October 14, 1781 – The Siege at Yorktown, Virginia
Despite the low-hanging blue smoke of gunpowder and the pervasive musty smell of earth and blood, Steve could still smell the tang of the sea from his position in the first parallel trench five hundred yards inland. The knowledge that the Chesapeake bay—and beyond that, the open sea—was so close sustained Steve in the darker moments of close combat. He avoided a vicious bayonet thrust and used his remaining pistol shot to take out a British soldier.
Steve and the reckless or possibly mad Colonel Alexander Hamilton had been assigned the task of leading the Rhode Island Light Infantry to overtake two sections of the British defenses surrounding Yorktown. They had the easier job of the two; redoubt number nine still had most of its sharpened wood spikes protecting it, making it a gruelling task for their French allies to overtake the position.
Steve knocked the enemy soldier to the ground with the butt of his gun and tried not to think about the last time he'd been in close combat such as this: when he'd been at sea aboard the Avenger.
Hamilton appeared next to him, a smear of blood across his sharp nose and an ax in one hand. "Looks like that does it," he said, catching his breath. "I'll let Lafayette know we're clear to start the second trench if you'll tell Barnes he can start moving the artillery forward."
"Yes, sir," said Steve. Hamilton slung his ax over one shoulder and squinted in the direction of the bay.
"Lord, I hate to see that French fleet leave tomorrow," he said. "We'll have to work twice as hard to keep Cornwallis pinned down so he can't try to slip out, the weasel." With that, Hamilton was gone again. Steve watched him pick his way over rubble both earthen and human, and tried desperately not to think about the salt of the sea air.
* * *
September 5, 1781 – New London, Connecticut
On most days, Captain Steven Rogers of the Continental Army thought the world of George Washington. As he and Lieutenant Barnes approached New London, Connecticut, however, Steve had to wonder if the general had thought the current plan through very well. Bucky seemed to agree.
"Has he lost his mind?" the lieutenant demanded.
"Bucky, that's not the sort of thing you ask about your commander-in-chief," said Steve. There were few soldiers Steve trusted as completely as he trusted Bucky, but the junior officer was young and had a habit of speaking his mind that did not always serve them well.
Bucky scowled. "Why not? It seems like a question that should be asked more often. I'd like to know if the man in charge of this whole mess is crazy or not." Steve simply shook his head and urged his tired horse into the town.
New London was a hornets' nest of privateer activity, and as such had remained relatively unscathed during the war with the British. There was no need for any person sympathetic to the rebel cause to hide their rebellious inclinations. Henry Pym, proprietor of the largest tavern in the city, had long advertised that any Patriot was more than welcome as long as he could pay his tab. As a result, Pym never had a shortage of customers.
To Steve, Pym's tavern was a home away from home, and a welcome sight after the nonstop ride from Washington's headquarters at Philipsburg. Steve and Bucky patronized Pym's establishment fairly regularly after war broke out, but Steve had not been back to New London since his last drink—on the house, thanks to Hank and Jan—as a newly-minted Captain in the Continental Army. Nearly all the tables were occupied, but Bucky found one in a corner. Hank waved at them from where he was engaged in rowdy conversation with a group of customers on the other side of the room. His wife Janet wandered over bearing two ales and a big grin. She somehow managed to gracefully navigate between the tables in her wide skirt and not spill a drop from the pewter mugs.
"It's good to see you, Jan," said Steve, leaning close so she could hear him over the din.
"I didn't know you were back in town," said Jan, squeezing Steve's shoulder and giving Bucky a big kiss on the cheek. He wrinkled his nose, but didn't otherwise object. "What's the occasion?"
"General Washington's sent us on an errand of some importance."
Bucky snorted into his ale. "You mean he's sent us on a wild goose chase."
Jan raised an eyebrow. "Maybe I can help," she said. "You see and hear a lot of things in a place like this. I should have been a spy."
Steve laughed. "You would make an excellent spy, Jan."
"Nobody suspects the tavern wench," she said with a grin.
Growing more serious, Steve glanced around to be sure no one was listening. The rumble of a dozen conversations meant they could speak quietly without much worry. "What do you know of Iron Man?"
Jan pulled up a chair. In a conspiratorial tone she replied, "If you want to know about Iron Man, then you need to know about Anthony Stark."
"Do you know him?" Bucky asked, surprised.
"His father and my father did business together. I've known him since I was ten years old."
Steve gazed thoughtfully into his mug of ale for a moment before asking, "How receptive do you think he'd be to the idea of allowing Iron Man to act as a privateer for the Continental Navy?" Steve and Bucky intended to ask Stark himself, but Stark was gone on business. Steve wasn't sure what that meant, exactly, and the plucky red-headed maid at Stark Manor had been less than forthcoming. In any case, they had a few days to talk to Iron Man himself about accepting the letter of marque currently in Steve's coat pocket. Perhaps if they could persuade him before they even spoke to Stark about it, Iron Man could make the process easier.
"If that's what you're after, then good luck," Jan said with a laugh. "Tony's as stubborn as he is brilliant, and if he wants to keep Iron Man as a private employee, he will."
"As a pirate, you mean," said Bucky.
Steve shot him a look. "Why, Jan?"
Jan shrugged. "Tony is an entrepreneur."
"That's not the only thing I've heard he is," Bucky muttered. Steve kicked him under the table. "What? The man's a libertine."
"You don't know that," said Steve.
"He was a notorious flirt when he was thirteen. I can't imagine he's changed," Jan admitted.
"See?" said Bucky.
"In any case," Jan continued, "he doesn't really care about war or who's fighting whom. He just wants to tinker with his machinery and be left alone."
"He can't be serious," said Steve. "I know of at least two governments who would give their eye teeth if it would get them exclusive access to Stark's inventions."
"Tony remained neutral for a few years after the colonies declared their independence. It was only when he discovered that the Crown was manufacturing and distributing weapons of his own design—without permission—that he hired Iron Man as a private agent to recover what he viewed as his stolen property," said Jan. "Tony was always rather particular about what belonged to him."
"Iron Man's crippled more British ships than any accredited privateer," said Steve. "We need his help in an official capacity now that we're anticipating French naval assistance."
"Something of which General Washington has taken note, I imagine," said Jan with a knowing smile.
Steve nodded. "Is he in port?"
"I believe so," said Jan. "Hello, Hank darling," she greeted her husband as he approached. Hank waved off Steve's offered hand and embraced him in a bear hug.
"What brings you to town?" Hank asked.
Jan nudged him with her elbow. "Steve and Bucky are looking for a certain privateer in Tony Stark's employ," she said.
Hank rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I might be able to help you out."
"Oh?" said Bucky. "Have a giant magnet we can use?"
Hank chuckled. "You won't need it. He's in the back room." Steve had to laugh. The easiest place to find any pirate or privateer, even a near-legendary masked one, was at Pym's.
Steve and Bucky thanked Jan for her help and followed Hank through the tavern to a narow staircase in the back. There was a small door under the stairs, which Hank opened.
They followed Hank and ducked through the door—Bucky didn't really have to duck, but he did as a point of pride—and found themselves in a small, dim room with a table and several chairs. Two men sat at the table discussing charts or maps in hushed tones. It wasn't difficult to figure out which of the men was the infamous Iron Man: the man at the back side of the table wore a steel helmet that looked as if it belonged at a jousting tournament. It covered his entire head and appeared to be composed of several smooth plates, including a visor with slits for ventilation. His field of vision had to be greatly reduced by the narrow eye slits. He was otherwise unarmored, his clothes only remarkable due to their obvious quality.
For once, Bucky was speechless. Steve was profoundly grateful, because he could only imagine what Bucky might have to say about a man playing pirate in a medieval helmet. He'd heard enough about Stark's questionable lifestyle to assume that his employees would be just as eccentric.
Iron Man was in deep conversation with the dark-skinned man sitting next to him. The man was as well-dressed as Iron Man and bore himself much like any proud, capable soldier Steve knew. He was clearly more than a servant or an aid, but Steve could not be sure how he fit into the picture.
"The powder frigate just arrived. We can negotiate with them before they meet with the army's quartermaster," he was saying, but stopped abruptly when he realized they were no longer alone. A hardness appeared in the set of his mouth as both he and Iron Man inspected Steve and Bucky as they stood awkwardly behind Hank.
"Careful, Cap," Bucky murmured. Steve had to force his hand not to rest on his pistol.
Iron Man stood and inclined his head toward Hank. "Hello, Highpockets," he greeted. "Who are your friends? Captain, was it?"
Steve stepped forward and extended his hand across the table. "Captain Steven Rogers, Continental Army," he said, "and this is Lieutenant James Barnes."
There was a thoughtful tilt to Iron Man's helmet before he removed his glove and shook Steve's hand, then Bucky's. "My first mate, Jim Rhodes," he said, indicating the man to whom he had been speaking when they arrived. Rhodes nodded slightly, but it was clear he was still wary. "Please, have a seat. What can I do for you, Captain?"
"We tried to speak with your employer about this earlier, but he wasn't home. We understand he is away on business," said Steve.
"We left a message with the housekeeper," Bucky added.
"Ah yes, Miss Potts," said Iron Man. "She'll make sure Mr. Stark knows all the pertinent information. He's away quite a bit lately."
Rhodes smiled into his ale. He must be in on the secret of Iron Man's identity, Steve thought, or at the very least close enough to Stark to be in on the joke. Steve filed the information away to examine later.
"Well, since we cannot speak with him, we'll discuss it with you directly," he said. He reached into his coat pocket and withdrew the letter of marque, sliding it across the table to Iron Man. "Charles Thomson, Secretary of Congress, offers this letter of marque. You would continue to work independently for Mr. Stark, provided that you agree to attack only ships flying enemy colors. You would be operating with the approval of the Continental Navy, which would collect a percentage of the assets you recover while operating at sea. Your employer would, of course, keep any and all of his stolen property that he recaptures."
Bucky cast Steve a sideways glance at the last part of his statement. Steve knew it was not part of the agreement as written, but he also knew that there was no way Stark would accept the offer if that allowance were not made.
Rhodes looked thoughtful. "Well, it sounds like they've thought of everything this time."
"Indeed," said Iron Man, picking up the papers and examining them through the slits in his mask. "But I believe Mr. Stark will decline."
"If it is a question of the military upholding our end, we will. There are hundreds of other privateers who receive the promised percentage of prizes taken," Steve said.
"Then surely you don't need one more." Iron Man shrugged and added in a more placating tone, "I understand your predicament, I do. But you must also understand that Mr. Stark is concerned with regaining his property, and only that."
"Then leave Stark out of it," Steve said.
"I'm afraid that would be impossible," said Iron Man. Rhodes was still smiling beside him.
Iron Man seemed to have an answer for everything, and Steve was quickly growing tired of it. "Does any of your employer's allegiance lie with the patriot cause, or is it devoted entirely to profit?" Iron Man tensed, and Steve realized he'd struck a nerve. "If you're interested in pursuing other opportunities, the Navy would welcome a captain of your caliber as a commissioned officer."
"Have you seen the Continental Navy lately?" Rhodes said with a snort. "Their commandant dismissed, their ships getting captured left and right—"
"Which is why they need someone like you so badly," Steve interrupted. "Look. I can't say much on the matter, but I can tell you that we are expecting significant aid from the French navy in a matter of days. It will help, but we need privateers like you to help harass the British ships and keep them busy so they can't rally and pose a real threat to the French."
"And if we decline right now, without even bringing the matter to Mr. Stark's attention?" Rhodes leaned back in his chair and swept his coat back just enough to display his sword and pistol. Bucky scowled and put a hand on his own gun. Steve held up a hand to stop him.
"Then we leave, as simple as that."
"Of course you will," Iron Man said. "Rhodey, these are men of their word. Let's not sully Hank's tavern with a brawl." To Steve, he added, "I'll have to take this up with Mr. Stark, you understand. Such a decision cannot be made without his approval."
Before they could continue, however, the door flew open and Jan poked her head in.
"Steve? There's an ensign here to see you. He says Lieutenant Colonel Ledyard sent him, and that it's urgent."
Steve glanced at Bucky, who looked grim. "If you'll excuse me, gentlemen," he said. He, Bucky, and Hank exited the small room to find the ensign in the hall outside.
"Ensign Davies, sir," he said with a salute. "Word from Captain Latham at Fort Griswold that a British fleet has been spotted. I've just told Lieutenant Colonel Ledyard, and he said to pass the word on to you."
"My God," said Jan. Hank put an arm around her.
Steve grimaced. "How many?"
"Thirty-two vessels, sir. They appear to have anchored a ways west to prepare, and are approaching now. The Lieutenant Colonel thinks it might be a raid."
"They must have figured out why Washington's moving so many of his troops away from New York," Steve muttered. Aloud he said, "It's meant to be a distraction. How long until they arrive?"
"It looks as if they were trying for a nighttime landing, but the winds are against them. They should land around dawn."
"Very well. Thank you, Ensign."
"Will you be joining Fort Trumbull or Fort Griswold, sir?"
Steve considered his options. Fort Trumbull was barely a fort at all and hardly worth defending—or conquering, for that matter. Fort Griswold was a different matter, but at least the militia were there. The townspeople in New London would have little warning, including the privateers who had been so helpful to their cause. Aloud, Steve said, "Neither, at the moment. I'm going to alert the privateers that they need to either evacuate or help fight them off."
"Yes, sir," said the ensign, and after a quick salute, he was gone.
Steve let out a slow breath. "If it is a raid, and I believe it is, the townspeople should put up as little resistance as possible to reduce casualties. Hank," he said, placing a hand on the man's shoulder, "these men trust you. If you spread word that there's an impending raid and people should clear out, they'll do as you say."
"Won't the fleet see the ships leaving port?" Bucky asked.
"Not if those evacuating go upriver," came a familiar distorted voice from the doorway. Iron Man shrugged. "Most of the ships that aren't armed well enough to be of help are small enough to make it upstream and out of immediate danger."
It was difficult to determine the man's intentions when his eyes were hardly visible, and Steve found himself wishing he would take the blasted helmet off. "Does this mean you're in?" he asked.
"It means I'm going to help evacuate and defend New London. We'll have to negotiate the terms for the rest of it at a later date." It sounded as if there might be a rueful smile behind the faceplate, but Steve couldn't be sure. Iron Man handed the folded letters of marque back to Steve, who returned them to his pocket.
"Fair enough. Can the evacuating privateers take other civilians with them? The elderly, families with young children, the injured?"
Iron Man nodded. "Hank and Rhodey, you spread the word to the civilians that they're welcome to flee aboard privateer vessels. And keep things quiet, we don't want to advertise to the fleet that we know they're coming."
"Aye, sir," said Rhodes.
"There won't be anyone home by the time that fleet gets here," said Hank. He and Jan followed Rhodes back out into the main room of the tavern.
"Are you serious about not reporting to one of the forts when the evacuation is complete?" Iron Man asked. "Because if you're looking for a place to stand and fight, there's room on the Avenger."
Steve laughed once. "Thank you, but we're no sailors."
"Neither am I, and I don't appear to be doing too badly." Iron man placed one gloved hand on Steve's shoulder. From the angle at which he stood, Steve caught a glimpse of blue eyes through the slits in the visor. "What do you say?"
Steve's brain was so busy trying to fill in the blank places on the map of Iron Man's hidden face that his mouth didn't seem to work. After a moment, Bucky threw his hands in the air and said, "Oh, for heaven's sake. Just shake hands, already."
Steve and Iron Man shook hands. "We sail in two hours, with you or without you."
"We're with you," said Steve.
"Don't remind me," said Bucky.
* * *
October 16, 1781 – the Siege at Yorktown, Virginia
They had taken the remaining British defenses outside the fortifications without too much difficulty, thus allowing the American and French engineers to dig the parallel trench in which Steve currently sat. The victories were viewed with dim celebration; although the American and French forces had Cornwallis cornered at Yorktown, the possibility that he might escape by sea increased as Admiral de Grasse departed for the West Indies. The admiral had tried his best to remain until the end of the month, but his superiors in France demanded otherwise. He left a small contingency there to try to hold the Chesapeake, but it could easily be broken through should the British send naval support. The situation made General Washington nervous, which meant everyone else was on pins and needles, as well.
It was nearly dawn. The air was thick with the white smoke from the artillery fire. Steve could barely see Bucky where the lieutenant oversaw the gun crew as they adjusted the cannon's aim a few feet away. "Hey, Bucky," Steve called up to him.
"Was I wrong to think Iron Man and the others would agree to help us?"
Bucky leaned over the edge of the trench. "I don't know. I thought he might, but then again, you did get in a drunken brawl on his ship."
"I suppose I thought he'd be here," said Steve after a moment.
"You can contact him later. Hang on," Bucky turned back to the gun crew and called for the all clear before giving the order to fire. Steve didn't even bother to cover his ears. They'd been lobbing artillery at the British for days now. He watched as Bucky re-aimed the gun after it recoiled from the last shot.
"Iron Man had his own agenda, Cap," Bucky said, squatting at the edge of the trench. "Pass me your canteen? This smoke is awful."
Steve handed it up to him. "I know. I just thought after he helped evacuate New London, he might..."
"You thought he'd quit privateering for you," Bucky interrupted. He sighed and handed the canteen back down to Steve. "Cap, you can't—hang on," he said and turned back to the gun crew.
There came a sudden volley of musket fire from the middle distance. Bucky was yelling for his gun crew to re-aim, and Steve and the other soldiers grabbed their weapons and piled out of the trench.
Steve had fought in close combat before. Experience didn't diminish the feeling that distances were foreshortened, or that time slowed to a crawl as he fired and reloaded his musket. He spat the cartridge paper out, tasting powder first and then smelling it as the gun fired. The fighting was too close to bother to reload a second time, so Steve went at it with bayonet and fists.
He heard the cannon fire, and heard the distant report of naval guns in the bay.
* * *
September 6, 1781 – New London, Connecticut
It was nearly dawn. The Avenger remained in port after most of the other, lighter ships escaped up the Thames. As Steve understood it, Iron Man's plan was to play possum in the harbor until the British fleet sent its soldiers ashore for the raid. Then, when the ships were least equipped to give chase, they would bolt for the sea. It didn't seem like much of a plan to Steve, but it was all they could do. They had sounded the alarm as best they could. Now all they could do was wait.
Iron Man had left a sailor and a boat for them. Hank and Jan were there, as well, and they huddled with Steve and Bucky in anticipation as they rowed out to the ship. "We couldn't very well leave you to evacuate with the masses," Iron Man said as he ushered them aboard.
"Isn't it bad luck to have a woman on board?" Jan asked in a teasing tone.
"Darling, someone as pretty as you are could never be bad luck," Iron Man replied. Jan grinned, and Hank pointed a finger at Iron Man in mock warning.
"No more free drinks at the tavern if you steal my wife."
Iron Man spread his hands wide in a conciliatory gesture. "No need to worry, Highpockets. I was talking to Captain Rogers here," he said with what Steve understood to be an amused tilt of his head. Bucky snorted, and Steve hid his flush of embarrassment by excusing himself to get a better look at the ship.
Maybe Bucky and Jan were right about Stark and his associates. Steve had been a soldier long enough to understand the need for human contact when the thrum of excitement lingered even after the battle was over, but those encounters had been few and secretive. Steve was not accustomed to being openly flirted with by a helmet-wearing hedonist.
He took a turn around the deck, greeting the sailors who nodded to him. The ship had three masts, the sails tightly furled. There was a strange fourth mast midship, though Steve couldn't be sure it was a mast at all, since it had no sails and was much shorter and thicker than the other three masts. Steve laid a hand against it and realized it was made of metal, and warm to the touch. Looking up, he could see a faint tracery of black smoke in the predawn light, growing thicker and blacker even as he watched.
Steve looked around him. There were precious few sailors on deck at the moment, but none seemed overly concerned that smoke was coming from their ship. Steve headed aft to where Rhodes and Bucky were at the wheel, Iron Man next to them consulting charts and gadgets. Every now and then he would peer toward the mouth of the harbor where the shapes of the British fleet were beginning to emerge from the mist and mutter something that was lost to the interior of his helmet.
"I don't mean to interrupt," said Steve, "but I think your ship's on fire."
Bucky turned to follow Steve's gaze. His jaw dropped when he saw the billowing black smoke issuing from the strange mast near the center of the deck. "Holy—!"
Iron Man didn't even turn to look. "It does that," he said. "I wish we could have her ready to go without the smoke, but maybe they'll just think we've torched her rather than have her taken." He reached over to a small wooden podium, flipped open the top, and picked up the metal cylinder inside. The cylinder was attached to the box with some kind of string or wire, and Iron Man brought it to his mouth and spoke into it. "Fulton, are you in the boiler room?"
Incredibly, there came a response from the cylinder. "Aye, Captain." Steve and Bucky exchanged a puzzled glance.
"Keep it coming until I tell you otherwise. We're going to make a dash out of the harbor once they've unloaded their men. They'll have the weather-gage, so we'll need as much power as you can give us to deal with the contrary winds and outrun them."
"What was that?" Steve asked as Iron Man replaced the cylinder and closed the top of the wooden box.
"That was the boiler room," said Iron Man.
"This ship makes use of two different sources of power. We use the sails when the wind is to our advantage. When it is not, we use steam."
"Actually," Steve interjected, "I was asking about this." He tapped the wooden box that housed the mysterious cylinder.
"Oh, that. It's a device that allows sound to travel along a wire. The vibration of the sound affects the tautness of the wire, which reproduces the sound through the base of the cylinder, which acts as a diaphragm like a drumhead—"
"Perhaps you should leave the explanations to Mr. Stark, since he designed the thing," said Rhodes. The words carried the weight of oft-repeated counsel, but they were not without kindness. Iron Man's grand, descriptive hand gestures fizzled out into a dismissive flick of the wrist.
"Of course," he agreed with a self-conscious laugh. Rhodes shook his head and went back to speaking with a sailor by the name of Barton who was second mate.
The sun was nearly over the horizon. Knowing that they had to make their move soon, Iron Man kept his spyglass trained on the enemy ships. After what felt like hours, he snapped the spyglass shut. "They're unloading on either side of the river and sending most of the ships into the harbor," he announced. "All nonessential personnel get below deck. Everyone else, keep low. Rhodey, take us around to port. Slowly, slowly! We want them to think we're adrift."
Iron Man and Steve ducked into the doorway behind the wheel that led to the officers' quarters. Crouched low, Rhodes brought the ship around at an excruciatingly slow pace. Steve had to admit that it was a smart move. With the sails furled and the steam engine producing copious amounts of thick, black smoke, the British would think the ship a lost cause and ignore her completely. All the same, there were some tense moments as the British ships passed by, one close enough to hear a sailor call out orders to avoid the Avenger because it was adrift and on fire.
"Idiots," said Iron Man. Even though they were pressed against the walls on opposite sides of the shadowed corridor, Steve thought he might have seen a flash of a toothy grin through the vents in the helmet's visor. As they approached the mouth of the harbor, Iron Man spoke into the cylinder once more. "All right, Fulton, we need full power."
The ship began to gain speed. Iron Man and Rhodes ordered the men to stations, and sailors came back on deck to man the lines and unfurl the sails. Barton clambered up to the crow's nest to monitor the enemy fleet. One ship came about and gave half-hearted chase, but without a full complement of sailors and having been taken by surprise by the Avenger's being manned at all, they quickly gave up and returned to formation at the mouth of the harbor.
As they sailed away without pursuit, Steve was torn between elation and a nagging worry that their escape had been too easy. He said as much to Iron Man.
"I suppose they're preoccupied with the raid," he replied. "And there are two forts for them to worry about."
"Still," Steve mused, "they must have recognized this ship. The reward for its capture must be impressive. Why not even try?"
"Perhaps they're not a stupid as they used to be. They've learned not to take us on without making sure they outgun us."
"They're torching the ships!" Barton called out from high in the rigging. Steve turned to see smoke curling upward from the harbor behind them. Iron Man shook his head.
"I expected they'd burn them, but I thought they'd at least take their cargo first," he said. "Wasteful."
Rhodes snorted. "Most of the ships that hadn't unloaded yet went upriver, anyway," he said. "The only vessels of any value left were the Opportunity and the Bonny Marie."
Iron Man's helmet snapped around. "The powder frigate?"
Rhodes nodded and smiled. "They don't know that," he said.
As if on cue, there came a massive explosion from the harbor. Black smoke and flaming pieces of what had been the Bonny Marie shot into the sky. They watched from the deck as the angry glow above the treeline grew. It soon became clear that the ships were not the only thing the soldiers were burning.
"I hope it doesn't spread to the woods," said Steve.
"I hope it spreads to Arnold's ugly face," Bucky grumbled. Steve was inclined to agree. Despite the sun's steady climb toward noon, the glow from what had been New London harbor grew ever brighter. Jan was crying quietly. Hank wrapped her in a hug from where he stood behind her.
"We'll rebuild, honey," he said.
"I know," she said with a sigh, "but that doesn't make it any easier."
As it appeared they were out of immediate danger, Iron Man called for the sailors to stand down. There would be extra men on watch for the next few hours at least, but they had a moment to rest for the time being. It had been a long night for everyone. Some of the sailors showed Steve and Bucky to the officers' quarters. There were no extra hammocks, but there were two long, padded benches. They had certainly slept on worse, and Bucky flopped face-first onto the nearest bench and greeted it with grateful, muffled profanity. Steve stretched out on the bench on the other side of the high window and fell asleep listening to the slap of the waves against the side of the ship and the occasional chatter from the deck.
* * *
October 17, 1781 – The Siege at Yorktown, Virginia
Steve's hands were slick with sweat and powder residue. He wiped them on his breeches as he continued to search for Bucky in the foggy early morning aftermath of the attack on the second parallel.
The attack by the British had been an attempt to sabotage their artillery by ramming bayonets down the throats of the cannon. They'd silenced seven guns, but only temporarily. The gun crews had cleared the obstructions, bullets whizzing over their heads as the other soldiers drove the British back.
Now, as the sun rose, Steve found Bucky propped up against the wheels of the cannon he oversaw. There was a dark stain down his side and for one horrible moment, all Steve could think was that he was glad that Bucky didn't have any family, because he didn't think he could bring himself to deliver the news to anyone. Then he saw the rise and fall of Bucky's chest beneath the bloodied waistcoat and Steve's legs started to shake with profound relief, so he knelt beside him before they gave out.
Bucky opened his eyes when Steve's hands cradled his head. "Hey, Cap," he said, voice hoarse.
"Where were you hit?" Steve asked, an urgent lump his throat.
Bucky grimaced and indicated his left arm, which he was cradling against his chest. "Gun misfired," he said tightly. "They packed a bayonet and God knows what else in there, and we thought we'd cleared it all. Apparently not."
"Can you walk?" Steve asked, but one glance at the amount of blood Bucky had lost gave him the answer.
"I don't know," said Bucky, struggling to get his feet under him.
"I've got you," Steve said, scooping the smaller man up with little effort. If he had his wits about him, Bucky would have been mortified. Fortunately, he passed out as soon as Steve jostled his injured arm. He carried Bucky past the first parallel and toward the house and field which had been designated the hospital. An orderly met him at the door.
"Where is he injured?"
"His arm," Steve replied through his teeth. "Where's the doctor?"
"I'll take him," the orderly said, but Steve refused to let Bucky go.
"Where is the doctor?" he demanded again.
"Here," came a voice from within the house. Steve brushed past the orderly and carried Bucky inside. The doctor was in the middle of stitching up a gash on a private's forehead. "What do we have?" he asked without taking his eyes off his patient.
"He's a gun chief. There was a misfire. I don't know, it's his arm," Steve said.
The doctor swiftly tied a knot in the thread and ushered the private away. He grabbed his cane and made his way over to Steve and Bucky. He inspected Bucky's injuries and nodded grimly. "We'll take him around back. Don't worry, son, we'll take good care of him." Before Steve could utter a word, two orderlies took Bucky gingerly from his arms and carted him away. Another orderly escorted him to the door. Steve was left adrift in the yard, covered with grime and blood that wasn't his own. Artillery was still blazing away in the distance.
Another soldier approached him and clapped him on the shoulder. "We've got him today, my friend," he said with a hearty laugh.
"Haven't you heard? Cornwallis tried to make a run for it last night," the soldier said. Seeing that Steve was at a complete loss, he handed him a flask. "Here, drink up. You look like you could use it. Anyway, what with de Grasse leaving just a few ships in the bay, Cornwallis reckoned he could escape by sea. He tried to ferry his men out, but a couple of privateer ships had entered the bay and stopped him. He's caught now."
The contents of the soldier's flask burned Steve's throat. As wonderful as the news was, he fixated on one word. "Privateers?"
* * *
September 7, 1781 – Block Island Sound, the Rhode Island Coast
He slept restlessly for a few hours until the clang of the ship's bell signaled the changing shift of the watch. Steve threw his legs over the side of the bench and sat up, stretching to work a kink out from just below his shoulder blades. Bucky was nowhere in sight, but Hank and Jan had taken up residence on the bench the lieutenant had vacated. Hank sat upright with his back against the wall, Jan's head resting in his lap as they both slept. Steve got up and left as quietly as he could.
A few pirates acknowledged him as he made his way topside. It seemed strange that his presence should be so easily accepted by men who should naturally be suspicious of a man who could throw them in prison, but Steve was beginning to think he might have overestimated the threat he and the nascent Continental government presented.
He greeted Iron Man at the helm. "Get some sleep?"
"No. I sent Rhodey off with the rest of you, so someone had to stay here and mind the store. The trip to Newport isn't difficult, but it's likely we'll run into more British ships."
Steve smiled and shook his head. "That's why you have the rest of your crew, you know. So you don't have to do everything yourself."
"Oh, is that why they're here?" Iron Man slapped a hand to the forehead of his helmet with a clang. "I thought this was a pleasure cruise."
Steve patted the wooden pillar that held the communications cylinder. "You've explained how this works," he said. "What about the rest of the ship?"
There was the now-familiar quizzical tilt to the helmet as Iron Man asked, "Do you really want to know?"
"It uses steam power, right?"
Still sounding as if he hardly believed Steve could be interested in the subject, Iron Man replied, "Yes. It's the first ship of its kind to use Watt's steam engine design, with a few improvements, of course. Some of Watt's contemporaries are working on something similar, but they're planning to use a paddle wheel. On a war ship! It's preposterous. It would be incredibly susceptible to attack and malfunction."
Steve just nodded as Iron Man continued his detailed explanation of the ship and its propulsion system. He could follow it somewhat, but he was more interested in the way Iron Man's hands danced around to illustrate his points. At the moment they were describing the twisting motion of the propeller, and Steve kept catching glimpses of his wrist bones as they slipped beyond the edges of the lace at his cuffs.
"And really, the Archimedes screw is a perfect propeller for such a purpose. I cannot imagine why no one thought of it sooner," Iron Man was saying. "The only problem is that the propeller creates significant drag when we want to rely on the sails, so we were thinking the next model might provide a means to retract the propeller into the hull somehow."
"Are you involved in the design process?" Steve asked.
Iron Man shrugged. "I spend more time on the ship than anyone. I just know the ship so well, sometimes it feels as if I'm the one who designed her."
Steve was surprised to hear that Anthony Stark would give anyone else that much input. From what Steve heard about the man, he was a genius who did most of his work alone. Still, Iron Man seemed intelligent and capable, and it made sense that the person who commanded the ship should have some say in the design.
"We've got company," Barton called down from the rigging. The bell rang and sailors scrambled up from below. Rhodes and Bucky arrived--from the officers' mess, judging by the hardtack Bucky pressed into Steve's hand.
"How many are giving chase?" Iron Man pulled out his spyglass and trained it on the British fleet.
"Looks like just the Amphion," said Barton. Steve recognized the name as one of the ships that attacked New London.
Iron Man handed the glass to Rhodes, who peered at the ship in question and asked, "Do we try to outrun them?"
"No. No, if it's the Amphion alone, we can take her," said Iron Man after a moment. "Let's get back some of what they took from New London."
It seemed the words were hardly out of his mouth before the black flag was hoisted and the sailors made ready to take yet another prize.
"She outguns us, so it's in our best interest to board as soon as possible," Iron Man called out. He contacted the boiler room via the communications cylinder.
"Fulton, give us full steam. We're going to need some momentum."
Steve was an excellent tactician on land, but he was quite literally out of his depth in a naval battle. "What can we do?" he asked.
Iron Man gave him an appraising glance. "How are you with artillery?"
"It's not my forte, but Bucky's one of the best gun chiefs I've ever worked with."
"I want to take this ship with as little structural damage as possible," Iron Man said. "Think you could take out the gunners without destroying their deck?"
Bucky's grin was sharp. "I think I can manage that," he said.
"There's a swivel gun over there, but wait for my mark." Bucky nodded once and was gone. Iron Man called up to the crow's nest, "Barton! You have your rifle up there?"
"Pick off the gunners at will, but take out the helmsman on my mark."
"Whatever you say, Shellhead."
"Shellhead?" Steve was mildly horrified at the thought of addressing a superior officer in such a way. Perhaps he had more to learn about piracy than he'd previously thought.
Iron Man turned to him. "You're to lead the boarding party. Rhodes will be with you," he added swiftly, seeing Steve's hesitation. "I want you over there to be sure the captain is captured as quickly as possible. The sooner you take the captain prisoner, the sooner they'll surrender." It made sense. Though he was unsure about leading a group of pirates anywhere, let alone in an offensive maneuver, Steve nodded.
Though the Amphion was gaining swiftly, the Avenger was still somewhat ahead of the British ship. "Rhodey, get ready to swing hard to starboard."
Steve watched, heart hammering, as the enemy ship drew ever closer. Finally, when it seemed as if they could almost leap across the distance, Iron Man gave the order.
"Hard to starboard! Brace yourselves, we're going to tangle!"
The Avenger creaked in protest as Rhodey brought her about, directly in the path of the Amphion. Caught by surprise, the British ship had no time to alter her course, and splinters flew as the Amphion's bowsprit became hopelessly entangled in the Avenger's foremast rigging. The British sailors couldn't board across the length of their bowsprit. All they could do was fire their guns and try to disentangle the rigging.
Iron Man, however, had other ideas. "Take out the gunners! Watch their tops, they have swivel guns up there!"
Between the swivel guns, the musket volleys, and Barton in the main-top with his rifle, they kept the British sailors pinned for the better part of an hour. At last, Iron Man ordered Barton to aim for the helmsman. The man dropped like a stone, and it took the Amphion's sailors a moment to realize what happened and to replace him, costing them valuable time. It was an admirable shot to make; Steve had to respect a marksman who could shoot that accurately from that distance, fighting the movements of the ship as they were amplified in the topmost position on the mast. He did not have long to appreciate Bucky's or Barton's skill, however, as Iron Man called for grapples and gang planks.
Though their ship was crippled, the British sailors fought savagely as Steve and the rest of the boarding party came on deck. This was more like the kind of battle to which Steve was accustomed. He used his one pistol shot to wound a British soldier coming at him with a saber, then continued on his search for the ship's captain. It was close quarters on deck, so he didn't take the time to reload his gun and instead took the enemy sailors down by hand. He spotted the captain through the melee and headed in his direction, kicking and punching his way aft. The captain must have noticed Steve--he did stick out, being the only Continental officer in the fight--and the pirate he was fighting knocked the captain's saber out of his hand. Steve advanced to be sure no harm came to the captain, but the man bolted toward the officers' quarters. At his heels, Steve followed him into the captain's quarters, where he found himself facing down a flintlock in the captain's hand. Steve grabbed a silver platter from the table where the captain's evening meal must have been interrupted. He ducked just as the gun fired and sent the platter sailing through the air toward the captain's head. The man crumpled to the floor.
Steve hauled him up by the arm, inspecting the trickle of blood making its way down from his temple. "Up you come, Captain...?"
"Bazely," the man replied, sounding more than a little dazed. "John Bazely."
"Captain Bazely. I'm Captain Rogers. What say we take a turn around the deck? You can introduce me to you crew."
Once the British sailors realized their captain had been captured, they struck their colors and laid down their arms with little further resistance. Rhodes signaled Iron Man, who came aboard to discuss the terms of surrender. Iron Man appeared to be quite adept at negotiations, a talent Steve thought he shouldn't have been so surprised to discover the pirate captain possessed. The decision was made to move all the British sailors to the brig, something proved impossible when the pirates discovered that the Amphion's brig was already filled to capacity with Continental soldiers and militiamen from New London.
Iron Man surveyed the motley group with disgust that was plain even behind the helmet. "God," he said, "have they had any medical attention at all?" The closest British sailor started to mumble a reply, but Iron Man held up a warning finger. "Stop talking," he intoned. Turning back to Steve, he said, "Bring them over to the Avenger. We'll see to them there as best we can. We could really use Donald Blake's help right now, damn his hide," he muttered.
"Who?" Steve asked Rhodes as they began helping the soldiers out of the cell and over to the other ship.
"He's a doctor the captain knows. Mr. Stark asked him to serve on the Avenger, but Blake turned him down."
Steve did not have a chance to pursue his line of questioning any further. Iron Man stopped Rhodes and said, "I'll handle this. I need you to captain the Amphion."
"What? No way," Rhodes said.
"I'll help move the injured. You go start getting things ready to sail."
Steve watched as both men tried to take hold of the former prisoner Rhodes had been helping limp across the deck. "I'll take him," he said. He slung the man he'd been aiding in the first place over one shoulder and guided the other man by the elbow. He tried not to eavesdrop on the conversation as he helped the men, but their progress was so slow, it was inevitable.
"I didn't get involved in this mess to be a captain," Rhodes said. "I'm here because someone has to keep you from doing something uncommonly stupid and getting yourself killed."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence. And since when have I done something uncommonly stupid? Uncommonly insightful, maybe--"
"Do you see what you're wearing on your head? Do you see the pirate ship you're captaining?"
"Rhodey, all I ask is that you captain the Amphion until we get back to port. We'll ransom it back and be done with it."
"Back to what port? They burned it."
"Back to a port, then. Come on, Rhodey, it's temporary. You can rename it."
"Fine. But we're not keeping it. We're giving it back, or salvaging it for parts, or something."
Steve couldn't be sure how the conversation ended, because he was too busy hauling the injured men over the rail and across the gang plank to the Avenger. With one last glance back, he saw Iron Man and Rhodes still talking, both men punctuating what was being said with large hand gestures. The gestures Rhodes made were decidedly more frustrated and insulting, and Steve was suddenly very glad he managed to stay out of the middle of the conversation. The relationship between Iron Man and Rhodes was certainly...unique. The more time Steve spent around Iron Man, the more he thought Rhodes deserved a medal of honor for putting up with him.
Between the rescued prisoners, the enemy sailors, and their own injured men, there was a large number of wounded to tend to. There was no doctor aboard the Avenger, so anyone with any experience dealing with the wounded was drafted to help. The crew's quarters on the Avenger served as a makeshift infirmary for the crew and the former prisoners, and the injured British sailors were treated on the Amphion, which Rhodes redubbed the Invader. Steve, Bucky, and Jan were pressed into service dressing wounds as Hank doled out rations of water, rum, and hardtack.
As Steve tended the rescued prisoners, he encountered one ugly bayonet wound after another. This was not all that unusual; in close quarters where there was hardly time to reload and fire a musket, the bayonet or sword were the weapons of choice. It was, however, unusual for the injured men to bear so quite so many wounds.
Steve moved on to the next hammock. "What's your name, soldier?" he asked as he inspected the man for injuries.
"Sergeant Rufus Avery, sir," the soldier replied. "It's mostly my hands, sir." Steve examined Avery's hands, which were covered in cuts and deep puncture wounds.
"These are from trying to fend off a bayonet, aren't they?"
Steve reached for the bottle of rum. "Here," he said, holding the bottle for the sergeant as he took a long swig. Avery cursed. Steve cleaned the wounds as best he could and began to bandage them. "Where were you during the battle?"
"I was the one who saw the ships coming," Avery replied through gritted teeth.
"You saved a good many lives, in that case."
"Not enough." The sergeant's voice was rough. Steve glanced up from his work.
"What happened?" he asked gently.
"A massacre, that's what happened," Avery said. "Lieutenant Colonel Ledyard rejected Colonel Eyre's call for unconditional surrender. We knew it would be difficult to hold the fort, but we thought more militia would arrive at any time. They didn't."
Steve tried not to let the tension he felt growing in his gut affect how tightly he bandaged the sergeant's hands. "No one came?"
"No. We gave them hell for a while, but it wasn't long before Eyre's men got through the main gate. Right away the Lieutenant Colonel called a cease fire. Then they asked who was the commanding officer," Avery paused, swallowing. "It was awful, sir. I suppose they weren't pleased that we held them off as long as we did. I don't know. Whatever the reason, as soon as the Lieutenant Colonel identified himself, one of their majors ran him through. They ran everyone through."
There was a roaring in Steve's ears as he finished wrapping the bandages on Avery's hands. "Get some rest, soldier. You're safe now," he managed.
The crew's quarters smelled like blood and powder. Steve needed air. He stood on shaky legs and headed for the stairs. Jan and Bucky gave him twin concerned looks, but he raised a hand to them as he mounted the stairs. He didn't know if he meant it to signal that he was fine, which he wasn't, or that he wanted to be alone at the moment, which he did. He made it up on deck and gripped the rail with white knuckles.
Sergeant Avery's account of what happened at Fort Griswold was the stuff of nightmares. Steve had been in bad situations before—Valley Forge was no holiday—but at least he'd been there. He had suffered through everything the other men had suffered, and that made all the difference to his conscience.
"Are you all right?" said Iron Man from behind him. Steve didn't reply. He wasn't sure he could. Iron Man stood next to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. "How bad was it?" he asked.
"Bad," said Steve.
Iron Man let out a breath. "I'm sorry."
"I should have been there."
"Listen. Steve, listen to me," said Iron Man. There was a sense of urgency to his voice that gave Steve pause. "You cannot blame yourself for what happened."
"I should have been there," Steve repeated angrily.
"And what if you had been? What difference would one more man have made? It would have been one more soldier dead or taken prisoner."
"You don't understand," said Steve, trying to pull away from Iron Man's grasp. "General Washington trusted me. I'm supposed to do everything I can to help out the cause, and I didn't."
He didn't have to see through the helmet to know Iron Man was dumbstruck at his vehemence. After visibly struggling for a moment, Iron Man said, "Even so, you don't know that it might have ended differently."
"But I was meant to be there. General Washington trusts me! By all rights I should have helped to defend Fort Griswold. I should have taken charge of those militiamen. I should have been there, fighting with them instead of running off to play pirate with you!"
Steve regretted his words almost immediately, but he wasn't quite sure why and there was no way to take them back. Iron Man dropped his hands as if they'd been burned. "I see," he said. "Barton, I'll be in my quarters. You have the deck." With that Iron Man disappeared down the aft hallway without another glance at Steve.
"Well done," said Barton from his post at the wheel.
Steve scrubbed his face with his hands and sighed. Coming up on deck to get some air had not been the relief he'd hoped it would be. "Nothing is going the way it's supposed to," he said.
"How long before he'll speak to me again?"
"That depends," Barton said. "How long before you apologize for acting like an ass?"
Steve glared at him. "Does your captain allow all his subordinates to show this much cheek? If it were me, I'd write you up for insubordination."
Barton grinned. "Good thing I'm not in the army, then. Look, I've known the captain for a while. Maybe not as long as Rhodey, but long enough to know that he likes to do things his own way. Maybe he isn't the military type, like you, but he really cares what happens to his friends. Why do you think he has such a loyal crew? Because he's just as loyal. Now, Shellhead is usually a pretty suspicious fellow, but you waltzed in here two days ago and he trusted you immediately. That says a lot about what he must think of you."
Barton was right, Steve thought. With all the secrecy—the mask, the hidden meeting place at Pym's, the reluctance to sign any letters of marque that might restrict his activities—why did the infamous Iron Man offer his ship and his services so quickly after meeting Steve? It was an answer Steve needed to know.
"Cap!" Bucky called from the narrow stairs leading down to the crew's quarters. "We could use a hand down here."
So much for going to apologize. "Be right there," Steve replied, forcing his legs to take him down the stairs and not to the captain's quarters. He paused as he passed the wheel. "Thanks," he said to Barton before he headed below deck.
"No trouble at all," Barton called after him.
* * *
October 19, 1781 – Yorktown, Virginia
Steve stood at attention with the rest of the Continental soldiers on one side of the road, facing ten French regiments on the opposite side. The British ranks marched between them, most refusing to even glance in the Americans' direction as they marched toward their surrender. The Continental army wasn't much to look at, it was true. When Steve glanced down, he could still see the faint rusty stain on his waistcoat and the hole he'd hurriedly tried to mend at the hem of his coat. They were a ragged bunch compared to the near-blinding white of the pristine French uniforms in the mid-afternoon sun. He didn't feel particularly victorious, despite the pomp and circumstance. Even the defeated British—many of them visibly distraught, a few so drunk they had difficulty keeping in step—had turned up in fresh uniforms, their boots polished.
"Supercilious asses," Hamilton muttered next to him. Steve was too preoccupied to reply; Bucky lay in the hospital and the Avenger and the Invader were anchored in the bay.
As they watched, Cornwallis' second in command tried to present the general's sword to Rochambeau, then to Washington. The commander-in-chief had the British general deliver the sword to his own second in command, refusing to buy into Cornwallis's last-ditch effort to save face.
With an innocent expression that belied the intended barb, Lafayette called for the fife and drum corps to play "Yankee Doodle." At last, the British troops were forced to acknowledge the presence of the rebel troops, and the American ranks—Steve included, his worries forgotten for a moment as the importance of the event he'd witnessed sank in—stood a little taller.
* * *
September 8, 1781 – Block Island Sound, the Rhode Island Coast
Every casualty from the battle with the Amphion, friend and foe alike, had been addressed. Steve was exhausted. He had not had a chance to eat much beyond a bit of hardtack, and he would have given anything for some of Jan's stew from the tavern and an extended lie-in, but he had something important to take care of before he collapsed on his semi-comfortable bench. He dragged himself back up the steps and down the hallway to where he knew the captain's quarters were located. Steve paused at the door, wiping damp hands on his breeches. Screwing up his courage and stuffing his pride, he rapped his knuckles against the oak door.
"Enter," came Iron Man's response. Steve took a deep breath and opened the door. Iron Man was seated at a plain desk, writing in the logs. He looked up from his work and paused when he realized it was Steve hovering in the doorway.
"I'm sorry," Steve said. "I just feel helpless and I really, really hate that. I appreciate that you've allowed us on your ship, but coming here was my choice alone. Maybe if I'd known what would happen at the fort, I might have done differently, but I didn't. That isn't your fault." Iron Man remained still in that way that Steve had come to associate with intense scrutiny. Steve endured it, taking the opportunity to examine the damage to the metal helmet. There was a good size dent just outside one of the eye slits, and there were several black smudges that must have come from powder. Though Steve had been too preoccupied to notice, it was apparent that Iron Man had been in the thick of the fighting when they took the Amphion.
"Here." Steve broke from his reverie to find Iron Man holding a mug of something in his direction. "Come in. Please," he said. Steve did as he was asked. He took the proffered mug and sat down in the wooden chair next to Iron Man.
"Thanks," he said. There was rum in the mug, sweet and full-strength. Steve was not usually given to drinking rum—and when he did, it was usually the watered-down rations doled out in camp—but he found he appreciated it. There was a mug next to Iron Man's elbow, but he made no move to drink from it. Steve supposed he had taken the helmet off when he was alone, and couldn't drink now that it was back on. Steve felt awkward, but only for a moment. Judging by the nearly-empty rum bottle, he had some catching up to do.
Steve spent several moments trying not to stare as he attempted to figure out how Iron Man's helmet was made, and how it might come off. The visor pivoted up, he knew, and the two lower pieces at the front were hinged and could fold back and out of the way.
"I don't quite know what to do with you," said Iron Man at length.
"What do you mean?"
"You aren't like the other men the army and navy have sent to try and recruit me."
Steve chuckled. "How many have there been?"
"Three. The first was that gloomy Adams fellow, before I started working for Mr. Stark as Iron Man. One came after the Avenger was built, with orders to commandeer it for the navy. When we refused, they sent another man with a letter of marque that was laughable. None was the type of man I'd sit and have a drink with. In fact, Rhodey had to bodily remove the second one from my ship. I hope he wasn't injured too badly," said Iron Man thoughtfully.
"They were just trying to do their jobs. The navy has always been in dire need of more ships and more capable seamen," said Steve. It was difficult to keep the note of disapproval from his voice. He was not entirely successful.
"They wanted to commandeer this ship, and that was unacceptable," Iron Man replied. "It is an entirely new design. If they had asked, Mr. Stark would have been happy to build them a new one, or even retrofit some other existing merchant ships with guns. It isn't difficult," he scoffed.
"So you do help Stark with his work outside of your job as Iron Man?" Steve asked. He could see the bottom of his mug, but it was only a fleeting glimpse before Iron Man refilled it.
"Sometimes," he said.
"And why do you allow your crew to call you Shellhead?" Steve continued.
Iron Man laughed. "I don't know that I could prevent it. I think of it as a term of endearment."
"It's insubordinate," Steve muttered.
Iron Man poked his shoulder insistently with one finger. "Barnes calls you, 'Cap.'"
"That's different. We served together when the war started, and that's what he called me then. We've stuck together through everything. So has my uniform, for that matter," Steve noted, poking a finger through a hole in his coat. "You can see why we could use your help, if the army can't even afford to keep its men properly clothed."
Iron Man nodded solemnly. "You do look a sight. I'm not sure I'd hire you to work in the stable, from the look of you." Steve elbowed him in the ribs with mock effrontery. With a laugh Iron Man said, "Even if he doesn't accept the letter of marque, perhaps Mr. Stark can provide some things for the army and the navy. Things like big, shiny stars to pin on your coat when you get promoted."
"Or ships, or guns. Or shoes, even. Those would be nice."
"Yes, he can provide those, too."
Steve grew serious. "If he would do that, it would be a great help to us."
"Well, if we make it back in one piece, I'll pass the word along. He just might do it, if it would help you."
Steve got the distinct impression that Iron Man meant him and not the collective military. He felt warm and resolved to remove his coat. He wasn't sure about the propriety of dress on a pirate ship, but he was relatively certain Iron Man would not mind, since he was in his shirtsleeves, himself.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked as he folded his coat over the back of the chair. "Why play the role of Stark's pirate?"
"I'm the only one Mr. Stark trusts to retrieve his stolen property," said Iron Man.
"I don't think I like your employer very much."
"Because it's selfish to waste a man like you—a man with talent and bravery and the skills to lead men into a tenuous situation like this one—as a glorified agent of repossession."
He could tell Iron Man was staring at him, even if he couldn't read the man's expression. "Do you really think that?"
"Yes," said Steve, "I do."
"Well," said Iron Man.
"And I'll tell you another reason why I don't like Anthony Stark," Steve continued. He was speaking without thinking, something he tried never to do, but he was warming to the subject. The rum didn't help. "I don't understand why he makes you wear that ridiculous helmet."
"It does get a little warm in the summer," Iron Man agreed. "Thank God we don't operate out of Martinique."
"No, seriously," said Steve, "why do you wear it? Were you injured? Because I've known lots of soldiers with facial wounds who walked around without a mask. It's something to be proud of, not a cause for shame."
"If you dislike it that much, I'll take it off."
"Or if you were a criminal," Steve went on, looking down at his mug of rum, "those letters of marque qualify as a full pardon if you'd just sign the damned things..." He stopped mid-sentence as the metal helmet was placed before him on the table. He stared at it for a moment as his rum-addled brain scrambled to catch up. He looked slowly up at the other man. "There's nothing wrong with your face," he said at last.
"Besides the fact that I'd give my right arm for a shave, you mean?" said Iron Man. He was right, he had several days' worth of beard on his jaw, but even that did not detract from what a handsome face it was: dark hair pulled into a messy queue and blue eyes that Steve could finally see without having to peer awkwardly through the slits in the mask, and a mouth that was laughing openly at him at the moment. "Hmm," said Steve.
"Well? Meet with your approval?"
"What's this?" Steve asked. He reached out and gingerly tapped the other man's cheekbone where a magnificent bruise was blossoming.
"Oh, grapeshot," said Iron Man. "I still have a bit of ringing in my ears from that one."
Steve couldn't stop staring at the bruise. "If you hadn't been wearing that helmet—"
"Then I'd have been rendered horrifyingly ugly and I'd never be able to take the damned thing off," Iron Man replied, flippantly ignoring the more dire circumstances to which Steve referred.
Steve dropped his hand from the other man's face to his shoulder. "Then I suppose I can't hate it entirely," he said. "You know, I wish I'd met you sooner. Before you signed yourself away to Stark, I mean."
"I don't remember not knowing Mr. Stark," Iron Man said with a smile.
"That's a shame," Steve replied, swaying a little in his seat. "Stark must mean a lot to you, if you're willing to turn pirate for him. I really would have liked to have been the person you turned to piracy for, instead of him. Well, not piracy. I don't like that you're a pirate, but something like that. Does that make sense?"
Iron Man was smiling. "Frighteningly enough, yes, it does," he replied. "I believe you've had enough rum for one night. Why don't you lie down before you fall down?"
"I'm fine," Steve insisted, but Iron Man threaded an arm around his middle and pulled him out of the chair. Wrapping Steve's arm around his neck, he helped him walk toward the narrow cot in the corner.
"You'll feel better the sooner you sleep this off," said Iron Man.
At this proximity Steve could feel the heat of the other man's body and the movement of the muscle in his shoulders as he hauled Steve across the room. He was surprisingly strong for such a lean man, Steve thought. He turned his head to impart this observation and found his nose just level with where Iron Man's cravat was dangling half-tied around his neck. He leaned in, inhaling sweat and gunpowder and metal.
Iron Man froze. Steve felt his heartbeat stutter under his left hand and interpreted that, along with the fact that he hadn't been thrown across the room, as permission to continue. He very carefully licked a narrow stripe of the exposed skin above Iron Man's shirt collar and received a gasp in return. When he pulled back and met Iron Man's eyes, there was such a puzzled expression on the man's face that he almost laughed. The impulse was overruled, however, when Iron Man suddenly leaned over and kissed him as if his life depended on it.
It occurred to Steve that he should ask the man's proper name, but it really didn't seem all that important in the grand scheme of things—that is, the grand scheme of lips and teeth, and fingers working at waistcoat buttons, of which there were far too many for Steve's liking. Iron Man had backed them toward the cot at some point between toeing off his shoes and tugging Steve's shirt out of his breeches. Steve's legs hit the edge of the cot and he sprawled backward, pulling Iron Man down with him.
"This is a terrible idea," Iron Man said against his mouth.
"Just awful," Steve agreed, pulling at the knot of fabric that had been Iron Man's cravat.
"The other men are right outside. And you're drunk."
"No more than you are."
"Fair enough," said Iron Man. Bracing on one elbow, he finally managed to slip one hand into Steve's breeches, and not a moment too soon as far as Steve was concerned. His hips bucked and he slid his hands around and gripped Iron Man's backside encouragingly.
Someone was knocking at the door. Steve ignored it, but Iron Man pulled back. "Is that...?"
"No," Steve said firmly.
The knock came again. Steve stubbornly refused to budge, but Iron Man kept his arm braced against the cot and withdrew his hand from Steve's breeches. He hung his head and let out a groan of frustration against Steve's shoulder. "One moment," he called out as he stood to tuck in his shirt. He flashed Steve a rueful smile before he pulled the helmet over his head and snapped the visor into place, leaving a frustrated Steve sitting on the edge of the cot. He leaned his elbows on his knees with a sigh and tried to straighten his clothes somewhat, hoping it wasn't too obvious what they had been doing.
"Pardon the intrusion, Shellhead, but we've arrived at Newport. I just spoke with the Julius Caesar. They said there's rumors of fighting off the coast of Chesapeake Bay." The voice belonged to Barton.
"Combatants?" It was strange now to hear Iron Man speak through the helmet. After hearing his voice without distortion, Steve mourned the loss.
"Looks like the French fleet and several British ships, including the London."
Steve sat up straighter. "That's Graves," he blurted. "They're on the way to relieve Cornwallis."
Both Iron Man and Barton were staring at him. "How can you be sure?" Iron Man asked.
"That's the only logical destination. We have to keep them from making it to Yorktown," said Steve, jumping to his feet. He didn't get five steps before he swayed and leaned on the table for support, his legs thorough victims of the rum.
"Is he all right?" Barton asked.
"He won't be joining in any battles tonight, but he'll be fine," Iron Man assured him. "We'll stay in Newport for the time being. Tell the crew they have a day's leave, except for the anchor watch."
"But they're going to need our help in Virginia," Steve protested.
"There's an entire fleet of French ships. They do not need our help," said Iron Man.
"I'm not talking about the ships. I'm talking about Cornwallis."
"You can't just ignore them!"
"Yes I can," Iron Man said firmly. "I've been ignoring them quite effectively for several years now. Your presence on this ship does not make it a vessel of the Continental Navy, nor does it give you the right to dictate where it goes. There is a giant mess in Virginia and I have no intention of getting in the middle of it. We reclaim Stark technology and equipment, and that is all. I have full confidence that we could take on one, maybe two British frigates and come out ahead, but if the French continue their record of naval incompetence, there is a very good chance that the British fleet will come after us. I cannot take that risk."
It was all Steve could do to restrain his anger. "I left those men at Fort Griswold in the lurch. I won't make the same mistake twice." He charged around Iron Man and past Barton, up onto the deck.
"What's the matter, Cap?" Bucky hailed him, but Steve ignored him.
"If you won't take me to Virginia, then take me to shore," he called to Iron Man. "I'll ride to Yorktown."
"You aren't in any shape to ride anywhere," Iron Man said, grabbing Steve's arm. Steve whirled on him, taking a wild swing. Sailors were starting to gather anxiously around, and Iron Man called for them to stay out of it. "The captain's had a rough day and a bit too much to drink," he explained.
This only infuriated Steve further. He kicked Iron Man's feet out from under him, pinning him effectively. "I am perfectly capable of—"
He never finished the sentence. Something solid connected with the back of his head and he barely had time to register Iron Man's arms closing protectively around him before everything went black.
* * *
October 20, 1781 – Yorktown, Virginia
The afternoon sunlight filtered through the sheer curtains in the parlor of the Moore house. There were six cots crammed in around the furniture, an injured officer on each. The accommodations were luxurious compared to most field hospitals. A doctor was changing the dressing on what was left of a soldier's leg, murmuring quietly to him. Steve hovered in the doorway, not wanting to disturb him at his work. After a moment the doctor reached for his cane and stood.
"Back to visit your friend?" he said when he spied Steve. "I'm Dr. Blake."
The name was vaguely familiar. He shook the doctor's hand and said, "Steve Rogers."
"Ah, Major Rogers. It's a pleasure. I've heard much about you."
So Steve should recognize the name if not the man, but he didn't have the presence of mind at the moment to figure out why. Instead he nodded to the bed in the corner. "How is he?"
"Don't talk about me like I'm not here," came a voice from the bed. Steve picked his way around the other cots and sat on the edge of Bucky's. He looked pale and bruised, making the cuts on his face and neck seem an even angrier red. Bucky huffed a laugh. "I feel worse than I look," he said, and Steve tried not to think about the fact that his voice was hoarse from screaming before and during the surgery.
"Then you must feel really terrible," he said, fully aware that the smile on his face was stretched thin.
"You're due for another dose of laudanum, lieutenant," said Dr. Blake from the other side of the cot. "May I examine the wound?"
"My arm hurts," Bucky said. He stared resolutely at the ceiling as the doctor pulled away the bloodied bandages. "I know that's stupid, but it does."
"It is quite common for amputees to feel sensations in the missing limb," said Dr. Blake. "It is not stupid in the least." Bucky's brow remained creased in pain and frustration, but he nodded slightly. As Dr. Blake began changing the dressing on what little was left of his arm, Steve's hand discreetly sought Bucky's right hand and squeezed it.
"Congratulations on the promotion," Bucky said through gritted teeth.
Steve smiled a shaky smile. "You got one too, you know."
"Yeah, a lot of good it does me. How are things outside?"
"Cornwallis didn't bother to show up at the surrender," Steve replied. "He claimed he was ill. We're moving the last of them to prison camps today."
"Good riddance," said Bucky. The silence stretched between them, the only sound the occasional rip of fabric as Dr. Blake tore more bandages. Steve wiped the sweat from Bucky's forehead. Eventually Bucky said, "I heard we had some help keeping Cornwallis in the bay."
"Mm-hmm," Steve replied.
"Have you seen him yet?"
Steve briefly considered feigning ignorance as to whom Bucky was referring. Instead he said, "No. I've been busy."
Even as pained as his countenance was, Bucky still managed to give him a look that said he thought Steve was being particularly dense. "That's no excuse."
Dr. Blake chose that particular moment to administer Bucky's requisite dose of laudanum. Steve felt a pang of guilt for feeling grateful for the distraction. "Better?" he asked. Bucky nodded, his eyes closed. The doctor moved on to other patients, but Steve continued to sit at Bucky's side, turning the events of the last few months over in his mind as Bucky slept. He had no idea how long he sat there, only that a loud voice jarred him from his reverie.
"Donald Blake! How is my favorite sawbones?"
Although Steve had heard Iron Man's voice only briefly without the distortion of the iron helmet, he recognized the voice immediately. He watched the doctor excuse himself from his current patient and cross into the hall.
"Tony Stark. You haven't blown yourself up with one of your godforsaken machines yet, I see," Dr. Blake replied with a laugh.
Steve turned to look over his shoulder and froze. Standing in the foyer with his hat in hand was Iron Man—no, Anthony Stark. He was dressed impeccably in a burgundy brocade coat with the tiniest hint of lace visible at the throat and peeking out of the cuffs. His dark hair was pulled back into a smooth pigtail, much neater than when Steve last saw it. He was clean-shaven.
"What is it, Cap?" He hadn't realized Bucky was awake. He turned back to face him and squeezed his hand once more.
"I need to take care of something," he said. "Will you be all right?"
Bucky squinted at him suspiciously for a moment, but let it go. "Of course. What trouble can I get into here?"
"You're resourceful. I'll return soon." Steve rose, tugged his coat into order, and headed for the foyer.
"And there are the usual injuries, as horrific as it is to refer to things like lost limbs or gangrene as such," Dr. Blake was saying. Stark had his back to Steve, so as he approached, Steve coughed politely.
"I beg your pardon, Dr. Blake," he said, "but I just wanted to thank you before I left. You've provided such excellent care for these men."
There was a momentary tension in Stark's shoulders that Steve found perversely gratifying. Stark turned to find Steve right next to him.
"It is my duty and my pleasure, Major," Dr. Blake said. "The road ahead of your friend in there is not an easy one, even without complications such as infection. It is good that he has a friend such as you."
"I'll do whatever is necessary to help him," said Steve. He felt Stark's eyes boring into him, the feeling much more intense without the slits of the faceplate to act as a buffer. He glanced briefly at Stark and coughed once.
Dr. Blake noted the exchange of glances between them. "Are the two of you acquainted?"
Steve wasn't quite sure how to proceed, so he was thankful when Stark took the lead. "We have moved in the same circles, Doctor, but I'm afraid we've managed to avoid a formal introduction until now. Anthony Stark," he said, extending a hand. His countenance appeared merely polite, but Steve recognized the anxious tension in his frame. He smiled slightly and shook Stark's hand.
"Major Steven Rogers," he said. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Mr. Stark."
"Major? Really?" Stark's eyebrows rode high in surprise at the news of Steve's field promotion and Steve shrugged. "Call me Tony," said Stark. Steve couldn't be sure if the relief he felt when their hands connected was his own or Stark's, but it was a tangible thing that lingered. Stark seemed almost reluctant to release his grip.
"Tony is the reason I was able to leave my practice in Providence to administer to the patients here," Dr. Blake said. "He's also been kind enough to see to it that I'm as well-supplied as I am. Most military physicians have remarkably less to work with."
"I know. I've seen what can happen with inferior care, doctor," said Steve. So that was why the doctor's name was familiar. This was Iron Man's friend whom he'd wished so fervently to have aboard the Avenger. He raised an eyebrow at Stark and added, "We should count ourselves extremely lucky to have you."
"It is good to be appreciated," said the doctor, "but if you gentlemen will excuse me, I have patients to see." He returned to the parlor, leaving Steve alone with Stark, a man he knew nothing about but his greatest secret.
"How did you make it here from Newport, anyway?" Stark asked after a moment.
"We happened to arrive in Newport the day before de Barras and his fleet left to join up with de Grasse here in the Chesapeake," said Steve. "Bucky managed to get us aboard. I'm not sure what he said, but the French troops were very friendly. They didn't even make us sleep with the cattle."
Stark was trying to hide a smile. "That was kind of them."
Steve shifted uncomfortably. "Thank you," he said. "For Dr. Blake, and the medicine, and...everything," he trailed off, unsure how to list Stark's hobby as a pirate. He expected a long-winded and off-hand excuse for his actions, but Stark simply nodded.
"I was thinking about it," he said slowly, "about coming to help, I mean. Then we heard that the French fleet had to leave sooner than you'd hoped, and that you needed someone to keep Cornwallis from escaping, and there really wasn't a decision to make, when the time came." He shrugged, a hesitant smile on his face. "Even after all this, I wasn't sure you'd see me."
Stark's smile widened. "Oh, I don't know. I got you drunk and nearly took advantage of you, and then we yelled at each other. A lot."
Steve crossed his arms over his chest and raised an eyebrow. "You left out the part where you clubbed me over the head."
"That was Barnes. You'll have to take that up with him." The tentative rhythm of friendly verbal sparring vanished. Stark fidgeted with one of the buttons on his cuff. "How is he?"
Part of Steve wanted to hit the man for asking such a stupid question, but he held his frustration in check. Stark wasn't inquiring after Bucky's well being out of sheer politeness. They'd fought together, albeit briefly, and he knew how much Bucky meant to Steve. "They had to take his arm. He's putting on a brave face."
Again, Steve felt the weight of Stark's—Tony's—considering gaze. "So are you."
Steve smiled faintly. "Is it working?"
"He'll be okay, Steve," Stark said. "Donald Blake is the best doctor this side of the Atlantic. He'll see to it Bucky gets the best care possible. And I have some prototype prosthetic limbs in the works. I've taken von Berlichingen's design and improved it. The articulation is simple enough to create, but if I could somehow make it responsive to the muscle movements of what is left of the arm, now that would be something. I'll have to contact Galvani about a possible collaboration. He lectures at Bologna, though he's not particularly eloquent. It's better to read his works than to listen to him mumble, for God's sake. In any case, he's been studying the effects of electricity on muscle movement, which might prove most useful—"
"No, I appreciate it. I know Bucky does, too."
"I wish," Tony began. His gaze dropped to his shoes. "I wish I'd been able to talk the two of you into staying on the ship."
There was a note to Tony's voice that reminded Steve of the way he felt after the massacre at Fort Griswold. Iron Man had been right when he said there was nothing Steve could have done to change the outcome, but perhaps now Tony might better understand how Steve felt. Steve shrugged. "We couldn't."
"I know. But that doesn't mean I don't wish it could have worked that way." Tony brought his gaze slowly up the length of Steve's body, stating quite clearly without words what else he wished had happened. Steve fought the blush he felt at being scrutinized so openly by Tony.
He was acutely aware that they were standing in the foyer of a makeshift hospital, with dozens of people nearby. It was frustrating beyond belief. There was so much Steve wanted to say, but couldn't now that he had the opportunity. "I didn't want—the way we left things, I—"
"Do you feel like making a trip to New York?" Tony asked.
Steve faltered for a moment at the abrupt change in topic. "I'm...I'd like to, Tony, but I can't just leave without orders."
Tony pulled a letter from his coat pocket and handed it to Steve. "Do you mean orders like these?"
Puzzled and not a little suspicious, Steve broke the seal on the letter. "It says you've been commissioned to escort Cornwallis and the other officers to New York," he said.
"Apparently they don't want to get their dress uniforms dirty in prison, so they're being paroled," Tony sniffed. He stepped closer to Steve to point a long finger at the paper. "You'll also note the paragraph at the bottom where it says I'm to be accompanied by a contingent of Continental troops under the command of one Major Steven Rogers."
"Signed General Washington," Steve finished, somewhat dazed. "You told him who...?"
"And if you're concerned that you won't be present for Bucky's convalescence, Hank and Jan are here. Jan swears she makes an excellent nurse," Tony said with a grin.
Steve just stood there, letter still in hand. "I don't know what to say."
"Say, 'Yes, sir, General Washington, I would love to go play pirate with Iron Man.'"
"You won't make me sleep with the cattle, will you?"
Tony's hand found his. "Of course not," he said. Dropping his voice, he added, "I have other sleeping arrangements in mind." When he looked up, the flirtatious expression Steve expected was replaced by one of almost comical anticipation.
Steve smiled. "Then I suppose I'd better tell General Washington I accept the assignment," he said.