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who will be there (to take my place)

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The last time Steve looked this happy, it was because - after months of a cat-and-mouse chase - the Winter Soldier had finally agreed to return to the tower with them. But only after appearing soundlessly behind Clint and scaring the hell out of him. To this day, Tony holds the memory of Clint screaming like a five-year-old and falling out of a tree near and dear to his heart.

It's unfortunate he can't enjoy this moment quite as much.

"But - how?" Steve says for about the tenth time, putting a hand to the glass, fingers outstretched. His eyes are shining and Bucky, just behind him, looks a little sick, and Tony would sympathize with him if it weren't for the fact that his heart is skipping so many beats that he has one hand on the arc reactor, just to make sure that it's still functioning the way it's supposed to.

"We're not sure yet," Jane says, lifting a hand as though to push her glasses up her nose, only to stop halfway there and instead frown distractedly. She looks around the room for a few seconds, then turns to Steve and sighs. "We've been running the data from the scans we got, but honestly? It's a mystery. It could be time travel or it could be a parallel universe or it could be a pocket dimension or some form of all of the above. The only thing we're sure of is that they're not clones."

"This is all the data we've compiled so far." Darcy offers their tablet to Bruce, who takes it and begins flicking rapidly through the pages.

"Thank god for small miracles," Tony mutters, because seeing one version of Howard Stark and Peggy Carter is more than enough, and he doesn't even want to think about what would happen if it turned out there was a possibility of more clones.

Darcy and Jane both look at him with identical expressions of sympathy. A little more gently, Jane says, "Darcy put a call in to Reed Richards. He's got some tests of his own to run that might shed some more light on the subject. And of course, you and Dr. Banner are more than welcome to join us. That's actually why we called you. I thought that you and Steve would be the best people to tell whether or not these versions of Mr. Stark and Miss Carter match up with what you remember. That is to say, we're attempting to eliminate time travel as a theory."

"It's not magic," says Thor. "Or at least, not a version I recognize."

"Does Fury know you called us?" Clint asks. He's hanging back with Natasha and Thor, hands shoved in his pockets. Natasha is doing her best impression of a stone, whereas Thor is clearly unsettled. Like he wants to be happy, but he's picking up on Tony's mood and maybe Bucky's too and isn't sure if he should be.

Steve, for his part, is completely oblivious to the rest of them. "Can I talk to them, then?"

"Yes and yes," Fury says, sweeping into the room in as dramatic an entrance as ever, followed quickly by Coulson. Coulson's wearing that bland expression that means he and Fury have just had an epic stare-down (seriously, Tony's witnessed them doing it, and it's terrifying) which means that Fury probably didn't know until about five minutes ago. He shoots Coulson a grateful look from under his lashes, and gets a slow blink by way of answer.

"Wait, what do they know?" says Bucky, putting a hand on Steve's shoulder. Not restraining, but more like he wants to remind Steve he's there, and good luck with that. Tony is torn between feeling sorry for Bucky and pissed at Steve. Bucky and Steve have been dancing around each other for months. This has to suck.

Tony contemplates, during the two seconds that Jane and Darcy look at each other again, what might happen if Steve runs off with Peggy. Maybe Bucky could find comfort in Tony instead. And then he takes another look at the expression on Bucky's face and officially feels like the worst person the world. He thought he had resigned himself to gracefully stepping aside for the world's greatest love story, but apparently not.

"A lot," Darcy says finally, with a rueful twist of her mouth. "Like... a lot."

"Define a lot," Tony says.

"Like... if they're time travelers, we might have to create some of memory eraser gun to make them forget."

"I want to talk to them," Steve says determinedly, like he might just break down the door in the next two minutes, and Fury nods at him.

"You've got thirty minutes," he says, but Steve's not listening, slipping out from under Bucky's hand and shoving the door open. Through the glass, Tony watches as Peggy and Howard turn around. He can't help wondering if it hurts Bucky when Steve bounds forward and hauls Peggy into a big hug as much as it hurts Tony to see Bucky and Steve together on a regular basis.

It takes at least a minute, but Howard finally speaks. "Steve, oh my god, it's true. We found you," he says, touching Steve's shoulder reverently, and Tony winces.

Steve grins. "Yeah, you did. Thanks for looking for me, Howard."

Howard just nods, looking flummoxed.

Peggy keeps repeating Steve's name in this stunned, teary voice, until at last she gets out, "I thought I'd never see you again."

"I know. I missed our date. I'm sorry."

Peggy laughs as her eyes well up with fresh tears. "Don't apologize. It's fine."

It's not fine and no one knows that as well as Tony. His legs are numb, and even Clint's elbow in his spine doesn't restore any feeling. He stumbles into the room and Howard, Peggy and Steve all look at him. A lot of the happiness slips away from Howard's face, and if it weren't for the fact that Bucky is right behind him, Tony might have actually turned and fled. He doesn't need to be here. He's just butting in on a reunion some seventy years in the making. But now he can't move at all, not with Bucky so close behind him.

"Tony," Howard says, surprisingly neutral.

"Tony," Peggy says at the same time, and Tony's stomach does a flip. Peggy hasn't said his name like that in years, not since Alzheimer's took her away. Now when he visits her, she thinks that Tony is Howard and that Tony is still a little boy. He's missed it - missed her - with a ferocity that makes his chest hurt.

Before he can say anything back to her, Howard makes a familiar, impatient gesture. Two crooked fingers, already turning away, and oh look at that - turns out that Tony can move after all, following him automatically into a corner of the room, where they can speak without being heard. Peggy stays beside Steve, but her head turns to watch them.

"You found him," Howard says without preamble, folding his arms. "Good job."

For a split second, Tony wants to laugh. The only time in his life he's ever heard those words, and of course it would be because of Steve. "I didn't find him. SHIELD did."

"You canceled my expeditions?"

"Obie did."

"He wouldn't."

"Yeah, he did," Tony says flatly, because Howard has no fucking clue, and this is not something that Tony can go into right now. "He thought they were a waste of time."

"Then why didn't you correct him?"

It's Tony's fault, of course it is. "Because I thought he was right."

Howard visibly swells with anger. "It was written in my will that the expeditions for Captain America's body would continue," he says, and though the words themselves aren't necessarily a threat, the tone is. It's one Tony remembers all too well: low and cutting.

"I guess Obie found some way around it," Tony says, hating how meek his voice sounds. He tries to gather himself together, but it's like standing on the edge of a cliff with the ground crumbling under his feet, and there's just no way to regain his footing.

"You should have stopped him. You should've -"

"Howard."

That's all Peggy says, but it's enough. Howard stops cold, both of their heads swiveling to watch Peggy cross the room. She cuts a striking figure in her dark pink suit, bearing down on Howard like some kind of avenging angel, and Howard squares his shoulders like he's preparing to be reamed out. It's a situation that is very, very familiar to Tony.

As a child, Tony never could understand why his father allowed Peggy, of all people, to talk to him the way she did, when other, more important people were fired (or worse) for a lot less. He remembers hearing them get into some serious fights, usually over Tony, that resulted in Howard storming off and Peggy with spots of color high in her face. But no matter how mad they got at each other, even if it was less than twice a year sometimes due to her work, she always came back.

"We could've found Steve sooner," Howard says, chin jutting up stubbornly. "And that's not even taking into account -"

"What's done is done, and you can't change it now. Leave Tony alone." Peggy's eyes are dark in the bright lights of the room, and she doesn't step in front of Tony the way she would have back then, but it feels like she does. Tony's always been kind of short, but this is the first time in a very long time that he's felt small.

"Mind your own business, Peg. This is between my son and me."

Peggy folds her arms. "That didn't work on me six years ago, Howard Stark, and it won't work now."

"If you would just -"

"Just what? Just what?"

It's a dare, and Howard's two seconds away from taking it when he looks over Peggy's shoulder and sees - well, Tony doesn't dare turn around, but he's pretty sure Howard's looking at Steve. Howard's cheeks flush even though the rest of his face goes pale, and he doesn't spare Peggy or Tony a look as he strides over to the door of the room.

"It's temporary," he says, voice gone flat again, and the back of Tony's neck prickles with nerves. "It was supposed to last 24 hours. Only 3 hours left."

Just 3 left, and Tony's left feeling nauseous when Howard storms out and Peggy turns to him. Her expression doesn't exactly soften; Peggy is a hard woman, all angles, but her hands are warm when she cups his cheek exactly the way she always used to when Tony was a kid.

"Antonio," she says, and his breath catches. "If Jarvis and Anna and Angie could see you now."

"They'd probably have heart attacks, Aunt Peg," Tony says, trying for a smile that doesn't fit right. He was the one to insist that Peggy call him that when he was just a dumb little kid, even though the name sounded odd rolling off Peggy's tongue, mostly because it used to make Howard mad. Jarvis always called him "Master Tony", while Anna preferred a simple "Tony". Angie always had a hundred different nicknames ready at any given time; Tony had learned the bad habit from her.

Peggy snorts. "No, they would figure out a way to help me give your father a heart attack and then Jarvis could bury the body."

"Aunt Peg." Tony shoots her a look, putting his own hands over hers when she smirks at him.

She doesn't know even a quarter of what he's done over the years. The knowledge weighs heavily on Tony's shoulders. He wishes she'd been there. He wishes he'd let her be there. It seemed easier, after that horrible month during which he lost his parents, Jarvis and Anna in one fell swoop, to push Peggy and Angie away. They were busy anyway, with the SSR that would later become SHIELD, and Tony just - he didn't want to hear any of it. Then Angie passed away, and Peggy started getting sick, and sometimes he doesn't know where it all went so wrong.

"Antonio -"

"Steve," Tony blurts out, because his throat is tight. "You should - you've only got three hours, and I'll be there when you get back, right?"

"Yes," Peggy says slowly, dragging the word out the same way Natasha does, like she sees right through his bullshit. Who is Tony kidding, of course she does. He squeezes her hands and then takes a step back, letting go.

"I'll just - " He makes a lame gesture in the direction of the door and scuttles out of the room, keeping his eyes locked on the ground. He can feel her - their - eyes on his back as he goes, but he doesn't dare turn around, because that would mean acknowledging way too much.

They came as a team on the quinjet, but it's easy to call the armor and escape from the helicarrier. Tony flees back to the tower, grateful for both the helmet and, later, the lack of lighting that hide the tears on his face when the armor is removed. Not that JARVIS would judge him. God knows the A.I. has seen him in situations a hundred times worse than this.

But it feels shameful, somehow, to be crying over Aunt Peggy, when he didn't see her for years, when she died not three months ago and Tony stopped visiting her again not long after the Battle of New York. He couldn't take sitting there while she believed him to be Howard, particularly when bad days became more common than the good days. So he stopped going. Told himself that she wouldn't miss him anyway, not when she still thought that Tony Stark was a mischievous five-year-old.

He went to her funeral, but he stayed at the back the whole time and left before anyone - especially Steve - knew that he was there.

It was his choice, but that didn't make it hurt any less. Never does. Standing here in the dark crying isn't solving the problem, though. So he does what dear old dad taught him to do: he knocks back a drink, wipes the tears from his face and heads down to the workshop, fully intending to immerse himself in an engineering binge that will last until he forgets why he came down.

He doesn't get nearly as far as he thinks he will.

"Sir," JARVIS says before Tony can even get into a project, "Sergeant Barnes is demanding entrance to the workshop."

"What? Why?" Tony says, honestly bewildered.

"He refuses to give a reason, sir, beyond expressing a desire to see you."

"Um... let him in, I guess."

The workshop doors obligingly sweep open, and Bucky immediately enters. For once, he doesn't stop to greet any of the 'bots. He walks straight over to Tony and -

Bucky hugs him.

Tony... might blank out for a moment. Or two. His brain temporarily transforms into a shitty Microsoft product and does a blue screen. He doesn't even breathe, much less hug back, but that doesn't stop Bucky. Oh no, if anything Bucky seems to take that as permission to tighten his grip and hug Tony even harder.

"Dumbass," he says softly, the word meant for Tony's ears alone. "Why'd you take off?"

"Steve." The word comes to Tony's lips automatically, and his brain slowly cranks back into gear. "I - that's why they were there, really. To see Steve. I didn't want to interfere."

Bucky snorts. "Yeah, cause god forbid you actually do something for yourself for once," he says, a hint of Brooklyn drawl seeping in. "Natalia says you knew her."

"I - kind of."

"Kind of? You either did or you didn't, and you're not the kind of guy to call someone 'Aunt' for no reason."

Tony flinches at that. Yeah, that was a stupid move on his part. Four years of keeping his connection to Peggy a secret and he fucks it up that easily, long after he thought it was safe. Good job.

"Hey," Bucky says, at once a warning and a comfort. "Not what I meant."

"She and my dad were friends. She used to visit when I was a kid. I saw her a lot less after Howard died," Tony says to the wall over Bucky's shoulder, unable to bring himself to pull back and look Bucky in the eyes.

Bucky's quiet for a few seconds. "Idiot," he says finally. "You've been hiding this, even during her funeral... why?"

"Because."

"Because isn't an answer."

"That's rich, coming from you," Tony says, but he can't summon the kind of anger that he wants to. He just feels tired. Tired and deflated. He squirms out of Bucky's embrace, even though he'd much rather stay exactly where he was. Is it funny or just cruel that he's finally got Bucky's attention now when he's not even sure he wants it?

"Tony."

"Because she was Steve's, okay? It was just - from the moment he woke up, you and Peggy were all he could talk about, and I didn't - he would've asked me questions about her and Howard, and I couldn't -" The panic that's been itching under his skin ever since he first saw Peggy and Howard through the glass finally settles in, shortening his breath.

"Tony..." It's not sympathy in Bucky's face, not really; out of everyone, he might best understand the nature of the relationship between Tony and his father. The Winter Soldier stalked Howard Stark for upwards of a week before completing his mission, and Tony's never dared to ask for details about what the Soldier - what Bucky - saw. He still doesn't want to know.

He turns away, setting his hands flat against the workshop table, trying to draw in deep breaths past his tight throat. Bucky comes up behind him, close enough that their hips slot together, as he draws Tony into another hug. The contact helps. So does the sight of Bucky's metal hand, rubbing calming circles on Tony's lower belly. Tony squeezes his eyes shut against the surge of new tears, refusing to cry again.

"It was no one's business," he says, more hoarsely than he'd like.

"Okay."

And this is one of the reasons why he fell in loves with James Barnes. Steve, or any of the other Avengers for that matter, would push and push until Tony either gave in or lashed out. If it was the former, he'd be left raw and humiliated. If it was the latter, it would inevitably cause a fight. And Tony hates those fights, the ones that drag on for weeks and leave him unable to sleep, and the fact that Bucky just - just accepts it -

"Thank you," he croaks.

"For what? I didn't do anything."

"You - you followed me," Tony says in sudden bout of realization, stunned. "What about Steve?"

"What about Steve?"

There's something in Bucky's voice that makes Tony turn, though Bucky doesn't step back, leaving them still tightly pressed together. "He'll be upset when Peggy leaves."

Bucky shrugs one shoulder. "He has a couple hours with her yet, and besides. Natasha's there, and the rest of the team. He can always call Sam if he needs to. He's not alone. You, on the other hand, took off so fast I knew I had to get to you quick or you'd be hiding down here for days." His smile is slow, with a hint of sadness, and in a rush Tony gets it. Gets that Bucky doesn't want to be around Steve when Steve is mourning Peggy.

"I'm sorry," he says.

"Sorry?"

"It must be hard. Is hard. To know that Steve loves her." Fuck knows that Tony finds it hard knowing Bucky loves Steve.

Both of Bucky's eyebrows go up. "Why would that be hard for me? Steve's the one missing his dame."

"Because you guys..." Tony makes a lame motion with his hands.

It's enough to get the point across. Bucky looks absolutely incredulous. "Me and Stevie?"

"Greatest love story of the war," Tony says, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. Today has just been too much.

Bucky mutters something under his breath in Russian and shakes his head.

"What?"

"I said we're both idiots. Steve and I are friends. That's it. For one thing, he's straight."

Tony can't bring himself to ask the obvious question.

It doesn't matter. Bucky gives him an unspoken answer when he cups Tony's face and kisses him very carefully.