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These Three Things Remain

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His mom does what she can, but it's never quite enough. The local store owners are as generous as possible with lines of credit—everyone knows about poor Joe Rogers, dying raw-skinned from mustard gas in a Flanders field; Sarah Rogers has patched up half the kids in the neighbourhood for free—but times are hard all round, and so food and coal grow scarce towards the end of each month. Their sixth-floor walk-up is blisteringly hot in the summer, but in the winter it grows so cold that Steve swears he can feel each individual knuckle creak when he tries to make numbed fingers hold a pencil to sketch with.

Between shifts at the hospital, his mother sleeps, burrowed beneath every blanket they own and Steve's best Sunday coat, the tangle of her ditch-water curls the only part of her visible. She's always tired, her hands reddened from carbolic soap, her legs prematurely riddled with varicose veins, so Steve does what he can, too: today he leaves her to sleep soundly in a quiet apartment, with a plate of bread and butter sitting under a dishcloth in the kitchen, the makings of a cup of tea left waiting beside it.

In the depths of a New York January, the walk down the block from their apartment to the public library is bitterly cold. Steve buries his nose in the folds of his scarf, tucks his hands into his armpits, and still walks shivering into the building, desperately hoping that he won't end up with another bout of chilblains. Last time, they were so bad they'd become infected and he'd been out of school for a week, miserable and sore. It's hard to dwell on that, though, when he's inside the library—as soon as he's through the front doors, Steve's in a place that's as much his home as the apartment is. The sound of the radiators clanking, working fiercely to keep the cold at bay, the murmurs of the library staff, the smell of paper and floor polish, have been familiar to him since he was first old enough to walk here by himself. He has an acknowledged spot at a table by a window on the second floor, an intimate knowledge of the library's holdings; the librarians never fail to smile and ask after his mother when they see him.

Today, it seems, is a day for feeling restless. Steve leaves his coat at his seat, tugs the red-and-gold skein of his scarf closer around his neck, and sets out into the stacks. He ignores familiar friends of his—the weighty heft of Charles and Mary Beard, Herbert Bolton, Frederick Jackson Turner; well-thumbed editions of Ivanhoe and Gulliver's Travels, Black Beauty and Shakespeare; slim volumes of Sassoon and Owen and Remarque—in favour of some new library acquisitions: thick books on the history of art. These are the kinds of books Steve could never afford—his mother doesn't accept all the money he gives her from the weekend odd jobs he does, but even so the novels stacked by his bed at home are selections from the dime store sale rack; have to be, if he ever wants to save up enough for art school tuition. These new library volumes, on the other hand, have hard cloth covers in rich jewel tones, the titles stamped on them in authoritative gold filigree—The Artists and Architects of the French Renaissance, with an Index to their Work; The French Modern Masters: Braque, Matisse, Derain, Picasso; From Botticelli to Da Vinci—and the pages inside are glossy and heavy. Steve runs his fingertips over the plates of photos—even in black-and-white-and-sepia, the colours faded and the contrast over-dark, the worlds they show him are more than enough to entrance. He'd swear that he can feel the soft smudge of chiaroscuro against his skin, can't help but learn with his fingers the linear grace of Venus emerging from the ocean; there are treasures in here that he’s never even known to dream of.

Steve loses hours to looking at these pictures, knows that the chances of him ever seeing these things in person are slim—a ticket for a ship heading for Le Havre or Southampton doesn't come cheap, and he has school to finish, his mom to look after—but he likes to think that at least he's at least seen the best parts of them; known the worth of them, even if only refracted through the weight of a book in his lap.

*****

His mother dies seven months later, choking for breath in the middle of a city summer. The physician who comes to examine her in that last week isn’t unsympathetic, but he is busy; a family doctor with a burgeoning practice and tired eyes who rests a hand on Steve’s shoulder and says, “Son, the best I can tell you is to call in your priest. She’ll be easier after that.”

Dr Hetherington says it's tuberculosis, and so Steve knows there is nothing he can do save ask Bucky to run over to the rectory and fetch Father O’Mahony. The priest gives his mom Extreme Unction, hears the last confession she makes in a rasping voice; afterwards, the olive oil still glistening on her forehead, she makes Steve promise that he’ll write to her brothers and sisters and aunts back in Ireland, all the family he’s never seen but whom she still misses with a fierce ache, to let them know she’s gone. Of course, Steve tells her, sitting next to her on the bed and holding her thin hand as tightly as he dares; she whispers thank you, and that’s the thing that makes it all get away from him, that’s the thing that makes tears stand hot in his eyes—that his mother would think she has to thank him for less kindness than Steve would show to a dog in the street.

She slips away at four in the morning with Steve still holding her hand. He sits there beside her body and watches the hectic fever-flush fade from her cheeks; he knows that Bucky’s in the apartment across the hall, knows that all the neighbours will be in soon to help, because they always do at times like these. He knows that he’s not alone, but somehow, sitting there with Sarah Rogers’ work-worn hand clasped between his, that feels like cold comfort. Things slip away.

*****

The march from the Hydra fortress down through the Brenner Pass and back to the front is long. They skirt Sarentino, Bolzano, Solarno, navigating their way back to Trento on a heady mix of adrenaline and sleeplessness and hunger. Rations are what they can scavenge, the relentless rain and mud-churned countryside their best cover against the Axis forces, and all along the way, Steve sees what months of bombing raids have done to the northern Italian landscape—castles that survived centuries of sieges with great holes now punched in their defensive walls; villages where the only smoke that rises doesn't come from chimneys; bridges that have crumbled into the river below.

Once, they pass a church that looks like it took a direct hit. The whole north side has sheered away, exposing pews and prayer books to the elements, and even from the road Steve can see that the interior of the church is covered with frescoes. Candle smoke has dulled the paint over long centuries of mumbled devotions, but Steve can still make out serried ranks of angels with primary-coloured wings; saints marching up to heaven while sinners writhe below. Even half-destroyed, it's beautiful, and Steve lingers, staring at it, until Bucky passes him, punches him lightly in the shoulder, says: "Come on, Walter Mitty, time to go."

"Sure thing," Steve says, but before he follows the others, he scrambles up the embankment and retrieves a chunk of wall plaster that was blown free. It's not even big enough to cover half his palm, but it's surprisingly weighty, and covered with the navy blue and old gold of a medieval heaven. A fragment of a prayer skitters through his mind—the priest at his mother's funeral intoning in saecula saeculorum—and he runs his thumb over the chalky paint for a moment before stowing it away in a pocket.

It stays there for the next several months, a talisman whose worth Steve hasn't quite yet figured out; when he wakes up a lifetime away from anyone he's ever known, it’s gone. He supposes it must have crumbled away as he slept.

*****

He does the math in his head, cherishes the desperate hope that it’s possible—she’d be in her nineties now, but perhaps that’s not such a great age for people to reach in 2011, and Steve knows his Peggy; he knows she’d wait for him as long as she could. She’s the first person he asks for, fighting to keep his voice steady. He knows he didn’t succeed from the carefully blank look on Agent Coulson’s face, the measured movements with which the man opens the manila folder on the desk in front of them.

“I’m sorry to report that Colonel Margaret Carter passed away in 1996.” Coulson slides a newspaper clipping across the table to him. Steve looks at it carefully, but can’t make himself touch it—it’s an obituary from the New York Times, the print proclaiming the passing of a wartime heroine… decorated officer… peacefully at her home following a long battle with cancer. There’s an inset picture of a smiling Peggy, looking older than Steve’s ever seen her—her hair’s streaked with grey, the skin around her eyes gently creased with laughter lines—but her smile’s the same, as is the dark slash of her lipstick.

Steve clears his throat. He puts both hands down flat on the table, working not to touch that piece of paper. Peggy’s obituary—she died at 82, fifteen years ago; he last saw her at 29, three days ago. “It was really difficult to get lipstick, you know—rationing, for the war effort. Lots of guys went crazy trying to find some, send it home to their best girl—it was a real in, you know? As good as silk stockings. But Peggy always managed to find a tube of the stuff on the black market, proper Elizabeth Arden red lipstick, didn’t matter where we were; never went into a fight without it.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Agent Coulson says mildly. He stands, retrieves the newspaper clipping, and stows it back into its file, before soundlessly leaving the room; leaves Steve to deal with his grief for a heart’s aching loss, for the choices that had to be made, for all the things left too late.

*****

One of the first things they give him when his debriefing is finished is a credit card. Steve doesn't really understand the technology, but he's been assured that this slim little thing is somehow invisibly linked to his bank account and can be used instead of greenbacks.

"You've racked up a lot of interest on those government bonds," Colonel Fury tells him. If he hadn't just tried to coddle Steve along into the present with the stupidest plan since... well, since Steve decided to parachute in behind enemy lines to rescue Bucky, if he was honest—if he hadn't done that, Steve would have been a lot more intimidated by the unwavering gaze of his single eye. "Back pay, hazard pay. Got them to reinstate you as a Captain with three years rank. You have some resources at your disposal, son. I suggest you enjoy them."

Steve's not stupid. He knows that this is an attempt by Fury at some sort of head-shrinking stuff—easing him in gently, maybe, or letting him blow off steam. (Colonel Phillips had always turned a blind eye when troops spent their rest days at a cathouse or pointedly flirting with girls in the local bars. “If we’re still fighting this damn war by the time syphilis makes their dicks fall off,” he’d snap, “that’ll be the least of our troubles, soldier.”) Part of Steve is tempted to explore the New York nightlife, to see if somewhere in the last seventy years or so, someone got around to inventing an alcoholic beverage that’ll still work on him, but there’s more of him that’s inclined to keep Fury guessing. It’s not that Steve disrespects the chain of command—he’s seen no hidden contempt in SHIELD agents’ eyes when the colonel is mentioned, and the way Fury carries himself brooks no disobedience. He’s just tired of being assessed and analysed by army-mandated therapists, who nod along patiently as he talks, as if they knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth—as if he’s entirely predictable.

He walks three blocks east of the building, pleased that Manhattan’s grid pattern is still the same, before taking pity on the SHIELD-assigned babysitter who’s been hurrying to keep up with his strides. Steve is painstakingly polite to her until she admits she was ordered by Fury to tail him and agrees to take him where he wants. Book Row—the six blocks from Union Square to Astor Place that had once had the ability to keep Steve entranced for hours—is mostly gone, but there’s still a Strand Bookstore. The red store awning proclaims 18 Miles of Books, and Steve walks at least half that distance over the course of the afternoon he spends there. His babysitter—Madison, she says her name is; apparently that’s a girls’ name now, another moment of mild and unexpected disorientation—follows him around, looking bored and typing messages into her portable telephone. She rolls her eyes at him a lot, but Steve finds he doesn’t care.

The prices are shocking—but mostly, he knows, an effect of seventy years of inflation—though all the charges he asks the store clerks to put on the little plastic card are accepted without hesitation. “Your total comes to $487.43,” the woman at the counter tells him with a smile. She has several earrings pierced through her face; Steve tries his best not to stare, nor to boggle at the fact that he’s just spent a quarter of a year’s pay on hardcover art books and fifty years’ worth of novels. The woman gives him some cloth tote bags with the store’s name on them to carry his purchases in. Madison suggests that they call one of SHIELD’s cars to come get them, but Steve refuses. It’s been a long time since he’s gotten to walk through his city, and the thought of feeling its pavement beneath the soles of his feet is a pleasant one, even on a grey and overcast day like today. Even more pleasurable is the heft of the book bags in his hands as he walks along; the ache in his shoulders is grounding somehow, a little bit of proof that he’s really here.

*****

He’s been given a room back at the tower—large enough for a single bed, a nightstand, a desk, a chest of drawers. Just off it, in what Steve thinks is a bout of sheer extravagance, he has his own private washroom, which has a constant supply of hot water that he doesn’t have to heat for himself. The first time Tony Stark sees it, he sniffs, turns up his nose, loudly asks what the hell Fury was thinking in assigning Captain America a glorified dorm room, he could get much better quarters for him—but Steve refuses to move out. It might not be the kind of Vanderbilt-living that a Stark is used to, but it’s more than Steve’s ever had before, and it’s his.

There are no bookshelves, so Steve stacks his newly acquired books on the desk, on the nightstand, on the floor. His shield rests against the bed; on top of the stack of books, his battered compass sits—rescued from the crash site, Peggy’s picture still somehow preserved inside it, against all odds. It becomes his habit to fall asleep with his fingertips brushing against some one or other of these—the rigid spines of books; the implacable coolness of metal—talismans of comfort; the tangible stacked close against loss.

*****

Clint introduces him to cable television, and to the associated concepts of colour broadcasts, reruns, multiple channels, TiVo, and a small piece of black plastic, studded with buttons, which can control the screen remotely. Steve works his way through the several hundred channels to which Tony Stark subscribes, slack-jawed with amazement at the concept of being able to see events occurring on the other side of the world near instantaneously. Clint acts as a personal tutor, explaining unfamiliar words and concepts as they're mentioned in television shows: Elvis and gay marriage, the Dodgers’ terrible betrayal and frappuccinos, Star Trek and string bikinis. That last makes Steve blink. He’s never seen a photo of Esther Williams wearing something like that to swim in.

“Dames really wear that out in public now?” he asks.

Clint claps him on the back. “God bless America.”

Pepper Potts’ tuition is a little less informal. It’s conducted in what she calls the breakfast nook, but which is in fact a space roughly the size of Steve’s long-vanished Brooklyn apartment, with floor-to-ceiling views out over the Manhattan skyline, and which contains far more technology than Steve thinks necessary to serve a meal. Miss Potts brings binders with her—the history of the last seventy years in bullet point format, with supplemental suggested reading lists on a whole host of issues: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, JFK, Watergate, the Civil Rights movement, apartheid, Mr Gorbachev tear down this wall, turning on and tuning in and dropping out.

(Clint, drifting through with a bowl of microwave popcorn, says "Why don't you just make him listen to 'We Didn't Start the Fire'? Billy Joel explains it all."

Miss Potts rolls her eyes extravagantly at him, which makes Steve feel much more warmly towards her.)

Part of what’s in these sheaves of paper explains how it's now possible for a woman to be in charge of one of the world’s biggest companies, but Steve doesn’t think that’s the reason why Miss Potts is taking the time to explain all this to him in person—from the way her small communication device buzzes near constantly, from the way in which she never fails to begin a session by telling Jarvis not to let Mr Stark know where she is, Steve’s aware she’s a big deal. There are a lot better things she could be doing with her time than filling him in on President Nixon (though the faintly quivering lines around her mouth said she’d clearly found his horrified astonishment amusing).

“Well,” she says when he asks her one Tuesday, “if I left your education to the others, chances are you’d end up with a perspective that was a little… skewed. After what happened with Thor…”

Her pause is diplomatic. Steve is capable of filling it in himself, with memories of the week Thor had spoken only in catchphrases borrowed from reality TV shows (“Thor commands you to make it work, fiend!”) while attempting to build something called a light saber. “Point taken.”

“Besides,” she says, a smile playing around her mouth that manages to remain demure while hinting at unknown depths of mischief, “Mr Stark would be very upset if you got a history of the world which didn’t include his glorious exploits front and centre.”

Steve looks down at the binder in front of him, which lies open on a page summarising some of Iron Man’s most recent escapades—clippings from the New York Times and the Washington Post punctuated by brief typed paragraphs—and frowns. It seems as if there are more diplomatic incidents documented here than he had to face during the entire war. One photo shows Iron Man standing in front of something called the United Nations Headquarters, making the V-for-Victory sign with as much aplomb as Churchill himself had ever managed. “With respect, ma’am, I don’t know that I’d call these glorious.”

Miss Potts dimples. “Of course, Tony would be even more agitated if I actually did subject you to the Stark Industries propaganda machine.”

“I see,” Steve says, because it seems like the right thing to say at the time—even though he most emphatically does not.

*****

Steve Rogers and Tony Stark do not get along.

Or to put it another way: the first thing Tony ever said to Steve was I don’t play well with others, and the very tone of his voice had made Steve’s skin itch. Tony didn’t speak in acknowledgement of a character flaw; he was dismissive, indifferent, and constantly radiated a sense of I've got somewhere better to be. The apple had clearly fallen far from the tree—the one thing you could say about Howard Stark, he’d given a good goddamn.

Steve’s revised his estimation of Tony a little since that initial meeting—he’s fought alongside Iron Man in battle, backed him up in half a dozen running conflicts with Fury, realised that anyone who’s earned the loyalty of Pepper Potts and James Rhodes can’t be all bad—but there’s a tension between them that never seems to go away.

This place is a dive, Tony says, gaze flickering over Steve’s bedroom, Fury couldn’t get you anything better?; waves a hand around during team meetings and says are we done yet, are we done? We don’t all want to turn into Rip Van Winkle; invents six impossible things before breakfast; leaves Pepper pale with frustration because he refuses to sign things when he’s not in the mood; smells faintly of some metallic thing that makes Steve’s teeth ache, as if Tony’s blood is rich with something other than copper.

They don’t bicker when they’re on the job, but during meetings it sometimes gets so bad that Steve’s guiltily aware the others tune them out. While they argue, Natasha silently, ostentatiously, cleans her nails with a knife so large he has no idea where she keeps it in that costume of hers. Steve tries to apologise to her afterwards, aware that Tony’s suggestion that they melt down his shield in order to invent a “better” version may have pressed a button or two of his, but Natasha just rolls her eyes and says, cryptically, “Pigtail pulling,” before walking out on cat-quiet feet.

Perhaps, Steve thinks, watching her leave, it’s best that he doesn’t ask—not when the heat in his cheeks is as much from embarrassment at being too easily read as it is from annoyance.

*****

Steve and Tony don’t get along, but over time they learn how to work together. Tony is a lot of things that Steve dislikes—he’s unapologetic about his arrogance, he’s presumptuous, he courts attention, whether good or bad, as easily as other people breathe, and he has a tendency to make snide comments about Steve’s USO costume that are, frankly, a bit rich coming from someone who fights crime dressed like a modern-day Midas. Yet he’s there in a way Steve can’t ever ignore, a solid presence in the corner of his eye, immovable in a fight. He’s what Bucky would have classed, with some measure of grudging respect, as a tough son of a bitch.

They’re in the middle of Times Square, its neon lighting and ever-changing screens for once the area’s least distracting element—Steve’s trapped beneath the mangled remains of what was once an armored car, the twin screams of metal and tourists ringing in his ears. He grits his teeth, strains, tries once more to get the traction he needs to lift the vehicle off him—and then suddenly the weight’s gone and an impassive red-and-gold face stares down at him.

“I was in the neighbourhood, thought I’d stop by,” Tony says as Steve heaves himself to his feet. “And forgive me if I've got the wrong end of the stick here, Cap, but maybe you could use some help right now?”

Across the street, a bank window shatters outwards with a concussive boom, tiny shards of glass pelting down on the sidewalk, making the skin on Steve’s face sting, and he’d be more than halfway angry with Tony for the wry amusement in his voice if not for the fact that Steve knows Tony was in Chicago this morning for a meeting. There was no just in the neighbourhood about it; for all his bluster about being a solo contractor, Tony had pushed himself to the limit to get here when his team needed him.

For that, Steve can put up with a lot. When it's all over—terrorists under arrest, news vans packing up their equipment, Dr Banner looking faintly mortified and standing to one side, wrapped in a blanket supplied by a friendly EMT—Steve walks up to Tony and shakes his hand. Tony looks surprised, but Steve knows the value of a gesture; looks Tony in the eye, keeps his grip firm. It's the very least he can do, for someone who's willing to stand with Steve's team.

*****

It’s a domino effect—the more Steve relaxes around him, the more easily Tony smiles, the more infectious his grins become. Slowly, as Steve relearns how to wake up each morning without instantly feeling the shock of being marooned a lifetime away from everything he knows, he becomes used to Tony's near-constant presence. Tony's inherited all of his father's curiosity about the world around him and then some; if not for the fact that Steve's the veteran of a USO press tour or two, he'd feel a little overwhelmed by the string of questions which Tony occasionally fires at him, apparently without the need to pause for breath.

For every question that Steve has about the twenty-first century, for every assumption about how the world works that he hasn’t yet realized needs changing, Tony has an answer, a suggestion, an offer: Fury never told you we’ve been to the moon? We’ve totally been to the moon, it was awesome—Jarvis, call up the footage, let the good captain here take one small step into the future. Or no, no, I don’t hate Windows the—it’s not that I have some sort of architectural vendetta, keep up Rogers, let me explain to you why I wish a pox on Bill Gates’ house, or Hey, I have to go to London for the day, you want to come?

Steve finds himself answering—not always as fully or as truthfully as he could, because sometimes Tony can still be an ass and it’s fun to tease him, but it’s nice to talk to someone who’s curious about him, who’s interested in getting to know Steve and not just Captain America the walking museum exhibit.

“Oh, oh, oh my god, okay, no, wait, we have to—where’s Rhodey? Can we get him here for the weekend? Because—no, Pepper, I think this is an excellent idea, how can Steve truly call himself a red-blooded American male without having experienced the fine cuisine of a homegrown culinary institution like Hooters? Why are you looking at me like that?”

And sometimes Tony’s still just an ass.

*****

Between missions, there’s a lot of downtime. Some of it Steve spends training; some of it reading at the nearest public library, or getting charcoal smudged all over his fingers as he sketches at MOMA or the Cloisters, or travelling out to Brooklyn to visit his mom’s grave. Some he spends in the workroom Tony’s had installed in the tower. It's cool in there, dimly lit save for the occasional spot lamp, and peaceful except for the times that Tony decides he can't work without the aid of the incomprehensible noise he insists on referring to as music. When he wants to, Tony can harness tremendous amounts of concentration, turn monosyllabic and inwards, fingers working smooth and quick over the planes and angles of his latest project. Steve tends to sit and sketch at a spare workbench, conjuring up long lost skylines, but sometimes he’ll explore the things Tony’s stacked around the space in an order which seems to make sense only to him.

Mostly Steve uncovers objects that he doesn’t understand, or that are still smoking enough to make him wary about touching them, but— He pauses, feeling a little stunned and not quite sure why; digs the thing out from the bottom of a pile. “Is… is this the prototype for my shield?”

“Hmm?” Tony says, looking up from something which he’d earlier explained as being far too complicated to explain, Rogers, hush. Pass me that wrench. No, that one. “Oh, yeah. I found it in my dad’s stuff after he died, kept it. Figured it was important.”

Steve runs his fingers around the rim of the shield, feeling the catch of edges never quite smoothed out, remembering Peggy and Howard, Bucky and the Colonel; the desperation which had driven long hours in the lab, the fun times they’d had despite it all. It’s not something he’d have expected of Tony. Tony seems the kind of guy to revel in the fact that his money gives him the gift of transience—every time the team orders in food, he gets far too much, the leftovers moldering in the fridge for days; he glories in the disposable nature of email compared with pen-and-paper correspondence; seems to have a new cluster of gadgets around him every time Steve looks. But here is the shield—an item of no practical use beyond that of memory, kept by Tony for years. It’s possible, Steve thinks, that he’s gotten Tony wrong: it’s not that he’s blasé about everything (though he’s blasé about a lot), it’s that you have to pay close attention if you want to understand what it is he values.

*****

The skyline’s changed but the walk across the Brooklyn Bridge is the same. Steve gets to know the feel of it beneath his feet once more; the roar of the traffic below him, the salt-and-smoke tang of the air. He finds a new routine in a Manhattan diner that becomes his favourite place for Sunday morning breakfast and mugs of strong-brewed coffee; in jogging through Brooklyn along a route that takes him past some still-familiar sights; in sitting on a patch of sunlit grass in Central Park with a bag of green apples and a good novel.

He acquires a bookcase for his quarters, and it rapidly fills with books and art materials. The pages of his sketchbooks teem with his pencil-and-pen impressions of his changed city, a patchwork panorama that gradually becomes peopled: in miniature, Bruce and Thor, Tony and Natasha, Clint and Agent Coulson and Pepper and Colonel Fury, move across the pages. One day, Steve catches himself doodling the outline of a figure standing on the sidewalk in front of Avengers Tower. It's him, he realises with a jolt; he runs his fingertips over the fine-grained paper, marvels at what several months can do to the landscape he carries with him in his head.

*****

“I hesitate to get all philosophical here,” Tony says, waving his chopsticks around for emphasis, “except for how I don’t, and let me point out to you that that? That is total bullshit, this whole noble, blah blah, no role for private industry in determining the course of—"

“Shh,” Pepper says from across the room, managing to sound authoritative even though her shoes are kicked off and her head’s in Natasha’s lap, Natasha’s hand stroking through her hair. They’re both intently focused on the unfolding costume drama of a PBS mini-series.

Quelled, Steve lowers his voice, but that doesn’t stop him from leaning in across his mu-shu pork and hissing, “And you’re going to tell me that your ‘there is only stability in evolution’ shtick is anything other than a line?”

Tony sniffs, tries to steal the last fortune cookie from Thor and is beaten back by all the petulance of which only a Norse god is capable. “Hey, I’ll have you know that Stark Industries’ PR team said that tested very highly with our core demographic as intriguingly enigmatic.”

Steve rolls his eyes. He knows there are abstract things that you can value—honour, duty, loyalty—but just because those things aren’t tangible doesn’t mean they’re ephemeral. They’re worthwhile because they endure. “Nothing’s important because you can throw it away,” he points out, not knowing why he feels so urgently that that’s something he has to say.

Tony looks up at him, gaze for once focused and intent and utterly lacking in ironic distance. “Yeah,” he says, “I know.” His mouth quirks briefly. “We went looking for you, remember. We found you.”

There’s nothing Steve can say to that. He ducks his head, pokes at his food with his chopstick; wonders at how that reminder of a simple fact can leave him with a lump in his throat.

*****

Steve’s sure that Fury probably has a file somewhere, keeping track of the number of missions the Avengers have been on, but he’s long since lost track. It could be the nineteenth, the twenty-seventh, the fifty-fourth—all he knows is that he aches with exhaustion, with bruises so deep that his body is struggling to heal them and a too-deep breath hurts. He sits on a low wall nearby, so tired that even the sight of Clint bickering fiercely with Natasha as to whether it was appropriate to shoot a supervillain in the ass with an arrow (“I’m not objecting to the results,” Natasha is saying, “it’s just tacky.”) isn't enough to raise a smile.

Tony sits down next to him. His visor’s up, but the rest of his suit’s still on, and he’s got a paper cup of coffee in either hand. “You look like you could do with some caffeine,” he says, offering one of the coffees to Steve. “Or, you know, a vacation, and if I could point out that—”

“We’ve been over this,” Steve says, hiding a tiny smile by taking a sip of his coffee, which is hot and strong and sugary. “You’re not buying an island for the team to vacation on.”

“It’s more of an atoll, really,” Tony says. He apparently found some doughnuts in the same place he found the coffee; he takes a bite from one, spilling crumbs down the front of his suit. “But yes, whatever, message understood.”

There’s a large dent in the side of Tony’s suit, the paint scraped and flaking; even if he’s not hurt underneath it, it can’t be comfortable for him to sit like that, but he’s staying right there beside Steve because he knows Steve’s tired; because Tony knows that they’re all five days past had enough and Steve hasn’t slept properly in even longer than that. “Thanks,” Steve says softly, because in some odd way, Tony’s come to be a tangible symbol of permanence to him in a way that’s probably surprising to them; because Tony fetched his coffee just the way Steve likes it; because they’re both still there.

*****

On a Thursday morning in April, Tony kisses him. Steve has a wall at his back and Tony pressed warm and solid against his front. True to form, Tony’s kisses are pushy and demanding—Steve can feel the scratch of goatee against his chin, the scrape of Tony’s teeth against his lower lip—and Steve feels the folder of sketches drop out of his hand. They’re in the hallway where anyone could see them, surrounded by a small sea of Steve’s drawings, and Steve finds he doesn’t care—he doesn’t care because when he opens his mouth to Tony, when he starts to kiss him back, Tony’s right there with him.

“This is, uh—” he manages when they break to catch their breaths. He rests his forehead against Tony’s; feels himself shiver when Tony runs his warm, callused palms up the length of Steve’s forearms, pushing the hair against the grain. He’s never thought he could have this; why has he never thought he could have this?

“Well, obviously,” Tony says, huffing. Up close, his face is familiar; dear, Steve realises. “Glad you’re with me on this, because I have to say, waiting around? It was getting a little—”

This time, Steve kisses him, wrapping his arms around Tony and liking the soft noises he makes at the back of his throat. Steve may not have realised it before now, but there’s no denying his heart’s staccato rhythm, the way he can feel his pulse quicken at the brush of Tony’s fingers against the nape of his neck. He can laugh at himself later, he decides; for now, Steve smiles, liking the way that shifts the angle of the kiss. He touches the span of Tony’s shoulder blades, the small of his back; anchors his hands on the solid geometry of Tony’s hipbones and wonders what it will be like to feel them without the intermediate barriers of cotton and denim. He wants, and he has, and knows they’re going to be late to the meeting; Fury’s going to glare at them, and Natasha’s expression will be blank in the way that means I know exactly what you were doing on the seventeenth floor. Still, with the morning sunshine creeping across the floor, warming Steve’s feet; with a grinning Tony fitting so comfortably into his arms, Steve’s feeling pretty grounded right here.

*****

Five weeks later, Tony's head pokes around the gym door. "You, me," he says, snapping his fingers in order to divert Steve's attention from sparring with Thor. "Official date, this Friday, don't worry, it's all been booked and taken care of, just make sure you turn up with your glad rags on." With this message delivered in patented Stark semaphore manner, Tony vanishes once more.

"Um," Steve manages.

"Courage, man!" Thor says, smacking him on the back in an encouraging manner hard enough that even Steve feels it. "My sweet Jane and I were much the same, when first we began to court in earnest. You need not fear but that these Spring days will imbue your loins with doughtiness!"

Steve isn't the naif that Thor and so many others seem to think he is; he may be inexperienced, but he has eyes and he was raised in a thin-walled tenement building. Moreover, he's had time to grow accustomed to the way Tony touches him; to become more than eager for the way their bodies can strain together, fit together, in the early hours of the morning. Steve's just worried about what Tony might mean by a date; he doesn't think it will involve going to a dance hall and doing the Lindy Hop. He takes his time over his appearance accordingly on Friday evening—polishes his shoes to a high gloss, makes sure his tie-pin is perfectly centred, neatly combs and Brylcreems his hair—and, deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, settles for only raising an eyebrow when Tony shows up in a car he's driven himself, Happy apparently left at home for the night.

Steve had been anticipating a lot of different things, but he's still surprised when they pull up in front of Fred's, his favourite Brooklyn diner. When Steve tries to ask what's going on, Tony just hushes him, ushers him in the door, has him sitting down at a window booth almost before Steve's had time to process what's going on—the usually bustling diner is empty apart from them and the wait-staff, the serviceable blue Formica table-top in their booth covered with a snowy white tablecloth and a single candle in a jar.

Steve raises an eyebrow at Tony.

Tony beams. "I suggested the candle," he says. "Adds that extra touch of class, right?" He gives a little nod, and one of the waitresses—Darlene; Steve knows her, she always clucks over him and makes his coffee just right—brings over two glasses and a venerable looking bottle of white wine.

Steve rubs at his forehead, hunts for the words he wants.

Tony holds up a hand to forestall him. "Look, before you say anything, my usual M.O. with this sort of thing is a three-star Michelin restaurant where they serve that molecular gastronomy food foam crap—"

Molecular food foam? Steve mouths, uncomprehending.

"—because it makes for a good, you know, culinary shock and awe technique, raw sheep's eyes, wham-bam-thank-you-spam, forget I said that, that's probably the most terrible pun I've ever made, ever, though of course Rhodey would probably dispute that, he—"

"Tony," Steve says gently, as gently as he can, because when Tony starts babbling like this, better to halt it sooner than later.

Tony draws a deep breath, visibly schools himself to finish by saying only, "—and so I thought you'd like this better."

Steve leans back a little in his seat as Darlene and Lupe place their meals on the table in front of them: proper meatloaf, mounds of creamy potatoes and fresh vegetables. It smells delicious. He raises an eyebrow at Tony, and as soon as the waitresses have retreated back to the kitchen, feels obligated to tease him by saying, "You know, Pepper's told me all about the Strawberry Incident. You're not infallible with this stuff.”

Tony's expression is innocent, though his aura is one of unconscionable smugness, when he replies, "But I'm right about this, aren't I?"

Steve ducks his head and grins, and steals the broccoli from Tony's plate, and when his feet bump against Tony's under the table, he doesn't mind at all, not one little bit.

*****

“This is ridiculous,” Tony says, “I’d like to register this complaint right now, this is—I’m a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist with a suit that turns him into a superhero, this is just…” He pauses, wriggles, visibly searching for words to express the depths of his outrage.

“Tony—”

Domestic,” Tony hisses, “Tony Stark is not domestic.”

Steve shifts so that his head is at a more comfortable angle, one that lets him raise an eyebrow at Tony. “You’re talking about yourself in the third person again,” he notes. One of the things Steve likes about this century is how comfortable the sofas are—the one his parents had owned had been made of stiff damask and horsehair, just wide enough for two people to sit side by side. This sofa is big enough for the two fully-grown men to sprawl out on, acres of butter-soft leather and cashmere throws, and Tony is a warm weight against Steve’s side.

“Justified,” Tony says, but Steve is pretty sure that his outrage is more for show than anything else. Tony’s got one leg slung over Steve’s—he’s wearing a battered old pair of sweatpants that say MIT ENGINEERING along one leg, a sure sign that he’s not planning on leaving the house today—and his head rests against Steve’s shoulder.

“Hush,” Steve says, and stifles his laughter at how that makes Tony huff out a sigh. “It’s a Sunday afternoon, you’ve needed to relax for the past month, so relax.”

“You’re a terrible taskmaster,” Tony says, “these are wildly unrealistic objectives, I have the statistical graphs to prove it,” but he picks up his own book anyway. It’s by someone called Vonnegut; Tony dug it out from a stack of boxes in one of the storage rooms when Steve had flat out refused to allow him to read a book on his phone. Tony may have done so under protest, maintaining that e-readers are the future, but Steve’s neither easily swayed nor oblivious—the paperback is yellowed and dogeared, its spine cracked, but Tony toted it across the country with him when he moved back to New York. It has value to him; and besides, Steve’s been to his own future, in a way. He’s happy to spend as much time as he can in his present.

“Uh huh,” Steve says, turning back to his own book—a recommendation from one of the booksellers he’s become friends with, a thick novel called Kavalier and Clay. He isn’t that far into it yet, but it already seems both familiar and strange to him, like hearing a stranger describe his childhood home to him. In the fireplace, logs hiss and crackle as they burn; outside, the sky is shading into a deep blue September night. Steve runs the fingers of his free hand up Tony’s side, presses an idle kiss to Tony’s temple; smiles when, out of the corner of his eye, he sees Tony surreptitiously smelling the vanilla-dust scent of his book’s pages. The best things, perhaps, remain.