“...don’t think that will work. He needs something bigger, a cosmic smack to the head.”
“A smack to the head will only send him over the edge he’s been teetering on for months now.”
“And what do you suggest, oh wise one. Thus far, you’ve served only to beat down every thought that’s been put forward.”
“You know Dalia, I don’t appreciate your tone and I...”
Eramene rolled her eyes as pushed up from her crouch in the shadows, determinedly ignoring the cracking in her knees. Beyond the open door, a dozen or so figures huddled around a large round table, crafted from the oak of a hundred dimensions pressed together. The room’s only light came from a flickering fireplace, the soft amber flowing over the room and drawing outlines that were sketchy at best. Nortia’s doing probably; the Etruscans were notoriously dramatic.
The bickering voices faded as Eramene crept away down the large stone corridor, treading lightly in the annoyingly echoey space. Really, sometimes logical design should win out over grandiose gestures of power and wealth.
She paused in front of a formidable door, twice as high as the tallest of the Circle (surely they were compensating for something) and barren except for a minuscule rune carved into the wood, conveniently positioned at Eramene’s eye-level. Of course, that was because Eramene just so happened to match height with Hemsut, who maintained control of this room, but living amongst every fate-controlling deity known to man had led Eramene to quickly flush the idea of coincidence down the toilet.
With one last glance over her shoulder, Eramene pressed her finger to the rune and hissed out the syllables she’d heard so many times before.
The door slowly creaked open and as soon as the gap grew big enough, Eramene slid inside and shut the door behind her. She paused for a moment and drew a deep breath. This was it, the point of no return. She tentatively took a trembling step forward, squinting into the darkness.
The moment her foot reconnected with the cold stone floor, the room whooshed into near-blinding light, sending Eramene jumping a foot in the air. It took a second for the sudden bright orange to resolve itself into rows of small flames coming off of torches lining the walls. Shaking herself, Eramene continued forward quickly until she reached her prize.
In the middle of the room stood a simple pillar, unadorned and rising just three feet off the ground. On top sat a large silver bowl, more runes scratched meticulously into the surface and encircling the entire rim, the complicated patterns precisely set out. Not stopping to admire the intricate work, Eramene crouched low over it and peered at the clear liquid inside. Inhaling deeply once again, she closed her eyes, set her jaw, and plunged her hand in.
A moment later, she smiled.
The night was dark. There was a stillness in the air; the type of quiet that exists in that space between breaths, air suspended in lungs waiting to be moved. And like a breath forced out from a punch to the gut, a voice tore at the stillness, shaky but surprisingly tuneful.
"…or soft be her tears, more and more do I realize..."
Feet scuffed at pavement, tripping over nothing but gravel as they traversed the freshly cleaned park pathways. The voice grew louder, building to a crescendo until:
"Oooooooooooh I LOVE PARIS IN THE SPRINGTIME!"
The gravel crunched as feet spun abruptly, the person performing coming to a quick halt.
"Not that this is Paris, of course…" He lifted the bottle to his lips and took a deep pull. "And not that you actually can…"
The deep voice trailed off, attention caught by something off in the distance. The figure paused, frozen under the streetlamp. Faint light rained down over his silhouette, crafting out of the shadows the image of a powerful man gone awry - expensive suit hanging rumpled off a too-thin frame, stubble creeping into a precisely drawn goatee, and bloodshot eyes, newly revealed beneath amber sunglasses, shrouded in dark blues and puffy skin.
The man stepped forward, the bottle hanging loosely at his side as he squinted at the statue in front of him. He stumbled towards it and paused, craning his neck to stare at the statue's carved face.
“Well well well…” He brought one hand up, pointer finger extended, and waved it vaguely in the direction of the statue. “If it isn’t Captain America.”
The man took another step forward and slapped the statue on the shoulder. “Orrrr should I call you Steve? Hmm?” He deepened his voice, pursed his lips and pulled himself up out of his slouch. “Good old Steve Rogers, he was a great man.” His expression turned melancholy, the mocking trickling out of it as he softly added, “Why can’t you be more like him?”
He dropped his hand back to his side as he took a step back and hummed, giving the statue a last once-over. “Sorry, daddy-o. Spandex was just never my style. Now if you’ll excuse me, Captain,” he said, snapping his gaze back to the statue’s face, “I think I’m going to take a little nap.”
The last thing he remembered was Captain America staring disapprovingly down at him.
Tony's pillow was cold.
He squeezed his eyes and shifted, trying to get more comfortable. The bed was shockingly hard and smelled rather unpleasant. This is why he brought his conquests over to his place; following them home was always an adventure into pigsty apartments and strange voyeuristic roommates.
He tried groping for the corner of the pillow so he could flip it over but after a few seconds blind scramble failed him, he blinked open. Then blinked some more. Grass didn’t belong in bedrooms, did it?
Groaning, he turned gingerly onto his back and suddenly…
The face that had been hovering over his abruptly disappeared from view as the person attached it to retreated. Tony scrambled up, heart racing from the abrupt thrust into full consciousness.
He stopped, frozen suddenly as his brain connected the dots and finally told him what his eyes were seeing.
Standing in front of him in all his red, white, and blue glory, stood Captain America. A very much mobile Captain America to boot.
Tony took a step back from the man and hit something hard. He turned and jumped when he found another Captain America staring at him. This one, he was glad to find after an experimental poke, was very much a statue.
“You can see me?”
Tony spun slowly on his heel. Captain America was staring at him with wide eyes, an expression that very much mirrored his own right now, he would guess.
“Oh great,” Tony said exasperatedly, rubbing at his eyes. “Of all the hallucinations--”
“I’m not a hallucination.”
“That’s always the first thing hallucinations say.”
“I’m not! At least, I’m pretty sure...” He stared down at his hands, turning them this way and that. “I suppose I could be a ghost,” he added in an afterthought, the words a whisper and an exhale and a realization all at once.
It was only then that Tony noticed the other man was vaguely translucent. Tony frowned. Captain America also looked like he was about to burst into tears and he was definitely not equipped for that. He had no idea what his brain was trying to accomplish in conjuring this guy up but it was decidedly not fun.
Fortunately, the good captain seemed to have come to have some sort of important decision. One that didn't end up in snot and gross sobbing anyway. With a little shake of his head, he abruptly dropped his hands back to his side and snapped his attention up to Tony once again. “Where are we, anyway?”
Tony took a brief look around at his surroundings for the first time. “Well fuck me with a pogo stick,” he blurted. “Brooklyn. I’m in fucking Brooklyn.” He dropped his head into his hands and rubbed roughly at his skin. “This is a new low.”
“Hey!” Tony looked up. Cap had a look of absolute offense on his face. “There’s nothing wrong with Brooklyn! This was where I--” The captain trailed off, a sudden wistful look taking over his features. “Huh. I suppose that makes sense.”
“Rightttt.” Tony patted his pockets, glad to find he somehow managed to hang on to his wallet. “Well this has been, I mean, crises of being are like my favorite thing ever, really, but I really need to get back to the real world now and Brooklyn falls a little outside its borders.” He clapped the larger man on the shoulder, almost surprised that his hand didn’t slide right through. “Good luck with the whole ghost thing.”
He spun around and strode determinedly away, fishing his sunglasses out of his pocket and slipping them on. How the hell he hadn’t been stripped of all his belongings while passed out like a hobo, he’d never know.
Apparently his farewell hadn’t been clear enough. After a few moments, he heard hurried footsteps and the distinct sound of a large person chasing after him (he was worryingly familiar with that particular tread). At least the road was within sight.
“Wait! Where are you going?”
Tony didn’t slow down until he reached the edge of the sidewalk. “Away,” he threw over his shoulder as he stuck his hand out. “Far far away.”
He dropped his arm with a sigh of relief as a cab pulled up to the curb. He pulled the door open, already counting down the seconds until he could just crawl into his wonderfully soft bed.
“And what am I supposed to do?”
Tony paused, one foot in the cab. He turned his head and pulled his glasses down his nose to give the strange apparition one last look. “Try flapping your wings, maybe that’ll get you back up to heaven.” And with that, he collapsed into the backseat and slammed the door behind him.
The taxi driver was staring at him strangely. “What?” he snapped.
The man blinked and shook his head. “Uh, nothing. Where to?”
“Stark Tower. Please,” he added as he tipped his head back and shut his eyes.
The loud shriek of a horn jarred Tony from his restless sleep. He snapped his eyes open, body instantly on high alert.
“Sorry, Mr. Stark,” the cab driver said, a hint of an accent adding melody to the words. “Some idiots should just never be given a license.”
Tony blinked a couple of times, his muscles loosening as his brain came back online. He pulled his arm back into his lap, relaxing it from its repulsor-firing position. Suddenly overwhelmed by a complete and utter desire to get out of the small taxi, he dug out his wallet and took out a handful of bills. Not bothering to look at them, he pushed them through the division, letting them drop in the passenger seat. “This is fine, thanks.” Taking advantage of the standstill traffic, he pushed open the door and quickly climbed out.
They were only a couple of blocks from the tower, he was grateful to see as he squinted into the bright sunlight. His head was really starting to pound now, almost drowning out his own thoughts. There was a strange tingling around his neck too. It almost felt like someone was watching him.
He paused with his hand on the tower’s door handle and glanced around. The streets were filled with the typical midtown crowd; a colorful mix of wandering tourists, brisk office bees, and delivery boys. Nobody seemed to be paying him any special attention, however, aside from the occasional disapproving frown at his disheveled appearance. He shook his head and pulled open the door. Maybe he really was going crazy.
“Tony!” Dammit. Of course Pepper happened to be in the lobby right when he walked in. “Where have you been?!”
Tony shrugged, breezing by her and heading straight for the elevator. Pepper diverted her path and fell into step beside him, waving off the flunky following her with a stack of files. Tony ignored her, jabbing at the button for the elevator.
“Couldn’t you have at least used the side entrance?” she hissed.
Tony just grunted. They waited in silence after that, Tony staring resolutely at the numbers dropping down to 1. He really needed to upgrade the elevators around here, juice them up a whole bunch. Maybe, he mused as the doors opened and he stepped in, he should put beds in them. The whole stainless steel thing was so overdone -- a little cushioning would do a world of good.
Pepper leaned around him and tapped her card on the proximity reader before hitting the button for the penthouse. Tony propped his forehead against the wall and sighed. The cold metal was so soothing on his pulsing head. Perhaps the steel could stay after all.
Tony squeezed his eyes shut. It was too early in the morning for the Pepper Voice. He pivoted on his head, turning his back to the wall. Pepper’s expression came into focus as he blinked slowly open. The tense businesswoman had fallen away and left behind a melancholy softness. “What, Pepper?”
“You can’t keep doing this.”
“Sorry, Ms. Potts,” he replied brusquely. “You lost the right to tell me what I can and can’t do when you gave me back that ring.”
Pepper flinched and Tony turned away before his heart could catch on fire. He heard her take a shaky breath and when she spoke again, her tone matched the hard walls of the elevator, the undeniable determination steeling her voice. “He wouldn’t want to see you like this, you know.”
There was a moment of silence. “Yeah, well,” Tony replied as the elevator doors dinged open. “It doesn’t matter what Rhodey’d want anymore, does it?” And without awaiting an answer, he stepped out of the elevator and strode away, the doors sliding shut on a silent Pepper behind him.
The next day found Tony sitting at his oversized desk in the main Stark offices. In a rare fit of responsibility, he was attempting to make roads into the mountain of paperwork that needed his approval. There was a vague notion swimming around at the bottom of his brain that this was a paltry attempt at alleviating some of the overwhelming guilt he felt for his behavior towards Pepper.
“No wonder you looked so familiar.”
Tony seized, sending his pen scratching across the page of unending type. His head shot up, his arm once again finding its familiar position of attack.
“What the fuck!”
Captain America’s face fell into a frown. Of course he would find his swearing offensive. The blonde man stepped forward, coming to a stop right in front of Tony’s desk. “You look just like him. Howard.”
Tony dropped his head to the desk with a loud thump and groaned. “I’m in hell,” he muttered into the surface. “That’s it. I died in a park in fucking Brooklyn of all places and now I’m in hell.” He rolled his head to the side so his cheek was pressed against the wood, the tall pile of files coming into view. “That explains all the paperwork.”
“God, you sound just like him too.”
Tony pushed himself back up with a grunt and poked his finger in Captain America’s direction. “Stop that. If this is really hell I’m sure your beloved Howard is around here someplace too. Go haunt him. Guilt him about not finding you or something.”
“Finding me? Never mind,” Captain America added hastily as Tony opened his mouth. He seemed to have caught on to Tony’s habit of rambling. “We’re not in hell. And I’m not a hallucination!” he snapped as Tony began to speak once again. Rude.
He slapped something down on Tony’s desk. A sheet of paper, Tony saw as Captain America pulled his gigantic hand away. Or rather, a sheet of parchment? Was this guy from the 40s or the dark ages?
“And what is that?” Tony asked airily. He leaned down to scratch at his foot, trying to sneak a better look at the ragged sheet without giving away his interest.
“I found it in my pocket, that day. You don’t have one?”
“Uh, no. Should I? I’ve got nothing to do and your weird habit of collecting weird pieces of garbage.”
“It’s got everything to do with you. And it’s not garbage. Just look at it.” He pushed the paper forward across the desk.
“Pass. Now if you excuse me, I’ve got some paperwork to get back to. Maybe if I get through this pile, I’ll get to hang out with the cool demons and...” He trailed off as he pulled a stack of files towards him. There, sitting on his desk and newly revealed by the shuffling of the paperwork, was a piece of parchment. It was identical to the one the blond giant had tried to force on him, right down to the artful tearing around the corners.
He looked up only to come face-to-face with Captain America’s smirk. He narrowed his eyes. “Did you just put that there?”
“Don’t you think you would have seen if I had?” His tone was far too smug for Tony’s liking. Captain America was shaping up to be a real asshole. Tony responded the only way that was appropriate in this situation; he flashed Captain America the bird.
Ignoring Blondie’s gasp of outrage, Tony peered warily at the parchment from a healthy distance.
“Fuck this.” He pushed firmly away from the table and got up, letting his chair continue its roll back towards the floor-to-ceiling window behind him. Captain America stared after him as he swiftly rounded the desk and once again, strode away.
This time the other man didn’t even give him the courtesy of a head start. “Will you quit doing that?”
Tony kept walking, cursing the insane size of his office as Captain America trotted after him. “Will you quit following me?” he retorted, shrugging off the hand the captain had wrapped around his arm.
He breezed past his bewildered assistant and wound neatly round the pair of suits doing the walk-and-talk.
“Look, there he goes. That man is strange, no question.”
“He’s dazed and distracted, can’t you tell?”
And apparently it was him they were talking about. Sheesh, employees nowadays didn’t even have the decency to wait until they couldn’t be heard before they started talking about their boss.
“Just look at this, will you?”
Right. Tony resolutely ignored the parchment waved in his face. Goddamn the man was persistent. “No! Leave me alone!” He turned an abrupt corner in a vague attempt to shake the overgrown pest off. Spotting an exit sign up the corridor, he made for it and pushed the door open into the stairwell.
Not his brightest idea. In the small space, Captain America, still hot on his heels, somehow managed to bodily force him into the corner.
Trapped between the man’s outrageously large forearms on the wall either side of him, Tony glared ferociously up at him. “Let me go,” he gritted out.
“Look, I don’t like this anymore than you do. The last thing I want is to be stalking a drunk, and frankly, insane, billionaire. But apparently I need you so just look at the damn paper.” He swallowed hard. “Please.”
If only he had his suit, he could have blasted out of the damn building in seconds. He really needed to make a pocket-size version. As it were, he was in no condition to take on a supersoldier, let alone one who probably didn’t even exist outside of his head.
“Fine,” he spat out. He snatched the paper out of the captain’s hand and stared down at it.
“That’s the one from your desk,” Captain America said as he dropped his arms but kept a close distance.
Tony ran his eyes over the weathered parchment. The page was filled with calligraphy, carefully scripted out in flowing black ink. The heading across the top, underlined twice, read “Your Quest.” Underneath was what looked to be a letter. Tony’s full legal name immediately jumped out at him and he skimmed down it, flipping the page over to see if there was more.
Finding nothing else, he looked back up at the captain. “Is this a joke?”
Captain America shook his head. “I didn’t...after you left, I wandered around a bit. Ventured pretty far from the park, I would say, but the next morning, I was right back where I started from - peeling myself out of a statue in the middle of Brooklyn.”
“Peeling yourself ou...You know what? I don’t even want to know.” Tony let his head thump against the wall behind him, hand tightening around the parchment as it fell back to this side. “This is the weirdest fucking dream I’ve ever had.”
He yelped when Captain America pinched him suddenly. “It’s not a fucking dream.” Well. Apparently it wasn’t his swearing the good captain had been frowning at before. “Now get over yourself and help me fix this.”
“Okay...assuming this isn’t either some crazy dream or hallucination, why the hell should I?”
“Did you even read it? You’re the only that can see me. Which means I’m just going to hang around you forever until you do.” He shrugged. “There’s not much else for me to do.”
“You could go exploring,” Tony pointed out. “You’re from the 40s, aren’t you? This is a whole new world for you to check out. There’s like, a hundred thousand things to see.”
“I’m sure this is a wondrous place,” he answered. “But I’m not supposed to be here. So why don’t you do us both a favor and help me move on?”
Tony stopped trying to edge slowly away and looked curiously at the captain. “Move on? You mean go back, right?”
Captain America’s expression hardened and for the first time, Tony could see a glimpse of the hero who supposedly took on the era’s most feared man. “I know what I said. Now are you going to help me or not?”
Tony stared thoughtfully at the captain, suddenly intrigued. He glanced down at the parchment again. “Yeah,” he started slowly, “I guess I will.”
Hell if he was going to go crazy, he might as well enjoy the ride.
“You sure this will work?”
“It only says you go back to the statue at sundown. It says nothing about that having to be in Brooklyn.”
“Will you stop saying Brooklyn like it leaves a bad taste in your mouth?”
“It does leave a bad taste in my mouth.”
“Yeah, well, it was my home.” Tony frowned at the past tense in his words. “Even if it is overrun with skinny kids in strange outfits now,” Captain America muttered under his breath.
They watched in silence as the movers finished loading the life-size sculpture in the back of the truck, securing it tightly in place.
Tony once again got the strange sense that someone was watching him. He scanned their surroundings, looking for anybody that seemed to be paying them an inordinate amount of attention. Admittedly, it was hard to tell when most of the park was staring at the sight of Tony Stark moving a huge statue of Captain America.
“I can’t believe you just bought the statue.” Tony tore his gaze from the bushes, giving up on trying to find a pair of eyes hiding within the leaves. “And that it took all of five minutes.”
Tony shrugged. “Enough money will get you anything in this world. Well, looks like they’ve got it. Shall we, Captain?”
“Steve.” Tony raised his eyebrows. “I’m not...My name is Steve.”
“Right. Steve Rogers.” Tony clapped him on the shoulder. “Just a kid from Brooklyn right?” Rogers frowned at the familiar line as they walked back towards Tony’s car. “My dad had all the comics,” Tony added offhandedly.
“Oh.” The single word was somehow filled to the brim with emotion - wonder and regret and sadness and disbelief and it was just too much for Tony.
He turned away to pull open the driver’s door. “So I’ll see you back at the tower. You can just poof there right? Or whatever it is weird corporeal statue ghosts do,” he said tightly.
“Yeah, I guess.” Captain America looked like he was about to say something else, but seemed to change his mind. “See you there.”
Tony climbed into his car and buckled himself in. When he looked out the window, the other man had disappeared. Tony relaxed back into his seat with a sigh.
“Tony? Why have you just spent close to a million dollars on a statue of Captain America?”
“Hello to you too, Pepper,” Tony said, lifting the phone up to his eye-level. She just stared at him, waiting. He sighed. “Would you believe, his ghost showed up with a letter saying he was tied to the statue and I was the only one who could help him?”
“Tony...” Pepper frowned at him.
“Fine. I just wanted it. Can’t a guy buy a statue anymore without getting the third degree?”
“Are you adding to your collection again? I thought you were over your Captain America obsession?”
“Obsession?” Tony heard Captain America echo in a murmur behind him. He set his jaw, ignoring the curious lilt in the word.
“I don’t have an obsession,” Tony retorted. “And it’s not my collection. It’s Howard’s.”
“Whatever you say, Tony. Just give me a little warning next time, alright?”
Tony frowned. “Why?” he retorted. “It’s my money. I can do whatever the hell I want with it.”
“I know that.” Tony didn’t miss the brief hurt that had flashed over her face. “I just like to know these things so I can keep the accounts straight.” She sighed. “I have to go. Just...call me if you need anything alright?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said dismissively and hung up.
“That was rude. She’s clearly just trying to help.”
“Thank you for your wonderful insight,” Tony shot back as he headed for his extensive bar. He uncapped the scotch and poured himself a deep measure. “Now that we’ve established that my assistant is, in fact, trying to assist me, can we move on?” He lifted the glass to his lips and gulped down half the glass. Unfortunately, the pleasure ringing through him from the burn settling into his veins was quickly cut short, doused in icy water as he accidentally met Captain America’s hard gaze.
“It’s 4 in the afternoon.”
“Wonderful! He tells time too!” Tony rounded the bar and headed back towards the middle of the living room, taking the glass with him. “What other neat tricks do you have, Cap?” He stopped right in front of the other man and took another deep sip. Captain America narrowed his eyes at him, meeting Tony’s challenging stare head-on.
Whatever brilliant retort the man had was drowned out by a sudden alarm blaring.
Tony blinked, head tilting back to look at the ceiling. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Captain America reach behind him for his shield, his face scrunched up in discomfort from the loud noise.
The alarm gave a last, fifth, chime and disappeared. Tony heard the whistle of Captain America’s shield in the sudden silence and shook himself to attention.
“Right. Listen, Cap, I gotta run but feel free to, you know, make yourself at home or whatever. But please, if any birds try to perch on you, get rid of them. I really don’t want to come home to a living room full of bird shit.”
Tony spun away from Captain America’s incredulous look. Or at least, tried to.
His eyebrows drew together as he looked down at his arm and found Captain America, yet again, holding him in place.
“God, you are one handsy motherfucker, aren’t you?” he huffed out disbelievingly, snapping his gaze up to the other man’s face.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?
Tony shook his arm but it seemed like this time the captain wasn’t going to be brushed off so easily.
“Going to get my nails done. Where the fuck do you think I’m going?”
“What does that alarm mean?”
“It means you should let go of my fucking arm so that nobody dies. Least of all you because I swear to god if you don’t stop touching me I’m going to--“
“You’re going to put on your armor?”
“Yes, that’s generally what I--how do you know about the armor?”
“I read about it. It’s hard not to read about Tony Stark without learning about your armor. And from what I read, it sure as hell doesn’t seem like something you should be piloting when you’re a few drinks in."
“Listen, Captain,” Tony sneered, “I don’t need you here telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. And I sure.” He gave his arm another tug, completely fruitless against the strength of the serum-enhanced soldier. “As hell.” He tugged again. “Don’t need.” His arm still wouldn’t budge. “You holding me--oomph!”
Damn, his floor was hard. That was going to leave a bruise on his ass tomorrow.
“Fine,” Captain America replied, his arm now back at his side as he glared down at Tony. “I’m coming with you though.”
Tony craned his neck up at the captain, throbbing in his ass and arm alike and sighed. “Whatever, man.”
Here was Tony’s absolute favorite place in the world -- here above the city, the crowds and the traffic and the buildings all just a blur beneath him as he streaked over them, becoming one with the air around him; here in the barren no-man’s land between earthbound folk and soaring jetplanes, nothing but the odd pigeon traversing his airspace; here where the only soundtrack was the roar of his thrusters, the hum of his machinery, and the pounding of his heart as he soared through the sky, sometimes with a brief idea of somewhere but more often than not going nowhere.
This time there was a destination, and one that was important to get to as soon as his latest upgrades would allow. Stupid Captain America and his stupid interrogation. Despite what he let the supersoldier believe, Tony knew what he was doing. After the whole palladium debacle, Tony had outfitted his armor with Blood Alcohol sensors and set a threshold with no manual override. Rhodey had stood over his shoulder while he did it, and though at the time Tony had bristled at the implication that he would build himself a loophole, he was grateful now that the program was locked up tight.
Tony swallowed hard and shook his head minutely, not even enough to move the helmet but hopefully enough to knock his brain off the tracks it was headed down. That was one train he didn’t want to ride.
Thankfully, he reached his destination then, a small alley in Astoria. He landed with a grimace - he hated Queens almost as much as he hated Brooklyn.
“JARVIS, whadda we got?”
“The victim is a young female. Surveillance shows that her assailants were two men, both armed and of heavy stature. They escaped on foot approximately seventy seconds ago.”
“Dammit,” Tony muttered. “Find them,” he said as he rounded the corner into the narrow alley.
Tony immediately spotted the figure curled up on the ground, sobbing quietly. He hurried towards her, clanking loudly with each step and alerting her to his arrival. Her head shot up and her eyes instantly grew wide as she caught sight of him.
“Ma’am? Are you alright?”
She didn’t answer, her mouth hanging open as she stared at him. Tony lifted his faceplate and crouched down beside her.
“Ma’am?” he tried again, soft.
“You...you’re Tony Stark.”
“Yes, ma’am, I am,” Tony replied as his suit scanned her quickly for injuries. He was relieved to find nothing. The woman looked like she was scarcely out of high school. “What’s your name?”
“Eliza,” she answered quietly. “Eliza McWilliam.”
“Okay, Eliza. You’re going to be alright. Now, can you tell me which way your attackers went?” he asked gently.
She lifted her hand and pointed right. Tony nodded, his faceplate sliding back into place as he stood. In her current state of shock and perhaps a little bit of awe, that was probably all Tony was going to get out of the poor girl. “Thank you.” He gave her one last look. “I’ve alerted the police to your position. They should be here any minute.” She nodded shakily, her eyes still round in her face as she gaped at his armor. Tony took a couple of steps back and then shot upwards.
“JARVIS, you get that?”
“Yes, sir. Pinpointing the location of her cellphone right now. Exact co-ordinates in twelve seconds.”
Forty-two seconds later, Tony landed with a thump in the middle of the sidewalk, right in front of the two men. He grabbed one in each hand and took off into the sky again. In the corner of his vision he saw a blue and red blur flipping away, the quiet mutter of “Dammit, not again” just barely picked up by his armor-enhanced hearing.
Tony leveled off at a nearby rooftop, hovering low over the flat surface, and dropped the thugs unceremoniously to the floor. Cutting power to his thrusters, he glared as they struggled to right themselves.
The idiot who was reaching for his gun abruptly froze as the bright blue light flew past him, burning a crater into the ground inches from his torso. “Don’t even try.”
The man swallowed, his Adam’s apple jerking hard with the strength of the movement.
“What...what do you want with us?” the other man asked nervously. “Why are you doing this?”
“Why am I doing this?” Tony asked incredulously, his armor creaking ominously as he stepped towards them. “Why am I doing this? Why are you going around pointing guns at innocent people?”
“We didn’t...we don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man stuttered.
Tony growled and aimed his repulsor at the pathetic men still in a lump on the floor. “Are you seriously going to sit there and just--“
Tony clenched his teeth, his fingers curling slightly. He raised his head and turned it slowly to the left, keeping his arm pointed at the men.
That fucking hallucination had followed him after all. Tony thought he’d finally lost him -- but of course, he could never be so lucky.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Oh and he was in full Captain America mode too, a stern look on his perfectly-chiseled face and shield held tight in hand instead of slung across his back.
Tony squeezed down on his teeth again before he spoke, so hard he swore he could hear a crack. “My job,” he spat out. He turned back to the men, who were now looking at him in confusion more than fear. Tony couldn’t have that. He moved his hand up slightly and sent another blast their way, creating a second crater just behind them as he shot right over their heads.
“What?!” Tony could feel a bead of sweat dripping down from his forehead, licking at his cheek. He shot another glance at Captain America, his attention mainly focused on the assholes on the ground. “What the fuck do you want?”
“Is he talking to us?” he heard one idiot whisper to the other.
Before Tony could even think to fire up his repulsor, Captain America’s shield shot out from beside him. It somehow managed to knock both the muggers on the head before returning neatly to Captain America’s hand.
“This isn’t your job.”
Tony just gaped at him, arm still outstretched. He turned back to take another look at the muggers. Sure enough, they were knocked out cold. Eyes wide behind his mask, Tony took a step towards Steve, then paused.
“JARVIS,” he said, making sure the external mic was switched off. “Do a brain scan. Right now.”
“Brain function appears normal, sir, though your heart rate is overly elevated.”
Ignoring that last part, Tony swallowed. “And...what about him?” he asked tentatively.
JARVIS was silent for far too long for Tony’s liking. “I...I’m sorry, sir. There appears to be a cloud of interference surrounding him, rendering it near impossible to obtain a full body scan.”
Tony frowned. “Like a force field?”
“I suppose that is one way of putting it, yes sir.”
Of course there was.
“Sir, if I may...”
“What is it?”
“Information seems to indicate this to be neither a hallucination nor a dream. Might I suggest you consider the possibility that Captain Rogers is actually as the letter indicates and--“
“JARVIS, are you, an artificial intelligence, the utmost wonder of science, seriously asking me to believe that the man in front of me is a spirit magically sent forward from the past?”
“I am merely urging you to consider all possibilities, no matter how improbable you deem them.”
“I don’t even--“
Tony blinked, realizing with a jolt that he’d been staring silently at Captain America for the last minute or so, or at least giving the outward appearance of doing so. The man’s previous look of anger and self-righteousness had been replaced with an air of curiosity, his head cocked to one side as he took stock of the armored man in front of him.
“You’re right, this isn’t my job. Let’s get out of here.”
Tony barely caught a glimpse of Captain America’s bewildered face before he took off again, speeding back home and alerting the police of the attackers along the way.
“Wait, so all this time you just thought you were hallucinating?” Captain America frowned. That seemed to be his default expression around Tony, which, fair enough, that was everyone’s default expression around him, now and always. “Does that happen often?”
They were back in his penthouse and it was taking everything Tony had not to head straight back for his bar, to actually sit and try and work this out instead of hoping he could drink it away. “What, a ghost from my past materializing and me getting confused about it?” he retorted shortly as he ran a careful hand over the statue, looking for some kind of hint as to what the hell was going on.
“No,” Tony answered, dropping his hand with a shrug. “But there’s a first time for everything.” Captain America’s brow was still furrowed. “So this letter--“
“What was that back there?”
“What?” Tony’s churning thoughts fell screeching away, like a needle sent skittering right off the record.
“Those guys. Don’t you think your weapons, what you did, don’t you think that was a bit overkill?”
“Do you know what those guys did? Do you know what they are?”
“I grew up in the Depression, what do you think? They’re petty criminals. Desperate humans down on their luck and trying to find an easy way out.”
“Is that what you think?” Tony snapped back. “No, those creatures are pathetic, disgusting scum, deranged and violent and they won’t stop until I find each and every one of them and--“
The quiet word, the subdued syllables of his first name, pulled Tony back and he realized with a jolt that his entire body was shaking -- that his voice had grown to fill the entire room, that his fists were clenched, that each and every one of his muscles were completely tensed, coiled and waiting to spring into action.
He shut his eyes and drew a shaky breath as he forcibly relaxed his body, as he loosened the cords of his frame bit by painstaking bit.
When he opened his eyes again, Captain America was looking at him. Not staring, not watching, just...looking. Waiting.
Tony scanned his face for the expected curiosity, or perhaps even pity. All he found, strangely enough, was a knowing glint behind the captain’s electric blue eyes.
Captain America had used his first name. And it felt...strangely right. Like his mouth was meant to make that shape, like his name had been waiting forever for this man to give voice to it.
Perhaps that’s why, instead of snapping off a snarky comment and storming off to the dive down the street, he rubbed at his face and said instead, “It’s going to be sundown soon.” His voice had dropped right past normal volume and down into a soft mutter. “We should take another look at that letter.”
Tony caught the brief flex of muscles in Captain America’s gossamer face, the quick narrowing of the eyes before all hint of a frown fell away completely. It appeared that Captain America had a poker face and Tony didn’t like it one bit.
Putting the thought aside for the moment, Tony patted down his pockets, searching his brain and person alike for the strange piece of parchment.
Tony looked up to find Captain America holding out one of the letters towards him - Tony’s copy, it looked like.
“Magic,” the infuriating man said, in response to Tony’s questioning look.
“There is no such thing as magic,” Tony gritted out.
“I don’t know,” Captain America said, leaning against the back of the couch, a slouchy silhouette in harsh contrast to the rigid lines of the statue a mere foot away from him. “On some level, aren’t magic and science basically the same thing?”
Tony spluttered, casting around for any kind of response to that ludicrous statement when he realized the stupid soldier was fighting down a laugh as he watched him fluster.
And people called him mercurial. Captain America changed moods quicker than his stockholders changed sides in a crisis.
Tony grunted, crumpling the parchment noisily as he brought it up to take a closer look. It was a mere coincidence that it acted as a barrier between his and Captain America’s face. “Let’s just get this shit done. Let’s see...dear Anthony Edward Stark, embark on a quest, statue at sundown, yadda yadda yadda...” he skimmed over the letter and once his eyes reached the bottom, found himself fighting the urge to once again flip the damn thing over in hope of something more. “These rules don’t even make any sense!”
Tony looked up to find Captain America just staring at him, one eyebrow a perfect arc high on his forehead.
“Okay, yes, I’m aware none of this makes any sense. But what the hell is the point of rules if they’re just going to be completely arbitrary? You know, whatever, forget it. Let’s just skip to the important stuff. It says at the end ‘Only once you can look into the mirror and see beyond your reflection will the echoes crumble the stone’.” Tony looked up at Captain America again. “Does yours say the same thing?”
“Do you have any idea what it means?”
Tony sighed. “Great. Whoever wrote this is an idiot. I don’t--“
“Did you hear that?” Captain America interrupted, frowning.
The captain paused, brow still furrowed. “I thought I heard...it sounded like a gasp. I...never mind.”
Tony raised his eyebrows, then decided it was better for his sanity to just ignore it. “Okay, you know what?” He snatched the parchment out of Captain America’s hand and spun on his heel. “I’m just going to have JARVIS take a look at it. Maybe if we can figure out where this shit came from, we can get more of a fucking clue.”
He stepped into his private elevator and hit the floor for the basement. “What?” he said, when he noticed Captain America still raising his stupid fucking eyebrow at him.
“You cuss a lot.”
“Only when goddamn relics from the past fucking show up and expect me to puzzle out shitty fucking riddles.”
The captain just shook his head, a hint of a smile on his face.
They rode down in the elevator in silence, Tony peering closely once again at the two pieces of parchment clutched in his hand.
The doors dinged open straight into his workshop and as Tony stepped out first of the elevator, he heard a loud gasp from behind him. He smirked a little to himself and spun to walk backward into the large space so he could see Captain America’s face.
“Woah,” Captain America murmured.
“Greetings, Captain Rogers.”
Captain America, Tony was delighted to see, jumped as JARVIS’s voice rung out from the speakers around the room.
“I’m sorry to have startled you but it is truly an honor to make your acquaintance.” This was what Tony got for starting work on JARVIS while still in his fanboy phase. “It is with deepest pride and greatest pleasure that I welcome you today.”
Steve looked utterly bewildered. “Uh, thanks, I guess.” He aimed the words at the ceiling, confusion creasing his forehead.
“Okay, okay, that’s enough. J, I need to you to take a look at these.” Tony smacked the two pieces of parchment down atop his interactive surface for JARVIS to scan.
“Of course, sir. I shall start running tests immediately.”
“They may have a force field similar to the sunshine of your life over here, since they all showed up at the same time.”
“Noted, sir,” JARVIS replied primly. If he had a physical form, Tony would bet his entire fortune that JARVIS would be sticking his nose in the air right now.
To Tony’s great amusement, Steve was still turning his head every which way, trying to find the source of the voice.
“What...who was that?”
“That’s JARVIS. He’s my A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” he elaborated at Captain America’s blank look. “He’s kinda like the brains of this operation.”
“And what, exactly, is this operation?” Captain America asked, poking tentatively at a projection of the latest suit.
“This? This is where science happens. None of your magic hooey.” Tony wrapped his hand around some notes from yesterday still floating in the air, balled it up, and tossed it at the captain.
He caught it reflexively, then held it up to his face for a closer look. After examining it for a moment, he snapped his gaze back to Tony. “Did you just say hooey?”
“I might have.” Tony collapsed back onto his stool. “So I think it’s going to be a little while before--no DUM-E, he doesn’t want a shake,” Tony admonished, half-laughing as Steve gaped at the robot whirring at his feet, its long arm outstretched and a green concoction clutched between its metal claws. “Wait.” Tony frowned suddenly as DUM-E’s arm fell with what could only be described as a mournful click and whirr. “He can see you? I suppose if JARVIS can, then...hmm. I wonder if the cameras are picking you up too.”
He pulled up the surveillance feed for the penthouse and ran it back, Captain America stepping around the sulking robot and pausing behind Tony to look over his shoulder. “No, I guess not. Odd.” He sighed, glancing at the parchment again. “I swear to god, this setup has absolutely no logic to it. Anyway, as I was saying...” He spun on his stool and tilted his neck up at the gigantic supersoldier. “It’s probably going to be some time before JARVIS makes any progress and you’ve still got almost an hour until sundown. Perks of materializing in the middle of summer. Do you want dinner or something?” He paused, struck by a sudden thought. “Do you even, I mean, can you even eat in this state?” He flapped his hand at Captain America’s evasive form.
Captain America shrugged. “Maybe? But I haven’t really felt hunger and I can’t say I’ve tried.”
“Alright well, I’ve never really hosted a spirit before so you gotta help me out. But then again, the people I’m hosting are usually only here for one thing and I...” he trailed off. Captain America was looking at him with a question on his face. “What?”
“Can we...I want to know how some of this stuff works. Can you show me?” he asked tentatively. And it was strange, seeing the captain so hesitant after the way he’d been almost bullying Tony into helping him these past few hours. It was perhaps Tony’s first real glimpse at the man behind the soldier.
“Sure,” Tony replied, surprised. “I’ve got gadgets and gizmos aplenty, if that’s what you’re into. But a lot of it is kind of...involved.” The man hadn’t even seen color TV yet, he was kind of skipping a few steps. “You sure that’s what you want to do?”
Captain America nodded. “At least it’ll give me something else to think about for the next nine hours,” he half-muttered.
Tony froze. “What?”
Captain America shifted, suddenly uncomfortable. He clearly hadn’t meant to voice that thought. Eeeenteresting.
“Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”
“Hang on.” Tony pushed up off the stool and gaped at Captain America, who was trying his hardest to avoid Tony’s gaze. “Are you telling me that when you’re in that thing.” He stabbed a finger at the ceiling, gesturing at the statue hanging out in the middle of his penthouse. “That you’re aware? Your consciousness remains?”
He could see Captain America hesitate but then he looked up and finally met Tony’s eye, answering his question with a sharp nod.
Tony’s gut clenched. Whatever form Captain America was in, whatever version of him was standing in front of him, it was still fully-functional. And for nine hours a night, it was trapped in place, completely paralyzed. His stomach churned as he thought of those horrible minutes when Obie had rendered him helpless.
“But when you...you made it sound like you just went from sundown to sunrise, quick as a blink.” Tony furrowed his brow, glancing at the parchments that were now awash with blue light. “There was nothing about that in the stupid letter.”
Captain America shrugged. “It’s not...it’s not too bad. I fell asleep at some point and didn’t wake up with a crick in the neck.” There was an obvious force to his tone, a terrible attempt at playing things off. “That’s some magic right there.”
Tony snapped his focus back to the captain’s face. The man was rubbing at the back of his neck and looking desperately like he wanted to be someplace else.
Taking his cue from the man’s half-hearted attempt at humor, Tony stepped back towards his workbench and said, “Hey, did you ever read The Lord of the Rings?”
Captain America appeared momentarily confused at the non-sequitur, but then his poker face snapped back into place and he shook his head.
“Hmm, they might have been written after your time. Well, they’re these epic fantasy books and they made movies out of them, super successful blockbustery movies. You know what a movie is right? Talking pictures? Mouths move, sound comes out?” Captain America rolled his eyes at him in response. “Just checking! Anyway, I’ve never managed to get all the way through them. The music and the three-hour running time is the perfect combination to put me to sleep.” He threw the words out casually as he turned back to his workbench, picking up the boot sitting on top and poking at the thruster with a screwdriver. “But I was thinking tonight might be a good time to give the first one another try. And do it properly, you know, uncut four-hour version, the whole shebang.”
He set his screwdriver down and picked up his soldering iron, tapping it with his finger to check if it was hot. Fuck, yes, definitely hot, “Your pottery experiment gone wrong kinda ended up in the main living room where my gigantic TV is sooooo you’re going to have to watch along. I hope you don’t mind the screech of crazy demons chasing after a piece of jewelry.”
There was silence from behind him, the only sound in the workshop the almost inaudible sizzle of the solder as he melted it onto the circuit board.
“No.” The captain finally said quietly. “I don’t mind.” There was a tremble to his voice, one so small that Tony wouldn’t even have noticed if he didn’t hear it in his own voice day after day. It was the tremble of a man barely clinging on and so grateful any time any sort of reprieve was cast his way.
He didn’t know how he didn’t notice it before. Captain America was a figure on the brink of something, a man bottled up and pressurized just as tightly as Tony was, shaking to burst at any moment. They were both fighting a battle, apparently, and neither of them were the right kind of soldier for this.
“Great,” Tony said as he set the soldering iron down. “Now, do you want to see how a thruster works?”
Three days passed. Three days in which Captain America learned a lot about the power of Hollywood special effects, Tony learned a lot about his tolerance for movies about rings, and JARVIS learned a lot about how much he didn’t know about magical pieces of parchment.
Despite the A.I.’s best efforts, JARVIS’s tests had all come back inconclusive and Tony was at a dead end as to how to deal with Steve’s situation. It was true that Steve had thoroughly enjoyed the movies, far moreso than Tony, and as a result, didn’t seem to feel nearly as upset about his situation as he had been. Still, it was clear the other man had no desire to return to his own time and what Tony couldn’t understand was why.
That was the other thing. Somewhere between the arguments over the blatant homoeroticism of Sam and Frodo’s relationship and the hours spent puzzling over the cryptic words of the letter, Captain America became Steve and Tony honestly couldn’t say when.
Tony watched Steve now as he flipped through an ancient tome, looking for some reference to mirror magic. He himself was supposed to be hacking into government records to see if there had been any instances of something like this occurring in the past that the government had covered up (he definitely hadn’t expected Captain America to be such a conspiracy theorist). Instead he stared at the bent head, untangling thoughts that had been criss-crossing all through his brain ever since he’d woken up in that park in Brooklyn. Unaware of his gaze, Steve continued to crunch through the bowl of popcorn as he turned the page, continuing his intent reading. Though he didn’t feel hunger, Steve had discovered that he still maintained all of his sensory capabilities, taste and smell included, and he’d somehow become obsessed with microwave popcorn. Out of all of the fucking foods in the thriving, globalized future, that was what he constantly sought out.
“You know,” Tony said slowly as Steve picked up another handful. “You’re not at all what I thought Captain America would be.”
“No?” Steve looked up at him, pausing in his actions. There was a little piece of popcorn stuck between his teeth and his hair was all mussed from where he’d been pressed back against the couch.
Tony shook his head. “You’re a lot more...” Human, his mind supplied. “Blond,” he finished lamely.
Steve’s brow creased and he opened his mouth to reply when he was once again cut off by the blaring of Tony’s alarms.
“DO YOU DO THAT ON PURPOSE?” he yelled, hands clapped over his ears.
Tony just snorted as he got off the couch and went to suit up.
This time Steve chose to fly along above Tony because, hey, it turned out he could do that. Their target was right there in midtown and so they managed to actually arrive while the crime was still in progress. Two guys had a third pressed up against a wall, the largest one brandishing a gun.
The three men turned their heads towards Tony, who was hovering menacingly just above the pavement.
All three sets of eyes widened simultaneously. The two attackers slowly stepped back, releasing the grip they had on their victim’s clothing and carefully raising their hands as they kept a wary eye on Tony’s outstretched hand.
“Sir, they are not a match either,” JARVIS reported into Tony’s ear. Before Tony could decide to blast them anyway, Captain America’s shield flew past his shoulder and knocked the closest man out.
The man with the gun yelped in surprise as he watched his partner collapse into a heap at his feet. He stared down at his partner for a moment, then dropped his gun and took off running. Tony growled and started to take off after him but felt a strong tug at his leg. He looked down and saw Steve had firmly wrapped his hand around Tony’s calf. “Tony,” Steve said sternly, “this isn’t your job.”
Tony cut power to his thrusters and landed with a loud thump, right in front of the captain. “So I should just let him get away?!” Tony retorted angrily, waving his arm behind him in the direction that the man had run off.
“Alert the police, like you did before. This is not...” Captain America gestured with both hands at the armor, his shield safely sheathed on his forearm. “This isn’t how this should be handled.”
“You know what, Cap? I don’t--“
Tony cursed under his breath. He’d completely forgotten about the victim, who was probably thoroughly confused by this point. Tony turned back to face him and just stared at the terrified man for a moment, at the huddled mess of a person on the ground. He sighed.
“I’ve alerted the authorities,” he informed the man, doing his best to round the edges of his voice through the suit’s modulators. “They should be here momentarily. Are you alright?” he asked, even as he had JARVIS do a scan.
The man nodded briskly.
“Good. Well, I have to be going, things to invent and all that.” He could hear the wail of sirens in the distance and decided to make things easier for everyone and make himself scarce before the cavalry arrived.
Right as he took off, he heard the man call, “Thank you!”
“So are you going to explain what that was?”
Goddammit. The air was supposed to be his space, not the place to get interrogated by Captain fucking America.
He’d gone off for a few laps over the state instead of returning straight home after the mugging, partly in the hopes of avoiding this very conversation but mostly to try and clear the mess that was his head right now.
“I know you can hear me. You told me all about the superhuman hearing abilities of your armor.” Tony cursed. That’s what he got for being overenthusiastic about his own tech.
Well, fuck it. If they were going to do this, they might as well do it properly. He scanned the ground below him and found a deserted field off to his right. Without saying anything, he diverted his course and dove straight down towards the ground. As expected, the captain followed close behind.
Tony started walking as soon as they landed, yanking his helmet off as he strode off towards the small stream up ahead. He could hear Steve’s hurried footsteps behind him, the man clearly leaving his mark though on the world though he was invisible to it. Tony wondered how that worked -- how Steve could leave a trail of footprints in the dirt pathways, could throw a shield solid enough to knock a man out, but couldn’t be seen nor heard by anyone besides himself. He resolutely ignored the little voice in his head that was whispering ‘magic’.
He let his suit collapse around as he reached the bank, then flopped down to the ground. Steve sedately took a seat beside him.
“There’s not too long before sundown,” Tony said, glancing at Steve. “Is this really what you want to spend your time talking about before you get stuck in another game of musical statues?”
The stubborn set of Steve’s jaw said yes.
Tony sighed. “I don’t see what the big deal is. I’m supposedly a hero. Heroes supposedly catch bad guys. And those guys were, no, not supposedly, definitely bad guys.”
The only response he received was a resounding silence.
Just when Tony was starting to think that Steve had fallen asleep or something, the other man said, his voice as cutting as the first day they’d met, “Does anyone besides you believe your bullshit?”
Tony bristled. “I don’t--“
“C’mon, Tony! You’re going after muggers when you used to go after warlords. You’re a CEO who spends less time at his desk and more time under it. When I first met you, you were passed out drunk in a park! I had to throw rocks at people so they wouldn’t steal everything but the shirt off your back!”
Well, that explained how he still had his wallet.
“You think you’re playing the hero but the only villain you’re battling is yourself.”
And Tony didn’t even know what to say to that.
“And what about you?” The words were quiet, the beginnings of a thought Tony was finally giving voice to.
“What about me?”
“Are you serious?” Tony scrambled up and glared down at the supersoldier. “You said it yourself -- you have no desire to go back. Back to everyone you love, everything you ever knew. Quit deluding yourself, you’re practically suicidal.”
Steve followed suit, sliding gracefully to his feet. “I’m not suicidal! I’m just doing what’s best for everyone. Besides,” he added in a mutter, “you can’t be suicidal when you’re basically dead.”
“Oh are we back to that now? You don’t know what this is. For all you know, you could be hooked up to a machine somewhere while some dastardly villain plays with your mind.”
Steve just stared at him disbelievingly.
Tony narrowed his eyes. “You haven’t really been trying to fix this, have you? You gave up before we even started.”
“That’s not true. I chased you all around your stupid building to try and ‘fix this’. I’ve been slaving over the research just as much as you have.”
“You’ve been trying to find a way out. That’s not a fix, that’s an escape plan. What the hell are you running from? Huh, Captain?”
He could see Steve chewing on his cheek, biting back words that were fighting their way out. And suddenly Tony had had enough.
This was hypocrisy on the grandest level, a classic case of the blind leading the blind, the damaged trying to heal the damaged. He didn’t need to sit here for this and he sure as hell didn’t owe this guy anything.
He jammed his helmet back on his head and called the rest of his armor to him. Steve watched him suit up, his jaw jutting out.
“I’m going home,” Tony said.
Steve moved forward, closing the space between them, and poked Tony square in the chest. “You say I’m running? What the hell do you think it is you’re always doing?”
Tony just took a half step back and shot off into the sky.
Off course, Captain America couldn’t leave well enough alone. Tony had barely had time to throw back half a drink when Steve materialized again, smack in the middle of the sprawling space of his penthouse.
Tony glared at him briefly and went back to pouring himself another drink. The bottle was suddenly wrenched from his grasp, Steve forceful fingers snatching it clean out of Tony’s hand.
Tony just stared openmouthed at the mess, at the whiskey dripping down the picture window and pooling in a puddle amongst the glass shards on the floor.
Tony dragged his gaze to the man standing across the bar. Steve’s chest was heaving, a flush rising high on his cheeks. Tony opened his mouth to ask him just what the fuck he thought he was doing but he barely squeezed out half a syllable before Steve rolled right over him.
“No, you listen to me. You refused to talk before so now you’re just going to stand there and you’re going to listen dammit!” He slammed his hands down on the counter on the last words.
Tony snapped his mouth shut, eyes wide.
“When I was growing up,” he started, the slightest hint of a tremble in his voice, “I only had one friend. And that was more than enough because Bucky? He was one hell of a friend.” The words were coming stronger now, spilling out Steve’s mouth unbidden and falling heavy in the space between them. “We did everything together until he enlisted and I got left behind, too sickly to qualify anywhere. But then I became like this,” he gestured dismissively at his muscled body, “and I found Bucky and finally we fought together, side-by-side like we were always meant to. But I lost him. And it’s...it might have been 70 years ago for you but for me, it might as well have been yesterday.”
Steve swung his arm out in a wide arc at the whiskey still sliding down the glass. “The very first thing I tried to do, after, the only thing I wanted to do was drink. Just get absolutely out-of-my-mind, blackout drunk because then maybe the pain would stop. Maybe if I drank enough, I wouldn’t feel anything at all. But.” He dropped his arm back to his side. “I couldn’t.”
He shrugged then, a messy, graceless roll of his shoulders. “I suppose it’s a blessing, really. My father was an alcoholic, you know.” And Tony could almost see the effort he put into lightening his tone. “It consumed him and everyone around him and when I was a boy, I thought...” He swallowed hard. “I was always so terrified I was going to end up just like him. And maybe I would have, if the serum hadn’t taken.” Tony just continued to stare at him, afraid to even take a breath in the silence between thoughts.
“But instead, I got to...I got to become a hero. Not a prancing symbol in spandex but an honest-to-god, on-the-front-lines, fighting soldier. And I had the pleasure of fighting amongst some of the finest men and women in the world, each and every one of them laying down their lives for something bigger than themselves. And somehow, through some miracle, they all made it through. They got to lead the lives that Bucky never did.”
Steve looked away then, staring out through the glass at the darkening sky beyond. “I don’t know what the hell is going on here,” he said, quiet. “I understand this magic stuff as much as I understand your arc reactor technology. But I do know this.” He blinked and snapped his gaze back to Tony. “There’s no point in me going back. Everyone I left behind -- my friends, my girl, everyone -- they all moved on. They lived wonderful, fulfilling lives and I couldn’t be happier for them. Why would I go back and risk ruining that? Risk taking it all away?”
“So no,” he said, breathing the declaration out in a gust of resolution. “I’m not suicidal. I just...don’t have anywhere to go but forward.”
Tony swallowed. That was...not at all what he’d been expecting.
Steve sighed, glancing briefly out the window once again at the impending sunset. When he turned back to Tony, there was a sad solemnity to his expression that felt like a punch to the gut. “Look, Tony. I don’t expect you to...I can’t just...” He groaned in frustration, tugging his hands through his hair. “I don’t know what the point of that speech was. I don’t know what the point of any of this is. But it’s happening and it feels like...it feels like it’s for a reason. And I just want to...I just...I--“
“His name was Rhodey.” Steve froze, one hand still tangled in his blond strands. “James Rhodes, actually.”
Steve slowly returned his hand to his side, keeping the movements gentle as if to avoid scaring Tony off. Probably a smart choice.
“We, uh, we went to college together. And somehow I managed to swindle the bastard into becoming my best friend. And staying that way for a long time.”
Tony dropped his gaze to the countertop, his fingers idly tracing patterns on the surface. “He was a military guy -- Lieutenant Colonel. The Air Force made a smart decision for once and named him chief liaison to Stark Industries.” He snorted mirthlessly. “They seemed to think Rhodey actually held some sway over me.”
He glanced up, then away. “They might have been right. I gave him his own suit. War Machine, it was called. Piece of crap, really, once Hammer got his hands on it,” he muttered, shaking his head.
Tony stared out the window, watching the sun start to drop down through the stain of the whiskey. It seemed like there should have been some sort of beautiful metaphor in that image but all he could think was that the glow of light just burned the liquor into blood.
“One night,” he said on a breath. “He’s walking home. From a date, I think, some woman he met on the force. It’s pretty late -- I guess things were going well -- and Rhodey, he’s in a part of town he shouldn’t be, not dressed to impress like he was. But he’s not thinking about that. Nope, he’s thinking about that beautiful woman he left behind and when he’s going to see her again. God he was crazy about her, couldn’t stop texting me about it like a thirteen-year-old with a crush. And so when he gets jumped, he just reacts. Shoots his arm straight out, takes one guy down without even realizing. Next thing he knows, two guns are pointing right at him. The guys are furious, one of them’s got blood dripping all out his nose, and they’re yelling at him. And what does he do? He just shakes his fucking head. And then they’re at an impasse, both groups just staring each other down. Something must have spooked the guys though because they suddenly jump into action and one guy just...he just shoots him. Straight in the head.”
Tony took a breath. “And then they take his wallet and run.”
There was a beat of silence.
And then Tony laughed, a harsh, desperate noise choking its way out of his throat.
“It’s just so...ridiculous. I mean, the guy was fighting in a war. He was fucking WAR MACHINE. And he got gunned down by some kid, probably strung out and trying to get his next fix. I mean, tell me that makes sense.” He finally turned back to look at Steve. “Does that make sense?”
Steve seemed to understand that Tony wasn’t looking for a reply.
“I watched it happen. I hacked the satellites and found some grainy footage and I just watched it. Over and over. I couldn’t stop. Does that make sense?”
“None of this makes sense,” Steve murmured, after the quiet dragged on too heavy. “This stuff never does.”
And Tony could see it in his face that he was watching his own friend’s death, his own grainy footage playing in his head. Over and over.
What a pair they made.
Sunset came around before their conversation could progress any further, which was probably a good thing at that point. Tony was feeling far too raw, too exposed. Steve returning to his statue just prevented Tony from having to attempt an awkward escape.
The shower rained down hard on his head, the temperature set as high as JARVIS would allow ever since he’d accidentally burned himself without even realizing.
God, he was a mess.
He had no idea what that was out there. All he knew was that there was a weight that had been pressing down on him for far too long. The terrifying, unavoidable truth of the matter was that Rhodey was who he’d talked to, Rhodey was the one who lifted his load, who shared his burden, who did something else cheesy and idiomatic that rounded out the three. It was truly in keeping with Tony’s life that his one load-bearing pillar would collapse, leaving his ceiling to come crashing down around his ears.
But now...He’d, well, he supposed he’d talked to Steve, in a way he hadn’t talked to anybody in a long while. He’d barely skimmed the surface of talking, really, but it was there, the words had been thrown into the air and left to fall where they may.
And god it felt...it felt like breathing completely again for the first time. For a moment, he imagined that this would be what it would feel like to have his physical health again, to have the arc reactor scooped out of his chest so that his lungs could have room, could spread out and reclaim the land that was rightfully theirs.
To just be whole again.
He pressed his hands to the wall and let the drops beat down on the back of his neck, massaging over the tense muscles of his shoulders and drowning out all the noise in his head.
Something in the air between them had...not cleared, exactly, but shifted, like cotton candy stretched thin so that air could sneak in between the strands. Of course, they reached an unspoken agreement not to bring things up again.
And of course, scarcely a handful of days later, Steve was the first to break the pact.
“So you’re trying to find him, right?”
“Hmm?” Tony replied absently, his attention still mostly caught on the gauntlet he was trying to repair. They were down in his workshop -- Steve had started spending his afternoons there, sometimes reading, sometimes staring at the letter, but most times just drawing. Tony didn’t know he could enjoy the quiet skritching of a pencil against textured paper as much as the blast of hard rock but there was a comfort to it, a soothingness to the ebb and flow of the noise as Steve swept his hand across the page in huge swoops and small scribbles.
“The guy that killed him. Well, guys I guess.”
And just like that, the comfort was gone.
Tony pulled the screwdriver out of his mouth and turned his head. Steve was lounging on the couch, still scratching away at his sketchpad. He looked up when Tony gave no answer, his expression patient.
“That’s why you keep going out on these little missions, isn’t it? Hunting down these ‘disgusting scum’. You’re really just searching, aren’t you?”
Tony dropped his gaze back to his workbench. He stared blankly at the screwdriver in his hand, his mind racing.
“I want to help.”
And fuck, did this man keep surprising him. He turned around fully now, spinning slowly on the balls of his feet until he did a complete one-eighty. Steve was sitting up straight in his seat, an intent look on his face.
Tony took a breath, then let go of the words he was going to say on an exhale. Instead, he simply asked, “Why?”
Confusion flickered over Steve’s face, as if it should be completely obvious why this...this apparition from the past who could barely find a reason to hang on, why he should want to help Tony hunt down the fuckers who murdered his best friend.
“Because,” he answered slowly, “if it was Bucky...if I could do anything about it...I’d...well I’d be doing just the same as you.” He waved his hand at the workshop. “Without all the bells and whistles, of course.”
Tony didn’t answer. Steve sighed and set his sketchbook to one side so he could stand up and approach the silent man. “Look Tony. I know what it’s like to have that...that rage that completely takes over until the world tunnels in and I don’t...you’ve done okay so far but I don’t want you to end up doing something that...maybe you won’t regret, but that’ll have consequences beyond what you’re thinking of in that moment.”
“You want to be my babysitter?”
“Why are you even asking when you’ve basically been doing that already? Following me around when I go out on these missions--“
“Is that why you’ve been hanging around here, instead of haunting your girlfriend or something?”
Steve’s mouth clicked shut, his next interruption dying on his lips.
“I did a little reading of my own. Margaret Carter? Or should I call her Peggy?” he sneered. “She’s still alive isn’t she?”
And Tony knew he should stop, he really did, because Steve was looking at him like he wanted to deck him and Tony just wanted...the last week with Steve had been...somehow, this thing seemed to be working. The quiet camaraderie of it, of Steve just being there as Tony played back the movie they’d chosen together earlier in the day, or the back and forth as they flipped the words of the riddle this way and that, trying to find some new angle they just hadn’t thought of yet, or even of the banter that was beginning to find a pattern between them as they grew more comfortable around each other, as the superhero was stripped away in Tony’s eyes and only a man left in its place.
But once again, his pride pushed its way in and here he was, taking one step forward and two steps back. And now Steve was going to put his superhero fist straight through Tony’s face.
But instead Steve just...deflated. It was as if someone had sucked the anger out of him with a vacuum cleaner, leaving behind just a worn-out shell.
He snorted mirthlessly, the sound ringing hollow. “You know, Tony, sometimes you remind me far too much of myself for my liking.” And Tony couldn’t even begin to process that statement. “I should have know when I said that...I shouldn’t have phrased it that way.” He swallowed. “I just...I’d like to help.”
Tony faltered. Apparently Steve wasn’t going to let him take any steps back. “I...” Steve just waited, looking at him expectantly. “Yeah, okay,” he exhaled.
Steve, well he didn’t smile exactly but something in his expression loosened and he returned to his seat on what was all too quickly becoming his couch.
“She was...she is a firecracker.” Tony froze, halfway turned back towards his boot. “Peggy, I mean. She would never stand for me just moping around her like some sad sack.” He gaze was drifting, disappearing for a moment into the past. “She tried to shoot me once,” he said fondly, “when another woman kissed me.”
“That seems like the sort of thing Pepper would do.” Tony’s eyes widened slightly at the words just running out of his mouth without his permission.
Steve smiled, focusing back on Tony. “She seems like a girl worth fighting for.”
“Yeah, well. Turns out the ladies don’t really love a man in armor. The high-tech or the emotional kind.” And fuck, there it was again. How in the hell did the captain keep dragging these thoughts out of him? “So what do you want to watch tonight?”
And whatever else, Steve knew when to take a hint, something he’d bet Steve wouldn’t say they were alike in. He picked up his pencil again and returned his gaze to his sketchpad. “How about a cartoon?”
Tony sighed. This fascination for magic was something they definitely didn’t share.
Later that night, after a brief shower to clear off the grease from the workshop, Tony walked into his living room and found Pepper waiting for him on the couch. She never came into his bedroom anymore, something she’d been more than comfortable with even before they started dating.
He glanced at the statue of Steve as he passed it, seeing how strange it must seem through Pepper’s eyes - this statue of a man he’d always seemed to have some kind of fascination with, whether it was adoration, hate, or wonder, positioned smack in the middle of his living room and aimed straight at the home entertainment system.
Well, Pepper of all people had probably seen stranger from him.
“Good evening, Ms. Potts,” he said, exceedingly politely as he took a seat on the armchair perpendicular to her. “JARVIS, queue up Beauty and the Beast please.”
“Tony...” She paused then, her tone changing from weary to confused. “Beauty and the Beast?”
“Research for a project,” Tony returned. “So what’s up?” He circled his finger in her direction. “That sounds like your ‘we need to talk’ voice.”
Pepper sighed. She looked absolutely exhausted. It occurred to Tony that she had probably looked like that for awhile and he just had never noticed.
“Some of the staff have become...concerned.” Tony frowned and leaned forward onto his elbows. “They say you’re talking to no one. There are rumors that you’ve finally gone insane.’
“To be fair, I was mostly insane to begin with.”
As always, she ignored his muttered ramblings and forged on ahead to the real point.
“And I’ve seen it too. It’s not just the talking to invisible people but...Tony, you’ve been acting differently. So I need to ask. Tony are you...” She took a deep breath. “Are you on anything?”
Tony stared at her. “Is that your way of asking if I’m on crack?”
Pepper just glared at him, clearly waiting for a real answer. He sighed. Ten years ago that would have been a completely valid question, one which Pepper would never have had the guts to ask. A year ago it wouldn’t have even crossed her mind. And now here they were, where Pepper wasn’t afraid to ask, but she did look like she was afraid of what the answer would be -- how had they got there?
“No, Pepper. I promise you I’m not on any sort of drugs. I haven’t even had a drink in a few days.”
Pepper eyebrows shot up and Tony found himself blinking in surprise along with her. He hadn’t really thought about it but he supposed it had been awhile since he’d had a drink. Steve had...the whole thing with him had just been such a distraction. And Steve seemed to know it too, always turning up when it seemed like Tony was about to trip and catching him before he could fall. And the evenings...well...falling asleep to a movie made for a hell of a lot more comfortable next morning than falling asleep with a glass in his hand.
The truth of the matter was that he was lonely. He’d cut everyone off, shut himself away. Not even Pepper had been able to pierce through the heavy fortress he’d engineered. He was, after all, a genius.
But now it had been months and most people had given up trying and he was beginning to feel the thick quiet echoing behind his stone walls. And Tony was realizing that maybe it was time to let down the drawbridge and open the gates; but Pepper had long ago retired the battering ram, the distance between them growing too far for her to do nothing more than attempt the feeble call from across the way.
And now, along had come Steve. Not knocking but setting up camp right next door, locked up tight behind his own fortress. And he’d thrown a paper cup and string between their walls and made a connection...and okay this analogy really wasn’t working anymore and he really needed to stop watching so many fantasy movies.
The point was, somehow, this thing was working. Because with him, Tony had no baggage. Tony wasn’t a damaged man, Tony wasn’t a hedonistic mess, Tony wasn’t the Merchant of Death. Tony was just...Tony. And it wasn’t fair, not to him, not to Steve, least of all, not to Pepper. But it was what it was.
“I’m grateful, you know,” Tony started quietly. Because how couldn’t he be? How could he be anything but grateful that Pepper was here in his life, whether with a battering ram or with a quiet shoulder, how could he be anything but grateful that time and time again, he would fall, and time and time again, she would pick him back up?
How could he be anything but grateful that she had the strength to do what he would never have had the guts to?
“I know this hasn’t been, god it’s been anything but easy for you. And I get it. I get why you...why you had to leave. And if I do only one thing right ever again...it will be to tell you this. To tell you that I get it, and I’m grateful, I’m so fucking grateful that you are you. That you had the...that you did the right thing. For both of us. Because god knows I never would have been able to.”
There was such a forlorn sadness in the dampness of Pepper’s eyes, and goddammit he’d sworn he was going to stop making her cry.
Pepper huffed out a watery laugh and he’d realized he’d said that last part out loud. “I do love you, you know.”
She said it like the statement it was, because of course Tony knew. But still, he smiled softly and replied, “I know.”
He stood up then and went to sit next to her on the couch. “So,” he said, letting his head rest against the back and tilting up at her, “you wanna watch Beauty and the Beast?”
Her lips curled up and god she was beautiful and she patted his knee and said, “Yes. I’d like that.”
And behind him Steve was frozen, trapped for the night in his stone cage but Tony swore he could hear him smile.
“Get your lazy ass up, I want to show you something.”
“I’m not sleeping, I’m painting,” Steve retorted, lifting his arm so Tony could see the tablet clutched in his hand over the couch.
“Well, whatever. Do your Picasso thing later, this is better.”
Steve pushed off his stomach with a groan and wandered over to Tony, who was waiting impatiently by the elevator. Tony didn’t know why he didn’t just poof there -- if he was a ghost-thing with teleportation capabilities, he’d never walk anywhere ever again. “Is Picasso the only artist you know?” Steve asked as he approached.
Tony shrugged, turning away from the elevator and leading the way down the long hall beside it. “You’re an artist. I know you.”
“That’s not what I meant. And where are we going anyway?”
Tony had debated for awhile about bringing Steve here -- it brought up memories he preferred be kept buried and there was no doubt it would also raise a bit of uncomfortable discussion between them. But something about Steve made it easier for Tony to talk about stuff he never thought he’d voice to anybody -- perhaps it was the potential transience of his existence or perhaps it was just those terrifyingly blue eyes -- and this was probably something that would be good for both of them. Probably.
They strode right past Tony’s bedroom and turned a corner at the end of the hall. Down this corridor were three doors, each unmarked. He stopped at the one in the middle and let the small machine hooked into the wall verify his identity. The door unlocked with a resonant click. Tony paused with his hand on the doorknob and turned halfway. Behind him, Steve looked like he was going to explode from curiosity.
“I thought you’d want to see this. It might be a little...I’m not sure if...” Steve raised an impatient eyebrow. “Okay, whatever, let’s just go in.” And with a deep breath, Tony turned the knob and pushed the door open.
Unlike with his first glimpse of the workshop, this time there was no audible reaction from Steve and Tony resisted the temptation to turn around and peer at his expression. Instead, he wandered over to the nearest display case and stared at the trading cards inside. He remembered when his father had brought that last one home -- it had taken him years to track down, a limited edition made rarer by the spelling of Steve’s last name as ‘Rodgers’. It had also been the night Tony had graduated from high school, an unimpressive four years ahead of schedule.
Tony shook himself. The past was the past -- except when it somehow came hurtling into the present by way of statue. He turned away from the memorabilia and scanned the room. Steve was bent over a display case in the corner, carefully hovering so that his weight didn’t press down on the glass.
Tony wandered over and glanced inside. Steve was staring down at an old photo of himself pre-serum, the edges of the picture worn and the ink fading away.
“Man, you really went from zero to hero, huh?” Tony said, peering at the pale, sickly-looking figure in the photo and glancing up at the giant mass of muscle next to him. Even translucent, Steve looked more solid than the skinny young man in the picture. “Just like that.”
Steve ran a finger over the glass, trailing it round and round in slow circles above the picture. “Why did you bring me here?” he asked softly, not looking up from the case.
“Because,” Tony started. He paused, trying to find the right words to articulate what it was he was trying to show Steve. “Because back then you were a hero. A friend, a lover, a soldier, whatever, but to most people, you were a hero. And seventy years later, you’re still a hero -- hell you were my hero and I hated you half the time.” Steve frowned but Tony plowed on; they’d manage to tiptoe around the subject of Howard Stark so far and Tony hadn’t brought Steve here to change that. “Cynical as we 21st century folk are, the idea of a man dressed in an American flag taking a whack at Hitler still gets our blood going. You gave this country something to believe in, an image so strong that it still holds power over people to this very day.”
He waved his hand around the vast room, undeterred by Steve’s seeming lack of attention. “And it’s not just the flag. It’s...it’s you, Steve. It’s your unrelenting fight to do what’s right, whether it’s taking down a supervillain or picking up a piece of litter on the sidewalk, which, stop doing that by the way, people don’t like seeing bits of trash floating into the nearest garbage can.” Steve remained unreactive, his finger still making slow, methodical circles over the surface of the case, his head still bent.
Tony kept going because he knew if he stopped, he’d never start again. And Steve needed to hear this, needed to understand how much he’d done for Tony by seemingly doing so little. “And it’s also in the way you don’t give up. I mean, when you found me, I was passed out drunk on a stone version of your shoe. I’ve shoved you away time and time again and you keep coming back. And I refuse to believe it’s just because I’m the only one who can help you with your nighttime problems, because clearly, that’s been a bit of a bust.”
Tony ran his hand through his hair, tangling it for a moment at the back of his head. “So see, here’s what’s got me confused. You don’t give up -- not on the idea of this country, not on our crazy government, not even on me. So why the hell are you giving up on yourself?”
He dropped his hand back to his side and stared quietly at the other man for a moment. “Look,” he began again with a sigh, “you don’t have to go back, I get it. But you don’t have to go forward either. You can just...stay here. You can still be the hero. And with a little time the friend, the lover, heck even the soldier if you want. With some time, you’ll be them all again.”
Steve’s fingers had stopped circling. Tony couldn’t see motion in his body aside from the heave of his shoulders as he took in slow, deep breaths. He straightened up and clapped Steve on the shoulder.
“I’ll let you look around,” he said, moving past him towards the exit. “Feel free to take things out of their case and so on. But Steve.” He paused in the doorway. “Just think about it.”
A couple of days later Tony was in the midst of debugging a lengthy piece of code -- something he did whenever he didn’t feel like exposing himself to the inevitable nicks and burns that came with hardware work -- when a deep voice made him jump.
“Okay, so how do we do this?”
Tony looked up from his screen. Steve was standing in front of him, arms crossed and a determined look on his face. Tony grinned. “I...” He faltered, his grin fading slowly. “...have no fucking clue.”
“Look, there he is. That man is so peculiar.”
“I wonder if he’s feeling well.”
Maybe taking a walk with Steve wasn’t the best idea. His stocks already took enough of a hit every time a picture appeared of him stumbling out of some bar; he didn’t need rumors circulating that he’d finally lost it once and for all. Maybe he should just wander around with a bluetooth headset permanently stuck in his ear.
“Do you think we should kiss?”
Tony choked a little on the hot dog he’d bought from the vendor around the corner. “What?” he squeaked, even as he smacked his chest to try and dislodge the bread caught in his throat.
“Well, in all those movies, whenever there’s a spell or something binding two people, they have to...I mean they...never mind.”
And Tony’s head was spinning because in all those movies, in all the fairy tales they’d read about while trying to solve the stupid statue problem, it wasn’t the kiss that broke the spell. Not really. It was the intent behind the act -- the searing proclamation of love that was as much as a G-rated movie could show.
And yeah, they’d spent almost all of the few weeks since that fateful morning in Brooklyn together, with more and more of their daylight hours spent bantering rather than bickering and their evenings spent immersed in pop culture but...
Could it be that Steve was starting to...could it be that he was starting to...no, anything that was here was probably just some kind of strange Stockholm syndrome, borne out of Steve being able to interact with only one person in the entire world. That was all.
He glanced at Steve, who was staring determinedly in the opposite direction, the tips of his ears still glowing red from his stumbling embarrassment. Nope, Tony didn’t find that cute at all, blushing was an absolutely ridiculous thing for a grown man to find cute.
He dropped the rest of his hot dog into the next trash can they passed. Suddenly, he wasn’t hungry anymore.
And just when things were starting to fall into a pattern -- a routine, some would say. Stagnation is what others would call it -- whatever this thing in his life was, just when it was starting to find its footing, it tripped over its own feet and went careening forward onto its face.
He’d woken up bright and early that morning in a great mood, ready to take on the world and get to the bottom of this stupid riddle once and for all. Tony bet that Steve was the kind of person who loved to wander the streets after dark, just enjoying the relative tranquility of a sleeping population and the dueling twinkle of stars and city lights fighting over the same night sky.
It was high time he gave Steve back his nights.
But right when he’d been finishing his second cup of coffee, his proximity alarm had gone off, giving him only a half second’s warning before something large came crashing through his big glass windows. He flew under the counter, raising his arms over his head.
“JARVIS,” he yelled. “What the hell was that?” He started crawling towards the workshop, crouching low as a second projectile broke another hole in his supposedly bulletproof glass. “And where the hell are my warnings?!”
“Working on it, sir. There seems to be some sort of interference and--“
“Don’t you use that interference excuse on me again!”
“My apologies sir, but--“
Another crash sounded and Tony ducked before he realized it was suit flying towards him. Apparently JARVIS had decided to take a shortcut.
“It’s okay, I forgive you!” Tony called gratefully as the suit wrapped around him. “But really? You couldn’t have used one of the existing holes?”
JARVIS seemed to decide that question wasn’t even worth answering.
Tony sighed in relief as the last piece clicked shut and his faceplate slid into place. “Alright, whadda we got?” he said as he observed the smoking damage that used to be his penthouse.
His question was answered when one of the projectiles unrolled itself with a crank and a whirr. Okay, so apparently someone had sent robots flying at him. Tony didn’t wait to see what it would do, he just raised his hand and sent a repulsor blast straight at its head.
“JARVIS?” he asked as he zapped the second one before it could even spring into action.
“There are multiple instances of these machines on floors 7, 12, 19, 56, and 94.”
Tony swore. It was still early enough that most offices would be sparsely populated but the ninety-fourth floor was where Pepper worked and there was no way in hell she wasn’t in already.
“How many bodies in the building?” he asked as he shot out through the broken glass.
“Eleven, including Ms. Potts.”
Tony scoured the ground, looking for the source of the robotic projectiles. His gaze alighted on what looked to be a high-tech cannon in the corner of his HUD and he started to scan it but before he could even finish his analysis, another cube shot out of it, making yet another hole in his building. “Well, I guess you’re what I’m looking for.”
He searched the area around the weapon briefly and, finding no signs of life within range, dropped down close and sent a blast at the machine, disengaging it. The cannon snapped off the base and went smashing to the ground. He fired at the base once more and flinched back as the machine exploded, sending bits of metal flying into the air.
“Sir, the other automatons are engaging.”
Tony swung around and shot back towards the tower. He’d start at the bottom and work his way up and hopefully Pepper would be...no she’d be fine, he’d get to her, he just had to get these other people out first.
Oh thank fucking god. Steve had shown up, back from where ever it was he disappeared to for half the day.
Tony landed just inside the broken walls of the seventh floor and zapped the one robot there while his suit confirmed that there were no living things currently on this floor. He could hear gunfire and screams now, from up ahead.
He flipped his faceplate up quickly and turned to Steve. “Can you take the ones on the twelfth and nineteenth floor? I’ll take the others.”
Waiting just long enough to see Steve nod, Tony darted off toward the fifty-sixth floor.
The gunfire was louder here. He locked onto his target and flew straight into it, cutting off its machine gun fire as he smashed it against the wall. The right side of his screen flashed red and Tony turned.
There was another robot poised over a man on the floor. The man was lying propped on his elbows, staring terrified up at the armed machine taking its aim at him from above. Tony raised an arm and blasted the machine, sending it skittering sideways into the shelves beyond. He scrambled over to his employee. Other than a little dirt and some tears in his suit, he seemed fine.
Tony whirled around and scanned the rest of the room. There were two bodies lying a small distance away but thankfully with no sign of blood beneath them. His small numbers on his screen told him that their vitals were stable -- they must have just been knocked unconscious by the initial impact.
“Sir, there was a fourth heat signature on this floor.”
“Fourth?” A dot lit up in the corner of his HUD. He followed it, flying towards a pile of rubble. He ran his eyes over the mess quickly and his breath caught when he spotted a hand sticking out from under the broken chunks of concrete. It wasn’t moving.
He swallowed back the bile in his throat. Now was not the time for this, he still had to get to Pepper. He hoped to god that the other six were all right, that Steve would get to them in time.
There was no screaming on the ninety-fourth floor and Tony was afraid to take that as a good sign. It was far too quiet. He landed just inside the broken window, his body on high alert as he scanned the floor. Thankfully, the machine hadn’t come through Pepper’s office and hopefully she’d taken her chance to make a quick getaway.
Nope. His HUD picked her up, crouching on one side of what he thought was the copy room. His heart clenched.
He flew out into the main corridor. Whatever interference that hadn’t allowed JARVIS to warn him of the first attack seemed to have kicked in again and he had no idea where, or how many, of these machines were hanging around.
“Pepper?” he called.
“Tony?” she screamed back. And thank god. His suit had told him she was alive but he needed to hear her voice to believe it for sure.
“Pep, I’m here, it’s going to be okay, I promise. Just stay where you are, okay?”
“I don’t...I don’t really have a choice.”
That didn’t sound good. He jetted off towards her door but was shot off-course right as he was about to burst through it. “Motherfucker!”
He rolled to his feet and blasted the offending robot with both hands. “Take that, you fucker.”
Another two appeared from the adjoining corridor, firing their entire artillery at him. He went flying back against the wall and crashed to the ground. “I’m getting real tired of you assholes,” he snarled.
A panel slid open on each shoulder of his armor as he locked on the two machines. Two little missiles popped up, one from each side, and decimated the two robots.
He paused for a moment in the rubble, waiting for hints of more incoming. When nothing seemed to appear, he turned back to the copy room and flew straight through the door.
“Pep?” he called as the dust settled.
“Tony?” she sobbed.
Tony hurried towards her voice and rounded the mess that used to be a copy machine.
“Oh, Pepper,” he exhaled in a shaky voice.
She was pinned beneath the remnants of the far wall of the room, a victim of one of the machines’ aimless blasts. A huge chunk of the wall trapped her left arm in place and there was a streak of blood on her forehead.
He clanked towards her, swallowing down his worry. “Hey, you’re going to be fine. Everything is going to be okay.” She nodded shakily, her eyes closing.
“Pepper?” he called, his volume rising in the word. “Pepper, stay with me,” he said anxiously as he pulled the stone off her. She was going to be fine. He’d promised her, and he’d broken his word to her far too many times before. He wasn’t going to do it again.
“Pepper?” He raised his faceplate and leaned down close to her pale face.
Her eyes fluttered open. “I’m fine. I just hit my head.” To his horror, she tried to stand up and he hurriedly placed his hands on her shoulders to hold her in place.
“Don’t move. I don’t know what injuries you have but your arm is definitely broken.”
She rolled her head to the side and peered at her left arm, which while not visibly broken, was swelling fast and starting to purple. “Oh you’re right. I hadn’t even noticed.”
“JARVIS?” Tony said, his voice high.
“She appears to be concussed, sir. There is a medic team on their way but the elevators are out of commission.”
“Okay. Pepper? Pep, can you look at me?”
“Hmm?” she said, turning her head back up.
“I’m going to carry you down to the street, alright? It’s probably going to hurt a little but we’re not going to sit here and wait for the paramedics to climb ninety-four flights of stairs.”
“Okay,” she murmured, her eyes falling shut again.
“Nope, Pep, you gotta stay awake okay? For me? Please?”
She groaned but forced her eyes open again. “You and your demands,” she muttered.
He laughed wetly as he hooked one arm under her around her back and another under her legs, trying to shift her position as little as possible. He flew her quickly out the building and down to street level, where emergency personnel had already gathered. “I need a medic!” he yelled as soon as he landed.
Two paramedics hurried over to him and he carefully placed her down on the bed they wheeled up. As soon as he stepped back, they loaded her up into the nearby ambulance and slammed the doors shut.
He prepared to follow as they screeched off but a call of his name stopped in him his tracks.
“Are you alright?”
He whirled around. Steve was standing behind him, worry creasing his face.
Tony realized with a jolt that he’d completely forgotten about everything else, about the other lives he was responsible for, about the person or thing that did this. “Did you--“
Steve nodded sharply. “All taken care of. No casualties,” he stated. “Just some minor injuries and some terribly confused people. Grateful, yes, but very confused.”
Tony slumped in relief. “I have to go. Pepper...I have to go.”
Steve’s eyes widened. “Is she...?”
Tony shook his head. “I think she’ll be okay but I...”
Tony snapped his head around, noticing Steve disappear out of the corner of his eye. Agent Coulson was approaching him, dressed impeccably as always in one of his suits. Tony fought down the sudden urge to smack the sunglasses off his face.
“Nice of you guys to show up,” Tony snarled instead.
“We need to debrief you.”
Tony rolled his eyes so hard he felt like they were going to fall out of his head. He yanked his helmet off and leveled a glare at the other man.
“And I need to go to the hospital. Besides, this has nothing to do with SHIELD. It was an attack on my personal property, on my people.”
“We understand that but we have been tracking Victor Von Doom’s movements for some time now and--“
“I’m sorry, what?”
“The robots. They’re Doom’s prototypes. We believe he was just using the attack on your tower as a testing ground.”
“And who the hell is he?”
“We’ll share with you all relevant information in due time but for now I need you to--“
Tony shrugged off the hand Coulson had wrapped around his armored arm. “No. My tower is in ruins. One of my employees is dead. My-- Pepper is on her way to the hospital. So no, there is no ‘in due time’, you will hand over all of your information right now. Or else I’ll just go in and get it anyway and that will be a hell of a lot less fun for everyone.”
Coulson’s eyes tightened briefly but then he nodded briskly. “Alright. I was...unaware that Ms. Potts had been injured. You should go to the hospital. We’ll take of things here and check in with you at a later time.”
Tony blinked in surprise but decided to just go with it. He slipped his helmet back on and took a step back.
“And Stark.” Tony hesitated. Coulson’s expression was completely unreadable. Perhaps that was why he always wore those stupid sunglasses. “Give her my best.”
Tony nodded and took off.
The flight to the hospital was a blur. He must have collapsed his suit at one point because the next thing he knew, he was sitting in his slacks, his undershirt sticking to his back and the pieces of his armor scattered around his feet.
They’d led him to an empty room to wait since a crowd had started to gather as soon as he landed. He’d peered out the window once and a member of the press had spotted him. The yelling and camera flashes had started instantly and he’d avoided that side of the room since.
Steve showed up after a little while. He didn’t say a word, just took a seat on the bed beside him. Despite his current translucent state, there was something so utterly solid about the man’s presence and Tony was more grateful for it than he could ever say.
He knew he should be handling things. He had at least one dead employee and now knew exactly who was responsible. The hospital would call him when there was news -- he should be out there, dealing with the aftermath. Not giving Pepper even more to deal with when she woke up.
He couldn’t bring himself to leave.
After a couple of hours of silent waiting, there was a knock on the door. Tony hopped anxiously to his feet as the door opened.
He grunted in response, looking impatiently at the doctor.
“She’s going to be just fine.” Behind him, he heard Steve release a huge, gusty sigh of relief. “She had a mild concussion and a fracture in her left arm. We’ve set her arm and given her some medication for pain management.” Tony hadn’t realize how tight each and every muscle in his body had been until they all untensed at once. “She was very lucky. The damage to her head could have been much worse.”
He swallowed. “Can I see her?”
The doctor nodded. He followed her out, making sure the armor was locked in the room behind him.
“We’d like to keep her under observation for a few hours,” she said as they walked down the hall towards Pepper’s room, Steve trailing close behind.
Tony just nodded in reply. They pulled up to a stop outside a closed door. “You can go on in.”
Tony murmured his thanks as he tapped on the door with one hand, turning the knob with the other. “Hey,” he said softly as he entered.
Pepper was sitting up against the pillows, a small smile on her face at the sight of Tony. She looked a good deal better now -- the blood had been cleaned off her face to reveal just a small gash and the color had returned to her cheeks. “Hey,” she answered, the word just as quiet.
He collapsed into the chair beside her bed and poked at the cast around her arm. “This looks uncomfortable.”
She lifted her head off the pillows slightly and let it fall so she was facing him, her cheek pressed to the scratchy white cloth. “Don’t get any ideas.”
“I wasn’t going to--“
“I am not going to wear a titanium alloy cast. Or whatever else it is you dream up.”
Tony threw up his hands. “Fine, fine. But when you start losing forks down there from trying to scratch it, don’t come crying to me.”
“I’ll do my best,” she said wryly.
Tony peered at her. “You seem very...coherent. I thought you were on meds.”
“They prescribed me some Vicodin but I haven't taken it. I’m going to need all my facilities about me to deal with this mess.”
Tony frowned. “Hey, no, no dealing with messes. You just lie back and float away on a cloud of prescription drugs. I’ll handle everything.”
“Tony, I don’t think--“
“Ah ah ah. You gave me back CEO. No more saying do this, be there, stop that. Now you have to do what I say.”
Pepper rolled her eyes. “And when was the last time I did what you said?”
Tony opened his mouth with an answer, then faltered. “Hmm. You need to work on that. And no time like the present, eh?”
“Is that how you’re going to deal with the reporters? Just by talking over them?”
“Hey, it works.” Pepper looked skeptical. “Whatever, I’ll figure it out. You just need to rest, at least for one day. Otherwise I’m firing you.”
Pepper snorted. “Yeah, right.” She sighed. “Can you at least tell me...was anyone else hurt?”
Tony licked his lips, his stomach plummeting. He’d been hoping she wouldn’t ask that. The image of those fingers sticking out from under that rubble was one he’d never forget. He hadn’t even bothered to find out who it was...just flown over here and--
“Tony?” Pepper prodded, her voice dropped low.
“There was...one casualty. Someone on the fifty-sixth floor.” He swallowed as Pepper’s eyes filled with tears, her uninjured hand coming up to cover her mouth. “I think everyone else was fine.” But he didn’t know for sure, hadn’t checked for himself.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and glanced up. Steve was standing right behind him, a reassuring look on his face.
“Tony?” Pepper repeated, a tremble in her voice.
Maybe this wasn’t the right time for this but then again, there would never be a right time to tell your ex-fiancee that Captain America had appeared from the past and only you could see him. Oh and also it was possible you were falling for him and it was equally possible that he didn’t even exist.
He took a deep breath. “Pepper...I need to tell you something. It’s not about the attack,” he added hurriedly. “But it’s...I don’t know if I should...” Steve’s hand tightened around his shoulder as Pepper’s expression turned curious. He sighed. “Okay, here goes. You know how you said I’ve been talking to invisible people and thought I was on drugs?” Pepper nodded nervously. “I wasn’t lying; I’m not on drugs. But I have been talking to invisible people. Well, one invisible person.”
He quickly explained how he’d woken up in the park to the sight of Captain America staring down at him, the rules of the statue, and the letters they’d found, trying hard not to notice the way Pepper’s expression was growing more and more concerned.
“And...he’s here now,” he finished. “Standing right beside me.”
Pepper’s eyes flitted over the air around Tony before flickering back to his face. “Tony...”
“You don’t believe me, do you?” he said, the words not really a question. “I didn’t expect you to. Hell, I still don’t know if I believe it.”
“Maybe we should...” she trailed off, her eyes widening at something over Tony’s shoulder.
Tony whirled around, reflexively raising his unarmored arm. Instead, he found Steve holding up the plant from the corner of the room. “What are you doing?” he snapped as he dropped his hand back to his lap, his heart still racing. He was getting too old for this.
“Trying to help,” Steve retorted.
Steve nodded his head at Pepper and Tony turned back around. She was staring at the plant, her mouth hanging open.
She snapped it shut when and shot a glare at Tony. “Okay Tony, very funny, but now is not the time for one of your stupid pranks. I don’t know what tech you’ve got in here for this trick but I suggest you take it out before it interferes with the machines and kills someone.”
“It’s not a trick Pep. I told you, I’m the only one who can see him, even though he can still physically interact with the world. And it doesn’t make any sense, trust me, I know...I mean, you think even magic would have some logic to it but that stupid letter--“
“Tony,” Steve intoned.
“Right, right.” Pepper was still looking at him like he’d finally snapped. And that wasn’t fair at all, he’d definitely given her way more reason to give him that look in the past. He was sure floating plants didn’t even rank up there. “I don’t really know how else to prove this to you.”
“Tony, this is--“ She stopped talking suddenly, a strange expression taking over her face. Tony turned around again to see what the hell Steve had tried this time but the other man was nowhere to be found.
“Steve?” he called, brow creased.
“In here.” Tony’s eyes grew large. He turned slowly back towards Pepper. “Sorry, I didn’t know what else to do.” Well, fuck. Pepper’s lips were moving but it was Steve’s smooth baritone that was coming rumbling out.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“She’s fine, she’s still in here.” He paused. “She definitely believes you now.”
“What? Oh my god, get out of there!”
Steve obliged and just like that he was visible again, standing across from Tony with Pepper’s bed between them.
“Pepper?” Tony said nervously, leaning over her.
Pepper blinked once, twice, before zeroing in on Tony. “Please tell Captain America never to do that again.”
Tony collapsed back into his chair in relief. He glared up at Steve.
“What the hell was that?”
Steve looked annoyingly unapologetic. “She’d have believed you eventually anyway. I was just saving us time.”
“You...she...I didn’t even know you could do that!”
He shrugged. “Yeah, I sort of discovered it on the first day. That’s how I managed to get all my info on you so quick -- I just hopped into an old person and walked into the nearest library. They must have thought I was senile when I kept asking all those strange questions.”
“Tony?” Tony swallowed whatever he was going to bite back at Steve and looked down at Pepper. “Stop arguing with Captain America.”
Tony gaped at her. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say about it.”
“I learned very quickly that when it comes to you, anything can happen. It’s easier just to roll with the punches.” Steve smirked at him and Tony sighed. “I have to say, I’m more than a little relieved that you haven’t actually gone insane. Now, if you’re not going to let me work for the next few hours, you’re going to have to entertain me.”
Steve glanced at Tony. “I’ll go check on things at the tower,” he murmured.
Tony nodded gratefully and as Steve disappeared, settled in to tell Pepper the full story of how he befriended the ghost of his childhood hero.
When Steve returned hours later, Pepper had dozed off and Tony was close to following suit.
He sat up, lifting his head off the edge of Pepper’s mattress, and rubbed blearily at his eyes. “What’s the situation?” he mumbled.
“Authorities have cordoned off the entire area. They’re still finishing the cleanup but it seems there weren’t any other fatalities, not even on the ground. Whoever this Doom guy is, he chose a strange hour to strike.”
“Coulson said something about it just being a test for a prototype.”
“I guess that makes sense.” Tony looked questioningly at him. “Well, if he can get past your defenses, I’m sure he can get past anything. It’s like...the ultimate test for his machines.”
Tony hadn’t thought of it that way. He sure as hell didn’t like the idea that having the best security around also made him the biggest target. This Doom guy needed to be taken down, fast and hard. Not to mention he needed to come up with a less cheesy name.
“How’s she doing?” Steve murmured, nodding towards Pepper.
“She’s fine. Perk of staying in the hospital is that she’s allowed to actually fall asleep on her concussion, so as long as there are doctors around to keep an eye on her. I’ve had to do the whole staying awake thing, it’s not fun.”
“You? Not wanting to stay awake? You really must have been concussed.”
“Har-di-har. JARVIS frowns upon me tinkering when I’ve got a concussion so things get a little drab.”
Steve snorted. He stepped closer to the bed and leaned over Pepper to peer at the gash on her forehead.
Tony had been so caught up in unveiling his saga to Pepper that he hadn’t noticed the room had been steadily darkening around them. It was only now, when the glow of his arc reactor began to visibly color Pepper’s skin that he realized the sun had disappeared and he should probably turn on the light.
He stood up with a yawn and flipped the switch, pausing by the wall for a good stretch. Then froze.
“Hmm?” Steve responded, not looking up from the cast he was gently prodding at.
“Steve,” Tony repeated, his voice urgent.
Steve looked up, a question in his eyes.
Steve just stared at him blankly for a moment. Then suddenly it dawned on him, his expression twisting and turning through a million different reactions before it settled on pure confusion. He stuck his arms out and flipped his hands back and forth, just like he had on the day they first met all those weeks ago.
Tony frowned at Steve’s still-translucent body. Nothing seemed to have changed, so why was he still here and not back at the tower?
“Was there anything about this in the letter?”
Steve shook his head slowly, patting at his pockets. “I don’t think so...” He pulled the worn parchment from his back pocket and Tony stepped over to his side to read it over his shoulder. “Do you think this means the ‘echoes crumbled the stone’?” Steve asked.
“Maybe...” Tony trailed the word out as his mind worked through this new development. Sudden comprehension crashed into his churning thoughts, leaving behind a trainwreck of frantic realization. “No. Not the echoes...the robots.”
“The attack...when the robots came flying through the window...one of them must have hit the statue and broken it. That’s probably why you’re still here -- your spirit or whatever doesn’t have anywhere to go anymore.”
“So what does that mean? I’m stuck like this?”
“I’m not sure...Maybe we should go back to the tower...”
“What about Pepper?”
“I don’t know...” Tony ran a hand through his hair. “I can’t just leave her here alone but...”
“Tony.” Tony and Steve turned as one back to the bed. Pepper’s eyes were open, her expression as alert as ever. “What’s going on?”
Tony bit his lip. “It’s nothing Pepper, you should go back to sleep.”
He glanced up at Steve, who just shrugged. Pepper looked at him expectantly and Tony sighed.
He quickly brought her up to speed and at the end of it, Pepper stuck out her hand. “Let me see the letter.”
“It’s in Steve’s hands but I guess you can’t see it?”
Pepper shook her head. Steve held it out to Tony. “Try taking it, maybe it’ll materialize or something.”
Tony gingerly took the parchment from Steve’s hand and Pepper gasped. “Guess it worked.”
He held the parchment out to Pepper, who stared at it for a moment in wonder before taking it.
The room was silent except for the anxious tap tap tap of Tony’s shoe on the floor. After awhile, Steve gently stepped on his foot and held it in place. Tony glared at him, which, of course, Steve paid no attention to. The rustle of Pepper flipping the parchment over drew both of their attention.
“There’s nothing on the back,” Tony told her.
Pepper just frowned, peering closely at the bottom of the back of the letter. After a couple of seconds, she looked exasperatedly up at Tony. “As usual, you missed the fine print.”
“I...what?” He snatched the paper out of Pepper’s hand. Steve tsked at him but Tony ignored it in favor of examining the letter. Sure enough, there were two small lines of text at the bottom. They were minuscule, really, and while they were written in the same flowing black ink, these words were much messier, as if they had hastened to appear there with no regard for something as trivial as legibility. “There was no way this was there before. I would have noticed.”
“What does it say?” Steve asked.
“It says...” He scanned over the text, his heart dropping as he took in the words in for the first time. “You were right.” He looked up at Steve, who was watching him with anxious eyes. Tony swallowed hard to make room for the words to come out. “It says you’re stuck like this.”
Steve gaped at him. Tony stared back, wordless. For once in his life, Tony was a complete and utter loss. This wasn’t something he could blast with a repulsor or throw an algorithm at. This was magic and...and this was it.
Tony jumped. He’d forgotten Pepper was even in the room. She was sitting up against the pillows now and glaring at Tony, and would presumably be glaring at Steve too if she could see him. “That’s ridiculous. You two are going to go to the tower and you’re going to fix this. Between a genius and the world’s best tactician, I’m sure you can figure it out. Hire a sculptor to make a new statue if you have to, but you’re going to fix this. ”
Tony raised an eyebrow at Steve. He lifted one shoulder and dropped it again, his expression saying he was game if Tony was. Tony took a deep breath.
“Okay. Yeah, she’s right. Steve, you head over to the tower and start checking out the penthouse. I’m going to grab my armor and meet you there.”
“Got it,” Steve replied. Determination had taken over his face, drowning out the fear that Tony had seen there seconds earlier.
Tony stared at the space he left behind for a moment, then returned his attention to Pepper. “I’ll call Happy, he’ll come sit with you,” he said, pulling out his phone. “But if anything happens, if you need anything, call me alright?”
“I’ll be fine. Just go.”
He hesitated for a beat, then nodded and moved towards the exit.
“Tony.” Tony paused halfway out the door, catching his hand on the doorframe. He popped his head back into the room and raised his eyebrows. “You keep on denying who you are and how you’re feeling. Face it like a grown-up.” She arched an eyebrow at him, the simple facial tic marking the expression he saw most often from Pepper. “When are you going to own up that you have it bad?”
He grimaced. It was too cliché, he wasn’t going to say it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” At least, not out loud.
Pepper rolled her eyes. “Get out of here you idiot.”
The first responders had disappeared, though they’d blocked off the area around the tower. That didn’t stop the crowd of journalists and occasional curious pedestrian from pausing just outside the yellow tape and staring up at the wreckage.
It was strange to see most of the building in darkness. When he’d built the tower to be powered by his arc reactor, he’d made a point to always leave the sign on the top glowing, a ‘Stark’ reminder to the city of the extensive capabilities of his technology. But now it appeared that every light had been switched off, save a small glow that seemed to be coming from the penthouse.
He flew straight through the hole at the top, ignoring the clicks and flashes of the cameras beneath. This was still his home -- he had every right to be here if he wanted. Probably.
The glow turned out to be coming from a lamp in the living room. Apparently there was still power; someone had simply decided to turn off all the lights.
“JARVIS?” he tried as he landed, spotting Steve crouched over something in the corner of the room. “Buddy, you there?”
“Always, sir,” JARVIS replied, familiar British tones reassuring.
“Glad to hear it,” he responded as he walked towards Steve, the suit falling off in pieces with each step. Steve hadn’t reacted to hearing his arrival. “What’s going on with the lights?”
“Emergency shutdown of the arc reactor to be implemented in case of an attack, sir. The tower is running purely on the backup generators right now.” Tony frowned, pausing behind Steve. He didn’t remember programming that in. “I believe you were rather intoxicated during the implementation of this protocol.” Ah.
“Alright, well I think we’re in the clear for now. Can we get full lights please?”
“As you wish.”
Tony squinted down at Steve through the sudden light. The other man was on his knees, a broken piece of stone in each hand. Tony peered closer and saw that it appeared to be pieces of the statue’s shield.
Steve blinked up at him. “I guess you were right. The statue’s broken.”
“Oh no no no no no!”
The pieces of stone clattered to the floor as Steve jumped up, stepping in front of Tony and crowding him against the wall.
“Who’s there?” Steve called to the empty room.
Tony huffed, trying to peer around Steve’s significant bulk. He shoved ineffectively at the bigger man’s shoulder.
“What the hell?” Steve exclaimed.
Tony poked Steve’s side. “Steve, will you fucking move so I can see what you’re yelling at?”
Steve stepped to the side slightly, still keeping his body firmly between Tony and the rest of the room. Tony started to roll his eyes, but froze midway when he caught sight of what Steve was gaping at.
There was some sort of figure slowly taking shape in the air in front of them, wispy clouds revolving and reshaping around lines that were seemingly forming out of thin air.
Tony poked Steve again, this time in the back, and Steve crept forward cautiously, taking two steps closer to the strange phenomenon occurring in the middle of the room.
Tony followed close behind and was about to poke him again when the clouds suddenly disappeared, leaving behind a...young girl?
She couldn’t have been more than fourteen years old, though the gown she wore looked significantly more ancient. It was faded white and hung down to her ankles but the material more closely resembled the wispy clouds from before than any cotton Tony had ever seen.
The girl herself looked incredibly panicked. She was shaking her head frantically back and forth, hands tangled in her long dark hair. “This wasn’t supposed to happen!”
Tony stepped out from behind Steve, who was gaping at the distressed girl in astonishment. “Hello?” Tony called, edging closer.
The girl’s head snapped up. She dashed a hand quickly across her eyes -- Tony hadn’t even realized she was crying -- and dropped both hands back to her side. After a deep breath, she took a small step forward, her back ramrod straight. “Gree-greetings,” she said shakily. She cleared her throat and when she spoke again, her voice was pitched low. “I am Eramene.”
“Greetings?” Tony replied.
“Who are you?” Steve asked firmly.
She shrank a little at Steve’s Captain America voice, then shook herself. “I am Eramene,” she repeated. “Goddess of Fate.” Steve and Tony exchanged a glance. “I am here to--“
“Are you the one who wrote this stupid letter?” Steve said suddenly, waving said letter in her direction.
“It’s not stupid!” she protested, then clapped a hand over her mouth. “I-I mean...” She cleared her throat again. “It is not stupid,” she intoned, that strange forced deepness back in her voice. “It is a missive from above that mere mortals like yourselves may not--“
“Nope, it’s pretty stupid,” Tony cut in. “I mean, what exactly is the point of trapping someone in a statue of himself anyway? And then not even knocking him out for it?” He swiftly closed the space between them and glared down at her. “That’s a pretty cruel thing to do to a person who’d just sacrificed himself for the greater good.”
“The divine purpose of the quest is for...wait,” she interrupted herself. “What do you mean?” She leaned around Tony’s shoulder to look at Steve. “You were conscious when you were in the statue?”
“You didn’t know that?” Tony exclaimed. “I thought you were the one who put him in there!” Up close, he could see the tear tracks still fresh on her cheeks.
“I didn’t know!” she cried. “I was just trying...I didn’t think--”
“Yeah, clearly you didn’t think. I mean, what kind of idiot just--“
“Tony, stop terrorizing her,” Steve chastised. “She’s just a kid.”
Tony whirled around. Steve was staring expressionlessly at them, arms crossed. “Are you kidding me? She claims to be a goddess, I’m sure she can handle a little yelling.”
“I’m sorry!” she wailed. “You were so sad and I...I just wanted to help!”
“You want to help?” he hissed. “Then fix this.” He gestured at the pieces of Steve’s broken shield in the corner of the room. “Clean up your goddamn mess.”
Steve closed his mouth, cutting off what was probably going to be a lecture on the inappropriateness of swearing in front of young girls. He turned his head instead, his gaze settling solely on the girl. “What do you mean you can’t?” he said slowly, the words coming out like he had to fight a battle for each one.
She trembled and wrapped her arms around her middle. “I don’t...I don’t know how,” she said miserably. “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“God, you are fucking amazing at this, aren’t you?” Tony snapped. “What was supposed to happen then?”
“It was like the letter said...you were supposed to see the similarities in each of your situations and then come together by the...it was supposed to...”
“How the hell were we supposed to any of that from...” Tony snatched the parchment from Steve’s fingers. “‘Only once you can look into the mirror and see beyond your reflection will the echoes crumble the stone’?”
“It was supposed to be poetic, like in the movies...” she said, her voice growing smaller with each word.
“What did you just say?” Steve asked incredulously. She clamped her mouth shut, stricken.
“Oh my god.” Tony smacked his head. “You...what...you watched a bunch of Disney movies and decided you’d try your hand at it yourself?” She bit at her thumbnail, head bowed. “Oh my fucking god.”
“I just wanted to help! The others were just going to put you in life-or-death situation or something. That’s if they could even stop arguing long enough to agree on an idea...”
Tony opened his mouth. Then shut it again.
“What do you mean, the others?” Steve asked curiously.
She looked up at them, then heaved a long-suffering sigh. “The Circle. Made up of every fate-controlling deity man has ever called into existence.”
“Called into existence?” Steve echoed.
“Yeah, you know, like the Ancient Egyptians and Hemsut, the Baltics and Dalia, the Hindus and Mahakala...whenever you guys come up with another one of us to pray to, we pop into existence.”
“So who dreamed you up?” Tony asked scornfully.
Eramene flinched. “I...I don’t know.” She rubbed at her upper arms. “I just...appeared one day. And I...I might have lied. I’m not really a Goddess of Fate.”
“No kidding,” Tony muttered.
“What are you then?” Tony didn’t understand how Steve still sounded so calm.
She bit her lip. “I dunno...More of a Lowly Assistant of Fate, I guess.” She stared down at the ground again.
“I don’t believe that.”
She looked up, brow creased. “What?”
“You managed to bring me here, didn’t you? Seventy years into the future? That’s some pretty powerful magic for a lowly assistant.”
She winced. “I didn’t...I wasn’t really the one who did that. All I did was use Hemsut’s Bowl of Stories to find you a suitable partner.” Tony’s eyes widened at that last word. “One who had as much to gain from the redirection as you. The rest was all my friend Uravo.”
“Is that another one of the Goddesses?” Steve asked.
Eramene shook her head. “No, she’s a Watcher. They’re a species of your universe, meant only to observe and document.”
“So can’t she just come here and fix this?” Tony questioned.
“I...I’m not sure. She wasn’t even supposed to do what she did before...” Eramene answered, wringing her hands and staring at the floor.
Steve stepped forward and took each of Eramene’s hands in his own, gently stopping her fidgeting. “You said your name was Eramene, right?” The girl nodded jerkily. “Okay, Eramene. Listen to me. I know you can fix this. There’s a reason you came to be, a reason you are the one who is here instead of one of the others. Isn’t that what your entire existence is based upon? The idea of destiny?”
She brought her head up slowly and swallowed hard. “I...I guess,” she mumbled.
“Okay, so...this is your fate. To fix this.”
Tony just barely caught a glimpse of the sudden determination overtaking her face before a blinding light filled the penthouse.
It disappeared a moment later, revealing two new women standing behind Eramene. Their gowns were woven of a material similar to the younger girl’s but where hers was an uninspiring hospital white, theirs glowed gold, appearing to provide a light all their own. The blonde one wore glittering bangles on both her arms while the other, the taller of the two, had a wreath of silver-tipped leaves resting atop her dark hair.
“ERAMENE.” The word was seemingly spoken at a normal volume, but somehow it rumbled through Tony, filling his entire brain like it was blasting through earphones plugged into his head.
Eramene gulped, then spun slowly on the balls of her feet. She tilted her head back at the two women glaring down at her. “Hi guys,” she said, the words shaky.
“JUST WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?” the blonde spoke again, punctuating her words with the jangle from her bangles as she gestured wildly.
“I was...trying to help?” she said meekly.
“TRYING TO HELP? TRYING TO HELP?! HEMSUT IS UP IN ARMS OVER HER BOWL. SHE CLAIMS IT HAS BEEN IRREPARABLY CONTAMINATED.”
Eramene, much to Tony’s surprise, scoffed. “I didn’t do anything to her precious Bowl,” she muttered.
The blonde plowed on, ignoring the interruption. “FURTHERMORE, YOU HAVE DISRUPTED THE RIVER OF TIME AND REVEALED OUR EXISTENCE TO LOWER BEINGS.”
“Hey!” Tony snapped in offense. Predictably, the three women ignored him.
“I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT IT IS YOU WERE THOUGHT YOU WOULD ACCOMPLISH, YOUNG LADY,” she demanded, wagging her finger.
“Young lady?” Eramene protested. “I’m almost as old as you are!” She rubbed at her temples. “And can we drop the special-effects voice please? You’re giving me a headache.”
“EXCUSE ME? I DO NOT APPRECIATE YOUR BACKTALK--“
The taller one unfolded her arms and nudged the blonde with her elbow. “She’s right, Nortia. Enough with the voice already. Why are you always so dramatic, for Dalia’s sake?”
Nortia drew herself up. “I’M DRAMATIC? YOU JUST USED YOUR OWN NAME AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR GOD!”
“And I suppose you would have preferred me to say ‘for Nortia’s sake’?”
“WHY YES. IT JUST ROLLS OFF THE TONGUE SO MUCH BETTER.”
Dalia rolled her eyes. “You are so pathetically narcissistic. I can’t believe--“
“See what I mean?” Eramene muttered to Steve and Tony, sliding away from the bickering goddesses and their increasingly wild gestures.
“Are they arguing about who’s gown is older?” Tony asked incredulously.
Eramene snorted. “That’s not even close to the dumbest thing they’ve fought about.”
The women froze. Apparently the Captain America voice worked on divine beings too.
They dropped their hands and swiveled simultaneously towards him.
“Look, I’m sure you both have better places to be, so if you could just do your magic thing and help us fix this--” He gestured at his body. “--that would be great.”
The women exchanged glances.
“I’M SORR--“ Dalia cleared her throat and Nortia rolled her eyes. “I’m sorry Captain,” Nortia began again, this time in a normal voice. “But we cannot just ‘fix this’. This is not exactly a normal situation.” She shot a glare at Eramene, who winced. “It ceased to be a normal situation once Eramene here got her little sleepover buddy involved.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “Sleepover buddy?”
Eramene shrugged. “Who do you think introduced me to your movies?”
Tony just blinked. He had no idea when his life had become a bad episode of Charmed (who was he kidding, they were all bad episodes).
“So that’s it?” Steve asked. And for the first time since the sun had set, Tony heard a tremble in his voice. “I’m stuck like this forever? In this...this weird limbo where only Tony can see me? What am I supposed to do, wander around throwing things at people to creep them out? Find a part-time job at a haunted house?” He was shouting now, his face glowing apple-red.
The two elder women just stared mournfully back at Steve.
And then all of a sudden Steve sagged, his righteous anger completely drained. He just shut his eyes and inhaled deeply.
Tony clenched his teeth. “That can’t be it,” he growled. “There has to be something we can do.”
The answer was a resounding silence.
“Wait.” Every head swiveled as one to Eramene. “Let me see that letter.”
The heads swiveled to Tony. He raised an eyebrow.
“Oh, right.” He’d forgotten he still had that damn parchment in his hand. Eramene snatched it from his outstretched hand and flipped it over to the back.
“Who’s writing is this?” Eramene asked, glancing up at Nortia and Dalia.
Dalia shuffled over to Eramene’s side and peered over her shoulder at the messy fine print. “Has to be Hemsut’s. She’s not used to writing without pictures.”
Eramene huffed. “Is this just her way of paying me back for using her Bowl?”
Dalia scowled at Eramene. “Don’t be ridiculous. You know she is charged with assuring the continued existence of this timeline. This was likely her attempt to nullify your foolish behavior.”
“Okay, okay, just checking, sheesh.” Eramene glanced down at the text again, then looked up at the room at large. “I think I know what to do.” She turned to Dalia and Nortia. “Uravo can do a reset.”
Nortia frowned. “With both of them?”
“It will have to be at their confluence,” Dalia said thoughtfully, tapping her chin with one finger. “But you’re right, that might work. As long as they have fulfilled your original clause, of course.”
Tony and Steve exchanged a confused glance. “Uh, can one of you explain what the hell you’re talking about?” Tony said.
Eramene looked at them in growing excitement. “Uravo, if I can get her to agree, she can take things back to when you first met. And if you’ve managed to fulfill the terms of my original contract, you, Captain Rogers, should appear in your actual body this time. Just like if you were frozen when your plane crashed and woke up seventy years later.”
“I don’t like the word ‘should’,” Tony said.
“Well, of course, there are no guarantees--“
“What about our memories?” Steve interjected.
Eramene clamped her mouth shut. She glanced up at the other two women, unsure.
Their expressions answered the question well before either one of them spoke. “I’m afraid with what Eramene is suggesting...a complete rewind like that...everything gets reset,” Dalia explained. “Including your memory of everything that has happened since the point of contact.”
“So we’d be back to square one?” Steve asked. “All the progress Tony’s made...everything will be gone?”
Back to passing out in parks, then crawling to the nearest bar and doing it all again. Back to sleepless nights spent thinking endlessly of blurry men and an explosion of blood. Back to the cavernous echo of his lonely fortress, launching cannonballs at anyone who dared approach.
But he’d told Steve he’d find a way for him to stay. He’d crawled out of the hole once. Even if it was him and Steve together, pushing each other up and grabbing hold of wrists when the walls seemed too slippery, he’d made it out. He could do it again.
Besides, he’d only just convinced Steve that his life was worth fighting for. He wasn’t going to take it away from him now.
“It doesn’t matter.”
He fought down the voice that was yelling that he was about to lose Steve for good -- that there was no way in hell the other man would go seeking him out without a stupid letter telling him to, even if he was Howard Stark’s son. He’d said it himself -- he had better things to do than chase after drunk billionaires. But Tony pushed away those thoughts, buried them down deep with practiced ease.
“Whatever happens to me, I can deal with it. But you’re not staying like this. If there’s even a chance you can come back whole, I think we should take it.”
Steve must have seen the resoluteness in his face because finally, after a long moment, he nodded. “Okay,” he said on an exhale. “Okay, let’s do it. But it’s not going to change anything. I’ll still...” He swallowed back whatever he was about to say, instead just nodding again. “Let’s just do it.”
Tony turned away, unable to look back at the intensity in Steve’s gaze. He turned to Eramene instead. “So what now?”
“Now...we find Uravo.”
A mere three minutes later, Eramene appeared again. “Okay, she’s all set.”
“Already?” Steve asked in astonishment. Tony blinked, awareness jolted out of the tangled Slinky that was his brain right now. “For something so against her rules, it didn’t take long to convince her.”
“Time is a fluid concept used only by lesser beings,” Nortia said scornfully.
Dalia rolled her eyes. “Do you have to have your dial set to condescending all the time?”
“Excuse me? I don’t--“
“Okay, okay!” Eramene stepped between them before they could begin bickering again. “Let’s just do this.” The two women turned away from each other with a hmph. “Alright, in three, two--“
“Wait!” Tony yelped, panicking. They couldn’t just...that couldn’t just be it. He had to...he wasn’t ready...”Just give us a second,” Tony pleaded. Eramene nodded, features soft.
Tony stepped up to Steve and picked up his hand. He stared down at it, his thumb tracing over the lines of his palm. Steve’s lifeline stretched all the way to the other end of his hand; it would have been almost reassuring if Tony was the sort of person who believed in that stuff. “Steve, I know...I know you said it’s not going to change anything. And I’d like to think that we’d...” He gulped, trying to force down the growing lump in his throat.
“Tony--“ And god he was going to miss the way this man said his name, like it was pure sweetness on his tongue, like every letter in the word was another beat of his heart.
“Hang on, let me finish.” He looked up then, dragging his gaze up the line of Steve’s body until he reached his impossibly blue eyes. There seemed to be a slight sheen over them -- or maybe it was just the dampness of his own, blurring his vision and causing affectations that weren’t there. “I know what we said. But I’m a man of numbers and the numbers say there’s a pretty big chance this won’t happen again. Not like this. So I...” he swiped at his eyes impatiently. “I just wanted to say, out loud, that...I love you Steve Rogers. And even if my useless brain doesn’t remember it, no matter what happens, I...I’ll always love you.”
Steve swallowed hard, letting his forehead fall against Tony’s. “I love you too,” he whispered and Tony felt the words blow across his face at the same time that they wrapped around his heart.
And then Steve tilted his head and finally, finally, their lips met. And god, that was the worst decision he’d ever made, to press back, to have even the smallest taste of this man, because Tony didn’t think he’d ever be able to let go again.
A throat cleared gently behind them and Tony felt Steve pull back, the warmth on his mouth disappearing from one moment to the next. Tony stayed where he was, eyes lingering shut as he committed the moment to his memory -- even if it was going to be taken away in the next second, he wanted to hold on to it for as long as he could. He felt a calloused thumb brush against his cheek, wiping away the single tear that had managed to sneak its way out and trail a path down his face.
“It’s going to be okay,” Steve whispered.
And Tony smiled, a wry quirk of his lips, because the last words he’d ever remember Steve saying to him would be a lie, and wasn’t that just about the most fitting thing in the world?
Eramene began her countdown again and as she rounded out the ’N’ in ‘one’, he opened his eyes, meeting Steve’s steady gaze just for a millisecond, right before he lost it in a blinding explosion of light.
Tony’s pillow was cold.
He wriggled around, trying to get comfortable on the hard surface. He really needed to get a new couch if he was going to keep falling asleep during their movies like this. Or Steve could--
His eyes flew open.
There was that familiar faceful of grass again. He scrambled up and once again found himself face-to-face with the statue of Captain America, its cold stare boring into him. But that wasn’t right. He spun around, scanning the park.
“Steve?” he called anxiously. “Steve, are you here?”
When there was no response, he turned back to the statue and tried tapping at it. “Steve?” he said tentatively.
This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Had the spell backfired somehow? Was Steve trapped in there permanently, faced with an eternity of nothing but memories of the death of his best friend and his own fatal plunge into icy waters? He ran his hands over the stone, trying to find some hint that there was anything supernatural about it.
“You know, I think molesting a statue carries a pretty steep fine in the state of New York.”
Tony whirled around.
Steve was standing there, mere feet away, his arms folded across his chest and the slightest upturn at the corners of his lips. He was still in full Captain America regalia, his cowl pushed back, but Tony realized with a jolt that he could no longer see through him. He hurriedly closed the space between them.
“You’re here,” he huffed out in disbelief, poking at Steve’s shoulder. “And you’re solid. Are you...” He glanced apprehensively at Steve’s face. “Can everyone see you?”
Steve nodded, lips stretching into a toothy grin. “I did a little lap while you were still sleeping. Even got a couple of tips from tourists who wanted a picture with ‘the second-best Captain America lookalike they’d ever seen.’”
“So you remember everything?”
“Yeah.” Steve’s grin widened even further, if that was possible, his eyes practically aglow with the force of it. “You too?”
Tony nodded. “How the hell did that happen?”
Steve smirked at Tony, his smile turning wicked. “Magic.”
Tony gaped at him for a second, then grinned back. “Well, alright.” And then he tangled a hand in the collar of Steve’s uniform and tugged him down until their lips met.
He felt Steve laugh briefly against his lips before he pressed back, strong arms coming up to wrap around Tony’s waist.
Tony abruptly broke away before they could go any further, leaning back in Steve’s arms as a sudden thought struck him.
“Wait. You know what this means?”
Steve groaned in frustration even while he obediently shook his head.
“It means,” Tony said, smirking, “that when that fucker Doom comes knocking? He’s not going to know what hit him.”
And far beyond, in a space and time beyond the comprehension of the limited dimensions of the human mind, an anciently young girl hid behind a closed door, a golden amulet clenched in her small hands and giggling quietly to herself even as she heard a pair of voices yell,