Stark Tower rises up above Steve like a sore thumb – or like, Steve can admit to himself in the privacy of his own brain, a much ruder digit. And isn’t that just Tony Stark all over? To throw up a giant middle finger to the gods and the city skyline and make the most ecologically friendly building in the city while you’re at it? In the two months since Steve last saw the tower, it’s been cleaned up and rebuilt to its former glory and, by the looks of things, had another couple floors added to the top.
He pulls over to the sidewalk in front of the tower and a car behind him honks its horn as it swerves past him. Stark Tower, the most high tech building Steve’s ever seen – and two months in the future is a lot of time to see a lot of buildings – doesn’t seem to have any parking.
But there’s a doorman jogging down the steps to meet him, talking into an earpiece that probably cost more than the bike Steve’s sitting on.
“Sorry, sir,” Steve says. “I’ll move along, I was just-”
“Captain Rogers?” says the doorman.
“You’re on the list, Captain,” the doorman says. “A valet will take your motorcycle to Mr Stark’s private garage if you’d like to head right up?”
Steve swings off his bike and follows the doorman up the steps. At ground level, the tower is a little less ostentatious: the steps are a deep, dark grey and the doors are a deeper, darker black, door handles in the shape of the Stark logo the only indication of the tower’s namesake. The doorman pulls the door open for him with a small bow.
“Thanks,” Steve says, “Mr...?”
“Coulson, sir,” the doorman says.
Steve pauses one step in the door, turns back to look at the doorman closely.
“I think you met my cousin,” Mr Coulson adds helpfully. “Phil.”
“I did, briefly.”
“It’s funny, we just thought he was a civil servant, but then all of a sudden he died and all sorts came to his funeral. The things you learn after they’ve gone, right? Someone from Stark Industries offered jobs to the whole family.” Mr Coulson chuckles a little, ruefully, and shakes his head. “My daughter’s working in the Miami factory now, straight out of college.”
“He was a good man,” Steve says, at a loss.
“That means something, coming from a guy like you.”
Steve holds out a hand and, with a grin, the doorman takes it, the open door slipping in his grip and beginning to swing shut until he catches it with the heel of his shoe.
“You’ll want Mr Stark’s personal elevator,” he says as he pulls the door back open again. “Black one in the corner. It’ll take you straight down to the basement garage for your bike once you’re done here.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Call me Mark, Captain.”
“Call me Steve,” he retorts.
The doorman’s chuckle follows him through into the lobby – black stone floors, walls of polished, sand-coloured marble, a receptionist typing away from behind a black desk bigger than a car, and a row of elevators in the wall opposite. The wall behind Steve, which had been mirrored glass outside, is clear from the inside. It must be at least a couple of inches thick; no noise is getting through at all. As the door closes fully behind Steve, with a polished click, the sounds of a busy New York day are cut off completely, leaving the lobby in silence. It feels like a room that was built for silence, and Steve walks uncomfortably over to the desk, every footstep seeming louder than a gunshot.
“Do you have an appointment, sir?” the receptionist asks.
“I’m afraid not, ma’am,” Steve says. She begins to frown and Steve adds, quickly, “But Mr Coulson outside mentioned my name’s on a list. Captain Rogers?”
“Oh, Captain!” She brightens visibly, tapping buttons. “Mr Stark’s elevator is on the far left. It goes right up to the penthouse.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Have a nice day.”
She had turned back to her computer, but at that she looks up again, beaming. “I’d say the same to you, Captain, but,” and she leans across the desk towards him, dropping her voice to a whisper, “I’m afraid Mr Stark is in one of his moods.”
There’s a clicking noise from somewhere overhead, a speaker turning on. Echoing slightly in the marble hall, Tony’s indignant voice says, “No, I’m not. Lies. I pay you to lie to idiotic businessmen, not Captain America.”
The receptionist rolls her eyes and mouths, “Good luck,” as she turns back to her work.
The door to Tony’s personal elevator glides open noiselessly, the movement so natural it seems almost organic. There’s no elevator operator – but then even at the height of his fame in the forties, Steve never exactly visited the kinds of places where people pressed the buttons for you. He steps cautiously inside, the door sliding shut behind him with barely a whisper of air. Inside the walls are black and shiny, and the ceiling is white and shiny, everything gleaming from a light source Steve can’t find. Nor can he – he realises as he turns in a slow circle, closely examining the walls – find any buttons.
“Um,” he says.
“If I might be of assistance?” says a voice from somewhere overhead.
“Can I... go up?”
“Certainly, sir. If you would be so kind as to touch the wall? Any part will do, sir,” the voice adds as Steve hesitates.
In great trepidation, because who knows what kind of security a guy like Tony Stark has in place, Steve presses his palm against the wall in front of him. Blue light ripples out in cobwebbing lines from under his hand, quickly forming the shape of a number pad.
“DNA recognised,” says the voice, pleasantly. “Password override zero-zero-four. Welcome back, Captain Rogers.”
“Thanks, Mr... um?” Steve feels the elevator start to rise, as silent and smooth as the rest of the tower has been so far, and he lowers his hand from the wall; the blue light buttons linger for a few beats more, and then blink out. “Jeeves, was it? I remember you from Mr Stark’s SHIELD file.”
“So close, sir, and yet so far. I am JARVIS, Mr Stark’s personal Artificial Intelligence program.”
“You’re a computer?”
“Essentially correct, Captain. Penthouse, level one.”
There’s a ping and the door slides open. Beyond the elevator lies more grey stone floor and sandy-coloured walls, everything lit up with bright sunlight through a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. It doesn’t look much like a home; or at least, not the kind of home Steve used to know.
“Thanks, Mr Jarvis,” Steve says, stepping out. He hears the voice, the computer, murmur, “Not at all, sir,” as the elevator door shuts behind him.
“Don’t call him mister,” Tony says. “You’ll give him ideas.”
Scanning the room, Steve spots Tony standing by the window, glass of whiskey in hand and his back to Steve. Steve keeps on turning, taking in the penthouse and, in the habit borne of a lifetime, all possible escape routes. The place is much the same as it was last time he saw it, although then it was half-destroyed by Loki and the Chitauri. There are new staircases, new doorways, probably at least half a dozen ways out that Steve could take if they were under attack, and that was without a robotic armour or the tower’s blueprints.
“Captain,” Tony says by way of greeting.
Tony pulls a face, looking over his shoulder at him.
“Okay, let’s cut the formalities. Can we do that? I think I’m having an allergic reaction. Call me Mr Stark again and I’ll break out in hives. Nobody wants that. Why are you smiling? No,” he adds, just as quickly, waving his free hand. “Don’t answer. Keep the Captain America mystique.”
“I don’t have... mystique.”
“Sure you do. Look at that pretty little face. It’s an enigma rolled in a boy band.” Downing the remainder of his whiskey, Tony turns to face him fully. “Drink?”
“You don’t drink?”
Steve rolls his eyes. “No, I drink, but I don’t get drunk. Can’t get drunk. Believe me, I tried.”
Tony pauses, gaping up at him, his empty glass still suspended in the air a few inches from his face, like a mechanical game that’s used up its pennies.
“D’you need a cent?”
That seems to do the trick; Tony blinks and shakes his head, lowering his hand. “Do I – what? No, I don’t need a cent. I’m a billionaire. You did know that, didn’t you? Stark Industries, remember? I mean, I know we were too busy fighting aliens for the small talk, but I kinda figured the tower with my name on it gave the game away? No? The robotic suit? The impeccably styled goatee?”
“Tony.” Steve holds a hand up. “Stop talking. I know you’re a – a very rich man. I was joking. You looked like a coin-operated game that’d run out of coins.”
“You made a joke? Captain America: can’t get drunk, can make jokes? And you told me you had no mystique.” Tony waggles a finger at him, then abruptly turns the gesture into a wave of his hand, motioning for Steve to follow him.
“My boots,” Steve says. At Tony’s perplexed look, he motions down at his biking gear, dusty and greasy, and adds, “Your floor.”
Tony stares at him again.
“Dirt,” Steve says helpfully.
“Oh, right, that – yes. No, it doesn’t matter. Floors get cleaned, right? I’m sure I pay people to do that. I was thinking of getting a new one anyway.” He pauses, eyeing Steve, then flaps his hands. “Christ, don’t give me that look. Take your boots off if it’ll make you feel better. One of the bots can clean them. They can fight for it. It’ll make their day-”
He keeps on talking, walking away as Steve carefully unties his boots – shoes are expensive; even with his new SHIELD fund, he can’t kick the little voice that tells him shoes are expensive - and, after a moment of peering around, shrugs and leaves them against the wall. Tony’s chatter is like a trail of breadcrumbs to follow, Steve padding along after it in his socks.
“- well, I’m having another drink. You, I don’t know, you can bathe your teeth in it. Enjoy the flavour. Atomise it, whatever. Did people do that in the forties? Did anyone ever take Captain America wine-tasting?”
Steve draws to a halt by the bar. He watches Tony pour generous helpings into two glasses. Here’s where Tony offered Loki a drink; there’s the window Loki threw him through; that’s the patch of floor Hulk beat Loki into. It’s like a particularly grotesque sight-seeing tour.
“No,” he says again. “Nobody ever did that.”
“You didn’t miss out on much. Did you know you’re meant to spit the wine out after you’ve tasted it?” Tony dumps ice into both glasses and holds one out to Steve. He rattles it vigorously until Steve, with a sigh, takes it. “There you go, most expensive mouthwash you’ll ever use. Pepper took me wine-tasting once. Business trip. Surrounded by morons in suits. Hell on Earth.”
Tony shudders dramatically, the ice clinking against the sides of his glass. As if the sound of ice reminds him to drink, he lifts the glass and swallows half of it in one go. Steve takes a cautious sip of his own. It’s not bad.
“Your father tried to get me drunk,” he says, to fill the silence left by Tony’s drinking. “Everyone in the Howling Commandos tried; I think it was practically an official military sport by the time I – but Howard always used the best stuff.”
Tony lowers his glass. He fixes Steve with an unreadable look and says, eventually, “Yeah, he always bought the good stuff. Good old dad. Why are you here?”
It’s abrupt, rude even by Tony’s standards, with that strange look still on his face. Taking another sip of his drink, Steve feels his way along the edge of whatever conversational precipice he’s stumbled upon, resolves to reread Tony’s file – buried at the bottom of his bag with all the other notes on the Avengers he’s still unwilling to throw away – and takes a careful step back from the abyss.
“I’m up to the sixties,” he says, and Tony blinks, losing some of his guarded expression in the face of Steve’s non sequitur. “I’ve been catching up on everything I, uh... slept through. Politics, culture, technology. I spent a month in England. Visiting relatives and – graves. It’s slow going.”
“This is my first time back in the city since everything that happened, so I thought I’d say hi.” Steve shrugs. Keeping half an eye on Tony, he finishes the rest of his drink in one long, slow gulp. “Hi, Tony.”
“You’ll fit right in.”
Tony grins toothily and drains his glass, the precipice if not forgotten then at least untouched. Left alone, for now. There are some things best avoided on what is essentially the second, maybe third time they’ve met. Steve allows himself a sigh of relief, drifting over to the nearest wall of windows. From up here, the city’s almost the same.
Tony shoots him a startled look. “What? I fit right in. Look at me. I’m practically the twenty-first century personified. Okay, with more robots than most, but-”
“If you’d let me finish a sentence just once,” Steve snaps.
Tony opens his mouth, pauses, then closes it again, pulling some kind of silent, elaborate, petulant face that Steve takes to mean ‘Do go on, Captain Rogers.’
“You don’t have you name on the tower,” he says slowly. “You mentioned it earlier... It stuck with me, though I wasn’t sure why. But there’s only the A.”
Steve, gazing out the window at that giant metal A, feels Tony move closer, stand just behind him.
“Well, would you look at that,” Tony says.
When Steve turns around, Tony is already moving away again, back towards the bar to pour himself another drink.
“Don’t you like the letter A? I love the letter A.”
“Didn’t they have Sesame Street in the forties? No, I guess not, and anyway, what am I talking about? You weren’t watching kid’s TV in the forties, you were busy growing muscles and punching Hitler. The twenties, then. Good God, grandpa, when were you born?”
“Nineteen eighteen. And I never actually punched Hitler.”
“Pity,” Tony says. He raises his refilled glass in a toast. “A is for alcohol.”
“And anchovies. Have you tried anchovies yet?”
Steve sighs, coming away from the window at last. Tony holds out the bottle and Steve, with another, softer sigh, holds out his glass. “Yes, Tony, I’ve tried anchovies. But-”
They stare at each other.
Tony looks away first. He refills Steve’s glass with a concentration so absolute it can only be sarcastic.
“Did they have aardvarks in the forties? Here, I mean, not in general. We should take you to a zoo. D’you want to go to the zoo? Hey, do you want an aardvark? I mean it, I could pull some strings. I have contacts. There was a guy, there was an angry rhino.”
“What?” No,” Steve says, holding up his hand as Tony takes a deep breath. “I don’t want to know.”
Tony shrugs. He puts the lid back on the whiskey, but leaves the bottle out on the bar.
“Your receptionist said you were in a funny mood.”
“Funny ha-ha, I hope.”
“I... don’t know what means,” Steve says. “Look, just – have you heard anything from SHIELD at all?”
“Nope. Not a peep. I guess now the world’s saved, they’re too busy making paper hats. Playing patacake. Searching for Fury’s missing eye.” Tony pauses. “You?”
“Nothing concrete. There are a few agents following me most days, but I pretend I don’t notice them now. They got a bit upset,” he adds with a rueful smile, “when I offered to buy them coffee.”
“You offered to buy SHIELD agents coffee?”
“It was raining.”
Tony cackles - there’s no other word for it – with laughter, shaking his head and holding onto the edge of the bar to steady himself and looking so surprised by his own reaction that Steve feels his own lips twitch in response.
“It was raining,” Tony echoes, still weakly sniggering. He sounds a little awed. “Of course it was. This is really you, isn’t it? The Great American Boy Scout. See, this is why SHIELD hasn’t been in touch – Fury probably picks up the phone to call you but he starts daydreaming about you buying him coffee and then he has to take a cold shower to wash off all that hot, sticky patriotism.”
“I was never actually a boy scout,” Steve says, sticking with the only part of Tony’s speech he can even formulate a response to.
“Good thing, too. You’d have shown them all up.”
Tony smiles up at him, swift and jokey, all teeth. It drops off his face as he spreads his fingers across the edge of the bar and stares, intently, down at his knuckles. The degree to which Steve feels out of his depth is almost comforting; nobody, from what Fury told him, can hold a straight conversation with Tony Stark. In this moment, at least, Steve is no different from anyone else in the twenty-first century.
“Look, I’m just a guy,” he says.
“Good to know.”
“I mean, I know you think I’m a – a boy scout, and maybe my values seem a little old-fashioned now, but...” Steve shrugs, spreading his hands helplessly. He can see Tony’s eyes following the movement, Tony’s own hands twitching. “During the war, people were twice as brave as me every day, without the benefit of any lab experiment. I’m nothing special. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Tony smirks. He drums an arrhythmic tune against the bar top, then rocks back on his heels and shoves his hands deep into his pockets. “Wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve heard that one before.”
Steve drops his hands. He breathes in slowly. Impromptu speech made, the silence hangs between them.
“I’m sure Fury will get in touch when he needs us,” Steve says.
“World always needs saving, right?”
They look at each other again, in silence. Tony’s eyes are wide and his expression unreadable, as if he’s waiting for something he wants Steve to say. Steve is suddenly, abruptly uncertain. He puts his glass down on the countertop and clears his throat.
“I should probably – go now,” he says. “I don’t want to take up anymore of your time. I know you’re a busy man.”
Whatever Tony was waiting for, that wasn’t it. But he shrugs and smiles almost pleasantly, for him, and says, “Sure. You know me, businesses to run, marvels to create, breakthroughs to... break through. Stop by whenever, mi casa es su casa. Mi - what’s the Spanish for the tower? Mi tower, mi... uh, JARVIS?”
“Never mind,” Steve says quickly, holding up a hand. He lowers it and extends it and waits patiently with hand outstretched until Tony, with a put-upon sigh, shakes it. “Tell me next time.”
Tony slips his hands back into his pockets and stands there, staring up at Steve. There’s a look in his eyes, one that seems to draw inward until he’s not really looking at Steve at all; his eyes are open but his face is closed, the conversation over. Steve takes it as a sign.
Back by the elevator, a small, round robot the size of a dinner plate is trying to drag one of Steve’s boots away. Steve has big feet and he likes his boots sturdy, so the furiously beeping robot has only managed to move the boot a few inches, leaving a streak of mud across the floor. He has to kneel down and wrestle his boot from the robot’s appendages – flat hooks that were probably originally intended to scrape mud, but which the robot is now using more like pincers. It pinches his toe to prove the point, once he finally tugs the boot back, the brush set in its front whirring angrily.
“Shoo,” Steve says, nudging it away.
The robot beeps at him. Its brush is black and bristly and looks, Steve thinks, like a goatee. He smirks. He kneels down to tug his boots on and carefully ties the laces, and wipes at the mud on the floor with his shirt cuff. When he straightens up again, the robot is gone. Tony is still standing at the bar, scribbling on what looks like a piece of glass, his tongue stuck out in concentration.
“Get lost,” Tony says without looking up.
Steve startles, frowns, opens his mouth to angrily retort – and hears the beeping before he sees the shoe-cleaning robot zip into view, circling Tony’s feet and plucking at his socks.
“No, look,” Tony says. “Socks, I’m wearing socks. No shoes here, you waste of circuitry, so go away before I put you on the scrapheap – okay, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that, you’re great. Greatly annoying. Don’t know why I thought I needed cleaner shoes, anyway.”
He scoops the robot up off the floor and grabs a screwdriver from somewhere among the bar paraphernalia. As Steve turns away, stepping into the elevator, he can hear Tony still speaking: “Look, I’ll take these devil claws off and we’ll find you something else to do. It’ll be fine.”
The doors slide shut on the image of Tony chatting to his robot, cradled upside down on the bar top, as he carefully unscrews one of its wiggling limbs. And then Steve’s just staring at a shiny, black wall.
“You liar,” he says. “You don’t fit in either.”
Steve almost jumps, but suppresses it. He crosses his arm. “Take me to the basement, please, Mr Jarvis.”
“Of course, sir,” the computer says.
The elevator glides down silently through this world that Tony built for himself.