"Let him sleep, a chuisle," the man standing outside Tony's bedroom said. Like everything else today, even the words he was hearing sounded strange; that last bit was unlike any language he knew. One thing was consistent, though - the door was open enough that while Tony couldn't see the man from his bed, he could smell the same sharp scent that his father often smelled of after he'd been holding onto a bottle for a while. But unlike his father, there was no anger, just tiredness in the man's voice.
"He wasn't himself today," replied the woman whose silhouette was visible through the doorway. "I worry."
Tony squeezed his eyes back shut, hoping he hadn't been caught still awake. Even though this was just a dream - a long, strange dream - he was still scared of what might happen if he were found to be pretending to be the blond-haired boy he'd seen in the mirror. The man's tiredness could so easily give way to something worse. He'd seen it enough in his own father, and here, he had no dog to curl up against for comfort.
"Worry tomorrow," the man said. His voice was still gentle, to Tony's surprise. If it were his father, he would have surely lost patience by now. "If he's still hinky, then we'll do something about it."
There was a long pause. "Sleep well, sunshine boy," the woman whispered at last, and then she closed the door all the way, leaving Tony in the dark.
He wouldn't realize it until years later, but that was the first time he switched with the boy he would come to know as Steve Rogers.
"Hey. Wake up."
Steve groaned and turned his head away from the voice, burying his face in the pillow. It smelled nice and was fluffier than he was used to, which was mildly confusing, but not confusing enough to pull away. "Let me sleep."
"Come on, we'll be late for practice if you don't get up soon," continued the voice. "I have coffee."
Coffee? Steve had only had a small cup of it once - Ma had given it to him on his first day of high school a couple of years back, telling him that he was old enough to try it out. He'd downed it and made a face, and then Ma had laughed, telling him that it wasn't for everyone. But for some reason, hearing there was coffee now sent a jolt of excitement through his body, and before he could stop himself, he was sitting up, reaching out even as he blearily tried to blink the sleep out of his eyes. "Give it to me."
"You're such a slut," said the other person, but they pressed a warm mug into Steve's hands.
Gratefully, Steve accepted the mug and held it to his lips, starting to gulp the coffee down. It was as bitter as he remembered, but somehow it was also amazing. Halfway through his mug, he lowered it back down, blinking slowly as he tried to remember what slut meant. "I'm not dirty," he said at last.
That earned him a laugh, for some reason. "You're filthy," the other person said with a leer in his voice.
It was then that Steve remembered that he lived alone with his Ma and that his Ma would never call him filthy like that.
"Oh my God," he said as his eyes popped open, and he scrambled back, nearly dropping his coffee. There was another guy standing next to his bed, probably the same age as him but bigger. His blond hair was messy in a way that seemed almost intentional, and he was looking at Steve with a gleam in his eye that Steve wasn't entirely sure he liked. "Who are you?!"
"Wow," said the guy, his lips twisted upward slightly. "You weren't even drinking last night. Finish your coffee and get yourself together."
Steve shook his head, brandishing the half-empty mug in front of him. At the very least, he could throw the coffee onto the other guy, right? "I'm serious! Who are you?"
The half-amused expression was replaced by one of genuine concern, and the stranger stepped back, holding up his hands. "Hey, whoa. It's me. Ty. Are you okay, Tony?"
Tony. The name stirred something in him, fuzzy memories of a half-remembered dream over a decade old. He'd known a Tony, once. No, even more than that - he'd been a Tony. Was it that same dream again, more than ten years later?
He took a few deep breaths, trying to ground himself. A dream, he thought. A dream where he was a boy named Tony.
Except - well. He'd been dreaming for all of two minutes and he was already conscious of the fact that he wasn't exactly a boy anymore, was he? His limbs were longer than his own, real-life-Steve limbs, much less the tiny arms and legs he vaguely remembered flailing about with all those years ago. They were thicker, too. And he was shirtless and goodness, that was some view, looking down.
After far too long, he remembered to glance back up, only to see the guy - Ty, whoever that was - staring at him. "Are you done?" Ty said.
Steve could feel his cheeks start to burn. Just because this was a dream didn't mean he didn't have to be so embarrassing in front of others, even if they were all in his head, he reminded himself. "Sorry," he said. "I'm fine. Just… weird dreams, that's all."
"Yeah, apparently." Ty threw something at his face; Steve pulled it off and saw that it was some sort of school uniform. "Finish your coffee and get dressed so we can go to practice. We both know I'm going to be on top of the leaderboard this year, but victory is sweeter if I actually have to fight you for it."
Steve didn't know what they were practicing for, but with that attitude, he told himself that there was no way he'd let this Ty fella win.
Practice went terribly.
As it turned out, said practice referred to track and field, which was not exactly one of Steve's strong points in his waking life. That by itself shouldn't have been a problem - he was dreaming, after all, so shouldn't he have been able to zoom past anything and anyone? But track and field apparently consisted of far more than just running as fast as you could, as though you were chasing a fleeing bully. He thought he'd be able to handle it at first - this Tony fella he'd dreamed up was quick on his feet, and it seemed like it took a lot more to get him winded - and he was able to navigate cones and hurdles without too much issue.
But then for some reason, his traitorous brain thought it'd be funny to make up bizarre terms like "lateral a-skips" and "single-leg hip flexions" that everyone else in his dream understood, but not him. He was able to pick up a little bit on what they were by watching the others, but it was too little, too late. By the end of the practice he was worn out, the coach was giving him disappointed looks, and Ty looked like he was on the verge of laughter.
"The next Carl Lewis, coming through," Ty announced as they walked out of the locker room (after a shower that was a lot shorter and less private than he would have liked). He had one hand stretched out, and his other was around Steve's shoulders as he made his proclamation. "Future Olympic champion, right here."
"Very funny," Steve grumbled, but he was content enough to follow along. It was just friendly teasing as far as he could tell. If nothing else, Ty knew what they were supposed to be doing, while Steve was completely lost. The dream felt real enough that Steve felt compelled to try and play the role, even if he was still confused about why he'd dreamed up this whole scenario in the first place. It was a world unlike any he'd known before - the buildings were tall and stately, everything was pristine, and there was no pervasive aura of tiredness that seemed to blanket everyone in his waking life. Which was great! But why did he have to dream of a rich person in boarding school?
"I know," Ty said, directing them into another building. "Now, we all know an Olympic champion's gotta eat. Come on."
Steve stepped inside, and as soon as he did, all his misgivings about dreaming of a boarding school fell away. There was - there was food here. So much food. "Oh, my God," he breathed, glancing back at Ty, who was looking at him with one eyebrow raised. "Do you see this?"
Ty didn't even bother replying. He instead rolled his eyes and walked off, picking up a tray and going to one of the stations. Steve followed his lead, grabbing a tray of his own as he went to see what was available. There were scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, muffins, scones, and exotically-colored cereal, and he ended up getting a little of everything. Then there was an omelette line, and obviously he had to get that too because who would see an omelette line and not get an omelette?
The answer was apparently Ty, Steve learned as he found and sat down across from him at one of the tables. He peered over at his tray. "That's barely anything," he said. It looked like a bowl of milk with a bunch of… colorful tiny donuts floating in it. Cereal?
"'Barely anything'?" Ty repeated. "Rich, coming from the guy whose idea of breakfast is more coffee." He looked down at Steve's tray. "Though it looks like you've branched out today, to say the least…"
"Obviously," Steve said as he shoveled bacon and eggs into his mouth. The bacon was salty and the eggs were fluffy and all of it was wonderful. This was the best dream ever. "Who knows when I'm gonna eat this well again?"
Ty poked at his cereal. He was eating all the tiny orange donuts first. "I'd think lunch."
"We get lunch too?"
"And dinner," Ty replied with mock enthusiasm, though he was clearly more focused on finding the orange donuts than the conversation. "I can't believe our parents paid thousands of dollars to send us to some place that actually feeds us!"
Thousands of dollars?! It boggled the mind, knowing that apparently everyone here was completely untouched by whatever was going on with the economy right now. Ma worked two jobs and barely managed to keep the landlord from kicking them out, much less have enough extra left over to pay for more housing for Steve. He wondered what Tony's parents did and how many jobs they were working. "What do your parents do?" he asked instead, since he could hardly ask about his own.
Ty gave Steve an odd look. "You know already," he said. "Dad does the same stuff as your dad. Tech stuff."
"Oh, right," Steve said around a mouthful of omelette, not sure what to make of the fact that his dream self had a Pa who was still alive. And what was tech stuff supposed to mean? Radios, maybe? "And our Mas also have the same jobs, huh?"
"If throwing our money around at people who probably don't deserve it counts, then sure."
Steve found himself bristling. "You mean philanthropy?"
Ty shrugged. "If that's what you want to call it."
"Philanthropists are great people and they better the world," Steve said heatedly. "And just because you don't think the ones in need deserve it, doesn't mean you're right."
"Yeah, okay, I get it," Ty replied. "You love your mom and you think she's the best and everything she does is right. I know."
Steve relaxed, even though consciously he was aware that he was still disagreeing with Ty. It was just nice to know that some things still stayed the same - his dream self loved his Ma as well. "Anyway," he said, not wanting to make things too awkward. For now, he still needed Ty's help in getting around. "What's next?"
Ty peered at something to Steve's side. Steve looked too, but there wasn't anything there. "Well, since you apparently forgot to bring your backpack, I think we only have time for you to go back, grab your things, and then go to class. Shame, because you'd really benefit from having some extra time to fix your terrible bedhead." He smirked. "Need help with your schedule today, Mr. Forgetful?"
Oh, so the backpack was what Ty had been searching for. Steve stuffed the last of his muffin into his mouth, trying to look casual. From Ty's expression - and, Steve feared, from the bedhead he supposedly had, even though he thought he'd done an okay job at combing his hair this morning - he wasn't sure he was succeeding. "Humor me."
"Calculus, English lit, lunch, physics, French," Ty recited. "Wow, I hate that I know your schedule by heart. Anyway, I'll see you at lunch, I guess."
Lunch? That seemed to imply Ty wouldn't be joining him for the first two classes, which in turn implied they'd be in different classrooms despite being in the same grade. He'd known that the school was pricey, but it was hard to wrap his head around just how much all that money could afford. And he had to privately admit he was pretty jealous that Tony's school could afford to teach foreign languages. Imagine! French!
It was hard to express all that without making it more obvious that he didn't belong, though, so he held his tongue. "Sure," he said instead.
They put away their trays, got Tony's backpack from his room since Ty already had his (Steve realized then that Tony actually had his own private room, though Ty seemed to have been granted free access to it), and then headed off in their separate directions. It took a little - well, a lot - of fumbling to figure out where exactly he was supposed to go, but aside from that the day seemed to unfold okay. He even felt like he acted passably normal around Ty when they had lunch that afternoon, though Ty had still cast a doubtful glance at the massive plate of food he'd gotten himself. And sure, he had no idea what was going on in any of his classes, but hopefully the notes he'd taken would be good enough for Tony. They were a lot more helpful than the doodles of flying machines that littered Tony's notebooks, in any case.
At long last, classes were over, and Steve trudged back to his room, just about ready to pass out even though it was still light outside. He supposed he could at least hold out until dinner, though even that simple plan was foiled when Ty poked his head into his room, seeing Steve lying face down on the bed. "Change of dinner plans," he said.
Steve grunted in response.
"Indiana Jones tonight. With the twins," Ty said, and Steve lifted his head up in time to see Ty wagging his eyebrows.
What was that even supposed to mean? Was jones some boarding-school slang he didn't know? Why was the state of Indiana involved in this? Who were the twins?
Steve was curious - how could he not be? - but he also wasn't sure he could handle learning so much more this late in the day. "I think I'm good tonight."
Ty was inside the room now, stepping closer. "The twins, Tony," he said insistently, placing his hand against his back.
"It's fine," Steve replied, even if he wasn't sure what to make of the contact. It seemed a little excessive, but maybe it was better that he didn't say anything about it. "Enjoy yourself with the twins. And, uh, Indiana. I'll have dinner alone."
"Your loss," Ty said, and he withdrew his hand and disappeared, shutting the door behind him.
Steve felt a little bad, but not bad enough to regret following after Ty. He eventually went out to get dinner, then came back to his room, lying back down on the bed and wondering if he could just pass out. This dream had been dragging on for so long. When was it going to end?
A nap was unsuccessful, so he finally crawled out of his bed, rubbing his eyes. Maybe he could distract himself with something that wasn't the homework, which was a headache he didn't want to deal with. First, the calculus and physics were over his head. Second, the book they were reading for English, while set in a fascinating dystopia almost fifty years into the future, was not something he'd ever read or even heard of before. And finally, the only French word he'd known before his class today was au revoir. So no homework, but there had to be something else of interest in Tony's room.
He got up and went over to the desk, opening the drawers. Who exactly was Tony, anyway?
An inventor, he thought. He remembered all the doodles he'd found in Tony's notebook, each one laid out with precise notations next to them, almost as if they were design specifications and would actually work if built.
A dreamer, he mentally added, smiling when he found several books about Arthurian legends.
And… hm. Steve frowned, pulling out the unfamiliar object that had been buried beneath the books and other things. It was black, rectangular, and made out of the same hard, unfamiliar material he'd seen elsewhere on the campus that day - not metal, not wood, not glass. And it was pretty hefty to boot, although its size and bulk made it fit fairly comfortably on his lap. The presence of a latch implied it was some sort of openable box, so he undid it and carefully pushed the top part upward, revealing… some kind of screen underneath? The bottom part of the opened box, meanwhile, appeared to contain a typewriter, though the keys were more square and not as raised as the typewriters he'd seen before.
Steve looked around, half-afraid he was about to do something forbidden, then pressed down on one of the keys.
The screen turned on, showing a plain white background with a horizontal white line moving up and down. Steve blinked at it confusedly, about to put the strange contraption away when suddenly a fuzzy voice - not unlike the fuzziness he'd hear on the radio, but stiffer somehow - announced, "Facial scan accepted. Welcome, Tony Stark."
Steve yelped, and only the weight of the box kept it from sliding off his lap when he let go of it in fright. "Excuse me, what?"
But the voice had nothing more to offer. The screen, however, turned black, and rows of white text appeared on it, each of which had the same simplified drawing of what looked like a partially-opened folder to the word's left. On instinct, Steve leaned forward to examine it more closely, but then he remembered that his eyesight was just fine in this body. That didn't stop him from squinting at it with his brows furrowed, though.
"DESIGNS," read one row, but there were no designs to be seen. Another was labeled "VOICELOGS," but again, there were no voicelogs anywhere (not that he knew what a voicelog was, anyway). Yet another was called "HARD_DATA". Frowning, Steve picked up the box and turned it around, wondering if there were any knobs he could use to interact with the screen like he would for a television. The search proved fruitless, though, and in frustration Steve prodded at the keys again, trying to get something to happen.
To his surprise, it actually worked. When he pressed "D", the row that said "DESIGNS" lit up, and when he pressed "V", "VOICELOGS" was similarly lit. Tapping on the up and down keys also changed which row was lit. This was unlike anything he'd ever seen before - a typewriter connected to a television screen? Steve was enchanted. He just needed to figure out what exactly the controls were.
It was when the row called "HARD_DATA" was highlighted that Steve made a breakthrough. He'd hit the key labeled "enter", and the next thing he knew, the original text rows were gone, replaced with a whole new set of rows. The first one, which was already lit up, was called "CA_forarmy.gif". Steve pressed "enter" again, which then brought up a black-and-white image of a man in some kind of full-body getup and an A on his head pointing at him and captioned "I want YOU for U.S. Army". Another row called "CA_salutebonds.gif" revealed the same man from the first picture saluting the viewer. "Cap salutes you for buying war bonds," it proclaimed.
There were several more images of that first man, and Steve looked at them all, unsure what to make of it. He could only assume they were recruitment materials from the Great War, but it was just… a strange thing to find inside Tony's contraption.
Eventually, he reached the end of rows that started with "CA_". The ones that followed seemed to be made out of gibberish as far as he could tell, though they still ended with ".gif". The first of these showed a man in swim trunks by the pool. The man looked nice. Steve supposed he could understand why such a pleasant picture was in here. And the image after that… oh. Oh.
It was a woman in her underthings. Only her underthings.
Panicking, Steve mashed on the "Back" key until he was back to the original list of rows, the sinful contents of HARD_DATA hidden once more. "Okay," he said out loud to himself afterward, cheeks flushing even though he was alone. That - that had been something. Part of him wanted to quickly shove the strange black box back into the drawer from where it came, but the other part of him was still curious. There was more on here to explore than just HARD_DATA. And besides, this was all still just a dream, right? What did any of it matter?
So Steve moved the highlighter down to the row that said VOICELOGS, then hit enter and watched as the rows were replaced with what looked like dates, with the most recent on top, but… that couldn't be right.
The most recent date read May 28, 1989.
For several moments, Steve did nothing but stare at it, dumbfounded. Could it be? Had he not only dreamed himself as a rich teenager attending boarding school, but also nearly half a century into the future? Maybe - maybe that explained some things. Things like the material the box on his lap was made of, or the strange smooth pens that didn't need to be dipped into ink, or the pristine whiteness of the light switches. He'd thought, at first, that it was simply due to the fact that rich people lived such vastly different lives and had access to so much more, but it was starting to seem like it wasn't just because of that.
Goodness, he thought. 1989.
Privately, he had to give himself negative marks for imagination. More than fifty years into the future, and the best he could come up with was a screen connected to a typewriter? It was certainly intriguing, but he'd thought that there'd be… more. For one, surely these screens could stand to be bigger, and maybe actually show color. And he'd kind of hoped there would be mechanized cleaning machines that could roll or fly everywhere, and he hadn't seen a single one of those.
Colorful cereal, though. His imagination had come up with that, at least.
In any case, he supposed it didn't matter all that much, since it was still all just a dream. For now, there was the mystery of these voicelogs. He was half-afraid he'd summon another racy picture once he hit enter, but his curiosity demanded that it be done. With a glance back at the door to make sure it was still firmly shut, he took a deep breath and pressed the key.
"Alright," the box said.
Steve yelped again, having expected another image to show up, not for the box to start talking - and especially not for its voice to sound so similar to the one he'd been using all day.
" - So I didn't have time to actually raid the workshop for parts today, but I did some more theorizing and I think I have a solution for powering the microbots," continued the box.
"Wait, hold on," Steve said, but the voice kept speaking over him as though he weren't even there, going into far many details about light energy and surface mounting, whatever that was supposed to mean.
Finally, it paused, so Steve drew a breath to prepare a reply - only to have the box continue talking. "Also, is it too late for a new year's resolution? Or even a junior-year-of-high-school resolution? It's May, so probably yes, but whatever. It would be nice to wake Ty up for once this school year. See how he likes a human alarm clock in his room. So I guess I should sleep? Tony, out."
Tony, out? It finally occurred to Steve that it wasn't the box talking to him. It was Tony. But he wasn't speaking live - it had been pre-recorded and then broadcast when Steve triggered it. How had he managed that on his own, when he clearly wasn't working for some studio?
Fascinated, Steve started to listen to the other rows, realizing that this was some sort of audio journal left by Tony himself. It was an almost surreal experience, hearing words spoken in his voice while knowing that he wasn't the one who said them, but Steve couldn't stop. It was a window into this person that he'd dreamt up, one whose brain seemed to move faster than he could speak, who spoke excitedly of flight and robotics and energy. He mentioned his Ma often, and Ty frequently came up as well, though curiously there wasn't any mention of his Pa. Tony even mentioned Indiana Jones - something about how he couldn't wait to see it - and Steve wondered if he should feel bad about having declined Ty's offer for it (whatever it was).
Before he knew it, he was yawning into the blankets, having pulled the black box into the bed with him to listen to it all. But he wasn't ready for sleep, not yet. There was still one more thing he wanted to try - an option on the right side of the screen that said "RECORD".
He moved the highlighter over and hit enter.
"Hey. Wake up."
"No," Tony said, automatically curling away from the voice as he tried to cling onto the already-fading remnants of his dream. Relatively speaking, it hadn't really been all that great. He'd been a stick of a kid growing up during the Great Depression, for God's sakes. But the dream had seemed so real and had lasted for so long that Tony hadn't been able to help but grow kind of fond of the plucky guy he'd seen in the mirror.
"Come on, how many times do we gotta do this? I have coffee."
Oh, well, coffee. That was worth getting up for. Tony pushed himself up and made grabby hands for it, smiling blearily at his benefactor - Ty, of course, who else would it be - before drinking it all in one go. "Thanks," he managed afterward.
"Don't mention it," Ty said, waving one hand. "Really, I just want to get you over to practice so I can have a good laugh again."
Again? Tony thought back to the day before. Practice had been practice. There hadn't been anything peculiar about it, and certainly nothing to laugh over, even from Ty's point of view. Ty loved to find things to laugh about where Tony was concerned, which was why he wasn't particularly keen on pressing for details. Best not to give him any ammo. "Yeah, whatever," he said, grabbing his clothes before Ty could throw them at him. Strange - was this where he'd left them last night? Not that it really mattered, it was just… odd.
Before he could dwell on it any further, Ty distracted him from the question of his clothes by informing him he was going to leave now so he could speak to one of their teachers before practice, and Tony was left to get dressed and head down to the field alone. He was late by a minute, having had an absurd amount of trouble finding some of his things, but Ty was even later so it didn't matter.
Practice went as it always did, culminating in him scoring a narrow win against Ty in their final sprint. Tony was feeling pretty good as he walked out of the locker room once he'd showered and gotten dressed again, Ty frowning as he followed after. "You don't have to look so disappointed, Ty," Tony told him on their way to the cafeteria. "It's not like this hasn't happened before." Plenty of times, even.
"It's not that," Ty insisted. Tony wasn't sure how much he believed him. "I mean, I just don't get it. You were struggling yesterday. And you looked like shit to boot. And today you come in like everything's just fine?"
"I wasn't struggling," Tony said, starting to feel annoyed. It was the second time now that Ty had brought up how terrible yesterday was, despite the fact that there had been nothing wrong with anything he'd done, as far as he could tell. He was used to ribbing from Ty, but this was getting excessive.
Ty rolled his eyes, which just irritated Tony even more, though he tried to control himself. Getting into a fight probably wouldn't be very productive, seeing as Ty was never going to change. "Okay, you don't want to talk about it. Let's just get food."
Tony bit back a retort on how he didn't want to talk about it because there was nothing to talk about, instead nodding as they stepped into the cafeteria. He went to get his usual breakfast of champions (coffee and a donut, never mind the fact that he'd already had a coffee earlier) and sat down. Ty joined him shortly after with his super-mature bowl of Froot Loops - and to think, he gave Tony shit for eating donuts all the time.
"Hmm," Ty said, looking pointedly at Tony's plate.
"'Hmm' yourself," Tony retorted very cleverly as he cast a meaningful gaze at Ty's cereal in return.
Ty started scooping up as many orange loops as he could onto his spoon. "There's nothing strange about my breakfast," he said. "But you. Well, I guess you're normal today. I'm glad you realized that we have tons of access to tons of food and you don't have to eat like you're gonna starve to death otherwise."
The memory of last night's dream came back to him unbidden, and Tony tried to somehow blink away the gnawing feeling of hunger that had plagued him the entire time he'd been that scrawny kid. Maybe getting just the one donut hadn't been enough. "Uh, yeah, I guess," he said distractedly around his donut, chewing with more gusto than he normally did.
"Manners," Ty chided, though he was still focused on his cereal so it was clear he was just teasing. "Oh, hey, I wanted to ask - what time complexity did you get for the last part of the algorithms assignment? I got oh-of-n-squared."
"Wait, be right back," Tony said, scarfing down the last of his donut before getting up and bounding over to the donut station to grab another. He slid back into his seat afterward, taking a big bite out of his new one before answering. "Oh-of-n-log-n." God, this donut was good.
Ty stared at the donut, looking as though he wanted to say something, but then thought better of it. "Really?" he said instead. "Damn it. I knew I could have done better."
"So do better," Tony said with a shrug. "You have time."
"Just because you're able to come up with algorithms in your sleep doesn't mean we all can," Ty said, flicking a red Froot Loop at him. "Even if I run to the computer lab right now at my top speed I'll have, what, half an hour to somehow refactor everything?"
Tony huffed as he got a napkin to clean the wet spot off his shirt. "What are you even talking about?" he asked. "You have a whole day to work on it."
"Uh, no I don't. Today's a B-day. We have compsci next."
"Really?" Tony was dubious. "Monday's an A-day this week. I checked yesterday."
"That's great!" Ty exclaimed with mock enthusiasm. "It's just that today isn't Monday."
That didn't seem right. Yesterday was Sunday. Logically, it followed that today was Monday. "Ty, you know that as far as pranks go, this one is pretty sad, right?" he had to ask.
"Yeah, you trying to convince me it's Monday again is really sad," Ty agreed. "Let me see this." Before Tony could say another word, Ty had snatched up his backpack from where it had been sitting on the floor, opening it up. "Oh, wow," he continued, bringing out Tony's copy of 1984. "You really did pack like it was an A-day." He picked out his agenda next, flipping it open before making a soft sound of triumph and turning it around so Tony could see. "Okay, wait, here we go. I hope this convinces you."
Reluctantly, Tony leaned forward, attention on the section for Monday, May 29th - and saw that it had already been filled in. Calculus - Taylor series problem set, read the first line, written in a handwriting that wasn't his own. English - evaluative essay on 1984 . Physics - lab questions about standing sound waves. French - translate next issue of Flash Gordon!!
His gaze lingered on that last item. His class had recently started translating the French version of some old comics from the 1930s, nothing new there. But what was up with those double exclamation points? Hell, what was up with all of this, period? Whose handwriting was that?
"Well?" Ty pressed when Tony didn't respond.
"Well, damn," was the only thing Tony could think to reply back in the moment. His mind was racing. Someone who wasn't him - and wasn't Ty, either, because he knew both Ty's actual handwriting and Ty's fake handwriting when he was trying not to look like his real handwriting - had gotten hold of his agenda and written down… his homework assignments, apparently. Almost as though someone had lived their life as him yesterday while he'd been living as someone else.
Which was ridiculous. Magic wasn't real. Switching bodies wasn't a thing that happened.
And yet, his traitorous brain thought anyway. And yet.
"You caught me," Tony added belatedly, making up his mind about what to do next. "I'd better go back and pack for my actual B-day classes. I'll see you in compsci?"
"That was the dumbest attempt at a prank I've ever seen you attempt," Ty said with a roll of his eyes. "But sure, weirdo. Maybe I'll get there early and try to refactor after all."
Tony nodded and waved as he stood up to leave, already distracted from the conversation at hand; the stranger's handwriting was burned into his brain and he couldn't focus on anything else. He didn't know the details yet, but it was clear that something had happened. There was evidence. And come to think of it - maybe this explained some other things, like Ty's taunting before practice and the fact that none of his things were in the right place.
Don't get ahead of yourself, he thought. If he was going to believe that maybe someone had actually somehow lived their life as him yesterday, he would need to gather even more evidence first. One thing was certain, though - he wasn't going to say a word of this to Ty. Who knew how Ty would take it? He'd probably call up the school nurse and say something was wrong with Tony's head, laughing the whole time.
Before he knew it, his feet had taken him back to his room, and so he quickly repacked his backpack for the correct set of classes today. His gaze slid over to his cabinet, which he knew would have his custom-built laptop sitting in one of the drawers…
Or not. His laptop, he was noticing now, was on top of the cabinet. He definitely hadn't put it there the last time he'd used it.
Tony stepped toward it, burning with curiosity. He wondered if whoever the stranger was (the plucky kid named Steve whose life he'd lived yesterday, his brain supplied, but he tried to quash it down because he was jumping to conclusions and maybe there was still a completely rational reason for all of this that didn't involve switching places with someone from the goddamn Great Depression) had found it and used it. He wondered if anything had changed on there.
No, he told himself. Not now; he didn't have the time, because he had a class to get to. While Dad wouldn't care, Mom would be so disappointed if she learned that he was being truant. And he never wanted to disappoint her.
With a groan, he pulled himself away, jogging to class and arriving just in time. The period felt like it dragged on forever, and even doing more theorizing on the microbots he'd been working on as a side project didn't make time pass any faster. The rest of the day was similarly slow, but the good thing about time was that it did always pass, and finally he was let out of his last class, free to do whatever he wanted for the rest of the day.
His laptop was still sitting where he'd last seen it. After Tony dumped his things onto the floor, he picked it up and brought it to his bed. It scanned his face as usual and let him in, though he noticed that it wasn't starting up, just awakening from its idle state. A glance at one corner told him that the battery was dangerously low, probably because it'd been left on all night without charging. Tony grimaced and found the charger, plugging it in before - at long last - settling down to see what had changed.
At a quick glance, nothing had. His folders were still intact and nothing new had been added at the root level. But maybe things had been looked at. A little concerned, he brought up access logs from yesterday and did a quick search, sighing in relief when nothing in his designs folder had been opened. At least this wasn't going to turn into some crazy sci-fi story where someone wearing his face was stealing all of his work.
But wait, he realized as he cleared his search query, leaving just the unfiltered list of opened files from yesterday (and this, at least, finally did convince him that yesterday had truly happened and that he'd somehow missed it, because his laptop's real-time clock wouldn't lie to him) - his designs, probably the most important files on his laptop, hadn't been accessed, but other files had. A lot of them. Especially his CA_*.gif files.
Oh God. Tony rubbed his face with his hands, eyes squeezed shut as he willed the truth to go away. There was nothing he could do about it now, though; what was done was done. So he shook his head, then looked through the logs again, realizing that many of his recent voicelogs had been opened as well. Based off the timestamps, whoever it was had actually listened through the entire thing before moving on to the next one. And - oh, what was this? They had listened to ones that had been made yesterday, too.
A few keystrokes later, Tony was in his voicelogs folder, staring at three new entries that definitely hadn't been there before. Was this it, he had to wonder? Was this going to tell him the truth of what had happened the day before?
Steeling himself, Tony selected the first of the three entries and hit enter.
"Hello, world," said someone who sounded just like him, except they were a lot more excited than Tony normally was. He had to smile. It was just - the word choice made it seem like someone discovering a new programming language for the first time, and the speaker was full of wonder about what was coming next.
"Though, gosh, I hope I'm not actually broadcasting to the world," continued Tony's voice. There was the loud clacking of keys, and then the recording ended.
Alright, well, that didn't really tell him much. Tony moved on to the next one.
"Camilli is the first one up for the Dodgers," said that same voice, but pitched lower, like he was trying to sound older. "He has two hits and has scored one run so far. Hockett's on the mound. He's going into his wind-up - here's his initial pitch - foul ball, going into the stands to the right of the plate. One strike on Dolph Camilli. One strike, new ball… this is the last half of the first inning - Ma, can you believe it? I can make my own broadcasts!" There was a delighted laugh, one that sounded like Tony yet also not like him because wow, this guy was happy, and then that recording ended as well.
No comment, Tony thought to himself, even as a small part of his brain thought that actually, he did have a comment, which was that whoever had been speaking was downright adorable. He tried to ignore it, instead playing the last of the new recordings.
"Okay, I'll be serious now," said Tony's voice. It was quieter but louder at the same time, and Tony could imagine himself speaking softly, intimately, his lips close to the laptop's microphone. "Hey, Tony. You don't know me, but my name is Steve Rogers, and I've been you for a day."
I do know you, was Tony's first thought.
Wait, so all of that was actually real?! was his second.
But before his mind could really absorb the enormity of this revelation, the voice - Steve Rogers, apparently, and not just that, but Steve Rogers in his body, oh God - was speaking again, and Tony forced himself to pay attention. What followed was surprisingly mundane - just a simple recounting of practice, breakfast and lunch with Ty, and classes. Tony couldn't help but find it kind of sweet that Steve had tried to faithfully recount the events of the day for Tony's benefit, even when he cringed at how poorly practice had gone and how Steve had apparently turned down an invite to see Indiana Jones.
"And now I'm here making one of these voicelog doohickeys," Steve finished. He paused, and Tony could hear him let out a long yawn. "I know this is still just a dream. A long dream, a very real-feeling dream, but still a dream. And dreams end. I'm gonna sleep soon, and when I wake up, I think you'll be gone, but I hope you'll come back. You're the nicest dream I've had in a long time." There was another pause as Steve inhaled, exhaled, taking his time. "Good night, Tony. Steve, out."
The recording ended, and Tony was brought back to the list of all his voicelogs, the three from - from Steve sitting at the top. Tony just sat there on his bed and stared at them, his brain trying to make sense out of everything that had happened.
As far as he could tell, he had two options. The first one was that he'd rather suddenly developed another personality named Steve Rogers who had taken over him for a day, while he'd dreamed about being Steve Rogers in 1940. There was medical precedent for this, though maybe not quite like what he'd experienced. But it was a thing. It existed. It was explainable by science.
The second was that Steve was real, he was from 1940, and Tony's - soul, or something - had managed to swap places with him through time for a day, which made no damn sense at all.
(A stray thought popped up, reminding him that this had happened before when he was six, and if he focused hard enough he could still make out the faces of what must have been Steve's parents back at that age.)
Tony set his laptop aside and flopped back onto his bed, staring up at the ceiling. Either he had a psychiatric disorder or magic was real, and he didn't know which one he preferred. Blindly, he reached out toward his desk, where he had some loose change sitting out, and pulled one coin toward him. Then he flipped it and raised his head enough to look at the result.
"I hate magic," he muttered, and flopped back down.
"It's time to get up, sunshine boy."
Steve groaned, lashes fluttering open, and from the way he breathed in he could tell for sure that the vivid dream he'd been having was over. In the dream, he'd been strong and fast and healthy. And now… now he was just Steve.
Still musing over everything, he rolled out of bed, pulled on his clothes, and plodded over to the kitchen. Ma was already sitting back down at her sewing machine, working. Still, she spared him a smile, albeit one that was a bit tighter than usual, when he entered. Not wanting to disturb her, Steve wolfed down his breakfast - rice with milk and sugar - and tried not to think too wistfully about the imaginary bacon and sausage he'd had in his dream. He washed his bowl when he was done, then picked up his bag and lunch bucket (a peek inside told him that Ma had packed him a mayo sandwich today). "I'll see you later, Ma. Love you," he told her, and for some reason she seemed to relax, giving him a smile broader than the last one as he left.
The walk to school was as arduous as it always was, and Steve let his mind wander as he navigated dilapidated sidewalks and sleepy pedestrians. Though he knew it probably wasn't healthy to dwell on it, his brain kept on going back to the dream he had last night. It had been so vivid, and if Steve thought hard enough, he could almost taste all the food he'd eaten. Not that the food had been the most important thing about the dream, but it had certainly been one of the highlights.
As for the other highlights… well. It was a bit pathetic, but Steve thought that he was rather fond of the Tony fella he'd dreamed up. (The Ty fella, maybe not as much.) He was, in many ways, everything Steve was not: smart, healthy, rich, good-looking, but he and Steve did have one thing in common - they sure both had imagination. Steve drew his fantasy worlds and Tony drew his fantastical inventions. It might have been nice, he thought, if they could maybe meet someday.
But, he had to remind himself, Tony was just a dream.
He was probably just lonely, he thought as he sat down in the assigned row for students his grade. Which was ridiculous, given that the very classroom he was in was practically bursting with people. Even Arnie was there - Arnie, who still gave him a nod and a smile when they saw each other even though they usually sat on opposite ends of their row. Steve hadn't really talked to Arnie for a while, though. Once upon a time, they'd been as thick as thieves. But then Arnie had found girls, and Steve… hadn't, not really.
Still, he caught Arnie's eye and waved, expecting the usual nod in return.
Steve involuntarily jerked back, bewildered by the response. A wink?! No one had ever winked at him before. Why on earth was Arnie winking at him now?
For several moments, he remained frozen in his seat, trying to decide if he should go over and demand an explanation, but Arnie was already occupied with the girl seated next to him, and it seemed rude to interrupt. Before he could decide, their teacher rapped on her desk with a ruler, calling them to order, and Steve was forced to put away his questions for the time being.
As it turned out, Arnie's winking wasn't the only confusing thing. Over the course of the day, other strange things cropped up. One of the girls in the grade below him kept turning around and smiling at him from her row, and Dougie from the grade above didn't throw wadded pieces of paper at him until after lunch. On top of that, he found homework assignments that he didn't remember, but they had his name on it - not written in his own handwriting - and were already done. Infuriatingly, the math and science questions just had the answers penciled in and no work showing how the answer had been reached in the first place.
"Easy peasy," read a note scrawled in one corner of his trigonometry worksheet in the same unfamiliar handwriting. Steve didn't know what a "peasy" was supposed to be, but he doubted it was all that easy, and in fact suspected that the writer of the strange phrase had chosen "peasy" simply because it looked like it rhymed with "easy". He ended up having to try and figure out as much of the homework as he could on his own so that he could actually learn the material before the teacher came to collect it from his row, which in turn prevented him from doing further investigation into the other strange goings-on.
By the end of the school day, between paying attention to the new things that were being taught and trying to learn the concepts for the homework he'd… somehow already done yesterday (and he had to admit, whoever had written the original answers had gotten every single one right), Steve felt like his brain was as slow as molasses. He just wanted to go home. Well, he still wanted to talk to Arnie first, but as usual Arnie had left class as soon as it ended, probably to do… whatever fellas like him did with girls.
So, home. Except apparently the universe had some other plans for him first, because once he'd left the building and got onto the main street he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around and - it was Dougie. Of course it was Dougie.
"What do you want," he said flatly, even though he already knew what Dougie wanted. His fists clenched in anticipation.
Dougie stepped right up into his face. Curiously, Steve noticed that his arms weren't tensed, so a beating wasn't coming - not in the next five seconds, at least. Steve doubted it was going to stay that way, but he wasn't going to play dirty and sucker punch him even though now was a good time.
"Think you're so hard-boiled, huh," Dougie said. "Talking up such a big game yesterday. Even had me going for a little while. But it looks like it was just talk, am I right?"
Steve frowned, trying to remember what he'd said yesterday. The way he remembered it, there hadn't been many words exchanged before the action took place - that was why Dougie talking to him now was so surprising, even if the hostility wasn't. "I have no idea what you're going on about."
"Figures." Dougie stepped back, and now Steve could see he was getting ready to fight. "I'm not going to let you speak like that to me again."
It was all over in less than five minutes. As always, Steve fought back as hard as he could, but the truth was that he just wasn't made for this. By the end, he was panting heavily, a hand covering one eye - it was definitely going to bruise later - while Dougie barely looked winded, looking down at him with disdain.
"You don't have to be like this," Steve managed between wheezes.
"Yeah, I do," Dougie said, and he stalked off without another word.
Yeah, he did, Steve had to agree privately. Some people just liked wielding power over others, and it was clear which categories Dougie and Steve fell into. Still, it could be worse. Dougie could have picked on someone even weaker. As much as Steve didn't enjoy sporting a fresh bruised eye all the time, it was worth it if it protected someone else from incurring Dougie's wrath.
Once he'd regained his breath, he picked up his lunch bucket and continued on home. At least Dougie had beat him up early on today - it meant that Steve didn't have to keep an eye out for the rest of the way back, since Dougie was content limiting himself to just once a day (except on Fridays, then it was twice). The worst was when he was practically at his doorstep, only for Dougie to burst out from his own home two doors down to ambush him.
Ma was already home by the time he got back, cooking something on the stovetop. "It's fine," Steve said preemptively, but that didn't stop her from dropping her wooden spoon as soon as she saw him and rushing over to the icebox to hack a few pieces of ice off.
"Oh, Stevie," she said once she was done, wrapping the ice in a piece of cloth. Afterward, she approached him and cupped his face, looking at him searchingly. Steve wasn't sure what she was trying to find, but apparently she was satisfied because she kissed his forehead, then put the cloth over his eye. Steve had to assume it already looked visibly bruised. "Was it the Huggins boy again?"
Steve tried to shrug casually, like it was nothing. It was nothing. This happened all the time - no need to make a big fuss over it. "I mean, he's the only one who's ever had a problem with me," he said in an attempt to make her feel better. "I've never mentioned anyone else doing this, have I?"
Ma gave him a weak smile. "So I should be glad you only have one person in your life doing this to you, is that it?"
"Sure," Steve said. It could be worse. It could be a lot worse. Steve was grateful for everything he had, really, and one bully wasn't going to change things all that much.
"Hmm," Ma replied, clearly unconvinced. "I suppose I was hoping it'd be different today, especially when you came home yesterday without having gotten into a fight…"
Steve blinked. Or, well, he supposed technically he winked, since he was still standing in the foyer where Ma was holding the cold compress to one of his eyes. "I did?" he asked, trying to remember. If something like that had happened, then surely it would have stood out to him. He and Dougie fought pretty much every day, and he was pretty sure yesterday had been no exception.
"Oh, no," Ma murmured. She immediately used her free hand to start feeling around Steve's head. "Where else did he hurt you? Did you hit your head? Are you having memory problems? I can make an appointment with the doctor. It's alright. I can pick up another job."
"Ma, it's fine," Steve repeated, mildly horrified. A third job just so he could see the doctor? She was already exhausting herself with two. "He didn't hit my head. I mean, besides the eye. Don't get another job." Ma let out a soft huff, clearly displeased, so Steve continued, "Don't do it, Ma. If you do, I'll never see you because you'll be working all the time."
That seemed to get through to her, and she sighed, petting his hair. "Alright, Stevie, no third job and no doctor. But you're not remembering things."
Steve tried not to wince. Oh right, there had been a reason they'd gotten onto this tangent in the first place. And honestly, she was right - he didn't remember. He had no idea what Ma was talking about. But could he actually say that to her? She was clearly worried enough already. "It's okay," he said. "No, I do remember. I think I wrote it off because it was so shocking, I figured it was a dream. But, um, I guess it wasn't?"
"It wasn't," Ma confirmed, but she was still looking at him a little suspiciously. Still, she straightened, motioning for him to hold the compress up to his own eye. "I'm sorry he's back at it, though. At least you'll have Arnie to look forward to." She turned, heading back to the kitchen where whatever was on the pot was still cooking, and motioned for him to follow.
"Arnie?" Steve repeated as he trailed after her.
Ma picked up her wooden spoon, stirring the pot. It smelled like lima bean and barley soup. "Do you know who you're going to bring?" she continued. Evidently she hadn't heard him.
It was happening again, apparently. Ma was talking about something he didn't remember anything about, and he didn't like the implications. Either Ma was imagining things, or he was suffering from memory loss - maybe Dougie had hit him on the head after all, and he just couldn't recall? In any case, he didn't plan on worrying Ma further, no matter what - he'd get to the bottom of this himself.
"Not sure yet," he replied as smoothly as he could. It was better than dumbly repeating everything she said, at least.
"Well, you only have a week to figure it out," Ma said. "But you're my sunshine boy. I know you can find anyone if that's what you actually want."
Anyone? Steve thought. He tried to put the pieces together. Looking forward to Arnie - it sounded like he'd somehow made plans to see Arnie, which would certainly have been something nice. He saw Arnie so rarely these days. But he was going to bring someone with him to see Arnie, and that person was still undecided. On top of that, he had a week to figure out who that person was going to be. But Ma was confident that he could find anyone he wanted.
Was… was he going to go on a double date with Arnie?
"Oh, gosh," he said out loud before he could stop himself. Ma looked back at him from the stove, and Steve quickly ran a hand through his hair, trying to play it cool. "I mean. It's embarrassing for you to say things like that, Ma."
Ma smiled indulgently at him. "You're at an age where these things happen, Stevie," she said. "As your mother, I want to be here for it."
Steve flushed, a little embarrassed for real. "I'm going to go to my room," he announced in a thoroughly unsubtle attempt to dodge the subject. Ma just chuckled softly and turned back to her cooking, leaving Steve to do what he said he would.
He frowned a bit when he stepped through the doorway, looking around. He hadn't paid much attention in the morning when he'd woken up, too groggy to notice fine details, but now he got the odd feeling that things were… off. Like a stranger had been here and moved things around. But that wasn't possible, was it? Surely Ma would have said something if they'd had a visitor - she certainly hadn't shied away from mentioning other things.
So, no visitor. But things were out of place and maybe it had been Ma who moved things, but he doubted it. She usually let him keep his privacy. But then that only left, well - himself.
Images of his completed homework, of unfamiliar handwriting, of a mysterious phrase all flashed across his mind, but he tried to forget them. If he followed the train of thought those memories were attempting to lead him toward, he was going to end up someplace very strange, and he didn't think he was ready for that.
Instead, he tried to focus on what was here. He put his bag down, and then went over to his sketchbooks, which were sitting out on his desk - usually he just shoved them under his bed so that he could easily reach them from his bed without having to get up. With growing apprehension, he picked up the top one and started to flip through it. What was he going to find, he wondered? Would pages be missing, crumpled, or scribbled over? It had, after all, happened before.
To his surprise, he saw nothing out of the ordinary. Everything looked intact. Maybe no one had looked through these. Maybe he was just being paranoid. Maybe no one besides himself had even moved them in the first place.
Steve set the sketchbook back down, feeling an odd mix of unsettledness and disappointment. Something was definitely off - he still remembered the strange things he'd seen at school, plus whatever Ma had been alluding to - but he couldn't actually find anything more about it. Unsure of what to do next, he went over to lay down on the bed, sighing softly as he rolled into the indentation his body had worn into the mattress over the years.
And that was when he felt it. Something under the covers was poking at his arm.
Confused, Steve reached down, pulling out… his journal? That definitely hadn't been where he'd last left it. Still, after finding nothing different in his sketchbooks, Steve had to admit, he wasn't really expecting anything from this new finding. Nonetheless, he dutifully opened his journal up, flipping over to the last entry -
I'm not Steve Rogers, read the first line in the same unfamiliar handwriting from before.
It was lucky that Steve had frozen in shock, because if he'd reacted differently he probably would have ended up dropping the journal onto his face, lying back in bed the way he was. Fortunately, his eyes could still move, so he started reading the rest of the entry, hardly able to believe what he was seeing.
However, my brain's come up with an elaborate fantasy in which tonight, in my dream, I am indeed someone named Steve Rogers. And Steve Rogers keeps a journal, and because I'm Steve, I guess I should do what Steve does and write in it, eh?
Steve didn't know what the writer meant about this being a dream, because Steve was quite real, thank you very much, but he kept reading. It went into more detail about what had happened - yesterday, apparently, and now that he was thinking about it more he realized he'd actually lost an entire day of his life. A day that had, evidently, been lived by someone else instead. And as he kept going, more things fell into place, things that explained the strange happenings of today.
Dougie hadn't picked a fight with him yesterday because the… Steve who wasn't actually Steve had threatened him. (You know what Dad always says - strike once fast enough and hard enough, and you'll never have to strike again. So that's what I told Dougie, that if he tried to hurt me I would make sure he would never have the chance to do so again. I was gonna back it up with more but the threat alone seemed to work, so congrats, bullying problem solved. You can thank me later.)
The girl in class who'd kept looking back at him? She was doing so because he'd somehow managed to successfully pull off flirting with her. (Confidence is key, Steve. And she is really cute for someone living during the Great Depression.)
And, perhaps, most distressingly of all, Steve's conclusion about the double date had been correct. (The Arnie guy was so impressed, he invited me on a double date next week. He was like, "If I'd known you could talk to girls we could have done this so much sooner!" Geez, Steve, what were you doing before?)
P.S., concluded the entry, Your drawings are really good. Sorry if I smudged any. I tried not to.
It was signed Tony Stark.
As soon as he read those last two words, everything seemed to make sense. A missing day, a vivid dream about the future, a name that was more familiar than it had any right to be - Tony Stark had actually been him for a day, and he'd actually been Tony Stark. It explained everything. Well, everything except the fact that the very concept seemed to defy the very laws of science, but hey, he'd read crazier things in comic books. He could go along with it.
Steve brushed his thumb just under where Tony's name was written in pencil, smiling a bit. For a single day, he'd touched someone else's life across time, and someone else had touched his. Maybe the planets had aligned just right. Maybe some adventurer had activated some mystical relic in the hidden depths of an ancient ruin. Maybe the science just hadn't been discovered yet. Whatever the reason, it had happened, and he would cherish the memory.
After all, it would probably never happen again, right?
It happened again. And again. And again.
"Tony," Steve said wearily into - what was it called again, a laptop? - as he made his voicelog for the night, "you know as well as I do that this is real and it's happened more than once and it's probably going to happen some more. And I think we need some rules."
"Yeah, rules like 'don't choose my senior year electives without consulting me and enrolling me in an art class, oh and also what the hell, don't throw out all my booze', right?" Tony muttered darkly to himself once the voicelog finished playing.
He'd had to make some mental concessions. Well, more like just a single concession, but it was a big one: he didn't believe in the most scientifically-likely reason for Steve's existence, which would have been him developing some sort of time-displaced other personality who occasionally took over for a day. Instead, he'd come up with another idea, even if it meant accepting that maybe the impossible was actually possible.
Steve Rogers was real, a stick of a kid Tony's age, growing up in 1940. He lived with his mom, went to school on weekdays, and sometimes worked as a janitor on the weekends earning a few cents an hour. His family was as poor as all get-out and actually ate mayo sandwiches, which tasted as sad as they sounded. There was a bully who occasionally beat him up (and who had apparently gotten over the threat Tony had issued that first time he'd encountered him). He also was something of a teetotaler, apparently, because at some point Steve had found his booze stash and emptied everything out - thank God it was just the cheap stuff, but it had still been annoying as hell, especially because now he wasn't sure if he would be able to get more without Steve just throwing it out again. But despite all that, he seemed happy enough, if tired, and he read and drew and followed baseball on the radio.
And sometimes, his - soul, or something - switched places with Tony's, and they each lived as the other person for a day.
Exactly how or why that happened was still a mystery, and one that Tony had an uncomfortable feeling would never be solved. Whatever it was, it seemed to be triggered at random every few days after getting a good night's sleep. Naps didn't result in him waking up in Steve's body, and pulling all-nighters seemed to prevent it as well.
Which meant, Tony supposed, that he actually had all the tools he needed to make sure it never happened again. After all, didn't Tesla mostly operate on naps? Tony thought that with a few lifestyle tweaks, he could get there as well, and then he would be free of this bizarreness.
But the thing was - Tony wasn't sure if that was actually what he wanted. Okay, so the few times the switch had happened so far, some inconvenient things had occurred. For starters, his performance in track had been suffering, not to mention some of his coursework, and only the fact that it was nearing the end of the school year where things didn't matter so much anymore was saving him. ("I opened a C-P-P file without help today!" Steve had reported in one of his voicelogs. "But oh my God, Tony, why does it say "void" everywhere? And how come there are so many pointy brackets?" Perhaps unsurprisingly, someone from 1940 who had been abruptly thrown half a century into the future was not turning out to be a C++ prodigy.)
Steve was also hopelessly flustered when it came to any sort of human interaction that involved the opposite sex. ("Ty and two twin girls came up to me," he'd said. Tony had listened, intrigued, only to have Steve continue, "I told them I had to go to the bathroom and then I stayed there until I felt it was safe to come out again. I didn't want to mess anything up for you, so I figured hiding was safer." Which was a nice thought, but Tony kind of felt that taking refuge in a bathroom to avoid talking to girls had already messed things up for him.)
And now there was this latest issue of Steve having chosen his next year's electives for him. So maybe it was kind of Tony's fault, because he'd been procrastinating and hadn't expected Steve to take over on the very day his decision was due, but still! Art? He'd chosen art? God, he didn't want to think about what Dad would say about that. His only comfort was that Dad probably didn't care enough to actually look at what he was taking, so he'd probably never even find out.
Speaking of which - if they continued this whole switching thing, then at some point - and probably some point soon - Steve was actually going to meet his old man, and Tony didn't know what would happen. Summer vacation was rapidly approaching, and though Tony fully expected both his parents to be out most of the time, they'd probably have to see each other at least once. Maybe twice. Or, God forbid, more than twice.
These were all issues caused by switching, and he hadn't even touched the part where he had to act his life out as a poor kid from the Great Depression.
But despite all of that, despite all of the disruptions and the headaches and the groaning, Tony… sort of liked it. A little bit. Maybe.
Because the thing was, if Tony was being completely honest with himself, he didn't actually have all that many friends. Sure, he had a lot of acquaintances - guys high-fived him in the hallways; girls batted their lashes at him in the hopes he'd take them out to fondue. And everyone liked knowing what he put down as his homework answers for the math and science classes. In that sense, he was quite popular. But how many of those people cared to go head-to-head with him on more challenging concepts or actually wanted to listen to him talk about microrobotics?
It was pretty much just Ty, really. And Ty… well. Ty was kind of a special case. He challenged Tony, both physically and mentally, and Tony liked that - he hated coasting, he hated just knowing things, he hated his mind being idle. But Ty also liked making everything into a competition. There was no such thing as a team effort and there definitely was no such thing as both of them being winners. It was one or the other, and boy, did that get tiring. But playing Ty's game certainly made Tony push himself harder, and just the fact that Ty thought Tony was worthy competition made Tony feel good, because it meant he was important to Ty.
And now there was Steve. Steve, whose sketchbooks were filled with real-life portraits and fantasy scenes alike, who made himself a target for bullies so that no one else would be targeted, who had the flattest feet Tony had ever seen and could barely walk fifty steps before starting to breathe heavily. Steve, who doodled in Tony's notes as well, who apologized profusely in his voicelogs for leaving all the math and science homework for Tony to do, but who put together a really perceptive outline on the technologies The Party used in 1984.
Steve was interesting. Tony had spent enough time as him to know that there were some subjects he wasn't as strong at (to put it delicately), but he always seemed determined to keep learning. And even for the things that were clearly over his head - like the microbots Tony was working on in his spare time, or the programs he was writing for his compsci class - he still wanted to hear Tony talk about them, as though he'd picked up on the fact that these were things that Tony liked rambling on about. And that… that was a new feeling. Someone listening to him talk because they knew it made him happy.
Deep down, Tony knew it couldn't last. In time, Steve would tire of him, and then maybe he'd be the one trying to live a life of naps and all-nighters so that he wouldn't have to see Tony anymore. After all, there had to be a reason that up until now, Tony only had Ty as an actual friend.
But that was future Tony's problem to mope over. For now, Tony would enjoy this connection they had, strange though it was.
Steve was right, though. They definitely needed to set some rules.
"So, Steve, you mentioned rules in your last voicelog," Tony said once he started recording. "And that's a - how would you put it - a gosh darned swell idea, I think. First rule: please don't use the bathroom as an excuse to escape a social situation ever again. I just don't do that. If something comes up, roll with it and flash a smile as you do. I have a great smile. Use it to your advantage.
"Règle numéro deux: I'm glad you're thrilled that The Hobbit has sequels, but you gotta stop talking about it to Ty. You're freaking him out.
"Rule the third: hair gel. I know you don't like it, but I think it's high time you learn the proper technique. So here it is. You start with just a little dab on your fingers because that's civilized, not the giant glob I'm half-afraid you've been doing..."
"...And finally, summer vacation is coming up and I'll be home soon, which means you're going to meet my parents," continued the voicelog. "Mom is great. Dad is - just be careful around him, okay? He doesn't have patience for a lot of things and he expects me to take over the company someday. If he catches you reading fiction he'll flip out. He shouldn't be around much, but when he is, stay out of his hair and you'll hopefully be fine.
"So those are my rules. Easy peasy, right? Tony, out."
Steve groaned, turning to bury his face in his pillow again. Again with the "easy peasy" nonsense. For someone who claimed that he just rolled with it, Tony sure did have a lot of rules.
His only comfort was that a lot of them seemed like they wouldn't be relevant in the near future, at least. As it turned out, Steve had woken up in a different room and a different bed, but Tony's laptop had been sitting on the nearby desk, and Steve hadn't hesitated to immediately reach over and open it up to listen to the latest messages. Based on context, he'd figured out that the school year had ended, and Tony was now in his home. He wasn't sure how often he'd see his classmates, including Ty, but at the very least it probably wasn't going to be on a daily basis.
If that last bit of the voicelog was anything to go by, though, it seemed like he'd still have to keep an eye out. It was strange, the thought of having a Pa again. His own had passed away so long ago. But he'd deal with it when the time came.
Steve spent the next few minutes listening to the other new voicelogs, getting caught up on everything that had happened in Tony's life since the last switch. As he'd suspected, Tony had gone home for the summer, having been picked up by someone named Jarvis. His parents had been away at some conference but were due back… today.
Well, today didn't mean right now, so for the time being, Steve figured he had an opportunity to explore and get used to things. The first order of business, now that he'd caught up on the latest voicelogs, was to get dressed. So he pushed the covers off, swinging his legs off the bed -
And that was when he realized he was completely naked.
This was - not entirely surprising, Steve had to admit to himself. Tony slept in only his underwear at school, and Steve was starting to suspect that the reason he even had underwear was because Ty was liable to barge into his room at all hours of the day. And now that he was at home, there was apparently no more need for that last bit of modesty. Here he was, just… completely exposed.
Of course, it wasn't like he hadn't seen Tony's more… private parts before. He went to the bathroom, obviously. He'd even showered, but he'd been so distracted and awed by the idea of heated water continuously falling onto him that he didn't have much chance to think about anything else.
But this was different. This was Tony alone in his room, and no one was going to unexpectedly intrude.
Before Steve could think twice, he'd walked over to the large, full-length mirror standing in one corner of the room, looking into it. Again, for the most part, none of this was new. What was new, though, was seeing it all at once on his own time and with complete privacy. He could… appreciate.
He twitched involuntarily at the thought. That wasn't really something he should be doing, for more than one reason. The most important one was that this felt like he was intruding on Tony's privacy. Sure, they may have switched bodies, but that didn't give Steve free reign to do whatever he wanted, right? He didn't think he'd feel very comfortable if he knew Tony was ogling him. Not that there was any danger of that, since Steve knew full well that he wasn't really ogle material. But still!
The other reason was that it was wrong. Morally. At least, that was what he'd heard. Steve himself couldn't quite understand the rationale. Was it so terrible for a man to be attracted to another man? If all the ladies could swoon over Clark Gable, why couldn't he? And if - if Tony looked very nice without anything on, was it so sinful to notice it?
He took a deep breath, looking at himself in the mirror again. Tony looked like Clark Gable in a few ways. Mostly because they were both dark-haired, but they also had similar builds, broad in the shoulder and chest. One thing Steve had never been sure about was what color Clark Gable's eyes were, as the films were all in black and white, and he didn't know how accurate the movie posters were. With Tony, though, it was easy to tell. His eyes were very big and very blue. Sure, Steve knew he had blue eyes himself. He'd seen them in the mirror enough. But looking at Steve Rogers in the mirror just wasn't the same as looking at Tony Stark. The latter was definitely better.
Experimentally, he reached up, touching his chest even as a small part of his brain yelled that he needed to stop it right this instant. He knew that rationally, as the person occupying this body, he was just touching himself, and it shouldn't feel particularly special. But he also knew it wasn't his body; this one was so different from his own that feeling it was a decidedly distinct experience.
He really should stop, he thought, even as his hand slid downward. What would Tony think?
Tony would be okay with it, the more sinful corner of his mind replied. He didn't have any rules about it, right?
Steve couldn't argue with that logic. With one last glance at the mirror, he went to go back to the bed, where he could finish the job there.
An older man was already in the kitchen when Steve finally emerged from his room, dressed in the t-shirt and shorts he'd resorted to after getting lost in the gigantic closet and giving up on finding anything from there. He was cooking something, and the room smelled heavenly.
"Master Anthony," the man greeted.
Steve squinted at him, still a little bleary from sleep and… other things, trying to figure out who he was. Probably not his Pa; the age difference seemed too large and the idea of his Pa calling him master was just… strange. Not that the idea of anyone else calling him that sat with Steve any better.
Jarvis, maybe? Tony had mentioned someone with that name coming to pick him up and had also dropped that he was the best cook ever. Well, if the smell of the kitchen was anything to go by, then maybe it was indeed Jarvis who stood across from him now.
"Good morning," Steve replied to who was hopefully Jarvis.
The man smiled at him, and it made some subconscious part of Steve relax, like… like he knew he was safe and going to be taken care of. Kind of like how Ma made him feel. "I heard you wake and suspected it would be some time before you came out," he said, and Steve felt himself flushing involuntarily. It was crazy, but he half-suspected Jarvis had known exactly what was occupying him. (Did that imply that Tony was often occupied by the same thing?) "Breakfast should be ready in a few minutes. Please have a seat."
Steve obediently went to sit down, looking around curiously. Tony apparently lived in a mansion of some sort, because everything was huge; Steve's entire apartment could probably fit in the dining room. It was ornately decorated, and Steve suspected that anything sitting out that looked like actual precious metals were probably the real deal.
More intriguing was the kitchen, which was filled with all sorts of gadgets Steve didn't recognize. Knowing now that he was in the future, he could assume that a lot of things were actually new home inventions that didn't exist during his time, and he was burning to find out what they did. At school, his exposure had been limited - there were few appliances lying around, food having been served already cooked, classes still having been taught with the traditional chalk and blackboard. Being in Tony's home now was like an entirely different world.
Well, breakfast wasn't ready yet, right? Maybe Steve could poke around a little. He got out of his chair and went straight for one of the appliances in one corner of the kitchen, away from Jarvis so that he didn't disturb him. It was a large rectangular box with what looked like a partially see-through window on the front left side and a lot of printed-on rectangles arranged in an orderly fashion on the front right side. Most of the rectangles contained numbers, but some had text like "DEFROST" and "ROAST".
Steve considered it. This was the future. The future had many new things. Was one of those new things, perhaps, a box that could create a roast for you?
He ran his finger over the rectangle that said "ROAST". Jarvis was cooking, but a roast sounded nice too, even if it was the morning. So he pushed it.
With that, the box seemed to come to life, making some sort of whirring sound as it lit up from the inside. Steve yelped and jumped back before regaining his composure and stepping closer, unable to help his curiosity. There was something inside! He pressed his face against the box to get a better look. There was something round and flat and it was spinning. Was that where the roast would appear?
"Master Anthony!" came Jarvis' sharp voice from far too close. Steve jumped back again, trying to look innocent even though it was too late for that. "What did we say about tinkering with the appliances?"
Tinkering? It sounded like Tony had a habit of playing around with the kitchen tools. But Steve obviously hadn't been there for that previous conversation, so he didn't actually have any idea of what might have been said. "I should be allowed to because it's fun?" he tried. Which was obviously not the right answer, but Steve figured it was better than trying to guess for real and getting it wrong.
Jarvis raised an eyebrow at him, somehow managing to look both stern and indulgent. "Yes, very funny," he said. "Take this and eat before you give the microwave wheels again." He handed Steve a plate, which Steve took, confused in many ways. Was the roast box a "microwave"? Had Tony given it wheels before? And what on earth was on his plate now?
As usual, he knew now wasn't the time to ask any of those questions. He'd just make it clear to Jarvis that something was wrong. "Yes, sir," he said instead, obediently taking his plate back to the table and starting to eat, since even if he didn't know what it was he was sure it would be good based on the smell. But then he took a bite, and everything, including the mysterious roast, was forgotten. "Oh, goodness. You made this?"
"I suppose I'll take that as a compliment," Jarvis said. He took a seat across from Steve, folding his hands in front of him. "Distracting you from your usual pastries is probably high praise, indeed."
Oh, yeah. That had been one of Tony's rules. Eat smarter, not harder, he'd said. Donuts and coffee were given to them by the gods and he just needed one plate and one mug to get by in the morning, not the entire cafeteria spread. Personally, Steve felt that eating donuts was not particularly smart. They weren't very nutritious, were they? Not like potatoes. Potatoes had everything. "Well," Steve said, not sure how to reply out loud. "I guess so. Aren't you gonna eat?"
"As always, it's very kind of you to watch out for me," Jarvis replied. "But I've eaten already."
Steve nodded a bit awkwardly in response, again unsure of how to reply, as he continued working on his plate. Things continued like this for the next several minutes, Steve eating, Jarvis watching. Finally, Jarvis cleared his throat and said, "Your parents will be returning home today."
"Yeah," Steve said around a mouthful of the runniest but most delicious egg he'd ever eaten, glad that Tony had already mentioned this detail.
Jarvis nodded a little, looking at him. He seemed like a very calming person normally, but right now the intensity of his gaze was unnerving Steve somewhat. Still, Steve tried to act normal, scraping off whatever was left on the plate. "You're not alone in this home, Master Anthony, remember that," he said at last.
It didn't sound like a threat. But it didn't exactly sound like something a normal person would say, either. It almost seemed like… support? Tony's warning from the voicelog echoed in his head, and Steve still had no idea what to make of it. Was Tony's Pa so volatile that these things had to be said?
"I'll remember," Steve replied after a moment. "Thanks… Jarvis."
Jarvis smiled (and Steve relaxed, because whew, this was indeed Jarvis) and stood up. "I'll be attending to my other duties then," he said. "Please call out if my assistance is required."
Steve nodded, and Jarvis left, leaving him alone and still vaguely confused in the dining room. But sitting here pondering wasn't going to help him much, so eventually he got up and went to wash his plate. The thought of playing with the roast box (or microwave, whatever) again occurred to him, but he was half-afraid that doing so would somehow summon Jarvis, who would then promptly rap him on the knuckles with a ruler.
Instead, he spent the day exploring. He limited himself to areas that he was obviously allowed to be in - maybe if he woke up as Tony a few more times in this house later on he'd be more adventurous, but for now there was more than enough to keep him occupied. Without classes to take up his time, he was free to spend an almost embarrassing amount of time running around in the massive backyard, enjoying the fact that he could breathe freely and move without all his limbs getting sore. He could even inspect the multitudes of flowers and other plants in the garden (whoever managed it sure liked lavender, it seemed) without sneezing too much.
He also found a large room with multiple cars and motorcycles inside, all of which seemed to belong to Tony based on the decor of the room - boards with technical-looking drawings not unlike the ones Steve had found in Tony's notes, posters for what were probably the latest movies of Tony's (including one for Indiana Jones - so that's what that was), and what looked like some trophies and medals for track and field (though these seemed to be carelessly thrown onto a table and were not on display). Steve didn't exactly know his cars very well - the thought of his family ever owning one was essentially a pipe dream - but it was clear that the cars of Tony's time had evolved a great deal in the last half-century. And Tony himself seemed intent on evolving them further, since one of them looked partially dismantled, as though it were being worked on.
Steve went to inspect the workstation, but unsurprisingly, most of what he saw was foreign to him. Still, he had to smile - between this, Jarvis' comments, and Tony's voicelogs, it was blindingly clear that Tony had an eye for mechanics and liked to tinker with things. It was admirable, really. He wanted to learn and improve, and it was probably something Steve could do better at.
So passed the rest of the day. If Steve was being honest with himself, what he was really doing was passing the time until Tony's parents returned, to see for himself who they were and what Tony had grown up with. Lunch and dinner went by, and while Jarvis served both to him, he ate alone.
Finally, near midnight, a hand was laid against his shoulder. Steve jolted from his seat, looking around blearily. There was a dark-haired woman in front of him - when had she arrived? He must have fallen asleep, having curled up in a chair with some paper so that he could sketch what he remembered of the Starks' garden.
"Ma - er, Mom?" he tried, remembering what Tony had called his Ma.
"Sweetheart," replied the woman and now that Steve looked more closely, the resemblance was evident. They had the same eyes. "You shouldn't be sleeping here. It's bad for your back."
Steve pushed himself up into a sitting position, groaning a bit. She wasn't wrong, it seemed. "It's okay," he said anyway. "I wanted to be here when you came back."
"You didn't have to stay up for me," she said, but she was smiling gently. "I know you don't get enough sleep as it is."
"It's fine," Steve insisted. He tried to think of what Tony would do, based on what he'd said about his Ma, and decided on pulling her into a hug. She smelled good, like something floral - lavender, maybe. "I'm glad you're home."
She was frozen in place for a moment, clearly shocked, and Steve realized he probably had done the wrong thing. He was about to pull away when she at last moved, wrapping her own arms around him tight and holding him close. "Oh, Tony," he heard her murmur against his neck. "So sweet." They remained like that for a little while until she was the one to finally pull away, smiling and patting his cheek. "You should go to bed now, though," she said.
Steve nodded, but he still had to know one thing - "Where's Dad?"
Her eyes darkened immediately, and Steve regretted asking. But it was too late now, so Steve had to guiltily watch her sigh and turn her gaze away. "He turned in as soon as we stepped inside," she said. "I should make sure he made it to bed alright. Good night, sweetheart."
"Good night, Mom," Steve managed. He stayed seated in his chair as she straightened, blew him a kiss, and left, taking the lavender scent with her and leaving him feeling an odd mix of emotions. Disappointment, because after waiting the whole day to see Tony's Pa, he was left empty-handed. Relieved, because if he were being honest with himself, he'd been a little scared of the prospect. And sad, because… Tony's Ma had looked sad. Tony seemed to think so highly of her, Steve couldn't help but just… want the best for her. And it didn't really seem like she had that. He wanted to cheer her up.
Well, when he wanted to cheer his own Ma up, he'd draw her something. Maybe that would work with Tony's Ma, too.
Feeling better now that he had some sort of plan, he went upstairs, made his voicelog for the day, and then sketched out thumbnails in an old notebook until he fell asleep.
Water-stained ceiling, barren walls, rickety bed.
Tony blinked the sleep away from his eyes and nodded to himself. It was a Steve day today. That was fine - Tony had had some plans for the next time he was Steve, and now it looked like he'd have his chance to implement them.
A few minutes later, he was caught up on whatever had happened while he'd been - hmm - away - and was dressed and ready for the day. The first thing he wanted to do was to fix Steve's flat feet. "Fallen arches," Steve had called them, which sounded a lot more graceful than the reality. Steve's mom had them too, and Tony suspected that it was causing the both of them at least some amount of discomfort, since it certainly caused him discomfort. So really, this was for himself, but if he could help out the others as well that would just be a bonus.
He was no expert at orthotics, and he was all too aware of the gap in technology between Steve's time and his own (to say nothing of the gap in wealth), but he'd done enough research to come up with something he could make even with his current resources.
He'd need some help from Steve's mom, though. It was still summer and a weekend to boot (and thank goodness, because Steve had talked about his brand-new delivery job and it sounded like something Tony really didn't want to deal with), so Tony expected to see her already in the kitchen, maybe frying up some biscuits.
But the kitchen was empty. Confused, Tony checked the doorway - maybe she'd stepped out - but he knew she only had the one pair of shoes, and they were still sitting in the entrance. So she was home, then. And from the looks of the closed bedroom door, she was in her room.
Tony hesitated, torn for a moment. If she wanted privacy she certainly deserved it, but… it was rare. He didn't think he'd ever seen her stay in her room during the day. Was it a new development, he wondered? Steve hadn't mentioned anything about it in his journal.
Whatever the case, it bore looking into. He went over to her door and knocked on it softly. "Ma?" he called.
"Stevie, no," came a weak voice that Tony was pretty sure was Steve's mom's, but… it didn't sound so good. It was weak and rough and hoarse. "What'd I tell you yesterday?"
"Uh," Tony said. He had no idea what she'd said yesterday, because he hadn't been here and for some reason Steve hadn't written about it. "You'll have to remind me, because I'd really like to open this door and check up on you."
"I don't want to get you sick, Stevie," she said, punctuating it with a weak cough. "You stay on the other side. There should still be some bread on the counter if you're hungry."
Tony frowned. So Steve had known she was sick. He wrote about everything, so this omission seemed glaring. Part of him wondered - was Steve, maybe, in denial? Did he think that if he didn't write about it, it wouldn't be real?
Unfortunately, it definitely seemed real. No two ways around that. And since Steve wasn't here now, it was up to Tony to do something about it. "I'm gonna get you some orange juice and toast," he told her. People drank orange juice when they were sick, right? Of course, in his home he drank freshly-squeezed orange juice whereas here he was pretty sure it came out of a can and had to be cut with water, but juice was juice.
"Steve - " he heard her protest, but by then he'd already left for the kitchen to get what he needed.
A few minutes later - minutes that did not include blowing the kitchen up, thank you very much, Jarvis - he was pushing the door open to her room, glass and plate in hand. "Room service is here."
"Room service?" Steve's mom repeated, and despite the weakness of her voice - and geez, despite her everything, because she looked really terrible and definitely sick right now - she still managed to sound amused. "I didn't realize I was staying at the Waldorf Astoria."
Tony tried a smile, even if her appearance was worrisome. Had she been this bad yesterday? "Only the best for you," he said, because he knew that was what Steve would have said. Not that this was really the best by any means - it was literally just orange juice and toast, but in an attempt to channel the much more artistically-inclined person whose body he was currently occupying, he'd added a dried flower to the side of the plate - for presentation, or whatever. Steve would be proud, maybe.
Steve's mom - ugh, Tony definitely needed a better way to refer to her as in his head, because just calling her "Steve's mom" wasn't really working for him - looked down at the offered plate, lips twitching. "Very fancy," she said as she reached forward with shaking hands to accept it. "I already know this is going to make me all better." But then her gaze shifted toward Tony, turning stern. "But if you get sick, I'm not going to be very happy with you."
"Worth it," Tony said with a shrug. He went over to pull open the curtains, figuring some sun might be nice. Then he made his way to a box sitting under her bed and pulled it out, retrieving some pieces of scrap fabric he knew she kept around.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
Tony sat down in the rickety chair next to her bed. "I'm making something," he said. He would have preferred that she be the one to make it, but she was sick so that was clearly out of the question.
She took a bite out of her piece of toast, looking at him dubiously. "You're going to sew?"
"Ma, my art's so good I could probably draw for the comics," Tony said. Steve was infuriatingly modest when it came to his abilities, so Tony needed to balance things out. "I figure I'm doing well enough that I can try another hobby."
"Hm," Steve's mom said. The dubious look faded away, replaced with a smile. "You're very talented, Stevie," she said. "I know you can do anything you put your mind to."
Tony blinked at her, nonplussed. He wasn't confused at the notion of him being talented, of course. That was just a simple truth where he was concerned. But hearing it from a parent figure? That was something else. He loved Mom with all his heart, but she was around so rarely, and she didn't spend what little time they had together encouraging his hobbies. Not that she needed to, honestly. He could encourage himself just fine, and Mom was there for him in other ways. And Dad - well, the less said about Dad, the better.
But now here was Steve's mom, smiling at him like he was the greatest thing in the world and telling him that she believed in him. And Tony didn't know how to handle it.
So he just ducked his head, trying to hide the blush he could already feel crawling up his cheeks. God, if he hadn't already figured out that Steve was Irish, his propensity for blushing would have given it away. He went red far too easily. "Thanks," he muttered, trying to sound cool about it and failing miserably.
"Of course, sunshine boy," she said. Her gaze fell onto the needle and cloth he was holding. "You should really be doing that in the kitchen, though. Away from here."
Tony shook his head. "I'm not going to leave you alone, Ma," he told her. "I'm gonna keep you company."
Steve's mom let out a long sigh, taking a sip of her orange juice and laying her head back against the bedrest. "Stubborn," she said. "But you should know that if you don't leave, I'm going to make you talk about girls."
At that, Tony grinned widely, glancing up from the fabric he was measuring. Steve was way too shy about these things, and he could only imagine how out of the loop his poor mom was. "I would love to."
She raised an eyebrow at him, looking as though she couldn't tell if Tony was being sarcastic or not. Tony couldn't blame her, given the way Steve acted normally, but he was being a hundred percent honest right now. "That so," she said. She turned away to cough, and Tony felt a strange pang in his chest, like it was hurting him to see her in pain like this. It - it was probably just Steve's feelings carried over somehow, not his own. "Then tell me, what really happened with Dorothy?"
Tony wondered what Steve had told her about the date. He knew what Steve wrote in his journal, but who knew if they were the same. "Well, what'd I say before?"
"As if you need reminding," she chided. "You just came home all grumpy and mumbling how it was never going to work out anyway."
Yeah, Tony could see that. He'd set up the date, but he wasn't around when the date actually happened, so Steve had to go instead. Not that Tony minded, really. He was happy to help Steve out with these things, because he was a perfectly dateable young man despite his size - it was just a matter of confidence. The more practice he got, the better. The problem was that Steve didn't seem very interested in practice, considering how many times he'd scribbled Stop changing my relationships!! into his journal. Still, Tony had to keep trying, if only because it gave a reason for the Arnie guy to talk to Steve. From what he could tell, Steve and Arnie were childhood friends who had since drifted, but having girls in common was very possibly the key to bringing them back together. Tony had to pat himself on the back for being so thoughtful.
Of course, given the way these dates were turning out, the plan may very well not work. Tony sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as he remembered what Steve had written. "Yeah, well," he said. "I apparently have a big problem when people mouth off against the troops." She'd said something, Steve had replied, and then they'd gotten into a loud argument and parted ways.
"My dutiful son," Steve's mom said as she sighed and looked down at her remaining toast, which was mildly intriguing. Dutiful and son - Tony wondered if either of his parents had a connection to the military. The dad had passed away, so it was within the realm of possibility. It wasn't something Tony could exactly ask about, though, not if he wanted to avoid rousing her suspicion. "I want to say that you shouldn't let things like this ruin your relationships with other people, but how can I, when you're standing up for what you believe in?"
Was that how she saw it? Tony felt like Steve was just throwing away every chance at a relationship that Tony was giving him, but maybe she had a point. Still - "I think at this rate, I'll probably never find someone." That was a concerning possibility to Tony. Steve was a nice guy. He should have a girlfriend. A boyfriend would be fine too, but Tony doubted Steve swung that way.
Steve's mom smiled a little as she finished up her toast. "You're young, Stevie," she said. "There's no need to rush anything. Maybe you'll meet that person later. Or maybe that person's been there this whole time, and you just haven't realized it yet. That's what happened with me and your Pa. You'll just have to wait and see."
"I hate waiting," Tony said. He glanced down at his lap, where he'd finished up one of his first arch support things. It looked… very unimpressive, but it was going to be wrapped around someone's foot, so Tony supposed he was okay with that. "Here, stick your foot out. I'm gonna put this on."
"What is it?" she asked, though she obligingly poked a foot out from under the covers.
Tony leaned over and tugged the sleeve over her foot. "It's to help your fallen arches," he said. "Don't your feet ache sometimes?" Tony's sure did, on the days he was Steve. Of course, he ached in many places given the assorted ailments he seemed to have, but this one he could at least do something about.
She shrugged. "That's just how it's always been, Stevie. You don't need to worry about it."
"I do, Ma," Tony replied. "Your pain isn't nothing to me." That was what Steve would say, he felt. Funny how easily it came to him. "Now, you're sick, so you can't walk around and try it out yet. But when you get better you can. So finish your orange juice, okay?"
"Yes, doctor," she said, obligingly drinking the rest from her cup. She coughed again, which was worrisome, but Tony didn't know what else he could do about it. He settled for getting her some water, which she accepted gratefully as Tony settled back down to sew some more.
For a moment, he entertained the thought of finishing up quickly so he could go and chat up the redhead who lived down the block, part of his unending quest to make Steve happy with a girl. So Dorothy hadn't worked out, nor had the other girls Tony had tried to set Steve up with - but there were other fish in the sea. It was only for a moment, though, because it occurred to Tony very suddenly that doing exactly what he was doing right now, keeping his mom company while she was sick, was actually what would make Steve happy, and once he'd realized it, it became difficult to rationalize doing anything else.
"Tell me some stories about Pa," he said instead, and Ma's answering smile - God, she looked so much like Steve - told him he'd made the right choice.
Your mom's been either sick or recovering every single time I've visited in the last couple of months, Steve. How come you never write about it?
"I wanted to pretend this wasn't happening, because if it didn't happen then there'd be nothing to remember," Steve said dully, and as much as he didn't want to look, he forced himself to anyway. Ma was Ma, and even if she looked like she was... unwell... he couldn't bear to hurt her by avoiding her gaze.
"Oh, Stevie," Ma said, and it killed Steve to hear how raspy she sounded, like every word she spoke was painful. "Don't you think that sounds a little bit like running away from your problems?"
"No," Steve said automatically, but then he squeezed his eyes shut, one fist clenching. "...Yes," he admitted a moment later. "But…"
Ma reached out, and Steve unclenched his hand so he could take hers - she always ran cold, just like him, but today she was even colder. He tried not to think about it. "But nothing. The young man I raised doesn't run away. Do you remember why?"
Steve let out a long sigh, glancing down at their intertwined fingers. "It doesn't change anything. It doesn't fix anything."
"That's right," she said softly. "And?"
"When you run away from your problems, you run away from everything else, too."
Ma smiled gently at him, and Steve took it in, all the creases of her face, every shade of blue in her eyes. "Do you want to run from me, Stevie?" she asked.
"No," Steve said.
"Then don't," Ma replied. She seemed to relax then, her body going limp against the bed, head sinking into the thin pillow. "Stay and remember all these things that have shaped you," she continued, and when she spoke her voice was barely a whisper. "And stand and fight for those who are important to you. Will you do that for me, sunshine boy?"
Steve could feel his hands start to tremble, and it took everything he had to make it stop. "How am I supposed to fight for you when you're… when you're gone?"
"The same way you fight for anything or anyone that isn't right there in front of you," Ma said.
That was, Steve remembered, what Pa had done so many years ago. He hadn't run, but he'd left the country, gone so far away from home, to fight for something that mattered to him. Maybe it wasn't such a strange idea.
Ma must have seen something change in his face, because she smiled again. "So will you do that for me, Stevie?" she pressed.
The trembling started anew, and Steve couldn't stop it this time. "I will, Ma," he promised.
Ma sighed and closed her eyes, and she didn't open them again.
Tony knew that something was off as soon as he sat up in bed. The ceiling had the same stain it always did, and the foot supports he'd made for Steve were sitting on the nightstand as usual, ready to be put on for the day. He spared a grateful thought for the fact that Steve was still wearing them and had even thanked Tony for it, even though really, Tony had mostly made them for himself so that walking wouldn't be so painful when he was in this body. But soon enough, his mind turned to the other things in the room - or rather, the lack thereof. There hadn't been much to begin with, but there was certainly a difference between "not much" and "nearly nothing", and right now there was nearly nothing. Most of the furniture he was used to was gone, and there were some open boxes sitting at the other end of the room.
Curious. Though Tony wanted to investigate immediately, he supposed he'd better do the sensible thing and just read Steve's journal first, since there'd probably be an explanation in there.
The first few entries from right after the last time he'd visited were standard Steve fare - the goings-on of the delivery job he was still doing, musings over the war brewing in Europe (Tony never responded to those parts, even if he was fascinated - who knew if him giving Steve future knowledge about the Second World War would have some kind of butterfly effect), and whatever altercations he had with Dougie for the day. Nothing about any girls, unfortunately, though Tony supposed he wasn't surprised. This was Steve he was dealing with, after all.
Dodgers won against the Pirates today, so overall I can't complain! ended one entry.
Ma's gone, started the next one.
Tony felt a numbness settle into him, starting with his hands and then spreading through the rest of his body. Ma's gone, his brain repeated over and over again, uselessly. Ma's gone. Ma's gone.
Surely, he thought, it didn't mean what it sounded like it meant. Ma had been sick often, it was true. But had it really gotten that bad? Steve would have written about it earlier if it had, right?
...No, he wouldn't, Tony realized. Since Tony had first found Ma sick in her room all those weeks ago, Steve had never mentioned a thing about it. Tony had, of course - he'd brought it up in every single entry he'd written since. But while Steve had replied to individual points - I can't believe she asked about Dorothy again or She's keeping the flower "I" put on her plate yesterday by her bedside, did you know that? - he didn't respond to anything about her illness, nor did he bring it up himself.
He was in denial, Tony thought at the same time he read those very words written down on the page - a page that now had drops of wetness spattered onto it. When had that happened? Carefully, so as to not smudge the pencil, Tony dabbed away the water with his shirt, rubbing his eyes afterward.
Steve must have been so scared. He'd probably been scared since Ma had first fallen ill, and then he'd chosen to never bring it up in a hopeless attempt to make it not real, even as Tony had continued to mention it. And the thought of Steve scared like that, living in a body that was already so frail with that kind of crippling fear, made something in Tony's chest ache.
To say nothing of Ma, who had always been so kind and supportive and who was - just - gone. She hadn't even been his mom, but she'd been Steve's mom, and Tony had seen how much of Steve had come from her. And Tony had learned, maybe, to… care about her.
And now he was feeling his eyes get wet again and he didn't want to ruin Steve's journal and he didn't think he could read anything more at this time anyway, so maybe it was time to just take a little break from this. He shut the journal and put it back on the nightstand, then made himself get out of bed, even if he just wanted to curl up under the sheets and let his brain get away from him.
He didn't really need to read everything to have an idea of what was going on, anyway. It was clear that Steve was packing, because now he lived alone and he probably couldn't afford this place with his measly income. Was he going to be homeless? God, Tony hoped not. He wished - not for the first time - that he could have shared his own good fortune with Steve. Maybe money couldn't buy happiness, but it sure as hell could buy some security.
As always, though, all he brought was himself. He supposed the least he could offer was to help Steve out, so he went about doing just that. Perhaps having anticipated a possible switch, Steve had clearly labeled everything, so Tony didn't need to figure out on his own what was needed of him. There wasn't all that much left in the house at this point - Ma's room, in fact, was completely empty, and the sight of it bothered him enough that he shut the door so he wouldn't have to look in there anymore - and Tony quietly lugged what little remained into the trash for disposal, taking frequent breaks whenever breathing got too hard.
Finally, he was done. There were still a few small things lying around that Tony wasn't sure what to do with, so he figured it was better to play it safe and hold onto them instead of just throwing them out. One was a box, which Tony sat down on the floor with as he regarded it curiously. Would Steve be mad if Tony took a look? Considering how everything else had been labeled, he had to assume that if Steve really didn't want him to look, he would have written as much on the box.
So he opened it. It was immediately clear that its contents consisted of several folded letters, the top one bearing a date of October 1917, which meant it was older than Steve by a few years.
My dearest Joseph, it began.
The subject was simple. This Joseph character had proposed to the writer, leaving her confused because she wasn't sure if he'd proposed because he knew he was going off to war soon, or if he actually loved her. And her own feelings were muddled as well, because she thought about the possibility that he'd never come back and how awful that made her feel, and she'd always liked him before but now maybe she loved him and she just wasn't sure? It was, Tony had to privately admit to himself, all rather mushy.
And it was signed Yours, Sarah.
Tony frowned down at the name. It seemed familiar, like he'd seen it recently. Maybe even as recently as earlier today, on some of the items he'd moved or packed. Was it… maybe Ma's name? Was Joseph Steve's dad? It would make sense. He vaguely remembered something about Steve's dad having been in the army, and this confirmed it.
They were both gone now. Tony closed his eyes and tilted his head back against the wall. Steve's parents had lived through the First World War, and all that was left of their experience was in this box. He should have asked more questions when he'd had the chance. He should have done more research so that he could have shown that he'd cared about the lives they'd led. He should have done a lot of other things before it was too late.
But he hadn't, so it was just him and these letters. He wondered if Steve had seen these. He hoped so. It was an insight into his parents that Tony had never had before. He'd have to bring it up when he wrote his journal entry for the day.
For now, he kept reading. The next letter was dated a month later and had different handwriting and the first words were Sarah, a chuisle. Probably a different language, Tony decided, since while he knew the slang decades ago had been out there, this was a bit beyond that. Happily, the rest was in English, though reading it gave Tony the same unsettling feeling the first one had - more words written by ghosts who weren't here.
Still, he thought as he brushed a finger over the scribbled Joseph at the bottom of the letter, just because they were ghosts didn't mean they didn't matter anymore. They were the people who'd raised Steve, and so they were important.
So he read on. Sarah went from questioning her feelings to longing as she seemed to admit to herself how she felt, as Joseph's replies became increasingly dark: If it weren't for your letters, I fear the only thing I'd have to look forward to is the paltry ration of cognac the French troops provide us with. I know you write of temperance & how we must be clean, but Sarah, if you laid in the trenches day in & day out with shells and bullets raining upon you until you want to stand & ask for them to strike you so it can just be over already, you would understand. & maybe you're asking yourself, why is Joseph sharing these dreadful things with me? But I'm tired & lonely & you're the only girl I've got & the only one I want, & so it's you I tell of all my thoughts, turbulent though they may be.
But make no mistake. I would cross the ocean to Europe & fight here again & again & again if this is what it takes to keep you safe. You bring honor & meaning into my life, Sarah, a chuisle mo chroí. Until we meet again.
It was the last letter. Tony's gaze was drawn back to the bit about the cognac, how it was the only thing besides Sarah's replies that Joseph looked forward to. I don't like the stuff, Steve had written the day before Tony had found his stash of booze cleared out. Tony had been annoyed - okay, maybe he still was, because who poured away perfectly good alcohol - but it hadn't been worth fighting Steve over it, so while he still drank when out with people, he hadn't replenished his cabinet. And maybe this line right here was the start of it all, an addiction that would last the rest of his life. Steve's dad had died when Steve was young - so how bad must it have been for it to have made such an impression on a child?
Tony sighed to himself, putting all the letters back where he'd found them. Maybe he needed to stop feeling annoyed. It wasn't Steve's fault. It wasn't anyone's fault. Steve had been trying to help Tony in the only way he knew how, and would it really kill Tony to try and respect his wishes?
He could figure it out later. For now, he thought that maybe he was ready to read the rest of Steve's entries, so he padded back to the bedroom, dusting off his clothes to the best of his ability before crawling onto the bed and picking up the journal.
It wasn't actually that much easier this time around, but at least Tony was a little more emotionally prepared now. He read Steve's admission about how he had been afraid and trying to pretend the worst wasn't happening, he read Ma's last words to Steve, he read Steve's stream-of-consciousness rambling as he tried to figure out what it meant to stay and remember and fight. By the end of that particular entry, it didn't really seem like Steve had managed to figure it out. Tony couldn't blame him. He wasn't sure he really knew, either.
The entries that followed were far shorter. Steve was still making income thanks to his delivery job, but it wouldn't be enough to stay in the apartment for much longer. That explained why everything was being packed, Tony thought dully to himself as Steve made a weak attempt to talk up the boarding house he was moving into.
Dougie was so shocked, he half-hugged me before he slugged me and ran off, Steve wrote. I guess even bullies have Mas. I don't know if I'll see him again. I hope he doesn't find someone else to punch after I move. But I guess I can take not having to deal with him anymore as a silver lining of the whole "I'm leaving the home I've known my whole life that my Ma and Pa raised me in" cloud, right? Maybe Pa wasn't always good at keeping his promises and he never liked the drawings I did as much as Ma, but sometimes he'd give me apple pie and ruffle my hair and this is the only place where I have any memories of him and moving out almost feels like I'm losing them both again - but no more Dougie, and I'm sure I'll meet some swell new fellas at the boarding house, so I shouldn't focus on the bad stuff...
Tony frowned down at the words. Most of Steve's entries followed that pattern - touching upon something that wasn't so good, only to quickly cover it up with an attempt at how maybe it would be okay after all. And while Tony supposed that sort of attitude was normally a good thing (albeit certainly not one he had), something about the way it was coming off here felt… off. It wasn't Steve being optimistic, it was just more denial.
He found himself thinking, stupidly, of his dog. He'd had one once, a long time ago. Her name was Aero (short for Aerodynamic) and he loved her very much. But the problem with Aero - the problem with dogs in general, honestly - was that they just didn't live long enough. So she'd gone to the rainbow bridge and when Mom had told his ten-year-old self as much, he'd reacted by starting to cry.
It had been the wrong thing to do. Dad had screamed at him - and then some - about how Stark men didn't cry, and while Mom had told him to be quiet and let Tony mourn, it was too late. Tony didn't shed another tear for Aero, and to this day he felt… guilty, almost, about it, like he'd done her wrong. But he didn't know how to fix it. It was so long ago, and you were supposed to let sleeping dogs lie, right?
But his lack of reaction then kind of reminded him of Steve's lack of reaction now. And if, God forbid, Mom died, Tony knew he wouldn't be able to cry whether Dad was there or not, because Stark men didn't cry; they were made of iron. And he also knew that not using that outlet would probably screw him up in the long run, but, well, here he was.
Steve wasn't a Stark, though. It therefore followed that he should be allowed to cry, if he hadn't already, and the way he kept on making half-assed attempts to find positives while skimming over all the negatives kind of implied to Tony that he indeed hadn't. And if Tony didn't let him know this, then who would? Not Dougie, who'd seemed to react to the news with his own brand of denial. Not Arnie, who Tony had tried to get closer to with only partial avail, leaving him mostly as a childhood friend from the past. Just himself.
So he picked up a pencil and started writing, determined to make sure that Steve wouldn't make his own mistakes. He told Steve how sorry he was, what a wonderful person Ma had been, and that even if they would never stand in the same room together, Tony would - would -
His pencil faltered. I'll always be here for you, because you're my friend, he was going to write, but he found himself suddenly afraid. Were they friends? Or were they just acquaintances out of convenience? Tony felt like they were friends, but maybe Steve didn't feel the same way. And with Steve hurting the way he was, Tony didn't want to burden him with - well, himself. Steve had enough to deal with.
Sighing, Tony erased the last bit and started over. Look, I don't know if anyone ever told you that you shouldn't cry, he tried instead. But if they did, they're wrong. It's okay if you cry. So if you need to, you should, and even though I won't be here here when you read this, I will absolutely be here in spirit giving you a manly hug.
You will be alright, Steve.
Things weren't alright, but he wasn't going to cry, he told himself. Maybe later, when he was alone, but not here and not now.
The day had started off normal - or at least, as normal as it could when you woke up in another person's body a few decades into the future. Steve would have preferred that it hadn't happened so he could continue packing and making arrangements, but he'd long since learned in the past few months that he didn't have any choice in switching, so he just had to deal with it.
In any case, Tony was still home for the summer, and Steve had been free to do as he pleased for the day. From listening to the voicelogs, it was clear that Tony was taking this time to work on several projects. While Steve wished he could help, he knew enough to know that any contributions he made, whether to Tony's plans or the physical prototypes or the - what was it called again, "software"? - would do more harm than good.
Usually, Steve turned to books - he'd finished reading The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion ages ago, but the Stark library was massive and had dozens of other fantasy novels to hold his interest - or art, since he still had his own little pet project he'd been working on, and there were plenty of other things to sketch when he wanted to draw something else.
Today, though, he hadn't done any of those things. Losing Ma was still too fresh on his mind, so his activities mostly consisted of eating and staring out the window. Jarvis had looked at him with concern, but what could Steve say? Sorry, I'm quiet today because I'm not actually Tony and also my Ma died? That wouldn't work. So he'd just tried to wave everything off, and while he was sure Jarvis hadn't actually bought it, he'd at least given him space.
Who hadn't given him space? Tony's Pa.
Nearly the whole summer had passed, and up until now, Steve had managed to have very limited contact with him. It hadn't been on purpose - true to Tony's word, his Pa just wasn't at home much, and on the rare occasion he was, the house was big enough that they didn't really cross paths all that often. Steve couldn't help but privately feel that it was a little sad, for Tony's own Pa to not seem to care that much about checking in on him. At least his Ma made an effort to talk to him, even though she was home as rarely as Tony's Pa.
But today was different. Steve had been looking out the window when he heard footsteps behind him, and as soon as he smelled the harsh smell of alcohol - so, so unlike the gentle lavender scent Tony's Ma carried with her - he knew that it was going to be bad.
"What are you doing?" Tony's Pa had asked, and though his voice wasn't slurred, there was enough of an edge to make Steve tense.
Still, he'd turned around, lifting his head and meeting his gaze. "Nothing, sir," he'd managed stiffly.
"Nothing?" Tony's Pa had all but roared.
And now here Steve was, half-crouched as Tony's Pa screamed at him for being a layabout, for being soft, for being weak, and Steve was so overcome by a melange of emotions that he didn't know what to do; in the heat of the moment, he could barely even pick them apart to figure out what he was feeling.
"Answer me when I speak to you, boy!"
Steve knew better than to say something. No matter what he did, no matter if he replied or didn't reply, nothing would change how Tony's Pa currently felt.
What did Tony do in this situation, he had to wonder? Was this something he had to deal with on a regular basis? He'd never said anything to Steve about it, not directly, but he'd alluded to it a few times and that was enough to inform Steve that what was going on right now wasn't the first time this had happened. Had he told anyone, or had he just… dealt with it by himself?
Even worse - had he just quietly accepted it?
"Is this the son I raised?"
Steve couldn't take it anymore. All he'd wanted to do today was mourn, and now he was in a situation where not only could he not do that, but he couldn't even talk about it to anyone who was here. Enough was enough.
"No," he said loudly, and without thinking, he clenched his fists and straightened, ready to defend himself if necessary.
Tony's Pa stared at him, as though shocked he'd even said anything. Maybe Tony usually kept quiet. "No?" he repeated, and Steve could almost see his face getting redder and redder. "What do you mean, no?"
"I mean I'm not the son you raised," Steve replied as he took a step forward. He meant it in more ways than one, but right now only one of those ways needed to be shared right now. "How can you have raised me, when you spend our time together yelling at me? Is that what you call raising?"
"How dare you - " Tony's Pa began.
But Steve kept talking over him. He was done listening. "I don't know anything about you except that you like to yell a lot. And I'm not like that. I - I act like I don't listen sometimes. But I do listen. And I innovate and invent and I help when I can - "
"Soft," came the hissed reply.
"Yeah, that's right!" Steve blurted out, because maybe this was the crux of it.
He had never, not once, ever seen Tony Stark face to face. He had never had an actual conversation with him. He had never known what it was like to just - to just be in the same room as him, and he never would.
But Steve knew him. He knew Tony in a way he'd never known anyone else. How could he not, when he had spent so many of his days living his life? Tony was - vain, sometimes. Brash. He thought highly of himself and while he might have had every reason to, it bordered on arrogance. And yet - there was more to him than that. Even from the beginning, Tony had tried to help Steve in his own way. He'd discouraged Dougie from beating him up for a day and attempted to reconnect with Arnie by showing an interest in dating. Beyond that, he'd always been so patient in explaining the programming and science lessons he'd been taking so Steve wouldn't be completely lost. He'd spent time with Ma in her last days instead of leaving the house to go have fun. He'd complimented Steve's art. Over and over again, he acted like he was so cool and detached, but his actions told a different story. He was Tony, and he was soft, and...
"I'm not going to let you make him - make me think that's not okay," he said, and then he walked right past Tony's Pa, all the way back to his room where he shut the door behind him.
He slumped against it afterward, breathing fast despite the lack of physical exertion even as he willed his heart to stop thumping so he could hear if anyone was following. For a long moment, there was nothing, until finally he heard Tony's Pa yell for Jarvis, something about getting him a drink.
It seemed like he was safe for the time being. At what cost, though? Had he made things worse for Tony? And yet - what else could he have possibly done, just listen and do nothing?
Thoughts of Ma came to him unbidden, and immediately Steve could feel his throat go tight as he tried to block them off; still they persisted. He couldn't help it. Tony's Pa naturally made him draw parallels to his own Ma, who was kinder, happier, better than him in every way.
God, he missed her. Remembering what had happened made him tempted to just crawl into bed and stare at the wall, much like what he'd been doing earlier. What else mattered? He didn't have his own life to distract him at the moment, and here in Tony's life he just had an angry father screaming at him.
He closed his eyes and sighed. No, that wasn't true. Here in this life there was Tony, and Tony mattered. And Steve - Steve needed to make sure that Tony knew that.
Opening his eyes again, he went over to the laptop and pulled it into bed with him, turning it on and tapping the keys until he reached the voicelogs section. Then, leaning in close to the microphone so that no one outside his room would hear, he started to speak.
He didn't bring up the altercation between himself and Tony's Pa, not really. He only mentioned it briefly to provide context to the rest of what he wanted to say, because the things Tony's Pa had screamed at him were wrong and therefore not worth repeating. What was worth bringing up was how Steve felt about Tony, about how great and smart and kind he was, and how Steve was glad that of all the people he could have somehow switched bodies with, it was Tony. Despite all their differences, Steve had grown to like him and he was proud to call him a friend, and he hoped that Tony would never change.
"It's strange," he finished quietly, "because I just said all those words and yet I know that none of them can ever really convey the depth of my feelings." For you, he nearly wanted to add, but something made him hold back. Maybe it was too much. "But I had to try. Maybe I succeeded. I don't know. I hope so. Just… no matter what, Tony, know that you're amazing. And you will be alright."
Tony closed his laptop and set it aside, scrubbing at his eyes. He'd just told Steve the day before that it was okay to cry, but that didn't mean it was okay for him, specifically, to cry. He just… hadn't expected such an outpouring of emotion from Steve. And he hadn't expected to be told that Steve thought of him as a friend. It was a lot to take in.
Dad wasn't home today, he knew. So whatever fight Steve and him had gotten into… Tony could avoid the fallout for now. And if he wanted to do something soft like shedding a few tears, well, who was going to find out?
Steve had never shared a bed with anyone, except for the times when he'd been young and crawled into Ma's bed so that she could protect him from the bogeymen in the closet.
He wasn't sharing a bed with anyone right now in his new room in the boarding house, and honestly, he didn't know if he ever would - but tonight, as he lay in his bed, staring at his journal with misty eyes, he thought maybe he could pretend that Tony was here with him. Tony, who would let him grieve without judgment, who would hold him as tears ran down his face, who would tell him that everything would be alright.
"So you wanna go or not?"
Ty flicked something at him - a corn kernel, apparently - which was enough to bring Tony back to the present. "Why aren't you listening to me? You've been like this since school started again. I mean, it's kind of rude. You need to be paying attention to me when I talk."
Tony picked off the corn and dropped it onto a napkin. "Sorry," he said, though he was still barely paying attention. He just couldn't stop thinking about Steve. "Go where again?"
"The liquor store. Gotta stock up, right? And hopefully you won't destroy all your booze like you did at the end of last school year."
"That was an accident," Tony replied, trying to remember the lie he'd come up with to cover for the fact that Steve had emptied out all his bottles. "You know."
"Still a shame," Ty said, making a faint tsking sound. "Your stupid robot malfunctioned in the worst possible place. But hey, hopefully you learned your lesson, right? So, you wanna go?"
A large part of Tony very much did want to go, and yet an equally large part also couldn't help but think about Steve. Not just the fact that if Steve found his new booze, he'd just pour it down the sink again. But also just the fact that Steve would be so disappointed. And after everything that had happened… Tony didn't want to do that to him.
"Can't," he finally made himself reply. Now for an excuse. "Uh, I got caught in gov class working on bot stuff. Have to write a remedial essay tonight."
Ty snorted and shook his head. "Wish we were in the same gov period. Would have loved to see that."
"Yeah, well, there you go," Tony said. As he'd known already with the booze and robot-malfunction thing, Ty was much more likely to just go along with a story if it involved Tony screwing up somehow. "So you go. Have fun."
"I'm not going to share with you," Ty warned.
"I'll manage," Tony replied as he stood up with his empty tray, ready to ditch Ty and the cafeteria, so that he could go back to his room. "You know I do."
That earned him a knowing grin from Ty. Tony was glad Ty hadn't called him out on the fact that he hadn't been doing much "managing" in the past few months. He didn't have a very good excuse for it that didn't involve telling Ty about Steve, which was definitely out of the question. "Then I'm calling my ride. See you later."
Tony nodded his goodbye, and then went to drop off his tray before returning to his room, shutting the door behind him. From there, he made an immediate beeline to his desk, where he'd stuck the gift Steve had left for him, and pulled it out.
It was as… unbelievable to look at, really, as it had been when he'd first seen it in the morning. It was art. Art that Steve had done of himself and Mom, sitting in a field of lavender - how'd Steve know that was Mom's favorite?
Sorry I couldn't get this done sooner, Steve had written, and it was ridiculous that he'd started things off with an apology. But it's something I'd been thinking about for a while and I wanted to do this for you. I drew a lot for Ma to cheer her up, so I guess I thought maybe a drawing could cheer your Ma up, too. I know you're taking an art class this year (because I signed you up for it!), and I've seen your technical drawings, so I know you are or will be capable of doing this. Please give it to your Ma when you have a chance, okay Tony?
God. When had Steve even had a chance to do this? Had he done the whole thing yesterday? Or had he been working on it for a while, hiding it somewhere Tony wouldn't find until he was finished? Either way, it was just so - so thoughtful, it made his heart ache. Sure, Steve had said it was for Mom, but honestly, Tony saw it as a gift to himself as well. Steve didn't owe him anything. He certainly didn't owe him this. But he'd done it anyway, because… he was Steve.
And Steve, he thought with dismay, was going off to war.
Well, technically, he wasn't yet, because despite his apparent best efforts, no one wanted to enlist him - something Tony couldn't exactly blame the recruiters for, to be truthful. But he was, according to the forms Tony had seen lying around, trying his best, and Tony had an uncomfortable feeling that Steve would be persistent enough to actually succeed.
Why? he'd asked in Steve's journal.
Tony could come up with plenty of reasons on his own. Despite the fact that summer had ended, Steve hadn't gone back to school - he was continuing to work instead, presumably because he needed the income in order to have something to eat and a place to live. And if he were in the military, both room and board would be provided, not to mention pay.
Along the same note, while Tony wasn't sure exactly which benefits had been provided to soldiers back then, there were probably at least a few. And with Steve's health problems, to put it lightly, maybe he'd have a chance to get them looked at.
Not to mention the fact that Steve's dad had served back in the First World War (probably for God and country, or whatever propaganda mottos they used back then). So maybe Steve just wanted to follow in his old man's footsteps, which was a perfectly valid reason for wanting to enlist.
And yet Tony had an inkling that while all of the above was possibly true, there had to be more. Even after all these months of sharing Steve's body, of getting into his head, Steve still found ways to surprise him.
He just wished he knew what was so important to Steve that he would want to put his life on the line for it.
Tony woke up with the oddest feeling.
It was hard to describe. He thought to himself, as he managed to sit up in bed, that maybe it was more the lack of feeling that was bothering him. Because - well, because honestly, right now he was pretty sure he was supposed to be hungover.
He pinched the bridge of his nose with his eyes squeezed shut, remembering. Yeah, last night had happened. He and Ty and some others had gone off-campus for a big dinner to celebrate the end of the semester, and then they went back to Ty's room and played some party games. And then Ty, damn him, had dared Tony to drink because "what the hell, Tony, you haven't had a drink all evening; what are you, a teetotaler?" and what else was Tony supposed to do in that case? So he'd drunk.
And given the fact that he didn't really remember all that much afterward, it was probably safe to assume that he'd drunk a lot more than that one shot.
Hence why not waking up with a hangover was so odd.
Once he'd opened his eyes again, though, it became pretty clear as to how that happened. He was in Steve's body today. Which was great for him, he supposed, since it meant he wouldn't have to suffer for last night's actions, though he did feel a bit sorry for Steve, who was likely going to wake up with a pounding headache. And since Steve wasn't an idiot, he would probably figure out what the pounding headache was caused by and then be so, so disappointed in Tony...
Damn it. Well, there was nothing Tony could do about it now. He sighed, reaching over to grab Steve's watch to figure out how much time he had before he had to go off to his delivery job.
The answer was apparently almost no time at all, so with a groan, Tony got up, stretched, and got ready for work, casting a wistful look at Steve's journal before he left his room. Catching up on whatever had happened since they'd last swapped would have to wait, it seemed.
As the day passed, with Tony making the walk from one home to another to deliver things, it became increasingly evident that something had happened; Tony regretted not catching up on Steve's journal even more. Though he obviously didn't spend much time talking with those he delivered to - he was here conducting a transaction, not shooting the breeze, after all - there were at least pleasantries exchanged.
Today, a fair few of them involved them telling him "good luck".
Good luck with what? he wanted to ask, but he knew better than to do something so foolish.
By the time Tony got back home, the sun was down, and it was all he could do to muster up the energy to stop by the shared kitchen to prepare some sort of meal from the meager assortment of food in his section of the cabinets before slogging back to his room. Once he finally settled down with his sad bowl of soup and some bread, he pulled Steve's journal toward him, flipping to the first entry written after their last switch.
I mean, why do people ever enlist? he read - and oh, right, this must have been in response to Tony asking him why he was trying to get into the army. It's just the right thing to do. There's another war coming and it's my duty - and everyone else's - to protect our country. Is it such a strange thought? Even Dougie's enlisted. I mean, he said it was because he was bored, but he still did it.
Was Steve really so selfless that that was actually his primary reason for trying to enlist? Well - alright, that was a silly question, because of course Steve was. And though his health problems and small stature were still keeping him from jumping into war, Tony still wondered if it was just a matter of time.
He let out a long breath, slurped his soup, and continued to read the rest of Steve's entries to see what he'd been up to, when the latest one - dated yesterday - gave him pause.
Visited another recruitment office today, Steve had written. They're giving me a chance. :-)
Tony was momentarily distracted by the little smiley Steve had added at the end - it was likely something he'd picked up from the people posting on Tony's school's message board, and it was adorable that he'd noticed it and used it, especially since he was writing in pen and could have easily done a regular, right-side-up smiley.
Soon enough, though, Steve's actual words registered in his brain, and Tony could feel fear welling up within him. Someone had let him join. He was going to go to war - and not just any war, but the deadliest war in human history.
Tony made himself breathe in, breathe out, trying to control the terror he was suddenly feeling. It - it didn't have to mean anything bad, he told himself. There were plenty of desk jobs and administrative positions. Just because someone was giving him a chance, just because the people on his delivery route told him good luck… that didn't mean he was literally going to go marching into battle.
Feeling slightly calmer about things now, he made himself read the rest of Steve's entry. There actually wasn't that much left, which seemed unusual, given the content - I'm going to be helping out a doctor who's been working on something to aid Allied soldiers, Steve had written, which made the knot of tension within Tony relax a little. It didn't sound like combat at all. It's a long-term thing, so I told the folks I've been delivering to that I'll be gone soon, but I didn't go into any details - it's actually top secret, so that's why this is so brief! Let's just say, though, that if this all works out… I'll be able to serve this country the way I've always wanted to.
Tony frowned down at that last sentence. Serve the way he'd always wanted to? Tony was pretty sure Steve wanted to be on the front lines, because he had no right to do anything less than those who were already risking their lives for their country. But he was small and thin and had all sorts of health issues. No one in their right mind would let him go to the front lines with the way he was right now.
There had to be more.
It was kind of cute, in a way, that Steve was trying to keep confidential information from Tony in an attempt to not betray his country, even though Tony was from decades into the future and not in a position to do anything meaningful with whatever Steve was hiding. But if Steve thought Tony could just read all this and take it in stride, he was deeply mistaken. There was more, and Tony was going to get to the bottom of it.
Soup forgotten for the time being, Tony rose from his chair, starting to poke around the more obvious places in Steve's room - under the pillow, in his drawers, under the mattress. Nothing. So then he tried some other places - leafing through Steve's drawing pad, rummaging in some boxes of dried food, even taking apart a framed photo of Ma in case he'd hidden something behind the picture. Still nothing.
Was he wrong? If Steve had been recruited, surely there was some sort of documentation. No way something like this didn't have a paper trail. But where was it?
Finally, with the room a complete mess - and boy, was he not looking forward to cleaning it up before he went to bed - Tony threw open the door to his tiny closet, peering inside. Nothing looked unusual. On a hunch, though, he pushed open the trench coat hanging off one coat hanger - and that was when he saw it, the smallest service uniform he'd ever laid eyes on.
With a guilty look around the room - which was ridiculous, he was alone, but still - Tony pulled out the beige-colored shirt and pants hiding under the trench coat and held them up to himself. The tailoring job was crude, but they fit Steve's slight frame.
It was real, then. Steve had been accepted into the army and issued a uniform, even though he was so - well, tiny - that they'd had to tailor something just for him.
Still hardly able to believe it all, Tony went about replacing the uniform where he'd found it when he realized - the pockets weren't empty. With another glance around, Tony checked all the pockets he could find, pulling out folded sheets of paper from most of them. There weren't many, so Tony went about ordering them to the best of his ability, then stared down at the first page, which looked like it was a cover sheet.
Project: Rebirth, it read in large black letters.
The rest of the papers almost looked like a condensed scientific article, beginning with an abstract and ending with a section titled "Expected Results". Furrowing his brow, Tony went through the long list of anticipated outcomes: the subject would have enhanced speed, enhanced strength, enhanced metabolism, enhanced durability, enhanced reflexes… it went on and on. Finally, it concluded: Once the procedure has successfully completed, the subject will become a super soldier, ready to protect the country against foreign threats.
What had Steve written in his journal again? He was going to help out a doctor, and once that was done…
"I know you," Tony whispered.
He had never, not once, looked up Steve Rogers when he was back in his own time. He'd considered it, of course - Steve was a part of his world, just from the past, and surely something of him existed in Tony's present. Hell, Steve himself could have possibly still been alive - they were only separated by fifty-ish years, and Steve wasn't that old in 1940. And wouldn't it have been something, to track down the man who he'd shared something so intimately with, and finally meet him in person? To find him, see the lines of his face, hear about everything that had happened in his life? To maybe give him that hug Tony felt he needed so badly?
Alright, so maybe Tony had done more than just considered it. He'd thought about it, dreamed about it. But he'd never acted upon it. Because, really - Steve Rogers? Could there be a more common name out there? He doubted narrowing it down to Brooklyn would help much. There were just too many Steves and too many Rogers and too many Steve Rogers, he was sure.
And, maybe, if he were being honest with himself, he was a little afraid of what he would find if he did go looking. What if Steve had actually passed away a few years later? Or what if he'd passed away a few years ago in Tony's present? What if he'd changed and wasn't the same person Tony had grown to - to care deeply for? There was one way things could go right and so many ways it could go wrong, he felt.
But in the end, apparently he hadn't needed to spend so much brain power fretting over all that, because all his answers were right here in this journal. He knew exactly what had happened to his Steve Rogers, the plucky kid from Brooklyn who fought bullies so others didn't have to.
He'd become Captain America.
Carefully, Tony replaced the papers where he'd found them, then put the uniform back into the closet. Then he made himself finish his soup - not because he was hungry, especially after a revelation like that - but because he didn't want Steve to wake up hungry tomorrow. And then as soon as he was done, he set the bowl aside and started giggling, unable to help himself.
Because, gosh, as Steve would say, Tony had had a thing for Captain America ever since he'd hit puberty. The world had plenty of noble people throughout history to offer, but Cap was different. Special. He'd been relevant in a time that was far back enough where people could romanticize him, but recent enough that he still permeated media to this day. They made action figures of him, for God's sakes. Adaptations had been made of his heroics during the war. He headlined a comic book.
And despite how much larger than life all of the above had made him seem, he was still real. He'd been a hero during a time the world had needed a hero the most. And, when Tony was growing up, he'd been a hero to look up to during a time Tony had needed one the most.
He was also, despite the silly little wings on his cowl, very, very handsome. Tony had never seen his entire face, but the propaganda pictures he had saved on his laptop were more than enough to outline the squareness of his jaw, the broadness of his shoulders, the sureness of his smile.
And he was Steve. Thin, asthmatic Steve, who in the coming days would undergo a procedure to make him as heroic on the outside as he was on the inside.
Heroic, his brain repeated to him. And what happened to people who were heroic?
His eyes went wide.
"No," he said. "No, no, no, no, no."
He scrambled out of his chair and dove for the closet, pulling out the briefing materials he'd just stashed away before grabbing the pencil on his desk and starting to write. DON'T DO THIS, STEVE, he scribbled on each one, on the front and on the back, on the top and in the middle and on the bottom. When he was done, he tossed all the papers onto the floor, staring down at them after.
The thing was, Captain America was brave and noble and okay, yes, really quite good-looking.
Captain America was also dead.
Tony had read the details once. There weren't many available to the general public, but what little he'd seen hadn't been pretty. And yet it had been almost horrifyingly predictable - Captain America, war hero, had died doing something heroic during the course of the war. The exact cause of death had never been revealed, but whatever it was had involved partial remains being recovered from the English Channel, which had then been buried at Arlington National Cemetery. And so it was only the tales of Cap's deeds that had lived on past the end of the war, while Cap himself never survived to see it.
For obvious reasons, Tony had chosen not to dwell on this part of Cap's story. It was history. It had already happened, and there was nothing he could do about it, so why not just ignore it and think about all the other wonderful things about him?
But now - now it suddenly seemed like the impossible was possible. The past was maybe mutable. History could be changed. Was it right? Tony didn't know. He didn't want to think about it too much. One thing he was certain about, though - there was no way he could say nothing and let Steve just die.
I KNOW YOU, he wrote in Steve's journal and on his newspapers and even on his pale, pale skin. DON'T GO. I KNOW YOU. DON'T GO.
When Tony finally collapsed from exhaustion that night, covered in his own writing, it was with terror in his heart because he knew, he knew - no matter what he did or said, Steve would still go, and Tony would never see him again.
Steve woke up with the oddest feeling.
He was, of course, no stranger to waking with assorted ailments. That was just who he was and what he had to deal with. But the combination of issues he was waking up with today? That was new and unexpected and thoroughly unpleasant.
The most pressing thing, he supposed, was the light filtering into the room. He found that as soon as he opened his eyes, he was practically blinded, and so he was forced to close them again, placing a hand over his face as he groaned. Light sensitivity. Definitely not something he'd experienced before.
The next thing was the pounding headache, which was making him not want to move anywhere. To make things worse, he also felt as though his mouth was stuffed with cotton; it was so dry. He wanted water, but he couldn't move. Ugh.
He sighed, resigning himself to just staying for a bit longer as he turned onto his side, away from his window -
And that was when he realized he wasn't alone in the bed.
Headache and light sensitivity forgotten, his eyes popped open to see the warm body he'd rolled into, and - oh God, was it Ty?
It was. Ty was in bed with him, shirtless but otherwise clothed. And on top of that, this wasn't Steve's bed. Well, of course it wasn't Steve's bed, because it was blindingly obvious now that he'd woken up as Tony today. But it wasn't Tony's bed either. Logic told him it was Ty's bed, but what was he doing in Ty's bed in the first place? Why had he woken up here?
One thing was for sure - he couldn't stay. Gripping his head in a vain attempt to stop the pounding, he managed to stumble out of bed without making too much noise, spotting what looked like his shirt lying on the floor and pulling it on. Then, with a glance back at Ty to make sure Steve hadn't woken him, he left the room, shutting the door behind him.
Fortunately, he recognized the hallway he was in, and so he was able to find Tony's room and slip inside, letting out a sigh of relief. He was alone now.
The first thing he did was to pour himself a glass of water, downing it in one go. His mouth still felt dry afterward, but at least it helped a little. And then, since he figured he probably wasn't going back to bed, he decided to try and freshen up some, heading over to the bathroom and brushing his teeth before staring at his hair in the mirror. It looked like a mess. Automatically - because he'd done this so many times by now - he reached down for the comb so he could make it less unruly, then squeezed a bit of hair gel into his hands and ran it through his hair. The concept of hair gel was still foreign to Steve - Tony had very nice hair already, why make it so stiff with this so-called gel? But that was how he wore his hair, so Steve just had to go along with it.
He thought of the morning's events as he styled his hair the way Tony liked it, still trying to figure out what could have happened the night before. Why did he have such a terrible headache? Why did he wake up in Ty's room? Why had some of their clothes been removed?
Had he and Ty - done something together?
His hands went still, his gaze blank as he stared into the mirror without really seeing himself. They had, hadn't they, he thought dully. And it… it made sense. Ty and Tony were friends. Attractive friends. And, apparently, friends that were maybe attracted to each other. Steve had seen some of the media from this time. That sort of thing wasn't encouraged, exactly, but it wasn't forbidden the way it was in his own time.
Steve closed his eyes for a moment, trying to process his thoughts. He was happy. Right? That was what he was feeling. Because if Tony had been - intimate - with someone, then that meant he had found happiness with that person. And if that person just so happened to be Ty, well, what was the issue with that? It didn't matter who, just as long as there was someone. And that in turn made Steve happy, because all he'd ever wanted was happiness for his own friends…
Happiness, he thought, and he opened his eyes back up and pressed his fingertips against the reflection of the tears on his face.
Tony woke up, and he was still Tony Stark.
Tony woke up, and he was still Tony Stark.
Tony woke up, and he was still Tony Stark.
"What is wrong with you?" Ty demanded after practice, snatching the book out of Tony's hands and snapping it shut, turning it around to look at the cover. "What the hell is this? More history garbage?"
Tony grabbed it back, quickly flipping back to the passage he'd been on. "I was in the middle of reading that, thanks very much."
"You literally ran to the locker room as soon as we were finished to read this shit," Ty snapped. "You haven't even changed out of your track uniform. I'm tired of having to deal with this, so tell me what the hell is going on with you. Now."
"I - " Tony began before grinding to a halt. What was there to say? That the so-called "history garbage" he was reading was him desperately trying to learn as much as he could about Captain America's death? That he was praying that he could learn enough to somehow stop any of it from ever happening? And that, hell, it wasn't even about saving Captain America, but of the wonderful, kind man behind the mask?
But Ty wouldn't understand. He never did.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Tony finished half-heartedly.
"Bullshit," Ty said, getting right into his face to hiss the word. "But fine, I don't care anymore. Read your stupid history book. I'm leaving."
He stalked off, and Tony sighed, closing his eyes and tipping his head back against the lockers. Maybe he was in the wrong. Ty was his friend here and now (and they were only friends, despite the thing Steve had said in his final voicelog), in the present that very much existed, while Steve was from a past Tony was increasingly starting to doubt had ever even happened. It had been months since their last switch, and with each passing day, a thought repeated itself in his head, growing ever more insistent: had any of that been real? Because if it hadn't, if all of it had been some grand delusion Tony had come up with, then he was being a terrible friend in favor of some imagined hallucination. More urgently, it probably meant something was massively wrong with him, though God knew if that were the case, Tony would take that to the grave.
But, he told himself, he had evidence that it had all happened. The voicelogs on his laptop. The water-damaged homework that Tony suspected might be tear stains from their last switch. The drawing of himself and Mom in a field of lavender. It was all proof that someone had touched his life once. At the time, it had felt like they had swapped lives for so long. Now it felt like the distant past, a fading memory of a tiny portion of his life.
Tiny or not, though, it had changed him. And if it really had happened - and it had, he repeated to himself over and over - then Steve was there in the past, still on a trajectory toward a doom only Tony knew of. If they could only switch one more time, if Tony could carry his present knowledge to Steve's period, then maybe, maybe he could save him.
And maybe, he thought, he could tell him how sorry he was about what had happened that night, how Steve had misunderstood what it had meant when he'd woken up in a different bed, how Tony wouldn't ever even think about having found happiness with Ty.
Ifs and maybes.
God, how could he ever save Steve with that?
He couldn't, it seemed - or at least, he wouldn't even be given the chance to try. He graduated at the top of his class, Ty right behind him, and then he continued on to MIT.
At first, he wanted to keep researching. He'd never exactly been short on resources, but MIT had more than he'd imagined, and at the beginning, he spent hours upon hours in the library, trying to find as much as he possibly could on the circumstances of Steve's death. But no matter how many books he consulted, how many testimonials he read, how many foreign materials he translated, all of them remained frustratingly scarce on details.
Eventually, he had to accept that he just wasn't going to find the answers he needed, and he brought an end to his feverish search. He used his new spare time to finally branch out socially, making new friends, new lovers who would never have an inkling that he'd spent part of his life sharing his body with the most wonderful, stubborn soul he'd ever known. And when some of those people he met hurt and betrayed him, he would remember the things Steve had said to him in his darker times, and then he would pretend that the voicelogs were from yesterday instead of yesteryear and take some small comfort in it.
Tony's parents died, and Steve never came back to him.
After the funeral, Jarvis took Tony home - a home, he realized, that now belonged entirely to him, and God, he wasn't ready to deal with all this yet - and ushered him into his room since it had become increasingly clear that Tony wasn't up for moving much on his own. For a long while, Tony sat in the darkness as the night settled around him, staring at the wall. It wasn't very different from what he'd been doing during the funeral.
Dimly, a part of his brain told him that this wasn't good, that this was the wrong way of handling things. Staring into emptiness, thinking about nothing, mind completely blank - that wasn't going to help anything. He needed a better way of processing.
That tiny bit of his brain stirred something within him - a thought, a memory, of Steve and his Ma and her final days. It wasn't a happy one, and Tony should have found it upsetting - but instead, it made anger flare up within him, and suddenly he was off his chair and on his feet, burning with the desire to take some sort of action.
It didn't take long for him to find what he was looking for. Soon enough, he was staring down at his trembling hands, gripping the drawing Steve had done of himself and Mom so long ago. Tony had never had a chance to give it to her. Now he never would.
"You left me!" he screamed, and in that instant he didn't know if he was talking to Mom or Steve. It didn't matter. Whoever it was, they were gone and they weren't coming back.
Before he could think twice about it, he ripped the drawing in two, then four, then threw the pieces away from him as hard as he could. But air resistance kept them from going very far, and instead they fluttered quietly to the ground, landing near his feet. Gentle. Soft. Just like Mom. Just like Steve.
Tony sank to his knees, staring down at the one thing he had that embodied the feelings he had for both of them. The one thing he had that he'd now destroyed. Oh, God. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." He reached out gingerly for the pieces, as though they'd crumble in his hands if he handled them too roughly, and laid them out on the carpet so that they almost looked like one coherent whole again.
He let his whole body collapse onto the floor, and then he finally wept.
Tony woke up, and he wasn't Tony Stark.
He knew as soon as consciousness returned to him that something was off. The bed, the ambient noise, the light filtering through his eyelids all felt wrong.
And strangest of all, his body felt wrong as well.
He was, of course, familiar with his own body. It was his body, after all. But the blessed, cursed thing about him was that it wasn't just his own body he had experience living in - he'd lived so many days of his life as another person, too. And today, he felt like neither.
Slowly, he forced himself to open his eyes, sparing half a second to take note of his surroundings - a kind of run-down room with brick walls, apparently - before looking down at himself.
Huge arms. White shirt. Silver dog tags.
He was Steve after the procedure. He was Captain America.
"Oh, my God," he whispered as his hands started to shake. He'd waited for weeks, months, years for this to happen again, and finally, after he'd long since given up all hope - here he was. Steve was still alive. Tony could make things right.
His first instinct was to get out of bed and just run as far as he could, away from the army and the fighting and the killing. He could run somewhere safe, where there was no danger and where he could just eventually live his life in peace - but as soon as he thought it, he knew it wouldn't work. Even if he managed to get out of here without anyone seeing him, where the hell would he actually go? And what was going to stop Steve from just finding his way back once the day ended and they switched once more?
He needed more information first. Once he found out where he was - when he was - he'd be able to come up with a better plan, one that would keep Steve safe.
So he got up, changed into what looked like a standard service uniform since that was set out already - why wasn't the Captain America suit out, he wondered - and headed outside to get his bearings. Unsurprisingly, given that he'd woken up in a run-down building, it seemed like he was currently in a city that had been recently bombed, and now maybe their men were occupying it. Some of them were milling about, and Tony followed them to a makeshift cafeteria to get some food as he listened in.
The people were the 95th Infantry Division. The place was Liepzig, Germany. The time was April 23, 1945.
That last bit of information nearly made him choke on his porridge. April. Twenty-third. 1945.
It had been nearly tattooed into Tony's brain. He'd read as many encyclopedias and books he could get his hands on, trying to find as much information as he could about the whens, whys, and hows of Captain America's demise. Most of his sources had been frustratingly vague - so much of it had never been released to the general public - but the day it had happened had been known.
April 23, 1945.
Steve was supposed to die today.
No longer hungry, Tony pushed his food away and stood up, mind racing. If it was supposed to happen today, then maybe his original instinct to run away as far as he could would work. Even if Steve came back the next day, history would have been changed, right? And maybe the simple act of not being available today would cause a butterfly effect that would keep Steve safe until the war was over.
All he had to do was -
"Steve!" came a voice from behind him, and Tony nearly jumped, not expecting to be addressed. Again his instincts told him to just start running, but rationally he knew that he wasn't going to be making it out of an army encampment if he was being chased. Instead, he made himself turn around, peering at the speaker. He looked - young. Not young enough to be called a kid, but definitely younger than all the other men here. Some sort of page, maybe?
"Hello," he replied, a bit lost. He didn't know who the guy was and therefore didn't know how to treat him.
The other guy seemed unbothered, throwing an arm around Tony's shoulders once he was close enough and starting to steer them toward one of the buildings. Okay, not a page, then. "I've been looking for you. You wouldn't believe what I managed to snag for the boys."
Tony hesitated, unsure if he was supposed to guess or say something else. Was the guy a mascot instead? "Food that actually tastes good?" he tried. The porridge had certainly been nothing special.
The stranger snorted as he pushed the door open. "I'm good, but not that good. Check it out."
The hallway they'd stepped into was dark, and Tony blinked as his eyes adjusted to the change. From one of the rooms came the sound of raucous cheering, and it was this room that the other man led them to, practically bouncing on his feet. "Voilà," he proclaimed.
A little nervous, Tony poked his head in to see what was going on, only to be greeted by the sight of what looked like an old - well, probably new, relative to Steve's time - newsreel being projected onto one of the walls, one that was apparently captivating the attention of several men, if the small crowd around it was anything to go by. Some sort of propaganda?
And then a circular shield flew across the screen, followed by a man with a star emblazoned on his chest.
Tony's jaw dropped. It was Steve. And though he knew intellectually that this would happen, that Steve would somehow go from the scrawny kid he'd known to the living legend playing out before him… well, it was one thing to think it and wholly another to actually see him in action.
He was so different now. His jaw, his shoulders, the way he carried himself… it was almost like Tony was seeing another person entirely. And yet - some things hadn't changed. His lips, the softness of his smile, his eyes - God, his eyes. Grainy and colorless though the newsreel was, Tony would know those eyes anywhere. It was, to him, a minor miracle that no one in this room was able to look at him and put it all together.
"Wow," he said.
"Amazing, isn't he?" said the guy who'd brought Tony here in the first place. Tony cast a glance in his direction and saw a shit-eating grin wide enough to match his own on a good day. "No shield or anything. Going at it with nothing but a smile."
Tony blinked and looked at the newsreel. There was Cap… and there was Bucky, his famed sidekick, charging off into battle together.
He looked back at the guy. The guy looked back at him.
This is Bucky, he realized, and then: He's also going to die today.
"We have to get out of here," Tony said to him.
The grin slid off Bucky's face - and oh, boy, Tony actually had no idea what Bucky's real name was, so hopefully there'd be no need to address him in the near future - to be replaced by a look of mild confusion. "C'mon, is it that awkward watching this? Don't you like seeing how good it is for troop morale?"
"It's not that - "
"Ten-hut!" someone shouted, and immediately the entire atmosphere of the room changed, everyone springing to their feet and saluting as Tony scrambled to keep up.
The cause became clear soon enough as a man in uniform stepped into view, hands held behind his back. A sergeant, if Tony was reading the insignia correctly. "At ease," he said, and the others relaxed a little. "Rogers, Barnes - grab your gear and come with me. The two of you are shipping out to London."
There was a flurry of protests around the room, but Bucky - Barnes? - just nodded and headed through the door, so Tony followed suit. "Meet you outside in ten minutes," Bucky said before dashing off, presumably to wherever he was staying. Still a little dazed at how fast everything was moving, Tony just watched him go before remembering himself and going back to the room he'd woken up in this morning.
Packing was a quick affair - Steve didn't have much in the way of personal items, and though Tony looked, he found no trace of the journal he and Steve had exchanged so many messages in nearly half a decade ago.
It shouldn't have hurt, but it did. Sure, it had been years - God, years since their last switch; he could hardly believe it - but that journal, Tony had thought, had been so important to them both. All Tony could find instead was a sketchbook, which just made it sting a little more. Steve had made space in his personal belongings for a sketchbook, but not his journal? What if the two of them had swapped places earlier; what did Steve expect Tony to do? Had he just given up on ever switching with Tony again?
Did Steve still remember him?
There was a knock at his door, and Tony jumped, realizing a second later that he'd probably been staring at the wall, lost in his thoughts, for the last several minutes. "I'm coming," he called, sticking the sketchbook into his bag. He was nearly at the door when he realized - his shield. God, he'd spent so long moping over the lack of journal that he'd completely forgotten about everything else.
It was hidden inside a large bag propped up against the wall, which he supposed kept it from discovered immediately should someone step into the room, though its shape looked plenty obvious to him. Still, as much as he wanted to take it out and touch it, he kept it in the bag for now, awkwardly sticking it under one arm as he finally went and answered the door to see Bucky on the other side, raising an eyebrow at him. "What were you packing for, a vacation?" he demanded. "You said you were coming nearly five minutes ago."
"Huh," Tony replied, a little absentmindedly. Okay, he might have taken a second to peek into the bag to admire the shield, and maybe, just maybe, there was a slight possibility that that second might have been a lot more than a second. "Sorry."
"Yeah, right," Bucky said with a snort. "Come on, let's go."
Though escape was still on Tony's mind, there were too many people around to make a proper break for it, and if he was going to save Bucky, too, he'd need to get him on board with the plan as well. So for the moment, he bided his time, letting himself be led onto a plane and taking a seat across from Bucky as they took off - and God, Cap and Bucky must have been really important to the war effort if they'd spared a B-22 Liberator just to pick the two of them up.
"So where's army intel sending us now?" Bucky asked as soon as they were settled.
Tony forced himself to stop looking around everywhere. It was hard, though, considering he was literally sitting in an operating World-War-II-era plane. Switching with Steve had shown him a lot of things, but until Tony had realized Steve was actually going to become Captain America, he'd never expected anything like this.
"Let's see," he said as he opened up the folder with all the mission details that he'd been given. "British air base, it says here. Something about guarding some sort of experimental plane from Nazi spies."
"Probably more undercover work, then," Bucky mused, prompting Tony to perk up.
"It's just guarding something. Easy stuff. This war really is slowing down, innit?"
Tony stared down at the folder. "I hope so," he said. He wondered if maybe Bucky was right - if maybe this mission was as simple as it seemed. What if Tony's very presence had changed this timeline enough such that Steve was no longer fated to die today? What if his actions had somehow resulted in him being handled this mission, instead of some more difficult one that would have led to their deaths? Maybe - just maybe - things would be okay.
"Alright, let's have a look," Bucky said suddenly, and Tony glanced up in time to see that Bucky had managed to nab his sketchbook from his bag and was now opening it up.
Wait was on the tip of his tongue, and yet Tony couldn't bring himself to stop him. Surely Steve would object, but the thing was - Tony wanted to see what was in there, too. He knew what he hoped was in there. Steve had drawn him before. Maybe there were more drawings of him in the sketchbook. Something, anything, to show that Steve had thought of him at least once in the years that had passed since their last switch…
The sketchbook came flying back at him, but with reflexes Tony hadn't even realized he'd had, he nabbed it out of the air easily, setting it down automatically onto his lap. Bucky was already leaning back and looking unimpressed. "You're so weird," he said.
"What?" Tony said.
Bucky made a face at him. "The first time I looked in there you had actual, proper drawings of people," he said. "Ever since then it's just been… that."
Curious now, Tony opened the sketchbook up, only to be greeted by a horrendous mess of scribbles. It sort of looked like drawings on top of drawings on top of drawings, but there were so many of them that it was hard to tell what any of them were at this point. "It's abstract art," he managed, just so he had something to say. "You're not supposed to tell what it's supposed to be."
He had to wonder if that was the intention, for the drawings to be unintelligible. Maybe it was the only way Steve could express himself without other people being able to tell what he was doing. The problem was, Tony couldn't tell what Steve was doing, either.
"No kidding," Bucky said with a snort. "You're not gonna ruin your dad's letter too, are you?"
His dad's letter…? Tony panicked briefly, having no idea what Bucky was talking about - until he realized there was something tucked away between the pages of the sketchbook. He opened it up, finding a folded piece of paper inside and skimming over the words written within. He knew this letter. It was the last letter Steve's dad had written to his mom, the one that spoke of the horrors of war while simultaneously professing that he would do this again and again if that was what it took to keep her safe. What was it doing here, he wondered?
Blinking, Tony quickly slipped the letter back inside, trying to remember what Bucky had just asked. "No, of course not," he answered, since that seemed like a reasonable response. "I just…" He didn't know. Without the journal - without any personal items, period, aside from the sketchbook - Tony found himself terrifyingly lost when it came to what Steve was thinking. They'd shared so much only to end up as strangers.
"Let's go back to talking about the mission," he said.
The mission was to guard a remote-controlled bomber drone, one with enough range from London to Japan, or - if what they were guarding against came to pass - from Germany to D.C.
By the time they were running out of the plane, it was already moving.
A knot of dread settled deep into the pit of Tony's stomach. Nonetheless, on instinct, he got onto a motorcycle to follow after it, intuiting the controls as Bucky settled in behind him. The drone was still slow, but it was picking up speed, and they were running out of options fast. Part of his mind screamed at him that this mission wasn't as harmless as it seemed, that there was a real chance that danger would befall them, and that this could very well be it. Soon enough, it was his whole mind screaming that, and Tony realized he had no choice but to take the coward's way out, because better for Steve to be cowardly and alive than selfless and dead.
"We're too late!" he called as he started turning the bike away. "We'll have to radio Allied command!"
Bucky pressed up against him, and it took Tony a second to realize that he was steering the bike back toward the plane. "We don't stop this, the whole Eastern seaboard becomes target practice!" he shouted in return. "We gotta turn it around!"
Tony felt like his brain was shutting down. He needed to react, but he didn't know how. How many people lived on the East Coast in 1945? God, didn't New York City alone have at least a few million, even in the 40s? Were all their lives really going to be in danger if Tony didn't do something about it?
And yet, if he did act - then wasn't Steve's life going to be in danger? Wasn't Bucky's?
By the time he came back to himself, he realized that there was a hand on his shoulder, and he turned briefly enough to see the other man nearly standing, steadying himself against Tony. "Bucky, what - "
Before he could finish his sentence, Bucky was jumping, and Tony watched in horror as he managed to get a hold of one of the drone's wings, holding on as tight as he could.
Steve's life, or millions of Americans'. Bucky dying alone, or with a friend. The safe choice, or the right choice.
This was it. This was when he had to decide what kind of person Steve Rogers was going to be.
"Damn it all to hell," he whispered, and then he jumped as well, the blue expanse of the English Channel stretching out below them as the drone took off. For a brief moment, he was struck by a sudden sense of calmness - despite the fact that he was dangling off the wing of a plane, in this body he felt such sureness in every move he made that he almost wasn't afraid at all, and God, the sea below him was possibly one of the most beautiful things he'd ever seen - but then reality settled back in, and he remembered that there were things at stake here.
Bucky was already maneuvering to the cockpit, too fearless for his own good. "Wait," Tony called. "Don't touch anything; I might be able to turn this around!" Maybe he still had a chance to save Steve. He was good with these kinds of things. It would be okay -
"I think I set something off," Bucky shouted at him. "Oh, God, it's booby-trapped - "
"Drop away!" Tony screamed. Aware that he had only seconds left to act, he surged forward, making a grab for Bucky's leg, but the plane jostled and he caught only the fabric of his pants instead.
It wasn't enough. There was another shudder, and Tony lost his tenuous hold on both the plane and the fabric. "Bucky!" he cried as he slipped off the wing.
He caught a glimpse of Bucky's terrified face before the sky blossomed into clouds of red and yellow, and he knew then, as he tumbled downward, that it was over, that he'd failed to stop the thing he most feared.
Let it be me, he prayed in the few seconds he had before impact. Let Steve stay in the future, let him keep my body, let him live. Please, please let him live.
He slammed into the water, and everything went black.
Tony woke up, and then he rolled onto his front and wept into his pillow, because he knew that if he was alive, then Steve was dead.
Somehow, he made it through the day. He dialed in to his company meetings, spent time in the lab working on his new seed-bomb missiles, and did the homework for the classes at MIT that he no longer had time to attend but still needed to pass if he was going to double major. If all of those things just so happened to not involve face-to-face human contact with anyone, well, that was a happy coincidence.
It was his fault. He was supposed to be a futurist, someone who could shape what was coming next. Instead, he'd been ineffective, his presence inconsequential to the tragedy of both Steve and Bucky's fates. He'd had a chance to make things right, and he'd failed.
And as the hours passed by, as he stared at his telecommuting device, his soldered piece of metal, and his scribbled homework, all he wanted to do was say I'm sorry - but the words died in his throat before he could choke them out. It wouldn't bring them back. Nothing would bring them back, and there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it but live with the weight of his failure.
Finally, tired and emotionally exhausted despite the fact that he hadn't left his home all day, he trudged back to his room, shutting the door behind him. His gaze wandered, landing finally on his desk, where one of his laptops sat in case he woke up in the middle of the night with an idea - and that was when he remembered that if he'd been Steve, then Steve had been him.
He drifted quietly over to the laptop, sitting down and reaching out to run his hands over the hard surface. It was, of course, not the same laptop he'd used back in boarding school; that thing was ancient technology by now. But it was still a laptop, and if Steve had been able to figure out the old one, then…
His fingers hovered over the lid, trembling. He was afraid. What if Steve hadn't left anything in here? What if he had?
He wanted to be a coward. He wanted to wipe the laptop and never know. But even as he thought it, he knew he couldn't do it. Steve had gone to war. He'd ultimately died for his country. What right did Tony have, sitting here in a comfortable chair and in no mortal danger, to not do something as simple as - as checking his files?
Steeling himself, Tony finally made himself open up the lid, letting it scan his face and boot up everything. How must Steve have felt when he saw the new GUI with its new layout and colors, he wondered? Had he figured out that the laptop had a touchscreen? Would he have marveled at it, or was he too jaded by everything by now?
He pulled up the command-line interface, typed in a query to display a list of recently-created files, hit enter, waited - and then a single result appeared.
The filename was a long string of numbers, ending with .WAV - an audio file, with the numbers likely being the Unix timestamp for when the file was created. The human-readable date in the Date Created column of the screen confirmed the quick math he was doing in his head; it was indeed created yesterday, which, unless he was going crazy, was definitely when Steve had been occupying his body and not him…
Only one way to know for sure, and so he double-tapped the icon to play it.
"Hey, Tony," he heard in his own voice, and he suddenly felt such a powerful mix of relief, nervousness, and loss grip at his heart that he had to pause the recording to compose himself, taking in great gulps of air. It was Steve. It was really Steve.
Finally, after several moments, he thought he was ready to continue, and so he pressed play again. "You have no idea how much time I've spent figuring out your new-fangled laptop," Steve-with-Tony's-voice continued, and Tony could hear the hint of a delighted laugh in his words. It had been so long. "It's really something else. But I think I've got it. And I wanted to leave this voicelog now, in the morning, because there's stuff I gotta say and I didn't want to risk not having a chance to do one later.
"I know it's been a few years and maybe you've forgotten about me - " Here Tony jolted, realizing suddenly that maybe Steve had thought the same thing that Tony had thought: because Tony, too, had long since broken the habit of leaving behind updates specifically for Steve when enough time had passed that it didn't seem like there was any point to it anymore, even though Steve had remained in his thoughts every damn day of his life - "but I wanted you to know that I never did, and I thought of you every single day. God, I hope you're okay with hearing that, 'cause it's the truth.
"And now, today, it seems like we've finally switched. It looks like so much has happened to you, Tony. I wish I could have been here for you for some of it, and I'm sorry I wasn't."
It was never your fault, Tony thought, and then he felt a stab of guilt. He knew just what event Steve was referring to when he said some of it, and he remembered he'd thought that it absolutely was Steve's fault for not being there, back when he'd been at the deepest point of his grief.
" - But you made it through," Steve said, unaware of Tony's thoughts, "because you're stronger than you know even though I'm sure you don't believe it. But I always will."
There was a pause here. Tony heard a sigh and what was probably the sound of Steve drumming his fingers against the laptop. Eventually, he went on: "Anyway, I guess if you're listening to this now, it's probably after we've switched back. And you probably know that I'm - uh, you know. Because you've known since that last time we switched, didn't you? I sure didn't know back then. I spent so long wondering what you were going on about with all the stuff you put on my papers and on my body. Do you remember? You wrote 'I know who you are', and I thought to myself, well, I'd sure hope that you did by now. Then a couple of years later, they came out with comic books about me, and I realized what you really meant.
"And then I remembered the other thing you wrote. 'Don't go.' So I put two and two together and I guess I figured out, kind of, what was gonna happen, which I'm assuming is why you didn't want me to go. But obviously you can see I went, and - and maybe you're upset that I did; I don't know. So I wanted to explain why I went, and why I'm still there even after I realized what'll probably happen to me."
There was another pause, but this time it was Tony, overtook once more by emotion. Steve spoke of it so lightly, as though the thing that was going to "happen" wasn't something terrible. Tony was almost tempted to think that maybe Steve had put two and two together wrongly, but no, Steve had never been a fool. He was clever and smart and so, so brave, even in the face of his impending fate.
He made himself press the play button again. God, he was never going to get through it all at this rate.
"I told you once that I enlisted because it was the right thing to do, and I had a duty. That's the truth, but not the whole truth. The whole truth is that it's because of my parents. Ma raised me to stand and fight for those who were important to me. And Pa lived it. He fought for Ma."
Steve took a deep breath, and Tony thought he could somehow detect a note of anxiousness in there. "What I'm trying to say, Tony, is that I'm fighting for - uh, I'm… I'm fighting for… someone too." In the ensuing silence, the irrational disappointment Tony felt was almost palpable. But then - "No," Steve continued suddenly, and the solidness of his voice stood in stark contrast to what he'd sounded like just moments ago. "No, I'll do this right, because there's not enough time to do this wrong. I'm doing this for you, Tony. I will never be able to see you with my own two eyes. And I will never hear you with my own ears or touch you with my own hands. But I can shape your future because I'm your past. And if anything I've accomplished as Captain America makes that future better, then no matter what happens to me, it'll be worth it. You are worth it.
"So that's it. That's what I wanted to say, mostly. So I hope you can forgive me someday for going to war even though you asked me not to, and - and I hope that against all odds I'll see you again. And if I don't, if this is the last time we ever cross paths… then I want to make sure you know that you touched my life in a way no one else ever has. You are the pulse of my heart, Tony."
He then said a string of syllables Tony couldn't quite make out - not any language he knew, whatever it was - and then the recording ended, leaving Tony staring blank-eyed at the screen.
You are the pulse of my heart.
Had he actually been implying - was he actually saying -
No, don't, stop going down this path, his exhausted mind told him.
Eventually, he fell asleep with his laptop still running, the nonsense final words Steve had left him swimming in his head in a futile attempt to protect him the truth of everything else.
"We know who you are, Tony Stark," Yinsen translated. "You are an American weapons inventor, and we are very interested in your work. Create something for us, and we will have a surgeon save your life."
It was obviously a lie. If they could have operated on the shrapnel making its way toward his heart right now, they already would have so that they could keep on pumping work out of him while he remained in their captivity. As things stood, it seemed pretty clear that he was going to die in the very near future, so hell if he was going to spend it working for these asshole terrorists.
"I refuse," he said.
Tony laid damp and shivering on the pile of thin blankets that served as his bed afterward, watching Yinsen stir something in a pot over a fire and keeping his breathing in time with the motion of Yinsen's hand. It was mildly soothing, and at this point he would take any comfort he could get.
"I read your books in college, you know," he said softly after a while. "They were brilliant."
Yinsen glanced up, meeting Tony's eyes briefly, then looked back down at the gruel or whatever it was he was preparing. "Coming from you, that's quite a compliment," he replied. Everything about him was very calm, as though he wasn't being held captive in a dark, cold cave by a terrorist group right now. "But you can see what my brilliance has done for me. And, I suppose, for you."
Tony sighed as deeply as he dared - when his chest moved, everything ached, and he feared that the action would somehow accelerate the shrapnel's inexorable push toward his heart. Then he went back to staring at Yinsen's hand. Back and forth, back and forth. "It's led us to our deaths here," he said, trying the words out in the hopes that confronting it would make the thought less terrifying.
It didn't. And it was funny - for a given definition of funny - because Tony had confronted death before, and he'd even welcomed it, hoped for it. But of course, there had been Steve that time, Steve's life that had been on the line, and now, for reasons Tony would never forget - there wasn't.
In his darker days, he almost felt as though that stripped him of his right to live. Maybe he deserved Steve's fate as well. He sure as hell didn't deserve his charmed life, not after what had happened. Yet despite thinking that, while now finding himself in a situation where this could very well be it, he was still afraid. If the worst happened, he deserved it. But God help him, he was a coward without Steve's courage to ground him, and the thought of it all being over sent a tremor down his spine, even if it looked more and more likely with every passing second.
"You don't suppose they'd be so nice as to let us pick our burial spots?" he continued, tongue loose from exhaustion. "I had a - friend - once. He died off the coast of England, trying to save… people. I always thought that when I died too, it would be nice to have my ashes scattered there." So I could be with him, he thought but didn't say - his tongue wasn't that loose. "Just - just to keep him company, I guess," he added instead.
Yinsen looked back at him, but this time held his gaze. "And is that your goal?" he asked.
Tony glanced away, disconcerted. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," Yinsen said, "that it seems as though you have only thought of what will happen to you after you die, and not of what you will do before then."
"What choice do we have?" Tony's gaze flickered toward him again - sure enough, Yinsen was still looking his way. "Everyone here knows I'll be dead in a week."
Yinsen finally broke eye contact, staring off into the distance instead. "Who was your friend trying to save?" he asked.
This wasn't how Tony imagined the conversation going. He winced. "Why?"
"It's just a question, Stark."
A simple question with a complicated answer. The entire Eastern seaboard was not the right response. But the other one…
Tony squeezed his eyes shut, the pain from his recent torture receding as something worse settled in. "Me," he said quietly. "He was trying to save me."
"Ah." There was a long pause. Eventually, Yinsen continued, "And this is what he saved you for?"
The implication of his words hung in the air, and Tony didn't like it. "You don't get to use him against me," he whispered. "You weren't there, you don't know what happened - "
"I know that if I gave my life up for someone else, it would be because I thought it would be worth it," Yinsen interrupted. "And if I were that person, the one who was saved, then as long as I still had a pulse I would do everything in my power to make sure that was true. Is this not the case for you, Stark?"
In the silence, Tony could hear his wounded heart thumping, his pulse racing.
The pulse of his heart, Steve had called him.
And suddenly Tony knew what he had to do.
By the time Tony stumbled out of the tunnels in the suit they'd built together, Yinsen was already dying, his breathing ragged and his gaze unfocused. But somehow, he managed to summon up enough strength to lock eyes with Tony, and though he couldn't speak, the message was obvious: Make it worth it.
And then he was gone, having bought Tony the precious few minutes he'd needed for the suit to fully charge up.
There wasn't time for reflection or tears, not yet. There wasn't even time to reach over and close Yinsen's eyes, because that required a level of dexterity that Tony didn't possess when wearing the gauntlets. There was only time to move forward.
So Tony continued on, making his way toward the sunlight he hadn't seen in weeks. Not much later, the enemy finally gathered its wits enough to begin to rain fire down upon him. Pat-pat-pat went the bullets as they struck the ground around him; Tony twisted his body reflexively in response, squinting in the brightness. And though a part of him was still afraid, knowing that from the way they were shouting and shooting that their goal wasn't to disable, but to kill, a bigger part knew that he had no choice but to fight back and live.
Because this was the exquisite revelation that Tony had had lying in the cave as Yinsen looked so piercingly at him, his steady hand moving back and forth, back and forth while stirring the pot: Tony was the pulse and Steve was his heart, and the only way Steve would ever survive would be if the pulse kept beating. He was gone, but at the same time he wasn't because Tony remembered his goodness and his strength, and carrying those things with him was enough to make his life worth something.
A stray bullet that made it through the gaps in his armor interrupted his hazy thoughts, and Tony cried out, sinking down onto one knee and blindly firing his own weapons until he could hear an answering shout of pain. Oh, God, it hurt. The bullet hurt. His chest hurt. It all hurt.
It might be that way for the rest of his life, he realized suddenly. A crippled body in constant pain, missing a piece of his soul that had disappeared half a decade ago. Was that really something he wanted?
It wasn't, he thought.
But then he remembered his own voice telling him how strong he was, how he knew Tony would always pull through. And even if Steve was gone, he still mattered, and Tony needed to make his faith worth it.
So he summoned him in his mind's eye: the Steve who always got back up when fighting bullies in Brooklyn, the Steve who had stood his ground when facing off against his father, the Steve who charged so fearlessly into battle even knowing what awaited him in his future. It came to him like breathing, because Tony knew Steve in a way he knew nothing else, the way he moved and felt, and so long as he lived he would know him.
Ignoring the burning in his side as best as he could, he forced himself back up onto his feet, groaning with the additional ache that had come from kneeling in the suit. Then he brought his arms up over himself, protecting the more vulnerable parts of his armor from a fresh wave of gunfire. And then, once that was done, he charged forward, screaming with pain and rage and desperation as he fired his own weapons. Left, right, forward, left again - one by one by one he took every single target out until there was nothing left but flames.
Finally, it was over. Exhausted, Tony stumbled away from the remains of the outpost, clutching at his side in a vain attempt to ease the pain of the bullet wound. His mouth was dry from the heat, and even without seeing it, he knew his skin was sticky with sweat and dust and soot. Still, he pressed on, needing to put as much distance between him and the cave as possible.
After what felt like a lifetime of wandering in the desert, he reached his body's limits and collapsed into the sand with a loud clunking sound. Sand sprayed into the open gaps in his faceplate, and Tony exhaustedly blinked it out of his eyes, wishing he had the strength to remove the suit. It was so heavy. By this point, though, it seemed like too great a task, and the only thing he was able to actually take off was his gauntlets.
So he did that, and then he laid there in the sand and waited. He wasn't sure for what. Death or salvation, he supposed, because he'd done as much as he could on his own. But at least no matter what else happened, he was free, and the people who had taken him would never hurt anyone else again.
Hours passed. Lizards and insects skittered toward him, then away, as though they wanted nothing to do with him. Tony wondered more than once if his suit would become his coffin.
Then, finally, a shadow fell across him, and even without being able to move, Tony could tell it was another human - a man, dark-skinned, in American military fatigues. From the eye holes, he could see him bending over, taking hold of his exposed wrist and placing a thumb along his vein.
"Oh, my God," the man breathed.
And Tony knew that he was feeling what Tony could feel rising in himself again: there was his pulse. There was that beat that carried the memory of Steve. It was erratic, but it meant that he was still alive. Against all odds, he was alive.
"Yeah," he rasped. "I made it."
Tony found some measure of peace. A part of his soul was missing - missing because of him, because he'd failed to hold on to the thing that mattered most to him - but he managed. He would look in the mirror, staring at the chestpiece he'd have to wear for the rest of his life, and then he would remember that having an imperfect body had never stopped Steve from being perfect. He would suit up, ready to put his life on the line for something he believed in, and in doing so carry out Steve's memory. And at night, alone in bed, he would reach over to place his fingers against his wrist, feeling the thrum of his pulse, and he would be reminded that Steve had seen in him someone worth fighting for.
And then they pulled Captain America out of the ice.
After all these years, Steve was finally found.
There wasn't much time for Tony to really even think through it - to go through that complicated mix of emotions that was his guilt, his regret, his sorrow, and now, maybe, his relief that maybe Steve could at least finally be put to rest. Because nearly as soon as he was pulled inside the sub and laid down on the cot, Steve breathed.
Steve breathed, and then he breathed again, and then he was awake and he was panicking, those blue eyes of his that Tony had seen so often in the mirror wide and alarmed as he took them in - the wasp, the giant, the god, the robot - what a sight they must be - and then he was grabbing his shield and he was attacking them, moving as though he hadn't been frozen for decades.
Through it all, Tony stood off to the side where he'd be away from the fight, and he stared.
The others managed. Tony didn't know how, but they got him to calm down, and then Wasp reached forward, placing a gentle hand against Steve's shoulder. She was touching him, her palm against his body, something Tony had longed to do for years. He could do it now, but he was still frozen here, and anyway - he didn't deserve it. Not after what had happened. It was one thing to have found peace when his worst mistake was lost to time and the currents; it was another when it was right here, staring him in the face.
"It's a lot later than you think it is, Captain America," she told him.
Steve's eyes darted around the room, and Tony felt his gaze linger on him before sliding away. "How much later?" he asked quietly.
Wasp bit her lip, looking nervous as though she didn't want to be the one breaking this news to him, but it had to be done. "Over half a century," she said at last.
Tony could almost see the pulse in Steve's neck jump when he heard that. His mouth opened, and Tony expected to hear some level of denial, of incredulity, of rage - because of me, he thought over and over again - but then -
"I need to see Tony Stark."
Stunned silence followed. And then, almost as one, all of them turned to look at him, the robot who had done nothing thus far but stand in the back and observe.
But observing, it seemed, was no longer an option.
So he stepped forward, and he could feel his own pulse jump when Steve stepped forward as well, his gaze fixated on him. Rationally, he knew the others were watching, but he was barely aware of them anymore: at long last, it was just him and Steve, here in the same place and at the same time, meeting one another's eyes.
"You know him," Steve continued very softly, once it was clear Tony wasn't going to say anything.
Tony struggled to come up with a response. First it was that Steve had been found, and then it turned out Steve was alive, and then one of his first questions was to ask about Tony - God, what could he even say to all of that? He knew what he wanted to do, but a part of his brain kept reminding him: he deserved no kindness from Steve, no decency. Tony was the reason he'd been in the Atlantic in the first place.
So he squeezed his eyes shut and whispered: "He's a murderer."
When Tony opened his eyes again, Steve was still looking at him with the same intensity as before, unafraid. "What makes you say that?"
Because I killed you, Tony almost replied, but he stopped himself in time. Fortunately, there were other responses that came to mind. He'd made so many mistakes since Steve had last known him. "Because - because. People died. Because of things he made and did." He shuddered, and tried to temper some of the guilt he felt before it all came pouring out. "He's not a good person. And he doesn't deserve to… to be cared about."
Steve tilted his head ever so slightly, and the light his hair caught in that movement made him look like an angel. "Shouldn't I get to decide that myself?" he said.
"Why would you want to?"
Steve reached forward to take hold of one hand - a hand, Tony was realizing now, that had been clutching at his wrist, his thumb pressed against his vein. He hadn't even realized he'd retracted that part of the gauntlet.
But Steve had noticed. He'd noticed, and then he replaced Tony's hand with his own.
And in that moment, standing there with Steve's thumb running over his thrumming pulse, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. Those parting words from Steve's final voicelog, all those years ago - Tony had never figured out what they were. But now, he realized, he knew: they were the words a soldier said to the pulse of his heart, his distant love.
"Isn't it obvious," Steve asked, "a chuisle mo chroí?"