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surely, to the sea

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Steve brings him home on a drizzling Friday afternoon. Sarah Rogers takes a deep breath, remembers all he's told her and all she's done to prepare, and opens the door.

Her son is standing on the doorstep, arm-to-arm with another boy bundled in one of his spare rain coats. Under a mop of damp brown hair, Tony Stark’s eyes are bright and his smile brighter.

“I see we finally get to meet, Tony,” Sarah says, smiling too. But a gust of wind sends the rain falling in her direction, and she clicks her tongue in disapproval when she sees the state of the weather. “Did you ride your bike in the rain?” she admonishes her son, stepping back to allow them room to come in.

“I thought we could outride it,” Steve says defensively. He stamps his feet clean on the welcome mat, a clap-clapping that draws Tony’s attention. He bites his lip, observes, then shakes off his feet on the mat too.

“Excuses, excuses,” Sarah says. “Get inside before you both catch a cold.”

She hears Tony whisper, “How do you catch the cold?” and Steve whisper back, “It’s just a figure of speech,” as she’s latching the door.

“Thank you for having me over, Mrs. Rogers,” Tony says once she turns back to them. He looks shy, keeping close to Steve. He is perhaps her height, and so certainly shorter than her son, who snagged a growth spurt when he turned sixteen and hasn’t stopped since. “It wasn’t Steve’s fault. I wanted to know what it was like to ride a bike.”

He’s trying to peel off the rain coat with some difficulty — the rain has plastered it to his arms and shoulders — but once he sees that Steve is struggling too, he tries to help him first.

“You’re too sweet,” Sarah decides out loud, stepping forward to help free Steve from the coat. “My son isn’t holding your seal skin hostage, is he?”

Ma,” Steve groans.

“Oh no, I’m very far removed from selkies,” Tony is happy to assure.

“Lucky for us, I see.” Sarah smiles, moving to help him next. “Steve, take these up to dry, will you? Tony, I’ve made casserole—have you ever tried anything like it?”

She drapes the coats over Steve’s arm before she starts towards the kitchen, and he hums in assent.

“Wait, where’re you going?” she hears Tony whisper, sounding a little nervous.

“I’ll be back quick, I just need to take these upstairs.” Through the hallway mirror, she glimpses her son pause at the banister to press a kiss to Tony’s temple. “Casserole’s just food," Steve promises, "and Ma makes the best kind. Don’t worry.”

Tony does eventually join her in the kitchen, standing in the doorway like he's not quite sure what to do with himself. Sarah shoots him a quick smile to make sure he knows it's all right to come in, but he stays there for a few more moments.

His nervousness doesn't last, at least: it eventually gives way to curiosity as he takes in the room around him. His gaze flits around the kitchen, never stopping in one place for too long. Sarah doesn’t think there’s anything particularly extraordinary about this little cottage that she built with her husband, but she imagines it must all be very new to Tony.

Eventually, he regards her too.

Steve had told her that Tony hasn't seen many other of their kind, so Sarah smiles understandingly when she sees him staring. It’s not as though she isn't doing her fair share of staring, particularly at the faint blue glow beneath his borrowed shirt.

“You said you made—casserole?” Tony says the word slowly, as if afraid that he might be saying it the wrong way.

“Potato casserole,” Sarah confirms as she slips on a pair of mittens. “Steve told me a little bit about your diet, so I thought it would be a safe option.”

“It smells really good,” Tony admits, folding his arms loosely over his stomach, and right on cue there’s a faint rumbling. He looks surprised, then sheepish, and Sarah only chuckles.

“Don’t worry, I made plenty for a reason. How long did you say the travel was, again?” She carefully brings out the pan from the oven. “I hope you haven’t gone long without eating.”

“Only a few hours. I just forgot to eat yesterday. I was—” He rubs the back of his neck, laughing. “I was really excited about today.”

Sarah smiles. “Well, I hope we don’t disappoint,” she says, meaning it. “I’ll make sure Steve treats you well while you’re here.”

“Oh, no, you won’t have to worry about that,” Tony says, a shy smile of his own tugging at his lips. “He always does.”

 

-

 

Tony brings stories with his surprisingly voracious appetite, and something about Steve’s presence seems to crack that quiet, unassuming shell of his. Sarah thinks it’s sweet. Halfway through his third helping, he tells them of his friend Rhodey whose main complaint about him leaving was that he would have to anchor himself to a rock for all the nights that Tony would be gone and of his friend Pepper who’s keeping an eye on the little cavern that he calls home. Steve picks up tangents where Tony trails off, and together they weave shared memories and inside jokes into a narrative that only they seem to understand.

Sarah doesn’t mind leaving them to conversation, because she watches her son laugh with this boy over the table, sees him looking at Tony with an impossibly soft gaze, and feels an inkling of how important this is all to Steve.

 

-

 

Later she’s surprised to find them rearranging the sofa and the coffee table, pushing them aside to lay the spare mattress on the living room floor. She almost chides Steve for making their guest sleep on the floor, but then she catches Tony collapse onto the pile of blankets and pillows with a delighted laugh and realizes her son may not be as hopeless as she fears after all.

She finishes as much of her work as she can in the kitchen — the clinic schedule is a bit tricky now that she’s taken the weekend off — but eventually her eyes start to droop and sleep demands its time.

She makes herself a cup of coffee and gathers up her papers. On her way to the stairs, she sees that the curtains have been pinned aside, allowing a view of the moon cresting the night sky.

“—not the same as when we’re on the beach,” she hears Tony’s voice, quiet in the dark.

“It’s okay,” she hears her son say in return, “I just like watching it with you.”

“Even when I’m like this?”

“No potion’s gonna change how I feel about you, Tony.”

She spies the shape of them, two figures huddled together at the foot of the couch, heads leaned against each other. She remembers how Joseph had promised, kissing her over the floor plans of their new home, We’ll be able to see the moon every night.

She smiles to herself and continues upstairs.

 

-

 

The house is quiet in the morning, at least until there’s a loud thump from upstairs—then quickly followed by smaller, sharper ones. Sarah flips the pancake on the griddle and calls, “Steve, what did you break this time?”

“Nothing!” Steve calls back quickly.

Sarah rolls her eyes and turns off the heat, because no matter how much older and taller her son grows, he’ll always be the same boy who once thought hide-and-seek with Bucky in the small cottage had been a good idea. He had been disproven by Bucky’s sprained shoulder at the end of that day—not wanting Tony to suffer the same fate, she treads upstairs.

Unsurprisingly, she finds them collapsed on the bathroom floor, surrounded by knocked-over bottles and a tangled shower curtain.

“What happened?” she sighs. She takes a step inside, and no further.

She has seen Steve's drawings, heard his stories, heeded his warnings, sought out her own research in the weeks leading up to the visit. And yet when she sees them now—her son with his head bent towards Tony in laughter, one arm cradling Tony close in his lap and the other splayed over Tony's deep red tail, which curls over and under one of Steve’s calves—well, perhaps nothing could have truly prepared her for this after all.

“Sorry, Ma,” Steve says. “We’re okay.”

“Steve was trying to be chivalrous,” Tony volunteers.

“Oh, if that’s what we’re calling trying to help you out of the tub now,” Steve says, feigning hurt. The expression lasts for all of three seconds before Tony pokes his cheek and it melts into a grin.

Steve has told her of other things—how Tony’s tail is weaker from the scars that run across the shimmering scales, how its color is too bright to be safe from larger predators—but seeing it now, the artist in her can’t find any other word to describe the sight besides amazing. It’s the stuff of legends, of fairy tales. It’s magic. It’s reality.

Finally, she finds enough of her voice to ask, “Are you okay, Tony?”

“I’m okay, Mrs. Rogers.” Tony’s smile is sunny. His fin curls and uncurls loosely in the cool air. “Steve just forgot I’m heavier like this.”

She sees Steve mumble an apology against his cheek. “All right, let’s get you somewhere that isn’t the bathroom floor,” she says. Steve is already trying to stand up, holding Tony securely in his arms, and thankfully neither of them look hurt.

She brings more towels to Steve’s room, where he’s lain Tony on the bed. Steve helps him dry off his tail, not minding that the covers of his bed are now a little damp.

“Do you need more of…?” She trails off. She’s not sure how it works: the transformation, Tony’s biology, although the nurse in her wishes she did.

Tony shakes his head, understanding. “No, the potion’s still fine. It just weakens when I’m in water for too long.”

“Well, let me know if you do need anything else, all right?” Sarah says. It’s the mother in her that wants to make sure Tony is safe.

Tony hums agreeably, but she can see this his attention’s already been caught by the rest of his surroundings—Steve’s posters and paintings on the wall, the glow-in-the-dark stars freckled across the ceiling. “Is this your room?” he asks Steve in wonder, hands paused on the towels. Then his tone turns accusing: “You said you weren’t a good artist.”

Sarah witnesses Steve, her son who has stared down bullies twice his size, turn bright red at Tony’s simple accusation. “I’m not really,” Steve says helplessly, but Tony is unappeased, leaning forward to clap both hands over the sides of Steve’s face.

“Liar,” Tony says hotly. His eyes catch on something else: Steve’s easel by the window, holding a still-wet oil painting of Tony sitting on the surf, his tail a rich red blur across the canvas. His cheeks color impressively quickly. “Is that me?

“Ma,” Steve begins in panic, although Sarah’s not sure what he expects her to do about this.

She holds her hands up and backs out of the room, declaring, “I’m going to finish making breakfast,” because some things can’t be helped after all.

 

-

 

By the afternoon, the rain hasn’t arrived yet, but the dark gray sky isn’t exactly an auspicious sign either. Sarah finishes buttoning up her jacket and checks her pockets for her keys. “Boys, I’m going out for groceries,” she calls up. “Do you want anything?”

When there’s no response, she goes upstairs and finds them still in Steve’s room. Tony has borrowed a set of Steve’s pajamas, sprawled upside down on Steve’s bed with his legs kicking freely in the air. He’s holding the camera that Steve got for Christmas last year, tilting it side to side and seemingly trying to snap a picture of Steve, who’s been trapped on the other side of the room with nothing but a canvas to defend himself with.

“Hi,” her son says.

“Hi, Mrs. Rogers,” Tony greets. “Steve, please, just one?”

“Groceries,” Sarah repeats for their benefit, pointing at herself. “I’m going before the rain gets here. Any requests?”

“What’s a groceries?” Tony asks.

“It’s what we call when we go to the store to buy food,” Steve says, lowering the canvas so Tony can understand him. Tony does. Tony also takes advantage of his vulnerable face and snaps a picture.

Steve gives a long, pitiful no as he curls up on the floor, defeated.

The camera clicks three more times.

“Is that a no?” Sarah says.

“Marshmallows,” Steve says into the carpet. “Tony wants to know what they taste like.”

Tony leaves the camera and twists off the bed, landing in a mess of limbs before crawling over to Steve with little whispers of sorry, sorry.

“I’ll be back in a few hours. Stay inside, all right?” she tells them, though she hardly needs to. Tony is stubbornly trying to peel Steve’s hands away from his face, and given how stubborn her son can be too, they’ll probably be caught up here for some time.

She leaves in good faith.

 

-

 

It’s well into the evening by the time she returns. She opens the door with bags of groceries and stops when she hears one of her old records filtering through the house—Joseph’s favorite, one that she hasn’t heard in years. Linger in my arms a little longer, baby, Peggy Lee sings, hold me tight.

Here is her son, swaying gently with Tony in the living room. She thinks of a week ago, how her son had come to her, red-cheeked and mumbling will you teach me how to dance?

For what seems like an eternity, Sarah remains at the vestibule, watching them with a soft smile.

Linger, linger, Peggy Lee croons, sweet and yearning, and Sarah lets the music mask her footsteps on the way to the kitchen so she doesn’t disturb them.

 

-

 

“I’m not a good dancer,” she hears Tony confide to Steve later, in the moonlit living room.

“It’s okay,” Steve says. “I’m not either.”

“Maybe you should visit my home one day. Dancing is easier there.”

A pause. “Could I really?”

She knows she shouldn’t feel such an ache when her son sounds so hopeful. Like his father, he’s a creature of the sea.

“I’d find a way,” Tony whispers in promise. “For you.”

“All right.” She hears the smile in Steve’s voice. “One day.”

 

-

 

Tony wakes first, stumbling into the kitchen with his hair flattened comically to one side. Sarah suspects it is from the position she had found them in that morning: Steve half-buried under the pillows, Tony clinging to him insistently with his arms and legs.

“The weather’s supposed to be nicer today,” Sarah hums, pushing a box of cereal towards him. Tony says a quiet thank you before he drops into a stool and pours himself a bowl. “Any plans before you go back?”

“Steve said something about a festival in town,” Tony says, eating his cereal dry. He smiles, though it’s distant and fixed somewhere beyond Sarah. “He said there’s a place with, ah, cakes there.”

“Do you not have them where you’re from?” Sarah asks, curious. She thinks of the flour and sugar she had bought but decided not to make, out of fear that Tony’s stomach would be sensitive to certain ingredients.

“Not many sweet things, no,” Tony answers. “But I don’t think they’d taste as good underwater, anyway.”

Sarah chuckles agreeably. “No, I guess not.”

Steve joins them a few minutes later in an equal state of dishevelment, if not worse. “G’morning,” he mumbles, still rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“Morning,” Tony says happily.

“If you’re going to be out all day, eat some breakfast before you go,” Sarah tells them mindfully. “And take your raincoats just in case.”

“We will, we will.” Steve buries his face into her neck when he hugs her, always more affectionate in the morning.

This close, Sarah can see how the folds of the pillow have been imprinted one side of his face. She pats him, then pinches his cheek lightly. “You didn’t drool on Tony, did you?”

“Ma,” Steve says, horrified.

Tony snickers behind his spoon. Steve grumbles at it, but by the time he moves around the counter to hug Tony from behind, he’s apparently already forgiven him. Sarah’s amused by it.

He starts towards the bathroom, but Tony catches his hand at the last second and tugs him back with a noise of protest. Steve pauses, and Sarah watches her son’s resolve melt away the moment he looks down at their intertwined hands. “M’just going to wash my face,” he mumbles.

Tony is undeterred. “Okay,” he says, still holding his hand.

It must have happened before, because Steve sighs and moves back within Tony’s reach. Tony leans up from the stool to kiss his cheek. When Steve draws back, he’s trying to rein in a smile and failing spectacularly. “I’ll be back,” he says, and he squeezes Tony’s hand before Tony lets go.

“I’m glad you came,” Sarah says when it’s just her and Tony again. His spoon clinks against the bowl; the water runs in the other room. “You make him very happy.”

Tony is blushing, looking down at his food. Steve’s shirt is a little big on him now, and the back of his neck is dusted with a light red, either from a blush or his scales beginning to show through the glamor. “He makes me happy too,” he confesses. The way he says it makes Sarah suspect that her son is not the only hopeless one here, and she smiles at that thought.

She has a sudden urge to ruffle his hair, and so she does, reaching across the island to gently tousle soft brown hair the way she’s done for Steve countless times before. “You’re welcome back here any time, Tony.”

He looks at her with some wonder, like it’s the last thing he ever expected to hear. “Thank you,” he says, earnest.

There are some things that Steve hasn’t told her, or things that perhaps Steve himself doesn’t know of yet. Certain things, like where Tony is from and his family and his scars, are things that Sarah will be patient for—but in the meantime, she will make sure that this place will never feel like anything less than a home for him.

 

-

 

“If you’re going to take your bike, ride it the proper way,” she tells her son firmly, pressing a small container in his hands. “These are for Tony, before he goes back.”

“But what if I want brownies too?” Steve pouts, but unfortunately for him, his puppy eyes have long stopped working on her.

“Then next time, you should stay home and help me make them,” Sarah chides.

(She has already packed extras.)

“Thank you again, Mrs. Rogers,” Tony says, surprising her with a hug. Sarah laughs, hugging him back, and when she pulls away she fastens the topmost button of his raincoat.

“You two have fun,” she says as she herds them out of the door. The sky is fair today, the wind from the coast blowing in crisp and cool. Sarah leans against the doorway with a tired smile—maybe later, when Steve comes home, she’ll visit the beach on her own. Lord knows Joseph would be upset if he ever found out it took her years after the accident to step foot on sand again.

For now, she’s content to watch her boys take off on Steve’s bike. Despite her warning, Steve has let Tony sit on the front handlebars again, and with that precarious balance of trust, they set off down the gravel. Sarah has half a mind to call after them, but she catches a glimpse of their faces lit up in laughter and decides to let it be; she remembers what it was like to be young and in love, after all.

She stays long enough to watch them disappear over the hill. Then she retreats inside to play her records.