“Come on, Sarah, we’ve gotta get going.”
“But Daddy, I can’t find Bucky Bear.”
Steve sighed and turned back into the apartment, struggling to close the crooked door behind him. It finally slid into the swollen frame and he slipped down the hallway. They didn’t have much to begin with, but it seemed that no matter how often he tidied up, 90% of what they owned always ended up in Sarah’s room. He supposed it was her imagination—plates became flying saucers or shields for gallant warriors, spare socks were instant puppets, books were not just tools to read but also flapping birds or fiery dragons or wizened tomes containing magic spells—so he didn’t begrudge her snatching them. Except when the whirlwind of her room swallowed some vitally important object, like his keys or Bucky Bear.
Sarah was rooting through her closet, but Steve already knew the toy wouldn’t be there. She’d never put Bucky Bear in the dark—he was afraid of it after all. Instead, he thrust one narrow hand into the covers of her bed, rifling through sheets and comforter until his hand encountered a familiar fuzzy lump. “Found him,” he said with a tired grin.
Sarah squealed with joy and took him from Steve’s hand, squeezing him tight. “Do you think Uncle Bucky’s gonna Skype us soon?”
“I’m sure he is, baby. But right now we have to go, ok?”
“Ok, Daddy.” She took Steve’s hand and followed him out into the hallway, helping to lean against the door until it slid shut and Steve could lock it. Across the hall, Steve’s recalcitrant landlord was standing on a step ladder, wrench clenched between his teeth as he worked at some wires recessed behind a ceiling panel. “Mr. Tony!” Sarah cried and ran to the ladder, Bucky Bear trailing from one hand.
Tony grunted around his wrench, shoulders hunching. Steve was never quite sure if it was just Sarah and him in particular that set Tony on edge, or if it was all people. In either case, he hurried after Sarah and scooped her up, holding her tight.
“Sarah, Mr. Tony is busy right now. Why don’t we let him work, alright?”
She pouted, but then looked up at Tony, standing precariously on tiptoe. “Ok. Bye Mr. Tony. See you later.”
Tony grunted, almost an amiable sound, and then dropped one hand to wave non-chalantly. Steve urged Sarah along down the hallway, but at the last moment thought of something. “Uh, Mr. Stark?”
Tony grunted again and removed the wrench from his mouth. “When you get a chance, if you have the time, would you mind looking at our front door. I can usually get it closed, but it’s tough for Sarah to get it on her own, what with the way it’s jamming.”
Brow puckered, Tony looked down at Steve, but then he nodded. “Yeah. I’ll get to it.”
Steve said thanks and turned, nodding. He supposed that would be the best he’d ever get out of their a man who seemed at heart fundamentally misanthropic, so that was that. He turned and started down the hallway, arms already aching with Sarah’s weight. She wasn’t as little as she used to be, and he could feel his lungs tightening up.
“Can you walk, baby?” he asked her, hefting her a little higher in his grip.
Sarah, too intuitive for her own good, looked at him critically. “Daddy, did you forget your inhaler again?”
“Uh…” Steve mentally retraced his steps through the apartment and realized that no, his inhaler was not in his bag. “Maybe?”
“Ok, ok. Let me just get it. I’m gonna put you down, ok baby?”
He eased Sarah to the ground and turned assuming she was behind him. It was only when he reached his door that he realized she’d stopped at Tony’s stepladder again, staring up into the hole in the ceiling.
“Can you just…watch her for a minute, Mr. Stark? I’ll be right out.”
Tony grunted, wrench in his mouth again, and Steve took that for assent. He forced the door open and darted inside, heading straight for his bedside table where he always kept his inhaler. Except it wasn’t there. It also wasn’t in his jeans from yesterday, nor was it in his spare backpack. It wasn’t in the bathroom and it wasn’t on the dining table. It wasn’t on their minuscule kitchen counter and it wasn’t on the table beside his armchair. It wasn’t commingling with his drawing supplies and it hadn’t wound up on the bookshelf. Steve sighed and slipped into Sarah’s room, wondering if he’d dropped it in the search for Bucky Bear. Sure enough, it was buried under her pillow, though how it’d gotten there was beyond him. He gathered up the inhaler and dashed back into the hallway only to discover Tony and Sarah sitting on the floor, heads together over something.
“Baby?” Steve said as he forced the apartment door shut.
“Daddy! Mr. Tony is showing me the wire stuff that makes the lights go on and off.”
“Wiring,” Tony mumbled, looking up, looking…sheepish. Steve caught himself thinking it was a good look on Tony.
“Is he now?” Steve said, stepping closer. “Well, I wish we could stay and look more, but I have to get to work, baby. Maybe Mr. Tony can show you more later.”
Sarah pouted but she stood up and gathered Bucky Bear in her arms. “Did you find your inhaler?”
“Yes, baby, I found my inhaler. Now let’s get going. Thank Mr. Tony, ok?”
She grinned, said “Thank you, Mr. Tony,” and grabbed Steve’s hand, dragging him down the hallway to the stairwell. Steve glanced behind him as they went, looking to where Tony remained on the floor, face scrunched and unreadable. It was on the tip of his tongue, something he wanted to say. Another thank you maybe. But then Sarah had him around the corner and clattering down the stairwell and work was waiting. Tony slipped from his mind.
Swearing slightly, Steve squelched into the apartment building. He was soaked from head to toe, his supplies bag dripping, hair in his eyes, dangerous wheeze in his lungs, and portfolio safe only by the grace of the plastic cover Natasha had insisted on buying him for his last birthday. Wet and miserable, he trudged up the stairs, squishing and dripping unpleasantly as he went. Tony had finished installing the new light in the hallway last week, and the warm golden glow was a welcome sight.
At his door, Steve fumbled for his keys, but it opened before he could get them. He nearly jumped because it didn’t squeak and groan in its frame. It was, in fact, completely silent, smooth and satisfying as a puzzle piece slipping into place. Sarah grinned up at him. “Mr. Tony’s here fixing things!” she said joyfully, and opened the door wider for him.
On the couch, Sam sat with both arms crossed, mouth caught somewhere between exasperation and mirth. He was watching with sharp eyes as Steve’s landlord did battle with the ancient VCR. There was something endearing about the way he gripped tools beneath his teeth, flathead screwdriver waggling as he yanked at a stubborn wire.
“That doesn’t work anymore,” Steve said, dripping just inside the doorway.
Tony mumbled something that sounded like “Nodif-I-bany-fing-du-fay-abou-dit” as Sam stood.
“Jesus, Steve. Did you forget an umbrella again.”
“Didn’t forget,” Steve said with a grimace, wringing out his jacket and setting his portfolio aside. “Wind beat it to a pulp.”
“Jesus Christ Rogers,” Sam muttered, but he set about taking Steve’s bag and coat and setting them over the radiator to dry. From the corner of his eye, Steve could see Tony watching them move, face inscrutable.
“Seriously, Tony,” Steve said, toeing out of his sopping shoes, “it’s fine. We’ve only got three tapes anyway.”
Tony extracted his screwdriver from his mouth and looked to the side, mouth pursed. “She wanted to watch Dora,” he said, waving vaguely in Sarah’s direction.
At that, Sam smirked. “She’s got your landlord twisted around her little finger, this one. He came by to fix the door and next thing I know, he’s leveling your bed and checking the draft in the window and changing out the lightbulbs. All cause she batted her eyelashes at him.”
“Well,” said Steve, sweeping Sarah up and proceeding to squeeze her, “that’s because she takes after her mom.” Sarah giggled up at him, smile wide and eyes sparkling, and then she tousled Steve’s wet hair.
“You’re gonna catch a cold, Daddy. Go change.”
Steve smiled softly at her and kissed her cheek. “Who’s the parent around here, huh? I’m s’posed to be takin’ care’a you. Not the other way around.”
Sarah pouted and crossed her arms, staring at him imperiously. Then she pointed down the hallway. “Go change.”
Unexpectedly from the corner, Tony guffawed and then outright chuckled, hand over his mouth. Steve blinked in awe—he wasn’t sure he’d ever seen Tony smile before. He couldn’t help smiling himself and gently eased Sarah back to the floor. “Ok, ok. I’ll be right back out.”
He slipped into his narrow bedroom and quickly shucked his work clothes for a pair of flannel pajama pants and one of Peggy’s old T-shirts. He knew it was all in his head, but sometimes he swore he could still smell her perfume on it.
When he emerged, Tony was packing up his tools and Sam was yanking his coat tight, bandying his umbrella.
“Thanks for watching her, Sam,” Steve said, moving to dig for some cash.
“Don’t you dare pay me,” Sam growled, hitching his scarf over his nose. “I will hurt you, Rogers.” He moved to the door and opened it, glaring back. “Same time next week. Bring me donuts.” And then he was out the eerily silent door.
Steve turned to Tony, who was just closing his toolbox. “Listen, uh. Thank you for looking at the door. And the bed. And everything. You really didn’t have to do that. I can probably chip an extra thirty into next month’s rent if you—“
“Don’t even think about it,” Tony said, face back to its usual scowl. He made to escape as well, but at the last moment turned back and crouched. “You remember what I told you about the VCR, Sarah?”
She wrinkled her face up in concentration and for a moment, Steve’s heart clenched in his chest. She looked so much like her mother. Then she popped her hand up like she was in class. “Don’t ever touch the green wire. Ever ever. Or things might go boom.”
“That’s right,” Tony said with a nod and a half smile. “And don’t let your dad touch it either. I’ll swing by some other time to get it all set up.” And with a sharp nod at Steve he was gone.
Sarah leaned out into the hallway to watch him go and then went back in, shutting the door behind her. With a haze of confusion hanging around him, Steve leaned forward and slid the bolt and chain home. He turned to eye the VCR warily, wondering if he should maybe unplug every appliance in the apartment, lest they start a fire.
“Yes baby?” Steve said absently, brows still drawn down in contemplation.
“I like Mr. Tony. Can he come over to play?”
Steve blinked at that, and crouched down. “You like him?”
“But he doesn’t like kids,” Steve said, half-teasing, half-serious.
“Nuh uh. He said he thought I was ‘pretty ok for a little rugrat.’”
Steve frowned more deeply at that, but he nodded slowly. “Tell you what. Next time we see Mr. Tony, you can ask him if he wants to come over to play. But he’s a very busy man. He might say no. Is that ok with you?”
Sarah nodded, clapped her hands gleefully, and zipped off to her room. Steve could hear her talking to Bucky Bear, telling him about her day. He glanced at the door again and shrugged. It wasn’t like Tony would say yes to a playdate with a six year-old anyway.