One of the last numbers to go into Steve’s phone, actually. Third from last. Betty had taken the biotech job at SI with a kind of hesitant excitement that Steve thought denoted a reluctance to believe that everything was working out the way it should. He could understand that feeling without much trouble and had got Maria to promise not to tell either Betty or Bruce about the sheer amount of red tape Ross kept trying to throw at SHIELD over jurisdictions and damages in Harlem and God alone knew what else. After all, SHIELD were exceptionally good at dodging, and Steve would have hated for either of them to be worried about Ross.
They were all in a position to protect each other now. And he was honest enough to admit to himself that it felt good to have people to protect in the first place. He didn’t think Bucky had felt quite like this all those years – too much up-close-and-personal experience with the very real possibility that Steve might drop dead in their kitchen one winter for no apparent reason – but, well, maybe there were similarities. He and Bucky had needed each other in a whole host of ways.
Even in the privacy of his own mind Steve caught himself following that thought with Tony, shut it and don’t be vulgar. He really was comprehensively screwed, wasn’t he?
But he made his way down to the R&D floors the second week Betty was there and found her in her new office, unpacking crates.
“Cap,” she said, smiling distractedly.
“Dr Ross,” he said, smiling back. “Please call me Steve.”
She stroked her hair out of her eyes. “Then it’s Betty.”
“Sure.” He paused there, watched her unpack, arrange bubble-wrapped bundles into heaps, toss files onto the desk. “I had a favour to ask, actually.”
“Oh!” Betty looked surprised.
“Your cell number,” he said. “Just in case. I collect ‘em.” Both of these things were true, but only one sounded like a joke.
She smiled. “Course. Hang on. Here…” She read the numbers out to him and he typed, saved, raised the phone.
“Mind if I…? That’s perfect, with the light.”
“Uh – sure.”
That was perfect: she was standing with her lab coat on, framed neatly by the sheet of glass in the window behind her. The New York morning sun struck lighter glints in her black hair, and her smile was surprised but entirely genuine. She was holding her phone in one hand and had a Notebook tucked into the crook of the other arm.
“Thanks very much.”
“You really do collect ‘em, don’t you,” Betty said suddenly. She didn’t mean phone numbers.
Steve met her eyes easily. “Yeah,” he said, refusing to be ashamed. “It’s nice.” He tilted the phone in his hand, feeling its barely-there weight, watching the light glint on its sleek lines. “Carrying them all around with me.”
Unspoken went the implication that he didn’t have any of Bucky, of the Commandos, of his parents, and only the one of Peggy.
Betty grinned. “Makes me wanna dig out that one I have of Bruce in a baseball cap.”
Part of Steve – the rational part – said he should just photograph him in the lab, maybe Tony’s workshop, bending over a holodisplay or a microscope.
The rest of him wouldn’t do it. There was a very firm feeling in his gut that lab photos were not the ones he ought to have of Bruce. Steve turned it over and over in his mind for a few days, thinking up places and times he could get the shot he wanted, but none of them felt right. Coney Island? Steve liked dragging the team out there, and they always had fun, but – no. SHIELD HQ, talking to Hill? Nah. Prepping for a mission? Definitely not.
Finally he gave up, and of course that was when the perfect picture landed in his lap: Bruce at the dinner table, shaking salt over his plate and laughing at something Tony had said. That was what was missing from the lab idea. Not just Bruce doing something he was good at; Bruce was good at a lot of things, and many of them were morally dubious if not outright illegal.
What the picture needed was Bruce feeling comfortable. Bruce feeling safe.
“You OK?” said Steve. They were standing in the back of the jet; Bucky was checking his guns again and frowning.
“No,” he said bluntly. “I gotta tell you, I’d feel a lot better about this if –“
“If it were Morita running the tech support?”
Steve’s smile was wry. Bucky couldn’t smile back. It wasn’t hard to guess why. Seventy years, several more of which he’d been awake for than Steve had, and still the grief felt brand new.
Steve sighed. “It doesn’t get easier,” he said. “What does happen is that it gets… less? At first it’s all the time. Then it’s half the time. Then it’s only sometimes. And finally it’s just this: space of a heartbeat before a mission when everything’s wrong and the world’s off-kilter because they’re not at your six and they never will be again. Less grieving than remembering.”
Bucky sighed too. “You’d think they’d have had the common decency – but no. Better things to do.”
“Than hang around waiting for a coupla idiot punks from Brooklyn to finish doing whatever it was we were doing?” said Steve, and the way Bucky’s head tilted and his mouth turned up, shadowed smile but smile all the same – he reached for his phone, irresistible; never entirely rid (though he often tried, depending on the situation, finding himself uncomfortable with the heartlessness of it) of the artist’s arrogant disassociation from the scene, abstract appreciation for the aesthetics of light and angle and expression, whether delighted or pained, taking precedence. “Everybody’s got better things to do than that, Bucky.”
Snap. Bucky jumped, glared at him. “Way to ruin the fucking moment.”
Second to last.
“I thought they programmed you with an allergy to moments,” said Steve easily, saving the image and savouring the way Bucky laughed.
There was only one shot he wanted of Clint – only one he could have; anything else was just pretence.
“You need me to strike a pose, Boss?” Clint said dryly, drawing the string to his cheek.
“No,” said Steve, adjusting the zoom on the phone’s camera. “Just – hold that? Thanks a lot.”
Clint shook his head in apparent exasperation and let the arrow fly. It thunked into the bullseye even as he was turning to face Steve. “I’m pretty sure the one you left the city with was a lot less…”
“Future-y?” said Steve, amused. “Tony gave me this one two days ago.”
“And you’re a public menace already,” said Clint. “Congratulations.”
“Yeah, one day I’m gonna need to sell these to the papers to finance my retirement,” said Steve.
Clint grabbed another arrow and drew on him indignantly.
First day back on the job and most of SHIELD was skirting him like he was a revenant or a ghost unexpectedly returned to solidity; as far as Steve could tell, however, Phil didn’t care. He was standing on the deck of the helicarrier with his arms crossed, looking at a screen Maria was gesturing at, face calm and unemotional, but Steve thought he could see a grin lurking in the corners of his mouth; an ease in his stance.
Phil didn’t even notice he’d just had his picture taken.
She breezed into his rooms at ten-thirty on Wednesday the second week after he arrived back in New York, waving a tablet computer and a bag of something that smelled like bagels.
“Darcy Lewis, Ninja PA!” It was more of a proclamation than an introduction. “Here by the orders of my wise and compassionate boss – that’s Pepper, not Tony – to talk to you about interior decorating.”
Steve paused with his coffee cup half-way to his lips and his book in his hand. “Um.” He glanced round the apartment. It was bare, sure, but he didn’t actually have any more personal belongings and it was clean and warm and had more than three rooms and Steve wasn’t sure what more he was supposed to want from an apartment, especially one that Tony had sort of passed off to him as what was basically an afterthought last night and wasn’t expecting rent for. From where Steve was standing, it was already looking a lot like heaven.
(He’d kept the rather dingy one in Brooklyn that SHIELD had let him have in the first weeks, before Loki’s attack. It didn’t do to be caught without a plan B.)
Darcy peered at him suspiciously. “You’re not going with like the Forties sepia thing that SHIELD have goin’ on for their Introduction To The Future 101 course, are you? Cause I gotta tell you –“
“That colour scheme is the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen in my life outside of an actual war,” said Steve. And then he added, “And no red white and blue, either.”
She grinned and pushed her glasses up her nose using a corner of the tablet computer. “Okey-dokey. Don’t tell me, you’re an Art Nouveau kinda guy…”
He took the picture while she was putting the bagels down on the counter and manoeuvring around the coffee machine at the same time. It wouldn’t take much to make it kind of Art Nouveau, if he wanted; not even with the Star Trek shirt. Darcy tried to claim it was a loan from Jane, but the way she mimed a heart attack after Steve admitted he didn’t know anything about it other than that it was a TV show set in space was kind of telling.
Chewing on a pencil and arguing with Tony about – a NASA programme? Steve hadn’t really been listening. At any rate it was the perfect picture. She was wearing jeans and a hoodie and oh, OK, either she and Darcy shopped at the same places or that Star Trek shirt really had been a loan. It made him smile to see it.
Jane didn’t notice when the fake-shutter sound went off either. Steve really thought that she and Coulson ought to get along better than they did, ‘stolen’ research notwithstanding. Tony noticed though, and raised his eyebrows; Steve shrugged, still refusing to be embarrassed by it.
After though he felt bad about sneaking her picture like that so he confessed to Jane; she told him he was adorable and took one back, so that was all right.
Maria’s picture was even easier than Jane’s: slouched, but only slightly, in her chair at the briefing table, arms crossed over her chest and earpiece a dark line against her paler cheek, bruises under her eyes, stern expression hiked on. Whether or not anyone but Steve would be able to tell that she was glaring like that because if she didn’t she’d fall asleep, not because she was actually unhappy, was another question.
Afterwards she caught up with him in the corridor.
“That’s the picture of me you want flashing on your phone every time I call?”
“Well,” said Steve. “I’m not going to be tempted to let it ring, am I?”
“The implication that you would have before is not one I appreciate,” said Maria.
“Sorry,” he said, unrepentant. She gave him a look that indicated she was tempted to reply with a resounding bah humbug, or would be if she was less Maria and more the kind of person who employed Dickens quotes as offensive weapons, and then ruined it by yawning, which made them both laugh.
Last. She has a whole array of looks, all undiscovered until now, that he wants to capture, but that’ll only happen behind closed doors and in a manner no one else will ever get access to. Steve can keep this, though, inside and out of their rooms: the fall of her hair across the pillow, the unruly tangles, her sleep-scrunched face, the curve of her naked shoulder just a hint, a shadow at the bottom of the frame.
Last. First. Always.
Second picture to go into his phone. She was in the living room when he and Tony came back inside, tapping out emails with a crease of annoyance forming between her eyebrows, ridiculously perfect in her skirt and her heels, even here, in what was supposed to be her home.
Peggy would have sat like that. Steve had taken the photo before he’d stopped to think.
“My number’s already in there,” she said without looking up. “Standard procedure. I’m less likely to ever drop my cell phone into a vat of boiling oil in the workshop –“
“I don’t know what kinky fantasies you’ve been having that involve me keeping boiling oil in the workshop, Pepper –“
“Sounds like something out of one of those Bond movies,” said Steve.
They both looked at him.
“They showed them a lot on the TV in the motels,” he explained.
“Favourite?” asked Pepper.
“Um. Probably that Connery guy.”
She sniffed. “Inklings of good taste. Not as hopeless as some.”
Tony didn’t even bother with a token protest.
They were a little drunk. Well, Rhodey was a little drunk. Steve was giddy on relief and pride and perhaps an edge of exhaustion, all achingly familiar.
Damn, his team had done good.
“I will totally approve future co-operations,” said Rhodey solemnly. “I want you to know that. I’d tell Tony but he’s never thought I wouldn’t so it doesn’t count.”
“I’ll look forwards to ‘em,” said Steve fervently. “You don’t know how much of a relief it is sometimes to run a mission with people who act like the professionals they are.”
Rhodey snickered. “I don’t think I’ve ever sat through a briefing quite like that.”
“You should’ve seen the great raptor debate of July 7th,” said Steve. “They’re dinosaurs? I don’t know, you’ve probably seen the movie” – Rhodey was nodding and grinning – “but this machine apparently looked kind of like one and suddenly there was this whole conversation about what we’d do if there turned out to be packs of mechanical raptors… complete with, like, assault plans –“
Rhodey bent over the table and laughed until he cried, banging on the surface with his empty beer bottle, and damn if that wasn’t the perfect shot for a friend of Tony Stark’s.
For a friend of Steve Rogers’.
Third. Technically third, at least. She was flipping a knife in her hand and looking thoughtful, and while the composition was perfect Steve thought, dammit, no, because that was the veneer: he wanted Tash. He wanted the woman who’d joked with him about Coulson’s trading cards and introduced him to Bruce and laughed during the battle against the Chitauri, fifty floors down and not many yards away – yeah, it’ll be fun!
So he waited, and grew more irritated with the knife-picture every time he saw it, each time she called, until finally they rode out to Coney Island together on his bike and she came on the Cyclone with him, and there it was in the aftermath, laughing at herself and him with a hot dog in her hand and her hair a windblown bird’s nest. Steve deleted the knife-picture immediately. He knew the difference between perfect and right when he saw it.
She put her chin on his shoulder again as they drove back to the Tower; he could feel her relax against his back. That was a lot of trust to be honoured with
“So what’s with the picture?” she asked when they reached the garage.
“Oh,” said Steve. “It’s –“
He threw the keys at her; she caught them, laughing, and that distraction was how he managed to get a hug off Natasha Romanov.
Tasha sighed into his shoulder and hung on tight. She knew about necessary; it was good to know that. Like it took a weight off him.
“I see Tony has convinced you of the usefulness of the pictures,” said Thor, amused. “I confess I cannot see the point. Surely one remembers what one’s shieldbrothers look like?”
Steve set his jaw and tried hard not to wince. Thor watched him in silence for almost longer than he could stand.
“Is your memory so fleeting as that?” he asked gently.
“Im.” Steve had to stop in the middle of the word and work moisture into his throat. “Imprecise, I think, would be the better term. It’s a. Protection.”
“I would not want it.”
“Neither do I,” Steve said hoarsely. Like those horrific stiff mugshots they used for your SHIELD files were anything like a substitute for your own, honest-to-God memories of the way your family had laughed and moved and spoken and stood and looked at you when you were being a genius and when they’d just dug you out of a collapsed tunnel with a dozen shrapnel-ridden bodies around you and the landmines going off in every direction and all you had was dumb luck and stubbornness keeping you on your feet. Thor’s hand came down heavy and warm on his shoulder.
And there was the picture, as Thor turned his head down and to the side, sweep of blond hair against his cheek, solemn and quiet. He had wrinkles in his face that Steve didn’t; on a human you might say they’d been put there by laughter, by too much sun. On the God of Thunder, they were something else entirely.
Steve took the picture.
Then they went out to the nearest pool hall and spent the night beating the pants off of everyone who was dumb enough to want to play them. Steve had always half-believed that Bucky had made more than one month’s rent hustling pool back in the day; certainly he would have been proud of their tally by the time the barman threw them out at four in the morning.
“So you take the picture and save it,” says Tony, “and add – and there, every time someone calls you their photo comes up onscreen.”
Steve is instantly taken with the idea. Morbidly, it reminds him of the way he’d wedged his compass with Peggy’s picture into that dial on the plane, so he could hear her voice and see her face as he died; what a thing to think of, standing in the sunlight over the rooftops of New York.
But: “You can’t keep showering me with gifts, you know,” he says.
Tony laughs. “I’m Tony Stark,” he says. “I can do anything I want, pal.”
Ain’t that word like a slap in the face – anything you want, pal, says Howard in the distance. Steve glances back at Howard’s kid and sees as many similarities as differences: sets him off-balance, but no longer in the way that means he’s falling without a thing to hold on to. Just in the way that means it’s time for something new.
It’s not the first time he’s thought, yeah, I can work with this.
It is the first time he’s thought, yeah, we can make this work.
He takes the picture right there and then: Tony in a suit and flashy tie, sunglasses perched on the end of his nose, impeccably shaved but hair tousled to hell, and that sharp smile that creases his face and puts lines of experience and hardship there that Steve respects far more than he really wants to, not Howard’s kid, not older than Steve is himself, but there you go: God works in mysterious ways, or however you wanna put it, and here they are home in New York City putting boundaries around a friendship that’ll have to stand a whole load more pressure than either of them can imagine right now. Neither of them is fool enough to believe that the Avengers will last if their peace doesn’t hold, if this shiny new understanding of theirs goes the way of the dodo.
(Or maybe they’re demolishing boundaries.)
Anyway, Steve takes the picture, and Tony snaps one back, and it could be sort of awkward and silly but it isn’t. They’ll try, both of them, and because they are who they are and not anyone else, there’s a very high likelihood that they’ll crash and burn and take half the world down with them.
Steve's pretty sure he's not the only one who likes the sound of those odds.