Tony almost doesn’t go. High school isn’t a particularly fond memory for him, faded as it is. The mere recollection of it leaves a bad taste in his mouth, as well as a general impression of emotional turmoil and festering regret. It’s also a bit of a drive, an hour and a half into the New York countryside through snow and twisting roads. Begging Rumiko to babysit their son on a day that is meant to be Tony’s is nearly too much trouble to consider. He doesn’t even expect to see any of his old friends; as far as he knows, they all scattered across the country and beyond after graduating.
The courtyard is breathtaking. Tiny golden fairy lights are strung from building to building, casting a warm glow on the partygoers below as they nurse steaming foam cups and murmur amongst themselves. Gleaming red streamers are interspersed between the strings of lights, quivering as the occasional hand reaches up to caress the fabric. Without touching them Tony can see that the streamers are made of a sleek silk; someone obviously put a lot of effort into decorating.
Snow is falling gently from the blackened night sky, dusting coat shoulders and slowly blanketing the ground. It adds a muted quality to the scene that reminds Tony of a waking dream.
He gradually makes his way inside the gymnasium, which is brightly lit and humming with conversation. The bleachers are folded in, the walls adorned by large crimson tapestries. Across the farthest wall is a banner of the same deep red that reads, in large gold-edged letters:
Rosekeep High School Class of 1985
30 Year Reunion
Tony’s breath catches in his throat, and for a moment he just has to stand and collect himself. He thought that coming back here would only serve to make him feel young and angry again, but instead he feels incredibly old and weary.
He jolts out of it only when people start pushing past him, and he realizes he’s blocking half the entrance. A few shaky breaths later, then he’s making his way over to the refreshments table. He’s followed by whispers and turning heads, a consequence of having his name slapped across a third of the electronics in the modern world and regular appearances on prime time television. It’s nothing he’s not used to, so he’s unsure as to why it bothers him so much.
He pours himself a cup of ginger ale, neatly avoiding the bottles of champagne and wine that ornament the opposite end of the refreshments table. There are a surprising number of people here, over half of what had once been a class of 300 strong.
Tony recognizes his old physics teacher, Mrs Willoughby, small and wrinkled now with her white hair pulled back into a severe bun. There’s Bethany Cabe, whom Tony had had a ridiculous crush on throughout freshman year. She aged gracefully, and she’s laughing freely as she leans against a stranger who might be her husband. His old chemistry lab partner Javid, sans the thick owl spectacles and bushy black hair, is pouring a drink for a trembling old man who is bundled tightly in a puffy red jacket. He spots Anna Wei amongst a lively throng of people, grinning ear to ear as the plump woman standing next to her kisses her on the corner of the lips.
All at once Tony feels utterly, horribly alone. He considers leaving right then and there.
“Tony, you old bastard, is that you?” A strong hand thwacks him on the back, and Tony inhales his ginger ale down his windpipe. He spins around, tears springing to his eyes as he coughs and wheezes.
“Clint, you fucker! Still trying to kill me after all these years?” he gasps as he thumps at his chest. Clint is grinning from ear to ear, accentuating the deep lines around his cracked lips and bloodshot eyes. His hair is completely grey and thinning, and Tony spots large clear hearing aids wrapped around each ear. Christ, he looks far too old for- what would he be? Forty-eight?
Clint’s grin fades slightly as he notices the expression on Tony’s face. He sighs softly, dragging a hand over his mouth. “Age isn’t always too pretty, huh?” he croaks. He gets a firm grip on Tony’s bicep and starts to lead him through the crowds. “Getting sick doesn’t help. Cancer,” he adds at Tony’s questioning glance.
Tony stops dead. “Clint-“
“It’s not as serious as it sounds, trust me! And it’s old news by now.” His grip tightens on Tony’s arm for a moment. “Not that you were ever around to hear it.”
Tony suppresses a wince. “I’ll admit, I haven’t done the best job of- staying in touch. With everyone.”
He doesn’t get an answer. In the periphery of his vision, Tony can see the sad smile creasing around Clint’s eyes.
“Here-“ Clint starts, then clears his throat. “Here’s everyone.” He raises his and Tony’s arms together, calling out. “Look, here he is, Man of the Year!”
Out of a ring of familiar faces, one in particular squeals loudly and launches herself into Tony’s arms. Tony catches Janet under the arms and swings her around, a sharp bark of laughter escaping his throat. It’s easy enough to lift her, petite and darling as she always had been.
“It’s been so long,” she sniffles indignantly at him once he sets her down. “God, I haven’t seen you since- what, that gala in ’09? You don’t call, you don’t write, and I saw you wearing one of my suits at the latest Stark Expo, you could’ve at least-“
“I know, I know, I’ve just been so-“
“Hey, Tony,” Hank interjects at an inopportune moment as always, but Tony gratefully accepts a one-armed hug from him. “It’s good to see you – look, I’ve been reading articles about Stark Enterprises’ applications of green energy. It’s incredible stuff, really.“
“Yes, I’ve been making it a priority to have all Enterprises facilities make the transition to green technology by-“
“No shop talk right now, boys!” Jan interrupts insistently, tugging at Tony’s arm. “Come say hi to everyone else, Tony, it’s only been thirty years.” Hank shrugs at Tony with a resigned grin, and Tony allows himself to be led forward into the group.
After doing his best to avoid everyone and everything from his high school years, Tony’s amazed at how easily he slots into the group. Just like a puzzle piece. Sam, black hair peppered with gray, greets him with a wide, toothy smile and lifts him into a spine-cracking hug. He’s just got his pilot’s license, he tells Tony, after nearly a decade stuck in a dead-end job he cared nothing for. Largely thanks to his girlfriend, apparently, a tall Amazon of a woman with short platinum-blonde hair swept sideways over her skull. Sam introduces her as Carol. Tony pegs her as military from the square of her shoulders and the spacing of her stance.
“She works for you,” Sam grins at him when Tony tells him as much.
Tony blinks. “No shit?”
“I was military for a while,” Carol allows. “Air force. I test pilot your recon aircraft now. Last week I took the STK-451 out for a spin – I think you were there for like, five minutes.”
“I was. Fast enough for you?”
She makes a big show of pursing her lips and considering. “Pretty good. Could be faster.”
Sam barks out a laugh. “Shit, that thing breaks mach 4. You’re going to give me a heart attack one of these days.”
The conversation moves away from Tony, and he’s allowed about one minute of melancholy dread before he turns and jumps out of skin at the realization that someone has slipped into the group beside him, drink in hand. Natasha is much less talkative than the rest of them, giving Tony a hello and a secretive smile over the rim of her glass. She looks much younger than nearly fifty, only delicate lines on her face showing her age. When Tony asks what she’s been doing for the last several decades, she only answers very vaguely, which leaves Tony to believe that she achieved her dream career of murdering people for a living.
Taking a deep breath, he gathers up his courage enough to ask, “Is, uh. Is Steve. Here?” His heart sinks as Natasha remains momentarily silent. Of course, it was stupid to expect everyone to be here, especially Steve, who had wanted nothing more to escape this place.
But then Natasha gives him a knowing look, and inclines her head towards a door at the near end of the gym. If Tony remembers correctly, it leads out into the garden. “He needed a breather,” she says. “I’m sure he’d want to see you, though,” she adds as Tony gives the door an uncertain glance.
He nearly trips over himself as he lurches into motion, insides twisting themselves into anxious knots. His footsteps slow once he’s outside, swiveling his head back and forth. The garden, with its sprawling rosebushes and willows that whisper in the wind, is already blanketed in an unblemished layer of snow. Fairly lights are strung between the trees, reflections glistening on the icy leaves of the winter crops in the neat wooden planters below. The pond is completely still, not even a ripple – after a moment Tony realizes this is because the surface is frozen over.
There are a few people out here, dotted here and there among the trees and cobbled paths, huddled closely together in the bitter cold and murmuring quietly amongst themselves, or saying nothing at all.
He doesn’t see Steve.
Tony’s just about to surrender to the cold and head back inside when he suddenly spots him, leaning against the stone wall that runs along the pond not more than ten feet away. He’s turned away and obscured by a cascade of willow branches, but Tony recognizes him immediately.
He freezes, breath catching in his chest. He can’t lose courage now, can he, after all this time? But his body refuses to move. It takes nearly a full minute of slow, fogged breathing before he finally gathers up the courage to croak out:
Steve startles as if woken from a dream and twists around, peering through the willow branches. He gasps audibly, and Tony feels his chest constrict as Steve pushes the branches aside and steps closer, shoes crunching in the snow.
Steve’s golden hair is combed back in soft waves, thoroughly streaked through with gray. There are deep lines around his eyes, and gentler ones around his mouth and along his forehead. Once-full lips are pressed tightly together in shock. Dazzling blue eyes, blue as the skies in summer, are open impossibly wide, snowflakes clinging to blond lashes.
He’s one of the most gorgeous sights that Tony’s ever laid eyes on.
“Tony,” he whispers, voice trembling. He looks- scared.
“Hey, beautiful,” Tony breathes back, before he can stop himself. His voice breaks in the middle.
“That fool nickname-“ Steve inhales sharply. “God, Tony,” he says again, louder. He takes a few stuttering steps forward – he’s limping heavily, Tony realizes faintly, I wonder why he’s limping – and Steve’s in his arms. They clutch at one another like dying men, bodies pressed close. Steve smells like ink and turpentine and snow; Tony inhales deeply as he presses his nose into Steve’s neck.
“Hey,” he rasps, stroking a hand up and down the curve of Steve’s back, over the cheap woolly material of the sweater he’s wearing. “Hey. It’s been- a long time.”
“Oh, Tony. Tony.” For a moment Steve doesn’t seem to be able to say anything else, hands tightening and relaxing in the fabric of Tony’s coat. “You-“ He pulls his head back and looks Tony in the eye, hands cupping Tony’s jaw so he can’t duck away. “God, you’re so skinny – have you been eating properly? I know you always- you always forget-“
Tony chuckles shakily. “Cool it, Mother Hen. I’ve just been under a bit of stress lately. I, um, I just got divorced a couple months ago.”
“Yeah, I saw on the news.” Steve’s breath catches in his throat, and he squeezes his eyes shut for a brief moment. “Tony,” he says again, hushed. “I always saw you on the news. Every time I watched a new story about you, I always thought about trying to call you up.”
“Why didn’t you?” Tony whispers, hands stilling on Steve’s back.
“Wasn’t sure it would be welcome.” Tony’s heart just about breaks in two. “You started a company, you got married, you had a kid – I was just part of a past life, and-“
Tony hushes him insistently, unwilling to hear any more, and they fall into a silent embrace again. Steve’s arms tighten around him, his cold nose seeking respite in the underside of Tony’s jaw.
After what could be minutes or years, they part. Steve’s smiling, a bit tearfully, eyes crinkling. He guides Tony to where he’d been standing before, beneath the shelter of the willow branches and against the stone wall. Tony rests his forearms on the wall and Steve does the same; they’re pressed shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip, warmth blossoming from each point of contact.
“You’ve heard all about me, it seems like,” Tony says after a short while, tipping his head against Steve’s. “But you might as well have been on a different planet, for all I know about what you’ve been doing.”
“Well,” Steve begins, then pauses for a moment, as if to collect his thoughts. “I joined the army, like I said I was going to.”
“With Bucky,” Tony prompts. Beside him, Steve stiffens, almost imperceptibly.
“With Bucky,” he agrees heavily. “He’s, ah. He’s gone. Bucky’s gone.”
Tony inhales sharply, feeling like a total ass. “Dead?” he whispers. “Steve, I’m so-“
“MIA,” Steve cuts in, voice strangely calm. “Thirteen years ago.”
Thirteen years missing in the field of combat is- well, pretty much a death sentence. But Steve always did clutch stubbornly to hope, and age doesn’t seem to have changed that.
Tony desperately casts around to change the subject. “Thirteen, so you served for-?”
“Twenty years,” Steve supplies. “I was honorably discharged due to injury in 2005. From Afghanistan.”
Tony goes still. He remembers the severe limp in Steve’s stride, can’t help but think of his discontinued weapon’s line. He knows the statistics, more casualties caused by Stark weaponry than any other manufacturer, on both sides of the Afghanistan War, thanks to stolen shipments. Running the numbers, he’s aware it’s more than likely that one of his weapons did this to Steve, damaged him beyond repair-
He quickly veers away from that particular train of thought. “And,” he clears his throat, voice slightly hoarse. “And what have you been doing for the last ten?”
“Finally put my art degree to use,” Steve chuckles softly. “I’ve been working at Marvels for- what, about six years now.”
Tony finds himself grinning despite himself. “You mean the company that prints Iron Man? The one they just made a movie about?” There might be a slight hint of tease in his voice. “You know, I’ve been told I look a bit like him.”
“That- might not be entirely accidental,” Steve allows, sounding only somewhat embarrassed. “I did the original concept art.” Tony cackles. He has a comic book character based off of him! “Oh, don’t laugh! I thought – who’d make a better superhero than someone as brilliant, as kind, as intense-“ He punctuates this by turning towards Tony, slinging an arm over his shoulder, and Tony can’t stop himself from grinning from ear to ear, cheeks heating. “-As courageous, as clever, as beautiful as you are, Tony.”
His last words trail off into a reverent whisper, and Tony finds his smile fading, his breath catching in his throat. Their faces are so close; he can feel the heat of Steve’s breath, their lips almost brushing.
“Some would say that my ego is large enough,” Tony says in an undertone, lashes fluttering. He can’t quite look Steve in the eye.
“Fuck them,” Steve murmurs back, startling a breathless laugh out of Tony before he’s being kissed within an inch of his life. He gasps into Steve’s mouth before he’s tilting his head and kissing back with an unprecedented intensity, eyes falling closed. He cups Steve’s face, nipping at his bottom lip. In retaliation Steve’s hand on his lower back slips down and squeezes his ass, making Tony squeak and raise up onto his toes.
Their lips part, and Tony snickers against the side of Steve’s neck. “I remember we used to go in the bathroom stalls and grope each other like that, like the horny bastards we were.”
Steve snorts softly in response, and they fall into silence once more.
“I’ve felt like a coward for all this time,” Tony says, quite suddenly. Steve goes noticeably still. Tony’s heart is thudding in his chest, the pressure of things he’s wanted to say for years rising and rising in his throat, until they burst forth like water through a damn.
“You wanted us to stay together, Steve,” he croaks. “You were crying on the day you left, and I just- walked away, like it was nothing.”
“Tony-“ Steve begins, but Tony cuts him off.
“But I was too goddamn afraid of my dad, and myself, and I pushed you away. I spent years reaffirming my, my fucking heterosexuality, and I couldn’t stop thinking about you. I loved Rumiko, I still love her, and I could never get you off of my mind.” He clutches at Steve’s coat with white-knuckled fingers.
“It was a different time,” Steve’s murmuring, rubbing a hand up and down his back. “I don’t- you know I don’t blame you.” Of course Steve wouldn’t- “Both of us were scared out of our minds. I should’ve held on tighter, but- God, you were fifteen years old when I was already an adult. I couldn’t have that on my conscience on top of everything else.”
“The age gap hasn’t gotten any smaller,” Tony starts to argue, but Steve cuts him off, pushing away from him so he can jab a finger in Tony’s direction.
“The gap between fifteen and eighteen and between forty-five and forty-eight is nothing alike, and you know it, Tony Stark,” he retorts. “Don’t try that with me.” Then he sighs and visibly deflates, dragging a hand down his face. Tony ducks his head, suitably reproached.
“Maybe,” Steve begins, crossing his arms, ire suddenly draining from his body. “Maybe this is what we’ve been looking for all these years. A fresh start without anything to hold us back. Though…”
“Though?” Tony prompts, voice a hopeful whisper. He steps forward and tentatively lays a hand on Steve’s forearm.
“I’m nearly fifty, Tony,” he says, a bit ruefully. “Hell of an age to fall in love all over again.”
“You say that like I’m not almost there myself,” Tony murmurs, smiling gently. “Look, I’m sick of spinning in circles in the midst of a mid-life crisis or what-have-you. I’ve been looking for you all my life, how about we get some fucking coffee?”
Steve laughs, the sound clear and deep like the rumble of a summer storm. Tony wants to melt into his arms and stay there forever, but he settles with taking one of Steve’s hands in his and lifts it up to his mouth, pressing his lips to the knuckles. Steve suppresses what sounds like a very youthful giggle and wiggles his fingers slightly. “Alright, Romeo. Coffee. Friday?”
Tony beams widely, giddy joy flooding his chest.
“At three. My treat, beautiful.”