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Best Years of Your Life

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“I’m encased in armor,” Tony said, chucking his bracelets on the table.  “You only have your flesh encasement of flesh.”

“It can’t stop everything,” Steve pointed out.  He’d taken off most of his suit, folding the pieces carefully in his arms.

“I’m just saying, if one of us is going to get hit by a mystery ray, it should be me.”  Tony headed straight for the coffeemakers that eternally decorated the kitchen the Avengers shared.  Tony had a private kitchen in his penthouse, but he spent far more time here.

There were two coffee machines, top of the line, identical except for custom paint job and contents.  One was hot rod red.  The other, royal purple.  It had been green, until Bruce quietly mentioned that he wasn’t all that fond of green, really.

The red one always held coffee, dark and heavily caffeinated.  The purple one always held something decaf, usually coffee in some variety of seasonal flavor, or occasionally tea.  Both had the standard office rules: if you take the last cup, you need to make more.  No one so far had broken that rule.

Tony poured his cup, pausing to rub his temple.  Steve was still talking, but he was only half-listening.

“-which I why I have the shield, and you were glowing blue, Tony! Not a good blue!”

“Well the armor protected me.”  He took a deep whiff of the coffee.  JARVIS must have turned the heat on.

There was a heavy thud as Steve dropped into a seat at the table.  He had to be exhausted to be so rough on the furniture.  “It felt odd when I touched you after, like it was humming.  I just think you should get a once-over.”

“I feel fine.”  That was a lie, his headache was getting worse, and he actually felt a little dizzy.  He moved to join Steve at the table, surprised to find he’d put his head down.  “Y’okay there, Cap?”

“Headache.  I think...” He made a strange sound, sort of a wheeze.  His head raised just enough to lock eyes with Tony.  “I don’t think I should have touched you when you were glowing.”

“Shit.”  Tony grabbed for the back of a chair, barely managing to set his mug down.  “JARVIS!  Where is everyone?”

“Dr. Banner is in his room, Agents Barlett and Romanoff are making their reports, and Thor is unaccounted for.”

“Get Bruce.”  His knees gave out, his vision blurring.  “Get someone!”

“Yes sir.”  JARVIS’s voice was as calm as ever, which was a little comforting to hear as Tony lost consciousness.

***

The music piping into Bruce’s bedroom quieted slowly, typically a sign an alarm was going to go off, or an alert come in, or JARVIS was about to address him.  Bruce had been a bit insulted by this, until he learned JARVIS did the same thing for Tony.  It wasn’t a good idea to startle someone who might be handling dangerous chemicals, and the bedrooms didn’t have security cameras.  A fact which implied Tony had handled dangerous chemicals in his bedroom.

“Dr. Banner?”

“Yes JARVIS?” He was already pulling on his shoes as the AI spoke.

“Mr. Stark and Captain Rogers appear to be in some distress.  I cannot make a judgement on what is happening, but Mr. Stark asked me to alert you.”

“Can’t make a- Are they okay?”

“They appear physically unharmed, but the person I believe to be Captain Rogers is having an asthma attack.”

Bruce leaped to his feet and ran for the door.  There were so many things wrong with that statement that he didn’t even bother to ask questions.  “JARVIS, is there anywhere I can get an albuterol inhaler in the building?”

“There are two in the first aid station in the Stark Industries labs on the tenth floor.”

“Call the elevator.”

***

“Mr. Stark?”

Tony groaned.  He felt like he was hungover, but he didn’t remember drinking.  Much.

“Mr. Stark, please wake up.  Captain Rogers needs assistance.”

Well that didn’t make any sense, so that weird British guy probably wasn’t talking to him.  Maybe he’d passed out in the living room again, after his dad had passed out in his chair and Tony had finished his drink for him.  Ah, bonding.

“Tony!”

Tony jerked his head up, which made it swim.  He was in... what looked like a kitchen, but not the one in New York or London.  He’d been sleeping at a table, but he didn’t feel nauseous, just kind of fuzzy-headed and dizzy.  From somewhere in the room he could hear someone gasping and choking.

“Oh shit, okay, what?”

“Captain Rogers is having an asthma attack.”

“Uh.”  Tony stood up, cautiously.  From here he could see someone in baggy clothes lying on the floor.  “Oh shit, shit okay, what do I do?”

“Remain calm.  Help him sit up.”

Tony dashed around the table, nearly tripping and falling on his face, but managing to slide to his knees next to the fallen boy.  He looked younger than Tony, blond and scrawny, and clutching at his too-big shirt as he tried to breathe.  Tony slipped an arm under his shoulder (Jesus he was thin) and sat him up.  The boy’s breathing seemed a bit better, but not good.

“Captain Rogers, try to exhale as thoroughly as possible.”  Tony could hear, and feel, him trying, but it didn’t seem to help.  Not to mention it was kind of weird how this guy kept calling the boy “captain.”

He glanced around, to figure out why the man wasn’t helping, but he couldn’t see him from the floor.  Was he standing in a corner like an asshole?  Just letting the boys look at him would help, Tony didn’t have any idea what he was doing, and this other guy seemed authoritative.

“Where are they?” a voice from outside the kitchen called.

That weird British guy reported, “In the kitchen, on the floor.  Please be prepared Dr. Banner, something has changed their bodies.”

“Okay,” the voice got louder, accompanied by footsteps, until a dark curly-haired man appeared in the doorway.  “Oh.  Well.  You weren’t kidding.”  Something about the scene gave him pause, but the doctor didn’t hesitate.  He was kneeling next to them and sticking an inhaler in the blond boy’s mouth before he’d finished speaking.

The doctor pushed the button a couple times, and Tony could feel the boy’s breathing settle down.  He hadn’t realized how worried he was until he had to force himself to relax.  If it was this scary from the outside, the blond boy must be terrified.

“Are you okay Steve?” the doctor asked, calm and friendly.

The boy, Steve, nodded.  He took a few slow breaths before he spoke.  “I don’t know what happened.”

“Well it must have been the shock.  Here,” he put the inhaler in his hand.  “Should be a few more uses in that.”

“How do I...”

“Oh, right, you never used one.”  He pointed to the button.  “If you’re having an attack, just push down on that and inhale what comes out.  You’ll want three or four puffs.”

“Okay...”

“Drinking some coffee will help too, the caffeine will relax your airway muscles.  It’s too slow-acting to help during an attack, though.”

Steve nodded solemnly, like he was seriously paying attention.  Tony ignored doctors if he could help it.  But then... he didn’t have any life-threatening conditions.

“Tony, do you know what happened?” the doctor asked.

“No, I just woke up here, and Steve was having an attack.”  He remembered he was still holding onto the boy and let go, scooting back and pulling himself into a chair.  “Do you?”

“I got back before you two, Phil wanted you to get looked at by the medics, and you were refusing.  Loudly.”  He gave them both an up-and-down.  “Clearly you needed it.”

“That is insulting, and I will not listen to it.”  There was a cup of coffee gently steaming on the table.  Tony grabbed it, intending to take a swig, before a previous statement sank in and he handed it down to Steve on the floor.

Something was going on.  This doctor appeared to know both of them, there was still no sign of that British guy, and apparently this Steve kid didn’t normally have asthma.  But Tony had been in over his head more often in fifteen years than most people were their whole lives, and he knew how to play along.

“You don’t need to tell Phil about this, do you?”

“No, I don’t,” the doctor gave him a flat look.  “Because JARVIS already reported it.”

“Yes sir,” the invisible British man agreed.  The voice sounded like it came from overhead.  Maybe this guy was broadcasting from a security room.  “As soon as I detected your bodies changing mass.”

Oh, so that’s why his shoes were too big. The clothes weren’t bad, only a little baggy.  “We’re not hurt!”

The doctor glared at him, something a little frightening about the look, then turned to Steve.  “Are you okay?  Breathing better?”

“Yes, much.  Thank you, sir.”

The doctor’s expression changed.  He looked at Steve thoughtfully, then back at Tony.  “You... have no idea who I am, do you?”

Tony groaned.  “We almost got away with it, kid!”

Steve ducked his head.  “I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Well neither do I, but you don’t let anyone know that!”

“Tony,” the doctor’s voice was stern.  “How old are you?”

“Eighteen,” he replied automatically.

“Try again.”

“Sixteen?”

“Not quite.”

“Fifteen,” he admitted.  “And almost a half.”

“And you, Steve?” the doctor asked much more gently.

“The same, sir.  Fifteen and four months.”

“What really?” Tony blurted.  “You look, like, ten.”

Steve looked hurt, and his eyes were so big in relation to his thin face that Tony felt like he’d kicked a kitten.  “I’m... small.  I have some health problems.”

“Well duh.”

Steve just looked baffled at that.

“Okay.  Ooooookay.”  The doctor stood, pushed his curls back.  “This is bad.  But, we can handle it.  Is my coffee warm, JARVIS?”

“Yes Dr. Banner, both have been warming since I was alerted of your fight ending.”

“We were in a fight?” Tony asked excitedly.

“Why?” Steve added.

“Because publicity stunts are always a bad idea.  Always.”  The doctor poured himself a cup of something from a purple machine.  “You two have no idea...”  He sighed heavily and took a sip.  “I never thought I’d be glad to be medically excused from stressful situations.”

Steve perked up a little.  “Do you have asthma too, sir?”

“No, I have... another condition.”  He smiled, the way Tony’s mom smiled in public.

“Wait wait wait,” Tony waved his hands.  “You’re not going to tell us what’s going on, are you?”

“I am definitely not.”

“That’s not fair!” he blurted.  “We don’t know how we got here, or why you think you know us, or why we’re in the kitchen of the future-”

“I thought it looked familiar,” Steve smiled.  “We saw pictures.”

“Or why this kid doesn’t make any sense half the time he talks.”

A clatter from outside interrupted him, but Tony ignored it as he did anything that didn’t serve his current purpose.  “You can’t leave us in the dark like this, okay?  And you can’t keep us here against our will.”  He jerked to his feet, stepped out of his oversized shoes, and marched for the door.

He bounced off the chest of someone who smelled like a locker room.  His eyes drifted up... and up...

“What is happening?” the giant man asked.  “Who are these youths?”

Dr. Banner sighed again.  “Tony,” he pointed at Tony, “and Steve,” he pointed at Steve.

“Ah,” the giant nodded solemnly.  “A curse.  How unfortunate.”

Tony laughed, surprising himself.  “A curse?  Come on, Paul Bunyan, don’t be crazy.”

“He’s not wrong,” Dr. Banner shrugged.  “We don’t know what that device the naked guy was using, but it could very well have been magic.”

Tony laughed again, and it took a second to force himself to stop.  “There’s no such thing as magic, okay?  I’m not a child.”

The giant patted his head, and used one hand to steer him toward the table.  “You have had a trying day, Man of Iron.”

“I need a drink.”

“Absolutely not,” Dr. Banner snapped.  He cupped his hands around his mug and muttered something to himself.

Behind the giant, a pair of average-sized humans had followed.  They too were staring at Tony and Steve like they were waiting for one of them to do a trick.

“Oh my god,” the man said. “They’re like fun-sized versions.”

The woman regarded them cautiously, giving both boys a wide berth as she retrieved a cup of coffee from the red machine.

“Tony.  Tony.  Tony.  Say something terrible from the eighties.”

“It is the eighties, dipshit.”  As the man’s glee sunk in, Tony felt the bottom drop out of his stomach.  “Isn’t it?”

“No,” the woman said coolly.  She was gorgeous, and absolutely poured into a black catsuit, but something about her gave Tony the chills.  “It’s 2012.”

Tony’s mouth was forming the F when he heard Steve start to gasp and wheeze again.  He quickly spun around in his chair and grabbed for the smaller boy’s hand.  Steve had remembered the doctor’s advice earlier, and was sucking on his inhaler, but Tony squeezed his fingers anyway, trying to be reassuring.

“I’m 92?” Steve gasped.  “I’m- I live to 92?”

“What?” Tony didn’t even need to think about the arithmetic.  “You were born in 1920?”  A thought struck him.  “Oh Jesus, I’m 47.”

The laughing asshole laughed more.  “You’re 47?  You won’t admit you’re 40!”

“Shut up, you laugh like a donkey.”

The man ignored him and kept laughing.  Tony was considering throwing Steve’s abandoned coffee mug at him, until the redheaded woman clapped a hand over his mouth.

“My name is Natasha, this is Clint, that’s Thor.”

“Seriously?” Tony asked.

“Dead serious.” She raised perfect eyebrows.  “All of us, as well as some others as needed, are a team of specialized soldiers.  We fight the people the police and the military can’t.  Or shouldn’t have to.”

“I’m a soldier?” Tony exclaimed, dismayed.

“I’m a soldier?” Steve echoed, sounding much happier about it.

“It’s complicated.” She shrugged, which was very distracting.  “You’re heroes.”

Steve seemed pacified, but Tony just had more questions.  “How did we get to the future?  And don’t say magic.

“We don’t know,” she said.  That wasn’t much better, but for a babe like her, Tony could let it slide.  “A man calling himself Dr. Everything attacked the team as we were helping clean up some hurricane damage in New Jersey.  We don’t know why, but he had a device that was blowing things up when its rays hit them.”

“Only most of the things.”  The man called Clint pulled her hand off his face.  “Like that mailbox that turned into that big blue phone booth.  Or the dog that turned into a different kind of dog.”

She shrugged again.  Still distracting.  “Like I said, we don’t know why.  Cap- Steve was helping some other volunteers get away, and Dr. Everything tried to shoot him.  You got in the way, Stark.”

“I did that?”

“I let him?” Steve scowled.

“You weren’t happy about it,” Clint offered.  “I believe your words were ‘thick-headed death-wishing bastard.’”

Steve looked offended at that, Tony didn’t bother.  “Okay, so, mystery ray.  And now we’re teenagers.  Wait, if Steve is 92, why is he still a soldier?”

“It’s a long story,” Dr. Banner said quickly, as Natasha opened her mouth.  “And you both look pale.  I think we should get some fluids in you at the very least.”

Clint gasped.  “Let’s show Steve the moon landing!”

“No,” Dr. Banner said firmly.  “Weird Science.”

“Tell me about it, but that’s every day around here.”

“No, I mean go find the Weird Science blu-ray, and I’ll make popcorn.”

***

Steve didn’t think he could be more confused than he was when he went to bed that night.  All these people had been friendly, the doctor had given him some medicine that helped him breathe better than even the inhaler had.  Better than he had in years, it felt like.

He didn’t know them, though.  They spoke strangely, used slang he didn’t know and made references to things he’d never heard of.  The movie they watched had been almost dirty, but the way Tony laughed was reassuring.  Just knowing Steve wasn’t the only one lost in the wrong century was helpful.

Still, he was confused.  How this could have happened, how he lived to be ninety and a soldier, how they were going to fix him.  No one seemed too panicked, they all acted like they had a plan, or at least a backup plan.  Even the strange man who was talking through the speaker had seemed calm.

He was confused, but he wasn’t scared.  This was too exciting to be scary.  Steve was in the future.

Someone rapped on a door in the bedroom, and Steve sat up.  The knock came again, and this time he was sure.  It was coming from the closet.

Steve grabbed the closest thing at hand (a very strange clock) and crept toward the door.  “Who’s there?” he hissed.

“It’s Tony!  I just didn’t want to scare you.”  The door popped open and Tony emerged, dressed in an undershirt with a picture on it, and baggy denim.  “My older self built, like, escape tunnels all over this place.  I found a map in my closet.  Come on, let’s get out of here.”

“What?  We can’t, we don’t have anywhere to go.”

“Uh, duh, we’re not leaving, we’re just going out.”

“Out?  Out where?”

“Out to see New York in 2012!”  He turned back to the closet and started pushing through the clothes inside.  “Get dressed.  Where are your pants?”

“Th- they didn’t fit.”  It sounded like an excuse, even to Steve, but it was true.  The pants that had gone along with this nightshirt were much too big, even with the drawstring.

“Here,” Tony tossed a pair of slacks at him.  “I was thinking, okay?  We accepted this whole ‘2012’ thing way too easily.  It could be some kind of... of elaborate ruse!”

“What would anyone get out of convincing us it’s the future?”  He hopped into the pants, still much too big.

“Hell I don’t know.  Where would you keep your belts, if you were you?”

Steve grabbed one from the rack, hanging on the back of the closet door.

“Like, okay,” Tony moved on to the dresser, pulling open all the drawers.  “I can see them wanting something from me.  Maybe this is somehow supposed to get around my dad’s strict no-negotiating-with-kidnappers policy.  I don’t see how, but I’m not the criminal mastermind.”

“It still doesn’t make sense though.  I... I’m not anyone special.”

“Right?  So either you’re a part of the ruse,” he found an undershirt that he apparently approved of, and chucked it at Steve’s chest, “in which case you would be doing everything to stop me from leaving here.”  He shot Steve a pointed glare.  “Or, we really are in the future, in which case I need to find an electronics store.  Like, right now.”

Steve pulled the shirt on.  It had a picture of a star inside a target.  “Well... I guess, if it is the future, I do want to see it.”

“Perfect!  Here, see if these shoes fit you.”

***

“So what’s the plan?” Clint asked, voice dripping with casualness, feet on the table and arrow in hand.  He really had the worst tell.

“Why are you looking at me?” Bruce frowned at his boots.

“You seemed to be taking charge in there.”

“I know how to handle asthma attacks and teenagers, I don’t know how to magically restore people to their chronological ages.”

Everyone looked at Thor.

“I have associates who may be of assistance,” he admitted.  “But it is a long journey now, to Asgard, and I would be away some time, even if I find them.”

“Where’s Coulson?  Is he weighing in on this?”

“He’s still handling the mess we made,” Clint reported.  “From when we were trying to clean up that mess.”

“Great.  Is SHIELD going to send someone else then?”

“I don’t think they want any part of this,” Natasha said.

“As if any of us do.”  Bruce leaned forward and rubbed his face.  “You know what we’re going to have to do.”

No,” Clint said firmly.  “Tony will never forgive us.”

“Does SHIELD have magic experts on staff?”

“Not... after... reasons.”

“Then we have to call him.”  Bruce sat up, and started making notes.  “Natasha, Clint, get that device back from SHIELD.  Thor, you and I will have to contact the doctor.”

“Doctor?  Doctor who?”

“No,” Bruce shook his head.  “Doctor Strange.”

“Nooooo,” Clint groaned.