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Past Imperfect

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Present Day.

“You should go to college,” Tony said, out of the blue.

Steve nearly did a spit take of his coffee. He was stretched out on the leather couch rifling through the Sunday papers, pondering recent trade rumors for the Mets, and hoping the snow outside would get heavier so he wouldn't have to go for a run.

Tony put down the electronic doohickey he was working on. “It’s a thing you could do now. Considering we defeated Thanos months ago and the whole Avengers business is manageable. Maybe a few art classes, that sort of thing.”

“What brought that up?” Steve asked. He really hoped that Tony had not already paid for four years at Empire State in the name of Steve Rogers. He knew Tony was impulsive and extravagant, particularly since they started dating a few months ago. “We still have to save the world occasionally.”

“I think your professors would be more than glad to excuse you from class in that case. But seriously, Steve, you had to leave college because you didn’t have the money. You’re dating a multi-billionaire, and the government still owes you the GI Bill -- take advantage.”

Steve cocked his head to the side. He had been thinking of maybe taking a course or two. Just to ease into it. His ma would have been beyond proud of him.

“Sir -- Rhodey is on the phone,” Friday declared.

Steve was about to reply when Tony blurted out, “Don’t answer that -- he’s trying to talk me into going to our MIT reunion.”

“And?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “There might be an award or two.”

“For Rhodey?”

“Me.” Tony sighed. “I loved MIT, but not so much being a seventeen-year-old undergrad. I already sent my regrets.”

“You don't talk about MIT much -- not sure if I buy your pitch for me going to college if you didn’t like it .…”

Tony mumbled, “I liked it fine. But you wouldn’t have liked me back then.”

Steve got up from the couch and kissed the top of Tony’s head. “I’m not going for a run. Want to mess around?”

Tony tossed his screwdriver on the table. “Best idea of the day.”

~~~~~

Steve regarded Strange warily as he sipped his soda. He had been summoned to the Sanctum Santorum via text message. But he was willing at least to listen to Doctor Strange’s concerns. Steve had woken up with a gut feeling that something was fundamentally wrong in the universe. Like someone had moved the furniture in his apartment or swapped the clothes in his closet. Nothing had changed but everything was wrong at the same time.

Doctor Strange steepled his fingers and repeated himself. “It is clear that the only solution is to go back in time and stop the event from happening.”

He had no idea how Strange had found his cell phone number and tracked him in his safe house. Only Sam and Natasha had that number or knew where he was or even what he looked like these days now that he had dyed his hair brown and let his beard grow out. He couldn’t risk getting caught by HYDRA-slash-SHIELD. The current bounty on his head was higher than the GDP of several small countries and there were plenty of desperate people in the world.

He didn’t believe Strange any more than he had when Strange first asked for help. “This is -- this doesn’t make sense.”

Strange flicked his fingers through the air sending out golden flashes of light. “Someone or something is changing the past -- I sense probabilities and futures shifting and bending and nothing is what is meant to be. I have determined that our own present has been changed and nearly all traces of what should be are disappearing. We must move fast or all is lost.”

“And I can help?”

“Yes -- you are the only one.” Strange waved a hand. “Tell me -- do you remember Tony Stark?”

He frowned. “Howard’s son? Fury told me that he had died in the late 80s and Howard was never the same.” Tony Stark -- the name was familiar and not familiar at the same time. He sensed wisps of memories of a dark-haired man with a glow in his chest. Red and gold armor. Felt more like a dream than reality and the more he focused on the wisps they dissolved into mist.

Yet he felt a deep and unending loss.

Strange flicked his fingers and a book sailed off a shelf into his hand. “Anthony Edward Stark, 17, killed in a mugging on December 31, 1987. That is the time of the incident and that is how we must resolve the breach of reality. You --” Strange pointed at Steve “--are to go back and prevent the incident that resulted in Tony Stark’s death. I would recommend getting Mr. Stark out of town instead of waiting for the crime that ends his life.”

“And Tony Stark is important because --?”

Flicking through the book again, Strange frowned. “As far as I can tell, Mr. Stark’s unfortunate death is what sets off all the changes in our reality. He is supposed to be alive now. A common enemy went back to remove Mr. Stark from the timeline that leads to now.”

“Why me?”

“As far as I can tell -- you have a peculiar resistance to whatever reality shifting is occurring. And you have a connection to the young Mr. Stark, all of which leads me to believe that you will be able to find him and prevent his unfortunate early death. And you are likely to prove to be more adaptable than most functioning in the past.”

“You can send me back in time and bring me back?”

“Indeed -- it’s a deeply complicated spell and highly specific to resolving this one manipulation of reality. And once you have rescued Tony Stark, I can fix whatever has gone wrong with reality.”

Steve nodded. Howard’s son, dead at 17, barely starting his life. Steve could do this. “Then send me back.”

Strange smiled. A few flickers of his fingers tinged with a gold glow and a steady circular motion of his hand opened a large portal on the other side of the room. “Good luck, Captain Rogers.”

~~~~~

Boston. December 10, 1987. Cold, and snow on the ground.

Steve hadn’t been to Boston before except for a war bonds stop in ‘43 and he didn’t have time for sightseeing. As far as he could tell he was somewhere near or even on the MIT campus. And had no idea where he could find Tony Stark. Or even what he looked like.

“Library. I’ll start at the library,” he muttered.

A passer-by pointed him in the right direction at least. Steve noticed the distinct lack of cell phones around him. The clothing, backpacks,and coats were subtly different from what he’d gotten used to, and he was probably not out of place here with his leather motorcycle jacket and jeans. He guessed that he was the one tapped for the time trip back to 1987 because he wasn’t likely to be as disoriented as anyone else.

He managed to bluff his way into the library as the staff kindly guessed he was a student from Mass Art who needed to do some research but had lost his ID. A librarian showed him the microfilm machines and loaded up a microfilm reel of recent Boston Globes. She pointed out where he could get other reels of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. “Just rewind before you return the reel, thanks,” she added.

Good thing that Steve was adaptable. He glanced around the library and found it somewhat reassuring with the stacks of books and rows of newspapers and magazines. There were a few computers set off by themselves, but their green and black screens weren’t at all like the ones he was more familiar with. He had to work for it but he found a few picture of the man he was looking for. At least he recognized Howard, next to a dark-haired kid who looked nothing like him.

Now he had to find that kid on campus somewhere.

“Could you point me to the robotics lab?” he asked the helpful librarian.

~~~~~

Four hours later and he still hadn’t found Tony. He pondered his next moves over a cup of coffee at a corner Dunkin Donuts. Money might be an issue given that all he had was what he had in his wallet and he didn’t have a sense of how long his mission might take.

Students swarmed into the store desperate for hot coffee. Steve listened carefully to the scattered conversations, narrowing in on a couple of women who were chattering about a party that night and he caught something about Tony Stark. Then Tony himself walked through the door.

The women greeted Tony with smiles and laughs. “So, Tony, how about that party?”

“Still on,” Tony replied with a grin.

Steve narrowed his eyes as he studied Tony. He knew from his research that Tony was seventeen and on track to graduate in June 1988. He didn’t like the persistent feeling that he knew Tony. Or a different version of Tony Stark. A picture of a Tony flashed through his mind -- older, styled hair, crinkles at the corners of his eyes, a brilliant smile.

He got that odd feeling again that things were not right. He looked around the small store evaluating threats. All he knew was that Tony killed during a mugging -- which could have been incidental. On the other hand, Tony was the son of Howard Stark, who was still heavily involved with SHIELD, even if his connections weren’t publicly known. Grief-stricken, Howard would disappear from public view after Tony’s death, dying shortly after in a car accident rumored to be from drunk driving.

All that didn’t help Steve any as he considered the very much alive Tony laughing with the women in line. He was thinking of ways to join their conversation.

“Hey, you’re cute. What are you doing tonight?” Tony said.

Steve blinked a couple of times. Tony was addressing him of all people. “Um, me?”

“Yeah, you,” Tony repeated. “Hi, I’m Tony Stark.”

“Steve.”

“Oh, just Steve? Well, I’ve got a party tonight. If you got nothing better to do, come on by. Lots of beer, music, you know.” Tony grabbed Steve’s hand and wrote out the address. “See you there.” He gave Steve a wink.

A half-smile snuck across Steve’s face before he could stop it. Tony, with a few wisps of dark brown hair sticking out from under his hat and a wide smile on his face, bounced back and forth on the balls of his feet. One of the women nudged Tony, “Hey, line’s moving.”

Steve stared at the swirls of numbers written on his hands stirring a buried memory or dream. “I’ll be there.”

“Great!” Tony shouted over his shoulder.

~~~~~

Steve would have been able to find the party even if he didn’t have the address. He stood outside Tony’s apartment building near Kendall Square and saw Tony waving at people through the windows of his third-floor apartment.

“Here for Tony’s party?” a guy asked him.

“Yes.”

“He throws the best parties -- buys the beer and pizza and everything,” the guy continued. “I don’t know him all that well -- I think we were in Calculus or something once. But I wouldn’t miss one of his parties.”

Steve squeezed himself into the apartment already close to bursting with people. “Shut the door,” a tipsy woman chanted at him. “Someone’s gonna call the cops.”

Either Tony had supremely tolerant neighbors or the neighbors were students who didn’t care. That could be the only way the cops hadn’t already been called. He caught sight of Tony in a corner of the living room, waving a hand around as he talked with a couple of women, his other hand clutching a red solo cup.

Steve was pushed towards the kitchen by the crowd until he bumped into a man he almost didn’t recognize. Longer hair, unlined face, and not wearing a polo shirt, but he could tell he’d met Colonel Jim Rhodes. He’d encountered the older man a few times when the Air Force liaised with SHIELD, before SHIELD turned out to be HYDRA in disguise and took over the world. He had no idea what connections, if any, Rhodes had to Tony Stark.

“Hello,” he said. “I hope I didn’t spill your drink.”

Rhodes checked his solo cup. “Nah, still have all my soda.” He peered warily at Steve like he was a coiled snake. “You a friend of Tony’s?”

Coming out of nowhere, Tony clapped a hand on Steve’s back. “Hey -- it’s my friend from the coffee shop. I didn’t catch your name --”

“Roger.”

“You have a last name, right?” a stone-faced Rhodey asked.

“Stevens. Roger Stevens.” Rhodes didn’t like him for some reason.

“Almost like Captain America,” Tony joked. “But hotter. A lot hotter. I like the beard.”

“Uh-huh,” Rhodey said.

“I’ll win a bet if you’re a student from MassArt. Are you?”

“He’s probably a teacher, he’s that old,” Rhodes said.

“Aw come on, Rhodes. Rog-ie isn’t that old -- maybe a grad student.” Tony stage-whispered to Steve, “Rhodey hates all the new people I meet.”

“Only some of them,” Rhodey said coldly.

“Want a beer?” Tony asked again.

“Um -- aren’t you -- is it legal?” Steve stammered.

“Haha, you’re funny,” Tony said laughing. “It’s a party -- what are you, my parents or something? Hey, what did you think of that final?” he said to a guy in a blue sweater. Then he was off into the crowd, leaving Steve behind with a disapproving Rhodey.

“He’ll be back, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Rhodey said as neutrally as possible.

“So you’ve been friends for a while?” Steve asked, hoping desperately to get back on mission.

“I’m Tony’s best friend and roommate -- I’ve known him since freshman year.”

Steve thought hard about what to ask next. “Graduating with him?”

“Yeah. I’m Air Force ROTC so I’ll find out where I’m headed soon. I hope.”

He talked with Rhodey a bit longer, then noticed Rhodey looking at Tony. Who was hanging all over a giggling girl in a short skirt. He looked back at Rhodey and then glanced back at Tony. Or where Tony had been. Tony was gone.

Rhodey muttered, “Happens all the time. If I’m lucky, he’s off in his bedroom and he’ll show up to clean up after the party. If I’m not, he’ll call me to pick him wherever he ended up, and he’ll call cleaners to clean up.”

Steve didn’t know what to say.

“Don’t get me wrong -- he’s my best friend,” Rhodey said. “He’s the greatest. You stay away from him.”

~~~~~

December 15 and Steve had sixteen days to stop the mugging that ended Tony’s life.

Since the party, he found that Tony had an open door policy when it came to a few (read “many”) people and somehow Steve had been put on that not particularly exclusive list, but he had a mission and never backed down from saving people. Also, Tony had a remarkably poor reputation for drinking and sleeping with anything that moved. He could see why Rhodey worried over the kid.

He also discovered that Tony had finished up his papers and exams for the semester and was just hanging around before heading home for the holidays. Tony had mentioned offhand that he was heading home to his parents’ New York City home a couple of days before Christmas.

Although he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, Steve felt a stir of memory. Of other holidays and bad news and a sad, dark-haired man. The longer he stayed here the more memories of a different future filled his mind. Could be Strange doing whatever he needed to do on his end to fix what had gone wrong.

In the afternoon Steve dropped by Tony’s apartment and found Tony and Rhodey studying in the living room. Rhodey was the actual person studying while Tony was taking apart a small pile of pagers.

“I’m bored,” Tony explained. “My professor kicked me out of his lab and told me to stay out for the next week.”

Rhodey snorted. “He doesn’t want you showing up the grad students again.” He flipped over a couple of pages in his textbook and picked up the large calculator from the coffee table.

“Um--” said Steve.

“Come back later?” Tony asked brightly. “I’m having some friends over.”

“Tones, everyone is studying -- who’s gonna be over?”

Tony shrugged. “You know, people. People like Roger here and those guys down the hall.”

“I’ve got a final tomorrow --”

“And you’ll do great, Sour Patch -- you’re breaking the curve in that class already. You should more concerned with someone sabotaging your test.”

Before Rhodey could respond, the beige phone on the kitchen countertop rang. Tony groaned as he got up. “If it’s that post-doc wanting Dum-E’s code again --” He picked up the phone. “Hello?” He immediately straightened. “Yeah, hi, Dad. I get it. But -- okay. I’ll talk to Sue if I need anything.”

Rhodey sat tensely listening to Tony on the phone, his eyes alert and his calculus forgotten. Steve now felt even more like he was intruding on them.

Tony frowned as he hung up the phone. “Mom and Dad are going to the Bahamas. Again. Flying out in a couple of days. I guess I’m not going home for break.”

Rhodey and Steve exchanged a look.

“You're not going with them?” Rhodey asked.

“Nah-- they didn’t get me a ticket. Dad said I could hang at the house with Jarvis or get a ticket and tag along. Up to me.” Tony drew a deep breath. “Nah, I need to be here,” he said with a shrug. “Lots of work to do. I can always work in one of the labs.”

“You should go, you know. Who leaves their kid behind at Christmas?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Tony tapped his fingers on the countertop. “Yeah, that’s it. Let’s grab some sleds, silicon, rocket fuel and find some snow. You in, Roger?”

So that’s how they ended up at Boston Common using rocket-powered sleds for the rest of the afternoon. Tony set up the little engines while Rhodey calculated the fuel needed to run the engines. Steve mostly just held stuff.

While Tony used the last of the rocket fuel on one last run as the sun was setting, Rhodey tapped Steve’s shoulder. “You know, Tones is my little brother. I don’t like people messing with him. So either you’re not up to anything good at all or you’ve been hired by Mr. Stark to be some sort of secret bodyguard for Tony.”

“I am not a secret bodyguard.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t like people who take advantage of Tony. You better not be one of those people. There’s enough of that scum already.”

After a dinner of Chinese takeout, Steve left Tony’s apartment. He had found a cheap place to stay not far from Tony off campus, and managed to pick up a few bucks helping move students in and out of dorms and apartments. He walked around the corner and caught sight of a man in a uniform or jumpsuit out of the corner of his eye. By the time he turned his head to get a better look, the man was gone.

Pieces suddenly snapped into place. HYDRA. HYDRA must be behind the time-travel project as part of some bigger scheme to remake the future. They could easily be behind Tony’s assault and murder. Steve needed to be careful. He didn’t want them to feel the need to move up their Tony-killing schedule. Or worse, bring in the Winter Soldier to make sure that the job was done.

~~~~~

December 18

For safety’s sake, Steve didn’t see Tony for a couple days after they went sledding. He kept up surveillance on the apartment and tracked Tony’s actions on campus. Not much difference between super-secret bodyguard and undercover superhero in the end.

Steve knew Tony was planning to stay in Boston over the winter break. Alone. Which meant certain death for Tony.

Keeping Tony safe from afar wasn’t solving the problem. Steve could wait and watch for HYDRA agents until December 31, or he could get Tony out of town. Maybe he could talk Tony into going to the Bahamas with his parents or back to New York, as long as he went anywhere that wasn’t Boston.

Steve took a deep breath. Talking people into doing things was his old buddy Bucky’s talent, not his. He supposed he could punch his way of his problems by thrashing whoever was supposed to kill Tony. That he could handle.

But even with his top-notch surveillance, he couldn’t keep tabs on Tony all the time. Despite being only seventeen, Tony had a deep and varied toolbox of assorted skills for avoiding people he didn’t want to be around, escaping events he didn’t want to attend and ignoring inconvenient problems. He wasn’t always in the lab he said was going to, or he stayed out all hours of the night but told different people different stories about what he was up to. Tony was always on the run from something.

It would be helpful if whatever he was on the run from included time-traveling HYDRA agents, because Steve sure could use the assistance.

He walked towards Tony’s apartment, not sure what he was going to do. Maybe he’d get inspired. Or not. Tony resolved the problem for him by slamming right into his back.

“Sorry about that -- hey! Roger! I’ve missed you!” Tony said. He tugged on Steve’s leather jacket. “C’mon, a couple of friends are coming by to play some games.”

It wasn’t a couple -- Tony had seriously underreported the group of twelve people crammed into his living room. Someone handed Steve a warm beer when he took up a spot leaning on the kitchen door frame. A couple women were shouting to be heard over the crowd, telling a guy with a box of cassettes to “just put on BCN already.”

Tony pulled out a gray console marked Nintendo Entertainment System, shoved a cassette into it, and threw a joystick controller over to Rhodey. Steve judged he wasn’t that much older than the crowd of undergraduate and graduate students sitting on couches and the floor, shouting at Rhodey as he tried to play “Legend of Zelda.”

When Steve first met him, he thought that Tony had a lot of friends. Now he knew better. He wondered how many people would be here if Tony wasn’t buying the pizza and beer or helping them with homework or doing assignments for them. Except Rhodey.

After an hour, Rhodey had to leave for a late study session for his last final. When the pizza disappeared and the last of the beer was gone, everyone else melted away, leaving Steve and Tony alone in the apartment.

“Want to watch a movie?” Tony asked. He scooted off the couch, pulling out a large flat box and grabbing another larger cassette. “How about Star Trek IV? -- it’s the one with the whales.”

“Sure,” Steve replied. His memory was blurry -- he had seen this film or maybe he hadn’t.

Tony clambered back up on the couch. “Everyone gives me crap about Star Trek. But I love it -- it’s the exploration thing, right? People joke about this film all the time -- it’s the whales. But I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to go back in time to save something to save your world. I would. I would totally build a time machine to save the whales or the gophers or something.”

“Uh-huh,” Steve replied.

As Tony talked about what he liked about the film, only pausing every now and then, Steve had another flash of memory. He’d lived this exact scenario before, but with an older Tony and a better quality couch. Steve could predict almost exactly what Tony was going to say next. He could sense an undercurrent of fondness, almost bordering on love.

This was wrong, completely and utterly wrong. All of it. In every sense of the word wrong.

And now Tony was inching closer to him on the couch. Close enough that Steve could see the sweep of his long eyelashes and the sparkle in his eye. He jumped when Tony put his hand on his thigh.

“Look at us, finally alone,” he said with a smirk as he reached for Steve’s shirt.

“What are you doing?” Steve asked.

“This is why you’re here, right?” Tony asked. “I mean, the only reason you’re here is because you want to -- you know -- sleep with me or something.”

Steve opened and closed his mouth a couple of times. He looked at Tony, noticed the lean frame and rounded softness of his face and a couple of zits along his forehead. Tony acted years older, but he was just seventeen. He looked lost and confused.

“Tony --”

Tony swallowed and nodded. “I mean, I understand. I didn’t see you the past couple of days, so I thought maybe you were angry with me because we didn’t do anything yet. But if you don’t want me --”

Steve bit his lip. Took a breath. Tried to muster up all the sincerity, compassion and honesty he had in his body. “Tony -- you’re seventeen, I’m older than Rhodey. If I was your age, I’d be happy right now. But I’m not.”

“Uh-huh,” Tony said, with a sniffle.

Contrary to every instinct telling him to flee and not look back, Steve put a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Tony, it really is. There are plenty of people out there who will love you for what you are.”

“Yeah, right, Rhodey tells me that all the time,” Tony said as he wiped his eyes.

“Rhodey’s a smart guy.”

“I do math faster than he does.”

“You do math faster than most everyone on the planet.”

Looking past Tony’s head, Steve noticed the living room wall lined with concrete blocks and bookcases full of paperbacks, many with cracked and worn covers. “Tell me about your book collection.”

“What -- oh, yeah, those are all mine.”

“What do you think of Isaac Asimov?”

Tony scrambled off the couch excitedly. “Oh, wow -- have you read the Foundation series? How about Larry Niven or Ursula LeGuin -- did you know there are Star Trek novelizations?”

~~~~~

Steve woke up to see Rhodey glaring down at him. He had fallen asleep on the couch after he made Tony go to bed. Or else Tony would have stayed up all night talking about books.

“I have breakfast,” Rhodey announced grimly. He held up a Dunkin Donuts bag and didn’t apologize for the snow dripping on Steve from his coat sleeve.

Yawning and rolling his head back and forth to work out the crick in his neck, Steve stumbled into the kitchen after Rhodey and his box of donuts. Rhodey dropped the box on the table. “Coffee?” he asked.

Steve headed over to start the coffee maker. He could feel Rhodey’s eyes on his back as he measured the coffee and poured water into the machine.

“So, Tony?”

“Still in bed. I think. That’s where he was headed last night.”

“And you were on the couch,” Rhodey said. He looked at Steve appraisingly, clearly weighing whether or not to believe him. “I guess you can have a donut then,” he said begrudgingly. He pushed the box towards Steve.

Steve picked out a chocolate glazed. “I would have heard him if he left.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Light sleeper.”

“Sure.” Rhodey narrowed his eyes. “Hey, I’m glad that you slept on the crappy couch of doom and that you didn’t take advantage of Tony. Doesn’t mean you’re off the hook with me, okay?”

“Okay. Coffee?”

“Sure,” Rhodey replied. Steve handed him a mug and hoped the truce Rhodey was offering would hold up until Tony was out of harm’s way.

Tony ran into the kitchen in his pajamas. “Coffee -- I need coffee. Yes!” He fist-pumped and attacked the coffee machine.

~~~~~

December 20.

Steve sat in a sub shop waiting for Tony and Rhodey. Tony suggested that they meet up for lunch.

“Thought you’d be here,” Rhodey said somewhere near his right shoulder.

Steve glanced at Rhodey’s impassive face. Almost friendly but not entirely. He nodded in return.

“Tony told me what happened the other night after you left,” Rhodey said. “Well, I guess you’re not an assassin or kidnapper after all.”

“Thanks,” Steve replied. “I appreciate the faith.”

“I didn’t say I trusted you. I still don’t think you’re up to any good, but whatever you’re up to -- yeah, it probably doesn’t involve killing or kidnapping Tony.”

Steve nodded. “Should we get lunch or wait for Tony?”

Rhodey shrugged. “Tony’s always late. He had a meeting with his advisor this morning. We can wait.”

And after a few minutes, Rhodey stopped looking at Steve like he was something he’d scraped off the bottom of his shoe. Rhodey talked about his plans to leave for Philadelphia for the winter break in two days. It would probably be the last time guaranteed he’d be able to spend the holidays with his family.

Rhodey had wheedled out of Steve that Steve had been in the army. He was excited to be going into the Air Force and once he got going, Rhodey couldn’t stop talking about it.

Finding an opening in the conversation, Steve asked, “Is this the first time Tony’s been on his own for Christmas?”

Rhodey curled and uncurled the napkin in front of him. “He usually goes to New York or Malibu. He won’t talk about it. I’d go to the Bahamas in a split second if I could. But I don’t know, man, it’s messed up.”

A sudden plan formed in Steve’s mind. The best of all plans -- to get Tony out of Boston and to safety. Even if he stopped the HYDRA agent, he didn’t put it past them to have called in the Winter Soldier, who wasn’t likely to stop until the target was dead or called off.

“He can’t stay here alone over Christmas,” Steve blurted out. “Why can’t he go home with you?”

Rhodey started. “I -- I hadn’t thought about it. Christmas can get crazy at my house. And my mom -- huh, I never thought about it.”

Tony popped through the door and threw an arm around Rhodey’s back. “All right -- grab lunch and let’s go. I have something to show you in the lab.”

All the way to the lab Tony talked a blue streak. As far as Steve could figure out, Tony’s advisor had given him good news about a fellowship opportunity after graduation and a lot of other exciting stuff. Whatever it was, Rhodey followed and was just as excited as Tony.

Steve trailed behind. He couldn’t afford to get complacent about the agent he’d seen a few days before. He could see why HYDRA targeted Tony during Christmas. Tony was never alone and was always in a public place during classes. Steve could see that campus was emptying out now that finals were done.

If Tony was constantly in his lab while Rhodey was away -- that was exactly when they would attack Tony. Blame it on a mugging and the world was changed in HYDRA’s favor.

Tony ushered them up to the lab. “Oh -- forgot to turn off the radio.” He raced to turn the large box off.

Rhodey made a face. “Seriously, Tones, AC/DC?”

“Beats anything you listen to.” Tony stripped off his coat and dumped it on a side table. “Behold, my masterpiece -- Dum-E.”

A large robot arm rolled out from behind a table, beeping and whirring as it went. Tony patted the arm.

“I’ve seen Dum-E before, Tony.”

“Not Roger, and Roger told me he likes robots. I’ve updated his code and some of his parts, so he’s almost new.”

Steve smiled broadly. “You built this, Tony? You’re brilliant.” He examined Dum-E closely and was amazed at what Tony built.

Tony actually blushed a little. “Yeah, well, I have a lot of ideas.”

Rhodey rolled his eyes. “He had a ton of press coverage when he built Dum-E last year. It’s not like it’s gone to his head or anything.”

“Maybe it’s a good thing that I’m in Boston for the break. I can get a lot done, like finishing up Dum-E’s upgrades and working on the patent applications.”

If Tony was building stuff like this when he was seventeen, what would he build when he was older? Maybe a mobile armored battlesuit. Or a more advanced robot. Of course, HYDRA and their allies would be desperate to take out someone like Tony before Tony grew too dangerous for them to handle.

They spent a few hours in the lab. Tony took him on a tour of the lab and was obviously very pleased with himself as Steve admired his work. Rhodey was nearly as proud as Tony. Then they goofed around with Dum-E and a couple of small robots Tony was designing.

Tony suggested they get food but Rhodey had already planned to go to a ROTC end-of-semester dinner. And then Tony noticed something wrong with a circuit board and decided to stay until he fixed it.

When he and Rhodey left the building, Steve felt uneasy. The sun had set but the moon wasn’t out and there were too many dark shadows that could hide time-traveling HYDRA agents or worse.

“This is where I’m going,” Rhodey said. “Catch you later.” He turned down a sidewalk towards another part of campus.

Steve walked further down the sidewalk away from the lab building. And turned around to catch another glimpse of the mysterious HYDRA agent disappearing behind a dumpster. He went to follow the agent. He felt more than saw the other man. He carefully studied the buildings and pathways looking for clues. The other man finally moved and Steve’s heart sunk when he saw a glint of silver. The Winter Soldier.

Then he saw Tony exit the building. Completely oblivious that he could be in any danger.

The HYDRA agent apparently decided to strike now. He ran from behind the dumpster towards Tony. Tony had stopped to fiddle with his pager and didn’t see the man rapidly approaching.

Steve shouted, “Run, Tony, mugger!”

Tony looked up in confusion. “What?”

“Mugger! Run!” Steve shouted again. He ran right at the HYDRA agent who froze and fumbled with the gun in his hands. Steve would have felt embarrassed for the agent and his clear lack of training if Tony’s life wasn’t in danger. He could also sense the Winter Soldier aiming at someone.

Then the HYDRA agent did the stupidest thing in the world. Seeing Steve bearing down on him, he took a swing at Steve. All Steve had to do was hold his hand so the agent hit it with all his strength. The man screamed in pain as he broke his hand on Steve’s fist. Steve then felled him with a neat left hook and struck the guy’s chest, hearing a satisfying crunch as he destroyed what he hoped was the time-traveling device.

“Wow,” Tony breathed.

“I was in the Army,” Steve said. The HYDRA guy glared at Steve as best he could. “Go, call the police.”

“Wow,” Tony repeated. “That was amazing.”

“Call the police, Tony,” Steve ordered. Tony opened his mouth to say something but turned tail and headed back to the building.

With the HYDRA agent disabled, Steve looked at the buildings. If he was a sniper, where would he set up? Now he knew what the plan was -- the HYDRA agent would look like he was mugging Tony, Winter Soldier would deliver the killing blow.

He didn’t have his shield or any weapon at hand. “Call him off,” he demanded.

“What?” the HYDRA agent said. “What are you talking about?”

“Call the Winter Soldier off -- if you don’t call him off, his next target is you.”

“No -- that’s -- you’re Captain America.” The light dawned in the agent’s eyes. “Damn it, this was always a one-way trip. I bet this device didn’t even work once I got here. I need a few minutes. The police are probably on their way.”

“I’ll get you the time.” He spotted the likeliest sniper spot.

He raced over to the building adjacent to the robotics lab and up the stairs. He ripped open the door to the roof and found the Winter Soldier patiently waiting for the return of Tony. The breath caught in his throat -- it was not the Winter Soldier from his time but the ruthless killing machine under the complete control of the Soviet Union branch of HYDRA.

This was going to hurt. And the best Steve could hope for was to disable all his weapons.

He lunged for the sniper rifle already in position, knocking the surprised Winter Soldier to the side. A stomp on the barrel and the rifle was partially destroyed. Recovering from the surprise attack, the Soldier pulled out a knife and advanced on Steve. Steve took a deep breath. He didn’t want to fight Bucky, even if there were no visible traces of his friend -- but if he didn’t stop the Soldier, he would go after Tony until Tony was dead. No matter how long it took. And he had to save Tony.

Winter Soldier slashed at Steve. Steve barely deflected the blade, which nicked his hand. He threw a punch, but only hit the Soldier’s shoulder. No damage. The Soldier circled Steve looking for any opening or weakness and Steve worked hard to keep him in front of him at all times. They eyed each other warily. Steve tensed as the Soldier went for the gun he had strapped on his back.

A radio crackled and snapped. A long line of Russian words flowed out. The Winter Soldier straightened up, dropped the gun in his hand, and went completely blank. Over the radio the HYDRA agent snapped, “Get lost.” But when Steve looked over at the Winter Soldier, he had vanished into the night.

Steve could only hope he had done enough to right the future. Tony was safe. For now.

~~~~~

December 22

Steve watched Tony race around his apartment throwing clothes and books and stuff into his suitcase. Tony chattered excitedly about his new plans for winter break. Tony was going home to Philadelphia with Rhodey and then he and Rhodey were heading to Malibu for the rest of the time.

Rhodey had pulled through for Tony. After he told his mother about the attempted mugging, Mrs. Rhodes insisted Tony come with Rhodey for the holidays. She told Rhodey angrily that no boy should be left alone like that. She had some choice words about Howard Stark to boot.

“We’re flying down instead of Rhodey having to take the train,” Tony said. He slammed the suitcase closed. “Is the cab here yet?”

Rhodey peered out the window. “Yeah, looks like it. I’ll grab the suitcases and take ‘em down to the street while you shut the place up.”

“He wants to make sure that I don’t leave anything on that will burn the place down,” Tony confessed to Steve.

“Tony, I hope you have a great time,” Steve said with a smile.

“Oh! I never asked about your plans,” Tony said. “Are you sticking around -- I mean, are you going to be here when I get back?”

Steve put a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “You deserve better, Tony.”

“I hear that a lot, you should know,” Tony replied. “Try to sound a lot less like my mom before you kiss me.”

Steve wanted to say so much to Tony. Believe in yourself and your instincts, find a way to reach Howard before it’s too late, be careful around people who want things from you. Be everything you were meant to be with joy and happiness. It will get better. There will be terrible days ahead, but it will get better. He had a lot of hope for Tony.

He leaned in and kissed Tony’s forehead. “Have a great time.”

“You missed my lips.”

“Think of me like an older cousin,” Steve retorted. “Have a great time, Tony.”

Down in the street, Steve watched Tony jump in the cab with Rhodey, off to vacation and safety. Rhodey was the best friend Tony could have right now, even if the younger version of Rhodey was nearly as reckless in his own way as Tony.

If only he was seventeen -- Steve shook his head. Not helping anything by thinking that way.

When he got back to his present, Steve should look up Tony. Tony must have grown into someone special. Maybe he’d even remember the art grad student he met at MIT.

That would only work if Strange had been able to fix the problems with the past. Because Steve couldn’t imagine Tony in the HYDRA dystopia of the future.

Wondering if Strange was ever going to retrieve him from the past, Steve kept walking down the street and into a golden swirling portal.

~~~~~

Present Day

“Welcome back, Captain Rogers. I think you’ll find things more to your liking in this future,” Strange announced.

“So it worked?”

“Perfectly,” Strange replied with a note of pride.

Steve didn’t stick around long in the Sanctum Sanctorum once he stepped through the time portal and back to present-day New York. And to his credit, Doctor Strange didn’t try to stop him. They both knew something had changed. Steve preferred to let reality rearrange itself while he parked himself in front of the television.

Tony, in sunglasses, a wool coat, and a red and gold scarf, was leaning against his car at the curb. He scrolled through his phone, completely at home, waiting for Steve. Steve hesitated; his mind was still foggy about what was real and what wasn’t. But Tony’s bright smile, meant only for Steve, chased away lingering shadows.

“So what did the good doctor have to say?”

Steve shrugged as he opened the passenger-side door. “Do you really want to know?”

“I’m assuming he had sensed an inter-dimensional threat that for some reason only you of all the Avengers could solve. Best reason for why you took off like a shot when you got the call.”

He couldn’t quite remember the sequence of events of how he ended up at the Sanctum Sanctorum. He had a hazy memory of sitting on a couch in the sun reading his paper. With Tony. “How did you know to pick me up?”

“The good Doctor called and asked me to fetch you. What happened? You look like hell.”

Steve leaned against his hand. His mind was still reeling from the whole time-travel and alternate-dystopian future. Steve could sense the shadows of a different present and other realities, but already they were wisps in the wind, memories of fever dreams dreamt a long time ago. Good riddance.

“Long mission. Involving magic and time travel.”

“Hmph. Sounds like you could use a good dinner and a shower. Maybe we could watch a movie and call it an early night. I don’t know if we’ve seen all the Star Trek --”

“Not Star Trek. And definitely not the one with the whales.”

Tony patted Steve’s knee. “Sounds like a story there.”

Steve felt something poking into his thigh. “What’s the MIT reunion packet doing here? And a letter from Mrs. Rhodes?”

“It’s the annual Christmas letter. I’ve been getting them since the Christmas I spent with Rhodey’s family back in ‘87. Spend one holiday and you end up a member of the family. Fixing the washing machine didn’t hurt either.”

“Are you thinking about the reunion?”

“Yeah, I might go. I have the trophy boyfriend now, so how I could not go and show you off?”

Steve’s mouth curled into a smile. “Rhodey nagged you.”

“He might have been persuasive.” Tony pursed his lips. “You know, the best thing besides graduation was spending winter break with Rhodey and his family. Good old-fashioned Christmas. Stupidly I spent the next year at a girlfriend’s house, I can barely even remember her name …. You know, I wouldn’t have even gone to Rhodey’s if I wasn’t nearly mugged.”

“You never told me that story.”

“Not much to tell. All that happened was I was nearly mugged on campus at the end of finals. This guy who’d been hanging around with us knocked the guy out, and Rhodey insisted I had to come home with him.”

Steve nodded. He didn’t really want to talk about it. He wasn’t sure if he ever wanted to talk about it if Tony didn’t remember much.

“We’re nearly home. Do you care what we order for dinner or should I ask Friday to get the usual?”

“The usual.” Steve paused, drinking in the familiarity of it all and the wondrous fondness in Tony’s voice. He almost lost this because of HYDRA. “This morning, you said something about me not liking who you were when you were at MIT.”

Tony groaned as he parked the car in the underground garage. “Ugh, let’s not talk about it.”

Steve put a hand on Tony’s shoulder, familiar under his hand, and bent close to kiss him. “I can’t imagine ever not liking who you are or were. You’ll always be alright in my book.”

Tony laughed and kissed Steve back. “You’re just saying that to butter me up before suggesting that we watch some old film from the 40s tonight. You know I can’t fight the puppy-dog eyes.”

Steve could only smile in return, holding Tony close as they walked in together.