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Nothing Changes (Except You)

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“Seriously, man? You know Tuesday is my Froot Loops day!”

Tony sighed into his coffee at the kitchen island, wondering how this had become his life: listening to grown adults arguing about breakfast cereal.

“I assumed you had another box,” Bruce told Clint between bites, clearly feeling no remorse.

Since Tony didn’t feel like saying words yet, he was glad to hear Natasha point out, “You know you can have JARVIS order more and it’ll be here in half an hour.”

“But I’m hungry nowww,” Clint whined.

“Then eat one of the ten other kinds of cereal we have in the pantry,” Nat suggested as she finished off her porridge.

“Or, if you ask nicely, I might even make you some eggs,” Steve chimed in from the stove where he was making his own breakfast, his hair still wet from a post-morning-run shower.

Clint eyed Steve speculatively. “...with bacon?”

“I think we’ve got some turkey bacon, yeah,” Steve said, heading toward the freezer.

“That’s not what I asked,” Clint pouted.

Steve paused. “So... do you want eggs?”

“Eggs sound good,” said Sam, sliding into the room and looking substantially more worn out from the run he’d likely shared with Steve.

“Not unless you have proper bacon,” Clint answered.

“I think Thor finished it all off when he was here last weekend,” Nat chimed in.

Tony made a gesture with his hands, and was grateful for his AI’s ability to interpret him.

“I have placed an order for three boxes of Froot Loops and five packages of bacon. Delivery expected in eighteen minutes,” JARVIS announced.

“I’m gonna starve before then.”

“No, you’re not,” Bruce said. Then, the cereal gone, he stood to bring the bowl of brownish milk to the sink.

Clint stared with longing, and Bruce put the bowl down slowly. “You don’t seriously want the milk after I ate the cereal,” he wondered incredulously.

The archer looked disturbingly like he was contemplating it, to the disgust of everyone else in the room, when Steve shoved a plate containing a small pile of scrambled eggs in front of him.

“To hold off ‘starvation’ until your bacon and cereal get here,” Steve explained.

Clint stared at the plate, but begrudgingly lifted the fork and started eating.

A second plate of eggs went to Sam, who gave a weary thanks.

Then a third slid in front of Tony. “And you need something more than just coffee,” Steve said.

Tony mumbled his thanks, downed the rest of his coffee, and picked up the fork. Maybe it would be good to have some real food before the long, boring meeting scheduled that afternoon.

There was a knock at his office door, and then--before Tony could reply--Pepper appeared.

“Wow, rude. What if I’d been naked in here?”

“If you would just wear clothes all the time at work like a normal person, that wouldn’t be a risk, would it? But if I did walk in on you naked, well... I’ve seen worse.” Tony frowned at that, but Pepper didn’t give him the chance to voice his offense. “Now, remember, the quarterly review is starting soon, and you will be there.”

“But Pep, you’re the CEO, I’m just R&D, I still don’t understand why I need to be there...”

“Because you’re the head of R&D,” Pepper explained with the patience of the saint Tony knew she was, “And all the department heads are reporting, because it’s the quarterly review--the one that happens every quarter?--and everyone needs to know what’s on schedule and what’s changed.”

“But everything’s on schedule except Parsons’ project, because--”

“No, Tony, you can’t just tell me so I tell the board and you skip the meeting.”

“Why not? That sounds like a great idea, actually; let’s do that.”

“Tony.” Pepper’s tone was starting to get exasperated, but she had not yet reached the “I will murder you with my stilettos” point, so he still had hope of escape.

“What if--”

“Pardon me, Sir,” JARVIS interrupted, “But there is a situation developing in Central Park that requires Avengers intervention.”

Tony grinned at Pepper. “Sorry, Pep, duty calls!”

“What’ve we got, J?” Tony asked as the suit closed around him and he took off toward the park.

“It would appear that... well, the trees are attacking, Sir.”

“Excuse me, what? I thought I just heard you say the trees are attacking...?”

Tony stared as what had first looked like the tops of trees being blown by hurricane-force winds or thrown around by super-strength attackers became more clear: the trees were moving by themselves. Most appeared to remain rooted, heaving their branches wildly. Some of the smaller trees, however, seemed to have pulled their roots from the ground and begun chasing crowds of screaming civilians.

“Well, that’s not something you see every day.”

“Iron Man,” Cap’s voice came in over the comms, “Report.”

Tony heard the whine of a familiar engine and saw the quinjet coming in from the east. “Well, either the trees by the North Meadow have been secretly Ents all along, or they got tired of waiting for the Lorax to speak for them.”

There was a pause. “Well, I guess I understood enough of that. Does it look like they’re moving out of the park? Can you tell if they have an objective?”

“Right now, it looks like they’re just going after whoever’s nearby,” Tony answered, swooping in to pull a jogger in a purple tracksuit out of the path of a hefty swinging branch. “And luckily, it looks like only the small ones are actually mobi--” He cut himself off as a huge maple near him pulled itself out of the ground and started taking lumbering strides with its massive roots. “Okay, so the bigger ones can move, too--we’re gonna need the big guy.”

He deposited the jogger outside the park, then flew back in time to see the Hulk launch out of the quinjet and land with a reverberating thud before immediately starting to smash up the nearest oak. “Parks Department’s not gonna be happy with us...” he muttered. Louder, he suggested, “Land south of 86th and you should be clear.”

“Roger that. Iron Man, Falcon, you two are on perimeter duty, keeping trees in and civilians out. Widow, help anyone currently in the park get out safe. Hawkeye--find yourself a nest. I wouldn’t suggest a tree.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Clint responded drily.

“Heads up, Cap’s favorite guest star is here again,” Sam’s voice reported.

“Bucky?” Steve asked, the same excitement that was in his voice every time his best friend showed up to help them fight.

It didn’t happen every battle, but ever since the guy had beaten Steve to a pulp and then saved his life pulling him out of the Potomac, he had a strange habit of appearing during their fights, working effortlessly beside them, and then vanishing just as they finished up. Tony knew it drove Steve crazy, but he suspected it also helped Steve to see that his friend was okay, even if he wasn’t ready to come in yet.

The fact that Barnes had saved each of the Avengers’ lives at some point or another had warmed Tony to the man. Sometimes, when he was beside the Soldier in battle, Tony had tried to engage in conversation, but Barnes’ replies were practically monosyllabic. Still...

“One of these times we’ve gotta get him a spare comm,” Tony said.

“I’d really appreciate that, Iron Man,” Steve said.

“Yeah, he deserves to listen to our witty banter while Cap tells us to focus,” Sam said.

“Falcon,” Steve warned.

“Yeah, Cap?” Sam replied innocently.


Tony focused, using his repulsors to destroy tree branches reaching for civilians, the unibeam to force back trees wandering a little too close to the edge of the park. He also contributed to the banter that never ceased, despite Cap’s admonishments.

Once or twice, Tony caught a glimpse of light flickering off Barnes’ metal arm. He found himself impressed with the power the man could throw around. He knew Steve had the same strength-enhancing serum, but Steve seemed more--not delicate, maybe graceful? But Barnes just oozed raw power, somehow controlled and chaotic at the same time, punching through tree trunks like they were paper. There was something enthralling about it.

“Aw, no no no no, gazebo, maaaaan,” Clint’s voice drew Tony’s attention, and his eyes widened as he saw the gazebo--the wooden gazebo--that the archer had chosen for his perch began to shift.

Tony dove in and plucked him away before the roof folded in on him like gnashing teeth.

“First Bruce eats my Froot Loops, then I’m almost eaten by a gazebo, today sucks,” Clint complained as Tony deposited him on a nearby lamppost.

“I don’t know, this let me skip out on a boring meeting, so today seems pretty good so far to me,” Tony said as he flew off, then warned the rest of the team, “Avoid gazebos, benches, anything else made of wood.”

“Understood,” Cap acknowledged. “Any ideas what’s causing this? It would help if we could stop this at the source.”

“Well, it doesn’t look like the trees further south are affected right now, so it must be something fairly localized...”

As he shot a repulsor at a charging sapling, Tony caught sight of Barnes’ metal arm again, light flashing off of it...

A bright flash whited out Tony’s entire vision, and then--

“Seriously, man? You know Tuesday is my Froot Loops day!”

Tony blinked, looking at his coffee in confusion before lifting his head to take in the Tower kitchen where he was now sitting.

“I assumed you had another box,” Bruce said, calmly eating cereal and not at all green.

What...? Weren’t they just...? Tony’s mind felt foggy like it always did before he finished his morning coffee, but he could have sworn just a minute ago he’d been full of adrenaline, in the middle of battle.

“You know you can have JARVIS order more and it’ll be here in half an hour,” Nat pointed out.

“But I’m hungry nowww,” Clint whined.

“Then eat one of the ten other kinds of cereal we have in the pantry.”

“Or--” Steve began, but Tony interrupted.

“What’s going on?”

Everyone looked at him.

“What’s going on is that Bruce took the last of the Froot Loops, on a Tuesday, which he knows full well--”

“But this already happened,” Tony protested.

“Just now, yeah, and my being hungry is still--”

“Tony, are you okay?” Natasha interrupted Clint, her penetrating gaze on Tony.

“I... You all don’t remember this happening already? Or the battle we were just fighting in Central Park?”

Tony saw Nat and Bruce exchange a worried glance. Then Steve asked, “Did you have a dream about a battle in Central Park?”

Tony opened his mouth, then closed it. He was sure... But was he? Maybe he had just dreamed the battle--trees attacking, really? And the cereal argument could just be simple déjà vu, he supposed.

“I... I guess I did.”

There was an awkward silence for a moment, and then Clint said, “Well, I’m still hungry because Bruce ate my Froot Loops.”

“If you ask nicely, I might make you some eggs,” Steve offered.

“Eggs sound good,” Sam said as he came in.

“No bacon,” Tony muttered, then ordered, “JARVIS, order bacon and Froot Loops.”

“Order placed, Sir. Delivery expected in eighteen minutes.”

“I think we have some turkey bacon...” Steve said, heading toward the freezer.

“I can’t eat eggs without proper bacon,” Clint complained.

Tony downed the rest of his coffee and left the kitchen, even as his stomach protested that he’d have gotten eggs if he’d stayed.

“Remember, the quarterly review is starting soon, and you will be there.”

He looked at Pepper, trying to determine if this was still just déjà vu.

She added, “You know, the one that happens every quarter?”

“Yeah, uh--I was thinking, what if I just tell you what’s not on schedule and then you can--”

“No, Tony. You’re the head of R&D, you need to be there.”

“Not if trees start rampaging in Central Park,” Tony argued.

She raised her eyebrows. “Yes, well, I suppose in that exact scenario? Then yes, I would allow you to skip the meeting.”

“Okay, then. Just so we have that clear.” He stared at her like he’d won the argument.

She stared at him like he was insane. Which, well, jury was out on that one.

“Pardon me, Sir,” JARVIS interrupted, “But there is a situation developing in Central Park that may require Avengers intervention.”

“You’re kidding.” Pepper looked at Tony suspiciously. “Did you plan this with JARVIS?”

“Alas, Ms. Potts, it would appear that trees are, in fact, attacking civilians.”

“O... kay, fine, yes, Tony, go...”

Tony gave her a grin, but he knew it didn’t reach his eyes. This couldn’t just be déjà vu.

As Tony flew the suit toward Central Park, the scene looked just the same as he remembered from his “dream”: trees swinging their branches at people, smaller ones pulling themselves out of the ground to chase them.

“Well, that’s not something you see every day,” he found himself saying, despite the fact that he felt like he had just seen this very scenario just hours before.

“Iron Man,” Cap’s voice came in over the comms, “Report.” Tony saw the quinjet coming in, just like before.

“Uh,” Tony tried to shake off the disorientation at the repeating events. “The trees in the North Meadow are attacking civilians.”

“Does it look like they’re moving out of the park? Can you tell if they have an objective?”

“Right now, it looks like they’re just going after the nearest people,” Tony answered. Then he had to ask, “Seriously, this doesn’t seem familiar to anyone else?” He swept in to save the same jogger in the purple tracksuit he remembered from before, easily avoiding the same maple that heaved out of the ground toward them.

“You mean from watching those ridiculously long Hobbit movies last week?” Clint asked over the comms.

“No, I mean we--and it was Lord of the Rings, not The Hobbit--nevermind, just send in the big guy and land south of 86th.”

“Roger that,” Cap acknowledged. “Iron Man, Falcon, you two are on perimeter duty, keeping trees in and civilians out. Widow, help anyone currently in the park get out safe. Hawkeye--find yourself a nest. I wouldn’t suggest a tree.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Clint responded drily.

“Or anything made of wood,” Tony added, eying a familiar gazebo.

“Heads up, Cap’s favorite guest star is here again,” Sam’s voice reported.


The fight and comms conversation played out almost the same as Tony remembered, except for where he thought to dodge some near-misses that had been nearer the last time.

“Watch the gazebo!” he warned Natasha, who’d ventured close to the not-yet-moving structure while avoiding a massive oak.

Then the gazebo sprang toward her. She rolled away deftly as Tony destroyed it with a repulsor.

“‘It’s too late. You’ve awakened the gazebo’,” he commented. Then, “What, nobody got that reference? Dammit, I bet Banner would’ve.”

Hulk roared, and Tony didn’t know if that was in response or just a battle cry at whatever tree he was destroying.

“Well, I suppose this is still better than that boring meeting Pepper wanted me to attend,” Tony commented.

“Iron Man, any ideas what’s causing this? It would help if we could stop this at the source.”

Right, Tony hadn’t figured that out last time, either. “It doesn’t look like the trees further south are affected right now, so it must be something fairly localized...”

He turned, about to instruct JARVIS to scan the center of the impacted area, when suddenly there was familiar bright flash whiting out his entire vision, and then--

“Seriously, man? You know Tuesday is my Froot Loops day!”

Tony closed his eyes and sighed. Again?

“I assumed you had another box,” Bruce said.

“You know you can have JARVIS order more and it’ll be here in half an hour,” Nat pointed out.

“But I’m hungry nowww,” Clint whined.

Tony stood and walked out of the kitchen.

He decided not to bother going down to his office, but instead went straight to his lab, to figure out what the hell was going on.

“J, pull up all publications written in the last... five years, by anyone who’s not an obvious nut-job, about the theories of time travel, particularly those referencing a cyclic model.”

He was halfway through the first article when his phone started playing “Short Skirt, Long Jacket”--a call from Pepper. He frowned. He wasn’t late for the meeting yet; it wasn’t even the time she’d come to remind him of the meeting the last two times around.

“I’m not late yet, how did you know I’m not planning to be there?”

There was a pause. “Tony, you need to attend the quarterly review. But first--you have a visitor.”

“I... what?”

Her voice lowered. “Bucky Barnes is here looking for you. If you need me to tell him to go, I will, but I thought you at least needed to know.”

“I... no, I’ll... I’ll be right there.”

This... this was new.

Tony took the elevator down to his office. Pepper and Barnes were both outside, Barnes looking awkward and out-of-place in his hoodie and baseball cap, Pepper looking cool and professional and distantly polite. She could have invited the man into Tony’s office, had done similarly with visitors in the past, but clearly felt no need to be particularly hospitable with Barnes. (Tony understood why, and loved her a little for it.)

“Hey there, Robocop,” Tony greeted. “Pep, I’m good here, you can go back to getting ready for that meeting we both know I won’t be attending.”

Pepper shot him a look, but after glancing back at Barnes for a moment, the frustration turned to something like concern. “Okay, if you’re sure. Have JARVIS let me know if you need anything,” she said. Then she added to Barnes, “JARVIS keeps an eye on everything in this building.”

Barnes looked between her and Tony, then nodded. “Understood, ma’am.”

“That will be all, Ms. Potts,” Tony said.

With a final assessing look at Tony, Pepper turned to go, and Tony gestured for Barnes to step into his office.

“So, Barnes,” Tony said. “You’re here. Why are you here?”

“I remember.”

Given what the past seventy years had been for the man, there were a lot of things he might remember, but Tony had a feeling--a hope, he had to admit--that he was talking about something much more recent. “You remember...?”

Barnes nodded. “You remember, too, but nobody else does. That today keeps repeating.”

Tony dropped into his office chair. The acknowledgement that someone else was experiencing this, that it wasn’t just him finally going off the deep end, was a heady relief. Even if it was Bucky Barnes of all people...

He wasn’t alone.

Barnes explained, “During the battle yester--last time, everyone else was acting the same, but you were different. You knew things from the first time around.”

“Yeah.” Tony thought back to the fight, tried to remember if he should have noticed Barnes acting differently the second time around. He’d assumed any differences during the battle were effects from his own changed actions...

“So, you can fix it, right?”

Tony blinked. “I don’t even know what’s causing it.” Barnes kept staring at him expectantly, and Tony shrugged. “But I’m working on it.”

“How can I help?”

Tony raised his eyebrows. He didn’t really expect Barnes to be able to help with the science, but he supposed... “Well, first I need all the information I can get, so knowing about your experience of the time loop would be a start.”

The other man nodded and took a seat in front of Tony’s desk.

“The... time loop?” He looked to Tony like he sought confirmation for the term, and Tony nodded. “Has been starting in the morning, around eight. I always return where I was at that time, in the room I’m renting, writing... memories... in my journal.” Barnes directed his gaze to the far wall as he spoke, his voice level like he was giving an official mission report, but Tony thought he might’ve been a little embarrassed at that admission. “The words I thought I remembered writing the previous time were gone. The landlady was downstairs with her latest fella, and they were... loud.

“I went for a walk just to get out. Then went to a coffee shop, where the news was playing on the television. The second loop, when the news was exactly the same, I thought... I thought something was wrong with my memories, or that maybe I was still in...” Barnes trailed off, swallowing uncomfortably. “I stayed for a few hours, saw the news about the attacks in Central Park, thought I should help out. The second time--things were almost the same, except--you were different. It ended the same both times--bright flash of light, then it was morning again.”

“Wow,” Tony said.


“I think that’s the most I’ve heard you talk... well, ever.”

Barnes huffed out something like a laugh.

“I assume you’ve now used up your quota for the day, and now I’ll have to wait until the next loop before you can contribute anything verbally?”

With a smirk, Barnes replied, “Yep.”

Tony opened his mouth, then closed it. “Well played.”

Over the next hour, they discussed the details of what they’d both seen in the loops so far, especially in the park. No obvious causes for the loop presented themselves.

Then Tony pulled out a tablet and handed it to Barnes, then pulled up his own main display. “Now it’s the least fun part of any science experiment--the lit review. J, put some of the lay publications on the tablet for Barnes, and load up the scholarly ones for me.”

“I’m not an idiot,” the other man protested.

“Good. If you were I wouldn’t have you bother with this part. But how many doctorates do you have?”

Barnes gave him a glare.

“None, right? Then trust me, you want to leave the academic articles to me. They’re going to be full of jargon all of a hundred people in the world understand, and sentences designed to confuse the reader into believing the author is an expert in whatever the hell they’re talking about.”

Barnes’ glare lessened, and the corner of his mouth turned up in a smirk. “So how many have you written?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Shut up and read, Bionic Man.”

About half an hour before the incident in the park would be reported, Tony stopped by the lab, grabbed a spare comm for Barnes, suited up, and then met the other man on the roof.

The sight of Iron Man flying over Central Park wasn’t new. It didn’t usually happen with the Winter Soldier in tow. They got some stares.

Tony flew to what he thought was where the center of activity had been during the past loops, then set Barnes down.

They both looked around. It was a pleasant little clearing, currently empty of foot traffic. A picnic table to one side near a patch of dirt, and some benches on the other side. There were some birches, some oaks, and some other trees Tony didn’t know because he was an expert in a lot of things but botany was not one of them.

None of the trees was showing signs of movement yet, but Tony kept alert anyway, and Barnes’ sharp eyes were clearly ready for anything.

“J, let me know if you detect any movement that’s not wind by any trees in the area--or benches, anything wood.”

“Are we expecting a forest uprising, then, Sir?”

“That we are, J, that we are.”

A squirrel’s cry came from his left.

“There,” Barnes said, just as JARVIS was saying, “Sir!” and showing the movement on the HUD.

“Alert the Avengers, J,” Tony said, watching Barnes charged toward the swaying oak just as a father with a stroller came into view. The man gave them a strange look, slowly turning the stroller the other way. “Get out of the park,” Tony commanded through the suit’s speakers, and the man sped up a little, though it was unclear if he believed there was actual danger or just thought the superheroes were having some strange field training day.

“I’ll start getting people evacuated, if you’re good here,” Tony told Barnes. “But let me know if you see anything different, or whatever might be causing this.”

“Yeah,” Barnes said shortly, slamming his fist into a branch and splitting it in two.

Tony took a moment to be impressed before flying off.

“Iron Man, report,” Cap’s voice came over the comms.

“Trees are attacking, I’m getting civilians out, and I brought a friend along,” Tony said, glad for the ability to report something new.

“Rhodes back early?” Natasha asked.

“Different James,” Tony answered, as Barnes said over the borrowed comm, “Hey, Stevie.”

“Bucky!” Steve sounded overjoyed, more so than the previous times. Maybe Tony should’ve gotten their occasional ally a comm sooner.

Especially since now he’d have to remember to do it again, and again, until they figured out how to escape this damn looping.

And it didn’t seem like that was going to happen this time around.

“Seeing anything, Barnes?” Tony asked, keeping an eye on the time. He didn’t remember exactly how long the battle had been lasting, but he had a feeling they were approaching the point when the loop ended.

“Trees, trees, and more trees,” Barnes reported. “And a rampaging picnic table.”

“Oh, right, crap--Barton, you’re not on the gazebo, are you?”

“Why? ...Aw, no no no no, gazebo, maaaaan...”

Tony sped in to hoist the archer away from the attacking structure.

“First Bruce eats my Froot Loops, then I’m almost eaten by a gazebo, today sucks,” Clint complained.

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Tony muttered under his breath. Then he said over the comm, “Barnes--I think we’re coming on the end of the loop. Next time around, come to the Tower, take the back elevator, I’ll have JARVIS let you up.”

“Roger,” Barnes said.

“What are you talking ab--” Clint started.

Then there was a bright flash of white light, and everything started again.

“Seriously, man? You know Tuesday is my Froot Loops day!”

Tony glared at his coffee. Why did he always have to feel morning lethargy when the loop reset? Part of the reason he often stayed awake for days was because he hated morning grogginess more than the exhaustion of not having been to sleep.

Well, and the nightmares that came if he did sleep.

Maybe there were benefits to this looping business after all.

Still, it was time to cut off another repetition of the morning conversation, “J, order Froot Loops and bacon, five boxes, immediate delivery. And when Barnes gets here, let him up.”

“Bucky?” Steve asked. “He’s coming in?”

“He’s... we’ve got something to discuss.”

“Oh.” Steve’s face fell, confusion and worry overtaking the momentary hope.

Tony hated to see his friend so crushed, and realized that “false hope” wouldn’t have the resulting future disappointment when Steve probably wasn’t going to remember this in another six hours. “I mean--I do have to talk to him, but I think he might be considering coming in to stay, and I’ll make sure he knows the offer is still open.”

A relieved, happy smile spread back over Steve’s face. “That’s great! Thank you, Tony, it means so much to me.”

Well, that was certainly better than disappointed Steve, but still left Tony feeling awkward, so he turned back to his coffee.

When Barnes arrived, Tony let Steve have a moment hugging his best friend, then took the Soldier down to the workshop.

Barnes’ eyes grew wide as he looked around. “This is incred--” he broke off as DUM-E approached. “Well, hello there, who are you?”

“That worthless pile of bolts is DUM-E. DUM-E, Bucky Barnes. And no, just because he has a metal arm does not make him your brother.”

Barnes grinned at that, reaching out with his left arm, but letting the bot make the first touch, like one would with a shy animal. DUM-E, not particularly shy, reached out and took the metal hand, turning it gently in curiosity.

“No arm wrestling, you two,” Tony warned, pointing with a screwdriver he’d picked up just to fiddle with. “Now, let’s get to work.”

They looped again, and again.

About twenty minutes after each loop restarted, Barnes would arrive at the Tower. He would tell Steve that sure, he was thinking about moving in, and then he and Tony would hole up in the workshop for a few hours.

They made their way through the articles JARVIS had found, discussing what they read, but everything was either theoretical or pure fiction.

At one point when Tony finished a particularly pointless article (one that made him wonder if Justin Hammer was writing under a pseudonym), he glanced over to where Barnes was sitting on the lab sofa. He was surprised to see DUM-E’s claw in the Soldier’s lap, lightly clasping the man’s metal hand, while Bucky absently petted the bot with his right hand, reading the tablet propped on the armrest beside him.

The sight made Tony’s chest feel funny, and part of him wanted to joke about DUM-E not being a lapdog, but he couldn’t bring himself to interrupt. He just watched for a few moments, then moved onto the next article.

Apart from the theoretical research, they also experimented with the practical. They always went to the park at least a half hour before the battle, searching for some sort of cause--for the trees or the looping. (Tony always had to remember to call Pepper about missing the meeting, or she’d be more pissed when she called him.)

The loop after they finished the reading, having found nothing applicable, they tried heading to the park first thing after the reset. The walk through the park was lovely, Tony carrying the suitcase suit instead of wearing the armor, but they didn’t find anything new. The loop always started a little after eight in the morning, and reset at 3:24 in the afternoon with a bright flash, no matter what they did in the battle.

“What if we didn’t go at all?” Bucky asked when they met up at the Tower on the eighth--ninth?--loop.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Tony said. “I think we need to take it a step at a time--just one of us going.”

“Why’s that?”

“I doubt our just being at the park during that flash of light is causing us to loop--otherwise the others would remember--but on the chance our not being there does somehow break the cycle...” Tony trailed off, grimacing.

“...and someone gets hurt ‘cause we’re not there?” Bucky realized.

“Yeah,” Tony said. “Not something I want to deal with. So, let’s first see what happens if I go and you don’t.”

Bucky was silent for a moment. “What if I end up not remembering the loop, but you’re still stuck in it, alone?”

Tony shrugged like the thought didn’t bother him. “I don’t think that’ll happen, but if it does--I’ll have more information to figure it out.”

The way Bucky looked at him, he got the feeling his play of nonchalance hadn’t worked, but the other man just said, “Okay, let’s give it a try.”

The battle without Bucky, even surrounded by his usual teammates’ chatter, felt... lonely.

Tony knew Bucky was listening from the comm he’d given him, at a nearby coffee shop so he could join in if something changed. The rest of the Avengers had no idea, and had no particular reason to expect the Soldier’s presence at this particular battle. Nothing about his absence was out of the ordinary.

It still felt wrong. And the possibility that Bucky might not remember all their past loops after this made it even worse.

Then came the flash of light.

“Seriously, man? You know Tuesday is my Froot Loops day!”

Tony walked out of the kitchen.

He started to tell JARVIS to let Bucky up if he showed, but the fact that it was an if stopped him.

Then his phone rang, playing Asia’s “Heat of the Moment.” He startled, then exhaled with relief as he answered it. “You remember.”

“Yeah. Just wanted to let you know I’m on my way.”

Tony and Bucky had realized they should exchange cell numbers, though they’d had to actually memorize them like this was the ‘80s, because programming them wouldn’t last to the next loop. He was now grateful they had.

He slumped on the nearby couch with relief. (And lack of caffeine--he shouldn’t have abandoned his coffee.) “Thanks.”

“See you soon.”

The next time around, Bucky went without Tony. For science.

Tony told the team that he’d come down with sudden food poisoning and, while he’d normally fight even when sick, didn’t want to risk the highly unpleasant situation of vomiting in the suit.

The fact that Steve’s omnipresent excitement at Bucky joining them on comms was overshadowed by worry for his supposedly ill teammate left Tony feeling guilty about the lie.

Listening from his workshop, Tony had screens showing footage from news helicopters (for once staying a healthy distance away from the action, the one time he wished they were closer) as well as any footage JARVIS could hack from nearby cameras (which covered more the surrounding streets than Central Park itself). He wondered, not for the first time, if he should make body cameras for the team.

Especially when Sam shouted, “Shit! Barnes is down!”

As Cap demanded more detail, Tony’s heart was pounding. “J, suit,” he commanded.

“Head wound, lotta blood. I wouldn’t wanna risk moving him, but with the--” There was a pause and some grunts before Sam continued, “He’s not safe in the middle of all this.”

“Get him out of here,” Steve ordered, tension in his voice.

“I’m on my way, I’ll get him,” Tony said, even as he knew it didn’t matter. It was 3:15; the loop would be resetting soon, and then Bucky would be fine. If he was unconscious, it wasn’t like he’d even be aware of the pain right now. There was no reason to fly out to get him, but Tony headed out anyway.

“Tony?” Steve asked in surprise. “Are you sure you can...?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Falcon, just hold them off another minute.”

“Got it,” Sam grunted.

When Tony arrived, he barely spared Falcon a glance. His eyes were locked on the wounded man on the ground, face obscured by a deep gash and blood-matted hair, and his stomach turned, nausea no longer a lie. “Fuck,” he muttered, then gently cradled the broken form in his arms, supporting Bucky’s head as best he could, and getting out of there.

“He’s gonna be fine, Cap,” Tony promised, without asking JARVIS for the man’s vital signs.

He was almost back to the Tower when the world went white.

“Seriously, man? You know Tuesday is my Froot Loops day!”

Tony stared at his coffee, and let the cereal argument proceed as usual around him.

Bucky was fine.

Tony could call him. But... to say what? Ask if he was okay, despite knowing the loop reset them physically to the same state? He’d be on his way anyway, and get here soon enough.

And he’d be fine. There was no reason to keep thinking about it.

No reason to keep picturing the awful wound which, even with the Soldier’s accelerated healing, might have turned out to be fatal if time had continued normally.

Tony swallowed, feeling a little nauseous again. He stared at his coffee some more.

Bucky was fine.

A plate of eggs slid in front of Tony. “And you need something more than just coffee,” Steve said, then he paused, looking closer at Tony. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” Tony answered automatically, then looked at the eggs and shook his head. “I’ll have to pass on the eggs, but thanks.”

He stood, ignoring the concerned looks he felt from at least three people in the room as he left.

When Bucky arrived in the workshop per Tony’s instruction to JARVIS, he looked... fine.

Tony felt his body jerk with an abortive attempt to go up to the man and--what, touch Bucky’s face to confirm he wasn’t still bleeding? Wrap him in a hug and never let him go? Press his lips to--

Where did that come from?

Bucky greeted Tony and then turned to DUM-E as usual, introducing himself as he often did when he arrived in the workshop at the start of a loop.

Then he turned back to Tony and seemed to notice his unusual silence. “Hey, you okay?”

Tony found his voice. “Shouldn’t I be the one asking you that?”

Bucky put a hand up to his face. “Oh. Uh, yeah, tried a different route and took a huge branch to the face. Steve must’a been freaking out, huh?”

“Yeah,” Tony replied quickly, eager to take the out. “Yeah, he was pretty worried, so how ‘bout you not do that again?”

“Right...” Bucky agreed, eying Tony with a speculative look, but dropping it. “So, what’s the plan for today?”

“Well, I think it’s time for the real test--what happens when neither of us are there?”

“Do you think that could break the loop?”

“I doubt it,” Tony said, with no intention of revealing that both of them had actually been outside the park for the last loop, “But if we can confirm nobody’ll get hurt if we’re not there, that’ll free us up to explore breaking the loop other ways.”

“Other ways like...?”

“I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

“You don’t have other ideas yet,” Bucky accused with a grin.

“I have... twelve percent of an idea.”


The excuse of food poisoning worked again (maybe even better this time, after his behavior at breakfast), and then Tony and Bucky sat together in the workshop and listened to the battle.

It was rough, listening to his friends in danger. But from the sounds of it, nobody--Avenger or civilian--was seriously hurt, despite their absence.

A flash of light engulfed the workshop.

“So, now how much of an idea do you have?”

“One hundred percent. My idea: We’re taking a break.”

“A break.”

“Yep. This loop, we’re gonna relax, watch a movie. I’d call it research, but I’m just going to own up to the fact that we need a break. So... I’m gonna guess you’ve never seen Groundhog Day?”

They sat on the couch in the lab while JARVIS projected the movie. Bucky sat sideways with his metal arm over the back of the couch, his legs stretched out toward Tony. His feet weren’t quite touching Tony’s thigh, but the engineer kept finding himself distracted by a hole in one of the socks, Bucky’s little toe peeking out and for no logical reason making Tony want to reach out and poke it.

When he caught himself watching Bucky’s feet instead of the movie for the fourth time, Tony got up and said, “I’m gonna make popcorn. You want some popcorn?”


There was a microwave (okay, it might have been designed for something else entirely, but despite what Pepper thought it was perfectly safe to use for food) in the lab, so Tony didn’t need to go out to the kitchen, and could still listen to the movie over the popping.

He split the bag between two plastic bowls (one with an image of Hulk’s fist on the bottom, the other with Black Widow’s iconic hourglass) and headed back to the couch. Bucky had shifted to sit more normally--Tony told himself it was a relief that toe would no longer be distracting him--but as he reached out to take the bowl offered, he winced.

“What was that?” Tony asked.

“What was what?” Bucky asked, moving the bowl to his lap.

It was almost convincing, but now that Tony was looking, he could see a slight tension in the man’s left shoulder.

“Your arm hurts? Malfunctioning?”

“It’s not a big deal.”

“We haven’t even done anything today, how did you hurt it?”

Bucky didn’t meet his eyes. “It’s fine, really.”

When did you hurt it?” Tony asked, more firmly.


“Yesterday. Not last loop, but Monday-yesterday? As in it’s been hurting for essentially days--weeks?--and you’ve just been suffering with it. You’ve been punching goddamn trees with it.”

Bucky shrugged--with just his right shoulder, Tony noticed. “It’s fine, it just happens sometimes. I’m used to it.”

Tony knew what that was like. He reached up and rubbed his chest, still not quite used to having skin there instead of the arc reactor. “But why put up with the pain if you--I--can do something about it?”

Bucky finally met his eyes, but there was something unreadable there.

“What do you say, let me take a look?”

“You just made popcorn, can we just finish the movie?” Bucky looked back at the screen where Bill Murray was introducing the groundhog’s prediction for the second time.

“Okay, but then there won’t be much time this loop. Tomorrow morning, then?”


“No consequences,” Tony said halfway through the movie.

Bucky looked over at him. “Hmm?”

“Have you done anything because there are no consequences while we’re looping? Told your landlady to fuck herself? Kissed somebody who won’t remember it? Is there anything you want to do because nobody else will remember?”

The other man stared at him, clearly considering something, but all he said was, “No.”

“Come on, there’s gotta be something you want to do,” Tony cajoled.

Bucky shook his head. “It wouldn’t be real. Nothing... nobody else feels real. It’s like they’re all characters in a play, performing the same lines over and over.” He paused. “Except you. You’re... it helps, not to be the only one who remembers.”

Tony thought about the loop he’d thought Bucky might forget. “Yeah.”

“Have you done anything because there were no consequences?” There was something hesitant in Bucky’s tone.

Tony shrugged. “People would say I don’t think about the consequences before I act normally, not sure what I’d do differently.”

Bucky gave him a skeptical look at his response, but said nothing more.

“Seriously, man? You know Tuesday is my Froot Loops day!”

“J, when Barnes gets here, send him up,” Tony said.

“Bucky?” Steve asked. “He’s coming in?”

“He’s thinking about it, yeah.” Then, thinking about “no consequences”, he blurted out, “Hey, were you and Bucky lovers?”

The breakfast discussion in the background went silent. Steve’s mouth opened but no sound came for a moment, until finally he said, “No. No, why would you...?”

“You just--seem close, that’s all. Maybe you wanted something more, but couldn’t because of the time?”

Steve shook his head. “It was wartime, if two fellas wanted to... spend time together, they had chances. But Buck an’ I were never like that. I love him like a brother.”

Tony might have stopped there, if it weren’t for the ‘no consequences’ where Steve would never remember this. Or not, who was he kidding, Tony knew he had a tendency to push people even when there were consequences. Either way, he boldly continued, “I notice you didn’t say ‘We’re both straight.’ Are you?”

Steve gave him a scolding look, from which Tony refused to back down. Peripherally, he noticed the body language of Bruce and Clint--the former clearly wanting to escape before the conversation escalated, the latter leaning forward like this was high-quality entertainment. “I don’t share someone else’s sexuality without their permission, Tony. If you must know about mine, well, I loved Peggy, but there’s also a reason I knew about fellas being able to spend time together. As for Buck, you’ll have to ask him.”

But he’ll remember, Tony wanted to whine, even as he acknowledged to himself that Steve was right. “Fair enough.” Just because Tony had been outed by paparazzi when he was sixteen didn’t mean others didn’t deserve better.

Even if it would have made it a lot easier to know whether he had a chance with the guy.

The fact that Bucky arrived about half an hour later than usual didn’t mean anything, right?

Or the closed-off body language when he came into the lab?

“Hey,” Tony greeted, pretending he didn’t notice the different behavior. “You ready to feel better?”

Bucky looked over at DUM-E as he approached, but didn’t reach out a hand as usual. DUM-E paused a foot away, then looked over at Tony.

“That’s Bucky,” Tony told the bot. “He needs his metal arm fixed up just like you do sometimes.”

The man seemed to draw even more in on himself.

“Okay, what’s up, Buttercup?” Tony asked. Then he realized, “Are you nervous about me working on your arm? I just want to help, stop the pain, but if you’re worried it’ll stir up bad memories or something, we don’t have to do it.”

Bucky looked even more miserable. “You shouldn’t...” he started, then trailed off.

“I shouldn’t what? I know I joked about you having a quota of words per day, but you’re going to have to give me something more if I’m going to help you.”

“You shouldn’t have to help me!” Bucky burst out. He seemed to brace himself before adding, “I killed your parents.”

Tony froze, his body feeling icy and feverish at the same time. “No...” he gritted out.

“I... I’m so sorry, I didn’t wanna bring it up ‘cause we’re stuck in this thing together, but I couldn’t handle you helping me, when I...”

“No,” Tony said more clearly, and forced himself to meet Bucky’s eyes. “No, Hydra murdered my parents. You were only the weapon they used.”

Bucky’s eyes widened. “You... You knew?”

Tony nodded, swallowing hard. “Steve told me, months ago, after the thing in D.C. It was... hard to take, but I’ve had time to... adjust, to accept that it wasn’t really you.” It still made him feel sick when he thought about it, but he’d managed to separate the Hydra assassin from the man who’d fought beside him in battle, the man Steve loved like a brother, the man without whom he probably would have already gone insane during this endless looping.

The man who was now watching him skeptically, like Tony might change his mind and suddenly attack, like Bucky wouldn’t fight back if he did.

“Look, how much do you know about Stark Industries?”

Bucky looked confused. “...It was started by your--Howard Stark,” and shit, of course that’s what would first come to the other man’s mind, “And used to make weapons but now specializes in clean energy.”

“Right. Do you know why we stopped making weapons?”

Bucky frowned and shook his head.

“Because my weapons were being used to kill the soldiers they were supposed to protect, to kill innocent people in villages that had no defenses. Ob--my old business partner was dealing under the table to terrorists. I took some shrapnel to the chest, almost died because of a bomb with my name on it. But... there were times I thought I deserved it, for all the deaths I caused.”

Talking about this was hard, but the fact that Bucky’s misery was slowly being replaced by sympathetic understanding made it worth it.

“You didn’t kill them,” Bucky said.

“I should have been paying more attention to my business, but no--I didn’t kill them. Obadiah used my inventions to kill people. Like Hydra used you.”

Bucky didn’t respond right away, but he looked to be thinking something over, so Tony waited. Finally, the man sighed. “Still feels like I did it. But... if you’ve known and you still want to help me...”

Tony nodded. “I do.”

“...Then let’s do this.”

As he worked on the metal arm--a fascinating piece of tech, simultaneously ingenious and a little horrifying how it was wired into the man’s nervous system--Tony kept darting looks at Bucky’s face. He’d seemed tense at first, and some of the reconnections Tony had to make made him twitch almost imperceptibly, but by the time Tony was closing the last panel, it seemed all the tension had ebbed from the soldier’s body.

“And there you go,” Tony said. “How’s it feel?”

Bucky met his eyes, and Tony felt warm with the gratitude he saw there. “Good,” he said, a weight in the word that suggested the man hadn’t felt “good” in far too long.

...and that thought was sending Tony’s mind to places it shouldn’t be going.

“Good,” Tony echoed.

The next morning, Tony insisted on fixing Bucky’s arm again. It was quicker now that he knew what was wrong, anyway.

When he was finishing up, he proposed, “I’m thinking we should bring Bruce in on this. He might have ideas we haven’t come up with.”

After a moment, Bucky agreed.

Unfortunately, convincing Bruce that they were serious took more time than Tony expected. (“A time loop. Like Groundhog Day?” “Yes, but without the rodent.”) It seemed Tony’s and Bucky’s sudden--from Bruce’s perspective--camaraderie might have been what finally convinced him.

Then, once Tony’s favorite fellow genius finally believed them, he kept bringing up the research Tony and Bucky had already been over and dismissed as inapplicable to their situation. Usually brainstorming with Bruce was fun, invigorating, but this time it just wasn’t working, and the thought of having to explain it all again the following day if they wanted to bring him in again seemed more exhausting than all the repetition they’d already been living.

When JARVIS informed them, right on time, about the situation in Central Park, Bruce asked, “Uh, should we... deal with that?”

Tony shrugged. “You can go ahead, Brucie-bear. We’ve experimented enough to know we’re not needed, but Jolly Green seems to enjoy smashing the hell out of trees,” he said fondly. “Just tell Cap I’m sick and you told me to stay home, that usually works.”

Bruce gave them both a look, like he still didn’t quite believe the story, but he left.

After Bruce had gone, Bucky started, “Are you...?”

When he didn’t continue, Tony prompted, “Am I what, Buckminster?”

“Are you and Banner... together?”

Tony barked out a laugh. “Hah, no, that would... even if he were interested in men, there’s no way he’d put up with my shit if we were anything more than Science Bros.”

Bucky looked at him speculatively, and said nothing more on the topic.

“I had a thought, but I don’t think you’re gonna like it,” Bucky said.


“What if it’s not science? What if it’s magic?”

Tony’s eyes widened. “Strange...” he realized.

“Yeah, I know, you want a scientific explanation, but with what we’ve--”

Tony shook his head. “No, yeah, you’re right. I was--there’s a guy. Wizard. His name is Strange.”

“What is it?”

Tony grinned. “No, What’s on second.”

Bucky looked confused for a second, then smiled. “Hey, I know that one.” Then the confusion returned. “Wait, so...”

“The guy we need to talk to is Dr. Stephen Strange.”

“Let me get this straight. You’ve been trapped in a time loop of about seven hours.”

“We know it sounds crazy, but...” Bucky acknowledged.

“For most of the loops, you’ve gone about your day-to-day activities. You haven’t died in any of them.”

“Uh...” Bucky looked taken aback by the bitterness in Strange’s tone.

Tony was just focused on not thinking about the loop where Bucky had been wounded.

“Gosh, that must be so difficult for you.” The sarcasm was dripping.

“It’s not exactly a walk in the park,” Tony responded, feeling defensive.

“We have literally taken a walk in the park, more than one of those loops,” Bucky pointed out.

“Fair point,” Tony agreed with a nod. “But mostly it’s been fights with trees in the park.”

“Right. Well. I suppose we have to deal with whoever or whatever’s mucking with the fabric of time.” Strange sighed, like their situation was just another minor annoyance in an already busy schedule. Then he stood and left the room.

Tony looked at Bucky, who looked back at him, confusion on his face. “Are we supposed to...”

Strange reappeared in the doorway looking impatient. “Are you coming?”

“Where are we going?” Bucky asked as he and Tony stood.

“Central Park.” The wizard looked between them condescendingly. “That’s where you said this started?”

“Right,” Tony said.

“I thought you’d do some sort of spell right here, with one of these mystical doodads,” Bucky said.

“The only ‘mystical doodad’,” Strange said, derision in his voice, “We need is right here.” He gestured at the pendant around his neck.

Or possibly himself. Tony wasn’t sure.

When they got to the park, the wizard (“Sorcerer”--“Whatever”) held out the odd eye-shaped pendant and started waving his arms around in large, sweeping circles. Passersby gave them a wide berth--possibly because they recognized them and assumed dangerous Avengers business, but just as likely because people thought the guy in a cape waving his arms around was crazy.

Then a green light appeared, growing into a large circle through which the scene before them was... different. Reversed. People walking backward, a dog running backward, even birds flying backward.

Tony stared in shock for a moment before schooling his face. “Neat parlor trick.” He looked over and noticed Bucky looked impressed--maybe as impressed as he had at Tony’s workshop. Not that Tony was jealous.

“One that could destroy the fabric of spacetime if used improperly,” Strange said casually, then shifted so the window into the past was pointed back the way they came.

The three of them were visible, but just barely. Compared to the rest of the background and people that appeared slightly hazy but almost as solid as the real ones, the images of Tony, Bucky, and Strange were like ghosts. And...

“There,” Bucky pointed to another ghostlike blur, this one a familiar red and gold. “Is that...?”

“Me in a previous loop,” Tony realized, and pointed, “And there’s both of us from another time. We’re not as solid because this is showing every version of the recent past, and we’ve been somewhere different every loop.”

“Do you see anything new?” Strange asked, not quite patiently.

“Wait, who’s that?” Bucky asked, pointing to a group of three ghostlike figures by the mound of dirt.

Three. One vaguely masculine, the other two appearing to be feminine.

Tony stared at them. “Well, one possibility is the butterfly effect--we did affect other people by acting differently--you went to a coffee shop the first two loops but not other times, right? So they could have, for instance, decided not to wait for coffee when the line was a little too long or their favorite table was taken, or...”

“Or they’re aware of the loop,” Bucky said.

“Or they’re aware of the loop,” Tony nodded. “And may be responsible for it.” He squinted, trying to make out features. “You can’t... enhance the resolution, can you?”

“This isn’t CSI, Stark,” Strange responded, sounding a little tense.

“I think I recogn--” Bucky was saying when the portal disappeared. He looked at Strange.

The sorcerer seemed fatigued. “It was dangerous for me to continue.” He paused. “Dangerous to the universe, not just to me, in case you were going to tell me my wellbeing wouldn’t matter once the loop reset.”

“I wasn’t gonna say that,” Tony said blithely, implying the opposite just to get the glare Strange sent him.

“The guy,” Bucky said, looking seriously at Tony. “I saw him. In the first loop. Just before the flash. I forgot about him, but I don’t think I’ve seen him since.”

“Just before the flash as in--he might have caused it?”

“I remember thinking it was odd he was still there, when we’d gotten most of the civilians out, and he wasn’t as panicked as the others.”

“Well, that sounds like something to investigate.” Tony turned back to Strange. “So, when can you do the timey wimey thing again? Do we have to wait for the next loop?”

“Not at the same time. You can never have me do it at the same moment in a future loop,” the sorcerer said.

“Why not?” Bucky asked.

“Have you ever heard of the Typhon Expanse?”

“Sounds like something from Star Trek,” Tony put in.

“Not many alive have heard of it. It’s an area of space where someone played with the time stream a little too much. It doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Just empty space that... isn’t there anymore?”

“There had been a planet. With fifteen billion people on it. They’re gone.”

Okay. That... was something to avoid. “Right. Don’t cross the streams, got it, Egon,” Tony agreed. “But... at a different time? Maybe in a couple hours?”

Strange sighed. “Only for a few minutes again, but yes.”

“Great. How are your combat skills against hostile vegetation?”

It was hard to keep serious during the battle this time, when they knew they were just here to see what Strange could show them at the very end. Cap sounded frustrated when Iron Man (more than usual) and the Winter Soldier (for the first time, from Steve’s perspective, anyway) bantered and goofed around and disregarded orders left and right.

They hadn’t mentioned the “objects made of wood” danger, and when Hawkeye started shouting, Tony began, “‘It’s too late...’” and Bucky continued with him, “‘You’ve awakened the gazebo!’” They both laughed, as the others questioned their sanity and Clint grumbled about his narrow escape.

Strange had said he’d wait in the “Mirror Dimension,” whatever that was, but reappeared at the agreed-upon time and location. Tony shouted a warning as a sapling saw--sensed?--the sorcerer and charged. Then he stared in surprise as Strange’s cloak whipped up and batted the tree away, knocking a few branches off. Despite knowing it must be magic, it made Tony itch to start designing a fabric that could...

No, time to focus.

“Is this exactly where you need me?” Strange asked, raising his arms but not starting the lights show yet. “Remember, you only get one chance to see this moment in time.”

He looked to Bucky, the one who’d remembered seeing the suspicious man in the first loop.

“Yeah, that’s good,” Bucky agreed.

“Cap, we’ve got a new player on the field,” Falcon reported over the comms as he flew overhead. “Iron Man, what’s with the new weird guy?”

“Uh,” Tony answered smoothly, “He’s here to help us figure out what’s causing this. Don’t worry about it, Winter Soldier and I have got this.”

“Do you need backup at your position?” Cap asked.

Trying to hold the trees back from Strange and Bucky, while also trying to watch the magic image the sorcerer was starting, was a becoming tricky. “That would help, thanks, Cap.”

“Falcon, go,” Cap commanded.

“On it, Cap.”

As Sam swooped in and tussled with an oak, Tony turned back to the projection Strange had going. The image was a little more disorienting this time, as they had agreed to have him show the present rather than the past. (They’d asked if he could show the near future instead, but Strange had put his foot down against that idea.) So the movements of the trees in the image included ghostly versions of their current trajectories, but also various other paths that had been taken due to Tony’s and Bucky’s different actions during the different loops.

There were humanoid figures as well, similarly ghostlike, but recognizable as members of the team, as well as some of Bucky and Tony themselves.

Bucky pointed at a pale vaguely-masculine figure on the right side of the image, one that wasn’t anyone on the team. “There.” Then it--he?--pulled a phone-sized object from his pocket, looked around, and twisted something.

In the image, as well as around them, the world flashed white.

“Seriously, man? You know Tuesday is my Froot Loops day!”

Tony grabbed his coffee, stood, and made his way down to the workshop.

When Bucky arrived, Tony said, “We’re on a timetable.”

Bucky looked up from his introduction to DUM-E.

“It looked like the guy we saw started the loops. If he and maybe others are aware of them...”

“They might be working toward a plan we need to stop,” Bucky realized.

Tony nodded. “They have to have noticed that we know about the loops, with the news coverage of the battle. They’ve had a chance to come to us and they haven’t, which means they’re trying to hide it.”

“Okay. What do we do to find them?”

“You saw the guy in the first loop--How well do you remember his face?” He knew Steve had an eidetic memory from the serum, and figured Bucky might have the same. “Could you describe him well enough for JARVIS to produce a sketch and run it through some facial recognition databases?”

“JARVIS can...? Of course he can, you made him,” Bucky interrupted himself, and Tony felt warmed by his assertion. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I can.”

Despite his memory, Bucky struggled at first with describing the man’s face to JARVIS, and it took over an hour for him to be satisfied with the result. He complained that he could’ve had an easier time having Steve do the sketch. Tony knew Steve would’ve created a more artistic rendition, but JARVIS’ would be better for matching a database.

Plus, when JARVIS didn’t find a match on the first loop--searching known criminal databases--he was able to provide some codes that would ease the sketch-creation process the next time through.

While they were waiting, Tony and Bucky marathoned the first season of Dog Cops, but knowing there was a time crunch they couldn’t do anything about added an edge to the down time. It was strange to be stuck in the same day they’d been experiencing so many times, but still feel like time was running out.

Finally, toward the end of the second loop of JARVIS’ search, they got a match.

Eric Griffith was a junior at Columbia. Along with his roommates Claudia Lee and Lexi Walsh, he had spent a single night in lockup for destruction of municipal property in Central Park a few days ago. Apparently the three had been upset about the removal of a tree in the park that they deemed sacred, and they had melted some of the equipment that had done the removal.

Bucky was sure the mugshot of Eric Griffith was the man he’d seen the first loop and that they’d seen in Strange’s projections, and Tony thought he’d seen the two women in the park at some point as well.

So, they decided to pay the three a visit.

When they arrived, there were raised voices coming from inside the apartment, and Tony was pretty sure he’d heard the word “tree” in the argument.

It didn’t sound violent, however, so rather than break down the door, he raised an armored fist to knock gently.

The voices became hushed. Then the door opened, to a redhead who looked very surprised to see Iron Man and the Winter Soldier at her door. “Uh, has this happened before?” she asked, clearly aiming the question back into the apartment.

“Lexi Walsh?” Tony asked. “We have some questions for you and your roommates.”

“Shit...” came two grumbling voices from the other room.

“Uh... okay...?” Lexi said, stepping back to gesture them inside.

Tony stepped in and strode to the other room, confident that Bucky would guard the rear and make sure Lexi would join them.

In the main room of the apartment, a tall blond young man and an Asian young woman stood by a sofa. The woman--matching the photo they’d found of Claudia Lee--looked worried, while the man--Eric Griffith--seemed a bit more collected.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” Eric said, a hint of defensiveness in his tone.

“You know, that makes me pretty sure we are supposed to be here,” Tony replied. “But I’d love to hear your side of the story. Trees, time loops--you responsible for both?”

“We didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt!”

“Claudia,” Eric hissed.

“Eric,” she shot back, “We’ve been trying this your way, and it’s not working, maybe it’s time we fess up and see if they can help.”

The man crossed his arms in a huff.

Claudia explained, “We were just trying to bring back our Tree of Life.”

“Tree of Life?” Bucky asked, speaking for the first time since they’d come in.

“We’re pagans. The Tree of Life is vital to our rituals.”

“Rituals... so you’re like witches, casting spells and curses?”

“No!” Lexi protested. “Why does everyone think that?”

“Trees attacking, time loops, I think it’s a fair question,” Tony pointed out.

“Attacking? Guys, what the hell is going on?” Lexi asked in frustration.

“The ritual was just supposed to bring one tree back to life!” Claudia explained. “Not make all the other trees run around terrorizing people!”

“I’m so sick of explaining this to her,” Eric grumbled.

“She wasn’t caught in the loop, huh?” Tony asked. They had seen all three as ghostly figures at the park, but the others must have dragged her along. “But we were, and it needs to stop. So where is it? The magical artifact or device or whatever you used to trigger the time loops?”

Eric raised his chin defiantly, but Bucky pointed out, “It’s on the table behind him,” and the kid scowled. On the coffee table behind him was scattered various college student debris--papers, pens, old coffee mugs--along with a few intricately carved pieces of wood. JARVIS’ scan of the table found nothing electronic, but the carved wood pieces seemed to be anointed with oil. Rituals, magic, right.

“The loop always resets at the same time,” Tony said, “So I’m guessing you aren’t manually triggering it. If we destroy that, will it stop the looping?”

“You can’t!” Eric shouted. The look on his face changed from anger to determination. He grabbed one of the artifacts from the table behind him and threw it toward them.

Tony didn’t have much time to react, but stepped forward so his suit would protect Bucky from whatever the effect was.

Unfortunately, the suit wasn’t enough to protect Tony. The wood hit the center of the arc reactor, not hard, but suddenly something was... wrong.

“Tony?” Bucky asked, concern in his voice.

There was pain in Tony’s chest, and he tried to breathe, but--

He couldn’t. No air in or out.

Memories of being plunged into water in Afghanistan, of being paralyzed by Obie, filled his thoughts as his body demanded to know why he wasn’t supplying it with oxygen.

He opened the faceplate, felt the outside air hit his face, but his lungs still refused to do anything about it.

Around him, he heard shouts, words of shock and anger. Tony couldn’t focus enough to hear any specifics. He fell to his knees, and then Bucky was in front of him, holding him, looking horrified and desperate. He was speaking, and Tony forced himself to focus on the words instead of whatever was happening to his body.

“No, no, Tony, please...” A hand came up to cup Tony’s face, and it felt good, so warm, and Tony leaned into it with the little strength he had left. “It’s gonna be okay, you’re gonna be fine, doll, just--”

The world went black.

“Seriously, man? You know Tuesday is my Froot Loops day!”

Tony breathed in sharply, the shock at being alive, at being able to breathe, physically disorienting him.

Everyone looked at him.

“Are you okay, Tony?” Bruce asked.

Tony’s body felt a strange mix of the lethargy from having just woken up that he always had at the start of the loop, and an adrenaline burst from remembering the near-death (or maybe actual death?) experience.

“Yeah, sure, I’m great,” Tony said. “I’m...”

His phone started blaring “Heat of the Moment.” He pulled it out, knowing before he looked that it had to be Bucky. Hitting Answer, he greeted, “Hey. You didn’t stop the loop.”

There was a pause, then Bucky’s voice came, a little roughly, “Of course I didn’t, you were--look, meet me at the witches’ place. I have a feeling they’ll try to clear out before we get there.”

“Okay,” Tony said. “I’ll be there in nine minutes.”

“Don’t go in alone,” Bucky said, then hung up.

The others had not resumed their usual cereal-based conversation. Instead, they were exchanging confused glances.

And Steve, with his super-hearing... “You’re meeting Bucky somewhere?”

Tony stood, casually explaining, “Yep. Some pagans messing around with ritual trees got Terminator and me caught in their weird time loop, it’s been Froot Loops Day forever, gotta go stop them.” They’d figure it was a joke and let it go.

Steve held his gaze for a moment, his face giving away nothing of his thoughts. Then he asked, “Stealth mission?”

“Uh... no?”

“Okay, then we’re joining you. Avengers, Quinjet, wheels up in five, move.”

Tony’s eyes widened, as everyone headed out to gear up. Steve turned off the stove, gave Tony a nod, and left the kitchen.

Tony shook his head, smiled, and went to suit up.

When the whole team showed up in the hall outside the kids’ apartment, Bucky looked surprised for just a moment, then he strode up to Iron Man, determination on his face. He stopped bare inches away.

“Faceplate up,” Bucky demanded.

Uncertain what was going on, Tony obeyed without hesitation. He didn’t get a chance to voice his question, though, before Bucky’s hands were on his cheeks and lips were on his mouth.

It was rough, almost desperate, and Tony had two seconds for his brain to comprehend what had happened before the other man started to pull back.

Well, Tony couldn’t have that--he let the gauntlets recede, then placed bare hands on Bucky’s waist, pulling him in and returning the kiss to make clear his own intent.

“What. The. Fuck?” Clint’s voice interrupted.

“Uh... Buck? Tony? When did...?” Steve’s voice was quieter but just as bewildered.

Tony grinned, pulling back but not letting go of Bucky’s waist. The soldier’s hands moved to Tony’s still armored shoulders. “You know I’m gonna remember that,” Tony said.

“Counting on it,” Bucky replied with a smirk, and Tony’s eyes dipped to the quirk of lips he now knew to be delicious. Then, in a quiet, almost pleading voice, Bucky added, “Don’t die this time.”

Tony fought the urge to say something glib in reply, but instead nodded seriously. Then he put the faceplate and gauntlets back up and turned to the team, who were all looking a little flabbergasted. “It’s been a long Tuesday,” he explained, then added, “Let’s go fix time.”

As they approached the door, it opened. Tony felt everyone tensing for an attack, felt Bucky try to shove in front of him, but he held up a halting hand.

The redhead--Lexi--stood there, her arms up in surrender. “Hi. Uh, Claudia said you were coming. We... Eric’s asleep. So he can’t... hurt you again?”

Tony craned his head to peak inside, but Bucky brushed past him, gun up at the ready. Tony followed, surprised to see Claudia sitting on the couch in the living room, while Eric lay sprawled on the floor nearby.

Claudia stood when they entered. “I am so, so sorry,” she gushed. “I can’t believe he...” She looked between Tony and Bucky, face paling, and she took a step back. (What had Bucky done here after Tony had gone down?) “Really,” she insisted. “I had no idea he’d be willing to do something like that. I--I can stop the loop, and you can--arrest him or whatever.”

“Did you put some kind of spell on him?” Clint asked from the doorway.

Claudia shrugged. “No, drugged his coffee. A fast-acting sleep aid. I figured you’d show up again, and I didn’t want it to go down like last time.”

“Wait, so what did happen last time?” the redhead asked, sounding as bewildered as the last time.

He glanced at Bucky, whose jaw was set as he looked down at the floor, appearing as though it took all his self-control not to kick--or possibly shoot--the unconscious man there.

“You willing to come into SHIELD and explain everything?” Tony asked.

Claudia nodded, looking miserable.

“And--you said you could stop the loop. What about the trees attacking?” Bucky asked, dragging his glare away from Eric.

“The what now?” Sam asked, exchanging a skeptical glance with Clint.

“I’ll stop that, too. It’ll mean we lose our chance at bringing back our Tree of Life, but our beliefs mean nothing if we’re willing to let lives be endangered for it.”

Tony nodded, then paused. “Wait, if the attack doesn’t happen does that mean I have to go to Pepper’s boring meeting?”

Bucky looked at him, the anger in his gaze fully replaced by... something else. Something Tony wanted to see more of. “How about this--after Claudia here stops the loop and everything, you go to that meeting while the rest of us take these guys in to SHIELD... then I’ll take you out for dinner?” The look in his eyes promised the date wouldn’t end with dinner.

Tony cleared his throat. “That sounds... good. Good plan.”

Tony gave the updates Pepper wanted in the meeting, but otherwise paid no attention, instead staring at his watch.

The drawback to agreeing to the meeting (besides the utter tedium of the meeting itself) was trying to concentrate at the time when the time loop usually restarted.

If Tony was honest with himself, the worst part was not being with Bucky when it happened.

Nothing happened.

Tony watched the minute hand tick on to 3:25. By now, there would normally have been a flash of light, and then Clint would be whining about Froot Loops.

But it didn’t happen.

It felt rather anticlimactic, but it was a relief anyway.

When Tony returned to the Avengers’ communal floor, Bucky was waiting for him, wearing a red henley with the top button undone, a leather jacket, and tight black jeans that left little to the imagination.

Tony looked him up and down appreciatively. “That’s new. I’m liking new.”

“New is pretty great,” Bucky agreed. “Ready to--”

“Wait,” Tony interrupted, “Your arm.”

Bucky shook his head. “It’s fine, really, it’s not that bad. It can wait.”

“Excuse me if I don’t want you to be in pain through our first date.”

First date?” Bucky protested. “We watched a movie together, we’ve been on walks in the park, this is at least our third date.”

“Third date, huh?” Tony waggled his eyebrows.

Bucky smirked. “Oh, you think that means you’re gonna get some tonight, huh?”

Tony stepped closer, ran a finger down the V of the open button on Bucky’s shirt, and then said softly in his ear, “Not if you don’t let me fix your arm first.”

Bucky coughed. “You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Stark.”

But as Tony was completing the repair--which would last a lot longer this time, without the loop resetting it--Bucky fidgeted like a kid waiting for the bell on the last day of school, urging Tony to finish up.

Tony realized the reason when, after Bucky put his shirt and jacket back on (still attractive despite the tragedy of covering up that glorious chiseled chest), he guided Tony not down to the garage or street level, but up to the roof.


The sun was setting. Blues and pinks swirled above them, as the orange of the sun was slowly dipping down below the horizon.

Sunsets happened every day. Except when you’ve been stuck in a time loop from morning to afternoon, with lovely, constant, boring, unceasing sunlight.

While Tony didn’t often see the sunset, sometimes locked in his workshop for days on end, there was something magical about this one. Something real marking the end to their eternal Tuesday.

And when Bucky reached out and took his hand, it was even better.

For the first time in a long time, Tony enjoyed the sensation of waking up. Some of that might have been the fact that it had been essentially weeks or months since he’d actually slept, but most of his enjoyment was the warm, firm body he woke up curled around.

“Hey,” Bucky greeted when his eyes opened.

How long have you been awake? Tony wondered, but all he managed to say was, “Mmmm...”

“How about some breakfast?”

“Mrfee,” Tony mumbled, turning his face into the bare chest under him.

“Just coffee?” Bucky asked. “I was thinking some actual food, like maybe... Froot Loops?”

Tony found the energy to sit up and hit Bucky with a pillow. Over and over again, while Bucky laughed.

This was a morning he wouldn’t mind repeating.