The Girl He Left Behind
After fighting off the Chitauri invasion, Steve Rogers (aka Captain America), decided he'd better see what was left of the old neighborhood before someone — or something — or he and his friends — knocked it down. After seeing off Thor and his prisoner, Steve rode off on his motorcycle to find his past.
It was a rollercoaster day of triumphant highs and depressing lows, sharp sadness and knee-weakening relief. The lights were even brighter on Broadway and Steve felt near tears to see the Empire State Building still standing, though dwarfed by other skyscrapers, and he unashamedly wept to see the Statue of Liberty still proudly holding her torch above the harbor. His heart sank when he found his old Brooklyn neighborhood had been demolished and paved over as a parking lot for a huge store called Costco and a high-speed road called the Gowanus Expressway. And there was nothing left of Ebbets Field but a plaque marking the former location of home plate at the Brooklyn Dodgers stadium. Yet his hopes were revived when he saw the Brooklyn Bridge still standing and still useful. Maybe there was some hope for a 90-year-old anachronism like himself.
Mentally exhausted, Steve found himself returning to Stark Tower, craving the companionship of people who understood his plight. Though Tony was deep in the throes of creation in his lab and had JARVIS blocking contact with the rest of the world, Pepper Potts and Bruce Banner made Steve welcome. They listened willingly, offering sympathy, explanations and understanding, as needed — along with spaghetti, chocolate brownies and hot tea — comfort food. When weariness caught up to him, Pepper insisted that it was too late for Steve to go home. She showed him to a guest bedroom, the plainest, most simply decorated room in Stark Tower, yet still more lavish and luxurious than any hotel Steve had ever visited in his USO days. But the room was quiet and when he turned out the light, he couldn't see any of the confusing gadgets.
Despite his weariness, he lay awake. The memories of a lost world, lost friends and lost love wouldn't allow him to fall asleep.
Steve wandered out to the lounge. He sat in the dark, looking out at the lights of New York and grieved for everything he had known.
It was 3 a.m. when Tony Stark was finally satisfied with his latest modifications to Iron Man's mark 8 suit — a little matter of making sure it would be space-worthy, if only for limited duration, no matter how battered it got. Maybe he'd shown he would throw himself on the wire to save others, but he'd still rather cut the damned thing!
Tony stretched and decided to have a nightcap before he tried (and probably failed) to slip into bed without waking Pepper.
"Captain Rogers is in the lounge," JARVIS warned him.
"Cap? When did he get here?" Tony asked, a little annoyed to have the uptight Super Soldier infringe on his solitude. JARVIS gave Tony the lowdown on the dinnertime conversation and the bedtime invitation. "So Pepper offered him a bed but he didn't take it?"
"He went to bed, sir, but I would surmise that he didn't sleep." The "surmise" was merely programmed politeness. JARVIS' sensors would easily detect the changes in heartbeat and respiration that come with sleep.
Tony could sympathize with sleepless nights. He regularly had nightmares about Afghanistan. He approached the darkened lounge on a mission to cheer up the sad sack Super Soldier. He had a flip comment on his tongue, something along the lines of "70 years of sleep followed by 70 years of insomnia." But before he could speak, Steve raised his head and the lights of the city reflected on a tear washing down an already wet cheek.
The joking words caught in Tony's throat. The Avengers fearless leader looked so young, so unhappy, so lost.
Tony remembered that, to Steve, it had been hardly more than a month since he'd been fighting in World War II. Seventy years had fled in the span of a cold night's sleep. It was a lot to take in. It was a wonder that Steve Rogers wasn't raving insane.
Some people considered Tony a heartless man, self-absorbed and insensitive. Tony Snark was his favorite tabloid nickname ever. He'd sent a bouquet of snapdragons to the columnist who'd come up with it. The fact that the columnist was a man just made it funnier. Tony enjoyed puncturing pomposity and pooh-poohing pretensions. If you couldn't walk the walk, Tony would outtalk your talk.
But Tony Stark was not unkind. The grief on Steve's face tore at the billionaire's shrapnel-lacerated heart. He had to do something to help, even if he only provided a distraction.
"JARVIS, lights at 30 percent," Tony ordered in as normal a voice as he could manage. He strode to the bar, pretending not to see Steve hastily wiping moisture from his face.
Tony took down a bottle of brandy and only then seemed to notice Steve as the younger man (relatively speaking) rose politely to his feet.
"Cap! I didn't know you were there," Tony lied easily. "Don't get up. Care for a nightcap, Cap?" He smirked at the repetition.
Without waiting for Steve's answer, the billionaire poured two snifters of fine brandy and carried one to the coffee table. He set it beside a hinged device … a pocket watch? He saw a magnetic needle twitch as his arc reactor drew near. No, a compass.
"Nightmares?" Tony asked gently.
Tony noticed the edge of a photograph visible in the lid of the compass.
"Someone in particular? Can I help?"
"No, no one can help," Steve said in anguish. "There is no — what's the word? — no upside to this. There was a woman. We had a date I didn't keep. Now she's either dead or over 90!" His voice rose, then finished in a whisper. "I've been afraid to find out which. I don't know which is worse."
He slugged down the expensive brandy as if it was water.
"May I?" Tony reached a hand toward the compass and when Steve didn't deny permission, Tony picked it up.
"Her name was…"
"Peggy Carter," Tony finished for Steve.
Steve reared back, eyes wild. Was all this in his file? Did Tony know every one of Captain America's petty secrets? But the look Tony gave the battered photo was familiar and fond.
"Did you …?" Steve's eyes widened. "Your father knew her. Did you?"
"Yes, my father knew her," Tony said with an odd catch in his voice. He often fought emotion when Howard Stark was mentioned. "I knew her, when I was little," he said reluctantly. Steve read the truth in his eyes.
"She's dead, isn't she?" Steve said heavily.
"Yes. She died when I was …" Tony thought a moment. "Six years old or so. She was still fairly young." His voice was ironic because she had been close to the age Tony was now. "Still beautiful to my six-year-old eyes. Still a hero," Tony finished softly, taking a deep swallow of his drink.
"It was 40 years ago," Tony reminded him. "And people don't talk about death to kids, but what I remember … She was walking her son to school and someone lost control of his car. She pushed her boy and two others to safety, but then couldn't get out of the way herself."
"So, she was married? She had a son?"
"Yes." There was a pause while the scientific genius calculated. "She must have waited a long time after the war to get married, like 20 years."
"Waiting for me?" Steve wondered softly.
Tony could only shrug. "They don't talk about those things in front of little kids, either. And I wasn't as adept at eavesdropping when I was six."
That got a tiny smile out of Steve.
"Could I find her grave?"
"I can take you there," Tony said easily. "I should say, hi, to dear old Dad, too, I suppose. They're in the same cemetery not far from each other."
"Thanks." Steve pondered for a while. Tony waited in companionable silence, sipping his brandy. "I wonder if I could find her son," Steve mused aloud.
Bad idea, Tony thought. "You probably could," he said cautiously. "But should you? He may be a businessman. He may be a hero. But he may be a drunk or worse. You may be disappointed. Maybe it's best to leave it alone."
Something in Tony's eyes told Steve that the billionaire knew what he was talking about. Steve's eyes asked the question he couldn't put into words.
Tony sighed. He hated to expose his own emotions. "Look, my parents died in a car crash. Everyone assumed Howard had been drinking. He did drink, though he rarely went too far. But their deaths put Obadiah Stane in charge of the company. Obie tried to have me killed to take over entirely. Maybe he had Howard and Maria killed, too. Or maybe it really was an accident and the power went to Obie's head. I don't know."
"You could find out."
"Yes, I could get them to reopen the accident investigation, but why? To find out it really was my father's fault? To put more blame on Obie who's dead and past vengeance now? No, I've got enough wounds without reopening this one. Don't you, too?" He clapped the brandy snifter down, causing the sprits to slosh dangerously. "Look, if you want me to help you find Peggy's son, I will."
But he didn't recommend it; that was obvious.
Steve thought about it. How embarrassing would it be to walk up to a stranger and say, Hi, I was your mother's boyfriend back in World War II.
"That would be an awkward meeting, wouldn't it?" At Tony's grin, Steve continued, "Thank you, Tony. It's a relief to know. Even though I know she's gone."
"Maria, my Dad's second wife — who was a saint, you know, because look what she had for a stepson and yet she never strangled me in my sleep. Anyway, Maria always said a person isn't gone as long as you remember her here…" He tapped Steve's forehead. "… And here." He touched Steve's heart.
After a moment of silence, Tony cleared his throat. "You've got to promise not to tell anyone about this mush. You'll spoil my reputation."
"Consider it classified, sir," Steve said, snapping off a salute.
Tony gave him a one-finger salute in reply. He started to rise, then hesitated. "Would you like me to get copies made of that photo? So you can keep the original safe?"
It was Steve's turn to hesitate.
"You don't have to give it up or anything," Tony said hastily. "JARVIS can scan it where it is."
"Indeed, sir," the AI replied.
"We can even clean up the scratches and water marks," Tony added. "It looks a little battered."
"I had it with me, on the plane," Steve explained. "At the last minute, I put it in my jacket next to my heart or it might not have survived." The men looked at the photo of the lovely, strong-willed woman. "You can copy it without hurting it?" Steve asked cautiously.
"Already done, sir," the computer assured him.
"It's just like taking a photo of the photo," Tony explained. "JARVIS or I could probably fix up the copy in Photoshop, but I think I'll send it out to a professional, because it's so special." He casually waved away Steve's thanks. "I never had much family time. It feels surprisingly good to do favors for friends."
"Don't worry. I won't tell anyone," Steve said with a wry grin.
"I'll hold you to that. Now I'm going to bed. You should get some sleep, too. Seventy years of sleep doesn't have to be followed by 70 years of insomnia." Ha! Tony felt triumph. He got the joke in anyway.
When Tony was in the elevator, out of earshot of even a Super Soldier's ears, he said, "JARVIS?"
"Shall I add it to the album, sir?"
"Of course. I never expected to find another picture of my mother. She was awfully camera shy, came of being a secret agent or whatever she was."
He hardly remembered his mother, really. A voice with a faint British accent. A wistful smile. A tender touch. A shout and a shove and a terrible crash. He remembered that she always looked sad when she played Big Band music. Tony would try to make her laugh, maybe that was how he developed his smart mouth.
Knowing about her and Captain America answered so many questions. Why Howard hadn't had a son until 20 years after the war ended. He'd been waiting for Peggy. Why Howard had sent Tony to tutors and boarding school, because the walk to public school had cost him his wife. Why Howard had turned cold to Tony, because he reminded his father of Peggy who he'd wooed for so long and lost so tragically — and maybe he blamed Tony for his mother's death. She wouldn't have been on that street if she hadn't been taking Tony to school.
The night after Peggy's funeral, Howard had gotten drunk and told Tony he hadn't minded being second choice to the best man he'd ever met. That hadn't made any sense to the grieving six-year-old, but it did now that he knew about Cap.
"Will there be a problem about visiting the grave, sir?" JARVIS asked.
"No, Peggy had made her funeral arrangements long before she got married. She's buried in the military section of the cemetery, where Howard didn't qualify. And she's buried under her maiden name, because that's what she wanted. I guess she never felt like a 'Stark.' Maybe that's another reason why my Dad turned so sour after her death. He felt rejected."
"Will you tell Captain Rogers, if he asks?"
"I'm not going to lie to him," Tony answered. "But I don't think he'll ask. It would be too awkward. Cap as my 'stepfather'?" He shook his head. "That's just creepy."
Steve Rogers was not stupid. "Businessman, hero, drunk" — was Tony talking about himself? He talked about a stepmother, so his own mother was gone. Howard had known Peggy before Steve met her and had courted her. It would make sense that his two friends had gotten together. He didn't begrudge them their happiness. Steve just hoped they found it for a few years.
Was Tony the son of his lost love? Steve shook his head to drive away the thought. No, it was better not to know. Better to not let the girl he left behind break up the friendship that might become.
Anyway, Tony was too old to be Steve's "stepson." The whole idea was just creepy.
Author's Note: I thought of this after I saw Captain America, when Tony's father was offering to take Peggy for fondue. If Howard was Cap's contemporary, then he'd be in his 90s now, yet Tony's in his 40s. (Robert Downey Jr. was born in 1965 – 20 years after the end of the war.) Howard waited until he was in his 50s to get married and have a son. Was he waiting for Peggy? There isn't anything in movieverse that definitely says Maria was Tony's mother. I understand there might be an outtake on the Avengers DVD with Steve meeting the elderly Peggy, but the DVD's not out yet, and outtakes are not canon. Nyah nyah. If you like this story, I have posted one other Avengers fic called "A Very Good Team." It's a short Steve and Tony conversation with less angst.