As a general rule, Tony didn't boast about his intelligence. At any given time, he was the smartest man in the room, and that was just how it was. Pointing it out would be like pointing out that the Earth was round – utterly self-evident and a waste of breath.
But from time to time, it served his purpose to gloat. Like when he had to deal with Nick Fury and SHIELD.
"All I'm saying," Tony said as he surveyed the bridge. He was in the suit, having just spent the better part of half an hour underwater examining the helicarrier's engines. Steve stood on his left; he had been on the ship for the past couple days, helping SHIELD close the books on a few of the Avengers' missions. Together they both faced a very dour-looking Fury. "Is that if you had called me three hours ago when these power fluctuations began, instead of relying on your own somewhat-less-than stellar techs, you could have saved yourself a lot of trouble, and you'd also be able to get airborne again."
"If I wanted a lecture," Fury said, "I'd ask the Captain here."
"Hey," Steve protested in annoyance.
Fury went on as though he hadn't spoken. "What I want to know is, can you fix it?"
"Oh," Tony said. "Well, sure. That's the easy part."
Fury's one eye narrowed. "And what's the hard part?"
"Fitting you in my schedule," Tony said with a brilliant grin. It was so easy to be a smartass to Fury, and never mind that he would have come all the way out here anyway, just for the excuse to see Steve. Getting to rub it in Fury's face was just the icing on the cake.
Fury drew in a breath to speak, but before he could get a word out, a call went up from the bridge. "All hands! Man overboard! Repeat, we've got a man overboard!"
Startled, Tony turned to look at Steve, and saw the same unwelcome surprise he felt mirrored on Steve's face. A second later, he had the faceplate down. "Where is he?"
Maria Hill looked up from her computer. "Dead ahead," she said. She looked bewildered. "I don't know how he got there. He was just suddenly...there. But we don't have any personnel assigned to oceanside duties at the moment."
"Well, you do now," Tony said curtly, and he activated the thrusters.
It took him mere seconds to hit the sky. JARVIS was already scanning for life signs, and a flashing dot on the HUD soon alerted him to the unlucky man's location. Tony spotted him a moment later, and he put on more speed. If the way the guy was thrashing around was any indication, he either didn't know how to swim, or he was hurt. Either way, it didn't look like he was going to be on the surface for much longer.
He swooped down to the water, slowing his forward speed as he went. It was a dull cloudy day, and the surface of the ocean was dark and gray, punctuated with the occasional white-capped wave. The helicarrier had been in mid-flight when the problems occurred, forcing it to set down in the middle of the ocean. The nearest land mass was Greenland – and even that was some distance away.
The man in the water looked up as Tony drew near. He had dark hair and a mustache, but that was about all Tony had the chance to see. In the next instant, the man's eyes went very wide in utter shock, and his struggles to stay afloat stilled.
Immediately he sank beneath the waves.
"Ah, damnit," Tony muttered as he went diving.
Fortunately his quarry hadn't had time to get very far. It was a fairly simple matter to wrap his arms about the man and rocket upward, back into the cold gray air. "Don't worry," Tony said. "I got you."
The man he had just rescued didn't say a word. He just clung tightly to the suit as they flew up and toward the helicarrier.
A large crowd had gathered on deck in spite of the chilly temperature. There was already a team of medics standing by with thermal blankets and a first-aid kit, ready to tend to the fallen man. Steve stood beside Fury, looking anxious, no doubt wishing he could have helped instead of having to just stand there and watch.
The man Tony had just saved was wobbly on his feet. He kept one arm about Tony's waist for balance as he swayed and looked around, trying to take everything in at once. He looked completely bewildered, like he had no idea where he was or how he had gotten there. Not at all the way someone who had gone overboard from the helicarrier ought to look. Nor was he wearing a SHIELD-issued uniform. And just about the time Tony started to get a very bad feeling about all this, the man gasped in shock.
Nick Fury stepped forward, his leather coat flapping in the wintry wind. There was an expression on his face Tony had never seen before. If he hadn't known Fury was constitutionally incapable of it, he might have even labeled that look as fear.
Shivering, dripping water everywhere, the stranger removed his arm from Tony and took a step forward. "Steve? Is that you?"
It was the voice that cued Tony in, a voice he hadn't heard in twenty years. He took a step to the side, putting some distance between himself and the man he had pulled from the sea. And as the man rushed forward, his face lighting up with a joy Tony had never seen from him before, he finally recognized just who it was he had rescued.
Steve looked shocked. "Howard?"
"Oh my God," Howard Stark said. "It's you. I finally found you."
The absolute best thing about being Iron Man was having a polished gold faceplate to hide behind. Screw flying, forget repulsors and unibeams, ignore the sexiness. The helmet was where it was at.
At least, that was Tony's on-the-spot decision.
Safely hidden behind the mask, he could stare at his father and not be seen. No one could witness his utter shock. No one knew that his initial reaction was not one of astonished happiness, but repulsed horror.
Everyone was talking at once. Fury was trying to get everyone inside while simultaneously demanding that nobody say a word. Steve looked unaccountably flustered, trying not to say too much while he accepted Howard's embraces. A senior agent barked orders at the helicarrier crew. The medic team tried unsuccessfully to get Howard to come with them. And in the middle of it all was Howard Stark, live and in the flesh and tripping all over himself in his enthusiasm to speak to Steve.
Tony did nothing. Just about everyone had forgotten him except Steve, who kept glancing up at him. He supposed there was probably some protocol to be followed for when your long-dead father suddenly appeared in the ocean right in front of you, but if so, he had never seen that file.
Not that he cared. He had already seen enough. Without a word, he rose into the air and flew into the helicarrier.
"Stark!" Fury called after him, and Tony couldn't help laughing. He knew Fury could hear him over the comm, but he didn't care. Let Howard answer. After all, he only would think his dear old friend Nick was calling his name.
Then he was deep within the ship, as far away from the commotion on deck as he could get. For about thirty seconds he contemplated staying in the suit, then he decided to say screw it. He wasn't going to hide (well, okay, any more than he already was.) This was his world. He belonged here. Howard didn't.
He knew now what had caused the power fluctuations that had so baffled the helicarrier's techs, prompting Fury to swallow his pride and call him in. Not that the knowledge really helped much. He still didn't know if they were dealing with a portal to another universe, time travel from this universe, magic, or some secret option nobody had yet thought of.
There were two techs in the server room, each of them looking frustrated and angry. Tony shooed them out with flapping hand gestures and terse commands. He knew he was being rude, but he didn't care.
He wanted to be alone. He needed to be alone.
Here, surrounded by row upon row of computers and servers, there was no one to see as he leaned forward, bracing both arms on the back of a chair. No one saw him bow his head and close his eyes. No one saw him fight for breath, or tremble minutely.
What a sick fucking joke.
Over the years, there had been occasions when he had sometimes wished he might have the chance to speak to his father again. Granted, those times had been few and far between, but they had happened. Mostly this had been in the early years when he had first taken over the company, when he would have wanted to ask for some guidance. Obadiah Stane had been there, though, supremely confident that he knew what Howard would have wanted. Too young, drunk more often than not, and completely unprepared to be the CEO of the world's largest weapons manufacturing company, Tony had been more than happy to follow Stane's advice.
But only at first. As he grew more comfortable with the role (although never completely comfortable, no, because he would always prefer to be working and using his hands than sitting in a suit in an executive boardroom), he had relied less and less on Obie – and therefore on Howard – and more on his own intuitions. It wasn't until his return from Afghanistan that he had thought about his father, and realized that it had been years since he had wondered what Howard would think about his business practices.
One thing he hadn't needed Obie to tell him. Howard would have hated his decision to stop building weapons. Howard would have said the lessons from Afghanistan showed that it was their duty to keep at it, to do better, to try harder. Howard would have looked at Tony-the-CEO with the same cold, dispassionate dislike he had displayed to the child of seven who had been sent off to boarding school just to get him out of the house.
And the Howard out there now? How would he look at Tony Stark?
He drew in a deep breath through his nose. Held it. Let it out slowly.
He didn't need to be thinking about this shit right now. Howard was not his problem. He was here to fix the helicarrier's damaged software and get the engines going again. He was going to collect Steve on his way out – that had been one of his conditions for coming out here – and then he was leaving. That was all.
Bitter laughter welled up within him. Of course. Right on schedule, too.
"Are you all right?"
He looked up as Steve entered the room. He smiled; it wasn't much of a smile really, more like a grimace that pulled at his lips. "I just plucked my father, who just so happens to have died twenty years ago, out of the ocean. So to answer your question, everything's fine, I am fine, and I can't even imagine why you would feel the need to ask me that."
Steve didn't say anything right away. He just stood there, concerned and somewhat damp from enduring Howard Stark's dripping-wet hugs.
And okay, it was childish, but dammit, it wasn't fair. He hadn't seen Steve in three days, since they had kissed each other good-bye under a clear blue winter sky. Steve had been holding a flash drive that contained recorded statements from the Avengers regarding their last few missions. He had promised to return by the end of the week, after getting Fury and SHIELD off their backs for a little while. Tony had whispered filthy things in his ear in a transparent effort at postponing the moment when Steve had to leave. Instead of giving in, Steve had kissed him thoroughly, told him that he loved him, and stepped into the government-issued car waiting at the curb.
Steve was his. His super soldier, his friend, his lover, his confidant. They had fought together, they had played together. Once they had been mind-controlled into almost killing each other. They traveled the world doing press tours together. They did interviews together. They worked out in the gym, they went swimming, they worked so well together in battle that they did not even need words. At night he went to sleep with Steve's warm bulk beside him, and when he woke up it was to the sight of those blue eyes smiling at him.
And now this.
Howard fucking Stark. Come to claim Steve for his own.
"Does he, ah, does he know where he is? When he is?"
"I don't know," Steve said. "We're pretty sure he's not from this world. He said something about a hazy light on the surface of the ice." He frowned. "I guess in his world, this part of the ocean is covered in ice."
"Yeah, global warming's a bitch," Tony said absently. "So how's he going to get back there? To his world?"
"I don't know," Steve said again. "I think they're all hoping that you might know."
"Ah, portals aren't really my thing," Tony said with a fair measure of self-deprecation. An idea occurred to him then, stunning in its simplicity. "You know, I should get Reed Richards, bring him back here. He's your go-to guy when it comes to portals, knows all about 'em. Unless this is just simple time travel, maybe, in which case again I should go get Reed."
Steve didn't interrupt. He didn't seem amused. But neither did he look angry or upset. In fact, he was doing a really damn good job of keeping a poker face right now, as though he was merely waiting to take his cues from Tony before letting his own emotions – whatever they might be – show. "So you're not going to talk to him?"
"No," Tony said. He turned around, walking down one row of servers, feeling the tremendous heat they gave off, noting with one part of his brain which ones looked like they would need a hard reboot versus the ones that were still somewhat functional. "No, I'm not. That would probably be a really bad idea. You know that whole thing about screwing with your own timeline… And even if he isn't from this world, it's still probably a really bad idea. And I bet you dollars to donuts that Fury knows that. They aren't going to tell him who I am. I mean--"
"Tony," Steve started to say.
"What? What do you want me to say?" He rounded on Steve. His words were forceful yet controlled. But still, there it was. The anger he had been trying so hard to keep in check. "Am I supposed to pretend I'm happy about this?"
"Shouldn't you be?" Steve asked carefully. "If I had a chance to talk to my dad one more time…"
"Yeah, well, good for you," he said, "but that's not gonna happen here."
"Tony. I know we haven't…" Steve faltered. He looked down, clearly ill at ease. "We haven't really talked much about Howard…"
No shit they hadn't. It weirded him out too much to even think about it, especially once they had begun sleeping together. His father had played a role in Captain America's creation, and if that wasn't a recipe for some very unwelcome thoughts, he didn't know what was. It was better just to pretend it had never happened, forget that Steve had known his father, ignore the fact that Howard Stark had spent more time and effort on finding Steve Rogers in the ice than he had on watching his own son grow up. "There's a good reason for that."
"I know," Steve said. He looked up again, frowning slightly. "And I never pushed, because it was obvious you didn't want to talk about it. But I think we need to now. Don't you?"
"No," Tony snapped. He turned down another row of servers, putting them between Steve and himself. "Actually I'm pretty sure we never need to have this conversation."
"Tony." Steve took three steps to his left, so they stood facing each other at opposite ends of the row of servers. "Even if you don't go talk to him, you have to face the fact that your father – or at least some version of him – is on this ship right now. This is happening. Whether you want it or not."
Exasperated, Tony flung out his hands. He had never meant to say any of this, but now he couldn't seem to stop the words from pouring out in a torrent of anger and vitriol. "What do you want me to say, Steve? You want me to say we didn't get along? That in fact he hated my guts and I hated his? Yeah, okay, I can say that. Hell, I can do you one better than that. I can tell you that he didn't even want me around, that the only person who was ever happy to see me when I came home for the weekend from boarding school was the butler, who, by the way, was more of a father to me than that man ever was!"
Steve stared at him, his eyes very blue against his sudden pallor. "I'm sure it wasn't really like that. You just thought—"
"Right, no, you're right," Tony said. "I'm sure I just misinterpreted all those times I saw the back of his hand. I mean, I probably deserved at least half of them, right? Everyone knows what an asshole I am, why shouldn't I have been an asshole at age eight, too?" He stalked toward Steve, almost choking on anger and all the things he had never said before, all the things he had told himself he would never, ever say. "You wanna know why I build robots, why my closest friend for years was just an artificial intelligence? Because I grew up in a house where I learned that human beings can't be trusted. They'll shit on you, they'll knock you down, and you'll never, ever make them happy."
And fuck it, all those things were out there now. It was like they had a weight of their own, somehow, making the silence between them heavier than it should have been.
This time Steve didn't try to speak. Maybe he couldn't. He just stared, a horrorstricken look on his face that Tony would have given anything to take away, especially since he was directly responsible for it.
So instead of trying to make things better, he just had to go ahead and make them worse. "Howard Stark only ever taught me three things," he continued, barely pausing long to draw breath. "How to drink, how to lie, and that I was never going to be good enough. And I learned those lessons so fucking well that I still can't let go of them. So you want to know if I plan to talk to him? What the hell would I say, Steve? Just what exactly would I say? 'Look at me, Dad. Are you happy now? Do I make you proud?'"
He sneered the last word, putting as much sarcasm he possibly could into it, praying in vain that Steve wouldn't hear the truth – that in fact he desperately longed to ask such a question, and to hear the answer come back yes. It was the question that had driven him in his youth, to be better, smarter, more creative, more productive. He had never asked it, though. Not with words. There had never been a reason. He had seen the answer in Howard's eyes any time he produced his latest invention, or solved a new challenge, or untangled a new riddle.
It had never been enough. Nor would it ever be.
"Get out," he said. As angry as he had just been, he found that he could not sustain it anymore. Now he just felt tired. He wanted to finish his work here and leave. That was all. "Just go. Please. I can't… I can't look at you right now."
"Why?" Steve asked, which was stupid because he had to know the reason, he had to, and even if he didn't, Tony didn't think he could bear to say it.
Tony turned away. "You know why," he said dully. Because my father spent his life looking for you. Because you were the one he wanted.
"If I could change it, I would," Steve said quietly. "I hope you know that."
The door opened, then closed, and Tony was left alone.
Steve hadn't made it three steps beyond the door when a SHIELD agent found him. "Captain Rogers, you're needed on the bridge."
Having expected this, Steve just nodded. Wordlessly he followed the agent through the helicarrier.
Seeing Howard Stark again had been a nasty shock, something he was still trying to come to terms with. He hadn't really known how to respond as Howard hugged him, shivering with cold and dripping wet from his unexpected dip in the ocean, yet not seeming to even notice the discomfort. Instead Howard had just radiated sheer joy, his eyes shining, his entire face lit up.
It was a look Steve remembered from the war. Back then, though, he had only seen that look when Howard had perfected a new design, when some test had given him the results he wanted. Or when he had first given Steve his shield. Even then, though, Howard's happiness hadn't been with Steve so much as with the shield itself, merely an inventor's joy that his creation was being well-received and appreciated.
He had never imagined that Howard might feel so strongly about him. That their friendship, as tenuous as it had been, had meant so much to the man. In truth it had made him uncomfortable, and he had disentangled himself from Howard's embrace at the first chance he got, and quickly moved away.
By then, of course, Tony had already been gone. Steve had stayed with the group composed of Howard, Nick Fury, and assorted SHIELD agents as they returned to the bridge of the helicarrier, but he had not participated in any of the conversation. He had only lingered long enough to hear a few pointed questions from Fury, ones aimed at figuring out where and when Howard came from without giving too much away about their own situation. And when the first chance to slip away presented itself, he had taken it without hesitation.
He saw now that he had still waited too long. He should have gone to Tony straight away, should have removed Howard's arms from about him and followed Tony the second he fled the scene topside.
They had never talked about it before. His relationship with Howard, and their involvement in the war. He was aware that Howard had spent many long years and millions of dollars searching for him, but only as facts on paper; he had never spoken to Tony about it.
They should have.
He knew that now. Well, he had always known it, but in the back of his mind. And he had let himself forget about it for weeks, even months at a time. And whenever anything had come up to remind him, he had allowed himself to be distracted, to rationalize putting it off again. After a while, it had become something he avoided simply because he was afraid to bring it up. He had known it would not be a pleasant conversation for either of them, and he hadn't been able to justify putting them both through that pain if it wasn't completely necessary.
So he had let it go.
Now there was no more avoiding it. Because Howard was here, somehow. Incredibly, impossibly here. And it didn't matter if Howard came from this world or not, because he was still here and that was all that mattered.
That, and the fact that his mere presence was enough to hurt Tony.
As they neared the bridge of the helicarrier, Steve sighed a little. He had always suspected that Howard and Tony had not had a warm relationship. By itself the rather pointed lack of conversation about the topic had been enough to warn him. Other, more oblique, hints had come from the infrequent times Tony had mentioned Howard – almost always in a public setting, and with enough filial warmth and affection that suspicions would not be aroused. Only Steve, who knew him so well, had been able to read between the lines and guess at all those things Tony did not say.
Well, some of it had been said now, and it was enough to turn Steve's stomach to learn that all those terrible things he had previously only suspected were not only true, but that the truth was so much worse than he had guessed. It made him see Howard and Tony in a whole new light – a blinding white light that was merciless in pointing out everything about both men, including their flaws, leaving nowhere to hide.
"Captain." They had reached the bridge, and the conference area in the back. Maria Hill came toward him at a rapid pace. She dismissed the agent who had delivered him here, then said, "We need to talk."
"I figured as much," Steve said.
She led him over to the table where once upon a time he had sat and discussed Loki and the Chitauri. Before he was really an Avenger. Before he had gotten to know the five most amazing people in his life. Before he had known who Tony Stark was, or dreamed how important the other man would become to him.
They sat down. Maria took a deep breath. "Howard Stark is insisting on talking to you. He's threatening to take over the ship if we don't let him."
Steve couldn't help smiling a little at that. "The apple doesn't fall too far from the tree, does it?"
Maria did not look amused. Quickly Steve cleared his throat and became serious again. "Can he do that?"
"From where he is right now? No. But I'm sure he's resourceful enough to get out, if we push him."
He nodded. "You gotta admire a guy who's not daunted by facing technology seventy years ahead of his time."
"Actually it's only forty years," Maria said dryly. "It's 1975 where he came from."
Steve did some quick math in his head, then asked, "And have you found out if he's from our world yet? Is this time travel?"
Maria shook her head. "Everything points to him coming from a different world. Some kind of parallel reality."
He liked that, her use of the word parallel instead of alternate. Because clearly enough things remained the same in that world that Howard Stark was still searching futilely for Steve Rogers.
And then he frowned. "What if… What if he finds me in that world?"
"Then I guess you'll get to rejoin civilization a little bit earlier," Maria said. She didn't seem too interested in pursuing that line of conversation, though. "Director Fury has given permission for you to speak to Stark, but you have to be very careful what you say to him. You can't tell him anything about our world. Nothing that will influence him in any way." She paused. "That means you can't tell him about the Avengers, or Iron Man, or what Tony is doing."
He nodded again, having expected as much. Like Tony had said, it was too dangerous to give out that kind of information. What if this Howard Stark was meant to find Steve Rogers in the ice, but he gave up the search because today he learned that it was pointless, that SHIELD would do it for him in forty years? What if because of that fateful decision, that other Steve was never found? What would happen to that world when Captain America wasn't there like he was supposed to be when the Chitauri invaded? How many people would die?
"I understand," he said firmly.
Maria looked at him for a moment, gauging his sincerity, then she nodded. She stood up. "Come with me."
The room where they had Howard Stark was clearly meant for guests of some stature, but its main function was still containment. In one corner was a door leading to a small bathroom. A long mirror covered most of one wall. There was a narrow bed to lie down on, and three chairs set around a small circular table. A beige cafeteria tray sat on the table with the remains of a meal someone had brought. Howard himself was sitting in one of the chairs and looking around with interest.
"It's uncanny," Nick Fury said as he gazed through the two-way mirror. "He looks exactly the way I remember him looking at that age."
"So as far as parallel worlds go," Steve said, "that one's running pretty close to our own?"
Fury looked sharply at him; they were standing in the room next door. Behind them were two SHIELD agents busy monitoring a dozen different readouts from Howard's room, including thermal output, audio and video feed from several hidden cameras, and infrared imaging. "You could say that."
"I'm just asking," Steve said. "Trying to figure out what I'm going to say to him."
"Try saying nothing," Fury advised.
Steve huffed a little with wry amusement. "I'll try my best, sir."
Like Maria Hill before him, Fury did not appreciate his attempt at levity. "Do better than that, Captain."
Howard was expecting him; he was on his feet even before Steve came fully into the room. When he saw who it was, he relaxed and smiled. "They let you in. I wasn't sure if they would."
Steve nodded. "Yeah." He wondered if Howard was going to try to hug him again, but apparently he had gotten that out of his system on the helicarrier's deck, for he remained standing beside the table. "Fury said you wanted to see me."
"I do," Howard said. He had aged well, Steve noted. There was gray in his hair, but not much; his mustache was still almost completely black. There were more lines on his face, and he was thinner than Steve remembered, except for his belly, which had the soft look of a man who drank too much. "Will you sit?" He smiled, and he looked so charming then, so casual and happy, that Steve was forcefully reminded of Tony, and the way he too could effortlessly charm the world around him.
Still a bit cautious, Steve sat down. He chose the chair farthest away, a gesture that Howard did not miss. "Let me guess," Howard said. "They warned you what you can say." He made a gesture to the mirror, obviously knowing that he was being observed.
"Under the circumstances, it seems prudent," Steve said.
Howard nodded. "I agree." He looked at Steve, drinking in the sight of him. "My God…" He grinned. When he did, the years fell away, and he looked so much like the younger man Steve had known that something twinged painfully in his chest at the sight.
"Just to see you again," Howard said. "You have no idea how badly I've wanted this. And for so long." He made another gesture at the mirror. "They won't tell me what year it is. Still, it seems pretty obvious that it's not 1975 here."
Steve folded his hands on the table and said nothing. He told himself that he stood a better chance of withstanding Howard's efforts at worming information out of him than anyone else in SHIELD – after all, he did live with Tony, who was a mastermind at getting people to reveal things better left unsaid. He doubted there was anything Howard could try that Tony hadn't already attempted.
Thinking of Tony made him frown. Was Tony out there now watching this? Was he sitting there in the server room, monitoring them from a distance?
He couldn't decide if that would be better or worse. Maybe in some cases ignorance truly was bliss.
"It's okay," Howard said. "I understand. I really do. Why do you think I haven't asked about myself, and where I am in this world?"
"Then you know how this has to be," Steve said. It didn't escape his notice that Howard had only mentioned himself, not his wife or son. There could be two reasons for that. The simplest was that this Howard Stark had never gotten married and had a son. The second was that he simply didn't consider them important enough to mention.
"I do," Howard assured him. "And trust me, I didn't ask to see you so I could give you the third degree. I just wanted to see you again. To know that you were found. You really don't know what this means to me."
The intensity of his stare was frankly unnerving. But Steve had been stared down before by guys far scarier and more powerful than Howard Stark, so he did not flinch away, or look aside. He just sat there, hoping that his pounding heart wasn't blatantly obvious, and wondering what Tony must think about all of this – if he was even watching.
"I'm not going to ask if I'm the one who found you in this world," Howard said, "although I can't imagine who else might have done it if it wasn't me. And I'm not going to ask if I explained to you why it was so important that I find you. I'm just going to tell you now, so you understand."
"I don't think—" Steve began.
Howard held up a hand. "I'm not asking anything. I don't want information from you. I just want to explain."
Despite himself, Steve glanced at the mirror, where he knew Fury was standing and observing. He supposed if Howard started to say something he really shouldn't be saying, Fury would send someone in to break things up. Until then, he would just have to sit here and listen.
Howard took a breath, collecting himself. He stared at Steve with those dark eyes so like his son's. "When you went into the ice, I thought for sure we would find you within days," he said. "It seemed so easy back then. But we didn't find you. And I… Well, I'm embarrassed to say I didn't handle that very well. I couldn't understand it. You're Captain America. It wasn't right that we couldn't find you."
Howard never even blinked. "I should have told you how much I looked up to you. How much I respected you. How much I wanted to be you." His mouth tightened, his lips thinning into a rather bitter expression that Steve recognized all too well from seeing it on Tony's face. "At least I have the chance now."
Steve sat very still. He had never known Howard had cared so much, had never even guessed. It shamed him in a way he didn't completely understand, as though he was somehow to blame for Howard's feelings.
"Anyway, after it became clear that we weren't going to find you quickly, I made myself a promise," Howard continued. "I promised myself that never again would I lose a friend like you." Now his expression lightened; he even smiled again. "And here you are."
Steve didn't know what he was expected to say. He sat there with his hands clutching each other tightly, and he nodded a little, just a jerky motion of his head to indicate he had heard.
"I started working for the U.S. government shortly after you went down," Howard said. "I guess by now you know all about the Manhattan Project and what we did." He paused. "Well, assuming you have that in this world. Anyway, there was no time then to think about other things. But when my work there was concluded, I returned to New York, and I began my real life's work.
"You, Steve. You have driven it all. When I swore never to lose someone like you again, that was selfish." He leaned forward, caught up in his words, speaking them with the absolute sincerity of someone who had never doubted the rightness of his opinion for even a moment. "Because there are so many people out there, each with their own private Captain America. Their sons, their brothers, their husbands. And every one is at risk. Every one is in danger of being lost, just as you were lost.
"So I swore I would make that stop. That's why I've devoted my life to weapons technology. I want to make sure that every soldier out there – every Captain America – is safe. I want to bring them all home."
Howard reached one hand toward his, but fell short of actually touching him. "Everything I've done, everything I've built, everything Stark Industries has done – it's all for you, Steve. You are my guiding light, my source of inspiration. When I think I can't possibly invent something else, when I think I can't possibly combat every danger our soldiers are exposed to, I remember you and how you never gave up. And then I think of some new weapon or defense to protect our men.
"I will never stop working to save our soldiers. This is my mission, and I'll stand behind it for as long as I'm able. And when I'm gone, my son will carry on in my stead. That is my legacy to him. I will ensure he carries it well beyond whatever I can achieve." He glanced around the room, his gaze roving over the cameras that were supposed to be invisible. Amusement shone in his eyes. "I might be limited by the technology of my time, but I can tell you I've already got a few ideas of what the future holds for Stark Industries."
He sat back in his chair. "And that's what I needed to tell you, Steve. What I wanted you to know. Everything I've done, everything I do, it's all for you."
Steve remained perfectly still. He doubted he could have moved even if the helicarrier had begun to sink into the ocean at that very moment. He felt like he was frozen in the ice all over again, stricken with such cold horror that every beat of his heart was like a jagged knife in his chest.
It's all for you.
Ever since waking into this strange new century, he had wondered what had happened to Howard. When he had met Tony, his bafflement had only deepened. And the past year he had spent with Tony, getting to know him, learning what drove him, falling in love with him, had only heightened the mystery. How could the man he had known, so clever, so fearless, so generous, have turned into the man who had fathered Tony Stark?
Now he knew. It was all his fault.
He had never dreamed his disappearance could have had such a terrible effect on Howard. He had never even suspected the depth of the man's feelings toward him.
A voice inside his head tried to speak reason. It was the voice of Captain America, the soldier who never gave up, who always did the right thing. It wasn't your fault. You couldn't have known. And this isn't your Howard, remember that. You don't know that the man you knew felt the same way.
But there was no reason to think the Howard he had known had felt any different. I should have known, the voice of Steve Rogers insisted. Instead he had lain frozen in the ice for seventy years. And even then, even asleep, he had managed to ruin people's lives. Howard's determination not to lose anyone else had warped his good intentions into something frightful and cold. In the process, he had alienated his own son and taught Tony that he did not matter, that he would never be good enough, no matter how smart he was or how much he accomplished.
Oh God, Tony.
Sickness churned in his stomach; he twisted to one side and leaned over, pressing one hand to his mouth. He had the terrible feeling that he was about to throw up.
"Steve? Are you all right?" Chair legs scraped against the floor as Howard stood up.
The thought of letting Howard touch him got Steve moving. He pushed himself to his feet and moved quickly away. "Don't," he said hoarsely. He swallowed hard, forcing his stomach to calm down. "Just…don't."
"Okay," Howard said. He held up his hands to show that he wasn't going to touch. He glanced toward the mirror, then looked back at Steve. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine," Steve said mechanically. He reached for the chair, an awkward kind of pawing motion, then grabbed it and pulled it close enough that he could sit down again. "I just—"
But he stopped right there. He couldn't say anything else. His shock over Howard's confession was damning enough. His reaction alone had probably told Howard a dozen things, including the biggest reveal of them all: that this was all news to him, which meant he had not spoken to the Howard of his world.
What this Howard, coming from another world, made of such a revelation, Steve couldn't begin to guess.
He had to get out of here. And fast. If Tony had been watching all this, if he had heard those words… God.
He placed his hands flat on the table, preparatory to getting up – and then he stopped, frozen in place, held by a single thought.
Howard had mentioned his son.
This Howard Stark had a son, too.
And for this Howard, it was 1975. Assuming that his son had been born on the same day, that meant the Tony in that other world was six years old.
Still young enough, maybe, that things could change.
Steve forced himself to relax. He even managed a smile. "So, you have a son."
"I do," Howard said. He sat down again, but he looked a little cautious now, like he was unsure if he should be answering questions.
"And you're married?" Steve asked. He hoped this was all right. If Fury sent someone in now to pull him out, he was going to have to object. Strenuously.
And Tony…if he was still watching… Well, hopefully Tony would forgive him for what he was about to say.
"I am," Howard said. He held up his left hand. "I don't wear a ring, of course. But yes, I'm married." His eyes softened a little bit. "Maria Carbonell Collins Stark. And I very much hope I found her in this world, too."
"You know I can't say," Steve said.
"I know, I know," Howard said quickly. "Still, a man can hope, right?" He smiled, and though it was just the ghost of his earlier beaming grin, it was enough to almost make Steve smile back on pure reflex. "So yes, to answer your questions. I'm married, and I have a son."
"How old is he?" Steve asked.
"He's six," Howard said, and his smile disappeared. Now he just looked watchful, obviously curious about this line of questioning.
But you'll never put it together, Steve thought sadly. You'll never understand why you need to be reminded about your wife and your son, and why you should think about them.
Unless something happened here, today, to make him understand.
"Tell me about them," he invited. "Tell me about your son."
Howard's eyes narrowed. His need to figure out Steve's motives was plain to see, and it was obvious that he was holding himself back from asking anything in return only with an effort. "What would you like to know?" he said. "I've been married for almost twelve years. My wife is beautiful and smart. She plays the piano and she is heavily involved in charity work. My son is spoiled, extremely intelligent, and is probably having the time of his life now that I'm not around."
Steve blinked in shock. Not so much at the words themselves, but at the unmistakable bitterness in them.
Surprise was a luxury he couldn't afford, though. If Fury didn't already have someone on the way, he would soon. Steve's window of opportunity was rapidly closing.
And he couldn't let it pass him by. He had only one shot at this. It was too late for his Tony Stark, the one he loved with all his heart. But maybe it wasn't too late for one little boy in another world.
"You should spend more time with your family," he said. "Especially your son." He could imagine it now, Fury in the other room barking orders, his eye narrowed in anger.
His time here was very short.
Howard was looking at him now with some bewilderment – and a growing suspicion. "Tony?"
"Yes," Steve said. "With Tony."
"You know my son," Howard said. For a few moments he looked utterly lost, like he had no idea what to make of all this. Then confidence swept over him again. "Of course you do. I'm sure this ship is full of SI tech and weaponry." He smiled with pride.
Behind them, the door opened. "Captain?"
There were two of them, SHIELD agents armed and in full uniform. Steve stood up, but ignored them both. "About Tony. Spend time with him," he urged. "Get to know him. He's going to do some amazing things, Howard, I promise you. You just watch."
"Captain." The agents moved up to flank him.
Steve did not take his eyes off Howard. He continued to ignore the agents. He was pretty sure they would not cause a scene, that Fury would not want him dragged out of there – as though anyone could drag him somewhere if he didn't want to go. "Tell him you're proud of him. Tell him—"
Howard lifted his chin, clearly affronted. "My son is a genius. I'm sure he already knows. And you're breaking a lot of rules in order to lecture me on how to handle my own son."
"Captain," one of the agents said. He laid a hand on Steve's arm. "The Director needs to see you. Now."
I'm sure he already knows. Steve nearly laughed out loud in disbelief. Was it really true that Tony's miserable childhood and the problems he still had as an adult were all due to a simple misunderstanding? Was such a thing even possible?
No, he decided. It was not. There was a lot more at work here than something as easy as Howard saying the words out loud.
His time had run out. "Just remember what I said," he urged, "when you get back." He let the agent currently holding his arm propel him toward the door.
"I will," Howard promised, although his immediate acquiescence reminded Steve only too well of the times when Tony replied in kind – which meant he most likely did not really mean it, but was only agreeing to prevent an argument. "It was good to see you, Steve. You have no idea what this means to me."
From somewhere, he found the ability to smile. To even make it a little bit genuine. "I'm glad you had this chance. Just don't waste it."
He let the SHIELD agents usher him from the room. After all, there was no reason to stay. He had nothing further to say.
"What are you playing at, Captain?" Fury demanded.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Steve said.
"This is not some kind of game," Fury said tightly. "You were told not to give him any information!"
"What did I give him?" Steve shot back. "Some advice. That was all. I didn't tell him anything about this world."
"You told him enough," Fury said. "He knows that you and Tony Stark are connected somehow. He knows Stark Industries has connections to SHIELD. He knows—"
"All things he could probably figure out on his own," Steve said. "In case you forgot, Howard Stark was a pretty bright man. And he did see the helicarrier when you brought him in. If you really wanted to keep him ignorant, you should have blindfolded him."
"Don't think it didn't occur to me," Fury said. His arms were folded, his expression dour.
He could stand here all day arguing about it. But what was done, was done. And right now there was only one person Steve wanted to talk to. "Are we finished here? Can I go?"
"Are you asking if I can stop you?" Fury said. He seemed darkly amused now.
"No," Steve said. "I guess you can't." And on that note, he turned and walked away.
Tony saw him coming; he used the cameras in the hall to track Steve's progress through the ship. He thought about locking the door, but in the end what stopped him wasn't the thought of how childish such a gesture was, but the fact that no mere locked door would keep Steve Rogers from getting inside a room he wanted to enter.
So he sat there and he waited, and it wasn't long before the door opened and Steve walked in. "Tony?"
He had to clear his throat before he could speak. "Yeah."
He had chosen his spot with care, standing in the aisle between two rows of servers, surrounded by blinking lights and miles of cable. He still didn't have the helicarrier's systems up and running yet, but that hardly mattered. Whatever force had brought Howard into this world would just fry everything all over again, the next time it occurred.
Assuming there would be a next time.
Please God, let there be a next time.
Because if Howard Stark was stuck in this world now, Tony was going to fly straight back to New York and tell Reed to open up a portal and send him somewhere else. Anywhere. It wouldn't matter. Just as long as he didn't have to stay in the same universe as his father.
Steve didn't say anything at first. He just stood there looking at Tony. And then he sort of bowed his head. "I guess you heard all that."
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said calmly. Even as he stood there, arms folded, shoulders back, chin up. Practically radiating suppressed hostility.
But that was okay, as long as he didn't act on it. If he did that, then his father won. It was the age-old game, the one he had been playing since he was a kid. Playing and losing. Don't let your feelings show. Don't let anyone know what you were really thinking.
Jarvis, the first one, the flesh and blood man, had found him one day curled up in bed and crying. In an effort at comforting him, the old man had taught him the familiar chant: Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.
Even as a child he had recognized the intention behind the cliché and clung to it, doing his best not to let the words hurt. Shaking off the latest rejection, the looks of impatience, the constant exhortations to be smarter, faster, better. He had done his best to believe that saying, and make it true.
But what Jarvis hadn't said, what no one told you was: it was a lie. Words did hurt. They hurt a lot.
"Do you have any idea how humiliating it was to watch you try to teach the great Howard Stark how to be a good parent?" he spat, and okay, so much for pretending that everything was cool.
"I'm sorry," Steve said. "That wasn't my intention."
"You had no right," he said furiously.
"I didn't mean to—"
"Then you should have kept your fucking mouth shut!" he yelled.
Steve blinked in shock and anger. "Well, maybe you shouldn't have eavesdropped on a private conversation."
Tony laughed bitterly. "Yeah. Like I was going to let you talk to my father without me knowing." As if that was ever going to be an option. He might not want to have anything to do with the man himself, but he was damn well going to keep watch over those who did.
Now Steve just looked distinctly uncomfortable. "You know that man…he isn't really your father."
"Right," Tony said briskly. "Two things about that. First, he sounds close enough to the real thing, so he might as well be. Also, yeah, he's from a different world. That's great. But has anybody given any thought about how we're going to send him back? Because I already told you that portals aren't my thing, and the energy that was given off when he came through to this world was so strong it fried the helicarrier's systems and forced it to make an unscheduled – and pretty violent – landing in the North Atlantic. So you tell me, Steve. How are we going to send him back?"
Standing there, praying, hoping, that Steve would take the bait. Because he honestly didn't know if he could do this otherwise. Not when this…thing…with his father was suddenly there in between them, casting a far longer and darker shadow than he had ever feared.
Maybe Steve knew that, or sensed it somehow. Or maybe Steve was just grateful for the change in the subject. Either way, he leapt at it. "I don't know," he said. "Can't we just recreate the conditions that brought him here?"
"Great idea," Tony said, and he was not going to let his shoulders slump with relief, he was not. "But what are those conditions? Can he even tell us?"
"I guess there's only way to find out," Steve said. He didn't look too thrilled at the prospect of having to talk to Howard again, and that was something at least.
"Fine," Tony said. "You go do that. I'm going back to New York. I'll get Reed and bring him out here."
Steve's eyes narrowed. "Tony."
"He's the only one with enough knowledge about portals," Tony said. "I told you, I can't do it." He paused. "And I know what you're thinking. But it's not that. It's not."
"What am I thinking?" Steve asked gently.
"That I'm running away," Tony said curtly. He looked away then. He couldn't help it. "But it's not. I promise you. I just… I just want him out of here."
"I believe you," Steve said, still in that same quiet tone.
The unspoken "but" hung in the air between them. Desperate to make sure it remained unspoken, he rushed to fill the silence. "Last time I checked, the Fantastic Four were in town, so I shouldn't have any difficulty finding Reed and convincing him to come out here." He glanced up at Steve, and was not reassured by the sympathy he saw in Steve's eyes. That kind of thing was just going to piss him off again if he had to look at it for too long.
Hastily he averted his gaze. "You guys just… stall him, or whatever. Find out what you can, and then just let him cool his heels."
"Okay," Steve said. He nodded, a movement Tony caught out of the corner of his eye. "But Tony…you know we have to talk about this at some point."
"Sure, okay," he said brightly, "but it should probably wait, don't you think? I mean, we've got bigger problems now than my daddy issues." He looked up, smiling big and wide. It was too brittle, too fake; he could feel it cracking his face in two.
Steve's eyes were dark with emotion. He didn't argue though, thank God. He just nodded. "All right. Go then. Do what you need to do. I'll see what I can do on my end."
"Okay," Tony said. He started forward.
Steve didn't move out of the way at first. He just stood where he was, blocking the way out of the server room.
His heart pounding, Tony kept walking. He thought he might have to do some fancy footwork to squeeze between Steve and the servers, but at the last second, Steve did step aside.
He also laid a hand on Tony's shoulder.
Tony froze. He didn't dare move, or look up, or even breathe.
Steve's hand rested on his shoulder for a long moment. Then he slid it up, cupping the back of Tony's neck, then higher still to cradle his skull, fingers tangling in his hair.
At the first hint of pressure, Tony abandoned all pretenses. He let Steve pull him in, hell, he practically pounced, closing the distance between them and kissing Steve with bruising force. He seized Steve's face with both hands, holding tight, refusing to let Steve move away. He bit at Steve's lower lip, almost drawing blood. Then down, kissing his way down Steve's chin, lower still, sucking at that tender spot on Steve's throat just below his jaw.
Steve's hand tightened convulsively on his head. He hissed in a sharp breath, and Tony bit down. Hard.
Not even super soldier healing would remove that mark right away. There was no hiding it. They would all see it.
They would all know a claim of ownership when they saw it.
Abruptly he released Steve. "Gotta go," he said. He ducked and twisted away from Steve's grip, and then he was free and headed for the door.
"Tony," Steve sounded almost desperate.
"I'll be back as soon as I can," he said, speaking to the open door. He couldn't look back. He couldn't.
Steve did not try to stop him again. And so he walked out, heading for the dark places where he kept the suit, where he could put on the armor and take refuge in metal and flight.
It was, in fact, ridiculously easy to persuade Reed Richards to come back with him to the helicarrier and try to reopen the portal that had brought his father here. Only he didn't tell Reed the identity of their mystery visitor. He figured he was justified in keeping that little tidbit of information to himself.
Reed couldn't exactly fly back with him, so he took the Fantastic Four's flying car – which had the incredibly stupid name of Fantasticar. "Let me guess," Tony said. "Your idea?"
"Of course," Reed said. He looked rather proud.
Tony just rolled his eyes. "Got a lock on me?"
"Of course," Reed said again, and now he just sounded snippy, like he didn't appreciate being told how to do his job.
"Good," Tony said. He grinned. "Try to keep up." He was up in the air in a flash, arcing through the skies and heading east, toward the helicarrier. Not that he was in a great big hurry to get back there, but he had made a promise to Steve, and he meant to keep that promise. He'd said he wasn't running away, so he would be damned if he did anything to make it seem like was.
Even if that was all he wanted.
The great Reed Richards, for all his stupidly named flying cars and famed intelligence, was absolute shit when it came to dealing with people. Within three minutes of being on board the helicarrier, he had managed to piss off just about everyone he had come into contact with.
Which was all the more reason for Tony to make a graceful exit. He gave an airy wave, said, "I'll just leave you to it, then," and quickly retreated from the bridge.
For nearly an hour no one disturbed him – although that was undoubtedly due to the fact that he had closed off all means of communication in the server room. With the feverish energy that came from sinking gratefully into work, he repaired the damaged equipment and brought the helicarrier's systems back online one by one, until all that was left were the few tasks that could only be done from the bridge.
He had hidden away in here long enough. Reluctantly, he headed for the door. If he was really lucky, only half a dozen people would stop him on his way to the bridge and ask him what he thought about having a version of his father here to visit.
He took a deep breath and opened the door – and froze.
Standing right outside was none other than Captain America himself.
"What are you doing here?" he blurted.
Steve had turned around when the door opened. He looked at Tony, eyes moving swiftly over him, no doubt trying to figure out how he was feeling. "Making sure no one interrupted you," he said.
"Wow, I didn't realize I merited my own private security guard," Tony said.
"Yeah, well," Steve said dryly, "there wasn't really anywhere else I could go." He touched the mark on his neck lightly. It was fading by now, but still visible – if you knew where to look for it. "Are you happy?"
"I don't know," Tony shot back. "Should I be?"
"Are you asking if certain people saw it?" Steve said pointedly.
"Did they?" he asked, and he couldn't help smirking a little. Okay, yeah, he knew it was childish and stupid, but he didn't regret it. Not one bit.
"I think the entire crew saw it," Steve said. Dull color flushed his cheeks, but whether from embarrassment or anger, Tony couldn't tell.
"Yeah, that happens," Tony said. He started toward the bridge. Steve fell into step beside him. "So tell me where we stand with our guest."
"I'm not sure," Steve said. "The last I heard, he and Reed were working together to recreate the conditions that existed when the portal opened in his world."
"Well, here's hoping they can figure it out," Tony said. "Because he sure as hell can't stay here." They turned the corner and headed down a long corridor. "Although it could be argued that it doesn't matter if he makes it back, because he's already done the single most important thing he ever did, which is siring me, of course. And quite frankly, I'd probably be doing Mini-Me a favor by keeping Daddy Dearest here. It might be the best thing that ever happened to him. We could—"
He stopped walking, suddenly aware that Steve was no longer at his side. He turned. "What?"
The look on Steve's face cut him to the quick. It was like Steve didn’t know whether he should laugh or cry. And he couldn't stand that, to see that. "Don't," he said.
"How can I not?" Steve said quietly.
"It was just a joke," he said. "Just a stupid…joke."
"It didn't sound very funny," Steve said. He swallowed hard, then started forward again, rejoining Tony.
They were walking now through that area of the ship where most of the labs were housed. A little less than a year ago, in one of these very rooms, he and Steve had said a lot of ugly things to each other while a scepter glowed blue-hot behind them. Nowadays, though, they were more likely to whisper sweet nothings into each other's ear, and the SHIELD scientists had imposed a strict fifteen-minute rule for studying the scepter.
How quickly things changed.
And then, because life was a bitch who liked to rub his face in things, they no sooner turned another corner than one of the lab doors slid open, and out walked Reed Richards with his new BFF, Howard Stark.
Tony stopped dead. Not that it mattered. It was already too late. Having spotted them, both Reed and Howard looked up.
And for a moment their eyes met.
It seemed to last an eternity. At first Howard just looked interested in this person who was with Steve. Then the resemblance, impossible to deny, must have sunk in, for his eyes widened and his breath caught.
Tony simply stared. It had been over thirty years since he had seen his father this way, still middle-aged instead of just plain old, his hair and mustache still mostly black and not yet completely gray. Yet it might have just been yesterday, the way the years rolled back. He felt speared by those dark eyes as they looked him over, examining him, judging him.
He was acutely aware of his appearance then, the long-sleeved tee wrinkled from hours in the suit, the jeans that needed a wash, the scuffed sneakers. The gray hair at his temples and in his beard. The light from the arc reactor glowing in his chest. He knew he did not measure up, that he was found wanting, that even standing here beside the great Steve Rogers, he was not good enough.
Then a SHIELD agent stepped out into the hall from the same lab that Reed and Howard had come from. The woman saw the four of them all standing there, and a look of complete and utter disgust crossed her face. Swiftly she moved to stand directly in front of Howard, blocking his view. "The bridge is this way," she said, pointing ahead of her.
"Wait," Howard said.
"We need to go now," the agent said firmly. She took a step forward, forcing both Howard and Reed to move back to keep her from bumping into them.
"Come on," Steve said. He took Tony by the elbow and steered him toward the nearest lab. Not the one his father had just emerged from, thankfully, but the one across the hall from it.
Somewhat reluctantly, Howard turned around and let the SHIELD agent usher him down the hall. Reed moved at his side, talking animatedly about the portal he planned to open, either oblivious to what had just happened or else doing his best to divert Howard's attention. With him, it was impossible to say for sure.
Then they were out of sight, as Tony found himself in the lab. He did not move as Steve shut the door and walked up to him. "Are you okay?"
"Sure," he said vaguely.
"I don't know what to do here," Steve said helplessly. "Help me out, Tony."
He blinked, and the room came into focus around him. It was empty, the computer screens dark and blank. It was also very cold, or at least that was what he told himself as a shudder worked through him. "It's fine. I'm fine."
"I'm sorry," Steve said. "I had no idea…"
"It's fine," Tony said again. He could still see his father's face when he blinked, like an afterimage of a camera flash superimposed on the darkness behind his closed eyelids. His body felt strangely numb – and it was even more of a shock to realize that what he was feeling right now could almost be described as loss.
Or maybe it was grief. He didn't know. Couldn't tell.
He looked up, faintly surprised to see Steve standing there. Steve, in khakis and a gray shirt. Not Obie in a black suit, telling him that he had to be brave now, that he had big shoes to fill.
"This is too surreal," he muttered. He backed away, needing space. Needing air. Needing… God. He didn't even know. Whatever it was, though, he wasn't likely to get it. That much he did know.
Steve let him go. He stopped near a lab table situated at the far end of the room, one hand clutching the edge. He had the stupidest feeling that he would fall down if he let go.
He stared into the corner, where a wheeled cart had been shoved to get it out of the way. There was a rack of empty test tubes sitting on top of it. Someone had created a crude flower out of red pipe cleaners and put the stem in one of the test tubes like it was a vase. He tried to imagine the scientists and techs who might use this room, and what they had been doing when one of them got the idea to make the flower, what jokes they had bantered back and forth. Maybe it had been a gift to a lab partner. Maybe it had been put here for safekeeping. Or maybe the person it had been meant for had rejected it, and so now here it sat, lost and alone in the corner.
"I never understood," he said hoarsely, "how it was possible to hate someone so much, but love them at the same time. I mean, that shouldn't be possible, should it?" The pipe cleaner flower blurred in his vision. "How does that even work?"
"Tony." Steve still sounded very far away.
"No, no, I mean it," he said. He glanced up in what might have been Steve's direction but probably wasn't. Then he resumed staring at that sad little representation of a flower. "I really want to know."
"I wish I knew," Steve said softly.
He just nodded, not trusting himself to speak. The whole room was blurred now, the tears burning unshed behind his eyes.
A faint sound behind him warned him of Steve's presence. He flinched a little, his shoulder jerking up; he imagined Steve's hand falling back to his side before actual physical contact could be made.
"It's not really a chance," he said. "Is it?"
"No," Steve breathed.
He blinked, and the tears fell of their own accord, streaking down his face, clogging his throat and stealing his breath. He knew what that sense of loss was all about then, he knew it and he wept for it, for this chance to finally get to talk to his father, to make peace with the past – this chance that had never actually been a chance at all. Not when speaking together was forbidden and even that fleeting moment in the hall could have disastrous consequences for an entire world.
So close and yet so far, he thought, and wild laughter bubbled up in his chest. It came out as a broken sob.
And Steve was there, strong arms enclosing him in a warm embrace, holding him tight. Tony didn't care anymore if it was weak or if it meant he lost the game. What difference did it make when he had already lost everything that did matter?
He bowed his head onto Steve's shoulder and he let himself cry.
"I feel like it's all my fault," Steve said.
They were sitting on one of the lab tables, side by side, feet dangling over the edge. It was still too cold in the room, and now he had a headache from crying, but Tony felt a tiny bit better than he had half an hour ago. At least, he was relatively certain he wasn't going to cry again. And that alone cheered him immeasurably.
"It's not," he said.
"I said it's not your fault," he said tersely. "Let it go." He did not want to talk about this, and it kind of pissed him off that Steve would even bring it up. Especially now, when Howard was still on board the damn ship.
Steve's shoulder tensed; he could feel it where their arms were pressed together. He sighed. "Look, first of all, that guy isn't my dad. As you pointed out. You can't assume what he says is true for my dad, okay? Okay. Second of all... I don't even have a second of all. This isn't your fault, Steve. You're just gonna have to trust me on that."
Steve made an unhappy noise, but he didn't push the issue.
Tony looked over at him, and for a moment he saw everything that Steve was thinking, all his emotions laid bare on his face. All the guilt and blame and horror.
It was all gone an instant later, as Steve saw him looking and made his expression neutral again. But Tony had seen it, and he remembered the way Steve had almost gotten sick right then and there when Howard made his confession, and suddenly his anger wasn't directed at Steve anymore, but at Howard.
"You know," he said lightly, "you gotta hand it to a guy who can make Captain America feel like shit without even trying. I mean, that's pretty hardcore."
"Is that what it is?" Steve said. He didn't seem to appreciate Tony's attempt at humor.
Not many people did, though; Tony was used to that. "Well," he said, "it's either that or the world's most inventive cockblocking."
Steve nearly sputtered out loud at that. He also did a great double take, looking at Tony in disbelief. "What? You can't be serious."
"That's the spirit," Tony approved. "Less brooding, more spit takes." He was still hardly in any mood to be light-hearted himself, but he knew he had to make the effort. In a way it wasn't much different from putting on his public face, the one that Howard Stark himself had taught him. "Also, I'm thinking I might start kissing you again real soon. Maybe even give you matching hickeys."
"How about we skip that part," Steve said wryly, but that was okay. Because whether Steve realized it or not, the tides had just shifted in Tony's favor. They were united now against a common enemy.
"How about you make me," he murmured. He leaned in – he didn't have far to go – and kissed Steve, just as promised.
And naturally that was when Fury chose to announce over the comm: "Gentlemen, we're ready for you now. I need Captain Rogers and Iron Man on the bridge."
Tony sat back with a sigh. "I take it back," he said. "Fury is the most inventive cockblocker."
"Rain check," Tony said. "Yeah?"
"Definitely," Steve said, and he finally smiled a little.
The sight of that smile made Tony feel much better. Almost normal again. He was sure now that he could do this. Life still sucked, his father from another world was still on the same ship as him, but he had Steve in his corner again. That meant a lot. A hell of a lot.
"Okay," he said. "Let's do this."
He slid off the lab table and hopped down to the floor. Steve followed behind him, not saying a word.
Not until they reached the door, that is. Then Steve said, "Wait."
He looked up. "What?"
"I just want to…" And then Steve had hold of him, was kissing him thoroughly, his tongue deep in Tony's mouth. It was so unexpected that Tony couldn't even respond at first.
Apparently taking his lack of a response for rejection, Steve lowered his arms and started to pull away. Quickly, before he could actually do that, Tony wrapped both arms around him. He deepened the kiss, taking it slow, savoring the way Steve tasted and wishing like hell that they would have been given just a little bit more time.
Still, this wasn't bad. When they finally broke apart, he was more than a little aroused, and so was Steve, to look at him.
"Well," Tony said brightly, "I guess it's show time."
Only a skeleton crew manned the bridge – clearly Fury was taking no chances as long as Howard was still on board. Not that Tony could blame him.
Reed was in full-blown science babble mode when they walked up, Steve still in civvies, Tony in the suit. He stopped for a moment when he saw them, then grinned. "There you are! I was just telling Director Fury that your friend here is an absolute genius."
Tony sagged a little in the suit, huffing out a relieved exhale. He had heard your f-- and feared that Reed was about to spill the beans.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Reed said, with a gesture. Tony looked up and saw it, and wondered how he could have possibly missed it before. The portal hung in the sky like a great big blue eye. Even the sight of it sickened him a little, reminding him of that day in New York, the first time he had ever fought with the Avengers.
But this time there were no bad guys pouring out, wanting to destroy the world. There was just the portal and the ocean and the gray skies that were starting to sink into twilight. Tony stared at that rip in the sky even as Reed went on to enthusiastically describe how he and Howard had managed to replicate the conditions surrounding the portal's existence – without frying the helicarrier's systems this time. Frankly he didn't care about any of that. All he cared about was that the portal was in a place where no man could reach it.
Unless that man could fly.
He knew then why Fury had said Iron Man was needed. It pissed him off a little, even though he knew it wasn't exactly Fury's fault.
"JARVIS, make a note," he said. "Bump up those one-man flyer things I promised Fury five months ago."
"Yes, sir. Should I put them above or below the Silver Centurion armor on the priority list?" JARVIS asked with only the barest hint of sarcasm.
"Surprise me," Tony said. He stepped forward, not saying a word, but making it abundantly clear that he was ready to go.
Reed was still rambling on, but everyone else seemed to accept that the moment had come. With a smile, Howard turned toward Steve. "I'm never going to forget this," he said.
"Actually, um, you might," Reed interrupted. "Like we talked about?" He faltered when he saw everyone glaring at him, and turned away, muttering to himself.
"I won't forget," Howard assured Steve. He walked forward and extended his hand.
Steve shook it. Unsurprisingly, Howard moved in for a hug, and Steve accepted that too without complaint. However, he was quick to step back and raise his arms to break Howard's embrace. "You'll be fine," he said with a smile.
"I know," Howard said.
"Just remember what we talked about," Steve added, more serious this time.
Tony had seen enough. He took another step forward, boots clanking on the floor, and wordlessly extended his arm.
Howard eyed him up and down with a mixture of trepidation and frank curiosity. Then he placed himself at Tony's side, and tentatively slid one arm about his waist.
It was a short flight to the portal. Howard uttered a yelp when they first took off, but after that he was silent, looking around him in amazed wonder. It wasn't until the portal drew near that he finally spoke. "Are you a man or a robot?"
Tony debated whether or not he should answer. He kind of wanted to let Howard think that the suit was unmanned, or remotely operated, or whatever. But that perverse, stubborn side of his nature couldn't let it go. He was flying over the ocean with a version of his father tucked against his side. Why shouldn't he see just how far he could push this?
"I'm very human," he said.
Howard's face lit up. "I know this is Starktech," he said. He tapped the chestplate where the light from the arc reactor shone brightly white. "I'd recognize my reactor anywhere."
Behind the faceplate, Tony scowled, but he said nothing. He wondered just how much Howard had learned about this world during his work with Reed. Even the smallest bit of knowledge could prove to be dangerous.
"Do you know my son, Anthony Stark?"
He hesitated. The portal was very close now, and he had to slow his flight. The last thing he wanted was to get sucked through with Howard. Visiting alternate worlds was definitely something he would be up for doing, but not this time. Not this world where he already existed as a sad little six-year old kid.
"You must work for him, right?" Howard asked, and it was kind of funny, the way he expected some regular grunt to tell him everything in spite of all his protesting to Steve that he wouldn't ask for information about this world. Then again, maybe it wasn't so funny, after all. His father had always been this sleazy – he had just hidden it so well from the rest of the world that few people had ever known the truth.
"Um, sort of," Tony said. "I only really know him by reputation."
"What does he do?" Howard asked eagerly. "Is he a hero, like Steve Rogers?"
A hero like Steve Rogers.
Tony closed his eyes. Part of him wanted to open his arms and let Howard fall straight into the ocean. Part of him wanted to throw the man screaming through the portal. And part of him just wanted to laugh. "No," he said. He forced himself to look at his father as he said it. "Tony Stark is not a hero like Steve Rogers."
Howard didn't look disappointed, or angry, or sad. He just nodded, apparently having expected this.
"But he tries," Tony said. "He tries real hard."
"In our line of work," Howard said, "trying isn't good enough. But I suspect you already know that, soldier, or you wouldn't have been chosen for this assignment."
The portal was right there. He stopped, using the thrusters to just hover before it. "Sometimes," he said, "all we can do is keep trying. And hope for the best."
"Yes," Howard said absently. Already his attention was on the portal itself, not their conversation. Already he had dismissed his son from his thoughts. "Okay," he said. "What do I need to do?"
"Nothing," Tony said. "You've already done it."
"What does that mean?" Howard asked, turning to him in bewilderment.
Tony pushed him through the portal.
For about thirty seconds it continued to hang there, a beautiful shade of blue slowly turning darker as the last of the daylight was leached from the sky. It beckoned him to come through, inviting him to see another world, a place where he could have power and influence, where he might be a hero in actuality and not just in his dreams.
Shuddering, he turned away and flew back toward the ship.
Halfway there, he heard the rushing sound of air collapsing where the portal had just been, and he knew it was closed forever.
With Reed's assistance, it took Tony about twenty minutes to get the last of the helicarrier's systems back online. Feeling rather useless, Steve just stood around on the bridge watching, wishing that he knew how to help.
The thought made him want to laugh a little. It was pretty much exactly how he had been feeling all day long, ever since he had first realized who Tony had fished out of the water.
He hated feeling that way. He was never comfortable with standing on the sidelines while events unfurled around him that he could not take part in. Especially something as volatile and emotional as this day had been. What made it worse was knowing that he was culpable, no matter what Tony said – and knowing that there was nothing he could do about it.
To no one's surprise, when the work was done, Tony announced that he would fly back to New York on his own. That left Steve to ride with Reed in the Fantastic Four's flying car, which had the endearing name of Fantasticar. "I built this myself, you know," Reed said as they took off.
"It's great," Steve said, his eyes on the tiny pinpoint of light far ahead of them. He tried to imagine what Tony was doing right now, what he was thinking – and couldn't do it.
Reed talked his ear off the whole way back, bragging about the car and its abilities. All Steve had to do was make an occasional sound of agreement. He soon lost sight of Iron Man altogether, so that there was nothing to see out the windows except the night-dark sky and the stars overhead.
The car was fast, Steve had to give Reed that much credit. The journey did not take long, although it felt like it lasted forever. Still, it was barely midnight when he alit at Avengers Tower and waved good-bye to Reed, then hurried inside.
Tony was already there, of course, out of the suit and waiting for him. He barely gave Steve a chance to enter the penthouse before he was there, tasting of whiskey and pulling at Steve's clothes.
Steve hesitated only a little. They needed to talk about what had happened today, but he hardly knew where to begin; everything was still a crazy jumble inside his head. And Tony's mouth was on his, and Tony's hands were unbuckling his belt, and it was all too easy to just give in to the need to feel Tony's body on his.
For too long today he had felt useless, but this was something he could do. This was a kind of comfort he was only too willing to provide. He let Tony back him up until his knees hit the couch, and then he folded over it, taking Tony down with him, and they never once stopped kissing.
"I love you." Mouthing the words against Tony's skin, his hands tangled in Tony's hair.
"I love you." Resting one foot on the back of the couch, spreading his legs wide, inviting Tony in.
"I love you." Rocking and moving together, fitting together so perfectly, and he would rather die than ever do anything to make Tony feel like he was unwanted or unloved or anything less than beautiful.
"I love you." Holding him afterward, tiny shudders rippling through Tony's body, his breath coming in shivers. Pretending that he didn't know the truth. Wishing with every fiber of his being that he could have spared Tony the pain of today.
In the early hours of the night they moved into the bedroom, where they made love again. This time it was slow and careful, and Steve thought he was going to fly apart from sheer need before he finally came. Afterward he saw with real remorse that he had clutched at Tony hard enough to leave bruises, but Tony just grinned and said he liked it that way, and then kissed away his apologies.
"Are you hungry?" he asked hopefully. He felt like he could eat a horse, but he knew that when Tony got stressed, he usually chose to forego food.
Tony looked thoughtful, then he nodded. "You know, I think I just might be."
Steve smiled. "Good. You wait here. I'll go make us some hamburgers."
"Ooh," Tony said with a wicked smile. "Are you going to cook naked?"
"No," Steve said, having learned this one the hard way. "Grease spatters."
Tony just laughed.
He wasn't gone long, but it was long enough, evidently. When he returned to the bedroom, plates in hand, Tony was fast asleep. The lights had been turned down, and the arc reactor's blue-white glow created dark shadows in the room. Tony was curled up tight, the covers loosely pulled up to his waist.
Steve stood in the doorway and smiled a little at the sight. Then he returned to the kitchen so he could eat his snack alone.
When he woke up, it was light again, and he was alone.
He lay there for a while, blinking at the empty space in the bed where Tony should have been. There was no note, but then, he hadn't been expecting one. The sheets were cold, too. Tony had been gone a while.
He rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. "Where did he go, JARVIS?"
The answer, when it came, did not surprise him one bit.
Green-Wood Cemetery was everything a rich industrial tycoon could want for his final resting place. Already famous, quietly wealthy, and fabulously maintained, there was no better spot in town.
If you were dead, that was.
For Tony, it was just a secluded, pretty park that happened to have gravestones. A lot of them. It also happened to contain the sickeningly ornate, completely overblown mausoleum where his parents' remains were kept.
He stood in front of the carved double doors, hands thrust deep in his coat pockets. The mausoleum stood about halfway down the lawn; the land sloped down to where he stood. On the road above him, Happy stood sentry beside the limo, wearing a dark suit and sunglasses in spite of the gray winter's day.
Tony had refused to dress for the occasion. Beneath his long coat he wore just a simple sweater and jeans. The sweater had a hole in the elbow and was thin enough that the light of the arc reactor was visible through the material. It didn't do much to keep him warm, but it was comfortable and he liked it, and that was all that mattered.
He had not been here in twenty years. Not since the funeral.
He wasn't quite sure what was expected of him. If he should talk out loud. If he was meant to enact a conversation, imagining his father's response to his words and saying them both like an actor reciting lines in a play. He thought maybe he was supposed to kneel, although one look at the cold concrete was enough to confirm his decision to stay standing.
In the end, he did nothing. He simply stood there. Waiting. For what, he didn't know. Whatever it was, he would never get it. He knew that much. His one and only chance – such as it had been – was long gone, returned to its own world. Forever out of reach.
There was a Latin phrase carved in the stone of the mausoleum, no doubt something Obie had chosen, words about nobility and honor and dignity, that kind of thing. He had no idea what they actually said, and he didn't really care.
When his time came, the words would be much simpler: Here lies Tony Stark. He tried his best.
A bitter smile tugged at his mouth. He ducked his head from a gust of cold wind, and wrapped his coat tightly about himself.
"You did get one thing right, you know," he said. "Trying isn't good enough." He stood there for a moment, his head bowed, thinking about all the things he had done since the day that portal had opened over New York and he had become an Avenger. All the things he had done since he had walked out of a dark cave in Afghanistan, determined not to let a dying man's words go unheeded.
He thought about all the things that he done exactly as he had planned. The clean energy. The satellite network that protected the planet. He thought about all those times he had helped save the world, or even just saved a single life in danger. Not because he was Iron Man, or an Avenger, but because he was Tony Stark, and he was never going to stop trying to do the right thing.
His smile widened, became more natural. He raised his head. "But you know what, that's never stopped me before. And it isn't going to stop me now."
He looked up at the road, at the figure standing beside the car. Not the man he expected, but someone else. Tall, blond, and handsome. A slightly anxious expression on his face.
Waiting for him.
Tony looked back at the meaningless Latin words. "Also, you had your chance. And I got him. I win."
He turned around and walked up the hill toward the car. To where Steve stood patiently waiting, holding out one hand in invitation.
He closed his hand over Steve's, feeling the warmth in Steve's fingers. Despite the fact that it would have been incredibly disrespectful – or maybe because it would be – he had the sudden urge to kiss Steve right then and there.
"You okay?" Steve asked.
"Yeah," Tony said, and he was pretty sure he even meant it. He glanced at the limo, where Happy waited in the driver's seat, then down at where his and Steve's hands were clasped.
He started walking along the road, heading for the cemetery exit. It was too cold to walk for long, but he thought they could get pretty far before they gave in to the lure of the limo's heated interior.
"Let's go home."