It was perhaps unfortunate that the very first thing that Anthony Stark, Industrialist Millionaire, said to Bucky was a drawled “Aren’t you too young to be working for Uncle Sam?”
Bucky bristled instantly, but Fury had interrupted quickly before he could retort. “Bucky’s a valued member of the war effort, Stark. He keeps the recruitment going, with the young.”
“And I’ll be seventeen in a few months,” Bucky growled, resisting the urge to thumb his nose. Stark arched an eyebrow, and beside him, the redheaded, pretty dolly with the bright smile covered her mouth quickly to stifle a giggle. “It’s true,” Bucky continued stoutly, rather put out by the reaction.
“I’d rather have Bucky with me than a score of grown men,” Steve said firmly at that point, thrusting a hand forward. “Mister Stark. I’ve heard of your adventures. Thank you for the assist with the Kasba fortress. It’d have been at least another couple of days’ worth of the siege otherwise, and we would have suffered a great deal more casualties.”
“And you must be Captain America.” Stark’s tone was edged with amusement, something that annoyed Bucky further, as the two men shook hands. “I’ve heard of you, certainly. Mostly because Pepper here seems to have an unmitigated interest in the way your costume shows off your shoulders in all the papers.”
Pepper promptly punched Stark in the shoulder, while still smiling. It wasn’t a lady’s punch, either; Stark bit out an oath and staggered sideways, rubbing the abused spot, and there was a hastily stifled guffaw from the big, black bodyguard in the khaki jacket and trousers who was standing unobtrusively behind Stark, beside the hulking iron and steel shells of the famous Armors. Behind one of the Armors, still engaged in wiring it up to a score of generators, a gangly old man tutted in disapproval.
“That aside, what are you doing in Port-Lyautey, sir, if you don’t mind us asking?” Steve enquired, glancing around the commandeered section of the Port-Lyautey hangar. Wires and boxes of arcane-looking consoles of a make that Bucky had never seen littered desks and even part of a jeep that had been dragooned into use; tools, scrap metal, and spare parts were strewn over another set of three desks to Bucky’s right.
Fury snorted. “Bastard wouldn’t give us the time of day.”
“I would have, if you’d asked me this nicely, General,” Stark said blithely, his smile growing brighter as Fury’s frown furrowed deeper. “We were minding our own business, scouting a set of underground ruins east of the Port, when there was a cave-in and we got separated. The French took Jarvis here and Rhodey prisoner, so Pepper and I were obliged to stage a rescue.”
“Can’t bloody breathe in that coffin you call Armor,” Pepper complained, her tone not in the least ladylike. “I don’t know how you stand it, Rhodey.”
“It’s okay,” Rhodey shrugged.
“The suit was configured for Rhodey, not you,” Stark retorted. “You insisted on coming along. I said that you could have stayed with the ship.”
“I’m not exactly a blushing damsel, Mister Stark.”
“Tell that to the first time you got yourself caught by Nazis. And that other time, in Guatemala. Or that little incident with the crocodile worshippers in Yangoon-”
Stark and Pepper fell to bickering, like old friends, and Jarvis merely let out a gusty sigh, pulling on a pair of heavy gloves as he attached cables to the ribs of the gray Armor. Fury finally interrupted with a growl, “And it was just like that? You bust into a fortress full of the French to rescue your butler and your bodyguard?”
“Rhodey’s not a bodyguard,” Pepper said, indignant, even as Stark muttered, “Jarvis isn’t a butler,” to which Pepper sniffed and added, “Mister Stark, where are your manners,” and Stark growled, “Good bloody Heavens, woman!”
“They’re like this on their good days, sir,” Rhodey informed Fury, deadpan.
“I’m aware.” Fury looked tired, and Bucky, despite himself, felt amusement creeping in over the initial irritation.
Stark didn’t seem like the bad sort after all, not snobbish or full of airs like some of the other rich men who he had been introduced to in the course of his more or less official appointment as Captain America’s sidekick. The man had to be pushing his forties, and his stubble was at least three days old, encroaching on the once sharp line of his goatee. His hair stuck out in all directions, his stained shirt was hopelessly rumpled and folded up to his elbows, grease stains were painted liberally over his fingers, his trousers; there was even a long, thick black smudge on his cheek. He clearly treated both Pepper and Rhodey as equals, as his friends rather than his employees; a woman and a black man.
Steve’s eyes had also flicked quickly between Rhodey, Pepper and Stark, and his friend had relaxed, his smile quick and lopsided and genuine, for the first time since they’d made landfall in Africa. “Are you going to be staying with us for long? We could use your help securing Casablanca.”
“No thanks. I’m a civilian,” Stark said quickly, his tone blithe. “And before you try and confiscate my gear, I’ll like to mention that I’ve already briefed a pack of lawyers on standby, General.”
“Fuck you, Stark,” Fury snapped, though without much heat – as though Fury had tried this often enough that even the General’s own famous streak of stubbornness had given it up as bad business.
Instantly, Steve colored. “Nick, there’s a lady present,” only for Pepper to laugh out loud.
“Why, aren’t you sweet.”
“You’re probably the first woman he’s seen in a month,” Stark informed her.
“He’s certainly the first gentleman I’ve seen in a month,” Pepper shot back.
“Join up with Uncle Sam, then,” Stark called, as he waded through the thick coils of cables to help Jarvis with the connections. “Pepper Potts, Intrepid War Correspondent. Day One, observed men digging trenches for fortifications.”
“As compared to the life of Pepper Potts, Marvels Correspondent? Perish the thought.” Pepper folded her arms across her chest, though a smile curled on her lips. “I’ve had to cross out a rather remarkable number of days where the only entry was ‘Stark found rudely inebriated in an alley’, so as not to shock our more impressionable young readers.”
“Lies, filthy lies.”
“Found what you lot were looking for in Port-Lyautey?” Fury had given up on Stark, evidently, and was trying his luck on Rhodey.
“A whole lot of nada,” Rhodey shrugged. “Whatever the caves had held, they’d been long looted, and didn’t lead anywhere. We’re waiting for pick up by Stark Industries, and then we’re outta here, I hope.”
“Where are you going next?” Steve asked, failing to keep the disappointment out of his tone. His eyes hadn’t left Stark, who was kneeling down, and peering up into the bowels of his Armor, his arms thrust elbows-deep in wiring.
“I’m not convinced… Jarvis, try the Number Eight-point… yeah. I’m not convinced I’m wrong, just that we’re a little off,” Stark grunted as something sparked to life, then died away quickly. “Fucking shrapnel and its fucking ricochet.”
“Mister Stark,” Steve protested, with a quick glance at Pepper, who merely grinned and shook her head.
“It’s… Tony… ah, here we go.” Something hummed to life in a slow, background purr. “Backup onboard is on-line. As I was saying,” Stark continued, discarding a greasy shard, “There was another place that the trace picked up, we might try that, once we restock.”
“And where is that?” Bucky asked, curious despite himself. He hadn’t read the Marvels books, except for the few issues where Stark had gone up against the Nazis, usually inadvertently save for the Zemo episode, but having the Armors here, larger than life, was pretty impressive.
“Close to Oran,” Stark said vaguely, “Rhodey, I think we had a map somewhere. Fury tells me that the French have surrendered in Oran, assuming the poms haven’t already bombed the place to fragments and collapsed the tunnels. Where are you heading? Just so I’d know where to steer clear of.”
“Tunisia,” Fury grunted. “We’ve got word that the French might switch sides. I might not stay for the scrap; I’ve been called back to the home front. Seems we might have an infiltration problem.” An aide trotted up smartly to Fury’s side, murmuring in his ear. “I’m going to take a call. Once you’re done tinkering with your machines, come talk to me.”
“Now that we’re in an area with plumbing and running water,” Pepper informed Stark, “I’m going to get decent and find us someplace civilized to sleep and eat.”
“All right. Rhodey, could you? Not that I’m doubting the decency of our men, Captain, but there might be rogue French elements about.” Tony’s sharp smile, however, said otherwise, and Bucky knew from experience anyway that particularly once the drinks started flowing, a pretty doll like Pepper walking around by herself might end up getting into the bad sort of trouble. Steve nodded warily, and even Pepper didn’t comment.
“Sure.” Rhodey straightened. “Let’s get going, Pepper.”
“How’s the power level?” Jarvis asked Stark once Pepper, Fury and Rhodey had walked away.
“Good as new.” Stark rapped lightly over the glass bubble set over his chest. Thankfully, his shirt was buttoned up enough that Bucky couldn’t see any internal organs, but it did make a disturbing, hollow rap. “Integrating that spear was the best thing we ever did.”
“It did seem to hold out well in the fiasco,” Jarvis said grudgingly, sweeping a critical eye over the battered Armors. “I’m going to see if I can scrounge any parts from this place. We’re short on ammunition and fuel for Rhodey’s suit, as well.”
“Pepper’s a hellcat when you give her heavy armaments,” Stark sighed, as Jarvis brushed past Steve. “Well then, it’s just you and me and your underage sidekick, Captain.”
Bucky was about to snap something in return, up until he noticed the tips of Steve’s ears turning pink. Startled, he closed his mouth, a faint sense of horror creeping up on him. Steve couldn’t be… he wasn’t…
“Bucky can take care of himself,” Steve said, almost automatically. “Bucky, why don’t you go, uh, check on Fury.” He ignored Bucky’s disbelieving expression. “I’m sure he’ll come looking for us shortly anyway.”
Stark had paused amidst inspecting the connections in the ribcage hull of the Armor, even looking back over his shoulder at Steve, thoughtfully. There was a blink as though in revelation, then a sly smile, and Stark turned his attention back to the Armor. “You should go too, Captain. Fury nags when he thinks he’s wasting his time.”
“The boys are going to celebrate with a drink, later this evening,” Steve persisted stubbornly despite the clear dismissal. “Would you like to-”
“Pepper tends to give me an earful when she finds me drunk as a skunk in an alley.”
“I’ll be happy to make sure that doesn’t happen, Tony.”
“I also smoke like a chimney. And I’m a mean drunk, around kids.”
“Bucky won’t be drinking.” Steve ignored a second, disbelieving stare.
“Around people about fifteen, twenty years younger than me, then.” Stark corrected absently.
“You’re only as old as you feel, Mister Stark.” Steve was poker-faced, but the grin was laced all over his tone, and Stark actually straightened up and turned around, hip pressed against a steel arm, his smile lopsided, almost wolfish.
“Are you making a pass at me, Captain Rogers?”
“If you like,” Steve replied, with enough confidence that Bucky could only gape. This was a part of his friend that he hadn’t seen. Sure, he’d seen Steve chat up dolls and honeys, particularly during Army functions, but he hadn’t seen it go anywhere fast and not for want of trying by the women. He’d always thought that it either meant that Steve hadn’t met the right person, or that he’d left someone behind in the States that he was still pining after; Bucky hadn’t been the sort to pry, particularly if it was going to mean prying open old wounds. Besides, Anthony Stark was very obviously masculine.
“You’re corrupting the young, Captain, I profess myself scandalized,” Stark jerked his head briefly in Bucky’s direction.
Irritated, Bucky retorted, “Steve’s life is his own,” and he found that he meant it. Steve had earned his medals and his uniform a hundred times over already, and he would again in the future at the rate that they were going; he was fearless, loyal and an intelligent leader, looked up to by all the men that he had ever commanded. Bucky didn’t see how something like this would affect that. Steve shot him a brief, grateful smile, which held also an eloquent request, and Bucky saluted Stark smartly. “I’ll leave you to your machines then, Mister Stark. I’ll, uh, go and check on the General.”
“You might as well take your friend along, Mister Barnes,” Stark said dryly, stepping back around the Armor to take a close look at the other, darker suit. “I don’t deny that you look like a tall drink of cold water in a desert, Captain Rogers, but I don’t go walking out with people who weren’t yet born when I built my first Armor.”
Bucky had seen enough battles even in his relatively short lifetime to recognize futility when he saw it, but Steve seemed set to try anyway, so he slipped away, making a beeline for the command quarters. He’d ask Jamie King of the 9th Signal division later for his copies of the Marvels. Maybe there was something about Stark that he was missing.
This wasn’t the first time Tony had been approached by another man, or even a soldier; even with the law on so-called unnatural practices in force, a man with sufficient means (and Tony had more than sufficient means at present for several lifetimes) could comfortably circle discreetly around the problems instituted by laws that dictated how someone led his or her private life.
It was, however, the first time that he’d been approached in a semi-public location and by someone who was so… high profile. Tony almost expected to see Nick Fury looming under the wing of one of the bombers, frowning and waiting for him to slip up, looking to get some sort of leverage to force him into Armor production.
“You should wear gloves,” Captain America was saying, his tone faintly disapproving, as Tony opened the aft onboard panel of the auxiliary Armor, examining the gauges. “You could hurt yourself.”
“Don’t need them.” Tony chewed absently on his lower lip, resetting calibrations with the automation of practice. “You have someplace else to be, Captain?”
Steve looked a little hurt at the flat dismissal, but he seemed to be the stubborn sort. “Not right now, no. Tony-”
“I’m not going drinking with you,” Tony said bluntly, too tired to be kind, “Nor am I going anywhere remotely unsavory, or doing anything that might be remotely in line with what a man with my reputation would be seen to be inclined to do.”
Steve had, unfortunately, a rather adorable expression of puzzlement. “A man of your reputation…?”
“Loose morals, I believe,” Tony recalled offhand. Pepper had enjoyed that particular New York Times article. “Self-entitlement. Flagrant disregard for consequences.”
“You’re getting a little ahead of yourself, if you don’t mind me saying, sir,” Steve suggested, amused now, and he smiled, America’s gorgeous golden poster-boy, pulling back his ridiculous bright blue hood to free his thick mop of cornfield-gold hair, the ludicrous red and white shield at ease by his hip, too young and too perfect for war. “Your adventures are popular with the men, it’d do morale a world of good if you could come by and maybe tell some of your stories.”
“I’m sure that’s a poor commercial decision,” Tony said, though his ego was duly flattered. “I want people to buy my stories, after all.”
“I’m sure we could rustle up some greenbacks, sir,” Steve said innocently, “If you felt like you needed some spare change.”
“Go and talk with my publicist. She disappeared along with my so-called bodyguard,” Tony retorted, ducking his head to concentrate on Rhodey’s Armor, “And pester someone else,” he added tetchily, when Steve didn’t seem to get the point.
“I’ll get you some coffee. You look like you need it,” Steve decided, and Tony growled.
“Look, why don’t you bloody-”
“Hm?” Steve turned around, smiling again, this time lopsided and playful and Tony’s weakened heart tried to beat a little faster around its regulator. He sucked in a breath, grit his teeth.
“Fine. Black, no sugar.”
“Right away, sir.”
SHIELD called Steve in now and then to run tests on his blood, and it was usually a hell of a wait. Bucky spent it alternately dozing on the bench in the waiting room or poking around the cafeteria. Today he had amassed a small stack of esoteric magazines and newspapers via begging them off the lobby receptionists and was sitting by himself at a cafeteria table slowly working through a crossword, when a familiar voice said dryly, “Fancy seeing you here, Mister Barnes. Or is it ‘Sergeant’ now?”
Bucky turned around quickly, scrambling to his feet. He wasn’t in costume, and the square, ceramic and concrete prison-block style room that formed SHIELD’s excuse for a cafeteria wasn’t exactly empty so close to lunch time. As it were, the lunch ladies busy wiping up at the hot bar looked up at them with some curiosity. “Sorry, I think you have the wrong-”
“Same voice, same build, same hair,” Stark said dryly, while beside him, Pepper smiled, sympathetic. “And I haven’t ever seen kids around SHIELD’s Washington headquarters before.”
“I am not a kid,” Bucky snapped hotly, but his glare seemed only to amuse; Stark’s smirk widened, and Pepper looked away hastily. Arguing about secret identities would probably only prove both futile and embarrassing. Besides, he supposed that if it was that obvious to Stark, then it was very likely common knowledge in SHIELD – he’d just have to be careful the next time. “What are you doing here?”
“SHIELD happens to be one of Stark Industries’ biggest clients. I’m taking an interest in energy efficiency, and flight craft. SHIELD’s willing to fund my said interest,” Stark said vaguely, and he did seem dressed for business, all sleek and suited up plus a pressed shirt, a tie, and even a hat; beside him, Pepper was wearing a sober brown skirt, sensible heels and a white blouse, holding a slim briefcase, in all apparent appearances a highly efficient secretary. “Also, I’m trying to winkle some information out of Fury.”
“Good luck with that.”
“I’ve given up for the day,” Stark admitted easily enough, without any hint of irritation or frustration. “Where’s your friend?”
“The Captain? He’s doing some blood tests.”
“Tests?” Stark said, sounding concerned. “Is he hurt?”
“No, they’re routine. Because of the serum,” Bucky elaborated, when Stark and Pepper both seemed surprised. “They want to figure out what makes him tick.”
“You don’t seem a fan of these tests,” Pepper said, perceptive as any word-slinger.
“No. Not really.” Inaction chafed, especially pointless inaction. Bucky had no real idea why SHIELD needed so many regular ‘tests’. Surely old samples of Steve’s blood would be sufficient – but he wasn’t one for conspiracy theories, particularly not in the middle of a World War. Nick Fury was a difficult man to get along with, but so far he had proved himself a reliable and useful ally. “You could drop by and say hi; he’s at the lab.”
“I really don’t think-”
“Sure,” Pepper piped in, with a sidelong smile in profile that her employer wouldn’t have caught. “We’ll do that. Where’s the lab?”
“I know where the medical labs are,” Stark said, a little touchily, his expression hunted. “Pepper, we’re due to fly off to Lithuania, remember? Rhodey and Jarvis are already waiting for us at the air port.”
“Oh come on, it’s not like the plane will take off without us. You own it after all.” Pepper grabbed Stark by the elbow firmly. Sensing mayhem, Bucky followed as Stark’s chronicler dragged him, protesting volubly all the way, towards the medical labs, his complaints punctuated on occasion by directions from either himself or from Bucky as they navigated the sterilized steel and glass complex.
As it was, Pepper almost walked straight into Steve as he emerged from Lab Four, bare-chested save for his dog tags, his white Army-issue shirt folded over his left arm and still talking animatedly with the researcher.
“Tony,” Steve said, startled. “I’m… what are you doing here?”
“I was invited by Fury?”
“Really?” Steve, however, smiled.
“No, I’m actually making off with top secret blueprints right now,” Stark quipped, his expression speculative as he shot Steve an obvious, unhurried once-over. “Yes, really, Captain. And Pepper decided to drag me on over to say hello just as we were about to leave. Which I now have, so we can leave, can’t we?”
“Of course,” Pepper nodded agreeably, and then fell to chatting away with Steve about blood tests and his next military tour and the latest developments in the Pacific until the SHIELD researcher had ambled off someplace else, and they were alone in the steel and tile corridor, their voices giving off a faint, hollow echo. Bucky shifted his weight, impatient to get back to the airbase for their next deployment to France, hoping that Stark would interrupt again and insist on Lithuania, but he was disappointed; Stark was staring thoughtfully at Steve, as though seeing him for the first time, and Bucky wasn’t too sure what to make of that.
He knew that dolls thought the world of Steve, and after Port-Lyautey it was pretty obvious that Steve similarly thought the world of Tony, lurking around the hangar with excuses to talk to Tony, then peppering Fury with questions afterwards when Stark Industries helicopters had arrived for their master and the Armors, but then Tony had seemed so obviously if politely disinterested, and then they’d gotten involved in the scrap at Tunisia. Steve had stopped talking about Tony, and Bucky had thought that the end of the matter.
“… aren’t you, Tony?” Pepper looked expectantly at Tony, and Bucky realized with a start that he (and Tony) had just tuned out the last ten minutes or so.
“Hmm? Oh yes,” Tony said distantly, blinking.
“Dinner tonight with you would be great,” Pepper turned back to Steve. “And Bucky too, of course.”
“Wait, what?” Tony’s ears finally caught up with his brain. “We’re going to Lithuania.”
“The mystic crystal ball or whatever can wait another day or so, Tony.” Pepper smiled, sharp as a knife, and Tony grimaced.
“You could go on a date unsupervised, m’dear. I’m sure I’ll trust the Captain to keep his hands to himself.”
Steve’s ears pinked slightly, but his gaze was steady as he interjected, “It wouldn’t be any fun without you, Tony.”
“And now we’re discussing polyamory in front of a minor,” Tony said with mock horror.
“No, I wasn’t-” Steve said quickly, even as Pepper let out a bark of unladylike laughter and a quick, decisive, “The Captain isn’t my type.”
“Not your type?” Tony asked, genuinely incredulous. “What are you looking for in a man, baby-doll? Angel’s wings? A halo, maybe?”
“If that’s your opinion of the Captain, Tony, be my guest,” Pepper said dryly, and Steve coughed, pinking further. “I know this amazing place just around the corner, the owner’s Italian.”
“Lithuania awaits, Pepper,” Tony disagreed, tipping his hat to Steve before tucking it back at his hip. “Good to see you again, Captain.”
“Tyrant,” Pepper told Tony.
“You don’t have to come along, Miss Potts,” Tony responded pleasantly. “I’m sure I could rope around another chronicler on such short notice.”
“Don’t miss out on an adventure on my part, Pepper,” Steve said earnestly, though there was something of disappointment in how his shoulders slumped a little. “I’ll look forward to reading about it when you get back.”
“I’ll be sure to cast Tony in a particularly unsavory light this time,” Pepper promised, and the pair started back down the corridor, still bickering. Bucky watched, bemused, as Steve stared after them, or more precisely, stared after Tony’s retreating back, looking a little wistful.
“We could go too,” Bucky suggested in a murmur. “Take some leave, go on an adventure.” It sounded like fun, and he didn’t think Tony… or at least Pepper, would find their company unwelcome.
Steve blinked at him, as though startled at his presence, then sighed and carded a big hand through his hair, rubbing at his eyes right after. “Nah. We have a meeting with the brass in fifteen hundred hours. There’s a situation in Austria.”
Tony felt an overwhelming sense of relief once Fury snapped the lead-lined box shut on the Moor Ring, even sagging against the hull of the SHIELD-manned carrier as the persistent, oily sense of malice promptly disappeared. They were an hour’s cruise away from Greenland, heading back towards warmer waters, and Namor’s hurt pride or not, the SHIELD carrier at least had decent central heating.
“Himmler still has one,” Fury said, as he locked the box in another chest on the table of the makeshift war room in the carrier. “And the rest?”
“Someone in the Thule society has another. They’re hiding it from Himmler. Internal politics.” Rhodey said, nursing a freshly broken arm and slouched in a chair, his eyes a little unfocused from painkillers.
Greenland hadn’t been kind to Tony or to his companions; Pepper had bruised cheeks and arms, Jarvis had scrapes and cuts on his back from a bad fall and was sleeping off a mild concussion in the infirmary, and Tony wouldn’t be walking anywhere fast on his own steam for a while, with a bad sprain in his right ankle and the fingers all broken on his left hand. They’d only barely managed to extricate themselves once the Armors had frozen up in the bitter cold, even with the integrated Spear in Tony’s model, and only with the help of Captain America. Steve looked like he was in a foul mood, beside Fury, scowling at the box containing the ring.
“You’re a bloody idiot,” Fury told Tony flatly. “You could have called for help earlier.”
“I didn’t know what the Thule society was holding over there. The chatter we got indicated that they might have found the submerged ruins of Hyperborea, and Namor was interested enough to offer us a ride. Besides,” Tony added, with a placating smile, warm and full of good brandy and painkillers, “I called you, didn’t I?”
“Only once you were captured and your piratical friends were nowhere to be found.”
Tony decided not to mention Namor further; SHIELD and Namor were technically on the opposite sides of the moral spectrum, and pirates, after all, had their own motives. Besides, it wasn’t as though Namor had given up altogether on them; he had been the one who had caused the initial distraction that had allowed Tony time to lock himself in the lab with his Armor and cobble up a radio signal from the onboard systems. After that, Namor had fallen back to regroup, staying in radio contact until the SHIELD carrier had been spotted.
“You took a big risk.” Steve didn’t look happy either. “You didn’t just put yourself in danger-”
Rhodey’s eyes narrowed, but it was Pepper who spoke, her tone clipped. “Mister Stark is a private citizen, Captain, and we as his companions on his adventures are not strangers to risk.”
“Yeah.” Fury glared at them, though Steve grimaced at the rebuke. “You like to ask danger out and treat it to fucking dinner and cocktails. What if we didn’t happen to be cruising more or less close by? You and your Armors would have been scrap or worse by now.”
It was a long day, and Tony had had enough. “I’m going to get some shut-eye,” he told the room in general, and limped grimly out of the war room, managing to hold in the throb of agony snaking out from under the dull numbing of the painkillers until he was fairly sure that he was at a sufficient distance from the war room. Leaning against the cool metal of the hull, Tony let out a pained sound between gritted teeth, and then flinched when someone behind him cleared his throat.
“What… I didn’t hear you.” Tony blinked, looking over his shoulder at Captain Rogers. Either the man walked like a cat for someone so big, or the painkillers were numbing more than just the pain. “Where’s that kid who always tags along with you?”
“He’s organizing a youth initiative back in London,” Steve said, a little wryly. “If he finds out that I got involved in one of your adventures without him, he’d kick himself. Here, let me help you to your cabin.”
“He could always ask Pepper to write him into it. She likes you anyway,” Tony suggested, too strung out from pain to object as Steve gently pulled his uninjured hand over broad shoulders and took his weight as though Tony was as light as a feather. The mail armor scraped uncomfortably at his arm, but Tony was busy breathing deep, curious despite himself, the clean sharp scents from metal, sweat, leather and musk; he was feeling lightheaded when Steve finally got him into the assigned cabin and shut the door, lowering him carefully on the bunk.
“I can do that myself,” Tony said feebly as the Captain knelt down to help him with his shoe on his left foot.
“It’s no trouble,” Steve said, big fingers working with studied concentration on the laces as though he didn’t know how good he looked on his knees, and Tony was swallowing hard and looking away quickly, shifting uncomfortably even through the slowly growing haze of pain. Someone had left more painkillers and a bottle of water on the bolted down side table next to the bunk; Tony swallowed those and washed them down gratefully. Being a sort-of friend ally tolerated person of SHIELD had its perks.
The placebo buzz of the painkillers made Tony nod vaguely when Steve offered to help him with his shirt as well, and his brain only kicked itself back into function at the big, warm hands rubbing slowly up his waist. “So many scars,” Steve said, and he sounded angry, almost, and Tony couldn’t remember outright when the last time had been, when someone had looked at him like he was the beginning and the end of their world, all tender focus and fingers pressing carefully over the marks that the world had left on the canvas of his skin.
Eventually Steve leaned up, lips parted, his hand solid and steady cupped around the nape of Tony’s neck, and Tony folded his arms over mailed shoulders, leaned down, and if he was letting down his guard, it was just going to be this once.
The temple town of Dakshineswar was dusty and scorching hot, and the color of their skin drew excited children of various ages, giggling and pointing as they circled Bucky and Steve in a pack, pointing at their gear and poking at Steve’s shield, until even Steve was laughing and trying to talk to them in sign language, taking off his helmet for a boy to hold and inspect, then a glove for a pair of little twin girls. The other sahibs, apparently, were already here, and it seemed that the children had been assigned to the railway station just to herd them over when they arrived.
It was Bucky’s first time in India, and he wasn’t entirely sure if he was enjoying it. He and Steve hadn’t been involved in the South-east Asian fronts, and although the people had seemed friendly enough when they’d landed in Kolkata and proceeded to make their way to Dakshineswar, Fury had warned them to keep to themselves and not to get into any trouble. It seemed that there was a growing movement in India that was seeking independence from the British, and that the Axis powers were likely fuelling a revolution in the hopes of destabilizing the region. Certainly they had drawn quite a few askance stares in Kolkata, particularly Steve in his famous uniform.
Insects butted at his sweat-sticky skin and lodged themselves in his hair despite Bucky’s half-hearted efforts to bat them away, and the food tended towards ‘spicy’ or ‘very spicy’. Apparently even the water wasn’t safe to drink; SHIELD had loaded them up with bottled water from the military supplies, and had warned them off buying things off the streets. Steve hadn’t listened, once they were out of earshot of the airbase and submerged in a bazaar thick with the scents of curry, spices and ghee, but then, Steve was the one with the enhanced body.
Dakshineswar, thankfully, seemed quieter than Kolkata and its madness of thronging crowds, for all that it was so close to the capital. The uneasy sense of suspicion that pervaded Kolkata seemed to fade in the temple town, and Bucky found himself winking at trio of little girls who had used thumb and forefinger to encircle their eyes to mimic his mask; they fell to delighted laughter, clapping their hands, draped in brilliant, bright sashes.
Tony Stark was smoking, sprawled on a bench at an outdoor coffeehouse, his back pressed against the table, a white shirt rolled up to his elbows, khaki slacks tucked into knee-high boots, looking amused and occasionally fanning himself with a panama hat. Rhodey was pulling faces at a group of children, who gasped and giggled and occasionally reached out with splayed fingers to compare their own coffee-colored skin against Rhodey’s darker hue. The adults were more reserved, whispering and pointing at a respectful distance, or peering out at the noise from the windows of their narrow houses, curious but unafraid; it seemed as though Tony, at least, was a familiar face hereabouts.
“Where are Pepper and Jarvis?” Steve asked once they were close.
“Up on the Hooghly in a fishing boat, observing the temple. Where’s Fury?” Tony arched an eyebrow, squinting at them and shading his eyes briefly with his hat. “You weren’t the backup that I was expecting.”
“Disappointed?” Steve asked, a faint smile playing on his lips that made Rhodey snort and Bucky feel puzzled. There seemed to be a silent conversation taking place under the one he could hear, and he wasn’t quite sure whether to demand to be let into it. Steve had been pulled into the Greenland Gambit (so called by the Marvels issue), but the comic had focused more on the capture and SHIELD’s subsequent rescue. Bucky had been dead jealous that he’d been consigned to London at that point in time.
“I might be,” Tony said, though his eyes were half-lidded and appreciative as he subjected Steve to another long once-over, taking another long, acrid drag of his cigarette, then dropping it onto the ground and grinding his heel upon the ember. “Let’s get moving then.”
“Sure.” Rhodey counted out coins and sweets to delighted kids from his pockets, and the kids solemnly returned Steve’s gear even as Tony began to walk down the street in the direction of the river, thumbs tucked in the pockets of his slacks.
“Sources tell me that one of the Moor rings is held in one of the sanctums of the Kali temples,” Tony said, once Steve and Bucky caught up with him. “It took a few months of paying people to snoop about to narrow it down.”
“To Dakshineswar?” Steve asked. “What tipped you off?”
“Well,” Tony admitted, “I got word that Himmler is targeting it, probably within this week. So I’m not entirely sure whether it’s there, but if Himmler or the Thule are going to take a shot at it, I’ll want to be there to at least make sure that none of the natives get caught in the crossfire.” He caught Bucky’s blink of surprise, and smiled crookedly. “I’m rather fond of India. Particularly up north, they’re an interesting people. And I like the food. ‘Course, you have to be careful where you buy it from, and you need a little resistance to the heat, but it’s good.”
“I don’t think you published that many adventures involving India,” Steve said thoughtfully. “If at all. You had a few pages on Darjeeling during that issue where you were headed to Kathmandu.”
“We only publish the ones where we find something,” Tony pointed out. “But the things you could see, especially when you’re headed up towards Nepal, or through the Silk Road, it humbles you.”
“Didn’t work on you, boss,” Rhodey commented mildly, behind them.
“We might check Angkor next if this is a dead end,” Tony ignored Rhodey. “I hear Fury’s getting close on that one.”
“Maybe after the war,” Steve said slowly, carefully, like he was headed onto a minefield, “If you’ll be willing to take on another pair of hands-”
“Sahib, sahib! ” A young boy interrupted Steve’s tentative suggestion, no more than twelve, pounding up the dusty road from the jetty towards them, thin arms flailing, chattering out a string of his local lingo. Tony listened, frowning, and then he said something sharp in return in the same dialect. The boy nodded and ran back up towards the town, sandals flapping in the dust.
“Himmler’s on the move,” Tony said curtly, starting to walk briskly towards the jetty. “We’d better catch up with Pepper and Jarvis. There’s a small speedboat that we can use, they should be just upriver.”
“Oh… of course.” Steve looked a little defeated, but he trotted quickly after Tony.
“Replaced SHIELD agents, huh.” Rhodey asked Bucky, amused.
“Steve’s idea,” Bucky admitted; Steve had all but begged Fury to let them go in place of the SHIELD agents that had already been assigned; they had been in the helicarrier when the message from Tony had come in.
It wasn’t as though Steve was bothering to hide what was now probably more than an infatuation. Homosexuals and bisexuals couldn’t serve in the Army, and Bucky was fairly certain that Fury had taken Steve aside to give him a few warnings, but there seemed to be something about Tony Stark that was causing Steve to throw caution to the wind. “Do you know how hard it is to get a Marvels subscription in a war zone?”
“I’ll talk to our publishing team,” Rhodey said, poker faced. “Do you know how hard it is to get a copy of American newspapers in Nepal? Let alone American newspapers featuring Captain America’s exploits?”
“So it’s like that,” Bucky said, surprised despite himself. He’d rather thought that Tony wasn’t interested. As far as he knew, Steve and Tony didn’t even correspond; logistically, it was probably impossible, particularly with Tony’s traveling schedule. And besides, for someone as rich and well connected as Tony, finding anyone to warm his bed wouldn’t be a problem; he couldn’t be lonely.
“Yeah.” Rhodey nodded. “Next month Tony will be in New York, though. He has to go back once a year for a month or so, invent something to keep his company bigwigs happy, meet and greet and pretend that he’s still the CEO.”
“Oh.” Bucky thought over his schedules quickly. After this they were due to be deployed back on the European front, but perhaps Steve could make some arrangements. “Good to know. Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.” Rhodey grinned broadly. “The month is meant to be downtime for the rest of us, but Tony usually uses it to make more trouble than he’s worth. Maybe this time I can even spend the whole of it with the missus without having to come haring down to New York to help clean up a mess.”
“You are a very determined young man,” Tony said, startled to find Steve lounging in a plush chair in the sumptuous lobby of the Oberoi Grand Kolkata, ostensibly reading a paper. Eyeing the battered suitcase beside Steve’s feet, Tony added, “And a very presumptuous one.”
“I might just be waiting for check in,” Steve affected hurt, though the smile was in his eyes. “Into my own room.”
“No doubt,” Tony said dryly. “Well, come on, then.”
Steve picked up his suitcase, absolutely unselfconscious, and thankfully unrecognizable as Captain America in civilian clothing; an old shirt and an equally old pair of slacks, far more underdressed than even the janitor sweeping the floor in a corner of the lobby. The manager at the concierge seemed mildly scandalized as Tony asked for his keys and led Steve towards the lifts, but the hotel, at least, could be trusted to be discreet about gossip, and it was too late in the afternoon and too early in the evening for many guests to be up and about in the lobby.
Steve was wise enough not to talk until Tony had locked them into the luxury suite, the suitcase propped against a low table and a suspiciously familiar, fairly flat wrapped up package with straps leant against a couch. “I can’t go anywhere without it any longer,” Steve admitted, slightly embarrassed, as he noticed Tony staring at the covered shield.
“You travel light.”
“You’re not going to be here that long.” Steve smiled. “And I don’t have that much leave. Bucky went back to the States before me, with Fury.”
“So did Pepper and Rhodey. Jarvis is seeing some friends in Kolkata.” Tony folded his arms, the answering smile he couldn’t help playing on his lips. “So that leaves just us, and a woefully under-appreciated luxury suite, and quite a few hours till dinner.”
“You came back to the hotel earlier than I’d thought. If you’re tired,” Steve said, big hands curling around Tony’s hips, “We could just-”
“And waste time and my money?” Tony leaned up for his kiss, and allowed Steve to press up against him, tongues slipping and sliding into each other’s mouths, curling his fingers into spiky, short blonde hair until he felt a rumbling moan against him and Steve’s cock stir against his hip. “The bed’s in the other room.”
“Oh?” Steve asked, his tone teasing as he rubbed the flat of his palm slowly and tenderly up the small of Tony’s back, pulling up his shirt, his hands hot and rough.
“Want to see whether I can put you through it?”
Steve’s eyes darkened, and the next kiss was harder, more demanding, palms pressed over Tony’s cheeks and stroking down to his shoulders, walking them slowly backwards until the back of Tony’s knees hit the edge of the four-poster, and Tony let out a soft huff as Steve pushed him down onto the thick quilt and clambered on up over him. “I’ve had to wait a long time,” Steve told him, when Tony made a huff of protest, and he caught the lobe of Tony’s ear briefly in his teeth, making him hiss and moan. “You’re a difficult man to pin down.”
“I don’t see you having problems, Captain.” Tony rolled his hips up pointedly against Steve’s thigh, and the younger man growled, mouthing down against his jaw.
“I meant in general.” Steve was unbuttoning his shirt, straddling his hips, a noticeable bulge growing in his slacks, and Tony couldn’t help but reach forward and give it an experimental squeeze. Steve gasped, fingers faltering as he pushed his hips into Tony’s fingers, moaned as they rubbed down further and carefully cupped the weight of his balls through the fabric, then back up again with another teasing squeeze that made Steve groan and curl his free hand over Tony’s shoulders.
“It’s hard to keep a forwarding address when you’re always rooting around the ends of the earth.”
“I know… ah, I meant—” Steve was panting now, shallowly, and he hadn’t even managed to get Tony’s shirt off, “—like Dak… Dakshineswar, you could have told me, oh, that you were coming to Kolkata afterwards, I had to wheedle it… ngh… out of Fury.”
“I hope you didn’t promise him any favors.” Tony decided to take pity on Steve, unbuttoning his own shirt and shrugging out of it, even as shaky fingers started to work on the buckle of his belt.
“I wouldn’t have had to if you’d told me. Rhodey told Bucky that you were headed back to New York.”
“Eventually, yes,” Tony said vaguely. Rhodey had grudgingly agreed to provide the feint, despite his friend’s reservations about the matter; Rhodey genuinely liked Steve and Bucky, and it had taken a lot of talking before he’d agreed to shade down the truth a little. Tony was expected back in New York, but only in his own time; his company had given up trying to control him a long time ago.
Steve sighed, and looked him straight in the eye. “Tony, I recognize that I’ve been pretty forward on this, but if you really, absolutely, didn’t want to-”
“I really, absolutely want to.” Tony rubbed his own erection pointedly up between Steve’s legs, causing the Captain to sit up straight with a soft gasp. “That’s also the problem: I have no self-control where you’re involved.”
“What problem?” Steve was busy trying to tug down Tony’s pants, muscles flexing distractingly under his thin shirt, and Tony’s mouth was going dry as he reached up to run his palms over the hard lines admiringly; then Steve had managed to free his cock, closing his thick fingers over it lightly and grinning as Tony whined deep in his throat and pushed into the faint pressure. “Tony?”
“You said you had a problem?” Steve squeezed the base and dragged his palm up and it was delicious.
“Uh.” Tony tried to concentrate, even as his toes curled in his shoes and he dug his fingers into Steve’s shoulders. “You realize I can’t think straight right now?”
“Maybe,” Steve said with mock innocence as he gave Tony’s cock a final squeeze and then pulled him up further on the bed, stroking down to his calf to pull off his right shoe, then his left. “How about now?”
“You must have this thing for shoes,” Tony said dryly, though he squirmed obligingly until his pants and his underwear were strewn on the floor and watched hungrily as Steve began to pull off his shirt. “I guess there isn’t one right now. In fact this is turning out to be a great idea.”
“We can have some fun, and then afterwards you’d stop pestering me,” Tony said, warming to the said idea; he couldn’t quite remember why he’d been against it in the first place. It wasn’t as though he wasn’t used to being-
“Wait.” Steve frowned, his fingers freezing as he worked on his own belt, “What do you mean, afterwards?”
“We’re both speaking English, I do think.”
“No,” Steve persisted, leaning back up over him, big hands on either side of Tony’s head. “You think I… this isn’t going to be a once off thing, is it?”
Steve made a choked sound, his hands curling tight in the sheets, suddenly tense, and he asked, tightly, “Is… is that what you want?”
“Isn’t it what you want?” Tony asked, puzzled. “Well, I guess I’m open to a couple of repeats-”
“Tony,” Steve said firmly, his eyes narrowed. “It’s not what I want.”
“Really?” Tony arched an eyebrow, his smile cynical. “Fury told Rhodey that you had a girl back home.”
“The word there is ‘had’, and I thought you’d know better than to listen to what Fury tells you. Fury’s of the opinion that, private life or not, if I slip up, it’d be disaster for morale or something.” Steve’s expression was twisted now, he was angry, Tony realized with a start. “Tony, I’m crazy about you. Hell, if I could, I’d have proposed to you by now. It kills me that you keep disappearing on me, that I never know when I’d next see you or what you’re doing until I see the latest copy of Marvels in the barracks mess hall!”
“Ah,” Tony said, because there wasn’t much that he could think of offhand to say to that, then his brain tried a little harder. “I see.”
“God. I’m going to have it out with Nick,” Steve muttered, slumping down to bury his face against Tony’s neck, tense even as Tony tentatively stroked his hands down his back, kneading, until Steve sighed and pressed butterfly kisses up towards Tony’s jaw and licked into his mouth, tangling their tongues, sloppy and rough until they both broke, gasping harshly for breath, their foreheads pressed together; Tony felt the flutter of Steve’s lashes against his brow and closed his eyes, trying to even his breathing.
“I’m headed to Mongolia after this,” Tony said, raising his eyes up to the rich, embroidered earth-brown drapes that framed the antique bed.
“You said you wanted to know what I’m doing. Fury tells me that the Japanese are poking around there. Supposed to have some sort of great treasure. I think it’s a wild goose chase, but I haven’t been to Mongolia before, so I’m open to a sponsored trip. We’ll be there for a couple of months, and then I’ll be taking a flight over to England to check on an old friend in Oxford.”
“Oh.” Steve sounded surprised. “Okay. I can be in London around that time, I think.”
“Good.” Tony pushed lightly at Steve’s shoulders. “Now why don’t you get back to what you were doing before my attack of idiocy?”
“It was more of a misunderstanding on both our parts,” Steve said generously, though he obliged, getting back up on his knees as he pulled off his belt.
“Let the older man be the mature party here,” Tony said, watching appreciatively as Steve wriggled out of his slacks, reaching out to curl his fingers around the thick, long erection and stroke it, until Steve was groaning and mouthing urgently over his shoulders, teeth rasping against his skin as Tony rubbed his thumb up and over the wet slit. “Do you have a rubber?”
“Y-yeah.” Steve reluctantly pulled away to fish about in the pockets of his slacks, and he flushed when Tony grinned at him and arched an eyebrow. “They’re easily available, so everyone in my unit keeps a few. They’re useful.”
“No, really,” Steve said earnestly, pulling out a nondescript packet and even a small tube, apparently about to describe the non-sexual use of condoms and lubricant—at least until Tony leaned up to take the packet from him and push him back down onto the pillows.
Tony was decidedly rusty, but Steve still panted and made interesting whimpering noises when he carefully took him into his throat, his jaw feeling the stretch as he swallowed slowly, stroking what he couldn’t take and rubbing his tongue over what he could; Steve was big, and Tony was going to be hoarse after this, but he sucked hard and bobbed his head anyway, moaning as Steve gasped his name and clawed his hands into the sheets, his gorgeous body straining at the effort of not moving.
When the bitter, sharp taste was becoming more pronounced and Steve was writhing under him and jamming his heels into the sheets beside Tony’s knees, Tony gave the thickened head a last, playful lick and drew back to lube up his fingers, ignoring Steve’s pitchy moan of disappointment. Then Steve was pushing down on the first finger, with a dry, harsh gasp, and God if that wasn’t bloody hot.
“You do this often?” Tony asked, as he pushed his finger in to the knuckle, stroking up at the hot, velvet heat around it.
“No, not… not often…” Steve’s voice cracked. “I can take another one. Now.”
“Pushy,” Tony rebuked, though he grinned and obeyed, scissoring to stretch; Steve’s eyes were closed, his brow furrowed in concentration as he forced himself to relax, his thighs spread wide; arching and pressing his cheek into the pillows as Tony bent back down over his flushed prick, grazing his teeth carefully over the blunt head and following it with a rough lap.
“Come on, that’s enough.” Steve reached out and tugged insistently at his shoulders when Tony managed to work in a third finger, and added a broken, “Please,” when Tony didn’t immediately comply, stroking his fingers in and curling them up until Steve whined deep in his throat and jerked. “Tony!”
“Keep your voice down,” Tony admonished, amused, though he hastily rolled the rubber onto himself and slicked up, then braced his palms on Steve’s hips as he pushed in, gasping and shuddering when Steve clenched tight over him with a hungry moan. “Jesus… ease up, Steve, relax, I can’t… ah,” he choked out a groan as Steve’s body gave, so very obligingly, until he was fully hilted, pulling Steve’s ankles up to his shoulders with ease, his free hand pumping Steve’s cock leisurely until Steve pushed into his grasp, biting at his lower lip, his eyes hot and dark with lust.
“How do you want this?” Tony asked, when he managed to find his voice, and promptly lost it again when Steve instantly replied, roughly, “Hard.”
It took a few attempts and a pillow relocated under Steve’s hips for Tony to find the perfect angle that made Steve twist up in ecstasy under him and cry out; then Steve had his fingers curled up into the headboard and the edge of the bed, bucking back as much as he could into Tony’s thrusts, his handsome face slack and open with desire as Tony pounded into him, the four-poster bed creaking and groaning beneath them. Steve tensed up and turned quickly to sink his teeth into the remaining pillow to stifle his cries when he shattered, messy and thick, over Tony’s fingers, moaning as Tony rode it out, rolling his hips and clenching his teeth, waiting until the shaking subsided into a boneless sprawl and a lazy, sated smile before letting his fraying control slip, pleasure pushing him gasping over the edge.
“I can be in Kolkata for a few more days,” Tony told Steve afterwards, as they lay curled on the bed in a tangle of sweaty limbs, his head tucked under Steve’s chin. “Since you haven’t been here before, and all that.”
“Okay,” Steve said, sleepily, squeezing his hand. Lips brushed briefly over his forehead, all tender familiarity. Tony was fairly sure that he could get used to this.
The funeral was a State affair, complete with a flag-draped procession towards the Arlington National Cemetery. The coffin was empty, and even weighted down; it was obvious to Bucky, standing silently next to Tony, the priest’s words forgotten noise as he stared thin-lipped at Roosevelt, spade in hand. Beside Tony, Pepper was red-eyed under her black veil, Jarvis pale and silent behind her. Rhodey had been relegated to the audience, possibly because of the color of his skin or because of the already burgeoning crowd, but Tony had seemed to be too heartsick and too tired to argue the point with Fury, and Rhodey had murmured a quick word to Pepper when she had opened her mouth to object, and then he had shaken his head at Bucky when he had taken a step forward.
Tony looked away at the “Amen”, and clenched his fingers tightly as the first spade-full of dirt scattered on the coffin’s embossed lid. Bucky knew how he felt; it was like the world ending, the remainder all dull static. Bucky had lost a friend; Tony, it seemed, had lost far more.
Fury caught up with them when Bucky was following Tony and the others towards the waiting car, having picked up Rhodey from the rope line. “Tony.”
“What do you want, Fury?” Tony asked, and Bucky was barely able to recognize his own voice, a quiet, flat sound.
“You couldn’t have been there.”
“I know.” Tony had been in Siberia, investigating an abandoned mine, when Steve and Bucky had done the insane and jumped on a missile in some crazy attempt to disarm it. Bucky had fallen, and gotten away from it with only a few broken ribs. Steve had still been on the missile when it had exploded, far in the distance. “If you’re here to talk to me about my Armor and what-could-have-beens, fucking save it.”
Fury regarded him soberly, his single eye narrowed, then he looked away, fishing in his pockets for a cigar. “I wasn’t.”
“Then? The war’s over, Fury. Leave me alone.”
“You’re going with Bucky?”
“He’ll be coming with us for a while.” Tony shrugged, shaking his head when Fury offered him a cigar. “I’ll take care of him.”
“I asked,” Bucky said quickly, before Fury could object.
“Good. I guess that’s one less thing to worry about.” Fury eyed him briefly, as though gauging his willingness. “Where are you headed?”
“Why do you care? I’m a private citizen.”
“The Moor Rings-”
“Fuck the rings, leave the last one where it’s at. The war’s over, isn’t it? And Himmler is dead.”
“The Thule Society isn’t gone.”
“That’s a SHIELD problem then.” Seeing Fury’s scowl, Tony set his jaw. “I’m going to find Namor, poke around the North Atlantic.”
“What?” Fury looked genuinely surprised. “What for?” Then the dots seemed to add up. “If you’re looking for a body, you’re going to be looking for a fucking pin in a sea of haystacks full of fish that eat pins.”
“Tony, Steve was a good friend to me. If there was a running chance that we could get back his body and give him a proper burial, I’ll be manning the ship personally. We’ve already searched the possible landing spots extensively, Bucky could tell you that. You’ve got to learn to let go, Tony.”
“I’m done with chasing artifacts and dead men’s toys.” Tony jammed his hands into the pockets of his suit as they reached the sleek black car. “And until I find a body, I’m not going to let it be. You’ll have to chase the Ring up in Angkor your fucking self.”
“All right,” Fury said neutrally. He was still looking on after them, smoking, as the car pulled away from the cemetery.
Tony sat on a chair beside the bunk, barely able to breathe. The consoles indicated that all lifesigns were normal, amazingly normal, for all that Steve had been frozen in ice for half a decade. Captain America slept, the big hand that Tony held in his grasp only faintly cooler than normal, the only indication of the miracle that had just happened.
The engines of the Lady Dorma gave the entire ship a constant background hum as her captain turned the submarine back towards warmer waters, back towards civilization. After a year, Namor had been ready to give up the search; only Tony’s willingness to build him other submarines, faster, more specialized, had him persevering, if grudgingly. After two, Pepper had returned to New York, taken up an editor’s position at the New York Times. After three, Rhodey had returned, under pressure from his family, and after four, Fury had recalled Bucky, to take up leadership of the Invaders. Jarvis had stuck by him, maintaining the Armors in the hull of the Dorma, even as they had been modified extensively for underwater use.
And then the breakthrough had come through one of Namor’s sources, with his territory expanded through the three new submarines that Tony had built for him, they had found Steve frozen in the ice in an Inuit village, worshipped by the bloody natives. Tony hadn’t been sure whether to laugh or cry at the news; they’d spend so long scouring the sea and the ice, only to find Steve on land.
It had been Namor who had noticed that Steve, despite all odds, was still breathing.
Tony turned the big palm over in his hands, and rubbed his thumb over the lifeline, slow and unsteady, then he flinched as Steve stirred, coughing, his eyes squeezing tighter, then Steve opened them, blinking, sitting up sharply and slumping against the hull, legs tangled in the sheets.
“Steve! Steve, it’s me. I’ve got you.” Tony leaned forward quickly to grab Steve by the shoulders. “I’ve got you, calm down.”
Steve stared at him blankly, then as Tony thought brain damage with a sinking heart, shakily reached forward and rubbed his thumbs up over the beard that Tony shaved now and then whenever he remembered, frowning. “Tony?” His voice was scratchy from lack of use, and he cleared his throat. “Oh my God. Tony.”
“It’s me,” Tony said, relieved. “You’re back.”
“I was… I was… there was a missile,” Steve said, frowning. “Bucky and I… where’s Bucky?”
“He’s all right. He’s leading the Invaders.”
“Leading the…?” Steve’s hand crept up, to his sideburns, and he said, his tone wondering, “Silver. How long have I been out?”
“Five years,” Tony said, now a little self-conscious. He hadn’t really registered the graying hair, but it hadbeen five years of self-reproach and regret. He probably looked a fright now, paler, older, with darker rings under his eyes, hair starting to silver. “I, uh-”
“Makes you look distinguished.” Steve smiled, lopsided and adoring, and Tony’s reservations eroded as he was pulled down for a sloppy kiss, their teeth scraping together as uncoordinated hands dragged him close too fast, and they ended up in a sprawl over the bunk, Tony chuckling as he finally pulled up for air.
“I forgot, you have an older men fetish.”
“I have a Tony Stark fetish,” Steve corrected, unrepentant, curling his arms around Tony’s waist to hold him in place. “Is the war over?”
“The war’s over.”
“Good,” Steve said feelingly. “We won?”
“All right?” Tony teased, lightheaded as Steve managed to roll them over and reverse their positions. “Is that all you’re going to say?”
“I’ll think of something more suitable for the papers in time.” Steve said, more seriously, leaning back down to slant their mouths together, the beginning to their second chance warm and wet and sweet.