Tony slammed into existence to the stinking fumes of stale bile, a shrieking alarm clock and an alcohol ridden night spread around him. He ached, bones feeling like they'd melted into his skin, and he groaned at every movement he made. When he was finally aware enough to register the sun gently caressing his eyes, he was already swinging an arm to cover them, knocking a bottle over as he did so. It made enough of a racket to wake the dead. Someone other than him groaned and slammed the alarm off.
It took a second for him to register where he was, sprawled uncomfortably across a tiny single bed with a crappy mattress and an awfully familiar knitted afghan tangled between his legs. What the hell had he been doing last night?
There was a long moment of silence, a pregnant moment where Tony was blissfully unaware of anything other than the agony of his body before awareness slammed to the forefront of his mind. Anguish . He sucked a desperate gasp of air, mind ricocheting against the cage of his skull as he seized up in panic, limbs askew and shaking. Distantly, there was a voice calling his name, hands shaking him. Gone, half of the universe just deleted out of existence with a snap of Thanos’ fingers. He could still feel the flecks of dust coating his fingers. Peter’s only remains, god Peter .
It took a good ten minutes of panicked gasps of air to begin to calm, to register another’s presence next to him breathing slowly and deeply, trying to get him to breathe. It was a familiar voice and touch, someone he’d recognise anywhere. Arms wrapped around him, Rhodey was rubbing his back and telling him to breathe, his oldest friend. Jesus had Rhodey survived in that timeline? Would he survive this one? Tony came back to reality slowly, whirling thoughts spinning around and around his mind like a maelstrom as he gripped his best friend’s hands and collected himself best he could.
“Breathe for me Tones. In, two, three, four. Out, two, three, four, five— you with me? Come on.” Rhodey breathed with him slowly, quietly counting breaths beside him without judgement, only concern for his well being. (Tony didn’t deserve friends like these.) As he calmed down, Tony began to register the environment around him-- Rhodey’s younger voice, the soft hands around him. Dear god how far back in time was he? What year was this? Tony took stock of the room around him while he caught his breath, blearily taking in the messy floor, the clothes covered single beds and the paper covered desk squished into a long forgotten corner never to be used again. It reminded him of a bygone time he didn’t think he’d be revisiting again, much less reliving. Tony cursed in more languages than this author knows how to write in.
Why was he so far back in time? Strange had mentioned going back to change things but back to when he was in MIT? Was there something specific in this time he was supposed to change? Or was he supposed to start preparing the Earth for Thanos from this time onwards? But then what? Would he have to relive all of … what, like, 25+ years of his life again? Or was he going to get yanked into the future like some kind of movie protagonist? It was at least twenty years in the past if he was back at MIT, there was so many things that could go wrong. What if his actions cause some allies to be unborn?!
Tony barely remembered anything from his time at MIT, only small patches of time when he wasn’t drowning in alcohol and bad decisions. It was a time where rebellion and lashing out were the only things on his mind before his parents
died were killed. Of course, after they were murdered passed, his reliance of alcohol only increased making for a few very blurry years before he straightened up (slightly).
In his nostalgia-fueled daze, Rhodey had apparently gotten up to look for a phone, yelling about calling an ambulance. Tony took a hot minute to consider it, unsure whether he really needed help before he scrambled up to stop him.
“No! No, no, Rhodes, Rhodey, Honey Bear I’m fine, Look. I’m ok, I don’t need an ambulance.” or a fuss went unsaid in his insistence, serious eyes trying to convey his clear health even to Rhodey’s unsure gaze. Tangled in a blanket and halfway off a tiny bed and on the floor, he didn’t paint a very good image of his well-being. In this time however, Rhodey was still young, kind and good .
“You’re sure?” Rhodey took a long moment to assess Tony’s sudden clarity, doubtful and worried brows creased in concern on an unlined forehead on an astoundingly young face. God how young was Rhodey back then? -- Or well, now, he supposed. Time was a confusing concept-- what was he doing this far back? He needed time and space to think, now .
“I’m fine I just— have a really bad hangover— the bottles surprised me—” He flubbed, flailing for excuses. How did he talk back then? God did he have a mullet ? Did he sound anything like he used to? Stumbling out of the blanket entirely, he tumbled over to Rhodey and grabbed at his shoulders. “ M‘brain’s melting out of my ears right now, I kind of panicked-- a little, you don’t need to call the ambulance I’m fine Rhodey, I’m fine--” Close up, Rhodey was an unlined baby, wrinkles Tony remembered him having nowhere to be seen. Still a good friend, Rhodey sighed a tired, hungover sigh of someone who just didn’t have the capacity to deal with him. He stilled looked vaguely concerned (bless Rhodey honestly) but he gave in to Tony’s assurances after a long searching gaze. Twenty five odd years in the future none of his excuses would even remotely work on Rhodey’s worry for him but that was a problem far in the future for now.
It took a good twenty more minutes before Tony was able to convince Rhodey he hadn’t taken anything at the party they had gone to last night, slightly flustered at Rhodey’s much more pushy concern of the past while still being wholly wrong-footed by his sideways trip back in time. He was smoother than that, he swore, but everything was working on a level higher than weird at the moment that he was just out of touch with everything-- He needed space, fast. God when had crawling under a blanket ever been so comforting?
Under the cover of several blankets to block out the sun and any sound from the building they resided, Tony released a sobbing gasp into his pillow. Gods, what was he doing? The calendar hidden somewhat deep in the pile of papers on the desk told him it was sometime in October, 1991 . Two-ish months before his parents’ deaths. Was he hoping for too much to try and save them? Thanos was 25 years away and yet here he was, shaking from the thought of him like it was yesterday. (it was yesterday. To him.) Just what was he going to do?
Tony knew, in some vague sense of the matter, that this was one of the millions of futures that Strange had seen in their very brief planning time before fighting and losing to Thanos. Apparently. It was the only way they would win too. Not that it felt like that of course, what with the actual cost it took to keep him alive. Was he even worth the safety of the Time stone? Was everyone that was wiped still alive in this time? He had no way of knowing of course, not unless he did some serious detective work into finding Strange’s younger self-- Peter hadn’t even been born yet, Christ. Did he know anyone else that got dusted? Tony had serious serious fears about his ability to create a positive change in the outcome of Thanos’ plans. Profound insistences that anyone else would be better fit to see change in the world. Strange was right however. He was the only one with the means. Money didn’t mean much in a war against Thanos but time did. Unlike anyone else, he had the money and influence to prepare Earth for his strike down. Twenty five years worth.
… They were already fucked weren’t they?
Tony took the opportunity to wander the halls of his dormitory when he was up for it, (vomited half his stomach into the toilet bowl and had to leave before the smell made him retch the other half) vaguely glad that class was in session and there wasn’t too many people in the dormitory halls. From what he faintly remembered, there was a little broom closet under the stairs he was sure he could use as a thinking space, away from all the noise and distractions. It was sadly not a lab space, but it would do.
He was sure he could jerry rig some small things in there in time, perhaps even hide things from Rhodey if he needed to. Plans whirled asunder in his mind, paying no heed to the people around him as he walked blindly to his destination. There was an odd sense that he was missing something in the looks he was being given, something he faintly remembered he should be concerned about but not well enough to remember what. He would always be a smaller statured man at the end of his growth period, a result of his terrible adolescent choices of course; he was used to being looked literally down upon while other taller people used their height in various mocking ways. This time however, he had the distinct feeling he was missing some context to the looks of contempt thrown down at him as he walked past. There were some flirtatious and business hungry smiles thrown at him as well of course, and he reacted in his normal way, winks for the flirtatious (men and women he found) and slight nod to the business sharks. You’d think that the University halls were a meat house with how hungry for blood some of them were. Strange.
Dismissing his thoughts on the odder looks thrown his way, he debated back and forth on whether he should save his parents. Was this the single incident he needed to change? Or would it be part of many? Surely they would help in the long run, considering both their relative influences on the American society at least. But were they worth saving? Yes. Would he even be enough to fight the Winter Soldier? He wasn’t even physically fit enough to run down the stairs anymore, panting softly after his short trip to the broom closet. Was he always this unfit? Yes. Yes he was. He didn’t start his health kick until the end of his twenties. Denial was a great coping mechanism.
He didn’t think to knock before he swung open the closet door, so sure that it was free of anything but cleaning utilities. He was lucky it was too small for him to walk straight in, as it was only when he ducked down to enter that he noticed someone else glaring up at him, clearly displeased.
“Do you have business here?” A haughty british accent greeted him. He should probably be glad there wasn’t a couple making out in there instead now that he thought about it. A young...boy…? Glared up at him, textbooks spread on the floor and papers in disarray from him opening the door. If Tony was in any shape to comprehend this, he would have backed away hastily and taken his leave. At that moment however, all he could do was stare dumbly at his ruined plans for the day.
“Hello? Are you high?” He snapped back to reality. The person(?) was still there, waiting for him.
“What? No. I was just thinking. I’ll ah. Leave you alone.” He stumbled back, dazed. He hadn’t even taken two steps back when his sleeve was caught, curious eyes looking him up and down.
“Aren’t you Stark?” Tony didn’t have time to answer the muttered question, as he was promptly dragged into the closet. “Sit. Here.”
The door was closed behind him, trapping him in the tiny room with only a torch crammed between the wall and his mysterious jailer to light the way. A cup was shoved presumptuously into his hands, a warm sweet scent wafting from inside. “...Tea?”
To complete his day, the stranger ignored him, tugging papers from under his legs and returning to their studies in silence. Leaning back on the wall behind him, Tony stopped asking questions too, giving up on dealing with the world for the day.
He drank his tea in peace.
A good hour later, Tony had calmed down and had formed a somewhat partial plan to saving his parents. Howard, regardless of Tony’s grievances and issues with him, had been a genius of their time. It was perfectly reasonable that his genius could do a lot of good if he lived. If not, he could keep the Stark business off Tony’s back for a little longer while he planned. With that determined, all he had to do was save them. And fight the Winter Soldier. Right.
There was scant information Tony was aware of about the Winter Soldier before he and the Exvengers split. Despite his resources at the time, he was woefully unprepared to fight Barnes, especially with his Hydra made arm. There was also the question of whether the arm had self destruct programming or was part of the mind control scheme; a fact of which he was only informed of later of course. Did he have the resources to disable anything like that? Could he even get it in his state? It all seemed depressingly hopeless. If this was what a small rescue plan was, how was he going to plan to stop Thanos? He had vague ideas of what that would include but the scope of what he was doing was overwhelming. What was he doing so far back in time? Was there a purpose to doing almost all of his life again? Faintly, he also wondered what would have happened if he had cleaned up his act sooner in the first timeline. Would they have beaten Thanos already? There was no way to know.
The six years he had spent an anxiety ridden mess after the Invasion of New York had done nothing to save them from Thanos. There was no satisfaction in finding out he was right. Like a cursed seer, forever spouting unheard warnings only to watch the folly of those around him. Ultron was not such a bad idea now that a mad titan was against them now was it? Six years of fear had come true in front of his eyes and all he could do was watch it happen. It couldn’t happen again. It couldn’t. But what could he do? Darkness span around him as his breaths fell short and his lungs rejected air.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
A hand reached through the darkness to grab his hand. A slow steady heartbeat registered a little later. Distantly, a quiet voice chattered on about science in the silence, a soft ramble on the beneficial properties of the chemical compound...Moronic acid? Tony drifted out of his anxiety induced panic attack with a snort, gratefully pulling his hand away from his audience of one.
“Are you calm now?” Tony winced, any hope of avoiding the conversation dashed against the wall.
“Ah, yeah. Just— breathing problems you know?” He deflected, rubbing his chest for emphasis. His voice hitched a little as he did so, mentally marvelling at the smooth, unscarred skin of his chest. He’d forgotten that was even a thing, so used to the bumps on his chest and the desensitised skin.
“Do you always talk about moronic acids?” He attempted to joke, turning his mind to simpler things. His jailer hummed, clearly aware of what he was doing but letting him get away with it. They gestured at the mess of papers between them carelessly.
“I am a chemical engineering major. It’s what I do.” A chemistry major? That explained the closet. And the stack of papers. They probably did illegal drug making too. They? He? She? Did he want to ask the person their gender? It was probably rude in this time period to ask for pronouns wasn’t it? Best not to ask.
“Chemistry huh? So what’s your name?” He asked instead, feeling out the social field. Did he know this person in the future? That would help considerably. God he was really in over his head; everything was a mess. They quirked an eyebrow at him, looking minorly offended.
“Ziang Luo. I was at your Mother’s charity ball for summer last I remember.” They cocked their head arrogantly, every inch a wealthy child of a well off family. “I’m not surprised you don’t remember me with how much you drank though.”
Luo. Luo. Luo. Damn, that was a wealthy Chinese exports family name wasn’t it? Didn’t that family have a son? There was some controversy about not marrying for some reason or another? Big on LGBTQIA+ rights or something-- Oh, they were non-binary. Duh. Exports huh? That could be useful. “Luo. Exports hm?”
“I’m not importing anything for you.” They fired back immediately. Oops. Maybe that was a little too on the nose. Reel it back. Maybe they knew where he could get some mechanical tools? Lab space? Surely there was somewhere on campus that he could rig some stuff up...
“Oh no, I can get shit myself. You think there’s a free lab anywhere?” An EMP had a chance of working on the Winter Soldier’s arm, he considered. It would have to be a particularly strong EMP considering how likely it would be protected against them but he reckoned he could make something work. Maybe if he….
Luo was already shaking their head, looking displeased. “I wouldn’t be here if there was one. Seniors took over 601a for ‘testing’. The fumes say it’s methylenedioxymethamphetamine though.”
Methyle…? Oh, Ecstasy. Tony grimaced. Drugs were great and all for forgetting things but not what he was looking for. He was mildly surprised Luo wasn’t part of it though. Were they a Goodie two shoes? That would be a problem in the long run. He huffed quietly. Just his luck he’d run into a straight A student. Chances were, he’d probably get found out if he made anything in this tiny closet. Could he pass it off as a prank? MIT was quite famous for hacks but… Hmm. He’d have to look for another place.
Did he have enough room in his dorm to make things in? Rhodey probably had questions already. What was he going to do? He needed to plan in small steps.
Over his thoughts, Luo spoke up. “You’re Electrical engineering correct?”
Tony blinked at the non-sequitur. Electrical…? Oh yeah he took that at MIT. “Yeah?”
Judgemental eyes took him in for a solid second, and he wondered what he was being judged for. Tony was sure his reputation of partying and drinking the night (and days) away preceded him at this point; there was little reason to think he was trustworthy enough not to ruin the place. He needed to clean up his image if he wanted to remain unsuspicious. It would probably take some time.
Jesus fuck, would he need to keep up his old playboy persona? Thinking back on his school days made him cringe on so many levels. He’d fucked so many people; no thought to how illegal that was-- urgh, he was disgusted in himself at the thought of it. Sure, he’d thoroughly explored his sexuality to the point where the internet no longer surprised him at any point in time but urgh . He drank so much alcohol at this point too-- God, rehab was horrifying the first time, did he really need to do it again? Already, his headache and hangover was coming back with a vengeance.
“I only have classes in the evening.” Luo finally concluded, turning back to their papers nonchalantly. “Do as you will.” They scribbled notes on their homework quietly, as if they hadn’t just gifted Tony a precious sliver of trust in the midst of his confusion.
Tony blinked stupidly. Were they… letting him use the closet? There wasn’t much space but it was quiet. But… why?
Oh, he’d spoken aloud. “Ah, Just, Why are you letting me in your space?”
Luo straightened from their slumped posture, sleepy indulgence morphing to a sharp shark like grin. “You know, this is the first time I’ve seen clear eyes on you in the four years you’ve been here?”
Tony flinched, a part of him ashamed of his old habits but determined to better himself. God he was fucked up. What was he like- 19 right now? Drugs and alcohol from 15 to 19; onwards if he kept drinking. What a disaster.
“You sit in my classes sometimes, I don’t know where you are when you do. But it’s not class.” They fiddled with a pen for a bit, confident in his silence. “I’d say welcome back to reality, if you didn’t look like someone crushed your soul to wake you up.”
In the deep recesses of his mind, Tony would honestly admit that he’d probably lost his soul a long long time ago. Stolen by trauma and PTSD, he was a dead man walking-- A corpse animated by sheer will and determination. He wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth however, and made an agreeable huff instead of saying anything.
Luo smirked at his response but didn’t comment. “I suspect whatever you want to do in a lab isn’t illicit alcohol or drugs. So long as it doesn’t smell or melt the floor I don’t care what you do. Don’t poison me and I won’t poison you.” They paused to consider him for a moment before continuing. “Oh and. Leave some room for me to sit, I’d like some space to finish my reports.”
Slowly, Tony nodded with a muttered ‘thanks’.
Great. Well. He had a space. It was a start at the very least. He had no idea what he was going to do with the evident trust that was suddenly thrust upon him, but that was a thought for another day. Now that he had an area to think and create he was onto the next step- planning. Which… wasn’t his forte to say the least. He was more a ‘Do and think later’ kind of guy. Either that or “think and plan for every possible outcome” but... he didn’t have time for that sort of thing. There were only a couple months left before his parent’s untimely demise, he had to make every day count. He didn’t even know what would ultimately trigger Howard’s plan to transport Super Soldier serum on his own. Did Howard really need to do it with his mother? Without guards or any sort of back up? What sort of stupid idea was that? And obviously the imbedded Hydra plants passed the departure date along as lo and behold! Murder. SHIELD needed a serious de-weeder at some point but eh, not a priority. He couldn’t touch that lot until his parents were attacked anyway, no use in creating ripples where he didn’t need to in the early game.
Even just dealing with the present, there was so much he had to do. Now that he had his reputation to think about, his body was probably waiting to hit him with withdrawal symptoms. He seriously hoped he hadn’t been taking drugs at this point. He really, really didn’t want to go through that stage of his life again, alcohol was enough of a vice for him. Was there a way to just skip all that? He really didn’t want to explain why he didn’t want to have sex and party all night anymore. Did he sound old saying that? Probably. But he had better things to do than waste his life away. Like saving the world from Thanos. That was a thing. That he needed to do. He was so fucked .
The curl of anxiety that came every time Thanos’ name was even thought of scared him. What if Thanos knew? What protections did the gauntlet bring him? Was he exempt from the time spell Strange had cast on Tony? Probably not, seeing as no-one he was aware of had been dusted yet.
Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it.
Paranoia plagued his mind. Who could he even trust to complete his mission here in 1991? Was he expected to do it alone? There was no telling what he had to do to change the course of Thanos’ plans. A rock in a river and all that bullshit, any action he did could change the course of history forever. Why the fuck was he trusted to do this?!
Did he even trust this person in front of him, an innocent as far as he was concerned, to keep his work a secret? If a casual observer could tell his eyes were clear from the haze he had been in, what would Rhodey say? Who could he trust? Did he trust this stranger? Rhodey? Was there anyone else he could even rely on to stay silent? He needed to make a list of people alive in 1991. Cap was still a Capsicle at this point wasn’t he? Strange…? He didn’t know Strange enough to track him down. Bruce perhaps. They were roughly the same age. Better yet, he knew where Bruce would be around this time. (A familiar face would be nice.) At 20, Bruce was on his way to Harvard, studying for his physics degree and probably all his other degrees in a couple years time. Tony would just have to snatch him up before Ross ruined his life. Which. He’ll work out later. How was SHIELD going again? Full of Hydra agents. Right. Damn. His list of allies was so dreadfully low.
Hope seemed a bare glimmer in the distance to the task ahead of him. They were playing the long game, a distant hope that whatever Tony could do here in the past would change the future for the better. In the fight before everything went down, they barely had any time to establish any sort of plan. Between waiting for Thanos to arrive and fighting him, Strange could only lay out the battle ahead and then drop some spell over him. He’d barely had time to quietly mention time travel before the Mad Titan arrived.
Tony had many questions for Strange’s decision to drop him nearly 25 years in the past. Why so far back? Were they really all that hopeless? What could he change without accidentally undoing someone’s existence? So many theoretical physics questions had to be asked too. Was this a time paradox? What changes could he make to the future without accidentally destroying the world? Why did it have to be him that went back?!
Anxiety settled into his bones like an old unwanted lover, partially a symptom of the withdrawal he was sure, but he wouldn’t discount mental PTSD coming along the time travel ride with him either. A hand patted his shoulder softly outside of his thoughts. Light shone in his eyes for a moment before he was left in the dark again. There was blank paper and a pen left for him. Or maybe it was just Luo’s spares. It didn’t matter, he was stealing some anyway; it wasn’t a holographic tablet but it would do.
For the rest of the evening, he planned.