Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
Howard Stark died, as was his wont, at the most inconvenient time Tony could imagine. He was halfway through his Human Factors in Biomedical Engineering final, and killing it, for the record, when a person - a secretary, Tony thought - entered the room and handed a note to Prof. Collins.
Collins looked directly at Tony with the most mournful expression, and thanked the woman.
"Stark," he said, inclining is head toward the door. Tony followed his professor into the hall, to find out that his parents' plane went down over an unexciting stretch of land in Oklahoma earlier that day, and they were killed on impact, with everyone on board.
Tony nodded and walked back into the room to finish his exam. He figured that his parents would still be dead when he was done.
Obie wanted to send a limo, a private plane, something, but Tony took the last $20 out of the bank account his father refused to fund, even if he was paying Tony's tuition, and bought a bus ticket.
In later years, he will think of the trip from Boston to Long Island as the first leg, as the part he had to do to get started, but when he was sitting on the bus, his hair uncombed and his walkman blaring some mix that Rhody's girl - a woman named Cynthya who Tony desperately needed to sleep with and who saw him as an adorable younger brother - had made him, he only felt numb.
She had pressed the tape into his hand and smiled. "Simon and Garfunkel," she said. "Track one. It'll get you through this."
Tony didn't know about that, but he appreciated the tape all the same, the sappy lovelorn nonsense of side one, and the moody depression of side two, all mapped out in her curly handwriting, the letter i dotted in a heart every time.
"For Tony, in his time of grief. Cynthya."
Tony listened, but didn't hear, because every strum of the guitar brought him closer to his parents' house - which hadn't been home for a long time, not since Northwood Academy tried to beat the genius out of him - where he would put on a suit and be shuffled around by Obie and a string of servants and helpers until he was expected to stand before his parents' caskets and say something meaningful.
The tape ended, and Tony flipped it again, thinking that he should really invent something that didn't need flipping, something more economical for carrying music.
The funeral was bright and sunny, and full of crying people. Everyone was crying, all the time. Well, Tony wasn't, mostly because he couldn't breathe, but even Obie had wept when he picked Tony up from the bus depot, folding him in a wet hug.
He had actually dressed himself, a Led Zeppelin t-shirt under his white button-down, to remind him who he was. The interview requests were pouring in, Obie told him, magazines that wanted to talk to Young Anthony Stark about what he would be doing with Stark Industries, and was he even qualified to run it?
Obie was deflecting them, taking care of Tony. Which was fine with him - he wasn't even 18 yet, he didn't think he could legally hold the CEOship of a company, even if he was the majority stockholder.
"You do it," he whispered to Obie as someone named Peggy or Penny who Tony recognized from his father's pictures of the war got up to speak, the fiftieth testament to the man Howard Stark wasn't, and the woman no one seemed to remember.
"Give the eulogy?"
"No," Tony shook his head. That wasn't something he could give away. "I'm gonna - I'm gonna go. Tomorrow. Take the Harley and just go for a while. You be CEO. I'll take it when I come back."
Obie made a thoughtful noise, but he didn't question Tony, which was always a plus in their relationship.
And then, time passing too quickly and too slowly in turns, the manner Tony had begun to associate with his grief, it was his turn to speak.
He shifted from foot to foot, standing at the front of the room, his palms sweating and smudging the ink on his notecards.
Tony shook his head to clear it, and then smiled. If he had to speak, if he had to do this, he was going to do it like Tony Stark. He put down the notecards and cleared his throat.
"For those about to mourn," he began, the words sticking in his throat. "I salute you."
Summer time and the wind is blowing outside
In lower Chelsea and I don't know
What I'm doing in this city
The sun is always in my eyes
Somewhere before they defeat Loki but after he rescues the civilians in the bank, Steve Rogers thinks I need a vacation.
It's a pretty silly thought and he knows it, a vacation for a man who slept for 70 years, but he thinks about it, really thinks about it for the few moments they have, taking the elevator up to Tony's penthouse to collect Loki, and he realizes he doesn't need a vacation.
He needs an escape.
So when Thor takes his brother, when they disappear into the great unknown, Steve is set to follow them. He's been awake for a month, seen enough to keep him from sleeping ever again, but he needs to know, more than anything else, what America has become. What's he has become.
It doesn't escape his notice that, since he woke up, the most normal people he's known were Phil Coulson and Maria Hill, both of whom he's pretty sure could kill a man without breaking a sweat. Well, could have.
In the war, in the forties, Steve knew what he was fighting for. He knew the people in his neighborhood; the men in the unemployment line and the women in their kitchen gardens and the kids in the streets. But now, he's not sure if he can be Captain America when he isn't sure what America even is.
So he tells Tony over schwarma that he wants a motorcycle, wants to take a trip, and the next day the keys are in his hands.
"Where will you go?"
He's not sure who asks it - Clint, maybe, or Bruce - but Steve just smiles. "Somewhere where the sun isn't in my eyes," he says, and declines to elaborate.
If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now
'Cause there's too many places I've got to see
Tony had been in Key West for a week, he thought. Maybe more. Maybe less. Time was still moving at its own pace, and he gave up trying to keep track of it.
He'd been shaking up with a woman named Jessica who didn't know he was 17, or that he was Anthony Stark. He picked up some Sun-In at a People's Drug in Virginia, and though he thought the blond looks stupid on him, no one doubted that his name was Tom Schwartz and he was from Maine.
Jessica had a boyfriend who went by Snake who Tony was also sleeping with, and it suited him better than anything he had done, relationship-wise, before. They found him on the beach his third day on the Key, drinking Miller Light and smoking while sitting on his bike.
"It's not spring break," Jessica said, watching Tony's throat bob as he swallowed. "They don't like open containers here."
Tony had shrugged, mostly because he was too drunk right then to do much else. He'd been drinking on the beach all day, and maybe it was because it was May, maybe it was because he was Tony Stark, no one had tried to stop him yet.
"My parents are dead," he slurred, when Jessica and Snake didn't move on.
"We have something for that," Snake told him, and Tony didn't have the good sense not to follow them home like the lost puppy he was.
"Something," as it turned out, was a whole shit ton of pot.
Snake offered Tony a needle a few times, offered whatever it was he heated on a spoon and injected, but Tony was pretty sure he had heard something on TV about needles, sharing needles, being a bad idea, and even if he was having sex with these people, he didn't want to be stupid.
So he spent most of May high as he could get, forgot his own birthday, and then as June faded into July, Tony found he had about an inch of his natural black hair fading into the blond he put in and he didn't remember it ever having had time to grow.
"What's your plan?" Jessica asked him one night as they waited in her Chevy for Snake to get off of his shift bussing tables at the Shoney's. (Tony knew he could set these two up for life and never feel the missing money, but they never asked where his money came from, and he never had to call Obie to get his trust payout, so he paid his share and didn't tell them who he was.)
"What do you mean?"
"It's July, Tom. You were only gonna stay a few weeks, and it's been like - months?"
He was tired of the way Jessica talked, the affected Valley Girl routine, but she was right. It was time for him to go somewhere else, because he was starting - just starting - to like Key West.
"I was thinking about heading out, going west."
"West," she echoed, stretching the word out to taste every letter. "West. What's west?"
Tony shrugged and Snake exited the building, lit up a smoke and crawled into the back seat, ruffling Tony's hair and kissing Jessica so that smoke curled out her nostrils.
"I don't know," Tony said, but the next morning, before dawn, he was gone, five crisp twenty dollar bills left on the night stand in their room.
He thought about leaving a note, too, something to thank them for the roof and the pot, but he decided that the less they knew, the better. Maybe someday, when he had his shit together, he would look them up, but he doubted they would remember him.
Can't you look at me once?
And please if you got a minute
Enjoy this lonely sky with me
It'll swallow us whole if we only let it
Steve pulled his bike into a gas station in a one-traffic-light town somewhere in central Kansas in part because he needed gas and in part because his phone had been vibrating in his shirt pocket off and on for the better part of the day and he was worried the world might be ending.
He liked the interstate system, he decided that somewhere in Tennessee when he figured out how easy it was not to get lost. He tried to visualize what this ride might have been like before, back roads and twisting passes through tiny towns and maybe it would have been more interesting, but Steve was still glad that there was some structure to the roads now.
He had 6 missed calls - one from Bruce, one from Natasha, two from Clint, one from SHIELD headquarters, and one from that unknown Oregon number that kept trying to talk to him about car insurance. He figured that, if Clint had needed him enough to call twice, he would get the call back, and tried not to think about the name missing from that list.
He found the Starkphone intuitive, for all the phone-themed uses. He was still a little bewildered by the idea that it was a camera and the internet and it sent letters, but he was a quick learner - his brain was still 24, after all, and he was picking up technology as he went.
"Barton," Clint said, answering his phone like he was on the job which, seeing as it was 6pm in Kansas on a Saturday, Clint shouldn't be, but spies kept their own hours.
"Barton, it's Rogers."
"Rogers, man! How's - where the hell are you?"
Steve shrugged, forgetting that Clint wouldn't see the gesture. He always did that with phones - he used to do it with radios back in the army, too.
"Somewhere in Kansas."
"Huh," Barton said. "I knew a girl in Topeka once. Her husband wasn't happy about that."
Steve laughed in spite of himself. "You're trouble. What do you need?"
"You've been gone for two weeks. Fury wants Hill to know where you are, and I wanted to know if you found America yet."
Steve had been traveling slowly, taking time to see things that looked interesting along the way, historical houses in Pennsylvania and a ball game in Cleveland and the Sears Tower in Chicago. He didn't have a route planned, just wanted to see what was out there. And what he had found was quiet. Steve was in love, a little bit, with the quiet that came with the purr of his bike, the rush of wind past his ears, the trucks rattling past him on the road. Once he hit his pace, it was almost like meditation.
And the stars. Steve had found the stars, nearly as bright as they had been in Italy, in a field in Michigan, where he lay out one night, letting the quiet and the majesty wash over him. He had stared at the moon, thinking about the pictures they showed him, the American flag that was up there somewhere, and the small steps and great leaps it signified.
"Tell Hill to tell Fury," he said, "that I'm in Kansas, and tell yourself that I'm not sure America is really what I'm looking for."
Steve could hear the smile in Clint's voice as he replied.
"Be safe, Cap. And call home every so often. Mommy Fury worries about her ducklings."
"I don't know what's more upsetting, thinking of Fury in my mother's housecoat or imagining you gluing feathers to Stark."
"Don't give me ideas."
"I never would," Steve said as the pump made its 'hey-you're-done' noise. "You need anything else? I wanna try and make Mount Rushmore before the sun comes up."
"Don't drive all night, Cap."
"I don't need to sleep like you do, Barton. I took some serum and then a really long nap."
"Still. Driving all night does things to a body. Rushmore will be there in a few days."
"Yeah, sure," Steve had no intention of stopping in Nebraska unless something caught his fancy, and as he was driving through at night, he didn't think anything would. "I'll stop if I get tired."
"Right, okay, Cap."
"Thanks for the call, Barton."
They hung up then, and Steve tucked the phone back into his shirt pocket, where he would feel it if anyone tried to call him.
When he stopped four hours later at a motel in Nebraska, only partway to his destination, there was a text message from Tony that just said "Crazy Horse Memorial is better."
Steve didn't reply.
A thin moon me in the smoke screen sky
Where the beams of your love light chase
Don't move don't speak don't feel no pain
With the rain running down my face
Tony picked up Tiffany in Amarillo, at a bar that he couldn't remember the name of. She was a pharmacy student at Texas Tech, and she seemed to think that Peter from Maryland, who was Tony's current alias, was worth adventuring with.
He was a month out of Key West, and the summer was fading in his wake. He knew he wanted to cross the Nevada desert before October set in, but he figured he had two weeks to spend in a tent with a beautiful woman.
They drove out to Colorado, her on the back of his bike, laughing and clinging for dear life. She was from a reservation in the south of the state, a Ute Indian by blood, and she was happy to show Tony the best ways to go, bypassing Las Vegas for Sante Fe, where he rented a hotel room and they made love in a gentle way that he wasn't used to, nothing like the frantic, high sex he had with Jennifer and Snake, nothing like the midnight fumbles with other MIT students, too drunk or too dumb to know who he was.
She fell asleep on his chest, talking quietly about what she wanted to do in the future, how she was going to change modern medicine and make sure her tribe had what they need and honestly, Tony stopped listening at some point, but her voice was beautiful and she was beautiful, and he liked the feel of her in his arms, the way her breath tickled his skin as she talked.
She went quiet and her breathing evened out, her fingers stopped tracking idle patterns across his stomach, and he pressed a kiss to her forehead to test her consciousness - she didn't move, just sighed a little.
"My parents are dead," he said, the same as he had to Jessica and Snake in Key West, to Pedro in Jackson, to Natalie in New Orleans, all of them choosing, after that bomb, to let him into their lives, their beds. He hadn't done that with Tiffany, hadn't felt the need to use a line on her, not after the way she had stared at him across the bar.
She didn't respond to his voice, and he was glad.
"My father flew the plane, flew it right into the ground. I guess he couldn't stand the idea that I might graduate college and surpass him. Had to do something to stop me, make sure I knew I would never be--"
Tony knew that if he kept talking he would cry, that his voice was dangerously close to cracking. He shifted Tiffany off his shoulder gently, and she curled into herself, knees tucking up over the swell of her belly to make her look miniscule. She stopped moving after only a moment, dead asleep, and he slid out of bed and padded in bare feet to the bathroom.
He flipped the light on and watched a rather impressive cockroach scuttle across the floor to hide under the sink. He decided to let it live - he wasn't planning to live here, he wanted to spend some nights in the air, with his new friend, and he figured there was no better way to start the back-to-the-Earth process than to pretend he cared about the life of a cockroach.
Tony peered at himself in the smudged mirror, and all he could see was the disappointment of his father etched across every plane of his face - he looked older than 18, he thought, and younger somehow, too. He hurt.
He wondered what his mother would say if she could see him, if she knew that he had spent the last five months smoking, drinking and fucking across the southeast and into the west. He knowed what his father would have said, the yelling and the barely-masked scorn. But he wondered about his mother, who was so often quiet, so often the arms he ran to, the one who bandaged his scrapes and sang him songs and didn't put up a scrap of fight when his father wanted to send him to military school.
But Maria had always written, every week like clockwork, and when he was accepted to MIT at 13, she was proud enough to come up to the school and get him, to drive from Long Island all the way upstate to his prison, and take him to get ice cream.
Howard had been too busy to join them.
The tears came then, unbidden, to Tony's eyes. He didn't want to remember that day, laughing in the easy way they had, planning how they would manage to get him care up there, he was just 13, could he live in a dorm? And her promise - the one that said she would be there, the proudest mom in the hall, when he graduated. And that his father would be there, too.
It wasn't her fault that she didn't get to go to his graduation and, thinking on it, it wasn't like he had exactly showed up himself. But it was hard, he thought, to know that she would never see his name on that sheepskin.
Maybe his father would have been proud, too, maybe it would have been good enough, but his mother -- he didn't have to wonder about his mother.
He bit down on the sob that threatened to burst from his chest, stepped back into the room to grab his pants, the room key, and a jacket, and slid into the night air outside their room. He slipped his cigarettes out of his pocket and flipped open the lid, pressing one between his lips, but not lighting it.
He walked, realizing he forgot his shoes when it was too late to go back, across the parking lot and into the grassy area that separated this motel from the interstate. And he sat there, box of cigarettes crushed in his hind, ruining the ones that were left.
He didn't cry. He tried to, tried as hard as he could to reclaim the feeling of isolation that had gripped him in the dingy bathroom, but it was gone.
When she woke in the morning, Tony told Tiffany he was going to take her home - wherever she decided that was. She gave him directions to the reservation, never asking why he had changed his mind or if she did something wrong, but when they got there, three and a half hours north of Santa Fe, she slipped her helmet off and handed it to him.
"I'm sorry about your parents," she said, and didn't wait for his reply before she shouldered her bag and walked away.
Tony revved his engine and left the way he had came, a vivid red bitemark on the back of his hand. If anyone had noticed and bothered to measure, which of course no one did, they would have realized that it was Tony's own teeth that had made the mark, his hand stuffed into his mouth to stop him from saying anything stupid in the night.
He gave up on California, and turned his bike north and east. There were things to see there, and it was a step closer to going home.
I met a girl who kept tattoos for homes
That she had loved
If I were her I'd paint my body
Until all my skin was gone
Steve sat in a park somewhere in San Francisco, in the shadow of a white church.
He wasn't sure how he found this place or when he would find another, but the thing he thought he loved the most about the cities he'd been to so far, the big ones with more people than sense, was that they took time for green. He was used to that, used to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, with the skating rink in it now, and vast green swath of Central Park, where, if you concentrated, you could just almost forget the city.
San Francisco wasn't like that, was more likely to have a lawn where you could still see the street, didn't try to build the illusion. In some ways, Steve thought, he was thankful for the honesty.
He was settled in, well and good, under a tree with a book of poetry in his lap - he had picked it up somewhere in Utah, seeing the name Alan Ginsburg and thinking that he had heard someone mention it, Natasha, maybe?, and that he should read it.
It was a little raw, though, a little true and a little painful. Steve read it in short bursts, which he was sure was how it was written, thought after thought bled onto the page like a suicide.
He was struggling with the book, trying to decide if he would open it or not, when he felt a presence next to him.
"Hi," the man said, offering Steve his hand has he sat next to him in the grass. "I'm Matt."
Steve took his hand, marveling at the smoothness of his fingers, noticing the dirt under his nails. "Steve."
"How long you been back, Steve?" Matt asked, plucking a blade of grass and rolling it between his fingers.
"You got that look," Matt said. "We all have it at first. Where were you? Iraq? Afghanistan? Libya?"
"Oh," Steve shook his head. "Deployment. Um. I guess -two months since I came back, but it's more like seventy years."
"I hear that."
Steve really doubted he did, but he smiled at the man anyway.
"How long for you?"
Matt shrugged. "Three years. They got me in don't ask, you know. I could go back, I guess. But I'm used to civilian life."
Steve nodded. He had thought about reenlisting, briefly, but he wasn't sure he wanted to fight the wars the nation was involved in these days. He got in to fight bullies, to protect people, and he wasn't sure that he would still be fighting for that, if he went back in. There was too much to know, too much to understand about the Cold War and the Iran Contra and 9/11, and he wasn't sure he would ever understand, so he would fight the battles he got, and not be anyone's pawn.
"So, this is super forward and all," Matt grinned, the smile of a confident and attractive man, "but do you want to have the best freaking burger you've ever eaten?"
Steve returned the smile, noticing the flecks of green in the other man's brown eyes, knowing that he was being asked for more than a burger, and that it was socially acceptable, in the here and now for two men to have... burgers.
"Yeah," Steve said, shoving his copy of Howl back into his rucksack, keeping company with all his other earthly possessions. "I'd like that."
Matt was an Airman before he was discharged, had seen some combat and run a lot of boring patrols, and Steve was even able to tell some of his stories, carefully edited, to keep up with his new friend. After burgers, Matt invited Steve back to his apartment to meet Bakr, the sand-colored kitten he had found in Iraq, and who had come home with him to grow into a fat, happy, lazy cat.
"Was it hard to bring her back?" Steve asked, watching the animal roll onto her back in a sunbeam.
Matt kissed him instead of answering, and Steve leaned into it, tasting the sweetness of the ice cream they had shared on the walk here as the other man's tongue swiped across Steve's and his hands came up to cradle Matt's chin.
Despite what Tony thought, Steve was no blushing virgin. He was no stranger to the notion of casual sex, which had absolutely existed in the forties, thank you Clint.
"This is my first time, you know-" Steve panted, as Matt's hands skimmed the waistband of his pants, "-with a man."
Matt smiled sweetly, and kissed Steve again before pulling back to strip off his shirt.
He was heavily tattooed, words and pictures across his abdomen, the most interesting canvas Steve had seen in a long time.
"You say stop, we stop," Matt said, and took Steve's hand, leading him back to the bedroom.
Steve didn't need to say stop, didn't need to do anything but enjoy the crashing waves of pleasure as they swapped blow jobs (Steve was terrible at it at first, but Matt was patient and he got better, but Steve found it strange that Matt insisted they both wear skins for the act, something about disease that Steve assumed was paranoia or the clap, but he didn't ask because it was something he should know) and finally, well slicked with each other's spit, Matt had maneuvered Steve onto his side, lined their bodies up and gripped their cocks together, the sweet slip-slide friction something better than Steve had ever felt.
After, still breathing heavily, Steve wondered if he should leave, if there were special rules for men in these situations, or what. Matt seemed content to lie there, on his back, one arm under his head, staring at the ceiling.
Steve reached out, tentatively, and touched the words on Matt's side, a ragged line across his ribs, Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.
"It means," Matt said, without being asked, "I answer without fear of being shamed. From Dante, and Eliot's Prufrock. I figured - I got it when I was discharged. I figured I was already in shame for what I am, might as well get a reminder that it was what it was."
"What about this one?" Steve asked, touching a shape, shaded blue, just below Matt's heart.
"Lake Superior," Matt said. "I grew up in Duluth, and my dad used to take us fishing there. I got it when he died a few years back."
"I never really knew my dad," Steve said sadly, and Matt turned his head to look at Steve's face.
"Heavy talk for just having met," he said, and Steve raised his eyebrows.
"Just having met and - fucked," he said, the word still uncomfortable on his tongue, but he wasn't sure what other word to use for what they did. But that was probably his cue, so he sat up. "I should get going."
Matt nodded. "Okay. It was nice to meet you, Steve. You in town long?"
Steve slid out of bed, grabbing his pants from the floor where they had been discarded, his underwear jammed down into the legs. "No. Leaving tonight."
"Well," Matt stretched languidly. "Have a safe trip."
"Yeah," Steve nodded, and found his shirt on the couch. "I will. Thanks."
He grabbed his rucksack up from where he had dropped it next to the door, and left, slightly ashamed of his behavior, and slightly giddy.
On the ride out of town that night, heading south to check out the hubbub of Hollywood, Steve realized what he had liked about Matt, besides the confidence, the knowing what he wanted and taking it, was his brown eyes, his black hair, and the smirk on his lips. The fact that he reminded Steve of someone else was noted, and then pushed aside. He had left New York in part to get away from that idea, and it had chased him across the country.
He rode through the night, skipped over the exit for LA, and steered his bike east, into the desert, in search of silence and stars.
They say that these are not the best of times
But they're the only times I've ever known
And I believe there is a time for meditation
In cathedrals of our own
Tony didn't remember getting to Chicago, but he woke up there all the same, six months, two weeks and four days after his parents died. Not that he was counting. He thought it might be November, though, or maybe December. It was cold.
He only knew it was Chicago because the stationary on the desk said it was, and Tony tried to believe stationary whenever possible. It was less likely to lie to him than people, anyway.
He sat up from the bed he was on, still fully clothed and with a mouth that tasted like he'd been licking gutters for the past three weeks. Which, well, he might have. He was alone in the room, which was a miracle, as he was relatively sure he'd fucked half the women in America at this point, and about a quarter of the men. He'd given his bike away somewhere in Wisconsin, which he knew that because he found a note in the pocket of his jeans that said "You gave your bike away in Wisconsin."
He stumbled to the bathroom, staring at his blood-shot eyes and ragged hair, still blond at the tips from Key West, but now it reached past his shoulders, and it faded to native black by the time he got to the roots.
"What are you doing?" he asked, scooping a handful of water into his mouth. "You're Tony Stark."
His reflection didn't reply, which he figured was a good thing, so he took a shower, found some clothing that didn't reek of vomit and booze, and stumbled his way downstairs to buy a phone card and find a pay phone.
He hesitated before dialing, because there was no universe in which this conversation was going to be easy for him, but eventually he called the number he had memorized as a little boy, back when it had been his dad's office line.
"Mr. Stane's office, Janice speaking."
"Hi, Janice. This is Tony Stark. Can I talk to Obie?"
Obie was livid, but it was in his own special Obie-way that meant he was more relieved to hear from Tony than he left on.
And when Tony asked him to send a plane, he did, even if he called Tony an idiot for giving away the bike - it had been his father's, and Tony was sure that meant Captain America had given it to him, and they probably called it the FreedomCycle.
There was a familiarity in the jet, a glass of champagne for his triumphant return, and a change of clothes, a razor and a promise of a barber when they got to the summer home in Malibu.
"Did you get what you needed?" Obie asked, as they set down at Van Nuys Airport, and Tony donned a ball cap and dark glasses to make the transfer to the limo as inconspicuous as he could.
He stopped trying to make sure his lank hair was all tucked up and surveyed Obie for a long moment. "No," Tony said after a long moment. "But I got what I wanted."
"And what is it you want?"
"I -- Obie, I don't want to be a paper pusher. You keep doing that part, go to meetings and deal with the board. I'll build things, and we'll take my modest fortune and make it a ridiculous one, you and me. Together. Yeah?"
"Head of R&D," Obie said, thoughtfully.
"Yeah. Tell the papers that I'm - I don't know, working my way through the departments. I'll be a figurehead, but I don't want to run things. That's you."
Obie offered his hand, and Tony shook it. "You got it," he said, smiling. "And there's a girl in the steno pool I think you'll like. Virginia Potts."
"Obie," Tony laughed as the plane's door opened and sunlight flooded the cabin, "who the fuck still calls it a steno pool?"
This change I been feeling
Doesn't make the rain fall
No big differences these days
Just the same old walkaways
Steve had always intended, when he thought his trip out, that he would go to DC last.
He had never gone, not even when he was traveling with the USO. SHIELD had offered to let him meet the president when he woke up, to get his roughly 45 medals pinned to him (and they were so cute with their lies that the Leader of the Free World wanted to meet Steve Rogers, like he knew who that was) but in the end, he was too overwhelmed with the prospect, and had declined.
(Though after the Battle of Manhattan, as Tony called Loki's incursion, they had all gotten personal calls from the President, and boy was that awkward. And Steve thought he didn't know how to talk to girls.)
He drive into the city from the east, from Virginia, and it was amazing how it felt like something special was happening, the way the suburban sprawl disappeared behind him suddenly, as he crossed the river, and give way to streets lined with trees, stop lights awkwardly placed off to the side, and looming white buildings that looked older than Steve knew they were.
He understood, then, why Natasha had said DC wasn't a real city. It had none of the feel of New York, or San Francisco, or even Milwaukee or Austin. It was a feeling all its own, a feeling like this city would be just fine without people, thank you.
He parked his bike along the mall, after getting directions from a man selling t-shirts from a white truck in the shadow of the Washington Monument.
Steve shoved his hands into his jacket as he walked, because it was brisk for early October, already a little biting here, but that didn't seem to deter the gaggle of children that emerged from a museum, calling and laughing, to load into a yellow school bus. He wondered what they had seen - Art, he hoped, but maybe airplanes or fossils - and resolved to stop by when he was done with what he needed to do.
The memorial he was looking for loomed into his view after walking for what seemed to be an inordinate number of blocks, all lined with museums that sat, white like the rest of this city, under a heavy gray sky. The squat bulk of the Lincoln Memorial was in front of him in the far distance, but in his path, before he got there, was a circular pool.
He stopped there, taking in the sight. It was mostly empty, just a few older people, walking between the columns or touching the wall of stars.
The World War Two Memorial announced itself with a stone; Here in the Presence of Washington and Lincoln, One the Eighteenth Century Father and the Other the Nineteenth Century Preserver of our Nation, We Honor Those Twentieth Century Americans Who Took Up the Struggle During the Second World War and Made the Sacrifices to Perpetuate the Gift Our Forefathers Entrusted to Us: A Nation Conceived in Liberty and Justice.
He read it twice, three times, and then smiled, kneeling down to touch the words. It seemed right.
He stood and stepped into the monument.
A wall of stars winked at him, one for every hundred men that died on the battlefields far from home. Steve was a little overcome at the magnitude of them - he had read about it, since his defrosting, but to see that many laid out in bronze in front of him, it felt like being crushed in a strange way, like being punished for surviving. He knew he could cross the river again, go southeast to Arlington and see his men's stones, Bucky's, and his own. But it seemed morbid, somehow, and he decided not to do it.
Instead, he turned and walked to the closest truck, one that sold the same 16 t-shirts as all the others, but also flowers, and bought a bouquet of six red carnations. Not much, but it was what they had.
Steve returned to the monument and sat on the edge of the pool, carefully plucking the petals one by one from the tight knots they bloomed from. When he had stripped four of the flowers, he laid the remaining two flowers by the words in front of the wall of stars, Here we mark the price of Freedom, and turned, dropping the single petals into the pool, where they sat heavy on top of the water in a clump.
Steve blushed, feeling embarrassed that his grand gesture - meant to fill the pool with swirling flecks of red, like blood on the snow of the Alps - had failed so spectacularly. He bent to scoop up the mess and laid them instead at the foot of the wall.
It was time for him to go home, he knew. He had one more thing to do there.
This isn't the end,
We're just getting started.
The road stretches on, and on, and on,
We're moving again.
Sun on our skin,
And cracks in the pavement.
We'll aim for a place we've never been,
It's all what we make it
Tony was alerted that Captain America was in the building long before the Hero Himself showed up in his lab. He wondered idly if Steve had gotten lost.
"You're back," he said, when the door opened, not looking up from the prototype he was making for Natasha, something more efficient than her current Widow's Bite.
"I'm back," Steve agreed, not moving from the doorway.
"How's the country? Still there?"
Tony looked up. It wasn't that Steve was normally talkative, but there was something wrong in his voice, something that made Tony uncomfortable.
"What's up, Cap?"
"You- the whole time I was gone, you sent me one text message."
"It wasn't even a good text message."
Tony exhaled. "What do you want from me? To send you chatty emails about my day? Hi, Steve, woke up at 6am, still drunk, Pepper is still in DC, she still won't talk to me about anything but business, Coulson is still dead, and you're still gone. Light breakfast, and then I worked in my lab until Jarvis locked me out. Love, Tony. There, you got my last six months."
"Tony--" Steve's brow furrowed.
"No, man I get it. I did that walkabout thing, too, when my dad died. Drove around, got drunk, had sex- lots of sex-"
"I missed you."
The silence was heavy between them, but Steve took another step into the room.
"Say that again, I have crazy in my ears."
"Tony, I missed you."
Steve felt his heart break a little for Tony, poor Tony, and so he took another step forward.
"Come up to your floor," he said. "It's almost sunset."
"Tony, shut up and come upstairs with me."
Tony shut up, and he went upstairs with Steve.
Steve talked in the elevator, on the way up, about eating tacos in Albuquerque, about visiting the Alamo, about the majesty of the Grand Canyon. Tony listened politely, not asking what was going on or why he was being taken to his own penthouse.
They stepped onto his apartment, the sunken living room and the bar painted a brilliant red-orange from the sun, sinking behind the buildings to the west.
"Pretty," Tony said, and Steve, of all the fucking - Steve reached out and took Tony's hand. "Um, Cap? What are you doing?"
Steve dropped his hand, a flush creeping up his ears. "Sorry I just - can we sit?"
"Yeah," Tony nodded, still a little bewildered, and they moved to the couches, sitting side by side, Steve staring straight ahead like Tony was some kind of gorgon or something, like looking would hurt.
"I- I left because I needed to sort my head out."
"And somewhere between San Francisco and Albuquerque, I did that. And I think - no I know - if I was still in 1941, I'm what they might call a confirmed bachelor."
"You've lost me."
"I like boys, Tony," Steve spit, "Men. For sex. And I want to kiss you."
"Oh," Tony smiled. "You had to leave to know you thought I was hot?"
Steve sighed. "No, I had to leave to find out what that meant for me."
They sat in silence for a moment, broken by Tony reaching over to hook a finger under Steve's chin, raising his face so they were making eye contact.
"When my dad died, my parents, I mean, I did the same thing you did. I smoked and drank and fucked across the country and back in 1987. And I didn't want to hear from anyone. I needed my thoughts, and to run. And if I hadn't given away - hey, did you give my dad a motorcycle?"
Steve laughed. "What?"
"I took this ancient Harley of his, and gave it away in Wisconsin. I just - Never mind. Anyway, I-- I thought your trip was to get away from all this, and I didn't want to crowd you."
"But," Tony leaned in towards Steve, so their foreheads just barely touched. "I find myself completely open to the idea of you crowding me."
"Oh, for fuck's sake."
Tony closed the gap between them, lips pressing together in the most chaste kiss Tony thought he ever had. He started to pull back, say something like "Are you sure?" but Steve snaked his arm around Tony's neck and opened his eyes, vividly blue like the all-American boy he was. Tony couldn't help himself, he leaned in again, nipping gently at Steve's lower lip.
Steve smiled into the kiss, and the next thing Tony knew, he was straddling Captain America on his couch in his New York penthouse, as the evening sun washed the room in the vivid fire of its death.
"What?" Steve asked, running his hand up Tony's side, eliciting a shiver.
"I was just thinking- what would my father say?"
Steve laughed, too, and leaned forward to suck a bruise on Tony's throat. "I'm pretty sure he would be proud of you, Tony. But do you really want to talk about that right now?"
"No," Tony murmured, reaching down to undo Steve's belt. "I really don't."
As the sun sets, sometimes, on clear nights, a rosy hue arcs across the sky, painting the sky the exact color of the inside of Tony Stark's wicked mouth. It's called the afterglow. Steve didn't see it that night, absorbed as he was in other things and people, well, one thing and one person, the singular oddity that was Tony Stark.
But there were other nights, and a thousand other Manhattan sunsets, and a long road ahread for him to travel, and he thought - he hoped - that he found someone who would go with him.