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The World Forgetting By The World Forgot

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Tony wakes up and immediately gags, stale plasticy taste in his mouth. He leans over, paws around for the wastebasket he keeps next to the bed for used tissues and discarded paper cups. He spits into it as the nausea crests and then fizzles out, gone as soon as it came. He flops back down into bed, rubbing uncomfortably at the shirt he was wearing. Why is he wearing a shirt? He never wears a shirt to bed. There was a reason, a plan behind the shirt. Something . . . but it fades away. His head hurts.

He has the distinct impression that he was dreaming. Tony doesn’t often dream; or if he does, he doesn’t remember. Someone told him once that everyone dreams, but he can’t remember who. Small fragments of last night’s specters bubble up to the surface of his brain. Someone screaming, fighting, things being broken. “You are fucking killing me,” a tired sounding voice hisses in his head.

It’s a reasonable thing for him to dream about, he supposes. He’s nearly forty, and his life is a string of failed relationships and inevitable letdowns. It sounds like something one of his many exes had said to him at the tail end of a fight, like something his father might have said when he was a teenager, snorting cocaine and getting into fistfights. But it weighs on him. It’s less a dream, and more a memory.

Tony wracks his brain, trying to dig up any more detail about his dreams. There’s a certain softness, a longing. As he thinks about the more pleasant feelings from his nightly reveries, he is struck suddenly with a strong desire to go to Montauk for the day, eat at the beach house restaurants, watch the waves. The thought of going makes him light up a little, like a child promised to be taken to the zoo. Then he realizes what an asinine idea going to Montauk in the middle of February in, and a flickering sense of dread replaces happiness in the pit of his stomach.

The longer Tony lays in bed, the worse he feels. He closes his eyes, pinches his nose. Something doesn’t feel right. He wiggles his toes, counts off each, inspects his hands and his fingers. His limbs appear to be in order. The taste of bile burns in the back of his throat.

He gets up, swings his legs off the bed, digs his toes into the plush carpet. Everything is exactly the same, but something is eating at the back of his brain. Everything is the same, sure, but everything is different at the same time. He stretches, cracks his back. He pads out of his room and into the bathroom.

It’s like someone played a practical joke on him. There are empty shelves in the medicine cabinet behind the mirror. Empty shelves that he was certain had been filled with various hair products and cholesterol medicine and razors and toothpaste only the day before. All of his things are crammed onto the top two shelves. He considers this for a long while, staring into the cabinet while he takes his morning piss and notes that there’s even somehow less toilet paper than he remembers.

The kitchen is worse. Tony isn’t a particularly neat man, but he is meticulous about certain things. He always leaves water and grounds in the coffee pot to make in the morning. He always leaves his cigarettes in the basket on the table with his keys and wallet, matchbook slid into the cellophane. He always leaves his briefcase on the same chair. His liquor bottles are always lined up neatly on the counter by height and volume left in the bottle.

Everything is a mess. The filter for the coffee pot is hanging open, used grounds stinking up the kitchen like old piss. There’s a burnt on stain at the bottom of the pot from someone leaving the machine on for too long. His cigarettes are open, laid next to the empty ashtray he keeps next to the basket, the matchbook nowhere in sight. His briefcase is on the wrong chair. The liquor bottles are moved, out of order and definitely emptier than he remembered.

Tony’s cat howls at the back door, breaking his reverie. He opens the door, unnerved that it’s not locked. The cat slinks in, wet from rain and looking thoroughly pissed off.

“Who let you out, Jarvis?” Tony asks, kneeling down to pet his closest friend. Jarvis is not an outdoor cat. He was declawed when Tony rescued him from the shelter. Sometimes he managed to slip out when Tony opened the door, but that hadn’t happened in a while. Jarvis looks thoroughly miffed and Tony feels like he’s done something terrible. He guiltily fills Jarvis’ bowl with wet canned food and refills his water bowl.

Tony empties the coffee filter and rinses it in his sink. He debates calling Clint, to see if his friend had gone on some sort of bender and trashed Tony’s bastion of order. Clint could be a troublemaker like that, playing practical jokes and being a general shit stirrer. Tony shakes his head, makes a fresh pot of coffee. Clint is too proud of his accomplishments; he would have texted Tony by now, asking if he liked his new kitchen.

Tony changes into jeans and a scratchy sweater while his coffee brews. He checks his phone for new messages, but there are none, so he shoves it into his pocket. It looks cold outside; a grey and lifeless, typical mid-February type of day. Tony thinks again about buying that house in Malibu. He’s starting to get old, after all. The warmth might do him some good. Winters make Tony listless, make him lonely.

All of his mugs are mixed up. His favorite one is pushed all the way to the back, and he grumbles as he digs it out to pour his coffee into. He hates feeling things. Sometimes he wishes he was a cat. Or a robot. Maybe a robot cat. He chuckles at the idea as he sips at his coffee. He wishes bleakly that he had someone to express the sentiment to.

Tony hates being lonely, because he has a terrible habit of calling up his exes when that happens. Maybe he could call Pepper, ask her to take him back. She was sweet, and she was gorgeous, and she was crazy about him. Was, of course, being the past tense. Tony is pretty sure that she’d rather spear him than speak to him, at that point.

He goes out to the living room, and the nagging suspicion that things aren’t right magnify in his gut. Tony is not sentimental. Tony doesn’t keep knickknacks and mementos. There are no snapshots of family and friends hung proudly in his home. He likes prints of oil paintings, black and white photographs of landscapes; frivolous, expensive things that serve no purpose except to enhance a space.

There is evidence, in the dust trails, of keepsakes and tchotchkes being kept on the endtables. Tony never dusts; one of his many bad habits, he supposes, but for something to have sat on his endtables for long enough to leave tiny imprints of circles, of long lines from picture frames . . . it would have had to sit there for a very long time. There have, to his knowledge, never been anything on his endtables other than the sleek silver lamps he uses to read the paper at night.

There are holes in the walls, holes from nails. There are scratches on the paint from frames swinging against them. Someone else might not have noticed them, but not Tony. Tony notices everything, and there are holes from pictures that never hung on his walls. There are sections of dust-free areas on his endtables, on his buffet server. His mother’s vase is missing. He shivers.

Tony used to do things like this, back when he was in his twenties and he did all sorts of drugs. He would go on benders and leave trails of destruction behind him. But he doesn’t do that anymore. Still, the feeling of so many things being so irreconcilably wrong . . . It’s a familiar feeling, and Tony gets a hivey, itchy feeling under his skin. He feels like his feet are suddenly strapped to roller skates and they’re about to fly up from underneath him at any moment.

He jams his feet into the nearest pair of sneakers, goes into the kitchen to get his keys and wallet. The itch starts to hurt as he pulls on his jacket, jams his hat down over his ears, and he thinks of all the things he might have done the night before.

Forget about it, he thinks to himself as he checks the lock on the back door. Forget about it, it’s nothing.

He slams his front door with more force than probably necessary, head throbbing. He walks to the train station, hands stuck in his pockets. He could have taken the car, but the biting wind makes him feel more grounded. His teeth chatter as he waits for the train to Montauk, and he suddenly realizes he forgot his fucking cigarettes. Damn.

~

Steve has finally managed to get out of bed for the first time in a week.

He marks it down as a small victory. He promised himself a long time ago that he would never touch any psychotropic drug again, but Bucky had been right when he made Steve keep the pills. Bucky is always right. Steve had taken two little Ativans when he got out of bed that morning, and now he feels, if not totally alright, a little less miserable.

Steve hasn’t turned on his phone in three days. He feels guilty for leaving Bucky in the dark, cutting him off, worrying and probably wondering if breaking down Steve’s door is worth it this time. But the incessant chirping, all those messages from Phil, asking if he was okay, did he need anything, is he sick . . . They were making Steve crazy. Every time the phone went off, he burst into hysterics. The more Phil wanted him to be okay, the less okay Steve felt.

Phil is some sort of saint. He says all the right things, the kinds of things that Steve needs to hear when he’s freaking out, whether they’re simple and soothing things or words of courage and strength. Phil knows without asking that Steve likes soft-baked chocolate chip cookies and can’t stand the little baby corns they put in Chinese food. He kisses Steve the way Steve likes to be kissed. But all of that, every scrap and speck of adoration and attention, makes him feel hollow and used in the most bizarre way. Phil seems like a cheap echo, a copy of a copy of something Steve had lost in a way that makes him so anxious that he had a meltdown at work a week ago on the last day before he crawled into bed. Steve hasn’t had a panic attack at work in years.

Steve sits on the beach, digging the toes of his work boots into the sand. He sketches little doodles of monsters that hide under the waves and rescue drowning children in his sketchbook. He always feels at peace when he’s at the beach, and this time is no exception. It reminds him of when he was young, before his parents died, before he joined the army and went to Iraq.

The military had been good for Steve at the time. He had always wanted to serve a purpose, to be a soldier for the greater good. He craved order, rules and regulations. But he did not come back the man he left as, and it seems now that the only good his time in the army did was help him compartmentalize his feelings into separate little boxes. Sometimes, one of the boxes exploded and he had a moment or five of sheer panic, of flashbacks of trauma and gore. He had always been sensitive, but after he had taken two bullets and gotten his discharge papers, it seemed like his natural vulnerability had ratcheted up until everything that happened to him grated and chafed, as if every nerve were raw and exposed.

There were days, upon Steve’s return, that he longed for someone to kiss the ugly scars on his shoulder, the marks on his arm from the bullets. As if the act itself would erase them from his past. Phil was the first person to do so, but even the thought makes Steve shiver, makes his stomach do flips. It seems to him contrite and hollow, much like Phil himself.

Part of Steve’s panic over Phil is undoubtedly because he doesn’t want to break things off with someone who obviously cares so much. The other part is because he is utterly terrified that if he leaves Phil, there will never be another person to care for him like that. Steve does not feel worthy of being loved, and he hasn’t since before he went overseas. Sometimes he wishes that he didn’t even have Bucky, his lifelong best friend, to make him feel guilty just for feeling so terrible.

Steve feels like he’s being unfair to Phil. It’s not just Phil making him miserable. There are a myriad of reasons, and all of them seem like an unspecified anxiety disorder of some kind. There were important papers missing from his filing cabinet, sending Steve frantically searching until he found them in another room. He keeps misplacing things. It took him twenty minutes just to find the keys to his car that morning. He found a bottle of vodka in his freezer. Steve doesn’t even drink, let alone drink expensive imported vodka. The undeniable, creeping suspicion that he had been left out of a very large joke settled in at the base of his spine, curled up like a serpent to strike at his nagging consciousness, unprovoked and wild.

Steve is not alone on the beach that day, and it strikes him as odd that someone else would be out on Montauk in the middle of February. He even admits to himself that it’s not a very elegant plan. The other poor soul on the beach is a man in a woven beanie and a grey jacket. He kicks the sand at the breaker and stalks around impatiently, occasionally taking his hands out of his pockets to huff on them, trying to breathe some warmth into his fingers.

The man reminds Steve of something, some long lost memory of a sticky summer night, leaping into waves. Steve frowns, searching for the details, but they’re long gone. He stares at the stranger. Steve is sitting too far away to see his face clearly, but just the sight of him twists Steve’s guts.

The other beach goer is in the beach front diner an hour later, pouring something into his coffee under the table. He’s extremely handsome; threads of silver run through his tousled black hair. His goatee is trimmed neatly, and his eyes are whiskey colored and luminous. His face is open, honest looking. He notices Steve watching him. He winks as he takes a sip of his doctored coffee.

Steve feels mortified as his cheeks flare up red. He goes back to picking at the pancakes he ordered. He isn’t particularly hungry, but maybe if his stomach is full, his chest won’t feel so empty. He thinks bitterly that he needs to stop falling in love with every stranger that pays him the least bit of attention. When he looks up again, the handsome man is gone, replaced by a few bills and an empty coffee mug.

It’s for the best, Steve thinks. He pulls out his sketchbook and does quick studies of his waitress, of the patrons sitting at the counter. He manages to swallow down three more bites of the pancakes before his stomach seizes up. He pays the waitress and decides to head home. His boss is extremely lenient with him, especially with Bucky pulling for him, but he’s missed a week. He has to go back tomorrow, pick up the slack he left behind, pretend everything is fine. He promised, and Steve Rogers does not break promises.

Steve doesn’t notice the same stranger waiting on the same platform until someone loudly asks him to put his cigarette out. Steve watches as he takes a steady drag, exhales the smoke, and then tosses the butt onto the tracks. The woman who asked him looks hideously angry, but the man just cocks a wicked grin.

“Apologies, doll,” he says to the woman.

“Ugh,” she huffs, moving down the platform towards Steve.

Steve adjusts the strap of his messenger bag and pretends that he wasn’t watching.

When the train comes, Steve curls up in a window seat and immediately pulls out his sketchbook to work on a drawing he had started earlier in the day of a beautiful old house on the waterfront. He works on penciling in the salt grass in front of the house and the man walks through the compartment, whistling. He sits down in the seat behind Steve, and Steve hears the telltale noise of an iPhone text alert.

Steve is left in peace until after the conductor makes his rounds and punches tickets. As soon as that’s done, the handsome stranger gets up and parks himself next to Steve.

“Hey,” he says. “You were on the beach today.” He gestures down at Steve’s sketchbook. “That’s really great. Really captures the detail. That’s my favorite house on the point.”

If Steve were a normal, sociable person, he would have told the man how that house is his favorite too, and thank you for the compliment, weren’t you on the beach too? But since Steve is hounded by anxiety and lousy with worry, all that gets past his lips is, “Oh.”

The man laughs. “Strong, silent type, huh?”

“Um,” Steve says.

“Hey, man, I didn’t mean to bother you.” The man stands up. “You’re busy, I’ll just . . . go back to my seat.” He returns to the row behind Steve.

Steve looks down at his sketch and suddenly feels like he shouldn’t finish it. The privacy of drawing is gone. It’s not a personal escape if someone else is there too. He half-heartedly goes in to add more detail to the lace curtains, but no sooner does the pencil touch the paper than does the man behind him stick his head up over the seat and say, “You know, I’m really just wondering what kind of lunatic would go out on the beach on a day like today.”

Steve jumps. He clears his throat, tries to get his bearings. “Well,” he says meekly. “You were on the beach today.”

“Exactly,” the man says, grinning. He has a smile that makes Steve think of sharks, of alligators, of terrible monsters that wait in the deep to snatch you and drag out down under the surface. It should make Steve feel uncomfortable, scared. But instead it eases some of the tension he feels built up in his neck. “You’ve got to be nuts to be out in the cold like that.”

“Are you implying that you, yourself, are . . . nuts?” Steve asks.

“Well, technically, yes,” the man says. He comes around to plop back into the seat next to Steve. “But really, no.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Steve says.

“Well, the question of my sanity rests squarely on your answer,” the man says. “If you’re not nuts, then neither am I. But if you are, then, well. I must be too.”

Steve shakes his head. “I’m not nuts. I’m . . .” He shrugs. “Stir-crazy, I guess. Bored, possibly. But not nuts.”

“Then that settles it,” the man said with a firm nod. He holds out his hand. “I’m Tony. Tony Stark.”

“Steve Rogers.” Steve takes Tony’s hand and gives it a shake. Tony has a firm grip, almost painful. “Was this all a ploy to introduce yourself?”

Tony laughs. “I see I can’t pull the wool over your eyes.”

Steve smiles, a hesitant, shaky thing. Despite himself, he sort of likes Tony.

“You look extremely familiar,” Tony says. “You don’t frequent engineering conferences, do you?”

“No,” Steve says, shaking his head. “I work at the boxing gym in Southampton.”

“Really? I live not two blocks from there,” Tony says. “I must have seen you around there.”

“Maybe,” Steve says with a shrug. He lives halfway between Southampton and Hampton Bays, by the good grace of the pithy inheritance from his deceased great uncle and government disability checks alone. His father’s pension checks had dried up a long time ago, but he was doing okay. For now. Tony strikes him as the kind of person who’s grown up in money, who hasn’t wanted for one thing in his life. He has a spoiled air about it; maybe it’s the name-brand winter jacket or the sparkling watch on his wrist. Perhaps it’s the artfully dishevelled hair or the crisp new jeans. Maybe it’s just his cloying sense of entitlement. Most strangers don’t expect time from other people, but Tony basically ran up to Steve and demanded it.

Steve feels like maybe he should be worried that he gave in so easily to a complete stranger. Is he that weak, that vulnerable? What’s wrong with him? He’s going to get himself murdered one of these days, and all the army training in the world isn’t going to save him from the clutches of some well-dressed, cannibalistic sociopath-

“Hey,” Tony says, interrupting Steve’s thoughts. “You’re going to give yourself an aneurysm if you think that hard about anything.”

Steve’s brows furrow.

“Really,” Tony says, nodding gravely. “Your head is just going to explode in a shower of blood and bone fragment and everyone around you will shake their heads and say what a pity that Steve Rogers never stopped thinking.”

“Are you sure we’ve never met?” Steve asks, lips twisting into a half-frown, half-pout. “You were pretty spot on.”

Tony shrugs. “I’m just good at reading people.”

Steve doesn’t have anything to say. Tony levels a cool gaze at him, and it makes Steve feel extremely naked.

“Wake me up when we’re at Southampton?” Tony asks. He settles back into his seat, leaning his head back.

“What makes you so sure that we’re going to the same place?”

“Just a lucky guess,” Tony says, smiling even though his eyes are closed. He crosses his arms and lets out a huff of breath. Steve realizes he mentioned where he worked and feels a little stupid.

Steve flips to a new page in his sketchbook and starts a drawing of the lighthouse on the point. He would draw Tony, but he always feels strange about drawing new people. Strangers were one thing, but the sudden intimacy of sitting next to each other on the train gives him pause. It would feel all wrong, to draw him now. He works on the drawing until he realizes that Tony’s not really sleeping, just fidgeting with his eyes closed. Tony huffs and rubs his face, opens his eyes. He looks at Steve’s drawing.

“What’s an artist doing working at a boxing gym?” Tony asks.

“Oh. Well.” Steve considers this. He had gone to a two year college, gotten a degree in business because fine art seemed frivolous, but then he went to the army. He was just doing what he could to stay afloat. “I’m just making money. I guess.”

“Not much, I’d imagine.”

“Totally inappropriate,” Steve snaps.

“Hey, no disrespect meant,” Tony said, raising his hands. “I’m just saying that you have real talent.”

“Van Gogh had real talent,” Steve says dryly.

Tony chuckles. “All right, all right. I’ll leave you alone.”

Steve sighs. He flips around in his pad, trying to find something half-finished to work on. He notices that there are a lot of torn out pages in the book. Huh. He didn’t usually do that, but he wouldn’t put it past himself. He got into funks and burned sketchbooks sometimes. He’s grateful to himself that he hadn’t wrecked this one. It’s his favorite.

The sky is beginning to darken when they pull into the station. It’s gotten colder, too. Tony all but vanishes as soon as they get off the train. Steve tries not to be too hurt by this. Tony’s just a stranger, after all. He doesn’t owe Steve anything, even if demanding his time and then disappearing was a little rude. Steve trudges down the stairs to his car, the familiar hollow ache settling once again in his chest. He’s being stupid, and he knows it.

Steve is pulling out of the station when he sees Tony walking in the same direction he’s headed. He purses his lips. In an uncharacteristic display of extrovertedness, he pulls up alongside Tony and hits the button to make his passenger side window go down.

“Hey!” Steve calls. Tony stops, squints into the car. He smiles. “Do you want a ride?”

“Well,” Tony pauses, considers this for a moment. He makes a strange movement with his leg, like he’s trying to decide if he should take another step or turn to get into the car. Someone behind Steve honks and shouts. “Okay, yeah. Great,” Tony decides.

Tony gets into the car and Steve takes off before the asshat behind them can abuse their horn again.

Tony is quiet except to give Steve directions. When they pull into Tony’s driveway, Steve’s suspicions about Tony’s wealth are confirmed. A shiny silver Mercedes sits in the driveway. The house itself is huge, and there’s enough yard around it that it must have cost a fortune. Steve is still gaping at the fountain in the front yard when Tony says, “Thanks for the ride.”

“Of course,” Steve says. “It was cold out.”

Tony smiles that shark smile again. “You want to come in for a drink?”

“What?” Steve asks, taken aback.

“No funny business, I promise,” Tony says, dragging a finger over his chest. “Cross my heart.”

“I don’t drink,” Steve says in a small voice.

“Coffee then?”

Steve is silent. He checks the time. He could, theoretically, go in and drink coffee with Tony and still be home in time to get a full eight hours of sleep before work. Then again, he might be better off just going home and forgetting about the whole thing, he would probably be tired all day tomorrow anyway-

“You’re doing that thing again,” Tony says. “Stop doing that thing.”

Steve laughs. “What do you suggest I do?”

“Don’t think so hard. Come in, have some coffee, meet my cat, and go home.”

“Cats don’t like me.”

“Cats don’t like anybody.”

Steve smiles. “All right.”

Steve follows Tony into the house. It strikes him as large and empty. It’s a raised ranch; the basement is dark. Everything is new, and at first glance it looks tidy, but that’s only because there’s not a lot of stuff. Tony obviously doesn’t dust, and the tile in the kitchen has evidence of wet grass sticking to shoes and muddy paw prints. The whole house smells like coffee, cigarettes, and that fake apple cinnamon air freshener smell.

“Go have a seat in the living room,” Tony says, waving his hand.

Steve sits down on the plush couch. A rather large and fluffy grey cat stalks up to him. The cat lets Steve pet him and hops up into his lap to rub his face on Steve’s chest. Tony bustles around in the kitchen and Steve takes the opportunity to look around. Tony’s house has an air to it that Steve has come to associate with single middle-aged men. Everything is Spartan and utility. There aren’t pictures of happy smiling children and wedding photos and art projects hung on the fridge. The middle-aged bachelor pad, as a rule, is clean and emotionless. Hell, even the middle-aged bachelor tends to be clean and emotionless, in Steve’s limited experience.

Bucky is going to absolutely murder him if he finds out Steve went home with another greying father figure.

“How do you take your coffee?’ Tony calls.

“Black,” Steve replies, scratching under the cat’s chin.

“Really?” Tony pokes his head out of the kitchen. “No cream, no sugar?”

“Black,” Steve repeats, nodding.

“I can’t tempt you to put even a little whiskey in there?”

“No.” Steve shrugs. “Sorry.”

“Strong and silent, and now I find out you’re an incorruptible boy scout!” Tony smacks his forehead. “Geez.”

“Just an army captain, not a boy scout.”

“Aha! I knew there was something else.” Tony smiles and disappears back into the kitchen. He comes out with a mug of coffee in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other. He puts the coffee down in front of Steve. “Cats hate you, eh?”

“Well, generally they do,” Steve says. “I don’t know why this handsome fellow’s taken a shine to me.”

“Jarvis likes handsome, troubled young men.”

“I’m troubled?”

Tony nods. “Oh yeah. I can always tell.” He sits down next to Steve, much closer than entirely necessary. “Jarvis and I have a type.” He reaches over and scratches Jarvis’ ears. “He hasn’t been wrong once.”

“Do I come off as that pathetic?”

“You come off like a space cadet,” Tony says, laughing. “You’re all snarled up in your head.”

“It’s that obvious,” Steve says, a little taken aback. He had hoped that he was doing a good job of pretending to be a regular person.

“Maybe not to the general public, but to me . . .” Tony takes a sip of his whiskey, lets out the little huff Steve associates with people who drink hard liquor straight. “I told you, I’m good at reading people.”

Steve says nothing. He picks up his coffee and takes a sip. He’s surprised; most people who don’t drink their coffee black make it completely undrinkable in that state. It’s always bitter or weak; very rarely is it perfect. But Tony’s coffee is. It’s hot enough to burn Steve’s tongue, but he keeps drinking it.

Tony slings an arm around Steve’s shoulders. He’s shorter than Steve standing up, but sitting they’re the same height. Steve has a habit of sinking down into couches, anyway. Tony makes Steve feel extremely comfortable.

“So, a soldier, huh?” Tony asks.

“Yes.”

“Still on active duty?”

Steve shakes his head. “No. I’m a wounded veteran.”

“Just checking,” Tony says, sipping his whiskey.

“Oh?”

“Well, I can’t have a boyfriend that has to run off the the Middle East for six months at a stretch, can I?”

Steve makes a “glurk” noise as he chokes on his coffee.

“Oh, wow, sorry,” Tony says, thumping Steve on the back. Steve coughs. “Didn’t mean to almost kill you.”

“It’s okay,” Steve wheezes. “Really.”

“It’s just that I get the distinct impression that I’ve met my designated life partner.” Tony eyes Steve over his glass of whiskey. “I don’t buy into that soulmates horseshit,
but . . . I don’t know. You seem sort of special.”

“You’ve known me for a total of about three hours,” Steve says.

“So? Romeo and Juliet saw each other across a party.”

“And then they killed themselves.”

“You’re not a very good romantic, Steve.”

“I don’t want a Romeo and Juliet scenario,” Steve says. “I’d be much more happy with a Mister and Missus Cleaver situation.”

“Boring and predictable?”

“Stable and comforting.”

“A traditionalist!” Tony laughs. “I’m amazed you even like men.”

“I don’t know whether or not I should be offended.”

“Don’t, please.” Tony takes Steve’s hand. Tony’s hands are square and rough; steam shovel hands, with neatly trimmed nails but chewed cuticles. He put his glass down on the coffee table; there are no coasters, and that irks Steve. “No offense meant, whatsoever. Traditional is good.”

“Something to balance out your impertinence.”

“So there’s a sense of humor in there!” Tony laughs. “I knew it.”

Steve smiles. He sips his coffee and puts it on the table next to Tony’s glass. He leans into Tony, puts his head on his shoulder. Jarvis leaps off Steve’s knees. Tony tugs Steve’s hands into his lap, plays with his fingers, runs a fingernail over his perpetually swollen knuckles. Tony’s hands are beautiful; Steve’s are battered from boxing and picking up construction jobs.

“This is nice,” Steve whispers.

Tony snorts.

“What?”

“‘Nice’ is the worst adjective in the English language,” Tony says. “‘Nice’ is boring. It’s pedantic. Everyone wants ‘nice’.”

“There’s nothing wrong with nice,” Steve says.

“There is everything wrong with nice.”

They sit in silence for a while. Steve tries to think of another adjective, but honestly, sitting here with Tony is simply nice. It’s calming and soothing. Knots that Steve hadn’t even been aware of untie themselves in his stomach. He is calmer than he’s been in a while. He has a feeling like a puzzle piece that’s been missing from his life is falling into place. He imagines Tony wiping the slate of his life, all the hurt and anxiety and pain, totally clean. Steve is aware of how unfair it is to ask of someone to do that for him, almost painfully so. But it doesn’t really seem to matter; not then, not there.

“You’re thinking again,” Tony whispers. “None of that in my presence.”

“You know, when brain activity ceases, the body dies.”

“No overthinking in my presence, then,” Tony amends.

Steve turns Tony’s watch so he can see the time. “I really should get going. I have work early tomorrow.”

“What a letdown,” Tony sighs. “If you must, you must.”

“I really must. They’ll kill me if I miss another day.”

“All right.”

Steve gets up and Tony follows.

“Wait a sec,” Tony says. He runs into the kitchen and returns with a marker. “Hand,” he demands, holding out his own. Steve gives him his hand and Tony scribbles his phone number onto it. He puts a line through his 7’s and 0’s; very European. “I would like you to call me. The sooner the better. None of that ‘playing hard to get’ crap, all right? If you want to see me, you want to see me, and that’s that.”

“Okay,” Steve says weakly. He inspects the number. No one’s written a number on his hand since he was in middle school.

Tony leans forward and kisses the corner of Steve’s mouth. “Now scram, before I change my mind about letting you leave.”

Steve grins stupidly and exits the front door. He drives a little recklessly back to his apartment. He makes it into the kitchen before he pulls his house phone out of the receiver and dials Tony’s number. He still doesn’t want to turn his cell phone on. He isn’t quite sure what he’s doing. This isn’t like him at all.

“Miss me?” Tony croons as soon as he picks up the phone.

“I do,” Steve says, smiling.

“Oh! You said ‘I do’!” Tony laughs. “I guess this means we’re married now.”

“I guess so,” Steve says. “Listen, I just wanted to say . . . I had a really nice time.”

Nice?” Tony asks sharply.

Steve takes a deep breath through his nose. “I had a great time. A fucking amazing time.”

“That’s better,” Tony says. “There’s nothing nice about me. But I’ll take ‘fucking amazing’. When are you free next?”

“I get out of work tomorrow at six.”

“Swing by the house. Dress warm. We’ll go up to the Charles River.”

“At this time of year?”

“It’ll be perfect, I promise.”

Steve wants to say to him not to make promises he can’t keep. Steve wants to tell him about all the snarled, tangled up things in his head, all the horrible, fucked up things that have happened to him. He wants to dive into the comfort of Tony’s strong hands.

“Stop doing that thing,” Tony says sternly.

“I wasn’t,” Steve insists.

“Sure you weren’t.” Tony laughs, and Steve can see his eyes crinkling up. “Tomorrow. Six. Call me if you can’t make it back on your own.”

“Okay.”

“Hell, call me on your lunch break.”

“Okay.”

“They damn, Steve. Isn’t there another word in your vocabulary?”

“Maybe.”

“All right, Captain. Enough funny business. Get some sleep.”

“Good night,” Steve says.

“Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” Tony says. The line goes dead and Steve returns the phone to its cradle.

He gets the distinct feeling that something wonderful has just happened to him.

~

Tony pounded on the steering wheel of his car, howling wordlessly.

How had this happened?

How had he let Steve slip through his fingers like that?

Tony was acutely aware of what a fucking lunatic he looked like. He had scared the clerk at the gas station half the death, a drowned rat in a designer suit, waving money around and demanding cigarettes. He could barely light them, but he smoked the entire pack in his car that night, parked by the Charles River.

Nothing had ever hurt like this.

Nothing had ever cut so deep, lashed into him right where it stung, twisted a knife so neatly. Every part of him ached for Steve to come back.

But this one was the final fight. Steve wouldn’t come back this time. Rhodey had seen him at the gym, already hanging off some guy even older than Tony. Steve was acting like a spoiled little brat, and that was not like Steve. He always left the theatrics and drama to Tony. But there he was, torturing Tony, dangling him on a spit.

Tony put his face in his hands and let out a strangled cry.

He wished, deep down to the pit of his heart, the very core of his being that he had never met Steve Rogers, and that none of this had ever happened.