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Let the More Loving One be Me (Or: Aw, Crap)

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Go home, they told him. Get some rest, soldier. You deserve it.

            They didn’t give him any more orders. Not that he would’ve listened – he was done with following orders – but just one last clarification would’ve been nice. It would’ve been nice for someone to explain to him just what they meant by ‘home’.

            He had time to think about it on the flight, when insomnia kept him up past the point when the cabin lights went out and everyone else – even the overexcited little girl beside him who’d asked so many questions about his uniform – had drifted off to uncomfortable seating sleep.

            If he really had to start all over, there was only one place he could go. It seemed strange it had taken him so long to think of it, but then, it was a place for safety and love and he hadn’t had to think of things like that for a very long time.

            The plane landed at JFK and he grabbed his duffel, waited for the one other soldier on the plane to be ready. Only two of them were being invalided out, and when he looked at Dugan, it seemed completely unfair that he could be standing there on his own two feet with a psychological bullshit free-pass while Dugan had a stump where his left leg should be and a merry grin on his face.

            The wheelchair-ready minibus the marine corp had sent was waiting outside, and on the drive, it was just him and Dugan in companionable silence as they’d been a hundred times before.

            ‘Excuse me, Captain,’ the driver said, her voice cheerful and polite, ‘but where would you like me to take you?’

            ‘Brooklyn,’ Dugan answered for him, flashing him a smile. ‘Your pal gave me instructions, Cap. Ever something like this goes down, I make sure you go back to your gal, come hell or high water.’

            He stared at Dugan, every muscle so still and tense that he could feel his pulse in his neck.

            ‘He told you to do that?’

            ‘Yup, and as you know, that bastard scared the bejeesus out of me. Be bad luck to ignore a direct order from my superior.’ Dugan’s smile faltered a little, and then was plastered back on, brighter than ever.

            ‘You should come with me. She’d take good care of you, Dum-Dum.’

            ‘Don’t doubt it, Cap, but that’s not the plan. I’m going to the sort of hotel they send you to when they’ve got to say sorry for blasting your leg off, and my folks are coming up from Boston to see the sights with me. Give us some time to adjust, you know? You should come with us, we’re goin’ to be taking it slow, maybe two weeks. Gotta take my ma shopping.’

            He felt himself almost smile. Almost. As soon as his face started to resume that shape, his heart began to pound, and guilt overwhelmed him, panic rising up into his throat. Distantly, he heard Dugan telling him to breathe, to calm down.

            Stupid orders. Don’t you think if I could, I already would’ve?

            He had no right to smile – no right to breathe – when his friend was dead and cold. So cold.

            ‘Sergeant Dugan? Is he alright?’

            ‘Nope, sugar, he’s about as far from alright as you can get. He’ll calm down in a sec, though. He’s needed this vacation for a really long time. Maybe we can even persuade him it’s time to retire. Hear me, old man? Might be time to just settle down.’

            He managed to snort at that. It was a joke, in his company, calling him old man when he’d not yet scraped thirty. Medal of valor after honorary mention after spectacular success had meant he’d been promoted faster than anyone could’ve anticipated. They called him a tactical genius, a credit to the service.

            None of it mattered, though, because in the end it hadn’t counted for jack and the one thing that had dragged him out to the desert was dead.

            Something he remembered flashed by the window and he straightened, suddenly aware that they were in Brooklyn Heights. The brownstone buildings looked so painfully familiar, sun low in the sky and hitting just the very top windows.

            Dugan must’ve told the driver something, because they stopped outside the most familiar one of all. It was the best-kept building on the block – hell, probably in the whole of Brooklyn – and had the most beautiful little garden in its tiny front plot. Roses and thyme. There was a bench, there, and a child’s plastic ball.

            He froze at that, at the reminder of children and childhoods, and then remembered. He’d met the new kid, the few times he’d been on home for leave. They wrote to each other, the rest of the time, some strange bond forming between them faster than anyone could’ve expected. Anyone but him, that is. He knew all about finding family and holding on to them tight.

            He waved to Dugan and watched the minivan pull away down the street. A few passersby stopped to stare at him; many more waved and yelled his name, forced him to raise a hand in acknowledgement, though he could barely remember most of them. His gal talked about him all the time, he knew. Their neighbors were always on the lookout for a tall guy in military digs. Half of them seemed under the impression he’d stranged Osama with his bare hands.

            He walked up the stairs and knocked on the big, brown door with its pattern of lilies.

            ‘She’s not home, son,’ came a thin, reedy voice from behind him, and when he turned, he was faced with the beaming smile of a skinny bespectacled man who was ninety if he was a day. ‘Let me look at you, mein Junge. So big and strong, now! I’ve seen photos, but you never come visit when you are home, so I don’t know if she uses computers to make you look bigger.’

            Despite himself, he found himself smiling, and there wasn’t a rush of guilt this time. ‘Dr Erskine,’ he said, and immediately found himself embraced by brittle arms and kissed soundly on both cheeks. ‘You’re pretty strong yourself, sir.’

            ‘I eat all of the Wheaties,’ Erskine confided, a bright light in his eyes. ‘Your brother, he brings me toaster pastries when he comes to visit. I am not sure why, but who am I to turn him away?’

            ‘You could try, but he tends to take things like that as a challenge,’ he agreed. ‘Dr Erskine, do you know where she’s gone?’

            ‘Ja, ja,’ he said, bobbing his head. ‘She tells me, “Abraham, I know you are going to sit in the sun all day like a lazy old man, so if Hawk comes, tell him I am at the shop.”’ And I tell her I am writing my memoires, not lazing, and she laughs and gives me an apple danish. Why is everybody trying to make me fat?’

            ‘Hawk’s home?’

            ‘Ja, but he goes away for a few days. Should be back today, tomorrow. I don’t know. That boy makes me dizzy.’

            The Captain agreed, but he was too busy trying to process the information to get drawn into a conversation about Hawk.

            ‘What’s “the shop”?’

            Erskine smiled serenely and wandered to the bench, sat down in a beam of sun and gestured invitingly. He was a master of emotional manipulation, and even before the Captain had gone to war, it had been a rare treat to have some time to talk to him alone. He was always surrounded by people, and Erskine was fond enough of him that he wanted to catch up without having to tune out other people’s voices.

            ‘She had all of her father’s old cars brought out of storage. She wanted to get them fixed up, but she says “no one touches’ Daddy’s babies but me”, and she spends weeks trying to find autoshop that will teach her how to fix them. She says she needs new hobby. Finally, she gets phone call from her godson, complaining how she never comes to him and ask for help, and since then, she is always in his autoshop.’

            His head spun with trying to follow Erskine’s English, still stubbornly accented after decades of sitting on a porch in Brooklyn, and before that in Queens.

            ‘Wait. She has a godson?’

            ‘She says she argued with his papa, but the boy, he wants to know her again. You know her, Captain. Always a soft spot for lost children and broken things.’

            He did know, too well, and Erskine’s gently mocking use of his title when he’d known him since he weighed forty pounds soaking wet made him smile again, smaller and more sincere than anything he’d managed in the longest time.

            ‘There we are,’ Erskine said softly, ‘that’s what I was looking for. You are a good man, Captain. You will survive this thing. You have survived so much.’

            Half an hour of avoiding questions and chatting about his eligible single granddaughters – and one flamboyantly gay grandson - and Erskine finally jotted down the instructions on how to get to the autoshop. It was only a few stops on the subway, and soon he was standing in front of a converted sixties car dealership with the word Stark in huge plastic letters above the opening to a working garage. The word, stylised into a logo, looked strangely familiar.

            He could see sparks flying and the whirring noise of working machinery. It was strangely calming to be somewhere where the danger was real, not just imagined paranoia clawing at the back of his mind. He found his way round the side of the building to a small but neat and alarmingly bubblegum-pink reception.

            The receptionist seemed a fan of the colourscheme, as she had her bare feet on the desk and was painting her toenails to match, snapping a massive blue bubble between dark red painted lips every few moments.

            She looked up at him standing awkwardly in front of her, still dressed in his desert combats and with his duffel over his shoulder. They stared at each other for a long moment, before she swung her feet off the desk, propped her chin on her hands and in a ridiculously low, husky voice said,

            ‘by all that is good and holy in this world, please say you’re a strip-o-gram.’

            ‘Um,’ he managed, already feeling a blush rise up his neck, ‘no? I’m here to see-‘

            ‘One minute, gorgeous.’ She slammed her elbow into what he assumed was an intercom and yelled, ‘Stark! Get in here, it’s your birthday.’

            The Captain had literally no idea how to cope with this, and so he decided discretion was the better part of valor and tried to stand at ease as the receptionist looked at him as if she’d like to eat him.

            ‘Keep blushing, soldier, and I might just have to taser you unconcious just to see if it goes all the way down.’

            He opened his mouth to try and recite whatever parts he could remember of the army’s sexual harassment policy, but before any words could force themselves past his lips the door to the garage slammed open and he was hit in the chest by a grease monkey.

            Instinct had him grabbing the guy by his shoulders and forcing him back to his feet. He was met by startled, warm brown eyes almost obscured by a frankly obscene amount of grease and dirt, with the sort of rings around them that suggested the guy had been wearing goggles until a second before.

            He looked down, and found that his prisoner was wearing socks. In a working garage, full of things that went bang, he was wearing reindeer socks and appeared to have tried to do a sock slide into the reception.

            He didn’t know how to deal with this, either, so he just held the guy up on his tiptoes by his shoulders and looked into those stupidly pretty eyes, contemplating his next move.

            ‘Darcy,’ the guy squeaked, making the Captain tense. ‘What the hell is happening?’

            ‘I can only assume this is some new kind of homoerotic holiday tradition no one told me about. Mazel tov.’

            ‘I am trying,’ the Captain ground out, ‘to find Miss Carter. Although what she’d be doing in this holding house for the criminally insane, I’m not sure.’

            The guy went very still in his grip and he looked down to find those brown eyes suddenly full of calculating intelligence.

            ‘I resent that comment, and furthermore, I…’ his voice trailed off, taking in the uniform. ‘Oh. You’re Stevie.’

            ‘Captain Steven Rogers-Carter,’ Steve clarified.

            ‘Stevie!’ Steve had only a second to process the new voice before arms were thrown around his back and he was forced to drop his greasy prisoner, turn, and hold her close. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were coming home? Stevie? Steven, what’s the matter?’

            She smelled like Chanel and engine oil, like apples and cinnamon and home and before he really knew what was happening, he was crying. Sobbing like the little kid she’d found and taken home with her, so many years ago.

            ‘He’s dead, Peggy. He’s dead and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.’

            ‘Peggy? Do you need me to-‘

            ‘It’s alright, Tony. He just needs a minute. Go back into the shop, I’ll introduce you two properly in just… two shakes of a lamb’s tail.’

            Her voice. She was like Erskine, an immigrant who’d never lost the voice of the place she’d been born, and Peggy spoke like the Queen. Just hearing her crisp, no-nonsense vowels made him feel like he was ten years old again.

            She felt soft and brittle, tiny in his arms, when she’d always towered over him as a kid. He never could get used to seeing her as a little old lady and not the ferocious woman who’d taken him in.

            ‘I heard about Bucky. I was on his emergency contacts’ list. I’ve already dealt with all of his things, Steve. You don’t need to worry about anything.’ She pulled away, enough so she could look him over, the quick proprietary check of a mother. Her lipstick was a vivid red slash against her snow-white hair and skin. ‘You should’ve told me you were sick.’

            ‘Not sick, Peg. Crazy.’

            ‘Bollocks,’ she said sharply, lovingly. ‘You’re not well, and now you’re home to get better. I hope you don’t think it’ll be all sitting around doing your sketching with Dr Erskine, though. I’ll expect you to carry your load.’

            He laughed, and the sound was false, strange. ‘Sure thing, Peggy.’

            ‘Clint’s dropping our baby spider off here after school. They’re going to be so pleased to see you, love. Peter never stops asking after you. You’re his hero.’

            ‘I let him die. I let him go, Peggy.’

            ‘You did no such thing, and if I hear you talk like that again, I’ll remind you that you’re not too old to be grounded.’ Her fingers found the base of his skull, pulled him close so that his forehead rested against hers. ‘You are going to allow him the dignity of his death, and you are going to live twice as hard, for the both of you. Do you understand me, Steven?’

            ‘Yes, ma’am.’ He tucked his head against her shoulder. He had to almost double over to do it, but it was worth it, to feel her stroke the hair at the base of his neck, where it was growing out of the buzz cut. ‘I love you, Peggy. I’ve missed you so badly. Missed everyone.’

            ‘Well, now that you’re home, we’ll have a party to celebrate. I’ll get all my lost boys – and Tasha – back under one roof, and we’ll remember everything good. We’ll remember Bucky, and we’ll do a shot of Tasha’s vodka. We’ll drink to see him on his way.’ She paused, patted his back, and then yelled painfully close to Steve’s ear, ‘Anthony Edward Stark, didn’t anyone ever teach you it’s impolite to eavesdrop?’

            The door to the garage swung slowly open and the greasy man from before – Tony – slunk in, looking for all the world like a chastised toddler.

            Steve felt a sudden rush of sympathy. He knew all too well how Peggy could make grown men feel like little boys. He looked the other man over.

            He was wearing very expensive, very thoroughly destroyed jeans slung low on lean, strong hips. His white vest had long ago ceased to be white and its collar and arms drooped, revealing great expanses of tanned, scarred chest.

            Being a greasemonkey was, apparently, an excellent workout. The guy’s arms were ridiculous.

            As was the beard. Steve decided to add the beard to the long list of things that had happened in Stark’s Autoshop he could neither understand nor accept.

            ‘Come on, Peggy, this is the most dramatic thing that’s happened here in, like, ever.’ He edged closer, obviously keeping out of arms’ distance of Steve, who straightened up to his full height – considerably taller than the greasemonkey – and wiped the tears from his face quickly. ‘Are you going to introduce me to Tall, Blond and Murderous?’

            Bizarrely, Peggy chuckled. ‘Of course, though after all I’ve told you about him, I’m surprised you need any more information. Tony, this is my son, Steven. Stevie, I’d like you to meet my godson and good friend, Tony Stark. This is his autoshop – he’s helping me restore Daddy’s old Aston Martins.’

            It clicked, suddenly, and Steve knew where he’d seen that Stark symbol before.

            ‘Another son? Just how many do you have, Peg?’

            Steve tensed, old instincts from his childhood rising up, and he knew Stark saw it. Let him see – Steve didn’t care. No on messed with his family. They’d fought too hard and come too far to have anyone try and mess with them.

            ‘Six,’ Peggy said pleasantly, ‘and a daughter, Natasha. You’ve only met Clint and Peter, so far. And now, of course, Steve. You will come tonight, won’t you, Tony? I’d love for you to meet everyone.’

            Steve watched him closely, and saw what he was looking for. He saw the way that when Tony’s gaze fell on Peggy, some of the tension left him, and his mouth quirked in an involuntary almost-smile.

            That was the correct and proper reaction to Peggy. If you didn’t love her, you were brain damaged. Some of Steve’s tension leaked out of him, and for the first time, he realised just how exhausted he was.

            ‘We’re adopted,’ Steve offered suddenly, and immediately all of Stark’s attention was on him again. Steve didn’t know if he’d ever seen anyone with such clever eyes. ‘Peggy had a friend in social services who asked her to foster me for a couple weeks, until they could find somewhere to put me. I was… difficult. They thought an ex-military fostermother would straighten me out.’

            ‘And how did that go?’ Tony asked, all false sincerity and batted eyelashes. ‘The whole… straightening process?’

            Steve glared at him and opened his mouth to say something else, only to be cut off by Peggy.

            ‘He calmed down, and I fell hopelessly in love with the little rapscallion,’ she said serenely. ‘They asked me to take in Clint, and the same thing happened. He begged me to foster his best friend, and I wound up with Natasha. No one else would take Bruce – he had a case file as big as Steve’s bicep – so they put him with me.’ She beamed at Steve and petted his arm, bulging from where he had it crossed defensively across his chest. Stark’s eyes followed the movement. ‘I thought I was done – I was in the process of adopting all four of them – and then I got the call about these brothers who were going to be deported if they couldn’t find a home.’

            ‘I haven’t heard a damned thing from Loki in over six months,’ Steve told her.

            ‘He’s been busy, love. Don’t take it personally, you know how he gets. Anyway, I met them – these beautiful, angry Norwegian teenagers full of hatred and resentment – and by the time they’d finished three cups of tea and eaten four boxes of toaster pastries they were calling me Tante Peg.’

            ‘We thought Thor and Loki would be the last ones.’

            ‘Thor and Loki? Really? Your kids are named after Norse Gods, Peg?’

            ‘Their dear departed parents were hippies, apparently,’ she said mildly, and began shepherding Steve and Tony back into the workshop. Tony, Steve noted, was still only wearing reindeer socks. The noses of the reindeers had little pompoms on them. ‘You’ve met Peter, Tony. You can see why I couldn’t just leave him. And with an empty house, it was getting lonely.’

            Steve snorted, and she raised a perfectly groomed eyebrow at him.

            ‘Come on, Peggy, you’ve never had an empty house since the day you took me in. Clint and Thor still live with you almost all the time, Tasha’s always there when she’s not busy performing, and I know for a fact that Bruce is home at least once a week to do laundry and get a proper meal.’

            Peggy beamed at Tony. ‘I wanted you to meet my Bruce, love. The two of you would get on like a house on fire – he’s got a PhD in nuclear physics and he’s training to be a doctor. Of course, all of my children are brilliant. They take after me, you see.’ She gestured to an almost completely gutted and ripped apart old Aston Martin, nudging Steve in the ribs. ‘Look, Stevie. Isn’t it handsome?’

            ‘It looks like a pile of junk to me, Peg.’

            ‘You’ve got no vision, darling. Oh, is that Pepper? Tony, you didn’t tell me Pepper would be coming! I’m going to invite her to the party. Steven, dear, keep Tony company, would you?’

            She darted away to where in the distance Steve could see a leggy redhead slowly rising from the depths of a handsome black car in the autoshop’s driveway. He and Tony watched the ladies embrace in silence.

            ‘You going to keep me company, Steven, dear?’

            Steve turned only his head, his arms still crossed, and with years of military experience made a show of looking Stark up and down, ever so slowly, and then dismissing him as worthless.

            He looked away and felt, rather than saw, Stark bristle with anger.

            ‘Listen, pumpkin, I don’t care what imaginary problem you’ve got with me, but you’re not going to stop Peggy coming here.’

            ‘What makes you think I could ever stop my mother from doing anything she wants to do?’

            They were quiet for a second. ‘I prefer birdbrain. At least when he acts like a dick, he does it with some flair.’

            Steve growled and rounded on Stark. ‘What did you just call my brother?’

            Stark proved himself either very brave or impossibly stupid by straightening his spine, sticking his chin out and grinning. ‘You want to dance, Cap? Figure you’ve probably been aching for someone to beat up, make yourself feel powerful again. Or… do you just want to hate-fuck someone hard enough to leave bruises? Come on, take me for a little tango.’

            ‘Don’t pretend you know a damned thing about what I want,’ Steve bit out, ‘little man playing with his machines, take those away and what’ve you got left?’

            Stark’s eyes flashed with something unnamed, dark and clever. ‘Playboy, genius, billionaire, philanthropist. Take your pick.’ He paused, doing that impossibly frustrating thing where he seemed to be taking in every tiny nuance of Steve’s face and posture, reading him. ‘You’ve been in the desert too long, soldier. You don’t know who I am, do you?’

            Steve stepped closer, invading the smaller man’s body space, forcing him back against the car. He inhaled, and for some reason the scent of engine oil and expensive soap made his stomach tighten.

            ‘I know exactly who you are. Do you really think I wouldn’t recognise the name, Stark? I’ve seen it written on every gun I’ve ever held. You might have Peggy fooled, but I know exactly what sort of man you are, and I’ll be waiting for you to fuck up. Hurt my family and I’ll make you wish you hadn’t.’

            ‘You don’t scare me, Star-Spangled Man.’

            ‘Then you might want to re-consider the “genius” part of your title, Stark.’

            Peggy’s cheerful voice from behind him reminded Steve that he was basically pressing her godson bodily against a disemboweled classic car, and he quickly stepped backwards, his eyes only dropping from Stark’s to watch the other man press a steady hand to the place in his chest where Steve could see the beginnings of a massive, brutal-looking scar.

            Stark pulled at his vest so the scar was covered and glared at Steve, who had to fight the sudden, insane urge to laugh. Stark’s glare was… cute. He had to be the world’s cutest murdering arms dealer.

            ‘Looks like you boys are getting to know each other,’ she said, patting Steve’s shoulder. ‘I knew you’d get along.’

            Stark opened his mouth to protest and at a sharp look from Steve snapped it shut with an audible click, mimed throwing away a key.

            ‘Come on, Steven, I want you to get a good few hours’ sleep and something to eat before everyone starts arriving. Peter just used a texting message to let me know he and Clint are outside waiting for us. Isn’t technology marvellous?’

            Stark shuffled awkwardly as Peggy left a lipstick mark on his cheek, and glared at Steve by way of goodbye. As Steve escorted his gal to the waiting car – he could see Peter, small and dark-haired, jumping around in the backseat – she smiled up at him.

            ‘I’m so proud of you, darling. And I’m so glad you’re home.’

            He sat in the back of the car with a lap full of squirming seven-year-old and listened to Peggy cheerfully yell at Clint, who was stoically silent and wearing dark shades, occasionally looking back at Steve and grinning.

            ‘Jesus, Peg, if you want me to invite him, all you have to do is ask,’ he said, finally, and Peggy seemed to deflate.

            ‘Really? Just, I always seem to have to force you to bring him along.’

            ‘All in your head, duchess. If you want Coach there, he’ll be there, like a suit-wearing expressionless birthday present.’

            Steve sat up straighter. ‘Phil’s coming?’

            ‘Awesome,’ Peter breathed, suddenly still in his brother’s arms. ‘Mister Coulson always has gum.’

            Home. They drove back to the brownstone where he’d started his real childhood, and he held his baby brother tight, and realised with an almost unbearable relief that maybe things could always be this simple.

            He’d later look back and realised what a ridiculous thing that had been to think.