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the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world

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CAPTAIN AMERICA HANGS UP SHIELD
Virginia Potts, exclusive for The Daily Bugle

NEW YORK, N.Y. -- Representatives of the United States Army announced today that after more than half a decade spent defending the American way, Captain America will be heading on a new mission: retirement.

The masked hero, whose identity beneath the winged cowl remains classified, had a hand in a number of Allied victories during the war. For his work as leader of the campaign against the Nazi science division known as HYDRA, Captain America was awarded with a number of accolades, along with the unidentified members of his specialist team, known as the Howling Commandos.

General Nicholas Fury, head of the Army's Strategic Scientific Reserve, assured the press in an official statement today that "Cap will be at the ready to return for any threat looming on the horizon. In the meantime, we people of the United States owe him our gratitude for his service, and the dignity of a quiet retirement."

Though Captain America is due a bit of rest and relaxation after his efforts in the war, his fictional counterpart's story will continue on in his serialized adventures alongside the Iron Man in Marvels: A Magazine of Men's Adventure.

--

Manhattan, 1947

Steve Rogers finishes skimming the story of his own retirement, and tries not to find the idea surreal. He lowers the newspaper to the table in front of him, as the rest of the column devolves into a puff piece about Captain America's many accomplishments; Steve remembers it all quite vividly, and has little interest in reliving his 'glory days,' so to speak.

After a moment of Steve's silence, Virginia Potts says, "There you have it, Captain. No more war bonds tours for you."

"I don't know how to thank you for such a well-written piece," Steve says.

"I should be thanking you for giving me the exclusive," Pepper says with a laugh. "I'm the first woman to get a front page feature in the Bugle, and with my own name on it, at that!"

Steve pushes the newspaper aside when their waitress returns with their customary cups of coffee and large slices of pie.

"No more Frank Finlay for you, then?" he asks.

"Frank Finlay is long dead," Pepper says. "But my newspaper career is off to the right start. If only my grandmother could see me now - she was a suffragette, you know? I'm the first generation of Potts women born with the right to vote."

"That's quite a legacy to live up to," Steve agrees.

"That it is." Pepper gives him an arch look. "You know, a lot of men and women alike would hate to think that they didn't get credit for their many accomplishments."

"I didn't do it for the recognition," says Steve. "And it's not like I'm really retiring."

Pepper hums an acknowledgment, but they've done this dance before. Steve's new assignment is classified, a word she often repeats to him in a mock stern tone. "Fine, but I still need to get some ideas from you for the next few issues of Marvels, if I want to keep my other job."

Steve's tradition of having lunch with Pepper every other Tuesday began several months ago, when she first ran dry of ideas for the magazine. The largely exaggerated exploits of Iron Man and Captain America still run monthly, even though it has been a long time since the two heroes have had any adventures together.

"I'm not sure how much more I have to tell," Steve says honestly. Eventually, Pepper will have to start making things up, or the stories in Marvels must come to an end.

They do put their heads together and come up with ideas for the next three editions, at least: vague accounts of classified missions that Pepper can stretch and spin into something for her readers' consumption.

Pepper closes her notebook, but keeps twiddling the pencil between her fingers. Coming up with ideas for Marvels also means talking about Tony, and talking about Tony always leads into a conversation Steve knows by rote and dreads well in advance.

"So," she says. "It's been almost two years now since he ran off."

Steve stabs his fork into his pie with more force than is strictly necessary. "Yeah."

"I can't help feeling like there's something I could have done."

Steve shakes his head. "What could you have done?"

"I don't know." Pepper shrugs. "I was the only one stateside with him. I knew there was something ... different. The way he was acting ..."

They have been through this before, more times than Steve can now count, and still they are no closer to reaching a conclusion about why Tony Stark one day left his Manhattan penthouse and was never heard from again. No one has reliably seen or heard from Tony since that day, though numerous sightings have been reported in the quest for the sizable reward Stark International is offering for locating him.

"Jim thinks he went looking for another cure," Pepper says. "What do you think?"

"I don't know what I think," Steve says. He's being honest. "Tony went through a lot, during the war. We all did, but you know how hard the armor was on his heart. Maybe ... maybe he just retired."

Pepper sighs. "I'd like to think that, Steve. I really would. But would it kill him to drop us a postcard?"

Neither of them want to voice their true concern, of course, that Tony might not be around to send such a postcard. It's just easier to think of Tony, insouciant but alive, sunning on some beach somewhere and carelessly failing to get in touch.

"I'm sorry." Pepper reaches across the table and rests her hand delicately on Steve's wrist. "I've just been thinking of Tony a lot, lately."

"Me, too," Steve admits with a little smile. He doesn't tell her that he's hardly stopped thinking of Tony since the day he met the man.

Pepper shakes her head and summons up a smile, and she spends a moment clearly casting about for a change of subject before asking, "So, where are you off to on your next assignment?"

"I can't say too much about it," Steve says regretfully. The assignment is a covert one, investigating Hydra activity in Madripoor. Director Fury wants Steve there in a more obvious fashion than most SHIELD agents would employ, to throw Hydra off the scent of an actual undercover operative who has infiltrated their ranks. "I'll probably miss a couple of our lunches, but I'll keep in touch."

"Well," Pepper says. "See to it that you do - and if you go anywhere interesting, you know you owe me the story first!"

--

London - Temporary Headquarters of Stark Labs, 1941

Tony Stark seems younger than Steve thought he would; maybe it's that the covers of Marvels magazine always portray him as dirty and grizzled. The man that Steve meets today is clean and neat, with an immaculately groomed mustache and dark hair parted so straight it looks like it was done with a ruler. Even casually rumpled in shirt sleeves and trouser braces, he looks much more the business magnate than the hardened adventurer, and Steve has to fight back a wash of momentary disappointment.

The reaction must show on Steve's face, because Stark's expression falters, and his previously friendly smile takes on a cynical twist.

"Tony Stark," he says. "Not what you were expecting, Captain? Did you think I'd be taller?"

Steve's blush must spread from his hairline to his collar, but he keeps it civil as he shakes Stark's hand. "Steve Rogers, sir. And I'm sorry, I just - well, I just thought you looked younger than your magazine covers."

Tony looks startled for a beat, before he laughs. "Good recovery, Cap."

Steve smiles shyly back, and flounders with a hint of embarrassment as he realizes he's still holding Stark's hand. He lets go abruptly and clears his throat. "Sorry, sir."

"Please," Tony says. "Call me Tony. I'm not part of your military machine, even if Fury might wish it so."

"General Fury is just -"

Tony holds up the hand that Steve just released. "If you're going to say, 'doing his duty' or 'looking out for the welfare of the American people,' then you can save it, kid."

"Actually, I was going to say that he's just used to ordering everyone around," Steve finishes.

Tony laughs again, and this time the sound sends a pleasant warmth blossoming through Steve.

"I like you, Steve," Tony says. "Can I call you Steve?"

Steve smiles. "Sure, Tony."

"I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

"Casablanca, right?" Steve asks.

Tony grins. "Yes, I suppose it is. You mean you boys saw that one way out here?"

"I was at the premier," Steve says. "It was a publicity stunt."

"Well, whatever it was," Tony says, "you've got excellent taste in movies, Captain. Damn downer of an ending, though."

"I guess so." Steve shrugs. "It's ... noble, though. They both accepted their responsibilities."

"Said like a true American icon."

Steve laughs. "I don't know if I'd call myself that."

"Well, come on. Let me buy you a drink, Cap, then I'll show you the Iron Man. I have it on good authority that you're dying to see it."

"Actually," Steve says. "I don't really drink, so maybe we could skip to the armor?"

Tony raises his eyebrows. "You're one of those teetotallers?"

"Nothing like that. I can't get drunk." Steve thinks privately, though, that he would probably not, even if he could.

"A damn shame. You mean you never tried it, either?" Tony wonders, as he steers them down a long corridor toward his workshop.

"I did, once," Steve says. He doesn't mention that he didn't like it. "That was enough for me."

Tony pushes open the workshop doors and strides inside. The room, a temporary setup, is not quite the sophisticated Stark Labs facility that Steve was expecting, but all his potential for disappointment vanishes when he lays eyes on the armor.

"Wow," Steve says.

Tony looks pleased, something like a proud father showing off pictures of his children.

"I saw the covers of Marvels," Steve says. "And a little footage from the field, but ... this is even more amazing in person."

And so the armor is, tall and hulking, imposing to anyone with anything to fear from it. Steve walks up to the armor, where it hangs suspended in its chains for maintenance, and reaches a hand up to the breastplate - but he stops, glancing back at Tony.

"May I?"

"Be my guest," Tony answers.

Steve places his palm against the front of the armor, and strokes his hand down over the smooth, burnished metal. There are still a few bullet dents - "From our last encounter," Tony explains. - that have yet to be hammered out, and Steve lets his fingertips dip into those.

Steve thinks he must linger a little too long; he glances back at Tony and catches the other man watching him, as if Steve has done something worthy of scrutiny.

"I'm sorry," Steve says. "It's just - really, a marvel of modern warfare."

"It wasn't designed for war," Tony admits, stepping up to regard the armor alongside Steve. "Any more than I was. And when this whole damn mess is over, I hope I can go back to what I was meant to do."

"Exploring?" Steve asks.

Tony grins. "Adventuring."

--

New York Harbor, 1947

When Steve arrives at the harbor, he finds Captain Namor at the docks just as he requested. A part of him is surprised to find the pirate there, standing on the deck of the Lady Dorma's fishing trawler cover boat. Namor is bundled in a wool coat, the collar pulled up to conceal his identity, and he has a knitted cap pulled down low over the tips of his ears.

"Rogers," says Namor, curt and pleasant as ever.

"Captain," Steve says. "I appreciate your meeting me here."

"I don't forget the favors I owe." Namor nods his head in the direction of the hatch, and Steve follows him down, to the cramped captain's cabin. The real Dorma - a submarine designed and built in many incarnations by Tony Stark - takes up most of the space below; the fishing boat has likely never seen a day of service hauling a load of seafood.

Namor adjusts the lamp and sits down at the room's rickety table, gesturing for Steve to join him.

Steve folds himself into the chair opposite Namor, and places his hands on the tabletop in clear view.

"Why did you call me here?" Namor asks immediately, cutting directly to the chase.

"I need transportation," says Steve. "A way into Madripoor without detection, and I know you still have connections in Buccaneer Bay. You can get me in without papers."

"The secrecy sounds like a lot of trouble for no reason," Namor says. "Do you really think no one will recognize you just because there's no 'A' on your forehead?"

"I'll cross that bridge when I get to it."

Namor raises an eyebrow. "And what interest do you have in Madripoor?"

Steve considers Namor's body language: sitting back in the chair with arms folded across his chest, affected disinterest, and decides that the gamble of the truth is worth it. "Hydra," he says.

Namor stiffens, but doesn't respond.

"We have intelligence that suggests a leftover faction of Hydra agents is gaining a foothold in Madripoor," Steve says. "Maybe planning to use it as a base of operations in the area. I'm going in to investigate, and to take them down."

Namor's expression twists, and he leans forward again, narrowing his eyes at Steve. "And you would have me believe this has nothing to do with the fact that Tony Stark is living in Hightown?"

Surprise makes Steve startle; his body jerks, knee bumping the table, rattling the compass and maps on its surface. "What?"

"You didn't know," says Namor with some surprise.

"No." Steve sits up straighter, tries to control the racing of his heart, the way his hearing is nearly drowned by the rush of blood to his head. "I haven't seen Tony in two years. No one has."

"I have." Namor looks distinctly smug, to have gained the upper hand in their conversation. "I'm the one who took him to Madripoor."

"And you've - seen him since then?" Steve asks. He hates the thread of desperation in his voice, but after nothing, to suddenly hear word ...

Namor waves, dismissive. "To be perfectly honest, Rogers," he says, "I thought you'd heard and that was why you summoned me here. But I suppose if that were the case, you would have brought the woman with you."

Steve bites down on his reflexive reaction to Namor's derision of Pepper; the two of them locked horns repeatedly during their service together in the war over the very subject. Namor was an old sailor, who thought women had no place on a ship, much less carrying on with the sort of adventures that Pepper embarked on as part of the Marvels crew.

"Is he, is Tony, alright?" Steve asks, refusing to let Namor get the better of him just now. Steve needs the man's help, and even more now, he needs information.

"The last I saw of him, six months ago."

"What is he doing in Madripoor?"

Namor scoffs. "I owed Stark a debt, much as I owe one to you. I agreed to transport him to Madripoor, but I didn't ask questions. I wouldn't be surprised if he has since run afoul of these Hydra operatives."

Steve opens his mouth to respond, but Namor raises a hand to stop him.

"I'm aware of the Hydra problem in Madripoor, Rogers," Namor goes on. "Little happens there that I don't find out about. They're led by a woman who calls herself Madame Hydra. She's collecting herself pet scientists, and I can imagine all too easily that Stark has fallen into her web."

"Why didn't you share any of this information before now?" Steve asks, frustrated.

"I am assisting you in this because it's in my interest to see Madripoor freed of Hydra influence - a matter I have neither the time nor resources to see to myself," Namor says. "I'll take you there, but I wash my hands of you once you're ashore. We are no longer allies, Rogers. We simply share a common enemy, these days."

Steve knows from experience that Namor could be more difficult than this. He'll take what he can get. "Fair enough."

"We depart at 0500," Namor announces, his tone dismissive. "Don't be late, or I'll leave without you."

--

Brooklyn, 1947

The hour of night is indecent for any man to be calling on a single woman who lives alone, but Steve knows that Peggy won't mind. Agent Carter is capable and professional, and - most importantly - one of Steve's closest friends. She had been the only female member of the Howling Commandos, and after the war ended, expectation had been strong for Steve and Peggy to form a romantic relationship.

Steve certainly couldn't deny that a spark had been there, but Peggy's role in the newly formed SHIELD was at odds with Steve's position as, technically, her subordinate. Peggy had worked very hard to get where she was, too hard to give it all up to resolve a conflict of interest. Steve never would have expected her to set her career aside for his sake - even if she'd offered, which she hadn't - and anyway, Steve had never quite gotten over his own wartime romance. Peggy knew it, too, even if she was kind enough to not mention it.

These days, Peggy was notably more carefree, and was said to be enjoying a casual romance with fellow former Commando, Gabriel Jones. Gabe left his enlistment behind when the war was over, but remained on with the military as a civilian contractor, now acting as a translator and language teacher.

It only takes a few moments for Peggy to answer the door when Steve knocks. She smiles to see him, and Steve tries to return it, even though he feels on edge.

"I'm sorry to turn up here so late," he says. "I just wasn't sure who else to talk to."

"It's alright, Steve," Peggy says. She steps aside to allow him to enter. "Is something the matter?"

"The assignment. Madripoor."

Peggy nods. "What about it?"

Steve hangs his coat on the rack by the door, and exhales a sigh. "I just came from my meeting with Namor."

Peggy heads toward the kitchen, with a nod to Steve to follow. "Did he decline transport?"

"No," Steve says. "He had some additional information."

"Here, have a seat. What did he say?"

Steve sits down at the tiny kitchen table, and watches while Peggy fills a kettle with water and puts it on to heat. "He knows about the Hydra presence in Madripoor ... he said they're collecting scientists."

Peggy raises her eyebrows. "We have tracked some disappearances in the last six months. One of the scientists who worked with Dr. Erskine in Germany has gone missing, and a Dr. Sternberg from France. There may be others, but they were both working on projects SHIELD has been keeping an eye on."

"He also said Tony Stark is living in Hightown," Steve says.

Peggy's expression shifts, and Steve's heart sinks.

"But ... you already knew that," he says.

"Now, Steve -"

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Peggy sighs. "We haven't known the entire time," she says. "We've been tracking him for a few months now, keeping an eye on him."

"But why didn't you tell me?" Steve asks again.

"I thought it for the best," Peggy admits. "We've made contact with him, Steve ... he wasn't interested in talking to us, much less in coming back into the country."

Steve frowns down at the table. "But why?"

"I don't know." Peggy gets down a teapot and cups from the cabinet. "It's ... suspicious. I can't say Tony Stark isn't a person of interest to us right now."

"How so?"

"When Hydra cropped up in Madripoor," she says, "we started to worry that he might be a target. But he appears to be there of his own free will, and as far as we can tell, Hydra is leaving him alone."

Steve swallows hard. "He wouldn't talk to you."

"Well, not to Agent Sitwell, at least."

"But you're watching him for his own safety," Steve says slowly.

Peggy walks over to the table and rests her hand on Steve's shoulder. "We haven't ruled out the possibility that he may be working with them."

"He wouldn't -"

"Steve," she says gently. "We know that Howard Stark was Baron Zemo. One of the Baron Zemos, at least."

Steve pulls away from Peggy and gets to his feet. "That's -"

"Confidential, I know," Peggy says. "When we took in Arnim Zola at the end of the war, he gave us the intel that a new Zemo had been anointed, only he didn't know who it was."

"You can't think it's Tony," Steve protests.

"We haven't been able to prove that it's Tony, but the evidence strongly suggests it. What we do know is that Tony Stark disappeared just a few months after Wilhelm von Strucker was brought in."

Steve drops his face into his hands and takes a deep breath, trying to pull himself together. Peggy is still staring at him, he knows, but the whistling of the kettle makes her turn away. When he looks up again, Peggy is setting the tea service on the table.

"Tony was the one to bring down von Strucker!" Steve protests, but his memories of the day are less than clear where Tony is concerned. The same day that von Strucker was arrested, Bucky died; Steve is ashamed to admit that he wasn't paying much attention to Tony that day.

"It's suspicious, Steve," she says gently. "You have to admit. Tony leaves without warning, and turns up in Madripoor around the same time Hydra begins to build a base of operations there?"

"He hasn't turned," Steve insists. "I would know."

Peggy urges Steve back to his chair with a gentle but firm hand on his shoulder. "Howard Stark's closest friends and family didn't know what was the matter when he started to change."

Steve sits down, but doesn't reach for the cup of tea she pours for him. "Peggy ..."

"I'm sorry," she says. "This is why I didn't tell you. I didn't want your feelings to get in the way of your objectivity on this assignment."

"No," Steve says. "I'm ... I'll go. I'll be fine, Peggy."

She looks doubtful. "Are you sure?"

"Just let me talk to him. Maybe I can figure out what's going on." Steve doesn't mention that he just wants the opportunity to ask his own questions of Tony, but Peggy seems to read it on his face.

"I'll let you go because I trust you," she says reluctantly. "Please don't make me regret this."

Steve takes a deep breath and summons a smile. "It'll be fine. You know you can trust me to get the job done."

--

Lady Dorma, 1947

The journey to Madripoor is not inconsiderable by air, and even longer by sea, especially since Namor refuses to deploy the submarine until they are closer to their destination. Steve studies reports and writes letters to occupy his mind, and takes up pacing the deck of the fishing trawler in much of his free time, finding sleep hard to come by in the boat's tiny berth.

On the last night of their journey - it will only be a few hours before they set off in the submersible - Namor joins Steve at the aft railing, leaning there as he lights his pipe.

Steve watches the smoke begin to rise in the glow of the match before Namor snuffs out the flame. He gives the captain a few moments to enjoy his tobacco in silence before asking, "What can you tell me? About Tony."

Steve has been conscientious not to bother Namor on the journey so far, not that it has been difficult to stick to that, as Namor has made himself scarce.

"The last I heard of Stark," Namor says, his voice disinterested, "he was living at the Sovereign."

"The hotel?"

"The same."

Steve commits the information to memory.

"But you're more likely to find him in Lowtown, at the Princess Bar." Namor pauses, snorting at Steve's questioning look. "If Stark has spent a day sober since setting foot in Madripoor, I'd be surprised. You should be prepared to drag him out of some gutter, Rogers."

Namor walks off, and Steve looks down into the water, trying not to feel as disappointed as he does. Tony always did rely a little too heavily on alcohol to numb his pain, to forget the stresses of the war and his own bad heart. Steve had tried to do what he could to help, but it never seemed like enough, which had been especially hard on Steve after growing up with an alcoholic father.

Maybe, Steve has to admit, Peggy's fears are well-founded. Steve has difficulty remaining objective where Tony is concerned, especially after the way things ended between them ... with Tony simply leaving. In all that time, there had been no letters, no phone calls. Steve hadn't harbored a great deal of illusions about what life after the war would hold for them, he'd found it too hard to think about the future beyond the desire to live to see it, but he never imagined it would end without a word.

SHIELD wants to be certain that Tony hasn't fallen to the enemy, and for Steve to attempt to liberate the missing scientists, if indeed they are in Hydra's hands. If Peggy is right, if Tony really has been turned, then Steve knows he'll have to be prepared to deal with it.

He prays to God it won't come to that.

--

Madripoor - Buccaneer Bay, 1947

The Lady Dorma emerges inside a covered dock area in a remote portion of Buccaneer Bay. Steve says his goodbyes to a surly Namor - while certain neither of them will miss the other very much - and disembarks with merely a single duffel bag slung over his shoulder.

Outside, Buccaneer Bay is indifferent to Steve's mood, thriving with its usual curious mix of high class travelers and lower class citizens. He pulls his coat collar higher and tries to blend in, but it's a futile effort when he stands head and shoulders above many of the people around him. It makes him a conspicuous and therefore unappealing target for thieves, at least, so the pickpockets roaming the area leave him alone as he picks his way through the crowd.

He catches a cab milling about, and it's clear the driver was hoping for a Hightown tourist, given his surprised look when Steve announces, "Lowtown," as his destination.

The drive into the city from the port takes a while, and after Steve exhausts small talk with the driver - subtly picking the man for information - he lapses into brooding silence.

There is a certain appeal to the outlying areas of Madripoor, Steve thinks reluctantly. His artist's eye catches on the lush vegetation, the beautiful flowers, the unique architecture native to the small rural village outside Buccaneer Bay. Still, he doubts any of the thieves and war criminals come here for the orchids. Thinking of Tony Stark spending his self-imposed exile among this ilk is difficult.

By the time they reach the Lowtown district Steve seeks, the streets are crowded with everything from food carts to drunken revelers, and the car's progress has slowed to a crawl.

"Stop here," Steve says. "I'll walk the rest of the way."

Steve greases the driver's palm with a generous tip to avoid becoming the subject of future gossip, himself, and steps out of the car. His destination is only a few blocks away, and now he does have to shoulder his way more forcefully past pickpockets and panhandlers.

The nightlife in this district never really dies, but it does move around - progressing from bar to brothel to seedy hotel room - and by the time Steve reaches his destination, the hour is late. The infamous Princess Bar looks like a complete dive from the outside, but lights spill out from the windows and door, a beacon with the promise of booze, even at this time of night (or morning).

Steve pushes open the door and walks inside, scanning the interior of the bar as he goes. Inside, the place is nicer than it appears; some of Madripoor's elite will roam out of Hightown just to come here for one fix or another, and tonight appears to be no exception to that rule. There are still several patrons milling about, the ones who look too deep in their cups to leave, slumped and sleepy-eyed with their elbows glued in sticky spots to the counter.

Steve slips the bartender a small roll of bills - an hour off the boat and Steve has already spent more than a working class man makes here in a month - and gets pointed toward the back for his trouble, with an assurance that he will be left alone for the duration of his 'meeting.'

Steve pushes his way through the curtain that separates the front of the bar from the rest. In the dimly lit back room, a few tables are occupied: one, with old men playing high stakes cards, a couple more sporting couples in various stages of amorous intent. Steve takes a moment out to study them; two of the women and maybe one of the men are probably whores. None of them are the person he is looking for.

To one corner of the area, though, nearly in the shadows, is a piano. And at the piano, a man is perched on the bench, the curvy silhouette of a dame on his lap, the two of them wreathed in smoke.

Somehow, Steve thinks, this seemed easier when it was only in the planning stages. Now, all of the careful plans fly from Steve's mind and he forces his nerves to calm, takes a deep breath, and heads toward the corner.

The woman rises from the piano bench when Steve approaches. She glides past him like a whisper, leaving a hint of perfume on the air.

Tony Stark sits with his back turned toward Steve all the while, fingertips idly dancing over the ivories in a faux jaunty tune. A cigarette smolders away in the crystal ashtray to his right, next to a tumbler of whiskey. The good stuff. Neat.

"Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world," Tony says, his voice low and a little slurred. "He walks into mine."

Steve stops, stiffening at the words.

"I heard someone was asking after me." Tony turns to face Steve, reaching lazily for his cigarette.

Tony is just as handsome as he always was, every inch the dashing playboy, though he has traded out his chinos and boots for a linen suit, and instead of a neat mustache he wears a full vandyke and a few days worth of stubble.

"It wasn't me," Steve says honestly.

It occurs to Steve how that sounds as soon as he sees Tony's face darken. Something in Tony's blue eyes grows sharp, and he goes on the attack.

"Please," Tony says. "I might have left the States, but I've still got eyes and ears there, Captain. Or should I say 'Commander,' now? Tell me, Commander: is that a promotion, a demotion, or just a lateral change in branch?"

Steve says nothing; refuses to take the bait.

"Are you here to arrest me?" Tony asks.

Steve can't decide whether he wants to punch him or kiss him. "No, Tony. I'm not here to arrest you."

"Good." Tony gets to his feet. He looks neither worried nor relieved. "Extradition is something that simply isn't done in Madripoor, you see. You might have had to sling me over your shoulder and carry me back."

Even though standing face to face with Tony Stark makes him feel like an uncertain young soldier all over again, Steve refuses to give any ground. "I still could."

Tony's smile is wicked as he looks Steve over from head to toe, one searing glance. "Would you like that, Commander?"

Steve clenches his fists at his sides and reminds himself, with a slow and deep breath, that he is here to help Tony, no matter how infuriating the man insists on making himself. He knows Tony's tricks, his strategy, the way that he immediately goes on the offensive, trying to push people away before they have the chance to simply leave.

"Please," Steve says softly. "I just want to talk."

Tony stares back at Steve, and for a moment Steve thinks Tony might close the distance between them, but the spell lasts only seconds before Tony's expression goes dark, shuttered.

"Fine," Tony relents. "What would you like to talk about, Commander?"

Steve glances around them, and furrows his eyebrows. "Not here."

Tony sighs gustily and turns to toss back the rest of his drink. He stubs out his cigarette and, without another word, turns for the door, leaving Steve scrambling to follow.

"Are you really after privacy," Tony asks, "or is this just an excuse to go back to mine?"

"I really want to talk," Steve says, indulging Tony as far as he feels he must. "In private."

Steve expects them to catch a cab, but when they leave the bar, Tony leads Steve down a few blocks instead, to a building that houses a busy restaurant on the first floor. The stairwell leading up to the second - then third - is cramped, and smells like stale frying oil.

Tony opens the door to a tiny studio apartment and lets Steve enter first. Steve glances around at the shabby furnishings and turns to raise a questioning eyebrow at Tony.

"You don't approve of my humble abode?"

"It's ... not what I was expecting," Steve says. "It doesn't seem your style."

Tony closes the door and locks it - with two deadbolts and a chain, Steve notes - before asking, "And what, exactly, is my style?"

"Expensive," says Steve. "Flashy."

Tony smirks. "I'm sorry to disappoint, Commander."

Steve drops his duffel on the floor with a sigh. "I'm not disappointed by the apartment."

"Why are you disappointed, then?" Tony moves in closer. "Did you think you were going to sweep in here like the dashing hero and rescue me?"

"Shut up," Steve says, and kisses him.

To Steve's surprise, Tony kisses back, and there's a certain eagerness in the way that he slides his arms around Steve's waist, under the coat. Tony tastes like bourbon and cigarettes and smells like the same, along with a faint hint of his preferred aftershave, something uniquely Tony.

As the two of them grapple with each other's clothes, Steve's coat and Tony's jacket hitting the floor, followed by shoes and shirts and trousers, to fall naked onto a too small bed in a cramped space, Steve can't help but be transported back to an earlier - easier - time in their lives, and he wonders if Tony is remembering the war right now as well.

It wasn't just the war, of course, that fueled them years ago, but the idea that they might be dead tomorrow certainly made a compelling argument for giving in to their desires. Steve wishes the similarity didn't lend a fatalistic overtone to the here and now, because for their years of separation, however much he might have lied to himself, he has never stopped wanting Tony.

Steve wants to ask if Tony missed him, too; if Tony ever thought about this, but Tony is moving over him, making his way down Steve's body, and for a moment all Steve can think about is reaching out and stopping him.

Tony raises his head with a questioning look, and Steve feels himself flush.

"Sorry," Steve says quickly. "Just -" And he can't think of anything to say that isn't too much, that isn't pinning his heart right on his sleeve, so he tugs Tony back up so that they can kiss.

Tony's expression goes unreadable, but he leans in to press their lips together again. He settles himself over Steve and eases a leg between Steve's thighs. Tony's cock is a hard length pressed against Steve's hip, and it only takes a few moments of not quite awkward fumbling before they are moving together.

This is familiar, the desperate slow slide, too much and not enough all at once. Tony is sloppier than Steve remembers, probably uncoordinated with drunkenness; Steve isn't sure this would be happening at all without liberal application of bourbon, but he doesn't have the heart to stop it.

Tony fumbles kisses at Steve's neck and jaw, and when they come just moments apart, shuddering together, Steve slides his hand down to cover the skin-warmed metal of the bubble over Tony's heart.

By the time Steve works up the nerve to say something, Tony has fallen fast asleep.

--

Stark Dirigible - Over the Atlantic Ocean, 1941

The first time Tony Stark goes out on maneuvers with Steve Rogers, he knows that it is truly a match made in heaven. He isn't given to much romantic fancy these days, not with a war on - though he certainly has been guilty of quite the romantic entanglement in peacetime - but he would have to be blind not to admire the captain's fine physique.

They have just finished their day's practice - aerial drops and retrievals with the Iron Man suit; Cap's shield makes a pretty target - and Tony lands them on the ramp back into the airship before he sets Steve onto his feet.

Steve is flushed and breathing hard with the excitement and adrenaline still pumping through his veins. Tony knows the feeling well; he still experiences it each and every time the Iron Man's jet boots take him off the ground, and he's been doing this for years.

"If I could fly," Steve says, tugging off his helmet, "I think you'd never get me out of the sky."

"It's a little different, with the scarcity of fuel these days," Tony says.

He should probably remove the Iron Man's arm from around Steve's waist, but Tony uses the excuse that the hatch is still open, and Jim hasn't come back up yet with Steve's partner, Bucky.

"I meant as a super power," Steve answers, smiling.

Tony flips up the faceplate on the armor. "Still, I'll take you flying any time you like, Steve."

"Thank you, Tony." Steve hesitates for a moment, then he pushes up on his toes - shorter than Tony, with Tony in the armor - and presses their lips together.

The kiss is brief and chaste, a quick, sweet press. Steve's lips are chapped from wind exposure, but Tony wouldn't change the moment for anything.

When Tony doesn't respond, Steve turns away, a red blush creeping up his neck and spreading over his cheeks.

"I'm sorry," he stammers. "I shouldn't ... I overstepped my bounds. I'm sorry, Tony."

"Don't be sorry, Steve," Tony answers. "Just come here and kiss me again."

Steve leans in and Tony does his best to stoop down in the unwieldy armor - usually, he finds his designs sleek and graceful, but today could see a compelling reason to streamline - but the War Machine (Jim had not gone subtle with his moniker, even rejecting Tony's cheeky suggestion of rebranding as 'Iron Patriot') is on the approach, carrying Steve's partner on his boot.

Steve takes a step back to put a respectable distance between them, and turns shyly away from Tony in order to greet his friend.

"Were you doing loop-de-loops out there?" Steve asks. "I hope you didn't get sick all over Jim."

Bucky pushes his goggles into his hair and glances between Steve and Tony in a distinctly pointed fashion, a sly look on his face as if he can tell what they were doing without needing to witness it. "Some of us like to face our fears."

"Is that why you're still wearing your parachute?" Steve asks.

Bucky rolls his eyes and shrugs out of the parachute - after Mr. Jarvis has closed the hatch, anyway.

"Come on, punk," he says. "Let's go see if there's any coffee. If I've got to drink another cup of tea, I'm gonna skip it and go straight to whiskey."

Steve laughs softly, allowing Bucky to lead him off with a hand clapped on his back; he glances shyly back at Tony, and Tony smiles in return before Steve gets out of sight.

Later that evening, once Tony and Jim are out of the armor and they've all had dinner, Tony retires to his cabin and settles in with his schematics, fresh graphing paper, and a set of good pencils. He misses his workshop fiercely these days, not finding much time to get back to Manhattan with a war on, but when he has a spare moment, Tony does like to jot down design ideas and improvements for the armors. The earlier idea of figuring out how to streamline the design sticks in Tony's mind in particular.

As he sketches out the faceplate of the Iron Man on his paper, Tony finds his mind drifting back to the kiss he and Steve shared earlier. He knows better than to think too heavily on it; they are in the middle of a war, and wartime romances hardly stand the potential to last. Not to mention that, well ... circumstances being what they are, Tony hardly wants to have a scandal on his hands. He could afford it, but rather doubts that Steve's military career could say the same.

Still, it's hard to argue the knock at his door; Tony doesn't even have to wait until he's opened it to know that Steve is on the other side.

Steve is dressed down, in just his olive drab Army uniform trousers and a white cotton undershirt bearing the logo of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, when Tony answers the door. He gives a shy smile, eyes darting around to see whether they are alone before he says, "Hi."

"Hi," Tony answers, returning the smile with one of his own. He steps aside and gestures Steve to enter. "Come in."

Steve walks into the cabin, and is drawn to the papers strewn across Tony's table. "Oh. Are you busy working?" he asks.

"Just sketching a little."

"I draw sometimes, to relax," Steve says.

"Really."

"Yeah." Steve glances up from the papers, looking Tony in the eye. "I went to art school, before the war broke out."

"When you get a bit of leave and I get a break, I would love to show you my art collection back in New York," Tony says. "I've got quite a few pieces by the masters."

"I'd like that," Steve says.

Tony walks over to the table and places his hand down on the surface of it, next to Steve's. Ordinarily, he might ask what has brought Steve here - and Tony has a pretty good idea - but he finds himself interested in waiting to see where this will all go under Steve's guidance.

"About today," Steve finally blurts. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, a self-conscious gesture that does not seem to belong to such a powerful man. "On the deck."

"When you kissed me," Tony leads, breaking his resolve just a little.

"Yes." Steve looks mortified, but to his credit, he goes on, "When I kissed you."

Tony raises his eyebrows, waiting.

"Well," Steve says. "I was just thinking. Wondering. When you said 'don't be sorry,' was it just because you were being nice, or -"

Tony answers the unfinished question by surging forward and mashing their lips together. It's hardly graceful, actually it is the furthest thing from being graceful, but Tony tries to make it work. He puts his hands out on Steve's shoulders to steady them both, and Steve responds in kind by placing his hands on Tony's sides, uncertain as if he doesn't know quite what to do with them.

When they finally break away from the kiss, Steve is as red as a beet but smiling from ear to ear.

"I wasn't just being nice," Tony says.

"I'm getting the idea," Steve says, leaning in again. "But ... I might need a little more convincing."

--

Lowtown, 1947

Steve wakes up with his face mashed against his arm and a fly buzzing somewhere near his ear. He swats ineffectually at it and tries to go back to sleep, but his conscious mind processes a second later where he is, and the thought brings the rest of him awake almost instantaneously.

He rolls over, and tries to fight back disappointment when he finds the other side of the bed empty.

In retrospect, after a few hours' sleep and thinking with a clearer head, Steve has to admit that coming here and immediately falling into bed with Tony probably hadn't been his best idea. It's too late now, though, and Steve refuses to feel guilty about it. After two years of separation, they needed the connection, and Tony always had used sex as a coping mechanism, when the booze failed him.

Steve sits up and rubs his hands over his face, stifling the sigh that comes bubbling up his throat. He isn't so naive as to have assumed all their problems would be solved after spending the night together, but he can't help feeling a bit betrayed that Tony left before they even had the chance to speak to each other.

Steve checks his watch in the slant of sunlight coming in through the apartment's single, poorly shuttered window, and forces his feet onto the floor.

He gets up and tugs on his trousers, and double checks the apartment to make sure all signs of Tony's presence are gone. In the light of early morning, the place looks even shabbier than it had the night before. The living space is divided up into a sitting area, which half runs into the space where the bed and a rickety dresser comprise a bedroom of sorts. Under the window is a tiny table with two chairs; the surface of the table is covered in precariously stacked papers.

Steve heads into the 'kitchen,' which is a tiny area shoved into the corner like an afterthought, sporting only a short length of counter, a sink, and a hotplate. He knows better than to drink the water, even as thirsty as he is, so he turns to the table instead.

The papers littering the table are mostly sketches and designs, but a few sheets are covered in cramped handwriting, what looks like equations written in some kind of code.

Steve rolls up the papers and stashes them in his bag for later. A part of him feels guilty, but Tony is the one who left Steve here, unsupervised. Resentment at having been left without a word - again - is enough to allow Steve to tamp down on that guilt and continue going through the apartment. It seems sloppy of Tony, in fact, to lead Steve to a place where Steve might find sensitive information. Tony is too smart for that, so Steve doesn't expect to find much.

Unfortunately, his search doesn't turn up much, just clothes and a few coins rolling around a dresser drawer. It's clear that Tony doesn't actually live here, and fairly obvious that he isn't planning on coming back anytime soon.

Steve makes use of the shower - which spits out alternatingly freezing cold and lukewarm water - eager to at least wash off the dirt of travel and evidence of the night before. He considers his reflection and decides not to shave, in a half-hearted attempt at a disguise. After getting dressed, Steve shoves his things back into his duffel bag and leaves the apartment.

Lowtown is already alive with activity by the time Steve emerges onto the street level. He stops in for lunch at the restaurant on the bottom floor of the building, and peruses the day's newspaper that was left on the counter by some patron before him.

It's a Madriporean edition of a western newspaper, and doesn't tell Steve much that he didn't already know, but it gives him a means of looking busy and avoiding conversation with any of his fellow diners. He doesn't bother asking anyone about Tony or anything else he's after, on his way out.

Steve has a destination in mind, and after the morning, an even stronger suspicion that Tony might be able to give him some of the answers that he seeks after all. Peggy might have been right in her suggestion that Steve lacks the objectivity for this task, but Steve is feeling determined to prove her - and even more so, himself - wrong.

--

London - Temporary Headquarters of Stark Labs, 1942

Tony Stark might be in love.

Steve Rogers is amazing. Seeing him in action as Captain America is a wonder, and the man beneath the flag is every bit as good and noble as the cause he supports. But Steve is also funny, sarcastic, stubborn, and not afraid to stand up to Tony, which is not something Tony has experienced very much in his life. In fact, Tony has something of a tendency to surround himself with those few people who won't deal with his bullshit; Jim, Pepper, Jarvis, and now Steve, they're all willing to take Tony down a notch or two when required.

The sneaking around isn't exactly fun, but Tony puts up with it.

Tonight, they arrange to conveniently disappear from a benefit dance for the soldiers. The Howling Commandos are planning to go on a pub crawl when the dance winds down; Falworth and Carter claim to know some of the best drinking establishments in the area. Ordinarily, it would be the sort of thing that Tony would be interested in, but tonight he's interested only in being alone with Steve. Tony's work makes a good excuse for him, and as for Steve, there isn't much point in a man who can't get drunk going out drinking.

Tony takes them back to the building that houses his makeshift workshop, which has a modest set of living quarters attached. He's grateful for Jim's foresight in arranging for this place, though Tony is sure Jim didn't intend it for this specific purpose. Then again, Jim does know Tony rather well ... even though he's discreet and kind enough not to mention it.

"How long is your leave, again?" Tony asks.

"I have a twenty-four hour pass," Steve says, laughing softly.

"Long enough." Tony leans in and kisses Steve, taking his time to enjoy it.

He doesn't want to rush this, or rush Steve. Even though their relationship has slowly progressed from kissing to enthusiastic kissing, to a bit of canoodling and some heavy petting, Tony remains conscientious of Steve's professed lack of experience. Steve has recently seemed eager to find enough privacy for more extensive exploration, which led them here tonight, but it's still a surprise when Steve is the one to say, "Come on, let's go to bed."

The bedroom here is fairly Spartan in design and decor, but it does at least sport a larger bed than the one in Tony's cabin on the dirigible.

Tony tugs Steve over to the side of the bed, and begins to slowly unbutton Steve's jacket. "Did I mention how much I enjoy a man in uniform, Captain?"

Steve laughs. "You must be very distracted by all the soldiers in London, then."

"I only have eyes for a particular fellow," Tony confides. "Who's strong and brave ..."

"Tony," Steve says warningly.

"... and handsome," Tony finishes, smiling cheekily. "What? It's not my fault they gave you your own theme song."

"Captain America has a theme song," Steve says. "Steve Rogers can't actually carry a tune in a bucket."

"Nonsense." Tony drapes Steve's suit jacket over his desk chair, careful not to wrinkle it since Steve will need to wear it on his way out tomorrow. "These uniforms could have fewer layers."

"You could be moving faster." Steve is the very picture of efficiency as he moves to strip Tony out of his jacket. "You keep getting distracted."

"Handsome soldiers, distractions," Tony says vaguely.

"Talking too much," Steve says.

"I think I can find a way to keep my mouth better occupied," Tony agrees. He pushes Steve down to sit on the bed, and goes to his knees in front of him.

Steve looks a little startled, but he gets the point quickly enough, especially once Tony has his trousers open. Tony strokes Steve to hardness - not that it's difficult, given a bit of youthful eagerness - and takes his time exploring Steve with his hands and lips and tongue.

Steve gasps sweetly when Tony finally takes Steve into his mouth, and Tony slides a hand into his own trousers. Predictably, things don't last very long from there; Steve cries out Tony's name in the throes of climax, and Tony doesn't take long before he's spilling into his own hand.

Steve cards his fingers in Tony's hair and gradually leans down for a kiss, which Tony happily obliges. When Steve breaks apart, he says softly, a little petulantly, "I wanted to do that for you."

Tony is feeling boneless even with an orgasm he gave himself a hand in achieving, and he slouches against Steve. "Maybe later," he says. "I got carried away. See, Captain? You're rubbing off on me."

"Maybe later," Steve mimics, and surprises a laugh right out of Tony with his dirty joke.

They get out of the rest of their clothes when they go to clean up, and Tony is finally granted the opportunity to see Steve naked in a scenario where he is actually welcome to look. Steve seems surprisingly at ease under the scrutiny of Tony's gaze; maybe there's an unspoken rule that shyness has no place between two people who have just had sex.

Tony is not typically much for cuddling up in bed after sex, but he happily crawls under the covers this time. Steve rests with his head against Tony's shoulder, fingertips stroking idly around the perimeter of the metal cover over Tony's heart.

"Can I see it?" Steve wonders.

Tony knows Steve has seen under the cover from a distance before, when Jarvis has charged the repulsor pump. It isn't precisely a secret, but Tony chooses to wear the metal plate over his chest more often than not these days, just to give that added layer of durability with a war on.

"Most people don't like to look at that," Tony says softly.

Steve smiles up at him. "I'm not most people."

"Isn't that the truth." Tony pauses, and after a hesitant moment, reaches down to unfasten the cover. He slides the strap off his shoulder and tugs the entire thing off, setting it on the floor next to the bed before he settles into the pillows again.

Steve is quiet as he regards it, but after a few seconds he says, "Can I ask what happened?"

"My heart?" Tony wonders, glancing down at the glass bubble. He never has gotten used to the sight of his own heart, beating away in his chest. He didn't explain the truth in Marvels, either, beyond a vague mention that made it sound as if Tony had been injured on an adventure.

"Yeah."

"I was actually born with a bad heart," Tony admits. "My father innovated this technology when I was a kid. The repulsor pump. It was ... primitive. I've improved it over the years with Jarvis' help."

"Your father was also an inventor?"

"Yeah." Tony closes his eyes as he thinks of Howard, the memory painful. Watching his beloved father slowly decline into madness ... only recently learning why. "The heart pump was the last great thing he ever created - well, that, and the basic design for the armor."

Steve pushes up onto an elbow and looks between Tony and the heart bubble, before he sets a hand delicately over the glass. His large palm is nearly enough to cover it, to shield it, entirely. "He worked on the armor?"

Tony swallows hard, looking up at Steve. "I've never talked about Howard to anyone," he admits softly. "Not like this."

"I'm sorry," Steve says. "If it's too invasive ..."

"No." Tony shakes his head. "It's sort of - nice to get it out. My father ... he was in the Great War, but he spent the last six months of it in a prisoner of war camp. He and Jarvis - they were in the same unit, captured together. Kept each other going, really. Except ... Howard got subjected to a German experiment."

Steve starts, his eyes widening. "What?"

"Steve," Tony says carefully. "I never elaborated on it in the magazine, I didn't allow Pepper to write about it, but Baron Zemo? Turned out to be my father. Howard."

"Oh, God." Steve furrows his brows. "God, Tony, I'm so sorry."

"No, it's ..." Tony shakes his head, reaching up to cup Steve's cheek in his hand. "It's been a long time. Howard was long dead before Baron Zemo died. The chemical compound, it ate away at his mind, destroyed the man he was."

Steve turns his head and presses a kiss to Tony's palm. "Still. I'm sorry."

Tony smiles faintly. "Just don't tell anyone, yeah?"

"Of course I won't," Steve says. "Your secret is safe with me."

"So," Tony goes on after a moment. "While Zemo was still in the process of taking over, Howard got paranoid. He knew there was something after him, he just couldn't figure out what it was. Couldn't get his mind clear enough to understand it, to articulate it to anyone else. So he got paranoid, decided the Iron Man - which he meant to be a robot - was the solution."

"It must have been terrible," Steve says.

"I can't imagine going out that way," Tony admits. "Losing everything that makes you who you are."

Steve lowers his head onto Tony's shoulder again, snuggling in against Tony's side. They both remain quiet for a moment, then Steve volunteers, "My dad was an alcoholic."

Tony strokes his hand over Steve's hair. "I'm sorry."

"He was a veteran, too. After the war, he had a hard time finding work," Steve says. "So he drowned his sorrows in the bottle. I think ... in a way, he gradually slipped away, too. Became someone else, someone unrecognizable."

Tony doesn't know what to say, can't think of any eloquent way of handling it, so he just offers softly, again, "I'm sorry, Steve."

"It's been a long time, now," Steve says. "Both my parents are long dead." He sighs. "Bucky and the Commandos are the only family I have left."

"You have me," Tony says firmly. "Me, and the rest of my little group. We're your family now, too. We might be a ragtag group of treasure hunters, but we're yours."

"Thanks." Steve smiles. "It means a lot to me, Tony."

"You mean a lot to me, Steve," Tony blurts, almost awkward about it.

"And you to me, Tony." Steve leans up and kisses Tony again. It's a good way to forget their troubles together for a little while longer.

--

Hightown - Sovereign Hotel, 1947

Crossing over from Lowtown to Hightown is like entering another country. The streets become well-paved, the shops and buildings kept up to a high standard of attractiveness, gleaming signs beckoning to the wealthy. The Sovereign Hotel is the largest and most luxurious of all the hotels in Hightown, and the prevalence of western travelers means that Steve is spared hardly a second glance as he slips through the lobby. Espionage work has never come easy to him - even if General Fury did once say he was amazing at bullshit - but Steve has learned, over the years, that simply moving like you have a purpose can be amazingly useful in keeping questions at bay.

Steve spends a little while chatting pleasantly with the front desk clerk, before inquiring after Mr. Stark's suite number. They have an afternoon meeting, he explains, and to his embarrassment, he has lost the room number; calling up would simply be humiliating, Steve is already late for their appointment. An earnest attitude seems to work to his advantage, and within a few minutes Steve finds himself in an elevator on the way up to the tenth floor.

Tony has a corner suite, and Steve considers simply breaking and entering, but he is apparently already on shaky ground with getting Tony to trust him right now, so he settles for knocking.

To Steve's surprise, Tony answers the door himself.

Tony looks rather the worse for wear, his skin pale against the brightly colored silk of the robe he is wearing. A crystal tumbler dangles from his hand, with a bit of liquor still inside. Tony's expression goes pinched for a moment, before he opens the door wider and stands aside for Steve to enter.

"I should have known you'd follow me here," Tony says, once Steve is inside, and he's closed and locked the door.

"You left without giving me a chance to talk to you." Steve sets his bag down by the door and shrugs out of his coat, announcing his intention to stay until he gets the answers he wants and needs. "What else was I supposed to do?"

Tony snorts softly, and goes to pour himself a refill. "Can I get you a drink? You'll find I haven't lost all my manners."

"No." Steve doesn't even bother sitting down, he just walks to Tony and gently pries the glass from his hand.

Tony's eyes flicker up to Steve's face, his own face contorting for a moment as if he wants to be angry, but simply doesn't have the energy. He reeks of whiskey; no matter how good the stuff Tony is drinking, he smells like he's bathed in it.

"How much have you had to drink?" Steve asks softly.

Tony blinks. "Not enough for this conversation."

Steve sets down the glass and places his hands on Tony's shoulders. "This isn't what I imagined it would be like," he admits.

"What?" Tony glances down at Steve's hands, wary, but he doesn't pull away.

"Seeing you again. You didn't write," Steve blurts. "Let me know you were even alive."

"Steve," Tony says, with the tired air of a man making an old argument. "Regardless of my reasons for leaving, did you really think it could last? You'd be amazed to know what people are willing to overlook when a war is on ... and what they're not, once it's over."

Steve goes quiet for a moment. "I thought you never cared about that," he says at last, finally allowing his hands to drop to his sides.

Tony sighs. "Steve, I might be flagrant with my regard for the law and social mores, but you're Captain America. Even if I weren't worried about my reputation, I have some regard for yours."

"I'm not Captain America anymore," Steve says.

"So you're not," Tony agrees. "But you're still a recognizable public figure. A war hero. As long as Captain America and Iron Man had an excuse to always be together for the sake of liberating Europe of Nazis, then the public - and your superiors - didn't bat an eyelash, but now?"

"I don't care about any of that," Steve says, stepping closer. "I only care about you."

Tony turns away, reaching for his drink. "I've been visited by SHIELD before, you know. They think I'm working for the enemy."

"I don't," Steve insists.

"And how can you be so sure?" Tony snaps. There's no mistaking the bitterness in his tone. He tosses back his entire drink and sets the glass down on the table with a clink.

Steve sighs quietly. "Tony ..."

"Steve." Tony raises a hand to stop him. "Why are you even here?"

"I want to help you," Steve says. "You can come home."

Tony closes his eyes, looking weary. "You're wasting your time, Steve," he says softly. "I risked life and limb for America, I gave her my soul, and what I get in return is suspicion of being the very thing I fought against!"

"Then come home. Clear your name." Steve steps up behind Tony, and winds his arms loosely around the man's waist. "It's dangerous for you to stay here. We're not the only ones who know you're here - Hydra knows it, too."

Tony leans back into the embrace; he looks like he resents himself for the weakness.

"We miss you," Steve says softly. "The whole family."

"How are they?" Tony asks. This time, his voice shakes a little on the words.

"They're fine. Worried about you, Tony." Steve pauses. "It isn't ... it hasn't been the same without you."

Tony turns in Steve's arms. "I did miss you."

Steve begins to answer, but Tony leans in before Steve can speak, and presses their lips together. It's weak of him, but Steve gives in, tightening his arms around Tony's waist and slowly returning the kiss.

Tony still tastes strongly of bourbon, but that's the only similarity between this kiss and the ones they shared last night. Tony takes his time now, reaching up to wind his arms around Steve's neck, closing his eyes.

This is everything Steve wanted, even though he should know better. Ever since he found out that Tony would be in Madripoor, his best attempts at professionalism aside, Steve hoped for this.

Tony pulls away after a long moment, and lowers his arms from around Steve's neck.

"I can't make any promises," Tony says, a warning note in his voice.

Steve gives a small, crooked smile. "That's alright. I'm not looking for any."

Tony reaches down and takes Steve's hand in his own, leading the way toward the bedroom. Steve goes without protest, but with a bit more caution than he applied the night before, still feeling the sting of having woken up alone.

The bedroom is as large as the entirety of the shabby Lowtown apartment. A four-poster bed with a mosquito netting-draped canopy dominates the center of the room. Tony leads the way to the bed and stops at the side.

Steve, determined to take things more slowly this time, reaches for the belt on Tony's robe and tugs it loose. The robe falls open, baring the fact that Tony is naked beneath it.

Tony shrugs out of the robe, letting it fall to the floor. He steps in close, and runs his hands down the lapels of Steve's suit jacket, before undoing the buttons on the front with sure fingers. Tony pushes the jacket from Steve's shoulders, before dropping his hands to Steve's belt buckle, beginning to unfasten it.

Steve takes a deep breath and finally jolts himself into action, unbuttoning and removing his own shirt. He toes out of his shoes while Tony unfastens Steve's trousers. When they finally stand naked, facing each other, Tony settles onto the bed and pulls Steve after him.

It's awkward, at first, approaching this with more care than they had the night before. Steve kisses his way down Tony's neck, to reverently press his lips against the bubble over Tony's heart. In contrast to the warmth of the metal, the glass is cool to the touch, and Steve pauses for a moment, listening to the reassuring beat of Tony's heart. He's a little surprised to find Tony isn't wearing the cover any longer; Steve wonders if he needs to charge the pump more often, these days.

"Most people find that strange," Tony says, as he has many times before.

"I like it," Steve answers, just the same as he always has.

 

And like that, the tension is broken. Steve kisses his way down Tony's abdomen, lovingly brushing his lips over every little scar from Tony's days as a daring adventurer. He nips at Tony's hip, laves his tongue down the divot, relishes in the way that Tony arches and gasps beneath him.

When Steve closes his mouth over the head of Tony's cock, tilts his head to take Tony into his mouth, Tony makes a sound that banishes all of Steve's doubts. Tony cards his fingers through Steve's hair, and Steve goes at it with relish, licking and sucking until Tony tugs at his hair in warning to stop.

Steve raises his head and grins up at Tony. "Hmm?"

Tony laughs, soft and more carefree than he's sounded since Steve's arrival in Madripoor. "Don't," he says. "I want to come inside you."

Steve makes his way up Tony's chest again, and plants a kiss on his lips.

Tony pushes up from the pillows and rolls them over deftly, to settle between Steve's legs. When his fingers press between Steve's thighs, they're already slicked; Steve isn't sure when that happened, but he doesn't have time to wonder about it, as Tony begins to ease a fingertip inside.

"Oh, God," Steve gasps, fighting the urge to tense up. He takes a deep breath and tries to relax, knowing it will only make things more difficult if he doesn't. It's been a long time, but Steve's body remembers this, and opens to the intrusion after a moment of Tony's careful touch.

"Alright?" Tony asks, leaning down for a kiss.

"Yeah," Steve says, after a beat. "Keep going."

Tony seems determined to make this worth their wait, dragging things out as he adds a second finger and stretches both slowly, gradually working Steve open, until Steve is a panting, writhing mess beneath him.

"Tony," Steve moans. "Please."

"So impatient," Tony says, turning his head to kiss Steve's knee, hitched up beside him. "We finally have all the time in the world, and you're in a hurry."

Steve drops his head back to the pillows and clenches his fists in the sheets.

"Fine," Tony relents. "I'll take pity on you." He slips his fingers free, and spends a moment rolling on a condom and slicking himself. Tony pats Steve's thigh. "Turn over, darling."

Steve turns onto his elbows and knees, arching his spine.

Tony groans softly as he moves in closer, positioning himself to press slowly inside.

Steve can't resist pushing back, once the head of Tony's cock is inside him, and he doesn't stop until his ass is flush against Tony's hips.

"God, Steve." Tony pauses for a moment, hands gripping tightly at Steve's hips. "I forgot how badly you always wanted it."

Steve feels himself flush, and he turns his hot face against his arm, but he doesn't try to deny the words. "Tony, please."

"It's okay, sweetheart," Tony says, running a hand along Steve's spine, up between his shoulder blades to press him down into the pillows. "I'm going to take good care of you."

Steve tries to remain still, even while practically vibrating with anticipation, while Tony begins to move. It's slow going at first, shallow thrusts, and in spite of Steve's impatience he knows it's for the best; Tony does take very good care of Steve, and in this case he almost certainly knows better.

"You're amazing," Tony murmurs, picking up his pace as he draws back, before snapping his hips forward in a harder thrust.

Steve allows Tony to set the rhythm for a while, but once they're moving steadily together, Steve presses back into each thrust, until they're moving at a punishing pace, Tony's hips pounding into Steve's ass.

When Tony bends himself over Steve's back and wraps his hand around Steve's cock, Steve comes with barely a touch, his body wracked with the force of it.

Tony eases Steve through his climax and down from it, then he grinds into him in a few more long, deep thrusts. Tony only gasps softly with his orgasm, as if allowing it to wash quietly over him, and he shivers lightly against Steve's back for just a few moments after before pulling out and rolling away.

Tony drops back into the pillows after he's disposed of the condom, and reaches for Steve.

Steve rolls onto his side and curls in toward Tony. This time, Tony is still wide awake, flushed and breathing hard, staring at the canopy.

"Just like old times," he says, laughing. It's a good sound.

"That," Steve replies, "was nothing like old times."

"You're right. This time we were actually prepared." Tony folds one arm under his head, and strokes his free hand over Steve's shoulder.

"After two years, I'm not sure I was entirely prepared," Steve says, grinning up at Tony. It's impossible not to feel elated right now, awash with the afterglow.

But Tony goes still, tipping his chin as he looks down at Steve. "Do you mean you haven't ..."

Steve nods.

"In two years? Good God, man."

Steve pulls a face. "Do you mean you have?"

Tony raises an eyebrow back at him. "I didn't come out here to live the life of a priest, Steven."

When Steve remains quiet, Tony says, "Don't tell me you're disappointed I didn't save myself."

Steve rolls away, flushing with embarrassment. Suddenly, the moment feels too intimate, and he feels exposed by his own feelings. "No, I just ... I didn't know. In the time I spent speculating on what you've been doing for the last two years, that wasn't part of it."

Tony sits up, grabbing his cigarette case and lighter from the nightstand. "I would have imagined you and Agent Carter might finally act on that latent attraction."

"Peggy and I are friends," Steve says.

Tony settles back against the headboard, newly lit cigarette held between his fingers. "Much like Pepper and myself, and equally kind enough not to contradict the rumors, apparently."

Steve frowns and sits up, pulling the covers to his waist. "Yeah."

"Steve," Tony says. "As glad as I am to see you, I'm having trouble figuring out what you want from me."

"I could say the same for myself with you."

"If I'm not a suspect, then why bother with me?" Tony wonders.

"I wanted to see you," Steve says honestly. "Even if I weren't here on assignment, if I'd found out you were here, I would've come anyway."

Tony shrugs. "You're welcome to stay here as long as you like, but at the end of the day, we both know that you're not staying in Madripoor and I'm not leaving."

Steve turns to face him. "Why not?"

"My adventures are over, Steve. I'm thirty-five years old." Tony flicks a bit of ash into the crystal ashtray on the nightstand, then he raps his fingers against the glass covering his heart. "And at least ten past my expiration date."

"That doesn't sound like the Tony Stark I know," Steve says. He traces the smooth metal rim of the cover with his hand, and splays his fingers over the glass. "Since when have you played by the odds?"

Tony sighs, setting his cigarette aside. He reaches up and covers Steve's hand with his own.

"Steve," Tony says, gravely serious now. "I spent almost the entirety of the war running missions in the Iron Man, part of that time powering it with my own heart, which was already bad. I can hardly go up a flight of stairs now without getting winded."

Steve looks down at their hands. "Tony ..."

"Please don't waste your time feeling sorry for me, Steve."

Steve looks up at Tony again, swallowing hard. "I'm not," he says. "I just - I'm sorry I can't do anything to help."

Tony looks away. "Don't be. You've got bigger things to worry about." He pauses, brows furrowing. "What are you going to do here, anyway? You stick out like a sore thumb - Hydra's going to have noticed you're here, especially if they're watching me."

Steve isn't entirely sure how to answer, still isn't sure whether he can trust Tony. Even telling him this might be too much.

"I don't know," he says, as honest as he can get. "I haven't had time to assess the situation properly, and - I don't want to risk your safety, if they really are watching you."

"I think you've already done that simply being here," Tony points out.

Steve frowns. "I'm sorry -"

"No, it's ... done, now," Tony says. "Don't worry. I'm undoubtedly safer with you around than without you. What Hydra member would mess with Captain America?"

Steve nods, still frowning.

Tony sighs. "I can't believe that Hydra is still a problem. They should have been wiped out at the end of the war."

"I know," Steve says. "But they weren't kidding about their whole cut off one head schtick."

"God damnit," Tony sighs. He scrubs a hand over his face. "You killed Schmidt. We brought in Zola and von Strucker. What did we fight for? What did our friends die for?"

"Tony," Steve says. "Tony. Don't you think I've been asking myself the same things? But we had to know this was a possibility. It was a massive organization, and there's no telling how many minor players were waiting to seize power."

"Can I help?" Tony asks.

"I don't know," Steve says. He doesn't even know what he's doing, yet, except for calling attention away from the undercover operative, and trying to locate the missing scientists.

"Okay," Tony says, and it's ... well, almost suspicious, how easily he lets the subject drop. "Let's get some rest?"

"Yeah."

They slide beneath the covers and Tony goes out like a light, but it's a long time before Steve can quiet the swirl of thoughts in his head enough to follow into sleep.

--

Germany, 1945

Baron Wilhelm von Strucker's castle - and base of operations - is exactly the charming sort of place Tony would have expected out of such an upstanding Hydra official. Perched on a mountain, it is not only difficult to reach, but cold and drafty. Everything looks gray in the bleak colorlessness of the late winter sky. It's a damn unpleasant day for a raid, though Tony wouldn't exactly have wished for spring flowers, either.

The Commandos split up for this mission; Dernier, Dugan, and Falworth with Tony and Jim, and Barnes and Jones with Steve. Tony personally thinks Steve could have used a little more support, but he insisted they would be fine with Jones as radio man and translator, and Steve is always confident with his best friend at his back.

Having Dernier on demolitions makes Tony's life easier, at least; getting a man on the inside to blow out the door is a far sight more subtle than walking up and pounding it down with the armors.

The drawbridge drops down with the second of Dernier's small scale explosions, and Falworth appears in the midst of the smoke to wave them inside.

"I hate castles," Tony still complains, maneuvering his armor with loud clanking sounds across the rickety bridge. "My last time in one wasn't exactly a party."

Jim's laugh from next to him is hardly amused. "Yeah, well, let's just hope we don't find another one of your ex-girlfriends in this one."

"Chatter, gentlemen," Agent Carter's voice comes over the radio.

Tony concedes the point to her, but lack of conversation means entertaining the thoughts inside his head, most of which center not on the mission where they belong, but on Steve's assignment.

Zola's train will be passing by Steve's location right about now; if both their missions are successful, then they will have taken two of Hydra's remaining major players off the board, leaving only the Red Skull. And once Johann Schmidt is taken care of, the rest of Hydra should crumble, leaderless and directionless, and no longer a threat to the Allied cause. The idea of this damned war ending is almost too good to be true, even though victory is so close that most days, Tony can almost taste it.

Inside the castle gates, the group splits up, with Jim, Dernier, and Dugan leading a group to find the rocket that von Strucker is rumored to have in one of the towers, and Tony going off with Falworth and the remaining soldiers in search of the baron himself.

Jim's group radios back after a few minutes that their area is clear, the experimental missile shut down and being disassembled by the Allies as they speak.

Tony wonders if it can be so easy; as much as he hates to look a gift horse in the mouth, he didn't get where he is in life by not being a paranoid bastard.

Behind Tony, the typically reserved Falworth shouts. Tony turns in time to see that the rest of his team has lagged behind; a good fifteen to twenty yards separate him from the others.

Shots ring out, and bullets ping against the backplate of the armor while Tony is turned. He whirls back around and comes face to face with a group of Hydra soldiers; half a dozen of them, most armed with rifles, with the exception of one, who has something on his shoulder that looks rather worryingly like a bazooka, which could be a problem for Tony, even in the armor.

All the rifle-wielding soldiers begin to fire, and Tony presses forward, trying to get out of the covered causeway before he finds himself stuck there. He fires off his own guns and watches three of the group drop, but the one with the bazooka is gearing up to fire.

Tony brings up both gauntlets on the suit when the miniaturized rocket launches at him, but it sails overhead and crashes into the stonework instead. Dust and pebbles shower down, before the entire covered walkway bucks ominously under the force of the explosion, rock collapsing atop him at a steady rate.

The weight of the rubble is enough to buckle parts of the armor, and by the time Tony comes out of his momentary daze, he can feel one of the leg plates tightened uncomfortably around his thigh, and the joint of an arm stiffened with damage. The onboard system of the armor, which usually controls things like navigation and targeting, has gone out entirely.

Tony drags himself slowly and painfully to the top of the heap of stone, until daylight begins to show dimly through the gaps in his faceplate. He awkwardly wrenches off the helmet with his good hand, to avoid going into the situation totally blind, and finds himself surrounded by the three remaining Hydra soldiers, along with half a dozen more reinforcements. A quick glance behind him shows the covered walkway is entirely blocked from the other side by the fallen stone.

"Guten tag, fellas," Tony tries, raising his one good hand in a show of surrender. "Forgive me if I don't salute."

They make Tony get out of the armor, of course, and there isn't much argument he can make at gunpoint. The soldiers load up the armor, divvying up pieces of Tony's beloved, if broken, Iron Man to carry as they march him inside. Tony's ankle protests the walk, and he's freezing outside of the armor, but he refuses to allow his discomfort to show.

Tony is a bit arrogant about it, ultimately; Hydra's disregard of the honorable rules of war aside, he's too valuable for them to kill, and there is absolutely no way they don't know who he is. Tony just hates the thought of riding out the remainder of the war in a POW camp - he definitely isn't giving up easily.

Baron Wilhelm von Strucker waits inside a lushly appointed room, looking for all the world like a man on the winning side of a battle. Tony could understand it even if the Nazis were on the winning side of the war, but the noose is tightening.

The baron's arrogance, when Allied forces are perhaps moments away from taking the castle and liberating Tony, is baffling. Tony does feel a momentary worry, then; maybe von Strucker plans to take pleasure out of the eleventh hour destruction of an old enemy.

"Mr. Stark," von Strucker greets. "We meet again."

"Could you be any more cliched, Baron?" Tony demands, grunting as one of the soldiers nudges him roughly toward a chair.

Tony sits, and another pair of the soldiers drag his hands behind his back, tying them behind the chair.

"Is this really necessary?" Tony goes on. "As if I'm going to run with a dozen guards holding me at gunpoint?"

"This will likely be the last time we see each other, Mr. Stark," von Strucker says. "I'd like you to be comfortable."

At that, to Tony's surprise, he dismisses the soldiers with a gesture. Tony tests his bonds, but finds the angle a bit awkward with the high back of the chair rising all the way above his head.

"Want to finish me off without a fight, then?" Tony wonders. "I don't know why I would have expected any more out of you."

Baron von Strucker laughs, as an explosion goes off somewhere in the distance. The Commandos getting closer, then; Jim may be using the War Machine to blast his way through the entire castle.

"I'm not going to kill you, Stark," von Strucker says. "Not in so many words. I have a much more fitting end in mind for you."

At the appearance of the needle, Tony stiffens in apprehension. "Even you can't be that crazy," he says desperately.

The baron laughs, short and sharp this time.

"You think you will stall by keeping me talking," he says flatly. "I'm not a fool, Stark."

"Had me convinced," Tony says, with fast fading bravado.

"The legacy of Zemo must live on," von Strucker says. "Never could a successor be decided on ... I don't know how I couldn't see it. What is more fitting than for the Stark men to carry on the line?"

Tony breaks into a sweat that has nothing to do with the fireplace warming the room, adrenaline spiking in his veins and sending his heart racing.

"No," he says, and as much as it wounds his pride to do so, "don't, please -"

Baron von Strucker only laughs harder, moving to stab the needle into Tony's neck.

Tony lashes out, thrashing in the chair, kicking out with his legs, but he can't get any of the hits to connect.

Von Strucker straddles Tony's lap and gets a firm grip on his chin, and holds Tony's head still while he depresses the plunger, letting its poisonous contents burn through Tony's veins.

Getting back to his feet, von Strucker tosses the needle into the fire along with a huge sheaf of papers. Then he stands back to admire his handiwork, a smug smile on his face.

Tony seizes within seconds, his body convulsing of its own accord. The pain is worse than being shot or even voluntarily electrocuted as he is every time he charges the repulsor pump.

The door bursts in moments later, but Tony is quickly slipping from consciousness, sagging in his bonds as his body finally goes still. The last thing he sees before blacking out is Jim's worried face, framed in the open helmet of the War Machine, hovering in front of him.

--

Hightown - Sovereign Hotel, 1947

Steve wakes in the wee hours of the morning and rolls over to look at Tony, who is still sound asleep; he always had the ability to sleep through anything during the war, and never did like having to get up early. Steve reaches out and gently brushes a curl of hair off Tony's forehead, and tries to sort through his own jumbled emotions.

Tony is not himself, that much is clear to Steve, but a lot can happen to change a man in two years. Tony hadn't taken it well when they dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he'd gone missing shortly thereafter, while Steve was still preoccupied helping the cleanup efforts in Europe.

Steve can't help wondering if he could have made a difference, had he been there. Or if he had helped to find another way of ending the conflict with Japan. It wasn't as if Steve had been happy about all those civilian casualties. But Steve had dealt with his own dark days near the close of the war.

After Bucky fell from that train, Tony had been the one to hold Steve while he cried. Who was there for Tony? Pepper and Tony's other friends might have been the best support structure anyone could ask for, but they were only as good as Tony's willingness to rely on them, and apparently he hadn't been interested in confiding in anyone.

Steve sits up with a soft sigh, and scrubs his hands over his face. Peggy was right, she was absolutely right. Steve has lost all objectivity, but he can't believe that Tony, tired and broken and drowned in alcohol as he is, can possibly be involved in anything happening in Madripoor's underbelly right now. It's all incidental.

Maybe, Steve thinks, if he can keep Tony sober today, he'll stand a better chance at getting clarification.

Tony shifts and stretches, and his warm hand begins to creep up Steve's thigh. "Morning," he mumbles into his pillow.

"Good morning," Steve says softly.

Tony pushes the covers back from his face with his free hand, and squints into the darkened room. "What time is it?"

"Early," Steve answers. "Go back to sleep if you want."

"I'm awake," Tony says, running his hand further up Steve's thigh. "Mm, someone else is awake, too."

Steve rolls his eyes, swatting Tony's hand away. "I forgot how insatiable you are."

"You're the one who came all this way," Tony says. "Do you mean to tell me you don't want to fuck as much as possible?"

"When you put it like that, it sounds crass." Steve raises Tony's hand to his lips and kisses the back of it.

"Sap," Tony says, but his tone is fond. He tugs his hand back and pushes himself up on an elbow. "But really, what time is it?"

Steve switches on the lamp so that he can check his watch. "Little after five."

Tony cringes away from the light like it burns. He looks bleary and hungover, with dark circles under his eyes and his hair tousled. "Inhumane," he declares.

Steve laughs softly, leaning over to kiss Tony, but he pauses when he notices a trickle of red in Tony's mustache. "Tony - you're bleeding."

Tony's eyes widen for a moment before he hastily swipes a hand under his nose. "Oh," he says. "It's nothing."

Steve eyes him dubiously. "Come on," he urges. "Let me take a look at it."

Tony sits up straighter and presses his thumb and forefinger into the bridge of his nose. "I'm fine," he says, getting to his feet.

Steve scrambles out of bed to follow Tony to the en suite. He dampens a washcloth and offers it over; Tony takes it, but swats away Steve's attempts to look any closer.

"It's just a nosebleed," Tony says.

Steve frowns, but steps back. "I'll run a bath," he says. "You can join me."

Tony's nose has stopped bleeding by the time the bath is filled, and Tony steps into the large clawfoot tub after Steve, allowing Steve to draw him back against his chest.

The water is warm, and finally soothes some of the aches and pains of travel from Steve's tired limbs. He sighs softly and tilts his head against the lip of the tub, content with Tony's head on his shoulder.

"I need to do some work today," he says after a while. "But ... being here with you, it's nice."

Tony is silent for a moment. "You don't have to leave," he says at last. "I meant what I said last night: you're welcome to stay as long as you like."

Steve closes his eyes. "I have responsibilities," he says softly. "I can't just run away from them."

"Like I did?" Tony asks. His tone is unmistakably bitter, but not quite angry.

"Whatever your reasons were for leaving, Tony," Steve says, opening his eyes again. "I'm sure they were valid ones. Look, I ... shouldn't have said some of the things I did about your leaving. I was just hurt that you didn't say goodbye to me, but I know it's not about me."

Tony flicks at a bubble on the surface of the water. "I don't know what you want me to say."

Steve shakes his head. He sits up so that he can press a kiss to the side of Tony's neck. "You don't have to say anything."

"I can't help feeling you're just trying to wear me down," Tony says. "It's not going to work."

"I told you," Steve answers, "I don't expect any promises." He runs his hands up Tony's arms, back down his sides. "I'm happy to be here with you, now, and to take things one step at a time."

Tony shudders lightly when Steve's hands stroke lower, when one circles fingers around his cock and the other moves to cup his balls.

"It wouldn't be like this," he says raggedly. "If I went back with you."

Steve kisses further down the side of Tony's neck, and pauses with his chin resting on Tony's shoulder. "Why not?" he wonders.

"People would talk," Tony says, his voice straining for control as he hardens in Steve's grasp.

"I don't care."

"You would care." Tony rocks his hips, pressing up into the circle of Steve's hand. "They'd have you court martialed."

"SHIELD is only paramilitary," Steve answers, his lips curving in a smile against Tony's skin as he leans in for another kiss. He loves arguing with Tony, especially when he can make Tony lose his train of thought.

"Semantics," Tony says. "It could still get the both of us in hot water."

"No one cares what we do here," Steve points out. He twists his wrist on the hand wrapped around Tony's cock, and presses a fingertip into the sensitive skin behind his balls.

"Fuck." Tony throws back his head, panting now. "Steve."

"Tony," Steve murmurs. "Do you want me to stop?"

"Absolutely not."

Steve laughs softly, rubbing his fingertip a bit lower. Tony draws up his knees - a bit precarious - and presses back into it, hips still rolling up into the rhythm of Steve's other hand.

Tony cries out softly and sweetly when he comes, obviously trying to stifle the sound and unable to help himself. Steve works Tony through the orgasm and down from it, and kisses him when Tony twists in his arms to seek out his lips.

They abandon their bath after, drying off with fluffy towels and dropping back into bed so that Tony can bring Steve off with his mouth, slick fingers sliding into Steve's ass.

Still sensitive from the night before, Steve lasts an almost embarrassingly short time. He draws Tony up from between his legs after, and kisses him again, tasting himself on Tony's lips.

This is the most uninterrupted time they've had to spend together, just the two of them, in all the years they've known each other, and Steve isn't quite sure what he'll do when it has to come to an end.

--

Stark Dirigible - Over the Atlantic Ocean, 1945

Tony's head feels like a close approximation to a split melon when he wakes up in the tiny infirmary aboard the dirigible.

"You've got a sprained ankle and a couple of bruised ribs," Jarvis announces as soon as Tony makes a sign of movement. "And you almost ran down your bloody repulsor pump. Again."

"I didn't expect it to take so long," Tony says, groaning.

Jarvis snorts. "Next time, you charge it up fully before a mission or I'll ground you! I'm not your damn nursemaid, to have to keep patching you up like this."

Tony winces, pushing himself up to sit. "But we won?"

"We won," Jarvis says, grudging and more than a little grumpy. "You're down for the count for a while at any rate - the Iron Man needs too many repairs."

Tony sags with relief that his armor made it back, at least. "What about Bravo Team?"

"Bravo Team made it back as well," Jarvis says, although he shifts with the words, side-eying Jim, who is quiet off to the side. "But I've got things to attend to. Rhodes will get you up to speed."

Jim sighs when Jarvis walks out, and he walks up to the side of the cot, reluctance written all over his face. "We got Zola, but ... Barnes didn't make it."

Tony jolts with startled surprise. "What?"

"I don't have all the details," Jim says. "But he was a casualty of the train mission."

"I need to get to Steve," Tony says, knowing he's as transparent as a pane of glass right now and not caring. He moves to swing his legs off the cot, but Jim puts a firm hand on his shoulder.

"Not yet. You wanna tell me what the hell happened down there, boss? Von Strucker didn't even put up a fight with us - just laughed his head off like a madman."

"Gloating," Tony says, stopping himself at the last moment before he can reach up and touch the side of his neck. "That's all."

Jim doesn't look ready to give up that easily, though. "You were having a fit when I blasted in there. What did he do to you, Tony?"

"Truth serum," Tony lies. "He was trying to get information from me. I suppose I had a bad reaction."

Tony doesn't know that anyone can claim an allergy to sodium pentathol, at least not one like that, and his lie shows in how unconvinced Jim looks.

"I'm not buying what you're selling," Jim says. "But I'm not gonna hold you up here when Steve needs you. When you decide you wanna tell me what's going on, you know where to find me."

Tony doesn't respond, doesn't know how to respond, but he's relieved when Jim lets him up and even helps him down the corridor to his quarters. At the door, Jim drags Tony into a brief hug before walking off.

Tony hesitates at his cabin door, leaning his forehead against the door frame and letting his mind drift from his sore ankle.

Another Hydra base, one of the last, has been taken down. Baron Wilhelm von Strucker, one of the most prominent figures in the organization, is now in Allied custody, on his way to prison to await trial for war crimes.

They stopped an experimental missile from being launched at the United States. This same day, Dr. Arnim Zola was brought in, and is likely even now in General Fury's custody, with the attempt being made to wear him down, to turn him to help the Allied cause.

So why, Tony thinks, does he have to feel so defeated?

When Tony finally opens the door and steps into his cabin, he isn't surprised to find Steve there. Steve rarely goes to his own quarters these days, preferring to bunk with Tony when they can get away with it.

Steve has never looked out of place here until now, sitting perched on the edge of the bed, looking dazed.

Tony has seen shock before, but never this close and personal, unless he was the one experiencing it.

Steve has not gotten any further than simply removing his helmet, which he still holds in his hands, head bowed as he looks down at it, thumbs tracing over the wings on the sides.

"Hey," Tony says gently. He kneels down on the deck in front of Steve, ignoring the protests of his ankle and his bruised ribs.

"This is one of those times," Steve says thickly, as if every word is a colossal effort, "that flying sure would have come in handy."

Tony braces himself, but still isn't quite prepared for it when Steve bursts into tears. He is quiet at first, tears tracking down his cheeks, and Tony shuffles closer to wind his arms around Steve.

Steve leans in to the touch, slides right off the bed in order to practically sit on Tony's lap. He hugs Tony tightly, fiercely, as the violent sobs begin to wrack his body, drawing ragged cries from his throat.

Tony closes his eyes and rubs his hands over Steve's back, murmuring whatever quiet words he can in an effort to soothe his lover. "I'm so sorry, Steve. I'm so sorry."

Steve's sobs are gradually reduced to quiet shudders, and he finally leans back to sniffle down at Tony. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Tony answers. "Please, darling, don't be."

"I just -" Steve swallows hard. "He was like my - like my big brother. Always looking out for me. We got Zola, but he ... Bucky ... he ... I couldn't get to him in time."

Tony tugs a handkerchief from his pocket and gently wipes Steve's tears away. "Honey, it's not your fault."

And yet, even while telling Steve not to blame himself, Tony can't help but wonder if things might have been different if the Iron Man and War Machine were not preoccupied with von Strucker.

If Tony hadn't let his personal vendetta get in the way and insisted on going after von Strucker himself, if he had been with Steve on that mission to take down Zola. (If he had been on that mission to take down Zola, an insidious part of Tony's mind adds, he wouldn't have faced von Strucker to such disastrous results.)

But no one had believed it would take such effort, and every day they get closer to Johann Schmidt, the infamous Red Skull, they have to believe the sacrifices are worth it.

"It is," Steve insists, shaking his head. "I should have been more careful. I should have watched my own back."

"That's ridiculous," Tony says gently. "You can't be everywhere at once, Steve."

Steve does stop arguing, but he's still quietly weeping, tears running down his cheeks and off the slope of his nose. His eyes are red and swollen.

Tony presses the handkerchief into Steve's hand, and realizes Steve is still wearing his gloves ... along with all the rest of his uniform.

"Come on," Tony says. "Get up, let's get you out of that uniform."

"Ordinarily," Steve says, a hiccup escaping his lips, "I'd be excited to hear you say that."

Tony smiles faintly, glad to hear Steve is still able to quip even at a time like this, even though he can tell that it is half-hearted, and probably more for Tony's benefit than Steve's own. Steve is far too invested in putting on a strong, brave face, in not wanting to be a burden to anyone. He doesn't understand that no matter what happened down in that castle, Tony can be the strong one right now, that he can do that for Steve.

Steve stands up and Tony quietly, reverently strips Steve from his battle dress, and gets him a pair of pajamas to change into.

Tony sees Steve tucked into bed, and sits back with Steve's head in his lap, stroking his lover's hair as he drifts off into sleep.

Tony remains like that the rest of the night, unable to find sleep of his own, but content to keep vigil over Steve. It feels selfish, even so; Tony can feel the door closing on this chapter of his life. Their time together is limited ... Tony doesn't know how many more times he will get to hold Steve, before the dark thing growing in his mind turns him into someone Steve won't recognize anymore.

--

Hightown - Sovereign Hotel, 1947

After a room service breakfast, Tony goes back to bed, while Steve remains awake and begins to prepare for his day. The sun is out and he's already wasted more hours than he should have, though he can't say that he regrets the decision.

Steve settles down in the suite's living room with the closed bedroom door between himself and Tony, and pulls the papers from his bag. He still feels vaguely guilty to have absconded with them, but he can't shake the feeling that there really is something Tony doesn't want him to know.

Ultimately, Steve can make neither heads nor tails of most of the documents. A few look like specifications for parts of the Iron Man suit, possibly doodled in idle time, since as far as Steve knows, Tony hasn't touched a suit of armor in even longer than he has spent exiled. It's easy to imagine Tony, sitting at that rickety table with a hangover, sketching his armor in the margins of a page.

Steve rolls everything up and puts it in his bag, and stows the bag in the coat closet by the front door. He checks the interior of the closet while he's there, feeling the pockets of the single coat - it doesn't get cold enough in Madripoor to warrant a coat for warmth; this trench coat of Tony's is probably to keep the rain off - hanging inside for anything, but they're empty.

Steve turns to the rest of the room and does a quick but thorough sweep through, flipping through books and magazines, shaking newspapers. He's surprised, and could groan at the obviousness of it, when he finds an address jotted on a note pad beside the telephone. The handwriting is clearly Tony's, a local address with '10 a.m.' and the date of the day before, jotted next to it. The knowledge of an appointment takes some of the sting out of Tony having left Steve in bed the morning before, at least.

After copying the address onto a new sheet of paper, Steve tucks it into his shirt pocket. He finishes up his search of the remainder of the room and turns up nothing else but a phone book with no pages that seem particularly well-loved or dog-eared.

Steve fastens on his holster, checking his handgun and his extra ammunition, and shrugs into his suit jacket. As an afterthought on his way out the door, he grabs the decanter of liquor that Tony had been drinking from the night before, and pours it down the bathroom sink. Tony isn't likely to be happy about it, and Steve doesn't delude himself into thinking that Tony can't get more, easily, but at least it should slow him down for a while.

Steve spends the first hour of his morning in Lowtown, shaking down a few locals, which doesn't yield particularly satisfying results. With matters regarding Tony still weighing on his mind, and few other leads to go on, Steve decides to look up the address he found in Tony's suite. Tony's appointment might have been something as innocent as seeing his tailor for the fitting of a new suit, but Steve has a certain curiosity to satisfy, about what would drag a notoriously hungover, cranky Tony out of bed.

The address leads Steve back to a pleasant, quiet area of Hightown, where businesses bleed off gradually into a residential neighborhood. The houses are more like villas there, perched with a lovely view of the beach in back and beautifully landscaped gardens in front.

Steve finds the house number he's looking for, and spends a little time skulking around the street before he simply walks up to the front door and knocks. Peggy would probably have a heart attack if she could see Steve's straightforward approach to spy work.

There are footsteps behind the door, slow and suspicious, before the door opens a hair and a face peers out. "Yes? What do you want?"

Steve recognizes a French accent in the impatient voice, and a puzzle piece slots right into place in his head. "Dr. Sternberg?"

The door opens slightly wider, and a middle aged man with glasses looks out at Steve with a skeptical expression. Steve glances down, assessing the situation, and catches the glint of a handgun in the man's grip, held just nearly out of sight.

"Yes?"

"I'm a friend of Tony Stark's," Steve says, trying to make himself look just as earnest and trustworthy as possible. "Steve Rogers."

Sternberg adjusts his glasses and gives Steve a once over. Of course, someone in the scientific community, working closely with Tony Stark, would recognize Steve Rogers as the true identity of the former Captain America.

Apparently satisfied by what he sees, Sternberg steps aside and waves Steve into the house.

"Quickly, quickly," he urges, closing the door as soon as Steve is over the threshold. Sternberg clicks two deadbolts and a chain into place before shuffling past, the gun still clenched loosely in one hand. "What can I do for you, Captain?"

"It's Commander now, actually," Steve says with a tiny smile. "But just Steve is fine."

Sternberg doesn't seem to catch the joke, or if he does, then he doesn't find it funny. "Very well. What can I do for you, Commander?"

"My organization has been looking for you, Doctor," Steve says. "We've had you reported missing for a few months now."

Sternberg snorts. "Well, as you can see, I am not missing. I am right here, Commander. Good job!"

Steve is beginning to believe that smart alec scientists are to be the bane of his existence. "You didn't tell anyone where you were going, sir. There are people who are worried about you."

"I have been working in secrecy," Sternberg says. He walks further into the house, leading the way toward a staircase that descends to a lower level. "My project relies on it."

"What project would that be, sir?"

"I just told you, Commander, it is secret." Sternberg waves impatiently.

"Even though you're here working, Doctor," Steve tries, "I have reason to believe your safety may be at risk. Have you had any suspicious encounters, random visitors?"

"Not aside from yourself." Sternberg pauses, and his grip noticeably tightens on the gun. "How did you find me?"

"Tony is a close friend of mine," Steve says. "I saw he had an appointment with you yesterday -"

Sternberg raises an eyebrow. "Then you should know I am here in his employ, Commander. I am in Madripoor of my own free will, at the request of Mr. Anthony Stark. Does that satisfy your curiosity?"

"Dr. Sternberg ... I'm just trying to look out for Mr. Stark's best interests. Is there anything you can tell me?"

"I must look out for Mr. Stark's interests as well, Commander," Dr. Sternberg says. "I cannot tell you anything about my project."

"But his appointment with you -" Steve begins, before his enhanced hearing catches a sound that is out of place: a sliding door? "Are we alone, Doctor?"

"Yes, why -"

"Get down!" Steve cries.

He throws himself forward as he hears the bullet singing toward them, and tackles Sternberg to the floor. A split second later, the round embeds itself in the wall, just where Sternberg's head would have been. The scientist's gun falls from his hand in the scuffle, sliding across the floor and out of reach.

"What is the meaning of this!?" Sternberg demands.

"Shh!" Steve interrupts in a harsh whisper. "Doctor, please try to remain calm, but there's someone else in the house."

Sternberg's eyes go wide and frightened, his glasses knocked askew in the fall. "My research - I must get to my lab -"

Steve rolls up to his feet and hauls Sternberg up as well, keeping a hand on the man's shoulder to hold him in a crouching position. At their movement, a hail of shots rings out, embedding bullets all along the wall above them.

"Which way?" Steve demands.

"Down here." Sternberg scrambles down the staircase he had attempted to descend moments ago, fumbling to unlock the door at the bottom.

Steve worries about the defensibility of their position, but decides he will have to make it work. He draws his own pistol from his shoulder holster once he has a moment, and backs down the stairs after Sternberg. Steve can hear the intruders moving around in other parts of the house, gradually growing closer.

Sternberg slams the door shut once they're inside, and Steve blinks as his eyes adjust to the well-lit space. The laboratory looks very sophisticated, much more than Steve would have expected out of the basement of a house. It seems to have Tony Stark's fingerprints all over it.

Sternberg immediately crosses to the counter and begins gathering up bottles and vials. He uncaps them hastily, and pours their contents down the drain of the nearby handwashing sink.

"Wait!" Steve says, rushing to his side. "What are you doing?"

"My research," Sternberg mumbles. "Mustn't let them get their hands on it ..."

The man sways, and Steve reaches out to steady him when he realizes the back of the man's shirt is wet.

"Doctor - you've been hit," he says carefully.

Sternberg pauses, gripping the edge of the counter with one hand.

"Commander," he says gravely, reaching up to press a vial into Steve's grasp. "Do not allow this to fall into their hands."

"What is it?" Steve asks desperately, trying to slow Sternberg's fall as the man slides to the floor.

"The cure," Sternberg gasps. "Tony Stark will know what to do."

"The cure to what?" Steve asks. Sternberg slumps, and Steve shakes his shoulder. "Dr. Sternberg? Doctor?"

It is, for a moment, like Dr. Abraham Erskine's murder all over again, watching a man who holds a secret die right in front of him, victim to a Hydra bullet.

Steve checks Sternberg's pulse to make certain he is gone, then he looks down at the vial in his hand. It has no markings, other than a single cryptic symbol. When Steve gets to his feet and checks the counter, none of the emptied vials appear to have the same symbol on them, though a few are labeled with 'STARK, A.' and varying dates.

Steve sweeps the whole mess onto the floor to be safe, and tries not to feel the remorse as he watches a dead man's work shatter into pieces.

There are footsteps on the staircase now, shortly followed by someone throwing their weight against the door. The door itself is already shaking on its hinges, and isn't likely to hold much longer.

Steve tucks the vial inside his coat pocket, and glances around the lab again to assess his options. If he stays, it's just himself and a handgun against however many men are on the other side of that door. Even if Steve is a very lucky shot and has enough ammunition for them all, the lab provides minimal chances of cover should he be rushed.

The back of the lab has a single narrow window, set high in the basement wall, just on level with the garden outside. Steve decides it will have to do. He swings himself up, grabbing one of the exposed beams in the ceiling, and kicks out the glass. He barely fits through, but finds the garden outside mercifully empty.

Shaken and confused, Steve crouches down beside the window and listens as the intruders finally charge into the lab.

"He's dead," one of the voices announces.

Steve lowers himself to the ground and risks a glance inside. The men aren't looking his way, busy searching the lab, rummaging through papers, and the few remaining beakers and vials.

One of them crouches down among the broken glass and spends a moment examining the label on a few different broken vials.

"They're all broken," he announces. "Useless!"

"What now?"

"Stark himself is the only option now."

"Madame Hydra won't like this."

"Yes ... and Stark is guaranteed to like it even less."

--

Manhattan, 1945

It is well past noon, most days, by the time Tony manages to drag himself out of bed, and today is no different. These last few months, he simply hasn't been feeling like himself, and the worst part is, he can't decide if it's because he's losing his mind, or if the stress of years of war has finally caught up to him.

Tony's father went mad so obviously, Tony would notice if the same were happening to him, wouldn't he? Surely Jim would notice, or Jarvis; especially Jarvis, who was present to witness Howard's degradation up close.

It took years for Zemo to finally take hold of Howard, though; enough time for him to come home from the war, to settle in and conceive of a civilian life. Everyone thought, when he had trouble sleeping, when he had the paranoid attacks, that it was simply shellshock.

Tony doesn't remember much about his father now, not much about what Howard was really like, before all that happened, but he thinks Howard used to be happy. Tony has memories of his father smiling, laughing; there was none of that, after the war.

Tony spends a long moment examining himself in the mirror while he's shaving, trying to perceive if there are any visible changes. He can't remember the last time he laughed, and when he tries for a smile, it looks more like a grimace on his face.

Facing the rest of the day is a bit more of a challenge, but the whole machine goes better when lubricated with a bit of alcohol; it's gin, today, a few martinis, devolving into gin and tonics when he no longer feels coherent enough to put on a show of mixing a proper cocktail.

Tony meets with his lawyer, making some final arrangements - in secret - for the sake of the company. He makes the final revisions to his will, and as a last gesture, turns over a letter to his lawyer, to be delivered on the occasion of his death. Inside, he explains the whole truth to those he has left behind, the reasons for his leaving, his wishes not to drag them into his downward spiral.

Tony sits down at his desk once the day's chores are done, and finds himself staring at the letter that arrived only this morning from Steve. It's cheerfully worded, announcing Steve's impending return home. Steve's words are filled with cautious optimism about the future, and eagerness to see Tony again.

By the time he finishes reading it, Tony feels the first trickle of blood from his nose, and is sorry he won't be here to make any of that come true.

--

Hightown - Sovereign Hotel, 1947

When Steve arrives back at the Sovereign, the suite is empty and Steve is grateful that he took a key with him on his way out. It looks as if housekeeping has been in and tidied up the place, but a note on the desk bears Tony's scrawl:

Gone out for a spell. Back for lunch. xx - Tony

Steve crumples the note in his hand and tries to concentrate on the sound of crinkling paper, not on the sick feeling churning in his stomach. He just watched a man die - he spent half an hour in the first public washroom he could find trying to wash the blood off his hands before he came back to the hotel - and can't help drawing a correlation between Tony's absence and the conversation of the Hydra agents.

Sternberg was working for Tony. Hydra wanted something Sternberg had. Surely Tony has no real connection to Hydra, or else they wouldn't have murdered Sternberg?

Steve shakily has a seat on the couch and draws the vial from his pocket. He turns it over in his fingers again, but can't fathom what it is, or what it's for. Sternberg had said that Tony would know.

What would Tony be looking for a cure for? His heart, surely - searching for a way to fix his heart had been the driving force behind Tony's many adventures - but Tony had sounded so bleak on the subject. Reserving hope in case it didn't work?

Espionage, Steve decides, may not have been his best career move.

Steve strips out of his bloodied clothes and gets into the shower, letting the hot water rinse away the rest of the blood. He hangs his head under the shower spray once he's clean, and thinks about the encounter again.

Stark is the only option now, the Hydra agent had said. What did that mean?

Steve finds his mind wandering to thoughts of Tony putting himself at risk, being out in public with whatever business he's on. If Tony isn't back soon, Steve will need to go out looking for him.

Shutting off the shower, Steve steps out and towels off. Just as he opens the door back to the bedroom from the en suite, the sound of crashing glass from the front room reaches his ears.

Steve bites back a groan at the idea of trouble following him. He presses his ear against the bedroom door to listen, and distinguishes voices in the living room, with cadence very similar to those he heard in Sternberg's lab.

"Shit," Steve mutters under his breath. He backs away from the door and retrieves his handgun from its holster, and waits beside the doorjamb.

The door slams open and a tall, broad man in a black and green uniform steps inside. Obviously unprepared for anyone to be present, he only begins to turn at the first sign of Steve's movement, and by then it's too late - Steve hits the Hydra agent soundly with the butt of the gun and watches him go down like a heap of bricks.

The sound doesn't go unnoticed by the man's companions, and bullets begin to rain through the bedroom door. Steve rolls out of the way, ripping off the towel to avoid getting tangled in it, and comes up on the other side of the doorframe as one of the other Hydra agents comes rushing inside.

This one is a woman, but Steve doesn't hesitate for that fact, quickly swinging his leg out in a kick at the backs of her knees. She goes down, but twists with the momentum to land on her back, bringing her pistol up to bear.

Steve dives to the side as she squeezes off her shot, and it takes out the dresser mirror instead. Steve rushes behind the bed to use it for cover, popping over the edge of the mattress to fire off a few shots of his own.

Firing a handgun still feels unwieldy to Steve, in spite of his training and skill at it. He wishes vainly for his shield, but that symbol was retired along with Captain America; Commander Rogers, Agent of SHIELD, can rely only on his more pedestrian weapons and hand-to-hand combat skills.

The firefight goes on for several minutes, until Steve goes to squeeze off a shot and hears only a resounding click.

On the other side of the room, the woman laughs. "By my count, Commander," she says, "you're out of ammunition. Come out, and we can discuss this like civilized adults."

"I don't think so," Steve says, glancing around for anything else he might be able to use to his advantage. His holster is hanging on the bedpost, but there's no way he'll reach it and the ammunition in it without exposing himself long enough for them to get a bead on him.

"I give you my word," she adds. "Call it a parley, if you want."

"You just barged in here and started shooting," Steve says. "Forgive me if I don't take your word for it!"

"You were the one who attacked us," she says archly.

The only other agent left standing, this one a man, asks a question in German; the woman quickly responds with low-pitched words, after which Steve hears footsteps, the sound of something (a body, his mind supplies) being dragged across the floor, and the bedroom door closing.

"Come out, Commander," the woman says again, her voice more urgent this time. "I've bought us a few minutes, but it won't take long before that wears off."

Steve pauses, brows furrowing. "What?"

"I'm SHIELD's mole," she says quietly. "I can't carry identification, so I don't know how else to prove myself to you, but I'm lowering my weapon to the floor right now."

Steve hears the sound of the gun being rested on the floor, then the woman kicks it, and it slides across the floor to rest next to Steve.

"Fine," he relents, grabbing the gun. "I'm coming out."

Steve stands slowly, and to his surprise finds that the woman - the same one Steve swept from her feet - is indeed standing there with her hands raised in the air in a gesture of defeat. She quirks an eyebrow and gives him a once-over, unabashed about it.

Steve glances down at himself and flushes, remembering that he's naked. He reaches for Tony's robe, discarded across the bed, and angrily shrugs into it. It's a bit snug on Steve in the shoulders, but it's a far sight better than being naked in front of a fellow agent.

"Agent Jessica Drew," the woman introduces herself. "A pleasure, Commander Rogers."

"Agent Drew," Steve says, trying to draw his most professional air around him. "What are you doing here? I was told we wouldn't make contact."

"I came here looking for you. The men with me thought we were here to search Tony Stark's possessions," Agent Drew says.

Steve narrows his eyes, and casts a suspicious glance back at the door. "And where are they now?"

"I sent them out to the front room." She shrugs slightly. "Let's just say my superpower is ... being very persuasive."

She tilts her head a certain way, and Steve remembers the woman from two nights before, the one who had been sitting on Tony's lap. The one who left when Steve showed up.

"You were in the bar," he says.

"Yes," she answers. "I've been here watching Tony Stark, trying to get close to him. On orders from both SHIELD and Hydra. When you showed up, I went and reported back to my Hydra superiors that you were here."

"And why were you looking for me today?" Steve demands.

"Stark was grabbed outside the hotel this morning, right before you got back," Agent Drew says grimly. "Hydra has him now."

Steve's heart sinks into the pit of his stomach, and he rushes to his pile of discarded clothes, to begin pulling them back on, bloodstains be damned. "What do they want with Tony?"

"He's the last known carrier of the Zemo formula, Commander," Agent Drew says, her eyebrows furrowing in concern. "The knowledge of how to concoct the formula was lost when Baron von Strucker was arrested; he was the last remaining Hydra agent to know its composition, not even the Red Skull knew. In his last letter before his execution, von Strucker wrote that Tony Stark was the recipient, but it's taken us this long to break his code."

Steve sits on the edge of the bed, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "When?"

"The last few months of the war," she answers. "Without anyone pulling the strings, it's probably taken longer than usual to manifest. SHIELD believes that Tony Stark brought Berthold Sternberg here to help research a cure - and Hydra believes that Sternberg successfully broke down the formula as part of that. The leader of the new regime, Madame Hydra, feels that another Zemo would be a threat to her power - but the Zemo formula is an extremely potent mind control drug, and who knows what she could do with that."

Steve hurriedly tugs on his socks and shoes, and gets to his feet, tucking in his shirt. "Is Tony in immediate danger?" he asks.

Agent Drew shakes her head. "I don't believe so. They'll want to keep him alive until they work out what he knows, and possibly even until they can reverse engineer Zemo."

"Can you get me into Hydra's base?"

"Yes."

Steve reaches for his holster on the bedpost, but Agent Drew reaches out and stops him.

"The most realistic way," she says reasonably, "is for me to bring you in as a prisoner."

Steve looks doubtfully at the door again. "What about your comrades?"

"I can convince them you went down with a fight," she answers.

Steve takes a deep breath, fighting with his own gut instinct between trusting her and doubting everything she has to say. But it seems an awfully elaborate ruse, and every second he teeters on the decision is another second Tony has to spend in the hands of the enemy.

"Okay," he says, turning to expose his jaw to her. "Make it look good."

--

Madripoor - Buccaneer Bay, 1947

Hydra's headquarters in Madripoor, in stark contrast to a sumptuous mountain castle, is a low key, seemingly abandoned warehouse. Ironically, it seems to be located not far from where Steve arrived in Madripoor with Namor to begin with. Steve gets marched into a large room, where it looks like the entirety of the Hydra cell has gathered, and a cheer goes up through the parted crowd when Steve appears. He knows he must present a defeated sight, in bloody and rumpled clothes, hands cuffed behind his back.

Agent Drew murmurs an encouraging word to Steve right before she kicks him to his knees on the hard concrete floor. He grunts when he lands, but otherwise remains silent, staring stubbornly up at the woman who approaches.

"Very good, Jessica," the woman - who can only be Madame Hydra - practically purrs. "Captain America, brought to his knees at last."

"Hail Hydra," a very familiar voice says from behind her, and Steve tries not to start in surprise as a hooded figure steps out of the crowd.

"Zemo," Steve spits. He doesn't have to work hard to summon the vitriol to his voice.

In Steve's peripheral vision, Agent Drew gives the slightest twitch; she's surprised. Good, that means she must be the real deal, or a very talented actress. Steve hopes like hell that it's the former.

"Come on," Zemo says. He kneels down gingerly in front of Steve, and reaches up to tug off the hood, revealing Tony Stark's grimly smiling face. His eyes are bloodshot, rimmed with red, and his entire expression has a manic look about it. "I think we're on close enough terms you can call me Tony."

"Tony Stark is dead," Steve says through gritted teeth.

Zemo's smile only widens. He grabs Steve's chin roughly, and jerks it up so that Steve is forced to look him in the eye. "Tony Stark has been dead for years, Commander."

Steve closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and counts to ten. When he opens his eyes again, Tony has gotten back to his feet, the hood back in place.

Steve wants to look to Agent Drew for some signal or cue, but he knows better than to give up her cover. He can do this alone, if he needs to; he allowed himself to be captured by the Red Skull, back in the war; he can sure as hell fight his way past some two-bit Hydra leftovers.

Even if Tony is among them.

Not Tony, Steve reminds himself. Zemo.

"This is such a beautiful beginning to our new regime!" Madame Hydra cries, her voice ringing out through the warehouse.

"Do you see?" Zemo adds. "Together, we have accomplished what my predecessor, what Baron von Strucker, what the Red Skull himself never could!"

With the two looking suitably distracted with soaking up the chanting cheer of "Hail Hydra!" that goes up around them, Steve glances sidelong at Agent Drew. She looks troubled, but nods subtly, and Steve gathers up his strength before launching to his feet and straight at Madame Hydra.

Steve's shoulder catches her right in the stomach, and she goes down hard with the force of his momentum, gasping for breath as the air is knocked from her lungs.

In the confusion, Steve sees Agent Drew fall into action. She does something with her hands and suddenly the two men next to her inexplicably turn on each other. When Agent Drew drops the handcuff key behind her back, Steve rocks away from the still dazed Madame Hydra in order to catch it. He only manages to get the cuff off one wrist before another Hydra soldier rushes him.

Steve sidesteps the attack, grabs the open side of the handcuffs, and drags the chain against the man's neck before he can get away. The force is only enough to cut off his air and send him sinking to the floor, and Steve feels a little guilty for the way he tosses the man aside in order to face the next threat.

Steve takes the gun off the next Hydra soldier who attacks him, and fires off a few disabling but hopefully non-lethal shots at the next two; these 'soldiers' look like little more than children, and Steve doesn't think they'll consider the kind of naive gullibility that led them to join up with Hydra worth their lives.

Hydra's old cut off one head, two more grow in its place! adage has rarely seemed more true, until Steve finds himself one of the last men standing, with bodies littered all around, and his gun solidly out of ammunition. Agent Drew is lying in a crumpled heap near Madame Hydra's feet, her ruse likely discovered; Steve hopes that she's still breathing, but right now he has bigger problems.

"Surrender, Captain!" Madame Hydra demands, raising her pistol to bear. "You may be durable, but we'll see if you can survive a bullet to the head."

Steve's gaze flickers to the side as Zemo approaches, unreadable through the hood.

"Please," he says to Madame Hydra. "Allow me the honor of dispatching my old enemy."

Zemo's hand glints silver in the low light of the warehouse as he raises it to bear on Steve; a very familiar looking gauntlet, similar to one of those found on the Iron Man, encases his fingers.

"A fitting end, don't you think, Commander?" Zemo wonders quietly.

Steve's stomach sinks, and he stares hard at the hooded figure, desperately hoping that some shred of the man's personality has held on. "Tony."

A long moment passes, the silence broken only by the occasional groan of the broken soldiers lying around them.

"Well?" Madame Hydra demands impatiently. "What are you waiting for? Finish it!"

"With pleasure," Zemo answers. The repulsor charges up with a whine, and he spins to turn it on Madame Hydra.

Steve throws up a hand to protect his face as the surge of energy explodes out. It hits the floor near Madame Hydra's feet and the concussion throws her back several feet, where she lands on her back in a sprawl and lies still. Dead or unconscious, Steve is selfishly unconcerned with her, as across from him Tony crumples to the floor.

"Tony!" Steve rushes to the man's side, and gathers Tony into his arms. "Tony?"

"Get this thing off of me," Tony says weakly, muffled by the fabric of the cowl over his face.

Steve reaches up and tugs the hood off. He sags with relief when he sees the wry twist of a smile on Tony's lips.

"What the hell was that?" Steve demands.

"I was faking it, Rogers," Tony mumbles. "Obviously."

"You had me so worried!" Steve says, resisting the urge to shake Tony for all he's worth.

Tony waves offhandedly with his free arm. "I had to convince her I was the real deal, or else she would've thrown me into prison and let me rot there."

"You lied to me," Steve says, as the realization comes crashing down.

"Mm." Tony sags in Steve's arms, looking as if he wants nothing more than just to go to sleep. "Can we talk about this later?"

Steve scowls. "What?"

"I mean, we are in the middle of an enemy base right now," Tony says. "And they're going to start waking up soon."

"It's okay," Agent Drew says from behind them. "I called in backup before we left. The cavalry should be here shortly."

Steve gets to his feet and helps Tony sit up. He goes through the room with Agent Drew, checking on the Hydra soldiers, tying up or handcuffing the ones who seem mostly likely to wake soon. Steve removes his own handcuffs from his other wrist, and goes to help Tony outside. He's a little worried by just how much Tony leans against him on the way out.

Agent Drew lingers behind to keep Madame Hydra secured, even though she seems down for the count, leaving Steve and Tony alone.

"Are you sure you're okay?" Steve asks. They take a seat on a couple of shipping crates outside the warehouse, and Tony slumps against Steve.

"Just a little run down, is all," Tony says. He tugs off the repulsor gauntlet and begins unbuttoning his shirt.

Steve watches, feeling a mixture of irritated and relieved. "Where did you even get that?"

"I'm always prepared, in case of emergency." Tony opens his shirt and tugs a pair of wires free from the repulsor pump.

"You had that wired into your heart?" Steve demands.

"Necessity," Tony says, "is the mother of invention."

Steve scowls. "Couldn't you just use a gun like everyone else?"

"You know I have to be different, Steve." Tony tosses the repulsor aside and reaches up to grab Steve by his collar. "Now come here and kiss me before I pass out."

Tony's tone is blithe, but he does pass out half way through the kiss, and slides into an unconscious slump against Steve's shoulder. Steve tries to wake him up, but ultimately is left with little to do but hold him until help arrives.

--

Lowtown - Stinger (SHIELD Safehouse), 1947

Everything is ostensibly over; the Hydra agents have been rounded up, Madame Hydra has been arrested, and Agent Drew is in with Agent Carter for debriefing. No one tried to invite Steve along; even General Fury's usual scowl softened upon looking at Steve, when he showed up with SHIELD's specialist a little while ago.

Tony never did regain consciousness before SHIELD arrived. The last Steve checked, he still hadn't.

Steve takes up residence in the kitchen, sitting in a chair that's too small at a table that's too low. Someone makes coffee and gives him a cup; he folds the mug between his hands and resolutely doesn't drink it. He knows he might be in shock, but he doesn't think so. His body is too resilient for that, though they never have tested the limits of its ability to handle emotional trauma.

It seems remarkably unfair, to get Tony back after two years of waiting and wondering, only to have this happen. They survived a war together; will things really end like this?

"We've got our specialist in with him," Peggy says quietly.

It's a testament to how little Steve is paying attention that he didn't even hear her enter the room.

"How is he?" he asks.

"Stable," Peggy says. She sits down in the chair next to Steve, and sets her hand on his.

Steve pulls his hand away. "You lied to me."

"I did." Peggy looks sorry, but Steve doubts the sincerity of it. He doubts a great many things right about now.

"But why?" Steve demands. "I would've followed orders, even if I'd known."

"No one was able to get close to him, Steve," Peggy says. "Agent Drew failed, and she's one of our most capable. We knew he'd let you in."

The back of Steve's neck feels suddenly hot with the anger that surges through him. "You used me, Peggy!"

"I'm sorry," she says, and opens her mouth to say more, but someone else walks into the kitchen before Peggy has a chance.

Their new arrival is a mild-mannered looking man, average height and build, with little round glasses. His hair looks like it's prematurely turning gray, and his brown eyes are kind. The specialist, Steve guesses.

"Dr. Bruce Banner," the man introduces himself.

"Steve Rogers," Steve answers, getting up to shake the doctor's hand. "Are you the same Dr. Banner who worked on the -"

Banner looks chagrined. "One and the same, I'm afraid."

"Forgive me, Doctor, but why call you in for Tony's case?" Steve asks, glancing between Banner and Peggy.

"I've got some ... experience ... in the whole field of split personalities," Banner says, with a rueful little smile. "But don't worry, it's not contagious."

Steve decides, whatever his unpleasant feelings at the moment, he likes Dr. Banner. The man seems to have a good sense of humor, at any rate.

"We've got someone in there who has a real medical degree, too," Banner adds.

Peggy quietly excuses herself, while Steve asks again after Tony's condition.

"The good news is, he's stable," Banner says. "The loss of consciousness was due to the repulsor pump, which we've managed to recharge back to full capacity."

"And the bad news?" Steve asks.

Banner removes his glasses and rubs at his eyes. "Most urgently, the bad news is that if Mr. Stark did receive the Zemo formula, then we still need to find a way to counteract it. The other bad news is that ... well, his heart has been pretty overtaxed. At this point, I can't say with any measure of confidence whether it'll last another six months or even six days."

Steve takes a deep breath and decidedly does not give into the urge to put his head in his hands. "Tony is dying," he says, as evenly as he can manage.

Dr. Banner looks regretful, but answers, "Yes."

Steve feels like the bottom has dropped out; he just got Tony back, now he's going to lose him again?

"And Zemo? What can we do about that?" Steve asks. He doesn't have to think very hard to remember Tony telling him once, a long time ago, that he thought losing all semblance of who he was would be a terrible way to die.

"I've got Dr. Sternberg's notes," Banner says. "As far as I can tell, he'd managed to work out the formula, but -"

"Dr. Sternberg!" Steve surges to his feet, surprising the doctor into lurching back. "The cure!"

Banner looks bemused. "What?"

"Sternberg gave me this," Steve says, scrambling through his jacket pockets. Please let it be there ... after his return to the hotel, after the fight, if it fell out or was broken --

Steve triumphantly produces the vial, the one with the cryptic little symbol on the label: ∞.

"Before he died, he gave me this. He said it was the cure, that Tony would know what to do," Steve says all in a rush, excitement surging through his veins. "I had forgotten all about it, but ..."

Banner reaches out and takes the vial from Steve's hands. "Well," he says with a good natured quirk of his lips. "Let's see what we can do."

--

Tony doesn't regain consciousness, so after an emergency phone call back to Pepper - who contacts Tony's lawyer, and rouses both Jarvis, somewhere in California, and Jim, somewhere in Paris, for their input - Steve reaches the decision that Tony would like the slim odds of Dr. Sternberg's mysterious cure better than none at all.

Dr. Banner administers the cure, which they take to calling the Infinity Formula thanks to the markings on the label, and then there is nothing left to do but wait.

Steve takes up a vigil in Tony's room while they wait for the cure to take effect, for better or for worse. Steve ends up gradually dozing off with his head resting on the bed at Tony's side, the exhausting day - exhausting few days - having caught up with him at last. He wakes up minutes, or maybe hours, later to the feeling of someone stroking his hair.

Steve jolts upright and stares, heart leaping into his throat, and he can't help himself - he starts to laugh.

Tony's blue eyes are still tired and heavy lidded, but the little smile he gives back is the most beautiful thing Steve has ever seen.

--

 

Hightown - Sovereign Hotel, 1947

The late afternoon is balmy when Steve steps out onto the balcony where Tony sits, watching the sunset. Tony turns and smiles up at him, looking far more at ease now that his ordeal is at an end. Steve can't say he blames him; he has some experience himself with being made into a brand new man, after all.

The Infinity Formula did far more than banish Zemo from Tony's mind; it healed his entire body, with the exception of the metal and glass that covers Tony's heart, where the flesh and bone have long since been stripped away.

Tony declared that he rather liked it that way, anyway; that a memento to remind him of the hard times was a much better means of keeping himself grounded. And, he'd admitted, he sort of liked being able to look down and see his heart thrumming away strongly in his chest, free at last of the repulsor pump and the hundreds of volts of electricity that had kept it going for years.

"New uniform?" Tony asks, once Steve has taken the seat beside him.

"Mm," Steve says.

He glances down at himself; the new uniform is a darker and more stylized interpretation of the getup he'd worn during the war, in a shade of deep blue with brushed silver accents on the armor, and brown boots and fingerless gloves. At least he doesn't look like a walking flag, and there's no winged cowl to go along with it; Steve supposes it's better suited to his new position.

"Looks warm," Tony says.

Steve smiles. "It is."

Tony's own smile widens into a wolfish grin. "You should let me help you out of it."

"Maybe later," Steve agrees. He reaches for Tony's drink - just a glass of seltzer water and lime; Tony swears he's going to treat his liver right this time around - and takes a sip. "The weather's so nice here. I'm going to freeze to death when I get back to New York."

"My offer is still open," says Tony, his tone all forced nonchalance. "You don't have to go back."

"I have to go," Steve answers.

"Ah." Tony takes back his drink, with the distinct air of a man who wishes it were something stronger. "I see."

Steve leans over and presses his lips to Tony's jaw. "But I mean to come back."

Tony turns to look at him.

"I still say you could come with me," Steve says. "But since I know you won't ... well, I think Madripoor is the perfect place for me. I can operate out of the Stinger base."

"Why do you need a safe house when you can just stay with me?" Tony asks, smiling again.

Steve laughs softly, leaning in for another kiss. "I don't want to live in a hotel, Tony."

"Then we'll get a place together," Tony says. "Or I'll build you a house. I'll build you ten houses. You said yourself - no one cares what we do here."

Steve takes Tony's hand, and twines their fingers together. "I'm happy with just one house," he says, "but otherwise I like the sound of that."

Tony makes a sound of agreement, leaning over to rest his head on Steve's shoulder. "And what will you do here in Madripoor?"

"There are still a few rogue Hydra agents to be tracked down and cleaned up," Steve says. "And there are rumors of movement in the area by the Soviets."

"What interest would they have in Madripoor?" Tony wonders.

Steve shrugs. "This place is centrally located, and it's a hotbed of terrorist activity. I'm surprised you managed to keep yourself out of trouble as long as you did."

Tony laughs softly. "I'm not sure I'd call all of that keeping myself out of trouble, Steve."

"All of that did remind me how good you are in a fight," Steve says cautiously. "You know, I missed having Iron Man at my back."

Tony sits up, raising an eyebrow at Steve. "What are you trying to say?"

"It could be like old times," says Steve. "Iron Man and Captain America, back in action."

"Pepper would love that," Tony says. "I know she has to be running out of material."

"She's coming back with me from New York, you know," Steve answers. "She wants to visit. Jarvis is coming in the dirigible to pick me up."

"I can imagine I'm going to hear an earful from him," Tony groans, but he looks inordinately pleased by the idea of getting to see his old friends again.

Steve decides to sweeten the pot, even so. "Jim is making arrangements to transfer out of Paris. You're going to need a Stark Labs facility in Madripoor for him to transfer to."

Tony raises an eyebrow, but he doesn't call Steve out on his insistence.

"We'll be getting everyone back together," Steve says. After a moment, he adds, "And you never did take me adventuring."

"Hmm." Tony goes quiet for a moment. "I'll have to streamline the armor."

"That gauntlet you had fit like a glove," Steve says. He winds his arms around Tony and pitches his voice low. "I'm sure you can make armor that's like a second skin."

Tony laughs at him again. "You're flattering me, Steven."

"Is it working?" Steve asks, as he leans in closer.

Tony doesn't say anything, just closes the distance and kisses Steve, which is answer enough.

--

 

COMING SOON!

NEW MARVELS: THE CONTINUING ADVENTURES OF IRON MAN AND CAPTAIN AMERICA!