"Wow," Tony says, sounding half-impressed and half-overwhelmed. "That is a lot of guns."
Half of the scratched wooden kitchen table, the half Tony hasn't hurriedly cleared off, is covered with computer chips, spools of wire, a soldering gun, a stack of overdue library books, and bits of electronics whose purpose Steve can't even begin to understand. The other half has a wickedly sharp combat knife, two handguns -- Stark-made -- and their three spare clips, as well as the SHIELD-issue pulse gun Steve is hoping Tony won't ask too many more questions about.
He's very conscious of his last weapon, the one strapped to his arm, the one whose very existence will give away his identity. It's a last resort, Bucky told him. Use the guns instead. I know you hate guns, Steve. Use the goddamn guns.
He knows already that he'll give himself away in an instant if it keeps Tony alive.
Steve studies Tony's face. Tony is seventeen, the scion of a major defense contractor. Steve's sure Tony's been around weapons his entire life. But Tony bites his lip; his fingers worry at the belt-loops of his jeans. He's afraid. He's only a kid. Of course he's afraid.
He'll get better at hiding it, Steve tells himself, and then he blinks, because he doesn't know Tony Stark.
"It's only three guns," Steve says, and Tony gives him a look that suggests that Steve's sense of normality is skewed. He might have a point.
"Three is a lot of guns," Tony tells him, narrow-eyed, and he stalks off toward the living room.
Steve grabs the pulse gun and holsters it, then the rest of the guns and gear. "Don't go near the windows," he calls out.
He watches Tony shake his head slowly.
"My life is a Terminator movie," Tony mutters to himself. "Unbelievable."
Tony Stark is going to die tonight.
But not, however, if Steve has anything to say about it.
Steve was the last one to the meeting. When he turned into the helicarrier's briefing room he stopped, stood in the doorway, and stared at the other four people: Stephen Strange, Reed Richards, Bucky Barnes... and Carol Danvers.
Only Stephen was on his side. Only Stephen had been on his side. It had been a last-minute change of heart, an unexpected switch from neutrality before the final fight at Reed's Negative Zone prison.
No, that was wrong. There weren't sides, any longer. It wasn't him against Carol.
God, he didn't know what to think about Carol. They'd been friends for years, before the SHRA. And then they hadn't been. But it was done. Over. Repealed. Steve had been resurrected. Steve had been pardoned. The dust had settled. He had to move on. But it was hard not to look at her and think about her shooting a photon blast straight at his throat. It was hard not to think about her standing in the ruins of the Triskelion, staring at him, tears on her face. Remember Immortus, Steve? Remember Rogue? she'd asked. Remember how you stood by and watched, when it was me? Remember how you did nothing? You're not as perfect as you think you are. You need Registration. We need Registration. All of us.
Something twinged in Steve's head, something aching and empty. It wasn't right. This wasn't right.
Of course it hadn't been right. He'd fought a war against his friends. No wonder it didn't feel right.
"Commander Rogers," Carol said, crisply, and Steve wanted to wince, because they shouldn't be on a last-name basis. "Good of you to join us."
There were folders in front of everyone else, already open; it looked like they'd started -- or maybe even finished -- the briefing without him. It was the kind of petty power-play he'd hoped that he and Carol would have moved past by now. Apparently not. Steve guessed there were still hard feelings.
He pulled out a chair for himself. As far away as possible from Carol. Next to Bucky, who smiled an almost fatalistic smile and didn't take his boots off the table.
"What's this about?"
At the head of the table, Reed hit a control, and a hologram appeared, floating in midair. The man in the image was perhaps Steve's age. He was dark-haired and blue-eyed, with a neatly-trimmed goatee and a ready smile. He wore a strange red-gold suit of armor. All things considered, he was fairly good-looking, but Steve suspected that wasn't the assessment Reed wanted.
Steve's head pounded.
"Do you know this man?" Reed asked.
Of course he knew him. That was-- that was-- Steve had no idea who that was.
Steve shook his head. "No. Why?"
Reed and Stephen glanced at each other, a signal Steve couldn't interpret. Reed tapped a control and then the picture changed. The image now was the same man, ten or fifteen years younger; Steve would have placed him in his late teens. He was clean-shaven. Steve's first thought was that he looked far more innocent than in the other, later picture, but he couldn't have said why. Something about this man's life had changed him, had left a deep and grave scar.
"How about now?"
"Still no," Steve said, and he felt irritation crackle through his voice. "Want to tell me what's going on yet?"
"Certainly," Stephen said, smoothly taking the lead from Reed, like they'd practiced this. "This is Tony Stark." He paused. "The son of Howard Stark?" he prompted, when Steve hadn't said anything. "Howard Stark is the owner of Stark Industries--"
"I know who Howard Stark is." Steve folded his arms over his chest. Stark Industries was one of the suppliers SHIELD worked with, for weapons and other technology; Steve had met their CEO, more than a few times. He hadn't particularly liked him. He'd been brusque, overbearing -- a cutthroat businessman of the sort Steve hated. "I didn't know he had a son."
"He had a son," Stephen said.
Steve frowned. "I don't understand."
Reed hit another control, bringing up a newspaper article. Front page of the Boston Globe. "Tony Stark was murdered eighteen years ago last December, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was a student at MIT at the time. He was a victim of a rather brutal mugging. Seventeen years old, when he died."
The picture that went with the headline -- ANTHONY STARK SLAIN, KILLER AT LARGE -- was of the same teenager that Reed had just showed him.
And the teenager was unmistakably the same person as the older man in the first picture. Reed hit a button, and it went back to the first picture, the man in the red and gold armor.
"Did he have a twin brother?" Steve ventured, finally.
"Nope," Carol said, like she knew a secret that he didn't. Which she did, if she'd already been briefed. He gritted his teeth. "That's Tony Stark."
Reed sat back and steepled his fingers together. "Are you aware of the study I've been making of the multiverse?" he asked. He didn't give Steve a chance to answer before continuing on. "Using the portals I've constructed, I can examine other Earths, Earths where events proceeded differently than on our own. And I've come to a conclusion: our own past has been altered."
It was wrong, the voice inside Steve's head cried. It was all wrong. The world felt wrong, and this was why.
"In a vast majority of the worlds I have surveyed," Reed said, "Stark is alive now. This is how he looks on one of those worlds." He gestured at the man in armor. "He's an Avenger. A founding Avenger. He's one of your closest friends." He raised an eyebrow. "I even found a world where you married him." Reed coughed. "He was a woman, in that universe."
It was bizarre, but something about hearing that they'd married sounded right, right in a way as fierce and wonderful as the rest of reality seemed wrong. Tony Stark was meant to be at his side.
"He's supposed to be alive here," Stephen added, helpfully. "That's our supposition, at any rate."
"I remember--" Steve began, and then he stopped. "I think-- no, I don't know. It seems right. It seems right. I know him. I should know him."
Stephen gave him an encouraging nod. "As we thought, you have some resistance to the effect. More than any of the rest of us do, at least."
"Preliminary scans of the timestream reveal both temporal and multiversal interference at the time and location of Stark's death," Reed said.
Carol looked down the table at him, and he couldn't even bring himself to be annoyed with her. "What the good doctors mean," she put in, "is that somebody -- probably someone from another Earth -- plucked someone else out of the timestream, set them down in Cambridge eighteen years ago, and used them to kill Tony Stark. Since the killer was never caught, we believe they were then returned to the future, and our own time was changed."
"Okay." Steve blew out a breath. So they had to fix this. They had to find a killer. Maybe one who was alive right now. "You're saying we go back to the past. I assume you want to send me. So, who are we looking for, exactly?"
"Eyewitness reports are unclear," Reed said. "But they describe a man who could be some kind of cyborg." He hesitated, swallowed hard. "They all agree that he had metal implanted in his body. At minimum, he had a metal arm."
Stunned, Steve could only turn around and stare at Bucky. Bucky had ostentatiously worked the glove of his Cap uniform off his left hand, exposing the gleaming prosthetic arm.
"Hey, Steve," Bucky drawled. "You know any assassins with a metal arm?"
Tony has slumped down on the couch in the other room and -- thank God -- is staying away from the windows.
Hand on the grip of his pulse gun, Steve walks to the window, staying near the edges, and peers out. Nothing. The late-afternoon sun is slanting through the buildings. Cars pass by. The pedestrians that head down the sidewalk, in ones and twos, are wrapped up in heavy scarves and coats, avoiding patches of ice and snow. No sign of an assassin.
Of course, Steve knows he's not likely to see much of the Winter Soldier, and he knows that Bucky was always a very good sniper. He takes some comfort in the fact that Tony's autopsy hadn't mentioned bullet wounds. The fight's going to be hand-to-hand, and that, at least, means Steve has a chance of stopping him.
He closes the blinds anyway.
"You know," Tony says, thoughtfully, "I'm willing to accept that you're from the future. And, hell if I know why, I'm willing to accept that you're here to save me, Commander." He pauses, waiting; the sentence has a lilt to it, like he's waiting for Steve to ask.
One of the benefits of having had a secret identity throughout the war is that no one in this time knows the name of the man who was under Captain America's cowl. So when Steve held out his hand and said Commander Steve Rogers, SHIELD, it had been the perfect truth, and it had been met with not a hint of recognition from Tony.
Tony had taken I'm from the future and I'm here to save you remarkably well, all things considered. He'd examined Steve's SHIELD ID thoroughly, and he'd pointed out that SHIELD didn't stand for what Steve's ID said it did -- Steve had almost forgotten that they'd changed it. Tony would have probably gotten his hands all over the pulse gun if not for the DNA lock. But the smartphone, which Steve had forgotten to take out of his belt pouch before transit, was the one thing that had convinced him that Steve was from another time.
And Tony was willing to accept that Steve was friendly, too. On his side.
Of course he is. He's Tony, Steve thinks, and then his head pounds again, everything in him gone disjoint from the timestream and then back again, like a snapped rubber band.
Steve takes a breath and decides to humor him. "But?"
"But," Tony continues, with a glare so sullen that only a teenager could have perfected it, "I wish you would let me know exactly what you're expecting."
"I told you--"
"You told me my life's in danger," Tony says, stubbornly. "And you won't even let me help defend myself. I know how to use a gun."
No. Good God, no. "You're not shooting anyone," Steve says, even as he wonders why arguing with this man feels so goddamn familiar. A tiny corner of his mind points out that Bucky was even younger, in the war, and he ignores it.
Tony lifts his chin. "I can do it."
He has a flash of an image, Tony in that red-gold suit, raising his hands, his palms glowing with energy.
"I believe you," Steve says. "But you're not going to. You're going to stay out of the way."
He sits on the couch next to Tony, and Tony eyes him up and down, taking in every inch of Steve's SHIELD uniform. Steve flexes his hands in their fingerless gloves.
"Out of the way of what, exactly?" Tony presses.
The truth is... not something Tony will believe. It's not something Steve wants to part with. He can't say that Tony's murderer is going to be the spitting image of Bucky Barnes from those old newsreels and comics, albeit brainwashed, mind-controlled, and very, very determined. He'll be dressed in black, save for his bare-metal arm, and he'll be exceedingly dangerous.
Steve isn't looking forward to this.
Steve shifts his weight on the couch. "He'll... be wearing a lot of metal."
Way to go, Rogers. Great answer.
Tony squints dubiously. "One guy?" He says it like he was expecting them to send more.
"They don't need more than one." Steve's voice is flat. "He's very good."
Tony glances at Steve's uniform again, taking in the blue fabric, the white star on his chest. "And the future sent you to save me? Just you? And who the hell are you, anyway? Some kind of knockoff Captain America?"
Steve stares down at his hands, clenching and unclenching his fists. He knows he's not a good liar.
He knows he hates lying to Tony, he knows he's awful at it, and at the same time he knows he's never met Tony before today.
"Yeah," he says, and he can't look up. "Some kind of Captain America."
Bucky was still smiling that awful smile, and he pulled his glove back on.
No. It couldn't be Bucky. Steve wasn't going to have to take down Bucky. It couldn't be true.
"I know a lot of people with metal arms, actually," Steve snapped, because he'd been calling Bucky out on his sass since 1940 and he wasn't about to stop now. "You're not the only tin man in the world. Has anyone seen Cable lately?"
Bucky sighed a dismissive sigh and rolled his eyes. "We all know it ain't Cable, Steve."
"It's not Cable," Carol echoed, and Steve had to forcibly unclench his jaw. He needed to get along with Carol. She wasn't his enemy.
And she wasn't the one running Registration, Steve's brain tried to tell him, except of course she'd been, because who else was there?
He knew Bucky hated talking about the Winter Soldier. Of course he did. But they had to bring it up now. Steve sighed. God, he was awful at this kind of thing.
"So does that mean you remember--" he began, and thank God, Bucky shook his head, which spared Steve actually having to ask the question, but the answer did bring with it its own novel set of problems.
If he'd done it, if he'd killed Tony Stark, Bucky should have remembered it. The Cosmic Cube had ensured that much.
Steve frowned. "So why the hell do you think you did it?"
Down the table, Reed waved a hand at him, only slightly stretched out. "Time travel is a messy business. And, given the multidimensional interference we're detecting, we can't rule out the possibility that the Earth that is sending Barnes has better technology than we do. It's probable that whoever took him from the timestream did so when he was the Winter Soldier, but since that intrusion happened after the restoration of his memories, relatively speaking--"
"I wouldn't remember it," Bucky agreed. "Either that or they're really, really good at wiping my brain. Which they must be, because I got nothing." He put his hand flat on the table. "Look, Steve, I'm not saying you need to kill me." His mouth twitched. "I'd rather you not kill me, actually. And you are one of the people I trust to be able to take me down safely, and you'll be able to do so without making some big splashy fireworks show and splitting a building straight down the middle. You'll probably still manage to cause a scene, though."
Carol smiled a smile that was not at all pleasant, and golden energy crackled down her arm, illustrating Bucky's point. "Translation: you're shit at stealth, Rogers, but at least you're not me."
They did have a point, though: technically speaking, Steve was peak human, not superhuman. Anyone with superhuman powers would be very hard to ignore, based on sheer potential for damage, if it came to open conflict, and the goal was surely to keep this as quiet as possible. Get in, save the kid, get out. He could do that.
Reed stretched his arm across the room and picked up a small metal briefcase that had been sitting by the door. Steve hadn't given it much thought as he'd walked past it. Reed set it on the table and opened it. Inside were two small electronic devices, each about the size of a pack of cigarettes, sitting neatly in their foam cutouts. One was blue; the other was red.
"These are temporal transponders," Reed told him. "This is what you're going to do with them. The blue one is for you. The red one is for your... adversary. You need to tag him. Get close enough to him to slap this on him, and trigger it." He indicated the button on the side. "That will send up a signal that we'll be watching for, and then Doctor Strange here--" Stephen inclined his head-- "will snatch him up and send him back to wherever he came from. Do the same to yourself with the blue one, when you're done, and you'll be back here."
Steve sighed and steepled his fingers together. He didn't want to do this. "All right. I got it."
"Bring guns," Bucky added.
Did Bucky really think he could just tell him what to do? Bucky knew how much he hated guns. "No."
"Steve," Bucky said, dully, "I guarantee you I'm bringing guns."
He isn't Captain America, he tells himself. Technically, it's the truth.
No, Captain America is the guy who's about to try to murder Tony.
That's not really making Steve feel any better.
Tony gives him another suspicious glare, like he's pretty sure there's a lie somewhere in what Steve's said but he can't figure out where. Ha. Good luck with that one.
"Fine," Tony says, with a sigh. "Okay." Then he pushes himself up out of his chair, walks across the room to the television, and opens the cabinet beneath. "Want to watch a movie?"
He thinks for a second that he can't have heard Tony correctly. "What?"
"Let's watch a movie," Tony repeats. He holds out his empty palms, plaintively. "Look, you clearly don't know exactly when this assassin of yours is showing up, or where, or how he's going to get me. Do you?"
"Outside," Steve says, grimly. "On campus. Near where you've got your lab space. 7:03 p.m. They make it look like a mugging."
It's just past four. Three hours to live.
Tony swallows hard, and Steve watches the fear ripple across his face -- and then, just as quickly, he chokes it back.
He's always been brave, Steve thinks. He's not sure how long always has been.
"Okay," Tony says, his voice wavering, and then he repeats it to himself, louder. "Okay. Well. I'm not there, and I'm not planning to leave the building, and you're here. And clearly you're not planning to leave the building either. So we might as well watch a movie, because we have a couple of hours to kill and that seems better than thinking about my impending death. Right?"
Steve considers this. He can still guard Tony even with a movie on. And if the Winter Soldier has to come up here to find Tony -- assuming he can find Tony at all -- Tony's apartment will afford them a good deal more cover than the wide-open paths of a college campus. And the Winter Soldier is going to do this with a relative amount of subtlety. He's going to try to keep it quiet, to limit the collateral damage, to kill him in some way that doesn't look like a premeditated murder. He's not going to blow up the entire building. They'll be safe here.
"All right," Steve says, and Tony flashes him a smile. "What movie?"
Tony turns back to the cabinet and opens a drawer within it, a drawer containing at least a dozen videotapes. Videotapes are a little bit before Steve's time. Between Steve's times. Whichever. It's complicated. He's seen them before, anyway, but not very frequently.
There comes the plastic-on-plastic thudding of tapes bumping each other as Tony sorts through his collection.
"How about The Terminator?" Tony suggests, looking up, with a devilish grin on his face that someone in the future -- Steve doesn't remember who, so maybe it will have been Tony -- taught him was called epic trolling.
Steve scowls. "No, thank you."
Tony laughs. He holds up a tape whose box has an old-fashioned pocket watch on the cover. "Time After Time?"
Steve's never heard of that one, but based on the name alone, he's starting to suspect that Tony's choices share a common theme. "What's that one about?"
Tony's grin is crooked. "H. G. Wells' time machine really works and Jack the Ripper uses it to go to the future, so Wells has to go to the future, which is modern-day San Francisco, and stop him from killing again. It's pretty good."
"No." Steve sighs in dismay. Neither Jack the Ripper nor the Terminator are what Steve really wants to think about as he awaits the arrival of the Winter Soldier. "If you've got your heart set on time-travel movies, do you at least have one where nobody dies?"
"Hmm." Tony flips through the tapes again. "How about Star Trek IV? That's the one with the whales. Nobody dies, I promise. No violence whatsoever. They go to the past and they save the whales. It's one of my favorite movies, actually." He turns around again and he's holding a different tape in his hands. "Haven't you seen it? You must have, right? Everyone has."
He doesn't have to think about it. The response is instantly at the front of his mind, the words on the tip of his tongue: you showed it to me.
As he thinks it, there's a memory there, another night in some faraway future, a future that never happened. Tony -- ten years older, maybe? -- is sitting on a couch in a room he doesn't recognize, in a building he doesn't recognize -- yes, he does, goddammit, it's their home, it's Avengers Mansion -- and grinning at him with that fond smile he saves for Steve, his eyes bright, and he's saying come on, Winghead, don't you love me, it's my favorite movie and patting the seat next to him.
Steve takes a breath and it's all gone.
"No," he says. "I don't think I've seen it."
Tony's smile is brilliant and eager, then, as he slides the tape into the VCR and hits play. "Well, now you can watch it for the first time."
He sits back down, next to Steve. Steve readjusts the weapons he's carrying so he can draw a gun -- much as he hates the thought of it -- as fast as possible, and he settles back. He's not really relaxed. Who would be? Of course, neither is Tony. Tony's hiding it, or trying to: he's slouching artlessly into the cushions. But his muscles are tense, his breathing is shallow, and his gaze keeps wandering around the room.
"I'm not going to let anything happen to you," Steve says, quietly, solemnly. A vow.
The movie starts, and Tony says nothing, but in the glow of the television, Steve thinks he sees a fractional nod and the slightest of smiles.
As the opening credits end with an orchestral flourish, as the Earth is menaced by an alien probe, Steve becomes more and more certain that he has seen this movie. He doesn't quite remember watching it, but when the main characters resolve to travel through time to save the planet, he knows he's seen it all before. Somehow. He doesn't need to watch the movie.
So he watches Tony.
He's not entirely hopeless at subtlety; he knows better than to just sit there and stare at him. That would be more than a little creepy. But he glances over, every so often, when Tony's attention is fixed most firmly on the screen, when Tony is grinning to himself, mouthing cherished bits of dialogue ("nuclear wessels") along with the characters, under his breath.
He's sitting here in a faded t-shirt and worn jeans, entranced by the movie. He's so young.
He's a kid. Seventeen. God.
But time is a funny thing. In five years, everything's going to kick off, more or less. The modern-day age of heroes, the likes of which the world hasn't seen since the Invaders, will begin. The Fantastic Four will gain their powers. The first team of X-Men will form. The Avengers will assemble, with SHIELD's backing. And a few months after that, they'll pull Steve from the ice. He remembers Hank, Jan, and Thor gathered around him like it was yesterday.
In five years, Tony will be twenty-two. Young, sure, but not a kid anymore. In five years, when they find Steve, Steve will be twenty-four. He'll have been twenty-four for decades. He won't be twice Tony's age, as he is right now. It seems easier to imagine forging a friendship like that, when they grow up together, when they know each other from the beginning of the Avengers.
A founding Avenger, Reed had called him.
Steve studies Tony and tries to picture it. He tries to picture Tony, a little older, smiling and welcoming him to the team. He wonders how he'll meet him. Will Tony be there when he opens his eyes? What will it be like? They'll be friends, Reed had said.
How will it happen?
Tony will be his best friend. There's a fondness now within Steve, something bright and shining, like standing in the sun.
And then the feeling goes dark, somber, twisted. Something within Steve opens up, a memory, a pain too recent to contemplate. Oh, God, he doesn't want to think about this. It's the end of the war, and he's on the streets outside the Baxter Building, in the thick of the fighting, and he's raising his shield, ready to bring it down on--
Carol, the mask ripped off her face, her hair tangled, a bruise blossoming on her temple, staring up at him in bitter, exhausted defiance, drained of energy, bound by one of Stephen's sigils as she waited for the killing blow, the one that never came--
It had been Carol, hadn't it?
The memory cracks.
Tony, broken and bloody, his suit shattered around him, whispering at him to finish it, to end it--
Steve can't breathe. He would have killed him. This is the war, the way it really happened, the way it was supposed to happen. Tony had slipped through the cracks of the universe, had fallen out of his life, and Carol had fallen into his place somehow. Does he hurt his friends in every universe? What kind of monster is he, when the right world, the true world, still means he beats his friends half to death?
He doesn't want to be that man.
When he gets back, he'll be better. He's got to be better. He'll do better. He'll make it up to-- Carol, Tony, whoever. Everyone.
Something nudges him and Steve startles hard, gun halfway out of its holster before he realizes that it's Tony, bumping him gently. On screen, the crew of the Enterprise are engaged in a madcap chase through a hospital, but Tony isn't even looking at the TV. His eyes are wide, his face tense.
"Hey," Tony whispers. "Are you okay?"
He can't possibly tell him the truth. I just remembered that I tried to murder you.
Steve swallows hard. "I'm fine."
"If you say so." Tony looks unconvinced.
He's still pretty sure Tony knows -- knew, will know, how does time travel even work? -- that Steve is a rotten liar.
The movie continues on. The whales are found and brought to the future. The planet is saved, the crew celebrates, and they even get their ship back. It's the perfect happy ending. Steve wishes reality were that simple. Outside, the sky has darkened to night.
The credits roll.
Tony's not looking at him, but he can see Tony's mouth shape two words: "I'm scared."
He speaks with barely enough volume to be heard over the television, but Steve knows it must have cost him an awful lot to admit to that. He can see Tony trying and failing to push it all back.
"It's all right," Steve tells him. He wants to hug him, but he thinks that's too much. Tony doesn't know him. Not yet. And he doesn't know Tony either, not really. "It's all right to be afraid. But you're going to be okay. I'm going to protect you."
Tony gives him a considering look. "Is that your job at SHIELD, then? Bodyguard?"
He's not really sure what his job is now, honestly. America's top cop. The thought of being an Avenger again, after the SHRA, had been too much, had been ripping open half-healed wounds. He'd thought he couldn't go back. He hasn't gone back. But he knows, in his heart, the same way he knows that Tony will be his best friend, that that's where he belongs. That's who he is. He's a hero. He's an Avenger.
Once an Avenger, always an Avenger.
"Not quite," Steve says. "I save people."
"You save people?" Tony asks, sounding a little doubtful. "What kind of people?"
"People who need saving," Steve says. The answer is easy. The answer was always easy. "Anyone who needs help. I help them. I save them."
I save you.
The thought unfurls in his mind, rooted with absolute certainty. This is what he does. He saves Tony. They save each other. He might not remember most of what it means to know Tony, but he knows this. They always have each other's back. And that's the important part.
Tony blows out a breath, stands up, and before Steve can tell him not to, he paces restlessly to the other side of the room, to the window, and he nudges the blinds apart with a finger.
"Don't--" Steve begins, but Tony is already peering through the gap.
Tony jumps back fast, flinching, like he's been hit. His face is sallow, his eyes huge and stunned. "Don't look now," he says, hoarsely, "but there's a very, very shiny guy walking up the street. Coming this way. He looks like he's on a mission."
Every other emotion in Steve drains away as he vaults up and yanks Tony even farther away from the window.
It's too early, it's at least an hour too early, but it's happening now.
The Winter Soldier is here.
Bucky had eventually convinced him to take some guns. Reed had handed him all the information he'd been able to glean about the details of Tony Stark's murder. Steve skimmed it, in what had to be one of the fastest mission briefings he'd ever had. He memorized Tony's address. He'd go to his apartment. He'd find him and stay with him. He'd keep him away from the campus, where the murder happened. He could do this.
Stephen drew a double-ringed circle around him on the floor. Unfamiliar symbols were arrayed on all sides of him, and the words Stephen was busily inscribing around the circle's edge were in a language he didn't know.
If Tony were here, he'd hate this, he thought, and he didn't know where the thought had come from.
Guns, guns, guns. He tossed the file back to Reed and ran his hands over the weapons harness, reflexively checking the safeties on the guns he didn't want.
Bucky's eyes met his, and then Bucky glanced significantly at Steve's right arm, where the hard-light shield rested, deactivated. The emitter ran the length of his forearm. While it was turned off, it didn't look like much of anything. Bucky had already mentioned it once; apparently he just couldn't let it go.
"You know you can't use that," Bucky said. "It's as good as telling them that you're Captain America. That you're alive again in the future. You might as well bring a calling card."
Steve could feel his own mouth twist. "I know," he said, stubbornly. "But I'd feel better if I had it. You know."
Surely Bucky understood what it meant. He was Captain America now.
"Yeah," Bucky echoed. "Okay. I know. And I'm sorry, in advance, for what I'm going to do. What I'm going to have done." He reached out and rested a hand on Steve's shoulder. "Just try not to actually kill me, hey?"
Steve nodded. "I've got this."
Bucky stepped back, out of the circle, and tossed off a jaunty salute, and it was almost like the old days. Steve smiled.
"Here." Reed passed him the transponders, and he stuck them in his belt pouches.
Stephen pulled his cloak around himself and regarded him with that deadly-serious stare he'd perfected as the Sorcerer Supreme. "Are you ready, Commander?"
Steve nodded again. "I'm ready."
Stephen raised his hands, uttered three syllables that seemed to be too loud for the room, roaring and roaring in Steve's ears, and then the world was gone.
Steve's still holding onto Tony's arm, and he can feel Tony starting to shake.
In times of uncertainty, in crises, people respond to orders. They look to someone who's telling them what to do. And Steve has been in command for nearly half his life. This is what he does.
"All right," he says, infusing his voice with every bit of authority that he possesses. "Listen to me. This is what you're going to do. You're going to go into your bedroom." He jerks his head toward the bedroom door, currently open just a fraction, just wide enough to see a bed. "You're going to shut the door. You're going to lock it, if it locks. You're going to get on the floor. You're going to hide on the far side of the bed. And you are absolutely not going to move, no matter what you hear, until I give you the all-clear. Do you understand?"
He expects Tony to be reassured, to nod, to obey.
Tony glances down at the gun in Steve's shoulder holster. "Give me a gun. Please. I can fight. I can shoot. I can defend myself."
So much for that. This kid's going to grow up to be an Avenger, and he has exactly the same instincts about danger that Steve does, even if he's not trained. But whatever he knows about fighting, it's not going to be good enough. Not against the Winter Soldier.
"Are you better at hand-to-hand combat than every other person you know?" Steve asks. His voice echoes grimly, taut with the beginnings of an adrenaline rush. "Because if the answer's no, then the only way this ends is with you getting disarmed in under five seconds and then shot in the head with your own gun."
He watches Tony swallow and go even paler.
"Yeah, okay," Tony acknowledges. "No." He pauses. "Are you better than every other person you know?"
Steve nods once. "Yes. I am." He pushes Tony in the direction of his bedroom. "Now go."
I train you to fight, he thinks, and he knows it's true.
Tony opens the bedroom door all the way, and Steve gets a better, albeit brief, view of the room beyond. It's what Steve expects from a teenager's room: unmade bed, dirty laundry everywhere. And, because it's Tony Stark's room, the bedside table in the far corner is covered in a dizzying array of half-built electronic gadgets. Of course. But the important thing is that there's room between the bed and the far wall, enough space to fit a person. Tony looks back at him, one last glance, and then he closes the door, shutting himself inside. Good.
Steve takes a deep breath. He can do this. He heads to the front door, standing just to the side of it, and puts his back to the wall by the door. He'll be out of the Winter Soldier's line of sight when he enters. And no one else knows Steve's here to protect Tony. He'll have the chance to take his opponent by surprise.
He wasn't expecting the Winter Soldier to be here yet, but maybe the murder only took place on campus later because that's where Tony was when he found him. Maybe the Winter Soldier checked Tony's apartment first, just like Steve did. But it doesn't really matter how it happened. He's coming now.
Bucky's fast, Steve knows, but other than the arm he's baseline human. Steve isn't. Steve's faster. He's going to be faster. He'll overpower him the instant he enters, and it'll be over. That's how it's going to be.
He hears footsteps on the stairs. Footsteps down the hallway.
They're closer. Closer still.
Then they stop.
With his serum-enhanced hearing, Steve can hear someone breathing in the hallway. Low, even breaths. Steve realizes he's holding his breath in response. The Winter Soldier is on his doorstep.
Wood creaks. Metal groans. There's an ear-splitting crack, and then the door itself sails inside the room, broken, ripped off its hinges.
So much for stealth.
There's a figure in the doorway, moving forward, glinting metal-bright, and that's all Steve needs to know as he lunges forward--
The man turns around--
And Steve's staring at his own face. What's left of it.
It's not the Winter Soldier. It's not Bucky. It's Steve.
The only part of the other Steve Rogers that looks at all human is the right side of his face, and even that is withered, scarred, pitted, ruined, ravaged, as if it's been eaten away. The rest of him just... isn't. He can barely comprehend it.
The other half of the man's face is metal, and there's a laser where his left eye should be. And his body -- that's metal too. He's plated in the usual colors, red, white, and blue, with a shield painted on his chest and one on each forearm. At first Steve thinks it's armor, but then when he sees the man's upper arms and legs he realizes they're nothing but metal. The armor plates cover metal rods, metal joints, long and gleaming cords, glittering circuitry. A cable wraps around his body and plugs into his shoulder. Steve honestly doesn't know, looking at him, how much of him is flesh and blood. He suspects there's not much left.
He remembers Reed's words: temporal and multiversal interference. It was all the multiverse. And they'd all been wrong about the assassin. It was never their Winter Soldier. It was never anyone's Winter Soldier. Another Earth sent their own Steve Rogers, their own mutilated cyborg Steve Rogers, to kill Tony Stark.
Whatever happened to Steve on that Earth is clearly horrific, almost too hideous to contemplate.
Judging by the widening of his one remaining eye, his counterpart is shocked, but he recovers fast. "You're not supposed to be here," he says, with a ghastly sneer. "Don't you have a date with an iceberg?"
"I'm from the future," Steve says, still stunned. "And what the hell happened to you?"
"Only the best things," his counterpart says, and Steve wants to be sick. "I've burned away all my flaws. All my problems. I'm Deathlok now." He smiles. "And I have one last loose end to take care of."
Deathlok raises his hand, and it's not a fist anymore. The plates of metal that make up his arm spin around and rearrange themselves, and suddenly Steve's staring at the business end of a very large laser rifle.
The gun glows green, charging -- and Steve leaps forward and knocks Deathlok's arm up and away just in time. The burst of energy shatters the living room windows. There's glass everywhere. Deathlok shakes Steve off his arm like he's weightless.
Steve brought gear to fight someone he thought was baseline human with a few adjustments. He isn't in any way prepared to fight himself, but stronger. Bullets are going to be useless. The pulse gun might still work, though.
He rolls, hits the floor, and comes up fast, pulse gun in hand, as Deathlok glances around the room, clearly trying to figure out where Steve put Tony.
Steve aims, fires--
--and an energy shield appears, out of nowhere, to block the blast.
"Yeah, no." Deathlok's grin is terrifying. "That's not happening. You can't stop me. And trust me, your world will be much better off without Tony Stark. I'm doing you a favor."
Panting, Steve raises his head. Tony is his. "You'll have to go through me first."
"I'll be happy to." Deathlok glances around the room, and his gaze settles on the closed bedroom door. "Oh, come on. Were you even trying to hide him?"
He takes three steps toward the closed bedroom door.
Guns are out of the question, then. The only thing Steve's got left is sheer physical force. It's a good thing that's what he's best at.
Steve leaps, tackling Deathlok from behind.
He knows Deathlok's stronger, but he's not all that much heavier, and he can feel Deathlok wobble underneath him, off balance, and then they fall. The two of them skid across the coffee table, then fall against the couch, flipping it over. The world spins. Steve tries to yank out the cabling in Deathlok's shoulder, but he can't get a grip.
They land on the floor, side by side, and Steve draws his fist back and punches Deathlok right in the human half of his face.
Deathlok cries out in pain, in Steve's own voice.
But he's not down for long. He pushes Steve off, stands, and heads straight for the bedroom door again. No. No, no, no.
Steve gathers himself and jumps, once more. He gets his arms over Deathlok's shoulders, his legs wrapped around his sides, and Deathlok twists away. Steve's still holding on, but they're falling, falling toward the closed door, Deathlok pushing him forward like a battering ram, and that's when Steve realizes he isn't going to stop.
He shuts his eyes and turns his face away as Deathlok throws him into the door. He takes the impact shoulder-first, a bright shock of pain that rattles him down to the bone, and he can feel the wood splinter and give way as the two of them crash through the door into Tony's bedroom.
They hit the floor, Deathlok on top of him. Out of the corner of his eye, Steve sees Tony starting to rise to his feet.
"Tony, get down!" Steve yells, and the rest of what he wants to say is cut off when Deathlok wraps a metal hand around Steve's throat.
He can't breathe. He can't fight it. His vision is graying out. Deathlok plants one knee on his chest and leans on him with all his weight. Steve has a hand wrapped around Deathlok's metal arm, but he can't break the grip. He's going to die--
No. He's not.
He still has one weapon left. His favorite.
Steve slams the back of his other hand against the floor, tripping the switch on his wrist, and the hard-light shield flares into existence, glowing a translucent red, white, and blue. He brings his arm up, and he punches Deathlok in the metal side of his head, with the edge of the shield, as hard as he possibly can.
Deathlok's grip slackens, and Steve can breathe again. He gasps for air. Deathlok's expression is dazed, glassy-eyed; he's stunned, but it won't last. Steve punches him again, with all the strength he has, and throws him off. As Deathlok hits the wall and slides down Steve knows this won't be enough to take him out, but he doesn't know what else to do--
Behind him, there's a noise, the rising whine of something charging up.
"Out of the way," Tony says, from behind him. He doesn't sound small or scared. Not anymore. He has a voice that belongs to a superhero.
Steve always saves Tony, but Tony always saves him, too. Another thing he's forgotten.
Tony's holding something electronic in his hands, rudimentary and makeshift, with exposed wiring. It fits neatly into his palm.
Steve throws himself to one side.
Tony aims with his palm and then taps a control on the back of his hand. Blue lightning crackles from the device and hits Deathlok dead-on.
Electricity crackles all over the metal of Deathlok's body. His laser eye goes dark, and his other eye falls shut. He's unconscious.
"Localized EMP burst," Tony says. He clears his throat. "Just something I've been working on. I don't know how long the effects are going to last, so you'd better--"
"Right," Steve says, and he finds the heavy-duty restraints in his pouches.
He's going to wait until Deathlok wakes up to send him back. He has to find out where he's from. Why he did this. Steve wouldn't have needed to -- or, really, been able to -- interrogate the Winter Soldier, but Steve wants to know why the hell the Steve Rogers of another universe decided to come here and kill Tony. What happened to him? What made him this way? What made him decide to do this?
You would have killed him too, Steve's mind whispers, and he shudders as he locks the energy-draining restraints around Deathlok's wrists. You know you tried to.
If this is where it ends, if this is what it gets them -- he has to stop. He won't be the man who does this to his friends.
He stands up. Tony glances at him, and then his gaze passes over the hard-light shield, still active, nestled against Steve's forearm.
"Uh," Tony says. "So when I called you a knockoff Captain America...?"
Steve smiles. "Yeah. Not actually a knockoff. Thanks for the help, by the way." He flips the shield off.
"No problem." Tony sets the EMP device down and runs his hand through his hair. "Somehow I'm guessing that wasn't the guy you were expecting."
"Not really, no. The intel was... less accurate than I thought." Steve winces. "But you're safe now. I just need to send him back to where he came from."
There's a low moan from the body on the floor. Deathlok is coming around. That didn't take long at all, Steve thinks. But then, if he has the serum somewhere in what's left of his body, it figures.
Steve flips the shield back on as Deathlok's eye flickers open. The laser eye doesn't come back on.
"Start talking," Steve tells him. "Who the hell are you?"
Deathlok exhales and grins. There's blood on his teeth. "Don't you want to ask me something you don't know the answer to?"
Steve glares. "Fine. Why are you here?"
"On your world," Deathlok says, and he's still smiling, "did Wanda Maximoff ever make a wish? Big wish. You'd remember it. Catastrophic."
Tony's face is blank. He doesn't even know who Wanda is, Steve realizes.
"Yeah," Steve acknowledges. "No more mutants. M-Day. And millions of mutants lost their powers."
Steve frowns. It was tragic, of course, but he doesn't see what this has to do with him. He's not a mutant. Neither is Tony.
"Where I'm from," Deathlok says, "she said no more humans." And he laughs.
Steve goes cold all over. Oh God.
"They're dead?" he asks, and his voice is hollow in his ears.
Deathlok's still laughing. "Dead? Hardly. Changed? Certainly. Your friend here--" his gaze darts to Tony-- "would call us monsters. But we haven't been human in years, have we, you and I? We're better than them. We don't need human flesh. Human frailty. The serum's already in your veins. Soon you'll realize that you don't need to care about them. Any of them."
Steve's fingers are practically twitching with the urge to punch Deathlok again. As if that would make him see sense. "And Tony?"
Deathlok looks over at Tony again, a withering stare. "Leader of the human resistance. A perpetual thorn in my side. I thought I'd take him out, but it seems travel in my own timeline is under interdiction. Can't get there. But I could get here. So I did." His grin is broad. "And why not kill them all?"
A thousand different answers crowd Steve's mind. Because Avengers don't kill. Because he's my friend. Because I know I care about him even if right now I don't remember it.
"Because I'm going to stop you, that's why," Steve says.
He's not going to learn anything else. He grabs the red transponder, slams it on Deathlok's chest, and triggers it. Everything flares bright, and then Deathlok vanishes.
Steve turns around, looks back at Tony, and... remembers. He remembers everything.
He remembers opening his eyes in the future, opening his eyes and seeing the Avengers. It wasn't just Hank, Jan, and Thor. It was Tony, it was Tony there first, at his side from the beginning. He remembers bright blue eyes behind a golden mask. He remembers Tony, out of the armor, smiling and welcoming him to the future. He remembers flying with Tony, his arms wrapped around him as they soar into the sky together.
Tony's right there, in his life, in every moment of his life, tangled up and twined together so thoroughly that they should never have been able to come apart. His friend. Always his friend.
Seventeen-year-old Tony blinks at him. "Are you all right?"
Steve nods fervently. "I'm fine. I'm great. I just... remembered something."
"Oh," Tony says. He doesn't understand. Of course he doesn't. Steve almost hates to leave him here. He wants to tell him about his parents, about Afghanistan, to drag him away from it. It will all have happened before Steve wakes from the ice. And it's got to.
"I guess I'd better get going," Steve says.
Tony nods, looking a little reluctant. "Yeah. You probably don't want to be here when the cops come." He winks. "Don't worry, I won't tell them that Captain America saved me." His grin now is thoughtful. "So SHIELD's going to replicate the super-soldier serum in the future, huh?"
Well, he always knew Tony was a genius. And it's a reasonable assumption.
He shouldn't tell Tony the truth. He shouldn't.
He can't not.
Maybe it will give him something to hope for.
"Nope," he says. "I'm the original."
Tony gapes. "You're-- you're dead. You died in the war."
Steve lets himself smile as he turns off the shield again and pulls out the other transponder, his ride home. "Not so much. You'll see me again soon. Hang in there, okay? For me. Take care of yourself." He frowns. "And maybe don't tell me about this until I come back."
He triggers the transponder.
"How will I know when to tell you?"
"You'll know," Steve says. The world is beginning to glow blue around him. "Trust me. You'll know."
He's going home.
When the glow fades, Steve's standing on the helicarrier, in the same briefing room that he so recently left, with the occupants standing around him in a loose semi-circle. Stephen, Reed, Bucky, Carol... and Tony.
Tony's the age he's supposed to be. Tony's here. Everything's all right.
Steve doesn't really think about what he's doing. He takes two jerky steps forward, and he wraps his arms around Tony, and he holds him tight.
Tony is wearing a business suit, not the armor, so Steve can feel him tighten up under his hands, going rigid in surprise.
"Uh, Steve?" Tony asks. His voice is low in Steve's ear. "Everything okay there, buddy?"
His voice is kind -- but wary, guarded. He doesn't expect Steve to be like this with him. They've still been working out how to be friends again, after Registration, even after Vanaheim. They don't just hug anymore. Not like they used to.
"You're alive," Steve breathes. "Oh, God. You're back."
"Uh," Tony says again. "I wasn't the one who died. And I didn't go anywhere."
The tension in Tony's body is starting to loosen, though, even as his voice is still full of confusion. Despite everything, despite what Steve did to him, some part of Tony still trusts him.
"You're alive," Steve repeats. "I saved you."
"Oh," Tony says, slowly, a dawning realization. "This is that thing you told me not to tell you about, isn't it? When I was seventeen?"
Unexpected tears prick at Steve's eyes. "Yeah. Yeah, that thing."
"Wait," Carol asks. "What's going on?"
"Time travel," Tony says. "Nothing to worry about. It's all better now." And then Tony's hugging him back, just as hard. "Hey," he breathes, low, so only Steve can hear him, "hey, it's okay, you got me. You got me, Steve." He pulls away a little, and he's smiling. "Thanks for letting me know you were coming, by the way. I really appreciated it, way back when."
Steve tucks his face against Tony's neck and shuts his eyes and he doesn't care what the rest of the room thinks, and he's shaking. "It was all wrong without you," he whispers. "Oh God, I'm sorry, I know you don't even remember the half of it, but I'm sorry--"
"It's all right," Tony says. "I'm with you. Always. You can't ever lose me. Promise."
Tony's still not letting him go, and the thought drifts through Steve's head that Reed had said there was a world in the multiverse where they were married. He wonders if Tony knows about it. He wonders if there's more than one.
He wonders if it could be this one. Not now, not yet -- but maybe. Someday.
"Hey," Steve says, and he finally lets Tony go. "You know what we should do?"
Tony blinks at him; his intent gaze focuses. "No, what?"
"We should watch that movie with the whales," Steve tells him. "I wasn't really paying attention, the last time I saw it."
Tony laughs, throwing his head back. "Aww, that's my favorite." He's grinning. "You really love me, don't you?"
And Steve does. Steve really, absolutely does.