The first time Steve saw the boy was behind the library, on a beautiful October afternoon when the clouds were scudding around the sky like they had nothing better to do. Steve’s knee was bleeding, again. He bent over it and picked the gravel out of the cuts with the intense concentration of someone trying not to think about anything else.
They’d caught him coming around the corner on Truman Street, Schmidt and Zola and Arnim and the rest. He’d seen Arnim’s plump shape behind a tree and turned to run; that was how he’d scraped his knee, tripping over his own feet and onto the sidewalk in his haste to flee. Johann was always very careful not to draw blood.
Steve swallowed and closed his eyes. He hadn’t cried. That was important. He’d learned that lesson a while ago.
“D’you need help?”
Steve startled out of his reverie, his legs jerking. The voice was friendly. He looked up to see a dark-haired boy about his age in a red and yellow coat far too large for him crouching by his side, his face interested.
“Why should I need help?” said Steve, defensive.
“Well, your knee’s bleeding,” said the boy. “Thought you might want iodine, or a Band-Aid. Not a lot of those back here.” He stuck out a hand. “Tony Stark.”
“Steve Rogers,” said Steve warily. The boy’s hand was as cold as ice.
“Just saw a group of boys heading back around the corner,” Tony said. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about them, would you?” His voice was casual.
Steve glanced up for a split second to meet his eyes. “You new here, or something?” he asked. “I thought everyone around here knew Schmidt and his crew.”
Tony shrugged effusively. “Used to, when I was younger. I know his type.”
Steve grunted. “Pretty sure everyone does.”
Tony stood up. “Well?” he said. “You going back out there for the Band-Aid, or not?”
Steve stared at his scraped knee, bit his lip. It was a beautiful autumn day. The wind ruffled the dead yellow lawns, and somewhere in the distance, Halloween was coming. “I dunno,” he said. “Think I’d kind of just rather stay here a while.”
“I feel you,” said Tony, and plopped himself down next to Steve companionably.
“Yeah?” said Steve, and gave the boy a tentative smile.
“Seems to me out there’s overrated,” said Tony. “What’ve they got that’s worthwhile? Now, back here there’s you, and me, which is definitely worth staying for.”
“That’s modest of you,” said Steve, laughing.
“Here,” said Tony, and shrugged off his overlarge jacket. He handed it to Steve. “Put it on your knee. It’s not a disinfectant, but it’ll soak up some of the bleeding.”
“Thanks,” said Steve, surprised. “Aren’t you going to need it? It’s getting late.”
Tony shrugged again. “I don’t get cold.”
“All right,” said Steve, skeptical, but he wrapped the jacket around his knee anyway. It felt thick and warm, like a blanket.
A comfortable silence descended, and Steve observed the boy out of the corner of his eye. Tony was golden-skinned, and his eyes were startlingly blue in his face. His hair was messy and dark, and under the jacket he wore a grey T-shirt emblazoned with the name of some band Steve remembered as popular about twenty years ago, as well as a pair of plain blue jeans and red Converse.
“Like what you see?” Tony said, wiggling his eyebrows, and Steve felt himself blush. Tony grinned. “No worries. You’re not so bad-looking yourself. Hey, want to go exploring in the woods?”
“We’re not supposed to go into the woods,” said Steve, his mother’s old warning startled out of his mouth. “A boy died there once, he just went in one day and never came out. It’s dangerous.”
Tony’s grin twisted for a split second into something bitter and angry, but before Steve could blink, it was gone. “We’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m great at nature. Stick with me and you won’t get lost.”
Steve hesitated, and Tony saw it. He grabbed Steve’s hands, his grip still ice-cold. “Do you trust me?” he asked.
Steve said, “Yes,” and for the life of him could not have said why.
The woods were quiet and golden in the late afternoon light. Steve’s feet crunched on the dead leaves. “It’s pretty out here,” he said.
“Isn’t it?” said Tony, his voice almost a whisper. “Here, I know a stream nearby that’s just gorgeous.”
“How d’you know where the stream is if you haven’t lived here since—” Steve began, but Tony was already far ahead of him. He sighed and dashed after him, his footsteps a flurry of noise through the underbrush.
The stream was gorgeous. It twinkled like stars in the sunlight, its trickle a faint murmur of noise under the sound of the wind in the branches. Dead leaves floated through it, red and brown sailboats drifting their way to somewhere better.
“C’mon,” said Tony, wading into the current.
“I’ve got socks on,” Steve protested, but he splashed in afterwards. The water felt cool against his skin. He’d already tied Tony’s coat around his waist so he could walk, and now he tugged it up to his shoulders, letting the sleeves dangle around his neck. Out here, in the woods, the world felt quiet. There was no one around for ages but them; even the noise of the nearby streets and city had faded to a gentle background hum. Steve closed his eyes and let the current flow around him, dead leaves brushing against his side, the river’s trickle the only noise in his ears.
“Hey,” said Tony’s voice, and Steve opened his eyes to see the other boy’s face in front of him, smiling. “Let’s go out to the bank.”
They sat on the opposite bank of the river, letting the sun play across their faces. To his surprise, Steve felt himself begin to smile. The woods were peaceful, the sun was low, and their footsteps led from the edge of the river to—
There was one set of footsteps leading from the river.
One set of footsteps, and now Steve thought of it, there had only been one set crunching through the dead leaves. And now he looked, his shadow lay out in front of him, dark and long and solid, where Tony’s didn’t.
“You’re him, aren’t you,” he said quietly. “The boy who never came out of the woods. The dead boy.”
He could feel, next to him, the breath go out of Tony in one long rush. “Are you going to leave now?” he said.
Steve said, to his own surprise, “No.”
The next day was a Friday. Steve stuck his hands in his pockets, shrugged deeper into his hoodie, and made his way down Truman to the alleyway behind the library. The wind was colder today, the sky strung with long grey ropes of cloud. Steve leaned against the library wall, pushed his hood back, and scanned the thin space between the library and the next building. “Tony?” he called softly.
“Hey,” said Tony, next to him, and Steve jumped.
“Jeez,” he said shakily. “You nearly scared me half to—uh.”
Tony snorted. “It’s all right, I know I’m a dead guy. Woods?”
“Sure,” said Steve easily, and Tony gave him a tentative smile and grabbed his hand. It was still freezing, but, Steve thought as Tony led him towards the forest, it seemed more bearable today than it had the day before.
“So how was your day?” asked Tony as Steve crunched through the leaves.
Steve shrugged. “Dunno.”
It had been a long morning. Schmidt had thrown tacks at his arm, steadily, all through Geometry; some of them had hit him on the blunt end, some hadn’t.
“You said you knew Schmidt’s type,” he said abruptly. “When you were younger. What did they—who were they?”
Tony stuck his hands in the pockets of his overlarge coat. Steve noticed that he was wearing the same clothes he had been wearing the day before, and thought suddenly that Tony must have been wearing the same T-shirt, jeans, and jacket for every day since he had died. It made his chest hurt, and he ducked his head to hide his face.
“His name was Obadiah,” Tony said slowly. “I thought he was nice, at first—we all did. Nice, and funny, and cool. I was sixteen when he moved here.”
“You’re still about that age,” said Steve slowly.
Tony stopped and ran a hand over a tree trunk. “Yeah. I was—it didn’t take long.”
“What didn’t take long?” asked Steve, stopping next to him.
The corner of Tony’s mouth pulled up in something that wasn’t quite a smile. “So he decided I must have a crush on him, right?”
Steve didn’t say anything.
“It wasn’t—I couldn’t have, like, complained about anything specific,” said Tony. “No one took me out behind the gym and broke my nose, or anything. They just—stopped talking to me. I’d find my textbooks inside the women’s bathrooms. There stopped being anyplace to sit at the cafeteria.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “And—the days get long. And there’s nowhere to go, because you can’t hide behind the library forever, you just can’t. So you find somewhere. You find somewhere no one bothers you, somewhere you know better than anybody else, somewhere you can finally breathe, and then you have to go back out to the world, and you just stop—” He broke off, and did not go on.
“Yeah,” said Steve quietly.
Tony turned to face Steve for the first time, and his eyes were sad. “Yeah,” he echoed, and turned to begin to walk again.
The woods were golden again today, the long grey ropes of cloud lighting up in caramel and mauve as the sun approached the horizon. “It must be nice,” Steve said eventually. “Living out here. I mean, not living, but you know.”
Tony smiled. “Yeah,” he said. “You should see it out here in the winter, in the morning. The snow just goes on forever and ever, no footsteps, all of it just this smooth, unbroken field.”
A cold wind rustled the tree leaves, and Steve shivered. Tony’s eyes widened. “I’m an idiot,” he said, “you must be freezing, the sun’s almost down. You want my coat again?”
“I think I’d better just get home,” said Steve, wrapping his arms around himself. It was freezing.
“All right,” said Tony, biting his lip. “I’ll walk you back.”
They were halfway to the edge of the woods when Tony grabbed Steve’s hands again, a smile curling the corner of his mouth. “Can I show you something?” he said.
“Sure,” said Steve, bewildered, “but it can’t take too long, I gotta—”
“Great,” said Tony, and pulled him forward.
“You are way too strong for a dead guy,” Steve muttered, but he followed Tony through the woods and out into—
Tony had let go of Steve’s hand, but Steve walked after him anyway, through the piles of dead leaves to a plain grey headstone that read nothing more than TONY STARK. MARCH 3, 1963 – MARCH 3, 1980.
“It was your birthday,” Steve murmured, running his fingers across the stone.
“Yeah,” said Tony, behind him. “I figured it’d be a good day. Y’know, poetically appropriate.”
Steve turned. Tony had his hands in his pockets, and his chin was tilted up. He was staring at the sky. Steve looked up, too; the sky was the dusky blue-grey of twilight, and the first stars were beginning to peer out. It was nothing extraordinary, but Tony was staring at it with a strange expression on his face, almost wistful.
“It’s not so bad, being dead,” he said in a funny voice. “It’s quieter. No one bothers you. And sometimes you feel like the world isn’t even there, like if you wanted you could just close your eyes and—let go. Except.”
Steve waited. “Except?” he prompted, when nothing more seemed forthcoming.
“Except it gets lonely,” said Tony, and sighed.
There was a long pause. The wind hissed through the dead leaves. Tony said, “Do you ever wonder why you can see me?”
“Why I can see you?” Steve echoed dumbly.
“Forty years, and you’re the first,” said Tony. “You can’t imagine how—and then you noticed me, you talked to me.” He grabbed at Steve’s hands. “Maybe it was meant to happen. Maybe you and me, we’ve got the same, the same nature, maybe we’re meant to—”
Steve pulled his hands out of Tony’s. “I have to get home,” he said, and practically ran from the shadowy graveyard.
The walk home was long and cold. Steve shivered and buried his head in his hoodie. What had Tony been saying? That Steve was like him? That he, too, had been hurt? That he, too, had wanted to run away? That he, too, wanted to go into the woods and never come out?
Steve stopped dead in the middle of the street. Did he want to do what Tony had done? Did he want to walk into the woods, away from the school and the town and Schmidt and his friends, and stay there forever?
He pushed his hood back, turned his face up to the sky, and let the October wind whip strands of his hair across his face. I don’t get cold, Tony had said. Steve reached two numb fingers up to his cheek, felt the cold pressure against his skin. Somewhere inside his chest, his heart was beating.
He pulled his hood back up, squeezed his eyes shut, sighed, and headed home.
Monday evening found him behind the library again. “Tony?” he called softly.
Tony was in front of him in a heartbeat. “You came,” he said, and the relief in his voice was plain.
“Yeah,” said Steve, “yeah, of course I came.”
Tony scratched at the back of his head, shifted from foot to foot. Steve could see him swallow. “Did you think about, y’know, what I said?”
“Yeah,” said Steve.
Tony met his gaze. “You could come with me, y’know,” he said quietly. “Into the woods.”
“I know,” said Steve, and he did know.
“It’s nice out there,” said Tony. “The sun, and the stream, and the snow in the winter. And it wouldn’t be lonely. Not if we were together.”
“You were seventeen?” Steve asked. “When you went to the woods?”
“Yeah,” said Tony, shrugging under his overlarge coat. “Same as you, I think.”
“Y’ever wonder what it’s like to be eighteen?” asked Steve.
Tony gave him a blank look.
“Never mind,” said Steve. “Let’s hang out in the woods, all right?”
It was later than usual, and the light that strained through the branches was dim and blue. They made their way over to the stream, and Steve peeled off his shoes and socks, dangling his feet in the icy cold water. He could feel his toes numbing.
“Are you going to stay?” asked Tony. He was sitting cross-legged beside Steve, his bright blue eyes wide in his face, his grey T-shirt riding up to show a sliver of golden skin.
Steve looked at him, and thought. He thought of scraped knees, and warm jackets. He thought of cold graveyards, and colder winds. He thought of hiding behind the library, and crunching through dead leaves, and the sensation of his heartbeat inside his chest, and loneliness. And he thought of Thursday turning into Friday, and October into November, and Halloween coming, and what it might be like to be eighteen, and change, and grow up.
“Give me your hands,” he said.
“What?” said Tony.
“Give me your hands,” said Steve, and reached out for them.
Tony hesitated. Then he said, “All right,” and put his hands in Steve’s. They were colder than ever, but Steve held on tight.
“You told me that sometimes you felt like the world wasn’t there,” he said, his voice quiet. “That all you had to do was let go, and it would just melt away.
Tony began to speak, but Steve cut him off. “I want you to let go for me,” he said. “Stop hiding. Stop running away. Just let yourself be a part of it—like the sun, and the stream, and the snow in the winter.”
Tony’s eyes flew open, terrified. Steve leaned forward and kissed him on the lips, and felt something warm and wet against his cheek. “Do you trust me?” he whispered, and squeezed his eyes shut.
There was a long pause. Steve opened his eyes. Tony was gone.
He sat there a long, long time. Then he stood up, and began to make his way out of the cold October forest to face the world outside.