Steve only remembers the cold. Frozen down to his bones, he feels like even in the light of the winter sun, his frost is impermeable, a coating of armor meant to keep the outside world from him. Or him from the outside world. For years, decades he travels on the clever north wind, moving with the snows, retreating to the poles. It wasn’t always this way. A part of him knows this as surely as it knows that winter is in his heart and soul, a constant and frigid mistress.
The people don’t see him, but they feel him in the air. They shiver as he passes, draw their scarves and coats and cloaks closer. His breath flowers apples on their cheeks, cherries on their noses. His fingers sketch intricate stars, branches, flowers, fantastical fractals on windows and in the air. Being of the winter is not all bad. His chill also brings beauty.
But it is crushingly lonely. Only the smallest of children seem to see him, catching flashes from the corners of their eyes. They turn to their parents and say, “Who was that man? He looked so cold.” But the adults only shuffle and shiver and tell their children to “Hurry along or you’ll catch cold.” And though they don’t really see him, the older children play with him.
They revel in his snowflakes, throw themselves into miles of white powder, shrieking with laughter and joy, squealing as slivers of cold melt into their clothes in slow trickling rivulets. Steve loves their laughter, would do anything to protect these children and their joy.
In and out through the years, he moves on unchanging, watching as those he played with grow up and away, cease their laughter and withdraw from the joys of winter. It breaks his heart every time.
Until one year, there’s Tony. Small and fierce and sharp as an ice shard, the little boy stumbles breathlessly out into the first snowfall. He’s only wearing a sweater and he’s barefoot, but he runs unashamedly into his garden and for the first time in Steve’s memory, something changes. There’s something in his chest, like a soft and gentle trickle of water. It’s almost uncomfortable, and the winter whispers to him, “Warmth.” A tiny ray of sunshine has slipped past his frosty shield. Something about Tony’s laughter catches hold of him, stills him entirely. He watches as the child runs through the thin layer of snow until an older man steps out into the evening dusk. “Master Tony, at least put on some boots. I’d hate for you to catch pneumonia.
A shiver of fear runs through Steve. Not this boy. Never this boy. So he withdraws his icy breath and instead traces a trail of ferns across the windowpane. The boy watches in fascination and Steve knows the moment he’s been seen. Tony stops, body still as the snow around him, and his eyes widen. He glances toward the older man, who waits impatiently in the safety of the door; his eyes skip back. “I’ll be back later,” he says quietly. “Promise.” And then he disappears inside. From the safety of the trees, Steve watches as his small fingers trace the frosty furls of ice.
The wind tugs at Steve that night, but he resists, remains steadfastly in the white pine just outside the mansion, gazing up at the moon and listening to the voice of winter. She gives her soft approval, clear and clarion as her crystal ice. “Learn,” she urges him. “You must understand.”
“Understand what?” Steve asks the empty night, but winter does not reply. She has moved on, spreading her white blanket over other towns and cities. He turns his attention elsewhere, watching the lights of humanity flicker on and off. He’s always liked this city and its bustle, watching it grow and evolve through the years. There is no time for winter here, and the residents pause for no one, even him and his icy chill. He likes this city even though his snow is wasted on the roads, soon turned and black and filthy before slipping away altogether.
But this mansion and its sprawling garden are a separate world, sequestered by a thick brick and metal fence, rows of privacy bushes, and an impenetrable air of wealth. There are no cars or pedestrians to dirty the snow, and the drifts are so pristine they’d be better suited to a lonely, silent mountain.
Steve drifts, his thoughts with the wind. He doesn’t, can’t sleep, but he can spend days lost in his creations, crafting his crystals with loving, icy fingers. Before he knows it, morning comes and Tony bursts out the door.
“Snow day, snow day!” he sings, and flops into a drift, powder spraying around him. He looks up into the tree and his eyes catch on Steve. “You want to come and play?” he says after a moment, sitting up, white in his clothes and hair. His eyes are so large and hopeful and Steve can’t help himself. He flies down to the boy, landing lightly on the snowdrift. Tony eyes him up and down, from the tips of his bare toes to the top of his frosty blonde head. “Jarvis says you’ll catch cold if you don’t wear boots,” the boy explains solemnly.
“I can’t catch cold,” Steve says, softly and a little sadly. “I’m already…” he doesn’t know how to explain what he is, has never had to explain it before. Tony frowns, tilting his head to the side and considering, and then he extends a hand imperiously, clearly expecting Steve to help him up.
Unthinkingly, he reaches down and grasps Tony’s fingers, but then he has to let go immediately at the sharp gasp of pain. “You’re freezing!” the boy exclaims, and Steve can see the coat of frost on his little black gloves, white flowers curling down to his knuckles.
“I’m sorry!” he says, and already he’s turning to catch the wind, let it take him far away where he won’t hurt this boy again, but Tony shouts, “Wait!” Something in his voice calls to Steve, that tiny trickle of sunshine he’d felt yesterday just as insistent and yearning.
“Please,” says Tony, stumbling up and over the snow. “Please don’t go.”
Steve hesitates before floating back to the ground, settling a fair distance from Tony. They stare at each other, and Steve is caught in those huge brown eyes, the curling warmth of something he knows but can’t remember. After a moment, Tony brushes himself off, blowing on his gloves until the frost melts into tiny beads of water. “What’s your name?” he says, cheeks pink with cold and voice full of determination.
“Tell him,” winter whispers, her gentle fingers on his neck and back.
For the first time, Steve doesn’t move on with the wind. He stays with Tony, passing the days in a haze of winter sun and chill blizzards, the laughter of a little child. “Truly remarkable,” he hears Jarvis remark as the boy is bundled off to school. “I can’t remember a winter when we had so much snow.”
Tony is a joy to be around. He sees Steve’s creations with a different set of eyes. Where Steve sees art, nature brought to life with crystal and water, Tony sees mathematics and engineering, science at the purest levels. “There’s six sides, see?” he says, holding up a huge flake on the tip of one finger. Steve dutifully leans forward and observes, breath spreading a coat of frost on Tony’s glove. “It’s the mole…molecool.” The boy pauses and frowns. “No. That’s not right. Molecoal. Mole…Molecule!” For all that he’s seven, he’s already far ahead of boys his age, though his tongue struggles to keep up with his brain.
“Can you make more?” he asks, looking up with huge eyes full of hope. “I want to see all the variations.”
“So you want different shapes?”
“Yeah! All the shapes you can make.”
Steve complies without hesitation and barely feels any guilt at all when the two feet of heavy snow brings another school cancellation the next morning. He has never before known what it is to speak to someone, to have his own existence acknowledged. Only winter has been at his side all these years, and she barely speaks at all. Now that he has Tony, he wants to cling to this friendship as best he can. Because he knows it won’t last.
Tony is a creator like Steve, though what he strives for is not necessarily beauty or art. He spends long afternoons in the yard, gathering snow to him and building amazing things. Where other boys are rolling out snowmen and throwing snowballs, Tony is crafting snow robots and sketching algorithms in the fresh powder.
Steve has never been good at keeping track of time, but as the days warm and the snows begin to melt, he becomes aware that he cannot stay. The pull of the north wind is getting stronger and stronger and soon he won’t be able to resist. At last, winter tells him, “It is time.”
He looks down on the yard, at the last hillocks of dirty melting snow, and descends to where Tony is sitting on a stoop, drawing out mathematical equations and circuit boards.
“Tony,” he says gently, and the boy looks up.
“Are you gonna make it snow again?”
“I can’t, Tony. Winter’s passed. I…I have to go.”
The boy frowns, not quite comprehending. “Why? Will you melt like Frosty?”
Steve wants to ask who Frosty is, listen to Tony babble until Jarvis calls him in for supper, but the pull is nearly irresistible. “No. I won’t melt. But I don’t belong to the spring. I belong to the winter. I have to go where she goes.”
Tony’s expression breaks and tears well up in his eyes. “But who will I play with?”
It only occurs to Steve now that he’s never seen Tony playing with other boys his age. He’s never seen Tony speaking to any children at all. Of course the boy goes to school, but he always comes straight back again, accompanied by Jarvis. “I’ll be back,” he says, kneeling and coming as close as he dares. Chill wind ruffles Tony’s bangs and the boy sniffs, though he doesn’t cry. “Just wait until next winter. I’ll be here with the first snowfall. You’ll see.”
“But that’s so long.”
“Well, in the meantime, you’ll have to work on your robot,” Steve says, and taps the notebook, flinches as frost obscures the writing for a moment. “You have to show it to me when I get back.”
“Ok,” says Tony, with another sniffle. “Bye Steve. I’ll see you next winter.”
With those words, the last of his will is spent and he’s pulled away, flying through the air to higher latitudes, over long barren landscapes where there are no boys to speak to and no equations to marvel at.
Steve thinks maybe things will be different now that he’s talked to a boy. He thinks maybe there will be others to share his crystals and fractals with. But in other cities and towns of the world, winter passes unchanging. Only the smallest of children see him, and only for a moment or two. No one speaks to him. No one calls his name. Most just shiver and turn away, leaving him standing apart and alone. And it’s worse now, this crushing loneliness, because he knows what he’s missing.
Until this point, Steve’s never kept careful track of the time, but now he is aware of how the seasons change, how the earth shifts and moves as winter draws near and ebbs across the world. He knows it’s coming closer to the time when he’ll see Tony again, and he yearns toward that shining city with all its hustle and bustle. At last, he brings the first gentle flakes to the rivers, the parks, the buildings, and the north wind gently deposits him where he most wants to be.
The building stands before him, intimidating and rich as ever. He blows a coating of frost across the windows and waits. And waits and waits. It is from behind him that Steve finally hears a shout.
“Snow!” cries Tony tearing down the sidewalk, and he’s grown bigger, though he’s still slight. “Steve!” he gasps, as he stumbles into his garden, and behind him, Jarvis frowns.
“I thought Steve went away,” the older man says, not unkindly.
“But he’s back!” Tony exclaims, his eyes alight with excitement. “It’s winter, so he’s back!”
Jarvis smiles after a moment and ruffles Tony’s hair. “Be sure to be in for dinner on time. Until then, say hi to Steve for me.”
“He’s right there,” Tony says with a huff. “He can hear you just fine.”
“Well, then. Hello, Steve. We’re glad you’re back. Perhaps a little less snow this year, please.”
The older man disappears and Steve smiles down at Tony. “Your dad seems like a nice person.”
At this, Tony’s expression sours and saddens. “Jarvis isn’t my dad. He’s my butler.”
“But I thought…”
“Dad doesn’t like playing. He’s busy.” They both stand awkwardly a moment, but then Tony unfreezes. “But that’s ok. You’re here now. Can you make some frost? I want to show you something.”
Steve smiles and breathes a coat of frost over the garden, because at last he has someone to talk to again.
For four years, Steve spends every winter with Tony, clinging until the north wind tears him away, blowing in again with the first flakes of the next season. He learns about the world from Tony. He learns about New York, about science, about mathematics, about television and change. It all seems so familiar and yet so alien at the same time, like a dream Steve once had. But he doesn’t dream, so that can’t be right.
The fifth winter, though, that’s when everything changes. Steve meets Howard Stark for the first time, walking alongside his son and wife. They’re all dressed in formalwear, marching through the gates when the first snow of the season begins, and Steve is already in the garden waiting.
“Steve,” Tony breathes, and then flinches back as his father turns on him.
“How many times have I told you, you’re too old for imaginary friends. If I hear one more word about ‘Steve’ in this house, I’ll ship you off to Florida.” The father marches away from his frozen son and into the warm light of the mansion, but Tony’s mother remains a bit longer.
“Honey, I know you like Steve, but he makes your father angry. Maybe it’s time to let it go?”
“I’m not a kid, Mom,” Tony says, resentment and anger and hurt in his voice. He’s still looking at Steve, but his young face is pinched, as though he doesn’t know quite what to do. “I know you think it’s dumb, but I don’t…I haven’t…”
Tony’s mother frowns, her beautiful lips pursing. “Maybe you would be happier at boarding school, sweetie. You wouldn’t have to…There’d be other boys your age. To play with. You could make friends.”
“The other boys don’t talk to me,” says Tony, eyes now on his mother, shoulders slumped and head bowed. “They don’t like me.”
“That’s the thing about a new school, honey. No one knows you. You could start fresh.”
“But I like New York,” Tony says, eyes flickering to Steve again.
“Well, think about it,” his mother says, and stands again. She urges her son inside, shivering as she passes Steve. Tony gives one last longing look over his shoulder before the door closes.
Steve is left stunned, feeling like maybe he’s caused more trouble than he ever intended. Around him, the snowfall thickens, huge fat flakes that deaden the night sounds, even of the busy street directly behind him. Winter whispers soothingly to him, her words incoherent and tone consolatory, because she knows just as well as Steve does. Soon, he will lose the only friend he’s ever had.
The next morning, Tony emerges not in his snow gear, but in a sharp uniform, dark colors and hard lines. “I can’t play, Steve,” the boy whispers as he passes. “I have school.” He sounds so defeated that Steve follows him until he slides into a car, and even then, Steve trails the car, watching from a distance as Tony files into a brick building alongside other boys and girls, dressed in equally somber uniforms. This…won’t do. He can’t let these children waste away in this place.
Steve calls down the snow, hard and fierce, asks the winds to howl until he hears a cheer erupt from the courtyard. Children burst from the doors, smiles on their faces as they disappear into the whirling white. Tony emerges alone, but even he is sporting a little grin. He looks up and around, catches sight of Steve, and gives a little thumbs up. Steve can’t resist anymore and swoops down, kicking up flurries and drifts in his wake.
“Do you like it?” he asks, gesturing at the Nor’easter with a wide smile. But Tony only shakes his head and turns away, slipping into the black car that’s already waiting for him. Steve feels it then, the crawling fingers of fear and hurt. No. No no no. He’s not ready for this.
Feeling defeated, he trails the car back to Tony’s home, but the boy slips inside without ever touching the pristine drifts in the garden, and he doesn’t emerge again. Steve sinks into the white pine, gazing towards Tony’s room, but the curtains are drawn and the lights are low.
The next day, school is canceled, even the private academies, and Steve waits hopefully, but Tony never emerges. And so it goes. Day in and day out, Tony travels to school and back, somber black uniform and shadowed eyes. There’s something there. Something growing and festering, dark as the heart of a storm. Every once and a while, the boy will glance up and around until his eyes catch on Steve’s. In those moments, and those alone, his expression lifts and he smiles just a little. It’s the only reason Steve stays.
It’s not until late March, nearly at the end of Steve’s time in New York, that the boy finally emerges alone and bundled in winter clothes. He sits on the stoop and gathers a handful of snow. “Steve?” he says, voice low and sad.
Steve comes down from the tree, feeling equally hurt and hopeful. He dances over the snow banks for a moment before coming to a stop on the steps, settling near Tony, but not too near.
“Dad says you’re not real,” the boy says, contemplating the snow in his palm. “He says you’re the construct of a stupid little boy and that I shouldn’t be talking to you.”
Steve doesn’t know what to say to that, so instead he reaches out and coats the railing of the stairs in frost. Tony watches from the corner of his eye, and his mouth twists in a sour expression. “But then you do things like that. You make things I can touch. And I can…” he looks down at his hand and Steve knows he’s remembering that first day, the sting of Steve’s icy skin.
“I can touch you,” Tony says, and before Steve can react, he’s reached out and placed a single solitary finger on the back of Steve’s hand. Frost creeps up Tony’s flesh, but he’s not the only one affected. Something buckles and shivers inside Steve, heaves and cracks. Warmth trickles through his heart, first a stream, then a river, and then Tony’s pulling back. His entire hand is coated in ice and he’s shaking violently.
“What are you?” the boy whispers, voice agonized. “I know you’re real. I know it. Why doesn’t anyone else see you? Why do you have to go?” Tony’s voice breaks and cracks, and Steve can see tears in his eyes. He doesn’t know what to say, how to make this right. Before he can speak though, Tony stands, abrupt and angry.
“Fuck them,” he spits and then bounds down the stairs. He runs through the yard until he comes to a snowdrift, more or less pristine because it rests in the shadow of one of the high walls. He throws himself into the wet heavy snow, flops his arms back and forth until he’s made a snow angel, and then sits up, runs shaking fingers through his wet hair.
Steve stands to the side, caught between heartache and laughter. But after a moment he spins his hands and blows a fresh wave of powder over Tony’s body. The boy turns to gaze at him, tilts his head and frowns. “Say something. You haven’t said anything.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Steve says honestly. “I was afraid…”
“Afraid of what,” Tony pushes, when the silence becomes unbearable.
“I was afraid you’d stopped seeing me. Stopped hearing me. That’s what always happens.”
Tony’s frown deepens. “People stop seeing you?”
“Some little kids can see me, but then they grow up. They forget.”
Sharp lips set in a stubborn line. “I couldn’t forget you. I couldn’t. You’re…you’re my friend. My only friend.”
Steve smiles at that, though he’s also terribly saddened by it. “Spring is coming,” he says after a moment, because he doesn’t know how to say everything he wants to say.
“I know. And then you have to go.”
“How much longer?”
“A week, maybe.”
Tony frowns, but then he smiles, and that dark horrid thing festering in his heart seems to melt away for a moment. “Then we’d best make the most of it.” He balls up snow in his hand and hurls it at Steve, cackling as the snow splatters all over Steve’s face. They have a grand snowball fight, and Tony finishes soaked to the bone before Jarvis calls him in.
Steve is wrong. Spring pushes him out the next day.
The next winter, Steve is almost afraid to go to the house in New York, but he couldn’t keep away if he tried. For days, he lurks in the garden, watching Tony’s parents come and go, but he never sees Tony. He doesn’t even see Jarvis. There’s a different butler, a younger man who bustles like a bee.
“Where is he?” Steve whispers to the winter, but she doesn’t respond.
At last, four days before Christmas, the boy, who’s no longer quite a boy, appears at the gates. Steve’s heart stops as the new butler ushers him into the garden. There’s a fresh swagger in Tony’s steps and something sharp and hard in his eyes and mouth, but Steve sees the way he scans the yard, sees the way his eyes pause on the white pine.
Late that night, Tony emerges from the side door, the staff door and comes to stand under the tree. He looks up but doesn’t speak a word, so Steve comes down, unsure.
Tony’s eyes track him with that same diamond-hard something, but at last he opens his mouth. “Where were you?”
“I was here,” Steve says. “I couldn’t find you.”
“They sent me to boarding school in Massachusetts. Jarvis, he…” Tony’s mouth hardens and he looks away. “Jarvis died. There was no one to take care of me and fuck if Dad’s gonna do it, so they sent me away. Bastards.” Beneath the resentment and anger, there’s something that makes Steve ache.
“Where’s Massachusetts?” Steve asks. If Tony’s not in New York, then Steve will go where he is.
The boy looks up and something seems to burst from him. “Why should I tell you? You’re never here when I need you. What’s the point? You’ll just show up and then fuck off come April. Why don’t you just leave me the fuck alone?” He shouts the last part and a light in the mansion comes on, bright over the evening gloom.
Steve can feel the ice in his bones, can feel winter in his heart and lungs and mind. Snow flows from his mouth and eyes and he wonders if this is what it is to cry. “Ok,” he says after a moment. “I’ll leave you alone.”
The wind lifts him, gentle and icy, and Tony’s eyes widen. Even as Steve floats away, higher and higher, he hears it. “Wait!” But it’s too late. The upper streams have him now, and they tug him along until he’s far out over the ocean. Unthinking, he drops into the water, into the blackness of the world. A whale flies past him, mammoth but not unkind. She stops and circles, sings soft notes at him that rouse him from his painful stupor. Something about this is all so familiar. So very familiar.
Winter comes to him then, tugs him along, takes him through the highest reaches of the atmosphere until they’ve circled back. Weeks have passed since the Christmas season, but she does not bring him to New York. Instead she deposits him on the pristine grounds of a massive marble building. Under the weak winter sunlight, Tony sketches equations into the snow.
Steve stands there a very long time, simply watching, until the boy looks up. His jaw drops, eyes widening. He looks very carefully left and then right and then flings himself into the knee-deep drifts.
Before Steve really knows what’s happening, there are arms around him, Tony’s face against his chest. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Frost crawls over the boy’s arms, shoulders and face, but Steve can’t see it. Before his eyes there is water and light, a voice calling his name. He can hear cracking, loud as the ending of the world. The ice is in his bones is breaking apart, melting away.
And then Tony’s pulled back. Frost rimes his eyes, nose, and mouth and his gloves crackle as he flexes his fingers. He’s shaking uncontrollably and Steve feels a bolt of fear. “Go inside,” he urges. “You’ve got to stop touching me. It won’t…I’ll kill you without even meaning to.”
Tony nods but can’t speak around his chattering teeth. He turns and makes his way back through the snow, disappears into the massive building. But from the window, Steve can see his face, watching hungrily late into the night.
Tony is very careful with Steve at his boarding school. After that first instance, he never speaks to Steve in daylight, barely looks at him. But he looks enough that Steve knows he is not forgotten. And at night, he sneaks from his dorm down onto the grounds and talks at a million miles an hour. He brings down robots and circuit boards and computers, and it’s almost like when Tony was a little boy all over again. But something has changed somehow.
Steve can see it from the corner of his eye. There’s a new glint of determination there, something to prove.
Winter in Massachusetts is just a touch longer than winter in New York. Steve clings until April, but he knows it’s his last night when flowers burst through the snow, garishly purple against the dingy white.
“It’s the last night,” he tells Tony, as they gaze up at the distant stars.
“I’ll come here straightaway next year. I won’t go to New York.”
“I’ll be waiting.” Steve breathes a sigh, watches as frost flows from his mouth onto the grass. “But you have to promise me something.”
“Even…even if I don’t talk to you, don’t see you…promise you’ll stay. Don’t leave me alone.”
Steve’s heart stops, and he turns to look at Tony, confused and hurt.
“There are days…days when you look, I don’t know. Transparent, I guess. Like you’re fading away. I’m worried I’m losing you. I…” He dips his hand into his pocket and pulls out a black notebook. “I wrote it all down. Everything about you. Everything you can do. I don’t want to forget. I won’t forget. But just in case, promise me.”
Steve speaks through numb lips. “I promise, Tony.”
He dreads December, is horrified when early snow brings him to Massachusetts in mid-November. And his fears are justified when Tony sees him but does not see him. Wide brown eyes pass over him like water over glass, and Steve sinks unthinkingly to his knees. This is it. He is alone again.
But his promise binds him. Much as he wants to slip onto the clever north wind and disappear into the night, he promised Tony he would stay. So he shadows this boy-cum-man day in and day out, watches and aches that he cannot ease the loneliness he sees. Tony has not made friends as his mother had hoped he might. He never speaks to any of the boys at all, save to make trouble. He tinkers with robots in the library and cuts class nearly every day, smokes cigarettes alone under the bleachers in the lacrosse field.
When Christmas break comes, Tony marches to the front gate, turns to look back at the school, and lifts both middle fingers. “So long mother-fuckers,” he cries out, and then makes his way to a waiting car. A teacher frowns at him, but doesn’t speak.
Steve hooks himself to the car wearily, makes his way to New York, and remains ever a shadow in Tony’s wake. Tony’s mother greets him at the door, worry clouding her elegant face.
“Welcome home sweetheart. Congratulations on your graduation.”
“Mom,” Tony says, and for the first time this year, Steve hears a touch of warmth in the young man’s voice. “Merry Christmas.”
They duck into the house together, and just for a moment, Tony looks back into the snowy night. His eyes glance over Steve, and his mouth opens, hand hovering on the edge of the door. Then he walks in without ever saying a word.
Tony’s new home is not a private school. Instead, it is in the heart of Boston, a place where for the first time ever, Steve sees the boy talk with people who are his equals in knowledge, but who still look down on him for his age and his position. And if anything, that makes Tony even more determined to prove himself to the world. Steve catches him up at all hours all over the grounds, like a wild creature in the woods.
This young man, who once had such wide-eyed wonder, now wanders MIT campus simultaneously jaded and high on the most freedom he’s ever enjoyed in life. Steve catches him smoking joints, drinking alcohol with wild abandon, kissing men and women alike in the shadows of big brick buildings.
He wants to scream at Tony, to make him see. “There is still one soul here who cares for your well-being,” he wants to say. “There’s still someone who wants to see you happy.”
On those terrifying nights when Tony is so drunk or high Steve fears he won’t make it back to his bed, he begins talking to him, coaxing him, urging him. “Come on, Tony. One more step. Ok. Good. Now another. You can do this. Your dorm is just twenty feet away.”
And sometimes, eyes glassy with alcohol or worse, Steve could swear Tony hears him. More than once, he turns, gait unsteady and cheeks feverish as he scans the night. “Hello?” he says, tongue clumsy, but then he shrugs and turns back, miraculously makes his way to a brownstone so that he can do it all again the next night.
Some nights, Steve hates Tony, hates the promise he made. If it weren’t for that promise, Steve wouldn’t have to watch helplessly, heart aching and mind racing as Tony falls apart.
He’s so grateful when a man appears in Tony’s life, a few years older and most certainly a few years wiser, skin black as night and eyes kind as the morning sun. He handles Tony’s antics with aplomb, and after that Steve never sees the boy make his way home alone in the cold of winter.
Steve loses track of time again, isn’t surprised when spring whisks him away without so much as a by-your-leave. He’s even less surprised when come the next year he’s dumped back on MIT’s campus, winter whispering disapproval in his ear. “You haven’t learned yet. Learn,” she urges.
It’s not hard to find Tony, side-by-side with his friend, James, both of them slightly tipsy with alcohol. “But seriously, Rhodey, I really…I really believed in him. Maybe I saw his picture or something when I was little and I just…Dad used to talk about him when he was drunk sometimes. Fuck, I was such an idiot.”
“You sure it wasn’t just a crush?”
“Go fuck yourself, Rhodes.”
Steve feels like he’s just heard something important. It hovers at the back of his mind, like an insistent itch, but he has no idea how to scratch it.
“But if that’s the case, why did you call him Steve?”
Chill works over his bones. Does Tony remember? Can he…?
“Hell if I know. Dad always calls him the Captain. Maybe I just knew subconsciously. Maybe I saw the name somewhere.”
“I told you my name,” Steve whispers, and Tony shivers, head whipping up and around. For a moment, Steve thinks there might be recognition there, familiarity. But instead Tony shivers again and says, “Come on. Marissa’s having a party and she always has the best shit.”
“No drugs, Tony. You promised.”
They’re disappearing around a corner, but Steve can’t bring himself to follow. Somehow his legs have stopped working.
The following year, Steve resists winter when she tries to place him in Boston. He goes north and south, drifts the jet stream and wallows over the Pacific and Atlantic. She is angry with him and his resistance, so angry she speaks clearly and sharply. “You need him,” she insists. “He can teach you. He can show you.”
“Show me what?” Steve demands, anger brimming so that snow and ice whip around him, lash at the water and drive the waves higher and higher. “Show me that I’ll always be forgotten? That I’ll always be alone? That no one will ever talk to me again? No. I’ve had enough!”
She tries to sooth him, runs her icy fingers up and down his back, but it only reinforces what he already knows. Winter is in his heart, in his very core, and no matter what he does, that will not change.
So he drifts on the wind, shuts out the world, studies the distant stars and the shining auroras. Sometimes he visits the whales because they always sing for him, sweet and sad and just as lonely. He never goes to cities or towns at all. What would be the point? It will only remind him of what he has lost. And he doesn’t want to remember anymore. He is tired of remembering and tired of being lonely.
It is with violence that winter tugs him from his stupor, sending him down on a fierce north wind, so strong he cannot resist her. She deposits him in distant woods, he thinks somewhere in Massachusetts.
“Help him,” she insists, and gives him a shove forward, ice like daggers at his back.
He frowns and looks around and then he sees him. Tony looks older. He’s grown a beard, and once slender lines have filled out a little more, become a little stockier. How long had Steve been drifting, that Tony would change this much?
As he approaches, he sees that the man’s eyes are red-rimmed and glassy. He ‘s hardly dressed for the fierce weather, wearing only slacks and a business jacket. Huddled against a fir tree, he cuts a sad, lonely picture.
“Tony?” Steve asks, but there’s no response.
The man curls in tighter around himself as the wind whips cold and fierce. It’s only as Steve draws closer still that he realizes Tony is talking.
“…and I did everything you ever wanted. I became CEO. I took the company in hand. I started putting out weapons. I could probably get a blowjob from a five-star general every single day if I wanted it, the military loves Stark Industries so much. Why isn’t it enough? Tell me, Dad. Why isn’t it enough?
“And then Obie, the fucker. He just…he just up and does…this. It figures. It figures that you’d all just leave me alone. Well fuck you all! Do you hear me?” Tony’s voice rises to a crescendo. “Fuck you all!”
Something inside Steve breaks a little. He hadn’t kept his promise. He hadn’t stayed by Tony’s side and now the man is…is drunk in the middle of a blizzard, alone and apparently friendless.
“You’re not alone,” Steve says, reaching out until he’s nearly touching Tony. “I’m here. I’m sorry I’m late, but I’m here.”
Tony shudders and shivers, shaking his head. “Fucking Obie. Bastard. I thought…I thought he cared. But no. Just a ‘so long, Tony. Nice knowing you’ and strand me in butt-fuck nowhere.”
Steve can see the worrying blue in Tony’s fingers and lips, the horrifying pallor of his face, and realizes that the man is dying. He’s still shivering, but how much longer will that last?
“How do I help him?” he whispers into the wind, and then shakes his head. The storm at least, he can quiet, and he does so. The snow eases up and the air stills, but it’s still deathly cold and Steve’s presence isn’t helping.
“Why did you leave me?” Tony hiccups, and Steve hates himself for breaking his promise. for leaving Tony to face this alone.
“I didn’t mean to,” he whispers back, wanting to reach out, but terrified to worsen Tony’s condition. “I’m so sorry, Tony.”
At that, the young man looks up, eyes wide and frightened. “Steve?” he whispers, and though he’s looking, he still doesn’t see. Steve is frozen in place, desperate to help. Finally, he speaks again.
“Tony, can you hear me? Please tell me you can hear me?”
Tony’s head jerks again, but his movements are slowing now, and his fingers are coloring ever more sharply toward purple. “Fucking Obie. Fucking alcohol. Now I’m hearing things.”
“No. Tony. Believe. Come on. Remember the notebook? You said you’d remember me. Come on, now. Please. Hear me. Please hear me.”
Tony blinks once, twice, gaze unfocused, but he mumbles “Steve?” again.
“Please, come on. You’re too smart and stubborn to die like this, Tony. You can do it. Get up. Follow my voice. We’re going to get you to safety.”
Steve’s loathe to leave Tony, but he needs a road, so he darts into the woods, follows his instincts until he finds a pavement, feels hope as a car flies past. He can do this. Tony can do this. Together, they’re going to make this work.
He returns to Tony and feels a sharp sliver of fear when he finds the man slumped over on his side, no longer shivering, but still awake. “Come on, Tony. Come on. Get up. We can do this. Tony, you’ve got to get up.”
Tony’s eyes slip open, his gaze unfocused for a moment. “Steve?” he slurs. Then his eyes widen and sharpen. “Steve. Steve, I…Steve.”
“Tony, can you see me? Can you hear me?”
“Steve,” he mumbles again, and one clumsy hand makes to reach for him, but Steve flinches away.
“No, Tony. Remember? I’m cold. The last thing you need right now is more cold.”
“’S ok,” Tony says as his hand drops away. “I’m dying. Might as well just…Enjoy the moment.” His eyes slip closed again. “Missed you,” he mumbles. “Gotta tell you…”
“Tony! Come on, Tony. You can’t stay here. You need to get up. You can’t go dying on me just yet. Come on. Wake up.”
But Tony is insensate, terrifyingly still. “Help him” the winter whispers, urgency in her voice.
“How?!” Steve cries out, and he realizes snowflakes are flowing from his eyes, desperation in his voice. “Help him” she insists again, and then her presence is gone.
Steve shudders, frantic because he has failed Tony. He has failed him when he needed him most and now… Steve shudders once and then makes up his mind. He can do this. He will do this. He reaches down and lifts Tony, cradling the man’s body close. Frost blooms over his clothes and Steve flies, flies as he never has before. Tony’s body is a cold weight in his arms and even as he flits through trees, something is heaving inside of him, shifting and cracking and melting with unbelievable force. Winter is with him, but she is melting melting melting away, and a river is in Steve’s heart now, flowing, raging, warm as a summer’s day. He looks down and sees two things at once. Tony is in his arms, horrifyingly still, covered with a layer of frost and ice. But there is also water all around him, ice above him, light and a voice screaming for him.
They alight on the road just as the final layer of frost melts away from Steve and something in him shifts, changes, yearns. Tony tumbles to the ground, ice cracking off him in thin transparent sheets. Light is all around them bright as the aurora. Steve is being pulled away, pulled quickly, but he sees a car stopping and just before his world goes black, he hears Tony’s voice. “Steve Rogers. You’re…Captain America.”
Steve wakes in a hospital, gasping and freezing, arms reaching out. Tony’s name is on his lips, and he sits up in bed, tearing at his IV. A nurse runs in, frantic as she waves her hands and tries to stop him. “Captain! Captain Rogers! Please, you’re…” The IV is free and Steve is running, though where, he knows not. Tony. He has to find him. What if he…?
A team of men is waiting for him in the lobby, guns trained and arms steady. He pauses, assesses, doesn’t know what to do. “At ease, soldier,” a man calls to him, and he pauses, confused and frantic. “Welcome to the twenty-first century.”
Steve doesn’t tell anyone about his time in winter’s grasp. How could he? They’d call him crazy. Say it was a dream. But the first chance he gets, he uses a computer and looks up Tony Stark. The news tells him everything he needs to know.
Tony Stark, CEO of Stark Industries, was found catatonic on the side of the road just outside of Brockton, Massachusetts. He was rushed to a hospital in Boston, where he is being treated for extreme exposure. Alcohol was in Mr. Stark’s system, but foul play is suspected. His business partner Obadiah Stane is currently being held on suspicions of attempted murder.
Steve waits as long as he thinks is feasible, lets Fury’s doctors poke and prod him. The story is remarkable. Frozen in the Arctic ice shelf until an expedition found him last year and then in a coma until his sudden reawakening. Miraculous that he survived. Astounding that he’s not crazy. He listens to what they have to say, and on one level, he’s angry and sad that so much has been taken from him, but on another level, he needs to see Tony, to see that this one thing remains.
After a week, he quietly slips from the hospital and slips from Fury’s grasp just as quickly and easily. He finds it’s easy, that he knows the ins and outs of the frozen streets like the back of his hand. He quietly borrows a car and drives to Boston, three hours of nerves and hope to accompany him.
The news hadn’t given the name of the hospital Tony’s being held at, but with his family’s money, Tony’s only getting the best. He makes his way to Tufts Medical Center and quietly and expertly infiltrates the private wing. People’s eyes pass over him with barely a ruffle, almost as though he’s still invisible. He checks the patient list and makes his way to 704, Tony’s private suite. It’s late evening, long past visiting hours, and Steve’s not terribly worried about interruptions, though distracting the police officer posted at the door takes a little finagling.
At last, Steve slips in, closing the door silently behind him. Tony is laying on his side, motionless in sleep. He’s pale and his hands and feet are swaddled in bandages, though Steve can count all ten fingers present. There are no IVs or monitors, but Tony looks unwell, as though he hasn’t been sleeping much.
Steve hesitates and then pulls up the visitor’s chair and settles, looking down at Tony’s young, drawn face. “I’m so sorry,” he whispers. “I broke my promise. I should have…I’m so sorry.” He quietly places his face in his hands and resists the urge to cry. What good would it do?
“I’m sorry too.” Steve is startled, hands flying out as though he’ll be able to fly up and away like he could before. Tony’s eyes are barely open, warm and brown and red-rimmed. “I forgot about you. I promised I wouldn’t do that.”
They stare at each other and after a moment, Steve climbs into the bed and lays on his side facing Tony.
“How are you here?” Tony says, words slow and deliberate. “I’ve never seen you indoors before. And your clothes are different. What happened?”
“I woke up,” Steve says simply. “You woke me up.”
Tony frowns, confused and then reaches out one of his bandaged hands. His fingers hover over Steve’s cheek for a long moment before he dares touch. Nothing happens, and after a moment, his hand settles more fully against Steve’s jaw.
“You’re warm,” he whispers wonderingly.
“And you’re alive,” Steve replies. “I’m so glad you’re alive.”
“Well, I may have woken you up, but you saved my life.”
Steve’s eyes slide the length of Tony’s body, cataloging injuries, taking in his unnatural thinness. He looks back up and then wraps an arm around those thin shoulders, pulls Tony into the shadow of his chest until there’s no space between them.
“Warm,” Tony murmurs again, breath skittering across Steve’s neck. Tony leans up, presses dry chill lips to Steve’s for just a moment and then drifts off to sleep.
Steve remains awake, staring through the hospital window at the chill moon and stars. The wind picks up and for just a moment, winter is with him again. She croons her approval wordlessly and slips away into the night. After all, spring is on its way.