It calls to him, beckons him, tells him to come home. Like a whirlwind of time and space –which, logically, he knows it is in some warped way – the portal before him invites him to go back, back to where he belongs. He looks over his shoulder, waiting, waiting. He can’t leave yet. Not until he knows, not until he feels down into the empty spaces in his bones that everything is lost. Rationally, he understands one night doesn’t make up for a lifetime lost. How could it?
He remembers the touch, the caress of hands, the hitch of breath like an echo inside his brain. It repeats again and again and something falls inside of him, drops, cascades, and he is lost. What he wants is behind him, in another lifetime, but he knows if he stays here, if he remains in thistime, this space, he will grow ugly and resentful. He admits he cannot handle it. How can he ask anyone else to handle it? How can he ask that they step through the portal together, supporting one another, when all he would do is go home and all he’s asking is a sacrifice of everything?
He looks up into the darkening twilight sky. He doesn’t have much time now. The gem is slowly dying. If he doesn’t walk through the portal now, he’ll have to remain here forever.
Would it be so bad?
To transform one night of passion and lust into a thousand nights of love and life?
He denies the feeling twisting around his heart like a barbed wire with its thorns digging into him and wiping away the dying remnants of warmth and happiness he felt in the arms of someone he recognizes now that he loves. He wants to stay here, but he has this chance, this one chance to go home, to go back to his time.
He cannot settle for this, this place, this time. He’s not as strong, he cannot be that strong. Home beckons him.
He nods his head, closes his eyes, and with a shuddering sigh, Tony bids good-bye to the 1940s and his love, Steve Rogers, forever.
Steve stares at the paperback book in his hand. Frowning at the cover, he slides it back into its place on the shelf and scans the other options. His eyes are tired and he blinks a few times. Sometimes, in this new world, he thinks his brain overturns like a fruit cart and all the apples topple over to fall along the street and curb. Of course, there aren’t any apple carts anymore, or newspaper boys selling the headlines on the street corners. Instead, there’s blazing signs flashing their electronic interfaces across the streets and brightening up the dead of night. There is no night anymore, not in this world, and he wonders if that’s why he feels like he’s tipping off the edge of it.
In the middle of the night, he often walks the streets and gazes at all the lights. Sure thing, there were lights in his day but there was also something called stars and sky. Now, it seems like the Earth itself has become a star and he’s standing on its surface burning up. Sighing, he passes the stacks of books and walks toward the exit. He should be focused on the non-fiction section not fairy tales and stories. He picks up a magazine and flips through it, page upon page of shiny colored photos of death, horror, and misery. Wasn’t this supposed to end when he downed the plane into the ocean? Wasn’t everything supposed to get better? Wasn’t the war supposed to stop this?
He tosses the magazine on the rack and nods to the girl behind the counter. She has long purple strands in her hair, something that looks like a metallic hook hanging out of one nostril, and dark black coal-like lines around her eyes. If he didn’t know better, he would peg her as an agent of Hydra. She just looks bored as she plays with her phone and never acknowledges him.
He shoulders the door open and leaves. No sense hanging out when there really isn’t any point to it. It isn’t the middle of the night now, so the assault of noise and sound pierces his ears and he physically has to hold back his wince. He still cannot make out how people can even formulate clear thought in all this nonsense. He crosses the street and rounds the corner to go to the little café he often frequents for lunch. As he walks up to the outdoor tables, he hears a crack behind him and turns.
The sound is repeated. He recognizes it; it is distinct, precise, and deadly. It is the sound of gun fire. He’s reasonably sure it’s one of those high powered assault rifles and he scans the area for it. People around him scream and crouch under the tables, he’s a standing target as he eyes a gunman in the four story window across the street. The gunman’s face is half hidden by shadows or cloak, Steve cannot tell. In fact, he makes a point of waiting for Steve to meet his covered gaze and, raising a hand to his forehead, salutes.
Steve tilts his head and narrows his eyes.
It is then he feels a pinch, like someone has just reached in and taken a hold of his bronchi and twisted to cut off his air supply. He looks down and sees a splotch of red spreading across his shirt from the very center of his chest. Raising his hand, he touches it and looks at his fingers. Red, like ketchup. He knows it isn’t ketchup, and he knows he’s falling, collapsing to the ground. Someone is standing over him. No, kneeling next to him, he’s lying on the pavement and he thinks he might be lying in a puddle. No, he corrects himself again; he’s lying in his own blood. He whispers a name, but knows it is too late. He’s dying and the last thing he sees are the buildings above him stretching up to a non-existent sky.
Tony wakes up and the first thing he does is grab for his arc reactor. It is where it is supposed to be, glowing in the room along with the rest of the monitors hooked up to him. There are little twitters and binging noises from all of the equipment scattered around the bed he’s currently occupying. He tries to remember what happened – and he does. He just doesn’t like the YouTube video his brain is playing for him.
He reaches up and feels the dried blood along his temple and forehead. It stretches down to the bridge of his nose. Christ, if they screwed up his strikingly good looks he is going to be pissed off. Fumbling with the wires attached to his chest, Tony yanks them off, and the little monitors protest, but he ignores them as he staggers to stand. He’s in one of those ridiculous hospital gowns and his legs must have been cut off because even when he looks at them and tells them what to do, they just stand there shaking and quavering in the dark room.
“What the hell,” he murmurs and grabs onto the side rail of the bed as the room decides to fling itself around a bit like Dummy on a bad day. He swallows compulsively and brings a hand to his head. “Jesus.”
When he closes his eyes to steady the room, all he sees is the large and black (of course, it has to be black) SUV headed straight toward his Audi. The full side impact should have killed him. He has to let the room stop moving before he can open his eyes again and stop reliving the moment of collision. Shit, he wasn’t even texting and driving at all. He should stop driving all together and only travel with the armor. Safer that way.
He finds his legs again and stumbles forward. He feels a little like an old man and, briefly, he wonders if this is how Rogers feels. That just brings a smile to his face and then he hits the door latch. It occurs to him that the door isn’t a normal hospital door, it has security locks and actually slides open like an elevator door into a pocket in the wall instead of swinging open. Peeking down the corridor, the sleek gray and glass with chrome finishings answer his unspoken question. Nope, not in a hospital. He’s either been abducted by aliens or SHIELD has gotten into his business again and has decided to whack around in his head.
He kind of hopes it is aliens, because how cool would that be? But then, he remembers the last time he played on a field of aliens and he tastes bile and fights the nausea again. Okay, he’ll have to settle for SHIELD. Just as he’s about to start screaming his head off about being fucked with, the door to the bay next to him opens and a series of nurses and doctors rush out around a gurney they’re guiding down the hallway.
He staggers back to get out of the way as a nurse waves at him to back off. There are intravenous lines and monitors carted with them as well. As he starts to push back into the doorway of his room, he hears a distinct muffled moan as if the patient is still awake and very much aware of what’s happening around the bed. Tony can’t stop himself; it is like rubbernecking on the damned road. Turning, he gets only a flash, but the patient sees him as well.
He races to the gurney, pushing the doctor aside as they wait for an elevator. “Steve?”
Unable to answer due to the intubation, Steve looks up at Tony and the wet of his eyes answers everything.
“Give him something for the pain,” Tony says as he grabs onto Steve. He tries not to look, he doesn’t want to look. But he’s there again, in the god damned cave awake as they cut open his chest and dig out what shrapnel they can. How can he not remember when Steve’s splayed out before him, his chest riddled with blood everywhere.
“What the hell happened? What the hell happened?” Tony clutches onto Steve’s hand and the tears in the man’s eyes throw him. The shadows of the cave overwhelm him and he can’t hold on, even though those tears streaming down Steve’s face asking him to stay with him burn into his head. Everything gets dark and cold and he tumbles and never feels the floor. He’s fallen down the rabbit hole.
Tony sits in the laboratory. The windows are empty and lifeless. He’s not sure what he’s supposed to be looking out at – the Helicarrier drifts over the long seas of the Adriatic and he’s tired, bone tired. The snap and sass to his step has been depleted and he wants to feel something new, some kind of hope. They’ve been trying to make a difference. There is no difference to make, the Captain is dying and no one can stop it.
He turns from the window, and stares back at all of the equipment. He’s been working with SHIELD scientists and operatives to tease out what exactly happened. It seemed like a simple shooting, but it wasn’t. It was anything but simple. He’s watched the street surveillance tape a thousand times, maybe more. It fucking tells him nothing.
His fingers play with the screen, hovering over it. He touches it and the replay flickers across the screen. The phantom image of Rogers appears as he approaches a cluster of tables, he stands there for only a second before turning to a sound. His face captured by the camera is a mass of confusion and question, and then the spread of blood on his shirt as he looks down. Tony tilts his head and replays it again.
Right there, right when the bullet hits the good captain, there’s a flash. He stops the playback. Bullets don’t flash when they hit soft targets. Bullets puncture and flesh splatters outward. There’s a sizzle over his chest as if arcs of lightning are grounding on his damaged flesh. He falls.
Using his own technology, he enhances the images. “Magnify to a thousand.” He isn’t speaking to anyone. JARVIS is not here with him, not when he’s at SHIELD. He can have some limited access to JARVIS on the Helicarrier but he doesn’t share well, and he sure as hell is not sharing his A.I. with SHIELD. You don’t bring the golden goose to the giant’s castle.
Running the footage backward, he watches as the bullet impacts again. It hits in a mess of blood and bone fragments. Yet, there’s something more there and he needs to analyze this with his own technology. “Transfer files, authorization-.”
“You are not transferring files from a secure database to your own personal one, Stark.”
Turning, Tony faces Nick Fury in all his leathered and eye patched glory. The laboratory looks as if there might have been an attack. In his frustration with the lack of advancements to his specifications, he tore apart several of the computer consoles and reconfigured them. At least now, they are processing at a better rate and have the ability to multiplex the scenarios. Fury grumbles at the scattered pieces and parts littering the floor.
“Tell me why I am allowing you on the Helicarrier at all?”
“Because I’m the only hope the Captain has,” Tony says and turns back to the data streaming over the screen. “I need to transfer this back to my lab. I don’t care what you say, Fury. We’re not getting to the bottom of this without my tech involved.”
“Then bring your tech here,” Fury replies. His expression is impenetrable, his dark eye like a mote of pitch oil. He’s unmoved and immovable.
“No, not gonna happen,” Tony says. He pushes a hand through his hair and feels the line, the scar lacing through his scalp. The car accident nearly killed him, but even with a knock to the head he’s up and about faster than a super soldier is after taking a weird ass bullet to the chest.
“Then we are at an impasse.”
Tony glares at Fury and shakes his head. “You know, let’s just not do this. We can play your little game, dance around a bit, pretend you don’t need my brilliant brain and my insight and waste fucking time we don’t have,” Tony hisses. “Or we could just get it over with now. You could give me the information I need to save the symbol of all that is precious and good about this country.”
There’s a war of emotion over Fury’s face. Okay, not really a war, because it is a subtle movement of muscle and jaw working, and Tony is honestly pleased he can even tell Fury is considering his proposal. Fury purses his lips and cocks the brow over his patched eye socket.
“You think you can save him?”
“What I think, Director, is that someone is trying to kill the Captain for reasons, and they tried to kill me because I’m the only one who can save the captain. So stop doing their job for them and let me do what I do best,” Tony says.
“And what’s that, Stark?”
“Save the god damned fucking world,” Tony says and turns back to key in the code to download all the information to his mobile. He perches his hands over the screen and waits, just as a courtesy, just to show that he can be slightly aware how others regard him.
As Fury sweeps out of the room, he growls, “Do it.”
Tony wants to celebrate, but somewhere deep inside, somewhere he knows that this just means that Fury doesn’t know what the hell to do. As a man, as a genius, as Iron Man, Tony has never been dependent on someone else knowing the next move. He plays chess and sees 10 moves ahead of every other opponent on a bad day. Tony shakes it off and immediately gets the download started.
Tapping on the side of the console, he decides it might be time to make the big move. In fact, he knows it is time to change things. He calls on Natasha, who looks world weary, but fierce and protective all at once.
Her image appears in a box on the screen. “You want what?”
“Can you do it?” Tony asks.
“They really don’t want any of us off the Helicarrier right now. They think the assassination attempts on Cap and you might be just the beginning,” Natasha says.
“Well then, that’s as good an excuse as any. He’s not here,” Tony points out.
“The Helicarrier isn’t safe with him here, as demonstrated the last time we brought Doctor Banner on board,” she replies.
“I don’t care,” Tony says. “I need him. I have some idea of what is going on, but I need him to work with. Find him or else bring Jane Foster in on this.”
“Foster isn’t available, you know that,” Natasha says and sighs. “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”
“Bring bird boy with you,” Tony says.
“Once you’re done, bring everyone back to the Tower.”
“To the Tower?” she says.
“Yeah, I’m moving the Captain. Then, we’re gonna find out who’s fucking with the Avengers.”
She lifts a brow at him, and quirks a little smile. “The Avengers, huh?”
“See you soon,” she replies and signs off.
He turns and scans over the broken pieces of the Helicarrier lab. It looks like Hulk was already here. Tony chuckles to himself, but it falls off when he thinks of Steve. If his theory is correct – and he knows it is – they don’t have much time.
But then again – they have all the time in the world.
In order to move an injured soldier during World War II, a convoy was essentially set up. From the place of injury on the front, the Aid Station just a distance of 300 to 1000 feet would be alerted and medics with a stretcher would be dispatched. The injured soldier would be carried to the Aid Station after a quick bandage and review in the field. At the Aid Station, further treatment, though minimal and somewhat primitive, occurred. The wounded couldn’t stay at the Aid Station since there were essentially no beds and it wasn’t a treatment facility, just a way station to shuttle the wounded through to the next stop, the Clearing Company, by ambulance and further on back. It was a bucket brigade at its best.
Nothing like it is now, with fancy medical helicopters answering the call and equipped with the latest and greatest advancements in medical care. When they came to his room with a gurney ready to transport him, Steve waved them off and told them he could walk to the transport under his own willpower. It would take a lot more than willpower to make it there.
They trailed behind him as he struggled down the corridors of the Helicarrier, his footing unsure, and the pain in his chest growing with each movement. He sweated it out, didn’t ask for help when he very nearly dropped to his knees from the dizzying pain. He gulped in his breath, straightened his shoulders and remembered who he was – Captain America.
Now, as he stands to the side, waiting for the go ahead to board the Quinjet, Steve leans against the bulkhead and closes his eyes. They couldn’t find the bullet. The doctors operated and Steve laid there awake and aware even when they pumped him full of drugs to try and knock him out. They tied him down and dug in his chest and couldn’t find the bullet. Using every type of imaging equipment they had told them nothing. The bullet simply was not there.
There had been no exit wound.
Although the medical staff still cared for him in his weakened state, they had no idea how to cure him of the persistent weakness, the growing dread, or the echoes he keeps hearing. At first, he’d thought they would bundle him off to a secure SHIELD laboratory somewhere and he would never see the light of day again. No one knew if what he had – whatever it is – could infect others. Instead, Director Fury informed him this morning that his care was being transferred to Tony Stark and Doctor Bruce Banner. He wanted to protest; after all, he isn’t a child and could decide on these issues himself. It had been Clint standing to the side and waiting that would convince him. Once the director left, Clint confessed that Steve’s best option might just be Tony and Bruce, because everything that was wrong with Steve had nothing to do with medicine and everything to do with some wicked ass science – as Hawkeye so aptly put it.
Barton appears at the rear of the Quinjet and waves Steve out onto the deck. Straightening his shoulders, Steve steadies himself and then marches out onto the deck. His legs are weak like they used to be when he was young and thin and broken. He doesn’t let them fail, he refuses to look down and ensure every step is placed. The wind whips around him but he continues, ignoring its torture against his skin, against the brace of his legs. He achieves his target, nods at Barton, and stumbles into the Quinjet. He’s surprised to find Doctor Banner already on the plane. It is the good doctor who catches him by the arm and settles him in a seat. The medical staff follows, but Barton shoos them off and returns to the pilot chair.
“Buckle in,” Barton calls from the front, hitting the console and tapping against the buttons.
When his hands fumble, Doctor Banner helps him without question. “Thank you, Doctor Banner.”
“Bruce, I think you can call me, Bruce. You’ve seen me at my worst.”
“And your best,” Steve replies as the engines of the jet whine. Once Bruce finishes his task, he leans back in a seat next to Steve and straps himself in.
“Tony’s gone ahead.”
Steve nods. “Why do I feel like the next greatest science experiment for the two of you?” Steve yells over the roar of the engine. The jet rams forward and Steve clutches onto the edge of the seat as it takes off.
Bruce lifts his shoulders in a shrug. “Maybe because you are?”
Steve glances at him, dubious.
“I’m not going to lie to you, Steve. What’s happening isn’t anything like what I’ve seen before – and I’ve seen some pretty strange stuff in my day.” Bruce opens his hands as if to show how useless he feels. “But I think, I think Tony might have something. He’s onto something.”
“Has he told you what?” Steve asks, but has to place his hand on his chest because the things that are there but not, the bullet piercing into his lungs and heart but not, dig in and, like razor claws, shred him. His vision goes white and he groans as he leans forward in his straps.
A hand on his shoulder brings him back. “Steve?”
He peers up at Bruce and sees the slightest blush of green on his cheeks. He exhales and says, “I’m okay. It just comes over me.” Words aren’t exactly his forte they never have been, but he’s not sure that if he was a poet or a master of the English language he would be able to describe the pain and the untethered feeling.
“Just hang on,” Bruce says and doesn’t take his hand away as if he thinks Steve needs an anchor, as if he knows the feeling within Steve.
Steve swallows down the nausea, the feeling of dependency on others, and agrees with only a slight declination of his head. He can do this. He can get through this, and if he doesn’t – he’ll be damned sure everyone else does.
The Quinjet takes about three hours to reach New York City. During that time, Steve dozes through a number of fitful naps. The pain in his chest haunts him and it is impossible to completely fall asleep with it dogging him.
Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, Bruce stays very close to Steve throughout the flight. While he tries not to hover or peck at him, he does watch and quietly ask questions anytime an episode seizes Steve. Questions like - what do you see, can you feel time passing, I can tell it hurts but do you know why. Most of the questions seem random and useless to Steve but he allows them and answers when he can.
By the time they touch down, he’s drenched in sweat from the pain wracking his body. When Bruce reaches to unbuckle his harness, a particularly bad convulsion overwhelms him and he knocks Bruce in the face with his head. Staggering back, Bruce hits the side of the fuselage. Steve wants to check on him, tries to push past the pain grabbing onto his nerves, but he can’t and he’s enveloped by the white storm of it. He hears the echoes again, words and faces flash before him. It is like a barrage of sights and sounds from a dream that isn’t fully formed.
Above it all, the pain resounds like a sonic blast in his chest. He’s half out of the straps and tumbling to the floor of the jet as he hears another ruckus around him. There’s a howl and a sound of someone kicking against the metal of the jet. He can’t see anything; he’s blind to it all. What he can see terrifies him.
A gun pointed at his chest. A gun fired and the blast wave seemed to hit him before the bullet struck. Noise ricochets in his ears. Yet, it is not the crack of the gun, but sounds more like laughter and dancing and the run of a roller coaster. He has no idea what is going on, where he is. He drops onto all fours and heaves in a breath.
Someone touches him and he whips around to push them off only to find the images fading and someone holding onto him. That someone is Tony.
“Tony?” he sputters and his mouth is full of spit, and he has to turn around and gag onto the floor of the jet.
“Barton, tell me something I don’t know?” Tony says but keeps his hand flat on Steve’s back.
“You are not the most beautiful man in the world?” Barton supplies and Steve turns to look at him. He has a fistful of Bruce’s shirt, which is shredded. The doctor looks like he might hyperventilate any second, but he isn’t turning green or transforming so Steve nods and tries to get to his feet.
Tony slips the other hand to his chest, it hits over the sore place and Steve hisses.
“Sorry, Cap, come on up and at ‘em. Happy is waiting,” Tony says as he ushers him to his feet. As he guides him out of the Quinjet, Tony turns back to Barton and says with a cluck of his tongue. “Oh, I know I’m not the most beautiful man alive.”
“Wh-what?” Steve asks and Tony winks at him. He colors a bit but the searing pain in his chest wipes out all other reaction.
Tony stops and gathers an arm around him. “Come on, Capsicle. Let’s get you home.”
Steve shivers and lets himself be led down the ramp and across the tarmac to a waiting limousine. A large man with a grin on his face greets them as they approach; he opens the back door and gestures for them to enter.
“Hey, Boss, there’s some blankets and stuff back there for the Captain.”
As Tony gently pushes on Steve’s head to guide him into the car, he says, “Thanks, Happy. Barton and Bruce will be along. Give them a minute.”
“Sure thing,” Happy says.
Steve slides onto the bench seat in the back of the limousine. His chest aches and it feels like the bullet just crashed through his ribs, scattering bone shards and lung tissues everywhere. His lungs feel tight and misused, not unlike when he had asthma attacks as a child.
“Sit,” Tony says as he gets comfortable next to Steve. “Drink, you need a drink.”
Steve leans back in the seat, but just doing that stresses the injuries to his chest that should be long gone by now. He groans and bends forward, cupping his hands over his chest. Tony’s hand is again on his back, rubbing small circles.
“Drink,” Tony says and offers him a glass. He has no idea how the drink suddenly appeared in Tony’s hand, nor does he care. He accepts it. At this point, he could drink acid and not care.
“Apple juice?” he sputters a bit. “Apple juice?”
“You sound offended. Are you offended? What, you wanted something stronger? Should I waste the good stuff on you, since, you know, you won’t get drunk anyway?” Tony pours a tumbler of an amber liquor.
Steve downs the juice and lifts his glass. “Liquor, I don’t care. Let me pretend it will help.”
Tony lets out a slow long whistle but acquiesces to Steve's request. As he fills up the glass, both Barton and Bruce enter the limousine. Bruce looks rattled and Steve knows as the leader of the team he should say something. He’s the one who knocked him in the face in the first place. He gathers up his strength and sits up. As he’s about to apologize, Bruce holds him off with an upraised hand.
“Don’t. Steve. I’m fine. Let’s concentrate on you, getting you better. Not me and my issues.”
“Not holding it together quite the way you had been, huh?” Tony says and sips from his glass. The car pulls out of its parking space and starts around the airport toward the exit.
“Let’s just concentrate on the matter at hand,” Barton says. “How are you, Cap?”
Steve smiles and says, “I’ve been better.” He downs the drink and it burns but does nothing to relieve the spearing pain in his chest. He closes his eyes but opens them almost immediately when he feels a blanket cover him.
Tony adjusts the thermal blanket as Steve frowns at him. “What? Pepper did train her dog to do some tricks, you know.”
“I hardly think Miss Potts would call you a dog, Tony.” Steve says and adds, “But thank you.”
Tony smiles and says, “Don’t think about it. Just rest. We’ll be there soon.”
By the time they drive into the underground parking garage at Stark Tower in Manhattan, Steve has suffered through a few more – what he likes to call – white outs. Both Tony and Barton held him through the last since it convulsed through him like a hurricane battering an unmoored ship. He struggles against their help not because they aren’t worthy or valued to him, but because he hasn’t needed this kind of help since before the serum. Something is eating away at his vitality, something is ripping his life to shreds and no one can tell him why.
“That’s it, big boy. Let’s get you out of here,” Tony states as the car parks and the engine cuts off.
Shifting the blanket to his shoulders, Bruce assists Steve in exiting the car. Happy has a wheelchair waiting for him, but Steve resolutely ignores it and steps toward the elevator.
“Cap, don’t be an ass, use the chair,” Tony says and points to it. “Like a chariot. We could play Ben-hur.”
“Christ, forgot. Have you seen any other movies other than The Wizard of Oz?” Tony asks as he pats the seat of the chair. “Come on Dorothy.”
He shrugs off Bruce’s arm being careful not to upset him, and says, “Yes, Gone with the Wind, and I loved those Chaplin movies. They were swell.”
“Fuck a duck, swell, huh?”
“Chaplin was funny. I wonder whatever happened to him?” Steve heads toward the one concrete step to the door to the elevators. There’s a large blue lettered sign and arrow pointing to the elevators; he wonders why it isn’t red and gold.
“You know Chaplin was accused of being a communist,” Tony scoffs at him, but comes up along with him and mirrors his slow gait, his hand just inches away from Steve’s arm as if he guides him to the destination.
“A communist, huh?” Steve puts a hand to his chest because he cannot deny how much it actually hurts. The idea of taking one step up terrifies him; he feels all of his ninety-odd years.
“Up.” Tony offers his arm as a crutch and, though it embarrasses him, Steve grips it and mounts the step in a heave that throbs a beat in his ears like a battering ram in his head. “Yep, that’s what they said about him. He died by in the 70s, on Christmas day, if I’m not mistaken.”
Steve glances at Tony and, in profile, there are memories and images. “You kind of remind me of him, you know.”
“Me? An honest to goodness one hundred percent capitalist is being compared to an accused communist.”
Steve shuffles to the door. “Just remind me of him is all.” He doesn’t say more because a white out threatens. He shudders a moment, and Tony’s hand slips from his arm and balances against his chest, keeping him upright. He chatters a bit before he’s able to get back to himself.
“Yes, yeah,” Steve says, blinking his eyes and hoping the tears from the pain don’t fall from his eyes.
“Here you go,” Tony says and gently guides him back into the wheelchair. “Let’s not be an idiot about it.”
Steve surrenders into the chair; in the end he is sensible about things. Wheeling the chair, Barton maneuvers it over to the doorway as Bruce swings it wide for entrance. With only a small jolt against the door frame, Barton pushes the chair through as Tony waves them over to the bank of elevators.
“Elevator four, sir.”
“Thank you,” Tony smiles at his audience and Steve bows his head and hides his grin. There are times when Tony reminds Steve of his father, though he would never confess it considering the things he’s heard about their relationship.
They board the elevator and it starts to climb. “The penthouse, JARVIS.”
“As you say, sir.”
“I thought we were going to your lab?” Steve says and twists around in his chair to capture a glimpse of Tony. It is the first time he’s able to catch Tony off guard and the concern in his eyes shocks Steve.
Tony tools his features and says to Steve, “Not today. You’ve been on a long flight and drive. I think we should relax?” Tony is looking at Bruce for confirmation.
“I’ll agree to that,” he hesitates before he continues. “More for myself, Captain, than for you. If that’s all right?”
“Sure,” Steve says and, while he knows Bruce is giving him a polite and gentle reason to rest, he still feels uncomfortable and disappointed.
It is Tony’s hand on his shoulder that grounds him, quiets his concern, and he nods. The pain has receded somewhat in his chest; it is still there refreshed with every heartbeat and he cannot but think about how Tony deals with a hollowed out sternum, reduced lung capacity, and a heart in peril at all times. Shame wells up and he bites down, clenching his teeth against his own self-pity.
Tony has never been accused of being a patient man. He’s brash and self-centered and brilliant, but he also knows the difference between need and want. Right now, he’s fairly certain he needs to solve the riddle of the shooting. It is an imperative. In the depths of his workshop, he has JARVIS blow up the street surveillance images of Steve prior to, during, and after the shooting. He needs to fucking save Captain America.
Before him in larger than life figures, JARVIS displays a conversion of the two dimensional images into a full three dimensional action shot. He’d already gone frame by frame analyzing the impact of the non-existent bullet at SHIELD. The technology hampered him and he realized he needed a full circle of understanding of the event, the moment that turned Steve from Captain America to a man on the edge of death.
Before him, standing between today and yesterday, a shadowy figure of Steve stands. He’s peering at something ahead of him, but as the video moves, he turns and looks upward. The feed is slightly jittery because of JARVIS’ manufacturing of data to transform it from a 2 dimensional data set to a three dimensional active display. Based on JARVIS’ past information on Steve Rogers he has built the three dimensional image and filled in gaps and movement accordingly.
“Okay, run the entire sequence,” Tony says and leans back on the lab bench. He crosses his arms over his chest. It is horrifying to watch as Steve is plucked out of a mindless afternoon, turns on his heel at – what Tony can only assume – is a sound and then he’s collapsing, falling to the ground. His eyes are open still and he’s staring up. He’s murmuring something, something that he whispers. His mouth turns in a smile and then there are other figures in the way that are even less defined because JARVIS doesn’t have the extra information on them to fill in the digitally missing data. They look more like cartoons.
“Full stop,” Tony says and adds, “Again – from the beginning.”
He watches the footage another eighteen times; he can predict the slight muscle twitch, the angle of shoulders to hips as Steve turns. He knows exactly how Steve’s body does not jerk when the bullet hits. He can see Steve falling, disappearing into a haze of pain as he lies on the non-existent ground. Standing over the mock-holographic image, Tony frowns and says, “Take it again – but this time use the original footage to shutter it frame by frame.”
“You know, obsession is never a good thing. I’m proof of that,” Bruce says just as JARVIS announces, “Sir, Doctor Banner has entered the laboratory.”
“And how exactly did you get in here.”
“You gave me the code three months ago, Tony,” Bruce says as he crosses the distance to join Tony in his little theater performance of The Shooting of an American Icon.
“Hmm, so I did, yes, I do believe I did that,” Tony replies as he scratches at his stubble. He’s been down here a while if the growth of beard is anything to judge by – and it usually is. His original plan had been to bring Bruce in on the start of this – but his mind kidnapped him again. “Okay, then make yourself useful. Stand over there.” He points to the opposite corner to view the footage.
“What- what are we looking at?” Bruce says and slips on his glasses.
“JARVIS, delay order. Let Jolly Green get a full blown update. Take it through from the top.”
“As you say, sir.”
The footage resets and plays again. Tony rounds the display, analyzing what angles JARVIS has the best data for, critiquing what he does not. Bruce stands there in a kind of weird fugue. His eyes never leave Steve, Bruce’s body jolts from the bullet that isn’t there. He kneels as Steve falls and he peers over his face.
“That’s, that’s a little upsetting.”
“But not enough for the rage monster to appear. Which is both good and bad. I really would not like to see that in my work space, but then again the information we could garner from that.”
“Let’s stay on task,” Bruce says and climbs back to his feet.
“Okay, JARVIS, play it once more for the doctor and I’ll narrate.” Tony waves a hand to Steve’s image. “Here we are out for a nice day’s walk, meanwhile he has no interest in the fact I’ve just been in an automobile collision. Tsk tsk, Captain America. But I digress. He hears something, so I can only assume it must be the click of the gun before the trigger is pulled.”
Tony spins around and looks up to the non-existent window that the image stares at in the holographic display. “He sees the sniper, but the bullet impacts at approximately the same time. Hits him, he falls.” Tony looks down at the face, the face that has some silent peace to it. “He looks so peaceful.”
“What exactly does this tell us?”
“Many things, my brother in all things science and geek wonderlandedness or whatever,” Tony says and raises his finger. “JARVIS as instructed before. Frame by frame.”
JARVIS starts the footage again but it is painstakingly slow as each breath, each blink of an eye is captured. When the moment comes, when Steve turns, and the blood appears on his shirt, Bruce huffs out a breath.
“You saw it, too?”
“More of like what I didn’t see. But why don’t you fill me in on what you saw.”
Tony indicates the figure flashing before them in slow, frame by frame motion. “You, what you didn’t see was the bullet’s impact. Because there is no bullet.” Tony looks at his computer console. “Back it up to the moment of impact, JARVIS.”
It resets and starts again. Against Steve’s chest there is a minuscule flash, and then a dark pit appears. The dark shadow eats away at the light near it and then it fades as it is absorbed into the skin.
“That does not look normal,” Bruce says and squints at the image as it freezes upon Tony’s command.
“What does it kind of remind you of, my good science bro?”
“The light, well, could be anything, anything at all. But that flash, then the shadow.”
“Oh you mean the pit of doom being swallowed up into his chest cavity?” Tony is standing directly in front of the frozen image of Steve. He stares directly at his chest where the shadow disappeared.
“Yeah, hmm, something like that,” Bruce mashes up his face and then relaxes it. “Yeah, that looks like it is in the act of eating up all the light around it.”
“And what does that?”
“That makes no sense, Tony. Steve did not get shot by a tiny black hole.”
“Ah! But what if he did?” Tony doesn’t wait for an answer. “Move forward frame by frame JARVIS, run a data stream of where the images don’t match up.”
“Images don’t match up?” Bruce asks as he takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes.
“JARVIS had to extrapolate the data based on known information – height – weight –muscle mass, and may I say there’s a lot of that to extrapolate – to make the three dimensional image.”
“Oh,” Bruce says and then gestures as if to say get on with it.
JARVIS starts the images again; the frames flicker before them like one of those old fashioned nickelodeon films with its stop and start action. As the images play, one thing becomes clear to Tony. He isn’t seeing just one image. He’s seeing several.
“What the hell is that?” Bruce says and Tony swears there’s a little green around his eyes and mouth.
“It looks like film, you know, when people used film in cameras and took two images within the same frame.” Tony scrutinizes the frames. It isn’t in every single frame, maybe every five or six. It is like a flash of insight and then it disappears again. “JARVIS stop on the frame with the double images after the bullet hits Steve.”
JARVIS complies. It looks like a blurred Steve, as if someone shook the camera filming him. “JARVIS, split the images and separate.”
“What the hell-?” Bruce says as he follows Tony around the ghost-like image in the middle of the workshop.
“Oh my-.” Tony says and cannot voice anymore. In the shade of the image of Steve, stands another image, like an after image or in this case a before image. The image is broken and fragmentary at best. It looks a lot like a reflection of Steve, but one not in proportion.
“Is that? Is that who I think it is?” Bruce studies the flickering, shredded image. There’s a splotch of blood on his cheek as if he was hit in the head instead of the chest like Steve had been.
“Yeah,” Tony says, gulping down the fear as his heart skips beats along the way. “That’s Steve, that’s Steve getting his head blow off before REBIRTH. That’s Steve dying before he’s even Captain America.”
“Bullshit,” a new voice yells from the laboratory entrance. Barton stands at the doorway, staring at the yesterday image of Steve. He staggers into the work space and, for a second, Tony considers whether or not he might be drunk, but then he just realizes he’s as stunned as the rest of them.
The frames click forward and in achingly slow motion they watch as the smaller Steve in blurred detail jars backward as the back of his skull explodes from the bullet crushing through it. Both of the shades of Steve drop to the ground. The smaller one echoes the larger with his face and head marred by the bullet wound. There’s a mass – a pool of blood seeping around the head and shoulders.
“He’s murmuring something?” Barton says and leans over their Steve. “Can’t really make it out.”
“No audio,” Bruce half mumbles as he is entranced by the action in front of him. “You know, Steve said he thought there was an exit wound because he thought he was lying in a puddle of his own blood.”
“But there wasn’t,” Tony says and looks down at the mess of the other Steve. He can’t even discern his features anymore. It’s horrific. “What the hell are we looking at?”
“Someone shot Steve,” Barton states.
“Oh, thanks for pointing out the blatantly obvious, bird boy.” Tony shakes his head. He steps over the corpse and looks at the frozen image of his Steve – it occurs to him that he actually does think of Steve as his. He glances over his shoulder at the dead one then back at his Steve. “Someone shot Steve today to kill him yesterday.”
“Oh, like that makes worlds more sense and tells us tons more,” Barton says. “Always the wise one, Tin Man.”
“I actually think the wise one was the Scarecrow,” Bruce murmurs but continues to focus on the dead body in the lab. “But I think you’re right.”
“That’s nuts,” Barton says as he inches closer. “How the hell can you shoot someone today and kill them yesterday. And if you did, why is Steve still here?”
Barton glares at him. “You’re making that up.”
“Yes, yes I am.” Tony shrugs. “You got a better idea?”
“Okay, let’s work with that- what do you got?” Bruce says and steps away from the carnage on the floor. “Can we turn it off?”
The images on the floor disintegrate and, for a moment, Tony feels like he might hyperventilate, that by the simple footage disappearing he’s condemning the Captain to oblivion.
In order to ignore the feeling, Tony paces around the area. “Listen, we have some information to work with. First, Cap got shot without a bullet.”
“The bullet lodged or lodges in him seventy odd years ago,” Bruce says.
“Right we know when the bullet goes into him now, but we have to pin down when it killed him then.” Tony clicks his fingers a few times. “Those are the two ends of our string.”
“But what I don’t get is why the Captain isn’t dead now, then?” Barton says.
“Let the brains think,” Tony hushes him. “That is one of our problems.”
“Maybe, maybe we’re seeing everything at once?” Bruce says. “Maybe what we’ve seen here is the final consequences of Steve taking that bullet.”
“That’s obvious,” Tony says.
“No, no it isn’t.” Bruce pulls his glasses off and gnaws on the arm. “No, our Captain, today once he dies, then that-.” He points to the now empty spot where the mangled skull of Steve Rogers had been. “-happens. Once the effects of this bullet - let’s call it the temporal bullet - hit that Steve, then our Steve dies.”
“How the hell are we supposed to stop that? The doctors can’t even help him?” Barton growls.
“Maybe it isn’t about saving our Steve,” Tony says. “Maybe it’s about saving the other Steve.”
“Now, I’m completely confused.”
“Think, bird brain-.”
“Shush, let the big boys do the work,” Tony says.
Barton raises his hands and says, “Fine, just tell me where to shoot when you’re done.” He walks out of the lab and Tony can see the tension still riding in his shoulders and the sway of his stride.
“So, you were saying?”
Tony shakes himself back to the present. “Yeah, right. If the destination of this bullet, this specialized temporal bullet is to kill Steve before he appears on the scene, before he becomes Captain America, then our Steve isn’t the real target.”
“The real target is Steve Rogers, the kid that kept getting rejected from the Army,” Bruce adds. “So, the bullet hits our Steve and travels to the Steve that is the real target.”
Bruce sighs. “Great. Now what? Because all I’m getting here is the fact that theoretical physics is fun but not very useful. A lot like magic.”
“But think of it, it is like magic. Here we have a temporal bullet on its way back to the 40s.”
“Why isn’t it already there?” Bruce asks.
“The curvature of space-time, effects of gravity on space-time. Remember, if you think of space-time as a fabric or like the surface of a lake then if you throw a pebble in that lake, it makes ripples. The ripples spread out, affecting other things along the way,” Tony says. “If we wrap this together, if we think of it as the bullet or whatever the hell it was, merging times and then stretching those two times out between that point in time and this one.”
“Then the temporal bullet is like a string between two points in time, anchored by then and now-.”
“Ah yes, Mister Monster Physicist.”
“Oh, I thought the consensus was I’m a medical doctor,” Bruce says and looks around the empty room.
“Ha, so funny.” Tony taps the bench his knuckle. “But it is true. Why hasn’t it killed them or him already.”
“What?” Tony spins around looking for said person, to find no one behind him or lurking in the wings of the workroom.
“No, it must be Steve. Steve’s fighting it.”
“Steve is fighting space-time, that’s a new super power we didn’t know he had,” Tony remarks.
“No, think about it. We’re all constructs of space-time; we all have effects on space-time and interactions. Normally, we don’t actually take these into consideration because, really, we’re less than ants in the grand scheme of things.”
“Tell that to Ant-man.”
Tony waves him off.
“But as long as Steve can hold it off, as long as he can affect it like a gravity well or something in the fabric of space, then the bullet won’t hit its target.”
“It’ll wear him down, eventually. Even with the serum, and his super stubbornness, the guy is bound to get worn down from all that pain,” Tony says and places a hand on his chest. He understands thoracic pain.
“Then we have to stop it from hitting the target before it gets there. Because in reality, we’ve seen the end of the story, we know he’s going to die. So we have to stop it.”
“The target is the other Steve, the 1940s Steve. We just have to stop the bullet from finding the end of the string so to speak.”
“Oh, and I thought you were going to suggest we build a Delorean and travel back in time. Silly me.”
“Ha, no, but um, yes.”
Steve feels worse. He knows he’s getting worse, he can feel his body deteriorating. Sure, the doctors did what they could, stopped all the bleeding and cleaned up the wounds. It doesn’t change reality, and facts are facts. Steve can barely lift his head in the morning, getting out of bed isn’t just a struggle, it’s a war. He rolls to his side and uses his arms to push himself into a sitting position. The room loops and drops around him and his vision tunnels.
Forcing himself to take a deep breath, Steve steadies the pulsating visual field around him. He’s able to get things to settle down and climbs to his feet. He trudges toward the en suite bathroom, and clamps onto the doorway. He looks longingly at the shower, but knows he’ll just drop over dead in there if he tries to clean up right now. He needs a few hours to gain some strength. He hopes food will help, but he can’t be sure.
He scrubs at his face and neck at the sink after finishing his toilet. He shaves and only nicks his neck twice. His hands tremor and shake as he glides the blade over his jaw. Maybe he should try out a beard or something. He chuckles, which only makes him nick his throat again.
“Wouldn’t Tony love that one, if I showed up with a beard,” Steve says and rinses the blade clean. He dries it and closes up the straight razor. He manages to brush his teeth and shrug on some clothes without fainting, so he thinks of this as one for the win column.
Eventually he finds his way out of the bathroom and inhales, trying to force the strength back into his depleted muscles. He gets to the door but everything whites out as he hits his knees on the floor, as the white out takes him.
Echoes ricochet in his head, bouncing back and forth so that he cannot understand all of the words, all of the meanings. He can feel the bullet hit him again, but this time it doesn’t crash into his chest. Instead he feels the back of his head explode outward as the bullet rams through bone and brain tissue to kill him.
When he comes back to himself, he’s on all fours dry heaving as he fights through the pain. He falls to sit down and rubs his face with his hands. For some reason, he thinks, if he could just piece together the words, the echoes he hears in the midst of the convulsion, it might hand him a clue as to what is happening to him.
Steve lifts his head and looks up to the ceiling. Logically, he knows JARVIS is not there. Tony told him that a while ago, but he feels like he should look somewhere to talk to the A.I. “Yes?”
“Do you need assistance, Captain?”
“No, I think I can manage now,” Steve grips the door frame and uses it to brace himself and then stand. He sighs against the pain. “Thank you, JARVIS.”
Opening the door, he enters the hallway only to find Tony waiting there for him. “Tony.”
“Capsicle? Time for breakfast?”
“I heard you weren’t one for stopping to eat. Actually, I heard you spend a lot of time avoiding taking care of yourself,” Steve says, hanging back because he’s certain Tony is there at JARVIS’ beckoning.
Tony spreads out his hands and says, “What can I say, the thought of eating a wholesome breakfast with the paragon of everything that is good about this country just won me over.”
“It did, did it?” Steve quirks his mouth.
“Yep,” Tony joins Steve and ushers him out of his room. Steve’s gait is slow and awkward, but Tony doesn’t mention it, just keeps talking. “Actually, I was hoping you could come down to the lab. Bruce and I are working on something that we think might be the answer to this little issue of yours.”
“And JARVIS didn’t have anything to do with it?”
“Who?” Tony scoffs at him. “JARVIS? Nope, not at all. We are on the verge of figuring out how to help you. JARVIS just does the laundry.”
“And it is always a thrill to clean your shorts, sir.”
“Can it,” Tony snaps. “Barton’s going to bring your breakfast down to the lab so we don’t have to delay at all.”
“Oh, great, that’s great.” Steve pretends this is a good idea, because what else should he say? He can barely stand up straight without toppling over, but he thinks if he keeps moving maybe it won’t be as bad.
Tony gestures toward the elevators and Steve closes his eyes. “Cap?”
“Just give me a second?” Before he succumbs, he feels a steadying hand on his arm and then another one supports his chest. He leans into it, he knows it’s wrong, but he really has no other choice. “Thanks.”
“It’s, it’s okay.”
Steve reaches out to clasp the wall and is able to balance that way to take some of his weight off of Tony. “I’m sorry.”
Tony ducks under his arm and hoists him up, curling Steve’s one arm around his shoulders. “Up we go, boy scout.”
“I was never a boy scout,” Steve says but allows Tony to lead him into the elevator.
“And let’s all sing heavenly praises for that one.” Tony snickers and then asks JARVIS for the floor to the workshop.
Steve rests his body against the wall of the elevator, releasing Tony from his hold on him. It is awkward and uncomfortable, the silence between them. He hasn’t really spent any time with Tony since the Chitauri attack. Sure, they shook hands and were part of a team that saved the world.
The memories of what was said on the Helicarrier still plaque him just as the echoes in his little seizures do. He’d been harsh to Tony. Unless someone was an outright bully, he rarely struck like that and with such vehemence. He blamed it on Loki, but that was just an excuse. Stark bothered him, annoyed him from the get-go. Maybe it was just because of his father, and fondue. Everything is so mixed up, he’s still not sure what to say or offer the man next to him.
Yet, he is dependent on Tony to save his life, if it is even worth saving at this point.
By the time the elevator stops on the floor, Steve has apologized in his head about a hundred times, but nothing comes out of his mouth, and he studiously ignores eye contact with Tony. Just by his body language, Steve can tell that Tony knows this, feels the weight of their discomfiture like a drag on his usual buoyancy.
Tony waits as the elevator open, hangs there as if he’s a crutch for Steve. Determined, Steve walks out of the elevator and pushes past the pain that jars through his chest with every step. Lifting a brow, Tony considers him but doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to; Steve can feel the air vibrate with the sarcastic Stark quips.
They end up walking to the laboratory in relative silence that extends the discomfort of the elevator ride down. Tony hits the glass near the door and a screen appears. He taps it in a seemingly random pattern and the door clicks open.
“After you, Captain,” Tony says as he waves him into the lab space.
Steve keeps his dignity until he finds a chair and drops into it. Barton and Bruce hover over a table across the room and Steve doesn’t have enough energy to really ask what is going on. Not too abashed, Steve asks, “Food?”
Tony cocks an eyebrow but retrieves the plate from the table near the wall and wheels over a tray to the chair in which Steve’s collapsed. “Barton made it; don’t blame it on me, if you don’t like it.”
“I’m sure it will be fine.” Steve picks up the fork. “Thank you, Clint.”
Barton raises his head and salutes Steve. “Are we going to show him?” Barton asks.
Steve’s not sure what he means, but Bruce chimes in and answers. “Let’s allow him to eat before we get into it.”
Everyone seems to think that’s the best thing. Steve’s curious, but he’s too hungry and weak to fight to find out what they know, what hope they have for him. So, he digs in and eats the scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast in record time. He drinks down the coffee and eats the small bowl of fruit.
“Wow, I have never seen anyone eat that fast in my life,” Tony says. “You are a particularly interesting subject. I am starting to understand some of dear old Howard’s fascination with you.”
Before Steve can voice a question about that, JARVIS interrupts, “Sir, Ms Potts is on the phone.”
“Got it,” Tony says and yanks out a phone from his back jeans pocket. He wanders away as he speaks and Steve busies himself with eating the rest of the crumbs on his plate. He won’t confess that the portions they gave him were a tad too small. How would they understand, know the difference? He’s only been hanging out with them for a short time and they don’t usually share meals.
“So, you getting to know New York again?” Barton asks.
“A little, I have a small apartment in Brooklyn.” Steve nods. He feels a bit better, the food has helped.
Steve shrugs. “Lots the same. I looked at a lot of the magazines and read stuff on the line. You know the internet stuff. Seems we had world wars and nothing changed. Nothing at all.”
Steve really doesn’t mean to be maudlin, but how can he not? The world isn’t what he planned, what they all planned and sacrificed for. He’s not sure any of these people around him understand. They should be his grandchildren, they shouldn’t have to be superheroes and take out terrorists. That wasn’t the idea at all.
“Are we done with our little walk down memory lane, because we really need to get started here,” Tony says as he claps his hands. His phone has mysteriously disappeared and Natasha has entered the lab. She’s wearing a straight line skirt and heels which doesn’t seem like her at all, but he doesn’t remark on it.
“Let’s run the footage JARVIS,” Tony orders and suddenly there’s a life sized image of Steve standing in the middle of the lab space.
It is jarring and strange to watch himself, but Steve remains silent.
“This is going to get a little-.” Tony stops and glares at Bruce.
“A little startling?” Bruce supplies.
The footage begins and Steve recognizes the moment he heard the click, and then Tony has JARVIS do something funny with the image when he says, “Split and continue.”
When the bullet impacts, Steve grasps onto the edge of the cushion of the chair. He doesn’t look away, he never looks away. He isn’t a coward; he always stands up and takes it. Then the image splits and that is when Steve gasps.
Like a ghost from his past, he is standing there. Abrupt, and somehow real. He is there – from before the serum, standing side by side but not shoulder to shoulder with his other self – his pre-serum self. The words are on his lips, he wants to ask how they did this, what they are doing, but he can’t. He can say nothing.
It isn’t the presence of his doppelganger that throws him as much as the sight of said doppelganger with a bullet cracking open his face and bursting out of the back of his skull. It is all Steve can do not to cry out.
Both figures drop to the floor. Tony cuts off the feed.
He’s sure there’s no color left in his face, he can’t pry his fingers from the side of the cushion. His heart robs him of breath, breath that has been so difficult to capture of late. Someone is sitting next to him on the arm of the chair, saying something. He notices a touch, a light hand on the center of his back making circles. He half expects it to be Tony, and is only a little disappointed when he sees it is Natasha.
“Startling,” he murmurs and his mouth is dry and filled with sand.
“Maybe we should run down why we just saw that?” Natasha asks. “And it might be good to mention how it is possible we just saw that.”
Tony brings up the footage again, but doesn’t split it. He just asks JARVIS to freeze frame it on the moment of bullet impact on Steve. “I noticed an anomaly. Bruce and I have analyzed the data, and JARVIS has been able to digitally re-construct that into the new images you saw.”
“So, I still don’t understand what we saw.” Steve points to the spot where he watched his doppelganger die.
“Well, while you’ve been lounging around the last few days or so-.” Tony says.
“The wonder twins have figured some of it out,” Barton interrupts and raises an eyebrow at Tony.
Steve suppresses a smile and it eases the tension in his shoulders, deflates the rigidness of his grip. He nods to Natasha and she just gives him a sad smile.
“What did you find out?” she asks.
“From all the evidence we’ve gathered, Steve here was shot with what we’re calling a temporal bullet.”
“Temporal bullet?” Steve takes a moment to process this, and wonders if this is new modern lingo, but even Natasha looks puzzled.
“The bullet hits a target today but is really destined to kill the target at a precisely calculated moment in time. A juncture in time that changes the course of events, stringing two separate times together,” Bruce supplies.
“Okay,” Steve replies. How can he not say okay? His life has become a comic book and he just has to roll with whatever off the wall ideas the writers come up with.
“So, in order to stop what’s happening to Steve, we have to get there and stop what happens to the other Steve,” Tony waves to the space where the other Steve died.
“Well, the other Steve is already dead, isn’t he?” Barton asks and scratches at his stubble.
“No, not that we can discern,” Bruce answers. “This is what may happen.”
Tony jumps up from leaning against the bench. “This is where it gets all kinds of out there weird ass stuff. JARVIS was able to refine the signals from the video feed. JARVIS?”
“You called, sir?”
“Play the last part of the video feed with the refined data set.”
The feed reappears in the middle of the laboratory again. This time JARVIS has faded Steve as he looks today into a more ghost like figure. The phantom of Steve from yesterday is more defined, yet elements are missing or in faded, nearly black and white. The moment the bullet strikes happens.
The image of yesterday Steve splits again. Now there are three Steves in the room, not counting himself. The latest figure is the most fragmentary. There’s only a hint of a figure. Only his shoulder and head appear while the rest of the body isn’t actually there.
“Watch,” Tony says and points to the shoulder area of the figure. Something flashes by, it is fast and blurred. But the effect on the third Steve is noticeable. He stumbles away and isn’t hit by the bullet at all. The feed goes dead. “Now, JARVIS freeze on the moment the blur appears, enhance for color.”
There is really nothing much to see when Tony commands this order, except a hint of red blazes across the feed. The angle is twisted as Tony takes the holograph in his hand and flings it outward. The red streak becomes a shape, the clear and obvious shape of Iron Man’s shoulder blinking in and out of time.
“What?” Steve asks. “That did not happen.”
“Well you didn’t get your head blown off either.”
“So, that’s Iron Man showing up in the 1940s to save Steve,” Barton says. “And you get there how?”
“Why don’t you just go back to the moment the temporal bullet hits Steve?” Natasha says and Steve nods.
How is this his life, now? It hurts his head.
“Yeah, if you can go back in time, why not just jump to the time when Steve was hit in the first place?” Barton agrees.
“We think it has to do with the nexus, how the temporal bullet was designed.” Bruce answers. “It’s ingenious really, it is like a string. It connects to two different periods of time. You can go from one point in time to the next but not in between. Something like discrete orbits of electrons in an atom, for instance. You can jump from one orbit to the next but you have to make the complete jump, there isn’t any such thing as a partial one.”
“That makes all kinds of sense,” Barton replies.
“Just think of it as a yes or no, black or white. We have one option only. The string is set, the points in time chosen by the assassin. That is the only time we can possibly travel. Here or there, not in between.” Bruce points out.
“I still don’t-. I just don’t understand.” Steve is shaking his head and turns to look at Natasha who seems to have disappeared from the room. He scans for her but finds no sign of her. It is strange because he didn’t even hear her high heeled shoes.
“It means if we do this thing, we have only one choice.” Bruce starts.
“Have Iron Man goes back and save your ass,” Tony finishes.
“Do you understa-.” Steve glances toward Barton, who seems to have mysteriously ventured off with Natasha as well. “Where’s Clint?”
“Clint?” Bruce furrows his brow. “We’ve confirmed everything with Doctor Jane Foster out in New Mexico.”
“Is Thor out there with her still?” Steve asks. He would have liked to say hello to his fellow soldier.
“Thor? Like a Norse god, what does he have to do with it?” Tony frowns. “Do you have a fever?” Tony walks across the lab and places his hand on Steve’s head.
“No.” He bats Tony’s hand away. “Where’s Natasha and Clint? Where’s Thor?”
“It’s happening,” Bruce says.
“What?” Steve looks from one to the other and as Tony turns to answer Bruce – and Steve’s attention is temporarily diverted to watch Tony’s response – Bruce disappears. “Cripes. Where’s Bruce.”
“Bruce? Bruce, who?”
Steve stands up and staggers away from Tony. “He said it’s happening. What does that mean, Tony? What does it mean? Where is everybody else?”
“There were other people here?” Tony says and his gaze is so intense it burns deep and wide and feels like it might turn him to ash and cinders.
“Yes, the Avengers. Tony, they’re gone.” The fear, the idea that Tony might leave him too crashes into him like a wrecking ball to his chest. He grabs onto Tony’s wrist. “Don’t leave me.” If Tony leaves, he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead.
“Okay, that means you truly are a man out of time,” Tony says and his face is pinched like he’s trying to remember. “Thought this might happen. You know everything about the original time line, the rest is resetting. I thought, we thought, whatever, thought it wouldn’t happen until you became too weak. Thought I had more time, we’ll have to make do with what we have.”
“What? Damn it, Tony, explain this to me,” he says. He doesn’t know if it will matter at all, but he refuses to let go of Tony. Someone has to stay with him. Tony will stay, he knows it.
“It means we are out of fucking time.” Tony drags him toward the other side of the workshop, yells for JARVIS to deploy the latest mark version of the suit. “Get in your uniform.”
“Over there,” Tony says. There’s a case with his suit and shield sitting in the corner of the laboratory. “We have no idea what we are up against and I need you protected.”
“Okay,” Steve says but hesitates. It means letting go of Tony, it means trusting that his whole world isn’t falling, breaking, and sinking into the ice again. Only this time, the ice is something he doesn’t understand. This cold and fear has nothing at all to do with snow and frigid waters and everything to do with utter loss of himself, of everything, and of everyone.
“I’ll be here, I promise,” Tony says and Steve releases him.
He goes to the case and swiftly pulls out his suit. He doesn’t look back at Tony. He cannot. If he looks back and he’s not there, he might crumple and shatter to a million pieces of glass. His nerves already feel like sharp points, prickling inside of him, tearing little holes everywhere. He changes and, as he’s pulling the shirt over his head, he feels something tug on his chest. He looks down into his shirt as he picks up his jacket to sling it over him.
Blood seeps down his chest.
He glances up and sees Tony in full Iron Man regalia. His faceplate is still retracted, and he glimpses a smear of blood weeping through the shirt and staining the jacket Steve is now donning.
“Come on, we don’t have much time.” Tony crosses the room and picks up Steve’s shield. He clamps a hand onto Steve and says, “I didn’t have time to test this theory out at all. If it doesn’t work, we might very well get killed.”
“I’m dead already,” Steve replies and knows the cold hard truth of it.
Tony pulls him over to a cabinet in the laboratory where he has a few articles out on the counter. There’s an old key, a leather satchel that is stuffed full, and a small container. Tony opens up the box and inside it is what looks like a cross between one of those phones and what they call a tablet nowadays. Tony pops the lid and inside there’s a glimmering piece. “Do you recognize this?”
Steve shakes his head.
“This is the tesseract-enhanced crystal that you brought back from Red Skull’s factory. My father had it, experimented on it. I think it might be the way back to the 1940s. I have no idea.” He turns it over. “I talked with Foster last night; she thinks we can form the connection we need to the space time we want to go, essentially allow us to access the perturbation of space-time created by the bullet. I’ve embedded it within the tablet to harness the energy, but it’s rudimentary at best and I don’t know how to calibrate it at all.”
“Calibrate?” Steve says and this is all too overwhelming and too much. He’s not this person. He’s someone else. He’s the kid at the World Expo that got rejected so many times from the army.
“Once we access it, it will sling shot us to that point in time. We won’t have any control over it. Getting back, well, that will be another story. It should sling shot us back, but I’m just guessing here.”
It hits him then, hard in the chest like the bullet should have. “Okay, do it, but do it now. It’s happening now. I can feel it.” He struggles to open his jacket and the stain spreads across his entire chest. “There isn’t any wound, Tony. It’s coming from the other me; we’re getting closer to that moment of time, to the moment the bullet strikes him, like you said. Once we hit that moment in time, when the bullet strikes him, I’ll be dead. You said it yourself, once the bullet finds its target.”
“The string is only so long, the energy for the temporal bullet only so strong. Once it’s pulled taut-.” Tony stops.
“Then I’m dead. Surely, this is that sign.” It rakes through his chest, digs into him, and rips out his strength.
Tony clicks his fingers “Do you have any idea of when we are going to? A day, a time?”
“I’m not sure, but I can give you a guess.” Steve closes his eyes and states the day and approximate time. “From the white-outs, the little seizures I’ve been having, I have memories bombarding me about that day.
“The tesseract should slingshot us to that moment in time.”
They never stop clutching one another.
“Once I trigger it, there will be an explosion at the same time the sling shot occurs. It should, theoretically take everything with it through a portal that’s connected physically to the tablet. So, tell me when.”
“With the tesseract, we’ll use it as a portal to get to the exact time and place this is happening to you. Its energy should be enough. In the grand scheme of cosmic crap, seventy odd years for a time jump is nothing.”
“Okay, I-.” He wants to apologize for everything he said on the Helicarrier. He wants to say thank you, and he wants to tell Tony how much of a piss-ant he can really be sometimes. But he doesn’t, he just nods and says. “Okay. I’m gonna need to sit down.”
They find their way to the couch. Steve relaxes, lays his head back on the cushions, thinks of all the Avengers, and the Howling Commandos, of Bucky and Peggy, and then he opens his eyes and sees Tony. Tony in the Iron Man suit, grasps him, keeps him anchored until he finally cannot fight the pain anymore.
Just as Tony begins the countdown, just as he’s telling Steve to stay with him, the pain smashes into him. The glass daggers of his nerves shift and move and spear through every fiber until he’s crying out, until the thing devouring a hole in his chest explodes and hurls points of fire through his body, through his nerves, through his blood vessels. The glass turns molten. His bones go on fire and melt. His tendons and ligaments twist and coil and snap. He was wrong, so wrong. This is so much more painful than the ice. The ice forgave him for intruding upon its perfect solitude. This thing eating him inside out does not. It will never forgive him. It’s relentless and savage.
He opens his eyes and meets Tony’s gaze. The tesseract flares and a bright light takes everything out. He loses Tony’s touch in the blast. There’s nothing left to hold on to as the gaping hole of time and space swallows him.
Tony isn’t there.
Clarity comes in stages.
First, the fogged reality settles around him and he realizes he’s lying on his back. For a few seconds, he thinks he might be in the dark of a cave again, but he isn’t. The next few minutes consist of a flurry of helplessness and anxiety racing through him. He scrambles but finds everything difficult to move and it is black, completely pitch black. He cannot place where he is, the panic wells up like some locusts rising over the horizon. They are coming, a mass of insects to chew away at the last semblance of sanity in his brain. He fights and struggles and groans out a few sounds.
A flash stops him and he recognizes it.
“Online,” the voice says.
“What?” he answers and realizes he’s completely encased in something. It hits him. “The suit. JARVIS, you functioning?”
“In situ functions whole and functioning independently of external input, sir.”
“Why’s it dark then?”
“Proceed, but lift the faceplate, please.”
The faceplate retracts and he stares out into the darkness. It is still dark, so night time. Okay. And he’s outside. Okay. The tablet is discarded to the side and he notes it and the satchel next to it.
“JARVIS, where am I?”
“You are in still in New York, sir. But I will need more information before I can process and give you a precise location.”
He rolls over. The suit is definitely not designed for lying on his back. He feels more like a turtle than a superhero. With a grunt, he manages to heave himself into a sitting position after he flips over and braces against the ground. He looks around – he seems to be in a back alley but there’s an awful lot of noise. There are brick walls around him and the stench of garbage. If he didn’t know better, he’d think he’d been on quite a bender.
He squints into the light from the street and there are a lot of people streaming by. He can hear what sounds like the distinct noise of a rollercoaster or a monorail or something like that. There’s noise and ruckus reminiscent of a carnival or one of the Stark Industries Expos. He blinks again and notices the men and women walking by are definitely wearing clothes he’d – at the very least – say were dated.
“Information indicates you are in the 1940s. I am still trying to pin down the date.”
“Steve?” He looks around and finally catches sight of a red boot sticking out from behind a couple of dented silver trash cans. He scuttles over to his side and tears away at his jacket. The mess of blood covers his entire front. He rips at the undershirt material, to staunch the flow of the blood. He cannot. There are no wounds. “Steve.”
Miraculously, Steve opens his eyes and peers at his surroundings. He’s clearly lost and they don’t have time for this. He needs to know where Steve is – the other Steve is right now.
“Steve, come on, tell me what’s happening? Where the hell are we? When the hell are we?”
He coughs and blood splatters from his mouth. He swallows it down, flinching at it when he does. “Where?”
“There’s a carnival or something. Out there? Do you remember going to a carnival that was an important juncture in your life?” Jesus, Tony thought for sure the most important juncture would be the moment he stepped into the pod for the transformation. Not a fucking city fair. “Where the fuck are we, Steve? Steve?”
“Expo,” Steve rasps and coughs again. Blood smears over his chin, his eyes do a loop in their sockets but he fights it. “World Expo.” He laughs a little and it sounds like it opens little holes in his lungs. “Saw your father there, for the first time. Floating car.”
“Yeah, yeah, why here? Why now?”
“Met Erskine here, changed my life,” Steve says and collapses in his arms.
“He is still alive, but barely, sir.”
“How much time do I have?”
“Approximately nine minutes and seven seconds before Captain Rogers expires.”
Nine fucking minutes to find Steve Rogers and save his sorry ass? Christ. He gently lays Steve down on the ground; his eyes flutter open for only a moment. He stares at Tony and something whispers from his lips.
Tony thinks it might be sorry but he isn’t sure. He has one chance at this and trying to be inconspicuous is not an option. He closes down the faceplate and launches into the air. He doesn’t look back at Steve, he doesn’t say goodbye, because this is not fucking goodbye. He knows this, there has to be a reason that he’s the one and only person still in existence – there has to be a reason Tony just didn’t disappear as well.
He swings over the crowd. There are lights and a Ferris wheel and something that looks like a monorail. He notices a crowd gathered around a stage with a car on it. An echo of a voice amplified by JARVIS screams in his head, but he ignores the urge to look down at Howard. He doesn’t have the time.
He scans the crowd and JARVIS alerts him to a figure moving to the recruitment tent. He zeroes in on him and JARVIS displays the calculations and comparisons.
“It is a match, sir. That is Steve Rogers.”
Tony flies forward and just as he circles around there’s a blast of fireworks to the western side of the sky which luckily covers his trail. He lands and follows Steve, but someone else in a uniform is there first. Tony can only surmise it must be Bucky. Bucky is standing there trying to convince Steve not to do this to himself again, not to try to sign up. Steve – so earnest – looks at his friend and speaks. Tony doesn’t concentrate on his words; he’s looking at the countdown clock.
“Two minutes, sir.”
“Yes, I know.” Tony says as he stands off to the side. He knows this has to work. He knows it because he saw it. It has to, but he has no idea what the consequences of his actions might be. What new world will he bring down on them when the entire world is introduced to Iron Man in the 1940s. He should take off the suit, remove it, but he doesn’t have the time.
“Thirty seconds to Steve Rogers’ estimated death.”
Bucky hugs Steve and moves away, telling him not to do anything stupid while Steve retorts and says how can he when Bucky’s taking all the stupid with him. It happens then. Tony steps out of the shadows as Bucky turns around, as Steve calls to him not to win the war before he gets there, as Steve shifts to enter the recruitment center.
Tony races in and shoves Steve aside with a full body tackle. A flash of light and a hollowed out echo follow. They fall into a tangle of Iron Man limbs and thin Steve ribs and body. There’s barely anything there at all, Tony realizes. He’s lighter than even Pepper.
“Geez, get off,” Steve says and pushes at him.
Gears whizzing and whirling, Tony fumbles to get off of Steve. There’s a crowd gathering around and for an instant Tony worries someone might take out their phone and click a picture. He remembers when he is and smiles. He climbs to his feet and offers a hand up for Steve. Steve waves him away, and brushes the dirt from his tie and pants as he stands.
“That’s just swell, thanks so much Robot man of the future.” Steve growls at him. “If I end up with a bunch of bruises because of you, they’ll never let me in.”
“Sorry, new costume, can’t figure out how it works,” Tony says and manages to clunk away. Several of the women giggle at him and a few men whisper into their gals’ ears. Steve turns redder than the suit and curses as he walks further into the recruitment tent.
Tony calls after him. “Good luck.”
Steve never turns back.
The crowd disperses when they realize he’s not going to put on a performance or anything. They drift away and he’s able to sneak back into a side alley for takeoff. He waits for another explosion of fireworks before he beelines it out of the area back toward where he left his Steve. The landing is a little tight and he has to judge it particularly well. JARVIS helps navigate and he’s on one knee next to Steve in only minutes.
“Okay, big boy, let’s see what’s going on here,” he says and the faceplate automatically retracts thanks to JARVIS. Steve is huddled in a heap in the trashed area of the alleyway. Unconscious and non-responsive, Steve rolls under Tony’s touch without resistance.
“Up and at ‘em, soldier,” Tony orders but that elicits nothing as well. “Tell you the truth, that whole take down was remarkably anti-climactic. You are a brat, you know that?” Tony retracts the glove portion of the suit and pats Steve’s face.
JARVIS updates him on his patient’s status. “All systems are functioning within normal range, sir.”
“So what the hell is he doing?”
“In the middle of a trash heap?”
Tony slaps his face a little harder and Steve moans a bit and turns to the side. He spits up some dried blood, then does a full out vomit of whatever the hell has lodged in his throat. Scurrying away from the mess, he falls right into Tony and, in less than five minutes, Tony has an arm full of Steve Rogers again.
“Wh-what?” Steve pushes away from Tony, not unlike his other self just did. He frowns and rubs at his eyes. “What happened?” He spits again, obviously not comfortable with the taste of blood in his mouth.
“I saved your sorry ass.”
“You? You did it?” Steve says and breaks out in a smile. This smile, this new smile is the first one Tony has ever seen on Steve’s face that completely transforms it. His luscious lips turn upward but with a slightly abashed tilt to them. His eyes don’t so much crinkle as twinkle, if that is possible for anyone other than Santa Claus. Even with the blood stains all over his face, the rosy color to his cheeks offsets the expression and makes it infectious.
Tony grins. “Yeah, we’re good.”
Steve begins to rise to his feet.
“Whoa, fella, we don’t know what this means.”
“Means, I feel fine and I’m starved. When do we go back?” Steve rubs his hands together as if he’s waiting on something fresh baked from an oven to appear in front of him.
Searching around, Tony finds the leather bag and retrieves it from a puddle. He shoves the tablet in the bag; he’ll assess its state later. The leather is ruined, but the contents are fine. He digs through his belongings and says, “That’s part of the puzzle I hadn’t figured out quite yet.”
“What?” Steve says. “What are you saying?”
“We’re here. Right now, I can’t get us back there.”
“What the-. What about that sling shot stuff?”
“It’s is a sling shot not a boomerang.
“Cripes, Tony, I was just getting used to modern day junk, you know. I think I finally got the hang of one of those little pocket phones.”
“Right, yeah. Now, I-. I cannot believe you.” Steve turns around in the alley as if he’s hunting for something.
“I didn’t exactly have a lot of time to figure it out. We kind of had to get here ASAP because you were dying. Don’t blame this one on me.” Tony says as he gets to his feet.
“Then what?” Steve opens his hands and glares at him. “I’m grateful and all, but what now? I can’t roam around the world, now. I can’t do anything, there’s another me out there.”
“The real you.”
“What the?” Steve wrinkles his nose as if he’s just smelled something terrible, which might be the case considering they are standing next to a trash pile.
“Well, the other you, is actually the real you for this time period. You’re the anomaly.”
Steve looks away as he rolls his eyes. “Geez.”
“Don’t, don’t get your spangled, although admittedly filthy, outfit in a twist,” Tony says and rummages through his bag. He raises his eyebrows and pulls out the key. “I have a plan.”
“A plan,” Steve frowns. “The key’s to what?”
“Great, so we’re going to settle down, retire, stay hidden for the rest of our lives,” Steve says.
“Well, technically, I’m not born for another like thirty years or so. I can do anything I want just as long as I don’t, you know, have my mother fall in love with me thus stopping my mother from falling for Howard and therefore causing all kinds of paradoxes until such a time I can go to the Under the Sea dance and play Johnny B. Good and get them to kiss.”
A sound a little like a dying whale might make comes out of Steve's mouth and his shoulders sag. “You know, it is exhausting talking to you.”
“Imagine how tired I am all the time, since I have to deal with it constantly.” He rummages through the leather satchel.
“What?” Steve winces as he replies.
“Okay, let’s not make a big deal out of this. It’s just going to take a little bit of know-how. Which I have a lot of. I have to access the crystal again and do the little sling shot. It’s just a bit non-responsive right now. I have some ideas, that might actually get us out of here,” Tony says.
He digs out a pair of jeans and throws them at Steve. “Put those on. We can’t be walking around looking like this.”
“I’m not even sure I understand why we were dressed up in the first place.”
“No idea what we were walking into, Capsicle.”
Steve sits to the side and looks out at all of New York City beyond the alley. He gets a dreamy look on his face and smiles. “Wow.”
“What?” Tony has his helmet off.
“Just being back here. It’s like a dream or something.”
When Tony stares at him, there’s a soft, almost tender look on his face that makes a sense of innocence and loss work its way through Tony. The sorrow, the melancholy is sweet and bitter and sharp all at the same time.
“Or maybe not a dream,” Steve touches his shield. “Maybe more like reality.”
“Hmm,” Tony says, hating to snap him out of his memories, his recollections and wishes of what might have been. “Come on, we have to get moving.”
In minutes, Steve’s changed into the jeans and shucked his jacket. There’s nothing he can do about his boots, which look ridiculous with the jeans. “You know, no one wore dungarees unless they were doing some kind of hard labor for work. It wasn’t fashionable.”
“Well, with the red boots maybe we can pass you off as a worker from the train yard or something,” Tony says. Hopefully, he can figure this out fairly quickly and get out of Dodge as soon as possible. “There might be something better where we’re going.” He flicks a switch and says, “Retract, and store.”
The suit automatically folds down and compacts into a large suitcase. He has to complete the final storage of it with a few twists and clicks of the suit, but it is, at least, stored.
Taking his shirt, Steve wipes away as much of the blood on his face as possible. Steve neatly folds his jacket and shirt, even blood stained, and places them both in the leather satchel. He’s only wearing a white t-shirt now and even that looks horrible. “You can’t walk around looking like that; you’ll attract too much attention.”
Steve looks down at the splotch of red on his chest. “I don’t have any other clothes. I didn’t pack for a trip, you know.”
“Okay, turn the shirt around. We can put your shield on your back and throw the leather satchel over it.”
Steve does as directed. The leather satchel is a tad too small to hide the entire shield, but it does a good enough job to get them to where Tony hopes to go tonight.
“That t-shirt with the bright light glowing out of it isn’t going to attract any attention,” Steve mutters.
Tony glances down at his Black Sabbath shirt and the glow of the arc reactor to highlight it. He tugs the shirt off, turns it inside out and puts it back on. There’s nothing to be done about the reactor so he says, “We’ll walk fast. Very fast.”
“Okay, where are we going?”
“Well, Howard’s home.” Tony winks at him and shows him the key. “He just bought the mansion.”
“Oh, oh.” Steve shakes his head. “This is not a good idea.”
“It’s a fabulous idea and you know it.” Tony walks to the main street. “Come on, soldier boy, we have some visiting to do.”
Steve’s palms gets sweaty when he’s nervous. He hates it. It is one of the reasons he never speaks to dames, or couldn’t anyway. Who wants to go dancing with a fella constantly wiping his hands on his pants? Standing outside a vast mansion that looks like it might take up a whole city block as they crouch near the gate feels just as bad as asking one of those dames to dance. While Tony has the key to the mansion, he doesn’t have the key to the gate.
“What can I tell you, I’m not a lock pick.” Tony hunches over and fiddles with the lock a bit more. “Can you do any better?”
“I never broke into anything in my life,” Steve says. “Well, that’s not true, but I don’t think you can count Red Skull’s facilities and war missions.”
“Of course not, Mister Goody Two-shoes,” Tony responds.
Steve has the impression this is not Tony’s first rodeo. “Any luck?”
“Give me a god damned minute,” Tony hisses.
Steve peers over his shoulder but he doesn’t see anyone coming. It is the dead of the night and they’ve waited until the back entrance area is shadowed without any significant traffic. But this is New York City, Manhattan no less, even if it is the 40s. The hairs on the back of Steve’s neck stand up and he spins on his heels just to see an alley cat race by them. Tony jingles something in the lock and Steve hears the click before Tony actually reacts to the success.
“You got it!” Steve says and Tony clambers to his feet, stretching a bit as he does because he’s been crouched over for so long trying to break into his once and future family home.
“Here we go,” Tony says and ushers Steve inside the grounds.
“Are you sure there are no other guards or security?”
“The butler, but don’t worry about him,” Tony whispers and bends over to slip through a hedge.
Steve follows Tony around the shrubbery toward the main house. There are only a few lights on, two on the second floor and one on the first near the main door. There are several other outbuildings, including a garage and a shed. Farther in the back, Steve can make out the glimmer of lights on what he can only imagine must be water, so he figures there is a pool in the back. Tony waves him toward the side entrance and they walk down a few steps toward the basement floor.
Tony digs out the key from his pocket, and slides it home. The door opens, Tony winks at Steve and they enter into darkness. The only light they have is from the arc reactor and Steve’s eyes adjust quickly. To the one side of the basement is a long hallway and to the other what looks to Steve like a storage area for wine. He can only conclude it must be a wine cellar, he has no idea. It isn’t like he spent time with people who had a wine cellar in his day. So far his only interaction with rich people has been the Starks. He’s sure Tony must have a wine cellar but he’s never actually seen it.
Tony leads him down the opposite hallway toward the main section of the basement. He opens the door and they both slip inside as Tony turns on a light. The room isn’t large and it isn’t chock full with items either.
“Old man just moved in. Not much here. We’ll have to make do.” Tony says and crosses to the armoire. He opens it and tosses Steve a blanket. “Not much here.”
“I suppose we’re not eating tonight?” Steve says and sinks down to the floor. There aren’t any chairs, only a few folding tables and wooden crates.
“Listen, we’ll figure it out in the morning. Right now, we’ve been wandering around for hours and you lost a lot of blood.”
“I’m fine.” Steve opens up the blanket and throws it over his shoulders. He isn’t lying. He feels completely normal for a guy who just died two different ways.
“I need some time to work on the problem. At least here we won’t have to watch our backs.” Tony pulls out a second blanket and a pillow. “There’s only one.”
“Don’t need it, I can sleep anywhere.” Steve slips off the satchel and the shield. He pulls out his uniform and frowns. “Do you think OxyClean will get this out?”
“OxyClean? Seriously? You are watching way too much television.”
“Why’s the stain still here?” Steve asks as he shifts around to make a pillow with his jacket.
“If you stopped the temporal bullet from hitting me, then shouldn’t everything have reset, like you said? Shouldn’t the stain be gone?” Steve lies back and folds his hands under his head.
“Technically, the assassination attempt still took place. But failed. But I think we’ll have to ask Bruce, he knows more about this crap than I do,” Tony says as he plays around with the blanket and the case with the suit in it.
“Hey, you remember Bruce! That’s a good sign,” Steve says.
“Of course, I remember Bruce. A guy who turns into a gigantic green rage monster is kind of hard to forget.”
“That’s what you say now,” Steve cocks an eyebrow at him.
“Stop being cleverly vague. It doesn’t suit Captain America.”
“Not Captain America right now, only Steve Rogers.”
Tony chuckles as he mutters, “Right, right, only Steve Rogers.”
The lilt of his voice repeats in Steve’s head until he wants to ask Tony what he means by it. He misses his chance though when he turns to see the man curled around the suit’s case snoring softly with the blanket still folded at his feet.
Crawling over to his side, Steve spreads the blanket out and covers Tony. He looks around at the small room. It could be worse, much worse, and he’s grateful for what his friends did to save him. He doesn’t understand half of what happened, not because he’s stupid, but because he knows he’s not supposed to understand it. Paradoxes are like that.
What he does understand is that the man in front of him worked himself to the edge of exhaustion to find the solution, to save him, and Steve has yet to apologize to him for what he said on the Helicarrier.
“Yeah,” Steve whispers. “Only Steve Rogers.”
Sometimes, Tony hates being a genius. As he sits in his suit in the little dank closet, Tony goes over the details again with JARVIS.
The tesseract-enhanced crystal is dead.
There’s no two ways about it. Dead as dead can get. He has the back of his Stark Tablet ripped off and wires connected up to the arc reactor. He can get the tablet to work off of the reactor, but the crystal isn’t doing anything. The tesseract characteristics embedded in the crystal have been destroyed. He’s tried to give the crystal a jump through the arc reactor, but it didn’t even fizzle when he tried. He did end up with a singed chest for a day or so. Without the tesseract element to the crystal, he’s certain they will not be able to return to their time. He can’t access the space-time continuum, he can’t slingshot them back. He’s figured out the equations, but he needs the portal. He knows the way back to home, but he doesn’t have the vehicle, the tesseract. He can’t get home.
His home, he realizes.
The door lock jiggles and Tony freezes, but it opens slowly. Sighing, Tony waits as Steve slips inside. They have been holed up in the basement of Howard’s house for weeks as Tony tries to figure out a way to power their trip back. Tearing away at the wires from the reactor, Tony tosses the tablet to the floor and says, “Retract and store.”
The suit folds back and closes up. He finishes the job and snaps the case to shove it aside. He hasn’t greeted Steve; he doesn’t think he can stand another minute with him. His head space, his mind is consumed with the crystal and how to get it charged again, how to link it back to the space time continuum. He might try sneaking into the garage tomorrow, hot wiring a car, and giving it a jump with the battery. He already knows it won’t work, if the arc reactor doesn’t cut it – a damned car battery is never going to succeed. Steve interrupts his spiral journey down into the pit of oblivion.
“I brought dinner,” Steve says and places a paper bag on the small table they have set up. There’s an old lamp on the table that offers what little light they have in the room. He has no idea where Steve scavenged it. While Steve spends most of his days roaming about New York City in the 1940s enjoying his little journey down memory lane, Tony sits stuck in the little room, working with JARVIS to try and figure out a way out of this mess.
Steve pulls out two deli sandwiches, places wax paper on the small folding table, and takes out two bottles of cola as well. “I hope you like pastrami on rye. I wasn’t sure what kind of sandwich you would like after the last time.”
“Bologna is nobody’s favorite, I don’t care what Oscar Mayer says,” Tony says.
“I like bologna,” Steve says and lifts a shoulder as if it is obvious why he would like it. Tony doesn’t tread there.
They’ve already ventured down the path of Tony’s privileged past and Steve’s not so fortunate means. It ended with Tony raging at Steve about the lack of affection from a drunken Howard. He only stopped his own self-pity when the honorable Captain America broke down, cursed him, and told him how his father, in a drunken rage, beat his mother. Tony had been startled to muteness; because Steve always talked about his father as if he was a hero, when in fact he’d been nothing more than a shithead.
Tony grabs a chair – Steve dragged one into the small room a few days ago. He picks up the sandwich, unwraps the wax paper, and tastes it. It isn’t bad. “You know we could just raid the fridge here.”
“You like the pastrami?”
Tony looks up and sees the earnest look on Steve’s face. “Yeah, it’ll do.”
Steve nods. “Good, good. I’m glad.”
“We could be dining on the best, just upstairs.”
“That’s stealing,” Steve says and settles on one of the crates.
“Living in my old family home in the basement, sneaking outside to the pool house to use the toilet and shower isn’t?”
“That’s necessary,” Steve says.
“Eating is necessary, too. And you stink, you know that don’t you?”
Steve shrugs. “Pick up day work where I can, so I can pay for the food. I worked down at the docks today. Stinky work.”
With his meager earnings, Steve has also provided clothes and shoes for both of them. Tony should feel grateful, but it just reminds him that he’s stuck somewhere he hates. Yet, when he thinks of it, how Steve purchased a wool sweater for Tony just to make sure he would be warm enough and he only bought a cotton shirt for himself, he falters in that hate. He stops and, somewhere deep inside, hurts like an ache, a want.
“Crap, Cap, you don’t need to do day labor. I’m fucking rich; we have the whole god damned house at our disposal.” Tony gestures to the door, the door to the outside that he barely walks through at all. “Howard isn’t even here anymore. He’s probably in fucking England or Italy by now.”
Steve bows his head and continues to chew his sandwich. He looks up to Tony and, swallowing, says, “Why do you always call him by his first name?”
“Your father, you never call him father or dad, you always call him Howard.”
Just the idea of being asked this by Steve drives a cold bullet into his chest, into that warm ache at the pit of his belly, and he tosses the sandwich onto the table. “Why do you care?”
“I just- I know that you had, have issues with him. I just wonder why you don’t at least acknowledge that he’s your dad.” Steve digs back into the bag and pulls out a jar of pickles. “Want one?”
Tony frowns and waves him off. “Just because he contributed to my genetics doesn’t make him my dad, you should understand that.”
Steve practically kills him with the daggers he throws at Tony with his eyes. Standing, Steve leaves the rest of his sandwich untouched, the pickle half eaten, and says, “I’m going to take a shower. Good night.”
Tony opens his mouth to stop him, but Steve’s out the door and into the dark of the basement. They’ve both been lucky so far, none of the staff at the house have noticed their presence. Tony schooled Steve on what to expect even though there would be differences in personnel, there was a routine that was expected. They’ve even been able to acquire a key to the gate. Slipping in and out of the main portion of the house had been relatively easy so far, but at this point, Tony doesn’t want to risk anymore of it. What he wants is to go home.
He tosses the wax paper aside and leans back in the chair. He’s exhausted and should sleep. There’s an old single bed-sized mattress on the floor Steve found and gave to Tony fairly early on in their stay here. Tony insisted they take turns, Steve refused. Even when Tony left the bed vacant, Steve still slept on the floor. Now, Tony just sleeps on the bare mattress with a single blanket and pillow, with Steve only a few feet away, curled on the hard floor of the basement storage room.
He hates it. He hates it all, and he hates Steve most. But not really, he knows that. He watches Steve when he knows Steve isn’t looking, when he knows Steve is exhausted and tired, but still trying to be a good man. It hurts deep inside of Tony to know that Steve is being supportive while Tony just wants to go back home, back home to a place that is foreign to Steve.
He keeps telling himself this until he wants to bang on the walls and wake up every fucking soul in the place. Restraint is not something Tony Stark knows. Instead, he opens up one of the bottles he’s taken from the wine cellar and slugs it back. He drinks it right from the bottle, no need to rely on ceremony here. There’s no ceremony. He’s fucking locked in some parody of his life and he can’t get out.
He laughs a little. He feels like a little old woman who’s fallen and broken her hip but can’t call anyone to say she can’t get up.
He doesn’t wait for Steve to get back. He crawls over to the mattress and falls asleep. He doesn’t want to remember anything. He tries to wait for Steve to return, but he drank too much and his head hurts. He lies in the room, staring at the ceiling. Tomorrow, he’ll figure it out tomorrow. Maybe something solar – but no, he doesn’t have the right materials, or something – shit. He doesn’t have the right materials. But he knows he’ll figure it out, he will. Tomorrow. And he’ll find out tomorrow one other thing, the most important thing, if Steve wants to go home, too.
Steve hates inaction. Maybe that is one of the reasons he needed to go to war. He wanted to do his part, yes, but he hates standing on the sidelines and being forced to watch. When he was a child and couldn’t go out because of yet another asthma attack or his weakened heart, he’d often watch the neighborhood kids play kick ball in the street from their walk up apartment window on the third floor of the tenement. He could only stand observing them, smiling at them for a few minutes each time. His mother thought it was because his weakened state made it difficult for him to sit up for long periods of time. She never guessed the real reason, the thought of sitting by and not being able to participate hurt more than the asthma attacks.
Now, he’d been forced to wait and watch and see if Tony could outwit and outsmart their way out of this mess they find themselves in. As the days went by and Tony became more irritated and foul to live with, Steve drifted along the streets of New York City. He thought, at first, he’d just see the places he once loved. Now, he spends most of his days picking up day labor jobs and doing what he can to support them. Tony thinks he’s an idiot.
Tony doesn’t know him.
Certain situations lead him to actions he would not normally condone. He has to use the facilities in the house; they both have to do it. Tony doesn’t seem to have any problem with it, but Steve does. When he voices his opinion about it, Tony just tells him to have fun crapping outside. Steve is just disgusted with Tony’s rude remarks and drops it.
He decides then that he’ll do what he can to live as honestly as possible under the circumstances. He works when he can find it; once a week he pulls together all of their laundry and goes to the nearest nickel operated Laundromat and cleans their clothes. He asks Tony if he would like to come along, but he just says he doesn’t need to watch the way the red one circles around in the dryer – thank you very much – and anyway it is five minutes to Wapner or something.
Tony mystifies him most of the time.
He fills his days with routine so that he can stop thinking about the situation, so that he can stop asking why someone wanted to kill him in the first place. He tries to find the hardest labor he can, so that when he returns from it, he’s tired and worn out. Once he comes home with only cheese and bread for dinner. He feels guilty because Tony’s spent the entire day encased in the suit, working with JARVIS on the plan for getting them back safely.
He couldn’t find work that day or the day before, so he’s stuck with just a few coins in his pocket. He brings home the cheese and bread.
“Cheese and bread, just like fondue,” he jokes but Tony glares at him as he puts the suit away. His smile fades and he places the bread on one of the small plates he’s managed to squirrel away. He turns the subject to the matter at hand as he slices away at the cheese block. “Any progress?”
“No, nothing,” Tony says and rubs at his forehead. “Maybe tomorrow I can go work at the stinky docks and you can sit in the suit all day and chaff your dick.”
Steve gags a little but manages to stifle it before Tony hears him. “I – I don’t think I would fit.”
“You don’t need to get into the entire suit.” Tony pops a chunk of the cheese in his mouth.
“Oh,” Steve hands him a bottle of cola.
“Too bad they don’t have bottled water.”
“I’ll try for some beer the next time I get some work at the trucking company. They pay better.”
“You know, we are not here forever,” Tony states more to convince himself than Steve.
Nodding, Steve chews the bread and, after swallowing, says, “I know. I just- I kind of.” He doesn’t finish because what would be the point. Tony does not want to hear that there’s some distant part of Steve that wants to stay. He also cannot admit to Tony that the moment he becomes Captain America, the moment of Rebirth is upon them. He doesn’t know why but it is significant in his head.
“Don’t get comfortable,” Tony says and starts to push the food away.
“Eat,” Steve says and drags it back in front of Tony. “You need to keep healthy, if we’re getting out of here.”
Tony studies him for what feels like a full minute, before he relents and eats the rest of their modest meal. Steve doesn’t admit that he’s hungry all the time and considers sneaking upstairs to raid the pantry. He doesn’t do it, but late at night when he’s staring into the dark of the room, only the arc reactor’s dim light shining, he thinks about the big empty house with its food stores and how they are starving just thirty feet from food.
The night time brings the dreams. He fends them off, easily. Maybe it is because he’s back in his own time and he doesn’t have to worry about losing everything and everyone he’s ever known. It is Tony who cannot fight the haunting images. Tony cries out, and murmurs in his sleep, Tony cringes and flinches in his sleep until Steve awakes and crawls over to him. He wakes him carefully after the first time. The first time Tony socked him in the eye. He learned from then on to quietly and softly bring Tony to wakefulness.
The easiest way to do it was also the hardest. He slips his arms under and around Tony, lifts him from the thin mattress, and presses him against his chest. Maybe it is the warmth of Steve’s chest or the rhythmic sound of his heart against Tony’s ear, but it silences him. Tony blinks awake and stares at Steve in the eerie light from the arc reactor. They stay curled into one another until morning, when Steve moves away and goes back to the hard floor. Neither of them speaks of it. Although it means Tony suffers, Steve longs for those nights when Tony is followed by his fears into his dreams.
In little ways, Steve attempts to soften the blow, the harsh reality for Tony of being stuck in a time that is not his, a time which is foreign and ugly to him. He saves his money for weeks and buys a wool sweater for Tony. He knows Tony likes fresh fruit and it is difficult to come by. He works during the day but disappears once Tony is asleep to go to the butcher shop to clean. It is disgusting work, but he’s able to make the extra cash to afford fresh fruit which is hardly bruised at all. The surprise and smile on Tony’s face when presented a bag full of fresh grapes and two oranges was payment enough.
He usually brings the paper back to their little room for Tony to read, just as entertainment. Sometimes at night, Tony points out some of the predictions in the science column and laughs or huffs or rants a little. It can be exciting and it helps Steve understand a bit more of the modern world. Steve sits and listens and asks all kinds of questions. It is one of the few times, Tony actually lets down his guard and seems to enjoy being with Steve. He looks forward to these moments, these shared conversations. Every question Steve asks sets Tony into a whirlwind of conversation and dialogue that is both thrilling and confusing. Steve laughs and smiles and thinks how wonderful it must be to be so brilliant. Tony tells him that his knowledge of history is spotty at best, but Steve doesn’t find it that way at all. Tony makes leaps and connections that threads the world’s events together into a pattern Steve had never seen before, never experienced in such a bright and wonderful way. He loves these moments with Tony.
At one point, he asked Tony about the fact that Tony never disappeared. Every other Avenger in Tony’s laboratory popped out of existence during the last moments before Steve nearly died.
Tony lifted a shoulder with a casual ease. Sometimes, Steve was jealous of how comfortable in his body Tony was. Even to this day with his graceful, strong body, Steve still had moments of discomfiture.
“Not sure, weird though,” Tony had agreed. “We shouldn’t have had enough time. I should have disappeared as well.” Tony reached over and stole the pickle slices from Steve’s sandwich.
Steve had only smiled and bowed his head. He had his hopes and dreams as to why, but he wouldn’t confess them.
As they flip through the paper, Steve lands on the comics. “Little Orphan Annie,” he announces and sets about reading the strip out loud.
“Otherwise known as the Adventures of Zombie Girl.”
“Zombie girl?” Steve twists his mouth into a frown.
Tony leans in close and points to the drawing of Annie. “See, she doesn’t actually have any eyes. If that’s not a zombie girl, I don’t know what is.”
“When is the last time you saw a zombie?”
“I don’t know, didn’t we fight zombies that one time?” Tony says and quirks an eyebrow at Steve.
“Tony, we never fought zombies.”
Tony shrugs. “Well, we could have and their children would definitely look like that.”
Steve considers the picture and concedes. “I see your point.”
“Of course you do, because I’m brilliant.” He pats Steve on the arm and smiles. It’s open wide inside of Steve, like the sun’s first warm rays after a chilled night. He remembers that feeling from before, from sleeping in the forest under cover. The sun was always welcome, it meant life and survival and more.
As Tony moves off and fiddles with the helmet of his armor, he accesses JARVIS to configure it for something or other that Steve can’t possibly understand. In a whisper, Steve says, “Yes, you are. Yes, you are.”
The next day Steve hides the newspaper.
He cannot bring the paper home, because his face – a portion of it – hidden by a taxicab door is on the front page. Project Rebirth happened today. His face will become known and he has little time to stay here, to continue being in a place that’s comfortable and easy and less.
It is less.
Everything about the future is more. More noise, more lights, more technology, more pollution. It all just hurts so much. He realizes the world in the 1940s is not perfect. He understands that, not even the country he loves is perfect in his time.
He folds the paper and slips it inside his inner coat pocket. He’ll just pretend he forgot it. He joins Tony in the little basement room. Tony’s hair is wet and he’s already out of the suit. He’s shaved and clean.
“Oh,” Steve says and places the bag with the sandwiches on the table.
“I’m going out, we should go out. No, reason not to. I have some money. Well, let’s say I borrowed some money from dear old Howard.”
“You stole that-.”
“I borrowed; it isn’t like it isn’t going to be mine in the end, anyway.”
Just as Steve is about to protest a loud bang occurs. They both flinch. It sounds like the main door opens, a crowd of people enter, and then the door slams closed upstairs. Steve and Tony stare up at the ceiling and remain silent.
The house has been relatively quiet during their stay, the only activity by the staff. They could have had the run of the house, but they’ve kept to the basement with occasional trips to the pool house outside for use of the bathroom and shower facilities. If the pool house had been heated Steve would have suggested they stay there instead of in the bowels of the Stark mansion basement. Getting a bed at the local flop house would have been better than squatting as they’ve been doing.
Tony shuffles to Steve’s side and peers up at the ceiling. He mouths, “Howard?”
Steve nods. Of course, it is Howard. Project Rebirth happened today. Howard might not have shown up prior to the experiment because he’d been holed up in the laboratory preparing for it. Now, once it is over and done, once Erskine is dead and the whole of the laboratory a burnt out shell of what it once was Howard would come back home.
“Yes,” Steve whispers. He relents and pulls out the paper to hand over to Tony.
Tony flips it open with a snap of the pages. “Damn it to hell.”
They can hear a number of people walking across the floorboards, the creak and groan of joists shuddering against the movement. Steve waves Tony to the side of the room and they both fumble and settle onto the mattress. Neither of them reaches to turn on the light. Tony unbuttons his shirt and yanks down the collar to use the arc reactor to read the paper.
“Today, this happened today?”
“Yeah, today. That’s the evening edition. Happened this morning.” Steve rubs his hands together, why does he feel nervous? Why does he feel like it just happened to him?
“Hmm?” Steve is busy listening to the motion of the people in the house, trying to calculate the number.
“How long until you go on tour?” Tony asks.
“Just a few weeks. They did some tests, first. Then they had to get the girls together and the routine. About two weeks or so.”
“Two weeks? We have two weeks.” Tony hisses at him. “Okay, okay then we have a new time table. We’ll get this done.” Tony starts to stand but then they hear a noise on the staircase. He freezes, but Steve stands up blocking Tony.
The sound approaches the door, footsteps, even and regular. Steve holds his breath as the footsteps pause by the door, and then move on toward the wine cellar. They wait together, not moving, barely breathing until the footsteps scuff the floor near the store room again. Inwardly, Steve curses. He should have argued with Tony, he should have forced him to accept a room in a boarding house instead of hiding out in his father’s basement. This is ridiculous.
The person stops by the door again. Steve can feel Tony’s breath on his neck; feel the heat of his body pressed behind him. The door knob jiggles a bit, but Steve locked it when he came in. For a moment, Steve cannot remember if he did set the lock, but it holds and the person abandons their attempt and moves on.
He exhales as he listens to the quietly receding sound of steps on the staircase.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Tony whispers.
“We shouldn’t even be here in the first place. This wasn’t a good idea.”
“Now, you tell me,” Tony grouches at him.
“Now? I told you before when you first wanted to break into your father’s house.” Steve wants to throttle the man, but he restrains himself and grinds his teeth.
“Don’t,” Tony warns and raises his hands as if in surrender. He thought it would only take him a day or two to get them back, not weeks. He never expected to be squatting in his family home for such a long time. “We’ll figure this out. I swear.”
Steve deflates. It isn’t as if he has a choice. In a matter of weeks, his face will became known as the symbol of America. He’ll become the cartoonish figure of Captain America. For months, Captain America will grace stage and screen alike. He won’t be anything but a caricature until he ends up in Italy entertaining the troops just miles from the enemy front lines.
“Just,” Steve says and shakes his head. It hurts to think of what’s happening outside, in the world around him, in his world. He shouldn’t be locked up in some basement storage room; he should be out there, doing his part. The thought makes his chest ache.
Tony tugs at his jacket. He turns just as Tony drops to sit on the mattress with a wave to Steve to follow him. Reluctantly, he settles next to Tony. He folds his hands in his lap and says, “What now?”
Tony glances up at the ceiling as the muffled sound of the radio vibrates through the floor. He focuses on Steve again. “I have everything. I’m fairly certain of the calculations.”
“But, there’s a ‘but’ in there. I can tell.”
“See, I knew you had a brain,” Tony says and winks at him. “Without the tesseract enhanced crystal, we’re dead in the water. I can’t open a portal without it.”
“So, you have all the other required elements?”
“Yes, but the crystal’s burnt out from our trip here,” Tony says. “I’ve tried everything from the arc reactor to the pool house generator. It isn’t about an energy source; it’s about a connection to the space time continuum. We’re well and truly stuck.”
Steve doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He feels ashamed because he’s happy, secretly pleased that Tony cannot outsmart the problem. There’s nothing he can build or engineer, or trick to get them out of here.
He’s stuck with Steve.
The only problem is, Steve doesn’t feel stuck. He feels like he’s been welcomed home, again.
Tony doesn’t go out that night or the next night, neither does Steve. Both of them huddle in the room and listen to the sounds of people and motion around them. In the darkness, Tony silently thanks Steve for staying. He doesn’t want to be here, alone, not with Howard upstairs. So close.
As they sit and wait, Tony curses himself, for not figuring out a better way, for not being smart enough, for failing, for wasting his time. He looks at Steve sitting across from him, scanning the paper, and thinks about how he’s wasted so much time. He’d only let Steve talk him into venturing out a handful of times in all these days, all these weeks. Most of the time, he sat alone and sulked, thought about everything he’d lost. On the rare occasion he allowed Steve to drag him out, he stared and looked and actually marveled how people moved through their days, made due with such primitive technology. Steve snickered at him when he mentioned it. Steve had smiled and Tony looked away.
It had been on one of these few outings that Steve dragged Tony to the movies theater. It had been a Sherlock Holmes flick staring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as the detective and loyal sidekick. Tony just raised his eyebrow and rolled his eyes.
He huffed. “Consulting detective.”
“Based on the books, Tony.”
“Yes, I know. Never really liked them.”
“I thought you would, considering.”
Steve paid for the tickets and handed the stub over to Tony. It was strange, being reliant on someone else for all of his means. They entered the theater’s lobby. “Considering, you know, how smart a fella Sherlock is. He kind of reminds me of you. Always thinking, figuring things out, and connecting seemingly unrelated things.”
“Seriously? You spend too much time at the movies,” Tony had said and entered the theater.
They never saw the movie. During the newsreel, things unraveled. Tony leaned back and squinted at the screen. The resolution on the footage was god awful, but it had been enough. The images, the stories about the soldiers, it had all been enough. When Tony bent toward Steve, he caught sight of his white knuckled grip of the arm rests, the far too shallow breathes, the unblinking gaze at the screen. It was all Tony could do to wrestle Steve from the seat, to drag him out of the theater and into the lobby. Even then, Steve’s breath hitched and his lungs spasmed.
Clutching Steve’s shirt, Tony had pulled Steve out of the lobby until they were out in the evening air. Steve was still shaking, still in the grips of panic. Tony shoved Steve into a side alley and pushed him up against the brick wall. His face was clammy and cool as if shock set in.
“Come on, Steve,” Tony said and tapped his cheek a few times. “It’s fine, we’re fine. Come on.”
“I can’t, I can’t.” Steve hit his chest as if to indicate he couldn’t breathe. Tony already fucking knew he couldn’t breathe, he just couldn’t figure out how to help him.
“What do you always do for me, Spangles?” Tony had asked. Steve wavered in his grasp and then in a slow descent, collapsed to the ground. Tony followed and gathered him close. “That’s it, breathe for me. Breathe.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve coughed. “I just-. I started to think.”
“Gets you every time, that thinking.”
“Yeah, I started to think about everything we didn’t know, back then.” He squeezed his eyes closed and puffed air out. A shudder ran through his body as Tony held him upright. “We didn’t know, at least I didn’t, about the camps. I didn’t know how horrible it all was. What they did.” He opened his eyes and Tony glimpsed tears wetting them. He brought Steve’s head to his shoulder and kept him there, held him close as his body shook with the aftershocks of the truth. “I tried so hard to do the right thing. I should have been able to do more, I failed at it all. I wonder if I even made a difference at all.”
It would take Tony another half hour to calm Steve down enough. It scared the hell out of him, the thought of losing Steve – it felt like losing everything. He couldn’t lose Steve, not now, not ever. So, that night he held onto Steve in the middle of a dirty alley way and calmed him. When they walked back to the mansion, Tony never said a word when Steve’s hand brushed against his own.
Now, he glances over at Steve, who has the two day old newspaper out. He has a pencil and has the want ads open. Steve is the man with the plan. He’s decided they need to begin to accept their circumstances. He wants to move out of the city, maybe go west. Tony feels like he’s stuck in a bad made for television movie. He does not want to plan and scheme. He wants to get the fuck out of here.
Twice more someone stops by the door, but doesn’t open it. As the second night wears on and Tony succumbs to the reality of the situation he lays back on the mattress and accepts he is now the man out of time.
How the hell did Steve do this every fucking day? How? He slings an arm over his eyes and tries not to listen to the roar of his heartbeat in his ears, but it is there like a constant reminder that he’s alive in some anomaly of his life.
“How’d you do it?” Tony whispers into the dim light.
Steve looks up at him. “Hmm?”
“How’d you accept it? You know, how did you do it?” Tony lifts his arm and looks at Steve. “One day you’re flying a plane over 1940s Europe and the next day you’re in 2012 in Times Square. Just a few weeks later you were fighting aliens. How the hell did you do it?”
Steve puts the paper aside and says, “It felt like a dream, a lot. Like a bad dream I couldn’t wake up from, but-.” He stops and looks into the shadowed recesses of the room. He shifts and meets Tony’s gaze. “People helped. A lot. Agent Coulson was good, he helped.” Steve’s voice trembles a bit when he mentions the agent. “Then I had the Avengers, you, and, even though I felt out of time, I never felt out of touch with people.”
Steve offers him an abashed, slightly sweet smile, and says, “Okay, so I was confused a lot. People don’t change, Tony, just the times. Most people have good hearts, and want to do good.”
“God, you’re everything dear old Howard always said,” Tony says and plops back down on the mattress to stare up at the ceiling. Howard is just a breath away, he could walk right up to him and sock him one in the jaw.
“No,” Steve says and stops. “I’m sorry.”
This stops Tony’s ruminations about how to best knock out his father. He looks at Steve and the earnest, honest expression hurts. He’s spent days, hours just hating the fact that they were stuck and, he knows; in the back of his mind, he’s been blaming Steve.
“Don’t, don’t do that,” Tony says.
“Apologize. There’s nothing to apologize for,” Tony says.
“Yes, if it hadn’t been for me, you wouldn’t be stuck in 1943.”
“If it hadn’t been for some lunatic assassin neither of us would be stuck here,” Tony says as he sits up. “They tried to kill you because they wanted to change history.”
“And why did they want to kill you?” Steve folds his arms, those massive arms, across his chest. The shirt he’s wearing barely fits him. It is stretched tight over his pectorals.
“Figured I’d be the one to-.”
“To save me,” Steve supplies. “I’m sorry it had to be you. This isn’t the right time for you. You deserve to be in a place where you can work those miracles you do every day. The world needs Iron Man.”
“The world needs Captain America.”
Steve bows his head and laughs a little. “The world has one, right now. Well, soon.”
“And what about you?”
“The real question is what about us, Tony,” Steve says and relaxes, dropping his hands to his lap. “We can’t stay here any longer. Howard will be leaving to go to England and then Italy soon, but we can’t stay holed up here for the rest of the war until he returns.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Tony looks at the case which holds the suit. He wanted so much more, and this is what he has. A single suit, a few bucks he stole from dear old dad, and Captain America. His brain feels impoverished already. He closes his eyes. “I can’t. I can’t do this. I can’t stay here.”
There must be something in his voice or something in the way he turns his face away from Steve that causes the other man to act. Steve moves across the room in one fluid movement and sits next to Tony on the small mattress. It feels like those nights, those whispered moments when there is no sound, and only Steve’s next to him lulling him back to sleep from the terrors that haunt him still. It feels intimate and secret. It sends little thrills up his spine.
“I can get you out of here,” Steve says and releases a breath he’s been holding. His hand is placed on Tony’s shoulder, wrapping around his back. It feels like companionship, it feels like something more.
“Sure we can go ride the train west,” Tony laughs. “Go make movies.” He laughs a little. “Find Charlie Chaplin.”
Steve squeezes his shoulder. “I don’t wish on anyone, most of all you, what happened to me. It’s too hard to grieve the loss of every single thing you’ve ever known. Every single person and place and time. It’s too hard. That’s why I’m going to get you out of here.”
“That’s, that’s nice. It’s kind of sweet, but it is completely impossible. I need a connection to the space time continuum.”
“You forget,” Steve says. “I know where Schmidt’s factories are. I know where to go. I can get a boatload of crystals for you if you want. Hell, I can get the cube if you want it.”
“Jesus fucking Christ, I did forget.” He’d been so wrapped up in the weight of loss, in the paradox of its burden emptying out his soul; he’d completely dismissed the idea of Steve being the clue to everything. He only kept thinking of what this time period couldn’t supply him with instead of thinking about what it had – has. Right now.
“It isn’t easy to book travel to a war zone and enemy territory, you know,” Steve says.
“We’ll go there via the suit,” Tony says and he feels as if he’s alive for the first time in days, in weeks.
“The suit?” Steve says as Tony jumps up, clapping his hands. Steve climbs to his feet and waves Tony’s excitement away. “We cannot use the suit. First, you can’t go flying around in that thing. You just can’t. What if someone sees you?”
“Night time flight. Surveillance sucked during the 40s.”
“You can’t go alone. You have no idea where to go. It’s a war zone, Tony, a war zone.”
“Does Afghanistan ring any bells for you?” Tony snaps.
“Totally different types of war. This is an all-out assault on the entirety that is Europe. We have a presence on the continent now, because Mussolini fell and the Italian resistance. The rest of Europe is a wasteland. You cannot go alone.” Steve is adamant. His eyes are fierce and determined. He’s Captain America suddenly, and not just Steve Rogers.
“I won’t,” Tony says and he has no plans, no idea what the hell he’s saying until it floods out of his mouth like a great monsoon. “You’re coming with me. We’ll go together.”
“You’re going to fly us over the Atlantic Ocean, together.”
“That’s the plan.”
“That is a terrible plan,” Steve replies.
“Do you have a better idea, oh Star Spangled Man with a Plan?” Tony waits. When Steve doesn’t come up with one immediately, he raises an eyebrow and states, “Then it’s settled.”
“Settled,” Steve gripes but doesn’t continue.
Over the next day, Tony decides Steve will need to have extra insulation for his suit since they will be flying at a high altitude. He’s worried about the temperature and the wind shear on Steve’s face. He has Steve bring him paper and pencils and he spends a good amount of time drawing up plans, querying JARVIS about materials available to them for insulation. It happens that silk is the best and that it is the most difficult to come by. He sneaks up to Howard’s bedroom at one point to see if he can steal some silk pajamas. Unfortunately, the man didn’t have any during his youth, so they have to start at square one. They can’t even find silk stockings to use. If they had access to a warehouse for the military they might be able to get their hands on a parachute.
Tony comes up with the plan to go to the air field where Howard houses some of his planes and get a parachute from there. Steve glares at him, but cannot dissuade him. In the afternoon when he’s certain both Howard and the staff have vacated the house, Tony leads Steve to the garage. They find a 1942 Dodge Custom Convertible with a large front grille, strong construction for the era, and red leather interior. It is a fine ride and Tony realizes quite rare in his day. He has to admit, Howard had style.
“How are you going to-.”
Tony takes a flat head screwdriver and slams it into the steering column; he pops the ignition and yanks out the wires.
“Tony, are you? Are you stealing?”
Tony winks at Steve, hits the wires together, and the engine purrs like a newborn lion. Oh, she is sweet. “Yeah, get in, beautiful. We have an airstrip to visit.”
Steve only hesitates for a second and, Tony recognizes that he’s as starved for action as Tony is. He rams the car into drive and they peel out of the garage. This is better than flying in the suit, well, not exactly, but the look on Steve’s face blasts a hole in Tony’s heart and settles something warm and delicious in the place of the cold, frigid fear he’s been feeling all this time.
The convertible is a big monstrosity of a car, but they built everything huge back in the day. It rolls over the road like it is making love to it and feeling the wind on his face is like a blessing and a prayer all in one.
Finally, some action, finally they are getting somewhere. Although it takes some time to navigate their way out of Manhattan in the thick of the afternoon, Steve doesn’t say a word. He leans back and peers around at the sites. This is his home, his city, his time. In a very real way, Tony understands, comprehends the real loss, the utter loneliness that must have settled and taken root in Steve’s bones like some infecting virus that he cannot shake.
It occurs to Tony that Steve might not want to come home; he might want to stay exactly where he is. Shoving the thought aside, Tony steers toward the road and follows it toward the airstrip where he knows his father always stored his planes.
It takes a little over two hours to get there. They will be late getting back to the mansion which worries Tony a bit, but he’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it. Tony leaps out of the car, not bothering to open the door while Steve exits and stares around as if it’s the first time he’s seen a private airstrip. It probably is.
Tony waves Steve over as a man in overalls approaches them.
“Can I help you fellas?”
“Stark,” Tony says and offers his hand.
The man studies Tony’s hand and looks back up at him. “You ain’t no Howard Stark. I’ve worked for Mister Stark for three years and I ain’t no fool, mister.”
“This is his brother,” Steve chimes in. “Seriously, you don’t see the resemblance?”
Frowning, the man turns to look at Steve. “Hey, you look a little familiar. Ain’t you that guy? You know, the one they keep talkin’ ‘bout in the papers. Ain’t got a clear picture of him, but you kinda look like him from the top.”
“Why, yes, sir. Yes, I am. I stopped a Nazi operative in Brooklyn, just a few days ago. I’d appreciate it if you’d let Mister Stark go and check out his brother’s plane since we’re planning on a cross Atlantic flight soon.” Steve’s demeanor and politeness isn’t a shock, but the way he holds himself, not to intimidate but to respect his elder, impresses Tony.
“Why, okay, sure.” The man scratches at his beard. “So it really was a Nazi?”
Steve shrugs his shoulder as they amble toward the large hangar to the side of the parking lot. “They didn’t exactly tell me. But he shot Brooklyn up to heck and back again.”
“My wife’s sister lives out that way and she ain’t seen nothing like it in her day,” the man says and gestures to the small silver plane. “There it is, Mister Stark. I gave it a once over last week when your brother came in. I can prepare it for the cross Atlantic flight if you want.”
“Sure that would be -.” Tony clears his throat and says, “That’ll be swell.”
Steve bites back his lips and stifles a laugh. “We’ll just check on some things and get out of your hair then, sir.”
“Surely,” the man says and loiters outside the plane for five minutes as they enter.
“Swell? Tony, swell?” Steve is delighted and shows it as they enter the plane. “I wish I had my pocket phone thing. I would have loved to film that and put it on that YouTube.”
“YouTube ? Who taught you about YouTube?” Tony says and crouches by the side of the fuselage. He opens the storage containers.
“Clint came over one night,” Steve says and stops Tony from taking one of the packed parachutes from the under the seat bin. “That one I use in a few months to save Bucky and the one oh-seventh. Leave it.”
“You remember that detail?”
“This is the same plane he used to drop you over enemy territory?” Tony scans the small plane.
“If he flew this across the Atlantic, he’d have needed to refuel along the way.” Tony says as he yanks out another chute. It never occurred to him that Howard might have risked his life to fly a plane through enemy territory, but he would have had to considering he’s the one who dropped Captain America into an area held by the enemy. He shakes his head. “So, this one?” Tony tugs out one of the parachutes from the bin.
“Fine, yeah, fine.” Steve is getting antsy.
Heaving the parachute out, Tony hands it to Steve who slings it over his shoulder. “Come on, let’s go then.”
Crossing the width of the hangar, they don’t encounter the worker again. Instead, they get in the car and Steve stows the parachute in the back. Soon, they’ve left the airfield behind and are traveling back toward the city.
“Any idea how we get back into the house?” Steve asks.
Tony checks his watch. “We’ll get there, don’t worry.”
It is evening by the time they pull up to the garage port, and, at first, Tony’s certain they’ve succeeded. No one is in the garage. He parks the car and they exit without fanfare. By the time they creep back to the side door, slide in the key, and slip to the basement store room, he’s breathing a sigh of relief.
He follows Steve into the room but he stops dead before he’s through the threshold. He puts his hands up in surrender and Tony says, “What the hell-. Oh, damn.”
Jarvis sits in the middle of the small room with a pistol trained on them. His eyebrow cocked and his no nonsense attitude clearly written on his face. He stands.
“If you gentlemen wouldn’t mind stepping out of the room?”
“Jarvis, please,” Tony says and steps forward. The gun is cocked.
“I’m not entirely sure how long you’ve been in the mansion. I do know for certain that you’ve been here at least as long as Mister Stark has been in town and now that he’s about to leave for the front, I would like to ensure that you are taken into custody.” His hand is steady and sure on the pistol. “I’m sure the authorities would like to know what two men are doing spying on Mister Stark.”
“We’re not,” Steve starts but Jarvis is determine and glowers at him. Steve falls silent.
“Listen, Jarvis, this is not what you think it is,” Tony says.
“What I think it is, is of no consequences, what I know it is – is that you and your companion have committed at least a half dozen crimes. Not least of which is spying on Mister Stark and stealing his vehicle today. If you know my name, it is obvious you have been spying on Mister Stark and his activities for the war effort.” Jarvis is not a young man, but he isn’t old. He might be about five to ten years older than Tony.
“Please, I’m asking you to understand,” Tony says.
“Understand? Understand your criminal ways, sir?”
“Understand that he bears a striking resemblance to Mister Stark,” Steve says.
“Which is of no matter.”
Steve sighs and says, “It does matter, because if you don’t help us there’s a very good chance-.”
“There’s a very good chance Howard’s hopes and dreams will fail.” Tony doesn’t know what exactly to say. This Jarvis is a man years before he ever met his Jarvis, the man who cuddled him and took care of his skinned knees, years before he would cry for Jarvis instead of his parents when he was hurt or lonely. He takes a leap. “You told me once, you wanted to quit working for my- for Howard. He never thought of anyone else. He only thought of the science. He only cared about the science.”
Jarvis raises an eyebrow and is unmoved.
Steve gestures for him to continue.
He’s not sure he has the right thing to say, but one thing comes to mind. “Howard told you he wanted it all and didn’t give a damn about sharing it with anyone. He didn’t believe in love, but you told him that having it all meant nothing if you didn’t have someone special to share it with.”
Jarvis looks away and then back at Tony. “I just spoke with sir, this morning about this very subject. He was excited about a project that worked of late.” His eyes drift to Steve and then back again to Tony. “He was frenetic like his blood was on fire with the idea of creation and discovery. I fear that someday he will wake up and be a very lonely man.”
“He’ll listen to you, in some ways, he will,” Tony says but chokes down the fact that his own father never really learned his lesson.
“Who are you? Who are you both?” Jarvis asks.
“We need to get our stuff and leave. We won’t come back, I promise.” Tony gestures to their meager possessions. “Please, we’re not here to spy or hurt anyone, Jarvis.”
Jarvis glances at Steve, considers him for a long moment. “I think I’ve seen your photo in the paper, young man. I believe something is going on here to which I am not privy, but I will not press you to explain it to me. Please vacate the premises immediately, and do not return.”
“Thank you, sir,” Steve says and shift to pick up their belongings.
Jarvis permits him to gather everything and as they leave, he stops Tony. “If you can, try and make Mister Stark understand the value of people, of family. He holds onto science as if it is a living thing to him but does not understand the worth of the people around him.”
Tony blinks too many times, and tries not to admit to himself that his eyes are wet with tears. He nods to Jarvis and whispers a thank you. He turns to leave, but before he goes he says, “Thank you, Jarvis, thank you for everything.”
Jarvis smiles and bows his head once.
Tony helps him cut and wrap the silk from the parachute. Huddled in an abandoned shack down by the docks that Steve noticed when he picked up some day labor work, Tony splits the fabric as Steve binds it around his torso and legs.
Steve stopped once along the way to pick up some food for them since they hadn’t eaten anything the entire day. He didn’t want to go on this adventure on an empty stomach. As Tony pulls apart the seams of the chute and helps him tie off the silk, Steve thinks it might have been a mistake to eat. He’s a little more than nervous about this entire idea.
“How long will it take again?” Steve asks. His body shivers against the growing cold of night. If the silk isn’t really helping him on ground level how will it help in the upper atmosphere?
“Long range missiles. The thrusters are akin to ICBMs which are the big boys, the long range missiles of the lot,” Tony says as he tugs on the wrapping and hands Steve his blue undershirt. There is still the slightest stain on it from the blood. “It should take about 30 to 40 minutes tops, but I’ll be carrying you which will cause some drag, and I won’t be able to fly at the same altitude even with your extra insulation. So, I’m thinking closer to an hour.”
“Can you do that? Is that even possible?” He struggles to put on the pants of his uniform while trying not to upset the mummy-like encasement of the silk around his legs and feet. “Do you really think this will help?”
“It has to,” Tony says. “Failure isn’t an option, soldier boy.” He leans over to Steve and helps him zip up the jacket and pulls up the cowl.
Steve glances down at the dark stain on the jacket. “OxyClean might have taken out the stain.” It seems like a foolish thing to say, it is a foolish thing to say, but thinking about what they are going to attempt – fly across the Atlantic while he holds onto Tony for dear life- just threatens to turn him into a scared child.
“Yes, because the stain is the most important thing to worry about,” Tony says and hands Steve a swathe of the chute. “You’ll need this to wrap around your face. The wind will get brutal; I don’t need you to get frostbite or abrasions because of exposure.”
Steve nods and puts it over his neck. He waits as Tony suits up. It only takes a few moments and, as he finishes, Steve slings his shield and the leather satchel on his back.
Before Tony closes this face plate he says, “I’m going to have JARVIS control the arm holding you. I’ve fashioned a bit of the rope from the chute to tie us together. How good are your knots?”
“Well, I’m not Navy, but I can do a good Bowline. That should hold.”
“Good, let’s get outside and then do it,” Tony says.
Once they are outside the small shack, Steve takes the rope and twists it around the Iron Man suit and then around his own waist. He does the knot with efficiency and ties it off. “Okay.”
“JARVIS will clamp onto you. I’m going to be concentrating on flying. I’ve got the coordinates you gave me.”
“It should drop us about a mile from Schmidt’s factory.”
“You’re sure it will be up and running?”
“Not one hundred percent. It will be months before I go there, Tony. This is the best chance we have unless you want to wait.”
“No,” Tony replies. “Step on my boot.”
Steve follows instructions and then yanks up the silk to wrap it like a scarf around his face. He ties it off and tucks in the tail ends of it along the neck of the cowl.
Tony grins at him. “You look like a little old lady.”
“Thank you, how thoughtful of you to say so.”
“Testy, Captain America can get testy.”
“Are we ready?”
“I think we are,” Tony says and wraps an arm around his waist. Steve puts his arm around Tony’s shoulder. “Keep your face between my head and shoulder. Once I gain altitude do not look up. Keep your face protected at all times. Keep the communication link open. If you have a problem, tell me, okay?”
“And what will you do in the middle of the ocean?”
“Is it too late to go to the bathroom?” Steve asks.
“Nope, and I just did,” Tony chuckles.
“Really? That is just disgusting.”
“I’m joking. Seriously, why do people think I pee in my suit all the time?”
“Because you brag about it?”
Tony huffs a little and says, “Lower faceplate.”
He only gets a glimpse of Tony’s expression before it is replaced by Iron Man. He closes his eyes just as the faceplate lowers and there’s a slight look of regret, but Steve might be reading more into it than necessary.
“I read you,” Steve replies.
“Get ready for take-off.”
Steve notches his face into the crook of Iron Man’s neck, slides his free hand around Tony’s waist and steps up on his other boot as well. Iron Man launches. It hitches his breath as the thrust against gravity and lift off feels like a ride at Coney Island. He swallows back a little more than fear and grips Iron Man’s waist. He takes a chance and peers out over his shoulder to see the receding lights of the city glimmering at the edge of the water.
Night speckled with light and shadow lies beneath them as they arc out over the waters and into the long darkness of the ocean. The shoreline glistens in the night against the rising stars in the sky. It is like the surface of the world tries to reflect the heavens above and it robs the air from his lungs. He watches the gentle waves of water splash against the land, but it disappears too quickly into a black night, into a colorless abyss. He’s been on the ocean before in the middle of the night, he knows what to expect. It just surprises him – the blackness, the complete absence of sight.
Steve searches for the shoreline one more time as if he’s saying goodbye, as if this is the last time he’ll see his home, his time. It hurts a little and he closes his eyes and bends his head down to hide against Tony.
Tony is terrified. He admits this was not his best idea, not even close. It might actually be his worst idea, but there’s truly no other way. They need the tesseract enhanced crystal. He keeps telling himself there is no other choice. Yet, as he clings to Captain America – Steve Rogers – and flies over the vast ocean of blackness, he questions if he should have just accepted that this was his life now. His life, his journey ended up in the 1940s and he should just move forward and not try and change everything.
He thinks of Steve, stuck as a reluctant time traveler in the 21st century. Steve moved from being recovered and thawed from the ice to less than a month later being called upon to save the world from an alien attack. He rolled with it, and Tony never truly appreciated it. How the hell do you end up functioning and functioning well? He doesn’t understand it because over the last weeks stuck in the 40s, Tony knows he hasn’t adjusted, he only denied and hated it. He rarely left his family’s house, he cursed, and moped. He drank, a lot.
The one thing, the one person that helped him through it, if he is honest with himself, has been Steve. Christ, Capsicle brought him dinner every night, washed his clothes, listened to him preach about the science, and the projects of the day. He even threw ideas about concerning the war, a war Steve knew intimately. He listened and smiled and seemed genuinely enthralled with Tony’s lectures. He understands he was the only real entertainment, Steve’s only friend, but the outside world, the world of the 40s beckoned Steve, and he chose to come home every night, to sleep on the floor next to Tony’s mattress. He was there when the storage room reminded Tony too much of a time locked in a cave, Steve was there to wake him from his nightmares.
It hurts so much so that Tony wonders if his arc reactor is operating correctly. “JARVIS, status update?”
“Energy levels at ninety four percent. All systems are optimal.”
Tony smiles, softly, as he hears the somewhat timid words spoken over the communications link. "Yeah, Cap - Steve, it is." He curves over the waters and angles to let Steve look back at his New York once again. The Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building are like beacons to the world at large, but closer and more present is the Statue of Liberty, striking and glorious in the midst of the darkness around her.
"Thanks, Tony," Steve says.
"Now, tuck in, we're going higher and faster," Tony states.
Once JARVIS confirms that Steve has curled into Tony's plated armor, he rockets upward like an arrow shot from Hawkeye's bow. He heads higher, but he calculates his trajectory asking JARVIS for specific information on his flight. "We need to stay within the troposphere, JARVIS, otherwise the good Captain is going to suffocate. There's not enough diatomic oxygen to be had in the stratosphere, even though we could technically hit heights where we would get the temperature inversion and it wouldn't be so cold."
"Keep a steady stream of data on diatomic oxygen levels as well as temperature ranges for me."
"As you say, sir. I am also monitoring climate and weather patterns."
"Not within my range, sir, but it is limited without the Stark satellite network to relay information."
"Oh, the limitations of early 20th century technology," Tony says. He veers toward the guided pathway and sets off. They will cruise within the troposphere but with consideration of temperature, breathable oxygen, and weather. He knows he'll be shifting altitude quite a bit, but he can't fly jet altitude within the stratosphere because of his human cargo.
Within twenty-five minutes of flight, he calls up the data on external temperatures. It is below freezing and with the wind chill it is another ten degrees lower due to their speed and the cold air. "JARVIS, give me a read on the Captain's status."
"His internal temperature has dropped by two degrees Fahrenheit, but it is still within acceptable range. I am detecting some frost."
"But the external heat from the Iron Man suit?"
"Is warming the Captain, but his exposed surfaces are cycling between freezing and melting over the course of our flight, sir."
"External link open, JARVIS," Tony instructs. When the light pops on, Tony asks, "Captain?"
"Tell me how you're doing?"
"No problems, Tony."
Tony pauses, he wants to know more, he wants to be reassured that Steve is okay, that he's not freezing his ass off. Just as he's about to comment, Steve chimes in and says, "I run a little hotter than normal, Tony. It'll take a while before the cold affects me."
When Tony detects a slight hesitation between Steve's words, he says, "Okay, good. No problems breathing?"
"Little, but I'm good."
"I'll try and monitor the oxygen levels a little more closely. Hang on." Tony adjusts the readouts to give him a flow of data that will take into account the velocity of the wind as they streak through the sky. It should tell him how difficult it is to breathe if he accounts for respiratory rates. "JARVIS, give me data on normal respiratory rates for Captain America."
"Yes, sir." The data streams in front of him and he slows his speed somewhat almost immediately, since it is fairly clear that Steve cannot catch his breath at his current cruising speed. He has to re-adjust and slow down a bit.
He flies over the open waters of the Atlantic, the waters are cold and miserable, and they don't do the same for the troposphere as land does. Since land absorbs the heat of the sun during the day and reflects it back into the atmosphere, skies over land are the warmest, while the farther they travel beyond land into the open ocean air, they are battered by the cooling streams of the air currents and colder waters of the northern Atlantic, which is influenced by Arctic ice. He plots to fly toward the mid-Atlantic to warmer waters and nicer air streams from the Gulf, but he has to be careful not to be detected by the Allies or Axis navies.
This is fucking fantastic, he thinks.
Unfortunately, his new course will take them outward and add another fifteen minutes to their estimated time of arrival. He briefly considers if he should set down in France. With the wind chill considered the temperature is far below freezing now, and the air currents are not promising this high up. He cannot chance going closer to sea level. They’ve hit a patch of rain that JARVIS couldn’t predict with his limited range scanners. He was able to adjust his flight pattern to avoid too much of the rain, but the damage has been done, the Captain is wet.
"We could set down in France, Captain."
"Occupied, enemy territory."
He should veer off and go toward England as a safe haven.
"Let's just get this done," Steve says and crouches further into Tony.
This action worries him and he queries JARVIS. "Status on the Captain?"
"His internal temperature has dropped to 96.3 degrees Fahrenheit, sir. The external warming of the Iron Man suit is putting a strain on your energy reserves. You are expending twice the normal output to solve the frosting problem as well as to continue the heat for Captain Rogers' benefit."
"Operational at 75%, sir."
"We can afford it, then. Try and warm the external suit plates in the front by 10%."
"That will increase the heat output and the drag as well as the moisture collection from the differential of front to back exposures of the Captain. It may be detrimental to you both, sir."
"Understood. Do it. And monitor his temperature for me, more closely."
In the end it doesn't change anything, it doesn't mean anything. Their estimated time of arrival on the continent shifts as Tony compensates for heat usage of his reserves, and he loses the window to turn off track and move toward England. Steve starts to tremble a little after the halfway mark, but insists he's compensating and all will be fine. By the time they approach the continent, JARVIS is warning Tony of low reserves and his greater fear.
"Captain Rogers is fighting to remain conscious, sir. I have tightened my hold on him. His core temperature is at 93.3 degrees Fahrenheit. He is still shivering, which holds hope, sir."
"Damn it," Tony says. "Estimated time of arrival?"
"Fifteen minutes, sir."
Too long, Tony thinks. They've been in the air for over an hour already. It is a wonder Steve hasn't succumbed to hypothermia already. Tony wants to risk bringing them closer to the surface but he can't. He's over an active war zone now. He decided as they flew to go over the continent to hit the destination north of the SSR encampment in Italy. It is quicker and easier, and a hell of a lot warmer, unfortunately, he cannot go closer to the ground until absolutely necessary since he can see bombs exploding below them.
“Steve?” He has to repeat calling to Steve two more times before he gets a response.
“We’re twelve minutes out. I’m going to have to start a descent soon.” He can feel the vibration of Steve’s body shuddering against him. “Almost there, Gramps.”
“Just get us there, kiddo,” Steve replies.
Tony laughs, genuinely and purely laughs at Steve rejoinder. It is perfect and beautiful and makes his heart ache a little that Steve is trying so hard to tell Tony it is okay, things will be fine. He doesn’t believe it, not for a fucking minute. He’s about to set down in the middle of an active war zone, in the biggest fucking war the world has ever seen, and Captain America is fucking freezing to death in his arms.
He orders, “JARVIS, take us in for a landing.”
“We are still six minutes from the destination, sir. It would be a considerable over land trek.”
“Bring us close to the surface and coast for two minutes, then land.”
“Enemy fire is considerable.”
“Not as considerable as my repulsors.”
“Do it, JARVIS. Do it.”
“As you say, sir.”
He sweeps their trajectory toward the surface, gaining the ground as he does. He knows he’s speeding up, causing an increase in wind and chill, but he wants to get on the ground and to keep any surface attacks to a minimum. He’s certain nothing the Nazis or Allied forces have in their arsenal can withstand his defensive weapons on the Iron Man suit, but at the same time, he is handicapped by his cargo and might not be able to aim with the correct precision.
“We are three minutes flight time from our destination, sir.”
“Toward the tree line,” Tony says and watches as JARVIS recalculates the landing course. He follows it with a critical eye, making changes as missiles are shot at them. They don’t come close to the mark, but still it is nerve-racking and he’s following an erratic course to ensure no impacts.
“Thirty seconds to landing, sir.”
“Steve, we’re coming in, prepare.”
Without an answer from Steve, Tony has no idea if he’s ready or not. He angles the suit and finds a landing site. They left New York City near ten o’clock at night. Adjusting for time zones and how long it took him to fly – it is nearly dawn, but not quite. He has to use the sensors to spot land and it makes it more difficult just as it would be in a plane.
A bomb explodes just as he’s discerning the landing and blinds him long enough to spin his manual control of the suit. Instantly, JARVIS takes control and stabilizes their flight, but they’re too close to the ground to stop the momentum. They tumble and fall, hitting the ground with a hard smack and pitch forward over the uneven terrain. Since they are tethered together, Tony expends all of his energy to halt their motion. The shield on Steve’s back protects him somewhat and, for that, Tony is thankful.
They skid to a stop near a stand of trees very nearly slamming into one of the tallest pines. Scrambling because he has no idea if the Germans will search after their prey, he orders, “JARVIS, laser cut the rope.”
In seconds, the rope tying them together is released and he hoists Steve to his feet. “Are you with me, Steve?”
Even after the chaotic fall from the sky, Tony can still detect the tremors plaguing the Captain. He notes that the cowl and shoulders of Steve’s uniform are smudged and wet. He slings Steve's arm around his shoulders and rushes them toward the pine trees. The skirts of the massive trees will have to suffice for cover. Steve stumbles over roots to stagger beside him, but Tony takes it as a good sign that he’s able to move under his own power.
Tony drops him onto a bed of dried pine needles, realizes they are so close to the enemy he’ll never be able to light a fire to warm up the good Captain. He swears a bit under his breath and watches as Steve drops to his knees and then curls in on himself.
Kneeling, Tony retracts the faceplate, his glove and gauntlet, and grabs onto Steve’s arm. “Steve?”
Steve peers up from the side at Tony and in the slight light of dawn and the wash of light from the arc reactor, Tony can see his lips are blue and his face shadowed with the same hue. “Haven’t been this cold in a while. Not since…”
He doesn’t finish but rocks back and forth as his body trembles against it.
“Come on, we have to get you out of those wet clothes.”
Steve doesn’t agree but he doesn’t say no either. Tony reaches out and peels off the cowl to see that the silk scarf which has fallen to the side is completely wet. His Kevlar re-enforced armor is thick with moisture and his gloves creak as he moves the leather.
“JARVIS, enemy movements?”
“I am detecting none within a mile radius, sir.”
“Keep surveying the area and alert me if there are changes.” Tony says. “JARVIS, I’m going to take the suit off. I need you to remain active and link to me through the communications link.” He considers if he should use the suit itself with its exterior warming plates to help Steve. He’ll keep it as an option, but he’s not sure it will do any good at this point since he can’t get Steve to straighten out.
He pulls the comm device out of the earpiece and sets it aside. The suit dismantles and closes up. It remains on and he shoves the earpiece into place. “JARVIS?”
“Operational, sir. I will not be able to offer any defense.”
“Understood.” He removes one of the gauntlets and sets it close. The entire suit isn’t completely folded up into a case form, so he’ll still have access to it. “Now, for you, my darling.”
Steve has tumbled to his side and wraps his arms around his knees which are tucked into his chest.
“Let’s get this off of you.” Tony helps sit him back up and Steve leans against him. He removes the leather satchel and shield. He puts them aside and then finds the front Velcro snaps and opens them.
Steve stays still, his body rebels though and quakes against Tony. “I’m sorry, Tony.”
“Sorry, for what?”
“The things I said, or did. I’m sorry,” Steve murmurs.
“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about, Capsicle.” He unzips the jacket and tugs it off. The front of the Captain’s shirt is soaked and cold to the touch. Christ, he’s freezing.
“I think,” Steve mumbles. “The cold.”
“Yeah, cold,” Tony says and continues to remove his shirt. He unwraps the wet silk from the chute. It isn’t as wet as the outer garments, but still damp. Steve allows him like he’s a child and it scares Tony, digs into him like a fine chisel. It doesn’t claw out vast grooves but fine intricate delicate lines of worry.
He gets to Steve’s belt and realizes the whole of the back of Steve’s legs are soaked through from the rain and frost. He rips off the boots and is relieved to see his toes aren’t frozen or frostbitten. Tearing away at the silk, Tony curses quietly. The more clothes Tony removes the more Steve shivers in response.
“I’m- Tony-.” Steve clutches onto Tony’s shoulder. He shakes his head as if he’s attempting to clear it. Placing his hand on his chest, he’s dragging in air as if it hurts to move his lungs.
“Come on Captain,” Tony says and rubs his legs and arms. “Talk to me, tell me what’s wrong?” He will have to get the suit as a heater for Steve.
“My choice, it’s my choice,” Steve says. His eyes are bleary and unfocused.
“I don’t want to put in the water, no choice. Please forgive me,” Steve says and sways against Tony. He has his hand on his bare chest as Tony continues to use his own body to warm him. “How long?”
“How long?” Tony has no idea what the hell Steve is even talking about.
“How long to freeze?” Steve mutters. “Taking too long. Crashed, taking forever. Can’t move. The ice.”
“Christ,” Tony says and pulls Steve into his arms. Flashback. “Come on, Steve. Stay with me.” With Steve huddled into Tony’s embrace, Tony cannot reach his suit to use it. Tony holds onto each side of Steve’s face but cannot force him to focus on reality, on today. His body quavers against Tony and he knows the only way to bring him around and relieve him of the pain of cold and memories is to warm him.
Sitting back on his haunches, Tony strips off his own shirt and shucks his pants as well. He’s cold but not icily frigid like the Captain. “Let’s see if what they say is true about body heat.” He gathers Steve in his arms and coaxes his head against his shoulder.
He rubs his back and arms and listens as Steve murmurs about the water and the cold. He hates hearing it, realizing how horribly frightening it must have been. Alone, dying. It brings back his own terrible memories and he finds himself kissing the crown of Steve’s head as he whispers, “Shush, it’s all right. You’re here with me, now. It’s all right.”
If he can get Steve to release him, if only for a moment, he can get the suit to help warm them. He massages his fingers into Steve’s hair, messing through the knots and whispering – he hopes – the right things until finally Steve reacts to the here and now. “Tony?” Steve’s body still jars against his but it settles a degree.
“You with me, Cap?”
“What’s? What’s happening?”
“Just a little trip down memory lane, and not the good kind.” Tony continues to runs his hands through his hair and then up and down Steve’s back and arms. Tony can feel the rigidity of his muscles against his bare chest, against his legs. The solidity and mass of the man in his arms does not escape him. “Any better?”
Steve inhales sharply and buries his face once again into the crook of Tony’s shoulder.
“Um, Cap?” He raises an eyebrow, snuggling is the last thing he expected from their trip to the war zone. “Let me get the suit, we can use it for warmth.”
“No. Tony, don’t.”
It startles and awakens something so intimate, so private in Tony that he’s stunned into silence. In his arms, Steve settles and closes his eyes as if he’s relishing the moment, stolen and whispered. The quakes have calmed with only a few judderings of his bare shoulders every now and again. He glides his hands against Steve’s skin, touching his arms, around the curve of his shoulders, over the muscular back. His skin is still cool to the touch; Tony tells himself he has to keep touching him, caressing him to warm him. The serum must be helping he figures, but the worry eats away at him.
Steve looks up at him, the light of dawn and the reactor glinting off the rise of his cheeks and nose. The speckled sunlight dapples through the low branches of the trees. They are well hidden, yet the rays of the sun find them, set Steve’s skin on fire.
“See there,” Tony finds himself saying. “You’re not blue anymore, which is a good thing. In so many ways.” He’s rambling, but Steve’s gaze searches his, wanting for something that he does not want to answer.
Or he does.
“Steve,” Tony murmurs. Their bodies are entangled, chests pressed up against one another. His hands are on either side of Steve’s face, cupping his jaw, holding him in place. His legs are threaded through Steve’s strong limbs. He’s not sure when or how they got there. He thinks he should move away. He should stop. Instead, he says, “I want-.” He cannot finish, he doesn’t ask permission, and he leans down and kisses.
A brush of lips and a taste of tongue grace his mouth. He barely realizes it, until he presses further, that Steve kisses him back, that Steve’s hands are searching, caressing, touching along his back and flank. He doesn’t want to let go of the kiss, but he wants to nip, taste, and tease. So, he cradles Steve’s face in his hands and keeps him in place as he devours his mouth. This is his only chance; he’ll never have this moment again. He hadn’t even known, had never truly confessed to himself that he desired this moment until it was upon him.
He will take it, he will take it all.
Steve breaks them apart, though. Pulls away but doesn’t move away. He tips his forehead against Tony’s and his breath streams between them.
“Tony,” Steve says.
Tony has no words; he doesn’t know what to say. They’ve been together for weeks, hidden away in a cell, hiding from the world. They’ve bickered, they’ve eaten, and they’ve laughed. He’s not sure anyone has ever seen him in the ways Steve has over the last weeks. He does not want Steve to dismiss him now, not now. If he does, Steve will dismantle pieces within Tony, pieces that make him whole, build him into a better version of himself.
“Tell me, for now, we can have this?” Steve whispers and his eyes are closed as if he’s frightened of seeing Tony’s response.
“Look at me, Steve, look,” Tony says and he does. He looks at Tony and, while fear and a certain innocence is there, he recognizes lust, desire, want, and most of all courage to ask and seek out something so different than everything he must believe in. Tony answers him, “Yes.”
He doesn’t know if he answers in the affirmative for this moment, for this day, or forever. He only knows it is right and true and Steve is in his hands and he wants more.
Then Steve’s mouth is on his again and he tumbles backwards with the weight of the man against him. They fall into the soft cushion of dried pine needles and the forest floor is cool against the morning dew. He half recognizes that the enemy is around them, surrounding them. He half knows that if anyone ever catches them in this day and age they are dead. He doesn’t care, what he cares about is this man in his arms, feeling him, consuming him, and being consumed by him.
He doesn’t release him, not even when Steve hesitates as if he’s unsure and shy in his exploration of Tony’s mouth, his jawline, his neck. The nearly gentle ghosting of his lips against Tony’s skin curls a hiss of pleasure seated hard and fast in the depths of his groin. He runs his hands down the mass of muscle, the arms, the back, the tapered waist. It is too much, the sculpted rise and fall of the man.
“Tony,” Steve murmurs against the nape of his neck but it sounds more like a plea.
He cups Steve’s face in his hands and brings him to gaze into his eyes, to see the need there. “Steve?”
“What can? I don’t know-.” Steve begins, but his words fall away and he drops his focus as if he cannot meet Tony’s eyes.
Tony runs his thumb along the fullness of Steve’s lower lip. He understands, he knows why Steve lowers his gaze, why he looks away. Slowly, he offers his thumb, sliding it into Steve’s mouth. Tony understands, sees the fear and want in Steve’s eyes. He knows, knows that Steve has never done this before, knows that Steve is innocent in his sexual physicality.
It should thrill Tony that he’s been given the rights to this moment in Steve’s life, but instead, it humbles and quiets him. He wants to get this right; he wants Steve to understand the fun but also the bliss of it. As he glides his thumb into Steve’s mouth, he bends over and blows air long the nape of Steve’s neck. Steve curls his tongue around Tony’s thumb, moaning as he does.
He moves in, and sucks along the crook of Steve’s flesh, feeling the desire heat his flesh. Steve’s mouth falls open and releases Tony’s thumb. He moans out Tony’s name and hitches his hips against Tony’s leg.
Tony curses himself, there’s not much he can do here. They have no lube, and nothing he can substitute. He surprises himself, because he wants this to be special for Steve, special for both of them.
He lifts his head and kisses Steve, then breaks away to say, “I don’t – I don’t have anything.”
“I don’t care,” Steve says. “I want to feel you, touch you.”
Tony thinks he feels his fucking eyes dilate at the blatant desire and hunger in Steve’s expression. He concedes, and knows it won’t be mind bending sex but at the very least he can offer Steve what he seeks. A connection.
“Okay.” He gently moves Steve to lie beside him and he waits, just for a moment, to take in reality, to process it. He’ll make this as special as he possibly can. Steve cannot wait any longer and plunges in, kisses Tony’s mouth with bruising force, his hands wrapped about his face and head.
Tony follows the need, the combative nature of Steve’s pursuit. He kisses and bites; he sucks and bruises Steve’s perfect skin. He plays and nips at his nipples until Steve is bending into him, arching and crying out. Shoving Steve’s shorts aside, he rubs the heel of his hand over the head of Steve’s erection. He spreads the pre-come along his shaft and Steve thrusts once as Tony bends to taste his nipple. Working his hand, he grips and slides and caresses until Steve is impossibly hard, impossibly tight, arching into him and whimpering at the same time.
“Come on, let go, let go,” Tony murmurs with hot breath into Steve’s ear.
“With you, let me – for you,” Steve says as he struggles away from Tony’s touch. He fumbles with Tony’s waistband of his boxer briefs. Steve’s overly sensitive now, so that every touch and brush of a fingertip he groans and twitches.
“Let me,” Tony says and tugs away his boxers to release his heavy cock. He wants this so much it hurts. Just freeing himself from the constraints of his shorts causes him to sigh into a shudder.
“Please, Tony, together?” Steve says.
Tony knows he’s never going to last once Steve slides his fingers, his long, powerful fingers around his dick. He gulps for breath and grabs hold of Steve’s shoulder for a second just to make sure he doesn’t come on the spot. It has been forever, it seems, since anyone touched him and felt him. He lets his hand follow the line of Steve’s shoulder to chest and torso and finally to tangle within the hair, and then slips over his cock. Steve immediately falls forward over and against Tony. His face leans up against Tony’s shoulder, where he can feel the slightest stubble of a beard.
There is no other time, there isn’t really this time. Yet Tony confesses to himself – a rare and odd thing – that he would rather this, than not at all, he would rather be able to touch and pretend there might be more, than lose the ability to have the weight and pressure and heat in his hand. He grabs for Steve’s neck and yanks him into his grasp. He punishes his mouth with a harsh kiss that hurts and he can taste Steve’s blood on his mouth as he nips his lip. He wants more, he wants everything. He is Tony fucking Stark and he gets what he wants, always. But now, he cannot, he has to deny himself and it hurts, hurts to the marrow of his bones.
He thrusts hard into Steve’s fist, his pre-come coating his dick until he’s delirious with want and need. Steve matches him and they fight and battle for dominance until both of them succumb, until the height of their battle crashes into them and Steve is shuddering in his grasp and Tony follows him.
Collapsed and a little bit broken, Tony curls into Steve’s arms. He surprises himself, because he’s usually not needy after sex, he usually likes to move off and get away. At best, he falls asleep afterward. But now, he just wants to stay here, tracing his fingers over Steve’s body as Steve laces his fingers through Tony’s hair.
He suddenly finds he needs to say something. “I’m sorry.”
“This,” Tony says and the pained look on Steve’s face quickens his words. “No, not this, this. But that we waited so long, that we don’t have more time, that this wasn-.”
Steve reaches down and kisses Tony’s mouth, soft and smooth, and then kisses his cheeks and closed eyes. “It’s good, everything is good.”
Tony doesn’t question why he needs reassurance, why someone with his experience needs Steve who has just had his first encounter with sex seems so quiet and peaceful and balanced. He doesn’t question these things. Not now, not when these strong arms close around him, nestle him into them, and shelter him.
He doesn’t question at all.
Except he knows the answer.
And doesn’t want to think upon it.
They have to wait until the evening draws over the land again before they can approach the facility. Steve doesn’t dwell on the flight over to Europe, the pain of the cold, or the memories which keep flashing through his head, all unwelcome. What he does concentrate on are the new memories, the taste and feel of Tony in his hands, on his mouth. He yearns for more, but knows he must be sated with what he’s been given. Tony isn’t the kind of fella who wants to be with someone like Steve. Steve understands this; he understands more than Tony gives him credit for.
Steve understands that he cannot hold a dream. He knows his place. It isn’t in the 21st century, but here, and now. His duty demands it.
They pull out the cold sandwiches Steve secured before they made the trip. They are a bit soggy from the trip and iced, but they will have to do since they have no other food and Tony decides he does not want to eat wild rabbit or anything like that. Steve frowns at him.
“You do know that when we were out on raids, rations only last for so long,” Steve says as he tugs on his uniform. It is still a little damp but he’ll deal with it.
“Just because you ate voles and squirrels doesn’t mean I have to,” Tony says picking at the ham from the sandwich.
“That looks a little disgusting and might be a little green, Tony.” They’ve already eaten what he deemed as safe.
Tony peers at the slice in his hand and shrugs. “How can it be, it was frozen last night.”
Steve shakes his head and goes about finishing getting dressed. He turns as he dresses, modesty will be his downfall, but he cannot look at Tony. He doesn’t want to see what he knows will surely be in his eyes. He wants to pretend – just for today – that he wasn’t another conquest of Tony’s.
“Do we have any plans on how we’re going to attack the plant?” Tony says as he holds up another slice of the questionable meat. “Does this look funky to you?”
Steve rolls his eyes and snatches the meat out of Tony’s grasp. He sniffs it and tosses it over his shoulder. “Don’t eat any more of that. You’ll get sick and I can’t have you puking in your suit.”
“Um, yeah. Now, that is disgusting.” Tony drops the sandwich remains and picks up the case for the suit. He assembles the gauntlet onto the arm and then hoists it to clamp it over him. “Ready, Capsicle?”
“Looks like we should start the trek. How far away did JARVIS estimate we landed?”
“Hold on,” Tony says and then replies. “We’re about three miles out. Not bad.”
“Shouldn’t even take us much time at all.” Steve considers him. “Can you walk in that thing?”
“Thing? You’re calling the armor a thing? Seriously, after all we did last night; you’re calling my armor a thing.”
Steve raises his hands in surrender. “Oh forgot, you and the suit are one. Can you walk with the Iron Man suit on? Is that better?”
“Yes, I can walk,” Tony curses. “What the hell kind of question is that?”
“I know you can fly and fight, Tony, but I haven’t seen you do a lot of walking.”
“I can walk, and run, if the situation arises. Of course, my dick will be chafed but it’s better than being blown to pieces,” Tony grumbles.
Steve has to get this done now, before they set out. He straightens his shoulders and slings the shield on his back. Tony stows the leather satchel on his own back. “So, I think once we get the tesseract enhanced gem, you should go back.”
Tony has the face plate retracted and he grimaces at Steve. “Um, yay, we will.”
Steve shakes his head. “No, you’ll go back. I’ll stay.”
Tony stops, actually freezes, and gawks at Steve. After a moment, he swallows once, blinks his eyes as if he’s trying to adjust to a bright light, and then says, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“I’m not going back,” Steve says. He looks at the pile of dried pine needles; the impression of their bodies is still there. He can smell Tony on him, even through the slightly damp suit. He doesn’t want to be that guy, the guy trailing after Tony.. The only one he’s seen who knows how to deal with Tony is Miss Potts and she ended their relationship.
“I cannot even comprehend or process what the hell you are talking about.” Tony flutters his eyes a bit as if he’s having a little seizure. “You’re not going back. What the hell are you going to do here?”
“I can do a lot here,” Steve says. He can make a difference, the difference he promised to make when Erskine gave him this gift.
“You can’t change history. If you think you can go in there and save your friends, save Bucky. You can’t. We didn’t come here to save Bucky; we didn’t come here so you could rejoin the war effort. The war is over, we won. Get over it.”
“I don-.” Steve looks away. He wants to be able to save Bucky, but he knows he can’t interfere. “I won’t change things. The other me is here, and everything will go the way it is supposed to. I can go out to the Pacific theater and fight there. I can go to France and join the resistance.”
“You can fucking come home, where you belong,” Tony hisses at him. He can see the blood vessels on Tony’s temples stand out and pulsate.
“You forget, Tony, this is my home,” Steve says and, for a heartbeat, he even believes it. He catches sight again of their after images, the impressions of their entwined bodies in the bed of needles. He wants it, so much he can still taste Tony in his mouth, kissing him. Yet, it was a dream, a circumstance of desperation he tells himself. He shuns it; he knows that it was just a fantasy. “I’m home.”
“No, you’re dead. You aren’t supposed to be here. You are supposed to be in the 21st century. What the hell am I no, we going to do without you? You’re our team leader.”
“You can lead, or Natasha,” Steve says. Why is Tony making this so hard? It doesn’t have to be hard. “I’m sorry, but I don’t belong in your future. I don’t understand it. The words, the sounds, the noise, the taste of the food, everything is wrong, wrong, wrong.”
“Everything?” Tony mumbles.
Steve opens his mouth as if to explain but he doesn’t know what to say, he doesn’t understand Tony’s reaction. He thought Tony would be happy to get rid of the ghost from his father’s past. There were no promises. He turns away and says, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going.”
Steve hears the faceplate lower and Tony stomps up to him. “Fine, Gramps. We don’t need a god damned stick in the fucking mud weighing us down anyway. Let’s go.”
The evening is crisp and clear, Steve understands the terrain. It feels like he’s back home, leading his commandos on a raid. As he walks through the old growth of trees toward the factory, he even forgets for a moment it is Tony following him. When he looks back and glimpses the gleam of the Iron Man suit, he bites the inside of his mouth and doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t want to hurt Tony any more than he already has.
They haven’t seen any patrols which is both good and worrisome. Steve figures they are about a half mile out of the base he’ll rescue Bucky from in just a few short months. He’ll meet Red Skull for the first time and the reality of the risk he took while undergoing the treatments will sink in. When he hears a crackle ahead of him, he raises his hand in a clenched fist. Tony ignores the signal, pushes his wrist down, and saunters in front of him. Steve had no idea that the suit could swagger, but this is Tony, so of course it can.
“Stop,” Steve hisses through his teeth. He places a hand on Iron Man’s shoulder who turns almost aggressively and waits. “I heard something.”
“JARVIS isn’t picking up anything.”
“Fine, but I heard something. You should stop when I ask you to.”
“Oh?” Tony pulls out of Steve’s grasp. “If you were my leader, maybe. But since you’re abandoning that position, I don’t think I will.”
He trudges forward leaving Steve without any other choice but to follow him.
Within the next five minutes they hear the roar of an engine and end up crouched down near a stand of logs and rocks. Through the trees and underbrush, Steve sees a road leading up to the facility. It is fairly dark now, but he can make out the outline of the dirt road because of the stream of trucks and their headlights leading the way.
“Can you fly over and give me some cover?”
“Might not be best, Gramps. They might take it as a threat and change all their plans for this facility, changing the timeline which I am sure something you do not want to do, right?” Tony replies.
“Just relay some of their movements and aim a few rockets toward the perimeter. They’ll focus on the explosion; think it is enemy fire from the frontlines or overhead. Make sure it is far enough away, that they can justify it not being a frontal assault.”
“Are you sure you want to go in there alone?” Tony asks, his snarky remarks gone, the faceplate up, his dark eyes tinted with apprehension.
“Done it before, piece of cake.”
“Just don’t get killed, because after this I plan on kicking your ass,” Tony says.
“I look forward to it.”
“I’m sure you do,” Tony says and takes off.
From his vantage point above the facility, Tony has JARVIS track Captain America’s movement. Steve eases into the camp quickly by jumping into the bed of one of the trucks. There must be a scuffle because a body is flung out the back and Tony asks JARVIS to confirm if it is Captain America.
It is not.
Once Steve finds his way inside the encampment, and the building Tony has to hang on and wait it out. He finds a perch up against the foothills of the mountains and lands. He feels a little like Hawkeye might feel as he scans the area for any activity or threat. It looks like a normal war machine factory, Tony should know. He grew up and became a war monger for some time. He cringes at the idea, but shoves it aside as he spots a new convey making its way toward the facility. There are tanks with the trucks in this troop.
“JARVIS, can you pinpoint the Captain through his comm link?”
“Cap, tell me what your ETA is?”
He doesn’t answer. After repeated calls, Tony’s ire turns to concern.
Shit Tony thinks. There’s a flock of activity near the South gate and then a glint of light. He zeroes in and magnifies.
Red, white, and blue.
Shit, Tony thinks again.
Launching into the air, he considers Steve’s strategy. No direct assault because it could very well change the future and therefore change whether or not Steve will save Bucky and the one oh-seventh from this hell hole.
“Okay, then let’s make it small and precise.” He surveys the area and finds a nice clump of rocks and trees in the distance about a quarter of a mile out. “Target acquired.” Using his shoulder rockets, he sends a short burst of them toward the intended target. It bursts into flames and showers the area with rocks, wood splinters, and debris. He’s not quite sure it won’t change the course of the world, because the fire it starts isn’t minor.
“Damn it to hell and back again,” he curses. Flying overhead he hears an all-out alarm sound at the base and swears again. They are several more soldiers converging on the Captain. He’ll be pinned down any minute. As Tony watches, Steve scales the side of a rolling tank, bashes with the shield against one of his attackers who insisted on following him, and races along it to jump toward the outer fencing.
He leaps, but at the same time the tank veers to the left, he isn’t going to land the jump and there are too many soldiers rushing to his position for him to right himself, get to his feet, and climb the fence.
“Screw this,” Tony says and dives toward the fray. He’s at full throttle and swoops in just as a handful of soldiers round the tank and targets weapons on the Captain. Without another thought, Tony aims his repulsors, shoots several times, grapples to get Steve to his feet, latches onto him, and lifts off.
Several blasts from the weird ass weapons streak past them like bolts of lightning from Thor, but he angles his path in an arc and disappears into the thick of the forest and weaves through the foothills before he looks down to see Steve barely hanging on with one arm around Tony’s waist and the other still clinging to his shield.
In a short time, Tony reviews the landscape and finds a secluded area well hidden by trees and as well as the foothills. He brings them in for a landing and settles the Captain on his feet. Steve stumbles, out of character for the great Captain America but Tony stays silent and does not comment.
He does ask, “Are you all right?”
“Fine, yeah,” Steve says and looks over his shoulder. “That went a little worse than planned.”
“But not as badly as it could have gone,” Tony points out. “Really, you could have been captured or worse, like fried by one of those freakishly weird guns.”
“I’m not denying that. But the shield blocks them,” Steve says and yanks off his cowl. “Luckily, Schmidt isn’t there.”
“How do you know?”
Steve shrugs. “Checked it out. From the little I saw, it looks like he’s at his main base.”
“Main base, how many bases does this guy have?”
“Does it really matter?” Steve says and wipes the sweat from his face with the back of his glove. “He isn’t there. Which is good, because it means they probably won’t report their slip up.”
“Oh, well that is good.” Tony retracts the faceplate. “Did you get it?”
Steve produces a small device. “Same thing I found the last time. Just don’t touch the enhanced crystal with your hands or anything. Your father nearly blew up his lab with that thing.” Steve hands it to him and waits. “Well, take it.”
“I don’t really-.” Tony says and looks around. “Okay, open your palm and just leave it there.”
“Okay?” Steve says somewhat hesitantly. He leaves the device in his palm but opens his hand wide.
Tony picks it up like he’s afraid Steve might bite him.
“You’re something else, you know that. You’ll touch my dick but not my hand-.”
“Oh no, we are not talking about this,” Tony says and waves him off. “I have things to do, now go away.”
“I think we need to get farther away from here, before you start playing around with that thing.”
He’s right, of course. He’s Captain Fucking America. It’ll only take five minutes to pop the tablet and then secure the crystal. But if he delays, he might be able to convince Steve his plans are erroneous. He might be able to convince Steve to come with him, to stay with him
Tony leaves at first light. They hadn’t spoken much more after they fought and screamed about Steve’s plans to stay in this time. They’d flown to a small fishing village in the southern part of Italy where Steve was fairly certain no one would track them down. They stowed their equipment. Steve took off his jacket and tucked it back in the leather satchel. While the villagers were a little leery of newcomers, they were war weary as well. They didn’t care when Tony produced gold coins to get them a small room for the night.
Steve had watched Tony meticulously work with the crystal and get it into place. By the time midnight struck, Tony could have walked out the door and left. He insisted on finding something to eat and waiting until morning. They couldn’t find a restaurant open, but the landlady offered them some pasta and bread, which was delicious. The wine, according to Tony, was supreme and they spent one last night sharing dinner together.
It was peaceful until it wasn’t. Until Tony insisted that Steve had to return with him.
“I am not going, I can do more here. Save more people here.”
“You don’t understand, do you?” Tony said as they walked back to their room. “You can’t save anyone. Any one person you save could change the entire course of the world.”
“Is that so bad? Is it so bad to go to those camps, those places they kept all the ‘undesirables’ according to their twisted philosophy and save those poor people? Think of what I could do, Tony. Think of how many people I could save?” Steve said to him, his voice shaking with the need to make Tony understand.
“You can’t,” Tony had replied. “It isn’t about that. You can’t change the timeline.”
“Why not, what makes the timeline we’re living in so special. Maybe I was supposed to come back in time and save more people. Maybe this is my chance.” They continued their ascent of the narrow staircase to their room.
“It isn’t all the fuck about you, you know,” Tony struck back. “Yes, I would love to be able to liberate the concentration camps. Anyone in their right mind would, but the fact of the matter is that you cannot. You cannot be the one person to make the decision on what timeline is the right timeline. You cannot do that. If you do, what kind of man are you?”
Steve had staggered backward, nearly tumbled down the stairs but Tony caught him in time. He was right, of course. But Steve couldn’t go back, he wouldn’t go back. There was no one there for him. There was nothing there for him.
He’d made a promise to Doctor Erskine to stay a good man. He’d made a promise. What kind of man would leave all those people to die?
Tony was shoving him in their room, still talking, still arguing. “And what if you do it all, save everyone? Are you honestly going to tell me you’ll still not try and save Bucky? Or see Peggy again? Where does it stop, Steve, where? Because if you change one thing, you don’t have to stop, you never have to stop. Tell me who made you god?”
“Just don’t, Tony. Stop.”
“You’re going to just stay then, and what about everything in the future. What about m- what about the Avengers?”
“I told you, my presence isn’t required.”
“You’re presence isn’t required? You’re presence. Fuck. Fuck you, Captain America, fuck you.” Tony looked half crazed with rage, with fear, and with something else, something Steve couldn’t identify but thought might be desperation and loss.
“No, fuck off.” Tony had moved out of his reach.
Steve had left then, pushed Tony away from the door and strode out into the night. He roamed the streets of the little village, went and sat on the pier and stared out into the Mediterranean, felt the warm breeze on his face. He sat for hours, listening to the quiet lap of the sea against the wooden pier, and farther up against the rock jetty. He let the stars shine down and forgot about the moon and the heavens and what is up there. He just listened and prayed and wondered if anyone heard him.
He hadn’t wanted to confess to Tony that going back to the 21st century was too hard; he was too much of a coward. Captain America – a coward. He couldn’t face not being a part, an integral, intimate part of Tony’s life. He wasn’t stupid, even as just scrawny Steve Rogers – he’d never been stupid. Tony found comfort, which Steve was happy to give. Yet, what Steve wanted was so much more.
When he saw the sneaking rays of dawn cast over the green blue waters, he struggled to his feet and made his way back to their room. So now, he sits and watches as Tony packs up his things, grabs the tablet, and his case with the suit in it, and turns to look at Steve.
His dark eyes search for something from Steve, but Steve has nothing to give him. Steve is empty and bereft; his heart is fragmented and lost. He has nothing left.
Tony nods and walks out the door.
Sitting on the bed, Steve slumps down and cups his face in his hands. A man out of time that is what they call him. A man out of time. But what he really is – is a man with no time. He belongs nowhere.
He knows Tony is right; he would just as soon save Bucky as he would the prisoners of those horrible camps. He would walk right into the Stork Club on that Saturday at eight o’clock on the dot and dance his first dance with Peggy. He would be there for both of them, for all of them.
What kind of man is he?
He looks up at the peeling paint on the ceiling, at the old light fixture that doesn’t work. This isn’t how it is supposed to end. He isn’t supposed to be this lost. He is the hope and pride of one man, who wanted to make a difference, a good and powerful difference. But what difference did he ever make? How much of a difference?
What kind of man is he?
He’s no god. He cannot make the choices that would change people and the world. He hates himself for it. He should change the world for those prisoners, for everyone in this war who suffers so greatly. He wants to change everything.
But he can change nothing.
Who is he?
He shivers. The actions reminds him of Tony’s hands, trying to warm him, Tony’s face held close, Tony’s warm breath mixing with his as their mouths touched. His heat close and secure offered to Steve for comfort. Even he needed strength at times. He knows he’s running away from Tony, from his fears of a life on the other side of time. He wants to close it off, pretend that moment under the trees is a sacred, secret timeless moment. How can he when he’s become such a lost soul. Without a purpose, without direction. He’d once told Tony that people were the reason he had been able to adjust to life in the 21st century. He cannot be a god and touch the events in time. It is not his place. But then that leaves him as a man of no time. No connection, no one who knows him. Who knows him?
Who knows him?
The answer startles him, the realization.
Tony knows him, has been there over these weeks. Tony has been there throughout his adjustment to the 21st century. He’s played the foil, the friend, the enemy, the combatant. He’s challenged Steve. He’s been the one person still could always rely on not to treat him with kid gloves.
Who is he?
The next realization punches him in the belly, tight and coiled. It takes the wind right out of him. He has been his own worst enemy. He stands up. He’s beaten himself; he’s decided to take the fall, give up, surrender the one thing he can have for something he cannot attain. He’s given up, given in, surrendered to his own fears of loss. He’s been a coward. He’s become his own bully.
“No, no, no,” Steve says and scoops up his jacket and shield, all of his possessions in this world. Racing down the steps, he meets the little landlady at the kitchen and she smiles at him.
She points to the street as if she knows what he’s looking for. He nods and rushes away. Where would Tony go, what would he do? Steve runs and listens and then realizes he has the damned earpiece in his cowl. He shucks on the jacket once he’s out of the village and yanks up the cowl.
“Tony? Tony?” he yells.
Nothing, no one answers.
He hears a hiss of something and says, “Where are you?”
“Come on, don’t leave me here. Tony?”
It is then, at the outskirts of town, Steve realizes he’s not hearing the strange warbling sounds through the earpiece at all, but close to him. He tears away at the cowl to hear better. He spins around, searching, looking. “Tony!”
A flash of light – it looks like lightning, he can smell the ozone of it. It reminds him of Thor raining down the force of lightning onto the Earth.
“Where are you?” He races about in a circle, but no one is answering, there is no answer. “Tony!”
Then he hears it, the wail of wind, and then the absence of sound. He staggers toward it, tripping, nearly falling against the graveled pathway. Closed off, near a small abandoned and bombed-out house, he glimpses red and gold and the streaming howl of the portal. Tony steps through just as Steve screams for him.
The portal funnels downward, disappearing. He’s at least thirty feet away from it. He springs toward it, launching his body as if it is a bullet. Just as he hits the portal it collapses, his body, his flesh is torn, pulled, and shredded in both directions. A screech rips from his throat as the forces of two different times pull muscle from bone, destroy tissue, slaughter flesh and organs. It rends him in two, splicing him to shred him and split him into the different times. As two time periods jostle and battle for ownership of his existence, he feels the slightest sliver of a fingertip, then a hand search, clutch, and grip his wrist. He searches blindly for it, trying to cling to it, trying to clutch onto it. The forces struggle against him, but the hand on him does not let go, will not relent. With a firm yank, he is hauled into the portal and tumbles toward the other side falling into Tony’s embrace.
His body fights him, wants to succumb to the numbness, the terror of passage from one time to the next as the portal tried to close on him. It is Tony’s voice, Tony’s hands on his face cradling him. Words and sounds blend together into a non-distinguishable roar. He struggles and opens his eyes to see Tony holding him, eyes wide in distress, lined with fear.
The words resolve. “Steve, damn it. Steve? The portal nearly ripped you limb from limb. Shit, I’m still shaking. Steve? Captain, answer me.”
“Wh-what?” His bones ache. He feels stretched, pulled, overtaxed, and spent. He lifts a hand and rubs it over his eyes. He feels loose jointed, like a puppet with strings. He can feel the tremor of Tony’s hand against his cheek.
“Geez, give a guy a heart attack. You know I have a weak heart, right? You do understand that?” Tony says and he still rocks Steve in his arms.
“Sorry,” Steve says. He needs a moment to orient himself, to let the pitch and swirl of the time splitting him apart to dissipate.
Tony’s arms relax and Steve knows he should move away, but he feels the loss with a hint of desperation. He doesn’t want to lose this moment, because he’s not brave enough for the next one. Steve clamps onto Tony’s upper arms, keeping him in place.
“Hey, hey,” Tony says as he searches Steve’s face. “I’m right here, we’re here now. Both of us.”
“Yeah, I decided I couldn’t play God.”
“Knew a few too many of them.”
“Well, yeah and the one-.”
“One of them likes to eat poptarts, and the other-.”
“You can smell crazy on him,” Steve finishes. “Yeah, I didn’t think I wanted to live up to that.”
Tony has the armor’s hand retracted and he fingers the hair along Steve’s temple. “You left it all behind, on purpose this time.” His look is wondering, and tender.
Steve shifts to sit up but doesn’t move from Tony’s arms, from their tangled embrace. “I realized I was giving up, surrendering without a fight.”
Tony quirks an eyebrow. “Captain America surrender?”
Bowing his head for a moment and then looking back up at Tony, Steve whispers, “Never.”
In a quiet voice, Tony asks, “Just what are you fighting for?”
He leans forward, pressing his forehead against Tony’s, feeling the scratch of Tony’s beard, letting the warmth of his breath heat him. “You.” The word is airy and barely sounds at all, because his lips are already on Tony’s mouth. He touches with a gentle exploration of lips. It is Tony who grabs onto each side of Steve’s face, who devours Steve’s mouth, and lips, and tongue. He takes away every molecule of oxygen until Steve’s is literally gasping for breath and has to push Tony away to gulp in what his body needs but not what his body craves.
“I’m sorry,” Tony murmurs.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for.”
Tony gathers him close, and rests Steve’s head on his shoulders. “I get it, I do. Finally, I get it. I understand how you’re stranded here. I’m sorry for that. I am.”
Steve kisses him, but it is light and smooth. “This was my choice, this is where I belong. Here, now.”
Tony closes his eyes as if he is in silent communion with the gods. He opens them again to stare at Steve. “Welcome home.”
Steve smiles. “Home.”
“Yeah, oh that,” Tony says and taps his ear link to JARVIS. “Just where the hell are we?”
Steve can hear the feed through his communication link from his cowl, though it is muted because he doesn’t have it on. “The better question, sir, would be when the hell are you? You are officially in 2013 according to the satellite traffic I’m downloading.”
“Excellent,” Tony says. “And where?”
Tony smiles. “At least I got the time right. I know of a place, up in Tuscany, care to join me?”
Steve leans into Tony and that’s all the answer he offers. For him, he’s already where he wants and needs to be.
Tony stands on the balcony of the rental house. Exhaustion has eaten at his bones, his joints, but now he feels good, at peace, a certain equilibrium has quieted the chaos of his mind. As he stares out and surveys the area, the vineyards spread out in gentle waves over the crests and fall of the hills before him and the blue sky is open, and free, and beautiful. Arms, unbidden, slide around his waist and he reclines back into Steve’s embrace, his broad chest like a shelter from every storm that ever plagued Tony’s mind.
Steve bends down and whispers into Tony’s ear. “Come back inside.”
“We’ve been in Italy for six days and we still haven’t seen the sights,” Tony says with a chuckle in his voice.
“Been to Italy, already saw the sights.”
“You never really saw Tuscany in the war,” Tony replies but turns in Steve’s arms. “Why Captain America, you are standing out on our balcony naked as the day you were born.”
“Why, yes I am,” Steve grins.
Lifting a single brow, Tony appreciates Steve in the buff and then remarks, “And I see you’re happy about it.”
“Would you like to see how happy?” Steve nuzzles into Tony’s neck as he tows him back into their bedroom.
“You know for a man who just lost his virginity a week ago, you have a bit of a dirty mind.” Tony allows himself to be jostled into the room, to be pitched on to the bed, and for Steve to pounce on him.
“I’m an enthusiastic learner,” Steve says as he works his way around Tony’s neck, his hands busy unbuttoning Tony’s white linen shirt. “You should wear white more often, you look good in it.”
As Tony tries to respond, Steve licks a line across his shoulder, down to the arc reactor, and to his nipple. “Oh Christ, Steve.”
“Very enthusiastic,” Steve murmurs as he playfully kisses Tony’s navel. His hands slide down to Tony’s clasp on his pants and he starts to undo it as the phone in his pocket rings. “Don’t answer it.”
“Might be a call to assemble,” Tony says and cannot believe he is the responsible one in this scenario. Who would have guessed Captain America would be such a little slave to sex?
Steve yanks out the cell phone and tosses it to Tony after he looks at it. “Natasha.”
“I won’t answer it.” Tony throws it on the nightstand.
“Might be about who tried to assassinate us,” Steve says, all his work to undo Tony’s pants has been abandon. Tony wants to encourage him to continue.
“Could be, but probably not.”
It had been a difficult conversation. It took all of Bruce’s and Tony’s brain power to go over the timeline, the paradoxes. It was weird, and strange, and everyone still scratched their heads on it. The Steve back in the 40s was safe and sound because of Tony. So where did that leave them?
-With an assassination attempt that did not work and a plot to kill both Steve and Tony still on the books. It meant they still had a mystery to solve and bad guys to take down. None of which Tony is very interested in with his pants constraining his thick erection.
The phone silences after a few rings, but then starts up again. “Oh what now,” Tony says and rolls over, knocking Steve in the head as he stretches to get the phone. “Sorry there, darling.”
Steve kneels back and waits. “What is it?”
“Yep?” Tony says as he answers the phone. He listens as Natasha explains to them that SHIELD is sending a contingency to protect them since the failed assassination attempt.
“It’s dangerous. We think they’ll make another attempt. We also think that the main target will be Steve of this time.”
“How do you know that?” Tony asks as he leans forward to touch Steve. He needs to feel him, know he is real.
“It isn’t pretty.” She waits as if she’s hoping just saying that will put him off.
“There’s only a few people who’ve been connected to the space time continuum, and only one who would target Captain America so vehemently.”
Tony closes his eyes and tries to vanquish thoughts of vendettas, Nazis, and horror stories. He should have told Steve to kill Schmidt when they were in the 40s. Vaporizing him through the tesseract doorway to the space-time continuum did not keep him contained. “Who’s heading up the investigation?”
“I am,” Natasha says.
Tony tries to smile, but it falters. “Contact Pepper, she’ll give you anything you need.”
“And don’t tell him, yet,” Natasha says.
“I can’t promise that.”
“I know. Stay safe. Clint and Bruce will be there in the morning. Thor is arriving in New York tomorrow.”
“I expect someone from SHIELD is already here,” Tony replies.
“I expect you might be right,” Natasha says and he can imagine her slightly sardonic smile.
He disconnects the call and Steve sidles up against him. He loses the phone and concentrates on Steve. “SHIELD is here.”
Steve only nods. “There’s more.”
“Of course there fucking is. There’s always more.” He wants to crack the phone against the wall. He wants to whisk Steve off and hide in his father’s basement again for weeks, months, or god damn it, years. He cannot take the thought of some maniac with a grudge coming after him. He closes his eyes and murmurs the words, “They’re theorizing Red Skull is back.”
Steve is deathly quiet. “What proof do they have?”
“Don’t know, only know they think it is someone who knows how to play around with the space time continuum,” Tony says and looks up at Steve. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Steve says and looks away. Tony can feel the weight of his burden, his guilt for not staying behind and changing things.
“No, you know you made the right choice,” Tony says.
Steve nods a few times. “Yeah, I do. I do, I’m not saying that. I just wonder if it was the best one.” He raises a hand. “But I know I’m not privy to understanding that, or making that decision. That is what makes us different from them. I won’t pretend to be something I’m not, nor do I deserve to be.”
They are both silent for a long moment.
“Our little honeymoon is over,” Tony says as he drags his index finger up and around Steve’s shoulder. Their faces are only inches apart. Tony leans in and kisses his temple. He can feel the walls crushing them.
“Our honeymoon, I like that,” Steve whispers with a slight lick of his lower lip. “Let’s make this last, this moment.” It causes a glimmer of highlight which entices and twists in Tony’s gut.
Tony curls his lip into a lecherous smile. “We can do that.”
Steve pursues his previous activity. He trails kisses down Tony’s chest, playing with Tony’s nipples, paying attention to the taper of Tony’s hips. He helps Tony lose his pants and boxers. Tony sighs his relief as he’s freed. Steve keeps kissing and licking and tasting as he does. He pauses, a bit shy still and a bit gentle as he bends down to lick around the head of Tony’s erection.
It causes little jolts of desire to twist in his groin, in the hard knot of his nervous system. Everything lights up, wakes, and grows his desire and passion and need. His hands work the coverlet of the bed, and then he strokes his hands over and across Steve’s head, petting his hair as he does. Steve rolls his tongue along Tony’s dick and it yanks a moan out of Tony that’s primal and true.
“More, oh, more.”
With a wink to Tony as he peers up, Steve begins to bob his head a bit and then pushes his hands underneath Tony’s ass. He pumps Tony’s dick into his mouth, encouraging him. With permission, Tony thrusts up and into Steve’s mouth. It is an absolute wonder how Steve is a natural at fellatio. His mouth is made for Tony’s dick. Tony relaxes his legs, leaving him splayed open as Steve grinds Tony’s ass up. Steve opens his throat and drags Tony deep until the world kind of whites out and disappears. The warm moisture of Steve’s mouth urges him, plays with him, brings him so close to the edge. He groans and pushes and shoves hard as Steve continues to take it all. He cannot think, his brain turns off, and then his about to come before he’s even able to warn Steve. He grabs at the root of his dick, even as he throws his other arm out to balance his arched body. He stops himself from coming. He hyperventilates as he gulps down the urge to spill over his own hand.
Steve looks up, confused, a little hurt.
“I want to come with you. I want you.”
As Tony collapses and falls from the high, Steve crawls up his body, still remaining attentive, still kissing and loving Tony’s body as if in worship. Tony comes back to himself and reaches for Steve. They kiss as Steve rubs his erection against Tony’s leg.
“Come on, darling. Get inside me, now,” Tony urges.
“I don-.” Steve breaks away from their embrace and bows his head. He hasn’t done this for Tony, yet. Steve has given himself over to Tony, but he’s been slightly fearful of penetrating Tony.
“I’ll show you, I trust you.” Tony places his hands on either side of Steve’s face. After the truths they have shared, after the revelations of the day, he needs this so much more than he first realized. “Do this for me.”
Steve nods and gets up. He kneels on the bed and searches the bedside table for the lube and condoms. He settles back on the bed and Tony runs his hands up and down Steve’s arms, soothing him. “I trust you, Steve.”
“I don’t want to hurt you.” Steve isn’t looking at Tony; but he is staring at the pack of condoms. His erection is only at half-mast now.
“You won’t.” Tony drags a hand down Steve’s bare thigh.
“Sometimes, I don’t know my own strength.”
“I’ll teach you,” Tony says and leans down and licks Steve’s cock.
Steve hitches and raises his shoulders up. “Tony.”
He guides Steve’s hands then, takes the lube and places a glop of it on Steve’s fingers. He also pours some on his own fingers. Resting back, Tony is cushioned against the head of the bed with its pile of pillows. He spreads his legs and shows Steve. He fingers himself and watches as Steve’s mouth drops open, hungry and lusting for Tony. Steve breathes in little, shallow pants.
“Breathe for me, darling.”
Steve inhales and when he exhales it is with a tremor of pent up craving.
“Here, now,” Tony says and grasps Steve’s hand to brings him closer. Steve coats his fingers and Tony places them. “There you go, one at a time.”
In a slow and smooth rhythm Tony directs Steve into his entrance. Steve rubs at him and continues to glide further into him. Tony eases down onto Steve, pushing a bit to ensure a relaxing of the muscle. Tony gasps and Steve pauses as if frightened.
“Oh, more, more,” Tony says. Being breached, breaking down is so intimate, so open and vulnerable it hurts yet it spirals his desire and need to new heights.
He encourages Steve. With two fingers in, Steve follows Tony’s lead and scissors his fingers. Already Tony is half hard again. Steve probes further and finds Tony’s sweet spot. Steve takes his time, he leans forward to kiss Tony, to take his dick in his mouth again and run his tongue long and lazy along his shaft.
“Christ, yay, right there.” He’s fully erect again, hard and thick and hot.
Back on his haunches, Steve begins to pump his fingers, adding a third one. Tony becomes lost and disconnected from the preparation. He only feels the movement, the weight and balance of it. He becomes a raw nerve pulsating with absolute primitive wants and cravings. He cannot stop it. He doesn’t want to stop it. Tony is writhing and begging him to get the hell inside him, fucking now.
Steve pulls out, and wraps the condom on, then positions himself. He takes another few seconds to slick up his cock and Tony thinks he might faint from the wait. Christ, he’s like a fucking swooning girl.
Steve is tentative and slow, a little painfully so even with the lube he’s coated on his cock.
“Further, Christ, now. Steve, now.” Tony lifts his hips further and pushes against Steve as he curls his legs around Steve’s waist.
Steve shoves in and Tony nearly blanks out. He’s dizzy with it, the burn and pleasure and overwhelming feeling of fullness and a sensation of completeness. Then Steve starts to move and Tony’s world revolves around this one sensation, as it builds and mounts and explodes. He’s a wound, tightened spring of tension. He moves and follows Steve’s lead, meeting all his thrusts and actions.
Steve bends over him, kissing him, groaning and crying out to Tony as he strokes into him. Tony’s dick is hard, a solid mass of heat and pain. He needs to come, so much it hurts. He feels solid, unbreakable and unmovable. The pained ache of it is too much and he gulps for air against Steve. The heat inside of him, the fullness is too much until Tony relents and lets his body fall into a hole where Steve catches him, where he has no control. His climax rips out of him and he’s shocked and crazed by it until he’s moaning out Steve’s name.
As his ass clenches down on Steve’s cock, Steve goes rigid, a surprised and shocked look, and then his body rolls into his release as if he’s in battle with it. His expression is startled and hot. It is bright and burning. It is right and perfect. He shudders and it thunders through Tony and he surrenders to it, he surrenders to Tony.
Finally, Steve falls over Tony, breaks down, and trembles in Tony’s grasp. They both pant and try and catch their breath. They huddle in each other’s arms. Kisses linger, and touches trail and grace muscles.
For a moment, Tony thinks of how this all started, a bullet. A bullet from a stranger’s gun nearly ended it before it began, before it all began all those many years ago. It frightens Tony, brings him to a place he doesn’t want to be. As he caresses his hand over and along Steve’s shoulder, down along the curve of his bicep, he mourns that someone so malicious, so evil would want to eliminate this man, would want this man dead. He cannot stand the thought of it, it bleaches all else from his brain, from his thoughts.
He pauses and stares at Steve, serious and fearful. “Promise me, you’ll stay safe.” He’s searching for something he knows he cannot find, but something that he needs to possess in order to go on, in order to save Steve.
“If you promise the same,” Steve whispers back, his breath heated against Tony’s neck. He recognizes the same fears he holds deep in his heart on Steve’s face. The terror of loss, the fear of disconnection, it is all there shown plainly and painfully.
“I promise,” Tony exhales as Steve marks him. He feels the of Steve’s exhalation, the lingering of teeth against flesh, the pull and grip of his kiss as he bites down. He arches into Steve, pressing his body against his chest, raveling his legs within the tangles of Steve’s limbs. The sensation overcomes him and he cries out a small whimper of release from the emotion.
They stay in the bed for some time, allowing the lights to dwindle outside, the day to fall away. It is like a curtain closes and their safe, secure place dissipates as the day darkens. He’s heard about the promise of tomorrow, how tomorrow gives an offering of peace and solitude and the vow of something better. Yet, Tony knows something more. If he lives in this moment, this singularity of time, he stays within the arms of the man he loves, and nothing will ever change that. For this moment in time, Tony can believe everything will be all right. For this moment in space, Tony feels the man in his arms and knows it is right. He understands on a primal level, comprehends why he was the only one not to disappear from time for Steve. He is a part of Steve as much as Steve is a part of him.
For this moment and all the time and space to come, Tony understands the meaning of forever and a day.