By the time he gets home, he sees a rented car parked in front of the garage, which is covered in Christmas lights that are elaborately twinkling at him. Actually, the porch and most of the house itself is covered in Christmas lights. Steve doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the sight; he’s both proud that they all finally managed to agree on a color scheme and sad that he had missed the entire Christmas Light fight. Knowing the people inside, Steve knows that the long-lasting argument of how to decorate the house had to have happened.
He‘s still smiling at the lights when he fumbles for his keys and opens the door, a task made harder when he only has one free hand thanks to the coffee in his other hand. There’s no point in trying to sneak in and surprise them all with the fact that he’s early—he’s pretty sure that at least one of them has had their eyes on the windows for him. He could almost swear that his family is a family of spies. Steve steps in and locks the door behind him, sighing with relief when he isn’t greeted with a bone crushing hug this year by at least two people/a plate of whipped cream. When he had been greeted with said plate last time, the pain of the plate smashing into his face outweighed any annoyance of the actual prank itself.
Well, that, and the fact that everyone still jokes that the plate is responsible for the non-existent bump on his nose, thank you very much, he doesn’t know what you’re talking about, and it’s quote unquote hideousness. Steve’s annoyed about that too.
Not that he’s going to dwell on it, because he has his moment of peace. Just him, and his coffee. No plates, papers, students, or pseudo-spy families. Just him, and a moment of peace.
For a second, he places his coffee on the floor. In peace, Steve opens the shoe closet and slides off his shoes, hangs up his coat and stows away his briefcase in the shelf that’s in the closet for that exact purpose. When he closes the closet door, he picks up his coffee from the floor again and catches a whiff of the candle-scented air, that actually might not be a candle’s fault.
Cinnamon is in the air, almost overbearing with how strong he can smell it, but it actually explains why he can hear voices coming from the kitchen. Steve smells the air again—cardamom and gingerbread—and sighs again. He might have missed the Christmas light argument, but he definitely hasn’t missed the holiday spice cookie argument. Since there’s a lot of cinnamon, he’s guessing that Lena is winning. Steve needs to find people who don’t like to argue as a way of showing affection, and that is coming from himself.
Though if he’s going to be honest, this exactly what happens when his mother, Peggy, Angie, Sam, Riley, and his daughter come together in a room after a year of being apart. Peggy and Angie live in London, Sam and Riley live in D.C., his mother lives in Brooklyn unless it’s summertime (in which case she’s either in Ireland or traveling the world with some unfortunate person she’s hustled into going with her, and he lives twenty minutes from SHIELD University with Lena. But by apart, he means that they haven’t physically been in a room together, because Steve’s pretty sure that everyone calls, texts, or Snapchats Lena because she sure as hell didn’t learn the phrases “bloody fucking hell” or “ná bí ag iarraidh cluain an chacamais a chur orm” from him. He’s also fairly sure that he’s never taught her neither Morse code nor ASL.
Actually, he suspects that his mother taught her ASL, and Sam taught her Morse with Riley. Steve knows that Lena used to always ask him how to communicate in ASL, since she knows that he knows it thanks to his childhood ailments, including bad ears. At some point, she stopped asking and started hesitantly signing to him. It was probably the same point that Steve stopped asking and started proudly signing back, correcting movements and gestures gently whenever he has needed to. In turn, Lena’s trying to teach him Spanish. The key word is trying, since Steve is firm in his belief that him knowing four languages (three spoken, one sign) is pretty decent for someone who isn’t a translator or someone who needs to know languages for work.
Steve’s belief may or may not be stronger than it was before Lena started to teach Spanish to him because he’s really bad at it now. Lena may or may not be frustrated because she keeps telling him that Spanish is similar to French and he knows French. Steve always tells her that she should have taken French if she wanted to practice on him.
At any rate it doesn’t matter, because he knows that Angie can speak in Spanish fluently because her education came with a language immersion program that people had to take if they wanted to learn a language. As a result, two of the voices from the kitchen are speaking Spanish, and very loudly at that. Steve suddenly wonders if they had noticed his entrance, or not. And if not...
“You couldn’t have waited for me? Do I have to remind everyone that this is my kitchen and I love all of your cookies equally so please make them all?” Steve teasingly asks, stepping into the kitchen and noticing the half-empty giant jar of cinnamon on the countertop, as well as a faint brown dusting on the countertop that the jar is resting on. He then surveys the rest of the kitchen, which seems to be more or less intact and clean. The ovens are on, and he sees a few trays of something in them. There are mixing bowls and utensils everywhere, and a bowl of batter in Lena’s hands that doesn’t appear to be spiced. Yep, definitely the holiday spice argument.
Peggy and Angie are the closest to him, since they’re right near the countertop with the jar that creates almost a makeshift barrier between the kitchen space and people entering the kitchen room itself. Lena’s standing in the middle of the kitchen, right by the ovens, and then Sam and Riley are on the other side of her than Peggy and Angie. There are two entrances/exits to the kitchen that are at opposite ends, and his ma is standing between the second entrance and Riley. Coincidentally, she’s right by the cabinets where Steve keeps a lot of snacks, including the jar of chocolate chips.
He’s greeted with a moment of silence during which he decides to finish his coffee, and then a bone-crushing hug from Angie, who seems to make it a point to land him in the hospital one of these days by breaking his ribs. Steve chuckles warmly, and then winces when his sides hurt. Great, he can’t wait to discover bruises again by sleeping on them the wrong way. At least the coffee didn’t spill like last year.
“Dad!” Lena says, and Steve can’t tell if she’s happy to see him early, or if she’s annoyed that he came early and ruined whatever surprise she had in store for him. “You’re early.” Yep, she clearly did have something planned. Steve’s suddenly thankful that he won’t get to see it, since last year’s surprise involved whipped cream, the stupid plate that she didn’t actually mean for, and glitter. He still is not sure what part of that prank happened to be Peggy’s influence and what part happened to be Lena’s original idea.
“Might have broken a few rules to get here early,” he shrugs causally, trying to prevent a smile from appearing on his face and giving up the game of acting cool. “And everyone knows that motorcycles have the best time beating traffic.”
Peggy snorts, a thrilled smile appearing on her face. “You mean you gave everyone including the provost a wholesome, radiant smile and batted your eyelashes at them to leave early.” Riley snickers at that, clearly trying to hide the laugh into a cough. Angie’s doing the same thing, but she’s doing a much better job. Sam, the asshole, is grinning widely like he couldn’t care less about hiding his smile. “And then you stopped somewhere along the way to chat up the barista who made the coffee in your hand.”
Steve gasps like the dramatic idiot he is. “I would never! I don’t know who you take me for, Ms. Carter, but a shameless flirt is disgraceful to my good name.” Even his ma starts trying to stifle a laugh. He would be more hurt by her betrayal, but Steve’s always certain that his ma likes Peggy much more than him. Apparently Peggy calls more often, which is utter bullshit since Steve calls every other day, and sometimes even calls every day.
“Ugh,” Lena says, pretending to gag. “So Mum can pretend to flirt with the cashiers and Dad can flirt with everybody he works with, but I can’t?”
“Young lady, you are too young to eve be thinking about—” Peggy says at the exact time as Steve when he says, “If you’re trying to bring up Laya’s brother again, for the last time, just tell Laya that he can come here tomorrow too, and I’ll see if I like him.”
Peggy stops before Steve does, and he doesn’t realize that she’s paused until he’s finished the sentence and Angie’s snickering into her palm. Steve hides a wince when he realizes he’s forgotten to mention both the Christmas party and Laya’s brother to Peggy. He tries to look away, and catches Lena suddenly eyeing the cinnamon jar with a little more interest than normal.
“Steve!” Peggy hisses, glaring at him with disapproval. “She’s only fifteen!”
“And your point is? I—” Steve starts to respond, before his mind catches up to his words and he realizes that it a very inappropriate thing to say in front of your daughter and your mother who doesn’t actually know that he ‘lost’ his virginity at 15. He tries to cover up the momentary lapse in judgement by saying, “I know she’s fifteen but people date when they’re fifteen, and then they break up or stay friends or lose touch altogether, but they still date.”
“Oh my god, Dad,” he hears Lena mumble. He also hears his ma unsubtly try to leave the kitchen, taking Sam and Riley with her. He frowns at his ma since he hasn’t even properly said hello to her and she’s leaving, but she merely shrugs and waves a hand as if to say later. Soon, it’s just him and Lena, Peggy and Angie. “Thanks for not telling Mum.”
He ignores her. “Peggy,” he says, much more quietly and with the faintest smile on his face. He doesn’t know what it says about the two of them when they only ever argue about Lena and every single aspect of her life. “Pegs, come on.”
She shakes her head with a frown, and Steve watches as Angie also unsubtly tries to leave as she shepherds Lena and the bowl of batter in Lena’s hands out of the kitchen. He knows they’re all trying to give him and Peggy some privacy. He thinks that they all have realized that this was going to happen sooner or later, and by this he means an argument-cum-discussion over something about Lena that isn’t really about her at all. Or, if not an argument, a long conversation about what’s happening between the three of them: Peggy, Lena, and him.
“I just—” Peggy sighs, looking as though she wants to slump into a chair. She makes do with using the countertop for support as all the anger and sudden indignation leaves her. “I don’t know. She’s growing up too fast. And—dating, bloody hell, she wants to date.”
“She’s almost sixteen,” Steve says, suddenly feeling too old even though he shouldn’t be. “A quarter of tenth grade over.”
“She can’t be like us, Steve,” Peggy vehemently says, shaking her head. “She’s much too smart to have to have too many things on her head. Eva is not going to end up like us, having to claw our way up the ranks, and she doesn’t even have a parent with the patience and temperament that Sarah had or has for us. Relationships are... not for people who want to keep going the way that she will want to.”
Steve knows that fact, and he knows it well enough that this is the exact reason he’s trying to ‘play it cool’ by giving his approval on dating or not after he’s met the potential boyfriend/girlfriend. The only reason he’s enforcing the rule now is because he wants her to try and become accustomed to him and Peggy checking out said potential partner in the future when trouble really begins to start. Also because he doesn’t want to have Lena dating and sneaking around him or Peggy to date if they’re too harsh or too lenient, and then land in actual trouble since neither he nor Peggy can help. Trust him, he’s thought long and hard about this, especially since after he’s had to have a variety of conversations with her.
He just didn’t think they were going to bring this up now, not even ten minutes into his winter break. Steve had a plan, damn it. The plan involved tomorrow and Laya’s brother because he knew that Peggy would try to shield Lena as much as she could. She’s probably better at this than Steve is and he probably sympathizes too much with Lena, but it’s fine. He’s still going to give it a shot.
“I know,” he says, tipping his head back against the wall, groaning because he really does know. “But she also doesn’t deserve to be shielded from teenage life just because we made a few ill-advised decisions. She’s smart enough.”
“You know, that’s what they said about us too,” Peggy reminds him with a bitter twist to her lips. “That we were smart and old enough to sort out the good and the bad. Lena’s too smart, that’s true. But we were too smart once upon a time.”
“We can’t think about her falling,” Steve says, standing normally so that he can see Peggy again, and not from the bottom of his vision. “We can’t think about her like that.”
“Bullshit,” Peggy says. “No one did it for us, because they couldn’t even imagine us having to fight for every centimeter. The only reason we made it out was because we have always been fighting for every second of respect and advancement in our lives. We’ve worked too hard for Lena to know those struggles.”
Steve suddenly sees the fine lines around her eyes and mouth that have never shown on her face this prominently as they have now. They’re light, and barely noticeable, but with Steve’s eye for detail and the way he’s watching Peggy, he can’t help but notice them. He sighs and knows that if he looks in a mirror, he’ll start to see the faintest lines on his face too, especially in his forehead. All from a decade and a half of worry and stress, things that not even good genetics can beat. He suddenly realizes he’s woefully unequipped to properly have this conversation right now. Why didn’t he ask for an espresso shot two extra in his coffee? Why?
“But you think she’s too like us,” he says, knowing that Peggy’s right. “Only instead of the blood on our teeth, she has blood wherever the metaphor makes sense.” He pauses as what Peggy isn’t saying but will say strikes him. “But we can’t do what you’re going to want.”
“We should. She’s much too like us!” Peggy hisses. “Don’t tell me that you’re not thinking about this too.”
“But we can’t helicopter her and end up stifling her!” Steve protests, his voice raising in response to hers, feeling guilty just when he does. He’s invalidating her opinions, Jesus Christ, this isn’t what he should be saying right now but his brain won’t turn back online right now. “Both of us fucked up, yeah, I know. I know. Somehow, we didn’t raise a fuckup, even if that’s more my ma than anything we’ve ever done. Somehow, she’s still a well-adjusted teenager who hasn’t succumbed to stress of school or anything else, and that’s more than what a lot of other people can say. She’s doing just fine.”
“She has almost all of our best and worst qualities,” Peggy says. “She’s too clever for anything to happen to her!”
With his free hand, he massages his eyes using his thumb and pointer, rubbing slow circles into them. “What do you want me to do?” Steve snaps, thinking shit, shit, shit, shit. He’s watching this train wreck happen in his own body. “What do I do about her, huh? If not now, what do I do later? She has freedom, she has choice, we can’t take that away from her!”
“It’s just dating!”
“Yeah,” Steve counters. “That’s my point.”
“No, just... Steve. It’s just one thing we can afford to be strict about,” Peggy says almost reasonably. Almost.
“It’s not just one thing. This isn’t about dating, is it?” Steve asks, Peggy’s rationale behind this argument suddenly making sense if he sees it from her point of view. Something’s happened to Peggy, something not so good that has to be a result of being who she is now. Something she hasn’t told Steve yet. Shit. And then, he just had to yell at her for it too. Shit. “It’s just one part, and I don’t even think dating’s the issue. If this was about dating, we wouldn’t be yelling at each other. I’m just sorry I didn’t realize it before and yelled anyway.”
She stares at him for a long minute, and sighs, anger melting away as the lines on her face smoothen out. “You’re the sincerest fucking arsehole I’ve ever met,” she semi-fondly gripes, before the pleasant expression vanishes. “Can’t even be mad at you properly just for the sake of something tangible.”
Steve doesn’t say anything. What he does, though, is set his coffee down on the cinnamon-dusted countertop that he’ll find the explanation for later, and walk towards Peggy to hug her. She stiffens, and he almost lets go, but she sighs again, body going almost slack. They don’t move for a while from that, but Steve’s mind is thinking of all the things that could have gone wrong since the last time he’s really talked to Peggy.
It can’t be about Angie; from the seven minutes he’s seen of her, they seem to be fine. It can’t be about Peggy’s family either, he’s talked to Peggy’s brother maybe a week ago and Lena’s talked to her uncle who knows how recently and she hasn’t said anything. It can’t be about work; work doesn’t get her this stressed. But Chancellor Pierce does. Angie’s family, for that matter, does. Peggy’s guilt over Lena might.
“I might not be granted tenure at SWORD,” Peggy reveals quietly, “Because of certain lifestyle choices and being the antithesis of an exemplary professor.” Steve can hear the chastisement in the echo of what he knows to be Pierce’s words. But fuck, this isn’t something small at all. Peggy was almost sure to be easily granted tenure because of what she has already accomplished but outside and within SWORD University.
Oh, shit. That doesn’t even begin to cover this.
“He can’t discriminate because of sexuality,” Steve says, “What about Angie? Is she still on track?”
He can feel Peggy shake her head slightly against his shoulder, and has a strange moment of déja vù to when he was the shorter one and always had his head come up to a little higher than her shoulder.
“Angie’s safe,” Peggy says, sounding as if that is the only good to come out of her situation. “It’s just me.”
“Lena?” Steve asks, though the answer has to be yes or at least partially yes.
“Twenty years old and I had a baby with someone I had no intention of dating, marrying, or even staying with,” she whispers, fury and resentment boiling in her voice. “Apparently that makes for dubious ethics. After all that I’ve done to get my name out there, it’s going to be this again. Stigma.”
“Have you told Angie yet?” he asks, whispering the words into her hair since she hasn’t let go of him and he has no intention of letting go first. “Does she know?”
“You're the first one,” Peggy says, turning her head slightly against him so that her face wouldn’t be smooshed against his chest and shoulders, but rather her right ear and her hair would. “Only one, if I have anything to say about it.”
“Peggy,” he says again, in commiseration. Steve doesn’t say anything else after that, not even when she slowly extracts herself from him and looks up into his eyes with a sad smile.
“I don’t know,” she says, looking down suddenly. “If or when Pierce fires me, or ends my term, both of us know I’m not finding professional work again, not when word spreads on why. And you... Steve. You’re just a few years away from reaching tenure, too close. Both of us may have reputations that precede us, but reputations like the ones we will undoubtedly receive will make life very, very difficult for us and Eva.”
Steve sucks in a breath when she mentions Lena and how Lena’s life might change if suddenly Peggy lost her job. Steve may teach at very prestigious university, but he doesn’t make enough money to be able to afford the house, live by himself and Lena, pay back his college loans and everything else, and be able to pay for her school or future college fees, not to mention help his Ma out. That’s only the economic fallout. So far, him and Peggy have been able to shield Lena from scholar notoriety, and most don’t know that the so named world-renowned Dr. Rogers and Dr. Carter have a child, let alone a child together when they’re not together. Especially Peggy. She hails from a long line of distinguished individuals, and scandal is not conducive to anything, especially when prestige is on the line. Who knows what kind of blowback Lena would receive, especially once she reached college, where the odds were that at least a few professors would recognize him and Peggy. She doesn’t need that kind of blowback.
“Why don’t you transfer to SHIELD?” Steve asks, bringing up the age-old conversation they’ve had about the other switching to their school. Usually, it’s Peggy and Angie harping on him to explore his U.K. roots (though his mother would pitch a fit if he called his Irish heritage anything resembling U.K. roots) and join SWORD. “I know that there are a few professors set to retire soon.”
“Not without Angie,” she says firmly. “Not without her.”
“Both of you,” he says, not missing a beat. “What’s keeping you, really? Your brother? Because I’ve seen your brother face-to-face more times in the past few years than you because of how often he travels.”
“What if the idea doesn’t work?” she counters, “And it doesn’t solve the problem of Pierce lording Eva over me.”
Steve doesn’t know what to say to that. “You have to talk to Angie,” he tells her instead, “And maybe we need to have a conversation with Eva. Not—not about dating, but maybe about your family history. About us.”
Peggy nods slowly, but Steve can tell she’s thinking hard enough that she’s stuck in her mind.
“Hey,” he softly says. “Peggy.”
She flicks her eyes back up at him. “Do you ever wonder if Lena thinks about us?” Her words are slowly, spoken haltingly as if Peggy couldn’t manage to see them out loud. They’re troubled.
“Every damn day. Especially when you don’t call,” Steve easily grins, though that isn’t what Peggy asked, not in the slightest. Defensively, Steve knows he’s crossing his arms and gripping his own arms too hard. He has no pockets to shove his hands into. Not even his smile feels comfortable.
“Steve,” she sighs, “You know what I meant.”
“I don’t know,” he admits. Truth be told, Lena’s asked every single question about them—except for this. “She must have thought about it, but she’s never asked. Has she ever asked you?”
Peggy bits her lip and looks away, anywhere besides Steve. Steve knows the same feeling of wanting to ignore this conversation, wanting to hide it behind all of their constructed walls and pretend that they’re fine. But they can’t ignore this, they can’t pretend like Christmas season will erase their words and sweep it under the rug. Steve doesn’t even have a rug big enough to try and hide anything right now, thanks to the Nail Polish Incident of Last Month. And even then, he doubts anything to cover this up.
When Peggy doesn’t respond, he decides to wait. Instead, Steve runs a finger across the countertop—trickier than normal because his back is still to that countertop because he’s still watching Peggy think too hard—and then licks his finger. Cinnamon. Sugar, but some of that really fine shit that Lena had been determined to grind herself using a pestle/mortar set and cane sugar. Flour, or at least Steve hopes that’s flour and not baking soda that he’s not going to discover the next time he places the sticky vinegar bottle (dried vinegar is apparently sticky???) on the countertop and something will start fizzing again.
“I wanted her,” Peggy says. “God help me, I wanted her. And even if I didn’t, my parents wouldn’t have let me anywhere near a clinic and—”
Steve freezes. He hadn’t known that. All this time, he’s always been under the assumption that Peggy’s parents had gone along with it, not that they had been a primary reason for Peggy to keep Lena. He hadn’t known that at all, hadn’t thought that the Carters would have such firm stances on abortion. Suddenly wishing for a time machine, Steve thinks he would give just about anything to go back in time and properly talk to Peggy—if it weren’t for the fact that he might not come back to a future with Lena in it. Selfish, he knows.
“—wouldn’t change anything now but I can’t help but wonder if Eva ever wonders,” Peggy is saying when Steve snaps back into the real world and shit, Peggy’s crying. She’s crying, and she only cries the maximum of once a year unless they’re happy tears that only Angie can get out of her, shit, Steve’s not good with this because he usually cries when Peggy does because usually something to distress her can distress him and—shit. Shit. Steve’s floundering.
Steve wants to hug her again, purely out of a reflex he’s developed because of Lena. Not that Lena cries either—inherited from Peggy because it’s well known amongst everyone in this house right now that Steve can and will cry at every other movie and that he’s banned from watching the first ten something minutes of Up—but the occasional frustration or friend-related situation gets to her. Or the time when he had to explain periods and Lena had cried because she didn’t want to lose more blood and become more anemic than she was because that would affect school and her overall performance.
But he doesn’t. “We haven’t given her a reason to wonder if we didn’t want her,” Steve says with a certainty he doesn’t have. “And you know Lena, she would ask if she ever thought about it and came up with an answer she didn’t like.”
Peggy’s eyes tiredly search his face for some kind of other answer, crinkling at the corners the longer she doesn’t say anything. She sucks in the hollow of her right cheek, seemingly swallowing in that air and then repeating the cycle. Pressing a hand to her face to clear her tears, she then rubs away at the corner of her eye with her pinky finger. Switch, change hand. Steve looks away after that, trying to stop his own thoughts about Lena.
He instead looks at the fridge, or more accurately, the side of the fridge. Though it’s winter of her sophomore year, neither of them have yet taken down the certificate half of a theatre award she had won for her freshman spring musical that was apparently one of the few that they awarded just once a year. Or the certificate half of a theatre award she had won for her freshman fall play. Apparently the theatre awards were given out semiannually: once after the fall/winter performances and once after spring performances. Steve was, and still is proud.
Outstanding Performance as a Supporting Character — Female: Sarah Evangeline Carter-Rogers for Alice in Wonderland
Scene-Stealer of the Year: Sarah Evangeline Carter-Rogers as Mayzie LaBird for Seussical
When he looks back at Peggy, her eyes are wistfully looking just where he had been. Not happy, and definitely guilty.
“I don’t know where I stand with her,” Peggy says. Steve opens his mouth to say that isn’t true, but she fixes him with a sharp look that wouldn’t shut him up if it were anyone else. “Don’t say it’s simple. It’s not, at least not for me and her.”
“Peggy—” he says.
“—don’t. You know better than I do where you stand in her life,” Peggy says with no trace of envy or jealousy because she’s too good for that. If their positions were reversed, Steve couldn’t say the same thing.
“Only because I live with her,” Steve refutes. “If our positions were switched, and I was at SWORD and you were here, I don’t even think Lena would know my favorite color for how bad I am at trying to balance at my life. Every time she calls, you pick up or you text her back within a minute. Every single time. Or you apologize for not being able to come to the phone directly. You call Lena and I, well, mostly her, every other day at the very least.”
He pauses, glancing at the certificates for a second and eyeing the Polaroid photo pinned right above them. It’s from last year, and Steve remembers taking it all too well. It had been the day after Christmas and Lena was thrilled about receiving more film to snap photos. She had taken nearly a dozen of them within the day, ranging from photos of everyone to photos of moments of sheer stupidity. One of them, in particular, had been a photo of Steve doing a spit-take back into his own cup of hot mocha at something his ma had said. Lena claimed that she had initially snapped the shot to have a photo of Steve laughing, but the conspiratorial wink that his ma and Lena shared convinced him otherwise. But before Steve could call bullshit on them, Lena had unceremoniously thrusted the camera into his hands and forced him to take a ‘cute picture of Mum and me’ that she could place on her wall of Polaroids.
Steve remembers having to first prove his photography skills by taking the same shot on his phone, showing the picture to Lena, and then listening to her have him try something else. He also remembers standing on the sofa, lying on the floor, kneeling on the floor, and various other poses that had all been wrong. After the fifth change, Steve had narrowed his eyes and quickly snapped a photo of Peggy and Lena with the Polaroid.
The resulting photo? Steve had captured perfectly Lena’s shocked face as she reached out for the camera, and the beginning of Peggy’s thrilled laughter. He hadn’t let Lena put it on her wall; he stuck it to the fridge instead.
He looks back to Peggy, who seems to be looking at the picture next to that. It was one of Lena as Mayzie from Seussical.
“I think,” he says, as Peggy’s eyes snap back to him, “If you ever ask her the same question, she’s going to tell you probably the opposite of what you’re thinking. And I’ll bet you almost anything she’ll tell you that you’re the favorite parent. You know why? Because it sure as hell isn't me.”
“Why not?” Peggy asks.
Steve grins, because this he has a fantastic answer to. “Well, for one, I picked her up from school the other day dressed exactly like Mr. Rogers and I still think that a few of her friends ask her how her dad’s neighborhood is doing. I’m not sure; guess I’ll find out tomorrow.”
Peggy blinks once, a slow smile stretching over her face almost like she’s trying to force it on her face. Steve’s not surprised by that in the slightest. What he is surprised about is the tight embrace she pulls him in for.
“You’re incorrigible,” she whispers, and soon enough, they’re both laughing quietly; him into her shoulder and her at the curve of his.
When they both stop laughing—while the echoes of their conversation are tucked away neatly into the back of their minds by mutual unspoken agreement—Peggy pulls away from him, a lingering smile on her face. This conversation is far from over, far from even being had, but things have been aired out and now all they have to do is think. Think, and come back to it, possibly with Lena. And/or Angie.
He wants it to be as easy as that, to neatly parcel it into a ‘Marked for Later’ collection of thoughts. But more than that, he wants to sober up for a second and tell Peggy that they shouldn’t wait until the end of Peggy’s stay here to talk again, and he wants to say so many other things. He won’t, though. Not when the look in her eyes knows that he wants to reassure her and is daring him to say something. He’s not taking the dare this time.
So he grins back, dismissing his thoughts until the only thing he can think of is the fact that all his family is here.
“Ugh,” he says, rolling his eyes at her, “I cannot believe we just had that conversation not even ten minutes after I walked in. You owe me a coffee.”
She punches him in the shoulder and shakes her head at him like he’s a lost cause. A lost, asshole cause. “Merry Christmas,” she says, even though it’s not Wednesday of Christmas and is in fact actually the Friday before.
“Was fucking merry before,” he mutters and she gives him a look that means he’s half-heartedly in for it sometime in his near future. But it’s fine, because Peggy’s always feeling her best whenever she’s tormenting him in the way that best friends are good at. And... she definitely needs cheer this season. It’s decided.
Still, he resolves to make an impromptu visit back to campus tomorrow or Sunday, just to try and schedule an appointment with Chancellor Fury and subsequently, Dean Coulson, who is the head of the Humanities. Steve knows for a fact that Coulson loves him, and up until now, he hasn’t ever taken advantage of that. For Peggy though? It’s worth a shot. He also knows that Fury will trust Coulson’s judgement like he trusts very few other people.
“I’m going to go freshen up,” Peggy says, pulling Steve out of his plan for tomorrow. “And Sarah’s been eagerly waiting for you. Well, kind of. You’ll see.”
She disappears into the hallway, and Steve decides to go into the living room, where he just knows that everyone else has to be. And they are. Five sets of eyes stare at him when he walks in and unceremoniously plops down next to his ma on the free spot of the sofa.
“So?” Lena asks without missing a beat. “What did Mum say? Please tell me you convinced her on dating.” She mumbles something about how unlikely that was right after, unsubtle as Steve knew she wasn’t. Sam snickers again.
“Dating?” Steve asks blankly, before his mind catches up to Lena’s words and the conversation he literally just had. “What-oh. Fuck. Shut the fuck up Sam. Dating. Oh. Fuck.”
“You shouldn’t really be swearing in front of my impressionable ears,” Lena mildly says, smirking just like Peggy does. “It’s not good parent behavior.”
“On second thought,” Steve says in retaliation, leaning back into the couch cushions that are only reminding him why he never sits in this particular sofa, “Peggy and I have decided that you’re to remain single and not ready to mingle until you’re forty. At least. Have fun convincing Peggy otherwise.”
“Yeah, are you following that rule too?” Sam asks, segueing right into Steve’s lack of a love life. Not again, not now. Steve needs more coffee, he really does for this. Or something stronger than coffee, less than cocaine. Hell, maybe he’d take it, if it weren’t for the fact that his mind flashes DRUGS BAD DRUGS BAD DRUGS BAD DRUGS BAD DRUGS because of Lena’s school drug education and because he literally works at a college where people get fucked up too much. Great, and now he’s giving himself the drug talk.
“Shut the fuck up Sam,” Steve repeats tonelessly, choosing to sit up back because this sofa hurts. He wonder how his ma’s sitting so comfortably in it. “No one asked for your input.”
“Sounds like you’re frustrated,” Riley says with a pointed look his way.
Lena squirms from where she’s sitting/lounging next to Angie. “Can we not talk about Dad’s miserable love life? There isn’t anything to talk about, and it’s gross. Please and thank you.”
“You're pushing forty-five,” Steve threatens sternly, though he’s ever so glad for the interruption. “I’m telling Peggy.”
“What are you telling me?” Peggy asks, eyes sparkling with delight unlike too soon again. But there had been a reason that Peggy and him had been leads themselves in the school theatre performances the years that she had spent in NYC Magnet Arts—the reason they had met related to the fact that he had attended NYCMA on a full scholarship while she was a foreign student there because her parents were rich: it was ostracism until proven ‘popular’ otherwise. As if popularity was a gene to be displayed.
They could put on a show, switch personalities at the blink of an eye, and pretend like they were exactly who everyone else thought they were. Everyone who knew otherwise was shown the cracks in their façades.
“She’s actually not dating until she’s 45,” Steve informs her matter-of-factly, blank expression on his face.
Peggy raises an eyebrow, not moving from the threshold of the living room. “I thought we said forty? Rogers, you were the one who talked me down.”
“Then you should have no problem with me raising it,” he says just a little challengingly, and based on the the look Riley gives Sam, they’ve all picked up on it. Well, whatever. “Anyway, that aside, what are we going to do?”
An alarm dings. “Cookies!” Lena suddenly yelps, springing from her seat and running out of the room. “Shit!”
“Language!” Steve yells, sighing when he hears no response and changing the conversation. “So when did all of you get here?”
“We beat the Army boys,” Angie declares proudly, gesturing for Peggy to sit down next to her now that Lena’s out of the room. “By three hours.” Angie puffs up just a little, winking at said Army boys.
“We got here at one,” Sam says, rolling his eyes like Angie’s already rubbed it in already. “Thinking that British’s and Brooklyn-British’s plane wasn’t at one in the morning or something.”
When Angie and Riley (on behalf of Sam since Sam’s too Cool™️ to bicker) start bickering, Steve turns to his ma.
“When did you get here?” he asks calmly.
“Peggy and Angie picked me up in the car they rented,” she says with a smile that spells too many questions for him. “Sam and Riley really were the last ones to arrive. But don’t pretend that no one saw you change the subject, or have Lena do it for you. Is there anyone? Or potentially a someone?”
Steve glares for a second, but realizes that he’s doing it to her and should stop for fear of death. “Nothing changed in two days. Not even potentially a someone, Ma, you’re just as bad as everyone else. Come on, ask me something else.”
She sighs as if it’s a burden to drop the subject, and yet she still doesn’t. “You know,” she smiles, “My friends—”
“Oh my god,” Steve groans, covering his face with his hands. “You have a grandchild. You have had a grandchild for a decade and a half, what do you want me to do? Find another one? Ma.”
“My friends,” she continues, giving him a sharp look that he can see from how the fingers that are covering his eyes have a small gap between them so he can still see things, “Have children that are married andthey have grandchildren. Plural.”
He winces again. “Why not get on Peggy or Angie or Riley or Sam? They have longterm partners to get married to,” he protests, praying to all the gods that he doesn’t and did and maybe still does believe in that everyone including his ma will drop the subject. “They don’t have children, either. That are strictly between who they’re dating,” he adds on before she says anything about Peggy and him.
His ma is still very unimpressed. “Do you really believe I haven’t been dropping hints about how I would love grandchildren in my lifetime from them? Or how I would love to attend a few more weddings in my life rather than funerals?”
That makes Steve drop his hands from his face. “Whose funerals have you been attending?” he asks in horror, thinking back to the list of every single person his mother considers as a friend and confirming their status of life versus death in his mind. “You’re 58. Not even sixty. Just who of your stubborn friends are dying in their late fifties and sixties?”
She waves a hand vaguely in the air. “Yes, but you are the only one who knows that. Only because you seem to spend more time studying my social calendar rather than asking me or talking to me.” Oh no. Oh no. Here this goes.
“I called you yesterday,” he says. “And Wednesday. Monday. I called you Sunday and I saw you Sunday!”
She dismisses his protests with another vague hand gesture and pulls a face. “So? Tuesday?”
“Grading periods? Lena’s rehersals? Cleaning this house?” Steve counters, thinking back to the very stressful day of Tuesday, which was only three days ago now that he thinks about it. Tuesday feels like an entire world before, with how much he had done.
“You also never talk about anything interesting, like all of your attractive coworkers,” she says and Steve has absolutely no clue what to say there. Not for the first time today, his brain is failing him and shutting. Steve.exe has failed to execute. Or something. Or maybe Steve’s brain.exe has failed to execute.
“The day you and Maria Stark became friends was the day half of me died,” Steve tells her instead, and it’s not false. Because now, Tony Stark—otherwise known as SHIELD’s favorite Engineering Professor—and his ma are also very close. He doesn’t know how it’s happened, only that the unspoken that Tony tells me about attached to the end of her sentence is very heavily implied. Strangely, Tony has imprinted on his ma, well enough that only reason that Tony and Maria don’t live at Steve’s for break is that Tony also lives within a twenty-to-thirty minute radius of SHIELD and therefore has no need to bunk at Steve’s.
What they do instead, is come over for Christmas dinner. By that, Steve means that Tony picks the lock (the very expensive, electronically activated system) to his house and invites himself and Maria in at five in the morning. Then they stay until the next day. The only good thing about this is that Maria and Tony make the best Italian food. Well, that and Steve absolutely loves Maria Stark and her ability to be absolutely fascinated with Lena and treat Lena like she is the best thing to ever exist on Earth. Which is true, but having Maria Stark (his childhood self could only dream of meeting the philanthropist and former UN ambassador) do it is just, well, it proves that Lena is truly that great.
He thinks that at some point, Steve had asked himself how his ma had managed to make best (best?) friends with Maria Stark, but he’s stopped wondering long ago. It’s only ever done them good, since Steve can easily say that him and Tony have had the best relationship of two guys who see almost nothing eye-to-eye. For two people who are as fundamentally different as ice and fire (they’ve agreed that Steve is the ice in this equation and Tony the fire) as they are, they keep consistently winning Best Professor Friendship at SHIELD: superlatives that are voted in by professors and students alike.
(Side note: Tony had been the one to put them in the running the year that Steve had joined SHIELD, and now they keep being re-entered without either of them caring much about it. Well, Steve doesn’t care much about it. Tony does, which is why Tony has the little trophy.)
The less is said about him and Tony, the better, because that means there’s more to be said about Tony and everyone else. The way that Maria and Tony have seamlessly integrated themselves into Steve’s family is almost frightening, but not quite. It actually turned out that Howard Stark (more so than Maria) and Peggy’s parents had been acquaintances when the three had been alive. Which meant that Tony and Peggy were somewhat technically childhood friends that exclusively met at galas, parties, social functions, and other highbrow events. They get on like a house on fire, but the best house on fire yet. Tony has just the kind of chaotic energy to fit into Steve’s family.
“Maybe so,” his ma says, pulling his thoughts back to the now. She watches his studiously, but glances over to the wall of framed photos and photo complications, a knowing smile on her face when she looks back to him. “Maybe so, but they were alone and people shouldn’t be.”
Of course she says something poetic, sweet, and pointed. Pointed in the sense that it’s aimed right back where he wanted to steer the conversation away from: his non-existent love life that everyone wants to stick their noses in. How very amatonormative of them all.
“Ma,” he says, “You’re absolutely shameless.”
She winks. “So you tell me every week.”
“I’m just going to check up on Peggy and,”—Steve pauses when he hears Angie dramatically gasp and then sees Riley throw his hands up in the air,—“hope that they, or you, defuse whatever argument it is now.” He sighs and gets up from the very uncomfortable couch, heading back into the kitchen.
The scent of cinnamon is even stronger than it was before he left this kitchen. He steps in and sees the jar of cinnamon completely open. He also sees a few trays of cookies cooling everywhere, as well as the batter for a few new batches of them. Except they don’t seem to be for cookies, but rather chocolate cake or cupcakes. Steve doesn’t even have to glance at the sink to know that he’ll be scrubbing baking ingredients and batter from various bowls later.
He’s about to ask Lena what she’s doing when he realizes that she hasn’t noticed him yet, because she’s on her phone.
“Alissa, I don’t know,” she’s saying nervously into it, “Mum’s not going to let me, and I don’t know if Dad’s going to be able to convince her. Yeah, I know that my dad’s good at talking people into things. Of course I remember Homecoming last year. I’m never going to get the image of Dad flirting with both Principal Janney and Vice Principal Sigyndottír, but you’ve barely met my mum. Mum’s sympathetic to Laya but I can’t ask Laya for help because it’s her brother...”
Steve tunes out of her conversation, wordlessly making sure his steps are louder than normal and stepping around her to whisk the batter she’s left alone for the moment. It smells like spiced chocolate cake; he was right. He doesn’t get to whisk it, because Lena pokes him in the back, clearly wanting him to turn around.
So he does, and it seems like she’s ended her call.
“Dad,” Lena says, “Seriously.”
“Lena,” he repeats, “Seriously.”
“Talk to Mum, not to me,” Steve says, raising his hands in surrender. If he says anything, there’s a very real chance that what comes out of his mouth is not going to be the words that neither Lena nor Peggy, later, will want to hear. So he changes the subject, saying, “Help me, instead. Or come back to it, since you started this off by yourself.”
Lena frowns, not moving. Steve turns around and starts whisking again, reminding himself for the hundredth time to buy a new electric mixer or whisk. He gets so far as to running down a complete list of what he keeps pushing off to buy when Lena finally takes the bowl from him.
“He’s coming,” she says, trying to sneak a glance at his face. Too bad; Steve has been watching her try to ask him something this entire time. Lena rolls her eyes at being caught and then points to a few sheets of gingerbread men. “Those need to be iced. Do what you did last year.”
Steve eyes the cookies, and Lena’s impassive face, and nods. He finds that she’s left several cones of icing out already, and he dutifully brings them over to the cookies, to start icing them. He is almost reasonably sure that last year involved several dozen cookies that he vaguely made resemble the school staff for last year’s Christmas theatre bake sale. Pulling out the blue icing first, if he remembers correctly, Steve starts to pipe out a series of blue shirts. He then pipes out red pants, and a black belt with red dots across it, as well as a black star on the blue shirt. After that, Steve pipes out red glasses on the gingerbread man, thinking that it looks just like Lena’s Mr. Crazinzki.
“Everyone coming knows that it’s not going to be just me here, right?” Steve asks after he’s finished a row of gingerbread men that look like her beloved English teacher. “You’ve warned them?”
“Well,” Lena says, smirking at him over her shoulder, “Sam and Riley’ll be gone most of the night, and I made ‘em promise to stay out of everyone’s way if they come earlier then they said they would. Maimeó says she has a thing with Móraí so she’s out. And then Mum and Angie are going to be here which is great because everyone wants to meet Mum and Angie. And like, everyone already knows how to deal with your crazy.”
Steve already knew that his ma (Lena’s Maimeó) had plans with Maria (Lena calls her Móraí, which never fails to touch Maria and the rest of them have rolled with it) but he hadn’t realized that Sam and Riley were going out. Not that it was going to really bother him; Steve was planning on catching up on work and those grants he had been planning to apply for next year.
“Okay,” he says. “And everyone knows where we live; does anyone need a ride back?”
He can just feel Lena thinking even though he can’t see her. Wondering what she’s about to ask him, he decides to wait and ice another row of gingerbread Crazinzkis. “Um, actually, do you mind if Laya stays over? And Alissa?”
He nods, trying to remember what he had done last year for the drama teacher, Ms. Dancy. He pipes in eyes, a purple smile, a white shirt that ties in the front, and black pants: the classic attire for her based on what he’s seen of the woman and Lena’s description of her. Ms. Dancy apparently has the best lipstick and necklace combinations that change every day ay, so he makes sure to pipe in a purple necklace.
“Dad?” Lena asks impatiently.
“What?” He looks up and sees her standing and staring at him. Her arms are crossed and waiting, expectant.
“Dad! Can they sleep over?”
“Yeah,” he says, “I said that already.”
“No you didn’t.”
“You looked like you were going to fall asleep on poor Ms. Dancy.”
Steve scoffs at her, shooting her a dirty look before he says, “Oh, so I fall asleep on a tray of cookies once and suddenly I’m narcoleptic. I had a long day dealing with questions from overachieving freshman.”
“What’s your excuse now?” Lena asks him as she taste-tests a little bit of the batter by dipping her pinkie finger in it.
Steve raises an eyebrow at her, but immediately gets an idea for Lena’s principal, and starts piping it down. One idea of the principal turns into an idea for the vice principal, and before he knows it, Steve has finished every single gingerbread cookie that Lena has baked so far. He also realizes that his clothes are covered in icing, which is a damned shame because these are really nice clothes that are non-suit work clothes. He really should have changed. Shame on him.
“All done,” he says after a minute of lamenting the icing.
Lena spins around from where’s checking the oven so fast that he gets whiplash from watching her do it. She’s stunned. “Already?” She strides right up to him and inspects the cookies in disbelief. Steve thinks he should be appalled by her lack of faith in him. “Dad, what? You just popped off. How the fuck?”
“Thanks,” he says, clearing his throat pointedly when she keeps muttering to herself about how it really shouldn’t have been possible. “You know, there are actual smart people on this world who think I’m artistically gifted?”
Scoffing, she goes back to the oven and says, “Yeah, and I don’t know how much longer you’re going to keep finessing people like that, but as long as there are idiots willing to pay for us, I’m not telling them anything.”
“You can’t call them that,” Steve protests vainly, his attention taken mostly up by meticulously checking each cookie and seeing if it’s up to a good standard. It’s not as if Lena will actually listen to him about that. “They’re patrons and they’re very wealthy.”
“Aren’t you my socialist-leaning parent?” Lena asks in exasperation, though most of it might be towards the fact that the cake is due to hit a certain level of rising soon, and it’s not happening earlier than predicted. “You rant about the 1% like, all the time. Besides Tony and Móraí. They’re good people. And...”
He loses all boundaries and concepts of time and space after that, noticing a mistake in one of the Ms. Demidova cookie’s little dress detail. And another one. Steve also forgets that they’re cookies and not actual things of art that actually matter more than the two seconds they’ll be admired and promptly eaten.
“Dad!” Lena yells. He blinks and turns, and she’s suddenly right in front of him, glaring at him with the same intensity of Peggy during finals.
“Sorry,” he apologizes, rubbing his eyes with the hand that has less icing smears on it. “What?”
“What were you and Mum talking about? Because I think everyone knows that you guys moved on from me to something else. What was it?” Lena asks. She looks worried. How has Steve missed this? Wait. Did she hear something from before? Is that why she is asking? How does she know that there’s something to be worried about? “We heard yelling and then no yelling and then yelling again.”
Steve blinks again, slowly, to try and keep his spiraling questions to a number of about zero. “SWORD,” he tells her honestly. “We were talking about how your Mum’s doing at SWORD. Then we talked about SHIELD, and about our own college lives.”
Lena wrinkles her nose. “Old people stuff, okay, but that explains none of the yelling.”
“That related to the dating thing. And that’s all I’m saying until you talk to your Mum about it. Okay? I know that it might seem stupid to you, or that we’re being overprotective of you when we haven’t really been that much before. And as much as I want to give you an answer, I’m going with Peggy here, alright?”
She looks like she had to suck on a sour lemon, but she nods, and Steve wants to sigh. He wants to tell her to go learn fro herself that people at age 15 do crazy, stupid things more often than not, and that everyone does something in some part of their life that doesn’t pan out the way it’s supposed to.
“I just want to know one thing,” she says, her voice tight and even. It’s the way she talks she when she doesn’t want anyone to know what she’s feeling, which the blank voice is good at concealing. But the fact she’s using the blank voice is telling as it is.
“Shoot,” Steve says.
“If I was... you know, a boy, would we still be having the same conversation?” Lena asks, dead serious. But at least this he has an answer to, a good one that Lena won’t hate him for saying. Much.
“If you were, you know, a boy,” Steve mimics, smirking at the annoyed set of her face, “You probably would have gotten this conversation before now because society puts expectations on guys to have sex and on girls to be in a relationship. Actually, scratch that, you would have gotten it. Period. But you’ve always had a clear head, so consider yourself lucky to have this conversation as is now, and not before.”
“There’s the rant on society I was waiting for,” she says finally, because she is definitely his and Peggy’s daughter, and so is a master of deflection and changing the topic in the blink of an eye. But unlike the two of them, Lena can’t hold it very well, and so she breaks her faked nonchalance and smiles. “Thanks, Dad.”
Before he can respond to that, all he hears is an annoyingly loud noise, like someone dropped a metal disc on the floor and now it’s spinning around trying to land properly. Steve winces and wonders which one of the four idiots dropped his little metal shield that a student from three years ago had gifted him.
“Sometimes I wonder how you’re friends with such put-together people,” Lena says even as he’s rushing out the kitchen. She’s right behind him, curious. “And then there are times like these when I wonder why I’m perfect when everyone around me is a hot mess.”
Steve can’t even scold her for calling him a hot mess, because she’s right. “Maimeó’s life is in order,” is all he says, sighing.