A bell rang sharply, sounding through the rooms of the beautifully restored red brick building and cutting Steve off in the middle of a sentence.
In another life Steve was Captain Rogers, a man who commanded respect and led by heroic example. In another time he and his men, his friends, saved the world every day. But here he was just Steve, Mr. Rogers. His friends were gone and, at least today, no one much seemed to care about what he had to say.
All through the class the kids had dutifully taken their notes and a few even raised their hands, getting into the discussion of impressionist painters. Most of them just jotted down the names and dates that might be on a test and did little more than glance at the paintings. Even when the bell rang they all kept their seats, waiting to be dismissed but stuffing what they could in their bags as quietly as possible.
Steve’s mouth turned into a hard line as he looked at them all. He heaved his shoulders and tried not to sigh too audibly. “Dismissed,” he barked and then added a gentler, “we can finish up next week.”
It was hard to get used to things, but not in a practical sense, never in any way he could put a finger on how to fix. From day one, just over a year ago, SHIELD had taken care of his every physical need. They said it was the least they could do; he was Captain America and he had saved the world. These days he hated when they said that, whispered it when he walked by or spoke about him like he was something from a story book. It made him feel like he wasn’t real anymore. But he couldn’t really see complaining about it. They were just being nice.
They gave him a place to live, furnished with everything he needed down to a closet full of clothes and a pair of boots. They paid his bills, set him up with a generous stipend to live on (more than he knew what to do with). They even had a very nice girl sit down with him and teach him how to use the laptop and phone he was given. She was very patient with him and told him that he picked it all up very quickly.
When he told them that he wanted to go back on active duty, that he felt useless sitting around, they explained that, as things were, he could do the most good on American soil. But they let him have his shield back and he got to put on the costume and fight the big bullies when they stirred up trouble. That much made him happy enough.
When he told them that he wanted to go back to art school, to have something to fill up his days, they made that happen too. He really enjoyed that, learning, getting better at something he loved, having assignments, things to do. Being with people who he supposed were about his own age felt like it should have been what he needed. But anyone his own age was always in another way almost a century younger than him and he never felt quite up to bridging the gap.
He wasn’t what you would call shy, certainly not when it came to his job, but it was his friend Bucky who had always been the charmer, not him. Lord, he missed Bucky, now more than ever. He wished he had his oldest friend to explore this new world with. Steve could handle wars with super Nazis and the impending end of the world, but rebuilding a life from the ground up was proving to be something else altogether, something he thought his old friend would have been much better at.
Whenever there was no one else around, Steve would become almost consumed with missing everything and everyone he knew. But it wasn’t as though anyone could do anything about it. He spent most of his free time in the gym working his body hard enough that his head shut up for awhile. And he read a lot; the laptop was great for that. Didn’t even need a reading light any more. He supposed that all in all he was fine.
When he asked if he could do some volunteer work, teaching kids about art, once again SHIELD made it happen. But that hadn’t really worked out; he thought he would get to go somewhere he was needed. Some underfunded little school in Brooklyn, some place where the kids needed to see there were beautiful things in the world.
Where SHIELD sent him-- the only place that met all the security requirements-- was about as far away from that as could he could imagine. They planted him down as a student teacher at The Tomorrow Academy, a place filled with the best and the brightest and more importantly, to them anyway, the offspring of the richest. The sons and daughters of the world’s most cunning lawyers, powerful businessmen and most important agents and officials. Kids who might have grown up with originals of the paintings in his books on their walls, passing by them every day without sparing more than a glance.
He would give it another day at the Academy–it wasn’t in his nature to throw in the towel--but he wasn’t a chump. He wasn’t doing anything that they couldn't pay someone else to do, all he was doing was saving some billionaires a few dollars. Not really his idea of giving back. Between his own school work and the--”specialized” was the word they liked to use in the reports that nearly put him to sleep reading--work he was doing for SHIELD, it wasn’t as though his schedule wasn’t full. He’d wanted to help, but not for nothing. He wasn’t going the waste his time where he wasn’t needed.
Steve flipped through the papers he had ready for the next day. The class that had just been dismissed was the advanced one. Tomorrow he had the remedial, kids with poor or erratic performance in history. He took a glance down at the class roster.
“Oh,” he said aloud to no one, and traced a finger under a familiar name.
Art history was, without a nanometer of exaggeration, the most boring subject to ever be forced upon a human being, as though the very idea of Tony Stark being remedial at anything wasn't enough of an insult.
It wasn’t that Tony didn’t have a fair amount of respect for aesthetics. His dad taught him early on that when a consumer looked at a product, 90% of what sold them was how it looked but 100% of what brought them back to your company was how it worked. You could never let either side of the equation slide or you would be in trouble.
So Tony appreciated design, the elegant symbolism of a well crafted logo or the bold curves of a car’s body that spoke to the strength and speed under the hood.But that had nothing to do with sitting in a classroom on a drizzling grey day when he could be in his lab working instead of looking at blotchy smudges that were supposed to be a cafe.
Pepper and Rhodey, having the luxury of time to do their homework more than a couple of days a week, were in the other class. So for the next hour or so all Tony had to keep him occupied where the schematics he was sketching in the corner of his notes--okay corner was generous, there were really no notes at all to speak of.
At least the new teacher was nice to look at; tall, young, blond and fit, all excited and intense as he talked about some dead Dutch guy and his brush strokes. He seemed to care a lot about it. Tony guessed someone should, as the rest of the class seemed to share Tony’s own level of enthusiasm about the subject.
It looked like the teacher must be really built under that dorky plaid shirt. Tony’s mind wandered further down; this was totally fine, Tony assured himself as he constructed an image of his teacher naked. Anatomy study, that was totally an art thing.
The class passed quickly enough, switching between a little technical daydreaming on paper and a few little naughty student fantasies in his head. He was in the middle of a swing towards the former so didn’t notice when Mr. Rogers walked up to his desk and looked down at Tony’s notes.
“Tony, please stay after class. I need to talk to you.”
Oh hell, did that actually happen outside of his brain, Tony wondered, snapping up his head suddenly. Hot teacher was in fact standing by his desk looking down at Tony as though he had just said something that expected an answer, so probably, yep.
Tony mutely nodded and reminded himself that mind readers were actually very rare and it probably wasn’t anything like that. Frankly, he just wasn’t that lucky these days.
“I said Steve was fine. I’m only a few years older than you.” He laughed in that weird way people did when nothing was actually funny. “And you’re not in trouble, really. I just wanted to talk to you about what you were working on.”
Panic. Lots of panic, Super epic panic, Pepper would say. What had he been working on? Repulsor tech? New armor designs--hell, had he just been writing “I am Iron Man” over and over? He had to stop being so careless.
Still, this guy couldn’t possibly know what he was looking at. He was an art teacher. A hot one-- not the time for that--but then again, Tony couldn’t be sure. Stane or Hammer or even SHIELD could have planted anyone here to keep an eye on him. They may not have known that Tony was Iron Man but he was still Tony Stark, and there were still people in the world who looked at his head like an egg to be cracked open and drained of the goods within. Looking like an overgrown labrador with big blue eyes didn’t preclude a guy from corporate espionage.
“Huh?” He snapped back to attention. “Sorry, I just, what about them, Mr.--er, Steve?”
Steve smiled openly and Tony really hoped it wasn’t a trap, because that was a nice smile and he didn’t want it to be hiding something horrible. “I meant it, Stark, you’re not in trouble. Your work is good, that’s all.”
“Oh, what?” Tony thought that for the first time he might actually feel a little humble. He didn’t like it. “They're just schematics, just techy stuff. Not art.”
“Art isn’t just paintings by dead people with hard to pronounce names. You’re good. You have a great quality to your lines, good control that only comes from practice. You must really care about what you’re drawing.” Tony was starting to feel a funny sort of twist in his chest. He wondered if his heart was malfunctioning. Maybe this was a trap after all and Steve had some sort of device in his back pocket to--ugh no, that was stupid, and he couldn’t have fit anything in to his back pocket with how tight his trousers stretched across his ass. Bad train of thought; reroute.
Tony looked up at Steve who was looking down at the drawings with great approval clear on his face. Blue eyes shifted from the page to meet Tony’s. Oh yeah, this was a trap, worse even than he had imagined.
“Well, thanks, Mr-- Steve,” God, he really needed to stop doing that. Steve just smiled and failed at smothering a little chuckle. Damn it, Tony, stop staring at him, get it together, he mentally slapped himself. “Um, if that’s all, should I just...” He thumbed at the door, already shifting his weight to stand.
“Not quite.” Tony sat back down heavily. So close. “I wanted to give you a chance to do something else instead of the history paper.” Tony perked up. For a beautiful instant, pay-per-download scenarios that he was too young to have seen played out through his head. He was gaping like a fish. Steve stared at him, face all confusion and concern and Tony thought he should really try to say something.
“Uh, yeah?” Good job, genius.
“Yeah,” Steve blinked and shook his head before handing back Tony’s papers. “Just go find yourself an artist you like –it can be a painter, or a comic book artist or some one who designs cars–just find someone who you like and write me a page on what they do. Sound fair?”
A huge smile broke over Tony’s face. This might not be as good as what he had been hoping for--was he hoping for that to actually happen, well yeah, he guessed he was, he’d have to think more on that later-- but getting to swap out writing a history paper for writing about concept cars was a close second.
“Thanks, Mr. Steve.” He smiled; might as well just go with it.
“Seriously unfair man.” Rhodey flopped back into one of the loungers beside Pepper. She had a book and notebook balanced on her knees and a pencil in her hair, hard at work at her own paper–the assigned one, which she was visibly bitter about having to do since Tony told them about his little deal.
“Hey, I didn’t ask to be so artistically gifted.” Tony expected the feeling of something hitting the back of his head. Wadded up piece of paper, he’d guessed pencil. This was better. Less pointy.
Both boys laughed but Pepper was still unamused. “I just wish you would have said something before we left school. I could have asked Mr. Rogers if I could write something on Barnett Newman, I reeeally love his stuff. Do you think I could call him? He might have a number on the school site, most of the teachers do. He’s only a student teacher though, and new, so maybe not. I bet he is listed, everyone is listed somewhere”
She’d started to get that dangerous look in her eye. Tony figured he better intervene on Steve's behalf before Pepper had the CIA breaking down the poor guy's door.
“Leave it alone Pep, I doubt he wants to be bothered at home.” She folded her arms over her chest and gave a perfect pout/glare combo. Tony turned back to the tablet in his hand and added a few more notes to his outline.
“Hey, I thought you two would be happy that I was showing some interest in school for once.”
Pepper wasn't amused, “maybe, but we do have other things to work on too you know, so you might want to stop making eyes at the cars and think about doing some of your other homework.”
“Don’t need to. Not now anyway. Physics is locked down. I can get by fine on test scores and labs and keep an 87% average. Math’s about the same. Trouble with the other stuff is that I don’t actually know some of what is being taught, so I can’t always count on an A for the tests.”
Tony had worked out the math on it all when he realized that he had to keep his grades up or lose his stake in Stark Industries. He knew exactly how much he had to do in each class to not get in any serious trouble. He needed to turn this one in and the other stuff could slide; besides, he wanted to do it. He loved this sort of thing, and Steve had cut him a break. Tony didn’t want to let him down.
Tony looked up again to see two annoyed expressions. Apparently complaining about actually having to learn things at school wasn’t going to get him any sympathy.
“Is it just me or is he more obnoxious than usual today?” Pepper turned to Rhodey.
“Oh it’s not just you. When I came in he was singing a love song to a picture of a Porsche. Something’s going on for sure.”
“Yep, he's cracked. Tony, can I have your comics when they cart you away? You know, just until you get better. If you get better.”
“Thanks, guys. I can’t be in a good mood? And Rhodey, there is a huge and very important difference between a love song and a rock anthem.”
“I still don’t think it’s too likely that the Cabriolet is going to shake you all night long.”
“Even if I ask her real nice?”
And there came the pencil. Pointy.
“Hey, watch where you throw, if you put my eye out who's going to defend the city?”
“Me.” Rhodey raised his hand and only gave the smallest hint of a smile.
“Still waiting on my suit, but I guess I wouldn’t mind borrowing yours.” Pepper grinned.
Tony frowned for a moment, but then, cracking at last, they all broke into laughter that filled up the enormous empty hangar all the way to the ceiling.
Steve’s apartment was much bigger than he imagined he needed. The house he grew up in was small and cozy, the place he shared with Bucky and the other guys while he was in school was much smaller than that, and after joining the Army, he became used to even more cramped and crowded sleeping quarters. He might have been a big guy, but he didn’t take up a whole lot of space.
For weeks after he’d woken up, the apartment stayed mostly in the state it had been when Steve received it. He dutifully kept it clean and tidy--so much so that to anyone else it would have looked as if no one lived there at all.
One day walking home, sacks of groceries in his arms, he passed by a shop with posters in the window. A familiar girl looked out at him just as he remembered her, sleeve rolled up and arm bared, proclaiming proudly 'We Can Do It!'
When he got home he tacked the old--vintage, they had called it--war poster up and stared at Rosie for a minute or two. He figured this was it now, this apartment and this life, so he might as well make the best of it.
Nowadays, Steve still kept the place fairly spotless, but there were some signs of life. Sketchbooks next to the sofa. A couple of model planes sitting high on a shelf. A drafting table and easel in what was probably meant to be a dinning room, but had good enough light to make a studio. Shelves full of books, including some of his old favorites that he had replaced now and then when he could find them. A few newer ones too, but he still loved the old ones best. Somehow nothing could ever beat a dime novel adventure.
But there were no photos; he’d made a conscious decision to keep the few he had put away. As much as he loved them all, he didn’t think he could make it through the days with lost friends smiling out at him from behind frames, always close but impossible to reach.
So when Steve had come home after class, he hopped up the stairs two at a time with one aim fixed in his mind. Coming in the door, he threw his bag to the floor and headed straight to his bedroom closet to pull out a white cardboard storage box. The box bore a 16-digit filing number and a bright red [DECLASSIFIED] stamp on its front.
Steve carried it to the front room where he sat on the floor, leaned back against his sofa, and spread the contents around him onto the carpet until he was surrounded by the patchwork remains of his former life. Old documents, awards and medals, typed-up letters of congratulation from officials, handwritten letters of thanks from mothers and daughters. And all the faces he would never need a picture to remember. He didn’t let himself dwell on any of it, too focused on finding what he was after.
A snapshot of himself and the smartest guy he ever knew, standing up on his toes to get an arm around Steve’s shoulder while he hosted a drink in cheers to the cameraman and grinned in a way that always made Steve worry a bit, though he never knew quite why.
Issac Stark, Tony’s grandfather.
It was clear to see the mark Stark had left on the world, literally; Steve hadn’t been awake a week before noticing the name stamped on everything from toasters to the little phones everyone carried around. One of the first things he’d asked about when they’d revived him was his friends, and he had learned that Issac was gone and the mantle had passed to his son, Howard.
Howard--who Steve remembered as nothing more than an excited announcement by way of telegram--he soon after learned was dead as well. Steve had heard about the accident with the plane. It had happened only a few weeks before he’d woken up, so by the time he’d been debriefed enough to be allowed to look at anything that wasn’t a SHIELD document, it was still in the papers, if not on the front page.
He still remembered seeing the article in the business section: someones opinion on how the corporation was doing under new management, and only a brief note at the end about Stark Industries' former owner’s passing. Steve’s heart had twisted when he read it. Howard Stark’s life had played itself out in the time he lay frozen under an ocean. A child he never saw born. A man he never saw live.
But then there was Tony, out of nowhere, and he was so much like Issac. That same sort of energy that a guy couldn’t help but get swept up in. That same crooked smile that made it seem like trouble was probably hot on his heels.
Steve leaned heavily against the sofa, letting his head fall back on the cushions. He stared up at the ceiling, at nothing, unable to put a finger on what exactly he was feeling. All he knew was that it hurt, deep, like nothing else he had felt since he woke into a world that was too bright and too fast, and that he wanted more of it.