"What did you want to be?"
Tony asked it out of the blue one day, sitting in the workshop with a hand-riveter between his teeth. He was working on the shield, re-strapping it, and Steve was sitting across from him, watching carefully. He hated letting other people handle the shield, but the leather straps had finally given out, and he hadn't known who else to ask. He'd felt like a heel even calling Tony -- they didn't really talk unless they were in a battle or, in this case, if Steve needed something -- but Tony had put his number in his phone and specifically said, hey, if you need some new toys, give me a call.
So he'd called, and Tony had said sure, come over, and he'd explained the problem and reluctantly given his shield to Tony and then they'd sat there in uncomfortable silence while Tony worked.
"Want to be?" Steve asked, realizing he'd let the silence stretch out.
"Sure," Tony said, taking the riveter out of his mouth and punching a hole in the leather. "You know. Before the blue pants and the giant A on your head. What did you want to be?"
Steve gave him a blank look. "A soldier."
Tony popped the punch out of the leather and sealed the edges of the hole with something brushed delicately on, which hardened and dried even as Steve watched.
"Yeah, but before the war, I mean. Didn't you want to be...something?"
"Before the war I was seventeen," Steve said, gently amused.
"You must have had some kind of career goals."
"Why, what did you want to be?"
Tony glanced up. "I wanted to build guns. Like my dad."
Touched a nerve. Oops.
"And computers, and robots," Tony added, a little more lightly, turning back to the leather. "Don't change the subject. What did you want to be when you left high school?"
Steve shifted uncomfortably. "Well, by the time the war started I already had."
Tony glanced up again. "Seventeen?"
"I sorta dropped out."
That got his attention; Tony set down the strap and stared at him. "Captain America is a high school dropout?"
"I had to support myself!" Steve protested. "It wasn't all that unusual back then. Anyway, school couldn't really teach me anything else. I could learn faster on my own, even working."
"Okay, juvie, so what did you do?"
"I sold shoes," Steve said, as dignified as he could.
"Captain America dropped out of high school and became a shoe salesman," Tony said, grinning. "Wow. That's totally going in your E! True Hollywood Story."
Steve shrugged. "Better than shining them."
"You were a shoe-shine?"
"There's nothing wrong with being a shoe-shine," Steve said, frowning. "It's not like I was the only one. I sold papers too. Ugh, that was awful. Up at four in the morning, freezing cold, yelling the headlines, which were usually pretty grim..." he shook his head.
"Wait, how old were you when you were a shoe-shine?" Tony asked, picking up the riveter and repeating the process on the other side of the strap.
"Well, Ma got sick and..." Steve glanced away, because Tony was watching him under his brows, head still bent over the strap. "We had doctor's bills, and someone had to put food on the table. I dropped out and started selling papers and shining shoes. After...after she died, Bucky's parents took me in, got me going back to school. But I was one more mouth to feed and I had doctor's bills too, I wasn't a healthy kid. I wanted to do my part. When I wasn't sick, I'd get up at four and go sell papers with Bucky, then we'd go to school, after school he'd go home to watch his sisters and I shined shoes."
"Holy shit," Tony said, shaking his head.
"It kept us fed. When I was sixteen one of the guys at the shop left, and I got offered the sales job. It paid really well. I mean, for the time. So I left school and did that, and then the war came." Steve studied his hands. "I wanted to go fight for my country, that was the main reason I kept trying, but...well, the Army would have been three meals a day and steady work, too. It really took a load off Bucky's parents, him enlisting, especially when he started sending money home."
Tony popped one of the straps around the brace on the back of the shield, his hands dancing across metal his father had cast.
"Not all of us got the luxury of choice," Steve said, trying not to sound bitter. He loved what he did, loved being Captain America, but it hadn't been easy growing up, knowing how limited his options were.
Tony cut the other crumbling strap off the shield and picked up a new strip of leather, fitting it to the old one before he started work on it.
"But did you want anything more?" he asked, as he punched holes in the ends and sealed them.
"Not more, really," Steve said. "Different, maybe."
Tony looked up, raising his eyebrows.
"I thought maybe an architect. I was always good with a pencil," Steve continued. "After the war I could have gone to college on the GI Bill, if they'd let me out of the service." He huffed a sigh. It had been long enough -- there had been enough distance, now -- that he could talk about Bucky, about Peggy and Howard, without the yearning, sinking pain of loss. "I thought I'd...settle down with a girl, get an education, find a job. Your...your father said he'd get me a job as a draftsman."
"Yeah, whatever else they say about dad, he was good at giving people a leg up," Tony agreed, riveting the second strap in place. "He had an eye for untapped talent."
"He taught me a little surveying. Enough to map out where we'd been for the reports."
"An architect, huh?"
"Pays better than art," Steve said. "I wanted to have a family."
"But art was what you really liked?"
Steve looked down at his hands. He hadn't held a stick of charcoal or a paintbrush in years.
"You gotta understand," he said. "This whole idea of getting paid for doing what you loved, it wasn't so hot in the thirties. You had to provide. You did a job you could do that brought in enough to get by, and if you had a...first love, that was just a hobby. Art was the only thing I was good at that I liked, but it wasn't ever going to be enough." He smiled, hands forming fists. "Until Rebirth. I love what I do now, Tony. You must too, or you wouldn't do it. You don't have to."
Tony fiddled with one of the straps. "I do."
"No, you really don't. You have money, power -- choices -- "
"Not in this." Tony set the shield down and looked up at him. "I spent the first thirty years of my life building things to kill people. All the justification in the world, all the genuine patriotism a better man than me could pour into what I did, can't change the fact that I was a war profiteer. A lifetime of protecting people still won't be enough to set that right. You could coast the rest of your life on being Captain America -- "
"But you could. So if I have a choice, you do too."
"I could never..." Steve caught his look, relaxed the hands he'd made into fists, and nodded. "Right. Okay."
Tony passed him the shield. "Test it out. I can adjust the straps."
"Any excuse to handle that beauty," Tony added, and Steve tilted his head. "That's a chunk of refined vibranium, forged into a perfectly balanced tool. My old man and I didn't always get along, but I respect craftsmanship. That's some of the best work he ever did. I'd tell you to look after it, but you don't need to be told."
Steve ran a hand over the convex of the shield, possessive. He looked up again sharply. Tony's eyes were on his hand.
"You're not the way I thought you were," he said, and Tony raised an eyebrow at him.
"Yes, I know," he replied. "Though, to be fair, you thought I was a cocky dick and I was acting like one, so." He shrugged.
"But -- so why do you do that? Why aren't you always..." Steve gestured at them, at the workshop. "Like this?"
Tony leaned back. "What do you think I was doing to Bruce, that day in the Helicarrier? When I was harassing him about the Other Guy?"
Steve shrugged. "Cocky dick," he said.
"Wow, are you allowed to say words like that? JARVIS, stash that, make it my new ringtone," Tony said to the ceiling. "I was offering him a job, you asshole. I was trying to do it in a way that wouldn't make it sound like pity. It wasn't pity, but it would have been easy to seem like I felt sorry for the guy. I fuck around with people because it makes them feel better."
"I'm a good judge of character. Listen," Tony continued, "let me give you a little lesson in popular psychology. Why do we do what we do?"
"Someone has to."
"But why us? What makes a man or woman get up in the morning and think, I have to do this shit? Nobody's stepping up, so I will. Who does that? What kind of freak puts on a suit of gold-alloy armor and flies the hell around the world blowing up the bad guys?"
"You're not -- "
"You're missing the point. The only way, the only way this works, the only way you get heroes, is if the people with the power we have learn two very important lessons."
Steve crossed his arms. "Go ahead."
"The first is that we understand tragedy. Not big sweeping natural-disaster tragedy, not the concept of tragedy, but the concrete reality of personal, visceral suffering."
Steve pushed his tongue against a molar -- it had grown back during Rebirth, but he'd had it knocked out of his head in a fight when he was fourteen.
"I don't know how far back in anyone's file you've read but there are no secrets from SHIELD," Tony said. "Clint and Bruce got the shit kicked out of them as kids on a regular basis, by their dads. Natasha never got to be a kid at all. Thor's dad threw him out of their world just to take him down a peg. And I think everyone knows your story -- parents dead, wimpy kid with a bum leg getting picked on."
Steve winced, but he could see the misdirection coming. "And you?"
"Oh, nothing much. Tortured in a cave," Tony said. "But that's not relevant unless you also understand the second lesson."
"That every other person we see is capable of feeling that amount of pain," Tony replied, rising from his work stool. "What happened to us is pointless if we have no empathy. We get that what happened to us can happen to anyone, at any time, for no reason at all." He put his hands on his hips, looking around, not quite meeting Steve's eyes. "It's a cold, cruel, completely random world out there."
"That's terrib -- "
"But there's us," Tony finished, speaking over him. "We get to be the ones who bring order. We get to be the ones who say no, that bullshit's not happening today."
"That helps you?"
"Doesn't it help you? Knowing that it's terrible and getting to do something about it?" Tony asked. "Look, when I fuck around with people, they get to see that everyone's a screwup, even me, and then they feel like part of something. Lesson two is that we have people. Everyone around us hurts the same as we do, if you do to them what was done to us. So we aren't alone. And neither are they."
It hit Steve like a punch in the chest, like his legs being cut from under him. Bucky and Peggy were dead, Howard was dead and his son standing in front of him, everyone he knew --
"But I am," he blurted, horrified at the pain in his voice.
Tony glanced away.
"Yeah, okay, that sucks, that's definitely part of the whole personal tragedy thing," he agreed. "But maybe if you took that stick out of your ass, you wouldn't be."
"For the record," Steve said, carefully controlling his voice, "that technique you mentioned doesn't work on me."
"For the record," Tony replied, not giving an inch, "That wasn't technique. I'm not interested in sparing your feelings and I'm not afraid of you."
Steve glared at him, trying to figure out how one even responded to that.
"Listen," Tony continued, narrowing his eyes, "you're hot to get me into the armor so that it's a fair fight when you take out your anger on me for not being my dad. Wouldn't it be more fun if we just did that because we liked it?"
"Wouldn't it be great if you and I kicked the shit out of each other because we enjoy it? You're capable of taking me in the armor, embrace it. Come on, we'll go right now. Because it's fun and because we're the baddest motherfuckers on the planet. And then maybe you can go back out there and thank Christ you're not a fucking paperboy anymore."
Steve crossed his arms. "Because it's fun."
"Isn't it? Don't you get the tiniest little enjoyment out of being the biggest kid on the playground but only picking on someone your own size?"
Steve thought about the sandbags he'd gone through, the way that even fighting left his mind too far open for memory, and none of it good.
"I wish I did," he said quietly.
"Well, come at me then," Tony said, and brushed past him on the way to the elevator. "I have a reinforced room upstairs. We'll put on some Zeppelin, throw each other around, it'll be great."
"Zeppelin?" Steve asked, following him into the elevator. "Like the balloons?"
"Oh, Cap," Tony said, grinning. "Have I got some fun surprises for you."
Steve met Pepper Potts for the first time while listening to Led Zeppelin's Kashmir with wide-eyed fascination. How anything that sounded so chaotic could also be so catchy was baffling him.
He was sitting on a bench in the gym, icing the shiner that Tony had managed to lay on him during the fight, which had felt to him like a mixture of boxing match, all-out battle, and roller-coaster ride. Tony was examining a dent Steve had managed to put in the armor, muttering about stress points, when a beautiful woman walked in and announced, "Kill the music, JARVIS."
It looked like Tony's entire world suddenly shifted; the armor was forgotten and so was Steve as Tony bounded up to greet her, talking a mile a minute, asking how her day was and whether she'd talked someone around to something, and telling her about how he'd refitted Steve's shield and they were just finishing up and he could be presentable for dinner in ten minutes.
The woman looked from Tony to Steve, clearly amused by the billionaire bounding around her like a particularly enthusiastic dog.
"You must be Ms. Potts," Steve said, standing and offering her his hand.
"Some days, I wonder," she said with a smile, shaking his hand firmly. "Call me Pepper. Do you prefer Steve or Captain Rogers?"
"Steve is fine, ma'am," he answered.
"He called me ma'am," Pepper said to Tony out of the corner of her mouth. "Can I keep him?"
"Back off with your chivalry and giant muscles, Rogers, I saw her first," Tony said. Pepper punched him in the arm.
"We really were just finishing up," Steve said, ignoring what they were saying because he didn't understand what was going on, quite. "I can get out from underfoot."
"No, that's fine. Come to dinner with us, there's always room for one more," Pepper replied.
"I don't want to intrude -- "
"Honestly, it's no problem. Come as a thank-you for prying Tony out of his lab so I didn't have to," she interrupted. "You boys wash your hands and faces, and I'll meet you in the garage."
"You're my favorite," Tony said, and kissed her before she left. "JARVIS, heat up the showers and put on Fool In The Rain."
Steve wasn't sure he would be quite as presentable as dinner deserved; all he had was a plain dress shirt and a pair of khaki slacks, but when arrived in the garage, still slightly damp but with neat hair and shoes he'd hastily shined with the edge of a towel, Pepper gave him a look that said he was doing all right. (He'd received a lot of those looks since Rebirth.)
"Okay!" Tony clapped his hands, emerging behind him. "Maserati or -- fuck it, no, wait, roadster. JARVIS, the roadster."
A set of keys tumbled into a nearby tray and Tony snatched them up, heading down the row of cars. Steve glanced at Pepper, who shrugged and followed.
The car was a beaut, no doubt. A BMW with a body Steve actually recognized, a hood that went on forever and a leather bench seat. Pepper climbed in next to Tony, scooting up against him, and Steve hesitated for only a split second before sliding in on her other side. It might not be the most...decorous of seating arrangements, but he wasn't going to give up a ride in a car like this just because it had no back seat.
Tony, it turned out, had an affinity for machines that went beyond phones and computers and the armor. He drove the car like a maniac, but with a level of focused competence that had them sliding in and out of traffic easily, drawing admiring looks and annoyed horn-honks wherever they passed. Steve leaned back against the leather and let himself enjoy the ride, giving up on worrying because it wasn't like telling Tony Stark to stop doing something ever did any good.
"He's doing this on purpose," Pepper said at one point, leaning over so Steve could hear her above the roar of traffic.
"What's that?" he asked.
"Driving aimlessly. We've passed the restaurant twice."
"Why would he do that?"
She patted his thigh. "He's showing us off."
"I can hear you," Tony called.
"Then stop preening, I'm hungry," Pepper replied. Tony obediently turned a sharp corner without signalling, pulled across two lanes of traffic, and skidded the roadster around, setting it neatly in front of the valet stand at a classy-looking restaurant. He tossed the keys to the valet and hustled them inside.
Dinner was sort of dizzying, in all honesty. Food just appeared without them ordering it, plate after plate, some of it unidentifiable, all of it delicious. Tony and Pepper split a bottle of wine and spent most of dinner bickering cheerfully.
"Did you know," Tony said, waving his fork over the slice of some kind of cake he and Pepper were sharing, "Steve used to be a shoe-shine boy?"
"No," Pepper said, looking at him.
"It was work," Steve said, a little embarrassed at the focused attention of both of them. He sipped his coffee self-consciously.
"And then he got a promotion and sold shoes. Hey, did you ever use those x-ray machines that showed people their feet? Because those caused all kinds of cancer," Tony added.
"After my time, I think," Steve said, smiling a little.
"Good for you. Hey!" Tony added, waving at a passing waiter and handing him his valet ticket. "Call the valet for us, would you?"
"Are you sure you should drive?" Steve asked, standing as they did, wondering if Tony had already paid, and if he should chip in for his portion.
"I'm not," Tony said, giving him a blank look. "You are, Mr. Limoncello."
"But..." Steve followed as Tony led the way out of the restaurant.
"You can drive, right? Save us the cab fare, being a billionaire is expensive," Tony said, gesturing to the car, already waiting for them.
Steve looked from them to the car and back again. The valet held out the keys.
Steve wouldn't admit to taking the long way around back to Stark Tower, but then he wouldn't lie and say he didn't, either. The BMW was a dream to drive, all power and smooth shifting, and Tony made a surprised noise whenever Steve sped up to get through a yellow light before it turned red.
"Who knew the American Icon wasn't a granny driver?" Tony said, as they rolled to a stop in the garage, Steve carefully parking it in the same spot they'd pulled out of earlier. "Nice work, Cap. Good dinner, we should do it again. Next time, you can meet The Doors." And he wandered off into the workshop, singing Gloooooria, g-l-o-r-ia, Glooooria.
Pepper lingered by the car while Steve carefully deposited the keys in the tray they'd come out of and gathered up his shield.
"Thanks for coming out with us tonight," she said, touching his wrist. He looked up from his shield, surprised. "I don't think I've seen Tony in that good a mood for ages. Whatever you did, feel free to come over and do it again anytime."
"Isn't he always in a good mood?" Steve asked, a little drily.
"He's really, really not," she replied. "He puts on a good show most of the time, but tonight was all him. It was nice."
She leaned up -- in those heels she was almost as tall as him -- and kissed him on the cheek. Steve felt his face turn crimson.
"It was nice," he agreed. "Thanks. I should..."
"Oh, yes," she said, then caught his shoulder and rubbed at his cheek with a finger. "Lipstick, sorry."
They did an awkward little dance for a moment, getting in each other's way, and then Pepper laughed and stepped aside. "Drive safe."
"And I mean it -- come over anytime, it's good for Tony to get out of the lab," she said. Steve nodded, starting up his bike before he could say anything awkward.
He smiled all the way home.