Damn, sometimes Tony really hated being right.
Too bad he hadn't been able to predict that his animal magnetism was so strong, it even worked on Infinity Stones. (Okay, so it probably also had something to do with an unexpected interaction between the residual radiation escaping his arc reactor despite the shielding and the Time Stone's energy field, but whatever.)
The fact was, he was plummeting towards the sea at terminal velocity with the Stone firmly embedded in his arc reactor. There was nothing he could do to slow down his uncontrolled descent, because the suit had completely stopped responding to any commands, verbal or tactile. It made no sense, but then again, he couldn’t claim to really understand the Infinity Stones. Yet. He’d get there, eventually.
All in all, he wasn't overly worried. As much as you could fall headfirst towards the ocean without being overly worried. He trusted his team. Surely they'd catch him. Sooner rather than later. Right now would be good.
And there was his rescue, right on cue: Thor's impressive figure rushing towards him, cape flapping in the wind, and picking him up just a couple of dozen feet before he hit the waves. Cutting it a little close, but he wasn't going to complain.
Soon enough, he was back on the Aven-Jet with everyone else, not much worse for wear. Hopefully. It was a little difficult to be sure with the odd extra pressure of the Stone in the middle of his chest, not to mention the dead weight of the suit around him.
All in all, it could’ve gone better. Well, at least he had successfully located the Time Stone. The rest of it he’d solve by the end of the day. He always did, right?
“We could just break you out of the suit, Hulk or Thor are easily strong enough,” Steve offered, his fingers ghosting over the seams at the shoulders of Tony’s defective armor.
“No way! Get your hands off!” Tony snapped, his voice still strangely high-pitched, far more nervous than usual – he tended to keep his cool even in the worst of predicaments . “You are not going to start tearing apart my armor if it’s perfectly functional! Do you realize how much work I put into keeping these things in working order?”
Tony was lying on his back on the floor of the Aven-Jet, still fully armored, and it very much seemed he was going to remain that way until they got back in base. Luckily, that wasn’t far, only another ten minutes with Widow’s skilled piloting, because Steve didn’t like the situation at all.
“Are you feeling all right, though?” Steve asked, concerned, withdrawing his hands and sitting back on his haunches.
The Time Stone had turned the electric blue of Tony’s arc reactor into a dark yellow that Steve couldn’t help but think seemed unhealthy, the Stone in the middle looking uncomfortably like a fracture in the usually solid surface. Not the way it should be. He knew how important that blue glow was. It meant that Tony was okay, and now it looked wrong. It didn’t help at all that Steve couldn’t even see Tony’s face, and they didn’t have scanners on the Aven-Jet that could penetrate the armor to give them a better idea of what was going on.
“Well, what do you think?” Tony answered him. “Not enjoying myself a whole lot in here, but not about to go the way of the dinosaurs, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Like, emerge from a time rift and start pestering people?” Hawkeye put in unhelpfully from where he stood, leaning on the fuselage.
“Ha ha ha, so very funny, Chicken McNugget,” Tony groaned. Steve imagined he could see Tony roll his eyes through the helmet’s eye slits, though they were opaque and dark. “Also, those were pterosaurs. Not dinosaurs. Get your taxonomy right.”
“QUETZALCOATLUS,” the Hulk growled.
“Hmm, possibly, considering how big they were,” Sam agreed from the co-pilot’s seat.
“Que, what?” Hawkeye asked.
“Were they not dinosaurs with wings?” Thor asked.
“Never mind!” Tony exclaimed. “Who cares! How much longer till we’re home?”
“Seven minutes,” Widow informed them.
“Just hang on in there, Tony,” Steve said, and patted the armor's shoulder lightly. “I’m sure you’ll figure this out as soon as you get to your lab.”
Tony was lying on his back under the big scanner in his workshop, and JARVIS was telling him that the suit no longer recognized his body signature. That made no sense whatsoever. He didn’t feel that different, it wasn’t like the Time Stone had shapeshifted him into someone else!
“Who does it think I am? Get it off me. I’m so done with this,” he demanded. Never mind that just fifteen minutes ago he’d been telling everyone not to touch the armor. Now all he wanted was to get out of it. He could always fix any damage to it later.
Of course, the Hulk just had to go and crush the faceplate after he’d torn it off. Oh, well. It was a small price to pay.
The face in the mirror that JARVIS held up for Tony was like looking at a photograph from twenty years ago.
The Time Stone had turned him into a teenager. He was a damn teenager. He was a kid. He’d been de-aged. The armor couldn’t recognize him because he’d reverted to a prototype version of himself. Tony Stark 0.5, still stuck in the beta testing phase. Oh, shit. This was bad.
There was a sudden, burning pain in the middle of his chest, the world around him faded into an orange-yellow haze, and when it cleared up again, his mirror image looked even younger. Jeez. He’d definitely gotten better with age.
Everyone was giving him very worried glances, and all Tony could do was to try and hold it together enough to keep himself from crying or screaming aloud.
“What’s causing these shifts?” Steve asked, his voice as reassuringly calm as ever.
Sam – who was now older than Tony, oh God, that was wrong on so many levels – was checking the monitor outputs, and suggested, “His arc reactor's attached to his heart. Maybe heart rate triggers it.”
Sam was probably right, too. Awesome. All Tony had to do was to remain calm. Right. Easy as pie. Chill. Don’t think of the fact that you’re a teenager, and being nervous will make you even younger, until you’re down to a pair of germ cells. Pay no heed to that panicked heartbeat tapping like crazy against the base of the arc reactor. How fast was too fast? Deep breaths. He was perfectly fine. Peachy keen. Not a care in the world.
Tony was starting to realize why Banner preferred to remain in a permanently Hulked-out state.
Steve couldn't even begin to wrap his head around this. Years of military training meant that he could easily keep up a stoic appearance, but really, he was flummoxed. Tony was still Tony, yet completely different – he looked different, sounded different, acted different – God, he was actually underage! Just this morning, they’d been – doing all sorts of things that would be deeply wrong now!
Tony-the-teenager was also doing his best to keep a calm face, but it was plain as day to Steve that he was actually terrified. Who wouldn't be, in such a situation?
Unfortunately, there were other things to worry about, besides Tony. The time shifts weren’t just hurting him, they were causing chaos all around the city. The screens showed mayhem on the streets, with dinosaurs, pterosaurs and who knew what else on the rampage.
"We really need to do something about this, Captain," Natasha stated matter-of-factly.
"I'm not going to be much help there," Tony commented bitterly, sitting up on the scanner. "I need to readjust and reprogram the suit before I can use it again."
"I wouldn't have you participate in that fight anyway. You’re not even an adult, and who knows what sort of side effects that Stone and the de-aging will have on you,” Steve told him. The Time Stone being somehow linked to Tony’s already damaged heart was a thoroughly alarming thought, and Steve would be damned before he let Tony endanger his well-being any further.
“Oh, for crying out loud! I may be a little younger, but other than that, I’m fine, and I didn’t suddenly lose half of my IQ. I’m still smarter than any of you. I can help,” Tony said, sounding exactly like the stereotypical petulant teen.
“I can confirm that all the scans say he’s physically unharmed, Cap," Sam noted from his computer screens, probably having followed a train of thought similar to Steve's. “As long as he stays calm to prevent more time shifts, he should be okay.”
“That is relieving to hear. All right. Here’s what we’re going to do: I will stay in the Tower with Tony. Everyone else, the Avengers are sorely needed out there,” Steve addressed the team. There was no way in this world he was going to leave Tony here all by himself. “Widow, you will be in command. I'll be following your progress closely from here. Report to me about any significant turns of events.”
Natasha nodded, looking as grave as ever. “Will do, Captain.”
Hawkeye was already heading for the door, Sam on his heels.
The Hulk was grinning from ear to ear. “HULK SMASH T-REX!”
“Not if I catch them first!” Thor said, holding out Mjolnir to give the Hulk’s bicep a playful tap.
“I'm not babysitting. I'm here to help,” Steve said.
Right, sure he wasn’t. Really, babysitting was exactly what he was doing, because there was no rational reason for him to stay behind with Tony. Tony wasn’t a baby, not yet, anyway, and Steve should’ve been out there, fighting to contain the unfortunate side effects of the time rifts with the rest of the team. Of course, Tony should’ve been out there, too, but first, he needed a working suit.
He was doing his best to get the modifications right. Unfortunately, although he was still as smart as he’d ever been, he kind of seemed to be forgetting a few things here and there. Older memories seemed closer to the surface, somehow, memories from when he was actually this age. Around fourteen. Still, he could remember working on this suit just last night. It was just oddly hazy, as if it had happened to someone else, like he’d seen it in a movie. Let alone the thought of him and Steve together this morning – basically living his teenage fantasies – yeah, better not think about that if he didn’t want to lose his concentration and get way too excited.
He adjusted the settings on the gauntlet, to make sure they’d fit his current size and the slightly altered output of the Time Stoned arc reactor. Everything looked about right. He was pretty sure it was spot on. Steve could just stuff it with his doubts.
Tony pushed his hand into the gauntlet – and there were sparks and lightning and he was flung across the room when it short-circuited on him.
He landed painfully, not to mention embarrassingly, on his backside. So much for being smart.
Who was he kidding? He wasn’t really doing a good job at all. He should’ve figured this out by now. He should have put together a working suit, and he should’ve found a way to get rid of the Time Stone and stop the time shifts. Not that Steve was being very helpful, either, just moping around with a grave face.
“Why’d you let me do that?” Tony asked him.
“I tried to warn you,” Steve said. Which wasn’t even true. He’d just asked whether Tony thought it was a good idea. He could’ve grabbed that gauntlet and stopped Tony instead. And now Steve was giving him this condescending glare, which looked way too much like something his dad would’ve done. What do you think you’re doing, Tony? Put that down, Tony. Don’t play with my tools. You’ll break something. Because no matter how hard Tony had tried, he’d never been good enough. He’d never been what Howard wanted him to be. He still wasn’t. He just kept failing.
Dad had been right. Tony was useless.
“Don't act like my dad!” Tony yelled at Steve, walking towards him, hands in fists. “He thought you were so awesome that I should just be like you. Guess what! I'm not the great Captain America!”
Too late, Tony realized that he was getting too worked up, breathing hard, heart pounding in his ears, and there it was again, that already too familiar bright bolt of pain starting at the arc reactor, spreading outwards in a blindingly bright flash.
He was younger again.
He was going to keep getting younger, because he couldn’t handle this. How was he supposed to stay calm when he just couldn’t get anything right?
“I need your help, Cap,” he admitted.
Tony couldn’t be much older than ten, now, could he? Steve had never been much good at estimating kids’ ages. Overall, he couldn’t claim he’d had a whole lot of experience on kids. He liked meeting them when doing PR, always loved how excited and curious they seemed, but when it came to a kid who was stuck in a situation like this, he was at a loss.
Besides, Tony, young as he'd become, wasn’t just any kid. He was without doubt the smartest kid Steve had ever met, and he clearly seemed to understand everything that was going on. Steve wasn't sure whether Tony's mind was actually reverting the same way as his body was – he definitely was acting like a kid and not like an adult stuck in a younger body, but at least his memory didn't seem affected.
Now, Tony was looking like he was inches away from bursting into tears. Steve wasn’t sure what he had expected, but he wouldn’t have thought kid-Tony to be quite so insecure. That outburst about Howard wanting Tony to be like Steve – Steve knew that his image of Howard was very different from Tony’s, but that had still taken him by surprise.
Poor kid, Steve couldn’t help thinking.
“Whatever I can do to help, I will. I’m here for you," Steve reassured him.
Tony looked up at him, not quite smiling, but at least a little more hopeful. “Thanks. Um, maybe start by bringing me those tools?” he waved at a shelf at the other end of the room. “And I’ll try again with this gauntlet. More carefully. Don’t let me do anything stupid, okay?”
“You can trust me on that,” Steve promised. He’d be as cautious as he possibly could. He didn’t want Tony de-aged any further. Otherwise Tony would soon be too young to do any of this complicated engineering, and then they truly be in trouble.
They spent another quarter of an hour working on the armor, without much success, but without any further mishaps, either. Tony seemed genuinely glad of Steve’s company. Nevertheless, he was growing more and more frustrated, to the point of starting to throw things around, making Steve worry they'd be headed for another time shift.
"Why can't I get this to work? This is so lame," Tony complained.
Steve placed a placating hand on his back. "Try to have patience, Tony -"
Without warning, an explosion rattled the entire Tower around them.
This was no time quake, it didn't originate from the Time Stone, but from somewhere else. What was going on outside? Were they under attack?
"Young Sir, there's an intrusion on the holding cell floor," JARVIS announced.
As much as it pained him to leave Tony on his own, Steve had no choice but to go and see to that.
He had barely reached the containment level, spotted the empty cells and realized that Red Skull was gone, when something solid and very heavy crashed into him from behind, knocking him over and pinning him down. The last thing he heard was roaring and the heavy footfalls of massive dinosaurs – and the last thing on his mind of before he blacked out was overwhelming worry for little Tony.
Oh, no! Red Skull was on the loose, and Cap was nowhere to be seen! What had happened to him? He had to be okay, though, right? Cap always was. He'd turn up and save the day! Before that, though, Tony had to do something.
Maybe he was just eleven, but he could still do a lot of things. He wasn’t helpless. He was way smarter than that demented villain. He’d planned enough pranks to have a few tricks up his sleeve.
It turned out Skull-baiting was actually a lot of fun, and almost too easy!
Basically, the Cosmic Bonehead fell for every single thing Tony threw at him. Slipped on marbles. Ran after holograms. He even bought the “Do not open” -sign on Thor's door and let out the Bilgesnipe! Tony could’ve kept at this all day! Unfortunately, he had other things to think of. Distracting Skull wouldn’t solve any of the bigger problems.
He didn’t really have a clear plan for what to do next, but he ended up in his room, looking for ideas in that old box of things he’d kept. Oddly enough, they felt like things from years ago, but also like he’d just passed that exam yesterday and received that birthday card this morning – "Sorry I missed your party again this year, dad " – yeah, that had been one of the worst birthdays he’d had. Like every other birthday he’d ever had. Ugh.
Tony let the useless stack of papers slip to the ground, and that was when he saw it: an armor design! The first he’d ever done, wow, he really had been a child prodigy, hadn’t he? So, wait, was he actually still a child prodigy? Or did being a de-aged genius make him – uh, whatever, it was brilliant, all it lacked was a power source! And Time Stone or not, his arc reactor was still otherwise working just fine and that was the missing piece that he hadn’t had, the last time he’d been a kid!
He took off at an easy sprint, this time heading straight for the workshop, the details of what he needed to do already flashing through his mind. He had all the materials he needed, he could recycle the armor he’d been working on, he had plenty of tools, way better tools than he would've had back then, and JARVIS could help, too. It wouldn’t take long at all. He was going to solve this! Cap would be so proud!
Steve woke up half buried in concrete and paint, feeling like he’d been trampled by a horde of Hulks, his head aching viciously and his back bruised all over. The entire wall must have fallen on him. All the same, he was on his feet the instant he remembered what had happened.
Tony was somewhere out there, alone, facing Red Skull.
“Tony? Report in!” Steve shouted at the empty room, hoping against hope that something was still in working order, but there was no reply. “JARVIS? Can you locate Tony for me?” he tried, not really hoping to get an answer.
Thank God, the AI was actually still functional, and almost startled Steve with its sudden, urgent reply. “He is in his workshop, Captain. You had better hurry!”
Steve wouldn’t have needed the encouragement. He rushed out of the room and up the stairs as fast as his feet would carry him. The Tower was no small building, so it was a fairly long way to go, even for him.
The stairwell seemed endless, every floor identical. Fifteen floors left – ten – five – he couldn’t tell whether the ebbing and flowing sounds of battle that he heard were echoing from outside, or from little Tony trying to fend off one of the most dangerous supervillains Steve had ever fought. He should never have left Tony alone. If something happened to Tony, he would never forgive himself.
He reached the workshop just in time to see Tony facing Skull, looking even younger than before. So awfully young, barely even school-aged, but still standing up to the enemy, frightened as he looked.
Steve threw his shield at Skull with all his might. That was enough to catch the villain’s attention, and when Skull tried to go for Tony again, Tony was no longer unprepared, but ran into Skull with repulsor-powered roller skates, knocking him down. Steve could’ve cheered aloud, if it hadn’t been such a dire situation. This shouldn’t have been Tony’s fight at all. He was far too vulnerable.
Steve went after Skull again, to keep him away from Tony, but something had changed. This wasn’t the bumbling, half-minded shadow of Red Skull. He had somehow regained his intellect as well as his strength, and it was no mean task to fight him. Almost too much for Steve, he realized to his horror as he struggled to keep up with Skull. He hadn’t quite yet fully healed from that dinosaur stampede. He ended up on the floor, again, and again, pummeled by red fists, and the longer it went on, the more inevitable it seemed that he was not going to win this fight, not on his own.
In the end, it was Tony who solved the situation, for once and for all. Somehow, against all odds, he had managed to put together a working, kid-sized suit of armor.
The look on Tony’s face as he suited up was of such pure, wide-eyed joy that it was enough to light up the entire room. Stuck in the middle of a difficult battle as they were, Steve couldn’t help but smile, a swell of pride sweeping over him.
Hah, take that, Skull! The repulsors worked perfectly, and Tony blasted the ugly red freak right through the wall. If this wasn’t the coolest thing ever, he didn’t know what was! Never mind that the recoil tossed him against the wall and knocked the wind out of him. He slid to the floor, dazed but buzzing with excitement!
Cap was there in a second with a worried, “Tony? You okay?”
Tony opened the visor. “I’m awesome!” he announced happily. He was still feeling a little wobbly, though. “Uh, can you help me up?”
Of course he could, because he was Cap, and he was also awesome. He lifted Tony to his feet without a word.
Just then, all of a sudden – although he should’ve seen it coming because getting too excited was still a very bad thing – Tony felt it again, that awful tingling burning right at the center of his chest. No, no, no! He was going to get even younger! He couldn’t get much younger or he’d turn into a baby and then he’d turn into a mindless blob of cells and then he’d just cease to exist!
“I can’t control –“ he started, despair creeping into his voice. So much for being awesome. The truth was, he really was just a scared little kid, armor or not.
“Focus, Tony. You have the power to stop the time slips,” Cap said.
Cap was right, of course. Tony just needed to calm down. But how was he supposed to do that? If he failed – “What if it doesn't work? What if I de-age into nothing? What if I destroy the universe? Cap, I'm scared.”
He was a Stark, he was supposed to be strong. He’d done his best to be really brave today, like a grown-up, to make mum and dad and Cap and everyone proud, but now he just couldn’t help it. He could feel the tears slide down his cheeks. He wasn’t supposed to cry. Dad would get angry if he did.
But dad wasn’t here, Cap was. “No need to be, son,” he said, and put a huge, firm hand on Tony’s armored shoulder.
“Easy for you to say. You're a big, brave superhero.” Tony couldn’t keep his voice from quivering.
“I was brave long before I was Captain America,” Cap reminded Tony, and pulled back his hood to reveal his face. This wasn’t Cap anymore, it was Steve, all friendly and understanding. “And Tony Stark was a hero long before he was Iron Man.”
Tony saw Steve glance at the armor drawings on the floor, and then he looked at Tony again, with so much trust in his eyes. The amazing and perfect Captain America was looking at him and really believing in him, telling him that he was a hero, too.
How could he be a hero when he was so scared that all he really wanted was a hug?
Tony ran into Steve’s arms. Maybe Steve was a little surprised at first, but then he grabbed Tony in a hug anyway, massive, solid arms all around him. Tony was still crying, just a little, but he felt safe, as safe as he ever had in his short life, really. He could feel Steve’s heartbeat against his cheek, and it was so different from his own, which was still fluttering way too fast beneath the arc reactor; it was just like the rest of Steve, strong and steady and reassuring.
He focused on Steve. He could do this. Captain America believed in him. Everything was going to be okay.
It was okay.
The tingling feeling in his chest was changing, the ever-present gnawing pressure and wrongness that had been there all day was relenting, something was shifting – Tony reached for the arc reactor with his hand – and just like that, he picked up the Time Stone. It was out.
He was okay.
He was growing.
It was kind of scary, too, very scary, really, to gain decades in a matter of seconds.
Tony definitely didn’t mind having Steve’s arms around him.
Suddenly, Steve found himself embracing an adult Tony Stark, nothing but solid muscles beneath his hands, the pieces of the kid-sized Iron Man suit scattered around them on the floor, the tatters of too-small clothing clinging to Tony’s skin here and there.
“Are you okay?” he asked Tony cautiously, and shifted his position so he could hug Tony even tighter.
“I think so,” Tony said shakily. He was trembling a little, either from the shock of that sudden re-aging, or just cold, because he really wasn’t wearing very much. “That was… Yeah. You have no idea, Steve. I’m going to have nightmares about this. I’m so glad it’s over.”
Steve ran a soothing hand over Tony’s back. “I’m so glad you’re yourself again! What just happened?”
Tony pulled away from Steve and held out his hand. The Time Stone rested on his palm, shimmering with its mysterious, orange gleam. Steve glanced at Tony’s bare chest, and was pleased to see the beautiful, brilliant blue glow of the arc reactor, just the way it should be. It really was over, finally. Drawn towards that familiar light, Steve slid his hand over to it, covering it with his hand.
“You got it out! How?” Steve asked.
“All because of you,” Tony said, offering Steve a fond smile and putting his hand over Steve’s, interlacing their fingers. “I finally felt safe, really safe, for the first time since this damn thing began. And I believed in myself. Believed everything would be okay. All the clichés, you know. As schmaltzy as it is, apparently, that was all it took.”
“I – this was because of me?” Steve stuttered, raising his eyebrows in disbelief.
He was both flattered and appalled by that confession. It wasn’t a nice thought at all that Tony, regardless of his age, had constantly felt afraid ever since Thor had caught him from crashing to the ocean – always a little wary, never fully believing he’d be all right.
“Well, I’m not going to give you all the credit, but pretty much, yeah. You don’t really get how important you are to me, do you? How important you’ve always been to me?” Tony said, looking straight into Steve’s eyes, and it was nothing like the flirty looks Steve was more used to; it was so serious, so sincere that Steve could barely breathe.
“I do think I’m starting to get the idea,” Steve said, and leaned a little closer to kiss Tony on the lips.
Tony returned the kiss so fervently, pressing himself against Steve, that it was as if they’d been apart for weeks. Of course, in a way, they had been years and years apart, within the space of a single, awfully long day.
Steve was the one to finally break the kiss, pushing Tony away with the intertwined hands that were still caught between them. “Uh, as much as I’d like to stay like this for the next couple of hours, I think we have a few other problems left to deal with first.”
“Right,” Tony said, smirking, and let go of Steve’s hand. With his other hand, he flipped the Time Stone in the air, and caught it again. “Just minor problems, which I’ll solve in an instant now that I’m no longer one!”