The dark, echoing halls of the Alchemical College's Science Museum seemed to wrap around him in an endless, moonlit labyrinth, silent and accusing, and for a moment, Captain Steven Rogers nursed a brief, but virulent, frustration with his quarry. So shortly freed from his decades-long captivity, thrown into this dark and confusing era unprepared, the absolute last place he wished to be, this moment, was hunting down drunken and wastrel engineers in after-hours (and perhaps more than a little unnerving) museums.
At least, he thought sourly, it was not the natural history wing, nor the military museum. He wasn't sure how well he could have borne the twin looming specters of the Ice, and his own much-lauded, and much misrepresented, history.
He prowled in some temper through the corridors, heading beyond the public areas, into the more private galleries used only by members of the College itself. Not the staff areas, these. Simply a more rarified, elitist public sphere. He could feel his spine stiffening slightly, pure instinct, his own rather more humble upbringing automatically bristling at the atmosphere. He had been born in another era, it was true. But he was far from certain if, even then, there had been quite this air of ... wealthy disapproval, in these silent, echoing halls.
On the other hand, from the faint clatters and occasional curses from the atrium ahead, Natasha's directions had not been chasing will o'wisps. Stark was here, Steven was almost certain. Either Stark, or a particularly inept burglar, and he sincerely doubted the latter.
He did wonder, a little, how the vaguely terrifying woman had known that here, of all places, was where he would find the wayward engineer, the last member of this supposed team of theirs. He wondered what manner of man was Stark, that a woman Steven would swear blind was an assassin should know his habits. Then again, perhaps the first thing he had learned about Stark, behind the fact of his monumental arrogance, was that the man was almost ridiculously wealthy. And wealth, in this era or any other, drew its share of enemies.
Not that Stark himself seemed particularly conscious of threat, Steven thought wryly, as he stepped into the shadow of the doorway through to Stark's atrium, and watched the engineer lever himself clumsily onto a windowsill, curling himself around a fresh bottle of some spirit in the moonlight. Stark didn't seem to be aware of him, yet, hadn't caught Steven's entrance, which had admittedly been quiet. Less stealth, more the instincts of his upbringing, to be quiet in a place of learning. But it had served him well enough. Stark didn't yet know he was there.
Steven watched him, for a moment. Stark was moving with a clumsy lassitude, the unmistakable sign of too much alcohol. It was strange, actually. The few times Steven had met him before this, he had been near-vibrating, quivering with some smooth, manic energy that defied all hold on him, flashing teeth and smiles and intellect about himself like some strange firework display. It had, to be honest, set Steven's teeth on edge. Even in this new and somewhat belligerent era, Stark's expansiveness seemed aggressive, defensive, a gleeful weapon he deployed with too much abandon for Steven to respect.
Not so, now. This, it seemed, was a far different Lord Anthony Stark. Stumbling, graceless, tipping himself sprawling into his windowed alcove to stare up at the looming presence of some vast machinery, and salute it irreverently with his bottle. No smooth, rushing grace here. Just a dark, sodden sprawl, limned blue in the moonlight, laughing harshly in the dimness.
"Stark," he called, low and carrying, stepping out of the doorway and into the towering room proper. He didn't quite wince as Stark's head snapped up, almost cracking against the leaded panes in the process. Yes, perhaps he should have given some more warning. It was the era, he told himself. Since his waking, since clawing his way up out of Ice and Ocean and alchemical slumber, he had been ... impatient. Terse.
Pained. But he wouldn't think of that. That was not for now.
"Captain!" Stark spat, startled but unmoving, only a hand reaching upwards to flutter around his chest. "Are you trying to kill me?" His voice snapped on a hard edge of real shock, hard anger, and Steven did wince, then, a twinge of genuine guilt flickering in his chest. He remembered, suddenly, why impatience had always been his worst attribute.
"My apologies," he said, formally, but genuinely. He couldn't quite see the expression that flickered over Stark's shadowed face, at that, but he thought it might have been surprise. "I should have given more warning. It is ... quiet, in here."
Stark squinted up at him suspiciously, tracking him as he came to rest in the patch of moonlight from Stark's window. Up close, the man didn't look near so drunk as Steven had originally thought. Loose, yes. Sodden, not quite.
"No matter," Stark dismissed, eventually, still squinting at him. More suspicion, too, than Steven would have credited. Maybe Stark was more wary that he seemed. Though that would not be particularly difficult. "What brings you to my home from home, Sir Knight?"
It wasn't mocking. Genuinely not. But Steven still winced a little at the title, the honour offered him before he had earned it, simply to help rekindle an Empire's faith. In the decades since he had fallen, it seemed, the title had been granted him in earnest, but all he could remember, when he heard it, was the faint disgust of those genuine knights, those real soldiers, when he had marched out to fight for the first time. When he had strode out, young and proud and humming with alchemical power, to fight in that hellish war.
"... Are you well up there?" A voice interrupted, almost fortunately, his reminiscences. Steven blinked, coming back to himself, and looked down to see that now mockery had appeared in Stark's shadowed features, and perhaps some faint edge of concern.
"I'm fine," he said, shortly. He didn't much like this man, he remembered. And had come here for a reason, much related to that dislike. "You missed the last three meetings. We were meant to train together." Attempt to become a team, before it was too late, he didn't say. He wasn't sure the man knew the meaning of the word.
Stark's face ... flickered, briefly. A queer little twitch, something that might as easily have been smile or grimace. "You wanted to see the armour in action, you mean," he said, in a voice soft and rough with drink. "Wanted to see what the big man with his tin suit could do, yes?" And, oh, yes, there was contempt in that, and challenge, and something else Steven had not means to name. Something jagged, and inward facing.
"I want to see how you perform in the field, yes," Steven answered evenly. Wanted to see this supposed marvel of engineering, too. This impossibility, this metal-and-leather thing that should not run, not by any means of power, anbaric or alchemic, yet known. But that was secondary. He had seen impossibilities before. Even manmade ones. This man's father - Howard - had shown him some few of those.
Stark sneered up at him, a drunken sprawl of limbs dressed in the very best of clothes, in linen and silk and thick, heavy wool, one hand wrapped tightly about the neck of an unmarked bottle. His face was pale in the moonlight, blue-silvered, his eyes dark, his lips pulled back over angry teeth. Nothing ... nothing like his father. Too small, too fragile, too angry.
But the hand, Steven noted distantly, the hand about that bottle, was as powerful, and as scarred, as Howard's had been.
"Do you know where you are?" Stark asked abruptly, sitting jerkily upright, gesturing with his bottle out past Steven, into the shadowed room and its looming mechanical monstrosities. "Do you know what this is?"
Steven blinked at him, briefly confused, then annoyed. "Does it have anything to do with your refusal to practice with us?" he ... not snapped. He had control enough to avoid that. But clipped, yes.
Stark grinned at him. Dark and jagged. "Say it does," the man goaded, infuriatingly, tipping his head back and the bottle to his lips. No mean feat, really, when his eyes at the same time never left Steven's.
Who, for his own part, growled, looming closer over the other man. "No," he snapped, abandoning control, for the moment. If for no other reason than that the question brushed too close to too many things. "How would I know that? Do you think I've been awake that long?"
Long enough to get to grips with the decades he'd been lost, maybe. Long enough to understand the magnitude of what he had missed, what he had lost, how much had fled past him, lying drowned in alchemical sleep. Long enough for that. But not long enough to learn the details. Not long enough to grasp where he was now, and what was to be asked of him. Not long enough to understand the silent mechanical sentinels that lined these halls, and the men who had wrung them into being. Not long enough for that.
Stark's smile faltered, those dark eyes registering something in Steven's face, in the cracked snap of his voice. The sneer faltered, some remnant of human feeling rising beneath it. Regret, which Steven had honestly thought was beyond him. Sympathy, as alien. At least as far as Steven had understood the man.
"This was my father's hall," Stark offered, almost as if in apology. Sitting straighter, expression more serious, propped back against the window and looking at Steven with earnest eyes. "After ... mostly after you. You ... He did a lot, trying to find you. He found ... a lot of things, looking for you."
Steven ... blinked at him. Some hard, liquid thing seizing his chest. He couldn't speak around it, so nodded instead. To show his comprehension.
"I ..." Stark began, then faltered. Shuttered, dismissing something within himself, and tilted his head to the side, instead. To the vast engine beside them, just beyond the moonlight's edge. "That was one of them. Well. In a fashion. That engine. It was ... his legacy, in many ways."
Steven blinked, turning to look with mild curiosity at the hulking thing. In the darkness, shadowed beyond the reach of moonlight, the machine did not reveal much of itself, only a vague impression of metal and glass, spidered bulk, a startling, shadow-veiled complexity. It had the look of one of Howard's things, yes. Brutish, yet deviously complicated. He could see that, yes.
"They call it the Engine of Light," Stark said softly from beside him, his own eyes dark upon it, his hand tight around his bottle. "It was ... Oh, it was monstrously unstable." He waved his free hand, sketching vague shapes in the air, at once dismissive and explanatory. "It was such a powerful thing, you know. Almost monstrous. But it was too unstable to work, too chaotic to be counted on." A small sliver of a smile, black in the moonlight. "It won us a war, though. It managed that."
Steven turned back to look at him, to stare down at him. There was ... something, in Stark's voice. That jagged thing. And Steven thought, realised, that whatever it was, whatever lurked under the crack in this man's voice, was more important to understand now than the machine. But ... he understood enough of tactics to know that to have one, one must go through the other.
"What is it?" he asked, quietly. Dropping the temper, the demand from his voice. He did not like this man. His first instinct, on seeing him, had been to dislike him. But there was something here. And he thought he would need to understand it, if this mad quest of theirs was to find victory. If this team, this Order of the Shield, was to work.
Stark wasn't looking at him, not yet. His eyes were still fixed on the machine, his father's legacy. Whatever that meant. But after a moment, he seemed to come back to himself. Seemed to return. And then ... His eyes, when they returned to Steven's face, were grim, and directed more personally at Steven than he liked. He stiffened, feeling a chill brush his spine.
"You fell into the North Sea fighting a demon, you said," the man said, the words like lead weights. Not a question. Never that. Steven fought to control his expression.
"Yes," he said, tightly. Nothing more. He did not want this. He didn't want to go here.
Stark, though, didn't seem to care overmuch what he wanted. "There were reports," he went on, blithely enough, Steven would have thought, except that his eyes were yet fixed on Steven, and they were calculating. "Before your mission was approved. Of what you faced. Of what Schmidt was doing, the power he sought. Odin's Jewel, wasn't it called?"
Steven frowned, shaking his head. Not in denial. Those details were old and irrefutable. In annoyance, rather. In avoidance. "What has that to do with anything?"
That dark smile flickered forward again, Stark hunching forward slightly, his shoulders curling as he brought his hands, and the bottle, between his knees. "It was rumoured to be the power of the Gods, that jewel," he said, almost absently. "A machine of some alien origin, of a power to remake the world. That was how threatened we were. That was what you had to stop. Wasn't it so?"
"Yes," Steven answered, repressively, feeling his hands curl towards fists. He remembered. Decades, for everyone else, but not for him. His slumber had not touched him. He had not dreamed. That moment, that flash of blinding light, that endless fall, the horror of seeing his enemy reach for a power he could not have hoped to stop. That was still so fresh, for him. That was still right there.
"It vanished, when you fell," Stark continued, watching him with dark, intelligent eyes. "No-one quite knew what had become of it. Of course, we know now," he nodded to Steven, the reports he'd made, shaking and confused, on waking. "But then ... There was no power in the world who did not seek the Jewel, after you fell. No nation in the world who did not want its power. And my father ..."
Steven felt a vague chill, a premonition, or something like one. He remembered Howard, the light in the man's eyes. Not for power, exactly. But for knowledge, yes. Howard had always ... wanted to understand the power of things.
"It was you he was looking for," Stark told him, almost gently. "He launched so many ships, after you. So many expeditions. Treks into the frozen seas, under the burning skies. They called him an explorer, in those years." A flash of grin. "Better than 'mad, obsessed bastard', I suppose. He was looking for you. But he was looking for the Jewel, too. And then ... Then, he found it. Or parts of it, at least."
Steven froze, went still. Looking down at the man before him, at the dark, hunched figure of him. Howard Stark's son, Lord Anthony Stark, who fought in armour powered by nobody-knew-what. He had, suddenly, an idea why Stark was telling him this. He had an idea, suddenly, why it was an answer to his question, to his desire to see the armour at work.
"He did not find the Jewel," he said, low and rough. "He could not. It vanished when Schmidt touched it. Tore a hole in the world, took all with it." White light, screaming. The fall to iron seas, blinded, with the memory of a look of raw shock on a stretched, red face. "It wasn't there for him to find."
"No," Stark agreed, smiling up at him. Almost approving. "My father never found the Jewel itself. But he found Schmidt's base. He found the research, the theories. The notes, left by the Hydra's alchemists, their scientists."
"Zola," Steven said, distantly. "He found Zola."
"What was left of him," Stark nodded. "Apparently, the Jewel does strange things to a man, after too long. Something about anbaric radiation, perhaps. Or perhaps Zola was simply always ... somewhat unstable."
Steven nodded, almost absently. What he remembered of Zola, 'insane' was perhaps a better word than 'unstable'. Though not nearly so much as his master.
"My father used those notes," Stark said, quietly. "He never gave up on you. But after a few years, he could no longer go on the expeditions himself. So ... he started to work on something else. On the legacy of your fight. On the Jewel. And, eventually, the Engine."
"It's a copy?" Steven asked, struggling a little with the idea. The Jewel had been beyond their understanding. Beyond any man's. Brilliant as Howard had been ...
"As best as he could manage," Stark agreed. "He was ... hampered. The Jewel was made by gods, or some alien thing, at least. He simply didn't have the capability to do what they had done. But what he did manage ..."
He paused. Looked back out into the dark room, at the looming black bulk of the machine.
"It was called the Engine of Light," he said, very softly. "It was a marvel of engineering, a feat unparalleled. It could not twist the world, not as the Jewel had done. But it produced ... truly frightening amounts of power, of a strange mix of anbaric and alchemic energies. And my father ... much as Hydra before him, my father used that power to build weapons. The greatest weapons the world had ever seen. The great cannons, the Firestars. And then, later, during the Asiatic Wars ..." He trailed off, glanced at Steven, his eyes full of that jagged thing. "Were you told of that? Hiroshima, Nagasaki? The Project?"
Mute, Steven nodded. A brief thing, much rushed through, but it had been part of his briefing. Such a key moment of the past few decades could not be glossed over.
"The Engine did that," Stark whispered, in the darkness. "It was too big, too hulking to be moved, but it could launch power. A lance from the Heavens. My father had it do that." A black, broken slash of a smile. "It destroyed him, I think. I could never be sure. But it destroyed the Engine, too. As I said. Too unstable. Too monstrously unsure." His hands tightened, knuckles flashing white. "But that ... that was not the worst of it. We didn't understand, at the time. My father, I think, never did. They were ... only accidents, you see. We didn't ... quite understand."
The chill had returned. Seeped deeper into Steven's spine, threading tendrils through his gut. That feeling, when he had first seen Hydra's alchemical labs. When he had first looked on Schmidt. When he had seen that leering red-skulled face lean close, inches from a power to shatter worlds, while he could only watch. Steven, as perhaps no-one else in this era, had an idea where this was going.
"The Engine ate lives," Stark whispered, dark and huddled in the moonlight, his eyes now fixed on the floor, on Steven, anywhere but at the dark presence of the machine at their side. "No-one knew. Accidents happened. It was unstable. It always was. Workers died. Operators died. Thousands, too, on the other end of the lance. But it was a weapon. It was supposed to destroy. The accidents, they were just that. That's what everyone said. Until it collapsed, after Nagasaki. Until the Engine died."
"There were bodies," Steven said, hoarsely. "Under Hydra. We thought they were prisoners, at first. They were, too. But they wore Hydra uniforms. They had been ... working on the Jewel. On the weapons."
Stark nodded, grim and tight-lipped. "No-one knew. No-one really knows now, either. I didn't, not until ... Well. Once the Engine was dead, and my father could not improve it, couldn't fix the flaws in it, once the Engine was abandoned ... No-one really cared, I suppose. It had done it's job. It had won us the war. My father was a hero. The best weapons engineer the Empire had ever seen. What did it matter, after that?"
"Stark ..." Steven said, then stopped. Cleared his throat, tried again. "Anthony. Why do you ... Why do I need to know this?" He knew. He thought he knew. He desperately, desperately hoped he was wrong.
Stark looked up at him. Vaguely trembling, now, glassy and showing the signs of wear. Drunkenness. Pain. Old terror, maybe. Steven hated it. He hated it. He did not like this man. Or hadn't. But he hated that look, even on Stark. He had seen others with that look, in the war. He hadn't lived long enough, stolen into slumber, to ever see them be able to recover from it. For some reason, he couldn't bear to see it here, in this man. He could not.
"The Engine ate lives," Stark told him, eyes black and hollow. "Like the Jewel. It ran on blood. No-one knew. We didn't know. So when I needed it, something like it, when I needed power, and I was so much better than my father, had so much more knowledge, more ability ..." He laughed, and Steven saw it then. Saw the jagged thing, torn up into the light, making the man's blue-lit face for a moment as ghastly, in its way, as Schmidt's red one. "I was afraid, and angry, and ... and dying, and I needed power. Do you understand that, Captain Rogers? Sir Knight? Do you understand that at all?"
"Yes," Steven said. So quietly. He understood that. The scrawny, weakling boy he'd been. The man, desperate to fight, to serve, who had embraced an alchemic cocktail, a serum that had changed his life. That had made him who he was today. He understood, alright. Oh yes. But he feared ... he greatly feared, that for his power, Stark had paid something more dear than the boy he had once been.
"You want to see the armour in action?" Stark - Anthony - asked him, with a smile that said he knew how little Steven wanted that, now. With a glassed grin that said he saw how much Steven now understood. "You want to see our legacy, we Starks?"
Steven ... bore down, then. Seized hold of himself, the pain in his gut, the apprehension, the understanding. He took hold of it, made himself hold it, look at it, weigh it against ... Against what Sir Fury had told him they faced. The wars, not of men, but of gods, of warlike and sorcerous gods, that threatened them. That they needed to stand for, needed to be able to stand for. He weighed the man before him, the drunken, jagged sprawl of him, against that. And knew, with that black, cold weight in his heart, the echoes of Ice, what he had to do.
"I do," he said. As he had to. But he said it gently. As gently as he could, as he could wring from himself. Stark looked up at him, startled, the reflexive sneer stillborn. Steven offered some semblance of a smile, as best he could. For a moment. But then ... "Though ... I have to ask. I have to. Your Engine ..." He stiffened his spine, firmed himself against the apprehension in Stark's face, in his own gut. "Does it take ... innocent blood?"
Stark ... did not flinch. Almost, but he did not. Steven ... began to understand, that Stark did not flinch from much of anything, anymore. But something loosened in him, some nameless fear easing, when Stark shook his head, when Stark said 'no'. For a moment, something eased in him.
A moment that fled when Stark reached up. When Stark curled in on himself, became, briefly, a smaller, more wearied man, and reached up to press his hand to the dark cloth at his chest. At the press of that strong, scarred hand, the heavy material shifted, waistcoat and shirt underneath it, and a sliver of cloth parted at his collar, an opening to what lay beneath.
And Steven realised, with a slithering bolt of horror, that the ethereal blue glow that limned the man was not, nor had ever been, moonlight.
Stark looked up, at the gasp Steven could not quite keep back. Stark looked up at him, eyebrows beetling for a second in confusion at his expression, at the shock of it. Steven saw it, the moment Stark realised the change in the light, the moment Stark looked down, at his hand, at the eerie play of light in the corners of his eyes, shining up the column of his throat. He saw it, the moment Stark realised what Steven had seen, the moment he realised that Steven ... had an idea, a terror, of what it meant.
The man smiled at him, then. Or at something, anyway. A lazy, razor-edged grin, as he stood, as he fixed his collar. "Not innocent blood, no," Stark murmured softly, into Steven's horrified face, still smiling faintly, distantly. "Not anymore. Not ... not anymore."
He kept smiling, then, as he moved forward. As he drifted, only slightly drunkenly, towards and then past Steven. And for a moment, as their shoulders brushed, Stark paused. A staggering, spirit-smelling, faintly shining presence at Steven's side.
"Welcome to the Order of the Shield, Captain," the engineer offered softly, with a laugh that was only partly bitter. "Here be monsters, sir." Steven caught, from the corner of his eye, the faint upwards twitch of the man's mouth. "You'll fit right in."
And Steven wondered, vaguely, through shock and the distant thrill of horror, if that were warning, or condemnation, or acknowledgement, or some strange mix of all three.
He wondered, too, if he could bear the answer.