It’s 1946 and the war is over in Europe. The leaves are falling russet on the pavement here in New York, and cars whiz through the streets like they always have- like Howard never really left. There are old recruitment posters that no one has taken down, though, and sometimes Howard spots a newspaper boy and turns like it’ll end up being Steve. The Steve from before, from those brief moments of knowing the 98-pound art student before Howard turned him into America’s Golden Boy. The Steve that Howard misses, that he looks for on cold boats through colder waters. That he feels acutely in his chest, like a gaping wound where a strong jaw and stronger morals should have sat.
He goes about his business and does what his father wants and continues to invent. He keeps wowing the world and making money and getting girls and getting drunk. And occasionally Peggy’s on leave for a few days and she comes to visit, bunking up in his opulent townhouse and drinking whiskey with him until they both cry into too-expensive fabric about blonde hair that neither of them will ever smooth down after the sweat and heat of a blue helmet has ruffled it.
Sometimes Dugan will join them, and maybe a few of the others join in too, adding Bucky to the list of their own that are missing from each and every bender they go on together. Sensible skirts and Cuban heels and carmine lipstick on Peggy and the scent of scotch and sorrow on the rest of them, and they continue on like all good soldiers do. Howard turns another year older some time in the fray, blowing up inventions in his lab and laughing his ass off as another intern attempts to seduce him with coffee and low cut blouses and veiled, blushing comments. And when she reports him, angry at his rebuttal, she gets fired and he gets sent to his father’s office like a recalcitrant schoolboy on holiday from some fancy London boarding school.
“You need a wife,” He says, and Howard shrugs and scowls.
“I need a wife like I need an extra dick,” He says, chewing a cigar and shoving his hands in his pocket, cocking an eyebrow at his father who sits implacably behind one of those tight-ass mahogany monstrosity desks. His father snorts and leans back in a creaky leather chair, shuffling papers on his desk to make himself look important. Howard is not impressed.
“I guess you need a wife to make up for your lack of a dick right now, then,” Isaac Anthony Stark says and suddenly Howard is shoved into the New York Society Spotlight. Right where he never wanted to be, actually, to tell the truth. But Isaac’s word is law, so now Howard can’t just go around fucking Peggy and random girls at bars and shit, his friendly no-strings arrangements are basically fucked. He goes to parties and he holds champagne glasses and he kisses overly perfumed, powdery cheeks like it’s his job. Because it is. Isaac keeps asking him if there’s a girl (a woman, he says, like there’s a difference to Howard) and Howard’s mother continues to set him up on dates with women that Howard wouldn’t be caught dead with.
“I’m not interested in being a kept man,” He remarks dryly to Obadiah one day after his mother sets him up with a woman her age, and Obie just laughs like he understands.
Peggy just shrugs her shoulders the next time she shows up at his doorstep and they toast to each other, whiskey and scotch and vodka and some sort of lavender-smelling moonshine thing that Morita left in his cabinet last August. She understands that he doesn’t want a wife- she understands that he doesn’t want to water a wilting flower or bend over backwards for a debutante bitch half his age. But the second day of her leave she’s gone from the house before Howard manages to push past his hangover, and at six o’clock sharp, just when Howard’s housekeeper serves dinner, she shows up on his doorstep with a woman in a threadbare pea coat who’s smacking Peggy’s shoulder repeatedly and swearing at her in Italian.
The woman has auburn hair, finger-waved immaculately except for a small escaping curl, a miniscule ahoge on the right side of her part. Blue-green eyes and apple cheeks and a small, delicate nose. Almost done for pea coat and a plain blue dress with small white polka dots, an understated collar, stockings that barely mask bruised knees and sensible shoes.
Howard’s never really looked at a woman who hasn’t had lipstick on, not with the circles he runs in, but he finds that he sort of likes it when he takes Peggy’s coat and waits to be introduced to the obviously angry woman who’s still standing on his doorstep like she’ll actually escape Peggy. Peggy just smiles serenely like she’s won the fucking lottery, and Howard finds himself slightly afraid.
“Maria Carbonell,” She introduces the woman as, and Howard sticks out his hand automatically at the furious look in Maria’s eyes, not daring to patronize her with a kiss or a bow.
“I suppose it is nice to meet you,” Maria says reluctantly, shooting a glare at Peggy. “And thank you ahead of time for dinner. I apologize for my behavior. Margaret happened to pull me away from my work at an… inopportune time.” Delicate fingers, smudged with something unrecognizable, push hair back behind a small, rosy ear and she smiles a small smile at him as he takes her coat before returning to directing her ire at Peggy. Peggy just continues on with that serene look, walking ahead to the dining room and leaving Howard to shut the door on the cold December air.
This is the first time Howard meets Maria and it’s also the first time he falls in love with someone.
“Christ she’s beautiful,” He slurs, hours later, just him and Peggy in the living room with a bottle between them and what little shame they possess gone down the drain like so much dirty dishwater.
“I knew you’d like her if I riled her up,” She confides, leaning in and smirking sloppily, hand wobbling slightly as she tugs the bottle up for another swig. “She’s got a certain something, right? A quality that I knew ya wouldn’t be able to resi-sisht.”
“And she’s an artist,” He sighs, head falling onto Peggy’s warm shoulder. Her fingers thread through his rumpled hair and he sighs again, heavier this time. They’re thinking the same thing- crimson alizarin on different fingers, charcoal on a different cheek, layered with a different blush and the same blue-green eyes. Graphite on a strong wrist and chalk on a delicate one: the same but not the same.
“And she never backs down from a fight neither,” Peggy’s crisp British accent is not quite so crisp, a little bit of lower London coming out, but Howard doesn’t mind. She’s telling the truth, raw and hurt and drunk on good alcohol.
“I could do this all day,” they hear in their minds, and it hurts so bad but it feels so good, to think of those baby blues and fingers moving soft over sketch paper on a battlefield full of angry men. Peggy’s fingers curl around Howard’s neck and he closes his eyes and thinks of that auburn hair burning bright in the candlelight of the dining room table as Maria laughed in earnest at some dirty joke he’d made, as she sketched out her latest painting with animated gestures and politely thanked his housekeeper for the delicious lasagna.
“Shit, she’s beautiful,” He repeats, sounding surprised by it the second time around and looking up at Peggy, blinking at her blearily.
“You shoul’ marry her,” Peggy says, nodding solemnly and looking as decorous as ever despite the haze of whiskey across her features.
“Yeah,” Howard says softly, falling sleepy into the afghan behind him. “Maybe I should.”
When Steve moves into Avengers Tower, he comes with one exactly one duffle bag and one box of things, carrying both up the flight of stairs after the elevator despite the protests of the bellhops and smiling at them as he thanks them for their concern, leaving them stunned behind him. He unlocks the door to his apartment using an eye scanner that Clint had taught him to use, and cautiously returns JARVIS’ hello as he closes the door behind him. He carefully sets up his desk with his sketching supplies he’d purchased with some of his considerable SHIELD back pay, places a small jewel box holding his field compass and two engagement rings next to the desk lamp, and then organizes his small amount of clothing in the rather larger than expected closet. The bed is enormous and the shower is huge. The kitchen is beautiful and Steve eyes the luxurious contents of the gleaming fridge with something akin to wonder for a few moments before he opens the windows and peers out, looking down at the people so far below.
“You’re not gonna jump, are you?” Tony’s voice comes from behind him, and Steve starts, whipping around in ready position.
“Christ,” Steve says dumbly, shaking his head a little and relaxing into the window frame as he looks at the man standing in his kitchen. Tony smirks and hops onto the counter, looking very pleased with himself.
“No,” He says, shrugging and glancing around in that disconcerting way of his. “Just me.”
“That joke was old when I was a kid,” Steve rolls his eyes and steps away from the window, closing it slowly and standing there for a moment after, still in this odd silence that has fallen now that the street noises are gone.
“Everything was old when you were a kid,” Tony shrugs again, tapping his fingers on the marble countertop. “But I’m not really here to talk about the Great Depression and its aftermath in New York. More like I came to ask you up to my place for margaritas and shit. Team building, that kinda rodeo. Everyone else is coming, even Thor now that he’s back from Asgard or Valhalla or whatever. And I found a box of old shit from my room in that Mansion on Fifth, the one Howard and Mom lived in.” He shrugged a third time, sliding off the counter, like he didn’t care- like his eyes didn’t harden a little and look like those of the one lost boy who never left Neverland when the name Howard fell from his lips. “Thought you might like to look through it,” He threw over his shoulder.
All Steve heard was “Thought you might like to take it where it can’t hurt me anymore.”
So he pulled down the shades and locked the door meticulously and walked the two flights of shiny chrome stairs up to Tony’s penthouse and watched the city fall into shadow while his teammates drank lime-tequila-salt, until they were falling over and silly and sweet with alcohol. He let Pepper show him the box, let Pepper shut him in a room where the others weren’t, let himself take out his pocket knife and slice through old brown tape until the cardboard gave. Let himself touch, so gently, the albums and the scarf and the dust that had settled.
Let himself help Pepper put the team to bed and accept a hug goodnight, and then he lugged the box down to his apartment. And he opened the door and closed the door and picked out a photograph of Howard in suspenders and soot, sat down on the sofa, and cried.
Peggy sends him letters from base, her perfect cursive only occasionally marred by the sloppiness of alcohol and, more rarely, the splotches of dried salt that mean she’d cried silently into her hands before sealing the letter. Sometimes she mentions Maria, and sometimes Howard does. And sometimes Peggy just writes him an opus of regret, a small compass rose on the corner of the page and a poorly sketched diamond next to it that make Howard open his safe and stare at the small hinged box he keeps next to his other, less precious commodities. He almost never opens it, but New Year’s eve he gets rousingly drunk with a few of the old Howling Commandos and after they leave, after the sparklers and the confetti, he breaks his oath and pushes it open. He hasn’t seen the contents for almost a year and change, a brilliant diamond set in a small gold ring and a gold band with a simple one-two-three, a diamond-sapphire-ruby combo that sparkles so furiously in the light that Howard almost cries.
The next day he packs up his ivory knit sweaters and scarves and boards a ship to spend another two weeks on the boats his men have been searching the arctic with.
Howard comes back from the European branch of Stark Industries on February 3rd to find bone-white envelope in his mailbox and a batch of cannoli in his icebox. He eats some frozen, licking up the cream, and resists the impulse to eat the rest while he slits open the envelope with a small letter opener.
In messy handwriting, punctuated by small smudges of rosy watercolors, is a letter from Maria. How is he, has he heard much from Peggy, would he like to come to dinner- the usual.
The usual, perhaps for someone who is not Howard Stark. Who is not Howard Stark and does not receive actual literal engraved invitations for sex.
He studies the letter again and again and eats some more cannoli and then decides that it is not, in fact, a veiled offer of sex. And then he picks up the telephone because this isn’t the 19th century and calls Maria Carbonell.
On Friday next, he’s in his best clothes, stomping up a frozen doorstep and being ushered into a small loft on the East side. Paintings line the walls, a faint scent of turpentine and violets behind the thick smell of carbonara coming from the kitchen.
“Welcome,” Maria says, smiling and flushed with the heat of the apartment- all Howard hears is letters because he’s looking straight at her in her apron with her hair pulled back and flour on her cheek.
“Marry me,” he says, stepping forward and brushing a bit of the wheat dust from her nose. She just laughs at him and turns for the kitchen, swinging a little to the music coming from the rusty old gramophone.
He tries not to take it too hard.
The first time Steve goes to the Statue of Liberty in the 21st century, he doesn’t actually plan to go there. It’s just, he’s fighting off some sort of octopus robot that Doc Ock and Dr. Doom created together, and that happens to be the best strategic point at the moment. So he braces down, back to back with Tony, and they ‘blow shit up’, as Clint states it over the comms once the dust has settled. They’re a pretty good team, now, a few months of static tension and then a few more months of teamwork that make their moves synchronized in a way that reminds Steve almost painfully of the Howling Commandos. Tony generally steals the show, theatrics and heroics with Steve at his side, and today is no different. They take questions up in the air afterwards, Steve grasping Tony’s suit carefully with an armored hand on his hip, shield carefully latched down and the both of them hovering outside a news helicopter with a giddy lady reporter in it. By the time they’re done, standing around on the grass of the island and slapping Arnica on bruises, a ferry’s pulling up at the docks. Pepper steps out of it, Coulson at her left side and Happy at the other, a cooler the size of an infant elephant being dragged behind them as they make their way up the trail.
“The cavalry has arrived!” Thor booms (not that he does much else), and Pepper smiles up at him tiredly, her heels sinking into the gravel when she steps off the concrete to pat Tony’s shoulder affectionately. Happy and Thor are setting out food, ignoring the helicopters that circle and take pictures of the team, and Tony is staring at him. Steve glances at Pepper, who is chatting with Natasha amiably, and then back at Tony.
“Yes?” He tries, voice rough with dust and exhaustion, shifting his weight and feeling the sturdy heft of the shield on his back.
“It just occurred to me,” Tony says, a smirk forming on his face as he leans forward, the armor clanking. “That you probably jerked off to that chick.” Flushing, Steve clears his throat and tries not to go with his gut reaction to the statement (which was to punch Tony in the face).
“What lady are you talking about, Tony?” He says, trying for weary and just sounding exasperated.
“Lady Liberty,” Tony grins, smug, nodding backwards at the statue behind him. “You probably had some sort of patriotic hard-on for her, huh? Back when she was a little shinier, I mean, but still.”
Steve has to take a few deep breaths at that, trying very hard not to look at Pepper who will surely know that Tony is pushing his buttons and trying very hard to also not look at Tony or the Statue of Liberty lest Tony get any more ideas.
“No, Tony,” He ends up saying, finally, voice still a little strangled. “I do not have sexual fantasies about the Statue of Liberty nor is patriotism one of my, uh, my triggers.”
“Well thank god,” Natasha’s voice says in his ear, Steve whirling around to find Pepper stifling a laugh behind him and Natasha smiling as much as she ever does. “I never like to have to deal with awkward situations and that would definitely be one.”
“How do you deal with awkward situations?” Tony asks curiously, leaning over Steve’s shoulder and resting an armored hand on his forearm.
“I don’t leave anyone left to make the situation awkward,” She says, shrugging and appearing quite nonchalant about the whole idea.
“It’s only awkward if you make it awkward?” Pepper tries, and just as she and Natasha step back out of the way of Tony’s suddenly flailing limbs, his convulsion of laughter at her words sending him sprawling over Steve’s back, a camera flashes.
And that’s how the first picture ends up tacked to Steve’s wall: him and Tony, a look of surprise half taking over the smile on Steve’s face and Tony’s face scrunched up in a helpless guffaw, the Lady Liberty in the background and rubble all about them on the grass.
Steve finds a print of it on his desk next to the jeweler’s box a week after the incident, a small thumb tack beside it and a note in scrawled engineer’s writing.
“I thought you might be the nostalgic kind”, the post-it says, a small T at the bottom of the paper.
Steve holds the print up to the empty wall of his art studio gently and carefully pushes the thumbtack into the wall, tacking the picture of the wall before stepping back.
It’s something, all right, seeing the two of them in that position, immortalized on shiny paper with the vibrant colors that were never present in his youth.
After a while, that something something turns to something nice, and after another while Steve just thinks it’s solidly nice.
And the picture stays up on the wall.