For some, autumn comes early, stays late through life where October follows September and November touches October and then instead of December and Christ's birth, there is no Bethlehem star, no rejoicing, with no winter, spring, or revivifying summer. For these beings, fall is the ever normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir in their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars.
Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.
Setting the book down, Tony rolled over on his stomach and pressed his face into his pillow. The night around him was dark and quiet, the sound of little boys breathing in their sleep the only noise in the silence. Tony clutched his stomach tight, the book with its black cover almost invisible in the darkness of the night. Fingers crawled against Tony's chest, feeling at the protruding breastbone, the sharp collarbones, the thin ribs. He could feel it in his chest. The rot. The grave. The sickness of the autumn people.
Big eyes peering through the dark, Tony looked around at his three dorm mates. They were all asleep, breathing soft, eyes shut to the night around them. Tony listened to the crickets chirping outside—it was still summertime, nearly. Still warm enough for the crickets to be out at night. For the cicadas to screech during the day. But soon, within a month or two, the cool weather would creep in and all the insects would fall silent. Tony's season was coming, creeping in on the world, descending over the boarding school where he lived. Tony shivered and pulled his blankets closer around himself, listening to the crickets, clutching to that sound with his ears just as tightly as he was clutching to his blankets with tiny fingers. Crickets meant summer. Blankets meant warmth. But it was all outside of him. The crickets couldn't reach his heart, the blankets couldn't warm the ice in his chest. He was an autumn person. At seven years old, Tony Stark knew this much about himself.
Tony looked listlessly up from his circuit board at Jarvis. The kind butler was peering down at him, brows furrowed slightly in concern. Tony looked at Jarvis and saw every age line, every spot, every little human imperfection that told Tony's too-smart brain how old Jarvis was, how mortal he was. The sins he'd committed and hadn't, the goodness in his soul and the rot. And Tony thought to himself, The trouble with Jim was he looked at the world and could not look away. And when you never look away all your life, by the time you are thirteen you have done twenty years taking in the laundry of the world.
Tony forced himself to look away from Jarvis.
“Master Anthony, pardon me for saying, but you do not appear to be yourself. Is something the matter? Something at school?”
Because he was still a boy, because he was seven and little and didn't yet know how to bear the great burdens like he would be good enough to know someday, Tony craned his neck back up at Jarvis and lifted his arms. Without hesitation Jarvis reached down and scooped Tony up, cradling him to his chest. Tony pressed his face against it and started crying. He could hear Jarvis' heartbeat, smell his bad cologne, feel his warmth. Jarvis was good. Jarvis was a summer person—a summer spent indoors, with books and cleaning. But still a summer person. The rot that grew inside Tony hadn't touched him.
“Hush now, Master Anthony. Hush now.”
He didn't ask Tony if he should get his father. Tony was glad. He didn't need his father for this. He'd tell Tony to buck up, to be a man, to stop crying. Jarvis would let him cry, just for a minute.
Jarvis' hand stroked along Tony's back, in quiet tandem with his whispers. Eventually Tony cried himself out, eyes scratchy and nose wet. His chest still felt the same. Felt like rot. But he felt more equipped to deal with it, somehow. More ready to be an autumn person. Brave enough, one day.
“Would you like to tell me about it?” Jarvis asked after Tony had stilled.
Tony wanted to be the type of person who said “no”. Who didn't need to talk to someone. Who could be a pillar of his own personality, strong and sure and enough. Enough for himself. Enough that he never needed anyone else.
But he was seven and the rot was in his chest and he was alone and Jarvis was kind. So Tony tilted his head back and looked up into Jarvis' aged face.
“I'm rotten,” Tony explained.
Jarvis' bushy eyebrows shot up. “Rotten, my dear boy? Surely not. Have you done something wrong?”
Tony shook his head miserably. “It's not what I've done. It's who I am.”
“And who you are is...”
“A autumn person,” Tony whispered.
Jarvis didn't understand. There was no light of comprehension in his eyes. Tony burrowed further into himself. Jarvis wasn't going to be able to help. Not with this.
The alcohol burned as it went down, but that was okay. It was a wet burn, a revivifying burn. It would wet the dust in his chest, set fire to the rot, bring the decay he carried inside him back to life.
“You like that, Stark boy?”
Tony smacked his lips and grinned easy at the much older boys around him. “Sure thing. Been drinking it for years anyway. Gotta kill some braincells to give you morons a fighting chance.”
The fraternity house erupted in a chorus of “oooooohhh!”s. A hundred hands rained down slaps on Tony's back, congratulating him on a job well done. Tony flipped messy hair out of his eyes and grinned, teeth clenched tight. If he kept his teeth closed, they couldn't see the worms fighting to slither out. The more alcohol he drank, the less he felt it himself.
Tony was fifteen and rotten on the inside.
Obie's hand was cold as he shook Tony's, wet from the rain drizzling down outside. Tony was sure his hand felt the same—he always had cold hands.
“I'm sorry about your parents, Tony. It's a huge loss: to the world, and to you. I can't even imagine.”
Tony's hand slipped from Obie's. His eyes turned dully to the graves in front of him, grey and wet and cold. Autumn leaves had already fallen over the graves, dead leaves. They'd rot into the ground on top of his parents. His parents would join the leaf, more slowly, but one day. One day they'd decay along with everything else, back into the damp, rotten ground.
“I hate to do this to you, Tony, but: we have to talk about the company. I know your dad named you on everything, but he never expected to leave it to you so young. If you want-”
Tony straightened his back and looked up at Obie for the first time. His face was round, cheeks and nose faintly red with the brisk autumn air.
“No.” Tony shook his head. His hair was plastered against his face. It was too long. Made him look young. He'd have to get it cut, tomorrow. “No. Dad wanted me to run Stark Industries: I can run it. I've spent enough time screwing around as it is.”
Obie sighed and pressed a heavy hand to Tony's shoulder. Its weight felt like it was pressing Tony down into the soft soil, into the earth next to his parents. “You're nineteen, kid. Don't feel you have to grow up just yet. Myself and the board can-”
“No. I can do it. I know the business already.” Tony's chest felt like the ground beneath his feet. Damp, squelching. Cold with death, moist with rotting things inside it.
Obie was wrong. Tony had already grown up. He'd always been grown up. He was an autumn person, he'd looked at the world too long. There was no childhood left to cling to—there had never been.
“I know you think you know the business, but it is a weapons company, son. Your father never shared the totality of what he did with you. There are decisions that will have to be made... are you sure you want to make those calls? There's no shame in turning it over to the board for a few years.”
Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.
“Obie, you know me: I'm a Stark. Starks can always make those calls.”
“You're putting too much faith in me,” Tony grumbled, half to himself. His words echoed softly in the damp cold of the cave.
At work beside him, Yinsen just shrugged. “Or perhaps others have always put too little,” he mused. “Perhaps they look too much at the outside. When it's what's inside that counts.”
The arc reactor weighed heavily inside Tony's chest, wound still raw, scars not yet fully formed. “Yeah, well: look what's inside of me.”
Yinsen glanced over at Tony, what dim light they had reflecting off his glasses' lenses, making his expression unreadable. Tony looked away. Now, his inside was how he'd always felt. Always knew he was. Cold, mechanical, unyielding. A clockwork heart, counting down the grave. Artificially extended life, like Mr. Dark's carousal. Tony had just miniaturized it. Stuck it in his chest, and now it went around and around and around, turning back time every day, stuttering over to pull Tony back through death's threshold. Over and over and over, around and around and around. October into November and back again, pulled out of the grave from one foot in. But not pulled far enough. Just on the edge, teetering. Never back to September, August, July. October to November to October again; graveside to grave to graveside. God forbid he ever left the graveyard.
The sound of a blast over his shoulder caught Tony's attention, dragging him backwards and around, head over ass over feet.
“Wasp, duck!” He fired his repulsors before Jan replied, trusting that she'd get out of the way. Hoping.
She did, dropping down just in time for Tony's repulsor blast to skim over her wings and hit the serpent society dunce straight in the chest. He went down with a shriek, body twitching spasmodically. Wasp fired Tony a salute and went after the fallen villain, hitting him with her own bio-blasts until he stayed down.
Afterwards, Jan skipped over to Tony and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him on both armored cheeks. He spun her around, her body light and easy in his arms even though she was grown back to full size. Even if he didn't have the suit on, he could have lifted her just the same. She was a tiny thing, Jan. Light as dandelion seeds on the breeze.
Except when he put her down and she pulled back, her hair was shining black, her eyes gleaming with dangerous excitement. Tony grinned back, even though she couldn't see it through his Iron Man mask. He recognized that feeling. He knew that soul.
“Day is won, bad guys done!” she sing-songed.
Tony laughed. “You know, you're not supposed to enjoy it so much. This is serious business, saving the world.” He knew the modulator made his voice deadpan. He waited a beat to see how Jan would react.
But she laughed again and hit Tony viciously on his metal shoulder, then winced and shook her hand out. “You jerk, Iron Man! Tony may pay you to be here, but don't tell me you wouldn't be doing the exact same thing for free.”
Hank started over to them, then, Serpent Society members successfully handed off to the police. Tony shushed Jan loudly, finger to his mouth-slit. “Shh. Don't let Hank hear you. He might think we're dangerous psychopaths.”
“We're all psychopaths for doing this,” Hank pointed out, not even close to joking. He rubbed the back of his neck as he watched the police handle the subdued supervillains. “But at least we're the not-breaking-the-law kind of psychopath.”
“Except those laws about vigilantism,” Jan pointed out.
Hank frowned. “Well, yes. Except those laws.”
Mock-seriously, Tony creaked over to Hank and pressed a heavy armored hand on his shoulder. “It's okay, Ant-Man. You're in the company of fellow crazies. Relax and enjoy yourself.”
Jan giggled and shrunk herself so she could flit up to Hank's shoulder like Tinkerbell. She stood on her tip-toes to give him a kiss on the cheek. “Don't stress it, blue eyes. We've all got a little rot on the inside if we decided to make a hobby of punching people. At least we're discriminatory in who we punch!”
Hank nodded. “No, I agree. No one in this line of work could be entirely sane. Or good.”
Tony nodded and grimaced beneath his mask. Most of us are half-and-half. The August noon in us works to stave off the November chills. He'd found his fellow autumn people at last. Turned out, they were just about everyone. He wasn't alone.
Tony pressed the back of his hand against Steve's forehead, feeling the heat radiating off him for a beat. Then he reached lower and pressed his hand to Steve's chest, just over his breastbone. Steve was grinning down at him, eyes laughing.
“You sure you're qualified for this, Mr. Stark?” he teased.
Taking a step back, Tony just shook his head. “I can't believe seventy years in the ice couldn't cool you down.”
Steve shrugged as he reached for his shirt. “I run hot anyway. After the serum, a girlfriend used to tell me I was a furnace in the winter time. Guess all that heat helped keep me alive. In a manner of speaking.”
“Bottled up summer beneath all that ice,” Tony mused.
And there, row upon row, with the soft gleam of flowers opened at morning, with the light of this June sun glowing through a faint skin of dust, would stand the dandelion wine. Peer through it at the wintry day—the snow melted to grass, the trees were reinhabited with bird, leaf, and blossoms like a continent of butterflies breathing on the wind. And peering through, color sky from iron to blue.
Tony looked down at his hand, imagining Iron Man's hand, the gauntlet of iron that covered the olive skin beneath. He clenched it tight, picturing the metal gleaming until it burned, then raised his eyes to look into Steve's. Steve's eyes: blue as the summer sky. Hair yellow like a dandelion. Spirit and smile dandelion wine, shining out through the darkness. Shining out at Tony, breaking over him like a wave of golden light. Like a shield.
On the medical table, Steve shivered. “Don't remind me. I don't remember much, but what little flashes I got are bad enough. Don't need to think on it any harder.”
“You know, we've got head-doctors now,” Tony told Steve. “People you can talk to if you're not feeling alright upstairs. There's no shame in going. Mental health care has improved a hell of a lot since you went under.”
Steve shook his head. “Nah. It's not as bad as all that. I've had a nightmare or two, but I'm not shell-shocked. Not that I can tell, at least. But I'll keep that in mind, if things ever get too cluttered up there.” Steve tapped his temple with a rueful grin.
Tony nodded. As long as Steve knew help was there if he wanted it, Tony couldn't very well do more than that. “Well, then in lieu of that, how's about I introduce you to something called a tanning bed.”
Steve's eyebrows shut up to his golden hairline. “A tanning bed?”
Tony winked. “Summer in a tube. The things I've got to show you, Captain Rogers...”
Steve laughed and hopped off the table. “Well then: after you, Mr. Stark.”
And if he should forget, the dandelion wine stood in the cellar, numbered huge for each and every day. He would go there often, stare into the sun until he could stare no more...
“You're all summer and sunshine, aren't you, Rogers?” Tony teased.
Steve laughed. “Well, I was born on the fourth of July.”
Tony's grin faltered, his heart skipping a beat. “No shit.”
Oh, you're nearer summer than me. Most of us are half-and-half. The August noon in us works to stave off the November chills. We survive by what little Fourth of July wits we've stashed away.
Steve rubbed the back of his head and shrugged one shoulder, abashed. “Everyone always thought it was a propaganda thing, but it's true.”
Tony laughed, if only to keep from crying, and shook his head. “Shoulda figured. Hot dogs and fireworks and cut grass, right? That's you.”
Steve shrugged. “Sure, I guess. But if you wanna get philosophical about it, well: that's all of us, isn't it? It's what we're fighting for. What I'm fighting for, at least. The bottles of summer we keep inside us, the goodness and light we all got in our hearts. I fight to protect that. To make sure kids don't lose it too soon, and that adults remember they've still got it inside them. Everyone does, if you dig deep enough.”
Tony's fingers drummed over his arc reactor, hidden beneath two undershirts and his business button-up. He thought about what was buried inside himself, if you dug deep enough. What was buried inside Jan and Hank and Bruce—Bruce's darkness buried less deep than some of the other's. And he looked at Steve Rogers, earnest and soft, pale-haired and wide-eyed. And he thought about what was buried inside Steve... and what wasn't. About the badness that Steve didn't have to bury, because it just wasn't in him. “Sure thing, Rogers,” he mumbled. “Sure thing.”
The first time Steve hugged Tony, hugged him in plainclothes without the smell of leather and armor oil covering up his scent, Tony almost cried. Stark Industries was going under, Tony's life and livelihood was collapsing around him like it was made of balsa wood. And not the balsa wood structures Tony had built in engineering competition when he was five—those could hold three thousand pounds. It was collapsing like balsa wood built by... by... by Clint, or someone equally as ignorant as to applied physics.
But Steve, Steve was there, and hugging him, and he smelled like... he smelled like summer. It was the dead of winter and Steve smelt like ozone and UV rays, like sunburn and sweat and skin. The heat radiated off his body and into Tony's, permeating through him, trying to touch the cold parts of himself, trying to heat him from the outside in, from Steve's inside out. Tony reached up under Steve's arms and grabbed his shoulders tight, holding him fast. Lucky Steve was in workout clothes and not something nicer, because Tony was certain he was wrinkling Steve's shirt beyond saving.
“You know I'm always here if you need me,” Steve told him. His breath was warm against Tony's ear, hot, damp like a summer thunderstorm rolling over the plains. Tony squeezed his eyes shut and hugged him harder. Steve's hand moved over Tony's back. “You were here for me. You were my first friend. You gave me... everything. So don't you dare let your pride get in the way and not ask for something if I can give it.”
Trembling, Tony pulled back. His skin felt cold, points that had been in contact with Steve now like ice, in the absence of his radiating heat. His eyes were dry, though. He hadn't expected them to be dry. “What if I need something you can't give me?” Tony asked. Because he was feeling rotten. Because he felt like an autumn person, because he felt self-destructive and dirty and evil. Because he was, from the inside out.
Steve's jaw tightened. “You tell me what it is, Tony. And I'll tell you if I can give it or not. Not the other way around.”
It would have been so easy. In that one moment, it would have been so easy to pull Steve down. Pull him down to Tony's level. Pull him down for a kiss. Pull him down and infect him, steal away his heat, drink up his sunshine, keep it all for himself.
But Tony wasn't that rotten. Not yet. So he shook his head and walked away, leaving Steve and his golden eyebrows frowning after him.
“I hate the cold.”
“Of course you do.” The words were out of Tony's mouth before he could think about them. Too late to take back.
But Steve laughed and misinterpreted Tony's meaning. “Right, sure: spend seventy years as a... What'd you call me? Capsicle? And that's sure to cool anyone's feelings towards cold, don't you think?”
Tony didn't tell Steve that his interment in the ice hadn't even crossed his mind.
Steve's hand reached down through the darkness, breaking through dirt and grime and concrete, bringing sunlight down with him. Tony gasped, systems chugging back online, hydraulics whirring in pathetic distress. He managed to lift one armored hand to Steve's catching hold. With the strength of no ordinary man, Steve took hold of Tony's gauntlet with both hands and heaved, hauling Tony out of the rubble. Tony was gasping, choking, squinting in the filtered sunlight that made it through the slit in his helmet without the glow of the HUD to dim it.
“Tony! Tony! You okay in there?”
Get it off, Tony screamed in his head. He didn't bother saying the words out loud. They'd only echo around his helmet, trapped by his handmade metal coffin, bouncing around his own ears.
Uselessly Tony struggled to lift one hand, even as Steve half-dropped, half-set him down on top of the rubble. Tearing his own cowl off, Steve's hands fluttered over Tony's armor, looking for the manual releases. Tony could do nothing but lie there and hope he remembered where they were.
There, on insides of his thigh. There, under his arms. Steve released the four catches, then fumbled for the final one under his chin. Fresh air and unfiltered sunlight poured into Tony's suit as it fell away from him. He winced and gasped a great big choking breath.
Steve hugged Tony tight to his chest, squeezing him too tight and just right. Tony wheezed in Steve's ear and he let up, but only just. “Sorry. Sorry. Saw you go down from a distance, couldn't get to you in time-”
“'m alright,” Tony promised him. His throat was dry with ash.
“Heart stopped in my chest, I swear.”
Tony coughed out something like a laugh. “Mine doesn't have that luxury.”
Steve pulled back abruptly, head turned down, fingers fumbling for Tony's arc reactor. His palm was big enough to cover the whole thing. He looked back up at Tony with big blue eyes. Living blue, blue like the sky. Not the artificial, cold blue of the arc reactor. “It's okay? You're okay?”
“Hunky dory,” Tony quipped.
“It's how I found you.” Steve's hand tightened over the arc reactor, fingerpads like smoldering embers against Tony's skin. “You glow in the dark.”
Some folks' polarities are negative, some positive. Some glow in the dark. Some snuff out.
Tony could choke on the irony. He coughed and looked away.
“Good thing, I guess.”
Steve gripped at Tony's chin, looking him too-seriously in the eyes. “I'll always find you, Tony. Just keep glowing.”
Steve growled as he ran a hand through his hair. He flicked at the tabletop display, fingers moving like he wanted to toss some papers aside, but there were none to toss. Tony's mouth twisted in sympathy.
“This is ridiculous!” Steve not-shouted.
“We're trying to help people.”
Steve shoved away from the table and started to pace the room, jaw working. Tony slumped against the display, eyes going over the documents he'd already memorized.
“They're going to keep us from funding this rehabilitation center because of... zoning laws?”
Tony shrugged. “They can do that, you know. As the government.”
“'Can' and 'should' are two different things,” Steve pointed out with a scowl. He stopped at the far side of the room, then started back towards Tony. “What if we just... talked to someone? Talked to the folks in charge of the zoning... commission, or whatever it is? Or started a petition? If we got the people on our side, got enough of them willing to fight for it...”
With his stomach sinking at the sight of Steve's optimism, Tony hated to point out: “The place is scheduled for demolition next week. They break ground on the gas station in two. It's New York City real estate, Steve. You can't win this fight.”
“There has to be some way. There's always a way. And we're doing something good. There's always a way when you're doing the right thing.”
Tony squinted down at the documents again, eyes roving over the names listed there. One of them was familiar. A trump card. But Steve wouldn't let him play it. If Tony told him about it.
“Sorry, Cap.” Tony's eyes slid away from the name. “There's nothing we can do.”
Some of the light dimmed in Steve's eyes, his skin losing a hint of its usual glow. He nodded, hair falling limply over his forehead. “Yeah. Okay. Well, thank you, Tony. Thanks for trying.”
“Sorry I couldn't do more,” Tony mumbled. The words were ash in his mouth.
The next day, Tony sat at lunch with the comptroller of New York City, John Davies. Without a word Tony slipped a piece of paper across the table at him.
Davies took the piece of paper, unfolded it, then set it back down.
“This is what you want to spend your favor on? Really?”
Tony stared over thousand-dollar sunglasses around the dimly lit restaurant. “It was my understanding that when I called in my favor, you wouldn't question it.”
Davies tucked the piece of paper into his inside jacket pocket. “I'm not. This is what you want, this is what you get. But this is your one. I hope it's worth it.”
Standing, Tony tossed two hundred bucks down on the table. He'd had a water. “Getting thousands of people the rehab they need is a fair trade for getting your little fuck-up baby boy out of trouble one time. My conscience rests easy.”
Jim knew every centimeter of his shadow, could have cut it out of tar paper, furled it, and run it up a flagpole—his banner.
Will, he was occasionally surprised to see his shadow following him somewhere, but that was that.
Steve's arm squeezed hard around Tony's shoulder, holding him close. “I don't know how you did it, mister, and I don't want to know. I'm just grateful.”
“Nothing illegal,” Tony promised as they supervised the first crews breaking ground on the rehabilitation center for superheroically wounded citizens. “I didn't even make any threats.”
“Well I'm glad you did whatever it was. This was worth it. Thank you, Tony. This is a real good thing you did. This is going to help a lot of people.”
Tony's shoulders were warm where Steve held him. He watched as the workmen labored under the brutal New York summer sun.
But there are times when we're all autumn people.
“Yeah,” he mumbled to himself. “It will.”
Tony hopped over the back of the couch, landing with a bounce next to Steve. “Watchya reading?” he asked.
Steve grunted and turned onto his back so he could look at Tony. He flashed the book at him. It was a familiar cover. “Something Wicked This Way Comes. You know, I thought I liked this Bradbury fella, but I don't know if I like this book.”
Tony tried to swallow but his throat was dry. “What?”
Nudging himself up onto his elbows, Steve gestured with the book in one big palm. “Well, you know I like all that New Wave science fiction...”
“You know it's not 'New Wave' since it happened forty years ago,” Tony pointed out, trying to joke.
Steve rolled his eyes and steamrolled ahead. “Well, and I liked some of Bradbury's other stuff. So I picked this one up, but he talks about this main boy Jim, the one with dark hair and eyes that never stop looking at the world, and he calls him bad. He says he's got the soul of an autumn person inside him.”
Tony was having a hard time breathing. His hand twitched to reach up and clutch at the arc reactor in his chest, but he forced himself to be still. For once, just to shut up and sit and listen.
“And he says,” Steve thumbed through the book, looking for the apparently contentious lines. “Well, here. He says that these November people are people who grew up too fast. But, and I'm disappointed because Bradbury's just about the same age as me, I knew plenty of kids like that. Ones who grew up fast. But they were the ones who had to, because of the depression. And they grew up too fast and looked at the world too much, but it wasn't their fault. And those ones, the ones who keep all that grief and worry close to their hearts, well, they're not bad. Not even close: they're some of the finest people I ever met.”
Tony's hand had come up to dig into his arc reactor, to pick out the circumference of it beneath his shirt. Steve was looking right at him, like he knew exactly what he was saying. But he couldn't. Steve couldn't know how much that meant to him. Steve couldn't know he was talking down Tony's greatest fears about himself. He couldn't know.
“Tony,” Steve whispered.
Setting the book aside on the coffee table, Steve crawled up onto his knees. Then he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Tony's shoulders, pulling him up. His mouth was hot as it covered Tony's, his breath warm. Tony found himself lifted into Steve's arms, surrounded by his heat. When Steve broke the kiss, Tony sat there, mouth faintly open, feeling Steve's heat dissipating like it always did. But more slowly this time, he thought.
Steve laughed and knocked his forehead against Tony's, fingers shaking as they stroked at his jaw.
“Sorry. Was that okay?”
Tony's cheek rubbed against Steve's, friction and warmth filling up his senses.
Steve's fingers fluttered at Tony's neck, then his shoulders, then his chest. They left little butterfly kisses of warmth wherever they touched.
“Wait. I mean, yes.” Tony shook his head to clear it. “Okay, number one: Yes. That's okay, that's great, but wait. Back up.”
Steve stared up at Tony incredulously, eyebrows raised into his hair. “Why do I feel like you're about to start a debate with me?”
“Just a little one. Then we can get our mack on, which, let me make clear again: very interested in.”
Steve's mouth silently formed the words “mack on?” But he didn't say anything aloud.
Tony continued. “Okay, point the second: How are you not included in the group of people who grew up too fast? You lived through the Great Depression, too.”
Steve laughed and shrugged. His hands ran trails of light up and down Tony's back like fireflies in the summertime. “I guess I was a... willfully naïve kinda kid. I wasn't stupid. I knew what was happening. I knew what people had to do, what I had to do to survive. But I just... thought my way out of it. Out of realizing how bad it all was. Things needed doing and I did them, but I never lost sight of the good within people. Of the joy of living. I just... I'm just...”
Tony sighed and leaned in, pressing his forehead to Steve's. “You're summer and sunshine, Rogers.”
Steve's nose nuzzled against Tony's. “Well then you can be crisp autumn air and pumpkin spice,” he countered. Then he kissed Tony again, and this time Tony returned the affection.
“You know, the more I think about it, the more I think I got it wrong the first time.”
Tony snuffled his face lazily into Steve's shoulder, eyes still glued shut with crusty sleep. “Hmm?”
Steve shifted beside him, sunshine of his skin moving away, then back, away, then back as he settled into a better position. His hand alighted on Tony's hair, stroking it like breeze through grass growing wild. “Bradbury. I think I was wrong about Something Wicked.”
A month ago, a year ago, a lifetime ago, Tony might have tensed. Might have thought that this was it, the jig was up: Steve had realized the rot buried deep in his chest, the snake that spoke through Tony's tongue, the ashes that spilled from his mouth. But some of Steve's sunshine must have worn off on Tony, must have crawled inside and taken up permanent residence, because Tony wasn't worried. Steve wasn't going to condemn him. Steve knew him, inside and out. And Steve loved him, autumn person or not.
“Do you want to be Jim?” Tony mumbled against Steve's skin. He tasted like peanut butter. Somehow he always tasted faintly of peanut butter. Salty-sweet.
“No. You're still Jim.”
“Because I've got black hair and a penchant for mad experiments that get me half-killed?” Tony teased.
“Because you're always running ahead,” Steve replied seriously.
“Mm. How were you wrong?”
“I don't think Bradbury was condemning Jim. Or the autumn people.”
“You don't, do you?”
“He couldn't have been. Not if he knew anything worth knowing. Because Jim's... without Jim, there'd be no Will.”
Rousing himself a little more as behooved the seriousness of the conversation, Tony pushed himself out from under Steve's hands and sat up. Looking Steve in the eye, Tony asked: “You don't think Jim kept Will down? Made him less than the good he could have been?”
Steve shook his head. “Without Jim, Will would have never gone as far as he did. Run as fast as he did. Climbed as high as he did. Will's milquetoast without Jim.”
Tony flushed and pressed his face into Steve's neck to hide from the compliment. “Will's not milquetoast,” he reassured him.
Steve's arms came up to wrap around Tony's back, holding him close. “Sure he is. And even if he isn't: he'd never had done half the good things he did, like destroying the carousel and defeating Mr. Dark, without Jim charging ahead-”
“-straight into danger,” Tony pointed out.
“Straight to the people needing saving. The evil needing undoing.”
Tony nibbled on Steve's neck, his shoulder. “If you say so.”
Why are some people all grasshopper fiddlings, scrapings, all antennae shivering, one big ganglion eternally knotting, slip-knotting, square-knotting themselves? They stoke a furnace all their lives, sweat their lips, shine their eyes and start it all in the crib. Caesar's lean and hungry friends. They eat the dark, who only stand and breathe.
And the others?
Some boys walk by and you cry, seeing them. They feel good, they look good, they are good. Oh, they're not above peeing off a bridge, or stealing an occasional dime-store pencil sharpener; it's not that. It's just, you know, seeing them pass, that's how they'll be all their life; they'll get hit, hurt, cut, bruised, and always wonder why, why does it happen?
But the first, now, he knows how it happens, he watches for it happening, he sees it start, he sees it finish, he licks the wound he expected, and never asks why: he knows . He always knew. His body knows.
God, how we get our fingers in each other's clay. That's friendship, each playing the potter to see what shapes we can make of the other.