There were some things Steve knew he’d never forget, some things that were so ingrained into his mind that no amount of time would erase them. The way his mother smelt, spiced vanilla from her perfume and a hint of disinfectant that she carried with her from the hospital. The first time he saw his reflection after becoming Captain America, that odd jarring experience that his body didn’t feel like his. That look that Bucky gave him when Steve called his name for the first time in this century, that blank resolve that reduced everything they once shared to nothing.
And the way Tony’s lifeless body felt in his arms as he carried him off the battlefield when it was meant to be a victory.
The smell of charred flesh burned his nose and his eyes stung with tears. He remembered thinking he was getting blood on Tony, tainting him as Steve’s forearm oozed sluggishly and made his grip on the Iron Man armour slippery. Steve held tight though, keep his head forward. He couldn’t look down; he couldn’t bear to see Tony in his arms and be reminded of the price they paid for this win.
Tony was too heavy in his arms, too still. His head like a weight on Steve’s chest that made it hard to breath. He’d give every breath he had if it meant Tony was alive. It shouldn’t have been this way. Not like this.
Steve had been too proud, too selfish. He knew that now. He had done everything wrong and it had cost Tony his life. It had cost Morgan her father and Pepper her husband and Steve couldn’t even find the strength to look down at the body in his arms without crumbling to the ground.
He should have done more.
“Steve?” It was Bucky’s voice, pulling him out of his thoughts with a worried expression, “You alright?”
Steve wanted to laugh at the question, but he held it back. Bucky was only trying to help. The fact that he had come to Tony’s funeral meant the world to Steve and he knew Bucky was dealing with his own guilt without any of Steve’s adding to the mix. He looked over at his best friend, those lost sad eyes that had seen too much. The metal arm that he knew Bucky hated, a reminder of every horror he had committed whether he wanted to or not.
He was still waiting for an answer. Steve didn’t have one. He gripped Bucky’s arm good, pulling him in for a hug. This was another person Steve had failed. Another person he’d let down. Bucky hugged him back, his grip strong and sure. He always had more faith in Steve than Steve had in himself.
He needed to go; Bruce was waiting with Sam to send him back to return the stones to their original timelines. He squeezed Bucky one more time, trying to remember a time when Bucky was the stronger one in their hugs. Steve pulled back to look at him, the wind blowing Bucky’s hair across his face as he dug his hands into the pockets of his coat.
“I’m going to miss you, Buck.” Steve told him softly, his eyes sad and his chest heavy.
Bucky frowned and Steve could see the wheels of his head turning, “It’ll only be a few minutes for us.” Steve looked down, not wanting Bucky to see the guilt behind his eyes. It was Bucky though, so he saw it anyway, “Won’t it?”
Steve sighed, “Might be a bit longer than that if things go the way I’m planning.”
Bucky Barnes, sharp as a tac and never one to take his bullshit, he knew instantly what Steve was planning, “You’re not coming back.”
“I can’t, Buck.” Steve insisted, “This isn’t winning. This isn’t a world I wanted to live in.”
“Peggy?” Bucky almost sounded hopeful, and maybe he’d get it if Steve lied and told him that story. The one where he went back to Peggy and lived a life. Maybe Bucky would be happy for him, for the chance at a normal life Steve was chasing.
Steve’s silence was all the answer his best friend needed.
“Oh.” Bucky replied, “Him.”
Steve’s eyes left the ground, “He shouldn’t have died, Bucky. I should have been there. I was meant to be there. I could have…”
“You go to hell and back for the people you love, Steve. You always have so if you tell me you need to do this then okay, you need to do this.” Bucky replied and Steve could see the effort it took him to say it.
He sighed sadly, “Will you be alright?”
“I’ll adapt.” Bucky shrugged, “Knowing you’re still trying to do good in some version of the timeline.”
“Stay with Sam. He’s good.”
Bucky huffed, “He’s a punk.”
“So was I.” Steve laughed.
“Are you sure about this?” Bucky asked, “You start changing things and it might end up becoming a worse world than this one.”
Steve nodded, “I’ve thought about it. A lot. Everything that needs to change, everything we did wrong.” He tugged at his gloves purely for the distraction, “I can’t accept that he’s dead, Buck. I just… can’t.” His chest was aching again, like a punch to his sternum in slow motion. Bucky must have been able to sense it.
“Then don’t accept it. Change it.”
And just like that Bucky was putting aside his own guilt for Steve to be able to leave. He was letting Steve go knowing that he’d be okay without him. Bucky had always been a more selfless man than he had, it didn’t matter who wore the uniform.
With Bucky’s blessing and Sam’s faith he left his timeline behind, he didn’t belong there anymore. Maybe he never really did. After all, it wasn’t the first time he’d been a man out of time.
Returning the stones had been surprisingly easy, like the universe was trying to correct itself from the disruption they had caused it. Vormir had been the worst, offering up that gem on the very cliff that Natasha had stood when she gave up her life. He didn’t get her back, a part of him was hoping but the sacrifice had already been made.
“We have what we have when we have it.”
Natasha had told him that once, she had been trying to comfort him then, but it didn’t comfort him now. He’d do better this time, he made himself that promise standing on a cliff edge with the whisper of his friend’s voice in his ear, this time he’d do it right. For her, for Tony. Whatever it takes.
We have what we have when we have it.
And Steve didn’t realise how important that had been until it was too late. Until it was already gone. He wanted to rage, standing on an alien planet in the last place his friend was seen alive. He wanted to yell into the void before him because this wasn’t right or fair. He wanted to plead that they should take him instead. The air tasted stale and his chest heaved, and all Steve could do was stare blankly into the drop with a clenched jaw and try not to think about Natasha falling. It didn’t work. That list of people he failed just seemed to be getting longer.
He set his coordinates for New York 2012. His last stop.
The end of the line.
The beginning of the path.
Dropping off the stones went smoothly but once it was done Steve found himself stopping. It was warm in New York, the sun high in the sky. He checked the paper on the bench nearby that was left abandoned in someone’s rush to leave. He took in the date, making sure he was right. This was the day the Avengers parted ways after the Battle of New York. Tony would go back to rebuilding his tower, Thor would take Loki to Asgard. Natasha and Clint would be heading back to shield. Bruce was heading for some retreat in Africa and the 2012 version of himself would be heading off to see more of America before returning to New York and signing up with Shield.
He was back.
Tony was alive here. Nat was alive. Bruce was his old self and Thor wasn’t yet haunted by the loss of his people.
Steve knew what he needed to do, he just hoped he would get there in time.
Two Captain America’s in the timeline would be confusing and there was no way he’d be able to change anything with his younger self around. This Steve was too lost in this time, too arrogant to admit he needed help and too stubborn to let people in. In short, he needed to go.
And Steve had a plan for that.
He waited until the Avengers were saying their goodbyes, watching as Tony and Bruce sped away closely followed by Nat and Clint. He was the last one left, checking his bike before he headed south… or was it north? Steve couldn’t remember now.
His younger self climbed onto the bike, pulling at the clutch to kick off. That was his chance. Steve stepped out in front of his own bike, hands raised and his bones aching. His younger self was shocked, large eyes watching Steve before narrowing angrily.
“Loki.” He almost growled and Steve saw his knuckles go white around the bike handles.
“I’m still not Loki.” Steve replied calmly, thankful he had the shield and his younger self didn’t, “And I just want to talk.”
His younger self nudged the kickstand back down and swung his leg off the bike, “I don’t know how you got that shield, but it doesn’t belong to you.”
That shield doesn’t belong to you. My father made that shield.
He made it for you.
“Yes, it does.” Steve replied, “Because I’m you. I’m from 2023 and I need you to trust me.”
“Not going to happen.”
His younger self barrelled into him without a second thought and the force made them both hit the ground. 2012 Steve was faster, he had the edge of a Steve that wasn’t weighed down by everything that had happened, but Steve was determined. This was his chance to do it right, to save Tony and Natasha and he wasn’t about to let anyone stand in his way. Not even himself.
He hit the ground hard, his back aching from the impact of the concrete and his younger self already on top of him trying to get an arm across his windpipe. He was still in his suit; it was ripped and dirty from the fight with Thanos and he knew exactly where a patch of Tony’s blood had soaked into the material. Left side, about three inches from his heart as he carried Tony home. The shield was strapped to his back and currently trapped under his body and his younger self clearly wasn’t holding back.
So, neither would Steve.
He kicked a leg out managing to push his knee into his counterpart’s side. It seemed to knock the wind out of 2012 Steve as he sucked in a breath and his arm on Steve’s throat loosened a fraction. A fraction was all he needed. Steve brought his head up, knocking into his other self hard. It dazed them both but Steve recovered quickly and managed to flip them over, bodily throwing his younger self off him to reverse their positions.
2012 Steve grunted at the action as Steve used his legs to pin down the man’s arms. He reached for the shield on his back and the same time his younger self managed to get an arm free. He swung at Steve but the shield took the force of the impact. That only seemed to make his younger self angrier. He started thrashing about, trying the throw Steve off him. A move that might have worked if Steve hadn’t been benching 180 pounds easily.
He brought the shield down flat, so it acted like a barrier between them. The metal absorbing most of the struggling impact of 2012 Steve as Steve held it firmly over him.
“Just stop.” Steve gritted out, “I don’t want to hurt you.”
His younger self was more stubborn then he remembered, “Because you’re from the future?” It was meant to be snark, all bitter and laughable but from where Steve was sitting there wasn’t anything to laugh about. He pushed the shield down further.
“I can prove it, if you’ll let me.” Steve replied, “I’m the one you fought in the tower. I told you Bucky was alive. I’m trying to help you.”
The mention of Bucky’s name caused his younger self to stop fighting. His eyes curious and hopeful as his body relaxed under the weight of the shield. Steve stayed where he was, not about to walk right into a trap. He knew Bucky’s name would do it though, just like it had before. This Steve from 2012 was fresh out of the ice. He was adrift in a different way to Steve was. He hadn’t yet found a home with the Avengers; he was still yearning for the old one.
“Bucky.” His younger self said. “He fell.”
Steve nodded, “He did. He survived; Hydra got him and over the next 70 years they turned him into something else. Something he never should have been.”
“You know where he is?” It was a loaded question because of course Steve didn’t know where Bucky was. Not in 2012.
“I know where he was.” He replied gently and his younger self raised an eyebrow.
Steve shifted, his arm aching from the force of keeping the shield down. His younger self scoffed, “How does that help?”
He looked down then, really looked at his younger self. This man who was so lost in a time he knew nothing about and still dreamt of home. He had less worry lines then Steve, his shoulders weren’t as tense, and his eyes weren’t haunted by the things Steve knew would come to pass if he didn’t stop them. Was this another person he had failed? The man out of time that was closer to the man he had been in the 40s than Steve had been for a very long time.
Steve sighed, getting to his feet and taking the shield with him. He stood patiently, waiting for his younger self to get up as well. His own eyes were piercing into his skull for an explanation.
“In 1946 Hydra experiments on Bucky, they wait for the heat of the war to die down and they start to build their own super soldier in Russia. What happens after, that isn’t Bucky anymore, he won’t be Bucky for a long time.” Steve explained, “In my timeline I failed him. I didn’t get to him until 2014 and by then most of the damage was done. He remembers who he is, but he can’t forget what he’s done.”
His younger self nodded, “The ultimate Hydra weapon.”
“You can save him, and you can go home.” Steve replied, the weight of the words settling in his younger self’s chest.
Steve reached into his pocket and pulled out Tony’s time travel device, “With this.” He offered it to his younger self like a band-aid. In many ways, he supposed it was.
“It’s a time machine.” Steve smiled, thinking about Tony’s excited face at inventing it, “It’s got one journey left. Take it,” He pushed it into 2012 Steve’s hands, “Go back to the 40s, find Bucky and save him. Hell, find Peggy and give her a dance if that’s what makes you happy.”
His younger self cradled the device in his palms and Steve understood. This was a lifeline. A second chance. A way back. There was a time Steve would have jumped at the chance, but he had been a different man back then. He had wanted different things. The same things the man in front of him still wanted.
“If I take this then how do you get back?” His younger self asked.
Steve smiled then, “I’m not going back. Not to my time or to the 40s. I’m staying here, there are things here I need to change.”
“You don’t want to go home?” His counterpart questioned and Steve could see the confusion on his face.
He scrubbed a hand over his jaw, gesturing about him, “This is home. For me anyway. But it’s not for you, not yet. If we do this right, we can people save a lot of people.”
“How can I trust you?” His younger self asked.
Steve had thought about that as well. He reached back into his pocket and pulled out the compass. It was a familiar weight in his palm, a reminder of the man he once was and had left behind. He offered that to him as well. 2012 Steve took it, opening it up to see Peggy’s picture staring back at him. The same compass he had on him somewhere as well.
“We’re the same person.” Steve insisted, “Or maybe we’re not. Not anymore. But this is a chance for you to get home. I’ve got this time, trust me. You can take that one.”
His younger self frowned, “You carry her picture, you don’t want to see her?”
“I carry her picture to remind me to be better. To do better. She’s the standard I try to measure up to. But for you, she’s more than that. Maybe it will work, the two of you. Maybe it won’t. But that’s not what I want anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time.” Steve explained, “This is your second chance, don’t roll the dice on it.” They were Tony’s words but the weight they carried was for both of them.
His younger self nodded, “Russia.”
“It won’t be easy.” He warned gently but he could see the excitement brimming in his counterpart’s frame.
“It’s Bucky.” And it really was that simple for him. Steve envied him that, a man who wouldn’t be torn between protecting Bucky and protecting Tony. A man who wouldn’t be torn apart by his actions or his choices.
“That’s why I know you’ll save him.” Steve responded with a smile, “I just need one more thing before you go.”
His younger self raised an eyebrow, “What?”
It was dark out by the time Steve pulled the bike up to Stark Tower, he stopped to change clothes at a store on his way after seeing his younger self off. He had peeled the bloody suit from his body and shoved into his newly brought backpack before slipping into jeans and a shirt that he hoped made him look a little bit more natural than he felt. The shield was still with him though, strapped to the back of the bike in the hopes no one would recognise it as he sped towards Tony’s home.
The tower was lit up like a Christmas tree and Steve knew he’d be there. Alive. Breathing.
He got off the bike, grabbed his bag and the shield and headed inside. He was the only Steve in this time now his younger self was back in the 40s and he wondered whether he should assume that life. Pretend he was the Steve from 2012, try and get Tony to trust him again and stop everything that might cause their downfall. He wasn’t sure whether he could do it, pretend he hadn’t seen what he had or lost the things he’d lost. Would Tony know? Would he guess Steve wasn’t quite right, that he looked a little older or his hair was a little longer.
Could he do it? Lie to Tony and the others when lying is what got them here in the first place?
The elevator doors opened onto Tony’s living space; Jarvis having given him automatic access because the AI thought he was 2012 Steve. The tower was just like he remembered when they had all lived there before moving to the compound. It was sleek and spacious with Tony’s custom-made built-in bar in the corner and floor to ceiling windows along on side. It even smelt the same, coffee and something spicy mixed together. A warm smell, Steve instantly felt his shoulders sag.
“Capiscle?” That voice. Rough and slightly shocked but he’d know it anywhere.
Steve stepped off the elevator to see Tony rounding the corner. And it was Tony, alive and glorious in his faded band t-shirt and jeans. No grey in his hair here and less wrinkles around his eyes. Steve felt his chest go tight; Tony was here. He was standing and talking and God, he looked tired. He also looked lighter. He wasn’t carrying the hate, or the burdens 2023 Tony had. He was beautiful.
“Tony?” His name fell from Steve’s lips without him really processing he’d done it. It felt good to say.
Tony stopped in front of him, eyeing him up worriedly, “Uh Cap, everything okay? Did you forget something? I thought you’d be heading out on your road trip by now.”
Steve couldn’t form a sentence. Those eyes, warm and brown and full of life. That furrow in his brow when presented with a puzzle he hadn’t solved yet, “Tony.” Steve breathed his name again, that same thrill at saying it shot through him.
Tony frowned, “Last time I checked.” He cocked his head to the side, “J, check for injuries, head trauma maybe?”
“I’m fine. I just…”
Jarvis cut him off. “Captain Rogers has no head injury as far as I can tell. An elevated heart rate and a rapid pulse are detected though, Sir.”
Tony nodded, seemingly happy with the answer, “Cap?” He was waiting for Steve to say something. Anything. Those eyes boring into him with a gentle insistence.
Steve tried. Really, he did. The words kept churning around in his head, but he couldn’t make them form a sentence. Tony was alive and standing in front of him and Steve couldn’t breathe. He could feel tears pricking in his eyes. Every promise he wanted to make to Tony bubbling to the surface. He’s do better here. He’d do it right. They’d do it together.
Tony was still waiting. Steve couldn’t stop staring. He wanted to reach out, touch him, all warm and alive and feel his heart beating under his skin. Steve shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. His bones hurt; his chest heaved but he’d done it. Tony was here. Steve would make sure it stayed that way. Tony had sacrificed everything for their world and Steve knew he’d sacrifice everything to keep Tony in it.
The weight of that brought him to his knees. He buckled, his knees stinging as they slammed into the hard floor beneath him like he couldn’t support his own weight anymore. The tears in his eyes slipped down his cheeks now and he felt Tony’s arms on his shoulders, as if they tried to catch him.
“I’m sorry.” Steve whispered brokenly, “I’m so sorry.” The tears were dripping down his face and Tony’s hands were still on his shoulders, frozen. Steve couldn’t breathe, “I’m sorry.” He whispered again. His head fell forward, forehead resting against Tony’s stomach. He smelt like whisky and coffee and some cologne that was almost minty, “Tony.”
Steve felt Tony’s whole body go rigid, like he wasn’t sure what was happening but there was a super soldier falling apart in front of him and getting tears on his floor and he had to deal with it. He felt Tony’s hand come up, one on the back of his shoulder and the other awkwardly patting his hair, “It’s okay, Big Guy. It’s okay.” Tony soothed and Steve knew he had no idea what was happening, but he didn’t care. Tony was alive and Steve would take the embarrassment of this moment over a world where Tony Stark wasn’t alive any day.
Tony, however, seemed to have other ideas and as soon as Steve started to feel comforted by the hand in his hair and the smell in his nose that proved Tony was alive and well, it was gone. Tony had seemed to realise their positions and drew back slightly. Steve could still feel his eyes boring into him though and the next thing he knew, Tony was kneeling on the hard floor with him, both hands back on his shoulders with a firm grip.
His fingers dug into Steve’s shirt, “Rogers, you gotta tell me what’s happening.”
And of course, he needed an explanation. They were barely friends in this time and here Steve was crying and babbling at Tony Stark’s feet like they’d known each other for years. They had, but not to Tony.
“I can’t.” Steve whispered, his voice soft and broken, “You won’t believe me.”
Tony’s fingers tightened on his shoulders, “Honestly, that might have been true before you dropped like a stone and started falling apart. Now, now I’m open to believing a lot more than I was a minute ago.”
Steve wanted to laugh, he’d missed Tony’s quick wit and ease with words. He had missed Tony. Those chocolate orbs weren’t letting him look away and Steve needed to. He needed to give him an answer. The answer that would decide how things were going to go here. He could lie, say he missed the 40s or something Tony probably wouldn’t question but he couldn’t find the words to do it. He couldn’t find the words to lie to this man anymore.
“I’m from 2023.” He uttered instead; the words so compact he wasn’t sure if Tony had even registered them.
The fingers still squeezing his shoulders told him otherwise, “What?” Tony asked baffled and Steve could see the cogs in his mind turning a mile a minute.
“The future. You invented a time machine and I used it to get back here, I had to get back here.” Steve knew he was babbling again.
Tony’s hands dropped from his shoulders, “You’re… and I build…” He peered at Steve again, studying him now. Steve wasn’t sure what he was looking for as Tony’s eyes roamed over his face, but he seemed to find it, “I need a drink.”
“And we need to get you off this floor. This can’t be doing your senior citizen knees any good.” Tony continued as if he hadn’t heard him.
Tony hauled himself to his feet with a small huff as he straightened out and Steve simply watched him, frozen. Tony sighed, reaching down to grab Steve’s arms and haul him up as well. Steve barely moved when Tony tried to shift him, but he did give him a helping hand in getting to his feet as well. He must look a mess to this Tony, red eyes and smeared tears on his cheeks. Tony didn’t comment if he did.
He was led over to the couch in the middle of the floor, brown and leather and still brand new. Steve remembered a time when this couch was worn, sitting against a wall in the compound with a rip in the left arm from one of Clint’s stray arrows. But that hadn’t happened yet. That was the promise of a future this time still had.
Tony all but pushed him into the seat and Steve had little energy to do anything more that collapse into the couch. It didn’t mould against him like he remembered but it was soft, and it was part of Tony’s home, so Steve let himself relax into the leather anyway.
“I have some beers, hold on.” Tony said gently before disappearing over to the bar in the corner. Steve’s eyes couldn’t leave him, afraid he might disappear if he took his eyes off Tony for even a moment.
When Tony came back, he thrust a beer bottle into Steve’s hand and settled himself on the other side of the couch with his own. The distance felt like everything with them, too much and too painful but Steve knew he would get a chance to change that here.
Tony took a sip of his beer, “I know you’re big on stoicism, but I need you to start talking, Cap. If you’re from the future, why are you here?”
When Steve started talking, he couldn’t seem to stop. It felt good to tell Tony everything. To be honest and open with him about everything they had faced and everything they had lost. Steve told him about Ultron and Sokovia, about Hydra and Bucky and Shield. He watched as Tony tried to wrap his head around Thanos and infinity stones and the biggest battle either of them will ever have to face. Tony didn’t interrupt as Steve poured out his guilt, his grief, his sorrow although he knew Tony picked up on everything and by the time he was done Steve felt like he had ran a marathon and he had managed to peel off half the beer label from his bottle just to have something to do with his hands.
“Something happens to me doesn’t it?” Tony asked gently, “In the future.”
“You… God, Tony.” Steve replied, “You save the world. You stop Thanos. All those heroes fighting, and you single-handedly stop that fight. You… You die and I wasn’t there.”
Tony nodded once, like that was the answer he was expecting and took another sip of his beer. Steve followed suit, bringing his own bottle up to his mouth. The beer tasted stale in his mouth, but he swallowed it anyway. “That’s why you’re here? To change it?”
It sounded so easy when Tony said it, “I can’t… you died, Tony. I need to fix it.”
“Were we together in your time? Is that why you’re radiating guilt like a sinner in church?”
Steve blanched, almost chocking on his own tongue, “No, we weren’t… nothing like that. You married Pepper, had a little girl. You had a family.”
Tony laughed, “I had a kid? Me?” He took another drag of beer, “Now I know your world got messed up. I’m not father material.”
“You were. You are.” Steve insisted, blue eyes meeting brown, “Becoming a father, it made you. You were never like Howard.”
Tony seemed to shrink in on himself at the mention of his father, “But we’re close? In the future? You know about Howard and you abandoned your own time to be here so we must be.”
Steve shifted in his seat, his beer growing warm in his hand, “We wasted a lot of time fighting for the wrong things. The accords, Bucky. We made up and I think you forgave me. You said you did but I don’t think I earned it.”
“If I said it then I did.” Tony replied firmly.
“I don’t doubt you; I just don’t think I did anything to deserve it.” Steve explained, eyes back on the bottle in his hand.
Tony leaned forward, resting his arm on the back of the couch towards Steve, “From what you say I created a murder bot, was partly at fault for the whole accords issue and tried to kill your best friend. I think we both deserve a break here.”
“It won’t be like that this time.” Steve told him, “I sent the other me back to the 40s. He’ll find Bucky before he becomes the Winter Soldier. I wouldn’t find him in 2014 and he won’t be a factor in the accords.”
“Christ, Rogers.” Tony’s voice was baffled, “You exiled yourself to the 40s?”
Steve shook his head, “I sent him home. Tony, the me you met in Germany. He was lost and he just wanted to be back in the 40s with everyone and everything he knew. I gave that back to him.”
“Isn’t that what you want?” Tony asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Not anymore.” Steve was certain of that, “His home is in the 40s. Mine’s… not. I told you once that I was home here. You gave me that. You just don’t know it yet.”
Tony took a gulp of his beer, draining half the bottle, “So, you’re staying then?”
“If you’ll let me?”
“You showed up on my doorstep from the future because the horror of me dying caused you so much guilt that your only way to function was to go back in time and rewrite the timeline. I can’t exactly kick you out after that.” Tony replied, “If only dad could see us now? Captain America… crying over little old me.”
Steve leaned over to put his abandoned beer on the coffee table and scrubbed a hand over his face, “Thank you, Tony. I’m not sure why you believe me but thank you.”
The man shrugged, “I’ve seen liars, Cap, up close and personal. That guilt that seems to sit on your shoulders, the way you look at me like you can’t believe I’m standing in front of you. You can’t fake that.”
“You can call me Steve, you know?” Steve replied.
Tony shifted on his end of the couch, “How forward of you, maybe buy me dinner first and I’ll think about it.”
He couldn’t help it, Steve let out a small chuckle. The first one in what felt like months. It felt good and it caused Tony to smile too. His whole face lit up with that smile, his eyes got a little bit brighter and his cheeks got a little higher and Steve loved how carefree it made him look.
As soon as it was there, it was gone. Tony’s features dropped and panic flashed across his face, “Shit, J, send a message to Pepper. Tell her I need a rain check on dinner. Avengers stuff.”
Steve frowned, “No, Tony, go. I’ll be fine.”
“It’s fine, Pepper will understand.” Tony replied, “Besides, I marry her right? So, it’s not the end of the world.”
Steve shook his head, he reached out an arm towards Tony, “You don’t need to stay.”
Tony looked down at the arm he had outstretched, “Urm, you’re bleeding so I definitely do.”
There was in fact red blossoming along his shirt sleeve, seeping out from the bandage of his arm. Steve hadn’t even realised in his haste to tell Tony everything but now he watched as the patch of red grew and soaked the linen of his shirt.
Tony shifted closer, dropping his beer onto the coffee table as he cautiously grabbed Steve’s arm and peeled the wet shirt sleeve away from the wound, “How did…?”
“Thanos. The battle.” Steve replied, “It’s taking longer to heal than the others. My fault, I keep opening it up.”
Tony peeled back the gauze on his arm and saw the ragged line steadily oozing blood, “Christ.”
“It’s fine, Tony.” Steve replied with gritted teeth as Tony poked at the skin around the wound, “I heal fast.”
“How many times have you ripped this open again?” Tony asked, head bend over Steve’s arm.
Steve shrugged a shoulder, “A couple. Once when I was fighting with my younger self. Once in the shower after the funeral, I caught it on the door. And… when I carried your body off the battlefield.” The last part was a whisper in the air between them.
Tony stopped short, “I have a first aid kit in the workshop. We should get this cleaned.”
“Tony…” Steve wanted to say more but it was clear Tony wasn’t ready for that discussion. He went back to poking at Steve’s arm, hitting a particularly painful spot, “Son of a…” Steve cursed softly.
“Oh, swearing. You swear now, that’s new.” Tony remarked, his eyes meeting Steve’s again. “I like it.”
“Tony,” Steve grit his teeth, “I’ll do better this time. I swear, I won’t cause you anymore pain.”
He heard the small gasp Tony gave, the intake of breath that said he didn’t know how to respond. He deflected, “Okay, then let me get you a bandage.”
Just like that Tony managed to play down the weight of the promise Steve was giving him. He wasn’t ready for it, Steve knew that. He barely knew him here. But he would. “Thank you.”
“I’ll have Jarvis get you a room, I don’t know if time travel is like air travel and jet lag is a thing, but I think we both need the rest.”
Steve could only nod.
Tony Stark really was remarkable.
Tony was avoiding him.
Steve knew he was, he had patched up Steve’s arm that night and showed him to his room with an awkward pat on the shoulder and then he retreated into his work and his bots and at first Steve let him go. This was Tony’s life, there wasn’t a war to fight but he did have a business to run and a girlfriend to be with.
And a friend from the future to try and wrap his head around.
Steve got it; it was a lot. Everything he had told Tony about the future sat like a weight on his chest every minute of the day and he’d live it. Tony was left imagining the parts he couldn’t remember and trying to come to terms with the idea that in a world Steve had been a part of he was dead.
On day 3, Steve saw Tony briefly when the billionaire dropped off a stack of clothes for Steve to wear. Jeans and shirts and a black leather jacket that looked a lot like the one Steve had worn to Tony’s house in 2023. He shoved that one in the back of his closet and made a mental note not to wear it.
On day 7, he managed to lure Tony out of his workshop with freshly brewed coffee and a slice of pizza. Tony stayed long enough to inhale the slice in his hand and wash it down with a sip of coffee before he was throwing a thanks to Steve over his shoulder and heading back to the workshop with the rest of his coffee and a bottle of scotch tucked under his arm.
Steve got it, he had all but invaded Tony’s life and forced this knowledge onto him. Had he messed up already? No, Tony needed time. This Tony wasn’t the same one from 2023. The man who was a bit rawer and more open. The man who offered Steve his trust in the palm of his hand and ripped the arc reactor out of his chest when words failed him. This Tony wasn’t there yet, he still hid behind wit and snark and Steve knew Tony needed to get comfortable with him in his own time for this to work.
On day 12, Steve was getting nervous. Tony was still dodging him, and his nightmares were getting worse. Images of Tony’s body in his arms, of Tony shoving the arc reactor into his hand, of Tony on the floor of a bunker in Siberia with his arms raised and Steve’s shield coming down on his chest.
“I needed you. Past tense.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Rogers. Did you know?”
“Zero, zip, nada. No trust. Liar.”
Those words, Tony’s voice, going around in his mind like a loop. The only thing that could block them out was pounding the bag in Tony’s gym. A gym Tony himself had never used but Steve had made frequent visits to.
He split another bag open with the force of his punches and Steve jarred to a stop, chest heaving and sweat clinging to his skin. His hair was plastered onto his forehead and the white t-shirt he wore probably smelled worse than being back in the war.
This had to work, Steve wasn’t sure what he was going to do if it didn’t. He was trying to figure it all out. Things that had to change, things that had to happen. Hydra within shield had to be stopped but Sam still needed to join the avengers. If Tony didn’t make Ultron, then Sokovia wouldn’t happen but he still needed to get Wanda. There were too many pieces and players to keep track of and Steve wasn’t a genius. He wasn’t Tony Stark.
It should have been him.
Against Thanos, to snap his fingers. Tony had too much to live for but Steve? He was a man out of time, he’d already lost enough. He wasn’t prepared to lose anymore. Yet, here he was. Trying to find a way that they all walk away from this, a way that Tony walked away from this. A way that Tony go to go home to his wife and his daughter and Steve could rest easy knowing he’d done it.
There was a crash upstairs and shouting and Steve’s heart was instantly in his mouth. He was searching his brain as he raced upstairs. There wasn’t a threat he had missed, not until the Mandarin and that wasn’t meant to happen yet.
He burst through the door to the living room with very little grace and more sweat on his skin and stopped short when he took in the scene in front of him. Pepper and Tony were arguing, loudly and passionately. Pepper was angry, her face flushed red and her hands moving rapidly. Tony was swaying on his feet, his suit unkempt and his own hands moving with each word.
“You can’t keep doing this!” Pepper shouted at him.
Tony scoffed, “It’s my company. I can do whatever the hell I want.”
“Your company that I run.” Pepper cut in, “You can’t turn up to board meetings drunk!”
“Show me where it says that in the handbook?” Tony shouted, “Get me the handbook. Oh wait, I wrote the handbook.”
Pepper shook her head, “I’m leaving. Go to bed, sober up. I’ll call you tomorrow.” She barely made eye contact with Steve as she walked past him to the elevator, she gave him a sad look and was gone.
Tony was a state, “Fine go!” He yelled at no one. The doors were already closed, and Pepper was already gone. It was then he seemed to notice Steve.
“Tony?” Steve asked gently, this was the first time they had been in the same room together for more than a few minutes in days.
Tony laughed, low and deep, “Nope, I can’t deal with you either.” He turned on his heel and Steve knew he was going to lock himself in his workshop again.
“Hey, I’m here to help.” Steve tried.
Tony snorted, “That’s the problem though, isn’t it?” The alcohol was doing nothing to affect his speech, “What am I meant to do with that?!”
Steve shook his head, “I don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t understand.” Tony barked, “Why are you here? We’re barely friends here and we’re hardly best buds in the future yet when I die. Fuck, when I die it’s you risking everything to change the outcome. Why, huh? Why you?”
Steve didn’t know how to answer that, he stayed silent.
Tony had more to say, “What is it? Guilt? Responsibility? Is that it? You feel responsible for what happened to me?”
“No, I…” Steve tried, his throat felt rough.
“Then what?!” Tony shouted, his voice bouncing off the walls so loud it made Steve wince.
Steve sighed, “I couldn’t live in a world where you died.” He was soft and his whole body seemed to curl up at the truth of the statement, “Even when you hated me, at least I knew you were out there somewhere.”
“Fuck.” Was all Tony replied, those chocolate eyes sad and lost. He turned, heading for the workshop and Steve was powerless to do anything but let him go.
Maybe this was a mistake?
Tony opened the door that led down to his workshop, turning his head to look back at Steve, “I need to show you something.” With that he was gone, heading down the stairs. Steve followed him only a beat after.
The workshop was a mess, mugs everywhere. Paper and designs scattered on the table, the floor. In every corner Steve looked there was a little hurricane of Tony’s genius. Tony had ditched his tie and suit jacket on the couch before ambling over to his computers, hitting buttons and muttering to himself. Steve stood awkwardly in the centre of the room, not sure what he was doing here.
Tony gave him a brief glance before swiping his screen once more, the images protecting around the room from the monitor. Steve took it in with awe. Tony had been busy. There were designs for several upgraded Iron Man armours, his own tactical suit. He clocked the stealth suit he wore in DC amongst the designs and smiled to himself. There were a few designs for Clint’s bow and Nat’s tasers as well as Veronica. Tony was getting ready, for whatever was coming next. For everything Steve had told him about.
“These are…” Steve trailed off, still taking in all of Tony’s work.
Tony wiped a hand over his face, “I haven’t been sleeping much but tinkering I can do. I thought about everything you told me. Can’t stop thinking about it actually, figured when it did happen, we’d all need some upgrades.”
“These are amazing, Tony.” Steve got out, turning in a circle to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have told you some details.”
Tony glanced away, “I was still trying to figure you out.”
“I’ll tell you anything you want to know.” Steve promised.
“That’s the problem.” Tony sighed, “You look at me like you have all this faith in me. Like you see something in me that I don’t see myself and honestly, that’s a lot. I’m… I’m not used to that.”
Steve nodded, he got it. The pressure he must have given Tony when he told him about the future. The pressure to become the man who saved the universe. That was a tall order and if anyone got that, it was Steve. He didn’t realise but then he should have. This Tony was still figuring things out, he was still figuring himself out. He was rough around the edges and had just come to terms with the idea of a universe out there. Then here was Steve, dropping the blood and survival of galaxies at his feet and asking him to deal with it. That wasn’t fair.
Tony toed off his shoes, he had Iron Man socks on, and it made Steve want to smile a little bit. He was still wobbly as he made his way round the desk and all but flopped to the floor on his back with a groan. Tony raised his hands up to cushion his head from the floor and Steve tried not to pay attention to the flash of skin showing as Tony’s shirt rose up. The genius stretched on the floor, wiggling his toes with a sigh, “I used to sleep in the workshop in our house as a kid. I wasn’t allowed in there; it was dad’s office. He’s space. No kids but I snuck in whenever he was out of town and slept on the floor thinking about all the things, I would invent one day to help change the world.”
Steve could imagine it, little Tony with his floppy brown curls and big curious eyes laying on the floor of a workshop planning his next greatest invention. He smiled at the thought, “What did you invent?”
Tony shrugged, “A rudimentary theory on how to stop the ice caps melting, a drawing of a kid in iron man armour, a bottle opener that you only had to push a button to use.” He laughed, “Dad might have approved of that one. Will you get down here, already? It’s weird that you’re standing up right now.”
Steve smiled, “It’s weird that you’re laying down.”
“My shop, my rules.” Tony shot back.
Steve raised his hands in surrender, flopping down on the floor near Tony. He made sure to keep some space between them but close enough that if he moved his arm up, he’d hit Tony’s side. The floor was hard against his back, but he shuffled a bit pretending to get comfy. Steve turned his head to look in Tony’s direction. Tony was already looking at him, his face relaxed and free of tension. No doubt a result of the alcohol in his system.
“Did your dad ever find out you snuck into the workshop?” Steve asked gently.
Tony’s smile was a lazy one, “Oh yeah, yelled at me for a solid 20 minutes. I just told him when I got my own workshop, he wasn’t going to be allowed in.”
“What did he say to that?” Steve asked, the carpet scratching against his ear.
Tony hummed, “He said I had to invent something worth his time for that to work.”
Steve bristled, damn you Howard. “Well take an Iron Man armour, time travel and an arc reactor for an easy win.” He replied softly.
“I never put a lot of effort into the idea of my future. I never needed to; the company was handed to me as soon as I was old enough. The money and cars came with it. I just rolled with it.” Tony said softly, he wasn’t looking at Steve now but that was okay. This was a start, “Never had to worry about other people, never had to worry about caring.”
“That’s no way to live, Tony.” Steve told him.
“That future you came from. I cared, right? About you, the team? That’s a nice thought. That I want to protect you guys so much I’d give up everything to do it.” Tony sighed, “I think Howard was wrong, you know. It’s not about inventing something to make the future worthwhile. It’s about caring about something enough to want the future to be worthwhile.”
Steve smiled, “And what do you want for your future? You have the chance right now to decide how you want it to go.”
Tony frowned, “I just want it to mean something. I don’t want my life to be one battle to the next. I want to wake up and just live for the small moments, you know?”
“I do.” Steve affirmed, “So let’s do it right this time.”
“Together.” Tony replied.
Steve froze, “What did you just say?”
“Together. You said you thought that’s where we went wrong in your time, right? So, let’s make sure in this one, when Thanos comes, we’re ready and we fight him together.” Tony explained.
Strangely enough, though it wasn’t a fix it or a promise or even much of a plan, it was enough for Steve. It was step one, the starting point. It was a resolve that him and Tony didn’t have last time.
What a silly little complex word.
Oh, how it made his heart speed up and his hand itch to reach towards Tony’s.