Chapter 1: Tony
It was Tony's fault. Like most things Steve never imagined himself doing (fun things, interesting things) it was Tony's fault, Tony's doing, but Steve had to admit (even just to himself) that this time he was more than swept up in the force of Tony's charisma and personality; he was a willing participant, an eager partner, that he didn't merely go along with it so much as he said yes and yes and yes again.
But when they were done, Steve rolled onto his side, his back to Tony, and thought, Now what?
He felt Tony's mouth (lips swollen from kisses, mouth tasting of Steve) against his shoulder. He reached back to touch Tony's hair. He wanted to say something -- preferably something wise, the other Avengers seemed to expect wisdom from him even away from the battlefield -- but JARVIS said, "Sir, Directory Fury is on your personal line," and talking about what they'd just done would have to wait until they'd saved the world again.
For a man as image-conscious as Tony, he had a terrible habit of being flippant around reporters. They annoyed him (visibly so, as Tony Stark was not someone to hide his emotions, either) when they crowded around the Avengers, when anybody with a sense of self-preservation would be keeping well away at least until The Other Guy left. When those jostling reporters, each of them vying for a scoop or good quote, asked inane questions -- well, Tony always protested afterward that he just wanted them to go away.
So when one reporter said, "Now that you've protected the city once again, Iron Man, what's next?" Tony said, "I'm going to Disneyland, of course."
The irony in his tone was lost on the reporter. The fact that his mask was down probably didn't help either.
Steve, though, knew the tone -- and while he didn't know the reference (seventy years of pop culture was a lot to catch up on) he still looked at Tony and narrowed his eyes, suspecting this was something they would all regret later.
(Steve was also the first to admit that most of Tony's shenanigans turned out to be a lot of fun. Still, Steve wished they could keep the image of the Avengers shenanigan-free.)
When they returned to Stark Tower, Pepper was already glowering. "Tony," she said, "there's a man from the Disney Corporation on line 2 and three different charities on lines 3, 4 and 5."
"And there's nobody on line 1?" Tony said, flashing a smile.
She said sweetly, "Line 1 is Director Fury."
"Hawkeye," Tony appealed to Clint, "take Fury's call. Please take Fury's call. He likes you, or at least I think he likes you, or at least he doesn't dislike you as much as he dislikes me."
"Forget it, Tony," said Clint with a smirk, and when Tony turned to Bruce to try him next, Bruce held up his hands.
"Don't even ask."
Tony opened his mouth to ask Natasha. She raised an eyebrow at him. "Right, never mind, what was I thinking," said Tony and looked at Steve.
Steve sighed. Now that Tony knew Steve couldn't say No to him, he was going to use it to his full advantage, it would seem. "First tell me what Disneyland is."
"Are my skills at diplomacy not required?" said Thor
"I love ya, big man," Tony said, "but your skills at diplomacy are as subtle as your hammer."
"You speak truth," said Thor.
"It's an amusement park," Tony said to Steve. "The first theme park."
"The first and the best," added Clint, and said, "What?" when everyone looked at him. "I like it. Dark rides, roller coasters, log flumes, Mickey Mouse ... what's not to like?"
Tony told Steve, "So about twenty years ago whenever an athlete won a game a reporter would ask him -- or her -- 'What are you planning to do next?' and they'd say, 'I'm going to Disneyland!' and then they'd go and be in a parade and it was all very cute. Then it became a joke, and then a cliché, and then that reporter was annoying me so..."
"So you couldn't just say, 'We're getting Chinese and watching season three of The West Wing'," said Steve, crossing his arms.
"I don't want the public thinking we're boring." Tony smiled at him angelically, which looked just like his naughty smile. Steve smiled back, unable to resist.
(Anywhere. They really needed to talk about that, if only Steve knew where to begin.)
"So we are not going to this land of Disney?" asked Thor. "They are not in need of defending?"
"Hard to say at this point," Tony replied. "They may need us to check in on them." He picked up a phone and clicked line two, and Steve sighed, picked up another and clicked line one. "Director Fury, what can we do for you today?"
The fallout was this.
Disneyland agreed to hold an Avengers Day. There were organizations of underprivileged kids who would be awarded tickets to the park through the Maria Stark Foundation, and of course the Avengers themselves were invited -- Fury made it sound mandatory -- to attend.
Clint and Natasha both had no problem with that. Bruce shook his head. "The Other Guy in an amusement park? No way." Thor said, "I wish to see this land of Disney! May I also ask Jane to attend?"
Steve remembered riding the Cyclone and said to Tony, "At least I don't have motion sickness anymore."
"You'll love it, Cap," Tony replied. "It's happy and cheerful and geared towards children. Right up your alley."
"Agent Coulson will go with you," Fury said. "Someone needs to keep you all from destroying the place."
They all looked at Phil, who smiled in his mild way and said, "I'll make sure they behave, sir."
When the meeting broke up and they headed to their respective floors, Steve paused on one of the balconies to look out over the city. They flew over the country and around the world on a nearly weekly basis, defending it, protecting it, but it seemed to Steve he spent very little time actually ... knowing it. It was like the USO tour all over again, when he visited over two hundred cities and all he saw of them were theaters and train stations.
At least a theme park was a new variation.
The door slid open behind him and Tony came out. "Cap? Not regretting it already, are you?" Steve must have looked panicked, because Tony added, "Disneyland, Cap."
"Oh, that." He breathed in. "I'm looking forward to it. Amusing a hundred kids for a day, though, that'll be the real challenge."
Tony shrugged, hip leaning against the railing. "You'll love it. We sign autographs, take pictures, answer questions, eat with 'em, take 'em around the park, ride the rides with 'em..." He noticed Steve smiling at him. "What?"
"You," Steve said. "Beneath that cynical veneer lives a real sweetheart."
"I'll sweetheart you, old man," said Tony and lightly shoved Steve's head. Steve laughed.
"I was thinking, actually, about the last time I was in California. The last time I traveled cross-country it was by train. It took over a week if you went straight through, but of course we didn't go straight through."
Tony crossed his arms and studied him. "You've never really seen America, have you?"
"Sure I have ... okay, no, I suppose not. I don't imagine you really have, either."
They both fell silent, and when Steve thought he should bring up the fact that they now knew each other carnally and he wasn't sure what to do about that, Tony started up and said, "Okay. We're doing one cliché, let's do another."
"Road trip! The great American road trip. We'll get a car and a collection of tunes, eat a lot of beef jerky and stop off to see things like the world's biggest ball of twine and Mount Rushmore."
"Mount what?" said Steve but Tony was already on his phone to Pepper.
"Change of plans -- we're going to drive, not fly, so we need a car, a car good for long distances that can carry eight people comfortably. I know Bruce isn't going to the park but maybe he'll join us on the drive anyway. And you--" He fell silent. Steve tried not to smirk at him. Tony moved the phone from his mouth and said, "She says a road trip with a car full of superheroes sounds like a recipe for disaster and she's not signing off on anything unless Phil says it's okay."
"Let me find Phil," said Steve and went into the tower.
As he expected, Phil was on Clint's floor, having lunch in his kitchen. "Change of plans," said Steve. "Tony thinks we should drive instead of fly."
"Road trip!" said Clint gleefully and Steve smiled. That was one vote for yes.
"But Pepper says no unless you approve, Phil."
Phil looked at Clint. Clint made wheedling puppy sounds. Phil said, "I approve. I'll call her."
"Tony will be happy," Steve said, and, figuring he'd done his part, went to his own floor to have lunch himself.
Tony had no problem persuading the others to go along with the road trip plan, except for Natasha, who had the same reaction as Pepper. She, Jane Foster, and Pepper would fly out on the Stark Industries jet, and meet them at Tony's house in Malibu in time for Avengers Day.
"Avengers Day," Tony said with a giggle, rubbing his hands together.
With Tony distracted by plans, Steve didn't bring up the two of them. He thought about going to Tony's room -- he thought about it every night -- but he could never quite work up the courage.
It was ironic, he supposed. Captain America, who faced down giant space living vessels armed only with a shield, was afraid to ask a simple question with a simple answer: "Yes, we are," or "No, we aren't."
Tony treated Steve the same way he always had, anyway, somewhere between friendly and mocking; he called Steve Cap and old man and Boss, made references that Steve didn't understand and smiled at him in a way that made Steve wish they could just settle this already so that Tony would smile at him like that every day.
Two days before they were to depart, Tony showed up in front of Stark Tower with a battered Jeep. "Our transport!" he said grandly, throwing open the driver door.
"Tony, it's ancient," said Pepper. "It won't even get you out of the state, let alone go cross-country."
"The dealership checked it out and I'll go over it myself," Tony reassured her. "We're going to be fine. Look at it -- there's room for those two giants and us ordinary-sized folk, our luggage, and plenty of snacks. Most important, the speakers work. I'll add some modifications to make it more state-of-the-art. We'll make this road trip in style."
"We should name the vehicle," said Thor as he laid a hand on the roof, and the Jeep rocked under his touch. "Something mighty and worthy."
"Peggy Sue," said Steve. Everyone looked at him. "I like the song."
"Peggy Sue," Tony said.
Thor said to the Jeep, "We name you Peggy Sue the Valiant. May you get us there and back again."
For a moment, the Jeep seemed to glow. Steve must have imagined it.
Chapter 2: Phil
They left early on a Wednesday morning. Pepper still looked like she had objections, though she smiled when Natasha said, "I give them two days." Bruce looked regretful as he waved goodbye, but otherwise Steve felt like they were embarking on a grand adventure.
He'd asked the others if they'd ever done anything like this before. Clint hadn't -- the circus he'd grown up in had traveled, of course, but not for fun. Thor hadn't, of course. Out of all of them, only Phil had: "Oh, yes," he said in his calm way. "In college, my friends and I would drop everything sometimes to go to New Orleans or Six Flags." He seemed best prepared: he had marked a map with places to stop for food and motels, while Tony said, "We'll eat at the greasiest spoons we can find! We'll go where the road takes us! Oh! We should take Route 66!" He was determined on the last point, even though both Phil and Clint pointed out that Route 66 was nothing more than a memory in many parts of the country. Their route would take them through Chicago, and he was certain they could pick up the old highway there.
Tony had given Steve many pieces of modern technology in the past months, and before they left he gave Steve one more: a camera that could take still photographs or video. "You're the official chronicler. A trip like this deserves to be remembered."
As they drove out of New Jersey and into Pennsylvania, Steve got out the camera and filmed the countryside. Tony's driving mix, which he insisted was vital to the success of their journey, sang cheerfully that they all would be received in Graceland, and Steve could hear Clint, Phil and Thor talking quietly in the back seat.
He lowered the camera, leaned back his head, and closed his eyes.
In West Virginia, they stopped at a Mexican restaurant Thor had seen on TV. (Both he and Steve found the cooking channel the most palatable out of the hundreds available. The history channel just made Steve gloomy.) Steve filmed the street as the others stretched their legs, and almost dropped the camera when Tony popped in front of the lens. "Hey, Cap, what do you think of road-tripping so far?"
"I think we've got a long way to go, but I like it."
"Wait until I break out the travel Scrabble."
"Be still my beating heart," said Steve, lowering the camera, and Tony grinned at him.
"C'mon. We've got a demi-god to feed. We need to warn the kitchen."
They went inside the cheerful restaurant, and bumped into the backs of Thor, Clint and Phil as the door clicked shut behind them. The restaurant was crowded, as only suited a popular eatery at lunchtime, but the atmosphere was all wrong -- tense, as if someone were about to touch a match to a pile of gunpowder.
Steve's shield, Thor's hammer, Clint's bow and quiver, even Tony's portable Iron Man briefcase, were all in Peggy Sue the Valiant -- and only then because Phil vetoed the suggestion they be sent by the Stark Jet with Natasha and Pepper. Thor's hands curled into fists and Phil murmured, "Wait, just wait," as a scowling man with a semi-automatic came to them.
"Number Four, you moron, you didn't lock the door!" He shoved Thor with the gun across Thor's chest -- pegging him as the greatest threat, smart -- trapping Tony between Thor and the door. Tony made an "Oof!" sound as the man growled, "One move from you, Blondie, and you and your friends get it."
Thor allowed himself to be shoved. His voice was calm. "Are you and your associates robbing this establishment?"
"Yes, smart guy, we are robbing this establishment," the man sneered. He was in his forties, with a lived-in face and blue tattoos up and down his wiry arms. He wore all black, but with no gloves, and only sunglasses instead of a mask. "Hands up, all of you."
Their hands rose reluctantly. Steve tried to keep his expression neutral as he looked over Clint's shoulder at the dining room -- there were four other men in black with guns, all wearing sunglasses. This worried Steve as much as the weapons -- if they didn't care how easily they could be identified, did that mean they intended to kill anyone who could identify them?
"Now hand over your wallets and watches," Tattoos said, shoving the gun against Thor's chest once more. Thor's jaw tightened and he braced himself against it to keep from slamming against Tony again.
"You may not have noticed this, genius," said Tony coldly, "but none of us are wearing watches." To the untrained eye he looked calm, but Steve could see him shaking with rage. At least he was thinking of the roomful of civilians instead of acting on impulse. Steve tried to catch his eye, but Tony's gaze was fixed wholly on Tattoos.
"Keep calm," said Phil softly. "Just keep calm. Nobody needs to get hurt today."
Tattoos called over his shoulder, "Number Three, get your ass over here," and one of the men left off gathering wallets to join them. "Get their wallets," Tattoos ordered, and Number Three slung his weapon by a strap over his shoulder to obey.
It happened fast. One moment there was a gun pointed right under Thor's chin and a smirking stranger was groping in Phil's front pocket -- the next, there was a blur of khaki-colored movement and the two men were on the floor, one groaning and clutching a bleeding nose, and Phil had both weapons pointed at the other robbers.
"Put your weapons down, please," said Phil and the dining room erupted into cheers.
Most of the restaurant patrons left as soon as the police were finished with them, while the five Avengers sat outside on the curb in the parking lot, waiting for the police to tell them they could go. One of the restaurant staff had taken pity on Thor and given him a basket of tortilla chips and a little pot of guacamole, which he was in the process of demolishing. Tony leaned his head on Steve's shoulder, so Steve patted his back.
"We were left out," Tony said mournfully to Steve. "We're a bunch of superheroes and the accountant saved the day."
"I'm not an accountant," Phil said. "My degree is actually in business administration and human resources."
Thor guffawed and offered Phil the basket of chips. "You need nourishment, mighty Son of Coul." Phil took some and shared them with Clint.
They all fell silent as officers led the would-be thieves to the squad cars and put them inside. "I like this part," Clint remarked. "We usually miss this part."
An officer came to them. "Gentlemen," she said, "I'm -- we're all so grateful. The Avengers in our town. We're sure they would have gotten away if you hadn't come in."
"Has this happened before in the area?" Steve asked her.
"We suspect they're the same crew that has pulled similar jobs in four other states. Fortunately for us, they had a new associate and you came along on the same day. We've got your statements and we'll let you know if we need anything more. Thank you again, so much."
As the squad cars sped away, Clint looked at Phil. "You, me, car, now."
"Can I have the keys, please, Tony?" said Phil and Tony handed them over wordlessly. Phil and Clint raced across the parking lot and got into Peggy Sue the Valiant, Clint nearly throwing Phil inside.
"Phil hardly needs a scolding," Steve said, frowning. "He just thwarted a robbery."
Thor and Tony exchanged glances, and Thor said, "I believe Clinton is currently praising the Son of Coul, rather than scolding him."
"Probably not in so many words," Tony added. "Probably not in any words at all."
"Then how -- oh," said Steve as realization dawned, and he covered his eyes with his hand. "Couldn't they wait until we get to a hotel?"
Tony slung an arm over Steve's shoulder. "Sometimes, Cap, no, you really can't."
With the police gone and things returning to normal, the restaurant manager insisted on feeding them, and of course wouldn't let them pay. The staff still seemed shaken up, so Tony left an enormous tip on the table and kissed the cheeks of a few of the waitresses on the way out, with take-out bags for Phil and Clint under his arm.
"If the car's a-rockin'," he said as they walked back to Peggy Sue the Valiant.
"It's been an hour," Steve said. It took a long time to fill up Thor. "Surely they're done by now."
"If they were done they would have come in." Tony knocked a window. "Guys? We want to hit the road. Many miles to go. Rivers to cross. Promises to keep."
The passenger door opened to reveal Clint and Phil, looking perfectly presentable, and Steve wondered if Tony was wrong about how they'd been spending the last hour. "Where have you been?" said Clint. "We were waiting for you."
"Food," Tony reminded them and handing over the take-out bags. "Though I think one of you has already eaten."
Phil looked smug. "Shut up and drive, Stark."
In Indiana, they stopped for the night in a little motel off the highway. Tony grumbled about how they'd lost time and crossed items off their itinerary, though Clint took the list back more than once and said, "We have to see the giant blue whale! Why'd you take off Jellystone Park?"
Steve shut the door on their bickering and went out to the playground at one end of the parking lot. It had a metal slide and a swing set, and a metal dome-shaped thing for climbing. On one of the metal bars sat Phil, his cell phone to his ear. He nodded hello at the sight of Steve, but his focus was on the phone call. Steve sat on a bar in the dome too, and watched traffic go by on the highway. The setting sun glinted off the metal slide.
"Yes, sir," Phil said into the phone. "There shouldn't be any complications. Stark is already reworking the route." He paused and listened, then said, "You too, sir. Good night." He hung up and tucked the cell phone away in a pocket of his khakis.
"Are we in trouble?" Steve asked.
"No. I debriefed Director Fury on the situation this afternoon but also told him I expect us to stay on schedule."
Steve nodded and looked out at the highway again. "It was very brave of you to take their guns."
"It needed to be done," said Phil simply. "Clint has reminded me that I'm still recovering from surgery, but I felt the risk was necessary."
"It's still brave of you."
Phil looked pleased. "I am sorry we'll have to skip the World Circus museum, though."
Steve looked at him and started laughing, and after a moment Phil was laughing too.
"What do you think of your first road trip, Steve?" he said when they'd calmed down. "I know the first day was a bit more exciting than we planned."
"I like it," Steve said. "Excitement and all. How about you?"
"A vacation is supposed to be a test of one's relationship. We've never really traveled together outside of business."
"You two seem like you're having a good time."
"Yes, we are. If we survive this, who knows? We might be ready for anything." He looked at Steve. "You know if you're not having fun, Tony will just try harder to impress you."
Steve laughed, bashfully this time. "He wants all of us to enjoy ourselves."
"But especially you. He usually does."
Before Steve could find an answer to that, the door to Tony's room swung open and Clint leaned out. "Phil? Feel like putting on your suit for a swim before dinner?"
"Yes," Phil called back. "Excuse me, Steve."
"Go on," Steve said. "Have fun." He watched Phil go, his arm going easily around Clint's waist when they met, and sighed. He went to Tony's room and knocked on the door, and Tony shouted, "I'm done arguing, Katniss!"
Tony yanked the door open. "Hi."
"Hi." They looked at each other a moment, and Steve blurted, "What are our plans for dinner tonight?"
"Anything less exciting than lunch. I'm thinking pizza. Do you think we can get good pizza in Indiana?"
"I think it's worth finding out."
"Once the love birds have finished frolicking we'll go foraging." Tony tilted his head into his room. "You want to keep me company?"
Steve went into the room. He lay down on the other bed and listened to the music from Tony's computer as Tony tapped it and muttered to himself. Thor joined them not long after, and they watched the food channel until Clint came to say he and Phil were ready to get supper.
They found a pizzeria that felt like something out of a movie, with red-and-white checked tablecloths and candles stuck in wax-covered bottles. The pizzas were cooked in a brick oven that was visible behind the counter where they placed their orders, and the entire place smelled of garlic and marinara sauce. A TV high over the bar played a baseball game.
No one, as far as Steve could tell, recognized them. They were just a bunch of guys on a road trip.
"Even if we weren't going to Disneyland," he told Tony, "it'd be worth it just for today."
"And we didn't even save the day." He picked up his glass of lager and tapped his knife against it, getting to his feet. "I say it's time we salute the man who did."
"Tony," Phil began.
"No, no, let me say this." He held up the glass, and so did the others. Steve hoped Thor wouldn't smash his to the floor, as he was sometimes prone to do. "Next time you have a plan, let the rest of us in on it, would you? If you get stabbed through the heart again I don't know if we can bear nursing Clint through his grief. Again."
"I promise," said Phil softly, looking at Clint.
"To Phil," said Tony in a more serious tone. "The gutsiest of us all."
"To Phil," they all said and drank as Phil smiled into his glass. Thor didn't smash his to the floor.
Chapter 3: Clint
When Steve went to get Tony for breakfast, Tony's curtains were drawn and he was blinking and sleepy and undressed when he opened the door. "Ten minutes," he said and went into the bathroom to shower, leaving the door open. Steve took it as an invitation and sat on the bed to wait. One side was obviously slept in -- the other was covered with maps and scribbled notes, and Tony's little computer was on, showing a map website. With the time they'd lost from the thwarted robbery, their route had to be adjusted, and it looked like Tony had sacrificed the stop in Chicago to focus on getting to Tennessee.
Steve vaguely remembered Tennessee from the war bonds tour -- lush blue-green hills, crossing the Mississippi as it shimmered in the rising sun under the bridge -- but he couldn't remember anything special about the place. He called to Tony, hoping Tony could hear him through the water of his shower and the bathroom fan, "What's in Memphis that we're making a detour for it?"
"What's in Memphis?" said Tony and stuck out his head. "What's in Memphis? Memphis is in Memphis. You have to see Memphis. No matter what else we do, you have to see Memphis." He went back, leaving the door ajar, and Steve chuckled and lay back on the bed to wait for him to finish.
After a few minutes the water shut off and Tony emerged, towel wrapped around his waist and another slung over his shoulders. "Memphis has Graceland," Tony said as he vigorously dried his hair. "Graceland is the home of Elvis, and Elvis, my dear man out of time, is the King. Your knowledge of your new century is still woefully inadequate, and so we're seeing Graceland so you can get a little context."
"If you think this is going to make me appreciate Black Sunday more--"
"Black Sabbath, I'm afraid your hopes are in vain."
"Yeah, well," said Tony as he got clothes out of his duffel bag, "call me a cock-eyed optimist." He took his clothes back into the bathroom to change, singing loudly as he went.
"'And the Reverend Green will be glad to see you
When you haven't got a prayer
You've got a prayer in Memphis...
When you're walking in Memphis
Walking with your feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
Do I really feel the way I feel...'"
Tony had done most of the driving the first day. Today they took turns -- Phil in the morning, with Clint in the passenger seat to keep him company, and after lunch at another roadside diner that Thor had seen on TV (no one tried to rob it today, thank goodness) Steve took over, with Thor in the passenger seat and Tony filming from the back.
In his preparations for the trip, Tony had chosen music for nearly every stage, including the Memphis leg. The blues and country-and-western he had chosen felt most familiar to Steve; while it wasn't like the popular music of his day, he'd heard it in bars and walking through certain neighborhoods, and playing from radios as they traveled from one side of the country to the other. Singers asked hey good lookin', how'd you like to cook something up with me? Or told them he'd once shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, that Peggy Sue got married not long ago, that she goes walking after midnight just like they used to do, that he can't help falling in love.
"Patsy Cline," Phil told him at lunch, when he asked who they'd been listening to. "Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, and of course, Elvis. Groundbreaking musicians."
"Tony said Elvis was the King. I don't even know what that means."
"It means he changed everything," said Phil. "Every ten years or so, some performer comes along who changes the game. Elvis was that performer in the Fifties. He meant so much that there are still people who refuse to believe he died."
"He's not dead," put in Clint. "He's sleeping, waiting until the country needs him again."
"That's King Arthur, Clint," Phil said.
"Same difference," Clint replied. "Just you wait. Though actually," he said in a conspiratorial tone as he leaned over the table, and Phil and Steve leaned closer too, "if Tony hadn't been born before 1977, I'd say he's the reincarnation of Elvis. Think about it."
"You're pulling my leg," Steve said. He looked at the pick-up window, where Thor and Tony were getting their food -- or rather, Thor was getting their food and Tony was asking the clerk to please put the tray on the counter because he didn't like to be handed things.
"He's got the same sense of showmanship," said Clint. "The same charisma. Even some of the same personality flaws. He's a dash of musical talent short of being the next King."
"Elvis is not King Arthur," said Phil, "and Tony is not Elvis."
"Why aren't I Elvis?" said Tony as he and Thor brought their trays of food to the table, and they were all distracted for a few minutes with distributing milkshakes, baskets of fries, and paper-wrapped burgers. "No, seriously," he said when they were unwrapping burgers and pouring ketchup onto their fries, "why can't I be Elvis?"
"Clint has a theory that you're Elvis reincarnated." Phil sipped his shake.
"I also have a theory that Elvis will return when we need him," Clint said, "which is why it makes sense. If Elvis had been born a mechanical genius instead of a musical one, we would have had Iron Man in the Fifties."
"Ifs and buts," said Steve. "I'm glad we have Iron Man now."
Tony grinned at him around the straw of his milkshake.
They rolled into Memphis late at night, checked into a hotel and made plans to visit Graceland in the morning. There was also a barbecue restaurant that Tony insisted was absolutely necessary to visit, and then they'd be on the highway again in the afternoon.
Tony had given Steve a music player with the road trip play lists. When he realized sleep was reluctant in arriving, Steve got out the little player and listened to some Elvis. He could hear the influence of the blues right away, and it reminded him of scratchy records on hot nights and the faint sound of music carried over empty roads or down train corridors.
The love songs made him melancholy.
Tony's room was beside his, and he could hear Tony thumping around even though it was long after midnight. Steve tucked his room key into his waistband and padded to Tony's door, which opened immediately at his knock. They looked at each other a moment, then Tony stepped back and Steve went inside.
He slept better, after that.
There wasn't enough time to visit all of the museums on the grounds of Graceland, which was fine with Steve. The mansion itself had a gaudy sort of charm, but it left him feeling melancholy again, particularly after hearing the story of the man's life. Fame, he thought, made people lonely far more often than it made them happy.
Digital cameras weren't allowed on the grounds so Steve brought his sketchbook instead, and he joined the others as they went to the garden to visit Elvis's grave. He sketched Clint and Phil as they stood beside the grave, arms comfortably around each other's waists. He sketched Tony and his unreadable expression as he looked down at the gravestone, and he drew Thor, who found the trees more interesting than the grave.
As Phil told him not to climb the trees -- no, really, Thor, don't climb the trees -- Clint joined Steve on a bench away from the grave site. "Bored?"
"I don't see any reason to visit the grave of someone I never met," Steve replied. "And his life was so sad. It makes me worry about our own master of showmanship, there." He nodded to Tony.
"I never met him either," Clint said. "All kidding aside, I'm not worried about Tony in that regard. He's got something Elvis never had." Steve looked at him. "Us."
Steve looked down at his drawing again. It seemed to him that every time he drew Tony, there were more lines in his face. "You think that's enough?"
"I do. Tony may be an idol worshiped by millions, but he's also got us to keep his feet on the ground. You do a pretty good job with that." He was quiet a moment, one foot swinging idly as he leaned back on the bench. "Sometimes it's not about how well you knew the person -- it's about the experiences you have because of them."
That was true. The list of experiences Steve had had because of Tony was endless and varied, everything from food to ... well, those things they'd gotten up to again last night and that Steve still wasn't sure what he thought about them.
He said softly, "Phil?" and Clint beamed.
"Phil. You should see him when they play our song." He rose and slapped Steve on the shoulder. "Come on, Cap. Time for lunch. Memphis barbecue, there's nothing like it."
Chapter 4: Thor
The country grew flatter. Steve remembered the plains from the war bonds tour, and how so many of them were just starting to recover from the Dust Bowl in 1943. He filmed fields of corn and wheat, the occasional lone oak tree, orchards and dilapidated barns. He filmed Tony as he drove, and Tony flashed many wicked grins at him.
The music Tony had chosen for this leg had a similar sound but a very different feel from the country-and-western they'd listened to before. Phil and Clint sang along to some of it, saying Good morning, America, how are you? and that freedom was just another word for nothing left to lose and that if they didn't tell her they could leave today. Even Thor nodded along, his foot tapping on the floor or his fingers on the window to the rhythm.
"I like this," Steve told Tony softly, not wanting to interrupt the impromptu sing-along going on in the back seat. "I could listen to this kind of music a lot more often."
"I thought it'd be your style," Tony said.
Tony turned up one song in particular, as a voice full of wisdom said he'd gone out there in search of experience, to taste and touch and feel as much as a man can before he repents. Steve thought that Tony, out of all of them, knew best how that felt.
They stopped at roadside attractions, where Tony bought T-shirts if any caught his fancy. Despite the heat he wore shirts in layers, a long-sleeved one under a short-sleeved one, to hide the glow of the arc reactor -- his version of traveling incognito.
Thor was impossible to hide in any way, between his size and his questions and his manner of speaking. He was also so charming that if people were intimidated by him at first by the time he left they absolutely adored him.
"How do you do that?" Tony asked him as they drove away from a fruit-and-vegetable stand. Peggy Sue the Valiant smelled sweet from all the apples and peaches Thor had bought -- it was only by reminding him they didn't have a place to cut or store them that they'd managed to prevent him from buying a couple watermelons, too. "How do you get people to just roll over for you to scratch their bellies?"
"I scratched no man's belly," Thor said, munching on an apple. He looked at it with approval. "Now, this is how apples are supposed to taste. City apples are not half so crisp."
"Grocery-store food is grown for looks, not taste," put in Clint, who was on his third peach.
"That is a foolish way of doing things."
"We know. And yet we keep doing it." He slurped juice from his hand and Phil handed him a paper napkin from the stash kept in the cup holder between the front seats.
"The point is," said Tony, "we have a big, blond, Viking man here, and it's like everybody knows him even if they don't recognize him."
Thor rolled down a window to throw out his apple core. "Perhaps they do. Whether their ancestors worshiped my kind or not, they know a god when they see one."
"So there's no disguising you," said Tony. They'd tried. Thor had his hair pulled back in a rubber band and wore a T-shirt and cargo shorts, like Tony and Steve. (Clint preferred jeans, and Phil somehow started each day in a pair of perfectly pressed khakis.) But Steve supposed no matter what he wore or how humble his vehicle might be, Thor would always be the god of thunder.
"There's no disguising any of you," Phil said. "People know who you are. They're just being cool about it."
"No!" said Tony, astonished. "Really? But I've been paying in cash!"
"You're the most famous people in the world," Phil said. "Why do you suppose Director Fury sent me along?"
"To keep me company," said Clint and Phil touched his hand.
"I could have been signing autographs this entire trip," Tony griped.
"Only if you let people hand you things," said Steve.
Tony wanted to stop at a Stark Industries plant in New Mexico. It was not an inspection, he assured the worried executives that rushed out to meet him, he only wanted to see something on the grounds.
For a factory, Steve thought, it was exceptionally beautiful. Its façade was made of local stone, and the grounds boasted things like recycled water features and native plants in all the garden sections, of which there were surprisingly many. Like most of Tony's properties it was making the transition to self-sustaining energy as a power source, and there was no smell of turbines or oil within the gates.
Tony told the rest of the Avengers to help themselves to the employee cafeteria, which they did as he went off by himself. After they'd eaten and reached the point of boredom that Clint was teaching Thor how to play tabletop football, Steve decided to find Tony and tell him they were ready to get back on the road.
He followed the footpaths, which led past old propulsion engines on pedestals and outdated planes arranged like sculptures, and found a memorial garden that made his throat close. In the middle, surrounded by wild desert flowers, was a bronze statue of Howard and Maria Stark, with a plaque that said the gardens were in memory of Maria Stark and her contributions to the preservation of local customs and wildlife.
Tony sat on a bench beneath a desert willow. Steve thought he should go without disturbing him, but Tony said, "Steve," as Steve was turning to walk away.
Steve sat beside him and looked up at the statue. "Is it a good likeness?"
"It's not bad."
"Then she was very beautiful."
Steve listened to the wind rustle through the leaves around them, and closed his eyes as he inhaled the spicy scent that surrounded them. "I never knew her," he said quietly. "He must have met her after the war."
"He was twenty years older than she was."
Steve looked at Tony, waiting for him to continue.
"I used to think," Tony said, "that they only had me because Mom wanted to. Then Dad -- I was given these old films --" He stopped, swallowing hard, and Steve put a hand on his back. "I always thought he thought his greatest work was you. Turns out, he thought it was me."
Steve hugged him and leaned his face against Tony's shoulder. "Of course he did."
Tony chuckled and patted Steve's cheek. "Only you'd think 'of course' he would." He sighed and dropped his hand, and Steve sat back, too. "I still wish he could have lived to see you come back. It would have made up for all the disappointments I caused him."
"No, I know. He loved me. I'm still getting used to the idea that maybe he didn't love you more."
Steve rubbed Tony's shoulders. "He was a good friend to me, but he wasn't my father. That's a bond you and he will always share."
"He never stopped looking for you," Tony said. "He never gave up on you." He closed his eyes with a deep sigh, and Steve leaned his head on Tony's shoulder and went on rubbing his back.
They were about six hours away from the California border when they stopped for the night at a roadside motel in Nevada. Steve supposed they would fly home in the Stark Industries jet, since no one had mentioned stops they wanted to make on the trip back to New York.
As a neon sign blinked outside his window, Steve tried to stop replaying his conversation with Tony and calm his mind enough to sleep -- then started up when someone knocked at his door. He hoped it was Tony come to spend the night, or at least talk some more -- but instead it was Thor.
Well, he was welcome, too. Steve let him in as Thor said, "We're almost there, Steven. I am so excited to see Jane I cannot sleep."
"Poker?" Steve said and Thor nodded, so Steve got out his deck of cards and they sat, cross-legged, on his bed to play. They played for road trip food, granola bars and Pop-Tarts and fruit snacks.
Thor had piled up a good stash of fruit snacks -- it would have been bigger if he'd quit eating them -- when he said, "So why are you not sleeping tonight?"
"Thinking too much," said Steve, considering his cards.
"About Tony?" Steve looked up from his cards and Thor smiled. "I am not as oblivious as it is thought. This entire journey was his gift for you."
"I know," Steve said quietly and discarded a card. "I'm appreciative. I feel like I'm getting to know my country again."
"Then why are you yet troubled?" Thor tore open another packet of fruit snacks.
"Because," Steve began. "Because ... it's Tony. He's so ... much. He's generous, he's brilliant, he's hilarious, he's wonderful. I feel like he wants to give me the world. But what would I do with the world?"
Thor tossed the snacks into his mouth, his expression unexpectedly thoughtful. "I once offered to bring Jane to Asgard and make her a queen. She refused. So instead she stays here and studies the cosmos, and we see each other when we can. I never thought I would be so proud to call such a woman, a scholar, my sweetheart."
"That's great, but--"
"If you refuse the world but want only Tony, I think you shall have Tony, and therefore, the world."
Steve smiled. "You're a hopeless romantic."
"My heart has grown so great with love that I wish all of my friends to have the same."
"Yep," Steve said, "hopeless," and put down his cards. "Straight flush."
Thor sighed and made to to hand over his pile, but he seemed to have already eaten it all.
Chapter 5: Steve
The moment Peggy Sue the Valiant pulled in front of Tony's Malibu mansion, the front door slammed open and Jane Foster ran out. "Thor!"
"Jane!" Thor shouted in response and ran up the steps to meet her. He caught her up in his arms, both of them laughing, and he spun her around before he set her down and tenderly kissed her.
The other Avengers, who'd climbed out of Peggy Sue with various degrees of stiffness, all found something else to look at. Watching Thor and Jane reunite was both embarrassing and sweet -- embarrassing because they were so overjoyed to be together that they seemed to forget there were other people around as they nuzzled and kissed, and sweet because, well, they were so overjoyed to see each other.
Tony and Pepper greeted each other much more demurely: "Tony."
Natasha leaned against the door frame, a smile in her eyes if not on her lips, and Clint stopped in front of her and dropped his duffel bag.
"You actually managed it," Natasha said.
"And the country's still standing. Hug me like you missed me."
She hugged him, with a soft, "Of course I missed you," and then Phil, and then Steve, too, though Steve suspected it was more because he was there and would have felt left out otherwise than because Natasha had missed him too.
There were shouts of surprise and delight in the kitchen when they discovered Bruce in the process of cooking dinner. He still didn't think he should go to the park, "but I couldn't miss out on a family outing, could I?"
Steve stood back from the noise and talk, as people set the table and drained pasta and poured drinks, and thought Bruce was right. It wasn't just the Avengers going on a road trip; it wasn't even just a gift from Tony to him, so he could see the country he worked so hard to keep safe. They were family, and like so many families, needed a break and had gone on vacation.
But not a break from each other. That thought left him warm.
And now they were home -- or a home-away-from-home, good enough -- and would eat spaghetti and drink good wine, and tomorrow they would go to Disneyland.
"C'mon, Cap," said Tony, "you get the head of the table," and Steve flushed with pleasure and took his seat.
As they ate, Phil mentioned that Steve had filmed the journey, and Pepper said, "When do we get to watch the home movies?"
"I haven't even watched them," Steve said. "With my luck I left the lens cap on the entire time."
"There's no lens cap on that camera," said Tony as he tore apart a piece of garlic bread to bite straight into the buttery part.
Pepper patted Steve's hand. "I'm sure you took great movies, Steve."
"Thanks," Steve said. "I'll watch them tonight and see if there's anything salvageable."
"You're bringing the camera tomorrow, right?" Clint said, and the conversation turned to how they were going to handle shepherding a hundred children and their parents through the park. Everybody had a favorite "land" that they absolutely had to visit, and Tony and Clint got into an argument about whether the Haunted Mansion was better during the day or at night.
Definitely a family, Steve thought as he leaned back in his chair to savor his glass of wine, and Tony caught his eye. He smiled, and Tony responded with one of his madcap grins.
"Tie-breaker, Cap. Your word is law."
"Night," Steve said. "Ghosts are always better at night."
Tony slapped his hands on the table. "The Captain has spoken! We go at night."
"Only a few dozen other rides to go," observed Pepper.
Steve lay on his bed and watched the videos he'd shot so far. Driving, farmlands, mountains, canyons, oddities they found along the way. He had filmed Phil and Clint, who were sweeter together than you'd expect from such stoic men, with such simple gestures as giving each other napkins without looking, sharing drinks, or Phil's fond look as Clint told stories of why they should stop at this tourist trap or that, or the way Clint rubbed Phil's back when Phil was on the phone with Director Fury.
He had filmed Thor, filling the basket when they made a food stop, or winning over the staff at restaurants and roadside attractions with his teddy-bear charm, or climbing the jungle gyms at the occasional motel playground, or looking worriedly at the dry landscape even when Tony told him it was supposed to be that way. They'd stopped at the Cadillac Ranch and Thor held up a photo of Jane and mouthed, "I miss you," as Steve filmed him. That would make the final cut, no question.
Steve had a lot of footage of Tony. He had filmed Tony driving a few times, and Tony tended to turn to the camera with an enormous cheesy grin as if he were having the time of his life. He had filmed Tony chatting with other shoppers at roadside attractions and farmer's markets, or wandering impatiently at rest stops while they waited for the others to get back to Peggy Sue the Valiant, and once throwing devil's horns and banging his head to Metallica in the aisle of a mini-mart when he was supposed to be getting chips and bottled water. Steve had tried to film them all equally, but there was no denying he favored Tony.
He sighed and put the camera aside. He had to settle things with Tony. No more wondering.
Tony was not in his bedroom. The door was ajar and the bed unslept-in. Tony was never in his bedroom unless someone was with him, it seemed to Steve, so that left the next logical choice: his workshop.
Steve knew his way around enough to find it, and JARVIS didn't tell him it was restricted. Tony had 3-D models up on the flat computer screens that he turned this way and that as if he wasn't really thinking about them at all.
Steve tried the door, and was surprised to find it was unlocked. He eased it open. Tony's music wasn't its usual teeth-rattling volume -- it sounded introspective, even, as the man sang that he never opened himself this way, and nothing else mattered.
He said, "Tony," and Tony whirled to face him.
"Oh," he said and turned back to the models. "Mute," he told JARVIS and the music went silent. "Can't sleep again, Cap?"
"I need to talk to you."
Tony wiped away the 3-D models with a wave of his hand. "I'm listening."
Steve came to the workbench and leaned against it, careful not to accidentally press any buttons that would ruin a whole night's work. "We slept together."
Tony raised his eyes to meet Steve's gaze and said slowly, "I remember. I was there."
"I don't know what to do from here," Steve said and pressed his hands to his eyes.
Tony said, "Who says we have to do anything?" and Steve dropped his hands.
"Because we -- because --"
"Look, if it freaks you out, nothing more needs to happen," Tony said. "I don't want to freak you out."
"I'm not freaked out. I'm --" He swallowed.
"Confused," Tony said, standing so he and Steve were more-or-less at eye level. He rested his hands on the work bench, on either side of Steve's hips. "It's okay. I confuse people a lot. If you don't want to anymore then we won't. But if you do--" and Tony grinned one of those grins Steve realized he loved -- like a mad scientist, like a trickster god, like everything that kept the world from becoming too boring and ordinary.
Tony had already shown him so many wonderful things. He would give Steve the world if he thought Steve would take it. He had already given him the entire country, in all its mad, beautiful, eccentric glory.
Steve whispered, "Tony, Tony, I don't want to stop," and put his arms around Tony's neck.
"Steve," Tony said, "you're such a doofus," and though they had kissed each other many times before this, for now it was enough just to hold each other close, faces buried in each other's necks.
Steve whispered, "I'm sorry I was confused, I'm not confused anymore," and Tony said, "Hey, it's okay. It's okay. Nobody's perfect. It's okay."
Even though Happy was in Malibu with Tony's limo, the Avengers decided to ride to Disneyland in Peggy Sue the Valiant. She had brought them this far. It seemed only right that she take them the rest of the way.
Steve lost count of all the pictures he posed for, all the autographs he gave, all the high-fives he exchanged. Tiny children wanted nothing more than to hold his hand and beam at him. Older children peppered him with questions -- was he stronger than Thor? Faster than Iron Man? Tougher than the Hulk? -- to which he laughed and said, No, no, but he was pretty strong, pretty fast, pretty tough.
Parents thanked him for being so kind and he said it was nothing, really, they loved this kind of thing.
When it was late -- the last parade had marched on Main Street, the fireworks had died down, and the last children were grumbling sleepily in their parents' arms -- Tony touched Steve's shoulder and said, "One more ride?"
"Let's go," said Steve. He had spent most of the day in the fairy tale section of the park, though he'd joined the bravest of the children (and Clint and Tony, each of them in one of those ghost-buggies with two kids) to ride the Haunted Mansion once it was dark.
Tony took him back to the Old West portion of the park, and they got in line for the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster. "I'm guessing you haven't been on many of these."
"I went on the Cyclone once," Steve said. "I haven't been back."
"You oughta. It's still there. It costs a lot more than it did in your day, but it's still a great coaster. A classic."
Steve smiled at him. "Don't you get enough of an adrenaline rush from saving the world?"
Tony slung his arm around Steve's neck. "It's for the experience, Cap," and hugged him close as Steve put his hand on Tony's chest.
"If that's the case," Steve said softly, "I'll go wherever you take me."
He could hardly wait for what the next experience would bring.