A man walks into a bar. The bar, Harry's, is an oak-panelled joint on West 32nd street, close to Penn and crowded with thirsty businessmen in hats and coats stopping in for a drink before catching the train. There's a lot of turnover and bustle, so it's a good place for a meeting. The man in the doorway is wearing a dark felt fedora and a wool coat over his blue suit, and he is clutching a letter inside his overcoat pocket. His heart is pounding fast. He has to resist the urge to pull the letter out again, to read it again: this impossible letter in a dead man's handwriting.
He looks up and down the bar, searching out faces—but in the end, it's the other man's hat that gives him away. The dead man is sitting at the end of the long wood bar with his hat on, because he doesn't know enough to take it off, because he was born in 1970, eighteen years from now. There's a free space beside him, so Steve quickly removes his own hat and slides down the bar behind the backs of the drinking commuters to take it. "Take your hat off," Steve murmurs, and Tony swipes his hat off immediately even as his eyes go wide. He takes in Steve, who shucks his overcoat and sits down on the stool beside him in his blue suit and red tie.
"Sonofabitch," Tony says, softly, almost admiringly; quite, quite happily. "I knew it was you. I knew it. I fucking—" but it's Steve who can't help it, who reaches out for him and drags him in, half-yanks him off the stool and into his arms and hugs him tightly, because Tony died, Steve saw him die, and— "I thought you men of the past were all manly and stoic," Tony says, sounding utterly choked up, and Steve, himself on the verge of tears, grips Tony's wool coat in his fists and kisses his rough cheek, because what he can't explain—what he is, in fact, too manly and stoic to explain—is that they're in a bar full of men for whom the last war is a living memory, and nobody at all will think it strange for him to hug and even kiss a war buddy.
Because that's who Tony is, after all; a buddy from a war seventy years in the future.
"How," Steve manages finally. "How did you—" but the bartender's in front of them now, attending, crisply saying, "Gentlemen? What can I get you?" "Whiskey," Steve manages, and then: "Make it a double," and Tony quickly adds, "I'll have the same." The bartender pours out two glasses as they set themselves back on their stools and compose themselves. Steve picks up his tumbler and moves to clink it against Tony's, but it's Tony who makes the toast.
"To your health, sir," Tony says, his dark eyes blazing, and Steve is nearly overcome.
"To yours. Jesus, Tony, how are you..." but Steve sees the answer before he finishes the thought.
Tony is wearing gloves, but the cuff of his sleeve slips back as he lifts his tumbler of whisky to his lips, and one might take the flash of gold for a bracelet—but this is no bracelet. This is the Infinity Gauntlet—and Tony, seeing where Steve's eyes have gone, sets down his tumbler and gently peels back a bit of the soft brown leather to show Steve that yes, the golden gauntlet has entirely fused with his scarred hand. Tony's right hand is the mirror of Bucky's left, and Steve bites his lip and nods slowly. Tony's arc-reactor heart, Tony's golden hand—Tony's been changed by the experience of war: like Bucky—or like himself for that matter. Steve wonders if the stones, or some imprint of them, are set into Tony's knuckles, and looks the question at him. Tony's mouth twists in wry amusement—so, yes—and then he answers more directly.
"Whatever it is, it's in me, now. It's part of me. Or I'm part of it—I can't even pretend to understand it, and you can imagine how it hurts me to say that," Tony sighs. "But whatever it is, it's keeping me alive and it's giving me...the power to do certain things," and maybe Steve imagines it, but there seems to be a crackle of energy, a surge of something, beneath the supple lambskin of Tony gloves. It seems strangely right: inevitable, even. Steve wonders if Tony might be able to lift Mjolnir now—and feels surprisingly sure that he can. Of course he can.
"What about you?" Tony asks, and then, quickly lowering his voice: "I saw you in the timestream—well, no, I saw a ripple in the timestream, another ripple in the timestream, a ripple that wasn't me, and—sonofabitch, Steve, I knew it was you, just had to be you—I mean, who else? So what the hell are you…" Steve glances around surreptitiously before lifting his hand and quickly tugging up his own sleeve to show Tony what he's got strapped to his wrist. It's the GPS unit that Tony gave him all those years from now, but it's been modified so that it looks like nothing so much as a glorified wristwatch—well, aside from the flashing red glint of an infinitely-renewable infraparticle at its center.
"My, my and well, well," Tony says, peering down at the particle. "Where'd you get that?"
"1970," Steve replies. "It was a one-off particle that came out of one of Dr. Pym's later experiments. But nobody knew what to do with it. It didn't seem to be good for anything—"
"Well, other than powering a GPS that lets you surf space-time," Tony says pointedly.
"Well, yes," Steve admits. "But they hadn't invented that yet, so it wasn't doing them any good."
"Is it doing you any good?" Tony asks. "I don't suppose that you're just hanging out being a time-tourist. I can think of times I'd like to visit: Paris in the fifties, London in the sixties, New York in the..." but Tony trails off as he sees Steve shaking his head; he's no tourist.
Steve reaches into his suit pocket, comes out with his card case, and thumbs it open. He hands a cream colored card over to Tony. It reads:
New York Bell Company
S. G. Carter
463 West Street, New York. YUkon 9-3000
Tony looks down at the card, then up at Steve. "You work for the phone company?"
"I work for my wife," Steve says.
It's fair to say that Tony's had the occasional laugh at Steve's expense in the 21st century, watching Steve hesitate before a touch screen or apologize to a voice-activated robot or simply unplug devices he can't figure out how to turn off—like the microwave or the wifi—to save electricity, Steve explained afterward, rather petulantly. What a funny old man! What a card!
Tony's laughing out the other side of his face now, because Steve is fully in the swim of 1952 and Tony is lost, lost, lost. Nothing works the way he expects. He'd patted himself on the back for thinking of bringing cash—old cash, greenbacks—on this little excursion, but that hadn't prepared him for a world where everything was mechanical, or people-powered. He'd stood in an elevator absently for a full minute before realizing he was meant to close the gate himself and pull the lever. Everything requires pocket change—nickles, quarters, dimes—and he's clumsy with it, can't get it out of his pockets fast enough. He stands too long at the machines feeling the people behind him fuming. Also there's so much fucking talking, and every conversation a chance that he'll give himself away as an alien from the future. He's got to talk to all these people whose jobs had been eliminated by the time Tony was in middle school. Newspaper boys and milkmen and train conductors—it was all Tony could do not to slam down the phone in the hotel lobby when he picked up the receiver and heard a woman's voice say, "What number, please?" Hey Siri, he wanted to say. Get me YUkon 9-3000, and the sound of the number made him want to sing it, to the tune of Glenn Miller's Pennsylvania 6-5000.
Instead he cleared his throat and said, "Can you connect me to YUkon 9-3000?" the earliest number he could find for SHIELD among his father's papers. And it had worked, because Siri had put the call through. The line buzzed and popped and then a new female voice said: "How may I direct your call?" — Alexa, he supposed. Alexa, get me Steve Rogers on the horn. There was what seemed to Tony a long and ominous silence, or maybe that was just how long things took in this when. "I'm sorry, there's no one here by that name," Alexa said finally, but that wasn't true: that couldn't be true. Tony had tracked the time ripples to the early '50s, with the strongest distortions occurring here in early 1952. In New York, then home to SHIELD HQ, where both his father and Peggy Carter worked—and wasn't Steve Rogers the obvious third wheel on that tricycle? Tony would've bet his last dollar on finding Steve at SHIELD.
Right deduction, wrong name, because it's Mr. S.G. Carter beside him, one hand on his arm and sliding with ease through this world. Mr. Carter guides him into the grandeur of the Pennsylvania Station and buys them tickets for the train. The Oyster Bay line—and that sends prickles of remembrance up Tony's spine, of summers spent out at the house there, sailing with his Mom and racing cars with his dad, and of the last time he'd seen them: December 16, 1991.
Mr. Carter buys a newspaper from the boy hawking them beside the shoe-shine stand, and then hesitates beside a row of telephone booths. He hands Tony the paper and says, "Gimme a sec" before stepping into the wooden booth, sliding the door shut, and thumbing his nickel into the slot. Tony tries to look casual, like he's the kind of guy who routinely stands around Penn Station in a fedora reading a newspaper; Cary Grant, maybe. He glances down at the headline: Rosenbergs' Guilt As Spies Affirmed By Appeals Court. Jesus Fucking Christ.
"Sorry," Mr. Carter says, coming out of the booth. "Just thought I should call ahead to say I'm bringing company home," and okay, yeah, that's a word for it: Hi, honey: I'm bringing company home: Howard's son from the future! The train is at the platform, and the inside's nicer than Tony remembers from slumming his way home from MIT: dark red leatherette seats, and, more surprisingly, chrome ashtrays on posts every few feet. He follows Steve to a seat, and tries to follow his lead—he's about to take his hat off, but Steve doesn't, so he doesn't. Steve just unfurls his newspaper and, with a quick, significant glance, buries his face in it until they arrive.
They come out at the Sea Cliff station, and Tony assumes they'll take a cab except it turns out Mr. Carter has left a car parked in the lot: a fog green 1949 Chrysler New Yorker convertible. Mint condition—well, of course it is. Tony nearly creams himself—and Mr. Carter smiles, hands him the key, and says: "We're not going far. But the local speed limit's only 25 mph."
Tony knows that. He knows these streets well, actually; Sea Cliff is on the gold coast, only a couple of towns over from where the big houses were—are—where his house was and is, because Howard Stark was born on the lower east side but he was goddamned determined to live among the Roosevelts and the Fricks and Whitneys. Tony'd dated a girl from Sea Cliff for about a day and a half; he remembers driving her back to her big, old house in his first car, a bitchin' Camaro, hot rod red with a gold stripe down the center. Practically the whole of Sea Cliff had been landmarked by then, which meant it looked pretty much the same as it does now: big old houses with turrets and gables, quaint streets shaded by huge, flowering trees, and a main street straight out of an old movie. Mr. Carter and his '49 Chrysler fit right in.
"Slow down," Steve says, as they turn onto a quiet, hedge-lined street. "It's just ahead," and at a glance, the house isn't the biggest one in Sea Cliff, but it's unobtrusively private: set back from the street and surrounded by a brick wall, a bit of cream-colored siding just barely visible through the flowering trees in the garden. "There," Steve says, and points to a narrow driveway. It's gated, and—"Pull up, I'll get it,"—there's no clicker, remote control, or sensor to unlock it; Mr. Carter has to get out of the car with his key and open the wrought iron gate for himself.
The long driveway goes past the house and ends in a little cul de sac in front of a garage. Tony parks the car and turns, smiling, dangling the key in his hand—but Steve isn't looking at him. Steve's staring out the passenger window at the house with pure longing, like he's dumbfounded by his own good luck. Tony knows that face, cause it's the look on his face every time he looks at Morgan, at Pepper, the lake house. How was I ever lucky enough to get this?
Steve finally turns back. "Listen, Tony," he says, "I need you to stay calm. I need you to listen more than talk. The situation's...delicate," and well, that's fucking irritating but Steve's face is grave so Tony gnaws his lip and holds his tongue, just jerks a nod: okay, yeah, whatever. Steve nods back and then they're getting out of the car and slamming the Chrysler's heavy doors. There's a back door, but Steve takes him around to the front of the house via a little stone path that leads to the steps and the front porch. He clearly doesn't want to take his wife by surprise.
Steve has his keys in his hand— but still, he knocks. "Peg?" he calls, taking his hat off even as he opens their wood-framed front door. "Darling?" and Tony quickly swipes his own hat into his hands. There's a fire in the fireplace, and a plump sofa with cushions and a chair and an ottoman, lamps casting a soft warm glow over the curtains and carpets—and Peggy Carter, standing there and staring at him like she's never seen him before, which...well, she hasn't.
And oh, shit, he's going to hell, because sure, she was an incredibly stylish woman even later in life, and sure, he's seen old pictures of her standing with his dad, all victory rolls and the implication of red lipstick. But that hasn't prepared him for this. Because Peggy Carter is a goddamned knockout, one of the most gorgeous women he's ever seen and he's seen a couple (hundred) (thousand). Tony clutches his hat brim and forces himself not to stare at her breasts, because holy God, what a rack. And the goddamned tailoring shows everything to effect.
Tony glances at Steve with understanding for the first time. Poor bastard never had a chance.
Tony tries to deal with his wrong-bad feelings while Peggy looks him up and down with what seems like equal parts shock and amusement. She covers her mouth—surprised; smiling, maybe—and Tony sees her rounded, red-lacquered nails. Then her hand drops. "Oh," Peggy sighs, almost theatrically, and then she looks meaningfully at Steve, amused. "Oh, my…"
Steve, removing his overcoat, nods and widens his eyes. "I know," he says, and Tony wishes that someone would let him in on whatever they're talking about. "It's a little on the nose."
"I'll say." Peggy shakes her head in wonderment. "The hair, the attitude... Howard must have been so pleased," and now Tony gets it, so he plants a conversational flag to establish that hello, he exists and is actually in the room, despite not being born for another twenty years.
"I don't know if he was pleased, actually," Tony says, and his voice sounds weird in this space: this place that's so clearly in—of?—the past. His cadences are too...futuristic, or something; he hadn't realized that his tone was so post-Valley Girl, but it is. Like, wow: totally. "In fact, I used to think my dad didn't even like me, though looking back—or are we looking forward now?—I think he was maybe afraid of me. Or for me. Or maybe just afraid of the responsibility."
Peggy’s face softens. "That sounds very likely, knowing Howard," and then she's murmuring, "Steve, be a dear and...take his hat, take his coat," and Tony's hat and coat disappear from his hands.
It's hard to take his eyes off her. "Look, I'm sorry," he says, "but it's weird for me, okay? You were friends with my dad for fifty years, and with Jarvis even longer. One or the other of them could always be found at your office. You stopped over for drinks, came to Dad's parties…"
Steve and Peggy exchange looks. "Alone?" Peggy asks—and Tony frowns, because yes, alone, and why hadn't that seemed strange? He'd never imagined Peggy Carter was a spinster—Dad always referred to her as "Mrs. Carter" like everyone else did at SHIELD, or in the press—so why had it never occurred to him to wonder about Mr. Carter? There'd been some implication, wasn't there, that he was an invalid: that he'd had been in the war with Dad and Mrs. Carter and maybe hadn't come out of it as well. A nonentity, certainly; didn't Dad visit him sometimes?
"Alone, yeah…You always came by yourself," Tony says slowly, and he can picture her standing with Jarvis at the door of the Long Island house, a good-looking woman in her fifties and the epitome of chic. He remembers how he'd liked to look down from the balcony and see all the people arriving: men in tuxedos and white scarves, ladies in fur coats and fancy dresses and high heels. "I wasn't invited, of course, but I used to hide at the top of the stairs and watch everyone. You had a long mink stole," he remembers suddenly, "that I used to run off and play with. Pretend I was a caveman, or Daniel Boone, shooting the bear. Conan the Barbarian."
Peggy looks delighted. "Really? What year was this?"
"What year will it be, you mean? I'm not sure." Tony thinks. "1976, maybe? 1978?"
Steve, who has gone over to the bar to fix drinks, looks over with a grin. "Well, that gives me a little time." He comes over, a glass in each hand; gives one to his wife and kisses her. Tony bats his eyes at Steve and purses his lips, but gets no kiss. He gets handed a drink, though.
He and Peggy clink and drink. Peggy gestures for him to take a seat on the overstuffed sofa, and they sit together while Steve, back at the bar, fixes two more—two more? It's only then that Tony realizes that there's someone else in the house. He's been dimly aware of faint sounds—flatware clinking against crockery, the occasional blast of running water—from the kitchen, the door to which is visible across the dining room with its round table set for—four.
He looks over at Steve, who is holding two more drinks and wearing his grave face again. I need you to stay calm. I need you to listen more than talk. The situation's...delicate, and it's almost a premonition, this knowledge prickling up Tony's spine. Like sensing a ghost.
And then Bucky Barnes walks into the room.
He isn't sure for a moment when this Barnes is from, because this Barnes looks even more convincingly of the 1950s than Steve does. His hair is short and styled like an old-time movie star, Dirk Bogarde or somebody, and he's rocking a pair of tweed pants, wingtips, and a white Oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up. This exposes his metal arm—though Tony doesn't need to see the arm to know that this Barnes comes from the future. The dark circles under his eyes tell him that, the air of sadness, trauma and regret that seems to cling to him.
Bucky Barnes looks at Tony miserably and slides his hands into his pockets, curling in on himself. Steve, still awkwardly holding the drinks, says, carefully, "Tony, you remember Bucky," and Tony wants to shout in his face, maybe throw something, but he doesn't get the chance because Barnes, face dark like a bruise, mutters, "Don't be a dope, Steve. He does—of course he does: how can he not?" Steve looks like he's about to start in on the case for the defense—you didn't mean to, it wasn't your fault—but Barnes cuts him off before he can start.
"There aren't words." Barnes sounds like he can't breathe. "Sorry's not—it's not—but it has to be said, Steve. Something has to be said before we go on," and then Barnes is aiming the full bore of his agony at Tony and choking out, "I'm sorry. He was my friend—here, he's still my friend. But I can't—there's nothing I can—believe me, if I could, I'd—" and it suddenly seems like there's a nontrivial chance that Barnes is going to throw up on Peggy Carter's Turkish carpets.
This isn't an apology Tony can accept, but Barnes is right: somehow they have to go on. So Tony answers the only way he can: slantwise. "So are you a Carter now, too?" he asks Barnes. It's a thrown-off question, but it seems to knock Bucky off-balance. Steve and Peggy, too.
To his surprise, Barnes answers, "Well...yeah, actually," and pulls his wallet from his pants pocket. He's got a New York Bell Company business card, too, and a New York State driver's license, which is larger than the ones Tony's used to, and handwritten on cardstock, no photo.
Both are made out in the name of Michael Carter.
"My brother," Peggy says softly. "He disappeared, and was presumed dead, in the early years of the war. In fact, he was captured by Hydra and...suffered, and was the cause of suffering in others. He's dead now," Peggy concludes with a sigh, "though no one is aware of that but me," and it takes a moment for the implications of that to sink in. Tony stares at her. Peggy Carter's gorgeous but she's more than a little terrifying. They all are, here in House Carter. Faces like angels, but they'll gut you like fish. The Greatest Generation: don't fuck with them. "But it would be a shame to let a perfectly good set of identity papers go to waste," Peggy says, and sips gin.
Tony sits back and looks from one to the other to the other of them before turning his attention back to Steve. "Look, this is a really nice place you got here," he says, "and I understand why you'd want to go home to your girl, and I even understand why you'd want to bring along your—" homicidal boyfriend, he wants to say, but he's in their house drinking their gin, so he says, "—best friend, your war buddy or whatever, but—" and here it is, the million dollar question: the question that's been on his mind since he realized that Steve was weaving in and out of time. "Aren't you afraid of messing up the timeline?"
Steve raises his eyebrows, but he doesn't seem worried by the question. "No," he says, a half-second before Barnes and Peggy each say, "No," in slightly off-kilter syncopation.
Barnes looks at Tony and says, awkwardly, "It's the other way. The problem's the other way."
"Right, which is why I needed Bucky to—" Steve interjects.
Bucky scoffs, "You didn't need—"
"I did." Steve insists. "Or he thought I did, the other me thought I—"
"The other you was you, Steve! You decided. This was your gameplan—"
To Tony's surprise, Peggy comes down, softly but firmly, on Barnes's side: "It was your plan, darling."
Steve crosses his arms and declares, "It wasn't my plan," and boy, does Tony know that pig-headed tone. "It was the plan that already always was, and you're the key to it, Buck."
It's fun watching Barnes and Peggy wrangle the beast; too bad there's no popcorn. "No," Bucky Barnes says, and this clearly isn't his first time at the rodeo, "you're the key to it, Steve. You were always the goddamned key to everything. You and him," Bucky says, metal finger stabbing out toward Tony, "if he's been doing what we're doing. In fact, if that's the Infinity Gauntlet, then...." His face does something strange. "Then that could explain… Right?"
Steve groans and abruptly concedes, rubbing his temples. "Yeah, I thought the same thing."
"Which would mean I'm not crazy, which...you know, would be nice for a change," Bucky mutters.
"Okay, everybody just—all of you, stop," Tony says, "and maybe give me a glimpse of a hint of a clue?" and they all exchange glances that say, clearly, which of you's going to explain it to him?
"You should start," Steve tells Bucky, "and tell your part of it. Because it starts with you."
Bucky snatches the last gin and tonic out of Steve's hand and takes a long swig before sprawling back into a pale green armchair, legs splaying out in his fancy pants. "All right. Here goes. Everyone was at sixes and sevens after your funeral," Bucky says to Tony, pausing only briefly to press the cold glass to his forehead. "So it wasn't strange that we were all acting...strange. Steve and me, we didn't get a chance to talk, what with one thing and another, but I knew he was… I mean, even then, I could tell something was…" Bucky sets his glass down on his tweed-clad thigh, and stares absently into space. "I knew there was something. Anyway we finally got some time alone…to talk, catch up," he adds, a muscle jumping tensely in his jaw, "and that...that was when he told me."
"I saw Peggy." Steve is sitting, naked, on the side of the bed, facing the wall. He's bent forward a bit, shoulders slumped, which gives Bucky a view of the long curve of his back and his now-perfect spine: every bump exactly where it should be. "We went to 1970 to get the Space Stone, and...she was there. Peggy. In 1970," and that was all crazy, of course, but at the same time, Bucky isn't surprised. It feels...right, somehow, for Peggy to turn up again. These last few days felt eerily like living in the aftermath of Azzano: coming back from the dead into the chaos of an active military base, with everyone wanting Steve, to see Steve (even Winston Churchill had wanted to see Steve) while he drifts, confused and unknown, on the periphery, like a ghost. Now Steve has saved the world again, and with Tony Stark gone, he has a million things vying for his attention. All that's missing is Peggy Carter in a red dress. And now here she is.
"It was an accident." Steve is frowning down and softly pounding his thigh with his fist. "I was—there were guards and I just dived into an office and it was her office, Buck: Margaret Carter, Director of SHIELD." Steve pauses and lifts his head, staring out like he's there, again, in Peggy Carter's office. "And there were...pictures on her desk. One of them was of me, from Camp Lehigh, before the serum. And then there was one…" and Steve's voice tightens, cracks, in a way that sharpens Bucky's nerves with the force of old habit, because Bucky hasn't heard that reedy gasping sound since Steve's last asthma attack, "...of me in France, in front of the Eiffel Tower," and Bucky's sitting up now, cause he knows they never got that far into France, "her and me and...three children with dark hair. Two girls and a boy, who I don't….And then another one of me on a...boat?" Steve says helplessly. "A sailboat, maybe. I've got a terrible sunburn," and Steve sounds like he can't breathe, which Bucky totally understands because he can't breathe either. But right behind the pain is anger, fierce and irrational, a fired bullet: No, you can't change the rules of the world again, I won't play, I won't do it, I won't. I'm done. I'm out.
But he's never found the way out, that's the problem. He's been in a room with no door from day one.
Steve's shaking his head so much it's a wonder he's not dizzy. "I've never been on a boat," he says, "not that kind of boat. Not then, not now—not ever, Buck."
"But you will," Bucky replies darkly, and God, he'd loved reading science fiction as a kid but he sure as hell hates living it. "And when you do, make sure you put on some sun lotion."
"That's not funny," Steve nearly whines, and it's all Bucky can do not to backhand him into the wall.
"Do I look like I'm goddamned laughing to you?" Bucky shouts—but now he's shocked with himself, beause he hasn't lost his temper like this since the serum, hasn't had one of these hot-headed rage fits, because real power is cold, he's learned that lesson but good, and he's been cold as fuck for years now. But Steve fuckin' Steve fuckin' Steve….
But it's not Steve's fault, is it? Steve's been on this hell-ride too, for as long as Bucky has if not longer, and it's only a mark of how shitty his life has been that he can envy Steve, who's spent two thirds of his time on the planet flash-frozen into a block of ice. And Steve—Steven Grant Rogers, who didn't cry when his mother died, or when mice got into their tiny food box, or when he near-died of rheumatic fever in the winter of '35—Steve now looks so dangerously on the verge of tears that Bucky sits up to reach out to him—and Steve comes, Steve leans in, falls against him, eyes closed, huge and warm and stoic. Steve rarely lets on how he's feeling, but he's always generous with his body—spending it over and over like he thinks it isn't worth much.
"I'm tired, Buck," Steve mutters, and Jesus Christ, the world might really be ending.
Bucky strokes Steve's hair, then slides his thumb across Steve's cheek to tease his mouth at the corner. This gets exactly the deep, low moan that he hopes for. "Yeah," he says softly. "Me too," and then it's no distance at all to kissing, and more than kissing: to groping and fucking without talking about it, which is what they've always done. Their mouths work wordlessly. But their bodies talk, and their hands.
"...And so when Steve went back to return the stones, I thought...or maybe I only suspected..." and is it Tony's imagination or is the gin hitting Barnes a little hard? He's flushed and he seems a little dry-mouthed, but Tony didn't think supersoldiers could get tipsy. Maybe they can now.
Across the room, Steve mutters, "Jesus Christ," and downs the rest of his drink.
Bucky doesn't look at him. "It was possible," he says, a little defensively, "that you wouldn't come back. Or that you wouldn't be able to. It's time travel, Steve: it's not like taking the 4:48 outta Grand Central," and Steve raises a hand to concede the point. "Anyway, some part of me was thinking that I had maybe seen the last of you," Bucky says flatly. "But then you—"
"He," Steve interrupts. "Not me."
"He. You," and Barnes is clearly not the Winter Soldier anymore, or not totally; this guy is stretched thin and snappy as a rubber band. "The old man with your eyes and your face and your punk-ass ways who was carrying your shield—I turned around and there he was: waiting."
Tony knows this part. Tony knows this part because Pepper told him, because Bruce told her: that just after Steve vanished into the time machine, he reappeared, grown mysteriously old, and stuck around just long enough to pass the shield his dad had made on to Sam Wilson.
But Bucky's still telling it. "You gave—"
"He gave," Steve interrupts stubbornly, and Bucky sighs but doesn't argue.
"He gave the shield to Sam, and then I went over to talk to—him, you—to find out what the hell we were supposed to do now, and he said—"
"You should pack." The old man squints up at Bucky through the afternoon sunlight, his eyes crinkling in his wrinkled face. But they're Steve's eyes, this guy is Steve all right—and Bucky doesn't think he can handle even one more surreal turn in this too-long, too-strange life of his.
"Pack?" Bucky echoes. He ignores the gold band glinting on Steve's left hand, or tries to.
"Yeah." Steve glances along the lake to where Sam Wilson is pacing back and forth with Captain America's shield strapped to his arm and trying not to freak out. "Not clothes—you've got clothes—but your notebooks. We really need you to have brought your notebooks." Old Steve tugs up his cuff to glance at his watch—which isn't a watch. It's...Bucky's not sure what it is, but it doesn't measure time in any way that he understands. "But you've got to be quick."
"Oh yeah?" Bucky asks, genially enough. "Where am I going?" and he's proud of himself for continuing to conduct this like it's a rational conversation, but the old man suddenly looks worried, like he's just realized that Bucky's not moving: quickly or slowly or at all. There's a flash of panic in the old man's eyes, but Steve's never been one to lose his head in a crisis. Steven Grant Rogers just picks himself up out of the dirt, dusts himself off, and starts over.
"Sorry. I forgot that I've got to explain," the old man who is Steve says. "It's just been such a long time since—I almost forgot to turn up today! Good thing I set my watch," and now Steve's wearing a real Mona Lisa smile. "All right: so, listen up," Steve says, bracing his gnarled hands on his thighs. "Five minutes ago, I just went back in time to return the Infinity stones, right?"
"Right," Bucky says, and then adds, "And Thor's hammer."
"And Thor's hammer," the old man agrees—but then he stops and frowns, thinking it over. "That's right," he says slowly. "God. I forgot all about that. I returned Thor's hammer, too."
"And it seems you took your goddamned time about it," Bucky says. "Don't tell me: you went to see Peggy."
Steve's papery cheeks color up, making him look bashful, which is a funny look on such an old guy. "I did, yeah," Steve says, but he's so ridiculously happy that Bucky can't be mad about it. Wanting the best for Steve is a habit. "I had to, I just had to see if she...you know, if she still…"
And clearly Peggy did still, and somewhere in the world were three dark-haired children to prove it, all grown now. It twists him up to think of it. "Well, you're gonna have to tell me all about it," Bucky says finally; surely, he deserves that much. "We'll sit down and catch up—"
But Steve shakes his head. "No, we're catching up now, you and me—in five, maybe ten minutes, tops," and when Bucky just stares, Steve says patiently: "Bucky, you've got to go get your stuff: your knapsack, your notebooks. You're coming with me. You're going with me."
"Seems to me like you already went," without me, he doesn't say, but Steve hears it anyway.
"I didn't!" Steve retorts in his reedy old man voice. "I'm coming for you, I'm right behind me, so you'll be going now," and then, glancing at his watch that isn't a watch: "Really soon, Buck!" and Bucky must look as poleaxed as he feels, because the old man grits out, "Bucky, will you just listen to me? He'll be along in a minute—or I will; I'll be along in a minute. I wasn't too accurate back then, time-traveling, but even so I won't be off by much. So you've got to hurry! Go and get your notebooks!" And then the old man takes a breath and pulls out his last card, an oldie but a goodie: "Bucky, I swear to God," Steve Rogers says, gnarled hands clenching into fists, "if you don't run up to the house and get your things, I'm gonna knock your goddamned block off."
"You and what army," Bucky replies mechanically, but he's already moving; he thinks he sees the shape of things, even if he hasn't gotten the whole picture. Time-travel, he thinks, can really mess with your sense of order—and Steve's nodding rapidly, relieved that he's got it now.
"Right, go—hurry, go!" Steve shouts. "If you're quick, you can be back before I even get here," as if that makes a lick of sense. "I'll take care of Sam and Bruce, don't you worry," and now Bucky is turning, running, having caught Steve's urgency like a cold. Part of him wants to turn back, to ask the old man where he's going, what happens next—but he knows there's time for everything but not that, because he's begun to intuit the shape of things. He runs as fast as he can through the blur of trees, then up the hill to the lake house. Bucky takes the steps to the porch in a leap, then bangs through the screen door and goes to the small guest room at the back he's been sharing with Sam. Training like his isn't undone easily, so his go-bag's packed and ready.
The knapsack holds his spare parts, his guns and his notebooks—extensions of his hands and his memory. He grabs it, turns to go—then stops, because if what Steve's said is true, he might not see Sam again, and Sam has been kind to him. Bucky snatches up a pen and paper and prints, quickly, in small neat caps, "I HAVE TO GO. THANK YOU. YOU WILL BE A GOOD CAPTAIN AMERICA," before heading out again. On the porch Bucky nearly slams into Pepper Potts, but he manages to avoid this by grabbing her and swinging her around as if they're dancers, as if this is the Prospect Hall. She breaks into a surprised smile as they spin past each other, the world blurring as they turn. The words he's just written to Sam are still in his head, so he says them as they separate, their hands parting in slow motion.
"I have to go now," Bucky says, a little breathlessly. "Thank you for everything."
"You're welcome," Pepper says, blinking, and then he's off and running again, always running.
When Bucky reaches the lake, Steve is gone and only Steve is there, looking around worriedly in his white time suit. Steve looks just like himself—his old self, his young self of a hundred and five. Bucky wonders how old the old man really was: two hundred? More, probably. Much more.
Steve, seeing him approach, looks vastly relieved. "Oh, thank God. I came back and you were— Bucky, listen to me," Steve says softly, urgently. "I have something to ask you and it's important—" but Bucky cuts him off with a quick gesture and raises his knapsack.
"Yeah, I know— Yes, I'm ready— Let's go," and—
"—and it took a while, actually, to explain that I'd already seen him and had this whole insane conversation," Bucky tells Tony, "because Steve hadn't yet—I mean, he still hasn't—"
"I haven't gone there yet." Steve crosses his arms; he seems irritated.
"But you did. Or you will. Because I saw you. So you'd better set your watch," Bucky says, lips twisting in amusement. But then he looks at Tony and grows serious. "But don't you see—that was the start of it, everything we're doing now. Because he—"
"Him," Steve mutters.
"—that Steve of the future: he made a loop in the timeline, so now we know about a thing that Steve's got to do that he hasn't done yet. We know he has to turn up at that lake before he comes back to get me in order to give Sam the shield and tell me to go grab my knapsack."
Now Tony is frowning. "That's nuts. No, that's impossible. That's just impossible."
"Tony, that's what happened. And I gotta figure the old guy knew what he was doing, because it set us up to do everything we're doing now," Bucky says. "Because—"
"Because of the notebooks," Steve interrupts. "Because now we have Bucky's notebooks. Which have been key to the plan: this is why I said Bucky's key to the plan."
"I'm not key to the plan," Bucky snorts dismissively.
Steve starts to argue, "But your notebooks—" but then Peggy interrupts almost offhandedly and says, "The notebooks contain the hidden history of the 20th century," and everyone stops to listen to her. "And I have them," she says, and then smiles. "And I'm in a position to make use of the information they contain. You see, I've been told," Peggy continues, "or rather Steve has explained to me, that our timeline is special. That in the future, we succeed in keeping our universe together and whole where others have failed," and Tony notes, with real admiration, that Peggy Carter talks about the rupture of the universe and the destruction of half of humanity in the same friendly tones she might use to offer him a biscuit. "And so I have to think that these events— however impossible or improbable they may seem to us—must be why."
"Two Steves," Bucky says, with a sudden, almost wolfish smile. "When one's normally more than enough for anybody."
"Speak for yourself," Peggy says lightly. "Personally, I was feeling deprived," and when she and Steve smile at each other, a flash of electricity crackles between them.
Bucky doesn't look at them, but his grin grows just a tad wolfier. "Steve's been sneaking around in the timeline," he tells Tony. "For the whole 20th century, I'd guess—or at least that long. From our point of view, we're just getting started, but I'll bet the old guy's been doing it the whole time. Making sure things go right. Putting his thumb on the scale to make sure everything comes out the way it's supposed to. Because I met him that day—and besides, I know Steve: Steve's never minded his own goddamned business a day in his life. He's a chronic meddler."
"I only ever go on SHIELD-authorized missions," Steve says defensively.
"What he means is, he goes when his wife tells him to," Bucky says, smirking.
"I work for my wife," Steve tells Bucky. "And so do you."
"And I consult the notebooks," Peggy says diplomatically. "To find out what history left out."
"And here we are," Bucky says, and gestures expansively with his glass.
"And here you are, too," Steve says quietly, to Tony, "which is even more impossible to me than the story Bucky's just told, because you're dead, Tony," and Tony's about to object that that's hardly a trick worth mentioning; in fact, everyone in this room is dead, not that it seems to have stopped them, or even slowed them down much, but Steve cuts him off before he can start with: "No, it's not the same thing: I saw you die. You weren't missing; you were dead."
Bucky's staring him down too, with eyes gone dark. "I saw you die, too. So how are you alive?"
"Well," Tony Stark says.
It's not an easy question. Tony remembers everything that happened — Dr. Strange's raised finger, indicating that this was it, the one chance, the one timeline — and he remembers scrambling for the stones and snapping his fingers. It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it's a far far better rest that I go to, than I have ever—though the world never gets to see his Ronald Coleman impression, which is, in fact, dynamite, because he's dead.
Or is he? When he wakes up from his snooze in his favorite chair on the porch, there's a glitter of afternoon sunlight low on the lake. Tony stretches out, long and lazy. Pretzels, he thinks. Maybe a glass of cold lemonade. He's pretty sure there's another bag of pretzels in the—
—and he jerks, nearly falling out of the chair as it all slams into him: Thanos and the battle and the snap, excruciating pain and Pepper with tears streaking down her battle-dirty face. Tony breaks into a sweat, heart pounding in his chest. Jesus. Black smoke fills his nostrils, billowing from cracks in the charred, scarred earth. The glittering lake swims in his vision and Tony grips the arms of the chair and staggers to his feet. There's a faint tinkling of windchimes—Pepper's windchimes—hung from the eaves of the porch. Pepper. Morgan. Morgan—and he manages to lurch a few feet down the porch toward the door, gripping the railing for support. Christ, he's sweating bullets, and there are a million mosquitos dancing in his peripheral vision, little black spots. Tony has the sudden, twisting fear that he's going to drop dead again without even getting to lay eyes on his wife and daughter—except then the screen door abruptly bangs open and Morgan Stark tumbles out, laughing and chased by a puppy awkwardly skittering on too-long legs. And she is so beautiful she stops the world turning. The pain in his chest stops, too. He wonders if she'll be frightened of him, frightened to see him.
But she isn't. Morgan just skids, grinning, to a stop, hopping from one light-up sneaker to another, and greets him with, "Hi, Message-Daddy!" But the puppy is leaping and whirling happily around her ankles, yipping, and so before Tony can reach for her, hold her close, never let her go—she's gone, skipping and jumping down the porch steps to the grass, the puppy happily running and barking in the ecstatic joy that should have been his. He watches her dance away from him. Hi, Message-Daddy? and he doesn't know what that means until he turns and sees Pepper, slim and smiling, watching them from the cool, dim light behind the screen door.
Pepper's watching Morgan and the dog dance down the path toward the lake, and then she glances over at him with the fondness of someone looking at an old photograph—at Message-Daddy, of course: they think he's one of the goddamned holographic messages he left for them. The hair on his arms prickles—if that is hair, if these are arms, and not just evidence of an electrical circuit shorting somewhere. Because maybe they're right and he is just a hologram—or an AI, or a synth or something less than human—and when he looks down at himself he sees that he's faintly transparent—except for his right hand, which is scarred and sparking with flashes of colored light: red and orange and purple and green. The hell—and when he looks up he sees his own shock reflected on Pepper's face. But Pepper pushes through the wood-framed screen door, arms raised, outstretched, reaching out for him—and Tony has the sudden terror that she won't be able to touch him, that she'll pass straight through him, and so when Pepper bangs into him, hard and solid and smelling of that lavender soap she likes, and grabs onto him so tight she nearly strangles him, Tony bursts into unashamed tears.
He doesn't tell Steve any of that. That isn't a thing he could explain to House Carter: they're all tough as nails with their chintz and their guns and their carefully-shined shoes; they wouldn't understand. Instead, Tony shrugs and says, "I was dead but I was also alive, and I'm the me that lived. Or—the part of me that lived," Tony says, and it's a big confession to make but he feels like he owes them that much. "I honestly don't know how much of me I am now."
Rogers and Barnes exchange loaded looks, and then Barnes hunches forward in his chair. "What makes you think you're not entirely yourself?" and he sounds like he's been there.
No doubt he's been somewhere. But he hasn't been here. "Well," Tony Stark says.
The first time it happens, Tony assumes he's blacked out. He was there and now he's here and he can't remember getting here—and okay, to be fair, that's not a totally unfamiliar experience. He's lost minutes, hours—days, even—to alcohol and….other, less legal, things, so abruptly finding himself somewhere else is not as shocking an experience as it might be for some people. Tony rolls his shoulders, cricks his neck. He can go with this.
It's not till Pepper appears, distressed, in the doorway to Morgan's room—that Tony realizes that something truly unusual is going on. Pepper stops, face torn between panic and relief. "You disappeared!" she yelps, and there's a pale blue vein throbbing on her forehead, mottling her lovely complexion. "Tony!" and Pepper's grabbing his arm and hauling him out of their daughter's room, "you were standing there, talking to me, and then—"
—and then he wasn't. Because Tony's thoughts had drifted to Morgan, his beautiful, darling Morgan, who he'd tucked in half an hour ago—and his body had followed his thoughts to her bedside. He'd popped out of the den and into Morgan's bedroom between one thought and the next. Tony clutches Pepper's arms, and she feels reassuringly solid; right now, he's solid, too. "I didn't mean to," he says, low and urgent. "It just happened," and while he's keenly aware of having said this before, he's never said it to Pepper—and besides, this time it's true.
So he does what he does: he does science, he runs tests. At first he doesn't seem capable of wishing himself away from Pepper, but when they go out into the cool evening air of the porch—
—Tony finds he can immediately blip himself back to Morgan's bedside so that he finds himself staring down at her dear, sleeping face—
—and then he is immediately able to blip himself back to Pepper, out on the porch, so, ha, it's as he suspected. Matter may be merely a fluctuation of vacuum, but Love Will Keep Us Together, just like The Captain And Tennille said. Tony laughs and begins to sing under his breath as he takes Pepper in his arms and swings her around beside a dancing jingle of fireflies: "You better stop (stop!) cause I really love you. Stop! I've been thinking of you…" and Pepper laughs and sings along: "Look in my heart and let love...keep us together. Whatever."
And what applies to space applies equally to time. Tony knows this but he's still taken aback the first time he finds himself thinking about his father and—
— finds himself sitting across a metal table from him in a cavernous, underground—wait, he's been here. This is New Jersey—Camp Whatever-It-Was-Called: Birthplace of Captain America, SHIELD HQ. Tony feels a stab of panic, but his dad just looks up and says, absently, "Ah, Mr. Potts, I didn't see you come in," which—hey, great, he forgot how his Dad's superpower was totally ignoring his existence. That's really working for him, now. Tony crosses his arms and debates saying something cutting, now that they're man to man, but then Howard tosses down the small metal object he was contemplating. It skitters across the table—a many-sided polygon, 20, maybe 30 sides—like he's trying to roll charisma. Except that's not what he's doing, because a) Dad's chockablock full of charisma and b) D&D hasn't been invented yet.
But all at once Tony knows what his dad's on about, because the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, as Isaac Newton could've told you. "You're thinking about carbon nanostructures?" except that's nuts: they haven't been invented yet either. But his dad looks at him sharply and with—it takes him a moment to identify the look as respect —and Tony knows that he's right.
"I must say, Mr. Potts," his father says, leaning back in his chair and crossing one suited-leg over the other, "you do always manage to surprise me. What do you know about carbon nanostructures?" and these are dangerous waters, because it's too late to say, "Nothing!" and he sure as hell can't say something. Nobody not named Stark is going to think about anything like this for another 15 years, and if he gives too much away, a bunch of Nobel prize winning physicists in Manchester are going to want to beat the shit out of him.
Even his own work—but now Tony's frowning, because wasn't his work of about fifteen years ago inspired by some drawings he found among his dad's papers? Tony reaches out to pick up the small polygon and studies it, trying to decide what to say. "Oh, not much," he says finally. "Just—they could be interesting to build with. You know. If we could coax the atoms into the right shapes," and he doesn't think he's said anything too revealing, except he knows his dad and Dad's eyes are gleaming. Tony's seen that look before but it's never been aimed at him.
"You're an engineer." Dad leans forward, grinning. "Good. Most of these math guys—"
"—they don't know their limits," Tony says automatically, and it's not until after he's said it that he realizes why the phrase comes to him so easily. It's Dad's joke, he's heard it a thousand times, slurred over glasses of scotch in the evenings. Those math guys...they don't know their limits.
"Right," Howard says, looking surprised. "Riiiight!" and Tony has a flash of panic, but then again: why? Howard Stark is a genius, but that doesn't mean that he's likely to suspect that the middle-aged engineer sitting across from him is his dead but still time-traveling future son.
And, in fact, it turns into one of the nicest afternoons of his life, because his dad pulls out a pad of graph paper and a calculator and—goddamn, it's all Tony can do to stop himself from whistling in admiration, because Dad's there, he's got the basics, and Tony's so proud he could spit. Somehow Howard Stark has imagined C60 twenty years ahead of time, and fullurenes, graphenes— you could get almost anywhere from here, and Howard would have, too, if Bucky fucking Barnes hadn't murdered him in 1991.Thankfully, when Howard looks up, he thinks that Tony's all choked up over the beauty of the various carbon allotropes he's sketched out.
"I know!" Howard says, with feeling. "Can you picture it?"
"I can picture it," Tony grits out, and while he more or less manages to keep himself under control, he can't stop himself from helplessly hugging his father when he finally discovers what the old guy is doing down there in this otherwise empty hanger: he's monitoring his computer. The whole goddamned place is a computer, the whole floor—they're sitting in it. His dad is trying to invent the future with a quarter mile of computers whose total power is less than Tony's wristwatch.
It's a moving experience, all the more so when Tony realizes that he and his Dad have both spent hours staring at carbon molecules and ignoring their families, except—
—Tony's no longer quite human, and he's somehow absorbed the powers of time and space from the Infinity Stones, so he can blip back to his family between one blink and the next. He's had all this time in his back pocket: from his family's point of view, he hasn't even been gone. Howard, though: Howard's left his wife and—son? he must have been born by now—to sit for hours alone in an underground bunker, babysitting a mainframe.
It makes him even more grateful for Morgan: Tony lifts her up, swings her around, holds her upside down while she laughs and laughs. "I saw my dad," he tells Pepper, who's in the kitchen, patting spices into a chicken. "I spent the afternoon with my dad in the 1970s," he says, and Pepper, bless her, doesn't shiver or freak out or throw the chicken out the window.
Instead she asks: "Was it nice?" and Tony thinks for a moment about trying to explain how it felt to know that his dad was ignoring child-him in favor of adult-him, which maybe made things a little better, or kind of?—before deciding to go with a simpler truth: "It was great."
"I'm glad," Pepper says, smiling gloriously, and maybe Tony's not 100% human anymore, but he can eat with his family and sleep with his wife and chase his daughter through the dappled sunlight that streams through the trees, though Morgan makes him promise very very sincerely that he won't blip out of space-time when they're playing tag, cause that's cheating.
Tony doesn't tell this to House Carter, either; it feels raw and personal, though he bets Steve would understand. Instead he says, "Well, I just feel kind of temporary about myself," and then vanishes into thin air. Well, not really: actually he blips out to the Carters’ backyard, which is lovely, full of old-growth flowering trees, and a patio with some comfortable looking old wicker furniture and an overflowing ashtray—tsk, naughty, naughty, Greatest Generation!
Tony calculates the time for maximum theatrical effect and then blips his way back to the living room. But he should have known better than to play parlor tricks on these guys; they're not gaping and stunned—no, they've moved into the dining room, and they're setting out bowls of green beans and mashed potatoes, and when Steve glances up and sees that Tony's reappeared he says only, "Bucky, can you get the butter?" and Barnes comes out of the kitchen with the butter dish and a platter of sliced steak. Tony drifts into the kitchen to see if there's anything he can do to help—and wow, the kitchen's all pale green porcelain and shiny chrome dials; it's like looking at the dashboard of a '56 Chevy.
Peggy, slicing bread at the counter, smiles at him and asks, with a curiosity that's merely polite, "Did you go far? Were you gone long?" and it's the second question that really puts him in the picture, because it tells him that Peggy really gets the whole time travel thing.
"No." Tony leans against the counter, equally casual. "I just went out to your backyard. Nice place: who's the secret smoker?" he asks, even as he's trying to find a way to pose the question that he really wants to ask: what's Steve been doing with his time machine?
Peggy's red lips curve up on one side. "Oh, we all enjoy one now and again—especially after dinner, when the jasmine blooms. Open that bottle of wine for me, will you?" and Tony's happy to be set to such a task, and even more happy when she hands him a carved wood, double helix corkscrew that's a marvel of mechanical engineering.
Peggy's about to take the bread into the dining room, so when the cork pops out, Tony takes his shot. "So how does it work? Are you—what, just running him like a regular agent, but sending him undercover through time?" and Peggy stops and tilts her head to look at him, one hand braced on the hip of her smashingly tailored red wool dress.
"Yes," Peggy says finally, frankly. "That's exactly what I'm doing. Our dinner's getting cold."
Barnes is shoveling food into his mouth like a guy who's been in cryo-freeze for most of his life, but Steve doesn't seem hungry. "Who else knows you're alive?" he asks Tony. "Pepper, of course. Morgan," and Tony jerks a nod; yes, of course, obviously Pepper, obviously Morgan. "Rhodey?" Steve presses. "Happy? Bruce?"—and Tony wrinkles his nose and groans because this is a sore spot: no, he hasn't told Rhodey or Happy or Bruce.
Steve reads this answer off his face and sits back, surprised. But then his expression shifts into understanding—because Steve Rogers knows, better than anyone, what Tony was willing to sacrifice to undo the snap: his first real happiness, and the first peace he'd ever had in his life, out there by the lake with his wife and his little girl. And now, by some miracle, Tony's gotten it all back—and he's not risking it again, not for anything. And if Tony Stark were still alive, if anyone knew he was still alive…well, there goes the ballgame.
"My biggest secret when I was a kid was that I had an absent father," Tony sighs. "But Morgan's biggest secret is that she has a present one. Pepper and I agreed we wouldn't tell anyone—my widow's living a private life out in the country as far as anyone is concerned: no superhero shenanigans, don't call us, we'll call you." Tony looks at Steve and adds, "But you haven't put out any press releases announcing Captain America's return either, have you, Mr. Carter?"
Silverware clinks against the china plates. Bucky and Peggy look up. But Steve just smiles and shakes his head no. "I have not, Mr. Potts; I must confess, I have not."
Tony taps his nose. "Right. You're just minding your business, keeping yourself to yourself.”
"Well, I do go into the office now and again," Steve admits. "But I keep a low profile."
Tony looks at Peggy. "But how low can it be? What can they think at the office?"
"They think she's got a type and boy howdy," Bucky mutters.
But Peggy just laughs. "Mr. Carter is a shadowy figure of great dignity. It's the rare woman in public life that enjoys the visible support of her husband. In the case of Mr. Carter, the less he is seen, the more credible he becomes."
"Except to Howard," Steve says, and Peggy and Barnes immediately groan: "Howard."
Tony's weirdly relieved to hear this. "So Dad knew about this? Knows?"
"Well, I had to tell him something," Peggy sighs. "He knows me well enough to know that...well." She stops and shrugs one elegant shoulder, her cheeks coloring.
Barnes finishes her thought: "That no other dumb blond was ever gonna replace this one as far as she was concerned. So we had to tell Howard the truth."
"Not...the whole truth," Steve adds, a little uncomfortably. "A modified version of the—"
"Look, the story we told him makes more sense than life does," Bucky objects.
"That's so," Peggy agrees, and Tony can guess what they told Howard even before Peggy explains: "We told him the literal truth: that Steve was discovered in the arctic by a Russian oil rig. We just didn't tell him when. Negotiations for Steve's return were, understandably, delicate in the current environment, but when terms were finally arranged with the Kremlin, it was discovered that they had Sergeant James Barnes in their possession as well, a Soviet alpine unit having discovered and recovered him in the last days of the war."
"All true, damnably true," Barnes mutters into his plate.
"Anyway, the matter was successfully concluded, all very hush hush, highest echelons and all that," Peggy says, cheerfully helping herself to more potatoes, "and it was decided that it was best for everyone if Captain America and Bucky Barnes remained heroically dead."
"The better," Barnes adds darkly, "to become the agents of the Cold War America needs."
"Yes, well," Peggy says. "Howard certainly didn't have any trouble believing it. Say what you like about Howard, he's utterly reliable when it comes to matters of national security. "
"I just can't believe that I have to live this all over again from the other side," Bucky says.
"Yeah, it's like our lives got doubled up somehow, and all twisted around," Steve says, frowning. "But maybe that made the timeline stronger, reinforced it like rope or—"
Bzzt! No, not like rope, not like twine—that's the wrong metaphor, thank you for playing. Tony's been thinking a lot about their timeline, too, and he's come to a more specific conclusion. "It's a double helix, like a DNA strand, that's been twisted into a Mobius strip," and even as he says it, Tony realizes that he was wrong to say that old Steve's time loop was impossible. Looked at from the right perspective, it was damn near inevitable.
Steve just shrugs his uncomprehending acceptance. "All right, if you say so. But I can't help but feel that the doubling and twisting of these years has made our timeline more resilient," and again, Tony sees Stephen Strange holding up that solitary index finger: one.
"Yeah, could be," Tony acknowledges, "sure. Especially if you've been doing what Barnes says: reinforcing the seams of the world, making sure everything goes right—"
"Except things aren't right," Barnes grits out, "or at least not—not quite the way I remember," and even as Tony watches, the shadows under Bucky Barnes's eyes seem to go darker still.
Steve reaches out and grasps Bucky's arm—his left, newly made of vibranium—and says, softly, "Tell him, Buck. It's not the craziest part of the story, and he might have the answer."
Bucky Barnes's mouth does something funny, twisting and trembling, and Tony sees why they put the Winter Soldier in a mask. Barnes's eyes are terrifying when they go hard and steely, but his mouth says more than he means it to—his mouth says too much.
"Things might not be the way I remember them," Barnes says, and he's teetering, uncertain. "My brain's like swiss cheese—I didn't remember anything at first," he adds, looking at Steve almost pleadingly. "You know that's true. You were there; you saw what I was."
"I know, yes. I saw," Steve says softly, reassuringly. "But as your memories have come back...well, they've all been right on the money, Buck. Everything you remembered about me was accurate. And so far everything you've written in the notebooks has checked out—names, dates, places. We haven't verified everything but you haven't been wrong yet, pal. So there's no reason to believe that your memory's accurate except for this one thing."
Now Tony's twitching with curiosity. "So what is it that you remember?" and Barnes pushes roughly back from the table, gets up and lights a cigarette. Begins to pace.
tumbling down a fire escape, bleeding
searchlights, sirens, barking dogs
he goes to ground, wedged in and crouching over a drain, the smell of rot
drifting, blood circling down the drain
snow on his face, the distant echo of the train rattling away st— st— st— and
The squeal of tires, heavy thump of a car door and
get into the car, she says
(is that what she says?)
the girl says
Cадись в машину. Hurry.
And he does, doesn't he? He's in the back seat of the car, on the floor, with a blanket thrown over him, and when he opens his eyes, he's on a stained mattress and there's a kettle whistling somewhere, and when he opens his eyes, she's looking over at him, and there's a pot of water boiling to sterilize bandages and she's pouring out two cups of tea.
There's something glowing Hydra blue next to the tea cups. He refuses to move his eyes to it—he doesn't want her to know he's noticed it—but somehow she does know and says, smiling and cool, "Will I have to use that? You said I wouldn't have to use that. But better safe than sorry," and she's being so careful with the scissors, with the bandages and the scalpel. But he's not tied down or restrained in any way, and while she's wary of him—alert like a dancer—he knows he could be on her, smash her skull against the wall behind her or crush her windpipe before she ever saw him coming. So he just lies still, feigning blankness, an eyes-wide-open unconsciousness as she tends to him, drifting in and out of his vision…
and then she touches him in a way he doesn't understand
smooths his hair back from his forehead and says
It's all right, James.
and he jolts, because that's what she said, that's what the girl
get into the car, James. Hurry.
said, and so he did, he got into the car with her when she said—
and now he's lurching up, awkward and ungainly, grabbing for her, and cool as she is, she looks taken aback, frightened even—and she should be, because he could kill her ten times over, and in fact he should kill her right now, all her help notwithstanding, because she's seen his face and nobody's supposed to see his face. But instead he clutches at her desperately and says, "help me; please, you've got to help me," and it's only then that he realizes that Billie Holliday is playing on the radio, singing If You Were Mine, his favorite.
He doesn't tell Tony Stark any of that. He hasn't even told Steve that. Instead, Bucky holds the cigarette smoke in his lungs until they're burning, then blows it out and says, simply, "I remember Natasha," and the pained look on Tony's face mirrors the one he sees on Steve ever time they mention Natasha, which is why he doesn't say her name very often, though it's in his mind all the time. "Which I know is impossible, because she was born in—"
"1984, yeah, that Orwellian year," Tony snarls, and Bucky realizes that Tony's grief at Natasha's death is manifesting as anger—anger at him, which is fair enough: he's been a harbinger of death for so long and for so many. "Which I can confirm: I went all-out after 'Natalie Rushman' made a mockery of the Stark Industries background check. To be fair, I didn't find much, because there isn't much: the only documents come from the files of the KGB, which operated the Red Room from the 1920s to 1989, when it was supposedly disbanded but of course it wasn't. Romanoff's not her real name, either," Tony Stark explains. "It seems to have been given to her as some kind of joke, because she was the only survivor of a family hated by the Kremlin and the party—dissidents, I guess. They've been burned out of history, but the scar was left as a warning to others: documents with the names blacked out, tombstones with dates but no names. I think they thought it was funny to make the daughter of the family they'd killed into a loyal agent of the state—"
Tony doesn't see that Steve's face is crumbling, his mouth trembling. Steve turns away fast, muttering wetly, "Well, she showed them. She sure fucking showed them, the bastards," and Peggy silently puts a hand on Steve's arm but otherwise leaves him be.
But Tony's on his own track: he's not listening, doesn't register Steve's profanity or what it means. "—that killed her parents. They did a full work-up on her when they took her into custody in 1986: a girl-child, red hair, aged two. They measured her every which way and did a full panel of tests: cognitive, developmental, linguistic. Plus they took pictures—both full face and in profile. It's her. Even at two years old, you can tell—something about the look of her…" and that's the beachhead Tony dies on, as he chokes and his throat closes up.
For a couple of minutes, nobody says anything. Finally, Bucky stubs out his cigarette in the saucer of his coffee cup and lights another. "Right, so she was born in 1984, which means that she couldn't have saved my life in 1954. But…I mean, the way I remember it..."
Bucky watches as Tony Stark's feelings give way to his curiosity; it's a nice quality in a person, he thinks, and one of the ways Tony most reminds him of Howard. "Natasha Romanov saved your life?" Tony asks, and now Bucky's the one with a lump in his throat.
"Yeah," Bucky manages. "Over and over again," and now that the memories have come, they drown him: Natasha riding a motorcycle, crouching on a rooftop, hair damp from the bath, shouting at Karpov, training in the ring, in a slip of a gold dress, with both pistols drawn, slitting the Premier's throat, pale in the morning sunlight, red hair tousled against the pillow, hands gripping his shoulders, rappelling down from the roof, screaming don't you touch him, I'll kill you! in teary fury as they drag her out— "A million times," he says, and makes for the door to the garden, because he's not going to be able to control himself now that the thought has him: ...and you didn't remember her, and now she's dead.
"Is he out of his mind?" Tony asks, after Bucky bangs out the back door into the garden, and Steve stares down at Peggy's intricately patterned carpet and shakes his head.
"No," he says. "Not anymore. Bucky says he remembers her and I believe him. He says she saved his life, and then—well, it's not really clear what happened after, because—" Because Bucky doesn't want to talk about it. Bucky wants to talk about Natasha even less than he wants to talk about anything else from that time, and that's saying something. "It seems like there was some period of time where she was his partner, or maybe even...his handler?" Steve, helpless, shows Tony empty hands; it's frustrating not to know; it's frustrating that Bucky won't say. "Or I guess she was pretending to be, to protect him—because Bucky said that she did protect him, and that he wouldn't have made it through it all without her."
"Great, so you're telling me that it's because of Natasha that Barnes was alive to murder my parents?" Tony grits out, and Steve's so shocked that he can't find any words for a moment, let alone the right ones, so Peggy steps in to say, coolly, "It seems increasingly clear that all our lives are bound together in surprising and often inexplicable ways, don't you think?"
That's so blindingly true that it shuts Tony up, but it's not what Steve needs to say, so he bursts out: "He doesn't mean that she saved his skin, Tony; he means she helped him to hold on to the him in him, the part of him that was James Barnes. Because she knew who he was, she knew he was a person, she treated him like a goddamned—" and just like that, his control slips through his fingers, and Steve turns and strides angrily into the kitchen.
Tony watches him go. Words echo in his head (the situation's delicate) and how fucking hilarious that he'd thought they were about Peggy. She stares at him, utterly unflappable: she's clearly the strongest of the three of them, or maybe just the least damaged. This is House Carter for a reason, Tony realizes. They're all of them sheltering under her roof.
"More coffee?" she asks. "Or perhaps you're ready for something stronger?" and when Tony jerks a nod, Peggy pours them each a glass of whiskey, and they clink and drink.
"So," Peggy says, setting her glass down, "this Infinity Gauntlet, may I see it?"
Tony blinks, surprised, but says, "Sure," though he has to add, "though it's not exactly a gauntlet any more, it's more of a…" But he doesn't have a word for what it is, so he peels back his right glove and shows her his hand. He can't decide if it's ugly or beautiful in a gaudy way, like Times Square or the Vatican. The burn scars are inlaid with alien metals, and the colorful fragments of gemstone embedded in his knuckles are kind of flash.
Peggy's looking down at them curiously, her dark curls tumbling down around her face. "Tell me about them," she says, and that's the Director of SHIELD talking, so he does.
"The blue gem's the Space stone: that's the one that gets me out to the yard and back," Tony explains. "The Time stone, green, got me to 1952. The red stone's for Reality, the purple for Power," and when did his life become this surreal abecedarium: A is for Apple, B is for Parrot, C is also for Parrot. "The yellow stone—" and he considers explaining to Peggy how Mr. Jarvis became J.A.R.V.I.S. became Vision, but suspects the story won't please her. Like him, she grieved deeply when Jarvis died, and Tony's come to realize that not everyone deals with sorrow by building anthropomorphic robots—though they shouldn't knock it till they try it. "The yellow gem is the Mind stone, which I guess lets you control people and do other terrible-wrong things. And this is the Soul stone," Tony says, and taps the orange fragment pulsating on the back of his right hand. "This is the one that Nat...." and there's that pesky knot in the throat again. "The one that Natasha gave her life to get."
"Mm," Peggy says, and yeah, come to think of it, it is weird that the Soul stone is on the back of his hand and larger than all the others, and glowing in that weird way. Was it that way before? He can't remember. But does it mean, could it—?
"You think she's alive?" It comes out as an accusation, though Tony's heart has started to beat fast at the very idea of it.
Peggy meets his eyes. "I think she almost has to be, based on what you've all said here tonight. But crucially, if Bucky remembers Natasha intervening in his life, and she hasn't yet done it—well, then it seems obvious that she's still to do it. After all, here you are, resurrected and living your second life. Steve's on his third, I think, and Bucky's maybe on his fourth." Peggy's red lips curve into a smile, and for a second she isn't the Director of SHIELD, but just an unbelievably beautiful woman twenty years younger than he is, goddammit. "I feel rather left out, to be honest: this life, strange as it's been, is the only life I've ever known, though apparently I've already done or will do all sorts of marvelous things in the coming decades," Peggy says with a wave of her manicured hand. "And I've been told that my funeral was extraordinarily well attended," she adds wryly.
It's a joke to her, unreal, but Tony remembers reading her obituaries and seeing the pictures of the hearse, the crowds outside the church. All the angles of Steve Rogers in a black suit with his hand raised and his face turned away. Tragedy porn—part of the reason Tony Stark doesn't do funerals. If the press wants a show, well, he'll give them one, but goddammit, he gets to direct. "You do," he says, "and it was. Also you stayed gorgeous until the very end."
"Well, we all know that's the important thing. Will you ask Steve to step inside, please?"
Steve's no longer in the kitchen, and Tony's hand is on the screen door when he stops, his eyes picking figures out of the darkness. There's only a dim orange light from a garden lantern, but he can see Barnes standing there, head bent and hands jammed in his pockets, while Steve gives him the what what—Steve's talking with soft fervor and gesticulating for emphasis and wow, that darting orange glow is the lit end of a cigarette between his fingers—Why, Steve Rogers, I'm Disappointed in You.
Barnes has his jaw clenched and is jerking his head every couple of seconds as if to say, Yes, Steve. Okay, Steve—which is the moment he really relates to Barnes. You don't want to be on the receiving end of one of Steve's lectures, Tony knows that much; he's been there, too, boy howdy. He's about to go out and rescue the guy when Barnes gives one last nod and lifts his head and Steve just plants one on him, just grabs him by the head with both hands and kisses him, open-mouthed and everything. Tony's knocked so off balance he nearly falls through the screen, but Barnes doesn't blink, just leans into it like this is just a thing they do, which— right, okay: so maybe this is just a thing they do.
With a last look—geez, they're still at it—Tony turns back. "Is he coming?" Peggy asks—and is he just imagining that double entendre? Something in the arch of Peggy's perfectly sculpted eyebrow says he isn't.
"So does it really not bother you," Tony asks, "that you love him, and he loves him, and I'm guessing that he loves her—and she was a mystery and a half, believe you me. I used to think she was in love with someone else, but then it turned out he was married and had a family—in Iowa of all places, so what do I know?" and he's pretty sure the look on Peggy's face is sympathy, which is enraging, considering she's twenty years younger than he is and from another era and so ought to be all innocent and shit.
“We're all bound together in surprising and often inexplicable ways," Peggy replies softly, and of course, his father was out-of-his-mind in love with this woman, and Jarvis was, too.
Peggy goes to the door and calls, "Steve? Darling?" and Steve comes back into the house with Barnes in his wake. Peggy paces the sitting room, seeming to gather her thoughts, and then says: "Steve, it was you who returned these six gemstones to their original locations, is that right? These...Infinity Stones?" and hearing that in Peggy's veddy veddy English accent makes the whole thing sound even nuttier than it is; talking raccoon nutty.
"Yes," Steve replies.
"Including the Soul stone?" Peggy asks, and Steve nods heavily but then screws his eyes shut like he's thinking hard, like he doesn't want to forget to tell Peggy any of the details.
"That was on Vormir. Clint told me that there was a temple there, and a temple guardian, but he didn't tell me that the guardian was Johann Schmidt," and Tony has no idea who that is, but Peggy and Bucky sure do—Barnes in particular recoils like he's been hit.
"Schmidt?" Peggy says incredulously, just as Bucky wheels around, fists clenched, and mutters, "And you're telling me that it's just some sort of coincidence that the Red Skull—"
"It's no coincidence," Steve says grimly. "It's because of the Tesseract—you know, the thing that powered the Hydra weapons. It glowed blue—"
Barnes cuts him off with a vicious slice of his hand. "I remember," he says.
"Surprising and often inexplicable ways," Peggy murmurs, frowning down.
"The Tesseract was the Space stone, or some kind of housing for it anyway. I saw Schmidt grab the damned thing and go up like a Roman candle. I thought he'd burned himself up and good riddance, but I guess it sent him across Space to Vormir and condemned him to live on that cliff as guardian of the Soul stone. And I left him there—and he's still there, far as I know," and Tony's taken aback by the sheer malice in Steve's voice.
"Good," Bucky says, and that's malice doubled.
"You gave the Soul stone to Schmidt?" Peggy asks incredulously, and Steve replies immediately: "No, of course not. But I guess nobody'd ever brought the stone back to him before. So I tried to negotiate. The rules are that the stone demands a sacrifice," Steve grits out. "You have to lose someone you love, exchange a soul for a soul. So I figured the equation should work both ways: if I've got the stone, why can't I exchange it for Natasha?"
Tony feels bile rising in his throat. "But you couldn't, right? No refunds, no exchanges."
"That's right. Then I—" Steve's voice is a scrape, and he shoots a quick, guilty look at Peggy. "I offered to make a different exchange. My soul for Natasha's."
Barnes' voice is hoarse. "Course you did."
It's a good thought, though; Tony's already trying to game out possibilities. "But no deal."
"No," Steve sighs, and Tony wonders if there's any kind of deal to be made.
There is, though, and Barnes gets to it first: "Because it has to be me," he says, and the hollows beneath his eyes have darkened almost to purple. "You need to sacrifice me, Steve. Because you love me, and because you don't want to, and because I owe her. You've got to let me fall again."
Steve's more stricken than Tony's ever seen him; Steve just falls apart. "No, I —no. No, I won't," he says, and he looks sick, viscerally ill. "I can't. Peggy, I—" and Peggy is there, shushing him and gentling him with soft touches, stroking his hair, his face.
"Steve," Peggy says, soft and calm, "it's all right, you don't have to. This isn't your fight," and when Barnes stands, she turns to him with her hand raised and shuts him down before he can get a word out: "Or yours, Sergeant—and anyway, neither of you have got the stone."
And now they're all looking at him. Tony thought he'd known fear before—in Afghanistan, in the sky over New York City, drifting in a dead spaceship, standing in the rubble at the end of the world with the Infinity Gauntlet on his hand—but it's nothing to what he feels with the eyes of the Greatest Generation on him; these people who've been numbed by sacrifice. His body gets there—sweating, gut twisting—before his brain does, and he's on his feet before the horror of meaning sinks in—because he's not Steve Rogers, willing to throw himself out of every window and over every cliff. Tony Stark loves himself and loves life— and more than that he loves Morgan, loves Pepper, and if these guys think he's going to give them up, if these guys think he's going to throw his wife or—or— if they think—
He'll take them all on if he has to, all three of them. When he raises his hand it glows fire.
"I'm sorry, but if you think I'm going to sacrifice—" but Peggy is already shaking her head and saying, "No, Tony; of course not," in her crisp, familiar voice, and he's fourteen again. "You've already done it, don't you see? You gave up everything you had to save the world—so you've pre-paid, you're all paid up and yet you've still got the stone, so…" and they're all looking at his hand, which is glowing orange and thrumming with power.
Could it mean…? But his body wants it, the gems are whispering to him to do it, do it now, so he snaps his fingers and there's a flash—and Natasha crumples into a heap on the floor, still wearing the white Quantum suit that she was in when they last saw her alive.
Steve gets there first, catching her in his arms before she hits the carpet, but Tony's there a split second later. Natasha's blinking and dazed, staring from one to the other of them in amazement. Steve looks like he might cry, and then he does cry, and then he's holding her tight and kissing her hair, and she's grabbing onto him like she's hugging the side of a mountain. They have a strange relationship these two, Ms Full of Secrets and Mr Nothing But The Truth, but it's clearly a successful partnership; they're work-married or something. Then, still clutching Steve, Natasha turns and reaches out to him with her hand, touching his face with such tenderness that Tony nearly bursts into tears, too.
God, what mushballs they all are: coming back from the dead turns out to be a real irony-killer.
"Where am I?" Natasha asks, and Steve answers, "1952," just as Tony says, "House Carter," because Peggy's drawn close and is watching them all with intense interest. Barnes, on the other hand, has drifted to the other side of the room, warily putting as much space as he can between himself and Natasha without actually leaving.
But Natasha hasn't noticed either of them. Her eyes are moving between Steve and him, scrutinizing them intensely, and when she frowns at his scarred gauntlet of a hand, Tony suddenly knows what she's thinking. "I swear, it's really us," Tony says, "regular us from the Avengers—we've just gone back in time a few decades. Except Peggy, she's from here," and that's when Natasha first gets a load of the bombshell that is Peggy Carter. Behind her, Bucky Barnes lurks near the door with his hands in his pockets and his head down.
Steve says to Natasha, with confidential, bashful pride, "I think you know my wife," and Natasha looks both surprised and delighted, but she's clearly happy for him.
"I—we've met, yes," Natasha says. "It's nice to see you again, ma'am," and when Peggy raises her eyebrows, Natasha explains, "You always took an interest in the careers of women at SHIELD. And you were particularly kind to me," and Peggy smiles but then sighs and says, "I'm glad if I helped, though I would have hoped things were better in the future."
"They are better...in many ways," Natasha says, and then she looks over at Barnes.
"Hello," Natasha says.
Barnes jerks a nod. "Agent Romanoff," he says, and he sounds like his chest has been hollowed out with an ice-cream scoop.
They give Natasha time to adjust, because time is something they have now. Natasha has questions, but not as many as you'd think. She gets the idea faster than he or Steve did, though to be fair she has more data points to go on—her own resurrection, for one thing.
The only thing Natasha seems confused about is the drink that Barnes slips into her hand. "How did you—?" she asks, startled, after taking a first sip, and then a longer, thirstier one; he seems to have made her drink exactly the way she likes it. This seems to Tony as good a way as any to bring up the issue at hand, but Barnes only shakes his head—he looks miserable, mouth tightening and twisting like he doesn't know what to say. So Steve takes a stab at it: "Bucky remembers you from his past," he begins, "even if you don't—"
But then Barnes finds his voice. "Are you sure this is right?" he says, wheeling on Steve suddenly. "Because I don't think this is right. She's alive, she's got a right to a life of her own now—" and you know what? Barnes has got a point here: who the hell are they to tell Natasha that her future has to take the shape of Barnes's past? Except…
"It's not right," Peggy says, and there's just the slightest throb in her voice, "but it's what is required. Somehow it's down to us to protect the timeline—" but Natasha cuts her off with a wave of her hand, and of course, because if anyone's committed to doing what's required to save everyone, it's Natasha. Natasha's a good soldier; she never abandoned her post.
Barnes doesn't look happy about this, but he sits down and confesses to Natasha that he remembers being with her during his time as the Winter Soldier. "I don't remember everything," Barnes says, staring down at the carpet. "Not by a long shot. They burned those memories out of me like all the others. But I've been trying to piece the past together. Using my notebooks," he explains, "and the history databases in Wakanda. Shuri…" Barnes stops there, and his face does something complicated. "Shuri helped me cross-reference what I remember against…against..." It seems like he's not going to be able to finish, and then he rallies: "...against the unsolved murders of important…people," and that's all he's got. Barnes stands and crosses to the sideboard, and Tony thinks that maybe he's planning to make himself another drink, which seems like a damn good idea and he'll have one, too—but instead Barnes picks up a battered brown leather notebook with a rubber band around it. There are a stack of them, Tony now sees, as Barnes unhooks the band and begins to thumb through the ragged pages.
"The first…the earliest...mission," Barnes mutters, "where I remember her—you—there was in East Berlin. Walter Koltzov," and Natasha jerks like she's been shot and says, "No! You didn't...the Winter Soldier wasn't responsible for the death of Walter Koltzov! ...Was he? Were you?" and then Natasha is staring into space, at nothingness, her brow creased. "Of course you were," she says finally, slowly. "You must have been. And I was there too?" she asks, and when Bucky jerks a nod, she murmurs softly: "I was there, too."
"Sounds like you've heard of this Koltzov guy," Tony says.
"I've heard of him. It's a famous case in the Red Room, where I was raised—trained. They told me that…" Natasha trails off, clearly lost in the memory of what was told to her, and then she blinks twice and starts the story somewhere else. "There's been a Red Room since before the Second World War, since at least the thirties—"
"1934. It's a wing of Stalin's NKVD," Peggy interjects, and Tony remembers that, as they sit there in 1952, Joseph Stalin is still alive. Churchill, too, for that matter. "The Russian assassin program trained men and women at first, but they soon worked out that women have a particular aptitude for the job."
"Right: the Russian assassin program," Natasha says. "It wasn't called the Black Widow program until 1968, when it was renamed by the KGB—the NKVD's successor," she explains for Peggy's benefit. "The CIA's opposite number in the intelligence community."
"And like the CIA and SHIELD—infiltrated by Hydra," Steve says grimly.
Natasha nods and says, "What they told me in the Red Room was that the program was re-dedicated in honor of a particular agent, code-name Black Widow, who..." and she's got their full attention now, because they suddenly all see where this is going. "...executed most of the KGB's high level operations in the fifties and sixties, including…"
"The assassination of Walter Koltzov," Tony finishes, and Natasha nods.
The building on the corner of Varsonofevskiy Lane doesn't have the looming menace of the old KGB headquarters in the Lubyanka Building around the corner, because there isn't a KGB anymore, of course: not anymore. But, as they say, there is no such thing as a former KGB agent, and Natasha bets that Vladmir Putin will be in power before the year is out.
In the meantime, there is this pleasant building with its large, friendly windows and crisp white ornamentation. The lobby is decorated with flowers and the women are dressed in the height of Western chic. Moscow is very modern now, but while the men's suits are cut in such a way as to hide their guns, there's no hiding the dead-eyed looks on their faces. And the walls still have ears. Natasha knows how to project this sort of blankness, too—but here, walking into the belly of the beast, she chooses not to. Instead she puts on an air of barely suppressed eagerness, her eyes moving everywhere even as she tries not to look (she's been told not to look, but she can't help it!): a country girl coming to Moscow (Moscow!) with her too-stern Auntie, a party apparatchik from the crown of her tightly-pulled-back gray hair to the sturdy soles of her sensible black shoes.
Madame B. is, in fact, a party apparatchik, but she is also much more: a principal dancer with the Bolshoi, an active-duty KGB controller for nearly fifty years, and currently the head of the Red Room. The high-necked black crepe dress she wears cannot disguise the beauty of her carriage, the grace of her walk. Madame B. signs them in while behind her, Natasha eagerly laces her fingers together and stares at all the pretty clothes and fancy decorations.
A guard comes and takes them through a door into a corridor, and then through another door and another corridor. They go deeper and deeper into the building, and then there's a small outer office and one final door and they're in. The office, like most party offices, is unpretentious—plain wood desk, blotter and pen, bust—though this one also features a Turkish carpet and a roaring fireplace with a marble mantle featuring busts and little bronze statues: Lenin, Dzerzhinsky, Kirov, Petrovsky. Yuri Gagarin in a space helmet. Kliment Voroshilov on a horse. Natasha recognizes the man signing papers at the desk: he is Nikolai Barsukov, a high level officer of a division of Russian intelligence which has absolutely no connection whatsoever to the old KGB. They stand respectfully before him.
Barsukov signs his final paper and looks up, narrowing his eyes at her and then turning to Madame B. with a look resembling incredulity. "This one?" he asks.
Madame B. is having none of it. "This one," she replies.
Barsukov looks her up and down with a mix of lust and scorn; it's a look she knows well. Madame B. just waits, and Natasha keeps her own face blank but wonders if this is her cue to do something. She looks at the mantlepiece, considers for a moment, then sends a sharpened disc zipping across the study and decapitates Voroshilov's horse. Barsukov doesn't notice until the metal clinks down onto the stones below, and then he turns and looks down at the horsehead, then up at the statue—Voroshilov with his upraised sword straining forward over a hollow stump.
“Right,” Barsukov says. “Please sit down,” and that’s when he explains to her that in every generation, one agent from the Red Room is formally given the code name Black Widow. The first Black Widow, the prima assoluta, operated during the height of the Cold War, but the Kremlin found her so useful they cast a new one from time to time. This is not, Natasha surmises, a position you resign from; while the Black Widow program has an academy, they do not, she thinks, have a retirement home.
"Whoa," Tony says. "So you're your own grandma, is that what we're saying?"
"Yes, I think so," Natasha says. "But more than that…"
"The position comes with a uniquely high security clearance," Barsukov tells her, and that's when Madame B. stands to go. Natasha gets to her feet as well, and when Madame B. kisses her on both cheeks, Natasha is suddenly sure that she will never see her again. Once the door closes, Natasha sits down and Barsukov leans forward, fingers laced, and explains that one of the responsibilities of the Black Widow is to provide tactical support for the top-secret, high-level missions executed by the Winter Soldier—
Natasha's so shocked that she breaks her chief rule: never to give anything away. "There's no such person," she blurts. "It's a myth, a tale they tell to scare children—"
"It isn't," Barsukov says gravely. "He exists. And you're going to help him."
"But…" Steve interjects, frowning at Natasha. "I mean, you didn't, did you? The story you told me about...you know, Iran, Odessa…." Steve shoots a quick glance at Barnes to check his reaction, but Barnes is staring down stonily and not meeting anyone's eyes. "It didn't seem as if you and the Winter Soldier were on the same side," Steve says carefully.
"That was after," Natasha explains. "I'd switched sides by then. But I was tapped to offer him tactical assistance twice—once in Johannesburg and once in Kuala Lumpur. That's how I knew that he existed, that he was real." Barnes still doesn't look up. "And once I'd defected...well, it seemed important to use what I knew about the Winter Soldier to stop him." Natasha rubs her temples with her fingertips and adds, "I told Fury everything I knew—which wasn't as much as you'd think. Barsukov told me that the Winter Soldier, like the Black Widow, operated at the very highest clearance levels, so all information was need-to-know—but the truth is that the Winter Soldier was never just an agent of Soviet intelligence; he was being run by Hydra moles within the house. The KGB played itself as badly as SHIELD did," Natasha says bitterly, "creating so many secret rooms that by the end it was hosting every enemy within."
That's so blindingly true that for a moment, none of them says anything. Then Peggy says, in her brisk, let's-get-on-with-it sort of way, "Well, I think we're all going to need a good night's sleep if we're to tackle any of this. Come," she says to Natasha. "Let me draw you a bath," and Natasha stands gratefully. Steve interposes himself and asks for her chronograph—and right, Natasha's still wearing the time-space GPS that took her to Vormir. She unstraps it and hands it to Steve, who, to Tony's delight, takes it, taps his own wrist and vanishes into thin air. Probably gone to get Pym particles. Dude's come such a long way.
But this gives him an idea, so Tony says, Schwarzenegger-style, "I'll be back," and—
"Honey, I'm home!" Tony shouts, and Pepper turns and hugs him gamely—because she knows it means a lot to him to be greeted like this, even though 10:1 she didn't even realize he was gone. Time-travel is the marital aid Tony Stark didn't know he needed. He hugs her and kisses her and then he takes her by the hand and blips them both across the house to Morgan, who only barely glances up: she's coloring intently while cartoons blare on the TV.
Then he goes to his lab. If the game is setting up Black Widow to rule the Cold War, he thinks he's got something to contribute. Fuck James Bond: Black Widow is gonna have time travel and lasers and—
With both Messrs. Carter and Potts gone, the house is quiet, and Natasha sits on a pink velvet stool before the beautiful art deco vanity in the guest room, combing out her wet hair. Peggy's put some dresses in her closet, and given her a beautiful silk nightgown and peignoir to wear. The bed looks inviting, and she's tired—the time between falling off the cliff on Vormir and landing in Steve Rogers' arms was like a dream, a series of fleeting images and feelings. She feels like she hasn't slept in years. At the same time, her senses are on high alert, and she can't help but be desperately curious about where—and when—she is.
Finally she puts down the comb, checks that her peignoir is fastened, and slips out the door. Peggy gave her the briefest tour of the second floor, and Natasha takes a second to orient herself. Her room is across from the bathroom, near the top of the stairs. To the right is the master bedroom, and there's light under the door—so Peggy's still awake, probably waiting for Steve to come back. Down at the other end of the hall is the room where James Barnes sleeps—and damn if his door isn't open a crack. He's likely waiting for Steve, too.
But right now, Natasha's going to use that crack to her advantage. She slips down the hallway, knocks gently, and then nudges the door open. The room is lit only by a tulip-shaped reading lamp, which arcs down over a small desk. Barnes sits there, with his back to the door, writing, and Natasha's not sure what strikes her as more incongruous: that Barnes now feels safe enough to sit with his back to the door, or that he's wearing blue and white striped pajamas. It's nice, she decides: this mid-century commitment to nightclothes.
Barnes looks up, and seems taken aback by the impropriety of her being there. He stands up, but that's worse—his pajamas are a thin cotton screen, covering without concealing. She can't help but look. The silk of her nightgown brushes the floor, but it clings to her, traces her hips, she can feel it.
She has the advantage, and she uses it. "What aren't you telling me?" Natasha asks, and to her surprise, damn if the Winter Soldier doesn't flush red from the neck upward.
"Nothing," he says, but that's a lie: she can feel the force he's using to hold back, to hold whatever it is back. "Nothing important," he amends a moment later. "Nothing tactical. Nothing that would...put you in any danger."
"That's a lot of nothing," Natasha says, cocking her head to one side.
"It's just…" He looks like he is strangling. "I have memories of you that—you don't share," he says stiffly. "It's not for me to tell you what they mean."
"But that works both ways," Natasha says. "I have memories of you that you don't share."
"That's true." Impossibly, his color deepens. "I still don't remember it all, though a lot of things have come back...sometimes in flashes. Bits and pieces. I didn't know that was you in Johannesburg, and I don't remember Kuala Lumpur or Odessa at all. Steve told me what I did to you in Odessa, though, and I—" and she tries to wave this apology aside; she of all people knows the pain of reckoning with the things you did years ago, in another life, when you were living as another person and trying to win an entirely different game. But Barnes won't let her. "No, you don't understand," he says between clenched teeth. "It's worse with you, like it was with Steve, because—" and his face is so dark with blood. He never gets to whatever's behind that because. Instead he shakes his head like a dog shaking off water and says: "You saved my life back then. You told me I'd get through it—that there was something on the other side of it. An after," and Barnes gesticulates helplessly at his neat room with its modest bed and navy blue coverlet and snowy white pillows, the oak bureau and the desk with its fluted lamp; his room here in Steve and Peggy Carter's house.
Natasha wants to say, I was lying, I couldn't have known that, except of course she wasn't lying and she did know. Because the I who’d told him was the one hearing this now, the Natasha who knows—impossibly but surely—that it is possible to survive your own death.
"Well, I'm glad," she says, and now she knows how Peggy feels: it's really awkward to accept thanks for a thing you haven't done yet. And it turns out she doesn't have the advantage here, after all. Barnes does—which is why he's shrinking away from her. She likes him for that. It's too much power for any one person. "I'm glad if I…" she tries again, and then sighs. "I'll do my best," she says instead.
"Just do what you think is right," he says, and then flips it: "What you do will be right."
"Right," Natasha repeats, and the air between them is thick with history, their future looming and shapeless. She steps back quickly and wraps her arms around herself, because the bed is right there and she's suddenly gripped by the conviction that it's her bed, their bed. "Well. Goodnight, then, um..." and here she stumbles, because she's never known what to call him now they're on speaking terms: Barnes? Bucky? Sergeant?
He takes her embarrassment onto his own face to spare her. "You called me James," he tells her and looks away; he can't meet her eyes any more. "My name is James."
"Well, goodnight, James," Natasha says, and swiftly slips out, closing the door behind her.
She heads back toward her room, then pivots—because she needs air, she's suddenly desperate to go out to the garden and maybe steal one of their cigarettes—and nearly crashes into Steve on the stairs. He's—he looks different than he did when he vanished earlier this evening: his hair's mussed, and there's dirt in the creases of his skin, and he seems to have more beard than he ought to have for only being gone a couple of hours. He's had an adventure, has Steve, and he smiles at her and holds up her chronograph in weary victory. It's been put on a black leather strap and subtly modified so that it has a tiny ruby shining at its center. Steve gives it to her, and Natasha immediately fastens it on her wrist. It feels—strangely right, like a part of her that's been missing.
"Do you have everything you need?" Steve asks.
'Yeah, I'm good," she replies, and they smile and slide past each other on the staircase, neither of them asking the other where they're going. Because she's listening hard for it, she hears Barnes's—(James's)—bedroom door open and then the low murmur of male voices in conversation. She knows them well enough to know that they're listening too, so she descends into the living room, takes a man's wool overcoat (James's) from the closet and slips into it before opening the back door and stepping out into the garden. There's a pack of cigarettes and a silver lighter in the coat's inner pocket, just as she'd hoped.
Tony sleeps in his wife's arms and then wakes up early and has breakfast sitting cross-legged in his daughter's tiny pink tent. Morgan's catered, so the menu is dry Fruity Pebbles and a pink plastic cup of milk. They also have a frosted cupcake each. Tony has sat at a thousand chef's tables in a thousand kitchens having his palate provoked and his taste buds tickled. But he knows now that if he ever had to pick a last meal, it would be this one. Tell the warden to bring me a bowl of dry Fruity Pebbles and a cup of milk.
After breakfast, he carefully packs up a bag of toys: portable repulsors, power packs, and stun guns, bits of alien tech and the best gizmos that no amount of money could buy from the Stark Industries private collection. Romanov's going to be bringing lasers to a knife fight.
He figures he'll be back at House Carter before breakfast—
—except these philistines must get up at some ungodly hour, because there's only crumbly plates and empty coffee cups on the table. The door to the garden is open, though, and Tony drifts out to see if anyone's out there smoking or finishing their coffee. He doesn't see anyone or smell smoke—but a moment later he hears a thud and a grunt, a woman's stifled scream. He moves fast and without thinking, taking the stone path round the house—
—and hop-skids to a stop when he sees Peggy Carter punching a heavy bag. She's glowing with sweat, and she's got one hell of a right hook. Shes fast, too—bap, bap, in your face! Tony cringes in imagined sympathy. He can almost see the guy: lip split, jaw and nose broken, hit to the solar plexus, kick to the nuts—down, boom!
Finally, she stops, panting, fists still raised, and by god, Tony can see why Steve married her. Peggy Carter's a woman worth breaking the laws of physics for. They're two peas in a pod, her and Steve. She smiles and draws her forearm across her forehead. The sweat's slightly dampened her curls but she hasn't smeared her lipstick. "Good morning, have you had coffee?" Peggy asks, unwrapping her hands. "There should be some in the carafe."
"I'm good," Tony says, and somehow Peggy makes him feel bashful, schoolboyish. "I brought over some things for Natasha."
"She hasn't come down yet," Peggy tells him. "But the boys are in the War Room."
He can't have heard that correctly. "The War Room?" but Peggy just points through the hedge toward the garage—or the building that Tony had taken for a garage. He asks the question with his eyebrows and she waves him onward, so Tony follows the path down to the little cul de sac.
The garage looks innocent enough from afar, but it's not what it appears to be. The whole building's shielded for one thing; he can feel energy coming off it. The side door looks normal enough, like it's wood with four little square windows on the upper half—except it isn't wood and those aren't windows, but sealed panels. It's the door to a fortress. Tony knocks, but whatever alloy the door is made of doesn't carry sound very well. It's then that he notices a discreet touch pad beside the door and presses his palm to it—and is surprised when a voice says, "Welcome. Voice Activation Required." This kind of security isn't Steve's style at all—Steve was a guy who put his name on the bell at every apartment he'd ever lived in—so this had to be the work of the wife or the boyfriend.
Tony throws a quick glance over his shoulder before saying, "Tony Stark. Iron Man."
"Access denied," the voice says cheerily, and Tony laughs—because ordinarily he would just assume he's not on the access list, but Peggy sent him, which means this is probably revenge. Shit, he's got it coming. Capsicle. Legolas. Point Break. Tony laughs again and then says, groaning, "All right...Tony Stank." But that's not it. He tries Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, and Philanthropist before digging deeper and suggesting Loudmouth. Big Man in a Suit of Armor. Man in a Can, and it's only after insulting himself for another five minutes that he remembers who he's dealing with and realizes what it has to be.
"Mr. Potts," he sighs and the door unlocks.
The War Room is...a war room, full of diagrams and weapons and other anachronistic gear. Steve and Bucky look up at him from where they're bent over a large table spread with paper maps. They seem vaguely amused; they were listening to all that, the bastards.
"Whatcha working on?" Tony asks, peering down: one of the maps shows a coastline, another an air strip, a third seems to depict a section of a village.
"A mission," Steve replies. "Somewhere called...the Bay of Pigs?" and nobody told Tony there was going to be a quiz today or he'd've reviewed his 5th grade Social Studies.
Barnes saves him by looking up from under hooded eyes and drawling, "It didn't happen the way you'd remember anyhow. 1961, Hydra sets the mission, gives me Castro as the target."
Tony just stares at him. "But Castro," he begins.
"Right. Didn't happen. Then Castro's tipped off and the US invasion fails, right?"
"Right," because that sounds vaguely familiar. Bay of Pigs: the US sponsors an invasion of Cuba, gets its ass handed to it. Strange, though, come to think. "So how did that happen?"
"The fuck I know." Barnes seems almost amused. "I didn't know. But I was countered," and then he looks at Steve, and then Tony looks at Steve, and Steve throws his hands up and says, "So can we get to work, please, so I can figure out what I've got to do here?"
"No, no—hang on, wait," Tony says, because he's almost got it; almost; but— "You're telling me that Captain America foiled American's foreign policy plans in Cuba?"
Barnes takes pity on him again. "Yeah. My guess is because if I'd killed Castro, and Cuba'd fallen, there would have been chaos, World War III. Hydra loves chaos. As it was…"
Tony nods; right, okay. "As it was, Castro lives and there's thirty years of status quo, more or less."
"Right," Barnes says. "You know how many people died in the Cold War? Practically nobody. Whereas 80 million people were killed in World War Two—"
"Well...79,999,998, right? Don't go inflating the numbers,"—and okay, as a lifelong smartass, Tony's often come close to being punched in the face, but never closer than right now—and this guy has a vibranium arm. But he's saved by Peggy Carter at the door.
"Steve," and Peggy doesn't do flustered but this is damn close. She gets Steve's attention right away, but Peggy then cuts a look at Barnes and hesitates. Barnes slowly straightens...and then his shoulders slump like he's taken on bad news. Steve looks at him, then looks questioningly at his wife, who nods. The hell: it's like they're all psychic or something, mind readers—or maybe this is just what communication looks like after you've known people a hundred years after doing undercover ops with them in occupied France.
"It can't be," Steve says, about whatever it is. "She wouldn't—" He instantly heads back to the house, and when Peggy follows him, Tony tags along, too. He's got it now: Natasha—
"I went up to see if she wanted anything," Peggy calls after Steve, who's banging through the screen door and making a beeline for the stairs. "Steve, the bed hasn't been slept in," and that stops him. His hand grips the bannister.
"Natasha wouldn't leave," Steve says. "You don't know her, Peg, but she wouldn't," and then, in the same breath: "I met her on the stairs last night. I gave her the chronograph."
Peggy strokes her eyebrow almost, but not quite, nervously. "There may be people she needs to see. She may have unfinished business of some kind. She's certainly entitled to—"
"Damn right," Barnes says, shakily, from the doorway. "It's her life, she's got her own damn life, don't you understand? She was drafted into this bullshit even younger than we were, but she's a good soldier and she fought like we all fought: hard, and right to the fucking end. And she deserves her own goddamned afterlife. This house, this is our dream, not—"
There's a burst of brilliant multicolored light, and then Natasha appears, breathless and panting: a vision in a Dior dress. She's wearing a black silk hat and red lipstick and carrying a still-smoking gun. The red particle on her chronograph is blinking madly.
She looks around for Barnes, and her expression twists into anguish. He grabs the doorframe nervously, like he's trying not to run for it, and stands his ground as she rushes him. "I didn't—" she gasps, "James, I'm sorry, I—I didn't know we had a whole life together," and then she's clutching his face, gripping him, kissing and kissing him.
Barnes moans softly and stumbles back a bit under this onslaught, and Tony stares at them for a moment before looking over incredulously at Steve and catching only the barest glimpse of exploding joy—(joy?)—on his face before he turns away, hands jammed in his pockets and practically vibrating with happiness. Peggy has no such shame; she collapses, grinning, into one of the dining room chairs and swings her legs up onto the chair beside her, crossed at the ankles, the very portrait of satisfied relief.
"My God," Tony says, with all the deadly comic force he can muster—and fate cooperates as Barnes and Natasha, still blindly kissing like horny teenagers, carreen into the kitchen and send something crashing to the floor, like a rimshot. "What kind of menagerie is this? Is this the Spirit That Won The War?"
"Oh, my dear, you've no idea," Peggy says, and tosses her head back and laughs. "Wait till I tell you about the Roosevelts."
After some trial and error, they decide that they like meeting in 1961. It's a good year: Steve and Peggy have moved to a big ol' house on the Sound, just down the coast from where Tony grew up. The place was built by a steel magnate who got crushed by Carnegie, and the place is big enough that Bucky and Natasha (now Mrs. Michael Carter, or so say her papers) use it as their home base as well. Bucky and Natasha also have a pied-à-terre in Paris or somewhere, or so Tony's guessed from remarks they've made about jazz and the ballet. But neither of them are what you'd call forthcoming, Ms Full of Secrets having attracted her inevitable mate, Mr I'd Tell You But Then I'd Have To Kill You. So they just appear and disappear unexpectedly—but then again, around here, who doesn't?
Tony likes to take Pepper and Morgan to 1961 for the odd weekend—or who knows, maybe it's the same weekend over and over again, with dinners and cocktails and games of croquet played out on the lawn over long summer afternoons. By 1961, Steve has caught up and surpassed him in the procreating department, so that Morgan (now six) slots in neatly between Eleanor (seven) and Vera (five), with little James (three) trotting behind, always wanting to be included in whatever the girls are doing. The Carter kids take more after Peggy than Steve, at least physically, though there's something about Vera, some dark murderous glint, that reminds him of Barnes—and hey, with this crew anything's possible. Everything's conventional enough on the surface, everyone all coupled up and legal, but there are an awful lot of bedrooms in this house, and Tony's not sure that everyone ends up in the same one each night. They're all something more than bridge partners anyway.
Steve is always coming and going unexpectedly too, and now Tony sees how Mr. Carter was lost to history—Steve is constantly weaving in and out of history, reinforcing the seams of their timeline while his wife runs the world. This also explains Peggy Carter's unprecedented success as Director of SHIELD, which she ran for half a century, overseeing the Long Peace from the late forties through the nineties. Mostly it explains the smile on Mrs. Carter's face in fifty years' worth of portraits and official government photographs. Most high-level security types, like most babies, look like Winston Churchill, but Peggy Carter smiles like she's got a nuclear weapon in her pocket and she's happy to see you.
Peggy Carter smiles like she knows that Captain America has a time machine.
Natasha's turned in her chronograph and now works for Peggy like the rest of them, though mostly she likes sunning herself on Steve's sailboat and going out on the town with Barnes. She's finished all her missions as the OG Black Widow, and now seems quietly happy in a way she wasn't before—which is odd because of how the whole thing went up in flames at the end. It turns out the story of Black Widow and the Winter Soldier doesn't end well, though Tony doesn't know the details and can't ask—because he was there the day Natasha came back bloodsoaked and screaming about a power grab and Glasnost and American Hydra and bastards, those fucking bastards! She'd been out of control, red-faced and tear-stained and ready to tear the world down. She'd punched Steve and broken two pieces of furniture and a bunch of Peggy's china, and even Barnes, skidding into the room on the sound of her screams, had found it hard to console her.
So it had ended in disaster: she'd lost, as she'd known she would, as they'd all known she would, because the history books said so. They'd ripped the Winter Soldier from her, though whatever fight she'd put up had clearly established her reputation for the ages. And she'd been a little more brittle afterward, quiet and resigned. She'd wrapped herself in a blanket and sat out on the veranda even though it was winter, smoking endless cigarettes and staring out at the sea. And then...somehow...she'd recovered, gotten over it like getting over a cold, which had probably been helped by the fact that the man she was grieving was alive and right there beside her. Tony isn't sure what it is about James Buchanan Barnes that reduces these stoic types to rubble. He supposes there's no accounting for taste.
"You don't understand," Natasha tells Tony; they are drinking together on the veranda in June of 1961, the sound of the sea mingling with the shrieks of laughter carried to them from the children playing on the other side of the house. "We had a life together, him and me. They let me take charge of him when he was out of cryo—because I knew everything, Stark: every code, every password in every playbook, Soviet and Hydra both. I beat them at their own goddamned game, until—" and here, Natasha's voice falters, and Tony reaches out wordlessly and grasps her hand so that she knows she doesn't have to say it: until I didn't. Natasha squeezes back, her lips curving into a warm smile. "But now I've got him back, and we have a good life here with Steve and—"
"Tony," Pepper says, appearing on the veranda; she is wearing a white dress with black polka-dots and red lipstick and sunglasses with little rhinestones at the corners; oh, this is Camelot, truly. "Hurry, you've got to see this," and Tony gives Natasha a quick, apologetic smile and launches himself out of his chair to follow his wife.
Pepper leads him through the house and to a bay window that opens onto the sprawling lawn where the yelling gleeful children have gone to war and are now wrestling their prisoner down onto a lawn chair. Howard Stark is laughing and putting up a fight but somehow he's still managed to keep his cigarette dangling rakishly from his mouth.
The world goes a little overbright for a second. "Holy shit!" Tony says, and giggles.
"I know!" Pepper says; she is hushed and staring. "He just strolled in here—he's come to see Peggy about something, I guess. But I met him, Tony! Of course, I didn't tell him who I was, just that I was a friend of the—" She flings her hand in the air and doesn't finish the thought. "He says he lives right up the road! He says you live right up the road from here!"
"I don't live right up the road, I haven't even been born yet! I don't think my parents have met yet!" and Tony's bending forward, forehead pressed to the glass to get a better look at the little monsters, because— "Did he meet Morgan?" and there's one-two-three-four kids dancing around him on the lawn, so she's there, gotta be. "Pep, did he—?"
"Yes," and Tony turns in this moment of infinite stillness to look at Pepper. She's smiling. "He met Morgan. Your father met Morgan, Tony. He said—" and now Pepper's doing an impression that's more him than Howard, but is still pretty good for all that: "'Now hang on—there was only three of you kids last I checked,' and Morgan said, 'My name's Morgan,' and your father said, 'Morgan, eh? Destined for sorcery, I'll bet. I'm Howard Stark,' and—" Pepper grabs Tony's arm. "—and—and then Morgan said, 'That's my name, too!' and—I swear I thought I was going to have a heart attack, but then Peggy appeared from out of nowhere and said, cool as anything, 'Oh yes, that's our friend Morgan, Howard,' which made everything okay," and damn, Peggy's quick. That's our friend Morgan, Howard sounds just like, That's our friend Morgan Howard, and would make sense to everybody.
Now Morgan's laughing and dancing around her captive grandfather, who looks to be about fifteen years younger than her father is. Tony's itching to go out there, to be part of this moment, but he can't risk Howard remembering Mr. Potts. "Tell you what," Pepper says, "I've got my phone hidden in my purse. I'll just grab it and take a quick picture," but no sooner has she disappeared in search of it than Bucky Barnes strides out onto the lawn.
He's come out of the door to Peggy's office, which opens out onto a small patio overlooking the garden and the lawns beyond where the children like to play. Barnes is wearing a suit and is obviously on the clock: he's become Peggy's lieutenant here in his second life.
"Looks like you're in need of rescue," Barnes drawls, which is true: the little devils have got him trapped in the chair and are circling him warily, guarding him with great intensity.
Howard sees him coming, tilts his head up, and grins. "Well, hello there Sergeant Barnes—"
—and Tony's gut heaves. He's sweating suddenly, drenched and cold. He's going to throw up. He looks around for a bucket, but there's nothing, not a vase, not an umbrella stand—
—and their voices drift in on the afternoon breeze: "Peggy's off the phone, so she's ready for you whenever you want to come in." "Well I kind of want to see how much gumption these kids have got..." But Tony's in Siberia, Tony's standing on a lonely road in the dark listening to his father and his father's killer chat pleasantly. And all at once he can't stand it, and blindly turns—and nearly smashes into Steve, who has materialized behind him.
Tony recoils, because—Steve looks like hell. He's obviously back from some mission, his clothes torn and dirty and smelling of gunpowder. Blood seeps from a gash on his forearm. There's dirt etched into the lines of his face, making him look older; making him look old. His expression is all grim sympathy—and Tony stares, because suddenly he can see the skinny, sick kid whose picture is in all the museums: the kid with scoliosis, the kid who had asthma and rheumatic fever and nervous trouble, for whom pain is as natural as breathing. The kid who told a little white lie to the draft board and is still being punished for it, because he's still here, still fighting: trying to make sure the century comes out right.
Tony doesn't know what he's going to say until he says it. "Where the hell have you been?"
Steve rubs his eyebrow: there's dust on it. Or plaster maybe, from an explosion. "1979. It was…" Steve trails off; he looks lost and sounds exhausted. "I think it came out okay, in the end. Tony…." and goddammit, here comes the sympathy, and he just can't take it.
Tony lifts his chin. "Save it. That bastard's is going to kill my dad, and—"
"He's already killed your Dad. But before that he was captured and tortured. And Natasha's saved him and lost him and saved him again, and I've lost Peggy and found her and buried her, and when 2016 rolls around I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to do it all over again. And then half of all living things are going to die. The universe is going to be ashes and dust for five years until you and Natasha give your lives to save us. But this is the only timeline where we succeed. This is the lucky one. We're lucky, Mr. Potts," Steve says quietly, and Christ, Steve's not a hundred years old, he's a thousand years old; he's Atlas, or maybe Sisyphus, or maybe just out of his goddamned mind. "Aren't we lucky?"
Lucky? For a moment, the word doesn't make sense. But Steve's usually right about this kind of thing—the man's moral compass is depressingly well calibrated. So much shit has happened, but they fought—died, even—for this future. So that Morgan could have a life, and the Carter kids, too. Peggy and Steve and Bucky and Natasha have got decades, and so does his dad, and he's got Pepper for—well, for however long he's got Pepper. He's got no idea how long and that's great. Or maybe just lucky—because fuck, Steve is right. If you take the long view, everyone's last stop is the graveyard, but right now, he's got everything he ever wanted. They've all got everything they ever wanted.
A happy ending depends on where you stop.
Tony sighs, and then blows out a breath. "You're right, Mr. Carter, just like you're always right about everything. But I think we've made a little of our own luck, don't you?" and then Pepper comes back in carrying her iPhone, and takes a video of Morgan happily running circles around her grandfather, tying him with jump rope to a chair.