The nightclub’s name was technically the Cafe Bercilak, for no real reason Tony understood, and strongly suspected was a little in-joke of Bruce’s, but around here, everyone called it Banner’s place. Neutral territory, as much as anywhere was, these days. The place you went to drown your sorrows, and forget your sins, and gamble your life away.
The last of those, he could take or leave, but the first two … They’d been the reasons he’d first come here, years ago now. When the scars on his wrists and chest had been new, and the scars in his heart newer still, and the knowledge that he could never go home a stone around his neck. He’d come here looking for escape in the bottom of a bottle, and here, after a long, long week swimming the amber sea, he’d met Bruce. A man of savage sarcasm, and gentle smiles, and a darkness in the corners of his eyes that Tony could taste near as strongly as the whiskey on his tongue.
To this day, he didn’t know what it was Bruce had done, or seen, what was lurking behind the rare flashes of rage that burst through the man like a summer storm, and he’d never asked. Same as Bruce never asked about the marks on his wrists, the star-burst scar on his chest. Though he’d slowly gone from the place’s worst customer to its best barman, though they’d gone from something like penitent and confessor, to employer and employee, to something close to friends, there were still some things they didn’t need to know about each other.
Or hadn’t, at least. Until the shadow of war stopped being content with foreign shores, and swept its inexorable way over them. And with it, in its wake … shadows of the past. Old sins, come back to light.
Turned out, all the whiskey in the world couldn’t drown some sorrows, or take some sins away.
He looked up as the door opened, and felt that same shadow sweep silently over him at the sight of the two men in the doorway. The very pictures of Aryan perfection, both of them, blond and blue-eyed and powerful. The very image of a megalomaniac’s dream. Which was more than a little ironic, considering.
The taller of the two didn’t look to him, except as an avenue to Bruce, and their prior arrangement. The shorter, though …
“Stark,” Captain Rogers said, quietly. No overt disdain. The Captain was too good for that. But the ice that was always in his eyes when he looked at Tony didn’t fade. It never did.
“Captain,” Tony nodded back, smiling dark and easy over the quiver in his stomach. “Oh. Sorry. Just Steven, wasn’t it?”
The man’s jaw tightened. “In public, yes,” he said, short and clipped. “I’m not a Captain any longer.” Not here, anyway. Not where the wrong ears could hear about it.
Tony made his smile shift towards apologetic. It wasn’t as much effort as he would have liked it to be. Damn the man. “You and the Nordic wet-dream, you looking for Bruce?”
Odinsson’s forehead wrinkled a little, a small frown. Steve just winced, cold-eyed and disappointed. “We did arrange for a private room, tonight.”
Tony very deliberately didn’t let his smile drop, though his stomach had made sure not to allow him the same luxury. “How about I go find him, then?” he said, light and casual, making sure his teeth didn’t clench. The last thing he needed right now was the knowledge that Captain bloody Rogers was going to be sticking around, possibly all night. And if they wanted a private room … then the rest of their little movement would probably be drifting in soon, as well. With patrols up all over the area, and a new German Commandant due into town.
Fuck. Nothing like a healthy stew of guilt and danger to make your evening.
He went to find Bruce.
“Hey, boss?” Tony poked his head around the office door. Bruce was doing the accounts. Well, one set of them, at least. The backroom accounts were done in Bruce’s rooms, not the office. “When did you decide to start tempting fate, and forget to tell me?”
Bruce blinked owlishly at him. “What?”
Tony tipped his head back towards the bar. “The Captain and his Norwegian date?”
Realisation flashed across Bruce’s face, followed by a shot of alarm, and then a slow slide of calculation. “That wasn’t until next week,” he said, scraping the chair back and standing. “The new Commandant is arriving at the airfield tonight. We weren’t planning to risk anything, until we knew which way to jump.”
Tony grinned darkly. “Hence the tempting fate,” he said. “But the good Captain seems to be under the impression you agreed to tonight.”
Bruce frowned. The dark, thunderous version. The one that meant his temper was creeping surfacewards. Fear and worry tended to do that to him, Tony’d noticed. “We’ll see about that,” he said, shortly, and moved past Tony onto the stairs, and down towards the bar.
Tony, something in his chest fluttering between guilt and relief, followed him down.
“Steven,” Bruce said, amiably, coming up to the bar. The pair turned to greet him, Odinsson with a great clap on the back, Rogers with a firm handshake. They both ignored Tony as he sidled behind Bruce, back behind the bar. “What’s this about you wanting the upstairs tonight? You’re not on the ledger until next Thursday.”
The Captain … actually looked a little sheepish. “Something’s come up, Bruce. We need the room tonight, if you can.”
Tony felt his eyebrows shoot up. “That wasn’t what you told me,” he drawled, a little dangerously. “You said you had it arranged for tonight.”
Rogers looked sharply at him. “I wanted to make my case to Bruce,” he said, crisply. “I thought you’d turn us away cold.”
Tony … let his mouth curl into a sneer. Well. The man wasn’t wrong.
“He would have,” Bruce said, lightly, leaning on the bar. And, too, leaning slightly between them and Tony. Huh. Tony wondered if he noticed. “He would probably have been right to. Your timing, gentlemen, is more than a little suspect.”
“You know who’s coming tonight,” Odinsson spoke up. Finally. His voice was quiet and grave, which was a change from his usual. Get a few drinks in him, and Thor could knock a house down, and a drinking song his weapon of choice. “We need to meet.”
Bruce frowned impassively back at him. “We know full well,” he said, softly. “Which is why we can’t. He’s not guaranteed to come here, but Cafe Bercilak is the first port of call for too many. There’s too much risk.” He shrugged, lightly. “And besides. The upstairs is already booked. Signor Guardi is conducting business tonight.”
“Smugglers?” the Captain asked sharply. “You’d support criminals sooner than you’d support freedom?”
Tony saw the flash, then. The real, genuine rage in Bruce’s eyes, shuttered down rapidly before it could flare out. Bruce locked it down quick. But Tony saw it.
So did the Captain.
“We support no-one,” Bruce said, heavy and quiet. “And provide a rest for everyone. That, too, is a kind of freedom, isn’t it, Captain?”
There were times when Tony wondered, when he really wondered, what the hell it was Bruce had seen. What the hell it was Bruce had lived through. The man had been everywhere, had travelled clear across the globe. India. South America. Before fetching up here, in this nowhere on the curve of North Africa. The man had been everywhere. And it seemed sometimes that he had no patience left, for any cause at all, nor any man who professed one.
Not that Tony blamed him there.
Rogers was silent for a long second. Seeing something in Bruce’s eyes that he didn’t want to argue with, maybe. Or, less cynically, maybe just … not wanting to push, at so obvious a wound.
“I know the Commandant,” he said, at last. Quietly, seriously. “I know who he is, and I know why he’s here.” His face twisted, for a second, honest pain. “Bruce … I need to warn people. I need to let them know, before it’s too late. Please. We’ll only need an hour.”
Bruce … paused, at that. He paused, and looked to Tony. Silent question, because that was the deal they’d made, all those years ago. To take risks jointly, or not at all. Bruce looked at Tony.
And Tony … would have liked to say no. Would have liked to shake his head, and turf them out onto the street, and pretend the war hadn’t come crawling up to his doorstep, and dragged the past along with it. He would have liked to. But …
“Give them the kitchen,” he said, tiredly. “We can’t kick Guardi out, someone will talk, end up asking why. The office is too close along the stairs, too. But they’ll fit in the kitchen, and no-one’s likely to run across them there.”
And there was a flicker, on Bruce’s face, like a small smile, and an honest grin, on Odinsson’s, but it was the Captain Tony ended up looking at. It was Steve, and the fading of the ice in those blue eyes, for the first time since he’d come to Casablanca, and realised Tony wasn’t as dead as Obie had apparently led the home country to believe. For the first time since Steve had realised that his friend’s son was too much of a coward to go home, and let the people who’d mourned him know he was alive.
Tony could have told him the truth, of course. Could have explained to him why he couldn’t go back, not so long as Obie was alive, could have explained that there was a reason Obie was telling people he was dead, but … Well. He was too much of a coward for that, too.
And now, looking at him, with nothing better than the offer of a kitchen for an hour … now, the man looked at him, and it was almost, almost, warm.
Fuck. When this night was over? Tony was finding a bottle to crawl into. And it wouldn’t work, it never worked, but sometimes all you had was those few amber hours, where you thought it might. Sometimes, that was all you had.
Damn shame it wasn’t ever good enough. Some sins, you just can’t forget.
Bruce left Tony on the main bar, and the front of the house, choosing to take care of both their backroom parties himself. Because Bruce was a compassionate man, and the best damn friend a man could ask for, let it never be said otherwise. It wasn’t a complete pass, because he’d still have to steer incomers of both groups right as they came in, which in the case of Steve’s group meant having to look at them, but still. He wouldn’t have to spend the whole evening in contact with them, and that was enough to have him blessing Bruce’s name all over again.
That was, until he came in. Dark-haired, green-eyed, with the slyest tongue Tony’d ever seen. Quick and clever, dapper in his light business suit, pretending he had no ulterior motives at all. The reason Thor stayed in hiding as much as possible, only letting loose in places it was marked safe. The reason so many people walked warily, for the past few months.
The quisling. Thor’s brother. Loki Laufeysson. Who, if he wasn’t actually a Gestapo, was at least well acquainted with their company. The most dangerous man who could possibly have shown up, barring the actual Commandant himself. And even then.
And Tony’d thought this night couldn’t get any better.
Thankfully, all of Steve’s party had already gone through by the time he showed up. Not that there were many of them. The Russian, Natasha, who frankly scared Tony. She’d raised an eyebrow at the redirection, a cold, questioning glare that left him feeling like he’d murdered her best friend, or something (he hadn’t, to his knowledge, at least not directly. That … wasn’t as much of a guarantee as he would have believed, before Abyssinia). And then the marksman, quiet and calm, drifting sideways at his instruction with nothing more than a small smile, and a tip of his head. Compared to Natasha ... in fact, compared to all the rest of them, Clint was actually pretty restful.
And compared to this customer … No. Actually, no. Loki was damned dangerous. But he wasn’t nearly so bad for Tony’s digestion and/or liver as the rest of them.
“Anthony,” the man smiled, drifting up to the bar, resting pale hands lightly on the countertop. He always called Tony that. Mostly because he was a bastard. “The usual, if you would?”
Tony flashed him the usual grin, dark and casual, feeling his hands automatically steady themselves, settling into the quiet hum of adrenalin, as they moved to glasses, and bottles, and ice. Easy, steady, calm. Unmoved by the thing in the back of his head, that had started stirring as soon as Steve had walked in, and all but gibbering when this one followed him. Danger, it whispered. Danger.
No. Imagine that.
“Slow night?” Loki asked, leaning back against the bar to survey the room, cold green eyes sweeping the small crowd with practiced, cynical movements. There was no fervour, in Loki. Not anymore. Thor said there had been, when they’d first split, when Loki’d first turned towards the Nasjonal Samling. Apparently, he’d been nothing but fire and fervour, then.
Not anymore. But then, the years did that to a lot of people. Tony knew that better than anyone.
“Worry in the air,” Tony explained, pouring the apple brandy. Loki had a taste for it. And Calvados wasn’t the easiest thing to come by. Though not the hardest, either. “People heard a storm’s coming to town, are keeping their heads down.”
Loki shot a glance his way, dark and sly and amused. “Mmm,” he noted. Agreement, mockery, Tony couldn’t tell. Could be either, could be both. “I had heard that forecast, too.”
Tony grinned at him, quick and edged. “Not the kind of storm to bother you, huh?” he asked, light enough, but something hard under it. Something really, really unwise, but the kind of unwise Tony’d never been able to resist. Especially not when there was a shake so very pointedly not in his hands.
Loki turned to him. Smiling faintly, darkly, savagely. “Oh, you’d be surprised,” he murmured, light and easy, and Tony … frowned. Felt himself frown. Because there wasn’t a hardness under that. A darkness, yes, but not a hardness.
Before he could parse it, though, Loki snapped out a pale hand (and how they managed to stay that pale, no-one knew, but baths in milk and/or the blood of virgins hadn’t been ruled out). Not to the glass, now poured, but past it. Loki snapped a hand around Tony’s wrist, and he’d shot stiff and cold before he could parse anything at all.
“I always meant to ask, about these,” Loki mused softly, lips pursed thoughtfully as he pushed Tony’s sleeve up, carefully. Gently, even, but Tony really didn’t care right then. Tracing slender fingers over the knotted scars that circled Tony’s wrist.
Tony stayed still. Rigidly so. Not wholly by choice, either. “A small misadventure,” he said, and his voice wasn’t near steady enough, wasn’t near casual enough, but it was close. Damn him, it was fucking close. “Years ago, now.”
Loki looked up. Looked away from the scars on Tony’s wrist, and met Tony’s eyes instead, and … there was something. Something. “In Europe?” the man asked, low and smirking, as though that was a question anyone would answer honestly, in this time, in this place. With a small smile, like he knew there was no possible way Tony would tell him the truth.
And that. And just because. In that instant, Tony decided. He hadn’t told anyone, hadn’t even told Bruce, but then, Bruce had never dared him. Bruce had never looked him in the eyes, cold and green, and dared him.
“Abyssinia, actually,” Tony said, harsh and quiet. “A little misadventure. Like I said. But … it started in America.” He smiled, black and glittering, a twist of old pain rising up. This whole evening. This entire fucking evening. “Turns out you don’t really need a war, to have a misadventure. You just need a man you loved like a second father, who decides he wants more than you’ve been giving him.”
Loki … flickered. Tony had no better word for it. Something rolled through the man, rolled through the neat, put-together man of business in his dapper little suit. A flash of … something. Dark and icy, a howling void, like the thing that flashed upwards in Bruce, sometimes. Like the thing that, maybe, flashed in Tony sometimes, too.
“Yes,” Loki agreed, distantly, and gently laid Tony’s wrist back on the bar, settling it almost precisely, before darting instead to the tumbler. With the kind of hard desperation Tony recognised. “Always worse, aren’t they? Betrayals from those you loved.”
Tony blinked at him, a little. Resisting the urge to tuck his wrist to his chest, to rub his hand over it. Phantom memories. Ghosts, around his wrist, and in green eyes.
“But then,” Loki smiled. Hard again, light again, raising his glass in deliberately disaffected salute. “That’s what this is for, right?” He grinned, and gestured out over the crowd, over the Cafe Bercilak. “People come to Banner’s to drown their sorrows, and forget their sins, do they not?”
And Tony was having a hard night. He was having a bad night, and his hands were not shaking, no, but there’d been a faint tremble, since Loki touched his wrist, and that was why. He told himself that was why.
“Some sins you can’t forget,” he said, softly, and watched Loki stiffen, watched green eyes flash, fury over a hard edge of pain. “There’s no bottle in the world deep enough, to drown some sins.”
Loki looked at him. The quisling, dark and furious, the Gestapo, or as fucking good as. Thor’s exhausted little brother, who had the whole city stepping lightly around him, who had a world of sin to drown, and never, ever enough drink.
“Everyone gets to try, though,” Tony finished, quietly. Tipping a little more into Loki’s glass, with a little thing that wasn’t quite a smile. “We all get to try.”
Loki blinked at him. The lines at the corners of his eyes crinkling thoughtfully as he frowned, as he looked at Tony. “And how much did it take you?” he asked, very quietly. “How deep was your bottle, Anthony?”
Tony smiled, a dark and bleeding grin. “I let you know when I reach it,” he said, and for the first time since he’d known the man … the smile at the corner of Loki’s mouth looked almost real.
And then, because it was that kind of night, the door opened, staying open for a long pause, long enough for the swell of silence to spread around it, and then … Then Commandant Johann bloody Schmidt himself walked in. Because naturally.
Forget the bottle, Tony thought, as he felt Loki grow still beside him, as he felt the seeded tremble disappear from his own hands. Forget the bottle.
If any of them survived this night, he was crawling inside a fucking distillery.