Tony stared at the two men in front of him. “This is… the single most stupid thing anyone has ever asked of me.”
Stephen Strange and Rhodey stared helplessly at him and Tony hoped he was wearing a glowering, determined expression that would make it very clear that neither hell nor high water—and certainly no magical entity, human or sorcerer or otherwise—was going to convince him to do this.
It was reckless and completely insane, no matter how hopeless the situation looked right now.
“We need to fix this,” Strange tried again. “And we need to do it now. Go back to the beginning and work from there. That’s why I brought you here.”
“Why me?” Tony demanded to know. “I thought you were the Sorcerer Supreme here!”
“Every situation has its own imperatives. And the Eye is the one who picked you, not me.”
Tony scoffed. “The Eye.”
“Yes,” Strange said. “You want to help save this world, don’t you?”
“Of course I do!” Tony thumped a fist against the wall behind him. “I just… I can’t go back. I can’t go through all of that again. And it won’t change anything, anyway.”
Strange looked at him in that stupid docile way of his. “Then I suppose we’re doomed.”
“‘We’ being your sorcerers?”
“No, ‘we’ being me, and you, and the whole world. Every last human being.”
Tony shifted uncomfortably. “Now you’re just being dramatic.”
“I’m being realistic. Thanos is at our doorsteps, Tony. Millions of people are dying as we speak—and you know it.”
Tony sighed as he turned around. He knew alright.
Around them, the Kamar-Taj was buzzing with the voices of Strange’s men. All the young sorcerers-in-training who had survived the latest battle with Thanos were outside, fighting the fight. Their mentor, Wong, was looking at Tony warily from across the library.
He and Rhodey had arrived in Nepal half a day ago, and ever since, it felt like they were walking in circles. Strange was now the head of the Masters of the Mystic Arts and the official reason for their visit was to complete arrangements for the sorcerers to work together with the Avengers—or what was left of them.
Tony hadn’t heard from Natasha and Bruce in over a week. All communication systems were down. Steve, Sam and Barnes—they had kept loose contact, fighting the fight in Europe with their own team. They hadn’t exactly worked together since Thanos had arrived—they’d only been on a need-to-know talking base, calling each other once a week to make sure they were still alive and fighting.
Steve’s last call had been twelve days ago.
Tony tried not to think about it too much. There could be numerous reasons why Steve hadn’t called, and yet…
Yet, Tony had a feeling that… that—
Goddammit, how had all of this happened? How the hell had they gotten to this point?
If Steve was dead, Tony didn’t know how to keep going. No matter how horrible the fight between them had been, Tony had always found a strange kind of solace in the knowledge that Steve was still somewhere —trying to do the right thing just as much as Tony was.
“I would never let you use the Time Stone if I had another choice,” Strange said, his voice suddenly very gentle. “There is usually no way to make use of it without an advanced knowledge of Mystic Arts. There are dangerous channels…”
“What channels?” Rhodey intercepted. “You said it was safe.”
“It is. The Eye will lead Tony to his desired destination.”
Tony’s jaw clenched, and he firmly schooled his expression so he wouldn’t be giving any of those feelings inside of him away. He couldn’t let Strange of all people see how much… how much all of what had happened in those last three years had broken him. This war—this stupid, pointless power game between him and Steve, and all the wreckage that had followed. The abyss that now gaped between both of their teams, the threat of a final apocalypse looming over all of their heads, the loneliness Tony felt every day when he stood in their living room, looking at the large table that had once housed many team dinners.
At some point, he’d become this broken shell, and he hadn’t yet found a way to piece himself back together again.
“I just can’t,” Tony concluded.
“I know it’s hard, Tones, but maybe you can really change what happened,” Rhodey said tentatively. “You know I distrust this whole magic thing just as much as you, but… This might be our last chance. If Thanos gets his hands on the Time Gem, too, we’re done. It’s the last one missing.”
“I can’t,” Tony snapped, though the futility of his resistance was slowly dawning on him, too.
Strange stepped closer to him and Tony had never hated him and his stupid goatee and his stupid cape as much as in this very moment.
“If we ever want to defeat Thanos,” Strange said, “we need the combined force of all heroes, and you know it. If the Avengers hadn’t fallen apart before he came here, if we had been a united force, we could’ve beaten him. Now it’s too late.”
Tony bristled. “Don’t you think I tried before?! All I did, for years, was to try and stop the team from splitting up. I tried to protect them, over and over again. And where did that get us? It was futile! I obviously wasn’t fit for the job, and I can’t watch them grieve and struggle all over again—for nothing.”
“It’s called making amends,” Strange argued. “I met the Captain, once. And I do believe the two of you can choose a different path if you try.”
“Oh fuck you,” Tony said, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “I don’t need your worldly wisdom.”
“Charming,” Strange countered, deadpan. “I saved your sorry ass out there, remember? And I fixed your wounds up for you, too. You could show a little gratitude.”
“I’d be more grateful if you could stop pestering me about fucking time travel.”
Strange had the audacity to pet Tony’s shoulder once. “You know, Tony, essentially, we are all inside a moment between moments. We’re able to affect what happens in our reality. In our future. But also in our past.”
Tony sighed, brushing a hand over his face. The air in the ancient library was stale and dusty, and Tony glanced through the dimmed light to a vault door where he guessed the Eye was hanging in the middle of the adjacent room.
It wasn’t that he’d never thought about it. What he would do if he could turn back time. If there was a way to prevent what had happened during the Sokovia Accords fiasco. But deep in his heart, he knew that Steve would never listen to him.
There was a hand on his arm.
“It’s worth a try,” Rhodey supplied. The prosthesis around his legs were giving off a slight whirring sound as he moved, and Tony vowed to fix that as soon as he got the chance.
It doesn’t matter, his stupid brain supplied immediately. Rhodey will die soon—they all would.
“If you know,” Tony started as he glanced at Strange, “that we can prevent this. Why didn’t you go back yourself?”
“I tried. But it’s not about me. It always comes down to you and the Captain. And both of you never trust me enough to truly change your ways.”
“Sounds like them,” Rhodey said with a small smile.
“It has to be you,” Strange told Tony. “Or the Captain. But as we both know, we can’t be sure he’s even still alive.”
At that, all the fight left Tony. And he knew that Strange was playing him by mentioning Steve, but that didn’t matter in the long run.
Because, dammit, he was right.
“Say I do it—go back in time,” he ventured. “What exactly do you want me to do?”
“Whatever is necessary to convince everyone to stick together.”
Tony gave him an exasperated look. “That’s… really helpful. Thanks.”
“Well, if you had to name one point in time that set off the chain reaction, leading to the team’s downfall, when would it be?”
Tony huffed. “I don’t know—how about when we all met?”
“Can you be serious for once?” Strange asked, rolling his eyes.
“I was only half joking,” Tony murmured, thinking back. “It was never apples and sunshine with us, but I guess it all turned to shit when I built Ultron.”
Strange nodded, looking at him squarely. “Then how about you don’t build him and go from there?”
Tony opened his mouth to protest, but realized that—yes, that was exactly what he should be doing. “You think it’s that easy?”
“Probably not,” Strange said. “But you can never truly predict the impact of your actions, can you?”
Tony bit his lower lip and refrained from commenting on that.
With that, the three of them walked towards the vault, Wong trailing behind them. The circular room was basically a cave lit by torches; dark marble arch with words in a strange language written on its wall. At the far end of the room, two shallow steps led up to another archway that opened on a passageway that seemed to recede forever.
And then there it was. The Eye of Agamotto.
It looked at once strange, beautiful and entirely supercilious.
“You sure you want to do this?” Rhodey suddenly whispered next to him. “It’s pretty crazy.”
“Absolutely not.” Tony took a deep breath. “But he’s right. It’s about the team, and about Sokovia. It’s about Wakanda and Lagos and Vienna and New York. And it’s…” He swallowed, hating how his voice was breaking a little. “And it’s our only option.”
Rhodey opened his mouth to say something, then apparently thought better of it. “Good luck,” he said instead, pulling him back to the present. He drew Tony into a firm hug. “I’d say I see you later, but that’s not really the case, is it?”
“Don’t do that,” Tony said, grimacing. “I’m going back in time. So if I fix this, you’ll never even know I was gone.”
“Right,” Rhodey said, smiling, then stepping back. “Tell my past self to punch Wilson in the face.”
Tony snorted, and nodded. And then, he walked closer to the Eye.
“Remember,” Strange said behind him. “These are just temporal possibilities. Time, like threads, always forms its patterns. Any weave can be unraveled and woven again, so if you unravel it, you’ll have to weave it differently.”
That probably made a lot of sense to people like Strange, Tony thought a bit hysterically. He brought the necklace over his head. The green light of the Time Gem flickered, and at once, there was a voice in his head.
So much rage in you, he heard it say. So much grief. Misdirected—at yourself, at the world.
“Why is it talking to me?” Tony asked Strange.
“It’s testing you. You’ll need to channel your mind to power your purpose!”
Channeling. All right. Tony could do that.
I only have one wish, he thought fiercely. To go back and fix what happened.
And that wish is an entirely selfish one, isn't it? the voice said. But why not? You are free to be selfish.
It’s not a selfish wish to save the world.
You rejected love, Tony Stark. You encased your heart in metal. You want to have another try.
What? Tony had no idea what that was supposed to mean. He’d rejected love? If the Eye was talking about Pepper, it really didn’t know what the hell it was talking about. Pepper had broken up with him —not the other way around.
My reasons don’t matter. I made a few bad mistakes. I want to change what I did. Take me back. “Let me try,” Tony said out loud, feeling the determination inside him rise.
Very well. I will take your essence and place it in your former self. If you wish to change the outcome, then it is you who must undo the weave.
Without hesitation, Tony took the Eye in hand, and twisted it the way Strange had shown him. Nothing happened, and Tony frowned as the room around him turned suddenly bright green. “Was that supposed to happen?” he asked, but when he looked at Strange for an answer, he saw lights coming right at him.
A white, sourceless light phasing into black. Tony was caught there, trapped between here and… somewhere else, between the green pulses pouring out of the Eye and the raging black nothingness around him, the two conflicting energies crackling through him like an unending lightning blast.
Tony’s brain shorted right out. Then he was floating in space, looking down at a crumpled form lying at the floor of the library. His form. His body.
Huh, he thought, as he drifted higher. Below him, the Kamar-Taj vanished into a swirl of time and space. The vision spun, then drifted away and faded into white. All white now. Tony was floating in glowing light that seemed to go on forever.
Something opened in front of him. Bring me back to where it started to go wrong, he thought and suddenly, he staggered, trying to keep his balance, then found a hard surface taking form under his feet. Things began to shape themselves out of the blackness.
And then everything blurred.
* * *
The next thing Tony knew he was lying on his back and Steve Rogers was staring down at him.
As on instinct, Tony flinched and raised his hands in defense. Except—this wasn’t the Steve from Siberia, the one with blood on his face, his shield raised high, and widened, hurt eyes. This Steve was only sporting pajamas and a very worried expression.
God, he was young. He had forgotten how carefree Steve had once been.
Tony was stunned, his eyes trailing over him as he tried to get his bearings. Then, he looked down at himself.
He was wearing jeans and a band shirt, no shoes, no socks, and there were oil stains on his arms. Consequently, he’d probably been working in his workshop.
“Tony?” Steve prompted softly. “Are you okay?”
Tony kept… staring. He marveled at how Steve could make him happy to see him and thoroughly furious, and really, really pissed off and annoyed, all at the same time. He kneeled next to Tony, looking down at him, and as much as Tony was glad to see him, he also kind of wanted to punch him in the face.
Tony pushed himself up onto an elbow. He was apparently not in the workshop, but instead lying on his bed in the tower. Outside, the New York skyline looked amazingly normal. No fires, no explosions, no screams of endless torment, no broken skyscrapers.
“Ow,” he said, when he felt a sudden jolt of pain, “my head hurts. What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Steve said, still worried. “I mean, we were down in your shop, talking about the mission tomorrow and you just… collapsed. I wasn’t fast enough and you hit your head on the floor pretty badly. Are you okay?”
Tony rubbed the back of his head. “I will be once the headache wears off. How’d I end up in my bed?”
“I carried you there.” Steve frowned in concern. “Do you think you should go to medical? Or see a doctor? Passing out like that is probably not good. Might be a sign of something serious.”
Tony cleared his throat. It had been a very long time since he’d seen Steve fret about him like that.
“No,” he said eventually. “It’s just… I, uh, didn’t sleep much today. Must have passed out from exhaustion, I suppose.”
“Worried about Sokovia?”
Tony blinked. “What?”
“The mission?” Steve asked, suddenly alarmed. “You do remember, right?”
“Uh, sure…” Tony said, thinking hard. Steve couldn’t possibly be talking about them fighting Ultron in Sokovia, because if he did, it was all too late already. The chain reaction had already started.
Tony needed to figure out into what time period the Eye had dropped him. Maybe he should’ve thought of a specific date when he’d put the necklace on?
He started to haul himself to his feet. “I’m just going to get a glass of water.”
“Let me do that,” Steve intervened. “You just stay off your feet for a while.”
“Oh, don’t mother-hen me, Rogers,” Tony said, making to stand up.
Steve rolled his eyes, as he pressed a hand on Tony’s shoulder, keeping him down. “Can you do one thing without arguing with me?”
“No,” Tony said, smirking at him. “Why should I? Going easy on you is only half the fun.”
“Ah,” Steve replied, mimicking his smile. “I’ll remember that next time we’re sparring.”
“Oh I dare you,” Tony shot back, then stopped.
The realization of what he was doing hit Tony like a cold slap to the face. He was bantering. With Steve. He’d fallen into it automatically, like they’d been doing it all the time within those last three years.
And it felt so good. Like a piece of home he thought he’d never have again.
Tony closed his eyes briefly, then looked down on the night stand next to his bed.
He pressed a finger to his phone (two generations older than his current phone) and glanced at the date.
Monday, April 19th, 2015.
Strange had really done it. He had sent Tony back in time. With all his memories intact. Which meant that he had a real chance of changing events over the next few years.
The mission Steve had been talking about, the mission they’d apparently face tomorrow, had to be their raid on Strucker’s base in Sokovia. The one where they’d gather Loki’s scepter.
Tony glanced at Steve, who was pouring water for him on the other side of the room. It was going to be unnerving trying to pretend nothing had happened. To pretend he didn’t know that Steve was protecting his parent’s murderer from him, right now, right in this second. That was going to be tough. Should he hide it? He didn’t know.
He realized that Steve was holding a glass of water out to him.
“Oh, sorry. Thanks.” He downed the water without stopping for breath. It was either that or a stiff drink—which Steve would disapprove of, of course.
“I really think you should lie down,” Steve said.
“I actually think I will.” He mostly agreed to get Steve out of the room. He needed time to think—to plan.
Selfish, the Eye had called him. Damn right he was going to be selfish. Oh, he’d try to keep the team together, sure. But he was through worrying about other people’s opinions. This time he was going to have what he wanted. This time things were going to go his way.
And this wasn’t the Steve who had betrayed him, the one who had left him half-dead and freezing in Siberia. Not yet.
This Steve was still his friend. And Tony wanted … he wanted that second chance. He wanted to keep his team, have them by his side, and he would do everything to make that happen.
“Can I get you anything?” Steve asked.
“No. I’m just gonna call it a night,” Tony told Steve, yawning to emphasize his point.
Steve lingered, casting him a suspicious look, and dammit, Steve had always known him far too well. But eventually, he nodded. “Alright. Sleep well, and call me if you need anything, alright?”
What I need is for you to be honest with me, Tony thought, then he stomped all those feelings down. It wasn’t the time. Soon, if he could man up about it—but not today. “Sure. Thanks.”
Steve nodded, and started to walk out of his bedroom.
Tony took one last look at him, then cleared his throat. “Steve?”
Steve stopped, turned around. “Yeah?”
He reached out, hesitated, then put his hand back down on the bed. “Thanks. For taking care of me.”
Steve smiled at him—and Tony had forgotten that Steve had ever smiled at him like that. So softly. “Always.”
Watching him go, Tony let himself drop back on the bed. Here he was—back in 2015. And if this didn’t work out, the whole changing-your-future thing, he at least had a few more months before he had to fight against Steve all over again.