Howard Stark did not believe in morning meetings.
It was only out of respect for Dr. Erskine that he found himself entering the makeshift laboratory at Pine Camp to discuss Operation: Rebirth with the doctor and a Private Steven Rogers. That the meeting was scheduled at seven o’clock when he had been testing the design of the project’s pneumatically sealed chamber late into the night, schematics in one hand and vodka tonic in the other, led him to close the door gingerly.
Howard’s best intentions to avoid any clamor were thwarted; rich laughter echoed throughout the laboratory, hinting at a pleasant baritone that would have normally appealed to him when he was sober. But as it was, he could only groan and bring one shaking hand to rub at his aching temples. When he gained enough composure to turn to the room’s two other occupants, Howard suddenly regretted not addressing his disheveled appearance prior to leaving his quarters.
Rogers was a slight man, more haggard than willowy. Despite his stature, he looked formidable in his perfectly pressed brown dress uniform, hair combed back in a tidy part, hands clutched behind his back. What truly caught Howard’s attention was was not the broad grin on Rogers’ face, but rather the mirrored expression of fondness that transformed Dr. Erskine’s own. The German doctor was not a sullen man, but political exile had given him a severe edge rarely dulled by the gentle warmth he exhibited now.
“Dr. Erskine, Private Rogers,” Howard said as gathered himself, sweeping into the room with a flourish carefully crafted over the years. The kind that belied the throbbing pain in his head. Rogers straightened out and extended a hand to his, giving a firm handshake, neither limp nor unyielding. This pleased Howard; he had little time for men who cowered, or even worse, overcompensated. Still, a modicum of self-assurance could not nullify the fact that the young man appeared an atrocious test subject. Rogers really was a spare fellow, and Howard wondered if the project would be undone by Dr. Erskine’s renaissance of sentimentality.
“I’m glad to finally meet the man who Dr. Erskine believes possesses the greatness to shepherd this project,” Howard managed to muster even as he pictured a million dollars flowing through Rogers’ veins, killing the young man, killing Howard’s dream of transmogrification at the metabolic level, and killing the Allied Forces’ hope of every winning this damnable war. “But, such as we are made of, such we be, right?” Howard said with a pointed look at his colleague.
“Fortune forbid my outside have not charmed thee,” Steve responded, his tone teasing rather than bitter, the faintest pulse of a Brooklyn accent edging out the contours of his words. Howard turned to the small man in surprise. His voice was as deep and earthy as his laughter suggested, but there was no way Howard could have predicted the sharp wit that accompanied it.
It no longer seemed so surprising that this little runt of a soldier might have managed to get under the good doctor’s skin. Scientists, after all, were always attracted to the paradoxical.
Margaret Carter was a magnificent woman. Howard particularly liked her immaculate lips, carmine in color and perfect in shape. They distracted Howard even now as she berated him for initiating this new experiment.
“Did it ever occur to you that you’re presenting a weapon against Steven to our enemies?”
“That’s the point, isn’t it?”
She lowered her voice, frustration written in her hushed tones. “You delight in being right all the time, but your arrogance could cost Steven his life. It’s highly unlikely anyone else alive today would be able to formulate a compound that could actually subdue him, especially without Dr. Erskine’s notes!” Howard was unable to hide his grin now. Her cheeks flushed just so when she was angry.
“I’m not saying it to compliment you. You’re going to get him killed just to prove that you can undo man’s finest creation as easily as you built it.”
Howard envisioned Steve’s body sprawled unnaturally, pale and lifeless in some godforsaken wasteland of the war, and his smile slipped. He had grown inexplicably fond of the young man over the past month. Apparently, so had Agent Carter for the hefty offense she launched against him. When she spoke again, it was in fierce, clipped tones, “You must promise me no harm will come to him because of you.”
They stared at each other. The moment, tense with emotions neither would ever admit, was finally broken when Steve entered the laboratory. The novelty of seeing the young man’s new physique had yet to wane, and Howard, glad to drop Agent Carter’s heated gazed, appreciatively took in Steve’s broad shoulders dipping down to a slim but firm waist, carried by long and well-muscled legs. Howard had thought Agent Carter blushed prettily, but the rosy hue that lit Steve’s face as he looked from Agent Carter back to Howard made him grin wolfishly.
“Am I interrupting something? I can come back later,” he said gesturing towards the open door. Naturally, Steve had misunderstood the swelter in the laboratory as caused by something other than a petty territorial dispute.
“No, we were just finishing, Steven,” Agent Carter said sweetly, patting his shoulder as she passed him to exit the room.
Howard called out to her after a beat. She turned to him, her face cool and indifferent. “I promise,” he said softly. She slowly nodded once, satisfied. It occurred to Howard, then, that only he was able to recognize the uncertainty in his own voice.
“If you haven’t broken a heart in every country, you’re not doing it right.”
Steve’s lips curled up for a second, as he pressed down the cotton ball against his pierced skin, the crimson droplet disappearing from Howard’s view. “That seems a little…destructive.”
“Perhaps,” Howard said smirking. Memories of his first affair abroad returned to him, pale white limbs entangled with his. It was a challenge to not replace the phantom remembrance of soft curves with the image of masculine divinity before him. No matter how wealthy he was, society would not accept him if they discovered his pathological desire for both female and male lovers. He carefully deposited the syringe on a metal tray, and removed his gloves with a quick snap, choosing to instead focus on the task at hand. “Any reactions?”
Steve concentrated for a second, diligently mapping his muscles and reflexes as Howard had instructed during the first trial three weeks ago. He shook his head after a moment, disappointment appearing on his face just as quickly as it left. “None.”
Howard considered his calculations again before shutting his laboratory notebook. He leaned against the counter, arms crossed. “So, what were you planning to do, then?”
“Planning to do?” Steve asked as he grabbed his jacket, perfectly formed muscles stretching as he fitted them into the sleeves of his brown dress uniform. It was of the same style he had worn when Howard had first met him, just as fastidiously pressed, if not a few sizes larger.
“Yes, planning to do once you came to Europe. Surely your travel itinerary included more than soldiering your way across the Occupied Territories. Why else would someone come here if not for the conquest of land or the conquest of love?”
Howard shifted under the weight of Steve’s gaze. He no longer feared reprobation from Steve; he was noble without being sanctimonious, thank God. It was the clarity of Steve’s mind that unnerved Howard. He knew it was only a matter of time before Steve realized he was delaying finding a sedative that could actually combat the younger man’ superior biology, happily dragging his feet through the marshes of failure if it meant spending more time in the soldier’s company.
But Steve’s expression only turned tender. “When this is all over, I’m going to Osburg. I would like it if you came with me.”
After two weeks of additional testing, Howard was comforted by the belief that he would fail. No man ever would be able to harm Steve with a biochemical weapon.
But Howard should have known better than to tempt fate by wading in the delicate springs of early happiness. He recognized his mistake the instant Steve stumbled back, placing one hand tentatively on the laboratory’s examination table, the other reaching forward for what Howard could not tell. “I feel strange,” he said as his gaze slipped, loosely aimed at somewhere over Howard’s shoulder.
“Strange,” he repeated, words slurring together. Steve’s knees crumpled, and although Howard leapt forward to take on Steve’s significant muscle mass, the painful thud sounded of future bruises. Steve’s head lolled against his shoulder, one hand weakly clutched at Howard’s laboratory jacket. Through half-lidded eyes, full of trust, he stared at Howard in wonderment. “You did it,” he muttered.
But Howard enjoyed no sense of delight in having achieved his goal. He felt the warm puffs of air through his thin dress shirt as Steve’s breath evened out, eyes fluttering shut. He looked peaceful. Ever since Sergeant Barnes’ death, Steve had bordered on morose underneath his quiet civility. “At least there is that,” he whispered.
After insuring Steve’s vitals were stable, Howard removed his jacket, maneuvering Steve off his shoulder and on to the ground, pillowing the soft cotton underneath the young man’s head. He looked around the lab, ready to call out for help when it occurred to him that at half past midnight there would be no one around. Steve had insisted they continue with the experiment even though his tour against Schmidt had escalated. This required additional trial tests, sometimes two or three in one day. It was not the most scientifically sound procedure but necessity demanded it.
With a sigh, Howard made to stand up but the warmth of Steve’s hand resting against his ankle gave him pause. Steve could be described in many ways: honorable and dependable, clever and empathetic. But never vulnerable. Even standing at five feet, Steve’s fortitude shone through in the surety of his speech and the goodness of his spirit.
But now all Howard could see was the man’s vulnerability and he was overcome with long-suppressed desire. Howard stayed kneeling, enraptured by the even, rhythmic movement of Steve’s respirations, the broad chest expanding and contracting. After a moment, he found himself bringing a shaking hand to Steve’s face. His fingers trembled as they traced the young man’s jawline and the velvet of his lips.
Howard trailed the hand down to the juncture of Steve’s collarbone. His skin felt warm and tempting, and when he pressed down against the muscles of his pectorals, Steve did not shift. There was just the constant beating of his heart, slow and even compared to the pounding within Howard’s own head.
As his hand dipped lower along the valleys of muscle to coarse hair and soft flesh, his promise to Agent Carter seemed a faint memory from another man’s life.
Steve greeted him with a warm smile when he found him in the pub the next day, eyes crinkled at the corners, hair uncharacteristically unkempt. Howard frowned; that expression of mirth should have been reserved only for the memories of two men far greater than he.
“You seem terribly excited for someone who has just awakened from a state of sedation and is heading to war in twelve hours,” Howard groused. He rapped the bar-top twice, gesturing to his empty glass when the bartender approached.
Steve’s smile faltered for a moment. Of course he did not understand, and Howard, in the moment it took for Steve’s face to appear a shade more wounded than winsome, swore to make sure Steve never did. Whatever Steve had originally planned to say was sidetracked by Howard’s hostility. “You weren’t there when I woke up,” he somehow said without a hint of accusation.
Howard could not find the words to respond. He was a shill and far worse. He finished his drink in one gulp, slamming it down, before turning to Steve. He looked at Howard with complete openness, totally devoid of the guile that seemed to accompany all the other discontents of modernity. How had Howard allowed himself to think he could actually befriend, even love, someone as noble as Steve without sullying the very air they shared with his disease?
“I wanted to thank you. I know it wasn’t the intention of the project, but you gave me peace yesterday. After all that’s happened, I wasn’t sure if I would ever feel that again,” Steve confessed quietly, his face smoothed by a vulnerability Howard was only now able to recognize much to his chagrin. He felt the hysteria rise within him as flashes of unblemished skin and soft warmth overwhelmed his senses, but Steve continued to look at him expectantly. His face colored with embarrassment although he stood his ground.
He was clearly asking Howard for something, a gentle reminder of his humanity.
“You’re welcome. All men are men, the best sometimes forget.”