September 1941. Northern Transylvania.
Tony Stark didn't panic easily. Less than an hour ago, he might've reasonably claimed that he didn't panic at all. But he was falling, out of control, tumbling head over heels through howling darkness toward an impact he couldn't possibly survive. Panic seemed like the sanest response.
He struggled to move his hand toward the parachute release in the armor's chest plate, but the hydraulics were down and every inch of movement was now a test of strength and endurance. The last lightning strike had fried his armor completely, turning the world's most advanced flying machine into little more than a human-shaped tin can. Soon to become a flat tin can, if he didn't get the chute engaged. Tony swore and wrenched his arm another painful inch closer to the release switch. How far did he have to fall? He'd been flying over the Carpathian Mountains; for all he knew, it was too late for the chute to do any good and he was about to be splattered over a picturesque Transylvanian peak.
Don't even think about that. Just keep moving.
Lightning flashed in his peripheral vision, followed by a thunderclap before he had a chance to even start counting. Too close, much too close. He'd never survive another strike. Tony gritted his teeth, moved his arm another inch, thought he felt the vibration of his gauntleted fingers scraping against metal. No way to look down to see if he was anywhere near the release switch. All he could do was flex his hand and hope for the best.
The sudden upward jolt of the chute jarred every bone in his body and forced the breath from his lungs. Tony's intended whoop of relief came out more like a strangled cough. He didn't care, not as long as he could feel his fall slowing. He was going to be black and blue from head to toe when he came down, but at least now there was a slim chance of him coming down in one piece.
Another lightning bolt flashed, as close as the one before. It seemed to come from somewhere below him, which made no sense at all, but then again, he could hardly tell up from down anymore. Moments after the flash, something struck Tony's helmet with a dull thump that rattled his teeth. More thumps followed in quick succession, making the entire armor vibrate. Trees. He was falling through trees, taking out branches on his way down. Which meant he was going to hit the ground any minute n--
He must've blacked out for a while, because the next thing he knew was numbing cold. His mouth was full of water. Tony coughed and spit, but more water rushed in before he could take a full breath. The damn suit was flooding, he had to get out, had to get it off before he drowned...
It was easier to move now that he was no longer in freefall, or maybe it was just the prospect of imminent watery death lending him strength. It took only a few seconds for Tony to undo the fastenings at his right elbow and wriggle his arm out of the gauntlet. With one hand free, everything else became easier. He got the helmet off, the other gauntlet, the shoulder plating... The more armor he removed, the more Tony felt the rush of the water around him. He was neck-deep in a river, icy and rapid, swollen with the rain that was pelting him from above. The bank was only inches away, but it was rocky and steep. Tony would need to discard the rest of the armor to climb it.
That was the theory, anyway. In practice, Tony managed to get the chest and back plates off before it became clear that the current was too strong. The remaining armor held him anchored, just barely, but if he freed his legs he'd be swept downstream.
Panic welled up again, stronger than before. Without the armor to serve as a buffer, the water's force was overwhelming. It took all of Tony's strength just to keep his head above the surface, and with the rain still coming down, even that might not be an option for much longer. He wondered what would get him first, drowning or hypothermia.
"Give me your hands!"
Apparently, he was hallucinating. The odds of hearing any human voice in this wilderness were low enough. The odds of hearing an American voice, with a hint of Lower East Side cadence in the accent--
"Give me your hands, now!"
The words came a heartbeat ahead of another lightning bolt, more distant this time but still bright enough to illuminate a man-shaped silhouette crouched at the top of the riverbank, arms outstretched toward Tony. If it was a hallucination, it was a remarkably vivid and consistent one. Tony reached up, and felts large hands grip his wrists and pull.
It hurt. He was already battered from the crash, and the cold-water soak hadn't done his bruised muscles any favors. Now his arms felt as if they would come out of their sockets before he came out of that damned river. Tony tried to get a toe hold on the bank, but his armored legs were useless, good only for adding more weight to his waterlogged carcass.
"I can't climb!" he called out. Maybe it would be better if the other man just let go. There was no way he could pull Tony up all by himself, and there was no sense in both of them going over.
"It's all right." The man's voice was steady and utterly confident, as rock-solid as the grip on Tony's wrists. "Just hang in there. I've got you."
Even as he spoke, he kept pulling, and Tony found himself moving, out of the water and upward, in defiance of gravity and common sense. His chest and face scraped against the rocky bank, but he was too numb from the cold to feel it, and too exhausted to care. Besides, he should've been dead at least three times over by now. A few scrapes and bruises seemed like a small price to pay for a miracle.
One last heave, and he was on top of the bank, flopped on his belly in the mud and gulping for breath. He would've been content to stay that way for a while, but the same strong hands that had pulled him up were now rolling him over onto his back, lifting him up into a sitting position and wiping mud from his face. Tony's head lolled back against a warm, solid bulk which he dimly realized must be his rescuer's shoulder.
"Are you all right?" The man demanded.
"Never been better," Tony wheezed, and passed out.
Tony's first waking thought was oh, hell, what have I been drinking? It took a minute or so for his groggy brain to parse the general feeling of misery into specific sensations, longer still to acknowledge that these were not the familiar aches and pains of a well-earned hangover. Memory came back in fits and starts: freak thunderstorm -- lightning -- falling --
Tony opened his eyes and found himself looking up at a narrow strip of cloudy sky, hemmed in on two sides by rock and dirt. A natural fissure of some sort, with the inward-sloping walls offering some shelter from the elements. The air smelled of damp earth, rotting vegetation, a hint of wood smoke, and... coffee? Tony lifted his head and sniffed. Yes, definitely coffee.
"Good morning," someone said behind him. Tony rolled over onto his side and craned his neck to look at the speaker.
The man who'd pulled him from the river was now crouching a few yards away, stirring something in a metal can over a small campfire. He was a fine thing to see first thing in the morning, blond and blue-eyed, movie-star handsome despite being unshaven and covered in mud. The night before, looking up in the dark, Tony had been sure that he'd been looking at a giant, eight feet tall if he was an inch. Now he could see that the man was only a little taller than Tony himself, though a hell of a lot bigger in the shoulders.
"Hello," Tony said. Or croaked, rather. His voice didn't seem to be working very well. He coughed a couple of times to clear his throat, and tried again. "Good morning."
"I have coffee," the man said, "and food. But you should probably get dressed first."
Dressed? Tony's brain was apparently having trouble catching up to the rest of him, because until that moment he hadn't even noticed that while he was swaddled in a great deal of heavy fabric, none of it was clothing. He wriggled one arm free and sorted through the layers. A scratchy wool blanket was wrapped around him like a cocoon, then a sleeping bag, then what appeared to be a folded parachute. Everything was olive drab and plain, clearly military-grade, though Tony could see no insignia.
"Well, now." Tony forced a laugh. "Normally, I expect a fellow to buy me a few drinks before he got me naked."
The blond man blushed a little, though his expression was amused. "Sorry," he said. "But I figured leaving you in those soaked clothes was a bad idea. Here." He turned away for a moment, and stood up holding a bundle of folded clothes with Tony's boots on top. "I dried them over the fire as best I could."
Tony sat up, resisting the urge to fold his arms over his chest as the covers slid down to his waist. It was too late for secrets anyhow. He held out his hands.
If the blond man had any opinions about the metal and glass plate in Tony's chest, he kept them to himself. Just handed over the clothes, muttered "I'd better see to the food," and wandered back to the fire as if there was nothing unusual to look at.
Tony crawled out of the covers into the chilly autumn air, and dressed in a hurry. His clothes were mud-stained and damp around the seams, permeated with the mingled smell of river water and wood smoke. The shirt was missing a few buttons and had a small hole in one shoulder, but otherwise everything held together. Tony made a mental note to send a thank-you gift to his tailor when he got home.
He laced up his boots and walked over to the campfire.
"So. Now that you've saved my life and seen me naked, I guess introductions are in order?"
The blond man actually looked a bit flustered by that. Apparently, seeing Tony naked was all right but talking about it was off-limits. Still, he recovered quickly enough, put down the C-ration can he'd been keying open, and held out his hand.
"My friends call me Cap," he said.
"Cap it is, then." Tony shook Cap's hand and sat down. "I'm--"
"Tony Stark." Cap nodded. "I know, I read your stories. I mean, the stories about you. In Marvels Magazine."
"Really?" Tony smirked. "You don't strike me as the sort of fellow who needs to live vicariously."
Cap smiled at that. He looked younger when he smiled, unexpectedly shy, and Tony caught his breath at the sudden, irrational feeling of recognition. He had to turn away for a moment, to stare at the ground until he could trust himself to look back at Cap without staring.
"Mr. Stark?" Cap's smile gave way to concern. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Tony said quickly. "And only my employees call me Mr. Stark. People who pull me out of rivers get to say 'Tony.'"
"Okay. Tony." Cap relaxed a little, though his eyes still looked worried. "But are you sure you're all right? That was a hell of a crash last night."
Tony shrugged. "I'm alive, and in one piece, and apparently about to have breakfast. That counts as all right in my book. Did I thank you, by the way? Because, thank you."
"You're welcome," Cap said, and picked up the can he'd been opening earlier. "So. Do you like your mystery meat and hash cold, or warmed up?"
The meat and hash came out a little singed at the edges but luke-warm in the middle. Tony ended up eating most of it, while Cap made do with a bar that looked like chocolate but, judging from the way Cap gnawed at it, might've been cement. They took turns sipping black instant coffee straight from the can that Cap had mixed it in. Tony was more accustomed to living rough than most people in his tax bracket, but he was still pretty sure that this was the worst meal he'd ever had.
"Damn," he muttered, scraping the last greasy spoonful from the bottom of his can, "are we actually expecting to fight a war on this stuff? The free world is doomed."
"There's a whole lot of people fighting already," Cap said sharply. "Many on worse rations and many on a lot less. Not to mention all the civilians who've been overrun. I've seen some dispatches from Poland -- believe me, we're well off here."
"Hey." Tony held up his hands. "I'm not complaining. I'm just saying I have a newfound respect for the average American soldier, that's all."
Cap gave him a doubtful look, but went back to drinking his coffee with no further comment.
"Oh," he said after a while, "I don't know if it helps at all, but I saved your armor. The parts you were wearing, at least. It's all over there." He waved one hand behind him, toward what looked -- and at this point probably was -- a pile of scrap metal with a paratrooper's khaki jacket draped over it.
"Thanks," Tony sighed, "but you've probably wasted your time." Between the lighting strikes, the crash, and the cold-water soak, he doubted there was a single working component left among the scrap. Tony rose creakily to his feet, took a couple of steps toward the armor pile, and stumbled to an abrupt halt.
On the ground behind the armor, propped up casually against a rock, was a concave red, white and blue disk with a big white star in the center.
"Oh my God," Tony said. "You're Captain America. I've been saved from certain doom by Captain America. I'm buying a million defense bonds when I get home."
He really should've figured it out before. No ordinary man, no matter how well-trained, could've pulled him from that river. And "Cap" was a pretty obvious nickname, now that he thought about it. Except that right up until that moment, Tony had never really believed in Captain America. After all, no one went around thinking Uncle Sam was a real person, did they? Captain America was a walking propaganda poster, invented by some clever bureaucrat in a marketing office. "America's Super-Soldier," right. Tony had assumed that the man in the red, white and blue union suit was some Hollywood pretty boy, or maybe a hapless Army recruit, chosen for his ridiculously chiseled jaw and sent forth to encourage impressionable young men to enlist and swooning housewives to buy savings stamps. To find him squatting at a campfire in the Carpathian Mountains, drinking coffee from a tin can was... was...
"Why didn't you say something?" Tony demanded accusingly.
"Uhm... sorry." Cap ducked his head a little and scratched at the back of his neck. "It's just an awkward way to introduce myself, that's all. 'Hello, I'm Captain America.' Who talks like that?"
And there it was again, the shy smile, the familiar tilt of the head. Tony took an involuntary step forward, and knocked over the coffee can, spilling the dregs into the dirt.
"Tony?" Cap rose to his feet and gripped Tony's arm to steady him. "Is something wrong?"
"No. I just--" Tony shook his head. He was being a fool. "Look, I know it's a crazy thing to ask out of the blue, but are you by any chance related to somebody named Steve Rogers?"
"Not that I know of," Cap said cautiously.
"Are you sure? What am I saying, of course you're sure." Tony sat down next to the armor pile, feeling suddenly cold and exhausted and aware of every aching bruise on his body. "Don't mind me. It just that I had this friend in New York... he'd be laughing his head off if he knew you reminded me of him." Steve, with his knobby knees and sharp elbows, wheezing from the smallest exertion and insisting he was fine. He'd have laughed all right, though more at himself than at Tony.
"I'm sorry," Cap said, and he sounded as if he really was, though Tony couldn't imagine what the man had to be sorry about.
"Don't be. It's nothing to do with you. I'm being a sap, that's all."
Tony Stark being a sap. Yeah, what else is new?
March 1940. New York City.
The night watchman in the lobby and the elevator boy both gave Tony startled looks as he came in. Tony supposed he couldn't blame them. He didn't generally make a habit of showing up at the office at ten o'clock on a Friday night, in evening wear. But that scientist he'd been chatting with at the Van Dynes' party -- Reynolds? Roberts? Richards, that was it -- had given him the most brilliant idea for improving the navigation controls on the armor, and Tony really wanted to get it jotted down before he sobered up and forgot.
The armor blueprints were in the safe in his office on the fifty-third floor. Tony took them out, spread the relevant pages across his desk, and grabbed a pencil. He wasn't planning to stay long, just enough to write down the basic idea so that he'd have something to work with after he got some sleep.
The next time he looked up, it was two hours later, and his pencil was worn down to a stub. His tuxedo jacket was draped over the back of his chair, his tie and cummerbund were on the floor. Tony didn't even remember taking them off. He could almost hear Rhodey's amused exasperation. Maybe we should hook up an alarm to that ticket of yours, sir. Have it ring for meals and bedtimes.
Ah well, if he'd stayed at the party, he would've still been up anyway, and this was much more interesting. Still, he had all the important stuff written down and the rest could wait. Tony got up, left his discarded pieces of clothing where he'd dropped them, and headed for the door.
He pulled the door toward him just as something heavy pushed from the other side. The combined momentum sent Tony reeling backwards. He had to pinwheel his arms to keep from falling over, then jump back another step to avoid the janitor's cart that toppled noisily at his feet. An overturned bucket sent a puddle of soapy water spreading all over the carpet, and assorted cleaning implements went flying everywhere.
"Hey!" The janitor who'd been wheeling the cart stumbled to an awkward stop. "What's the big ide-- oh my God, I'm so sorry, Mr. Stark!"
He was a gangly blond kid in dark blue coveralls with the Stark Industries logo on the sleeve. When he crouched on the far side of the cart, his arms and legs seemed to fill up most of the doorway. He tried to lift the cart upright, but it was too heavy for him; he got it about six inches off the floor before it dropped back with a thud.
"Here, I've got it." Tony kicked the bucket aside and hauled the cart up. The janitor started to apologize again, but Tony waved him off.
"Relax, kid, you're not fired. It was mostly my fault anyhow."
The janitor -- S. Rogers, according to the name embroidered on his coveralls -- shook his head. "No, I saw the light on. I should've knocked before barging in."
"At midnight on a Friday? Can't say I blame you. Just clean up the damage and we can both forget about it."
"Yes, sir." Rogers said, but made no move toward go enter the office. Instead he crouched down in the hallway behind the cart. Tony stepped through the doorway to see what over there was more important than the puddle on his carpet, and saw that the floor was littered with sheets of paper, all of which had apparently spilled out from a battered artist's portfolio that had fallen off the cart and burst at the seams.
"Huh." He picked up a handful of sheets and turned them over to see the drawings. "Is this what my custodial staff gets up to in their spare time? No wonder my desk is always dusty."
Apparently, Janitor Rogers didn't have much of a sense of humor about his job. He went all grim-faced and thin-lipped, and began to rapidly stuff the papers back into the portfolio.
"I don't do this on work time," he spoke in a tense rush, "it's just that I don't have time to go home after classes are done, so I bring all my school things to work, and the case won't fit in my locker so I put it on the--"
"Joking!" Tony held up his hands. "I'm joking. My desk is fine. You're still not fired." He flipped through the sheets in his hands. The first few drawings looked like standard student exercises: flowers, bowls of fruit, several studies of a human hand from different angles. Ordinary stuff for the most part, technically competent but uninspired, except for one drawing that made Tony pause.
It was done in a different medium than the others, maybe graphite stick or charcoal instead of pencil. Thick, bold lines and angular shapes, all done in shades of gray darkening to pitch-black against a plain white background. A gaunt man in a black coat, face shadowed by the brim of a fedora, stood up to fire a pair of pistols over the windshield of a convertible automobile that looked as if it might be part rocket ship. A black cape flared dramatically behind him, filling the entire top left corner of the page with intricately shaded folds. Next to the shooter, the rocket car's driver was a hunched silhouette behind the windshield.
"Is that..." Tony found himself grinning in sheer, nostalgic delight. "Is that the Midnight Racer?"
"Yes." Rogers finally cracked a smile. It was, Tony thought, a surprisingly charming smile, especially in contrast with his earlier pinched look. "You recognize him? Everyone in class just gave me blank looks. Except for one fellow who thought it was the Shadow."
"Clearly, your art school is full of philistines," Tony huffed. "I loved the Racer when I was a teener." He struck a heroic pose, one fist against his chest, and pitched his voice low. "Now, in the full moon's silver light, let evildoers cower--"
"Lest they feel the wrath of... THE MIDNIGHT RACER!" Rogers chimed in just at the right time to proclaim the final words in perfect unison with Tony. "I used to stay up past my bedtime every night when it was on. Never missed an episode."
"You are a man of refined and sophisticated taste." Tony handed the drawings back to him. "Which raises the question of why you're in here cleaning my office. Or, rather, not cleaning my office."
"Earning my tuition money." Rogers shoved the last few drawings into the portfolio, where their corners stuck out randomly though the busted seams, and wheeled his cart further into the room. "Which I really should do now. Or are you still working in here?"
"No, I'm done, just give me a minute." Tony went back to his desk, gathered up his blueprints and returned them to the safe. "Look, Rogers--"
"My name is Steve, sir."
"Okay, enough with the 'sir.' You're making me feel ridiculous." Tony gathered up his discarded clothes and leaned against the desk. "Just so we're clear, Steve: my desk is perfectly fine, I really don't care if there's a little water on the carpet, and you're not in any kind of trouble, all right?"
"Yes, s-- Mr. Stark. I still need to clean in here, though."
"All right, all right, never let it be said that Tony Stark can't take a hint. I'm going." Tony headed for the door.
"Do you remember the Midnight Racer?" He asked the operator as the elevator cage rattled downwards.
The boy stared blankly at him. "Who?"
"Never mind," Tony sighed.
Nobody remembered the classics anymore.
September 1941. Northern Transylvania.
"So," Tony said, "I notice you're out of uniform."
"That's for public appearances," Cap said. "This is supposed to be a covert mission. I wouldn't be very covert trampling around the forest in red, white and blue, would I?"
That wasn't what Tony had meant, but now that he thought about it, it made sense that Cap wasn't in military uniform, either. America was still technically a neutral nation, which meant that any American who got caught in Europe on a "covert mission" had to be able to make at least a vaguely convincing claim of being a private citizen acting on his own volition. That was why Tony was out there with only his own tech for company, and it had to be why Cap had no insignia on any of his clothes or gear. Though how he planned to explain the shield, if it came to that, Tony had no idea.
"Mission, huh? Are you allowed to tell me what it is? Maybe I can help." And that... sounded really pathetic now that he spoke the words out loud. He had no armor, no weapons, no supplies, and no idea where he was beyond "somewhere in the Carpathians." He looked and felt like a drowned rat, and was probably about as useful.
Cap looked thoughtful, as if he was genuinely considering Tony's potential to be anything other than dead weight. "Actually," he said, "I thought we were both here for the same reason. The castle?"
"Castle?" Tony shook his head. "No. I was taking out a munitions plant on the Polish side of the border." The "munitions plant" had turned out to be a canning factory, and Tony had left it alone, but there was no need to mention that, was there? "I didn't know there were any castles in this area."
"That's just it," Cap said. "It wasn't there three weeks ago."
Well. That was interesting. "What was there three weeks ago?"
"Nothing. An empty valley. One day, grass and rocks, the next day, a castle. Supply convoys coming up from Bistrita, with men in German uniforms. The British got wind of it first, apparently. Sent some men in to investigate, never heard from them again. I'm not really sure how it got back to us, but Army Intelligence decided I should take a look. I dropped in the day before you did."
"Huh." Something was tugging at Tony's memory, something he'd researched years ago. "Does this castle, by any chance, sit next to a lake that also wasn't there three weeks ago?"
"Yes." Cap looked startled. "How did you know?"
"Lucky guess," Tony said. "Listen, do you know where we are, exactly? Do you have a map?"
"I do, but it's not very useful. Hang on." Cap fetched his coat from where he'd draped it over Tony's armor, and pulled a folded map from an inner pocket. He spread it on the ground between them, oriented toward Tony. "We're here." He jabbed his finger at the upper edge of Northern Transylvania, just below the Ukrainian border. "The castle valley is about a mile southwest as the crow flies, but you can't see it on here. I scouted it out yesterday, but they had another convoy coming in, men out everywhere. I couldn't get close."
"Huh." Tony frowned at the map. It was, as Cap had said, not very useful; the scale was too small to show their immediate area in any detail. All it told him was that he was in the mountains some thirty miles north of Bistrita, which he knew already. The location was a long way off from what he'd expected, given Cap's tale of the magically appearing castle, but then he'd already known the legends were unreliable. He spent nearly a month combing the mountains near Hermannstadt a decade ago, and found no sign of the place.
"Do you think you could show me this castle?" he asked.
Cap fixed him with a suspicious glare. "You know what it is."
"I have an idea," Tony admitted. "But I'd like to actually see the place before I say for certain."
Cap looked as if he wanted to demand an explanation right then and there, but managed to contain himself.
"Come on, then," he said shortly. "I'll take you there."
"A mile southwest as the crow flies" didn't seem very far in theory. In practice, it turned out to be more like five miles, all along a winding, barely visible track down a nearly vertical mountainside. Tony had gone longer distances in worse terrain before, but he'd never started the trip this banged up. Still, he made good time and would've probably felt quite competent if it hadn't been so obvious that Cap was making himself slow down for Tony's benefit.
"Didn't you say," Tony wheezed as they shuffled sideways along a tiny ledge with a sheer cliff going straight up on one side an a sheer cliff going straight down on the other, "that the Krauts had supply convoys going up to the castle? That would imply some sort of road, right?"
"Yes." Cap reached a bend in the ledge and stopped to wait for Tony to catch up. The shield strapped to his back didn't seem to hinder his movements at all. "But it's very well patrolled, and visible from the castle walls. This way we can approach unseen. Watch out, there's a gap once you come around this bend."
The ledge eventually opened up into a small plateau, with just enough room for the two men to lie down on the ground and look into the valley below.
"Well now," Tony said. "They certainly didn't build that overnight."
The castle was massive. It was difficult to determine the scale from a distance, but Tony estimated the curtain wall to be at least eighty feet high, with the towers nearly twice as tall. The wall formed a regular decagon with a square tower at each corner, all built from smooth, dark-gray stone, with shingled roofs on the towers and the cluster of buildings inside. At the back of the castle, directly behind the keep, was a smallish oval lake, barely more than a pond. A narrow dirt road led up to the gate. It must've taken at least a week for the Germans to get all their supplies in, Tony thought. There was no way a truck would make it through once they left the main road, though a smaller car might've managed it.
There were men patrolling the top of the wall, but their attention was mainly directed toward the road. Clearly, Cap had the right idea with the indirect approach. They could probably get all the way down to the lakeshore before anyone spotted them.
"Here." Cap unslung a pair of binoculars from around his neck and handed them to Tony. "Want a closer look?"
There was a bronze plaque above the gate, surprisingly untarnished considering its probable age. The sideways angle he was looking from made it hard to make out the design, but after focusing for a couple of minutes, Tony was fairly sure he was looking at the Seal of Solomon.
"I knew it!" He lowered the binoculars and sat up. "They found it. The bastards actually found it."
"Found what?" Cap demanded impatiently.
"The Scholomance. Damn." Tony smacked one hand against the ground. "What did they know that I missed? I could've sworn I had all the primary sources..."
Then again, there could've been a private library somewhere that he'd never found. Not every Romanian scholar and manuscript collector was willing to talk to an American. Some of them might've been friendlier to the Germans. Or simply more afraid of the Germans. It was galling to think he'd been out-researched, and by the Nazis, no less, but the evidence couldn't be denied.
"Scholomance." Cap frowned at the unfamiliar word. "Am I supposed to know what that is?"
"It's a school of black magic," Tony told him. "According to legend, it's supposed to be invisible except for one night every nine years, when new students are admitted and the graduating class, so to speak, is released. There are never more than ten students at a time, and the instructor is supposed to be the Devil himself."
"The Devil?" Cap gave a short, startled laugh. "You don't actually believe that, do you?"
"Of course not." Tony scowled. "It's just the sort of superstition that people like to attach to things they don't understand. Like Atlantis being populated by magical immortal beings, or the Ciudad Blanca in Honduras being the birthplace of the Aztec gods. But Atlantis and Ciudad Blanca were real, and clearly the Scholomance is real too. And here's something to consider: the Solomanari -- that's what the students at the Scholomance were called -- studied all sorts of magic, but the most important one was weather control. Specifically, calling up thunderstorms."
"Hm." Cap glanced up at the glowering sky. "So the storm last night--"
"Probably not the only one they've had recently. And I can tell you one thing -- the reason I crashed last night was that I was struck by lightning. Twice, less than a minute apart. And at the time I thought I was just imagining it, but I could've sworn those bolts came up from the ground, aiming straight for me. I would've been flying right over this spot when it happened."
This was bad. If the Germans could shoot him out of the sky, then they could should down Allied planes, too. How wide was the range on those lightning bolts? How much air space did the Germans control just by controlling that castle, without ever needing to put a pilot in combat?
"Oookay." Cap took the binoculars back from Tony and peered at the castle with a wary expression, as if, despite his earlier skepticism, he actually expected to see the Devil walking the battlements. "So the Nazis found this Scholomance and... shot you down with magic lightning?"
"Not magic," Tony said quickly. "Advanced technology of some sort. Lightning's just electicity, after all. There are already ways to generate it on a small scale -- a Tesla coil will do it, or something similar. Whatever they've got there, I bet it works on the same principle."
"And making the castle and the lake appear overnight? Did they do that with a Tesla coil too?"
"I don't know," Tony admitted. "But I'm willing to bet they didn't really appear overnight. They've been here all along, just hidden."
"Hidden." Cap looked dubious. "How do you hide a whole valley with a lake and a castle in it?"
"There are ways," Tony said. "Or at least there could be. There was this fellow in one of the engineering labs at Stark Industries last year -- he had this idea that you could take pictures of an object from different angles, then project them into the air to make a three-dimensional image. He was thinking of it as a way to conceal airplanes from the enemy. I gave him some funding to play around with the concept, but nothing's come of it so far."
"Do you really think the Solomanari could make it work when of your engineers couldn't?"
"If they could call up thunderstorms, I don't see why they couldn't do this either." Tony felt a surge of frustration as he peered down into the valley again. Just how many technological wonders could the Scholomance hold? It might be an even greater treasure trove than Atlantis, and the goddamn Nazis had it. An illusion that could hide an entire castle from sight could also hide a battleship, a tank, a marching army. It could be worse than the lightning, if the Nazis learned to duplicate it. "If I got in there, maybe I could find out how they managed it."
"Yes, well." Cap set down the binoculars. "I'd like to get inside myself. It's not going to be easy, though."
"Hey." Tony grinned at him. "If it was easy, it wouldn't be any fun."
"Far be it for me to keep Tony Stark from his fun." Cap looked amused. "My plan, before you fell out of the sky on me, was to go down there after dark tonight and see if there's a way in other than the main gate. They have searchlights on the walls at night, but they don't cover the lake very well. I don't think they expect anybody to come from that direction."
"Excellent plan," Tony said. "Very deep and carefully thought-out, as a plan should be. Let's--" He rose to his feet, gasped, and dropped to one knee.
Oh, fuck, not now, please not now...
He could feel his heartbeat all of a sudden -- a stuttering, irregular rhythm that seemed to jolt his ribs with every beat. An invisible band tightened around his chest and squeezed. He tried to take a deep breath and couldn't. The ground seemed to tilt under him, and he had to put one hand down to keep from toppling over. His other hand clutched at his chest. Not now not now not now...
"Tony?" Cap was at his side in an instant, gripping his shoulders, holding him upright. "Tony, what's wrong?"
"Nothing." Tony pressed his palm harder against his chest, as if the added pressure could somehow force his heartbeat back to its proper rhythm. He could feel the chest plate beneath the fabric of his shirt, hard and smooth, cooler than his skin. The charge should've lasted at least three more days, but then he hadn't really taken into account the lightning strikes, the crash, the general stress and exhaustion of the past twenty-four hours. This was not good. Not good at all.
He resisted the urge to pant, took slow, regular breaths, made his muscles relax as much as he could. After a while, his heartbeat steadied again, though the painful tightness in his chest didn't entirely fade. Tony slumped forward a little, or at least he tried to. It didn't quite work, because Cap still had him by the shoulders and Cap's hands didn't budge a millimeter, not even with Tony a dead weight in his grip.
"That," Cap said in a flat, angry voice, "was not nothing."
"Just a dizzy spell." Tony fought, with reasonable success, to keep his voice steady. "The air is very thin up here."
"Bull." Cap's eyes were wide and angry and very, very blue. His hair was flopping over his forehead, not quite long enough to get into his eyes, but getting there. Clearly, the army wasn't too concerned with making sure that its super-soldier maintained a regulation haircut. Tony wanted to reach out and brush it back, to make him get that endearing frown he always got when he thought he wasn't being taken seriously--
Except it wasn't Cap who did that. It was Steve, and Tony really needed to stop this nonsense before he seriously embarrassed himself.
"I'm all right," he said, "really. You can let go of me now."
Cap didn't let go. "You are not all right. And we're deep in hostile territory, alone, and planning to break into a castle full of Nazis tonight. You need to let me know what's happening, Tony. It's not just you at stake here."
Damn. When he put it that way, Tony couldn't very well lie.
"Look," he sighed, "you saw that panel in my chest, right?"
Cap nodded. "Right."
"I have a mechanical heart under there."
"Mechanical?" Cap finally released his death-grip on Tony's shoulders and sat back on his heels, looking stunned. "How... I mean, don't you have a real one in there?"
"You're not the first man to ask that question." Tony smirked. "And yeah, I've got one. Problem is, it's not much use on its own. The repulsor pump is there to keep it going."
"Okay." Cap shook his head, still looking generally flabbergasted. "So what's wrong with it now?"
"Low on power." Tony gave an embarrassed laugh. He really should've seen this coming. "I thought I had three more days, but I guess I've been overstraining it lately."
"Great." Cap let his head fall forward a little and pinched the bridge of his nose, as if hold back a headache. "And you didn't mention this before... why, exactly?"
"I told you, I thought I had time!" Tony said defensively. "I saw your rations pack, I knew you couldn't be planning to stay here more than a couple of days. I figured I'd just get extracted along with you, and there would be no reason to ever bring it up. I mean, you do have some sort of extraction plan set up, don't you?"
"Yes," Cap said. "But not for another five days. I don't need a lot of rations to keep me going, that's one of the reasons they send me in for missions like this." He stood up abruptly, paced to the edge of the plateau, then back again. He had to be really worried, Tony thought. He'd seen enough of Cap by that point to know that the man was not normally given to unnecessary movement. "Okay, so what can we do to fix it? Is there a way to, I don't know, recharge it? Swap out the battery? You must've run into this before."
"I'd need a generator," Tony said. "And some cables. I don't suppose you have a machine shop hidden somewhere?"
"No." Cap's expression went from worried to grimly resolved in a blink of an eye. "But I'll think of something."
The funny thing was, Tony completely believed him.
March 1940. New York City.
"Did you know," Tony said, "that the night janitor at Stark Industries is an artist?"
Rhodey put down his pen and gave Tony a long, considering look. "I haven't seen the personnel files," he said, "but I'm pretty sure that Stark Industries employs more than one night janitor. And no, I haven't been keeping track of their hobbies."
They were in the Stark Mansion library, ostensibly cataloguing the shipment of 18th-century manuscripts Tony had received from Argentina three days before. In reality, Rhodey was doing all the cataloguing while Tony wandered aimlessly around the room, occasionally plucking a random book from a shelf and flipping through the pages before putting it back.
"I think his name is Steve," Tony clarified. "He cleans my office." He was reasonably certain that it was the same man every night. His desk had been positively sparkling since two Fridays before. "And I don't think it's a hobby, I think he actually goes to art school."
"Okay." Rhodey tilted his head to one side. "And this is of interest to us because..."
"We need a replacement for Silber." Joel Silber had spent five years illustrating Tony's adventures for Marvels before taking off on short notice to go make animated movies in California. Pepper had been quite gleeful in telling anyone who'd listen that Tony had been thrown over in favor of a cartoon mouse.
"The publisher will send a replacement," Rhodey pointed out. Tony scowled at him.
"The publisher will send another hack. I never liked Silber's illustrations; he makes me look like I'm forty. And if they had anyone better on staff, they would've assigned him earlier."
"You've never complained before." Rhodey folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair. "What are you up to, sir?"
"Up to?" Tony quirked an eyebrow at him. "I'm trying to hire an illustrator. How is that being 'up to' something?"
"Uh-huh." Rhodey had this way of watching, narrow-eyed and skeptical, that always made Tony feel as if he'd been caught in a lie. "Is he good-looking?"
"No," Tony said firmly. A killer smile and brilliant blue eyes made up for a lot, but in this case they were being tragically wasted on a fellow who looked as if he'd been put together out of toothpicks.
"Did he make you feel guilty about something?"
"Don't be ridiculous." It was entirely not Tony's fault if the kid was now apparently convinced that his job was in jeopardy. Some people couldn't take a joke, that's all.
"Enough with the guessing games," Tony snapped. "Just set up a meeting with the Marvels people. We can let them decide."
"Sure, boss." Rhodey shrugged and picked up his pen again. "Whatever you say."
Staying late at the office was less effort than leaving and coming back, so Tony took a few extra hours on a Monday night to catch up on some of his more boring business correspondence. He'd dictated half a dozen letters into his Dictaphone and was working his way through a stack of R&D proposals, when Steve Rogers wheeled his cart into the room.
"Mr. Stark." Rogers stopped just inside the door and gave an uncertain smile. "I can come back if you're still working."
"No, no." Tony waved him in. "Much as I'd like to pretend that I'm here because of my superior work ethic, I was actually waiting for you."
Rogers's eyes instantly went wary. "Is there a problem?"
"God, no." Tony rolled his eyes. "You sure do like to worry, don't you? Sit down a minute, I want to talk to you."
Rogers hesitated a moment, then left the cart by the door and walked over to perch at the edge of the guest chair in front of Tony's desk.
"Do you read Marvels?" Tony asked. Rogers's eyes widened a little. This clearly wasn't the conversation opener he'd been expecting.
"I look at it at the newsstand sometimes."
"Right." Tony picked up one of the back issues from a stack on his desk and held it out. The cover painting showed Tony in a safari jacket and pith helmet, machete in one hand, slicing his way through the undergrowth of a lush emerald-green jungle with a Mayan pyramid looming in the background." Do you think you could paint something like this?"
"I could try." Rogers frowned slightly. "I haven't had many painting classes yet."
'What about the interior illustrations?" Tony flipped the magazine open to one of the black-and-white drawings inside.
Rogers's frown smoothed out. "Those I can do, sure."
"Good." Tony let the magazine drop to the desk. "Because the bird who used to do all these has up and quit on us, and the editor needs a replacement in time for the next issue."
"And you want me?" Rogers's voice cracked a little on the last word. "I'm just a second-year student."
"I'm not asking you to paint the Sistine Chapel, kid." Tony tapped the garish cover with his fingers. "This is hack work, pure and simple. But I still want somebody competent to do it -- somebody who understands what makes this sort of thing fun. That Midnight Racer drawing you did? That looked like fun."
Rogers still looked as if he'd been smacked upside the head with a crowbar, but managed to pull himself together enough to get to the real point.
"How much would it pay?"
"The magazine's standard rate," Tony said, "is ninety-five dollars for a cover painting and fifteen for each interior illustration. But if you want to negotiate that, I'll back you."
"Uhm." Rogers swallowed audibly. "That's... actually fine. I mean... thank you."
"Don't thank me yet. I'm just giving you a chance, that's all." Tony opened a desk drawer and pulled out a copy of Pepper's latest manuscript, neatly typed and tucked into a manila binder. The story -- Iron Man escorting a British cash-and-carry convoy across the Atlantic -- wasn't the most exciting one Marvels had ever done, but Pepper had put a fine patriotic spin on it, and managed to make an aborted encounter with a lone U-boat read like a life-or-death battle. "I've set up a meeting with the editor for Friday at five-thirty. Think you can have some sample drawings by then?"
Rogers' eyes were nervous, but his hand was steady as he reached across the desk to take the binder from Tony.
"Yeah," he said, "I think I can do that."
Tony suspected that Rogers must've lurked outside the conference room with a stopwatch, because he came in about three seconds after the wall clock showed five-thirty. He wore a suit, years out of style and clearly purchased when Rogers was several inches shorter, but the tie was brand new.
"That's your artistic janitor?" Jonah grumbled from his seat by the window. "He looks like he'll fall over if you look at him funny."
"We're not hiring him to lift weights," Tony pointed out. "Rogers, this is J. Jonah Jameson, editor-in-chief of Marvels magazine. Jonah, this is Steve Rogers."
"A pleasure to meet y--" Rogers began, but Jonah cut him off with a low growl and a puff of cigar smoke.
"Don't bat your gums at me, kid. Let's get something straight. Stark here thinks you're the bee's knees and the elephant's eyebrows. He also thinks that just 'cause he's got more money than God, he gets to tell me who I hire. But he doesn't run Marvels, I do. That means I'm the man you've gottta impress, and for that I want to see you work, not hear you talk, understand?"
"Yes, sir." Surprisingly, given how twitchy he got around Tony, Rogers seemed entirely unimpressed by Jonah's bluster. He slapped his portfolio down on the table with a bit of flair, only slightly spoiled by the fact that the leather case was held together with knotted twine. Rogers undid the knots and laid out the contents of the case in front of Jonah. There were five pen and ink drawings and one full-color painting, all in the same bold style as the Midnight Racer drawing Tony had liked.
The painting showed Tony, armored but without his helmet, standing on the deck of a U-boat, firing machine-gun bursts from the armor's gauntlets at a pair of savage-faced German sailors who were climbing out of the hatch. A wave broke behind him, spraying water and foam across the top of the page. The scene didn't appear anywhere in the story, but Tony thought it would make a good cover, nicely dramatic. He like the way the spray from the wave fanned out behind him like the Racer's cape.
"Hm." Jonah examined the painting for a couple of minutes, then put it aside and leafed through the drawings. His cigar drooped a little at the corner of his mouth, as if he'd forgotten it was there. "Not bad."
"Not bad?" Tony picked up one of the drawings by the corner and waved it in front of Jonah's face. "Admit it, I'm right. This is exactly what we need."
"Speak for yourself, Stark." Jonah glared at him. "You just like him 'cause he made you look like Clark Gable."
"Nonsense." Tony preened a little. "He made me look like me. I just happen to be an exceptionally handsome devil, that's all."
"Exceptionally humble, too." Jonah blew another cloud of smoke and redirected his glare from Tony to Rogers. "Like I said, kid, not bad. Can you do this every month on a deadline?"
Rogers didn't hesitate. "No problem."
"Well." Jonah looked deeply displeased with Rogers, Tony, and the universe in general, but since that was his normal expression, Tony didn't put much stock in it. "I suppose you'll do. Only on a month-to-month basis, mind you. You ever miss a deadline or hand in shoddy work, and you can go right back to mopping Stark's floors, you dig me?"
"Good." Jonah puffed out another cloud of smoke. "Now, the going rate is eighty-five dollars per cover and--"
"Ninety-five, sir," Rogers said.
The stunned look on Jonah's face was priceless.
"What?" he choked out.
Rogers looked a little startled at his own boldness, but stood his ground. "Mr. Stark said the going rate for a cover is ninety-five."
"Oh, for crying out loud!" Jonah pulled the cigar from his mouth and jabbed the air in front of Tony's face. Judging from his expression, he was barely restraining himself from trying to stuff the thing down Tony's throat. "Who runs this magazine, Stark?"
"Who sells this magazine, Jameson?" Tony shot back. "Pay the fellow what you paid Silber, it's only fair."
"Don't know where you got the notion that the publishing business was fair," Jonah growled. "But it'll be worth the extra ten bucks a month just to get you out of my hair. All right, kid, ninety-five it is. Now if you two will excuse me, some of us have honest work to do." He ground out his cigar stub in the ashtray in the middle of the table, and stood to collect his coat and hat.
"Huh," Tony muttered after the door slammed shut behind Jonah, "that went well."
"I think he likes me," Rogers said. One corner of his mouth was twitching slightly, as if he was trying hard not to grin.
"Oh, absolutely." Tony didn't bother to hide his own grin. "He didn't even haggle. With Jonah, that's love."
"I'll endeavor to be worthy of his affection," Rogers said solemnly. Tony laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.
"That's my boy. Come on, this calls for a celebration. I'll buy you around."
"Um..." Rogers went from amused and confident to wide-eyed and nervous in an instant. "I kind of have to..." He trailed off uncertainly, clearly caught without a ready excuse to bow out.
"What?" Tony rolled his eyes. "Don't tell me you're a teetotaler or something."
"No, I just..." Rogers stared at the floor for a moment, then squared his shoulders and looked up. "Sure, okay. Let's go."
September 1941. Northern Transylvania.
The hike back to the campsite felt at least three times as long as the hike out, mainly because Cap insisted they stop and rest every time Tony showed the slightest sign of fatigue. That by itself was irritating enough, but Cap topped it off by hovering at Tony's side like an anxious nanny, rushing in to offer support whenever Tony stumbled or slipped. Which, given the terrain, happened a fair amount.
By the time they were halfway down, Tony was grinding his teeth in frustration and wondering if it would be some sort of treason to sock Captain America on his heroically chiseled jaw. He was not an invalid, dammit. He had crossed jungles and deserts on foot, climbed three supposedly unclimbable peaks in the Himalayas, reached both the North and South Poles.
"Look," he growled, jerking his arm out of the way as Cap attempted to help him over a rough patch of ground, "I'm not going to fall over dead on you in the next hour. And if I were, there's nothing you could do about it anyway, so stop with the mother-hen routine, all right?"
"No," Cap snapped, "it's not all right. The battery in your heart is running out of power, and you somehow neglected to mention it until it started to happen. How is that all right in any possible sense?"
"You're not fine! Do you have any idea what you look like? I've seen day-old corpses with better color."
"You're lousy at sweet-talk," Tony told him.
Cap actually smiled at that, but the smile vanished in an instant. "Someone's coming," he hissed, grabbed Tony's arm, and hauled him sideways off the path.
They were on a steep slope, and Tony had been having enough trouble keeping his footing on the path. Now, with loose dirt and leaves beneath his feet, he made it about three steps before falling flat on his ass. Cap went down next to him, a great deal more gracefully, and put a hand on Tony's shoulder when Tony tried to get up.
"We need to find cover," Cap whispered.
Tony still hadn't seen or heard any actual signs that anyone was coming, but he was willing to take Cap's word for it. Besides, the fall had knocked the wind out of him and sent his heart into palpitations again, and he honestly wasn't sure if he could get up if he tried. Just crawling through the dirt in Cap's wake proved exhausting, and he had to stifle a relieved sigh when the finally came to a stop in the shelter of a fallen tree trunk.
A few seconds ticked by in silence, followed by muffled voices in the distance. A minute later, a group of about ten men in German uniforms appeared on the path downhill from Cap and Tony's hiding place. They appeared to be patrolling, alert but not on guard, and in no particular hurry. The man in front waved the others to a stop at a bend in the path, and raised a pair of binoculars to examine the terrain below.
Tony ducked down, fighting the urge to gag. The smell of damp earth and rotting leaves was so thick he could practically taste it, and it wasn't helping his breathing any. If the Germans spotted them, he would be worse than useless, unable to run or fight. Cap had been right, dammit. Tony should've said something about his heart earlier, and he hadn't, and now Cap could easily get killed trying to protect them both.
He turned his head and saw that Cap had taken the shield from his back and now had it on the ground next to him. He was fingering the edge with one hand, the way another man might finger the hilt of a knife of the grip of a gun before a fight. Was he really thinking of taking on the entire patrol with that thing? The newsreels back home had shown him throwing it at targets with uncanny accuracy, but that was a circus trick, wasn't it? Not something to take into battle against a squad of well-armed Nazis.
The soldier with the binoculars yelled something to the other men. Tony tensed, but apparently the shout was an order for the patrol to move on. The Germans took off at a brisk pace, disappearing around a rocky outcrop a few seconds later. Tony rolled over onto his back in the dirt, and let out an unsteady breath.
"Damn," he muttered. "That was close."
"We need to get back to the campsite," Cap said grimly. Tony lifted his head in alarm.
"You think they found it?"
Cap shook his head. "They weren't acting like it. But if there's one patrol out there, they might be others. We need to be as quick as possible. Can you do this?"
Tony gritted his teeth. "Lead the way."
The pace Cap set was probably about half as fast as it needed to be, but to Tony it still felt grueling. By the time they reached the campsite, it was all he could do to take the few final steps before his legs buckled. He sat down hard on the ground, and leaned forward to rest his head against his knees. Cap crouched next to him, radiating an air of reproachful concern that made Tony want to burrow into the ground and hide.
"So," Cap said, "you need a generator?"
"And cables." Tony lifted his head and gave Cap a shaky smile. "Somehow, I doubt you have either of those hidden in that pack of yours."
"No." Cap looked genuinely regretful, as if he considered it some sort of personal failure on his part not to bring along a generator when parachuting into enemy territory. "So I guess I'll just have to go find some."
Tony turned his head from side to side, taking in the surrounding rocks, the sparse grass, the spruce trees dotting the hillsides as far as the eye could see. "Generators don't grow on trees, you know."
"More's the pity," Cap sighed. "But if my map is right, there are a few villages down in the foothills. Somebody there might have one."
Tony sputtered out a laugh that promptly died when the earnest expression on Cap's face didn't change.
"Wait. You're joking, right? You're going to ask the locals? They'll have the Krauts down on you before you can finish saying 'Hello, I'm an American spy.'"
"I wouldn't be so sure." Cap frowned. "This entire area was Romanian just over a year ago. Now it's Hungarian and not very happy about it, according to our intel. A lot of the people around here don't like the Germans at all."
"Doesn't mean they like us, either," Tony pointed out.
Cap shrugged. "I know there's a risk, but it's the only option we've got. Unless you want to just sit here and wait to die."
Well, when he put it that way. Tony pushed his hair back from his face and took a deep breath.
"Then I should be the one to go."
"No," Cap said flatly.
It was exactly what Tony had expected him to say, but he couldn't let it stand.
"Look, this isn't your problem. You have a mission here, you can't jeopardize it just because I've literally dropped out of the sky on you. Just do your job and let me take care of myself."
He could see even as he spoke that it would do no good. Cap had that all-too-familiar mulish look in his eyes, the one that said "I've planted my flag here and I'm not moving." Tony might as well have been making his argument in ancient Sumerian.
"You're with me," Cap said. "That means your problem is my problem. As for the mission, you seem to be an expert on this Scholomance business, while I know exactly nothing. I'm thinking you'll more than pull your weight if I can keep you alive long enough to get you into that castle. So if you think I'm going to let you go off by yourself when you look as if you're going to keel over at any moment, you can think again."
"I'm not going to--" This was pointless. Tony wrestled his temper into submission and decided to try a compromise. "How about we go together, then?"
Cap hesitated, looking as if he wanted to argue some more, then nodded.
"All right," he said. "Together."
They would not be coming back to the campsite once they left it. Assuming they got into the Scholomance that night and then got out again, they'd be making their way out of the mountains and along one of the local rivers to Cap's extraction point. They scattered dirt over the ashes of the campfire, gathered what was left of their supplies, and finalized their departure by wrapping the useless remains of the Iron Man armor in Cap's parachute and dumping the bundle into the same river Cap had pulled Tony from the night before. Tony felt a bit of a pang, watching the pieces sink into the muddy water, but carrying them wasn't an option, and they couldn't risk the Germans getting their hands on the armor.
Jarvis was going to be furious, though. They'd just gotten the new jet boots design installed the week before.
Then again, Jarvis was going to have a lot more reason to be furious if he ever found out how closely Tony was cutting it with the charge in his heart. Tony was doing his best to keep it from Cap, but he could feel the repulsor pump losing power, much faster than it should have. It was sensitive to strong magnetic fields; the lightning must've done more damage than he'd first thought.
By the time they reached the first of the villages marked on Cap's map, Tony's legs felt shaky and the tight feeling in his chest was back. He felt as if he'd been running, even though they'd only been walking downhill at an easy pace. Cap wasn't saying anything, but the sideways looks he kept throwing in Tony's direction conveyed his worry loud and clear.
The first village was a cluster of tiny wooden huts, clearly too small and isolated to be of any use to them. The second one looked slightly more promising, with larger houses and a decent-sized road running through it. Apparently, the place was on a bus route; there was a stop marked in the central square, in front of a small white church. A few of the houses around the square had the air of being abandoned in a hurry, doors and garden gates left open to swing in the breeze. A number of pigeons and a single sorry-looking dog wandered the street in search of food. They were the only living creatures in sight, but Tony had a strong sense of being watched, of furtive movement behind the drawn curtains and closed shutters of the houses that were still inhabited.
"I don't think we're very welcome here," Tony muttered.
"I don't think anyone is welcome here," Cap said. "Folks in places like this are always wary of strangers, and if the Nazis have been here, then they have actual cause to be wary. Let's hope at least a few of them will talk to us."
The church was the tallest structure in the place. The second tallest was a two-story building directly across from the bus stop, with pale yellow walls and a hand-lettered sign in the window that Tony thought might be advertising rooms for rent. He didn't especially care about the rooms, but he did care about the small shed next to the building, with a battered green Praga truck parked in front.
"Hey." He smacked Cap's shoulder to get his attention. "You think that thing has a working battery?"
There was a small brass bell mounted next to the door. Their persistent ringing went unanswered for a minute or two, which Tony thought was rather unenterprising for a place that aspired to have customers. Finally the door cracked open and a man with white-streaked hair and gnarled hands peered out at them with narrow, suspicious eyes.
"Bunâ ziua!" Tony said cheerfully, exhausting his entire knowledge of Romanian in one breath. "Uhm, I don't suppose you speak English? Parlez-vous français ? Hablas español? No." He glanced over at Cap. "That's all I've got, unless you think I should try him with Mandarin or Swahili."
"Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" Cap asked with obvious reluctance and an atrocious accent.
The man stared at them for a few seconds longer, then shouted something over his shoulder into the depths of the house. Someone shouted back, some pottery clanged, and a woman in a faded blue dress came up to the door, wiping her hands on her apron. She looked a few years younger than the man, with less gray in her hair, but the family resemblance was obvious. Her brother spoke to her. She frowned, said something back, and turned to address Cap. Her German sounded little better than his, and there was a great deal of clumsy stammering back and forth before Cap turned to Tony.
"She says -- I think -- that the truck doesn't start. They tried to get a charge for the battery from the bus that comes that comes through here once a week, but it didn't work. They're waiting for a man to come from Bistrita to look at it, but he won't make it until Friday."
"Hm." Tony eyed the car. "If they tried to get a charge, does it mean they have battery cables?"
More stammering ensued on both sides, with the woman translating between Cap and her brother.
"Yes," Cap answered finally, "but if the engine doesn't start--"
"Ask them if I can take a look at it," Tony said grimly.
If the battery was dead, or the engine needed replacement parts, he was well and truly screwed. But he'd seen enough engines in his life to know that most of the time, the problem was something minor. He mentally crossed his fingers, popped the hood, and checked the spark plugs.
Sure enough, they were encrusted with sooty black goop, thick enough to fill the spark gaps. Tony scraped at one of the plugs with a fingernail and watched a few flakes come off.
"Ask if they have any vodka," he said, and nearly burst out laughing at the instantly disapproving look on Cap's face. "Not for me. To clean this stuff." Though now that he mentioned it, a shot or two might be a good idea, given what he was about to try to do to himself.
The stuff that the man of the house eventually handed over came in an unlabeled bottle and smelled more like turpentine than like anything Tony would actually care to drink, but it proved perfect for dissolving the black gunk on the spark plugs. When Tony tried the ignition again, the engine sputtered a few times before finally coughing to reluctant life.
"Not bad." Cap leaned down to look at him through the driver's side window. "What else do you need?"
"Those jumper cables," Tony said, "and some privacy."
They ended up driving the truck into the shed, after clearing out the gardening tools inside and evicting a brown tabby cat that spit and hissed at them on its way out. The old man and his sister watched them from a spot near the door, wearing identical stony expressions. Tony wondered what, exactly, they were thinking about the two dirty, unshaven foreigners staggering out of the mountains to fix their car for some nefarious secret purpose. They had to have seen the shield strapped to Cap's back, but Tony had no idea what it might mean to them. He doubted that American propaganda reels made it to rural Transylvania. Well, whatever they thought, they weren't raising an alarm or gathering the rest of the village into a pitchfork-bearing mob, so Tony decided they'd be all right.
Which left him with nothing to worry about except the failing repulsor pump in his chest, which he was about to try to charge off a car battery.
This wasn't going to be like the slow, controlled charges Jarvis performed in the lab. Tony had done an emergency charge once before, in Egypt, off a portable generator Rhodey had scrounged from God-knew-where in the middle of the desert. It had not been a pleasant experience.
Tony glanced at Cap, who was leaning against the side of the truck with that worried expression he'd worn ever since he found about Tony's heart. Tony's instinct was to ask the man to leave. The thought of exposing this one last weakness stung, yet another blow to his pride in a day that seemed to be an endless string of them. But experience told him that it would be better to have another person there to help, and to monitor the procedure in case something went wrong. And at this point, it seemed unlikely that Cap's opinion of him could get any lower. Might as well get it all out in the open.
He turned off the engine, opened the Praga's hood and attached the jumper cables to the battery, then lowered himself down to sit on the floor. With the truck between him and the open doors, he had as much privacy as he was likely to get.
"Wanna give me a hand here?" he asked.
"Of course." Cap crouched down next to him. "What can I do?"
"Hold these cables, to start with." Tony undid his shirt. "And remember, it's not as bad as it looks." He ran one fingernail under the edge of the panel until the hidden catch sprang open.
Cap's face went a little pale. "It... looks pretty bad."
"Actually, that's not what I meant." Tony looked down. The pump did look bad, like some sort of robot spider nesting in his chest, claws sunk into nerves and blood vessels. Cap was the first person besides Rhodey and Jarvis to see it exposed like that, and Rhodey and Jarvis were too long-used to it to react.
"Hey." Tony tried to make his voice sound light and carefree. "It's not pretty, but it gets the job done. Now you see these two contacts here?"
"The positive cable goes on this one. The negative goes on this one. Once you've got them clamped on, go turn on the engine, and then remember it's not as bad as it looks. A full charge will take three to five minutes."
Cap's expression was tight and unhappy, but he attached the cables us instructed and climbed into the truck.
"Here goes," he called out, and turned the ignition.
It felt like being hit in the chest with a pile driver. The jolt knocked him backwards, left him sprawled on the floor and gasping for air. Tony's mouth tasted like metal, his ears rang, his vision faded in and out. For a few seconds, his spine arched and his limbs spasmed, making him flop about like a fish on land. Then all his muscles seemed to lock up and he couldn't move at all. A voice called his name, sending him into a brief bout of frantic confusion -- what was Steve doing there, how did he find out, Steve shouldn't have to see this -- before the haze in his eyes cleared enough to give him a glimpse of Cap bending over him, wide-eyed. It's okay, Tony tried to tell him, but his throat closed up and the words wouldn't come out. Then the haze came back again, and Cap's face blurred and faded to gray along with everything else.
June 1940, New York City
"Five-ball, left side pocket," Steve said, and leaned over to line up his shot. Tony took a sip of his beer and said nothing. It wasn't the shot he would've chosen, and a couple of months earlier he might've offered advice. But Steve was beating him at least one game out of three now, and Tony wasn't about to help him make it two out of three. Not without working for it, at any rate.
The Friday night pool game had become a regular custom with them, interrupted only a couple of times by Tony's Iron Man missions. It had begun sometime in April, when Steve had hesitantly suggested that his Marvels's illustrations would be even better if Tony would sit for a few drawings. For reference, he said. This was more effort than Silber had ever put in, so Tony was all in favor. The exact details of how "sit for some drawings" turned into "teach Steve to play pool" were a little sketchy in Tony's mind, but it was a hell of a lot more fun than any of the usual nonsense he might get up to on a Friday night, so he didn't think too hard about it.
Besides, he'd discovered that if he got the cook to strategically arrange some trays of finger food around the game room, Steve would absently nibble on it while they played. This was an important achievement, because Steve was amazingly touchy about anything he perceived as a "handout." Tony had eaten in more cheap Midtown diners in the past six months than he had in his entire life before then, all in the name of allowing Steve to pay his share of the bill. It was kind of ridiculous, especially since Tony was fairly sure that Steve himself was giving most of his money away to his friends on the Lower East Side. Six months since he'd started at Marvels, Steve was slowly losing the made-of-toothpicks look he'd had when Tony first met him, but he was still much too skinny and prone to running out of breath at odd moments.
Not that it was spoiling his aim any. The five ball dropped into its designated pocket as neatly as if it'd been pulled in on a string, and the cue ball stopped just short of following it. A very pretty shot. Too bad it left no decent angle for a follow-up.
Steve grimaced when he realized his mistake, and walked around the table a couple of times before calling and completely failing to make his next shot. "One of these days," he said ruefully, "I'm going to learn to aim and think at the same time."
"Not if you go on like this, you won't." Tony smirked as he chalked his cue. "Here, let me show you how it's done. Again."
He turned up the volume on the mantelpiece radio, and cleared the table to the jaunty accompaniment of the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra. It felt odd to be home again, safe and warm and relaxed. Two days ago, he'd been in the Baltic with Jarvis and Rhodey and Pepper, using the armor and two of Stark Industries' airships to evacuate refugees out of Latvia into Sweden. It had been a cold, grim business. Thousands of frightened, exhausted people had needed to be moved in a ridiculously short amount of time, with both the Russians and the Germans breathing down their necks. And now there was swing music and good beer and nothing to worry about except the next pool game. Sometimes Tony felt as if half his life was some bizarre hallucination. He just couldn't figure which half.
"Tony?" Steve waved one hand in front of Tony's face. "You still in there?"
"Huh? Yeah, sorry." Tony blinked and shook his head. "Got distracted there for a moment. You want to try one more game?"
Steve glanced at the clock above the fireplace. "One more," he said. "And then you're going to sit still for an hour and let me sketch, all right?"
Tony raised one hand as if taking an oath. "I promise."
It turned out to be a remarkably slow game, mainly because Steve, apparently determined not to be beaten twice in a row, lingered over every shot as if the fate of the free world depended on it. The Jimmy Dorsey concert segued into Easy Aces, then into a news broadcast. It was mostly background noise to Tony, so it took him a minute or so to realize that Steve's sudden bout of motionless silence had nothing to do with the game.
"--rallied at the Hollywood Bowl last night," the announcer was saying, "at an event the organizers described as a 'Peace and Preparedness Mass Meeting.' The most prominent speaker was aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, who argued strongly in favor of maintaining the Neutrality Acts. Speaking to a wildly enthusiastic crowd, Mr. Lindbergh stressed the impregnability of America's position outside the European conflict, and criticized the interventionists for--"
"Not a fan of Mr. Lindbergh?" Tony asked. Steve's eyes were narrow an angry, and his hands were white-knuckled around the pool cue.
"I used to be," he said in a voice that was as close to an angry growl as Steve ever got. "Back when he made that flight to Paris, I thought it was the most amazing thing anyone had ever done. One of the last things my father and I did together before he died was go to the parade on Broadway when Lindbergh came back to the States. I remember sitting on Pop's shoulders and yelling myself hoarse when the big float went by. I spent the next six months drawing airplanes when I should've been doing homework, and thinking I was going to be a pilot. He was my hero. And now he's…" Steve trailed off, as if unsure how to finish that sentence.
"Just an ordinary man?" Tony prompted gently.
"No." Steve shook his head. "I mean, yes, of course he is, but that's not what's bothering me. There's plenty of ordinary men out there who understand that we can't just sit here in a safe little bubble while the rest of the world burns. And even if we could, it wouldn't be right."
"And there's plenty more," Tony said, "who think that a war on the other side of the ocean is not our problem."
"I know some people do." Steve sounded as if it pained him to admit it. "I've heard some fellas at school talking. The thing is, I don't think the war truly feels real to them. They've never seen Europe except in pictures, they don't know anyone there, so they don't see why they should care. I think they're absolutely wrong, but I can see why they think the way they do. But Lindbergh's lived in England and in France. It's his neighbors being bombed out there, and he thinks we should just leave them to it. I don't understand that at all."
"See?" Tony clapped him on the shoulder. "That's the difference between you and I. I'm a selfish bastard myself, so I can understand why other people would be. You think it's a mystery."
"Don't say that." Steve frowned at him. "About yourself, I mean. I read Pepper's stories before I illustrate them, remember? I know what you're doing out there. You're not selfish."
"Sure I am." Tony wasn't sure why he was arguing the point, exactly. It wasn't as if he wanted Steve to think less of him. It was just that it seemed important to be honest, somehow. "I've had a few run-ins with the Nazis -- not of my own initiative, mind you, they came after me. I've got cause to wish for a world without them in it. I could dress it all up in pretty ideals like you do, but really? I'm just holding a grudge."
"You sell yourself short," Steve said. "Whatever your reasons, you're risking your life to help people. That's more than most men are doing these days. More than I'm doing, that's for sure."
"Hey." Tony spread his arms and shrugged. "We can't all be knights in shiny flying armor. They also serve who only sit and draw. Now, are we going to finish the game, or what?"
"Sure," Steve muttered, and went to take his next shot. But he was obviously distracted, and none of Tony's efforts were enough to get him to smile again that evening.
"Why did you enlist, back in the last war?"
Jarvis put down the screwdriver he'd been holding, and gave Tony a narrow-eyed look across the worktable where the two of them were overhauling the hydraulics in the armor's torso. "What brought that on?"
"Just wondering." Tony made a show of adjusting his safety goggles, feeling suddenly self-conscious. "You never say much about it."
"Yes, well." Jarvis frowned. "Not my favorite topic of conversation. But as a matter of fact, I didn't enlist."
"You were drafted?" All these years, and Tony never knew that. "I thought you and Dad both volunteered."
"Your father did." Jarvis picked up the screwdriver again, and went back to poking around in the armor's left elbow. "He signed up the day Wilson declared war. Me, I would've just as soon stayed at home."
"From what I've heard, I can't say I blame you." Tony tried to focus on the dismantled chest piece in front of him but found that for once, the armor wasn't holding his attention. "Do you think it made a difference?"
"To anything." Tony spread his hands. "How you fought. What you thought about the whole mess. What the other fellows in your unit thought about you."
"Honestly?" Jarvis snorted. "Maybe it made a difference to how much I cursed the universe during those first couple of weeks in basic training. After that, I had bigger things to worry about and so did everyone else. Why the sudden interest in ancient history, Anthony?"
"I'm not sure." Tony shrugged. "I suppose I have war on my mind these days."
"You and everyone else." Jarvis suddenly looked suspicious. "You're not thinking of enlisting, are you?"
"Me?" Tony let out a startled laugh. "No, I'm doing my bit right here." He waved his hand toward the armor. "I know what I'm useful for, and being a grunt in the trenches isn't it. Only... I was talking to Steve the other day."
"Is he thinking of enlisting?"
"Don't be ridiculous, have you seen him? It's just, he seems to have some idealized notions about me."
"And you're surprised?" Jarvis rolled his eyes. "The kid makes his living drawing pictures of your heroic exploits. Of course he's going to think you shit gold."
"I don't notice you or Rhodey or Pepper thinking that," Tony said.
"Yes, well." Jarvis smirked at him. "We've known you longer."
"So you think if I wait long enough, he'll get over it?"
"I expect so. Why, worried you'll disappoint him?"
"Maybe a little," Tony admitted. "Though honestly, sometimes I worry the universe will disappoint him. It's not just me he has idealized notions about."
"Does he?" Jarvis scratched at his mustache with a distracted air. "I don't know the chap as well as you do, of course. But didn't you once say he's been on his own for the past six or seven years?"
"Something like that." Tony nodded. "Since he was eighteen or so."
"Hell, Anthony." Jarvis scowled at him. "Even you must remember what it was like six or seven years ago for most people who weren't you. If your Steve lived through that on his own, I'd say any idealism he still has is here to stay. At the very least, it'll take more than you to knock it out of him."
"Right." Tony sighed. "So what you're saying is, I shouldn't worry."
"Actually..." Jarvis picked up a wrench and slapped it into Tony's hand. "What I'm saying is, you should stop blathering and get back to work, because I'm not doing all these repairs by myself."
September 1941, Northern Transylvania
Tony didn't think he blacked out, exactly, he just sort of... lost track of where and when he was. When he found himself again, he was no longer lying down. He was half-sitting, propped against something broad and solid that smelled of sweat and dirt and leather. Cap, his sluggish brain supplied. He was on the floor in a shed in a village in the Carpathian foothills, and he was being held just a little too tightly against Captain America's chest. And it was dark -- no, wait, his eyes were closed. Tony blinked them open and found himself looking at the Praga's rusty grill, just about level with his face. The truck's hood was still open, and the cables were still dangling from the engine, but they weren't attached to Tony's chest anymore.
"How long?" Tony said, or rather, tried to say. There was something in his mouth. He spit it out, stared at it where it landed on the floor. A strip of leather, maybe three inches long, with some holes in it. It took an unreasonably long time for Tony to identify it as something that must've been torn from one of the many straps on Cap's backpack.
"Sorry," Cap said from behind him, his breath warm against Tony's left ear. "I was afraid you'd bite your tongue off. You were..." He trailed off into silence for what felt like a long time. "I thought you were going to die."
"I told you it's not as bad as it looks." Tony took a deep breath. He felt as if he'd been pounded from head to toe with a hammer, but his heartbeat was strong and steady. "How long did you leave the cables in place?"
"Just over four minutes," Cap said.
Good enough. The repulsor had to be at or near full charge. Tony considered moving, but decided he was comfortable enough where he was. Very comfortable, actually. Now that the worst part was over with, he had a little space to properly appreciate the benefits of Captain America's manly arms. They were very manly arms indeed, with an impression of strength all out of proportion to their size -- which, given their size, was really saying something. And the shoulder that was currently serving as Tony's pillow wasn't half bad either...
Then again, maybe it was better to move after all. Nothing good was likely to come from all this contemplation of Captain America's anatomy, and even if it was, Tony was in no condition to do anything about it. Standing up didn't seem like such a great idea just yet, so he rolled himself sideways a little. Cap's arms tightened around him for a moment, then let go. Tony slid to the floor and sat up with his back against the wall. He tried to do up his shirt, but found his hands were too unsteady.
"Here, I'll get that." Cap squatted in front of him to do up the buttons. "Are you sure you're all right now?"
"Yeah." Tony licked his lips. "At least my heart is fine now. The rest of me is going to need a few minutes to catch up."
Cap didn't look especially comforted by this. "Was the charge enough? How long will it last now?"
"At least four weeks," Tony said. "Six if I don't exert myself. Which, admittedly, isn't very likely."
"Four weeks." Cap shook his head. "You're crazy, you know that?"
"Hey!" Tony suddenly felt defensive. "It's not as if I planned to get hit by lightning and crash in the middle of nowhere."
"I don't just mean that," Cap said. "I mean everything you do. All those treks into jungles and deserts, the missions as Iron Man -- when a day's delay is all it would take to kill you."
Tony shrugged. "I always leave a few days' room for error. Besides, I have a metal plate over my heart. You've only got flesh and bone over yours. Who's to say which one of us is safer?"
"I think I'll take my chances the way I am," Cap said.
"So will I."
"I suppose that's your lookout." Cap was buttoning the top button on Tony's shirt now, and the brush of his fingers against Tony's collarbone was remarkably distracting. Tony closed his eyes and shivered a little.
"Are you cold? Here." Cap took off his jacket. "Last thing we need is you coming down with something after we've gone through all this trouble to keep you alive."
Tony wasn't cold, but he wasn't about to explain that, either. He just let Cap drape the jacket around him, then leaned back against the wall again.
"I'll be okay," he said. "Just let me sit here for a bit."
"Okay." Cap rose to his feet and went to turn off the engine in the truck. "Will you be all right by yourself? I want to go talk to Andrei and Oana some more."
"Andrei and Oana?" It took Tony a moment to remember the elderly brother and sister whose shed they had commandeered. "You're on a first name basis with them already?"
"They're helping us," Cap said. "The least we can do is learn their names. Anyway, they're the only locals we've managed to talk to. I want to see if they know anything about this Scholomance business."
"Sure." Tony waved one hand toward the open door. "Go ahead. How much mischief can I get into just sitting here on the floor, anyway?"
"I'm starting to wonder," Cap said dryly, but he turned and walked out of the shed with just one last quick glance over his shoulder.
Tony stayed where he was for a couple of minutes, then scooted closer to the truck. The bottle of mystery liquor he'd used to clean the spark plugs was still there, on the floor next to the left front tire. Tony picked it up and took a swig. It tasted as foul as it smelled, and sent him into a long and painful coughing fit, but the warm burn in his throat was worth it. Getting drunk in enemy territory was a lousy idea, even without the prospect of Cap's disapproval to dissuade him, so he put the bottle back and returned to his spot by the wall. It felt more comfortable now, no doubt thanks to the booze. Tony leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and let himself drift.
The shed's floor was packed dirt, and sitting on it got chilly after a while. Tony climbed to his feet, worked his arms into the sleeves of Cap's jacket, and paced stiffly back and forth in front of the truck, rubbing his hands to get the blood going. The bottle of booze teased him with promises of warmth and threats of permanent nerve damage until he finally tipped it over and let the contents drain to the floor. This removed the temptation, but made the air in the shed smell like paint thinner, which wasn't much of an improvement.
He thought longingly of his pack of Lucky Strikes, lost in the river the night before. Maybe Cap had some smokes. The jacket had enough pockets on it to hide a tobacco factory. A quick pat-down produced a pack of chewing gum, a box of matches, a Pee Wee Reese baseball card, a piece of green sea glass, a small notebook, a pencil, and a pocket knife. There was probably more, but the sight of the pocket knife shocked Tony into stillness. It was a nice, medium-size penknife with an ivory handle and the initials S.R. inlaid in brass on one side. Tony remembered it perfectly well.
He'd given it to Steve on his birthday fifteen months before.
For a moment, all Tony could do was stand there and stare while his mind clicked through a series of increasingly unlikely scenarios of how Captain America might've ended up with Steve Rogers's pocket knife. Eventually, some semblance of rational thought kicked in, and he shifted his focus to the one item that might give him some useful information: the notebook. It looked perfectly ordinary, just small enough to fit into the jacket's largest pocket, with a plain cardboard cover slightly frayed at the corners. Tony found himself holding his breath as he opened it.
There was a photo pasted to the inside of the front cover. Himself and Steve in front of the big marble fireplace in Tony's dining room, raising their champagne flutes toward the camera. There was confetti in Steve's hair, and a tin foil top hat on Tony's head. Tony's arm was draped around Steve's shoulders, and Steve was leaning into him a little, relaxed and comfortable. They both looked a little tipsy.
Tony's hand shook a little as he flipped through the rest of the notebook. The pages were covered in drawings, mostly in pencil, a little looser and sketchier than Steve's usual style but still recognizably his. A tree branch in flower. A Curtiss Mohawk in flight. Some sort of river landscape, hastily sketched and unfinished. A hard-faced young woman in a fur hat, holding a rifle. And, interspersed randomly among the other drawings, about half a dozen studies of Tony's face, from different angles, always smiling.
He didn't notice Cap's return until the other man's shadow blocked his light.
"Hey, Tony, are you ready to--"
"Who are you?" Tony gritted his teeth to keep from shouting. His throat felt tight, and there was a dull ache in his chest that had nothing to do with batteries or repulsor pumps.
"Tony." It was hard to get a read on Cap's expression when he was standing with the light behind him, but his voice sounded stricken. "I--"
"Why do you have these?" Tony demanded. "I know they're not yours. And you said you didn't know Steve Rogers."
"I said I wasn't a relative," Cap corrected, but he sounded weak, as if he knew exactly what sort of cowardly cop-out that was. Tony didn't even dignify it with a response. He had more important things he needed to know.
"Look, all I'm asking is, what happened to him? Where is-- no, never mind that. I know he was sore at me the last time we talked, you don't have to tell me where he is if he doesn't want me to know. Just-- is he all right? Is he safe? Is he..." Tony trailed off, painfully aware that he was babbling, that he probably sounded more pathetic that he ever had in his entire life. And Cap was just standing there, silent, shoulders hunched in a way that didn't look like Cap at all. Tony found himself wishing he hadn't poured the booze out earlier.
"He's dead, isn't he?" It was the only thing that made sense. "He's dead, and you knew him somehow, that's why you have his things." He held out the notebook and the knife, shoved them at Cap's chest when Cap made no move to take them. "Look, you can have them back, I'm not-- jus tell me what happened, all right? Please."
"Tony, I--" Cap turned abruptly, took a few unsteady steps toward the door, and stopped. He breathed a long, painful-sounding sigh and ducked his head for a moment, as if turning his back on Tony wasn't concealment enough. "I can't do this anymore," he said in a strangled voice.
Then he turned again, marched forward with a determined air, and cupped his hands against Tony's face. "I'm sorry, Tony," he said softly. "It's me. I'm Steve."
Tony was too startled to pull away, and anyhow, the wall was at his back. He just stood there like a dumbstruck idiot, staring up into Cap's blue eyes, trying to make sense of the words he was hearing.
"What..." he finally managed, and then couldn't go on from there because he had no idea what he was trying to ask.
"I'm Steve," Cap repeated, and it didn't make any more sense the second time around either.
"Is this your idea of a joke?" Anger cut through Tony's confusion. He pressed his hands against Cap's chest and pushed. It was like pushing against a mountain, no effect at all, until Cap lowered his hands and stepped back of his own volition. "Because it's not funny."
"Not a joke." Cap certainly didn't look as if he was joking, or lying. He looked completely and utterly sincere. Then again, he'd looked that way ever since Tony met him, and he'd been lying the whole time. "I know it seems impossible."
"Not seems," Tony hissed, "it is impossible. And if you think that I--"
"Look," Cap said quickly. "Just look, all right?" He rolled up his left sleeve and held out his bared forearm for Tony to see. There was a faint L-shaped scar running from just below his elbow down to his wrist. Cap went on in a breathless rush, as if he was afraid Tony wouldn't let him get the words out. "Remember this? I got it when I was twelve, falling off the fire escape into a dumpster. I told you the story back in October, at the Kit-Kat Diner on Lexington. It was the week before Halloween, and they had a miniature pumpkin on every table. Ours was carved to look like a cat. You used to drag me out for meals all the time, because you had this idea that I didn't eat enough. I went along because I liked spending time with you, but I always insisted on paying my share, so we always ended up in these cheap dives that you wouldn't have set foot in if you hadn't been with me. You'd always order a medium steak and a baked potato, because you said even the most incompetent cook can't mess that up too badly. I'd tell you stories about stupid stuff I did as a kid -- like falling off fire escapes -- and you'd tell me about the parts of your travels that never made it into Marvels. We used to--"
"Stop," Tony blurted out. Nothing was making sense. Steve might've told a friend about the diner, and the story behind the scar, but it was unlikely that he would've gone into this much detail, or that Cap would've memorized it all just to sell Tony some crazy lie. And the scar itself was obviously real, sized and shaped exactly the way Tony remembered. "You couldn't have faked that," he said in a dazed voice.
"No," Cap said softly. "I couldn't."
Tony knew that look, that regretful yet implacable voice. The strange sense of familiarity that had plagued him ever since he first woke to see Cap crouching by the fire was back in full force. Impossible to believe, impossible to deny.
"I don't understand."
"I know. It's crazy." Cap rolled down his sleeve and let his arms fall to his sides. "But do you believe me now?"
Tony nodded slowly. "I believe you," he said. "You bastard."
"I'm sorry," Cap said, and Tony took a swing at him.
It was wasted effort, of course. Cap didn't even duck properly, he just rocked sideways on his feet a bit, and Tony's fist ended up punching the air about an inch to the left of his face.
"Look," he said, "I can't blame you for being angry."
"Really?" Tony growled. "How generous of you. Now get the fuck out of my way."
Cap looked as if he had a whole lot more to say, but he stepped aside and made no move to interfere as Tony brushed past him. He did call out, "Wait!" when Tony reached the door, but Tony kept going and didn't look back.
January 1, 1941, New York City.
The problem with hosting a party, Tony thought, was that you couldn't just pick up and leave when it became tiresome.
It was just past two in the morning, which meant that the entire shindig had served its purpose two hours ago, when everyone had counted down to midnight and drunk their champagne toast amidst a flurry of laughter and confetti. A few of the more sensible people had left soon afterwards, but the rest were still around, becoming steadily more boring with every minute. It was a sad state of affairs, Tony reflected, when so few people in New York City could carry on an intelligent conversation while sloshed to the gills and up past midnight.
Also, if that piano player played "Auld Lang Syne" one more time, Tony was going to go over there and strangle him.
"Smile, Tony!" Pepper's voice jolted him out of his brooding just as the flash went off in his face. Tony swore and held one hand up in front of his face as he blinked the afterimage from his eyes.
"Dammit, Pepper, aren't you out of film yet?"
"I put in another roll ten minutes ago," Pepper said smugly. She'd bought the camera a few months before, supposedly because taking photographs during Iron Man's adventures would help her write up the stories with more accuracy later. Since then, Tony had never seen her without it. He was starting to suspect she just liked making bright lights go off into people's faces.
"If you keep that up," Tony told her, "my guests will think you work for one of the gossip rags."
"Nonsense, I'm much too well-dressed to be working for the gossip rags." Pepper did a quick little pirouette that made her skirt swirl about her ankles. She did look remarkably stylish in a beaded blue gown and matching bolero jacket, though Tony had overheard a few of his guest making catty remarks about off-the-rack fashions earlier in the evening. It was a good benchmark for deciding who was not going to be invited back next year.
"Come on." Pepper grabbed Tony's arm and drew him out of his nice warm corner by the fireplace. "I want a picture of you and Steve together."
That, at least, was a worthwhile goal. Tony let himself be drawn across the living room, through the ballroom and into the dining room. Steve was at the buffet table, talking to a fashionably dressed young woman who was somehow managing to juggle a clutch purse, a martini glass, and a small, grumpy-looking terrier in a diamond-studded collar. Steve, Tony noted with amusement, was visibly unsteady on his feet. He'd discovered the joys of proper French champagne earlier in the evening, and was now apparently discovering the joys of low alcohol tolerance. No wonder he always stuck to soda pop when he and Tony played pool.
"Tony, darling!" The woman with the terrier leaned forward and presented her cheek to be kissed. "I was just telling your charming friend here about that time Nicky and I ran into you in Havana, when that nightclub dancer with the three mobster brothers was trying to get you to--"
"Oh, Christ." Tony groaned. "Please, Nora, allow me one last tattered shred of a decent reputation. I'm sure Steve doesn't want to hear about my youthful indiscretions."
"Yes, I do!" Steve said quickly.
"Later," Nora promised him. "Where have you been, Tony? You're not hiding from your own guests again, are you? Nicky and I have barely seen you all night!"
"I'm certainly not hiding from you," Tony assured her. Aside from Steve and Pepper, Nora and her husband were the most tolerable people still left at the party. Jarvis had left shortly after midnight, and Rhodey, as usual, had skipped the festivities altogether in favor of a family gathering on Sugar Hill. "I just want to borrow Steve here for a moment so Pepper can take a picture."
"Just us?" Steve looked faintly alarmed at being singled out. Tony draped one arm across his shoulders and poured more champagne into his glass.
"Just us. Come on, smile for the camera!"
It was nearly four by the time the last of the guests staggered into their limos to be driven home. Tony made one last round of the rooms looking for stragglers, and found Pepper in the library with Steve, who was passed out on the sofa.
"I called a cab for myself," Pepper whispered when Tony came in. "You want to wake him? We can split the fare."
"Nah, he'll keep till morning." Tony followed Pepper to the front door and held her coat for her. "He'll get a better night's sleep on my couch than at that dump where he lives."
"You haven't seen where he lives," Pepper pointed out.
"I've seen the address Jonah sends his paychecks to," Tony said irritably. "Never understood why he doesn't move. I know for a fact he's making enough money now."
"Maybe he likes where he lives." Pepper gave him a sharp look from beneath the velvet brim of her cloche. "Or maybe it's none of your business."
"Hey," Tony protested, "it's not that I'm being nosy or anything. I just don't want to lose a perfectly good illustrator to some random mugger in an alley."
"Is that all?" Pepper did not look convinced. "Look, Tony, I know you mean well, but you can't just throw money at people until they rearrange their lives to suit you."
"Yes, you do." Pepper shoved her hands into her coat pockets and thrust her chin forward a little. Tony had known her long enough to not try to argue when she looked like that. "Rhodey and Jarvis and I, we all put up with it because it's just how you are and you don't mean anything by it. That's fine. But with Steve, you do mean something by it, so you need to be more careful, all right?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Tony said flatly.
"Sure you don't." Pepper looked as if she might've liked to say more, but the sound of a car horn just outside signaled the arrival of her taxi. She finished buttoning her coat and leaned forward to give Tony a quick kiss on the cheek. "I have to go. Happy new year, Tony."
"Happy new year." Tony held the door open for her, and waited until the cab pulled away before stepping back inside. The burst of wintry New York air cleared some of the champagne fumes from his head, but did nothing for his general post-party fatigue. Tony wandered back into the library, with a quick detour to fetch a blanket from one of the linen closets.
Steve stirred a little but didn't wake when Tony draped the blanket over him. There were a few flakes of confetti in his hair and on the back of his collar. His right arm dangled over the edge of the couch, and his wrist looked pale and bony where it stuck out from the dark jacket sleeve. It was the same stupid too-short suit Steve had worn to his interview with Jonah, the one he always wore when he needed to dress up. He could surely afford a new suit by now but that, Tony supposed, was another one of those things Pepper would classify as none of his business.
Pepper's parting words were cause for concern. Not so much because he agreed with them, but because she'd felt the need to say them at all. Tony had thought he'd been more discreet than that. He'd learned, over the years, to be discreet in his personal dealings with men. With women, the occasional indiscretion was harmless, maybe even helpful. As long as he showed up in the gossip pages every few weeks, photographed with a bombshell on his arm, no one bothered to wonder if Tony Stark might be a three-letter man. With men he'd learned to be circumspect. To gauge the likely reception before dropping a hint. To carefully vet the guest lists of certain private parties he attended. It wasn't a perfect system. There had been a few unpleasant scenes over the years, some rumors that had required careful quashing, and one extremely ugly blackmail attempt when Tony was nineteen and stupid. But he knew better now.
Or at least, he thought he did. Yet Pepper thought he needed a warning to be careful, and he hadn't even said a word to Steve yet. That in itself suggested that Pepper might have a point.
Tony leaned against the side of the sofa and looked down at Steve, who was now snoring sofly into the cushions. It was not, objectively speaking, a beautiful or romantic sight. The fact that Tony was so reluctant to turn away just went to show how much of a sentimental sap he was becoming. Of course, the one other time he'd turned into a sentimental sap over someone, it had been Gialetta Nefaria, but Tony was pretty sure that had been an anomaly. Whatever else Steve Rogers might do, he was not going to betray Tony to the Nazis.
The grandfather clock in the living room chimed the quarter hour. Steve kept on snoring. Tony went back to the living room, looked at the drooping party decorations and the collection of empty glasses on the furniture, and decided he could do with a few hours of snoring himself.
"Happy new year," he said to the silent room, and crept upstairs.
It was nearly noon by the time he came down again in pajamas and dressing gown, feeling as if he could've happily slept for another week. The party debris had been cleaned up, though a few stray bits of confetti still clung to the furniture and to the drooping branches of the Christmas tree in the living room. A tray of pastries and a pot of coffee sat on a small table in the breakfast alcove off the dining room. Tony was on his second cup when Steve staggered in mid-yawn.
"Good morning." Tony watched with amusement as Steve collapsed into a chair across from him. Steve's jacket and tie were missing, his trousers and shirt were badly wrinkled, and his hair looked like a badly made bird's nest. "You look as if you've had a night of wild debauchery. Which is rather sad, because I know for a fact that you haven't." He poured coffee into a clean mug and held it out. Steve stared at it with a befuddled expression, as if he couldn't quite remember what this strange white thing with a handle was for, before finally taking the mug from Tony's hands and drinking.
"Sorry," muttered after a few sips, "I guess I'm not used to champagne."
"Stick with me, and we'll change that," Tony told him.
"I'm not sure I want to change that." Steve pressed one hand against his temple and winced. "I didn't do anything especially stupid in front of all your guests last night, did I? I'm a little foggy on the details."
"Oh, no, you were great!" Tony tipped his chair back a little and gave Steve the most sincere and wide-eyed expression he could muster up. "When you climbed up on the piano and sang 'It's the same old shillelagh' at the top of your voice -- brilliant performance! I never knew you had it in you."
Only a few months before, Steve would've blushed and stammered at that. Now, he just gave Tony a cynical look as he snagged a croissant from the tray.
"See," he said, "I know you're making that up, because if I'd actually sung in public, you would still be recovering from the horror."
"Oh, come on, you can't be that bad."
"'Frustrated tomcat' is the comparison I get most often," Steve said wryly, "along with many heartfelt requests that I stick to the visual arts."
"Ouch." Tony grimaced. "Well, I suppose you can't be good at everything."
"I don't know," Steve said, "I hear you can come pretty close if you're Tony Stark."
"Flatterer," Tony muttered, and took another sip of coffee to hide the dopey grin he could feel spreading over his face. Apparently, it hadn't been just the drink going to his head the night before. He really was turning into a sap over Steve Rogers. Not that the idea was new, precisely, but having Pepper bring it out into the open, however obliquely, was making the thought loom large in Tony's mind.
And it was New Year's Day, wasn't it? People were supposed to start things on New Year's Day.
"I've made a resolution," Tony blurted out.
Steve looked a little startled, probably more by Tony's abrupt tone than by the words. "What is it?"
"I'm going to take more chances in life."
"More?" Steve raised his eyebrows. "You fight Nazis in a flying metal suit, Tony. How do you plan to top that?"
"Not those kind of chances," Tony said impatiently. "I mean in ordinary, everyday life. I'm going to try new things."
"Oh?" Steve looked curious. "Like what?"
"Like this." Tony stood up, leaned across the table, and kissed him.
It was not the most graceful way to try to kiss somebody. Tony planted one hand on the table for support, but he still felt awkward and off-balance, and it would be pretty damned embarrassing to topple over into the remains of their breakfast at a crucial moment. His back was starting to ache already, and the edge of the table pressed uncomfortably against his thighs. But Steve's mouth was soft and warm, and his hair tickled pleasantly against Tony's palm when he cupped it around the back of Steve's neck.
More importantly, Steve didn't seem to object to being kissed. He went perfectly still at first, but only for a second or two. Then he parted his lips and leaned in a little, and now he was kissing Tony back, with not much finesse but a great deal of enthusiasm. It was too early to judge, but Tony was ready to pronounce this the best decision he was going to make all year.
Then Steve broke the kiss with a violent backwards jerk of his head, and scrambled back from the table so fast, he nearly fell out of his chair. Tony grabbed the far edge of the table just in time to keep himself from falling, but it was a close call.
"Tony." Steve's voice was strained. "Don't do this."
All right, maybe not the year's best decision after all.
"I'm sorry," Tony said, "my mistake." He wondered just how bad a mistake it was. Steve looked sad rather than outraged, but Tony would've actually preferred outrage. Anger, in Tony's experience, could be soothed with proper application of apologetic charm (and, on occasion, money). There was no reliable remedy for the soft regret in Steve's eyes.
"It wasn't just your mistake," Steve said.
"No, I'm pretty sure it was. I was reading you wrong." Tony forced a smile. "It's not the end of the world or anything, I read people wrong all the time." He tried a quick little laugh, to show just how insignificant it all was, but Steve didn't laugh or smile back. Tony licked his lips and plowed ahead. "I tell you what, we can pretend this never happened, if you like. Or that it was a practical joke. My resolution for this year is to play lots more practical jokes on people. You just happened to get caught in a particularly tasteless one."
"I don't want to pretend anything," Steve said quietly. "And you weren't reading me wrong."
"I wasn't?" Now the whole conversation was making no sense at all. "Then why?.."
"Because this is a really bad idea." Steve turned and took a few halting steps away from the table. For a moment, Tony thought he was going to walk right out of the room, but then he stopped and turned to face Tony again. "For a number of reasons."
"Like what?" Tony circled around the table and walked over to where Steve was standing. "Look, I don't mean to push. If you're not interested, then you're not interested, end of story. But you don't sound as if you aren't interested, and unless I'm even more mistaken then I thought, you don't kiss as if you aren't interested, either. Are you just afraid we'll get found out?"
"You really don't understand, do you?" Steve shook his head. "It must be so easy in your world -- you like somebody, you just come right up and kiss them. You don't even think about how you're Tony Stark, millionaire genius superhero, and I'm... me."
Tony frowned. "You say that as if there's something wrong with being you."
"Of course there's nothing wrong with it." Steve tilted his head back a little and aimed a pleading look toward the ceiling, as if he expected the dining room chandelier to provide guidance to dealing with Tony. "But we're not exactly on an even footing, are we? This job I have -- heck, this life I have -- it's all because of you."
"Don't be ridiculous," Tony said. "All I did was put in a good word for you with Jonah."
"Your good word carries a lot of weight."
"With Jonah?" Tony snorted. "I could go down on my millionaire genius knees and beg, and he still wouldn't hire someone on my say-so if he thought their work wasn't up to par."
"Maybe not," Steve said, "but he will give someone an interview on your say-so. I never would've had a chance to even show him my work if it wasn't for you."
"So what?" Tony demanded. "I gave you an opportunity and you made it work. I never realized this was a problem for you."
"It wasn't." Steve sounded tired. "Not before."
"But it's a problem now? Why?"
Steve didn't seem to have an answer to that. He just stood there, arms folded defensively across his chest, looking confused and miserable. Tony had to resist the urge to grab him by the shoulders and shake him.
"You think I'd wreck it for you if things went sour between us? Tell Jonah to fire you or something? I would never do that."
"I know you wouldn't," Steve said. "Or at least, I know you wouldn't try to."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It... never mind." Steve suddenly had a lot of trouble meeting Tony's eyes. "Look, I'm sorry I brought it up at all, okay? It's really not... there's another reason why all this is a bad idea."
"There is? I hope it makes more sense than the first one."
"It does. Or at least, it's easier to explain. You see, I've made a resolution too." Steve turned and paced to the far end of the room and back, stopped, and met Tony's gaze with a look of pained resolve that clearly boded no good. His posture turned very straight and stiff, as if he was bracing himself for an attack. "I'm going to enlist," he said.
Laughter was not the right response. Tony knew that, and bit his lip to keep it back, but a small, helpless sputter escaped. Steve's eyes narrowed to angry slits.
"You think I'm joking?"
"Oh, I'm sure you're not." There were many things Tony might've expected Steve Rogers to joke about, but this one wasn't one of them. "But, come on. You in the Army? You've got Four-F written all over you in big neon letters."
Steve's face went' bright pink all the way to the tips of his ears. "I can fight!"
Tony rolled his eyes. "You get winded going up one flight of stairs."
"I'll get stronger. That's what basic training is for."
"You don't know what you're talking about." Tony tried to imagine Steve in uniform, Steve with a gun, Steve on an actual battlefield with blood spilling and bullets flying, and quickly banished the image from his mind. Now that he'd thought about it, the idea wasn't funny at all. It was horrifying. "Trust me, I've done enough business with the military to know how they do things. The nicest drill sergeant in the world would still chew you up and spit you out on your first day. And that's assuming you ever made it to basic training, which you won't."
"You don't know that," Steve insisted. He looked genuinely hurt now, and Tony wished there was a kinder way to speak truth to him, but there really wasn't. Besides, hearing it from Tony now was bound to hurt a whole lot less than being laughed out of the recruiting center later, with the whole world watching.
And the there was another, much more worrying possibility to consider -- that he wouldn't be laughed out. That somewhere out there, there was some recruiter idiot enough to let Steve in. America wasn't at war yet, but it would be soon, and the Army was scrambling to prepare for it. Recruiting posters were going up everywhere, and Roosevelt had instituted a peacetime draft only a few months before. Steve was about as suited to be a soldier as he was to be a ballet dancer, but what if the Army was too desperate to care?
No, Tony needed to stop the whole ridiculous undertaking before it ever got that far.
"Why do you even want to do this?" he demanded. "I thought you wanted to be an artist."
"I do." Steve's shoulders slumped a little. "I'm not saying I want to be a soldier for the rest of my life. It's just that there's a war on, and some things are more important than magazine illustrations, you know?"
"Okay." Tony nodded. "I understand. You want to do something patriotic. So why not do something you're actually good at? There's artists working for the recruiting bureaus, the Office of War Information, the Civil Service Commission. I know some people I can talk to, help you get your foot in the door..." He trailed off, because Steve was shaking his head and looking regretful again.
"You can't just keep handing me jobs, Tony. Even if I wanted to spend the war drawing propaganda posters, which I don't, it's not right. At some point, I have to strike out on my own."
"By getting yourself killed?" Tony didn't mean to shout, but it was hard to keep his voice under control when Steve was standing there looking so sincere and sounding so stupid. "This is crazy talk, Steve! You don't want to work for Marvels anymore, fine, we'll find something else for you to do. But I'm not going to let you go off and get you fool head blown off just so you can show me you're a grown-up!"
"Let me?" Steve said quietly.
"You know what I mean."
"Yes, I do." Steve sounded tired. "It's like I said earlier -- this life I have is all because of you. It's not surprising, really, that you think you can tell me what to do with it."
"That's not how--"
"I know you don't mean it that way, not on purpose. I know you're afraid for me. I'm afraid for you too, when you put on that armor and go up against submarines or anti-aircraft guns. But I don't tell you that you can't do that, because I know it's important to you, and because I know I have no right to tell you what to do."
"That's... completely different," Tony said weakly. Steve tilted his head a little and gave him a questioning look.
Tony desperately wanted to give a brilliant, instantly convincing answer to that question, but the words wouldn't come. It was different, of course, that should've been obvious to anyone, but Steve clearly didn't see it, and Tony had no idea how to make him see, how to get him to understand...
"Yeah, that's what I thought." Steve sounded disappointed, as if he'd actually been hoping for Tony to come up with the right answer. "I'm sorry, Tony. I think I should go."
He hesitated a little in the doorway, as if giving Tony one last chance to call him back. But Tony had no idea what to say, and a sinking feeling that anything he tried would only make things worse. Let him go, he thought. We can talk again when after he simmers down.
It was nearly two weeks before Tony realized just how big a mistake he'd made, and by then Steve Rogers had disappeared.
September 1941, Northern Transylvania
It felt very satisfying to storm out of the shed and away from the house, but by the time he reached the edge of the forest, Tony's temper had cooled enough to make him stop and think. What the hell was he doing, anyway? Marching off wasn't going to accomplish anything. After all, it wasn't as if he had anyplace he could actually go. And at the end of the day, he and Cap -- no, Steve, he and Steve, he had to start thinking of him that way now -- still had a mission. That was what mattered now.
The sensible thing to do would be to return to the shed, but the prospect of slinking back with his tail between his legs was just too humiliating. Tony stopped and waited. After a minute or so, he heard the faint rustle of footsteps on leaf-covered ground, followed by Steve's voice.
"You know, I can only apologize so many times before it doesn't mean anything anymore."
"I don't want an apology," Tony growled as he turned to face him. "I want an explanation. How did this happen?"
Captain America had first appeared in the newsreels less than three months after Steve disappeared. Even if it were possible to put on this much muscle in such a short time -- and Tony knew damn well it wasn't -- Cap was at least two inches taller than Steve, and broader in the shoulders even without the muscles. His hands were bigger, his jaw was a different shape. He couldn't possibly be the same man. Except that he was.
"They rejected me when I tried to enlist," Steve said. "Four-F, just as you told me would happen. I was furious, wouldn't accept it. You remember how I was, don't you?"
Tony wanted to say, No, I don't. He wanted to say I don't know you, and Stop talking as if you're him, but the words wouldn't come out. Steve seemed to take his silence as an invitation to continue.
"I went to three different recruiting centers, and they all said no. I was going to go and try my luck in Jersey, but there was this man at the third center. Not in uniform, but I could tell he was military. Said that if I really wanted to serve, he had a place for me. Experimental program, this scientist they'd smuggled out of Germany was running it. Emile Erskine."
"I know him," Tony said, startled. "We met at a party in Berlin years ago. Tall skinny bird, horn-rimmed glasses, always muttering to himself about molecular biology?"
"Yeah." Steve smiled wistfully. "That was Dr. Erskine, all right."
Tony frowned. "Was?"
Steve's smile vanished. "He's dead." He tucked his chin down a little and ran one hand through his hair, exactly the way he always had when nervous or upset. Now that Tony was looking, he could see the resemblance everywhere, in every small quirk and gesture. "Killed by a German assassin. He was running an experimental program for the army, trying to enhance the physical abilities of ordinary soldiers. I think the only reason I got dragged into it at all is that they wanted to try out the procedure on somebody useless before they risked a real soldier. But it worked." Steve shrugged, somehow managing to look proud and self-deprecating at the same time. "Here I am."
"Here you are," Tony echoed. He felt dazed, too numb with shock to muster up much of a reaction. The idea that this gorgeous, terrifyingly perfect man in front of him was actually Steve, his Steve, the skinny artist who loved the Midnight Racer and was no good at pool, was too enormous to wrap his mind around. "You're telling me Erskine did this to you?"
Steve nodded. "I can't tell you how. Even if I understood the science, which I don't, the whole thing is classified, top secret. Technically, I shouldn't have told you any of this. But it's true."
"I thought you were dead, you know." Tony's voice shook. "Oh, not at first. At first I thought you were just sore and avoiding me. Then you didn't meet your January deadline for Jonah, and I knew something was wrong. Rhodey and I checked the hospitals, morgues, police lock-ups, everywhere. I hired people. I knew you'd tried to enlist and failed. Once I thought--" He stopped and closed his eyes for a moment as a memory of something that hadn't made sense at the time suddenly clicked into place. "One of the men I hired found a record of a Private Steve Rogers at an army base in Virginia. But he was listed at six-foot-two and over two hundred pounds, so I knew it couldn't have been you. Except it was, wasn't it?"
"Yes." Steve circled around until he and Tony were facing each other. "Please believe me, Tony, it's not how I wanted to do this. But I'm a soldier now. I have orders. I took an oath to keep this secret."
"Right," Tony said. "And it's not as if you ever promised me anything. I get it."
"You must've had a barrel of laughs, watching me swoon because Captain America saved my life. Talking to me as if I was just some stranger you pulled out of a river because that's what Captain America does, right? 'Oh, Mr. Stark, I know who you are, I read your magazine.' You must think I'm the biggest idiot that ever lived."
"Of course I don't!" Steve actually had the nerve to look hurt, as if he wasn't the one who created the entire damned mess in the first place. "You had no way of knowing any of this. Why would I possibly think less of-- oh." Steve's eyes widened a little, and a look of startled comprehension dawned on his face. "That's it, isn't it? I should've known."
"Known what?" Tony demanded testily. Steve was looking at him as if Tony was an equation he'd just solved, and Tony didn't like it one bit.
"What's really bothering you." Steve stepped forward, and Tony had to resist the urge to take a matching step back. It wasn't that Steve was crowding him or anything; it was just that up close, it became sort of difficult to ignore the fact that Steve was a bit taller. Somehow, having Steve not-quite-loom over him like that was more disquieting than just having a handsome stranger do it. Tony stood up a little straighter, and took refuge in his best sneer.
"What's bothering me? I thought that was pretty obvious."
"It is," Steve said. "Just not in the way you mean. Look, I'm sorry I disappeared on you. I'm sorry I lied to you. But that's not the real problem, is it? You could forgive all those things, if I was still the Steve Rogers you remembered. Still a nobody. It's my being Captain America that you can't forgive."
"Oh, for Pete's sake!" Tony choked off a bitter laugh. "Not that again." This was Steve, all right, and apparently Tony had gone halfway around the world and nearly gotten himself drowned, only to pick up the same stupid argument they'd had months ago. "It was nonsense then, and it's nonsense now."
"No, it's true," Steve insisted. "You didn't mind being rescued by Cap, but you hate being rescued by Steve. You liked it better when you were rescuing me."
"I was a sophomore art student mopping floors to pay my tuition, and you gave me a job any established pro would've jumped at. You introduced me to people who could advance my career. You invited me to your house just so you could feed me. You gave me things."
"And you saw that as a rescue." The words tasted foul in Tony's mouth. "Stupid me, then. All that time I saw it as being friends."
Steve winced a little, but held Tony's gaze. "Of course we were friends. I never wanted to lose that, Tony. And I want your friendship back more than I want... just about anything. But that can't happen if you can't accept that this is who I am now. That we're equals."
And wasn't that the best joke of the day, Tony thought bitterly. Steve had saved him from a cold and unpleasant death, cared for him, fed him, risked his life and his mission to spend half a day searching for a battery just because Tony needed one. And then he turned around and called them equals? There were so many things wrong with that, Tony didn't even know where to start putting them into all words.
"You're talking crazy talk," he growled. "But even if you weren't, even if it was all true, none of it changes what you did. You're the one who walked away, who let me think you were dead, who let me keep thinking it. You looked me in the eye this morning and pretended you'd never heard of Steve Rogers. You don't get to turn around now and try to make into an argument about what's wrong with me."
"That's not what this is about." Steve fell back a step, hands clenched at his side. "It's about-- Look, I can't change what I did. Even if I could, I wouldn't, because there's more at stake here than just you and me. I know it was a rotten thing to do to you and I'm sorry. But that's not enough, is it? Because I'm not sorry that I'm Captain America now, and that's what you really want me to be sorry for."
Tony wanted to tell him exactly what he thought of that, but some small part of him was still rational enough to remember that they didn't have time for this, that they had bigger things to worry about.
"You're right about one thing," he said. "There's more at stake here than you and me. In case you forgot, there's a castle full of Nazis out there, and they can apparently control the weather. Now, are we going to do something about that, or are we going to stand here and argue about whether or not I'm angry at you for the right reasons?"
Steve looked as if he actually needed to think about the answer to that question.
"You're right," he said finally, "we need to focus on the mission."
"Nice to know we can still agree on something," Tony muttered, and led the way back toward the village.
Andrei and Oana were still waiting outside when Steve and Tony came within sight of the shed again. Tony smiled at them, but they stared back with tense, shuttered expressions, and leaned a little toward each other, as if for mutual reassurance.
"Can you thank them for me?" Tony asked.
"I already have," Steve said, but he stopped and spoke to the pair again. Andrei remained withdrawn and silent, but Oana stammered out a few sentences in a high, urgent voice.
"She doesn't want us to go to the castle," Steve translated. "She says the entire valley is cursed, and nobody who goes there ever comes back."
"Of course it's cursed." Tony rolled his eyes. "Such places always are. If you're an advanced scientist living in a superstitious world, that's exactly the sort of rumor you want to spread around so that people leave you along. The Solomanari must've put the fear of the Devil into the local peasants when they first set up shop here."
"Not just the Solomanari," Steve said. "When I spoke to her earlier -- when you were resting in the shed -- she told me the Devil lives in the castle. Apparently, he came out here with a squad of German soldiers three weeks ago, to round up some workers to help with new construction in the castle. When no one wanted to go, the soldiers just dragged some men from their houses and marched them off at gunpoint."
"Sounds like something the Krauts would do, all right," Tony said. "But I don't think they'd need the Devil's help for it."
Steve shrugged. "I'm just telling you what Oana told me. I think she meant the German commander. I didn't understand everything she said, but she was very insistent that he was more than an ordinary man."
"Great," Tony said. "Let's go meet the Devil, then."
Much to Tony's relief, they took the low road to the Scholomance this time around. They kept to the forest, out of sight of the main road, and circled around to the lake at the back of the castle before leaving the comforting cover of the trees. It was twilight by then. Tony and Steve kept to the shadows as they approached the lake's edge. Tony crouched on the grass to peer into the water.
It was obvious at first look that this was no ordinary mountain lake. There was no gradual slope from shallow water into deep. Instead, the ground simply stopped at the water's edge. The drop-off was perfectly sheer, the bottom lost in the indigo depths of the water. A sinkhole or a cenote, perhaps, though Tony had never seen one with sides so smooth. He rolled up his sleeve and dipped one hand into the water.
"It's warm." He'd been expecting snow melt, but the water was close to body temperature.
"Underground hot spring?" Steve suggested. Tony did not turn to look at him. Every time he had looked, during their hike through the woods, he'd gotten stuck on searching for traces of the old Steve (the real Steve, a small part of him stubbornly insisted) in Captain America's perfect form. It was a distraction, and they were supposed to be avoiding distractions now.
"I suppose it's possible." Tony scooped a handful of water and sniffed it. It didn't have the sulfurous smell he usually associated with volcanic springs, or any smell at all for that matter, but that didn't prove anything. "Maybe a geothermal spring mixing with colder water. If I'd known I was going to crash-land here, I would've researched the geology first."
Steve's shadow moved closer to Tony's on the grass, and Tony promptly forgot his resolve not to look. He turned his head to see Steve drop to one knee at lean forward to look down into the water. Most people would've had trouble balancing, with that oversized pack and the shield strapped to their backs. Steve didn't even put a hand on the ground to brace himself.
"Is it me," he said after a while, "or is something down there glowing?"
Tony lowered his face closer to the water. Now that Steve had mentioned it, there did seem to be a very faint glow far down among the blue. There were also a few indistinct patches of shadow, just barely visible in the dimming daylight, but enough to suggest something bulky and oddly-shaped concealed in depths of the lake.
"You know," Tony said thoughtfully, "according to some of the Scholomance legends, the lake was actually a magic cauldron where the Solomanari brewed the thunder and lightning. And in some versions, there was a dragon sleeping under the water, that breathed lightning when they woke it."
"Dragon?" Steve frowned at the water as if he actually expected a dragon to pounce at him from beneath the surface. "That can't really be true. Can it?"
"I doubt it." Tony found himself wishing for a submersible, or a dive bell, or at least a compressor with a really long hose. Whatever sat at the bottom of that lake was probably a scientific miracle on par with anything Tony had seen in Atlantis, and it was infuriating to think that the Nazis got to it before he did. "My guess is, it's a machine. Some sort of giant battery or generator to provide electricity, and a coil to generate the lightning. And whatever it is, it must run pretty damn hot."
"I see." Steve dipped his hand in the water. "That's why it's warm."
"The controls must be inside the castle." Tony tilted his head back for a better view of the massive wall looming on the other side of the water. "Any ideas on how we get in?"
"Yes." Steve rose to his feet. "But we'd better wait until dark."
They retreated into the forest again, and found a sheltered spot in a shallow ravine behind a cluster of spruce trees. Steve laid his pack out on the ground and sorted through the contents, laying aside the minimum supplies they'd need to get in and out of the castle. There was a coil of strong cotton rope and a grappling hook, a flashlight, a survival knife in a leather scabbard, and a standard Army-issue Colt .45 in a holster. Steve clipped the knife to his belt and held the gun out to Tony.
"Maybe you'd better take this."
Tony reached out, then lowered his hand. "You're probably a better shot than I am."
"I'll be fine without it," Steve said, as if sneaking into a castle full of Nazis unarmed was a walk in the park. "And you need something to defend yourself with."
"And you don't?" Tony scowled at him. "Let me guess, Emile Erskine has endowed you with the power to glare Nazis to death."
"I have the shield." Steve absently raised one hand to stroke the metal rim behind his right shoulder. "The gun's just there because the brass won't send me out without it. They're not used to the way I do things yet. If you weren't here, I'd just leave it in the pack."
"The way you do things. Right." Tony took the gun and fastened the holster strap around his waist, shoved the box of extra ammo into his pocket when Steve held it out to him. "Fighting Ratzis with a shield. I'm sure your superiors just love that."
"I get the job done. They like that." Steve slung the rope coil diagonally across his chest, and picked up the flashlight. "Here, you'd better take that, too."
"Don't tell me." Tony rolled his eyes. "You can see in the dark."
"Well enough." Steve didn't elaborate, just kept holding the flashlight out until Tony snatched it from his hand. Then he rolled his pack up again, and sat down with back propped against the nearest tree and his shield resting across his legs.. "Come on, we have about fifteen minutes before the last of the daylight is gone. Let's grab some rest while we can."
"Didn't know you needed rest," Tony grumbled.
Steve tilted his head back until it bumped the tree trunk behind him. "All right. Enough. I get the picture. I've changed and you don't like it. Can we just not do this right now?"
"Do what?" Tony said.
"This." Steve didn't move again, and his face was hidden in the deepening darkness, yet somehow Tony could sense the frustration rolling off him in a palpable wave. "This thing where you get sore at everything I say and look at me as if I'm insulting you just by existing. I'm not even asking you to stop, just-- put it aside for a while, okay? There will be plenty of time to hate me after we both get out of here alive."
"I don't hate you." Trust Steve to snap him from righteous indignation to guilt in two seconds flat. "Right now, I don't know what to think of you. I can remember who you used to be. I can see what you seem to be now. But I can't make the pieces fit."
"That's because you're overthinking it." Steve clasped his hands together and rested them on top of his shield, in the center of the big white star. "I know I seem very different, but that's just surface. I'm still the same man you knew."
"The man I knew," Tony said quietly, "wouldn't have lied to me."
Steve was silent long enough that Tony began to hope the conversation was over. When he finally spoke, his voice was low and tense.
"Sometimes," he said, "you yourself don't know what you would do until something happens to test you. I didn't walk out of your house on New Year's Day expecting to disappear. I didn't plan to change my whole identity, to leave everything and everyone I knew, to start all over in a new place where I was lying and pretending to everybody. Right now, there are maybe three people in the world besides you who can connect Steve Rogers the art student to Steve Rogers the Army private to Captain America. And one of those three is the President."
"I feel honored," Tony muttered sourly.
Steve made sharp, impatient motion with his clasped hands, but went on talking as if Tony hadn't spoken.
"The day before I shipped out I shipped out for Camp Lehigh, I went back to my old place to pick up a few of my things. I had to sneak up the fire escape after dark, because I couldn't be seen going into Steve Rogers's apartment. On my way out, I checked the mailbox, and there was that photo Pepper took of us on New Year's Eve. She must've mailed it before you all realized I was missing. I stood there and looked at it and I almost blew the entire game right there, I wanted to see or talk to you so badly. Walking away without letting you know was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Sometimes I still wonder how I did it. But I do know one thing -- I was myself when I did it, and I'm still myself now."
Tony had no idea what to say to that, but then again, he didn't think Steve was waiting for one. He had a feeling that the speech was as much for Steve's own benefit as for Tony's. Cap had been a man of relatively few words, but Steve had always liked to talk things out. He seemed relieved when finished, relaxing his posture and uncurling his hands.
"We should go," he muttered. "It's probably dark enough now."
Dark or not, approaching the castle across open ground, in full view of anyone who might be watching from above, gave Tony an unpleasant itchy feeling on the back of his neck. There was no sign of life on the castle walls, not so much as a glimmer of light behind the battlements, but he couldn't shake the feeling that they were being watched. Surely the Germans wouldn't leave the entire back of the castle unguarded just because there was no road leading up to it. The thought made Tony crouch a little as he jogged along the lakeshore behind Steve. Not that crouching would do much good if somebody started shooting; it just made him feel better to try and present a smaller target.
They reached the base of the wall without incident, and circled around until they reached one of the corner towers. Tony turned on the flashlight and angled the beam downwards, using his body to block the view from above as he and Steve examined the wall. The stones were remarkably even in size and shape, and the masonry work must've been remarkable when the place was first built, but time had taken its toll. The mortar was worn and pitted everywhere, and in some places it had crumbled away completely, leaving visible gaps between the stones.
"I can free-climb this." Steve ran his hands over the stones. "It'll be less conspicuous than trying to toss a grappling hook up there."
"It'll still be plenty conspicuous when you're hauling me up," Tony pointed out.
Steve shrugged. "Can't be helped. At least I'll be on hand to deal with it if someone does notice us."
"Great." Tony switched off the flashlight. "Try not to hit me if you have to toss somebody off the wall, okay?"
It was all very well, Tony thought as he watched Steve reach for a handhold and pull himself up, for Steve to claim that he was still himself. It might even be true, in most ways that mattered. But Steve couldn't step outside his own skin, couldn't see the changes that were obvious to anyone else looking. It wasn't just the physical change that was throwing Tony off. The man he remembered from New York was never so calmly confident in his own abilities. Would never simply say "I can do this" as if no other possibility existed.
Steve was barely visible now, little more than a shadow halfway up the wall. He was high enough now that a fall would seriously injure or even kill him, yet Tony found that wasn't really worried about the possibility. This was Captain America. Of course he'd make the climb. Hell, he could probably wipe out every Nazi in the castle single-handed while Tony twiddled his thumbs outside.
He doesn't need me here at all, Tony thought, and immediately flinched, because dammit, this was exactly what Steve had accused him of, wasn't it? Being a bit of useless flotsam on Captain America's mission had been a lot less ego-bruising when Captain America hadn't been the skinny kid Tony had once taught to play pool.
A distant engine noise snapped Tony out of his brooding and sent him scrambling for cover in the narrow corner between the tower and the wall. He unholstered his gun and leaned forward just enough to see the glow of approaching headlights a few hundred yards away.
Fuck. Did they know he was there? Did they know Steve was there? He'd heard no sign of alarm. Tony looked up, but the top of the wall was lost in darkness, and he couldn't see any sign of Steve at all. Was he still climbing? He'd be a sitting duck if they spotted him.
The headlights drew closer, and Tony could see that they belonged to a light armored car with a spotlight mounted in front of the gun turret. The car rumbled to a stop less than fifty yards from Tony's hiding place, and half a dozen men climbed out and began to spread out in a sparse line. The driver turned on the spotlight, aimed the beam at the lake, then rotated it in a slow arc toward the castle. Tony ducked back into his corner, breathing hard. He was safe where he was, at least until one of the soldiers decided to come around the tower for a look. If he circled around to the next corner, he might even make it back into the forest before they noticed him. But Steve would be pinned if they got that spotlight on him, caught with no cover and nowhere to go but down.
There was no time for dithering, or for making complicated plans. Tony stepped away from the wall, raised the gun, and fired at the spotlight. It burst into a spray of glass shards and electrical sparks, sending the driver scrambling out of the vehicle. Tony squeezed off three more shots in quick succession, taking out one of the headlights, then threw the gun into the lake and hit the dirt just as a burst of machine-gun fire peppered the wall above him.
There were voices shouting in German, and the sound of heavy footsteps moving toward him. Tony stayed where he was. Now that he'd given away his location, running was no longer an option. He just hoped the men didn't have orders to shoot all intruders on sight.
A pair of booted feet stomped into his field of vision, then another one, then several more. A gun barrel jabbed into his back, not hard, but it hit one of the deep bruises he'd gotten in the crash. One of the men barked something in German. It sounded like an order, but Tony had no idea if the words meant "Stay down!" or "Get up," or something else entirely. Tony took a chance and stood. Nobody shot him, so either he'd guessed right or they were being tolerant.
The same man -- a lieutenant, if Tony was remembering the insignia correctly -- yelled more German at him.
"I don't understand," Tony told him in his best French. It wouldn't fool anyone in the long run, but the more confusion he could sow about his identity, the better. He was filthy, disheveled, and sporting a three-day beard. There was a half-decent chance that no one in the castle would recognize him.
They tied his hands and made him sit in the car with two men on guard duty, while the others continued to search. A few had the bright idea to aim their flashlights upward, and Tony had to fight the panicky impulse to look up, but apparently Steve had made it inside already. Still, Tony kept his gaze fixed firmly on his boots until the lieutenant called his men back. They were clearly not happy, but Tony just looked blank when they shouted more questions at him, and eventually the entire squad piled back into the car with him. The driver did a quick circuit around the lake, and a couple of the men fired a few random shots into the trees -- either because they thought they saw something or just to blow of steam, Tony wasn't sure. Eventually, they gave up, returned to the main road, and followed it back to the castle.
Well, Tony thought as the massive front gate slammed shut behind him, that's one way to get inside.
The gate led into a wide, cobble-stoned courtyard lit by bare electric bulbs strung along the walls. There was a row of cars and motorcycles under a canvas awning next to a stable that looked as if it might've been built eight hundred years ago. Cheap-looking corrugated sheds crowded awkwardly into narrow spaces between the original castle buildings. Supply crates were piled high against the walls. It looked as if the Germans were settling in for the long haul.
The keep was a massive rectangular structure topped by a round, dome-topped tower that looked strangely out of place among the blocky, angular architecture of the rest of the castle. The driver lurched to a stop in front of the door, and two of the men hauled Tony out of the car and herded him inside under the watchful eye of the lieutenant.
There were more electric lights inside the keep. Tony wondered where all the generators were, but there was no time to give it much thought. The soldiers behind him kept poking their guns into his back until he swore at them in French and staggered toward the stairs.
It was a long, unpleasant climb. The staircase was narrow and steep, difficult to manage with his hands tied behind his back. Tony counted the steps, more to settle his nerves than for any practical purpose, but lost the count somewhere near eighty, when he lost his footing and stumbled backwards a few steps to be caught by the men behind him. Three flights later, they reached the top landing, where a pair of stone-faced men with machine guns guarded a low wooden door. There was a brief, rapid exchange that Tony mentally translated as "We found an idiot outside, what shall we do with him?" Then one of the guards opened the door and Tony ducked under the lintel to step into one of the most bizarre rooms he'd ever seen.
It looked as if someone had tried to set up an atmospheric observatory inside a giant clockwork. The domed ceiling was lined with a complex arrangement of gears, shafts and cables, and a stone platform in the center of the room supported some sort of antenna of a design Tony had never seen before, a spiky metal contraption topped by a conical spiral coil. The guards ordered him to stop before he got close enough for a proper look, but Tony was sure he recognized the pale, slightly fluorescent color of the metal.
A pair of levers in the floor next to the platform appeared to be the primary means of control for the gears. It was hard to make sense of the design from where he was standing, but Tony thought the roof was meant to retract, to make space for the platform to rise. He looked up, and yes, there was a seam running through the center of the dome, where the two halves must separate. There was no possible way the Germans could've done all this in the few days since they'd arrived. It had to be Solomanari work.
There was a row of circular glass panels embedded into the wall on the left side of the room, with some sort of control panel below them. From where he stood, Tony could see light flickering across the glass disks, but the antenna blocked his view of the details. He found himself edging forward, trying to get a better angle.
"Tony Stark. What an unexpected pleasure."
Tony froze. He'd been so fascinated with the machinery in the room, he'd almost forgotten that he'd been marched in as a prisoner, presumably to be presented to the man in charge. It didn't help that the man in question stood near the control panel, barely visible behind the antenna. He walked forward now, into plain sight, and Tony had to keep himself from falling back a step. He didn't know what was more disquieting -- the gray SS uniform with the double oak leaves on the collar, or the grinning red skull where a living human face should've been.
Red Skull. So that was Oana's Devil. Tony had read both Nick Fury's intelligence reports and the papers' overwrought speculations, but there had never been any photographs to go with the words, only artists' renderings. He'd always assumed that the skull was some sort of mask, like Zemo's hood, but now he wasn't so sure. If it was a mask, it was a very convincing one, with no visible seams or fastenings anywhere. Nothing to break the illusion of a talking, grinning skull.
This was supposed to be the Nazis' version of a super-soldier, the reason Captain America had been created in the first place. Tony thought it said everything that needed to be said about the difference between the two sides, that the U.S. got Steve Rogers and the Nazis got... that.
"I see you survived the crash. I had wondered if you would." Red Skull's English was heavily accented, but his voice sounded normal enough. Which meant there had to be an ordinary, flesh-and-blood throat somewhere under that high uniform collar, with vocal chords and a larynx a tongue. Probably a mask, then. It wasn't an especially comforting conclusion. The last masked Nazi Tony had faced off against had worn his father's face underneath.
Even less comforting was the fact that Red Skull had identified Tony at first glance. So much for sowing confusion about his identity.
"What can I say?" Tony shrugged as gracefully as his bound arms allowed. "I'm an exceptionally lucky fellow."
"I suppose your armor protected you." Red Skull sounded faintly contemptuous, as if needing armored protection in order to survive a fall from the sky was a sign of weakness on Tony's part. "Where is your armor, Stark? I would've expected you to be wearing it."
"Buried it under a tree," Tony said quickly. "Don't ask me which tree, I made a point of not marking it. It was green and brown. And had leaves. Or maybe needles."
Red Skull strolled across the room toward Tony, slow and relaxed. His skeletal face didn't allow for changes of expression, but something in his pale blue eyes made Tony feel as if he was being mentally dissected, every weak spot carefully noted and catalogued. Tony kept his own face blank and forced himself to not look away from Red Skull's immobile grin. He was not going to be unnerved by a Nazi freak in a Halloween mask. He'd seen worse.
"You're lying, of course." Red Skull sounded more amused than offended by Tony's dishonesty. "Not that it matters. You'll be telling the truth soon enough, about yourself, and your armor, and your companion. Who, by the way, has done a remarkable job of disappearing into thin air. Where is he, Mr. Stark? Who is he?"
"I don't know what you mean," Tony said. "I'm here entirely on my--"
"Another lie." Red Skull took another step forward, until he was practically standing on Tony's toes. "The Solomanari," he hissed, "were the most powerful technomages of their time, and possibly of any time. Do you really think they wouldn't have a way of detecting intruders in their castle? We knew you were here as soon as you approached, and we knew there were two of you."
An alarm system. Damn. No wonder the battlements were so poorly patrolled. Tony felt like an idiot for not thinking of it sooner. At least it couldn't be a very precise system, if Red Skull still didn't know who Steve was or where he was now. Tony allowed himself a small, thin smile.
"Sorry," he said. "You must've counted wrong."
Red Skull growled softly behind his mask and clenched his fists. For a moment, he looked as if he might take a swing at Tony, but then he seemed to master himself. His voice, when he finally spoke, was soft and smug, which worried Tony a lot more than ordinary rage would've.
"We have a mutual acquaintance, you know. Or had, rather. Gialetta Nefaria. She filed some rather interesting reports about you before her unfortunate demise."
"I bet she did." Tony plastered on a smirk, despite the sudden sour taste at the back of his throat. Of all the mistakes in his life, Gialetta seemed to be the one most determined to haunt him forever. "I bet you had a real good time reading it, all alone in your room."
This time Red Skull did hit him, a lightning-fast blow that snapped Tony's head back and grayed out his vision for a few seconds. Tony's legs buckled under him, but the two soldiers who'd marched him in grabbed his arms and held him upright. Tony let himself sag in their grip, making them hold up his full weight. It never hurt to make the enemy think him weaker than he really was. Besides, his head was still ringing from the blow, and he could feel his jaw starting to swell on the left side, where Red Skull's fist had connected. If he had to stay upright, Tony was perfectly willing to let someone else do most of the work.
Red Skull barked out an order, and one of the men holding Tony unclipped a knife from his belt and handed it over. Red Skull used the blade to slice Tony's shirt open, sending the remaining buttons clattering to the floor. He let out a satisfied hum at the sight of the plate in Tony's chest.
"It's true then." He tapped the edge of the knife against the metal rim of the plate. "A mechanical heart. Dr. Zola will be so pleased."
Tony didn't know who Zola was, but any man who called himself a doctor and worked for the Nazis was not a man Tony wanted anywhere near his heart. Hey, Steve, now would be a really a good time for one of those heroic feats Captain America is supposed to be famous for...
"You have a choice Mr. Stark." Red Skull traced the edges of the chest plate with the knife point. Tony tried not to flinch, and failed miserably. "You can make yourself useful to me, by providing information, or you can make yourself useful to Dr. Zola's research. I suggest you decide quickly. If you change your mind later, you may not be in any condition to talk."
"You know me." Tony managed a weak chuckle. "I'm a man of science."
"As you wish, then." Red Skull marched back to the control panel and flipped a switch. There was a harsh, grinding noise as a section of wall slid sideways to reveal a narrow staircase leading down.
A secret passage. Of course. For the most powerful technomages of their time, whatever that meant, the Solomanari weren't very original about their architecture.
Tony tried to put up a fight when the soldiers dragged him toward the passage, more for the sake of stalling than from any hope of a successful escape. He even managed to land a highly satisfying groin kick on one of the men who tried to grab him. But there wasn't much he could do against a roomful of men with his hands tied behind his back, and all he got for his trouble was a couple of minutes' delay and whole new set of bruises to go with his existing collection. In the end, they simply tossed him down the stairs when it became obvious he wouldn't go willingly. Tony lay in a heap on the landing, spit out a mouthful of blood from a split lip, and watched the secret door slide shut above him.
Great. Steve was never going to find him now.
Dr. Zola was a weedy, stoop-shouldered civilian with mousy brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, wearing a lab coat over a cheap-looking brown suit. He had a makeshift lab set up in an unpleasant-smelling room with a high ceiling and narrow windows. There was a cabinet full of glassware, an X-ray scanner and an electrocardiograph, an oversized refrigerator with a hand-lettered sign on the door proclaiming "Biologische Proben --Vorsicht!" The walls were plastered with anatomical charts and the obligatory periodic table. Something that might've been an ECT machine squatted ominously on a table near the window, electrodes dangling like tentacles.
The long metal table fitted with four-point restraints was even more ominous. The table legs were bolted to the floor, and the leather straps looked well-used. Tony had a grim feeling that he'd just discovered the fate of the missing British soldiers Steve had mentioned the day before. Not to mention the "laborers" Red Skull had rounded up in Oana's village.
Tony's earlier resistance had taught Red Skull's men to be cautious with him. They hauled him onto the table and strapped his legs down before they untied his arms, and one of the men held a gun trained on him the entire time. He didn't put it down until Tony's arms were safely restrained. Tony would've been flattered by all the precautions if he wasn't so thoroughly terrified.
He'd spent most of his life training himself not to feel vulnerable, to never think about the way his heart was literally exposed to anyone who got close enough. He'd pushed himself to his limits, took risks that most healthy men would balk at, and laughed at Jarvis and Rhodey when they tried to rein him in. But it was impossible to cling to any pretense of invincibility with Zola hovering over him like a bespectacled vulture and Red Skull leering nearby.
"How remarkable!" Zola ran his hands over Tony's chest plate, breaking into a grin when the pressure release sprang open beneath his fingers. His English was nearly perfect, with only a slight trace of an accent. He seemed oblivious to Tony's instinctive shudder and quickened breathing. "I've never seen anything like it. How did you ever find a surgeon to even attempt something like this?"
"Money talks." Tony tried for a light tone, but couldn't entirely keep his voice from shaking. It didn't matter anyhow. Zola wasn't paying attention to his reactions.
"It appears to be sending electrical impulses directly into the heart muscle." Zola fished a pair of tweezers from the breast pocket of his lab coat and bent down to probe at the repulsor pump. "Do you suffer from some sort of arrhythmia? Is it congenital? How old were you when you were diagnosed?"
Tony ignored the questions, did his best to ignore the painful quickening of his heartbeat and the cold sweat breaking out all over his skin. He focused on the inlaid ceiling above him, the intricate design of light and dark wooden triangles arranged in concentric circles. There had to be a pattern to it, some sort of power series maybe, he could figure it out if he just counted the--
The sudden spike of pain in his chest shattered his thoughts into a thousand spinning fragments, sent him thrashing violently against the restraints. He tried to draw in a breath, but there was an invisible weight pressing down on his ribcage. He couldn't expand his lungs, couldn't get any air at all. There was a dull roaring sound in his ears, and the taste of copper in his mouth. When he strained for breath again, his vision blurred, then faded into black.
He couldn't have passed out for very long, because when he could see again, Zola was still hovering over him in the same posture as before, though Red Skull had moved a little closer. Their faces were slightly blurry, as if Tony was looking at them through a soft-focus filter. The pressure on his chest was still there, and a tight knot in his left shoulder was shooting sharp little darts of pain down his arm and up his neck, but at least he could breathe again. If he worked at it.
"--possible to induce and stop ventricular fibrillation at will!" Zola was saying with great enthusiasm. It sounded as if he'd been talking for a while. Tony suspected that he'd missed a fascinating lecture on his own scientific importance. "Batelli and Prevost did some highly interesting work in Geneva at the end of the century, but I don't believe the experiment has ever been performed on a human subject. I'm sure you can see the potential, Herr Roter Schädel."
"Seems like a great waste to me." Red Skull sounded impatient. "All this trouble, only to help a defective specimen survive to breeding age. No wonder the Americans are reluctant to enter a war with us, if this is what they've been expending all their resources on."
"Ah, but there are many potential applications." Zola rubbed his hands together. "Soldiers, for example, who have suffered cardiac damage in the line of duty. I must study this further."
"You may study to your heart's content, Doctor." Red Skull clenched his fist in Tony's hair and pulled his head up off the table. "Unless Ms. Stark has anything to say, of course. Have you reconsidered, Stark? It's not too late."
"Yes it is," Tony hissed through gritted teeth. This entire "interrogation" was a farce. Steve was somewhere inside the castle, with most of the garrison presumably combing the place for him. Nothing Tony might say at this point would help or hinder the search. There were plenty of cogent question that Red Skull, SS Oberführer could ask of Tony Stark, America's top defense contractor, but the bastard wasn't asking any of them. He was just getting his jollies watching Zola take Tony apart.
The again, maybe he was just waiting until Zola was done before he started in with the real questions. Maybe he thought Tony would be more talkative by then.
Maybe he was right. Tony was already sweating and shivering, and it was more than just a physical reaction. The thought of being abandoned to Zola's scientific curiousity was utterly terriifying. Tony was no hero, no matter how prettily Pepper dressed up his exploits for an adoring readership. He had few illusions about what he might say or do if Red Skull came back to ask his questions in a few days, or maybe even a few hours.
"Very well." Red Skull released his grip on Tony's hair and stepped back. "Do let me know if you change your mind. In the meantime, he's all yours, Doctor."
"Thank you," Zola said happily, and bend down to probe the repulsor pump again.
The pain wasn't as bad this time, but it lasted longer. Tony bucked against the restrains until the straps made his wrists and ankles bleed, and waited in vain to pass out again. Tried to scream and couldn't do it, not until Zola readjusted the circuit and the pain receded enough to let him breathe again, and by then he was too exhausted to manage more than an exhausted whimper.
Zola had a pad and pencil out and was taking notes. Tony might've laughed if he had the air to spare for it.
A burst of machine-gun fire rattled somewhere in the distance. Tony couldn't tell if it was coming from outside, or the lower floors of the keep. Red Skull stalked over to look through a window, then yelled at his men, who hefted their guns and filed out.
It seemed that Steve was making his presence known. Tony felt a stab of anxiety that, for a change, had nothing to do with his own situation. Steve might be Captain America, but he was still ridiculously outnumbered and, as far as Tony knew, armed only with a shield. If he tried to do anything foolish for Tony's sake...
"What's happening?" Zola asked.
"Nothing," Red Skull growled. "Carry on."
"We really should be more organized about this." Zola moved toward the back of the room, out of Tony's sight. Tony heard him rummaging in the cabinets against the wall, and had a minute or so to imagine all sorts of sinister possibilities before Zola returned with a perfectly ordinary blood pressure cuff in his hands.
Tony choked back a fit of hysterical laughter. "Your research methods are sloppy," he told Zola. "If you wanted a baseline, you should've taken it before you gave me the heart attack."
"Better late than never," Zola said cheerfully.
There was another burst of gunfire, closer this time, and accompanied by raised voices. Red Skull muttered something under his breath, and drew his sidearm.
"Stay here," he ordered Zola and left the room. Tony could hear him yelling "Was ist da los?" as his footsteps echoed in the corridor outside. Zola looked a bit anxious as the shooting continued, but when nothing threatening happened after a minute or so, he collected himself and went to fasten the blood pressure cuff around Tony's arm.
"Is this really necessary?" Tony sighed, and gave Zola the most charming grin he could muster under the circumstances. "Listen, Professor, I can save you a lot of work here. You want to know how this thing in my chest works? Let me off this table and I'll draw you a diagram."
Zola actually looked as if he might be considering it, but before he could answer yes or no, the door burst apart in a spray of splinters. A red, white and blue blur arced above Tony with a faint whoosh of displaced air, bounced off the far wall, and knocked Zola clear across the room before flying back through the doorway.
It took Tony a few dazed seconds to realize that he'd just seen Captain America's shield in action. By then, Steve was at his side, unbuckling the restraints and pulling him up to sit at the edge of the table.
"Tony." The shield clattered to the floor. Steve grabbed hold of Tony's face and just stared at him, breathing hard. He was very pale. There was a nasty-looking gash across his right cheek, as if a knife or a bayonet had grazed it, but it was already scabbed over. "Are you all right? What the hell were they doing?"
"Taking my blood pressure," Tony said, and had to hold back laughter once again. Steve frowned at him, but didn't pursue the point.
"Can you walk?"
"Do I have a choice?"
"Then I can walk." Tony tore the blood pressure cuff from his arm and stood. His legs buckled a little, but he braced one hand on the table and stayed upright. "I don't have to run, do I?"
"Not right now." Steve hefted the shield in his left hand and wrapped his right arm around Tony's shoulders to support him as they staggered toward the door. "I think I took out everyone in the tower, but there's bound to be reinforcements soon."
"Red Skull is out there," Tony warned.
"I saw him. He gave me this." Steve brushed his fingers across the cut on his cheek. "But he ran when I took the knife away from him and he saw that the rest of his men were down." A look of contempt crossed his face. "Coward."
The lab was at the end of a short, narrow corridor. Tony could see three more doors ahead, all of them smashed in just as the lab door was. A pair of guards sprawled face down on the floor, dead or unconscious; Tony wasn't about to stop and check.
"The stairs are about ten yards past the corner," Steve told him. "Think you can make it?"
Tony already felt as if he'd run a marathon, but there was no point in complaining about it. "I'll be fine." He pulled away from the much-too-comforting support of Steve's arm to lean against the wall instead. "You should have both hands free."
It was a good thing he did that, because they turned the corner just in time to see three men coming up the stairs, guns raised and ready to fire. Tony yelled a warning as he hit the floor, but Steve was already in motion.
He threw the shield without breaking stride, then threw himself after it, in a flying somersault that made Tony develop sudden doubts about the laws of physics. The shield floored the first man on the landing, sending his rifle shot into the ceiling somewhere behind Tony. Steve slammed into the second man feet-first, and took the third one with them as they all tumbled down the stairs. There was a shout, another gunshot, then silence.
"Steve?" Tony braced against the wall again and hauled himself to his feet. It took longer than he liked; his body kept insisting that it really wanted some time to enjoy its functioning heartbeat in peace. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Steve reappeared on the stairs, shield in hand. "But we need to get down as quickly as possible. There's going to be more men coming."
"Up," Tony said. Steve blinked at him.
"We need to go up." Tony took an unsteady step forward. "To the top of the tower."
"Why?" Steve looked up and down the stairs with a puzzled frown. We'll be sitting ducks up there."
"That's where the lightning generator is," Tony said. "They must have some sort of wiring underground to connect it to the lake. I can sabotage it if we can get up there, probably bring the whole tower down. I think."
Steve's jaw actually dropped a little. "You think?"
"Hey." Tony shrugged. "I was only up there for a few minutes, I didn't have time for a detailed look. But I'm pretty sure. Besides, we can't afford to leave this place standing, and this is our best chance. You want to stand here and argue about it?"
"All right." Steve stepped forward to wrap his arm around Tony's shoulders again. "With any luck, they'll be looking for us on the lower levels because no one will think we're stupid enough to go up. Let's get this over with."
The climb to the top of the tower took forever. Tony was acutely conscious of the need for haste, but his legs simply refused to do more than a slow shuffle, and he had a feeling that if he tried to push too much, they'd refuse to do anything at all. It would be the perfect finale to this entire mess if he keeled over from going up the goddamn stairs after Steve had gone through all the trouble to rescue him.
And speaking of rescue...
"So," Tony panted as they paused for breath on the fourth floor, "did you just go around and smash every door and every head in the keep until you found me?"
"Yes," Steve said.
Tony wished he'd been there to see it. "That's not very covert, is it?"
He meant it as a joke, mostly something to distract himself, but Steve made a choked, angry noise and stumbled to an abrupt halt that threw Tony off-balance and made him grab at the wall to keep from falling.
"Covert?" Steve grabbed Tony's shoulders and gave a hard, bone-jarring shake. "Do you know what's not very covert, Tony? Shooting at the search party that's trying to capture you when you have nowhere to run and no place to take cover, that's not covert!"
"I was creating a distraction," Tony said defensively. It was apparently the wrong thing to say, because Steve's face went an alarming shade of red. Tony wondered if it was possible for Captain America to have an apoplexy. "I couldn't let them spot you while you were still climbing, could I? You were vulnerable up there."
"And you weren't?"
"Not like you. Halfway up a high wall, and with that shield on your back telling the world who you are? They would've killed you on sight."
"So you just gave yourself up?" Steve tightened his grip until Tony had to fight to keep from wincing. "You actually thought that was a better option?"
"I couldn't lose you again," Tony told him.
"You--" Steve choked out harshly, but couldn't seem to finish the sentence. His shoulders sagged a little, and his grip loosened. He closed his eyes and leaned his head forward until his forehead touched Tony's. "I heard shots. I looked down, and you were on the ground. I thought you were dead."
"Horrible feeling," Tony said, "isn't it?"
"That business with your heart was bad enough, but this..." Steve swallowed audibly. " I almost jumped down after you, before I saw you move. I knew it was crazy. What good would it have done, if you really were dead? I might've wrecked everything, and I just didn't care."
Tony licked his lips and did his best not to whimper. Steve was so close, and his hands were so warm, and the timing was so, so bad. It still wasn't too late to wreck everything; all they had to do was linger on this staircase long enough.
Steve must've been thinking along similar lines, because he lowered his hands and stepped back with a quiet sigh.
"Come on," he said, "we're almost there."
The two guards on the top landing got a couple of shots off, but the bullets bounced harmlessly off Steve's shield. Tony decided he must be getting jaded -- he only swooned a little as Steve executed a perfect roundhouse kick and an elbow strike at the same time, taking both men down less than a second apart. Applause seemed inappropriate under the circumstances, so Tony simply muttered "nice work" as he followed Steve into the clockwork room.
Steve bolted the door, frowning a little as he tested its strength. "Whatever you're going to do, do it fast. This won't hold them for long."
"It's worse than that," Tony told him, "there's a hidden door in the back they can come in through. I'll try to make it fast."
He limped across the room toward the control panel on the left. The glass screens he'd noticed before were still glowing, and now Tony could see that they displayed gray and hazy but still recognizable views of the grounds outside the castle walls. Was this how the Krauts had spotted him and Steve? Solomanari technology was more and more impressive every time Tony looked at it.
There was a brass access panel set into the wall below the screens. It took Tony a few anxious moments to figure out how to remove it, but once he found and released the latches on either side, it came out of its niche easily enough. Behind it was yet another complex arrangement of gears and pulleys and thick copper cables disappearing into holes drilled in the stone.
"Uh-huh," Tony grunted as he stretched out on his back on the floor and scooted into the narrow space. "Just as I thought."
"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" Steve sounded tense, as well he might. If Red Skull and his men busted into the room now, he'd be the one fighting them all off in a confined space while Tony tinkered with the machinery.
"Oh, definitely a good thing." Tony sat up and gestured toward the central platform. "See, that dome overhead opens up. And that thing that looks like an antenna? I think that's actually the lightning generator. That white coil on top is orichalcum."
Steve frowned. "It's a what?"
"A super-conducting alloy. I found a trident made of the stuff in the ruins of Atlantis a couple of years ago, but it was destroyed later."
"I remember now." Steve nodded. "I read the story in Marvels."
"Then you should remember that it makes a hell of a big boom under the right conditions." Tony climbed to his feet and examined the controls. None of them had anything as useful as labels or instruction, but he'd seen enough of the mechanism to get the general idea. "If I can set off the generator without opening the dome, it'll set off a lightning storm inside this room. I'm pretty sure that qualifies as the right conditions."
"Great." Steve eyed the platform warily. "How do we keep from get fried in this scenario?"
"By being somewhere else." Tony flipped what he hoped was the power switch. There was an ominous rumbling noise beneath his feet, and the floor began to vibrate. The orichalcum coil glowed a faint blue. "This is going to take a minute or two to charge. We need to--"
The was a heavy thud against the door, followed by a furious pounding. "Brechen Sie sie auf!" Someone yelled from the other side.
"They're going to break in." Steve moved toward the door, lifting the shield for a throw.
"Never mind them," Tony snapped. "They're going to get in one way or another. I need you to destroy these controls before they do."
"No problem." Steve marched over to Tony's side of the room and smashed the edge of his shield into the mechanism inside the control panel. The cables split apart with a shower of sparks, and the metal gears crumpled like paper.
"Damn." Tony jumped back. "What is that thing made of?"
"That's classified," Steve said.
The pounding on the door became slower but louder, as if something heavy was being flung against it. The door itself was still holding, but the hinges were starting to come away from the frame. Before they could give way altogether, the hidden door at the back of the room slid open and Red Skull burst in, flanked by a squad of armed men.
Red Skull let out an enraged shriek when he saw them and fired a rapid volley of shots, but Steve was already moving. The bullets sparked off the wall as he dove into a forward roll, coming up so close to Red Skull he was practically standing on the man's boots. Steve swung his shield upward, and Red Skull flew backwards about five feet to slam into the wall. Amazingly, he sprang right back to his feet with barely a stagger. Maybe there was something to the "Nazi super-soldier" rumor after al, or maybe he was just too stupid to stay down.
The other Germans all had their guns out, but Steve was right in their midst and moving like a whirlwind. They were just as likely to hit each other if they fired at him, and it was making them hesitate. Tony swore and dove behind the generator platform as a couple of the men fired at him instead. Steve took two of them down with one spinning kick, sent another one flying with a shield blow. The other three spread out to give themselves room to fire, and raised their guns. Tony yelled a warning, but at that moment the floor bucked beneath them and the entire tower shuddered, as if rocked by an earthquake. The orichalcum coil above Tony's head went from pale blue to blinding white, and spat a forked bolt of lightning at the dome above it.
The air in the room abruptly turned hot, and thick with the acrid smell of ozone. Pieces of stone and metal rained down. Smaller zigzags of lightning split off from the original bolt and danced along the dome, arcing back and forth among the gears.
Steve and Tony had the advantage of being prepared for it. They were rushing for the door even as everyone else in the room was diving for cover. Behind them, the coil spat out more lightning and the walls groaned. The tower was shaking violently now, and the steps bucked under Tony's feet. He might've tumbled down the staircase a second time, without even anyone to throw him, if Steve hadn't caught his arm to keep him steady.
More gunfire behind them. Steve stumbled, but didn't slow down or make a sound. Tony couldn't see if he was hurt, didn't have enough breath to ask. He risked a single glance over his shoulder, and saw Red Skull coming down the stairs behind them, a gun in each hand. The tower's shaking was spoiling his aim, but he couldn't keep missing forever, not in this confined space. Some of his men were coming down behind him, too, Tony could hear their footsteps even if he couldn't see them yet.
We're not going to make it. Dammit, this was all his fault. He'd talked Steve into going up and now they were both going to get killed.
Unless Steve fought his way out alone. He could do it, Tony was sure of that. With no one to slow him down and no one but himself to protect, Steve could get away. And that was the important thing, wasn't it? Steve wasn't just Steve anymore, he was Captain America, and Captain America had to get out alive.
"You could--" Tony began.
"Don't you dare," Steve growled.
"I said, don't you dare." Steve's voice was shaking. "I'll knock you out and carry you if you try to stay behind, I swear I will. Now keep moving, dammit!"
Tony wanted to argue, but the words wouldn't come. All he could think of was the memory of Steve just a few minutes before, gripping Tony's shoulders and choking out words as if they hurt him. I thought you were dead. I might've wrecked everything, and I just didn't care.
Tony understood the feeling all too well. He shut his mouth and kept moving.
They made it one more flight down before the tower began to come apart around them in earnest. The stairs heaved under them one last time, then came apart. Something hard and jagged struck Tony on the back. He fell, scrambled to his hands and knees, and fetched up with his face inches away from a pile of rubble where the steps leading down used to be.
An entire section of the stairs above them had collapsed, along with part of the outside wall. An icy blast of wind and rain pelted Tony as he stood. Red Skull and his men were nowhere in sight, which he supposed was a good thing, but it hardly mattered now. There was no way down and no way up, and the remains of the tower were going to break up under them at any moment. Tony turned toward Steve and saw him slinging the shield onto his back and stepping toward the gap in the wall. There was a small bloodstain on his sleeve with a tear in the middle where one of Red Skull's shots must've grazed him, and his face was smeared dirt and sweat, but he looked perfectly calm.
"Come on!" Steve tugged on Tony's arm. "We have to jump!"
"Come on!" Steve launched himself into the gap, still holding on to Tony's arm.
This was how the whole mess began, Tony thought dizzily. Falling through rain and darkness, with lightning and thunder all around him. Only this time he had no armor and no parachute, and Steve was falling with him, and they were going to--
The impact came before he could finish the thought. The numbness that came with it was unpleasantly familiar, remembered from dozens of previous occasions that usually ended with Tony waking in a hospital bed with Jarvis and Rhodey swearing a blue streak at his side. He knew what it meant: his body had decided that it had had quite enough of all this pain business, thank you very much, it was just going to feel nothing at all for a while. The unfamiliar part was the stifling, smothering warmth that followed the shock. It felt like being immersed in--
Warm water. The lake. They had fallen into the lake, and were still sinking. He needed to swim, to get to the surface, to breathe. The need for air cut through the numbness, made his lungs burn and his diaphragm spasm. Tony's limbs felt like lead but he forced them to move anyway, random twitching that eventually turned into something that vaguely resembled a swimming motion. He wasn't sure if it was doing any good, but he knew he had to try. Steve would be so angry with him, if he drowned after all this trouble...
Something tugged at the back of his shirt and dragged him upwards, much faster than he could swim, fast enough to make his ears pop. Moments later, his head broke the surface and he could breathe again.
"Tony!" Steve was right next to him, still gripping his shirt, yelling right into his ear. "You still with me? Can you swim?"
It took a few more rapid, gulping breaths before Tony could cough out a "Yes." His arms and legs still felt uncomfortably heavy, but now that he could breathe, he could move.
They climbed out onto the nearest bank and collapsed on the ground side by side, panting and coughing up water.
"You think anyone's coming after us?" Tony gasped after a while.
"I think they've got bigger things to worry about." Steve sat up and brushed his dripping hair back from his face with unsteady hands. "Look."
The entire keep tower and the walls on either side of it were gone, reduced to a shapeless mountain of rubble. Flames rose from the wreckage here and there, and a thick column of smoke rose into the night sky. Tony felt a brief pang of regret. All that ancient knowledge, found only to be lost again. The only consolation was that Red Skull didn't have it either.
"You did it," Steve said breathlessly. "You really brought the whole place down."
"I did it?" Tony choked a little. "I'm not the one who took down an entire Nazi garrison without firing a shot."
Steve shook his head. "Wouldn't have been any use if that tower had stayed standing."
"All right." Tony grinned at him. "We did it, then."
"Yes, we did," Steve said, and kissed him.
It was very different from that one aborted kiss they'd shared back in New York, and not just because they were both soaking wet and Steve had an extra hundred pounds of muscle on him. This time, no one showed any inclination to pull away. Tony's arms wrapped around Steve's waist before he even had a chance to fully comprehend what was happening, and Steve was kissing as if he thought it was his last chance in this lifetime. And then again, maybe it wasn't all that different, because Tony's thoughts got stuck in the same endless loop of yes please Steve oh God please yes please don't stop as last time.
He couldn't hold back a disappointed groan when Steve finally pulled away. Steve apparently misinterpreted the sound, because his face instantly furrowed with concern.
"Are you all right?" he demanded.
"I'm fine," Tony said quickly. "I'm great. Can we do that again, please?" He leaned forward, but Steve put his hands against Tony's chest, still looking worried.
"Are you still angry at me?"
"Huh." It took Tony a moment to remember that he was recently angry at Steve and why. Then, his first instinct was to say to hell with it, but he made himself stop and think about it.
"No," he finally decided, "I'm not. Maybe I'm a sap, maybe I should be angry, but-- we could've both died back there, and we didn't. We're together and we're alive, and who knows how long this state of things will last? There's a war on, after all."
"I've noticed," Steve said wryly. "I'm not going to stop fighting it, you know. This is who I am now. I can't go back, even if I wanted to."
"I know." Tony drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out. "And I can't pretend it won't take a lot of getting used to. But... when you walked out of my place on New Year's Day, I said to myself, let him go. Let him calm down, we'll work it out later. Then I spent the rest of the year thinking you were dead." Just saying the words made Tony shudder with remembered grief. "I'm not making that mistake twice. We can't afford to hold grudges or to save things for working out later, not in these times."
"I'm glad we agree," Steve said, and kissed him again, a sadly brief but very enthusiastic kiss that left Tony feeling a bit light-headed when it ended. "Now let's get out of here. We have a long way to go to our extraction point."
Tony got a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "How long?"
"About eighty miles."
Eighty miles. On foot. In the goddamn mountains. Tony let out an exhausted groan and fell backwards onto the ground.
"That's it. I give up. Just knock me on the head and drop me back in the lake, I'm too tired."
"Come on." Steve laughed. "It won't be so bad. You can have my chocolate ration." He climbed to his feet and held out his hand.
Tony took it.