Steve closes his eyes in 1945 and wakes up in 2012.
Well. They certainly didn't put that on the recruiting poster.
"We're at war?" he repeats, possibly for the third time, and Fury sighs.
"Officially? We were, and we're now rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan so we can get our boys and girls home. A little less officially, we did some airstrikes in Libya, drone strikes in Somalia, sent some military advisors to Nigeria and Uganda, and did a midnight assassination of a terrorist leader in Pakistan without actually telling Pakistan first. If I told you any more than that, I'd have to kill you."
"But why did we go into Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place?"
"Officially, we were concerned about dictators and weapons of mass destruction. Unofficially, well, that's a bit trickier, isn't it?"
But it shouldn't be, Steve wanted to argue. He's not actually naïve, World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars and then what should come along but World War II, but the primary purpose of conflict is to ensure that actual conflict happened as little as possible. A last resort, not a reflex.
"And the people support this?"
Fury sighs in a way that makes Steve's hackles rise. "Cap, you've been asleep a long time and a lot's changed. Society doesn't interact with the military the way it used to and citizens don't have to make nearly the same kind of sacrifices or commitments in times of war that they did in your time."
Saving every possible scrap of metal; women who drew lines on the backs of their legs to make it look like they were still wearing the silk stockings that went to the war effort; women who traded their aprons for trousers and their spatulas for tools. People are strong, resilient, and it's only common sense that everyone contributes to the best of their ability, according to their means, when others are fighting and dying in their name. Why would anyone ask differently?
"Are we planning to be at war again?" Steve asks after a long moment.
"You really want to know, Captain?"
"You want me to be useful, sir, I imagine I should know whether I want to or not."
"Well, for a start, we've got North Korea, China, Iran, and pretty much the whole Middle East looking right at our trigger-happy fingers."
Turns out that Chinese commies also own half the States. How times change.
Most of the women Steve had known were nurses, teachers, dancers, or secretaries, and the only Russians he'd known had either been soldiers or poor immigrants living in some of the apartments below his mother's. None of them had been a woman, a Russian, and a U.S. Black Ops spy all at once.
"This gonna be a problem, Cap?" asks Fury, and Steve looks at Natasha carefully. She returns his stare impassively, no posturing or bristling, as though she's only waiting for his opinion for the sake of politeness and not because it actually means a whit to her.
"No, sir," he says, and holds out a hand. "Nice to meet you, ma'am."
She shakes his hand with a firm grip and polite smile.
Steve wakes up in 2012, and once the government, or rather SHIELD, realizes that Steve isn't stupid and stops with their Good Ol' Days charade, it starts introducing him to the modern world. (He hates that word, 'modern,' as though the Forties were never modern, as though it's now considered an era of nostalgia and backwards ideas. He mentally replaces it with 'contemporary,' although depending on the day he might also use 'cynical,' 'heartless,' and occasionally 'dystopic.') Nothing big, just cell phones, laptops, the television screens in a cafeteria. Cameras come as tiny as you want and take instant pictures. Music players are smaller than a playing card and can carry more tunes than a full warehouse of records. Gasoline for the cars that nearly every family seems to own costs over four dollars a gallon. A single-issue comic is over three.
One of the agents plays with something called a PSP on her lunch breaks and a couple others plug themselves into iPods like they're trying hard to shut out the rest of the world while they can. The first day he leaves the barracks in which he'd been spending his time destroying punching bags and doing medical tests, he takes his tray to a table with four agents lacking any obvious sign of technology, figuring that that's the modern (contemporary) equivalent of an open invitation. They know exactly who he is, of course, not because there's something about the clothes he was given screaming 'displaced patriotic hero' but because Fury wouldn't have let Steve out unless everyone had been briefed on recent events, and they stare with wide eyes as he sits down. They look a little like the kids who used to squeak at his performances in excitement and carry cheap miniatures of his shield.
"Good morning," he says while they visibly try to find their tongues.
"Good morning, sir," a couple of them manage, and it isn't long before breakfast becomes a session of did you really punch Hitler and what kind of weaponry did the Nazis use, the government probably never told us all of it. The only real difference between the special agents and civilians is that the agents don't ask what it's like to kill people.
"If you've got the patience for that," Fury tells him later, "maybe you'll have the patience for what I'm about to offer you."
"That's hopeful of you, sir."
Fury gets that look that most people do when they're not sure if Steve's being serious. "It's called the Avengers Initiative. You'll be on a team with other talented people like yourself dedicated to fighting crime and the forces of evil. Miss Romanov will be one of them."
"And the others?"
"Clint Barton, Bruce Banner, Thor, and Iron Man, not that those names mean anything to you."
"Thor? Why does he have a god of lightning as his codename?" Maybe he was a German in Black Ops? There'd been Nazis who'd abused old mythology as propaganda.
Nick Fury smiling is an unsettling sight. "Because he is the god of lightning."
Of course he is. Steve suddenly has a great deal of sympathy for Norman Winters. "And Iron Man?"
Fury actually looks pained as he explains that it's the world's most advanced battle suit, invented by the unstable genius of Tony Stark, but Steve just hears Stark and has a kneejerk reaction of, "Howard?"
"No, his son," says Fury, and isn't that just a kick in the teeth.
"Oh," says Steve, then, "all right. I'll need my shield, however."
"Stark is building you a new one." Because, evidently, SHIELD had already anticipated Steve's agreement. He could still refuse, but then again, he really can't, can he? "We're still running tests on the original."
"I want my old one."
When they finally give it back to him, all the bullet marks and scrapes have been buffed out, the whole thing polished to a flawless shine under the bright fluorescent lights.
He meets Tony Stark.
He hadn't expected it to go so wrong, but then, he hadn't expected someone who seemed to have all the worst parts of Howard Stark and the best parts of Bucky.
In a way, joining the Avengers Initiative isn't much different from his stint as a dancing monkey in tights. Between training schedules and their first few battles as a team where more time is spent trying to figure out how to work with the others than actually fighting, Fury sets up press conferences and interviews. Not too many, and usually Stark handles the whole PR thing, but there's no 'I' in 'team' and sometimes they have to prove there's a plural pronoun in there somewhere.
"What's it like, being a man out of his time?" is the most common question directed at Steve, and he smiles what Stark calls his Boy Scout smile and answers, "At first it was like being in a Jules Verne novel, but the rest of the team has been a great help and now it's starting to feel like home." People aren't looking for the truth, after all: that sometimes he likes this time but more often he hates it, how it's both alien and familiar like being in one of those funhouse mirror mazes that Bucky used to take his girls to just so they could giggle and hold tightly onto his arm. That he woke up and sometimes isn't sure he actually did, and sometimes he'll startle awake out of a nightmare and wish he hadn't because they, at least, are familiar.
Tony takes Steve shopping not long after the Avengers are moved into one of his mansions, claiming that if he has to live with Captain America then his eyes deserve to look at something better than a guy that crawled out of Middle America's wet dream. Steve is offended even though he isn't entirely sure what that actually means, but he keeps his mouth shut because he really does need something to wear other than SHIELD-issued clothing and khaki. He isn't sure why, all things considered, he's letting a spoiled businessman get under his skin.
A Miss Pepper Potts goes with them, nominally as Tony's reinstated PA but more likely as peacekeeper and Tony's handler. She's sharp, efficient, nearly as deadly with her tablet thing as Peggy with her pistol, and the similarities don't end there.
"Fashion's changed a lot while you were frozen," she says bluntly as they're driven downtown in a nondescript dark car with a subtle Stark Industries logo on its doors. Tony's watching them silently in an insouciant slouch, arms stretched along the back of the seat. "Macy's should be a good place to start."
Steve's already bracing himself for a sardonic comment, but it never comes. He can't decipher Tony's mood, doesn't try too hard, and tells himself there's some solace in knowing that at least Macy's is still around.
The car that had felt like an obscene luxury at first now feels like protective armor in the towering shadow of the New York skyline. There are so many vehicles, sleek as a leopard compared to the boxy ones he remembers, and so many people, and so many animated billboards and storefronts blasting their own music to compete with their neighbors'. It's nothing at all like the overwhelming, fight-or-flight cacophony of battle, but he does the same thing he did just before he stormed a HYDRA base: sets his jaw, checks his shield (art portfolio, left-hand side), and braces himself like he's drawing a line in the sand.
He thinks Tony is looking at him, but when he turns his head all he can see is the dark mirror of his designer sunglasses.
The late Victorian architecture is familiar but the enormous glass walls and vivid red sign are distinctly in the same category as the rest of the contemporary world, that disconnect giving Steve a vague sense of vertigo. Inside it's chaos, so many people, so many things, and even the escalators look sleek and almost alien (potentially loads of fun after a few Purple Nurples, Tony saysoffhandedly, but I wouldn't try planking, yeah, never mind), but Steve holds his head high and ends up silently following Tony's waving arms and confident ordering around of the poor employees. Miss Potts spends most of the time on her phone, every so often breaking in with a, "No, Tony, we talked about this," before Tony has barely opened his mouth. Steve quirks a wry smile when they pass ladies wearing what's apparently called a miniskirt but would serve better as table napkins, which naturally gets Tony's attention.
"What, no blushing or averting of eyes there, soldier?"
"I'm sure the shock will set in soon," Steve says calmly, and is surprised when he gets a startled bark of laughter.
"In that case, Cap, I'd better show you more than escalators and miniskirts before your brain completely breaks. Pep, let's charge this cargo to an account and have it delivered to the house, and I need to make a call for a thing, y'know, like a history thing, it'll be great, pinky swear."
And so they go from spending enough money to feed an orphanage for a week to the Smithsonian. Some of the exhibits have been roped off for their privacy – "I know a guy, no biggie, now c'mon" – and Steve finds himself staring at machines that look like something straight out of Jules Verne's works. Supersonic jets. Military drones. Spacecraft.
Then. A speech: I have a dream. The Stonewall riots. The feminist movement. Birth control. The eradication of polio in America. And Steve thinks: the greatest heroes are the ones without a costume.
Of course, for every hero, there's a villain.
Steve tracks down Tony in the kitchen, where Clint is trying to convince Natasha that orange juice is a perfectly acceptable alternative to milk for cold cereal. Tony himself is curled around his coffee at the island in the center and looks vaguely nauseous at the mention of food so early in the morning. "Why didn't you tell me?" is the first thing Steve says in lieu of, Good morning, how's the weather looking?
"Clint, we're going to be late," says Natasha immediately.
"For what?" asks Clint, but Natasha's already dragging him out of the room, leaving Steve and Tony alone. Tony's eyeing him with wary confusion.
"Look, I didn't know about the thing with the horse, okay, I was in D.C. at the time, I swear."
"I managed to track down my old commanding officer a few days ago," he says flatly.
"Uh, congratulations?" Tony ventures after a moment of silence.
"He died yesterday."
He anticipates some half-meant statement of condolences but Tony just says, "Ah," not coldly, simply matter-of-fact, which honestly is probably the best thing anyone can really say. But.
"When you took me to the Smithsonian and you showed me all those things. That speech. Why didn't you tell me that Martin Luther King had been assassinated? Or about Watergate? Or any of that, really. Why did I have to find it all out through my old C.O.?"
"It didn't seem important."
Steve gives him an utterly unimpressed look because not even Tony Stark is that disconnected, especially Tony Stark, who unconsciously hunches his shoulders under the weight of Steve's eyes and sighs. "If we focused on all the bad shit, Steve, we wouldn't get anything done. These kinds of things have been going on for centuries, no, millennia, have you heard about ancient Egypt and imperial Europe? Great Wall of China and all the bodies underneath the tourists' feet?"
"So you'll pretend it never happened?" he demands, keeping his temper in check by curling his fingers over the edge of the counter. The Formica cracks slightly.
"Don't be stupid, of course not. I'm not gonna lie, I was trying to sell you something – trust you not to fall for that – but that doesn't mean I was wrong. King was assassinated and racism isn't anywhere near gone, but we've got a black president. Some of our politicians are trying to take women's rights back to the Dark Ages, but we've also had women as senators, secretaries of state, even as a presidential candidate. Hate crime still happens everywhere, but gays can now serve openly in the military and actually get married in six states. The world sucks ass, okay, it always has, it always will, at least until our sun turns into a red dwarf and consumes the three innermost planets of our solar system, and then whatever new planet our species settles will probably suck too, but the point is that the suckage isn't the whole picture here. People who forget history are doomed to repeat it, blah blah blah, but forgetting all the achievements kinda invalidates the actual good they've done too."
He's slowly slouching farther and farther down on his bar stool until his half-lidded eyes are nearly level with the top of his coffee mug. "It's about composition in the big picture, young grasshopper, negative and positive space and whatever you artsy types like to talk about. I'm a futurist, I told you that, I'm all about probabilities and big pictures." He mutters, "Christ, it's too early in the morning for this."
"And where does a relic like me fit into your big picture, Stark?"
"First of all, 'relic' implies an inability to change, a fossil or whatever, and you're a stubborn dick a lot of the time but you're hardly a relic. Second, you're a part of the future whether you like it or not, maybe because you're stuck here but mostly because now Captain America is a part of the future."
"And if I decide to hang up my shield?"
"Well, that's your prerogative, of course, but we both know you aren't that type of guy."
"Then what kind of guy am I?" he asks, daring, just daring Tony Stark to tell him exactly who he is.
Tony, managing to get an elbow on the counter so he can rest his chin on a hand without poking out an eye, gives him a look that's equal parts calculation and something else Steve can't identify. "I'm the last person you should be asking that kind of question, Steve Rogers."
One day curiosity has Steve tracking Bruce down to his lab. It looks like something out of Metropolis, he's willing to bet that Tony's is even worse with all that armor no doubt strewn around, but it's clean and brightly lit and Bruce welcomes him with a distant but friendly smile. "What can I do for you?" he asks, and Steve shrugs a little self-deprecatingly.
"I was hoping I might be useful somehow." There hasn't been an emergency in three whole days and he's getting twitchy. "Need any test tubes held or heavy machinery lifted?"
"Huh, I'm sure I'll find something. You can't be worse than Tony, anyway."
He sets Steve up with basic number crunching, shows him briefly how to use a general computer program that organizes all the data before going back to whatever he's doing with bacterial cultures and what looks suspiciously like a radiation-proof lead container. It's tedious work, but almost meditative in its mind-numbing repetition, and Steve falls into a steady routine that passes the time.
When Bruce checks back in some time later, he blinks and says, "Wait, what're you doing?"
"Putting in the numbers?" Steve replies, wondering what he's done wrong.
"But I didn't show you how to do this."
Steve looks at the computer screen and the extra…windows?...he has open. Once he'd gotten the gist of how the program functioned, he'd found a more efficient method and just went with it. "Well, it does make sense," and if he sounds a little defensive, he feels justified.
"No, no, you're right, I'm sorry, I'm just…surprised."
"I'm a man out of my time, Bruce, not stupid."
Bruce winces and apologizes again, which Steve waves off even though part of him is still annoyed. Once you get past the glitz and glamour there's a certain logic underneath that isn't particularly difficult to figure out, not for a kid who'd grown up relying on brains far more than brawn, whose chronic illnesses had left him with whatever books could be scrounged up on everything from science fiction to old, stained math textbooks borrowed from a neighborhood teacher. Maybe his world didn't run on constant equations and future probabilities like Tony's, but he was a tactician with an artist's creativity and a New Yorker's practicality. The brilliance of people lay in their ability to adapt and change, after all, and Steve refuses to be a relic.
After being subjected to the screaming and drumming that passed for an atmosphere in Tony's lab ("It's not noise, Mr Rogers, this is classic rock, this is the good shit, get your red sweater out of its twist") and overhearing Clint's (he's still not sure why anyone would feel the need to sing about having a poker face), he's a little dubious about asking JARVIS for help.
"Billboard's Hot 100 has continued since its inception in 1940," JARVIS tells him, immediately pulling up a number of holographic screens in the middle of the kitchen where Steve is making breakfast. "I have summarized the most popular songs according to genre and decade. With which would you like to begin?"
"The Fifties, I guess," says Steve, and The Weavers start crooning 'Goodnight Irene.'
By the time Tony wanders up from his lab, rings around his eyes from too many hours on no sleep and too much caffeine, Steve is sitting on a stool with a pen and a stack of paper towels, doodling as Radiohead tells them to forget about their house of cards.
"Uh," says Tony, like a genius, and Steve's got a pen in his hand, an hour's worth of music behind him, Anthony E. Stark looking like a startled greasy raccoon in the doorway, and he starts laughing.
Apparently not sure what else to do, Tony finally comes up with, "Oh god, you're probably gonna like Coldplay," and Steve retorts, "Hush, I'm still in the Nineties. No spoilers."
"JARVIS, I told you, cut me off when I start hallucinating off coffee, although I have to admit it usually isn't this entertaining so, uh, yeah, you keep doing your thing, I'm just gonna…slide past you…coffee."
Steve adds dark circles around Cartoon Tony's eyes on the towel and a few more smears of grease.
The church is old, and large, as the older ones tend to be. It isn't the one his mother took him to a few times for Christmas Mass, and it isn't his father's Protestant congregation (and oh, what a scandal that marriage had been, a Protestant marrying a Catholic the same year that Patrick Pearse and John Connolly stood on the steps of the Dublin post office and declared the independence of Ireland), but both of those are over in Brooklyn and Steve isn't ready to let go of his memories of them. Instead he sits in a pew near the back of a church in Manhattan, the familiar comforting sameness of most Catholic churches laid out around him.
He sits there for a few hours. Some parishioners come and go. A priest comes over to ask kindly if he's all right, then lets him alone when Steve smiles and says yes. Votives flicker out, get replaced with new ones. The colors painting the floor from the stained glass windows shift as the sun does.
It's nearing five o'clock when he finally stands, slings the art portfolio over a shoulder, and walks outside to find Thor sitting on a bench.
"Thor? What are you doing here?" he asks in bewilderment.
"I desired to speak with thee," Thor says solemnly, "but I was uncertain that my presence would be welcomed in this house of worship. I am told it is something of a more…exclusionary faith."
Steve wonders how Thor's undeniable existence figures into a Christian paradigm, even if the guy's divinity is somewhat tempered by his love affair with strawberry Pop-Tarts and a tendency to boom out German opera in the shower. "I'm sure it would've been fine," Steve assures him, and Thor grins, pleased, as they fall into step with one another. According to Thor the Avengers have been summoned to SHIELD for team training, which, considering the last time they went into battle together, is very much necessary, but the heaviness in his steps lets Thor take the lead because, hey, why not. Gods are a thing in the future, apparently. Television. Apple. Political insanity. Some of the gods of the modern world are even deities.
"May I ask what it is thou art seeking here?"
"Well, it has been seventy years since my last confession," Steve says, and waves it off when Thor just looks confused. "I don't really know, I suppose."
"We are never our own best advisors, but only thy heart can say what is best for thee."
"What if my heart doesn't know?"
"Then thou must make the best of the time available to thee until it does," Thor says firmly, and Steve recalls the file he'd read about Thor's past exile, Thor's belief that it was permanent and that his father was dead because of his own mistakes.
"Do you ever get homesick?"
"Of course," is Thor's unhesitating reply, "but, unlike thee, I am now able to return to my realm. I have also found a woman of great virtue and passion to love here in Midgard."
"So you're saying I should find a dame?" No, not 'dame.' What was the word Clint used? 'Chick'? Not far from 'bird,' at least.
"Perhaps. All men desire good company, Captain, there is no shame in this."
"You don't think it's a distraction we can't afford right now?" and by we, he meant me, he meant there's no one else in the world that remembers what I do, he meant what kind of person would I be if I allowed myself to forget, he meant what would happen to Bucky and Peggy if I did.
Thor has the gall to laugh. "Forgive me, I often forget how differently mortals see the world!"
"Thou art a fine warrior, Captain, with many a battle under your belt, and so consider: the times in which thou fought with thy greatest strength, were they not when thou had someone to protect? A battle without heart is no battle at all, and having something or someone to fight for is a warrior's greatest weapon."
"You think that if I found a girl I'd fight better."
"If that is what thou requires, but thou misunderstand me, Captain. That love need not be only for the living."
"Fight for what I had, not what I lost?"
The sheer weight and force of Thor's hand amicably clapping his shoulder makes Steve stumble. "The Fates willing, thou shalt one day be nearly as wise as my father. Today, however, we must lower our focus to the number of laps thou might run in the SHIELD gym."
Steve plays billiards against the great Tony Stark and wins. He has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning at Tony's flabbergasted expression, but then he gets that expression Steve's seen a few times before, something he can't quite read. Calculation, most likely. Or fascination. Or contemplation. Whatever it is, though, has Steve noticing the strong pulse in Tony's wrist as they shake hands over Steve's victory.
Maybe because she herself is a foreigner of a kind, maybe because it's nearly impossible to unsettle her short of a nuclear war, but for all that Natasha can practically kill a man just by looking at him, her company can be oddly comfortable.
"Gay?" he whispers to her, eyes on Tony and Clint as they fire insults at one another before Fury arrives to begin the meeting.
"A homosexual, or an adjective indicating a homosexual attribute," she replies quietly. "In this case, Clint is using it as a pejorative to mean that something is stupid or otherwise unpopular, which is why Clint will never be allowed to talk in public."
"Does he dislike homosexuals?"
"The term since the Fifties is homophobia, and no, not in the least, he just has the vocabulary of an uneducated teenage boy. I recommend you ask him about the club on Second Avenue sometime."
It's not that the others aren't willing to answer any of Steve's questions, but Natasha doesn't make him feel like an idiot for having to ask about things that are obviously common knowledge nowadays. She also manages to do it without ending up on rambling tangents as distantly related to the original topic as President Roosevelt and his wife.
A comment that makes Tony scowl and protest that he's just eccentric, right, eccentricity is practically a requisite for genius, has Natasha explaining sotto voce, without prompting, "It's a disorder with symptoms ranging from racing thoughts, an inability to focus, periods of hyperfocus, impulsivity, constant physical motion or fidgeting, among other things. It's still rather controversial."
"Is everything considered a disorder in the future?" Steve asks only half-jokingly. He'd been required to see a SHIELD psychologist twice a week for the first two months he was awake, and the sheer variety of books on her shelves had left him wondering if half the nation had gone insane (he still wasn't entirely sure it hadn't) and a little afraid that his own aversion to those little Dixie cups suggested schizophrenic paranoia. A person could get three different medications if they thought they weren't happy enough.
"Many people say it's because we've gotten better at recognizing these issues and accepting them as valid. Some believe it's because pharmaceutical companies carry significant power in the corporate world and it's easier to convince people that they need these chemical aids to function. A few point out the increasing amount of unnatural additives to food and the general disconnect of our globalized, information-age society. There's a man down by the bus stop ten blocks away claiming the Illuminati are putting mind-control drugs in the country's water supply."
"It would be a fairly efficient method."
Natasha actually laughs, which immediately draws Tony's attention. "Did you just kill someone? Oh god, you two are getting along. How are you getting along?"
Steve, who's been spending some of his sleepless nights catching up on years' worth of new literature when Fury threatened to have him tied to his own bed if he broke one more thing in the gym, says with a straight face, "She promised me a rose garden."
Natasha laughs again, tossing her head back, and then Steve can't help smiling at the combined horror, fascination, and amusement in Tony's expression.
Later, Steve finds three government-published pamphlets left on his bedside table. They're titled PTSD, and as he flips through them he thinks of the first time Bucky came back from a tour in Europe, how Steve himself learned to sleep in fields and abandoned buildings torn up by enemy fire, the hollow-eyed men back home who entered bars at four in the afternoon and didn't leave until they were tossed onto the street before dawn and told not to come back.
"Sometimes I think I'm still in Afghanistan," Tony tells him, looks like he's bracing himself for a punch to the face (or a wrench to the arc reactor).
There's nothing Steve can say to that, so instead he thinks of his last few minutes in 1945 that seemed like just a handful of seconds when he knew death was waiting on the other end, suddenly and desperately hoping that Peggy was spared hearing anything worse than static. He thinks about being a prisoner with shrapnel ripping up his insides with the clock ticking down a week – Tony's file had included a summary of the Jericho missile – and wonders if having so much more time makes it easier or infinitely more terrifying. He muses on what kind of person can be capable of creating such a weapon in theory but then be horrified by its reality. He remembers people who never learned that lesson and the eleven million people who paid for it.
"You want some coffee?" Tony asks, out of the blue, and for some reason, right at that moment, Steve can't think of anything else he'd rather do.
"That sounds grand."
On Saint Patrick's Day, there's a parade, and Chicago dyes its river green. Thor thinks it's hilarious.
"But why?" Steve asks, and Tony, in dark slacks and an emerald-green button-down, shrugs and says, "Why not? Now c'mon, we're all going out, it'll be fabulous."
He's expecting to spend an uncomfortable evening in one of those latex-lined, acid-dropping, bass-thumping places that Clint claims pass for clubs nowadays (Steve had thought Clint was just pulling his leg, but then he went online and looked it up and, well) but instead Tony takes them all to a rundown neighborhood of brick tenant buildings. The pitted faces of the buildings and the trash in the gutters are bizarrely reassuring, even more so when they end up in a pub called The Poet and Patriot.
"Sláinte!" he hears as they go in, and a thick line of people all down a round of Jameson's shots amid cheers. A huge flag of the Republic of Ireland hangs on the mirrored wall behind the bar, and Celtic crosses, icons of Saint Patrick, and cartoon leprechauns take up whatever space is left. Someone is wearing a headband with two green-sequined shamrocks waving about on springs, and a young woman is wearing a bright green shirt emblazoned with Kiss Me, I'm Irish.
Tony, who Steve is pretty sure has Italian ancestry, echoes, "Sláinte!" and saunters through the crowd like he's been there for hours. Thor is right behind him, Clint and Natasha following, and soon it's just Bruce left to stand awkwardly beside Steve.
"Let's go get a table in the back," Bruce says finally, and the two of them plus pints find shelter in a dark corner. "I feel obligated to point out that, going by their logic, the Hulk would be more Irish than anyone."
Steve laughs quietly into his glass. "My parents were Irish."
Bruce gives him an interested look, but doesn't push, so Steve continues, "Back then, it wasn't a good thing. It was almost impossible for them to find work most of the time." Signs didn't always say Kiss Me.
"More people in the States claim Irish ancestry than there are actual people in Ireland nowadays," Bruce tells him neutrally. Steve turns his nearly-full pint glass around and around in his hands.
"Mom always said it was a day for remembering the homeland." Particularly for people who'd endured centuries of invasions and oppression. She would discretely pin a bit of white clover to her lapel, Steve would have to suffer through the evening trying to understand whatever she was saying to him in Irish, and her prayers that night would be for the family she'd left in Derry to marry a Loyalist and immigrate to America. His father would drink.
Bruce makes a face. "Not exactly the classy, culturally sensitive day it used to be, I guess. If it helps at all, there's been peace in Northern Ireland since the Nineties, for a given definition of peace, and Irish is now a required language in schools alongside English." When Steve gives him an odd look, his expression turns sheepish. "Wikipedia's been featuring articles about it."
At the bar, Tony has a sly grin and the Kiss Me, I'm Irish woman pressed against his side, her hand hovering suspiciously low on his back, while Clint and Natasha have somehow gotten themselves into a drinking contest with a group of regulars. Natasha appears to be winning. Steve could swear that headband with the bobbing sequin shamrocks is taunting him.
It's not that Steve considers himself Irish, not where it really matters – he's American, born and bred, proud of that even if he doesn't recognize what she's become in the new millennium – but he remembers the complicated sounds rolling off Mom's tongue, the taste of her brown soda bread and clotted cream, the distant look in her eye when the newspapers ran stories about the latest bombings in Derry and Belfast and Dublin, London's floundering and militant reactions.
"Well," he says, "no use just sitting here and watching, right?"
Draining his Guinness and leaving the glass with a grinning Bruce, Steve pushes himself through the crowd up to the bar beside Tony.
"Steve!" Tony cries, immediately slinging an arm over his shoulders and not appearing to notice when the woman backs off a few steps with a disgruntled frown. "Steve, darling, I'm proud of you, have another pint. You really should have another pint, it's a matter of national security."
"Another Guinness, please," Steve asks the bartender obediently, speaking loudly over Tony's, "No, give him a whiskey, actually just hand me that bottle of Jameson's, or the Bushmill's will do – "
"Ignore him," Steve advises, which invites Natasha to chime in with, "It's how we all avoid strangling him in his sleep," and Tony cries, "Okay, this is not awesome, do you realize how not awesome this is. I'd demand a refund, but I'll settle for love and kudos."
It's ridiculous, the wounded puppy eyes that Tony is trying to make but just looks sleazy instead, the fact that the only sign Natasha is anywhere near drunk is her speaking marginally more slowly, Bruce snickering in the relative safety of his corner, Clint slumped over into Thor's lap and waving a white paper napkin in surrender as Thor knocks back yet another pint in a long, long line of pints that will probably put their tab into triple digits. It's just all ridiculous, but Steve is smiling and can't make himself stop, and for the first time he wonders if he should even have to.
Steve slides an arm around Tony with, "Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig, Tony."
Tony blinks at him. "I have no idea what you just said, you should've tried French or Spanish or Italian or Japanese or Russian or German or Lojban or the present tense in Latin, but it was hot. Drink!"
It's impossible to say who leans in first. It might be Tony, who has the impulse control of a kid with ADHD, or it might be Steve, whose stubbornness can make a donkey hang its head in shame. Unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. But whoever starts it, they both finish it in post-battle adrenaline outside the quinjet, Iron Man's helmet on the ground and Captain America's cowl shoved back. SHIELD is too busy with cleaning up the mess and the other Avengers too concerned with returning to the mansion for some goddamn sleep for anyone to see the way Steve's fingers tangle roughly in Tony's wild hair, the way Tony's hands curve almost too tightly in their gauntlets over Steve's hips.
He isn't stupid, he's always known there would always be bullies whether they wore swastikas or business suits, but it's seventy years later and Steve is still having to make the same goddamn decisions, see the same goddamn things again and again. Fifteen people, or fifty. He's the sort of guy who would surrender himself for the sake of a hostage even though logically he's more useful than a common civilian, but then a catch-22 will come along and suddenly what matters is the statistic, not the individual. Let a few die to save many, and if Steve feels part of himself get evaporated alongside the fifteen victims, well, it doesn't matter when Captain America still looks like a hero to the surviving fifty.
But when the Captain's cowl is shoved back and Iron Man's helmet is tossed at their feet, Tony holds on to him like sheer bullheaded determination is enough to keep all the pieces of Steve together. Anthony E. Stark, debauched king of an empire built from war and the Chicago School of Economics, who keeps outdated robots around because he can't bear to dismantle them, who's determined to engineer an alcohol stronger than the mead found in the halls of Valhalla, who insults Clint and then invents him new types of arrows, who fakes a heart attack every time Natasha enters the room and gets an exasperated eye roll in return, who tries to annoy the hell out of Bruce because he's one of the few who isn't scared of him, who thinks no one knows about the bits of Steve's artwork he's had framed and hidden in his lab. Who isn't a soldier but accepts the duty of one. Steve holds onto Tony and feels the contour of the arc reactor dig into his sternum as he pushes hard, how the armor shifts to brace itself against his weight and then holds it like it was made to do that.
(Tony once said, Can't be disappointed if you're a realist, and Steve asked, Then why do you still believe in me? And Tony replied, I told you, dumbass, I'm a realist.)
Steve wakes up in 2012 and finds his face pressed against the back of Tony's shoulder, his arm thrown over a ribcage that could use some more meat on it and his hand warmed by the arc reactor. He isn't entirely sure what woke him up from an oddly solid sleep but he can feel Tony taking several long, slow, deep breaths.
"You going to take off to the shop?" he murmurs, already trying to convince his sleep-heavy body to move away so Tony can get up and try to program his way back to reality under Iron Man's unmoving stare. Keeping Tony in bed on mornings like this tends to result in stiff shoulders and a wit that comes a little more viciously than usual, and Steve's a soldier that's learned to pick his battles.
But one of Tony's hands clamps down on Steve's wrist, holding him in place, and eventually he says, "Nah, not this time. Maybe later."