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Lesser Demons

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“Agent Carter went to a considerable amount of trouble, and no small risk, to see this made it to your hands,” T’Challa intoned mildly as he watched Steve turn the tape case over in his hands.  

The case was rectangular. Dark brown plastic, pebbled, except for a shiny, flat strip across the front, which was embossed with three strips of yellowed masking tape, marked in a faint, but elegant black script that Steve would recognize anywhere.  

He had no idea what he had been expecting when T’Challa’s invitation—summons, he mentally corrected with a frisson of frustration—reached him…Bucky, in that first flash of fear when he read the message on one of the burner phones stowed in the recess behind the refrigerator in the pay-by-the-week apartment he was renting.  Something had gone wrong.  With the cryo.  With…the rehabilitation.  Bucky, and all of this was going to start over again, and Steve wasn’t sure if he could do it.  He would.  Of course, he would.  That was what he did.  He got up, brushed himself off and faced whatever it was that needed facing.  He just wondered if maybe a little less of him did it each time.  

The Accords.  They’re sending them somewhere, the pieces that were left on the board.  A test.  A trial balloon to see who would balk.  Who would be in non-compliance , the sterile, lawyerly word for under arrest that had kept filtering through the numb, burned out edges of Steve’s mind on that tense, quiet plane ride to London when Tony wouldn’t look at him, just sat there, tight-jawed, staring out the jet’s window, but somehow made all the other arrangements down to the black suit waiting in Steve’s hotel room and the spray of white gardenias that Sharon thanked Steve for while he stared blankly at her and let his mind skip across stories of blackouts and luminous pins and the rich sound of Peggy’s deep, caustic laughter at the idea of relying on a fashion accessory to keep from getting run over on the dark London streets.  

The others.  Ross and his floating prison built to house exactly one kind of inmate.  They’d been caught.   Worse, Steve’s mind had supplied.  How many times will I not be fast enough?  Too many.  That was the answer, and he knew it, and he hated the knowing.  The certainty, spinning round and round like a coin on its edge until the force of it gave way to stillness.  It was going to happen again.  One day. It always did, when you thought you were done or safe or could breathe for a moment.  

Something…else.   God, no , Steve remembered thinking, the way the plea had burst bright and sharp into his head, followed almost without pause by, we’re not ready .  That other thing that loomed at the edge of dreams he couldn’t remember.  Too soon.  That had been his first thought when he got the cryptic message.  It was too soon. They weren’t ready.  Not even close to it.  Too fractured, too angry, too far apart, too--

Broken.  

All these thoughts hit him the instant he opened the message, but T’Challa’s ‘ I have something that belongs to you, ’ hadn’t been any of that, though it carried its own kind of nearly unbearable hollowness now, because he didn’t want this.  It wasn’t his, whatever it was.  Why had she left this for him?  The question lingered with no answer, save a frisson of discomfort that chilled its way down his spine.  He didn’t want to know, but he had to, now, because she left it to him.  Left it in his hands, long before she forgot him, long before he was thankful she had.  

And what did those hands do with it, he thought with a sudden rush of bitterness as he turned the thing T’Challa had given him over, looking for some kind of clue.  I had no choice, he told himself but the words were empty now. Cold. I had no choice is the mantra of a man who made a choice and wanted to believe he hadn’t, and Steve wasn’t going to lie to himself.  Not anymore.  

He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.  When he popped the case open, a large, black cartridge with dual spools of tape on each side.  He stared at it for a moment, but it held no meaning for him, only questions, then closed the case and let his fingers run over a corner of one of the pieces of tape on the front where it was peeling ever so slightly away.

Stark Expo, 1974.

Christmas, 1980.

Howard’s Lakehouse, 1985.

“A VHS.  Little use to you now. I took the liberty of having the film digitized for you,” T’Challa told him, pulling a small flash drive from the pocket of his vest and holding it out to Steve.  For a second, Steve didn’t want to take it.  He did, of course, mumbling his thanks, or he thought he had.  “We have technicians who can restore it properly, and a media vault where the original can be preserved.  If you like.”

Of course.  Of course, T’Challa had those things, and of course, Steve couldn’t very well carry the cartridge with him.  He made no move to hand it back, though, just stared at the letters and numbers on the pieces of tape, the way they curved and scrolled so neatly across the labels.  

She had written it with care, the way she did most things, but this…he could almost see her, snipping off a piece of tape with sharp, silver scissors.  The lengths were cut, not torn.  She had wanted it straight.  A thick pen, black, one that would keep with time.  

The name was written in cursive each time, except the last strip of tape, where her writing had become a little less flowing, a little blockier, a little less effortless.  She would have been busy.  Family, husband, SHIELD.  She would have written less.  Things were changing.  Typed more.  She would have had a desk with a bulky computer that was little more than a glorified typewriter, but she would have learned to use it, learned better and faster than the rest of them, because she knew if she didn’t, they would say she was too old for this new revolution, that she should be at home. That she’d earned it, as if being shunted aside was her due.  

I knew him, you know.  When he was young.  Did he tell you?

He hadn’t, of course. Tony hadn’t said much of anything, though, looking back, the doctors were always the best, weren’t they?  The caretakers she hadn’t called nurses for a long time, who had long strings of letters by their names that Steve never really thought about, not then, anyway, when she greeted him warmly and pretended to know who he was.

“Did she say why Peggy wanted me to have this?” Steve asked, frowning down at the case for a long moment before handing it back to T’Challa and pocketing the drive.  “Seems like it should go to Tony, really.”

“Only that her Aunt left instructions in her will that it was to be given to you,” T’Challa told him.  

“You went to a lot of trouble to get a few home movies to me,” Steve pointed out, raising an eyebrow in question.

“I once allowed my own pain and rage to overcome reason, compassion, my commitment to justice, the very things that my father embodied, and nearly took the life of an innocent man because of it.  Something all the good works of a lifetime could not have undone,” T’Challa replied evenly.  “Agent Carter helped prevent that from happening.  I owe her a debt,” he continued with a slight tilt of his head.  “As I do you, Captain.   And Stark. Had he not put aside your differences and rushed off to your aid, I may not have realized my error while there was still a part of me that cared about truth.”

Steve held T’Challa’s gaze for a moment, then nodded, flattening his mouth as his face pulled tight.  He swiped a hand over his mouth, looked away, then back.  “Bucky?” he asked.

“Your friend remains in cryosleep.  My doctors tell me his vitals are stable,” T’Challa told him, started to say something else, then hesitated, the air of dignified power he usually wore like a mantle slipping away for a moment.  “He dreams.  I hope they are…of good things.”

“Yeah.  Yeah,” Steve replied after a pause, the word sinking heavy on his breath like a sigh.  “Thank you.  For…” This.  Bucky. The money.  A way out of Wakanda.  A way back in.  Everything.  “You didn’t have to do this.”

“Rarely is what must be done the only thing worth doing,” T’Challa replied with a small nod.  Steve dropped his gaze down to the tape case for a moment, then held it out to T’Challa, who took it and slipped it back into the black leather bag he carried, then looked back up at Steve.  “My people believe the dead still speak to us, though we usually cannot hear their whispers, except in dreams, when our minds are quieter.  Do you believe something like this, Captain?”

“I don’t know,” Steve said, feeling his fist close around the drive T’Challa had given him.  

“This woman you all share,” T’Challa began.  “I think her voice must be very strong.”

“Yeah,” Steve said after a moment of silence.  He glanced away, eyes catching on the broken pane of glass that still hung in one of the abandoned warehouse’s windows, letting a stream of light slip through the darkness.  “That’s probably something of an understatement,” Steve acknowledged with a  rueful half-smile.

T’Challa’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded, dipped his head just the slightest and left Steve watching him disappear, soundlessly, seamlessly, into the shadows and dark spaces that clung to the corners.  Steve uncurled his fist and looked down at the flash drive for a long moment, then pocketed it and headed for the opposite end of the warehouse.  

By the time he made it back to the tiny apartment that sat several blocks off Shankill Road, next to a long defunct bowling alley and a once-bright mural that had since given way to the combined efforts of graffiti, playbills, weather and time, his neck and back were still with tension and his stomach kept clenching and roiling while he tried to figure out why, why of all the things Peggy could leave him, why this ?  

He should send this to Tony.   Get rid of it , his mind urged, throbbing with an almost overwhelming insistence. Which, he couldn’t do, of course. Not with Ross and the entirety of the global security forces on the hunt for him.  Steve sighed and tossed his keys down on the counter by the sink, then pulled a bottle of beer out of what the landlord, spitting a wad of something onto the gravel by the door, had told him was a cooling box in such a thick Irish accent, Steve had barely been able to decipher the garbled words as English, and sat down on the narrow bed that was shoved against the far wall and acted as the room’s sole piece of furniture.  The laptop was stashed in a hollowed space between two water pipes that served the small toilet on the other side of the wall, behind what had quickly become a loose concrete block just under the bedframe.  He didn’t reach for it right away, just sat and sipped his beer, staring at the yellowed window above the kitchen sink where the towel that served as a curtain was pulled back at one corner just enough for Steve to see anyone who might be bold enough or stupid enough to try the front door. He nudged his boot at the floor and clasped the bottle between his hands in his lap, then glanced over at the newspaper spread out on the end of the bed.  

Stark Sells Avengers Tower, the headline blared in large, blocky letters, though reading it now had lost the pang of shock and grief that had punched through him the first time.  Now, it was just…a resolute sort of numb acceptance in its place, though he knew that wasn’t it, not really, not with the way his gut twisted and his eyes tightened when he looked at it.  It was a stock photo of Tony underneath, from some event months ago.  The MIT thing, maybe, Steve couldn’t remember.  Or, he could.  If he thought about, he could remember a lot.  But, he didn’t want to think about it.  It looked like the same suit, though.  The one Tony had held up in one hand with a lighter grey one in the other.  

He didn’t lift the paper, but he knew that underneath it was one of those gossip magazines, not so different from the Brevities his mother used to love to read on the rare occasion she could get an old one from the hospital. Even out of date, the lives of rich and famous had been enthralling at the end of the workweek, with her feet soaking in a tub of warm water and the little blue and white tin of Epsom salt next to her elbow on the table while she read.  A splashy cover trumpeting ‘Iron Man Melt Down’ in bold, black letters with ‘Proposal Stunt Gone Wrong’ in a smaller script underneath.  

A blurry picture shot through one of the huge windows that lined one of the compound’s corridors filled the remaining space of the tabloid’s cover.  The picture showed what appeared to be Tony and Pepper arguing while Happy stood off to one side with his hands held out in some kind of placating gesture. The article claimed the quickly called and then aborted press conference had been to announce Tony and Pepper’s engagement, which was, according to the article, now off due to what an insider said was Tony’s ‘continued downward spiral’ since the events of Sokovia.  

He wasn’t sure why he’d bought the thing, except he had seen it hanging there on the newsstand rack, and before he knew it, it was tucked under his arm.  Hidden, his mind supplied, with a flash of guilt.  Tony would hate it, this pulling back of the curtain without permission, but Steve hadn’t been able to resist even this, this small glimpse that suggested maybe there were cracks there, maybe Tony hadn’t just moved on, maybe things weren’t as perfect as they seemed, and, God, what did that say about him that a part of him craved that kind of reassurance?  He wanted Tony to be happy, of course he did.  That was the solid through-line of cobbled together mistakes that had led him to sitting alone in a half-flat in this bleak, forgotten part of Belfast, after all.  Still.  Still, it had stung, seeing Tony wowing the crowds, waving peace signs and flashing a smile, even if it was one Steve could recognize as the practiced kind, the one that didn’t make his eyes go soft at the edges in starburst of crinkles when he laughed.  

Proposal.  It hurt.  He couldn’t very well lie to himself.  It was that deep, tight ache of not quite being able to catch his breath.  It shouldn’t, maybe.  Maybe it was unfair of him.  It wasn’t as if he had ever had any claim on Tony, and certainly not now.

Steve had spent a lot of time not thinking about that article, not thinking about how he had always known, not thinking about how some part of him still held a thread of hope that kept slowly unspooling with time and distance until he was afraid if he looked at it too long or too hard, he would get to the end and there would be nothing left.

He had known.  From the beginning, he had known.  Known that this whole thing with Tony was some itch Tony needed to scratch for whatever unfathomable reason wound itself into the back of Tony’s mind and culminated in Tony shoving his tongue down Steve’s throat in the middle of an argument that had begun somewhere over the Atlantic and ended with Tony panting underneath him, half out of the armor and muttering about needing to stash some clothes on the jet.

As conflict resolution techniques went, Steve had to admit, it had worked surprisingly well, but he’d always known it wasn’t…real.  Just something to take the edge off, and God knew they both needed that.

Just something to take the edge off, Steve mentally repeated slowly to himself, then let his head fall back against the wall behind him with a solid thunk.  He blinked up at the water stains on the ceiling, then let his eyes fall shut for a moment.   He could remember everything.  One of the serum’s blessings and curses.  He could remember how one edge of Tony’s mouth would tug up and his eyes would narrow, almost in speculation, and he’d roll his lips together sometimes when he was looking at Steve, and he could remember the way Tony’s hands felt on his neck and shoulders or combing through his hair, and how quiet Tony could get sometimes.  He wondered if people know that about Tony.  How quiet he could be, how intimate it could make things, that absence of commentary, when all of his focus shifted and settled.  How it always caught Steve a little by surprise to be on the receiving end of it.

Taking another swig of his beer, Steve finally lifted the edge of the mattress and reached down to shift the block out and retrieve the laptop that sat nestled behind it. Wakandan, not Stark Tech, and he felt a momentary flash of amusement and then guilt at that, because Tony, who wanted to claw at the future with grasping hands and scrapes of nails and pull it down to the world, would be alternately fascinated and exasperated by the wonders T’Challa and his people shrouded in secrecy.  His laptop, the first one anyway, the one that arrived at his Brooklyn apartment while New York was still in pieces, the one that opened to his own cowl-covered image smiling back at him, encouraging him to buy war bonds, had been a casualty of the Winter Soldier, Steve remembered.  One of the few that could be easily replaced.

Pulling the drive out of the pocket of his jeans, he held it up for a moment, then slid it into the slot on the side of the laptop and hit the power button.  A few seconds later, the computer prompted him for his password.  His fingers hovered over the keys for a moment, then typed it in, fast, getting it over.  He should change it, he knew.  He didn’t know why he was using the old one, not now, but he didn’t change it this time any more than he had the past hundred times the thought had spiked through him whenever he watched the waterfall or mountain or seascape pop up around the blank, white box on the screen.  

The computer automatically found the new hardware.  Did he want to open it?  It’s yes or no, not an existential query, he told himself and hit the open button. The three files appeared, labeled the same as they had been on the strips of masking tape that had striped across the reel itself.  

Stark Expo, 1974.

Christmas, 1980.

Howard’s Lakehouse, 1985.

Might as well start at the beginning, Steve told himself with a cold, grim sort of determination settling at the base of his spine.  There were ghosts here, a digital Pandora’s box full of them, but there had never been any choice, not really.  

Peggy wanted him to have this, this glimpse of Tony, whatever her reason.  Had she hoped they would be friends?  Of course, she had, Steve mentally admonished himself.  She would have wanted that for both of them, Steve and Howard’s son, though she had never pushed, even on her good days.  Tony reminds me of him, Steve remembered telling her once, just after New York when she was staying at one of those places that had rooms that looked like small apartments if you didn’t look too closely.  You knew Howard even less well than he knew you, Peggy had said then, sitting on her rose-covered loveseat with a photo album in her hands.  All the pictures had labels. Names. Dates. Places.

Memories, Steve thought to himself, memories written in that same clear, concise script that had been on the movie reels, done when she knew what was coming and wanted to hold on to as much as she could.  Had she done this then?  Changed her will?  Had she seen something, even then, long before Steve ever even thought it, at least not consciously?

He’s just as dramatic as you, you know. Did you see on the news?  Blew up all his lovely suits, and right in front of the President, too.  Typical.

Maybe she had, Steve thought as he shook his head and huffed out something that passed for a laugh.  The laugh fell from his face as he looked down at the first file.  Stark Expo.  The Expo.  God, he could almost smell the roasted peanuts, feel the gnawing pit in his stomach as he and Bucky walked over to the girls Buck had rounded up from somewhere. The air had seemed to thrum with some kind of electricity that sparked through the crowd, the feeling of being on the edge of something. That’s what it had been. The precipice before the jump, toes curling around the edge, deep breath filling your lungs to bursting, the almost time, almost now sense of the possible.

It was all right there, so clear and bright, Steve thought if he closed his eyes, he would be able to see the whole of it.  Bucky, in his uniform.  Not because he had to wear it, no, he hadn’t been on duty or anything, but he’d wanted to.  He’d known the effect it would have, how he could cock his cap just so, flash a smile and have the ladies go weak in the knees.  It was seventy-five years ago and a couple of years ago, still fresh in Steve’s mind the way some memories could bubble to the surface as if they had been sitting there waiting for just the right moment.

Do it for your country. What?  You think that won’t work?

I don’t think that’s what Uncle Sam means by that, Buck, Steve had replied as they headed for the subway stairs, his hands shoved in his pockets curling around his nickel until the metal heated in his hand.

And Bucky had smiled, wide and devil-may-care and a little sad, maybe, and tipped his cap a little as they strolled to a group of older women with their hair in kerchiefs and their baskets of rations tucked under their arms, setting them to twittering like schoolgirls, the way Bucky could, so effortlessly.  Steve remembered loving him so much in that moment, so deeply, all pure and certain and fueled by a lifetime of huddling by the big wireless in Bucky’s parents’ living room listening to Empire Builder, playing pirates down at Baisley pond, shared strips of candy buttons, a pile of sofa cushions that became a fort to stave off the Indian attack, too many bloody knuckles and busted lips to count, the last gasp of childhood clinging to the them that night before they both went off and became men too soon.  

That day had been its own kind of beginning and ending, Steve thought, remembering the rush of panic he’d felt at Erskine’s questions, sure he was in real trouble this time, the kind that got you arrested instead of stamped as worthless.  He hadn’t even really cared, not right then, in that moment, just thought finally, something’s happening , and it had.  Miraculously, wondrously, it had.  You’ll be a hero, they said, but they hadn’t said you couldn’t stop, they hadn’t said, this is it.  This, and nothing else.

One-way ticket.

Steve frowned and stared at the screen.  With a grimace-covered sigh, he clicked on the file and watched the swirling spool as it loaded. Peggy wanted him to see something in these old home movies, though what, he couldn’t begin to guess.  A cold prickle of something a lot like dread snaked its way down his spine and settled in his stomach, and he realized, too late, that he might be opening a door he didn’t really want to open, one that hid truths that Tony didn’t want him to see.  

The file opened, and the movie leapt to life with a sudden burst of staticky sound, it made him startle, though the image was still black.  

“—think that’s it.  Wait.  It’s—why is it--” a man said.  “The little green dot’s on.  I got it, it’s fine. I got—ah, shit! Hang on,” The blackness disappeared as the cap was removed from the camera lens.  The camera quirked left, then shifted up and down before correcting to something approaching a steady shot. “Okay, start over.  Sorry.”

“Are you kidding?  He’s kidding, right?” Howard Stark asked brusquely as he adjusted his tie using the reflection in a black-paneled screen behind him.  His hair was light gray now, and his face was thinner than Steve remembered, like it had been stretched tighter over the bone, but there was no doubt who it was.  

“Sorry,” the same man said again.  “Lens cap.  Go again.”

Howard grunted and shook his head, a frown marring his features, though he turned around to face the camera and spread his arms wide.  

“Welcome to the Stark International Exposition of nineteen-seventy-f—ugh,” Howard stopped and held up a hand in front of his face, blinking. “I told you the light’s too God-damned bright in here. It’s like fucking Christmas in here.  Who did this? You know they’re filming this, right?  I told you they were filming.  The network,” Howard said.  “This tie’s terrible,” he said, taking it in one hand and looking down.  “God, who even picked this—Maria! Can you? Damn it.  The brown with the—yeah, that one,” Howard said as he pulled the tie off with a whipping sound and snapped his fingers in the direction of a woman with light blonde hair who walked slowly over with a brown tie hanging from her fingertips.

Howard…Howard…

It was a punch to the gut, seeing her like that.  Young and beautiful, with an easy grace, all soft, rounded features that he could see Tony in when she moved.   She had been an actress, Tony once told him.  On one of Howard’s films.  Just an extra in the background, supposed to do no more than walk through a scene, but she’d caught Howard’s eye.  

“Which network?” a male voice asked from somewhere off screen.  

“Cronkite, Obie.  Come on. Of course, it's Cronkite,” Howard replied, tossing a frown of consternation over his shoulder, as if the answer should have been obvious.  Steve flinched at the name and, almost as if it was in his hands, the camera shook again, then steadied, though the picture went in and out of focus a few times before finally settling.  Someone’s fingers covered the image for a moment, then were gone.  “Seriously, you’re—you know we have cameras.  Real cameras, not that…thing,” Howard said with a wave of his head.  “And we have people paid too much to stand around pointing them at me.  What is that—some Jap thing?  I told Fallon, they’re going to glut the market.  Mark my words.  Lost the War, but damned if they aren’t going to have us all eating rice and drinking sake, you watch.”

“It’s a Kodak, as you well know, and Fallon doesn’t want to hear it.  He doesn’t think Americans will buy those ‘cheap gadgets’ as he calls them.  They got the SHIELD contract and sent it over as a thank you.  Daniel’s been making home movies. Of the family, Howard, calm yourself,” Peggy said, her rich, melodious voice, still tinged with enough of an accent to stand out, echoed on the screen.

Then, she was there, standing directly in front of the camera, dark eyes bright with laughter.  Over her left shoulder, Steve could see Howard pulling a face that was part lecherous tease, part worry that he’d taken it too far, like a child with their hand caught hovering over the cookie jar who went with a cheeky grin instead of an apology.

“Though…I wouldn’t completely rule out the other,” Peggy added in a conspiratorial whisper with an exaggerated wink before turning on her heel while the man behind the camera—Daniel, her husband, Steve drew up from a dust-caked memory he didn’t look at very often—chuckled and hefted the camera a bit, somewhat clumsily.  His leg, Steve remembered.  He would be trying to hold the camera and balance without use of his cane.  That was why all the shakiness.   

“I heard that,” Howard called out, a familiar grin splitting his face.  That was the Howard Steve remembered, hiding there as if under a layer of dust.    

“Don’t you go getting ideas,” Maria scolded, carrying a laugh inside the words.  A high-pitched squeal followed by a watery, gurgling giggle followed.  “Oh dear, where did you find him this time? He’s supposed to be with Jarvis.  You’re supposed to be with Jarvis, you silly boy!  Obie, would you put him down?  He just ate!”

“Oh, he’s fine.  He’s tough. Aren’t you, kiddo?” Obadiah Stane said, stepping under the bank of lights with a wiggling bundle of limbs in a striped shirt, knee socks, one shoe thrown over his shoulder.  Stane hefted the boy up, held out in front of him and twisted him in the air a bit, earning another whooping, airy giggle before setting Tony down in front of him.  

A surge of blinding, white rage shot through him.  Hatred so deep and profound, the kind that wanted to rip and tear and told him he could coursed through him like a drug.  He hadn’t felt anything like this since the war, really, and even then, even then, it had been tempered by faces too young and too scared to make it easy to believe they knew the full measure of what they did.  Steve let out a tight breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding.  His hands were fists, he noticed, and forced himself to relax.  It was years ago.  Stane was long dead.

Still.  

It grated.  God, it grated on Steve. The easy, familiar way Stane handled Tony, the look of adoration on Tony’s round, red-cheeked face as he looked up at the man, the obvious closeness and trust, all of it built on a lie.  Steve shifted, making the bed’s thin springs creak and groan, and felt his chest tighten. For a second, the image of Tony on the cold ground, arms raised protectively over his head, flashed to the front of Steve’s mind, and for the first time, he thought he understood the lack of surprise on Tony’s face in that moment, and that was…he didn’t know what that was.

“Whatcha got there, Tony?” Stane asked on the screen, leaning down a bit.  Looming, Steve thought.

“Robot,” Tony said as simply and seriously as only a child could, holding up a piece of some kind of machinery with a rainbow of wires spilling out of it in one chubby fist.  

Steve’s breath caught.  It was Tony.  Obviously, it was, but the boy on the screen was so very Tony in that instant, so recognizable, all eyes and hair, but his tongue was held in his teeth, fixed just so, the way he still did sometimes when he got so deep in some problem or project, some kind of miniature version of the man he would become.  Steve had seen pictures, here and there.  Holidays.  A tall, thin, impeccably dressed man holding Tony’s hand next to large fountain.  A woman with long, blonde hair in a blue dress, leaning over to help Tony drop small bits of food to the ducks and fish while he looked up at her and ignored the hopeful mouths below.  Still, it was jarring.  Seeing Tony so young, so small.  Tony, his Tony, anyway, was larger than life, filled any room he was in to the corners, a force of nature that could pull the world along with him.  Nothing about Tony ever seemed small.

“Where the hell’s Jarvis?  Did you run off again?  Huh?” Howard muttered, tugging a bit at his tie and checking his reflection again while Tony ducked his head until the hair fell over his eyes.  “Dammit, Tony, what has your mother told you about pulling crap like that?”

Steve frowned at the sudden harshness of the words that seemed to shock only Steve and Peggy, at least, by the way her eyes narrowed on Howard.  He knew, of course, that Tony’s relationship with Howard had soured over the years, but there had been admiration there, at least, even if it hadn’t been the kind of relationship Steve would have hoped for them.  Now, as he watched the figures move around the small studio set up to look like an office, he wondered just how far that gulf between them really had been.

“Ah, kid’s just excited, Howard, come on,” Stane scoffed easily.  “Lots to see here, right?  Besides, network might like a shot or two of Tony and Maria.  You know, help sell the Expo as a family affair kind of thing.”

“Fine,” Howard bit out after a pause.  “Fine, whatever,” he said, waving a dismissive hand. “We’re starting this in, what, ten? God, I need a drink.  Where’s the—is that the latest?” Howard said, motioning a young man over and taking a stapled stack of papers from him. “Who wrote this?  I sound like fucking Walt Disney.”

“Language, Howard,” Maria said, making Steve let out a surprised huff of air that was almost a laugh.

“Robot, huh?  Pretty neat, pretty neat,” Stane said with a nod, looking down at Tony with his hands splayed wide on his hips.  “Forget Boeing or GE.  It’s this one that’s gonna leave you in the dust Howard, you watch,” Stane laughed, clapping his hands together and pointing his finger down at Tony.  He pulled a cigar out of the pocket of his suitcoat and stuck it in his mouth, flicking the lighter open with one hand.  “What’s your robot do, eh, kiddo?”

“Fights Cap’n America,” Tony replied, holding up the object in his other hand.  

Steve blinked and shook his head in wonder.  An action figure.  That was what they called them now when they were for boys.  Action figures.  This one was ridiculously muscled, wearing the bright red, white and blue, legs and arms splayed wide, like he was girding for a fight, with a small, plastic shield molded to one hand.  

“Cap’s gonna beat it, though,” Tony said confidently, dropping his arm to his chest, and making something in Steve’s chest constrict, to see him so small and vulnerable and clutching a image of Steve to his chest where the reactor would one day sit.

“Oh-ho-ho, is he now?  I don’t know about that.  My money’s on the robot,” Stane said.  He lit the end of the cigar and sucked in his cheeks, then puffed out a ring of smoke.  “What do you think, Howard?  Captain America versus robot?”

“Obie,” Maria said.  Even through the years, Steve could hear the cautionary note that tinged her voice, though Stane seemed to miss it entirely.  Or, more likely, just ignored it.

“Wouldn’t bet against Steve, Obie.   How many of those panzers did he take out with just his shield?  Oh—Peg, you remember that—that thing at the dam?  Thought we’d never break those lines.  Months and months, God!  What the hell were they thinking? They should have sent him there sooner, I can tell you that,” Howard said.  

“Operation Blackcock,” Peggy said, making Steve let out a surprised bark of laughter.

“Excuse me?” Howard snorted.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, I didn’t pick the names, Howard,” Peggy replied affectionately, holding up a placating hand. A small smile played on her lips, and she cast a quick look at the camera.  Or at the man behind the camera, more likely, but it hit Steve between the eyes, the way it always did with her, like getting to peak behind a curtain and finding the Great and Powerful was even more amazing.

“God, you Brits had the best codenames,” Howard said, sucking in a breath through his teeth as he shook his head in amusement.  “Anyway, the God-damned Ninth couldn’t move shit through there, remember? Steve, though.  Steve and his Commandos show up—Dan, were you there for that or was that after the thing in Italy?”

“I was getting patched up back in Cheltenham,” a somewhat muffled voice said and the camera shifted again, though steadied quickly.

“Right, right, anyway, Steve and his boys show up, you know, and not a couple a’days later, the Germans flood the whole damn thing. Last ditch effort, but it was all over.  Finally. God, what were the casualties on that one?” Howard asked, glancing around the room.  

“Too many,” Peggy said, a weary sadness in her voice that Steve knew from experience was the thing you didn’t want to call acceptance.

“Thousands.  Tens of thousands, more like.  That was what they said later, though no one would admit to it at the time,” Howard added.  “Should’ve sent Cap in sooner.  A lot sooner.  Pansy asses didn’t want to admit to the brass back home that they were up shit creek without a paddle, that’s what it was.”

“Howard, could we maybe talk about something—” Maria tried, brushing a hand through Tony’s hair where he stood by her side.

“Steve was at Malmedy,” Peggy said, voice quiet, but hard, and Steve could see a meadow strewn with bodies covered in snow, the blood dried to a deep, reddish brown, limbs torn off from machine gun fire and glaze-eyed survivors who had run for the woods, run when they realized what was happening, huddled under tree trunks and leaves or worse, just sitting there, waiting.   They’re killing them , Dugan had said.   They’re killing the prisoners , and so he had gone, though it had been too late by the time he got there to do more than stand witness, and write a report where he made sure to say they were together. The men.  Huddled together, side by side.  Some had still been holding hands. It was still fresh in his mind, all easy recall and perfect, horrible memory, if he wanted it, so he just didn't. Didn't think of it. Didn't let himself.

“Well.  I mean…I’m just saying, you know, they had this…this resource ,” Howard spluttered.  “I’m not saying he wasn’t doing important stuff, Peg.”

“Everyone needed him, Howard.  Everyone,” Peggy said quietly.  “They always did.  There was never enough of him, you know?  Not because he wasn’t enough, of course. Of course, he was, but because the rest of the world is just so damn terrible.”

Steve swallowed thickly and brushed a hand over his eyes.  It wasn’t true, not really.  They had wanted an army, and all they got was him, but, God, it felt good to hear, when everywhere he looked sometimes, all he could see was Zola’s zero sum game reminding him that everything he did didn’t matter, didn’t change anything, because there was always another fight. Always another war.  Always the same.  Always not enough to make something different.  

“Can we talk about something else? Please?” Maria asked sharply, breaking the quiet like a crack.  “Tony, what does your robot do?”  she said, far more gently.  She held out her hand, and Tony walked over and, after a moment’s hesitation, placed the robot in it. “Hmmm,” she murmured, then found a button and brought the little machine to life.  “Ahhh, this is so good!  Look, it walks!  Look, Howard, do you see?  It has little gears in here and everything!  Oh, it makes sparks!”

“To fight with,” Tony explained, then knelt down on the floor and pushed the button again, this time making a booming-whooshing sound to go with the little burst of sparks.  He placed his action figure in front of the robot, igniting the sparks once more and adding his own sound effects so it could face off against Captain America.  Steve couldn’t help but smile at the adorableness.  He had the sudden urge to turn and tease Tony, make some comment about how cute he had been as a boy, which Tony would pretend to hate, but wouldn’t , not really, and Steve would see the color high on his cheeks and the way his mouth flattened and his eyes drew together in a pretense of annoyance, and know .  Though, of course, the time when he could have done that was long gone.

“Very impressive,” Peggy said.  “You should hire him, Howard.”

“Ha!” Stane barked, pointing the cigar at Howard and raising his eyebrows.  “See? Kid’s got it, Howard, you watch. Want to build an empire, Tony?”

“Sure,” Tony said with a shrug, probably because someone said build and Tony was onboard for whatever that meant, Steve thought with a small huff of laughter.  

“He’s four, Obie, stop seeing dollar signs,” Maria admonished, though it was light and fond, without a hint of real censure.

“Is—is that from my—did you put beamed power cells on there?” Howard demanded, striding over and bending down to pick the robot up.  Steve watched Tony’s eyes track the movement and something, some kind of—of tightening happened to Tony.  Steve wasn’t sure how to put it into words, and there was so much going on in the frame, if he hadn’t been watching Tony so closely, he would have missed it.  This shift.  This…wariness.  A sharp stab of cold pierced Steve’s gut and he was leaning forward, gripping the side of the laptop as if he could reach inside, the word ‘No’ clanging to the front of his mind like a claxon. “Damnit, Maria, I’ve told him a thousand times, he just doesn’t listen. He never listens!”

“Howard—” Maria started.

“Why don’t you listen?  Huh?  How many times—Jesus, Tony, I was still working with those!  Now, they’re—junk.  Useless.  Put in some stupid toy,” Howard said, voice going high and tight, too loud in the quiet, with just the soft whir of the camera recording and the heavy silence that followed Howard’s outburst.  He was bent over, shaking the robot in front of Tony’s face, and Steve could taste metal in the back of his throat and realized his whole body had gone rigid with the need to move, to do something, to stop this, this dawning horror, because he had been there before, on his knees, tiny and small and scared while someone shouted, someone loud and big. Someone who could hurt.  “I told you not to go poking around in my lab, didn’t I?  Didn’t I?  Answer me!”

“They were in the scrap box,” Tony said softly, head dipped down.

“The scrap box in my lab ,” Howard grated out.  “God, why can’t you just, for once, do what you’re told?  Huh?  This is my work.   My work , Tony!  Why is it so hard?”

“Howard, please—” Maria interrupted.

Please, Steve thought, though he didn’t know who he was asking. The dead man on the screen wasn’t listening, that was for sure.

“No, no, he’s got to understand, Maria,” Howard said, cutting her off with a slash of his hand through the air, then tossing it high in frustration before letting it slap back to his side with a loud clap.  On the screen, Tony flinched, and Steve felt his chest constrict around the word no that exploded over and over in his mind and beat a pulse through his veins.  “It’s the same damned thing, over and over and over.  He never listens. Ever.  And you coddle him. You and Jarvis.  This kind of thing, it’s cute at four, fine, but how about when he’s ten?  Fifteen?  He’s got to learn some damn discipline, Maria, I keep telling you!”

Steve could hear the anger lacing Howard’s voice, could almost feel it vibrating through the screen, and he had heard that tone enough to recognize it, to feel the sick coil of danger in his gut, fight or flight as if that was a real choice, but his eyes were on Tony, sitting there on scabby knees at his mother’s feet, rocking slightly and clutching his Captain America figure to his chest with scabbering fingers that were too used to this motion, this need to curl in and become small.  Steve knew it too well, but seeing it in Tony, he wondered if this was what they meant when they described a heart as breaking, because it felt like a part of him being torn in two.

There should be shock.  Surprise.  Reprobation. Something.  But, there was nothing.  Just silence.  He hated them all a little then, even Peggy, who should have known what she was seeing.  Should have known what she was seeing.  Hell of a thing to hold against someone, Rogers, Steve thought bitterly.  Steve swallowed, throat clicking around something heavy sticking there, and watched the camera jostle as someone loudly and pointedly cleared their throat.  Daniel.  He had almost forgotten him.  

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, he thought you were done with it, Howard.  Enough.  No, enough, Howard,” Peggy repeated when Howard opened his mouth to say something else.  “You’re making an ass out of yourself,” Peggy said, voice going low and grinding with disgust.  “You need to get him some coffee,” she said, shooting a look at Maria.  “Before the newspeople get here.”

Steve could see Maria hesitate for a moment, a denial jumping automatically to her lips.  He’s fine.  He’s just nervous. This is all so important, you see. He only had a bit to take the edge off.  He rarely drinks these days.  Not when he’s working.  

Lies.

Lies and love, so intertwined as to be almost indistinguishable.  Steve let his eyes fall shut for a moment, then opened them again and watched Peggy cross over to where Tony sat on the floor by his mother’s feet. She knelt down, hair swinging in front of her face a bit and reached out to peel the action figure away from Tony’s chest just a bit.  

“You know, I have one of these, too.  I can’t build robots for him to fight.  He just sits on my desk and looks angry,” she said with a wobbly smile.  “I think Steve would much prefer to fight your robot than looking over my paperwork, you know.  He hated paperwork.”  

Steve’s chest went warm and tight, and he felt the corners of his eyes fill with a stinging pressure.  He missed her so much sometimes, missed what might have been, missed whatever chance he once may have had to live a life that wasn’t extraordinary.  He wouldn’t change where he was. He wouldn’t trade.  But, he ached for it, all the same, this maybe-life that had always been there, at the edge of his vision, always out of reach, but died with her.

She looked up at Howard, then over at Maria.  Something passed between them, though Steve couldn’t see the answering looks from the camera’s angle, but Peggy held out her hand and, after a moment, Howard slapped the robot toy into it with a tight puff of air and turned away, flipping through the script pages and calling out for someone to get on the lights, it was too God-damned bright in there.  

Peggy placed the robot down on the studio floor again and pushed the button on its side, making the sparks fly.  The camera slowly zoomed in, until it was just the two of them and Maria’s high-heeled shoes that soon clicked out of frame.  In the background, Steve could hear Howard welcoming people to the Expo in a practiced, dulcet tone, occasionally intercut with an expletive and a comment from Stane or Maria or the harried employee trying frantically to keep up with whatever changes to the script Howard was demanding.  Tony was holding the action figure out in front of him, walking it back and forth, not saying anything, just playing, as if everything was fine, but his shoulders were hunched and the familiar, animated eagerness of a few minutes ago was wiped completely clear.  

“So.  Who is going to win?” Peggy asked, placing her hand over Tony’s where it held the figure.  Steve watched the movements of the figure slow, and finally, finally, Tony head lifted up enough to catch Peggy’s eyes.  He shrugged, then looked down again.  

“Cap’n America,” Tony said after a moment.  “’Cause he’s the hero.”  

Bittersweet, Steve thought, with a choked-off sound as his hand flew to his mouth. That’s what this is.  Bittersweet. Because another time, and I could’ve teased him about this, made him smile and joke and deflect.  Bittersweet.  Because another time, and it could still have been true for Tony, and Tony could have said, of course, of course, Steve was enough, it was the world that was terrible, and Steve could have believed him.

“He was,” Peggy said softly.  “You know what?  Steve, he could do a lot of things.”

“I know,” Tony said.  

“Did I ever tell you about the time he rescued all those men from the Red Skull?” Peggy asked.

“My Dad told me,” Tony replied in a thin, careful voice.  He looked up at Peggy, all wide-eyes and, for a moment, Steve could see what passed for a wistful look cross his childish features, like he was opening the first page of a beloved book, where he knew all the words, but they still held magic, even with the knowing.  “He flew him.  My Dad.”

“Yes. Yes, he did,” Peggy nodded.  “And Steve saved all those men and brought them back to camp.  Quite the hero,” she added with a half-smile, the gleam of memory in her eye.  “But I was rather upset with him, you see, because he hadn’t radioed me like he promised.  His radio was damaged in the fight, and did you know that he brought it to show me? Bit cheeky of him, that.  I was just glad to see him, of course.  But, he brought it all the way back to show me, so I kept it.  I still have it, in fact.”

“Did you fix it?” Tony asked.

“Well, no. I didn’t know how.  Neither did Steve,” Peggy chuckled.  

“He didn’t?  How come?” Tony asked.

“Well, I expect no one had ever shown him how,” Peggy replied.  

“No one shows me. I just know,” Tony told her, still dragging his figure back and forth across the floor.  He hadn’t touched the robot again, Steve noticed with a pang.  

“Aren’t you the smart one, hmmm? You know…I’ll bet you could have fixed it for him, what do you think?” Peggy asked.   Tony’s little shoulders lifted into a shrug, but he was peering at Peggy with renewed interest, mouth twisting into something of a frown, but it was an interested frown, Steve noticed, recognizing the look.

“Maybe,” Tony said.  There was a desperate sort of covetous longing to the word, hushing it down to a whisper, but Steve could hear it, quiet in the way that Tony rarely was now.  Maybe.  A lot for such a little word to hold, but maybe was the biggest, deepest well of a word of all, and hadn’t Steve already learned that?

“I still have it.  Would you like to see it one day?” Peggy asked.  

“Okay,” Tony replied and went back to making his action figure walk in large, lurching, plastic-legged steps across the floor in front of him.  “When my Dad finds him, you can give it back to him and tell him I fixed it.”

A jolt of anger-laced pain twisted through Steve’s gut, leaving him shifting with the inability to do anything, making the bed creak beneath him.  He’s right there in front of you, Howard, you ass, Steve thought to himself, though the thought was years too late.   He said I was his greatest creation , Steve remembered Tony telling him with a bitter, rueful twist to his mouth over too much cognac one night when they lay in bed with the TV on mute and some night show host cracking silent jokes.   When he wanted me to do something.  Something he couldn’t.    Even after he was gone, he wanted me to finish what he started, complete his legacy. For him.  Not for me. Well, it was for me, I mean, yeah, but he didn’t know it. Not then.  Then, it was just, ‘Do this. Do this and you’ll finally be worthy.’  Of course. Of course, when he’s fucking dead. I hated how much I still wanted to, even knowing, you know?

Steve had assured him that he knew. He understood. But, had he?  Not really.  Was this what Peggy wanted him to see? This moment where Tony understood, even at that age, that it would never be enough for Howard, no matter what he did or what he could do.  It wasn’t going to be enough.  He had to be doing something, be of use to be of value, because he wasn’t ever going to be enough, not just him.   

It blindsided him a bit, that, not because it was new, but because it was old.  Familiar.  For him, it began with with bloody noses and scraped fists and ended with a shield he could only put down for Tony, and for Tony, maybe it began with alcohol and misplaced trust and ended with a suit of armor and fealty to a world that never knew he was on his knees for them.

“I’ll do that,” Peggy said on the screen, though there was a note of surprise in her voice, and Steve saw her cast a searching look in the direction of Howard’s voice.  

“There you are!” a man’s British-tinged voice sounded and pressed trousers over shiny, black shoes came into view.  “You, young Sir, are supposed to be watching cartoons in the motorhome, not gallivanting all over the place giving me a near heart attack!”

“Jarvis, there you are!” Maria said brightly as the camera jerked up.  “Tony, you are absolutely not to leave Mr. Jarvis’s side again, do you hear?”

“Found him hiding under a satellite truck,” Stane remarked.  “You know, if he’s too much to handle—"

“It’s fine,” the man called Jarvis said stiffly, making Steve smile at the sheer loathing the man managed to project in two words.  “It was my fault. We got separated in the crowd.  My apologies.  I’ll let security know he has been found.”

“Well, he ought not be running off in the first place,” Howard added.  “You hear me?” he said, wagging a finger at Tony, who had stood up only to find himself scooped up into Jarvis’s arms, small hands holding the figure dangling down Jarvis’s back while he buried his head in the curve of Jarvis’s neck where his tweed coat met the collar while Steve’s mind conjured a golden glow, warm and enveloping, protecting them all even when there wasn’t much to be done.  “Is that still recording?  God, turn that thing off for Christ’s sake.  Peggy—”

“Sorry, got caught up.  Habit,” Daniel said hurriedly and the camera dropped in a rush, showing the floor, with its homey faux wood and lines of cables and wires.  “I’ll edit it later.”

“Yeah, you-“ Howard started and then the screen went dark and silent.

Steve stared at the blank screen, then let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.  His eyes sank closed.  When he opened them, he was looking at the refrigerator, though he didn’t get up, just ran a hand through his hair and swiped it over his chin, feeling the prickle of the beard there, still so strange under his fingers.

Christmas, 1980.

That was next.  He wanted to stop.  Take a break, get some air, tell himself he would finish it later, but, there was something about this that felt like a penance he couldn’t step away from, a path of coals that needed to be walked at one time, so he could feel it, feel anything, by the end.  

He could hear her admonishing him in his head and let out a small, chagrined laugh.   Always so dramatic, honestly!  Just watch the damn movies.  

This wasn’t a punishment.  She wouldn’t have done that, even if she had some way of knowing what would happen between him and Tony.   The dead still speak to us, he thought with a weary sigh, as he remembered T’Challa’s words and clicked on the next file.  

The tree was huge.  That was his first thought.  Not as big as the one Tony put in the Tower and decorated with the most garish ornaments of all of them he could find, but big.  It stood in front of a large, bowed window and star on top nearly reached the high ceiling.  Colorful lights twinkled from boughs laden with ornaments.  Packages were stacked underneath, wrapped in festive papers.  

Laughter. That was the first sound he heard.  A loud, boisterous burst of it from off to one side. The camera jerked that direction, and Peggy came into view, sitting in an overstuffed chair with a glass of creamy liquid in her hand.   There was a streak of grey in her hair that hadn’t been there before.  A few more lines. A bit of softness to her frame.  She was smiling, though, and waved at the camera.  

“I did not! Daniel, tell them that is a blatant falsehood,” Peggy called out, her voice still full of laughter.  “Lies.  All lies.”

“She did.  I swear it, she did, threw a plate right at him, you should’ve seen it!” Jarvis said from his place on the sofa next to Peggy’s chair.  “It was brilliant.”  

He was older, too, Steve could tell.  Less hair and much of it gray.  A little thinner and wearing metal-rimmed glasses now.  By him sat a woman with her dark auburn hair swept up into a tight chignon, with a Christmas sweater over a slim, tan skirt and her arm around Jarvis’s shoulders.  His wife, Steve knew, from the picture Tony kept in his office.  Ana.  Strangely, the only things Steve really knew about her was that Tony referred to DUM-E’s code in his thesis as Adaptive Neural Architecture, and Sharon’s gun holster garter had once belonged to Ana Jarvis, but Steve supposed that might be all he really needed to know.

“Gotta admit, that does sound like you, Peg,” Daniel said. The camera juddered a bit, then settled, finding Peggy again.

“Did I?  A plate? Really? Oh, gosh, it was all so long ago,” Peggy replied with a sigh and sipped her drink, though Steve caught the smirk before she did.  

“I believe it,” Howard Stark announced, walking over to stand in front of Peggy and tipping a dark, amber-filled bottle into her glass.  “That a new one?” Howard asked, squinting at the camera as he sat down in a chair opposite Peggy.  

“Christmas present,” Daniel said.  “State of the art. Got its own stand, even, which, if you’re down a leg, kind of helps.”

“Uh, not the state of my art,” Howard countered. His hair was nearly white now.  The lines around his eyes and mouth were deeper and more noticeable.  Otherwise, he looked much the same as the last video, though there was a new tightness pulling the skin across his face and small, spiderweb-like strings of color on his cheeks.  “Nice, though. Hey, Maria, can you—thanks, hon,” he said, as his wife took the decanter out of his hand and set it on the bar cart behind him, handing him a glass of what Steve assumed was eggnog instead, though clearly not only eggnog.  “Obie’s running late. Something with the end of the year financials, I don’t know,” he said with an indifferent wave of his hand.  

“Everything alright?” Maria asked with a slight frown.  

“Fine, fine, nothing to worry about.  You know Obie. Wants to get his hands dirty when the numbers start coming in,” Howard replied, though there was a tightness to his voice.  

“Where’s Tony?” Peggy asked.  “I thought he’d be home from that school by now.”  Jarvis, sitting on the sofa across from her, looked down at the cup in his hands, still full, Steve noted, his expression carefully shuttered, which probably answered more than Steve really wanted to ask.

“He’s upstairs.  Thinking about his life choices,” Howard snapped sourly.  “You’d think with what I pay that school, they could instill a little discipline in him.   Not to mention have some security that a damn ten-year old can’t manage to get around.  Trust me, you two, you’re lucky, not having—”

“Howard!” Maria cut in sharply, her brows drawn together in clear disapproval.  

“I didn’t mean…sorry.  Sorry, it’s just, he’s…it’s one thing after the other with him, you know? Got into a fight, and they wanted to suspend him.  Me come get him or pay to get him home, can you believe it?  In the middle of the damned Vegas trade show, which he knows—he knows how important that is.  Then this whole thing with the DoD, when he knows damn well how much we need those contracts, and they’ll pull them, you know they will, Peg.  A central computer, for Christ’s sake.  You believe that? They get spooked like that, think it’s some inside thing, my kid…” Howard trailed off, shaking his head.  “We can’t afford that right now.  No wars, or not ones we’re declaring, anyway, and a damn peanut farmer in the White House for the last four years. Thank God that’s almost over.  Speaking of, Obie’s got us seats for the inauguration and a table at the Kennedy Center ball.  You two should come.  Gonna be a hell of a party.”

Fights, Steve thought with a shake of his head.  Tony had always made boarding school sound like a bit of a misadventure, but never mentioned anything like that, though the idea of it, Tony, half the size of his classmates and twice the spite, sounded about right and all too familiar, though Tony had never mentioned it. Not once.  Not when Steve reminisced about getting beat up behind the old Paramount when the Andrews Sisters were playing there and Bucky said maybe they could get a glimpse if they hung out at the stage door.  Which they hadn’t. Gotten a glimpse.  Steve had gotten a black eye, though.  But, Tony had never said anything about whatever scraps he’d gotten into when he was a kid, just reveled in Steve’s retellings of his misspent youth, and now, Steve wondered at that.  What held him back from sharing any of this with Steve.  

Because you were so forthcoming, right, Rogers, he thought with a bitter grimace twisting across his face.  Closing his eyes for a moment, he let himself just listen as Peggy’s voice filled the empty places in his bones.

“I think we’re clearing out of the city for the week.  You know how I hate traffic,” Peggy said, her voice going arch and her accent weighing each word like an anchor, making Steve smile. She had been no fan of Reagan, even at a time when he was riding a wave of populism to the White House.  Steve had, of course, missed all of that, but he had gone to see a quilt one time, and it had looked a lot like a field of crosses to his mind, both the kind of deaths that time couldn’t allow to go quietly.

“Still going to retire?  Thought you and Weinberger got along? That’s who it’s going to be, right?” Howard asked, taking a long sip from his glass and swishing it around in his mouth for a moment before swallowing it down.  Steve had seen Tony do the same thing and wondered if he even realized who he was mimicking.  Probably not, Steve thought.  

“Casper, yes.  He wanted State,” Peggy remarked.  “But, no, I think it’s time for me.  Things are…changing.  At SHIELD.  With the government.  Everywhere, it seems. They’re running out of uses for us, Howard.  Can’t you tell?  They’re giving Pierce the Secretary job, by the way. Thought you’d want to know.”

“He’ll be good,” Howard said.  “Alexander’s a good man.  Don’t give me that look, now.  Nick trusts him.  As much as Nick trusts anyone,” Howard finished with a shrug.  

“Nick Fury is a lot of things, but infallible is hardly one of them,” Peggy replied.  “Enough politics! Besides, we’re boring the citizenry.  Ana’s about to nod off, look,” she continued, giving the woman next to Jarvis on the sofa a soft look. “Come on, now, Howard, you aren’t truly going to try to keep my Godson from me, are you? It’s Christmas!  I barely get to see him as it is.  Maria, would you talk some sense into your husband?”

“Howard, please.  For a little bit?” Maria urged with a pleading look.  “Tony’s sorry, you know he is.  He was just showing off for the other boys.  They’re so mean to him,” she said, turning back to Peggy.  “Everyone in his classes are older, of course, but I thought, well, they’re from good families.  They’ll be good boys.  But, Tony, he’s so…” she made a face that managed to hold frustration and a hint of pride.  “Well, you know how he is.  He won’t talk about it, but his letters are so…I can tell.  He doesn’t want to be there. I know, boys will be boys, but this, I think, this whole thing, it was his way of trying to get kicked out. To come home. I told Howard he was too young for this, but…” she sighed.  

“He’s not too young to be breaking into the Headmaster’s office and messing around with the shiny, new toy in there,” Howard huffed out.  “Agents. At my door, Peg.  Federal agents. Six AM. The last thing we need right now is a scandal, and my own son can’t manage to keep his nose clean for a few God-damned months!  I think a little alone time is the least of his worries,” Howard said with a snort, taking another drink.  

“That place is terrible for him. Terrible,” Ana said.  “They are awful to him because he is smarter, and he just wants to help and have friends, but those boys, boys like that …” she made a clucking sound against her teeth.  “I know those boys.  They will never be his friends. Never.”

“Ana, we’ve talked about this,” Jarvis said in a low, tight voice. “It’s up to his parents. They’re just trying to find somewhere for him where he—"

“He is miserable.  That is what he is.  He should be home. Not at that…place,” Ana insisted, then sat back against the sofa and crossed his arms.  

“Now, Ana,” Maria began with the air of someone who had heard these objections before.

“Is there not some other option?  A school with children closer to his age, perhaps, or, I don’t know, tutors?” Peggy suggested.  “If he truly hates this place that much…”

“Peggy, it’s not really our—” Daniel started.

“What he hates is having to behave himself for a change instead of being coddled by these three,” Howard said, tipping his glass in the direction of Maria, Jarvis and Ana.  “Fine. Fine ,” he said with a sigh, waving a hand.  “Jarvis, go get him.  Fifteen minutes. That’s it.  And if he’s got the TV on, tell him forget it.”

Steve watched Jarvis push himself off the sofa with a quick look at his wife, who took the still-full drink from his hands as he hurried out. Steve wondered if the rush was in case Howard changed his mind.  He knew Tony had been at boarding school, but when he thought of it, it looked vaguely like that place in the Shirley Temple movie.  Wood-paneled halls, a library with a crackling fireplace, bunks of boys laughing long after lights-out.  But, really, how would someone like Tony have done at a place like that, filled with over-privileged boys, all jockeying for dominance, like a well-provisioned Lord of the Flies? The answer, Steve suspected, was ‘not well.’  

He listened to them make small talk, mostly about politics, despite Peggy’s admonition. They were steeped in it, he supposed, and by this point, he wondered if they had much else left to talk about other than their shared history and world affairs.  Somewhere along the line, gradually, probably, without anyone really noticing, their relationship, once so tightly wound, had been reduced to idle small talk.  They weren’t the same people Steve had known in the war.  They weren’t the same people each of them had come to know.

He saw Peggy turn to look at the tree, while Howard and Daniel churned through the rising fear of the spread of communism and how Carter had bungled the hostage crisis.  She got up and walked over to tug at one of the ornaments, a chubby, cloth Santa with a brown, felt bag that Steve remembered seeing hanging on bough next to a light-up Thor.  When she looked back at the group, Steve thought Peggy might be making the same realization. They weren’t the same people, not anymore, and whatever had bound them together during and after the war, the thread had stretched thin a long time ago.  The thing that bound them now was Tony, and even there, a fissure had opened up, bright and clear like a wound.

“Ah, here we are!” Jarvis said with false brightness as he walked back into the room.  Trudging along behind him came a dark, wispy-haired boy in a long-sleeve striped shirt and jeans, looking down at the floor like he hoped it would swallow him.  Steve’s stomach turned over and his brow creased into a deep frown, but he kept watching. This timid, careful boy, who wore Tony’s face like a mask.

“Fifteen minutes,” Howard said, giving Tony a pointed look when the boy raised his head at the words.  “You’re not off the hook, you hear?”  Tony watched him for a moment, but said nothing, only nodded, once, slowly.

“Tony!” Peggy called out with a wide smile lighting up her face artificially bright, as if she could blight out Howard’s words.  “Oh, my goodness, you’ve grown so much since I last saw you! Look at you!  Daniel, can you believe it? Come here, you!” she said, crossing the room and enveloping Tony in a hug.  When she pulled back, her hands rested on his shoulders and gave him a quick, bracing squeeze before she let go. She was, Steve noted, standing between Tony and Howard, and he thought that might have had something to do with why Tony finally gave up hoping for salvation via a catastrophe of some kind and glanced up at her.

“Hi, Aunt Peggy,” Tony said.  “Hi, Uncle Daniel,” he added after a moment, peering around her arm to tug his hand out of his pocket long enough to wave once at Daniel.  “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too.  It’s so good to see you, Tony.  It’s been way too long since our last visit.  Come on, have a seat,” Peggy encouraged.  “Here, sit by Ana.  Budge over a bit.  There you go. So,” she said in a high, bright voice, casting a look around and landing on Jarvis with a wide-eyed, pointed glare.  

“Oh, er, ah.  Yes.  Yes, Tony, we were just saying that…” Jarvis began, then clamped his mouth shut and looked helplessly over at his wife.  

“That we’re so glad to have you home,” Ana finished for him.  “Was it still snowing at your school?  Your letter said you got snow.  I do miss snow in winter.  The most we get here is that stuff they spray on the shop windows,” she said with a note of despair.

“Yes,” Tony said, darting a look at his father.  He rubbed his hands up and down his arms, then seemed to consciously stop the movement and crossed them in front of his chest instead.  He looked so small there, sitting in the middle of a pile of adults, with his sock-covered feet hanging above the floor, one leg bouncing with a nervous tell. Smaller even in some ways than he had in the last video, though Steve couldn’t say exactly why.  

“Did you have snowball fights?” Peggy asked.  “I remember that from my days at Howell, on the rare occasions we got anything other than the usual Welsh drizzle.  It’s raining old women and sticks. That’s what they would say.  Never made a lick of sense, but there you have the Welsh for you.”

“No,” Tony said, looking down at his hands.  

“No snowball fights, huh?  You’re missing out,” Daniel said from behind the camera.  “Had to be careful in the Bronx, though.  Might end up with a snowball filled with a big, ol’ rock knocking you upside the head.”

“He’s too busy breaking and entering to play in the snow,” Howard said.

“Howard.  We have guests,” Maria admonished.  The peacemaker, Steve thought, and hated her a little for being a refuge for Tony when she could’ve been so much more, though he knew it wasn’t fair, and it certainly wasn’t fair from him. Not now.  “Can we just have one nice eve--”

“Ho, ho, ho!  Mehhhh---rrrrry Christmas!” a voice boomed, and Stane was there, carrying a bottle in one hand and two wrapped gifts in the other.  

“Obie!  So glad you could make it,” Maria called out warmly, rising to greet Stane with a quick peck on the cheek.  Steve felt his jaw tighten to the point of pain as he watched Stane take up the space in the room.

“Maria, you look lovely as ever,” Stane observed, handing her a wrapped box.  

“You shouldn’t have, Obie, I told you,” Maria said, shaking her head, but plucking at the wrapping anyway.  

“Director Carter!  Always a pleasure,” Stane said, canting his head to one side and giving Peggy a nod that was meant to be perceived as deferential, but couldn’t quite shake the smugness.   

“Not Director anymore, as you well know,” Peggy said, giving Stane a pasted-on smile.  “Good to see you again, Obadiah.  You remember my husband, Daniel?”

“Of course, of course,” Stane said, walking over to shake Sousa’s hand.  He was so close to the camera then, Steve could see the last vestiges of his hair, soft, graying wisps he had combed over the expanding bald spot on his head.  “How have you been? Still with the Bureau? Keeping at the home movie thing, I see.”

“I retired last year,” Daniel said.  

“Good for you, good for you.  Can’t work forever, am I right?” Stane said with a nod and a grin, then clapped Daniel on the shoulder and spun on his heel.  “Unless you’re this man, of course!  Howard, I half expected to find you in the lab! What’d Maria do to get you out?”

“Threatened, mostly,” Howard replied with a laugh and stood up to give Stane a quick hug, then realized his mistake when the motion sent his drink sloshing over his sleeve. The bottle went to Howard, hummed and nodded.

“Nice,” Howard said as he held the bottle out and looked at it appraisingly for a moment before his face pulled into a frown.  “Numbers that bad this year, huh?” Howard guessed as he sank back to the chair.  

On the screen, Steve could barely make out Tony’s knees and head between Peggy and Jarvis on the sofa, but he could see one of Tony’s legs bouncing nervously, like the pent-up energy was slowly working its way up.  For just a moment, his hand ached to reach out and cap itself over Tony’s knee, stilling him, and Tony would look over at him in surprise, then grin, not really apologetically, not exactly.  He’d make the bed move with the motion, just enough to mess up Steve’s sketches, and it drove Steve nuts, but he missed it now.  He missed having something that drove him nuts that he didn’t mind one bit, contradictory as that seemed.  

“Eh, could be better, not going to lie.  It’s the write down on all the R&D for those ICBM guidance systems,” Obie shrugged.  “You knew we’d take a hit.”

“Can’t believe DoD went with Boeing,” Howard snorted derisively.  “There was nothing wrong with our specs.  Nothing.  The test parameters were entirely unrealistic!”

“Hearing good things on the budget for next year,” Obie replied, voice angling higher as he pursed his mouth.  “Reagan wants new stuff, not more troops. Gadgets, tech, that’s the way to go. All these young guys coming in, they want the computer-driven control systems, stealth, composite materials, all of that.  And SI’s got to be front of the line.”

“We will be.  We will,” Howard repeated, more vehemently, though Stane hadn’t done more than look bored.  “Think they’re going to try the B-1 again?” Howard asked speculatively, rubbing his fingers over his chin.  

“Maybe.  They want that cold-launch ICBM, that’s for sure,” Obie added.  “Lockheed’s salivating, but I think we’ve got an in with the committee.”

“Congress is going to fund that?” Howard asked with a frown.  

“Maybe,” Stane said. “If we can sell them on the cold-launch system actually working.”

“No shop talk! Honestly, it’s Christmas!” Maria interrupted.  

“Sorry, sorry.  You know I can’t resist nudging him along when I have him,” Stane said.  “Alright, your turn, kiddo,” Stane said, turning around and holding out the second wrapped package. Tony reached for it, but Stane snatched it away.  “You been good?  I hear things.”

“I’m trying,” Tony mumbled, making Steve’s heart break a little more, because Tony didn’t mumble .  It was wrong.  It was all wrong, but here it was, and nothing he could do except watch.  

“Howard, are you being too hard on the kid?” Stane asked over his shoulder, though his eyes stayed on Tony.  “You let me talk to your Dad, how about?  We’ll get him set right.  Now.  School.  Way I hear it, you got into SAGE from some grandpa’s TI99 and a modem you built using parts you cobbled together from a couple of computing class leftovers and a trip to Radio Shack.  Hell of a thing, kid, hell of a thing.”

The hairs on the back of Steve’s neck stood up and a tingled lanced down his spine and settled cold in his gut. Something about this, this moment, something that Steve couldn’t put his finger on yet, and none of the others seemed to notice, but something.  Something happened.  Something right here, Steve thought, feeling a slight shift under the whole scene, too subtle to see in the middle of it, with the tree and the presents and all the people right there, right there in the same room.  

Don’t encourage him, for God’s sake,” Howard muttered, taking another drink, Steve saw.  “He’ll start World War 3 when he gets bored in Physics.”

“Physics is boring.  I’ve already read the textbook.  It’s lame.  It’s just stuff we already know . I did the assignments, but the professor says I have to come to class anyway, and they all just sta--the whole school’s lame. I hate it there—” Tony began.

“We put a lot of money into that school, you know?  Wouldn’t kill you to act a bit grateful,” Howard ground out.  “You see?  You see how he is?” he asked, glancing around the room as if searching for support.  “Ten minutes, champ.”

Punching the screen hadn’t exactly been effective with Zola, but Steve was getting awfully close to being willing to chance it.  His mouth flattened into a thin line, and he realized he had gripped the edge of the bed in his hands only when he heard the creaking groan of bending metal.  It was satisfying, though, that sound.  Something tangible, destructive.  It felt good, to twist, to damage, to hurt something , as if the moment should rightfully be marked by a physical scar, and maybe it should. Because they were still hurting from this, in so many ways, even if it wasn’t visible.

“Look, I’m no genius like you two, but I’m just saying, I know talent when I see it.  Saw you, didn’t I?  You were still trying to get that script produced, what was it called?” Stane asked.

“I don’t remember,” Howard replied sullenly.

“Sure you do!  God, it had a terrible title. What was it?” Stane pressed.

“A Hero Reborn,” Maria supplied.  

“That’s it!  Right, right, with the whole adventurer on a quest to find the long-lost hero thing. Bet that would’ve been a real seat-filler,” Stane said, as if just remembering, though it was far too calculated for that, and Howard, Howard with his drinking and his detachment, couldn’t see it, but this was it.  This was when Stane decided it was Tony he would hitch his wagon to.  Tony, who would supplant Howard, and far sooner than any of them, except maybe Stane—and, well, maybe Howard, too, maybe that was some of it—could see. Tony, who did something extraordinary, something terrifyingly extraordinary, at ten, and only barely knew that his whole life had shifted and turned, because this man had found his new golden goose.  

“Would you go see that?” Stane asked, looking down at Tony.  “Or is that, as you kids say these days, ‘ lame, man, so lame, ’” Stane said, making his voice go all soft and lanky on the last in a truly terrible impersonation of a teenager.  Tony’s face softened though. A smile tugged at his lips, just barely, and he wouldn’t let it break, Steve could tell, not in front of Howard, but it was there.  

This is where Stane picked Tony over Howard, Steve realized. That’s it. That’s the thing that happened. Here. Now.  This was what she wanted him to see. This was the beginning of what would lead to Afghanistan and the reactor and everything that came after.  No one there knew it, of course, probably not even Stane himself, but this was where it began, Steve thought to himself.  He could see an unsettled expression flit across Peggy’s face, quickly, fleetingly, but it deepened to annoyance before she could quite grasp on to it, because she was angry.  Years of learning not to show it, not to be too much for them, don’t be a such a bitch, Carter , but it was there.  Steve could see it, the deep abyss of impotence-fueled anger that abided behind her carefully schooled features.  What had she told him once?  

I let the end game cage me.  It’s the one thing I can’t forgive myself for.  That I did that to myself.

“Oh, enough already. Give him the present or don’t,” Peggy snapped.  

“Yes, ma’am.  Guess it is Christmas, and I think he’s been pretty good. Bit of fairly amazing and slightly illegal, definitely won’t be doing it again, computer business aside, of course.  Here,” Stane said, holding it out again.  Tony looked at it for a moment, then over at Howard, who pulled a face and rolled his eyes a bit, but nodded.  

“Thanks, Uncle Obie,” Tony said, taking the present and settling it in his lap.

“Well, open it, come on,” Stane encouraged.  “When’d he get all quiet?” Stane asked the room, looking over his shoulder.  “Used to be you couldn’t shut him up.”

“Oh, he’ll start with that soon enough. We get sullen silences or non-stop noise.  Count your blessings it’s door number one tonight,” Howard snorted and took another sip of his drink, then reached around for the bottle Stane had brought.  

“Howard,” Maria said, but Steve could hear the rote tone in her voice.  

“My parents said the same thing about me,” Daniel said with a forced sort of cheer.  “Couldn’t shut me up, then boom, couldn’t get a word out of me. Sometimes, you just don’t want to talk, right, Tony?”

Steve could feel his blood boiling under his skin.  When had it become habit?  Little more than a show? When had this become so normal, it took strangers to make it feel wrong? His eyes were drawn to Tony, so small there, huddled between them, holding his present.  

Peggy looked between them, then down at Tony.  Over the top of Tony’s head, she and Jarvis exchanged a look as the silence grew heavy to the point of awkward.  Finally, Tony peeled the paper away, the tearing sound seeming to rend the room with tiny fissures relieving a pressure.  He held up the toy in front of him and looked at it for a long moment.  

“It’s a, what do you call it?  Walking man thing,” Stane said, snapping his fingers and pointing down at Tony.  “Plays music.”

“In there?” Jarvis said, reaching over and holding the Walkman up to his face.  “Fascinating. Reminds me a bit of that Vita Ray Detector.  Do you remember that? What ever happened to it, I wonder,” Jarvis mused, his words startling Steve into a frown.

“SHIELD has it now.  In some storage box, no doubt,” Peggy said.   “Gathering dust like the rest of us relics.”

“Isn’t that where you stole it—er, found it?” Jarvis spluttered, then shook his head and gave Peggy an affectionate glance.

“No idea what you mean,” Peggy replied with a sly grin and took a sip of her eggnog. She looked down at Tony squished in next to her and her smile softened.  “As the name suggests, it would detect vita rays.  Dr. Erskine built it as part of Project Rebirth.  Jarvis and I had occasion to use it to help your father out a bit of a pickle he’d gotten himself into.”

“That is…not quite how I recall the situation,” Howard protested with an exaggerated look of confusion, while Peggy rolled her eyes and Jarvis made a harrumphing sound in the back of his throat.  “Neat bit of tech, though. Simple, really,” Howard said.  “Could probably whip one up in the garage in no time.”

“If you had one of those, maybe you could find him,” Tony said, in his eager, I-have-an-idea voice, so simple and sure.  Steve had heard it directed at bots and equations and blue-veined schematics too many times not to recognize it, the pure, blinding thrill of that moment.  

The room was silent, the kind of quiet that seems to press down on everyone and everything, like it was pushing all the noise out along with it.  Tony had said the wrong thing, and had no idea that he had and wouldn’t understand why, not when he was trying to help, but Steve could see the flash of bone-deep contempt that shuttered Howard’s features for a moment.  It wasn’t even for Tony.  It was for himself, and that, that hatred when you looked in the mirror, that gnawing gulf of failure that devoured everything in its path, the damned maybe that things might have been different that made everything you had seem less, Steve knew, that was a far more dangerous a thing.

“I just…I thought, maybe…” Tony began, then clamped mouth shut and looked at Peggy.

“You didn’t think,” Howard ground out.  “Showing off, same as you got up to at that school,” Howard spat back.  “Typical. Typical .  See? This is what we get, all the damned time with him.”

“Howard, he was just—” Maria started.

“Ah, come on, Howard!  Kid’s a fan, you know that,” Stane interjected.  Shut up, Steve thought with a sudden forcefulness. Shut up .  Don’t use me.  Not me , not to get to him, but he was always there, wasn’t he?  Only he hadn’t known, not really.  How could he? Why didn’t you tell me, he beseeched someone who would never hear him, though he wondered if he really wanted that answer.  “Right, Tony?  You tell him all these stories about Cap, what’d you expect? Wants to help.  Be a hero. All that stuff.  Eh, kiddo? Be a helluva thing, finding Captain America, wouldn’t it? Bet that’d show ‘em back at school.”

“Do you really think I haven’t thought of a fucking vita ray detector?  I spent decades looking, trying, and nothing.   Nothing . Oh, but you, you’re just going to—God, Tony, think !” Howard shouted, pointing stridently at his head, nearly digging his fingers into his temple. “There are no vita rays!  Not anymore! He’s fish food at the bottom of the God-damned ocean, for Christ’s sake,” Howard shouted.  Steve flinched, swallowed, tasted cold and forced himself to breathe, though he took in too much air, stretching his chest until the tightness nearly hurt.  

Howard !” Peggy said with a sharp, echoing vehemence that whip-cracked loudly through the room.

Howard looked at her, then Maria, grimaced and swiped a hand over his mouth and flattened his lips. Shock, embarrassment, and not a small amount of horror crossed his face, leaving him gutted, slackening his features into a wax-like mask.

“Sorry.  I’m—I didn’t—I didn’t mean that, Peg,” Howard said.  His gaze dropped to the floor, then raised up to look at her.  “You know I didn’t.  You know I didn’t, Peg.  I wanted to find him.  More than anything.  I tried.  I tried, Peggy, I did.  For you—for everything I did. The war. The bomb.  Hell, the God-damned cold launch that’s going to get Maria a new Mercedes, but him .  There was him. I wanted to be the one.  I wanted that so damned much,” he said, voice hushed and thick with emotion.  

Strangely enough, in a way, Tony wasn’t wrong.  It would be the minute, radiation-like waves emanating from the ship the research station detected as the ice thawed.  Otherwise, no one would have come.  No one would have come, and the ship would have been free to sink into the deep, where no one would find it. Or him.

“I know you did, Howard,” Peggy said.  Steve watched here throat work as she struggled with the words.  “I wanted him home, too.  But none of that is Tony’s fault.”  Her voice was steady there, clear. The same voice Steve remembered hearing truths from in a burned out shell of a London pub.

After a long moment, Howard nodded, a quick jerk of his head, but the pressure in the room seemed to release with the movement.  

“Forget it.  Forget it,” Howard said, shaking his head.  “It’s Christmas, right?  Tony, what do you say to your Uncle?” Howard prompted.  

“Thanks, Uncle Obie.  It’s great. Really,” Tony said in a flat voice that Steve barely recognized.  He was staring at his lap, fingers wrapped tightly around the Walkman.  The picture wasn’t good enough, but Steve imagined if he had been closer, he could’ve seen the whites of Tony’s knuckles clutching the gift, though when he finally did raise his eyes, his expression was steady.  

“You gotta get some cassettes for it,” Stane added after a moment. “What are you kids listening to these days?  Osmonds or something?”

A surprised back of laughter escaped Steve at the face Tony made, stuffed there on the chintz sofa between Peggy’s stiff-backed glare and Jarvis’s nervous frown.   To the extent a ten-year old could manage deeply offended , Steve thought Tony pulled it off pretty well.  

“Think your fifteen minutes is up,” Howard said with a pointed jerk of his head towards the back of the living room where it emptied into a darkened hall.  

Tony stood, still holding the Walkman.  Peggy reached out and wrapped him in a hug, but it was stilted, with Tony’s small body held stiffly in her arms. An apology, Steve thought to himself, though he doubted Peggy realized it at the time.  

“There’s a plate in the oven for you,” Ana said.  “You go on to your room, now. I’ll get it for you.”  She stood up then and rested her hands on Tony’s shoulders, daring anyone to protest.  

“Thanks, Ana,” Tony said.  

“Merry Christmas, Tony,” Peggy called out, her voice tight and eyes glinting bright in the wash of lights.  

“Merry Christmas,” Tony replied. “Thanks again for the present, Uncle Obie.”

“Do me a favor, okay?  Play at least one or two cassettes before you take it apart, huh?” Stane requested with a jovial grin that made Steve’s desire to punch him dial up to ten.  

Tony flashed Stane an adoring smile before it dropped off his face as his gaze darted around the room.  He turned and walked out with the Walkman held in front of him, case open and a piece of it already in his hand, Steve noted with a small, sad smile that he couldn’t quite help.

“Well,” Maria said after the silence sat there for a moment.  “How about dessert?  Jarvis, you have that lovely pound cake, right?”

“Indeed,” Jarvis said distractedly, eyes still on the doorway where Tony’s slim back had disappeared.  

“Wonderful!” Maria replied with false brightness.  “I’ll just get us some more wine, shall I?  Or, coffee, anyone?  Oh, and we have schnapps and the Port, of course.”

“Is that still recording?” Howard asked, pointing a finger at the camera.  

“What? Oh—oh, yeah, right.  Sorry,” Daniel stammered.  “Sorry, I’ll just…I’ll delete this.  I was just trying it out, really.  New gift and all that.  I’ll just…here…”

The screen went black again, not unexpectedly, obviously, but still jarring Steve with the loss.  He wanted more.  So much more.  He wanted to see someone, Jarvis or Peggy or Ana or his mother or someone , follow Tony down the hall and to his room and tell him it was okay. It was going to be okay (would it?).  But, that wasn’t what happened. There were drinks and dessert and maybe Stane stopped by on his way out the door, maybe he saw whatever had become of the Walkman, and maybe he thought a little bit more, maybe not even quite consciously, not yet, but maybe he thought a bit more that Howard wasn’t irreplaceable.

It hadn’t escaped Steve’s attention that Stane delivered alcohol and bad news to Howard’s doorstep much the same way he brought Tony the Walkman.  

He wanted to reach through the screen and put Stane through a wall.  He wanted to shake Howard, so very, very badly, and maybe Peggy and Tony’s mother for watching all of this, but not seeing, not really, not seeing what was happening, one razor-sharp fissure at a time.  It wasn’t like he was blind to why the rage directed at them was lined with a nauseous loathing that seethed deep inside his stomach.

Peggy, God, he knew how much this would have hurt her, this hindsight she had unknowingly cultivated for herself.  Had she reached out to Tony over the years, when she saw him struggling?  Tony had never mentioned it, but Tony hadn’t mentioned a lot of things.  And his relationship with Peggy…it was like once Steve returned, Tony just ceded Peggy to him, though Steve didn’t think it had been as calculated as that.  Just Tony, quietly stepping aside, even though it had been Tony footing the bill for the private facility where she’d ended up, not the US government she’d served for so long, not the Brits who insisted on bringing her home, but Tony.  Who once called her Aunt Peggy and wanted to find Steve and bring him home.  And he had.  In his own way.  

Tony had given Steve more of a home than any place he’d been since the walk-up in Flatbush. He remembered thinking that, years ago when they were still calling each other friend and willing it to be true instead of making it true, but he didn’t think he’d ever told Tony.  It had sounded pathetic in his head at the time, the idea that someone like Tony, who gifted extravagantly with barely a thought, had given him someplace he felt like he belonged.  He remembered thinking Tony would laugh at him, if he said anything remotely like that, but looking back, Steve didn’t think he would have.  Steve thought, maybe Tony would have understood far better than Steve realized.  Maybe Tony had found a home for himself, too.   Not found.  Built.

Steve stared at the final file.  Howard’s Lakehouse, 1985. The little arrow hovered over it, a key to Pandora’s final box.  The sudden urge to peel back the chunk of cement and drywall that hid the burner phone behind the refrigerator in the tiny, jagged crevice he’d found that first night he was here.  He longed to hear Tony’s voice, even if it was raised in anger, just to hear him, solid and real and present in the world in a way the flat reflection of Tony in these videos couldn’t be.  He wanted to tell Tony he was sorry.  For what, he wasn’t even sure.  For all of it, he supposed.  For the way Howard had used Steve as a blunt instrument to batter his son.  For the way Peggy still saw the man flying a clandestine mission over enemy territory far after that man had become someone else.  For Stane’s betrayal that came packaged in promises and approval.  For everything between them that they hadn’t done to each other, but that kept pushing them apart, no matter how much they each tried to hold on.    

For wanting to have everything, even if it was built on a lie.  For not seeing what it would do to Tony, this one more betrayal smoothed over a hundred others like another layer of mortar.  For putting keeping Tony over loving him.   That most of all.  

He let out a puff of air through his nose and pinched the bridge of it between his fingers, rubbing at the dull, aching throb there.  He missed Tony.  So damn much.  He’d known that he would lose Tony one day.  He’d known that from the beginning.  To Pepper or someone else.  Someone who smiled and laughed and made jokes and got his references and sparked his wonderful mind.  Someone who took him places, who liked to step out with his fella, maybe showed him off a bit.  A bitter, caustic taste burned a path up his throat and an answering sting pulled at the corners of his eyes at the thought, but he’d learned the hard way that not wanting something to happen didn’t stop it from happening.  He shook his head, trying to clear it, and clicked on the file as much to close off that line of thought as just to get this over with.  

The file whirred to life, and Steve blinked at the sudden brightness.  Not lights this time, but sun, radiant and high, catching the camera’s lens head on for a moment before the angle shifted.  Off to one side, he heard a splash, followed a moment later by high-pitched shrieks of laughter.  

The camera swiveled and caught on Peggy, sitting in one of those wooden-slatted chairs that was anchored to the boat dock where it jutted out over the water.  Behind her, a large speedboat bobbed gently with the waves, and Steve could just make out the A-lined roof of a house perched on a rocky shore.  Her hair was tucked under a wide-brimmed straw hat and dark, squared-off sunglasses took up much of her face, but she was easy enough to recognize.  Tony’s mother sat next to her in a flowing, floral sundress with a blue scarf wrapped around her head to try to combat the wind where it whipped across the lake.  

“Say hi for the camera,” Daniel’s voice said.  

“Hi,” Peggy deadpanned flatly, then tipped her sunglasses down her nose with one finger and gave the camera a wry look.  She pulled them off and tucked them in her lap, squinting at the camera. “You already got the fireworks last night.  Put that thing away for a bit, maybe?”

“Awww, you’re prettier than those fancy sparklers, Peg, and you know it,” Daniel chuffed, making Peggy shake her head at him, though there was a smile on her lips, full of fondness, and Steve saw Tony’s mother glance over, her own smile faltering for a moment before she found it again.  

“The show is always so nice over the lake,” Maria remarked.  “Girls, please don’t dive off the end of the dock. It’s actually quite shallow and there are rocks!” she called out.  

The camera blurred as it swung to the side and two wet heads peeked up out of the dark water, one with a streak of white down her pale nose.  

“Sorry, Mrs. Stark,” the smaller of them with the short, cropped hair called out, then cast a look at her friend and jerked her head towards the floating platform a good ten meters out into the lake that had a diving board hanging off one end.

“Just be careful,” Maria cautioned as the two swam off.

“That’s the Van Dyne girl, right?  Vernon’s daughter?” Peggy asked.  Maria nodded.  “I thought I recognized her last night.”

“The small one, yes. Janet and her friend from school, Michelle something or other. Howard wants to hire him. Vernon.  For that…project the Army wants him to work on,” Maria said, her features tightening around the words.  “He and Obie took Vernon off for a drive this morning, ostensibly to scout some land Howard is thinking about buying, but they want to talk up the company with him.  The hard sell,” she finished with an almost bitter-sounding laugh.  “They should be back any minute, in fact,” she said, glancing over her shoulder with a frown.

“Gamma radiation, I hear,” Peggy said.  “The latest thing.”  Her tone was clipped, brittle with a sort of fatigued acceptance.  

“Howard certainly thinks so,” Maria said with a sigh, turning back to Peggy.  “He…he’s been working terribly long hours lately.  I don’t know.  If this doesn’t work out…things are, well,” she sighed again and grimaced, looking off into the distance, ostensibly to watch the girls, but her expression had gone lax and far away.  “There haven’t really been any breakthroughs. Not for a while.  The contracts are drying up, and I—I worry, Peggy.  About Howard.  The toll all of this is taking on him. I don’t…I don’t know.  If this doesn’t happen…”

“Surely, there are other projects,” Peggy said.  

“Not for him,” Maria replied, still gazing out over the lake. “That’s why he agreed to come up here this year.  We cleaned out the attic years ago and what didn’t get donated or end up in the trash bin made its way up here.  Some things, it’s just hard to let go of, you know?” she mused with a note of melancholy in her voice that Steve could just barely hear over the lap of water against the side of the dock and the splashes and shouts of the girls as they swam.  “Said he wanted to look at them again, maybe find some inspiration, I think. It isn’t exactly his favorite spot, you know.  Nature and Howard,” she shook her head, then looked over at Peggy and smiled, almost nervously.  

“A dangerous combination, no doubt,” Peggy agreed with a smile.  She cast a quick glance at the camera, her eyes going soft and fond for a moment, something private passing there that Steve missed.

Maria waved her hand in the air with a tittering laugh.  “Listen to me go on.  You’re retired, out here to enjoy the holiday, not listen to me complain about my husband’s long hours at work!  Daniel, get some shots of the house. It’s so pretty this time of year.  I don’t know why Howard won’t come here more often.  I like it, away from all the hustle and bustle of Beverly Hills,” she said in a tone that implied that this must be the thing to say, whether it was true or not. “Tony used to love it here when he was little.”

“Did he really?” Peggy asked.  “Hard to imagine him running around out here, though I suppose he didn’t always have his head glued to one of those machines of his.  Jarvis said he built this one himself, from scratch, and wrote that man at Apple a strongly-worded letter.”

“Oh, yes, don’t I know it,” Maria nodded with a light laugh.  “But, it’s true.  He did, he loved it. We’d come out here for the week or, well, Jarvis and Ana would bring him out. Get the house ready, you know. Air it out a bit.  Tony used to love playing down on the shore, swimming, hiking—or having an adventure, as he called it—fishing, taking that little boat of his out—whatever it was he and Jarvis got up to, I suppose.  I wish he’d come out and be a bit friendlier,” Maria finished with a small, dissatisfied sigh as she looked over her shoulder for a moment then back out at where the girls were taking turns jumping off the platform’s diving board.

Got a place in Colorado.  Nice, homey little twenty-thousand square foot house. Lake.  Boat.  The whole works.  You fish?  I don’t fish. We could fish.

This was what Colorado was, Steve realized with a sharp pang.  Or, would have been, if they’d just gone, if Ross hadn’t happened, if Zemo hadn’t happened, if…well, if.  This was what Tony had been trying to recreate, some version of this place he had once visited with Jarvis and Ana, where he had been happy.  One of the few places, Steve suspected, where Tony had been truly happy, truly free, running around and getting dirty, catching fish and having adventures.  

Not that Tony had told Steve any of that, just blurted out the offer, though Steve recalled that brief flash of something that had looked a lot like relief that flitted across Tony’s face when Steve accepted.  Had he really expected Steve to say no?  Though…they hadn’t exactly been open about things, had they?  Trip to Colorado, just the two of them, that wasn’t really keeping things low key, was it?

The camera had panned away from the two women, taking in the lake, dotted with other homes and docks reaching out like wooden fingers, and the low, rocky mountains beyond, where the sun was lowering behind the tree-studded peaks. The camera’s view slowed, seemingly transfixed by the momentary beauty of the scene, catching the sun just as it dipped beneath the veil of mountains, a last, bright gasp of golden color before the landscape was blanketed in a gray, evening haze.  

It was easy to imagine watching something like this with Tony, maybe trying to sketch it, grabbing for his colored pencils while Tony clicked his tongue and took a digital photo on his tablet, though it would be Steve’s sketch that Tony would save, he knew, not the photo.  Even unfinished, Tony kept them.  He’d even given Steve the page from his journal with the dancing monkey drawing on it, carefully framed, with a note taped to the back that said something about it not being a flying monkey, but that he’d thought Steve would appreciate the reference anyway.  

Jokes, seemingly casual offers, easy ways out, these were a safety net for Tony, Steve realized.  A get out of jail free card in case of rejection.  Tony’s affection was both boundless and doled out in careful, contained increments, offered in isolation and easily retracted or demurred.  It wasn’t as if Steve couldn’t see why, watching the tapes.  Tony had grown up learning that everything he did, every offer, every suggestion, every spark of vulnerability, was a minefield of risk with very little reward. Though he wanted it so badly, that reward.  Time and time again, he took the risk for it, didn’t he?   

And what did that get him with you, Rogers, Steve thought bleakly, as a wide pit opened up in his stomach.   Want to know why he didn’t talk to you about all this?  Well.  I think you pretty well gave him your answer, didn’t you?

“Is Tony excited for MIT?” Peggy asked, drawing Steve’s wandering mind back to the screen.  “I didn’t get a chance to talk to him at the party last night.”

“I don’t know what to do about him.  You’d think he could at least be social, but no, all he wants to do is be on that infernal machine of his or buried in some book or one of those comics he loves,” Maria replied, rolling her eyes a bit and shaking her head.  

Steve tried to imagine this shy, awkward, book-loving wallflower and found it was surprisingly easy to picture.  The Tony who hit his mark and got his cue every time wasn’t so different than Steve’s own alter ego, and just as much a mask, even if Tony was far, far better at it than Steve had ever been.  A rush of sadness tightened his chest at that, because he knew from experience the toll it took to constantly pretend, to keep trying to give the audience what they expected, what they demanded, all the time, trying so hard to get it right, until all that right looked like was someone else. Someone else’s face in the mirror, someone else’s glib talk, someone else’s smile for the cameras…he sighed and rubbed a hand at his forehead, then scraped it over his face, prickling across his beard, which still felt strange and surprising under his hand.  

Shared life experience, Steve thought, closing his eyes for a moment.  It should’ve been something we shared, something we understood about the other, instead of a wedge between us.  But, maybe we’re both just a little too good at it, he wondered, opening his eyes and focusing on the screen again.

“He seemed…I don’t know, distant.  God, that age, though, it’s all so terribly awkward, isn’t it?  And college now…that has to be intimidating for him, I would imagine,” Peggy observed.

“He seems happy about it,” Maria said with a flat sort of nonchalance that she didn’t quite pull off.  “Not that he says much about it, of course.  Not to me, anyway.  I don’t see why he didn’t go to CalTech.  It’s so much closer to home.”

Steve thought it was fairly obvious why Tony didn’t choose CalTech, and thought from Peggy’s expression, she rather agreed, but she held her tongue on that one.  

“Fifteen, though,” Peggy said.  “Still so young to be off on his own like that.”

“Hmmm, yes,” Maria sighed.  “Tony’s always been so independent, though, you know,” she continued with a blithe certainty.  Tony, Steve knew, could remake the world with just his mind and his hands, but he needed people, needed a family and a support system, perhaps more than Steve had ever quite realized.  “The school is quite nice, I must admit.  And very excited to have him, of course.  We had lunch with the President and some of the professors last time we visited.  You should’ve heard them all talk,” she laughed, giving her head a rueful shake.  “It was like being around Howard and all his friends all those years ago, everyone smoking and drinking and talking about how they were going to change the world,” she sighed.  “Tony was polite, at least.  He seemed interested, Peggy…I—I don’t know.  It’s so hard to tell where his head is these days.”

“Really?  He always talks so much when he calls,” Peggy said with a frown.  “Daniel, he talks to you, doesn’t he?”

“About a mile a minute,” Daniel said, his voice slightly muffled by the wind.  “Seems to be really looking forward to school, I think.  Worried the kids won’t like him, but that’s normal.  I told him if they were mean to him, I’d come kick all these asses.  Shake my cane at them.  Think he got a bit of a laugh out of that.”

“Daniel!” Maria scolded with a light laugh.  “Well, at least he talks to you two.  And Jarvis, of course. Always, Jarvis and Ana.”

“He probably just doesn’t want to worry you, Maria,” Peggy suggested, darting a quick, hard look at the camera.   

“Yes, yes, probably that’s it,” Maria said.  

“How is Ana doing?” Peggy asked.

“Oh, you know.  She has her good days and her not so good days,” Maria replied with a flat grimace.  “Her sister is staying with her this weekend so Jarvis could get away.  Poor man hasn’t had a break in months, you know.”

“Do the doctors think—” Peggy began.

“No,” Maria cut in.  Peggy’s mouth fell shut and she craned her head away, looking out over the lake.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Peggy said after a pause, her voice tight and full of sadness.

“Oh, there they come,” Maria said with a note of relief in her voice.  She stood up and nodded back towards the house.  “Good.  I was wondering when they’d make it back.  Girls!” she shouted.  “Janet, your father is back!”

“We’ll be right there, Mrs. Stark!” the smaller girl, Janet, called out.

The camera flashed to dark, then the screen lit up again on a large, tidy kitchen with white-washed cabinets and a black and white tiled floor, filled with a group of people, all seeming to be talking over each other, having about three different conversations from what Steve could tell.  Maria and Jarvis were talking about picking up more supplies in town, but lamenting who might be open on the holiday weekend.  Stane and the man Steve assumed was Vernon Van Dyne were discussing the lack of funding coming out of the DoD and uniformed branches lately, and the two girls were debating popsicle colors while staring into the open freezer with the same fervor.  

“Where’s Howard gotten off to now?” Maria asked, glancing around.

“He went looking for something he wanted to show Vernon,” Stane replied.  He was leaning one hip against the counter, leaning over the smaller man, with one hand on the man’s shoulder, as if holding him in place.  

“Did you pick up more charcoal by chance?” Jarvis asked.  “I can get some from that hardware store.  They’ll be open.  I’ll just pop into town for a bit and—”

“Are you kidding?  Are you kidding me with this!?!” Howard’s loud, angry voice carried through the room, making it go quiet, almost like a curtain falling.  There was a low, thudding slam, echoed by a staccato of lighter noises.  It took Steve a moment to place the sounds, then realized it was the picture frames shaking against the wall where they lined the stairs.  

“I was just lo—” a muffled voice started.

“What have I told you?  Huh? Huh?”  Howard demanded, shouting now, a wet, spittle-filled sound that seemed to fill the kitchen and spill out into the small room where Steve sat riveted to the bed. A sharp sound, then.  Steve’s breath caught, hitched and shuddered. His heart wrenched in his chest, twisting up and pulling his stomach with it, as he tried to swallow back a keen of anger and pain.  He knew that sound far too well.  

“Howard?” Maria’s voice called out, shaky and unsure.  

“Looking, right.  Sure.  Just looking . Looking, my ass!  You really think I don’t know what you were doing?  You really think the rest of them don’t know what you are?  My own son, for Christ’s sake, a perverted, little faggot!” Howard yelled.  “Do you really think I’m going to send you off to that college and let you embarrass me like this?  Do you?  You get your ass back here!  Tony!  To—damn it!”

Fast, pounding thuds, shoes on stairs, Steve’s mind supplied, and then Tony was there, rounding the bottom post where the stairs turned, red-faced and wiping a hand over his eyes, blinking in horrified surprise at the room full of people, with an angry, red spot blooming on his cheek.  Mortified humiliation flickered across Tony’s all-too-familiar face.  Younger here.  Rounder and softer, in too-big clothes that seemed to swallow him, hanging on a frame that was still all angles.  Steve watched the younger Tony swallow, open his mouth as if to speak, then stop and swipe his face across the crook of his elbow.  He dropped his gaze down to his feet, then, though not before Steve caught a glimpse of shame-filled guilt, because there was looking and then there was looking , and Tony’s open, expressive face told the story far too clearly.  It tore at Steve’s heart, that look, the deep-seated shame, the knowingness of it.  The certainty that they were right, which meant something was wrong with him.  Which meant he was wrong. He’d seen it staring back at him in the mirror too many times to count.

“Oh, yeah, run away!  Run to Jarvis or your mom.  Run away, great. Fucking typical, isn’t it?” Howard’s voice, thick with disgust-fueled rage, the words slurring together, followed him down the stairs until the man himself came into view, eyes burning, face blistered with anger.  

“Howard!  We have company!” Maria called out in a tight, urgent voice.  Stane ducked his chin to his chest, huffed out a sigh and shook his head, wiping a hand over his mouth as he looked over at the wide-eyed Van Dyne with a telling look.  The two girls stood stock-still, mouths ringed in red and purple, with their popsicles hovering in front of them.  Jarvis looked, well.  Ready to kill, Steve thought, watching the man take a step towards Tony, an appeasing hand held out in front of him, the way one might approach a wounded animal.

“Howard!  Just what the bloody hell are you doing?” Peggy voice cracked across the room, trembling with barely-contained anger.  “Did you hit him?  Howard!  Answer me!  Tony,” she began, voice softening considerably.  “Did he hit you?”

Tony’s looked at her, then, dragging his eyes from the floor, face tear-streaked and utterly miserable, like he wanted to be anywhere in the world but stuck here in the kitchen of a place he loved, facing a jury of family and strangers with the question already answered on his face.  Steve felt it like a physical blow, sending all the air out of his lungs and making his whole body go rigid.  If he could have moved, he wasn’t sure what he might have done in that moment.  Stop the movie.  Crush the screen until there were just pieces of it left.  Throw it across the room.  Call Tony, just to hear him.  Even if it was terrible, even if it was all the hatred and anger that this Tony couldn’t muster, it would still be better than bearing witness to any more of this, but none of that anger, none of that need, none of it really belonged to him, did it?  Not anymore.  

“It was an accident, Peg, come on,” Howard protested. “I didn’t mean to actually hit him, for God’s sake.  He moved, and—it just happened, okay?  I shouldn’t have gotten so—look, I know what this looks like! He was messing around with my stuff—the Rebirth files, okay?” Howard said, making Steve’s whole body jolt with shock.  “Steve. I know how much Steve meant to you.  He meant that much to me, too, you know that! I’ve told him.  I’ve told him to keep this—this perversion of his to himself, and there he was, with my stuff.  With Steve , Peggy.   My son, thinking about Steve like that.  The one good thing I ever did, and he can’t help but—but try to defile it.  To ruin something he knows is important to me.  Of course, he can’t.  It’s always been that way with him.  Always.  God—I-I saw red, Peg. Can you blame me?”

Peggy was staring agog at Howard, mouth open, eyes-wide with shock and horror.  Slowly, her head started to shake back in forth in disbelief.

“Howard…what have you done?” Peggy demanded, voice hard with agonized realization.

“I—nothing.  Nothing, not—not really,” Howard stammered, glancing around the room and not seeming to find many friends by the way his face fell for a moment, before the mask slipped back into place.  “Tony, you know I didn’t mean to do that.  You know that, right? I would never do that.  You know that.  Tell them.  Go on.  Tell your Aunt Peggy.  Come on, she’s gonna think I’m a bad guy or something.”

Tony stared at them all, eyes flicking around the room and briefly catching on the camera, which slowly lowered, as if Daniel hadn’t even realized he still had it in his hands.  On the screen, shoes and a khaki-covered pants leg filled the screen, while two fingers brushed in front of it, clearly trying to surreptitiously turn it off, with little success.  The film rocked to one side, as what Steve recognized as Tony’s jeans-clad leg rocketed past to shouts of his name following him.  

Steve wasn’t sure he had ever been prouder of Tony in his life for not agreeing with Howard’s lie.  

Slowly, the camera righted itself, though the angle was lower, and a jacket fold obscured the edge of the screen.  Daniel had been a Bureau man, Steve remembered, watching Peggy give a quick jerk of her chin over the top of where the camera was tucked to what must be Daniel’s side.

“Okay, well.  Let’s all just take a breath, maybe. That was—wow, okay,” Stane started, holding his hands out in front of him in a placating gesture.  

“Obadiah, do shut up,” Peggy snapped, hands on her hips.  “You,” she grated out between her teeth.  

“I told you, it was an accident, Peg, I swear,” Howard tried.

“And you,” Peggy continued, rounding on Maria, who flattened her hand against her throat.  “How long has this been going on?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Maria rushed out.  “There’s nothing—this hasn’t happened before, of course not!  What are you suggesting?  Jarvis.  Jarvis, you tell her.”

Steve had seen a lot, but not many men who looked more completely gutted than Tony’s butler in that moment.  

“I—it’s…” Jarvis started, then stopped and cleared his throat, lifting his chin to look directly at Peggy.  “He promised.  He promised it wouldn’t happen again.  Tony said it was just the one time.  Just the one. And I believed him.  I wanted to believe him, I guess.  He begged me, you see.  Not to say anything…he—he’s going away.  That school. In just a couple of months.  He—Oh, God, Peggy, Ana is so sick.  I can’t…the radiation treatments alone are thousands of dollars, I—I didn’t know what to do—I--”

“Jarvis!” Maria said, sounding shocked, though Steve wasn’t sure if it was the man’s words or that he actually said them out loud.  

“Girls, go pack your things.  Your father will take you home now,” Peggy said in a tone that left no room for argument.  The two girls shot out of the room as if sprung from a cannon.  The smaller man, Van Dyne, gave Stane a sharp look, nodded to Peggy, and followed his daughter and her friend out.  Somehow, Steve suspected he would not be signing on Howard’s dotted line.  “Howard,” she began, sucking in a long breath.  “No!  Don’t start.  I’ve heard enough from you.”

“Peg,” Howard pleaded with a broken sob.  “This isn’t what it looks like.”

“This is exactly what it looks like,” Peggy shot back.  

“It’ll ruin me.  It’ll ruin everything.  You know that.  They’ll blacklist me.  Company’s already struggling.  This…it’ll ruin things for him, too,” Howard said, voice steady now, whatever façade of sorrow or contrition he’d been attempting seeming to have faded entirely.  

It wasn’t even hate Steve felt for Howard.  Or anger.  It was something beyond all of that.  Frustration, rage, regret, disappointment, disillusionment, all of it, but mostly, it was grief, he realized after a moment.  Grief, that Tony had suffered.  Grief that Tony hadn’t shared this with him.  Grief that he hadn’t pushed more when Tony skittered away on those rare occasions Steve got too close to something.  Grief over what could’ve been, if they’d been less scared of what each other might think of them if they were ever weak.  Grief that Tony thought of any of this as being weak.  

On the screen, Peggy was staring hard at Howard, breathing deep breaths that seemed to be doing nothing to calm her.  The room was quiet, waiting, as if the whole house had sucked in a bated breath.  

“Jarvis, if this happens again.  Ever.  If this ever happens again.  So much as one more time,” Peggy began, the words seeming to grind their way out of her mouth.  “You will call me immediately.  We will deal with Ana’s care, I promise.  Maria.  Obadiah.  You should understand very clearly that your future comfort, this life to which you are so very accustomed, depends quite greatly on Howard’s future choices where Tony is concerned.  I expect you will act accordingly.”

Maria stared at her for a moment, then dropped her eyes to the floor and gave a jerky nod.  Stane curled his mouth, lifted his eyebrows high and nodded his acquiescence, as well.  

“Howard,” Peggy said, then stopped and shook her head, hair falling forward to cover her face for a moment as she rubbed her fingers into her forehead.  “I don’t even know where to begin.  This…God, Howard, this has to stop!  Are you mad? Have you lost your senses entirely at the bottom of that damned bottle?  He’s fifteen!  Fifteen, Howard! What were you doing at fifteen?  Somehow I doubt your answer is altar boy.”

“I wasn’t looking at other guys, that’s for one.   Stockholders find out I’ve got a fairy for a son, they’ll bolt.  Biggest sell-off in history, you watch.  Not to mention, you really think DoD wants to work with some queer designing their weapons?”  Howard spat out.  

“Ah, come on, Howard.  DoD doesn’t give two shits if he likes Harry or Harriet, if the product’s there,” Stane pointed out with a shrug.  “Sure, we don’t advertise it or anything, but,” he shrugged.  “Not like they didn’t look the other way with Oppenheimer and that thing with his student, right?  Smart enough, good enough, quiet enough, they don’t care.”

“When exactly is Tony ever quiet about any of the many, many things he does to annoy me, huh?” Howard asked, shaking his head.  “You wait.  You wait, this whole college thing, I’m telling you, it’s a mistake.  If he can’t keep it in his God-damned pants, the whole company—"

“The company?” Peggy practically shrieked.  “The company. That’s what you’re so worried about.  Haven’t you been paying attention?  Good Lord, Howard! Maria—Maria, there’s—there’s this disease out there that’s killing people, and no one knows how to stop it, and you’re—you’re worried about the stock prices?”

“Ah, come on, Howard, you really want to go here?  It’s not like you can exactly blame the kid, now can you?” Stane asked, then dropped his gaze and leaned heavily on where his arm was braced on the counter. He puffed out a great burst of air through his nose, then shook his head and waved his other hand through the air.   Steve frowned in confusion for a moment before his mind caught up.  Oh.  Jesus, Howard, Steve thought with a vicious spike of anger.  Just how much of your own shit are you taking out on Tony? “I think maybe we should all just, you know…let’s take a breather.  Call it a night.  Get some sleep or something.  Look, I’ll talk to Vernon after the holiday, smooth things over.  It’ll be fine,” he soothed.  

“I should go check on Tony. He shouldn’t be alone,” Jarvis said, clearing his throat and heading for the door that led out from the kitchen, just next to the icebox where the girls had gotten popsicles and a small porch light spilled brightness into the room.

“Yes.  Yes, thank you, Jarvis,” Maria said, as if he needed her permission.  Steve heard the door bang shut and watched the room sort of deflate, as if that had let the air out along with Jarvis.  “I think it’s best for tonight if we all just—” Maria started.

“Tony!” a muffled shout sounded from outside in a voice tinged with panic. “Oh my God! Tony!  Help!  Someone, help!”

There was a rush of people towards the door.  The camera faltered, the lens dropping so all Steve saw was pounding feet.  He could hear someone calling Tony’s name, though it was distant now, hard to pick out over the swirl of movement and questions called out that no one could answer.  Then the light of the porch and the crunch of shoes on gravel, footfalls over stairsteps of flat rocks, heels clicking and breaths huffing.  A woman’s high-pitched shout of Tony’s name.  

The camera jostled along at Daniel’s side unheeded.  Occasionally, his cane came into view as he tried to maneuver the steps.  Dirt, dark and damp, with mulched edges and carefully placed rocks decorating the path.  Someone was chanting a litany of ohmygod, ohmygod over and over under her breath like a prayer.  Steve thought it might be Tony’s mother.  Water.  The planks of the dock, feet pounding now, more shouts.  A splash.  Loud.  Close.  He couldn’t see anything, not really, but it played like a reel in his head, anyway.  He could feel the adrenaline pumping through his veins in time with the cacophony of steps.  Hurry, he thought, though he knew the outcome.  He still needed them to hurry .  

The group slowed in front of Daniel, who, of course, brought up the rear, then surged forward, almost as one.  The camera fell, clattering to the dock and resting on its side, so the whole image tilted.  

“Help me!” Jarvis could be heard shouting.  More splashes.  Then, “Grab him! Grab his arms!”

Through a forest of legs and bodies, Steve could see Stane and Howard hauling a wet, dripping figure out of the water, helped by Jarvis who had one hand wrapped around the wooden ladder and the other heaving Tony’s limp body upward and out of the water.  They deposited him on the dock. Peggy knelt down at his side, then placed her hands on his chest and pumped. Once, twice, three times, until a spurt of water gurgled out of his mouth, and he coughed.

“Hold his neck,” she ordered.  “Help me roll him.”  Stane took Tony’s head and neck in his hands, and Howard took his legs, and the three of them carefully rolled him to his side. Daniel shrugged off his jacket and laid it over Tony’s shoulders while he heaved.  

A trail of darkness flowed from the top right corner of his forehead. There would be a thin, white scar there, Steve knew.  Tony’s hair would cover it, most of the time.  Except when it was wet from the shower, Steve remembered.  Had he asked him about it?  He didn’t think he had.  He wondered what story he would have gotten.  Not this.  He wouldn’t have gotten this.  

To the side, Jarvis crawled out of the water, but stood there, half-in, half-out, clinging to the wooden rails of the ladder as if for support.  He was hunched over, shoulders shaking and head bowed all the way down to his chest.  

“What was he thinking?  He knows it’s shallow there.  He knows there are rocks.  I’ve told him a million times. Jarvis, you know I’ve told him.  He knows, he knows, he—” Maria stopped, hand going to her mouth for a moment before she wrapped both arms tightly around her middle and rocked herself slowly, back and forth.  

“Jesus Christ,” Stane said, kneeling there on the dock, splattered with water, one hand running back and forth over the smooth plate of his head.  “Jesus fucking Christ.”

Beneath him, Steve saw Tony’s eyes flutter open, two dark, desolate orbs in the waning evening light.  He seemed to be staring straight at the camera, straight at Steve, though, of course, that was impossible.  Peggy was combing a hand through his hair, peeling the wet strands of his face.  Steve wanted to reach out, touch him, tell him it was okay, that it would be okay. Just wait.  Just be strong a little longer.  It felt just as hollow a promise as Peggy’s ultimatum.   Maybe Howard didn’t hit him again after this. Maybe he laid off the jibes and insults.  

Maybe.  

But, no one was going to put Tony first, and maybe that was what in all of this Peggy wanted him to see.  Even the people who loved him, truly and genuinely loved him, didn’t love him that way, the way that said, his happiness, his safety, him.  Him before me.  Before everything.  Before the company (before pride), before the press (before duty), before the money (before being right), before the inventions (before the world), before the treatments (before saving the one you couldn’t save), before everything.  No one did that, and he loved them all anyway.

There was a low, thump-thump-thump sound, and Daniel’s cane and shoe came into view.  On the screen, the film suddenly flew upwards, and for the first time, Steve could see Daniel’s face, pale and drawn now.  He looked at the camera, mouth twisting into a grimace, then back over his shoulder at where they all huddled around Tony at the end of the dock.  

“God-dammit,” he muttered under his breath, barely said before the wind took the words, and the screen went black.  

Steve stared at the blank screen for a heartbeat, and then was in motion.  Tossing the laptop aside on the cot, he pulled the refrigerator out from its nook in the wall, and scabbered his fingers over the loose brick behind it.  He peeled that back, dropping it to the floor, then stopped, heart pounding in his ears, fingers stretched out in the space between him and the phone, where it sat tucked in the tiny cranny he’d made for it, with a thin wire winding its way down, taped to the wall with duct tape to conceal it, though it let Steve keep it charged without actually taking it out.  

Slowly, he reached out and wrapped his fingers around the hard shell, drawing it to his chest.  He opened his fist and stared down at it for a moment.  Such a tiny, innocuous-looking thing to hold so much.  Possibility.  Potential.  Hope.  God, so much hope.  

There was exactly one number in the phone.  It matched the number of the phone he had sent Tony all those months ago.  The phone was brand new.  No calls had ever been made or received.  It had no text messages.  T’Challa had arranged it and loaded it with a preset number of minutes.   If you talk longer than that, I’ll assume the world is ending and nothing can be done , he had said when handed Steve the device.  

Steve sucked in a shaky breath, walked back over to the thin cot and sank down on it, casting a quick glance at the laptop, still open, though the screen was just a series of photographs of places Steve had never been.  He leaned back against the wall behind the cot and tapped the phone against his forehead, then sighed and sat up, hitting the button for the singular number before he could change his mind.  He needed to talk to Tony.  Maybe it was selfish.  Maybe it was stupid.  It was probably both.  But, that didn’t change the fact that he had to hear Tony’s voice, even if it was raised in anger.  Even if he told Steve to go pound sand.  Even if he refused to say anything at all.  He just…he needed to know Tony was okay.  He wouldn’t bother him.  He would just—

“What’d she send you?” Tony said without preamble.  “Must’ve been a doozy.” His voice was heavy, thick, slightly slurred.  Everything Steve’s mind had briefly tossed out as a possible introduction went flying, leaving his head this empty, blank space that held nothing except the warm sound of Tony’s voice.  It was so good.  So, so good.  

He hadn’t realized how much he had missed it, just hearing him talk.  It was so much a part of the fabric of Steve’s world now, and the quiet—well, he thought he’d gotten used to it, but hearing Tony’s voice again was like a drop of water to a man who had been walking the desert for months.  It took a moment for Steve to register Tony’s words.  When he did, it all sort of sank into place, settling like a stone in his stomach.  Of course.  Of course, she had sent something to Tony, too.  It was never just about him.  It was always about them, the two of them.  

Together.

“That bad, huh?” Tony questioned at Steve’s silence.  Tony’s voice was tight with tension, practically vibrating with it, but not anger, at least Steve thought it wasn’t anger.  Just an abject weariness, Steve thought with a frown, the kind that went bone-deep and stayed there, until it hardened everything about you.

In the background, Steve heard the tinkling sound of an ice cube dropped into a glass and wanted to say something, but didn’t know what to say.  Stop. Don’t do this to yourself.  Don’t—you’re not like him.  You’re not anything like him.  

“Tapes,” Steve blurted out, then sucked in a steadying breath.  “Tapes.  You.  Your parents.  Her and Daniel.  When you were young.”

A pause, heavy and filled with questions.

“Which tapes?” Tony asked.  His voice shook a little on the last.  Steve looked down, guilt and embarrassment warring in his mind.  He shouldn’t have looked at them. He should’ve just told T’Challa to send them to Tony.  It was an invasion of his privacy.  If he’d wanted Steve to know, he would have told him, wouldn’t he?  “Steve.  I’ve spent the last three hours reading your file.  Well, the last two hours, let’s call it.  At least one of those was me puking up whatever I had on the plane.  Which tapes?”

“My—my file?” Steve asked, frown deepening.  He sat up, body coiling tight, going rigid.  “That’s—there’s nothing, I mean, it’s just the same—”

“The one Bletchley Park kept,” Tony interrupted, voice soft, almost gentle.  Kind, Steve thought, even as his mind stuttered to a halt.  Bletchley.  He’d forgotten about that.  Hadn’t he?  Or, just not thought about it.  He was very good at that, after all.  “Not the…sanitized version the Army had. Bad for publicity what with all those FOIA requests and crap.  And Peggy, God rest her, kept your SHIELD file even more full of patriotic horseshit.  Which tapes?  Christmas, right?  I remember Daniel with the camera that year.  What else?”

“The Expo,” Steve admitted.  He could hear his voice shaking.  What was in the Bletchley file?  How meticulous had they been?  

“Ah,” Tony said.  Steve heard the sound of ice tipping in a glass, but didn’t comment.  

“The lakehouse,” Steve said quietly.  The sounds stopped.  Tony’s end of the phone went silent.  Then, finally, the sound of a shuddering intake of air.  

“Steve…Steve, God, why—” Tony broke off, his voice crumbling into a near-sob.  “Why didn’t you tell me about this stuff? Why didn’t you talk to me? Why am I finding out about this from a seventy year old war report?  You could have---I would have listened!  I would have—God, I don’t know, gotten you therapy.  More therapy.  Better, I don’t know, okay! Something.  How are you even—how are you doing this? How are you possibly doing this?  I spent one evening with this, and I’m— fuck .  I’m going to have nightmares for, I don’t know, years, probably.  I would have helped.  Why didn’t— why didn’t you tell me ?  Was it…something I said or did or…”

“No!” Steve shouted, then winced when Tony fell silent, though his question hung in the air.  “It wasn’t you, Tony. It wasn’t.  I wanted to tell you, talk to you, but…I don’t know.  I guess I thought…I don’t know what I thought. That you wouldn’t like me if you knew.  If you really knew me.  If you really knew me, knew what I was, what I did, then you wouldn’t like me.  You wanted—the image, the idea, the—”

“You really think that?  Really?  That’s what you think of me?  God.  That’s what you think of me,” Tony said, his voice careful and slow, but there was pain lingering in each word.  Sorrow, too, and a rebuke, though not one aimed at Steve, because, of course, Tony would blame himself, if he could.

“No.  No, I don’t, Tony, I don’t, really, but…I didn’t want you to know. I didn’t want you to think less of me, I guess,” Steve whispered, letting his head fall back to thunk against the wall behind him.  “I didn’t want to lose you.  Guess I did a—a really first-rate job of making sure that didn’t happen, huh?”  Tony was quiet, though Steve heard a small catch of breath on the other end of the line.  “I’m sorry, Tony.  I should’ve told you the minute I suspected something.  I thought—well, I thought a lot of things.  It doesn’t matter.  None of that matters.  I’m sorry.”

There was a long pause of silence.  Steve dropped the phone from his ear to check the connection, but the time was still counting up.  He put it back to his ear and waited.  

“Ardennes forest,” Tony finally said, voice heavy and thick with tightly-held emotion.   “That was you.  There are pictures in the file. You look…God, you’re so damned young.  I forget that sometimes.  Barnes was there.  I guess this was right before…what happened.  Barnes is always there.  That’s one thing I kept noticing, all through this whole fucking mess of a file. Barnes is right there next to you, the whole time.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, his voice a broken whisper.

“Ask me,” Tony said.  “It’s alright.  Ask me,” he sighed. “I can…hear your mind working.  Just…just ask me.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?  About Howard.  About…the lakehouse.  All of that.  Why didn’t you say anything?  Why didn’t you talk to me?” Steve rushed out, stringing the words together like if he stopped, they wouldn’t all get out.  

“Because I didn’t want you to know.  Because I didn’t want you to think less of me.  God, not you,” Tony said with a bitter laugh behind his voice. “Because I didn’t want to lose you.  Guess I did a really first-rate job of making sure that didn’t happen.”

Steve’s own words, reflected back to him.  God, what a mess, he thought, feeling his chin dip down to his chest and his eyes drift shut.    “It wasn’t your fault,” Steve said.

“I wanted to kill him,” Tony replied quietly.

“No, you didn’t,” Steve said.

“Maybe not.  I’m pretty good at killing.  I wanted to hurt you, though. God, did I want to see you hurt for him. For choosing him.  I wanted that so much,” Tony admitted.  “And now, see, now, there’s the two of you here in this photo.  I don’t know where it’s from.  It doesn’t say, and there’s no date, but it’s the two of you, and you’re boys.  You’re just…boys. Half my age, if that.  And there are bodies in the tree, Steve, and one of them.  One is small. Tiny, really.  You and Barnes, you’re right there, and you’re both just staring at it, and your faces are blank, Steve.  Just blank.  And now—now, I have this, all of this, and I—God, I have no idea what to do with this.  I want to unsee it, but I can’t.  You can’t.  Maybe he can’t, I don’t know.”

“The Germans thought they were collaborators,” Steve said, closing his eyes as he remembered the scene.  One thing about a perfect memory.  The ghosts never fade.  “They’d given us a chicken a few days before.  One of their last.  And a loaf of bread.  A chicken and bread.  They hanged them all.  Even the little girl.  Gerda.  That was her name.  She was four.”

A long stretch of silence followed.  Finally, Steve heard Tony let out a sigh.  “I was four the first time Howard hit me,” he said.  “Just a slap. He apologized after.  Cried even, he was so sorry.  Got me a new circuit board.  Said it would never happen again.  Made me promise not to tell.  I never did.  I’ve never told anyone that.”

“I’m sorry, Tony,” Steve replied, eyes stinging, because it was too easy to see now, after the tapes, when he knew what a four-year-old Tony looked like when he was scared and knew what he sounded like when he said Captain America was a hero.

“Yeah, look at that!  It’s almost like if we talked instead of repressing all these things that are still driving our actions to this day, we might be able to better understand each other.  Wow. They should, like, put that in a book or something.  With a catchy title.  Like, ‘Communication is the Key to a Good Relationship.’ Just an idea.  Life hack sort of a thing,” Tony suggested, annoyed chagrin flaring in his tone.  “I’m sorry, too, you know,” Tony said.  

“You don’t have to apolo-“ Steve started.

“Eh, let’s face it, trying to kill your brainwashed best friend was a dick move,” Tony cut in.  Steve huffed out a surprised laugh, then shook his head, a small smile starting to form.  “I am, you know.  Sorry about that.  More than I can say.”

“I know,” Steve told him.  

“So,” Tony began, then let the word hang there for a long moment.  “How’s the shitty Belfast ghetto?  Lovely this time of year, or so I hear.”

“How did you—no.  Nevermind.  I don’t want to know,” Steve replied.  “How’s--how’s Rhodey?”

“Better.  Getting around a lot more.  Still lots more therapy and probably one more surgery, but he’s going to be okay,” Tony told him.  “Keeps asking me about bionic body parts.  I’ve told him like a hundred times, if I make a bionic one of those, I’m keeping it for myself.  How’s…everyone else?” he asked carefully.  “Don’t actually tell me anything, by the way.  I’m like ninety percent sure our Secretary of State is a supervillain, so.  There’s that.”

“Good,” Steve replied.  “Fine.  They’re fine.  Clint got a haircut.  If that’s not too much information for you.”

“How bad is it?  You know, he strikes me as the type to have tried a Flowbee back in the day.  You missed the Flowbee.  Right.  God, your late-night infomercial oeuvre is sadly lacking,” Tony groused.

“Are you…okay?” Steve asked. “You sold the Tower.  I know we talked about it, but…I saw an article about, well.  The whole announcement thing. I wasn’t sure--”

“Admittedly, not my finest moment,” Tony replied in a tight, clipped tone.  “You might have noticed that we’re down a couple of heavy hitters.  Whatever’s coming, whatever’s out there…we’re not ready.  Hell, we’re not close to ready.”

“I know,” Steve said, mouth flattening to a grim line.   “I miss you.”

“I’m at the Colorado house.  Come join me.  We’ll go fishing.  Technically, you need a license for that, but I don’t suppose that’s a dealbreaker for you,” Tony said, voice wry with amusement. Steve let out a surprised bark of laughter, then grinned. God, he’d missed this. Them.  The two of them when they could just be like this.  “I miss you, too,” Tony added after a beat.  “Come home.”

“You know—Tony, you know—” Steve began.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Fugitive, big underwater prison thing, future of the planet on the line, yadda yadda,” Tony grumbled.  “Come home.”

“I wish I could,” Steve replied.

“Me, too. God, Steve.  Me, too,” Tony said, the words spiraling out of him as if drained.  

“You’ll call, right?  If anything happens.  Anything, Tony.  You call, okay?  I’ll come.  Don’t wait. Don’t think you can handle it all yourself.  This isn’t on you alone, Tony.  It never was,” Steve reminded him.

“Together,” Tony said with a short, fond laugh.  “Might not be enough, you know that, right?”

“Then we’ll do that together, too.  No place I’d rather be.  No place, Tony.  I mean that,” Steve repeated.  “If you need me, call.”

“Okay,” Tony agreed.  “I will. Take care of yourself.”

“You, too,” Steve said.  The line went silent.  Steve let his hand fall from his ear and cradled the phone in his palm, staring down at it.  He pushed himself off the cot and walked towards the empty space in the wall.  He was reaching out to put the phone back into its place when it rang again, loud and shrill in the small space, vibrating in his hand.  

He looked at he number.  Tony.  He frowned and pressed the answer button.  

“Tony?” Steve called out, heart racing to a panic.  “Is everything okay?”

“What?  Fine.  Great. Awesome.  Hey, what are your thoughts on money?” Tony asked.

“I—what?  Money?” Steve echoed.

“Yeah, you know, budgeting. Finances.  Strategies.  Would you say you are a spender or a saver?” Tony asked.  

“Tony—” Steve said, a frown pulling at his brow.

“I’m looking at this relationship communication website.  Google.  So helpful, am I right?  Anyway, it says disagreements about money are the second biggest reason for break-ups.  Strangely, cheating is down at number three. Cheating with your not-dead-brainwashed-bestie did not make the list,” Tony hummed.

“I did not cheat,” Steve ground out.

“I didn’t ask,” Tony replied, drawing out the first word.  “If I had, it would have been done in very clever, stealthy sort of way, that definitely didn’t tip you off to my incredible insecurity, which, speaking of, I should really probably sit you down when you have time that doesn’t involve preparing for an arraignment and tell you about freshman year.  Anyway—”

“Tony, you called me back to talk about a relationship website?” Steve asked.

“I need you,” Tony said, voice soft and urgent.  “Not to save the world or fight armies from space or whatever’s penciled in for Tuesday night.  I need you.  Every day.  Every minute.  I need you.”

“I—” Steve stopped.  Cleared his throat.  “I guess I’m a saver.  Grew up with the Depression, you know. Things were tight.  This fella I’m with, though, he likes to spend.  A lot.”

“Sounds like a recipe for disaster.  Two complete opposites like that,” Tony remarked, almost idly, but there was a note of unease there, under the joke, because it wasn’t a joke.  Or not just a joke.  Steve could hear it now, loud and clear and bright and beautiful.  

“I need you, too, Tony. Every day.  Every minute.  I need you,” Steve husked out.  “See?  Not so opposite.”

Tony was quiet again, this time, for such a long stretch that Steve started to worry he’d said the wrong thing.  Then Tony grunted, cleared his throat and hummed, almost curiously.  Steve could picture him, leaning back against a leather sofa in front of a fire, with the mountains and lake out the window, just like the ones he had loved as boy, except now, the adventures were real.

“First is sex,” Tony said abruptly, drawing a sharp, questioning sound from Steve.  “Sex.  Or, disagreements about it. Causes the most break-ups.  How are we doing there?”

“I…like it?” Steve offered as a bemused frown furrowed his brow.  “Lately, I guess I’d like more of it,” he said, the frown flattening into a smile.

“Hard same, there, gotta admit,” Tony sighed, an answering smile carried on his voice.  “God, see?  We’re like, in simpatico or something.  This whole relationship thing really is easier when you talk it out.  Go figure.  I feel like starting a talk show and giving people cars or something.  Spread the love, that kind of thing.”  

A joke, a deflection, a hidden meaning you had to puzzle out, but it was there.

“I love you, too,” Steve replied, voice steady and calm, because he did.  God, did he.  Loved him before everything.  

“I—well.  I mean, yeah.  I—you, too, you know,” Tony stammered.  “Yeah.  I--you, too.” He sounded surprised, which hurt, Steve could admit, but he sounded pleased, too.  He cleared his throat once, then again, almost like he couldn’t quite catch his breath.  Steve’s chest tightened, warmed, filled to near brimming with the force of it.  He loved this man, broken and wondrous as he was.  “Number, ah-“ he coughed.  “Number four’s kids.  Just saying.”

“He’s too young to join the team, Tony, come on.  He’s in high school,” Steve said.

“See!?!” Tony groaned, the loud clapping sound of him hitting the top of his thigh or maybe the back of the couch sounded over the phone.  “Come home.”

“I will,” Steve promised.

“I need you,” Tony said in a hushed, awed tone, like he couldn’t quite believe it could just be like this.

“You have me,” Steve whispered.  “I promise.”