Tony ran a hand through his hair. He was a little shaky on account of not having slept for over thirty-six hours. But sleep didn’t matter, not when Tony was so close to getting it right. The idea had come to him last week but with finals and with Rhodey constantly grabbing him and steering him into his bed and going as far as tucking him in to get him to finally sleep, Tony hadn’t gotten a true chance to jump on it. But now he was home. Finals were over. He had the holidays to look forward to, and he had almost completed his first robot. Well his first robot with some level of artificial intelligence.
What helped was that his parents were both busy in the days leading up to Christmas. There was a charity gala or something on his mom’s end and then his dad was still not back from the latest expedition into finding Captain America. Again.
Since no one had expected Tony to actually get home right when the semester ended, Jarvis wasn’t even around. Tony sort of preferred the house to himself. It was huge and kind of lonely when he was in it on his own -- but soon he was going to have a friend. A robot.
“And if I do this right then you won’t just be any robot. You’re going to be AI,” Tony muttered.
The programing aspect of it was probably the hardest part. Tony had been building things since he was three. Not that it had ever impressed his father -- not unless he was showing him off to other people because they were impressed. His father thought that he could do better. Tony had long ago stopped worrying about his opinion.
Tony was focused on the screen in front of him, his fingers typing in code, hoping to get this just right. He didn’t hear the door open or the footsteps. He didn’t hear anything until a hand landed on his shoulder and he jumped.
“Oh my god! Damn it, Uncle Steve, you scared me.”
Steve just chuckled and then he reached over and ruffled Tony’s hair. “You don’t look like you’ve slept in a while, kid. What are you building?”
“A robot -- well, a learning helper bot. You know so it can hand me tools or hold something steady. Maybe fetch things too.”
Steve didn’t say anything as he looked around at everything that Tony had out on the table. His tools and the parts he was using for the body of the robot. He smiled, his weird smile that seemed a mixture of sad and surprised and that always made Tony think that Steve knew more than he let on. Tony had never really noticed it when he was growing up and Steve was just always around, but then it had started appearing more and more often and it was always when Tony said or showed him something new.
“That’s -- that’s amazing, Tones.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m a genius remember.”
Steve chuckled. “For a genius, you still haven’t figured out that you need to get some sleep. Come on, this can wait. I brought food and you can tell me all about your robot. Then, you’re going to bed.”
“Are you staying?”
Tony grinned. He hadn’t seen Steve since he’d left for school back in September and it hadn’t been for long because of some work related thing on Steve’s end, so Tony was glad to let his uncle throw an arm around his shoulders and start asking about the semester and Rhodey and if Tony had bothered to make any new friends. He also nudged him and teased him about girls and then with an eyebrow wiggle.
“Or boys? Have you met any nice boys?”
“Uncle Steve! I don’t--”
“Okay, fine, fine. I know you’re all focused on your degrees.”
Howard Stark wasn’t easy to deal with. Tony had sort of avoided dealing with him for years due to his time at boarding school and then MIT where he didn’t have to think about his father unless someone directly asked him if he was that Stark. Rhodey sort of put a stop to all of that, though. Rhodey was the best thing to happen to Tony. For a while, Tony had fancied himself in love with James Rhodes, but not only was Rhodey not gay -- but he was more of a big brother. The best big brother and even better friend.
It was hard letting go of his best friend after graduation. Rhodey was off to follow his dream of being in the Air Force and Tony was sort of stuck with the path that had been carved out for him by the legacy of Howard Stark. Stark Industries would be his one day and his father wanted him to know the company inside and out. Tony didn’t really mind the R & D department. He minded even less getting to really work on the projects that he’d been jotting ideas down on for years. The only problem was that his dad wanted him to work on weapons. That was after all the main thing that Stark Industries was known for. Other things had been introduced, sure, but the main thing was the contract with the US Military.
“You can have your flights of fancy when you run this company, but until then, I need you to work on what I deem important,” his dad said over dinner one night.
Uncle Steve was sat next to Tony and Aunt Peggy across from them. Tony hated when his dad brought things like that up around Steve because he knew Steve would then spend a while arguing with his dad about it later. It always went like that.
For as long as Tony had been aware, Steve had been fighting Howard on anything to do with Tony. Steve had even tried to stop Howard from sending him to boarding school at one point.
“Dad, I’m not saying I won’t work on the new missiles. I’m just saying that there are other markets to explore. Robotics is--”
“No one is buying robots, Anthony.”
“Well, no, but that’s not--”
Steve coughed. “Howard,” he said, “when is your next expedition?”
Aunt Peggy’s fork dropped on her plate. “Sorry. Clumsy fingers.”
“In a month,” Howard said. “I have high expectations for this one. He has to be out there somewhere. Now that we’ve found Barnes -- well, I have hope that he’s alive as well.”
They were talking about Captain America. Tony kind of hated whenever the topic came up. Maybe less so than talking about work these days, but it was still kind of annoying to remember that throughout most of his childhood his father’s attention had been split three ways -- with finding Captain America, Stark Industries, and Shield. Tony wasn’t supposed to know about Shield, but he did, and with those three things in Howard Stark’s mind there had never been much room for Tony.
“You’re so sure,” Steve said and that smile was back again.
Looking at Steve always felt a bit weird to Tony. He looked the same always. Unlike his mother and father and even Aunt Peggy who all looked like they’d aged over the years, Steve just didn’t. It was eerie. Tony remembered asking him once and Steve had given him the same smile and shrugged.
“Good genes, I guess. And sunscreen, Tones. Always use sunscreen.”
“Hey, if Peggy can spare you, I wouldn’t mind another hand on deck,” Howard said. “Might give us some good luck. It was you that found Barnes, after all.”
Tony didn’t know who Barnes was or what that had to do with anything, but he figured it was probably Shield related.
“No can do. Kind of busy this time around.”
“Well, when I find him then I won’t give you any of the credit.”
Peggy laughed. “If you find him,” she said and there was a mischievous glint in her eyes.
Steve coughed again, but he smiled at Tony before taking a sip of water.
Peggy liked to poke fun at how invested Steve was in technology. It was just that google and JARVIS and FRIDAY had become such a big part of his life in the future and he hadn’t even considered how strange it would be to not have any of it. To not be able to pull out the newest Stark phone out of his pocket to check the weather or the news or much of anything at all. Granted, there was something to be said about reading a newspaper or picking up an actual book and experiencing things in real time.
So there were some pros and cons. Mostly, though, it made him more excited every time something new happened and new advancements were made. It was just a little difficult to get too excited when they still weren’t what he’d been used to, but being friends with Howard Stark made up for that because no matter what the newest thing was in the world, he was a few steps ahead. He wasn’t the genius that Tony was in the future and maybe that was due to the era or due to Howard’s attention being split between Shield and finding Captain America, but Steve just didn’t see the same drive in Howard or the same need to invent and create that fueled Tony. He did see how Howard pushed Tony and he stepped in where he could to make things easier for Tony. Most of the time, he thought that he did help.
When he arrived in 1970 to return the Tesseract, entirely aware that he’d left it for last, Steve hadn’t exactly planned on remaining in 1970. It was just that he’d gotten caught up in the moment of returning it and then he had promptly been caught by Peggy of all people.
She took one look at him, paled, and punched him.
Her punch didn’t do much to him, but it still came as a surprise and then she just stared at him.
“You’re not -- you can’t be--” she shook her head, her eyes filled with tears and she pressed a hand to her quivering lips.
“It’s me, Peggy. It’s Steve,” Steve told her and he knew he’d screwed up. But at least he’d gotten all the stones back to where they belonged which had been a task that Steve hadn’t actually prepared for, which meant that the timeline was safe. That mattered more than anything.
“How?” Peggy asked.
Steve let out a breath. “It’s a long story.”
“I have some time,” Peggy said.
Steve didn’t really think that he did, but her eyes stared at him with so much shock and awe and she was Peggy and he couldn’t just walk away. It had been hard enough when he and Tony were there before and he’d seen her only through some blinds. Having her in front of him was entirely different.
“Probably best no one find out I’m here,” Steve said.
She grabbed his hand without haste. “My office, then.”
As they walked, Steve was reminded that this was Shield and that already it had been infiltrated by Hydra. That it was possible that Hydra within Shield was already using The Winter Soldier for its cause.
Her office was just as he remembered it from when he’d been hiding in it the first time he was in 1970. Peggy closed and locked the door and then closed the blinds too. She turned on the light, only then, and the moment settled over them.
The last time that Steve saw Peggy was sometime in 2016 and she hadn’t even really recognized him -- her mind so gone that it was lucky she allowed her nurse to give her her medication. She had been wrinkled and her hair had been white, barely contrasting on her pillow. There had been a tired aura about her and Steve had known that at 98, Peggy was holding on but barely. She died a few months later peacefully in her sleep. Steve cried when he got the call and yet there was relief too because she deserved to rest after the very long life she led.
This Peggy in front of him was still young -- but not as young as he’d known her before the ice. This was a Peggy that had lived twenty five years since Steve went in the ice. She was shrewd and smart and her eyes watched him with a mixture of disbelief and wariness.
“Tell me,” she said.
Steve couldn’t like to her, but he couldn’t tell her everything.
“I’m -- well, I’m Steve Rogers. I’m from the future.”
“From the future,” she repeated.
He told her about being frozen in ice -- about being found in 2011 and finally waking up. How he’d lived in the future for over a decade until circumstances -- and he didn’t divulge what those were -- allowed for the discovery of time travel.
“And you came back?” she whispered. “Now? Why now?”
It was easy to tell that she thought that he’d come back for her. The picture on her desk of him scrawny and short and so full of a need to prove himself was just feet away from them and Steve knew without a doubt that Peggy still loved him -- still cared. Well, when he’d seen her for the first time in 2013 she’d let him know that she still loved him -- always would because love was many things and she could love him and still fall in love with someone else. She could still move on. In 1970 she was married already. She had kids.
“I was returning something,” Steve said. “I shouldn’t tell you anything more about that. I--”
“Prove to me that you’re him. Prove to me that you’re actually Steve and not some…well, I don’t know, some sort of imposter.”
He showed her the compass and the cut out of her picture. “And I guess, I’m late, but how about that dance?”
In the future -- well, in 2011, Steve had been given a file about Peggy. Her accomplishments and how she and Howard Stark founded Shield in his honor. He remembered Coulson making a joke about how Shield was technically an acronym.
“But...I mean, someone really did want it to spell Shield.”
In the file he received there a mention was also made of her husband and her kids. It had taken Steve two full years before he could convince himself to go see her after reading all of that. It had helped to know she was happy and that her life continued on even after he was gone. Her life and her family -- her kids -- it wasn’t something he wanted to mess with and yet she looked at him like she would have gladly dropped everything for him.
Peggy laughed and they danced right in her office. Her hand was pressed against his and her cheek ended up on his shoulder. She was warm and beautiful and Steve loved her. Would always love her. But there was a ring on her finger already and she was a mother, too. Loving her changed none of that not to mention that they were entirely different people than the ones that had been young and in love.
As tempting as it was, Steve didn’t kiss her, even if for a small moment, she looked like she wanted him to. She seemed to understand and as their dance ended and she pulled away, Steve felt oddly like he didn’t belong. He kind of really didn’t.
“You’re not staying, are you?” Peggy asked.
Steve shook his head. “I -- I shouldn’t. I can’t…”
In 2023 they had just saved the universe. They had just made things right even if it had cost them Tony. It had only been a few days since the funeral and standing by that lake as Tony’s first arc reactor floated away. They had fought Thanos less than a week ago and Steve had volunteered to take the stones with some crazy idea that the future they saved didn’t need him anymore and yet the 1970s didn’t really need him either. Peggy didn’t. She had a husband -- a family. He’d only be in the way and--
The phone on her desk rang.
It rang again.
They both glanced at it and then Peggy moved, picking it up as she leaned against the desk. He watched her as she listened to the phone and then her lips quirked up into a smile. “I will let everyone know. Yes, yes, of course, Howard. I’ll take care of everything. Don’t you worry about any of it just focus on Maria.”
She hung up and turned back to Steve. “Howard’s wife’s gone into labour,” she said.
Tony. Steve’s breath caught.
“What date is it?” he asked.
“May 26, 1970,” Peggy said, peering at him curiously.
“His birthday is on the 29th,” Steve said before he could stop himself.
Suddenly, the last thing he wanted to do was leave. Back in his time Tony was gone, but in 1970 his life was just beginning and Steve couldn’t leave him -- couldn’t not be there for him. Not when he knew that Tony’s childhood wouldn’t be the best, and not when he knew that his adulthood wouldn’t be all that great either. And Steve could change it. He could make it better and--
Peggy interrupted his train of thought.
“Did you know him?” Peggy asked. “In the future? Howard’s son?”
Steve nodded. “Best person I know. Knew. A true hero.”
Peggy cocked her head, surprised. “You knew him well? You were his friend?”
He’s my friend.
So was I.
“Yeah. By the end, I think that was true.”
Steve didn’t really mean to stick around after tagging along with Peggy to meet the newest Stark a few days later, but seeing Tony in the flesh -- all brand new and so small and perfect -- it made him lose all his reasons for needing to leave because Tony needed him more.
Maria Stark looked at Tony like he brightened her entire world. He sort of did the same for Steve. A world without Tony Stark was colorless and full of shadows.
If Maria or Howard thought it odd that Peggy brought him along to meet their new son, neither voiced any concern. Peggy introduced him as Steven Grant, a good friend. She was also the one to pass him newborn Tony who felt like the most fragile and beautiful thing that Steve had ever gotten to behold.
Steve knew at once that he couldn’t leave. Not when Tony’s tiny fist was on his hand and when his eyes opened into slits and they were the warm brown that Steve remembered well.
Later, when Peggy had taken him to one of the Shield safe houses, she fixed him with a long look. “So, should I set up a fake identity?”
Steve nodded. “Yeah. You should.”
Peggy kissed his cheek and after a long moment spoke again: “I guess we both moved on, then?”
It never occured to Steve that he could move on to a time when Tony was alive and older or that his very presence would change everything. He just wanted to do better by Tony in any way he could and if that meant being at his side from the start then that’d be the way.
When Tony was twenty three and Steve had been in the past for twenty three years -- a constant in Tony’s life even as he helped Peggy fix other things like Bucky and Hydra within Shield and all other little things, Tony figured out who he was.
“You’re him, aren’t you?”
“Him who?” Steve asked.
They were in Tony’s lab at the house in New York and Steve had shown up to surprise Tony, as he tended to do, but Tony had stared at him for a long while.
“Him. Captain America. You’re him.”
Steve didn’t know how to respond. No one was supposed to have figured that out -- least of all Tony.
“Well, see the thing is dad went on another expedition. This is like his fourth one this year and even mom is getting sick of it. But anyway, I was helping him look through all the stuff he hides in his office upstairs and I saw a few pictures. They’re in black and white but...but they’re you. So, it’s you, right? You’re Captain America.”
Tony stepped closer, poking a finger into Steve’s chest. “You look the same as you have all my life and your name is Steven Grant which isn’t too far from Steven Grant Rogers. You told me once your mom’s name was Sarah which is the same as his mom. You’re blond, you’re built, and pictures don’t lie...not to mention that you and Aunt Peggy are super close and I know she was in love with him so this isn’t all that far fetched even if it doesn’t make sense that you’d just--”
Lying to Tony had always been the problem. Keeping this secret had been necessary and important, but looking at the man that he had seen grow up from a tiny baby, he just smiled and nodded.
“I think there’s a story I have to tell you, Tony. One of the few I haven’t told you,” he said.
There was a sofa in one corner of the room entirely due to the fact that Tony spent too much time in his lab. Steve was sure that Tony slept on it sometimes, even. He led Tony there and Tony allowed it.
When Tony was a child, Steve had been the first to offer to babysit. To the point that Maria had found it a little strange that a man like Steve would be so interested in her child.
Being there for Tony when Howard wasn’t had been easy. Peggy had made it easier. Becoming Maria’s friend and showing his love for Tony had been easy -- especially easy once he decided to come clean to Maria.
Afterwards, Maria had hugged him for a long time. “You love him that much. My Anthony?”
“I’d be a fool not to. He’s special. Important. Of course I love him.”
“And Howard must never know,” she’d said.
So, Steve had been there to tell Tony stories for years and years. Sometimes they were true -- stories about The Avengers and Iron Man and Black Widow. He told Tony stories about Thor and Asgard. He changed a few things, made up some, and Tony loved all of them. He always wanted more. As he grew older, he often demanded to know why Steve didn’t write all the stories down and get them published. When he found out that Steve could draw, he tried to push Steve to write comic books.
Steve refused -- not sure how that would change the world. Eventually Tony relented on pushing it, especially when Steve kept telling him more stories.
“A story?” Tony asked.
Steve nodded. “Yeah, about the greatest hero the world has ever known.”
Tony groaned. “I don’t know if Captain America is all that.”
Steve burst out into laughter. “No. No, he’s really not. No, I’m talking about Iron Man.”
“That fictional character you came up with when I was a kid?”
Steve shook his head. “Not fictional. He was a friend -- Earth’s best defender. A Hero through a through. I didn’t do right by him, not for a long time. See, it’s a bit more complicated than asking if I’m Captain America because I haven’t been that for a long time. Twenty five years to be exact. And the guy your dad is looking for -- he’s in the ice somewhere off the Artic.”
Tony frowned. “That doesn’t--”
“No interruptions, Tony.”
Tony rolled his eyes.
“The truth is that I’m from a different reality -- an alternate universe. In it, I woke up from the ice in 2011 and I met everyone I’ve ever told you about including Iron Man. We didn’t get along. In 2018 something horrible happened and in 2023 we made things right. The only way to do that was to go back in time.”
“Time travel is impossible,” Tony said at once. “Time is happening all at once and it just would never work -- you’d never be able to change anything in the past of affect the future even if you could go back in--”
“Any changes ripple into new realities,” Steve said, cutting in, amazed that this same person would one day discover how to make time travel work.
“And what, you got stuck here? You couldn’t go back to 2023?”
Steve weighed his words. He didn’t want to tell Tony that he was dead in Steve’s original timeline -- that Tony’s death had left him so distraught that he’d clung to the first Tony he’d met in his travels.
“No. Well, we used the time travel to fix what happened, but then I had to return to put a few artifacts back. Your Aunt Peggy caught me in 1970 a few days before you were born. Seeing her again was -- I did love her once so deeply that I think none of the rest of the world or the people mattered to me while I grieved never getting to be with her.”
“So you stayed for her? Why didn’t you go back to after the war -- after you’d gone in the ice when she was still--”
Steve settled him with a look and he trailed off.
“Because of you,” Steve said.
The silence echoed between them. Tony didn’t seem to know what to think, but his brain was trying to figure it out and put it all together and Steve knew him so so well that he knew eventually he’d figure it out on his own.
“Thing is, I knew you in the future,” Steve said.
“Me,” Tony said and then after a moment, “2011, you said -- I’d be forty one. How did we -- is dad still around? Did he find you, is that why?”
Steve laughed and shook his head. “In my reality, your parents died in 1991. I -- I stopped that from happening in this one. But you let the funding for my search keep going and that made a difference in finding me in 2011.”
Tony looked confused and shocked and Steve knew that a part of Tony thought the whole thing was crazy. He seemed unsure as to what to focus on, but Steve just wanted to keep going. It was probably better if Tony didn’t remember all the details exactly.
“We didn’t get along,” Steve said. “I think because of your dad and how much he missed while you were growing up while he was searching for me and because I judged you in my grief for the past. I didn’t see you -- I saw the persona. You are so different from him, Tones. But then, not at all. It’s kind of amazing.”
“What do I call that bot?”
Steve smiled and looked back at Tony’s work. “I -- I don’t know which one came after Dum-E.”
“One more. You have three. Dum-E, Butterfingers, and U.”
Tony laughed. He ran a hand through his hair and then his eyes landed on Steve again, staring at him. “But why would you stay for me? If we didn’t even like each other--”
Steve shook his head and he turned so he could look at Tony better. Every day he looked more and more like the man that Steve had first met. He was so young still, though, no wrinkles in sight and no signature facial hair. Steve loved him with everything -- in every way. Watching Tony grow up and become the person he was meant to be had been everything, especially when he got to help him and make things easier and better.
“At first we didn’t get along. Then, we worked together and we became friends. But we fought and I hated it -- I hated that and myself for that for so long. I cared about that version of you so much and I didn’t realize how much until it was--” he stopped and Tony gasped.
“I’m dead, then. In the future -- that’s why you stayed. Because I’m dead and you figured if you stayed you’d get a replacement Tony and--”
Steve reached for him, grabbing his wrist to stop him from leaving. He shook his head. “No. No, Tony. That’s not it. Everything that happened to me and to my Tony -- it happened because of me. Because I wasn’t there when it counted and when that Tony needed me and now he’s -- he’s gone. I never meant to stay anywhere. It just happened when I saw you -- baby newborn you -- and I had this idea that I could just stop all the bad things from happening again. At least, what I could stop.”
Tony was staring down at where Steve held his wrist and he frowned and then looked back up at Steve. “You loved him. Really loved him, didn’t you?”
Steve nodded. He didn’t have words.
“Oh. And me...I’m--”
“It’s different. You’re not him and I never expected you to be. You’re you and it’s different. I love you, Tones, but that’s because you’re family. I’ve known you since you were a baby.”
Tony let out a sigh. “Okay. Okay. Good. Because it would have been weird if--”
It had taken a long time for Steve to realize that he loved Tony Stark -- his Tony Stark -- and that him staying to watch over baby Tony Stark was due to the love he felt for the other Tony. They were two different kinds of love but to Steve it didn’t matter, not as long as he got to see Tony live a happy life.
Howard actually managed to find Captain America in the ice a couple years later and Tony took an interest in helping him settle in. There was curiosity for this other version of Steve who was clearly younger and very different. Steve watched from afar and gave his advice to one and both.
When Tony showed up at his house a little bit drunk and a lot emotional some months after his 28th birthday, looking like the whole world was ending, Steve pulled him into a hug and then prepared him some coffee before asking him what happened.
“I -- I’m -- Steve, I don’t know what to do.”
“About what exactly? Is this to do with Howard, because…”
“No. No. I -- I kissed someone today.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “You kiss a lot of people. I mean, I don’t read the tabloids but even I can’t avoid all of that.”
Tony shook his head. “No. No, Uncle Steve. It’s not -- none of that has ever mattered. You know that.”
“I do. So, what’s the problem?”
“I -- I kissed Steve. You. The other you.” He buried his head in his hands and groaned. “Oh my god, I’m the worst. I kissed a guy that is basically my uncle and then I freaked out and ran away and he...I don’t even know if he--”
Steve laughed and laughed and laughed for a while. He really wasn’t all that surprised. He’d seen the way that the other Steve looked at Tony -- how he went out of his way to spend time with Tony. He’d seen the way that Tony gravitated towards that other Steve as well. They were inevitable.
“If you’re worried about me -- well, don’t. I loved the Tony from my timeline and never realized or said anything or did anything about it and I regret that more than I regret most things. And we’re not the same -- me and other Steve. Don’t worry about me.”
Weeks later, when he saw them holding hands it was weird. It was always weird to see the other him. A bit younger, more hardheaded, but a little more stable and less mournful of the past. It helped that Peggy was still very much lucid and that she and the other Steve had gotten to have a few conversations about the past. Then there was Bucky, too, who was ready to help make things easier for that Steve as he learned what the future was about. Steve had spoken in length with himself -- using all the skills that Sam had pushed on him and the same that he’d used in those long five years when his only way of coping had been to try and help others move on.
He was glad to see Tony and Steve happy though. It was what could have been -- and what was.
Steve had no idea what the future had for them -- he had no idea if Afghanistan would still happen and if Tony would still become Iron Man. Mostly, though, he knew that if they stuck together that they could deal with anything no matter what it was.
He hugged them both before he left, telling the other Steve to look after Tony and holding Tony just a little longer and tighter but not sure if there was anything that needed to be said.
“Thank you,” Tony whispered before he let go.
The last person he saw was Peggy. She had a lot of grey in her hair and she was aging beautifully. She was just about ready to retire from Shield officially to spend time with her grandkids. Nick Fury was already doing a lot of the running of Shield with her and it had been good to see another familiar face even if he still hadn’t been able to find out how Fury lost his eye. Not even Peggy knew.
“You’re leaving,” she said.
“He has another Steve to watch out for him now. I think it’s time.”
They hugged and Peggy made him dance with her again one final time. Then, Steve put on the suit he hadn’t worn since 1970 and he left because even though there wasn’t a Tony in his timeline in 2023, there were other people that needed him like the little girl that Tony had left behind...and Steve kind of liked the whole being an uncle thing.