It’s a beautiful morning, the kind where the fresh air snaps at you whilst the waking sun warms your back. Two figures are outlined by the rising sun, sitting out beside a pond which shimmers and sparkles a clear blue. One is small, no more than a child, whilst the other has its arms wrapped around the child and long hair falling down her back that looks like spun gold when the sun catches it.
They sit with their right arms out, wrist up, staring down at the numbers embedded in the veins. The woman only has one, a solitary zero staring back unflinchingly, wavering slightly as the blood rushes underneath her paper thin skin. The child has several, a long line so much so that it encompasses his tiny wrist, and the numbers change often, unable to stick at a fixed point. In the woman’s other hand, she holds a leather bracelet, faded and scratched, so tight her knuckles are ivory.
She was a beauty, once, anyone can see that from the way her face still retains cheekbones fine enough to cut glass, and deep brown eyes that mesmerise. But the lines across her face are not from laughter, and stress has caused her to age differently to the way nature and genetics wished.
“I was given this bracelet by your grandmother, and promised to give it to my own child when the time came that you could understand the importance.” Her voice is quiet, frail, shaking with emotion, her mouth set in a thin line. The child opens his mouth to speak, but she shushes him. “These numbers, they can do us a great deal more harm than good. People will use yours against you especially… because yours is different. But what’s normal anyway?”
“But what do they mean.” He whines, because he’s the kid who fixes things, and all he knows is his numbers aren’t natural – not when other’s he’s seen aren’t nearly as long as his own and don’t jump about constantly.
“They are days, Tony,” she smiles sadly, “Days that count down to the minute you meet the most important person you have ever met, and the only person who will ever matter.” She hands him the leather bracelet, and puts it on for him when he struggles, tightening the band as it slips over his wrist, covering the numbers perfectly, “The only person who will ever matter.” She repeats, nearly a whisper.
It isn’t until much later, when she’s gone and Tony’s knee deep in alcohol and bitter memories, that he realises he never saw her without a zero, not even in the photos before she met Howard, whose own number had continued counting down until the day he died.
When you are a child, everything seems one hundred times worse than when you are an adult, and fat tears roll down Steve’s face as he sits cradling his knee. A skinny kid, he doesn’t really have much excess weight to spare and his skin is paper thin and pallid. So when he’s pushed to the asphalt with a powerful shove, it doesn’t take much to split the flesh in two and Steve swears he can see bone. The blood looks fake and garish, like ketchup, and pours copiously from the wound.
Steve goes nearly blind with anger for a second, and makes a sightless grab until his hand connects with cold metal.
Justin sneers, “What are you going to do with that, you’re so weak you can probably barely even swing it.” But Steve doesn’t miss how his face pales when he holds it aloft, “You’re a freak who isn’t going to meet your number until you’re ninety six! How sick is that?”
Steve growls, ignoring the pain lancing through his lower leg and blood trickling as he stands up, pushing his jacket sleeve down from where it was forced up, displaying the numbers that ran so long they overlapped his wrist twice.
The dustbin lid rings out, clear and pure, when it connects with the bully’s head.
Tony’s been up for just over seventy four hours, possibly a new record and possibly the reason his eyes hurt everytime he blinks. He rubs the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand, acknowledging and not caring he has probably just smeared oil and grease across his face. He can’t lose his focus, not when the insomnia makes the formulas and algorithms, which would not come to him when he was rested, dance in front of his eyes.
He hits the enter button with a shaky finger, and it isn’t the caffeine talking. He’s afraid.
He’s scared, if this doesn’t work, he’ll be left alone.
He’s scared that if this doesn’t work, he’ll give up.
Most of all he’s scared that if this doesn’t work it means that Howard was right, and he’s not good enough. He can feel the sweet release of death curling at his fingertips, tempting him, and it would be so goddamn easy to step forward into the dark.
The bot comes to life under his fingertips, and he’s so relieved he slumps and passes out amid alcohol, coffee cups and algorithms written on paper napkins.
“Today, we take not another step towards annihilation, but the first step on the path to peace.”
Steve remembers those words as he watches Schmidt peel off his own skin and thanks the grace of all things almighty that Erskine was not around to watch his own creations become the thing he feared the most.
“You cling onto humanity,” Schmidt spits out the words, “Your blessed numbers you worship as if the knowledge someone is stupid enough to want you is a sign of your mortality.” He shoves his jacket back to the elbow and waves his right, very blank, wrist as though it is a trophy.
“Unlike you, I have no such compunction.”
When Tony meets Pepper, and she smiles whilst ripping him a new one with no fear and holding nothing back, he thinks finally and glances down to his wrist, pushing the leather band up expecting to see that solitary zero.
But when the numbers stare back, still flickering and changing with each new rush of blood, his shoulders drop.
Later, when he has Pepper in bed, and he’s whispering words in her ear and with every thrust willing the blood to switch to zero, he thinks this is it, this is it for sure. But after in the dark with Pepper sound asleep next to him he stares at his wrist, the tangle of veins, and he hates the infuriating numbers that stare back at him, leaving half-crescent moons in his palm from his nails so fierce they draw blood.
In the army, late at night, when they are sat staring at the ceiling and they all might die tomorrow, a certain camaraderie is born not only out of necessity, but also because they all might go mad unless they grasp onto someone.
Before long, the topic of the numbers come up. Dugan goes quiet as others boast of their own synchronizing with their other half the minute they meet.
“Its beautiful man, it’s like a rush to your head, better than a million cigarettes.”
Steve nods, but eyes Dugan, who sits quiet and solemn.
“I’m a zero.” The soldier finally speaks, and the room goes quiet, “I was supposed to meet her last week, but the number stopped. It’s the worst feeling – it’s like someone’s ripped out part of your heart and stomped on it.” The man’s voice breaks.
“The sad thing is, the same day there was a factory bombing in Milwaukee – practically all dames working on the home front building our aircraft, and I’ve spent so many hours agonizing over the list of the dead – wondering if the name staring at me is it, the woman who was supposed to be mine. Or whether she was shot on her way home, or she just died peacefully in her sleep.”
Steve reaches across, and grabs hold of Dugan’s hand, holding it tight between his own.
Later, when he meets Peggy, he knows enough to know the numbers on his wrist haven’t stopped ticking, but from the way she gasps as their eyes connect, he can guess hers has. He really wishes they could have been synchronized, but there is no time for apologies and when they hold their wrists together before he boards the plane they both know is a one way trip she smiles sadly and simply says “You’re an unlucky guy Steve.” whilst grabbing his shoulder and doing her best not to cry.
“Yeah peace, I love peace. I’d be out of a job with peace.” Tony jokes, sitting in the back of a truck, but suddenly its explosions and blood and the guy who was just proudly showing off his zeroed wrist and photos of his wife back at home is dead, and the woman who had three weeks before she met her own is dead. Everyone is dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. But Tony is Alive but he doesn’t know how and he doesn’t want to be anymore.
And when they whisper, “They will never find you in these mountains.” Tony doesn’t have the heart to tell them he’s not sure he cares, he’ll erode away with the sand.
Encased in ice, Steve’s not awake to see his numbers stop, short out to zero.
…34. 67. 91.
12. 32. 78.
1. 2. 3. 45. 84. 104. 167…
“I am Iron Man.”
In those words, he is resolute and unforgiving. The world refuses to offer him his soulmate? Fine. Good. That’s one less person to disappoint. He tightens the leather band at his wrist and for once, doesn’t check them that day to see if they’ve stopped moving.
He doesn’t check them the day after that, or after that, or in the weeks and months following. Suddenly, it’s a year later and as the palladium begins to slowly creep through his blood he realises the bracelet is beginning to fray at the edges. He takes a look, and is surprised that despite the poison creeping through his body the numbers remain a clear and pure blue.
They’ve also stopped jumping around, and the number 731 stares back at him, unflinching.
He can find a way to live another two years. He has to.
“Oh my god – this guy’s still alive!”
They meet as they said they would, where the Stork Club once stood. It’s now Paley Park, and the grey noise of waterfall pounding out a rhythm at the back of the small space serves to fill the silence that spreads between them.
“You haven’t aged a day Steve.” Her voice is frail, but undercut with the steel that Steve remembered.
“Neither have you Peg.” He grins, and although she’s now wheelchair bound and many lines span her face, it is true. She is still Peggy, and he is still Steve, and they are still the only two who ran towards the grenade rather than away from it.
“Oh hush.” She smiles softly, and beckons him down to her level, stroking his cheek when he kneels. She holds out her arm, and he follows, like they did all those years ago. Hers is still a zero, though the number is a much paler blue and has stretched as the skin covering it has aged.
His now reads ten days, and Steve swears as the day comes closer the blood rushing through the pulse point grows brighter.
“Make your move Reindeer Games.”
Tony had kind of hoped, above and beyond everything, that the arrival of Captain America might explain a few things. Today was the day he was supposed to be meeting his soulmate, and even the undeniably cynical Stark was not averse to a fairytale.
But in the square in Stuttgart, his curt “Captain” made even more blunt by the audio normalizer his suit, was only returned with a brief “Mr Stark” and he knew his numbers hadn’t hit zero without even having to look.
He pretends not to feel the ache in his heart, and instead focus on the fact his number read less than twenty-four hours.
“Big man in a suit of armour – take that away and what are you?” Steve spits and Tony bats it back without even blinking an eye.
“Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” The titles don’t sound proud, but hollow and rehearsed. Steve ignores this though because he’s hurting and he’d allowed himself to believe that the son of Howard was the answer to all his problems.
Steve’s lip curls, and the anger that threatens to consume him buzzes around his brain like a bad headache. It’s so much easier to be angry, than to try and wrap his head around the fact the idealistic world he died for has gone backwards rather than forwards.
“You all thought I might not be able to handle the 21st century and yet I see no difference, only bigger guns to match the bigger egos.” Steve is right in Stark’s face now, and the pair are almost nose to nose and bristling.
They don’t notice the fact the numbers on both their wrists have frozen, stuck on thirty seconds.
When Tony turns to Steve and tells him to call the shots, he can heat the ghost of gasp from Clint. He doesn’t pretend to not know why – he’s Tony Stark for god’s sake. His whole psychiatrist file must have “Control issues” stamped across the front in big bold red letters. But if Loki and his waxing, Shakespearean monologuing bullshit has taught him, it’s humility. He’s been a one-man band so far, and all in the span of a day he’s been introduced to a real demigod, Bruce Banner (and he had to resist the urge to fangirl when he met the man), two assassins who defy normal human strength and Captain America.
Science has been the one solid foundation in his life – the one constant that has never left him. He’s wielded it so faithfully and ardently it to prove the critics wrong and yet he’s now he’s fighting alongside a man whose biceps must be the size of his thighs and can pull lightning from the sky without stopping to think of the algorithms and Tony, for once, cannot call upon science to explain it.
And Steve, Steve was built for this. Not just from the super serum, he can see that now, but from the scrawny little kid who never knew when to quit (yeah alright he may have asked Jarvis to bring up the files on pre-serum Captain America once or
twenty times, what of it?) and whose motto seemed to be die trying.
Tony’s a bit worried about the ‘die trying’ part, since self-destructive behaviour is his forte, and if he’s not wrong, the Star Spangled Banner seems to be displaying a few too many signs. But that’s something for therapy later, if they all survive this.
So rather than arguing, or saying something cutting, he follows the Captain’s plan because even he knows they are fighting a losing battle and despite the percentage of failure that is slowly increasing in his head with every alien oozing out the portal he knows that the best chance they have is to place faith in the man dressed as the American flag.
How’s that for humble pie?
“Tony, you know that’s a one way trip.”
It’s the first time he’s called the man by his first name, and it’s spoken softly. When Tony’s side of the comm goes dead, however, Steve allows himself a second to scream internally before shouting into the comm, as if being loud enough will get through to Tony. It’s Bucky all over again. He’s watching something enfold and as much as he stretches his fingers out to try grasp skin he’s only met with air. It leaves him cold and gasping, flashes of ice and blood and screaming painting themselves across his irises. What is he here for anyway? Banner, Stark, Romanov and Barton – they all have their talents. Man out of time indeed. It’s like everyone else is in a fast-speed elevator and he’s stuck taking the stairs.
He watches Tony fade to a blip in the sky, and when the fireball that ensues threatens to spill out the portal, he makes the call. No one else will do it, and it’s arguable he does it too fast, but he can’t bear to watch and lose another soldier, he can’t bear to make the stretch with his hands to only be greeted by cold air. He turns away, unwilling to watch the sky turn blue once more without Tony flying through it.
It’s only when Natasha huffs a laugh that Steve looks back up and can’t help but beam. “Son of a gun!”
“He’s not slowing down.” Thor murmurs and begins swinging his hammer round to gain traction.
Hulk is there before Mjolnir can even pick up the speed, and Steve winces as they hit several buildings on the way down, even if the big guy takes all the impact.
When they crash to the floor, finally, and Hulk throws Iron Man, Tony, off of him, Steve breaks into a panicked run alongside Thor, who tears the face plate off Iron Man to reveal a face all too still and silent for someone who never shuts up.
Steve presses his head to Stark’s chest, and tries to block out all the other noise of the city reeling in shock so he can just hear through the metal for some kind of sign that Tony is still there.
Steve rocks back after a moment and bites back a sob. It’s probably too early to mourn over someone he’d only met less than 24 hours before, but he’d thought he had so much more time to argue with the guy.
When Hulk roars, however, Tony awakes with a start.
“What the hell? What just happened? Please tell me nobody kissed me?”
Steve finally takes a moment to breath, a long drawn out sigh that he’s been holding since he saw Tony disappear into the portal. He looks around, at the debris, and nods his head. “We won.”
Looking down at Tony, his wrist suddenly burns with a searing pain like someone is holding a lighter to the skin, and he rips off his half torn glove and pushes up his sleeve to see a solitary number. 0.
Tony can’t wipe off the shit-eating grin when he watches Steve stare at his own wrist and hits the manual override, wincing as the suit unfolds around him and brushes accidentally over sore (and possibly broken) parts of his skin until he’s lying in just jeans and a t-shirt. Without a second thought, he looks down to the zero he knows has just formed, and holds it up to Steve’s own.
And amidst the smoke and chaos as the city recoups and recovers, two men sit with their foreheads bent together, laughing. The blond smiles through a bloody lip, and the brunette is watching him with fond eyes. They don’t know each other very well, not yet, but they have the rest of their lifetime to figure it out.
Some things are worth waiting for after all.