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Waiting for the Right Partner

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Steve was used to being underestimated. He'd like to say that it didn't bug him, that as long as he knew his own worth, it was enough. But heck, he wasn't the Pope or anything. He was just a kid from Brooklyn, scrabbling like so many to find a bit of meaning in his life.

Back in the day he thought getting overlooked was about being the littlest guy around. When you're as short as most folks kids and shorter than almost every dame, people tend to lump you in with 'em.

Not that Steve made the mistake of thinking that dames were low on brains. Or that the kids were, for that matter. But maybe from where he was standing, closer to the ground, it was easier to see that glint in a person's eye. Made it easier to see that under the ratty clothes or behind the face powder was a thinking human being. Someone with plans and a mind all their own.

He watched as his friends forgot that. Seems the taller you got, the harder it was to really see a fella. Even Bucky, God love him, sometimes did it. One minute he'd be razzing Steve, easy as you please, and the next he'd practically be holding his hand while they crossed the road. Like Steve was some sap who couldn't look both ways first.

For a little bit after Dr Erskine and his serum, Steve kinda thought all that was behind him. Turns out there's more than one way to slot a guy into a box. He went from being a scrawny nobody that a dame wouldn't dance with, for fear of his face ending up in the goods, to being, of all things, a chorus girl. He was a failed experiment. A one-off.

Those weren't the only names he got called. After curtains a few weeks into the USO tour, Steve ran into a pair of soldiers in a bar; fellas who'd been invalided home from the war. He sat down to buy 'em a round and thank them for their sacrifice. They recognized him from the show: Captain America and his dancing girls. They drank his beer and called him a three-letter man. A fag. He'd just stammered and tried to explain that he wasn't, not that there was anything wrong with it. They laughed him out of the bar.

Later that night he'd been wandering, just letting his feet walk him around, when he ended up in a part of town he'd never been. He wasn't paying attention, which showed how turned around his head was, and he stiffened right up when he felt the knife at his back.

He was about ready to take the guy down - and boy was he, after the head of steam he'd built up at the bar - when a couple of guys came running down the alley and scared the man off.

They laughed, brushed Steve off, and took him to their basement speakeasy. Steve looked around that room and had his eyes opened wide that night. He sat down with his rescuers and listened to their lives, respecting them more with each story they told. Never mind what the world at large called these guys. They were real men, fighting for their country and their honor just like any other fella. Steve never got fussed about being called a homosexual after that.

Seems everywhere he went, he learned all over again that people only saw what they expected. He'd always had bigger dreams than his body could hold, so these days he made sure to get down to ground level in order to see the dreams in other folks eyes. Just like him, they had more to offer than everyone thought. They just needed a chance. For him, it was Bucky who gave him the courage to stand up, stop trying to live up to everyone's expectations and just be Steve Rogers.

He'd been kinda lost, those months doing the USO tour. It was only when Bucky got lost that Steve rediscovered himself. That, and Peggy getting down to ground level with him and believing in his dream, too. He'd fallen in love with her just for that.

He remembered what he'd always known. It didn't matter what anyone else saw when they looked at you; the measure of a man was in his heart. It was time to set aside senators and war bonds and army colonels. Serum or no, he was the same man he'd always been and it was time to put the gift he'd been given to its proper use.

That was then, and here in the 21st century things weren't much different. Oh, the ladies' clothes were, well... yes. And everyone had gadgets and gizmos to beat the band. But the people were just the same. They looked at Steve and saw a guy who'd never seen a portable phone, who didn't understand the tech-speak that their grade-school kids knew. They laughed when he found out folks pierced their noses, like those African tribes he'd once read about. They put him in a box. Sap. Old timer. Child-like.

They spoke slower to him, which he was grateful for as the accent had shifted, just enough, that he needed time to get a handle on it. But they also talked louder, like his time in the ice made him deaf as well as dumb. They showed him kid's movies to "keep from shocking him". Like he'd never been to a petting pantry.

Steve looked back to those years in the war when he'd finally won the respect of his men. He remembered that you couldn't get mad at folks to make 'em see you - that just made you a bully. (And he suddenly had an insight into all the bullies he'd ever fought, felt bad that he'd never seen 'em as anything more than what they seemed.)

But he remembered that you couldn't get hot and expect people to respect you. You had to earn it. So Steve smiled and nodded when they talked over his head. He didn't sleep much anymore, so he used the time to pour over computer manuals, internet searches, anything he could get his hands on. He studied them the way he used to study battle plans.

Because the way he saw it, he was in a war. One he'd been fighting his whole life. Only now the stakes were higher than ever. Colonel Fury said that he was supposed to be the field commander for the Avengers. Steve knew from experience that without his team's respect, he couldn't do a darn thing to keep 'em alive.

So he smiled, studied, and bided his time. He remembered the lessons Dr Erskine and Peggy and Bucky taught him. He knew, unfortunately, that bad things would always happen. He knew because of that, there'd come a time when his new team would be forced to reevaluate what they thought they knew. Until then he gave each member of his team the same unstinting, open attention he wanted from them, and waited.

*_*_*

"Damn it, Jarvis! I told you to keep an eye on him. You can't just let America's golden boy wander off. God knows, he's probably half-way to Afghanistan to win the war for us, and then what would the politicians have to fight about? It'd be madness, cats and dogs living- oh! Hi there, Steve."

Tony grinned his sharp, ironic smile, and leaned against the door to Steve's room. Steve smiled back, still crouched over the box at his feet.

"Hiya, Tony. Don't blame Jarvis. Colonel Fury had me testing out some new spray from the R&D guys. S'posed to make us harder to track electronically and I haven't had time to wash it off, yet. I didn't show up on the airport cameras either."

"Jarvis is vastly superior to some two-bit security cam at the JFK. And from what I heard, Fury's all about keeping tabs on you." He lifted an eyebrow in challenge.

Steve shrugged, remembering the clear, plastic tracker he'd dug out of his shoulder-blade. "The camouflage stuff is for all the SHIELD agents, not just me. Besides, you know the colonel. Just because he wants to keep eyes on me doesn't mean he wants to make it easy for anyone else."

"Truer words were never spoken," Tony agreed. "Speaking of which, we're taking you shopping."

"Wait, what? That didn't even-"

"Ah ah ah! Never question a genius. C'mon, you've got, what, four boxes? You can unpack later. They're probably all books, anyway. Books love staying in boxes. It's their natural habitat. They breed best in the dark. Trust me, we'll come back and you'll have an entire box filled up with brand new baby books. Up you come."

"Tony, I just-"

"Nope! Not a word. I agreed to let you move in here out of the goodness of my shiny metal heart, but I refuse to have anyone living here who looks like they dress out of a goodwill bag. The neighbors are complaining that you're bringing down the property values."

"Tony, you don't have neighbors," Steve said, rolling his eyes and standing. His shield was resting against the bed and he brushed his fingers along its curve, absently touching. "We're on the top level of a building so tall that you'd need advanced military satellites to look in the windows."

"And that's the way we like it. Now I don't know what kind of bank account Fury's set up for you, but today's on me. Sort of a 'welcome to la casa de Stark' sort of wagon. Better than goulash and far more slimming. Come on. Snap to!"

So saying, he actually snapped his fingers, and Steve, bemused, left the shield behind and trailed after him. "It's not that I'm not grateful, it's just-"

Tony glanced over his shoulder. He was suddenly serious; one of those mercurial shifts Steve was coming to associate with him. "Just what?" Tony frowned. "Someone's been showing you the tabloids again, haven't they. Listen, I promise that whatever you're thinking about me right now-"

"Tony!" Steve raised his voice. Another thing he'd learned about Tony Stark was that you had to be kinda loud or very interesting to get his attention, and it helped if you were both. "It's that I am grateful. Really. I wanted to show it by keeping the room you gave me in good shape."

"Oh." Tony looked like he didn't know what to say, which confused Steve. It was such a little thing, a guest showing respect for his host's home. Surely it wasn't uncommon, even in this strange, fast-paced world. So why did Tony look like he'd just been sucker punched?

Then Tony did something that surprised Steve. He looked at him. Narrowed his eyes and just stood there. His head was tilted and Steve could almost hear the genius ticking away behind his eyes. It was oddly intense, being the sole focus of Tony's attention. Steve cocked his head and wondered what he was seeing.

"Right then," Tony said after a beat. "First stop, coffee. They've practically reinvented it since you were in the ice, Cap. You're gonna love it." He turned and sauntered to the door, throwing his jacked on as he went. Then he froze and turned back so suddenly that Steve almost ran into him. "Coat. As in you don't have one. Seriously, it's like thirty degrees out there. I bet even you get cold. At least I assume that iceberg was no picnic. Here."

He took his jacket off his back and thrust it at him. Before Steve could open his mouth to reply that, while yes, he did get cold, it usually wasn't until around negative ten that he started to feel it, Tony was already digging through a closet. He muttered to himself and emerged, victorious, with another equally expensive jacket.

"C'mon. Now we really do need to overhaul your wardrobe. That coat costs more than everything you have on."

"It probably costs more than anything I've ever owned," Steve joked. He slid into the warm fabric, smelling leather and expensive cologne and something that seemed to belong purely to Tony.

He looked up and startled another pensive look on Tony's face. Then Tony grinned, an open, honest smile. "You just keep surprising me, you know that?" He cocked an eyebrow and held his arm out, as if escorting a dame onto the dance floor. "Shall we?"

Steve lifted his own eyebrows and walked past Tony, keeping eye contact as he brushed bare inches from his chest, then out the door. Tony laughed and joined him at the elevator. Challenge accepted.

Steve grinned. He might not have to wait as long as he'd thought.