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Steps in time

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“Stark, I appreciate the gesture, but I’m telling you, there’s no point.”

"Yes, yes. Your super-special-soldier metabolism won't let you get drunk. Until now." Tony passed the clear liquid down the couch.

Bruce sniffed the drink as he passed it and immediately coughed.

"Tony, what is this, jet fuel?"

"Mmmm...it could probably fuel a jet."

Steve took took the glass and gave Tony a humoring glance and a shake of his head before downing the first shot in one go, leaning forward and setting the upside down glass on the table with a thunk.

“See?” he said, before almost immediately cocking his head. “Oh.” His brow furrowed slightly. “That’s interesting.”

“Have another.”


“Thanks, Howard,” Steve mumbled before falling face-first into mattress and rolling over.

“Tony,” Tony said with a grunt as he grabbed Steve under the arms and hoisted him up the bed frame until he was sitting, with his legs dangling off the edge. Steve just squinted at him, making a face.

“Steve,” he said slowly, gesturing at himself. “How drunk are you, man? Did you get into Erskine’s good stuff? I thought *I* was wasted.”

“Whatever you say, buddy,” Tony said with an almost-laugh as he untied Steve’s shoe and tossed it into a corner. The other came off easily, and he unceremoniously dumped Steve’s legs back into bed and tossed a blanket over them. Steve was half asleep already and Tony was about to leave when he noticed the askew buttons on his shirt, pulling at the threads and stretching the fabric.

Tony had a lot of clothes. He could probably wear something different every day of the week for the next five years, and a stain may as well be the end of the line for any given garment. Steve’s closet, on the other hand was sparse. Maybe, maybe, two weeks worth of clothes, and Tony had once caught him standing over a sink hand-scrubbing wine or sauce or blood out of a shirt that was already fraying at the hem. He’d bet his life that -- in addition to being a super soldier with a mean Ultimate Frisbee game -- Steve was just as handy with a needle and thread as he was a gun and shield.

But still. The guy worked hard, and there was no sense making him spend his first hangover in 70 years -- maybe ever? -- reattaching buttons.

Tony had undone the first and second buttons and was working on the third when Steve inhaled sharply, turned his head and laid a hand over his. His eyes creaked open.

“Not getting fresh with me, are you, Stark?” he asked through a dopey smile.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Good,” Steve said through a yawn. “’Cause, I was talking to Peggy, and she said you got married.” Steve brought a hand to Tony’s face, cupped his cheek and gave a gentle, playful shove that Tony couldn’t help but laugh and smile at.

“Yeah, okay,” he said as he went back to work on the buttons.

“Not only that, but you’ve got a kid” Steve continued.

“R...really?” Tony’s hands froze over the buttons. He’d been trying not to pay too much attention to Steve. It was weird being confused for his father, and the ramblings of a drunk man were hard enough to follow when memory lane wasn’t cobbled together across two centuries, but now he couldn’t help himself. “What else did she say?”

“Only that you won’t shut up about him. T...immy? Tommy?”

“Tony.”

“Yeah! That’s it! Why’s that sound so familiar…” Steve looked around the surroundings, trying to find his place in the world.

“I don’t know,” Tony said as he hastily went back to the buttons, drawing Steve’s attention back to them as well. “What else?”

“MIT at 15,” Steve said, “I tell you, I was lucky to be in high school at 15. And I’m no dummy, but your kid? She said you were real proud. Finally had someone who could keep up with you. Probably lap you a few times before it’s over.” Steve leaned forward and pulled his arms out of the sleeves before staring down at his hands. “I think it’s great, Howard,” he said. “I’m really happy for you.”

His words were slow and low and Tony’d been around enough drunks -- and certainly been drunk enough himself -- to know they were quickly veering into a danger zone, and all he wanted to do was get out of it.

“That’s great, Cap, thanks,” he said quickly draped Steve’s shirt over a chair and pushed on his shoulders until he’d scooted down enough to lay his head on the pillow. “I think you’re all set here.” Tony flipped the switch on the lamp, leaving the room aglow with just the moonlight. He’d almost made it when Steve’s arm snaked out from under the blanket and grabbed his wrist.

“Thanks, pal,” he said. “I mean it. You take good care of me. ... I really missed you.”

“That’s almost hard to believe,” Tony said softly. Very little of what Steve had said jived with Tony’s memory of Howard Stark. He wanted to believe that Howard was proud of him and regaled an old friend with tales of his youthful genius, but when the only source was an old woman with Alzheimer’s and a drunk super soldier, well. It was hard to believe. He tried to extricate himself from Steve’s grip, but he just held tighter.

“ Hey, ‘member that night you were running those last tests before the big day?”

Tony stayed silent.

“We were just talking and you said you felt out of time. Built for the future but stuck in the past. I get that now.”

“What do you mean?” Against his better judgment, Tony lowered himself onto the edge of the bed.

“I don’t belong here,” Steve mumbled. “Relic of the past, stuck in the future. Got nothing that was mine and no one to share it with.”

“What about the Avengers?”

Steve smiled widely, the light from the window bouncing off his white T-shirt and glinting off his teeth.

“They’re great,” he said. “Real nice, probably the closest thing to family I got. But it’s not the same. I miss...everything. Everything that was and coulda been. Can’t be. Y’know, Peggy doesn’t remember me most of the time? S’alright though. She lived a good life, full of love. Better to ‘member that. And you, too.” Steve yawned heavily. ‘Even after the serum, you both always got the jump on me.”

“Well, sounds like we just need to find you a lady friend,” Tony said. “Or a guy friend, it’s the 21st century; I don’t judge.”

Steve snorted and rolled over to face the window, away from Tony.

“I may not be short and skinny anymore, but I don’t think anyone’s lining up to date the 96-year-old virgin who still can’t dance.”

Okay, wow. Tony filed a third of that statement away in the back of his brain and focused on the rest.

“First off,” he said, “You’re only technically 96. And second, you were cutting a pretty ferocious rug out there, my friend.”

“Pshhh.” Steve said. “That’s not dancing. That’s hopping around in a crowd like you’ve all got ants in your pants. Dancing’s graceful. Two people, hand in hand, gliding across the floor like nothin’ else matters and no one else’s there…”

Steve’s words trailed off as his breathing became slow and regular. Tony watched him for a moment before carefully rising and heading for the door.

“Goodnight, Cap,” he whispered, almost certain he he heard a mumbled “ G’night Stark,” as he pulled the door closed.

Tony was halfway to his room when he detoured to his lab. His mind was racing and he knew if he tried to sleep he’d just end up staring at the ceiling or calling Pepper, and what time even was it in Hong Kong? Didn’t matter. He figured he could lose himself in the latest design on the Mark Whatever for a couple hours until tiredness set back in.

But as he sat at his work bench staring at the mesh rendering of his next suit, absently rotating it on all axes with his thumb, he knew his heart wasn’t in it.

“JARVIS, pull up the SHIELD file on Captain America,” he said. He wiped the suit and its specs away as a one-page document with about a dozen bullet points appeared. “No, not the highlights, the whole thing.” The pages disappeared and were replaced with a stream of files that circled the workstation, leaving Tony smack in the eye of a Captain America storm.

“Whoa. This is way more than Coulson dropped off.”

“Your father kept meticulous records on Project Rebirth,” JARVIS said. “Most were confiscated by the government, but ‘your little bug’ on Director Fury’s ship re-acquired the collection.”

“Huh.”

Tony circled the area. Missing, of course, were Erskine’s notes on the super serum -- those died with him -- but there were reams of blueprints, specs, equations and doodles for a “Vita-Ray” contraption. There were enlistment papers, military reviews, and physical and psychiatric evaluations not just for Steve but for every man in the project.

Tony swished and swiped all the extraneous soldiers’ information away. He didn’t really care about Buford Tannen III or his possessive, overcompensating rage issues, after all, and soon all that remained was the data relevant to Steve.

It was still an impressive amount.

He wasn’t kidding about being short and skinny. One smudgy document listed his pre-serum biometrics at 5-foot-6 and 120 pounds. And if the first picture was anything to go by -- a head-and-shoulders shot of a stoic kid positively drowning in the fabric of a T-shirt -- that should have been amended to “120 pounds, soaking wet in full tactical gear.”

But none of this was what Tony was looking for. He swept away all the textual documents and re-assessed the much smaller canvas. Two photographs grabbed his attention. In the first, that scrawny kid with Steve’s face was bent over a checkerboard staring intently at the pieces. On the other side of the table, Howard was leaning back in his chair, a cigarette in one hand, a newspaper in the other and a drink surrounded by stacks of black checkers on the table. This was the apathetic Howard that Tony was used to, and he couldn’t help but feel a little bit of schadenfreude over the second photo.

Steve -- arms bulging out of an impossibly small T-shirt -- sat in front of a chess board, his elbows on his knees and his fingers steepled in front of his face as he gazed at Howard with a look of utter amusement and just a touch of glee. Howard, his hair very unartfully tousled and brow furrowed, boggled at the board. Tony didn’t really care for chess, but even he could see Steve was two moves away from a decisive victory.

The next file was a video. There was no sound, but some enterprising young soul -- possibly a Stark Pictures intern -- had spliced footage from three or four different cameras together. Skinny Steve hopped on and was strapped to a giant table. A man -- had to be Erskine -- tapped on a microphone. Tony was about to have JARVIS read his lips and manufacture audio when he glimpsed Howard in the background.

He looked nervous. He hid it well, but Tony knew he’d worn that same expression himself over the years -- a carefully schooled detachment for a man who was anything but.

The scene cut back to the table. Restraints studded in sharp needles settled down over Steve’s arms. Tony could practically see the kid’s heart jumping in his chest. Erskine laid a hand on his shoulder and the contact seemed like a soothing balm as Steve took a deep breath and his eyes eased closed. Vials emptied and Steve’s face twisted into a grimace. Erskine spoke and Tony watched as his father lowered a lever that made the entire table rise up and close around Steve like a tomb.

Technicians connected hoses and flipped switches, but Tony’s eyes were fixed on Howard as he turned a valve, tossing words over his shoulder as a blinding bright light filled the room.

Something must have been going horribly wrong. Erskine pounded on the capsule, support staff ran around the background, and even his father looked a little panicked as he jumped from the valve back to the master control switch. But something stayed his hand, and Howard turned back to the capsule with a look of pure determination, consequences be damned, that Tony had seen before -- hell, he’d worn it before, too -- and strode back to valve, cranking it all the way open.

“JARVIS, pause,” Tony said. He reversed the feed until Howard stared back at him. Jaw set. Hair perfectly coiffed. Unwavering dedication. “You’re a real son of a bitch, you know that? For someone who was supposedly this great friend, you sure were willing to give him up to science.” Tony rubbed at his eyes. Something wasn’t right. “JARVIS, why isn’t there any audio with this?”

“An explosion in the observatory shortly after the experiment destroyed the audio recordings, sir.” JARVIS said.

“Is there a transcript? Witness accounts? Anything?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Pull it up, run it side-by-side.” Words appeared next to the video as Tony wound it back and started again at the midpoint.

H. STARK: That’s 50 percent. … 60 … 70 ...

S. ROGERS: [SCREAMING]

A. ERSKINE: Steven!
P. CARTER: Shut it down!
A. ERSKINE: Steven!
P. CARTER: Shut it down!
A. ERSKINE: Kill the reactor, Mr. Stark! Turn it off! Kill it! Kill the reactor!

S. ROGERS: NO! Don’t! I can do this!

 

“Pause.”

Howard stared at Tony. Not at him, really, but at Steve, enshrined in one of his creations, begging to see the work through, even if it killed him. Desperate to mean something to the world. Just like him. Tony looked at Howard and saw not pride or arrogance, but respect.

“Play.”

The light grew brighter. Sparks flew from the control panel, and Howard raised a hand against them, but otherwise stood unmoving, unable to take his eyes off the capsule until everything dimmed. Emergency lights turned as the capsule opened, revealing the slab of man Tony knew Steve as. Even in low light, filmed on old as dirt cameras, Tony could tell Steve was sweaty and exhausted from the transformation.

A technician was standing by, but Howard shoved him out of the way as he and Erskine approached Steve, each draping an arm over their shoulders and helping him down. On Howard’s face now? A look of admiration and utter awe. Tony let the recording run as Agent Carter entered the frame, almost unable to restrain herself from touching Steve’s new body. He watched as an explosion showered glass into the lab, a man shot Erskine, stole the last vial of serum and ran, taking two hits from Carter’s gun as he went.

He tried not to watch as Steve knelt over his mentor and friend. Erskine jabbed a finger at Steve’s chest until his strength left and Steve, barefoot and armed with nothing but himself gave chase. Tony knew from previous experience with the SHIELD files and Steve himself that that was enough. It was enough to stop the serum from reaching Hydra scientists. It was enough to single-handedly mount a rescue of the 107th division from deep in the heart of Hydra territory, and it was enough to take down Red Skull and save New York.

Tony didn’t know what Erskine had said. The transcript was blank. The camera didn’t catch his face as he died. For all he knew, there were no final words exchanged between Steve and the man who made him a superhero. Tony looked away. For all the silence of the room, seven words from years ago echoed in his brain.

”Don’t waste it. Don’t waste your life.”

Tony sniffed once and rubbed at his eyes before swiping the video away. Most of the other documentation went with it. There was just one small square left that grabbed his eye.

“What’s this?” he asked JARVIS.

“Personal files of your father’s” JARVIS said. “Records indicate it took SHIELD three weeks to break into it.”

“Personal files? Like, 80 percent of this is his personal stuff.”

“So it is, sir.”

Tony shook his head before reaching for the square.

“All right, Dad,” he muttered to himself. “Don’t let me regret opening this can of worms.”

When he touched the square, the room exploded in photographs. It wasn’t as extensive as the full Captain America file, but it was still enough to leave Tony turning circles, taking in the collection.

Candid, smiling shots of Steve -- pre- and post-transformation -- Howard and Peggy filled the landscape, mixed with group shots of the Howling Commandos, news clippings and a scrap of paper with a hand-drawn Captain America uniform and a scratchy S.R. in the corner. One series of photos caught his eye.

Steve and Howard were sitting a card table, post-serum, locked in an arm wrestling match. Steve was clearly toying with him. In the next shot, Peggy Carter entered the scene. With one arm wrapped around Steve’s shoulders she whispered (or something else, Tony inwardly giggled) into his ear. In the third, Tony could see Steve’s flushed face even in black-and-white as his arm laid flat on the table and Carter grinned behind him.

In the fourth and final shot, another man had entered the frame, clearly holding a camera pointed back at the scene in what might possibly be the earliest selfie known to man. J. Barnes was stitched into his fatigues and his tongue poked out of his mouth as he pointed behind him. Carter kissed Steve’s cheek and mingled her fingers with his as he sat at the table, but Howard had leapt up, a triumphant yell on his lips and his arms forever pumped in victory.

They were all like that. In the middle of one of the world’s worst wars, these idiots found fun and joy like only best friends could. And it hit Tony then just how much Steve had lost when he put Johann Schmidt’s plane of destruction down in the arctic, slept for 70 years and woke up to a world unlike any he’d ever known, completely alone.

Tony swept all the images away and pulled up schematics for the building.

“JARVIS, nothing’s going on the 75th floor, right?”

“No, sir.”

“Great,” his fingers furiously typed parameters into a field. “Why don’t you get a prototype for Project 1138 going up there.”

“Sir, that project is years from being ready-”

“JARVIS, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just do your best.”

“And what will you be doing, sir?”

“Studying and sleeping,” Tony said, waving a pad in the air.

“Of course, sir.”

Tony laughed as he exited the lab. Tomorrow, he hoped, was going to be fun.