The clock said 2:00 and it was pitch dark outside, so Tony figured it must be 2am. His eyes were bleary from using them for too long without rest and his stomach was growling so loudly that Pepper probably heard it from her apartment ten blocks away.
Because that’s where she lived now. Not in the penthouse. And not because of the suit - though that’s what they told everyone. No, she lived ten blocks away because he could never really keep secrets from her and his pinning had gotten out of control.
“Okay, J, time for fuel. Scan the fridge?”
“Sir, there are three containers of takeout of various origins, some of Agent Barton’s preferred beer, and what appears to be cheese.”
“I cannot tell if the mold is a bug or a feature, Sir.”
Tony barked out a laugh. “Put in a grocery order, will ya? And see if Starlight can get some pancakes over here within the hour?”
Tony made his way to the kitchen and was surprised to find Steve standing at the stovetop.
“Well, Cap, you weren’t included in the inventory I just had Jarvis do of the kitchen.”
“You asked for the fridge, Sir,” Jarvis interrupted. “The Captain would not fit within the confines of the refrigerator.”
Steve turned from the stove with a twinkle in his eye. “Not since ‘44 or there ‘bouts.”
“Whatcha making?” Tony nosed around Steve’s elbow to see the stovetop.
“You’re joking,” Tony replied.
“Yes, I’m absolutely joking, this batter here is actually going to make a roasted duck,” Steve rolled his eyes. “What else does it look like.”
Tony leaned against the counter right next to where Steve was standing. “It’s just that I asked Jarvis to order me some from Starlight, like, three minutes ago.”
Steve paused for a beat and met Tony’s eyes. “Okay, that is a little weird.”
“Why are you making pancakes at 2am?”
“It’s Shrove Tuesday,” Steve said, as though that was all the explanation Tony would need.
“It’s what now?”
“It’s Shrove Tuesday,” Steve repeated. “The day before Ash Wednesday.”
“That’s Fat Tuesday,” Tony corrected.
“Not in the Rogers house,” Steve grinned, “or anywhere on the Island of Ireland. Can you get more butter from the fridge door?”
“The fancy Irish butter?”
“Only you would complain about paying $2 more for butter and not complain about spending $4B on a building.”
“Butter is butter,” Tony shrugged.
“My mother is going to haunt you, I swear to God,” Steve laughed. “Butter is butter, my ass. No self-respecting Irish woman would let you near her kitchen.”
“Well, I’ll keep that in mind the next time I’m on the Emerald Isle,” Tony retorted as he handed Steve the Kerrygold that Steve insisted on purchasing.
“We would have nothing, and I mean we’d be down to the last pennies we had, and my mother would barter for the good butter so that she could cook the proper way,” Steve said. “I may have to sacrifice a lot, Steven,’ she’d say, ‘but there are standards!’ And she’d stomp her foot as she said the last word and I’d roll my eyes, but now… Now I know she’s right.” He looked at Tony. “Back then I just wished she cared as much about my shoes as she cared about butter.”
“Butter was probably easier to barter for,” Tony replied.
“Coffee?” Tony asked, as he turned on the complicated machine that still mystified Steve.
“Yeah, actually,” Steve said. “The pancakes will be done in a few minutes if you want to cancel the order at Starlight, Jarvis.”
Steve rolled his eyes slightly. Tony had noticed him do it before at Jarvis, but he didn’t know why. 2am on a random Tuesday in February seemed a good a time as any to ask.
“You don’t like it, do you, when Jarvis calls you Captain?”
Steve startled a little, like that was the literal last thing he’d expected to come out of Tony’s mouth. He didn’t reply and for once in the entirety of his life, Tony knew not to interrupt the silence.
“They’re ready,” Steve said a few moments later, though the words seemed to get caught in his throat. He carried a plate of pancakes over to the table and Tony got some plates and forks, along with syrup and the Kerrygold, and their coffee. Once they were settled, Steve looked at Tony. “Have I ever told you about my Ma?”
Tony shook his head and put a bite of pancake in his mouth. “Holy fucking wow, these are something. I’m demanding these for my birthday, fuck they’re perfect. And no, I only know what’s on your Wikipedia page.”
Steve’s mouth quirked down into a small frown. “Can I?”
“Tell me about your mother? Sure,” Tony replied.
“Her name was Sarah and she was from this tiny town called Crossmaglen,” Steve started. “It was in Ireland when she emigrated in 1910, but a few years later, after Partition, it became part of Northern Ireland and that bothered her until the day she died in 1933. But she came over with her two sisters, my aunts Aoife and Ciara, and they all got work as chambermaids in the big houses on the Upper East Side. There was this whole network of Irish then - there is now, too, I’ve found - people who knew where beds were and available jobs and how to make a dollar stretch as far as humanly possible. So she got a job with a family called the Walshes when she first arrived.”
“How old was she?”
“When she got off the boat? 14. Got married at 18, had me at 22, then Pa left when I was 3.”
“Did she work at the Walsh’s in your lifetime?”
“No, married girls didn’t work as chambermaids,” Steve shook his head. “So when she got married, she and Pa moved to Marine Park over in Brooklyn. She said she was so scared when they moved, because there were none of her people around. It’s Irish now, Marine Park is, but back then it was Jewish and Italian and no one hated each other more than the Italians and the Irish.”
“Oh, I got the other side of that prejudice, so don’t worry,” Tony laughed.
Steve smiled slightly at that and continued. “Dad was Italian, though, I still don't know why they got together, and so she went to chapel and brought me. I was so sick so quickly, I think she walked to Mass every day to say novenas and light candles for me. When Dad left and she couldn't really leave me alone, that’s when we got to know the Barnes’.”
Steve nodded. “I was four and had whooping cough and Ma was going out of her mind, she told me later, when the really nice Jewish lady across the hall in the tenement said she was a nurse at the public hospital and she knew what my cough was and would Ma let her look at me. That was Winnie Barnes and the rest is history.”
“I didn’t know Barnes’ mother was a nurse,” Tony mused. "Or that he was Jewish, for that matter."
Steve nodded. “Before he became the one-armed grumpfest we know and love, he actually wanted to be a doctor. He and Becca basically grew up around medical stuff - Winnie was always taking care of the whole building.”
Tony took another bite of pancake and gestured for Steve to continue.
“So, Ma never knew her birthday,” he said with a small smile. “The priest in Crossmaglen - his handwriting was awful and neither of her parents could really read or write, but evidently, she was born on Shrove Tuesday. So even though it moves every year based on the church calendar, we always celebrated Ma’s birthday on that day.”
He sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly and Tony wondered if he was staving off tears. “I miss her every day and I have since I was 15 years old and I had to walk the four blocks to St. Catherine’s to tell Father Michael that Ma was gone and could someone come and help me do a proper wake for her. I missed her when I woke up in that ice and I miss her whenever I hear her accent in someone else’s mouth. But today? Today I miss her so much I can barely breathe.”
Steve finished that last line and Tony saw the tears begin to fall from his eyes. Without thinking, Tony scooted his chair closer to Steve until they were touching shoulders and he wrapped his arm around his friend. And tried desperately to remember that Steve was, indeed, just his friend.
“This is your third whatever Tuesday out of the ice,” Tony remarked. “Have you felt like this for the last two, too?”
Tony felt Steve nod, rather than hearing an affirmation.
“And you didn’t-”
“Because Sarah Rogers belongs to Steve Rogers and not to Captain America,” Steve explained, his voice thick with emotion. “She would have hated what I did, she woulda hated the whole war. She grew up with boys who went off to fight the Brits in all these small skirmishes and I remember her talking about how much she hated people dying for what she saw as silly men's fights. The fact that Ireland was neutral in WWII woulda meant she expected me to be, too. But Tony, I just couldn’t, I just couldn’t, and I don’t know if she woulda understood, so every day I spend in this body she didn’t make, as a boy she wouldn’t recognize, as a man she doesn’t know, it feels… it feels like I’m not hers anymore.”
Tony noticed that Steve’s old accent got thicker the harder he cried, and he shifted the pair of them until Steve was leaning into Tony’s chest and Tony had both arms around him. “You are always hers,” he said softly, running his hands soothingly up and down Steve’s back. “You will always be hers, you are always Steven Grant, even when you’ve got the shield -”
Steve tore himself from Tony’s grip at that and a fierce look contorted his face. “No, I’m not. I’m just not. I have to choose, I can be Cap or I can be Steve, I’m never both.”
“What the fuck are you talking about,” Tony shook his head. “I’m Tony when I’m in the suit, and you’re Steve when you’ve got the shield. We don’t get multiple personalities just because we’re superheroes.”
“Yes,” Steve sighed and cast his hands about for a napkin with which to blow his nose and wipe his tears. “Well, I do.”
Tony shook his head. “No, I’ve read everything about that serum and I know what Erskine did. All he did was make the things that were already in you stronger - Cap is Steve, just with extra beefiness.”
Steve barked out a sardonic laugh. “Anthony,” he sighed and Tony realized this was the most important conversation he’d ever have with Steve. “I haven’t been Steve since I put that plane down. I could be both back in the trenches. I had Buck and he helped me remember the difference. But then I woke up here and none of ya knew Steve. This, whoever I am, is a weird… I’m sorry Tony, I’m not making sense, but today just reminds me that I’m so fucking lonely,” Steve’s voice cracked over tears again. “And that I have no idea how to fix that or if it can be fixed or if anyone will ever love me again or if I can ever let someone do that, because I’ve been on six dates since I got out of the ice and they’ve all been disasters and the one person I trust enough to even be honest with, well… just trust me that’s not happening.”
Tony pursed his lips in thought. “Does having Buckaroo back around help?”
Steve shrugged. “No? Yes? In some ways, it’s the best thing that’s happened, but we’re both different men. It took me a while to figure that out, but the Bucky I grew up with? He’s gone. And this new fella is great and I love him and when I get small moments of how it used to be, I’m grateful, but I’m not the kid from Marine Park any more either.”
“And this person, the one you mentioned, they make you feel less lonely?”
Steve blushed and nodded. “He, I owe you that at least, he makes me feel like maybe I have a home here, in this century. He’s an orphan, too, you see, and so maybe we can be alone together, but I... “ Steve’s voice got so quiet Tony could barely hear him. “I don’t know how to let anyone love me at this point. I don’t know how to open myself up to that.”
Tony bent his head until their foreheads were touching and he whispered back. “Well, I don’t know who your fella is, but if he makes you feel like you’ve got a home, then you should chase that. Because I hear what you’re saying, man, and I know I didn’t know your Ma, but you’re… Steve, you’re incredible. You’re kind and brave and good, you’re just a good man and those are low on the ground these days. You are a complete pain in my ass, but if you ever left me I’d crumble, you know? Orphan to orphan, I know, buddy, I know, because letting people love you is terrifying when everyone is dead, but if this dude is worth your affection then I say you go for it because chances are, your his home, too.”
Steve didn’t move throughout Tony’s speech but he hitched a breath towards the end. “So you think I should take the risk?”
He wants someone else, Stark, this is your last chance. Tony cupped Steve’s jaw like he’d dreamed of doing at least fourteen point seven million times. “Steven, anyone who would turn you down has to have the brain functions of an eel, they’d be that stupid.”
Steve laughed, took a deep breath, and before Tony could process what was happening, Steve’s lips were on his.
Later, when they were both wearing less clothes, found themselves slightly out of breath, and were laying on Tony’s bed, Tony rolled over and looked at Steve closely as he addressed Jarvis.
“New protocol. When it’s about personal, non-alien warfare shit, Steve is Mr. Rogers.”
“But Sir -”
“I’ll get over giggling about the name,” Tony replied, still not taking his eyes off Steve. “He’s only Captain when it’s official business. He gets to be Steve when it’s about family stuff.”
Steve surged forward to kiss Tony and Tony could feel the smile on Steve’s lips.