It was no secret that Tony Stark didn’t understand Steve Rogers.
Captain America and Iron Man worked well together. They could make plans in the field and adapt to evolving situations better than anyone else. It was like they had been fighting together their entire lives. They could neutralize and contain threats with breathtaking efficiency. Captain America knew how to take out an enemy’s defenses, allowing Iron Man to swoop in and contain them. Iron Man was very effective at distracting enemies and luring them away, allowing Cap to get in, get the civilians out, and get the job done. They had perfect timing. They even talked in shorthand on the comms, finishing each other’s sentences, putting plans into motion that had barely been verbalized. Cap called the play, Iron Man worked out the kinks as they went, and New York found itself breathing a little easier with superheroes in the city, despite the public concern after the Battle of New York.
But when the dust settled, when the debriefings were over and everyone went home, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers struggled to find common ground on which to base a friendship. Tony had invited the other Avengers to live in the tower after the Battle of New York, and one by one they had trickled in. Bruce had come first, concerned about his reception but delighted to find his own lab with a small apartment attached — a place for him to finally call home. Next came Natasha and Clint, a paired set who had found it difficult to settle back into SHIELD, knowing what they did about the decision the World Security Council had made to nuke Manhattan to save the world and their own colleagues who had followed the orders to deploy the bomb. The other agents at SHIELD were also uncomfortable around Clint, given the role he had played thanks to Loki. So he and Natasaha moved into the tower. They had settled on their own floor but spent most of their time in the common area.
Clint and Natasha were the ones who had really made the tower into a home and the Avengers into a family of sorts. They cooked dinner and harassed Tony and Bruce into eating with them on a somewhat regular schedule. Natasha would do yoga and meditate with Bruce, while Clint played video games with Tony. They both made Tony spar with them, sometimes to help his technique and other times to help him blow off some steam. Somehow, the two SHIELD agents pulled the other two out of their respective comfort zones and into the common area.
It had been a long time since Tony had had friends, if he had ever really had them in the first place. Sure, there were Pepper and Rhodey, but they had never settled into each other’s lives the way that Natasha, Clint, and Bruce had settled into his. Pepper travelled for SI, and that was an easy excuse as their relationship slowly crumbled, never to recover after she’d watched him go into the wormhole. She wasn’t able cope with the stress of wondering if he would come home, wondering if that missed call was the last she’d ever get from him, wondering if she’d find out about the death of Iron Man on the news. Rhodey had his other obligations as well, and while they came back together as if he’d never been gone, he was certainly gone a lot in between those times.
Tony was surprised to find he enjoyed the company the others provided. Bruce was an intellectual companion he hadn’t realized he’d been craving, while Natasha and Clint provided a level of silliness that helped break up the monotony and seriousness that made up most of his waking hours. He also appreciated the fact that they didn’t push him for things he wasn’t ready to give up. If he had a shitty board meeting, he could come home and watch TV with his head in Natasha’s lap or go shoot things at the range with Clint. They didn’t demand answers or explanations. In fact, most of the time they took one look at him and suggested a distraction. They were the source of hot cups of coffee or sandwiches in the lab, movies nights on the common floor, and a stability in his life he hadn’t even known he wanted.
And then Steve Rogers arrived.
Initially, Tony had invited him just like the others, but instead of taking him up on the offer, Steve had decided to ride his motorcycle across the country. Tony got it — he really did. The guy had passed out while crashing a plane into the North Atlantic during World War II and woken up in the 21st century. He had trouble coming up with a single thing that wasn’t profoundly changed from the life Steve had known before.
But Jesus. It was like the guy wasn’t even trying.
Tony provided him with everything. A home, food, clothes, electronics — anything the guy might have needed, and a bunch of stuff that he probably didn’t even know he might want. And if there was something he did want that Tony hadn’t provided, Tony had made it very clear that all Steve had to do was ask. But instead, it was like Steve was constitutionally incapable of asking for anything, and it drove Tony absolutely crazy. Steve was also silent and awkward, reluctant to embrace the future and all of the wonders it held. No matter what Tony did to try to welcome him to the tower, it was always the wrong thing.
Tony knew, intellectually, that it wasn’t Steve’s fault, but it still felt like he’d ruined a good thing.
One afternoon, he came into the common area after working down in his workshop. He was in an excellent mood — the upgrades for the Stark OS were coming along nicely, and Pepper had told him that there were a couple of green energy contracts that they were close to signing. He was two weeks out from his last board meeting with at least three weeks until the next one, and for once it was looking like he might have some good news for them. He was even caught up on his paperwork for Pepper and had answered all his critical emails. He wandered into the kitchen in the common area to make himself a smoothie — he was even being responsible and feeding himself without Jarvis having to remind him, thank you very much — and then wandered out to the living area to find Steve on the couch, Ella Fitzgerald crooning in the background.
“Whatcha up to, Cap?” Tony asked, settling onto the other end of the couch.
Steve looked up, startled, and Tony was a little startled himself when he leaned closer to see what Steve was doing. He had a large needle in one hand and a sock, of all things, in the other. The needle was threaded with heavy navy thread, almost but not quite the same shade as the sock. Steve had shoved something in the heel of the sock, giving it a rounded shape and accentuating the hole in the heel. He’d used the thread to cover the hole with a series of parallel stitches, left loose so that the heel of the sock retained its shape, and was now about halfway through weaving stitches running perpendicular to the first set he’d made.
“Are —“ Tony had to stop for a moment, unable to get the words out for possibly the first time in his life. “Are you fixing that sock?”
Steve immediately flushed, the redness creeping out from under the collar of his t-shirt onto the back of his neck. “It’s called darning,” he said, and Tony could see the muscle twitching in his jaw, it was clenched so tightly.
“Wait,” Tony said, and he scooted closer, peering around Steve to find a pile of socks stacked neatly by his thigh with skeins of almost-matching thread sitting next to the socks. “Are you fixing all of these socks?”
“They’re fine — they just need a little touching up,” Steve replied, looking over at them.
Tony rubbed a hand over his face, closing his eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he muttered to himself. He opened his eyes and snatched the pile of socks before taking the one in Steve’s hands. “Jarvis, will you please order the good Captain some more socks? Have them delivered by tomorrow.”
Tony stood, and Steve rose with him, his eyes wide and a little wild. “You don’t have to do this,” Tony said, gesturing with the socks. “You can buy as many pairs of socks as you want. Hell, you can fill up your closet with them for all I care.” He crossed the room towards the island that separated the kitchen from the living area, with Steve following close behind him.
“Wait —“ Steve said as Tony dumped all of the socks, including the one Steve had been working on with the needle still attached and the darning egg inside, in the trash.
“See? No problem,” Tony said, offering a smile. “Do you need some new boxers too?”
Steve just looked back, his mouth slightly open. After a moment, he closed it and looked away, his expression closing off. “You didn’t have to do that,” he said.
“No problem, big guy,” Tony said, patting Steve on the shoulder as he passed by, headed back towards the couch. “Any time.”
A few weeks later, Tony noticed a pattern of behavior with Steve that he found odd. Jarvis was the first to clue him in, after making the observation to Tony that Steve would wait to place a grocery order until he was out of food. Tony had Jarvis track Steve’s food orders, and he found that the super soldier seemed to prefer pre-packaged food that would last a long time. It seemed a strange choice because, when he looked at the data Bruce maintained on each Avenger, Steve’s performance subtly improved after he ate with the team, whose meals usually were freshly prepared from scratch with raw ingredients.
In hindsight, Tony realized it was a little invasive. But his curiosity was piqued, and at his core, he was a scientist who made observations, developed hypotheses, and then tested them. And boy did he learn some things he didn’t expect.
Steve’s food consumption ran on cycles. Right after his grocery deliveries, he ate by himself in his apartment. His calorie consumption was high, mostly made up of pre-packaged foods high in fats and refined carbohydrates. He usually gained some weight during this time, mostly in fat stores — not enough to be noticeable to the people around him but enough that it formed an inflection point when Jarvis graphed it. As his grocery supplies dwindled, he first cut his calorie consumption and dropped the weight. He then started eating more in the kitchen of the common area, often with the other Avengers. As this food was generally fresher and overall healthier with less fat and fewer refined carbohydrates, his weight stabilized with the fat stores dropping and his muscle mass increasing. Once his own kitchen was empty, he ate food exclusively from the common area kitchen, sometimes sneaking it back to his own apartment. During this time, he cut his calorie intake even further, and his weight dropped, both in fat stores and muscle mass. After about a week of this, he’d finally place a grocery order with Jarvis. Once his groceries were delivered, the cycle started over again.
But that wasn’t the only thing. Once Tony had tracked data on this for two cycles, he had Jarvis make observations about Steve’s performance. It would slightly improve at the beginning, when he was cooking for himself. It would then drastically improve during the time he was eating both in the common area and in his own kitchen. It then dropped off once he cut his calories and only ate the food from the common area. His mood and sleeping also followed the same trend. It got to the point where Tony could tell almost with only a question and a glance where Steve was in his eating and cutting calories cycle.
He tried to talk to Steve about it. Casually. “Uh, you know you can order groceries whenever you want?” Tony asked Steve one day when they were in the common kitchen, both helping to prepare dinner. “And order anything you want.”
“Hmm?” Steve said, glancing up.
Natasha and Clint were behind Steve, and Tony didn’t miss the look they shared. “You can just ask Jarvis. He’ll take care of it for you.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Steve answered. “Do you not want me here?” He added, glancing behind him to the others. Bruce had also paused in cutting up vegetables, now paying attention to their conversation.
“That’s not what Tony means,” Natasha said. “Is it, Tony?”
“Of course not!” Tony replied. “I just want you to know you can get whatever you want. If you like the fresh stuff we keep down here, get enough for your floor too. I’m sure you have to eat a lot to keep up with the serum and all that. Besides, you get cranky when you cut your chow.”
The bustle in the kitchen ground to a halt, and Tony realized a moment too late that he probably shouldn’t have added that last part. “When I do what?” Steve asked. He had been laying out rolls to put out in the oven, but his hands had stilled, frozen mid-motion over the baking sheet.
“When you cut your intake. You get hangry.”
“I don’t cut my intake,” Steve answered. He looked first at Bruce then back at Natasha and Clint. “Do I?”
“I can’t say I’ve been paying attention,” Bruce said, and the other two nodded in agreement.
“Maybe I’m wrong,” Tony said, wanting soulfully to change the subject as quickly as possible.
“Sir has found that your eating habits run on a 5.2 week cycle, mostly based on when you order groceries, during which you fluctuate your weight, calorie intake, exercise, fat and muscle mass, the types of food you eat, where you eat, and whom you eat with. This seems to affect the amount of time you spend with everyone else on the common floor, your physical performance, your mood, and your sleep,” Jarvis provided.
Tony found that his mouth was open but, lacking any idea whatsoever on what to say after that, he closed it. Four pairs of eyes turned towards him. Steve slowly put down the roll in his hand and braced both hands on the counter, causing his shoulders to bunch up. He hung his head, staring down before asking pointedly, “Do you track this information on everyone?”
“I —“ Tony started, only to realize there was no good answer to that question. “Look, I just want you to be happy here. Now. Whatever.” He stopped, squeezing his eyes closed for a moment. He opened them, asking, “Is there something I should be doing to help you more? Set up your groceries on a schedule so they just come? Add the stuff we keep down here to your order so you have them in your kitchen too?”
The silence seemed to stretch on for an eternity, so he added a little desperately, “Do you want more socks?”
“No, I’m okay,” Steve answered softly. “I don’t think I’m very hungry anymore though.” He stepped away from the counter, the rolls forgotten, and Tony watched as he walked away, disappearing into the stairwell to go down to his floor.
Natasha rounded on him as soon as the door closed, but Tony held up his hands in placation before she could say anything. “I swear, I was only trying to help,” he said. “I know he grew up during the Depression and probably went hungry a lot. I don’t want him to feel like he needs to do that here. I can see now how this looks. I got a little caught up in the data. It’s pretty interesting, and I never expected to find — but that’s obviously not the point,” he hastily said as Natasha began to move towards him. “I’ll figure out something to make it up to him.”
Natasha’s expression softened at that. “Now would be a good time,” she said, gesturing towards the stairs.
“Yeah,” Tony said, “now.” He walked over to the elevator and hit the button. While the elevator was moving, he tried to come up with something to say, but nothing came to him. The doors opened out into the living area of Steve’s apartment. Jarvis must have warned Steve he was coming, but he didn’t turn around when the elevator softly dinged and Tony stepped out.
Soft instrumental jazz was playing over the speakers, and Steve was standing by the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over Manhattan. He was facing east, where the top of the Chrysler building dominated the view. Tony walked over, a little apprehensive about what to say. He came up even with Steve, who didn’t turn to face him, but kept some distance between them. “Look, Steve, I —“
“Did you know, I can remember them building the Chrysler building?” Steve said, cutting him off. “I was ten years old when they finished it. It was a race between the Empire State building and the Chrysler building. I was secretly glad it won, because I thought it was much prettier. It was the tallest building in the world for almost a year, until they finished the Empire State building.”
“I — I didn’t know that,” Tony said. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked out the window, trying to imagine what the skyline looked like to Steve, who had known a very different New York City than the one before them now.
“At least some things haven’t changed,” Steve offered.
“I guess so,” Tony replied. He sighed and turned to Steve, who still looked out over the city. “I’m sorry, Steve,” he said. “I was trying to help — I really was — but I see how it was kind of invasive.”
“You’re not wrong, though. I do sometimes cut how much I eat.”
“See, Pepper tells me it’s not really an apology if I focus on being right,” Tony answered, trying for some levity.
“It’s a habit, I guess. Just — just let it go, okay?” Steve said finally. “There’s a lot of stuff about this century I haven’t gotten used to — I don’t understand, and I guess I will eventually. I don’t have much of a choice, do I? But I don’t need it pointed out to me all the time.”
“If there’s anything I can do to help —” Tony trailed off.
“There’s not,” Steve said, saving Tony the need to find an appropriate end to that sentence.
After that, Tony did his best to stay out of Steve’s way. He had Jarvis tacitly track what Steve preferred to eat in the common area and order it with his groceries, but they didn’t discuss it further and Tony didn’t personally monitor it. Tony also had Jarvis stop tracking any other information about Steve. He began to work through dinner to give Steve some space. He dumped all of the information Jarvis had collected about Steve’s eating habits into Bruce’s data files and wiped it from his own.
It probably would have continued that way indefinitely had he not gotten sick. The cold had started out innocently enough — they always did. Tony found himself getting a little short of breath doing the heavy lifting that some of his design work required, especially for the suit. The pleuritic chest pain followed, and Tony found it harder to take deep breaths. By that point, he knew where this was headed. At least once or twice a year, he got pneumonia. Usually a round of antibiotics cleared it right up, but sometimes he needed some oxygen to help get him through. The arc reactor, in addition to keeping the shrapnel out of his heart, took up a lot of space that used to be occupied by his lungs, and that diminished capacity meant that his lungs couldn’t always keep up, especially when he had an infection.
The cough followed a few days after the shortness of breath and pleuritic chest pain, accompanied by a fever. Bruce took one look at him that afternoon and made him go to the medical facility within the Stark Tower for a chest x-ray. It was no surprise he had pneumonia in his bilateral lower lobes. The doctor wanted him to stay overnight for nebulizer treatments, breathing exercises to try to re-expand his lungs, IV antibiotics, and supplemental oxygen. Tony wanted to refuse — he always did — but he knew, at least in this case, the pneumonia would get worse before it got better if he did. He agreed to one night, the deal they always struck, and settled in.
Tony must have fallen asleep, because he woke to a dark room with a shape hunkered down in the chair beside the bed. He clicked on the soft indirect lights and found Steve there. Steve was leaned over in the chair, his head in his hands with his elbows on his knees. When the light turned on, Steve looked up, and Tony was shocked to find that he looked terrible. His face was pale with dark circles under his eyes. His expression was neutral, but Tony could see an emotion in his eyes that he was hard pressed to describe as anything but terror.
“What are you doing here?” Tony asked, the question softened by his tone.
“Nat told me you have pneumonia,” he answered after a moment. “She said that you have medications to treat it now.” He hesitated again, and the statement was almost a question. “I just needed to see for myself you were okay.”
Tony waved away his concern. “I’m fine. The doctor usually makes me stay overnight — get some IV antibiotics in me, a little oxygen. I’ll be back to driving you crazy tomorrow.” The last statement was supposed to be a joke, but it fell flat as Tony caught the worry in Steve’s eyes as he took in the clear plastic bag containing Zosyn hanging above the IV pump and the tubing connecting Tony to the oxygen valve on the wall.
“Here,” Tony said, digging out the monitor in the pocket of his pajama pants — he always insisted on pants when they made him stay — and hit the button to activate it. It showed his heart rate, last blood pressure, EKG tracing, and oxygen saturation in brightly colored numbers and lines. “See? Perfectly normal. A phrase no one has ever applied to me, I can promise you.”
Steve took the monitor, which was dwarfed in his large hands, and inspected the numbers as though they would suddenly shift to worrisome levels.
“I can have the doctor come talk to you if that’ll make you feel better,” Tony offered.
Steve’s expression twisted. “No thanks,” he said. “They just tell you everything’s going to be fine, even when you know it’s not.”
Tony was a little surprised at the vehemence in the statement. “I don’t think they’re allowed to do that.”
“Look, I know we’re not very close,” Steve said, “but if you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk to the doctor and just stay here. It’ll make me feel better. It’s not like I’ll sleep if I go back to my room anyway, knowing you’re here.”
Tony shrugged and leaned back, shooting for nonchalance. “Sure, if you prefer.”
Steve also sat back in the chair, although he didn’t look very comfortable. “Sleep well, I guess,” Tony said as he clicked the lights back off.
It was a long night. Now that he knew Steve was there, Tony had a hard time falling back asleep. With the lights off, it was hard to see Steve in the dark, but Tony could hear every rustle and shift in the chair, every breath and sigh. He even heard a hitched breath at one point that sounded suspiciously like a sob. But Tony didn’t ask, and Steve didn’t offer an explanation. It didn’t happen again.
Tony fell back asleep sometime in the early morning when the light outside was starting to turn gray. When he woke again, it was still early morning. Steve had dozed off in the chair and was slumped down, his chin propped on his hand, which in turn was supported at the elbow by his other arm crossed tightly over his chest. Tony’s breathing already felt easier, the pleuritic pain better. He pulled the oxygen off to see what it did to his saturations.
He came back awake with a jolt to find Steve shaking him by the shoulder. An alarm was pinging in the background, but all of Tony’s attention was on Steve, who looked wholly and totally panicked. “— to wake up, Tony,” Steve was saying frantically when Tony was able to track his words, “your oxygen is low, you said you’d be okay —”
Tony grabbed Steve’s wrist to get him to stop, but it was no use with the super strength. “It’s okay, Steve,” he said, and he fumbled around in the sheets until he came up with the nasal cannula. Tony popped it back into his nose, looping it behind his ears. He then pulled the monitor back out. The saturations — conveniently in blue — were at 83%. Steve sat heavily on the bed next to Tony, and they watched together as the numbers came up until it was at 98%. “See? Good as new.”
Steve took a few deep, shuddering breaths, running a hand over his face. “I thought I would feel better being here,” he said, “but I — I don’t think I can do this.” He stood and took a few unsteady steps towards the door before he half-turned, his body partially towards Tony but his head still facing away. “I’m sorry.” His bulk blocked out the light from the hall for a moment, and then he was gone.
“What the fuck was that all about?” Tony said quietly to himself in the empty room.
Steve seemed to make his own concerted effort to stay away from Tony as well after that. Tony made a full recovery as expected, back to his usual health a few weeks later when an assemble call came for the Avengers. When they arrived at Central Park, they were surprised to find a blue giant freezing the Lake and trees.
With it was Loki.
“Son of a bitch,” Tony swore as he swooped around. “I don’t suppose he brought Thor with him too?” He hovered about a hundred feet in the air while the others stood on the ground.
“I’m not seeing him,” Clint answered over the comms. “Wasn’t he supposed to go to Asgard prison?”
“Maybe he escaped,” Natasha answered.
“All right,” Steve said. “Let’s try to lure it back towards the water so that the NYPD can do evac of the rest of the park. Hulk is the closest to its size — maybe he can help knock it down so we can subdue it more easily.”
“Smash!” Hulk agreed, running towards the giant.
Clint whipped out an arrow and shot it in front of the giant. The arrow exploded, and the giant reared back, taking a few steps back towards the water, before roaring in irritation. “Nice job, Clint. You can help Hulk keep the giant near the Lake. The rest of us will try to get to Loki while doing what we can about the giant. I have the feeling that getting a hold of Loki will give us the key to getting rid of the giant,” Steve said.
“Does anyone else feel like Loki’s not really trying with only one giant?” Tony asked.
“Are you complaining about that?” Natasha shot back.
“Wait,” Steve said, cutting off their bickering. “He’s near the Bethesda Fountain. Where we sent him back with Thor.”
“That can’t be good,” Tony said. “Loki doesn’t strike me as being sentimental.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is vindictive,” Clint answered.
Tony made a circuit around the terrance but didn’t see any other threats. He nailed his superhero landing in front of Loki and didn’t even destroy the brick. He also had the feeling that that was the last time things were going to go well for him.
“It’s hard to miss you if you’re never gone,” he said to Loki.
Loki turned to him, his smile wide. “Man of Iron, as my brother likes to say,” he replied. “It’s been too long.”
“See, that’s the opposite of what I just said,” Tony said with a roll of his eyes. He raised his hands, the repulsers humming as they charged. “What’s the deal? What do you want, and why’d you bring your little friend?”
“A relative, actually,” Loki said. He spread his arms wide. “He had a yearning to see Midgard, and who am I to deny him?”
Tony glanced over his shoulder to see the giant’s blue head above the trees between the terrance and the docks. It was staggering backwards, a few steps away from overbalancing and falling into water. It was still destroying the tops of the trees with great sweeps of its arms.
“Yeah, we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on that one.” Tony looked back to find Loki still grinning at him.
“And what of you and your new makeshift family? I hear that all is not as picturesque as it could be.” Loki tsk’ed at him and smirked. “Adoptions are tough — I should know.”
Tony felt his stomach drop. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said. “We’re clearly a group of high-functioning, very well adjusted, very dangerous adults who happen to live in the same place. It’s practically Leave it to Beaver with highly trained assassins. We’re leaving our options open to having our own reality show.”
“That’s not what Thor tells me — and he gets his information from Heimdall, so I’m sure it’s correct.” Loki was still smirking as he crossed his arms over his chest.
“Why would he talk to you about us?” Tony said, unable to keep the incredulity out of his voice.
“Spoken as an only child,” Loki said. “Thor still misses his brother, the companion of his childhood. We used to be inseparable.”
“Well, prison will do that,” Tony said. He lifted his hands a little higher. “If I blast you now, what’s the likelihood we can subdue your weird, poorly socialized cousin over there?”
“No, I don’t think so, Stark,” Loki said. He shifted his hands to his chest, cupping them. A green light started to form between his palms. “I know you’re used to working alone. Perhaps you could use a little perspective. A little more understanding. An opportunity to get to know your teammates a little better.”
“Uh, guys? I could use a little back-up,” Tony sub-vocalized over the comms, feeling panic start to rise within him.
“Almost there,” Steve called.
Tony took a few steps back from Loki, dropping his hands to fire the repulsers and take off. At the same time, Loki ripped his hands apart and made a throwing gesture. The green ball of light launched towards Tony. Loki had aimed a little high, but when Tony took off, the green light hit him square in the arc reactor. The last thing he saw before the world exploded into green light was Steve jumping down from the elevated part of the terrace, his arm extended as his shield left his hand.
Tony crash landed and tumbled into a brick wall. He groaned and lay motionless for a moment, trying to catch his breath. It took another moment for him to realize that the landing had been especially hard because the suit was gone. He was dressed only in his long-sleeved undershirt, a pair of black athletic pants, and tennis shoes. Tony pushed himself up and braced his arm on the brick wall, letting the dizziness pass. His arms were covered in scrapes, and he brushed his palms off on his pants.
Once his head felt a little better, he looked around him. He seemed to be in an alley, but the asphalt looked wrong to him. The air also smelled strange to him — a mix of exhaust and smoke that was unfamiliar. Tony made his way out to the end of the alley and cursed quietly.
There were cars on the street, but they were also all wrong — the bodies too boxy, no seatbelts to be seen, all of them jerking as they were shifted from gear to gear, the exhaust black from the tail pipes. Tony looked down the street to see the buildings, most of which were brick. They were all too short. He could see a few billboards, all of which looked cartoony to him with the same bright color palettes. One was even for cigarettes.
He felt dizzy again, although this time it was because the dawning realization that Loki had sent him to another time — and maybe even another place. Tony squatted down, bracing his back on the brick wall at the entrance to the alley, and put his head in his hands.
He was so fucked.
“Hey — are you okay?” a familiar voice asked him.
Tony braced himself and looked up to find Steve Rogers peering at him with a combination of concern and weariness.
It wasn’t the Steve Rogers he knew. This was the five foot, four inches, ninety-five pound man with a laundry list of medical problems that would prevent him from enlisting in the US military in the future. Tony could hear him wheezing softly even from the distance he was away. His clothes were clean but worn, and he looked tired. Tony found himself staring, at a loss.
“Buddy?” Steve prompted.
“Sorry,” Tony ground out, trying to stand up. He staggered, and Steve grabbed his arm to keep him from crashing back into the wall. “I just — had a shock,” he said. His head was suddenly throbbing, and he put a hand to his forehead. He glanced down only to realize it showed the scrapes all up and down his arm.
Steve narrowed his eyes and turned Tony’s other arm over, taking in the scrapes on that arm and palm before looking back up at his face. “You look like someone kicked your ass,” he replied.
Tony laughed, and it sounded a little hysterical even to him. “You know, that’s not that far off,” he replied.
Steve looked him over again before asking, “What are you even wearing?”
Tony swallowed. “Guy took my shirt,” was the only response he could come up with.
Steve just shook his head. “Even that’s never happened to me,” he muttered under his breath. “You live around here?”
“You won’t believe it, but I just got off the train. Got in from,” Tony floundered for a moment, before thinking of Barton and blurting out, “Iowa. Iowa City.” He looked down the alley and back again before grimacing. “Guy must have taken my luggage too,” he added.
Steve sighed. “I suppose you don’t have anywhere to go? Any family?”
“Uh,” Tony said. Howard was, of course, in New York City before the war. But that would be even more awkward than this. Not to mention how in the hell he would convince the industrialist he was family and not some person trying to make a quick buck off him? Howard would probably shoot him on sight. “No.”
“Bucky’s going to kill me,” Steve said with a shake of his head, “but I can’t just leave you here like this. Want to come to my apartment and get cleaned up?”
Tony ran through his options, which were pretty limited. He could refuse, but he had no money, no normal clothes, and nowhere to go. Or he could go with Steve and continue to have the most awkward experience of his life to date — which was really saying something — and figure out a plan from there.
Really, there wasn’t much of a choice.
Tony didn’t even have to play up his relief and said, “That would be great.”
“I’m Steve Rogers,” he said, sticking out his hand. “You gotta name, pal?”
Tony took his hand, feeling a complicated mix of reassurance, confusion, and wonder at this second chance. Steve’s hand was thin and small, and Tony could feel the bones gently come together as he squeezed. But Steve’s grip was firm and confident, if not strong. “Tony Stark,” he answered, and his hand came away with a smudge of graphite from Steve’s.
They made small talk while they walked towards Steve’s apartment. Tony made up a cover story on the fly, telling Steve he was a mechanic who had moved to Brooklyn looking for work, as there was none to be had in Iowa. Steve explained that he worked as a freelance artist in the area, leaving out the part where he only worked when he was well enough. He went on to tell Tony about his roommate, Bucky, who was a sheet metal worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Steve explained that he worked the night shift and would be asleep at the apartment.
Steve stopped in front of one of the buildings, a five-story building with a bakery on the street level. He stepped into the doorway next to the entrance to the bakery and led the way up the staircase to the fourth floor. Tony could tell he was struggling, as his wheezing became more audible, but there was no reasonable way to suggest they take a break on the staircase.
He unlocked the apartment, and the door opened into a small kitchen with some cabinets and a counter along the inside wall forming a corner with another partial wall that divided the kitchen from whatever was on the side. In the corner was the sink, and across the room was a coal fired boiler. There was a window at the end of the kitchen, overlooking the street below, and a small room with a closed door on the other side of the partial wall that Tony assumed was the toilet. In the open space across from the counter and partial wall was a table with four mismatched chairs pushed underneath and some letters on top.
Steve made his way through the living room, which boasted a truly sad couch with a couple of afghans thrown over the back pushed against the inside wall. There was another window across from the couch that looked down onto an alley and a radio in the corner. The next room boasted another window looking over the alley, a drafting table nearby to take advantage of the light, and an empty easel. There were some partially finished drawings on the drafting table, as well as some pencils, an eraser, and pieces of charcoal. A stool was tucked underneath, and next to the table on the floor was a milk carton of art supplies. Steve put his finger to his lips and gestured for Tony to wait.
He disappeared into what must have been the bedroom, and Tony heard a deep voice rumble inarticulately with Steve’s slightly higher response. Steve reappeared with a cake of soap and a small towel. He shepherded Tony back through the living room into the kitchen. “There’s a bath in the hallway, but the water’s always cold,” Steve said, handing Tony the soap and towel. “Sink too, if you need it. Toilet’s off the kitchen — there’s a sink in there as well. I’ll leave the door cracked, so you can just come back in when you’re done. I have some work to do here. Just be quiet when you come back in — I don’t want to wake Buck.”
Tony found himself in the hallway alone, soap in one hand and the towel in the other. He looked back at the door, just barely open as promised. “Damn it, Loki,” he whispered to himself. He made his way down the hallway to the common bath, where a tub sat towards the wall on the tiled floor with a chair to one side and a sink to the other. Everything looked in need of a good scrub — or maybe just fewer people using it every day. There were four apartments on the floor, and Tony guessed that anywhere between eight to fourteen people or more might use it on any given day.
He filled the sink up with cold water and stripped out of his long-sleeved shirt and gray undershirt, both of which were dirty and sweaty. The arc reactor glowed reassuringly from his chest, and Tony couldn’t help but tap his fingers against it. He did his best to rinse out his shirts, making as much lather as he could with the soap in the water. He cleaned them and hung them over the edge of the tub, hoping they would dry quickly.
He cleaned up his arms, gently wiping the debris out of the scrapes and the dirt off his hands and arms. Steve hadn’t been lying; the water was improbably cold despite the nice weather outside, and Tony found goosebumps over his arms and chest. He then drained the water out of the sink basin and refilled it. He washed his face and then sat on the edge of the tub, putting his head in his hands.
Loki had sent him back to the Great Depression, some time towards the end judging by Steve’s age. Tony couldn’t fathom why, although he supposed it didn’t really matter. He did find it hard to believe, however, that it was random chance that Steve had come upon him moments later. What was it that Loki had said?
A chance to know your teammates better.
Part of his mind rebelled against the thought. This version of Steve was not his teammate, nothing like him. His Steve was big and strong, taking up space in ways far beyond just his bulk. His Steve had been the leader of the Howling Commandos, successfully completing countless missions that helped bring down Hydra. His Steve had put the Valkyrie into the water and helped win the war.
But the other part of his mind knew that was all a bunch of bullshit. This Steve also took up more space than he should with his small frame. Tony had seen it the second he’d looked up to see Steve peering down at him in the alley. This Steve had taken control of the situation, and he had no doubt that, when he walked back into the apartment, Steve would have some kind of plan to get him back on his feet. This Steve had offered to bring Tony home, to help him and take care of him, even when he had barely enough for himself.
Tony sighed and pulled on his long-sleeved shirt and undershirt, both of which were thankfully mostly dry. He gathered up the soap and towel then walked back across the landing. He silently pushed the door open, wanting to investigate a little further while Steve was distracted. The apartment was shabby but clean. He found four sets of dishes and silverware, all mismatched, in one of the cabinets. There was hardly any food in one of the others — a mostly empty bag of flour, even less sugar, and a tin of coffee grounds. Another cabinet revealed two potatoes and an onion. He found a few pots and pans in the lower cabinet.
The state of their kitchen made Tony profoundly uncomfortable, and he regretted rummaging through their cabinets. He had understood, intellectually, that the Depression was hard, but it was a completely different matter to find the evidence here in front of him. He’d seen pictures of Steve before the serum: old black and white photos of a skinny guy with no muscle, dwarfed in his Army uniform and helmet. But it had never occurred to him that the pictures actually made Steve look better. The black and white didn’t convey the sallowness of his skin or the waxy texture, how thin his hair was or the broken and brittle nails on his hands, noticeable even with the charcoal dust from his drawing, or how pale his skin was that Tony could trace every vein from wrist to armpit.
He thought of Steve’s eating habits back at the tower, and suddenly Tony could see it as clearly as if he were there to see the whole thing. Bucky — or Steve, for that matter — would get paid, and they would buy groceries. Things with a good shelf life with as many nutrients as they could pack into it, food that would last them until the next paycheck. They would probably celebrate a little, have a big meal with something special. Meat, maybe, or fresh fruit or vegetables. Their supplies would dwindle, and they would do their best to augment their food where they could. Maybe do some odd jobs for a friend? Sneak some food from someone at work? Trade a picture or homemade card with someone who worked in the bakery downstairs? They would then cut back, making what food was left last until the next payday.
And Tony had just dragged all of that out for everyone to see. At dinner time no less.
What a fucking idiot. And he was supposed to be a genius.
He walked back through the living room and poked his head into the studio, holding up the towel and soap. “Done,” he said.
Steve was standing at the drafting table, which was propped up to let him work at a comfortable angle. There was a reference schematic pinned to the table, and Steve was working on a drawing of a pretty woman holding a cigarette dressed in what he thought was supposed to be an evening gown judging by the fur over her shoulder — but it sure looked like a negligee to Tony.
“What are you working on?” Tony asked, moving to look over Steve’s shoulder.
“Camel cigarette ad,” Steve answered, brushing some of the charcoal off his hands. “Buck says it’s a travesty, but he only likes Luckys. I do the people. They usually get someone else to do packaging and lettering.”
“Looks good,” Tony said. He then shook his head slightly and felt weariness wash over him. “Do you mind if I crash for a little bit?” He asked, thumbing over his shoulder to the couch in the next room. “I think being mugged took more out of me than I realized.”
Steve glanced back, following Tony’s gesture. “Sure. I’m supposed to have this done to submit tomorrow, so I need to finish it up anyway.”
Tony hesitated. He felt gratitude wash over him. Sure, he was in an unknown time where everything — well, everything except the man in front of him — was unfamiliar. He felt tired down to his bones, knowing that for the foreseeable future, everything would be a struggle. How to get money, where to stay, what to wear, what to eat. But Steve had taken him in and taken care of him, making sure he was clean and safe and giving him what he could, most of all peace of mind.
The parallel was not lost on him.
If this is how Steve had felt since being found, Tony couldn’t imagine how he’d held it together — made it look easy even.
“Hey, Steve?” Tony said, feeling a little self-conscious. He wasn’t used to needing things, especially material things, from other people. And Steve didn’t even have any idea he was returning a favor. “Thank you. I really appreciate it. Not everyone would be as helpful.”
Steve turned from his drafting table. “Well, they should be. Not your fault you got mugged and had everything you own taken from you,” he answered, his expression clouding a little bit. “Sorry that was your welcome to Brooklyn. It’s a nicer place than that.”
Tony gave him a hesitant smile. “I’m getting that, after meeting you.”
Steve smiled back. “We’ll get you back on your feet, pal.”
Tony wandered back into the living room. He gave the couch a skeptical look, but there wasn’t anywhere else to lie down, unless he wanted to sleep at the kitchen table. He kicked off his tennis shoes — at least they were dark on top with only white around the soles — and wrapped himself in one of the afghans.
The couch was more comfortable than its appearance would have suggested. He settled onto his side, looking out towards the radio and the window. He took some deep breaths, hoping for a moment that he would wake up back in the tower in his time but not really believing it was possible. He fell asleep shortly after that, the adrenaline from the fight and finding himself in Brooklyn during the Great Depression having finally seeped away, leaving only exhaustion in its wake.
When Tony woke up again, the light from the window had lengthened across the floor, and he guessed it was late afternoon. He could hear voices in the kitchen: the lower rumble of who must be Bucky with the slightly higher counterpoint of Steve. He lay still, shamelessly listening.
“Look, I know you want to help the guy,” Bucky was saying, “but we’re barely making it as it is. I know you’re hoping to get that commission tomorrow, but there’s no promises.”
“He’s a mechanic,” Steve answered confidently. “He’ll find work. And if not, we’ll figure something else out. We always do.”
Bucky just sighed in response. “I know you want to save the world,” he said, the exasperation clear in his voice, “but it would have been nice if you had a little more money to do it.”
“He was mugged,” Steve shot back. “What was I supposed to do? Leave him there?”
“Thank god for small favors that the guy who mugged him wasn’t still there,” Bucky said. “Otherwise I’d have to clean up both of you idiots.” There was a pause, and then Bucky added, laughter in his voice, “Don’t give me that look. I’m sure you would have won that one.” After another moment, Bucky continued, “All right, all right. He can stay until he gets back on his feet. Maybe he can fix the radio while he’s here.”
Tony shifted on the couch, throwing off the afghan. He neatly folded it back up and put it on the back of the couch. Then he came through the door into the kitchen. Steve was seated at the table with his back to the door, and his movement must have attracted Bucky’s attention because he was already focused over Steve’s shoulder at the doorway.
“So you’re the stray Steve’s picked up,” Bucky said, standing up. His tone was not quite challenging, but all the laughter from a moment before was gone. He approached Tony, and Tony felt himself standing up a little straighter, even though Bucky was only in an undershirt and pajama pants.
Tony had seen pictures of Bucky from the war — certainly not as many as Steve, but more than the other commandos. The black and white photos didn’t do the other man justice. His dark hair was a healthy appearing brown, especially when contrasted with Steve’s, and tousled from sleep. His blue-gray eyes were sharp and intelligent with a hint of humor to them. His mouth seemed fixed in a small smirk, one corner quirked up just so. It made Tony think of a picture he’d seen of him in his Sargent’s uniform, with the cap tipped at a jaunty angle.
Bucky approached him, not offering his hand, and came to a stop just a little too close for comfort but still far enough away that he could claim he didn’t mean anything by it if Tony called him out. Bucky gave him an assessing look from toes to head, and Tony recognized the dance if not the particular moves Bucky was utilizing — he was feeling Tony out, trying to get a sense of his intentions. This was the man who would become the sniper in the Howling Commandos, and Tony understood in that moment that it wasn’t because of any specific training — although that certainly had helped. It was what Bucky did instinctively. He’d been watching Steve’s back long before either of them were in the Army. It wasn’t an accident that Bucky died to save Steve on that train. He would have done it here in Brooklyn too if he’d needed to. Steve — his Steve, in his time — had told him once that, after the serum and after Azzano, Bucky had told him that little guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb to run away from a fight — Bucky was following him, not Captain America.
Tony could see by the look in Bucky’s eyes that he meant it, even now, before he ever knew who Captain America was.
Tony and Bucky were roughly the same height, and Bucky stared straight into Tony’s eyes. Tony didn’t move, willing himself to stay relaxed. They stood that way, neither backing down, even when Steve turned in his chair, making the legs scrape across the tile. Finally, the corner of Bucky’s mouth moved up, a grin spreading its way across his lips from one side to the other. “James Buchanan Barnes,” he said, apparently satisfied with what he saw, “but everyone calls me Bucky.” He extended his hand.
“Anthony Edward Stark,” Tony replied, taking his hand. They both gripped, but this time it wasn’t so much a show of force as was an understanding. “You can call me Tony.”
Bucky took a step back but didn’t let go of Tony’s hand right away. “I hear you’ve come looking for work all the way from Iowa. I gotta be honest, there’s not a lot to be found here.” Tony could hear the undertones, the challenge that was there, if muted from Bucky’s initial assessment.
“There’s not a thing in the world I can’t fix,” Tony challenged back. “Starting with your radio.”
Bucky’s eyebrows raised, and he dropped Tony’s hand and glanced back at Steve as if to say, Would you get a load of this guy?
Steve hid his own smirk at Tony’s comment. “It’s broken, isn’t it?” Tony pressed, taking advantage of the small amount of ground he’d gained. “There’s nothing wrong with my hearing.”
That earned him a more genuine smile from Bucky, which Tony wasn’t expecting. “Heard the whole thing, did you?”
“I heard enough,” Tony answered.
“I tell you what,” Bucky said. “You fix that radio, and I’ll take you down to the tailor’s. I know for a fact that his overlock machine has been on the fritz. I bet if you can fix that for him, he’ll make you a suit. He keeps complaining how it’s been killing his business — he’d probably happily trade you one for the other.”
It was Tony’s turn to grin. “You’ve got yourself a deal, Bucky.”
“I’ve got to get cleaned up for work, but I’ll see how you’re coming along before I leave,” Bucky said. He disappeared back into the bedroom before coming back out with the same cake of soap and a different towel. He filled a kettle and placed it on the surface of the boiler to heat up before going out to the bath in the hallway. Meanwhile, Tony dragged the radio into the kitchen, where he had some more space.
Steve produced a screwdriver from somewhere, and Tony took the back panel off the radio. The first problem he found was that the wiring attached to the power supply had corroded. He borrowed a straight blade from Steve and carefully stripped a small section from the wiring before reattaching the individual strands back to the power supply. He then tightened down the screws to the speaker, reducing the vibration to stop the buggy buzzing interference that was probably happening and give it a better sound. At some point while Tony was working, he looked up to find that Steve was gone, presumably back into the other room to work on his drawing.
About halfway through, Bucky returned, his hair wet and slicked back. He went back into the bedroom and reappeared with a shave kit. He grabbed the kettle and went into the bathroom, leaving the door open. Tony could see him periodically glance up into the kitchen through the mirror as he washed his face with warm water then shaved with a straight razor. Instead of hostility, however, Tony only saw curiosity in the reflection of Bucky’s eyes.
Bucky had rinsed off the straight razor and was washing his face again to get rid of the remaining lather when Tony plugged the radio in. Static hissed through the speakers, and Tony didn’t miss the moment when Bucky turned around to look at him directly. He turned the tuning dial, finding a station that was playing some kind of big bang swing. The sound of brass filled the room, woodwinds providing the supporting chords underneath and a cymbal and drums keeping beat in the background. Tony turned it up, ostensibly to check the vibration, until he was sure that the music could be heard drifting out through the open windows.
Steve reappeared at the music. “You got it working again,” he said, wonder in his tone. “I never thought I’d hear it play again.”
“Then why’d you keep it?” Tony asked, glancing back at the radio. He'd have thought it would have been worth something as parts if nothing else. Steve just shook his head, his expression troubled, and went back to the other room.
It was Bucky who answered. “It was his ma’s,” he said quietly, making Tony look over at him. “He couldn’t bear to part with it, even if it didn’t work. She made the afghans too.”
Tony’s eyes widened in realization, and he glanced back at the doorway, where Steve had disappeared. “Is she—?” he asked, trailing off when he realized there was no nice way to ask the question.
“No,” Bucky said, moving closer to fiddle with the tuning dial. The radio screeched into static, and it took a moment for Tony to realize Bucky was drowning out their conversation as he pretended to search for a station. “She has tuberculosis — she’s in a special ward for it. They trade letters because he can’t go see her.”
“Why not?” Tony asked with a sinking feeling.
Bucky turned from the radio, still tuned to static, and gave him a dry look. “You’re not an idiot,” he said. “I know you have eyes in your head — you use them to watch him when he’s not looking.”
Tony opened his mouth to protest, suddenly feeling very wrong footed, but Bucky waved away any response he might have made. “If he gets TB, he’ll die from it. You’ll see, if you stick around long enough for him to get pneumonia.”
Tony closed his mouth, his teeth clicking together, as suddenly as he’d opened it. Bucky was now looking at him narrowly, the challenge was back with a razor sharp edge. He moved into Tony’s space, taking up a threatening amount of space. Up close, Tony realized that Bucky was a lot more muscular than he was. They might be the same height, but Bucky was stronger, probably from heavy labor as a sheet metal worker.
Tony came to the sudden realization as well what Bucky was implying with his comment about Tony watching Steve. It was not a benign accusation, especially whenever he was. It was an accusation that could land him in prison, or castrated, or dead.
That led to another understanding that left Tony reeling more than Bucky’s menacing presence.
Steve Rogers was gay.
Steve Rogers was gay, and Bucky Barnes knew.
Steve Rogers was gay, and Bucky was prepared to do whatever it took to protect Steve from the consequences of it. Not only that, Steve must have had other relationships, or at least trysts, because Bucky wasn’t surprised, or disgusted, or even particularly put out by Steve bringing another man home. Although it certainly appeared they had never talked about it directly either.
In fact, it seemed that Bucky assumed the mugging was some kind of cover to give Steve a reason to bring Tony home to meet Bucky. Tony could have laughed at the absurdity of it, if Bucky weren’t about to kick his ass over the misunderstanding. The story was most certainly a cover, but Steve hadn’t come up with it and it wasn’t to cover up a homosexual encounter.
Tony set his jaw. “I’ll stick around,” he said through clenched teeth.
Bucky searched his eyes before nodding once and backing off. “Good,” was all he said. He went back to the bedroom, and Tony heard the door click shut behind him. Tony resisted the urge to sag down and instead flipped the tuning dial back to the station with the swing music. When he turned around, Bucky was back with a neatly folded pair of pants and a white button down shirt. “Put this on,” he said. “It should fit you pretty close. I’ll take you to the tailor’s like I promised on my way to work. But you can’t go like that.”
Tony looked down at the clothes, oddly overcome with gratitude at the small gesture, as well as the devotion between the friends.
Apparently the history books hadn’t exaggerated that one.
He stripped down in the kitchen, leaving on his thick grey tank top under the long-sleeved shirt to cover the arc reactor, and pulled on the dark gray wool pants. Bucky had added an undershirt, socks, and suspenders to the bundle, which Tony pulled on before buttoning up the shirt. The cuffs were a little worn but well cared for, and he rolled them up to protect them. Everything was clean. The pants were a little roomy in the waist and seat but otherwise fit well.
Tony walked back towards the bedroom, and Steve looked over when he walked into the drawing room, doing a double take. “Buck’s clothes fit pretty nicely,” Steve commented.
As someone who had trolled a lot of people, both men and women, Tony was a little surprised he hadn’t seen it sooner. Steve looked at him with a heavy lidded interest that started at his stockinged feet but had faded to something almost completely concealed by the time he’d hit Tony’s chest.
Bucky came back out of the bedroom, now dressed in navy coveralls and heavy work boots. He took one look at Steve before shooting Tony an exasperated look. Tony almost expected him to break out into a lecture about being careful, complete with a detailed discussion of exactly whom he was blaming for this. Instead, he handed Tony a pair of shoes and said to Steve, “I’m taking Tony to Enzo’s.”
Steve nodded slowly and turned back to the drafting table with some reluctance. Bucky led the way out of the apartment. “Thank you for this,” Tony said once the door was closed.
Bucky shrugged. “It’s almost impossible to say no once he gets an idea in his head,” Bucky answered.
Tony laughed, and Bucky glanced over at him. “I picked up on that,” Tony said.
“Don’t let him talk you into anything you don’t want to do,” Bucky said, his words difficult to hear as they went down the stairs, their footsteps ringing in the stairwell. “And if you figure out how to do that, help a pal out.”
Tony laughed again as they went out the front door onto the street. Bucky kept up an easy stream of conversation as they went, and Tony was surprised to find he seemed to know everyone — children, older couples, shop and cart owners. Anyone they passed, Bucky greeted them by name and asked a uniquely personal question: how was your mother, did your wife have the baby yet, are you playing any good gigs in the next few days, did Charlotte finally lose that tooth that was bothering her, have you heard from your cousins in Austria recently?
Tony had to admit — he was impressed. There wasn’t even a crowd, but Bucky worked it as effectively as Tony had at any charity function he’d ever attended. Bucky had an encyclopedic knowledge of the neighborhood and its residents, and he utilized it effortlessly. Not only that, he introduced Tony to everyone, somehow working into every conversation how Tony was a cousin who’d just gotten into town from Iowa and had already fixed their radio.
At that piece of information, everyone would look at Tony thoughtfully, and he could already see them running through a list of appliances that weren’t working correctly that Tony might be able to help with. Bucky would then drop into the conversation that Tony was staying with him and Steve for the foreseeable future before saying he had to head to work and it was nice to catch up.
Bucky had pulled a fast one on Tony, and he couldn’t be anything but impressed. The radio had been an audition, and apparently Tony had passed with flying colors. The plan for him to go to the tailor had maybe the secondary gain of getting him appropriate clothes of his own, but clearly the more important point was to advertise Tony’s presence and skill set.
If they were in his time, Tony would have hired him on the spot for his resourcefulness and cleverness.
Finally they reached the tailor, who also did laundry, and Bucky banged on the door in a syncopated rhythm hard enough to rattle the bell inside. It took a couple of minutes, but a tall, slender, dark-haired man about Bucky’s age appeared at the door. He beamed at Bucky through the glass before unlocking the door and ushering them both in.
“James!” The man exclaimed, clapping him on the back. “It’s been too long. Looking for another suit? Need something to impress the ladies? You know I’m running at least a few weeks behind without my overlock machine working right. Those jerks over at the store where I bought it won’t fix their own damn machine.”
“Enzo, my friend! I don’t need a suit, but I did bring my cousin Tony.” Bucky had taken the other man’s hand in a handshake before gesturing to Tony, who also shook his hand. “Enzo Carbonell, meet Tony Stark.”
Tony faltered for only a second before recovering, feeling a little lightheaded from the realization he was shaking his own grandfather’s hand. “It’s a pleasure,” he managed to get out, but not without earning a questioning look from Bucky.
“Tony is in need of a suit, but I was hoping to propose a trade. You’re, what? Three weeks out from getting them done when you can do it in one with your overlock machine?” Bucky threw an arm around Enzo’s shoulder, and Enzo rolled his eyes and grinned, clearly enjoying the attention despite the show.
“Be careful what you tell him,” Enzo leaned over and stage-whispered at Tony. “He remembers everything. Despite that, he’s my best customer.” Enzo then stepped closer to Tony, inspecting his shirt before leaning back to take in his pants as well. “I see that you’re benefiting from that,” he added. “They need to be taken in a little though, if you’re going to keep wearing them. They don’t do you justice.”
“Okay,” Bucky broke in. “Your sewing machine. Tony said he can fix most anything, and I’m tired of hearing you complain about it. Why don’t you let him take a look? He fixes it, you make him a suit and maybe an extra pair of pants.”
Enzo shook his head. “He fixes my machine, I’ll give him a suit, another pair of pants, and throw in two shirts that’re already done and just need to be taken in, so he doesn’t have to wear yours. I have twenty orders I need to fill that I’ll never be able to finish without it.” Enzo crossed his arms and gave Tony a head to toe look, appraising. “If you really can fix anything, maybe we have you over dinner to meet our Luciana.”
“Let me just look at the machine,” Tony said, uncomfortable at the thought of being set up with his aunt. He also vowed to pick up a newspaper in the near future. Howard had founded Stark Industries in Queens in 1939, and his mother had been born in 1940. The USA would join the war at the end of 1941. Howard would hold his first Stark Expo in Flushing in 1943, where Dr. Erskine would recruit Steve Rogers for Project Rebirth. Bucky would ship out to Europe the next day, and Steve would go to Camp LeHigh a couple of weeks later.
Tony was starting to wonder where exactly he was on that timeline.
“I’ve got to go to work,” Bucky said, “but I’ll see you back at the apartment in the morning. If you can fix his machine, I bet he can also refer you to some of his friends who need similar help.” Enzo nodded at that. “Thanks again, Enzo! Tell Luc I said hello. Good night, Tony!” With a wave, Bucky went back out the door, which Enzo locked behind him.
Enzo led Tony into the back of the shop where the sewing and overlock machines were. Tony followed him, thinking about his Auntie Luc and how she never mentioned growing up with Bucky or Steve. Of course, she probably couldn’t get a word in edgewise, with Howard bragging about Project Rebirth and his work with the Howling Commandos during the war.
There were bolts of fabric lined up on tall shelves, and he had two sewing machines and the overlock machine clustered together. There were also four dressmaker dummies in the corner, two male and two female, one of each gender with a partially made garment on it. The room was warm and cozy, with a coal fired burner in the corner and three irons laid out. There was a table with his other tools — pins and needles, buttons, scissors and shears, and thread — neatly contained in baskets on the table top.
Tony went over to the overlock machine, and Enzo brought him a stool. He then demonstrated the machine, which would bunch up the fabric, causing it to get cut inappropriately and tangle the stitching. Tony took down all of the threads and removed the faceplate to the machine. There was a large amount of dust inside, and Tony cleaned it out using some fabric Enzo provided him. He then inspected the tension discs for the thread. They looked normal, but when he rethreaded and ran the machine, one of them still ran unevenly. He removed the tension discs to find one of them had a rough edge on the outer edges of the disc, which he was able to sand down. This time when he ran the machine, the thread didn’t catch, although it still didn’t run completely evenly. He adjusted the tension discs and finally got it to work correctly.
“You’re going to have to clean it regularly,” Tony told Enzo before he’d replaced the faceplate. “I think buildup from the thread caused the tension plates to get rough edges, which then screwed up the tension on the threads.” He walked Enzo through removing each disc, cleaning it, replacing it, and adjusting the tension. He also showed him how to clean the inside of the machine and the area around the footplate before replacing the faceplate.
“Good as new,” Tony said triumphantly. Enzo shook his hand again. It was only then that Tony realized it was dark beyond the display window of the shop. His stomach growled just as he also became aware of how hungry he was.
Enzo laughed. “We’ll get you fixed up,” he said, gesturing to Tony’s stomach, “and even send you home with some for Bucky’s friend, Steve. My wife made bolognese ragù — no meat of course, but she had some extra onion and carrots for it — and cucuzza with parmesan and breading.”
Fortunately, Tony was spared meeting Luciana, given the time, but Enzo and his wife, Viola, packed up some food for both him and Steve. Tony headed back to the apartment building feeling very satisfied for himself, despite having been sent back in time. When he got back to the apartment, the door was cracked so Tony could get back in.
The radio was playing music, and Tony could hear the strains as he quietly came in. He left the food on the table and looked into the sitting room to find Steve had changed into a pair of pajama pants with only an undershirt. He was curled up in the corner of the couch, facing away from the door leading into the kitchen with a basket at his feet with socks in it. His head was bent over the things in his lap, and Tony could see the shine of his blond hair from the gas light that was dimly on in the room. Tony stopped at the sight, feeling his eyes widening as he watched Steve work.
He was darning socks again. His hands moved quickly, weaving the heavy thread around the weak area of the heel, and he finished a sock in about ten minutes before moving onto the next. Tony flashed back to Steve’s look when he’d taken the socks away from him at the tower and thrown him away. Shame washed over him; that activity looked a lot different in the tenement apartment, with two men who clearly were trying as hard as they could to keep it together in what was the worst economic downturn in American history.
Tony cleared his throat, and Steve paused, looking over his shoulder. “Can you teach me how to darn socks?” Tony found himself asking.
“You — you don’t know how to darn socks?” Steve replied, the surprise evident in his voice.
“Never had to,” Tony answered. He sat down next to Steve, who handed him a sock and darning egg.
“Maybe you should have stayed in Iowa, if life is so good you can afford to replace socks instead of mending them,” Steve said. The offhand comment made Tony’s cheeks warm with shame, and he ducked his head a little. Steve walked him through the steps of making the loop outside the hole then weaving a patch on top with the thread. They worked steadily through the socks in the basket until the pile was finished.
“I fixed Enzo’s overlock machine,” he said, gesturing to the kitchen. “He sent me home with some food in return.”
Steve’s expression brightened at Tony’s movement, although he tried hard to hide it. “Enzo’s a good guy,” Steve answered. They went into the kitchen and divided up the containers of bolognese ragù and cucuzza, Tony trying to sneak more food onto Steve’s plate. Steve gave him a sour look, making it clear that Tony wasn’t nearly as stealthly as he’d hoped, but didn’t put up a fight.
Tony found that part very worrisome.
They ate in companionable silence, and Tony realized he wanted to apologize for what’d he’d done with the socks, even though obviously this Steve would have no idea what he was talking about. Steve finally broke the silence. “So I guess you got in with Bucky? I doubt he would have introduced you to Enzo otherwise.”
Tony nodded. “I think I impressed him with the radio. He told everyone we met on the street about it, after introducing me as a cousin of his.”
Steve took a bite of the cucuzza. “You look enough alike — it’s not a big stretch,” Steve agreed.
“I’ll find some odd jobs. I don’t plan on being a burden,” Tony said between his own mouthfuls of food.
Steve shrugged. “I’m not worried about it.”
Tony had to resist the urge to look around at the bareness of the apartment. Maybe you should be, his brain offered up. But he knew that Steve would only be insulted by such a comment. He supposed he should be grateful that Steve had taken the food at all, instead of insisting it was Tony’s for his work.
They finished up their late dinner, and Steve cleaned up the dishes, leaving them in a drying rack by the sink.
“Bucky said he doesn’t mind you sharing the bed while he’s at work,” Steve said. “He also left you something more comfortable to sleep in.” He led the way to the bedroom at the back of the apartment, which was simply furnished with two twin beds beneath the window overlooking the alley, a nightstand shared between the two, and two wardrobes, one of which was thrown open to show neatly hanging dress shirts and pants hanging on racks with a basket in the base and a few pairs of shoes.
Tony looked at the close proximity of the beds and had to resist the urge to tap at his arc reactor. But he couldn’t come up with a reasonable excuse to sleep on the couch except the truth — and clearly he wasn’t going to offer that up.
Steve gave him some tooth powder, and Tony took his towel from earlier and some warm water from the boiler and went into the bathroom. He washed his face, requiring some trial and error to find a reasonable temperature. He changed into the pajama pants that Bucky had left him, as well as the dark long-sleeved t-shirt he’d been wearing under the armor. It covered the light from the arc reactor better than the light undershirt Bucky had given him earlier. He then brushed his teeth as best he could with the powder and no brush, adding that to the mental list of things he was going to need if he ended up here a long time.
Tony pushed that thought aside. He wasn’t sure how he got here — beside magic — and he certainly didn’t have any great ideas at the moment on how to get back. It was a big enough problem to get clothes that he could wear without attracting an unreasonable amount of attention and money to eat and provide himself shelter, even if that ended up being pulling his weight with Bucky and Steve.
He came out of the bathroom to find Steve waiting. He muttered an apology, which Steve sleepily waved off. Tony slid into Bucky’s bed, and Steve turned off the gas light when he came back from the bathroom. “Good night, Tony,” Steve offered, and Tony heard his bed shift as he got comfortable.
“Good night, Steve,” Tony answered. “Thank you for everything today.” The words hung in the air, and Tony had the feeling he meant something more, even though he couldn’t quite place what it was.
“’s no problem,” came Steve’s numbed reply.
The room wasn’t particularly dark given the light from the alley and street beyond. The window was thrown open to provide some circulation, and Tony could hear the sounds of the city as they drifted in, both familiar and different, given the contrast between Manhattan and Brooklyn, 2010 and sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s.
Tony stared at the ceiling for a long time, struggling to relax in the strange, small bed in an unfamiliar place with someone sleeping nearby. Steve’s breathing was heavy and not always even, with a faint wheeze that came and went at irregular intervals. Tony certainly didn’t know either Steve well enough to know if he were asleep or not simply based on his breathing. Finally, however, exhaustion from the fight with Loki, the shock of being in a new time, and the heightened awareness of nothing being easy overtook him.
The days fell into their own rhythm over the next few weeks, and Tony was a little surprised at how easily he adjusted to life in 1939. His handyman work was steady and, although he didn’t make a lot of money because people didn’t have a lot to pay him with, he felt he was making a killing through bartering. He became the main source of food for the household, and most of the meals came pre-made, continuing the trend started by the Carbonells. Enzo was so grateful that his overlock machine was working again that he gave Tony a second pair of pants for cleaning and oiling his other sewing machines, everything custom tailored. Tony hated to admit it, given how much money he’d invested in his clothes, but he liked these clothes and felt they fit better than anything he’d ever owned. Bucky had also helped him pick out a pair of shoes and a hat to complete his wardrobe.
In the mornings, Bucky would come home from work, and the three of them would eat breakfast together. Tony would come in and out of the apartment for whatever jobs he’d lined up the day before or could drum up if he didn’t have anything else to do. Steve would work at his drafting table in the mornings into afternoon when the light was best while Bucky slept. Bucky would then get up, and they would have dinner together before Bucky went back to work. Steve and Tony would spend time together before bed. Steve kept the radio on constantly, filling the apartment with jazz, blues, and swing music.
It was so wholesome, Tony wished he had some way to document it for Pepper, because she would never believe it.
For Steve’s birthday, Tony brought three tickets to the Dodgers/Phillies game. He let Bucky in on the secret so he could plan his sleep schedule but surprised Steve that morning. Steve was sitting at the table, sleepily shoveling in some scrambled eggs Tony had gotten from someone the day before when Tony set the tickets on the table and slid them over to Steve.
Steve raised an eyebrow at Tony before palming one to inspect it. His other hand paused, the spoonful of eggs forgotten. “What is this?” he asked, looking up at Tony.
“It’s your birthday, right? Fourth of July?”
Steve narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Bucky should keep his big trap shut.”
Tony threw up his hands in exasperation. “Who cares? They’re Dodgers tickets! Are you really not going because Bucky told me?” Which was — not even remotely true. Tony knew because everyone knew Captain America was born on the Fourth of July, 1918. He had a moment of panic at Steve’s expression that it had been — would be? — a publicity stunt for the bond shows until Bucky came in from changing out of his coveralls into pajamas.
“The appropriate response is ‘Thank you, it’s exactly what I wanted!’” Bucky said, making himself a cup of coffee from the hot water on the boiler. He turned around and leaned against the counter. “Or we can go without you. I’m going to take a nap before we go — you can decide how much of an ass you’re going to be about this while I’m asleep.”
He took a long drink, slurping it noisily, before adding, “Don’t make me tell your ma. She’ll be very disappointed in you.”
Steve gave Bucky the most impressive glare Tony had ever seen. “Don’t bring her into this.”
Bucky took another slurp of his coffee before using the mug to gesture to Tony. “Tell the man thank you. He came up with it all on his own.”
The stare down lasted almost a full minute before Steve turned back to Tony. “Thank you,” he said, albeit begrudgingly. “I really appreciate it. You certainly didn’t have to spend the money.”
Tony waved him away, feeling his cheeks warm a little. “I wanted to. And who’s to say I didn’t want to see the game too? I already told all my clients I wasn’t available today.”
“I’m surprised there’s anything left to fix,” Bucky answered. “You’ve done quite the job talking people into letting you fix things. Maybe not all of them are broken?”
Tony grinned at him before going to make his own cup of coffee. “It’s a skill I learned from my old man. He could sell ice to a penguin.”
Bucky finished his, washing out the mug and putting it in the drying rack. “All right, I’m off to bed. We should probably leave around 11:30 to catch the streetcar to Flatbush if we want to make it before first pitch.”
After Bucky disappeared, closing the door to the bedroom, Steve got up to clean off his plate. “Thank you, Tony,” he said, his tone much kinder. “You really didn’t have to do it. I know you don’t have much.”
Tony shrugged, discomfited by the sincerity in Steve’s voice. “Hey, you only turn twenty-one once, right? We ought to have some fun while we can. Who knows what’ll happen?” He clapped Steve on the back, always surprised by how his shoulder blade poked through, easy to feel through Steve’s thin shirt.
They arrived at Ebbett’s Field with plenty of time to spare, and Tony bought them all hot dogs and beer for lunch. They made their way to their seats along the third base line, out by the outfield. Bucky had brought a mitt just in case. They sat down in their seats, with Tony towards the outfield, Steve in the middle, and Bucky towards the infield.
Steve offered up a running commentary during the game, starting with indignant complaining about the pitcher walking the first batter. He cheered enthusiastically for each of the runs scored by the Dodgers and howled bitterly when the Phillies scored. He screamed at the umpires and threw popcorn when he truly disagreed. Tony bought a couple more rounds of beer, and Steve was pretty drunk by the end of the game. He continued to cheer as they walked back out of the stadium, elated by the Dodgers’ 8-to-6 victory.
He mostly remained upright between Bucky and Tony on the streetcar as it swayed on its tracks. They helped Steve up the stairs to the apartment once they got back and deposited him on the couch. Bucky waved good-bye as he left for work, laughing at Steve still curled up but now fast asleep.
Tony was sweaty from the hot and humid July day in Brooklyn and felt warm from the sun in a way that let him know he’d gotten sunburned. He stripped out of his button-down shirt and hung it up in the wardrobe where Steve had made space for his clothes. He glanced behind him, through the drawing room into the living room, where Steve was still lying on the couch, motionless. Steve had turned on the radio when they’d gotten back, and soft jazz filtered through the apartment like the late afternoon sun, motes of dust drifting in the beams.
Tony swung the door until it was almost completely shut but didn’t latch it, still a little uncomfortable with the idea of shutting Steve out of his room when Tony still felt like a guest. He had no idea how long Loki’s magic would keep him here, so he tried not to get too comfortable. When Bucky was off, he slept on the couch, and he vowed that, in a few weeks, he’d find his own place. Of course, it was a ridiculous thought, the way he’d slotted into Steve and Bucky’s life, like he really was the cousin from Iowa in the big city to find work.
He pulled off both of his undershirts, sighing as the damp cloth pulled away from his skin. He threw it over the open door of the wardrobe for it to dry and looked down at the arc reactor, back to the door. The blue light was comforting, and sometimes in the middle of the night when everyone else was asleep, he’d peek under his shirt to look at it, to remind himself that he didn’t really belong in this place or this time. That he was from elsewhere.
He wondered how much Steve, back in the 21st century, thought that too.
Tony turned back towards the wardrobe and startled, shocked to find Steve standing in the doorway, his eyes wide as he looked at Tony’s chest. His hands were frozen at his sides, and Tony knew there was no point in trying to hide the reactor.
Steve was flushed from the beer and being out in the sun, and he’d also pulled off his button down shirt, his arms and chest pale from being hidden under the shirt. Tony could see his chest heave as he continued to watch Tony with wild eyes. His hands were trembling.
“What,” he said slowly, only slurring his words a little bit, “the hell is that?”
“Uh,” Tony answered, fumbling for an appropriate response. He settled on a half-truth. “I have a heart condition. It keeps me alive.”
Tony felt his own eyes widen as Steve moved across the floor into Tony’s personal space. Tony could smell the beer on his breath, see the pink tinge to his scalp through his blond hair. Steve’s breath ghosted over Tony’s skin, and he felt goosebumps ripple out from his chest down his arms. Steve reached out slowly, and Tony felt rooted to the spot. He couldn’t stop Steve even if he’d wanted to. Steve’s fingers brushed over the front of the arc reactor before drifting to feel the smooth edge of the metal casing. Tony exhaled softly, watching his own breath stir Steve’s hair. Steve looked up, and Tony became aware of the heat radiating off the smaller man from his sunburn.
“A heart condition?” Steve asked, a little breathless. “What kind of heart condition?”
Tony realized his mistake and closed his eyes briefly. “I have metal shards in my chest,” Tony recited slowly, his eyes still closed, “from an explosion.” He could smell Steve: a mix of sweat and beer, the golden tang of skin warmed by the sun, and the hint of Ivory soap underneath that. Steve’s breath was coming quicker, and Tony could feel it across the skin around the reactor. Steve’s fingertips were also still on the metal casing, and their warmth seemed to burn the skin over his left pectoral. “It keeps the shards from going too far into my heart and killing me.”
Tony opened his eyes to find Steve looking up at him, his blue eyes intense as they focused on Tony’s face. “I have heart problems too,” he said softly. “Can I get one? Will it fix my heart?”
Tony opened his mouth, but absolutely nothing came out. Gone was the man who’d rescued him in the alley. Gone was the man who challenged other, bigger men to fights because they were being assholes. There was no bravado or challenge, no desire to prove something to Tony. Only earnestness and vulnerability, a sincerity that was almost painful to see. Steve understood his place in the world; he understood the assumptions that other people made about him because of the way he looked, for all that he spent every waking minute fighting against it. The only thing in his expression now was a glimmer of hope, the potential for a shot he’d never known he could have.
And Tony had to crush it.
He felt like the shittiest person in the world.
“Steve,” he answered, his voice barely audible, “you have to believe me, if I could, I would give it to you in an instant. But I can’t, and it won’t help your heart conditions.”
“You don’t even know what I have,” Steve answered, and a bit of the challenge was back.
Tony sighed, covering Steve’s hand with his, the blue light of the arc reactor coming through between their fingers. “Some day, Steve, they’ll find a cure for what you have. But this isn’t it.”
Steve snatched his hand away, and Tony saw tears in his eyes before he turned away, his expression angry. “You can’t know that. You’re full of shit.”
Steve stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Tony sat down on Bucky’s bed, his head in his hands. He heard Steve turn up the radio in the other room, the joyful music at odds with the sense of despair in the pit of Tony’s stomach.
Tony stayed in the bedroom for the rest of the afternoon, lying on the bed and staring up at the ceiling. He only ventured out once the sky had darkened outside the window and he hadn’t heard any sounds from the rest of the apartment for a very long time. Steve was asleep, curled up and facing the back of the couch. Tony clicked off the radio. He went to the toilet and used cool water from the sink to rinse off, still sticky from the day at the ballgame.
He lay on Bucky’s bed in his boxers for a long time, watching the lights from the alley and the street play across the ceiling. He hadn’t bothered putting a new shirt on once he’d gotten back to the bedroom, as the apartment was hot and stuffy. He saw the lights shift when Steve soundlessly pushed open the door. Tony expected him to go to his own bed, but instead he came to Tony’s and jostled him over so they lay on their sides, facing each other.
Steve traced the metal casing of the arc reactor, the blue light reflecting off his pale skin. His eyes were clearer now, and Tony saw nothing but awe in them as he ran his fingers over the lines of the arc reactor itself, making the triangle over and over again. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he whispered. Steve fell asleep that way, relaxing onto his back. Tony sighed and pulled Steve to his chest, burying his face in the other man’s hair. He too fell asleep, and the last coherent thought he had was that — in a long life full of poor decisions — this was probably the worst idea he’d ever had.
The summer faded into fall, and as far as Tony could tell, Steve didn’t tell Bucky about the arc reactor. Tony was careful after that, only changing when alone, most of the time retreating to the toilet or bathroom with the door closed. He was also careful to not strip down past an undershirt no matter how hot it got. He could also feel Steve’s eyes following him when he was in his pajamas. Steve didn’t crawl into bed with him again either, which Tony found he sincerely regretted.
Bucky made weekly trips to Brooklyn City Hospital to act as postman, dropping off letters from Steve and picking up letters from Sarah. One morning he got home just before noon, looking exhausted. “One of the guys on the job cut off a couple’a fingers with the shears for cutting the metal,” he explained between bites of the late breakfast Steve had kept warm for him on the boiler. “Bled all over the place. It was awful. The guy screamed bloody murder too. The foreman had to stop production, and then he wanted us to stay overtime to make up the work. Tony, do you mind dropping off the letter for Sarah? I told her I’d be there today, and she’ll worry if the letter doesn’t show up.”
“I can go,” Steve offered. “She is my mother after all.”
Bucky fixed him with a look that was all the more effective due to his red-rimmed eyes from the lack of sleep. “You,” he started, emphasizing his point with his fork, “are not going to go visit the hospital, get pneumonia, and die. Because then she’ll kill me,” he finished up, pointing back to himself with his fork. He went back to eating his biscuits and gravy with an air of grumpy finality.
Steve rolled his eyes but didn’t argue further. “It’s just as well,” he said. “There was an ad in the Times looking for comic book artists. I was going to put some panels together and try to submit them to Timely either this week or next.”
Tony felt himself choke at the mention of the company that would go on to publish the Captain America comics during World War II. He’d had the entire run as a kid thanks to Howard. He coughed violently for a few seconds before it passed. “Sorry,” he said hoarsely, “wrong pipe.” He shook his head, wondering if Steve ended up drawing for Timely Comics before Project Rebirth.
That afternoon, armed with a couple of letters from Steve, he walked from their tenement building to Brooklyn City Hospital. It was a sunny October day, and the weather was just starting to transition from the blazing heat of summer to the crisper days and cool nights of fall. The leaves were starting to turn, and Tony was enjoying the bursts of color here and there.
The hospital was a cluster of beautiful red brick buildings on a hill, overlooking Fort Greene Park. The receptionist at the front desk took the letter but was unable to find anything for Steve from Sarah. Tony frowned; Bucky had been pretty clear in his instructions that the letters were always at the front desk, usually in an alphabetized stack. The young woman went through the pile of mail twice, her expression becoming more concerned. “Let me look into it for you,” she said, stepping away into a back office.
Tony waited for a long time, becoming more and more anxious the longer she was gone. Finally she returned, her hands clenched in front of her so tightly her knuckles were white. She ushered Tony into a small room with a few chairs and a window opened to the hospital lawn beyond. “Please have a seat,” she said, gesturing to the chairs. Tony noticed that her hands were shaking, and they only stopped when she clasped them back together. “Dr. Hudson will be right with you.”
She ducked back out of the room, not waiting to see if Tony sat. He watched her walk to the desk, stealing one glance back towards the door of the room, ducking her head and looking away quickly when she saw Tony still standing in the doorway.
He sat in one of the chairs by the window, gulping in the fresh air, his head in his hands. His anxiety was now full-blown, and he was having flashbacks to a snowy night in Boston on December 16, 1994, when Obie had shown up at his apartment to tell him his parents were dead. The doctor came in, and Tony looked up at him. He seemed very young — too young to be a doctor — and his expression was tired, with dark circles under his eyes.
The doctor sat down and placed a hand on Tony’s knee. “I’m so sorry,” he started.
“I’m just a friend,” Tony interrupted.
“What?” The doctor started, sitting back and withdrawing his arm.
“Steve,” Tony tried again, the words catching in his throat. “Steve is Sarah’s son. I’m just a friend. Tony. Here to drop off a letter from him and pick one up from her.”
“I’m Dr. Hudson, one of the doctors here. I treat the patients in the TB ward.” He hesitated, taking a deep breath. “We’ve been trying to track down Mrs. Rogers’s family since last night. There’s a number to the Navy Yard, but no one was answering there.”
Tony swallowed. “There was an accident there last night,” he said. “That’s probably why they weren’t able to answer the phone.”
“Mrs. Rogers — she started to decompensate last night,” Dr. Hudson said, his voice pitched low and gentle. “She had been doing okay, but two mornings ago her cough was much worse, and she began to bring up a large amount of blood yesterday. I think the disease ruptured one of the arteries in her lungs because she became very pale before becoming unresponsive. She stopped being able to breath on her own, and she died late last night, at 10:48.”
“Sarah died?” Tony echoed.
“I’m very sorry,” Dr. Hudson said again.
Tony’s shoulders sagged, and he looked down at the floor. He pulled his hat off his head and ran a hand through his hair. “Did she suffer?” he finally asked, unable to lift his head up and look at the doctor.
“No, she passed very peacefully,” he answered. Tony looked up at Dr. Hudson, who glanced away and swallowed.
“I’ll tell Steve you said so,” Tony replied carefully.
“I appreciate that.” He met Tony’s eyes again and looked relieved. “I think we have her belongings — I’ll make sure that Helen has them at the desk for you. Take all the time you need in here. No one will need this room until you leave.” With that, the doctor left, given Tony’s shoulder a squeeze as he walked out. Tony sat in the chair and looked out the window, the grass still green on the lawn. A gentle breeze moved through the room with both the window and door opened.
Tony had absolutely no idea how he would tell Steve.
He walked through Fort Greene Park on his way back to the apartment, weighed down by the knowledge. He sat on a bench in the park and opened the small packet he’d been given on his way out. It held a silver religious medal on a chain, the woman on the front labelled as St. Monica with the inscription “Pray for us” on the back. There was a slim silver band with a small emerald chip set into it, and a green pin with a white calla lily.
Tony was a little surprised at how a life could be reduced to so few belongings. He didn’t know how long she had been in the TB ward, but it seemed like she should have more to show for her life than this. Presumably, they had kept her clothes to prevent the spread of the infection. Had she had books? Knitting? Her own darning egg? Her own radio after she’d given Steve the large one in the apartment?
He tucked the three things back into the packet, which he slipped back into his jacket pocket. Tony walked back to the apartment, dreading his arrival with each step. Surely he could do a better job than the doctor had of telling Steve. Or even than Obie had done for him.
In that frame of mind, he bought a bottle of Jameson. As he climbed the stairs up to the fourth floor, he hoped that Bucky was both home and awake. The radio was playing, as always, when Tony pushed the door open, the horns starting to build over the bass line. The kitchen was empty, and he was tempted just to leave the packet on the table for someone else to deal with. That was pretty cowardly, though, and Tony knew it. He did leave the bottle of Jameson, however.
“I’m back,” Tony called. “Is Buck up yet?”
“Nah,” Steve answered from the drawing room. Tony went into the living room and turned the radio down. With the music quieter, Tony could hear the scratch of Steve’s pencil on the paper as he sketched out his sample panels for Timely. “He should be up soon.”
Tony closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. He steeled himself before walking into the drawing room. Steve didn’t turn when he entered, still working on his generic panel of a muscular man in a tight-fitting suit with stars on it punching Hitler. Tony had to blink for a minute. Surely Steve himself hadn’t come up with the idea….? But Tony pushed the thought aside.
“Do you think he’d mind if we woke him up? I have something I need to tell you.”
That got Steve’s attention, and he put his pencil down, his expression making it clear the panel was already forgotten. “What do you mean, something you need to tell me?”
Tony gestured to the bedroom door. “Just get Bucky — I can’t do this twice.”
Steve shot him a concerned look. “Are you okay? You don’t look so great.”
He shook his head and crossed the room himself when Steve didn’t move. He gently tapped on the door before opening it. Bucky was sitting halfway up, his dark hair wild and eyes only half open. “Hey, can you get up for a minute?” Tony asked. “I need to tell you and Steve something.”
Bucky blinked sleepily then narrowed his eyes, suddenly more awake. “It’s Sarah, isn’t it?” he asked, his voice pitched low so as not to carry. He was already swinging his legs out of bed, pulling his pajama pants on. Tony just nodded, and Bucky pulled a t-shirt over his head before shuffling out of the room. “Sorry, pal,” he said, pausing as he passed Tony. “I wouldn’t have asked you —”
“You didn’t know,” Tony answered. He then turned to go into the kitchen only to find Steve looking suspiciously at them both.
“I’ll explain in the kitchen,” Tony said in response to Steve’s now stony expression.
Bucky went first, glancing back at Tony when he saw the bottle of Jameson on the table. He grabbed three glasses and poured two fingers’ worth into each, handing one to Tony and Steve.
Tony pulled off his jacket, pulling the packet out from the pocket. He put it on the table and covered it with his hands. “Steve, you know Bucky asked me to go to the hospital for him to get your letters to your mother and pick hers up,” he started, feeling like he was obviously delaying the inevitable.
“Yeah?” Steve answered, still clearly not sure where this was going.
“When I got there, the girl at the desk —“
“Helen,” Steve broke in. “Her name is Helen.”
“Uh,” Tony replied, momentarily thrown. Bucky gave him a sympathetic glance. “Yes. Helen. Helen couldn’t find any letters from your mother, so she called the doctor. Dr. Hudson.” Steve nodded, mollified that Tony at least knew his name. Tony swallowed, taking a small, burning sip from his glass. “Apparently the doctor had been trying to get Bucky at the Navy Yard but couldn’t because of what happened last night.”
“Trying to get a hold of him? Why?” Steve looked at Bucky, and Tony could tell from his widened eyes and the way his breath started to come faster that Steve now had an idea what Tony was trying to tell him.
Bucky just shook his head. “I don’t know, pal,” he said. “This is the first I heard of it. But I know when they first said she had to go into quarantine, we gave ‘em that number in case of emergencies.”
“For emergencies,” Steve echoed, his tone hollow. He grabbed his glass and tipped it, watching the golden liquid coat the side.
“Dr. Hudson said she started coughing up blood before she passed out. She stopped breathing on her own, and she died at 10:48 last night,” Tony said slowly. “He said she didn’t suffer at all and seemed very peaceful at the end.”
All of the color drained from Steve’s face, and he focused on his whiskey, carefully setting it on the table before his hands went still on either side of the glass. The silence stretched out long and uncomfortable between the three of them, and Steve sat completely motionless, his chest barely even moving as he took short, shallow breaths.
“You okay, Stevie?” Bucky asked finally, clearly worried.
“How —?” Steve started, but he choked on a whimper that he was clearly trying very hard to suppress. His shoulders shook as he cried silently for a moment. “How can she be gone?” he managed to get out after a long time.
“I don’t know,” Bucky answered. “At least she’s not suffering any more.”
Steve sobbed, wiping his eyes with the back of one hand before covering them. His short, shallow breaths transitioned to deeper, gulping gasps, and soon he was wheezing.
“I need you to breathe a little slower,” Bucky said, panic creeping into the edge of his voice as he put his arm around the back of Steve’s chair. “In for four and out for six, remember?” Steve struggled to follow Bucky’s instructions, his wheezing getting worse as his breathing became more erratic. It was only when Steve turned to Tony, his blue eyes wide with terror, that Tony realized what the problem was.
It wasn’t an asthma attack. It was a panic attack.
Tony reached over slowly, telegraphing his moves, to grab Steve’s hand. He placed it on his chest, his own hand on top, curling their fingers around so that Steve could feel the metal casing of the arc reactor through his shirts. The arc reactor hummed, the vibration reverberating through Steve’s hand. “I need you to breathe with me, okay, Steve? Just feel my chest, and breathe with me.”
Steve’s eyes were glazed over with heavy emotions, and his gaze was fixated on Tony’s chest as if he could see the bright blue light through the layers of fabric. Tony had no idea how long they breathed together, following Bucky’s pattern even though he was no longer counting. Bucky sat behind Steve, gently rubbing his back and providing a soothing running commentary that no one was listening to.
After a very long time, Steve’s eyelids closed. His wheezing had stopped, and his breaths were coming in long, even draws. He was awkwardly propped on his chair, Tony partially supporting him, his hand still on Tony’s chest. Bucky met Tony’s eyes from behind Steve and mouthed, Thank you, the sincerity clear in his expression.
“We should probably let him sleep for a while,” Bucky ventured. “I need to go to work, but I’m afraid to leave him alone.”
“I’ll stay with him. I wouldn’t want him to wake up alone anyway,” Tony said.
Bucky looked at him for a long time before getting up from his chair. “I was skeptical about you,” he said, squeezing Tony’s shoulder. “But you’re a good friend to him — and to me.”
Tony looked up into Bucky’s gray eyes, seeing only gratitude there. “He’s a special guy,” Tony said, the first thing that came to his mind.
“One of a kind,” Bucky answered, a soft smile crinkling up the edges of his eyes. “Please don’t break his heart if you don’t have to.”
“I —“ Tony started.
Bucky patted his shoulder again, gently. “You don’t have to say anything. I don’t know how you feel — you’re a tough read,” Bucky said. “But I can see how he feels. So just — do what you gotta do — but be kind. That’s all I ask.”
Tony watched as Bucky left the room, surprised. It was one thing to have heard the stories — from Howard and Peggy and the other Commandos Tony had met, in history texts, romanticized in historical novels and on movie screens, in documentaries — hell, even at the exhibit in the Smithsonian. But was another to see the absolute devotion Bucky and Steve had for one another in their everyday lives. Friendships like these were one in a billion, and Tony realized that he’d always assumed part of it was played up by the media, especially during the war — without a Captain America romance to capitalize on, instead they talked about his best friend from childhood, Bucky Barnes, sergeant in his unit. The man who watched his back.
The man who was with him ’til the end of the line.
Tony gathered Steve up in his arms and took him back to the bedroom. Bucky had already changed and was pulling on his work boots while Tony gently laid Steve onto his bed, carefully straightening out his limbs until he looked comfortable.
Tony turned to see Bucky watching them, something soft in his expression. “I’ll stay with him,” Tony repeated, and Bucky nodded in response.
“I know you will.” He gave Tony a smile before leaving, closing the door quietly behind him.
They buried her three days later.
From the time Tony brought home the news until the funeral mass and burial, Steve did almost nothing of his own initiative. Bucky and Tony took turns sitting with him, but he mostly just lay on the bed, motionless, turned towards the wall. Occasionally, he moved to the couch, wrapping himself in the afghans thrown over the back. The packet of Sarah’s belongings remained untouched on the kitchen table, and as far as Tony knew, Steve barely drank and ate nothing.
The radio remained off.
Tony and Bucky pooled their money together, and Bucky made the arrangements at Queen of All Saints, the parish where both Sarah and Steve were members. She already had a plot purchased at the Evergreens Cemetery, next to her husband Joseph. He also made sure an announcement ran in the newspaper.
The morning of the funeral mass, Bucky and Tony played Rock Paper Scissors on who was going to make Steve get ready, and Tony lost. Bucky put water on the boiler, and they filled the bathtub in the hall together, making sure the water was warm enough. Tony then helped Steve to the common bathroom.
Steve’s eyes were unfocused and half-closed, exhausted from the effort of just crossing the hall from their apartment. Tony helped him strip, as Steve showed no initiative to do it on his own, and helped him into the tub.
Tony had never seen Steve in his underclothes, let alone naked, and he felt that, even with everything he knew about Steve Rogers and Captain America, he was unprepared for the sight. Every knob on his back stood out from the nape of his neck down to his tailbone, and Tony could count every single rib. His shoulder bones were clearly obvious, shifting under the skin as he rested his arms on the sides of the tub. His belly dipped in between the sharply defined inverted V of his ribcage and the bowl formed by his hipbones and pubic bone. Every bone of his arms and legs stood out in sharp relief.
Tony helped him wash, knowing that Steve would regret it for the rest of his life if he showed up at the church dirty and disheveled. He lathered up the soap and washed Steve’s hair, wishing he had shampoo and conditioner. He tried to rub Steve’s back soothingly as he washed his torso. Steve was like a small child, compliantly moving as directed but offering no help himself. The smell of Steve’s sweat and grief faded, lost in the damp smell of the humid room and Ivory soap.
“Both of my parents died in a car crash,” Tony finally offered, cutting across the sounds of the sloshing water. “I was twenty-one.”
Steve blinked slowly. It took him a long time to muster up the words before he asked, “How long did it hurt?”
“Ah,” Tony said, “my relationship with my father wasn’t that simple. My feelings towards him were complicated.” He paused, considering, before saying, “I still miss my mom every day, but it’s not as sharp. It’s more that I can feel the contours of the hole her death left in my life than the intense grief of her death.”
Tony got Steve to stand, and he wrapped him in a towel, gently rubbing at his hair, arms, and chest to help dry him off. Steve was facing him when he lifted his eyes to Tony’s, the first eye contact he’d made since Tony had sat him down at the table three days ago. He reached over, placing a wet palm on Tony’s chest. “Can I see it?” he asked.
Tony sighed but couldn’t find it in himself to refuse. He pulled his shirt off over his head and draped it over the sink basin, which was still dry. Steve ran his fingers around the metal rim and traced the scars that radiated out from it. “I keep dreaming about it,” he said. “I can see that exact shade of blue when I close my eyes — I’ve never seen that color before.”
Tony swallowed. “Steve, will you tell me about your mother?”
Steve’s eyes filled with tears, and he turned away.
Tony helped him into his nicest dress pants, shirt, and tie. He felt ashamed when he realized Steve didn’t have a suit to wear, but it was too late to find one. Bucky and he both wore their darkest suits, complete with vests. At the church, they flanked Steve in the front row, their dark heads bowed, while Steve kept his blond head up, staring ahead at nothing.
The ritual of the service washed over Tony, and he felt as though he was lost in time, caught between the memory of his own parents’ funerals and the one he was currently attending. Howard hadn’t been religious, of course, but he’d laid in state at the Capitol for his service to the United States. There had been a funeral at the National Cathedral for Howard, but Tony only remembered seeing the Space Window when he came in and left and staring at the stained glass windows over the altar at the front of the church.
His mother’s family, still in Brooklyn, had held a mass for her in this same church, and he remembered crying during that service. It had been quieter and more intimate. There hadn’t been Senators and Congressmen, the President, and the Director of Shield, each clamoring for a moment with Tony to express their regrets and tell him how wonderful Howard was, how important he had been to the country. That had only been family. He remembered only a little more from that service: a warm hug from his Auntie Luc, one of his cousins singing Ava Maria, feeling the reverberations of the pipe organ in his chest during the recessional.
The service ended, and Tony turned to find a surprising number of people in the church. Many were wearing the same green pin with a calla lily. Bucky greeted the ones he knew, but Steve moved through the crowd as though it didn’t exist. He received many sympathetic looks, and no one seemed upset when Bucky fielded any questions or comments that were at least, theoretically, directed towards Steve.
It was a beautiful clear October day, at odds with the somber affair of laying a loved one to rest. The crowd at the Evergreens Cemetery was much smaller, and Tony and Bucky maintained their positions on either side of Steve. He threw in a handful of dirt when prompted and watched them lower the casket into the ground with tears in his eyes.
He disappeared once the casket was in the ground.
Tony started to look around frantically for Steve, but Bucky stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay,” he told Tony. “He needs a few minutes. It’s a little more real when you can’t see the casket any more, y’know? He didn’t know — didn’t know it was the last letter, the last time he’d see her, the last time he’d hear her laugh or say his name.”
Tony felt a flash of anger at Bucky explaining to him what it was like to lose one’s parents, but it died out almost as soon as it flared up. Of course it was hard. Tony had lived with his loss for almost twenty years. Steve had lived with his for three days.
Bucky introduced Tony briefly to his parents, but all he took away from it was the impression of a short woman with curly brown hair and her son’s gray eyes and a tall muscular man with bright blue eyes and Bucky’s build, both of whom were friendly and tearful. Tony stayed by the gravesite, waiting for Steve to come back, when Bucky told him he was going to ride home with his parents.
Steve failed to reappear, and Tony became restless. He walked up a hill and down another, where he found Steve sitting under a tree, his elbows on his knees with his head bowed. Tony sat down next to him, and Steve shifted, putting his head on Tony’s shoulder. Tony wrapped his arm around Steve’s shoulders and pulled him closer. It was then that Steve turned and buried his face into Tony’s chest, the sobs that wouldn’t come all day rising up to be muffled by the wool of Tony’s jacket.
They sat like that for a long time, until the sky to the east started to darken as the sun began to set. “She taught me to fight for myself,” Steve finally said. He had slumped down in his exhaustion and his grief, his head propped in the curve of Tony’s shoulder where it met his chest, knees curled next to Tony’s legs, Tony’s arm still around his shoulders. “My da — well, he wasn’t much to speak of,” he gulped out, his words interrupted by sobs and gasps as he told Tony about his ma. “A drunk. He’d come home from the bar. And she’d confront him. Every time. He’d —“ Steve faltered at this before taking a halting breath and continuing, “he’d hit her. For standing up to him. But she got up. Every time. And usually he’d hit her again. I asked her once, why she didn’t just stay down.” He had to stop at this, his face crumpling at the memory. Tony gently squeezed Steve’s shoulder and waited. “She told me, ‘You always get up.’”
Tony felt his own eyes fill up, and he rubbed Steve’s shoulder. “She was the bravest person I ever knew,” he said, “and I don’t know how to get up after this.”
Tony just leaned his cheek against Steve’s head, his tears making dark splotches in the blond hair. He gently kissed Steve’s head, feeling his heart break for the other man.
To everyone’s surprise, Bucky was wrong; it was Tony who got sick first.
After the funeral, Steve existed in the house but it would have been a stretch to say he lived. He drew only in fits and starts and drifted from task to task without being able to settle on or finish any of them. He didn’t submit anything to Timely or anywhere else for that matter.
Tony went back to his odd jobs and repairs, but he worried about leaving Steve alone for long periods of time. Steve seemed a little more comfortable when he was home and followed Tony around in the apartment, as though he were afraid that Tony too would disappear if Steve wasn’t looking. To be honest, Tony was a little worried about that too, given that he still didn’t really understand the point of Loki’s magic or what might reverse it.
Steve barely ate and alternated between long stretches when he didn’t sleep at all to days on end where he wouldn’t get out of bed. On the latter days, Tony would cuddle with him at night while Bucky was at work, Steve’s blond head resting on his shoulder and his breath finally evening out as it blew across his chest or his arm, depending on which way he was facing. If Bucky noticed, he didn’t say anything.
Every once in a while, Bucky would come home flush and try to coax Steve out with some girls he’d found. Before his mother had died, Steve would usually say yes even if he preferred the company of Bucky and Tony to whatever date Bucky — or more specifically, the girl Bucky had asked out — had found for him. It had taken a long time for Tony to realize that Bucky was providing Steve cover and that neither man really expected anything to come of it. After, however — and that’s how everyone in the apartment seemed to think of their lives now, Before and After — Steve never agreed, no matter how Bucky or Tony tried to convince him.
In fact, Steve hardly ever left the apartment, except on Sundays to go lay flowers — always calla lilies — on his parents’ grave. Bucky rarely if ever came because it was his only day off, but Tony always went with him, waiting some distance away under a tree while Steve sat in the grass and spoke quietly to the granite headstones. At some point, he’d finally opened the packet with her belongings, and Tony knew he wore her St. Monica medal at all times. He’d brought the green lily pin and left it by the headstone.
Tony didn’t know what he’d done with the wedding band.
It was two weeks before Christmas when Tony first noticed the cough. It started dry, before blooming into a hacking sound that brought up bright green phlegm. It wasn’t until the shortness of breath and pleuritic chest pain followed that Tony realized he was living in the era before antibiotics — or even supplemental oxygen, for that matter.
Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how you looked at it — it took another few days before the fever followed. By then, Tony got so short of breath going up and down the stairs he couldn’t even contemplate walking around their neighborhood to make his rounds and see what needed fixing.
Steve noticed — Tony could tell by how his eyes were rounded and obviously followed him around the room. Not that it was hard to tell where he was — his wheezing was consistently worse than Steve’s on a bad day. It was the day when Tony couldn’t even get down the stairs to go to the bakery that Bucky stepped in.
Much like Tony had done for Steve, he filled the tub hot water then added peppermint and eucalyptus oil to the water. He instructed Tony to strip and sit in the hot water, almost too hot to stand, with a damp towel draped over his head to capture the fragrant steam. Tony followed the instructions and tried to breathe slow and deep, working not to panic with the damp around his head from the towel. The steam did seem to loosen things up, but he struggled to think of something other than damp, cold caves and dank water in buckets.
He hadn’t even realized he was hyperventilating until he felt someone’s hand on his back. He jerked away violently, splashing water onto the floor, when he heard Steve’s voice say, “It’s okay, Tony. It’s just me. I told Buck I’d come check on you because of —” Steve trailed off, but Tony knew what he meant.
Tony pulled the towel off his head and dunked it back under the water. Steve was sitting in the chair by the tub. He smiled weakly, adding, “I’ve always been the one in the tub, not the person sitting beside it.”
Tony slumped further down into the water, begrudgingly putting the towel back over his head after wringing it out very thoroughly. Steve watched him, showing the most interest he had since October. “Do you not like the water on your face?” he asked once Tony had finally gotten the towel positioned and leaned over so it fell away.
Tony shook his head under the towel, struggling so badly to breathe between the anxiety and the pneumonia that he couldn’t muster the strength to talk. “Here,” Steve said, plucking the towel off. He positioned Tony so that he was in the middle of the tub facing out. “Put your arms here,” he said, arranging Tony’s arms so they were crossed on the rim of the tub, “and rest your forehead on your arms.” Tony followed his directions, looking down at the water with enough space to help him breathe a little easier. Steve draped the towel over his head, shoulders, and arms. It worked just as well to trap the steam without hanging over his face.
“Thanks,” Tony ground out, his voice low and hoarse from coughing.
“I’ve learned a few things about being sick,” Steve answered.
They sat in companionable silence, broken up by Tony’s wheezing, until the water was tepid and Tony was starting to shiver. Tony was so weak he struggled to stand on his own, and Steve braced his arms to help him up without slipping. He wrapped Tony in a towel and did most of the work drying off, as even that made Tony short of breath.
Wordlessly, Steve offered Tony a clean tank top and undershirt, both dark enough to hide the light from the arc reactor, as well as clean pajama pants. He dressed Tony slowly, and the process left Tony feeling light-headed and breathing hard.
Tony made it back across the hall by leaning heavily on Steve, who put him to bed in his own bed. Bucky watched from across the room, where he was pulling on his work boots to head to the Navy Yard. “You don’t look so great, pal,” Bucky said and, while he was trying for light-hearted, he fell pretty short of the mark.
“Yeah,” Tony panted, having to pause between each word, “you should see the other guy.”
“Don’t take Steve’s jokes,” Bucky said with mock severity. “They’re not good enough.”
That and the bath were the last things Tony remembered with any real clarity for a long time.
The fever took him, and he seemed to exist in a strange world halfway between his workshop back home and the apartment. He heard the big band music in the background, the volume alternately too loud and too quiet. He talked to Jarvis at length about upgrades to the armor and the need for something to protect against Loki.
Cap visited him, but something about him didn’t look right. Tony apologized for throwing out his socks, and tracking his food, and getting sick, but Cap — of course — just waved his apologies away. And seemed confused.
Pepper and Rhodey and the rest of the Avengers never came to visit, which hurt more than Tony cared to admit, and Tony was going to fire that doctor because he should have had some Zosyn by now. Who was he kidding — he wouldn’t fire the guy. Just maybe hack into his account and change his Netflix password.
He sweated and shivered with the fever, tossing and turning in the sweaty sheets. At times, he would wake up, finding himself on an unfamiliar narrow bed with the shittiest mattress he’d laid on in a long time — seriously, how had he gotten here? Then he’d fall asleep and wake up on the couch in his workshop, with no memory of how he’d gotten home. But even though he understood it to be his workshop, he didn’t really recognize it. Jarvis had stopped answering, and Dum-E never brought him smoothies any more. None of his equipment was there, even if he was too sick to use it.
Cap, however, Cap was always there.
“Shouldn’t you be saving the world?” Tony asked him one day. Or maybe it was night. It was hard to tell with the gray skies dumping snow onto the city during the day and the night sky washed out into the same gray from the streetlights reflected in the fallen snow.
“Much as I want to do that, I think it’s better I stay here,” Cap answered slowly, his face pinched with concern.
“You don’t even like me,” Tony answered. He rolled over to look at the ceiling, coughing for a few moments, a few flecks of blood in the green sputum. Cap took the handkerchief from him, replacing it with a clean one. “I wouldn’t either, given what I’ve done.”
Cap just shook his head, confused. “Don’t say that. Any of that.”
Tony must have fallen asleep, because he became aware of Cap sitting beside him, Tony’s clammy hand clutched between his two surprisingly cool ones. Shouldn’t his hands be warmer? Tony wondered, but he was too tired to ask, too tired to think. Almost too tired to breathe.
“Please don’t leave me,” Cap whispered into Tony’s hand, his breath cold as it moved over his sweaty palm. “I love you, and I can’t lose you too.”
Tony wanted to roll over and protest, to remind Cap of the terrible things he’d done since he’d moved in, despite his best intentions. But he was too weak. So he just lay on his back and listened to Cap, oddly soothed by his voice.
He was so tired. He could feel himself drifting off, stranded in the hazy place between awake and asleep, where one couldn’t neither quite wake up nor fall completely to sleep. Cap was there, though — he could hear his voice. Cap would watch over him. Cap would keep him safe. With that knowledge, he finally drifted off.
Tony came suddenly awake, the alarms in the helmet reverberating through his head in a way that made it very clear it had been going on for a long time. He felt claustrophobic in the helmet in a way he never had, struggling to catch his breath like he’d taken a solid blow to the chest plate.
“— You gotta wake up,” he heard Steve yelling at him, “Jarvis isn’t responding. Tony!”
Tony could hear the note of desperation in Steve’s voice, and it seemed hauntingly familiar, although he couldn’t place it. Tony rolled onto all fours and scrambled at the release to his helmet, yanking it off and gulping in the fresh air greedily.
Steve was next to him, helping him into a sitting position. “Jesus Christ, Tony, what the hell was that?” he asked, and Tony looked over to see Steve pale, his blue eyes wide in fear.
“You — don’t look right,” Tony blurted out then shook his head, feeling disoriented. How hard had he hit his head? He looked around, confused. “This isn’t Brooklyn.”
“Brooklyn?” Steve answered a little sharply. “When was the last time you were in Brooklyn?”
“I don’t remember,” Tony said, although that didn’t seem quite right either.
“The giant is gone,” Natasha’s voice came over the comms, “and Jarvis is telling me that Loki is too. Did you guys see what happened?”
“No,” Steve said. “Tony took the hit to the chest, and his armor stopped working. I caught Loki with my shield but didn’t see what happened after Tony hit the ground.”
“Well, that explains the headache,” Tony muttered. He rubbed a gauntlet over the chest plate, realizing that the pain he was having was from infection, not injury. He’d experienced both enough times to know the difference.
Back at the tower, everyone was sore and tired, as well as a little put out by the dissatisfying conclusion of their encounter with Loki. They lounged around the common living room, the TV entertaining itself in the background. Tony felt all the more confused and out of place. He was starting to remember: the tenement apartment, the radio, the shabby couch and tiny bedroom with its two twin beds. The afghans. The bath down the hall, and the boiler for hot water. The calla lilies. Steve’s drawing table.
Slowly everyone drifted to their rooms for showers and bed until only Tony and Steve were left. Tony turned off the TV, the ceaseless chattering irritating him after seven months in 1939. He missed jazz standards and blues playing at all hours, the full orchestra and singers live on the radio, every version just a little bit different.
Steve was slumped on the couch, his eyes half closed, but he seemed reluctant to leave before Tony did.
Tony stood behind the couch, a mug of peppermint tea in his hands. It had sounded good when he’d gotten back, much to the surprise of the rest of the team, but he found it was mostly the smell he’d craved; it was one of the last things he really remembered well.
He found he missed Steve: their easy closeness, the way they’d shared space, the touches that seemed out of place in this century. It also made him think of the apartment, the hot bath, and Steve putting him to bed, protecting him the only way he knew how by hiding the arc reactor.
The fever dreams, and the last thing Steve had said to him: I love you, and I can’t lose you too.
Tony came around the couch and stood just off to the side, not quite in Steve’s line of sight. “Did you ever turn that radio on again?” he found himself asking before he’d even consciously thought about it.
Steve’s eyes opened wide, and he shot up to sit on the edge of the couch. “What did you say?”
“The radio,” Tony answered. “You listened to it all the time. And then you stopped after your mother died. Did you ever turn it on again?”
Steve’s eyes widened, his eyebrows climbing on his forehead. He looked at Tony hard, considering. “Tony,” he said, standing up slowly, “when was the last time you were in Brooklyn?”
“December,” Tony said, a little breathless, “1939.”
“January,” Steve corrected, moving to stand right in front of Tony. “It was actually January, 1940.” He put his hands on Tony’s hips for a moment before pulling at his long-sleeved t-shirt. Tony let him yank it over his head. The blue light of the arc reactor shined between them, reflecting in Steve’s blue eyes as he looked down at it. “It’s still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Steve hesitated, his hand hovering as he looked at Tony, seeking permission. Tony nodded almost imperceptibly, eyes on Steve’s, and Steve traced the edge as he had before. He sighed, covering the arc reactor so that the blue light came between his fingers, and leaned his forehead against Tony’s. “We never knew what happened — you just disappeared. Bucky had just come home and gone in to check on you. A minute later, he went back in and you were just — gone. I was glad he was home when it happened, because he would have never believed me if I’d told him that. He’d’ve thought I was lying to him, that you’d — died — or left.”
“I would never have just left,” Tony whispered back. He reached around Steve’s neck and pulled at the beaded metal chain around his neck. The dog tags slid out from under Steve’s t-shirt, and Tony held them in the palm of his hand. The metal was warm from the heat of Steve’s body, and there, hanging next to the tag with Steve’s name, service number, a date, blood type, family contact, and religion, was the silver St. Monica medal.
Tony gently placed the tags back against Steve’s chest and felt Steve’s fingers brush against his bare skin. “God, Tony, you were so sick. I was sure you were going to die. And then when it happened here —?” He shook his head, pulling away. “I couldn’t watch it a second time. I thought I could — but I—”
Tony reached up and cupped Steve’s face, gently kissing him. Steve wrapped his arms around Tony’s waist and buried his face into Tony’s neck. He started to cry, his tears warm on Tony’s bare neck and chest. Tony gently stroked the back of Steve’s head and murmured into his hair.
They made their way back to the couch and lay down, Steve with his head resting on Tony’s chest. The tears came for a long time for both of them, and Tony could feel the tension ebb from Steve’s shoulders as he finally set down so many of the burdens he’d been carrying for so very long: the loss of his mother and Tony and Bucky; the loss of the world he’d grown up in and known; the loss of the Commandos and Peggy; the loss of any sense of home and belonging.
Tony had one hand tangled in Steve’s hair, and he slid his phone out of his pocket with his free one, taking care not to disturb Steve, whose breathing had finally evened out. One-handed, he typed out a quick request to Jarvis before setting his phone aside on the coffee table. The soft sounds of reeds filtered through the speakers, the muted horns coming in behind with the drumset anchoring the orchestra. Tony then fell asleep to the sounds of The Nearness of You filling the room.