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The fall is fifteen, maybe twenty feet, but my landing is cushioned: cold, white. Snow. It puts an end to my Human Torch impersonation, extinguishing the patchy flames in a hiss of steam.
Don't count me fortunate just yet. The story behind my falling out of the sky on firebegins in a cliched underwater lair of villainy, and ends with the near-instantaneous cataclysmic destruction of my world. My Earth, which both is and isn't the Earth where I'm presently lying stunned and armorless in snowbank.
There's an afterimage of primal fury seared across my vision. Despite that, I can make out a craggy shape protruding from the snow three feet to my left. Everyone I cared for, everyone I knew... or wronged, or hated, or flat-out didn't give a damn about except in the abstract. All of humanity is (will be) gone, and I take consolation in the fact that the crash landing didn't split my head open on a fucking rock.
Cue hysterical laughter, I think, though the sound I make is closer to a sob.
"This is for you, Tony," I hear Birch say again. Or rather, I remember the words but not his voice. I try to picture him in those last moments but I don't make it beyond: old, ill. Unburdened in his nihilistic final act. The once and future Donald Birch is even less distinct: a slumped figure escorted from my building in handcuffs, the HR folder stamped "Terminated" that sat ignored on my desk.
"You ruined my life." How many times has someone spat that in my face? How many unhinged individuals count (counted) Anthony Stark as their personal bane? How many innocents have been targeted simply for their proximity to me?
The afterimage is the silhouette of a phoenix spreading its wings.
Missed me, you bastard. The air I gulp pricks my lungs, chilling me from the inside out.
Somehow, I'm still clutching the stolen control module. The rift that dumped me here is gone, collapsed in a temporal cave-in when the machine that made it ceased to exist.
I have to start thinking in branches. Time is not a linear construct. The machine will always exist somewhere. (Not somewhen.) And I have a piece of it.
It's possible -- fine, likely -- that whatever Birch did to shut down the suit is also fucking with my mind. It isn't-
Oh shit, I can't look, I can't. It's the landmine all over again: bad, but not real unless I look down and discover how much of me is tatters. I don't want to peer into the recesses where the armor is lurking, aggravated and incoherent. I'm reminded of a drunk, a mean one.
Don't make eye contact.
Ignore the pain and the grief. Move, get up. Don't die of exposure on the side of a godforsaken mountain (that rock would make a shitty grave marker).
"On your feet, soldier!"barks Steve in my head, and I obey.
I come to on the ground again. Pretty sure I wasn't out long. It feels like a reboot, my (mundane, human) senses coming slowly online. Don't think I lost anything in the rollback, but I can't examine the dump file to be certain. Doesn't matter anyway; I remember the important stuff.
This time, I make it upright without passing out.
I'm dressed in the clothes Birch provided, now singed and damp. It's cold out here. Don't know exactly how cold without my sensors, but I've been down enough ski slopes that I can make an informed guess based on the terrain and vegetation and snowpack. Answer: I don't want to be at the mercy of the elements come nightfall.
The sun is out. I would know roughly what time it is if I knew which way is north, and vice versa.
The armor is quiet. I hope that's progress, the hangover phase.
My vision is clear now, but that's the extent of the good news. A scan of my surroundings turns up not a single trace of civilization. I automatically reach for satellites, cell towers, radio transmissions, VOR beacons... nothing. It's possible they don't exist here, but more likely that my fancy aftermarket upgrades are in lockdown along with the suit.
I try to call it out. Failure results in a backwash of pain, both expected and bitterly disappointing.
Okay, fine. I'll restore the future by myself, the old-fashioned way. (Except for me, old-fashioned is transistors and avgas powered jet boots and enough firepower to crack open Fort Knox. Thisis primeval.)
I built my first armor out of nothing. I could do it again; I even have a massive head start thanks to the modern repulsor unit embedded in my chest. None of that recharging my batteries off a wall socket shit.
Choosing a direction is easy. I aim downhill and wade for the nearest line of trees. Shelter and civilization are my priorities. Then I can worry about when and where I am, and how to earn another chance at stopping Birch.
The dark evergreens form a windbreak, and the going is easier, but I lose the slight warmth from the sun. I thinkit's sunk a little in the sky since my arrival, which translates to mid afternoon. I have north fixed now too, but I won't get lost so long as I continue down slope. The greener valley far below is my best shot for... acquiring what I need.
I realize I haven't eaten since- Well, lunch was seven hours before the fundraiser -- I regret not hitting the buffet, but how the hell was I supposed to know I'd be nabbed by future-powered robot goons? Carry the travel time to undersea lair... huh. Namor doesn't take kindly to other megalomaniacs crowding in on his turf. I wonder how Birch escaped his notice.
Anyway... seven, plus hobnobbing, plus kidnapping, plus gloating, plus parens naptime times two close parens equals I suppose I should be grateful there's fresh water in the form of snow. I snag a handful and chew until it melts, pretending that the icy trickle running down my throat doesn't make me shiver that much harder.
Once again, the RT rig is my salvation. Birch must have known enough about my... unconventional physiology to realize shutting it down would shut medown, his audience and star witness. Still, leaving my power plant both functional and accessible was a mistake.
Screwing with thermal modulation would be an extremely bad idea if I intended to suit up, but fuck it, I'm grounded. I manage to increase my core temperature without boiling the blood in my veins.
The RT's light also proves indispensable once the sun slips behind the mountains. I could stop for the night to rest, but I'll only weaken the longer I'm out here. One foot in front of the other, I keep moving.
There hasn't been a single aircraft overhead all day. I drift out of cover long enough to scan the dusky sky for telltale navigation lights. The brighter stars are already visible, and I pick out Cassiopeia and Ursa Major. Even the scant knowledge that I'm still in the northern hemisphere is welcome.
Birch pilfered tech from everywhere: AIM, Hydra, the future. The time platform was Doom's. I wasn't telling the whole truth when I said that I'd studied the schematics with Reed. I've taken accidental trips through it -- or one like it -- before.
Doom is way out of Birch's league in pure technical ability, never mind magic. Birch reassembling the machine from scavenged parts is like... like a second-rate Leonardo da Vinci piecing together a V8 without the manual. Yeah, he got it to work,but I've been trying very hard not to think about the mods and hacks he might have incorporated, intentional or otherwise.
I'm not a robot or a cosmic entity; I dove into the thing without knowing for sure that it would spit me out in one piece. I can only hope that the active rift wasn't warped somehow by Dark Phoenix's energy.
Surrounded by indistinct, looming shapes and frozen silence, it's easy to imagine that I'm stranded thousands of years off course. So when I stumble across footprints in the snow, it takes me two seconds to decide to follow the trail, even though it means angling away from the valley.
The prints are fresh and belong to a single person, probably male to judge by the size. I find the clear imprint of a boot sole, heavy tread with a square toe. No manufacturer logo, yet clearly mass-produced. Not exactly informative, but as my first real evidence of civilization, I'll take it.
The boot's owner can't have gone far, not alone with night falling. There has to be shelter nearby -- a camp or a cabin, maybe a ranger station with radio equipment. Satellite internet would be glorious.
The armor grumbles and subsides. I finally admit that Birch's silver bullet wasn't localized. Otherwise, I would have begun to shake off the effects by now.
One step after the other.
I wade over a snow-covered tree trunk. The wood is old and rotted, evidence that my mystery guide wasn't following a well-worn path, if there is a path at all -- I sure can't tell.
The steepening grade underfoot corresponds to a ridge line I recall seeing to the northeast. I seem to be on an oblique approach, so the climb shouldn't be as difficult as it is. It's more than fatigue; I feel as weak as I did when I was relying on the chest plate to keep me alive. My progress is slow between frequent pauses for rest. Birch would gloat if he-
This is the man who devoted years of his life not just to orchestrating my downfall, but to the eradication of my entire world. He could be watching this very moment -- not the Birch I escaped, but aBirch, somewhere. It wouldn't require much effort to find me. I'm a glaring temporal anomaly clutching a piece of time machine (which also probably reeks of magic).
If my Birch was watching, would he have seen another me? Did that other Tony fail -- is that why he let me go? (It was too easy, I know that now.)
Time is the sum of infinite possibilities. "I won't fail," I say aloud, just in case.
"You hear me? I'm coming for you!"
I actually sound like I believe it.
Maybe half an hour later, I reach the end of my trail. As in, no more footprints.
Pushing down panic, I stare at the last clean imprint, willing it to make sense. There's no shelter, no welcoming campfire, no patch of bare ground where I might have lost the trail. I'm near the ridge crest; the trees are thinner and the snow in front of me is a pristine blanket, almost knee deep.
People don't just vanish.
Correction: ordinary people don't vanish. And who the hell would trudge all this way if they had flight or other means of travel at their disposal?
I should have stuck beside the prints, not in them. I've overwritten any sign there might have been of my guide reversing direction. But I'm sure I would have noticed, even if they'd walked backwards. I try it for a few steps and find it impossible to stay exactly in my own prints.
There's something I'm missing, has to be. I begin to circle wide, scouring the ground, and consider calling out as well.
Before I can, I hear a thump behind me, then the unmistakable crunch of snow compacted beneath a boot. The trees, he was in the fucking trees somehow. It hadn't occurred to me until this moment that my potential savior might not be friendly, but I'm more than familiar with the oh shitsensation of walking into an ambush.
"[Halt. Hands above your head.]"
I understand at once, though it takes me far too long to identify the language as German, and even longer to search for an appropriate response. Instinct makes me reach for the armor. Maybe it's urgency, or adrenaline, or just plain forgetting for a second that it won't work, but the undersuit responds. I feel it seep out and begin to slither across my skin, and I'm too relieved to stop it even when it covers the RT unit.
Bad move. Not only am I distracted from making a show of cooperation, but killing the light is the first thing anyone would do to even the odds if they intended to fight.
The decision is made for me. My "friend" takes the initiative to nail me in the back, a physical blow that comes without warning to send me sprawling.
Bastard hits hard and isn't about to give me breathing space. I hear his rush, roll and kick out, but only succeed in bringing him down on top of me. I take a knee to the stomach.
Okay, that probably would've happened regardless.
"[Wait...]" The word is knocked out of me in a gasp. A cold, blunt edge presses to my throat and I freeze, overwhelmed by sudden sense-memory.
It can't be.
"[I said don't move."]
Oh god. I can't be sure it's the same shield poised over me, but I'd know his manner of handling it anywhere. Of course -- that's what hit me in the back.
I've shocked him, I can tell, even without being able to see his face. The press on my throat eases, not that it matters. The fight's gone out of me as quickly as it came, leaving me so drained that I couldn't buck off a ninety pound weakling, let alone six feet of determined Super-Soldier.
I don't laugh, but its a close thing.
"It's-" Me, Tony.
He doesn't- Shit, what does it mean? How much can I say without screwing over the timeline?
"English, please. I'm unarmed," I add, getting the pat-down anyway. Luckily it doesn't occur to him to check the center of my chest. Have to make the undersuit blend in with my skin. In my present condition, holding it in place is going to be dicey, requiring concentration I can't spare.
Satisfied, he stands -- without stowing the shield, I notice. "Who are you?"
I flail in the snow, taking the hand that's eventually offered. My eyes are adjusting, enough that I can make out the A on his cowl -- or is that a helmet? -- in the filtered moonlight. Same old stars and stripes, thank god. Things can't be so different here, whenever here is. "Harmless. An ally."
Not good enough,his silence says.
"I had an accident." Gotta keep it vague, though I've blown the amnesia card, dammit. "Been stumbling around out here, freezing my ass off. Haven't eaten in... can't remember. Saw your tracks and hoped I'd find food, shelter."
He's not buying a word. "I'd be aware of other operatives working in this area."
Oh, for the love of- What area? Where are we? "Not an operative." I make an ordeal of rubbing snow out of my hair. I really am freezing now, chattering teeth and everything. "Well, not one of yours. I'm an Avenger. Codename: Iron Man."
The gamble pays off. He has no idea what that means.
If he doesn't know me, if we didn't pull him from the ice- I take a closer look at his uniform, the little I can see: those strange boots, felt overcoat, some extra web gear, and a sidearm? Oh. Oh, damn. "I'm not a German spy."
"You sound American," he allows, "but accents can be faked."
The urge to say something about Brooklyn almost wins. "Seriously, I'm starving."
"So is half of Europe."
Now it's my turn for stubborn silence. I know I must look miserable, just like I knew he'd dig through his little pouches and hand me... a chocolate bar? "Thanks." I fumble with the wrapper and devour the thing while he scrutinizes every bite.
At least the shield is no longer ready to fly, though that could change in a heartbeat. "You want to tell me how you got here?"
He would have been watching for planes the same way I was, but it's still the most plausible story. "I bailed out. Engine fire." Might explain my clothes. "Not supposed to be here, wherever here is."
His voice is sharp. "Did you hide the chute?"
"Got rid of it, yeah."
I don't know what to do with the wrapper, so I give it back to him. He tucks it away somewhere, not just worried about litter. Probably doesn't want to leave government-issue evidence behind. We're not in friendly territory. "Do you have a blanket, a spare coat, extra socks, anything? I wasn't prepared for... this."
He gives me a head tilt, the one that goes with the look that says no shit. "You're not prepared for a walk in the park."
"I could have died out here. Lucky I found you." I suspect luck had nothing to do with it. Birch and that damned time platform. His screens were full of Avengers, heroes, people I know. Did he see that I'd meet some of them in the timestream?
Why in the everliving fuck was I dumped into the middle of what seems to be the second world war? Even if the control module was somehow drawing me toward other pieces of the machine-
The module. It was in my pocket. I search frantically. "I had a device." The size of a smartphone, I almost say. "A box, with buttons, about this big."
"I took the liberty of removing it from your person."
Ah, when he searched me. "Then you have it?" I don't bother to hide my relief.
Steve crosses his arms. "It's safe."
"It's not a weapon... but of course you couldn't know that. It's a prototype, absolutely critical to a classified experiment." I'm probably saying far more than I should. "You have no idea what a disaster it would be- Hold it for me, keep it secure, I approve. Just don'ttamper with it in anyway, I'm not exaggerating when I say that the fate of the free world is at stake."
"You know, I can believe you're a scientist. I'm just not sure whose side you're on."
"Damn it, I'm not a Nazi. Listento me, I'm from Manhattan!"
"And I've met Wehrmacht soldiers from Minnesota. How did you know my name?"
I've already figured out how I'm going to answer this one. "What? No, myname is Steve. You too? Gosh, what a coinci-"
His hand shoots out, grabbing my shirt in a gloved fist, and yanks.
I stumble close. If I'm supposed to be intimidated... well. Everything about him is familiar, from the arm I'm clutching for balance to the scent of the old-fashioned oil he'll still be using seventy years from now to maintain his mail. Even his grim, almost sour expression is welcome.
"I heard you loud and clear: I'm coming for you."
"I don't remember-" I do, actually. Shouting on the wind to a madman in another future. What does that say about my sanity? "I was hallucinating. Could have said anything."
The leather of his glove creaks as his grip tightens. It's the Steve version of the menacing hammer cock.
I smile weakly. "You won't hurt me. I know your reputation, Captain."
He won't,but for a second he's tempted. That too is sadly familiar. "You shouldn't believe what you read in the funny books."
"So you're telling me you're not out here alone on a secret mission deep behind enemy lines." Alone. Should have thought of that. Where's Bucky? Where are the Invaders? Steve I might be able to string along, but Mr. Future Soviet Assassin Barnes has never been a fan of mine. And Namor would advocate hurling the interloper in the nearest large, frigid body of water.
They could be close. Steve could be headed for a rendezvous. Have to help him make up his mind about me, fast.
I interrupt whatever he's about to say. "Your shield gave you away. I know about Rebirth. Erskine, the serum, vita-rays, the assassin, all of it. And I know Captain America is a man I can trust." To do what's right, what's necessary, to hell with everything that gets in his way.
Steve stares for a moment before releasing me with a shove. I can practically hear the wheels turning. He's desperate to know how I know, if there's a mole on the loose. More, he can't let my knowledge fall into enemy hands. Doesn't matter whose side I'm on, my head has value -- provided of course it remains intact.
"Where's your light?"
"Dropped it." I glance down to check the undersuit. Camouflage still holding.
He pulls out a light of his own and searches around where I fell. "It's not here."
"Maybe I tossed it, can't remember. I was a little worried about being shot in the back at the time."
The light shines straight in my eyes, an interrogation. "Wheremight you have tossed it?"
"If you can't find it, no one else will be able to, at least not until the snow thaws." Wincing, I try to shield my face. "It wasn't some spy gadget, if that's what you're worried about. Just a plain old flashlight." I almost make a crack about hidden homing beacons, but he might get ideas and smash the control module.
Steve isn't taking chances. The light clicks off, stranding me in darkness again. "We're moving. Now."
As he walks past, he thrusts his coat at me without another word.
I have no idea how far we go. Steve's frustration with my slow speed and lack of endurance prompts him to rig a sled out of his shield.
I only tell him to mush once, when I first climb aboard. (The, ah, humor of the situation is lost on him.) Then I'm too busy clinging for dear life as I'm dragged over what feels like every rock and stump and fallen branch hidden in the snow. It takes only one teeth-rattling impact with a tree trunk for me to implement my own collision avoidance: the deflecting shove.
Steve's overcoat is large enough that I can pull my hands up into the sleeves for protection. Don't need a bunch of cuts and scrapes on top of everything else.
We don't converse. I'm sure he uses the time to poke holes in my meager story, and design a series of questions that might shake loose the truth. I try to remember enough history to figure out the date if he lets any mission details slip.
Pretty sure we're not on Zemo's island, thank god. I grew up with the story of Captain America's disappearance, so near the end of the war. Steve doesn't just re-tell it; if you watch his eyes, you can see him reliving it. I'd be tempted to spare him the loss and guilt and displacement, even though, for the sake of my- ourfuture, I know it has to happen again.
Not a warning, not so much as a hint. I can't.
We stop. Steve hauls me up off the shield, retrieves it and unties the rope.
"Where are we?" I ask. Can't hurt. To me, it looks like just another dark, ominous spot of hillside. No shelter, no people.
"Stay here." He rummages in his pack, removing things he presumably doesn't want me to see before dropping it at my feet.
Oh no you don't. "Shouldn't we stick together?" I'm not actually as good at maneuvering Steve as I like to pretend, but I know what not to say if I don't want negotiations shut down cold.
(Unfortunately, I can't stop myself sometimes from saying those things anyway. Guess I enjoy pressing buttons, his in particular.)
"I won't be gone long." Translation: You said you trust Captain America, so prove it.
I am not okay with this plan. "What in the hell am I supposed to do if something happens and you don't return? What if someone comes along while you're gone?"
Coiling the rope to put away, Steve says, "Don't make me tie you to a tree," like it just occurred to him. Probably been an option in the back of his mind this whole time.
"Yes, sir. I mean, no sir." I sit.
He nods once and slips into the night.
Can't follow too soon -- his hearing is too damned good -- so I take the opportunity to dig through his pack, angling away so I can let out a bit of light from the RT unit.
K-ration instant coffee is probably themost vile thing I've ever been ecstatic to eat. The so-called ham and eggs is a life experience I could have done without. I find what might be a four and a three stamped in the tin lid, but it doesn't help much to narrow down the date. Can't be early in the war if we're in mountains where the locals speak German.
I borrow a pair of socks while I'm at it. They're longer than what I have, much better protection, and dry. My old ones will make nifty hand puppets -- I mean, mittens.
No map. No radio. No diary or letters. No books at all, but Cap's not exactly the bible-toting type.
No control module, damn it.
I stuff everything away, not bothering to be neat -- he knew I'd snoop -- and adjust my light again. After a brief debate, I shoulder the pack.
Steve's footprints are easy to locate and follow. I keep expecting the trail to vanish again, but he stays out of the trees, heading straight toward what I'm slowly realizing is a very interesting sound.
Guess I've lived too much of my life in cities -- when I'm not hiding in workshops full of equipment, with heavy-duty ventilation systems. Now that I've removed my subconscious filter, I can tell that the background drone is fixed and steady. Maybe an engine, a large one. An idling aircraft?
Much as I want to get off this mountain, I needautonomy. As a suspected spy, if I'm taken into army custody, I'm likely to remain there.
I might have to fight Steve for the module. I might be out of chances to try.
Once I'm looking for civilization, I notice a paler splotch of sky, too low and the wrong direction to be the precursor to dawn. Suddenly wary of possible sentries, I cover the RT unit again and slip forward, keeping my silhouette hidden against the trees.
Something grabs my ankle and yanks me to the ground. My cry is smothered before it can escape, but I go limp when I recognize the glove clamped over my mouth, the angry face inches from mine. My heart doesn't get the message, continuing to race in my chest.
Steve hisses, "I told you to stay put."
I shake my head. When the glove doesn't budge, I press a finger against it in the gesture for quiet. That display of understanding is enough to get me released, and I whisper, "What's out there?"
"You don't know?"
"How could I? I don't even know where we are."
Of course he doesn't believe me, but this might be part of his scheme to draw out the truth. "Nearest village is Eisendorf."
I don't have to fake a blank response. Never heard of it.
"About ten miles from the Latverian border."
Eisen. Iron. That could be a coincidence, but fucking Latveria? No way Doom's machine just happened to dump me in Doom's backyard. I wouldn't even call it his future backyard. The asshole probably does as much recreational time travel as Reed Richards does dimension hopping. (Seriously, what is it with those two?)
Steve is studying me. I gave him a reaction all right, but it's puzzling, not what he expected.
"I need to see."
"Then tell me."
He shakes his head and begins tugging me back the way we came.
"Damn it, Steve." Threats won't work; he'll overpower me if he has to. I could open up the RT, hit him with a repulsor blast, but the flash would reveal our presence. Also, I want to hold that trick as a last resort.
"Don't call me that."
"I might be able to help you." I squirm in his grip, aware that at the first real resistance he'll stop playing nice. "I want to help. Please."
Help yourself, maybe, his expression says. But there's a calculating glimmer, too. "You really a scientist?"
"Let me whip out my doctorates. Oh wait, I don't carry them on me." Sarcasm doesn't work very well at a whisper. "Physics, applied math, electrical engineering, robotics, computing, a smattering of chemistry... stop me when I get to a flavor you like."
"Okay, " Steve says. "Okay."
Well hell, which one did it?
"Vantage point is thirty yards ahead. We go together. You do exactlywhat I say. First sign of trouble, you take a long nap courtesy of my fist. Got it?"
Good old Cap: when in doubt, punch it into submission. "Yup. Scout's honor." I flash him Live Long and Prosper.
It's possible he misses it. He's busy unfolding a piece of white fabric that looks like it was cut from a parachute. Once it's draped over our heads and shoulders, he shows me how to secure my side from slipping, and we belly-crawl to an outcrop of rock.
The engine noise is quite distinct now, and I revise my guess from aircraft down to diesel truck or heavy machinery. I catch the odd gear being ground.
Steve made his initial recon before I arrived. One large, flattish rock juts out in a sort of natural observation platform. The snow there has been carefully shaped and packed down so that none will fall over the lip and draw attention. There's just enough room for us to squeeze shoulder to shoulder, and he motions for me to keep my head down until he's scanned the area again with a field glass.
Then it's my turn. I grasp at once why Steve didn't take the direct approach. We're up high enough that I can see down into a busy camp, situated in old stone ruins. A castle maybe, by the remnants of a forward defensive wall. The mountain itself would have given protection to the rear.
The whole scene is lit by spotlights -- they've been working through the night. A tractor is adding to a large mound of rubble, and there are men- soldiers taking a smoke break, leaning on long-handled shovels.
Whatever they're digging for, they're sure as hell not concerned about preserving the archaeological integrity of the site.
Nazis. Buried treasure. I thought that shit only happened in Indiana Jones movies.
My sensors sure would come in fucking handy right now.
Steve's already gathered tactical intel. I look for generators and find three larger mobile ones. Two are probably running, the third should be a spare. Still more juice than is necessary to run those lights. I trace power cables. The thickest bunch runs to the very rear of the site, where it disappears into a jagged hole.
If that's a tunnel entrance, they're not carving it new, just digging out old debris. Even while I watch, a figure climbs out of the dark mouth and into the spotlights. Orderly panic ensues as the soldiers return to work; I don't need to see the man's uniform and hat clearly to know he's an officer, likely the head honcho by the swagger. I almost sweep over him without a closer look, but something's odd...
There's a flash of red. A scarf? Drawn up over his-
I dive flat. Beside me, Steve is making his alarmed face and reaching back for his shield.
"Why didn't you fucking warn me Red Skullis down there?"
"Were you spotted?"
I'm trembling, a combination of anger, prolonged stress, and one too many gut punch surprises. "No."
Steve relaxes, slipping the glass from my hand and back into its case. He's almost being gentle when he whispers, "You've seen enough. Come on -- we'll talk when we're safe."
I numbly endure another trip by shield sled. Steve is moving slower, being more careful. I nod off more than once, missing the transition from purpling sky to sunrise.
The final time, I wake with Steve crouching beside me, hand on my shoulder. I fail to react as if this is unusual in the slightest, and it takes me a few groggy seconds to remember where we are and why I'm here.
"You need something warm in your stomach."
I've reached an eight on the scale of feeling like utter shit. Above a seven, I make a point to avoid reflective surfaces and hide in my armor if possible. I hate being seen like this; I hate that other people hate seeing me like this.
Steve's already obvious concern sharpens when I try to stand and my limbs don't cooperate. He ducks beneath my arm and walks me to a cleared spot at the base of a drooping pine, where a fire is struggling to heat a tin cup packed with snow.
I slither down Steve's body and onto the ground, thrusting my hands over the tiny flames.
"Not so close," he warns. "If you can't feel your fingers, you can burn them without knowing."
Eh. I'll move if my sock mittens start smoking.
"What." The word comes out as a croak.
More like testing how well I answer to my self-professed codename.
"Been awhile since you said anything," Steve prompts.
I can't help myself. "Anything." Maybe I'm not being fair; I recall his frequent backward glances during the trip, which I'd attributed to standard Cap situational awareness. After all, we left one hell of a trail. Should have known he was also keeping a close watch on my condition. "Don't worry, I'm not about to drop dead on you. Can't. Fate of the free world resting on my shoulders, remember?"
He nods, digging a finger saw out of his pouches. (Not a garrotte. Christ, I spend too much time in the company of trained assassins.) "You know the Red Skull."
"Johann Shmidt." I wouldn't drop the name unless I was fairly sure Steve already has it. "Our paths have crossed. He doesn't know me, in case you're wondering, but he-"
I thought I could push through this. I thought it might help.
For a genius, I'm goddamn stupid sometimes.
Steve cuts through pine boughs like they're paper. He's dropping number three on his pile by the time I figure out how to continue.
"Skull's agent murdered a good friend of mine. It was personal -- he planned the hit -- but he didn't have the balls to pull the trigger himself."
"I'm sorry," Steve says quietly.
I almost lose it right there. Laughter would be grossly inappropriate, but I don't know how else to mitigate the sheer absurdity of having this conversation.
'I'm sorry.' Don't worry, you got better? And you only lost a year.
Sometimes I wish I hadn't spared myself from the things I must have said- we must have said and done to each other to bring us to irreconcilable blows. Sometimes I wish I'd kept a complete accounting of our transgressions, so I didn't have to rebuild my memory from the sanitized public records and few private, painful videos I did leave.
Then I realize, I don't have to remember when it's all right there in my imagination. Trust is letting another person see the weakest parts of you; it's the belief they'll never drive a knife blade in and twist.
Steve and I are masters of each other's anatomy.
"Don't be sorry," I say, with too much force. "Everyone blamed me. I blamed myself. But the truth is, he's- he was who he was, the stubborn bastard. He risked death almost daily for lesser causes. It would be... supremely arrogant of me to think I could have altered his chosen path, even by a fraction of an inch."
Dragging over the boughs, Steve begins to fashion us a camouflaged shelter. "That's war. Most soldiers will tell you there's a bullet somewhere with their name on it."
"Does Captain Americabelieve that?"
"My bullet's out there. The only uncertainty is whether or not the war will end before it's fired." He pauses for some reason to look me straight in the eye. "If I die for my cause -- if I earn that sacrifice -- I sure as hell don't want somebody else trying to claim responsibility orcredit for my actions. Sounds like your friend would've felt the same way."
I smile weakly. "You're more right than you know."
Finished, Steve joins me by the fire. He tests the melted snow, drops in a bullion cube and stirs with his finger before passing me the cup. "Drink it all."
At least he took off the glove first. "Yes, sir." The broth tastes like salt and grit, but the warmth feels glorious going down. "I think after this... I need to pass out and sleep for two days."
"You can have a few hours." He sheds his gear in ordered steps: the Cap ritual equipment check hasn't evolved much over the years. "First, tell me more about Red Skull."
"He hates you."
Steve gives a soft snort.
"He wants you to suffer more than he wants you dead -- but you already know that."
"What about the dig site?"
Watching Steve tidy the contents of his backpack, I'm lulled by the steady motions of his hands. "He's probably after a weapon, or something he thinks he can use as one."
"Something he can use as one," Steve repeats. "Funny way of putting it."
Captain Tightlips here knows, or has some idea. Unfortunately, knowing Doom, so do I. Could be a tech cache, or even a spare time platform. No better place to hide one than to literally bury it in the past. The question is, how does Skull know where to dig?
I should thank him. Whatever it is, it must be the lodestone that drew me to this chrono-spatial locus, and I never would have found it on my own.
"Look, I want to stop the Skull as much as you do," I say. "But I get the feeling you're holding out on me."
"If you want my help-"
"Could have sworn you needed mine."
I stand up and struggle out of the overcoat. "Fine. Take your stupid coat back. The socks, too. I'll mail payment for the food -- want that in ration stamps or quarters? You give me mydevice and I'm gone, out of your hair, have a nice life."
"The clothes and food are government property," Steve says blandly.
I toss- okay, more like wad up and throw the coat at his face. "Then I'll buy a fucking war bond in your name."
He deflects the missile but the comment scores a direct hit; damage blooms as fresh strain around his eyes. Give him a decade as an Avenger and he'll have faint but permanent worry lines there, despite the serum.
God, he's so young.
"Nothing's decided yet." Part order and part peace offering, he drapes the coat on his bedroll and nudges both in my direction. "Get some sleep. I'll be nearby." When he steps away from camp, he takes the radio with him.
Calling the cavalry. I knew he couldn't be out here alone.
I fucked up. As it stands, he won't include me in the mission unless he has no other choice.
There happens to be an obscenely overpowered radio jammer embedded in my chest. I crank up the RT unit and adjust the electromagnetic field for wide-area dispersion. Steve would have to take a five mile jog to outrange the interference.
Worst comes to worst, I can always walk into Skull's camp with my hands in the air and... improvise.
Either way, rest and a clear head can only improve my chances. I spread out the bedroll and curl beneath Steve's coat to sleep.
It seems I've barely closed my eyes before Steve is jabbing me awake again -- with his boot.
He's such a considerate young man.
"F've more minutes." I pull the coat up over my head to check, and sure enough, I've lost my undersuit camouflage. Dragging it out again is a mental exercise, I know, but the strain feels almost physical. It takes too long, and I don't succeed until Steve pokes me again, probably five seconds away from giving up and yanking off the coat. It's that extra frisson of alarm that does the trick.
I should tell them to put "He worked well under pressure" on my tombstone, but only if I die in a fashion to render it duly ironic.
Emerging before Steve can, er, assist me, I sit up and struggle into the coat the right way. The body heat I'd accumulated escapes in the transition, and I scowl at Steve like it's all his fault because it is.
"You still want in on the mission?" he asks, fake casual. It's the same voice he uses to lure me down to the gym when he has some special torture lined up that will leave me stiff and aching.
Wait, that sounded bad even in my head. Leave my muscles... ah hell. "Damned right I'm up for it." Up,like... shit, once I go there it's hardto pull out.
Steve gives me the eyebrow of disapproval. "Something funny?"
"No. Yes. You wouldn't think so. Missions are never a laughing matter." Except when they are. Like the fire department, the Avengers occasionally get called upon to pull cats out of trees, that kind of thing -- just replace "cats" with "pterodactyls" or "gelatinous squidmonsters".
It's possible that I'm finally beginning to crack. Cold, stress. Insufficient sleep, caffeine, informative external stimuli--pick a culprit.
Mission. Right. Serious face.
I have no fucking clue what I'm doing.
Steve is staring at me like I'm a liability to overcome. He's probably not wrong. "I paid another visit to Skull's camp while you were asleep. The digging has stopped. He's either located what he's after, or he's close. We're out of time."
"What's the plan?"
"Depends. How are you with explosives?"
"Good enough to hold patents. Show me what you got."
Captain Skeptical doesn't budge. "Two grenades and ten pounds of plastique."
"What kind? Detonators? Look, I get that you're worried show and tell could turn into show-touch-boom, but I'm not going to talk you through Demolitions 101. You wouldn't ask if you didn't need my expertise, so I'm guessing... something happened to your regular demo man?" I'm guessing that's Barnes, doing the dirty work so Cap can keep his nice symbolic uniform clean.
"He had to sit this one out," Steve admits.
Interesting. Not much could bench the Barnes I know. Loss of limb, maybe. Oh, wait.
"I know how to handle Comp C. What I don't know is how to use it to best effect in this scenario."
I make a keep talking gesture as I butt-scoot closer to the remains of the fire and the stash of dry twigs. Steve owes me a hot meal, even if I have to cook.
"The initial plan was to destroy Skull's prize. Given recent developments, I'll settle for sealing the tunnel."
They claim there's a greeting card for every occasion. I demand one to cover: Sorry in advance for refusing to help you blow up that thing I might need to time travel back to the future and prevent a megalomaniac from breaking the planet.
"He'd only dig it out again."
"Not if we bury it beneath enough rock."
"Lemme know when you find another crate of cyclotrimethylene trinitramine and a week to set the charges." If Reed can drop big words to remind everyone how smart he is, so can I. Of course, Reed doesn't do it while trying to pick a snagged twig from his sock mitten. "Matches?"
Steve tosses me a lighter--which smacks me in the chest as I fail to catch it. Right in the RT unit, but the coat is thick enough to muffle any suspicious tinksound. "An avalanche, then."
I pretend to consider it. "Too unpredictable. Since the camp doesn't sit directly down slope, we'd have gravity working against us. Plus, we'd only have one shot. We fuck it up, we give away our presence and our objective. However... if we set the explosives deep enough in the tunnel, they won't be able to use earthmoving equipment to clear the rubble. Might even trap Skull inside, if he doesn't stick his head out to see what the fuss is about when you launch your distraction."
"Unless you're hiding the Invaders up your sleeve." Cap wouldn't be talking conventional explosives if he had Namor and a pair of proto-Human Torches at his disposal. Still, I'm curious if he'll acknowledge the communication blackout.
"Afraid not. The mission called for... discretion." He leans hard on the word, just in case I'd forgotten that I'm a probationary ally. "What kind of distraction do you have in mind?"
"Frontal assault, if we go in daylight."
"Can't wait for dark." Steve consults his watch. "As of twenty minutes ago, they hadn't started to break down camp, but Skull and his prize could be gone in under an hour."
The prize might not be portable. I'm hoping it isn't. Still, the longer we wait, the more time Skull has to fuck with whatever it is -- break it, or worse, use it. Doom doesn't do user friendly, but his shit's not that hard to figure out.
He is fond of his booby traps, though. I hope there's at least one ugly surprise waiting for Herr Shmidt.
"I'll need your rope. When I hear the shooting start, that'll be my cue to rappel in with the package."
"Not bad." Steve doesn't mean the fire I've coaxed to life.
"I learned from the best."
"Take advantage of the confusion and run like hell."
He neglects to ask whichdirection I'll be running, and I neglect to tell him. Instead, he pulls out my control module and sets it on the ground between us, along with his sidearm. "You should have these."
Much as I'm flattered by the show of trust, I can't. One bullet could fuck the entire timeline. "Keep them. I'd rather not kill anyone today. Besides, something goes wrong, a gun won't save me." The RT rig will.
"And your device?"
"Is safer with you."
Steve nods, but leaves his offer there on the proverbial table, waiting for me to change my mind.
It is testament to how well I can think like Steve that he lets my plan stand without significant changes. He does run through a dozen or so contingencies, which I try to ignore while I cobble together a bomb that will technically function as advertised.
Here's hoping I don't have to use it.
The schedule doesn't allow for a pre-mission pep talk, but Steve works in some unsubtle inquiries about my preparedness, once before we abandon our camp and several times along the way to Red Skull's. He doesn't say "suicide mission", but it's clear he feels I don't understand the degree of danger involved in what I'm about to do.
I'm used to being a mobile bulletproof arsenal. I know exactly how exposed I'll be going in without the armor. He's the one who doesn't get it.
I can't tell him that in words, so I give my winsome press smile and tease himabout being nervous. It doesn't settle his doubts, but it does end the questions.
When we reach my insertion point above the dig site, I hang back and let Steve sneak in to anchor the rope. He's back again in minutes, striding out of the trees, every star-spangled inch of him focused and ready.
I think I've seen this propaganda poster. Hell, I'm pretty sure I own the original.
"The rope won't reach all the way, but it'll get you to an old castle wall -- the drop from there is eight, maybe ten feet. Put your back to it to orient yourself when you land. The tunnel will be to your right, four o'clock, fifteen yards."
Flying would be so much easier. I try the suit one more time. No joy, as Rhodey would say, and I quit before I can give myself a headache. "Four o'clock, fifteen yards. Got it."
Steve clasps my hand, but it's almost incidental to the long moment his gaze holds my face. I'm being memorized, in case something goes wrong and I don't... make it. He can't be sure I'm on his side, but he'd keep me with the rest of his ghosts regardless.
"If I don't make it," I begin, and he shakes his head at once, as if he wasn't entertaining the thought. "If I'm hit -- if you see my body on the ground-- get the fuck out of here." The RT auto destruct will keep my tech out of Skull's reach; there won't be anything left of me to bury. "My control module has to make it back to the States, and you have to be the one to take it."
"Control module," Steve repeats the inadvertent clue. "What does it control?"
"I can't tell you." He wouldn't believe me if I did. "Get it home, hand-deliver it to a man named Howard Stark, and onlyto him. He's-"
"Howard Stark, the industrialist?" Steve's arm shifts, brushing one of his pouches. One guess what's inside.
"Yeah. He doesn't know me or my project, but he'll know what to do with the module." It'll be a few decades before there's a computer advanced enough to pull data off it. Hopefully he'll stick it in a vault and forget about it. Worst comes to worst, the me native to this timeline could find it and crack the puzzle, the warning of the last stored departure date.
Not long ago, I re-learned the first lesson of backups and backup plans: Even a shit one full of holes is better than nothing.
"Why did you wait to tell me all this?"
I shrug. "Less time for you to argue."
"Fate of the free world, remember?"
Steve pulls up his cowl, settles his shield on his arm. "When this is done -- and we bothmake it -- you and I are going to have a long talk."
"Sure thing, Cap."
I wait in blank anticipation.
It's not until the first shouts and crack of gunfire that the doubts arrive in a flood. Myhistory argues that Steve survives the mission, but this is uncharted territory, altered by my very presence. The plan is new, the players different. I'd been concerned about not killing the wrong person, but could that mean allowing the wrong person to live?
I risk a peek down into Skull's camp to see his men swarming for their forward defenses. The shooting intensifies, without the coordination or concentration that would mean they found a clear target. Steve will be on the move, keeping the enemy guessing, but they'll realize before long that they face one man -- even if that man is Captain America.
My path is more or less clear, except Skull hasn't made his appearance. This is the place where my real plan deviates from the one I gave Steve -- I'd really prefer not to have Skull standing between me and whatever's at the end of that tunnel.
A noise like tearing cloth bursts into the fray below. Oh, wonderful. Skull's men have a machine gun, the particularly nasty and notorious MG42 if I'm not mistaken. Nothing else from this era sounds quite like it.
Superb engineering, that gun. Over a thousand rounds a minute, more than capable of pinning Steve down for as long as the ammo holds out.
I have to go now or lose my chance.
Flight would make this part so much easier. Even though I've restored safety protocols and tuned the RT's field to help deflect incoming projectiles from my center mass, I'll still be a big, fat target on the descent.
Tossing the coil of rope over the side, I go.
I make it maybe half way before the first shots ricochet around me. My peripheral vision catches a puff of dust and a miniature explosion of stone chips, uncomfortably close. I wonder if that means my quasi-shield is working, or if the shooter is just finding their aim.
In the absence of any real equipment, I'd pulled out enough of the undersuit to protect my hands from friction burn. It doesn't allow for good grip, though. As I push over a section that dips inside the vertical, I lose contact with the rock face -- and consequently the breaking power of my legs. I pick up speed, racing for the ground.
Am I still being shot at? Save your bullets, kids. For my next trick, I'm going to break my own goddamned neck.
A thick knot prevents me from sailing clean off the end of the rope, Thank you, Steve. The snap of catching my weight jerks my arms in their sockets, and I dangle there a moment, kicking air.
The drop to the wall beneath me is a few feet, enough to hurt if I miss.
The machine gun is still roaring in deadly bursts. Skull's men are shouting, but I can't fucking see how close they are, or how many have peeled off chasing Steve to deal with me.
I let go of the rope and land square on the narrow wall, only to knock the stone underfoot from its crumbling mortar. Balance shot, I topple backwards, catching hold with my fingertips just long enough to break my fall into stages.
I've made less graceful entrances, but never sober.
The first thing I see from my new vantage sprawled on the ground is a pair of boots. They don't belong to Red Skull, thankfully. They do belong to the lanky soldier who's staring down his rifle sights at me. He's the only one close, and none of his comrades are rushing to assist, correctly assuming that he has me dead to rights.
Even with a language barrier the order would be clear. Hands spread nice and visible, I ignore him and slowly stand.
Don't think I twisted anything in the fall, but I shift in place, testing for any telltale twinge of pain. Nothing major stands out, but I'll be adding some fantastic bruises to my collection. The tunnel entrance is just as Steve described, and when I make a run for it I can duck behind the generators for shelter.
Skull's goon doesn't like where I'm looking. Probably has something to do with my unconventional appearance, lack of obvious weapons, and highly suspicious bag slung over my shoulder. "[Move.]"
"Don't move, move... make up your mind."
He flicks his rifle muzzle twice to indicate where he wants me. Guess that's a no for English.
Ah hell, the bag's strap is resting smack across the RT. I'd also prefer not to burn a hole in Steve's coat if there's a chance I'll have to explain it later. I show my hands again -- Look ma, no guns --and begin unfastening buttons.
"[Stop!]" He drops his aim, the old shoot the potentially valuable captive in the legs trick.
Can't disarm him. The RT could generate a strong enough field to do it, but exerting a sudden pull on the rifle would only jam the trigger into his finger and cause a discharge. That would be bad at such close range. Instead, I draw the field in and push the generator to burst above max operational power.
Timing is everything. I can only sustain the resulting shield a few seconds, so if I've misjudged-
Two shots ring out. The bullets hit the shield and follow its curvature into the dirt at my feet.
I loose a raw repulsor blast, and my target crumples as if he'd run chin-first into Cap's fist.
That shouldn't have killed him. It better not have killed him. It is about to get mekilled, because the noise and the light have drawn the confused attention of the camp. I dive behind the closest generator one step in front of a new round of bullets.
If Steve is still pinned down, I'm in position to give him some breathing space. He's really the secondarydiversion in my plan; the primary involves wedging the rigged explosives against the generator fuel tank and lighting the fuse.
I gave myself twenty seconds of cord, plenty of time to pitch the first grenade for cover and scramble for the tunnel.
Ducking past the jagged entrance, I discover that the rough shaft gives way to worked walls and an even floor maybe ten yards inside -- an actual tunnel, doubtless part of the castle complex and centuries old.
The outer shaft may not be stable. Have to get deeper. Fireworks in five, four-
My estimate is off. The shock of the blast, carried through the stone beneath me, is more disorienting than the deafening noise. I lurch against a wall just as I'm plunged into darkness.
Oh, right. No generators means no power for the string of feeble overhead lights. Should have thought of that.
One grenade left, and no reason to hang onto it. I pull the pin and roll it back toward the entrance. It's not powerful enough to collapse the shaft, but the impressive bang and settling dust should discourage pursuit.
Steve had better be taking advantage of the chaos to haul ass out of here. His part is finished, whether he realizes it yet or not.
Feeling along the wall, I work my way deeper into the tunnel. Much as I'd like to clear it with a few repulsor bolts, throwing around charged particle beams without a targeting system is a asking for a cave-in. Can't use the RT for light either -- not unless I want to be a bullseye for any hostiles still down here. At least I can hold Steve's lighter at arm's length, and flick it on every few yards without screwing with the undersuit.
I expected to encounter side rooms, intersecting corridors, but the tunnel runs straight and featureless. Ahead, I make out a glowing patch that resolves into a doorway as I draw near. The doors themselves are theatrically massive, straight from the Victor von Doom interior decorating handbook.
This must be the place.
The light is good quality -- electric, and not run off Skull's generators. Of course Doom would have his own power supply. I listen intently for a few seconds, but there's no sound of movement, so I slip past the doors and into the... chamber? Vault? Secret underground laboratory?
Arsenal. Fuck me.
There is no time platform. I'm staring at the mother of all Doombots.
No, it's a Sleeper, waiting hidden away for the command to awake and wreak havoc. It's the actual firstSleeper. In my timeline, Cap must have destroyed it, but not before Red Skull got the idea to build more. Only he didn't have the technical ability to match Doom's hardware, so he came up with that ridiculous flying manta ray, giant head design.
Doom-Sleeper is still dormant, thank god. If Skull had found a way to activate it, there's no telling how much he could have altered the outcome of the war, sent the timeline careening off in a new direction.
I can't give him the chance. My presence... I changed Cap's mission, and blowing up the damned bot is no longer an option. The control module drew me here, either by failsafe or trying to achieve parity with the rest of Birch's cobbled together time platform. I'd bet my fortune that somewhere in the future, the bot was discovered and salvaged for parts. Hell, in in an operational state it might itself be capable of time travel.
Access, I need an access panel, and it will be somewhere in the head or central trunk. The bot is huge, easily thirty feet tall, surrounded by equipment and scaffolding. I begin climbing, wishing for the thousandth time that I still had Extremis and could take control of the damned thing from across the room. I'm in no shape for his obstacle course bullshit.
The stairs between platforms are steep, a glorified ladder, and I'm stuck on the second one when there's a commotion by the chamber's doorway. I glance down through the rungs and see that pursuit has arrived.
Two soldiers multiply into six. They fan out and take aim; and I am, once again, a sitting duck. If I can make the next platform I'll be in a position to defend myself.
A shot rings out, and someone yells, "[Idiots, hold fire! I'll kill any man who damages the equipment!]"
I recognize that voice, but where-
Fuck, above me. I clear the edge of the platform to find Red Skull, his gun leveled at my head.
"[Enemy swine, I'll show you how I deal with thieves and saboteurs.]" He charges across the few feet separating us, winds up... shit, he's gonna kick me in the face.
I drop down a rung, still clinging to the ladder. Got no angle for a repulsor blast. Skull's men are moving to the scaffolding. I'm about to be trapped, and I can't shield and shoot at the same time. Can't give Skull a practical demonstration of the RT, anyway. The first guy I blasted, I could argue that's a wild-ass story to cover his ineptitude, but there are too many witnesses, and Skull will trust his own eyes.
What was plan C? Oh, that's right.
"[Wait! Wait... I surrender.]"
Skull's boot comes down on my hand, crushing it against the metal frame. "[Speak up, I didn't hear you.]"
"[Ahhh, shit! I surrender, I surrender!]"
He grinds my fingers for good measure before releasing me. The relief is short-lived. Grip gone, my other hand can't hold the balance of my weight. I swing out from the ladder, scrabbling to hook an elbow in the rungs, but it's too late. I drop into the swarm of soldiers waiting on the platform below.
Turns out there's a lot more to the underground complex than I saw on the way in -- a warren of passages and dank, unlit rooms. I try to remember the route out as I'm dragged to a cell, stripped of my gear, and shoved inside.
That's right, an honest to god dungeon.
"I really love what you've done with the place," I tell my escorts. "Great ambiance. But I was thinking more along the lines of a king suite with a skyline view, maybe a jacu-"
The fist comes out of nowhere, driving into my stomach. Coughing, I fold over double, and the next one catches me in the temple. I still have a soldier on each arm, otherwise I'd be kissing the floor.
It's going to be that kind of interrogation.
I wonder briefly why Skull isn't here to enjoy the pounding himself. Maybe this is a warm-up session.
"[Who do you work for?]"
Wrong answer. I take a dose of negative reinforcement to the left kidney. When I can breathe again, I rasp, "Knew a guy who used to... step into the ring now and then. Can I just say... your form's for shit."
"[Who do you work for?]"
"[You are American.]"
"[Have I told you about the time I was Secretary of Defense?]"
"[What is your mission?]"
"[To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly-]"
Yes, the face. Anything but the chest, much as I'd love to see the fucker break his hand on the RT.
"[James Tiberius Kirk. Rank: Captain, USS Enterprise. Serial number: november charlie charlie one seven zero one.]"
I lose track of stupid answers and reprisal blows, and eventually the flow of time. That's probably the point. My concentration pours increasingly into maintaining the undersuit's camouflage.
It could be minutes or an hour later that the cell is invaded by a much brighter light than the lone flashlight being shined in my eyes. I smell smoke: torches. The bearers form an arc in the hall, and Skull strides to the middle of it as I'm hauled out for his inspection -- or so I think.
"[What is this?]"
He shoves something small and rectangular in my face. Control module,I almost say. It's my control module.
There's no denying recognition. I know my expression is blank from shock where the swelling hasn't set in yet. "[Where'd you get that?]" Steve had it on him, I know he did. So how-
"[I ask the questions -- now answer!]"
Cap's voice rises from beyond the ring of torchlight, clear and calm. "They know about the marking, how it matches the one on the robot."
"Sorry? You got caught," I say stupidly, but it comes out like an accusation. I gave him an opportunity to get away clean. My Cap wouldn't-
My Cap is dead, along with the rest of my future. Steve, what have I done? This is all wrong, and I've lost sight of how to fix it.
Steve pushes to my side, at least four weapons trained on him the entire time. His hands are bound with thick, coarse rope, but that doesn't mean much. I know he could break free in a heartbeat. "They know," he repeats, and I'm sure I'm the only one to catch the strain of anger in his voice. "Your life is too valuable to waste on lies when they already know the truth."
Cooperate. If Skull thinks there's value to exploit, he'll keep me alive.
I wet my lips, still staring at Steve. "The device... we believe it's a remote control to operate the robot."
Steve and I are dumped in the cell. The heavy door squeals shut behind us on dry hinges and the bar drops into place, sealing us in darkness.
Without the soldiers to support me, I slump to the ground, my body's aches screaming to the forefront through ebbing adrenaline. The desire to wrap myself in the armor's strength is so sharp it borders on need.
"Iron Man?" Cap is somewhere close. He finds my shoulder just as I'm hit by a spike of fresh agony.
"Don't-!" The suit. I didn't mean to call it but I did, and the backlash of failure this time is overwhelming. "Fuck, ohhh fuck! Don't t-touch me."
I curl in on myself and pitch sideways, lack of sight contributing to a sickening vertigo.
Steve is there on the floor with me, free of his bindings, easing me down. "Talk to me. What are your injuries? Are you shot? Broken bones?"
"Can't reach the armor," I whisper, a confession. "Ev'rything would be fine 'f I could reach the armor."
"Stay with me. There is no armor, no tanks. We're in Red Skull's cell, remember?"
He's afraid for me. It's so rare to see him truly unnerved that I'm grasped by an immediate and instinctive sense of dread.
Then it hits me: I can see him. The RT, glowing unconcerned in the center of my chest, is bathing us both in soft blue light.
Always has been Steve's color.
"My god," he breathes.
"It's not as bad as it looks." The reality is far worse -- both the invasive nature of the repulsor node, and my altered physiology's dependence on it.
"Did Skull... do this to you?"
"You weren't supposed to know."
He lifts my hands away when I try to tug my collar up to cover it and leans closer as if he's inspecting a wound -- or a bomb. "Hold still," he says, firm yet humane. I know that voice too, and I hate it as much as I trust it. It means there's something bad-wrong that he's doing his utmost to fix.
"They can't see," I plead. "If Skull returns-"
"I'd hear him. What is that thing? Where did it come from?"
"Medical implant." It's almost true. "Had it the whole time. It keeps me alive."
"I've never heard of anything like it."
"Says the... only successful recipient of the Super-Soldier serum."
Steve spreads his palm over the RT, wonder outweighing concern now. "It's warm," he says in surprise.
No. You don't get to do this. You're disturbed by the modifications, willing or otherwise, I've made to my body -- you just don't know it yet.
"My control slipped, is all. Lost my disguise. Give me a few minutes to... pull myself together, and I'll hide it again. You need to forget what you've seen. After I'm gone, forget meeting me. Forget everything."
Steve's hand doesn't budge. "Who the hell are you, really?"
"The man who has to save the world."
Skull sends for me not long after I manage to cover the RT. Steve tries to insist that he's invited too, but the soldiers, eyeing his unbound hands warily, block him from leaving the cell. The cocked weapons are irrelevant. Only an idiot with a deathwish would rob Skull of the opportunity to kill Captain America personally; and shield or no, Captain America is more than a match for a squad of Skull's best.
This is Steve biding his time, doubtless processing new data into whatever plan he has. He let himself be captured.
Should have known I couldn't count on him to play by my rules.
Skull is waiting for me in the large chamber, the picture of arrogant impatience. Doom would approve. A pair of nervous soldiers hover nearby over a bank of equipment; I could swear they mark my arrival, leaning on one of their fellows, with actual relief.
Geeze, what happened to loose lips sink ships? How much did Steve tell him?
"[You will awaken my new war machine.]"
"Uh, that name's taken."
"[I said, why would I help the enemy?]"
"[These incompetents,]" he flings an arm to indicate the soldiers, "[delay my glorious victory. I've sent for my own scientists. If you can accomplish the feat before they arrive, I may spare your life.]"
Steve, you beautiful bastard, I don't know how you figured it out. Skull hasn't activated the Sleeper because he doesn't know how,and you convinced him the control module is the key.
Red Skull may buy into his own propaganda, but he can't underestimate an unknown opponent that badly, can he? No matter how unwilling I play it, he has to realize he's handing me exactly what I want.
"[How generous,]" I say at last.
Gotta admit, that damned grin of his is unsettling. "[If you refuse I willkill you, but first you will provide entertainment while I wait upon my scientists.]"
"[Captain America, too. We're your prisoners -- surely you respect the conduct code of war. Guarantee my life and his and I'll do what you ask.]"
"[The Red Skull does not bargain.]"
I could say something about super villains referring to themselves in the third person, except I have them all beat with that whole pretending to be my own bodyguard phase.
"[However... I have designs for the Captain for which his corpse will not suffice. I accept your terms. You will proceed at once.]"
"[It will take time -- that is, if you want the robot to accept you as its new master.]"
Killer Robot Master. Skull clearly likes the sound of that. "[You have five hours.]"
"[I'll need tools. The remote control. Strong coffee, hot food, and some aspirin.]" Plus, oh, a StarkTablet(tm) and an extra pair of arms.
"[Do not test my lenience,]" Skull warns, but dispatches the two hovering soldiers on the errand with a pointed look and a jerk of his head.
Where was I before I was so rudely employed a human punching bag? Right, access panel.
That fucking scaffolding is going to kill me yet.
Reprogramming a dormant Doombot would be a piece of cake if I wasn't hampered by the ridiculously inadequate technology of the day. The bot itself was constructed to withstand centuries of neglect, but most of the equipment Doom left behind has long since succumbed to corrosive failure. The only thing I have that's capable of editing base code is the control module, and I waste thirty minutes hacking it to function as a crude terminal.
At least it has a screen, even if it's so small that I can only work on a few lines of code at a time.
Bad news: The bot is booby trapped.
Good news: I spot and dismantle the trigger before I'm able to fry myself.
Bad: The bot shoots lasers out of every conceivable orifice, yet has no native time travel functionality.
Good: The hardware is cutting-edge even for Doom, integrating (as I suspected) many of the same components as his time platform.
Worse than bad: It could take me months, maybe years to reconfigure the system for non-destructive temporal displacement of live organisms (as Reed would phrase it).
I have to bullshit through Skull's frequent demands for progress updates. With every interruption that blows my concentration, every character I misread on that wretched tiny screen or mistype on the shitty emulated keyboard, I can feel Birch slipping further out of reach.
I'd like to claim I persevere for the billions of lives that hang in the balance, but it's my surrogate family -- Rhodey and Pepper and Jarvis, Steve and the Avengers -- that keeps me going when I want to rage and trash everything and let Birch win. Just... stay with Cap in the past, for as long as it lasts, then crawl into a bottle and never come out.
The goon standing guard over my work jolts me out of a half-doze with a kick. It's the fourth, maybe fifth time he's done it in the past hour. I look down, and the characters on the control module refuse to make sense. I've been coding gibberish.
The pathetic excuse for coffee I've been guzzling is not enough. I'm tempted to curl up right here on the platform for a power nap, but I don't trust myself not to pass out for two days, and my handler would probably think it was funny to watch me sleep through my deadline.
I'm so stiff and sore I can barely stand. "[I'm going back to my cell for a while,]" I say, and there's no disagreement.
Steve is waiting on his feet when the cell door opens. He takes my weight when the guard pours me inside, but he doesn't say a word until the sound of footsteps retreats down the corridor.
"How are you holding up, soldier?"
"I'm not. Holding up."
"There's water, if you'd like."
He still smells the way he should, oil and leather with a trace of old sweat. The arm wrapped around my waist feels right. The well-disguised concern in his voice is so familiar. He's not my Steve, but right now he's better than the real thing, free of residual antagonism and anger.
It's a false forgiveness, still more than I deserve. I'm selfish enough not to care.
"I need to rest. Sit with me?"
"What's happening out there?"
"Sit, I'll tell you," I say, even though he's already complying. We lean shoulder to shoulder against the rough wall. "Short version: I start up the robot for him and Skull lets us live. Had five hours, already blown three. I can't see straight and I'm making mistakes. So, naptime. Shake me awake in twenty for round two."
"That's it, okay? No cross-examination?"
"Do you believe Skull will honor the deal?"
"Of course he won't."
Steve nods. "When I saw that you'd failed to seal the tunnel, I came in to finish the job and rescue you. But you haven't said the word 'escape' even once, and you're strangely confident for a man who fubared his mission and expects to die. I'm inclined to trust you at this point."
"Fair enough." I settle in and close my eyes. Mail-clad Super-Soldier makes a more comfortable pillow than one might think.
Can't be. I haven't even-
No, I did. Dropped off hard enough to lose the undersuit again.
Steve has his head turned to examine me in the low light, and I get the sense he's been at it for a while. It's going to be awkward if I end up in one of his sketchbooks: Study of a Weary Man.
I'll be younger, but he'll recognize Anthony Stark the first time we meet. Hell, I've blown my secret identity before it even exists -- though I suspect Cap knew prior to the little red underwear incident.
Maybe this isn't the original divergence. If this sequence of events is cascading across timelines, it's possible my Cap had always known because he'd met a different me.
This is why I dislike time travel almost as much as magic; and why I'm going to make Reed admit, one of these days, that the world doesn't need to know if it's technically possible to be your own grandfather.
"I know you can't literally forget... all this. Me. So you have to keep it a secret. Promise-"
"I can't do that."
"Fine, I won't."
It startles him when I reach up and touch his cheek. He's collected a few days of stubble and dirt; if he removed the cowl he'd have one of those reverse raccoon mask things going on with the cleaner skin beneath.
"Steve, I-" Wow, inappropriate. No. Okay. "I don't mean forever. Someday you'll understand, and that's how you'll know it's time to share your- our story."
"Could you be more cryptic?" he asks in lieu of an answer, but I know what he's decided.
"Honey, I'm just gettin' started."
Wait for it... there, the don't sass me, sonface.
"Help me up? And where's the water cup? I've got a guard to summon with some good old-fashioned jailhouse percussion."
I actually finish the Sleeper with about twenty minutes to spare. I didn't expect to have the luxury of a test phase, but I run some passive-aggressive diagnostics right down to the wire.
Skull's been pacing circles around the bot for the past hour, failing to intimidate me with frequent and exaggerated checks of his watch. He's gonna be so pissed when this works; I wish Steve was here to see it.
"[Time is up!]"
"[It's finished!]" I shout down. "[It's finished," I repeat to the guard with the Luger pointed at my head, "[but you still need me to initiate the boot sequence, so ease off the trigger there, Skippy.]"
Skull commands, "[Robot!]" He waits a whole two seconds for it to respond. "[Nothing. The American dog lies. Kill him.]"
"[Stop, stop! You need to come up here -- you need to give the robot something so that it will recognize you and only you.]"
Skull is up the ladder and storming across the platform in a flash. "[I swear to you, if you are lying...]"
I present him the control module. Villains like to be presented things. "[There is a receptor on the back. Give it a drop of your blood.]"
If this is a trick, yadda yadda...
"[My blood,]" Skull says slowly, as if this is not only reasonable, but some huge Eureka!moment.
Kinda makes me miss the days when I could explain any gadget in the suit with Transistors!and people would believe me.
Pulling off his glove with his teeth, Skull sticks himself with the pin of the biggest medal on his uniform. He squeezes a drop into the screw hole I indicated.
"[Now place the key here.]" I show him where to squeeze the module, then seal the control panel, nice and safe.
"[Say: Sleeper, awaken.]"
There's an unholy clatter and the thing's eyes begin to glow.
"[Name yourself. Tell it who its master is.]"
Skull strikes an imperious pose. "[I am your master, Red Skull. You will obey me.]"
The Sleeper totters a step backward to disengage from the scaffolding, then crashes to one knee. "[Red Skull is my master. I will do as he commands.]"
"[Smash that.]" He points to Doom's useless equipment, which is pulverized beneath the Sleeper's massive pincer. Soldiers scatter, pelted with flying debris. "[Yes, yes!]"
Having witnessed Skull's giddy face, I can honestly say I prefer the sadistic grin.
"[Now pick me up, carefully.]"
Damn, he had to specify.
I hear a deadened thud, followed by a rumbling sound. Not at all cause for alarm, considering that I'm in a centuries-old subterranean chamber of questionable structural integrity.
Please be the bot, please be the bot.
It isn't the bot.
One of Skull's goons comes pelting down the entrance tunnel, screeching something about a sneak attack.
"[What? Who would dare? Go, all of you, repel the enemy!]" Skull orders. "[Sleeper, put me down-!]" The expression on his face is pricelesswhen he realizes he has no fucking idea how to get the bot outside.
Guess I forgot to mention the launch tube concealed above the dome.
There are several more thuds -- explosions, grenades? -- interspersed with faint weapon fire. I'm taking advantage of the confusion to do my sloth crawl down the ladder when I see a red, white and blue streak hurtle in from a side passage.
Knew that door couldn't hold Steve forever. He must have found his shield and kit in one of the adjacent store rooms.
"[Captain America, how convenient! What better way to celebrate my first step toward ultimate victory than by crushing-]" He actually shakes his fistat Steve. "[-my most despicable foe?]"
Steve is circling wide around Red Skull, trying to reach me, while keeping his attention on the Sleeper. "[The only victory you're going to see, Skull, is the headline 'Allies Enter Berlin' -- that is, if you're allowed to read the paper in prison.]"
Their smack talk improves with age, really it does.
"Iron Man?" That tone means either Little help?or You've got some serious explaining to do.
Damn it, Skull, be specificwhen you give orders. "I got this! Override code thirty four, forty four-"
The Sleeper winds back its claw-fist to smear Steve into the flagstones, but it wasn't designed to physically match the movement of a small, ridiculously agile opponent. Steve darts between its legs -- I know he's inspecting the joints for weak spots -- and the bot twists after him, its arm shearing off the top level of scaffolding.
I'm not clear, and I can't get clear in time. Iron and timber rains down around me; any second I'm going to take a sixty pound beam to the head. The RT can repel the metal. Wood... not so much.
Know what some of my favorite sounds in the world are? That whine my repulsors make, a growling V12 engine, and the ring of a sixty pound beam striking vibranium. The latter is quite distinctive, pure and clear as a bell, something to do with the material's vibration-absorbing properties. Hear it once and you never forget.
Steve pulls me tight against his side, the shield raised above our heads. And if he's giving me slightly more than a fair share of the protective cover, well. He's the one wearing freaking armor for a change.
I grin at him. "Hi."
Yup, he thinks I'm crazy. The rapid blinks are a dead giveaway. "Move," he hisses. "Left, there's a clear path."
"[Kill them, kill Captain America!]"
"And we have a winner."
The Sleeper halts dead.
Steve drags at me. "Iron Man..."
"Wait. You're gonna love this."
Recognized override code: Kill Captain America.
Primary weapons systems: engaged.
Acquiring new target, designation: Red Skull.
Skull may not understand the words, but he goes deer-in-headlights still when the Sleeper twists its head and locks onto him with those pitiless glowing eyes.
Target acquired. It raises its clacking pincers.
I'd like to kill him. It would save so much pain and trouble to end Skull here and now -- and it would fuck entire the timeline. I order, "Fire a warning salvo."
For once I must concur with Doom: Lasers are pretty fucking rad.
A dozen pinpoint beams discharge simultaneously with a crack of splitting stone. Skull is left standing in a ring of scorched impact craters, the closest one inches from his feet.
To his credit, he doesn't demand that the Sleeper obey its rightful master, or hang around to deliver an exit monologue. He looks at the scorch marks, the Sleeper, the scorch marks, and bolts for the entrance tunnel without giving me or Cap so much as a backwards glance.
"I should go after him."
"You, er, might want to let go of me first," I say, because the longer I lean here, snug in the curve of his arm, the more it will feel like goodbye. I can't do goodbye.
He steps apart to fiddle with his shield. "Sorry."
"What's happening outside?" The fighting has settled down to a regular exchange of gunfire, pop pop pop.
"Reinforcements. I missed my rendezvous, they went ahead on schedule."
I tally hours. Nightfall. It's dark. Sneak attack. "Invaders?"
Nick fucking Fury, Dum Dum, and friends. I almost laugh. "Bucky too?" Might as well make it an impromptu gathering of the future Tony Stark anti-fan club.
"He's recovering in town, got shot on the drop."
Then a key missing player is already in place. I altered Steve's mission, disrupted a critical event, but time has a tendency toward resilience and self-correction, the way water flows around a boulder in the streambed.
Steve tears his gaze off the Sleeper with effort. "If Skull had gotten his hands on that weapon..."
"He didn't." And neither will the Allies. I have what I need, the mission is a draw, and Skull lives to terrorize another day. Maybe I didn't fuck things up too badly after all.
"Yeah, go help Fury clean up. You know what a mess he can make. I'll be limping right behind you."
Steve searches my face a moment, like he knows. But he doesn't say another word, just fixes his shield and jogs for the tunnel.
I wait until he's out of sight, count to ten, and tell the Sleeper, "Seal us in."
Necessities supplied from the cache Skull's men left behind, I spend a couple days recuperating -- plenty of time for Cap to give up trying to dig me out and go home.
When I clear the tunnel again, I discover a note pinned beneath a rock. Written in an artist's hand on a page torn from a sketchbook, it reads:
To Whom It May Concern,
I believe you still have my coat. Though saving the world must take precedence, perhaps you could return the aforementioned government property at your earliest convenience. It would be the honorable thing to do.
Yours, S. Rogers
I never read that damned letter again, just save it in my pocket as a pledge.
Switzerland offers the best amenities for riding out the duration of the war, but the practicality of staying in the mountain wins out. Once the launch tube is uncovered, it's no hardship to fly the Sleeper out on scavenging forays, though I do my best to minimize human contact.
I learn the date, do some calculations, then forget for a while. On the one year anniversary of my crash-landing in the past, I hang up my tools and take the heavily modified Sleeper for an illicit night flight, across the continent and out over the Channel.
Somewhere down there in the black, frigid water is Steve. He's been lost for six days, but I couldn't let myself go searching for him until I was certain I wouldn't find him.
A month later, I follow his and FDR's example and skip out on the war. The rift that tears open in the center of the domed chamber is RT blue, and I hesitate only to receive confirmation that the terminal end is stabilized before piloting the Sleeper (Mark IV) over the edge.
I couldn't match Birch the first round, but now I have access to the same infinite toolbox he had- has.
"Do?" Birch says. "Oh, the arrogance. Tony, I don't want you to do anything. I brought you here to watch."
I can't reach the armor. I could maybe reach the man, but whatever he intends to show me, the process is already initiated. A dozen androids built from the best tech the future has to plunder stand between me and shutting down the time platform.
Impossible, even with the armor. He's right -- I'm helpless to do anything but watch.
I grip the metal rail, straining to make out the shape coalescing on the platform below. Humanoid, but not human. Too large, proportions are off.
Another android. I don't understand. Why would he make such an extravagant gesture just to show me some oversize, Victor von Frankenstein pile of-
Beside me, Birch moans, "No. No, I've seen it... this isn't the way it's supposed to happen!" He starts to claw at his armrests, trying to rise from his wheelchair. He shouldn't have the strength to do it, but he somehow makes it upright, a withered shell of a man supported solely by his frothing rage.
"Expecting someone else?" Not an android. The intruder steps forward with a gesture almost like a shrug. "Due to a scheduling conflict, Dark Phoenix is unable to provide this evening's entertainment. The management offers no apologies, and reminds you that admission price is non-refundable."
Birch, you scoured the timestream for your perfect "instrument" and chose Dark Phoenix? What the hell were you planning?
The old bastard is gaping at me like he can read my thoughts, but he points at his other guest, "Fix this, stop him!"
Apparently heedless of fragile equipment, Birch's private army opens fire. Arms spread wide, the intruder generates a force shield that somehow withstands the concerted barrage. The sphere-shield pulses brighter with each hit -- not deflecting the energy, but absorbing it -- until I'm sure it's going to go critical and take out the whole base.
Oh fuck, this is it...
With a final, blinding flash, the shield explodes outward. It passes throughme, or me through it, like hitting a chain link fence at mach three. The sensation doesn't last long enough to register as pain, but I'm left gasping and trembling all the same.
Birch slumps over the railing. His androids fare worse, seizing up as acrid smoke pours from their seams. Then the base is rocked by a distant explosion, and when power dies a split second later, I realize that the still-expanding energy bubble must have reached the generators.
Catastrophic failure of life support systems in inevitable, but I'm more concerned that Birch might have used tech instead of sufficiently robust construction to hold back freaking the ocean.
The ops room is not completely dark. Sparks cascade from ruined equipment, and residual spider webs of energy crawl across the androids' inert forms.
The intruder lowers its- his arms. "What, no applause? I just concluded the performance of a lifetime -- and I did it for you, Birch."
Huddled on the ground with his head bent, Birch makes a raspy, choking sound. The fucker's laughing. "Bravo, Tony..."
It's not even weird to hear him confirm it. I already knew.
"You'd forgotten me," Birch says. "All these years... what you did to me amounted to an insignificant detail, purged from your conscience. But now, look at you -- look at us. A truly great performance can only derive from great inspiration."
"I still win," alternate-me says.
An energy bolt blazes from the other suit, striking Birch in the chest. Even in death, his serene little smile persists.
"You have to understand," alternate-me interrupts. "It wasn't all for him." He bends to roll something across the floor, then keys a command into a panel on the armor's wrist. A new portal tears open at his feet. "Don't try to follow me."
"Where are you going?"
"Somewhere else. You know I don't belong here anymore."
"Wait!" I shout over the groan of buckling metal as the base shudders around us.
"Sorry, not my story to tell."
"Okay genius, how am Isupposed to get out of here? In case you haven't noticed, this structure is about to implode."
"Suit up and swim."
Oh, right. The inhibitor must have been destroyed with the rest of Birch's tech. (I suppose it's too late to ask other me for the trick to that signature-targeted neutralizing field.)
I call the suit and it flows out, melding around me like a second skin. Sensors snap online, power reads normal, initial diagnostics show no malfunction. I'm protected, whole again. Still doesn't mean I want to be standing here when the ocean pressure caves in the walls.
Other me turns and steps through his portal, having waited just long enough to confirm the stats from my armor, I'm sure.
I snatch up the object he left for me. Then, with a final glance at Birch's body, I ignite repulsors and get the hell out.
If Steve is surprised to find me knocking on his apartment door at six in the morning, well... that makes two of us.
The hour itself isn't particularly strange. I've been awake for nearly two days running, and I look it -- again, nothing unusual there.
"What's wrong?" Steve demands. "Why didn't you call?"
It has been a while since I've graced his doorstep on social grounds. And here's the kicker: I can't remember exactly how long "a while" is. I just know that the way things stand between us, I shouldn't be intruding on his privacy unannounced.
Yet, here I am.
"Nothing's wrong... unless you count being abducted by a man who spent the last decade nursing a vendetta against me in his secret underwater lair, with nothing for company but his loyal fembots." Seriously, the guy was like eighty years old and the most anatomically accurate part of his android design was the breasts.
"It would appear you escaped," Steve says, crossing his arms. Meaning, the news isn't sufficiently dire to warrant a personal visit. Couldn't I have submitted a report or brought up at the next Avengers meeting?
I tap a silver metal cylinder against my thigh. If I didn't know better, I'd think it was a custom cigar tube, complete with engraving. "I had help."
Of course Steve is dressed, not for the day, but for working out. To guess by the light sweat at his temples, I interrupted him less than half way through the routine -- if he still sticks to the old routine. I don't know anymore.
He keeps his growing irritation out of his voice, but it reaches the set of his mouth. "I could do without the build-up, Tony. Just tell me-"
I hand him the tube. "He left you this." After a beat I admit, "I was hoping you could explain."
Steve steps back, swinging the door wider to let me inside. By unspoken agreement we remain in the foyer. "For Steve's Eyes Only,"he reads the engraving, then looks to me with a question.
No, I didn't peek, and I'm going to pretend that he didn't just ask. "I don't think it's dangerous."
"That sounds... conclusive."
"It isn't dangerous," I repeat. "If you'd prefer not to show me, I understand. I'm just the delivery man. I can leave." Suddenly I want to, curiosity be damned.
"It's okay." Steve twists off the metal cap and upends the tube over his palm. Nothing falls out.
Empty? Is this other-me's idea of a joke? If so, I'm not very funny.
Steve fishes around with his finger and draws out a tight roll of paper.
It's bizarre. I swear I can pinpoint the exact moment recognition hits him like a brick, and he gives me the paper without even opening it to read. "What is it?" All I can see is a decorative border, similar to a stock certificate or a banknote.
"That is a Series E war bond, dated nineteen forty-four and issued in my name."
I unroll the certificate. Correct, correct, and correct. "Aha, but what amount?"
"Twenty five dollars -- the smallest denomination commonly available."
"No fair, you saw."
"Read the back," Steve suggests.
I wish I wasn't getting used to finding notes in my handwriting that I don't remember making.
"If you're around to read this, the world made it. I regret to inform you that your coat did not. Don't worry, Uncle Sam and I are square,"I finish reading aloud and lower the page. "Steve, seriously. What the hell."
"It's a long story." He's staring at me hard, searching for something in my face. When he finds it, his own expression softens.
Here's something else I can't remember: the last time he looked at me and saw just me, Tony. Not the tech; the responsibility; the many spiraling mistakes, not all of them mine.
Steve turns. "Come on inside, I'll tell you over coffee."
He doesn't look back to see if I follow. He knows I will.