Steve occasionally gets this feeling that he's being watched. He's been used to it when he's in uniform, but he doesn't get noticed as much when he's in his street clothes. Sure, he doesn't quite blend in, but he doesn't quite stand out, either. Someone once called him a 'hipster' on the subway; after he looked it up, he still isn't quite sure what that means. When he relays this to the others, Tony tells him that the person who called him a hipster sounds like they were one.
He shrugs it off after that explanation, and it doesn't happen again, so he guesses that he isn't a hipster. He does, however, still get that feeling like he's being watched. At first, he'd thought it was because Tony keeps so much of the house under surveillance, but he's since realised that he notices it other places, too. Eventually, he narrows it down: It has to be someone who is around the Avengers more than just occasionally.
It isn't until early one morning, when he's in the kitchen at Stark Tower making a cup of tea, that he learns who's been watching him. He stares down into his cup, waiting for the water to turn the right shade of brown, licks his lips without thinking about it.
"Stop doing that, it's not going to help."
He looks up, startled. Clint is perched on top of the refrigerator – how did he not notice him earlier? – watching him.
"You do that a lot, you know." He stretches and jumps down, landing lightly. "You could always just buy some lip balm. It'll help."
"I don't know where to find decent lip balm since I woke up—wait; you're the one who's been watching me?"
Clint spreads his hands, "I notice more than you all think I notice. But I think I might have something that'll help."
"Really?" He suddenly remembers his tea; it's way too strong, now, but he guesses he can just put some milk in it and it'll be all right. "What is it?"
Clint opens his mouth, closes it again, chews on his lip for a moment. "You might think it's weird, 'cause, you know... you're kind of old."
"I'm twenty-seven. Being frozen in ice for a few decades doesn't make me old, Clint." Steve sips his tea, then frowns at it. Milk probably isn't going to help.
"I'm just saying! And almost 70 years is hardly a 'few decades'. Fine, lip stain, all right, would at least maybe remind you to not lick your lips in the middle of battle. If we get the right one it'll help them be less dry in general, too."
"What's lip stain?"
Clint sighs. He forgets sometimes that Steve hasn't caught up on everything that's happened since the 40's. "It's kind of like lipstick, only less coloured and longer-lasting. And I know you've seen enough dudes in make-up over the last several months that you can't possibly be shocked by the idea of a dude wearing make-up."
Steve frowns again, still looking at his tea. "It wouldn't be weird?"
"Nah, not at all. Probably nobody will even notice. I'll bring some stuff to your apartment tomorrow and we can figure out what will work. Hope 7:00 works for you." And then Clint leaves the kitchen, leaving Steve wondering more about Clint than he ever had before.
As promised, Clint shows up at Steve's apartment in Brooklyn the next evening at 7:00, a bag over one shoulder. He pushes past Steve without an invitation to come inside, drops the bag by the couch and sits. "Come on, sit down, we have chapped lips to avenge. And I brought dinner."
Steve sighs softly and shuts the door, following Clint to the couch and taking a seat. While they eat, Clint pulls out more tubes than Steve thinks are necessary and arranges them neatly on the table in front of him.
"As ready as I'm going to be, I guess." He's still eyeing the collection before him. "Where did you get all of this stuff? Why do you have it?"
Clint just smiles. "A girl's got to keep her secrets." He sets up a mirror with a bright, white light and holds up a couple of bottles to Steve's face, then picks one. "A while back, I needed to make some money and got a job doing make-up for girls at a department store. Did you always have great skin or was that a side effect of the serum?"
Steve shrugs, raises an eyebrow as Clint starts putting something on his face – his face! He didn't agree to that. "I never thought about it, could be either one. What are you doing?"
"Come on, like I'd put lip stain on you and nothing else. That's just ridiculous. You draw, right?" He keeps working, talking as he goes to distract from what he's doing.
"Yeah, I was studying art before I joined the Army. Sometimes it helps me take my mind off things... how much has changed." He sits, quiet in between answering Clint's questions.
"That's kind of what doing this does for me. Besides, even though you're a superhuman, you could possibly still get melanoma, and I'm willing to bet that you don't put on sunscreen as part of a daily morning ritual."
Steve shakes his head, earning a frown and reproof from Clint. He's not sure whether it's for the lack of wearing sunscreen or the lack of staying still. "We didn't have it when I was a kid."
"Well, start wearing this every day. You only need a little bit for your whole face." He sits back and smiles a little, and Steve thinks he's seeing a crack in that shell – like maybe this is a part of who Clint really is, when he's not perching in weird places or shooting arrows at things he barely seems to be looking at. "And we'll go with something subtle for your lips, so it won't be so noticeable, and look, you can put this in your uniform belt and keep it with you just in case, all right?"
Steve looks in the mirror as Clint packs away everything except the two things he used. "That doesn't—it's going to be noticeable."
"You only think that because you're used to the way your lips always look, and besides, who's really going to be looking that closely?"
Steve looks it up; it seems that the sun is doing more damage now than it was before, and while he thinks maybe he'll be all right because of the serum, it would be stupid for Captain America to go through all of these battles and missions and survive almost 70 years frozen in ice, only to die of melanoma. So he starts using Clint's coloured sunscreen, even if he does feel weird about it.
He only uses the lip stain when he wears the uniform, though, because it's discreet enough to carry with him and he's pretty sure he'd forget it if he tried to use it any other time, and eventually finds some non-tinted lip balm that he can use at other times. He's also kind of uncomfortable with the thought of any of the others finding out that he's using it.
The deception works, for a while. Then, they get called in to meet with Director Fury after an assignment. Fury is in the middle of a sentence when he looks at Steve and cuts himself off mid-sentence. "... and I don't know what else I can—Captain Rogers, are you wearing lip stain?"
The silence is deafening; Steve can feel everyone's eyes shift towards him. Well, almost everyone's: Clint is picking at one of his nails, pointedly not looking at him. He looks up at Fury. "Uh... no? Sir." He's a terrible liar and he knows it, but with any luck, everyone will let it slide.
The Director seems placated, continues on as if he didn't interrupt himself, and dismisses them when he's done. They all stay in their seats, though, looking at Steve. Nobody says anything for long enough that it's starting to get awkward. Steve stands up, figuring he'll just leave before anyone says anything.
"So, are you gay or a transvestite? Or both?" Of course Tony's asking the worst question.
"I'm not—I'm not either one. What makes you think that?" He stares down the table. He's got nothing against anyone, but he doesn't like being called things he's not. It took him long enough to get used to the idea that people have too many labels for what they like to do in their own homes, and that most people are more or less okay with it or don't care, and even longer than that to accept it all; Tony's query still threw him off.
"Dude. You're wearing lip stain and a spangly outfit. It's a legitimate question."
"I had no say in what the uniform looks like, Tony. We were at war."
Someone coughs. "It's my fault." Clint looks at them all, silently daring any one of them to say anything. "What? So I know how to do make-up. Stop judging me, Tony, or I swear I'll shave your goatee and paint you up like Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy in your sleep."
"You underestimate me."
"I don't think I do."
"Oh, you have no idea... "
Before they can even begin to get any further to sliding towards a fistfight, Bruce clears his throat. "Tony, he could do it. Clint, don't do it. We already have enough work cut out for us to be adding to it with stupid arguments. So Cap wears lip stain. Tasha wears make-up. The other guy is huge and green. We can discuss it later. I, for one, would rather get a shower and a few hours of sleep before I try to process any of this."
He gets up and heads for the door; Natasha, Tony and Thor follow his lead. Clint looks at Steve, thinks for a moment. "If you have to explain anything to Fury... I'll help. It kind of is my fault."
Steve smiles, shakes his head. "I'm sure it will all be fine. Go home, get some rest. We've got a lot to do tomorrow."
He goes back to Brooklyn, sits in his apartment and wonders about Fury's question, about Tony's question, whether or not he should keep the lip stain after today. He stays in the shower until the water turns cold, mulling over the events of the past several months. He knows he's not a transvestite, and he's pretty sure he's not gay. Sure, he doesn't get out much, and he knows he spends more time getting ready to leave in the mornings than some of the people he sees on the subway, but that doesn't mean anything. Besides, there's a girl in one of the apartments downstairs who's pretty and charming, and the other day she told him she liked his motorcycle. She has nice legs, but he's too polite to tell her so. He gets out of the shower, shaking off his thoughts, puts on pyjamas and settles down with a pencil and paper, to relax for a while before he goes to bed.
They all meet at Stark Tower the next evening; it seems like a fairly central location for everyone, and there's plenty of space. Steve doesn't particularly like it, but it's less about who owns it and more about how much it stands for what all has changed in the last 70 years. Tony clears his throat when they've all gathered. "I thought this was going to not be official SHIELD business," he says, looking for a moment at Clint and then at Agent Coulson, standing behind him.
"Can we just not?" Clint sounds tired. "It's not business, not really."
"But it could be!"
Steve exchanges glances with everyone else; it's not just him. Tony seems a little happy about saying that. "Tony... are you feeling well?"
"No, no, I'm great. I thought about what Dr. Banner said, and he has a point. But what if we need a little more than just Pepper handling PR for us? What if we had to take publicity photos? A bunch of dirty, tired guys isn't exactly going to inspire the people's confidence. And this is where Clint comes in. I vote Thor gets the next makeover."
"Really. You call us all to a meeting to tell us Thor needs a makeover?"
"What is this makeover of which you speak?" Thor asks, doubt creeping into his voice – doubt at Tony's suggestion and plan, perhaps, mirroring the looks that are going around the room.
"Oh, this is going to be exciting." Tony smirks, looks at Clint. "So what do you say?"
Clint clenches and unclenches his fists. "Tony, you're the worst. I only took the job at that damn make-up counter because I was broke and it paid well. I'm not going to do this out of the goodness of my heart, and I have a feeling that Bruce... well, the big guy... might not take to having his nose powdered. Not that I think it needs any powdering, you're pretty impressive on your own." He sighs, raises his hands in a disarming gesture. "Fine, but I get a bonus for putting up with this bullshit. Thor, basically, I'm going to make you look even more god-like than you already look."
Thor considers it for a moment, "Very well."
"I'll pass on the makeover," Natasha suddenly says. "Before anybody tries to argue, I don't need it. I already know what I'm doing."
"Well, now it's official SHIELD business." Tony smiles. "Good talk, team. Let's do this again sometime."
Steve watches everybody vacate the table before he gets up. Tony and Bruce head off presumably to go do science, and Natasha practically vanishes before anyone can see her go. Clint is standing and talking to Coulson now; their voices are quiet, and Steve would feel terrible for eavesdropping, but he can still hear bits of what they're saying. He looks over, sees Clint apparently re-adjusting Coulson's tie, smoothing the front of his suit jacket, tiny touches and movements that Clint doesn't even seem to be aware of doing. Suddenly, he understands why Phil was there, even though this was supposed to be quiet, nobody was supposed to know.
He goes home, considers their earlier discussion, decides he can talk to Director Fury about it the next day. He can always push off the lip stain as a test towards this new plan, see if it goes well. If he chooses the best way to say everything. He'll think about that in a little while; right now, he just feels like enjoying what seems to be a small victory towards actually getting along with Tony Stark.
He doesn't get to enjoy this quiet for very long, he doesn't think. There's a knock at his door, a mildly confused, "D-5? Is this the residence of Steven Rogers?"
Steve gets up and goes to the door, perplexed. "Yes, is something wrong?" He opens it; there stands his downstairs neighbour with the shapely legs, holding a few envelopes.
"I accidentally got some of your mail, I think; I'm in B-5." She holds out the stack, then looks up at him. "Motorcycle guy? You're Steven Rogers? I would not have... " she catches herself, whatever she was about to say. "Well. It's nice to have a name to put to a face? I'm sorry, I'll just leave you your mail.
"Thanks." He smiles, takes the mail. "Just Steve is fine. What's your name?"
"Oh. Um. Meredi—Merry. Merry MacKenzie." She smiles a little, too. "I should go, this is kind of weird... " And she heads for the stairs before he can stop her.
He shuts his door, stands there for a moment, then pulls it open again, hoping she hasn't gotten out of earshot yet. "Uh, Merry?" He cranes his neck; she's stopped partway down the stairs, looking up at him. "Would you... would you like to get a cup of coffee sometime?"
Merry looks at him for a minute before she answers. "I'd love to. Can we take your bike?"
He smiles again, "Yes, I think we can."
"Awesome. Thursday at 8, I'll see you then." She disappears down the stairs. He shuts his door and sits on his couch. This week promises to get better, especially if he can present Tony's plan without making it sound like a Tony plan.
Director Fury takes the presentation better than Steve thought he would. Apparently he knows more about Clint's skills than he'd previously let on. It's probably in his file, Steve guesses, that doesn't seem like the kind of thing a guy would just go out and tell the world. But Fury says that it's not a bad suggestion, but someone who isn't Clint should probably be doing any cosmetics work if they're going to be in any, ah, publicity photos. Steve dutifully argues in Clint's favour, pointing out that he did, that one time, make Agent Coulson look like his old, well self after the incident.
Finally, Fury agrees to let Clint make the Avengers up – conditionally: If it's not picture-perfect, even after an assignment, he's off this particular job. Steve assures him that Clint knows what he's doing, and excuses himself when they're finished with this discussion. He calls Tony, tells him the news, tries and fails to get out of having to tell everyone in-person.
He grumbles to himself all the way to the meeting, composes himself and explains the decision to everyone. "... so, in short, Clint, all you have to do is your work as usual. I think."
"Oh, I'm so excited. Remind me again why it's a good idea for me to give everybody a makeover?"
"Because you already put Cap in lip stain, and it's a quite fetching look for him," Tony answers before anyone else can. "What, I wonder, are you going to do to me?"
"If you make one more snarky comment, I will make sure no one ever forgets what I do to you, Tony," Clint says, smiling tightly. "Can I leave now?"
"Yes," Steve answers. "We can all leave. I have to be somewhere."
No one asks him about it, even if they want to; they figure it will all come out in due time. He goes home, draws some things to pass the time and settle himself. He hasn't had a date in 70 years; he's not quite sure he still knows how. He's also not sure he's ready to tell anyone that he's Captain America quite yet – especially since he's seen how easily some of his teammates go through relationships. (To be truthful, he's mostly just still annoyed at Tony and Pepper for splitting up. He thought maybe they were giving him hope that a relationship might work out with a civilian. Now he's not convinced.) At 7:45 he gets up, puts on his jacket and gets his keys and wallet, and then heads for the stairs.
About an hour or so into the evening, Steve decides he likes Merry. She takes her coffee black and doesn't ask him about what he does for a living. She says that it doesn't really matter so much, and everyone hates their job anyway, so there's not much point talking about it right now. (She's wrong, though. Steve sometimes hates that they make him feel like he's obligated to serve his country because of the serum, but he agreed to the experiment because he wanted to serve his country, and he's still getting to do just that, even if it's not quite what he'd imagined or experienced during the war.)
So, instead, they talk about his drawings and her piano and whatever books they've both read or would like to read. Steve's list is longer than he'll admit to, but he's gotten a lot of reading done since he woke up, and he was asleep for a really long time, he supposes. She expresses surprise that he hasn't read any of the Harry Potter books but doesn't insist that he should read them, "Only if you feel like it, I guess. They're not bad at all, but they do start getting long, and the last one is such a bummer."
He's a little reluctant to let the evening end. He wants, but doesn't want, to call it a date, wondering if she can tell he's having an internal debate about it. They get on his motorcycle; he smiles a little but doesn't say anything when she tucks her hands around his waist and leans against his back for the ride home. It feels different than the ride out had.
Steve walks her to her apartment, waits for her to get her door open, and stands there for a bit longer, beginning to feel a little awkward. She starts inside, turns to look at him. "You know, you can kiss me good-night." Her voice is soft, a little teasing, a little hopeful. So he does. She's a lot shorter than he thought she was; he has to bend. She grabs his jacket, something to hold onto, leaning up into him.
He suddenly feels very exposed, standing in the hallway, kissing this girl. He steps back, looks over his shoulder, and barely sees the white-haired lady across the hall jerk her head back into her apartment and close the door.
"That's Mrs. Edison," Merry whispers, half grinning and half grimacing. "She's always asking me when I'm going to get married. It would be really irritating if she wasn't a hundred years old and always in everybody's business."
Steve laughs. "Well, I guess I should probably take myself upstairs... "
She nods, tucks a folded square of paper into his jacket pocket. "I work early anyway, but... I'd like it if you'd call me sometime... "
"I'd like to call you sometime."
"Well, now you can. Have a good night, just-Steve." She watches him until he gets to the stairs, then shuts and locks her door.
Steve doesn't mention the date to anyone for a few days, until he realises he's not quite sure what the proper course of action is now. He pulls Clint aside, figuring that even though he talks a lot, he'll also keep things quiet if he needs to. "Clint, can you help me?"
"I already gave you a damn good tinted moist—erm, sunscreen and lip stain. You're pretty enough in that stupid uniform, you don't get more makeup." Clint is a little grumpy about the arrangements Fury made. "Well, all right, maybe you could use a little eyeliner. I guess that's only fair, keep it all equal for everyone."
"What? No, not with that, can you help me with something else?"
"Oh. Sure. What is it?" He brightens a little; he'll take anything to get away from questions he doesn't want to answer. He raises an eyebrow at Steve's hesitation. "All right, we'll go somewhere less populated."
Once they've found somewhere quiet enough to talk and alone enough to not be overheard, Clint looks at him expectantly. "I, um, I took a girl out the other night, but I'm... it's been a long time, how much has courting changed?"
Clint laughs at that – actually laughs. "Dude, you're asking the wrong guy. Well, I guess you can't ask Tony, can you. Have you called her yet?"
"I don't know what to say."
"Just tell her that you had a nice time. Take her out for dinner. Go see a movie. Do the Diet Coke and Mentos eruption. It doesn't really fucking matter. But call her."
"What's the Diet Coke and Mentos eruption?"
"Oh, are you serious? You're serious. We need witnesses for this; it's the best thing ever. Video won't do it justice, we have to do this." He's off before Steve can stop him, gathering up as many of the team as he possibly can and whooping about getting to do this for a 'legitimate reason'. Steve isn't quite sure that his not knowing this... experiment constitutes a 'legitimate reason' to do it.
Instead of trying to figure that one out just yet, he pulls the paper from his pocket and dials the number. It rings once, twice, Steve almost hangs up, but then he hears, "Hello?"
"Hi, Merry? This is Steve." He holds his breath for a moment, waiting.
"Big, all-American, motorcycle Steve, who doesn't call girls after he takes them out for coffee? Or some other jerk Steve?"
"I guess yes?" He frowns at himself. "I'm sorry I didn't call earlier; I wasn't sure what I'd say if you answered."
She laughs. "Well, at this point, you could say, 'How can I make up for making you feel like I don't care?' and I could say, 'Oh, a fancy dinner sounds like it might work', and you could make some argument against it, like, 'How is dinner fair recompense for the way I treated you?' and I'd say, 'You're right, you should take me out for whatever movie I pick', and trust me, it would be the worst one that's out right now. I'm okay with sort of skipping that part. Are you free tonight?"
It takes him a minute to answer, still parsing that whole mock-exchange. "I'm not sure. One of my... co-workers has decided to take it upon himself to demonstrate the Diet Coke and Mentos eruption for me? Would tomorrow be acceptable?"
"What do you mean, demonstrate that for you? Have you not seen it?"
"... I've missed a lot."
"I'll say. Yes, tomorrow works. Why don't you meet me at my apartment, and we can get some food and stay in and watch some awful movie, and I'll consider us even?"
"I can do that. Does 7:30 work for you?"
"Sounds fantastic. Enjoy that experiment; you'll probably love it." She hangs up, leaving Steve to go find Clint for this experiment.
Clint sets up something amazing, and Merry is right; Steve does sort of love it. It's so ridiculous, and yet so fascinating, the things you can do with food or food-like substances: There's no way Steve is considering Mentos to be food, after what he just saw. He almost asks if they can do it again, but then thinks better of it.
He decides that instead of getting food somewhere and taking it, he'll make dinner the next night, and spends some time figuring out what to make and acquiring the necessary ingredients. It turns out to be a brilliant idea, they get to talk more while she cuts up vegetables and he slices meat, and she doesn't even make them watch a terrible movie after they eat. They wind up curled up on the couch, not paying attention to the movie they picked. Merry dozes off at one point, for just long enough that she surprises herself awake when she shifts and her foot hits the coffee table.
"Sorry. The movie got kind of boring, and today was a long day."
He shakes his head a little. "I don't... It's fine. Do you want to call the movie done, at least for tonight? You should probably get some rest; I can go... "
She looks up at him, a bit pink. "Yeah, I guess we can forget about this one. But, um. Well. You could stay? I mean, if you want to. I would like it if you stay."
"If we're done with the movie, then what—oh." It's Steve's turn to blush, now. "I haven't... it's been a really long time." How do you explain that to someone without giving away that you're Captain America?
"Well," she stands up, "think about it for a minute, all right? I'm going to go do the dishes."
In the end he stays, but only until she falls asleep. He gets a message; the team is needed. He writes an apology note, leaves it beside her alarm clock, and lets himself out. Everyone else is arriving just as he is; he takes that as a decent sign that he wasn't too long in getting there.
They take care of the mutant alien bedbugs, or whatever they are; it takes longer than anyone anticipated. The sun is coming up by the time the Avengers settle into seats in the conference room for debriefing. Tony stares into a cup of coffee, as though it might just feed itself to him without any effort on his part. Bruce shuffles in not too long later, back to his usual size, and takes a seat. Nobody really listens; they're all waiting to get back to their respective homes. Finally, they're all dismissed; Clint stays behind outside the conference room to wait for Coulson, finding an inconspicuous place to perch.
He's just gotten home when his phone chimes with a text: Thanks again for dinner and that apology note. Sorry you couldn't stay. Maybe next time?
He smiles, decides to answer after he has a shower. They make arrangements for the following week. Steve hopes that he doesn't have to save the world that day.
It's been several quiet weeks. While Steve doesn't mind that at least for now, New York and most of the rest of the United States is overall safe, he does sort of wish something would happen so he'd have something else to do. (It's not that staying in combat shape, the other light duties SHIELD has him doing, and spending time with Merry is boring him, but it's just not quite enough.)
He's stretched out on Merry's couch one afternoon, head in her lap; they're talking idly, mostly ignoring the news as it plays out on her television. After a lull in their conversation, she suddenly says, "You know, Tony Stark is brilliant, but he seems like such an arrogant jerk."
Steve opens his eyes; she's looking at the story that's airing – must be about something Stark Industries is doing. "He does seem that way at first, but he's not so bad once you get to know him."
She looks down at him, clearly surprised. "You know him? Oh my god, do you work for him or something?"
Steve laughs, shakes his head. "No, I... we sort of work together. He's a friend."
"Oh. I'm sorry; I didn't mean to insult one of your friends." She looks a little sheepish.
He laces his fingers with hers, "Don't worry about it. Do you want to go get dinner?"
He gets his wish one evening when they're all at Stark Tower, having a group movie night. It's Clint's night to pick a movie, and he's chosen "some cheesy, campy B-movie" –well, those were Bruce's words. Clint and Bruce get into an argument over whether or not Bruce Campbell is the king of B-movie horror, but they settle it without anything getting broken.
They're talking and laughing when out of nowhere, Tony looks at Steve and says, "So who's Merry? I noticed when I was upgrading your phone that you seem to talk a lot."
Steve just blinks, suddenly both not sure how to answer that and abashed that he hasn't said anything about her to anyone – except Clint. "She's my downstairs neighbour."
"Is she cute? And single? Because we happen to know a doctor who could use some loving, if you know what I mean."
"No—I mean. Yes. Or... " He feels his face getting hot. Clint elbows him, not very subtly. "She's real nice, and she reads a lot. Mrs. Edison is always asking her when she's going to get married." He's not sure why he added that last bit; he supposes it's because he can't think of anything else with six pairs of eyes looking at him.
"Who is Mrs. Edison?" Thor asks. "What's her relation to this story?"
Steve laughs, then. "She's another downstairs neighbour. She's about... well, I suppose about as old as I would be if... you know. She's really interested in everyone's business. I think it's because she doesn't have anything else to do."
"So you're saying she's not that cute and—" Tony starts, and Bruce interrupts him.
"—probably in her mid-twenties if your elderly neighbour is asking why she's not married yet. Don't look at me like that, Tony; you would have picked the most asinine thing to say."
Natasha just shakes her head. "It doesn't mean anything, Bruce, Tony. Older women whose children have already left home and had children of their own frequently ask anyone they perceive to be of a marriageable age why they're not married yet, especially if they live in close proximity."
Everyone stares at her for a long moment.
"What? I've lived next door to nosy old ladies."
"Guys, come on! We have a movie to finish!"
Steve is relieved when he doesn't have to answer the question. He has a feeling that it might get brought back up in forty-five minutes, though, and Tony does not disappoint. As the credits roll, he clears his throat. "You didn't answer my question."
"Didn't I?" He stops just shy of frowning at himself; clearly Tony is rubbing off on him if he's using avoidance tactics to get out of trying to explain whatever the situation is.
"Technically, yes, but having a downstairs neighbour is weird and also doesn't explain why you two talk so much."
Steve licks his lips, stalling for a few more seconds. "We're... friends. We have dinner together sometimes." He feels himself flushing again. "Now and again we go to a movie. A couple of weeks ago, I went with her to her friend's birthday dinner."
"Dude, you're totally dating."
"You talk a lot. You go to dinner together. And movies. You've met her friends. You're dating." Tony makes a mock-affronted noise. "Captain America got a girlfriend and didn't tell his friends. I'm insulted."
"Maybe he didn't say anything because he knew you'd do exactly what you just did," Bruce mutters.
"What did I do?" Tony turns and looks at Bruce, now.
"Uh, you made a huge deal out of it. And aren't you holding a double standard? You didn't say anything to anyone when you and Pepper split. No, you didn't really have to; we could all tell. It's not like you didn't see that coming anyway and it wasn't a really terrible breakup. Yes, it was awful because you guys were together for a long time, but it just wasn't working out, and it's probably better that it didn't work out in the end. Be honest with yourself, and stop giving Steve so much grief because he didn't know how to tell us that he met a girl. And stop snooping in everybody's personal shit when you upgrade our phones." Bruce smiles at Steve, then. "It's all right; we've all had that awkward experience when you haven't seen anyone in a while and you don't know how to bring it up."
"Don't mention it."
A few more quiet minutes pass. Thor gets up to leave; Natasha goes to the kitchen. Tony and Bruce have an eyeball conversation, and then Tony clears his throat. "So, Steve."
Steve looks at him, pretends he wasn't watching that exchange. "Yes, Tony?"
"You should bring her to dinner one night. With all of us."
"All of us?"
"Well, not here. Somewhere nice. You've met her friends; why shouldn't she meet yours?" Tony smiles, tries to be disarming.
Steve sighs. "Tony, she doesn't know."
"So we don't tell her that you're Captain America. It'll just be Steve, his girlfriend, and his friends."
He sighs, knowing he's going to lose this battle, in the end. "All right, we all can go to dinner."
Steve decides to bring the dinner up the next night. He's standing outside her apartment, about to knock, when she opens the door. "Hey... " She smiles, steps back to let him in. "I'm sorry, I haven't had a chance to get ready; I only got home from work about five minutes ago."
"What? No, you look better than I do, and I've put time and effort into this." He offers her his hand. "Why don't we just go to dinner? You can worry about taking more time to get ready later."
She takes his hand, grabs her keys and pocketbook, and they walk a few blocks to a little restaurant Steve has passed a number of times but never actually gone into. Dinner is quiet, once they get their food, and Steve realises about halfway through dinner that Merry has been giving him a number of nonverbal signals that she's ready to go whenever he is. They get their dinner boxed up, pay, and walk back.
Once they're in the building, he hesitates for a moment, then invites her up to his apartment. They usually end up in hers, mostly when they watch movies, because she owns a TV and he doesn't. She looks faintly surprised, but accompanies him up the extra steps and into his living room. He sets his keys down, turns to face her, "Let me go take care of the food." He sets it in the kitchen – they can worry about putting it in the refrigerator later – and returns. She drops her coat on one end of the couch while he's gone, waiting. They just stand together for a long moment when he gets back to the living room before deciding on anything else.
He remembers Tony's dinner suddenly, a couple of hours later, after Merry has fallen asleep. He rests a hand on her arm, considers telling her then, but then decides against it. She turns a little but doesn't quite wake up. He shakes his head and settles back down into his bed, pulling her closer, and dozes off for a few hours himself.
He wakes before she does again but can't bring himself to get up and wake her up, too. He sits up and reaches over for a sketchbook and pencil, to draw for a little while until she is up. After a while, he decides to use Merry as a model, and he's gone through a couple of pages when he feels a hand on his leg. "Good morning," she smiles, stifling a yawn. "What are you doing?"
"Good morning. I was just drawing a little." He sets the paper and pencil down. "Did you sleep well?"
She laughs, moving to sit up. "You always ask that, and the answer never changes."
"I always want to know." He lifts one shoulder. "Tony wants you to have dinner with us."
"Oh, and here I was, thinking you hadn't told your friends about me—" she frowns, seeing him shift a bit uncomfortably. "You didn't. You let me tell all my friends about you and came to Liz's birthday dinner and didn't tell your friends about me?"
"I wanted to," he argues, embarrassed. "I just didn't know how to tell them."
"You're such an idiot, Steve." She leans against him. "Yes, I'll come to dinner with you and your friends."
The next couple of weeks go without incident. Tony doesn't razz Steve for not telling them about the girl he's dating; there are no invasions, alien or otherwise. He gets to do more to keep himself busy and extends his usual running routine. He even stops by Stark Tower a few times to watch Tony work and learn more about all of this technology they're building.
Finally Tony says he's made arrangements for dinner. Steve tells Merry, and, in turn, she spends more time than he's ever seen her spend to get ready. He guesses that it's nerves; it's not every day that most people have dinner with one of the richest guys around. And she is meeting all of his friends. Part of him cringes at that thought: He hasn't seen Tony and Pepper in the same room for more than twenty minutes since the split outside of necessity for work, even though they both say that they parted ways mostly amicably.
They all meet at the restaurant early, but at different times. Steve and Merry are the last to arrive, and they are ushered to a quiet, semi-sequestered area where everyone else is already sitting around the table. He notices that Tony and Pepper are sitting beside each other and haven't killed each other yet, so he chooses to take it as a good sign.
Tony starts the introductions, barely catches himself before he introduces Phil as "Agent Coulson", and then looks at Merry, waiting for her to introduce herself. She takes the seat between Steve and Phil, says, "Meredith MacKenzie. It's a pleasure to meet you all." She looks around the table at them all, murmuring their names as she looks at their faces, to remember who each one of them is, and then looks at the menu. It's a little awkward at first, but then Clint knocks Bruce's glass over, and everyone holds their breath for a minute, but Bruce just laughs and sets it right.
They talk a lot through dinner; Merry isn't used to being asked so many questions or talking about herself. She doesn't get very clear answers to some of the questions she asks, and so after a while she settles for putting in whatever she can about the current topic of conversation.
They've just about finished when Merry turns to Steve, a sudden look of realisation dawning on her face. Steve looks back at her, not sure what, exactly, she's realised – even though he has an idea—but doesn't miss Clint making the "pay up" gesture at everyone else behind her. They grudgingly pass $10 each around to him, and he grins and stuffs the money in Phil's jacket pocket.
When they've had dessert, Merry shakes everyone's hand, thanks them again for having her out, and she and Steve leave. He can tell she wants to say something, but he waits, figuring she'll say it when she's ready. She is, apparently, before they get home; they're walking through a park, hand-in-hand, when she stops. "Steve!"
"You're Captain America. Aren't you." She's whispering, but she looks like she kind of wants to shout it. He nods, because what else is he going to do? She walks a circle around him, shaking her head and talking to herself for a minute. "My boyfriend is Captain America. Oh my god, Steve. That's how you're friends with Tony Stark. Oh my god. You're Captain fucking America."
Steve thinks, boyfriend? Really, but doesn't say it. He's pretty sure it might start an argument, and it's been a good night, and he'd like to get home. She re-joins him shortly, and they get to their building, and she smiles at him. "I won't tell anyone, all right?"
"I appreciate it, thank you."