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Just a Wrinkle

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The phone rings for ten whole seconds before Rhodey finally, finally answers it.

"Rhodey," Tony says. His fingers are twitching as they wrap the phone cord around his fingers, and he wonders if it's possible to actually vibrate out of his own skin. "You gotta come over to my place. Right now."

"Tony?" Rhodey asks, voice muffled. "Jeez, I just got back from the lab. I've had about four hours of sleep over the last two days. Whatever it is that you made can wait six hours. I'm going to take a goddamn nap."

It's not that Tony's not sympathetic to the fact that Rhodey's been busy with his final project, but it's just that his thing is more urgent. "Well, er, it's not something I made, per se. I just need -- you know -- someone else to--"

He can hear Rhodey sigh on the other side of the line. "If you got third degree burns from blowing up your toaster again, that's on 911, not me, remember? We had this conversation already."

"I promise I'm not broken, okay? I can't say too much over the phone. Just get over here."

Rhodey sighs loudly and heavily enough on the other end of the line that Tony knows that it's entirely for his benefit. "Fine," Rhodey says flatly. He hangs up, but it's not an angry sound. Tony's learned to tell the difference.

---

Tony knows it only takes ten minutes to get from Rhodey's dorm room to Tony's apartment. This time around, Tony can tell that Rhodey is deliberately dragging his feet, because it takes him a whole fifteen minutes to show up on Tony's doorstep.

When Rhodey finally shows up, Tony can kind of see why. Rhodey's pissed, and not in the fun, British, drunk way, either. "I have no idea why it's so important that I be here," Rhodey grumbles, "but here I am." He crosses his arms over his chest and glares straight at Tony. It's less intimidating now that Tony's about the same height as Rhodey. It was really awful when they'd first met, and Rhodey sometimes acted more like Tony's babysitter than Tony's friend.

Tony grabs him by the wrist and drags him into the living room of apartment, slamming the front door shut behind him. "Okay, I know you're not going to believe me at first, but--"

Rhodey's right eyebrow starts to arch skeptically. It's been doing that more and more often when Tony tries to tell him things these days, and Tony doesn't think it's fair. Just because you play one prank or two on your best friend, and all of a sudden, he always thinks you're up to--

"Is Rhodey here?" a voice calls from the other room. "Is this like one of those fun college reunion things? Except, you know, with it being when you were actually in college again and all."

Rhodey starts visibly, his lips curling into a frown. "Who's that?" he hisses, low enough that only Tony can hear him.

Tony's guest decides to take that moment to enter the room and the conversation, swaggering in like he owns the place, and Tony's never hated anyone more in his entire life. "Oh," the man says, "just the Tony Stark from the future. No big deal or anything."

"Wait, what?" Rhodey says. His forehead is creased with confusion. He looks between Tony and the newcomer, eyes starting to squint. "Is this guy your uncle or something?"

"I told you that you wouldn't believe me," Tony says glumly. He slumps down onto the sofa. No point in standing up for the rest of this conversation.

"No joke," old Tony says, with his mouth full. He's eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich he made in Tony's kitchen, and Tony never realized how gross that looks until he's seen it on someone else's -- his own -- face. At least old Tony isn't wearing that metal suit thing anymore, and is instead wandering around in a t-shirt and sweatpants that have both seen better days. Tony thinks he might even have a much cleaner version of that t-shirt in his closet right now.

"Trust me," Tony says to Rhodey. "I tested him to make sure he was really me."

Old Tony ignores him and decides to launch into a monologue instead. "So, to get all the obvious questions out of the way: yes, the future is great, no, we don't have flying cars, yes, I do get to bang a lot of hot chicks, and the internet does transform the world by making it easier to watch videos of cats. Anything that I miss?"

Rhodey blinks a few times and then coughs. Tony's only ever seen him this speechless when there's pretty girls involved. "You could probably start with the whole time travel thing. How the hell are you even here?"

Old Tony grins, and Tony can't look at him without hating his own goddamn beard. Is that actually fashionable in the future? Who can he kill in order to keep it from coming into style? "Well, I can't tell you any of that because of the space-time continuum, kiddo," old Tony says. He pats Rhodey on the shoulder in a way that would probably be okay if they were the same age, but as it is, ew. Seriously ew.

Rhodey doesn't even flinch. He is definitely not impressed by that explanation. He raises one eyebrow -- the skeptical one again. "Uh, huh. And how exactly are you planning on getting back without our help?" His eyes narrow. "Assuming you even want to go back."

Old Tony shrugs, "I'm sure I'll think of something. I'm a genius after all. And I hate to break it to you, but there's nothing about looking at the tiny, pimply version of myself that makes me want to stay here when I could be watching videos of cats."

"Hey!" Tony says, He isn't proud of the way his face tends to break out or anything, but at least he isn't sporting an ugly beard to hide the wrinkles on his face.

Rhodey turns to him. "Apparently you're just as annoying in the future as you are right now."

"Now you're just being mean for the sake of it," old Tony says, and for the first time since he showed up, Tony agrees with him.

---

They end up in the better fabrication laboratories, one of the ones that Tony only has access to because he stole his advisor's keys one day and made copies of all of them before the old man could even notice they were gone. Old Tony refuses to give any details about the suit (even though it folds up into a briefcase that he's now carrying with them). Rhodey is being grim-faced and unsmiling the way he always gets when Tony fucks up majorly. Tony doesn't even think that's fair, seeing as this time around, it's not Tony's fault at all.

"Ugh," old Tony says, poking through all of the available equipment in the lab. "I forgot how terrible and shitty all the technology in the 80's was."

"It's 1990," Tony points out, because may the older version of himself is senile and can't be bothered to understand how calendars work.

"Whatever," old Tony says. He looks up and grins at Rhodey. "Hey, honey bear, could you help an old man out and figure out how to synthesize these polymers?" He scribbles some sloppy chemical equations onto a whiteboard, then tosses the marker in Rhodey's general direction.

Rhodey catches it and sighs, rolling his eyes before getting to work without complaint. Tony's about to bitch Rhodey out about how compliant and patient he's being with some asshole who's just shown up and bossing him around, until he realizes that this is exactly how Rhodey treats Tony when he gets into a new project. It's both kind of sweet and sort of horrifying.

"Hey, kiddo," old Tony says to Tony, throwing an arm over Tony's shoulder, "we should find some time to talk outside."

Rhodey watches them with a suspicion that is completely unwarranted, but he doesn't say anything as old Tony leads Tony out into the hallway.

The hallway is quiet; it's late enough that even the grad students are tucked away into their offices and labs, not likely to be wandering around looking for sustenance. The lights are dimmed, the way they always are this time of night, and the windows are dark except for the orange glow of the street lamps. Old Tony looks around, as if he's trying to memorize the place. His eyes flick up and down and everywhere else except for Tony himself. He's not wearing his 'fuck you' smirk anymore.

"So," Tony says. He shuffles from foot to foot. It's weird, because old Tony doesn't look anything like their father, but Tony doesn't know how to talk to him any better. For all they have in common, there's still a lot of shit that separates them. "You're really not going to let me look at the suit?" He glances down at the briefcase, which old Tony is still hanging onto.

"No," old Tony says. "Definitely not."

Tony rolls his eyes, which would have gotten him a lecture from his father about respect, but old Tony doesn't comment on it. "I assume there's a reason you dragged me out here, though."

"Gee, you really must be a genius," old Tony sneers.

Tony folds his arms across his chest and glares him down the same way he would any of the other guys who have given Tony shit for being too young or given Rhodey shit for being too black. "Jesus, do I really turn out to be a huge asshole?"

Old Tony half-smirks, though the look in his eye changes. He looks tired. "Don't act so surprised. You know yourself better than that."

Tony kicks one foot out, slouching against the wall behind him. "Whatever." He's never really thought much about the future, what he'd be like in the twenty-first century. That's another lecture he gets a lot from his father, one about the importance of forward thinking.

"The actual reason I dragged you out here is because I wanted-- I wanted to tell you that you should hang onto your friends when you can." Old Tony runs a hand over his face. He looks old, like, really old, way older than Tony thought originally. His expression says that he's seen some shit. Tony wonders what kind of shit it is, if old Tony would tell him if he asked. "It's not always going to be obvious who they are, and there are things they can't help you out with for various reasons, but it's like-- fuck, I'm really bad at this."

"Yeah, you kind of are," Tony says.

Old Tony actually laughs at that. He waves one hand in the air. "There's this thing, where you think about what you would tell your younger self if you had the chance.I never did it myself, because I was too busy reinventing the face of modern technology to worry about what would happen if I got that chance."

"Well, maybe that's because your advice is shit." Once, this high school teacher asked Tony if he would give a lecture to her class about the importance of studying hard to get into MIT early or some bullshit. Rhodey laughed for ten minutes straight after hearing about it.

Old Tony's smile changes. It looks more like a smirk now. "You're not wrong about that."

Tony sighs. "I appreciate the attempted pep talk and all of that, but maybe we should focus more on getting you back to your own time instead of you trying to the whole father-figure thing."

"Okay, first off: ew, gross. Secondly--" old Tony pauses. He looks straight at Tony, and his expression grows serious again, and there's something just a bit haunted in his eyes. "Don't piss Rhodey off too much, okay? He's a better friend than we deserve."

"Yeah," Tony says. "Okay." Rhodey's the weirdest guy Tony knows, weird enough to befriend teen geniuses and weird enough to actually treat Tony like a real human being instead of a problem set answer dispenser or ATM. Tony's waiting for the moment for Rhodey becomes less weird, to wake up and realize that Tony isn't worth the effort. Maybe the Air Force will beat it out of him, but maybe that's what old Tony is saying, that Tony should keep trying, no matter how much it hurts.

"That's it," old Tony says, shaking off whatever funk he was in. "Good talk. Let's get back to work so we can engage in some manly ignoring of our feelings."

"Thank god," Tony says, sighing with relief. "I thought we'd be out here for another hour or something."

---

Eventually, they figure out what they need to get old Tony back to his own time. ("Oh good," old Tony says, "I forgot how awful it was to live in a time before Youtube.")

Rhodey is definitely close to murdering them all, mostly out of sleep deprivation, but he also seems relieved that everything is getting back to normal. Tony also promises him a lifetime supply of pizza for his hard work, because never let it be said that he doesn't know how to take good advice.

Old Tony busts out the metal suit again. He still refuses to let either Tony or Rhodey even touch it, which just isn't fair considering how much work they just put into getting him home. Even Rhodey looks at it enviously.

"Remember what I said," old Tony says to Tony. The faceplate of the suit pulled up so that they can see his face, and Tony has to admit that the beard isn't as bad as it could be.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Tony says. He rolls his eyes again for good measure.

"I forgot how horrible I was at this age," old Tony says. He turns to Rhodey. "Sorry you have to deal with it."

Rhodey shrugs and holds up his hands. "I'm not a part of any of this. You two gotta figure out your own shit."

Old Tony laughs, a genuine one, it seems like, and in that moment, Tony is almost okay with the idea of turning into him one day. "Can't promise that," old Tony says. "But we'll probably try."

"Whatever," Tony mutters.

Old Tony slides the faceplate of his suit down. His voice comes out half-recognizable, half-robotic. "You'll figure it out," he says, and then he stands in the middle of the makeshift machine. He activates something in the suit, making it crackle with
yellow-blue-green sparks.

In an instant, old Tony disappears.

"Well," Rhodey says, after a few seconds. "That happened."

"Yeah," Tony says. He looks around the empty lab, and he tries not to feel a shiver going down the back of his neck. It hadn't been obvious when old Tony was here, but now Tony's aware of-- the strangeness, the wrongness of getting to speak to himself.

"You okay, man?" Rhodey asks. He puts a hand on Tony's shoulder. He looks like he's about to fall asleep while standing up, and he's asking after Tony's well-being. Tony's fiercely thankful for him, for whatever quirk of fate led them to be friends.

"I'm fine," Tony says. "Everything's good." And even as weird as that all was, he really does mean it. Tony can handle weird.

Plus, he gets the feeling his life is going to have a lot more of it.

FIN.