All in all, today had been a spectacular day for Tony Stark, genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, supervillain. Third-quarter profits were through the roof. The evil minions were actually competent for once. He’d just signed an option on a lair on a volcanic island. (That volcano had been a real steal since volcano lairs were all the rage these days.) And menacing robot tentacles were on a sale at his favorite parts distributor.
Settled in the soft leather seats of the town car, Tony pondered his tentacle robot designs while Happy fought the traffic. It was a perfect early April evening, still a touch chilly. He could use a coffee for the rest of the ride home.
Happy dropped him off in front of one of his favorite coffee shops, the one that had frothy cinnamon- laced drinks and cappuccinos that rivaled the best Italian brews. The baristas always knew what he liked and served it quickly. Picking up his cup of heaven, he turned around and headed out. He nearly tripped over a worn nylon messenger bag sprawled across the floor.
The owner of the bag looked up from his sketchbook at his involuntary yelp. Leaning back in his chair, a ball cap pulled down to shade his face, he gave Tony a studied lookover. Tony, offended by the mislaid bag and the lack of immediate apology, glared at the man. The man didn’t seem like much, in his plaid shirt and blue ball cap with a silver star.
“What’s the deal, Picasso?” he asked.
The man said nothing, but pushed the bag under the table with his foot. Tony scowled at him. He was a supervillain, he should know how to take out any inconsiderate idiot in a second. He thought better of it and left.
Later, when he was head-deep into the guts of the largest robot he’d built yet, he thought back to that odd encounter at the coffee shop. That messenger bag – he just knew it had been set up to trip him deliberately. He’d have to be careful. The Squadron Supreme had a high bounty on his head.
He fought the Squadron Supreme on a nearly daily basis. They were constantly foiling his plans to rule the city, then the world. If he was to get any peace in the world from their meddling ways, he would have to find a way to defeat them once and for all. His preferred method of destruction involved large complicated robots, but he wasn’t putting all his eggs in one basket with his latest tentacled robots. He was gathering and analyzing data, watching for the perfect opening for the right weapon.
Tony had not set out to be a supervillain. He started off as a garden-variety weapons dealer, but instead of the wild partying life, massive truckloads of money, series of trophy wives, and heart attack at fifty he planned on, he ended up with an arc reactor in his chest and a large metal robot suit. And apparently a desire to destroy the Squadron Supreme, especially Hyperion. Though Darkhawk was beginning to set his teeth on edge with every encounter.
In the morning, Tony had the rare luxury of not having to go into the office. His cover as a playboy dilettante industrialist helped with the supervillain gig, even though the amount of paperwork remained the same. He brewed coffee in his spotless stainless steel kitchen. He disagreed with the general notion that a supervillain had to live in misery. His hideout -- with all the exposed brick and duct work and sleek surfaces -- was the complete designer New York loft, despite the disadvantage of being underground.
“JARVIS, the news.”
JARVIS played back the day’s highlight reel on the large screen television in the living room. Amused, Tony listened to reports of the misdeeds of his fellow supervillains while he worked on his robots. He dropped everything to listen intently to a news report on a warehouse explosion. The warehouse wasn’t in itself interesting, but who destroyed it was. The reporter described it as the work of the mysterious Captain.
No one had seen him, ever. He was a master of sabotage and widespread mayhem. Even the Squadron Supreme hesitated to take him on.
Tony might be a little in love.
He rubbed his grease-covered hands on his thighs, and considered alterations to the tentacles. It was getting late and caffeine deprivation was setting in. He ransacked his cabinets searching for coffee and, surprisingly, found none. He tapped his fingers on the counter thinking of what to do. He was tempted to send a robot out for a caffeine run. But he couldn’t afford to have Darkhawk capture his grocery-shopping robot and put a tracer on the poor thing.
He ended up back at his favorite coffee-shop. This time though, he avoided the messenger bag laid out like the trap it was. Picasso was back.
The Annoying Sketchbook Man in the ball cap was studying him again. Tony could confront or ignore. But he was not known for his wisdom.
“You’re lucky that I didn’t drop my coffee or else you’d owe me one,” Tony stated.
Annoying Man snagged his messenger bag back. “So, you’re the famous Tony Stark.”
“So my license says.” The man didn’t seem to be the average undercover cop or one of the patsies working for the Squadron. “And you are?”
Confusion crossed the man’s face. He might be the most annoying thing in Tony’s perfect life, but Tony had to admit that Annoying Man was the most gorgeous-looking person he’d seen in at least a week. He stammered out, “Steve Rogers.”
Rogers. Seemed familiar. Tony couldn’t place it.
“I’d buy you another coffee if you’d join me,” Steve offered.
The modern supervillain would not be caught dead having coffee with some unknown artist in one of the numerous interchangeable coffee shops that plagued Midtown. Though Tony liked the coffee at this place more than any other. But Steve Rogers intrigued him.
Steve paid for a coffee and they sat in companionable silence for a few minutes. Steve took notes in his sketchbook. Tony tried to see what Steve was writing and only got glimpses of elegant handwriting and the occasional doodle. No sign of who Steve really was. Tony couldn’t shake the feeling that he had seen Steve before. Pepper took him to many gallery showings, maybe he’d met Steve there.
“You come here often?” Tony opened.
“No.” Steve had that confused look flash over his face. “Yes? Maybe.”
“You were waiting for me. That can’t be good, unless you are the world’s most obvious stalker.”
“Not stalking. Not really. I saw you here. Last week?” Steve said. He twisted his pencil in his fingers and frowned. “I don’t remember much past last week.”
A chill swept through Tony. He’d accepted coffee from a psycho. He needed to get out and now.
“Wait. Look over there.” Steve pointed to an innocuous office across the street. Again, not much different from the dozens of stores and offices that lined the streets. A couple of uniformed women walked out of the office. “It’s a Squadron Supreme station.”
Tony peered at the office, wondering if he was going to catch a sign of any of the Squadron members.
Steve shook his head. “No one’s there now.”
“You’re running a surveillance operation on the Squadron? You know what could happen if they found out?”
“It’s no different than what you do.” Steve closed his sketchbook.
“I own and run Stark Industries. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Tony stood up to go. “I have a meeting. Glad to know you’re not working for the Squadron.” Although he should try to figure out what Steve was hinting at.
Steve grabbed Tony’s wrist. He pushed back the ball cap and Tony saw sadness fill his blue eyes. “You don’t remember me, Tony?” he asked, his voice breaking.
Tony batted his hand away. He shouldn’t have come to the coffee shop at all, much less listen to weirdo Steve. “No, I don’t.” He turned heel and left, hoping he hadn’t been discovered.
Tony woke up with a niggling itch he couldn’t scratch.
Cranky and unsettled, he watched the morning news shows screaming reports about a building explosion in Midtown, no doubt the latest work of the mysterious Captain. He recognized the building weirdo Steve pointed out to him as the site of the explosion. No one was hurt, there had been a fire alarm in the building before the attack.
Tony thought about that building all day. And Steve. He half-listened during a meeting as a development team droned about the advancements they had made in automated home-management systems. After the meeting, he went back to the coffee shop, but Steve was not there. The staff denied seeing him or knowing who he was. It was like Steve had never existed.
That night, he dreamed of Steve, of lying together naked in a big bed tangled up in white sheets in the early afternoon sunlight. Steve smiled at him, his blond hair sticking out all over, blue eyes sparkling, laughing at something Tony said. Tony put his hand on Steve’s hip, rubbing a circle into the warm skin, Steve leaning in close to whisper in Tony’s ear, his hand sliding across the dip in Tony’s back to pull him close. The dream was so real he could feel Steve’s hot breath on his ear, the brush of his tongue and lips on his cheek.
The dream felt more real than he ever felt sitting at his desk, listening to JARVIS report on the latest from the Squadron Supreme.
Something was seriously wrong and Tony had to find out what that was.
Tony never gave much thought to the other supervillains operating in this city. They had their thing and he had his. They stayed clear of the Squadron Supreme who policed the city and kept it crime-free. Tony never trusted the Squadron or his colleagues in crime. Hawkeye, Black Widow and Falcon could stick to the petty hacking and burglaries, while Thor menaced the docks and Hulk ran herd over the gangster element. Tony had bigger fish to fry.
Then there was The Captain. He was a recent arrival on the scene. He attacked from the shadows, working so stealthily that no one had ever seen him. Not even the Squadron. Tony knew that because Tony regularly hacked into the Squadron’s computer systems.
Tonight he was rehauling the suit and refreshing the metallic gold and black paint job. News reports of the Squadron’s charity work and disaster relief played on in the background, a nice reminder of what Tony was fighting against. He had no idea why the sheep in the city went along with this nice helpful fakery from the Squadron. They had to be taken down.
His plan was simple. He’d lure them into his explosive trap with a triad of tentacled robots, enough to be dangerous and threatening, not too much to destroy property. And then “blam,” when they least expected it, he’d blow them sky-high.
A sharp stabbing pain behind his eyes disrupted his thoughts.
Tony shuffled half-asleep into the kitchen where he found Steve in boxers and a t-shirt cooking omelets at the stove. Steve pushed a mug at him. “Good morning, I didn’t think I’d see you up this early.”
“What time is it?” Tony growled. The cup of black coffee tasted hot and perfect as it went down his throat.
“Ten in the morning.”
“Oh.” He should be at Stark Industries or in the workshop or somewhere.
“Hey, relax, we’ve got the day off,” Steve said. He gave Tony a hip bump on his way to the kitchen island where he put down the plates. “Come and get your breakfast.”
Tony slid onto a bar stool and inspected the omelet, made just the way he liked it. “Thanks, Steve.”
Standing behind Tony, Steve ran his hand through Tony’s wild hair and kissed the top of his head. “Here, for you.” He handed over a card.
Tony picked up the hand-lettered card with the drawing of him and Steve hand in hand. “Happy Birthday,” he read. He opened it and continued, “For the man who has everything …”
A loud clanging alarm brought him to his senses. He’d left the welding torch on too long. “Thanks, J,” Tony said. What the hell was going on? He hallucinated before when he hadn’t slept for a couple of days. Maybe he needed more sleep. Now.
Sleep eluded him. He lay awake all night. All he could think about was that card and Steve’s large hand burning on his shoulder. If he had fallen asleep -- no, he couldn’t have read the card, people can’t read in their sleep, even Tony.
He couldn’t afford a nervous breakdown on the eve of the most brilliant attack he’d ever planned. But if it was an hallucination, why did he feel cheated? And so alone?