Steve’s favorite part of Mister Fixit’s Hardware Store is the smell. The scent of a hardware store is one of the few things about the world that hasn’t changed a bit in the last seventy years. There’s nothing like the combined scent of wood, metal, oil, plastic, saw dust and regular dust to send Steve’s synapses firing back into pleasant recollections of the past. Mister Fixit’s smells just like Ace Hardware down on 9 th used to.
Tuesday afternoons are always quiet. The store can manage with just two of them on staff, and the store does well enough overall that he doesn’t have to worry about closing it on Tuesdays. He likes that it’s open as much as possible. He likes giving back to the community that has accepted him as one of their own.
He’s busy stacking up tins of wood stain, making sure each tin faces forwards, when the bell over the front door jangles and two customers enter. It’s Marian’s turn to be the greeter this afternoon, so Steve leaves her to it. Marian’s his favorite employee, even though he’s probably not supposed to have favorites. Even though she’s his favorite, Steve still doesn’t listen to most of her requests when it comes to wanting things like electronic registers or doors that go beep. Some stores in the vicinity have more technology in their operations than Mister Fixit’s does, but Steve keeps things old-school. A bell over the door works just fine.
The community thinks Mister Fixit’s has traditional values as part of its theme.They have no idea it’s because the store’s owner was literally born over ninety years ago, and although Steve’s been awake and part of the modern world since the 80s, technology and Steve really don’t get along. That’s why the background music system is older than most of the Fixit employees would like; it still works, but it refuses to play anything louder than a murmur. It suits Steve just fine, but it does mean he can hear most customer’s conversations in the store. Sometimes that’s more of a curse than a blessing.
Today’s overheard conversation doesn’t seem to be too bad.
“C’mon, Dad, let’s just ask him.” The first voice is high-pitched. A boy, Steve thinks.
The man who responds has a low, rumbling voice, tinged with a hint of obvious frustration. “Brian, remember what I said? There’s no such person as Mister Fixit. We’re here to look for a pair of pliers so I can try and fix it myself.”
“Uh-uh, it says Mister Fixit on all the signs, and on the advert, I’m sure he’s here,” the boy – Brian, apparently – says with a firm nod. Then Brian sees Steve and yells, “See, Dad! I told you! I told you he would be here! Mister Fixit. Mister Fixit. Over here!”
Steve shoots a look back to where Marian is at the main register. She shrugs at him and points at aisle 4. When Steve turns to look down the aisle, he’s greeted to the sight of young Brian waving something red and gold directly in front of Steve’s face.
“Mister Fixit!” Brian shrieks. “I need your help!”
For the briefest second, there’s something in the kid’s face that reminds him suddenly and achingly of Bucky, and Steve’s hands are out to reach for the toy before he can help it. There’s a lump in his throat he doesn’t want to think about. Bucky’s dead. He has to remember that. There was a rumor he chased, all through the nineties, that someone matching Bucky’s description had been seen, that maybe the mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier was him, but Steve chased that rumor for a decade and came away with nothing, so he can only think it was a rumor designed to distract him.
That’s all in the past now. The boy passes him the toy, and Steve glances at it. It’s an Iron Man toy. Its tiny face stares at him, mouth slit set in a firm, impassive line.
Steve squints at the toy. Is the little superhero figure judging him?
“I’m sorry,” Brian’s dad says, catching up to them. He doesn’t look like Bucky. Steve guesses Brian got his eyes from his mom. “It’s his favorite toy. Sadly, little Iron Man took a header off Brian’s dresser. He didn’t survive.”
Steve looks at the toy with a more clinical eye, pushing his emotions to the side for later.
“Well, looks like Iron Man survived, he just got a little bashed up,” Steve says. “Just give me a second, let’s see what I can do.”
“Thank you so much, Mister Fixit!” Brian yells.
Holding the Iron Man toy carefully in both hands, deeply aware of Brian watching his every move, Steve moves over to the employee’s workstation, usually used for cutting things down for size. Marian glances over at him.
Brian’s dad looks a little nervous. “Is this okay?” he asks, keeping his voice quiet for Brian’s sake. “I mean, will you get in trouble for it?”
Steve shrugs gently. “I’ve got an in with the owner. Besides– if you’re stopping by for pliers, we have some nice ones. They’re always useful.”
Brian’s dad smiles at the implication they won’t be charged if they buy something. “Gotcha.”
“Hey, Brian,” Steve says, crouching down to Brian’s eye level. “Why don’t you go help your dad look at tools while I take a look at Iron Man, huh?”
Brian takes a longing look at his toy, before straightening and nodding. “I’ll do my best to help Dad find the best pair of pliers, Mister Fixit. You can count on me!”
Steve straightens and laughs as the boy tries to careen off on his own. “ I’ve got this,” he mouths at the dad, who nods and grabs Brian by the collar, carefully pointing out the Walk, Don’t Run! signs peppered throughout the shop. Steve watches them go for a second and then lowers his attention to the little toy. It’s not as complicated a break as he expected. Nothing some pliers and a little Epoxy won’t fix. He hums under his breath as he starts gluing together the little red-and-gold toy. Iron Man sure is something. Steve thinks he might even be one of his favorite things about the 2000s.
It’s made staying retired so much easier, knowing someone like Iron Man is out there, saving people. Doing what Captain America can’t.
Won’t, whispers a horrible voice in the back of his mind, but Steve pushes that voice away.
He’s done enough.
He’s done more than his fair share.
It’s time for the people of this generation to step up and do the work.
Steve ends up snagging a box from the recycling pile to put Iron Man in, rolling up some loose cardboard into cylinders to hold him in place, and he carefully wraps the bag up and makes sure to give it directly to the dad. Knowing Brian will need visible proof his little Iron Man is okay, Steve makes sure to cut a window in the box and the bag so Iron Man’s judgmental face can glare through, and he wraps the whole thing in saran wrap to give Iron Man a tiny window to stare out of.
“He needs to dry overnight,” Steve says, as he hands Brian’s dad the Iron Man box and his shiny new pair of pliers. “Somewhere with good air. Don’t let him play with it until it’s solid.”
“Thanks, Mister Fixit,” the dad says enthusiastically, and shepherds Brian out of the shop, the bell jingle-jangling behind him.
“Thanks, Mister Fixit!” the boy yells at the top of his lungs, already trying to wrangle the box away from his dad. Steve smiles politely as the dad shoots him an apologetic look, and he keeps the smile fixed until the pair get into their car and drive off the forecourt.
He’s not sure how he feels about being called Mister Fixit. It’s way too close to being a superhero name. Steve is not a superhero. Not anymore.
“You are such a pushover,” Marian says.
Steve eyeballs her, trying to mimic some of tiny Iron Man’s expression of judgment, but he catches some of his reflection in the cash register, and he just looks constipated. He sighs. “Get back to work,” he sighs, instead of arguing.
“Yes, boss, will do, boss,” Marian says, but her words are marred by her giggle.
Steve is a pushover, and all his employees know it.
It’s a Thursday when everything changes.
Steve likes Thursdays, normally – there’s usually a lot of work to do after the local allotment club has had their Wednesday evening meeting at St. Paul’s. The average age of the allotment club is 84; Steve has to struggle to remember they are technically his contemporaries. They love that Mister Fixit is cash-based and old-fashioned, no scanners or computers in sight. They also love that Steve will carry anything heavy they buy from the shelves out to their cars, and he can also be bribed with Peach Cobbler to come help them put together what they buy on his Sunday afternoons off.
Steve gets enough of a workout that he’s slightly sweaty by day’s end, and it’s ten minutes to closing, and he’s sent the Coolidge twins home early as a reward for their good work, and he’s thinking of even closing up early himself when the bell jangles one more time, and the stranger walks in.
Steve’s brain immediately labels the guy a stranger, even though there are plenty of locals he hasn’t met yet, and he’s developed a good enough reputation that people from other parts of Miami stop by and visit to see what all the fuss is about. There’s something about the man that’s just stepped into his store that screams he doesn’t belong. It’s not the ill-fitting clothes, or the baseball hat tugged down low, or the cheap convenience store sunglasses obscuring half his face. It’s somewhat in the way the guy moves. There’s a confidence in his movement. Like he’s used to entering rooms and commanding attention.
There’s some inventory paperwork to check through, so Steve picks up his clipboard and pencil and starts scrolling down it, keeping one eye on the stranger. Even the way the man moves is unusual. He’s not really looking at anything in particular. Steve recognizes the way the man’s eyes rove over the shelves. Like he’s a soldier, memorizing enemy territory.
The man does somewhat have a physique that implies military service, but there’s not the same tension in his shoulders as someone who’s spent hundreds of hours at parade rest. He doesn’t seem to have any of the tics of a thief, either, so Steve tries to focus on his checklist.
“Y’know, that would probably be faster if you computerized it,” an unfamiliar voice rumbles, somewhat closer to Steve than he’s expecting. Steve startles and sees the man standing closer, hands shoved in his pockets, expression impassive due to the sunglasses on his face. Closer now, Steve can see the man’s facial hair is neatly trimmed in a style which seems pretty popular in this decade.
“Computers and I don’t really get on, that’s partially why we’re a cash only place,” Steve says, lowering the clipboard and looking directly at the guy, tapping at the NO CREDIT CARDS sign taped to his register. “Can I help you with something?”
“Hm?” The guy’s mouth wrinkles for a moment. “Oh. I was just checking out what you had, see if you’ve got what I need.”
For a second, Steve thinks the guy’s looking at him appraisingly. Normally he doesn’t like that kind of attention, because it makes him uncomfortable. Steve doesn’t feel uncomfortable right now. Caught a little off guard, maybe. “We can order in anything you need, if we don’t have it on the shelves. May take a couple of days to come in, though, we’re somewhat off the beaten track.”
“That’s why I chose this place,” the guy says, just wiring up the mystery surrounding him even more. “It’s fine, you have what I need.”
“Waiting for daylight hours? We open at nine, most mornings.”
The guy huffs a smile. “Nah, waiting for work, first. Seen what I want, now I know how much to save up.”
Steve nods. It’s a nice attitude, actually, something this decade seems to be missing. Too many people trying to live on credit, beyond their means. Steve’s from a time when waiting for what you wanted was the norm.
“Noticed you had a notice board up,” the guy says, “how much to put up a sign?”
“Depends on the sign,” Steve says. “Free for local causes, dollar a week for businesses, dollar per month for items for sale, long as they’re kosher.”
“I guess I’m a business,” the guy says, and pulls a business card from his pocket. He offers it to Steve, and when Steve takes it he realizes the guy must have printed it himself on the machine at the photocopy shop down on Sunset Ave: a lot of locals have similar cards. The card readsTHE MECHANIC with a cell number beneath. All kinds of technology fixed or tutored. Rates on demand.
“The mechanic?” Steve asks, stepping out from behind the counter to head towards the board. “That your name? The?”
“Anthony,” the guy says, after an awkward pause. He follows Steve over to the board, watching as Steve bins an old flyer advertising a charity cook-out that happened two weeks ago. It was raising money for a local dog charity. Steve’s pretty sure he half-saved the whole charity with his appetite that day. He’s not sure Erskine designed his revved up metabolism to save dogs from being made homeless, but he’s confident the scientist wouldn’t be unhappy.
“So The Mechanic is your business name?” Steve asks.
The guy – Anthony – nods. “Yeah, it’s kind of a joke. This kid, he– Uh, anyway– Thanks.”
Steve nods, pins up the card. “You can come pay me back later, after your first customer, if you need.”
Anthony’s eyebrows shoot up. “You trust me to come back?”
Steve shakes his head. “If you’re the kind of guy to short someone a dollar, then I’ll put you on the naughty list. No one local will hire you for a second.”
Anthony looks amused and glances over to where Steve nods. It’s a small piece of paper, tacked up onto a door that has a plaque reading Employee’s Room, and has MISTER FIXIT’S NAUGHTY LIST scrawled on the top in red crayon. Underneath is a list of people who are currently on Steve’s shitlist.
“Would I rank above or below Nestle?” Anthony asks as he moves even closer. “Would I even need this list to assume that someone calling themselves Dredmund the Druid is a bad guy?”
Steve just shrugs at Anthony, because it’s funnier not to explain that particular in-joke.
“Well, I’m glad I got the cash right now so it’s not an issue,” Anthony says, extracting a couple of scrappy looking dollars from his pocket. “How could my ego survive being on a list that includes Oscorp and Justin Hammer?”
“It’s okay if you can’t afford to pay right now,” Steve hurries to clarify, because Anthony’s clothes are a little shabby now Steve’s looking, and if the guy’s looking for work, money might be a real issue.
Anthony smiles. “I’m covered for a couple days, but thanks for your concern. Real Captain America, aren’t you?”
Steve’s face feels suddenly pinched, and he frowns at Anthony. “What–?”
“It’s just a saying, big guy, relax,” Anthony says, huffing a laugh. As Steve is clearly not responding normally, Anthony sighs and pushes his two dollars into the pocket of Steve’s apron with a wink. “Try not to spend it all at once, Steve.”
Steve’s mouth opens uselessly as Anthony walks away from him and to the door. “Wait,” he blurts, “how did you know my name?”
Anthony pauses at the door, smirking as the edge of it hits the welcome bell, and he lowers his sunglasses to look pointedly at Steve. “Your name’s on your apron, genius.”
The door closes behind Anthony, and Steve stares wordlessly through the window as Anthony saunters away across the parking lot.
Steve’s somewhat bewildered. He kind of feels like that time when a roadside IED flung an entire jeep through the air, hitting Steve in the gut as he leapt forwards to protect his squad. It’s been such a long time since he’s felt anything like it that it takes him a good five minutes to actually get on with closing the store up.
All Steve really wants is to work up a good sweat. His skin’s itching for a decent workout to burn off all the excess energy bristling under his skin, but there’s nothing that needs to be done in the store other than a few easy tasks. He closes up the shop once he’s tidied things up and then head straight home to the gym in his basement.
Steve’s hard on his equipment. He has the real heavy-duty stuff, but even that isn’t designed for someone with super-serum enhancements; when he breaks a piece of machinery he usually has to haul it out, at night and in secret, to dump it in different junk yards across the county, so that no one gets suspicious about why he’s breaking gym equipment so regularly.
He pounds his treadmill for an hour, only stopping twice to swap the belts out, and squints when the machinery makes a whining noise towards the end. Maybe he should hire The Mechanic to take a look, Steve thinks, and then oddly finds himself suddenly wondering what Anthony would think of all the super-sized equipment in his basement, and how confused he would be that most of the weights are in the 1000-pound range. Thank goodness, Steve thinks, for heavily reinforced concrete. He doesn’t know how his neighborhood would react if Steve’s gym managed to sink his whole house.
He goes through his usual lifting routine, trying to focus on his breathing as he does so, counting out loud when his thoughts remain turbulent. Anthony’s voice keeps coming back to him. Captain America. Is that really a modern day saying, or is SHIELD messing with him somehow? Steve’s always thought Fury let him retire too easily. Despite Steve keeping his store old-school, he does have a computer upstairs, because Peggy and Daniel get angry at him if he doesn’t Skype at least once a week, so he slinks upstairs, takes a shower, and turns his desktop on, making a cup of coffee while he waits for it to load.
Steve types in Captain America into Google, leans forward, and scowls at the screen. It’s just article upon article about the Captain being found in the mid-80s, and then there’s a raft of opinion pieces about how he must be dead now (because why else would Cap have just disappeared ten years ago?)
He thinks about it and then searches “someone described me as Captain America, what does that mean?” on Starksearch instead of Google, because Swannie told him a few weeks back that it has better intuitive searching, or something like that. A round icon spins in the middle of the screen, and a gold-lined box pops up on the screen. “Captain America in slang usage is most likely a compliment, based on the superhero’s inclusive patriotism and dedication to ensuring safe and happy lives for everyone, not just Americans, but the whole world.”
Either Swannie’s right about Starksearch, or Starksearch is designed to flatter people. Steve remembers Howard Stark, and if his company has retained his ideals, it’s highly possible the answer is both.
Steve shuts the machine down, stretches... and his stomach growls. He stares down at it, annoyed, and tries not to calculate how much of his profits from the hardware store go to keeping his stupid metabolism satisfied.
Thankfully Swannie’s used to his horrendous appetite and to serving him portions that would make even competitive eaters weep. Steve finds himself walking the streets to Swannie’s diner without even thinking about it.
He doesn’t even realize it’s cold outside until he reaches the neon warmth of Swannie’s. He pushes open the door and steps in and the heat hits him like a wall. It’s mostly empty. Humphrey Jones is sat slumped over in his favorite corner booth, head half in a bowl of grits, and Jenny Arbor has the largest table occupied with seven different textbooks, highlighters and record cards everywhere. Exams are coming up soon and Jenny has plans to go to Harvard and study architecture. Steve eyes the three large empty coffee mugs by her elbow and carefully ignores her, letting her sink into her work. Swannie’s diner is a refuge for locals; they let anyone use the diner for whatever they need. Swannie and their diner are a cornerstone of their community.
Swannie’s also stubborn as all get out. Steve likes that.
“That you, Stevie?” Swannie’s voice floats through the hatch to the kitchen, although Steve cannot see them yet. “The usual?”
“Make it a whole packet,” Steve says. “I’ve had a long day.”
“Hear you on that one, sugar,” Swannie says. “Grab yourself some coffee and I’ll be right over.”
Steve smothers a smile, and leans over the counter to grab a red mug with Swannie’s written in white on the side, and he pours himself a mug from the jug of coffee left on the countertop. It’s still hot. There’s a magic to Swannie’s coffee that clears Steve’s brain from the first sip, Swannie says the secret ingredient is love but Steve suspects it might just be an unreal level of caffeine. He adds a liberal amount of sugar but skips the milk, and he slides into his favorite seat, the one that looks out at the crosswalk. Steve can see a lot of Undertown from this booth. He chose this seat, the very first time, because he could see every diner exit from it. He’s a lot more relaxed now.
There’s a banging sound coming from the kitchen that continues even as Swannie hustles out through the double swinging doors, two large plates balanced on each arm. They look more awake than anyone who’s been awake since 4am has any right to be. Swannie lives for this place, and gets up at that time every morning to make the bread and doughnuts fresh.
“Trouble in paradise?” Steve questions, nodding at the kitchen hatch, taking one of the plates from Swannie and smiling as they bustle around him, lying down his cutlery and making sure he has a paper napkin.
“Old Betsy’s being a fiend again,” Swannie sighs, taking the seat opposite Steve and helping themselves to his fries. Steve’s used to the routine and doesn’t mind. He has an entire pack of sausage to decimate. “I’ll be glad having two working fryers again, that’s for sure. Been working Harvey too hard.”
Swannie names all their kitchen tools. Steve’s never known if their naming of the dishwasher Steve is a compliment or not. “Been working Swannie too hard, too,” Steve says, noting the bags under Swannie’s eyes.
“Hush, love, like you’re any better,” Swannie says. “Little late for you.”
“Inventory,” Steve lies.
Swannie looks at him dubiously. “Whatever you say, my little sunshine.” They start to rise, but they pause mid-action to steal one of Steve’s pancakes. “Want some pie for afterwards? Got some apple left. Might have some cherry custard in the fridge.”
“Either’s fine,” Steve says.
“Both, then,” Swannie decides, patting Steve on the shoulder and shuffling back to the kitchen.
Eating is always good for Steve’s calm. Steve’s staff actually hides snacks around his store for him, because apparently Steve gets a bit snippy if he’s hungry. That’s probably something he should work on. He likes the food in this decade. It’s good and so readily available that Steve still feels grateful for it, even though he’s had three decades to get used to not living in the Great Depression anymore. Formative childhood years could really do a number on your brain.
Steve makes it through both plates and then lifts his head to look for Swannie to tell them he’s ready for the pie, but he doesn’t have to. Swannie’s already on their way over with a tray full of pie, ice-cream already on the side, and someone else at their side. The banging in the kitchen has stopped, so it either means Old Betsy’s working again or it has finally given up the ghost, but Swannie looks too happy for that. Swannie’s attached to their kitchen and never approves of any sort of change. It’s possibly why Steve likes them so much.
And although the sunglasses and cap have disappeared, Steve realizes he knows Swannie’s companion.
“Already getting work, I see,” Steve says, and Anthony grins at Steve from Swannie’s side.
“You already know each other, huh?” Swannie’s accent is thicker than usual and their gaze as it flickers between them is full of sudden appraisal. “That’s good. Anthony’s new in town, got quite the pair of hands. He’s already fixed the TV mount too.”
“And I take part-payment in pie,” Anthony says, snagging one of the plates of pie and sitting opposite Steve, an easy smile still on his face. Without the cap and sunglasses, Steve can see Anthony has brown eyes and disheveled dark hair, and there’s a smudge of oil on Anthony’s cheek that Steve suddenly and oddly finds quite enchanting. There’s something about Anthony looking a little messed up that appeals to Steve.
Swannie joins them on Anthony’s side of the booth, taking one of the plates for themselves, and pushing the other three towards Steve, before sliding the now-empty tray on a nearby table.
“Eat up, I gotta close in fifteen,” Swannie says. Behind them, Jenny Arbor yelps and starts packing up her textbooks, apparently only just realizing the time. Humphrey Jones doesn’t even shift a little, but Steve knows Swannie will get him home, even if they have to wheel him in a barrow to get him there.
“Orders taken and understood,” Anthony says, saluting Swannie with his spoon and digging in.
Steve digs into his pie, demolishing them in short order, and it’s when he’s on the third piece that he realizes Swannie and Anthony are both staring at him, and are only halfway through their own.
Anthony looks at Swannie and stage-whispers, “Where does he put it all?”
Steve flushes, feeling self-conscious.
“Dunno. He ought to be eight hundred pounds, way he eats,” Swannie says.
“I work out,” Steve says, awkwardly, and wonders about leaving the rest of the pie, but it’s so good, and Swannie doesn’t like to throw good food away. He reluctantly resumes eating.
“I’d say you do,” Anthony says, and it’s almost a purr, and Steve, in horror, feels his cheeks warming up even more. When he glances up at Swannie, they look at him almost knowingly. Steve turns his glare to Anthony, making sure to ramp up the annoyance in his glare, and Anthony just grins innocently.
Steve finishes first, pushing his plates back a little and reclines into the seat, holding his stomach, entirely satisfied. “Your pies are witchcraft,” Steve sighs, happily.
“Just baking,” Swannie says. “Good old chemistry and a lotta love.”
“I’d better get a move on,” Steve declares, although he has nowhere he desperately needs to be, and he sort of wants to sink into the booth and sleep until morning. He’s sleepy and happy. The stranger in town – Anthony – obviously has Swannie’s approval already, so he can’t be a real threat of any kind. The one time Fury did try to send Steve a honeypot, Steve accidentally stole their ID and accidentally exposed them as spies to every town member in the diner at the time (which were a lot; it was Friday Fry-day), and Swannie chased them out of town in less than three days since their arrival. It was delightful.
“See you in the morning,” Swannie says, a knowing glint in their eyes.
“I’ll probably see you tomorrow too,” Anthony adds.
“Uh,” Steve says eloquently, “right,” and quickly flees out into the cold of the night. He’s not quite sure why he’s so on edge. Perhaps a good night sleep will help.
When Steve wakes up the next morning, it’s only 5am, but he’s hungry already. He sighs and heads to his bathroom, quickly washing and dressing before grabbing his wallet and bouncing out of his house, not even sparing his kitchen a glance on his way.
It’s not that Steve can’t cook, he– well, he justifies it as helping keep an important local business from closing, but the truth is he just loves Swannie’s cooking. He’s going to miss it when he inevitably has to move on. His heart aches too much when he thinks about moving. He makes a mental note to try out some bleach or hair dye, see if he can manufacture some age streaks in his hair. No one’s verbally asked him why he hasn’t changed in ten years, but Steve knows his luck isn’t going to hold for that much longer. Hair dye might get him an extra couple years. Steve doesn’t want to think beyond that. Finding this town once had been hard enough. Lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Well, unless you’re Thor, but the rumor is that particular superhero isn’t coming back to town any time soon. It’s a shame. Steve almost shipped the trunk containing his shield to Nick Fury when the news showed some footage of Thor in action, but as far as Steve can tell, Thor was a fly-by. Unlike Iron Man, who’s been protecting New York for the last ten years. There’s been something in the news recently about Iron Man, but Steve’s not great at keeping up with modern news.
He’s kind of scared if he sees something really bad that the urge to pick up his shield again will be too strong.
Also, Swannie’s is open from 4am, because Swannie’s even more of a workaholic than Steve is, so it means Steve can get a good breakfast, put in his lunch order (he usually sends one of his employees out to pick it up), and still have plenty of time to potter around his store before it opens.
Swannie’s obviously been busy since Steve left the night before, because the TV Anthony fixed is already up and playing in its new place high on the wall. It’s showing something with a lot of fire and action, maybe a movie trailer. It looks professionally shot. Since being found in the ice thirty years ago, Steve’s been trying to catch up with all the movies he missed, but he’s sure by now he’s never going to be caught up.
“Some people call me a terrorist,” a man’s voice floats out from the TV, with the sound of yelling and gunfire in the background, “I consider myself a teacher.” The footage switches then, abruptly changing to a cheerful couple of women holding up clothes for sale. Steve blinks and then turns to see Swannie leaning against the counter, the remote in their hand.
“I know you don’t like stuff like that,” Swannie says.
Steve blinks, forces himself to unfreeze, and heads over to the counter, hopping onto a stool. He doesn’t feel like settling in a booth today. There’s a lot of energy still from the day before buzzing just under his skin.
He frowns at Swannie. “What do you mean?”
“Gunfire,” Swannie says. “Don’t think I don’t see you flinch when people’s cars backfire. My pops was a vet, too.”
Steve drums his fingers on the formica countertop, feeling a little exposed and vulnerable. He catches a glimpse of his reflection in the domed stainless steel top of the straw dispenser. There’s an almost haunted look on his face. He hadn’t realized he was so obvious. “Well,” he begins. He doesn’t quite know what to say. “Thanks?”
Swannie chuckles. “Usual?”
“Yeah,” he says.
“News is depressing anyway,” Swannie calls through the hatch as they bustle around. “Best to ignore it.”
Steve blinks. That had been the news? He worries the idea over in his head while Swannie produces his usual – an amount of oatmeal that’s probably ridiculous. Steve eats it, barely tasting it. He doesn’t notice Swannie’s sitting opposite him, nibbling daintily on a bagel, until he looks up from the bottom of his bowl.
“So,” Swannie says, automatically pouring Steve a refill and sliding him over a plate sky-high full of pancakes, “you didn’t mention last night how you knew that handsome Mr. Anthony.”
“I didn’t order these,” Steve says, but starts eating anyway.
“That’s a funny way to say thank you.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “Thank you, Swannie.”
Swannie beams. “You can pay me in a story.”
“Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks–”
Swannie stares at him, deadpan. “You know what I mean, honey.”
Steve frowns. He does. “He came in my store last night, just before closing. Took stock of what I sell, asked to leave a business card, then he paid and left.”
“That’s it?” Swannie looks disappointed. “He’s not some old army pal? No mutual handies in your backroom? Illicit affair on one of your road trips?”
“You have an overactive imagination.”
“Yeah, well, you give me so little to work with,” Swannie grouches. “I’ve never seen you date anyone, I was beginning to think you were a monk.”
Steve glances at them, confused. “I’m not dating now.”
“A-huh,” Swannie says. “We’ll see how long that lasts.”
“So how about you? How did you end up hiring him?”
Swannie shrugs. “He came in to leave his business card, I told him if he could put up the TV bracket he was hired for my bigger jobs. Josef’s been leaving off doing it forever, keeps telling me it’s too big a job, and Mr. Anthony does it in, what, three minutes? The man takes cash and can fix anything. I think he’s an angel.” Swannie glances at Steve appraisingly. “I thought you sold yourself as Mister Fixit, but you’ve got competition there, darling.”
“I never sell myself as Mister Fixit,” Steve protests. “It’s a hardware store for Mister Fixit’s to come. To get the stuff they need to fix... it. People always get that wrong.”
“Well, when you stick your own face on all the signs, people are gonna assume.”
Steve wrinkles his nose. He never meant his own face to be on the Mister Fixit’s signs, but he gave the marketing job to Albert Kingsley who was having a bad time and needed the cash, and Steve hadn’t the heart to tell Kingsley he hated it. He pushes away the empty plate and holds his stomach contentedly. “Thanks for breakfast, Swannie,” he says.
“If you see Mr. Anthony before I do,” Swannie says, taking the amount of money that covers the meal but ushering away the tip, “let him know I need him to take a look at the microwave later.”
Steve gives them an incredulous look, and deposits the tip in Swannie’s tip jar when they turn away to put the money in the register. “I doubt I’ll see him any time soon,” Steve says. Swannie gives him a matching incredulous look, but Steve returns their gaze. Sure, Anthony said he would come back to Steve’s store, but he’s not always at work. “If I see him first, I’ll deliver your message,” he promises.
As he leaves, he thinks to himself that he doubts that will be the case.
Steve’s glad he’s not a betting man. This wouldn’t be the first bet he’s lost, but he doesn’t normally lose them so quickly. He heads to work straight away and starts unpacking the few boxes of Christmas decorations which came in a few days ago and Steve forgot about.
Florida and Christmas are always a discordant combination in Steve’s brain. He rarely celebrates it himself, besides a Turkey dinner at Swannie’s and the annual town charity auction where he donates tools to raise money for families having trouble during the holidays. Still, running a hardware store nowadays apparently means stock all the stuff the other stores in town don’t, and Steve valiantly tries to keep up on what that entails, and apparently what people want is to buy lights and general decorations alongside their paint and tool purchases. He draws the line at stocking artificial trees. People can order them or drive to another town for that. He only has so much space in his store.
It’s a Friday, which is a late start for Marian since she takes the kids to school alternate mornings. Steve’s humming tunelessly under his breath as he goes about his morning routine, thinking about how much he likes Swannie’s Friday-only triple-fried waffle fries, and goes to do the last step of opening up for the day – lifting up the blinds on the front door and unlocking it – and he nearly swallows his tongue.
Because Anthony’s already there, leaning against the door. Waiting for him to open up.
“You should have knocked,” Steve says, opening the door and holding it wide for Anthony to come in. Anthony’s wearing his cap and sunglasses again, a dark blue hoodie pulled up over the cap, and Steve’s almost disappointed. He liked being able to see Anthony’s eyes last night.
“I was going to, because I thought I heard you rumbling around,” Anthony says, “and then I heard that terrible music creaking out of the vents, so I’ve been girding my loins to try and have the courage to come in. Why does it sound this horrible? How?”
Steve thinks for a sharp second Anthony means his humming, but then he looks up and remembers his music system. “It’s not that bad, is it?” he asks, frowning up at the speakers. They’re playing something gentle, classical. Steve’s had the same playlists going on here for a decade. No one (besides his staff, but they hear it constantly) has ever complained before.
“You don’t like Tchaikovsky?” Steve asks, after mentally placing the track.
“I do. When it’s not played on speakers that died in the dark ages,” Anthony says. “You should let your boss know I can install something a little more high-tech if they decide to join the modern era.”
For some reason, no adult ever assumes Steve is the boss, even though a cartoon of his face is on every sign and every kid who sees him calls him Mister Fixit straightaway. Steve would take it personally, except for the fact the serum’s made it so he constantly looks like he’s barely into his twenties, dammit. He’s had over fifty years of experiences now. He’s older than Anthony, that’s for sure, even if he measures by years awake and not from the year he was born in.
“I’ll let him know immediately,” Steve promises. “Anything I can help you find now you’re here?”
“I memorized the layout last night,” Anthony says. “I’m good.”
Steve nods and trundles back over to the register. Marian comes in at her usual Friday time, deposits a bag containing a cinnamon roll the size of Steve’s head in front of him, and then goes over to fetch the catalogs from the back office since they need to order in some more plant seeds: the Thursday morning allotment club wiped out some of the categories, and Marian has more of a green thumb than Steve does.
Marian also does more of the ordering. He doesn’t mind delegating any of the tasks his employees are better at. They often joke with him that he’s only there for the hard labor. (Marian also says he’s there for eye candy, which Steve tries not to think about.) Steve thinks he likes working the register the most anyway. He can keep an eye on all the customers and see if anyone needs any help.
He doesn’t know why he’s almost disappointed that Anthony doesn’t need help. He wonders what Anthony’s making. Some people Steve can figure out pretty early on, but Anthony’s a mystery to him. The first purchases that Anthony puts on the table are innocuous enough: gloves, copper wire, soldering iron, solder, a good pair of pliers and a strong wire cutter, those all make sense. The Central Pneumatic 18 Gauge 2-in-1 Nail Gun/Stapler could be for anything. The Bloom Special fertilizer sticks out like a sore thumb, though. When it comes time to pay, Anthony hands over the exact change, even calculating the tax perfectly.
“Swannie say they’ve got another job for you, if you’ve got the time,” Steve says, as he prepares a paper bag for Anthony’s purchases.
“Thanks, I’ll go see them later.”
“It’s some problem with their microwave,” Steve adds. “You good with that kind of electronics?”
“If you ignore the fact I blew up the last microwave I worked with, yes,” Anthony replies. “Hey, you might know, is there a good junkyard in the area?” he asks as Steve bags the purchases, carefully putting the heavier stuff at the bottom, and then double-bagging it just to be sure.
“Try the one down on Applebrook. The yard doesn’t look like much from the road, but Brady’s got a second yard he keeps for locals.”
“Applebrook?” Anthony repeats, like he’s committing it to memory.
“Oh, you want me to draw you a map?” Steve casts around for a pen, and quickly sketches out a map on the side of Anthony’s bag. “Just tell him Steve sent you,” he directs as he sketches, “and if he’s reluctant, remind him he still owes me for last Arbor day.”
“I got him out of a pickle once,” Steve says.
“Hmm,” Anthony hums, and glances at the map when Steve passes him his bag. “Thanks. I’ll probably see you later.”
“Yeah?” Steve says, and his breath hitches oddly, and he ignores it.
“Probably,” Anthony says, and lowers his sunglasses long enough to wink at Steve. Steve can’t look away, and Anthony grins, taps the counter, and wanders out of the store, while Steve manfully tries and fails not to watch him go. When he looks back into the store, Marian shoots him an annoying smirk from where she’s working on the catalogues, and Steve tries not to blush.
After seeing him so often in such a short amount of time, and Anthony saying he’d probably see him later, Steve’s almost expecting to see Anthony at the diner when he turns up for his evening meal, and he feels weirdly disappointed when he hears the microwave beeping away normally when he walks in, meaning he’s already missed him.
The new TV set-up seems to be popular with some of the other patrons, but Steve takes a seat at a secluded table so he can’t see the screen. And if the table has a perfect view of the diner’s entrance, well, that’s just a coincidence. Steve tries to tune out the noise of the TV, because it sounds like a weird movie, an actor narrating something about fortune cookies and terror and something about someone graduating? Steve will not be going to see that movie, that’s for sure.
He would also feel better if Swannie stopped laughing at him every time he perks up when the diner door opens. Steve’s not expecting Anthony to walk through, he’s just... curious. That’s all.
Anthony doesn’t appear in the diner, and the next day he doesn’t come back to the hardware store, and Steve almost thinks that’s it, Anthony’s done with whatever he’s doing and he’s gone... but then Anthony starts coming by the hardware store every single day. Always paying in the exact cash. Steve guesses he’s getting some regular work now; Swannie’s probably been singing his praises.
The more Steve sees Anthony, the more confused he gets. He keeps a mental note of what Anthony buys, wondering if he can figure out what Anthony’s doing with it all.
First is a BernOmatic torch, the TS4000 model. Another day sees a claw hammer and some PTFE sealant tape. After a couple of days, Anthony buys a 10” circular saw blade, but no saw, so Steve presumes Brady’s junkyard has sorted Anthony out on that regard.
Anthony’s next purchase is a single bag of Green Light Fire Ant Control With Conserve. Steve tells him to be careful with it around dogs, and Anthony flashes one of his devastating smiles and says, “No worries. I just need the Spinosad.”
“What are you even doing with all this stuff?” Steve blurts, because he can’t help himself.
“Trying to take over the world,” Anthony says, in a low voice, like he’s quoting something. He laughs at his own reference as he leaves with his bag.
The list goes on, and Steve asks him nearly every time, because this is a very annoying mystery. Seven different types of wiring. Screwdrivers. Batteries. A lot of batteries. Plastic face masks. Some plastic syringes. A bunch of stuff from Steve’s electrical department, which is run by Marian because it perplexes Steve, but that always sells really well: an Ammeter, a Voltmeter, something something Resistance something, yep, Steve sucks at his own electrical products. Anthony just makes jokes every time Steve asks him what they’re for.
It’s been just ten days since Anthony first appeared, and all Steve knows is that the stranger, the Mechanic, buys some really weird things, and fixes a lot of things for Swannie. Maybe Anthony’s an artist? An eccentric artist that mixes mechanical things into a sculpture? That might make sense.
And then Anthony disappears for another week.
Steve stares at the door to the store, frowning.
He hears some whispering but he doesn’t turn back to look, because the store’s empty of customers, so it’s just Marian and Naomi, his newest hire. Marian’s been looking at taking some part-time business classes to get her MBA; she keeps hinting that Mister Fixit’s would make a great franchise. Steve personally doesn’t have any motivation for his career, but he likes to support ambition where it does exist. He’s already “discovered” a scholarship for her to apply to, so she can have the fun. He’s planning to neglect to mention that she’s going to be the only applicant, because it’s the only way he’s going to get to pay for her to do it. (He’d do it through the business, but he knows Marian would insist on paying him back then.)
Marian’s training Naomi to take over her shifts at the store when Marian needs to be at college. Naomi’s a single mom whose children are old enough now to be at school most of the day, and she needs a steady income.
It’s a perfect solution.
Well, perfect for everyone but Steve, because his employees talk and sometimes gang up on him. He glances over and sees them playing rock, paper, scissors, and then Marian walks over to Steve.
“Boss?” Marian asks, and Steve steels himself, because what usually follows is some sort of awkward request. Like, if he wasn’t going to replace the creaky music system, could he at least take the brass band recordings out of rotation? If they can’t have a computerized inventory or register, could they maybe have a laptop in the back office so they can e-mail the suppliers who won’t take faxes? Steve wonders what it’s going to be this time.
To his surprise, that’s now what happens. Marian leans on the counter and looks up at him sideways, and asks, “You okay?”
Steve blinks at her. Has his stomach been growling again? Apparently that gets pretty loud. “What?”
“It’s just– you’ve been pretty quiet this week,” Marian says, and her voice is so gentle. “We’re just worried about you.”
Steve keeps blinking rapidly, confused. “I’m fine.”
“You sure? Because you keep staring at the door. And every time the bell goes, if you’re not on door watch, you practically wrench your neck looking.”
“I’m just... curious about our incoming customers,” Steve says, slowly. “That’s all.”
“But you’re okay,” Marian says, matching his pace of speaking.
“Of course. Nothing wrong.” He flashes her a smile he doesn’t feel, just to reassure her. “Promise.”
“Then you wouldn’t feel better if I told you that when I went to pick up our lunch order, Swannie said they saw your mysterious mechanic staying at the Liberty rooms?”
Steve blinks at her. “Why would that make me feel better?”
Marian stares at him, unimpressed. “I always wondered why I never saw you dating. Wondered if you weren’t the sort. Now I’m wondering whether you are, but you’re just too clueless to manage.”
“What’s any of this to do with my love life?” Steve asks.
“Well, I guess that answers the question, boss,” she sighs, and pats him sympathetically on the shoulder. “Is it okay if I go to the back room and show Naomi how to adapt when new health and safety regs come in?”
“Yeah,” Steve replies distractedly.
The conversation puts him in an odd mood for the rest of the day, and it’s obvious enough for Marian to insist she be the one to close up. Steve shoves his hands in his pockets, feeling weirdly displaced, and walks automatically to Swannie’s, trying not to think about how his life has is a triangle: the store, home, and the diner. The only three places he really ever goes. Is this what civilian life in modern times is supposed to be like?
Swannie obviously picks up on his dour mood too, because they offer him a menu instead of cooking him his usual mountain of breakfast foods. When Steve’s in an introspective mood, he likes to change his eating routine. Maybe it is because it’s one of the few things he can change easily without having to look at his life too hard.
The nice thing about the diner is how popular it is, at least when Steve goes in at a regular time and not at stupid o’clock, because Steve can listen in on conversations happening around him. Even when he isn’t using his own conversational skills, listening to others talk is almost as good. Swannie brings him the meals he halfheartedly points at – he likes them, obviously, because Swannie is the best – and just ruffles his hair and leaves him to it.
Steve shovels in his food and tries to focus on a conversation. George Coolidge is holding court at the big table near the jukebox. He’s a big guy in town – Steve hired George’s youngest twin sons a couple years ago, and they’re not the brightest crayons in the box, but they’re loyal and do whatever Steve tells them to do without complaining. George is saying something about mandarins, or a mandarin that wronged him somehow, and Steve tunes out that discussion, because he can’t work up the energy to be worried about fruit. There are a bunch of high school kids shoved in around one large circular booth. Swannie doesn’t mind them, even though they tend to buy two milkshakes between ten of them and share them. It’s better being in there making a racket than being a nuisance out on the streets. Steve thinks Jenny Arbor’s younger brothers are in the group. It’s good odds betting that; Jenny is one of the twelve Arbor siblings, and that’s not including the older brother and two sisters who left the town last year.
“Iron Man can’t be dead,” the youngest Arbor boy says, staunchly. “No way. You saw the footage. Rolled right into the ocean.”
“Yeah, with smoking chunks of the mansion whacking right on top of him,” one of his friends says. “And there’s been no sight of Tony Stark, either. Nearly three weeks now. Bet he’s dead too.”
Steve gives up on listening into conversations. No one’s talking about anything normal, and listening in just makes him feel worse, because it sounds like Iron Man is in trouble. And if Iron Man’s in trouble, if no one’s out there to protect the world–
Even though Swannie’s eyes immediately track Steve as he gets up and runs out of the diner, they can’t follow him, and it’s for the best, because Steve turns down the next alley after Swannie’s and promptly vomits into the nearest trash can. Steve wipes his mouth, and he has to stay there for a long minute, hands on his knees, focusing on steadying his breathing.
He hasn’t freaked out like this in a while. Normally Steve has a handle on the guilt. Normally Steve can forget his past. Normally he does.
Why is he so off-balance? What’s changed, all of a sudden?
Steve staggers back onto the street, knowing he should go back to the diner to pay Swannie, because they won’t take his money until after he’s eaten... but he also knows Swannie will let him settle his bill in the morning, no questions asked. Well. There will probably be questions, it’s Swannie.
He keeps his head down and wanders around the streets, just walking, letting his feet take him wherever they want. He’s restless. He wants to run, but there are too many houses around, too many people to clock that he’s running way too fast for a normal person.
Normal. Normally. That’s all part of the problem. Steve walks as fast as he dares, just counting lines in the pavement, and when he looks up, he’s looking at the sign to the Liberty rooms, a motel in the cheaper end of town, and oh, god, this is where Anthony’s supposed to be staying, and it’s terrible, it smells of motor oil and cigarettes and Steve–
Steve isn’t ready to analyze why his feet took him here, so he turns before he has to, hurrying all the way back to this house and grabbing his motorcycle out from under the covers with trembling hands, and then he rides. Rides and rides until he’s out of view of the town, out of view of the houses, out into route 41 and then onwards, ending up at one of the trails he can run at, a 15 mile loop that’s not too popular for anyone but serious runners. Apparently that’s what Steve needs, to run himself down to the ground, so he takes his bike to somewhere he won’t be hassled by anyone, hides it and drops down to the trail partway, and although it’s dark he runs and runs until his head is spinning, and he drops to his knees, surprised to find tears on his face.
He’s done enough. He’s done enough. There’s only so much one person can be expected to do on their own. And that’s what he is. Even with his friends in the town, and Swannie, and Marian, and all the misfits he hires at the store, he’s alone. He always was alone. That’s why being Captain America had taken the toll it had, because Steve was alone, even as the world and the soldiers around him changed.
And his life now is going to change again, it has to. He’s been kidding himself about the hair dye buying him extra time. His entire small town life is stolen. He’s just pretending. Steve the hardware store guy is just as much a disguise as Captain America was. His green apron with the hammer logo and his cartoon face on all the signs... It’s just the same life as before, just with more lies and less.... of everything else. A life without war means he isn’t losing the soldiers under his command, but he’s still losing his life, with the store and his friends, when it comes down to it.
How is that going to be survivable? Why did he think that he could just retire and everything would be okay?
Steve punches the ground, because there’s nothing around to punch, and that actually hurts, so Steve does it a couple more times. Bucky would have laughed at him, because Bucky used to laugh and tell him that Steve was the only one who could hurt Steve.
Steve never understood, before, because bullies three times his size were usually the ones who wiped him out, but now he’s starting to get what Bucky meant. And he shouldn’t have thought of Bucky, because now he’s sobbing flat-out, and if anyone comes and finds him like this he’ll be put in some sort of tiny, locked-up room.
He needs to calm down. Logic. Some logic might be good. Why did Marian implicate Anthony had something to do with Steve’s mood? It’s ridiculous... isn’t it? Why would she even think that? Normally – ha, normally – she is the most even-headed of all his employees. She’s whip-smart. Not often prone to flights of fancy. So she must have connected Anthony’s appearance with Steve’s mood and–
Yeah, maybe she is onto something. Because for the last ten years, nothing’s really changed. Steve’s found himself a niche and buried himself in deep. He’s got a routine that barely shifts, a community who knows his name, who waves at him when they see him, who knows they can bribe him with food to do things for them.
He clambers to his feet, wipes dirt from his knees, and then spends a minute re-flattening the path.
He’s had no mysteries in his life. That’s the problem: Anthony is a mystery. Captain America specialized in mysteries, solving them with his shield or his brain or his fists. But Steve isn’t Captain America right now. He’s just Steve. Steve who owns a hardware store. Steve who’s known for haunting his store and a diner. Steve who helps people when they ask.
Anthony is a mystery, and Steve is just panicking because Anthony is something new, something messing up his routine. He’s a reminder that things will change some day. But Steve has time. Steve the hardware store guy might be a disguise, but it’s an identity as real to him as Captain America, even if it’s a life that is a thousand times smaller.
Steve had a therapist, back when he first retired. Maybe it’s time to dig her number out. He has time to think, to figure out how to find another role after this one, a way to make it feel like he’s not wrenching his heart out every time he has to change.
The thing is... Anthony is a mystery. But he’s not a mystery that Steve needs to solve.
Steve’s being stupid. He almost laughs, then does laugh, the sound bitter and sharp and ugly. He wipes his hands on his jeans to get the mud off of them, and he jogs back to his bike, his mind clearing with every step. It had been a long time since his last meltdown. It was probably long overdue.
It’s the news that snapped him, those faint hints of Iron Man being in trouble, the jarring idea of Captain America coming back, of him being forced to come back because there’s no one else, and Steve’s an idiot, but he’s never let himself be a coward. He just let himself get complacent and let himself be blindsided. Steve’s in the modern world now, as much as he wants to hold onto the past. That’s what he’s been doing, in his store, in his house.
Small steps forward. When you’ve fallen, that’s what you do. Push yourself back up and move forwards. Steve hurries back onto the main road, drives to the nearest 24 hour gas station, and buys a paper while he’s there and reads it, right there on the forecourt.
The news really is kind of awful, Steve thinks, and he feels a little lightheaded. There’s a terrorist called the Mandarin, taunting the president, blowing up things. The Chinese Theater got bombed, and billionaire Tony Stark taunted the terrorist, and the terrorist blew up his house, and possibly also blew up Iron Man and Steve almost cracks up again, because that’s got to be his worst nightmare. Iron Man gone and Thor never coming back and SHIELD falls apart again from the inside like it nearly did twenty years ago–
Steve swallows the panic back and takes a deep breath. He has to get home, call the therapist, and keep moving forward. That’s all he can do. He tucks the paper under his arm. Maybe he can call Peggy and Daniel too. His plans crawl slowly into place. Call people. Get back into his regular routine. Everything will be fine. Everything will be fine.
And then Steve’s bike breaks down on the outskirts of the town, and Steve almost laugh-cries again, and he pushes that emotion down because he just doesn’t want to feel anything else. It’s morning, Steve realizes, seeing light in the sky ahead start to fracture the dark. He must have been running that trail for hours, and he can still keep going. Normal has always been an image in his rear-view mirror.
Steve focuses on pushing his bike, keeping his head down, letting his feet take him home. Captain America never had one. Steve’s made this place for himself. He can do it again if he has to.
“You know, if you need someone to fix that...” Anthony says, and Steve snaps his head up and startles to a stop. For too-long of a moment, Steve feels stupid. He stares at Anthony, uncomprehending. He wonders whether it’s a hallucination. He’s had a lot of those. Hydra used to really like putting psychotropic gases in their flash grenades. “You’re really not a morning person, are you?”
“Uh,” Steve manages, then shakes his head as he realizes he’s near the Liberty rooms motel again, so it’s probably not his imagination conjuring Anthony out of thin air. “Hey. Morning.” He offers a wavering smile in Anthony’s direction, and then resumes pushing his bike.
“You okay?” Anthony asks.
Steve stops moving again. He side-eyes Anthony, looking ridiculously comfortable in sweatpants and that hoodie of his that looks like it would be soft under Steve’s fingers, and Steve inwardly whines that’s it really unfair, because how is he supposed to give up on solving the mystery of Anthony’s existence if Anthony keeps... existing in his vicinity, being all mysterious and suchlike, and wow, maybe Steve’s not a morning person when he hasn’t had any sleep.
“People keep asking me that at the moment,” Steve sighs. “Probably because I look like shit.”
Anthony smirks. “I wouldn’t have phrased it like that. Although it does look like you rolled in some.”
Steve glances at his dirt-streaked legs. Yeah. Not his best look. “It’s the news’s fault. It’s pretty shit. It inspired me.” Back in the 80s, everyone he served with told Steve that they hadn’t thought Captain America would be a pottymouth. Everyone hadn’t figured in that he’d lived through a lot of World War 2. If the Howling Commandos weren’t swearing on a mission, it meant something had gone seriously wrong.
Anthony looks at the paper Steve gestures at him, then takes it and frowns at it. “Yeah, uh– I wouldn’t worry about this mess.”
Steve squints. “You wouldn’t? It seems pretty bad.”
“Things are never what they seem,” Anthony mutters.
Well, Steve’s likely going to reach his hundredth birthday in just a few years, so he agrees soundly. “Still seems bad.”
“Yeah, well, I have my contacts,” Anthony says, and he smiles oddly. “Iron Man is fine. I assure you. The world’s safe.”
Steve stares. That old odd suspicion rises again: would SHIELD send someone to infiltrate his life again? He pushes it away. He’s being ridiculous. Anthony’s an ordinary guy. Just because Steve’s hiding something doesn’t mean everyone is. “Huh. That’s good to hear. And what about that billionaire who makes him? He okay?”
Because maybe Captain America should have been there, Steve’s paranoid little brain whispers, maybe–
But Anthony’s words stop that voice again. “Yep, he’s okay. So you can stop stressing out, yeah?”
Steve’s still staring. He probably looks especially dumb. “Thanks,” he says, awkwardly. “I’m gonna– I’m gonna go and clean up. Get my bike back.”
Anthony nods, already stepping away. “Let me know if you do need help fixing it.”
“Nah, I got it,” Steve says, waving a hand. “Mister Fixit, y’know.”
Anthony’s smile this time is still odd, but it’s less odd. A little warmer. Steve takes the memory of that smile away with him as he continues pushing his bike home.
Steve showers because he desperately needs to, dresses in clean clothes, pushes a load of clothes into his washing machine, and slips out of the house to the diner, because he’s pretty sure that Swannie will be worried about him.
He’s not wrong. Steve’s barely through the door and Swannie flings themself at him, and Steve catches them easily, and they’re sobbing into his neck.
“I thought my stew killed you,” Swannie sniffs. “Bobby Arbor saw you vomit in the alley after eating it, then you disappeared. I’ve been beside myself.”
The diner’s already half-full, because Steve’s running somewhat later than usual, but none of them seem perturbed by Swannie’s display. In fact, they all look pretty relieved. Steve is touched by the concern.
“I’m fine,” Steve says. “And it definitely wasn’t your food,” he says, much more loudly for the sake of the couple at the far end of the main counter who had paused, mid-bite, at Swannie yelling about vomit. “I just had... a moment.”
“Come on to the kitchen,” Swannie says. “I need to feed you until I feel better.”
Steve startles a laugh, but he is hungry, so he lets them drag him into the kitchen. There’s a tiny table for employees in the corner of the kitchen, and Swannie bustles around, pushing him in a small chair and starting to pile up food on a plate. Swannie joins him, eating from the same plate because they’re just like that, and Steve tries valiantly to remember he might have to give them up one day.
Or maybe he can drop Fury a line. See if he can borrow a non-disclosure form. Peggy would love Swannie. They both knew what it was like to be something unusual in a place that wasn’t used to unusual. Steve likes the idea.
“So you had a moment, huh?” Swannie says.
Steve pauses mid-bite, and then shrugs helplessly, emptying his fork and swallowing carefully. “Yep.”
“Grief’s a parent-fucker,” Swannie says, nodding. “You think you’re over it and bam, it whacks you over the head and you’re just as gone as you used to be.”
Grief, Steve thinks, and yeah, it’s nice to have help finding the word that’s tripping him up.
“Did you lose someone?” Swannie’s voice drops to a whisper. They’ve never really pushed Steve for particulars over the years, but Steve must have really worried them last night.
“No one in particular,” Steve says, carefully. And because Swannie’s there, and close, and because, out of anyone he knows, Steve thinks that maybe Swannie would understand, he amends, “Myself.”
“I get that,” Swannie says. “I’m comfortable now with who I am, but sometimes I catch a glance in the window, and I see Jasper staring back, and it’s like someone’s punched the breath right out of me, you know?”
Steve smiles at her, but it’s a sympathetic smile. “Was Jasper someone you lost?” he asks.
Swannie smiles regretfully, adjusting their glasses. “Sort of.”
“You’re feeling better now,” Marian says, and it’s not a question.
“Yeah,” Steve replies anyway, tying his apron on, glad it was her turn to open up because he thinks his hands are still a bit unsteady. He smiles at her. “Just stuck in my own head. It’s not always the best place.”
“It happens,” Marian says. “Glad to see you back.” She leans over him to pick up a pencil, then glances at Steve speculatively as the door rings. “Did he have anything to do with your return to regular programming?”
Steve turns around to see Anthony is back, hoodie up over his cap again, face half-obscured by sunglasses. Anthony doesn’t verbally acknowledge them, just waves his hand airily in their direction as he heads straight to the section of the store where all the canisters and sprays are.
Steve supposes Anthony did talk him off a ledge, so he nods. “I guess so?”
“Good,” Marian says, with a grin. “You ask him out yet?”
Steve narrows his eyes. “Why would I?”
“Uh, because he’s cute, and he keeps buying things one thing at a time,” Marian explains. “If that’s not just to check you out, I’d be surprised.”
“He has an unreliable cash flow,” Steve defends.
“Sure he does,” Marian says, sounding disbelieving.
“Hey,” Anthony interrupts, and both Steve and Marian look up in unison to see he’s left the aisle he was looking at and is now standing closer than Steve likes, considering what they were just talking about. “Could I actually get some help today? I need some advice.”
“Steve’s more than happy to help,” Marian says, elbowing him in the side. Steve yelps, making Anthony laugh, and then splutters as Marian shoves him around the counter. She beams at him when he looks at her, annoyed. “Go on, Mister Fixit. Fix his problems.” She leans in and whispers, “With your ass,” because she’s actually terrible, and Steve should probably stop relying on her and fire her immediately.
But then she’d probably stop bringing him her morning baking, and Steve’s stomach really does enjoy the cinnamon buns she makes that are the size of his head.
“How can I help you today?” Steve asks, trying to sound polite and not look at Anthony’s ass, because Marian’s put that idea in his head now. Well. She tried to put Steve’s own ass in his head, and that just makes Steve think ass and Anthony, because Anthony is right there, and this is all Marian’s fault, and Anthony’s sweatpants aren’t hiding much from a rear view, not really, and Steve suddenly, really needs to focus on work. Right now. Stat.
“Just wanted a recommendation, really. How good are these?” Anthony asks, gesturing at a shelf.
Steve peers closer at the sprays he’s pointing at. Anti-static sprays? He doesn’t have much use for them himself, but the Hemingway girls who run the boutique on 4th Street often buy it from him when they’re using a lot of silk in their designs.
“Uh, I guess I’d personally go with the Sprayway, probably?” Steve suggests, and Anthony slips off his sunglasses, putting them in his pocket as he fishes out the corresponding aerosol. “Of course, it depends on what you’re using it for, but I suppose you’re still evading me on that.”
“Don’t know what you mean,” Anthony says, with a grin.
“I suppose you could just get an empty spray bottle. Swannie’s probably got some under their sink, they have a hoarding problem. Then just mix up fabric softener to water, nine to one ratio should do it. You can get a bottle of that from the convenience store by Swannie’s for a couple of bucks. Third of the price, just as good.”
Anthony eyeballs Steve. “You’re not a very good businessman. Does your boss know you give advice which lowers his margin?”
Steve squints. “I am the boss.”
“Are you? Because you don’t sound too sure about it.”
“I’m the boss,” Steve says, trying to sound more assertive. “See?” He points at the nearest Mister Fixit’s HARDWARE sign, where his face is drawn, cartoon-style, and surrounded by a star. “My store. My cartoon face.”
“Hmm,” Anthony says.
“I’m trying to work out if I’m more or less attracted to you now I know you’re upper management,” Anthony says, and Steve nearly stumbles and brains himself on the nearest shelf. Anthony’s smirk widens.
“I’ll leave you to figure that one out yourself,” Steve says hurriedly, because he’s a little bit of a coward. “Hey, look over there, it looks like Marian needs some help.” He sort of runs away as Anthony keeps smirking at him.
When Steve gets back to the front of store, Marian does need some help, so he takes over ringing up purchases while Marian helps a customer cut some wood down to size, because if Steve’s hands won’t settle to open a door without shaking, he’s not going anywhere near the circular saws.
When Anthony finally comes to pay, he doesn’t have the anti-static spray, obviously taking Steve’s advice. Anthony saunters up and puts a tube on the counter and just smirks at a baffled Steve.
Steve picks it up and holds the item in his hand, confused. “Baubles?”
“Yes, Steve,” Anthony says, holding out the money in exact change. “You have to know it’s nearly Christmas, or else why would you be selling them?”
“I know it’s nearly Christmas,” Steve says, ringing up the purchase and bagging up the item, handing it over to Anthony automatically. “I mean, I guess I’m just surprised you’re sticking around for long enough to have a tree.”
“Oh, it’s okay,” Anthony says, accepting the bag and winking at Steve, “I don’t have a tree.”
Steve stares after him as he leaves the store, and Marian has to elbow him to get his attention again. Steve comes back to reality with a jolt, only then noticing that a line has formed behind his register and there are five locals waiting who are all looking at him with matching knowing expressions. Steve flushes awkwardly.
Anthony is still a mystery, yes... But what is also a mystery, Steve tells himself, is why he ever liked this town and its nosy people in the first place.
When Steve finishes closing up the store he makes his way out into the parking lot, only to find that Anthony’s there.
Steve wonders for a brief second whether he’s hallucinating him again, but if he is, Steve probably should just roll with it. “Hey,” he calls, locking the door and pulling down the outside shutter, bending down to lock the padlock into that too. “If you want to buy something else, you’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“Nah, I just finished deciding,” Anthony says.
Steve straightens. Anthony’s leaning against the sign that labels the nearest parking space as a disabled one. “Deciding what? How you’re going to blow up the galaxy?”
“With fertilizer and a nail gun: the universe is my oyster,” Anthony says, solemnly, before smiling again. “Nah, just finished deciding whether you being upper management made me more attracted to you or less.”
Anthony doesn’t have his sunglasses on, and his eyes are alight with some sort of mischief. Steve looks at him, and his mouth feels a little dry. He tries to speak and fails, his voice betraying him with a weird creak that makes Steve want to hide his face in his hands, because this is exactly the reason why he doesn’t flirt with anyone.
Anthony laughs and straightens up. “Relax, Mister Fixit. I was just passing by to say thank you for that junkyard tip from a couple weeks back, it really paid off for me, so– thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” Steve says, his voice finally relenting and working with him. It’s easier when he’s on familiar territory. He starts moving automatically in the direction of Swannie’s diner. “And wrong.”
“I’m not Mister Fixit,” Steve says.
“But you store...” Anthony starts, but trails off, looking confused.
“It’s for people who are Mister Fixits to come,” Steve explains. “So they can buy things and... fix whatever it is. I rarely fix anything unless superglue is enough. I could never do what you manage to do with Swannie’s broken kitchen appliances.”
“I wouldn’t really say I’m usually a Fixit,” Anthony says, and he falls into pace next to Steve, walking next to him like it’s normal, like it’s something they do all the time. Steve finds himself automatically matching Anthony’s stride.
“What would you say you usually are?”
“A mechanic,” Anthony says. “Didn’t you see my glorious business card?” He pauses at that. “Damn, do I owe you for that again yet?”
Steve shakes his head dismissively. “You’ve bought enough at the store to last you for a couple free weeks, don’t worry.”
“I won’t,” Anthony says, shooting him a small smile. “So how does a vet like you end up selling hardware in a town like this? Family business? Gramps and pops were Fixit seniors, maybe?”
“Ah, no,” Steve says, and then frowns, because Swannie said the whole town knew he was a vet too, and he wonders how it’s so obvious to everyone he meets. “No. I did my share of tours, and I never really spent the money I earned while in the army. And when I left... I didn’t know what to do when I wasn’t fighting. I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t fighting. So I got my bike and just drove until I stopped, and this is where I stopped.”
“Here?” Anthony says, spreading his arms.
Steve looks around and smiles fondly. He can’t stop the memories as they flood back in. When he first arrived, it was like Miami had tried to swallow up Undertown but stopped at the borders, leaving this weird oasis of the fifties in the middle of civilization. Not that Steve was awake for the fifties. But the place needed help. There weren’t many job opportunities; the whole town was on its way under. And sure, New York had its brand-new shining superhero, the mysterious Iron Man, and the world was marveling about that in a way they’d forgotten how to when Captain America was still on the scene (people loved seeing him at the start but they got complacent after a while), but Miami was a long way from New York. It was harder for people to feel wonder and hope when Iron Man was just a picture on a TV screen.
What Undertown had wrong with it couldn’t be fixed by any superhero. It needed to be fixed by the people who lived there.
“There weren’t many job opportunities. I had enough money to do something about that, so I did,” Steve says. “Town just needed a chance, y’know? It just needed people to fix it. So that’s what I tried to give: a little help.”
“That’s pretty inspiring,” Anthony says. He sounds subdued. “You took everything you had and used it to help people.”
“I could do more,” Steve says, bitterly.
“That’s a dangerous path to start down,” Anthony says, heavily. “Believe me.”
Steve wants to push at that statement, because he hates hearing Anthony sound so self-deprecating, and he opens his mouth to say something, but he’s startled out of it by a high-pitched yell.
“Mister Fixit? Mister Fixit, what are you doing out of the hardware store?”
Steve squints at the source of the voice and oh, it’s Brian, the kid from weeks ago who wanted his toy fixed, standing in front of Steve and panting like he’s been running. The little Iron Man toy is with him, the head sticking out of Brian’s pocket.
Brian’s dad is already hurrying up behind Brian, out of breath and already looking apologetic. “I’m sorry, he’s got so much energy, I don’t know how.”
Steve laughs. “Don’t worry about it. Brian,” he says, “you really shouldn’t run away from your dad like that. Especially to talk to a stranger.”
“You’re not a stranger,” Brian says, but he does shrink, looking chastened. “You’re Mister Fixit.”
“I’m so sorry,” Brian’s dad mouths again.
“Still, I bet you scared your dad and made him worry. That’s not a good thing to do. You should apologize to him.”
“Sorry, Dad,” Brian says, looking up at his father with wide, wet eyes. “I didn’t mean to make you worry.”
“That’s okay,” Brian’s dad says. He looks slightly bewildered. “Just don’t do it again.”
“See,” Steve says, as Brian is shepherded away from Steve by his dad, “ kids know I’m the store owner. You missed it for weeks.”
Anthony looks curiously at Steve as Brian leaves. “You and that kid, do you have a connection?”
Steve stares at him, confused. “He just stopped by the store with his dad a few weeks ago,” he says. “What are you talking about?”
“Kids. They’re baffling.” Anthony shakes his head. “Anyway, just because you own a business, doesn’t mean you’re the boss. That’s a thing that happens sometimes.”
“I suppose so,” Steve says. “Probably not so much in the non-franchise hardware store world, though.”
Anthony squints. “Yeah, maybe not.” He pauses. “You wanna keep talking over some food?”
It almost sounds like a date, but Steve pushes that thought away. Anthony’s a stranger in town, he could probably do with a friend. “Yeah,” Steve says. “I’d like that.”
Swannie gives them an interesting expression when they come into the diner, but mostly leaves them be after giving Steve a pair of menus and a wink when Anthony’s not looking. Steve glares back at them, helplessly, but turns back to the menu and manfully restricts himself to just one meal, not stew.
When Swannie brings them their meals, Steve’s portion is twice the size of a normal one anyway. Steve flushes at just how predictable he is.
“So,” Anthony says, picking up the cheeseburger he ordered and examining it carefully, “how’s the wife?”
Steve, impatient enough to have already shoved a large forkful of potato in his face, splutters inelegantly and coughs as he forces himself to swallow. He knows he’s blushing. “I’m not married,” he says. “Why would you– I don’t even wear a ring.” He holds out his hand in illustration.
“Doesn’t mean anything,” Anthony says, but he looks pleased. “Seeing anyone?”
“No, he isn’t, and he’s very single,” Swannie interjects. “ Painfully single.” As Steve glares at them, betrayed, Swannie shrugs and holds up a caddy of condiments. “Just bringing y’all some ketchup,” they say, innocently, before placing them on the table, winking at Anthony, and walking away again.
“Uh,” Steve says.
“So that’s a no, then,” Anthony says, smirking at Steve. “Coincidentally, same.”
“It’s been implied,” Anthony says. He squints. “Ever been married?”
Steve shakes his head. “Nope.”
“Same here,” Anthony says. “Got close once, though, I guess.”
“I guess I could say same here too,” Steve says. “It was a long time ago, though.” He lets his regret slide into his soft smile of remembrance, because it’s genuine enough to cover the fact that Steve can’t explain how long ago that was. “We were– It’s complicated, I suppose. But aren’t these things always complicated?”
“Yeah,” Anthony breathes, and it sounds like he more than understands.
“We hadn’t even been on a date. But I went to war, and bad things happened, a bad mission, and my death was misreported,” Steve says, speaking slowly so he can figure out how to tell the truth without telling the truth. “So by the time I came back, and came back to life... She was already married.”
“Afghanistan or Iraq?” Anthony asks.
“Iraq,” Steve says, because he did do some missions there with the Air Force in the early 00s.
“Mine was Afghanistan,” Anthony says, and he’s playing with his food, not quite looking at Steve. Steve watches him patiently, ready to show his sympathy whenever Anthony needs it. “I was a, uh, contractor. Caught up in this roadside explosion. When I got home, everything changed.”
“I feel you on that one,” Steve says, with a dry huff that might have been a laugh in another lifetime.
“Turns out the only person I ever trusted was just using me. And there was– A someone. And she tried to help, she always tried to help. But the only way I could cope was by...Does it make sense if I say I was two people? One person in public, another in private, and asking her to love me was difficult enough, asking her to love both was–”
“Too much,” Steve says.
“It’s not a sad story,” Anthony clarifies, immediately. “She married one of my best friends.”
“How is that not a sad story?” Steve demands, because at least Peggy married someone Steve had met just once and barely remembered, one name among a hundred others saved in that mission. If she’d married one of the Howling Commandos, Steve thinks he might have lost his mind.
“I love them both,” Anthony says. “And I’m glad that they both have love from people I love. It’s all good.”
“Except sometimes you get sad about it.”
“Well duh,” Anthony says. “They both mean a lot to me and they don’t hang out with me as much when they’re banging each other.”
Steve chokes on a mouthful of air, and Anthony laughs and winks at him outlandishly. This is starting to feel like maybe it’s a date after all. Steve’s... not as opposed to the idea as he thought he might be.
“So how come someone as charming as you is single?” Anthony asks. “Because I’m not really buying it. Spill it. What’s the deep dark secret that has the singletons of Undertown scurrying for the hills.”
“Well,” Steve says. “Sometimes I get angry if I’m hungry. So grumpy that my staff stock snacks around the aisles in case I get hungry.”
“I did wonder why there was cookies in among the cable ties. I just thought maybe you were into something a bit naughty and nice.”
“I don’t think cable ties would actually hold me,” Steve says, and looks down at his wrists consideringly. He flexes his hands as he thinks about it. When he glances back up, Anthony’s cheeks have an interesting pink tinge to them. This dating idea might have some traction to it, Steve thinks.
“Yeah, you’re very muscular,” Anthony says. “I suppose it’s all the heavy lifting in a hardware store, huh?”
Steve makes a noise of agreement, because he hates lying, but it’s not like he can say a superserum took him from ninety-five pounds to a number that sometimes makes elevators go ding and refuse to move when he’s on them. “You’re not small yourself,” he says, glancing at Anthony’s arms appreciatively. Anthony’s clothes are usually baggy, but they don’t hide everything.
“It’s all my Mechanic-ing, makes me buff,” Anthony says. He flickers a low and dirty look at Steve. “That do something for you, huh?”
Somewhat busy thinking about Anthony with a heavy sledgehammer, maybe wearing a tank top, sweating profusely, working somewhere nice and low lit... Steve has to yank himself quickly out of his own thoughts when he realizes Anthony said something. “What?”
Anthony laughs. “I think I want a ticket to your last mental destination.”
The rest of their meal passes in a somewhat pleasant blur, Anthony sharing light stories about the repair work he’s been doing around town, Steve countering with old town gossip about those people. He likes how Anthony’s eyes linger on Steve’s face when he’s talking. Steve doesn’t want their conversation to end, but he’s a little bit rusty on how to do it. He doesn’t know if he’s ever really talked to people he’s interested in. Captain America rarely had time for anything but some ill-timed and very brief romances. Steve’s never learned really how to date someone in modern times because no one’s really gotten his attention.
Until now. Steve’s trying his best to formulate an invitation for Anthony to join him on a walk to the Blizzard King a few blocks away, and as they get up to go to the register to pay, Steve’s about to do it, but when he turns around, Anthony’s staring up at the TV.
It looks like a repeat of the story Steve had finally gotten around to reading about, the whole Mandarin debacle, and there’s a couple of photographs on the screen behind the anchor; a suave-looking guy in a suit and sunglasses labeled as Tony Stark, Missing Billionaire and a chilling portrait of the man calling himself the Mandarin.
“The Mandarin continues to send his chilling messages to the President and to the world,” the anchor says, “and with the explosion of Tony Stark’s Malibu Point mansion almost four weeks ago—”
“—and that’s enough of that,” Swannie says loudly, reaching up and jabbing at the TV to make it change channels. “Told you, the news recently has been all kinds of bad. Ain’t no point, the way it makes everyone feel so bad.”
They beam at Steve and then look from him to Anthony with a raised eyebrow. Steve shrugs.
“I have some work to do,” Anthony says, and he smiles at Swannie, but it seems somewhat fake. “Gotta earn that bread, y’know? Thanks for the good cooking, Swannie.”
“You’re welcome, good looking,” Swannie says, beaming. And before Steve can open his mouth to make his invitation, Anthony looks at him directly. His mouth is in a firm line and there’s no trace of even the warm flirting from the start of their evening together.
“Good night, Mister Fixit,” Anthony says. “I’ll see you later.”
Steve blinks, because he’d been so sure this night wasn’t quite over, and now he feels off-guard manages, “Good night... Mechanic.” Steve watches the road until Anthony disappears from view, and when he turns back to Swannie, they have an odd look on their face. Sadness as well, Steve thinks.
“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, Swannie,” Steve says. He guesses he must have misinterpreted the chemistry between him and Anthony. Anthony probably flirts with everyone. He sighs, loudly.
Swannie nods goodbye at Steve, and they look like they know exactly how he feels.
Everything changed on a Thursday, and everything changes again on another Thursday.
Or maybe it’s just a slow roll of change that’s still unfurling and likes to cause chaos by picking Steve’s busiest work day. It’s the week before Christmas, and that should be the start of a poem, but it’s not. Business has picked up, because Mister Fixit’s is a popular place for finding presents, and Marian’s even set up a gift-wrapping table in the corner to raise some money for cancer research.
Steve nearly misses Anthony coming into the store this time, which is a new one for him, but he’s so busy helping three different people find the right kind of soil for their plants, and then hauling out multiple bags of it out to their trucks, that he barely even notices Anthony is there, checking out the wiring section again, frowning at each coil for long lengths of time.
Marian sidles up to him. “Normally he’s in and out of here in a flash. Can’t think why he’s lingering today, can you?” Steve side-glances at her and she’s smiling impishly.
“I’ll just go and check on him,” Steve decides, when Anthony looks up for a moment, catches Steve’s eye, grins, and then quickly turns back to the wires. “He’s a loyal customer. Can’t let him flail around without assistance.”
“Yep, that’s why you’re doing it,” Marian says, sarcastically.
Steve shakes his head in mock-disapproval at her, but he can’t hide his smile, so it’s kind of useless.
Anthony’s slides off his perennial cap and sunglasses at Steve’s approach and Steve’s cheeks feel warm.
“Ooh, I get the boss’s personal assistance, nice,” Anthony says when Steve draws up alongside him. When Steve glances back at Marian, she’s got Naomi by her side and they both giggle when he looks over. He mouths “ you’re all fired” at them, but it just makes them laugh harder, so Steve turns his back and manfully ignores them. Anthony gestures loosely at the shelf they’re standing in front of. “You got any other metals in this range?”
Steve frowns. Wiring isn’t exactly his area of expertise. “We can check over the catalogs in the back office if you want, the companies are always sending me them. I’m sure we can order something in if I don’t have it right now.”
Anthony hums under his breath, noncommittal, and mutters, to Steve’s sudden and sharp consternation, “Bet they don’t have vibranium in one of those catalogs.”
He can’t help it.
No. No. Steve can’t believe it. He won’t believe it.
Steve feels a chill run all over his body and there’s a cold, dull pain in his gut and his mouth is dry, because would SHIELD really do this to him? Steve thinks back to his fear that maybe Anthony was an elaborate honeytrap. Would they really be this elaborate? Fury knows his feelings about manipulation. If Steve is ever to go back, it needs to be of his own volition. His own decision.
No, this has to be a mistake. Steve needs to figure out if he misheard Anthony, for starters.
“Vibranium?” Steve asks, trying to sound casual.
“Oh,” Anthony says, eyes scanning over the shelves and pausing on some galvanized brads. “It’s this weird metal, my dad got to work with some once, left me instructions on how to make it because he didn’t have the tech back then to make more. I made some once in my basement, but I don’t have half the stuff here to do it again.”
It’s not the answer he’s expecting. Steve narrows his eyes. A number of disparate words and facts all collide in his brain at once, because as far as he knows there was only one lot of vibranium in the world. Steve, startled, finds himself saying, in an almost baffled tone, “Stark ?”
Anthony freezes. His shoulders suddenly hunch up. And when he looks at Steve, it’s with a stung, haunted expression. He looks like someone stripped every last layer of okay from his body and left him in gray-scale.
Steve’s seen that sort of look on more than one man before, usually in a ditch while shell blasts ricocheted in the air around them and everything smelt of death, sulfur and weeks-old sweat.
“I was wondering if you’d figure me out at some point,” Anthony says, and his voice is tight and small. He’s given up pretending that he’s interested in the contents of the shelves and he looks directly at Steve, somewhat miserably.
Steve opens his mouth to say something, and freezes, because Anthony’s reaction makes no sense. Why would he be upset that Steve knew who his dad was? But then Steve’s brain catches up with the situation, and oh. Anthony’s misery makes all the sense in the world. Now Steve knows, he can understand why Anthony’s appearance has rattled him from the beginning.
It’s not obvious. It’s just in the edge of a smirk, in the slant of his cheekbones, in the color of Anthony’s hair and eyes. It’s Howard Stark, a face Steve hasn’t seen for years. Steve meets Anthony’s gaze, and Anthony knows he’s figured it all out, and Anthony’s smile is curved and self-loathing.
Tony Stark’ s smile.
“You’re supposed to be dead,” Steve manages, his voice working faster than his thoughts.
“If you Googled me for one second, you’d have seen I rarely do what I’m supposed to,” Anthony – Tony? – says with a studied indifference. “Well, I should be going, anyway. Lots to do, lots to finish. Thanks for all your help.” He nods awkwardly at Steve, then slides his sunglasses and cap back on. “I’ll see you later.” His voice is thready and weird, strung with tension, and he shoves his hands in his pockets and makes his way to the doors. Steve stares after him, his mouth moving uselessly.
“What did you say to him to make him do that?” Marian demands, hurrying over to him.
“Uh,” Steve says. “It’s complicated?”
Marian sighs. “Well, go on then, I can finish up.”
Steve turns to her dumbly. “What do you mean?”
Marian shakes her head, huffing. “I mean go after him and apologize, you giant doofus.”
Steve stares at her, then realizes what she’s saying, and he nods, starting to pull his apron off. She takes it from him and grins.
“Thanks, I’ll make it up for you later,” he promises, and takes off after Anthony.
Anthony sighs out loud when he catches sight of Steve running to catch him up.
“Shit,” Anthony says, slightly under his breath, but Steve can hear it anyway. Maybe he’s meant to. “Look, I don’t want to talk, okay? Just leave me alone.”
“I don’t think you really mean that,” Steve says.
“Oh believe me,” Anthony says, in a low voice, and turns his back on Steve to continue walking. “I really do.”
“I didn’t know who you were before now,” Steve says. “You haven’t known me for that long, but you saw me the other day, I’d barely just caught up with the news, month old news. I’m not exactly Mr. Technology.”
“Well, yeah,” Anthony acknowledges, “else the stuff you sell might not be so charmingly– Wait, I’m not talking to you right now.”
“Sure,” Steve says, amicably following him down the street.
“You can stop following me,” Anthony says.
“I know I can,” Steve says. “And I will. When I’m sure you’ve stopped freaking out.”
“Freaking out? I am not freaking out,” Anthony snaps, and then he stops and thumps his forehead into the heel of his own hand, and he sighs. “Fine, I’m freaking out. But you can’t blame me, I nearly got blown up a few weeks ago, it’s not paranoia when one of the world’s biggest terrorists is really out to get you.”
“Well, you did give him your home address,” Steve says.
“Not my brightest moment,” Anthony sighs. “Look, I just– I needed somewhere to lay low for a bit.”
“And that’s why you’ve been buying stuff at my store, because you can pay by cash,” Steve says, slowly. “Staying low so that Mandarin fellow doesn’t figure out where you are now?”
“World thinks I’m dead,” Anthony says, and he glares at Steve. “I’d like that to remain so. I don’t want this, like, going up on the internet or anything.”
“You’ve not been to my place yet, but you should see my computer. It barely even connects to the internet. It’s clunky, ten years old, you’d probably freak,” Steve says.
“Ten years old?” Anthony forgets he’s supposed to be worried for a moment in favor of looking completely appalled. “Wait, are you inviting me back to your place to check out your hard drive?”
Steve squints, because he said computer, not hard drive. “If you want to come, you can,” Steve says, as evenly as he can. Anthony chokes for some reason, but Steve continues. “Look, all I really know is that right now, you’re going through something stressful. This town is a good place, Anthony. It’s a safe place.” He looks around at the familiar buildings and sighs wistfully. “This town took a wrecked, used-up soldier and gave me peace. A home. Somewhere to put myself back together again. This place is a haven. You don’t have to be anyone you used to be, not here. I don’t care about Tony Stark. I do happen to care for this other guy though. His name’s Anthony, he’s a mechanic, he’s having a tough time, and... he needs a friend. I thought– I thought that’s what I could be.”
Anthony’s staring at him. With his sunglasses on, Steve can’t read his eyes, but he thinks he’s finally gotten through to him.
“A friend,” Anthony says, very slowly. “Last one I had of those almost died.”
Steve knows that feeling, right down to the bones. “Well, I’m right here,” he says, and holds out his wrist. “Feel my pulse.” Anthony’s eyebrows dip in confusion, but Steve holds his gaze and Anthony slowly takes hold of Steve’s wrist in his own, watching him warily, like Steve might explode. After hesitating, Anthony presses two fingers against Steve’s pulse point, and Steve can almost feel some of the tension seep right out of him. “Feel it?”
“Yeah,” Anthony says softly, calming down. “Yeah.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Steve says, as gently as he can. “You’re safe here, Mechanic.”
Anthony nods, and stays silent, loosely holding Steve’s wrist. The small gesture feels intimate, like Steve’s exposing something vulnerable and being accepted at the deepest level.
“Let’s go get dinner,” Steve suggests. “My treat.”
Anthony looks like he’s thinking about protesting, but something in Steve’s face must stop him, and he scrunches up his nose. “Do you just spend half the day eating?” he asks.
“Pretty much,” Steve agrees, sadly.
They walk side by side to the diner, of course, and Anthony’s quiet in his own thoughts, and Steve thinks maybe he’s still going to lose him to the hills, and he doesn’t like the thought of Anthony freaking out and running away. He cautiously starts a new conversation when they’re a couple blocks from the diner.
“So do you even go by Anthony, or do you prefer Tony?” Steve asks.
Anthony side-eyes him. “You can call me whatever you want.”
“That’s not what I asked,” Steve says. “Do you ever answer a straight question?”
“I don’t see why I would,” Anthony says, smiling slyly, “I’m certainly not straight.”
It’s warm outside even though it’s December, but not warm enough that Steve should be flushing from the temperature, and Steve hopes valiantly that his entire face hasn’t gone as red as he’s suspecting it has. He can feel the heat of his embarrassment crawl up his neck. Christ, he hasn’t been this responsive to someone since... Since anyone. It’s ridiculous.
Anthony seems to take pity on Steve then, because he says, “Tony, I guess. Way too many people just call me Mr. Stark, and that’s– that’s my dad’s name, you know?” Anthony – Tony – makes this aborted sort of gesture that’s probably supposed to be a shrug. He’s staring off into the distance. Steve’s stomach aches. Howard had been a swell sort of guy, if a little too roguishly charming, but maybe the man Steve remembers isn’t the same as the man who raised Tony. Time changes everyone. Steve’s living proof of that.
“Tony,” Steve says, under his breath, as if committing the new name to memory. He likes how it sounds. “Nice to meet you.”
“And you definitely prefer Steve to, like, what? Stephen?”
“Just call me Steve, please. Stephen is a scrawny six year old getting his butt kicked behind a dumpster.” Steve purses his lips. “I’ve never felt like a Stephen.” He’s always felt that Steve suits him. Stephen just feels unfamiliar. Strange.
“I probably would have seen you in the diner later anyway,” Tony says, scratching at his nose thoughtfully, surprising Steve with the idea. “Got myself a new student. Guy called Humphrey Jones, wants to know how to use Excel.” He wrinkles his mouth for a moment. “I can hack into SHIELD on a smartphone and I have to teach spreadsheets? Life always likes to keep you on your toes, doesn’t it?”
When Tony looks at him, Steve sort of thinks Tony means Steve is keeping him on his toes.
“Death too, apparently,” Steve says, because the newspapers still think Tony Stark is dead. Tony nods like he’s thinking about that. “I am sorry for just blurting that out earlier,” Steve says. At Tony’s confusion, he clarifies. “Your surname. It was just a surprise. There was only one person I’d ever met who’s worked with vibranium. I guess I wasn’t expecting to hear it in my backwater hardware store.”
“That’s how you figured out who I was?” Tony asks. “I figured what you saw on the TV the other day finally clicked, but— You met my dad? Are you sure you’re old enough to have met my dad?”
“Huh?” Steve blinks. “Uh, yeah, it was– I was young,” he lies, somewhat badly. “You were still at college or something, I guess.”
“That narrows it down,” Tony says, in a tone which patently says it doesn’t narrow it down at all.
“You’d just started your first year at MIT,” Steve says, thinking about it.
Tony’s squint goes from side-leaning to fully front-on. “Okay, you definitely don’t look old enough for that.”
“I’m older than I look,” Steve says, dismissively. “Shit. It’s a small world, huh?”
“Suppose so,” Tony says. He scratches his nose, idly looking off into the distance. “I don’t know if enough people have told you, but you’re an unusual guy, Mister Fixit.”
Steve beams at him, honestly pleased by the sentiment. “Most people think I’m kind of dull,” he sighs. “Nobody expects much of a guy who runs a hardware store.”
“People always expect a lot from me. It’s probably why I disappoint so many people.”
“Well, I bet you’re disappointing the Mandarin right now,” Steve says. “Supervillains are always like that. I bet his minions have had weeks of monologues about how he’s an amazing villain but so misunderstood.”
Tony’s mouth quirks and Steve squints at him, and then suddenly they’re both laughing in the middle of the street, Tony leaning a little against his side, gasping for breath. Steve grins down at him.
“Come on,” Steve says. “Let’s get some food.”
“Yeah,” Tony breathes. “Good idea.” He squints at Swannie’s, just a couple of blocks away from them. “Do you ever eat anywhere else?”
Steve thinks about lying. “Would you believe me if I said yes?”
“Probably not,” Tony admits.
The diner is mostly empty again, except for Jenny Arbor, and Steve thinks if he had that many siblings maybe being out of the house at all times might be his tactic too. Especially when “out of the house” means you’re this close to Swannie’s pies. It is an odd time of the afternoon, Steve supposes, and one he rarely sees.
“Do mine eyes deceive me?” Swannie lifts their head from their arms and blinks at them owlishly. “Hast thou bunked off work, Steve? For a date?”
Steve blushes and dammit, he needs to work on that. It never used to be a problem when he was too small to be noticed. “Not a date, Swannie,” he grinds out from between clenched teeth.
“It’s not?” Tony asks, fluttering his eyelashes and then laughing brightly when he sees Steve’s blush deepen.
Swannie makes them some sandwiches, because Tony says he skipped lunch, and Steve can always eat, and then Swannie joins them for a milkshake, because they have some time before the after-school rush starts. And Steve... just doesn’t really leave. First it’s because Jenny Arbor ends up having a breakdown over her notes, so Steve tests her on her vocab while Swannie feeds her doughnuts to distract her, and Tony ends up disappearing into the kitchen to take a look at Steve-the-dishwasher, coming back with a thousand jokes that Steve thinks are probably dirty from the way Swannie blushes, and they rarely ever blush.
After the after-school rush blends into the after-work rush there’s a lull, and Swannie, realizing they have most of Steve’s attention, starts using him as a guinea-pig for some new menu items they’ve been thinking about, and then Tony starts to tutor Humphrey Jones how to use a beat-up laptop that Humphrey’s dragged along, and Steve melts. He can’t help it. Now he knows who Tony is, it’s impossible not to be charmed that this apparently super-genius billionaire is being so patient and kind with an old man who can’t tell which way is up half the time.
“You did good,” Steve says, when Tony wearily joins him a couple hours later, sinking into the soft leather of the booth with an audible sigh. “With Jones, I mean.”
“He’s got a good brain in that head,” Tony says, closing his eyes and leaning his head back. “When his body allows him to use it.”
Over in the corner Humphrey’s tapping away on his keyboard, occasionally chuckling to himself.
“Hooked him up to the diner’s WiFi,” Tony explains. “Showed him how to Google knock-knock jokes.”
“I thought Starksearch was the rising search engine,” Steve says, innocently.
Tony gives him a dour look. “Can’t risk the interface picking up on my typing patterns and alerting the wrong system to my Tom Sawyer shenanigans.”
“Does that make your bodyguard Huckleberry Finn?” Steve asks quietly. He always enjoys finding the rare cultural references that have survived the decades and that he understands.
Tony grins. “Not the classic book I was thinking of for that,” he says, and then rests his chin on his hands, looking out at the crosswalk, and the people milling around. “Is this what regular life is like?” His smile is almost bittersweet. “I wouldn’t really know myself.”
“It’s always quiet,” Steve says, softly. “Longer you stay here, longer you just become part of the surroundings. People learn your name. You learn theirs. You become part of the way the place works.”
“Sounds nice,” Tony says. “Maybe Tony Stark should be dead.”
Steve looks at him in alarm. “You–” he starts.
“Not like that,” Tony says. “I’m not planning on dying any time soon. Just– what if Tony Stark didn’t go back to the real world. What if he... did what he had to do... and just... stayed.”
“Here?” Steve says.
Tony looks away from the window, meets Steve’s gaze and says, “Sure.” He says it like he’s aiming for casual, but it lands with such a raw note that Steve’s breath hitches in his throat.
“What about your billions, your company?”
“Someone else runs my company. I don’t need the money.”
“Didn’t you say you had friends?”
“They don’t need me,” Tony says, simply. “They have each other. I’m sure they’d love to visit. It’s just– I know where I have to go next. But I’m finding it hard to remember why I can’t just... come back when I’m done.”
“Come back here,” Steve says. He can’t look away from Tony. The idea of it, of Tony coming back, choosing to come here... It’s shaking something loose inside of him that feels almost dangerous.
“There are... things here I could stay for,” Tony says. “Maybe the world doesn’t need me like I used to think it did.”
“Things?” Steve says, and he doesn’t recognize the sound of his own voice as he says it.
Tony licks his lips and Steve tracks the movement, he can’t help it. “People,” he says, aiming for light, and failing, failing badly, and Steve knows Tony means him, and his hands are sweaty, and he feels like he’s going to explode.
“I really like the sound of that,” Steve breathes. He feels a little light-headed. Tony looks like he understands. Tony’s mouth twitches at one side into a lopsided smile.
“Didn’t you offer to let me see your, uh... computer, wasn’t it?” Tony says, and slides his hand under the table, and Tony’s smile stretches wider when he realizes his words have definitely affected Steve measurably.
Steve starts fumbling for his wallet so he can pay, and Tony laughs when he nearly drops it, but Tony also helps him pick it up, and keeps his hand low on Steve’s back as they pay and hurriedly leave the diner, and Tony salutes Swannie as they push out together through the doors.
Steve wonders whether the energy thrumming under his skin will die now it’s not under the neon bright lights and safe cocoon of Swannie’s diner, but outside, it seems to expand exponentially, like the roof of the diner had been limiting, and now they’re in the open air, and he almost wants to laugh because he’s never felt like this in his life. He almost doesn’t want to look at Tony, in case what he sees doesn’t mirror how he’s feeling, but when he shyly glances at him, finds the worry was needless. There’s heat in Tony’s eyes and Steve can’t look away again.
Tony draws close but doesn’t touch him, not yet, and that’s probably a good idea, because Steve thinks if they start, right now, maybe they wouldn’t be able to stop. “Where do you live?”
“Uh,” Steve says, because there’s a little problem with a lack of blood flow to his brain, “about fifteen minutes this way?” He points. Tony frowns.
“I know that you invited me to look at your hard drive–” Tony starts.
“I said computer,” Steve corrects.
“But,” Tony says, like Steve hasn’t interrupted him, “my rooms are closer?”
Steve nods before he realizes his whole body is saying yes.
The walk to Tony’s rooms moves by in a blur, energy thrumming under Steve’s skin. Tony fails twice to let them into his room, missing the keyhole twice as Steve laughs into his neck, and then Tony succeeds and yanks Steve into the room by the front of his shirt.
The walk to the Liberty rooms was shorter than the distance to Steve’s little townhouse, but it was still long enough for Steve to start second-guessing himself, second-guessing the intent in the heat between them, but it’s all wiped away by the feeling of Tony’s mouth against his the moment the door closes.
Things get adult-rated pretty quickly after that.
Tony’s kisses are desperate, and full-bodied, and Steve lets himself be pushed up against the door. He has the strength to push Tony away a thousand times over, but there’s something so good about letting someone else push him around. Steve fumbles his coat off, and Tony’s hands are already tugging at the bottom of Steve’s shirt, and Steve finally gets his fingers into Tony’s hoodie and it’s just as soft as Steve thought it would be, and Tony nearly stumbles as he tries to kick his shoes off and move backwards at the same time, and it’s hilarious, Steve laughs right into the next kiss, and Steve’s burning up with all of it.
“Dammit, how are you even real,” Tony mutters, finally getting Steve’s shirt off, and Steve would be self-conscious, but he loves how Tony looks at him, pushing him briefly away to arm’s distance so he can look, and Steve’s blush doesn’t just stop at his cheeks. “Seriously,” Tony adds. “I feel like someone cooked you up in a lab just for me.”
That’s actually kind of right on the nose – Tony Stark’s infamously a genius, after all – but Steve pushes that away, because why think when there can be more kissing? It turns out Tony’s right alongside him on that wavelength, because he surges up and into Steve’s arms again, and Tony twists so Steve’s walking backwards to the bed, and Tony pushes Steve down– and Steve has to start laughing, even as he lands among a whole heap of things.
“Shit,” Tony yelps, and drags Steve up. Steve turns to see what he fell on, and it looks like most of his Mister Fixit’s purchases, except out of their boxes and curled with wires and cut apart and put together in ways that Steve has never seen before. “I forgot.” He flicks a finger at Steve’s bare chest. “You make me very forgetful.”
“I’m sorry?” Steve tries.
“Do not apologize for that,” Tony says, and even though the motel room is badly lit, Steve thinks he can make out a pretty flush on Tony’s cheeks too, and ugh, he needs this to get back on track sometime soon, if Tony’s up for it. Steve’s glance dips a little lower. Yeah, it certainly seems like some of Tony’s body is on board.
“C’mon, teamwork makes the dream work,” Steve quips, and Tony rolls his eyes.
“That should not sound as sexy as it does,” Tony mumbles, but he helps Steve lift up the entire coverlet carefully, and they walk it over to the far corner of the room, gently laying it on the carpet, and Steve drags Tony back over to the bed, hand cupping Tony’s cheek, and he leans in to kiss him again, and has a thought.
“Wait, where do you normally sleep if you’ve been keeping that on the bed?” Steve asks.
“Well, sleep isn’t so much a thing I do,” Tony says, wincing.
Steve’s sad for him, and he hopes the next kiss he presses against Tony’s mouth transmits that, because the next kiss after that transmits a very different message, one Tony’s entire body responds to. Steve reaches for Tony’s t-shirt, his over-shirt abandoned already on the floor, and Tony actually stops.
Steve freezes too, because he might not hook up much ( at all, ever, since you moved here, a little mutinous voice whines in the back of his brain), but when he has in the past he never wanted to do anything with an unwilling partner. “Do you need to stop?” Steve says, and twists to sit on the bed next to Tony. He looks at him earnestly. “I won’t be upset. We’re moving quickly.”
“Believe me,” Tony says, “if you realized sooner I’ve been flirting with you, we would have moved way past this way sooner.” He smirks. “All your employees realized much quicker than you did that I really didn’t need to make so many individual purchases from your store.”
Steve beams, touched. Well, emotionally touched. He still hangs back a little, meaning to do so until he’s sure he has consent to continue what they started. “I’m a little slow when it comes to things like that.”
“I just want to make sure you know everything before we go any further,” Tony says.
Steve says silent, nodding encouragingly.
“You know who I am now,” Tony says. “So maybe you know some of the real story? I was injured badly in Afghanistan, but it was a missile, one of my own. Too many fragments went into my body.”
Steve stares, horrified. He’s met a few walking wounded in his time, to his endless dismay. They rarely live long. Steve’s hand reaches up to touch Tony’s chest, where his heart is, almost automatically. Tony’s face tenses a little, but relaxes when he realizes Steve is pulling his hand back. “How did you survive something like that?” Steve asks.
“There’s a device. It’s called an arc reactor. It’s what I use to power my tower in New York, you might have seen something on the news– Oh. Wait. You don’t really watch the news.” At’s Steve shrug, Tony continues. “It’s an energy device. Like a battery. And it powers an electromagnet that keeps the shards from moving.”
“Wow,” Steve says. “That’s amazing.”
“I just wanted to warn you before you see it,” Tony says. “Some people– they don’t react too well. There’s a lot of scarring, it’s kind of odd–”
Steve moves his hand again, this time to Tony’s mouth. He presses his fingers against Tony’s lips. Tony kisses them, but his eyes look haunted, and Steve wants to chase that look away. He never wants to see it on Tony’s face again if he can help it.
“Can I?” Steve asks, gently.
Tony’s the one to stay silent and nod this time, and they work together to pull up Tony’s t-shirt, tossing it over in the corner, and it probably lands on Tony’s weird blanket of inventions, but Steve doesn’t know, because he can see the arc reactor, and Steve can’t look away. The circle of light illuminates both of them in a riot of angles and colors.
“It’s beautiful,” Steve breathes, and Tony looks like Steve just punched him in the gut.
“You’re just saying that because you want to get in my pants,” Tony says.
“Well, I do, but I’m not just saying that,” Steve says, and he smiles, because damn, the modern age keeps surprising him, again and again. “All of you is beautiful. And it’s part of you. And it’s keeping you alive. I think that means it’s the most wonderful invention in the entire world.”
Tony stares at him wordlessly.
“Hey, let me into that brain of yours,” Steve says. “What are you thinking?”
“That you can’t be real,” Tony says. “That you honestly cannot be real.”
“I’m real,” Steve says, softly, laughing as he laces his fingers with Tony’s, and starts to press Tony down into the pillows. “I can prove it.”
If he spends the next few hours enthusiastically doing so, that’s between him and Tony and the dark.
Steve hasn’t slept so well in... well, a really long time. As his consciousness slowly crawls back, Steve’s body feels really good. It’s not often he gets to feel aches any more, and his body aches, and it’s such a good ache Steve wants to wrap himself in the feeling forever. He looks over to see Tony still asleep, and Steve feels like his heart is pushing up hard against his rib cage when he sees him. Tony looks calm, for the first time since Steve’s met him.
He thinks about the parts of the news he has seen. Tony deserves time to rest. He deserves to be happy. Steve feels a warm thrill that he’s been able to give some of that to him. He can’t help himself and he leans forward to press a kiss into Tony’s bare shoulder.
“Hmm,” Tony murmurs. “That’s nice.”
“Sorry, did I wake you?”
Tony shifts in Steve’s arms to face him, and looks at him sleepily. “I don’t think so, but if you did, definitely would not be something I’d list as a regret.”
Steve’s smile is off-center but so genuine it makes Tony’s mouth lurch into a matching smile.
“Room came with a spare toothbrush if you wanna use it,” Tony says.
“Is that a hint?” Steve laughs, but does push himself up. Tony watches him shamelessly as Steve gets to his feet, and Steve should be more self-conscious, but he likes how Tony’s watching him, so he stretches, doesn’t reach for his clothes, and pads to the bathroom buck-naked. He thinks he hears Tony blaspheme under his breath, and Steve just smiles, because it sounds more fond than anything.
Tony lets him use the bathroom first, because it’s so small, and when Steve comes out, Tony’s sitting on the edge of the bed awaiting his turn. The coward has a sheet slung around his waist, more’s the pity. Steve crosses over and kisses his cheek. Tony beams at him before disappearing into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. Tony’s a lot shyer the morning after, Steve thinks. He’s glad to learn it. He wants to learn so much more about him.
Steve looks at the bed, but there’s no second sheet for him. He’s contemplating if he should put his clothes on, or lie on the bed and use a strategically placed pillow to make Tony laugh (Steve thinks he would laugh at that), but he casts around to see if there’s a spare second sheet, and there is – underneath all of Tony’s weird inventions.
Steve steps closer to them almost without thinking about it. He can’t understand what anything does, but he supposes if Tony could build a metal suit in a cave then these could be anything. Steve glances around the room; the dresser has some odd items on it - water bottles with red syringes suspended inside - and there is a lot of equipment on the chair in the corner too: a re-conditioned chainsaw, a tumble of pipes, some metal sheets and some of his tools. Steve frowns at it all, and then scowls at his own thoughts, because even though some of the mystery-of-Anthony has unfolded to him after all, poking at threads of what remains is just going to mean poking at the frail glue that keeps Captain America where he should stay: in Steve’s past.
“Hey, I have something better to look at than that pile of junk,” Tony says, and Steve turns to him immediately, smiling again, and gosh, has Steve smiled half this much, since SHIELD found him over thirty years ago? He’s not sure.
“I guess you count as a better sight than junk,” Steve says, and swallows Tony’s outrage in a lazy good morning kiss. “Some of it looks really dangerous,” he adds, when the kiss breaks, and Tony leans his forehead against Steve.
“I’m just messing around, really.” Tony looks up at Steve. “Why haven’t you pulled this sheet from me yet? I’m disappointed in your lack of initiative.”
Steve laughs, deals with the sheet problem, and things quickly turn warm and blurry again, for a little while longer. When they finally part, it’s not too far, and Steve holds Tony close, drawing idle patterns on his skin with his fingertips. He likes the way his fingers make patterns on Tony’s body and the strip of mattress between them, the arc reactor light creating both warm light and soft shadows. “Does this hurt?” Steve asks, trailing his fingers close to but not touching the metal casing.
“Not any more,” Tony says. “Did for a while. Aches in the cold, I guess, like any scar.”
Steve doesn’t really scar, but he nods, because Marian whines about her c-section scar hurting when there’s a cold draft in the store. “I’m glad you have it. Technology’s really something in this decade.”
Tony huffs a laugh. “Okay, now you sound old enough to have met my dad.” Then Tony winces. “Wait, maybe I don’t want to talk about my dad while I’m in bed with you,” he says, after consideration.
“I’ll keep that in mind for later.”
“You think this is gonna happen again?” Tony asks, raising an eyebrow. “Wait, no, don’t even let me bluff you like that. It’s happening again.”
Steve beams at him. “Good,” he says, simply.
“There’s actually a surgery I’ve been offered,” Tony says, softly, and he stares at the ceiling instead of looking at Steve. “An experimental heart surgery. It’s this doctor I’ve been working with, Doctor Helen Cho. She’s doing some stand-up work in nano-molecular regeneration.”
“Experimental,” Steve frowns, because while he’s had a good experience with one experimental procedure, he’s not so sure everyone gets that lucky.
“Oh, I’ve seen her work, it’s incredible, there’s very little risk,” Tony assures him. “But I guess– I mean... Well. I guess I’m still scared. This little circle of light has protected me for years now. I almost don’t know who I’d be without it, if that makes sense?”
Steve thinks about his shield. About how he felt like he’d lost a limb when he packed it away. About how long it took to learn to live without it. “Yeah, that makes sense,” Steve says. “There was– I had something like that, I guess? A kind of crutch. And I leaned on it for so long. Longer than I actually needed to.”
Tony nods, a frown furrowing his handsome face. “How did you move on from it?”
Steve thinks about it, because Tony deserves as honest an answer as Steve can give in the circumstances. “It was difficult. And honestly, I regret it, more often than I’d like to. But I really do like the life I’ve built for myself without it. I feel like everyone deserves to be happy.”
“Happiness is a good look on you.”
Steve blushes, because apparently Tony has also noticed his smiling. “Same on you.”
Tony grins. “How about I shock you and read your mind.”
Steve raises broth eyebrows. “Okay?” For a second, he worries that maybe Tony is psychic, but wouldn’t their relationship have progressed differently if Tony realized he’d just slept with Captain America? Steve’s met an esper or two in his travels across the globe, but some of them could just read surface thoughts, and Steve watches Tony worriedly for a moment, because if Tony is a surface-thought psychic, then Steve just thought Captain America at him, twice now, and holy shit, how would he explain it? Tony Stark has governmental contracts, maybe he’s already even signed a SHIELD confidentiality agreement?
“I predict,” Tony says slowly, “that you will say yes to my next question.”
“Okay,” Steve says. “Ask it and we’ll see.”
Tony pulls what he obviously thinks is a mysterious expression, puckering his mouth and wiggling his fingers, and then he nods solemnly. Steve’s about to burst with curiosity, but then Tony grins and asks, “Will you go to the diner and eat breakfast with me?”
Steve laughs, and even though his impulse is to troll Tony and say something other than yes, he pushes back the impulse, says, “Yes,” and is rewarded by a glorious smile.
“See,” Tony purrs, winking at Steve. “I’m totally psychic.”
“Come on, Edgar Cayce, clothes and breakfast,” Steve says, because now Tony’s said breakfast, his stomach is insistent it not be ignored for a moment longer. Super metabolisms, Steve internally sighs, are the worst.
Tony laughs, rises and heads for his own clothes, and then pauses. “Who’s Edgar Cayce?”
“A famous psychic?” Steve says, hunting for his underpants and finding them on a lamp. He blushes a little. It’s been a very long time since he hooked up with anyone, and it’s never felt as desperate as it did last night.
“Can’t be that famous if I’ve never heard of him,” Tony grumbles.
Steve ends up giving Tony a brief history lesson on the way to the diner, even though Cayce had never been quite history to Steve as much as contemporary news. He glances up at the town clock as they pass. It’s only a little later than his usual early morning diner visit. Steve and Tony have barely entered the diner when Swannie sees them; their eyebrows leap up into their hair, and yeah, Steve’s going to be stuck with a permanent blush.
Swannie beams, picks up the menu and coffee jug, and beams wider when Tony slides into the seat opposite Steve, matching smiles on their faces.
“Sausage and waffles, please,” Tony says.
Swannie nods but keeps their gaze on Steve. “Yesterday’s clothes, Mister Fixit?” Swannie says, with a purr in their voice. Tony smirks at it. “Well, I never.”
“I’ll have the special, Swannie, thanks,” Steve says, trying to hold his head up high and failing to maintain his dignity when Tony touches his knee under the table and Steve jolts, over-wired by sensation.
Swannie laughs. “Oh, darling, it’s about time for you to have a life,” they say fondly to Steve, and they cup Tony’s cheek for a second. “My two favorite Fixits. I should declare today a holiday.”
Tony squints. “Does this holiday come with free pie?”
Swannie laughs. “Naturally.”
“Then I declare today Steve Got Laid Yesterday, Yay Day,” Tony says, spreading his arms wide and beaming at Steve, his widest grin, and Steve kind of wants to die, but he also can’t look away from Tony’s hands, and they’re very capable hands, Steve knows that now in a way he’ll never forget. Literally. His memory never lets him forget anything. Today it’s been a blessing, when too many times it’s been a curse.
“About time,” Swannie sighs, and Steve ducks away when they try to ruffle his hair, and they walk off to the kitchen laughing heartily. Steve thinks he should probably be more embarrassed.
He opens his mouth to ask if Tony wants to come to the store, because maybe installing a digital sound system isn’t too awful an idea, and Tony will probably have some good advice about it. He might even agree to accompany Steve to the warehouse attic room, to check out the current system. It’s pretty remote up there, and there’s a pile of cardboard boxes there that he’s caught the Coolidge twins napping on more than once, so they must be comfortable...
“Whatever you’re thinking about right now,” Tony says, sipping the coffee Swannie poured him before leaving, “you’re telling me about when we’re alone next.”
“Deal,” Steve says.
“The speed of that reply sounds like it bodes well for me,” Tony says. “I–”
“Gee, is that the Mandarin again?” a voice pipes up, and Steve turns to see Jenny Arbor at her usual study table, staring up at the TV with a look of horror.
Tony whips his head to the screen, of course he does, because the Mandarin blew up Tony’s house. No wonder he’s been acting so mysteriously: Tony’s probably scared the Mandarin will find him and try to blow him up again, and Steve’s hands clench into fists, because he can protect Tony, more than Tony even knows. It’s okay if Tony’s a little scared; as long as Steve is around, Tony’s safe.
The Mandarin’s sitting on his elaborate throne, and at his feet is a terrified looking man. Steve’s already standing automatically, which is a learned reaction from so many years of missions, but it’s apparently not unusual, because Tony’s also upright and moving closer to the TV to stare at it in horror.
“Mr. President,” the Mandarin coos, “only two lessons remain.”
Steve stares in loathing as the Mandarin introduces that the man at his feet is a Roxxon Oil Corporation accountant called Thomas Richards, and the Mandarin plans to shoot him if the President doesn’t call him.
“Nothing, not your army, not your red, white and blue attack dog can save you,” the Mandarin seethes, glaring at the screen. “I’ll see you soon.”
The screen goes black for a moment, then multi-colored, then it switches to a news screen where an anchor is trying badly to summarize what has just happened, and calling for the location of Iron Patriot, which Steve thinks is due to her being overwhelmed, because everyone knows Tony Stark’s bodyguard is called Iron Man. Iron Man is a patriot, though, so it’s an understandable mistake.
Steve turns to Tony to share that thought, because out of everyone Tony Stark himself will surely find that mistake funny.
The light mirth he’s feeling from focusing on that thought, and not on the man that got shot in live television, dissipates the instant he sees Tony’s face.
If Steve thought Tony had turned gray-scale when Steve had accidentally uncovered his name, then the Tony of right now has descended into black and white.
“Do I never learn?” Tony asks, and his voice is horrid. It scrapes the air like a knife, and his expression is taut with what can only be described as self-loathing. “God-fucking-dammit. Why do I never fucking learn? Years of sticking my head in the sand and I’ve learned nothing.”
Steve stares at Tony, unsure of what’s going on. Tony turns away from the screen, and there’s something in his eyes, a fire, that Steve feels like he recognizes, even though he’s never seen Tony look like that before.
“I’m really sorry,” Tony says, and Steve frowns, “but– I have to go.” He steps closer to Steve and takes his hands, and looks at him earnestly. “I’ll be back for you, if I can. I promise.”
“Wait,” Steve says, “what’s going on?” He stares desperately at Tony, willing him to explain, because this is suddenly sounding like a goodbye, and how can that be possible?”
“I have to go,” Tony breathes, and he darts forwards, kisses Steve, and turns and runs out of the diner, a purposeful expression on his face that looks almost frightening.
Steve stares after him, befuddled, and frozen for a moment which feels like much too long. He gapes, tries to talk, and shakes his head to clear it, and when he looks back at the counter, both Swannie and Jenny Arbor have matching perplexed expressions. Steve swallows. “Swannie, do me a favor,” he says, his voice low, “I need you to call Marian for her, tell her I’m not sure when I’ll be at the store today, but I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Swannie nods, their face tight with worry. “You going after him?” they ask, nodding in the direction Tony fled.
“Yes,” Steve says.
“You take care,” Swannie says. “And call me as soon as you can.”
“Will do,” Steve says, and goes to find Tony.
Although Tony had a head start, Steve is pretty confident that Tony will stop by his rooms first, wherever he’s going. His hunch pays off. Steve holds back and sees Tony leave his rooms, his hoodie, cap and sunglasses combo back on and a large bag slung over his back.
The inventions must do something, Steve thinks. He gets the feeling that if he confronts Tony now, Tony will give him some vague sort of answer, and then try and give him the slip. Of course, Steve is from the spy organization and evading him is difficult even for trained professionals, but Tony doesn’t know that, and there’s no need to make things more difficult for Steve than they have to be.
So he hangs back, following Tony from a distance. Wherever Tony’s going, he can walk to it – there’s no movement from him that indicates he’s trying to hire a cab or find a car. Tony does get on the 44A bus, but Steve knows that route, and he runs as carefully as he can wherever he can so that he can see each departure stop from a distance, and Tony gets off on the fourth stop, heading off in a direction of some luxury developments that were started a few years ago, full of something Swannie calls McMansions.
Steve supposes it’s only natural that a billionaire would head for a mansion of some sort; Tony does seem to know where he’s going. Steve’s seen the bombing of Tony Stark’s Miami mansion a few times, now that he’s actively trying to pay attention to the news. He personally thinks it looked a little like an airport. Maybe he can persuade Tony to look at some classic architecture books.
The mansion Tony’s heading to seems fairly remote – Steve has to do some creative hiding behind some trees on the way. Steve almost wonders whether Tony knows he’s there, and is leading him on a merry chase, when he sees Tony start making some evasive movements of his own, leading him to hide in a clustered group of trees. Steve stays at a distance first, scoping out the situation, taking note of the imposing gates and high walls surrounding a large mansion, and then he sees a few men walking behind the gates, moving in a defensive pattern.
Whoever owns this place has some substantial protection, Steve thinks, and his stomach drops in horror when he sees the telltale bulge of guns under all of the guard’s jackets, and one of the burly men is walking with a scary-looking guard dog too. Tony’s glancing at them occasionally, fiddling around with something that – is that a grenade? Steve thinks in horror – and he’s moving before he can stop himself.
Steve can still move quietly. It’s a testament to Tony’s determination in whatever he’s doing that Tony doesn’t yelp when he turns to see Steve there. Okay, he does awkwardly flail and land against the nearest tree trunk and his eyes go wide and then they go angry, but Tony doesn’t give away their position.
“What the fuck, Steve?” Tony hisses, and Steve does his best to look both innocent and serious all at once. He’s done nothing wrong, and this situation is weird and worrying.
“What the fuck, Tony?” Steve echoes, and he glances at the object in Tony’s hand, which is not a grenade... but a bauble?
“How the heck did you even–” Tony narrows his eyes. “You’re SHIELD, aren’t you? I freaking knew it, you’re way too good to be true, I cannot believe I’ve nearly fallen twice for this SHIELD honeypot business. At least I didn’t sleep with the last one!”
“I’m not a SHIELD agent,” Steve says, but apparently that’s a mistake, because Tony scowls.
“Then how did you know SHIELD has agents?” Tony hisses. He glances over at the main gates. Apparently they haven’t disturbed the guards.
“You know I was in the army,” Steve whispers back. “We helped SHIELD chase down HYDRA agents, back when the SHIELD infiltration was discovered. I’ve been retired for ten years.”
Tony stares at him wordlessly. Then he shakes himself. “Well, if you’re retired, you can stay here. I’ve got work to do.”
“Maybe we should call SHIELD,” Steve suggests.
“Says not an agent McHoneypot,” Tony mutters. “Look, you might not have understood the Mandarin’s last broadcast, but I did. That red, white and blue taunt – it means he has Iron Patriot.”
“Iron Man,” Steve corrects.
Tony squints. “No,” he says, keeping his voice so quiet Steve has to lean closer. “Iron Patriot – it’s the re-branding of War Machine – you seriously don’t watch the news much, do you?”
Steve wrinkles his nose. “They re-branded War Machine? To Iron Patriot?”
“Yeah, I know, it sucks. Anyway, Rhodey’s my friend. I have to get him back.”
“And what does that have to do with this place?”
“For you, nothing. I’ve been checking this place out, I watched it for a week to scope out the movements and patterns of the guard. I have a plan. I know what I’m doing.”
“You– you’re planning to go in there?” Steve stares at him, appalled. “They have guns, Tony.”
“I know,” Tony says, patiently. He spreads open his bag to show Steve its bulging contents. “I’m not unarmed myself. There’s six guys. A regular patrol. Five outside, one inside. I can handle myself. And how are you even going to stop me? This isn’t something you can fix, Mister Fixit. Stay here, okay?”
Steve’s still kind of confused by the whole situation, and Tony sees it, taking advantage of it – he pecks Steve on the cheek, hurtles forwards, and hauls himself over the shortest wall, and just– goes to town on the guys. Steve swiftly climbs the tree for a better view and watches in what he realizes in dawning horror is almost admiration, because Tony is incredible, and he shouldn’t be so impressed by a civilian acting irresponsibly.
The bauble Tony had in his hand is some sort of home-made flash grenade, there’s a homemade taser in the mix, and the nail gun has been changed into some sort of non-lethal projectile, and it’s not just all that impressing Steve – Tony’s moves are incredible. They are not the movements of a narcissistic billionaire playboy, he moves like a soldier might.
Steve would never admit it, but he’s ridiculously turned on.
Tony disappears inside the mansion and Steve realizes he’s holding his breath, because he can’t see what’s going on. It feels like Tony’s been inside an eternity, and Steve’s stomach is growling, which is never that good a measure of a length of time–
Except, it’s not his stomach. It’s the sound of a car.
Steve feels cold as the car comes into view, heading straight for the gates. They obviously have some sort of access code, because the gates slide open automatically, and Steve can count three bodies in the car. He looks desperately at the mansion windows, trying to see if there’s any movement within, because Tony can obviously take care of himself, but if he’s run into something unexpected inside, or he doesn’t have the tools to take on three surprise guests...
One of the guys exiting the car has a semiautomatic rifle in his hands, and Steve stops thinking and starts acting. The first guy out of the car, a large man with a bald head, takes one look at two of the unconscious guards lying on the ground and shouts an order at the two guys with him to be on guard before running into the house, and Steve hopes Tony can deal with the bald guy on his own, because Steve goes for the man with the biggest gun as his first priority.
Steve picks up a large plant pot, probably too heavy to be lifted by a regular human, and he hurls it at the head of rifle guy. Rifle guy turns in time to see it headed straight for him, but can’t react in time. He releases a small burst of shots in surprise as he falls backwards, and Steve dodges them and throws himself down behind a stone water-feature as the second guy turns his gun in Steve’s direction and starts firing.
Steve breaks a brick from the feature, turns and hurls it at him, and hears a satisfying yelp as the guy is flung backwards, striking his head against the car window and dropping unconscious. Steve hurries and uses the seat belts from the car to tie them up, taking the bullets from their weapons and throwing them into the fountain, and stealing a knife from rifle guy’s boot for himself. He looks up at the mansion: he can’t hear anything, but that doesn’t mean much, so he heads over to the gate and breaks the sophisticated locking system – if any other surprises are coming, at least Steve’s delaying them from getting inside for a little while.
Shielding his eyes and looking up at the house, Steve thinks he can hear a gunshot, and his chest tightens as he scopes out the house, heading for a side-door. As he carefully enters the house, hugging the walls and counting doors and potential escape routes, he finds one guy slumped over a table, and a girl snoring on the couch, oblivious to the world. The gunshot came from upstairs, so Steve looks around, finding a large metal serving platter and quickly divesting it of a half-drunk bottle of whiskey and a set of glasses, and then he picks it up. He feels a little better. It’s always good to have a shield, even if it’s an impromptu one.
Steve can hear muffled voices now, so he keeps his steps light as he ascends the stairs, keeping low, and he can see the bald guy ahead, sneaking towards a building, a weapon of some sort in his hands, and Steve hurries forwards as quietly as he can.
He can hear Tony’s voice now, soft and angry.
“I'm sorry, but I got a best friend who's in a coma and he might not wake up. So you're gonna have to answer for that. You're still going down, pal. You under–”
Bald guy raises his weapon, and Steve hurls the platter through the air. The bald guy collapses into Tony, who turns around, takes in the situation, and stares incredulously at Steve.
“I thought I told you to stay outside,” Tony hisses.
“That’s a funny way of saying thank you for saving my life,” Steve says.
“So this guy is an actor,” Steve says, pointing at the guy who Steve still wants to call the Mandarin, but who is apparently a lush British drunkard called Trevor. “And it’s a think-tank that’s behind him?”
Tony nods, still tapping away on one of the computers. Steve helped him tie Trevor up with some parachute cord that he found in another room, and then, while Tony did something with a whole bank of computers in front of a room half-covered in green-screen, Steve went back and made sure all the guys were still alive, tied up securely, left in places where they couldn’t cause trouble, and gagged so they can’t yell for help, because the last thing they needed was for any of them to wake up and cause chaos. He apologizes when he ties the three girls up, and blushes furiously when one of them invites him to join them. He’s still blushing when he rejoins Tony in the green-screen room.
The Mandarin, Trevor, is snoring in the corner. How someone can fall asleep while they’ve been kidnapped by an enemy force is beyond Steve. Maybe it’s the drugs in his system.
“Aldrich Killian. He runs an organization called AIM. And they’ve created this program called Extremis – here, it might be easier if I show you,” Tony says, and leans over to one of the other computers, taps some commands faster than Steve can follow, and Steve leans in and watches the videos in horror.
The terrorist attacks the “Mandarin” has been taking credit for are just Extremis test subjects who have exploded. It’s horrifying. When Steve looks over to the monitor Tony is staring at, there’s a map on the screen, and Tony’s reaching for a phone.
“Who are you calling?” Steve asks.
“Believe it or not, a ten year old kid’s school,” Tony says, drumming his fingers on the table as he waits for the phone to connect. “Yes, hello, this is Harley Keener Senior, I need to talk to my son. Yes, yes, I’m aware I’ve been gone for a while– Why, yes, there was a scratch card– I was kidnapped by bandits, lady, I just got free. Yes, yes, irresponsible, I hear ya. Look, the kid’s mom is stuck at work saving dying babies and injured soldiers, and she left the stove on, I need you to get me the kid on the phone so he can fix it so his home doesn’t get burned down while he’s in calculus. Gym? Yes, I realize gym is important for a young child’s development. Thank you. I’ll hold.” Tony rolls his eyes and keeps the phone to his ear.
Steve stares at him. “You have a son?”
“Lord, no,” Tony says. “That would be a disaster. Harley, no, shut up, stop crying– it’s me. The Mechanic. I need you to open the door to the garage. Yeah, I’ll write you a note. No, I won’t put in that you’re allergic to football. Open the damned doors, kid, or I’m blowing them wide open. I’m 800 miles away. It’ll be a big damn hole. You think you want your mom to get home and see her garage with a giant hole in it? Yeah. Good. I’ll fax the note when I’m done. And by the way, if your long-last dad does call you at school wanting a favor, tell him to stick it up his ass.” Tony slams the phone down, shakes his head, and keeps tapping at the keyboard.
“Uh,” Steve says, “remind me never to let you talk to kids again.”
Tony grins. “Works for me.”
“So what’s the plan?” Steve asks. “What do we do next?”
“We?” Tony questions. “I’m combing these systems for more proof. And then I’m going to get my friend back. You are going to get out of here before even more guys come to join the party.”
Steve turns to him, staring. “But– I want to help.”
“And you did. But this isn’t your fight.” He squints. “832 miles to Tennessee, plus how long it would take for a kid to run a mile– Shouldn’t take too much time.” Tony glances at his watch, and Steve follows the motion, and then realizes Tony’s watch is pink, and... a small girl is smiling at him from the face of it? “Hey, this is a Collector’s piece,” Tony says. “C’mon, you can help and flex those bulging muscles, help me by bringing this guy downstairs.”
Steve nods and slings Trevor up over his shoulder in one easy movement.
“Damn, you do work out,” Tony says, appreciatively, yanking out one part of the computer, and then pulling out something else from his bag of tricks that he activates, and all five computers sputter at once and start smoking. Tony grins. “Nice. Let’s blow this joint.”
Steve glances skeptically at Tony’s bag, wondering what else Tony could even be fitting in there. “You have enough explosives to blow this house up?” he asks.
“It’s just a saying, big guy,” Tony says. “It means leave. But I do like how quickly your mind jumps to giant explosions.”
Steve follows as Tony shoves the part of the computer into his bag of tricks, puts a glove with wires onto his hand, and cautiously heads down the stairs. He can see the gates through a window as they walk past – it doesn’t look like anyone’s trying to get in.
“You have any idea where your friend is?” Steve asks.
“I know where my friend was, a half hour ago. Last time the signal was active,” Tony says, hurrying through the mansion’s first floor with a more purposeful stride now it’s apparent they’re relatively safe. “I gotta hope he’s still there, even if the Iron Patriot might not be. My friend is the pilot,” he explains, when Steve looks a little confused.
“So the suit’s been taken from him?”
“From what I could tell from the signal I built into it, yeah,” Tony says. “Which does not bode well. I can think of a thousand reasons why someone would take the suit, and not a single one is good. I built ‘em so that only the pilots could wear them, the cybernetic controls are highly individualized, but Aldrich Killian has a team of super-geniuses. I can’t have much time until they’re hacked. I gotta move fast.”
“Right,” Steve says, and follows Tony out of the house.
Tony seems to be squinting up at the skyline. “Do you think you have anywhere to stash that guy for a while? I don’t think this space is safe to keep him, and the law needs to catch up with him for his part in all this.”
Steve nods, thinking of the attic in his hardware store. “Yeah.”
“Great, let’s go get one of their cars,” Tony says. “I saw a couple out back last time I was here. If I disable anything that could be tracked in the car, you should be able to drive one without being found. Less conspicuous than hauling a body through the streets. You should probably hide the car too, if you can.”
“I can do that,” Steve says, already thinking of the spot behind his store where hardly anyone goes. Tony leads him to where the cars are, picks one of the older ones there, and swiftly does something to it with a couple of tools, yanking something out from underneath and hiding it under the belly of one of the other cars. Steve guesses it’s a tracker of some sort. Tony manages to open the car and then pulls some more parts out from the dashboard, throws them over a fence, and then is about to hot-wire it when Steve finds a set of keys under the back right tire after he finishes stashing Trevor on the back seats.
“You are handy to have around,” Tony compliments, sliding the keys in and smiling in satisfaction as the engine purrs to life.
“Not the first time I’ve been told that,” Steve says.
“Now I’m oddly jealous,” Tony says, smiling across at him. Then he checks his watch again and nods to himself firmly. “Should be about now.” He steps out and away from the car and starts staring up at the sky again. “C’mon, kid, don’t let me down.”
“What are we doing now?” Steve asks, scanning the empty skyline for a clue.
“Waiting for my ride,” Tony says, with a grin.
“Iron Man,” Steve surmises.
“Kind of,” Tony says. He looks down from the sky to look across at Steve, and there’s something sad in his eyes that Steve doesn’t like. “I meant what I said earlier, about wanting to come back here and stay. But I’m not entirely sure if I can stick to that.”
“You want to,” Steve says, and he hates that this is almost sounding like a goodbye again. “I think that means something.”
“I guess I just forgot how important it was to take a break,” Tony says, and he smiles, but it’s sad. “I really needed one. Time to remember who I really am, away from all the other titles. Time to remember what I can do with my brains and my hands and none of the other trappings, none of the expectations. You’ve helped me remember I’m good enough, that I’m more than my name. I can never thank you enough for that.”
“This sounds like a goodbye,” Steve says, “and if I’m going to be temporarily harboring who people think is America’s most wanted, you’d better be planning to come back for him, if nothing else.”
“I promise to try,” Tony says, and that sounds so full of foreboding that Steve almost wants to be sick again. “Ah, here we go,” he adds, almost nonsensically, until Steve looks up and sees a blur of red and gold streaking towards them.
Steve stares at it. He’s only ever seen Iron Man on the news. To get to see him up close and personal... It’s an exhilarating thought. He’s excited.
Right until Iron Man hits the ground and disintegrates into parts.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” Tony breathes, and he presses something into his ear, and holds up his arms, spacing them apart. “JARVIS, get it together.”
“Sorry, sir,” Steve hears a very soft, invisible voice say, but he’s too busy being confused, because... Iron Man is empty? Has Iron Man always been empty? Steve’s always assumed there was, well, a man in there.
“It’s so glitchy,” Tony says, shaking his head at the pile of parts. “My own fault, I’ve been so busy making suits I didn’t need, I couldn’t focus on the main model– Ah, here we go–” and the pile of parts shake and quickly reassemble into a floating more cohesive figure. Tony shoots an almost giddy look at Steve. “Not many people know about this,” he says, and Steve thinks he means that Iron Man is a weird assemblage of parts, until Tony holds his arms up and the Iron Man suit flies onto him, swiftly assembling into the sum of parts that makes the Iron Man whole that Steve is more familiar with. Tony manually flips the faceplate up, and he looks at Steve with an earnest expression that seems fragile.
And Steve can’t look away.
Tony is Iron Man.
Tony Stark is Iron Man.
There’s never been any bodyguard at all.
“So the bodyguard thing,” Steve says, and he can barely recognize his own voice, “that’s just a cover story.”
Tony nods. His eyes don’t leave Steve’s face for a second. “SHIELD came up with it. That first press conference, when I had to tell everyone what happened, I nearly said it, y’know, I am Iron Man. Can you imagine it?”
Steve can. Before Iron Man, Tony had his dad’s streak of performative outlandishness, and then he went quiet, and everyone had just kind of assumed Tony had grown up since his public near-death experience. Instead of, y’know, putting a robotic suit on and going out to punch dragons and space robots and whip-cracking supervillains in the face. “So why didn’t you say it?”
“Because I was standing there, ready to ignore the cards, and then I remembered Captain America. Same guy, fought Nazis, went into the ice, came back out, fought for us again for two decades, and never took his mask off. Never claimed the easy accolades or adoration. Just fought and fought, longer than we ever deserved him to, kept us safe, and never took credit.” Tony shakes his head a little, the Iron Man suit gleaming under the sunlight. His posture straightens. “If I could be even a tenth of the guy he was, I can die happy.”
“He was the same guy?” Steve repeats, because he’s not entirely sure anyone ever believes that. His return on paper did look miraculous; Steve barely believes it, and it happened to him.
“Yeah, my dad always said so.” Tony sounds a little distracted. “Anyway, I have to go rescue my friend.”
Steve nods, and tries to formulate the words wait, I’ll come with you, I am Captain America and... he can’t. Tony’s relying on him to hide Trevor until the law can catch up properly with everyone involved, and Steve’s suit is fifteen minutes too far away, and it’s not like Iron Man, it can’t fly to Steve’s hands when he requests it.
“I think you’re already braver than Captain America ever was,” Steve says, and his voice sounds rough and strained.
“Aw, sweetheart, you’re just biased because we had sex. I appreciate the sentiment, though.” Tony leans in, almost questioningly, and Steve does the same somewhat desperately, because his own thoughts are screaming at him, and when Tony kisses him, his mind goes blessedly quiet.
“I won’t tell anyone your secret,” Steve promises, when they pull apart.
There’s something strained in Tony’s expression, but he nods, and he steps back, and he flips the faceplate down. “Get yourself out of here, Mister Fixit.”
“Take care of yourself, Mechanic,” Steve says, and his voice is wrecked, and his vision is a little blurry, and Tony – Iron Man – gives him a brief salute and jets up into the sky. Steve watches him go, his eyes burning, and a sour taste in the back of this throat, worry and tension warring and clawing at him.
He just let Tony go. He just let Tony climb into a thin metal suit and just fly off and – go. Tony’s wrong. Tony’s a hundred times braver than Captain America ever had to be. Because Captain America’s a fucking coward.
Steve’s fingers clench into fists and he wants to punch something, and for a moment his gaze catches on Trevor Slattery, curled up and defenseless on the car’s back seat, and then Steve’s gaze catches on his own reflection in the shiny surface of the car, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
He has an order to follow, and that, at least, is something Steve knows what to do. He drives the car to the front gate, remembers he broke the opening mechanism, and he laughs. Then he notices that the dog one of the guards had been walking is tied up to a post, and Steve ends up untying it and then jogging back quickly to the mansion to find some food and water for it.
That side mission complete, Steve smashes open the gates, then hops in the car, drives it out, goes back again to bend the gate into place, and then he drives the short distance back to the store. It’s only been a couple of hours since he left to begin with, and he almost thinks the store won’t be open, because it’s Friday and Marian usually has to start late on a Friday, but it is open. Steve can’t worry about that to start with, so he drives around the back of the store, reversing the car into the small alley that’s hidden at the back, and covers the whole car with a tarpaulin that was covering up a pile of empty pallets. He leaves Trevor tied up in the back seat for the moment, and then he hurries around to the front of the store.
When the bell goes, Marian glances up briefly from the register, but she’s busy mid-transaction with Phillipa Dawkins from the town’s Rotary club, probably sorting out something for the holiday charity event, and because Steve’s not wearing his green apron, she obviously doesn’t initially clock who it is.
“Welcome to Mister Fixits, if you need any help I’ll be available in a few minutes,” Marian calls out.
Steve moves closer to her, smirking. “I already know my way around, it’s okay.”
Marian startles, and completely ignores Phillipa Dawkins in shock to stare at Steve, and her mouth falls open. “Steve, are you okay?”
Steve blinks. He knows he’s a bit late, and he’s never had to get a message to her to open up the store unexpectedly before, but the concern seems a little over the top. Then he glances down and looks at himself, and, oops. At some point, one of the bad guys has got a little bit of blood on him. Heh. It’s been so long that Steve’s been in the field of any sort, that he forgot about the downsides. “It’s just paint,” he lies. “I’ll go wash up out back, can I have a word with you when you’re done with any customers?”
“Sure,” Marian says, and she looks confused, but she nods and turns back to Phillipa Dawkins. “Let’s get you rung up, Mrs. D.”
Steve hurries to the staff bathroom out back and splashes himself with water, but his shirt is a lost cause. He heads back out into the staff room, and moves to the corner where there’s a pile of plastic-wrapped shirts that Steve keeps on hand for staff who don’t have enough appropriate work clothing, and he pulls out the biggest size he can find, and it fits, barely. He sighs, picks up his apron from the coat rack, hooks it over his head, and heads out to the store.
He pauses by the paint aisle to pull out the packet of roast peanuts that Marian hid there to stave off Steve’s hunger, and then pauses by the varnish to extract a pack of cookies that he thinks was the Coolidge twins doing the same. Steve’s not entirely sure what he’s done to deserve that level of consideration. He thinks most people would quit if their boss was tetchy, not feed them. He pockets the cookies too.
Marian straightens when she sees him. “Store’s empty.”
Steve nods his gratitude at her. “Thanks for opening up for me.”
“I know you wouldn’t have asked unless it was important.”
“It was. Still, I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
Marian laughs. “Steve, if you haven’t figured out by now that we all would move heaven and earth for you, then you might be more emotionally stunted than we thought.”
Steve blinks, because, well. Maybe she’s right. “I’m about to test that level of trust,” he says, as lightly as he can.
“Ha,” Marian barks, “what, do you need us to move a body for you?”
Steve winces. “Funny you should say that.”
Marian doesn’t even really hesitate, which is heartwarming. She closes up the front door, hanging up a sign that says back in ten minutes!!, and opens up the back loading doors so that no one sees them dragging Trevor inside. Trevor’s still snoring when Steve flips up the tarpaulin and he opens the door.
“It really is him,” Marian breathes, and looks at Steve in horror. “This is the guy that’s been bombing up half the planet. And he’s in your car?”
“Not my car,” Steve says. “I, uh, borrowed it. Anyway, he’s not the one doing it. He’s just been the actor. The Mandarin’s a character designed to take the blame for a company’s experiment that’s gone wrong, basically.”
“Shit,” Marian breathes, “that’s some super-villain level stuff.”
Steve nods heavily. “I’ve just got to hold onto him for a day or so, until the law can catch up. It’s not legal. I’m sorry for asking, but–”
“Oh, no worries,” Marian says. “Big corporations are corrupt. It’s kind of nice getting to be a little business that’s going to help take one down.”
“I thought we could hide him in the attic. Might have to disconnect the music system, but... leave him some food, a bucket, enough water, and ignore any banging noises that occur?” Steve glances at her. “What do you think?”
“We could close the store for the weekend,” Marian says, slowly. “I mean, tough shit for anyone who hasn’t bought their Christmas gifts yet, but I’m sure there are some locals who’ll be glad to unwrap stuff from the convenience store rather than a bunch of empty plant pots and a hoe. I’m happy to call around and cancel the planned shifts.”
Steve blinks. He’d forgotten it was Christmas on Monday. “Tell them they’ll still be paid double-time.”
“With the hit we take from the lack of turnover–”
Steve shakes his head. “Non-negotiable. Money’s not really a priority for me.”
“Yeah, or you wouldn’t reject most of my efficiency ideas.” Marian rolls her eyes but she’s grinning. “Man, I can’t believe we’re going to do this.”
Steve beams at her. “I’ll carry him, you open the doors.”
Marian nods, and they get to work.
Trevor wakes up on the trip up the stairs, and flails a little, but quietens when he realizes he’s somewhere completely different. He watches Steve warily as Steve dumps him unceremoniously on a pile of discarded boxes, and then yelps when Marian yanks out some cable ties she must have picked up on the way there. She ties him to one of the store’s support pillars while Steve holds him still. Marian fetches a bucket and some water, while Steve disconnects the sound system, pulling out the major components and shifting them to take back downstairs, and leaves the two packets of cookies and the bag of peanuts where Trevor can reach them.
“Who are you?” Trevor asks in bewilderment, after watching Steve lift the whole sound system down the stairs in one go on his own, despite the parts weighing a ton.
“No one,” Steve says, folding his arms across his chest and glaring down at him. “Just like you.”
“Oh.” Trevor beams. “Fair enough, I suppose.”
“Scream as much as you like, no one will hear you,” Marian says, putting the bucket down, clearly enjoying this whole situation a little more than Steve expected she might.
“Scream? Me? I’m an actor, darling, I wouldn’t wreck my vocal cords like that,” Trevor says, flopping against the pillar. “Don’t suppose you’ve got any spare drugs lying around, eh?”
“Let’s go,” Steve says.
Marian nods. When they get back to the main floor, Marian heads to the back office to call all the workers, and Steve takes the sign off the front door and mans the register, and he sinks against the counter with a sigh. Marian heads up to the front after twenty minutes and nods at him to let him know it’s all done.
Marian gives him a long look as she sinks against the counter next to him. “I can’t believe you were voted the most boring guy in the whole town for four years running,” she sighs.
Steve blinks. “When did that happen?”
“At the Rotary Club Christmas charity auction. Phillipa Dawkins nominates you, on the regular. Do you even listen to what happens there?”
“Well,” Steve says, trying to recall what’s distracted him from all the nattering in the past, and he thinks it might be Amanda Coolidge’s annual festive berry cheesecakes, or maybe Bud Smith’s potato salad. “The buffet there is always really good.”
Marian laughs. “It is relatively cheering that even when mixed up with some very shady stuff that you never change.”
Steve thinks about that. Has he ever changed? People do change. Life changes them. They grow and adapt to new situations. He must have changed. He stood and watched Iron Man fly away. Young Steve Rogers never ran from a fight. He always ran towards them. Steve must have changed, and Steve’s not entirely sure he likes the person he’s changed into. He stepped away from Captain America because he was lonely. He was tired of war after war without end. He was tired of never knowing where he was.
Who is he now?
Tony’s words keep coming back to haunt him. I guess I just forgot how important it was to take a break... Time to remember who I really am, away from all the other titles. Time to remember what I can do with my brains and my hands and none of the other trappings, none of the expectations. You’ve helped me remember I’m good enough, that I’m more than my name.
Why did Steve never try to just... have a vacation? Take a smaller break from the name? From the title? From the responsibility? Why is he always so 100% about every damn thing? What has he learned about himself, away from the name of Captain America, away from the expectations of the name and the shield?
He’s learned he can have a normal life, to a point. He’s learned he can make friends who have nothing to do with war. He’s learned he can build a store, build up a community, support those around him.
But… hasn’t he just made the same mistakes he did while in the suit?
No one knows his real name – Steve Grant owns the store on paper. People know his tics, like maybe getting a bit whiny if he’s hungry, but– what else do they know about him? Nothing. They know he’s a good guy, or he tries. They know he loves his community. They know he likes to show up early and go home late and eat way more than his humanly possible.
He’s just... been fighting yet another war. Steve blinks rapidly, because there’s a building pressure behind his eyes, and he hates how vulnerable he suddenly feels. He never actually left the battlefield. But the war he’s been fighting is against himself.
This whole life has been a lie. A carefully constructed lie. It’s why he barely talks to Peggy and Daniel on Skype, because those conversations are shards, stabbing into the real truth. This is not a real life he’s made. It’s all pretend.
“Steve?” Marian’s voice is gentle. He turns to see her looking up at him, her hand warm on his elbow, and he looks at her, startled. “You looked lost in thought.”
“Well, it’s not every day you kidnap a terrorist,” Steve jokes.
“It’s not every day I get to aid and abet a kidnapping,” Marian says. “It’s kind of exciting.”
Steve nods. Marian’s a good person, and somehow ridiculously loyal to him, and Steve doesn’t know how that’s happened. He thought the men in his companies were always loyal to him because of the shield on his arm and the flag on his chest. But Marian and Swannie are proof that it’s him, his nature. His skill.
Not the name. Not the title.
This is something he can do, with his brains and with his hands. With his actions. No trappings. No expectations. He helps people. He didn’t choose a big city to disappear into, he chose a small town that needed help, a small town he could help and has helped. He’s given jobs to people who needed them. Support to people who needed it. He might have taken off the shield and the uniform, but... has he ever really actually stopped being Captain America?
Tony called him that within a minute of meeting him. “Real Captain America, aren’t you?” And the Starksearch result had described Captain America’s dedication to ensuring safe and happy lives for everyone. Okay, so it’s not exactly everyone, but... anyone around him that he could help, Steve has helped. That’s never stopped. That’s why Steve’s brain has always crashed hard whenever he tried to think too much about becoming Captain America again. Because he never stopped. He just put the shield down.
That past day with Tony, that past beautiful day... that was a break from it all. The first real break he’s ever actually taken. A whole night of shutting out the world and pushing aside everything he feels he should do and doing just what he wants.
He thinks about what he wants.
Tony, he thinks. He wants a life alongside Tony. He likes the life he has here, but oh, how easy it was to fall back into fighting villains. How eager Steve was to actually do it, at the first excuse. He obviously wants to fight again, because otherwise he wouldn’t have had so many breakdowns when he thinks about how he isn’t fighting.
He doesn’t want to give up his life here.
He wants to fight.
His brain screams at him, and then Steve kind of wants to laugh, because oh, that’s it. Steve always puts 100% into everything. He’s never considered doing anything else. But why does he have to give 100% to one identity? Why does it have to be an either-or scenario? Tony’s been Iron Man, but he’s also been Tony Stark. Just because Tony is Iron Man... it’s never seemed to stop him from being Tony Stark too. The solution is so simple it’s laughable.
When Steve came out of the ice, SHIELD talked about releasing the Captain America files to the public. Project Rebirth was considered as something involving a Weapon of Mass Destruction, but because some argued that was a dubious distinction to make (could one enhanced person count as a Weapon of Mass Destruction?), the file was up for review at the 50 years mark. It would have meant the public would know about Steve Rogers, and the experiment, and how it all happened... but Steve vetoed it, even though it meant that Erskine’s family would not get the credit they were due. He felt uncomfortable with the details being released, especially because they would involve museum displays, and tours, and Steve’s face being known far and wide...
So Steve could be Captain America, and maybe... also not be?
He’d have to give up his daily routine, but the foundations are already in place. He barely runs the place anyway. His employees have joked with him more than he once... he’s only there for the hard labor. And the eye candy, apparently. Marian will be going for her MBA, but part-time, so maybe she could actually officially run the store, and Steve can maybe hire another person to be a part-time manager under her and support her.
Steve’s future spills out in his mind, the potential almost thrilling. If Marian can be a part-time student, Steve could be a part-time superhero. It’s practically the same thing.
“Marian,” Steve says, unsteadily, and she looks up at him, curiously, “there’s somewhere I probably have to be.”
“Does that cute mechanic with that super obvious crush on you have something to do with it?” she asks.
Steve blinks. “Did everyone notice that before I did?”
“Whole town’s been talking about it,” Marian assures him.
“Uh, putting that aside, yeah. It’s about the cute mechanic.” Steve tries valiantly not to color but from the way Marian smirks, he thinks he’s failed.
“Go get him, boss,” she says, chirpily. “I’ll look after your kidnap victim, make sure he doesn’t escape.”
“I’m lucky to have you,” Steve says, shaking his head, but already heading for the door.
“Lucky enough for a pay rise?” Marian tilts her head.
“We’ll see,” Steve says, and then pauses by the door at the naughty list, picks up the pen resting on the main notice board, and adds Aldrich Killian and Trevor Slattery to the list, knowing it will confuse Marian later. Then he pauses, and adds, the whole town (for voting me as as the town’s most boring person), because he thinks at least that will make Marian laugh.
He looks back over to where Marian’s already bent over and working on wrapping the tools he’d authorized to go to the night’s charity auction event. She’s a good person. She deserves a safe world.
Steve Rogers, Captain America, can do things that Steve Grant, Mister Fixit, can’t. It’s time for Steve to hang up his apron.
Once Steve knows what he’s doing, he moves fast. If he runs a little faster than Steve Grant, hardware store civilian should, the streets aren’t full enough to see it, and Steve doesn’t know if he really cares what the whole town thinks about him, he really just cares about a specific few.
Steve’s uniform is exactly where he left it, folded neatly with his shield in a locked up trunk at the end of his bed. He stashes it in a rucksack for now, slinging it over his back, and throws his shield in his art portfolio, because he doesn’t want his civilian identity ripped apart during this process.
He considers loading up his old computer, but he doesn’t know if he can spare the time, so he throws on his running shoes, locks his doors, and runs for the diner. Normal people had their own televisions, didn’t they? Ah, well, Steve’s never been normal.
Swannie startles on seeing him when he pushes through the diner doors, and they look pleased that he’s okay. “Food?” they ask, and Steve shakes his head.
“Not today,” he says.
“Must be serious, then,” Swannie says, and still looks surprised when Steve doesn’t smile at them. “What do you need?”
Steve nods at their TV. “News channel, if you don’t mind.”
Swannie frowns, but hands him the remote control, and Steve frantically channel surfs until CNN comes up. Steve almost feels like he swallow his own heart when he finds the volume and increases it loud enough to hear, because the news is frantic. Iron Man saved thirteen people from falling from Air Force One, but the president has been kidnapped, and the Mandarin is holding him hostage?
Steve stares at the footage. There’s an oil tanker. It looks familiar.
“It’s the Roxxon Norco,” Jenny Arbor pipes up, drawing up alongside Steve to stare at the news. “I did this project on it for Civ Ed, it spilled a million oils of crude oil, Pensacola.”
“Do you have one of those internet phones?” Steve asks Jenny, glancing at her in concern. She shakes her head.
“I’ve got the internet,” Humphrey yells, gesturing at his laptop.
“Do you think you can find where that tanker is?” Steve asks.
“Sure can give it a shot,” Humphrey says.
“Why would you need to know something like that?” Swannie asks.
Steve glances across at them. “It’s important, Swan. Wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t.”
“Got it,” Humphrey hollers, “Port Everglades.”
“Appreciate that, Mr. Jones,” Steve says, he turns and heads for the door. He pauses, looks back over his shoulder, and looks at Swannie. “Save me a plate of turkey for tomorrow, Swannie.”
“Honey,” Swannie says, “with your appetite, I’ll save you seven.”
Steve grins at them, and heads out of the door, and starts to run.
Steve takes the car they stole from the Mandarin’s mansion, but abandons it a few miles out, because the place is swarming with traffic already, reporters and people with cameras already trying to get in on the action. He evades the masses and makes his way to the docks; it’s been a long while since he’s been up here, but it’s close enough to what he remembers to be able to make it to the east side without being intercepted.
He checks out what’s going on, and sees a large number of unfriendlies roaming about the tanker, and what looks like Iron Patriot strung up high above the tanker, and Steve stares, horrified, when he realizes the Iron Patriot faceplate is missing, and it’s the President of the United States stuck up there. The unfriendlies swarming the place look like those from the videos Tony showed him at the mansion.
The Extremis virus. Yet another attempt, Steve thinks sourly, to reform Project Rebirth. Make super soldiers. Except these ones, despite having increased speed and strength, also happen to explode if the serum goes wrong. Awesome.
Steve supposes the first step is making sure the President is extracted from the situation. He knows what the world doesn’t at the moment – the Mandarin is a constructed threat. This is all the manipulative machinations of a power-hungry leader of an American think-tank. It only stands to reason that Aldrich Killian has something to gain from stringing up the President and blaming it on the Mandarin.
He takes a deep breath, pulls his shield out from his portfolio, and then he spots it – two figures climbing up the side of the tanker. One is a black guy wearing a green shirt and pale pants, and the other is definitely Tony. He’s not wearing the Iron Man suit. Steve wonders what happened to it, and he’s worried, because how does Tony think he’s going to defeat Killian and all these guys with Extremis, without the Iron Man armor? He doesn’t even have his bag of tricks made with all the stuff from Steve’s store.
Perhaps he’s just planning to extract the President, Steve thinks. He can help with that. He puts his shield on his back and, keeping low against some large shipping containers so that Killian’s Extremis guards don’t see him, he runs to where Tony is.
It’s pretty satisfying when Steve hauls himself over the edge of the ship, landing in a gentle crouch, and Tony and his friend both point guns at him. Steve tries to remember Tony’s friend’s name. He said it once, back at the mansion. Rhodey, that was it.
“Uh,” Steve tries, “don’t shoot?”
Tony and Rhodey narrow their eyes at him. Noticing the way Steve’s crouching so the guards also can’t see him, they then glance at each other, confused.
“Are you a hostile or a friend?” Rhodey hisses.
“Obviously he’s going to say friend,” Tony hisses back. “If he’s a friend, it’s the truth. If he’s a hostile, he’ll say he’s a friend, and then shoot us both in the back!”
“I don’t–” Rhodey starts, and then shoots an annoyed look at Tony. “Tones, I know that, you know that, but maybe he didn’t know that until you just told him.”
Tony winces apologetically. “Yeah, okay, didn’t think it through. We need backup.”
Rhodey glares at Steve. “If we had backup, we wouldn’t be sneaking onto a tanker Aldrich is about to blow sky high, pointing our guns at– is that a Captain America costume, dude?”
Steve shakes his head. “Not exactly.” He glances over their shoulder. “Three guys, one girl, all armed, just ahead.”
“Could be a distraction,” Rhodey mutters.
“Doesn’t matter,” Tony says, and grins. “Like I said: backup. This guy’s a bad guy, doesn’t matter. I’ve got it covered.”
Rhodey frowns, then raises his eyes about Steve’s head, and stares at something far above. Long enough that if Steve had been a bad guy, Steve would have had ample chance to shoot them both. Then Steve turns his head, slowly, and squints into the darkness.
There are shooting stars. Heading straight for them.
Steve blinks at the sight. It’s almost beautiful.
“Is that–” Rhodey starts.
“Yep,” Tony says.
“Are those–” Rhodey manages, eyes locked up in the sky.
“Yep,” Tony says.
It’s just like outside the mansion. Except this time, it isn’t one Iron Man suits.
It’s a lot of Iron Man suits.
Steve finds himself straightening to look in awe at the incoming flights, and he kind of feels a little stupid, because Tony is brilliant, of course he wouldn’t have come here without a plan. Steve thinks he can count nearly forty of them, hovering in the sky. Some look like the regular model, but most don’t. All of them look amended somehow, different forms, different color schemes. It reminds him of the tool section of his store. Different tools with different shapes for different purposes.
That’s what Tony has built. A Swiss army party of Iron Man suits.
“Merry Christmas, buddy,” Tony tells Rhodey, grinning delightedly as the Iron Man suits line up in a neat arc around him. “Jarvis, target EXTREMIS heat signatures. Disable with extreme prejudice.”
There’s an echoing male voice that says, “Yes, sir” in a chorus, and Steve realizes it’s being projected from each of the hovering armors.
“What are you waiting for?” Tony says, and his expression is triumph and pride as he throws a hand out. “It’s Christmas. Take them to church.”
Steve laughs delightedly as the Iron Man armors immediately deploy and start going to town on the Extremis-enhanced guards. One soars closer over Steve’s head and scans him with a soft red light emanating from its faceplate, but it turns away and doesn’t blast him.
“Hey, so, at least this fake Captain America isn’t going to explode on us,” Tony says. “Wanna explain what you’re doing here?”
“Just came to join the fight, Mr. Stark,” Steve says, keeping his voice as even as he can. He eyes where one Iron Man armor is being overtaken by three guards, its head being ripped off, and he drops his shield from his back into his hands. “And who says I’m a fake?” He grins fiercely, adrenaline already bubbling under his skin, and before Tony or Rhodey can react, he flips over the edge of the fence, hurling his shield at the nearest Extremis guard.
Steve hears Rhodey say, “Am I going mad or is that actually Captain America?”
“Buddy, what you do with your sanity is between you and your doctor,” Tony says, and then yelps, because one of the guards has sent one of the suits tumbling at the parapet he and Rhodey are still stood on. “Jarvis, get Igor to steady this thing.”
Steve ducks by a larger Iron Man suit that goes to steady the structure Rhodey and Tony are still standing on, the mechanisms on its shoulder lifting up to support it, and he keeps an ear on them as he moves further into the fight while he looks out for Aldrich Killian, because going for the head of the snake is the only way to stop these things completely. It only gets awkward when it’s Hydra and there about a million idiots ready to put their heads on the line for dubious principals, but even Hydra had to give up after having Captain America and Nick Fury on their asses for nigh-on a decade. There’s no way Aldrich Killian has his dirty roots so deeply into America.
“This is how you’ve been managing your downtime, huh?” Rhodey snits to Tony.
“Everybody needs a hobby,” Tony quips. “Heartbreaker, help Red Snapper out, will you?” Steve glances up in time to see Tony jump into one of the armors, it settling around him, and he’s able to focus more on the fighting, knowing Tony’s safer. “Nice timing,” Tony compliments the suit.
“Oh, yeah,” Rhodey breathes. “That's awesome. Give me a suit, okay?”
“Oh, I'm sorry,” Tony says, flying up higher, smirking at his friend, “they're only coded to me.”
“What does that mean?”
“I got you covered,” Tony says, and then turns around and blasts off. Steve tracks his deliberate movement, noting that Tony isn’t going to help the President, still suspended up high in the Iron Patriot suit. He’s probably looking for someone. Aldrich Killian, Steve guesses, because most of the super-villains he’s met in the past have loved to stand around and see some of their destruction firsthand.
It looks like Rhodey is being manually airlifted by one of the other Iron Man suits, up to where the President is strung up, and Steve’s relieved that he can leave the protection of the POTUS to Rhodey. Tony’s battling a lot of guards at once, and Steve leaps up to a high frame and joins in, taking out the ones Tony can’t quite get to, but in the fray it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on.
Steve does his best to keep the guards focused on him, because up top, Tony seems to have drawn Aldrich Killian’s attention, and if Steve can keep that fight one-on-one, Tony will have a better chance than if having to fight off others at the same time. He’s almost at a loss at one point, but then he hears a voice. Somewhere inside the tanker, in one of the cabins. A faint, muffled voice. Steve frowns. He can’t know if it’s another guard, or someone in trouble. Steve can’t take the chance and he follows the sound, and that’s when he sees her: a woman, handcuffed to some pipes, in a room filled with various cases and boxes.
Steve raises his shield in worry that maybe it’s someone with Extremis who the virus is failing on, someone close to exploding, maybe that’s why she’s been tied up and left in all the chaos, but then an Iron Man suit streaks past the doorway, scanning the whole room with its spread of red light, and it flies off without trying to attack her. Steve looks back to the woman restrained to the wall. If the suit left her alone, she mustn’t have an Extremis heat signal.
He hurries over to her and her eyes widen in desperate fear, but as he slips the material gagging her off and starts untying her, her eyes catch on his uniform, and she looks stunned.
“What’s your name?” Steve asks, reaching around to feel how her hands are bound. Handcuffs. Child’s play, he thinks, and cracks them apart in her hands.
“Maya,” she says. “Maya Hansen.” Her brown eyes are large with worry, still, and she rubs her wrists thankfully as Steve tries to break the larger chains on her ankle.
“Can I ask why someone tied you up in a boat that’s about to be blown sky high?” Steve asks.
Maya chokes back a hysterical noise. “My own fault, I guess. I didn’t realize my boss was kind of evil until it was too late. Ego, I suppose. I was too busy trying to fan the flames of my own genius to realize it wasn’t exactly being used for good.”
Steve squints, trying to figure it out. “Your boss Aldrich Killian?”
“Ex?” Steve says, pausing mid-kneel to look up at her.
“I’m the biochemist who initially came up with the Extremis formula. And I’ve been part of his operation since the beginning, really. But when I realized the full extent of what he was planning to do, I tried to stop him, and–” Maya pulls a wry face. “He didn’t take kindly to it.”
“No?” Steve prompts, finding where the chain is connected to the floor and tugging. He pulls out his shield ready to use as a hammer to get it loose, because it isn’t as flimsy as the handcuffs.
“I think if he’d managed to kidnap Tony Stark when he tried to, he might have killed me before now. Without Stark, I’m the only one who has a chance fixing Extremis so people… don’t explode so easily.” Maya winces. “I suppose that’s why he’s been so cheerful about killing me now. Probably plans to kidnap Stark later.”
Steve does not like that idea.
“Hold still,” Steve warns her, while he chips at the chain holding her with the very edge of his shield.
“You have to understand how dangerous this situation is,” Maya urges. “Killian’s taken Extremis himself. And at a dose I’m– I’m terrified about, to be frank.”
“You said you tried to stop him. Did you have a specific strategy in mind that would work with someone exposed to Extremis? Because I’ve seen some of the videos, spare from getting them to explode–”
“I’ve developed a tranquilizer which works on Extremis subjects,” Maya says, and as soon as Steve’s freed her, she heads straight for a large metal briefcase, thumbing it open and snapping open the clasps. She pulls out a single syringe. “This is all that’s left. I think he left it close to taunt me at how close I was to stopping him.”
“Ma’am, are you sure it will stop him?”
“Maya,” she corrects. “And yes.” She squares her shoulders. “Show me where he is.”
Steve squints, thinking quickly. “You’re saying Killian’s enhanced by Extremis, with a larger dose. Which means he’s stronger?”
Maya nods. “Yeah. Sooner I stop him–”
Steve holds up a hand. “Give me the syringe. I think I’ve got a better shot. Find a vein and compress, that how it works?”
“Anywhere in the neck should be good,” Maya says, slowly, her eyes dipping to his costume and shield. “But you’re– you’re not–”
“The real Captain America?” Steve finishes. “I’m afraid so.”
“I retired,” Steve says. “Guess it didn’t stick.”
“I think it may be to my benefit that it didn’t,” Maya says.
Steve leads Maya out of the room, it’s just in time to see Rhodey swinging through the air on a giant container that drops to the main deck and explodes. He grabs Maya and ducks down, shielding them from the heat with his shield, grimacing as she screams in his ears. Steve looks up to see Rhodey successfully get the President to safety, so he turns and focuses on Maya next, directing her to climb over the tanker to get to safety, shielding her for the minute it takes her to scramble to safety. He doesn’t have time to take her personally, but he hopes her conscience will keep her in range. If she disappears into the wind, though, Steve thinks it’s a worthy enough trade-off. He makes sure he has the syringe, and his shield. Worst case scenario, Steve’s pretty sure even an Extremis-enhanced individual would have trouble with a spinning disc of pure vibranium.
Right now, his priority is Tony, and Killian. Steve searches for a way through the heat and fire. He sees Tony leaping across a beam, a blazing figure hot on his heels, and the figure – it must be Killian – lunges a flaming arm into Tony’s chest, and Steve is horrified, and then even more so, because Tony shoots out of the suit, leaving a piece behind, and he’s falling through the air and Steve is already running towards him, the blazing heat from Rhodey’s container explosion be damned, and another suit catches Tony mid-air. Steve hurls his shield at another guard rising out of the fire to shoot in Tony’s direction, and he skids around some burning barrels to retrieve the rebound. Tony’s too high to get to, exchanging blows on a soaring platform, and Steve casts around for the best way up, but there’s too much fire in the way. He turns to some other containers, starting to climb up them. He can see Killian starting to burn brighter. Is he about to explode? Steve needs to move faster, because Killian’s making some odd quip about being on a roof, and Killian smashes a glowing arm into Tony, cleaving out of the suit and hurling him down onto a lower platform.
Steve’s stomach clenches, and then another fire catches his eye, a zooming movement that looks familiar. It’s the suit that Tony showed him back at the “Mandarin’s” mansion. But instead of settling on a suit-less Tony, Tony holds up his hand – and the suit settles around Killian, not Tony. Steve’s confused, because it doesn’t make any sense, until he notices Killian being pinned to a beam by the parts. And then he hears Tony’s voice, strong and triumphant. “Jarvis, do me a favor and blow Mark 42!”
Killian yells “No!”
And despite Steve’s best efforts, he’s still not close enough.
Detonating the Mark 42 around Killian combines with some of the fuel stock on the tanker to make a spectacular explosion. Tony hurls himself off the platform away from it, sliding down a fallen girder as far as he can before throwing himself into the air. An Iron Man armor catches Tony mid-air. Steve hurries to reach the top of the container stacks he’s scaling – but the explosion also catches the new armor, and Tony is half-smashed out of that one. Tony manages to grab onto the end of the walkway he’s propelled through, and as the walkway’s structure burns at the far end, it drops him down to the ground. Tony lets go, one of the armor’s boots firing, but only a little, smashing him down hard onto a clearer section of the deck that isn’t burning as much as the rest, the impact leaving him with just one arm covered by armor.
As Steve reaches the top of the containers, he makes a leap over a wall of flames and dashes to Tony’s side, frantic, in time to bodily push them both out of the way of a flaming beam that drops to the deck where Tony was a second ago. Panting hard, Steve checks for Tony’s pulse, but that’s immediately nullified by Tony lurching upwards, looking at Steve for a shocked second, and then beyond, to where the detached Iron Man head of the Mark 42 armor lands a little way away. Fire curls out of its eyes, and then the faceplate opens. Steve almost expects to see a skull staring at them, or burnt flesh, or something else equally horrendous, but it’s empty.
There’s no time to even react though, because there’s a noise, in the fire, and Steve has to blink ash out of his eyes to be sure of what he’s seeing. Aldrich Killian, stepping up and out of the fire. He looks terrifying. He’s covered in ash and wounds, but his wounds are glowing, and his skin looks like it’s made of magma.
“No more false faces,” Killian snarls. “You said you wanted the Mandarin. You’re looking right at him. It was always me, Tony. Right from the start. I am the Mandarin!”
“The other one was more photogenic,” Tony quips, and it’s a measure of how rattled they both are that Tony lets Steve help him up to his feet without even looking at him oddly. “Which is sad for you, really it is, you should have a word with your plastic surgeon–”
Killian lets out a yell, and breathes fire from his mouth, which seems somehow unfair, but Steve adjusts. This kind of change he’s very used to. It doesn’t matter what decade it is, Steve knows villains are always creative in their pursuit of evil. Steve holds up his shield, taking the fire, and Tony looks up, seeing another Iron Man suit heading their way, and he beams.
“Draw his attention for me a second,” Tony asks, and Steve nods, squaring his shoulders and going into an offensive posture, throwing himself forwards and hurling his shield at Killian. He jumps in to punch Killian in the face, the heat scorching his knuckles, but Steve doesn’t care, hitting Killian twice in the jaw before getting kicked in the stomach, the force sending him careening into some burning barrels.
“Hey, loser,” Tony says, jetting up into the air and holding his hands up. “Eyes up.”
Killian’s mouth curls imperiously, and he opens his mouth, probably ready to try and use his mouth as a flamethrower against Tony, but Steve rights himself and runs at Killian in a flying leap, the syringe in his hand ready to go, and Tony sends an energy blast from his chest at Killian the same time as Killian’s flamethrower starts, and the beam seems to hold Killian in place enough for Steve to be able to hit him with the syringe.
The flamethrower dies, and Tony’s chestbeam hits Killian square in the face and Killian drops to the deck, the Extremis glow slowly fading from him, and Steve stands over him, breathing heavily, still holding the needle as Tony lowers down to the deck and flips open the faceplate. Tony’s eyes are shining in the dark.
“Merry Christmas, you filthy animal,” Tony declares, standing over Killian’s fallen body. “Jarvis, life-scan?”
“Subject is unconscious. Seems to be some sort of chemical coma,” the voice Steve heard before from the other Iron Man armors coming faintly from Tony’s helmet.
“Huh,” Tony says, softly. He looks uncertainly at Steve. “Thanks for the help, Mr.–”
“Captain,” Steve says, cautiously. “Captain America.”
“Right,” Tony says, almost disbelievingly. “Yeah. Because if Captain America was still really alive, he’d decide to disappear for ten years and come back now.”
Steve shrugs. “I was on a break.”
It’s absolute chaos at the tanker, especially when Tony realizes the whole thing is still rigged to blow, so Steve helps him make sure that doesn’t happen, and Killian thankfully stays gloriously unconscious. Steve is glad to see a quinjet with the SHIELD logo on the side hover down to the dock. He also glad to see when the door opens it’s Director Nick Fury that’s steps out, his trademark coat billowing behind him.
Fury seems a little stunned to see Steve there and helping to carry Aldrich Killian’s unconscious body, but he rolls with it. Fury’s always adapted well to the weird and wonderful. Tony briefs him on what’s happened as best as he can, and Fury turns to Steve immediately for added details, while a whole host of Special Service agents come to secure the President’s safety, and Tony gleefully gets to tell them to arrest the corrupt VP, who Killian has apparently been priming to be promoted for a whole variety of villainous schemes.
After being assured by Maya and Tony that they can fix Extremis, Fury takes them up to a helicarrier in order to continue the debrief while some of his agents go restrain Killian in what is apparently a cage designed to hold the Hulk, so even if Killian explodes on them, it won’t be a problem. Tony quickly reminds Fury that he’s a genius and he can fix the Extremis problem before then, while Maya dolefully informs them how she’s been spending nearly two decades on the problem, but Tony once half-solved it while drunk, so maybe he can fix it.
Fury leads them to the main deck of the helicarrier, letting Tony use some of the big screens in one corner.
“You, what’s your name, look at this,” Tony says after a couple of minutes, pulling up a screen of text he’s just finished typing.
Maya looks at it, and nods. “Yeah, yeah, I can see that. We need to crunch some of those numbers, mash it with the algorithm I was trying out in on the AIM servers–”
Tony’s fingers dance on the screen. “And that’s on my servers now. Oh, hey, this looks familiar. Good job… random person.” He finger guns her.
Maya glares at him. “You know I said you half-wrote a fix years ago while drunk? We actually slept together then, seventeen years ago. Bern? New Year’s Eve? I can’t believe you don’t remember me. This is what you wrote that morning, I’ve been building off it for years since.”
Tony glances at her, looking baffled.
“You don’t remember me at all, do you?” Maya chuckles and shakes her head, her eyes on the screen as she scans down another window of text. “Why am I not surprised?”
“Don't take it personally,” Tony assures her. “I don't remember what I had for breakfast.”
“Sausage,” Steve says calls over. “Sausage and waffles. But you didn’t finish it.”
“That’s right,” Tony says, and then his fingers falter. “Which is– how doyou know?” He turns to Fury. “Fury, why does Captain America know what I had for breakfast?”
Fury glances over at Steve, his eyebrows raised. “I’d kind of like to know that my own self,” he says, as Tony, baffled, turns back to the screen, distracted by the science going on.
Steve grins, pulls his mask off and scratches at his head like he always has to when his hair has been confined for too long.
“I wouldn’t worry about him not remembering your name, Maya,” Steve calls over to her. “We had sex this morning and he’s totally blank on me, too.”
Steve beams and starts re-hooking up his shield to the halter, ignoring the sudden looks he’s receiving from Maya, Fury and Rhodey. Lots of Y names in the room, Steve thinks idly to himself.
“Please, we did not have sex this morning,” Tony says, distracted, unaware he has everyone’s attention. “I had sex with Steve this morning, a small town nice guy who helped me kidnap the Mandarin actor, runs a hardware store–”
“He’s in my store attic,” Steve says to Fury, who looks somewhat poleaxed. “You can come fetch him now, if you’d like. I’m sure he’s still freaking out my manager.”
“–and I think I would have remembered if I’d slept with Captain America,” Tony finishes, and then turns around, and his mouth drops open when he sees Steve standing there with his mask in his hand.
“Tony,” Rhodey says, pawing at Tony’s shoulder from his other side. “Tony, I think you had sex with Captain America.”
“Yeah, I’m kinda getting that now,” Tony blinks, several times in a row, and then his eyes narrow accusingly and he jabs a finger at Steve. “I called you a SHIELD honeypot agent and you didn’t even blink and it’s true? You–”
“As much as this whole situation is giving me a headache,” Fury says, “ and some mental images that are never going to go away, believe me, if anyone was going to be the honeypot in this scenario, it wouldn’t be Steve Rogers, Stark. If anything, if I’d known Cap’s tastes ran that… poorly–”
“Hey–” Tony interrupts, scowling. “Personal slight. I hear that. Don’t insult me when I’m busy saving the planet again. Note the again.”
“–I’d have sent you there years ago,” Fury finishes. “Hell, I’ve sent forty-nine separate honeypots his way since he retired. Man hasn’t noticed a single one.”
Steve blinks at Fury, confused. “Forty-nine?”
“Forty-nine,” Fury confirms.
“I picked up on one of them,” Steve says.
“Phil Coulson was just there on vacation,” Fury says. “He likes to boat. Had to send him to Portland to get him to calm down when he realized who’d outed him as a government agent.”
Steve pulls a face. “I can’t have missed forty-nine people trying to hit on me,” Steve says, frowning.
“Sweetheart, you missed out that I hit on you every day for two weeks,” Tony says, still distracted by the Extremis fix work.
“You did not hit on me every day for two weeks,” Steve says.
Tony side-eyes Fury. “Is he always this stubborn when he thinks he’s right?”
Fury shrugs. “You get used to it.”
“There,” Maya says suddenly, “there, that reaction chain– That’s new.”
“There’s a tricky loop built up to get it, let’s ramp up that qualifier, see what goes ding,” Tony says, and then his whole focus is on the screen, eyes lighting up, and he starts muttering things under his breath. Steve watches, curiously.
“Oh, hey, he gets like this,” Rhodey says. Steve startles. Rhodey had managed to sneak up on him with no warning, and he’s by Steve’s side, also staring at where Tony’s working. “You’ll get used to it.” Rhodey glances briefly at Steve. “So… did I hear that right? You retired to run a hardware store?”
Steve shrugs. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Rhodey nods. “Decent profit margin?”
“Probably could be better,” Steve says. “We did a good line on hammers, though, when Thor came on the scene.”
“And you’re the Captain America,” Rhodey says, slowly.
“Yep,” Steve says, holding up his shield in illustration.
“The real Captain America.”
“Same one. They found me in the 80s, figured out where my plane went down, and I guess the super-serum meant ice was just a good old place for a four decade nap.”
“Then – Sorry, man, sorry, my mind’s kind of blown. Where’ve you even been, man? Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the world’s gone to shit recently, there’s things we could have probably used you for, y’know?”
“Well,” Steve says, “I suppose that was one of the problems. Got a little tired of being used.” Rhodey looks ashen, like he can’t believe he just possibly insulted Captain America, so Steve takes pity on him. “I retired. I guess it just hasn’t taken as well as I thought it did.”
Rhodey nods and claps Steve on the back. “I’m grateful it didn’t.”
“I’m not entirely sure I was necessary. Tony sure looked like he had it covered.”
“Yeah,” Rhodey says. “Tony does.” He looks a little thoughtful. “The thing is, my boy gets a little hyper-focused when he’s left alone. As you can currently see in the excessive amount of firepower in our vicinity. Just because he can handle it alone, I don’t think it means he should. There was this thing in New York, did you hear about it?”
Steve nods, a little ashamed. It had happened a couple of months into his big breakdown, and he’d been lost somewhere in Peru at the time. There wouldn’t have been time enough for him to even get to New York, let alone help, and he’s always felt a little guilt at that. “I was away,” he says, his voice a little stiff.
“It wasn’t meant as a guilt-trip,” Rhodey says, softly, and he looks like he means it. “I thought for a hot second, maybe he was gonna get a team, y’know? And I was happy. But I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”
“I think a team sounds like a nice idea,” Steve says.
“Me too,” Rhodey says, and he stares at Steve for a long moment. “Don’t mention it to him as an idea unless you’re willing and ready to follow through. I won’t stand by and watch him fall apart again.” Rhodey smiles bitterly. “Took me and Happy and Pepper a while to get him out of his last hole, when the Avengers disbanded after one show only. It happens again, I don’t think I’d get him back.”
Steve stares evenly at Rhodey and he nods. “If he’ll have me, I’m there.”
Rhodey’s forehead creases, like he can’t believe it might be this easy.
Steve means it, though. He’ll have to talk to Tony first. And okay, it is partly to see if what has blossomed between them actually has a chance of becoming something more, considering neither of them knew who they’d really just been with, but even if Tony would consider them just being teammates, Steve’s all in. He knows what it’s like to fight alone. He doesn’t want that for anyone, let alone someone as brave and brilliant as Tony.
“Probably on a part time basis,” Steve says, and then louder for Fury, who’s shamelessly stopped even pretending he’s not eavesdropping. “I’m not ready for full-time SHIELD work again.”
“We can work with that,” Fury says. “Think the public could do with your face around a little more, though. World just got even stranger.” And he draws their attention to a large screen displaying the news.
Steve feels like mostly ignoring the news for ten years might have been one of his brighter ideas, because the news, as always, is kind of terrible.
TONY STARK IS IRON MAN! blares the legend at the bottom of the screen, and an anchor talks rapidly as footage from their fight on the tanker shows, and some of it is really far away so there’s not much detail, but Steve’s definitely visible in a fair amount of the footage, and so is Tony, leaping into another Iron Man suit, and oh– there’s Tony’s face. Visible and so clear. He looks so brave, Steve thinks. He’ll probably always enjoy seeing Tony’s terrifying competence in person.
CAPTAIN AMERICA SUSPECTED TO HAVE RETURNED, adds another headline.
Over in the corner it looks like Tony and Maya have been successful, because they’re high-fiving and handing a tablet over to a SHIELD agent who goes running for the door. Then Tony notices the TV, and his face goes taut, and Steve’s heart hurts in empathy.
It’s a brave new world. Steve understands it, more than he wants to. His world keeps changing too. Large, earth-shattering changes. But Steve’s been learning how to adapt, and he thinks he’s getting a handle on that process. Tony will manage too. He’s sure of it.
The aftermath of healing Killian and sorting out the official reports means that Steve entirely misses Christmas. Fury gets a SHIELD agent to drive him to his house the day after, and Steve lets himself in and sits in his lounge for a good hour staring into space, trying to gather his thoughts. The home that has seemed so cozy and friendly for the last ten years suddenly feels cold and empty. Steve packs away his uniform and shield into the trunk, but his heart doesn’t feel so heavy doing that as he did the first time. Probably because he’s gotten used to the idea that this won’t be the last time.
Unless… unless Tony doesn’t want to be in a team?
Steve worries about that for a hot minute, but then thinks about it logically. Tony was really quick to label Steve as a honeypot, which meant that he believed Steve was interesting enough to lure Tony in by using sex as a tool, if needed. So Tony definitely thinks he’s attractive. Steve can work with that.
His stomach grumbles, and Steve eyes his barely-used kitchen speculatively, thinks about his cold and lonely bed, and then gets to his feet with a sigh.
Swannie bursts into tears when they see him come into to the diner, and Steve gets a lot of interested glances in his direction, but Swannie pushes him past the gawkers, immediately sits Steve down and a few minutes later shoves what looks like all seven plates of the Christmas dinner they threatened him with in front of him at once.
“So, uh, Anthony?” Swannie prompts, sitting opposite him and not even trying to eat from his plate until Steve shoves the bowl of roast potatoes at them. “He actually was Tony Stark, wasn’t he?”
Steve looks around to see if anyone’s watching and he nods.
“And he’s actually Iron Man,” Swannie continues in a whisper.
Steve nods and shrugs helplessly. His life has always been on the weird side.
“Huh.” Swannie squints. “No wonder you never paid any attention to anyone who’s ever tried to hit on you, love, if your standards are that high.”
Steve laughs, genuinely surprised by the comment. “No one ever tried to hit on me, Swan.”
“Please,” Swannie laughs, getting up when they realize they’ve forgotten to bring him any gravy, “I’ve counted at least forty in the last few years alone.”
Steve’s face falls. Dammit.
Swannie doesn’t ask him why he ran off, nor do they ask about where Tony is now, and Steve really appreciates it. They do try and stuff him with some pie too, but even a Steve who hasn’t eaten well for a couple of days can’t manage that much food.
“Your tool bundle sold well at the charity night,” Swannie says. “And, uh, I don’t know how to break it to you–”
Steve looks up from the turkey, worry instantly setting on his face.
“–but you got voted the town’s most boring person again,” Swannie finishes, with a wince.
Steve presses his mouth together in a line. He thinks about it. “Probably accurate.”
Swannie grins. “Well, I know differently, but I guessed maybe you didn’t want to get the shakedown from the town about how a mysterious guy the size of a house shows up here ten years ago, couple of months after Captain America disappeared, then said guy runs out of town the same day Captain America re-appears...”
“I don’t know what you’re insinuating,” Steve says, eyeballing them warily.
“Uh-huh,” Swannie says, noncommittally, helping themselves to some of Steve’s leftover stuffing. “You haven’t aged a day in ten years, honey. No one that’s lucky.” They pick up a roast potato and gesture with it. “Would said Captain be… going out on the town a bit more now?”
Steve stares at them. His throat feels dry and the fork seems suddenly foreign in his hand. He nods. “That’s the plan,” he says, tightly. “How many people–” he manages, but can’t quite get the question out.
“Just a few of us figured it out; Jenny Arbor, Humphrey Jones, me. Wasn’t hard to put the pieces together.” Swannie keeps their voice low. They smile at him, and it’s fond and sad. “We talked about it over pie after you left. No one’s gonna tell anyone anything. But you’re gonna have to work at it if you want to keep a separate life here. You can’t be giving your secrets away every time your billionaire boyfriend gets in trouble.”
“Not my boyfriend,” Steve mutters, but he’s kind of touched, and when he glances up, he catches Humphrey Jones and Jenny Arbor’s gazes; they’re shamelessly listening in, but they beam at him, proudly, and Steve’s chest feels a little tight.
“No?” Swannie pulls a discontented expression. “Well, when you ask him out next, if he says no, send him my way. I’ll sort him out.”
Steve ends up packing up the leftovers because even Swannie’s gone over the top this time and he diligently writes the reheating instructions on the bag. He starts to head home, but he changes his mind and stops by his store, because the whole town seems just a little strange and cold to him, and he needs to reassure himself the world hasn’t changed entirely. He rolls up the shutter and lets himself in with his keys, locks it behind himself so no one can get in if they see the shutters up and lights on, and just stands in the store. He takes a deep breath and lets the smell in. He smiles softly to himself.
The world can change as much as it likes. As long as the important things stay the same, Steve can handle anything.
Marian startles when she sees him in the store the next morning. Steve just smiles at her from where he’s finishing up dismantling the Christmas display, neatly boxing the decorations that are ubiquitous and can be resold next year, and labeling up the items they need to sell at a discount.
“Morning, Marian,” Steve says, like nothing has changed.
“Morning, boss,” she says. “Some guys came the other day, took away your, uh, guest. They said you sent them, but I’m pretty sure they had guns, so I didn’t exactly feel like questioning it too hard.”
“Sorry for scaring you.”
“Ah, it’s fine.”
“You went above and beyond, Marian,” Steve says, firmly. “I really appreciate everything you did, and I’m sorry I put you in such an awkward position.”
Marian shrugs. “World thinks people like Iron Man and Captain America are superheroes, but they’ve never met someone as kind as you. I think someone like you, you’re the type of hero that America really needs, and I’m honored to work for you. Even if occasionally you kidnap actors and stash them in your attic.”
Steve laughs awkwardly, but mostly because if he doesn’t he might cry. “That was a first for me, I don’t plan on making it a habit.”
“I can finish that if you want,” Marian nods at the price gun and his pile of things still to discount. “You probably want to reinstall the sound system.”
Steve looks up to where the old speakers loom awkwardly in the high ceilings of his store. He purses his lips. “I’ve been thinking about that, actually. Store could do with a couple of improvements, I guess. A little bit of technology couldn’t hurt.” Marian stares at him incredulously. “What?” he asks, taken aback by her surprise.
“Just wondering what’s got into you, Mister Technophobe,” Marian says, “to suddenly be okay with technology.”
Steve thinks of Tony, and his inventions, and the rainbow of Iron Man armors, and he colors a little. “Guess someone showed me what technology can do,” Steve shrugs. He sobers and looks at Marian, seriously. “We need to talk, though.”
“What’s up, boss?” Marian leans against the counter and looks at him, posture open and trusting.
“Well,” Steve says slowly, “I’ve been thinking.” She looks worried. “How would you like your manager position to be made much more official?”
Marian looks at him like he’s grown a second head. When he finishes explaining what he wants to do, with her agreement, she looks at him like he’s grown a third one, too, and all three are singing show tunes.
“Are you sure?” she asks.
Steve smiles at her, softly. “I came to this town ten years ago to take a break from the life I had before.” He can’t find his own words. He hopes Tony is okay with him borrowing some. “I really needed one. Time to remember who I really am. Time to remember what I can do with my brains and my hands and none of the other trappings, none of the expectations. You, Swannie, the twins, everyone in this town – you’ve helped me remember I’m good enough, that I’m more than my name. I can never thank you enough for that.”
“This sounds like a goodbye,” Marian says.
“Not really,” Steve says. “I’ll still be around, and I’ll be here to help out when I can be. But things won’t be the same here as they were.”
Marian grins. “The pay rise you mentioned will probably help me mentally cope with the change.”
Steve laughs. “Good.”
“Is this change anything to do with that cute mechanic?” Marian asks, tilting her head.
Steve blushes and she grins at him. “You know,” he says, as evenly as he can, “I really hope so.”
It’s a Thursday when things change again.
It’s a busy Thursday, even though the allotment club hasn’t met this week because a lot of them have family over for the holiday period. Steve gave Marian a joke two-week notice period, and that’s nearly over. Fury gave Steve a phone for any SHIELD emergencies, a flip phone that’s easy to use, and it’s been silent. Even the super-villains are taking the holidays off, but maybe that’s because they know now Iron Man is not dead, and Captain America (after a public SHIELD announcement confirms it) is back in public service, and they don’t want to take their chances.
Steve’s never felt like a crime deterrent before. He kind of likes it.
Steve’s used to looking at the door every time the bell goes, but he almost doesn’t recognize the person who steps through it, because he’s wearing a bright red shirt, and Steve’s spent a week and a half hoping Tony would come through his door but for some reason he expected the hoodie and sunglasses combo Tony used to rock. The Tony that comes through the door is wearing an expensive shirt that looks soft in a way his hoodie never did. This is probably part of Tony’s regular, billionaire-lifestyle wardrobe, and Steve likes it. Red suits Tony.
When he catches Steve’s gaze, Tony smiles, wide, almost like he’s in disbelief, but also like he’s found something he’s been looking for, and Steve can’t help but smile back just the same way.
Steve wasn’t sure Tony would come here, but he hoped he would come. Marian glances up and smothers a smile, and then her eyes narrow suspiciously, because now Tony’s not slumming it around in his cheap clothes, he looks a lot more like what he is. A billionaire celebrity. And a hero, Steve thinks, and there may be actual butterflies in his stomach. Huh. He always thought the romance novels were kidding about that.
Tony realizes Steve’s kind of frozen solid, so he walks up to him, hands in his pockets, and takes Steve in. The simple clothes and the green apron and the simple name tag.
“You look better in blue than green,” Tony says, without even saying hello.
Steve holds his gaze and can’t stop smiling. “You look better in nothing,” he says, and Tony nearly swallows his tongue.
“Wasn’t expecting that,” Tony mumbles, looking away in embarrassment, and there’s a blush on his cheeks that Steve warms at.
“Good surprise or bad surprise?” Steve asks, softly.
Tony looks back at him and smiles. “Excellent surprise. Much less of a sanity-challenging one, though, than your other, uh… job.”
Steve’s grin quirks to one side. “Could say the same to you, I suppose,” he allows. He opens his mouth to suggest they take the conversation to the back office or staff room, but they’re interrupted by the bell jangling exceptionally loudly at the front door, and then an excited yelling.
“Hey, look,” Brian shrieks. “Dad, I told you he’d be here.”
Tony rolls his eyes and stands alongside Steve, leaning in closer to murmur, “This has been happening so much. So much attention. It’s humbling, really. Kids love Iron Man.”
Tony’s smirk fades as Brian yells, “Mister Fixit!” and hurls himself at Steve, grabbing hold of Steve’s apron excitedly.
Steve smirks at Tony’s crestfallen expression and he gently detaches his apron and shares a quick smile with Brian’s dad before looking down at Brian. “What is it?”
“I had an accident and I broke my toy again,” Brian says, “but I told Dad you’d be here, please, please fix it again? I didn’t mean to break him.” Brian holds the Iron Man toy out with both hands and Steve side-eyes Tony, who’s quickly looking delighted that he was initially spurned in favor of Steve.
“I’m sorry,” Brian’s Dad apologizes. “He’s kind of obsessed with this place now. He wants to be you when you grow up.”
“Worthy choice,” Tony says, and he leans down. “But you know, Mister Fixit... he doesn’t really fix things. He just provides tools for people to fix things themselves. But, if you let me borrow your amazing and frankly, very handsome toy, I can fix it up better than he can.”
Brian looks very dubious but Steve smiles at him. “He’s a really good mechanic,” Steve says, nodding. “He can fix anything.”
Brian still looks dubious, but at Steve’s words, he gently hands over the toy to Tony’s hands. “Mister Fixit fixed it last time okay, but… it’s my fault, I broke it in the same place.”
“I’m sure Mister Fixit did a mediocre job,” Tony says, already walking over to the corner workstation. He calls back as he goes, “Steve, what kind of epoxy did you use for the previous fix? Because I can see the remnants of it, it’s awful.”
Brian’s father watches the exchange, squints at Tony, then glances at Steve. “That’s– he’s not who he looks like, surely…?”
“Nah,” Brian’s dad decides, “can’t be. C’mon, Brian, let Mister Fixit’s friend fix your toy, I want to check out some hammers.” He side-eyes Steve. “Iron Man’s more Brian’s thing, I’m more of a Thor guy.”
Steve just nods sagely, lets Brian’s dad lead him away to the tool racks. Steve gets distracted by Gordon Arbor, who wants some paint for his new chicken coop, and when he emerges from the paint aisle, Brian is perched on a stool and Tony’s showing him how to fix Iron Man himself, while Brian’s dad worriedly watches on.
“Maybe I should be a mechanic when I grow up,” Brian’s saying as Steve approaches. “I thought I’d just run a store, but making things looks way cooler.”
“It is,” Tony assures him. “Ah, sorry I stole your fanclub,” Tony adds, when he notices Steve is there. “But it’s your own fault. I told you not to let me speak to kids. Too late now. Brian and me, we have a connection now.” Tony squints as Brian nods happily. “Is it wrong that it’s only kids who match my emotional age?”
”Thanks, Mr. Mechanic,” Brian says, when Tony hands the Iron Man toy to him.
“That’s just Mechanic to you, buddy,” Tony says, and Brian’s dad drags Brian away, thanking both Tony and Steve profusely.
Steve shakes his head ruefully. “He’s gonna get confused when I’m not in here every day.” At Tony’s curious glance, he shrugs. “I’m handing the store over to better management.” He nods over to where Marian is busily and competently dealing with what looks like the entire Arbor family. Although Jenny isn’t there, probably still in the diner cramming. Poor girl, Steve thinks.
“Yeah, I did that with my company too,” Tony says, following the nod and understanding. “Works pretty well.”
“Good to know,” Steve says. He glances at Tony.
“Well, you disappeared without saying goodbye,” Tony says. Tony’s looking out into the store, but his voice is low. Like maybe what he’s saying means something.
“Fury said you were some sort of modern genius,” Steve says. “Thought you could figure it out.”
“Wasn’t so sure for a little while that you’d want me to.”
Steve smirks. “Maybe Fury was wrong about the genius part.”
Tony laughs and elbows Steve, barely jostling him. “You at least had the clue about the arc reactor. Captain America has been off the scene for years, I don’t see how I was supposed to figure out who you were.”
“You weren’t,” Steve says, and his expression flattens out. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for New York. I… had a badly timed breakdown.”
“Had a couple of those myself,” Tony says. “I think it’s just a downside of the job. Some upsides too, though.” He glances at Steve speculatively. “That offer to check out your computer still open?”
Steve smiles again, slowly, but surely. “I could probably convince the new boss to let me take a break.”
Tony leads him to the diner, because of course he does, and Steve glances in surprise when he sees the Iron Man armor on the sidewalk, already swarmed by several of the local kids.
“Is it okay to just leave that there?” Steve asks.
“It’s only coded to me,” Tony says, shrugging.
The kids are so busy taking selfies with the suit that they don’t even notice that Tony is there, shepherding Steve into the diner with a hand on the small of his back.
“My favorite Fixits,” Swannie coos when they see them. Steve grins as Tony leads him to his favorite booth, and sits opposite him. “This better be a date, Mr. Mechanic.”
“You can call me Tony,” Tony tells them, and Swannie beams. “And if Steve is amenable, I intend for it to be a date.” He sounds confident, but there’s a vulnerability in Tony’s eyes that fades when Steve winks at him. “It’s a date,” he assures Swannie.
“Good,” Swannie says, pours them a couple of mugs of coffees, and leaves them with a couple of menus.
“I feel like I’ve been here so much that I don’t even need a menu,” Tony murmurs, scanning over the menu anyway.
“They give me a menu every time, and I’ve been in here approximately ten thousand times,” Steve says.
“Guess I can’t complain,” Tony says, and he grins at Steve over the top of the menu. “So, do you come here often, Mr. Ten Thousand Times?”
Steve laughs. “Guess you could say so.” He looks at the menu, mostly because if he doesn’t he knows he’ll stare at Tony, completely moonstruck. “So have you made any more suits since I last saw you? Your number took quite a beating.”
Tony wrinkles his mouth. “Yeah, I went into a weird quantity versus quality mode for a while there. I don’t have any settings other than fast forward. Gonna work on making sure my main armor doesn’t fall apart so quickly.”
“Mark 42 was kind of… fragile.”
“42 was designed to be modular,” Tony defends. “He was just– unusual in the way he went about his business.”
Steve nods. “I can understand that.”
Tony smirks over the top of his menu, because a superhero retiring to run a hardware store probably also counts as unusual. “I have this protocol ready to go, Clean Slate. It’ll wipe out the suits that survived. I don’t need them. It’s like I said before, about the arc reactor being a crutch. I’m Iron Man. I don’t need the armor to tell me that.” Tony looks fiercely proud and Steve can’t look away from him, and yep, there’s the moonstruck staring he was frightened of.
Then Steve thinks about it. “You’re going to blow up the other suits?” He frowns, disapprovingly. “That’s really wasteful. Might as well at least hold them in storage, save them for canon fodder for another villain fight at least.” Tony stares at him, obviously amused at something he’s said. Steve flushes at the consideration. “What?”
“You really are genuinely from the time of the Great Depression,” Tony says with a low whistle. “I guess I still thought maybe Fury was fucking with me. But you’re the real deal.”
Steve shrugs. That about covers it.
“I can’t believe I’m dating a nonagenarian,” Tony says.
Steve narrows his eyes. “I eat meat,” he says.
“That’s– that’s not what that means–” Tony starts, and then he puts the menu down and chuckles. “Now you’re fucking with me.”
“Not in public,” Steve says, primly, and Tony gives him a look which is supposed to be peeved, but his cheeks flush interestingly, and if Steve’s metabolism wasn’t such a pain in the neck, Steve would be dragging Tony out of the diner. If Steve makes their order rather rapidly after that, Tony doesn’t call him on it.
They’re not interrupted as they eat, which Steve credits to Swannie, standing conspicuously near them and idly holding a kitchen cleaver. After the meal, they give Steve a hug, and while they’re distracted, Tony slips what looks like a few thousand dollars into the tip jar. Steve hides his smirk where Swannie can’t see it.
“You better be here another ten thousand times, too,” Swannie says, looking emotional. “At least.”
“Plan on it,” Steve says.
“I’ll stop by too,” Tony promises, leaning in to kiss Swannie’s cheek.
“You’d better,” Swannie says.
“C’mon, Mr. Ten Thousand Times,” Tony says. “Let’s go play hooky from work.”
“You call me that nickname one more time,” Steve warns, and leaves the threat hanging.
“We’ll work on the pet names,” Tony says, as Steve nudges him out of the diner, Swannie’s warm laughter following them out.
As Steve helps Tony shoo the kids away from the Iron Man suit, he nearly bumps into someone on the sidewalk, and he apologizes profusely before he sees who it is, and has to resist the urge to grimace.
“Hey, Steve, wanna introduce me to your friend?” Tony says, rescuing him from an awkward pause.
Phillipa looks from Steve to Tony, and her mouth goes somewhat slack as she recognizes the armor standing behind them.
“This is Phillipa Dawkins,” Steve introduces. “She runs the town’s rotary club. It’s what organizes the community charity events, the local mayor funds the initiative. Mrs. Dawkins, this is Tony Stark. He runs a company called, uh–”
“Stark International,” Tony says, and reaches a hand out. “I also pilot world-saving armor a lot, saved the planet, stopped some super-villains, Iron Man, you may have heard of him.”
Phillipa’s staring. It’s kind of amusing. “Nice to meet you,” she says, weakly shaking his hand.
“You run charity events, huh?” Tony says, smiling a smile that looks almost professional.
“It’s usually just an annual Christmas charity fundraiser,” Steve says. “Word on the street is that’s where I’ve been voted the most boring man in town for four years straight.”
“Boring, huh? Sounds about right,” Tony says, glancing at Steve as he steps back into the freestanding Iron Man suit. Steve laughs, because he’s already much too fond of Tony for his own good. The armor snaps around Tony fluidly, fitting him like a glove, and Tony keeps the faceplate up and he grins at her widely. “C’mon, babe. Let’s jet. Hold on tight.”
Steve smirks, and climbs up onto Tony’s back, putting his arms around the suit. “Babe?” Steve says.
Tony laughs, puts down the faceplate, and jets up into the sky, high enough but not too high, so Steve can enjoy Phillipa’s shocked expression, and he can see the town that’s been his safe harbor for a decade. He’ll be back. And maybe it won’t be the same. But change is growing on Steve in a big way.
“Got it, Ten Thousand, more work required on the pet names,” Tony says, the suit’s speaker picking up Tony’s voice to a volume Steve can hear. There’s more of Tony’s tone in the voice than Iron Man used to have, but Steve supposes Tony doesn’t have so much to hide anymore. “You wanna come down to Earth, or do you want to fly a bit longer?”
Steve smiles, the wind rushing in his ears, lifting his hair, blustering through his clothes. It’s cold, but Steve’s all right to hold on for a little while more. “Mechanic’s choice,” he says, and Tony chuckles.
“All right, Mister Fixit,” Tony says, and Steve can hear the smile in his voice. “Hold on tight.”