Assistant Principal Philip Coulson seemed to share exactly two things in common with Tony Carbonell: a love of doughnuts, and a particular interest in Captain America. It was therefore unsurprising when Tony appeared at first sight of the box Phil brought into the teachers lounge, with a Captain America coffee mug clutched in one hand.
"Morning, Phil," Tony said.
"Mr. Carbonell." Coulson never had given Tony leave to call him 'Phil.'
To his credit, however, Tony did wait until Phil selected a doughnut (glazed) before going for one of his own (chocolate iced, cream filled).
"Happy last day of semester." Tony bit into the doughnut, looking intent on inhaling it all at once.
Coulson purposely waited until the man's mouth was full before asking, "Any big holiday plans?"
Tony shrugged, swallowed his bite of doughnut and slurped at his coffee. "Nah, just the party. You know, the one you're missing out on?"
"No travel, then?" Coulson was not normally given to asking intrusive questions in casual conversation; in fact, he quite disliked it, but in this case it happened to fall under necessary information for his job. He watched Tony's reaction carefully, but there was nothing suspicious about it.
"Nope," said Tony. "Just gonna hang around here, catch up on my movies, work on a couple of personal projects."
"Family to visit," Coulson said (lied). "I've got a sister in D.C."
"Right." Tony looked politely disinterested, but he gave it a moment before saying, "Well, I've gotta get to class. If I don't see you again before the end of the day, have a merry Christmas."
Tony walked off, a hurried edge to his stride that suggested he might have been rushing off from the conversation, but Coulson wasn't so sure.
Coulson waited a while, taking care of busy work in his office until the first period bell had rung, then he roamed down through the halls and stopped outside Mr. Carbonell's classroom door. The window set into one side of the wood afforded him a subtle view of the proceedings inside, without anyone noticing he was watching.
Tony was a lively teacher, even after nearly twenty years on the job. He received consistently high marks on evaluations, all his coworkers loved him, and he rarely missed a day of school. A more model teacher, no one could have found. The students loved him, too; they referred to him informally as 'Mr. Tony,' and most of them performed well in science with him as a teacher.
Tony Carbonell was simply an enigma. He seemed to love his job, love his students, and to want for little in life. And in the months that he had spent getting to know Tony, Coulson was no closer to an answer to the riddle; if anything, he only had more questions.
Steve Rogers hated a lot of things about the twenty-first century, but contrary to popular belief, there were quite a few things he loved about it, too. The coffee shops that seemed to dot nearly every corner were one of his favorite things, especially since the weather had turned cold.
Though Steve still hadn't quite shaken the feeling of guilt he experienced every time he plunked down anywhere from five to ten dollars (depending on whether his sweet tooth demanded something from the pastry case as well) at one of these places, it still didn't stop him from going. Hot chocolate was good for the soul, especially when it was creamy and rich and had extra whipped cream on top, and it certainly helped lighten his mood for going back outside into the winter air and the holiday traffic.
Steve thanked the barista and hitched the cardboard sleeve a little bit further up the cup before he turned to the coffee shop's door. There waited his co-worker (and friend) Natasha Romanoff - also known as codename: Black Widow - with her gloved hands wrapped around a large cup of tea. She quirked a smile at Steve and let him hold the door open for her on the way out; a concession, maybe, since she wouldn't allow him to buy her drink.
"What time is our meeting, again?" Steve asked, as they fell into step together down the sidewalk.
"Nine." Natasha split away so that they could sidestep a pair of slow-moving tourists. When she moved close again, she added, "Coulson's back in town."
Steve paused to allow a moment of surprise. "His deep cover assignment's over?"
Natasha shrugged. "I guess we'll find out."
At SHIELD's Manhattan headquarters, many of the offices stood empty, much of the lower ranking support personnel having already taken off for the holidays. Steve and Natasha filtered into the conference room, where they found Phil Coulson waiting with another agent, Clint Barton.
The three SHIELD agents constituted most of Steve's friends in the twenty-first century, although of them all, he knew Clint the least. Agent Barton always seemed to be off on some assignment or another, and Steve was a bit surprised to see the man there.
To Steve's further surprise, Director Nicholas Fury joined them before the meeting commenced.
"Good morning," Fury said. "Thank you all for being here today."
A chorus of greetings went up around the room.
"Agent Coulson has just returned from a deep cover assignment in Cedar Falls, Iowa." Fury keyed a button on the conference table and a screen popped up behind him, with a satellite view of the area. He pressed another button, and the view changed to what looked like a driver's license photo. "His task has been observation of this man."
Steve glanced around to see if recognition dawned on the faces of the other agents, but Natasha and Clint were blank. There was something familiar about the man in the photo, with his dark hair and eyes, and neatly trimmed goatee, but Steve couldn't quite put his finger on it.
"This man is currently known as Anthony Carbonell," Fury said. He keyed his controls again, and the display changed to an older looking picture of a much younger man, but he was obviously just a younger version of the same. "Formerly known as Anthony Edward Stark."
Now Steve did gasp in surprise, before he could quite help himself. Howard Stark had been one of Steve's closest friends during the war, one of the men responsible for the project that successfully created Captain America. By the time Steve got through the files of so many others - Bucky, Peggy, the Howling Commandos - to learn about Howard, he had been too grief stricken and overwhelmed to inquire after any surviving kin.
It seemed obvious now, however, that this Anthony Edward Stark was Howard's son. It was all there in the handsome face, with its laughing eyes.
"Howard and Maria Stark died in a car accident in 1987, around this time of year," said Fury. "Their only son, Anthony, went under the radar a few weeks later. Shortly after that, Tony Carbonell showed up in Cedar Falls and took a position working as a teaching assistant."
Agent Barton shifted in his chair. "Why would a rich kid like that go into hiding in the middle of nowhere?"
"That's what I've been trying to figure out," Coulson said. "I've been in deep cover as the assistant principal at the junior high where he works as a science teacher. We've managed to acquire DNA for testing, and even the man's dental records. He's a match for Stark."
"What we can't determine," said Fury, "is whether he's hiding for a reason or if there's something the matter with his memory. I sought out Stark a few years ago on business with SHIELD, and he denied being Anthony Stark, or even knowing who Howard Stark was."
"His personality is very thorough," Coulson added. "He lives well, but modestly for a trust fund billionaire. He hasn't touched his trust fund, and he hasn't cashed a paycheck all semester, but he's financially solvent in other areas. He's the developer of a personal assistant application called JARVIS - for Just A Rather Very Intelligent Secretary - and the popular mobile phone game Tiny Robots."
"I love that game," Clint said.
Steve furrowed his eyebrows. "With all due respect, sir, why is he of interest now? Why not twenty-five years ago?"
Fury gazed at Steve for a long moment, his single eye serious, searching. He keyed up another photo in the slideshow, this an older man, bald and bearded.
"This is Obadiah Stane," said Fury. "He took over as CEO of Stark Industries when Howard Stark died. We have reason to believe he is aware of Tony's whereabouts and possibly even complicit in convincing him to stay away."
Steve still couldn't figure it out. If what this Anthony Stark wanted was to live a quiet, normal life, then who were they to deny him that?
His thoughts must have shown in his face, because Fury went on, "We also have evidence that under Obadiah Stane's guidance, Stark Industries has been dealing under the table in supplying weapons to terrorists." He paused. "Stane is one of the most powerful men on the planet. Stark Industries is the holder of a lot of United States government contracts. Neither the company nor the government can afford the bad press in this economy. But Howard Stark was able to name his own successor, and he always meant that to be his son. If we can get through to Anthony and convince him to return, then he can take back his father's company and put a stop to what Stane is doing."
"Are there any leads on Stark, a point of contact we might trust to give us a way in?" Natasha asked.
"The last person reported to have seen Stark was the family butler, Edwin Jarvis," Coulson answered. "Unfortunately, Mr. Jarvis passed away a few years ago. The memorial service was private, so we never were able to confirm whether Stark attended."
Natasha nodded. "But Stark named his application JARVIS, so that clearly suggests he knows who he is."
"Exactly," Coulson said. "I haven't been able to do much more than keep an eye on him. He evidently isn't the type to warm up to an authority figure, so my hope is that a fellow teacher might do the trick."
Natasha nodded again, an understanding expression on her face. Steve glanced at her, and shifted uncomfortably in his chair, still unable to put the pieces together.
"Romanoff, Rogers," Director Fury spoke up. "You two will be going undercover at the Cedar Falls middle school, with Coulson as your supervising agent. There are two open positions; you can fight amongst yourselves. Agent Coulson will give you the details."
Director Fury swept out of the room, evidently having made an appearance just to impress the importance of the situation upon those in attendance. Steve had seen the behavior before in his superiors during the war, but found himself at a bit of a loss. He wasn't cut out for undercover work.
Agent Barton had an expression on his face like he'd just sucked on a lemon. Steve figured it was because he hadn't been pinpointed for inclusion in any part of the mission, yet.
Agent Coulson went on to give Steve and Natasha the details of their available cover; the job openings were for a guidance counselor and a librarian. Natasha quickly claimed guidance counselor, which Steve was secretly relieved over, given he didn't consider himself a very good choice for giving advice to young people.
Steve wasn't exactly happy about the idea of being a librarian - couldn't there have been an opening for an art teacher? - any more than he was about the idea of going in deep cover, but he listened to the details, nodding in all the appropriate places, and fled as soon as the meeting was dismissed.
Coulson gathered up his things and began to exit the conference room along with everyone else, but Agent Barton had lingered outside and waited for him, and now fell into step with Coulson down the hallway to his office.
"So," Barton said when he ducked inside after Coulson. "Why is Rogers being sent on this assignment instead of me?"
"He fits the profile," said Coulson. He set his files and his tablet down on the desk, and went to the filing cabinet by the window, where a single-cup coffee maker sat. He loaded a single serving coffee pod into it, set his mug under the dispenser, and pressed the button, trying very hard not to rub his aching forehead while Barton persisted.
"I fit the profile!" he said. "I have military background, I'm a native Iowan."
Coulson raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. "As a native Iowan, you run the risk of having your cover blown." He politely refrained from pointing out that he knew that the law enforcement officer who came to deliver the news of Clint's parents' deaths was from Cedar Falls.
"Well, just wait for Rogers to blow it and you'll wish you'd chosen me," said Barton, looking sullen.
Coulson took his coffee off the stand as soon as it finished brewing, and swapped out the pod for a fresh one. He plucked Barton's empty mug from his hands, and set another cup to brew for him, by way of apology or at least conciliatory gesture.
"Tony Carbonell is a fan of our war hero," Coulson said patiently. "I dare say Captain Rogers is his ... type."
Barton snorted. "This guy's supposed to be a genius. You think he's gonna lay eyes on Star Spangled Man over there and not put two and two together?"
"No one has any reason to suspect Captain Rogers is still alive - and youthful - except for us."
"I've seen the records," Barton said. "I know Howard Stark used to go out looking for Cap. Stark's dad was a founding member of SHIELD, you think he's not gonna know?"
"The more he does know," said Coulson, "the more he'll give himself away. I believe the key is forcing Stark to a point where the evidence is irrefutable."
The coffee maker spluttered to a stop, and Coulson handed over the fresh cup to Barton.
"Dental records and DNA tests may not be enough, given we'd have to explain how we obtained those things, but he's certainly the type who would almost ... appreciate being caught in a lie. Have respect for his adversary, maybe," Coulson concluded.
Barton took the cup and muttered a thanks, but Coulson could see the argument coming from the several feet that he happened to not be standing away at the moment.
"You're just dangling Cap as bait," Barton said, his tone ringing with accusation.
Coulson shrugged noncommittally.
"Well, my money's on Natasha."
"This isn't a bet, Agent Barton," said Coulson, crossing the room to sit down at his desk.
Barton sat down in the chair across the desk and, at Coulson's warning look, did not put his feet up. "Fine, but ten bucks still says that Uncle Sam blows it."
Coulson sighed, telling himself for a solid ten seconds that he was not going to rise to the bait. Then he set down his mug and promptly responded, "Fine. I'll take that wager."
It was almost worth it just to see the surprise on Barton's face, but Coulson didn't doubt his gamble, and it wasn't mere hero worship. Steve Rogers just had a way with people, a genuine quality that was hard to ignore, and regardless of Stark's investment in Captain America, Coulson was sure that a little of the old fashioned approach was just what the situation needed.
"Are you sure it doesn't look stupid?" Steve wondered, as he checked his new haircut and glasses in the mirror for the third or fourth time.
"You look good," Natasha said. She patted his arm reassuringly. "Don't be nervous. Eccentric billionaires can smell fear."
Steve laughed. It definitely sounded nervous. "Undercover work just ... isn't my thing."
Natasha raised an eyebrow. "Really? I wouldn't have guessed."
Steve flushed under her teasing words, but it was true. The old stars and stripes weren't exactly designed for subtlety, even though he'd gone on his share of stealth missions during the war. That sort of thing just meant success was linked to not getting caught; this required an entirely different sort of subterfuge.
Steve was relieved that Natasha would be accompanying him, at least. He had proposed a backstory of the two of them being involved, maybe even married, as a cover for knowing each other, but Coulson had vetoed that rather soundly, for reasons Steve didn't comprehend. They had agreed the two of them could rent a house together, though, for the sake of cutting costs; they appeared to be just two young professionals not long out of college, after all.
"All right," said Natasha. "Let's go over it again. You are ..."
"And I am?"
"How do we know each other?"
"We went to college together."
Natasha nodded, satisfied. "Just remember that the best lies have a grain of truth in them. If you can answer a question honestly, do it. Don't get too elaborate, make sure you tell the same stories to everyone so you don't slip up. So, Steve," she went on, dropping into a conversational tone, "tell me about yourself."
"I was in the Army," said Steve. "Enlisted right out of high school. Did a tour of duty in Afghanistan, came back stateside and used military assistance to go to college."
"Good. You went to college on the east coast, so why settle down in Iowa?"
"My family is originally from there."
"You don't sound Midwestern. Why?"
"Oh, you know. Life of an Army brat. My dad was in the service and we moved around a lot. Once I was ready to put down roots, I decided to go back. I talked my friend Natalie into joining me, since she was having some trouble finding a job in her field back east, and there was an open position for a guidance counselor at the school, too."
"Good," said Natasha. "It's still a little wooden, but you've got that awkward charm so I think you can sell it without raising any suspicions."
Steve couldn't even bring himself to be offended. Spying was code words and phrases and sneaking out encrypted messages in sheet music back in his day, not becoming a whole other person, and he knew he didn't excel at it. His memory was good, at least, so he didn't think he would have a problem keeping his details straight.
He did feel a little ridiculous with only a haircut and glasses constituting a disguise, like he was Clark Kent hiding his secret identity, but the new haircut went a long way toward modernizing his appearance, and his hair looked darker as a result. Natasha's guidance in that area had been wise, and she had assisted him in purchasing a new wardrobe of clothes that were appropriate for a low level teaching salary. Coulson had provided a few collegiate shirts for Steve's supposed alma mater, as well as a worn gray sweatshirt emblazoned with the word 'ARMY' in bold black letters on its front.
Steve worried, a little, at the duration of the mission suggested by the number of clothes he was told to pack and the extensive backstory he had to put together. Coulson had spent the better part of the last six months in deep cover there, and while they had been told that he and Natasha were considered a last resort - that perhaps fellow teachers would have an easier time befriending Tony than his boss - there was really no telling how long it might take either of them to succeed in their mission.
"Well," said Natasha at last. "Wheels up in an hour. Are you ready?"
Steve looked at his reflection in the mirror again, took a deep breath, and let it out in a sigh. "As I'll ever be."
Cedar Falls was quaint, more town than city, especially in comparison to New York. It was the sort of place where Steve might have imagined settling down when that kind of thing was still on the table for him (and if he ever could have brought himself to leave Brooklyn, which admittedly wasn't likely).
The wintry atmosphere was more consistent than New York had been, at least, and Steve felt fortunate to get to see the town around Christmas. Main Street had been decorated to a festive degree, strung with garland and lights. There was an art festival coming up soon that he'd already penciled in to his calendar, having been given instruction - or maybe just friendly advice - from Agent Coulson that he should try to enjoy himself while seeing what the midwest had to offer.
The art festival was being sponsored by a local art supply shop whose address was listed on the flyer. Steve hadn't had much time for art since waking from the ice, so he decided to drop by the place and pick up a few things. It seemed, at any rate, a good excuse for getting out and seeing the town. He hadn't seen Natasha all day since they finished settling into 'their' new place, though she promised to be back in time for dinner.
The art store proved to have a wide array of things that Steve had nowhere near the money for seventy years ago, and he took his time browsing the selection before choosing two sketchpads of varying weight, a variety of pencils in graphite and charcoal, and a few different erasers. Even the fifty dollar budget he allotted himself did not go far; the bag Steve ultimately left the store with was hardly a notable weight in his hand.
Just as Steve exited the shop, another man was leaving the one next door; a glance at the sign identified it as a cupcakery, which Steve assumed - without making much of a leap - was a bakery that specialized in cupcakes. A little eccentric, in his opinion, but there was a shop in Manhattan that sold macarons so popular that people would wait hours in line just to get a box of the expensive treats, so maybe he wasn't much of a judge.
There was something familiar about the man, and once Steve took the time to look past the scarf and hat he was wearing, it clicked in his brain: Tony Carbonell.
Tony was, at the moment, juggling a stack of cupcake boxes tied together in a leaning tower with brightly colored string. Steve moved forward to help right them before the topmost slid any further and unbalanced the whole mess.
"Thanks," Tony said, smiling at Steve.
"No problem." Steve paused, wracked his brain for a topic of conversation; meeting Tony outside of the school was, of course, ideal. Unfortunately, "that's a lot of cupcakes" was the best that he could come up with.
Even still, Tony laughed, looking at the stack. "Yeah," he agreed. "They're for my students."
"You're a teacher?" Steve asked, letting a little eagerness seep into his tone in spite of the dishonesty he felt. Spy work was definitely not for him; he hated the part of it where he had to lie.
"Middle school science," Tony said.
Steve's own smile widened. "I'm due to start next semester, actually."
"Oh, really?" Tony smiled. "Let's see ... I remember a vacancy for a guidance counselor and a librarian. You don't strike me as either, so I'm not going to make assumptions."
"I'm the new librarian," Steve said, his cheeks flushing warm in the winter air.
"Yeah? I would've said gym teacher, if I didn't know we had one already." Tony's gaze lingered, and it was hard to mistake it for anything but appreciative.
Steve felt suddenly naked even through the multiple layers of clothing he wore; embarrassment warred with purpose as Steve fought not to let his discomfort show.
"I wouldn't have said no to teaching gym," Steve said. "Or art."
Tony glanced down at the art store bag in Steve's hand, before stepping forward and extending a hand. "Tony Carbonell," he said.
They shook hands with a sense of urgency, so that Tony could put his back on the leaning stack of cupcake boxes in relatively short order.
"Well, Steve," Tony said. "I've gotta be heading off before these cupcakes get frozen, but - say, the Science Club is having their annual Christmas party tomorrow at my place. Why don't you stop by? It'd be a good way to meet some of the students and the other teachers before you get to work."
Steve was a little startled by the invitation, but took it as a good sign. Tony seemed friendly, and Steve had just presented himself as a future co-worker.
"Here," Tony said, juggling the boxes awkwardly again as he fished his phone out of his pocket. He extended it to Steve. "Put in your number, I'll text you my address."
Steve fumbled with the phone as he typed in his number, feeling like his hands were too big and too clunky for the sleek screen; at least he had the cold as an excuse for numbing the pads of his fingers. Steve was relieved again for his good memory bringing the brand new cell phone number - with an area code and prefix for the city of his supposed former college - immediately to mind, and he handed the phone back to Tony as soon as he was done typing in the number.
"Great," Tony said, putting the phone back into his pocket. "I'll text you so you'll have my number, and we'll go from there."
"See you around," Tony added, before heading off.
"Bye," Steve said. He stood and watched the man's retreating back before heading off to his own SHIELD issue car.
"So what was he like?" Natasha asked that night, over their dinner of pizza and beer.
Steve shrugged. "Nice, I guess."
Natasha paused after a sip of beer, and peered at Steve with shrewd, narrowed eyes. "And what else?"
"I think ..." Steve hesitated. It wasn't the meaning of his statement he was having trouble with, just the matter of phrasing it in a modern way. "I think he was checking me out."
Natasha raised an eyebrow, looking neither surprised nor particularly pleased. Steve was a little surprised, himself; Natasha had never struck him as an especially judgmental type, but then, he understood about as much about Natasha as he did other women, which was to say, not a lot.
"Coulson probably should have told you," was what Natasha finally said, her lips pressed in a disapproving line. "Instead of feeding you to the wolves."
Steve felt himself flush, not with embarrassment but with annoyance. "I'm not that much of a heel, that I don't get -"
"It's not that," she insisted. "You deserved to be well-informed going into this mission."
Steve closed his mouth; opened it again. "Why?"
"Carbonell - Stark - is a crucial enough player in this game that SHIELD will expect you to do whatever you can to earn his trust," Natasha said.
"I'm not saying you should have sex with him," she went on. "Just that if he flirts, you should be prepared to flirt back. Coulson probably knew that Stark has a type, and - well, you're it. Probably we're both it."
Steve frowned, looking down at his pizza. Ordinarily, he would have inhaled the slice by now, but he found himself sidetracked by the conversation and its implications.
"Doesn't it feel a little ... dishonest?" Steve pointed out. "If he gets to know and trust me as Steve Larsen and you as Natalie Rushman, then he finds out who we really are, do they think he's really going to want to work with us?"
"If everything goes according to plan," Natasha said, "when this is over, Stark will go back to his life and you'll go back to yours, and you'll never need to see him again." Her expression softened. "That ... is kind of what this line of work is about, Steve."
That, Steve thought, felt even worse, taking the time to build an acquaintanceship, even a friendship, with someone, while knowing you were doing so under false pretenses. Thinking he would never see the other person again did not ease his conscience in the doing.
"How do you do it?" Steve asked, feeling rude but having it outweighed by his curiosity. "Get to know so many people who won't be a part of your life once the mission is done?"
"Usually it's that I kill them at the end," Natasha said.
Steve caught on that she was joking, but it was too late to stop himself from reflexively choking on a bite of pizza crust. Natasha leaned over and patted him on the back a bit more firmly than was strictly necessary.
"Relax," she said. "I'm kidding!"
"I know that," Steve said, a little embarrassed, once he finally managed to clear his throat. "Anyway, he invited me to a Christmas party he's having tomorrow."
"Good job." Natasha looked approving. "You said 'yes,' I hope."
"Yeah," Steve said. "It's kind of a school function? He said it was for his science club, so ... I guess there are going to be students and teachers there, too. I forgot to ask if I could bring someone with me, but I can send him a text -"
"Already texting with him?" Natasha asked. "Good job. But I think it's a better idea for you to go alone - don't want him getting the wrong impression. I'll show up separately, pretend I came with someone else."
"Okay," Steve said, a bit dubiously.
They lapsed into merciful, companionable silence after that, and Steve was relieved that Natasha let the subject drop. He had the uncomfortable feeling, however, that this was not going to be the last of awkward discussions they would have before this mission was over.
The next morning dawned and Steve got up early. He went for his morning run, trying to keep his routine the same; he waved at some of the neighborhood moms as he ran past, and resolutely tried to ignore the way their eyes lingered. Some people, including many female (and a few male) SHIELD personnel, thought that Captain America was just an oblivious relic from the 1940's, but it wasn't like people hadn't been having sex seventy years ago. If anything, war was an even greater motivator; some men didn't want to die virgins and 'I might die tomorrow' proved to be a pretty good excuse to get a girl to go upstairs with you.
Not that Steve had ever practiced that kind of thinking. To the contrary of many of his fellow servicemen, Steve had been, well, too busy. He had been looking forward to his date with Peggy Carter, but since waking up in the twenty-first century to find that Peggy was an old woman who had lived her own life while Steve slept under the ice, Steve hadn't felt much motivation to date. Natasha had tried a few times to encourage him, and even Agent Barton had made the occasional remark about some girl - or guy - in one department or another shooting Steve looks, but Steve always brushed off the suggestions. When the right person came along, Steve would know.
Last night's conversation with Natasha weighed heavily on Steve's mind, no matter how fast he ran; even the pounding of feet on the pavement and breathing in the more than slightly chilly Iowan winter air couldn't make him stop thinking about it. Steve respected Agent Coulson and trusted the man as a strategist, but he wasn't sure how he felt about the idea of being chosen for this mission because he was someone's type. It seemed ... unfair, to him and to Tony. Even Natasha hadn't been able to guarantee Steve that it was one hundred percent possible to remain impartial and keep one's mind on the task at hand.
Natasha did, at least, seem determined not to let Steve brood over it much longer. She met him in the kitchen when he returned, handing him first a glass of water - which he chugged down with enthusiasm - then a mug of hot cocoa with two huge marshmallows melting on the surface, which managed to drag a smile out of Steve. Everyone who didn't know her well - which was a lot of people - thought Natasha was just cool and calculating, but she was good at reading people, which actually made her pretty thoughtful and considerate, too.
"Thanks," he said.
"I'm going into town," Natasha said. She was already done up for the day, and looked quite pretty in a long tunic sweater and a pair of leggings, with a pair of tall boots. Well put together, but casual enough to be approachable.
"I think I'm going to hang around here today," Steve said. "Until the party."
"Okay. Have fun."
Steve waited to see her out of the house before he finally uprooted his feet from the floor and headed down the hallway to his own bedroom.
The house came furnished, though he and Natasha had spent some time the day before making it look more personal. Steve had a few photos sitting around, though they were all modern, nothing that would give him away, along with one manipulated shot of himself in modern Army uniform, against a desert backdrop with several soldiers he didn't actually recognize. He supposed, if anyone ever saw it and questioned him about it, he would have to make something up.
Steve left the hot cocoa on the nightstand and hopped into the shower. He washed and dried quickly, and ran a hand through his hair to push it into place; it still felt strangely short under his fingertips.
Steve skipped the glasses - the lenses were non-corrective, and vision was one of the few areas where he hadn't had problems, even before the serum - when he got dressed, and chugged down the rest of the hot cocoa. He deposited the empty mug in the kitchen sink, poured himself a big bowl of cereal, and headed out into the living room. It was a comfortable space, with a big squashy couch, and the streaming television subscription seemed just the thing to use to wind down at the moment.
While some history program droned on in the background, Steve ate his cereal and tooled around on his cell phone, which was a bad habit he had come to adopt in the twenty-first century that seemed easily forgiven because everyone around him seemed to do it, too.
Steve was in the middle of checking the weather forecast for the next few days - snow, snow, and more snow - when his phone pinged with a text message. It seemed to be a mass message, with a reminder for the party. Given it involved the attendance of middle schoolers, the party started at a modest 6 p.m. Steve had already gotten a text from Tony the night before with the address, but found himself a little surprised to be included in the reminder, as if there might be actual investment in his attending.
Neurotically, Steve thought he was probably considering it too hard, made paranoid both by Tony's interest and Natasha's insight the night before.
Steve resolutely attempted to put all that from his mind, but if he was going ahead and flinging himself into associating with Tony - instead of wasting these days prior to the holidays and the start of the next semester simply getting used to the town and soaking up the local color - he supposed he should get to know more about the man.
In the app store on his phone, Steve searched for the JARVIS application, purchased, and downloaded it. He didn't think he had much use for something like it, but the app was highly rated and had a high number of downloads; at about two dollars, it was rather affordable, but Steve supposed a few million purchases started to add up. He opened the application briefly after it was installed, and was entertained by the pleasant, English-accented voice that greeted him.
Steve exited the program - which mostly seemed like a more entertaining way to keep organized than the default utilities that came on his phone - after a few minutes, and went back to the online store for Tony's other app. Unlike JARVIS, Tiny Robots was free by default, though it seemed to have the option to purchase an advertising-free 'deluxe' version. It too was highly rated, and had an even higher number of total downloads than JARVIS.
Once he got the game installed and booted up, Steve wasn't expecting to spend much time playing it, but it was ... well, actually pretty addictive.
There was an interesting amount of strategy involved in the game, where the first few levels were spent gathering parts and customizing your own Tiny Robot, along with a choose your own adventure storyline. You could send the Tiny Robot down a peaceful path of aiding humanity, or opt for the 'Kill All Humans' option, where the Tiny Robot's job was to develop offensive capabilities and eventually lead a rebellion against the human race. It was sort of deep, for a cell phone game. (Steve chose the evil path, getting a little amusement out of playing against type.)
By the time Steve's phone finally beeped with the critically low battery warning, it was almost lunch time and he'd blown through a few episodes of the show he was (not really) watching. He debated for a moment between getting his charger to keep playing, and putting the game away - he was up to level 19! - before reluctantly saving and exiting the program.
Steve's stomach was growling again now, so he headed into the kitchen to make lunch and clean up from his breakfast. He put his phone on to charge after lunch, and settled back onto the couch, thrumming now with nervous energy. He wondered where Natasha was, and decided she probably wouldn't reappear before the party.
At this rate, Steve was almost looking forward to the party, just to have something to do. He was not used to having so much downtime, not the kind that was enforced by mission parameters and spent generally alone. He was at liberty to do what he wanted, while at the same time limited in that scope by the circumstances.
Steve still had a few hours until the party, and a little longer after that if he didn't want to show up in a weirdly punctual fashion. He almost never took naps during the day, but decided as he stretched back out on the couch that it wouldn't be a bad idea. He hadn't slept particularly well the night before, and he would probably need that extra energy to cope with tonight.
Maybe by the time Steve woke up, his phone would be fully charged and he could play another level or two of Tiny Robots before heading out.
Steve woke up from his nap feeling disoriented and a little sluggish. The television had droned on with several more episodes of the show he was watching while he slept, and Steve fumbled for a confused moment before managing to switch off the entertainment system. He rubbed his hands over his face after he sat up, and checked his phone; he had a text from Natasha, reminding him that she would meet him at the party. No getting out of it, then, he decided.
Steve changed clothes - into a pair of dark jeans, an undershirt, and a soft blue sweater that Natasha had picked out - and only grabbed the glasses that were part of his disguise as an afterthought. He wasn't sure if he should take something with him to the party, but it seemed a little late for that, so Steve just grabbed his jacket and his phone and headed out.
Not having done any research on the address the night before, Steve was forced to put the car's GPS system to use in finding Tony's house. He was a little surprised when the path took him out of the central area of the town, through a sparser residential region, and along the waterfront of a lake. It stood to reason, Steve supposed, that an eccentric billionaire in hiding would have the best house that was reasonable under the circumstances.
Cars were already pouring out of the double driveway and onto the curb in front of the house; Steve had to park two houses down and across the street, and walk the rest of the way. The other houses were oddly quiet, and Steve decided the neighbors must either be away for the holidays already, or maybe attending the party.
Tony's house, Steve realized upon reaching it, was rather large, a sprawling two stories with the back extending out in a long private dock toward the lake. It seemed like an awful lot of house for one person.
Steve didn't have to knock; the front door kept opening with people coming in and going out, so Steve slipped right into the flow of people and let himself inside. The house was brightly and pleasantly lit, laid out in such a way that the living room ceiling stretched all the way to the second floor, where railing curved to allow a view of the first floor from upstairs. A Christmas tree that must have reached at least twelve feet high was sitting in the corner between the staircase and the back wall of the room. There were people milling about everywhere, and the age range of attendees - in spite of the party ostensibly being for the middle school science club - seemed to stretch from infant to middle-aged adult.
Some of Steve's fears about Tony's motivation in inviting him were allayed, as he saw very little of the man himself beyond a brief greeting as Tony darted past with what looked like a rocket and a gaggle of admiring pre-teens (probably the science club, Steve figured).
By the time Natasha caught up with him an hour later, Steve had made the rounds, met a few of his 'fellow' teachers, and eventually followed the action out onto the dock and watched while the group launched the rocket into the sky. Natasha described the house and its decor - which seemed to consist of a lot of framed movie posters and other odd memorabilia on the walls and shelves - as 'nerd chic,' and slipped off to go snooping around the rest of the place.
She came back in time for them to endure a somewhat awkward round of Secret Santa, where the kids exchanged gifts and Tony happened to have some random presents on hand to dole out to the adults, too. It seemed like a pretty mixed bag, without real intent for usefulness to the particular person who received each thing; Steve ended up with what seemed like a very nice set of beakers (not that he had much of a frame of reference), while Natasha got a desk ornament that proclaimed itself a 'Newton's cradle' on the box.
Steve excused himself from the general assembly to stash the gifts in the car, and to generally give himself a breather. In spite of the noise of the party a short distance away, it was eerily quiet outside. Steve glanced up at the sky, and could see stars for the first time he remembered since waking up. He had considered taking a road trip before, getting to see more of the country he only briefly glimpsed while on his war bonds tour, but the timing hadn't been right. For all his misgivings in being here, though, the area didn't seem bad. The people were friendly, and it felt like a subtle enough place to get lost.
He was careful in trudging his way back to the house, through the snow blanketing the ground that had hardened and become icy since the sun went down. Steve got back inside and found many of the kids - and their parents - were packing up to leave. By the time they had all filed out, the remaining party was adults, and someone cheerfully declared the beginning of "after hours!" before the music cranked up.
The atmosphere of the house noticeably shifted once the bass was thumping, and within what felt like the blink of an eye, nearly everyone seemed to be holding a beer. Steve spotted someone he remembered being introduced to him as a retired chemistry teacher, spiking what was left of the eggnog. It turned out that one side of the living room housed an impressive wet bar, which was open for business now that the young ones were gone, with one of the administrators playing amateur bartender.
"Well," Natasha said mildly, when Steve caught up to her again. "It seems like for a bunch of teachers, they know how to throw a party." She looked amused, but on second glance Steve noticed she was wearing her coat.
"Are you leaving?" Steve asked, a little anxious.
"Yes," she said. "I'm calling it a night, but you stay. Have fun."
Steve glanced around him, and had to concede the point that, for all the strangeness of a twenty-first century Christmas party spent with people he hardly knew, he had been enjoying himself. "Yeah."
Natasha leaned in under the pretense of giving Steve a one-armed hug, but before she pulled away she whispered, a bit wickedly, "There's mistletoe in the kitchen doorway, and another sprig by the stairs."
"The twenty-first century didn't invent sex," Steve pointed out, keeping his voice quiet. If she was trying to get a blush out of him, it wasn't going to work.
"I know," Natasha said, smiling serenely as she stepped away. "I was just giving you some strategic pointers."
Steve thought her step was a little too jaunty as she left the room.
Across the way, things were starting to get a little rowdy, as the teachers all started to get a bit too far into their cups; someone had struck up a rousing rendition of "Jingle Bells," out of sync with the music that was playing from the sound system.
Steve had been to exactly three parties since waking up in the twenty-first century, including this one; the first was a SHIELD sanctioned office birthday party for one of the administrative assistants in the New York office, which had included a large sheet cake but no more alcohol than could be fervently - but quietly - passed around in a couple of flasks, and the second probably didn't even count as a party by most people's standards, as it was merely Thanksgiving dinner spent watching Clint and Natasha try to drink each other under the table.
Drinking in excess had always been out of the question for Steve, even before the serum made it irrelevant; alcohol was an expense his necessarily frugal budget hadn't allowed, though Bucky had sometimes shown up with enough Scotch or bourbon left in the bottom of a bottle for them each to have a nightcap.
Now, Steve wondered if he should skip the booze entirely, or drink and pretend to have a high tolerance (oh, if only they knew). He ultimately ended up grabbing a beer, and circulated his way through the crowd while nursing it. Oddly, things were becoming less fun for him, the more fun everyone else was starting to have. It reminded Steve of parties back in the 40's, when the Commandos would get rip-roaringly drunk in case it was their last night on Earth. The people here had no reason to feel the same way, so maybe it was really just a zest for life that Steve himself was having a hard time sympathizing with.
Steve inevitably found himself roaming around the house and debating leaving. He had hoped to catch up to Tony at least once more before he left, but that seemed unlikely. He hadn't even seen Tony in the last half an hour, and then he had been nearly obscured by a crowd of people he was conversing with.
Steve found his way into a quieter corner, sat down, and - after a moment's consideration - pulled out his phone to resume his game of Tiny Robots.
He'd just gotten into level 21 when someone said, "This one's tricky. You playing good or evil?"
Steve started, which ruined his concentration on the game; the app beeped with the sounds of a distressed (losing) tone while he looked up at the person who'd interrupted him.
Tony was there, grinning mildly. "Sorry."
"I prefer to think of it as well-intentioned megalomania," Steve said, recovering quickly.
Tony laughed. "Hmm, good one. I might have to use that in the next update."
Steve debated for a moment whether Tony would prefer well-informed or ignorant; he decided to go with the former. Tony seemed like the sort of guy who would be suspicious of someone purporting to know too little about him, and he was clearly a well-liked member of the community. Rumor spread quickly, especially in small groups; after a couple of hours at his party, Steve was very likely to know what Tony did on the side. People always seemed to like to talk about how others got where they were in life.
"No spoilers," Steve said, grinning back. "I know you developed it, but did you write it, too?"
"The world concept was my idea, but I've got someone who helps with the little story details." Tony sat down on the arm of Steve's chair. It was an awfully intimate move, unconscious of personal space.
"It's a really fun game," Steve said. "I might be a little addicted."
Tony laughed again. "That's what I like to hear, I'll be honest."
Steve put his phone away, and leaned back in the chair.
"Are you enjoying the party?" Tony asked.
"Yeah," Steve said. "Thanks for inviting me."
"No problem." Tony gestured around the rest of the room; currently, half a dozen people had converted an empty space into an impromptu dance floor. "It gets a little crazy in here, the later it gets."
"Do you do this every year?" Steve wondered.
"For about the last ten," Tony said. "It's just a way for us all to unwind, you know? Christmas is a stressful time of year, whatever you do for a living. A lot of the older teachers have kids coming home for Christmas, so this gives them a little break."
Tony paused, and for the first time since Steve met him, he looked a little self-conscious.
"Sorry," Tony added. "I get a little chatty when I've had a few." He held up his beer.
"No, I appreciate the insight," Steve said, feeling a little guilty for his fake earnestness. "It's been nice to get to know people outside the job, before the first day of work."
"Take your blackmail photos now," Tony said. "They'll be useful during the rest of the school year. Too bad Principal Coulson didn't make it. I had a pair of reindeer antlers I was saving just for him."
Steve couldn't help himself; he snorted at the idea of Coulson in antlers. For good measure, his imagination supplied the image of a bright red nose, too.
"Assistant Principal Coulson seemed way too serious for that when I met him," Steve said, figuring it was safe to give away prior knowledge of his future boss. After all, Steve's false identity had to get hired somehow, right?
"Hmm." The sound Tony made was non-committal; he drank from his beer, then asked, "So, Steve. I can call you Steve, right? What's your story?"
Any urge Steve might have had to panic was soothed by the fact that he had already been through this line of questioning a few times this evening, by different people, and all the answers he practiced with Natasha came much more naturally after repeating them a few times.
"You know ... not much," Steve said, shrugging lightly. "I just moved into town a few days ago, so it's nice to get this opportunity to meet people."
"I'm pleased to have taken this opportunity to forever shatter any respectable images you might have otherwise had of your coworkers," Tony said cheerfully.
Steve laughed softly. "It does make me a little bit less nervous about starting work."
"Hell of a time to move," Tony said. "Close to the holidays and all."
"Well," Steve said. "Moving didn't make much of a difference. I don't have much close family left."
Tony's expression flickered for a moment; was it empathy? "I know the feeling," he said softly.
Steve cleared his throat, a bit self-consciously. "Sorry. I wasn't trying to make things macabre."
"Nah, it's okay," Tony said. "So, uh ... I noticed you had someone with you earlier - I'm guessing she must have been your plus one, since I didn't recognize her."
"Oh." Steve cleared his throat. "No, that was - um, my roommate, Natalie."
"Roommate," Tony repeated, sounding thoughtful.
"Yeah. Well," Steve corrected. "Friend. She's really more like my sister. When she found out I was moving out here, she applied to the area, too. She's actually starting as the new guidance counselor next semester."
Steve wasn't sure what to say to that, so he didn't contribute anything else; he knew better than to get carried away divulging his cover story to Tony, who had no real reason to care about it.
Tony was silent for a moment; he looked like he was contemplating the deep meaning of life. "Well. Listen, Steve - I'm gonna get back to mingling, but I hope you enjoy yourself. Make sure you grab one of those cupcakes before you leave - I think the kids left a few."
"Yeah," Steve said. Then added, a bit awkwardly, "Thanks."
Tony departed with a hint of his own awkwardness, and Steve sighed. He got the distinct feeling he had just blown it, even though he couldn't put his finger on exactly what went wrong ... if, in fact, anything actually had.
It was getting late, at any rate; Steve thought he had indulged the party long enough, so he went to snag one of the cupcakes - it was fantastic - then showed himself out.
The next day was Christmas Eve, and Steve woke up and went on his usual morning run, noting all the Christmas decorations lining the street along the way. The house that he and Natasha were sharing looked plain and a bit sad in comparison. Steve figured it was understandable, considering they had only just moved in - and were not, actually, permanent residents - but he decided that they needed at least a tree.
This would be Steve's second Christmas since waking in the twenty-first century, but it was the first where he actually felt like celebrating the holiday. All his previous Christmases before the ice had been spent either too poor to do much, or in the midst of a war, and while Steve knew that it was materialistic of him to feel that way, he enjoyed the prospect of getting to indulge in a little shopping for gifts.
Natasha had disappeared on some mysterious morning errand by the time Steve returned to the house, so he headed straight out to do his shopping after a quick breakfast. By the time he returned a couple of hours later with a tree and a few bags laden with ornaments and gifts, she was back; Steve walked through the front door and was surprised to find Agent Barton sitting on the couch, wearing a truly unfortunate sweater and watching television.
"Hey, Cap," he greeted.
"Clint," Steve said. "Is something going on?"
"Huh?" Clint looked puzzled for a moment, before realizing that Steve must have been referring to the mission. "Oh. No, I'm just here to hang out with you guys for Christmas."
"Oh," Steve said, a smile blossoming. "Then I can give you your present in person."
Natasha emerged from the kitchen just then with a bowl of popcorn. "Oh, you're back."
"Yeah. I got a Christmas tree," Steve said.
Natasha raised her eyebrows. "You're going to put up a tree on Christmas Eve?"
Steve shrugged, setting down his bags, careful to angle them so that none of their contents would spill out. "Why not?"
Natasha looked like she couldn't come up with any compelling reason why not, so she shrugged in return. "Okay, then. You're awfully cheerful today."
"I'm in a good mood," Steve said. "I feel good. I want to, well, do Christmas this year."
"Coulson's gonna be sorry he missed this," Clint said. He reached up into the bowl of popcorn, ignoring Natasha's swat at his hand. "Cap, decking the halls? That's like some kind of wet dream for him."
"Clint," Natasha said sharply.
"What? Like everyone doesn't know about his massive hard-on for --"
"You're breaking our cover," she hissed. "You know better."
Steve, still standing by the door, felt a weird flush of heat along his front, which didn't mesh well at all with the cold at his back.
It wasn't that he was uncomfortable with someone's interest in him, but this was his supervising agent they were talking about. Steve had been happy to sign Agent Coulson's trading cards, but that was about as far as it went; they'd settled into a nice, friendly but professional working relationship since then.
"Clint is just being a child," Natasha said, with a roll of her eyes. "He's upset that Coulson didn't choose him instead of you for this assignment."
"Believe me," Steve said, feeling some of the color receding from his face again, "I wouldn't mind trading places."
Clint slouched into the couch just a little. "Too late now."
Steve excused himself from the conversation and headed back out to the car to grab the tree, which was a packaged, artificial affair. He'd wanted to spring for a real one, but it seemed a bit senseless with Christmas being the next day, and all the live trees left at the place he'd checked out were kind of sad looking, anyway.
Steve carried everything but the tree into his bedroom, where he shucked off his coat and sorted through his purchases, leaving the gifts on the bed. They were already wrapped, courtesy of some charitable organization offering gift wrap for donations; Steve had only to add the appropriate tags, and he remembered easily which was which.
He took the ornaments and the Christmas lights back to the living room with him, and found Clint and Natasha sitting on the couch, the bowl of popcorn between them, watching a movie.
"What's on?" he wondered.
"Die Hard," Clint answered. "Seen it?"
Steve shook his head.
"Oh man, Cap, this is the best Christmas movie," Clint said. "You gotta watch this one with us - Nat, start it over."
Natasha rolled her eyes - which seemed like a common occurrence when Clint was around - and skipped back to the beginning of the disc. "Stop calling him Cap," she insisted.
Clint shoveled popcorn into his mouth. "Like anyone's going to know," he said around his mouthful.
"I believe what you told Coulson was that Stark would take one look at him and figure it out," Natasha said, with a pointedly raised eyebrow.
Steve couldn't be offended by their banter, but he tried not to listen too closely to it, either, as he set about unpacking the tree. It was in two pieces that fit together to comprise the trunk, while the branches folded down; once it was in the stand, the very top reached about as high as Steve was tall. The tree was sort of ugly, the branches a bit too scrawny to mimic the real thing, but Steve felt optimistic about its potential.
Clint and Natasha fell quiet while the movie went on in the background. Steve watched with half his attention while he got the tree set up in front of the windows, and began to drape it with multi-colored lights. He'd gone very simple with his choice of ornaments, just the typical ball ornament fare in a variety of colors, though they seemed to be made from a plastic now that claimed to be shatterproof, rather than the glass ones of Steve's youth.
By the time the movie's protagonist stuffed a dead terrorist into an elevator, Natasha had abandoned the couch and wandered over to help Steve in hanging the ornaments. Clint joined in shortly thereafter, and admittedly none of them paid very much attention to the rest of the film as they got absorbed in the tree.
As a gesture of goodwill, since Clint was apparently unhappy to have been excluded from the mission, Steve gave Clint the honors of topping the tree with the star.
Their finished product was, well, not the most attractive tree Steve had ever seen - it certainly paled in comparison to the enormous one that had dominated Tony's living room - but it was theirs, and it had a certain charm to it just the same.
"I haven't bought any Christmas presents," Natasha admitted, as they stood back to admire their handiwork.
"You don't have to give me anything," Steve said.
"If we're going to do this, we're going to do it right." Natasha squared her shoulders and turned to look at Clint. "Come on, we're going shopping."
"What?" Clint said. "Nat, you gotta be kidding - we're not going out on Christmas Eve to do Christmas shopping."
"Yes," she said. "We are. Come on, or Santa will leave a lump of coal in your stocking."
Steve watched, bemused, as Natasha seemed to get herself and Clint up and moving and out the door within all of two minutes. Once they were gone, the house felt empty and the movie was over, leaving Steve at a bit of a loss.
He glanced around, shrugged to himself, and sat down on the couch to play another few levels of Tiny Robots.
Compared to New York on a normal day, Cedar Falls on Christmas Eve was downright sedate. Natasha didn't regret her decision to go out, but she was questioning her life choices in deciding to bring Clint along; still, it was safer than leaving him back at the house with Steve.
For reasons Natasha hadn't yet been able to fully determine, Clint had never quite warmed up to Steve the way that everyone else had. She didn't like not having a full handle on a situation, but contenders for the prize were jealousy that Coulson's idol was constantly around, or that Clint was simply being obstinate and refusing to like Steve because everyone else did.
"You and Cap have gotten awfully cozy," Clint said. He made it sound like a complaint. It probably was.
Natasha bit back a sigh; letting Clint see how annoyed she was would be a one-way ticket to further aggravation. "You could stand to get cozier," she said. "I don't think I need to tell you that what you said to him was rude."
Clint snorted. "Geez, Nat. You don't have to be so protective."
"I'm not," Natasha said. "I'm being friendly." She paused, pulling a book from a shelf; she remembered Steve adding it to his list of things he needed to check out in the twenty-first century, so she added it to her shopping basket.
"Seems to me you've gotten very friendly," Clint said. He narrowed his eyes. "Are you two --"
"If you finish that question," Natasha said calmly, "I won't be held responsible for my actions."
Clint closed his mouth, scowling.
"Besides," she added. "You're the one who seems way too interested in who's sleeping with Steve. Are you sure you don't want to sleep with him?"
"I think it's a valid question." Natasha moved over to a display of sketchbooks and journals, tugging Clint along with her.
"No," Clint said, with emphasis. "I don't want to sleep with him."
"Then if awkward sexual tension isn't the case," Natasha said, turning to look at him fully, "maybe you should consider being a little nicer to him. Steve isn't a bad guy."
"He's just so - perfect," Clint complained.
"He's not." Natasha placed a small notebook in her basket; the one Steve had been using was starting to get full. "You're refusing to see past the surface. Give him a chance. If you get to know him and you still don't like him, then I won't push the matter any further."
"Fine," Clint conceded.
"Besides." Natasha smiled. "It's Christmas Eve, and I'm going to cook dinner, and then we're all going to eat dinner and be happy."
"You scare me when you get domestic," Clint said, and that was that.
Christmas Eve was fantastic. Natasha, Clint, and Steve all crowded into the kitchen and put their combined skills to use in cooking dinner, bumping elbows and jostling each other and - in Clint and Natasha's case - getting increasingly drunk on mulled wine.
Somehow, this ended in Clint and Natasha having a knife-throwing contest that involved throwing potatoes into the air and impaling them on the opposite wall. The two spies became especially gleeful when Steve cautioned that Coulson was going to kill them for not getting the security deposit back on the house.
Clint set up a queue of Christmas movies to play in the background, and they ate dinner sitting around the coffee table. It had been too late for a turkey, so Natasha had settled on a leg of lamb. Clint took care of the sides, and Steve contributed the apple pie, which made Clint and Natasha snicker at him for some reason. (Was it because he liked to bake?)
After dinner, they sat around and drank more, and exchanged some stories of past Christmases. Steve told them of holidays during the Depression, and how Bucky had once saved up money from odd jobs to get Steve - who'd been sick in bed nearly the entirety of winter - some art supplies. Clint had a story about a holiday spent on an op in the middle of nowhere, and how tonight's dinner definitely beat canned beans. Natasha told them about the SHIELD Christmas party Clint missed that year while on his op, where Fury and Hill had gotten rip-roaringly drunk and sung a duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (and refused to acknowledge it the next day, to the point of banning everyone else from mentioning it).
At midnight, they decided to go ahead and exchange gifts, and Steve didn't argue, given he couldn't imagine either Clint or Natasha feeling up to it the next morning. He was touched by the gift of a novel and a new notebook from Natasha, and laughed good naturedly at the American flag boxers from Clint.
By the time he went to bed that night, tired and happy and with a comfortably full stomach, Steve thought it was about the closest he'd come to feeling normal in the twenty-first century yet.
Steve was up a little later than usual on Christmas morning, though he took a look outside at the snow and decided he still didn't feel like leaving the warm comfort of the house to brave his usual morning run, so he settled on a little yoga in his bedroom before getting ready for the day.
When Steve emerged into the living room, Clint and Natasha were passed out on the sofa, leaning against each other, bathed in the flickering glow of the television set where the movie queue was inexplicably still going. Steve glanced at the TV - the current feature seemed to involve a family having a really disastrous holiday - then draped a blanket over the two of them.
The living room was a mess of shredded wrapping paper, packaging, mugs, and glasses. Steve picked his way around the room cleaning it all up, careful not to disturb the sleeping super spies. When he was finished, though, he did take a picture of the two of them with his phone, because it was too tempting to resist.
Steve unloaded the dishwasher from the night before, and washed up the rest of the dirty dishes the old fashioned way. He'd just dried his hands and begun to plot breakfast when his phone pinged with a text message. It was from Tony, just a generic "Merry Christmas!" that was probably mass-texted to a lot of people.
Steve sent back a response of "Merry Christmas!" anyway, and was surprised when his phone pinged again a moment later.
>You're up early. Big plans for today?
>>I always get up early.
>So no plans, then?
Steve paused, hesitating.
>My plans canceled. I'm sitting here with a lot of beer, movies, and Chinese food, if you're interested.
Steve raised his eyebrows, unsure what to think. Was he being asked on a date of some sort, or was Tony just bored and lonely and looking to while away a few hours with company?
To stall for time, he sent back:
>>It's 9 am. Where did you get Chinese food?
>Okay, you got me. I don't have the Chinese food YET, but the beer and movies are a reality.
Steve thought to ask the obvious: why him? But that was like looking a gift horse in the mouth, given his mission, and rather than intending to ask Steve on a date of some sort, Tony was probably just bored and lonely and looking to while away a few hours with company.
While Steve was brooding over it, his phone pinged again.
>I figured since you're new in town, you might like some company.
Well. That was fair. Steve could already tell, from Coulson's stories of Tony's reputation in the community, the way his students and coworkers all spoke fondly of him, and the Christmas party a couple of nights ago, that Tony was a generous sort of person. Steve felt bad, like he was going to be taking advantage. He glanced out into the living room where Natasha and Clint were still asleep, snoring softly, and made his decision.
>>I'd love to. How about noon, and I'll pick up the Chinese on the way?
>It's a date.
Steve decided not to read too much into that last message. He put his phone away and went to put on a pot of coffee. Natasha stirred and came into the kitchen around the time the smell of coffee began to permeate the air. She looked much younger than usual in a pair of soft pajamas, with her hair sticking up at odd angles from sleep.
"Good morning," she said around a yawn.
"Morning." Steve decided to return the favor from the other morning, getting down a mug and filling it for Natasha this time. He slid it her way and asked, "You hungry?"
Natasha mumbled something in Russian that was obscured by an undignified slurp of coffee.
"I'm gonna take that as a yes," Steve said cheerfully.
Natasha sat down at the kitchen counter and slowly started to become more alert as she imbibed caffeine.
While the bacon began to sizzle on the stove, Steve casually noted, "I'm going over to Tony's today."
Natasha looked up from her coffee, eyebrow raised.
Steve didn't look at her scrutinizing expression for long, just worked on cracking eggs into a bowl. "He invited me to hang out."
"That's good," Natasha finally said.
Steve got the strange, prickling feeling on the back of his neck, like he was being watched. He looked up, and over at Natasha. "What?"
She only shook her head in response. "Nothing."
Steve was sure it was something, but he didn't press the issue; whatever Natasha wasn't saying, she had a reason.
Clint came into the kitchen just in time for breakfast, but conversation around the table was sparse with two of the three hungover and the other preoccupied. Steve was accustomed to such a meal after having enough like it with the Howling Commandos back during the war, and equally aware that like the soldiers, Clint and Natasha no doubt would be able to throw off the debilitating trappings of their hangovers if the situation called for it. Steve didn't really understand what it was like, but figured maybe if you didn't have to recover, it was preferable to wallow, and for what reason would one not be able to casually nurse their hangover on Christmas morning?
After breakfast and cleanup, Steve turned his attention to making himself presentable. He felt sort of wrong doing it, but if part of his supposed allure to Tony lay in his appearance, Steve supposed he needed to look as good as possible. He enlisted Natasha's help in choosing his clothes, and finally left the house in jeans, and a cardigan sweater layered over a shirt, with his coat, gloves, and scarf to keep warm.
By the time he was on the road, Steve had just enough time to pick up the food order - Tony had texted him the name and address of his preferred place; as it turned out, Tony also placed and paid for the order ahead of time - and make it to Tony's house by the appointed hour.
The other houses on the street seemed less deserted than they did the night of Tony's party; one family was out on their front lawn building a snowman, and another couple of kids were running around playing with what were probably new toys from Santa.
Steve was able to pull into the driveway proper this time, and the garage door rolled open on his approach to invite him inside. The garage was much larger on the inside than Steve expected; after he parked and got out, he couldn't help a glance around while he stripped out of his outerwear and left it piled in the front seat.
A sleek red car was parked in the other space, while a motorcycle that probably didn't get much use in this weather was propped a few feet further in. It seemed as if much of the house's square footage on the first floor was actually divided into the garage, as the typical parking and storage area sloped upward and expanded into a clean, warm space that could only be described as a workshop.
Steve couldn't help gawking a little at the workbenches and computers, the bits and pieces of projects. As he stepped further inside, a tall piece of machinery that stood about the height of a man and looked like a swiveling arm on a rolling base, swung around and pointed a claw at him.
"Um. Hello?" Steve called.
Steve intended the searching greeting for Tony, but the mechanical arm reacted instead, its claw opening and closing in a clacking noise. On closer inspection, it seemed to be wearing a pair of felt reindeer antlers, which added a strangely anthropomorphic touch.
"Meet Dummy," Tony announced, emerging into the garage from a door to the side.
"Well, D-U-M-hyphen-E, pronounced Dummy, what can I say, I wasn't a very inventive teenager, aside from the whole inventing part of things," Tony said.
Steve felt like he had just come in mid-conversation and missed part of what was going on. "You built this when you were a teenager?"
Tony's expression took on a searching appearance as he walked over to pat Dum-E somewhere just below the reindeer antlers. "Meeting my robot and original experiment into very rudimentary artificial intelligence and that's what you take away from what I just said?"
"It's an artificial intelligence?" Steve asked, perking with interest. He peered at the machine - no, robot - again, tilting his head to the side.
In response, Dum-E tilted its claw in the same direction, and Steve caught sight of a camera lens that looked sort of like an eye.
"Hi, I'm Steve," he introduced himself.
Dum-E made a whirring sound in response. Steve laughed, and tentatively patted the robot the way that Tony had just a moment ago. The whirring took on a tone that seemed almost ... pleased?
"Yeah, yeah," Tony said. "Steve can come back and play with you later." He plucked the bag of food from Steve's hand, and inhaled deeply. "Ahh, just in time. I am starving. Rhodey is missing out - more for us."
Steve followed Tony further into the workshop, which just seemed to keep going, into an area that was more a miniature theater than anything else, with a long couch and a couple of armchairs, a projection screen, and an extensive audio system.
"Rhodey?" he asked, as an afterthought.
"Oh. Old college friend who was supposed to hang out with me today," Tony answered. "My canceled plans?"
"That's too bad," Steve said. He felt a bit ashamed for having suspected those canceled plans were fabricated, before.
Tony shrugged. "He's in the Air Force. Sometimes that trumps hanging out with your friends at Christmas, believe it or not."
Steve smiled. "I know a little something about that."
Tony set the bag of takeout down on the coffee table and began unloading containers. "Yeah?"
"I was in the Army," Steve said. "But ... I was lucky enough that my best friend and I were stationed together." There, that was neither a lie nor too much of the truth. Certainly it was a broad enough story that it could apply to practically any service member.
Tony didn't seem suspicious, at any rate; he just dumped the rest of the bag onto the table, and the contents settled into a pile of fortune cookies, packets of soy sauce and other condiments.
"How long since you got out of the Army?" Tony asked, as he stepped over to a small, utilitarian kitchen area that sat next to the theater space. He grabbed two bottles of beer from the refrigerator, and uncapped them before handing one to Steve.
They settled together onto the couch a companionable distance apart from each other, and Tony switched on the projector.
"Couple years," Steve answered. "I got out, went to school, ended up here. Not much more to it, really."
Tony seemed satisfied not to question further; maybe because he didn't want to speak extensively about his past, either. He began to pop open the containers, which had a spread of several different dishes, fried and steamed rice, egg rolls, and even some dumplings.
The movie that began to play seemed to be more holiday themed fare, but nothing Steve had caught in his marathon with Clint and Natasha. Rather, it was much more familiar, in a way, though Steve couldn't place it: a black and white picture starring Jimmy Stewart.
"What are we watching?" Steve asked, after getting down a mouthful of spicy noodles.
Tony turned, stared incredulously. "It's a Wonderful Life," he said slowly.
"Okay," Steve said, his tone clearly at a loss for why that should have meaning.
Deliberately, Tony set his fork back into his container of rice. "You mean you've never seen It's a Wonderful Life?"
"Have you been living under a rock?" Tony demanded.
"No." Steve bristled defensively, even though he knew that Tony had no way of knowing that Steve had very legitimate reasons for being out of touch with popular culture. It was all the more irksome that the film currently rolling looked like it came from Steve's era; he must have only just missed it, maybe during the war or just after going into the ice.
Tony stared for a moment, then turned away, laughing. "It's okay," he said. "It's not really that great of a movie. Everyone just has false nostalgia for it being great because the copyright ran out and, with it being in the public domain, lots of television networks played it because it was free. And you really never caught it?"
"No," Steve said, yet again.
"Well." Tony shrugged. "You're pretty young, you probably had better things to occupy your time. But when I was a kid, my bu ... uh, my ... babysitter ... used to always put it on around the holidays."
Steve was fairly certain Tony's slip of the tongue there was meant to say butler, and he neatly filed away that information - along with the mention of Tony's friend 'Rhodey' - for later investigation. It was clear by now, though, that Tony knew who he was ... and simply chose to live life as Tony Carbonell, rather than Tony Stark.
Steve couldn't blame him; Steve himself had been relieved not to take up the mantle of Captain America once he awoke in the twenty-first century, but at the same time he knew beyond a doubt that he would have, if the situation had called for it.
He knew what Coulson's plan came around to: make the evidence so irrefutable that Tony could no longer deny his identity. But then what? Tony obviously wasn't just playing around here, a billionaire on holiday, the way that SHIELD presented him. This was a man with a life, a job he obviously enjoyed, friends, and a place in the community.
It was more than Steve had, and that realization was enough to make Steve experience a pang of guilt - certainly not his first - about what he was doing.
By the time Steve fished around for something relevant to say in response, too many seconds had passed, turning a pause in the conversation into a lapse. Tony was paying attention to the movie - and his food - again by that point, anyway, so Steve just tucked back into his lunch and tried not to think about it. He just hoped that, when it came down to it, he wouldn't be the one expected to confront Tony about his identity.
It was late when Steve finally got ready to leave Tony's house. Tony was sprawled out asleep on the couch, having dozed off somewhere during The Return of the King. It was sort of hilarious, considering he'd been the one to suggest their probably ill-advised Lord of the Rings trilogy (extended edition) marathon, after being incensed that Steve had not seen those movies, either.
Steve felt bad waking Tony, but he also needed to get his car out of the garage, and leaving the door open wasn't an option. He cleaned up their mess of takeout cartons, beer bottles, and the demolished plate of gingerbread cookies while the credits rolled and he considered what to do. By the time Steve was forced to switch off the movie, Tony was still sound asleep. Steve pulled a blanket from the back of the couch and draped it over Tony, then stepped out into the workshop area.
The robot - Dum-E - perked up when Steve entered its space.
"I don't suppose you know how to lower the garage door," Steve said.
He wasn't expecting an answer, but the robot did wheel over to the counter and pull open a drawer. After a moment of rummaging around in the drawer's contents, Dum-E wheeled over to Steve with something clutched in its claw.
Steve reached his hand out, and Dum-E dropped a small remote control - a garage door opener, Steve realized - into it. He'd thought Tony was joking about his experiment into artificial intelligence ... or maybe the robot was just programmed to help show people out. Steve glanced back into the theater area, where Tony hadn't moved, and shrugged.
"Okay, then." Steve walked to his car and rummaged in his things for a pen and a piece of paper, and he scrawled a quick note to Tony, thanking him for a nice day - Steve did have fun - and explaining that he was borrowing the garage door opener, but Tony knew how to find him to get it back later.
Steve signed and folded the note when he was done, and offered it to Dum-E. "Can you make sure he gets this?"
Dum-E took the note in its claw and moved in what looked eerily like a nod. Steve patted it on the head, only a little awkwardly, and waited until it had wheeled back into the workshop area to get back into his car.
Steve pulled his car into the driveway and idled for a few moments, waiting for the garage door to close again. He was grateful to have parked inside; it looked like even more fresh snow had fallen while they were having their movie marathon. The street in front of Tony's house was understandably quiet at this time of night - it was past 3 am - though Steve noticed a car parked along the curb as he pulled out of Tony's driveway. The dark sedan was conspicuous because of the tell-tale exhaust visible in the cold air, and as he drove by, Steve saw someone sitting in the driver's seat. Someone who seemed to duck down when Steve passed.
At the stop sign at the end of the street, Steve squinted in the wing mirror and found his pen from earlier, quickly scribbling the other car's license plate number on the palm of his hand. It was probably nothing - Natasha would laugh at him for being paranoid, later, Steve was sure - but Steve knew he'd have more peace of mind if he just ... checked. A strange car sitting in a residential neighborhood at almost four in the morning wasn't normal.
By the time Steve got back to his temporary home, the house was dark except for a light in the kitchen. Steve let himself in and was surprised to find Clint in the kitchen, making breakfast.
"Hey," Clint said. "You hungry?"
What Steve wanted most right now was to brush his teeth - his palate was permanently damaged, he was sure, by the fuzzy coating of sugar from all the cookies, hot cocoa, and apple cider - but his stomach rumbled agreeably at the idea of bacon and eggs.
"Yeah," he answered. "You're up early."
"My flight out's in a couple hours," Clint said. "I don't like flying on an empty stomach, so breakfast at four it is."
Steve stomped snow off his shoes and kicked off the shoes themselves, leaving them by the door as he walked further into the kitchen. He peeled out of his cold weather gear and draped it across one of the kitchen chairs, then sat down at the breakfast bar that separated the kitchen from the tiny dining room area.
"How was your date?" Clint asked.
He didn't approach things from the same air of knowing as Natasha did, and Steve found himself less on the defensive as he answered, "Wasn't much of a date. We just watched movies."
Clint plunked a mug of coffee down in front of Steve, and leaned against the counter to nurse one of his own. "Find out anything new?"
Steve shrugged. "He mentioned his butler, in a roundabout way, so that pretty much confirms our suspicions about Edwin Jarvis. And he brought up another friend who's in the Air Force - he just called him 'Rhodey,' but he said they went to college together. I remember a mention of someone in his file fitting that description."
"Well, hey," Clint said. "It's progress."
"I feel like it's moving slowly," Steve admitted.
"Well, back in your day, Cap, things moved a lot quicker," Clint said. "I know everyone thinks the future's too fast-paced for you, but covert ops have changed to a slow crawl compared to the stuff you used to do."
"Tell me about it," Steve said, laughing softly. He knew Natasha would chide them both for not sticking to their cover right now, but there was no one around to hear, and they swept the place for bugs on a daily basis.
Clint sipped his coffee in silence for a moment, before turning back to the stove. "So, don't worry. Coulson's been out here for months and hasn't made as much progress as you have in a few days. I've known him and worked with him for a long time. If he didn't think you could do it, he wouldn't have recommended you."
Steve sighed into his coffee mug. "I guess you're right."
"Of course I am. How do you take your eggs, Cap?"
"Over easy, please," Steve said. He glanced down at his palm, remembering the car. "Hey, do you know how I can look up a license plate number?"
Clint turned, eyebrows raised. "Yeah. What's up?"
"It's probably nothing," Steve said. "Just - there was a car on Tony's street when I left his house. I thought it was a little strange. There was someone sitting in it, and they had the motor running."
"Huh." Clint looked thoughtful. "You think you've got trouble?"
Steve shrugged. "I don't know. Better safe than sorry, right?"
"Yeah. I can run it for you when I get back to New York, if you want."
"I'd appreciate it."
"No problem," Clint said, cracking a couple of eggs into a frying pan. "You can make it up to me with a ride to the airport."
Steve offered a smile. "Yeah, I think I can do that."
The middle school library was nothing like Steve would have known from the last time he set foot in school as a student, but he found it fascinating. He could only imagine what his educational experience might have been like with the aid of computer technology and the Internet providing so much free information right at his fingertips. The school in his neighborhood had been poor, like most of the students who attended and teachers who provided the instruction for it; though the library was stocked with a fair number of the classics - which Steve had eagerly devoured - the books' spines and pages had been well-worn, covers seemingly held together with their librarian's tenacity.
Steve had been doing a great deal of research into the educational system for the sake of his cover - learning about lack of funding for the arts, parent groups calling for schools to revamp school lunches into healthier and more nutritious meals, and some of the lengths that teachers went through to make sure their students had necessary supplies - but he still had difficulty imagining that this was the library of a school struggling with budget cuts. There were so many books of different lengths and colorful covers lining the shelves, and a bank of well-kept computers lined a wall.
Steve was shown around the library by his new supervisor - technically the librarian; Steve was to be her assistant - who prattled on for a while in a friendly tone about how it was unusual to have a new hire in the middle of the school year, but it had been a special exception that caused the loss of their last assistant, and Steve came so highly recommended by Mr. Coulson ... Steve was glad he went to Tony's party, since meeting so many people there gave him an edge on introductions. He only encountered three or four faces that were newly introduced while making the rounds of the school, though he knew some others weren't actually present at the moment.
Pretending to be someone else was exhausting in a particular sort of way when interacting with so many people, and Steve was grateful when Ms. Knauss finally left him alone in the library while she went to see to something else. He wasn't alone for long, though, before an increasingly more familiar voice said, "You have the look of a man who's reconsidering his life choices."
Steve looked up to see Tony leaning against the big front desk.
"Hey," he said, ignoring the probably teasing words. "I was going to look for you before I left. I've got your garage door opener."
Steve went back to the desk and rummaged through his messenger bag - part of the wardrobe he purchased on Natasha's advice, and actually pretty useful - before producing the remote and handing it to Tony.
Tony took it, and slipped the small device into the pocket of his jacket. "Tell me you at least finished watching Return of the King," he said.
"I did." Steve smiled. "I just didn't want to wake you up. You looked comfortable."
"And do I have you to thank for tucking me in?" Tony asked.
"Yep." Steve nodded.
"Okay, good," Tony said. He sounded relieved. "Smart as Dummy is, I wasn't sure about being mother-henned by my robot."
Steve snorted softly. "He did give me the garage door opener."
"That's useful," Tony said. "Looking out for me being cold betrays a level of empathy."
"Hmm." Steve wasn't so sure he believed Tony's protests about Dum-E's intelligence and capacity for learning, but he also could understand being defensive of a creation like that. "Was he your inspiration for Tiny Robots?"
"Sort of." Tony pushed up from the desk and wandered over to the row of computers. "I always had an interest in robotics, since I was a kid. Back before I ended up on my current career path. My interest didn't evaporate fully, obviously."
"Obviously," Steve said.
"If you need any help with these, by the way, you can just call me," Tony said, patting the top of one of the monitors. "I think they're using me to save on the budget and avoid hiring an IT person."
He said it in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way, and they shared in their amusement for a moment, until Tony's attention gradually wandered to something outside; after a second he gave a low whistle.
"Man," he said. "Coulson did not strike me as the type of guy who's getting laid on a regular basis."
"Huh?" Steve was surprised by the abrupt subject change, and he leaned forward to peer out the window.
It didn't take long for Steve to figure out what had grabbed Tony's attention: in the parking lot, Agent Coulson was standing by a car, but across from him stood a dark-haired woman. Even in her heavy coat, scarf, and sunglasses, Steve recognized Agent Melinda May, but he couldn't readily fathom what might have prompted Coulson to bring yet another operative into the fray.
For whatever reason Agent May was here, her cover was clearly that she was in a relationship with Assistant Principal Coulson, given that the two of them were currently sharing a kiss.
"And she's hot," Tony concluded, turning away from the window. "How weird is that?"
"Uh," Steve said. "Pretty weird, I guess? Sorry, I don't really know Mr. Coulson that well yet."
Tony peered at Steve for a moment. "He's spoken pretty highly of you to the other members of the faculty," he said. "I get it, though. Don't wanna talk about your new boss the first day of the job."
"Yeah," Steve said weakly.
Tony patted him on the arm. "It's okay. So, now that I've educated you on Lord of the Rings and tried unsuccessfully to corrupt your professional life, that brings me to the other thing I came by here for."
Steve raised his eyebrows. "What's that?"
"New Year's Eve," said Tony. "Do you have plans?"
"Are you having another party?" Steve wondered.
"Nah." Tony shook his head. "I'm going to someone else's this time. Didn't know if you might like to be my plus one. The person having it tries to set me up with her niece every time I show up without a date, and I thought maybe, since you walked out on me the other night, you might like to make it up to me ..."
"I didn't walk out on you," Steve protested. "I didn't want to wake you up. I left a note."
"I promise, you could have woken me up, I wouldn't have minded," Tony said. "Anyway, whatever, moot point now. Are you in or not?"
Steve couldn't put his finger on why, but there was something sort of charming about Tony's straightforwardness. "Okay," he agreed, mentally reasoning away that it was the best option with his assignment in mind.
"Great." Tony smiled. "It's pretty casual, no need to dress up. Starts at ten, so wanna meet me at my place at nine-thirty?"
"See you tomorrow night, then," Tony said. He turned to go, and Steve was pretty sure he saw Tony wink at him before leaving.
Steve put his head down on the windowsill and wondered - certainly not for the first time, and probably not for the last - exactly what he was getting himself into.
The strangest thing in Steve's life was quickly becoming the fact that he enjoyed spending time with Tony. Moreover, it was exactly what he'd worried about, going into this mission: getting close to his mark. It wasn't as hard as Steve imagined it must be for Clint and Natasha, sometimes - in that Steve wasn't going to have to kill Tony or otherwise bring him to justice - but it was challenging for Steve in his own way.
When Steve sat down to dinner with Natasha that evening, he was already anticipating what her reaction might be to his news. Instead, he was surprised when Natasha led into the conversation with, "Coulson's brought May on board because they suspect Stane might be on to us."
Steve sat back in his chair, frowning. "But, how?"
"The car you saw the other night," Natasha said. "Clint ran the plates when he got back to New York, like he said he would. It traced back to a shell corporation SHIELD has suspected has ties to Stane, but we didn't have any solid links until now."
"So ... what now?" Steve asked. "Is that it, are we done?"
Natasha shook her head. "We're not completely sure if they're suspicious of us, or if Stane has just had someone watching Stark all this time."
"It seems like a lot of trouble," Steve said doubtfully. "A lot of resources to expend, just to keep an eye on someone who's already set on staying out of the way."
Natasha shrugged. "Obadiah Stane is a billionaire thanks to Tony Stark's absence. You'd be surprised, the lengths people will go to in order to keep their money."
Steve sighed. "Are you saying Tony's in danger from Stane?"
"I wouldn't put it outside the realm of possibility," said Natasha. "Agent May is looking into it. Until then, we're to keep doing our jobs, but whatever you have going on with Stark, you might want to push it. See if you can accelerate the timeline."
Steve looked down at his plate, frowning. "He invited me to a New Year's Eve party," he said. "I can't tell if he trusts me all that much, or if he's just friendly. I can't imagine he's gotten this far on his own by taking everyone at face value."
When he glanced up, Steve saw Natasha was giving him a look.
"Steve," she said. "You're very ... genuine. I don't mean that in an old fashioned way, I just mean that you're sincere, even when you're being stubborn or belligerent. It gets through to people."
Steve pulled a face, unsure whether he should take that strictly as a compliment, but he decided to see it as a positive thing; it wasn't as if he wouldn't consider himself those things. "Thanks," he said. "I think."
"If an opportunity arises," Natasha said, "then I think you'll know it's time to tell him. It tips things further in our favor if he finds out Stane is watching him. There's no way that looks good."
"I hope you're right," Steve said reluctantly. It was exactly what he didn't want, to be placed in this scenario, but he knew that he would do what was necessary, just the same - especially if Tony's safety was on the line.
New Year's Eve arrived without any further incident; there had been no more sightings of the mysterious vehicle, and Tony sent Steve a text message early in the afternoon to confirm their evening plans. The school district considered it a holiday, so Steve had no work obligations related to his cover or to SHIELD.
Steve spent part of the day acquainting himself with some of the art supplies he'd picked up in town - the set of beakers he got at Tony's party came in handy as holders for his pens and pencils - and enjoying some time to himself. The peace and quiet was good for reflection; Steve hadn't much liked being alone with his own thoughts, early on after waking from the ice, always finding something to keep himself busy, but now he appreciated the opportunity to sort the jumble.
The twenty-first century - progression of history, technology, and pop culture references aside - wasn't particularly more daunting than the 1940's had been, and the leisure time was certainly new. He had lunch with Natasha, they watched a few more episodes of a documentary series on the universe, had dinner, and finally it was time for Steve to start getting ready.
It was also time for Steve to accept and acknowledge, if only to himself, that this was definitely a date. It felt odd to think that his first date in seventy years was going to be with someone he hardly knew, under very false pretenses. Then again, he supposed his blind double dates with the girls Bucky set him up with hadn't been far off from that.
Steve felt nervous, uncomfortably on edge, by the time he reached Tony's house and pulled into the driveway. The garage door opened as it had before, and Steve parked his car inside. Christmas decorations still bedecked the space, but Dum-E had traded out his felt antlers for a paper party hat that bore the year '2013' across it in foil letters.
"Hi there," Steve greeted the robot.
Dum-E whirred what was probably a greeting back, and Steve wandered further into the workshop.
"You must still run on military time," Tony announced as he emerged from elsewhere in the house. "Right on time."
"Something like that," Steve said. "Hi, by the way."
"Hi." Tony smiled, and Steve was impressed with the sudden notion that Tony was, in fact, quite handsome. He looked particularly good in a festive red sweater and dark jeans that hugged his hips and thighs in all the right ways. Tony did, in fact, seem to be in remarkably good shape for a man past the age of forty; only the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, and the bits of gray shot through his dark hair, betrayed signs of his years.
By the time Steve realized he'd spent longer than was strictly polite in staring, Tony was looking at him with an especially sly grin.
"Like what you see?" he asked.
Steve cleared his throat. "You look nice," he said determinedly.
"Thanks." Tony headed toward his car. "You aren't half bad yourself, Steve. I have to admit, out of everyone I could've asked to go with me tonight, you're by far the best looking."
"I'm glad I survived your process of elimination," Steve said dryly. He walked around to the passenger side of the car and slid in once Tony was seated behind the wheel. The car was small and Steve had to hunker down a little to fit comfortably without grazing his hair against the headliner.
"I have very demanding tastes," Tony said. He started the car, while the garage door rolled up behind them; the engine did not make a sound.
"I can tell," said Steve. "What kind of car is this, anyway?"
Tony raised his eyebrows. "It's a Tesla," he said. "Only decent looking electric car on the market right now, not that this one is technically on the market anymore. I'm looking at an upgrade to that new Audi."
Steve wasn't unfamiliar with the concept of an electric car, and he couldn't imagine this one had been inexpensive. For a moment, though, he couldn't help thinking of the future expo he'd attended with Bucky, seventy years ago now, and the way Howard Stark had proudly presented his shiny red, flying car. What would Howard Stark think of this technology? Probably, Steve thought, he'd be incensed that he hadn't been the one to pioneer it. Or that his son hadn't.
As they pulled out of the driveway, Steve was jostled from his thoughts, and he turned his attention to the street. As he had grown accustomed to, it was quiet and mostly empty. But there, on the opposite side of Tony's house from last time, was that same dark sedan. This time the engine didn't seem to be running, and Steve couldn't see anyone inside, but he knew it was the same car.
"Something wrong?" Tony asked.
"Huh?" Steve blinked, looking back at him. "No, I just - realized I forgot to tell Natalie where I was going tonight."
Tony didn't question it, when Steve got out his cell phone and started firing off a text message to Natasha, but he wasn't telling her about his plans, which she already knew of; he was alerting her to the presence of the mysterious sedan. She texted back almost immediately that she would look into it, and after that, he put his phone away, not wanting to be rude.
Steve was on edge for the rest of the drive to the party, periodically glancing at the wing mirror to see if any headlights seemed to be following them.
Tony kept up a one-sided flow of conversation most of the way, appearing not to notice - or at least, not to care - that Steve's responses were few and far between. When they finally arrived at their venue, multiple cars were already present; the house itself was crowded, although the space was nearly as large as Tony's home, and equally as packed with people as Tony's Christmas party had been.
"I really hope you don't mind me sticking close," Steve said, once they were inside. "I'm a little worried if I lose you, I won't find you again before midnight."
Tony shot Steve a sly look over his shoulder. "Don't worry," he said, and reached down to take Steve's hand in his own.
Tony's hand was warm and slightly rough, not dry but callused, probably from years of his work as an inventor. Steve went a step further and laced their fingers together, even though he felt a small twinge of guilt for the intimacy of the move. It felt nice, though, inexplicably; it was the sort of contact Steve hadn't actively missed, but now that he felt it, he couldn't help enjoying it.
Steve sternly told himself that it was just a good idea to stay close to Tony; he wasn't being paranoid, or out of bounds. That car was suspicious, and Steve needed to make certain that nothing happened to Tony this evening. It would be so easy for something to go wrong in a room so full of people Steve didn't know; he was already forced to follow Tony's cues to guess which people he recognized as friends and acquaintances.
They made the rounds for the next hour and some change, which Steve found as exhausting as ever, with an added helping of distress from all the questions being lobbed Tony's way about who his mystery date was. At least no one seemed particularly upset that Tony had shown up with a man as his plus one; Coulson must have been right in that regard.
Once it was less than half an hour to midnight, people began circulating through the crowd with glasses of champagne for the midnight toast, and one of their hosts was passing out noisemakers. Tony had already put on a pair of ridiculous glasses with frames in the shape of '2013,' while Steve accepted a dubious piece of headgear that looked like a tophat.
"Are you having fun?" Tony asked.
Steve sighed in relief, glancing around. "Glad to get a moment alone, I'll be honest."
Tony grinned. "Gearing up for that midnight kiss?"
"If you're interested," Steve said honestly. He had never been to this sort of New Year's Eve celebration, much less had anyone to kiss once the clock struck twelve.
"Guess we'll leave it a mystery for the sake of suspense," Tony teased. He snagged a glass of champagne for each of them, and held one out to Steve. Tony had already had quite a bit to drink; his cheeks were flushed and his eyes sparkled with amusement.
"You are a mystery to me," Steve blurted. He didn't even have the excuse of alcohol for that one.
Tony threw back his head and laughed. "Am I?"
"Yes," Steve said.
"Oh," said Tony, suddenly serious. "If only you knew."
That was the problem, Steve thought; he did.
Suddenly, the music turned down and a large television mounted on the wall near the front of the room switched on, airing a repeat of the Times Square broadcast from an hour ago on the east coast. Steve joined in with everyone else on the countdown from ten, and shortly after the shouts of "HAPPY NEW YEAR!" went up around the room, Steve found himself being yanked down by his collar, into a kiss.
It wasn't the neatest or most well-timed kiss Steve had ever experienced, but Tony certainly got points for enthusiasm, going so far as to slip in a bit of tongue while Steve was hesitating in surprise. Steve closed his eyes and kissed back, while it lasted, until finally Tony released him and stepped back, still smiling broadly.
"Happy New Year," Tony said.
Steve laughed, feeling ridiculously exhilarated by the excitement of the crowd and the surprise of the kiss. "Happy New Year," he said.
Tony raised his glass in offer of a toast; Steve lightly clinked his against it, and together they sipped their champagne, while the music came back up and noisemakers continued to go off all around them.
"Wanna get some air?" Tony asked. His expression suggested he might have a little more in mind than air, maybe some things that didn't actively involve a lot of breathing.
The noises faded out behind them as Tony led the way out a back door. It was well below freezing outside, but in spite of that, a few party guests huddled against the side of the house smoking cigarettes. Tony led Steve a short distance away, and tugged him down for another kiss. Steve leaned in to it, in spite of every moral fiber telling him this was no longer a special exception; he needed to come clean now, to tell Tony the truth.
Tony was blissfully unaware, though; he just slid his arms around Steve, pressing their bodies close together as they kissed.
In spite of the warmth and distraction of the moment, Steve still heard the whistle that he knew would precede a loud bang. He broke away from the kiss to cry, "Get down!" before throwing himself bodily into Tony.
They crashed onto the frozen ground with a thud, sending up a puff of powdery snow as the first of the fireworks went off overhead.
Beneath him, Tony began to shake; Steve pulled back and realized, after a moment, Tony was shaking not with fear or cold, but with laughter.
"What the hell, Steve," Tony said. "If you didn't want to kiss me, you could've just said so."
Flushing with embarrassment, Steve hurriedly rolled to his feet and held out a hand to Tony. "Sorry," he apologized quickly, with no idea how he was going to recover from this one.
"War flashbacks, soldier?" Tony asked, raising his eyebrows.
"Something like that." Steve helped Tony to his feet and reached his arms around to brush snow from Tony's back. It became an awkward tangle of limbs as Tony tried to bat away Steve's attempts to help, and they ended up doing an awkward dance around each other while the other few party guests politely ignored their antics.
Another rocket whistled overhead; the sound of it exploding into colorful sparks muffled what was, in fact, a very real gunshot.
Steve shifted to one side without thinking, and grunted as the bullet made impact with his torso. He could tell from the expression on Tony's face that Tony didn't register what had just happened, at least until the spread of blood began to seep through Steve's sweater, warm under Tony's palm.
"Steve?" he said, expression morphing into one of question and disbelief. "What -?"
Steve opened his mouth to answer, but the only sound was someone else's scream. The door that they'd come outside through burst out from the house in a spray of shattering glass as a man flew through it, sending up another puff of snow where he landed. Instinctively, Steve folded himself around Tony and pressed him up against the side of the house.
The man who had flown through the glass slumped across the snowy ground, and began to groggily shake his head as he looked around. The gun he had probably been holding before he landed was lying a few feet away, and he started moving toward it with a groan of pain.
The people who had been standing outside - along with a few who were previously indoors - were scattering everywhere in a panic, screaming or shouting questions or yelling for an ambulance. The fireworks still going off in the sky above only added to the chaos.
Steve groaned, the loss of blood starting to get to even him at this rate. He slumped to his knees, and Tony went down with him, frantically seeking out and pressing his hands over the bullet wound.
Agent Melinda May stepped through the frame that was all that was left of the broken door. She stepped over to the man she'd undoubtedly sent through that door, and kicked the pistol away from his searching hand. Another well-placed kick sent the man into unconsciousness.
"This is May," she said, lifting her hand to activate the comm in her ear as she scanned her surroundings, eyes lighting on Steve and Tony. "Scene is secure, but we need a med evac. Librarian's down."
"Can someone tell me what the fuck is going on?" Tony demanded.
Steve, shivering from the cold - and probably the blood loss - let out a short laugh. "This probably isn't the best time to tell you: I'm not exactly who I said I am."
"No shit," Tony said flatly. "What kind of genius would I be if I didn't recognize a SHIELD agent when I see one?"
The crunch of footsteps in the snow preceded Agent May's arrival at their side; Steve was pretty sure she'd purposely made noise to interrupt the moment.
"We've got the perimeter secured," she said. Her expression softened as she knelt down beside Steve and Tony, eyes assessing Steve's injury. "Medics are on the way."
"Thanks," Steve said, trying to keep his voice from shaking.
May looked at Tony. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah," Tony said. "I mean, aside from idiots throwing themselves in front of bullets for me."
"He saved your life," May answered. "At your height, that would've hit you in the heart."
"Like I said: idiot. Hey, wait - you're Coulson's - damn it."
"Not so much of a genius, then," she commented.
"Coulson too?" Tony demanded, outright plaintive now.
May rolled her eyes and got to her feet while Tony spluttered about her identity. A near swarm of agents had flooded across the yard in the last few seconds, with more still running in from the house; from his place on the ground, Steve watched as his assailant was carted off in handcuffs and another agent - identifiable even with the cold weather gear over his suit - scurried past with the weapon in an evidence bag.
Steve dropped his head back down onto Tony's thigh and closed his eyes; it was getting hard to concentrate, with the snow leeching the rest of the warmth from his limbs. They had stupidly run outside without any coats on, and it was beginning to feel uncomfortably like being frozen all over again.
"Hey," Tony said sharply. "Try not to die. I'm not finished yelling at you yet."
He pressed his hands down harder on the wound, and Steve laughed in spite of himself, wincing when it made the pain even worse.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'm pretty hard to kill."
Tony still looked doubtful, as pale as if he had been the one bleeding out on the ground. "I'm holding you to that," he said unevenly.
The med evac team, true to May's word, arrived within seconds, and one of them urged Tony away so that the professionals could take over Steve's care. They got Steve loaded up onto a stretcher, and pressed an unnecessary (he thought) oxygen mask over his face.
Steve's last glimpse of Tony before the medical team blocked his line of sight was Tony standing there, looking helpless, with Steve's blood all over his hands.
to be continued ...