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slipping through the years

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When he wakes up, he’s surprised.

The last memory Steve has is the percussive force of the crash knocking him out of his chair and the water rising, so cold it burns. Now, however, he’s in New York, standing in the circle of light cast by a lamp overhead. He leans against the lamppost for a second, looking around wildly. He feels as though he should be winded or weak - surely a plane crash would leave some damage - but in truth, he feels fine.

A couple of teenagers turn onto the street, laughing together. They walk briskly toward him, the girl’s skirt twirling around her knees as the boy pulls her along.

“Excuse me,” Steve says as they approach, but they don’t look at him or answer. “Uh, excuse me?” he repeats, a little louder, but again they ignore him. Steve frowns, but instead of going after them and forcing the issue, he crosses the street where a newspaper sits discarded, the date printed on at the top.

Steve thinks back and counts the days, gasping in a breath when he realizes that it’s only been a week. This is the night he’s supposed to meet Peggy, which means that he can still make their date. It’s a fair few blocks away, though, and Steve sets off at a run.

The streets get more crowded as he runs, so it can’t be too late yet. He dodges through the various pedestrians, but no one pays him any mind. All he can think about is Peggy’s smile when she sees him, how she’ll probably give him hell about being late even though she’s so happy that she doesn’t care one bit. How they finally have time to dance.

He’s still in his uniform, minus his helmet and shield, but the staff lets him through without comment. For all he knows, the war is over, and bedraggled, uniformed men returning to their ladies is commonplace now. He certainly hopes so.

He moves through the rooms, looking through the dim lighting and pall of smoke until he finds Peggy. She’s sitting at a small table next to the dance floor, an untouched martini in front of her. She’s wearing a deep blue dress that makes Steve’s breath catch at how beautiful she is. It’s everything he dreamed of in the cold nights when the war felt too close for sleep.

He walks over, but she doesn’t look up, even when he’s standing right next to the table. He smiles and clears his throat, anticipation bubbling through him. “Peggy?” he says when she doesn’t look up from where her fingers are clenched around a napkin. “Peggy, it’s me, Steve,” he tries. The band changes songs into a slow waltz, perfect for a first dance.

Confusion and dismay join the anticipation he was feeling, unable to imagine Peggy being so mad that she’d ignore him. Hell, the last time she’d gotten upset, she’d shot at him. Steve reaches for her hand, but instead of making contact with her skin, his hand passes straight through, as if nothing were there.

Steve jerks back and stares at his fingers. He rubs his hands together, but they feel solid. He reaches out again, this time not pausing until his wrist has disappeared through the top of the table. “Peggy,” he says, even though by now he’s realized that she can’t hear him, “something is very wrong.”

He hears a tinkle of china and turns. A waiter is approaching behind him with a tray of plates, but Steve doesn’t have time to move out of the way before the man walks right through him. He doesn’t feel anything physically, but the reality of the situation sweeps through him. He goes weak in the knees and collapses into the empty chair across from Peggy.

He doesn’t understand how this happened, but it’s pretty clear what’s going on. No one can see or hear him, and he can’t touch anything. “I’m dead, aren’t I, Peggy?” he whispers, because the words are so big in his head that he needs to say them out loud. “I’m nothing but a ghost.”

Steve forgets after a while and tries to take Peggy’s hand again, but it doesn’t work any better than the first time, and he pulls away.

“Madame,” a waiter asks, “Can I get you anything else?”

“No, no, thank you,” Peggy says, the smile on her face a weak copy of the one Steve hoped to see. “I’m fine, yes, thank you.” When he leaves, she calmly wipes a tear off her cheek.

Steve sits across from her and watches.

*

He follows Peggy around after that, because he doesn’t know what else to do.

It’s clear that he’s dead and turned into a ghost. He just hopes that he doesn’t turn into a danger to other people, like in the stories Bucky used to tell him. He couldn’t stand that.

He spends an entire week trying to communicate with Peggy. Touching doesn’t work, and the sight of his hand passing through her unnerves him. Obviously writing or moving things is out. She can’t hear him, no matter how loud or soft he is.

He finally gives up but does learn a lot about what he can and cannot do. For example, he can sit on a chair and have it support him, but if he tries to move it, he passes right through. He can lean against a closed door, but he can’t make it open. He figures it must be all in his head, since he doesn’t have a body.

“Peggy, none of this makes sense,” he says, but she doesn’t stir from her position at the desk, reading about the newest scientific advancements and jotting down the occasional note. He feels less like a creep when he talks aloud to her, even if it doesn’t change the fact that he’s watching without her knowledge.

“Also, your job is pretty boring. I don’t remember you doing this much paperwork,” he comments idly. He’s glad of it, glad that their part of the war is over. They’re out of danger and just tying up loose ends, but all the inactivity aches after being at war for so long.

One day, Steve goes out and runs. He doesn’t have a destination in mind, just wants the sharp burn of pushing his muscles too far, the ache that lingers after a good workout. He doesn’t pay any attention to the people around him, moving right through them as he speeds past and pretending they’re the ones that don’t exist. He runs for hours and hours, until the sun sinks down below the skyline of New York, but his body doesn’t feel any differently. He’s not sweating or winded. He’s doesn’t feel tired or sore. He takes in a deep breath and lets it out in a scream, sharp with grief and anger.

It doesn’t help anything. He’s still dead and haunting New York, denied even the most basic physical comforts. He shakes his head ruefully and feels silly, even if no one could witness his overreaction, and walks back to Peggy’s apartment.

After that, Steve understands that there’s no going back, that he’s stuck here until a greater power than he decides to weigh in.

“It isn’t a comforting thought,” Steve explains to Peggy one night as she cooks dinner. “Some of the religious guys tried to explain it to me once, back then, that knowing their fate rests with God let them fight without fear, that it was freeing, but it never worked for me. I’d always rather be doing something, you know that,” he says with a grin that slips off his face as soon as he glances up and remembers she can’t hear. “Now I can’t do anything,” he finishes sadly.

Except for follow Peggy around, of course, which can get awkward. He never goes into her bedroom, but the first time she walked into the main room of her apartment in her underwear, Steve thought he’d die of embarrassment. And how unfair is it that he can’t work out or eat or sleep, but he can still blush?

Also, the first time one of Peggy’s coworkers asks her out on a date is something of a slap in the face, although in hindsight it shouldn’t have been. Peggy is gorgeous and deserves to have someone to... dance with, and it’s not like she knows he’s there. Still, he’s relieved when she politely declines.

Then after two months, just when Steve thinks he understands his situation, he realizes that he’s beginning to lose time. In his defense, he doesn’t really have a reason to watch the clock. The only reason he discovers it is that he skips two days and finds himself in Peggy’s office during an afternoon meeting when the last thing he remembers is saying a futile goodnight when Peggy turned off the light and retreated to her bedroom to sleep. He has no memory of coming here, or of anything after that, but the calendar on Peggy’s desk reads two days later than it should.

He starts laughing. It isn’t funny, but he doesn’t know what else to do.

He wants with his whole being to talk to Peggy, even for just a minute. Or maybe Bucky, who would laugh with him and punch him in the shoulder and say, you’re doing this dead thing all wrong, kid, but don’t worry. I got it all figured out, and I’ll show you the ropes.

Instead he sits quietly in a spare chair and waits for the clocks to jump again, to see if there’s a pattern in it.

He doubts it, but at least it’s something to do.

*

It’s three years later when they see Howard again. Steve has heard about him, idle talk about his newest innovations and speculative gossip about his obsession with finding the late Captain America.

At that point in the conversation, all attention turns to Peggy, who never gives any sign that this bothers her, although Steve has seen her fists clench beneath the table, crumpling the neat fabric of her skirt where no one will notice.

“Goddammit, Mike,” Howard is saying as they step into the fully-equipped lab of his Long Island mansion, “get out of my sight before I teach you that this will overload the circuit by hooking you in and demonstrating!”

“Is that any way for a gentleman to talk?” Peggy asks with a smirk.

Howard’s head shoots up from the messy table, and he says, “Never said I was a gentleman, now, did I?” Steve grins when Mike takes this as an opportunity to slip away, expression grateful.

“I was pretty sure they were gonna have to order you to visit, considering the way you’ve been avoiding me,” Howard continues, abandoning his work to walk over, close enough to talk without yelling.

“I am under orders, actually,” Peggy says, and perhaps she sees the same defeated slump to Howard’s shoulders that Steve does, because she adds, “But I was grateful for the opportunity to see you. It’s been too long. Now, let’s get some tea, shall we?”

“Or something harder,” Howard agrees and leads her into the dining room.

“So tell me about these orders of yours,” Howard says once they’re settled with the tea set the quiet servant had brought. Steve can’t help but think he looks awful, more so than he did in the lab, or at least it’s more noticeable against the expensive fabrics and antique furniture that adorn the room. His eyes are a little too bright against the dark skin circling them that speak of too many nights up, and he doesn’t react at all to the large swallow of amber liquor.

Peggy sets her cup into its saucer with a gentle clink and meets Howard’s eyes. “They asked me to talk to you about your search.”

“Yeah, you’re not the first. But if you think you’ll get a different answer than anyone else, you might as well hold your breath.”

“I’m not just anyone else, and you know it,” she replies.

Howard grins and lifts his glass in salute. “That’s true. But then, I didn’t expect you to come knocking on my door and tell me to call off the search like all the rest.”

“Oh, good heavens, of course I’m not,” Peggy says, her tone turning exasperated in a familiar way. Steve misses that tone. She hasn’t used it very much lately. “I fully expect you to keep looking until we are both old and gray, or worse.”

That finally seems to cut through Howard’s nonchalance. “Then why are you here?”

“Because you’ve gotten out of control, Howard. You’re neglecting everything looking for him, and it can’t go on,” Peggy answers.

“I am not,” he says flatly. “You just interrupted me working on a new project! I’m a genius, which means that I can do more than one thing at a time.”

“I don’t doubt it,” she says, utterly calm in that British way she had. “So that wasn’t a new sonar design that will help in the search?”

There’s a short pause, and Steve almost laughs, because Howard’s surprise at Peggy is comical now that Steve is just an observer. “It’ll be useful for other things, too.”

“I’m sure,” Peggy agrees. She takes a sip of her tea.

“You’ve given up on him, haven’t you?” Howard asks, and Steve is surprised at the depth of grief in Howard’s voice. No matter what the gossips said, Steve hadn’t believed that his death could have affected Howard to such a degree. He always seemed so impervious to whatever was thrown at them, joking about fondue while piloting through enemy territory.

Peggy smiles sadly. “I have read all the reports on that plane, and on your search, and intellectually, I know he’s gone. If nothing else, Steve would have found us by now, if he were able.” Steve sits in the chair next to her, wishing he could tell her how right she was. “In my heart, though, I will never stop hoping he’ll come back to us. I’m sure it’s much the same for you.”

Howard snorts, but he doesn’t deny it. “But I’m supposed to let go anyway,” he says bitterly.

“You used to build flying cars, Howard. And you were always in the middle of some new scandal. If you think for a second that Steve would condone you throwing away your life for him, then you don’t know him at all.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Steve agrees, unheard.

Howard stares at her for a long moment and then sighs. “I hate it when you’re right,” Howard grouches.

Peggy raises an eyebrow but steers the conversation to more pleasant topics, always gracious in victory.

Later, during the long hours when Peggy sleeps, Steve thinks about how much he’s missed Howard. He feels pretty guilty for not keeping better tabs on his friends. Even though he knows there’s nothing he could do, he remembers the dark circles around Howard’s eyes and the slump to his shoulders, and thinks, I should have known.

He’s so engrossed in this train of thought that he doesn’t notice the shift, thinks that Peggy has turned on a light. When he looks up, he sees the lab they’d visited earlier, Howard hard at work again, alone this time.

Steve twists around, but it’s real, or as real as anything is these days. “Howard?” he says, hope flaring momentarily, but Howard doesn’t react.

Steve sits down on an empty bench and examines what just happened. He’d been thinking of Howard, and then he was suddenly here with him.

It couldn’t be that simple, could it?

Only one way to find out. He concentrates on Peggy, imagining his desperation if he were never able to find her again, and after a few seconds, he’s back in darkness, standing at the foot of her bed.

Steve smiles and starts making a list of people he needs to visit, but for now, he wills himself back to Howard’s side and sits with him through the small hours of the morning. Howard works, and Steve watches and hopes that his presence will help. After all, Howard hasn’t given up on him.

The discovery doesn’t change his existence as much as he’d hoped, but whenever Peggy is asleep, Steve can visit Howard, who often works late into the night. If nothing else, it makes him feel less alone.

*

“The ceremony was wonderful, Howard,” Peggy says when he makes his way over to where she and Steve are standing. It’s true, too. Steve had stood at the back and watched over top of the large crowd. Things like this, events that he wouldn’t miss for the world, always made him feel better for a little while, at least.

“And your beauty rivals the bride’s,” Howard answers, tucking Peggy’s hand into his elbow and leading her away from the mingling crowd.

“I wouldn’t let her hear you say that,” Peggy says, but she looks duly flattered. “Where are you taking us? I’d have thought that as the groom, you’d have host duties.”

“I do, but you’re the perfect excuse to get out of it,” Howard says with a mischievous grin.

“I certainly don’t want to take the blame. Maria’s quite formidable,” Peggy says with mock concern.

“That’s why I’m marrying her,” Howard agrees, but Steve knows that’s only a small part of it. He’s seen the way Howard looks at her.

Peggy laughs. “Yes, I’m sure the fact that she’s so busy with her charities that she hasn’t made you choose between her and Stark Enterprises has nothing to do with it. I’m surprised you managed a first date, let alone a relationship,” she teases.

“Well, the scheduling’s a little tricky, but we make it work,” Howard says with a waggle of his eyebrows.

Peggy slaps his arm, and Steve laughs at their antics, glad to see them both so lighthearted. She must feel the same, because she says, “Good. It’s nice to see you happy, Howard. Truly.”

“I wish I could say the same,” Howard says, and there’s no mistaking the serious tone in his voice.

“What do you mean?” Peggy asks, but her smile turns a little brittle. “I’m fine, Howard.”

Howard just looks at her, clearly not buying it. “You know that day you righteously kicked my ass? Well, I accused you of giving up on Steve. But I was more wrong than I realized, wasn’t I? I mean, have you even been on a date?”

“Oh, I was never much for stepping out. You know that,” she says breezily, a well-practiced line that Steve has heard her use before.

“Bullshit. What was it you said? He’d punch me in the face if I wasted my life waiting for him, right?”

Peggy sighs, some of her frustration with the conversation finally escaping. “A colorful paraphrase, but essentially correct.”

“Why is it any different for you? Steve wouldn’t want you to be alone. He’d say you deserve to have someone who loves you.”

“Listen to him, Peggy,” Steve says firmly, when Peggy frowns. “For once, he’s talking sense.”

“I know,” she says softly.

“Then what’s the problem?” Howard asks, and there’s no putting him off when he’s this determined. Over a decade of his continued search for Steve proves that. “You must have a whole platoon of guys chasing after you.”

“They aren’t him!” Peggy snaps, pulling free and turning away from Howard. Her fists clench, and Steve’s heart aches for her.

Howard walks around until he’s facing her. “I can’t argue that. No one is.” He sighs and captures her hand again, leading her back to the reception. “Just think about it, okay?”

She doesn’t agree, but she doesn’t argue, and Howard seems to accept that.

“Now, come on, I’ll introduce you to the bride,” he says and talks shop the rest of the way. When they rejoin the animated party, the smile is back on her face.

At least after that, it’s not a surprise when she doesn’t reject the next invitation to dinner. He expects to be upset, but he just doesn’t have it in him. While he loves her dearly, he just wants her to be happy.

This means that Steve starts spending more time with Howard. Staying with Peggy seems more and more intrusive, which he hasn’t felt since the first few weeks. He notices that he’s skipping more and more time now, weeks slipping by without him realizing. He doesn’t try to fight it. He’s almost grateful, despite the fact that he’s missing so much, because all of his friends have moved on. They don’t need him anymore, and he’s tired.

This is how it goes for a very long time, as he watches all of the people he loves gaining gray hairs and laugh lines, until one day he goes to Howard and finds him staring down at a small bundle in his arms.

Steve steps forward and looks down at the tiny face of Howard’s son. Those big eyes look up at him, blinking sleepily, and Steve feels a large smile soften his face. It feels strange, and Steve realizes that he can’t remember when he last smiled.

“Howard, put him to bed,” Maria calls softly from the door. “We should get some sleep while we can.”

“Night, Tony,” Howard says and kisses Tony’s head, which is covered in unruly, dark hair, and lowers him ever so gently into the crib. Steve leans over the edge when Howard leaves and looks at Tony, who is sucking his thumb.

“Hi, Tony,” Steve says, and Tony blinks at him. “I’m Steve. I hope you don’t mind if I sit with you a while.”

Steve settles into the rocking chair, even though he can’t move it, and watches over Tony. He likes to think that Tony’s eyes are following his movements, tracking him when he moves around the room every so often. He knows it can’t be true, but it’s so nice to have even the illusion of being seen again that it’s easy to pretend.

*

Age 4

“Steve!” Tony yells in greeting when Steve appears in his bedroom one evening. He waves a fist, fingers tight around a crayon, and beams at Steve.

Tony’s nanny Sarah sticks her head in at the noise. “Everything alright?” she asks.

“Yeah,” Tony says, nose scrunching up, “Of course! Steve’s here.”

“Alright, then,” she says, smiling indulgently. Steve likes this nanny a lot better than the last. She hasn’t tried to tell Tony that Steve’s not real. “Just a little quieter, okay?”

“Kay!” Tony agrees, and then when she leaves again, waves the paper he’s drawing on at Steve. “Come look!” he demands, and Steve smiles and goes over to sit on the floor.

“I like the colors,” Steve says, because it looks like Tony has used every crayon in the box. It’s a big box.

“This is me,” Tony says, “And Mom, and you. And there’s Dad in the lab. He said when I’m five that he’d teach me to use his tools, and Mama was there so he can’t forget because she’ll remind him. I drew another picture of you, but Dad took it, do you wanna see?”

“Oh,” Steve says, but Tony is up and out of the room before Steve can suggest that maybe that isn’t the best idea. “Tony,” Steve calls, getting up and following him into the hall. Tony grins at him and slips past Sarah where she’s folding laundry, and there’s nothing Steve can do to alert her, so he sighs and follows.

“Dad!” Tony says when they bust into Howard’s office. “Where’s the picture I drew of Steve? I want to show him.”

“No, no, it’s just my son,” Howard says into the phone, frowning, and then covers the mouthpiece. “Tony, not now. Go back to Sarah.”

“C’mon, Tony, let’s leave your dad alone,” Steve says from the doorway.

“But Dad,” Tony whines, ignoring him completely, “I want to show Steve his picture.”

Howard’s face goes stiff, and he stands, leaning over his desk to look down into Tony’s hopeful face. “Tony, this is a very important phone call. And Steve isn’t real.”

“He is, too!” Tony yells, stomping a foot on the ground for emphasis. “He is, he is, he is!”

At that point, Sarah swoops in, stepping right through Steve, and picks a struggling Tony up, carrying him out of the office. “Sorry, Mr. Stark!” she says on her way out, and Steve steps out of her way so Tony isn’t forced to go through him.

Howard gives a heavy sigh and sits back down, settling the phone at his ear. “Sorry about that,” he says and chuckles humorlessly at the response. “I know. Kids, right?”

Steve stares at Howard for a long time, but Howard goes on with his business and finishes his call, the incident already seemingly forgotten. “You’re making a mistake,” Steve says finally, uselessly, into the quiet of Howard doing paperwork. “A big one. I wish that I could tell you that.”

Then he goes to find Tony, who is pouting spectacularly and refusing to go to bed. His eyes are red from crying, although he’s dry-eyed now and sitting in the middle of the floor.

“Tony, please brush your teeth and get in bed,” Sarah begs, one hand tugging at her hair. He crosses his arms and lifts his chin, but doesn’t move.

“If you go to bed, I’ll tell you a bedtime story,” Steve offers, and Tony stops pouting to consider.

“A Cap story,” Tony demands.

“What?” Sarah asks at the same time Steve says, “Alright.”

“Okay,” Tony agrees. He gets up and starts changing into the pajamas Sarah had laid out on his bed.

“Thank you, Tony,” Sarah says, “Do you need any help?”

No,” Tony replies, indignant, although one of his arms is caught in the sleeve of his shirt. “I can do it.”

It takes awhile, but he gets himself dressed and into bed. Sarah says goodnight and turns out the light, shutting the door behind her.

Tony rolls over and faces Steve who is sitting in the chair beside his bed. “You said a Cap story! You promised,” Tony says. Four-year-old Tony is very serious about promises.

Steve nods. “I did, but I want to talk to you about something first. You know that everyone else can’t see me, right?”

“Yeah,” Tony says sadly, “I thought they were joking, but sometimes I pretend you’re here when you’re not, and nobody can tell, because they can’t see you.”

“Right,” Steve agrees, “And you know that I wasn’t always like this. I used to be Captain America, and people could see me.”

“Like in your stories,” Tony says, and Steve can tell he’s getting a little impatient, fidgeting with his covers.

“Exactly. Well, back then, I was friends with your dad,” Steve says.

“Friends like us?” Tony asks, startled.

“Yes, like us. And how would you feel if you couldn’t see me anymore?” Steve asks patiently.

“I’d be sad,” Tony answers after a minute of thought. “So Dad is sad that he can’t see you?”

“I think so,” Steve says, surprised that Tony made that leap. He forgets sometimes just how smart Tony is, even though he can already do pretty advanced math.

“Dad doesn’t seem sad. He seems angry.”

“People get sad in different ways,” Steve explains.

“Yeah, Sarah cries when she’s sad, but you get quiet and disappear,” Tony says, bouncing a little like he usually does when he figures out the right answer.

“Uh, right,” Steve agrees, not really wanting to get into that. “So I think your dad will be happier if you don’t mention me.”

Tony frowns. “You want me to lie? Mama says lying is bad.”

“No! Your mom’s right, you shouldn’t lie. Like if Sarah asks you a question about me, you should answer truthfully. But maybe it would be better not to say anything about me to your Dad.”

“Like a secret?” Tony asks, bouncing again. “I like secrets! You can be my secret friend.”

Steve has a momentary flash of conscience. He’s advising Tony to keep secrets from his parents, but he can’t see a better option, so finally he says, trying to inject the appropriate amount of enthusiasm into his tone, “Your invisible, secret friend.”

Tony nods firmly, as if that is all settled. “Can I have a Cap story now?”

“Yes,” Steve agrees with a smile, “I’ll tell you how I met your dad. How about that?”

“Okay,” Tony says, cuddling into his pillows with a smile, and Steve begins.

*

Age 7

“Here, here, stand right here!” Tony orders as he tries to herd Steve toward a giant black X taped onto the floor of his lab. Steve thinks Tony’d be physically pulling him if possible.

“What does this one do?” Steve asks. Tony’s been designing different detectors to try and sense Steve, and while he thinks it’s an exercise in futility, the stuff Tony’s been coming up with is amazing. Plus, he can’t quiet a tiny part of him that believes if anyone can find a way to prove he exists to Howard (because that’s what this is, for all that they don’t discuss it), it would be Tony. He’s a genius, after all.

“It’s a camera,” Tony says gesturing at a large metal box resting on a tripod, and Steve lifts his eyebrows because that had been the first and most obvious test, “But it’s sensitive to infrared instead of visual wavelengths.”

“It won’t hurt you, will it?” When it comes to Tony, it’s best to ask.

Tony snorts. “Shouldn’t you be worried if it’ll hurt you?”

“I don’t think I can be hurt,” Steve says while Tony messes with his camera. He hasn’t felt pain, or any kind of major physical sensation for that matter, since he died.

“Probably not,” Tony answers on autopilot. Then, “Ready? Okay, don’t move.”

There’s a muted click, and then Tony is rushing to the computer that’s connected by several dangling wires. Steve hasn’t kept up with the advancements in technology, but Tony loves to explain things to him. He doesn’t want to discourage Tony, but he doubts the computers will be of much use to people. Tony has shown him how fast it calculated numbers, but it’s just so big.

“Can I move now?” Steve asks.

“Huh? Oh, yeah, come here, yes.” Steve walks over and Tony points to a screen that has a grid of indecipherable block numbers. “That’s you,” Tony explains, and then points to another that looks the same, “And that’s just the lab. So no discernible detection.”

“Are you sure it’s working?” He’s seen too many things catch on fire to believe everything Tony says.

“Yes!” Tony says indignantly, “Here, this one’s me.” They look the same to Steve, but Tony seems convinced. “But that’s not really a definitive test. If Dad would let me have a supply of liquid nitrogen, I could get a much better result.”

Steve frowns. “Can’t that freeze your hand solid?”

“Yes, but it would also make my camera more sensitive,” Tony says, waving off Steve’s concern. He stares at the numbers, frowning and tapping out several commands before he lets out a deep sigh.

“Steve,” he begins, sorrowful. He pauses, swallowing thickly, and looks up at Steve. “I’m crazy, aren’t I?”

Steve blinks in surprise, but before he can respond, Tony continues, “I’ve been researching it. Visual and auditory hallucinations are more common in people with high IQs. It’s probably schizophrenia, or something.”

“Is that why you’ve been making all these tests?” Steve asks, and when Tony nods, says, “Oh, Tony.” He wants nothing more than to hug the young man, hunched over the computer, but he can’t. He takes a deep breath. “Listen, I’m the worst person to ask if you’re crazy, since I’m your hallucination, but I think there’s a way you can test it.”

Tony whips around to stare at him. “How? I haven’t been able to think of anything! Nothing that works, anyway,” he adds with a pout.

“Well,” Steve says, “I can give you Peggy’s phone number. It’s top secret, so that would already tell you something. And you know that we were in the war together, so you can ask her something I’ve never told anyone else.”

Tony’s face morphs into the one he uses when he’s designing. “Good idea, except I’m sure she’s changed her number by now. We can use Dad, though. You guys were close, right?”

“We were, but I’d rather leave Howard out of it. You’re right that Peggy’s phone number changes fairly often, but I can go visit her and make sure you’ve got the current one.”

Tony stares at him. “You can go visit her.”

“Yes,” Steve says after a beat when it’s clear that Tony is expecting a response.

“You can just go visit random people? Go anywhere? How? Why didn’t you tell me?” Tony is waving his arms around like he does when he’s seriously upset, a mannerism that is straight from his mother.

“Oh. I don’t know. I figured you knew?” Steve tries.

“How would I know that?” Tony demands, “I thought you just went into the floaty ghost nothing!”

“Well, sometimes I do,” Steve says rather than repeat ‘floaty ghost nothing’. Tony’s already upset enough. “But I also go visit people that I know. Like Peggy, and some of my old friends.”

Tony is just glaring at him now. “How? You can’t open doors, but you can hail a cab?”

“I just think about them. Concentrate, and then I’m there.” Steve shrugs. “I don’t know how it works.”

“So, when you’re not here, you’re off...” Tony trails off, maybe realizing how jealous he sounds.

Steve smiles. “I spend most of my time here, Tony. You should assume I’m in the floaty ghost nothing if I’m not around.”

Tony blushes faintly. “Well. Good.”

After that, Tony insists they try it right now. Turns out, calling a top secret number and inexplicably knowing things like what Captain America was drawing right before his first mission (performing monkey) and what kind of flowers are on the desk next to the phone (daisies) will get a person in big trouble, even if their father is an old friend.

Steve winces as Howard raises his voice. Maybe especially if their father is an old friend.

But probably half of why Howard’s yelling is because Tony keeps forgetting to look properly chastised and starts grinning in giddy relief.

The other half is that Howard can’t figure out how Tony did it.

*

Age 14

Steve watches Tony wake up slowly in a forest of empty beer bottles, tangled up with two pretty girls, although thankfully everyone is clothed. He whimpers softly and covers his eyes with one shaking hand like he does when he has a headache.

“Good night?” Steve asks in a normal, conversational tone, but Tony jerks like he’s been wounded. He tries to bury himself farther into his pillow, but since his head is perched on one of the girl’s thighs, all he manages to do is knock himself off and hit his head against the carpet floor. He whimpers again and remains where he fell. “I’m impressed, actually,” Steve says carelessly. “You haven’t thrown up or anything, which given the amount of alcohol I’m guessing you drank, is probably some kind of record. For your age bracket, anyway.”

“If you don’t shut up,” Tony says, voice scratchy and muffled, “I’m going to find a way to make you corporeal, and then I’m going to hurt you.”

“I look forward to it,” Steve says cheerfully, and Tony groans.

“Who are you talking to?” one of the girls asks -- the one that didn’t serve as a pillow for the last several hours.

“My hangover,” Tony rasps out promptly, “It’s a complete bitch.”

“Language,” Steve chastises mildly.

“Ughh,” Tony returns and flips him off. After a few long minutes of Steve being mercifully silent, Tony gets himself to his feet and begins an unsteady walk toward his dorm room.

“You know, drinking water right before you fall asleep will help prevent hangovers,” Steve comments. He feels bad for Tony when he winces at the sound of Steve’s voice, but not enough to stop.

“Why are you even here?” Tony asks pitifully.

“I need a reason?” Steve asks in return as Tony collapses in a miserable heap on his bed.

Tony shrugs. “You’ve been gone for weeks.”

“Two weeks,” Steve says, “And I just thought you should have a little space to get your bearings and make some friends. Sorry, I didn’t realize that would translate into binge drinking. My mistake.”

“Oh my god, I so completely regret teaching you sarcasm,” Tony says, and Steve rolls his eyes, because Tony has met Peggy. “I am a bad influence on Captain America. A bad, hungover influence. The universe should just kill me. I deserve it.”

When nothing happens, Steve shrugs. “Apparently, the universe doesn’t care.”

“Ughh,” Tony says again. “Seriously, what will it take for you to shut up? Name your price.”

“Well, you could not get so drunk you pass out and leave me wondering if I’m going to watch you slowly die of alcohol poisoning. That’d be great,” Steve says, letting some of his anger slip into his tone, because he’s been keeping vigil for hours to make sure Tony was still breathing, and he doesn’t know what he would have done if Tony had stopped.

“Listen, if you’re going to follow me around, you’d better remove that giant stick from your ass, because I don’t have time for your disappointment,” Tony snaps, and his tone is uncommonly harsh. “If you don’t want to watch me make poor decisions, then why don’t you take a page out of my parents’ book and get lost.” Tony huffs and flops over so that he’s facing the wall. “Now, shut up, I’m sleeping.”

In all the years that Steve has been haunting Tony, he’s never told Steve to leave. Not even in the most recent years, when puberty had him vacillating between sullen and much too charming for his own good, had Tony ever made him feel anything but welcome.

Steve sighs and wills himself to Peggy’s side, which puts him in her office. He settles angrily in a chair in the corner and sulks. He keeps at it for a few days, grateful for once that Peggy can’t see him, because if she could, she’d have knocked some sense into him already. Probably using more firearms than necessary.

He decides, after obsessing over it more than he’d care to admit, that Tony has a bit of a point. It’s Tony’s life, and it’s not like Steve himself is some kind of saint. He remembers roaming the streets with Bucky at that age, and the all the trouble they’d gotten into together. But at the same time, Steve can’t just stop worrying about Tony. He cares about Tony and wants to protect him, and that’s not going to change.

He also comes to the extremely difficult decision that if Tony does want him gone, for good, he’ll do it. Living this way without Tony is more painful than he wants to think about, but if it’s what Tony wants, then Steve can deal.

With that settled in his head, he doesn’t have any reason not to return. He sighs and goes back to Tony, who’s in the lab at the physics building. He sits down and clears his throat, not sure what to say.

“Oh,” Tony says when he looks up, “There you are.” He seems relaxed and normal, as if it’s one of the usual episodes of Steve disappearing rather than being sent off after an argument. “Here, look at what I’m making,” Tony orders, holding up what looks like a murdered toaster.

“What will it do?” Steve asks, who knows better than to say such things.

“It’s gonna be a robot. Like, a proper-looking sci-fi one, and I think I’m going to give it a voicebox and program it to reply to certain prompts. This way if anyone asks who I’m talking to in here, I can say its my robot. I mean, talking to inanimate objects is still weird, but way less than talking to the invisible man no one else can see, right? There’s too many people in this lab not to have some sort of cover story in place.” He pauses. “Not that I care what these idiots think.”

“That’s a good idea,” Steve says, then hesitates before adding, “I wasn’t sure you would want me around that much.”

“Yeah,” Tony drawls, “I think we can conclude that hungover is not the best look for me. And I don’t want to topple your fragile ego, Cap, but you can be a little judgey.”

“My fragile ego,” Steve repeats with a small laugh, “knows that. Sorry. I just worry about you. But I’ll stay away if you want,” he adds, looking Tony in the eye so that he can see how serious Steve is about this.

“No, don’t,” Tony says, immediately and sharply enough to convince Steve that he means it, which is a big relief. “Just, I wish I could hang a metaphysical sock on the door so that you’d know when I’d rather be alone.” Tony shrugs. “It’s going to be even worse when I start dating.”

Steve just blinks at him for a moment like he’s speaking some foreign language, because he’d seemed pretty cozy with those girls. Maybe he meant something more serious? “Do you have a girl in mind?” Steve asks casually, because he hadn’t even realized that Tony had a crush.

“Oh, I have more than one in mind,” Tony says with a waggle of eyebrows that looks ridiculous on him. Steve sighs, but he has to admit, that sounds more like Tony.

“And when is this happening, then? It’s not like you to plan ahead,” Steve says, slipping into the long-suffering tone he used the last time he’d tried (and failed) to convince Tony that yes, his father would definitely find out if he tried to buy uranium.

Tony smiles, faux innocent, as if he knows exactly what Steve is thinking. “Unavoidable. Everyone has to stop thinking of me as an adorable kid, so about six months. It’ll take that long to convince most of them that I’m smarter than they’ll ever be and in no need of babying.”

“Right,” Steve agrees softly.

“Maybe we can use that time to practice appearing outside of whatever room I happen to be in so that you don’t end up getting an eyeful,” Tony muses.

“Tony!” Steve snaps as he blushes.

“What?” Tony demands, his tone incredulous. “Please, tell me, how is that any worse than the times you’ve walked in on me jerking off?”

Steve’s face turns crimson in embarrassment, but Tony laughs and laughs, so Steve just rolls his eyes and gives up on acting bothered.

It’s not like it helps, anyway.

*

Age 18

“Tony?” Steve calls as he rushes through Tony’s place. Tony’s eyes flick to him when he bursts into the lab, but he doesn’t respond, just looks back at Obadiah.

Steve leans against the door frame in relief. There were armed men and a fleet of reporters outside when he’d come back from a walk, and Steve had thought... well, nothing good. When he recovers enough to pay attention, Obadiah is still talking, standing with a hand on Tony’s shoulder even though Tony’s rigid posture is all but inviting, his voice pitched low and calm.

“The police are investigating, but they really think it was just an accident. Sometimes these things just happen.” He pauses, but Tony gives no response, his eyes fixed on the floor, missing the tiny smile that flashes across Obadiah’s face. Steve breath catches, because while he’s never liked Obadiah, he’s never considered the man a threat. “I’ll call the attorneys and take care of the arrangements. Your parents left very clear instructions in their wills,” and Steve flinches, clutching at the wood beneath his fingers. “So there’s nothing you have to do. Tony,” Obadiah starts, and then raises his voice a little so that Tony looks up, eyes focusing, “Tony, you let me know if there’s anything you need. Okay?”

Tony nods stiffly, and Obadiah gives him a one-armed hug that Tony hardly seems to notice and then pulls away again.

“Okay. I’ll give you a minute alone, but I’ll be right outside if you need anything.” When Tony says nothing, Obadiah gives a nod and leaves. Steve moves out of the way so that Obadiah doesn’t walk right through him, and then steps closer to Tony when he’s gone.

Steve sits on one of the benches in the room a little ways from Tony, but hopefully not close enough to crowd him, and stays quiet. He wants to be a comforting presence, but he suspects that he’s adding to the tension in the air, heavy with their mingled grief.

Although he’s had many issues with Howard over the years, he remembers that Howard was there the day he became Captain America. He was there throughout the war, working harder than anyone to win. Even later in life, Howard was always such a force, able to command any room he walked into, and the thought of something as simple as a car accident taking him away seems unreal. Steve only has to look at the blunt shock on Tony’s face to know how very real this is.

“Tony...” Steve starts, but trails off. What can he possibly say?

“A fucking car accident,” Tony says, voice rough. He clears his throat and gives a colorless laugh. “God, he would have hated that. A lab accident with unstable explosives was much more his speed, don’t you think?”

“I’m sorry, Tony. And not just for Howard,” Steve says, “Your mother...”

“Don’t,” Tony snaps. He gestures sharply for a moment as if his hands can push away his grief, but then his shoulders crumple. He takes in a slow breath and then says, quieter, “Just, I can’t talk right now, okay?”

“Okay,” Steve agrees, helpless to do anything else.

Tony goes back to work, losing himself in schematics and coding, while Steve keeps a quiet vigil next to him.

The next few days are even worse, especially after Tony has to leave behind the comfort of his lab for his parents’ funeral. Everyone around him is too solicitous, offering their condolences with a forced intimacy that makes Tony’s expression harden every time. Steve can tell that they’re just trying to curry favor with the heir to the Stark legacy, and clearly Tony can see it, too.

Watching Obadiah shield Tony from the worst of the attention makes Steve wish that Rhodey were there instead, but he is deployed overseas and the kind of unavailable that makes Steve suspect top-secret operations. But even if he doesn’t trust Obadiah, he can’t help but be thankful for the way Obadiah keeps the liquor far away and one hand firmly on Tony’s shoulder in a show of support. It’s what Steve would do, if he were able.

After everyone leaves, Tony stands quietly in front of the large picture windows of his father’s mansion. Steve sits on a couch in the middle of the ornate room and wonders if he should say anything. Tony hasn’t spoken to him during the whole affair, and Steve is really starting to worry. He’s saved from making that decision when Tony wanders over and takes a seat next to him. “Man,” he says, “That sucked.”

It’s such an understatement. Steve nods. “Are you okay?” he asks, even though he knows the answer is no, not really, not even close.

Tony shrugs. “Can I ask you something? A favor, really. You can say no.”

“Of course,” Steve says immediately, “But I’m not sure what I can do.”

“I know that we don’t always agree on everything. But Mom and Dad are dead,” he stops and swallows heavily before continuing, “And Rhodey is gone, and I’d just feel a lot better if you would stay. Just, you know, stay. With me. Be someone that I can trust.”

“As much as I can, I will,” Steve vows. “I mean, you know I’m not always around, but when I can be, I’ll stay. I would have done that anyway. I have been doing that anyway, I promise.”

Tony smiles and relaxes against the couch, as if all the stress and tension of the last few days is seeping out of him. “Thanks.”

“What are you going to do?” Steve asks.

“I’m going to build a house,” Tony says thoughtfully. “I’m tired of living in places that are Dad’s or other people’s. I want a place of my own. In California, so I can be close to corporate headquarters. I’ll have to take over eventually, and that way I won’t have to move again.” Tony sighs and runs a hand through his hair absentmindedly. “And I think I want to make things. Not just come up with crazy ideas, but actually get them to work.”

“That sounds great, Tony,” Steve says, because Tony has seemed a little lost the last year or so, and listening to him plan for the future settles some of Steve’s worry. “And maybe you should hire someone to help.”

“What do you mean?” Tony asks.

“Well, I’m not always around, and I can’t help you much,” Steve explains.

Tony cuts him off with an indignant, “You help!”

“Thanks,” Steve says, “But I can’t exactly pick up your dry cleaning or screen your calls or keep track of important things you forget when you disappear into your lab. I think it would help if you had someone around that worked for you, who you could trust with those kinds of things.”

“That’s... a really good idea,” Tony says after a long moment, and Steve can tell he’s thinking of foisting off all his unfortunate duties, like dealing with the press and going through all the mail he gets from Stark Industries. “You’re a genius!”

“Yes,” Steve says dryly, “I invented personal assistants, you know. Before the war.”

“Shut up,” Tony laughs, and Steve can’t help but smile back, hopeful.

*

Age 25

“Hi, honey, I’m home!” Tony yells when he comes in. It’s only three in the afternoon, but it’s not like Tony has ever worked normal hours.

He doesn’t yell back because he knows that in a minute--yup, sure enough, Tony comes sauntering into the media room. “Well, don’t you look comfy,” Tony says with a grin.

Steve probably does. He’s stretched out on the overstuffed couch, watching the movie that Jarvis had started for him automatically. Tony says that he made the media room for them to share, but he clearly designed it for Steve, right down to the comfortable furniture that doesn’t match the chic lines of the rest of the house.

“Do you want to join me?” Steve asks. “It’s only been playing for a couple of minutes. You could tell Jarvis to restart it.”

“And ruin the television schedule Jarvis worked so hard on? He’d skin me alive,” Tony jokes, but he comes in and joins Steve on the couch.

“I’m afraid I lack the appropriate appendages to do so, sir,” Jarvis responds, “And the Captain’s schedule is not exclusively television.”

“Oh, yeah?” Tony asks. “Then the book reader is working out?” As soon as they start talking about Tony’s invention, his enthusiasm rises, eyes gleaming.

“You will have to ask the Captain, sir,” Jarvis says. Tony had programmed Jarvis to know and accept that Steve exists, but they still can’t communicate.

“How about it, Steve?”

“It’s amazing, Tony,” Steve says, “I read a lot faster than it’s moving, but I’d rather have that than it going too fast. And this gives me time to reread anything if I get confused, so that’s nice.”

“Hmm,” Tony says, and then relays his answer to Jarvis, quickly descending into technobabble.

Steve is not very good with technology. He’s familiar with a lot of the terms and advances, but he can’t actually use any of the stuff Tony invents, so his knowledge is purely theoretical.

“I read The Hobbit this morning,” Steve says when Tony finishes talking it over with Jarvis. He knows he probably has a silly smile on his face, but he can’t help it. “It’s the first book I’ve read in years.”

Tony is beaming. “I’m glad it worked out. I’d always meant for Dummy to turn the pages for you, but he’s such a klutz that it just never worked out.”

Steve looks around to see if Dummy is within earshot, fully intending to make Tony apologize, but he seems to be off in another room, so Steve lets it go. “I’m sure it helps to have two hands. And, you know, fingers,” Steve still defends him.

Tony makes a grumpy sound that Steve suspects is more directed at failing to get the programming perfect than any upset with Dummy.

“Hey,” Steve says, apropos of nothing because with Tony sometimes the only advantage you have is surprise, “When’s the last time you ate?”

“Oh, you know, earlier,” Tony says, waving this away as unimportant with one hand.

“Uh huh,” Steve says, unimpressed, “Did you eat lunch?”

“Did I eat -- Good grief, Rogers, what is this? The third degree? Of course I did. Are we going to watch this movie or not?”

“While I do not know the specifics of Captain Rogers’ inquiry, I feel compelled to inform him that the only thing you’ve eaten today is half a doughnut and four cups of coffee,” Jarvis says smartly.

“Aha!” Steve exclaims as Tony barks, “Traitor!”

“Go get a sandwich, Tony. It’ll only take a minute, and then we’ll watch the movie,” Steve cajoles him. He wants to push Tony to motivate him, because he is definitely in striking range, but he doesn’t, of course.

“Nag, nag, nag,” Tony says, but he’s smirking and gets up to go into the kitchen.

Steve decides to follow him so that Tony doesn’t get distracted and redesign the microwave again. “Hey, will you make popcorn, too?” Steve asks. “I like the smell.” Plus it’s one of the few foods that Tony will always eat.

“Yeah, sounds good,” Tony says and pulls out his popcorn popper. It looks like one of the old fashioned ones from a few decades ago with the crank on the lid to stir the kernels inside, but this one has a small motor to turn itself at what Tony determined was the best speed.

He’s already lost his jacket, and Tony strips off his tie and rolls up the cuffs on his shirt while he waits for the popcorn to cook, pulling out sandwich makings as he goes. He looks relaxed, the faint wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deepening with the small smile on his face.

Steve loves those wrinkles, although he knows that Tony is annoyed by them when he pays attention, which isn’t often. To Steve, they’re signs that Tony is happy and living his life, but he thinks Tony sees them as a sign that he’s leaving Steve behind. Steve hasn’t aged a day since his death.

“Did you have a good day at work?” Steve asks, standing idly by the stove and listening to the muffled popping.

“Ugh, work, ugh, don’t ask,” Tony orders. “They’re all morons, Steve.”

“No, they’re not. You don’t hire morons,” Steve laughs.

Tony gives an exaggerated grimace. “I didn’t hire all of them,” he argues, taking a large bit of his finished sandwich. “So what movie are we watching?”

“Jarvis put on Casablanca,” Steve says, “but you can put on something else. I’ve seen that one. In theaters during its original release, actually.”

“Yeah, let’s put on something that’ll appeal more to a young whippersnapper like me,” Tony says, dumping the popcorn into a giant bowl and grabbing the rest of his sandwich. “C’mon, Cap, movie time.”

Steve smiles again when they settle side by side on the couch, Tony arguing with Jarvis about which movie would be best. He doesn’t even care what they decide on, knowing that Tony and Jarvis will take his tastes into account. Being dead definitely isn’t perfect: he’s intensely conscious of the few inches both him and Tony are careful to leave between them so that they don’t actually touch and remind themselves that Steve isn’t really there. But at least here he feels like he belongs.

*

Age 32

It’s quite an image: Tony is dressed in one of his suits, black with a red shirt, the jacket tossed next to him where he’s sprawled on the white couch. Tony looks almost completely put together - his shoes are even still tied - in great contrast to the man, completely naked, kneeling between Tony’s legs, sucking on his cock.

Tony’s hands are threaded through sandy brown hair and his hips are jerking ever so slightly up, and his eyes go wide when he sees them enter the room.

“Oh! I’m so sorry,” Pepper says, voice light and surprised to the uninitiated, but Steve can tell she is neither surprised nor sorry. “I’ll be in the kitchen,” she adds, turns sharply and leaves.

Steve stumbles after her, and he can feel his face burning. It definitely isn’t the first time he’s walked in on Tony having sex with someone, or even the tenth. The man has no shame! It is the first time he’s walked in on Tony with a man, and he’s really hoping that’s not going to make things weird.

Although if it is weird, it will be all on Tony, because Steve definitely doesn’t care. But this is something that Tony has managed to keep secret against all odds, given the way Steve pretty much lives with him, and Steve is worried that Tony is going to make this into a thing.

Plus, he knows it’s stupid, but he just wants to yell that it’s not even his fault this time! He didn’t appear at an inopportune moment. He was just following Pepper home from a meeting with Obadiah.

He’s been trying to keep tabs on Obadiah. Tony is completely useless for this purpose, both because Pepper usually takes care of all the details, and because he thinks Steve is crazy for being so suspicious of Obadiah in the first place. Steve can’t really explain. It’s something about the way that Obadiah looks at Tony when he thinks that Tony can’t see.

“I hope this is important,” Tony snarks when he arrives in the kitchen twenty minutes later, lounging in the doorway rather than joining Pepper and Steve at the table.

“Important for you or important for me and your company?” Pepper asks. “I need you to sign some things and double check these budget numbers. I think Obadiah is underestimating the R&D funds again, but you’re the only one he’ll listen to.”

Tony glances at Steve and then looks away, walking over to pour himself a cup of coffee.

“Tony, are you blushing?” Pepper gasps. “Do you have a fever? Are you on something?”

“No, no, and no,” Tony responds sourly. “Papers, signature, gimme.”

“You’re definitely blushing. It can’t be embarrassment, right? I thought you had no shame, and let’s face it, that was not the worst thing I’ve caught you doing.” Pepper smirks at the novel way Tony is squirming, but Steve wishes she’d just let it go.

“Is it me?” Steve asks, and Tony looks at him sharply. Steve doesn’t often talk if there are other people in the room. “You liking men doesn’t matter to me, but I can go if I’m making you uncomfortable.”

Tony shakes his head and sits down at the table, relaxing back into his chair. “Papers?” he asks again, and Pepper is all business after that.

“Sorry you found out like that,” Tony says when Pepper has gone for the night.

“Yeah, me too. I’d have preferred you to tell me when you were ready.”

“Look at you, Cap. That’s a very modern attitude you’ve got there.”

Steve shrugs. “I watch the news. I’ve seen the world change so much since my time, and no matter the reason, I just can’t stomach bullying people because of who they are.”

“You always surprise me.” Tony smiles at him, shaking his head. “And I still like women, just so you know.”

“That certainly explains why you’ve slept with so many of them,” Steve replies, deadpan.

“Oh, first Pepper, now you. I’ve had just about enough of this sass. C’mon, let’s watch a movie.”

“Don’t you need to get back to your date?” Steve asks innocently.

“Are you kidding?” Tony laughs. “He didn’t exactly stick around after that unintentional foray into exhibitionism.”

“It’s so hard to find good men these days,” Steve says as they wander back into the living room and Tony starts a movie. Tony snorts, but otherwise ignores him.

*

Age 39

It’s immediate chaos when the attack begins, in a way that Steve had practically forgotten and that nothing really prepares you for. Dust and bullets are thick in the air, and he’s yelling for Tony to run to Rhodey and get clear, but there’s just no way.

Steve sees the bomb before Tony does, standing tall and looking around frantically for an escape route, and he tries to tackle Tony to the ground, throwing his body over Tony’s to shield him, but he falls right through.

Tony is knocked back to the ground and dragged away, unconscious and bleeding, and Steve scrambles after him.

He can’t do anything, but he speaks, a low, continuous murmur of what’s going on and how Steve is still here. He doesn’t think Tony really hears him until they’re standing in front of a camera, a bag over Tony’s head.

“You won’t be able to see when they take the bag off, but don’t panic,” Steve is saying, “And there’s too many to fight them right now, so just sit quietly and wait for a better moment.”

There isn’t a better moment.

Then Tony refuses to build for them, and Steve has never been more proud or frightened in his life. He stands next to Tony, knowing what’s coming, and is still gutted when the torture starts.

After two weeks, Tony can’t take much more of this. He’s shaking and coughing when they bring him back, one hand dragging the car battery while the other shields his ribs. Every time they take him, Steve tries again to fight them off, fists and body sliding through Tony’s captors. Every time they carry him back, Steve’s heart breaks a little more at the shape he’s in. In all his long years of existing like this, he has never wanted to be able to touch more than he does right now. He burns with it, quiet fury and fierce protectiveness that mean nothing in the end.

The first few times he’d gone with Tony, followed him down the dank hallways and tried to give Tony an anchor and a friendly face in the midst of his torture, but Tony had insisted that Steve stay behind. He didn’t want to leave Tony alone, but there was so little control Tony had over the situation that Steve found himself obeying.

They throw Tony down on the thin cot, holding their interpreter at gunpoint. Steve kneels down next to him, body between them and Tony, watching until they leave.

“It’s okay, Tony, they’re gone now.” Tony shifts so that he’s on his back, moving slowly and with obvious pain. “Hey, look at me, I want to check for a concussion. Follow my finger.” Tony’s eyes snap up to Steve’s pointer finger and follows the tip as Steve moves it back and forth. His eyes follow at the same time and are both dilated equally, which is all Steve knows to check. “Good, good. You look fine.”

“Don’t know what you’re going to do if I am concussed,” Tony mutters, which causes him to cough and clutch at his ribs again.

The other man moves over with a cup of water, holding it to Tony’s lips and helping him drink. “Thanks,” Tony gasps.

“I went to visit Rhodey while you were gone,” Steve says, trying to distract Tony as best he can.

“What’s he up to?” Tony asks. They haven’t bothered hiding their conversations. There’s no privacy in this hellhole, and Tony had been too drugged to know better when he’d first woken, although Steve doesn’t know if he remembers that.

“He’s still looking for you,” Steve says. “They have a whole fleet of helicopters, and Rhodey told them to make sure to investigate any explosions. Apparently, you have a reputation.”

Tony wheezes out a laugh. “Rhodey knows me so well. But are they anywhere near us?”

“I’m not sure where we are,” Steve tells him reluctantly, “But when I go outside, I can’t hear the helicopters. I can’t hear much of anything.”

“Not good. But I already figured we were in the middle of nowhere.” Steve rests his hand next to Tony’s on the rough blanket of his cot so that their pinky fingers are almost touching, a hairsbreadth of space between. Neither of them needs the reminder that Steve isn’t real.

Steve hesitates, but then says what he’s been thinking the last few days. “Eventually you’re going to have to give in to them, Tony,” he says quietly.

Tony scowls at him and shifts restlessly. “Not strong enough, I guess?”

“Tony, you’re one of the strongest men I’ve ever known, and I’ve known a fair few. Alright?” Tony keeps his eye averted, and Steve leans over until their eyes meet. “Alright?” he asks again, firmer this time.

Tony nods. “Don’t feel very strong right now,” he admits.

“I know, and that’s my point. No one can withstand torture forever. No one. Bucky couldn’t, back in the war, and Rhodey can’t, with all his training. Not even me, Tony. Everyone breaks in the end.”

“You really suck at pep talks,” Tony says. “I’ll give you a clue: you’re supposed to make me feel better, not worse.”

“No, listen, Tony. You’re worried right now about making them weapons, and I don’t want that either, but the number one thing you need to do is stay alive, okay? Staying alive is your top priority, not refusing to add a few more bombs to the arsenal I found outside. Your ribs are only bruised right now, but if they break you’ll be much worse off. So maybe it’s time to give in.”

He lets Tony digest that in silence for a while. “I hate it when you’re right,” he sighs. “Mostly because I really don’t want to build them anything.”

“Getting access to tools and materials isn’t giving in. It’s just good strategy. I think you should smile and play nice while you build something to blow them to bits.”

Tony nods. “That does sound tempting. Have to wait until they offer again though.”

Steve frowns, not wanting Tony to be hurt anymore than he has to be, but reluctantly agrees, “It’ll be suspicious if you don’t. I’ll be able to help you make a map of the compound, too.”

He just hopes it’ll be enough.

His worry must be obvious because Tony throws a thin smile at their interpreter, who has been politely pretending that Tony isn’t speaking. “I don’t suppose they brought us dinner while I was gone? I put in an order for steak.”

Steve laughs, knowing the joke was more for him than the other man. Tony will be fine. Steve refuses to believe anything else.

*

“Tony?” Steve calls, shading his eyes from the bright sun and alarmed by the gunfire echoing in the distance.

He turns and sees Tony in his armor facing off against several men with rifles yelling in a language Steve doesn’t understand. Tony looks at him, masked face shifting in his direction because he doesn’t register in the armor’s sensors, and bullets fly at Tony, trying to take advantage of his distraction.

It’s becoming more common for Steve to find Tony suited up when he appears, as Tony tries to clean up the mess that Obadiah made, but this is the first time he’s come in the middle of a battle. He catches his breath in horror as they fire, and shit, shit, he’s put Tony in danger by yelling, however unintentionally, but Tony shakes off the bullets like they’re nothing and blasts the men with his repulsors, the fight taking only seconds.

Only once they’re down and on the ground, Tony shifts to look at him again.

“Sorry,” Steve says, trying to keep calm despite how rattled he feels. “I didn’t know where we were. I’ll see you at home.”

Tony nods and takes off, flying through the air with more grace that should be possible while wearing that much metal. Steve sighs and concentrates on Jarvis and home, letting himself be pulled across the world and back to Tony’s house in California.

He paces, unable to settle until Tony arrives, flying down to his lab through his new skylights. “I found one of their larger caches of weapons,” Tony says as Jarvis strips off the armor. “They can’t have many more. I think I’m almost done tracking down my tech.”

Steve nods, watching Tony closely for injuries. Tony studies him in return, as if finding his enthusiasm for this piece of news lacking. “Everything okay?” Tony asks.

“Yeah,” Steve says, then before Tony can press the issue adds, “How’d it go?”

Tony grimaces. “They put some kids in the warehouse to keep me from blowing it up, but Jarvis saw them, and we got them out before I destroyed it.” He sighs. “Sometimes I think I’m just training them to be smarter instead of helping.”

“You’re helping,” Steve reassures him. “If nothing else, by taking out their firepower you’re limiting the damage they can do. And didn’t you say that reports of violence are way down?”

“That’s true,” Tony says, brightening, “The death toll is down by about forty percent. You’re right, I’m awesome, and I shouldn’t forget it.”

Steve snorts. Tony looks over at him after Jarvis removes the flexible plating around his neck. “Wow, usually that level of arrogance would inspire some sarcasm. Are you sure you’re alright?”

“I’m fine.” When Tony remains unconvinced, he says, “Just sorry about being a liability back there.”

Jarvis pulls Tony’s gauntlet off, and he waves that away with his newly liberated hand, unconcerned by the incident that still has Steve off-balance. “A few bullets never hurt anyone,” Tony jokes. Steve gives him an unimpressed look. “Hey, better than that time you showed up while I was doing a test flight.”

“I don’t know. I think I would have preferred that,” Steve says, grinning faintly at Tony’s amusement with that story. “The fall probably wouldn’t have killed me, no matter how unnerving it was.” He’d thought of Pepper and sent himself elsewhere before he could hit the ground and find out.

“I wish I’d seen your face,” Tony laughs.

“Yes, it was hilarious,” Steve says dryly, and Tony laughs again. Jarvis is still working on taking apart the legs of the armor, but Tony’s trying to grab the chest plate to look at the damage. His movement makes the whole process harder until Jarvis finally reprimands him.

“Then hurry up,” Tony says, unrepentant. “Really, we’re going to have to streamline this process. Things to do, armor to fix, countries to liberate. I can’t just be waiting around here all day for you, Jarvis.”

He steps free as the last section of the armor is removed and snags the dented section he’d been reaching for. He gives a low whistle at the damage. “I’m gonna be a while with this. Want me to have Jarvis start up a book or something for you?”

“Nah,” Steve replies, taking a seat on the small couch in the lab, “I’ll just keep you company.”

Tony flashes him a wide smile, but is quickly distracted by Dummy handing him the wrong tool. “No, no, that one, honestly, why do I even keep you around?” he says and immerses himself in his work.

His continuous chatter while he works is familiar and soothing, and Steve lets go of the remnants of the icy panic he’d felt at watching Tony in harm’s way. Even if Tony seems unconcerned, Steve can’t let that happen again. He’ll have to be more careful about showing up, and maybe spend a little more time away. Steve’s probably been hovering too much since Afghanistan, anyway, and Tony is busier than he’s ever been before, and that’s saying something.

Tony’s fighting a war, and although it’s a very different one than Steve remembers, it’s an important one. Steve can’t help Tony fight, so he’s going to have to get out of his way.

*

Age 40

Tony is on his plane when Steve appears, which always kind of freaks him out. He’s not sure why finding himself forty thousand feet in the air is so much weirder than travelling at ground level, but for some reason, it definitely is.

There are two raw eggs in a bowl, shells strewn messily around, and Tony is staring at them as if they hold the mysteries of the universe.

He snorts after a minute, and starts muttering to himself, “You’ve just got to say it. Put down the omelet, look her in the face and say, ‘Pepper, I’m dying.’”

“You’re what?” Steve demands harshly, and Tony whirls around.

“Steve!” he says with a forced smile, “What’s up?” His face falls when that transparent attempt to deflect fails. Steve glares at him. “I didn’t see you there.”

“Well, I’m sure dying is very distracting!” Steve practically yells, and Tony winces. “What the hell, Tony?”

“Look, it’s not exactly my idea,” Tony snaps, but Steve interrupts before he can continue.

“Oh god,” Steve says, “This is about your arc reactor, isn’t it? You told me you were working on a repair. A little snag in the design that caused a minor mineral buildup, you said. No big deal.”

Tony’s mouth is pinched shut, just looking at Steve for a long moment. It’s one of the first times that Steve has looked at him and thought that he looked old. Tony finally seems to decide that he won’t lie, which Steve appreciates, and says, “I didn’t want to worry you.”

“Tony,” he breathes. He shuts his eyes and takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he says, voice calm and even. “How are you doing?”

“Well, you know,” Tony jokes immediately, “I’ve been better.” Steve huffs out a breath, not sure if it’s a laugh or a sob. “You’re taking this better than I thought you would.”

“Which part surprises you?” Steve asks dryly. “The yelling or the internal panicked breakdown?”

“The part where we’re already moving on to talking rationally and being emotionally supportive,” Tony admits with a smile. “Thought it’d take us a few more minutes of ranting, to be honest.”

“Not like it will help anything,” Steve reminds him, wishing he didn’t sound so bitter.

“Probably wouldn’t hurt anything, either,” Tony argues. “Why don’t you tell me about this internal breakdown?”

“Tony, in this situation, I’m emotionally supporting you,” Steve says, shaking his head in reluctant amusement.

“What can I say? You look like you could use a friend,” Tony teases him. He always says the most important things like they’re the biggest jokes of all. It drives Steve nuts.

He sighs, suddenly tired. “How can you say something like that, and then ask me why I’m upset that you’re dying?” Steve asks, then continues before Tony can interrupt, “I would have gone crazy years ago without you, Tony. You’re the only person in my world, and I mean that literally.” He rubs one hand over his eyes, and says quietly, “I just don’t think I can lose you. I’ve lost a lot of people over the years, but not you. I can’t do it.”

“You have gone crazy if you think I’m going to do anything but find you and haunt you back once I die. I’ll be able to get revenge for all these years you’ve been stalking me,” Tony says, voice tight. He shakes his head, a crooked grin tugging at his lips. “Hey, if we’re both ghosts, maybe I’ll be able to touch you.”

“Sure, Tony,” Steve says, unwilling to take that hope away, but not able to believe it himself. He’s never seen another ghost in all the decades he’s been dead, and he’s not even sure how it happened to him in the first place. Suddenly, he feels weak, and he can’t stay here and listen to Pepper’s reaction. He can’t hear the word ‘dying’ pass through Tony’s lips again. “Go and tell Pepper. She deserves to know. I’ll see you around.”

“Yup, I am, I will, just making an omelet first. Soften the blow,” Tony says, and Steve can see that he doesn’t believe it himself. Steve leaves him to it.

He pops in on Tony several times over the next few days, but Tony’s busy saving the world again and himself along with it, so he doesn’t even notice Steve there.

Steve watches quietly from the sidelines as Tony snarks with Coulson and fights alongside Rhodey and kisses Pepper, and it’s clear that he did the right thing by backing off. This is how it should be, Steve thinks before fading away again.

*

“Tony,” Steve says, and Tony looks up at him with a wide smile on his face. His armor is in pieces around him, the metal charred and dented but slowly becoming whole in Tony’s capable hands.

“Cap, hi, there you are. I was wondering where you’d floated off to. Wait until I tell you what’s been going on around here. It’s been crazy, but a good crazy, you know, although I think that Pepper would disagree with me, and--”

“Hey,” Steve says, because even though all he wants to do is sit and listen to Tony ramble on, happy and at ease, if he does he’ll never get through this. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” Steve asks.

“Sure, yeah, what’s up?” Tony wrenches a large screw out of the armor plating and throws it on the table, waving Dummy away when he reaches for it and gets in Tony’s way.

“I saw you two weeks ago at the Expo. You were amazing, Tony.”

“Yeah, that turned out pretty well, although it wouldn’t have happened at all if Hammer wasn’t such a douchenozzle. I know you don’t like swearing, but I’m quoting Pepper there, and you have to admit it’s a fairly apt description. Also, I’m not dying anymore. I thought that might interest you.”

“And I’m very proud of you,” Steve continues as if Tony hadn’t said anything. The grin drops off Tony’s face and is replaced by the uncomfortable grimace that usually accompanies Steve praising him.

“Not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment, but what’s this about?” he asks.

Steve smiles. “I saw you and Pepper. You looked so happy with her, and I realized it’s the first time I’ve ever seen you like that. And I think it’s my fault, because you don’t need a real relationship when I’m always here.”

“Steve, you know that’s not true,” Tony argues.

“Pepper’s good, though. I think you have a real chance with her. A chance to be happy. So I’m going to do something I should have done a long time ago: I’m going to let you go.”

“Okay, look, I have no idea where this is coming from, but can we take a quick timeout? Because you’re talking crazy,” Tony says bluntly and walks around the lab table between them, but stops just short of touching Steve.

Steve laughs, quick and humorless. “No, I’m not, Tony. And you know it.” A low, toneless ringing begins in his ears and he feels, for the first time in decades, a hint of warmth flaring in his chest.

“I don’t understand. Why are you saying this?” Tony demands.

“Because I love you,” Steve says, and this time his laugh is genuine, and the warmth is spreading, moving to his spine. “God, Tony, don’t you know?” Steve shakes his head at the wonder in Tony’s eyes, and the move makes him dizzy. He collapses to his knees, and Tony reaches out, instinctively trying to steady him, hand passing right through. The heat inside him is so intense that Steve wonders how Tony doesn’t burn up just from being so close.

Tony is talking, “What is it? Steve, what’s going on? Shit, Steve, tell me,” voice stressed and high, and Steve wants to reassure him, but he can’t.

“Something’s wrong,” he gasps, and then he passes out.

*

When he wakes up, he’s surprised.

He’d thought that he’d get to rest, at last.

For one long second, with the distant sound traffic and the low hum of the radio, he thinks he’s back in the forties. His old life has assumed something of a distant, golden glow in his mind, and he’s shocked that his first reaction is grief, because it means that Tony hasn’t been born yet. That he has to live these long decades again.

Then he pays attention, and as it turns out, he’s not in the forties at all.

Steve doesn’t tell anyone that although he’s been frozen for seventy years, he was aware for all of it. He’s so afraid that they will tell him it was a dream, that it didn’t really happen. He tries to prove it to himself, reading the histories they give him to make sure they match what he remembers, meeting people like Agent Coulson and Natasha that he remembers from the last year with Tony. Everything fits, but still Steve makes no effort to contact Tony. He tells himself that he’s just flying below the radar, since Fury is having him watched very closely, and that he’ll see Tony eventually with the Avengers Initiative, but the truth is that he doesn’t think he can handle it if Tony doesn’t remember him. Not on top of everything else.

So he talks to the psychologists, works out, eats a ton of cafeteria food and sleeps. He sleeps a lot, actually. He knows that they think it’s a sign of depression, but he doesn’t care. It’s been seventy years since he’s been able to sleep, and while he’d never needed to during that time, it was still something of a head trip. He also keeps randomly moving things, like the chair he’s sitting in or the salt and pepper shakers on the table, just to make sure that he can. He’s pretty sure the psychologists have no idea what to think about that.

About two and a half weeks into his stay at SHIELD, Natasha finds him in the gym. “Would you like to spar?” she asks, raising one thin eyebrow in challenge.

He doesn’t, but he knows that they’ll be working together, so he agrees. They move to a large, clear mat and he stands, waiting for her.

Steve has an unfair advantage: he’s seen her fight, although of course she doesn’t know it. He keeps her from getting in too close, using his reach against her, and only using defensive moves. Her frustration is palpable after thirty minutes of making no real progress against him, despite a few hits that get through his defenses.

When she calls a stop to things, both of them are breathing hard. “Nice fight,” he says with a genuine smile. She’s given him a lot more of a challenge than any of the other agents he’s gone up against.

“You’re really not what I expected,” she says, watching him closely as he drinks from his water bottle.

“You were expecting to find Captain America frozen but alive seventy years after his plane crash?” he asks dryly.

“No,” she says, a ghost of a smile on her lips, “But I expected a man who lost his whole world to be a little more angry about it.”

Steve shrugs. “Doesn’t seem like that will do a lot of good.”

“Probably not,” she says, “But don’t you want to know what happened to the people you cared about? You haven’t asked about the men in your unit, or anyone from your childhood. Or Peggy Carter.”

Steve has to appreciate her audacity. No one else has brought Peggy up by name. “You’ve read my file, so you know I didn’t have much of anyone before the war. Besides, I know the probability of finding my friends alive after seventy years. It’s not good.”

“That’s a very pragmatic approach for such a lauded idealist,” she says and starts stretching, more showing off than exercise.

“Make sure that part goes into your report,” he replies.

Her smile widens. “I’ll do that.”

*

When Fury tells him that he’ll meet the other Avengers in the next few days, Steve decides that the month he’s put it off is long enough. He knows from the news reports that Tony’s in New York, so he leaves SHIELD on his own for the first time (although he doesn’t kid himself that he isn’t being followed) and walks to Stark Tower.

It’s odd to be out in a crowd, but people smile and step around him or jostle him as he goes by, and it makes him feel like a part of the city again.

At the Tower, he politely greets the doorman and strides through the lobby with familiar ease. He can feel the eyes of the security guards, but no one stops him as he enters the main elevator and feeds it Tony’s override code. Even if it doesn’t work anymore, it’ll get Tony’s attention.

He tries not to think about the fact that the code, along with everything else, could be a product of his own fevered imagination.

Tony is waiting casually by the door to the elevator, pouring himself a drink. He’s dressed in an old t-shirt and jeans which are clean enough that Steve can tell he hadn’t been working, at least not for long. The silver briefcase with his armor sits beside the liquor cart, in easy reach.

“Very few people know that code,” Tony says, capping the expensive, crystal decanter.

“And I’m one of them,” Steve replies easily.

Tony’s head whips around and he sets the the glass blindly down, alcohol untouched. “Oh, so now you show up! I’ve been going crazy with worry, and you just waltz in here, and...” Tony pauses, as if his brain is catching up with his mouth. He takes a step forward. “You came up here in the elevator. And what are you wearing?”

Steve is smiling so hard that he can feel it in the muscles of his cheeks, and he can’t seem to stop. He shrugs, because the simple slacks and white shirt he has on aren’t really noteworthy.

“Jarvis!” Tony barks, “Can you see him?”

“I can, sir, with all available sensors. And might I add that it is an absolute pleasure to meet you at last, Captain?”

Steve smiles and looks at the nearest camera embedded in the ceiling. “Trust me, Jarvis, the pleasure’s all mine. I can finally thank you for taking care of Tony all these years.”

“You’re... You’re really here,” Tony says, but it looks like he doesn’t believe the words that are coming out of his mouth.

Steve holds out a hand, and Tony takes another step forward, and another. His fingers are shaking just slightly as he reaches out. He freezes when their hands are an inch apart, eyes darting up to Steve’s. In them Steve can read every fear he had, but then he sees a flash of that steely determination he has always been so proud of, and Tony closes the gap, fingers rough and warm against Steve’s palm. He captures Steve’s hand and squeezes, gripping so tightly that Steve doesn’t think he’ll ever let go.

“Tony,” he says, voice thick, and then Tony flings himself into Steve’s arms. Tony’s face is against his neck, and his arms are wrapped around Tony’s back, holding him. He does what he has wanted to do since he first set eyes on Tony: gathers him close so that he knows he is safe, and not alone, and so, so loved.

Steve’s knees feel weak, so he lowers them to the floor. Tony ends up in his lap, clinging, and Steve hides his face against Tony’s hair. He breathes in the familiar scent and lets himself believe that this is real.

*

Eventually Steve realizes that Tony has fallen asleep in his arms. He huffs out a quiet laugh and sits for a little while longer enjoying the warmth and weight of Tony curled against him.

Then he stands and carries Tony easily into the palatial bedroom down the hall. He sets Tony down and then rests on the edge of the mattress, not really wanting to leave but feeling weird about crawling into bed. He decides to go raid Tony’s kitchen while Tony sleeps but hesitates when he stands. He probably shouldn’t take liberties, but when he thinks about the number of times he’s stood just like this, wanting, well, he can’t help himself. He leans down, sweeps back Tony’s short hair and kisses him gently on the forehead.

He’s smiling when he straightens, but is prevented from leaving by Tony grabbing his wrist. “This is a good dream,” Tony grins and tugs on Steve, who allows himself to be pulled back down to the bed.

“I’m not sure about you, but I’m awake.”

Tony ignores him completely, sitting up when Steve refuses to move down any further, and kisses him. His lips are warm and smooth, and his hand on Steve’s cheek tilts his head into place so that they fit together perfectly.

When he starts to kiss back tentatively, Tony hums, thumb rubbing gently back and forth against his cheek. Tony is everywhere, goatee rubbing against the skin on his face, lips soft against his, the smell and taste of him making everything unravel for a long minute, seconds stretching out as Tony’s tongue traces the seam of his lips. But even through the roaring in his ears and the slow burn in the pit of his stomach, he realizes that he can’t do this.

“No,” he whispers and discovers he’s clenched his hands in Tony’s t-shirt and uses that to push Tony away. “No, we can’t.”

Tony’s face turns ugly with shame and self-loathing, and he flinches back.

“You’re with Pepper, and I won’t let you cheat, Tony,” he hurriedly explains, because he wasn’t rejecting him. That wasn’t what he’d meant at all.

“Oh,” Tony says, expression clearing, but the tension doesn’t leave his body. “No, I’m not with Pepper, it’s fine. You can kiss me with a clear conscience. In fact, you should definitely do that, right now.”

His voice is that well-practiced casual which means just the opposite, and Steve has a long, familiar moment of wanting to hunt down whoever has hurt Tony and punch them. He takes a moment to savor the fact that he can, even if he won’t, before asking, “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” Tony scowls. Steve doesn’t argue, just finally frees his hands from Tony’s shirt and lays them down so that they’re facing each other, hands intertwined between them. “Fine,” Tony huffs, as if he’s giving into Steve unreasonable demands, and Steve suppresses a smile. “When you disappeared last time, I was obviously concerned,” Tony pauses and glances at him as if gauging him for any mocking, but when Steve remains quiet, Tony continues, “And I ended up telling her what was going on. With you. I told her about you.”

Tony’s fingers tighten. “She didn’t believe me. And I know it’s a lot to swallow, but it was Pepper. I mean, I’ve burned her before, more than I can remember, let alone count, but I really thought she would... Anyway, she’s been more interested in getting me to see a psychiatrist than dating, which isn’t the best basis for a relationship.”

“I’m sorry, Tony,” Steve says, “But she had no way of knowing. Hey, call her right now and tell her to come over. You can introduce me, and we can straighten this whole mess out. I’m sure she’ll come around once she realizes you were telling the truth.”

“I’m not calling Pepper,” Tony says, looking at Steve like he’s crazy.

“Why not? It’ll work,” Steve encourages, “And you’ll get her back.”

“I don’t want to,” Tony snaps and rolls his eyes at Steve’s shocked expression. “You’re here now.”

He opens his mouth to argue, but his stomach growls before he can respond.

“Seriously?” Tony laughs.

Steve blushes. “I have to eat a lot. Which has taken some adjustment.”

“After 70 years or so of not eating? I’d think so,” Tony agrees. “Come on, I’ll make you a sandwich.” He gets up and pulls Steve up off the bed, not letting him go until the last second. Steve doesn’t really want him to let go at all, but holding hands while walking around the apartment might be a little weird. As if to make up for it, Tony walks so close to him that he can feel that warmth of Tony’s body.

When they get to the kitchen, Tony opens the fridge and starts digging out meat and cheese, and Steve pulls down two plates (because odds are that Tony has forgotten to eat again) and then gets the bread from the pantry. He digs out a bag of Tony’s favorite chips that he’s always wanted to try and turns to find Tony staring at him, a jar of mustard in his hand.

“What?” he asks, opening the bag.

“Nothing,” Tony says, setting down the mustard and starting to construct a sandwich, but there’s a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

Steve shrugs and returns the smile, popping a chip into his mouth. He grimaces as he chews, managing to swallow despite the overwhelming vinegar flavor, and Tony laughs at his expression. “They always smelled so good,” Steve explains mournfully, frowning at the bag. He pushes the bag over and gets an apple instead, cutting it neatly and slipping a few slices onto Tony’s plate.

Tony slides over Steve’s sandwich and starts making his own. Steve takes a large bite, watching Tony as he moves quickly, eyes darting over to Steve and away again. “You’re nervous,” Steve says.

“What? I am not,” Tony argues.

“Please, Tony. I know you. I thought you’d gotten used to me after all these years.” He takes another bite and watches Tony fiddle with a lettuce leaf.

“You could have made your own sandwich,” Tony says, the words heavier than they should be when talking about sandwiches. “Sorry, I should have let you.”

“Okay?” Steve says, confused but perfectly willing to let Tony change the subject.

“Do you even like ham?” Tony asks, picking up an apple slice but not eating it. “I have mayo if you like that better.”

“This is a good sandwich, and I like it,” Steve enunciates slowly, although he’s now thoroughly distracted from the sandwich by Tony’s behavior. “Why are you wearing your angst face about a sandwich?”

“I don’t have an angst face,” Tony sputters.

“Sure,” Steve says and nods. “I’m just going to eat this delicious, angst-free sandwich, then.”

Tony huffs out a laugh, seemingly against his will. “It’s hard to get worked up when you’re standing there being all... real,” Tony complains.

“Then what’s the problem?” Steve asks.

“You’re real,” Tony starts, words slow and then picking up speed as he talks, “And you can make your own sandwiches, and turn on the television, and talk to, you know, other people. If you can do all that, then why are you in my kitchen eating my stupid sandwich?” Tony looks a little stricken as he finishes, like he hadn’t meant to say all that aloud.

Steve sighs and sets down his half-eaten sandwich. “For a genius, Tony, you sure are dumb,” he says, moving over and laying a hand on Tony’s forearm. He thinks they both need the reminder that he’s really there. “Did you miss the part where I love you?”

“You were in ghost distress at the time!” Tony says defensively, “And you were talking about skipping out on me and all other kinds of bullshit. How was I supposed to believe any of that?”

“I want you to know that this is the most ridiculous conversation we’ve ever had,” Steve tells him, “And that’s saying something.” Then he pulls Tony’s arm until they’re close enough that Steve can bend down and kiss him, far too quickly if Tony’s whine as he moves away is any indication.

He holds Tony away and looks at the open desire on his face. “You mean it, right?” Steve asks, voice rough, “Because you need to. I just, I’ve never--”

“I have been waiting to kiss you for years,” Tony interrupts. “Trust me, I mean it.” He swallows and drops his eyes to Steve’s lips. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

Steve doesn’t answer, just kisses him again. He means for it to be slow and reassuring, but Tony pushes up and deepens it, wrapping his free arm around Steve’s neck. Tony seems almost desperate, as if he’s trying to get as much of this as possible before Steve comes to his senses. It makes everything slick and hot, want curling up inside him. Steve lifts Tony up on the counter, one plate rattling out of the way and the chips falling and scattering on the floor, but he doesn’t care about anything but being able to step between Tony’s legs and get even closer to him.

Tony wraps his legs around Steve’s waist and uses the leverage to grind them together through their pants, a move which makes Steve break their kiss to gasp out a breath, and then groan when Tony does it again.

“Here, here,” Tony grunts, grabbing at the back of Steve’s shirt and tugging until Steve helps him get it off. “Oh, god, that’s even better than I imagined,” Tony breathes as he lays his palms on the tops of Steve’s shoulders and starts working circles into the muscles.

“What?” Steve asks a little blankly, attention consumed by the feel of Tony’s hands, god, those hands, against his skin of his collarbone and neck before slowly moving down.

Tony chuckles. “Oh, nothing,” he says, one of his thumbs dipping down to circle Steve’s nipple.

He sucks in a breath and thrusts against Tony, placing a hand against the small of his back to steady him. He lets his fingers find their way to the warm skin beneath Tony’s shirt, but doesn’t try to take it off.

“Shit,” Tony gasps, and then starts babbling, “This is not going to last very long. I don’t think anyone can blame us,” Tony keeps talking while unbuckling Steve’s brown leather belt, “since I’ve had a hard-on for you forever, and you haven’t been corporeal for even longer.”

The touch of Tony’s fingers on his cock is almost too much, and he lets out a low moan. “Tony, god,” he says, and then leans forward to kiss the smug smirk off Tony’s face. It traps Tony’s hand between them, but Tony doesn’t seem to mind, just curls his hand around Steve’s cock and strokes as best he can. His movements are dictated by rhythm of Steve’s hips jerking against him, and Steve tries to slow down, he does, but Tony has his tongue in Steve’s mouth and rubs his thumb over the head of Steve’s cock.

The move makes his whole body tighten, muscles tensing and straining, and Steve cries out, the sound muffled against Tony’s mouth. Tony hums back, a low noise in his throat that Steve recognizes from years of watching Tony in his lab which means interesting result, and then everything spirals out of his control as he comes on Tony’s hand.

He breaks the kiss and drops his head down to Tony’s shoulder, body shaking. He takes several deep breaths and focuses on Tony, who hasn’t come yet and is holding Steve as he calms.

Steve shifts back slightly, giving himself more room, and reaches for the fly on Tony’s jeans.

“Oh, god, Steve,” Tony says thickly, “You don’t, you don’t have to--”

“I want to,” Steve says as he wraps a hand around Tony’s cock for the first time. He pulls, twisting as he goes, rubbing his thumb over the head at the end of the stroke like Tony had done. Tony makes a low, pained noise, and Steve lifts his head as he repeats the stroke, faster this time, to look at the expression on Tony’s face. His eyes are dark and fixed on Steve, as if he thinks that if he takes his eyes away for a second, Steve will disappear or become someone else.

“Tony,” he says, letting his voice drop with the pleasure still ringing through his body, and Tony makes a small, needy sound. He tightens his hand a little and goes even faster. “I want you,” Steve says, and Tony’s hips start rocking. “I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere,” Steve says, because it’s what he wants, too, and Tony comes with a quiet groan, fingers digging hard into Steve’s biceps.

Steve gives him a small smile and decides that dazed is a good look for Tony. He thinks that right up until the point Tony takes his hand and starts to lick the come off his palm. “God, Tony,” he says, voice cracking, and Tony beams at him.

He presses a kiss to Tony’s temple and holds him. Tony sighs and pulls him closer, neither of them willing to let go quite yet.

*

“Sir, Director Fury is attempting to override my system,” Jarvis alerts them three days later, waking Steve from a sound sleep.

Tony looks up from his tablet where he’s lounging next to Steve and blinks a couple times. “At 3:40 in the morning?” he asks.

“Yes, sir,” Jarvis replies, the obviously withheld but clear in his tone. “Shall I allow him to succeed?”

“Yeah,” Tony sighs, standing up and tossing the tablet aside. “Otherwise he’ll move on to heavy ordnance, and I don’t feel the need to redecorate at the moment.”

Steve gets out of bed and pulls on his clothes, which are folded neatly on the nearest chair. Tony grabs the first thing out of his closet, a red dress shirt, and pulls it on over his black boxer briefs. He doesn’t bother to button it up, strolling out into the main room and pouring himself a drink from the cart as they wait for the elevator.

“Is alcohol your usual response to home invasion? Because I’m detecting a pattern,” Steve comments, bare feet padding quietly across the floor.

Tony shrugs. “My briefcase was already over here. And dealing with Fury is easier with a drink in hand.”

“Funny,” Fury says flatly as he steps out of the elevator, long black coat flaring out behind him in a sufficiently dramatic manner, “I always say the same thing about you.”

Natasha follows, expression bland. Tony’s lack of clothing doesn’t get a second glance, although an eyebrow twitches at Steve’s casual stance, hands in his pockets. Two other agents, visibly armed, step out and hold the elevator doors.

“Do you two want to tell me what is going on here?” Fury asks, although it sounds more like a command. Steve’s noticed that he’s good at that.

“I know that don’t ask, don’t tell has been repealed, but I don’t think that means you’re supposed to invade people’s home to find out what’s going on behind closed doors,” Tony says.

“Maybe if those people answered their phones, I wouldn’t have to make house calls,” Fury retorts. “Not even Pepper could get through.”

“Yeah, I might have gone a little overboard when I initiated lockdown, but c’mon,” Tony says, gesturing expansively at Steve, “Can you blame me?”

Steve rolls his eyes, and Fury’s attention snaps to him. “You have something to add, Rogers?”

“No, sir, sorry, sir,” Steve says, then widens his eyes and says in an innocent voice, “All this technology is just so confusing.”

The effect is ruined by the way Tony starts laughing, deep and ending on something very much like a giggle as he grips the drink cart to keep from falling over.

It recaptures Fury’s ire, and he spits out, “I am not here to entertain you, Stark,” before continuing in a rant that Steve doesn’t really hear, too intent on watching the way that Tony laughs, his red shirt hanging on his body but doing nothing to hide it. He could walk up to Tony and slowly strip it off him, letting it fall to the floor as he touches all the skin he just exposed.

“Captain, are you listening to me?” Fury demands.

“Uh,” Steve says and then trails off, thinking it must be pretty obvious that the answer is no. Tony leers at him in his peripheral vision.

Fury glares and then barks out, “I’ll see you at 0800, soldier.”

“Yes, sir,” Steve says.

Fury sighs and turns on heel.

“Him?” Natasha asks, pausing with one hand holding the doors open.

“Absolutely,” Steve says.

She raises an eyebrow. “Three days?”

Steve blushes, and she smirks. “Make sure you call Pepper tomorrow,” she tells Tony and steps into the elevator, letting it close behind her with a ding.

“Well,” Tony says, draining his drink, “That was fun. Hey, Cap, I’m feeling a little traumatized. Why don’t you make it up to me?”

Steve shakes his head, but he grabs Tony’s shirt and uses it to pull him close.

*

“Tony, come on, we don’t want to be late for another meeting with Fury,” Steve calls out, voice echoing through the apartment, “He’ll accuse you of kidnapping me again.”

“I think he’s just upset that you’re a willing victim of my charms,” Tony says, straightening his cuffs as he appears.

“I know. He keeps leaving out pamphlets about Stockholm syndrome,” Steve complains.

“Well, next time tell someone what’s going on,” Tony says, slipping on a pair of sunglasses.

Steve rolls his eyes as they got in the elevator. “I didn’t think I’d be gone for three days!”

Tony wiggles his eyebrows suggestively and smirks.

“Oh, shut up,” Steve orders, but despite his tone, he leans in close enough that their arms bump together, reassuringly solid. “Also, you should stop wearing these bright red shirts.”

“What?” Tony says, looking down and running his hands over his jacket to smooth out imaginary wrinkles. “This suit is amazing. What are you talking about?”

“It’s just distracting,” Steve says.

“Yeah, I am not buying that at all. Explain,” Tony orders.

“Fine,” Steve sighs. “It’s just, everytime I see you in this color red, I can’t stop thinking about that one time you were getting blown on the couch. Only with me the one naked between your legs.”

“Oh my god, that’s why you were so out of it when Fury was threatening us! You were fantasizing about getting your face fucked,” Tony exclaims.

“Pretty much,” Steve agrees, voice deliberately casual.

Tony makes a muffled noise of shock and arousal, but he doesn’t have time to respond before the elevator doors open. Steve grins, and they step forward into the lobby, together.