- Alternate Universe
- Fix It
- Science Fiction
Steve came awake slowly, not at all sure of what to expect. The last time he’d been through this, SHIELD had tried to fool him into thinking no time had passed. That had set him off, and he’d never really calmed down after that.
He listened carefully to the sounds of the room, taking deeper breaths as he tried to figure out where he was. It was quiet, almost preternaturally so. No monitoring equipment, no radio or tv, just the sound of his own heart beating.
“You can open your eyes now, Cap.”
Steve turned his head, opening his eyes as instructed to find a familiar face staring at him over the edge of a tablet, a mug of steaming coffee paused mid-sip as his watcher watched him.
“Tony,” he breathed out, relieved to have woken up at all, but more so to have his friend there, confirming that things hadn’t changed too much.
Tony raised an eyebrow. “Well, looks like Dear Old Dad was right after all.”
Steve closed his eyes, feeling like a fool for giving himself away so easily. When he opened them again, it was to see Tony smirking at him. He set the coffee mug aside, along with the tablet, and leaned forward.
“So, a couple of years ago, Howard sat me down to tell me a few things,” Tony said. “See, he was worried that the cancer would take him before it was time to retrieve and defrost you. I, of course, didn’t believe a word of it. Even after Uncle Grant and Aunt Peg chimed in. But I still sent the expedition out, expecting to find the plane and no Captain America. Imagine my surprise when they came back with a Capsicle.”
Steve huffed. “If it makes you feel any better, Howard held a gun to my face until he was sure I was really who I said I was.”
“Sounds about right,” Tony said as he leaned back in his chair.
“So, where am I?” Steve asked. He pushed himself up just a bit, so he could see Tony better. “For that matter, what’s the year?”
“At the moment, you’re in Stark Manor,” Tony said. “I’ve had the whole place remodeled since you were here last. New basement levels, a landing pad on the roof. Totally rewired and updated. I’ve even installed my AI, though Howard wasn’t so sure about that part. Say hello, J.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS said. “Should you require anything during your stay with us, you only need ask.”
“Thanks, JARVIS,” Steve said. He froze when he caught the calculating look on Tony’s face. “What?”
“You and I knew each other in your original future,” Tony said, a statement and not a question.
“Yeah, we did,” Steve said with a sigh. He figured it was pointless to lie to a Stark, so he didn’t even try. “And before you ask, I left things out of the story I told Howard because I believed that if I told him too much about his future, that it would change things, and I didn’t have the right to mess with his life.”
“But you’ll gladly mess with everyone else’s,” Tony shot back. When Steve opened his mouth to explain, Tony held up a hand. “Relax. Howard explained your goal in going back in time. I’m actually on board with the whole ‘prevent the universe from imploding’ thing.”
“Where is Howard?” Steve asked.
“He passed away late last year,” Tony said, his voice subdued. “Lung cancer, in case that wasn’t clear.”
“And what year is it?”
“It’s 2010,” Tony said.
“But, that’s a year early,” Steve said. In the original timeline, he’d been found in 2011, just a year before the Chitauri invasion.
“Yeah, it is,” Tony said. “Unfortunately, the Army has been sniffing around the Arctic the last couple of years, keeping tabs on the SI expedition. We thought it was better to pull you out early rather than risk the Army finding you.”
“Not SHIELD?” Steve asked, confused.
Tony shook his head. “SI partnered with SHIELD on the search, but obviously we weren’t the only interested party. SHIELD didn’t have the resources to conduct a full-scale search without help, and there was no way Howard was going to let them find you without a Stark being there.”
“Was Howard able to clean up SHIELD?” Steve asked. He’d hate to think that, even after telling him about the issues, that he wouldn’t have been able to clean up the agency he helped found.
“Oh, yeah, he cleaned up SHIELD all right,” Tony said. “It cost them some credibility, so the agency stayed small for a number of years. After 9/11, SHIELD was folded into Homeland Security. With the backing of a large Federal agency, they’ve grown in influence, but still have that small agency feel. Howard was actually the first director of the rebranded SSR. Aunt Peg took over in the seventies. They’ve done well with the agency; it’s now the go-to in the Federal alphabet soup for all things science-related, whether it’s espionage or law-enforcement.”
“Wow,” Steve said. “I knew things would be different, but I guess I didn’t think they’d be that different. Who’s the director now? Fury?”
“His name’s Coulson,” Tony said. “He’s a good guy. Shoots straight, and never asks for things he knows he shouldn’t have. There’s a guy named Nick Fury that works for CIA; real pain in the ass, but he and Coulson go way back, so he works with SHIELD quite often.”
“I knew Coulson,” Steve said, nodding. “Well, I met him once, briefly. But from what other people said, he was a good man. Anything else I should know about him?”
“Eh, probably tons, but nothing that’s relevant today,” Tony said.
“What about the Tesseract?” Steve asked. “Did you ever find it?”
“Yeah, we found it,” Tony said. “SHIELD currently has it. We’ve been studying it off and on for several years. Nothing exciting to report yet, but we have a new scientist on the project that should help speed things along.”
“You wouldn’t be talking about Bruce Banner, would you?”
“You know him?” Tony asked, one eyebrow raised in surprise.
“I do,” Steve said. “I’ve also met… the Other Guy.”
“Ah, yes, Green Bean,” Tony said. Steve chuckled; he’d always loved Tony’s nicknames for the people he liked, even if he made a show of disdaining them. Wouldn’t do to feed Tony already-large ego, after all. “He’s actually pretty cool. You wouldn’t believe the looks he gets in the lab when he walks in all big and green. The newbies tend to run for the corners until they find out he’s like a big, green teddy bear.”
“Wait, Hulk and Bruce have integrated?” Steve asked. “How’d that happen?”
“I’m assuming Hulk destroyed Harlem in your original timeline,” Tony said. Steve nodded. “Okay, so the way he tells it, Bruce realized pretty quickly that having a ticking time bomb inside him was going to become unworkable sooner rather than later. So, he came to me—science bros, or something, I wasn’t really clear about why he picked me—and I put him in touch with Coulson. SHIELD’s psychologists helped him deal with his rage monster problem.”
“Wow,” Steve said. “Anything else you want to lay on me?”
Tony chuckled. “I think that’s more than enough for one day. The doctors—and I count Bruce among them; he was instrumental in helping defrost you, by the way—are probably going to have my hide for keeping you up so long.”
“I’m not really tired,” Steve said, even as he leaned back and closed his eyes. “I’ve been sleeping for better than sixty years. I’m not sure I need to sleep anymore.”
“You just keep telling yourself that,” Tony said. He patted Steve on the shoulder as he stood, then reached for his mug and tablet. “Get some rest. If you’re feeling up to it tomorrow, I’ll show you around the mansion, let you meet some of the gang.”
Steve opened his eyes and watched Tony walk to the door. “Thanks, Tony. For everything.”
“You’re welcome.” Tony turned and smile at Steve. “Thanks for not being dead. I’d have hated to get to the crash site only to have you already expired from freezer burn. Would have broken Aunt Peg’s heart, and I hate doing that.”
“Me too,” Steve said.
Tony flipped the switch, casting the room into shadows. Steve sighed and settled deeper into the bed as Tony shut the door. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to sleep, with all the information Tony had given him about how different this timeline was, but he pushed it all aside and closed his eyes.
There would be time to sort out all the changes later. He had almost two years before the potential Chitauri invasion. Plenty of time to plan for what was to come.
“So, tell me what’s coming,” Tony said.
They’d toured the house, the labs and Steve had even gotten a look at the model for Stark Tower. He’d also noticed that Tony didn’t have an arc reactor in his chest, which had led to a whole conversation about the Iron Man suit—which still existed, but had been created for different reasons—and the fact that Stark Industries hadn’t been in the business of making weapons since the seventies.
Now they were enjoying a late lunch in the kitchen; it was the same room, with basically the same layout, but everything was new. From the cabinets to the appliances to the furniture, there wasn’t anything left of the kitchen he remembered from 1948.
“What did Howard tell you?” Steve asked.
“He said something about aliens?” Tony said, sounding more like a question than a statement. “And something about some stones. To be honest, I thought maybe he was just totally high on morphine.”
“No, unfortunately he wasn’t,” Steve said. He sighed as he played with his coffee cup. “Sometime this year, if events have happened the same as my original timeline, we’re going to be visited by Thor.”
“The God of Thunder?” Tony asked incredulously. “That Thor?”
“The very same,” Steve said. “He’ll have been exiled from Asgard and sent here, where he meets a scientist named Jane Foster. SHIELD will likely be involved, due to Thor’s hammer landing here ahead of him. He’s not the real threat, though.”
“I can’t imagine he would be,” Tony said. “Well, actually, I have no idea what kind of threat an exiled god would be. Lay it on me. Where’s the real threat coming from?”
“A race called the Chitauri invades Manhattan about two years from now,” Steve said. “Partly due to Thor’s visit, and partly due to events on other worlds that draw attention here. Basically, your work on the Tesseract will attract the attention of an alien called Thanos, who is trying to assemble the Infinity Stones so he can use them to eliminate half of all life in the universe.”
Tony stared at him for several moments. “So, this is why you travelled back in time. You’re trying to undo what he did.”
“Actually, we’ve already undone the Snap,” Steve said. He stared at his coffee cup, feeling the failure to keep his promise to Tony like a lump that just wouldn’t go away. He looked up again, to remind himself that Tony was alive and well and sitting right in front of him. “But in the process of undoing it, we lost people. People I’m not willing to let go of.”
“You do know you don’t get a choice about that, right?” Tony asked. “People die, and it sucks, but we can’t always stop that from happening.”
“I get that,” Steve said. “But the more relevant reason for doing this is to stop the universe from… unraveling. The Infinity Stones—Time, Space—what we call the Tesseract—Power, Reality, Mind and Soul—are what powers the universe. Thanos used them to eliminate half of the population of the universe, and then used them again to destroy the Stones themselves. We need to stop him from doing that. Otherwise—”
“The whole universe will end,” Tony said. “Fuck. Okay, I’m officially done judging you for cheating by going back in time. The question is, what else needs to change in order to prevent this Thanos asshat from getting the Stones and blowing up my universe.”
Steve chuckled. “I’m not sure it’s technically your universe.”
“Well, I live in it, so I’m going to claim it as mine, and he can’t have it,” Tony said. “We should probably read Banner in. His brain is almost as big as mine, and we could really use the help.”
“I—yeah, okay,” Steve said. It would actually be nice to have other people to lean on and help him fix things.
“Now, there’s something you should probably see,” Tony said. “Unless you’re tired?”
“I’m fine,” Steve said, standing up.
“Okay, then,” Tony said. He stood up and started walking. “Let’s go.”
They entered a lab in one of the sub-levels of the mansion—one that was only accessible after Tony had entered a code on the keypad, plus allowed a scan of his eye. Steve had no idea what might interest him that required such security, so he just followed Tony’s lead.
Once inside, he spotted Banner fairly easily. The scientist in question looked up from the terminal he was working at, giving Tony an easy smile. Today must have been a ‘Bruce day’, as Tony had explained, because he was faced with the familiar brown curls and slight stature of the scientist he remembered.
“Hey, Tony.” He shifted his gaze to Steve, and his smile got bigger. “Captain. It’s good to see you up and around.”
“Doctor Banner,” Steve said, reaching out to shake the man’s hand. “I understand I have you to thank for helping thaw me out from the ice.”
“Well, it was a team effort, really,” Banner said. It was cute how he blushed just a little at the show of gratitude, as if he didn’t get that very often. He knew from experience that Banner’s life had been hard, and that there was a heap of guilt and not much else sitting on his shoulders in the other timeline. It was good to know that Tony had made him feel valuable again. “I’m guessing this isn’t just a social call, right?”
“I thought I’d show him…” Tony waved his hand at a door set in the back of the room.
“Yeah,” Banner said. They were both subdued, which set off alarm bells in Steve.
Tony crossed the room and went through much the same routine he had to get into the lab they were in. When the door slid open, he turned and gestured for Steve to follow him in. Banner entered right behind him, and the door slid shut. Steve glanced back as it did so, then turned to Tony with an eyebrow raised.
“Security precaution,” Tony said. “Even though the outer lab is secure, I didn’t want anyone getting in who shouldn’t.”
“What’s so sensitive that you need that much security, Tony?” Steve asked.
Tony pointed across the room. “That. Or rather—him.”
Steve looked across the room and saw a large chamber pushed against one wall. As he approached it, the hair on his arms stood up. Visible through the window was the face of his childhood best friend. Bucky Barnes, frozen in time, still looking as young as he’d been when they’d last seen each other.
Steve looked back at Tony, so many questions running through his mind, but he couldn’t seem to find the words. Thankfully, Tony had never needed anyone to ask questions before he spoke.
“SI found him back in 1983,” Tony said. “Well, we found the Winter Soldier Program in a bunker in Siberia. Most of the test subjects were raving lunatics, but according to the records, Barnes here was stable. So, we unplugged Barnes and returned him to the US, and blew up the bunker.”
“Were you there?” Steve asked.
“Oh, fuck no,” Tony said. “I was in high school. Very briefly, but I was there. No, Howard actually accompanied the retrieval team. I didn’t understand why until he explained who Barnes was to you.”
“Why is he still frozen?” Steve asked. “I’d have thought you’d have revived him by now.”
“We’d like to,” Banner said, stepping up bedside Steve. “Our research says they’ve programmed him into a killing machine, so we’re not sure what would happen if we woke him up again.”
“You already tried once, did you?” Steve asked, that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“We did,” Banner said. “It didn’t go well. So, he’ll stay in stasis until we can figure out how to deprogram him.”
“I’ve been in touch with a friend,” Tony said, joining Steve and Banner in front of the chamber. “We’re getting ready to transfer him to Wakanda. T’Chaka and his scientists think they may have a way to remove the conditioning. I wanted to wait until we’d woken you up to transfer him, so you could see him before he goes.”
“You’re friends with the King of Wakanda?” Steve asked. He didn’t have to fake his shock; Wakanda had been closed to outsiders for a very long time. Only when T’Challa had come to power had they opened themselves up to the outside world.
“Howard was, actually,” Tony said. “They met at a UN function a number of years ago. I spent my summers with them for a while when I was a kid. They’ve got a way with technology that borders on the preternatural. Dad knew my intellect would drive me to learn all I could, so he partnered with the Wakandan royal family to get me the education I needed. T’Chaka is basically my godfather.”
“Holy shit,” Steve murmured. “What have I done? I mean, getting Bucky back sooner is a blessing, but how much have I changed?”
“I don’t think we’ll ever really know,” Tony said. “But it’s all to the good, as far as I’m concerned. I got to have my parents around a lot longer, and Hydra never got a foothold in a US spy agency. I’ll take that outcome over what you described any day.”
“This sounds interesting,” Banner said. “Care to share with the rest of the class?”
“Of course,” Tony said. “You know I share all my best toys with you, right?”