Actions

Work Header

Operation: Un-Fuck the Universe

Work Text:

2025 - Titan, The End of The Fucking World

The end, when it came, was a circular sort of thing, looping back to every nightmare he had ever had, and contradicting each one.

Pepper was kneeling, face fading and world pixelating to black every time his eyes drifted shut. In his dreams he had always died alone.

It would have been nice, if death would have had the common fucking courtesy to be painless, a slow numbing of the aching in his bones. Instead it felt like every decision he’d ever made was burning through his veins, and he could admit in hindsight that there had been some pretty nasty ones.

Maybe he deserved a painful death.

There were things, important things, that he wanted to say. Stuff he should have said years ago, starting with shit like “I’m sorry”. “I shouldn’t have sold all your art”. “You’re the best semi sentient robot I’ve ever built and I’m gonna give you a proper name”.

But his tongue was dry, sticking to the roof of his mouth and peeling his lips apart to force the words out was an impossible task.

There were only so many times he could do the impossible.

This world, so unlike his own but still as familiar as the shrapnel nightmares stuck behind his eyelids, once a scraping ache of red and black and burning brown against the backdrop of purple egotism, faded out for the last time.

Pepper was crying, and all he ever seemed to do was make her cry. “You can rest now,” she whispered, voice crackling through the air.

He doesn't remember rest. Had to much to see, too much to do, and later, too much of his own mistakes to fix. Too much world to change.

There was so much he had wanted to change.

The world around him flickered, and the heroes that somehow still walked with him, the ones who had seen this burning end and refused to bow, fell to their knees. It was wrong, he thought, so wrong, when all of what he had done hadn’t worked. So much of what they done had been too late. They should have been able to stop this before it started.

Instead they had wasted time.

So much to change, he thought, so much of a future we could have written first.

The gauntlet by his side is covered in dust and blood and ashes of what could have been.

This world, once red and black and burning brown, faded, and Tony Stark died.

Beside him, buried under regrets and molten metals, the stones began to glow.

 


2008 - Afghanistan, Earth

Tony Stark did not believe in the institutionalized ideal of heaven. Or maybe he did, who knows, his mind is a maze even he hasn’t managed to climb out of yet, and honestly heaven has always been someplace he'd never get to either way.

Heaven is a second chance, and he knows he doesn’t believe in those.

Besides, Hell he’d been to, and was apparently reliving. Because nothing was ever easy.

The smell was the same. Almost fifteen years and he could remember the smell perfectly, heat dripping down the cave walls and sweat and urine and fear, concentrate and unyielding and the backbone of everything he’d built here.

Even if Hell was real, and here, Tony doubted they could recreate that smell.

Or maybe he is in Hell, and this is an exercise in futility, like the ten year “how to unfuck the universe and its main timeline” plan he’s been mapping out in his head while building a proto-type suit.

Maybe it’s just his dying brains way of coping with shit like dying.

In which case he wants a refund.

But if he’s learned anything from the last fifteen years, from the mistakes and the misteps and the times he sabatouged everything he ever had, he’s learned that not trying at all is worse then fucking it up.

Only took him, what, forty odd years and a galactic invasion to figure that, amirite?

He holds his breath till the sand breaks into his lips and then he laughs and laughs and laughs because Yinsen is cursing in three languages and laughing with him.

Yinsen doesn’t die. Yinsen, the guy who had every right to let him fall apart and die in there, both times around, tries the self sacrificing shtick and Tony is ready this time. He added failsafes, tweaked the plan, built a handhold on the suit and it worked.

By whatever unnamed and benevolent entity Tony is still on good terms with, it worked.

Tony changes the timeline and the Universe says jack shit.

“Operation: Un-Fuck the Universe” is officially a Go.

 


May, 2008 - LA, Earth

There’s half a burger in his hand when he starts the calculations on the greasy napkin they included. Happy lets him be, Pepper probably knowing best how the numbers let everything around him fade to grey. The dull ache in his ribs becomes nothing more then rumbling of the tires, he had forgotten what that felt like in the beginning. This body wasn’t used to the pain yet.

He has two choices. Let the timeline play out till he has the assured upper hand, or immediatley start fucking around.

The first is probably saner. It would give him the edge, give him control and precise direction.

It’s not an option.

Tony knows exactly how many weapons Stane managed to sell behind his back, how many lives were lost in the first invasion, how many deaths caused, directly, indirectly and how many innocent lives could have been saved if they only paid attention the first time around.

In his defense, he had been an idiot back then.

At least now he was still an idiot, but mildly self aware.

Letting the timeline run its course wasn’t an option. Besides, Yinsen was alive, and running the newly minted, as of five minutes ago, ‘Toni Yinsen Health Fund’. Stark industries would be helping him set up dozens of clinics and education centers around Afghanistan, in all the places the UN hadn’t gotten to yet. (Which was essentially everywhere, what was the point of them again?)

Yinsen was alive, and that proved things could be changed.

The math works, and something behind his ribs is coiling into an aching ribbon, a pressure and a countdown clock and it feels like seeing the other edge of the galaxy for the first time again, but sharp.

This will work.

There’s no other option.

He sees Stane for the first time in years and something in him wants to curl up in a corner and a scream and something louder wants to sink his teeth into the man's neck and ri i i i ip.

Yay for repressed trauma! Providing mildly horrifying fight or flight responses since 1982.

He makes it through, staring over Stanes shoulder and counting up every lie from his greasy face with a tiny ticking counter, compiling a list of war crimes they are complicit in and a mental stack of evidence he will turn into the cops if the man doesn’t die as he should.

First order of business, after convincing Stane he had no grounds to seize the company and he was still entirely sane, if a little more cyborg, was explaining to Pepper why they weren’t selling weapons anymore. She had always deserved to know why, now he was just going to tell her earlier.

Well, some of it. This wouldn’t work if Pep thought he had gone crazy.

(Maybe he had. Maybe the space he could feel twisting behind his lungs was really his brain slowly decomposing. Maybe none of that mattered.)

“Miss Potts,” she almost flinches at her name, he hadn’t used it in so long. It’s as unexpected as the raise he’s slipping into her account his quarter. How had he never realized how much he loved her then? “It’s not that the morality of producing weapons has suddenly changed, it’s that I have.”

He traces the lines of reinforced steel, his father's first non-weapon exclusive project, and let the lines he mapped out to the new future stretch out between them. Silent, but not forever.

“We should have done this years ago, when I realized we could produce clean energy and sustain the entire company on that alone. Stark Industries made its money in war, but that was then. And if we lose fifty percent of our value by admitting we should have shut down our military contracts years ago, so be it.

“My Dad used to call his war ‘A Just War’. The only one he’d ever seen. I’m embarrassed it's taken me so long to realize what he meant.”

Pepper is staring at him, open and honest and there's another thing he should have realized the first time around - how his absence had affected Pepper, his friend, not just Ms. Potts, his (CEO, PR team, PA, everything) secretary. So many things he should have realized.

“War isn’t going to disappear just because you stopped ignoring it, Tony.”

Always going for the jugular, his Pep. “No,” he grins, sharp and older than his body is now. “No it won’t. But it won’t be my name that fuels it.”

“Ok.” she says quietly, and then again, like a line drawn in the sand. “Ok, I’m going to start diverting funds to our solar and alternate energy research, and finish that proposal for the health and research divisions.”

“Make those a non-profit and expand the transport and satellite services as well.” Pepper blinks, not even surprised anymore, and rolls her eyes.

“Want me to give the art collection to the girl scouts too?”

Its sarcastic, but teasing, and he’s so glad he thinks his metal heart might short out. “Absolutely not, you’ve spent how long? Ten years? Putting that together, lend it to an art museum or something and use the money for a scholarship fund.”

She blinks, maybe a little surprised at that one, and laughs. “Right away Mr Stark, and what will you do while I’m rearranging your company and making sure it doesn’t sink?”

Tony flips the wrench in his hand, watching her heels click over the tiled floor in his lab. It's a rhetorical question, but the answer is dramatic enough that he whispers it to the empty room, just for effect.

“Changing the world.”

 


 

Announcing the end of the Stark Industries Weapons division is one thing. He’d been naive the first time around, thinking that was all it would take. Stopping the Actual Weapons, the ones that had been sold and shipped and stolen/sold by Stane, was a third and fourth and fifth thing entirely.

What he needed was a way to disable every single missile they’d ever sold, every weapon he’d built made useless as fast as possible.

He’d rip up the Mach 35 for scraps if it meant he could have access to tech that would only be invented in five years or so. Never bothered to learn how it was done back then, it wasn't his area of expertise and he hadn’t needed it.

So the Mach 3 is put on the backburner. He knows what goes wrong and what works by heart anyways, he won’t need all that time for fooling around.

His therapist (hell yeah he has a therapist, she’s awesome and a little shocked he found her over in New York but Aunt Pegs recommended her and that’s good enough.)

(He had been an idiot for never contacting her.)

(He had been an idiot so many times, whoever was writing this little scam of a story had done a shitty job with his character development. At least he was gonna do it right this time around.)

Anyways his therapist had told him to find a healthy coping method that didn’t involve building an impenetrable iron suit, even a theoretical one, and maybe start building things because he enjoyed them. Not because he needed them.

He had enjoyed building weapons once.

He was going to love ripping them apart.

In a stroke of luck he thanked the great engineer in the sky for, every weapon he’d ever developed for this company had used some sort of computer chip. All he had to do was develop a virus that would disable them all.

So all he really needed was to outsmart his younger self and break in. Easy.

It only took 72 hours and seventeen coffees and a pack of red bull. Also painkillers, because the arc reactor, new in this chest and heavy against his ribs hurt.

But at the end of it all he had a near perfect little bug, the most effective virus in the world, one that would shut down and destroy the wiring of any Stark weapon that was armed.

He couldn't see it, surrounded by a forest of paper and a dozen broken pencils, math and desperation soaking the floor, but behind his ribs that ribbon of space-time shifted again.

 


October, 2008 - LA, Earth.

He did build the Iron Man suits. Not because he needed it, the clawing nightmares at his throat driving him to his basement lab. But because he knew Stane was coming and cleaning this timeline would be hard enough without him in it. He needed to change the least possible for as long as he could, and he needed a backup plan. Or maybe seven.

Stane attacks him. Steals the suit. Pepper arrives, and helps. There was no way to twist this to his advantage, not without altering too much, but he tweaked the reactor and stored it closer so that Pepper wouldn’t have to stick her hand in his chest and give herself nightmares for the next five years.

He was considerate like that.

There’s a point where he thought about hiding it. Where he thinks of standing in front of that press conference and following the script, letting them think Iron Man is one of his bodyguards and that Stane was killed by the terrorists he tried to cheat.

He could be Batman, saving the world with his billions and his research by day, and hunting down criminals at night.

But he’s never been one for hiding his face (or any other parts) from the world. Why start now?

Nick Fury is going to pissed. Tony doesn’t care. Agent Coulson, silent and somehow spluttering his disapproval at the same time, makes a show of getting into a black car with promises of keeping in touch.

The tiny drone he had built for precisely this reason tailed the car through LA and half a dozen fakeouts. Tony arrives via direct route, stealing Ol’ Eye Patch’s chance at a dramatic (and slightly voyeuristic) entrance into his life by waltzing through the front doors.

It’s easy enough to find Furys office - top floor, lots of windows, and a little metal plate to confirm.

He drops into a chair with a whistle and a wink, grabbing the bowl of m&m’s off the desk.

“My Dad worked with you, found some of his old files recently,” technically he’d found them in the future, and remembered where to look this time around, but that was semantics. “Found his mistakes too.” the file he slams onto the desk is three inches thick, two inches being his own bullshitted calculations. Tony grins, sharp and hard, because he never liked being played and turnabout is fair play, even when the other side hasn’t done it yet. “His calculations for that plane? Missing some very useful info that wouldn’t have existed yet. Yay for Science, right?”

He throws his legs over the seat, letting the candy bowl rest on his stomach as he picks out the brown m&m’s. The vein in twitching in Nick’s forehead brings him great, great joy, and whoever said changing the timeline wouldn’t be a little fun?

“How’d you get in here Stark?”

“Front door.” His sunglasses are still on, and he glares over them like an obnoxious hen, clucking his tongue. “We have lots to discuss, Nicky, like how you have my Dad’s things and how I need them back, and how fast the world is fucking itself up. The greatest scientific mind of our generation just turned himself into a Gamma-Monster, and we have no protocol for Norse Gods duking it out in the Mojave desert.” Tony paused, noticing the way Fury was watching him.

“Do we have a protocol for Norse Gods? That actually feels like something you kids would have set up just in case.”

“We didn’t”

“Yeah ok, I figured. The thing, Director Fury, is that the world is changing. And I’m not going to keep all my toys to myself.”

“The world is changing,” he leans forward, hands on his knees, “And I just want to help.”

 


May, 2009 - New York, Earth.

He meets Natasha formally this time, as Agent Romanoff and not Natalie Rushman, Mini-Pepper Extraordinaire. Well, he technically meets her formally - he only realizes who Fury brought in on this dumb idea when the pencil skirt and victory rolls in the corner gives him a once over that scans him down to the bones.

Natasha was the only person he ever knew that had that blatantly precise look.

Coulson introduces her, and Clint must be off with his smaller agents, teaching them agent-y things, because the hawk is nowhere to be found despite his BFF being here.

Or maybe he’s on a separate assignment, one that didn’t exist before. The timeline is getting wonky, he can feel the shifting in his bones.

Good. That means this might be working.

The Black Widow, currently impersonating a time displaced secretary, folds into a corner and reads through a file Tony is sure she has memorized already, which means she’s probably reading his soul or something equally terrifying.

But this whole thing is an exercise in futility, and he hopes they know that.

“This is pointless.”

Coulson is too busy making heart eyes at the dozen monitors they have set up to glare at him, and Nat seems lazily curious now that he’s said something interesting. Bit like a cat.

“What are you talking about now Stark?” Fury has known him for about two and something months, and the tired, “oh shit he’s talking again” has just started creeping into his voice.

It’s a record or something.

Fury, by some sort of luck, and maybe the Universe watching this unfold with a bucket of buttered popcorn, humors him. He’s been doing that a lot lately, maybe because Tony is often obnoxious but always right.

Or always obnoxious and often right.

The methods used for his surgery won’t be developed for another six months, despite him tracking down the korean team and pouring a truly obscene amount into their research. Fury handed over Howard’s notes without comment, and the arc reactor is sitting heavy, but not as heavy as it could be.

It’s 2009, Star Trek is in theaters again, and Captain America is laid out like a slab of all american beef on an old-timey bed. The timeline is officially fucked and he couldn’t be more proud.

“Alright Tony, tell us why this is pointless.”

Well thank someone for Maria Hill, always getting to the point. And calling him by his name, like he asked.

“He’s Captain America! Those walls are barely sheetrock, he can rip them down easy. Not to mention he’s Steve Rogers, the guy whose signature is on half of my dad's war math - they were Howards math monkeys when they weren’t blowing up Hydra -” one of the techs twitched, and Tony blue screened for a minute, because fucking Hydra. He knew there was something he had forgotten. Another thing to take care of. “ - He’s gonna see right through this.”

Agent Romanoff snapped her file shut, officially interested, and Coulson was glaring at him with something like respect.

“I thought you hated Captain America.”

Tony shrugged, staring at the center monitor while Fury tried some Jedi mind trick at the back of his head. “Never met him. Besides, he looks like a teenager lying there, feel like I should wait to see how much of an asshole he really is.”

“Twenty-three.”

Fuck.”

At twenty three, Tony was still eating three day old pizza and going on five day benders for no reason other then he could. It was weird, having two sets of memories about this, but the whole point was to fix it all. And that included this, right here.

“He’s supposed to.”

“Supposed to what?” Tony turned away from the screens, facing the rest of the room for the first time since he got here.

“Supposed to realize it’s fake.”

“I’ve been bamboozled!” he gasped dramatically, mostly because he could.

“Look you’re here because you helped and also because you’re stubborn and annoying and insisted,” Fury sighed, rubbing at the eyepatch. He’d tried gifting him with some variety, but apparently Fury didn’t appreciate purple holographic fabric.

“This entire set up is to help ease him into the new century, and to test how much of Captain America, or Steve Rogers, is left.”

A pause, the room silent, techs working on the sound and visual while Tony worked through that sentence. “That makes an odd amount of sense, but don’t blame me when he makes a run for it.”

Natasha snorts and walks out of the room, half a second before a tech calls out “He’s moving!”

She always was good at reading people.

He had considered going to Times Square, following the fleet of black cars SHIELD liked to pretend was subtle, but the story would be hard enough to cover up even without him showing up to the party.

So instead he sneaks into the room they’ve decided to store the freshly defrosted Captain.

Fury might try and kill him later, but honestly, Tony had started understanding a lot more about Cap’s personality after looking into SHIELDs early files on him, before The Snap.

He’s not making the same mistakes again, even if SHIELD is.

(Don’t think about the Hydra problem, don’t think about them now.)

“Hey there.”

Steve jumps, arms raised in defense, and shoulders set. He always went on the defensive first, shielding himself and then attacking. That stayed the same it seems.

Interesting.

“Howard?”

Oh hell. Fuck, ok, he can still do this. Why the fuck does Captain America look more then a scared college kid then truth, justice and the American Way? Right, because that had been Superman.

“Nope, sorry, easy mistake. I’m Tony Stark, also known by some people as Howard Jr, but don’t ever call me that.”

And there it went, the shield that Steve put up, hiding behind for so many years before it all broke down. SHIELD may have been Hydra but they were also idiots, how had no one realized?

He was an asshole back then, sure, but what was their excuse?

(Nazis weren’t big on mental health, who knew?)

(Everyone. Everyone knew.)

“Ok listen, you’re in a world you don’t know in a future you didn’t expect talking to a guy who looks like your friend but isn't - “

“Figured all that out, thanks.”

Steve.”

He ignored how familiar the pattern felt, how much he understood, The first time around it had taken them six months to do more then small talk around the elephants dancing through the room. They had both been stubborn and angry and acting young, Tony maybe younger than acceptable. He wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

“Ok.” His voice cracked, a barely there swallow that you could have missed if you tried. “Ok. So everyone is dead?”

Tony had always had a complicated relationship with the ide of Captain America, and heros. He had a complicated relationship with his Dad, and his Dad’s friends, and literally everyone around him.

He was a complicated guy.

Right now, he was trying to save the world. But also? He had spent months alone thinking he was going to die on an empty plane floating through space, never knowing how it ended. He had woken up in a new time, slightly out of step with everything he knew.

If anyone could help here, it was probably him.

“No.” Steve was falling apart, and Tony wonders how much of that is because of him, how much is the circumstances. Surrounded by new and foreign faces for the first time, he had built up walls because he thought he had to. Because no one in this time had bothered to see him.

Kind of how everyone saw the playboy genius and not the guy who saw Star Wars in theaters seventeen times.

“Gabe is alive and on his way. Peggy is alive, in England on business, her flight is in a couple of hours.” She was also slowly taking down Hydra from inside, and he was starting to suspect the Alzheimers hadn’t been natural last time. “You defrosted faster then expected, but all the commandos have huge families, dozens of people who were thrilled to hear from me. Seriously, dozens, you guys really loved doing it back then.

“We can contact them as soon as you’re ready.”

Steve gasped, grasping the back of the chair he leaned on so tightly it creaked. That was a fucking metal chair.

“You aren’t alone. This future might not be one you expected or even wanted, but we’re ready to make it something you can accept.”

“I just,” he whispered, shoulders up at his ears and body pulled tighter than Pepper’s ponytail.

Tony kinda wanted to hug him, which was weird. Nice, but weird. They had so many issues in the old future, so many things they had never gotten past. That future didn’t exist, and for the first time Tony realized just how much he was going to change.

For fucks sake he wanted to hug Captain America and get him a blanket.

Time travel - making you new and unexpected friends!

Coulson burst into the room with a bang, the door bouncing off the wall and he didn’t have time to so much as blink before Steve had thrown Tony behind him, fists raised and feet planted like he was going to punt Agent across the room and into the hall.

“Uuuhhhhh,” Agent was starstruck, and Tony was cackling. He had been on the other side of Cap’s ‘do not fuck with me’ face enough times to know it was legitimately terrifying.

“Let’s get you out of here, oh Captain my captain, there’s a lot in the future I think you’re going to love.”

 


 

They argue, of course they do, they’re Hydra dressed up like bureaucrats hiding as SHIELD agents. They were never gonna let Captain America, Das UberMensh, glide out of here like he was a human being allowed to make choices and shit.

“Look, I am taking custody of my long lost and recently resurrected godfather, and the rest of you can get fucked as far as I care.” Steve snickers, hiding in the bomber jacket and combat boots he had gotten Nat to scrounge up by asking nicely.

He knew she had studied every scrap SHIELD had on Steve when she joined, as part of the deprogramming from whatever Russia had slapped into her brain. He hadn’t realized she might get a little attached.

Actually that made a fair bit of sense. They were more alike then he had realized back then, and for now she made a usefull ally in this side quest, aka: ‘Get Steve Away From Creepy Nazi Scientists’.

She’d always had a soft spot for people who were treated more like property first. SHILEDra was treating Steve like property, and then a ‘hero’ (whatever that means) and a science experiment, and as a human being almost as an afterthought.

No wonder Cap had been so fucked up back then. Pity, since he’d been fucked up as well, they could have commiserated.

Anyways, Nat was watching this conversation like a hawk, maybe in honor of Clint, who still wasn’t around, and Fury was getting increasingly stone faced every time the science/medical dude called Steve an “It”. Steve, who was getting more and more annoyed.

Turns out waking up to a semi-familiar face and promise to find old friends made his inner bastard show up a lot faster than it had before.

Tony had always known Steve could be the best kind of asshole if he tried.

“First of all,” Steve interrupted, cutting off science lacky numero dos and sounding like freedom and apple pie wrapped in steel.

Tony kind of hated that he automatically stood up straighter in response, but so did everyone else. Including Fury.

“I am not a child, or an object, and so no one is taking custody of me. Second,” he plowed on, ignoring the splutters about medical proxy and competency and whatever, “Tony is just taking me to Manhattan, so that I can meet with an old friend and learn about the fate of my men from one my own.”

And then his voice switched, softened a little, blue eyes going wide and deep and bottom lip getting a little sad. It was a masterful performance, Tony almost wanted to shed a tear.

Natasha looked impressed too.

“You wouldn’t deny me the peace and closure of finally knowing how many of my men made it home, would you?” He said it sofly, like it was a private conversation between almost a dozen people. Coulson was on the verge of tears.

“Get him out of here,” Fury muttered, eyes still narrowed at the lab coats and voice made of stone. He’s almost sure Peggy already contacted him about the “possible” breach in ranks.

They made it to the front entrance at a rapid pace, moving in unison and not realizing that Coulson and Romanoff were following them, sneaky agents that they were.

Happy glanced at the unexpected guests when they slid into the rover, eyes sliding over Steve and then bouncing right back and going wide. He said nothing.

That man needed a raise, honestly.

“Steve Rogers.” he extended a hand to Natasha, having already been introduced to Coulson earlier, when he almost beat his face in accidentally.

“Natasha Romanoff.” She smiled at him, perfect teeth sharp and a little threatening.

“You were the nurse earlier, sorry if I startled you.”

Natasha gave him another once over, clearly impressed. Steve was too busy staring out the window to notice.

“I know all this. But I don’t.” he was mourning something he could never see again, a future he couldn’t have and a past that didn’t exist anymore.

Tony knew the feeling.

“This might not sound comforting now, but you will. Eventually the streets will bleed together with what you see you in your memories and you’ll know the city like you did. It’ll just take time.”

Coulson was glaring at him again, apparently Agent only had one setting. Steve just offered him a shell-shocked smile.

“Thanks.”

 


 

September, 2009 - New York, Earth

So Hawkeye was guarding the tesseract. That’s just fucking convenient, thank fuck.

The more moving parts he added to this timeline the more that bit of air behind his lungs and under his heart and pressing against his bones shifted, feeling more and more like the tick-tock of a countdown clock.

Natasha was officially assigned as Steve’s babysitter/guide, since she had experience with acclimating to a new culture following an intense extraction, ie; joining SHIELD after the Red Room. Apparently no one had picked up on her being a little troll, and therefore as unsuitable as Tony was.

Peggy was back, presumably to help Nick arrange a proposal to the UN for a standardized protocol in Intergalactic Relations, now that it was actually necessary. Unofficially they were cleaning house, quickly and efficiently and with a ruthlessness that was terrifying.

If you were Hydra, that is.

Natasha and Steve were ‘bonding’ over the most creative ways to get beaten up, or beat each other up, and classic animated films, and also losing everyone/thing you ever knew. (And possibly being semi-immortal, there was a very big gap in information available on the Red Room serum.)

Ross was in prison, following some detailed tips on his general ...Ross-ness, since his brand of corrupt ran way to close to ‘has ties to every Hydra/terrorist organization’ to be just ‘corrupt’.

More and more politicians were being exposed due to Hydra related crimes. Tony was more interested in picking Bruce up from the airport, after months of exchanging emails on the theoretical physics of time-space. Betty tracked him down to Stark Tower, to apologize and maybe start over and mention that she was running a clinic out in India? Somewhere in the southeast of Asia.

They spend six months hopping around, helping local doctors set up clinics and then moving on, publishing the random paper when they feel like it.

Some aspects of this timeline had been so easy to unfuck Tony was starting to have some serious doubts.

All he needed now was a way to contact Thor, and since it was actually impossible to have a decent grasp on astrophysics overnight, no matter what he liked to claim, hunting down Dr. Jane Foster was the next item on his rapidly shortening list.

It was way easier than expected.

All of this was easier than expected, but also? Tony had spent a really long time in that fake romulan warbird, and this had been a brain exercise he had rehearsed plenty of times. So maybe it wasn’t easy.

Maybe he was just really good at engineering a plan.

 


10 Months Before the Battle of NY, 2010 - Somewhere in the Mojave desert.

Dr. Foster may have had two months of vital research buried under a week old pizza and a cup of cocoa, but she also had the most comprehensive grasp of cosmic mathematics he has ever seen.

The fact that this is the first time he’s meeting her, ever, is a fucking tragedy.

Loki’s original temper tantrum had barely taken place on earth, and they have no way to get to Asgard yet, (actually, they never had. Asgard always came to them). The next best option, run over and over in his brain, is to get Thor here, tell him the tesseract is on Earth and they believe Someone might be coming to get it, and wait for Loki and his magic brainwashing Spear of Destiny to make a dramatic entrance.

(Meanwhile, as Jarvis kept scanning the world against the checklist of buzzwords, Maya Hansen’s Extremis Project received unexpected interest from the Stark Foundation for Medical Research. AIM was under investigation for human trafficking and unethical experimantation, and Hydra was either blown up, underground, or both. Ultron was never more then a single word underlined on his whiteboard, and humanitarian aid was pouring into Sokovia, which was just on the brink of a civil war.)

It will work.

And it does, Steve standing with his arms folded, listening to Darcy the Intern chatter about fixing equipment with duct tape and how she’s somehow the leading expert on intergalactic relations, being the only poli-sci major to have met an alien.

Tony is kinda shocked when the portal splits open the sky. This was the iffy-est parts of his winding and exhaustingly detailed plan. He’s not complaining, but damn is he glad when it works.

Thor looks the same, hair a little shorter than it had been the last time he saw the godling and both eyes still electric blue and dragging static through the atmosphere.

He’s thrilled to see the tiny yet brilliant Doctor, lifting her from the ground as happy crackles of lightning dance over the ground around them.

He’d feel bad breaking it up if he didn’t know how much Thor loved his brother too.

Which, to each their own, but maybe the emo god of green and attempted invasions was nicer when he didn’t have a Thanos in his brain. Who could really know.

Time to try and warn him about the mind controlling douche, and the “oh yeah your brother is alive but possibly evil nbd”.

This part was gonna get loud.

 


7 Months Before the Original Battle of NY, 2010 - New York, Earth.

“How do you know all this?” Pepper asks him one morning, curled up at his side and breathing softly into his neck. He thought fucking with the timeline might take this from him. It hasn’t, yet, and some days he’s scared to breathe when she kisses him, sure he’ll wake up.

“What do you mean.”

“Tony,” she shifts, silk against iron, stronger than anything he’s ever built and twice as beautiful. “Over the last few years you’ve taken down corrupt politicians and companies and funded research based on breakthroughs the day before they were announced. You bought stocks in things that should have failed and then used those funds on research that’s going to change the world. You’ve been working on it like a man obsessed, and even Steve noticed between training and his school projects.”

At some point Steve and Natasha moved into the tower and just.. never left. Bruce was offered his space, a lab and funding and an apartment and room for a plus one, if Betty wanted. (She did). Thor sometimes popped by, working things out with Fury and delighting in the backbone of steel he met in ‘Lady Carter, my earthbound politik liaison’.

They’ve become a little gang of friends, like a sitcom happening in the background of Tony’s personal mission impossible. A group that had dinner together and watched movies while shouting rude things at the screen, throwing popcorn and invading each others space.

Steve was finally getting his art degree for fucks sake. They’re almost normal, almost well adjusted and functioning superheros with varying levels of PTSD who occasionally fight giant squid or kaiju. Because that was a thing.

Clint let them babysit his dog.

He’s fixed the timeline, and if he breathes too hard he might wake up.

“Do you believe in time travel,” he asks, frozen in the morning light.

A few floors down Steve is probably starting pancakes, ignoring Nat’s heckling while Bruce tries not to fall asleep in his oatmeal. Clint was supposed to get in last night, wanting to debrief and catch up before heading out to the farm, while downstairs in the hospital wing Sam Wilson, tracked down due to his outstanding ability to handle bullshit and also jump off buildings, was setting up a treatment plan for one almost defrosted Bucky Barnes.

Pepper looks golden, draped in lilac sheets and the light you can find at sunrise in the penthouse of a skyscraper.

“I don’t know,” she answers, seriously, “but I do believe in you.”

They stare at each other, stupid and in love and content. “That is the most horrifyingly cheesy thing you’ve ever said,” he deadpans, “say it again so I can record it.”

Pepper cackles, the sharp laugh she never uses at work, the one he only heard after knowing her for seven years, the one she only uses here, with him, with their friends.

He’d die all over again if it meant they got to laugh like that.

 


 

5 Months Before Loki Shows Up, 2010 - New York, Earth.

Thor is surprisingly accepting of Tony’s whispered suspicions. In the end he couldn’t lead him blindly into it, in the end he realized Thor knew he was hiding something, and in the end he decided it was worth the risk.

“My brother is where your earth legend of one cat with nine lives originated, Anthony. If the Norns saw fit to have shown you this vision, it must be true.”

Whoever the Norns are, Tony isn’t sure he wants to meet them. “I don’t think it was uh, Norns, Thor. It’s a little more complicated than that.”

Thor grins, sharp and full of a science he called magic. “Oh I am well aware you have never met the Norns, Tony. It’s a - what's that expression?- turn of phrase. I doubt the Norns could show themselves to you, your human brain is…” Thor’s eyes twinkled with mischief. It was sometimes easy to forget his brother was Loki. Sometimes it hit you in the face, “under-developed.”

It’s unexpected, or maybe it isn’t because this timeline resembles the other only in the way math looks correct when reflected through water, and he doesn't care. He’d take this timeline, where Steve had inside jokes with JARVIS, and Thor didn’t hide how smart he was, and they all lived half out of each other's pockets over the other one. Like it was a hard choice.

“Well, petty insults aside, until he shows up we have some time, and Dr Foster mentioned that you knew how to stabilize the portal until the rainbow road was repaired.”

Thor’s understanding of the mechanics was more intuitive than anything else, but still useful. “Would that make my brother Luigi? Skinny, favors green, fun in small doses?”

Tony watched the laughing god wander over to the coffee maker, strangely at peace in a world where norse gods played mario kart. The blond muscles squad was discussing the advantages of modern coffee, and Foster was enthusiastically explaining something to Betty while Bruce took some frantic looking notes.

They get a room in the tower too.

 


May 1st, 2011 - Undisclosed Shield Holding Facility, Earth.

There are three things in Tony’s pocket that are Vitaly Important to the next (and final) part of Operation: Un-Fuck the Timeline.

One of them happens to be a diamond ring, but fuck it that means the plan worked, and he wasted so much time waiting for no reason if they survive today he’s gonna do it, going to get down on one knee and proabably faint from nerves.

The other two are a stun gun capable of knocking out an Asgardian, Thor tested and approved, and the other is an old beeper that hurt his every sensibility to touch, let alone use. He swiped from Fury’s office before their little midnight adventure.

He could explain away a lot, like why Fury should let them do this, but he couldn’t really explain knowing about this. Better to take it and ask permission later.

Based on the information he had frantically dictated to JARVIS all those years ago, when he woke up and realized maybe Hell was a second chance, he knows Captain Danvers can respond within 12 hours no matter where in the galaxy she is, provided the universe isn’t at war with reality.

He’d set it off about eleven hours ago.

“Ok so,” Steve is fiddling with the magnetized gloves they’d developed, a way to call the shield back to him without needing to do fucking advanced calculations in his head, on the fly, like a barbarian or something.

“This Loki kid arrives, we knock him out, and whatever is controlling his mind loses it’s hold and we can get rid of it?”

“Yep.”

This suit is more flexible, closer to the Mach 85 then maybe he should be at this stage in time. But he did the work, it’s not his fault he got time whammied ‘Back to the Future’ style. Whatever schmo was trying to follow his design process in a thousand years or whatever could figure it out on their own.

He also gave Pepper her own, a version that folded down to a protective vest. Stark Industries had a shocking amount of enemies for a company that developed green tech and next gen health solutions and then practically gave it away.

“And you know this all because?” Steve is grinning, he can hear it, Natasha probably egging him on with a poke in the ribs. The Captain America he new in the old future doesn’t exist here, and he’s fucking thrilled. Then again, the Iron Man he’d been was also gone, buried under these new years, and he can’t find the time to mourn him. He doesn’t want to.

He thinks this timeline is better.

(Let it work, he prays, as much as he’s ever prayed. Let it fucking work. The Universe, meanwhile, is on its 32 bucket of popcorn, sitting at the edge of their seat.)

Thor is not pacing, tense and stiff beside them, probably wondering what the fuck he’ll have to do if Loki gets away. Clint set up a sniper's nest with Barnes, covering every angle between them and probably mocking each others supposed skill levels while doing it.

There's the slightest pause in the air, everyone holding their breath, when suddenly it starts. Jane and her slightly insane mentor are shouting, the tesseract freaking out as a portal of black ink and blue light and stars opens into the center of the room, spitting out a huddled mess. It hissed, steam rising, and straightened up with a grin more appropriate for a B-list horror film then a godling.

He’d forgotten how manic Loki looked back then.

It's over in seconds, the gun in his pocket unnecessary as both Barton and Barnes shoot him, scary precise and faster than should be possible. Thor is the one that rushes forward, catching Loki before he hits the ground.

They tie him to a chair, most of them still in shock that it actually worked.

Loki wakes up, saying nothing as he scans the room, glaring at them with varying levels of contempt and anger. It takes a minute for him to spot the spear Steve is leaning on, balancing against it as he meets Loki’s eyes.

“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you, human.”

Steve grins, hefting it upward and examining its shiny core. Tony kind of wants to grab it away from him too. “What this old thing? Don’t worry, it can’t promise me anything I actually want.”

“Can’t manipulate your mind if you’ve got nothing up there.” Barnes might not have been pointing his rifle at Loki’s head anymore, but he loomed over Steve’s shoulder in a very clear threat.

“Very true”

Loki doesn’t react. Or maybe he does, the tightening of his lips more amusement then anger now.

“You are alive.” Thor sounds a little unclear about that. Tony takes the time to wonder what Asgardians think death is.

Then again this is Loki.

“Clearly.”

“And trespassing on this domain, with a weapon gifted by our enemy.”

“Well, in my defense brother, I have been having an awful year.” They stare at each other, ignoring the shuffling group of heros around them. To absolutely no one's surprise, Thor breaks first.

He laughs, loud and echoing, shocking his brother into a crooked grin. “You do know that staff was manipulating you, yes?”

“Only partly, brother, let’s not pretend. But yes, I do know that now, you idiot, and the only question is which one of Thanos arms will I rip off first for this insult.”

Thor never gets to respond to that fascinating question, since Carol, finally deciding to join the party, makes her appropriately dramatic entrance.

That poor roof will never be the same.

“Where’s -” she cuts herself off, scanning the room and unfamiliar faces with nova bright eyes. “Why are there two infinity stones here?”

“Well,” Tony interrupts, ignoring the twisting space behind his ribs again. “To answer your aborted first question, Fury is out cleaning the Nazis and assorted assholes out of his super secret boy band slash spy club. He does send his best.”

“As for the infinity stones,” he buries his shaking hands deep in his pockets. “That’s why we called you.”

“You have a lot to explain,” she steps forward, hand out. He shakes it, feeling the time behind his ribcage settle down, finally, finally shake itself out and just settle. “Captain Carol Danvers, known as Mar-Vel intergalactically.”

“Tony Stark, not yet known intergalactically, and the Avengers, my own super secret boy band.”

Carol grins as Loki shakes off his ropes in disgust. “This is all very touching, but Thanos does have an army and thinks I’m about to let them through. Any ideas.”

Tony’s grin is sharp and old. “Oh buddy am I glad you asked.”

 


2012 - New York, Earth.

Thanos is dead. Turns out without the infinity stones, now scattered safely on other planets, Carol could kill him with one overpowered punch.

Carol, who was currently lounging on the tower balcony with Steve, supposedly designing wedding dresses/suits but in reality discussing the mechanics of throwing people through buildings.

“You know,” Steve says, leaning forward and stealing some of Tony’s blueberries. “Ever since I met you, you’ve always been about three step ahead.”

“Have I?” he offers the bag to Carol, ignoring how she levitates them to her mouth with a childish grin. Show off. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“You have!” She says, “Can’t say it wasn’t useful, from what Steve tells me. But it is a little weird.”

“Almost unnatural.”

“Supernatural.”

“Cosmically -”

“Yeah ok kids,” he’s laughing, and it's weird. He didn’t get to laugh with them last time. “I get it.”

Carol grins around a mouth full of blueberries. “But are you going to explain?”

The sun is setting over New York. There was no alien invasion. The skyline isn’t a smoking ruin, there’s no rubble at their feet. That shawarma shop was open, he’d checked, and so was everything else.

The time that had echoed hollow behind his ribs had settled, slowly morphing into the beating of his now repaired heart.

Whatever this timeline had now become, he had no way of knowing anymore. Not really.

“Well,” he started, hearing the wind just beyond his reach, the rest of the team chattering in the kitchen. The time trapped in his ribcage was only his own. “Do you believe in second chances?”