder at the end of class, noticing his expression and misinterpreting it as sadness over missing the start of lunch; he promises to get them a table and disappears off. Steve watches him go mournfully, especially when Reed Richards slips out with the mass of students. There goes his first chance to talk to him.
Trying not to sigh too audibly, Steve shoulders his rucksack and dutifully heads to the front of the class.
"One moment, boys," Dr. Connors says. "I've got a great idea for you, I just need to pick it up from my office."
He disappears before Steve can open his mouth and protest the whole partnership. He doesn't hide his next sigh as he sinks down against the front tables. Stark sidles up next to him, dropping his bag - what looks to be like a very large briefcase, which Steve thinks is pretty pretentious for a student to carry around - on the floor before eyeing Steve.
"Don't feel bad about missing that answer earlier," Stark tells him. Steve looks at Stark. Maybe he's not going to be as bad as Steve's expecting from someone who could so easily get into a class super-late without even getting into any real trouble for it, although the school handbook says tardiness is a punishable offense. "Connors has a habit of rotating the benzene rings to make them fit better." Stark purses his pink mouth a little. "Should have picked up the phenyl on the right, though, that was, like, grade school level easy—"
Steve can feel the anger boiling in his stomach and he has to clench his fists to stop from hauling Stark closer and showing him why antagonizing him is a bad idea.
"I'm not an idiot," Steve hisses, incensed. "I'm just..."
Stark looks amused as Steve fails to find an immediate end to that sentence.
Steve tempers his scowl as best as he can. The Tomorrow Academy's filled with a combination of people - rich kids, scholarship kids, and prodigies. Maybe Stark's a combination of all three.
"I'm just not a genius," Steve says, tilting his chin, daring Stark to have a vocal problem with that. "But it doesn't mean you can call me an idiot, or insult me in any other way. Genetics might be a charged game, but it's still a lottery."
It's no wonder he's so incensed about the topic - the genetic lottery tried to give him one of the poorest hands any guy had been dealt back in his time. Not that anyone looking at him now would know, something Stark appears to be considering - Stark's looking at the broadness of Steve's shoulders, and at his hands, before looking him up and down, like trying to figure out how tall he is, or something.
"Yeah, I guess you lucked out in other ways, huh," Stark says.
Steve squints at Stark, trying to see if there's a double meaning to those words, because his tone is different somehow, but Dr. Connors comes back into the room and derails his train of thought.
"Mr. Grant's on the standard diploma track," Dr. Connors says, presumably to Stark. "But I thought one of the standard topics would be too easy, frankly for both of you, considering Mr. Grant's scores on the entry exam."
Stark flickers another of those weird, calculating looks at Steve's face. Steve shuffles, uncomfortably.
Dr. Connors looks at Steve this time. "Mr. Stark is already working at masters level science. The only other person I could reasonably consider pairing him with was maybe Mr. Richards—"
Steve perks up at the name, and Stark gives him another even weirder side-glance at his reaction. Steve pointedly ignores Stark.
"—but Mr. Alvarez is already working with him in physics, and they pre-requested a double-subject project before the summer," Connors finishes.
"I'm happy to work on an easier topic alone if-" Steve swallows, finding it weird to call Stark by a formal title, especially considering Steve's technically decades older than both of them, "Mr. Stark would be better suited to an individual advanced topic."
"I'm afraid the school requires evidence of group and partner work, Mr. Grant," Dr. Connors. "For both the standard and advanced track." He winks at Steve. "But nice try."
"What's in the box, doc?" Stark drawls, already trying to open the lid. Dr. Connors levels him a stern look and Stark holds both palms out flat, like he's under arrest.
"I thought considering your interest in energy and storage that you might be interested in a project exploring the storage potential of graphene and carbon nanotubes allotropes of carbon," Dr. Connors says, and flips open the box to reveal a lot of complicated equipment and sinister looking canisters.
"Will we have access to manganese dioxide and tungsten trioxide too?" Stark asks, reaching for one of the nearest canisters.
"I need you both to fill in some health and safety paperwork first," Dr. Connors says. Stark mouths paperwork with a sour expression like he thinks it's a curse word. "Also, I'll need you to get a parent or guardian's signature giving you permission to be in the school labs out of supervised hours."
Steve perks up at that. The labs had been in the back of his mind as a potential problem, because according to his research, that's where Reed Richards does most of his ex-curricular scientific experiments. He'd thought he wouldn't get a chance to get inside and approach him there.
Dr. Connors misinterprets Steve's excitement. "Nice to see you looking excited, Grant. We might be able to convince you to move to the advanced path after all." Dr. Connors closes the box, eliciting a small noise of disappointment from Stark. "Paperwork first, boys."
Steve bristles at being called boy, but he learns that's not a "being nearly ninety-years old" thing to bristle at, because Stark glowers too.
To Steve's chagrin, Stark doesn't leave him after Dr. Connors shoos them out of his classroom. Even when Steve slows down to give Stark an opening to zoom away, Stark slows down to keep pace with him.
"I think this pile of paperwork is longer than the actual report's gonna be," Stark says, wafting the pile of papers in Steve's face. Steve grips onto his own pile, similarly apprehensive about the amount of paperwork to go through. "So, standard route, huh? You know that won't get you into a good college, even if it's a Tomorrow Academy standard diploma. You should hit for one of the advanced distinctions if you want to go anywhere good."
"I'm not planning on college," Steve says.
"You're not—" Stark pulls a face like Steve's said something like paperwork is awesome and fun."Seriously?"
"You don't know me from Adam. Why would you even care?"
"I don't," Stark says. "I'm just surprised. You've gotta have some sort of brain under that hair if Connors partnered you with me."
"I don't want to go to college," Steve says.
"Family business to go into?" Stark asks.
"Something like that."
Stark nods, continuing to follow Steve all the way into the bustling cafeteria - thank goodness Steve memorized the campus map last night because he doesn't want to think how Stark would react to him admitting he didn't know his way around - and then all the way up to the table Sam's procured in the corner.
"Hey," Sam greets, curiously flicking his gaze between Steve and Stark. "Tony Stark, right?"
"Yeah," Stark says, gripping his paperwork under his arm and extending a hand for an exuberant shake. "And you are?"
"Sam Wilson," Sam says. "Man, I saw your presentation at the Expo, blew my mind."
"Thanks," Stark says, grinning and pulling out a protein bar from his pocket and starting to peel it open.
Steve stares at Sam's beaming face. "Wait, you know this guy?" He gestures at Stark.
"I have a name," Stark pouts, and sits down opposite Sam like he's completely welcome. Steve eyeballs him warily and sits next to Sam, opening his rucksack and swapping his brown lunch bag with the hunk of paperwork. Even though Stark's still carrying his pretentious briefcase, he doesn't put his paperwork in it. Maybe it's full, Steve thinks darkly. Or it's empty and he doesn't want to show that in front of the others and admit it's a prop to make Stark appear more professional, or whatever other reason he could have for carrying out a briefcase like that.
"Tony's famous, dude," Sam says. "Stark International. The massive tower up by the river?"
"What, that big ugly-ass—" Steve starts, and almost wavers when Stark looks across at him judgmentally, but beyond everything else, Steve's not a coward, so he continues, "building we passed on the way?"
"There's no place like my big ugly-ass home," Stark says.
"So is that why you got away with being late to class?" Steve asks. "Because you're famous?"
Stark's face does something complicated. "I was busy." His mouth turns. "But yeah, I guess I take advantage of the fact that the Tomorrow Academy's not gonna turn away a Stark." He looks at Sam. "Nice to meet you, Wilson," Stark says, before getting up and stalking away to join another table. Steve recognizes the inhabitants of the table he saunters up to as the same kids Stark had sat with in class.
"Good going," Sam says, drawing Steve's attention back to him.
Steve frowns. "What do you mean?"
"I think you hurt his feelings."
Steve thinks about it. He might have. But he has better things to do than soothe a rich kid's ego, and besides, it's not like he's planning to stick around.
"He'll get over it," Steve says.
"Well, don't rock the boat too much," Sam says. "My Chem partner is his best friend, Rhodes. And I'd like to get a passing grade in this crazy-ass intense school in at least one subject, please."
"I'm not going to rock any boat," Steve promises, but it's because he can't afford to: he needs access to the labs to have the best chance at befriending Reed Richards. If it means playing nice with Anthony Stark, so be it.
After a couple of weeks of Steve trying to get Richards' attention and failing, Dr. Connors approves the paperwork so he and Stark can access the school advanced lab. Steve's expecting an escort down to the lab, but Connors gives Stark a key card and leaves them to it. Steve follows Stark silently, noticing that Stark's bruise on his face has paled to a faint smudge of yellow and green. He wonders how Stark got hurt, but he doesn't ask.
He doesn't want to ask. Steve tends to like people once he knows something about them, and he can't afford to get attached to anyone. Being attached to Sam is bad enough.
"This is the advanced lab," Stark introduces as they draw up to it. "Supposed to be for the advanced track students, but I guess Connors making an exception for you. I've spent the last two summers down in here."
That's not what Steve was expecting, especially not from the surreptitious reading he's done in the last couple of weeks on Anthony Stark and Stark International. Anthony, or Tony as he prefers to be called, is supposed to be a "chip off the old block", following in his late father Howard's footsteps as a genius inventor; Tony's even fulfilled several contracts for defense for the US army. So for Stark to have spent time in the school labs, that's weird.
"Aren't there any labs in your, uh, family's tower?"
Stark glances at Steve as he runs the key card through the sensor. "You were gonna call it ugly again, weren't you?"
"The thought had occurred."
"Well, us Stark men are scientists, not artists," Stark allows.
Steve can vaguely remember Edward Stark, and it's with a pang. Stark's grandfather had helped Erskine on the serum project, but had often had to leave in order to look after his son Howard. It's difficult for a moment for Stark to reconcile the fact that the small chubby brown-haired kid he remembers from 1940 is this Stark's father. He's seen a headshot of Howard Stark and it's so weird. Howard had Edward's eyes, but Stark himself doesn't - he must get his eyes from his mother.
"How about your family? What do they do?" Stark asks, finally managing to open the door. Steve follows him through and stares wide-eyed at the white expanse. The room is massive. His chest tightens in anticipation when he sees a large metal rig in one corner — that had been the device behind Reed Richards in the article in Time magazine. The prototype portal opener.
Potentially Steve's doorway back to the past and everything he holds dear.
"Uh, did," Steve amends. "My dad was in the forces. My mom worked in a TB ward, got hit, couldn't shake it." When he looks back at Stark, Stark looks stunned.
"I'm sorry," Stark says. "My parents are dead too. Not that that's any consolation."
"If you'd mind not being so loud," a voice calls over from the corner. Steve startles again — he hadn't noticed anyone was even in the room. The fact that it is Reed Richards makes his throat go dry.
"Sorry, we'll whisper," Stark says, jabbing Steve in the ribs. "You're drooling," he whispers.
Richards glances at Stark and turns back to his work on the portal. Steve glares at Stark for the jab, which was pretty formidable a hit — Stark must work out more than it looks like he does.
"I'm not drooling," Steve bites back. He sighs when Stark waggles his eyebrows and starts pulling equipment out to put on the bench. "Where do you want me?"
"So many answers to that question, so little time," Stark says, and for some reason leers at Steve, leaning against one of the tall stools and looking him up and down again.
Steve squints at Stark. "For the work," he says, trying to keep his voice low, shooting a quick glance at Richards to check they're not being too loud this time.
Steve's reaction seems to sober Stark for some reason, and Stark renews pulling out equipment and lining up the containers Connors arranged for them.
"So how are we approaching this, uh, carbon nanotrope— thing?"
"I'm going to start off the processes, and you're going to sit there and relax," Stark says. "I have no intention of letting you do any of the work on this project." He eyeballs Steve. "I need a good grade."
Steve squints, stung by the comment and unsure why he even cares. It's not like he's planning to stay around in this decade; Stark's free to think what he likes.
"I can help," Steve says, although with his stung ego it's a sullen offer.
"There might be some heavy lifting I need help with later," Stark says. "But for now, stay there, look pretty, and leer at Richards over the handy cover of science."
Steve startles a glance at Stark, unsure which part of that to protest first.
"You've been asking everyone you meet about him for the last couple of weeks," Stark says, and Steve tries not to flinch in surprise — Stark's been paying that much attention to him? "Or did you think your crush on Richards was even slightly transparent?" Stark asks.
"It's not a—" Steve protests, displeased at Stark's sharp smirk.
"The lady protesteth too much."
"I'm not a—"
Stark waves a hand at him. "Chillax, it's a saying."
"I don't understand a word out of your mouth and you haven't even started on the science yet," Steve says.
"Can you two flirt quietly, please," Richards calls across the lab.
Steve stares in mortification.
"Since when do I flirt quietly?" Stark demands, instead of trying to dissolve into the floor like Steve's mentally willing himself to do. He ignores Steve's sudden flail of distress as he starts to walk over to where Richards is working, and Stark yanks Steve's sleeve, dragging him with him.
"He's working," Steve hisses.
"Well, not now," Richards says, rolling his eyes but looking at Stark with an almost fond expression, so maybe not all hope is lost on getting Richards to think of him kindly.
"Richards, my man," Stark says, grinning at Richards.
"I'm not your man," Richards replies, rolling his eyes as Stark puts an arm around his shoulder.
"Have you met Steve?" Stark asks, turning Richards around to face him. Although Steve does want to meet him, it's not how he imagined it happening. He kind of wants to melt into the floor in embarrassment. "He's got a crush on—" Steve glares at Stark, "—on your time travel project."
"Oh, that's more than understandable," Richards says, his face brightening into a genuine smile. "It's fascinating. Soon I think I'll be able to send an object more than four seconds into the future."
Steve blinks, several times - the articles he's read about Richards don't say anything about the portal already working. "It does that?" Steve tilts his head and looks at the portal. "Can we see?"
"It's not that dramatic as of yet," Richards says. "But sure. Put some glasses on and come on over."
Stark beams at Steve encouragingly, even as Richards shoves Stark back; Stark picks up two sets of protective glasses and passes one to Steve before settling in much too close to Steve's elbow. The lab is huge, why is Stark standing so near to him?
"I saw it when it was at the three second mark," Stark says. "A whole extra second is amazing progress."
Richards beams at Stark and picks up a red shiny ball out of a drawer. He clicks on a small recording device and starts talking into it. "Iteration seventeen-four-B," Richards says. "Baseline level four-point-two, resistance at nine-four-gamma." He peers closer at a screen attached by twenty-plus wires to the portal. "That's a little off - the interference levels are up by point two from last time. Adjusting flow to compensate. Entering object onto entry plate now."
Richards balances the ball on a flat white ceramic plate and marks a 17-4-B on the top surface of it with a marker pen, before pulling glasses down himself and starting to turn some dials. "Initializing set-up three. Portal activation in four, three, two—" He mouths one and the portal crackles into life, blue energy sparking around the frame of the device. It looks large enough, Steve thinks, for someone to crouch in that place. If the invention even works, of course.
Blue energy crackles out even further.
"Interference levels sparking out of normal parameters," Richards says, sounding a little harassed by the fact. "Compensating with added resistance, point four, point eight." The energy calms down a little. "Engaging the initiation sequence in three, two, one—"
Steve finds himself wanting to lean in closer, but Stark grabs hold of his arm, keeping him back, and it's for a good reason — light shoots out from the whole device, drenching the room in a neon blue that makes Steve want to close his eyes, but he wants to see, he has to see what's going on, but the light gets brighter, and brighter, to the count of one, two, three, four—
The light goes out, and Steve's vision adjusts just in time to see the ball rolling off the plate and onto the floor, looking a little scorched.
"Wow," Stark says.
Steve stares at the ball.
"That looked more like five seconds," Stark says, peering at the portal as the blue crackling energy starts to dissipate, leaving the lab to its bright whiteness again.
"Do you think so?" Richards asks, sounding happy.
Steve stares at the both of them, because they're both mad. The ball might have disappeared for a few seconds in the chaos, but there was too much light obscuring it to know for sure.
Still, they're both rated in America's top 5 up-and-coming scientists, so maybe he should trust that they know what they're reacting to.
"How far forward do you think you'll be able to send something?" Steve asks, trying not to let any of his doubt slip into his voice.
"Just one moment, I've got to write these results up first," Richards says, and turns to his laptop, excitedly typing.
A few minutes pass before Steve turns to Stark.
"Yeah, I think he's forgotten we're even here," Stark says, whispering. Richards doesn't even look up.
Steve sags. Oh, well, he's gotten this close - it's a good first step. He should foster the work with Stark, make sure it continues long enough so that he can have more chances to watch Richards at work and perhaps befriend him along the way.
"We should get to work on our project," Steve says. "The carbon poly—nano—morphs?" No, that's not right. He frowns.
"It's a good thing you're attractive," Stark sighs, and points in the direction of their corner of the lab and Steve follows, wondering why his appearance has anything to do with their chemistry project.
Stark doesn't have any problem with Steve picking the version of the project which will take them the whole semester to work on, agreeing to meet with Steve every morning for half an hour, as well as their scheduled Monday and Wednesday Chemistry sessions and an extra study period on a Thursday used for the project too. He even lets Steve do some of the writing up, even though Steve's basically just frantically writing down what Stark says.
The thing Stark does seem to have a problem with is turning up on time. Ever. Steve's a fan of being punctual — in the war, turning up late meant you might not have someone's back in a fight. If you were late, people could die. Yeah, Steve doesn't have an awesome amount of respect for people who are consistently late.
It's the fourth Thursday of the project, and Stark's late again. Steve sighs as he lets himself into the lab, empty but for Richards' portal project and Richards himself. He sets his bag into one of the square recesses by the whiteboard, and turns to start to get out the lithography attachment for the electron microscope, when he nearly walks into Richards.
Steve freezes, half an inch from actually colliding with him. When did Richards even move?
"Good reflexes," Richards says.
Steve forces his face not to freeze, because that would look guilty, and he doesn't want to undo six weeks of diligently hiding his identity - and suppressing his athletic ability in hours of torturous Gym classes - by doing or saying something stupid now.
"Sorry," Steve apologizes. "I didn't see you there."
"It's fine," Richards says. "I didn't intend you to. I came over to ask you to come out with it."
Steve squints. "Out with what?"
Richards sighs like Steve's testing his patience, which is unfair - Steve has been in the room for about three seconds, how can he have annoyed someone in three seconds?
"You either have a crush on me, or there's something you want to ask me about my time travel project," Richards says, looking Steve in the eyes. Steve can't help but raise his eyebrows in surprise. "Considering the way Tony looks at you, I'm hoping it's the latter."
Richards isn't making a lot of sense, but he's making enough. "The time travel project," Steve says.
Richards seems to relax a little, but not by a lot. "If you're here to steal it—"
"No," Steve says because he's not. "I'm interested in the potential applications."
"Of course," Richards says. He gestures at Steve, a clear continue gesture.
Well, Richards is being straightforward to him, so Steve can be straightforward in return. "Particularly in the hypothetical possibility of sending a person back in time. Is it possible?"
"Physically possible, yes," Richards says, and Steve's heart tumbles in his chest, because yes, yes, that's the right answer he needed to hear— "But morally impossible."
Steve's tumbling heart stops still and thumps down in his chest, a heavy weight. He feels dizzy. "What do you mean?"
"It's a cliché, but it's an accurate one: imagine you went back in time one hundred years and accidentally killed a man," Richards says. "That man is your grandfather. You'd never be born. The resulting paradox would destroy the entire universe."
Steve opens his mouth. "But what if—"
"—you were careful?" Richards' mouth curls, but with a touch of self-loathing, like he's said all this before. Probably to everyone, ever. "It's impossible. We know too much. Even one instance of current knowledge finding its way into the past would be too much. And say you were careful, what if you took back a virus? Or a super-bacteria that people have zero resistance to? One person could destroy the world if they took back one virus we weren't ready for."
Steve's face must be showing something of what he's feeling, because Richards' expression gentles.
"It's all hypothetical anyway," Richards says. "I'm years away from even being able to move organic matter more than a handful of seconds. It may never be possible. Alas, we're stuck with the slow method of time travel."
"The slow method?" Steve asks, one last moment of hope flickering.
"Living each day one day at a time," Richards says, and his face twists into something strange, something longing, something that resonates with Steve's feelings. There has to be a reason Richards started dabbling with time travel in the first place. Maybe he's just as heartbroken as Steve is that it's impossible.
"I'm sorry that's not what you wanted to hear," Richards says, backing up and moving over to his portal again. "But I'm afraid if you're going to continue in the world of science, sometimes you have to accept the truth."
Richards smiles sadly at Steve for a fleeting second before turning back to the portal. "That accepting sometimes the thing you want the most is impossible."
Steve says something, but he finds it difficult later to remember what that is. Probably some pathetic excuse as to why he has to leave the lab, because all of a sudden he can't breathe in there. He stumbles out, not quite sure where he's going, just needing to get out. He needs air. He wants his shield. He settles for what he needs and finds himself out to the rear of the school. He sinks down against the wall and tries to breathe in a world where the air feels like a thousand tons of water and ice.
Steve went from 95 pounds to 240 pounds in a matter of minutes. He fell into the water into 1940s and it's now 2015. And now he's supposed to come to terms with something being impossible?
He can't parse the concept.
Maybe he's used up his quota of impossible for one person. Goodness knows he's had more than his fair share of severely unlikely in his life. He'd always sort of thought he'd had his fair share of bad things, too. Enough to balance things out.
His head hurts.
Or maybe it's just his heart that's hurting.
He's so out of it that he doesn't even realize he's not alone until Stark clears his throat; Steve glances at him briefly, unable to really work up the energy to care about how distracted he is. HYDRA could come and try and blow up the school and Steve would probably let them.
Well. That's a lie. Steve would try and stop them, but Fury would have him extracted from the Tomorrow Academy, and that would be...
Oh. His entire reason for being here is gone.
"Richards shoot you down, huh?" Stark asks, when it becomes apparent to him that Steve isn't going to start a conversation. In a quieter voice, he adds, "You look like your world just ended."
Stark's astute. Probably because of the whole teenage genius thing. "I think it did," Steve manages, monotone. He stares into the distance, unfocused. Life with nothing to aim for is pretty blah. He squints sideways at Stark. Stark's always on the go, always moving, always doing things with purpose. He's bruised again, too, an oddly pretty bruise that runs along Stark's jaw line. Steve's jealous, because you don't get bruises by doing nothing. "Have you always known?"
"Uh," Stark says. "Known what? That Richards was never gonna go out with you? Because dude, I tried to—"
"I didn't want Richards to go out with me," Steve says, cross. Stark looks confused. Steve takes a second to savor the moment, because any occasion where Stark doesn't know something is a rare moment to enjoy. Impossible repeats itself in his memory and the enjoyment fizzles away. Annoyed, Steve turns to trying to say words that make sense. "I meant... have you always known what you wanted to do with your life?"
"Who says I know what I want to do?" Stark says.
"The inventing. The science. It's obvious you love it."
Stark pulls a wry face. "Yeah, my admiration for things is usually 100% opaque." He gives Steve a perplexed look for a moment and then sighs, before looking out at the horizon. "I used to think I just wanted to follow in my dad's footsteps. And I still do, but everything changed last year, and it's been a journey trying to cope with that change."
"What prompted the change?"
"A plane crash, actually," Stark says, with a laugh, but the sound doesn't feel like amusement, and Stark touches his chest for a moment, looking wistful.
"I actually have strangely specific empathy for you for that," Steve says. "I was in a plane crash and it completely changed everything."
Stark frowns but shrugs, accepting it. "Well, if you're rethinking your future, you should think about college again. I'm off to MIT this summer. You're smart. You should apply, see what happens."
"I'm not smart enough for college."
"What, because you're paying your school fees instead of riding a scholarship?" Stark barks a laugh. "Grant, do you know how difficult it is to pass the Tomorrow Academy entrance exams?"
"Steve," Steve corrects, because he'll never get the hang of responding to his cover surname. "And no? They seemed like regular tests."
"Tony," Stark says.
"If I get to call you Steve, you get to call me Tony," Stark— Tony— says. "We've been studying together for a month, it's beyond time."
"I guess," Steve says. And then finishes with, "Tony," just to try it out.
It sounds okay, which is kind of depressing in a weird way. He hadn't wanted to get to first-name basis with people, because that meant he would be getting attached to the future, and that meant giving up on getting home.
He's not giving up. He never gives up, because that's impossible— And oh, now he's sad again.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"You just did," Steve says. Tony glares and Steve beams at him. It feels more like a victory expression than a real smile, but it's a step in the right direction. "Fine. Shoot."
"Why did you apply here if you don't even like science?"
Steve blinks. "What do you mean? Of course I like science. Why else would someone apply here?"
"My friend Happy got a sports scholarship."
"I like science just fine," Steve says. Stubborn Steve, sings Bucky teasingly in his memories; the memory stabs.
"Ahuh," Tony says. "Sure." He leans back on his hands, idly looking Steve up and down a lot. He really seems to like doing that. Well, Steve reflects, everyone has their own weird quirks. Steve flinches at words like ice and water. He cannot judge. "I'll tell you the one thing I did that helped me recently. Got me out a major funk, and got me embracing what I really want to do."
"What was it you did?"
"I sat down and asked myself, Tony: what do you want to do? Really want to do? Close your eyes. Where do you see yourself in five years' time? Here are your options: which of those do you see yourself doing until the day you die?"
Apparently Steve also flinches at the word die. That's good to know. "Uh," Steve says.
"Seriously, close your eyes," Tony says. "Picture it."
Steve closes both eyes for a moment, but opens one, eyeing Tony warily.
"I'm not gonna do anything to you," Tony says. "C'mon. Trust me. If I was gonna prank you, I'd do it in the lab where I have enough chemicals to make you cry for a month."
He wouldn't even need chemicals, really, Steve thinks darkly. He closes his eyes anyway. "I see myself..."
"Crying into a pint of ice cream," Steve says flatly, and opens his eyes again to glare at Tony, because he feels ridiculous. But also, it's true: ice cream is pretty good now. And he has a lot to cry about.
"What do you see yourself doing in the future besides the basics," Tony says, waving his hands. Steve squints. Tony gestures at him and Steve sighs, closing his eyes again. "Take a deep breath, in and out."
Steve follows the instruction reluctantly. Where does he see himself? Where did he used to want to see himself, back in the forties? Just because it's seventy years later, does it mean his future has to change? "Helping people," Steve says, and he opens his eyes. The world slowly blurs back into focus, and he feels something warm in the pit of his stomach. His heart flutters inside his chest. He can hear his heartbeat if he focuses. It's steady and strong. "I guess I see myself helping people."
When he looks at Tony, Tony's smiling at him, wide and warm. "Good answer."
Steve sighs. "But I tried. When I— When it was an option. But I can't. I'm too young." He pulls a face, still sour at the thought.
Tony pulls a face too. "And you're letting that stop you why?"
Steve glances at Tony, confused.
"There's a lot of ways to help people," Tony says, reaching over to companionably pat Steve on the shoulder. Steve leans into the touch. It's nice. Simple. Tony seems to realize it's appreciated and he leaves his hand there, a steady and warm weight.
Tony's unaware that he's physically anchoring Steve to this time and place, and maybe that's just what Steve needs in order to move forwards.
"I guess," Steve sighs.
"Figure out what you can do, and do it."
"As simple as that, huh?" Steve says.
"As simple as," Tony says solemnly.
It takes Steve a couple of days to figure out what he can do, and it's only when he's idly staring out of the school bus window that he hits upon the idea: there are lots of villains in the modern world, and it has its fair share of superheroes, but while some areas get rebuilt after villain attacks, other parts of the city are being left to rot in disrepair. He sneaks out of the room he shares with Sam one Saturday morning, eager to start, and spends an amount of money that makes him feel a little faint in a hardware store, before getting to work.
He fixes a church roof without anyone seeing him, gets nearly adopted by the Parkers when he stops to fix a fence marred by some of Iron Man's distinctive fire blasts (seriously, they drag him to the front stoop and feed him so much cake, so much and Steve nearly goes insane thinking about how they're pretty much contemporaries), and he's about to call it a day and slink back to the Wilsons' house when he sees a damaged billboard advertising a community retreat for adult carers of Americans with disabilities.
Steve frowns up at it pensively. If it were a commercial billboard, the companies would have rallied immediately, but because it's for a community effort, it's been left the way it is, just because it's not a profitable enterprise. A quick ask of a passerby indicates the project's still ongoing, so Steve shoulders his new bag of tools and drops into a store selling paint and paintbrushes, a familiar tingle beginning in his fingertips that takes him a while to place; it's after he checks no one's around and shimmies up the billboard's pole to balance on the narrow ledge that he can place the feeling. Excitement. He's actually excited.
Unable to hide the smile, Steve opens the cans and gets to work. He doesn't know what the full sign looked like, but he can guess - most of the text is there, and the background is an illustration of a sunny picnic and a smiling diverse range of families enjoying the fun.
He's not so absorbed that he doesn't stop to enjoy the view — up there on the billboard ledge is a perfect place to look over the city, and Steve even gets a great seat for a supervillain battle that seems to be going on further into the city. He sees Iron Man's distinctive colors swirl in to join the fight and he gives in and smiles, because yeah, he's stranded in the future, and he's too young to do what he really wants to do, but in a few years, maybe he can join the fight and become Captain America again.
Maybe one day he'll be able to fight alongside Iron Man instead of admiring him from afar. Wouldn't that be something?
Smiling to himself at finding a tentative bright spot in staying in this time period, Steve turns back to the painting, and ends up getting so into it that he misses something he really should have noticed.
Also known as Iron Man himself.
When Steve does feel the heat of what turns out to be Iron Man's flaming jet boots, Steve startles and nearly falls, having to put out a hand to steady him.
"Woah," Iron Man says, and Steve nearly startles again, because Iron Man is right there and Iron Man can speak and yeah, Steve might have watched a thousand videos of Iron Man on YouTube after seeing him for the first time on the way to school, but up close, Iron Man is more than just amazing. Iron Man is beautiful. "Shouldn't you be wearing a harness or something?"
"I'm fine without," Steve says, after he resists the momentary urge to become speechless. Iron Man sort of sounds like a robot, but this close, Steve can hear a rumble of a human voice threaded through it. Iron Man really is a person, he realizes. Not a robot. "Thanks," he adds, belatedly.
"Doesn't the city board even give you guys ladders anymore?" Iron Man asks, hovering a little further away, obviously realizing he was too close for Steve's balance.
"Uh," Steve says, "who?"
"You do have permission to be up here?"
Steve thinks about it, and then looks at Iron Man. Some of the news sites say Iron Man's technically a vigilante, even if most of the Internet is convinced he probably works for SHIELD. "Do you?"
"Touché," Iron Man allows.
"Are you okay?" Steve says, gesturing at some crimson side panels which look dented.
"Got thrown backwards into a building," Iron Man says. Steve winces. "I'll survive. What are you doing up here, anyway, if you don't have permission?"
"I'm just helping out, fixing things around the area that no one's bothered fixing yet," Steve says. "I don't need rescuing or whatever else it is you do, so—"
"You're a good painter," Iron Man says.
Steve's cheeks go a little pink. It's not just from the sharp bite of the wind at the billboard's height, either. "Thank you? I like painting, it's nothing special."
"If you're this good and you like doing it, why are you at the Tomorrow Academy and not art school?"
"Well," Steve starts, and then freezes. He glances at Iron Man, somewhat suspiciously. "How did you know I was—"
"The sweatshirt around your waist," Iron Man says.
Steve resists the urge to sigh at himself. He'd worn his gym sweatshirt out because it had been cold, but knotted it around his waist at the church to stop from getting anything on it. It has the Tomorrow Academy's logo and slogan emblazoned right across the chest. "Oh, well," he says, annoyed at his ability to be coherent around Iron Man. But he's so amazing. Steve lets himself look lingeringly at the hovering superhero and his amazing crimson and gold armor. Steve's going to sketch it for hours now he's seen it up close. "Can you keep a secret?"
There's a musical burst of noise through Iron Man's mouth slit. "Uh, does the world know my identity?"
Steve blinks, because for all he's read, the Internet isn't always 100% trustworthy. "Does it?"
"No one does," Iron Man says.
"Sounds lonely," Steve says, thinking himself somewhat of a recent expert on the topic. He thinks of Sam, and of Tony Stark's fingers on his shoulder. Maybe he's starting to lose his edge on the subject.
"My best friend knows too," Iron Man quickly says. "Although sometimes I wish he didn't."
"Why, does he want to be an Iron Man too?"
"He wants a suit," Iron Man allows. "But I really hate the names he's been coming up with for it. Anyway, back to you."
"Me?" Steve blinks. Oh, yeah. The question. "It's really stupid," Steve admits.
Iron Man hovers a little closer, like Steve's answer is somehow really important to him. "Do not tell me it's for love." Even with the modulator disguising his voice, he sounds oddly intent.
"Goodness no," Steve breathes, laughing at the hilarity of the idea. "Not even slightly."
"Good," Iron Man says.
Steve glances around, even though there's no one around that could hear them, because he feels ridiculous saying it out loud. Mostly because now he knows how completely impossible it is. Well, maybe he can make Iron Man laugh again, at least. "Time travel," Steve says.
"Who to the what now?" Iron Man says.
Steve purses his mouth. Well, he's not admitting his past to Iron Man, so it's not like he's breaking any of Fury's rules. "Time travel," Steve repeats. "There's a kid at the school, really bright, you've probably read about him. Reed Richards?"
"Oh. Him," Iron Man says, like he's read about him and disliked what he's read. "Isn't he just a kid? Like, your age?"
"Ha, not exactly," Steve says. Iron Man's head tilts, but Steve doesn't elucidate further, for obvious reasons. "Anyway, a report came out that he was building a portal that could travel through time, and I thought—" And oh, it does sound stupid now he's saying it out loud, so he finishes with an expansive shrug at Iron Man instead of actually saying the words. "Anyway, I found out that it wasn't possible to go back time, and, well— You're probably smart and already know."
"Yeah, I looked into time travel once when my—" Iron Man's voice squeaks, like a car breaking too fast. "You lost someone, huh?" Iron Man says, instead of what he was about to say.
Lost someone. That's right, and yet, considering the magnitude of Steve's loss, such an understatement. "You could say that," Steve says, feeling winded. He can't keep looking Iron Man in the face, so he busies himself with mixing his next color paint and dotting in some darker leaves on the trees.
"We can't risk too much current knowledge ending up in the past," Iron Man says, sounding honestly regretful despite the thick filters that obscure his voice. "Or even one bacteria from modern times. One person could destroy the world with one virus we weren't ready for."
"That's what Richards said," Steve says. He's sad again, now. Oh well, grief's never something to be fixed, it's something only to be dulled by time, wrapped up in new memories until it's choked back, and even then it lingers, like a weed that's impossible to remove.
Impossible. Steve hates that word so much.
"It sucks," Iron Man says.
"Yeah," Steve agrees, because the modern vernacular for everything being awful is beautifully apt for this whole situation.
"Unless, of course," Iron Man says slowly, "you already traveled in time."
"Huh?" Steve asks, turning again to stare incredulously at the flying superhero.
Iron Man flies backwards a little, head turning to something in the distance. "Check the time period you wanna go to," Iron Man says. "What if you found a picture of you in the past, looking as you do right now?"
"Then Richards would have to make it happen for me," Steve says. "Because...?"
"It would be too dangerous for him not to send you back," Iron Man says. "You'd destroy the fabric of the space-time continuum. Use those words exactly if you find something, he'll fold like a cheap fan. I didn't find anything for myself, but hey, maybe you'll be as lucky as you are cute."
Steve opens his mouth to say more, but Iron Man just burns off, flying out towards the city.
"See you later, handyman," Iron Man calls.
Wow. Iron Man is rapidly climbing past milk carton spouts and microwaves to become Steve's absolutely favorite thing of modern times.
"You look like you got laid," Tony says, coming into the lab (late, of course) for their Monday morning Chem study session and pointing at Steve.
Unlike Sam assumed a few weeks ago, getting laid was a common saying in the 30s, and one Steve's aware of. "Don't be disgusting," Steve tells him.
"The lewdness is genetically coded into his DNA," Richards calls from the other side of the lab, not even pretending any more that he can tune them out or that he's not listening in. "He can't help it."
"You're stuck with me and my mouth, baby," Tony says and grins widely at Steve. The grin sobers and he starts pulling out their current tray of experiments. "Seriously, spill."
"I thought spilling in a chemical lab was a bad idea," Steve says, opening his eyes extra wide. Tony opens his mouth and Steve grins at him.
"Troll," Tony mutters.
"I just had a good weekend," Steve says. Despite Sam quizzing him for an hour on where he went, and why he couldn't stop smiling (yeah, Sam had assumed he'd gotten laid too; the modern times were just full of perverts, full of them; it makes Steve miss the Howling Commandoes a little less, though.)
"Glad to hear," Tony says, and moves to turn the electron microscope on— and Steve's good mood entirely flees his mind. Because there's a dark red patch on Tony's back, and Steve flinches, because it looks a lot like blood.
"Are you okay?" Steve asks, frowning as he looks at the patch — it widens as Steve's watching, and his frown automatically deepens.
Tony makes a weird noise. "Why do you ask?"
"Because I think you're bleeding," Steve says, frowning at the dark red patch slowly growing on Tony's back. He moves forward and touches the patch with his fingertips; Tony yelps and turns around to see Steve holding out his hand, blood unmistakably on the tip of his index fingers.
"Uh, would you believe it's not mine?" Tony asks, wincing.
Steve stares at him flatly. "We need to get you to the nurse."
"No," Tony says sharply, glaring at Steve. Then, much quieter, with a nervous glance at Richards, who seems to be ignoring them, he says, "I can't."
Steve frowns. "But—"
"I'll just go to the bathroom and clean myself up."
Skeptical, Steve moves so that he's blocking Tony's escape. "I think it's too far back for you to reach." Tony grits his teeth in a way that could give Steve's stubborn expression a run for its money. "At least let me help you."
Tony makes a noncommittal sound.
"It's that or I knock you out and take you to the nurse over my shoulder," Steve says.
Tony looks torn, but acquiesces, sighing loudly before beckoning for Steve to follow for him. Tony unhooks a first aid case from the lab wall, and leads Steve to the nearest bathroom, a large lockable cubicle with handrails and an emergency pull cord.
"I'm, uh," Tony says, and then looks determinedly into the corner of the room like it's absolutely fascinating, before glaring at Steve. "I'm kind of shy, okay, so turn around while I take my shirt off."
Steve nods and does, because that's more than reasonable.
"Look, just, can you not ask questions?" Tony says, his voice muffled momentarily, probably by the material of his t-shirt. "I can handle myself fine, I don't normally need help, this is totally a one-off."
"Is someone hurting you?" Steve asks.
"I'm not being abused, if that's what you mean."
"And you're being as careful as possible, with… whatever it is you're doing?"
"You're not going to tell me to stop?"
"Would that do anything other than make you more determined to continue?" Steve asks.
"Sounds like you know the feeling," Tony says, and then coughs, before adding quickly, like he's ripping off a band-aid, "you can turn around now."
Steve opens his mouth to say something, but nearly chokes on the words; Tony's back is a roadmap of disasters, and he's clutching his t-shirt to his chest protectively. Steve opens his mouth to try to speak again, but snaps it shut, and tries to think how he would react in a similar situation. If he wants Tony to be able to come to him again in the future, then he needs to prove himself trustworthy; he gets the idea that whatever Tony's doing, he's stubborn enough to keep doing it, and Steve would rather be available to help him than to say something stupid now and leave Tony without help if he ends up in trouble again.
It's only when he's opening up a few of the wipes in the first aid kit, and gingerly applying them to Tony's back to remove the excess blood and see what the injury's actually like, that he realizes that he's thinking of being around in the future.
That's enough to stun him quiet. It's stupid. He should still be thinking of getting back to the past, and thanks to Iron Man, he still has a chance at that.
Steve's spent enough time patching up his men in unhygienic locations to know that distracting the sufferer is the best way to get them to ignore the pain long enough to get them bandaged up.
"The other day you asked me a question," Steve says. Now the blood's cleaned away, Steve can see it's a jagged stretch of three cuts."What was your answer?"
"To which question?" Tony asks.
"Where do you see yourself in the future?"
"Me?" Tony tilts his head, thinking about it. "Same answer as you."
Steve frowns, starting to gingerly apply a long strip of padding, securing it with tape. It's better than what Tony would probably do, anyway. "Is that how this happened? Helping people?"
"Goodness, no, I careened into the freezer door when I was looking for some ice cream to cry into."
"Some freezer," Steve says, nearly stumbling over the words, because… yeah, freezing of any kind is the worst.
"Deadly," Tony says solemnly."I'll chop it up into parts over the vacation for wronging me."
Steve snorts, and pats him on the shoulder. "You're done," he says. "I'm turning around again so you can get re-dressed."
"You know this school pretty well, don't you?" Steve asks.
"Home away from ugly-ass home."
"Are you ever going to let me live that down?"
Steve sighs. "Forget I asked."
"Aw, come on," Tony says, moving towards the door, fully clothed again and looking pale, but at least he's not freely bleeding out. "I'm just messing around." He looks back at Steve."What did you want to know about the school?"
"Is there anything here good for looking up information about the past?" Steve says, following him out. "I looked on the school's newspaper archives, and the national paper archives, the local papers I wanted were missing. The Internet's good, but it's not all that great, and—"
"If it's the Bugle or Inquisitor you're after and anywhere between, like, 1850 and 1980, you'll probably want the microfiche reader," Tony says. "It's up on the fifth floor of the library, with the newspaper archives."
"And that… reads fish?" Steve says. "Fish fish? Sea fish?"
"Oh. You mean microfilm." That still exists? Steve's pleasantly surprised; he loved receiving V-mail out in the trenches, and the little pieces of microfilm with plans on how to thoroughly defeat HYDRA.
"Yeah," Tony says, looking amused. "You free at lunch?"
"Brown bag," Steve says. "So sure."
"I'll show you how to use it then," Tony says, opening the lab door and holding it for Steve.
"You don't have to," Steve says, heading back to their usual table.
"Nah. I owe you anyway for playing sexy nurse with me." Tony winks at him.
"I don't even want to know," Richards says loudly from his corner.
True to his word, Tony leads Steve directly to the library after they've shown their current experiment results to Dr. Connors, and shows him where the machine is. Tony calls the stern librarian Mrs. Arbogast Bambi, and she giggles at him and gives both Tony and Steve a white keycard without even making them fill out a form.
"Stark International actually started this archive," Tony says, leading Steve up the stairs to the fifth floor of the Academy's library. The more floors up they go, the quieter and more secluded it gets, and the views out of the windows are glorious. Steve smiles out at the cityscape every time they pass a square window framing the view. It's nice that the city's thriving in this time; it had seemed almost impossible during the wartime that the world would recover from the horrors. "My grandfather Edward was involved in the creation of SSR, the precursor to SHIELD."
"He was?" Steve asks, genuinely and happily surprised to hear that; that hadn't been in any of his briefings. SHIELD probably liked to think they popped up fully formed and raring to go.
"He started archiving the local newspapers, and processing as many early papers as he could find onto microfilm," Tony explains, leading Steve into the landing of a massive space, filled floor to the roof with neatly labeled archive boxes. "In the 80s, my father donated it to the Academy, and the Academy's been maintaining it ever since. Of course, everything's digital now, but up here, we have newspapers archived from the 1850s. No one's digitized the papers here yet, probably because they're relatively small presses. I'm working on a batch copying system to do them all in one go, but it's not ready yet."
"This is incredible," Steve says.
"This is where you'll read them," Tony says, gesturing at a machine. "Was there a particular year or newspaper you were interested in?"
Steve thinks about a good place to start. "Maybe 1943, for the Bugle, I guess."
Tony shoots him a strange look. "43?"
"I'm really interested in the war," Steve says.
"Whatever floats your boat," Tony says, holding up his hands, clearly bemused by Steve's era of choice. Well, it's not like Tony knows why Steve is looking. Steve's expecting him to leave after showing him the ropes, but Tony's really nice and stays, probably feeling guilty that Steve had to patch him up, and it's nice to have someone helping him to get down the boxes, at least.
It's by about the fifth issue of the Bugle that Tony gets what Steve is looking for.
"Captain America?" Tony says. "Seriously?"
Steve looks away from the screen, hands still on the dials to move the film to see the different pages, to see Tony lounging on a wheeled chair at a weird angle, keeping his back away from connecting with the chair. "I've got the hang of this if you have somewhere else to be."
"Aw, don't be embarrassed. You're wholesome like apple pie, of course you're a Cap fan."
Steve sighs, and dials the newspaper onwards a page, trying not to read everything too carefully; Richards is right about too much future knowledge probably being very dangerous for the past to be exposed to.
"If there's anything specific you're looking for, I can probably help with that too," Tony says.
"Yeah? Are you a history buff as well as a science genius?"
"Well, yes. That, and, my family are kind of experts on Captain America," Tony says. "It's a thing."
Steve raises both eyebrows and glances at Tony in open disdain, because Tony's kind of sitting right next to the Captain America expert.
"Obviously my grandfather was a fan, he helped with the original Super Soldier experiments," Tony says. "And dad kept up with the memorabilia hoarding."
"Memorabilia hoarding," Steve repeats, turning back to stare at the newspaper, unsure what information he's being exposed to right now is the most bizarre.
"Cap merchandise," Tony says. "You'd be surprised what they stuck Captain America's face on to sell it."
"Uh," Steve says, unsure of how to respond to that. "Probably."
"Me, I just have a thing for hot blonds," Tony continues, thankfully oblivious to the real reason as to why Steve's sort of going quietly insane. "How about you?"
"I'm more of a brunet guy myself," Steve says, distracted.
Tony makes a delighted noise. "Then why Captain America?"
Steve tries to think of a plausible lie. "We might be related," he says.
"Yeah?" Tony leans forwards, peering at the next photograph of Captain America in the paper; Steve's face is heavily pixelated and obscured by the mask. "I can see that."
Steve flickers him another look before turning back to another box of files.
It's absorbing looking through the papers. Too absorbing. By the time Steve's realized that Tony has actually left him to it, it's halfway through a math session that… Oh, wait, Steve probably should have been at, too. Oops. And it's not like he can explain to Mr. Cho that he's looking for evidence that Captain America survived being deep frozen before going seventy years back in time. He gives up the lesson for lost, and continues looking through, which apparently makes him miss Biology too (okay, it's less of an accident, and more Steve doesn't like Professor McCoy, he's kind of a scary guy; the other freshmen call him the beast behind his back.)
As an unforeseen side-effect, someone does come looking for Steve: Sam.
"Seriously, this is where you've been hiding all day?" Sam demands, instead of saying hello.
"Uh," Steve says. "I guess I lost track of time. I'm sorry."
"I guess being deep frozen might make you acceptably brain-bamboozled enough to forget the fact your best friend from this century had to sit through Cho and McCoy's classes without his wingman," Sam says, sounding annoyed. He straddles the chair Tony left abandoned. "What's so fascinating that you had to abandon me alone to the perils of the human computer and the beast, anyway?"
"Just catching up on some of the years I missed," Steve says.
Sam pulls a face. "Ugh, here I was working up a righteous indignation at you abandoning me to the unwashed masses of this crazy-ass school, and here you are having an actually decent reason for hiding away."
"I just lost track of time," Steve says.
Sam wriggles the chair closer. "Anything particular you looking for? Besides, y'know, the obvious."
Steve squints. "The obvious?"
Sam levels a stare at him. "C'mon, dude. You landed in modern times, with the funds to go anywhere, and you came here?"
"It's got a good reputation."
"And it has Reed Richards, time travel expert in it," Sam says.
Steve opens his mouth to say something. He feels like he should be saying sorry.
"I guess SHIELD haven't covered deleting your Internet history yet," Sam says. His expression is somber. "Did you think I'd be upset that you'd want to look at ways to go home?"
"I—" Steve thinks about lying and then he shrugs. "I guess. I mean, you've been amazing. Really nice to me. I didn't know how to say I wanted to leave you."
"Because you don't want to leave me," Sam says.
"That's not your primary intention, right?" Sam says. "If you tell me right now you're looking into time travel to get away from me, then yeah, I'm going to be pissed and we're going to find somewhere private where you can cut loose and I can kick your ass. But you're not doing that. You just wanna go home, man. What kind of friend would I be if I got pissed off about that?"
Steve swallows, his mouth dry. He thought— "I thought you'd be mad at me."
"I'll miss you like hell if you go," Sam says. And then points at the microfiche, on a photograph of Steve posing with some of the USO girls. "That looks tight. How did you fight Nazis in that?"
"That was just the tour version of the costume," Steve says. "They made me another one after I ran the rescue mission for 107th and split my pants in front of the Red Skull."
"Good," Sam says, wrinkling his nose at the Captain America photograph on screen, "'cause it looks like that they were trying to make you sing soprano."
"They did try and make me sing a song once," Steve says.
"They changed their mind and discussed me only ever singing as a defensive strategy," Steve says. "It's one thing the serum somehow made even worse."
"Yeah, I've heard you in the shower," Sam says.
"That sounds weirdly perverted."
"Thank you," Sam beams.
"No," Steve says. "Thank you. For being, uh— cool about this." He nearly doesn't stumble completely over the word cool. It's an improvement, anyway. He thinks for a moment how the Commandoes would react to him using modern day slang on them. They'd probably just get confused.
"Well, that's because I am cool. But also because I feel guilty after snooping through your Internet history," Sam says. "Did you seriously Google to see if dinosaurs were exstinct?"
"Agent Barton at my remedial history lesson said that Jurassic Park was a documentary," Steve says. "It took me a couple of lessons to figure out I should ignore half of what he said. I think he actually sleeps in the ventilation shafts at the Triskelion."
"I… can't say I've ever met Agent Barton."
"You'd know if you'd met him."
"I wouldn't even be surprised if someone did live in the ventilation system of that base, though," Sam says. "SHIELD hires weirdly."
"It's not hiring us right now," Steve says, grumpily.
"I rest my case," Sam says, bumping Steve's shoulder with his own. "Hey, question. Now we're being open and stuff, you feel like telling me where you keep going every Saturday? I didn't want to pry so much, but— Y'know, you ditched me in class, you didn't tell me why this school was important to you—" Sam flutters his eyelashes at Steve, with a cheeky grin which says that Steve doesn't have to tell him if he doesn't want to.
Steve finds that he does want to.
"I can do better," Steve says. "Why don't you come along?"
"This," Sam says, "is really not what I was expecting."
"Really?" Steve says. "What did you think it was?"
"I don't know. I was thinking you might have a secret boyfriend or girlfriend or something," Sam says. "Not that you were a ninja gardener. Or that you'd spend any time so close to the school after a week of being stuck in it."
"It's not all gardening," Steve says, prodding at a particularly stubborn weed. "And I haven't always been so close to the school. I only heard about this damage last week." A super villain trashed the community garden nearest to the Tomorrow Academy back in January, and no one had even offered a hand to help until Steve came along.
"Seems like it so far," Sam grouches, rubbing at his forehead.
"You don't have to help."
"Are you kidding me?" Sam shrugs. "I go where you go while you're here. You're Captain America."
"Sshh, there's a lot of people about this morning."
"Please, like anyone listens to teenagers in this time period," Sam says, but does lower his voice.
"I'll give you a hint: they didn't listen to us back then, either," Steve says.
"They listened enough to give you the super serum."
"I was stubborn and pretending to be old enough," Steve says. "I was just lucky, really. I wanted to be stronger, to be able to help. Right place, right time."
"Whereas my life is entirely wrong place, wrong time," Sam sighs.
Steve sends a wry expression to Sam over the top of the spade he's using. "The guy who did it to you is in prison, though?"
"Yeah. Dr. Octavius is in Ryker's until he can draw a pension," Sam says, viciously stabbing at some weeds like they're doing him personal harm, not strangling some innocent burgeoning blackcurrant bushes. "Thank goodness."
"And any hint on whether they're going to be able to remove them?"
"I kind of don't want them to," Sam says.
"I can respect that feeling." Steve grins. "I used to feel like they'd have to surgically remove my shield from me."
"I'm surprised you don't have it with you right now."
"Fury wouldn't let me have it. I guess he knows I'd try and carry it everywhere. I guess that it's really hard to explain why I'm carrying something that large around."
"Pah," Sam says. "Tony Stark carries that huge briefcase around and no one bats an eyelid. What do you think he has in there?"
Steve shrugs. He hasn't thought about it. "Maybe Fury thought the metal detectors at the Academy would kick off if I carried my shield around, and then I'd be forced to explain why Steve Grant from Ohio was carrying around Captain America's famous shield."
"It's yours, dude. He can't keep it from you. Tell you what. We'll get him to give it back to you and I'll carry it for you through the school doors." Sam shrugs. "I go through the side-gate because of the you-know-whats. They think it's just a metal plate in my back from surgery."
"That's kind of correct, for a given definition of correct."
Sam nods. "Exactly. So why don't we— Uh. What?"
Steve frowns at Sam, who's now looking behind Steve with a shocked expression. "What are you—?" Steve starts, but he doesn't finish, because another voice interrupts.
"Hey, handyman," the voice says.
Steve doesn't know why, but he can't help the smile that crosses his face. "Iron Man!" He turns on his heel and beams at the rapidly-becoming-familiar red-and-gold mask.
"Not painting up a height today then?" Iron Man asks. "Who's your friend?"
"Dude," Sam says. "Dude. You know Iron Man?"
"Uh, I guess," Steve says. "I met him a few weeks ago."
"I don't suppose you have permission to be here," Iron Man says.
"It's a community garden, I'm from the community, who needs permission?" Steve says, gesturing with his spade. "What brings you out here this early?"
"I intercepted a message from HYDRA," Iron Man says.
A ripple of something acidic flows down Steve's spine. HYDRA. Still around, after all this time. It makes him so angry. Why won't they just let themselves be removed from existence?
"They're targeting some tech in the area, so I'm patrolling," Iron Man continues. "You might want to go home, get somewhere safe."
"Did they say what tech specifically?" Steve asks. Sam makes a curious noise. "I just meant, Reed Richards has a working time travel portal at the school. I've seen it work."
"Dude, really?" Sam suddenly sounds doubtful. "Does it work work?"
"Seems to basically just temporarily disappear bouncy balls at the moment," Steve tells him, before nodding across at Iron Man. "You might want to fly over the school at some point. Especially if there's a scheduled attack; Richards likes to work on it over the weekend."
"Yeah, I forgot about that," Iron Man says. "There's a few things around here it could be, though."
"How about Sam and I go over to the school, get Richards to lock up his work and we'll all leave?" Steve suggests. "Maybe we can message you somehow to say it's been secured?"
Iron Man nods. "Do either of you have a phone?"
Sam pulls out his cellphone, holding it forwards.
"Ah, a Starkphone, perfect," Iron Man says, and holds up his palm over the device; it glows blue, a bunch of text scrolling over the screen.
"Uh, what did you just do?" Sam says, pulling back his phone and staring at it.
"Updated to the new OS so you can message me directly," Iron Man says. "Just press the logo, you'll get a direct feed into my helmet. Or I can call you if I need to warn you away."
"Great," Steve says. "Thanks, Iron Man."
"No problem, handyman," Iron Man says, jetting his boots and flying up into the sky. "I'll keep an eye on you from a distance, just in case."
"Thanks," Steve says, and carefully puts his spade against the wall; if it's stolen, he can easily afford another one. Sam copies him, and they head out at a jog towards the school.
"We're gonna have to foster a relationship where we talk about things," Sam says. He's gasping for air. Oh, maybe Steve's going a little fast. He slows down accordingly. "Iron Man?"
Steve shrugs. "He saw me painting and asked me some questions. It wasn't that much."
"Iron Man is so cool," Sam says. "So what do you think, is he a robot or a real person?"
"Pretty sure he's a person," Steve says. "He sounds like one, up close."
"And as a neat segue from talking about close to talking about a different distance," Sam says, " does that look like nearby trouble to you?"
Steve follows Sam's outstretched arm, and his stomach drops — it's a large aircraft of some sort, and it's flying in their direction. It's definitely going to pass directly over the school.
Sam presses the logo. "Uh, Mr. Iron Man? They're definitely headed our way," Sam yells.
"On my way," Iron Man yells. "Get Richards and get out."
"Roger that," Sam says, managing to throw Steve a wink as they speed up to approach the school building. Steve rolls his eyes at the joke as he keycards open the school doors. Sam and Steve run full force towards the labs, Steve fumbling out his special lab keycard, and he shares a wince with Sam when he hears a set of loudly sinister noises.
"Crap," Sam says. "Remind me why I was sad when SHIELD wouldn't let me fight, again?"
"It's the adrenaline," Steve says. "It'll terrify you and then you get addicted to it, trust me."
"I'm seeing that," Sam says. "Is that the labs ahead?"
"Yeah," Steve says. "Why, do you not use any of them?"
"Dude, Rhodey and I are building a volcano out of paper and kitchen ingredients," Sam says. "We've been building it in the Chemistry lecture room, same as most of the class. You know it's only the advanced track kids who get to go use the fancy equipment, right?"
Steve blinks, slowing as they come up to the lab — he can see Richards' head through the small glass panel in the door. He swipes the card and starts to punch in the entry code. "But I'm standard track."
"I think your entrance exam scores said otherwise," Sam says, as Steve yanks the door open. Richards drops something and opens his mouth to yell at Steve, but Steve beats him to it.
"Villain attack," Steve yells, and Richards closes his mouth. "HYDRA. Iron Man says they're probably after tech, which makes me think yours?"
"I've got security protocols," Richards says, pressing a button which actually makes his entire portal collapse down and into the bench, before a heavy lid settles down over it; it looks like Richards expected he'd have to guard his invention at some point, which… Well, Richards is a genius. "It's coded with my DNA, though, so if they have me and the tech—"
"Let's get you out of here," Sam says, coming over and putting his arm around Richards' shoulders, shepherding him over, just in time to see Iron Man get flung through a wall and land in a heap in front of them.
Iron Man makes a yelling noise and puts up his hand as something dark and metallic crawls out of the wall towards him.
"HYDRA attack vehicles," Iron Man hisses. "Keep back."
Steve and Sam grab Richards and dive back against the farthest wall while Steve looks around and scopes for the nearest exit. While Iron Man grapples with the crazy device, dodging blue energy blasts and sending back yellow blasts of his own, Steve sees the far exit.
"Sam," Steve says, and points at the door. "You go first. I'll follow with Richards." He eyeballs Sam meaningfully, to underline that he can shield Richards with his body. Sam nods, and they wait for a good time; sadly for Iron Man, that seems to be with a second device, careening through the wall to join the first one, and Iron Man launches a series of small missiles from his shoulders, sending lumps of debris in a shower around them.
"Go!" Iron Man yells, launching himself bodily at the invading tentacled weird vehicles, big enough to house a couple of people, Steve reckons. "I'll hold them back."
Sam nods, and speeds out first, dodging a shower of roof tiles and covering his head as he flees for the door.
It's when he makes it there, and Steve's about to follow the same path with Richards, that everything bad happens at once.
Four more of the weird vehicles smash down through the ceiling, covering Iron Man in a mass of debris and blue sparks, and three men in heavy tactical gear show up at the far door. They don't start shooting at Iron Man, or at Steve, or at anyone — all they do is grab Sam.
"No!" Steve yells. "Sam!" He starts forward, but two of the vehicles come directly for him, and he yells, ready to fight back with his bare fists, show them exactly who they're trying to mess with, but behind them, Iron Man rises out of the debris, looking smashed to pieces and battered and covered in dust.
"You want them, you've got to go through me," Iron Man yells, and then his entire chest seems to catch on fire. It's some sort of light, a wide directed beam, and it blisters through two of the nearest HYDRA vehicles, and then through the rest of the roof and the nearby walls and Steve watches in horror, bodily throwing himself over Richards as the HYDRA vehicles and a lot of the building viciously fragment apart.
Unfortunately, it also seems to include Iron Man. Steve's horror mounts as Iron Man's forcibly thrown backwards by the blast, smashing into a wall, dislodging a pipe beneath the bricks and sending water cascading everywhere.
The HYDRA vehicles are down and smoking, pinioned by chunks of bricks and roof, and Steve scrambles across the debris in a panic, but there's no one outside when he looks, and no sign of where they've gone, except for Sam's phone, lying abandoned on the ground, crushed.
It means that Sam is probably, Steve realizes with a dry mouth and an aching heart, the technology that HYDRA wanted after all.
"Are you okay?" Steve asks Richards curtly.
"Define okay," Richards whimpers, obviously uncertain where to look first. Steve empathizes, thoroughly.
"We need to go," Steve says, "we need to get Sam," and he starts to leave — but when he looks back, Iron Man's still on the ground, not moving. Steve's chest lurches and he picks over the debris to run to Iron Man's side, Richards doing the same on the other side.
"Iron Man?" Steve says urgently.
"I'm— Oh, hell," Iron Man makes a crackly wheezing noise through his mask. "That beam blast must have wiped out my power reserves."
"Do you have a spare battery or something?" Steve asks.
"Not— Not that simple, actually," Iron Man says, and then, ruefully adds, "I'm sort of five minutes away from having a heart attack."
"The suit is powered by an arc reactor system that's also powering— a pacemaker, for want of a more relatable term," Iron Man says. He makes an aborted motion to get to his feet. "Without power, I'm dead."
"What do we do?" Steve asks, starting to pull away large pieces of the debris, looking over his shoulder just in case HYDRA manage to regroup, or send more of the horrible vehicles.
"There's a portable generator at the heart of my invention," Richards says. He looks back to the part of building that's survived the mayhem; the lab seems mostly okay. "Maybe we can jury-rig you a fix?"
Iron Man makes a sad wheezing noise this time. "Maybe if the cables can reach this far to give a burst of ten megawatts. But with the suit power down, I can't move." His voice drops a little. "I'm kind of screwed. Well, at least I'm going out after doing good, I guess."
"Do we have enough cables to reach this far?" Steve says to Richards, worry pulsing through his whole body — Sam's in danger, but Iron Man's in trouble right now.
Richards shrugs and goes to look. The lab's survived so much that Richards has to use his keycard on the door and put the code in again to get it open; he wedges it open with a stool and hurries inside.
"Can we get you out of the suit?" Steve asks, eyes scouring Iron Man's mask.
"Too damaged," Iron Man says. "Before my internal system went down, it flashed up a warning - I'm jammed in. Can't even get the faceplate up." He adds something which might be, "Not that I'd want to."
Steve looks over his shoulder. "Richards. Update."
"I can extend the cables maybe a couple of meters," Richards calls back. "Maybe longer if we have more time."
"We don't have more time, do we?" Steve realizes, when Iron Man's silence becomes damning.
"It's okay," Iron Man says, and it sounds solemn enough to be true. "Besides, I'm not dying alone. I'm dying here with you. There are definitely worse ways to go."
Steve thinks about Bucky, falling and falling into the snow. Yeah. Yeah, there's worse ways for sure.
"And I have protocols in place," Iron Man says. "I don't have any regrets. Well, one. I have one regret."
"Then hold onto that thought," Steve says. "And make sure it's the first thing you fix."
"C'mon, be realistic," Iron Man says. "I'm pretty much gone."
Steve's lost too many people in his life. Way too many. If Fury wants to shove him a deep, dark hole for a decade for doing what has to be done, then it's a worthwhile sacrifice for Steve to make.
"Show's not over yet, Iron Man," Steve says, and Iron Man's mask tilts slightly in probable confusion. "Pretty much gone isn't gone." And then he bends over Iron Man and single-handedly lifts him up.
Iron Man's heavy, really heavy, pushing 400 pounds to the point that Steve is fascinated that the suit can even fly. It must need a lot of power.
"Reed, I'm gonna need that charge soon," Steve says.
"Uh," Richards says, looking stunned when he catches a glimpse of Steve carrying Iron Man. "Yes. Of course."
"You're really good at ordering people around," Iron Man says. "And, uh, ridiculously strong."
"Yeah," Steve says. "So I've been told."
"You're going to need the strength," Iron Man says. "I need you to remove the chest plate, but none of the connections are working. It's funny how things refuse to work after you get smashed through a wall."
"Talk me through it," Steve says. "Fast."
Iron Man does — talking Steve through how to remove some of the individual pieces, and talking Richards into how to make the electrical help he needs — and Steve nearly drops the biggest piece of the suit when he realizes that the glowing light on Iron Man's chest is part of the person beneath the suit.
"It..." Steve stares. "Are you running on electricity?"
"It was an accident," Iron Man says. "This keeps my heart beating. But I need you to open it up further. Put your fingers on the rim and twist, it should detach. You'll be looking for two grooves beneath — if Richards puts the live connections into those grooves, it'll deliver the charge to the reactor that I need. Enough for me to get moving again and get to somewhere to fix the rest of the suit."
"Will you be able to get yourself there?" Steve asks. "I need to find my friend."
"Is he an inventor?" Iron Man asks. "The message I intercepted was… intense."
"No, Sam's not an inventor," Steve says.
"It's, uh, classified," Steve says, and pulls a face, trying to think of a way to phrase it that might help. "But it's— There was a mad scientist, a couple of years back—"
"Dr. Ock's Falcon project?" Iron Man says, quietly.
"Then if I survive this I can find him," Iron Man says. "I know that tech, it leaves a slight radiation trace, probably how they found him in the first place. I can get access to somewhere to scan for where they've taken him."
"Then you'd better hold on and survive," Steve says.
"Ready to go on this end," Richards says, bringing forwards two sparking cables. Steve nods and twists and detaches the part Iron Man mentioned, and he tries not to wince at the gaping depth that removing the rings reveals.
"This is gonna suck," Iron Man says, a sigh rumbling through the modulator. "But hey, better than dying, right?"
"There are so many more worse things than dying," Steve says, thinking about the ice for a moment and automatically flinching.
Iron Man's mask turns directly to Steve's face. "If this doesn't work, thank you for trying. I hope you still find your friend."
Steve opens his mouth but can't think of what to say, so he just nods, and takes the cables from Richards. "Here?" he asks, positioning them above the grooves.
Iron Man gasps, "Yes. Yes. Now. And hold. For at least sixty seconds. No matter how I react, okay? You have to, or it won't work."
Steve nods. "Brace yourself," he warns, and pushes the cables into the depressions.
Iron Man instantly howls, convulsing automatically, limbs jerking like he's being actively electrocuted, and that's when Steve realizes that's basically what they're doing. He stares at the shaking Iron Man in growing horror, especially when he realizes the man under the suit, well— although Steve can't see his face, he's obviously young. Maybe even Steve's age. Iron Man screams and Richards, in a panicked voice, says, "It's too much current. If we keep it going much longer it'll kill him."
"If we don't, it'll still kill him," Steve shouts, holding the cables steady, tilting his head out of the way when the cables spark dangerously near his face. He feels a scorching flash burn at his cheek, but he doesn't care. Iron Man doesn't yell for them to stop, but his yelling stops midway through, and Steve's terrified, but he keeps the cables held until the sixty seconds have passed, yanking them back almost immediately as soon as sixty seconds have passed and giving them back to a visibly terrified Richards.
"Is he okay?" Richards whispers.
Steve stares down at Iron Man, uncertain, and for a horrible moment he thinks they've actually killed him, but then Iron Man makes a weird noise and sits upright, hands shooting backwards to support him.
"That never gets any easier," Iron Man says, his voice thin. He reaches for the item that Steve unscrewed from his chest, and Steve dumbly hands it over, watching as Iron Man re-affixes it, hiding the gaping hole beneath. Steve really doesn't want to think how someone ends up with an injury like that. "Wow. My head feels like someone hit it with a hammer."
"I don't like how you're implying that you've been hit with a hammer before," Steve says, resting back on his heels and panting like he's run a hundred miles.
"Villains use the strangest things as weapons," Iron Man says. "Heroes, too."
Steve thinks about his shield and can't help but nod in agreement.
"You saved my life," Iron Man says. "I'm grateful."
"And I'm cashing in the favor immediately," Steve says, and seriously looks at Iron Man. "Were you serious that you could find my friend?"
"Yeah," Iron Man says, and gets unsteadily to his feet, reaching for the pieces of suit that Steve helped pull off. Steve steadies him as he clinks the largest piece back into place, but apparently Iron Man thinks the rest is too far gone to save. Hopefully Sam isn't the same. "I need to get somewhere, though, and I don't have enough power to fly. I don't suppose either of you have a car?"
Steve shakes his head sadly. He'd thought about it, but he'd put it off - why would he need a car if he was going to be going back in time? He feels stupid for thinking that now.
"I have a car," Richards says.
Steve smiles at him instantly.
Steve might not have smiled so quickly if he'd seen the car.
To put it politely, it's kind of a heap of junk.
"I know it's not much to look at," Richards says, "but the Fantasticar will take us where we want to go."
"Fantasticar?" Iron Man asks.
"My friend Ben named it," Richards says. "There should be room in the back enough for you, it's big enough for my equipment, so—"
"Ah, I thought maybe I could drive it," Iron Man says.
Richards laughs. "Not even a chance."
Steve has to use his strength again to help lift Iron Man into the car, because the "Fantasticar" has a large backseat, but a very small doorway. The seatbelt won't reach, so Steve climbs into the back with him to hold on, because he doesn't have huge confidence in Richards' driving ability in the really inaptly named car.
"Where do you need to go?" Richards says. "I don't have enough fuel if we have to go to the other side of the city."
"Not that far, just into the city," Iron Man says. "890 Fifth Avenue."
"890 Fifth Avenue," Richards repeats, gunning the engine and starting off down the road. A moment later his mouth falls open. "Isn't that the Stark townhouse?"
"Yeah," Iron Man says, one gauntleted hand splayed over his metal chest, fingers cutting slices across the warm circle of light above his heart. "Who else in this city did you think could build something like this, huh?"
The Fantasticar wobbles on the road and Steve puts a hand out, holding Iron Man in place on the seat. Iron Man turns his mask to Steve for a moment. Steve can imagine that the person behind the mask is probably sending him a grateful expression; it's weird not being able to see and know for sure.
"But Iron Man appeared on the scene after Tony's father—" Richards' voice trails off. "Tony Stark built you?" Richards' eyes are wide, like it's a shock.
"You're not surprised at that," Iron Man says, his modulated voice betraying a little bewilderment.
Steve thinks about it. It's kind of not a surprise, not really, not when he thinks about it. "Tony's kind of amazing," Steve says.
"Yeah," Richards says. "Makes you think about why he's still at school with us, really."
"From what I've heard, I could say the same about you, Reed," Iron Man says.
"I want to create something outside my dad's shadow," Richards says, shrugging. "If that means pretending to still need high school-level classes in order to score some lab space that my dad doesn't fund, then so be it."
"Gotta admit," Iron Man says, pointing at Steve, "that's much better than your reason for attending the Academy."
Steve colors immediately.
"Why, what's your reason?" Richards asks.
"He wanted to ask you about time travel," Iron Man says.
"I regret helping to save your life," Steve mutters.
"You went through the Academy's ridiculously high-standard entrance exams just to talk to me?" Richards' mouth opens so wide that Steve thinks for a moment that his face must be made out of plastic. He snaps his mouth shut. "You do realize I have an e-mail address, right?"
"I'm not really allowed to e-mail yet," Steve says, distractedly.
"Not allowed to e-mail?" Iron Man says at the same time as Richards says, "What?"
"Uh," Steve says, unsure of how to phrase it. "There was an incident with an attachment and the reply all feature."
"I did that once," Iron Man sighs. "It started a four thousand people long e-mail chain. Nearly everyone replied and it crashed the system. My da— Uh, people were really pissed off."
"Well, anyway," Steve says. "You couldn't help me, so now I guess I'm just… figuring stuff out." He pulls a wry face. "I used to know what I was doing and now I have no clue at all."
"Oh," Richards says, "don't worry about that. It's just puberty."
Iron Man snorts.
"We're almost there, by the way," Richards says.
"That was fast," Steve says.
"Well, the Starks are rich, of course they can afford to have a mansion in the center of the city," Richards says.
"Please, like your family's tower is any less expensive," Iron Man huffs.
"We rent the top floors of the Baxter building," Richards says. "It's not like we own it." Richards pulls up to a building, and he isn't kidding about it being a mansion. Steve stares. He's seen the building before a few times, in the past more than now. It's barely changed in seventy years, much like Steve himself, really.
Steve helps Iron Man get out of the back of the Fantasticar; it's nearly more difficult than getting him in.
"I've got to get back to the tower before my family sees the news and freaks out," Richards says. "Will you be okay without me?"
Steve tries not to think about how he would appreciate extra help, but he's also confident enough in his own ability; he's Captain America, even if he's not allowed to say he is or wear the suit. He can rescue Sam single-handedly. "Will you be okay on the drive home?" Steve asks as an answer.
"It's not far," Richards says. "And the Fantasticar is better than she looks."
Iron Man makes a noise, which sounds a lot like him muttering, "Please, like that's hard."
"Thanks for your help, Reed," Iron Man says.
"No problem," Richards says, before getting back into his heap of junk car and drives off. Steve waves at him, and when he turns back, Iron Man is contemplating the front door of the mansion.
"Is there actually a problem?" Steve asks.
"Not really," Iron Man says. "Well. Normally there's an entrance through the roof that I— that Tony smuggles me into the house with."
Iron Man shrugs. "There's a facility on the edge of the city that's my main base, but I don't normally use the mansion. The less people who know Iron Man and Tony Stark are connected, the better."
"But you let me know."
Iron Man turns his mask in Steve's direction. "You saved my life. Besides, you're trustworthy."
"You think so?" Steve asks, feeling a pang of guilt because he's kind of a massive liar.
"You're a Cap fan, of course you are," Iron Man says.
"How did you know that?" Steve asks, because Tony's the one who knows that, not Iron Man. "Tony told you, huh?"
"You're practically all he talks about," Iron Man says.
Something warm curls in Steve's gut as he processes the concept. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Iron Man says. "He said you're hella oblivious but really pretty."
Steve stares at Iron Man, but Iron Man ignores him, walking up to the front door instead. "What?" Steve murmurs, mostly to himself. Tony thinks he's pretty? Really? Iron Man's got to be joking. It's not funny, though. Maybe he just doesn't have a good sense of humor. Some people don't.
Iron Man reaches up and rings the doorbell.
"What are we going to do if they turn us away?" Steve asks.
"Um," Iron Man says. "I guess… improvise."
"Loudly and in every direction." Iron Man makes a chuckling sound. "Let's hope for the best."
"Yeah," Steve says, eyeing the parts of the Iron Man suit left functioning that he thinks he remembers being used as weapons. "Yeah, let's."
The door opens then, and Steve loses all despair instantly that there's going to be a problem getting in.
Mostly because his brain has decided now is the best time to shut down.
Because it's impossible. It's impossible. Oh, and Steve's hated that words for weeks now, but it fits, it absolutely fits, everyone's supposed to be dead and gone—
"Steve," Edwin Jarvis says from the door, his mouth slack.
He's older. He's so much older. Steve remembers Edwin Jarvis as a teenager, following Edward Stark around and learning the trade from his father, fetching tea and chatting with Steve in the downtime between training and Steve actually receiving the serum. Steve's not even sure why he's so sure it's Edwin, except… it is. The same bright blue eyes. The sheer aliveness of his expressions.
"How is this possible?" Edwin says. He leans against the door frame, his other hand clasping a cane. He's smartly dressed in a suit with tails, one that looks a lot like his father's suit, but it's probably just made to resemble it.
"Edwin Jarvis?" Steve asks, finally finding his voice, aware that Iron Man's looking between the two of them. "Is that really you?"
"Yes, yes, it's me," Edwin says. "But is it really you? Heavens and stars, you haven't—"
"Classified," Steve says, loudly.
Edwin startles and shakes his head slightly. "This is— A delightful shock. And you with Iron Man, of course, that— that seems entirely apt, for someone like you."
"Hello, Mr. Jarvis," Iron Man says, his voice oddly polite.
"We need your help, Edwin," Steve says, meeting Edwin's gaze. "I'll explain everything later if I can get you the clearance, but for now, there's an emergency. My friend has been kidnapped, and Iron Man needs something in Tony's lab to find him."
"Anything, Master Steven," Edwin breathes, stepping back and ushering them in. Iron Man looks around warily as he follows Steve into the mansion.
Steve almost laughs in delight, because yeah, he remembers the mansion now he's in it — the buildings surrounding it must have changed, in order to make the landscape seem unfamiliar on the drive up, but he's been in this mansion before, just once, and it's barely changed.
"Is Tony in?" Steve asks.
"I'm afraid he's not in the house," Edwin says. "And with the shenanigans on the news, I'm quite afraid for him."
"He'll be fine," Iron Man says. "We just need his lab for a moment."
"Right this way," Edwin says, and starts to lead them down the main hallway.
"So how do you know Jarvis?" Iron Man asks Steve, as the follow him through the mansion. Steve catches a glimpse of a painted portrait of Tony and smiles fondly at the sight of it; Tony looks so sullen in it.
"Uh," Steve says. "I actually can't say?"
"Seriously?" Iron Man asks.
"Do you want to tell me your real name?" Steve asks, pointedly.
"Touché," Iron Man mutters.
Edwin leads them to the top of a staircase. "I'm afraid Master Stark has installed security protocols that are far beyond my ability to understand. I cannot get you past the doorway."
"I can," Iron Man says. He looks at Edwin for a moment. "You're not surprised?"
"If Master Stark thinks I am unobservant," Edwin says, "then that's his failing to bear. There's not much that happens in this house that I do not notice."
"Uh," Iron Man says, and then in a weirder tone, "Not much?"
"My admiration and love for Master Stark is immeasurable," Edwin says, "but I cannot effuse false praise about his idea of covert behavior."
"Uh," Iron Man says.
"I'll leave you to your work, Iron Man," Edwin says. He seems amused when he adds, "And when you next see Master Stark, tell him how very proud of him I am."
"Will do," Iron Man says, a little faintly. He shakes himself, then looks at Steve. "Come on, then."
Steve nods and puts a hand on Edwin's shoulder. "It's great to see you again. I'll come by and catch up when my friend isn't in peril."
"I'd enjoy that very much," Edwin says, beaming at him. Steve smiles back, feeling the joy to his bones, because Edwin Jarvis. Not all of his past is gone at all.
Iron Man opens a door and presses numbers into a panel before a red light shines down from the ceiling and maps over his mask; a black door several steps down opens and Iron Man beckons Steve onwards. Steve lets the door at the top of the stairs close behind them as he follows Iron Man down.
Iron Man is unsteady on the steps, and Steve worries, until they get down into the workshop and he's distracted, because the whole place seems like it's fallen wholesale out of one of the pulpy science-fiction books that Bucky used to like so much.
"This is amazing," Steve says.
"Take a seat by the monitors," Iron Man says. "I'm just going to change into something a little more comfortable."
Steve frowns, but then watches Iron Man walk over to an alcove where several Iron Man suits are standing upwards, each looking shinier than the next.
"You've been doing this a while, huh?" Steve says.
"Yeah," Iron Man says. "Turn around?"
Steve does. There's a sound of creaking, and a sound of some sort of electric saw that makes him flinch and nearly turn back around, but then he remembers Iron Man saying the helmet was jammed. It sounds terrifying, actually. Steve's thrumming with panic, for Iron Man and for Sam.
"Can I ask you a question?" Steve asks, needing a distraction from his thoughts.
"You just did," Iron Man says, faintly. His voice sounds different. Steve realizes with a start that it's not got the same digital twang to it; the modulator isn't there to disguise his voice. The words sound familiar. Steve narrows his eyes, but then shakes off the faint hint of suspicion.
"Tony Stark makes your suit, right?"
"Right," Iron Man says. His undisguised voice is gruff, like he's forcing it. He probably is. But why would Iron Man need to disguise his voice? It's not like Steve's heard many people.
"So you know him well?"
"Ish," Iron Man says, after a pause.
"So can I ask you to do something?"
"Depends on what that is."
"He was hurt the other day, really badly," Steve says, slowly. "I'm guessing you know how."
"…yeah," Iron Man says. "You can turn around now," he adds, his voice disguised again, and Steve does. "So what are you asking for?"
"For you to look after him when I'm not around," Steve says, to Iron Man's newly covered face. The suit looks newer, actually; Tony's obviously built a new suit ready for him, anticipating that Iron Man would need one. "I don't like him being hurt."
Iron Man stares silently for a moment, and then nods, jerkily. "We should look for your friend."
"Yeah," Steve says.
Iron Man moves over to several large digital screens covering one wall and starts doing something complicated. "So, your friend got wrapped up in Octavius' Falcon project, huh?"
"Yeah," Steve says. "I wasn't around for it, but it seems kind of insane."
"These guys are always at least half insane," Iron Man says. "You wouldn't believe the kind of guys I've faced over the last couple of years."
"You should try me," Steve says. "Maybe after we've saved my friend from life-threatening danger."
"Is there any other kind of danger?" Iron Man asks. "I hadn't noticed."
Steve laughs, surprised that the sound just comes out of him.
"You have a nice laugh," Iron Man says. "You should use it more."
"Uh," Steve says, "how do you know I don't? I could laugh all the time. I could be a laugh master."
"Tony thinks you don't laugh at all," Iron Man says.
"You're really that close, then?"
"You could say that," Iron Man says. "Close enough that I know he has a massive crush on you and that he's terrified of even approaching you, because you've noticed approximately none of his flirting."
Steve blinks. And then blinks some more. "Oh," Steve says. "Oh. I just thought he thought I was really tall or something." He purses his lips. "I'm unfathomably tall, really, it baffles me too." Mostly because he's used to being five foot and a bit, not six foot and change.
"Should I mention to him that you're not interested, then?" Iron Man says, typing something into one of Tony Stark's four keyboards. They look sturdy, like they've been designed for large hands in bigger gauntlets.
"Uh," Steve says, coherently.
"Well, that's not a no," Iron Man says.
"Well, he is amazing, and he's been nothing but nice to me, and I think I'm about to get my first A ever in a science-related subject because of him," Steve says. "I just hadn't thought about dating. I've mostly been thinking about time travel."
"And if you did think about dating? Tony, specifically?"
Steve thinks about it some more. Tony has a very nice smile. And when he patched up Tony's back, he might have noticed that his shoulders were broad, and his skin was soft and warm under Steve's fingers. "Uh," Steve says, coloring. "Then, uh, maybe?"
"Maybe," Iron Man considers. "I'll take a maybe."
"Take a maybe where?" Steve asks, but the screens start flashing with a location and Iron Man punches at the air.
"All right, yeah! I— Well, Tony helped make a prototype of the wings using a trace of gamma radiation, and it looks like when Dr. Octavius stole it, he didn't take that feature out. I've piggybacked onto SHIELD's satellites, and that same trace signature is showing in three different places." Iron Man points at the screen. "But only one of those places is anywhere close enough."
"Right," Steve says, automatically moving for the door. "Let's go."
"One thing first," Iron Man says.
Steve halts. "What?"
"You're hella strong," Iron Man says. "And don't think I'll be quizzing you about the how of that later. But if you think I'm letting you come with me unprotected—"
"And if you think I'm letting you go alone after nearly dying half an hour ago," Steve says. "Or do I need to remind you that you tried to tell me your last regret?"
"Haha, I'd never have told you," Iron Man says. "Not to your face."
Steve blinks, because what does that even mean? "We should go as soon as possible," Steve says. "Take advantage of the element of surprise."
"Before we do," Iron Man says, and heads over to a bench as Steve settles because of the we. He rummages around the various items, and pulls out something that looks like a handhold, but isn't attached to anything. "Try this."
Steve catches it when Iron Man throws it to him.
"Put it on your wrist and rotate it for a moment like this," Iron Man says, twisting his wrist a little in example.
Steve does, sliding it on, and mimics Iron Man's gesture, and a swerve of blue light arcs out from his wrist, forming a cylindrical barrier that looks like light, but when Steve touches it, it feels solid. Steve looks upwards in surprise. Modern technology's probably just going to keep on surprising him.
"Can you keep a secret?" Iron Man asks.
"You're kind of screwed by now if I couldn't," Steve says.
Steve gestures for him to hurry up.
"There was this rumor that Captain America had been found," Iron Man says. "I know. Crazy. I know. But Tony got excited and thought that maybe he lost his shield, so might need a new one, so he… made one."
Steve stares at the arc of light around his wrist. "Tony made this?" He can feel his cheeks heat despite himself. Sometimes there's this expression Tony gets when he's really into the experiment they're doing, all intense concentration, and Steve can picture that he probably has the same expression when he's building things. He pictures Tony's long fingers working on the Iron Man armor and, uh, the maybe that he gave Iron Man about the likelihood of him dating Tony Stark suddenly seems like an understatement. "Would Tony be okay with me borrowing it?"
"Sure," Iron Man says. "It's his philosophy of life: act now, apologize later."
Steve smiles wryly; Tony's never said that to him, but it fits him.
"Besides, I'm pretty sure he'd forgive you anything," Iron Man says. "Boy's got a crush bigger than Stark tower on you."
Steve swallows and he's pretty sure his blush is saying everything it needs to. "Let's go."
"Yeah," Iron Man says, "but not that way." Steve stops and frowns. "I did tell you that I mostly come and go via the roof, didn't I?"
It turns out that Iron Man's exit from the Stark's townhouse-stroke-mansion is a high-speed elevator that has Steve stumbling to breathe when it expels them onto the roof of the building. Steve takes a moment to catch himself, and then turns to Iron Man, ready to ask for a lift, and the question comes out of his mouth in a whimpering squeak of a sound.
Because the roof isn't empty, it's very occupied, by a large helicopter, and five SHIELD agents headed up by Director Fury. Fury's wearing a billowing trench coat and although his expression is still impassive, he's radiating displeasure.
"Iron Man," Fury greets. "Mr. Grant."
"I can explain," Steve says, weakly. He looks helplessly at Iron Man, who just shrugs.
"I'll take Mr. Grant," Fury says, glaring at Iron Man. "You can fly ahead to the site — Barton and Coulson are already there, they'll give you orders on how we're proceeding."
"Orders?" Iron Man makes a noise. "I thought you told me I was too young to take orders."
Steve glances at Iron Man, a sudden burn of suspicion noisily making itself aware in Steve's brain. If Iron Man's too young, then he's under twenty one, and if Iron Man is under twenty one…
No. No, it's impossible. Isn't it? Steve turns his glance into a regarding squint, a thousand moments from the last few weeks jumbling together into a different order.
"Just go," Fury sighs.
Iron Man's probably rolling his eyes right now, Steve thinks, but he salutes and then the jets on his feet flame up and he shoots up into the sky. Steve watches him go, and then lowers his gaze to Fury's disapproving stare.
Thinking about Iron Man shifts when Steve realizes he needs to be defending himself from being thrown into a SHIELD prison. "He doesn't know who I am," Steve says, flatly.
"And how long would you have been able to hide it going into a hot rescue situation?" Fury asks, eyebrows arched.
Steve frowns. "I just—"
"Wanted to get your friend back, I know," Fury says. "Follow me." At Steve's reluctance to move, he steps forwards. "I'm not going to throw you into a prison." He considers. "Yet."
Steve's frown doesn't falter, but he does follow Fury, trotting behind him and climbing reluctantly into the back of the helicopter.
To his surprise, Fury doesn't try and handcuff him or fly him to the nearest prison; instead, he throws a parcel at Steve, which Steve unwraps curiously to reveal…
"A new uniform?" Steve says, staring down at the red, white and blue material in his hand. "I thought you said that I wasn't old enough."
"Apparently your argument that you had seven decades of back pay compelled someone otherwise," Fury says. "And with the obvious alternative in mind, no one wanted to be the one to make Captain America poor, so… congratulations."
"You're still going to need to get your diploma," Fury says. "SHIELD employees need qualifications now. But… I suppose every now and again you can… assist."
"Assist," Steve repeats, incredulous, but he's already thrilling at the idea.
"I also thought you'd want this," Fury says, and hands over Steve's shield.
Steve kind of nearly cries.
Donning the mask again is almost like coming home. It's snugger than Steve's used to, it's definitely brighter, and it hides more of his face, but he guesses that's probably more important to hide his identity now. He reluctantly stashes the shield that Tony made in one of his belt pouches; he'll have to return it to Tony later and thank him, but he can't use it while in uniform, or Iron Man would figure out who he is.
"Wilson's being held in some sort of underground room," Fury says. "Iron Man's already disabling the external security; you'll go in with Agent Coulson and retrieve Wilson. I've got medical on stand-by in case they've already tried to remove the Falcon tech."
Steve's gut tightens in wary anticipation and worry for Sam. "Any last words of advice?"
"Yeah," Fury says. "Don't get killed."
Steve grins, a macabre and taut smile. Fury's just as reassuring as his dad in all the best ways.
"Iron Man will let you know through this when it's safe to proceed," Fury says, and passes Steve a small earpiece, which he slides dutifully into his ear. "Can you hear me, Captain?"
"Loud and clear," Steve says, Fury's voice echoing so close to his skull that it makes him wince.
"Uh, Captain?" a voice breaks through on the line. It's Iron Man. Steve smiles automatically. "Who's just joined the game, Director?"
"Captain America, reporting for action," Steve says.
"Holy shit," Iron Man says.
"No swearing on the comms, Iron Man," Fury says. He looks over at Steve. "You good to jump? Need a chute?"
"Yes and no." Steve grins again. "Parachutes are for amateurs."
"So the rumors are true?" Iron Man's voice is laced with surprise, even through the extra layer of digital noise that the comms line provides.
"Gossip later, action now, Iron Man," Fury says, opening the helicopter door for Steve and pointing at his destination.
Gripping onto his shield, Steve looks down at the target building and leaps. He laughs as he falls, because yes, oh, he missed this. He's missed this sorely. The air rushes past his ears as he lengthens his body, directing it towards where he can see Agent Coulson and a team of men; he thinks he can see Iron Man in the distance, blasting at a large structure rising up from the building. Steve neatly lands in a crouch a few feet away from Coulson and straightens, immediately going into action-mode.
"Sitrep," Steve says to Coulson.
Coulson lowers his glasses to give him a worried look. "Iron Man's lowered defenses enough that we were able to do a preliminary scan. There's maybe thirty men between us and the basement complex, and we can't scan that because of the thick concrete."
"You're free to proceed whupping HYDRA ass," Iron Man calls through the comms. "Security system down and out. Just gotta wipe out the secondary generator and I'll come join the fun. ETA sixty seconds if you want a head start."
"Thirty men," Steve says, and tilts his head. "Bet we can down most of them before Iron Man follows us in."
"That bet's on," Iron Man says.
Steve nods at Coulson, and Coulson shoots out the door. After that, it's like learning to ride a bicycle — Steve's body might have been deep frozen for a little while, but it hasn't forgotten how to fight at all. It's like after all this time awake, he's finally been allowed to breathe. Fighting is a joy and Steve finds himself actually smiling throughout the whole mêlée — which is probably very frightening and confusing for the HYDRA agents trying to stop him. A grinning Captain America's probably a terrifying Captain America.
Steve flings his shield and takes down three men in a row before the fourth one behind them gets blasted with a familiar ball of fire.
"Iron Man," Steve greets.
"Captain," Iron Man says, and there's a sound which is probably a laugh of Iron Man's own. "I'm having the weirdest day."
"I know the feeling," Steve says. "Probably not as bad a day as these guys are about to have, though."
"Oh, absolutely not," Iron Man says, and puts up his palms into a fighting stance as he nods at a staircase at the end of the hallway, while behind them Coulson does a ridiculously elegant take down of two unarmed security guards coming at them from a side room. His suit is completely unruffled when he straightens.
"After you," Coulson offers. "We'll take rear."
"Let's go," Iron Man says. "And while we're at it, we need to brainstorm some good phrases that are better than let's go. Something a little more bad-ass."
"You make it sound like we'll be fighting together again in the future," Steve says, teasingly, because this feels too good to not happen again. If it wasn't for the fact that it's Sam that they're out to rescue, Steve would label this as one of his favorite days ever.
"But," Iron Man says, "but—"
"I'm just messing with you," Steve says. "You're about my favorite thing of the 21st century."
"You're actually Captain America, aren't you?" Iron Man asks. Steve nods. "But— how did you survive?"
"My plane went down into ice," Steve says. "And the SHIELD scientists say with the serum, the ice just ended up putting me into suspended animation for seventy years."
"Planes," Iron Man sighs. "They suck. You're like, the third person in my life to be affected by a bad plane crash."
"Who else?" Steve asks.
"Tony's dad died in a plane crash. You got Capsicled by one. And my friend Steve said the other day that he was in a plane crash."
Steve starts to nod, and then the nod aborts halfway through, because son of a— Steve's actually too stunned to finish the insult. His aborted thought from the roof of the Stark townhouse was right. Tony Stark is Iron Man.
Well, it's good that Steve refused to double or nothing Fury's bet from when he came out of the ice, and Steve had thought nothing could surprise him and the flying helicarrier proved him wrong, because Steve would be so broke right now.
Iron Man even said it himself, earlier: Tony thought Steve was "hella oblivious but really pretty." Steve had gotten too stuck on the pretty part to notice otherwise. He can't help it; he starts laughing again. Wow. Well, Tony's right. Oblivious is an understatement.
"Uh, is this really the time to laugh?" Iron Man says, and now he's listening for it, Steve can hear notes of Tony Stark in the voice. He thinks of a thousand things, all at once, and how he's seen the truth a thousand times. And still, he hasn't seen it until now. The things Tony's said. The way he's always late, probably because he's out battling villains. The large briefcase Tony carries that is obviously the Iron Man suit. He knew the injury hadn't been a freezer door, but Steve had thought maybe it was bullies. He's actually right on that score — except the bullies are HYDRA, or AIM, or whatever other super villains are lounging around New York nowadays.
"There's this guy I like," Steve says, after a moment. "He thinks I don't laugh enough."
Iron Man pauses for a while, and Steve can't help but grin, because now Tony's going to know exactly what it feels like. Or he will. One day Tony will know too just how it feels to be confronted by a thousand clues and just not get it at all. Then Iron Man makes a wry sound. "I tried to tell someone I liked the same thing," Iron Man says. "It's nice to think if you would take up the suggestion, maybe he will too."
Steve nods, but inwardly thinks one thing, very clearly, that it's a good thing Tony's pretty because he's also, to use Tony's word, hella oblivious.
And yeah. Yeah, he thinks Tony Stark is pretty. He can admit that to himself now.
"Boys," Fury says, loud down the comm line. "Our readings are going haywire. Brace yourself. We don't know what's ahead."
"Roger that," Steve says. "We're advancing in five."
"Copy that," Coulson says, still bringing up the rear. "We'll advance on your mark."
Steve grits his teeth and raises his shield. "Mark."
The next few minutes are a blur. Steve loses count of the number of agents that he knocks down, and the number of weird laser beams he has to leap out of the way of, and the number of doors he kicks down looking for Sam. And it such a relief when he kicks open the last door to find Sam, spread-eagled on a surgeon's table, his wings extended out to both corners of the room and attached to harnesses, while a masked surgeon pauses, obviously just about to make an incision along Sam's spine to try and detach the wings. Like SHIELD hadn't already looked into it and realized pulling them out would turn Sam into a quadriplegic. Actually, HYDRA probably already knew, and didn't care.
Steve knocks out the surgeon and his team with one throw of his shield, while behind him, Iron Man detaches Sam from the drugs and contraptions he's hooked up to. Steve helps Iron Man collapse Sam's wings down to a smaller size, but Sam won't be able to retract them back into the grooves Dr. Octavious dug into his spine until he's fully awake and the drugs are out his system; then he'll be able to control the nanoreceptors and hide the wings as he usually does.
After that, it's smooth work to attack the last of HYDRA, and Iron Man and Steve help Sam outside to get him the help he needs. Sam semi-regains consciousness by the time they get outside; a med team is already there, pulling up to help with a large ambulance. With Fury's permission, Steve climbs up to ride in the ambulance next to him.
Before the doors close, Iron Man comes over to say goodbye.
"That was almost fun," Iron Man says. "I'd hate for it to happen again, but if it does, I'd love to fight with you again."
Sam yells, "You were awesome!" very loudly. Steve ducks his head and smiles, just so relieved to have Sam back.
"It was okay," Steve allows, neglecting to mention it was kind of the best thing he's done since waking up in this century.
"Dude," Sam says, his voice slurring, "if I'd died, you'd have avenged me, right?"
"Avenged," Iron Man says, tilting his head. "Avengers. I kind of like that. It's a good name for us."
Steve pulls a face. "But if we use it, then we have to admit to Sam later that he came up with it while heavily drugged."
"I am so high right now," Sam informs a SHIELD paramedic, agreeing with Steve. "Higher than I can fly, even."
"Maybe we'll keep brainstorming for a group name," Iron Man says.
"You think Fury will let us fight together again?" Steve asks.
"I think after our amazing result, he'd be a fool not to," Iron Man says.
"I heard that," Fury says loudly, still on the comms.
"Wasted if you didn't," Iron Man says. Steve glances at him. Even though he knows it's Tony under the suit now, and it's kind of blowing his mind, it's still easier to think of him as Iron Man. Iron Man's amazing. Tony's amazing. It's obvious and yet still difficult to reconcile all that amazing contained in one person.
"I'll see you later," Steve says, and Iron Man nods as the ambulance doors close on them.
"Dude," Sam says. "That was Iron Man."
"You're sitting in an ambulance with Captain America," Steve says, "and you're picking up on the Iron Man thing?"
"Yeah," Sam says, grinning up at the paramedic sharing the back of the ambulance with them. "He dresses better than you do."
Steve looks down at his outfit. He can't disagree.
"Just rest," Steve tells him. "Everything's fine now."
"Now that you're here," Sam says. "You're staying, right? No time traveling without me?"
"No time traveling without you," Steve promises.
"Good," Sam mutters, and lets the SHIELD paramedic put an oxygen mask on him without complaining.
Steve settles down, holds Sam's hand, and tries to think about everything that's happened. It's a lot to think about, so it should probably say something that the main thing Steve is thinking about, besides the obvious relief of Sam being okay, is Tony Stark.
It does say something. Steve's cheeks might be permanently stained red at this rate. He can't find it in him to care. Tony Stark likes him. Tony has a crush on him. Tony Stark is Iron Man is amazing. Tony's a fan of Captain America. Now all Steve has to do is figure out what he's going to do with that information.
Richards, probably in some grand gesture after Steve helped save his life (actually by dragging Sam with him Steve had actually endangered Richards' life, but Steve isn't going to enlighten Richards with that one), arranged for him and Tony to be able to finish their chemistry experiments in the Baxter building labs.
Tony mutters during the first session that Richards is just too used to working now with them bickering in the background. He might be right. Steve doesn't know objectively for sure any more. All the ways he looks at Tony now are incredibly biased.
Steve has a lot to think about and that's probably why he doesn't try and push things with Tony, not for a couple of weeks. He's been vaguely considering talking to Tony about spending some time together during the next school vacation. Steve and Sam have been working on more of the community gardens around New York's lower east side, and he's been thinking of asking Tony along, maybe on a day that SHIELD have the helicarrier closer to New York, so Iron Man might not be needed.
Something else ends up speeding the conversation along faster than Steve's been intending.
"Come here," Richards says, on their fourth shared session in the Baxter building's spare lab. "I've got to show you both something amazing."
Richards drags them over, forces them to wear goggles, before putting a labeled red ball into his portal. Steve braces himself for seeing the same five second ball disappearance again, but the machine crackles into life, and then it's like the lab suddenly doubles.
Seriously, that's what it's like. In the archway of the portal, it's like the lab suddenly stretches outwards, and Steve realizes after a moment that the room hasn't doubled, it's just a mirror—
Except, it's not even really a mirror. It's… a window? Steve just has time to realize that the Steve in the frame of the portal is tilting his head in the wrong direction for it to be a mirror, before the whole thing shuts down, and the ball reappears, bouncing off the podium.
Steve watches it in confusion.
The ball that bounces off the podium isn't red.
Richards bends down and edges a hand towards it gingerly, looking apprehensive.
Steve frowns. Did Richards suddenly invent a machine now that somehow mirrors the room oddly and changes the balls? Richards makes a sound of glee that pitches upwards in volume when he turns it over and regards the numbers.
"Uh, was that what I think it was?" Tony asks, as Richards bounces back to his feet.
"In all the chaos, I had an idea," Richards says. "Altering the resonance of the—" He catches Steve's expression, and something in it must translate his confusion, because Richards frowns and continues, "Changing some of my inputs has changed the direction of the machine. Namely, dimensional, not temporal."
"Dude," Tony breathes.
"See, our galaxy puts out a certain… background radiation noise," Richards says, his voice almost wobbling as he bends down to reach for the ball. "So this morning, when I added the new equation to the outputs… I decided to start labeling the balls with that frequency. The ball that came out had a different frequency written on. Definitely in my handwriting, still, and only a slight variation in frequency, but still… Different. So this time… This time I upped the input by a factor of ten."
"So what does that mean?" Steve asks. Tony's staring wide-eyed at the portal.
"I think it means… he has absolute proof of multiverse theory," Tony says. "That was us. In a slightly-barely-different alternate reality."
Richards nods frantically.
"So what does that mean?"
"You know, the idea that every time you make a choice, an alternate reality splits off, two universes running parallel. Say, in one universe you chose this school, in another…" Tony shrugs. "Art school, say."
Steve stares, yet again glad he didn't double Fury's bet on being surprised by the future.
"It's so fascinating," Richards says. "It's going to take a lot of work, but I'm pretty sure soon we'll be able to look more into other planes of existence than just this small parameter; maybe one day we'll even be able to travel to them."
"Just think about it," Tony says. "Out there, living in parallel, billions of versions of reality. Places where we're ten-foot zombies, or worlds where Hitler won the war. Realities where humans don't even exist. An infinite combination of possibilities."
"And while it's not precisely time travel, there'll be a plane of existence so close to ours, maybe running at a time lag—" Richards says, beaming at Steve. "So your question a while ago on time travel means that while you couldn't go to the past in our dimension, it's not quite as impossible as I thought."
Steve frowns. "So you're saying now it is theoretically possible to travel into the past?"
"To a time period similar to our past in a multiverse plane so similar to ours as to be practically identical," Richards says. "So it would be like going back in time, but without the catastrophic collapse of the space-time continuum." He beams at Steve.
Steve stares back for a moment and can't breathe.
"Steve?" Tony prompts.
"I'll be right back," he says, vaguely, stumbling for the doorway. He stumbles out, not quite sure where he's going, just needing to get out. He needs air. He wants his shield, but that's back at the Wilsons' with his uniform. He settles for what he needs and finds himself stumbling down a few flights of stairs before sinking onto one of the landings. He rests his back against the wall and tries to breathe in a world where the air yet again feels like a thousand tons of water and ice.
Suddenly the impossible is possible again, and—
And he's devastated.
The laugh starts before he can help it, bubbling up and burning his throat, because, oh, it's hilarious in a sort of terrible way. He's spent weeks and weeks wanting and wanting to hear it was possible to go back in time, and now it might be possible, he doesn't want to go?
He draws his knees up and laughs into them, desperate and burning.
He's staying, then. Staying in the future. No, staying in the present. Wow. Because that's what he wants. He wants to finish getting his diploma with Sam. He wants to be Captain America and fight villains with Iron Man. He wants to be in a world where Tony Stark is part of his life every single day.
He wants to stay.
"Are you okay?"
Steve doesn't look up; he doesn't have to, to recognize Tony's voice. "Maybe," Steve says.
A sound of echoing footsteps; Tony hurrying down the steps to come closer. "You look like you saw a ghost."
"I look like I saw my chance to get everything I wanted," Steve says.
"The time travel," Tony says, and his voice is subdued. "Would you really do that? Jump back in time just to… what, save someone's life?"
"It depends on the life, I suppose," Steve says. His voice hitches. His life is the only one he'd really been thinking about.
"Richards will probably be thrilled he has a human guinea pig for when he advances the technology that far," Tony says. Steve sees Tony's legs move past him, probably walking to the window so he can stare out of the window. It's a beautiful view, like most high places in New York; no matter what time Steve's in, the essence of New York remains, a beating heart of hope and brimming potential.
"I guess," Steve says, noncommittal.
Tony makes a noise in the back of this throat. "I wish you didn't want to go," he says. Steve looks up then, at the raw honesty in Tony's voice, and Tony's expression is like a kick to the gut on its own. Tony looks strung out, like he's moments from exploding, like he's moments for burning apart, and Steve… Steve needs to reassure him.
But it doesn't mean he should have zero fun while going about that.
"Is that you wishing that?" Steve asks. "Or Iron Man?"
Tony freezes, and it would be hilarious if Steve isn't always going to think of the word freezing and think dying. He guesses it's just a part of him, as much as the shield, or his stubborn streak. He wonders what Bucky would think of him right now — he's literally stubborn Steve, stuck on the stairs. Bucky would love Tony, Steve thinks. Well. He'd probably hate him, actually. But then he'd love him, because Bucky loved everything that was important to Steve, and Tony… Tony's important to Steve now. In a way he'd never thought anything could be important to him again.
"Tony?" Steve prompts, which seems to unstick Tony.
Tony's face goes a shade paler. He winces. "Is it that obvious?"
"Obvious might not be the right word," Steve says. "But some things were too difficult for me to miss."
"You can't tell anyone," Tony says, sliding down to sit next to Steve with a wary expression. "You can't. Director Fury says he'll put me in prison if anyone finds out we're more than just slightly connected."
Steve smirks. Of course Fury says the same thing to all of them. "Well, you are much too pretty to survive prison," Steve says. "I suppose I'd better keep your secret."
Tony's cheeks go a little pink. "You think I'm pretty?"
"You think I'm pretty."
Tony's cheeks darken. It's delightful, Steve thinks, and definitely something he could get used to. "I didn't think you'd know it was me saying it when I said that," Tony says, mumbling.
Steve simply smiles at him.
"When did you know, anyway?" Tony asks, a sullen note to his voice. It's probably not often that someone "outsmarts" him; Steve should relish the moment. It's probably a rare occurrence when one has a Tony Stark in one's life, and Steve… Steve apparently wants to stay in the future and continue to have a Tony Stark in his life.
Which means he should probably start with the truth. Or some of it, anyway.
"When did I figure it out?" Steve feigns nonchalance as he shrugs. "About a minute before we rescued Sam together." He digs in his pocket and holds up the light shield; he's kind of been carrying it around and waiting for Tony to ask for it back, but he's also been really reluctant to volunteer giving it back. And not so much because it's a shield, but because Tony made it for him. "Thanks for making me this, by the way."
Tony's eyes narrow as he regards the light shield. Then his mouth drops open. And then his mouth widens, and he punches Steve in the shoulder and Steve can't help it, he laughs again. It's something he can feel himself being able to do, the more he's around Tony.
"But—" Tony says.
Steve pulls an innocent face.
"But—!" Tony says again, closing his mouth and then chewing on his bottom lip for a moment.
Steve wrinkles his mouth, waiting for Tony to finish bugging out.
"But you—?!" Tony manages next.
"I'm going to write this day down," Steve says. "I'm guessing you being speechless is a rare thing."
"Right in front of me the whole damn time," Tony says. "And I— And you—" He balls up his fist and punches Steve in the shoulder. "I called you oblivious!"
"Um, living legend here, less of the punching please," Steve mutters.
"Shut up, that's how we show affection in the 21st century," Tony mutters back, before saying, like he's appalled, "Captain America."
"Hmm, you did say something about you having a giant crush on me," Steve says, and he's possibly, possibly having too much fun over this whole thing. Except, the way Tony squeaks in outrage, and then smiles at Steve like he's brought him the entire universe to play with— It's making Steve find it difficult to regret any of it.
"This all makes ridiculous amounts of sense," Tony says. "Ridiculous, and yet, so much sense."
"I know the feeling."
"The microfiche," Tony says. "And the plane crash, and the super strength."
"And you, with the injuries, and being too shy to show me what I now know is your mechanical chest—"
"More electrical than mechanical. Well, magnetic."
"And the briefcase, and being late, and about a thousand things you said to me."
"What about the thousand things you said that are so obvious now," Tony mumbles. And then he straightens a little. "That's how Jarvis knew you!" He points at Steve accusingly.
"Yep," Steve says.
"Ugh, and to think I nearly spilled my last dying regret to you," Tony says, his face suffuse with a blush almost as deeply crimson as the Iron Man suit.
"I thought you said you wouldn't tell me to my face," Steve says, highly intrigued by the blush. "What was it going to be?"
Tony glares. "I don't think you deserve to know. Especially not now I'm starting to get the idea that you might enjoy it."
"Really?" Steve says.
"You did say I was pretty," Tony says, almost defiantly.
"So you're not going to tell me your last regret?"
"Well, my philosophy is act first, apologize later," Tony says.
Steve tries to say something to that, except Tony leans forwards and stops his mouth with a kiss. The kiss is warm, so warm, and Steve can feel a little of that ice that he always feels inside him finally melting. Tony pulls away from Steve with a marked reluctance. His eyes look a little wide, but he's smiling like it's impossible not to, and Steve knows how that feels.
"Why tell you what my last regret would have been when I can show you instead?" Tony says. He sounds as breathless as Steve feels.
"Yeah," Steve says. His voice is soft as he curls a hand around Tony's cheek, and Tony pushes his face into his fingers. He thought waking up in the future was a curse, but it's a gift. He thought everything would be temporary, but it's beautifully permanent. And for all the things he's been so blind about… "Yeah," Steve says again. "I see what you mean."