Tony sat beside Steve in the Quinjet, briefcase suit tied down in a cargo securing net at his feet. He was trying desperately to forget the urgency in Fury's eye when he'd gone to consult with the flight crew.
It was the same urgency he'd had on arrival at Stark Tower just an hour ago, when he'd announced one Margaret Carter was still alive, and it wasn't fading.
Phil had stayed behind in Stark Tower. Phil was going to be needed to explain to everyone else just why Tony and Steve had skipped town together in the middle of the night.
And Tony knew that the foundation of Steve's relationship with Phil was fundamentally different than the one he had with Tony and always would be.
Phil had looked up to him as a hero. Tony had viewed him as an older deceased almost-brother, mostly from the way his father had spoken of him, and had always doubted he was who the legends claimed he was.
Steve had nothing to lose by falling apart in front of Tony.
And Tony thought he might need to.
Tony was the Avenger -- other than Steve himself -- most intimately aware of Steve's life during World War II, if for no other reason than because for a great deal of time it had been Howard Stark's life as well and that meant Tony had access to information -- whether through old Stark Industries records or Howard's stories of the war -- that SHIELD had either never known or never written down, things even Phil's exhaustive knowledge had never been able to include from simple lack of access.
Tony knew how old Peggy was, and judging by how 'young' most of his father's unclassified wartime friends had died, being in her mid-nineties was more than a ripe old age.
The classified ones, too. Steve was the one exception there, and that was possibly only because he hadn't biologically reached thirty yet. No one had any idea what Erskine's serum did to physical aging yet.
Tony seriously doubted Steve had anyone else left, and an hour ago he hadn't thought he had even Peggy left. Just the new family he'd found in the Avengers.
'Next of Kin: None', he thought. You and me both, Capsicle.
Landing at an airport. Tony didn't care where, but the flight had been short.
Then again, nearly any flight on a Quinjet was short.
A car, instead of another helicopter. Unmarked, discrete.
Urgent but not immediately so, he thought.
It was a good sign, meant they would have time, meant it was unlikely they were in a minute by minute race against Too Late.
Fury sat in front giving directions to the driver. Tony kept Steve company in the back, thinking.
He was unused to this. His parents had died so suddenly that even being in the first ambulance to respond would have been Too Late. Yinsen had been able to talk for a moment before he passed, but Tony hadn't even expected him to be in the fight so much as fifteen minutes before it happened, much less injured and even less fatally so.
This was age, and all of Tony's experience said that those close to him died from accident and anyone not close to him was likely to fade out of his life long before they faded from life.
The buildings of a military base got less and less dense. They passed beyond a checkpoint gate with little delay.
Fields, the occasional house. If there were more trees, it would have felt like the property he'd purchased upstate for the Avengers.
Denser houses, now. Tony couldn't tell if it was the outlying area of a small town or simply the edge of a sprawling suburbia, at least not until he saw the tell-tale boxy skyline a few blocks away.
A small town, then. There were plenty all across the country that subsisted partly on agriculture and partly on the steady flow of base paychecks into the local economy.
The kind of place that tended to be quiet, peaceful, and not a bad place to slip through the last few years of a long life well-lived.
They pulled to a stop in front of a small two-story home with a front porch and all the lights on.
All the lights on at what the little LED clock on the dashboard claimed was not far from being 3 o'clock in the morning, in a neighborhood where most of the others had likely been turned off at maybe an hour off of sunset.
The happy two hours of laughing at The Wizard Of Oz together seemed so far away, the unhappy revelations of Steve's past before it even further away.
He reached over and squeezed Steve's hand before they climbed out of the vehicle.
Bad day, about to get even worse, he thought. Even the change in age alone was going to be a shock.
He almost wished he knew how long it was going to be until local dawn.
Steve and the family member waiting at the door obviously knew each other.
"I'm sorry," she told him. "I'm Sharon. Her niece's daughter. That's why we look so much alike -- or, at least, I look like old pictures of her. I knew who you were. They didn't..."
"... want me to know which year it was," Steve finished.
She nodded. "And then she couldn't decide whether she wanted you to know or not, if she even wanted to remind SHIELD she was still alive, but then she..." Sharon stopped, closed her eyes, and took a calming breath. "She decided she needed to see you again. Had to, absolutely had to, if there were a way."
"He's here now," Tony told her helpfully.
"Right. And I'd know you anywhere -- hard to forget that viral video. She'll be glad to see you, too, Mr. Stark."
Glad to see me? Tony thought. Most of his father's acquaintances outside of Stark Industries itself hadn't had much interest in him at all after the dirt was covering the old scientist's coffin, and to be perfectly honest of them had lost interest before then, too. Howard Stark's connection with Margaret Carter, at least any official one, would have been severed with the end of the war, quite possibly with Steve's presumed death.
"Aunt Peg's just down this hall, follow me."
It was like a Jericho missile array had just gone off in Tony's brain.
Aunt Peg . The name he'd been instructed to use for one of his father's friends, back in the days before he'd entered full-day schooling and wasn't in the house for lunchtime anymore.
She'd always insisted on hugs and told the most interesting stories about other places. Usually England, sometimes Europe. Small towns, places the Stark family had no reason to travel to.
Margaret Carter was born and raised in England. She's British. Of course she'd tell a little American kid, the son of a friend, about places she'd been at the same age.
And for all his father's tales of the war when she wasn't there always circled back around to mentioning something Captain America had done -- never mentioning his own involvement, of course -- they never did when she was there, nor did she mention him.
She had never married. He knew that. And now, it all made a dreadful kind of sense, knowing exactly what hidden competition any suitor would have been up against in her mind.
The widow who wasn't, living in plain sight. All that time.
I knew her.
Medical equipment was beeping. Tony could hear it before they even got into the room, that and smell the characteristic odor of trying to keep a residential space as close to hospital-clean as possible that now practically spoke of home.
And under it, the smell just about every old person in America slowly took on between medications and lotions and a thousand other little commonalities.
Together, it made the house smell and sound a bit like the very few times Tony Stark had ever set foot inside a nursing home.
He could see the glow of a screen in the living room as they passed it, and realized from the graph on it that it must be connected into whatever monitoring equipment Peggy was attached to, probably a way of letting her be left alone without being unmonitored.
Sleeping with the knowledge of someone watching was not a skill everyone had past childhood. With no immediate family left, she wouldn't have had a reason to learn until her decline had started.
"Hey," Steve managed to choke out as he rounded the doorway.
The sound of rustling sheets. "Steve! I hoped you'd come."
Tony closed his eyes and winced at how weak she sounded, but then what else could be expected from a woman in her mid-nineties? Biology did have an expiration date, after all, and he'd already deduced hers was relatively close at the very least.
He readjusted his estimate anyway. Not relatively close, not with a voice like that and a sudden decision that Steve had to be seen again. Soon instead. Maybe very.
Tony gave them a moment, or tried to before Fury grunted behind him and pushed him forward.
Steve and Peggy were embracing, her face pressed into his shoulder. She looked up at the sound of their entrance. After a moment, her eyes shone even more. "Tony? You came too?"
He smiled through the sudden jolt of pain seeing her at ninety when he'd known her at something closer to a very vibrant fifty. "We're teammates now," he told her as he walked over. "And he was at my house when he was told. Someone has to keep an eye on him, since he's so far from what he knows," he said as matter-of-factly as he could manage.
She laughed at the apparent meaning, but the unspoken one he'd tried to cover was just as present in the room.
When she was gone, someone was going to have to keep an eye on Steve. Might as well be someone who understood his triggers ran to something rather distant from battlefields, and Peggy was likely one of the very few from his old life who had a clue about that.
After a moment, Steve backed away and sat on the side of the bed beside her hips.
Tony reached out a hand.
Peggy laughed. "Still trying to get out of hugging me?"
Tony gave in, as he always had, even though his father wasn't there to help force him into it.
The past few years had taught him some things about valuing people.
The fragility he felt through the nightgown and bed-jacket she was wearing was frightening, absolutely frightening, as if she might break under his touch and Tony was merely human. What might Steve be able to do to her?
But he hadn't, Tony had to remind himself. It was either an illusion or Steve had very careful control. Plausibly both.
He pulled away himself.
Fury held out his own hand. "I'm Director Nick Fury of SHIELD, Ma'am," he offered formally.
"Howard and I had a bet about how long it would take for anyone to figure out the acronym," she told them with a wry smile as she shook his hand. "Which reminds me -- Tony, I owe you $10 adjusted for inflation. Your father won some time in the nineties, but he was gone and I knew he wouldn't have told you the story."
And it's only a drop in the bucket compared to the family fortune. No one said it so Tony thought it.
He smiled at her. "Don't worry about that, Peg."
"It's good to know we're all in good hands," she told the three of them. "I've seen what public footage came out of New York."
"That danger is long gone," Fury promised her.
Tony hoped sincerely it was the truth. Loki had been shipped back to Asgard, the Tesseract must be safely stored in Odin's treasure room by now, and the portal to wherever the invaders were from had been closed. Surely with no news from Thor it had to be over.
"You're glorious in the air," she told him, with the clear overtones of an affectionate elderly aunt and nothing more.
"Thanks," he told her uneasily.
Of course, most of the public footage was of him. Including the fall. He ought to be glad she wasn't congratulating him on surviving. Iron Man, the whole world knew about. The same with Hulk and Captain America. Their compatriots were a different story. Most public cameras near Hulk had, predictably, ended up smashed, and Steve had stayed in the heart of the destruction by choice. Releasing images of Iron Man saving the day helped keep everything else hidden.
Fury retreated with a respectful nod.
"Tony, let an old woman give you a piece of advice."
"In lieu of the money from the bet, I hope," he said as lightly as he could.
Any time with her mattered more than a bet made with pocket-money -- and it would have been pocket-money for Howard even then.
"I'd give it to you anyway. If there's something that comes to your mind in moments of terror, when it seems like everything is about to change for the worse..."
Tony's mind went to the moment he began falling from on high, the terror when he'd been told he was dying and there was nothing to be done, and the feel of landing in the desert sand with no water and as much of a clue where he was going.
"Yes, Ma'am?" he answered dutifully with exactly such a thought in mind, very much in mind.
" Listen. Listen to it. Because someday..."
Someday there would be no Hulk to catch him, no new alloy to protect his life, no forward base over a couple of dunes.
And then, there would be no fixing the regrets.
The regret, singular. Same one, three times. Slightly different, but they were all variations on the same theme.
She smiled at him. "Good. Now, can I have a moment or ten alone with Steve?"
"Certainly." Tony felt like shaking. He knew the implication from the look in her eyes alone. Goodbye, without letting Steve know she was leaving him now.
Instead of shaking, he hugged her again. "I'm glad I came," he told her.
"I'm glad you did, too. You were a good kid, and now you're a good man. Bit damaged, but who isn't?"
He nodded against her bony shoulder, honestly smiling even though it took some work. "Who isn't." It was the acceptance Howard had never given him in life, and it was a balm to a few old scars. Not all of them, but it mattered that someone who had known him as a toddler thought he'd grown into a reasonably decent man.
She let go first and gave him a playful light push toward the door.
As he was leaving, he heard her call out lightly, "Sharon, be a dear and mute this. The beeping is driving me mental again."
Tony held himself together long enough to stumble to a seat in the living room, an armchair with big plush cushions on it.
I will never see her again, he thought. Not alive, anyway.
And when, apart from Yinsen's end, the firefight, and a few other times, had Tony Stark ever had to hold that thought? Certainly never and walk away, not until they'd died.
She doesn't want him to hear when she dies. She doesn't want to know when she starts fading out, not beyond what she feels herself.
It was an oddly terrifying thought for him, given how natural knowing his own physical state had become. He had better monitoring of himself in the suit, even the briefcase suit, than most ICUs could claim.
The screen was still there, sitting on a computer table against a wall. The decor around it made it clear that the system had been intended for purposes not so directly linked to human mortality.
Still there. Still counting out, very visibly, ever heartbeat and breath she had left.
Possibly under two-thousand of one and a few hundred of the other, he thought darkly.
It felt like a horrible invasion to know when she would not.
Fury was sitting across the room, staring stonily at an abstract child's painting -- probably Sharon's, once upon a time -- hanging on the wall near him.
Tony understood the feeling.
He curled up in the chair, forcing himself to put his back toward the screen, and wept into his own sleeve.
At some point, Sharon handed him a box of tissues. At least, he thought it was Sharon. Tony was a bit past seeing anything at the time.
He didn't get up, didn't even straighten up, until the warning tones sounded from behind him.
"Can I have that dance?" Peggy asked Steve once they were alone in the new silence.
The old silence, the way it would have been back when they were both young and not just him and not her.
He slipped an arm under her knees and the other around her shoulders. "So I don't step on your feet," he joked feebly.
She grabbed his shirt in her hands as he lifted her. "It's not every day a girl gets swept off her feet by a bona fide hero," she joked back.
But then, she grew serious. "Steve, when I'm gone... don't shut yourself off from finding someone else you could be happy with. I never married, but... I tried to find someone, but after you I knew someone who could meet my standards of how to treat a girl and no one else I fancied ever got close even when you'd been more than I was looking for. It's fine with me if it turns out there's no one else for you, but I don't want to be a reason for you not to try."
"I swear that after my initial mourning is over, I won't use you as a reason not to find another girl."
She smiled weakly. "Close enough for me."
He started swaying on his feet gently. He started singing "Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree" softly.
She sighed and snuggled against his chest as he went on.
Steve knew what the change in her breathing meant when it happened not long after he'd started to repeat the song. He'd witnessed enough deaths in his youth, back when nearly everyone not killed by an accident, dangerous surgery, or particularly nasty contagious illness still died at home, that there was never going to be any forgetting what that shift into the final moments of life sounded like.
He switched songs to "I'll Be Seeing You". Rather appropriate choice, for a soldier and his girl when they knew just how long they might be apart.
Which now means until I follow her. And no one knows how long that might be.
Not even Erskine could have known that.
Her eyes met his before he'd finished the second line. She gave him an odd little contented smile, as if she'd caught the reference as well.
He continued in a voice that was already beginning to crack with grief.
He wasn't even through the second verse when he realized her eyes had closed and were never going to open again.
He just kept singing, even as the hurting made it harder and harder to draw in each new breath.
He just kept singing, just in case she could still hear him somehow, that same song over and over again.
You didn't let me feel like I was alone. I'm not going to let you feel alone.
There was movement out in the hallway, surely summoned by the modern medical equipment she was still wired to, but Steve paid it all no mind.
He paid nothing any mind.
He didn't stop singing until Tony had an arm around him as Sharon and Fury tried to pry his arms away from her.
She was already growing cold.
That was when it hit him.
I'm the only one left.
The fact Steve hadn't had a chance to get properly dressed before their flight turned into what Tony considered one of the few small blessings of that night: he was already in a perfect state for guiding into Sharon's guest room and under the sheets without requiring him to do any thinking during the entire process.
"I'll stay with him," Tony told Fury after they'd gotten Steve settled, stretched out on the bed with a supply of handkerchiefs close enough to hand that he might be able to find a dry replacement once the one in his hand was completely soaked through. "And I knew her too, so..."
"I'll treat him like I would a new widower," Tony mouthed.
"Good. I'll be helping Sharon make arrangements."
"We'll need suits. All three of us need suits. And Steve needs clothing for tomorrow - we didn't even give him a chance to find shoes..."
He knew his mind was going into a protective planning state, to keep him from dwelling on what had just happened. He had gotten his immediate need for tears out of the way before she'd died. He'd deal with what he was feeling now later, hopefully after Steve stopped needing him to do the non-emotional thinking for the two of them.
He fumbled in his back pocket. "Here. My emergency charge card. I told him I'd handle anything we two needed here. Might as well include you, too. And if Sharon needs anything, there should be quite a ways until the limit."
"Make his a nice suit."
"He's not going to want to wear it again."
"And what else do people only wear once?" Tony asked with just enough of an edge of sweetness that Fury had better catch his meaning.
"A nice suit," Fury repeated back as he took the card from Tony. "Good thing SHIELD has your clothing sizes on file."
Tony raised an eyebrow.
"In case we ever need to clothe any of you during a rescue operation." Fury started to turn to leave, but then looked back. "Do you need anything besides clothing?"
"He can't get drunk, so it's not fair to him if I'm not sober. We'll need food - Sharon shouldn't have to manage that, not right now."
"Stark, I can handle worrying about things like feeding us." Fury gave him his best one-eyed 'do you think I'm that stupid' glare.
"I go into some kind of mental logistical planning mode under emotional stress. Keeps me from thinking about it until it's safe for me to be non-functional for a while and Steve can't afford me doing that at the moment. Went into it when my parents were killed and didn't come back out until four months and a complete corporate restructuring later. Board thought I did it out of duty to the company, but it was all about losing them." He took a deep breath and focused on not dropping the first words of sentences. "I guess SHIELD probably thought that, too."
There was an almost-surprised look in his eye now.
Tony shrugged. "I thought you would have realized I had a helping-people thing on top of everything else that was in my file. The weapons, the clean-energy, everything."
Fury nodded. "You keep an eye on Steve and take care of both of you. SHIELD will take care of the rest. It's the least we owe her."
It was Tony's turn to feel surprise.
Fury answered the unspoken question when he was halfway through the door. "She was one of our founders, back after World War II. Back when we didn't have Captain Rogers anymore, when HYDRA had made us realize how dangerous extra-national groups could be to national and international security.
"And so was your father."
Steve had stretched out on his stomach under the covers, hugging a pillow under him with one arm and keeping a handkerchief firmly at his eyes.
Tony stood beside the bed and put a hand between Steve's shoulders, trying to press hard enough to be comforting.
Steve flinched. Hard.
"It's me, Cap," Tony told him quickly, cursing inwardly even as he lifted his hand.
He really hadn't wanted his suspicions about what had happened to a not-much-younger Steve in the alleys of Brooklyn to be right.
"Steve, it's me. Howard's kid. Don't worry about anything, okay? I'm protecting both of us right now. I can be in the suit in less than two minutes."
He calmed down and settled back into his grief.
Tony sat next to him on the bed. "I'm right here if you need me," he said a lot more quietly.
And then he had the mental time to realize what had just happened, in horrifying detail.
He'd triggered Steve, hard. That much was absolutely clear.
But being triggered by a hand on the back while lying on something soft did not match anything Steve had told the rest of the Avengers about.
No matter how bad any back alley assault had gotten, it shouldn't cause that to be a trigger.
And then it hit him with a matching wave of near-nausea.
They threw him, a paperwork-fudged 4F, in with a bunch of stellar 1As who'd been carefully taught they were the pinnacle of American manhood. Probably starting as soon as they could hold a toy football or a stickball bat.
Same damn pattern as with servicewomen now, and if they can't get justice now there's no way in hell he could have reported it then. And if Erskine knew, they'd've yanked Steve from the program if he'd told anyone of it.
They had everyone in Erskine's candidate group in together - in training together, in meals together, in the barracks together.
Which meant there the subject pool for the serum experiment had included whoever had attacked him.
And if the remaining serum hadn't been destroyed after Erskine died, if it had been usable and the military picked their own candidate next...
Damnit. What Bruce had become was horrifying enough, but at least the Hulk could be taught about how to constructively channel it. That caliber of bully...
Steve had rolled over slightly and was looking up at him with an uncertain look in his eyes.
Tony squeezed his shoulder, trying to be comforting when he really wanted to either go outside and scream or crawl into the bathroom and throw up.
Steve closed his eyes. "I'm alone."
"Nope." Tony tried to sound upbeat, and the fact it fell flat was what made it acceptable for the situation. "You've still got the rest of us. And last I checked, you and me are the closest thing to actual family either of us have left. If we don't look out for each other, who will?"
Steve nodded. The tears were still flowing but his eyes were open again. "The funeral?" His voice broke as he spoke.
"Fury's on it. SHIELD is helping with the arrangements, and he's going to make sure we're appropriately dressed. You don't have to do anything but grieve right now, Steve."
It was about ten minutes before Steve spoke again. "I forgot my shoes."
"Fury's on it."
"Fury's on it."
"I'll remind him in the morning."
"Fury and my emergency charge card are on it and don't give me that look, she had me calling her Aunt Peg and it's the least I can do."
Another long tear-filled silence.
"I wish I'd known. We could have had longer..."
"No, you couldn't." Tony barely processed it before he said it. "Sometimes people just hold on for something. A birthday, a holiday, one last visit from a friend. The way Fury and Sharon said it... I think she'd figured out she was lingering to see you again. Me showing up, and Fury, we were just last happy surprises."
"She was there for me," Steve got out through tears, "back then. She never left the radio..."
The hell with it. Tony stretched out next to him and pulled him into a tight hug with the pillow between them. "As far as anyone knows now, hearing goes last. Peggy knew you were with her for as long as she still knew anything."
"How are you staying so calm?"
"It takes a while to sink in for me. In a few weeks, I'll mourn. Someone's got to keep an eye on the people who mourn immediately, after all."
Steve nodded against his shoulder. "Guess so."
Tony had nearly fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion the next time Steve bothered speaking.
"She knew me. Before. She didn't care." A pained snort of sorts. "On the way to the lab, the day Erskine died, I pointed out all the places I'd been beat up that we passed by. She didn't... it didn't..."
"She didn't think less of you for it?" Tony prompted.
"Not even a little bit. And it was my old neighborhood! Every alley a split lip or black eye." A few breaths. "It didn't matter at all and she's the last person who knew me back then. And she's gone. Gone..."
"Doesn't matter to us, either," Tony told him after Steve had ebbed back down to something approaching calm.
"I know, you told me last night."
"And we meant it." Tony ruffled his hair a bit. "You weren't alone when you thought she was already gone, and you aren't alone now that you know she is. And I hope you realize that the rest of us Avengers aren't going to see you as a shiny shield, fancy costume, and perfect legend, Capsicle. If we can't be human around each other, where can we be?"
"Even if we did all grow up with stories about you."
Steve groaned. "How bad?"
"More like 'how good'. Rumor states you always finished your peas."
"... I hate peas. Everyone knows I hate peas. Howard and Peggy knew I hated peas."
Oh, now this was priceless. "Well, that explains why he always rolled his eyes whenever Mom tried that on me in his hearing."
"She honestly told you that?"
"Yep. I think Thor and Natasha are the only ones of us who didn't hear that."
He groaned again.
"Here." Tony switched his handkerchief for a dry one.
"I don't know." He remembered that Steve's metabolism was an issue, a very big issue. "If you need food, I can go find some."
"I need to eat something," Steve said after a moment's thought.
"Then I'll go looking."
The house was empty now, except for the little note on the kitchen table explaining that Sharon had stayed with Peggy's body when it was moved out and everyone else was dealing with funeral preparations or supply acquisition of one sort or another.
Which meant an unfamiliar kitchen and Fury's scrawled permission of "I'm sure you two can feed yourselves."
Not likely, with Tony's reliance on Pepper, take-out, and staff and Steve's inability to function at the moment.
Which meant their food choices were reduced to whatever was ready-made or easily microwaveable with clear instructions on the box.
Tony dearly wished in that moment that he believed in a deity, simply for the chance of divine intervention in the form of pizza. But there was no such luck in the freezer and no delivery place open at 9 am and besides - Fury still had his emergency charge card.
He was recognizable enough, but with so many people copying his beard now and the fact there was no well-known reason for him to even be in the state...
Which was how he ended up guiding Steve into the armchair in the living room, the monitor thankfully off now, and setting out a spread of two large glasses of water, a plate of lukewarm Poptarts, a bowl of extra butter popcorn, and a half-full box of store-brand frosted cereal with marshmallow bits on the low table between them.
The box had "AUNT PEG'S!" scrawled on it over the nutrition information.
Steve stared at it.
"I don't think she would have minded when she was here, and I really don't think she'll mind now she's not." Even in your view of the world.
He kept staring.
"Steve, it's fortified and calorie-laden, exactly what your experimented-upon self needs right now. Don't tell me you think she'd have begrudged you food."
"Yeah, it is. Which is why you should eat."
"You don't understand."
"Yeah, I do. Run-down neighborhood stricken by the Depression followed by wartime rationing. Then being a hungry guy getting by on Army food while no one understood how many calories you needed yet. And I think I got the vibe that Peggy wanted you to survive this, which means eating." He shoved the plate of Poptarts over. "At least eat the rest. We have an invitation to help ourselves, and if Fury doesn't get SHIELD to cover replacing anything that needs it, I will."
Steve stared at it.
"Look, you know you need to eat. Trust me, once you start it'll get easier. Obidiah had to sit me down with order-in pizza after my parents were killed, and it took hours, but after I started..."
It hit him like a punch to the gut.
Obidiah was gone. Same as everyone else, and worse.
It was like it always was when everything finally hit him and damnit he should not feel like this for someone who'd tried to kill Pepper and him. Not after years since even he should have been hit with the fact of it.
Especially not someone who'd tried to kill Pepper.
"Tony, what happened?"
"He tried to kill me. And Pepper, and so many other people and there wasn't anything else I could do, he had armor too and I had to disable it and..."
An arm around him as Steve sat next to him. "We split the Poptarts, Tin Man."
Steve pressed half of one into his hand.
He was right. The first bites were hardest.
The funeral of Margaret Carter added new meanings to the phrase 'complete disaster'.
Sharon had directed Steve to the pew with the meager rest of Peggy's living family herself, and when Tony had tried to slip back where the rest of the SHIELD staff in attendance appeared to be congregating, Sharon stopped him.
"She made you call her 'Aunt Peg', Mr. Stark. You may not be family, but according to her, you were as good as." Then she whispered, "Besides, I don't think he can get through this without you being right here for him."
Tony hadn't been able to argue with that.
In hindsight, it had been a horrible idea.
Thanks to his fame, fortune, and absolute love of looking impressive on camera, Tony was one of the more recognizable people on the planet.
Which was not a good thing to be in a small-town church as an openly promiscuous playboy of an atheist sitting in the front pews when the senior pastor has laryngitis and there has to be a substitute to preach the funeral.
A substitute who wasn't above turning a woman's funeral into offensive weaponry and who had vastly different views than the reasonably tolerant beliefs of that church's own congregation.
Oh, he didn't say it outright - few would to Tony Stark - but it was there, the way even her devotion to Steve was warped and turned into commentary on everyone else.
Tony just stared forward, not letting the emotional distress show and focusing on the firmness of the briefcase under the pew against the back of his ankles. There would be time enough for reacting openly later with Pepper, who understood.
He almost didn't catch Steve's arm in time when he realized the growing emotional storm beside him in the pew was not fueled by simple grief.
Sharon was another story and there was no stopping her.
It was glorious.
Attacking for the audacity of turning a funeral into commentary on one of the bereaved. Ripping him apart for being the kind of person her beloved late great-aunt never could stand in life. Being the sort of fool who forgot that the right to religious freedom also applied to everything else, and that he was talking about a woman who had changed countries from one with a state church to one without.
No one stopped her, even when she made him turn tail and head for the door.
There was a breath at Tony's ear coming from between he and Steve. "I'm here," Natasha told them both.
"Anyone else?" Steve whispered.
"Clint's outside up a tree. Phil stayed in New York to give you mourning space. And it's a damn good thing Banner stayed with him."
Tony smiled at the thought of the preacher having a few rounds with the Hulk.
"Look back and you'll see Fury living up to his name."
One glance was all it took for Tony to realize it was a lucky thing for the preacher that Sharon got to him first.
There was, of course, no preacher left for the graveside service.
If the arguing hadn't done it, the question of pallbearers would have, at least once he'd found out who exactly they were.
He'd certainly sputtered enough when they carried the coffin out.
Tony smiled at the memory despite the gravity and grief still in the air.
A simple list of SHIELD agents, by rank and last names. A few more than the standard six, still in pairs, but that was to be expected for someone so secretly important.
Until one considered that SHIELD employed women equally with men under the same titles. Until one considered that very few of them had heavy lifting capabilities no matter what other skills they could bring to their country and their planet's defense.
Until one considered that of course the lady founder of SHIELD, spiritual grandmother of sorts to the current generation of agents, would want to be carried to her rest by those able to serve as she wished she could have because of her.
Agent Hill. Natasha, in the standard SHIELD pantsuit-and-tie of domestic ground service for once. An elderly but strong retired agent whose stance reminded him vaguely of Clint and had archery calluses visible on her hands. A few of Natasha's Cold War counterparts, still walking with that confident stride that let Tony knew that even on Social Security they could still break him in two whenever they wished. A few faces Tony recognized from the Helicarrier's command staff. Sharon led them, her marching steps the only sign she too was an agent in her own right.
Fury walked directly behind them, more formal and severe than Tony had ever seen him.
And then, while he was still sputtering standing just outside the parking lot on the public sidewalk, Tony let the preacher have it.
"Last I checked, the first job in the Christian community was taking care of people who had no one left. Hell, Steve here's named after the guy who was killed for taking on the job. Made him visible enough to be the first Christian martyr, but he did it anyway. You did exactly the opposite today. Sharon lost her closest living relative. Steve lost the one person left who knew him when he was young. I lost the last of my father's old friends I knew when I was a child. How many others of the bereaved did you insult on purpose? Including the pallbearers? And according to your own beliefs, Margaret saw you do it. Have fun living with yourself."
People were still thanking him for speaking for them when he followed Steve into one of the cars. And when they got out at the cemetery. And sitting in the chairs at the graveside.
It only stopped when Fury broke out The Look and coughed meaningfully. While smiling. And then he gave Tony a thumbs-up.
There was no sermon, just the open time there should have been inside the church to share stories. The unclassified ones. Tony gave a little speech about hearing about the world through her eyes when he was three. Fury spoke of her role in opening up government service for women, and how glad he was to serve beside so many of the ladies in attendance.
The classified or at least questionable tales waited until they got back to the house and everyone present had clearances high enough.
How out of the entire subject pool for the serum experiment, Steve had been the only one willing to take a fake grenade for everyone else - and Peggy had been right behind him running for it.
Her role in starting SHIELD.
A few of the older agents spoke of her involvement in the early years.
The agent with the calluses still on her hands from a bow spoke of the openness in how many ways agents could serve Peggy had personally forced SHIELD to have as she stood near one of the windows and shared a smile with Clint.
The Cold War ladies shared how Peggy had never looked down on them, "unlike some other people who should remain unnamed thank-you-for-telling-him-off-Tony".
The stories kept on until someone realized the time and ordered pizza in for lunch.
The four Avengers present all claimed a corner of the room together once the formal stories had fallen apart into quiet conversations over slices of the local finest.
Most of their focus was on Steve, as Clint and Natasha hadn't seen him until the funeral and "I believe that was what is called a debacle, yes?"
They had all laughed at Natasha's question.
Fury had just come over to check on them when his phone rang and he had to step out of the room for a moment.
Fury returned to them all once the call ended. "Thor's back."
Natasha started checking her weaponry.
"What happened?" Clint asked.
"He claims nothing immediate, and he's asking to talk to us all at the same time. Our plans of leaving town tonight are still in place."
"And here I was hoping he'd been having a better time of it than we were," Clint laughed.
On the Quinjet home, an arm wrapped around Steve's shoulders as the other man finally dozed properly for the first time since Peggy had passed and Clint and Natasha bickered over what could possibly be up with Thor, Tony couldn't help but think that despite all the problems... it all fit who Margaret Carter had been. Even the need to give some harsh correction to the preacher.
They stopped at a little cemetery on the way from the airport in a limo big enough for all of them together because as Tony put it "something needs doing".
He dragged Steve to a headstone, Fury walking behind them.
He heard Fury quietly say, "Sir," and was certain he'd made a nod of respect.
"Hey, Dad. We finally found him..."