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."
Steve gets a lot of surprises.
Well. I had some terrible, awesome ideas, and candesgirl and mikes_grrl totally egged me on (because that's what they do). So, enjoy!
It's been a few months since the big dinner. Things were quiet for a while, but now they've gone to hell for the Avengers. They're out fighting aliens or foreign enemies for so many weeks that Steve is beginning to wonder if someone isn't playing a trick on them, if they've gone to war again and nobody bothered to tell him. When they finally have a respite from all of it, he's too exhausted to even leave Stark Tower for a couple of days, but Tony has room for them all and has been not-very-subtly hinting that they could stay, if they wanted. Steve still prefers his apartment, because it's something that's actually his, and besides, he likes his neighbourhood.
For the first time in weeks, he actually gets home at a reasonable daylight hour. On his way, he stops and buys some flowers, hoping that they'll help make an apology for not being around lately. He knocks on her door, waits, catches Mrs. Edison peering out her door at him, and wishes that Merry would answer the door already. She does, finally, just as Steve is about to give up and go upstairs. She stares up at him for a moment, finishing tying her robe, water dripping from her hair.
He looks back at her, then clears his throat. "Hi, Merry. Do you have a few minutes?"
She steps back, lets him in, shuts the door behind them, all before regaining her wits. "Uhm. Yeah. Yes, I have some time. Jesus Christ, Steve! I was starting to worry you were dead or something!"
"There's been a lot... going on, that I can't talk about. I'm sorry. I should have let you know what I could." Not sure what else to say, he just offers her the flowers. After a pause, she smiles and takes them.
"Let me go put these in water. I hope you're not too tired." She goes to the kitchen, puts them in a jar with water. "I'll meet you in the bedroom." She heads for the bathroom, giving Steve time to make his way down the short hall.
He's sitting on the edge of the bed in his boxers, pulling off his socks, when she comes in – still in the robe. She frowns at him, waiting for him to add the socks to his pile of clothes, and then sits across his lap. "You could have called. Texted. Told your boss there's a hot girl waiting for you at home. Something."
"I can't tell my boss that; he'd never let me do anything about it." He touches her face, her arms. "I will try to be more vigilant about letting you know I'm not dead, all right? I can't promise anything else." He kisses her lips, her forehead. "But I'm here right now, and I think I have a couple of days off, so why don't we make the most of them?"
She raises her eyebrows. "I can get behind that."
He smiles, murmurs, "Thank you," and reaches for the collar of the robe. "May I... ?"
She laughs a little. "Of course." The robe halfway down her arms, she suddenly reaches up and grabs his wrists. "Steve," her voice is soft, a little distant, almost sad, "you're not going to break me. Even if you do."
"What do you mean? Is something wrong?"
"No." She licks her lips, smiles suddenly. "I missed you." She kisses him then, wraps herself around him. "I'll tell you later."
He watches her later, while she sleeps, still wondering why she seemed so sad. After a while, he quietly gets up and wanders through the apartment. He stops near the door, noticing for the first time a collection of photos on the wall. He wonders how he'd missed them, and then realises that they're on the wrong side of the door for anyone outside to see.
Most of the photos are of Merry and a burly man with laughing eyes, and at least one of them is a wedding photo. He frowns, looks at the other pictures, stopping when he gets to the one of the man in a dress uniform – a soldier, then. He wants to leave and never come back, suddenly overwhelmed by this horrible guilt. No matter what his feelings for her are, no matter how much he loves being in her presence, he knows he can't stay if this is how it is.
He notices her coming up the hall, stays stiff and still as she fits herself to his side and wraps her arms around him. "Couldn't sleep?" She sounds like she's still half-asleep.
"You're married." It's really hard to keep the accusatory tone from sneaking into his words.
She sighs softly, shakes her head. "I was." Her voice is softer, somehow sadder than before. "I was going to... earlier, after you came home, I was going to tell you. I'm sorry. It's hard to talk about." She holds onto him a little tighter. "Patrick was my whole world for so long; then he went on another tour and didn't come home. Yesterday was four years since I got that news. Sometimes I still feel like a piece of my soul is missing."
He turns, takes her by the hands. "I know." Thinking about waking up, and the whole world has changed, and everyone he knew is gone, and his best friend's death still seems so fresh. He understands what she means: It's not just one, but a thousand pieces of his heart feel shattered and lost. "I'm so sorry."
"No," she says softly, "I am. I can't imagine... " She shakes her head, starts back to the bedroom, still holding onto him. He walks with her, staying close. They climb back into bed, curl up around each other. He's not quite sure when it happens, but he's so exposed in that moment, and she is kind enough to hold him close, whisper against his neck and stroke his hair, letting him cry over Peggy and Bucky and everyone else he'll never see again.
He doesn't remember falling asleep. When he wakes up, he still feels the ache of losing everyone, but the edges are a little less sharp. Merry is gone, but the bed isn't quite cool where she'd been, and he can smell bacon. He finds her in the kitchen, standing in front of the stove, staring down into a skillet. He kisses the side of her head, "Is there anything I can do to help?"
She shakes her head. "Have a cup of coffee and see if you know the answer to 42-down? I'm almost done here."
When she sets a plate down in front of him, he says, "Thank you," but he's not just talking about the food. She smiles a little, that sad look creeping back into her eyes, and sits across from him with her own plate, quietly arguing that thanks back onto him. They eat in relative silence for a while, filling in the rest of the crossword.
"So, tell me about her."
Steve looks up from sopping up egg with his toast. "What?"
"The girl you left in 1945. What was she like?" Merry gets up and refills their coffee. "Remember, I know that look you had last night. I've seen it in the mirror more times than I care to count. And, hey, maybe she's still around, if it would give you any closure to know what happened. It can wait until we're done eating. But I want to know, if you want to tell me."
He helps her clean up the dishes, and then sits with her on the couch, not sure where to begin. She just waits, patient as ever, for him to find his words. When he does, he tells her about Peggy, everything he can call to memory. She just listens, but she's giving him a strange look when he finishes. "What?" he asks, self-conscious.
"What did you say her name was?"
He wants to laugh, for a moment, that that was her question, but something in her eyes stops him. "Peggy. Peggy Carter. Why?"
"I... think I know what happened to her. I mean. I could be wrong."
"What? How do you know that?"
Merry starts laughing, then, unable to control herself anymore, calms herself down enough to speak. "Mrs. Edison. Before she got married the first time—her first husband died forever ago, I guess, she's only been married to Mr. Edison for thirty years or something like that."
"I don't follow."
She gets up, pulling on his hand. "Come on, Steve. You'll get it soon enough! Just trust me."
He follows her, out of the apartment, watches her pause only long enough to grab her keys, and across the hall to B-9. He's still not sure what's going on, or why they're standing in front of her nosy neighbour's door, knocking.
A grumpy-looking man opens the door, in the middle of saying, "Who the hell's interrupting 'Wheel of Fortune'? Everyone knows that we always—" the frown breaks into a smile when he sees who it is, "Merry! Good to see you! Come in, come in. 'Wheel of Fortune' is just starting. Who's your friend?"
Merry smiles, lets go of Steve long enough to greet Mr. Edison (at least, that's who Steve assumes this must be), and they go inside. "It's good to see you, too, Billy. This is Steve. He's... we've been dating for a while."
Steve extends a hand. "Steve Rogers, sir. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"William Edison, son, and you don't have to be so formal." He gives his hand a good shake, and then waves them to come on inside, walking ahead of them to the living room. "Peggy! I think Miss Meredith has found her man. You can stop worrying about what to do with your old wedding dress." He's speaking in a stage whisper to his wife, his voice carrying through the apartment and making Merry colour.
They follow after him; Steve stops in the living room doorway and watches Merry go give Mrs. Edison a hug and a promise to bring a pie next time. Mrs. Edison looks up at Steve, something he can't quite read crossing her face, and she looks Merry dead in the eye and mutters something that almost sounds like, "for God's sake, girl, marry him now."
Merry turns to look at Steve, and clears her throat. "I think you two might have known each other, once." She beckons him, and he moves forward, looking at some of the pictures on the walls – some of them are very old, and the smiling face in them looks oddly familiar, too familiar. "Steve, this is Mrs. Edison." A pause, like she's not sure how to put what comes next: "Peggy Carter Carbonell-Edison."
He just stares at Merry, positive he's misheard her, and that all of the oxygen has suddenly left the room. "What?"
"Steven Rogers, are you really going to just stand across the room, gaping like a fish, when I haven't seen you in seventy years?"
That's enough to shake him out of whatever headspace he was getting into. "My God. Peggy?"
She smiles and he can see it; he goes and sits on the couch beside her, and she just waits patiently. "I am, indeed. When you went down... well, I couldn't spend the rest of my life waiting on a dream that might not have happened. So I made the most of what I had and started a family, but don't think I've forgotten who you were. And don't think I didn't know when they found you. Anthony's had me on speed-dial since that government organisation of yours first contacted him. Even he couldn't be too angry with me for asking him to pick up where Howard left off. They looked for you for a long time, you know."
"Wait—Anthony? You mean Tony?"
"Yes. Would you, I know you're friends; I've seen the footage of you two working together. Would you tell him that while I appreciate his offer to buy Bill and me a nice place somewhere else, that I happen to like this little apartment and I've lived here for longer than he's been alive, so he should can it? And that he should really stop by more often?"
He barely notices Merry get up and follow Mr. Edison – no, Bill – down the hall or Bill come back hardly a moment later and resume his seat. "You've lost me. You and Tony are in touch? If I may ask, why?"
Peggy laughs, then. "After you disappeared, I met a nice young gentleman named Edward Carbonell, and later fell in love with and married him. We had a daughter, Maria, and she met and married a man who was nice enough, I suppose. Howard was never my favourite person, but he and Maria loved each other, and who was I to deny them what they wanted? My family didn't much care for Eddie at first, but he won them over in the end. Eddie died before they got married, and I didn't meet Billy until Anthony was probably two or three years old. I hadn't been planning on getting married again, but Maria encouraged me to, and I'm glad I did."
"You're Tony's grandmother? Oh, my God."
Peggy looks up, then. "Come on, dear. Let's see it already." There's a rustling sound, and Steve follows Peggy's gaze up and to the doorway. Merry is standing there, one hand resting on the jamb, in a long white gown. "Oh, it fits! I've been trying to figure out what to do with that thing for damn near forty years. Take it, wear it when you get married again."
Steve can't do any more than just stare, and marvel a little at how similar Merry looks to his memories – and the pictures on the walls – of Peggy. "You knew she was married before? And you still kept asking when she'd get married?"
Merry laughs a little. "She knows everything, Steve, I swear. And really, there's no rush on anything, and I understand if you decide you don't want to marry me. I'm not ready to get remarried yet anyway. I'm so terrified of this dress; it's so old, I'm afraid I'm going to completely destroy it in about five minutes."
"Go on, you can go put your normal clothes back on, Meredith. We'll still be here." Peggy turns back to Steve once Merry has left the doorway. "We're going to have a lot to catch up on. You've missed a lot. Tomorrow we're all going to get together for dinner. And yes, I did know that Meredith used to be married, but she's still so young, and it's very difficult to pester your billionaire grandson to get married when the vast majority of his time is split between running his corporation, building odd robots and being Iron Man. She just so happened to be the lucky person who moved in across the hall. And she reminded me a lot of myself. If I could get married again at sixty-something, she can certainly get married again at thirty-two."
Merry comes back, and sits and chats with Mr. Edison while Steve and Peggy talk, and eventually they do need to leave. They all say their good-byes, and just before they make it to the door, Peggy catches Steve by the arm, kisses his cheek and whispers, "Be good to her."
He nods, "With everything I have." He can't possibly deny Peggy this – or anything, really, not after so long.
They all have dinner in Merry's apartment the next night. Bill and Peggy bring over a bottle of bourbon, and they share it along with a lot of conversation. At the end of the evening, Steve is sorry to see them go, but they make plans to have dinner again the next week. He reasons with himself that they're neighbours now, and if they keep getting together for dinner, they're not going to fall out of each other's lives again.
He calls Tony the next day, tries not to choke up when he says, "Peggy says you need to stop trying to buy her a nice place in the city. You should probably come by; she'd like it if you visited more, and I think she'd probably like Pepper if she met her."
"So you finally found her." Tony doesn't seem surprised. Steve can imagine his expression, hearing him sigh. "We'll come by on Saturday."
"I'm holding you to that. You shouldn't neglect what family you have, Tony. I'll see you guys this evening." He hangs up, goes to work out some of his frustration, and then makes his way into Manhattan to meet up with the team for movie night.
It's Bruce's turn to pick a movie, and he surprises them all by choosing 'True Grit'. Clint seems particularly pleased with this choice; he can't quite stop himself from exclaiming, "Yes!" and Coulson just looks mildly amused by the outburst. They all settle in to watch, Steve stuck in-between Clint and Thor on the couch, and the movie begins.
Steve has only watched a few westerns since he woke up, but he still likes them. He'd seen a number of them before the serum and had always liked— "Is that John Wayne?"
"Good call, Cap," Tony says. "Your face just lit up like a kid in a candy store window. I take it you're a fan?"
"Shh, Tony, I haven't seen this one before. We can talk later." He's surprised when that actually works, and Tony is quiet for the next two hours. Steve wonders if someone talked to him about the last time he talked through a movie that Steve hadn't seen yet. He's not surprised in the least, though, when the John Wayne discussion picks back up as soon as the credits roll. They argue and laugh, and it feels like another normal night.
He gets home late and promptly puts himself to bed. It's been a long few days full of surprises, and he's too tired to deal with anything else until morning.
Tony visits his grandmother. The Avengers continue to save the world. Nick Fury does not impress Merry.
Tony does come by to visit Peggy on Saturday. Steve wants to believe that Tony's just been busy, and that's why he hadn't come by before, and that maybe Steve's suggestion made him realise how long it has been since he's visited. At the same time, he's not going to kid himself; he thinks that Tony probably just doesn't want to be reminded of his parents, ever, because of his relationship with his father. He doesn't speculate any further than that on it, though; it's not his place to ascertain anyone's reasons for anything, and Tony has been a good friend (well, once they started getting on).
Pepper comes with him, and they all sit in Steve's kitchen over coffee before going downstairs to see Peggy. Merry comes up with a hot, right-out-of-the-oven pie and sets it on the table between everyone. "She's going to know you didn't make it, but I owe Billy and Peggy, and a pie is a decent place to start trying to make up for that. Now, y'all go on downstairs. I need to talk to Steve about something." She frowns a little. "Remind me to not stay on the phone with my sister for an hour while I'm baking."
Steve nods at Pepper and Tony and they take the pie and head downstairs. He looks at Merry. "Is something wrong?"
Merry shakes her head, biting her lip to keep from laughing. "No, I just wanted to give Peggy and Tony some time before we went down... and it gives us some time, too." She leans down and kisses him lightly. "My sister's coming up in a couple of weeks. She's going to get married. I was wondering if maybe you'd come with me to witness?"
"Of course I would." He pulls her down onto his lap and kisses her again, running his fingers up her back. "How long do you want to give Tony and Pepper?"
She leans back against his hands. "As much as I might like to, I don't think we have that much time, Steve."
"It's not going to kill Tony to spend a little more time than he'd planned with Peggy." He lets his hands fall, finds the bottom hem of her shirt and presses his palms against her back. She sighs and lets her head fall to his shoulder, and he can't hide a smile with his words, whispered against her ear, "And it wouldn't kill you to let me win an argument, just once."
"I wouldn't call this an argument by a long shot, but fine, you can have the last word." She's trying to sound irritated, but it's not working out so well; she's a little distracted. He shifts under her, until he can easily reach the button on her jeans, his hand tracing a pattern from her waist. "You know they're all going to know—Steve!" Her entire face flushes, and he does it again, still just watching her, enjoying the light, breathless sounds she makes.
"You're not making a very compelling argument." His tone is light, teasing, belying his actions. "They might not."
"There... is no way in hell they're not going to know." She runs a hand through her hair, looking at him and moving to get up. "I'm not going anywhere, but this is going to be really difficult if we don't make a few adjustments." And then she's got her hands on his pants, moving them aside only as much as she needs to. "This is a terrible idea."
"You're still going—along—with it." He can't quite stop the sound he makes, so instead of saying anything else, he just holds onto her, letting his fingers and hand leave imprints he can find later, trying to stay quiet.
She gets up when he's done, finds a dish towel and gives it to him. "Like I said, terrible idea. You're going to have to make it up to me later. Now we really don't have time. I'm going to go see if I still have a pair of clean pants over here." She vanishes into the bedroom, and comes back after a few more minutes. "Let's go. They're probably wondering where we are."
They get downstairs and Merry is still trying to turn her hair into less of a mess when they knock on the Edisons' door. He catches one of her wrists, tries to help her settle it back down to something resembling normal. Peggy opens the door and gives them a knowing look, and Steve pulls his hands back to himself.
"And I thought you weren't going to come have some of your pie, Meredith."
"No, not at all. Maggie's coming up soon. She and Alexis are finally getting married. I just wanted Steve to come with." They go in, take seats. It seems much cosier with six of them; it feels more like home. They have pie, and talk, and Steve notices that Tony actually seems mostly relaxed sitting here with his grandmother. (It's still weird to think about, that, really.)
Pepper's phone rings after a while longer, and she answers it, excusing herself to the hall for a moment. When she comes back, she doesn't look happy. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Edison, Mr. Edison. We've had something come up. I'm afraid we have to go." She looks at Steve. "You, too, Steve. I hate to cut our visit short; we'll let you know as soon as we can get together again. Thanks for the coffee and pie."
"Go on; I imagine you need to save the world or something equally important. I'll still be here, but the pie won't be. Meredith, stop trying to do my dishes." Peggy waves them to the door. "Anthony, I expect you to call when you get done and let me know that you're all still alive. Miss Pepper, you stay safe. I know you're not going out there with the rest of them."
Merry stops, a guilty look crossing her face. "I'm sorry; habit. I'll go with them, but I'll check back in with you later. I need to make sure everything is ready for my sister."
"Make sure she comes to see me, too. She hasn't come up in a while."
"Absolutely." She kisses Peggy's cheek, and leaves before the others. Steve, Tony, and Pepper take their leave soon after, heading for Stark Tower to get ready for whatever this particular assignment is going to be.
It turns out that this time, they just have to meet Fury on the Helicarrier, which still requires them to gather in one place so they can get there. Fury doesn't look happy to see them, but Steve's not sure he's ever seen Fury look anything even remotely resembling happy, so it could just be coincidental. They wait patiently for him to start, exchanging curious glances. Fury starts in about a potential threat, and that they must all be alert and ready at any moment to be called to action. (Steve has decided this is code for "everyone stay at Stark's until we tell you otherwise because we're really not quite sure when we're going to need you, but we might, so just stay at Stark's already".)
They get to Tony's and get sorted into their usual rooms, but Steve is feeling a little restless, so he gets a cup of coffee and sits in the kitchen with it. Clint joins him later, sitting across the table and staring into his own coffee cup like it might provide him with all the answers. "I think Bruce has a thing for Nat."
Steve looks up, startled out of his thoughts. "What?"
"I don't know. I catch him sometimes watching her when he thinks nobody else is looking, with this expression like... like how Phil sometimes looks at me when he thinks I'm asleep, I guess."
"Is that a problem?"
Clint looks up, considering for a moment. "I don't know what she might think about it. And I don't want to encourage him if it's a bad idea, you know?"
"Why don't you just let them figure it out themselves? I'm sure Bruce won't do anything inappropriate."
"Yeah, okay." He looks back down at his coffee, not convinced. "I guess I can let them do that."
He leaves Clint sitting at the table and heads up to his temporary room, thinking that maybe sleep is more important right now. (You never know when a potential threat will become a real one, after all.)
It's a few days before the potential threat comes to fruition, and, for once, it's an easily-solved problem. New York doesn't get demolished (again), and nobody dies or is seriously injured (well, no one that didn't deserve it for threatening everyone's safety). Debriefing, though, takes forever, it seems, and just when Steve thinks they're ready to go, Fury calls him out for a moment.
"Yes, Director?" He watches everyone else leave the room, wishing that he was going with them.
"We'd like you to bring Meredith MacKenzie in at your nearest convenience."
"Classified, Captain. Just bring her in."
He doesn't know what the hell Fury wants with her, since something like signing a non-disclosure agreement is hardly confidential, but hopes that he's not going to try to press her into service or silence. He doesn't want her involved in that part of his life, even though he's seen a number of agents have relationships fail because they're with a civilian and the job is too demanding. At the same time, he doesn't want to end up like Clint and Phil, whose relationship is technically classified because that kind of fraternisation is frowned upon, even though they have been nothing but professional to one another on the clock.
He just wants to have something resembling normal. Get married eventually, he supposes, maybe have a family... or maybe not. He'd wanted a family, but he's just not quite sure now; it would be too unfair as long as he's fighting for his country. But then, he's not sure how long he's going to be doing this—he decides to stop thinking about it; he'll worry about it if they get to that bridge. Instead he wonders how soon Merry's sister is going to be in and how serious their relationship is if she's asked him to come to this wedding.
Merry comes with him to the Helicarrier after a few days, when she has time off of work. Steve isn't going to ask her to miss a shift, even if it is a matter of national security, because he's annoyed with Fury for having him do this in the first place. His irritation dwindles, though, when they've gotten in the air and Merry, looking around, only says, "This is so cool!" with a stupid grin.
He laughs. "Just wait until you see where we're going."
She turns and looks at him. "Why didn't you tell me your super-secret government organisation has such cool shit? Why am I here, anyway? This isn't going to be some Men in Black business, is it?"
"I can't say. I don't know, exactly. I don't think so. We'll have to see."
To her credit, Merry seems completely unflappable when she meets Fury, shakes his hand and acts like she's seen a million ridiculously intimidating, eye patch-wearing men in her life. He invites them to have a seat in a small room that Steve suspects is usually used for interrogations and leaves them there for a few minutes. Merry reaches over and rests a hand on his leg, but he's not sure if she's trying to reassure him or herself. An agent Steve doesn't recognise comes in later with a set of folders, followed by Coulson. "Ms. MacKenzie, you have the option of completing this interview alone."
She shakes her head, giving Steve's leg a squeeze. "Nothing you could possibly ask me has an answer that I would need to hide." She looks up at the two agents. "I know, I shouldn't say that, because then you'll ask for some obscure information, about something that happened a long time ago that I think nobody remembers. Even if there was something like that, it's probably not a secret."
The unfamiliar agent clears her throat. "I'm Agent Byrne; I believe you have previously met Agent Coulson. We're with SHIELD, as is your partner, as I'm sure you've deduced by now." She sits down, opens one of the folders, and removes a few sheets of paper. "We are interested in what you may offer our organisation."
"Am I allowed to say, 'no', before you tell me what, exactly, you're talking about?"
Byrne gives her a considering look. "You could, but I wouldn't recommend it. You might find it more appealing than spending your days in that cramped office that you share with two co-workers that you hate." She produces a pen and sets it with the papers in front of Merry. "We are also aware of the little 'side project' you are working on without your boss's knowledge."
Steve looks at Merry, confused. "What's she talking about?"
Merry coughs, has the sense to look mildly embarrassed. "I do computer work... and I'm kind of using some of my time at work for a software project that I'm not actually supposed to know about, much less have any access to. I accidentally found it one day. It's too good to not do anything with, and it's not like I'm doing anything to the original project." She bites her lip. "Look, you're not going to get me fired for stumbling upon something and using the idea to do something on my own, are you?"
Byrne gives her a tight smile. "I can't say. Are you going to wait until you hear and read everything before you make your decision?"
"Fine, all right, yes. Please, enlighten me."
They get to go home a few hours later. "So, how do you tell your boss that you have to quit because you just signed a contract with a super-secret government organisation and, oh yeah, that software project you're not supposed to know about, it's about to be confiscated by said agency because you kind of infiltrated your own company's computer network and thought it was interesting enough to base a different, secret, personal project off of?"
"I think not in those words."
"You're probably right." She laughs. "I can't believe I just signed a contract to do IT work on a fucking flying carrier ship."
"You get used to it after a while."
The next several weeks pass in a bit of a blur; Steve has been busy, and he nearly forgets the day he's supposed go to dinner with Merry, Maggie, and Alexis (though they are all very nice about it when he shows up half an hour late for dinner). The wedding is small, but pretty, and he's glad to see that some traditions are still the same, even if he is still marvelling at the idea – and actuality – of legal gay marriage.
He's hardly seen Merry, aside from her sister's wedding, since she started her new work. He supposes that he's probably lucky to see her even once a week; he's pretty sure that most of the suits that have families don't see them too often. (He knows at least some of them do have families because he met Lancaster's wife and kids last Christmas.) They talk almost every day, though, even if it's just to say "good night". Merry suggests that they could read a book together, a chapter a night or something, but then it doesn't work out because they frequently aren't home and awake for more than only a couple of minutes at once.
They have their first real, big fight, and it's awful. Steve thinks he almost saw it coming; when they don't even talk for over a week, there's part of him that expects it. It doesn't make it any better, or less confusing, though. He's not even sure what the fight is about. Peggy tells him he's an idiot, and that she doesn't know what they're fighting about, so she can't help him. So he stays with Tony for a few days, trying to work out how to make it better. He's honestly not even sure if she's staying at her apartment right now, or if she's been staying closer to headquarters since she's been pulling long days, but he doesn't particularly want to risk running into her and not knowing what to say to get things set right.
He catches Clint – and when did Clint become his go-to guy for relationship advice? – one of the days while he's staying at the tower and asks if he might know how to make things better. Clint shakes his head, shrugs, says, "It really depends on who the person is. Phil and I... We don't really fight like what you're saying. Figure out somewhere that you can meet and talk it out. I'll see if I can get her to show up, 'cause I'm just that kind of guy. And for being such a good team leader, you suck at people." He rolls his eyes. "Seriously, all of you people need to start figuring out how to fix your relationship problems yourselves. And why am I everybody's sassy gay friend?"
Steve resists the urge to point out that Clint is the only one of them who's gay. "Who else is asking you for relationship advice?"
Clint throws his hands in the air. "Everyone! And, okay, I can get it, your lady wanting to talk things out at me because I know you reasonably well, I guess. Merry asking me how stupid what she was upset about is, that's one thing, and it is very, incredibly stupid, for what it's worth, and I don't think she's as much mad at you as she is embarrassed or mad at herself about it now. But Tony wants to get back together with Pepper and he thinks she doesn't want to, but she does, and I know this because she drunk-dialled me like a month ago. And, you know, it was fucking rude of her to complain at me about Tony maybe not wanting to get married with Phil and I have been together for ten years and can't get married and have it recognised by the feds. That? That's a whole other thing, and really. I thought I was the least mature one of us, but maybe not." He sucks in a breath. "Sorry, man. I've been bombarded by too many questions lately."
Steve shakes his head. "No, you're right. I do need to just figure these things out myself."
And somehow, a few days after that, Merry answers her phone, and they meet up somewhere in Central Park. He sees her, sitting on a bench in the shade, arms tucked close against the cold, before she looks up and sees him. Steve sits down beside her and doesn't say anything for a few minutes.
"It's really something, isn't it?"
"How much quieter everything seems after a good snowfall? Yeah, it really is."
She keeps staring out, letting silence fall between them again. He waits several minutes before saying anything else, pulling his thoughts together so he can think of the best way to tell her that he thinks it's stupid if she's mad at him and won't tell him why. "What did I do?"
"You didn't do anything."
He sighs, "Then why haven't you returned any of my calls?"
She starts laughing then, but it sounds wrong. "I was really embarrassed. And I felt like I was keeping a huge bad secret from you." She looks at him finally, reaches over and curls her fingers against his. "I... well. I guess since Maggie and Alexis got married, sometime around then, I was sort of thinking about having a... a plant. You know, with you. But not right now, you're really busy saving the world and I just got a job as a super-secret IT guy. And then I was late, and I took a test and it was positive, and I didn't know what to do, I'm not ready for that. I had this stupid dream that I told you and we had a huge fucking fight and you left and I thought it had actually happened when I woke up... and I'm ridiculously embarrassed about that now."
It's all Steve can do to keep from laughing, himself. He wants to shout, 'You got mad at me because of a dream?' Instead, he squeezes her hand and says, "We're having... a plant?" He feels ridiculous talking about it like this, but if she doesn't want to call it what it is, he'll give ground and follow suit.
"No, I went to the doctor, and it was... I'm not—we're not—going to have a... plant. Yet? God, why did I pick 'plant'; that sounds so stupid." She offers him a small smile. "I'd have thought I'd be ready by now; Patrick and I had talked about it. But now isn't a good time, or the right time, and I don't know when would be. You look disappointed. Why do you look disappointed? I mean, I'd be okay with not having kids, that's okay, or is it weird that we're even talking about it?"
He stands up, pulls her with him, and wraps one arm around her. "I used to, but I'm not as sure any more. Between... the serum and everything else that's happened since then, it might not be the best idea. We'll see. Is that all right? Why don't we go get coffee or something? I can tell you're cold."
She ducks her head a little, and they start walking. "I'm sorry I acted like an ass. I'll try to be better than that next time."
"Just save your getting mad at me for things I actually do, all right?"
She looks up at him, "All right. You don't do much that warrants getting mad, though."
"Good." He laughs. "I like it that way."
"Why don't we just go home? I'll make soup or something."
The Avengers move in together. The internet finds out that Steve is taken. Peggy goes back to England. Things may not always go exactly as planned, but sometimes that's okay.
I'm so sorry. I got busy with work and life, and sort of abandoned this for a bit. This turned into something hilariously cracked at the end, and I don't care because it's kind of awesome. I gave up all pretence of being serious, and let this basically write itself... and I'm okay with it. Maybe I should just stop trying to be serious; it doesn't seem to work out for me.
"Merry, they want us to relocate."
"What? Why? Who's 'us'? You guys?" She drops her fork, frowning a bit.
"Yes – sorry. I mean the team. I suspect they intend for it to be a measure of control, and I don't particularly like it. I'm going, since I don't really have another option, but I hope that Tony has thought of something to keep us independent enough."
"Where are you going?"
"Just to midtown. We're going to be living in the tower." It's hard for Steve to not roll his eyes at that. Even though he and Tony get on now, it's still all too easy to remember their dislike for one another at the start.
"Will I be able to come see you?"
"Of course you will, why wouldn't you?"
Merry shrugs. "I don't know, it seems like you guys would have super-tight security and I'd have to make an appointment like a month ahead of time and go through all of this extra clearance before I'd be able to. I know that's so stupid, but y'all are kind of... high-risk."
"You're superheroes. Public figures. Someone, somewhere, is going to want to take you down, at some point. I know you can't let just anybody walk through the front – or any – doors of that tower without someone's approval."
Steve laughs, then. He's going to miss living here, close to Merry and close to Peggy and far enough away from the closest grounded SHIELD offices that he can pretend that's not what he does when he has a day off. Peggy and Billy have been talking about going back to England, though, at least for a while. Last week when they had their usual brunch, she'd mentioned it. He thinks it's a good idea, but he'll miss her and Billy just the same.
"I have a feeling that's probably already taken care of," he says finally.
"Sure." Merry kisses his cheek. "Finish your breakfast. I'm going out with the girls today; I don't want to come home to a sink full of dishes." She pushes her last two pieces of bacon onto his plate and takes the empty dishes to the kitchen. It sounds like she's washing everything herself, for a moment, but then the water stops and she returns to the table with a fresh cup of coffee. "I just rinsed the plates, what are you looking at me like that for?"
"Because you always wash your own dishes even when we've agreed that I'll do them all after we're done eating, and then we argue about it later." He shakes his head. He feels like he's missed something, somehow they've gone from just dating to practically married and he doesn't remember it happening at all. "I never imagined that this is what it would be like."
"That what would be like what?"
He looks up, almost startled. "What?"
"You just said something about not thinking 'this is what it would be like'. You didn't mean to say that aloud, did you? Glad it's not me, for once." She's smiling, clearly trying not to laugh.
"I don't know. I never thought we'd be arguing over who's washing the dishes. Aren't the usual arguments over money or sex or something?"
She does laugh, then. "Just because a lot of couples argue about money or sex doesn't mean we all do, or that there's something wrong if we don't. I don't think we're hiding any money secrets from each other, and the sex is still great, so why would we fight about either of those things? You don't leave your old socks lying about in every room, and we've already had the baby fight, so I guess that leaves the dishes."
"I guess you have a point, there."
They finish their breakfast, and Steve takes everything that's left to the kitchen to do the dishes shortly. Merry comes and kisses his cheek, pulling on her coat. "I'll be home sometime this evening. Call me if you need anything."
"Have fun, darling."
"Oh, I plan on it."
Once she's gone, he does wash the dishes and sets them in the rack to dry. He carefully locks up and goes to visit Billy and Peggy, staying for a few hours until Peggy sends him on his way after Billy nods off in his chair. He goes, with mild regret; he still sometimes feels terrible about missing his date with her, even though they've both obviously been fulfilled with the lives they have.
He's gone into Manhattan and is listening to Bruce talk about what he's doing in the lab with Tony when everyone else arrives and takes over the living room. Bruce finishes up what he'd been saying and settles back in his seat, and they both wait to see what's going on, exactly. It's only a moment before Steve realises that they've been press-ganged into movie night again. At least it's Tony's turn to pick, which means it'll be something entertaining.
While they're in the process of putting the movie in, making popcorn and getting other snacks, Steve's phone rings. He answers it, sure of whom it is since everyone else he ever calls is in the other room. "What's going on, Merry?" She never calls him, not when they're out; something has to be happening.
"They know, Steve. I don't know exactly how, though I do sort of have an idea."
"Who knows what?"
"Total strangers, and that… about us. Who you are, who I am in relation to you. I don't want to talk about it over the phone, are you home?"
"No, I'm at the tower with everyone. Where are you? I can come—"
"I'm at Union Square, but don't interrupt your time with your team, cowboy."
"Meredith," he says, a hint of his Captain America voice sneaking in, "I was going to say, I can come meet you somewhere, or you can come join us. We're doing movie night. It's Tony's turn to pick, so I have no idea what we'll come up with, but it should be pretty good."
She sighs, and he can almost see her mouth curl down at the corner. "Sorry. I don't want to interrupt anything; are you sure?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. I can ask, if that would make you more comfortable." He doesn't wait, but puts her on speakerphone long enough to stick his head in the kitchen and say, "Hey, guys, you're all fine with Merry coming out, right?" and get a resounding chorus of, "Yes!"
She's laughing when he puts the phone back to his ear. "Okay. I'm on my way."
They all end up piled onto the couch for the movie; how they manage to fit almost a dozen people, two of whom are at least a bit larger than average, in the sectional without anyone being squished beyond all reason is a mystery. They make it through the movie, laughing and making commentary where appropriate. Steve thinks it's more comfortable with everyone there, even if they are all squeezed together more than usual. It feels like home, in a way that nothing quite has since he woke up.
He finds out sort of who 'they' are when the movie is done, when Clint says, "Uh-oh."
"What did you do this time?" Phil says, before anyone else can open their mouth.
"I resent that remark, sir. I did nothing. But apparently Tumblr found out that Captain America is taken."
"What's Tumblr?" Steve asks, at the same time as Merry says, "That's what I was talking about on the phone," and Natasha says, "Seriously, Clint, Tumblr?" and Phil mutters something that sounds suspiciously like, "stay out of my account."
"Wow, somebody, speak up, come on!" Tony says. "So a bunch of Captain America fangirls found out that he's got a girlfriend. Who cares?"
"I do!" Somehow, Merry manages to loom over Tony, despite being a good bit shorter than he is. "I was trying to have a day out with my friends and apparently I can't go anywhere now because some creepy people are way too interested in y'alls personal lives."
"This is why we never go out, Clint," Phil murmurs.
"Honestly, I'm kind of surprised it took as long as it did. Two years and whatever extra months, that's a good chunk of time for nobody to have noticed, especially with as many people pay attention to Cap," Clint says. "What? I only use Tumblr to make sure no one is smearing our reputations. And the ladies love Captain America, let me tell you. So do the gents, don't get me wrong, but I'm pretty sure that fewer of them have a secret fantasy of marrying you than some of these women do."
"I'll buy a hat, then. Wear sunglasses. As long as nobody knows my name, I'll be fine."
"Yeah, about that... Just kidding! Sorry. There are some really awkward pictures of you from date nights though. I think they caught you mid-sneeze in one."
"Well, I guess that solidifies my place as a celebrity. I don't think you are one until someone puts an unflattering picture of you on a gossip site."
"I can attest to this phenomenon. There are many unflattering pictures of me on the internet."
"Tony, why do you wear that like it's a badge of honour?" Pepper asks.
"Because I have to wear something when I go out in public, Pepper," he replies.
"Your smug attitude is more than enough."
"Guys, guys, settle down!"
Everyone turns and looks at Bruce, not expecting that outburst. He lifts one shoulder. "As entertaining as your light-hearted bickering is, it's kind of late, and some of us – Tony – have obligations in the morning. Can we wrap this up, so I don't waste my day sitting and waiting on someone to show up?"
"Fine, I'll go to bed, mom. There better be coffee when I get up." Tony claps a hand on Bruce's shoulder as he passes. "I can't believe you're getting me to run a schedule like a normal person."
"Nobody else can, either, but we're not complaining."
Steve stays back with Merry and watches while everyone else heads for their various rooms. Bruce heads off with Natasha, in a discussion about ballistics, and Steve and Clint exchange glances. "Did he ever... ?"
Clint shrugs. "I don't know, man. I think maybe he's trying to get on her good side with the ballistics talk or something, even though, spoiler alert, he doesn't really need to try. Are you guys staying here tonight?"
Merry raises an eyebrow at Steve, "Are we?"
Steve looks back at her. "Well, I technically live here as soon as I get my things moved, so... I don't see why not."
He wakes up sometime around three o'clock to a huge, empty bed. He hates when she gets up in the middle of the night: the bed gets cold, and lately he's noticed that he doesn't sleep as well when she's not there. He still can't figure out how she manages to sneak out without waking him, and the bed is barely warm. He can faintly smell something from the kitchen, though. He gets up, pulls on a pair of pants and gives up on finding a shirt when he doesn't see the one he'd been wearing earlier, heading for the kitchen.
When he gets to the kitchen, he stops in the doorway and just stares. She's wearing his shirt, carefully pulling muffins out of a tin and setting them on a large plate. He can't help but wonder if she does this often; he doesn't remember finding baked goods after she's been up in the middle of the night before, but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened.
She's just put another batch of muffins into the oven when he clears his throat and says, "Hey... " She jumps and turns to face him, swearing as her leg touches the oven door. "Shit, I'm sorry. Let me get the first-aid kit."
"I'll be fine, Steve," she says, shutting the oven door and looking at her leg. "This isn't the first time I've burned myself on an oven. If you can just get me a cool, damp cloth, that would be great. We can worry about the first aid bit later."
He grabs a clean dish towel and runs cool water over it, then brings it back to her. She puts it on the burn and starts towards a chair. He picks her up and sets her on top of the table, laughing when she squeaks. "I'm going to go get the first-aid kit, darling. Don't go too far."
"Whatever you say, cowboy."
Steve gets the kit, brings it back, and takes care of the burn, despite Merry's protests that she can do it herself. When he gets done bandaging her leg, he realises that she's just watching him with a curious expression. He kisses her knee and straightens. "What?"
She smiles. "Nothing. I didn't know you were so... I hadn't thought—I don't know. Thank you."
"I'm happy to take care of you if you need or want it, Merry."
"Maybe I should get hurt more often," she laughs. "Joking! I'm joking! Sorry."
"That's a terrible idea." He leans forward and kisses her. "Besides, I really only have rudimentary wound-care skills."
They're still there, exchanging kisses and laughing, when Tony clears his throat. "Do you think you could not get freaky on my kitchen table?"
Steve and Merry both jump a little and turn towards the door. "I think that question would be more appropriate if we were actually doing anything else, and even if we were, we wouldn't be the first."
"I'm going to kill Barton."
"Not us either, Stark," comes a drawl from somewhere behind Tony. "So what's burning?"
"Oh, shit! The muffins!" Merry slides off the table past Steve to pull the muffin tin out of the oven and sets it on the stove to cool. "At least I made several dozen... "
"If you have a habit of late-night baking, you should stay," Clint says, stuffing half a muffin in his face.