Steve was, at heart, an optimist.
He wasn't going to say that waking up half a century in the future hadn't been a shock, and he wasn't going to say that there weren't people and things he missed about the time he had come from. But there was a lot to like about the time that he'd found himself in -- it was like living in his very own dime-store science-fiction novel! -- and he'd be damned if he wasn't going to make the best of it. The future had wonders aplenty. Vaccines. All sorts of medicines. Desegregation. Interracial marriage in every state. Women in the workplace. Men with men, women with women, loving each other, even holding hands in public. Rock 'n' roll. Air conditioning and refrigeration, everywhere. Frozen dinners. Grocery stores the size of warehouses, filled with every fresh fruit and vegetable he could name (and dozens he couldn't), whether or not they were in season. Televisions. In color. Wireless telephones that fit in your pocket -- well, if you had big pockets. Telephone wires instead connecting computers to each other, and those were so marvelous that he was still getting his head around them and all their uses.
And then there were the Avengers. His teammates. More than his teammates -- they were his friends. There were Giant-Man and Wasp, devoted to each other in a way that made Steve smile to think about; sure, Hank could be every inch the typical distracted scientist, but he was a loyal friend. And Wasp -- Jan -- was so bright and effervescent, determined to help show Steve the world he'd missed. The world included just as many department stores, it seemed, and she led Steve through all of them. He was getting a fashion education just watching her. And there was Thor, who was from even farther away than Steve; it heartened Steve to know that he wasn't the only one still getting used to the way things were here. Thor, too, took everything in stride with a jovial sense of humor. It was good to be around him. It was good to be around all of them.
And, of course, there was Iron Man. Iron Man's voice had been the first thing he'd heard, out of the ice. Steve wondered, sometimes, if that was when it had started, if there had been some space in his heart that he hadn't even known was empty waiting to be filled. All the Avengers were his friends, but Iron Man was something special. He was clever, with a brilliant, quicksilver mind, though he modestly insisted that he was only the suit's pilot and Tony Stark was the real genius. He had a sense of humor that alternated between a smart dry wit -- never cruel, never cutting -- and awful jokes that had made Steve spit out his morning coffee more than once. He was always there when Steve wanted to know something, and he was so kind in his explanations that Steve never felt like Iron Man was talking down to him. In battle, they were perfect. A team. A duo. They fought together like they'd been partners for ten years and not one.
He just... loved spending time with Iron Man. His sketchbooks were filled with studies of him, all angled armor, drawn from memory, with a few quick sketches done at the Avengers briefing table. He hadn't quite gotten up the courage to ask Iron Man to pose for him. And Iron Man seemed to like spending time with him. Even though Iron Man couldn't really eat in the suit, he'd still go out to lunch with Steve and attempt to wedge a straw through the mouth-slit in his helmet. It mostly worked. Really, Steve was touched that Iron Man wanted to be with him that much. When they were together, Steve was just so elated by his presence that the world seemed to shrink to the two of them. It was a heady feeling, warm and light in his chest, soaring high and bright. Just like when Iron Man took him flying.
It was the most natural evolution that his thoughts should turn to the man under the armor. It wasn't as if Steve had never thought about men in that way before, but with Iron Man it was different. All of his other attractions to men had been passing fancies, purely physical: a fella with a nice smile, or strong shoulders, or clever, nimble hands. This was something else entirely. He didn't even know what Iron Man looked like, save that he had blue eyes. That was all that was visible.
And he wanted him anyway, wanted him with a great vast yearning that left him raw inside. He wanted to lift up the helmet, to see his face, to see him smile, to hear his real voice, his real laugh. Steve knew he would like how Iron Man looked, no matter what. He wanted to kiss him, to run his fingers through his hair, to hold his hand as they walked together, to cuddle up next to him. And-- and other things, besides. He wanted to make Iron Man happy. He wanted Iron Man to be happy with him. Even if Iron Man had to keep the armor on -- he'd gathered that at least some of it couldn't ever be removed -- that would be okay too. He'd work with it. Whatever Iron Man gave him.
He'd done his research; it was legal, now, to be with men, unless he was going back to the Army, which he wasn't. And even then he'd just have to... not tell them, as he understood it. Don't Ask, Don't Tell, they said. Well, he already hadn't told them, before. That part didn't seem like much of a hardship. It was sad, that he couldn't be open about it there, but not different. But in society in general, it was allowed. Permitted.
The first part of the plan, of course, was to ask Iron Man out.
Steve was, at heart, an optimist, and he hadn't really believed Iron Man would reject him.
For the first few seconds after Steve asked him, there was only frozen silence, and Steve was conscious of so many inconsequential details, because he couldn't read Iron Man's reaction. There was the bright morning sunlight filtering in through the library windows and off of Iron Man's gleaming armor, the smell of the books, the chirping of the birds outside.
Then Iron Man sighed, a noise that sounded like a radio between stations, and put his head up to look directly at Steve from across the table. His eyes looked wide, maybe surprised, but it was hard to tell.
"I can't," Iron Man said, and behind the mask his eyes shut briefly, almost wearily, like it had hurt him. "I can't. I'm sorry."
Steve tried to breathe past the sudden miserable crumbling feeling in his chest. His throat was tight. All of his daydreams and fantasies were withering, like cut flowers left in the sun.
But he was an adult. He could handle this. No one had so much as looked at him, before the serum. He'd had plenty of experience with not being wanted. "All right," he said, and it took him two tries to say, and another moment to swallow past the painful lump in his throat. "Thank you." His voice was wobbly and hoarse. It didn't sound like him.
"I'm sorry, Steve," Iron Man repeated, but even as he was saying no, something about his voice was still unbelievably kind. Like he was trying not to hurt him.
Maybe that was what gave Steve the courage to speak. "I know it's not really any of my business, but is it that you aren't interested in me, specifically? Or men in general? Or are you not looking for anyone right now?" He knew Iron Man wasn't married, at least; Iron Man had mentioned that much about himself before. It was an incredibly personal question, but, well... Iron Man explained things to him. Maybe Iron Man could explain this.
Iron Man sighed again and put his head between his hands; the dim repulsors gleamed bright off the metal of his helmet. "None of the above," he said, finally. Reluctantly, like the words were being pulled slowly out of him. "I just... can't."
He didn't say it like he didn't want to, Steve realized. Iron Man had said it like he couldn't.
That meant Iron Man did want him. Oh, God, Iron Man wanted him too, he thought, and hope and excitement flared hot in his chest. They wanted each other. So what was the problem?
"Why can't you?" Steve pressed. He knew Iron Man didn't owe him the answer. Iron Man didn't owe him anything. But if Iron Man wanted this too... shouldn't it be simple?
Iron Man stared up at him. His blue eyes were startlingly fierce; his face, as always, was an impassive metal mask. "I have to preserve my secret identity. I'm sorry."
"I won't tell anyone."
"I can't tell you," Iron Man retorted. Was it Steve's imagination, or was the mechanically-altered voice upset? "You're someone. You still count."
Steve held out his hands, helplessly. "Even if you take off the helmet, I still won't know who you are, will I? I'm not asking for your name. I'm not asking for your secrets. Just-- I thought you liked me," he said, and his face went hot and his eyes burned and he thought maybe he was going to cry.
"Steve," Iron Man said, and even the filtered voice sounded hoarse, wracked by some emotion, as Iron Man reached across the table and brushed the back of Steve's hand with metallic fingertips. "I do like you, okay? God, I really do. A lot. And believe me, it makes me so, so happy to think that you might feel something for me. You have no idea. If I weren't-- if it weren't for the secret identity, I would go out with you in a heartbeat. I swear."
Steve smiled weakly. "But you can't." He sighed. "Is this-- is this one of Tony's conditions of employment? Did he make you sign away your love life?"
He couldn't help but feel more than a little annoyed at Tony. He didn't hate the man, but he didn't really like him either; he just hardly knew him at all, even after a year of living in his mansion. Tony wasn't ever really here; he'd disappear into the basement workshop for days on end, and he'd come back with upgrades for Iron Man or new gear for the rest of the Avengers, looking like he hadn't slept in weeks. And then he'd be off again, presumably to run Stark Industries. Steve half-suspected that there was some kind of secret tunnel leading out from the workshop, because most of the time he never saw Tony enter or leave the house.
It was a bizarre kind of generosity that Tony practiced, giving gifts at high speed and then leaving just as quickly. Tony got along well with Jan -- he knew Jan -- but he always seemed a little awkward around the rest of the Avengers, especially Steve. Steve was always fumbling for things to talk about with him, and Tony kept looking at him half the time like he still couldn't believe Steve was real. It was strange. Steve saw pictures of him in the society pages -- suave, charming, debonaire -- and couldn't quite reconcile those images with the exhausted man he saw every few weeks in the hallway who ducked away, looking almost guilty, when Steve walked by. It was hard to get to know a man like that.
Iron Man laughed, another wavering static noise. "Not precisely," he said, "but Mr. Stark requires me to maintain this identity, for reasons of personal safety that I am not at liberty to discuss--" the words sounded like something he'd said many times-- "and so it would be very, very difficult to date anyone while in the suit. It's a consequence of employment, yes, but not an intended one."
"And you're not interested in... anything... while you're in the armor? Anything at all?" Even as Steve said it, he couldn't really think of anything they could do. Hold hands, maybe. He would take it. He would take anything. "I know it couldn't be anything physical, but that-- that doesn't matter to me."
Iron Man shook his head. "You are so goddamn sweet, Winghead. Don't ever change," he said, and in the midst of his sadness Steve brightened at the compliment. "But, no, I think that would be... an exercise in frustration. For both of us."
"All right," Steve said, but even with the rejection there was a sense of hope rising in him, bright like a star. Iron Man liked him. Even if they couldn't do anything. That counted for something. "But if-- when Tony decides it's okay for you to show your face, would you consider it? Consider me?"
"You don't give up, do you?" Iron Man laughed again; this one was somewhere between pleased and sad. Maybe both. "You're really something. He isn't going to change his mind about this, but if he ever does, if you find out who I am under the armor, if you still want me after you know... then, yes. I will. I'll go on a date with you. But don't get your hopes up. Mr. Stark won't reconsider."
"You know him that well?"
"He won't," Iron Man repeated. "He really won't change his mind."
"But we can still be friends, right?" Steve's voice wavered a little. He ought to have thought of that first. What if things would be forever strange and awkward between them now?
The answer, it seemed, was easy. "Yeah, of course," Iron Man said, instantly. "Friends. Always."
Steve opened his mouth--
--and an alarm went off as the library's lights flashed red. Steve yanked his Avengers card out of his belt pocket, waiting for the screen to light up, waiting for a call to assemble, but there was nothing. Giant-Man and Wasp were off somewhere making refinements to the Pym Particles, and Thor was wherever he went when he wasn't Avenging with them, so that meant he and Iron Man were the only two Avengers on the premises and probably the only two Avengers in New York. That didn't mean the rest of the team hadn't run into trouble somewhere, but... they clearly hadn't, because no one was calling in. And this wasn't a call for help from the Fantastic Four, either. So why was there an alarm?
"It's not the Avengers," Iron Man said. "It's one of my local alarms, from the lab downstairs. Science in progress. Here, give me that for a sec."
Before Steve could say anything, Iron Man leaned over, grabbed Steve's identicard, blanked the screen out, and tapped in a few numbers. The lights went back to normal and the alarm faded.
"What kind of science needs alarms?" Steve asked, suspiciously, as Iron Man stood up. "What are you doing down there?"
Iron Man raised his palms; the repulsors were dimmed, so it wasn't an actual defensive move. "I wasn't doing anything. But I've been getting some weird readings all morning, so I set the scanners to pay closer attention."
"Closer attention to what?" Steve asked, confused.
Iron Man picked up Steve's shield from where he'd rested it by the door and handed it to him. "That's what I'm about to find out. You coming?"
Friends, he told himself, as he followed Iron Man to the basement. They were friends. He hadn't ruined anything. It hadn't turned out the way he wanted, but it would be okay. Friends and teammates. Iron Man's secrets would stay secret. It was disappointing, of course, but he could handle it. He could deal with this.
"Well," Iron Man said, sounding impressed, his helmeted head tilted back to stare at the ceiling of the Avengers briefing room, "I think I've identified the problem here." The modulated voice was dryly amused. "That's... different."
Steve looked up. The ceiling was almost alive with energy, blue-white, like Iron Man's repulsors. Tendrils of energy crackled like lightning, outlining a flat plane that was set maybe an inch or two below the ceiling proper. It was rectangular, Steve thought, considering it. It looked almost like a doorway of some kind, like the blue fire's edges were outlining a path between here and some other world. There was only brightness in the middle, white and glowing, almost too bright to look at, but Steve couldn't shake the feeling that if he just looked hard enough there would be something on the other side.
"What is it?"
Iron Man looked away and tapped a few controls beneath one of the screens on the wall. "It's a portal of some kind. The terminus looks like-- huh." The noise that issued from him was a low hum of confusion, like standing near power lines.
Steve frowned. "Looks like what?"
"The Baxter Building," Iron Man said, and when he looked up from the controls his eyes were wide behind the mask. "But something's not quite right."
"That doesn't look like the Baxter Building to me," Steve agreed, squinting back up at the blinding whiteness.
Iron Man sighed. "And it can't be ordinary teleportation. It can't. These readings are -- they're just off the scale. I don't know what this is," he concluded, his voice crackling into utter frustration, like he thought he should know the answer to everything.
Steve resisted the impulse to reach out and put a hand on Iron Man's shoulder; he wouldn't be able to feel it, and it seemed a little too soon after the conversation they'd just had. "Did you want to call Reed Richards?"
If Iron Man had hackles, they would have gone up. "You think he knows more than I do?"
"Not at all." Steve held his hands up in surrender; clearly this was a sore spot. "I just meant, if it's coming from his building, maybe he--"
The portal sizzled and gave a loud crackle, and then a man fell from the ceiling.
He was a dark-haired, dark-suited blur -- or at least, that was all Steve could make out as the man fell -- and as the portal closed above him he hit the briefing room table, hard, in the center of the team logo, with an echoing thud that sounded like it should rightly belong to someone a little heavier.
"Ow," the man said, voice thick and indistinct, as he lay curled in on himself. "Fucking-- ow. Teleportation, really? That's the absolute last time I'm going to let Reed--"
He was pushing himself up as he talked, turning to face them, sitting on the edge of the table, and then Steve caught sight of the man's face at last and couldn't stop staring.
It was Tony Stark.
It was Tony, and it wasn't.
His hair was styled differently; it was slightly longer, falling onto his forehead, and his usual mustache was now a goatee. And he looked... older, in some way Steve couldn't quite quantify. He wasn't visibly aged, not that Steve could see; there were no lines on his face. But this wasn't the grinning, carefree playboy who posed for the papers; this man's eyes were haunted. Like something had changed him.
Tony was staring back at the two of them, his face slack, his eyes wide in surprise. But he didn't look afraid or overwhelmed, like Steve would have expected from him. Tony was a civilian. He wasn't an Avenger. He didn't have any experience dealing with these kinds of things and yet, looking at him, Steve was left with the impression of vast competence -- maybe more than the Avengers had. Whoever this man was, this kind of thing wasn't new to him.
"Oh, hell," Tony said, looking back and forth between the two of them. His hands were up in front of him, palms out, braced, wary.
"Tony?" Steve asked, and his voice cracked on the name. He felt ridiculous, but he had to know.
Tony nodded. "Hi, Steve." He gave a very little smile, and then his gaze settled on Iron Man. "And hi... Iron Man?" His voice wavered, uncertain, like he didn't know Iron Man's name. Which was also ridiculous. Of course Tony knew it was Iron Man.
"That's me," Iron Man said, and the mechanical voice was flat. Like Iron Man was shocked. Well, Steve supposed, it wasn't every day you saw your employer fall out of a portal in the ceiling. "You know exactly who I am," Iron Man added, and his voice sounded tense now. Harsh, almost.
Tony ran his fingers through his hair, yanking the longer strands into curling disarray. "Okay," he said, briskly. "Cap and Iron Man. Got it." Steve was a little startled to hear the nickname out of Tony's mouth; he didn't think Tony had ever called him it. He hardly knew the man. "Two questions, to start with." He sounded perfectly calm, reasoned, like this was some well-rehearsed protocol he was following. "Which Earth am I on, and what year is it?"
What did he mean, which Earth? Confused, Steve glanced over at Iron Man.
"This is Earth-616," Iron Man said. "And it's 1998."
Tony exhaled, a sigh of relief. He visibly relaxed, the tension easing out of his shoulders. He'd been carrying himself a little tightly, hands held up in front of his chest, like he'd been ready for a fight. He was slowly lowering his arms now. Steve hadn't ever pictured Tony as a brawler. And though it had clearly been a defensive stance, his hands hadn't even been in fists. His palms had been facing outward. It was all very odd.
"Yeah, that's about when it looks like, with that armor," Tony said, almost cheerfully. He was taking this remarkably well. "Just time travel, then." Then he frowned. "I guess that could be good or bad; I'd rather not change the past. I'm going with good, though. What do you think?"
Iron Man said nothing.
"What year are you from, then?" Steve asked, when Iron Man still hadn't spoken. He was dizzy with possibilities, the blood rushing to his brain. He felt like this was his life in reverse. Here was someone else from another time. He wondered if this was how the other Avengers had felt when he'd woken from the ice and asked them about the future.
"2010," Tony said promptly, and Steve blinked. That was... he was really from twelve years in the future? It felt unbelievable, even though Steve knew it shouldn't be -- look what had happened to him, after all.
Iron Man gave a scratchy mechanical cough. "If you don't mind me saying so, that's much better than I expected you to look at 35. All that clean living, huh?" The last two words were emphasized; the tone was sardonic, mocking.
It was a strange thing for Iron Man to say, halfway to an insult, just as his voice had been so hard before. Iron Man had never been cruel with Steve. But maybe this was how he behaved with Tony? Steve supposed he wouldn't know; he'd never seen them together, after all. But it was a bizarre way for Iron Man to act around his boss.
"Thanks," Tony said, with utter sincerity, like the insult had bounced right off him, and he smirked, the corner of his mouth lifting. "It's... completely unnatural, actually. My youthful appearance. Side effect of something else. Also the procedure was terribly risky and is currently broken. But it was fun while it lasted." He almost sounded proud. "I highly recommend it, when you get the chance. In about eight years."
He pushed himself off the table, with a confident ease, and walked closer. They could take him if they had to, Steve thought. He was baseline human -- at least, he was if he was really Tony Stark -- and even if he wasn't, both of them were bigger: Steve had about an inch on him, with Iron Man looming nearly half a foot above him.
"Oh, come on," Tony said, pleading, watching Steve's shield arm lift. "I swear, I'm not mind-controlled or a clone or a Skrull or a LMD -- oh, wait, do you have those yet? -- but I think at this point in time you're lacking all the tech to verify, and I'm sure you wouldn't trust mine."
Steve wondered what technology Tony meant; he was empty-handed and wearing a slightly-wrinkled business suit. There was nothing on him.
"You're saying we just have to trust you," Iron Man said, flatly. "Take your word for it."
"More or less." And then Tony grinned back at Iron Man, wide and easy, and now he was the handsome man Steve saw in all the magazines. "I mean, I have other verification that I'm sure you would believe, but I don't think you want me to get into it in public. If you know what I mean." The grin was rakish, inviting, and he sidled up to Iron Man, just a little closer, looking up at him through lowered eyelashes. "And I know you know exactly what I mean."
Steve blinked a few times. Had Tony really just made a pass at Iron Man?
Iron Man was motionless. "I am positive you didn't mean that the way it sounded," Iron Man said, finally, like he'd been at a loss for words. Steve didn't blame him.
Tony's answering smile was irrepressible and maybe a little lewd. "I didn't, but I know you can't say that's not on your bucket list." He winked.
"On my what?"
"It's from a movie." Tony waved a hand. "I guess we didn't say that before the movie existed. Whatever. It'll make sense in a decade."
Steve was bizarrely charmed to know that he was no longer the only one who didn't understand the things people said in the future; he and Iron Man were somehow on equal footing now. That probably shouldn't have made him feel better about this, but it did.
He took a steadying breath. Even if Iron Man was going to be especially strange about this, they had to figure out a plan.
Steve held up a hand, and Tony and Iron Man both looked over at him. "Right." He let his voice settle into what Iron Man liked to call his Captain America voice, low and authoritative. "Proceeding on the assumption that you are who you say you are--"
"Thank you," Tony interjected.
"--then we need to know how you got here, so we can work on sending you back to your time."
Tony shrugged. "All right. Team briefing, huh? You want to call the rest of the Avengers?"
"They're not around right this minute," Iron Man said, crisply, almost icily. "We're holding down the fort. We can bring them in if necessary, but I'd... rather not involve more people than we have to. For obvious reasons. I'm sure you understand."
The reasons weren't obvious to Steve. Surely Iron Man would appreciate help from Giant-Man? Hank was the scientist of the group, after all.
But whatever mysterious reasons they were, they seemed to make sense to Tony. "Right. Of course," he said, with a significant glance at Iron Man.
Steve was beginning to wonder if there was something else going on here between the two of them, something that he didn't understand. This future Tony had just propositioned Iron Man; could the two of them be... lovers? It had been a joke, he'd said, but maybe they were together in the future? And, of course, Iron Man had just turned Steve down. Tony, Steve thought, would be the one person who already knew Iron Man's identity, and so if Iron Man could date anyone it would have to be Tony. But Iron Man had most definitely turned Tony down as well, and he was being almost insulting toward him. Steve didn't think Iron Man could ever behave like that to someone he loved. He hated to think that Iron Man behaved like this to anyone.
Iron Man had said he liked him, a tiny betrayed voice in Steve's head cried. Iron Man didn't act like that around Steve. Did he hate Tony that much? Why the hell would Tony still employ him? It didn't seem to faze this Tony any, either. It was like he expected Iron Man to act like this.
It didn't make any sense.
Tony took a seat in one of the chairs, leaning back and putting his feet on the table, like he was perfectly at ease with being here. Like he was down here in the Avengers briefing room all the time. Steve couldn't remember him ever being here. Tony looked up and raised a guileless eyebrow. "Anyone else sitting? Or just me?"
Iron Man sat; the chair creaked under him. "Feet off the table, please." It didn't sound like a request when he said it.
Tony scowled and slid his feet back to the floor. "Fine. Be that way." He was still leaning back in the chair, and he swiveled to face Steve. "Cap, you running this show?" he drawled.
He sounded so... familiar with him. But Steve didn't really know this man, not at all.
Steve sat up straighter. "Certainly," he said, dropping back into that Captain America voice. "You can start by telling us how you got here."
Tony's eyes narrowed and he rubbed at his chin, like he was trying to decide how much of the story to tell. "I was at the Baxter Building. I'd been working on my new suit. Uh. A new suit for Iron Man."
"You were building it with Reed Richards?" Iron Man asked, incredulous, and Steve was beginning to wonder what Iron Man had against everybody today. Nothing was making any sense.
"It's a long story." Tony looked away. "He had the parts I needed and I didn't have... access... to a lot of my usual materials or facilities. The old suits were... unusable. Anyway, the new suit was built. Had been built. For a couple weeks now. We were going through some advanced testing, exposing the armor to various types of radiation and other emissions. He had portals active somewhere in the building. You know Reed; he's always got something open to somewhere. Negative Zone. Who knows what else. And then I guess there was some kind of interaction between the radiation and one of the portals and-- he waved his hand-- "then I was here."
Steve tried to picture the scene. "So you and Reed were monitoring from elsewhere? Iron Man was in the suit? Or was it empty?"
Tony's eyes darted away again. "Iron Man was in the suit, yeah."
"And the portal picked just you up?" Not Iron Man, who'd been in the room with the radiation? Not Reed, who'd been in the room with him? That seemed odd. But only Tony had come through, so clearly that must have been how it had happened.
"Yeah," Tony agreed. "Just me. Reed-- everyone else was unaffected, as far as I could tell. The floor below me was gone. I just fell, and I could see the portal closing around me as I fell. So I'm pretty sure I'm the only one."
"So," Steve said, trying to work this out, "we can assume that in your time Reed and Iron Man are looking for you?"
Maybe in the future Iron Man didn't care about Tony at all; the present Iron Man certainly seemed not to.
"Reed definitely is," Tony said, pursing his lips in thought. He was, Steve noted, entirely evading the part of the question about Iron Man. What the hell had happened in the future between Tony and Iron Man? For that matter, what the hell was happening now? Iron Man had hardly said anything to Tony, and it had all been insulting.
It also seemed odd that Tony would be content to leave the matter in the hands of the Fantastic Four. After all, it wasn't their team he sponsored. Unless he helped out everyone, in the future. "What about the Avengers?" Steve asked. "Did they know what you were up to? Would they be looking too?"
An awful, shadowed look passed over Tony's face, his features twisted in misery, and Steve was really beginning to wonder what had happened. There was something there. Something big. Something wrong. He wasn't telling them about it.
Tony scraped a hand over his face. "There's not an Avengers team right now, per se," he said, voice quiet and pained, "and, at any rate, my relationship with the rest of the superhero community is... tenuous."
Something awful had happened. They weren't a team. No Avengers. No Wasp or Giant-Man or Thor. No Iron Man. Something was really-- wait. What?
"What do you mean, the rest of the superhero community? You're not--" Steve began, and then Tony flinched.
"Fuck," Tony said, very quietly. "Well, you've never been stupid, have you, Cap?" And then his eyes slid over to Iron Man, like he was waiting for some reaction. "In-- in the future I-- Uh. Let's just say that the Avengers have discovered I have a great many talents that I use more fully than I do now."
"Have they?" Iron Man asked, and it was almost a shock to hear Iron Man speak. His voice gave away nothing; he was sitting perfectly still. He could have been an actual robot.
Tony nodded once, firmly. "I've had a more active role in the Avengers for... a while, you could say. Quite a few years."
Steve frowned. Tony wasn't any kind of superhuman. He couldn't possibly be on the team; at least, he couldn't be in the field with them. So he probably just consulted more. Built them more things. He supposed that would be nice; he hardly knew Tony now. Maybe Tony stuck around more instead of just handing them gear and leaving. Maybe that made him an honorary superhero.
But that wasn't really the point. The point, right now, was to figure out how to get this Tony back to when he came from.
"So if there are no current Avengers, it's just us and presumably the Reed Richards from your time working on getting you home?" Steve asked.
He wondered if that would be enough.
Tony shrugged. "Maybe. There are other groups in the future -- more than there are now -- but they're mostly not full of the scientist types. There's also a government agency or two that might be tapped. National security. America's top cop may or may not take an interest." His mouth twisted again. "It... really depends on how he feels about me, and these days I-- I wouldn't think he'd want to put in the effort."
Had Tony gotten on the wrong side of the law somehow? It was all very strange.
"But the two of you can work on it, then?" Steve ventured.
Tony nodded again, and then, slowly, Iron Man gave a grudging nod of agreement.
"Because we can call Reed, if you want," Steve offered. "It was his building you came from. Will come from. We wouldn't have to bring anyone else in. Not a whole team. Or we could ask our current Tony. I mean--" he glanced at Tony-- "I get the impression that you're a pretty handy guy, so maybe with two of you--"
"He won't be available. He's busy with SI all week," Iron Man said.
Tony's face in response was a moue of disgust. "Is he." It wasn't a question.
"Yes," Iron Man said, his mechanized voice crackling, heavily, angrily. "He definitely is."
Steve looked between the two of them, confused. He had had enough of this. "Could one of you tell me what's going on here?"
Iron Man jumped a little in his seat, armor creaking, like he'd forgotten Steve was even there. "Sorry. It's, uh, confidential. More SI business."
Tony favored Steve with a smile that was all teeth. "Oh, I'm sure it will all make sense someday, Cap."
"Right," Steve said, completely at sea.
The three of them sat, frozen, with Steve still entirely bewildered, until Iron Man looked away and hissed, a quiet fuzzed noise of frustration.
"Before we start working on anything," Iron Man said, sounding half sheepish and half tense, "I've got to take a bit of a break. Uh. Emergency maintenance. Urgent."
Steve stared. Iron Man hadn't ever said anything like that before. "Is there something wrong?" Was he sick? Was the suit broken?
"No, no," Iron Man said, quickly. "I just-- have to take care of something. I'll be a few minutes." He pushed himself up out of the chair with another heavy creaking of armor.
Tony's face brightened. "Oh, man, that takes me back," he said, like he knew exactly what Iron Man meant. No doubt this was one of those shared secrets Iron Man and Tony had. "Let me help." And he was jumping up out of his chair to join Iron Man, following him to the door.
"I can take care of it myself. You know that." The words were snapped; Iron Man was apparently just going to be angry at Tony.
Tony's reply was quiet, calming, reassuring. "Yes, but I also know it goes faster with someone else to help you."
Iron Man threw his hands in the air; the glow from his repulsors reflected wildly off the screens on the walls. "Fine. Do what you like."
Tony grinned over his shoulder as he followed Iron Man out. "Back in a few, Cap," he said.
He could hear them walking down the hall toward the workshop at the other end of the floor. Iron Man seemed to have forgotten -- and maybe Tony hadn't known -- that Steve's hearing was also peak human, because they were still talking.
"Don't freak out," Tony was saying, his low voice echoing in the hallway.
Iron Man's reply was too quiet for Steve to catch.
"No, I know you're freaking out." Tony's voice was raised in obvious annoyance. "Seriously? You're going to try lying to me about how you feel? It's going to be all right. I promise. God. Try to relax."
Whatever Iron Man said was still unintelligible.
"Look, I actually do know what I'm doing."
Static. "--can't keep your mouth shut." More static. "--going to know--"
"He isn't," Tony said. "He isn't. No one is. Not now, not yet. Trust me. I know you trust me. You've got to trust me. We can do this."
And then the workshop door opened and closed, the sound attenuated, and Steve couldn't hear anything else.
What the hell was going on?
It wasn't long before there were footsteps echoing down the hallway again -- but it was only enough noise for one person, and it wasn't Iron Man's familiar heavy tread.
Tony stuck his head in the doorway. "Ol' Shellhead's all tied up for a few minutes," he said, with the kind of secretive grin that suggested that he meant something specific by the joke, and he wasn't going to elaborate. "He'll be done soon. I thought I'd come back and say hi."
"Hi," Steve said, warily, as Tony sat down again in the same seat he'd so recently vacated. Iron Man usually sat there. He wondered what Tony was playing at. He wondered what Tony had been reassuring Iron Man about. "Is Iron Man all right? He had to leave in a hurry. Does he need some kind of help?"
"Nah, it's just routine maintenance. He'll be done in a sec." Tony waved an unconcerned hand, even as Steve tried to figure out how routine maintenance could be such an emergency, and came up with no answers. "So how are you doing, these days?" He smiled, and now the smile was wide-open. Earnest. Like he really cared.
Tony had never really looked at him like that before.
Steve shrugged, self-conscious in a way he usually wasn't, bewildered by the sudden intensity of the attention. It was uncomfortable, like standing in the focus of a spotlight. "Fine. You know. Or maybe you don't know. I live here, I spend time with the team, we save the planet. It's the usual Avenger life." Maybe Tony in the future would know more about that than he did now; he'd said he worked more closely with the team. "It's a good life. I'm adjusting to the future. The team's great. I'm... glad to be here. I'm happy." He was; that wasn't a lie. Setting aside the part where Iron Man had just turned him down, of course, but Tony didn't need to know that.
Tony's smile, to his astonishment, was a little wobbly, his eyes maybe a little too bright. "That's-- God, I'd forgotten what it was like." His voice was scratchy, rough, as if he were on the verge of tears. "I'm really glad you're happy with the Avengers, Cap. That... means a lot to me. You have no idea how much."
Tony was going to cry? Tony didn't like him. Tony didn't even really know him. Steve didn't think he meant anything to him, not really, not beyond the costume, not beyond the symbol.
But maybe that was different in the future.
"So," Steve ventured, "in your time, we're... friends? The two of us, I mean."
Tony was looking off into the distance, gaze unfocused, like he was really talking to someone else. Some other version of him.
"I think friendship's a poor word for it," Tony said, finally, and it had none of the teasing, flirtatious tone Steve might have expected from that sentence. His voice was quiet, hushed, like whispers in church, like something that was too immense to bear description. "You and I -- we've been almost everything to each other, over the years. We're close. Very close. You're one of the most important people in my life." He shut his eyes briefly, and when he opened them his gaze was all sorrow. "It's not always good between us, and right now-- right now it's pretty fucking rotten." He took a shaking breath. "But friends? Yeah, I guess you could call us friends."
He had no idea what to say to that. He didn't even know Tony. He couldn't imagine knowing him that well. He could hardly imagine knowing anyone that well.
Tony rubbed at his face, pinched the bridge of his nose. "Geez, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to just lay all that on you. It's like you're him, but you don't-- you wouldn't-- I can tell you things I can't tell him, because you're not going to--" He sighed. "Never mind."
How could he and Tony mean all that to each other? He would certainly say that right now Iron Man was his closest friend -- and if that wasn't going to be true, in the future, then what was going to happen between them? Had he made a mistake asking Iron Man out? What if they were no longer friends, because of it? Had it all been his fault?
Tony peered at him, curiously. "You all right there? Did I-- that was probably a little much, wasn't it? I mean, if we don't know each other well now. As you say."
"No, no," Steve said, stricken, "I'm fine. I just-- am I still friends with the rest of the team? With Iron Man? Maybe he doesn't talk about his life with you that much, but I'd hate to think that in the future I'm not friends with him at all."
Tony's mouth twisted. He was silent a long while. "That's... complicated," he said, finally. "I don't think I can say, and I don't feel comfortable speaking for him."
Steve's heart sank. That was a no. Tony didn't want to say, but that was a no. What had gone wrong between them? "Okay." His voice sounded hollow in his ears. "Thanks anyway. I'm-- I suppose I get to look forward to getting to know you better, though. You're a good man."
He wondered what Tony -- the current Tony -- would make of their visitor from the future; it was a shame Tony wasn't around. Maybe Tony would have liked to see himself, to talk about what his life would become. Steve could see how he might be friends with Tony; at least this version of Tony was interested in talking to him and wasn't just avoiding him in the hallways. It could be a start. He could make an effort, the next time he actually saw Tony.
Tony smiled. "You flatter me, Cap."
Steve smiled back, and something within him glowed warm, the faintest ember of hope. If he wasn't going to get to be friends with Iron Man, he'd be friends with Tony. It wouldn't be the same, and it would hurt -- he knew enough about going on without his old friends to know that -- but maybe it would be enough.
Iron Man's heavy footsteps thudded down the corridor, and then Iron Man was standing in the doorway. "Sorry about that. All done," he said cheerfully. "Would have been faster if someone hadn't abandoned me and sneaked back here." And then his head turned to Tony, and Steve could see his eyes narrow behind the mask. "What have you been telling him, huh?" The question was light, joking, but his eyes were still narrowed. Like he was worried. Like there was something he didn't want Steve to know.
Tony grinned a lazy grin. "Nothing bad. Don't worry."
That was, Steve thought, an odd way to characterize a conversation in which Tony had very strongly implied that Iron Man and Steve would no longer be friends in the future. Maybe that was the secret Tony and Iron Man both knew. Maybe their secret was whatever made Steve and Iron Man stop liking each other.
But he liked Iron Man so much. It wasn't fair.
"I'm not worrying." Iron Man practically snapped the reply.
"Of course you're not," Tony said, pushing himself up from the table. "Come on, let's go build a time machine and then I'll be out of your hair for good. I'm sure you'll appreciate it."
Twelve years from now, Steve would have to remember this day, just so he could figure out everything he was clearly, obviously missing right now. He'd just have to pay closer attention now, while Tony was still here. Maybe there'd be some kind of clue.
Three hours later Steve had only managed to determine two things: one, that when Tony had offhandedly mentioned building a time machine, he had really, literally meant exactly that; and two, that no matter how strangely combative his relationship with Iron Man was the rest of the time, Tony worked with Iron Man in the workshop in perfectly frictionless harmony, like they'd been doing this all their lives.
It was especially strange because Iron Man had always insisted to Steve that he was only a bodyguard, only the suit's pilot, only a mechanic at most, and yet he seemed to be holding his own against Tony Stark, engineering genius.
Steve had been sitting in the corner the entire time, and he wondered if they knew he was still here. The two of them were hardly even talking to each other at this point; they'd sketched out a few designs at the beginning, surrounded by equations Steve could not even begin to understand, and their current conversation was entirely in half-finished sentences:
"What about the--?" Iron Man began.
"No, that's accounted for; I've got that worked out right here. You know I've got that."
"The energy cost?"
"Told you already. I've got a power source for transit. That'll hook up to it, if you build it just like that. The numbers are right. Believe me. I've got power to burn. Don't forget to--"
"I got it," Iron Man muttered. "Now if you could just hand me-- yeah, that-- no, the red one-- right. Right."
They both knew exactly where everything was in the workshop, probably down to the precise location of every kind of screw. It was unnerving.
Iron Man was peering over Tony's shoulder as he typed something into one of the computers. "Sure you don't want more fault tolerance in the build there? It'd be a shame if you got lost in the timestream. Maybe more space in the subjective local bubble? I mean, you're the one using it, but--"
"I'm good." Tony grinned at Iron Man and clapped him on the shoulder. "It'll hold. I've been through time with worse. You're gonna need to do the final assembly though. You're the one with the facemask."
Iron Man laughed. "Right."
Steve watched, awed, as the device took shape under Iron Man's hands. Finished, it looked like nothing more than a bauble, a smoky sphere the size of a tennis ball with a square of exposed circuitry, something silvery-bright.
Tony picked it up gingerly, palm curled around it, and he held it out in Steve's direction. "Voilà."
"That's--" Steve was at a loss for words. "You built a time machine? In three hours?"
"It's not really a time machine," Iron Man said, though this didn't make it sound any less impressive. "Well, it is, but it's not what you're probably picturing."
Tony was grinning, and he wiped off his forehead with the back of his hand; it had been warm while they had been welding. "It's more like a cheat, Cap. It'll only work once, and it'll only take me back to when I left. It basically takes advantage of the fact that there was a portal, and a conjunction with the Negative Zone, to tap into a portion of that tunnel that existed during my initial transit and follow it back, with enough additional energy to boost me back through it."
"Ah," Steve said, carefully. He had no idea what that meant, really.
Iron Man nodded. "It's like running the wrong way up an escalator, basically."
Well, at least he could picture that comparison. Steve nodded in return. "As long as you two say it works, that's good enough for me." He looked over at Tony. "Are you leaving now, then?"
He was surprised at the sudden pang of loss. Tony had just gotten here, and he... he seemed like a man Steve would like to get to know better, a man who clearly liked him. He supposed that he'd be talking to his Tony, the current Tony, at some point soon enough. Maybe he could tell Tony about this experience. Maybe Tony would want to be his friend.
But Tony shook his head. He was bending over and connecting the time machine to some empty plug in the nearest computer with a thick cable. "Can't believe everything's wired these days," he mumbled to himself. "It's not quite ready yet," he said, more loudly. "It needs to sync up with the data Iron Man was collecting about the portal so it has the necessary vectors for transit."
"He means it's going to be about an hour," Iron Man translated, and Steve was just going to give up wondering how Iron Man knew that.
Then Tony looked up, and his face lifted, an excited and somehow intent expression. "Oh!" he said. "I thought of one more thing I need to do before I leave."
"What is it?" Steve asked. "Obviously we'll do everything we can to help--"
Tony turned to Iron Man, grinning. "You know that Greek restaurant I really like? The one with the excellent tiropita?"
"Yes," Iron Man said, and if a mechanical voice could be said to convey suspicion, his did. "What about it?"
Gleefully, Tony clapped his hands. "I want lunch."
Iron Man stared. Steve stared.
"Oh, come on," Tony said. "It's one of my favorite restaurants, and it closes in a couple years, and I miss it." He looked at Steve, imploring. "It's good. You'll like it. I don't think I've taken you there yet, but you like it a lot too, when you go there. When you will go there, I mean. You like the souvlaki."
"I would like to register a complaint," Iron Man said. "A very strenuous objection. Also you know I can't eat in this thing."
"Overruled. And, what, you're saying you want us to go without you?"
"Good. I would never dream of leaving my favorite bodyguard," said Tony, with a crooked smile. Steve was beginning to wonder how the hell Iron Man could be Tony's favorite anything, the way they acted around each other. Maybe it was the hidden engineering talent.
Steve looked at him. "You think you can pass for a Tony Stark who's twelve years younger than you? In public? You going to tell them you grew a beard fast, if they ask?"
As he said it, Steve squinted. The goatee was new, yes, but he suspected that this Tony probably could pass for his present self, especially around people who didn't usually see him in person to compare his everyday appearance.
"I look great for my age," Tony said, defensively. "And I can grow this thing pretty quickly. So, yeah, I'll be fine. Besides, it's 1998, so it's not like everyone is going to be snapping pictures of me on their smartphones."
"Their what phones?" Iron Man asked.
"Oh, you poor, deprived man," Tony said, but he was grinning, wide and pleased. "In a couple years you're going to have so much fun."
Iron Man muttered something that sounded like "anything would be more fun than this," and Steve saw that Tony carefully pretended not to hear it.
Getting to the restaurant was fine. Sitting down at the table was mostly fine; Iron Man's chair had creaked dangerously with the weight of the suit. Everything afterwards was most definitely not fine.
Oh, it had started out well enough -- the waitress, starstruck, had asked for their autographs, and they were of course happy to oblige. It wasn't as if you saw Tony Stark, Iron Man, and Captain America all out together everyday, after all. Or ever. Steve had left his shield at home, but he was in full uniform otherwise. Iron Man's armor gleamed bright. And Tony favored the waitress with a charming grin as he scribbled his name in her notebook. Iron Man, also left-handed, had a clumsy signature that suggested he didn't write much with the suit on. Steve signed "Captain America" with his usual flourish -- the first A of "America" fashioned into a star -- and he handed the notebook back with a smile.
The waitress tucked the notebook in her pocket with shaking hands. "What would you like to drink?" she asked. "Or can I take your order now?"
Tony opened his mouth.
"Wait," Iron Man said. "Let me. I've got this worked out. I will have a glass of water with a straw. The bendy kind if you've got one." The girl nodded like this was a perfectly reasonable request, and then Iron Man gestured toward Steve, who was sitting next to him. "He will have a glass of water and the souvlaki." Steve hoped he would actually like the souvlaki. And then Iron Man pointed at Tony, seated across the table; the stab of his gauntleted fingers was confident. "He'll have the tiropita, and a glass of the house red--"
"No," Tony said, interrupting him, his voice gone sharp and hard. His eyes were wide, almost panicked. "No wine, please. Just water."
"I happen to know you really like their wine list," Iron Man said, filtered voice fogged with confusion. "Don't you want--"
Tony's voice was tight. "No," he repeated, and he smiled sweetly at the waitress, who was staring at them in incomprehension; it didn't make much sense to Steve either. "Just water with the tiropita, please, thanks. That'll be all."
When the waitress had left, Iron Man held out his hands, palms up, hands spread; it was one of his broad gestures of confusion, as the suit didn't allow for much subtlety. "What the hell?" Iron Man asked. "You were the one who wanted to come here, you made a big deal about coming here one last time, and then you don't get the wine? I've never ordered-- I've never seen you order the tiropita with anything else. Don't you want the wine?"
Tony's face was pained. His words, when they came, were quiet. "I don't drink."
"What do you mean, you don't drink? Of course you drink."
Tony's hand curled about the napkin on the place setting in front of him. His knuckles were white with the strain. "I used to drink," said Tony, and he smiled through gritted teeth. "I had a problem. I stopped. So, yes, I want the wine. And no, I'm not having the wine."
Iron Man stared and said nothing; his eyes behind the mask were wide, stunned, and Steve couldn't figure out why it was affecting him so much. Maybe Tony had been unpleasant to him while drunk. Steve didn't know the current Tony well enough to have observed any of this, of course; he'd hardly seen the man at all. Maybe Tony did have a drinking problem. He wouldn't know.
Luckily, the food was actually good, and, as Tony had promised, Steve did enjoy the souvlaki. Tony polished off his entire serving of tiropita. Iron Man resentfully slurped water through a bendy straw and glared at Tony for most of the meal. The earlier conversation had more or less set the tone for the rest of the meal.
There was a further hitch at the end of the meal, of course, when they were presented with the check. Iron Man didn't carry a wallet in the suit. Tony did have a wallet, but his cards were only good in the future and he said something about how the cash had all mostly been redesigned in the interim decade or so.
And that, Steve thought, as he left a generous tip, is how I ended up buying lunch for a time-traveling billionaire from the future. Well. He'd had worse days, definitely.
"Thanks, Steve," said Tony, as they headed out of the restaurant and down the street. Avengers Mansion was only a leisurely walk away. "It was very nice of you to spot me lunch. I owe you one."
Steve couldn't help but smile a little. "No problem. I did enjoy the souvlaki. Thanks for suggesting it." He was wondering, as he said it, if Iron Man was feeling left out, so he turned to address his friend. "And thanks for coming, Iron Man. I always like having you around. I know you know that."
Because even though Iron Man had turned him down, they were still friends, right? Let me know who you are, Steve wanted to say, and I'll buy you lunch every day of the week.
"Same goes for me, Cap," Iron Man said, and even though Steve couldn't actually see his face, it sounded like he was smiling as he said it. For some reason Tony looked at them both and grinned like he approved, which was odd, because hadn't he said Steve and Iron Man wouldn't be friends in the future?
Tony was still grinning. "It's been good," he said, "but I really have to get back to my time, so when we get to the mansion, I'll--"
That was, of course, precisely when the spaceship landed in the middle of the street.
The ship was far, far too familiar for comfort, as was its inhabitant: a man in a futuristic suit of green and purple, face masked in an unnatural shade of blue.
Kang the Conqueror was here.
Steve let his eyes fall shut, briefly, in misery. They'd barely defeated him before; they couldn't have done it at all if not for Hank and Jan's help, as well as Rick Jones and his Teen Brigade, and none of those people were here. Just him and Iron Man. And Tony Stark, who -- no matter how much more consulting he did with the Avengers in the future -- was a civilian who needed protection first and foremost, who needed to be out of the way, who was a liability.
This was going to be rough.
He didn't even have his shield. He'd left it at the mansion.
"Iron Man," he said, and Iron Man tilted his shining head in his direction. "Could you--"
"On it," Iron Man said, and the comm in Steve's ear clicked once to Avengers frequencies, a call to assemble, and then to local emergency channels. Iron Man was telling everyone to get away, evac, set up a perimeter. There would be no news crews, no nothing. It was going to be dangerous.
Civilians were fleeing. The street cleared fast. That was good. That was maybe the only good thing about this.
As Iron Man was talking, the replies from the Avengers were filtering in: Hank and Jan were two hours away, and Thor had said he absolutely could not be spared, life-or-death matter. Someone else's death. But it was going to be theirs.
Steve moved forward, to try to step in front of Tony, to shield him with his body alone, but Tony held out a hand, fingers splayed.
"No," he said, and his voice was tense but not panicked, combat-ready, as if he could fight. "You're unarmed, Cap. You can't cover me. I'm okay."
Steve might have been unarmed, but Tony was still in vastly more danger. "Tony," he started to say, "you have to get away--"
That was when Kang spoke. "Avengers!" his voice rumbled. "How fortunate that this disturbance in the timestream has led me here." He laughed, a wild cackle on the edge of insanity. "I intend to correct it."
Tony tilted his chin up defiantly and was he crazy? He couldn't possibly talk back to Kang.
"It's me," Tony said. "And I'm going home, back to my time, just as soon as I can. Swear to God. Don't take this out on them."
Kang's gaze focused on Tony; his mouth widened in a fiendish smile. "You? Ah, you, I'll be seeing again very shortly. You and the reformed Avengers. I remember that incident very well." But then he shook his head, a curt dismissal. "It is not you that interests me. It is your good friend, the Captain," he said, and Steve stared right back as Kang's gaze lit upon him. "A man out of time, he is called. He does not belong here, and I shall send him so far in the past that you will never find him. If you beg me, I shall even ensure he finds himself at a time when this pathetic planet has developed an oxygen atmosphere."
"Like hell," Tony snarled, raising his fists and stepping forward, like he actually thought he could stand up to Kang. "I'm not letting you touch him."
There was no time to dwell on Tony's unexpected, vicious protectiveness, because then the ship was lighting up at the front, and Steve remembered this. There had been energy rays of all kinds. They were in trouble.
"Tony, get under cover!" Steve yelled.
A bright beam lanced out of the front of the ship, making the air crackle with energy. He grabbed Tony and dragged him back and sideways, flipping them both over the hood of the nearest car. They ducked down behind it, just in time, as the beam swept across where they'd been standing.
The car just behind where they had been standing was gone. Vaporized.
That had been too close.
Iron Man settled next to them, crouching. His repulsors flared into life with a high whine, charging up blue-white into combat levels.
"You can't win, Avengers!" Kang laughed. "Give him over, and I'll spare the rest of you!"
"He's not even a time-traveler! He got here fair and square! He belongs here!" Tony yelled back, and Steve wanted to shake him and tell him not to mouth off to Kang. Surely in the future the Avengers had told him about Kang. He should have known this.
One of the weapons on the ship swiveled and recalibrated itself, tracking Tony's voice, and Iron Man's gauntleted hands clamped onto Tony: one over his mouth, one on his shoulder. He dragged Tony left just as Steve rolled right, which was good because then the weapon flared bright and the car they had been crouched behind no longer existed.
"Shut up," Iron Man hissed, his filtered voice hoarse with anger. "I know you care about him, but you're not... you're not armed... and you're not in any condition to fight. Stop."
"I'm armed," Tony hissed back, and Steve hadn't seen a gun on him, so what did he mean? He'd never seen Tony with a gun -- but, hell, he made guns, he could probably use them. "Unlike Steve, who is not armed and who needs our help. If you think I'm going to let Kang waltz in here and take him away--"
Iron Man froze for a split second too long at the first words. "You're not," he said. "You can't possibly be armed, and even if you were, you know what that would do. You promised. I can handle it. Stay out of it."
What the hell were they talking about?
"Fucking make me," Tony said, practically spitting in Iron Man's face. "You want me to stop, you have to stop me. If anything happens to him, I'll-- hey, what the hell? Put me down!"
Iron Man grabbed him bodily and shot up into the air, carrying Tony up to the roof of the building they were currently next to. Ten, maybe fifteen stories high, easy. Steve exhaled. At least Tony was safe for the duration of the fight, all the way up there. He'd be up there until Iron Man got him down.
Iron Man swooped back, landing on the opposite side of the street. Kang tracked him but didn't make a move, which made sense if Kang was really only interested in Steve here.
Iron Man's voice crackled in Steve's ear, over the comms. At least Steve still had the comms in the cowl, even if he didn't have his shield. "Okay, Cap," Iron Man said, his voice gone terse, no nonsense. "Without your shield you can't hit him at a distance, and you can't jump in swinging because if you get close he'll be able to send you back to the dinosaurs."
"I don't like those options," Steve said into the comms, as he crawled along the sidewalk on elbows and knees, to curl beside the next car down, keeping it between him and Kang.
"I know you don't." Iron Man sighed static. "Here's the best I've got: I'm the only one of us with offensive capability, so you have to play bait and I'll blast him back into the ship."
It was a risky plan, but it was the only thing they could do, with no other heavy-hitters -- or any hitters. Iron Man was right.
"How is it playing bait if I'm actually what he wants?" Steve asked, but he was tensing to stand up. "Okay, in five seconds, I'll get up and draw fire. Running to my right, your left. Go."
He stood up, turned, and sprinted to the next car -- the very last one on the block -- diving behind it as an energy beam sizzled above his head. He heard the familiar crackle of repulsor fire, and then silence.
"I think that was a success--" Iron Man's voice cut off. "He's getting up again!"
"We have another problem," Steve said, looking at the street corner next to him, at the feet and feet of unguarded, open space. "I'm all out of cars."
"Cross the street. I'll cover you. Ten seconds. Five seconds."
"Going," Steve said, and he pushed himself up, and he sprinted for cover--
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Iron Man dive in, palms bright, firing from both hands. Kang went down, but he had a hand on his belt, triggering something as he fell, and then the ray firing from his ship was bright purple, aimed at Steve, and it hit him dead in the chest--
He couldn't move. All of his muscles gave way, and he collapsed on his side in the middle of the street like a puppet with cut strings, crashing hard into the concrete. He could barely see Kang, with the way his head was tilted; mostly he could see the tops of the nearby buildings. But he could tell when Kang was standing again, because he was walking toward him, grinning in triumph.
"Since we met last," Kang sneered, "I have improved my paralysis fields. Now, as you see, they are beam weapons, and impervious to the tricks your compatriots tried. I shall merely need a moment to calibrate the time beam for your long, long journey, Captain."
He could see a red-gold blur, edged with repulsor blue, and he knew Iron Man was pulling up, swinging around for another attack pass.
"You'll have to go through me first!" Iron Man's mechanical voice was a snarl of defiance.
"That can be arranged," Kang said, imperiously, and he held out his hand.
Another beam lashed out from the spacecraft, blue and deadly, targeting Iron Man, catching him square in the torso. Iron Man flew back and up, flung out of control. He smashed into a building on the far side of the ship. Brickwork fell. Metal screeched. Iron Man fell to the ground with a clash and clatter. Steve couldn't see him anymore.
Even the filtered voice was raspy. "I'm all right, Cap," Iron Man said, and there was an awful wet coughing over the comms. "Suit's not so hot, though. Movement in maybe thirty seconds. Weapons are down, maybe one minute. Flight in about two minutes. Rerouting power now. Hold on. Just hold on, please, Steve. If you can move, do it now."
I can't move, Steve wanted to say, but he couldn't even talk. He couldn't move his mouth.
Kang took another step toward him. "Your friends cannot help you, Captain," he said. "And in... hmm... approximately fifteen seconds, you will cease to be a thorn in my side. And theirs. You might even thank me, later."
No, he tried to say, but he was frozen.
He could just barely see movement on top of one of the tall buildings, the building where Iron Man had deposited Tony. Was that Tony? He shouldn't be able to see Tony at all, not unless Tony was standing... right next to the edge.
Tony was at the edge of the roof. Was he going to jump? Was he insane? He couldn't possibly want to die. That kind of fall would kill him.
He was too high up to register as more than a dark-clad figure, but it was definitely Tony. He spread his arms wide, high, up to his shoulders, like a diver preparing for a swan dive. Don't, Steve wanted to say, to scream. Tony, no.
Then Tony's voice crackled in his ear.
"I'm sorry," Tony said. "I'm breaking my promise."
He was on Avengers comms; how was he on their comms? His voice was tight with determination, and Steve could hear him take a ragged breath after he spoke. He was going to jump. He was bending his knees. He had to be suicidal. Why? Why would he do this?
Steve wished he could shut his eyes, turn his head, look away. He didn't want to see this.
And then he wasn't Tony anymore.
As Tony fell, arms outstretched, the business suit seemed to melt away from him, and liquid gold pooled over his skin. Something in his chest glowed, a huge blue-white circle, like one of Iron Man's repulsors writ large. And over the gold metal there was something else shining, armor forming up, red and metallic, and then his hands and feet flared blue-white to match the light in his chest. He fell faster. A helmet came up over his head, faceplate snapping into place from above like pulling a hood up, and the eyeslits glowed the same blue-white.
It was Iron Man's armor. It was Iron Man's armor of a sort that the current Tony Stark could only dream of inventing, from years in the future. It was sleek and shining and glowing with power. And Tony was flying it like he'd been born to it.
Tony was Iron Man.
He could only watch as Tony flung his hands out, banked, leveled out, and then dove again. He wasn't falling anymore; he was unmistakably flying. Before Steve could really understand what was happening, Tony pulled himself up to vertical and leaned back like he was stretching. A beam ten times more massive than Steve had ever seen came from the middle of his chest, hit Kang, and knocked him into the nearest building.
Then Tony was at Steve's side, landing in a three-point crouch, both feet and one hand on the ground. The circle in his chest was still glowing, and smaller blue-white circles surrounded it, dotting his torso, arms, hands, and legs. He looked like a living network of repulsor nodes.
"Steve!" he said, and it was Iron Man's altered voice coming from the suit, but it was Tony in the suit, he'd seen him, he'd seen him. "Can you-- no, of course you can't walk. Can you talk? No?" He didn't even wait for a response. "Okay, okay, shhh, Steve, I've got you. It's all right. I'm not going to let you go."
Steve was completely limp, and so it was easy for Tony to gather him up, one arm under his knees, another under his shoulders, turned a little so that Steve's head was braced and not lolling back. Tony must have had some experience doing this. Carrying him. Like they'd fought together before.
Then they were in flight.
Tony put him down on the roof of a much, much shorter building, setting him down gently, making sure he wasn't leaning in an uncomfortable position against the retaining wall.
The faceplate of the suit flipped up, and then it was Tony staring at him, face surrounded by red and gold, skin pale. "Are you all right? No, you still can't answer, can you?" His eyes were tense, worried. "The two of us can handle Kang without you -- hell, with what he's currently packing I can handle him solo -- but if you start feeling better, you're welcome to hop down and join us. I'm on your comms. This building should be short enough that you can get down, no problem."
He flipped the faceplate down again.
"Tony?" Steve tried to say, groggily, his tongue too thick in his mouth. The noise that came from him didn't sound much like any word of English. "Iron Man?"
"Oh, thank God, the paralysis is wearing off." The relief in Tony's filtered voice was genuine. "We'll talk about it later. We'll talk about everything later. Kang first."
Tony -- Iron Man? -- took a few steps toward the edge of the roof, and then his boot jets flared bright as he jumped off and flew back down into the fight.
Tony was Iron Man. Maybe that was why he hadn't wanted to talk about Iron Man. He became an Avenger in the future, he'd said, so obviously he'd become Iron Man. And the Iron Man Steve knew, the one Tony hadn't wanted to talk about -- something must have happened to him. Maybe he'd given up the job and Tony'd replaced him himself. Christ, what if he'd died? Maybe his Iron Man was dead, and Tony hadn't wanted to tell him.
(His Iron Man. As if Iron Man were his. Iron Man had told him no.)
No, he told himself, that didn't make any sense. There was something he was missing.
His coordination came back in pieces, gross motor skills first, and he slowly dragged himself to the lip of the building to watch the fight. Tony and Iron Man must have switched to private comms, because he couldn't hear them, but they fought together like they'd been partnered all their lives, circling Kang and his craft, swooping down in coordinated attack runs, strafing the ground.
They made one pass, two, three, and then at some signal Steve wasn't privy to, Iron Man made his lowest pass yet, dropping slowly, barely evading the beam that swung to follow him. Kang turned, grinning, no doubt anticipating his victory--
Tony landed behind Kang and hit him hard with both repulsors. He never saw it coming.
Kang arced into the air, landing in the open door of his ship, skidding all the way in.
Tony pushed his faceplate up again. "Go," he said, voice low and deadly. "Leave. You can't have him. If you know me at all you know exactly what I'm willing to do for him. And you won't like it."
From inside the ship, Kang laughed, but the sound was pained, slow to come, like he'd been injured. "You have no idea what you're willing to do for him. But you'll learn that soon enough, when everything dies. And you'll find you won't like it either."
"It's a risk I'm willing to take," Tony said. He was standing braced to attack, palms still raised, repulsors glowing.
The door slowly, slowly began to close.
"On your head be it," Kang intoned.
The door shut, and his spaceship lifted off, flying up and into the sky.
Steve shook his head dazedly. He couldn't think, he really couldn't. He started to climb down.
By the time Steve had picked his way to the ground, Tony was back in his business suit -- how had that happened? -- and he and Iron Man were standing in the middle of the street, leaning toward each other, arguing heatedly. Neither of them seemed to notice him.
Iron Man was a wreck; the paint was scraped all down one side of him, and there were visible dents in the armor, but his voice was fierce. "I can't believe you did that," Iron Man snapped, voice shaking with something that could have been anger. Or fear.
"Oh, excuse me," Tony shot back, his voice raised. "Did you actually want me to let Kang send Steve back to The Land Before Time?"
"Do you have any idea what you've done?"
"I know exactly what I did," Tony said. "I coped, and mine was worse, thanks, and I didn't get a choice either, and this way at least Steve--"
"I'm right here, you know," Steve said, mildly.
Tony jumped and turned to face him. Over Tony's shoulder, Iron Man's bright-blue gaze -- wide-eyed, maybe a little afraid -- locked with his.
Tony and Iron Man had the same eyes.
Tony hadn't taken over the job from Iron Man in the future. Tony was Iron Man because he'd always been Iron Man. He'd never stopped being Iron Man.
It made so much sense. The way he'd never seen the two of them together before now. The way Iron Man had reacted to Tony -- he wasn't angry at his boss at all. The way he'd been worried about the future. The way Iron Man had built the time machine, keeping pace with Tony. And, most of all, the secret they had both shared. Their identity.
"You," Steve began, pointing a finger at Tony. "You're Iron Man."
Tony's mouth twitched. "Guilty as charged."
"So you," he continued, turning to level his finger at Iron Man, "you're--"
Iron Man wouldn't let him finish the sentence. "Yeah," he said, softly, like the word was being dragged out of him. He sighed, a heavy burst of static. "That's me." He sounded nervous, wary. Like he was afraid of what Steve would say or do. "I'm not taking the helmet off here, though. We're in public."
Tony reached over and flicked a finger against the armor; it rang, dully. He gave a critical frown, craning his neck to examine something about the scraped plating on Iron Man's back. "You can't take the helmet off at all, can you? I saw that hit. The cervical section's twisted right where the helmet release catches are."
There was a contemplative silence.
"No," Iron Man -- Tony? -- admitted. "I'm stuck."
"Well," Tony said, grinning a little. "You've got the guy who designed this armor and wore variations on this model for about five years, so I think we can make something happen. We've also got a guy with super-strength. If he wants to help." His gaze flicked over to Steve and he bit his lip, a minute, convulsive motion; the words were not quite as casual as they sounded.
"Of course I'll help," Steve said, instantly. Why wouldn't he? It was Iron Man. No matter who Iron Man was. And then it hit him again: Iron Man was Tony. He knew the man under the mask. Hell, he was looking at him right now. "Just-- why didn't you tell us? Why didn't you tell me? Why the charade?"
Iron Man sighed. "It was-- it was easy. And then once I'd started, I had to keep going."
"He means he was fucking terrified," Tony said, cheerfully, and Iron Man turned to glare at him. "He was afraid you'd kick him off the team if you knew, and-- what? Am I ruining your speech? I'm pretty sure you didn't have a speech planned for this moment."
"You know entirely too much about me," Iron Man said, disgusted.
"Yes," Tony agreed, "and I'm willing to cop to it. Now that the secret's out, such as it is. God, I haven't had to pretend I wasn't myself to you in about a decade, Cap. That was lousy."
Steve could see Iron Man rolling his eyes under the mask. "Yes, your feelings are the important thing here."
"Hey, they're your feelings too."
"Iron Man," Steve said, and both of them looked up, reflexively, and he grinned a little. "It's all right. It is. My feelings haven't changed."
He couldn't see Iron Man's face, of course, but Tony shut his eyes for a second and looked away, and when he opened his eyes again his gaze was more than a little misty. "God, Steve, I wish," he said, and then he didn't finish the sentence.
Steve cleared his throat. "Is there something else I should know?"
Tony shook his head. "Nothing you can--" His voice was hoarse, raw, and he caught his breath and tried again. "It doesn't matter. Just... stay friends, all right? Talk to each other."
He wanted to stay friends. He wanted to be more than friends. He couldn't imagine not wanting to be Iron Man's friend. Tony's friend. Of course he'd talk to him.
"I can do that," he said.
Tony smiled once, a slow, sad curve of his lips, and he turned in the direction of the mansion. "Good," he said. "Maybe it'll help."
"Keep your head forward," Tony said, as Iron Man bent his armored chin to his chest, "and hold still. I have a vested interest in getting you out of this in one piece, okay?"
They were in the basement workshop, and Tony had unrecognizable tools in both hands, some kind of futuristic tiny screwdrivers, and he was working at a twisted panel on the back of Iron Man's neck.
"I do as well," Steve added. What Tony was doing looked awfully precarious, though. "Are you sure you're okay there, with the removal?"
Without looking up, Tony nodded. "I'm good, but I'd like a hand in a bit. I'll let you know when. Don't worry, I've done this before. While I was in the suit, even."
Steve squinted and decided he couldn't even picture that. "How does that work?"
"Hacksaw," Tony said, matter-of-factly, working a small flat-bladed screwdriver under the edge of the panel and levering it up. "And several conveniently-placed mirrors."
Steve winced. "And if I asked you about how your medical care works?" The Avengers had always assumed Tony was getting Iron Man bandaged up, but, well, they were the same man -- and there were a lot of things you couldn't fix by yourself. And Tony had a heart condition, Christ.
Tony's mouth twisted, rueful. "How about you ask him that after I leave?"
"If it's any consolation, I've done even riskier things with my physical health since," said Tony, all false cheer. "A few bruises and scrapes is really nothing."
"It's not any consolation. Or nothing."
"Aww," Tony said. "That's my Cap."
Iron Man grumbled something low that Steve couldn't quite catch; Tony had started by cutting some of the circuitry, so the filters and microphones were gone, and it was only a muffled echoing voice in the helmet. Tony's voice.
"Yeah, I know this wasn't how you pictured telling anyone the truth," Tony said, patting Iron Man on the shoulder; apparently he'd understood the words. "You got off easier than I did."
Steve blinked. "It didn't -- doesn't? -- happen like this, when you come from?"
Tony shook his head. "Nope. A couple years from now, we're all on a mission, and the villain decides to strip me out of my armor in front of the team." His grin was a little bit salacious again. "That was... revealing. Literally. Mostly because I was wearing very tiny underwear and nothing else."
Steve's mouth was dry. God, he could picture that so easily; it was like one of his fantasies come to life. "Um."
"Well," Tony said, and he winked. "Maybe if you ask one of us very nicely." The words had been an invitation, but he had winked, like it was a joke, like he didn't think Steve ever would have asked, like he didn't think Steve wanted this with all of his soul.
Iron Man made an inarticulate noise of complaint.
"Yeah, yeah, getting you out of here." The back of Iron Man's neck was unarmored, and Tony gestured at it. "You're up, Steve. Can you reach in and bend back that catch on the spine, just there, without putting undue pressure on his skin?"
"Got it," Steve said, and slid his palm across Iron Man's bare neck, down and under the remains of the armor, against his skin, and he'd dreamed about this for months. He bent the catch all the way back easily and extricated his fingers.
Iron Man wrenched off the helmet with a ripping, creaking sound, and then Tony -- his Tony -- was sitting there, helmet between his hands. His hair was plastered to his head with sweat, there was a bruise on his temple, and there was a clotting scrape on his chin. It was really Tony there, under the suit. Iron Man's secret identity. There were no secrets now.
Tony's gaze went to Steve, then to the other Tony, and he licked his lips once, nervously. "Hi, Winghead," he said. His voice was hoarse.
"Hi, Shellhead," Steve returned, and the tiniest smile flickered across Tony's face. "Do you need medical attention?"
Tony shook his head. "I'm fine. The suit scanned me. No concussion. Never passed out or anything like that. Nothing broken." Steve hated that this was what counted as good.
The future Tony grinned at them almost benevolently, like he was taking credit for this. "Shall I leave you two to get better acquainted?"
"All right." Steve took one breath, then another, and he figured there was no time like the present, so he turned to Tony. Iron Man. His Tony. "So when you said you'd go on a date with me once I knew who you were, did you still mean that?"
"Whoa," said the other Tony. "Okay, that's a thing that never happened. Oh my God. I'll just-- I'll be outside if you need me."
There was the rhythm of quickly-receding footsteps, and then the workshop door slammed shut.
"I, uh," Tony said, and his eyes darted around the empty room, not settling. "To be fair, when I said that, I didn't think it was going to happen less than four hours later."
It felt like he was standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down. Like he might fall, or he might fly, and he didn't know which.
"You don't really know me," Tony said, softly, miserably. "I know you thought you did, but you know who I really am now. I know I'm not who you thought I was. I know I lied. How can you want this, when you don't know me?"
"I know Iron Man."
"Iron Man is constructed," Tony said, voice twisted and bitter. "Iron Man is a mask. Iron Man is a hero. As for me -- hell, where do I start? I'm obsessed with my work. My future self is right and I probably do drink too much. I push people I care about away. All of them. I'll never be able to do enough good in the world. It'll never be enough. I've made so many mistakes. I'm not... I'm not like you. I'm just a man. I know what you must think of me. You've had plenty of time to make up your mind."
"You couldn't be Iron Man if everything Iron Man was wasn't already part of you," Steve said, and Tony paused, caught in the middle of a breath. "You're a hero. If you don't want to... give this a try, us together, then that's fair. I'll back off. But if you're saying no because you're scared -- I'm scared too. I want this so much. I don't want to lose you. We can be scared together." He swallowed hard. "I'm human too, you know."
And then Tony was standing, stepping forward, kissing him. It was awkward, tentative, nothing he would have expected from Tony Stark, the playboy, but everything he would have expected from his friend Iron Man, who'd yearned for him in return.
Tony's armor scraped against the mail of Steve's uniform, and Steve winced at the discordant jangle.
"How do we get you out of the rest of this?"
Tony gave him a crooked grin, the same grin the other Tony had been showing off so lazily, but there was real promise behind this one. "Buy me dinner first, Cap."
"I bought you lunch," Steve pointed out, grinning back.
"That was him," Tony said, holding his arms out. "You bought me water. Catches down the sides, starting under the arms. Two each on the torso, one set on the hips, a few more on my legs. Can you do one more thing for me after that, before we head back out there?"
"Sure, anything." Steve flipped the first set of catches.
Tony reached one metallic finger up, tapped his own throat. "Hickey, please. I'm gonna make myself so jealous."
Steve laughed and leaned in to kiss him.
Ten minutes later Tony had multiple bruises decorating his throat, and they walked out of the workshop holding hands.
The other Tony was sitting at the briefing table with his feet up on the table and tossing the time-machine bauble from hand to hand. He glanced over at the two of them, and for an instant there was an awful, desolate longing on his face, quickly covered with a smirk as he stood up. "What are you, teenagers?"
"Look," Tony said, returning the smirk, "I can be jealous of your tech, you can be jealous of my love life. We're even. You have to tell me more about that armor, by the way. I saw that some of it was stored in your body -- impressive -- but what the hell is powering all that? What's in your chest now?"
"Repulsor," the other Tony said, briskly, tapping his sternum. "Giant fucking repulsor. More or less. Mostly more."
"But that's not-- that's just energy. You've got to have something else implanted." Tony said, looking confused. "Your heart--"
"My heart's been perfectly fine for a couple years now," he said, and Tony's face rose and fell, like someone had shown him everything he'd ever wanted and then said he couldn't have it, Tantalus tortured with a meal. The other Tony saw his expression and sighed. "I know, I know. But you're not going to like the trade-off when you get here, trust me. If you get here." He frowned. "But with the way your present's going, it seems like your future might be different."
"Because of me?" Steve asked.
And there was that expression on the other Tony's face again, lonely and heartsick. "Yeah. The Steve in my time, he doesn't-- he's never-- he wouldn't ever. Want me."
The other Tony's laugh was bitter. "You don't know what happened. Hell, technically I don't know what happened. And you don't know him."
"I am him," Steve said, confidence curling in him, like being in battle and knowing he was exactly where he was meant to be. "I know. All you have to do is tell him."
"It's not--" the other Tony exhaled hard-- "it's not that easy. There's been so much between us. So much has changed. You're not even Captain America anymore."
He shrugged. "It's... complicated. I have to say, you're really in favor of the replacement guy, though. That's a thing to look forward to, when you get to where I'm from. You'll like him."
"Okay," Steve said, confused. "I-- thank you?"
"No problem. Thanks for the optimism," he said, with an unconvinced air that, as clear as anything, meant he didn't actually believe that Steve could like him back.
"It's not just optimism," Steve said, insistent, because Tony should know. He meant this. "I heard you talking to Kang. I know what you told me, earlier. And if this is how you feel, how you really feel, then you have to tell him. If you'd do anything for him, then do this. He needs to know."
"He does. For his sake. For my sake, then. I know he feels the same way."
"No promises," the other Tony said, and then, very quietly. "But maybe. Maybe."
Steve couldn't push him any further. "All right."
"It's been... interesting... to see you," Tony -- his Tony -- put in. "Good luck in the future."
The other Tony tossed the bauble in the air once more before setting it down and pressing a button on the side of the sphere. A portal -- perpendicular to the floor this time -- shimmered into being, crackling once again with energy.
"Well," the other Tony said, "it's been a trip. Let's do the time warp again. I'd tell you not to do anything I wouldn't do, but I think that would be entirely pointless. Hmm. Everybody try to avoid making sentient robots. Mostly Hank, but that goes for you too, self."
He turned toward the portal.
"Wait," Steve said, and before he could think about what he was doing he was stepping forward and wrapping his arms around the other Tony, who melted into his embrace like a city besieged, all walls falling, like he'd wanted this for years.
And then he kissed Tony once, softly, a brush of lips against lips, and Tony drew back in surprise. There were tears in his eyes.
"You're not him," he whispered. "But thank you."
He put his palms flat against Steve's chest, pushed him away, and stepped backwards into the portal.
It flared bright, and then the future Tony Stark was gone.
"Well," Tony said, dryly, from the other side of the room, and only then did it occur to Steve that Tony might have minded. "That was something."
"It's all right," Tony said, unbothered. "He's me, I'm him, I'm not holding anything against you, and he clearly needed it. Also I probably would have slept with myself, if you'll recall our earlier conversation. It would be hypocritical to object."
"I suppose," Steve agreed.
Tony stepped up beside him, wrapped an arm around him. "Did he ever tell you what he was so upset about, in the future? He didn't tell me."
"Only that we weren't friends right then, and he didn't seem to like it," Steve said, and he had to close his eyes. The very thought was distressing.
Tony's other arm came around him, pulled him tight. "I think we can do better."
"Better than friends," Tony breathed, and then he was kissing him, laughing against Steve's mouth. Tony, Iron Man, his friend, his teammate, everything he'd wanted -- he was right here.
The future was bright. Whatever had gone wrong wouldn't happen. Whatever happened, they'd have each other. It would be good. They would make it good. Together.