The lady at the front desk smiles to see him. "Busy day for your friend," she remarks.
Caught in the act of signing in, Steve pauses. "What do you mean?"
The lady gestures to the sign-in book with a knowing smile. Confused, Steve looks down at the names written on the lines above his own. He's never really paid them any attention before, just signed his name and received his visitor's badge.
But now that he knows to look, he spots it right away. A hasty scrawl next to the name Peggy Carter. Another visitor. And though the signature itself is illegible, the initials are bold as brass: TS.
Steve straightens his spine. He lays the pen down on the book with more force than is necessary. He doesn't know why Tony Stark would be here visiting his Peggy, but he is for damn sure going to find out.
He hurries down the hall, his heart thumping in his chest. He's not angry, he tells himself. Tony Stark has as much right to visit Peggy as anyone does. But it still bothers the hell out of him, even though he can't really say why.
Maybe it's because even though he and Tony fight together as Avengers and live together in that great Tower in Manhattan, they are not really friends. Or because he feels protective of Peggy. She's the last link to his old life – well, the second-to-last now, but Bucky is still out there somewhere, lost and refusing to be found. So for now, Peggy is all he's got. And maybe he clings to her a little too tightly, but that's only because he can't bear to imagine what he will do without her.
Halfway down the hall, his quick step falters. The sound of laughter is clear and unmistakable. Two of them: a male voice which must be Tony, and Peggy's laugh, high and bright.
Uncertain now, he slows down until he is standing in the doorway. Lurking, really, but it amounts to the same thing. He's out here, and they are together in there.
Peggy is clearly having one of her good days. She's sitting up in bed, dressed in a pretty blue-flowered nightgown. Her hair is curled and there is pink polish on her fingernails. Her eyes are shining, and one hand pats at the air in a reflexive gesture as she laughs and laughs.
Tony sits in the chair Steve always claims when he visits. He must have come straight from the boardroom; he's wearing a charcoal gray suit with a dark red shirt and black tie. He's laughing with an abandon Steve would have sworn he was not capable of, were he not witnessing it. Laugh lines crinkle around his eyes, making him look younger, almost carefree.
Out of nowhere, Steve's first thought, still hovering in the doorway, is that it's a good look on Tony. He needs to laugh more often – and preferably when he's wearing a nice suit like this.
Then Tony looks up and sees him standing there, and the moment is over. Like flipping a switch, Tony's laughter dies out. His expression becomes closed off and that appraising look appears back in his eyes, studying Steve in that maddening way he has, like he's mentally dissecting him and dismissing him all at the same time. It's the face he puts on for all the world, both for the media and for people who are in the same room as him. Steve has worked with him as an Avenger for almost a month now, and he can count on the fingers of one hand the times he's seen Tony let his guard down enough around someone to show what he's really thinking. And this is one of those times.
Peggy spots him a second later. "Steve!" She looks overjoyed to see him.
He can't stand here in the hall any longer, so Steve walks in. "Hey, Peggy." He leans down to kiss her upturned cheek.
Peggy looks from him to Tony. "And you know Howard's son, Tony."
Steve nods stiffly. He tells himself it doesn't matter that Peggy either doesn't know that they are Avengers together, or that she has forgotten. "I didn't know you knew Peggy Carter."
"Of course I do," Tony says. "Who else would be lucky enough to have a cool Aunt Peggy?"
"Oh," Peggy says dryly. "Really?" She makes a pained expression, but Steve can tell she is pleased, anyway.
Tony stands up. "Well, I should probably be going."
"No, stay," Peggy says. She gestures for him to sit back down. "We can all talk."
"No, I really need to go," Tony says. "I'm already an hour late for my meeting."
Courtesy demands that Steve join in and request that Tony remain here a while longer, or at the very least, offer a vague apology that he's sorry Tony can't stay with them.
He does neither.
Tony leans in and kisses Peggy on the other cheek. "I'll see you next week, okay?" He stands up and tugs at his suit coat. On the table behind him, where Peggy keeps framed pictures of her family, there is a vase of fresh flowers; Tony must have brought them.
The sight of the flowers makes Steve's back stiffen still further. He only brought flowers the first time he came to visit. All at once he feels like the intruder in the room. Like he's the one who should be leaving, not Tony.
"See you later, Cap," Tony says. He sketches a languid salute, then he's gone, leaving behind a scent of expensive cologne.
Steve moves around to the other side of the bed and sits in the chair Tony just vacated. He knows it's stupid, but he can't help feeling a rush of bitter jealousy. He has precious few things left that he can call his own. He had thought Peggy was one of them. To know he's not only wrong, but to share it with Tony Stark of all people is almost unbearable.
"Oh Steve. Don't look that way," Peggy says.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he says, entirely too innocent and earnest. When of course Peggy sees right through him, the way she always does.
He drops his gaze, a bit uncomfortable at how she is staring at him.
But she's right. The way she always is. To be blunt, he's being an ass. Peggy doesn't belong to him, or to anyone. He has no claim on her, and no business being jealous of anyone else spending time with her. Whether he likes it or not, he has to accept that Tony knows Peggy. And not only do they know each other, they seem to be good friends as well.
And it makes sense, he sighs inwardly. He already knows that she remained friends with Howard after the war was over. Why shouldn't she have still been his friend years later, when Tony was born? Why shouldn't she have been a part of Tony's life?
"I think it's great," he says, mustering up a smile. "Everyone should know the great Peggy Carter."
She rolls her eyes. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Steve Rogers."
"But still worth a try," he teases.
Peggy smiles at him, full of love and affection, and he feels another pang at the thought of what he missed with her. They would have been so good together.
But instead of a life with Peggy, he had seventy years of sleep in the ice. She was the one who went on living, who forged paths of her own making and followed them to the end. She's seen and done things he can never understand, no matter how often she tells him the stories, because he wasn't there, and she was.
The silence that falls between them is easy and comfortable. Without being asked, he pours her a cup of water from the jug on the table. She sips from the cup and then holds it with both hands. He wonders who did her nails, and when was the last time Tony came to visit. How often have he and Tony almost crossed paths? And when exactly did Tony plan on telling him that he knew Peggy, too?
"So what was he like as a kid?" He doesn't mean to blurt it out, and he's more than a little embarrassed, but he keeps on going. "All I can imagine is this smart-mouthed little brat with a goatee. And Howard as a dad? I can't picture that at all."
Peggy looks at him. When he mentioned the goatee, she started to smile, but now she grows serious again, her eyes dark. She gazes down at the cup in her hands, and her expression is troubled. She is obviously considering her words carefully.
"Some people," she finally says, "are not meant to be parents. I'm afraid Howard Stark was one of them."
His earlier comment was meant to be a joke, but suddenly Steve has the distinct impression that he's wandered onto a minefield. And any step forward could spell disaster. "But... I mean, he didn't…" He trails off, not exactly sure what he meant to say. He's not all that eager for her to fill in the blanks, either.
Peggy sighs, then looks up at him. "Howard was from a different generation. And he was not exactly warm and affectionate, even with people he claimed to love." Her chin comes up. "I'm not saying that makes it right. And I'm not making excuses for him."
Steve doesn't know what to say. He's never really sat down and thought about it before, what it must have been like for Tony growing up as Howard Stark's son, raised under the shadow cast by the great Captain America. The knowledge has always been there, of course, but until today he's been able to sweep it under the rug and not think about it.
Peggy shakes her head and gives him a rueful little smile. "I tried to help out when I could, but I wasn't always there. Edwin had more luck than I did, I'm afraid. But he couldn't always be there, either."
Without thinking, Steve asks, "Who's Edwin?"
Peggy gives him a look like he's the one who's grown too old, having trouble keeping things straight in his head. "Edwin Jarvis?" she says with a touch of impatience. "Howard's butler? He practically raised Tony, you know."
"No," he says a bit faintly. "I don't know."
"He was a very good man," Peggy says. "You would have liked him a great deal."
Anyone Peggy thinks highly of automatically has Steve's respect. "What happened to him?" he asks.
"He and his wife both got cancer in the same year," Peggy says quietly. "He beat it, she didn't. He almost went home to England then. I think he would have, except for Tony. In the end he couldn't leave. After Tony was shipped off to boarding school, Maria was abroad more often than not, and of course Howard always had his work."
She looks sad now, remembering things Steve didn't even know had existed until just now. "So Edwin stayed in New York. Mostly I think he did it so someone would be there for Tony when he came home for the holidays. After Ana was gone, Tony was all he had."
There is more to the story than that, though. Steve is sure of it. It's all there in what she doesn't say. Tony was the son he never had.
And now at least he knows how Tony's AI got its name.
It's a lot to think about, and frankly, none of it is very good. He wants to remember Howard Stark the way he last knew him, cocky and arrogant, smart as hell, and keen to reshape the world into a better place. He doesn't want to think about Peggy being relegated to the sidelines, trying her best to reach out to a lonely child being raised by the family butler.
And he doesn't like that troubled look on Peggy's face. Or the way she's frowning as she tries to remember the past. Sometimes when she tries too hard to remember something, she loses her way and she gets confused, forgetting where she is or that he was ever rescued from the ice. And he won't do that to her. Not if he can help it.
Deliberately he tries to steer them away from such dark topics. "So," he says brightly. "Cool Aunt Peggy, huh?"
For a split second Peggy looks confused. Then she brushes off his words with a faint groan. "Yes, well, Tony always did have a tendency to exaggerate."
"I never would have guessed," Steve says dryly, and he's pretty proud of himself for managing to keep a straight face.
He's confident that the danger is past now, but just to be safe, he keeps the conversation in more secure territory after that, telling her about his latest escapade with Sam, and his new plan to try to find Bucky. In turn she fills him in on what her grandchildren are up to, and his visit actually comes to an end earlier than he planned when she remembers that she's supposed to Skype with her niece in a few minutes.
Steve gives her another kiss and promises to come back next week. Always assuming that no more killer sentient robots try to take over the world again, of course.
He walks slowly through the halls, thinking about everything he learned today. About those photographs on Peggy's table, and how they are all lies. People are constantly changing. You can capture them in a single instant, like in a photograph – or a memory – but they aren't going to stay that way forever, no matter how much you might wish them to.
Out in the lobby, Tony is waiting for him.
Surprised, Steve walks slowly over to where Tony sits in one of the uncomfortable chairs, tapping away at a tablet. "I thought you had a meeting."
"I did," Tony says. He stashes the tablet in his suit coat and stands up. "I came back."
"Oh," Steve says. He's not sure what to make of that.
An awkward silence descends between them. Steve glances out the front windows and notices that it's clouding up outside; it will probably rain later. He looks at Tony, sees Tony gazing at him, and quickly looks away – just as Tony does the same thing.
Tony must surely guess that he and Peggy talked about him. After all, it's only natural for Peggy to satisfy Steve's curiosity about how they know each other.
What Steve wonders now is if Tony can fill in the other side of the story. If he can tell Steve stories about growing up in the Stark household with a butler named Edwin Jarvis and cool Aunt Peggy coming to visit from time to time.
And even if he can't – or won't – Steve thinks he still would like to sit down and talk with Tony. It would be nice to finally get to know the man behind the armor. They don't always have to be saving the world together, after all. Sometimes they can just have lunch.
And maybe if he's lucky, he can say something to make Tony laugh the way Peggy did, so that those little lines crinkle up around his eyes.
Tony says, "Listen, I just want to make sure we're—"
Right at the same time, Steve blurts out, "You want to get something to eat?"
"—cool," Tony finishes lamely. He blinks in surprise, but recovers quickly. "Yeah. Okay."
"Okay," Steve says. He's talking a little too fast, the words tumbling over each other. "I know a coffee shop not too far away. It's actually within walking distance. We can go there."
"Yeah, all right," Tony says. That cool appraising look is in his eyes again as he gazes at Steve, but for once he must like what he sees, because he relaxes a little and he nods. "Sounds good."
It's all happening kind of fast, but Steve finds that he doesn't mind. Not in the slightest. "Ready?" He smiles.
Tony looks at him for a long moment, then he smiles back.
It's not a laugh, not even close, but for now, Steve will take it.