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The Smithsonian Guard

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Stan doesn't get fired.

There is a big fuss about it, naturally, but when Captain American himself phones to explain the situation, things calm down.

So he gets back to working nights and the early hours of the morning. It's what he loves doing, and he's happy that he's still allowed to be there. Happy to experience the solitude and silence of the night, with nothing but the exhibits to keep him company — and happy to see the first rays of sunlight filtering through the big windows, a few specs of dust floating languidly in the light. After that the visitors start to come, whether they're morning persons or just tourists trying to cram as much into their itinerary as possible.

And then, one day, Captain America shows up. He's incognito, wearing jeans and a baseball cap. Stan thinks it best to just pretend he doesn't notice, but the Captain's eyes roam over the place until they finally stop on him.

He walks over to Stan, politely taking off his cap when he's close enough to smile, though his eyes dart nervously around — clearly not wanting to be recognized.

"Hello," he says, "I'm Steve Rogers."

"I know," Stan croaks, before mentally kicking himself. "I mean, hello. It's an honor to meet you, Captain America."

The Captain's smile widens. "Please, call me Steve."

Unable to do much else, and feeling like a starstruck schoolgirl, Stan nods.

"I came to apologize in person. I'm afraid the uniform is in no shape to be on display, ever again."

"Oh, no — it's fine. It was for a good cause, right? Besides, it was yours to begin with."

"Thank you for understanding," the Captain — Steve — says. It looks like he's about to say more, but then his eyes suddenly fasten on something behind Stan. He grows very pale and still, hardly even breathing.

Stan turns to follow his line of vision. They're close by the Captain America section, but it's too early in the day for there to be much of a crowd. It doesn't take much guessing to understand who has caught Steve's attention.

"Aha," he says, feeling an odd swell of pride, "you noticed him! He stood out to me as well, when I first saw him."

"He's been in here before?" Steve asks. He sounds very interested in the answer, but his gaze doesn't stray from the man before them — it doesn't even look like he's blinking.

"He's shown up every day around this time, for... about a week? Right after you stole-" he cuts himself off, horrified.

But Steve doesn't even seem to realize his faux pas. He just keeps on staring. Shrugging, Stan continues. "Like I said, I paid him close attention at first, but he's harmless. He just hangs around this particular exhibit until it starts getting crowded, and then he leaves. Probably homeless, what with the scruffy look and always wearing the same clothes. The admission's free, so a lot people like him come in here to get warm."

Things like that always makes Stan sad to see, and Steve seems feel the same way. He swallows, and his eyes take on a suspicious sheen.

Stan looks down. He has no right to observe something so private, especially not from such a great man.

"What's your name?"

The question floors him for a moment. "Stan," he finally gets out, awed that Captain America wants to know his name.

Steve nods, eyes briefly flickering towards Stan before becoming fixed, once again, on the homeless man. "I know this is forward, but can I ask you for a favor? Please, Stan. I'll owe you one."

Oh boy, wait till he got home and told Marjorie about this!

...The memory of just where Marjorie is hits hard, as always. Two years, it's been, and he just can't seem to come to terms with it. He takes a deep breath, glad Steve isn't really paying any attention to him.

"Of course," he answers, voice only wavering a little.

"Thank you. I'm going to go and buy some food, and I'd like for you to give it to him."

Stan raises his eyebrows. That isn't what he'd expected at all. "Don't you want to give it to him yourself?" he asks.

"No, I don't think that's a good idea. Please don't mention me; just say it's from you."

He thinks about it for a moment, finally coming to the conclusion that Steve probably doesn't want to reveal himself. He's seen several celebrity interviews where they go on and on about their desire for privacy, so perhaps it's the same thing with superheroes.

"Sure thing," he agrees. "But don't be disappointed if he gets mad and refuses to take it — pride can be the last thing a man has left."

"I'll keep a close watch. If he acts threateningly I'll intervene. Don't worry, I'll protect-"

"Now wait just a minute, young man," Stan protests, willfully ignoring the fact that Steve is technically older than he is. "I am a security guard. If there is to be any protecting, I'll be the one to do it."

Steve turns his head, giving Stan his full attention at last. There is sincerity and warmth in his eyes, and no hint of mockery whatsoever when he says, "I'm sorry, you're right. I didn't mean to step on your toes."

"Nah, it's fine," Stan says, feeling a bit embarrassed. "Guess I have a problem with my pride, too."

Steve grins. "I'll be off then. See you in a bit."

Stan returns the grin, and watches as Steve takes one last look at the man before leaving. His jaw is tightly clenched as he turns away, as if it physically hurt to let him out of his sight.

It's strange, and his imagination starts to make up all kinds of crazy stories. But it doesn't take long before Steve returns — he must've broken into a run as soon as he was out of the Smithsonian.

He hands a brown paper bag over to Stan, eyes already searching the small crowd. Stan can tell when he locates his mystery man; his entire body relaxes, like it's a huge relief to still find him here.

Strange indeed.

"There are a couple of hamburgers, fries, and a drink in there. Just... ask him to eat it, please."

Stan resists executing a sloppy salute. He simply nods instead, and walks towards his goal. Said goal notices Stan's approach before he's even halfway, and hunches in on himself even more than before.

"Hello there," Stan says, stopping a few steps away — it seems like a good idea to keep a bit of a distance, at least until he gets a better read on the guy. "I accidentally got too much food, and I figured I'd offer it to you instead of throwing it away."

There is nothing but suspicion and distrust in the blue eyes. After apparently dismissing Stan as a non-threat, his eyes scan the room. Stan glances back, too, oddly relieved to see that Steve is nowhere in sight.

"What's in it?"

His voice is hoarse, like it hasn't been used in days.

"Uh, just some hamburgers and-"

"That is not what I meant."

Stan frowns, not understanding what he's asking. Then it hits him. "Hell, son, it's not poisoned. Look, I'll show you," he says, reaching down to grab a couple of fries. He puts them in his mouth, chews, and swallows. "Now, if I eat any more than that my boss is gonna have my head for snacking on the job, so just take it, will ya?"

He extends the bag, almost shoving it at the man's chest. Perhaps by reflex, his hands come up to grab it, and Stan immediately takes the opportunity to let go.

They stand like that for a while, then he whirls around and all but runs away — but the bag of food is still gripped in his hand, and Stan takes that as a victory.

Whether or not Steve thinks that way, remains unknown. He, too, is gone.

----

"Hi."

He's somewhat expected it, but it still feels a bit unreal to see Steve again. "Hello."

"I'm sorry about disappearing yesterday, Stan."

"Don't mention it. Did you..." he hesitates, no sure if he should pry or not, but dammit, he wants to know. "Did you follow him?"

Steve smiles, but it's sad and doesn't reach his eyes. "Yeah, or at least I tried to. Lost sight of him right away."

"Sorry."

Steve shrugs slightly, eyes wandering over the room. It doesn't take a genius to know what he's looking for. There is a duffel bag slung over his shoulder, and Stan would be willing to bet good money on it containing food of some sort, maybe even a change of clothes.

"Hope he'll be back today, huh?"

Steve doesn't even look embarrassed, he just presses his lips together and nods. "Yes."

"I'll keep my fingers crossed for you. Gotta do my rounds now, so I'll catch up with you later."

"Okay, bye for now."

Steve stays for several hours, just scanning the crowd while trying to melt into the shadows himself. Stan talks to him every time he passes by, and shares his disappointment when it's obvious that the homeless man isn't gonna show.

----

It's the same story the next day.

Still, Steve simply grips the duffel bag and says goodbye. The set of his shoulder and the stubborn line of his jaw tell Stan all he needs to know. He'll be back, no doubt about it.

----

On the third day, the homeless man comes. He's pretty much the first damn person to enter the museum, and Steve hasn't arrived yet.

Stan grimaces. Should he just leave things alone, or...? But then the man spots him, eyes narrowing.

Awkwardly, he offers up a little wave. The man's face grows even darker, and he starts walking over to Stan.

"The food was fine," he says by way of greeting.

"Well, yeah," Stan says, forcing a laugh, "as good as fast food can get — which isn't very good. But you young people like it, I know."

His blue eyes get a distant look, but he doesn't respond to the joke beyond that.

"Now, take my wife's cooking... That is fine food."

Wonder of wonders, an almost imperceptible smile curls the edges of his mouth.

Emboldened, Stand holds out his hand. "I'm Stan, by the way."

He hesitates for a long while before, painfully slowly, taking Stan's hand and shaking it. He has a firm, good grip. "James," he says, but he sounds slightly unsure about it — a lie, perhaps.

Well, no matter, a name doesn't mean much in the big picture anyway. "Jimmy, then?" he asks.

More hesitation, then a quick nod.

"Nice to meet you, Jimmy."

Jimmy cocks his head to the side, like he's trying to remember something. "Likewise," he finally says.

"I should probably look busy for a while, in case someone important is looking," Stan jokes. "But stick around; I've got some more food for you."

Jimmy looks down, staring at his feet. "I have nothing to give in return."

"Nonsense! Not many people will take the time to talk to an old man like me, you know. I appreciate it, kiddo."

The smile returns, a little bigger this time — but still very shaky. "I appreciate it too. Stan," he adds after a moment of thought, looking almost nervous and shy about it. Maybe he isn't used to calling older people by their first names.

Stan just grins in return, hoping to show that that's the way he wants it.

He feels oddly happy about the whole thing as he walks away. Steve better not surprise him by not showing up, now that he's already promised to deliver food. Worst come to worst, he'll buy something for Jimmy himself.

He's a couple of rooms from the Captain America exhibit when someone claps a hand on his shoulder. Heart racing, he turns around — and it's just Steve.

"Damn, don't scare me like that," he chastises.

"Sorry, I just — I saw you talking to him. He smiled!" Steve sounds amazed, like something wonderful has happened and he can't quite believe it.

"He's a good kid. A bit lost, maybe, but his heart seems to be in the right place."

"Yeah," Steve whispers, the tone of his voice making it clear that he's a million miles away.

"Uh, so, I kinda promised him food...?"

That snaps Steve out of his reverie. "Yes, of course. Good thinking, thanks." He holds out the duffel bag. "There's food and clothes in there, plus some cash."

"Gee, I don't know... I didn't mention anything like that, and he's pretty skittish. I think it's better to stick with just food for now." He can hardly believe himself; giving advice to Captain America like some wise old sage.

But Steve actually listens, nodding to himself. "You're right. We shouldn't spook him."

We. It warms his heart to hear that, in the same way that Jimmy's smile had done.

"Oh, that's right — he said his name is Jimmy."

Steve is going through the duffel bag, removing everything but the food, but at Stan's words he actually drops everything.

Stan bends down to help him pick up the mess of clothes, amused that someone as perfect as Steve could actually be clumsy.

"I'll head back and give him this," he says when they're done. "Same drill as last time? You sure you don't want him to know it's from you?"

"Yes, completely sure. Stan..." he hesitates before continuing, "I know I'm asking a lot from you, but if you could tell him that there'll be something here for him, tomorrow again, I would really appreciate it."

"Kinda already planned on doing that, to tell the truth." He winks at Steve, before going back to Jimmy.

----

The routine keeps up for the following week, and slowly Stan starts to think of Jimmy as an actual friend. They talk a little every day, even though he has to be careful to not let any of the higher-ups notice — but Jimmy's real good with that. Once, his boss approaches without him noticing. Jimmy saves the situation by smoothly thanking him for the directions.

Steve is a good guy too, it isn't that. It's just plain as day that Stan's a steppingstone to him —his real interest is in Jimmy.

It starts to make him feel uncomfortable, always having to lie to Jimmy about where the food comes from, as does Steve's eager questions about the things he says. He wishes he had the guts to say something about it, either tell Steve off or reveal the truth to Jimmy.

But he can't. Steve doesn't seem to have any bad motivation for doing what he does, however convoluted and strange it seems to him — and, more than that, the hell of it is that he doesn't want to risk losing Jimmy's friendship.

----

It's just after midnight when Stan heads to work. He's running a bit late, so he decides to take a shortcut through an alley instead of going around the whole block.

The alley is dark, and he regrets the decision even before a sneering man steps out from behind a dumpster.

"Give me your money, pops, and I might let you keep all your body parts." The threat is punctuated by a wicked-looking knife, serrated blade glinting dully in the sparse light.

Before Stan even has a chance to reply, a shadow appears from nowhere and wrenches the knife from the mugger's hand. He's tackled to the ground, and — Jimmy, it's Jimmy — punches him. Once, twice, lips drawn back in a silent snarl, and for a moment it seems like he'll continue, even though the mugger is out like a light.

Then Jimmy drops him like a hot coal, stepping back and shaking his head as if trying to clear it.

"Jimmy."

Slowly, he looks over at Stan. "Are you alright?" he asks.

"Thanks to you, yeah. Damn, that was... I... Thank you."

"I'll walk you the rest of the way. If you're still going in to work, that is?"

"Yes, I have to — I'll call the police as soon as I get there."

Jimmy stiffens, a hunted look flickering over his face.

"I won't mention you," Stan quickly adds. "I promise."

"Thanks."

They start walking. Stan is still feeling a bit shaky, but it feels reassuring to have Jimmy next to him. If he hadn't been around...

Wait, why was he around? It couldn't be a mere coincidence, could it?

"Say, Jimmy," he drawls, "did you just happen to be in the neighborhood?"

Jimmy actually winces. "I followed you."

"You what?"

"It's a dangerous town, especially at this time of night. I just wanted to..." he trails off, sounding miserable.

'Guess we can call it even, then,' Stan wants to say, 'because I've helping someone spy on you.' But he doesn't. "I see," he says instead, slowly. "That's actually very nice of you, if you think about it."

Jimmy is apparently surprised by that, as he promptly stumbles over his own feet. "You're not angry?" he says, voice small and hopeful.

"Friends should look out for each other, right?"

For the first time, Jimmy gives him a completely genuine smile — no fear or anguish lurking in its depths. It makes his blue eyes sparkle in the night, and for a second Stan feels sorry that Steve isn't there to see it.

----

The night passes quickly. A few minutes before opening time, the receptionist whose name he can never seem to remember, runs up to him.

"There's a message for you," she says, a little out of breath. "Someone named Steve called."

Stan frowns. "What did he want?"

She looks down to a scrap of paper clenched in her hands. "He said: 'Something came up. If I had a choice I wouldn't go, but I have to. Please arrange something for Jimmy — I'll reimburse you as soon as I can.'"

Feeling slightly insulted by that last sentence, Stan simply nods. It wouldn't do to give the poor girl grief about it; it's hardly her fault.

"He was very nice," she says, a slight blush on her face.

"Yeah," Stan grumbles, "I know."

Forcing a smile as thanks, Stan heads into the museum as the first few visitors start to enter.

Jimmy shows up a few minutes later, and by then Stan has made up his mind.

"Hi again," Jimmy says when Stan walks over. He has a slight frown on his face, and his eyes keep drifting around the room — as if something is out of place.

Ignoring it, Stan launches into the little speech he's been mentally rehearsing since getting Steve's message. "Hi to you too. Listen, as thanks for saving me, how about you let me cook you dinner? I get off work in an hour, so you could either wait or meet me at my place — you know where I live, after all."

Jimmy looks a bit sheepish, which is what he'd intended with that teasing remark. Better to joke about it and keep him at ease; there's a bigger chance he'll accept the invitation that way.

Still, it doesn't seem like it's enough. "I don't know," he says, frown deepening.

Stan decides to switch tactics. "I understand if you'd rather not. I mean, most people have probably just finished eating breakfast — but that's how it is, working nights. Don't worry about it."

"No, I don't care about that — I've been up all night, and I don't sleep much anyway. But are you sure your wife won't mind? I probably look like shit, and I don't imagine I smell much better."

It's like getting an unexpected slap. But how could Jimmy have known? Stan has only mentioned Marjorie once, and that hadn't even been in past tense. It's his own damn fault.

"It won't be a problem," he manages to say.

"Stan? What is it?"

"I'll see you at my place, okay?" He just needs to have a few moments to himself. He can explain everything later.

Jimmy, perhaps understanding the feeling, lets him go without protest.

----

Jimmy is waiting by the building entrance when he gets there, leaning against the wall and basically radiating unease.

There is a bouquet of flowers in his hand and it looks like he's tried to clean up. His hair is still a bit wet.

It hurts to see, and Stan silently vows to try and help him — really help, not just act as some middleman for Steve.

"I'm glad you came," he says. "It's just up the stairs, second floor." Jimmy probably knows that already, but no matter.

Jimmy nods and trails behind him. Stan glances back, looking at the flowers. They're all wildflowers, and there's even a brightly yellow dandelion in the mix.

"Did you pick those?"

"Yeah," Jimmy mumbles. "Someone once told me that I should never enter another person's home empty-handed."

"Mm, that's good advice. Your mother?"

He gets that distant, faraway look again. "I think so," he finally says.

It's a strange thing to say, but hell, Stan's memory isn't the best either. Although he has the excuse of old age to fall back on.

Arriving at the door to his apartment, Stan unlocks it and steps aside. "Come on in."

He's glad to see that Jimmy doesn't hesitate before stepping in, though he does look around a bit. Perhaps looking for potential exit routes or merely trying to see if Marjorie is around, and oh, Stan really needs to explain things.

"I'm just gonna go get a vase for those," he says, delaying the inevitable.

Jimmy is still rooted to the spot when he returns, but his eyes are on a row of photographs over by the window. "I'm sorry," he says, voice subdued, "I should've realized. She's not here anymore, is she?"

"No, she's not. She died two years ago." Strange, it's easier than he'd expected to say it.

Jimmy looks at the photos again, a sad smile on his lips. "She's beautiful."

"Yes," Stan agrees, warmth blooming inside of him, "she is. I love her dearly."

They stand in silence for a while, but it's nice. Companionable. After a while he remembers his manners, and gestures for Jimmy to actually step beyond the front door.

"She would've loved these," he says, as he reaches out to take the flowers.

Jimmy lets go of the bouquet and lets his hand fall, but not before Stan sees the dried blood caked on his palm.

In a flash, Stan remembers the mugger's knife. Jimmy had used his bare hand to wrench it away, and must've gotten cut up in the process.

"God, your hand..." he says, feeling terrible about not realizing it sooner.

Jimmy's reaction is strange and utterly inexplicable. He stiffens up and quickly shoves his other hand behind his back. And sure, Stan has noticed that he always wears a glove on that hand, but he hasn't given it much thought. Perhaps it was just a matter of being a fan of that Michael Jackson fellow — though Jimmy seems a little too young for that.

"No, not that one, the one that's bleeding!"

Jimmy relaxes minutely, looking down at his hand with a detached expression. "Oh," he says, as if he hasn't even noticed it before.

"Yeah, oh."

"Sorry," Jimmy mumbles, "I'll be careful not to get it on your furniture."

That's the damn saddest thing anyone's said to him in ages.

"Hey now, Jimmy, you know me better than that. Don't you? We're friends, remember?"

"...And friends look out for each other," Jimmy finishes, a bit hesitant, like he's unsure if it's the right thing to say.

"Damn straight!" Stan exclaims. "Now sit your butt down while I go get the first aid kit."

He sees Jimmy smiling out of the corner of his eye before he enters the bathroom. He grabs the metal box, and rejoins Jimmy in the living room.

They sit down on the couch, and Stan goes through the first aid kit, picking out the things they'll need.

"Okay, show me your hand."

Jimmy holds it out for him, obedient. It's a nasty-looking gash, and as Stan carefully tries to clean it up a few drops of fresh blood seep out.

"I think it might need stitches."

"I heal fast," Jimmy says. "Besides, it's nothing."

Stain frowns. "Looks pretty serious to me. I still think stitches-"

"Can you do it then?" Jimmy says, cutting him off. He appears to be completely sincere about the question.

"Hell no!"

"Then it's fine, Stan. Please."

Understanding Jimmy's reluctance to go to the hospital, Stan gives in. "As you wish, but if it starts getting infected you tell me right away."

"You have my word."

It's a compromise, but it'll have to do. Stan gets back to work, carefully cleaning away the dried blood before getting out the antiseptic. "This'll sting," he warns.

Oddly enough, that draws a fond smile from Jimmy.

"That's rare, most people don't smile when they're anticipating pain."

"No, I... I remember saying that, many times. I always had to patch him up, afterwards."

"He?" Stan prompts, genuinely curious. This is the first bit of personal information that Jimmy has provided — besides his name, that is.

"Someone I used to know."

As much as he wants to, it's probably not a wise idea to push it. He pours on the antiseptic, vaguely impressed when Jimmy doesn't so much as blink.

They're done after a few more minutes. Jimmy flexes his hand, apparently testing his mobility, and Stan breathes a sigh of relief when the bandages don't fall off.

"Take it easy now, you hear? No more heroic rescues of geriatrics in distress."

"Yes, sir," he says, saluting.

"Brat," Stan snorts, and then, unable to stop himself, reaches out to ruffle Jimmy's long hair.

He knows it's a mistake the second Jimmy's eyes grow utterly blank, body stilling to the point of not even breathing. Something tells him that he should either retract his hand immediately, or risk having it broken.

But Stan is a stubborn old man, and it wasn't long ago that he promised himself he would try to help Jimmy. So he simply grins wider and continues making Jimmy's hair even messier than it'd been before.

And slowly, slowly, Jimmy relaxes. "Jerk," he says as he ducks away, "I spent hours coifing it just so."

Stan laughs at that, and soon, Jimmy joins in.

"Make yourself at home," he says when they've calmed down, "I'm gonna go get dinner started."

"Okay, thanks."

Stan enters the kitchen whistling a little tune. He's glad that Steve got called away, really glad.

He begins mixing the batter for the pancakes he has planned — it's nothing fancy, but it is one of the few things he's actually good at making. Besides, he has a hunch that Jimmy will like them.

Through the kitchen door he has a partial view of the living room, and he watches with one eye as Jimmy stops in front of the bookshelf. He seems very interested, tilting his head to better read the titles.

"You like reading?"

Jimmy straightens. He doesn't respond at first, instead reaching out to run his hand over the spines. "Maybe," he finally says.

It's far from the first time that Jimmy says something along those lines, and Stan has had enough of cryptic riddles. It's time to take the bull by the horns. "You don't actually know? Why not?"

Jimmy is silent for so long that it seems like he won't answer. Putting the finished batter aside, Stan turns on the stove and walks over to him while it heats up.

"Jimmy?"

"I used to be a s-soldier. It left me with... memory problems."

Oh. So that's it. Stan has suspected as much, what with the combat skills and hyper-awareness of his surroundings. He's sadly seen it before; young men coming home from the war, utterly lost and broken.

The mystery of his young friend is finally starting to unravel, and Stan decides to take a stab at one more thing.

"Is that what happened to your hand? Because, however bad you think it looks, you don't have to wear a glove around me."

Jimmy chews on his lip for a moment. Then, looking up at Stan, he takes off his glove and rolls up the sleeve of his sweatshirt.

It's all metal. His hand isn't even there — hell, his whole arm seems to be gone.

Eyes stinging, Stan forces himself to speak beyond the lump in his throat. "That's not bad," he says, trying to lighten the mood. "It's kinda... pretty, in a way. Very shiny."

Jimmy bursts out laughing, but it has a bitter and almost hysterical ring to it — like it's either that or break down crying.

It's probably a good idea to change the subject. "So, hey, do you want to borrow some of these? Maybe you can figure out whether or not you like reading."

"Can I really?" Jimmy's eyes light up, reminding Stan of a child in a candy store.

"Of course, pick whatever you want."

Belatedly, Stan realizes that there are books like 'First Blood' and 'Random Harvest' on the shelves. And damn, right there is 'All Quiet On The Western Front'. He mentally kicks himself, hoping Jimmy passes them by.

He does, thankfully. He slowly pulls out an old leather-bound copy of 'The Jungle Book' with something akin to reverence. "I remember this one. There's one story, Rikki... Rikki..."

"Tikki," Stan says, eager to help jog his memory.

"Tavi!" Jimmy finishes, sounding triumphant. "Yeah," he continues, "I liked that one a lot. It was about this little critter that defended his best friend, no matter what."

For a moment it sounds like he's talking about something else entirely, but Stan doesn't ask. God knows he's pushed Jimmy enough for one day.

"Then take it."

"Thanks, I'll be real careful with it."

"No, I mean, keep it. It's yours."

Jimmy's eyes widen. "I couldn't..."

"Nonsense," Stan says. "If you don't want it, then throw it away. But it's yours, period."

As if horrified by the suggestion, Jimmy presses the book against his chest, metal hand gleaming brightly against the old leather. "No," he mumbles, "I — thank you, Stan."

"Don't mention it, kiddo."

----

Stan has never seen anyone eat as many pancakes as Jimmy. Between them — though Jimmy has certainly done most of the work — they've managed to finish off the entire batch.

Now, Jimmy is leaning back in the kitchen chair, a dazed look on his face.

"Those were amazing," he says, wonder in his voice.

"No memory of eating pancakes before?" Stan asks, curious but also wanting to test the waters. It'll be good to know if it's a subject he can bring up without making Jimmy withdraw.

"Nope," he replies easily.

"Too bad Marjorie isn't here — she would've gotten a real kick out of feeding you. She had this chocolate cake she used to bake that was just..." Words insufficient, he waves both hands in the air and makes a face, cheeks puffed up.

Jimmy's lips curl in a small smile, before fading. "You were sad when she died, weren't you?"

"I'm still sad. That doesn't go away just because time passes, no matter what people might say about time healing all wounds."

"Yeah, I always thought that was a shit saying."

Silence settles over them, as Jimmy seems to be in deep thought. Then, out of nowhere, he says, "I thought it'd be cruel to do that to him twice, so I didn't."

"Do what?" Stan asks, though he has a terrible feeling he already knows what the answer will be.

"Die."

"Jimmy..." he trails off, swallowing. What the hell is he supposed to do if Jimmy is suicidal? How can you possibly help someone who's so deep in despair that they think death is the solution?

Perhaps Jimmy senses that he's close to having a conniption, for he sits up straight, grimacing. "Don't worry, I'm not gonna... I won't, alright?"

"You better not." It's a silly thing to say, but Jimmy doesn't seem to mind. He just nods, utterly serious.

"I wouldn't do that to him, and I won't — I won't do that to you, either." The last part is accompanied by a shy smile.

Stan's heart clenches. He's way too old to be reduced to a blubbering mess, so he tries to focus on the unknown man that Jimmy keeps mentioning. "Do you remember who he is? Because it's the same guy, right? The one you used to patch up?"

"Yes, it is. And I do — remember him, I mean."

Eager, Stan leans over the table. "Then maybe I can help you find him! If you tell me his name-"

"I know where he is," Jimmy says, cutting him off. "That's not the problem."

"Oh." Stan takes off his glasses and spends a minute cleaning them, waiting for Jimmy to continue. He doesn't. "Do you want a beer?"

Jimmy looks surprised, but he nods after a second of consideration.

Stan brings them each a beer, watching as Jimmy foregoes his glass to drink straight from the bottle.

"So," he drawls, "now that we're on the way to getting drunk, may I ask what the problem is?"

Jimmy chuckles. "You're a wily old man, Stan."

"You know it."

Toying with the bottle in his hand, Jimmy draws a star in the condensation, eyes distant. "He thought I was dead. And I was, sorta."

"But he knows you're alive, now?"

"Yeah. Our reunion wasn't under the best of circumstances."

"And that's what's causing the problem?"

Jimmy seems to consider this, before shaking his head. "No, not really. He forgave me immediately, I think."

"Okay..." It's starting to sound like the problem might not even exist.

Jimmy finishes off his beer. "Mind if I have another?" he asks.

"Help yourself," Stan replies, gesturing towards to the fridge.

Jimmy does. He returns to the table with a bottle for Stan, as well.

"Well, that's handy," Stan mutters as Jimmy ignores the bottle opener, instead using his metal hand to remove the bottle cap.

Jimmy shrugs, a glint of amusement in his eyes. "The silver lining, and all that jazz."

Laughing, Stan shakes his head. It's good to see that Jimmy has eased up enough that he's even able to joke about it. "Keep going."

"You don't give up, do you?" It's clearly a rhetorical question, so Stan keeps silent. After a while, Jimmy sighs. "Alright. I think we used to be best friends. Real close. So he'd be happy to have that back, but — but I'm not that person anymore. I want to be, God, I wish I could go back to being him, but I can't."

Stan stares, flabbergasted. "That's it? Jimmy... I gotta tell you, and don't take this the wrong way, but that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."

Jimmy deflates, an incredulous look on his face. "What?"

"If he's your friend, he'll understand. Jesus Christ, it's not like you can help this! He'll accept you for who you are now, and if he doesn't — well, then he wasn't your friend to begin with."

Jimmy just stares at him, face blank. A couple of tears slide down his cheeks to disappear in his beard.

"And hey," Stan says, softly, "it's not like the person you are now is all that bad. I happen to think he's a swell guy."

"I'll take your word for it," Jimmy says, sniffling. "But there's one more thing. Something I was never able to accept, back then."

"Yeah?"

"...I think I loved him. Still do, somehow." Jimmy lifts his head, meeting Stan's eyes. He looks scared. "That's okay now, isn't it?"

Stan is thrown by the question, until he realizes that Jimmy must be talking about the whole 'don't ask, don't tell' thing. He remembers reading that they'd scrapped that law, a couple of years ago.

"Yes, it's okay," he answers.

"Do you — do you mind?" Jimmy's voice is small.

"I think the world needs more love," Stan says, truthfully, "and if some of that love is between two men, well, so what? It's not for me — I loved Marjorie's soft curves — but that doesn't mean I think it's wrong. So no, I don't mind."

Jimmy closes his eyes. "Okay," he whispers, "that's... that's good to hear."

Stan wets his lips. He probably shouldn't risk giving Jimmy false hope, but dammit, it has to be said. "Maybe your friend wouldn't mind either."

Jimmy's eyes snap open. He looks shocked by the suggestion, almost as if it that possibility hasn't even crossed his mind before.

After a while, Jimmy goes to get another beer.

----

"What happened to his hand?"

Stan looks up and meets the worried gaze of Steve. And it's ironic, really, that he's all bent out of shape over Jimmy's bandaged hand, considering that his own face is covered in a myriad of colors. Aside from those bruises, he seems to be in good shape — whatever he was busy with the previous day hasn't left him too worse for wear, thankfully.

"Hello to you too," Stan greets.

Steve actually blushes, adding a splash of red to his abused face. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be rude. It's just — did someone hurt him? If that's..." he trails off, pure hatred in his eyes. It floors Stan; that Captain America is actually capable of looking like that. It's as if he's ready to wring someone's neck and stomp on their corpse.

"Someone tried to mug me in an alley," Stan explains. "Jimmy appeared out of nowhere and saved me. But the mugger had a knife, so his hand got cut up in the process."

The anger in Steve's face disappears and is replaced by a faraway look.

"That's just like him," he whispers, and it's obvious that it's not meant for Stan's ears.

But Stan hears, oh yes, he hears it. And things, finally, fall into place. "You know him," he hisses, accusingly.

At least Steve has the sense to look guilty. "I'm sorry," he says, "I truly am. For what it's worth, I had my reasons — I really couldn't just walk up to him."

That sounds stupid. Kind of like Jimmy's excuse about his old friend, the night before. And holy shit it's not just that he knows Jimmy, it's that he is the friend!

"Oh my God, you're him!"

Steve ducks his head, eyes darting around furtively, as if he thinks Stan has just had a sudden onset of dementia and is about to shout out that he's Captain America.

It makes Stan angry. He may be old, but by God, he has more sense than both of these two lugs put together.

"Oh, will you relax," he says, not even bothering to hide his annoyance. "I was referring to the fact that you're the friend he's been talking about."

Steve grows very, very still. Hope is shining in his eyes as he rapidly blinks. "He talked about me?"

"Yes, or so I assume. Did he use to patch you up when you were hurt?"

Steve nods, breathless.

"And you recently had a less than ideal reunion?"

Steve's eyes widen, horrified and frantic. "It wasn't his fault!"

He scores quite a few points with that remark. "I think it's pretty safe to say that you're him, yes," Stan says.

"Did he say anything else?"

Stan allows himself to wonder how Steve would react, if told that Jimmy is in love with him. It's nothing Stan will ever reveal, however — it had been said in confidence, and he's not about to betray his friend.

"Sorry, Captain, but I can't answer that. It wouldn't be right."

Steve lowers his eyes. "You're right. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked."

"No need to apologize, I get where you're coming from. But you should ask him yourself." He wants to say more than that, but there is something he needs to know before encouraging Steve too much. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Yes, of course."

"Is it your old friend you want back, or the man he is today?"

The look Steve gives him is steadfast and certain. "In my eyes, there is no such distinction. They're both the same person, and that person is my friend, no matter what has happened."

It's a good answer. Yet Stan can't help but wish that he could figure out whether or not Jimmy is more than a just a friend to Steve. It's not something he can just ask, straight out.

But maybe he doesn't need to. It's right in front of him, isn't it? The way Steve is currently staring at Jimmy, fondness and longing and sorrow all rolled into one intent gaze.

Perhaps there is a chance, just like he'd told Jimmy.

"You should go to him. Right now"

Steve freezes. "No, that's not a good idea."

"And this is somehow better? Are you planning on simply watching him, forever?"

"I... I just can't. Not yet."

Frustrated, but knowing there is no point in arguing further, Stan stalks away. Maybe he'll manage to get through to Jimmy, instead. But before he can do that he needs to reveal the truth.

"Hey Stan, how you doing? You looked a little hung-over when you walked to work." He has the gall to look smug about it, the little brat. He'd had more to drink than Stan, but hadn't given the slightest indication of being drunk.

"Sheesh, I was certain you took a break from following me, after yesterday's ruckus," Stan says, after deciding to ignore the jibe. "You could've just come out and walked with me, you know."

"Nah, I have a better overview on the rooftops."

"Uh huh, the rooftops. Right." He shudders at the notion of being so high up.

Jimmy smirks a little. "You're not afraid of heights, are you?"

"Never you mind that," Stan grumbles. "Jimmy, listen, I need to talk to you about something."

Instantly, Jimmy's demeanor changes. Relaxed amusement changes into serious concentration, as he gives Stan his full attention. "What's wrong?"

"Well, I..." he trails off, as he comes to a terrible realization. Jimmy might not want anything to do with him after this. It'd been a white lie, sure, but a lie nonetheless.

He doesn't doubt that their friendship has been beneficial for Jimmy, but honestly? It's been just as good to him. He doesn't want to lose that.

"Hey now," Jimmy says, reaching out to place a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it gently. "Whatever it is, you can tell me. I'll do my best to help."

"I've been lying to you," he blurts out.

Jimmy's eyebrows draw together, but he doesn't remove his hand.

"That first day, I didn't just happen to get too much food. Someone else bought it and asked me to give it to you. All the food since then has been from him. Well, except for the pancakes, obviously," he adds, laughing nervously.

"Yeah, I knew that."

"But that doesn't mean that you're not my friend! I swear, everything I've said to you has been-" Stan cuts himself off, as Jimmy's words finally filter through his panicked brain. "Wait, what did you just say?"

Jimmy lets go of his shoulder, but not before giving it a final pat. "I knew about it, Stan. It's okay."

"You knew? How?"

Jimmy shrugs. "I told you, I was a soldier. Just because I don't have visual confirmation doesn't mean I can't tell that I'm being observed. He's hiding behind those pillars today, right?" he says, tilting his chin towards the exact spot Stan had last seen Steve.

"You — you know who it is then, I take it?"

"I couldn't sense any threat in the presence, and besides, there's only one person who'd come up with a harebrained scheme like this. Stubborn punk," he mutters, the harsh words sounding more like an endearment than anything else.

There's one last question he has to ask. "Do you forgive me?"

"There's nothing to forgive. Yesterday, I could tell that he wasn't around — yet it didn't affect your behavior towards me in the least." He hesitates a second, frowning, before continuing, "Say, he's still in one piece, right? I mean, I can tell he's here, but..."

Stan resists the temptation to act like a teenager and roll his eyes. They are both such idiots. "You sound just like him. He didn't even say hello before asking about your hand."

Jimmy runs said hand through his hair, eyes fixed on the pillars. He looks a bit shaken up.

"And to answer your question," Stan continues, "yes, he's perfectly fine. A little bruised, but that appears to be the extent of his injuries."

"Good."

"Now, for God's sake, go and talk to him!"

Unsurprisingly, Jimmy is like Steve when it comes to this as well. He takes a step back, shaking his head. "No," he says, "I can't."

"Jimmy, seriously now..."

"Just drop it, please." Jimmy turns his head to sullenly glare at the pillars, as if Stan's nagging is somehow Steve's fault.

"I really can't believe this," Stan snaps, throwing his hands into the air.

"Look, I — I'll see you tomorrow, alright?"

Before he has a chance to reply, Jimmy takes off. He gives the pillars a wide berth.

----

It's painfully clear that Jimmy and Steve aren't going to work things out by themselves.

He's way too old to play matchmaker and meddle in other people's affairs, but he can't just leave it alone, either.

Because it's love, isn't it — real, honest to God, once-in-a-lifetime love. The kind that he and Marjorie had shared. And it's just not fair that circumstances have deprived them of the chance to be together. They deserve every bit of happiness they can get, dammit.

After discarding several ideas, each one seeming more convoluted and nonsensical than the last, Stan decides that it's probably best to keep things simple. He shouldn't stick his nose in too far, after all.

So the final plan is simple, but sound. He will go to work as usual, in case Jimmy is keeping an eye on him, and then he'll leave an hour or so before the museum opens.

His absence will hopefully serve as a catalyst. Steve will be forced to deliver the food himself if he wants Jimmy to have it — and, without Stan there, Jimmy won't have anyone to make excuses to.

It's a good plan.

----

It's not a good plan.

That much is clear when, not even twenty minutes after the museum opened, someone knocks on his door. He opens it to find Jimmy outside.

"Did something happen? They told me you went home early, is-"

Stan puts up a hand to stop the flow of words, inwardly groaning in frustration. "Come on in," he says.

Jimmy enters, eyes traveling up and down Stan's body as if checking for injuries.

"Relax, I'm fine," he starts, before thinking better of it. If he tells the truth he'll show his hand, and that's not a good idea considering that he now has to come up with a new plan. No, claiming that he's feeling a bit under the weather is probably the best course of action here.

Pleased with his quick thinking, Stan opens his mouth — and shuts it, as another knock comes.

Jimmy stiffens. He squeezes his eyes shut as he bares his clenched teeth, grimacing. "Shit," he says.

"Shit what?" Stan asks, bewildered.

"I was so preoccupied with worrying about you that I forgot to shake any possible tails."

Oh. Stan doesn't ask who's tailing Jimmy; there's no need to. "I could tell him to go away," he offers, "if that's what you really want."

"No," Jimmy says, after a long moment of silence. "Let him in. I gotta face this sometime."

Stan feels a surge of pride at this newfound determination. 'That's my boy,' he just barely resists saying.

He hurries to the door before he can embarrass himself. As expected, Steve is standing outside, looking harried.

"Stan," he says, "is everything okay? You weren't at work and Bu-" he interrupts himself, hands fisting at his sides, "Jimmy took off like a bat out of hell."

"Don't worry, everything is fine." More than 'fine', actually, as his plan is working perfectly — albeit in a somewhat different fashion that he'd expected.

Steve shoulders slump in obvious relief. "That's good, for a second I thought..."

"Please, come in."

"No, I shouldn't. It wasn't my intention to corner him like this. I was just — I was worried; not trying to force a confrontation."

Oh, for the love of...! Stan sees his plan unraveling at the seams, again, even more frustrating now as they are so close. He tries to think up some compelling argument to get Steve to come inside, briefly debating bodily dragging him through the door before realizing the folly of thinking he could so much as budge the mighty Captain America.

"Steve."

It's just a single word, but it does wonders. Steve's eyes widen at the sound of Jimmy's voice, and then he seems to realize the meaning of that one word. He draws in a shaky breath, blinking rapidly.

Stan steps aside, and Steve walks inside without even glancing at him.

He goes straight up to Jimmy, and they just stand there, less than a couple of steps apart, staring at each other.

Stan needs to give them some privacy, he really does. But with his small apartment that's difficult, and — okay, fine, he might as well admit it to himself — he wants to know how it goes. Needs to make sure that they manage to find their way, and don't end up having another bad reunion.

Steve is the first to break the silence, sounding unsure and nervous — but very happy at the same time. "So... Jimmy, is that what you want to be called?"

"Doesn't matter, as long as it's your voice doing the calling."

Damn, but Jimmy was a real sweet-talker when he wanted to be! Stan resists letting out an impressed whistle.

The words apparently get to Steve as well, for he lets out a choked sob and — like he can't bear to be apart for even one more second — closes the final space between them. He engulfs Jimmy in a tight hug. Jimmy returns the embrace immediately, arms coming to rest around Steve's shaking shoulders.

And that's Stan's cue to leave them alone. Smiling happily, he steps out through his front door and goes for a long walk.

----

Neither of them show up the next day.

Stan tries hard to tell himself that he's not disappointed. It doesn't work.

----

"Hi there."

Stan takes a deep breath before turning around. There is a good chance that Jimmy is there to say goodbye, and if that's the case he needs to keep up a happy façade. He is happy, for Jimmy's sake, it's not that. He just...

Turning around, whatever calmness he'd managed to gather disappears in a second.

Jimmy looks completely different. He's clean-shaven and his hair has been cut short — but the real change is found somewhere deeper; there's a brightness in his eyes and an ease of spirit that hadn't been there before. He looks like a man who's been given a second chance, and is doing his best to make the most of it.

But there's something else about him, something that Stan can't quite put his finger on. It's a faint knowledge at the back of his head, but he can't quite grasp it. He squints at Jimmy, studying him intently in an attempt to jog his memory.

He's wearing a sweater that looks like it's been worn to perfection, soft and comfortable. Stan recognizes it; he's seen Steve wearing it more than once.

But that's not it...

Perhaps misunderstanding his concentrated silence, Jimmy's smile falters. "I'm sorry I didn't show up yesterday," he says. "I haven't slept on a bed in a very long time, and I guess my body really enjoyed it — I was asleep for a whole day. Sorry."

"No need to apologize, Jimmy. There's just something about you now, I can't quite..." he trails off, and any further thought is interrupted by a high-pitched wail.

He turns his head, identifying the noise as coming from a little girl. She's mourning the cone of ice cream that's now decorating the floor. Smiling, he starts to look away, only to freeze as his eyes fasten on the display beside her.

It's the section that's dedicated to Bucky Barnes, Captain America's best friend.

Or, as Stan's been calling him, Jimmy.

Slowly, hardly believing his eyes, he turns back to Jimmy. He looks a bit sheepish.

"You're him," Stan manages to get out.

"In the flesh. Well, sorta," Jimmy says, a lopsided smile on his face as he lifts his metal arm.

"But how — I mean — you're supposed to be dead!"

"It's kind of a long story; not something I want to get into here. I was hoping I could talk you into making pancakes again. You can teach me how, so that the next time I can make them for you."

'The next time.' Not a goodbye, then.

Knowing his voice is probably not to be trusted, Stan simply nods.

Jimmy grins in return — and oh, it's gonna be tough to stop calling him that. "I'll see you at your place, then. This time," he says, winking, "I'll bring the beers."