The congregation area was bare, the cold air forcing the patrons to the inside cafeteria. Steve and Natasha were the only ones outside, pressing aimlessly on their phones as they spoke lowly about whatever came to mind.
Peter stood by the opening door, his hands shoved into his pants pockets as he walked towards the duo.
"Hey, uh, Steve?" He said as he approached them.
Natasha looked up first, slightly smiling before Steve turned to look. "Oh, hey. Peter this is my friend Natasha, Natasha this is Tony's son Peter."
The two waved, quick salutations before Peter opened her mouth but Natasha quickly interjected. "I should be leaving, heading home," she insisted, "practice tonight." She began to gather her belongings, which consisted mostly of a gym bag and a drink. "Steve," she said with her hand placed on his leg. He reluctantly looked up at her. "Don't freak out, you got this. Nice meeting you, Peter."
"Nice meeting you, too," Peter called out as she walked away. Taking her seat, Peter looked back at her leaving then back to Steve. "She is hot, dude. If I were you, I'd legit go straight for her. Maybe a little bisexual."
Steve couldn't help but to laugh as he shook his head. "If only you knew her."
"What is she going to practice for?" Peter asked, eyes struggling to look away from the direction she disappeared in.
"Roller Derby. She's pretty good at it." He replied, still tapping away on his phone. Looking up, he caught Peter with his mouth open, still looking. "How are you and Gwen?"
"Who?" He asked, whipping his head back around. "Oh, Gwen, yeah, Gwendolyn. She's fine. We're good. I'm good."
"Hey, shouldn't you be getting ready for my dad's surgery?"
Steve looked up at the young man, his brown hair kept together by hair products. "I am. I mean, it's this afternoon so I'll be doing actual prep work a little later but on big days I distract myself kinda. I read articles, watch videos, call my aunt. Since it's your dad. I didn't want … stress myself. Psych myself out, ya’ know?”
Peter slowly nodded. “Sort of, I guess. Like before a big test?”
“Exactly,” Steve said with a proud nod. “But what’s up?”
Peter coughed, clearing his throat as he readjusted in the chair. “I wanted to say that I’m glad you’re doing this. I doubt you convinced him since he’s stubborn as hell but thanks. I don’t know what I would’ve done without him, ya’ know? I just, I really am glad you two met. He’s been through a lot and you get it which is what matters.”
Steve put down his phone, and thumbs at each corner of his mouth slowly rubbing his bottom lip. “It’s not a problem, Pete. I think if the tables were turned, he’d do the same for me.”
“Yeah, he’s like that,” Peter admitted absently. “Mom says if dad pulls through this then she’s getting you something nice. Knowing her, it’s gonna be fancy and expensive.”
Shaking his head, Steve didn’t know exactly what to say. “Tell her it’s not a big deal,” he managed to slip out.
“Guess I should go tell my dad good luck and hope he doesn’t die,” Peter jumped up to his feet.
Steve stared off as Peter left. His eyes were filled with confidence and hope. He was mortified, petrified down to his very bone but he was hopeful. It was a big thing, rearranging arteries to clear blood flow to his weakening heart, but he had to do it, something deep down inside of him told him that he had to do it.
“Hey, I’m going to walk around for a bit,” Rhodey informed Tony as he peeled himself from the bed.
Tony nodded, absentmindedly flicking his thumb nail from his index finger.
The door opened and closed as Rhodey left. Moments passed before the door opened again. Tony blinked out of his daze to comment to his newfound friend.
“Left without your pants again?” He said before looking over to the person at the door.
The man was short, shorter than Tony who stood five feet tall with a little over ten inches to spare. The man had dark brown eyes; his hair was a lighting gray and a thin, curved mustache to match. He was dressed in black slacks, a plain blue shirt tucked into the waist band as he has pockets were filled with his fists.
“What’re you doing here, Howard?” Tony asked as he readjusted on the lumpy bed.
Howard walked towards the man. “I just got back from a cruise. Saved my whole life for it and when we get back I hear that you’re sick again.”
“Right, that's when I get to see you, when I'm dying. Or close to dying. Well, third time's the charm, might be the end for me this time around so soak it up."
There was a flicker of a smile on Howard’s lip, a twitch of humor as he took a seat across from his son.
“You’ve always been bitter, you know? I mean, ever since you were a boy, you used to stay so angry at teachers for mispronouncing someone else's name or accidentally giving you a bad grade,” Howard scoffed a laugh. “I’m here because I’d like to see your face one last time before you go, if you go.”
“I’m sorry but I’m failing to understanding why you care to see me? I’m a fag, Howard. I’m a butt pirate, I’m a fairy, a twink, and I have a little sugar in my tank. I don’t know why you want to be seen talking to your sick faggot son.”
“Because you’re my son, Tony. You’re my son, I watched you come into this world so the least I could get in return is to watch you go out,” his voice carried louder over Tony’s.
Tony snickered. “The least I could get is for my father, who’s basically knocking on death’s door himself, to understand me. I’m not changing. I’m not going to be ashamed of who I am. I was gay when I had cancer, I was gay when I told you Chester was a great kisser, I was gay when you made me, old man.”
Howard looked away, his brows laced together as he flicked the tip of his tongue over his chapped lips. “You think I didn’t know that? I didn’t agree then and I don’t agree now but do you think I don’t love you?”
“Telling me not to come to my mother’s funeral-“
“You were invited, Anthony. You were invited just like the rest of your family and you were too stubborn to come. Don’t you ever sit here and tell me I forbid you to see her,” Howard barked.
Tony said nothing; reverting back to the scared child he was many, many years ago by sinking deeper into the bed.
“I wanted so much more for you. I knew you and Pepper were some cover up and I knew that Peter was her choice. I love him all the same but he wasn’t what you wanted, any fool could see that."
"Well then, Howard, you must be. I wanted my son. I wanted marriage, I wanted a family but to please you, I got what you wanted."
Howard ran a hand over his face. "When you got cancer the first time, I was more than sure it was AIDS. I was horrified to think that you’d go out like that. Imagine how that feels for a parent," Tony folded his arms. "Your mother told me about all the men and drugs, how none of them stuck around and how careless you got with your life, dragging Pepper along. I expected so much more for you, Tony. I wanted you to be an engineer or a scientist. Now, you teach the things you should be discovering and inventing and instead you’re out doing drugs, going to rehabs, getting high, and I don’t know what to expect from you," he said with his eyes glued to the man before him. "I didn't come here for this; I came to say that you'd be an idiot to think I wouldn't be here for you."
The man in the bed was looking away. Howard continued to stare at his son.
“I found someone,” Tony announced. “He’s a doctor, he’s nice, he’s kind, he’s dealt with me for this long and usually they all disappear after the first week or so.”
Howard looked away a deep sigh coming from his lips as he tried to gain a bit of decency inside of himself. “Are you happy?”
Tony never heard such a profound statement from his father. His father was a man to question wealth or status, occupation and upbringing, but happiness? Tony failed to compute until his mind ran over every small event between him and Steve that took place.
“Yes,” he said, “I’m very happy with him. I’m happy to be with him and to have him and, you may not agree, but I hope one day when you feel like you can get over me going outside of your plan for me, you can meet him.”
Howard still looked away, his jaw rotating side to side before he mumbled a response. “Alright, one day I will. As long as you promise not to die between then and now.”
“You’re the one who’s ringing heaven’s doorbell, old man.”
The door opened as Tony spoke. Pepper and Peter stepped inside with weak smiles. Peter was afraid still, as was Pepper, but they stood side by side. Peter was holding his mother’s hand as she tried not to fall apart right before the entire room.
“Theo is on his way, we passed him in the hall. They’re ready.”
Tony nodded, Howard stood to his feet to stand beside the small family beside Tony’s bed, Peter hugging his grandfather.
“Well, no time like the present.”
Theo knocked on the open door. “We’re ready for you.”
Peter held his father’s hand. “You’ll do great, dad. Tell your heart to get its shit together.”
Pepper nudged her foul mouth son as Tony kissed his small hand. They’d never be as small as they were when he was a boy, Tony would remember that. Pepper bent to kiss Tony’s forehead, once, twice, three times, five times, six times until she felt the tear stream. Tony hated seeing her cry; he hated watching her smile quiver as the tears streamed with no end. He didn’t want to remember that, he wanted to remember her kind words, her sweet voice, her contagious laugh, and her infectious smile. He wanted to remember the good about these people, the ones he loved all his life and all the way until… now.
Theo reclined his bed to a flat position. Hovering above him, wheeling him out the room and down the hall to the elevator, Theo wouldn’t stop smiling. Tony felt his chest pounding, screaming to be released and wanting him to run for the hills. He couldn’t, he didn’t. Instead, he smiled at Theo who couldn’t stop smiling himself.
“I’m in good hands, right?”
“In the absolute best, Mr. Stark.”
“The best,” he whispered to himself, almost reciting.
The elevator dinged and he continued to be wheeled to his location. The lights on the ceiling blinked above him as he moved until the room was blue, a deep oceanic blue that made him feel at ease just a bit. Sliding over to the perfect location, he was still, frozen to the bed as he refused to look anywhere else but up.
Then, there he was, hovering above him with his lips painted into a wide grin that made his eyes glisten with the small bit of light they had.
“Hey there, sunshine,” Tony cooed as he thought about everything he wanted to remember.
“Hey,” Steve replied. “We’ve been over the procedure, yes?” Tony nodded. “We’ve discussed all that needs to be discussed, correct?” Tony nodded again. “Alright, we’re going to put you under, and when you wake up, you’ll be all better.”
“Will I see you?”
Steve’s eyes were locked onto Tony’s, his jaw clenched as he tried not to hesitate or too long. “I hope to God you do.”
His face was gone, the ceiling coming back into full view before the gas mask floated over to his mouth. The anesthesiologist began to talk, asking him to count back from ten. Tony counted, images of his family flashing before his yes.
Peter as a baby with red chubby cheeks and his fat belly. Over there was Pepper with her hair sprayed in that 80’s up-do that he hated, yet loved so much. Down there was Bruce with his kind eyes and always genuine smile. Here there was Rhodey, his new friend who he really wanted to know. Then, right before him, Steve with his morning eyes, barely open barely closed, but his face made for his smile, the small ray of sunshine held between his cheeks. Lastly, there was Tony’s mother Maria, sitting off to the far corner of his mind with her arms wide as she embraced the young boy.
Tony wanted to remember these people as they were.