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How You Walk On

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“Hello?  Anyone here?”

Steve peeks up over the side of the boat.  There’s a man walking around the dock below.  That isn’t so strange in and of itself, even though the marina’s pretty quiet for a Tuesday night.  What’s weird is the man himself.  First, the guy’s dressed in a suit, and there aren’t too many men who wear suits in this part of Florida where everyone’s pretty simple and the weather burns hot and humid pretty much all year.  Plus it’s later in the day, after five o’clock, so even if this is a local, he should be done with work.

But this doesn’t look at all like a local, which brings up the second even stranger thing: it’s an expensive suit.  Steve doesn’t know a whole lot about clothes, but he’s spent enough time in his past life trying to fit in with the elite, so he recognizes someone wearing money when he sees it.  That is not a suit one buys at Men’s Wearhouse.  It’s really nice, really tailored to the guy’s slender form, a dark, charcoal gray three piece get-up that’s probably made of Italian silk or something fancy like that.  The man’s wearing leather loafers that are not at all made for walking on a dock or through sand and a red tie that’s loosened from his neck.  His face is perfectly tanned, shining just a bit in perspiration, and he has a dark goatee that’s expertly trimmed.  He’s really quite handsome.  Thick brown hair is spiked atop his head, but it looks more purposeful, like it’s been crafted with gel by a stylist than truly mussed.  Steve can’t see the man’s eyes behind his sleek sunglasses, but his expression seems irritated.

Who the hell is this guy and what’s he doing here?

“Hey!  Is anyone going to help me?  Hello!”

Yeah, definitely irritated.  Steve stares a second more and then turns back to the mess of engine parts he has on spread out on an old towel on the boat’s deck.  He’s fully intending on ignoring this situation and getting back to work so he can get home.  It’s ridiculously rude, but rich people do not just come to this ramshackle marina.  Where he lives in Florida is close enough to some seriously populated places (St. Petersberg and Tampa and such), but this town is much smaller and quieter, and shouldn’t a guy like this be looking for help in the big city?  Again, this is just strange, and strange means trouble, and Steve’s dealt with enough snobby, arrogant assholes in his life to have had his fill for forever.  So whatever this guy wants, he can bully and demean someone else into giving it to him.  There are other marinas around the bay.

“Come on!  I know you guys are open, unless that sign out front is lying.  So can someone answer me?”

Steve closes his eyes.  Damn it.  He leans back over to the bench along the side of the boat and peeks again.  The guy has walked back down the dock, so his back is to Steve, and he looks to be about two seconds from stalking away and leaving entirely.  Just let him go.

But Steve doesn’t.  “Sir!  Sir, hold on!”  Grabbing a rag to wipe his oily hands, he stands and steps off the speedboat and onto the docks.  The rich guy stops and turns back.  Steve takes a deep breath, squinting into the setting sun, and walks closer.  “Hi.  Sorry.”

The rich guy frowns hard.  “Oh, so there is someone here.”

Steve doesn’t really have an excuse.  He can’t tell if the guy is still mad, but he doesn’t care.  “Can I help you with something?”

That angry frown slips as the man just… stares at him.  Steve’s dressed in ratty, old jeans and an equally old brown t-shirt.  He’s got engine grease and grit all over him, thick on his hands despite wiping them, streaked across his bare arms and clothes.  He’s pretty sure there’s a smear on his face.  He hasn’t trimmed up his beard in a while, and he knows his hair is messy (messy for real, not perfectly coiffed).  Compared to this guy and his thousand dollar suit, he knows he looks like crap.

But the guy continues to just look at him, and the moment turns from just strange to strange and really uncomfortable.  Worry prickles through Steve, as it always does nowadays whenever he deals with people he doesn’t know, and he’s certain he doesn’t know the man, though he does look familiar.  With those stupid expensive sunglasses, it’s impossible to see what he’s thinking, which makes this even more unnerving.  What is the guy’s problem?  Is something wrong with him?

Before Steve can ask or say something, though, the stranger seems to snap out of it and nods.  “Yeah.  Yeah, I need help.  Thank God.  You’re a mechanic, right?”

Steve glances down at his dirty clothes.  Isn’t it obvious, considering that the guy spent so much time studying him?  “Yeah, I am.”

“I’ve been to every place up and down the bay and no one around here seems to have anyone on hand to actually fix shit in a timely manner, which is all kinds of stupid.”  Steve wants to say something.  Most of the marinas around these parts are family-owned, really small businesses, and this time of year there tends to be a lot of maintenance needs.  Not to mention everyone knows everyone else, and nobody works quickly on much of anything, let alone for someone they don’t know.  Things are laid-back and stuff gets done when it gets done.  If this guy wants something fixed at the drop of a hat, it’s probably not going to happen. 

Obviously he does.  “I have my boat here.  Think you could take a look at it?  And soon because I have a plane to catch.”

Now Steve’s the one staring.  If the other marinas said no, it probably means there’s something seriously wrong with this boat that can’t just be fixed.  Or they didn’t want to deal with the trouble of an out-of-towner.  Or they didn’t want to take on a project for a client who’s used to having things done his way at all times.  Whatever the reason, if their neighbors turned this guy away, the job may be more trouble than it’s worth.

Still, though, money is money, and Steve needs money.  And this guy…  He doesn’t talk the way Steve expected.  He’s had more than his fair share of well-to-do folks looking down their noses at him, and this isn’t that.  His words are demanding, but his tone isn’t.  The man seems genuinely relieved that Steve is there, that he found someone, and actually hopeful that Steve will help him.  “Sure,” he answers.

The guy grins, flashing perfectly white teeth.  “Alright.  Cool.  Let me show you.”  He turns, heading back up the dock boldly like he owns the place in his expensive loafers that don’t belong in a marina and clearly with no doubt in his mind that Steve will follow him. 

A bit perplexed, Steve does.  He half expects the man’s boat to be already loaded into the repair slip, but it’s tied up at one of the more distant piers.  Steve can see why right away.  There is simply no way this glorious beauty of a yacht can fit in their little rinky-dink repair area, let alone in the marina in general.  It has to be at least fifty feet from bow to stern, a sleek, glorious, white marvel floating in the bay’s gently rolling waters.  It’s just beautiful, big but not egregiously so, with a top deck, a sun deck, and enclosed area that Steve can see has a lounge in addition to a bar and other amenities plus the cockpit.  He’s heard of ships like this, with a multiple staterooms and a galley and an atrium and so much stuff, features that only the rich can afford, but he’s never seen one.  With all the simple speedboats, fishing trollers, sailboats, and pontoons around the marina, this sticks out like a sore thumb, a luxury speedster among old, rusty clunkers. “Wow,” Steve breathes, standing with his hands on his hips and appraising the craft in awe.  He looks at the huge spring lines securing the boat to the dock.  “How did you get in here?”

“Someone helped.  Big guy, kind of an asshole, but he liked the couple hundred bucks I paid him.”

Steve can’t think enough to try to figure out who that was of the marina’s common customers.  The unspoken implication has him gobsmacked.  “Wait, you’re piloting this thing by yourself?”

Beside him, the man stiffens a bit.  “That a problem?” There’s an edge to his tone, which is weird, because it’s not like it matters in the slightest what Steve thinks.

Steve presses his lips together and shakes his head.  “Nope.  Not at all.  What’s the matter with it?”

“One of the engines is choking,” the guy responds.  “Noticed it yesterday when I was coming down the west coast of the Panhandle.  I think one of the fuel pumps is malfunctioning, which is crap because this thing is brand new.”

“You came in all the way here on one good engine?”

“Got a plane to catch in Tampa.”

He said that before, but Steve’s not sure it’s that simple.  Again, not that it matters.  It’s none of his business.  What is his business, though, is the fact that it’s becoming really obvious why no one else wanted this job.  “No offense, mister, but this is a little beyond what we normally handle here.”

Now the guy’s face scrunches up in irritation.  “So you’re turning me down, too?”

Steve bites his lip.  He should.  He isn’t qualified to work on an engine inside a ship this expensive and complicated.  He’s really self-taught, had to be because of his situation, and he knows he’s pretty good at fixing boat engines (he’s been told by a lot of his customers and his business partner), but taking a job like this is pretty crazy, just like diving off the deep end.  A yacht like this should be serviced by the people who built it, and this guy – who has the money to wear thousand dollar suits and shoes and buy multi-million dollar boats – can certainly afford that.  So that brings Steve back to his original question: what the hell is he doing here?

Stranger and stranger.

But Steve is thinking way too much into it.  It’s an opportunity to make money, and if this man is okay trusting him with it, somewhat desperately asking him in fact…  “Nope.  Can you show me?”

The guy nods, relieved, and steps onto the aft of the ship.  Steve follows him onto the deck and then into the interior, already feeling way too poor and filthy to be touching foot on the ship, let alone actually, physically touching anything.  The yacht is as stunning inside as it is from the outside.  The floors are polished, gleaming wood.  Everything is creamy white leather, too fancy to actually sit on.  There’s an atrium at the nexus of the galley, the windows overhead creating this open, airy feeling that’s incredible.  Stairs lead further aft, where the staterooms probably are.  There’s more tech in this one area that Steve has ever seen on a boat: a massive flat screen TV, theater quality surround sound speakers, computer terminals built into consoles and walls, and electronic controls everywhere.  It’s so futuristic and modern that it doesn’t seem possible.

This guy isn’t just rich.  He’s really, really rich.

Steve picks his jaw up off the floor.  He’s better than being reduced to some gawking idiot.  “Where’s the engine access?”

The man takes him down to the lower areas (which is again like walking through walls of money) until they reach the hatch to the engines.  Steve feels uncomfortable all over again; he’s not used to having space to work and having an engine compartment look, well, clean.  And techy.  And he’s also not used to having someone watch him.  But he shoves his worry, because he’s not about to seem incompetent or like some country yokel to this guy.  So he steps somewhat inside the area (granted, there is way more space than normal but it’s still cramped) and starts poking around.  The engine is, unsurprisingly, as fancy and expensive as the rest of the ship.  There’s great rigging (better than Steve has ever seen), new filters and important meters mounted on the inboard sides of the twin engines, and unobstructed access to the seacocks (thank God).  The engine mounts are seriously sturdy, and everything is secured, though not labeled (plus there are things he doesn’t recognize – this engine design really is a little above his skill-level).  It takes him a minute or two to work through what everything is.  “You said it’s choking?”

“Yeah.  Pretty sure it’s the right one there, the one driving the starboard prop.  Get it started, and it goes for a few seconds, but then it just dies on me.  Thinking it’s the fuel pump, like I said.”

“Could be.”  Steve checks the fuel lines.  They look fine.  In fact, everything looks good on the surface.  “Or it could be the filter or the valves or the–”

“Right.  Which is why I need a mechanic.  If I had time, I’d do it myself, but I don’t.  I’m already up shit creek without a paddle as it is with my PA.  Well, she’s more than a PA, honestly, practically runs the company and my life, but still.  I’m seriously behind on some stuff and have to go back to New York.”

Steve leans back out from the engine compartment, wondering the same things again.  The man could fix it himself?  Steve hasn’t heard of too many millionaires (or billionaires, for all he knows) who are into taking care of their own problems.  And the stranger’s got to be important to have a PA and a company that needs tending, though it shouldn’t be all that surprising.  Obviously all this money had to have a source somewhere.

Yet again, though, it’s not his concern.  Quickly Steve runs through his roster of active work orders.  He knows right away he shouldn’t take this; he’s got a full workload, five or six boats that need repairs, and he doesn’t think his business partner can take on any additional jobs.  Plus he should be home more, what with school starting.  No, there’s no should.  He needs to be home.  This isn’t a good idea.

But the guy looks genuinely desperate.  “So can you handle this?  I know, okay.  I totally get that it’s kinda out of the ordinary for these parts, but I just need someone to get the engine working enough that one of my guys can sail this thing back up to New Jersey.  If you need time, that’s fine, but, you know, within reason.  And I’ll pay obviously.  If there’s something more screwed up, you can just ignore it.  A hack-job is fine.  I just need it moving.”

“No, no,” Steve says.  “I can look into it.”

“Yeah?”  The guy gives a tentative smile, like this isn’t just an average business transaction, like there’s more than money involved in Steve’s choice.  Like Steve is doing him a favor or something.  Steve’s not.

So he nods.  “Sure.  Should be able to start looking at it tomorrow.”  That’s pushing it, and he knows it, but he doesn’t stop with the promise.  He’ll make it happen. “Let’s go back and we’ll do the paperwork.”

The man was looking ridiculously grateful, but now he seems a little annoyed and somewhat perplexed, like he shouldn’t need to do paperwork.  Or adhere to the marina’s policies.  Or be bothered at all to formalize anything.  “Yeah, alright.  Lead the way.”

Steve does.  He climbs out of the yacht’s lower regions and back into the swankier areas, the rich man following him.  That only adds to his disquiet.  A bunch of thoughts are racing through his head, none of them calming or confident.  What if I break this damn thing?  How am I even going to take it out to test it?  What if I screw this up and this guy sues me?

What the hell am I doing?

But he doesn’t back out, and the guy doesn’t seem to change his mind either, trailing Steve as they exit the yacht and walk back toward the areas of the marina that are crowded with boats.  It’s silent save for the lapping of water against fiberglass and the evening bugs starting their nightly serenade in the tall grass and palms bordering the docks.  The quiet makes the tension even worse, this whole thing even stranger and more awkward, and Steve can’t help but wonder why he’s taking a job he’s not sure he can do.  He hasn’t done that since becoming a damn boat mechanic in the first place, but that was born from pure financial need.  He needed a job to put a roof over his head and buy the things, because he had nothing when he came down here, including any idea what he was doing.  So when he spotted Thor’s ad in a local newspaper of all the archaic things, proclaiming the would-be marina owner was seeking additional help to manage his new boat repair venture, he took the chance.

Five years later, Steve’s still taking the chance, and Thor’s every bit the character now as he was back then.  Thor’s puttering around the outside of the marina store, just beside the mechanic’s shop.  It looks like he’s working on a carburetor, probably for that speed boat he’s been tinkering with the last few days for a friend of his brother’s.  Thor and his brother don’t exactly get along – they have this love/hate relationship.  Steve doesn’t know the whole story except that they both don’t see eye to eye, even though neither one of them particularly gets along with their father, either.  At any rate, Thor looks even more like a hobo today than normal with old beach shorts on (that have more than a few holes in them) and a stained t-shirt that’s shrunk from too many washings.  His huge, blond mane is messy and clumpy with sweat (why he doesn’t just cut it, Steve doesn’t know – he can’t imagine living down here in this swampy hell with that much hair).  It’s gathered into a sloppy ponytail, draped on shoulders that don’t seem possible.  Thor’s a huge guy, looks every bit like the Norse god of thunder he’s named for with the beard and the strong jaw and piercing blue eyes.  He seems sort of regal, and Steve knows he comes from money, heir apparent to some sort of Norwegian real estate empire, but he’s kind of a slacker and a goof.  He swore that elite life off.  It, again, goes back to his strained relationship with his brother (who’s not exactly vying for the company but is?  Steve doesn’t know the details, and they keep changing anyway) and his estranged father.  Apparently their mother’s death tore the family apart, and Thor fled here years ago.  Steve likes him and his laidback nature a lot; after all, Thor was the one who hired him to be a boat mechanic when he had not a lick of experience.

When Steve and the rich guy approach, Thor eyes them in surprise and then suspicion.  “Everything alright?” he queries in that deep voice of his.

Steve brushes him off.  “Fine,” he says, and he takes their prospective client into the shop a little faster.  Despite his good parts, Thor can be a little loud, abrasive, and off-putting, and Steve has come this far; he wants to secure this job.  The bell above the door rings as Steve opens it and lets the rich guy inside.  He shakes his head at Thor in a silent, friendly warning before following.

The stranger looks like he’s never seen so cramped or dirty a place.  To be fair, the office is messy, cluttered, and there’s sand, grease, and grit everywhere.  It’s so thick and engrained on the computer and counter that it’ll simply never come off.  But the office is not filthy.  They have a little more pride in themselves than that.  It just looks like a mechanic’s shop.

Not to a wealthy man, though.  The man eyes the grimy computer keyboard.  “You guys need to invest in some new equipment.”

And here comes the demeaning garbage.  This is what Steve expected.  Rich people don’t know the world of common folk, that you can’t just replace stuff whenever it’s worn-out or even a little dirty or just because you feel like it on a whim.  It’s insulting.  This man is obviously used to buying his way through everything.  It still doesn’t matter, though.  Steve just wants to get the work order filled out and move this guy along.  He doesn’t bother with the computer (the damn printer is out of ink right now anyway) and just grabs the work order form and a pen.  With a sigh, he stands on the other side of the counter and starts filling stuff in.  “Name?”

There’s a choked chuckle, a surprised laugh.  Steve looks up, pen poised on the form.  The rich guy is smirking, almost sneering.  “Seriously?  Seriously.  You don’t know who I am.”

Steve’s skin prickles.  “Should I?” he asks tensely.

The man finally takes off his sunglasses, revealing two deep, brown eyes.  Right now they’re filled with amusement, but there’s intelligence there, sharp, sharp intelligence.  Lips twist into a new smile, and he cocks his head like everything should be so obvious.  “I’m Tony Stark.”

Aside from that same niggling sensation of familiarity, that really means nothing to Steve, and this whole damn thing is putting him on edge.  Is he supposed to know this?  Again he wonders if he should just bail out.  He doesn’t, though, stifling his annoyance and scribbling down a name.  “Okay.  Tony Stark,” he says, trying to keep his tone clean of ire.  “Address, Mr. Stark?”

Stark looks even more entertained, arrogantly so, like Steve should know better than to ask these types of questions.  “Eh, New York.  California.  London.”  Steve gives a flat stare.  “Really can’t be more specific.”

Even more frustrated and trying harder not to show it, Steve goes back to his paperwork.  “Contact number?”

The man frowns a little playfully.  “Sorry.  Same deal.”  Steve looks up again, trying not to glare.  “What?  My PA keeps telling me not to randomly give out my personal info.”

Is this guy for real?  Maybe Steve’s read this wrong from the get-go and the man really is a jerk, making a big show out of wanting his help only to yank him around now.  “I need some sort of contact number, sir.”

“I’ll just send someone down to get the boat when you’re done.  Like I said.”

Steve sighs.  “That’s not good enough.  I mean, yes, you’ll need to do that, but what if there’s an emergency?  Or what if I need to ask your permission about the work that needs to be done?  I have to have a way to contact you.”

Like I said, you have my permission to do whatever needs to be done to get it moving.  The cost doesn’t matter.”  That’s somewhat insulting, like the value of the work Steve will be doing really doesn’t even factor into his consideration.  “You want me to write you a literal carte blanche?”  The man reaches into his suit pocket like he’s going for his wallet or his checkbook.

Which is all kinds of ridiculous.  “No,” Steve says quickly, very uncomfortable with the idea.  “No.  I just want a contact number.  We’re not gonna sell it to anyone, alright, and if you’re concerned about security, we’ll shred…”  He trails off because the man pulls something out of his inner suit pocket.  It’s a business card, a nice-looking one, and on it is a logo, a sleek line that juts the opposite way in a powerful angle right above the words “STARK INDUSTRIES”.  He stares a second, finally recognizing it.  Stark Industries.  The biggest telecom company in the country.  They make cellphones and computers and a bunch of other prevalent technology.  They work with the Department of Energy.  They’re practically a household name.  Steve feels pretty stupid that he didn’t make the connection when the guy said his name.

His name.  God, he’s CEO of Stark Industries.  He owns the company.  That explains the money.  This guy probably has a dozen yachts and private planes and mansions all over the place because he’s Tony Stark.  And now other things come to Steve, things he heard before but never really meant anything, like the facts you are aware of on the periphery about this celebrity dating that one or this famous person getting arrested for something or that important person making some kind of inflammatory statement.  Tabloid fodder and that kind of crap.  Tony Stark is tabloid fodder.  He is on magazine covers and on TV and on the internet and everywhere all the time.  The media is constantly reporting on him, on what he’s saying and what he’s doing and who he’s doing it with.  The guy is a playboy, a genius, a philanthropist, and probably one of the smartest, most powerful men in the country if not the world, but a playboy nonetheless.  If the gossip rags are right, anyway.

Get away.

“Sir, maybe this isn’t a good idea.”  Steve hears himself say that.  He didn’t really think to, and the words are just coming, the words he should have said from the get-go.  “Maybe you should take your boat elsewhere, back to the dealer or something, or at least to–”

“Too late,” Stark says.  “I just gave you my personal number, so now I’m committed, because even if you say you’re not going to sell that information, you might anyway because I don’t know a thing about you or this outfit, and, hell, I would.  So at this point I might as well get what I came for.”  Those brilliant brown eyes narrow.  “Speaking of, let me ask you a couple of questions.  First, seeing as how we’re about to enter a relationship of sorts, what’s your name?”

That seems too forward, dangerous even, which is all kinds of stupid because Stark is exactly right.  “Steve Rogers,” Steve says guardedly.

Stark smiles, flashing those perfectly white teeth again.  All the sudden his demeanor is shifting.  This guy’s moods change like the wind.  “Well then, Steve Rogers, here’s my second question.”  And then he leans onto the grimy glass counter and says it, actually says it.  “What’s a guy like you doing in a place like this?”

For a moment, Steve’s too shocked to react.  That is the most awful, pathetic, clichéd pick-up line in the history of pick-up lines, the joke of them all in fact, so he can’t tell if Stark is honestly flirting with him or pulling his leg.  Like everything else about this whole exchange, it’s just incredibly strange and out of nowhere.  And Stark’s not giving him any hints, still smiling but surprisingly unreadable, like he’s waiting on Steve’s response to decide how to proceed.  Steve has no idea how to respond.  He’s annoyed, really annoyed, and pissed off at himself for not listening to his instincts and falling prey to this stupidity.  He should have known better.  He does know better.  There’s only one truth in this life, and that’s this: rich people treat poor people like shit.

But then, as the awkward silence goes on, Stark genuinely frowns.  “That came out bad.  Sorry.  What I meant to say was–”

“Just sign here, Mr. Stark,” Steve interrupts, pushing the hastily written work order toward the other man.

Stark frowns even deeper.  After another awkward beat, he takes the pen Steve’s offering.  He stares at it like he’s confused – probably is since that’s just a cheap, old Bic blue pen rather than a fountain pen or some such – before sighing.  “Okay, I feel like shit.  I’m really sorry.  What I meant to say was…  I probably shouldn’t say it.”  Steve just stares, though he feels the knot loosen in his chest, loosen just enough that he actually feels a little bad.  Stark sighs.  “What I meant to say was you… don’t seem like the type of guy who’d be a boat mechanic.”

Unsurprisingly, Steve’s not certain how to take that.  “Pardon?”

“You’re, well…  I mean, damn.  And I don’t mean that in a condescending way, okay.  But…  I mean, look at you.”  The man gestures at him, and Steve’s cheeks burn, both in annoyance and embarrassment.   He just shakes his head, dumbfounded.  “Ever thought of being a model?  Or an MMA fighter?  Or basically anything else?  Because you are way too–”

“I’ll call when I know what the problem is,” Steve says.

“–ridiculously good-looking to be covered in crap all day working on other people’s boats.  In the hot sun, no less.  It’s a freaking sauna down here – God – and there is not enough sunscreen in the world to protect skin as nice as yours.  And you should have a hat on.  You know, one that covers your face and neck.”  Stark actually blushes.  “I mean, so I’ve heard.  About being in the sun all day.  Need protection and all that.”

“I do wear sunscreen,” Steve replies evenly, wondering what the hell reality this is.  Tony Stark, the wealthiest man in the world, is in his office and advising him on the proper ways to guard himself from the dangers of working outside.  “And a hat.  Usually.”

“You need to all the time,” Stark says, and the fact that he seems to genuinely care is even weirder.  And off-putting.  And strangely touching and exciting.  He shakes his head.  “Point is: there have to be better ways to make a living with what you have going.  The looks are one thing, but you also seem too smart for this gig.  And you also don’t have the accent.  You don’t look the part, no offense.  Except for this.”  Stark gestures again, this time at Steve’s filthy clothes.  Apparently Steve’s concerns about looking like some backwoods yokel to this guy were rather unfounded.  Stark shrugs.  “It’s like a disguise, and it’s not all that convincing.  Which means you’re doing this for a reason.”

Steve sighs, closing his eyes a moment and shaking his head.  “Mr. Stark, come on.  Can you just sign–”

“My PA?  The one I’m always in trouble with?  She claims I have seriously poor people skills, and I kinda do, to be frank.  I’m brash and arrogant and eccentric, she says, and I don’t see people.”  The millionaire – no, billionaire - leans closer on the counter, the contract seemingly forgotten.  “But I think I see you.  And you do not belong here.”

Now this whole thing is hitting too close to home.  Steve sighs and grits his teeth.  “Do you want me to fix your boat or not?”

“Oh, I do, darling,” Starks answers with another wink of white teeth.  “I really do.”

Is that another pick-up thing?  Flirty to flustered to flirty again, at warp speed it seems.  Stark really does have crappy people skills, so much so that Steve’s head is practically spinning and he doesn’t know what to say.  “Then sign the work form.”

“Before I do that, I have one more question.”

Steve sighs again, exasperatedly playing along.  “What?”

“Would you go out with me if I asked?”

Holy shit.  Despite all the weirdness of this exchange thus far, despite the terrible freaking pick-up lines, that really comes out of left field.  Steve’s pretty sure his jaw is back on the floor and his eyes are as wide as saucers.  A cold shock of sweat blasts over him, and he just stares like a stupid idiot.  This is unreal, and he can’t think, let alone come up with anything to say, for what feels like forever.  Finally he stammers, “Wh-what?  What…”  Stark just cocks his head again, and that pisses Steve off.  What comes then is harsher.  “What are you playing at exactly?”

Stark doesn’t seem bothered by either his tone or his question.  “I’m not playing,” he answers simply.

That’s even more confusing.  “So… you’re honestly asking me then?”  The other lifts an eyebrow slyly.  Steve shakes his head, flabbergasted.  This guy’s reputation truly precedes him.  “For what?  A date?  A one-night stand?  Who do you think I am?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Stark admits, and the angry comment that Steve’s about to make dies in his throat.  Stark’s sudden flirty demeanor is gone again, replaced with what Steve can only describe as sincerity.  “But I’d like to find out.  Because you’ve got this…  this quiet, damaged hot guy thing going on.  Kinda like to know what that’s about.”

Steve has no idea what to say, what to feel.  This guy is so out of the blue, pushy and nosey and bordering on totally insensitive, but somehow… not at the same time.  And that’s not just because no one’s shown interest in him for what feels like forever.  Not since Peggy, anyway.  He hasn’t been on a date, been with anyone in any sort of romantic capacity, since Peggy.  That was six years ago.

But this is more than that, because Steve has to admit that, despite his brain telling him even louder, screaming at him, to run away from this as fast as humanly possible, he can’t make himself do it because his heart’s screaming something totally different.  He knows why.  He’s interested as well.  He sees that right now, and not just because this guy is making a hell of a pass at him.  He wants to know what’s up with him too, why he’s like this, out sailing a millionaire dollar yacht down in what passes for the middle of nowhere in Florida all by himself, why he’s here when he has the money to have that yacht towed anywhere, and why he’s asking a random stranger out on a date when he’s Tony Stark.  That’s… all kinds of insane, way beyond the type of rich person antics Steve has experienced in the past.  And maybe the fact that Stark is basically trying to hook up with him in the middle of a business transaction should have alarm bells ringing, and it does – it seriously does – but he can’t deny he’s really curious.  And flattered.

Stark’s pretty hot, too.  Not that Steve’s looking.

He’s not looking. Because he’s not doing this.  It has “really bad idea” written all over it.  So he opens his mouth to tell the guy no, but before he can, Stark is talking more.  Stark talks a lot, it seems.  “Look, I do need my boat fixed.  That is why I came here.  Obviously.  But I wasn’t planning on running into you.  That’s kinda like an added bonus, like the cherry on top of… some crappy stuff?  This rain cloud’s silver lining.”  He doesn’t elaborate further.  “And I fly by the seat of my pants.  A lot.  Pepper – that’s my PA – complains about that all the time, but you know what?  My instincts are pretty damn good.  They get me into trouble, sure, but they also tend to get me out of it.  And my instincts are telling me that if I don’t at least try to talk to you, then I’ll–”

“Mr. Stark, please,” Steve says.  “This is crazy.”

“Crazy is what I do, if you don’t know, which I’m thinking you don’t because you don’t really seem to know who I am.”

“I do know who you are,” Steve replies tersely, “but I don’t know you.  And you don’t know me, like you said, and I don’t – I…”  Suddenly he doesn’t know what to say.  He sighs in frustration and looks down at the work order.  It’s still all filled out and ready.  “I’ll take a look at your boat.  Here’s the price.  I’ll get it done tomorrow and give you a call and we’ll go from there.  That’s what I’m offering, so…  Look it over, if you want.  Sign it.  I’ll thank you to be on your way if you don’t.”

That’s a no without saying no, isn’t it?  Steve thinks it is.  It’s a no, and it should be, because this is ridiculous.  This rich guy, who’s used to getting whatever he wants by just asking for it, is apparently asking for him, all the sudden and out of the blue, and that’s not right or fair or anything he’s really prepared to deal with.  On principle alone, he has to say no, because that’s the same bullshit sense of entitlement wealthy folks have all the time.  He has no idea what Stark wants from him, but he’s not going to get it.  Steve can’t be bought.  He’s not dumb, and he’s not broken or damaged or whatever Stark said, and he’s not going to do this.  And he shouldn’t feel bad about that.  He doesn’t owe this guy anything.

But…  Well, there’s no denying this, either.  He does feel bad.  He can’t explain it.  When he finds the courage to look up again, he finds those sharp brown eyes staring at him.  There’s no anger in them, no hurt, at least not like Steve expected.  In fact, Stark is back to being unreadable, and Steve doesn’t know how to take that.  At all.

Then a dazzling smile curls Stark’s mouth, and he finally takes that cheap blue pen.  “Tell you what, Steve Rogers,” he says, and he’s scribbling his name on the bottom of the work order without even glancing at its contents.  “You do what you need to to fix my boat.  Call me when it’s done, and I’ll come back down.  Me.  And you can tell me then what you think about going out with me.”

Steve’s mouth falls open again, but no words come out for a second.  He shakes his head until he manages something.  “Mr. Stark, come on, that’s–”

“Only fair,” Stark finishes instead, popping the tip of the pen on the bottom of the order right at the end of his scrawled signature.  “I mean, I’m a lot to take in, I’ll grant you that.  And while I rush headfirst into stuff, I’m guessing you don’t.  So you can have time, sweet cheeks.  All the time you need.  Plus if you fix my boat, that’ll get the pesky business transaction thing out of the way, and we can talk about the things that really matter.  Like you and me having a good time together, and me buying you fancy stuff and way, way nicer clothes, and you smiling for a change.”  Stark taps the end of the pen very boldly on Steve’s nose before dropping it with a clatter to the counter.  Then he flashes another million-watt smile.  “Call me.”

Then he’s leaving.  Steve doesn’t walk him out.  He’s too shocked, standing there like a stupid statue and staring at the work order, at the name written at the bottom in sharp, angular, very stylized script.  Tony Stark.  Next to it, there are his own smudged fingerprints, like dirt juxtaposed with money.

That has him grabbing the contact and following Stark.  The man’s already out the door and crossing the marina, and Steve is going to catch him, rip up the work order in front of him and tell him to find someone else, to never come back, but the second Steve crosses the door’s threshold and the sun blasts his eyes, he stops.  Stark is already in the parking lot.  There’s a very expensive Audi there, gleaming in the light, as sleek and imposing as Stark himself.  He’s getting into the driver’s side, but he spots Steve and offers a small wave.  How the hell did the car get here if he came by his boat?  Then Steve spots another car, a black SUV that’s imposing and screaming “back off” just to the rear of the lot.  Security.  Because he’s Tony Stark.

And Tony Stark smiles at him.  His sunglasses are back on, but Steve can picture the look in his eyes already.  Smart and suave and charming and eccentric and so powerful.

And interested.  In him.

“Steve?”

Steve turns.  Thor’s there.  His expression is quizzical, blue eyes narrowed in confusion.  He’s wiping grease from his hands on a rag as he comes to stand at Steve’s side.  “Is everything alright?”  Steve’s so addled that he doesn’t answer for a second, returning his gaze to the lot.  The Audi is already pulling away, the SUV following. Thor shakes his head, watching as well.  “Who was that?  Aside from someone disgustingly rich.  Reminds me far too much of my father.  And my brother.  And all of my godforsaken family.”

The car is a bolt of red as it shoots down the road far too fast, the engine roaring as it accelerates.  In a second, both the vehicles are gone.  The tense knot of excitement and worry doesn’t let go of Steve’s belly, though, not even as he sighs and looks down at the work order, tracing Stark’s signature with his eyes.  Stark didn’t even get the carbon copy of what he signed.  Steve shakes his head.  “A new client.”

“Truly?” Thor asks, incredulous.

Steve doesn’t answer as he turns and heads back into the office.  He sets the work order to the dirty counter, feeling like he’s standing on the edge of some great precipice.  It’s not the first time he’s felt this way, not even close, and it’s never a good sensation, to have this hint in your head that something monumental is about to happen, to change, if you make just one choice.

Then he signs the work order to indicate he’s received it and sets it to the top of his active pile.

Chapter Text

The old pickup truck rumbles and putters down the road toward the Seaside Manor apartments.  The sky blue and silver 1982 Ford is grumbling more than usual as it pulls into the grass parking area.  Steve sighs, grabbing the gearshift and putting the vehicle into park.  He’s been putting off devoting some time to taking a look at the faltering engine.  There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Yet he sits there for a minute, just sits and stares and lets himself be tired.  He didn’t really feel the fatigue until he left the marina after finishing up the engine he was working on and saying goodnight to Thor.  The second he got into his truck, it hit, and it hit hard.  With it came this sense of dread, like a rock in the pit of his stomach.  He’s trying really hard to ignore it, and he was doing okay (the whole weirdness with that Stark guy actually proved to be a pretty good distraction on the drive) until he stopped here, right in front of home.  Not that he’s ever thought of this place as home.  Not completely.  It’s just a bunch of single unit buildings, each one a separate apartment with one or two bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom, and a kitchenette.  They’re all in fairly decent shape; no air conditioning but clean enough with only moderately peeling paint and a small army of bugs.  It’s pretty sad that he’s been living here for five years, and this is still all he can afford.

The best I can do.  He sighs, gripping the steering wheel, and watches shadows dancing in the main window of the slightly larger unit down the way.  He knows who they are without even having to think.  There’s a bigger one, slender and very obviously feminine with the way its hips are wiggling fast to the muffled music.  The second one almost seems as tall as the first, but only because it’s dancing on a table.  They’re both making like they’re belting lyrics into fake microphones, and they’re singing pretty loud.  He can hear that even in his truck.  He smiles despite how worried and exhausted he is.  “Single Ladies”.  The two of them love pretending to be Beyoncé.

“You plan on comin’ in or just sittin’ out here and broodin’ all night?”

Steve jerks in surprise and twists to see Bucky standing by his open driver’s window.  His best friend is watching him with a knowing look in his gray eyes.  Bucky’s always been able to read him like that.  They’ve been together ever since they were kids, loud, rambunctious, and dirty as they ran around the streets of Brooklyn.  Bucky took care of him back then; Steve was something of a late bloomer in terms of size and stature.  He was a quiet, overly serious kid, so other kids tended to pick on him.  Bucky stood between him and the bullies and jerks, a stalwart protector throughout their childhoods.  When Bucky decided after high school that he wanted to enlist in the army, Steve of course went with him.  He wasn’t about to let his best friend face something like that alone.  Wherever they went, they went together.

At least until Steve met Peggy.  That was toward the end of their enlistment, after they both served in Iraq with distinction.  Steve didn’t re-enlist (much to the chagrin of the Army; they were basically offering him field promotions to becoming an officer to keep him, but he was in love, and nothing seemed more important than that), but Bucky did.  And Bucky was okay with that, with going back to Iraq to serve by himself, because he’d give anything to see Steve happy.

Only Steve ended up alone, and Bucky ended up without his left arm, and they spent three years apart.  Steve was struggling with his newfound situation, and Bucky went through some rather dark and difficult times after being so gravely wounded.  His convoy was ambushed and utterly destroyed outside Kandahar.  Despite his injuries, he was lucky; the rest of his unit was slaughtered.  After returning to the States, he was honorably discharged, but a disabled war vet didn’t just get back up on his feet after going through trauma like that.  Steve still felt like crap that all this – Bucky’s fall into depression and suffering with PTSD and struggling with alcohol and really having a hell of a miserable time post coming home – occurred without him there, without him even knowing.  Steve left New York so quickly after what happened with Peggy, and Bucky spent six months recovering in an army hospital.  They didn’t have any way to communicate.  It wasn’t until Bucky’s sister tracked Steve down and emailed him about Bucky’s mother passing away that they reconnected.  Steve returned to Brooklyn for the funeral, had to really considering Mrs. Barnes was another mother to him when he was a kid, and found his friend very changed, okay but visibly wearing far more scars than simply his missing arm.  More a stranger than anything.

And Steve was a stranger to him too, with everything that changed in his life.  Still, they quickly fell back into their old friendship, and there wasn’t much question about Bucky coming back to Florida with him.  He didn’t have anything tying him to New York, not even the rest of his family.  Plus, as he put it, the place had too many dark memories, things he did that he wasn’t proud of during his lowest points, so moving south with Steve seemed like an opportunity to wipe his slate clean and start over.

That was two years ago.  Since then, since Bucky came back into his life and his heart (and not only his heart), the ex-soldier has been recovering so much.  The scars are still there of course; they will never heal completely.  But the shadows are mostly gone from his eyes, and smiles come much more easily, and he’s back to the charming, confident, compassionate jerk he was when they were growing up, toughened and darker around the edges but still a really good man and a good friend who watches over Steve like it’s his God-given duty.

Hence Bucky’s knowing smile.  “I got Chinese.”  He lifts a brown paper bag in his right hand.  Then he grins teasingly.  “Not for you.  For us.  You’re gonna have to ask Nat real nice for some.”

Softly Steve grunts.  He turns off the truck with its grumbling engine and opens the door.  Then he gets out and just stands there.  The bugs are making a symphony of singing and chirping and calling, noise coming from all around the apartment complex, but the sound of Natasha vociferously singing along with the pop song rises above the evening cacophony.  Bucky grimaces when she misses a note.  “It’s a wonder she manages to rescue any birds with pipes like that.”

That makes Steve chuckle.  Natasha works for Seaside Seabird Sanctuary; it’s a really nice outfit, and they do a lot of good work rescuing local injured birds and wildfire as well as preserving ecosystems and educating the public.  “I doubt she sings to them, Buck.”

They start walking toward the apartments.  “How come you’re so late?” Bucky asks.

Steve grimaces inwardly, hoping his friend doesn’t pick up on it.  “New client.”  He’s not about to talk about Stark.  It’s still bothering him, the garbage Stark tried and said.  If he mentions the date Stark proposed to Bucky, he’ll never hear the end of it.  “Took a while to get things settled.”

If Bucky notices there’s something he’s not saying, he doesn’t question further.  They reach the door to the apartment, and Steve automatically opens it for them.  Bucky’s never been too interested in wearing a prosthesis for his missing arm, instead just knotting up the sleeves of his shirts where the limb should be.  It hinders him some, but there’s something about the idea of going through with being fitted with a synthetic limb that’s holding him back.  Steve suspects it’s the terror of doing it and what it means.  Bucky doesn’t work; he’s living off disability and from Natasha’s (and Steve’s own) income.  It’s not that he doesn’t want to, but this is still something he hasn’t conquered through therapy and his sessions at the VA.  He volunteers, and he helps Steve a ton (more than Steve can ever repay), but actually getting back out there and trying to rejoin society as a “functioning” member…  He seems to think he can’t do it, so he doesn’t try.  All he ever wanted to be was a soldier, and he can’t be that anymore, which Steve thinks is bullshit, because Bucky’s smart and strong and more capable than he knows.  He can do anything if he wants to.

The second they step inside the apartment, the music gets significantly louder.  Steve and Bucky stand at the entrance and watch Natasha dance and sing her way around the living room.  Then she notices them and reaches over to tap at her iPod and shut off the song.  She stands with her hands on her trim hips, panting a bit and mock glaring at them for interrupting the concert.  Natasha’s gorgeous, no doubt about it.  Fiery red hair’s gathered into a loose braid, wispy tendrils hugging her sweaty face.  She’s small, lithe, and petite, with a body that looks like a cross between a ballerina’s and an assassin’s.  She’s also very flirty and fun, but there’s this almost deadly grace to her (back to that assassin thing).  Like Bucky, Steve doesn’t know her whole story.  He thinks there must be something there, a darker past she’s ashamed of, but she’s never mentioned it, let alone explained it.  She’s from Russia; that much is obvious, but she speaks with perfect English, and she seems to have no interest in going back, not to her country of origin or to whatever life she led before.

She smiles now.  “He’s back with dinner,” she says breathlessly.  Then she winks at Steve.  “And with someone else.”

Her dancing partner is revealed as she jumps down from the table.  “Steve!” Maggie cries, and she flings herself across the way toward Steve.  Steve catches her, and the second he does, everything bothering him just melts away.  Maggie’s always had that effect on him, since the moment she was born.  Holding her soothes him, feels so right, and he’s so stupidly off-kilter right now that he takes a moment to just do that, to feel right as he hugs her five year-old body tightly to his chest.

Of course, she’s too big for this now.  She’s also far too independent, and she’s not as into snuggling as she used to be.  So she squirms to get down, and he sets her back to her feet just in time for her to sock him in the thigh.  “You’re late.”  She stares up at him with huge brown eyes and mussed brown hair that’s always tangled up and knotted because she refuses to brush it.  Her pink lips are curled in a smirk, and that expression is so familiar.  She looks so much like Peggy, more and more every day.  Those smart brown eyes and that thick hair.  The shape of her chin and the angle of her pert nose.  Sometimes Peggy is all Steve sees when he looks at her, and it breaks his heart just a little, that Maggie is all he has left.

Then he feels like the most ungrateful person alive for even thinking that.  He always does when that melancholic thought (still, so many years later) creeps into his head.  He’s so incredibly lucky to have that piece, and Maggie is far, far more than a memory of her mother.  She’s her own person, an amazing person, and Steve marvels at that more and more every day.

Right now she’s making a show of pouting.  “You promised you weren’t gonna work late tonight.  It’s a school night, you said.”

“I did say that.  And I didn’t work late,” Steve replies, shaking his head at her.  “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Barely,” she says, pushing him away a little.  She has so much fire, so much spunk.  That she definitely got from her mother.  “It’s already seven.”

“Ah, cut him some slack, cupcake,” Bucky says, bringing the bag in and setting it to the dinette table.  “He was picking up a new job.”

Natasha blows out a breath to brush away the hair stuck to her brow with sweat.  She comes over, and her eyes meet Steve’s again, and he can see the things she wants to say.  They’re the same things she’s been saying, that she always wants to say nowadays with school starting tomorrow.  She doesn’t go there, though, and instead goes to unpack their dinner from the bag.  “A rich client, I hope?”  She quirks a grin.

There’s no way she can know, but Natasha’s been like this since Steve met her.  She has this almost preternatural sense of perception, like she can read people’s secrets by simply looking at their faces, and Steve would find that unnerving if she wasn’t so good with Maggie and Bucky.  He tries to seem nonchalant as he nudges Maggie toward the table.  “Don’t know.  He was weird, I can tell you that much.”

Maggie looks up at him, wondering.  “Weird how?”

“Just weird,” Steve answers.  He gets plates from Bucky and Natasha’s cabinets and spreads them on the table.  Then he’s scooping some fried rice onto Maggie’s plate.  “Not from around here.”

She shakes her head, digging into the rice enthusiastically.  “That doesn’t make him weird.”

Steve supposes that’s true.  It’s amazing to him how bright Maggie is sometimes.  Peggy was always so sharp, so intuitive and understanding, but Maggie is more so for a child of her tender age.  She’s always been that way, even as a baby and a toddler.  She talked early, potty-trained easily, was reading by the time other kids are just learning their letters.  Steve watches her a moment, studying this creature that grows and changes daily yet one he knows by heart.  Not for the first time, he feels separated from her.  Out of his depth.  That’s not all that different than how Peggy made him feel.  “I guess not,” he agrees, pouring rice onto his own plate.

They settle down to eat.  Bucky’s talking about what he and Maggie did that afternoon while Steve was at the marina, and Natasha’s going on about a bird she helped rescue.  It sounds about par for the course.  They don’t mention what a big day tomorrow is.  It’s like this unspoken agreement between the adults.  Natasha isn’t the only one dreading it.  Bucky’s been worried, though he’s been hiding it behind nonchalance.  Steve’s been terrified.  So no one’s discussing it.

Despite the attempt to avoid more anxiety, it’s there all the same, looming in the room like the proverbial one-ton gorilla.  Bucky’s loud as he talks about nothing and everything.  He can always be counted on to carry on a conversation, to distract and fill the void like he’s doing now, like he always did when they were kids.  Steve can’t focus on anything he’s saying, though.  He’s been checked out, watching Maggie work through a second helping of rice and noodles.  His mind’s oddly blank as he does, which is weird because there’s a lot of stuff to think about.  Tomorrow’s been coming for months, this huge moment that’s threatening to change everything, and it feels monumental, getting closer and closer, at first impossibly far away but now directly in front of them.  He should be running over it again, making damn sure…

But he’s not.  And he’s not even ruminating on how obnoxious and presumptuous Stark was earlier.  It’s strange, but he can’t stop thinking about Stark’s eyes.  He’s always had close to an eidetic memory, which has its advantages as an artist, and right now that’s really irritating because he can’t get the look of them out of his head.  There’s something so familiar about them, and not because Steve knows now that he’s seen them in magazines and on TV before.  That deep intelligence, sparkling and beautiful.  Something Steve himself knows he doesn’t have and couldn’t understand.  People call Stark a genius.  Brilliant.  Rare.  Maybe that explains why he was so eccentric and entitled and strange and difficult.  Steve’s thought before about what being a prodigy may mean, about how different a person like that may be.  It’s this constant whisper in the back of his head, louder now as he pictures Stark’s face and eyes.  As he loses himself in them, studying them, memorizing them anew, drawing them in his mind alight with laughter and flighty with nervousness and dark with anger and deep with affection and hazy with thought.  Yet despite all those shifting emotions, those moods that changed their course as randomly and willfully as the wind, that intelligence is never gone.

“You sure are out of it tonight, even more than normal.”

Steve jerks, snapping from his reverie.  He forces himself to focus and turns to find Bucky’s the only one there now.  His friend’s leaning back from the remains of their dinner, beer bottle in his good hand, which is resting on his knee where he’s got his legs crossed.  He tips the neck of the bottle toward Steve.  “And are you planning on eating anything?”

Steve looks down and sees his dinner is mostly untouched.  Maggie and Natasha are back in the living room, cleaning up her toys (though it sounds like they are playing more than picking up).  Natasha’s iPod is playing more music, though far quieter.  Steve doesn’t really remember them finishing and leaving the table.  He really is out of it.  “Sorry,” he mutters, digging into his Kung Pao chicken.

For a moment, he just eats intently.  He can feel Bucky staring at him.  It’s that same stare Bucky’s always had, an infuriatingly calm scrutiny that feels like he can peer straight into Steve’s head.  It drives Steve as crazy now as it did when they were kids.  “You gonna tell me what’s botherin’ you?” Bucky finally asks when the silence slides from tense and awkward to unbearable.

Steve chews.  He’s managed to shovel most of his dinner into his mouth without really tasting it.  “Nothing’s bothering me,” he replies evenly.

Bucky grunts.  He sets his bottle to the table with a quiet clank and grabs the entire container of lo mein.  He’s really agile with his chopsticks, handling the noodles like a pro even with one hand.  “Yeah, I call bullshit on that.  Like tomorrow’s just another day, right.”  Steve doesn’t answer.  From where he’s seated, he can see Maggie playing with Natasha.  Maggie’s a real tomboy in some sense.  She never wears anything pink, purple, or frilly (which is somewhat due to the fact that Steve can’t easily get that stuff secondhand).  She doesn’t really like dolls or horses.  She’s not into coloring, crafts, or playing tea party.  Her interests are far more mature, books and tech and the like, Legos and STEM activities, and she’s never once expressed much interest anything that could be construed as girly.  Part of it, Steve’s sure, is growing up without a mother.  He tries to be everything a little girl needs, but he’s not sure he can be that.  Also, though, it’s just not in her personality.  She’s very blunt, very rough and tumble, not the precocious little girl Steve imagines Peggy may have been.  Not that he knows.  The Peggy he loved wasn’t a demure little princess either, despite all her ladylike manners and decorum.

Regardless, Maggie always plays with things she wouldn’t normally when she’s with Natasha.  They’ve got the few Barbie dolls Steve did get her a while back, and they’ve concocted some grand saga that’s going on around the huge house Maggie built out of Legos.  Steve can hear them talking, but he can’t quite make out what they’re saying.  It’s not the normal drama of a five year-old’s imagination, that’s for sure.  It sounds more like a Shakespearean murder mystery.

“You know, she finished off that book you got her today,” Bucky says.  Steve turns back to find his friend watching him watch Maggie.  Bucky offers a small smile and a little shrug.  “Tore through it like quantum mechanics is the new Pete the Cat.

Steve doesn’t want to hear this exactly.  Not that he’s not immensely proud of Maggie, but it brings to bear the source of his current predicament.  “That’s why she needs school,” he says softly but firmly, spearing another hunk of chicken dripping in sauce and shoving it into his mouth.

Bucky chew and then answers with his mouth half full.  “I’m not sayin’ she doesn’t need school.  Just not sure this is the right school.”

Steve sets his fork down and leans back in his seat.  “Jesus, Buck, we’ve talked about this.”

“If you got the paperwork and legal stuff to get her registered for public school–”

“It’s not just that,” Steve says, although that’s part of it, if he’s honest with himself.  Public school is public school.  It’s their legally mandated responsibility to educate children.  Maybe enrollment standards aren’t lax per se, but he figures people are less likely to scrutinize things when they have to process so many kids every year.  Private school may be different.  Not that he knows, which brings him to the far bigger issues.  “There is no way in hell I can afford what the Shield Academy is charging.  Tuition alone is way more than I make in a year.”

“There are scholarships–”

“I can’t risk that, Buck!” Steve says quietly but firmly.  He stands up and takes his plate as well as Bucky’s plate and goes to the sink.  There he turns on the faucet, scraping the remains of their dinners into the garbage disposal.  It’s nice that their apartment has one.  His doesn’t.  He doesn’t have a lot of things.  “Look, going after money like that–”

“You think she wouldn’t get it?” Bucky asks, and there’s a bit of an accusatory tone there.

“No, I think she would.  That’s the problem.  And maybe that involves background checks or – or financial checks or social services or who the hell knows what!”  He turns on the disposal once he’s done rinsing the plates.  The grinding noise of it is loud and obnoxious, and he angrily switches it off before coming back to the table to get the other plates.  “It’s too dangerous.”

Bucky grabs his wrist.  His grip is tight and firm but not painful.  “They haven’t made a sound in five years, Steve.  I think if they were going to come for her, they would’ve by now.”

Steve winces.  Just thinking about it is damn frightening.  “I can’t risk it,” he says again.

“Those assholes didn’t give a damn about Maggie when she was born, right.”  Bucky’s eyes are piercing.  “Right?”

“I don’t know that they know.”

“Well, you tried to tell them, didn’t you?  You called and you called and you wrote and emailed and how is it your fault if they didn’t answer you?  Or even bother to listen to you?  You did the best you could, and then you did what you had to, period.”  Steve bites his lip and shook his head again.  He wants to argue, but Bucky is right, and he knows it.  Bucky finally lets him go, and Steve goes back to the sink, aching inside, and starts rinsing the other dishes more calmly.

It gets quiet, saving for Maggie and Natasha playing and the pop music and the noise of the water running and splashing.  Steve washes the plates, even though Bucky and Natasha also have a dishwasher.  It’s just a habit he can’t shake.  He can feel Bucky watching him again, that knowing gaze boring into the back of his head.  Finally, his best friend gets up and comes over with an armful of left-overs, which he sets onto the counter.  He grabs a towel on the rack beside the sink.  “Look, pal, I’ve told you a million times.  I’ve been telling you practically every day since Peggy died.  You did the right thing.  Peggy wanted you to have her.  She told you.”

Steve sighs.  Thinking about that never fails to make him feel simultaneously incredibly honored and so happy yet completely and utterly scared and unworthy.  “I know,” he murmurs, handing Bucky a clean plate.

Bucky sets it down on the counter before drying it with one hand.  “So even if they come knocking, which they won’t, they won’t be able to do anything.”

Steve side-eyes Bucky.  He wants to believe that.  Truly, he does, and maybe if the world were a kinder, fairer place, he would.  But he knows Peggy’s family.  He knows the level of cruel entitlement they and so many people like them have.  And he’s not sure, given the chance, that they wouldn’t try something.  Maybe Bucky is right and they wouldn’t care; they never cared about Peggy much when she was alive, at least not about her wishes and desires or even her emotional wellbeing.  But fear of this – of them coming into his life and causing trouble – has driven him in almost everything he’s done since Maggie was born.

He sets down another plate for Bucky to dry, breathing through his fears.  “Let’s just... try this school for a while, huh?  Okay?”  Bucky shakes his head disapprovingly.  “I get it, Buck.  I really do.  One night last week when I was putting her to bed, Maggie told me that even if they find a way to manipulate quasiparticles for quantum computation, vibrations from outside environment will make them degrade without an appropriate superconducting medium.”  Bucky blanches.  Steve feels at a loss all over again.  “I laid awake staring at the ceiling for hours.  I know.”

“Jeez, Stevie.”

“She’s smart.  She’s really smart.”  Steve finishes with the last plate and turns the water off.  “But she has to go to school.  She has to get out into the world.  She has no friends her own age.  She doesn’t know how to socialize or play with other kids.  She needs to be with people to learn that, and that’s why I think we have to start here.  Peggy wanted me to have her, right?  Because she didn’t want this privileged life for her.”

“And if she gets bored?  Or if they find out she’s way smarter than they can handle?”  Steve doesn’t want to think about that.  “Getting her an education that fits her level of intelligence is not just a privileged life, Steve.”  Steve gives Bucky a wan look.  “C’mon.  Wouldn’t you have killed to go to Parsons or CalArts or the Rhode Island School of Design or any Ivy League?”

“I didn’t go because I didn’t try,” Steve replies, “and someone wanted to be a soldier instead.”  That last part is a bit of a joke, and he nudges Bucky with brotherly affection.

Bucky’s not buying the excuse.  “You could have easily made it into the best art school in the country, but you could have never afforded it, and don’t tell me that didn’t factor into it.”

Steve can’t, because it’s true.  He grew up poor.  Well, not destitute, but poor enough.  His mother had always put food on the table, and she kept a roof over their heads, and Steve always had fairly nice clothes.  He had toys and things on his birthdays and Christmases.  There were treats and surprises now and then.  But his mother worked herself to the bone to provide all that.  She was a nurse and a single parent.  She raised him completely alone because his dad died when he was a baby.  She was at the hospital long hours, worked difficult double shifts for those presents and surprises, but she always came home with a smile and a hug and kiss and asking how Steve’s school day was.  She never once let on how hard it was.

And when she died, she left him nothing, not even their apartment in Brooklyn which she only paid rent on for seventeen years.  He didn’t – still doesn’t – resent her for that in the slightest; she gave him everything he really needed, and he knows that.  Still, it made college impossible.  He worked all through high school, worked hard in fact, and he had great grades.  His counselors and teachers thought he could have made it into any college for art, just as Bucky said, but even with scholarships, he couldn’t afford it.  For a while after high school graduation, he entertained the idea that he could work his way through.  It’d be slow going but he could try to save enough to manage some level of higher education.

But then Bucky enlisted.  Truth be told, Steve joining up wasn’t just out of loyalty, though that was a major part of it of course.  Another part of it stemmed from the simple truth that with Bucky gone, Steve had nothing.  No home.  No family.  He didn’t want to be alone, so going with his friend was the only true option.  And being in the service…  He found a new family.  Brothers and sisters in his unit, bonds forged through difficult and dangerous circumstances.  That life also brought him Peggy, which brought him Maggie in turn, so he doesn’t regret taking this path.  He could have stayed back in Brooklyn, taken all the art jobs he could find so he could save and maybe, just maybe, get into college, become the artist he always wanted to be…

He likes to think things happen for a reason.

“You know,” he finally says after a moment, his tone lighter and a bit of a smile on his face, “you could be overlooking something.  Both of you.”

Bucky finishes putting the last plate into the cabinet.  “Oh, yeah?  What’s that?”

“This could work out.”

Bucky turns to him in a bit of surprise, which Steve understands.  Even he’s somewhat shocked that he is the one offering optimism.  It’s not been his way, not recently, to blindly trust in things being okay just because they could be.  Then Bucky gives a little laugh and closes the cabinet.  “Ah, shit, Steve,” he says, shaking his head.  He looks over Steve’s shoulder, and Steve turns, following his gaze to Natasha and Maggie again.  They’re cleaning up more now, and Maggie’s kind of grouching about it, giving Natasha a little trouble.  Natasha brushes it off and moves her along.  “Maybe I’m just scared.”

Steve sighs.  “You think I’m not?”

“You always bury so much crap that it’s honestly hard to tell.”  Bucky says that matter-of-factly because it’s absolutely true.  “But I think my reasons are different, and they’re kinda selfish more than anything.  She goes off to school, and I just…”  He shrugs.  “…am here, I guess.”

Steve can appreciate that.  Ever since Bucky came back into his life, he’s been taking care of Maggie.  Maggie was hardly more than a toddler when Bucky started looking after her, so to her, he’s always been there.  She doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t around.  He and Natasha are Maggie’s secondary caregivers, no doubt about it.  So having her gone for six hours out of the day now, Monday through Friday, off to kindergarten…  It’s going to be a huge adjustment in more ways than one.

Steve gently clasps Bucky on his injured shoulder.  “It’ll be okay,” he swears.  “You have no idea how much I’ve needed everything you’ve done.  How much I’m still gonna need it.”

Bucky snaps out of his solemn reverie.  “No, I do,” he says with a smile.  “You’d be hopeless without me, Rogers.  Always have been.”  Steve’s not going to argue with that.  It’s probably true.  Bucky sighs, watching as Natasha finally gets Maggie cleaning up in earnest.  “Guess I gotta find somethin’ else to do with myself.”

“Guess so.”  Steve’s not going to offer the same stuff he always says, that Bucky can do anything he wants, that he just has to try, that nothing, not even his missing arm, is holding him back.  He’s said it all before, and he knows Bucky knows it all anyway.  It’d just be nagging, so he finishes cleaning up instead, taking the leftover Chinese food and closing the containers before putting them into the fridge.

Bucky stands near the sink a bit longer before letting out a long, deep breath.  “Been meanin’ to ask you somethin’ for a while.  Been thinkin’ about it for a while, but with all this happenin’, maybe now’s the best time to do it.”

Steve turns away from cleaning to appraise his friend.  “What’s that?”

Bucky actually looks nervous.  Bashful.  That’s a look Steve hasn’t seen on him since high school.  “What do you think about me askin’ Nat to marry me?”

Steve just stops.  “What?”

Now Bucky flushes even more.  He steps closer and lowers his voice.  “You know, puttin’ a ring on it, like that stupid song they like so much.”  The flustered look in his eyes becomes more so.  “I got my mom’s ring, you know.  And I…  I really love her.”

Steve can’t help the huge smile that comes to his face.  “I know you do.”  Ever since Bucky and Natasha met shortly after Bucky moved in with him, he could tell.  Natasha’s been living in the complex ever since Steve got his place, though at first he never really took much notice of her even though they are neighbors.  He was too consumed with trying to care for a baby with practically no experience.  She came into his life before Bucky returned to it.  One night when Maggie was up crying and Steve was so exhausted and had basically no idea what to do, Natasha heard the racket (all of Florida probably heard the racket) and knocked on his door and summarily invited herself in.  She got the baby calm in no time flat.  Ever since then, she’s been a constant in their lives.  She was the one who watched Maggie when Steve went home to Brooklyn for Mrs. Barnes’ funeral.  And when Bucky joined them, it was pretty much love at first sight.

Steve doesn’t know much about Natasha’s past, but she did tell him shortly after her rescue during the all-night screaming incident that she can’t have kids.  Steve didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a huge deal, Natasha telling him that.  She’s fiercely private, underneath her many masks, flirty and fun and motherly and sometimes cold.  The fact that she trusted him enough with that part of her was the beginning of a deep friendship.  She could see right away that he was in over his head with a baby, and obviously being with Maggie was filling a void in her own life.  And Steve knows now that Natasha’s as in love with Bucky as he is with her.  She doesn’t show it much, but Steve’s caught glimpses of the quiet moments, when the two of them cuddle on the apartment’s patio and watch the stars like they’re not in the middle of a manufactured lot of cheap buildings, like this place is paradise.  When Bucky’s the only person in the world who can make Natasha smile on a bad day.  When Natasha soothes all of Bucky’s pain with just a touch.  They’ve gotten even closer when Bucky moved in with her last year, folding into each other perfectly, which has admittedly made Steve feel just a bit like a third wheel.  They’re both damaged but the dark things they’ve experienced, so they understand each other in a way that Steve can’t.

But Steve’s just fine with that, just like he’s completely, absolutely, one hundred percent fine with his one best friend marrying his other best friend.  “I think it’s great, Buck,” he says.

Bucky’s eyes light with hope.  It’d be kind of comical, if the moment wasn’t so monumental.  “Yeah?”

Steve smiles genuinely.  “Of course.  You both deserve a win.”  Bucky actually blushes.  That’s a rare occurrence.  “And she’s perfect for you.  Best there is.”

Bucky grins, too.  “Well, to be honest, that wasn’t why I was asking.  Would never think of marryin’ anyone you don’t like.”  That’s touching, but Steve doesn’t like the worry in Bucky’s eyes.  “It’s just…  You know, the last few years, it’s been the three of us: you, me, and Nat.  Well, and Maggie.  This would change all that.”  He sighs, deflating a bit.  “Although I guess things are already changin’.”

They are.  And this would be huge, too.  Steve wants to ask if Bucky means they’ll move away, or not be around as much, but he can’t bear to think about that.  And he’s not that mean, to let on that Bucky’s right to be concerned.  “I’m fine,” he hears himself assure.  “You don’t have to worry about me.”

“Yeah, that’s never going to happen,” Bucky says with a fond grunt.  Steve smiles, but some of his concern must be bleeding through.  Bucky grabs him and pulls him into a hug.  It’s amazing to Steve that Bucky’s hugs can still feel so huge and powerful and safe as they always did.  “I’m always gonna be there for you, punk.  You know that?  Leaving you and that cupcake ain’t an option for me.  Or for Nat.”

Steve wraps his arms around Bucky.  “I know that.”  He was dumb to worry about that for even a second.  Even if things did change, it wouldn’t mean Natasha and Bucky would be out of their lives.  Of course not.  “I do.”

Bucky pulls back.  He smiles more, and Steve can tell he’s relieved and incredibly excited.  He wipes at his eyes a little.  “Be easier if I knew you had someone else to look after you.”  Steve rolls his eyes and shoves Bucky away further.  “What?  Come on.”

“Apparently we’ve reached where every conversation invariably ends up,” Steve mutters, getting a wet cloth to wipe down the dinette table.  “And let’s just cut to the finale, okay?  I don’t need someone else to look after me.  I’m fine.”

“Steve, it’s been five years.  When Peggy told you to take the baby, I don’t think she meant never move on and live a lifetime of grief-stricken solitude.”

Steve sighs.  He really hates this.  More and more this last year or so, as Bucky’s gotten onto much stronger footing with his PTSD and disability, he’s really gone back to his mother-hen tendencies.  Which is annoying and kind of weird, because he really doesn’t do it over Maggie, the one of the pair of them who’s a child and therefore more in need of a mother-hen.  No, he’s gone right back to smothering Steve with his worries.  “I am not grief-stricken,” Steve argues, though he knows Bucky’s not convinced.  He’s not convinced himself.  He misses Peggy something fierce some days, and he knows he’s not great at hiding it.

“Well, mopey solitude then,” Bucky says.

“I’m not mopey.  And I’m not living in solitude, you ass,” Steve answers as he cleans.

Bucky doesn’t let him get away with that.  “You know what I mean.”

“I do know.  And I have Maggie.  That’s more than enough.  She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“Not arguing that.  But that doesn’t mean–”

“Bucky, I love you, but enough, okay?”  Steve turns after gathering the fallen rice and food tidbits on the edge of the table.  He wipes it into hand before tossing it all into the trash.  “I’m fine.  I’m gonna be fine.  Everything is good.  School’s gonna go great tomorrow.  And you marrying Nat is the best thing ever.  We were talking about that, weren’t we, not me.”  Bucky frowns deeper than the damn Grand Canyon.  Steve barrels on.  “You guys gonna have a ceremony?  And I assume you want Mags as the flower girl.”

Bucky smiles, but it’s tempered.  “She hasn’t said yes yet.”

“She will.”

“Steve–”

“And when she does, you’re gonna need a flower girl.”  He’s deflecting and not well.  He just wants Bucky to drop it.  He’s not ready to be with anyone else.  He’s not sure when he will be, if he’ll ever be.  He feels like he can hardly handle this some days.  Going back out there socially, dating again…  He never had much luck with that before Peggy.  He’s doesn’t even want to try now.  Grief-stricken, withdrawn, damaged…  Whatever.  He’s just not interested.

So he needs Bucky to back off.  “Right?  You know, if we can get a dress on her.”

Bucky appraises him a moment more, and his concern is so strong it practically seems tangible, this thing trying to pull Steve in.  But then he nods, and his worrying weakens.  “She doesn’t have to wear a dress.  Think I’d make that cupcake wear some kind of frilly, froo-froo whatever?”  Steve closes his eyes, relieved but not for that reason, and tosses the rag back to the sink.  “Nope.  Wouldn’t make my best man wear a tux, either.”

Now he turns and sees Bucky smiling at him.  Of course Bucky would ask him; there couldn’t be any other option, not after everything they’ve done together.  Bucky steps forward and grasps Steve’s shoulder again.  “I was just thinkin’, with Maggie goin’ to school and things changin’…  Sometimes you have to go on, you know?  Walk onto whatever comes next.  Stop trying to hang on so hard to what’s behind us.”

Steve’s not sure if Bucky’s saying that to him or himself.  Maybe it should be comforting, but it feels like an admonition more than anything, even if Bucky’s tone is nothing but soft and affectionate.  Before he can say anything, Bucky’s embracing him again, and he just sags into it this time, closing his eyes.

“There’s an awful lot of hugging going on over there.”

Natasha’s teasing call has the two of them pulling apart.  Steve looks over to see her standing at the entrance to the kitchen, her full lips quirked in a bit of a grin.  He wonders if she heard their debate before.  It doesn’t seem like it.  “Something you two want to talk about?”

Steve shares an uneasy look with Bucky.  “Nope.”

Natasha scrutinizes him in that piercing way she does.  “You’re a terrible liar, Rogers,” she says after a beat.  Then she turns to Bucky.  “You both are.”

Bucky puts on a sweet smile.  He comes over and puts his arm around Natasha’s trim waist before planting a huge kiss on her cheek.  “Yeah, but you love us.”

She rolls her eyes and pushes him back.  She’s trying to act cool and nonchalant, but Steve doesn’t miss the tiny smile and the genuine happiness in her eyes.  Then Maggie comes bounding over and ramming Bucky’s leg, wedging herself between the two adults.  “Can we watch UFC tonight?  Please?  Please?”  Making believe that they’re MMA experts and acting out the fights with plenty of sound effects and rough-housing and wrestling is one of Maggie’s favorite past times with Bucky.  Steve supposes he shouldn’t be surprised, given this child’s two principal caregivers are ex-military and Bucky was always something of a bruiser in their youth.

Maggie bats her huge, beautiful brown eyes at him.  “Please, Bucket?  Please?  Please?”

Bucky opens his mouth, but Steve beats him to the punch.  “Not tonight.  School night, right?”

That’s all it takes to having Maggie’s cheery mood plummet.  She scowls like a champion, eyes narrow and brows furrowed and body going tense.  It’s another expression that reminds Steve so much of Peggy, though it’s infinitely cuter on a five-year old.  “School’s already ruining my life.”

“The drama,” Steve declares.  “We need to get going.”

Maggie pouts more, but this isn’t a fight she can win.  She obstinately stands by Bucky a moment, looking like she’ll grab him and hang on for dear life should Steve try to force her to go.  She doesn’t have much choice though when Steve scoops her up and tosses her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.  She gives a token protest before succumbing.  “You’re mean, Steve.”

“So you keep telling me,” Steve says.  “Say goodnight to Bucket.”

“Night, Bucket.”

Bucky comes over and gives Maggie a kiss.  “Night, cupcake.  Come tell me how everything goes when you get home, huh?”

“And say goodnight to Nat.”

Maggie growls.  “Night, Nattie.”

Natasha doesn’t say anything, though she tickles Maggie’s exposed tummy.  Then Steve walks her over to the door before setting her back down on her feet and nudging her out of the apartment.  He’s holding the screen door open, watching Maggie run down the path toward their unit in the cool twilight, and saying, “Thanks for dinner, guys.”

Natasha snatches his arm.  She followed them to the door, which is kind of weird, and now she’s staring at him with deeply worried eyes.  This mask she’s been wearing all evening about tomorrow, the one she’s had in place ever since Steve mentioned months ago that Maggie needed school…  There’s so much fear in her face.  He’s never seen her afraid.  And obviously she did hear his discussion with Bucky.  “If anyone tries to take that baby from you,” she says quietly, “I’ll smother you in your sleep.”

A few seconds later, Steve’s following Maggie into their own yard, with her hand in his and her chattering away, but he’s not listening.  He should be terrified over the mere prospect of what’s got his friend so riled.  He’s not, though.  Once again, that’s just too terrible to think about, so instead he’s wondering if those rumors about Natasha being an ex-assassin are true and if she’ll make good on that threat.


The rest of the evening is really quiet.  Steve can tell Maggie’s more tired than she was letting on before.  She’s also nervous.  That’s about the only time she’s ever this silent and still and complacent.  She goes to get ready for bed without Steve having to nag her.  She even brushes her teeth sans reminder.  She’s climbing into her bed, which isn’t even in its own room – it’s a one bedroom apartment, and her bed is tucked into a nook beside the living area.  Steve feels guiltier and guiltier for this arrangement all the time, but it’s not right for her to sleep with him anymore (even though she still does climb in with him most nights.  He rarely wakes up when she does, so he just finds her in the morning, practically curled into his side or laying on his chest.  Truth be told, he’s too touched to break her of the habit, not yet anyway).

At any rate, she’s ready.  He wanders around the apartment for a bit, cleaning up a little from the morning (he didn’t get a chance to before leaving for the marina) and locking up and squashing the daily Palmetto bug that somehow snuck in.  They used to gross him out something fierce, but it’s just a fact of life down here, especially when you live in a place like this.  Then he turns off the lights and heads towards Maggie’s place.

And, yeah, it’s not a room by the strictest definition of the word, but they’ve made it hers.  She’s got shells from their many, many trips to the beach arranged the white paneling of the walls in ornate patterns.  Her stuffed animals are all over her white bed, which is secondhand but the bedding itself Steve got brand new.  Blue and white, Maggie’s favorite colors.  Toys cover the rug on the floor, and her books are strewn all over – so many books, some from the library and some from the book exchange at the community center and some Steve’s bought.  Not all of them are for kids her age.  He picks up a fallen physics textbook and sets it to the shelf above her bed before sitting on the side of it.  “How about I iron out some of those knots?”

Maggie frowns.  She’s already laying down and under her blankets.  She looks like she wants to turn away, but then she doesn’t, because she wants his comfort more and he can see that.  “You suck at hair.”

“Hey, language,” he chastises gently.  “I stink at it.”

That wins a smile.  He reaches over to the shelf to get one of the hairbrushes (he keeps buying them – how do they always get lost with just the two of them?) and waits until she sighs dramatically and comes with much flourish to sit cross-legged in front of him.  Then he starts carefully working the brush through her abundant brown hair.  She likes it long (only because she hates having it cut), so it gets tangled constantly.  Methodically he works out all the snarls, and it’s quiet for a bit.  “You know, I did this for your mom once.”

Maggie perks up a little at that.  “Yeah?”

“Yeah.  Right before she had you.”  He’s got the tangles loose, the wavy brown tresses smooth for once.  “Braided it, too.”

“You don’t know how to braid.”

Steve chuckles.  “Sure, I do.  Bucky has sisters, you know.  I grew up with them.”

Maggie turns and looks at him in surprise.  Apparently there are things Bucky hasn’t told her.  “He does?  How come they never come here then?”

That’s more complicated.  How do you explain to a five year old, even one as advanced as Maggie, that war changes you and sometimes it’s hard to go back?  “They don’t like the heat,” he finally says, and he doesn’t think that’s a total lie.  None of Bucky’s family care for warmer climates.

Maggie seems to buy that.  She turns away again, letting Steve return to brushing out her hair more.  It takes her a moment more to ask what she wants to.  “Can you braid my hair?  Like Mom’s.”

Such a request shouldn’t be so surprising, but it is.  They don’t talk about Peggy much.  Maggie knows the basics, of course.  Her mom died having her, and Steve ended up taking care of her.  She also knows Peggy was British, and that she and Steve were in love, and that Peggy was very important in England, very smart and well educated, a true lady.  She doesn’t know the whole story, though.  Truth be told, Steve doesn’t think anyone does except for him.  And that’s fine, because Maggie thinks the world of her mother even without the details.  She’s not outward about it, but Steve knows she does, and Steve wouldn’t have it any other way.  “You’d like that?” he asks. Maggie nods.  Steve runs his fingers through her hair a couple times, feeling a tender ache in his chest.  “Sure.”

He gets to it.  It’s been a while, so he ends up fumbling for a bit before muscle memory prevails.  Maggie doesn’t notice.  She’s quietly staring at Peggy’s picture, the one she keeps on the shelf above her bed.  It’s one of a few Steve has of her.  She’s utterly stunning in it, sunlight bathing her face and turning her dark brown hair almost gold-spun and her ivory skin shimmering and her deep eyes glowing.  Steve took it himself on the French Riviera, when they ran off together on his leave right after the whole Medal of Honor thing.  They were alone for three days with nothing but the ocean and wonderful food and each other.  It was one of the most wonderful times of Steve’s life.  He got this candid shot with his phone of her on the beach, and she was absolutely stunning in it.  She has this huge smile that lights up her entire face.  She’s open and unguarded, so different from the perfect image she always had to maintain, so far from the confining hell her life was.  She was blissful.

He wonders, and not for the first time, if one of the reasons he ended up here of all the distant places to which he could have fled is because of this moment.  Subconsciously, maybe, but driving nonetheless, to bring Peggy’s baby somewhere like the one place he ever saw her so completely free and happy.

“Do you think my mother would have wanted me to go to this school?”

That soft, innocent question pulls Steve from his thoughts.  He got so entangled in them that he messed up the French braid, so he starts again, gathering hair and crossing it.  He’s never been one to lie.  It never feels right.  “I can only guess.”  Maggie looks down, fidgeting a little and nearly messing up the braid, but Steve doesn’t say anything.  He just fixes it.  “I’ll tell you what, though.”

“What?”

“She’d want you to have friends.  She’d want you to have fun and play with other kids.”

Maggie shakes her head.  She’s picking at her pajamas.  “I’m not like other kids.”

Steve exhales slowly.  This has become an uncomfortable source of tension lately.  As Maggie has gotten older and just how incredibly smart and mature she is has grown increasingly apparent, the fact that she’s not normal has become undeniable.  The fact that she has no mother and that her closest friends in the world are adults aside, she’s not an average or “normal” kid.  Not that normal should mean anything.  Steve firmly thinks it shouldn’t.  “So what?  Just because you’re different or they’re different doesn’t mean you can’t understand each other.”

“They’re not going to be able to understand me.  They’re idiots.”

Steve finishes braiding the hair and grabs the ponytail holder that was by the brush on the shelf.  He knows what that’s from, this idea that Maggie has in her head that school is stupid and beneath her intelligence.  And maybe that latter part is true, but the former thing isn’t.  “Your mom would want you to have compassion too, like she did for everyone she met.”  Steve secures the braid and then slides his hand around Maggie’s chest.  “School’s about more than learning stuff you already know.”

Maggie’s quiet a bit longer.  She scooches back a bit, leaning into Steve’s chest.  She takes his hand, playing with his fingers the way she’s done since she was a baby.  It takes her a few quiet moments again to say what she wants.  “What if they don’t like me?”

The answer to that is obvious.  “Then they’re idiots.”  He can feel her little body relax, and he pats her belly.  “Go check out your hair.”

With renewed energy, she scampers off her bed and to the small bathroom.  Steve follows and finds her standing on her step stool, trying to turn her head to get a view of the back.  “I can’t see it.”

It’s a tight squeeze, but he pushes behind her where she stands at the vanity and takes the hand mirror.  That he holds up, so she can see it in the bigger mirror, and there her French braid is.  It’s not perfect, but it’s decent for a first try in however many years.  Maggie’s face just explodes in joy though, so now it’s the best job he could have done, and he feels his own heart swell in pride as she beams at the mirror.  “I look like Mom.”

She does.  It’s unbelievable just how much.  She turns and grins at Steve.  “Can you do this tomorrow, too?”

Steve offers a soft smile.  “Sure, Mags.”

She launches herself at him, and he barely gets her up into her arms in the cramped space.  Again, she’s probably a little too old for this now, but like sleeping with him he doesn’t feel much like disabusing her of it, so he hugs her close for a second, trying to calm his own riled heart, trying to bask in that rightness, before taking her back to her bed.  He sets her there before tucking her back in.  Then he kneels at the side.  “It’s gonna be great,” he promises, praying his voice sounds as level as he’s trying to make it.  “You’re gonna meet kids tomorrow that you can borrow money from for the rest of your life.”

“Like you and Bucket?”

Steve pulls her blanket up higher and tucks Fred, the ratty cat stuffed animal she’s had since forever, right up to her chest.  “Like me and Bucket.”  She grins.  “Now get some sleep.”

Maggie holds Fred tightly and then nods.  Steve stands and gets the lights in the living room.  The apartment goes dark.  As he’s heading toward his bedroom, he hears the call.  “Steve?”

He stops.  “Yeah?”

“Can we get a real cat?”

That makes him smile, even though it’s the same question he’s been asked about a thousand times over the last few months.  “Nope.”

It’s quiet after that.  Steve leaves his bedroom door open a crack like he always does and stands there like he does too, listening for a couple moments to see if Maggie gets up or calls for him more.  She doesn’t.  Then he breathes that parent’s sigh of relief once their kids are down after another day and goes to get himself ready for bed.  He strips off his dirty clothes and pulls on a pair of cotton pajama pants.  The bathroom is closer to his bedroom, so he can typically sneak in there without getting close to Maggie’s space and therefore disturbing her.  He does to brush his teeth and wash his hands and face.  He catches his reflection in the mirror and looks at himself this time.  He’s vastly different than what he was with Peggy, far from the clean cut soldier with the neatly combed hair and clean-shaven jaw and confidence to his smile.  His dirty blond hair always needs a cut nowadays, and he should trim up his beard.  There’s a weight to his eyes that wasn’t there before.  Grief-stricken.  Damaged.  He looks the part.

Sighing, he shuts the light off and silently creeps back to his room.  He climbs into his own messy bed with its lumpy mattress that he hates but can’t afford to replace and tries to relax, but he finds himself staring at the ceiling, at the fan slowly spinning.  Tomorrow is huge, and he’s still terrified.  This is crazy, dangerous, and he’s probably making a mistake.  After spending Maggie’s entire life hiding her, he’s sending her to public school?  With complete strangers?  He’s stupidly insane.  “Peggy, tell me what to do here,” he whispers at the shadows.

There’s no answer.  Of course there can’t be.  There never is.  It’s dumb to think there could be, but he does every time he asks.  That feeling’s back, the one where he knows he’s walking the edge of a precipice, and one choice, one decision, could send him falling, plummeting, changing everything.

God, he misses her.

He forces himself to close his eyes, to stop thinking so much, to clear his mind and let sleep come.  It does at a glacial pace, crawling nearer and over him so slowly.  As it does, he finds himself thinking of that scene on the beach.  He’s picturing beautiful brown eyes alight with joy and love.  Eyes filled with strength and determination.  Eyes teeming with sharp, sharp intelligence.

That’s a strange thing, though.  Still so strange.  A realization forms in his hazy mind, but he’s too close to sleep to really think on the fact that the eyes he’s imagining…  They’re not Peggy’s.

They’re Tony Stark’s.

Chapter Text

Getting Maggie off to school is harder than he thought it would be.

Despite all the mental and physical preparation he went through for the moment, Steve’s still not ready.  He thinks he hides it pretty well though, as Maggie grumbles and grouches through her morning routine.  Her new morning routine.  It’s a chore to get her out of bed, a challenge to coax her through brushing her teeth and washing her face, and even more of a struggle to get her dressed.  Steve bought her a new dress, a red one with flowers on it and a white, scalloped collar, to make a good first impression.  He knew it was a long shot when he got it; convincing Maggie to dress nicely is never easy, just like Bucky said last night about the flower girl situation.  This time is no exception.  Steve stands outside his bedroom door, knocking and calling through it to where Maggie’s supposed to be putting her clothes on.  All their clothes are arranged in the one closet of his room, and he laid the dress out on the bed and said nothing about it, hoping this will be a battle he can just win by not fighting, but at this point…  The clock is ticking down for the bus to get there.  “Mags, come on,” he says, knocking again.  “We’re running out of time.”

“I look stupid!” comes the shout through door.  “Not going!”

Steve sighs, checking his watch for the umpteenth time that morning.  “Come on, please.”  Begging never works.  Bribery tends to be a better approach, but Steve’s too addled to figure out what he can use as an incentive.  “I made you an Irish breakfast!”

There’s more rustling.  “You can’t cook.”

“Can so.  My mom was Irish, so I know how to make a good Irish breakfast.”

“I don’t want to eat!”

“Gotta eat a decent breakfast.  It’s the one and only prerequisite for the first day of kindergarten.”

“Don’t care!  I’m not going!”

“Come on, Maggie,” he calls again more firmly.  Frustration is combining with nerves, and he’s antsy, more than he can remember feeling in quite some time.  He’s tempted to tell Maggie why she has to go, why school is so important, but they’ve discussed it so much, last night included.  Ad nauseum.  That was one of Peggy’s favorite sayings.  Steve was never really exposed to it before he met her.  It’s not a very common saying, at least not in his world.  Just thinking it…  He can practically hear her voice, that tone she always got when she was curtly but politely reminding others that a topic was closed for discussion.  “Enough now.  Come out and let me see.”

For a second, it’s quiet, and he thinks she’s still going to fight him on this like she has everything else that morning.  But then the door opens slowly, and there Maggie is, dressed in the red dress with her white socks and dirty, old sneakers on and hair all mussed.  Her face is fixed in an incredible scowl.  Despite that, Steve’s just taken aback at how she’s grown.  At how perfect she is and always will be.  “You look beautiful,” he says.

She rolls those big brown eyes and stalks away.  “I look stupid,” she growls again, stalking toward the kitchen.

“Hey,” he calls after her.  “Forgetting something?”

She stops in her tracks and dramatically twirls to glare at him.  He just stares back with a bit of a smile that he manages even with how unsettled he’s feeling, and she catches on after a moment, feeling at the tangled mess of her hair that’s now loose from last night’s braid.  “Ugh!  Just do it.”  Then she stomps back toward him and into the bathroom.

Steve follows with a heavy sigh.  Maggie just stands on her stool as he quickly brushes and braids her hair again.  It’s easier this time, and he manages to get it tighter and smoother than before.  She spends the time scowling into the mirror, and Steve’s tempted to make some kind of comment about how her face will get stuck that way if she keeps frowning so hard, but he can’t make the words come.  He can’t think about what this morning means or even begin to acknowledge the fresh storm of doubt and insecurity just begging for his attention.  He can’t do anything other than go forward.  So he finishes, securing the braid with the same ponytail holder.  Then he smiles.  “Now you look perfect.”

Maggie finally meets his gaze.  He can see she’s just as nervous as he feels, and he doesn’t want that.  Sure, there’s a lot rolled up into this moment, but for Maggie?  It’s just her first day of school.  All these other concerns and questions and fears don’t apply, and all she has to think about is having a great first day with the other kids and her new teacher.  He reaches around her to straighten her dress and then lifts her before setting her to the floor.  “Okay?”

She takes a moment before she nods, and together they go out to the kitchenette.  Steve has her sit at the table where her cereal’s waiting, and he goes about finishing her lunch.  As he makes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for her (cutting off the crusts, just the way she prefers) and gets it into a plastic baggy, he glances at her to make sure she’s eating.  She is, and her scowl’s not as fierce as before.  She’s spooning the cereal in her mouth and looking at one of her math books, but he can tell she’s not really reading.  Finally, after a bunch of quiet minutes, she asks, “Where’s the Irish part?”

“Huh?”

She turns.  “You said you made me an Irish breakfast.”

He stuffs the sandwich, a bag of sliced bananas, and a Rice Krispie treat into her lunchbox before reaching over and turning the box of cereal beside her bowl around more so she can see it.  She rolls her eyes again, this time at the Lucky Charms logo.  “Lame.”

“They’re magically delicious,” he quips while filling her water bottle from the Brita pitcher in the fridge.  He glances over his shoulder at her again and finds her begrudgingly shoveling in another spoonful, and he can’t resist teasing her more, throwing everything in a really bad impersonation of an Irish accent.  “And built-in good luck for a first day, too!”

“You’re such a dork,” she grumbles, but the comment wins him a little smile, and that makes it worth it.  She eats more for a moment while Steve finishes with her backpack, but when he turns back again, she’s got her chin on her hand and her elbow on the table, and she’s playing with her meal, dipping the spoon in the milk and letting the marshmallows and cereal slip back into the bowl.  Finally she makes one last attempt.  “Please don’t make me go.”

Steve sighs.  “Mags–”

She’s putting on those puppy dog eyes of hers, the ones she always wields against him when she really wants something.  “Can’t you homeschool me or something?”

He’s not going to be dissuaded, no matter how thickly she lays it on.  He quickly puts away the bread and the peanut butter.  “I’m not smart enough, Mags.”

“Sure, you are,” she argues.  “You know all kinds of things.”

“Not the kinds of things you need to know.”  He sets the jar of jelly back into the fridge.  “And definitely not the things you want to learn.  Finish up your cereal.”  He wipes his hands and glances at his watch yet again.  “Bus will be here in ten minutes.”

Please,” she whines.

Steve brings her backpack over.  “We’re not talking about this again.”  His tone is as certain as he can make it, which is surprisingly strong to his ears.  He figures that’s because this has to be the right course, and deep down he really does know it.  His mom always told him to trust his instincts, and when it really comes down to it, he knows Maggie needs to have a normal life, not one bound by money or power or prestige and privilege.  She needs friends and Girl Scouts and birthday parties and playdates.  She needs to learn how to be a kid.

And she’s too smart not to have the opportunities an education can provide.  “Okay?”  He crouches beside her and brushes a wisp of brown hair back from her eyes where it’s already come free of the braid.  “It’s gonna be great, and you’re gonna do fine, and everything’s good.”

She hums and haws a moment more, and that anxiety rears its ugly head, this time with wet eyes and a trembling lower lip rather than pouting or losing her temper.  Steve cups her little face.  “Hey.  We’re still in this together, right?  Don’t I keep promising you that?  You and me are in everything together.”  She nods slightly.  “So if you start crying, I’m gonna have to pretend to start crying.”  That gets another little smile, and Steve leans forward to hug her tight.  “It’ll be okay, Maggie.  I promise you.”

Against his shoulder, Maggie nods.  “Okay.”

He rubs her back a moment more for comfort before pulling back.  Then he catches sight of the kitchen clock and checks his watch and then the clock again.  “Alright, it’s time.”

A few moments later, they’re crossing the apartment complex toward the bus stop.  This is one of a few because the complex is pretty big, but Maggie’s the only kid standing at the road.  That simultaneously makes Steve more nervous and somewhat relieved, worried that he’s screwed up the place or the time or – God forbid – the day but happy not to have to talk to any parents.  The day is bright but very warm and humid even this early, and Maggie’s standing really stiffly, backpack on tight and not looking around.  Steve’s just as tense, squinting into the morning sun.  The two of them are silent as they wait.

Just as Steve’s about to go back into their place to double-check the time on the letter he got, the school bus rumbles down the way.  Steve takes a deep breath, trying not to feel like this is a big, yellow symbol of doom.  “Here we are,” he says evenly, and Maggie looks up at him with a huge frown.  “You got this.”  The bus slows and squeaks to a stop right in front of them, and the doors open, and now it’s time.  Maggie gives him yet another desperate glance, a final plea, but he gently nudges her forward.  “It’ll be great,” he promises yet again.  He knows he’s being a pathetic broken record, so he takes a deep breath as she climbs up the steps into the bus.  “I don’t know.  Just… try to have fun.”

She gives him one more glower before the driver shakes her head, smiles, and closes the doors.  The bus’s hydraulics hiss, and then off it goes.

Steve stands there for a little while longer, watching the bus turn at the end of the street and staring after it even when it’s long gone.  His heart’s heavy and his brain’s numb aside from a constant stream of silent prayers.  Please let this be okay.  Please let it go well.  And please, please, please let her have a good day.

He feels like he’s been standing there a long time before he comes to his senses.  Then he finally lets go of that deep breath, dropping his hands from his hips and heading back to his apartment.  He passes Bucky and Natasha’s place, and he spots Natasha in the kitchen window.  Obviously she watched the entire thing like a hawk, and now she’s staring at him with a mixture of terror and anger because he actually did it.  Steve’s not ready to deal with that, feeling worried and guilty enough for the both of them, so he scurries a bit too much like a dog with its tail between its legs to his own apartment to get ready for work.


The marina’s very quiet, which is nice because Steve doesn’t want to deal with anyone.  He manages to get there and slip in without Thor even seeing him (which isn’t that much of a feat – Thor is rarely there before him).  He grabs his tools, collects his work orders, and gets to it, eager to bury himself in a good distraction so he doesn’t have to think too much about Maggie or anything else.  It’s a little after nine o’clock.  School ends at three, and the bus will be back to drop Maggie off at 3:30, so he has about six hours to work.  He can get a lot done in six hours.

But then, as he’s walking out of the mechanic’s office, he glances down at the workload.  Stark’s boat is on top.  Because he put it on top yesterday.  He stops just a few steps from the office, pushing his sunglasses up higher on the bridge of his nose before tipping his head back and staring up at the blue sky.  Shit.  He doesn’t want to deal with this, either.  He pretty much forgot about the whole weird thing yesterday, about Stark and his fancy yacht and his weird come-on.  Now it’s staring him in the face.  He wants to crumple it up and throw it away.  He doesn’t quite understand why.  It’s not like Stark’s here, hitting on him again.

…Is it stupid that he’s kind of disappointed by that?

“Really stupid,” Steve grumbles to himself and heads over to the private side dock of the marina, where Stark had deposited his million dollar boat.  It’s just sitting there in the water, as sleek and stunning as it was yesterday.  For a moment Steve just checks it over; after all, if it got damaged or dented or even scraped in their care, they’d be liable for it (which is another reason he should never have taken this job; they don’t have the facilities to safely house something like this).  Thankfully, nothing’s wrong.  Breathing deeply in relief, he steps onto the yacht and uses the keys to open the door.  Then he’s making his way through the swanky interior, feeling yet again like he’s way too dirty and, well, poor to be surrounded by such extravagance.  He makes a pointed effort not to look at anything as he goes down below deck.  He ends up spending a minute or two wandering around (he actually gets himself lost the lower areas because they’re so damn big), but eventually he ends up in a bedroom.

It’s a really nice one.  He vaguely recalls seeing it before when Stark brought him down here, but he wasn’t able to look then obviously.  Now he takes the moment, takes in the huge bed with its black silk bedspread, the modern, minimalist décor that seems misplaced on a yacht so expensive, the fact that it seems like no one has ever slept here.  Which isn’t possible, unless Stark lied about sailing this ship down (which could be true; how would Steve know?).  Still, the unlived-in feel of the room is somewhat off-putting.  Steve knows he shouldn’t snoop, but he can’t stop himself from stepping further into the stateroom, from glancing into (unsurprisingly) opulent bathroom, the swanky walk-in closet (how is this possible on a ship this size?  The thing’s huge, but it doesn’t seem this big from the outside), the office to the side which is as empty and unused as everything else.

Still, despite the bedroom’s perfect (and therefore cold) appearance, he can’t help but stand there and wonder what it’d be like to have something like this.  To stay somewhere this nice.  He’s been in rich places before but always at the request of someone else (Peggy basically) and he was never welcomed there.  He’s not exactly welcome here, even if Stark invited him to fix his boat, but at least he doesn’t have anyone glaring at him, belittling him, and silently judging him for his mere presence. So he can take a moment to really consider it, what a life like this would really be like.  Money and comfort.  Not having to work so hard for so little.  Not having to worry so much.  Buying Maggie what she wants, not just the bare minimum of what she needs.  Sending her to Shield Academy or any school of that caliber.  Instead of occasionally sneaking a joyride on someone else’s boat, actually having one of his own, and he can take her and go anywhere.  Be anything.

Freedom.

He shakes that idea away.  Even if someone offered the opportunity, taking it would leave such a sour taste in his mouth.  He’s earned everything he has, fought for it, risen or fallen based on his own strength and determination and merit, and he’s never taken a hand-out.  Therefore, fantasies are just that: fantasies.  He doesn’t need them.  He just needs to fix this ship and get paid.

Before he can walk toward the engine compartment behind the bedroom though, he spots something on the floor.  It’s a glint of something silver under the shadows of the bed.  Curiosity has him coming closer.  The glint is the corner of… a plaque?  Confused, Steve pulls it out.  It is a plaque, one with the Stark Industries logo.  Three logos, actually, that all say Stark Industries, each differently stylized and beside a name.  Well, except for the last one.  There’s first an older looking font beside the name Edward Stark and the dates 1939-1975.  Then there’s a slightly more modern logo with the name Howard Stark beside it and the dates 1975-2008.  Finally there’s the current logo; Steve recognizes that from Stark’s business card yesterday, all those sleek lines and sharp angles.  But there’s no name or date with that one.  That seems odd.  Steve’s not sure, but he vaguely remembers Stark – Tony – inherited Stark Industries from his father.  Was that Howard?  Didn’t Steve read that Howard retired?  He must have.  In 2008, if the plaque is right.

If Stark – Tony – took over eight years ago, why isn’t his name in that last spot?

Steve sweeps his fingers down the gleaming, flawless surface.  There’s a fair bit of space between that last logo, the one that has no name, and the bottom of the plaque.  Room for future CEOs, Steve supposes.  At the bottom, etched in strong text, is a phrase.  He reads it aloud.  “Minds rarer than radium.”  He doesn’t like the way that sounds, and he’s not sure he likes what it means either.  He’s not sure why.  He doesn’t know a thing about what this is, and it’s not his business.  He steps forward a bit, and his sneaker hits something.  He looks down from the plaque and sees an old, brown banker box partway under the bed.  It looks like one from the eighties maybe, definitely before the digital age.  It’s dusty and full of papers and books.  There’s a yellowed envelope on top with “Tony” scrawled on its front in black ink.  It’s been ripped open.  He wonders if there’s a letter.  It’s not in the envelope.  Maybe in the huge mess of papers beneath?

Minds rarer than radium.

Steve shakes his head and puts the plaque into the box and pushes it back beneath the bed.  Then he’s up, focused anew, and walking back to the engine compartment.  Figure out what’s wrong and get it fixed.  Right.  He can do that.

So he does.  He goes into the engine access and starts looking into the problem.  Roomy as the space is, it’s still a really tight squeeze, and he’s a big guy.  It takes some doing to get in there and in a position to examine the misbehaving engine.  For a bit, he’s worried this is going to be a big problem.  He’s daunted all over again, because this really is the fanciest engine he’s ever worked on, and if he screws this up…

But once he wedges himself closer and starts digging, he realizes not only can he handle this, there’s something really weird about it.  It’s not so much what’s wrong with the engine; that’s obvious as he gets into the fuel pump.  He flushes the lines and disconnects them and discovers almost immediately that one of the valves regulating the rate of fuel exiting the pump apparatus is jammed.  It’s stuck partially shut, and in this position, not enough gas is getting to the engine, which is causing it to choke.  The valve is easy to replace, a standard part, even if it isn’t terribly easy to access.  So that’s great, a relief really that not only is this a minor deal but something he can quickly fix.

Still, as Steve frees himself from the compartment with the damaged component and heads back to the shop to get what he needs to replace the valve, he can’t help but wonder at the strangeness of it.  Again.  If Stark is such a great engineer, why didn’t he figure this out?  The guy said he didn’t have time, but Steve located the problem and probably can correct it in a matter of hours.  It’s not complicated, not difficult to do, and not even that expensive.  Generic, in every sense of the word.  Why wouldn’t Stark have taken care of it himself?  Why pay someone else and spend all that time looking for a mechanic and delay his trip back north?  Is he lazy?  Does saving money mean so little to him?  Steve’s a fair guy, but he’s going to charge for his time and effort.  Why pay to have someone else fix a problem so simple?

“Doesn’t matter,” he tells himself as he sets the valve apparatus down on his workbench in the shop.  He doesn’t know why he keeps thinking about this, why he cares.  Annoyed, he starts trying to pull the valve apart and figure out what’s wrong with it.  A few minutes into it, with his hands absolutely covered in gunk and his mood even darker, he discovers a manufacturing fault in the hydraulic parts.  He doesn’t think it’s fixable.  He can try to take it apart, clean the pieces (although they look pretty new), and reassemble it.  Or he can just replace it.

Stark can afford for him to replace it.

“You’re here early.”

Steve glances over his shoulder to see Thor ambling into the work area, carrying that same carburetor he’s been working on for what seems like forever.  “No,” Steve comments, going back to the valve, “you’re here early.”

Thor grunts and offers a huge grin.  He looks like a buff version of the Dude from The Big Lebowski with the ratty clothes and the cheap sunglasses and the (ugh) clear plastic sandals.  He chugs down some Red Bull before crushing the empty can in his mighty hand and tossing it toward an already overflowing recycling bin.  Then he nods towards Steve’s work.  “Is that from the rich guy’s boat?”

“Bad valve in the fuel pump system,” Steve replies.  “Do we have more of these?  I thought you ordered some.”  He goes to the supply shelves in the back.

“Have you made some progress on it?  Because he’s called twice this morning.”

Steve’s barely listening, sifting through the boxes to find a replacement.  “Who?”

“The rich guy.  Stark.”

Steve goes cold.  Stiffly he leans up, nearly dropping the box with the new valve.  He stares at Thor, but Thor’s already getting to work on his carburetor.  “He did?”  His voice regretfully sounds as weird and excited and mortified as he feels.

“Yes.  Called and wanted to know if you’re done yet.”

Steve swallows through a suddenly dry throat.  He tries to regain control of his muscles – of his stupid pounding heart and even stupider stalled brain – and goes back to his workbench.  “He said I could have all the time I needed, and he’s calling already to ride me on this?”

“No, he said there was no rush,” Thor corrects.  “He was very clear on that.  But he wants to know how it’s going.”

“It’s freaking ten o’clock in the morning!  He dropped it off at closing yesterday!”

“Tell me you are not surprised that a spoiled rich boy wants everything done on his terms.”  Steve’s reeling too much to notice the spite in Thor’s voice much.  He stares at the valve, at the box for the new one, and just doesn’t get it.  Thor grumbles.  “And he said he would check in later for an update.  As if, what, I am supposed to drop everything to wait for him to deign to call upon us?  Bullshit.”

Steve shakes his head.  “He called,” he murmured.  Stark took the time to call.  Twice.  Not one of his undoubtedly many assistants.  And he dropped off a boat he could have fixed himself if he tried.  Or had one of his people fix.  What does all that mean?

No.  Steve bites his lip hard and gets to it.  He’s going to get this valve replaced, get back out to that yacht and get the fuel pump working, and close the door on this.  That’ll be the end of it.

Yet, as he works, he can’t help but think about Stark.  The yacht and the bedroom and what he saw in there.  The bed and Stark lying in it (what the hell – but once he starts, he doesn’t stop, and he sees Stark there, lush dark hair mussed and eyes glazed with contentment and body stretched long and lax in those black silk sheets).  Stark’s eyes and Stark’s smile.  That plaque – what is up with that?  Why’s it under the bed?  And why is Tony’s name missing from it?  Why is it on the yacht to begin with, a yacht that has basically nothing else personal on it?  And what in the world does Stark want with him?  It can’t just be a date.  Who the hell goes about getting a date like this, anyway?

Steve wanted a distraction but not like this.

“How did it go this morning?”

Thor’s question shocks him.  He’s actually gotten so involved in his own thoughts that he stopped working, and he jerks and nearly drops the new valve again.  “Huh?”  Then his brain gets into gear.  “Oh.  Oh, it went fine.  Thanks.”

Thor turns and comes over to him, wiping his hands on a rag.  “You seem troubled.”

Is it terrible that he is but not about Maggie and school?  And then the second he really starts thinking about Maggie and school…  She’s been there a couple hours now.  “Just hope it’s going okay,” he says.  “Wasn’t easy putting her on the bus.”

Thor appraises him a moment before nodding and putting a greasy hand to his shoulder.  “The growth of a child is no simple burden to bear.  There is nothing easy about it,” he says softly, gravely, and compassionately. 

Steve just stares.  It’s always weird when Thor, this huge, beach hobo mechanic estranged son of a multi-millionaire who’s never been a parent and never even really managed a serious relationship, offers him parenting advice.  Weird, but not unwelcome, so he nods.  “No, there isn’t.”

Thor bobs his head.  “My mother used to tell me that the hardest moment she ever faced was the day she sent my brother and I to preparatory school.  The mother bird, as she called herself, pushing her chicks from the nest so they might learn to fly.  She found it so painful, but it was a necessary process, she believed, both to prepare us for our lives and to teach us strength in her absence so that we might flourish.”  Thor sighs.  “Of course, my brother is practically a criminal, and I would hardly call my existence ‘flourishing’.  Or ‘flying’, like an adult… bird.”  He frowns.  “But I believe the sentiment holds true.”

Steve manages a smile.  “Yeah.”

Thor smiles, too.  He grips Steve’s shoulder harder, squeezing until it almost hurts.  “It will be okay.  You are an excellent father to that child, Steve.”

Steve’s debated Thor in the past over this, but Thor never seems to accept the truth.  Steve’s learned to just let it go.  “Thanks.”

“And you should get that boat fixed before Stark calls again,” Thor says, more annoyed again.  He grumbles as he goes back to his own work.  “Rich asshole.  Think they own everything, even people.”

Steve wants to argue about that even more, but again he doesn’t bother.  Thor’s relationship with his father (and all of his father’s wealth and prestige) taints stuff like this.  He knows Thor would never begrudge Maggie for the family she came from, but he’s always avoided the topic to be extra safe.  “Don’t worry,” he says instead, grabbing his newly replaced valve.  “I’m on it.  Be done right away.”

He goes back to the yacht, gets back down to the engine compartment, and gets the new valve assembly into the fuel pump.  It takes only a little while longer to reconnect the fuel lines and make sure everything is okay.  After some initial tests, he goes all the way back up to the cockpit and sits in the pilot’s chair.  The leather is unbelievably soft and smooth under him, and he winces just touching it with his filthy clothes and grimy hands.  It takes him a second to figure out the control board; it’s among the most technologically advanced one he’s ever seen.  The ignition is keyless, but Stark gave him some sort of fob with the exterior keys, and with that on the dash he gets the boat turned on.  The two engines immediately come to life.  The one with the new pump stutters a second; he can feel it in addition to the gauges on the panel showing it.  It stabilizes right away, though.  Mission accomplished.  He sits back in the pilot’s chair and sighs, looking out the huge and expansive view ahead at the bay.  It really is amazing.

And it’d really be fun to take this baby out to test it.  He does that sometimes.  Maggie just loves it.  Maybe it’s not entirely right, to joy ride like that, but no one ever seems to care.  None of his regular and local customers, anyway.  Would Stark care?  More importantly, does he want to risk it with this million-dollar yacht?  Nope.  He sighs, killing the engines, and gathers up his junk and gets out of there.  When Stark’s people come down to collect it, he’ll have them test it out.  He’s fairly confident his work is sound, so it’ll be better this way.

After finishing up, he goes to work on some other projects.  A few are simpler, so he pushes through those first.  A leaky water pump.  Bad spark plugs.  Another damaged fuel line.  It takes him a few hours to work through all that.  Then he takes on an outboard engine that’s dead.  He’s pretty sure it’s going to require a rather extensive rebuild, so he gets started on that.  The work’s satisfying; problem-solving is always something he enjoys. Still, as much as he’s focusing on the job, his worries start to get to him again.  Worries about Bucky; it’s not easy to watch your best friend get married, even if Steve’s extremely happy for him.  And he knows Bucky knows how that feels.  He’s all but admitted to Steve in the past that one of the reasons he re-enlisted after their first tour was Steve’s relationship with Peggy.  It’s not resentment in the least.  It’s just fear of losing what you have or at the very least having what you have change.  Steve’s feeling that now big time, this bittersweet concern that Bucky gaining Natasha means Steve losing Bucky.  And that’s totally bullshit, but he’s a worrier, through and through, so he worries.

And he worries and worries and worries about Maggie.  There’s no one around him now, so his strong front cracks, and he’s really starting to freak out.  Is it going okay?  Is she making friends?  The questions come and come in a flood.  Are the other kids liking her?  Does she like her teacher?  Is she bored?  Is this the right thing to do, or is he ruining her life sending her to a public school when her intelligence demands a place like Shield Academy?  Am I screwing her up?  It’s a storm of roiling anxiety, and he finds him doing the same damn thing repeatedly with the engine because he can’t focus on the job at hand.  This is brutal.  The sun’s beating down, and he’s hungry, and he’s tired, and he just wants to drive over to the school and get her.

He doesn’t, though.  It’s well after lunchtime, past two o’clock now on this godawful endless day, and if she can tough it out, so can he.  No acting like some kind of superhero and sweeping in to save her.  She’s fine.  The school hasn’t called yet, so everything is–

On the bench beside him, his old cellphone rings.  He goes cold where he’s leaning over the outboard engine.  For a moment, he’s too shocked to move, staring over his shoulder at the device where it’s vibrating with wide eyes.  Then, when the call is dangerously close to going to voicemail, he reaches over and snatches the phone up.  “Hello?”

“Just checking in on you, sweet cheeks.  How’s my boat?”

Steve was so prepared for it to be a disaster at the school that he doesn’t recognize the voice at all for a second.  Flustered, he shakes his head.  “Mr. Stark?” he finally manages.

“What?  You don’t recognize my voice?  Wow.  Well, we’ll need to work on that.”

For some reason, even though it’s totally irrational, Steve glances around all over.  All he sees is an empty marina filled with boats.  “Where are you?  I don’t – I mean…  I mean, how did you get this number?”

“New York is where I am,” comes the even, slightly amused response.  “And your buddy gave your number to me.”

“What?”  Steve squints and shakes his head again, like Stark can actually see him.  He sinks down on the bench.  Hiding.  Yeah, that makes sense.  “My buddy?”

“Deep voice.  Keeps answering the phone at your business.  I think it must be that big guy from yesterday who was giving me the stink eye.  The one who looks like the Dude?  You know, His Dudeness or Duder or El Duderino.”  Steve can’t stop an honest, small smile.  Apparently he’s not the only one who’s made that connection.  “To be fair, I guess me calling like five hundred times today probably didn’t do much to make him like me more.  Gonna have to work on that, too.”  What?  What in the world is going on with this guy?  Steve’s too utterly flummoxed to even think.  “Anyway, he was kind enough to give me your cellphone number.  Which is probably a piece of crap, given the call quality right now.  You want me to send you a new Stark phone?  The next model will blow your mind with all the cool shit it can do, I promise you.  It’s really–”

“No, no!”  Steve sits on the bench and rubs his forehead.  “No, I don’t want a new phone.”

“It’s really not a problem.  I own the company, you know.  I can give out freebies.  In fact, I can give you guys a new computer system, new phones, maybe just bulldoze that swill-pit you call a mechanics workshop and build you a new one.  You know what? You should come up and see my sandbox here on 5th Avenue.  It’s a beauty, if I do say so myself.  I’m really proud of it, and anybody with any affinity for engines and engineering would probably find it pretty kickass, so I’m betting you might like it.”

Is that another proposition?  Steve grimaces.  “Do you always talk this much?”

“So I’ve been told.  Also I’m apparently the worst chatty Cathy in bed ever.”  Steve groans.  God, he did not need to know that.  And that’s definitely another proposition.  “It’s my default reaction to nerves and feels and junk like that.  Why, is it annoying?”

“No, I just–”

“And you didn’t answer my question, Steve Rogers the Boat Mechanic, which I have to ask because I’ve been thinking about you a lot since yesterday and I know I said I’d give you some time but patience is not a virtue.  For me.  Anyway, my question is: if I came down there today, would you go out with me tonight?”

Steve goes cold again, which is a really uncomfortable feeling with the Florida sun intent on baking him to a crisp.  That’s not a proposition.  That’s a blatant pass.  Another one.  “You didn’t – you asked me if your boat was done!” he replies shortly.

 “Well, this is my real question, because your buddy told me you were almost finished the last time I called, and you seem like the hard-working, conscientious type, which probably means you polished off the job, thought about testing it and decided it wasn’t worth the liability–”  Steve grimaces again, scrubbing his hand down his face.  “–and then put off calling me for some reason.  I’m starting to think you don’t like me.”

That’s said jokingly, but there’s something in Stark’s voice.  Steve can hear it despite the crappy call quality.  It’s sincerity.  Honest to God concern.  He wants Steve to like him.  Which doesn’t exactly jive with a man out to own him (like Thor not so subtly implied earlier) or use him or sleep with him and drop him flat or whatever it is Stark wants with him.  That’s dizzying, because what in the world would a man like Tony Stark want with a guy like him?  And Stark can’t have any idea that he’d be receptive to this.  Hell, Steve doesn’t even know if he’s receptive to it.  He hasn’t thought about it before.  He’s never been interested in another man.

Then again, he’s never had a genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist interested in him.

No. He’s not interested, and that’s not because it’s a man.  It’s because he’s not interested.  Period.  “Your boat’s finished,” he says evenly, sitting up straighter.  “It was a faulty valve.  Five hundred or so for the repair and the new part.  You can send your people down whenever you like.  I can send you the invoice or we can settle it in person.  Cash or credit.”

It’s quiet.  Steve doesn’t know how to take that.  He doesn’t know why either, but he feels like an asshole.  “Did you actually test it?  Because you can.  Of course you can.  There aren’t any liability issues.  I didn’t say that explicitly but I won’t hold you responsible for anything–”

“Mr. Stark, please,” Steve says, and, damn it, that sounds like begging.  Why is he begging?  “Just come get your boat.”

“I’m not trying to be creepy here,” Stark says.  “Even though it’s probably coming off creepy.  Probably.  Maybe.”  He pauses a moment, like he’s thinking.  “Okay, yeah, definitely.  And I’m really not trying to push you.”  He pauses again.  “Okay, I am.  But I’m doing it because I think maybe you need it?”  Steve’s huff must have been audible over the call.  “Okay!  Okay, sorry.  I’m really screwing this up.  I don’t want to.  I just want to understand, because I have this feeling about you, a really good feeling, and I don’t get those too often, and I don’t want to let that slip away without figuring out what it’s about.”

Steve doesn’t know what to say to that.  He wants to deny it, to downplay it, but he can’t, because…  Well, he has to admit it to himself at least.  He has that feeling, too.  He’s been working like mad to deny it since yesterday, but the fact that Tony’s eyes stuck with him all last night, the fact that he’s so curious, that he can’t let this go either…  The fact that he feels bad about ending anything.  He keeps telling himself to shut this down, but he’s not.  He hasn’t.  Why?

Stark sighs.  “Look, I want to be clear about something.  Despite what you might have read about me or heard or whatever…  I’m not that guy.  I have screwed up a ton in the past, and I don’t deny that, but I’m not some rich, arrogant asshole looking to get my rocks off with anything with a heartbeat.  And I don’t use people.  If you really don’t like me, if you don’t want to go out with me and give me a hard no right here and now…  I’m going to respect that.”

Maybe that’s meant to be comforting, but Steve doesn’t like the implication that he can’t protect himself.  Par for the course with rich people.  They demean you even when they’re trying to be nice because they don’t get you and think just because you’re poor, you’re weak or stupid or defenseless or freaking need protecting.  “Mr. Stark, come on.”

“If I come down there tonight,” Stark says again, slower like annunciating the words makes them more meaningful, “will you please go out with me?”

Faced with it like that, bold and undeniable and right in front of him…  Say no.  He wants to.  He knows he should.  Stark promising all this stuff…  What does that really mean?  Would someone looking to have a good time with him and then drop him honestly tell him that that’s his goal?  No way.  He’d say exactly what Stark just did, manipulate his mark into trusting him with a few “respectful” promises and then do what he wants anyway.  Steve has no cause to believe any of it.

But he does.  He really does.  He can’t deny it, and he can’t say no.

He ends up not having to.  His phone beeps in his ear, and he pulls it away, swallowing the rock in his throat.  His eyes widen, and his heart drops into his stomach when he sees the number.  It’s a local one.  His phone doesn’t recognize who it is, but somehow he just knows.  “I have to call you back, Mr. Stark.”

“Wait–”

Steve doesn’t listen, jabbing his thumb into the SEND button to accept the new call.  He can hardly breathe.  “Hello?”

“Mr. Rogers?”

He sucks in a shallow breath.  “Yeah, this is Steve Rogers.”

The woman’s voice on the other side of the line gets grim.  “It’s Insight Elementary.  We need to speak with you about Margaret.  Is now a good time?”

Oh, no.  “Yeah…  Go ahead.”


The elementary school is really nice.  Steve’s only been there once before for orientation a couple weeks back, but as far as public schools go, he thinks it’s a good one.  The grounds are well kept with palms and bright Florida flowers.  The walkways are nice.  The building is well maintained, both in and out.  To be honest, as he quickly makes his way into the main office with its tiled floors and cinderblock walls and posters and signs hung about, it reminds him of his own elementary school back in Brooklyn.  He’s not sure if that’s a good thing or not.  He met Bucky there and forged a bond that is certainly lasting a lifetime.

But he got picked on a lot.  And he spent more than his fair share of time in the principal’s office for fighting (usually because he defended himself or someone else, but school administration didn’t always care about that).  This isn’t exactly the same, but being summoned to the principal as a parent rather than sent there as a kid…  The feeling’s not much better.  He tentatively steps inside, and right away he spots Maggie sitting glumly by the door, kicking her feet and scowling.  The second she sees him, she’s up and running over, throwing her arms around his waist.  “You okay?” he asks.

She doesn’t get a chance to answer.  There’s an older man coming closer in a surprisingly nice, gray three-piece suit.  He’s got red hair that’s a little long, disheveled, and streaked with white, and a wrinkly, aged face that speaks of being surprisingly old for working.  He’s a little bent, but that doesn’t detract from a very stern and commanding presence.  Part of that comes from his eyes, which are extremely sharp, beady, and not at all friendly despite the little smile on his weathered lips.  Behind the man, there’s a young woman with a bit of an owlish face.  She’s pale but very pretty.  Her hair’s dark brown and done up in a loose bun, and she’s dressed…  Well, like a teacher.  She’s got a dark pencil skirt on and a red blouse and a fair amount of inexpensive jewelry, which isn’t gaudy but seems misplaced.  She looks worried but kind.

The man looks anything but.  “Mr. Rogers?”

Steve takes his hand from Maggie’s head where she’s buried it against his hip and offers it.  “Yeah, hi.”

The man – the principal, clearly – shakes Steve’s hand.  That grim smile gets tighter and more condescending.  “I’m Dr. Pierce.  I’m sorry to say that Margaret had a little problem today in class.”

Steve already knows the story.  The lady who called him – the vice principal – told him all about it.  “Yeah, I’m really sorry.  First day jitters, I guess.  It won’t happen again.”  Pierce just stares, completely unimpressed with what probably seems to him to be a rote response.  Steve tries for a disarming smile.  “She made it most the day without a problem, so I guess that’s something, though, right?”

Pierce presses his thin lips together.  He’s obviously far more convinced with making an impression than comforting a new student having a rough time or said student’s caretaker.  “We don’t tolerate insubordination at Insight.  While we understand the first day of school can be challenging for some, we want to nip this sort of poor behavior in the bud, if you will, and stress to young and impressionable minds that respecting authority figures is expected of them.”

They’re six year olds.  And Maggie’s not even six yet.  She’s still five.  Regardless, that’s ridiculous to expect of small children.  Sure, you don’t let them get away with mouthing off, but you don’t send them to the principal or make a big stink about it like this.  “I’m sorry.  Is there more to it?” he asks calmly but a bit defensively.  “I was told it was just the one incident.”

“Oh, it was,” the woman says from behind Pierce.  She must be Maggie’s teacher.  “She had a little trouble adjusting this morning, but it wasn’t until…”  Pierce shoots her a quick glare, and she shuts up.  Steve frowns.  Great.

“She was disrespectful directly toward me, Mr. Rogers,” Pierce explains.  “I was there in the classroom when it happened, and I cannot permit that sort of behavior, particularly in front of the other children.  What sort of precedent does that set?”

Steve supposes that’s true, but this still seems a little drastic to him.  Obviously Dr. Pierce runs this school with an iron fist, if the teacher standing behind him and looking rather cowed is any indication.  “Well, I really do apologize,” he offers sincerely, and not just because he wants to get out of there.  He says that more to the teacher than Pierce.  “I’ll talk to her.  It won’t happen again.”

Pierce doesn’t seem to buy that any more now than he did moments before.  He’s scrutinizing Steve like he can see right through him, right to the truth, and that’s disconcerting as hell.  It’s even harder to resist the urge to run.  “Maggie, you need to apologize.”  Steve looks down at her, where she’s still clinging to him with an iron grip.  “Maggie.”  She still doesn’t move.  “Margaret, right now.”

He so rarely ever calls her that, and it gets her moving.  “Sorry, Dr. Pierce,” she murmurs like getting out each word is torturous.

Steve might have rolled his eyes or even smiled anywhere else.  Here he just bites his tongue and looks at Pierce directly.  Normally he doesn’t care for conflict, particularly when he’s always so scared of being caught, but this is kind of bullshit.  “I’m really sorry.”

Pierce holds his ground a moment more, threatening, but then he finally nods.  He crouches to look Maggie in the eye.  Steve supposes that’s meant to appear he’s coming down to her level, but it seems like a bunch of show.  “Let’s have a better day tomorrow, Margaret, okay?”

Steve feels Maggie nod.  He wraps his arm around her in a silent show of solidarity.  “Thanks for calling me.”  He offers his other hand again, and Pierce stands and shakes it.  The look in his eye is not at all warm or understanding.  Then Steve turns and leaves the office and the school, his grip on Maggie’s backpack implacable.  It’s almost three o’clock.  If he hurries, he can beat the buses and hopefully get the hell out of there before anyone else talks to him.

He doesn’t.  He only makes it just a few steps down the walk toward where he parked his truck before someone’s shouting his name behind him.  “That’s my teacher,” Maggie grumbles into his jeans, “probably coming to tell me what one plus one is.”

“Go to the car,” Steve orders, nudging her forward.  For once she just follows his directions.  He sucks in a breath to bolster himself and turns around to greet the person he can hear running toward him.

It is Maggie’s teacher, the young woman who’d been with the principal.  Steve really doesn’t want to do this.  Salvation is parked right there, so darn close it’s maddening.  “Mr. Rogers!  Wait, Mr. Rogers!” she calls, and he has no choice but to stop.  “Mr. Rogers, hi.  I’m Wanda Maximoff, Maggie’s teacher.”

Steve turns around.  The young woman seems as sweet and soft-spoken as he thought before.  “Hi.  Look, again, I’m very sorry about today.  You know, Maggie just gets anxious, and she runs her mouth and says stuff she doesn’t mean, and–”

Miss Maximoff shakes her head, wisps of brown hair falling free of her bun as she does.  “No, no, it’s alright.  I don’t even really want to talk about that.”

“I have to get going,” Steve argues instead, reaching into his jeans pocket for his keys.  “Really.  I have a load of work to do–”

“I’ll only keep you a second,” Miss Maximoff insists, and Steve’s heart’s racing all over again.  He feels like he dodged a bullet with Pierce, and he doesn’t want to risk anything else.  For crying out loud, it’s only the first day.  Can’t they get that under their belt without any trouble? 

Apparently not.  Miss Maximoff doesn’t beat around the bush, either.  “I think your daughter is gifted,” she says a bit breathlessly.

As bad as it was before, this is worse.  Steve just stands there, squinting into the afternoon sun and staring.  Behind them, kids are starting to exit the building and head toward their buses, and the noise is pretty remarkable.  Teachers are in the ruckus, guiding the youngsters to where they need to be, and for a second he thinks to deflect, to tell Miss Maximoff that she should tend to her class (like he has any authority to do that), to say anything to put this to rest, because even though he knew this could happen, and Natasha told him it would happen, he never actually thought he’d have to deal with it, let alone today.

But here he is.  And he doesn’t say anything.  He continues to stand, stare, and a silent beat goes on.  He can’t get over the cold shock of surprise, can’t even think.  Miss Maximoff feels the need to explain, like he doesn’t understand exactly what she’s talking about.  “She answered some really tough questions in math today.  Things a kindergartner shouldn’t be able to do?  Things that I can’t do in my head.  Things that–”

“Oh, no, no,” he finally manages.  He tries to seem calm and unbothered.  “No, that’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing, Mr. Rogers.  It’s–”

“Trachtenburg,” Steve throws in.

Miss Maximoff cocks her head, even more confused.  “What?”

Steve tries to think.  He looked this up months ago as some sort of explanation of Maggie’s capabilities if he was ever faced with this.  Now’s a good time to use it.  “Trachtenberg.  He was a Jewish mathematician who developed a way to rapidly multiply numbers to solve problems.  In a concentration camp, no less.”

She just stares at him.  “But she’s…  I mean, she’s five.  That’s still…”

“My dad taught her.”  This is his back-up lie.  “He was really into math.  Worked for NASA for a bit.”

“Oh.”  She seems genuinely surprised.  Why wouldn’t she be?  And he feels a bit bad for lying to her, but there’s no choice.  “What do you do?  I mean, for a living.”

Like it’s not obvious from the way he looks.  And he can’t tell if that’s a natural segue or a commentary on nature versus nurture.  Maybe it would be, if any of it were true.  “I fix boats.”

“Ah.”  She tries for a smile.  “Okay, well, anyway, I think your daughter might be–”

Steve goes on.  “Her grandpa loved a good party trick.  He spent a lot of time teaching Maggie this before he died.”

Grief passes the teacher’s face at the sudden turn in conversation, and she immediately backs off.  “Oh.  Oh, I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay.  Happened last year.  But he and Maggie were close.”  This feels dirtier by the second, but he’s played this card before.  Death in the family tends to be a sensitive subject that puts people off.  Natasha taught him that a while back.  He pours all the confidence and nonchalance he can muster into his act, pulling his sunglasses from his shirt and sliding them on.  “So it’s kind of a thing to her.  Trachtenberg.”

Miss Maximoff looks absolutely flummoxed, probably now by the implication that he knows Maggie can multiple or at least memorize products and sums before even starting school and hasn’t acted on it.  Steve doesn’t let her say more.  He starts backing away, keys to his truck in hand.  “I really appreciate your concern and your understanding.  And I’m still sorry about the thing today.  It won’t happen again.”

“Okay, Mr. Rogers,” Miss Maximoff says, although it’s pretty obvious she’s not convinced.

Steve doesn’t stop, heading to his truck.  He turns and gives her a wave once he reaches the driver’s door.  “Nice to meet you.  Have a good rest of your day.”

“You too,” she answers.

Then he gets in.  Maggie’s sitting beside him in the passenger seat, watching him, and the expression on her face is equal parts apprehension and determination.  He knows what she’s going to say before she even says it.  “It’s not my fault!  She was asking all kinds of stupid things and–”

“Save it,” Steve says, and he turns on the truck and drives away without looking back.


They make it most of the way back to the marina before Maggie tries again.  She’s been sitting in her seat, glowering out the front.  Most of her hair’s loose of its braid, and her dress is a little mussed (from play it looks like), but she seems fine for all the trouble she’s caused.  That only heightens Steve’s irritation.  If someone was picking on her or if she was honestly scared or something, that’d be one thing.  What actually happened?  That’s something else.

If there’s one thing he knows about Maggie, though, is that she can’t stand having him mad at her.  “It really wasn’t my fault,” she finally says quietly, breaking the heavy silence.  “And, for the record, I told you this morning that I didn’t want to go to this stupid school in the first place.  All the questions she asked were dumb.”

Steve sighs, staring at the road ahead as he drives.  Maybe this wasn’t a good idea.  That’s all he’s been thinking since leaving the school.  Maybe Natasha and Bucky are right.  Maybe Maggie’s right.  Maybe public school isn’t the right course.  Already there are eyes on Maggie, eyes on him, and it’s only the first day.  The first day of thousands, of thirteen years if not more.  If she can’t handle one day…  “Uh-huh.”

“And the boy next to me was acting inappropriately.”

“Uh-huh.”

“For a child.”  Maggie shakes her head, folding her thin arms over her chest.  “He stared at me all day.  And you have to have a pass to go to the bathroom.”

Steve says nothing to that, gripping the steering wheel harder as he makes the turn toward the marina.  If she doesn’t do this school…  She needs school.  Private school – Shield Academy – may be just as difficult.  He can’t home school her; he wasn’t kidding about not being smart enough.  So where does that leave him?  And isn’t this the point?  To teach her how to go to school?  How to be a kid?  He can’t toss this whole idea out because of a pitfall.  What he thought before when Pierce was talking to him is right: these are five year olds.  Babies.  You can’t expect them to simply know how to act.  He can’t expect this to all be smooth sailing.

“–for lunch.  I don’t like chicken patties, but I don’t like what you packed me either, and are you even listening to me?”

Steve pulls the truck back into the marina’s parking lot.  He takes his normal spot next to Thor’s beat-up, old VW bug (how he fits in that thing is beyond Steve) and turns the engine off.  Then he sighs again.  “I’m passive-aggressively ignoring you.”

Maggie frowns, her lips pursed in a pout and eyes narrowed.  “What’s passive-aggressive mean?”

Steve tips his head back in exasperation.  Then he gets out of the truck.  “It means I’m mad at you and I want you to know it while trying not to be confrontational about it,” he explains, “but here we are.  Confrontation it is.”

Maggie gets out, too.  She still has her backpack on.  “Other kids answer questions and they don’t get in trouble.”

Steve shakes his head, locking up the truck and heading toward the marina gates.  “You didn’t get in trouble for answering questions!  You yelled at the principal and demanded that he call me to take you home.  Which, ironically, he did.  So, look!  You got what you wanted!”

Maggie has the decency to at least look ashamed.  “I didn’t want that.”

“Unbelievable.”

“And…”  She shakes her head.  “And he didn’t seem like a nice man.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Steve replies, turning to wait for her as she shuffles her feet in the dirt and sand toward him.  “You can’t do that!  Kindergartners do not yell at their principals.  Or their teachers.  Or anyone at school.  Are you allowed to yell at an adult?”

“No,” Maggie murmurs.

“Then you don’t yell at school.  Period.”

The shame gets more genuine now.  She comes over and takes his hand, looking up at him.  “Steve, I’m sorry.  I’m really sorry.”

Steve shakes his head in annoyance, looking around just to avoid those huge brown eyes.  “Uh-huh.”  He has to address the bigger problem.  He just has to.  “You can’t show off at school, Maggie.  We talked about this.”  Now Maggie drops her gaze.  “You promised you wouldn’t and then the very first day you’re there–”

“I’m know,” she says.  “I screwed up.”  Steve doesn’t think she does know.  How do you explain to a very perceptive, extremely intelligent five year old that she needs to hide the smarts she possesses?  That she’s different, but she has to act the same?  And the reasoning behind it.  The red flags it’ll raise and the attention it’ll garner.  How can she understand the implications of that?

He doesn’t know how to explain it.  He didn’t before, and he still doesn’t.  He just says the same rules, begging more than reminding.  “You gotta keep the math stuff under wraps, okay?  It’s really important.  If it gets out–”

“I know,” she says again.  “I really do, and I’m sorry.”

Steve watches her, watches those sharp brown eyes watch him in turn.  Now they’re so full of love and a little teary.  It’s almost more than he can take.  “Alright,” he finally says.  He drops his hand to her head for a second, but that’s not enough, so he takes her backpack from her and slings it over his own shoulder before lifting her into his arms.  He kisses her mussed hair and rubs her back.  “Alright.  I know you’re sorry.”

She buries her face into the nape of his neck.  “Still like me?” she mumbles.

He can’t fight off a grin.  “Yeah, you dork.  I still like you.”

She doesn’t seem to want to get down, and that’s fine.  After being apart for this endless day, he’s happy to hang onto her.  So he walks into the marina, heading toward the boat which he was fixing before the call from the school came in.  “How much longer you gotta work?” she asks after a moment, leaning up from his shoulder to look around. 

Just like that, the whole debacle seems to be forgotten.  “Little bit.”

“Any of the boats need a test drive?”

Steve chuckles and glances around, trying to think.  Before he can answer, though, there’s a voice coming from the dock ahead.  A shockingly familiar voice.  “Hey, Steve Rogers the Boat Mechanic!”

Steve turns, backpedals, and quickly sets Maggie down.  He pushes her behind him, too startled to think, to do anything, as Tony Stark stands from one of the benches near the dock.  He looks fantastic, dressed in another rich suit and different leather loafers.  When he pulls off his sunglasses, though, his eyes are as wide as saucers and his face goes lax.  He seems just as shocked as Steve feels, and he shakes his head in a mixture of awe and alarm for what feels like forever before throwing up his arms.  “Well,” he finally says, staring at Maggie.  “…shit.”

Chapter Text

An eternity passes with the three of them just staring at one another.  Well, more accurately, with Stark staring at Maggie.  What he can see of her behind Steve’s legs at any rate.  For his own part, Steve just stands there. Part of him wants to run; that’s his natural inclination in situations like this, to facing scrutiny as intense as Stark’s is right now. The other part of him frankly wants to stand his ground, because he can hear what the other man’s not saying, what Stark probably wants to do.  Run, too.  Run and get away from this, because surely all this interest he has in Steve is just going to fizzle with the truth staring at him right in the face with her backpack and dress and mussed hair and huge brown eyes.

But Stark doesn’t run, and neither does Steve, and this parade of awful, silent seconds marches onward.  It feels like it’s just dragging out the inevitable and it’s completely excruciating. Despite never considering dating much, Steve’s always thought about this in back of his mind. In addition to poor and uneducated, single parent is not a characteristic most people tend to like.  He’s always used that as a backup excuse, that anyone he might find interesting will be immediately turned off by the fact that Maggie’s in his life.  That he’s taking care of a five year old.  Who’s going to want to take on that?  Stark?  There’s no way.  All the sudden Stark’s faced with the reality that the guy he’s trying to woo and win over is saddled with a kid…  Yeah, there’s just no way he won’t drop Steve like a ton of bricks and bolt.  And that hurts, even though Steve knows it’ll be a relief if Stark does it.  It hurts because Maggie’s not some poison or complication or annoyance.  It hurts, because watching the emotions flash across Stark’s perfect face is awful in its own right, the confusion and the shock and the dismay, and Steve knows that flux is going to settle on disgust and disappointment any second.

But Stark still doesn’t run.  He just gawks like he’s never seen a kid before.  Maybe he hasn’t, not really.  The guy lives a crazy, wealthy, extravagant, wild life.  How many children has he ever met, ever talked to, ever interacted with?  His gaze finally shifts back to Steve, and he nods, like he’s figuring something out.  “Okay, uh…  Yeah, sorry for the bad language?  But…  Wow.  This?  This makes a lot of sense,” Stark finally declares.

Maggie’s peeking out from behind Steve, and he pushes her back again.  “What are you doing here?” he asks shortly.

Stark frowns.  “I told you I was coming,” he says plainly.  The sunglasses go back on.  “Remember?”

Steve’s too rattled to think.  Some part of him knows Stark did say that, multiple times no less.  He said he’d be down to get an answer to his question.  About a date.  Steve winces, but before he can say anything, send Stark packing with his yacht never to return, Maggie escapes his grasp and plants herself right beside him.  She’s staring at Stark with that set of her jaw, that stubborn clench that came directly from her mother.  “Who’re you?” she demands.

Stark nearly does a double take, like he can’t fathom this even more, that this little person is talking to him and talking to him like that.  “Um… Tony Stark?”  Maggie plants her hands on her hips wrinkles her nose at that a little, as if it means something to her.  It can’t possibly.  “Who’re you?” Stark asks with just as much attitude as she’s giving him.

“Maggie Rogers,” she says proudly, and Steve has no idea what’s going on.  Maggie’s not a shy kid by any means, but she’s also not the precocious type, and she knows better than to talk to people she doesn’t know.  Steve’s told her that over and over again, that she has to be careful.  Apparently she’s forgetting all the rules today.

Stark cocks an eyebrow.  He glances at her backpack and dress.  Steve’s back to not being to tell a thing about what he’s thinking with those damn sunglasses on.  “Huh.  Your dad just, uh, pick you up from school?  Or something?”

Steve interjects before Maggie can say more, gripping the handle of her backpack and steering her back toward the marina’s office.  “I can take you down to your boat, Mr. Stark, and we can finish up the paperwork.  Just let me get her settled in the office and then–”

“You have a boat?” Maggie asks, shrugging free of his grasp.

Stark’s still just standing there.  He frowns.  “Uh, yeah.  Your dad’s been fixing it.”

“And it’s done,” Steve says quickly, trying to usher this along because that feeling is back, the one where he’s walking along a razor thing edge of something, the one where he’s treading closer and closer to some point of no return, and he doesn’t like it.  “So if you want, Mr. Stark, we can get this taken care of right now–”

Maggie tugs on Steve’s hand.  “But if you fixed it, doesn’t it need a test drive?”

Oh, no.  “No, it’s fine,” he declares right away.

But it’s too late.  Stark’s already grinning, which seems all kinds of strange, because this conversation is going on with him there with Maggie, and the other man hasn’t made some excuse to drop it yet.  “That’s what I told him.  Maybe he’ll listen if it comes from you.”  Stark says that, and there’s this teasing, playful note to his voice.

Maggie turns to Steve, and just like that she’s pouring it on.  Her beautiful brown eyes turn huge and pleading, and she adopts this particular pout that always melts Steve’s heart.  “Come on,” she begs, tugging on his hand more.  “Please?  Please?  Can we?”

This is a horrendously bad idea.  Steve knows that for sure, even if his head’s spinning a bit from what’s happening and how fast it’s happening to boot.  Maggie’s just bouncing in excitement, and Steve glances from her to Stark, who’s actually quiet for once.  How is it this guy hardly knows him and just met Maggie seconds ago and he’s already gaming the situation to his advantage?  Maybe that could be malicious, another sign he should get himself and now Maggie out of this as soon as possible, but inexplicably Steve knows it’s not.  This isn’t Stark trying to manipulate him or trying to manipulate Maggie or, God forbid, using Maggie to get to him.  If that’s what it turns out to be, Steve will teach him a lesson he’s not soon to forget, money and power be damned.  But he knows it’s not.

“Please!  Please!”  Maggie tugs harder, getting more and more emphatic and impatient.  “Come on, you said you still love me!”

Stark tips his head.  “Aw.  How can you not if you love her?” he asks Steve.

Totally flummoxed, Steve looks from him to Maggie.  “And he’s probably got a really cool boat because he’s dressed cool.”

Stark looks down at his suit.  “I am dressed cool,” he muses, like he doesn’t know exactly how charming he looks, “and my boat is really cool.”

“Please?” Maggie begs, just tip-toeing the line between annoying and endearing as small kids do.  “Please?”

“Pretty please?” Stark chimes in.  “With a cherry on top?”

Steve sighs.  This is ridiculous, and there’s no way he can win.  Turning down Stark is one thing, the only thing he’s been doing the last twenty-four hours it feels like.  But turning down Maggie?  “Alright,” he says finally, knowing he’s going to regret this.

Maggie immediately explodes in excitement, and she runs towards Stark – runs, even though she doesn’t know him.  Stark looks horrified for a second, that suave charade disappearing as the full effect of what he’s made happen, a child who’s now in the picture that he maybe can’t or won’t deal with, practically hits him in the legs.  “Maggie, wait!”  She’s not really aiming for Stark, brushing by him on the dock to get to where she knows the bigger boats are.  Steve sighs.  “Don’t run.”

She turns around and gives him a defiant pout, but she’s not winning that one.  He firmly stares back, the admonishment clear in his gaze because she’s gotten away with way too much misbehavior today.  Then she turns, walks back, and hands Steve her backpack.  “Okay.”  Then she turns to Stark.  “Is your boat big?” 

Stark just stares as if he’s back to not quite believing his eyes.  “Um…  Yeah.”

Maggie grins, her earlier reprimand forgotten.  “And is it fast?”

“Definitely,” Stark replies with a little more confidence.

Maggie turns back to Steve.  The two men haven’t moved, and she’s clearly not having that.  She’s grabbing Steve’s hand again and tugging even more impatiently.  “So let’s go then.  You just said–”

“Yeah.”  Steve starts walking, and Stark follows. Maggie lets go of his hand right away and starts skipping down the dock as fast as she can without running.

It takes all of a second for the tension between Steve and the other enigmatic man to skyrocket.  Steve’s skin is crawling with the awkward discomfort, and he keeps glancing at Stark.  Stark is looking around nonchalantly, almost pointedly, and he’s doing a pretty poor job of hiding the glances he’s stealing.  The docks are quiet, the whole marina’s quiet, and this is too much.  “I’m sorry about this,” Steve finally offers.

Stark turns his head slightly, glancing at him as they reach the more private areas of the marina.  “Well, she just got you to do something in about a second that I haven’t been able to do in a day of trying.”  Confused, Steve turns to him with a furrowed brow.  Stark grins.  “Make you let your guard down for even a second.”

Damn it.  “Mr. Stark–”

“Tony,” he corrects not unkindly.  He flashes a bit of that charismatic smile.  “If I’m taking your daughter out on my boat, you have to call me Tony.”  Steve grimaces.  “What?  No one else has ever made such a sour face over my name.  It’s not that bad.”

“It’s not that–”

“I know it’s not that.  I’m just teasing.  You’re so serious all the time.”  Tony stops at where the dock turns.  Maggie’s getting further and further ahead, bouncing impatiently, and he’s watching her and shaking his head.  He turns back to Steve.  “Which makes this kinda weird?  That smart, sassy bundle of energy is your kid?”

Steve’s blood goes cold.  There’s no way Stark could know, right?  He wouldn’t, unless he has someone investigating Steve or something.  Even still, the truth isn’t exactly on the surface; the investigator would have to dig for it, and it hasn’t even been twenty-four hours since they met, so the odds of anyone finding anything have to be small

“There you go with the frown again.”  Tony’s voice pulls him from his panicked spiral.  “You frown an awful lot, Steve Rogers the Boat Mechanic.”

Steve grits his teeth a little, slowing in his stride.  “Stop calling me that.”

Tony gets a step or two beyond before turning to him.  “Okay.  Fine.  Can we both be on first names then?  If I’m Tony, and I better be, then you can be just Steve.  Cool?”  He says that with a hopeful smirk.

Steve’s not nearly so hopeful.  What smidgen of confident and bravery he felt before fades abruptly.  “Mr. Stark, you don’t have to–”

“Tony,” Tony corrects again, his tone a little sing-song with the additional reminder.

Steve bites the inside of his lip.  “Tony,” he says with effort.  Tony smiles, obviously intensely pleased even though he really had to work that out of Steve.  “You don’t have to do this.  You can just take the yacht and go.”

“I don’t know much – or anything, I guess – about kids, but something tells me there’ll be tears if I back out now.  I don’t like making people cry, even mini-people.”  Tony steps closer, and – good God – the jolt of electricity racing over Steve’s nerves from head to toe is incredible.  He can’t describe it, this mixture of nervousness and fear and joy and want, and it’s so sudden and intoxicating that it nearly takes his breath away.  Tony grins again, and this time it’s veritably oozing charm.  “Plus, I gotta admit, I didn’t see this coming. You have to understand something here: that’s not something I can usually admit.  That I didn’t figure something out.  I can usually, and I’ve been trying to figure you out since yesterday, hence coming down here again.  That was my plan.  Woo you and get more info.  But this?  It’s throwing me for a loop.”

Steve frowns.  “I’m not some puzzle for you to solve.”  Or some kind of prize for you to win if you do.

“No, but this makes you even more interesting.  Kinda explains the why but not so much the what, who, or the how.”

There went any hope that the concept of Steve having a kid would put Tony off.  Not that Steve’s sure he wanted it to, and he doesn’t quite feel relief that it hasn’t.  He’s not sure know what to feel at all.  His head’s just this mess of anxiety, and he kind of doesn’t know if he’s coming or going.

Tony seems to realize he’s got Steve so wildly off-kilter.  His grin softens a bit, and he finally takes off his sunglasses.  “I still want to know about all that.  If you’re willing to tell me.”  The urge to instantly and fervently declare that he’s not never makes it out of Steve’s brain.  Even there, it’s hardly more than a knee-jerk grunt of a thing.  He’s too busy staring in Tony’s eyes.  They’re brown with gold, really very stunning now that he can see them again in person.  He didn’t notice the gold before, and right now, with the sunlight in them…

“Are you coming?”  Maggie’s shout gets Steve’s attention, and he drops his gaze, his cheeks burning.  Getting away is all he can think to do, and he quickly heads down the dock with huge strides.  Ahead Maggie’s getting to the last section of the dock where the yacht is.  She stops there, and her eyes go huge.  “Whoa…”  Even after seeing it earlier today and being inside it, Steve still finds the yacht breath-taking and beautiful.  He knows it’s the largest boat Maggie has ever seen by far. She turns and hops up and down in barely restrained excitement.  “This is amazing!”

Steve sighs.  “Reel it in, kiddo,” he murmurs as he stands behind her and gets his hands on her small shoulders.  To himself, he adds, and get it together.

Maggie’s not too interested in restraint.  “Can we get on?  Can we?”

Tony comes to stand beside them, sliding his no doubt thousand-dollar sunglasses back on.  “Yeah, sure,” he answers, and he steps across to the yacht.  Maggie twists free of Steve and follows, but it’s an awfully big gap for her, and she almost doesn’t make it.  Horrified, Steve reaches for her, but Tony is faster, gripping her arm and steadying her.  “Easy there!”

Fear flashes in Maggie’s eyes.  Steve immediately jumps up behind her, pulling her from Tony’s hands.  “Thanks,” he says.

Tony lets her go like she burned him.  He looks shocked.  “Uh, you’re welcome?”  Then he turns to Maggie.  “Anyone ever tell you to look before you leap?”

Maggie’s forehead furrows, and she looks up at Steve.  “Means don’t rush into things.”  She frowns like she still doesn’t get it, and Steve sighs, stroking her hair and pulling her back into his lower body.  “You gotta be careful.”  As if he hasn’t said that a thousand times before about a lot of things.

The warning seems to cement the connection to her that she’s dealing with a total stranger.  It’s still mind-boggling to him that she’s this okay with Stark.  She’s hardly been around other adults besides Bucky and Natasha and occasionally Thor.  Now she’s scared enough to cling, grabbing onto Steve’s leg and holding tight.  Steve rubs her back, appraising Tony.  He’s about to suggest that they give up on this (maybe with Maggie this rattled, she’ll agree without making a fuss), but he doesn’t.  Not with the way Tony’s looking at him, at them.  At their little family.  The air between them changes, and suddenly this isn’t about a date anymore.  Yet again Steve can’t see his eyes with those sunglasses on, but he can practically picture the tentative hope, this intense want of something only he’s not sure what.  It’s obvious in the tension in Tony’s body, the way he’s standing stiffly like he can’t believe what just happened.  The way his fingers are clenching at his sides like he’s still grasping Maggie, like he wants that contact again. 

For the first time since they met yesterday, Stark seems well and truly off his game.

Steve clears his throat, ending the awkward beat of silence.  “You still want to do this?”  He’s not sure who he’s asking.

And they both answer at any rate.  Maggie nods against his hip, and Tony seems to flip some internal switch.  Gone is the uncertainty, the surprise, that very vulnerable flash of something, and back is the eccentric billionaire who won’t take “no” for an answer.  “Of course,” he says flippantly, and then he’s leading them inside the yacht.

It’s pretty stupid to be surprised by how luxurious it is, especially after being inside it numerous times at this point.  Steve still is.  Every time he notices something new, like the LED lighting around the counter in the lounge area or the fact that quite a few of the bottles are nearly empty at the bar.  Maggie’s eyes are huge as they venture deeper.  Unlike Steve, she’s never been anywhere this fancy, never seen something so palatial.  “Wow,” she whispers, slowing to a stop in the lounge area.  She’s holding Steve’s hand, and for once she’s just staying put, too impressed to be rambunctious.  She looks around a moment more before turning to Tony.  “Are you really rich?”

Tony takes his sunglasses off and quirks a grin, immensely proud.  “You could say that.”

Maggie doesn’t reply, looking around more.  Steve lets go of her hand when she tentatively steps away.  She climbs up on one of the white leather benches in the lounge area.  Steve lurches forward.  “Maggie, wait–”

“It’s alright,” Tony says, but Steve can’t help but wince as Maggie’s dirty sneakers touch the expensive leather. 

Maggie’s eyes get even bigger.  She has a better vantage on the seat, and she looks out the huge windows to the bay.  “You can see everything,” she marvels.

Tony comes closer again.  “You think that’s cool?  Check this out.”

She turns and stares at him.  A few minutes ago maybe she would have run the second he offered something even remotely more interesting, but now she’s more hesitant.  She glances at Steve, and Steve nods.  Then she slips down off the leather seating area and follows Tony up the fancy steps to the cockpit.  “Wow,” she whispers again the second they get up there.  Her reaction is just like Steve’s from earlier.  As amazing as the view is from the lounge/atrium area, from the cockpit it’s just astounding.  You truly can see everything, with the huge, flawlessly clean windows that encircle the front of the ship.  “This is awesome.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” Tony agrees from beside her.  He’s probably seen it a thousand times – probably seen things far, far cooler – but he’s taking it in like it’s new with his hands on his hips and with interest.  Steve watches from behind them, wary but interested himself.  Not in the view of course but in them.  He keeps wanting to think this is some kind of act or game, but he just can’t make himself believe it.  “You want to see something even cooler, though?”

Maggie looks up at him, eyes still so wide.  “There’s something cooler?”

Tony chuckles and nods to the captain’s chair.  Maggie’s earlier trepidation just vanishes, and she’s running over.  “How do you turn it on?” she asks as she climbs into the chair.  She looks tiny in it, barely tall enough to look over the dash even on her knees in the seat.  “Can we do that?  Can we turn it on?”

“Sure,” Tony says, and he leans down over her, and this completely irrational jolt goes through Steve because all he’s doing is pressing the button to switch on the engine.  The boat comes to life, the engines immediately humming in readiness.  Tony looks up and around, listening to the sound.  That alone has him convinced, and he smiles at Steve.  “Job well done.”

Steve doesn’t spend a second basking in relief that his repairs are working.  His reluctance comes thundering back.  “Mr. Stark – Tony – we don’t have to–”

“Wow!” Maggie gasps.  She’s completely unabashed with her awe.  She’s never seen anything like this, either.  The dash comes to life with all these colors and screens, all this top notch tech, and it’s like Christmas morning to her.

Tony grins.  “You like it?”

“Uh-huh,” she says softly.  She points to one of the screens.  “Is that radar?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s the power?”

From his vantage, Steve can see the confusion work its way over Tony’s face.  “Huh?”

Maggie looks up at him again.  “The power.  The transmitter’s on the top of the boat, right.  Is the receiver up there, too?  What’s its gain?  And how strong is the transmitter?”

God, not again.  Steve rushes forward, not that what he thinks matters much.  This is barreling forward like a runaway freight train.  “Maggie, come on.  Let’s get down and not bother Mr. Stark with–”

Too late.  “You… know about radar?” Tony asks, brow crinkled in confusion.

“Uh-huh.  Read about it in a book.”

“But you’re, like… small.”

She’s ignoring that, already onto the next thing.  “Does the boat have sonar, too?  And what’s this?”  She points at another screen and looks up with Tony.  Tony seems flabbergasted for a moment more, and Steve’s grimacing behind him.  This plan he’s had to raise Maggie and hide this or at least play it down…  He’s seeing more and more that that’s going to be impossible.  Today has fantastically demonstrated that.  Stark looks about ready to flip out.

He doesn’t, though.  He simply leans over her.  “That’s the nav system.”

“Navigation?” Maggie asks, and Tony nods.  She smiles.  “Cool.  How does that work?”

“Well, I can tell you, but maybe it’d be more exciting to see it in action.”  Maggie’s eyes get big again.  For a moment, Tony hesitates, like he can’t quite believe what he just offered.  Or he doesn’t know how to give it.  In either case, he stands there, uncertainty written all over his face and telegraphed in his body language.  Steve doesn’t know what to do, if he should do anything at all.  “Slide over there,” Tony finally says, and Maggie does, making room in the chair.

And Tony carefully sits down right next to her.  He’s motionless for a second, again like he’s not sure what to do now that he’s gotten himself in this situation.  His complete lack of experience with kids can’t be any more obvious.  “Alright,” he finally says on a long breath.  “First we have to see if your dad will untie us from the dock.”

Maggie frowns.  “He’s not–”

“Yeah!” Steve interrupts.  Even though the choice is pretty much him handling that or not going on this test drive at all, the idea of leaving Maggie behind with Tony is pretty horrifying.  At this point, Steve’s not sure who he trusts less, since Maggie seems to be intent on breaking all their rules today.  He steps forward and grasps her shoulder, saddling her with a silent, stern warning.  She knows better than to ever reveal the truth.  “Yeah, I can do that.”

Tony doesn’t seem to notice his tension.  “Cool beans.  In the mean time, let me explain some stuff about working this thing.”  He immediately starts talking about the control panel, all the screens and buttons and dials, and Steve watches for just a second to make sure Maggie’s okay with this (and keeping her mouth shut about stuff that’s not Stark’s business).  She’s completely and utterly engrossed as Tony speaks, so involved that she’s not even paying attention to the fact Steve’s leaving.

So he goes.  Anxiety prickles under his skin because this is a bad idea.  His mind’s humming with that – this is terrible you can’t leave her with a stranger what the hell are you thinking – as he rushes back down and out of the yacht.  Thankfully he’s tied up enough boats in his life that he can be on autopilot as he gets the ropes securing it to the dock undone.  This is crazy!  So stupid.  Why did you let him stay?  Why didn’t you drive him off?  What’s the matter with you?  He’s letting his own damn feelings get in the way of common sense, because like it or not, he has feelings for this guy.  And, liking another man aside, that seems totally ridiculous because he doesn’t know Tony and Tony sure as hell knows nothing about him or Maggie and he’s made staying away from trouble his entire life these last five years.  And you’re blowing it all today.  What, screwing up by putting her into school wasn’t enough?  You need to make it worse by letting this guy in?

He can’t be this stupid.  Or this selfish.

But apparently that’s what he is, because he finishes undoing the moorings, secures them as rapidly as he can (which is pretty sloppy, not that he cares), and jumps back onto the boat like Stark may take off without him and steal Maggie.  Of course that doesn’t happen, but his heart is pounding like it’s real threat as he sprints back into the yacht’s interior.  He takes the few stairs by leaps and bounds and bursts back into the cockpit to find Maggie and Tony still intently studying the control panel, Tony quietly explaining something.  Their heads are nearly pressed together, Stark’s dark brown hair next to Maggie’s mussed, chestnut locks, and the image really takes Steve aback.  It’s not just the fact that they are so close to one another.  It’s the way they look.  It’s the light in their eyes, the focus, that sharp, sharp intelligence shining as they study something.  Between the two of them, that light is the same.

Steve doesn’t know what to make of that.

He doesn’t really get a chance to ponder it.  Tony turns in the captain’s chair.  “Everything ready?  And what’s up with you breathing like that?  Did you use super speed or something?”  There’s a wink there, like Tony knows exactly what Steve feared and how silly it was and is silently teasing him about it.

Steve’s not rising to the bait.  “If we’re going, we should get moving.”

“Aye-aye, Cap’n,” Tony says in a jaunty tone.  He turns to Maggie.  “Although it’s my boat, so I guess technically I’m the captain.  You can be my first-mate, Peg-Leg Peg.”

Steve jerks just a bit in surprise at the mention of Peggy’s name.  Peg.  He called her that a lot.  Her parents hated the nickname, not that they permitted him to be around much to say it.  This bolt of sudden sadness almost has him reeling, and he goes back to the same paranoid question.  Stark can’t know, can he?

Maggie giggles, not nearly so sad.  “Peggy is my mom’s name,” she says, and there goes any chance of Tony not finding out.  Again.

Tony turns to Steve, like he hasn’t considered that this child has to have a mother.  Like the prospect of Steve being involved with someone else never occurred to that super power brain of his.  Steve doesn’t know how to react in the slightest, so he stands there like a deer caught in headlights.  When Tony realizes he’s not going to get the answers he wants from staring, he turns back to Maggie.  “Is that so?” Maggie just nods, too entranced by the console.  Steve says nothing, waiting for a barrage of questions that actually doesn’t come.  “Okay then, Peg-Leg.  Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”

Maggie laughs more, and there’s another second Steve reconsiders calling this whole thing off, but he’s just glued to his spot as Tony starts powering up the yacht’s engines.  They rumble to life, content and running perfectly.  Tony stands at the wheel and grips the throttle.  “Full speed ahead.”

A couple minutes later, they’re off.  Tony keeps it at low power as they slip slowly away from the marina, but the second they’re further out into the bay, he pushes the throttle up and the yacht really starts to go.  Steve’s never been on a ship this big; it’s shocking just how sleek and steady it is as it cuts through the water.  The engines hum, the sound muffled by the ship’s size, but Steve can tell they’re working well without seeing the gauges.  Tony’s not even checking them; he’s not worried at all.  Maggie’s leaning up as tall as she can beside him to see over the console.  “Here, Peg-Leg.  Stand up.”

From behind the chair, Steve winces at the thought of Maggie’s dirty shoes now right on the expensive white leather.  Maggie herself doesn’t think twice, getting to her feet so she can see.  She beams at Tony at the sight of the yacht’s bow boldly and beautiful jutting out before them, starkly white and silver against the sapphire waters.  “Where to?” Tony asks.

“Just around the bay is fine,” Steve immediately suggests.  There’s a little sand bar not too far out.  That’s where he typically takes Maggie when they go out, so she can splash in the waves and play in the sand, but there’s no way Tony’s going to be able to get a boat like this close enough with the water so shallow there.  “It’s a test drive, right?”

Tony doesn’t look particularly pleased with how Steve’s defined this outing.  “Okay, we can putter out a little further and then really let her go.”

“Yay!” Maggie whoops.  “Can we go up top?”

“Sure,” Tony says, and he lowers the throttle just a bit so they can maneuver a little easier.

Maggie hops down from the pilot’s chair, running over to Steve and grabbing his hand.  “Come on!”  She tugs him toward the steps that lead up to the upper deck.  Steve stumbles after her, sharing a glance with Tony, but he looks unhappy, finally taking a moment instead to check the screens and readouts on the control console.  The expression on his face is troubling when it really shouldn’t be, like he was hoping this is actually some kind of date (or that he could turn it into that), and yet again Steve feels unreasonably bad.

There’s no time to dwell though, because Maggie is yanking him up the steps.  “Easy,” Steve quietly admonishes.  “Slow down.”  She calms down only enough to obey him.  Apparently her earlier scare with falling has been completely forgotten as she quickly goes as far as she can forward before she hits the railing at the end of the deck.  There’s leather seating all around here, more of the same fancy stuff in addition to a small bar and some lounge chairs.  She stands at the end on her very tip toes to see over.  “Okay, yeah.  How about we not do that.”  Steve grabs a life jacket from one of the marked cabinets on the small deck and gets it on Maggie.  She’s not helping much, and it’s a little too big, but he zips it and clasps it into place without too much trouble.

The yacht gently jumps forward.  Steve stumbles just a bit with the increase in speed.  Stark’s really letting it loose now. The vessel’s racing across the water, the liquid spraying as the boat slices through it.  “It’s kinda like flying!” Maggie shouts.

Steve pushes up behind her, getting a hand on her life jacket and bracing her small body against his much larger one.  He grips the railing, holding her in place and looking out over her shoulder.  She’s right; it is like flying.  And it’s exactly what he daydreamed earlier today.  The bay is opening to the ocean, and it’s vast and endless and full of promise.  Freedom.  He holds her close, and for just a moment, he lets himself believe it’s real, that this is really their life, that they have this.  The freedom to go anywhere and do anything and be anything.  “Yeah,” he murmurs, dropping a kiss into her wind-blown hair.  “Yeah, it is.”

They fly for a bit longer. Tony turns out of the bay and speeds northward.  The wind is warm, sweet, and the sun’s bright and pleasant.  Steve falls into it.  It’s not often that he lets himself do that, just empty his mind and his heart and enjoy something without thinking about something else or worrying about anything.  There’s no choice here; the moment is so amazing that he just gets drawn into it, into holding Maggie against him and listening to her chatter in wonder at everything she’s seeing and hearing and feeling and experiencing.  He’s basking in her joy more than anything and permitting himself the rarest, most perfect, and most impossible fantasy of all.

That she’s his.

“Look over there!” Maggie says, tugging on Steve’s hand, and he opens eyes he let slip shut.  A speedboat is racing by them going the other way.  Maggie turns and waves excitedly, and the people aboard the speedboat wave back.  Normally that’d be the kind of boat they’d take out on a test ride, and she’d be waving to the rich people on their yachts.  The reversal is crazy, but the glee in Maggie’s eyes is indescribable, and Steve can’t help the huge smile that graces his face.

“Why does Mr. Stark keep looking at you funny?”

That question snaps him right out of his happy haze.  “Huh? What do you mean?”

“He looks at you a lot, and he’s got this funny expression on his face, like he wants to say something but doesn’t.”

Steve doesn’t answer for a moment, staring at the water which somehow doesn’t look so pretty and calm anymore.  This is definitely one of those times where he wishes Maggie isn’t so perceptive.  “He seems say whatever he wants all the time,” he deflects.

“I think he likes you.”  That’s pretty blunt, and it has him looking down at her.  She has this quizzical look on her face that would be adorable if not for the subject matter.  “Is it okay for two guys to like each other?”

“Of course it is,” Steve says quickly, although again he’s never really thought about it much.  At least in terms of himself.  He’s found other men attractive in the past but it’s never amounted to attraction before.  “Before”.  Don’t think of it like that, like there was a before.  Like he’s different from anyone else.  And you’re not attracted to him.  You’re not.

Maggie doesn’t know what he’s thinking obviously, which makes her response more poignant in a way.  “Do you like him?”  To that, Steve sighs.  It’s stupid to even think about it, but like everything else recently, he can’t just make himself say no.  So he says nothing at all, feeling pretty obvious all the same.  Maggie watches him, this time so naively and innocently.  “Maybe you should.  Bucket says you need to get out more.”

Damn it, Bucky.  “That’s not really his business,” Steve says.

Maggie shrugs.  “He says it is.  He says you need to get a life.”

Again Steve’s grinding his teeth together. “I have a life.  It’s you.”

“He says that doesn’t count.”

Lord.  “What do you two do?” he asks, a little exasperated.  “Sit around his place all day and talk about me?”

To that Maggie gives another shrug.  “Sometimes.  He worries.”

Steve shakes his head.  “What else is new,” he grumbles.  Then he sighs.  “I just fixed this guy’s boat, Mags.  And you wanted a test drive, and he kindly offered.  That’s it.”

She doesn’t buy that in the least.  “Then how come you look at him funny, too?”

“I don’t…”  He doesn’t know what to say.  “I don’t know.”

It’s quiet a moment save for the wind and the water striking the hull beneath them and the hum of the yacht.  Maggie leans back into his chest.  “He seems nice,” she finally says.  “I like him.”

Steve grunts a bit of a surprised chuckle.  “This your way of telling me you’re okay with me going for it?  Whatever it is.”  Not that it matters.  He’s not sure he wants there to be an it.

But then Maggie looks up at him, nothing but aghast.  “How should I know? I’m five.”

Now Steve laughs more freely. He squeezes her against him even more and kisses her head.  “I know.”

Maggie goes back to watching the bay rushing beneath them as the yacht rushes up the coast. “But I know it’s better to try new things. You tell me that all the time.” He does. He’s been telling her that for days about starting school. “You say everything’s going to be okay, no matter what.”

He knows he’s said that, too. Promised it, in fact. Everything’s okay. No matter what, things work out the way they’re meant to.  “Yeah,” he quietly agrees.

She looks up at him again.  “You should smile more.”

That bothers him, that Maggie may get a glimpse of just how unsettled he is and has been for years.  He’s never been very good at acting or hiding anything.  Peggy used to be so amused at just how obvious he is, and Natasha never hesitates to tell him he’s a terrible liar.  He doesn’t want Maggie to worry about him though or think that she’s a burden.  He’s never wanted her to think that.  “That something else Bucky’s been telling you?”

“No,” she simply states.  “It’s just a fact.”

The boat begins to slow, and the waves get choppier against the hull as it does.  Steve turns, looking down to where the cockpit is.  He can’t see Stark at first.  When the yacht’s at a stop, the other man appears at the bottom of the stairs.  “Keep going?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Steve replies.  “Everything’s working fine, right?  So we’re done testing.”  Maggie pulls away from him with a very loud, very whiny aw.  Inwardly Steve grimaces; he really needs to firm up against that tactic of hers.  Of course, it’s much harder now, with Tony looking as disappointed and despondent as Maggie sounds.  He puts a hand on Maggie’s head.  “It’s a school night.  We need to get home.  Do homework.”

“It’s the first day of school,” Maggie says in annoyance.  “There is no homework.  And I’m in kindergarten.

“And it’s not even five o’clock,” Tony adds.  “That’s not night.  Not in my world for sure, but I’m thinking not anywhere.”  He smiles.  “Come on.  We can breeze up the coast a little further, find a place to have dinner…  I’d have you back by seven?”

“Please?” Maggie begs, tugging on Steve’s arm. 

The longer this goes on, the harder it’s going to be to put a stop to it.  He should never have let it get this far.  “That’s really very kind of you, but we do have to get home.”

Tony’s face falls, once again like he was truly expecting that he could wrangle this outing into some kind of date.  That makes Steve feel lousy all over again.  Would it really be so bad?  Shirk all his doubts and fears, all his worries and responsibilities, and just go and do something because he wants to?  The last time he did something like that was with Peggy, back when he was younger and more naïve.  Just thinking about that – and all the pain that came from those carefree moments – sours that sudden want rapidly.  “No,” he declares more sternly.  “We really have to get going.”

Stark looks devastated.  That hurts even more, which it shouldn’t.  It’s not Steve’s fault in the least that this guy built up some sort of expectation that’s completely unrealistic.  They don’t know each other.  Period.  So what if this guy’s been flirting with him for basically twenty-four hours straight?  So what if he called and called just like he wants to hear Steve’s voice, like the sun rises and sets on Steve’s answers to his questions?  So what if he came all the way down here just to find out if Steve’s willing to go out with him?

So what if Maggie likes him?  Steve’s not looking to get involved with anyone.  He can’t get involved with anyone.

Incredibly handsome eccentric, playboy billionaires most of all.

At least Tony has the decency not to argue with him.  The rejection in his eyes is still sharp, but to his credit, he moves on.  “Okay.  I’ll get us back.”  He goes to move away from the bottom of the steps, but then he stops and comes back.  “Hey, Peg-Leg. You wanna come steer the ship?”

That makes Maggie perk up almost immediately.  “Really?”

“Sure.”

Maggie takes off to get back down the steps before Steve can stop her or even remind her to be careful.  Steve follows, nearly whacking his head on the low clearance of the stairway as he goes down.  Maggie is already clambering back toward the pilot’s chair.  Tony watches her flounder for a moment and then decides to give her a boost to get her situated.  He looks back at Steve right after he does that, like he’s sure Steve’s going to yell at him.  Or that he’s not sure he can touch her.  Either way, he’s looking at Steve like he wants some sort of permission, and when Steve isn’t sure and therefore doesn’t respond, Tony just clears his throat.

Then he puts on the worst pirate drawl imaginable.  “Arrr, me first mate Peg-Leg.  Lost her leg in a great battle with a giant sea crocodile!”

Maggie giggles.  “That’s Hook.”

“Oh.”  Out comes the goofy voice again.  “In a great battle with a giant sea alligator!”  She laughs more.  “But!  She has a keen sense of direction and is the best there is behind the wheel.”  At that Maggie just beams.  “Avast, ye matey!  Turn the sail and set course for the mainland!”

Maggie stands up on the seat, once more her dirty shoes marking up the leather.  Tony doesn’t seem to care in the slightest.  He stands beside her.  “Grip the wheel and turn to the port side while you push up the throttle.”

“Which is the port side?” she asks, wrapping her one hand around the leather and polished wood.  Her other goes to the throttle like it’s meant to be there, even if it looks so small.

“The left, ye blaggard!  What proper sailor doesn’t know her port from her starboard?” She laughs more, turning the wheel sharply to the left as she powers the engines up.  Steve nearly lurches forward to stop her.  “Whoa, there, matey,” Tony calmly advises. He doesn’t push her away or take her hands off.  Instead, with surprising patience, he guides her.  “Small motions.  We pirates may be portrayed as ruffians and hooligans, but we know the right way’s through little adjustments.”

Steve can’t help a small, surprised laugh.  This guy, this richer than richer playboy…  He’s actually really good with kids.  And maybe he does have experience; what does Steve know?  It sure seemed before like this is new to him.  Still, as he stands there and shows Maggie how to drive this million-dollar yacht, Steve can’t help but feel like this is okay.  He probably should be terrified at the liability implications; a five-year old should not be in charge of anything this expensive.  What if she crashes this thing?  What if she makes a mistake and damages it?  What if Stark gets mad at her?  What if none of this is what it seems?

But he’s not terrified.  He’s not thinking about any of it.  As he watches this stranger with Maggie, this knot of tension begins to unwind inside him, until he feels as loose and unbothered as the water beneath them.  Tony shows Maggie what the gauges on the console mean, how to tell which direction they’re headed, how to watch for other traffic in the bay, how to power up the engines and slow them down, how to turn into waves.  She’s completely engrossed all over again, hanging on every word he says.  Steve watches, and he feels calm and right.

Because she’s flying again, only this is different and even more powerful.  She looks so happy.

Maybe fifteen minutes later, they’re slowing down as they approach the marina.  Tony still hasn’t taken control from her, instead guiding her in what needs to be done.  She’s really gotten the hang of it now, anticipating his instructions before he’s even said them, which has Tony looking back at Steve again in confusion.  Steve turns away, trying to hide a surge of nervousness inside that has nothing to do with Maggie’s poorly concealed intelligence.  He goes to the rear of the boat as they boat closer, and when it’s close to the slip he jumps off.  One of the other yacht owners for whom he’s done repairs in the past is around, and he comes to help Steve tie the yacht up to the dock after Tony maneuvers it in place.

Once everything is secure, Steve goes back to the cockpit and finds Maggie jabbering a mile a minute.  “That was so cool!  We were going super fast, like the fastest boat ever, and did you see that wave I missed?  I’m the best first mate ever!”  Tony laughs, switching things off on the console.  Maggie’s bouncing.  “Can we do more?  Can we?”

Tony glances at Steve, clearly hoping there’s a chance something will change.  Steve manages a weak smile.  “We really do have to go.”

Maggie whines again.  Steve can see she’s getting tired, overstimulated from the early morning and all the activity and excitement, and if he doesn’t extract her now, he’ll be facing a meltdown.  He may be anyway, because Tony looks about as unhappy as she does.  He’s doing a marginally better job at hiding it.  “School is overrated,” he declares.  “Especially when you’re as smart as we are.”  Steve stiffens again, even though he’s more sure than ever that Tony doesn’t really know anything about them.  The other man misinterprets his reaction.  “But you need it, right?  We all need it.  So we should call it a day.”

Maggie shakes her head.  “I don’t like school.  It’s boring.  Can’t you be my teacher?”

Tony gives a surprised chuckle.  “Don’t think that’s allowed?”

Her face falls.  “Well, can you come back tomorrow?” She shrugs out of her lifejacket and then hands it to Steve.  “He won’t ask you, so I have to.”

“Maggie,” Steve chastises, but she doesn’t apologize.

And Tony doesn’t say anything.  He just appraises Steve with a bit of a smirk on his face.  The sun’s low enough now that bright golden light is spilling into the luxurious cockpit, and smoothly he puts his sunglasses back on.  It’s like that flirty and somewhat fake mask comes with them, and the open and vulnerable man who was there just a moment ago is gone.  “Kid’s got a point.”  Steve rolls his eyes a little, putting the lifejacket away in the interior storage cabinet.  “I mean, I could come hang with her if you don’t want to join in.”

“Mr. Stark, come on.”

“Kidding!  Kidding.”

But the offer has Maggie pouting and not in a fake or manipulative way.  As he nudges and directs her out of the yacht, Steve has to wonder if her little talk before on the deck was less about him smiling more and more about her wanting something else in her life.  He’s lying to himself if he says he’s never worried about her growing up with one parent (well, one parental figure).  Sure, Bucky and Natasha are nearly permanent fixtures in her life, but she doesn’t live with them. They’re not part of her household. Steve’s felt bad about that, that it’s just him, that she doesn’t have a mother and he’s not good enough to be worth two parents.  The funny thing is until now he’s always attributed that to his own insecurities.  She’s never been interested in anyone like this before. He wants to think that’s only because Stark is obviously incredibly smart and has a ton of cool gadgets, and she’s smart and loves technology, and that Stark’s only interested in him because he’s a quick lay or something…  But Steve knows more than ever that’s not true.

How many people looking for an easy hook-up would spend this much time, effort, and money getting it?

The three of them are silent as they leave the yacht.  Steve wonders for a moment if he’s the only one wool-gathering, but he steals a glance or two at Tony as they quietly walk back to the main marina.  The other man’s pensive as well, but he’s not looking at Steve.  At least, not just at Steve.  He’s studying Maggie, too.  For her own part, Maggie is putting on a show of ignoring them both.  She’s angry, and she’s tired, and she’s not hiding either at all.

She’s not the only one who’s irate.  The second they make it through the maze of docks and reach the main area, Thor’s there.  His face is dark, and he looks stormy.  “Mr. Stark, your car is in my parking spot.”

Tony stops.  He stands on his tip toes to look down over Thor’s shoulder to where the lot is.  Steve follows his gaze and sees an unbelievably nice-looking sports car by the marina building.  Steve knows nothing about race cars, but he knows that’s not the same car Stark drove yesterday.  It’s not exactly parked in Thor’s parking spot.  There aren’t parking spots; if there ever were lines on the worn down asphalt, they’ve long faded with the Floridian elements.

But Thor is obviously itching for a fight.  His disdain for Tony from the morning has obviously grown throughout the day.  Or something else has set him off.  Thor burns hot and fast, and for how funny and compassionate he is, he’s not the best about handling his temper.  “And you’ve taken up way too much of our time.  Steve hasn’t been able to work on anything aside from your boat for the past twenty-four hours.”

That’s not exactly true. Tony frowns, and before Steve can say anything, he’s defending himself. “I’m paying for him to do that.”

“You’re not paying him to entertain you.” That’s overly harsh, and Thor’s saying it to Tony, not to Steve, which is not fair, because if Thor should be mad at anyone, it should be him (though for what, Steve doesn’t know.  They’re partners in a sense; Steve rents space from Thor, and they both pitch in on bills and supplies, but Thor’s not his boss, not really).  Thor’s glaring at Tony while jabbing a finger toward Steve.  “If he’s busy dealing with your crap, he’s not working on the huge pile of jobs we have.”

Steve’s not sure how “huge” the pile is.  They’re doing fine, but he’s got a feeling that’s said with emphasis to show Stark how much they don’t need his business.  And all of this vitriol isn’t warranted.  “Thor, easy.  It’s alright.  I needed to give Mr. Stark’s yacht a test, and I did that, and everything is good.”  Thor’s eyes dart to Maggie where she’s between Steve and Tony.  It’s clear he’s not pleased that she’s next to Tony or that Tony’s had anything to do with her.  Steve sighs.  “It’s fine.  We’re all set.”

Whatever bug Thor has up his butt (and Steve’s betting it has more to do with Thor’s dislike of all wealthy people than anything else) keeps the argument going. “Once the account’s settled, you’re back to New York or Malibu or wherever the heck you’re from, right?”

Tony just stares at him.  “I’m sorry.  I thought I was the customer here.  And if you’re in a tizzy because I wasted his time, I’ll compensate him for his time.  Over-compensate him.”  He tries for a smile, like he’s not sure if he should be confrontational or more amiable.  “I already offered before, but I could really do some incredible things for you.”

Thor seems shocked, but that lasts for a blink before he’s affronted.  Of course he would be.  Steve’s dealt with Tony enough over the last day to realize he’s just like this, offering his resources left and right without a care for how other people may perceive it.  “We don’t need your money.  In fact, we don’t need anything from you.” Thor steps closer, and Tony actually retreats a bit.  Stark’s not a terribly tall guy, and Thor positively towers over him. “So pay your damn bill and get out of our hair.”

Tony blanches, but then he frowns.  “Dude, anyone ever tell you hobo isn’t the best of looks?  And this place…  Dump is probably a compliment.”  Thor growls.  “You could do with a makeover.”

Thor’s glower gets even colder.  “Not from the likes of you.”

“The likes of me?  What, a paying client?  This how you treat everyone who comes in here with work for you to do?  When I got here, I thought you’d be different from everyone else around here who turned me down.”

“That not enough of a sign for you that rich folks aren’t welcomed?”  Steve winces at that.  It’s not like that’s really a thing around here, this division between the wealthy and the working class (at least, not any more than anywhere else, he thinks).  This is Thor projecting again.  “People like you are always so dense.”

“Wow,” Tony says.  “Harsh. I don’t know what I did to piss you off–”

“By coming here. We don’t need your money.  We don’t need your business.  And I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing but–”

“It’s alright!” Steve says, moving between the two men. The situation is ridiculous, escalating really fast for no reason at all, and Maggie’s right there watching and listening.  At the very least he has to get her away.  He sets his hands on Thor’s shoulders and gently but physically moves him back.  “Why don’t you take Maggie to the back room, huh?  Get a snack while I check Mr. Stark out.”  He realizes what he said, and his cheeks absolutely burn.  “Check out Mr. Stark.”  That’s not better.  He can practically imagine Tony smirking behind him, but he turns and glances, and the other man is surprisingly solemn.  “I’m going to settle his bill, okay, and then he’ll be going.”  Thor is glaring daggers around Steve’s head.  “Okay?” Steve prompts again.

“Aye,” the big guy rumbles, and like that the tension recedes to a much more tolerable level.  Thor’s still eyeing Tony like he’s public enemy number one, and Tony’s still holding his ground, but it seems less like the two are about to throw down.  Thor holds out a huge hand to Maggie.  “Come, little one.”

Maggie seems a little reluctant to leave Steve, but she acquiesces, going forward to take Thor’s hand.  Steve hands Thor her backpack that he grabbed from Tony’s yacht before they left, and they head toward the shop.  The large man looks down at the little girl.  “I have Ho-hos and Yoo-hoo.”

“Ho-hos and Yoo-hoo?” Maggie says, and her quiet mood transforms into glee.  Steve inwardly groans at the idea of that much sugar before dinner.  “Yes!”

“Yes, indeed!” Thor says, and then he’s swinging her up.  She looks so small in his arms, giggling madly as he tosses her over his shoulder and then bounces his way to the shop.  He pauses right before going inside to glare one more time at Tony.

Steve resists the urge to roll his eyes.  Once they’re out of sight, he sighs and takes a step toward their office.  “Come on.”

“Not necessary.”

Steve turns to see Tony pulling his checkbook out of his suit.  He’s got a pen, too, a nice one, and he’s scribbling into the book with an annoyed expression like he hasn’t had to write a check a while.  “I think, Steve Rogers the Boat Mechanic, that you’ve answered my question.”

Steve shakes his head.  “Huh?”

“You kept saying the answer, and I guess I didn’t want to hear it.  But now I have, and I swore to you that I’d respect it, so…”  He rips the check from the book and hands it to Steve.  “Here.”

Head spinning in sudden confusion, Steve’s slow to take it.  “I didn’t answer…  I mean, I didn’t say…”  He feels his forehead furrow as he looks down and reads the check.  “Mr. Stark, this is way too much!”

“The fact that we’re back to Mr. Stark says everything, Mr. Rogers,” Tony says.  He’s not angry per se, but the disappointment is sharp in his face even with his sunglasses on, and he seems like he’s trying to keep his voice free of it.  “And the extra’s for your trouble.  Put it to good use.  No matter what your buddy says, this place needs an upgrade.”  He looks around again like he’s making certain of that, but mostly it seems a distraction to keep from looking at Steve.  “So do that.  Or take that girl of yours somewhere special.  A brain like that needs extra care and attention; trust me, I know better than anyone.”

Steve’s flummoxed, and something inside his chest just hurts.  “I don’t understand.”

“No reason to play dumb,” Tony says.  He offers a smile that just seems broken.  “I can take a hint.  After making a fool of myself apparently, but that’s fine.”

“No, no,” Steve says, and he thrusts the check back to Tony.  “I am not taking this.”

“Yeah, you are.”

No. There’s no way in the world that the few hours I spent is worth–” He can’t finish.  He can’t get over the fact that Tony Stark just wrote him a check for twenty thousand dollars.  For a five hundred dollar repair job.  He shakes his head more and more, horrified.  “I can’t take this.”

“Tell yourself it’s for emotional distress.”

“You didn’t – you haven’t – no!”

“Then call it a bribe.”  Tony’s smile is utterly self-deprecating.  “For keeping this fiasco quiet.  Not that you seem the type to blab to the tabloids.  Pretty sure about that now.”

Steve’s stomach clenches, and his skin crawls.  “I’d never–”

“Then it’s just a gift.  You accept those, don’t you?” Steve’s mouth drops open, and Tony just keeps talking faster and faster.  “It’s a gift.  Because I like you.  And I want to give it to you.  So please take the money and do what you will with it and that’ll be that.  It’s settled, and now I can go, so I’ll just go.”  He takes Steve’s other hand and lifts it and shakes it vigorously.  “Nice to meet you, Steve Rogers.”  Then he turns on his heel just like that and starts towards his car.

Steve just stares.  He’s utterly flabbergasted, heart throbbing, brain stalled.  In the one hand, he has the check.  The other is uselessly extended outward where Tony shook it.  This is what he wanted, right?  What’s for the best?  Tony Stark is leaving his life just as suddenly and enigmatically as he came into it.  Now everything can go back to normal.

Yet the heat of the other man’s hand lingers on Steve’s fingers.  The feel of his calluses.  Tony’s a rich man, sure, but he doesn’t have pampered hands.  And he’s a rich man, sure, but he truly is generous.  And kind.  And so damn smart.  And arrogant.  And a bit of an asshole, but not in a way that hurts or is demeaning or condescending.  And handsome and strange and wild and vulnerable and…

And Maggie likes him.

Who the hell is he kidding?  He likes him, too.  He likes him.

So he runs.  “Wait!  Wait!” Tony’s to his car by the time Steve catches up to him, and he’s got the driver’s door open.  Steve is breathing a bit heavily, and his heart is hammering, and that’s not really from the sprint.  “You really talk too much,” he says, “but if you shut up for one damn second, maybe you could hear my actual answer.”

Tony’s eyes are unreadable again behind his sunglasses.  He stares, and Steve feels all his certainty threaten to fizzle under that intense gaze.  No.  Go forward.  He takes a deep breath and finally says, “Yes.”

The other man’s motionless as if he doesn’t know what to make of that.  “Yes?”

Of course he’ll make Steve say it all.  “Yes, I will go out with you.”  The smile that slowly spreads over Tony’s face is bright, beautiful.  Intoxicating.  Steve swallows through a dry throat, trying not to sink into euphoria that he caused that.  “But there have to be some rules.”

For a second, Tony is utterly speechless.  “Uh…  Yeah, okay.  What?”  Steve takes a deep breath.  Before he can speak though, Tony’s interrupting again.  “Before you say anything – and not that I don’t want to hear it – but before you say anything, I need to ask you something.”

Steve exhales that breath and deflates.  “Yeah?”

“You’re not involved with anyone, are you?”

That’s such a weird thing to be questioning at this point.  “You’re asking me this now?”

Tony shrugs.  He looks a bit ashamed.  “Well, to be honest, despite all my bullshit, I really didn’t think you’d say yes.”  Steve’s not sure why, but that stings a little.  “But I figured if you really wanted me to lay off, you would have told me the truth if you are.  You know, if you’re with someone.  Or lied if you’re not.  Then again, you could’ve told me about the offspring, and you didn’t do that either.  You also seem like way too decent a guy to ever cheat on someone.  And no ring.”  Tony nods to Steve’s left hand, which Steve lifts.  He rubs at his naked ring finger nervously and then stops himself.  “So… yeah.  Margaret Rogers Senior not in the picture?”

The question hurts, but Steve ignores the pain before it gets louder.  It’s almost automatic, how any mention of Peggy brings it all back.  He has to stop with that if he’s ever going to move on.  And that’s what this is about.  “No, I’m not seeing anyone.  And I’m not married.”

Tony grins, and all the tension leaves him.  The excitement is back.  “Yay.  I’m not, either.  Dating or married.” Then he grimaces.  “Not that I would cheat on anyone!  I’m not like that anymore.  That playboy crap?  It really is behind me.”  He winces harder.  “Shit.  I’m screwing this up again.  Why do I suck so much at talking to you?”

“It’s okay,” Steve says, trying not to doubt, either.

Tony falters in the awkward beat that follows, but he grins.  “So rules.  Go.”

Again Steve takes a deep breath.  He gathers himself, trying to get his thoughts back in order.  “Okay, so there are three.”

“Got it.”

“First, I’ve, uh…  I’ve never done this before.  With a guy.”  He feels his cheeks burn at admitting that.  Tony just smiles.  “So I have no idea what I’m doing.  If that’s a problem, I want to know now.”

“Not unless it’s a problem for you,” Tony replies.

“I’m… not sure what it is, to be frank.  I’ve never thought about this until now.  You’re the first man’s ever, uh…”

“Made a pass at you?”

His blush is probably as a red as a tomato at this point.  He rubs the back of his neck.  “Yeah.”

Tony’s grin gets a little sly, not in a predatory way, but definitely hungry. “It’s fine with me.  If you find out this isn’t something you like, we can end it just like that, okay?  It’s a date, nothing more.”

“And that’s rule two,” Steve manages.  He clear his throat.  “I don’t want to rush into anything.  No commitments.  Nothing really serious.  And definitely nothing in the bedroom.  Okay?”

It takes another beat, but Tony manages to school his face into something more controlled.  “Absolutely.”

Once more Steve lets out a long breath, relieved.  “And the last thing…  If we do this?  We do it on equal footing.”  He takes Tony’s hand and pushes the check back into it.  “I don’t want you paying for everything or buying me a bunch of stuff or trying to woo me or whatever with your money.  I don’t like that.  You’re not paying me to go out with you or be with you or do anything else, okay? Equal footing.”

Tony stares at the slightly crumpled check with a bit of a frown.  “I can’t buy you anything?” he asks quietly after a moment.  “Not anything?

Steve stays firm.  “Tony.”

“Yeah, okay.”  He says that like refraining from spending a ton of money is an actual chore.  “That it?”

Steve honestly considers that a moment, because it’s obvious Tony is honestly asking him.  “One more thing.”  He looks Tony right in the eye.  “She comes first.” He’s never been more sure of anything than he is of that.

And Tony seems to respect it.  “Yeah, I figured.  That’s why I’m suggesting we go out Friday night.  I have to go to Washington DC for a couple days, but I can be back here by then.  And it’s not a school night, right?”

“Uh… no?”

“So Friday then.  At six?”

This seems like it’s happening so fast.  “Sure?  I think?”

Tony grins toothily.  “Friday at six.  I’ll pick you up and bring the payment for the boat.  Which can stay here for now, right?” Steve opens his mouth, but he gets interrupted again.  “Cool, thanks.  And don’t worry; I’ll find your place.  I have my ways.”  Then Tony’s coming around the car door and taking Steve’s left hand.  He lifts it, standing so close Steve can smell his cologne.  His own bewildered face is reflected back at him in Tony’s sunglasses as the other man smiles that alluring, Cheshire-cat grin, as he lifts Steve’s hand and very carefully kisses his knuckles.  He does it slowly, almost sensuously, and he’s studying Steve the whole time he does it.  Steve’s mouth goes dry.  His heart stops.  He can’t move or think.

He just takes the moment.

Tony’s voice is almost a purr against his skin.  “It’s a date then.”

A breath later, the other man’s getting into his car.  The engine roars to life, jolting Steve from an overwhelmed stupor.  Tony rolls down the window and smiles broadly.  “Can’t wait.  Tell Peg-Leg I’m coming?”

With that, the billionaire pulls out of the lot and races down the street, leaving Steve standing there, still feeling the heat of his hand and the rough scratch of those calluses and now the soft brush of his lips.