The party was both exactly the same as and completely different from the sorts of things he’d had to endure during the war as Captain America— or rather, not as Captain America, because a legend couldn’t be real, a legend couldn’t be made flesh and blood and mortal for everyone to see. Still, Captain Steven G. Rogers had seen his fair share of fake-formal events.
He thought about those while he sipped on his champagne and smiled politely at a woman he’d bet he was supposed to have heard of, and she smiled back the sort of smile that might have led to him doing the sorts of things he couldn’t write in his letters back to Gail. When he looked away, she moved on.
They all moved on. It was for the best, really. Interacting with the team, with Stark and Thor, that had a comfortable familiarity to it that he could relax into, at least a little, even if it was hardly the same as the comfortable camaraderie from before his—
He couldn’t think of it as a death, because that way led to sleepless nights and delusions of heroism, but he didn’t know what to think of it as, not really.
When he looked back up at the crowd, the pretty woman who’d smiled at him had found someone else to hang off of, and he looked like a pretty swell fella, so Steve offered him a toast and a grin. The guy winked back at him in a way that was both completely familiar and completely foreign in the way that nothing in Europe had ever felt, in a way that the 21st century kept drowning him with.
“Cap, hey, Cap!” Stark said from somewhere far enough across the crowded room and away from Steve that he shouldn’t have been able to shout loudly enough for Steve to hear, and Steve plastered his smile on tighter as Tony Stark made his way over, hips swaying with a practiced loucheness, trailing a veritable herd of glittering, too-beautiful people behind him.
“Nice shindig, eh, darling?” Stark said, tipping a martini glass in Steve’s direction. Whether the gesture was meant as offering or just to clarify who ‘darling’ was meant to refer to, Steve wasn’t sure, but he certainly didn’t have a taste for whatever Stark seemed to think was quality liquor, so he pretended it was the latter and tilted his own glass of champagne in reply.
“I bet. You know what, Tara, my dear, did you say you had been taking swing dancing lessons? I bet that’s what Cap’s missing, hmm?”
Steve felt his smile tighten grimly around his teeth, and he dragged his glass to his lips, not to sip, but to keep from saying anything impolite to Tony Motherfucking Stark, as Fury was prone to calling him.
He could handle Stark as a battle buddy, as the man to his left in the heat of battle, as the guy he joked with about war and killing and the lies civilians tell themselves so they can sleep soundly at night, but this Stark—
It wasn’t even that he was different, which may have been the problem, really. Tony Stark was not a man that Steve would normally have taken with him to polite society, and yet, somehow, in this new century, in this mad new world that was better than anything Steve could have imagined, he was polite society, which was…
He lowered his champagne glass and feigned polite attention as Tara started talking about dance styles from the 20s and 30s like they were historical quirks, and he let his mind drift, off the way he would whenever he had a break from thinking about battle.
You would never believe the sorts of things people talk about at parties in this century—
Except of course she would.
Because Gail wasn’t dead; she just wouldn’t speak to him.
“So, do you?” Tara asked him, and Steve felt his smile slip.
“She wants to know if you know how to do the jitterbug, my dear,” Tony said, his eyes warm and searching, and Steve shook his head to clear it, then nodded.
“I mean, I’ve danced a few times,” he said, thinking about the USO and ballrooms in London and then trying to stop thinking about those things, because it was too much with the champagne and the ivory dress the woman was barely wearing. She smiled at him, a sweet, genuine smile, and Stark was pressing his fingers into Steve’s elbow, still soppily concerned for no reason at all.
“Well, we’ll get Tony here to put on some rockabilly, and then I’ll wait for you to ask me to dance,” she said, plucking the glass of warm champagne from his fingers and setting it aside. “I bet you know a few tricks my dance instructor hasn’t gotten around to teaching me yet, soldier.”
It was as familiar as falling, so Steve nodded and when Tony Stark and his herd of sycophants wandered off, she stayed right there with him, smiling and not talking and it was nice, which made him more uncomfortable with every passing moment.
The song Stark evidently called up was, thankfully, not familiar, but the beat was lively and it had a completely different sort of feel from the earlier music, so Steve had to assume that this was his cue. He offered Tara his hand, and she grinned like a schoolgirl and dragged him over to the parquet dance area.
She was a lot more practiced with the dance than he was, but he was clearly a lot stronger than her other partners must have been, which made him stand a little straighter, made his hips a little looser, and by the time the song wound down she was flushed and breathless and completely free with a kiss that Steve should have been expecting but wasn’t.
“Shouldn’t we— this is very public,” Steve protested, carefully pulling back and hoping she didn’t think he was rejecting her. She laughed; a short, gasping, airy laugh that made her eyes sparkle.
“That’s a little forward, even for a friend of Tony’s,” she said. “What, you think one little dance is all it takes? I’ve got standards!”
Steve licked his lips and hoped that the color rising in his cheeks could be accounted to exertion, and then offered her a hand. “How about a second dance, then?” he asked.
Definitely, he decided, not the sort of thing he’d write to Gail about; even if she was married to his best guy, now, and old and happy without him.
There were things you never could tell your girl back home.
Everyone knew that.
Steve shouldn’t have been surprised to walk out of the guest room he’d somehow found in his warm, tipsy eagerness, to Tony Stark in nothing but a dressing gown, already drinking.
He shouldn’t have, but despite being one of perhaps three people Steve could really claim to know in this century, Tony Stark was still very much a stranger to him.
“Tony,” Steve greeted, rubbing a hand through his already completely unkempt hair and trying not to grin at him like some sort of wolf who’d just had a good time.
Even though that was exactly what was going on, of course.
“Steve!” Tony said, and he spilled a bit of his drink on the table and frowned at it. “Well. Anyway, how was your night, darling?”
Steve felt his frown twisting deeper into what Bucky had always said was his CO grimace, which always made Steve laugh and punch him. “Did you sleep, Stark?” he demanded.
“I dunno,” Stark replied. “Anyway, who has time for that nonsense! I’ve only got six months to live. Seems a waste to spend it sleeping, if you understand me.”
Stark winked at him, his eyes bright with liquor and mania.
Steve snorted, and Tony patted at the table next to him. “Join us, Rogers. So, Tara’s a really good dancer, I take it?”
Steve snorted. “Better than I am,” he replied, running his hands through his hair again. He would kill for some coffee. Real coffee, tasting of tin from being packed too long in a can, the gritty feeling of undissolved grains sticking in his throat, the taste of sugar from cubes attempting to mask a variety of sins and failing.
He knew if he asked, Jarvis would bring him a cup and a carafe, an exotic blend that was probably perfectly prepared and yet not at all what Steve wanted.
It was stupid, he knew, craving things that people were right to consider just one more hardship of life in the war theater; craving the simplicity of 'kill these men, protect those men' at least made a certain sense.
Craving instant coffee and waxy chocolate and salted meat was an entirely different matter.
Didn’t stop him from wanting though, the same way he craved seeing Gail again, no matter that she didn’t want to see him, the same way he craved—
“Steve, darling, you’re looking a little peaky. Do you need me to call you a cab? An ambulance? Say the word, my man, and I’ll—”
“Fine,” Steve blurted rudely. “I’m fine. Shit, Stark, it was a girl, not a Nazi; I’m fine.”
“Something tells me you’d be more fine if it had been a Nazi, Rogers,” Stark replied grinning wryly. “Moonshine’s your preference, right? Let me just pour you a little pick me up.”
Steve crossed his arms over his chest and leaned up against the table, shutting his eyes. “No,” he said after a long moment. “Thank you.”
“Mmm,” Tony said. “So, the jitterbug really gets the ladies going, does it?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Steve replied, scowling harder and hunching his shoulders in so he wouldn’t have to acknowledge that this was actually a conversation he was having.
“Teach me,” Tony said, and Steve jerked his head to look at him, incredulous.
“What?” Steve demanded.
Tony grinned at him and sipped at his martini. “Steve, I have six months to live… and I want you to teach me to do the jitterbug.”
“Really?” he asked.
Tony snorted. “Can I get you anything from the bar, darling?” he said in lieu of a reply, and didn’t wait for an answer before collecting the empty glass and swaggering away.
Steve licked his lips; the gin had lingered and he could only think of London and the Blitz for a few long moments.
“French 75,” Steve called. “And no, I’m not teaching you how to jitterbug. You’re already an expert at the jitters, and I don’t need any competition when it comes to taking home a lady from one of your… shindigs.”
A drink slid smoothly onto the table next to him, and then Tony was back, glass refilled and a careful, analyzing look on his face. “Darling, do me a favor,” he said.
Steve frowned and swished his drink in its glass, then looked back at Stark.
“As long as it’s not about dancing,” he said.
Tony grinned a liquid smile and scratched at his beard. “Unless you’ve changed your mind,” he said. “But no, no, nothing like that, I promise.”
The silence settled over them with a deep care that he’d only ever felt in Bucky’s and Gail’s house, and it was almost like Stark was reading his mind when he finally spoke again.
“Don’t try to visit Gail on your way home today,” Stark said.
Steve clenched his fists in reaction, and when Tony’s hand slid over to cover his, he jerked away and glared at him. “I ain’t puttin’ you on my dance card, Stark,” he snapped. “I don’t care what— that isn’t— and besides even if a fella’s willing to dance with someone, that doesn’t make it their business—”
“Whoa, settle down there, soldier,” Stark said, holding up both hands in a peace offering Steve didn’t want. He wanted to punch him. “I was just going to point out that drunk in the morning and covered in hickeys really isn’t the way to go about things. Trust me on this, I would know.”
Steve groped blindly for his drink and took a slug off of it, the champagne bubbles making his throat tight.
“Gail’s Bucky’s wife,” Steve informed Tony, though if Tony knew he was still trying to talk to her, he probably knew all of the relevant information. “I don’t... “ he shook his head and took another drink.
“A month ago, maybe, Gail was your fiancee,” Tony said softly.
Steve snorted. “Well, things change when you get killed in action,” he said, forcing himself to relax. He could talk about this, because Fury’s people said he had to, and Fury said he had to listen to the headshrinkers.
Stark snorted. “Maybe,” he said quietly. “Finish that, go back to bed. Doctor’s orders, not a come-on, I promise.” He winked.
“What doctor?” Steve asked, amused despite his best intentions.
If he spent much more time with Tony, his moods would be as quicksilver mean as Banner’s, and that wouldn’t bode well for anyone.
“Me, of course. I’m a doctor three or four times over. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.”
“You’re certifiable, Tony,” Steve said.
Tony grinned. “Does that mean you’ll teach me your moves?” he asked, gesturing lewdly.
Steve ignored that and knocked back the rest of his drink and started back for the room he and Tara had ended up in the night before, waving over his shoulder in thanks.
Steve tried desperately not to think about Tony when he slipped back into the bed he’d borrowed. Tara was long since gone — she’d been pretty sweet, but she hadn’t wanted to go steady any more than Steve had, and it was a nice distraction is all — which was the sort of thing you got used to in war, and in Tony Stark’s parties, apparently.
He could still taste the gin from his drink, the vermouth from Tony’s martini a more distant memory though he licked his lips to chase it. He rolled over and smelled sweat and champagne and he groaned, rolled back over, and got back up.
When he came back out, Stark had half the screens in the living area lit up with couples dancing, and the sound of a dozen different songs all at once made him feel dizzy.
“You weren’t kidding, were you?” he asked, turning in a slow, incredulous circle to take it all in.
Stark laughed. “Darling, I’m dying. I’m serious about everything.”
“Well,” Steve said slowly, caving. He expected that as long as he had time left to spend with Tony, he was going to capitulate every time. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, wasn’t sure if it was a thing endemic to befriending Tony or just himself being the sort of heroic, compassionate person the reels all painted him to be. “Fine. But I’m leading.”
Tony threw an arm around Steve’s shoulder and leaned hard against Steve’s side.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
It wasn’t really the press of Tony’s lips against his that drove him back, hands up and three steps away before he could even think about it, searching the room for a distraction, for escape.
He should have known — had known — that Tony was going to— well.
Ruin things. Or try to.
Tony was swaying slightly where Steve had left him, his pupils blown huge in the dim light of the room.
“I thought you wanted to take a break,” Tony said, pouting a little.
“I thought you wanted to dance,” Steve replied, stressing the word and rocking on his heels, trying to calm his racing pulse.
Tony shook his head slightly. “Yes, fine then.”
“Fine,” Steve echoed, even though he had very little idea as to what was going on.
He wasn’t sure if this counted as following Tony’s advice or not, he thought, sitting on the porch outside of Bucky’s and Gail’s modest little house and clenching his hands together.
He was hot and breathless and furious and cold all at once, and every time he closed his eyes he could hear mortar rounds detonating, the screams of the dying, of his men dying, prompting him to blink himself back to alertness and stare hungrily at the little suburban paradise Bucky and Gail had found.
That Bucky and Gail had found without him, leaving him to deal with Tony Stark and with Fury and—
No. That wasn’t right.
He had died, and Bucky and Gail had only had each other, and Steve couldn’t blame them, could only blame himself for not staying dead, really.
But he hadn’t had a choice, and there was another war to fight, a different sort of war, in a very different theater, and he hadn’t been left with Tony Stark, he was lucky to have been included by Tony Stark and—
They say it’s not wrong if you don’t tell the girl your name, if you don’t learn hers, and maybe they’re right, maybe they’re lying to themselves, but I always did learn their names, because it didn’t seem fair not to.
There were a lot of letters he never could write to Gail, he thought, a lot of secrets it no longer mattered if he kept or not, and he wondered…
He hauled himself up from the porch and left the flowers laying on the welcome mat, and went back out into the world.
I’m sorry for dying.
Instead of being polite and pretending things with Stark had never gone off the deep end like they had, he avoided the team. Fury noticed, but Steve still told the headshrinkers the things they wanted to hear and he went to every meeting, attended every training, carefully facilitated every briefing, spending the requisite time with the team before leaving for the day.
The thing about New York is that it doesn’t change.
It did, really, because nothing could last forever, not even, apparently, death, but it didn’t because the thing that made New York his city was not the taste of the air (all wrong, now, no matter where he went. Even London had smelled wrong.) or the people that made up the heart of it, but the bustle of change itself.
New York doesn’t sleep, and that hadn’t changed at all.
Steve should have known that Tony Stark was the sort of man who couldn’t leave well enough alone, but he didn’t.
Of course he didn’t; he didn’t know Tony Stark at all, and that was part of the problem.
The other part of the problem he’d decided to abandon along with a bouquet of daisies, and there was no longer any excuse for him to be discreet at the sort of parties men like Tony Stark threw in the 21st century.
The invitation came in person, after a meeting about something involving Iraq and heavy artillery and mustard gas. Steve was pretty sure, at least, that that had been what the meeting was about.
“Come over tonight,” Stark said, like he had four other times since Steve had walked out on him. On that dance lesson Steve hadn’t ever wanted to give.
Steve raised an eyebrow, and Stark waggled his. “I’ll make it worth your while, darling,” he said, and Fury had clapped Tony on the shoulder as he passed them and said, “He always does, Rogers,” and left them behind.
Steve stared after him, and Stark swayed a little. “You need to get out more, and Fury won’t be the one to make you.”
Steve nodded slowly. “I’ll think about it.”
Steve had to blink around at his surroundings to be sure he was in the same penthouse— “Are those farm animals?” he asked.
“Is this a goat?” Steve tried again.
“Yeah,” Tony replied. “Thor came by a few days ago. He got a citation in Central Park for them, and he couldn’t—”
“You have more than one goat?” Steve demanded.
He pushed past Tony with his confused expression into the kitchen living area, where a goat maa’ed at him gently from a plush looking little goat-couch.
“She doesn’t walk quite right,” Tony said, as if that was explanation enough.
The other goat had followed them into the room, and Steve watched as the first goat gently nosed at the second goat.
“So,” he said after a moment. “If Thor brought you the goats, why the rest of them?”
Tony shrugged. “Apparently NYC Animal Control was lousy with farm animals. The registrar said people rarely claim them, and, well—” Another shrug. “It’s not like I haven’t greased palms for worse reasons, darling. There’s no need to look so constipated, you know. I’m Tony Stark. Sometimes farm animals just happen.”
Steve stared at him.
“And dance lessons?”
“You know, Rogers, I could pay for those too. But Tara didn’t seem to make you look any less lonely, and I’m supposed to be a…” Tony trailed off, biting his lip and looking uncharacteristically lost for words.
“Friend,” Steve supplied, occupying himself with scratching behind the lame goat’s ears. He didn’t want to see the look on Stark’s face when he said it, because he didn’t want proof that he was wrong.
The man only had a few months left to live, anyway, so as long as Steve never caught on to it all being some sort of stupid sham, it wouldn’t matter.
Besides Bucky, though, and maybe Thor and not Fury because Fury was his commanding officer, he didn’t really have many friends to go around.
“Yeah,” Tony said softly. The goat bit him and he yanked his hand back, cursing.
“Thor said that one’s called Gnasher,” Tony added helpfully.
“Son of a bitch,” Steve hissed, nursing his hand and checking to be sure it hadn’t broken badly; hand bones were delicate and prone to healing wrong.
“You okay?” Tony said, offering Steve a towel and crouching to get a better look at the hand.
“What on earth are you wearing?” Steve asked, made aware by proximity that the answer to that question was “worryingly little.”
Tony shrugged. “Once you’ve stopped bleeding, I’m going to show you my hot tub. Great way to get that stick up your ass to relax so I can pretend you’re human for an evening.”
Steve wiped the blood off his hand and gave Tony an assaying once-over. “You’re kind of rude, for polite society,” Steve said.
“And there it is!” Tony crowed. “But you’ll find that I’m only able to get away with it because of my charm and my money. I’m sure Rockefeller and Carnegie were just as scandalous as I am. I have read the Great Gatsby, after all.”
Steve snorted a short laugh, and Tony straightened up, triumphant.
“There now, you see? It’s my charm that lets me get away with it.”
“You’re about as charming as Krauts in a cornfield,” Steve replied.
“You’ll love the speedo I picked out for you,” Tony said.
Steve shook his head.
“You can’t say no to me,” Tony pointed out. “I’m dying.”
“I already did, and people tell me no all the time,” Steve replied, panicking inside when he realized what it was he’d just said.
Tony laughed again, warm and liquid like too much vodka on a December march. “No they don’t, soldier.”
“Well,” Steve said. “One person.”
Tony found a glass to raise in a toast to that, and the goats made pleased little sighing noises.
The bathing suit Tony furnished wasn’t nearly as obnoxious as Tony had insinuated it would be, and Steve wasn’t sure whether he was relieved or disappointed. He’d been bracing himself to pretend that Tony hadn’t embarrassed him, and with nothing to brace for he just felt even more drained of life than normal.
“There’s no one else here,” Steve pointed out.
“Well, I invited Banner, but he’s busy being in prison for the next rest of his life,” Tony said acerbically. “Drink? I left the champagne inside, but I could fix you a Tom Collins.”
Steve raised an eyebrows.
“Dear old dad always did say you could tell a lot about a man by the drink he orders,” Tony said. “I pay attention.”
Steve nodded and frowned, thinking hard. “Tom Collins is fine,” he said after a moment, shifting slightly and assessing the recessed, steaming pool that was gleaming at him.
This high, the sounds of New York were muted, more of a thrum in his veins, an echoing counterpoint to his pulse, than the usual raucous cacophony. The smell of the hot asphalt roof overpowered the rest of the smells that permeated the city.
Even though it was late, the sky was an orangey sort of gray, as bright as a sunset and twice as reassuring, and when he glanced back over to Tony, who seemed to be taking more than his fair share of time fixing drinks, he saw that he was being watched, and was filled with warring desires to look away and curl up defensively or to straighten his spine and pretend it didn’t matter.
It wasn’t like there was anyone left alive who cared about his secrets, even if Tony seemed like he was divining them just from looking.
Finally, Tony finished with the drinks and came over, setting them near the side of the tub and easing down into it, watching Steve silently until he followed suit.
Once they were both settled and Steve was finally able to breathe against the oppressive, all-encompassing heat of the tub, Tony handed him his drink and raised his own glass. “To Romeo and Juliet,” he said solemnly, and Steve blinked in confusion.
“What?” Steve said, trying to figure out how that tied in, trying to determine what strategy Tony was employing.
“They died before they had to face heartbreak,” Tony said, tipping his glass and smirking a little.
“I mean, technically so did you, but I think things worked out a little better in their case,” Tony continued.
Steve shook his head. “Don’t.”
“Darling, you’ll find—”
“No,” Steve said. “Really. Don’t. You don’t talk about Gail, you don’t— you don’t talk about Bucky. They’re my friends.”
Tony’s smirk didn’t slip, didn’t shift into anything different, but he did set aside his drink without tasting it. “Okay,” Tony said slowly. “I just gotta know—”
“No,” Steve growled, and he had enough presence of mind to set his own drink aside instead of breaking it in the tub, though— no. That would be impolite.
He pressed a hand over Tony’s mouth, and Tony’s eyes flickered fearful for a moment before they cleared back to amused indifference.
Good, he thought.
“Do you still want to dance?” he asked, and when Tony nodded against his hand, Steve smiled at him like it was the first time. “Good,” he said. “I lead.”
Steve pulled back and relaxed into the warmth of the tub again.
It was a long time before Tony replied, a quiet, “Whatever you say, soldier,” with no trace of a smirk whatsoever.
The second time Steve woke up in a strange bed in Tony Stark’s penthouse, it was next to Tony Stark, who was a little too sober to be real, though the self-satisfied grin and the louche sprawl of his legs were exactly right, and Steve had to look away from that, look away from his obvious pleasure in the night before.
“Darling, Jarvis will bring us coffee in a few minutes,” Tony said. “Did you have any preferences for breakfast?”
Steve forced himself to get upright, to rub his face vigorously and stretch and pretend he had any idea what he was doing here.
Tony’s hand fell, warm against his shoulder, and Steve tried to decide whether he should shrug it off.
He wasn’t sure, didn’t know, didn’t—
Except Gail had been a lifetime ago, and she had wanted him to stay dead, and Tony didn’t care if he was living or just pretending for Fury, so he sighed heavily and let it drag down against his spine as he leaned forward and tried to focus his thoughts.
“Stark,” he said, and he didn’t know what to say.
“No worries, my dear. Even I know that I’m not the sort of girl you address your letters home to,” Tony said, and then he shifted up, moving his hand around to the front of Steve’s chest. “But I like to think I throw a better party than the USO ever did,” he added, pressing an open-mouthed kiss to the back of Steve’s neck and making Steve shiver all over.
“You think Jarvis can make instant coffee?” Steve asked, not pulling away even though this was every kind of wrong. How many times had he— he—
Tony licked him.
Well, he’d already died, and it hadn’t taken, so who even cared about something stupid like making time with a boy instead of a girl? He’d seen the news; was starting to seem like no one really cared who you were making time with, after all.
“I’ll even have him make the cheap kind, soldier. If you want, we can pretend we’re rationing sugar, make it feel real familiar.”
It was mocking, Tony’s tone, but Tony’s hand was still petting up and down Steve’s back, and Steve thought, maybe, that Tony would if Steve said yes, and Steve ran his hands through his hair and shook his head, trying to dislodge the absolutely ridiculous feeling that thought made bubble up inside of him.
I’m not sorry for coming back, and there’s nothing you can do to me that will hurt worse than realizing that.
Steve tipped his head back, and Tony was affectionate the way guys never were, and Steve thought about the grit of undissolved instant coffee when Tony’s beard scratched at him.
“Yes,” Steve said. “Please.”
Tony laughed and drew away, presumably to tell Jarvis Steve’s request.