If you are going to be a small man, Steve learns quickly, be a kind one. Bullies make no friends, not the kind that Steve needs, not the kind that he can use. He is weak and scrawny and sick. His chest burns when he breaths in and out. His legs ache going up stairs. Punching someone would hurt his fist more than them.
Kindness then. He wields it like a bat.
“Come on, Steve,” Bucky says, pulling him to his feet. “You gotta stop going after these guys twice your size.”
Steve wipes the blood from his mouth and winces. “I didn’t like the way he was talking about that lady.”
Bucky reaches over and ruffles Steve’s hair. Steve doesn’t jerk away. “You’re too damn noble,” Bucky says with something like awe in his voice.
Steve can take a few punches here and there. They remind Bucky what a good man Steve is. They remind Bucky how much Steve needs protection. You’ve got to make a dog love you before it’ll rip out anyone’s throat on your behalf. Either love you or fear you. Right now, love’s all Steve’s got to work with. It’s not like he’ll find someone weaker who’ll fear him.
Then he becomes strong. Suddenly it’s a lot harder to be kind. But Steve is not stupid. He never has been. Love is still Steve’s most valuable weapon.
A weak man knows the value of strength. Knows the value of power. Why keep up the charade, he thinks sometimes, as he rescues a civilian from under fire, as he laughs at one of Bucky’s inane jokes, as he smiles at all the right times. Isn’t he stronger than this now? But he knows. Love is the most powerful weapon you can wield. Love and respect and trust. Have those, and people will fall over themselves to defend you. Have those, and everything you do becomes acceptable. Have those, and you can set the world on fire just because you’re feeling cold.
The only place the Red Skull goes wrong is showing the world what he is. He should keep that mask on.
“Jesus,” Bucky mutters when they come over the hill and see their first death camp. Together, they stare down at it.
“Still,” Steve says because he isn’t thinking, because the site of this elegance makes his heart race faster, “it’s efficient.”
When Bucky looks at him after that, Steve realizes that something must have clunked into place in that slow brain. That evening he changes the next day’s plans. Bucky boards the train alongside him. It’s a shame, he thinks as he lets Bucky fall. He’d be a useful tool for a long time. But Steve wasn’t small any longer. He isn’t the one that needs protection.
Then the plunge. Then the ice.
He wakes and they tell him he’s a hero. He wakes and they fall over themselves to please him. There’s a statue of him in Arlington Cemetery that’s guarded twenty-four hours a day. They love him. They all love him.
Then he meets Tony Stark.
“Everything special about you came out of a bottle,” Stark snarls. Steve’s almost sorry Stark said it, that Stark could never unsay it. Stark could have been useful too.
They team up. They save the world. They eat shwarma. The Howling Commandos for the twenty-first century, and best of all, they’re under Steve’s command. The future is bright. It’s blinding.
But Steve hasn’t forgotten.
Stark shakes his head with a smile on his face, and Steve smiles back and means it. Steve can wait. He’s a patient soul. Until then, he lays the groundwork. He makes them love him.
“You did good today,” Steve tells Bruce, clapping him on the back. The Hulk tore through a squadron of Hydra soldiers. At least twenty men died. I think we should keep that from Dr. Banner, Fury said, and Steve agreed instantly. “I’m glad we have you looking out for us.”
Bruce grins, wide and open and oh so joyful. “Thanks, Cap,” he says and pretends that validation isn’t his worst addiction.
“You’re not a monster,” Steve tells Natasha.
“I know we can trust you,” he tells Clint.
“Earth would be lost without you,” he tells Thor.
Love. Respect. Trust. Steve does know the value of strength.
And then Steve’s patience is rewarded. Tony takes a nasty blow from the Asgardian equivalent of a missile from the Asgardian equivalent of a dragon, and he tumbles back down to Earth, a trail of smoke in his wake as he falls. Steve follows his trajectory with greedy eyes. “I’ve got Tony,” he says over the comm. “You keep that bastard contained.”
The average man would have taken five minutes to get to Tony. Steve’s there in two, crouching at Tony’s side as the armors sparks and grinds. Steve pries the crushed helmet off and Tony’s blood trickles onto Steve’s boots.
“Help,” Tony gasps. “The reactor. It’s fried.” The light in his chest flickers. Life is fragile, Steve thinks as he looks down. Tony’s more than most. A man who covered himself in a shell and thought that made him a god.
“I can walk you through—” Tony winces and throws his head back. Steve takes out his communicator and throws it behind him. Tony’s suit is offline. They’re alone. “Jesus, Steve, help me.”
Steve kneels by Tony’s side. “Can you move?”
Tony shakes his head and grimaces. “Armors locked in place. Whatever we do, we got to do it here. I’ve got a field repair kit for the reactor. You’ve got to take it out and fix it.”
Steve’s silent for a moment. He waits until he thinks he can keep the excitement out of his voice. “How do I get it out?”
Tony walks him through opening the front of the armor. He tells Steve which direction to turn. He winces as Steve pulls. “Okay,” Tony says, his voice strained with pain. “That hurts.”
Steve turns the arc reactor over in his hands. Tony walked him through basic field repair once. He showed all the Avengers and tried to pass it off as a practical measure. Tried to pretend that he wasn’t handing them his heart. “Do you remember one of the first things I said to you?” Steve asks.
Tony stares up at him. His face is ashen, sweat-soaked, cold. He’s going into cardiac arrest.
“Big man in a suit of armor.” Steve holds up the arc reactor and watches it glint in the sunlight. Then he puts it down by Tony’s head. “Take that away and what are you?”
“Steve,” Tony manages to croak, “I’ll die.”
Steve smiles down at Tony. “Then I guess that’s our answer.”
Afterwards, Steve will return to the struggling Avengers and save the day. He deduced the dragon’s weak spot an hour ago, but the casualty rate wasn’t high enough. There’s no glory in prevention. Heroes stop the bad guys after they’ve rampaged a bit. Afterwards, when the Avengers ask where Tony is, Steve will shut his mouth and look to the sky. “He’s dead,” Steve will choke out. Then he will cry like his tears outfought his pride. “Tony’s dead,” Steve will say, and the world will forget Tony Stark, tripping over itself to make Captain America feel better.
Maybe Pepper will try and make Captain America feel better too. Maybe Captain America will return the favor. Maybe Captain America will fuck her on her dead fiancé’s bed when she’s still in her funeral blacks. His gentle kindness when she needs it most will make her weep with shame.
It takes fifteen minutes for Tony to die. Steve watches the entire time.