January 4, 2017
“If I didn’t know how totally into me you are, I could start to get jealous.”
Steve snapped to attention and whipped his head around. Leaning in the open elevator was Darcy Lewis. The pretty brunette with the wide smile, smart mouth, and apparent super-power to make grown men – and Tony Stark – listen to reason. He wasn’t entirely certain how long he stared at her, wondering who had told her about his unspoken attraction. Sam was in the running. Lang would have been if they had spent more than twenty minutes together that wasn’t a rhapsody on the crime that was international postage rates. Bucky, of course it was Bucky. He should have anticipated how quickly those two became friends. Even with his new reticence and concern for the safety of civilians, Buck had gravitated to Darcy like a mutt to a hot dog cart. And if there was one thing that had held over from pre-HYDRA Bucky, it was his complete inability to leave Steve’s love life, or lack thereof, alone.
Timing was never your strong suit, Rogers, he told himself. Mentally bracing to apologize to a woman who had worked tirelessly to fix his mistakes, he almost missed her gesture.
“I mean, sure, Tony’s got kind of a silver fox thing going.” Fingers widespread, she made a vague circular motion at the glass wall that separated the corridor from Tony’s workshop. “There are a truly disturbing number of sites dedicated to those who would love to really delve into his neuroses, if you know what I mean. But you are giving off more of a guilty, lonely stalker vibe than a closet-repressed lover kind of vibe. So while my ego remains intact, you might still want to cut short your broody shadow watching.”
“I wasn’t…” Steve stopped, not sure what he should say. He could start with his intended apology for his unrequited interest in her, but she had buzzed over that so quickly he hadn’t really had time to come up with a good way to say, Sorry my friends think we should date and also I sometimes dream about how you could thank me for carrying you out of a burning building. Steve was an artist. He had a great imagination. And the whole thing about Tony was uncomfortable. He was aware she knew what he was doing lurking in the hallway, and that she was only trying to make light of the situation, but it wasn’t helping. As much as he would never admit he thought about her naked, he worked doubly hard not to let anyone know how irritating he found her ability to deflect. Speaking with the woman was like running through Coney Island with his eyes closed: full of loud sounds, laughter, and the very real chance for mugging, injury, and/or vomit. His or someone else’s.
“Yeah,” she answered as if he hadn’t let silence blossom awkwardly between them. “This won’t get any easier, you know. In fact, I’d wager the longer you string it out the worse it will be.” The elevator tried to close on her, but she ignored the soft tone and the insistent push against her shoulder.
“I am aware,” he answered. He had been going for stern and off-putting, but it sounded a little too sad to hit the mark. Steve hated that, hated people feeling sorry for him. He had signed up for this, even if it wasn’t turning out exactly like what he thought it would. He had volunteered, and that meant he didn’t get to wallow. He couldn’t let anyone else think he was suffering under a responsibility he had asked for.
“No shit, dummy,” she muttered, eyes downcast as if she was talking to herself. Abruptly, she straightened and stepped out into the hall, stopping within arm’s reach of him. “Okay, so I am new to this mediation thing, and it could be that the whole sit down with the President-Elect and the Speaker was a fluke, and I suck at this and should have become a makeup artist like my step-mom said, but let’s really give it the old college try before we toss dirt on the fresh grave of my career choices, okay?”
She was waiting expectantly, so Steve nodded, not sure if he had insulted her, she had insulted him, or if she was insulting herself.
“You need Tony. Tony needs you. The Avengers don’t work without both of you, agree or disagree?”
“Yes. Agree.” Steve frowned. He knew that. They had been over it a thousand times. It was why he and the others were in New York, in Tony’s Tower and trying to pull the team back together.
“Forget that horseshit.” Steve blinked, not exactly shocked at her language. He had been in the 21st century long enough that swearing, even from a lady, wasn’t surprising. And Darcy swore more than most. But they had been working to save the Avengers – he had been working to save the Avengers. If he understood Natasha correctly, Darcy’s entire course of study and research centered around her belief in them as a force for good. He opened his mouth to question her, but as usual, Darcy bowled right over him.
“He is your friend. Despite all the age jokes and snarky comments about the comic books, he is your friend. And you are his. I would think the two of you could understand how important that is. How many friends do you have, Captain? Count them on one hand, or two? Before the serum, how was that number looking? Lines around the block of people eager to hang out with the skinny guy with the cough and no family? And how often did you wonder about people who were making nice because they wanted to hang out with Barnes?”
It was like a knife in his gut. It shouldn’t have been. In the face of alien invasions and staged assassinations, frame-up jobs, and international conflicts, hurt feelings were paltry concerns. Steve had thought he was over it all, had been even before the war, but it was true. More than one kid had tolerated sitting next to Steve at lunch because they wanted Bucky Barnes on their stick ball team. More than one of the guys he knew at the ad agency before the war had invited him out because Bucky would follow and where Buck went so did the dames. Hell, every woman until Peggy had been with him either for Bucky, or for her friend who wanted Bucky. Sometimes both. He had always known that. It was the guilty shadow over the attention he had received after the serum. All those ladies who wanted their hand on his arm, the guys who wanted to pal around, they wouldn’t have given two shits about him before. Steve had always been able to brush it aside, to push it down, but hearing it out of Darcy’s wide, brash mouth was something else. Something cutting.
“I’d think, after the shit you have been through, you’d get Tony a little better.” Her voice softened a little, and so did her eyes, but Steve was still stinging. “The Avengers are his serum, Captain. Before that, Tony was just a rich prick who bought friends and women, people who wanted to be close to all that money and power. A lot like some assholes want to be close to muscles and popularity.” Her gaze didn’t leave his face, but he was very aware of his biceps and the strain of his shirt across his chest. “He had three people. Three,” she held up her fingers like he might not be able to understand how small the number was, “who gave a shit about him because of him. And then there’s the Avengers, and these cool new kids who get what he’s trying to do, who understand that we can all fuck up and still want to do what’s right. And in the center of it all is the man with the plan.”
“I’ve never been that,” he bit off, “Never wanted to be that. Especially not with Tony or the others.”
“I know,” she said, but the softness was gone, replaced with a stern jaw that made him feel like he was back at Catechism about to be caught in a sin he hadn’t known he committed. “And he is trying, was trying, is still trying so hard not to see you that way. But where you woke up and met him as the egotistical billionaire with too many brains, and not enough self-control, running around the world to right wrongs – he was a person you got to know on your own terms. He met you when he was just a kid, too young to even remember. You were always the ideal, the pedestal, the man he was told he should be but could never measure up to. You were the friend that his father wanted and the soldier this country needed. How hard do you think it might be to believe that the person you had been compared to, and fallen short of, your entire life was wrong. To believe that person was wrong and you were right? Wouldn’t it feel good? Who could help themselves from wanting to feel that, to feel that finally, they could knock down that pedestal?”
Steve was overwhelmed with her words. He had known, in bits and pieces from Nat and Rhodey and even some from Tony himself, what kind of man Howard had become. The genius that Steve had called friend had become bitter and angry and he took that out on his only son. He had suspected most of Tony’s animosity had come from that – blaming Steve for Howard’s absence, physically and emotionally. He had never considered, however, that it might have shaped their disagreements about the Avengers. About the Accords.
Darcy continued, quieter now, “And then the one thing, the single thing he thought he had done right – where he had managed to stand taller than you – it turns out that was a mistake. Tony, for all the name-calling and the attention-deficit, is a complex person. Everyone wants a friend who wants them for themselves, who they can relate to.”
“I never claimed to be better than him, than anyone,” Steve managed to get out past the thoughts swirling in his head. “I’m not perfect.”
“Yes, Captain, I am familiar with both your fashion sense and your stellar charm.” The smirk curling the corner of her mouth could have been condescending, but she managed to use it to ease the tension. “As much as you are a real live boy under the shield and the mask, it can’t be easy to ignore fifty years of propaganda. I just saw the movie – by the way, please don’t quit your day job for Hollywood – and you were larger than life in that. Tony was being told every day by the man who should have been his largest supporter that you were everything good under the sun.”
“I can’t help that.” Steve was at a loss. It was his fault that the Avengers had fallen apart, his fault that Tony had suffered and was suffering. It was his responsibility to fix, but he had no idea where to start. He met her gaze, blue-green and framed by those black glasses. “How do I help that?”
“Show him you’re human.” She shrugged, like it was that simple.
“I am human.”
Darcy rolled her eyes and smiled, “Sure, like Mother Theresa and George Washington.”
“That’s it!” His control snapped and Steve ran a hand through his hair. “You say stuff like that, like it’s a joke, everyone does, but I’m just a man and I’m doing the same things Tony is trying to do. Same as Clint and Sam and Bruce and Nat -”
“Maybe not Nat,” she interjected. Steve nodded sharply, seeing her attempt at humor but not willing to be drawn in. “Even heroes have flaws, Captain. You work so hard to overcome yours that they are hard to see, while Tony slaps his on like armor. Just,” she sighed, “shit, maybe we really should get the shovels out for my career. Just, talk to him like you would talk to a friend, and he will be your friend. It will take time, but you can do that, right? Persistence is like, your middle name.”
She laughed, stepping back and hitting the button for the elevator. “Well, Steven Grant Rogers. Go forth and be persistent. Just don’t try the big eyes and earnest act on him – Tony’s immune.” She stepped in and let Friday know which floor she wanted.
Steve’s mouth opened, and he was talking before his brain had even finished digesting her advice, “Will it work on you?”
Her eyebrows rose and her mouth fell open. For a few seconds, Steve had struck Darcy Lewis speechless. He was unreasonably proud of that. Then she laughed again, louder, eyes closed and grin so wide he could see her teeth and the smooth skin of her neck when she tossed back her head. It should have been embarrassing, but as the doors shut and Steve turned back to face Tony’s shop, he felt a smile curving his own lips.
“You gonna come in and be useful, or stand out in the hall like a lurker all day?” Tony’s sharp demand through the speaker in the ceiling caught his attention. The man himself was still in the shop, greasy hands on his hips as he stared through the glass, parts scattered across two tables.
In three strides, Steve was through the door and looking for a stool that was free of stains. “Any place you’d recommend to take a first date?”
“I took Pepper to Moracco for bestilla.” Tony stopped poking at the tools in front of him for a second and gave Steve his undivided attention. It was like looking down the barrel of a rifle and knowing there would be no escape. “Is Lady Liberty’s Sweetheart stepping out on America?”
“Just wanted some advice,” Steve said, trying not to look as nervous as he felt. The combination of contemplating actually asking loud-mouthed Darcy on a date and risking Tony’s involvement, and the fragile peace between them, was enough to make his stomach a little wobbly. “You’ve got a better track record here than I do.”
“It took me ten years to ask Pepper out, and I have nearly gotten her killed three times. She has moved out twice. Four times if you count breaks where she left shoes in my closet.” Tony’s gaze didn’t waver, and Steve was wondering if maybe he wasn’t applying Darcy’s advice correctly.
“Yep. Sounds pretty good from where I’m sitting.”
“You don’t want to talk to the wingless wonder? Or your murder-bot?”
Steve wanted to grit his teeth at the name calling, but he could hear Darcy’s voice in his head, telling him that this was Tony’s way of working through hurt. And also his way of showing affection. He was a complex man. “Sam’s advice had me going to dinner with a lovely but ambitious reporter who tried to take pictures of my underwear drawer. Bucky hasn’t been on a date since gals expected to talk china patterns after a few months.”
“So, Lewis, huh?” Abruptly, Tony turned his attention back to the work bench and Steve relaxed a little. Tony pointed to an engine block across the room, “Bring that over here. First up, I’m duty bound to point out that you’re not ready to play in that league. Darcy Lewis could eat you alive.”
Steve pushed aside the knee-jerk reaction to deflect, and thought instead about what he would have said to Bucky. A life-time ago in the privacy of their apartment, after Buck had caught him mooning over a girl, Steve would have been teased mercilessly. And Steve would have given just as good as he got. He picked up the engine and strolled across the room like he owned it, letting one eyebrow flick up. He smirked in a way that Sarah Rogers would have smacked the back of his head if she had been alive to see it.
“What makes you think I have a problem with that?”