michelel72: Tony Stark with HUD swirl (AVG-IronMan)
michelel72 ([personal profile] michelel72) wrote2014-07-09 01:20 pm

AVG Fic: What We Choose to Leave Behind

Title: What We Choose to Leave Behind
Genre/Rating: Gen (background het); FRK/all audiences
Relationships: Tony & Howard; Tony & JARVIS; mostly background Tony/Pepper; background Howard/Maria
Wordcount: 6500
Timeline/Spoilers: Slots in between "Iron Man 2" and "Avengers"
Warnings: Alcohol used as a coping mechanism; canonical implied emotional neglect

Disclaimer/Policies: This is a work of fanfiction inspired by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All feedback of any length, including constructive criticism, always welcome. Transformative/derivative/related works always welcome if credit is given. If my warnings for triggers/squick are inadequate, please let me know.
Crossposting: At AO3; at Livejournal; at Dreamwidth
Notes/Credits:
1. A lot of fanfiction takes as read that Avengers-era Tony can't bear to be compared to (or possibly even discuss) his father. That may well make perfect sense with comics canon, and I enjoy that theme, but to me, that doesn't entirely fit what we saw in "Iron Man 2". So this story ignores (what little I know of) comics canon, though I'm sure some comics-derived fanon does show up. Then again, I don't think what we saw in IM2 fixed everything, either.
2. I'm also assuming that, with little Tony running around, Howard could have been filming his Stark Expo introduction from an office/design space in the family's New York home rather than the company's offices.
3. Gen purists, take note: The background pairings may be a bit less background than you might prefer, so proceed with caution if that would annoy you.

Summary/Teaser: Howard has a conversation far too late and just in time, while the Tesseract is indirectly responsible for twisting causality into knots.



Howard switched off the camera, frustrated, and watched as his assistant hustled the boy out of the room. He'd finally found a good rhythm for his speech, dammit. He was a practiced public speaker, but his skills came from working with the energy of an audience. Talking to a camera was no better than talking to the wall.

He managed to say nothing further while Tony was still in the room. The boy meant no harm, really, and Howard knew that, but it was still hard to contain his irritation. That was why he and Maria had an understanding: She would keep Tony out from underfoot, and Howard would do his best to let him be a child.

Not a destroyer of worlds like his old man.

Howard moved over to the diorama and carefully adjusted the section back into place. Dreams and nonsense, this. An image he couldn't get out of his head and couldn't make real; the only structure that would make the arc reactor more than an overpriced showpiece, but one that modern particle physics couldn't hope to approach. Something he probably would turn into just another weapon if he published even as much as he'd intuited. So what was he doing? Using its structure as a framework for art? For a promise of a better world? As if that could redeem anything he'd done?

He went over to the bar and poured himself a drink, hoping he could head off that particular line of thought. He still needed to film his introductory speech, and he couldn't sell the idea of the city of the future or the positive potential of technology if he was thinking too openly that his influence was capable of warping that same technology towards death and destruction.

Unfortunately, those thoughts pushed themselves forward all too clearly whenever he was in the same room with his son. Because his fear, his greatest fear, was that technology wasn't all he was capable of warping. Maria assured him the boy was astoundingly quick to learn most anything he saw. Just what would he learn from Howard?

One of Tony's first words had been a curse, picked up from Howard. How was that for a portent?

Howard wandered the room, looking for something to distract him enough to let him refocus himself. He had to get this introduction filmed properly. Obadiah had already been making noises about the costs of the Expo and the value of Howard's time, and at this rate it would be faster to open the Expo in person than to get this silly speech filmed. Howard knew he should be more careful about protecting the company, even if he was doing this for Maria —

Well, no. He was doing this for himself, for Maria's opinion of him. Because she had such faith in him, such faith that he could make a positive change in the world, and sometimes he wanted to believe her.

His pacing had taken him to a small grouping of oddities he had collected over the years. He poked through them idly. A pocket watch Carter was convinced was more than a simple pocket watch ... an unnervingly perfect shell Maria had found on a beach ... a couple of pieces of the old Vita-Ray system ... a rock?

Howard frowned, confused, but even as he reached for it he remembered. When they recovered the Tesseract, they'd scooped up a bit of the surrounding debris from the ocean floor, and this rock had given off strange readings that had never resolved into anything significant.

Except now, as the rock settled into his palm, some sort of projection flooded the room. Shapes draped themselves over the furniture or hung midair, ever-so-slightly translucent but marvelously detailed. Most of them had the appearance of diagrams and models, but others looked like common tools or even a tall drinking glass.

And a man, Howard realized suddenly, standing almost atop him, one hand holding a similar rock — which fell and vanished in a flare of light as the man whipped around and dropped back a step, his eyes widening. An instant later, the man hurled himself across a table — scattering a few of the projected items but passing through another — and off the other side, out of sight. "Intruder!" his voice called. "Security breach! What, are you napping?"

"... Sir?" a confused second voice prompted, sourceless.

"Good heavens," Howard murmured, because a light projection was one thing, but integrated sound effects were a nice touch. The combined effect was rather like being immersed within a film. He reached over with his free hand and confirmed that the nearest displayed item had no physical presence.

The man popped back up, holding one hand forward, palm-out, revealing an eerily intense glow. "All right, pal, you have about five seconds before my crack security team remembers their job and gets in here to throw ... you ...." He frowned and then cocked his head to the side, as if he actually was studying Howard. "Wait. You're ... Dad?"

The man looked to be in his late thirties or early forties, and he was dressed like a hippie's idea of a day laborer, in a dark, decorated undershirt and tattered jeans. Howard realized with a jolt that he was old enough to have a son that age, technically, and the man did look a bit like Howard had when he was forty, but after a moment's panic he relaxed. Considering the Depression and then the war, he had been particularly careful in his dalliances. "I'm afraid you have me mistaken for someone else," he said, before he could question talking to a shape made only of light. "I'm Howard Stark —"

"Yeah, I know who you are, Flydale North," the man answered, and however nonsensical some of the words, he was responding. Howard was fascinated. "Or at least, who you want me to think you are."

"Sir, please, that is a load-bearing wall," the second voice interjected.

The man's eyes lost their focus briefly, as if he was conversing with the second party over a speakerphone, though he kept his upraised hand steady. "Oh, what, you're Bob the Builder now? I'm not aiming at the wall, I'm aiming —"

He tilted his head again — and Howard knew that gesture, he did — and then picked up a pen with his free hand and tossed it straight at Howard's chest. It passed through harmlessly, landing with a faint clatter behind him.

The man lowered his arm with a sigh and set about removing the armored glove with its glowing disk from his hand. "BAC?"

The second voice promptly answered, "By standard estimation methods, at or below zero-point-zero-two." Though the speaker apparently wasn't present, his voice was far too full and non-directional to be coming from a typical telephone's speaker.

"Not drunk enough it is, then." Disconnecting a couple of wires, he left the armored glove on the table and headed in the direction of Howard's bar. A different collection of ghostly bottles overlay Howard's supply, and the man grabbed one of those without checking the label. "Medical note," he said as he poured himself a glass. "Looks like the new element causes hallucinations."

Several new projections appeared midair, hovering near the man, each with the appearance of a flat screen. The man swiped his fingers across one of them, and its display reacted, either to touch or to the gesture emulating touch. Ah, interactive holographic monitor displays! Amazing! "Describe the nature of the hallucinations," the second voice instructed, sounding much more clinical.

The man squinted at Howard. "Hauntingly familiar," he said wryly. "Knew I should have just set up shop over at SI."

Oh, now, that was interesting. A strange, impossible idea began to form in the back of Howard's mind.

"If memory serves, you refused the suggestion of working on the tower project from the company's facilities rather vigorously," the second voice responded, just as wry. "Something about the hoi polloi, as I recall. But to return to your description of a hallucination, do you notice any effects other than a sensation of familiarity? Are any of your other senses involved?"

The man's expression turned to one of exasperation, though it held amusement, too, and a strange sort of pride. "How can you be so snarky and so literal at the same time? Snarkily literal, how is that even a thing?"

"I'm sure I don't know, sir," the voice replied, dry as dust. "Perhaps you should consult my specifications." Well now, that was very intriguing. "In the meantime —"

"Yes, yes, all right, Mr. Snippy. I'm not just talking about a weird sensation. I'm talking about The Ghost of Design Studios Past here, complete with dear old disapproving Dad." He raised his glass in Howard's direction. "Straight from the Expo era. Very Purple Rose of Cairo."

Howard tightened his grip on the rock, unwilling to risk losing this strange phenomenon just as its nature was starting to come clear, despite the man's sometimes incomprehensible nattering. Because those screens weren't possible with current technology, the second voice might well be a speaking computer, and if the glow from that glove was actually a weapon, it was probably decades from feasibility.

And the man looked a little like Howard once had, but he moved — oh, he moved just like Maria. "Tony?" he whispered.

The man's — Tony's — smirk was ugly. "My, how I've grown?" he suggested. "Time flies when you're busy doing anything besides looking. Wait, why am I — why am I talking to you? Jarvis, make a note, talking to hallucinations is a bad idea."

"Noted," the voice said — not the voice of Edwin Jarvis, the Stark family butler, but one with the same accent and a surprisingly similar air of amused toleration. "However, while I know you dislike finishing your thoughts aloud, in the absence of additional input, I would be remiss if I did not note that what you have described as a hallucination so far matches the projection that has been present since your handling of the artifact, and thus may not be a hallucination at all."

Tony waved one hand sharply through the air, and all of the mid-air projections disappeared, as well as a few of the ones on tables. He then poked experimentally at one of Howard's bottles, frowning as his finger passed through it. "So you — you're seeing this, too?"

"Yes, I see it," the voice Tony had called Jarvis said gently.

"So do I," Howard said, unable to hold back any longer. "This is remarkable. Do I understand that I'm appearing as a projection to you, just as you are to me? Does that mean that one of us is transmitting through time to the other, or have we folded time in a more shared fashion?"

Tony crossed his arms. "Through time?" he demanded.

Howard chuckled, surprising even himself. "My son is currently four years old. That does narrow the options a little."

Tony's posture tightened subtly. "Four, huh? You're actually aware of my age at ... ever?"

Howard frowned. "Of course." He might not have the first idea how to talk to the boy, or what in the world to do with him, but he was all too aware how young he was. How impressionable.

"Yeah, well, you missed a lot, old man. What was I up to by then, circuit boards? Maybe I started small — since I, you know, was small — but I kept. on. going." With a few gestures, he summoned a series of floating images. "Some building on your work, yes," he said, over displays of advanced missiles and — was that a miniaturized version of the arc reactor? "But much, much more of my own."

Dozens of new images filled the air, from film of a dizzyingly complex compound missile, to displays paging through an entire sheaf of patent applications, to pictographic flow sheets of multi-source energy grids, to exploded diagrams of what appeared to be some kind of computer system, and even to an animated hologram of an armored figure that not only battled but, apparently, flew. Tony himself was pictured in a few items, turned out perfectly. He appeared to clean up quite nicely, devilishly handsome and all too aware of it. Howard was relieved to see that while Tony was dressed as a slob at the moment, that wasn't his typical state in public.

"You talked about clean energy. I'm making clean energy. And leading the curve in communications development. Revolutionizing artificial intelligence and computing. Even privatizing world peace." With a flourish, Tony dismissed the images and gave Howard a cold smile. "So that's me. What have you done lately?"

Before Howard could begin to puzzle through Tony's confrontational attitude, the apparently artificial Jarvis interjected, "Actually, sir, I believe that is the key question."

Tony sighed. "You're killing my moment, J. Stepping all over it. Dancing a tarantella. What have I told you about the dramatic moments and the interrupting?"

"Not to do so unless I can top them."

"And? So? Top away, if you can."

"Always my dream, sir. However, in this case, I merely wonder if this event explains the message you received. Why your father chose the format and timing he did."

Tony rolled his eyes so dramatically, Howard thought there was actually a chance he might hurt himself. For just an instant, he had the strangest urge to chide, your face will stick that way, even though he'd never been that sort of father.

Or much of a father at all.

"A stable time loop?" Tony demanded of his Jarvis. "Are you seriously thinking we have a stable loop here? No one buys the idea those can work anymore, Jarvis. Nobody."

"It is only a hunch," Jarvis replied, unperturbed. But then the voice darkened, sounding almost angry. "However. It is of little import if I am wrong, but in the very small chance I should be correct, it is exceedingly likely that supplying this information will be, and will have been, vital to saving your life. I therefore must proceed as if it is."

Howard stared at Tony, alarmed. His life had been endangered?

Tony looked briefly chastened, but he quickly adopted a nonchalant tone. "Okay, Douglas Adams nailed it about the whole time-travel grammar thing." He waved a hand airily. "Fine, do what you think you have to do."

"Very well. Mr. Stark, have you recorded the final version of your introduction to the 1974 Stark Expo?"

"No, I'm still working on that."

"Have you recorded any attempts?"

"Yes. As a matter of fact, I was doing that just before this event."

"I see. Do you recall anything specific occurring during your most recent session?"

"Yes. Tony interrupted." The adult Tony raised an eyebrow at that, and Howard amended, "My Tony. I mean, that is —"

He was interrupted by a new image appearing midair: A picture that must have been from the film of the most recent attempt. In the picture, he was turned away from the camera, and in the background, his young Tony had a part of the diorama in his hands.

"Yes, that would appear to be it," Howard said, glancing over at his camera, which still held the undeveloped film. He was puzzled, because he hadn't intended to preserve any record of his attempts once he'd succeeded in filming a version he liked, but he held the question back for the moment.

"This model is familiar to you, then." The picture disappeared, to be replaced by a wire-frame image of his diorama for the Expo. When Howard agreed, Jarvis continued, "And its layout is ... deliberate?"

"Oh, you're adorable, Jarvis," Tony murmured, hiding an amused smile behind his glass.

"There is an underlying structure, yes," Howard said. Had they really found what he'd hidden there, almost on a whim?

"Excellent. Mr. Stark, your son relies on a —"

"Jarvis."

"— powered medical device," Jarvis continued smoothly. Tony crossed his arms again, looking unhappy but refraining from further interruption. "He was using palladium —"

Howard couldn't help his look of incredulity. Tony just shook his head slightly: no explanation of that would be forthcoming.

"— but those cores degraded rapidly, releasing toxic byproducts into his bloodstream. We were unable to find a viable element, isotope, or compound to replace the palladium, until the younger Mr. Stark received a message from you."

"The younger Mr. Stark, yeah, no, we're not calling me that," Tony said, but Howard barely heard him, because another picture had appeared: Himself, at about his current age, wearing the same suit but without the jacket, standing with the Expo model, looking intently into the camera.

He was certain it hadn't happened. Yet. A chill ran through him. He had easily accepted the idea he might be talking across time, but apparently he hadn't fully processed the ramifications.

"After viewing your message, Your Lord and Master, Creator of Life in Silicon and Plastic, Grand Poobah —"

Tony was squawking, his face flaring a vivid red that was plain despite his translucence. "Stop it, stop it, I will cram you into an Apple IIe if you don't erase that from your records this second, I will invent actual time travel to find an Apple IIe and then wedge you into it —"

Jarvis was silent.

"Fine, fine, the younger Mr. Stark is just fine, you insolent collection of misfiring cyber-synapses."

"As I was saying," Jarvis said, and Howard would lay money that the voice was smug, "After viewing your message, the younger Mr. Stark was inspired to retrieve your model, and he then puzzled out the underlying structure." The wire-frame model rotated, extraneous elements stripping away to leave the base, which then smoothly rearranged itself into the shape that had been haunting Howard.

"I want this technology," Howard declared. "Do you have any idea how many weeks I spent crafting that transformation in reverse?"

"Ugh, no, why do you think I put all this together? I don't have time for all that by hand nonsense." With a small smile, Tony added, "Sorry, but you're a few decades from the level of hardware that can handle this kind of load at all, much less without throwing enough heat to rival a small sun. Unless you feel like buying Antarctica and converting the entire continent into a data center."

"The prospect of having to equip a polar expedition to check the relays in computer bank seventeen doesn't appeal to me, no," Howard said, strangely pleased by the way Tony's smile warmed for a moment before he shook himself and resumed his more casual air.

"Anyway, yes, I found your model, whipped up a batch, popped it in, and bang! Good as new. Thanks for the assist, yada yada, are we done with this yet?"

"You've actually created this?" Howard reached forward, clenching his hand into a fist in frustration when it passed through the model. As if sensing his mood, Tony simply stepped forward and touched the image lightly, setting it into a slow rotation. "I would have thought — even with as much as you have, I would have thought it would still be years before this was possible."

"Technology is — well, not exponential, but definitely not linear. Doesn't actually follow a predictable curve at all, of course, but the more we develop, the more we're capable of developing, faster. But this? This is nothing. I threw this together in my basement." Howard turned to stare at him, but he simply shrugged. "The Malibu house, not this place, and I had to go through a couple of walls, but I didn't like those walls anyway."

Howard said nothing, studying him, but within a few seconds Tony squirmed and moved away.

"So, yeah, new element, yay! But that's not just a 'yay I'm not dying anymore' yay, that's a 'yay we can save the environment, yay clean energy, yay we can make the arc reactor viable not just on the large scale, not just on the personal scale, but on the all-important medium scale' yay. And that's, well, kind of all me. Standing on your shoulders, sure, but standing pretty tall."

Howard couldn't help smiling. "You're using it for energy. For saving lives. For ... for good."

"Well, yeah, Fury said that's the sort of thing you were going for with it, and you kind of made it the literal foundation of the Expo, so ...."

"Oh, you know Nicky, then?"

Tony choked, coughed several times to clear his throat, and then laughed. "Nicky, oh my god, that's fantastic —"

"If I may, sirs," Jarvis said. "While you both propose noble goals, they cannot be accomplished without the younger Mr. Stark's survival."

Even Howard was a little tired of the epithet. "Can't he just use your given name?" Edwin Jarvis would sooner have swallowed his tongue than refer to Howard or Maria by their first names, but surely this replacement could be programmed differently.

"He can. He doesn't. Not to, well, you know. Outsiders." That stung unexpectedly. The twist of Tony's mouth was apologetic.

"Mr. Stark —"

"Yes, I understand what you're asking me to do. I'll take care of it. Thank you for informing me."

"If you really think this is a loop, J, why don't you just show him the recording?"

"Because if my observations of you can be extrapolated to your father, giving him a script is the one method guaranteed to ensure he does not follow it."

"Know the subject cold and then wing it," Howard agreed. "Best way to come across as authentic is to be authentic, and you can't do that if you're just trying to act out something that's been written out to the last dot."

And wasn't that just his problem with the Expo introduction? He hadn't properly scripted it, but he was still trying to deliver a canned message. He needed to go back and just burn through a few reels of practice, top-of-the-head stuff, and lock down whichever one felt best.

"See, Jarvis? It's an actual, certified Stark technique," Tony said with a grin. "You are officially not allowed to give me a hard time about it anymore."

"I quite doubt that I am the party you have to convince."

"Yeah, that's ... accurate." Tony frowned at Howard. "Look no offense — seriously, none — but you're still here. Which is not me asking you to leave, it's me wondering what we do now, if giving you a message from the future —" he waved his hands for that "— wasn't enough to close the loop. I mean, I'm all for communication, but if I actually can affect events in my own past, I don't want to say the wrong thing and retroactively end up with a fascist president. Or ... resurrect leisure suits or something."

Howard needed only a moment to recognize the reference to the Bradbury story. He cursed internally. All this wondrous technology, and he didn't dare learn any of it, lest he influence his own work and derail the development of just what he was seeing.

After an uncomfortable silence, Howard asked, "So, do you have a family?" Because he apparently was allowed to know something of his son's future, so he might as well find out as much as he could. "Children?"

"What? Nooooo, no no no. No children. A few claims, but nothing stuck. Because, wow, no." So apparently he took after Howard in a few other ways.

"Ahem."

"Did — Jarvis, did you seriously just say 'Ahem'? Who even does that? No one, that's who. And he means bio-spawn, not a couple of bratty robotic arms and a smart-assed virtual butler."

"Even so," Jarvis said stiffly.

"He's a true artificial intelligence?" Howard asked. This Jarvis had demonstrated what appeared to be an actual personality, which honestly impressed Howard just as much as everything else Tony had shown him.

"Truer than true. My middle child, by date, but developmentally oldest. DUM-E was first, but he's ... yeah, special. Something about integrating mobility, maybe, since U isn't much better. Hope you like those servers of yours, Jarvis, because you're stuck with them. No wheels for you. I shudder to think what you'd do with fire suppression duty."

Howard actually had meant human children, perhaps an heir for the company, but he couldn't be disappointed when he considered just what Tony had created in Jarvis. Besides, Tony still had time for the more traditional route as well.

"I am content, but there are always your suits when I simply need to get away from it all," Jarvis said, and Tony grinned with delight and pride.

"You're so sassy today, Jarvis," Tony marveled. "You just wait until your mother gets — oh! Pepper! She should be — you should meet — she should meet — Jarvis, can we get Pepper here? Now?"

"I'm afraid not, sir."

Howard glanced up in an automatic but fruitless attempt to check Jarvis's expression, concerned by the somber note in his tone, but Tony didn't seem to notice. "Why the hell not? This is important — she would think this is important, which I think is the real test here, and she'll kill us both if we don't let her suffer through the traditional meet-the-parents thing."

Howard could make out the details of his own table through Tony's image. His heart sank.

"Ms Potts is currently in her office, where she is engaged in a particularly sensitive negotiation with the regulatory board in Japan. And while I suspect she might well agree that the opportunity to converse with your father outranks even that, considering the distance and traffic, she would not be able to get here in time."

Tony's face fell. "In time."

"The projection has been degrading steadily since its appearance."

"What? No!" For all that Tony had implied disinterest in continuing their conversation only a short while earlier, that was panic in his eyes now, and grief. "No, okay, I'll take of one of the suits and pick her up."

"Sir —"

"I'll send a suit, we can home it on the, on the —"

"Sir."

Tony flinched. "How long?"

"Approximately two minutes, sir."

"But that's — no. Absolutely not. Where the hell did that Pet Rock go, I'll find a way to run some more power through it, more power always helps —"

"The artifact disappeared when you released it," Jarvis reported. Howard was, perhaps cravenly, relieved not to be the one to have to reveal that.

Tony froze for a moment and then scowled. "When, exactly, did the degradation actually start?"

Jarvis hesitated. "The interval —"

"Don't bother," Tony snapped. For a moment the look on his face was heartbreakingly familiar from Howard's own mirror. Glancing back to Howard, he asked, "You have one too, right? What about yours?"

Howard opened his fingers briefly to show the rock he still held.

Tony studied it for a moment and then looked back up at Howard, all posturing and artifice stripped away. "Don't let go," he said.

Howard closed his fingers carefully over the rock. "I won't, son." He said nothing about the worrying way the rock had grown a good deal warmer just in those few seconds.

Tony pulled back, pasting on a manic expression. "Okay, so, two minutes, less than, what do we cover? When we can't even say anything significant. Do you have any idea how many things I want to say to you? Or ask, too, there's asking, and I can't, I can't —" He stopped himself with evident effort. "Pepper. You should meet her, even if she can't meet you. Jarvis, show him the lady, okay?"

The newest image was a little difficult to make out, faded enough to have trouble competing with the ambient light in Howard's version of the room. The woman in the picture wore sleek but clearly professional attire, the future style not half as unusual as he might have expected, and her strawberry blonde hair was pulled back into a sleek bun. A second picture joined the first, this time with the woman smiling in a way that brought life to her features. A few more pictures, then several, then dozens, some of them moving.

The woman throwing her head back in laughter; holding a drinking glass with two fingers and an utterly revolted expression; straightening Tony's tie as both stood in formal wear; embracing an utterly filthy and battered-looking Tony, heedless of her otherwise immaculate business suit; chairing a meeting with military officials whose chests bristled with decorations; posing in swimwear; outscoring Tony in some kind of game, to judge from her victorious look and Tony's pout; kissing Tony tenderly on the forehead; on and on, endless displays of what to all appearances was a vivacious and formidable woman.

Some of the images had the look of professional publications, but they were carefully cropped to remove them from their contexts. It was just as well; Howard was a swift reader, and he wouldn't have been able to resist the temptation.

Tony's eyes flicked from image to image to image. "You'd probably call her a firecracker," he said quietly. "You'd — you'd like her."

Tony had suggested playing the field earlier, but by his expression now, those days were past. What he had with this woman was serious and cherished. Tony was, in a word, smitten.

Howard didn't have words for the joy that thought gave him. "I do believe I would," he managed.

Tony's answering smile was pleased, but it quickly faded. "And now we're losing sound," he said, clearly having to project in order to produce a normal conversational volume. He scowled. "It's obviously a power issue. I should be able to fix this, power is what I do, seriously, ask anyone, but I can't, there's nothing for me to —"

"Tony," Howard said firmly. "It's fine. This much was a gift." The degradation was plain now, Tony and all his marvelous devices fading even as Howard watched. The discomfort in Howard's hand had reached actual pain, but still he held on.

"Okay, so I'm ungrateful, but I actually do want more! There's so much, so much —" Tony took what looked like a deep breath. "Okay. Probably last words, make them good. Thank you for helping save my life, that was pretty cool of you, and don't forget to do the thing so that actually happens! And/or happened!"

The boy could blather at what now sounded like the top of his lungs. Amazing. "I will!" Howard called back. "And Tony, what you're doing, what you've done — I'm so proud of you."

By what he could make out of Tony's faint expression, he had finally, finally done exactly the right thing as a father.

Tony grew even harder to see as a new light started shining. Following Tony's apparent gaze, Howard looked down at his own hand. The rock was now glowing so brightly that the bones of his hand were starting to show. He had to fight down the instinct to drop the burning object.

Tony started to raise his hand as if to wave, but then he dropped it again and instead shouted, "Oh, screw careful — Dad! Don't drive on De—"

And with a last blinding flash, he was gone.

Howard waited several seconds to be sure before opening his hand with difficulty. The heat had dispersed as quickly as it had grown and the rock was now very nearly cool to the touch of his other hand. His palm and fingers were burned, but no more than first-degree; he'd gotten worse just tinkering in his workshop.

Reassured that he wasn't likely to lose the use of that hand, he placed the rock carefully back into place. He would have to make sure it stayed there for Tony to find thirty or forty years from now.

And then he stumbled over to the bar and downed a series of very stiff drinks.

Because his son, his son, was going to turn out so well, despite Howard's influence. Tony would be a great man, doing so much to help the world, but he would also be a good man. Tony had tried to put concerns for the rest of the world over his own desires, taking care not to try to change his past, which was noble enough ... but in the end he hadn't been callous enough to stop himself from trying to prevent Howard's eventual death.

Howard had no question that was what Tony had tried to do with his very last words. There had been far too many signs that Howard was no longer alive in the future he had seen, and despite the potential stakes, Tony clearly had too much of Maria's heart to be able to know when Howard would die and not try to do something to prevent it.

The attempted warning would change nothing. Tony had been right about the questionable nature of stable time loops. The message Howard would leave was already part of Tony's past, but so was Howard's particular death, and to alter that would presumably prevent the loop from existing in the first place. And Howard could hardly spend the rest of his life refusing to travel by car along Delancey Street, or in the month of December, or through any part of Detroit, or any other interpretation he could construct. Even if he did, he knew enough about self-fulfilling prophecies to expect that he then might spend thirty years as a laughable eccentric, only to somehow meet his end as a result of selecting his 1-wood in a golf game with Dean Martin. The Fates could be vicious in their humor.

Still, it touched him deeply that Tony had tried. Tony was Howard's aptitude with Maria's heart and drive. She had promised Howard that that combination could change the world, could save the world, and by God, she was right.

Howard started yet another drink with a shaking hand. Tony would make things right. Howard's own efforts here might not bear fruit nearly as quickly as he might have hoped, for Maria's sake if not his own, but Tony would pick up the ball and run it in. Atomic weapons would not be Howard's only lasting legacy — might not even be his primary legacy, to judge from the brief glimpse he'd been granted of the future. He might yet go to Hell for the worst of what he had given the world so far, but he had also helped to give them Tony.

Tony, who would grow into a man who would make clean energy a reality. Who would create impossible tools to make complex work simple. Who would refine life-saving medical devices of presumably astonishing power. Who would design and implement an artificial intelligence so sophisticated it could have hunches and drop hints.

He would have to make a few additions to the model and to his speech. Tony had "puzzled out" the structure, so Howard must not have made it entirely obvious, however much he wanted to add great, glowing arrows or have a lawyer send his original notes straight to Tony after holding them for thirty years or so. An extra label or two and some pointed words on film should do the trick.

He called Joey back to run the camera and then started riffing on his speech, knowing these first attempts would be unusable. He needed to play with the words a while, and anyway he had skipped past the light intoxication that made him so very charming at parties, right past that to drunken foolishness. Which was fine, because he hadn't gone far enough to hit morose yet, and if he was going to show his ass — yes, fantastic idea, and he did just that — he might as well get it out of his system now, to a camera that didn't have an opinion on the matter.

He switched to water at that point, though, because he would need a version of the speech that could actually be shown in public, or at least enough coherent fragments they could splice together into a whole, and he wanted a clear head when it came time to film a message for the adult Tony to find.

As he tried and discarded various approaches, concentrating on what could be done by great men and by good men, he found himself thinking of Steve Rogers.

Howard hadn't understood Erskine's selection, thinking a younger man or even a teen would be better able to endure the process. "Yes, and be not so jaded as we old men are," Erskine had said, and Howard had been diverted for a moment, flattered to be treated with serious regard despite his own relative youth. "But no, we need a man of good character, of known character, not a boy whose character is still being shaped."

Howard had accepted the explanation; his department was what graphs and dials could tell him, and he left the philosophy to others. But even he had eventually seen just how differently Rogers and Schmidt reacted to the treatment, how different the natures they expressed were.

The same lesson applied now. He had been right to stay away from his young son. He wouldn't have been much use anyway, because the boy was still learning fundamentals, while Howard sometimes had trouble working even with degreed engineers who didn't yet know enough to keep up with him. He knew he was no teacher, and he wouldn't have known where to begin. The weight of his expectations would crush Tony, smother his potential.

But he and Maria would send the boy to good schools that did know where to begin, how to give a young man the grounding he would need to excel in sciences while ensuring he developed good character. Maria, even as busy as she was, would ensure his home needs were met. Then, once he had grown, once he was settled enough to resist any negative influence Howard might exert, Howard and Tony would work together for however long Howard had left. He apparently didn't have another thirty-five years or so, but that should still leave them plenty of time for Howard to pass along the work that Tony would then use to better the world.

Rogers had been, what, twenty-two at the time, when Erskine judged him to be sturdy enough of character. In terms of the company, Tony would reach his majority on his twenty-first birthday. Surely that would be close enough for Maria's son. He would know his own mind by then, and with his quick wits, he would be able to meet Howard on equal ground. Howard would finally have a true peer again.

Or he might even be the one working to keep up, since Tony had indicated he had progressed the arc reactor to some degree even before developing the new element. The idea was unexpectedly appealing.

He dismissed his assistant again, telling him to leave the camera rolling. He knew his levels of intoxication well, and his head was clearing as he expected, but to his surprise he found himself turning sentimental. For the first time in far too long he had real hope for the future, and a pride he couldn't begin to express.

And, he realized, he was ready to leave a message for his adult son. He knew what he wanted to say.

Howard looked straight into the camera and addressed the man his son would one day be.

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