The Vita-Rays crackle all along Steve's skin, thundering through his muscles, sinking into the marrows of his bones, and he throws his head back and screams in agony. He doesn't know how long it's gone on. It could be seconds. It could be minutes. It feels like hours. Every nerve in his body is aflame. Tears trickle involuntarily from his eyes. There is only the pain. He can't remember what it feels like not to hurt.
He grits his teeth. It will be worth it. It will all be worth it. The serum will make him stronger, faster, better. A super-soldier. He'll be able to serve his country. He'll be able to fight for freedom, to keep people safe in ways that no one else can. He'll be able to protect people. He just has to make it through this. Dr. Erskine promised it would work, he thinks. Dr. Erskine had looked at him and had seen what the rest of the Army hadn't; he'd looked past Steve's scrawny figure, past the laundry list of ailments that had earned him a 4-F the first time -- and every other time -- and he'd said You will be a hero.
Steve wants that. He just wants to make a difference. This will give him that. He'll be able to help.
All at once, the pain stops, and Steve falls to his knees in the test chamber, gasping for breath. The Vita-Rays must have stopped. His chest hurts like someone's sitting on it, crushing him, too tight to take a full breath. He doesn't feel any better. He doesn't feel like a super-soldier. He feels like he's going to have another asthma attack right now, actually.
He looks down at himself, at his hollow, bony chest, at his protruding ribs, at his long, lanky arms. They'd promised him muscles. They'd said the Vita-Rays would stimulate the serum and transform him, bringing him his new body. They'd said it would be a miracle, even better than anabolic steroids. Steve's gaze is fixed on himself, on his traitorous, broken body, as he struggles for air.
It hasn't worked. The serum has failed.
Steve lifts his head up, staring at the scientists and generals on the other side of the glass, searching for Dr. Erskine. He doesn't want to see the man's expression but he-- he needs to know.
Dr. Erskine closes his eyes. His face is old, weary, lined, dejected.
That's when the shooting starts.
General Fury -- a gruff man with an eyepatch, his hair graying at the temples -- has Steve's file open on his desk next to a half-filled box of cigars. He picks up a cigar, cuts off the end like he's planning to light it, and then squints at the list of medical conditions in Steve's file before putting it back in the box. Steve is both ashamed and grateful. He's not going to look his best in front of the general if he has a coughing fit.
"So," Fury says, looking up across the desk and meeting Steve's gaze with a penetrating one-eyed stare, "we can conclude that Project Rebirth was a failure."
Steve wonders what Fury wants him to say. Is he supposed to apologize? Was there something intrinsic to him, something wrong with him, that made the super-soldier serum fail? Was he not good enough? Was it his fault?
"Yes, General," he says, neutrally, and he hopes that's enough.
Fury steeples his fingers; his stare lessens a little in intensity, but only a little. "Our best scientists have spent the past two weeks studying your blood." Steve's aware of that; his arms are sore all over, covered with bandages, and he doesn't think he has any bodily fluids left to give. "They've determined," Fury continues, "that Erskine's serum is still present in your blood and bone marrow, and that your body is likely to continue producing it, but that for whatever reason the serum itself is... inert. Non-functional." He looks down at the file and frowns. "Their best guess is that something was off in the calibration of the Vita-Rays, so that they failed to catalyze the serum."
There must be some kind of questioning look on Steve's face, as much as he's trying to hide it, because when Fury looks up at him he motions for him to ask.
"Sir," Steve asks, "is there any possibility that if they put me under the Vita-Rays again--"
But Fury's shaking his head. "Dr. Erskine kept a lot of things to himself. The components of the serum. The exact calibrations and dosages necessary. It was all in his head, only in his head, and he's gone. Half the boys in the lab have refused to work on the project further; they say it's impossible without him. The other half... well, they think it'd kill you if you did it again, son. I can't authorize that."
Steve bows his head. He feels fragile, broken, as awful as the day two weeks ago when all this happened. "Oh." His face is hot. He wants to yell or cry or punch something; he's brimming full with the frustration of it. He was so close.
"But you knew all this already," Fury says, and sure, Steve can tell for himself that he's exactly as scrawny as he's been his entire life. "So you're probably wondering why I wanted to meet with you, and the answer is that I have more news than that."
Fury leans back, stretches a little, runs his fingers through the patches of white hair at his temples. "I have good news and bad news, Rogers. Which do you want first?"
Steve sits up straighter and steels himself. "The bad news, please, sir."
Fury sighs and then looks him in the eye, levelly. "You're being discharged from the United States Army."
Steve's mouth is half-open in surprise and misery. He knows it's been coming -- it was inevitable, when the serum had failed -- but knowing that and hearing Fury say it are two different things. It's over. He's done.
Across the desk, Fury leans forward. His face is perhaps a bit kind; he looks understanding. "There's nothing I can do about that, son. You're still 4-F. Enlistment was conditional on the success of Rebirth."
"I-- I understand," Steve says, weakly. He blinks a few times. He is not going to cry.
What's he going to do for money? Art doesn't pay enough, and he could go back to washing dishes, sure, but the job he'd quit to come here had been hard enough to find in the first place; no one's going to hire a fella who has several months he can't account for because of a classified Army project he can't talk about, and even if he could talk about it, a discharge isn't going to look good to anyone, not now when everyone needs to do their part more than ever. And where's he going to live? He could move in with Arnie, he thinks desperately, just until he gets back on his feet. Maybe there's room on Arnie's floor. He hates the thought of having to subsist on charity.
He'd wanted this so much. He'd spent so much time fighting his way through the initial selection, and then all those long weeks in basic training with the rest of the Rebirth cohort, and then the actual experiment itself, and... nothing. He wanted to serve his country. It's not going to happen. It isn't fair.
Life isn't fair, he thinks. He'll make do with what he's got. He has to. He has to get up and move on.
Fury's still looking at him. He's waiting for Steve to say something, Steve thinks. "Aren't you going to ask me the good news?"
"What's the good news?" Steve says, numbly, by rote. It doesn't really sound like a question.
"The good news," Fury says, and he's smiling in anticipation, the corners of his mouth turned upward ever so slightly, "is that I have another job offer for you. You can still serve your country."
Now Steve's staring, shocked. "What-- what do you mean?"
"It would be easier to let him explain it to you," Fury says, and he pulls his sleeve up and frowns at his watch. "He was supposed to be here ten minutes ago, actually, to talk to you about it, and I have no idea what--"
Someone knocks on the door.
"Hey, Nick!" a man's voice calls out, on the other side of the door. "Am I too late for the party?"
Fury rolls his eyes. "Speak of the devil," he mutters, and then louder: "Come on in."
The man who enters is wearing a dark three-piece suit that looks like it cost more money than Steve has ever earned in his life. He's taking off his hat and hanging it on the hatstand; his dark hair is a little unruly, and when he turns Steve is struck dumb by the man's matinee-idol good looks. He's incredibly handsome. (Fury definitely would have kicked Steve out of the Army much earlier if he'd known about those particular inclinations; Steve feels very few qualms about lying about that.) The man, who is maybe in his early thirties, has a sculpted, angular face and bright, intelligent blue eyes that take in the room at a glance. His beard -- he's definitely a civilian -- is neatly trimmed into a Van Dyke, and he runs two fingers over it absently.
Steve thinks the man looks vaguely familiar, but he can't place him. He's probably mistaken anyway -- where would he have met a fella like this? They clearly don't move in the same circles.
He's distantly aware that Fury is still talking; all Steve's attention is fixed on the newcomer, who gives him a cheerful little smile as Steve turns around to watch him. "Given that you still have the serum," Fury is saying as the stranger strides across the office, "we don't want to let you go without keeping tabs on you, in case complications develop. We decided that it would be best if you could be placed in the employ of one of our civilian consultants, someone with the clearance to know what's been done to you. If something strange happens, you won't need to keep it a secret from him."
It makes sense, Steve thinks. If he gets sicker from the failed serum, if something goes wrong with him on the job... he wouldn't be able to tell an ordinary employer anything, and he'd likely be fired. But good jobs are thin on the ground these days, and judging by the wealth this man clearly has, the job is going to be something they've scraped together for him that Steve is vastly unqualified for. A rich fella like this doesn't need to hire a busboy personally. It has to be some other kind of work, something he's not trained for. He'd be taking a real job away from someone who is more fit for it than he is.
"Sir," Steve says. "With all due respect, thank you, sir, but I can get by without taking charity--"
Rather than taking the empty seat next to Steve, the stranger perches on the edge of Fury's desk, turning to face Steve. Fury levels a glare at him but says nothing.
"It's not charity," says the man. He has a Mid-Atlantic accent, the elegant tones that Steve associates with the upper class and the silver screen. "You are, in fact, uniquely qualified." The smile he favors Steve with is wider now, charming, and Steve shivers at the frisson of sheer physical attraction that runs through him. "Steve Rogers, yes?"
Steve nods. "Yes, sir," he says, because he has the feeling that this man is offering him a job worth more than anything he's had in his life, and his ma raised him to be polite.
The stranger looks him up and down, and Steve knows what he's seeing: tall, skinny, gawky Steve Rogers. A beanpole. A scarecrow. He's heard all the taunts before. Steve knows he's being judged, and he waits for the man's gaze to pass him over, to move on, or to twist and then settle in disapproval. But instead the man just smiles, a little soft-edged, inviting, like he likes what he sees. It's a novel experience.
"I'm not your CO, kid," the man says, his voice slurring down into an amused New York drawl of flat long vowels. "My name's Tony. You do illustrations?"
Steve blinks. "Yes, s-- Tony." He wonders if Fury's found him some kind of patron of the arts. "I was taking art classes, before I enlisted."
"You any good?"
The balance between modesty and self-promotion is difficult. "I'm still learning," he admits. "But I think I'm not half-bad at it. My teachers-- they always said I had talent. They liked my style. Thought I had a good eye for composition. I had a WPA job painting murals."
"Mmm," Tony says. Steve thinks Tony looks interested; he's leaning forward avidly from the edge of the desk. His eyes are still bright. "How about photography?"
Steve bites his lip. "I'm no Ansel Adams," he says, "but I know my way around a camera."
Tony nods, as if to himself. "Good, good." He looks awfully familiar, Steve thinks. And then he raises an eyebrow. "And what about shooting?"
"I just told you," Steve says, confused. "I mean, I don't own a camera right now, but if it's needed I can certainly--"
"No, no," Tony says, and he mimes a rifle, one hand bracing the imaginary barrel, the index finger of his other hand on the imaginary trigger. "Shooting. Marksmanship. Small arms."
This is the strangest artistic commission Steve has heard of in his entire life.
"My sergeant said I was good at it," Steve says, finally, still bewildered. It had been one of the few things in all of basic that he'd been unequivocally good at, much to his surprise -- and everyone else's. Apparently his aim was almost uncanny. If he'd actually been an enlisted man they'd probably have wanted him for a sniper, Sergeant Duffy had said.
Tony grins wide. "Great. Perfect. How are you at record-keeping? Journals? That kind of daily diligence. Would you be good at maintaining a logbook?"
Steve nods, because sure, why wouldn't he? He has absolutely no clue what's going on here.
Tony's still smiling. "Last question: how do you feel about travel to exotic locales?"
Is he kidding? Steve may have been born a city boy, he may have spent half his childhood ill and confined to bed and thinking he was never going to get to go any farther away from home than Hoboken -- but that doesn't mean he didn't dream of it, didn't pore over every issue of any adventure magazines he could get his hands on.
"I've never been much of anywhere," Steve admits, "but I'd sure as heck like to go."
Tony throws his head back and laughs. "I like you," Tony says, and some of the tension in Steve's chest loosens, a rope unwinding; he feels warm all over. "All right, you're hired."
He holds out a hand for Steve to shake. His fingers are warm and surprisingly rough. His palm is heavily callused, like he works with his hands. It doesn't go with his fine suit at all.
Steve can't stop staring. "Wh--?" he begins, and then cuts himself off, because that's no way to impress his new boss.
Tony seems to sense his confusion. "Can I answer any questions for you?"
"Who are you?" Steve blurts out, finally. "And what have you just hired me for?"
Tony glances over at Fury. "You didn't tell him--?"
"You were the one who showed up late, Stark," Fury grumbles, and wait, Steve thinks, astonished, Stark--
He knows now why Tony looks familiar. Tony Stark. Marvels. Steve used to see him on a magazine cover every month. He stares in disbelief. This can't be happening.
"I'm Tony Stark," Tony says, favoring Steve with another charming smile.
Steve thinks maybe his mouth has fallen open. "From Marvels magazine? Oh-- oh, gosh, Mr. Stark, it's an honor--"
He holds up a hand. "Please. It's Tony. Really. And I don't work for Marvels anymore."
"What," Steve asks, shakily. "What do you want me to do for you?"
Tony Stark. Tony Stark wants to hire him. The Tony Stark. He'd do anything. He wonders if he's dreaming.
Arnie will never believe him. Steve hopes he gets to tell him about this someday.
"I want you to be my chronicler," Tony says. Steve can only stare at him, because this is everything he ever dreamed of and it can't be real. "These days I'm still on the hunt for mysterious artifacts, but instead of filling magazines with my exploits it's really more about stealing anything that could be magical and powerful before the Nazis can get their hands on it and getting it back to the States." He gives an insouciant shrug and another grin. "Less glamorous than Marvels, sure, but probably a better idea for the world, right?"
"I--" Steve tries, and he finds that he has no words left at all. He stutters, tongue-tied. "I-- I--"
"Relax," Tony says. "You'll be great." He frowns slightly. "If you want the job, that is. Do you want the job?"
Steve gives up entirely on speaking and just nods, again and again.
Tony grins at him again, that same soft smile from earlier. "Okay. Good." He looks around the room. "So, this is very short notice, and I apologize, but I'd like to go to Peru as soon as possible. When can you be ready?"
Steve thinks about his duffel bag, sitting packed on his empty cot. He's ready for anything. He's ready to serve his country. He's ready for adventure. He finds his voice. "I'm ready right now."
He sits down in the dirt, back braced against his heavy pack, and he wipes the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. The Peruvian sun is hot, and their gear is heavy: he's carrying an astounding variety of knives, a gun, a rope, dynamite, about half their food rations, their maps, and even a pair of old books in a language that Tony says is classical Chinese, which is apparently different from regular Chinese in some way that Steve has completely failed to understand. Steve's not really clear on why they need anything Chinese in the middle of a jungle in Peru, but Tony's the expert here.
It's been a long, tiring journey, and it's been less than a week: the airplane, then a day in a wheezing, rusty truck, then two days of boat travel, then three solid days of marching through the jungle, and now they're here. Well, almost here. They're at a little village -- the Chopec tribe, Tony says they're called -- that he swears is the closest human habitation to the temple they're looking for, and he's stopped to ask for directions. Or, more likely, to find out if anyone else has gotten here first and stolen their artifact before Tony can.
Tony's been polite and attentive, if a little distant. Oh, he's friendly enough, but he seems to be trying to cultivate some kind of air of mystery, like the dashing adventurer is only a persona, a mask, and he doesn't want Steve to be able to see underneath. It's... disheartening.
Well, he tells himself, he couldn't really expect that Tony Stark would want to be his friend.
It doesn't stop him from wishing that Tony would.
In fact, Tony's literally distant right now -- or at least, he's not in view. He's retreated into one of the dwellings, and he's asking them about the temple now. Steve is guarding their gear. It's an important task -- he knows he's needed here -- but he can't help feeling like he's missing out.
On the river, Tony had been a remarkably good traveling companion; Steve hadn't known the first thing about boats, and Tony had been patient, even cheerful, as he'd shown him the basics of navigation. The river had been calm, placid, and it had been a long, lazy few days. Tony'd talked a little about hair-raising rapids trips, laughing and gesturing wildly. He'd talked about where they were going and he'd told a frankly unbelievable story about dragons. But mostly he'd spent a lot of the trip reclining, stretched out, hat pulled over his face, letting Steve steer. Once Steve made a course correction, and Tony lifted his hat, grinned, said good job, sailor, and then laughed so hard at Steve's disgusted face that he'd nearly fallen out of the boat.
Maybe he shouldn't, but... Steve likes him. It's been a good trip. He's enjoying this. The real Tony Stark might not be someone he's allowed to be close to, but he likes what he sees. A lot.
He's gotten a few photos, but most of the trip so far has been in conditions that he hasn't wanted to expose the fragile camera to. He's mostly only had time for scribbled notes in his leather-bound journal and little doodles of Tony. He opens to a blank page and starts to sketch Tony, the way he looked on their river adventure the other day: Tony's standing at the bow of the little launch, a foot propped up on the side of it, and he's turning back and grinning at Steve as the water plumes up behind him. Tony swears that once they declassify his adventures and he starts Marvels up again, he's going to publish features on every single one of these journeys too. Steve sketches out the curve of Tony's devilish smile and imagines seeing this very drawing in print.
A shadow falls on the page, and Steve looks up to see Tony, triumph gleaming in his eyes. Quickly he closes the journal and sets it aside.
"Success, I take it?" Steve asks.
Tony grins and nods. "My Quechua is a little rusty -- and theirs is too, since it's not what they normally speak among themselves in the lowlands here -- but between that and Spanish I think I've managed to piece together some more information on the place. We're the first outsiders that have shown up in a while, so at least we know the Nazis haven't gotten to the temple before us."
"Anything interesting I should know about the temple?" He taps the journal cover with the end of his pencil. "You know, for your chronicle."
"Well," Tony says, "they were calling it El Templo del Centinela. The Temple of the Sentinel."
Steve frowns. "So it's... guarded?"
"I'm not exactly sure." Tony squints. "It sounded like it must be, the way they were talking about it, but they also said that no one goes up there."
"They have to have something protecting it," Steve points out. "They're hardly going to let us swoop in and take their tribe's ancient artifact." He frowns. "Unless the ring's not there?"
"Oh, it's there, all right," Tony says, rubbing his hands together in glee, grinning a heart-stoppingly gorgeous grin. "I don't know which ring it is, but they've definitely got one. I will admit that I couldn't understand a lot of the story they were telling me about it, but the parts I did get seemed fairly consonant with the other legends of the rings, cross-culturally. Dragons were a prominent feature in their story, and they're not generally a part of the mythos around here, other than the amaru. Which they weren't mentioning. These sounded like different dragons."
Steve privately thinks the part about the dragons sounds unbelievable, but he supposes he'll reserve judgment.
"Still," Steve says, dubious, "they can't just want us to take the ring. They have no reason to trust us to use it ethically." Of course it would be much safer with them than with the Nazis -- but the Chopec don't know that.
Tony shrugs. "They didn't seem to be concerned. It sounded like they thought the temple itself would be a test, and that we would only be able to get close to the ring if we were deserving. They said something about the journey of the Sentinel."
And Tony's not concerned? Steve doesn't like the sound of this. A test. It could be bad. It could be dangerous. He's kind of gotten the impression that Tony's not exactly afraid of danger, though.
He hopes there's not a dragon. He hopes dragons aren't real. That's not exactly true, because seeing real dragons would be amazing, but he does not particularly want to see ones that want to kill him.
"You're not worried?" Steve asks him.
"Nope," Tony says, and that grin definitely makes Steve want to do indecent things with him. Things Tony clearly has no interest in doing with him, because who would? He's his boss, Steve tells himself. It is a very bad idea anyway. "Genius, remember? I do very well on tests. It's probably a maze."
They set out the next day, shortly after dawn; they eat cold surplus C-rations that Tony finagled somehow from Fury, draining and refilling their canteens from the clear stream next to the village. It's going to be a long trek; for all that they're in the lowlands, the path to the temple is apparently uphill.
The trail is hardly a trail anymore, barely a suggestion of a path, but Tony goes ahead of him on it anyway, hacking away at the verdant overgrowth with a machete, a tool that he clearly wields with skill. The part of Steve's brain that's always been good at tactics and strategy points out that if they are being followed, the Nazis will know exactly where they've been, they'll know exactly where they're going, and on top of that he and Tony will have conveniently cleared a path for them. But that won't matter, he supposes, after they get the ring. The Nazis can enjoy their path to an empty temple.
They're a good few hours into the journey when Tony decides to start actually talking.
"I was tramping through the jungle like this just last year, you know," Tony calls over his shoulder. "British Honduras. Now that was a mess."
"Oh?" Steve asks. He doesn't remember that issue of Marvels very well and somehow he'd never quite registered until now that everything in Marvels actually happened to Tony.
"Yeah," Tony says. "It turned out my... paramour... was less faithful than I'd thought. She stole the artifact I'd been looking for. Helped kill my chronicler."
Steve swallows hard. "Oh." He hadn't thought that this would be more dangerous than going off to war, but he's starting to think that that might not be the case.
"You'll be fine," Tony says, a breezy reassurance. "We'll make it out together. I promise. Just stick close to me."
Oh, he wants to. Very, very close.
"Don't you usually have other people working with you?" he asks, instead.
In front of him, Tony's head bobs as he nods. "Usually, yeah. But Rhodey and the War Machine armor were needed... elsewhere. Jarvis is acting as his armorer, and Pepper's being her usual efficient self and hopefully keeping them in line." Pepper is Stark's gal from the magazine, Steve remembers, who came in during the last few issues. They're probably a couple. He'd always thought so from the stories, anyway. "I didn't need the armor for this job, anyway. So I thought we could split the team, be in two places at once, if I hired someone else to back me up. And then Fury called me, asked me if there was anything I could do with you and--" he spreads the fingers of his free hand wide-- "there you go. Destiny in action."
Does Tony mean that maybe he wanted him here? That he's enjoying Steve's company? He can't be enjoying it the way Steve is enjoying his company, but Steve lets himself pretend it, just for an instant; he cradles the warm spark of affection within his chest, and he smiles at the back of Tony's head, where Tony can't see.
"I'm very glad to be here," Steve says.
Tony chops a low-hanging vine. "The pleasure is entirely mine."
Now Steve's mouth is too dry, and he's a little dizzy for reasons unrelated to the sticky, humid heat.
"So," he says, when he trusts himself to speak again, "tell me about these Markian Rings of yours again. I've never heard of them before, and what you mentioned about dragons is a little hard to swallow."
"Makluan Rings," Tony corrects him. "And, yes, the prevailing theory is that they were brought to Earth long ago by a dragon from another world -- or so the myths say. The stories agree that then they were hidden separately all over the world to keep them from being brought together and used for evil."
Steve's still stuck on the first half of the sentence. "You actually believe dragons are real? Dragons from outer space?"
"Steve," Tony says, with deadly seriousness, "did you not read the issue of Marvels where I encountered Fin Fang Foom? Yes, I believe dragons are real."
He gapes. "I always thought you, I don't know, made that up to sell magazines--"
Tony tilts his head back and gives Steve a cockeyed grin. "Everything's real. My hand to God. I think I get away with it because people don't believe me."
"There are really dragons?" His voice sounds very small.
"Really," Tony says, and it doesn't sound like he's lying. He wouldn't make fun of Steve, would he?
Steve considers this, awed, and they continue up the winding trail in silence for a few more minutes before Steve can speak again.
"So how many rings are there?"
"Ten," Tony says. "You can collect the whole set. Not that I particularly want the whole set, myself, but I would feel very uncomfortable if people with unkind intentions had it." That, Steve thinks, is the understatement of the year.
"And they're--" Steve feels ridiculous saying this-- "they're really magic?"
Tony nods. "They are. They give the wearer amazing powers. Fire, ice, darkness, mind control... the works. Nasty business."
Steve doesn't want to imagine what the Nazis could do with even one of those. "I think I see now," he says, "why you do what you do. You want to help people, and only you can do this. Only you can find these things and keep them safe."
"Well," Tony says, sounding a little abashed, like Steve's pierced to the heart of him and revealed his secret, earnest goodness, "we all have to serve somehow, even if we're 4-F, right?"
The way he says it, it sounds like he's talking about both of them. But Tony is in spectacular physical condition -- it's relevant to their quest, Steve tells himself, so it was all right to notice that -- and Steve can't imagine what would have prevented Tony enlisting if he's willing to hack through dangerous jungles for America.
But before he can ask, Tony stops dead in front of him, the last of the branches cut away. The trail slopes down in front of him and widens to a vast clearing; Steve can see daylight above it, the canopy finally gone.
"The Temple of the Sentinel," Tony says, and there's an almost reverent awe in his voice. "Oh, wow. You'll want to get the camera out now."
Steve pushes forward to stand next to Tony on the path. He's skinny enough that he doesn't take up much room, but Tony's body presses hot against his for an instant. Then he looks up.
In his head he's been picturing a massive step-pyramid, even though he knows intellectually that that's wrong; Tony had explained during one of the lazy, drifting afternoons on the boat that Inca Empire architecture was nothing like that, that it was adobe bricks, fieldstone, or sometimes very fine masonry without mortar, and that the buildings were usually low, rectangular, thatched-roofed, with no interior walls. Tony's voice had been full of quiet confidence. This is his field, after all. He's brilliant. A genius. The temple shouldn't look like Steve imagines it; it should look like what Tony says it should look like.
The Temple of the Sentinel looks nothing like either of those things.
The Temple of the Sentinel looks like a Greco-Roman temple designed by someone who's seen dragons.
The familiar triangular granite roof is held up by pillars that Steve would have in any other circumstances called Ionic columns; there's a line of them forming a portico in front of what is clearly the main door of the temple, and the temple itself stretches back a good distance. He's not sure how far it goes on, actually; the ground rises sharply into a cliff face, and the temple disappears within it, underground.
The columns are exquisitely made. They're Ionic in style but for the huge carved dragon that wraps around each one in high relief. There's enough depth that it looks like they could be real creatures. Each dragon is long and scaled, serpentine, winged. Their heads are undercut, protruding from the columns; their mouths are open, hissing, deadly. Above them, more dragons are on the temple itself: there's a bas-relief of a dragon next to a man holding out his hands, rays emanating from his fingertips. Steve can't see it all properly from here, but he would bet anything there are rings carved on his fingers.
"I--" Steve says. His voice is weak. "I don't think the locals made this."
"It's not the typical Inca style," Tony agrees cheerfully, and that's Steve's new pick for Tony's most drastic understatement.
He can't stop staring. It's amazing. It's beautiful. He gets to be here. He gets to see this. He gets to be here with Tony Stark and see this. "Tony?"
"Is your job always this good?"
Tony chuckles and slings his arm over Steve's shoulders. "You just wait."
Inside, the temple is even bigger than it had seemed. The torch Tony is carrying doesn't quite illuminate as far as the high ceiling, and the light bleeds out into darkness. It's not pitch-black, though: the roof is cracked in a few places, admitting shafts of sunlight and curling, drooping vines. The slow drip of water echoes in the otherwise-silent chamber.
From here at the entrance there are steps down to the main floor, and two long rows of spiral-dragon columns on either side of where the steps end, marching uniformly down to the back of the room. The flickering torch casts uneven shadows on the walls beyond the columns, and Steve figures that there are more dragon reliefs there, probably spanning the entirety of the massive chamber. There's something that looks like an altar or a pedestal at the far end of the room, carved with some kind of writing, and a shaft of light hitting it from above reveals that it's empty. No ring.
But, Steve sees, with rising hope, there's an archway behind the altar, and what looks like a passage leading on from it, further into the temple, into the cliff the temple sits in. He thinks maybe a lot of this place is underground. The ring's got to be there.
Steve drops his pack on the floor next to him and looks up, to where the sculpted, wavering surfaces of the pillars disappear into darkness. It's so tall it's dizzying. No, wait. It's not just dizzying because of the scale and perspective. He's dizzy.
The room wobbles a little and Steve staggers, taking a few halting steps backward, staying on his feet by force of will alone. He has to do this. He's Tony's chronicler. He can't let Tony down. He can't let his body stop him. He has to keep standing.
Ahead of him, Tony has staked his torch into a crack between two of the huge paving stones that cover the floor, next to his own cast-off pack, and he likewise has his head tilted back, grinning up at the faraway ceiling in sheer, unadulterated delight.
"Isn't this amazing, Steve?" he calls out.
Steve opens his mouth to answer, but another wave of vertigo hits him again, more powerful than the last, and the room is swirling and darkening around him. He really doesn't feel so good.
"Steve?" Tony asks again, when Steve says nothing. It sounds like his voice is coming from a long way away. "Steve!" Tony's voice is sharp with concern.
Oh, Steve thinks, slowly, disjointed. He does care.
He can't focus. The stone of the temple around him splinters into a thousand different surfaces in his mind's eye, each one vast and alone, not part of a coherent whole. It's like nothing he's seeing or hearing makes sense, and there's too much of it. The world overwhelms him. He wobbles again. There's the distorted sound of footsteps pounding on stone, and then Steve's legs give out entirely and he's falling--
There's someone behind him, he thinks as he sags backward. Tony. Tony catches him. Strong arms wrap around Steve's chest, holding him up, but inside his head it's like he's still falling, down and down, and then everything goes black--
When Steve opens his eyes again, he's standing in the temple, but everything's different. The place is bright like full sunlight is hitting it; he can make out the fine details of the dragon reliefs on the wall, and he can see the columns all the way up to the ceiling. His vision is tinted blue, washed all over with it, as if an ocean has poured itself across his eyes. He thinks he must be dreaming.
Steve's not alone.
A bald eagle is sitting on the altar at the far end of the room. Steve gawks at it in disbelief. It stares back, unblinking, and Steve has the eerie feeling that somehow it's staring into his very soul.
There's a man standing in front of Steve.
He looks like one of the Chopec tribesmen Steve saw at the village, based on his dress, but he's not one of the men Steve met. He's a stranger. His long dark hair is partially braided, framing his face. He has a huge circle of red paint about his eyes and nose, and a broad red stripe down his mouth and chin, all the way to his throat. He's shirtless, and his chest is painted in dark designs.
"Welcome, Steven Rogers," the man says, in perfect, fluent English. Steve is definitely dreaming. "Welcome to the Temple of the Sentinel."
"I don't understand." Steve's voice sounds weak in his own ears. "I'm dreaming."
The man raises an eyebrow. "You are dreaming true, Sentinel."
What? "What did you call me?"
"Sentinel," the man repeats, with a faint smile. "It is in your blood."
Steve thinks about Nick Fury telling him about the serum, inert inside him. There're a lot of things in his blood now. He nods. "I was given the serum--"
The man cuts him off with a slash of his hand. "I am not speaking of that. I speak of a deeper destiny. Here in this place, you must choose."
"Choose what?" Steve asks. He's dreaming; he's got to be. It doesn't mean anything.
At the edge of his vision, the bald eagle flutters its wings impatiently.
There's something next to the eagle on the altar, he realizes, something that wasn't there in reality; it's a round shield. It's the kind of thing he's seen in Greek art, so he supposes it fits with the theme of the temple. The shield's adornment, however, is decidedly American: a white star in a blue circle, in concentric red and white rings. It's strange, but something about it seems so very right.
"You were born to defend your people, Steven Rogers," the man says. "You were born with gifts that few others possess, lying deep within you. They can be brought forth. Everything can be brought forth, and you will march to war. You will protect your home."
He wants that. His dream knows that, clearly. He wants it more than anything. He burns for it. He wants anything that will let him do that.
Steve lifts his head. "Yes," he says. "I choose that."
"Once made," the man says, "the choice is irrevocable. You will have abilities beyond those of ordinary men. You will have your own gifts, and those which your people have bestowed upon you. There has never been such a man, with both sets of powers, and they will weigh heavily on your shoulders. You will be forever changed, in body and soul. You will be forever bound. Consider wisely."
The bald eagle cocks his head at him and squawks inquisitively.
He feels like he did at the recruiting office, the first time. The fourth time. Every time. He remembers the helpless frustration, the way he felt when people tried to tell him that he didn't know what he was getting himself into, looking at him and brushing him off, telling him he couldn't possibly be capable of this.
It just makes him want it more.
"I want to save people," Steve says. "I want to help people. I want the world to be safe. I'll do whatever it takes. If there's a price, I'll pay it willingly."
The man smiles. "Then," he says, "you are a Sentinel."
The bald eagle launches itself off its perch and is flying toward Steve, its powerful wings cutting through the air, its beak open, its talons extended. Steve feels a great sense of peace spread throughout him. He doesn't want to run. He's not afraid.
Steve holds his arms apart, wide. Waiting.
The eagle flies into him. It flies through him; it's intangible. And then he sees himself. He has the shield from the altar in his hands. Next to him is a young man in a bright costume, carrying a gun, a man running next to a man on fire, two more brightly-clothed people, a figure with pointed ears, and at his back is a presence more intimate than any of those, someone who feels warm in his mind, and he knows who it is, he thinks, he knows who that man is--
Everything is bright. The eagle is a glowing white light, and the light flares outward to engulf the rest of the temple, and it's white, white, white, and everything washes away.
Steve's awareness returns slowly, in pieces; he drifts up to consciousness like he's rising from the bottom of a pool. His eyes are shut. He's lying on his back, on a cool, unyielding surface. There's something warm and soft under his head, though, surrounding him. Fabric presses against his cheek. The scent of it is rich and comforting. Human. There's a light pressure against his forehead, his hairline, the crown of his skull, and a reassuring warmth with it too. Something strokes gently through his hair. It's nice.
Wherever he is, he wants to stay here forever.
He opens his eyes.
His head is in Tony's lap. Tony's eyes, dark blue gone even darker in the flickering torchlight, are wide in concern and relief.
"Oh, thank God," Tony breathes. His skin is far too pale. "I thought you were never coming back." His mouth twitches wryly. "Don't die on me, all right? I'd miss your pretty face."
He thinks my face is pretty, Steve thinks, more than a little loopy. He's almost certain he's supposed to be thinking about something else, but his concerns feel unimportant. Fuzzy. Faraway.
Steve feels his lips part in a smile. "Bet you say that to all your chroniclers, Mr. Stark," he slurs.
"Nah, kid," Tony says, and his answering smile is soft, a little hesitant. Real. "Just the ones with pretty faces."
Tony has a hand on the side of Steve's head, and he swipes a thumb slowly over Steve's cheekbone, like he has to feel for himself that Steve is really there. It's an intimate gesture. Steve doesn't move away; he soaks in the touch. He feels like he needs it, like air or food, like he's been starving his entire life for want of it. It's not sexual -- or at least, it's not entirely sexual. It feels like Tony's touch is grounding him, like he's a building and Tony is his foundation, like he just needs him right here, skin-to-skin.
"'M not a kid," Steve mumbles, indignantly, though his ire is as distant as the rest of his cares. "Don't call me that. I'm twenty."
"That," Tony says, with a fond smile that fills Steve with even more pleased warmth, "is exactly why you're a kid. But if you insist."
Tony can call him anything he likes, he thinks, dazed, as long as he doesn't stop touching him. Steve would be fine with that. Forever.
He can feel air against the hollow of his throat; he thinks Tony must have unbuttoned the top few buttons of his shirt while he was passed out. He was probably worried about Steve's breathing. He's breathing fine now. His lungs feel wide-open; he feels more than a little light-headed from all the air. It's more than he usually gets.
Tony shifts his weight under Steve and slides a hand under Steve's shoulder, locking his arm around him, moving him. Steve makes an inarticulate noise in protest and then realizes that Tony's not pushing him away; he's pulling Steve's body a little more upright, bracing Steve's head and neck against his own torso. He leans over and fumbles something out of the closest pack; his hands are a little shaky. Steve blinks, focuses, and realizes he's holding out one of the canteens.
"Here." Tony unscrews the lid and presses the mouth of the canteen against Steve's lips, tilting it up. "Have a drink."
The water tastes... really, really good. It's sweet and delicious. It explodes in complex flavors across Steve's tongue, like nectar, like ambrosia. It didn't taste this good an hour ago. Steve wonders if Tony's refilled the canteen with something else. He can't have. What would he have gotten, and from where?
He swallows. "Tony?" he asks, uncertainly, "this is... still water, right?"
"Yes?" Tony says, drawing the word out into a question. When Steve looks up, his face is furrowed in confusion, half-shadowed by the torchlight. "Of course. What else would it be?"
"It-- it couldn't be anything else, I guess," Steve says. He runs his tongue around his lips to capture every last glorious drop. He's starting to be able to pull himself together. "How long was I out?"
Tony shrugs; Steve can feel his body shift with the movement. "About ten minutes. It was... concerning." His voice is tight, a little clipped, and Steve realizes that Tony, the Tony Stark, the man who has apparently fought real dragons... is afraid. For him. Tony pauses, and his voice softens a little. "So I feel like I have to ask, but I read your medical file, and it didn't mention anything about fainting. This a new experience for you?"
"Never happened before," Steve agrees. He likes how Tony isn't babying him about it, isn't treating him as something fragile, is just getting on with it -- but at the same time Tony kept him from hitting the floor. Tony is still holding him, but he doesn't feel like he's being coddled. It's nice. "The dizzy spell beforehand was new too. Thought maybe I was just dehydrated."
He wonders if he should tell Tony about the dream.
Out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he can see wings flap. The darkness is somehow easier to see through than before -- maybe it's gotten brighter? -- and without turning his head he slides his gaze over.
The bald eagle, the one from the dream, is perched on the edge of one of the reliefs. It stares at him, cocks its head at Tony, flaps its wings once -- and disappears.
Okay, maybe Steve is going crazy.
"Tony?" he asks. His voice is wavering. "This is going to sound really strange, but I think I keep seeing a bird in here. I-- I didn't see one before."
Tony exhales hard in relief, his ribs shifting, ribcage contracting behind Steve's head. "You see it too? I thought I was going insane, watching it hop around, waiting for you to wake up. It seemed like sometimes it was here and sometimes it was just gone. Like a ghost. Never saw it fly out."
"Yeah," Steve says, chuckling a little, likewise relieved. At least they both see it. "Not to mention -- a bald eagle, really?"
Tony's body jumps in surprise, under him. "A bald eagle?"
Steve breathes in sharply. Maybe he is crazy after all. "You're-- you're not seeing a bald eagle?"
He thinks he sees wings fluttering again. He doesn't turn to look.
"You're sure?" Steve asks, even as he knows Tony would know; a bald eagle would be incredibly obvious.
Tony's looking down at him. His eyes are wide. His mouth is a line of tension. "I think I ought to know what a goddamned scarlet macaw looks like!" The words are almost snapped out, and then he grimaces. "Sorry. It's just a little-- well. Unsettling."
"Okay," Steve says, and he sighs. "So we're each hallucinating a different bird. Great."
Tony... pats him on the head. It's oddly reassuring. "I've had worse days," he says, and there's a quiet note of sorrow in his voice, like there are so many awful stories there. And then he brightens. "Maybe there was something in the water."
Maybe there was something in his dream.
"Maybe," Steve agrees, unconvinced. And then he finally remembers why they're actually here, as reality comes clear in one breathtaking rush. "The ring? Did you find the ring?"
Tony shakes his head. "Not yet."
"You didn't find it?" Steve pushes himself up; his body is already missing the contact with Tony, but he ignores that. He's unfolding himself, halfway to getting up all the way. "Here, where did you look already? I can--"
Tony catches his arm. "I didn't look." His gaze darts away from Steve's. "Look, you were passed out on the floor. I wasn't just going to leave you." He shrugs, like he's embarrassed by the feeling. "The ring's been here thousands of years anyway, right? It can keep for a bit. It's not going anywhere."
It's sweet that Tony cares, sure, but at the same time Steve intensely, shamefully resents that he's held Tony back, kept him from doing the one thing that they had come here to do, the most important thing, because his body had failed him. Again. They should find the ring. They should find it right now. He shakes off Tony's arm and pushes himself to his feet.
"Come on," he says, insistently. "Let's look--"
And then he stops dead, because he sees it.
Through the archway behind the altar there's a tunnel. A passageway. It's a long passage; the floor of it a little uneven with bits of rubble from the ceiling above. It's dark, almost too dark to see, but at the end of the passage there's another pedestal, with the tiniest ray of light shining in from above, illuminating it. On the pedestal there's a little glint of gold. A ring. There's some kind of raised emblem on it; he's looking at it edge-on and can't make out the details, but he thinks it's green.
It has to be far away, but it feels like it's so close he could reach out and touch it. He could take it in his hand. His vision seems to have narrowed in on it, closing everything else out and bringing the ring into perfect clarity, like focusing a camera.
"It's down there," Steve says, confidently. "A golden ring. I see it. It's at the end of the tunnel there. A few hundred feet, maybe. Just sitting on a pedestal. Probably that's the far end of the temple itself." He wonders why Tony hasn't seen it yet. It's right there.
"Steve." Tony's voice is wary. "Are you-- are you feeling all right?"
He's fine. He's better than fine. He's perfect. It feels somehow like he could always do this, focus like this, and he never knew, like this was a trick it just never occurred to him to try. "Great," Steve says. "Why do you ask?"
He can hear Tony swallow uncomfortably. "Because you're looking a few hundred feet down a pitch-black tunnel and you just told me you can see a ring at the end of it. And your eyes, they're--"
He blinks and drags his gaze back to Tony; the extreme focus is gone. "They're what?"
Tony's on his feet now, next to him, giving him an uneasy look. "Okay, that was bizarre. You looked down the tunnel and your pupils dilated, fast, and they were so huge that I couldn't even tell what color your eyes were. And then you looked back at me just now and they constricted, just as fast, but there was no change in the light. Not to mention the part where you say you can see anything down there. That's... superhuman." He swallows hard. "Do you think it could be a complication from your serum? Nick gave me a list from the lab, their best guesses as to future problems, but mostly they were on the order of 'suddenly fall over dead.' Nothing like this. And even if the serum were working -- they said enhanced senses, but not like this. It would have enhanced you to the peak of human capability, but not beyond." He looks half-terrified, half-enthralled. "This shouldn't be physically possible."
He has to tell Tony.
"It's because of my dream."
Tony raises his eyebrows. "Your dream?"
"When I passed out just now," Steve says, "I had, I don't know, some kind of vision. I was here, in the temple, and the bird was here and one of the Chopec men was here. He told me that I was a Sentinel." He feels like the word should have a capital S. "He said there were... powers... dormant within me that I had been born with, and if I told him yes I would have them, and I could-- I could help people. Protect people."
Tony doesn't seem like he thinks this is crazy. "Of course you told him yes," he murmurs, with a little twitch of a smile. "Of course you did."
"He didn't say what the powers were, exactly, though," Steve says.
Tony's staring off into the distance like he's trying to recall something. "And here we are in the Temple of the Sentinel," he says. "Maybe it doesn't have a Sentinel. Maybe it's for a Sentinel. Hmm. Sentinels." He turns on his heel and paces a few steps away, then turns and paces back again. "God, why does that sound so familiar? I've read something about this, Christ, what the hell was it--?" He shuts his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose.
Hope flares bright in Steve's chest. Tony knows what's happening to him. Tony is brilliant. Tony knows everything. Tony... is hitting himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand. Maybe he doesn't know.
And then Tony snaps his fingers and looks up at Steve, grinning in triumph. "Burton!"
"Sir Richard Francis Burton," Tony says, punctuating the name with an excited stab of his fingers in the air. "One of my personal heroes. Explorer. Visited Mecca. Helped find the source of the Nile. Spoke 29 languages. Translated One Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra." Here Tony pauses to wink at him suggestively, and Steve has the feeling that Tony expects him to know whatever that is. When Steve says nothing, Tony coughs and looks away. "Well. Anyway."
"And?" Steve prompts. "Sentinels?"
Tony's grinning excitedly. "Right. He wrote a very obscure monograph, The Sentinels of Paraguay. In it he theorizes that every tribe had a Sentinel -- a person who serves as the watchman for their village. They'd watch for enemies, secure the borders, even keep an eye on the weather. Basically, they would do whatever was necessary to keep their people safe. These Sentinels had sensory abilities that were... superhuman. Every sense was enhanced beyond what should have been possible for any human." Tony looks at him eagerly, avidly. "Naturally it's been discredited. The academic community has assumed that the entire monograph was an exaggeration at best, an outright lie at worst." His gaze is fierce, intense. "I'm beginning to think that that might not be the case."
"You think I'm one of those people?"
"Well," Tony says. "That was definitely a display of superhuman sight, and if your reaction to the water is any indication, you have a superhuman sense of taste. That leaves three more."
Steve walks to the nearest column, tentatively puts his hand to the stone, and focuses, the way he had with the ring. He can feel so much detail under his fingertips. Stone that looks smooth to the naked eye is filled with huge chasms and ridges under his fingers; he can feel even the most minute crack.
"Touch," Steve says. "Definitely."
He takes a breath, nostrils flaring, and redirects, refocuses: Tony smells-- well, like himself, but more so. Sweat. Dirt. The smoke from the still-lit torch tickles at Steve's nose. He turns his attention to the packs: musty books, the oddly sticky-sweet scent of the dynamite in his pack, gun oil... and then suddenly he's aware of the smell of alcohol.
"There's whiskey in your pack," Steve says.
Tony nods, and his smile is wide and awed, like he's watching Steve do the best magic trick in the entire world. "Yeah, there's a flask, but how--"
"I can smell it."
Tony grins. "I say we break it out after this. Drinks on me." He pauses. "So what do you hear?"
Steve shuts his eyes and listens. He pushes his hearing out, not quite as far as it can go -- he has the vague impression that he has a range, but there will be more time for testing. Birds chirp quietly outside the temple, back on the trail, and he hears them as if they're in the room. He brings his focus back, in, tightens it down. He hears Tony's shallow breaths. He hears Tony's heartbeat, slow and steady--
Thump. Click. Thump. Click.
With each beat of Tony's heart, he hears a mechanical click.
Distressed, Steve opens his eyes.
"What?" Tony asks, urgently, taking a few steps toward him. "What's the matter?"
"Your heart," Steve chokes out. "There's-- there's something wrong with it. I can hear it beating, and it's-- it's like there's a machine underneath, where the second sound of the beat should be. Like clockwork. Are you all right?"
Tony's face goes drawn and taut, nervous, and he looks at him like yes and no are both equally valid answers. "I think," he says, quietly, "it would be easier to show you."
He shrugs the left side of his suspenders off his shoulder and then begins unbuttoning his shirt. Steve watches Tony's long, elegant fingers move from button to button. He's not wearing an undershirt, and the skin revealed is a little damp with sweat, understandable in this heat. Steve tries not to think about how Tony Stark is stripping in front of him. And then Tony pushes the left half of his shirt away and Steve stares.
Steve's never seen anything like this.
Over Tony's breast, over his heart, there's a metal plate. It's hinged; it looks like it fastens, like it can be opened. It glints silver in the torchlight.
"What is it?" Steve breathes.
Tony's eyes are wide, even more nervous, and his breathing is faster; his heart speeds up, with a faster mechanical clicking. He looks like he's expecting Steve to disapprove, to be disgusted, to walk away.
"It's called a repulsor pump," Tony says. "It's... installed... around my heart. As long as I keep it charged, my heart keeps beating." He smirks, like he's trying to make a macabre joke of it. It's not funny. "In case you were wondering why I was 4-F. This would be it."
Steve stares. "That was never in the magazine."
"No," Tony says, still speaking softly. "It wasn't. Didn't particularly want to give that away." He looks distant. "That's why I started adventuring. I was looking for something that would fix my heart. Never found it." His face twists again in that awful smirk. "I've been called a monster, you know. An automaton. Heartless."
"Yeah, well," Steve retorts, "they're liars, because I can hear your heart just fine. You just made it better. That's... amazing, actually."
Tony blinks at him like the statement is a trick and he's looking for the catch. "Really? You think so?"
"I know so." Steve considers the shape of it, the thinness of the metal. The ticking sounds so delicate. It sounds fragile. "Is it safe?"
"Of course." Tony holds out his hands; it's a placating gesture. "I'm not going to leak battery acid on you or explode and kill you. I promise."
"No," Steve presses, because how does Tony not know what he means? "For you. Is it safe for you?"
Tony's smile is bleak. "It's safer than dying."
He guesses that's a no.
"It's charged now, right?"
Tony nods. "It should be about three-quarters full. I time all of my trips so I have enough of a charge to get in, get out, and get home. And usually I have a full team as backup."
"What if--" Steve bites his lip-- "what if there's a mistake?"
Tony jerks his head at his pack. "There's an emergency battery and cables in there." He grimaces. "I know it's repulsive. Don't worry, I won't ask you to touch my chest unless I'm actually dying--"
Is he joking? "Tony," Steve says, steadily, as gently as he can. "It's not repulsive. As soon as you can, you're going to show me how to hook it up and tell me how to use it. If something happens, I need to know how to save you."
Tony looks at him like he never in a million years expected kindness, and Steve sort of wants to cry. "All right," he says. His voice is still muted, echoing in the huge room. "That'll be tomorrow, then."
He starts to button up his shirt. Steve watches, with the tiniest pang of disappointment, as Tony makes himself presentable again; he's straightening his shirt and fixing his suspenders.
"Tomorrow?" Steve wonders. "I thought we were getting the ring and getting out."
"Yes," Tony says, "but not quite that fast. I was thinking we'd try to get a few shots of the reliefs, and maybe you could sketch the place. After all, it's not like we're coming back." He sounds a little bit sad about that. "And we do have to actually get the ring. We have to get better lighting back there. I want you to take some photos of it in situ before I actually get my hands on it. It'll be tomorrow by the time we do all that, because I don't want to hike back to the village in the dark."
He doesn't, Steve notices, question Steve's identification of the location, even though he hasn't seen it himself. It's also sounding a lot more involved than Steve was expecting.
"I thought you would just--"
"--steal it?" Tony's grin is sardonic. "I am. I'm stealing it by the book. With documentation. The Army prefers that sort of thing, and they're the ones paying me."
Tony turns then, walking toward the altar at the far end of the room, and Steve follows him, all his thoughts consumed by what Tony's just shown him, the secret he's entrusted him with. Steve feels a kinship with him; Tony hadn't let his own body stop him, either, from doing what it was he'd wanted. He'd picked himself up and made himself better, just like Steve had tried to do when he'd volunteered for Rebirth. It hadn't worked for Steve, but it had worked for Tony.
Though maybe, Steve thinks, this will be better, now that he's a Sentinel. Even with the enhanced senses, he still has all the medical conditions that disqualified him from the Army in the first place, so maybe they won't want him back, as a soldier. He can cope with that. He can still do good. Even if he can't fight physically, should America enter the war, there has to be something he can do. Maybe Tony will let him keep working for him; finding artifacts is important, and look how quickly he found the ring, with his senses. He can still help.
It will be good, he thinks, with a sudden bloom of optimism, as he watches Tony pace the solid stone of the altar and run his fingers over the smooth granite. It's almost as long as Steve is tall, a solid piece of stone with more dragons worked into the sides of it. The writing on the top is indecipherable to Steve, but Tony recognizes it.
"Good thing I had you carry those books after all," Tony says. "Classical Chinese. Knew it'd come in handy." He smiles at Steve. "You think you could get one of those out of your pack for me? The blue one, not the red one."
Steve walks back across the temple to where his pack is, moves everything around -- why did he put the gun on top? -- until he finds the book, and brings it back to Tony.
"Thanks," Tony says, with another smile. He flips the book open and his finger settles on the middle of a page. He's muttering a few words to himself, completely oblivious.
Tony's heart beats its same unique rhythm. Thump. Click. Steve is beginning to find it charming. Tony's not looking up, and Steve lets himself smile.
He's so focused on Tony that he doesn't hear the footsteps until it's too late.
"Hands in the air, boys," a woman calls out, her voice distorted by the echo of the huge chamber.
There's the sound of guns cocking. Multiple guns.
Instantly, Steve raises his hands and Tony does the same. From his brief glimpse at Tony's face, Tony looks almost inhumanly calm, unworried, but Steve hears his heartbeat spike into a fast clicking beat. Tony has a revolver on his hip. He hasn't gone for it. Steve's own gun, unfortunately, is unloaded and in his pack, at the other end of the room. All of these thoughts pass through his mind nearly without emotion. Tactics. Strategy. He's not panicking. He isn't sure why, but he isn't.
They both turn.
There's a woman standing at the temple doorway. A green mask covers her face. She's holding a gun in one hand and there's a lantern resting at her feet, illuminating the room. Behind her are five rather burly men. They're also armed.
This is bad.
"Gialetta," Tony says, easily, like this sort of thing happens to him every day. He's not smiling, though, not anymore. He lifts his head. "I would say it's nice to see you again, but it's really not."
She puts a hand to her chest. "Tony," she says. "I'm hurt."
"No, you're not," Tony says flatly.
"No, I'm not," she agrees. Behind the mask, her eyes dart to Steve. "Who's this?"
"New chronicler," Tony says, like they're old friends catching up and no one's holding a gun on anyone. He shrugs, still unperturbed. "You know how it is. Sometimes your former lovers kill your old chroniclers."
Oh. This is the woman Tony had been talking about, Steve thinks, and he swallows hard.
Gialetta snorts. "He doesn't look like he'll put up much of a fight. So," she adds, casually, "where's the ring, Tony?"
"Don't have it," Tony returns, and he trades a question for a question. "Who are you working for? Zemo?"
Outwardly he is perfectly calm, unruffled, but when he says Zemo Tony's heart rate spikes so hard that Steve wonders if there's something really wrong with him, imminently wrong with him. Tony needs to not have a heart attack right now.
She shakes her head. "A new player on the scene. Calls himself the Mandarin." Steve watches Tony mouth the name to himself. "He wants all the Makluan Rings, and he's willing to pay a pretty penny for them."
"Mmm," Tony says, like he's pretending to consider it. "Sorry, not interested in selling."
She sighs. "A shame. The sex was wonderful, but I'd forgotten how much of a terrible bore you could be, darling," she says. And then her voice snaps, hard-edged, a command to her lackeys. "Kill them. Find the ring."
The men raise their weapons--
And Tony explodes into motion, grabbing Steve by the collar and flipping them both over backwards, over the altar. Bullets fly over the space where their heads were, chipping the stonework of the temple wall behind them. They're safe for a few seconds, at least. Steve lands on his hands and knees, heavily, and Tony's sprawled next to him, leaning against the side of the altar, already unholstering his gun, checking the chambers. He squints at it like he can't quite see it and Steve realizes that it might be a little too dark for Tony to see well. Steve can see how the Sentinel senses are going to be helpful already.
"Where's your gun?" Tony pants.
"In my pack," Steve says. "Sorry. I wasn't thinking."
Tony just tilts his head, acknowledging the apology. He rises to his knees, turns, and then pushes up from behind the altar just long enough and far enough to get off three shots. None of them hit their targets.
He throws himself to the floor and six more bullets embed themselves in the wall at roughly the level his head had been.
"This doesn't look good," Tony says, quietly. "I'm-- I'm sorry."
Steve's sitting with his back against the altar, staring down the length of the tunnel.
An idea sparks in his mind.
"Tony," he says, "I'm going for the ring."
Tony looks over at him, eyes wide, mouth drawn. "You can't," he says. "You don't know how to handle it. We don't even know which one it is. You could bring the place down. It has to be me. I've done the reading. I can get it out of here safely."
"Then give me the gun and you go," Steve retorts, as another volley of bullets rings against the masonry. "You go first. I'll cover you."
"Steve, it's pitch-black--"
"Three hundred feet," Steve says, steadily. "Straight shot. Floor's pretty much clear. There's a bit of light at the end of it, where the ring is. It's on a pedestal. Trust me. You can make it. I'll be right behind you."
Tony's eyes flicker shut, like he's in pain. "You can't take her and her five armed men alone. Hell, I couldn't."
"I don't have to take them," Steve says, and his gaze locks with Tony's, and he knows Tony knows what he means. "I just have to keep them off your back. Buy you time."
He reaches out, puts his hand on Tony's arm. The fabric of his shirt is coarse against Steve's fingers; Tony is trembling so finely that it would be imperceptible to anyone but him.
"If you don't get that ring," Steve says, and his voice comes out of him fiercely, powerfully, a voice he didn't even know he had, "then it doesn't matter what happens to me anyway. Go."
Tony gives him a tight nod and presses the gun into Steve's hand. Their fingers brush. Then he crouches, ready to spring, like a runner, and he sprints into the darkness. More shots ring out and miss, hitting the edge of the doorway.
The gun is heavy in Steve's hand. He pushes himself up and follows Tony into the tunnel as more bullets zip past him, close enough that he can feel it.
"Into the tunnel, fools!" Gialetta yells, and footsteps thud across the stone, coming closer. "They're going to get to the ring! Find them and stop them!"
Everything is dark around him but he can still see; he can't make out colors so well and everything is washed-out gray in the dimness, but judging by the way the first man is staggering blindly into the passage -- he's not the one with the lantern -- he can't see anything at all. Steve glances behind him to check Tony's progress; Tony has one hand on the wall to orient himself and is moving steadily forward.
Tony's just past one of the few caved-in sections, where a massive chunk of stone about three feet high is covering about half the passage. Luckily for him, Tony'd inched by on the empty side of the tunnel.
There's a glaring light. Steve blinks, overwhelmed by the sudden brightness, and then he realizes -- the men in the tunnel can see him now. He takes one shot into the brightness to deter them, and then turns and darts further in until he can hide behind the chunk of stone. More bullets ring out against the walls.
He has two shots left. He'd better make them count.
The thump-click of Tony's heartbeat, somewhere behind him, ratchets up into a quicker pace, and when he glances back, he sees Tony crouched at the pedestal. Tony's eyes are trained on the ring -- there's enough light there for him to see -- and he's fumbling at his belt for some kind of pouch. Almost there. Steve doesn't have to hold out much longer, assuming the ring is something Tony can use for protecting himself.
Steve rises and looks, really looks, narrowing his focus, and suddenly, like a vision, he can see exactly where the bullet has to go. His new Sentinel sight is like the best sniper scope in the world. It feels almost unreal, tranquil, like moving through water, and he aims. He takes a shot and it connects. One of the men has a bullet in his shoulder and he goes down, groaning.
Steve ducks, just fast enough to avoid return fire. At least one of the guns has stopped. Empty. Good.
He takes another breath, surges up, and takes his last shot. It knocks a gun out of a man's hand, and he yells in rage and pain.
Steve doesn't remember being this good of a shot before. He guesses that's the Sentinel vision.
More guns fall silent. They're all out of bullets now too. They have to be.
The wounded man on the floor keeps groaning, and there are footsteps. They must know he's out of bullets too. They probably want to come get him fast rather than trying to reload in the dimness of the tunnel. It's what he'd do. He knows he won't hold up long, in a fistfight, and he knows they can tell.
Steve braces his hand on the wall and glances back again to check on Tony. Tony's carefully nudging the ring into a pouch, face furrowed in concentration -- and then he slips. Steve hears a whispered obscenity and then everything lights up with green fire. It's brightest where Tony is standing, but it races down the walls like it's following veins in the stone, illuminating everything like lightning. Steve's hand is still on the wall, and the light flows into him, an electric burst that sizzles somewhere under his skin, and he bites back a cry of pain. His muscles are tingling, itching, sore.
Whatever that was, at least he's shaking it off. And -- he glances back again -- Tony's still there, still reaching for the ring. Tony's alive. He can do this.
He hopes he's bought Tony enough time.
Time to go, he thinks, and he puts the empty gun down.
He stands up. The closest thug is very close indeed, just on the other side of Steve's makeshift barricade. Steve splays his palms against the cold stone, gathers himself up, and then vaults over the stone, slamming into the man's chest feet-first. They go over together, and bone cracks in the man's chest when they land. The man gasps and gurgles. Leaping off him, Steve kicks him in the head, and the man sags into unconsciousness.
Steve stares for a couple of seconds, surprised and half-horrified. He didn't actually expect that to work.
But there are three more coming, and Steve has no time to think about any of it. He grits his teeth and raises his fists.
Tony's coming back up the passageway; Steve can pick out the click of his heart, cutting through all the other sounds, louder and louder. He's moving faster. The last man has set his lantern down in the middle of the passage, and Steve realizes that means Tony can probably see. So can everyone else.
The next man is heavyset, and Steve can see the man sizing him up, grinning a gap-toothed grin. He's Steve's height but probably has seventy-five pounds on him, easy. He strikes out, a slow, heavy blow--
And Steve ducks, comes in close, under the man's guard -- and lashes out, one, two. The man staggers backwards; blood wells from his nose. Steve follows it up with an uppercut and the man is down, sprawled on the stone.
Somehow he knows how to do this. Somehow his body knows exactly what to do. He feels calm, perfectly centered within himself. Balanced. He knows how to win. He has so much more power behind his punches than he ever did before; a lifetime of losing alleyway scraps was nothing like this. He feels like he could take on an entire army with his bare hands.
The next man's eyes are wide. He's beginning to look intimidated. And Steve can see it, somehow; he can see the minute ways the man shifts his stance, the tiny tells no one else could ever notice. He's going to go low.
Sure enough, he ducks and sweeps his leg out, trying to trip Steve.
Steve jumps high, easily clearing the attack. He lands on one foot only, but he's not wobbling. It's easy to strike back; he turns and kicks out, a heavy blow to the man's body.
The other man shakes it off, takes a step in--
And Steve needs range, so he jumps backward. He's in midair, twisting, with just barely enough room in the confined space; it's a backflip, and he comes down evenly, perfectly, on the balls of his feet, without so much as a wobble. An Olympic athlete could not have been better.
The man just stares, distracted for a split-second, and Steve snaps out with another kick, thudding into the man's stomach. He goes down, bouncing hard off of the wall.
One more, Steve thinks. One more. Close, close now. Just a little closer--
Air whistles as the last man throws a punch at Steve's head. But Steve's not there; he's leaped backwards. The previous man, half-conscious, groans as Steve hauls him up by the shoulders and shoves him into the path of his assailant.
The last man dodges, letting Steve's previous opponent fall -- how's that for loyalty? -- and he balls his fists up, lashing out with another punch--
Steve just shifts a little to the side, grabs the man's arm, and yanks, throwing him over his head, over his body, letting him drop.
The man's face smacks into the floor and he's out.
Steve looks up, blinks, and comes back to himself. He unclenches his fists. Sweat is running down his body. He shakes his hair out of his face and breathes in and out. He just took out five men and he's barely breathing hard. He feels good. Like this is how his body was meant to be used. He takes another breath. His skin feels a little odd, tingling all over. It doesn't exactly hurt, but it's not quite pleasant.
None of that should have been possible. He wonders what's happening to him now. He wonders if it's another Sentinel thing.
Tony's standing just behind him.
He glances back at Tony. Tony's mouth is open in shock and amazement, and his eyes are bright. He looks like he's witnessed a miracle.
Tony smiles a crooked smile. "I was coming back to help you," he says, "but dear God, Steve, it looks you're doing just fine on your own." His eyes are huge, his gaze entranced.
Steve doesn't even know how to respond to that; he can't explain any of this either. Instead he asks, "You got the ring?"
"Yeah." Tony rattles the pouch, now tied to his belt. "Come on, let's get past Gialetta and get out of here before these guys wake up."
They run down the passageway. It grows brighter and brighter; Steve can see the light from the main portion of the temple now. They're almost clear. They're almost home free.
They step over the threshold and a shot rings out; a bullet pings off the ground a few feet away from Steve.
Gialetta's here, and she's still armed.
Her gun is trained on Steve; Steve doesn't know if that means she's figured out Tony would want to protect him, or if she just guesses that Tony would want to protect anyone more than himself.
"You took out five men, Tony?" she asks. Her voice sounds more than a little surprised. "By yourself?"
Tony grins an unworried grin and chucks a thumb at Steve. "Actually, that was all him."
She looks at Steve, surprised; Steve can't really believe it, either. "I'm sure bullets can still hurt you," she says. "And I'm sure Tony wouldn't like that, would you, Tony?"
Steve starts to become aware of a rumbling noise from somewhere beneath him, somewhere faraway. It sounds like it's coming closer, hurtling toward him. "Hey," Steve asks, "do you hear that?"
Gialetta scoffs. "Like I'm going to fall for that old trick!" But then she tilts her head to the side. "What is that noise?"
She's distracted and Tony lunges forward. His hands are locked around her wrists, forcing her arms upwards. The gun goes off, a wild shot at the ceiling, and Steve doesn't know what to do as he watches them struggle. Gialetta's trying to kick him away, and any second now she's going to figure out where the ring is--
The roaring noise is louder.
And then the floor cracks.
It's a small crack at first, just before the altar, but then it begins to spread, running lengthwise down the room, and hastily Steve moves away from it. Tony backs up, leaving Gialetta armed -- she takes another useless shot at him as he dives behind the altar, a few feet from where Steve is standing. And then she too is flinging herself backwards, faster and faster as the crack starts to spread.
The crack gapes, widens, transforms into a yawning pit -- and then something's rising from it. Something's moving.
There's a rush of air. Something leathery creaks, and then the creature uncoils in front of them. Metallic green scales glint in the torchlight. Yellow eyes glimmer. Its wings are shadows, a smear of darker green in the darkness, and its tail lashes around one of the columns.
"Oh," Tony says, in the tired, blasé voice in which one might say oh, not another one. "A dragon."
Steve can't summon up any words.
He hears a voice in his mind then, a voice speaking a language he can't even begin to identify. He knows it's the dragon.
"Classical Chinese," Tony murmurs. "It says: You have moved my ring. You are taking my ring."
Well, Steve thinks, that's not good.
Aloud, the dragon hisses. There's a pause, and then its voice in Steve's mind is in English. I expected better of a Sentinel and his Guide. Sentinels have come here for centuries. They understand that they are not to disturb what is mine.
Steve wonders what a Guide is.
"Yes," Gialetta calls out. "They have come to take your ring. Punish them!"
This is really not good.
The dragon hisses again. All thieves will be punished.
It turns to face Gialetta and raises its wings. It draws its head back. The air crackles green around its face, the way the tunnel walls had when Tony had fumbled the ring.
"They have the ring!" Gialetta yells. "It's them you want!"
The dragon roars and turns to face Steve and Tony. They're still crouched behind the altar, but Steve's pretty sure a piece of stone isn't going to protect them from a dragon, no matter how thick it is.
"Tony," Steve says, quietly. "We can only deal with one threat at a time. We take out Gialetta and then we deal with the dragon."
Tony stares at him like he's crazy. "How do you propose we do that? We have no weapons!"
Steve's gaze drops to the pouch at Tony's belt. Tony's eyes go even wider.
"No," Tony says. "Bad idea, okay? These things are insanely powerful. I could bring the temple down."
The dragon roars, and for a second Steve can't hear anything but the echoing rumble; he blinks, and then Tony has a hand on him, steadying him.
"We don't have much in the way of options," Steve says, voice tight. "Which ring is it?"
Tony grins mirthlessly. "The technical name? Electro-Blast Ring."
That sounds promising to Steve. "I trust you," he says, and Tony looks at him bleakly, like this is the worst thing he could ever have said. "Go for it."
Tony sighs and shakes the ring out onto his palm. The air crackles green, like the dragon, and Steve feels like his skin is tight all over, too tight, painful. The band of the ring is golden, but the green gem, instead of being an circle or square or any other reasonable geometric shape, is an angular line.
Tony slides it onto the middle finger of his left hand. His breathing is shaky.
He stands. It doesn't take long for the dragon to notice him.
Mine, the dragon says, and its jaws open wide.
Somewhere on the other side of the pit, behind the leathery wings, Gialetta laughs. "Pinned into a corner, are we, Tony? You might as well throw me the ring now and save yourself. Lovely thing, isn't it? Just my favorite color. How thoughtful. I knew you always cared about me, dear."
Tony's answering grin is fey. "Sorry, darling," he drawls. "The engagement's over. I'm keeping the ring. Very precious gemstone. I'm sure you understand." And then his mouth firms into a determined slash, thin-lipped. "I like to call this one Lightning."
He holds out his hand.
The room goes white.
An enormous bolt of electrical energy arcs out of Tony's hand, bright, too bright for Steve to see, and he closes his eyes and shoves his hand over his ears as the thunderclap of its impact comes. It doesn't help. He's lost in the noise, in the light. His ears are ringing-- he can't hear-- he can't see-- someone is screaming-- he's screaming-- everything is sound--
Steve doesn't know how much time has passed when a hand finally wraps around his arm and tugs it away from his head. Tony's hand. He opens his eyes. Lightning still sits on Tony's finger. Tony's face is pale, his eyes concerned. Tony's crouched here on the floor with him.
"Steve? Are you all right?"
He takes a few shaky breaths. "Yeah. Yeah. I'm good. How's Gialetta?"
Wings creak, and he knows he doesn't even need to ask about what happened to the dragon.
He pushes himself up and looks. The dragon is staring at him. Its tail lashes. It's watching them. It's probably waiting for them to make a move. Gialetta is lying on the floor, unconscious. She doesn't look burned, so it wasn't a direct hit. There are scorch marks on the floor and the air has that acrid smell that Steve associates with thunderstorms.
"I probably should have thought about what that would do to your senses," Tony says, his voice low with guilt, and he glances away from Steve's gaze and drops his grip on Steve's arm. "But she was going to shoot you, and. Well."
"I appreciate it," Steve says, and Tony smiles weakly.
Tony's pulling the ring off his finger like the very touch of his has suddenly burnt him. He drops it into the bag and shudders as he shoves the bag in his pocket. "I never want to do that again," he says. His face is wracked with pain.
"It was that bad?"
Tony shakes his head. "No. It was too good. The power. I could get used to it. I never want to." He's sitting back now; he's on his knees.
And then the dragon roars again. Thieves! it repeats. You have used my ring! You are taking my ring!
Its mouth crackles with the same green fire. No. Lightning. The same as the ring had looked, when Tony had used it.
Steve pushes himself to his feet and gets between Tony and the dragon, flinging his arms wide. He can shield Tony with his body. He doesn't have anything else.
"Steve, no!" Tony yells, and he drags him back down as lightning crackles from the dragon's mouth and hits the wall just where Steve was standing.
Steve doesn't black out this time; maybe the dragon can control the lightning better than Tony can. Maybe it was less lightning. His ears ring, but it doesn't overwhelm him; he focuses on the feel of Tony's hand on his arm, bracing him, and it's as if he hardly sees or hears the lightning at all.
I protect the ring, the dragon snarls. Give it to me or die.
"The ring is in danger," Tony says, pitching his voice to carry. He gestures at Gialetta's prone form and he jerks his head back, to where her associates still lie in the tunnel. "These people came to steal it and use it for evil."
And you came to steal it, the dragon replies, and Steve can't exactly argue with that.
Tony acknowledges the truth with a slight nod. "I did. But I only used the ring in defense of my-- in defense of the Sentinel." Steve wonders what Tony was going to say. "I was planning to take it to a place where it would be safe. Where no one would ever wield it against others." He raises his voice again. "This place is unsafe for it. People with evil intentions know it's here and have come for it," he repeats, with another gesture at Gialetta. "If you won't let me have it, then you must take it elsewhere. You must find another safe place, where no one will discover it."
The dragon tilts its head, like it's considering the offer. It closes its mouth; it no longer crackles with fire. I will keep Lightning, the dragon says, finally, possessively. Its tail uncurls and points at the carnage around the room. I will take the ring and go. If you find my siblings, you will tell them to leave with their rings, too?
"I will," Tony promises, and looking at his face, Steve believes he means it.
He stands, and Steve stands with him. Tony fishes the ring out of his pocket and sets it on the altar.
The dragon scoops up the ring, balancing it on one claw, and then it's gone, down into the pit, with another creak of leathery wings.
Steve takes a few deep breaths.
He met a dragon. He's not dead.
"Nick's gonna be pissed," Tony says, his voice mournful. "Lost the ring."
"I think," Steve ventures, "that he might accept that there were extenuating circumstances."
Tony raises an eyebrow. "That excuse actually only worked on him the first time there was a dragon."
How is this my life now? Steve thinks, and he can't stop laughing again. "Tony," he says, when he can breathe. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" Tony replies, confused.
Steve waves a hand at chaos that is the entire room. "We saw a real, live dragon and I didn't even get a picture."
Tony just grins at him and claps him on the shoulder. "That's okay," he says, cheerfully. "I have lots more pictures at home. You should come see them."
"I'd like that," Steve says, and Tony smiles back.
And then his stomach growls. He's very, very hungry, he realizes, distantly. And his muscles ache. They ache a lot, actually.
Tony frowns. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I feel a little funny," Steve admits.
"Well, you were sure fighting like -- I can't even describe it," Tony says. His eyes are bright again. "You were amazing. You are amazing. I didn't know anything like that was possible."
"A Sentinel thing, right?" Steve asks.
But Tony shakes his head again, though he's smiling, he's smiling so wide. "A serum thing."
"What?" He can't have heard that right.
"That's got to be the serum," Tony says. "Super-strength? Enhanced combat ability? That's not Sentinels. That's Rebirth." Is it true? Can Steve have everything he wanted after all? Tony laughs in delight. "Steve!" he crows. "Take off your shirt!"
"What?" Steve repeats, though his hands are at the buttons almost without conscious volition; apparently he's more than willing to take off his clothes if Tony asks him to.
"I have a theory," Tony says, still grinning. "Come on! It's for science!"
Steve undoes his shirt as fast he can and skins out of it; he's wearing an undershirt, of course, so at least he's decent--
He stares down at himself. He has muscles. They seem to be growing, slowly, as he watches -- and he can watch them form. They're just... happening. He pokes at his biceps like he's never seen them before, and he really hasn't. Not like this. He feels a little raw, stretched. It's not quite the agony of the Vita-Rays, but it feels like the lightning from the ring is still moving through him, ever since he felt it in the tunnel.
"I felt strange when the ring flared up," Steve says, "in the tunnel. And then after that I fought those men. Do you think that maybe that was what made the serum work?"
"Could be." Tony grins. "When you said yes to being a Sentinel," he says, "it looks like they turned everything on. Congratulations, super-soldier."
Steve feels like he needs to sit down and think about this. Rebirth worked. This has been an unbelievable day. He is out of belief. He has no idea what his next move is. "What do we do now?"
Tony turns to their packs, fishes something out, and tosses him what turns out to be a coil of rope. Steve catches it easily and stares down at it.
"What do I do with this?"
Tony laughs and gestures to Gialetta, and then back to the tunnel where the bodies are. "Tie 'em all up."
Steve nods and sets to work. It feels surreal. He can't believe he's doing this. "Tony?" he wonders.
"Yeah?" Tony calls back; he's in the tunnel, busy picking up all the weapons, to judge by the scraping-metal noises.
"Is this what an ordinary expedition for you is like?"
Tony seems to have to think about it.
"Nope," he calls back. "Most weeks, we also get to use the dynamite."
Helplessly, Steve starts to laugh, and Tony joins in.
An hour into their trip back to the village, it's apparent that none of Steve's clothing is going to fit him anymore. Out of necessity, he's stripped off his shirt and undershirt, and he's borrowed the spare dungarees that had been stuffed into the bottom of Tony's pack -- and even those are nearly too tight to button. He loosens his belt by several inches, and even so he's pretty sure from the way the pants cling to his newly-muscled thighs and rear that the view borders on obscene, to the point where he might as well not have bothered wearing anything at all. Still, he doesn't think hiking through a jungle buck-naked would actually be a good idea.
At least his boots still mostly fit. He's had to take them off and relace them to make room for his calves, though.
It's exciting -- it is, after all, what Steve has always wanted, to be strong, to have nothing wrong with him anymore -- but it's terrifying at the same time, because this isn't him. It hasn't ever been him.
Tony hasn't talked to him -- or even looked at him -- except to offer Steve his spare pants, and Steve's not sure what he's done wrong. They'd been working so well together. He'd thought Tony was enjoying his company, maybe even showing some interest -- he'd told Steve he had a pretty face -- and now he's just... distant again. Like he'd been at the beginning of the trip.
"Tony?" Steve asks. "Are you all right there?"
Tony glances back and grins, but the smile is fake, all fake. "Perfectly wonderful. Just another day in my life. And how are you?" His smile has an edge to it, a flashy flirtation, a performance. "You sure look like you're doing just fine, if I can say so myself." He winks.
And then Tony just keeps looking at him, like he was waiting for some kind of sign from Steve, and Steve's words were permission.. His eyes are dark, his face awed, dazed, like he's overwhelmed by Steve's body. His gaze keeps darting down Steve's chest, tracing the sculpted lines of Steve's new body, like he's trying to take it all in and can't. Like Steve is intimidating now. Like maybe Steve is someone handsome now. Someone he can appreciate.
Before, Steve had been the kind of fella no one gave so much as a second glance to. Now he's going to walk into a room and everyone's going to look at him first. Like Tony's doing right now.
I'm still the same man, he wants to say. Are you only looking at me now that I look like this?
He'd-- he'd wanted Tony to be interested, but he hadn't wanted it like this. He doesn't want the game. He doesn't want the old worn-out lines. He wants the man who held him when he'd fallen in the temple, who'd put his hands to his face, who'd looked at him like he'd meant something to him. If Tony's going to like him, can't he like him for who he is, not just how he looks? Can't he see beneath?
Steve thinks maybe Tony doesn't really know him at all, and he isn't sure that Tony cares to.
"Yeah," Steve says, on a sigh. "Yeah, I'm fine."
The Chopec village is, thankfully, as they'd left it; it only occurred to Steve when they were almost there that Gialetta could have wreaked havoc on its inhabitants on the way to the temple, but luckily she seems to have left it untouched.
Despite Tony's obvious impatience to get moving -- they have to cover as much ground as they can, even if that means traveling at night, to get away from Gialetta -- he lets himself be waylaid by a group of villagers eager to hear about their quest. Steve can tell that Tony's attempting to explain himself in what sounds like fluent Castilian Spanish -- a little out of place here -- and incredibly broken Quechua. Tony's explanation involves flapping his arms like dragon wings; the villagers don't seem at all surprised by that. But they are eyeing Steve warily, probably because they know that he didn't look like this before he went to the temple.
And then Tony points at him and says something in Spanish that Steve doesn't quite understand, but he's pretty sure he heard the word "centinela" in it.
The tribesmen's eyes are alight in recognition, and they gather around Steve, murmuring excitedly. Some of them hold their hands out, not quite touching Steve's skin. A few of them head toward one of the faraway huts, not like they're wandering away, but like they've been summoned.
"They say the shaman will want to see you before we leave," Tony says. He frowns. "I think that was what they said, at least."
There's a man coming out of the farthest hut. He has red facepaint, and his long, dark hair is intricately braided. Steve blinks in dumbfounded recognition, because this is the man from his vision. The crowd of people clear a path for him, and then he's standing there looking at Steve with familiar, knowing eyes. He recognizes Steve too.
"I saw you," Steve blurts out. "In my vision, in the temple." He knows the man won't have understood him, and Tony opens his mouth to translate.
"It is good to see you again, Steven Rogers," the man says, in perfect English. "I am Incacha, shaman of my tribe."
Next to Steve, Tony is grumbling under his breath that someone could have told him that someone here knew English.
The bald eagle that Steve saw in the temple is back. It's perching on the roof of the closest building. It's a sign, Steve knows, but he's not sure what it's a sign of. When Steve glances over to Tony, Tony's eyes are fixed on a different empty space; Steve bets he's having his own avian visions.
Steve inclines his head. "Likewise. It is an honor to meet you, Incacha."
"I am also honored," Tony puts in, and Incacha's face creases in a smile.
"There was something you wanted to say to me?" Steve asks.
Incacha nods. "I wished to see you with my own eyes, outside of the spirit realm, for as I have said, there has never been a Sentinel with your gifts. You will guard your people well, Steven Rogers. You will be the Sentinel of your city." He pauses. "What is your city?"
"New York," Steve answers. It feels oddly prosaic, in the midst of the fantastical. Sentinel of the Lower East Side. Something about it sounds wrong and he can't quite put his finger on it.
"The Sentinel of New York," Incacha pronounces.
And then Steve realizes what's wrong. "No," he says. "That's not me." Both Tony and Incacha are staring at him, and the crowd murmurs discontentedly; Steve guesses maybe people don't contradict the shaman. "I mean," he hastens on, trying to clarify, "I will be a Sentinel, and I am from New York, but I want-- I'm going to protect more than New York. More than my city. More than my country. I'm going to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. I'm going to shield them from harm. I'm going to fight for freedom, against those who would deny us it." He's found his footing now. "I'm not the Sentinel of New York, or even the Sentinel of America. I'm the Sentinel of freedom. The Sentinel of liberty."
"Yes. The Sentinel of Liberty," Incacha repeats, and he smiles widely. "This is good."
"The Sentinel of Liberty," Tony breathes, and when Steve glances over, Tony's eyes are bright. "It's got a ring to it." He sweeps his hands in front of himself, outlining a long and narrow band, like he's picturing the words as a headline. "I can see it in Marvels now. Only if you want to, of course."
"You want to write an article about me? In Marvels?" asks Steve, incredulous, because apparently today all his childhood dreams are coming true, even the most unattainable ones. Especially the most unattainable ones.
"Kid," Tony says, and his roguish smirk shouldn't be anywhere near as attractive as it is, especially when Tony's calling him a kid again, "I want to put you on the goddamn cover."
Then Tony quiets down, as Incacha reaches out and sets his arm on Steve's shoulder, solemnly. "You will guard well," he repeats.
"To the best of my ability," Steve says, firmly. He feels like he's making an oath.
Incacha nods... and then he turns to Tony.
"And you, Anthony Stark, will be his Guide," he says.
The dragon had called Tony that too, Steve thinks. His Guide.
Tony is staring at Incacha in confusion, like he's a kid who's been called on in class, wasn't paying attention, and has no idea what's going on. "I-- what? What do you mean, Guide? I've never heard of Guides." He frowns. "That wasn't in Burton."
"All Sentinels need Guides," Incacha says, serenely. "Such a powerful Sentinel needs a Guide greater than any other. He needs a Guide to anchor him to the world, to provide him with stability and focus. He needs a Guide to be with him, lest his gifts overwhelm him with their strength, lest he become lost. It is an important duty. An honor."
Tony licks his lips. His eyes dart from side to side. His face is pale, shocked. "I'll stipulate for the moment that Guides exist. But it-- it doesn't have to be me, right?"
Steve just stares, everything within him gone hollow and empty.
He thinks maybe his heart is breaking.
Incacha blinks; the answer has surprised him too. "It would be best if it were you," he says, finally, his eyes heavy in regret. "You have begun to form a kinship already, a bond; your souls fit together perfectly, like bricks in a wall, each strengthening the other. And surely you can see that your own spirit animal knows him?" He gestures somewhere above Steve's head; Steve glances up and sees nothing, but he guesses, glumly, that Tony does. He guesses that's what the birds they're each seeing are. Their spirit animals.
It doesn't matter. Tony doesn't want him after all. Just his new body, maybe. Nothing else.
"But it's not required to be me?" Tony presses.
Incacha sighs. "Another may be found. It is not a certainty. He or she will serve adequately, but only adequately. Not as well as you will." He looks at Tony and seems to decide that Tony needs reassurance. "It is not difficult, the way of the Guide. It is already in your heart. You need only follow the path that your heart shows you."
"Yeah, I--" Tony swallows hard and then glances over at Steve; Steve doesn't know what Tony sees on his face, but he shuts his mouth and doesn't finish his sentence. "Thank you," he says, stiffly. "I'll keep that in mind."
Whatever else anyone was going to say is drowned out by a huge roaring noise. Engines. After days in the jungle, the sound is almost unfamiliar.
Steve looks up, and there's an airship in the sky above, descending rapidly. Some part of him that isn't busy trying to hold onto his composure hopes it doesn't belong to Gialetta or the mysterious Mandarin.
Tony's looking up and smiling. Whoever they are in the airship, they make Tony happy.
The airship flies lower and lower still. When they're within maybe thirty feet of the ground a door opens in the cabin and someone throws down a rope ladder.
"Hey, fellas!" a woman calls down. "I thought maybe someone here needed a ride."
Tony tilts his head back and grins. "Have I ever told you how much I love you, Pep?" he yells back.
Steve's heart shreds into small bitter pieces. This is Pepper Potts. Tony's gal. Of course Tony wants a life with her-- of course Tony doesn't want to give it all up to be his Guide, to be with him--
"Come on up, both of you," Pepper says, "and we'll discuss it."
"Welcome aboard," Jim Rhodes says, shaking Steve's hand and grinning broadly. He looks just like he does in the Marvels illustrations, although the War Machine armor is nowhere to be seen. "I'm Jim. You must be the new chronicler that Tony wrote us about. I have to say," he adds, brow furrowing in confusion as he stares at Steve's physique, "that you don't look like the sort of guy who couldn't pass the Army physical."
He's going to get people looking at him like this for the rest of his life.
Steve's a little surprised that Tony told them about him already; it's only been a week since they met in Fury's office, after all. He guesses that Tony must have sent a letter before even that. That Tony wanted to hire him anyway, even before meeting him. It's strange, when he thinks about how Tony must feel about him now.
He's abruptly aware that he's still not wearing a shirt, and there's a lady present.
"I--" Steve says, and he realizes he has nothing he can say that doesn't sound outrageously unbelievable.
"Go easy on him, Rhodey," Tony says, with a cheerful grin. "It's been a transformative kind of day." He pauses. "Thanks for the lift, by the way. I thought you were in--" he squints and stops. "I forget, was it Transia or Latveria?"
Rhodes glances over at Steve like he's not sure how much he should say, and then he shrugs like he figures that if it doesn't bother Tony it doesn't matter. "Finished the op early," he says. "Got your travel plans from Fury and figured you probably needed the help. And it was Transia. Does it matter?"
"Not really," Tony says, with a wave of his hand. "But it means that the armor will have fewer bullet holes. Doom shoots more. Wyndham just siccs his mutated animal warriors on you."
"There might be a few teeth marks," Rhodes admits, with a rueful grin.
Steve decides that if this is what classified operations are made of, he would really be happier not knowing the details.
"What do you care?" says the gruff Brit who'd introduced himself as Edwin Jarvis. "You're not the one who was patching it up."
Tony sighs. "Call me crazy, but I don't actually like when my friends get shot at."
"Then you're in the wrong line of work, pal," Rhodes concludes. "Especially since the Army's signing your paychecks now."
"Yeah, yeah," Tony says, and he sighs. His face is crumpling slowly into sadness. "I have to--" he gestures vaguely-- "I have to go do a thing."
And he pushes past Steve and heads through a door, into another part of the airship.
Steve has no idea what that's about.
"Excuse me," Steve says, awkwardly. "This is strange, I know, but... do any of you have clothes that might fit me?"
Pepper looks at him like this is by no means the strangest thing that anyone has ever asked her. "Probably," she says. Her voice is brisk. Steve sees why Tony likes her; she exudes a sort of unflappable calm and intelligence. Just the kind of qualities one would need around Tony Stark. They're probably very happy together. "Let's go find out."
Jarvis is broader, if much shorter, than Steve is, so he ends up with some worn clothes that are all a little too short at the wrists and ankles but that do at least button. There's not a lot of privacy, and Steve is forced to change in an alcove while Pepper is politely turned the other way. She asks about the temple, and Steve talks while he dresses, hoping to keep his mind off... anything else.
She's remained silent throughout most of Steve's entirely unbelievable story, entranced, and at the end of it she smiles, pats him on the shoulder, and says, "On the plus side, if you've already met Miss Nefaria and a dragon, that's essentially the full range of quality in Tony's enemies that you're likely to see if you stay with us." She sighs. "Deadly -- personally and professionally. Did Tony talk to you about putting any of your experiences in the magazine if he starts it up again, if the Army ever lets him release details? I must say, this would be compelling reading."
Steve nods. "He did. I'd-- I'd be interested. Provisionally." That's not all he's interested in. He forces a smile. "It's very kind of you to help me out, Miss Potts. I know you--" he gestures at the ship-- "would probably rather be spending time with T-- with Mr. Stark right now. It must be difficult being without him when he's off on one of his adventures without you. I'm sorry for, uh, taking your place."
Pepper looks blank for an instant, and then brightens. She takes his hand. "Oh," she says. "Oh, sweetheart, no, we're not-- that was for the magazine. A dash of romance on the covers sells copies like nothing else. We've never been together." She laughs. "Not that I don't see why people like him like that, don't get me wrong, but-- he'd drive me crazy."
"Oh," Steve says. He feels a little relieved, but still sick inside, because Tony might not be with Pepper, but Tony clearly still wants nothing to do with him anymore, and the thought of that just rips him up.
He's known the man for a week. He doesn't know why this is hitting him so hard.
The look in Pepper's eyes is empathetic. Like she knows what he's thinking and she understands. She squeezes his hand. "You wouldn't be the first one to fall for him, you know," she says, very quietly.
Steve sucks in a breath, because they can't just talk about this like it's a thing that could ever happen, a thing he could have, a thing that's not seven kinds of illegal. "I'm sure he can have his pick of admirers," he says, and he can't keep the bitterness out of his voice.
"No reason he wouldn't pick you," Pepper returns, her voice low and easy. "I think maybe he already did."
He hasn't told her about Incacha. About how Tony had said no.
Steve's throat tightens. "It's complicated. I'm not sure he really-- a lot went on down there. I'm not sure I understand it, myself." He feels ridiculous, pouring his heart out to, well, Tony's other chronicler. "If he'd wanted... anything, he would have-- well, he isn't here. I think he's made his choice."
Pepper looks him in the eye. "I say this with the utmost fondness for the man," she says, "but Tony can be infuriating. He's probably gotten it in his head that there's some reason he can't have what he wants. Some reason he shouldn't. Some reason he doesn't deserve it." Her mouth quirks. "He might go on fantastic adventures every week in a suit of armor, but under it he's still human." She smiles. "Go talk to him, okay? He's probably over at the other end of the ship, with the suits. He's not actually busy."
"Okay," Steve echoes. "I-- thank you. I'll do that."
Well, it's got to be easier than facing a dragon, right?
Tony's with the suits, as Pepper had promised. The storage bay is a little cramped, but Steve recognized the familiar shapes of the Iron Man and War Machine armors from Marvels; there's a third armor, sleeker than the first two, that is a half-built skeleton in the corner. Metal plating, springs, and wires are strewn about; there's a little cabinet with half-open drawers. It looks cozy here. Like a refuge.
There's a little window out to the sky, and a seat next to it. Tony's sitting there, gazing out at the cloudy sky like he's not really taking anything in and that's just where his head happens to be pointing. He's not working on the suits. His shirt is unbuttoned and the cover on the repulsor pump is open, gleaming silver; there's a strange assortment of wires and tubes coming out of what looks like a cross between a battery and a generator. The other ends of the wires are all going into Tony's chest. Steve supposes that this is what charges Tony's heart.
He remembers Tony telling him he was going to show him how to do this.
He guesses Tony's changed his mind.
"Tony?" he ventures.
Tony looks up with a start, like Steve was the last person he expected to see. He raises a hand and curls it almost protectively around the edge of the shirt, as if his first impulse is to tug the cloth forward so Steve can't see his chest. "Oh. Hi," he says. His voice is perfectly normal. Casual, even. It's a lie. Tony's fingers are trembling.
Does Tony just want to pretend that nothing happened? That Tony didn't just stand there and say he wanted nothing to do with him?
"Pepper told me where to find you," he says. As he glances around, he sees that there's another seat with books stacked atop it. "Mind if I sit down?"
"Knock yourself out."
Steve sits, and he waves a hand at the mass of wires. "I thought you were going to show me how to hook you up to that."
"Yeah, well," Tony says, and his face stiffens, like he's warding off a blow. "You're not going to need to know now, are you? You're leaving."
He doesn't even know how to begin to address that. Sure, he's got to leave -- but they can leave together. "Tony, I-- I wanted to talk to you."
Tony sighs, and for a split second he looks so incredibly sad that it just kills Steve. "We've both had a hell of a day," he says, on a slow, long exhale. "You didn't even look like-- like that, this morning." He waves a hand in Steve's general direction.
And he's staring at Steve again, unsubtly, just staring at him, obviously enthralled, and Steve wants to yell or maybe punch something because this was never what he wanted and he doesn't want to deal with this on top of everything else, but he's going to look like this forever and he supposes he doesn't get to stop dealing with it.
"Yeah," Steve grits out. "I get it. I look like this now. Lucky thing that happened, eh?" He snorts. "Bet you're glad you took a chance on me, huh? General Fury told you I might keel over dead and you put up with me and got this." And that's all you want me for, anyway.
Tony blinks. "Whoa, whoa, hey." He holds up a hand, placating, defensive. "It's not-- it was never like that." His mouth draws back, somewhere between grin and grimace. "Touchy, aren't you?"
Steve attempts to unclench his jaw. "Like you said, it's been a hell of a day."
"Yeah." Tony reaches for a bottle, half-hidden among the metal scraps on the table next to him, and pours a splash of scotch into a glass next to him. Steve supposes that it must be all right to drink while charging. "If I keep looking at you, I'm sorry; it's just a lot to get used to. It's different. But it's not about the muscles, I swear."
"No?" He hears the hope in his own voice and wants to wince.
Tony sighs and sips his drink. "I wasn't Fury's first choice for you," he says, after a long pause. "I wasn't even his second. He was going to set you up with some nice easy job. Some kind of office work. But whoever he asked, I know they looked at your file and they-- they all turned you down. I think the pages and pages of statements from the scientists describing you as basically at death's door might have had something to do with it. Scared them off."
This is supposed to make him feel better? "Tony--"
"I was a joke, really." Tony's voice rasps. "I wasn't ever meant to say yes. But Nick gave me your file, and I read it cover-to-cover, and I called him back and said I'd take you. For fieldwork." He half-smiles. "Didn't even need to think about it. I said yes. And he thought I'd lost it. He asked me what the hell I was going to do on physically-demanding, clandestine missions with a fella who'd come in dead last in basic in everything but marksmanship. He said that he'd gone to watch the Rebirth cohort one day and you finished the obstacle course ten minutes after everyone else. And you know what I told him?"
Steve isn't sure he wants to know. "What?"
"I told him that you finished the goddamn course, and that was what mattered to me." Tony's still not quite looking at him, but he smiles. "I read your file and figured out that you were a stubborn son-of-a-bitch who'd seen something you wanted and wouldn't let anything stop you. Not even yourself. And I-- I related to that." He takes a sharp breath. "Maybe a little too much." Steve feels like he's seeing Tony, the real Tony, under the mask -- and Tony's hurting. And then Tony shrugs and it's like his guard comes up, like he never meant Steve to see him. "And, you know, you actually knew your way around a camera and a sketchbook. I wasn't lying when I said you were qualified."
The words are almost too fragile for Steve to say. "You... you picked me?" He remembers what Pepper said to him.
"I did." Tony's smile is a brief flash of reassurance. "And I'd say I made a good choice. You're a hero. You did save my life, after all."
Annoyance wells up in Steve, shading into anger. "That was the muscles. The serum saved your life."
"No." Tony shakes his head, a violent denial. "The serum saved your life, all right. But you saved mine." He meets Steve's eyes, his gaze fierce. "You didn't know you had the serum when you took on Gialetta and her henchmen. You thought you were going to die. I know you did. You would have traded your life for mine, without hesitation. It's the bravest thing I've ever seen anyone do." He looks away. "God, I don't deserve it," he whispers.
Steve shifts awkwardly. Tony doesn't need to praise him for it. It was the right thing to do. "I was just doing what had to be done." And of course Tony deserved it.
Tony's smile is fond and sad at the same time. "That's what all the best men say." He meets Steve's eyes again and blinks a little mistily. "It was an honor to work with you, and I'm going to miss you."
Now they're coming to it. Steve feels dizzy, like he's standing on the edge of a cliff looking down.
"Tony." Steve's throat is bone-dry. "You don't-- you don't have to miss me."
Tony's smile is once again lonely, and he drains his glass before looking up. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I do. You're going back to the Army. You're their super-soldier. America's going to join the war soon enough. You know that. They need you." He tries to smile again and fails; his mouth just twitches. "You might be the perfect specimen of humanity now, but I'm still 4-F, remember?" He taps his own chest, right on the edge of the housing, where the wires protrude; the metallic sound, too quiet to hear with anything but Sentinel senses, echoes in Steve's ears with all the finality of a gunshot. "Where you go, I can't follow."
"Sure you can," Steve says. They bent the rules letting him into Rebirth. Steve's positive that when Fury sees him now he'll be willing to bend a few more. "Incacha said I needed a Guide. He said you were my Guide. If we go to Fury and we tell him he has a super-soldier but in order to get the super-soldier he needs you, I'm betting he can move heaven and earth to make that happen." He leans forward, animated. "Heck, Tony, you're already on his payroll. He can probably set something up so that you get to keep hunting magic rings on the side. If we tell him that I have to be posted with someone, and that someone has to be you--"
"It doesn't," Tony says, flatly. "It doesn't have to be me. Incacha said as much."
There's a lump in Steve's throat and his eyes are hot with unshed tears. "Incacha said you were the best. Or are you going to tell me you know more about Guides than he does? You said you hadn't even heard of them."
"He might know more about Guides," Tony retorts, hotly, "but he knows fucking nothing about me!" And then the fight seems to go out of him all at once. He slumps back in his seat and shuts his eyes. The wires coming out of him make him look terrifyingly fragile; little strands of copper are all there are preventing his heart from stopping. His empty glass dangles between two fingers. He sighs and opens his eyes again. "Look, it's not that I don't like you, okay? I like you a lot. Maybe more than I should. And if I thought for even one second that I could be the guy you needed, I would throw everything else in my life over for you with a speed that, frankly, scares the hell out of me. But I'm not him. I'm not that guy."
"Why not?" The question rasps from Steve's mouth. He's shaking.
Tony snorts. "God. I don't even know where to begin. Incacha said you needed someone to anchor you. Someone stable." He waves a hand at the room, the airship, the entire situation. His face ripples in disgust as he gestures at the wires to his heart. "This is my life, Steve. You've seen it. It doesn't get any easier than this. It doesn't get any different than this. 'Stable' is the last word in the world I would use to describe my existence. I'm risking death on a daily basis. Incacha said you needed the best Guide. That's not me. That's not my life. You're going to be the best of the best, kid. You deserve better than this. Better than me."
Steve takes one breath, then another. How can Tony just say this? "I don't think that's what Incacha meant," he says, because even in the midst of his sadness he knows Tony's got it all wrong. "It's not about that kind of stability. I go back to the Army, I'm going to be risking death too, aren't I? It's not about what's on the outside. He said it was about what was in your heart. The stability is in your heart."
Tony just looks at him for one long anguished moment. This is the real Tony Stark, Steve knows. This is the real Tony, and he's been so alone, and he dates people who try to murder him, and he's terrified of letting anyone else in.
"Yeah," Tony says, finally. "Trust me, that's not me either."
"I'm not blind. I know you think I'm what you want." Tony's gaze is fixed on his. His voice is hoarse. Steve thinks maybe they're talking about more than just the Guide situation here. "But I'm not what you need." His mouth curves in a sad smile. "It's better this way. You'll find someone who's good for you. You'll see."
Steve stares back, helpless. "I can't talk you out of this, can I?"
"No," Tony says, and he's still smiling that sad smile. "You really, really can't."
That's it, then. It's over, Steve thinks. It wasn't ever anything in the first place. He was a fool. Oh, Tony had flirted with him, but that was a game, that had meant nothing. Now it means everything, and it's not happening. It's never going to happen.
Steve pushes himself to his feet and heads out, his vision swimming with tears. He doesn't want to cry in front of Tony.
The door shuts behind him. Through the door, with his Sentinel hearing focused tightly, he hears a bottle clink against a glass, and a wet noise that sounds like a sob.
Tony avoids him for the rest of the flight home.
He shouldn't have expected anything different, really.
Steve's in the main cabin watching Manhattan loom closer and closer and he's wondering if they've made a wrong turn, because he's pretty sure that airships moor in Lakehurst.
The door opens, and it's Tony standing next to him. He knows without even turning.
Tony reeks of alcohol and the wet salt of tears. Steve wonders if only a Sentinel would notice.
"Aren't we going to Lakehurst?" Steve asks, and he hates how his voice sounds, and it isn't what he wanted to say at all. He looks over, and Tony glances back at him, calm, controlled. The mask is in place.
Tony half-smiles. "Kid," he says, "we're pulling out all the stops. I can do so much better than Jersey."
Apparently airships can also moor at the top of the Empire State Building.
If anyone had the pull for that, Steve thinks, awed, it would have to be Tony Stark.
They're caught up in a whirlwind of activity then, men unloading cargo, the armors being carefully lifted down -- and Steve doesn't see Tony again until it's all done, until they're standing on the sidewalk. It's time to say goodbye.
"Listen," Tony says, hunching into his coat as the wind whips around him. His eyes are tight, pained, blue like the coldest night sky. "You need anything, Steve, anything at all, you call me. Or come see me. I don't care if you call first. Anything you need."
I need you not to leave me, Steve thinks.
Steve wants to laugh. "I-- I don't even know where you live."
"890 Fifth Avenue," Tony says. "You can't miss it. My telephone number's Regent 7-8275." It's one of the ritzier telephone exchanges of the Upper East Side, Steve knows. "Ignore whatever Jarvis says if he answers; he'll take a damn message for me even if he grouses about it."
A week ago he would have been beside himself with joy at the idea that Tony Stark of Marvels would want to give him his address and telephone number. Now he knows it's nowhere near enough.
"Okay," Steve says. "Okay, thanks. I-- I got it."
Tony holds out his hand, and Steve supposes this is what he gets in the end. A handshake. The same way it started. He takes Tony's hand, and Tony's fingers are warm, and something in Steve's heart says yes, this is right. Out of the corner of his eye, wings flap, and he's pretty sure it's not a pigeon.
"Oh, to hell with it," Tony says, under his breath. He pulls Steve into a tight embrace, and everything within Steve just lights up. It's like sunshine. "You're gonna be all right, kid," he whispers in Steve's ear. "Take care of yourself, okay?"
And then Tony steps back, and it feels like something vital is being ripped from Steve's chest, and doesn't Tony feel like this too?
"I will," Steve says, and he makes himself smile. "You too, okay, Tony?"
Tony gives him one last smile in return, and then he turns and heads down the street alone. Steve watches him disappear into a waiting car, and he stands there and waits for long minutes after even the car disappears, until even the thump-click of Tony's heartbeat disappears into the sounds of the city.
He can do this, he tells himself. He's had worse. He'll get over it.
Everything goes to hell.
It's not the case that it's all irredeemably awful right away -- if that had been the case, Steve would have run after Tony, would have caught up to him and never left, might even have run across Manhattan and sat outside his house until he got home. But he thinks maybe he's feeling just a little bit off, once Tony's gone.
He'll get over it, he tells himself.
He's got a nickel in his pocket, so he takes the train to Brooklyn. Some folks get funny about crowds, and he's never minded people before, but as he stands on the platform, as he shuffles into the train and grabs a strap, he's beginning to think he might be objecting to the sheer number of people. There's just so many people here, all bundled up in wool coats, with the bright distracting flashes of colorful knit scarves or mittens here and there. He can hear a hundred people murmuring, a hundred people breathing. It's too much to take in.
Steve takes a deep breath and tries to center himself. After a few shaky breaths, he thinks he feels a little more like himself.
He's just spent a week in the Peruvian jungle with basically one other person for company. Of course he's going to feel strange being back in a city again. He'll get used to it.
He's severely underdressed for the weather -- there hadn't been a winter coat he could borrow -- but he's feeling fine anyway, even as the people around him look askance. He's not shivering at all. It's like the cold doesn't touch him.
He ends up a little farther from Fort Hamilton than most people would be comfortable walking, but he has the feeling that he hasn't even begun to push the limits of this new body. So he runs. The light is attenuating, the sun going down; he feels the chill but nothing hurts. He's not tired at all. He knows he's close to the fort when he begins to smell gunpowder.
The guards at the gate aren't cleared to know about Rebirth -- all of Rebirth happened at Camp Lehigh, in Virginia -- but this is the closest base. He tells them he has to see General Fury as soon as possible. He tells them Fury will know what it's about. He's in luck, they say. Fury's in New York.
Steve spends a couple of hours kicking his heels alone in an office. He doesn't mind; at least there's no people. He wonders what Tony's doing now. He hopes Tony's all right. He wonders when he'll be able to think Tony's name without it hurting.
It was only a week. Nothing happened that should mean anything more than good teamwork. Maybe friendship. It shouldn't hurt this much.
Then Fury opens the door and stands in the doorway staring. For a solid ten seconds.
"Rogers," he growls. "What the hell happened to you?"
Steve stands up. He wonders if he should salute. He's not even in the Army anymore.
"I went on a vacation, sir," he says. "Worked wonders."
Fury's mouth quivers around his cigar, and Steve realizes that Fury is actually smiling.
The version of events that he gives Fury is the truth, albeit slightly redacted.
Steve tells him about the temple, about the Sentinel senses, about his fight with Gialetta Nefaria and her associates, and the dragon. Fury doesn't even blink at the dragon. Steve tells him about Guides.
He tells him that Tony declined. He doesn't provide the details.
"I don't think it'll be a problem, sir," Steve says, and he's proud of how normal his voice sounds. "I know Incacha -- the shaman -- said I needed a Guide, but I haven't had one so far and I seem to be doing just fine. It doesn't seem to me like there's any particular urgency in finding one."
Fury nods. "I'll defer to your judgment, Rogers. Yours and Stark's, since he's the only man we've got who knows anything about these senses of yours. He might be able to research how you find a Guide. What kind of man you might need."
Steve remembers the way Tony looked at him on the airship, and he knows he let his Guide slip through his fingers. Still, he'll be all right. He's got to be.
And then Fury's standing up. "Time to get you enlisted again, soldier," he says. "And then there's some men in the lab who want your blood. A lot of your blood." He shakes his head, admiringly. "I know strange things tend to happen around Tony Stark, but this-- this is unbelievable. Sentinels." He snorts. "Sounds like some kind of made-up story."
"I'll prove it," Steve offers. "Any test you want."
"I'm holding you to that, son," Fury says.
He's proud of what he can do now. He's looking forward to showing Fury, to showing all of them, that he's what they made him. That he's better than they made him.
And then he thinks about Tony telling him he's a hero. That he saved his life. He realizes that it's not going to feel better than that.
A couple of the scientists from Rebirth were transferred up here after the project was disbanded, and it's easy enough for Fury to find someone qualified to take Steve's blood, and then someone with the security clearance to know what to do with it afterwards.
The blood draw is a problem.
When the needle goes into the crook of his elbow, the pain is much, much greater than Steve was expecting, and he bites back an agonized yell, gritting his teeth. Tears are welling up in his eyes. It feels like he's being stabbed with a knife. He shuts his eyes, but that just makes it worse -- a knife, his senses say, he's sure it's a knife sawing at him -- when he opens them again it's only a needle in his arm. He can see it. Just a needle. It shouldn't hurt like this. It's barely a pinprick. He's not dying. He's not being flayed alive.
When the doctor takes the needle out, Steve shuts his eyes and breathes deeply. Cold sweat gathers in the hollow of his throat. He feels dizzy, faint, powerless. Like how he used to feel. He hasn't felt like this since before the temple. He never felt like this when they drew his blood before.
"Sometimes it takes people like that," the doctor says. "You feel a little shaky. It's perfectly normal."
There. He's normal. Maybe it's his new normal, now that he has the serum. He can do this.
Fury's in the hall waiting for him -- because apparently he rates a general waiting for him. This is his new life, he supposes.
"How'd it go, Rogers?"
"Fine, sir," Steve lies.
Fury looks pleased. "Good, good." He checks his watch. "It's a little late in the day to put together anything else for you, so we'll have to wait until tomorrow for more tests. In the meantime, son, let me buy you dinner. You'll win the war for us, when we get there. It's the least I can do."
Fury takes him to Delmonico's. Steve's never been. He gets the steak, of course.
It looks delicious. It smells delicious. And then he bites into it -- and he nearly gags, because it tastes awful. Rotten.
Across the table, Fury raises an eyebrow in concern. "Everything all right, son?"
"Yes, sir," Steve says.
He chokes down as much of the steak as politeness requires, while wondering what the heck is wrong with him. It can't be that the steak's actually bad; this place is too nice for that. It can't be a serum thing or a Sentinel thing, can it? Sure, he's only had both of those things for a couple days now, but he doesn't recall any of the food he ate on the airship as tasting bad.
Most of the food then, he thinks, tasted unusually good. Like the water Tony had fed him had tasted good, in the temple. He forces away the memory of Tony holding him up, the caring in the way Tony had touched him, because thinking about that is not going to do him any good.
Maybe he's getting sick. Or maybe not everything tastes okay now that he has the senses, because he's capable of tasting so much more. Maybe that's it. Maybe he just has to readjust his expectations.
That's got to be it.
They give him a room to himself at the fort, and he's grateful. He's not sure he could have handled bunking with other people right now; they're too loud, too present. He closes the door behind him and sags in relief against it. He's supposed to be settling down for the evening. Lights-out is soon. He can still hear everyone's conversations down the hall, all laughing, joking men, complaining about the food, complaining about the officers, telling filthy jokes, playing cards. He can't actually tune any of it out. It's like he's a radio with a broken dial; he can't switch to a different station. But at least with the door shut it's dimmed a little.
He can do this.
There's an eagle sitting on the railing of the bed. It ruffles its feathers and glares at him, disdainfully. It disapproves. He knows exactly why.
Steve didn't mention the bird visions to Fury. Or any of the visions. He figures it's probably better that way.
"I know," Steve tells the eagle. "I tried. Believe me, I tried. He-- he didn't want me."
The eagle flaps its wings and keeps glaring.
"He said no," Steve says. "What was I supposed to do?"
With another disgruntled look, the eagle disappears.
In his dream that night, he's back in the jungle.
The eagle stares at him and flies away.
In the sky, high above the canopy, he thinks he sees a flash of red in the air.
Steve skips breakfast the next morning. It's oatmeal, but he doesn't even need to taste it to know it's going to be disgusting: it smells rancid. He won't be able to keep it down if he tries it. His stomach roils at the mere thought of eating it.
He's not even really that hungry. That's okay, he tells himself. He's gotten by on less food for longer. He's probably just nervous about the tests.
He meets Fury again, and two other generals, Phillips and Ross, who have come to observe him today. Strength tests, Fury says.
Ten minutes later, they determine Steve can bench-press a thousand pounds. He might be able to do more. They're out of weights.
The loaded barbell is the first thing he's lifted that feels like it weighs anything. He's actually sweating. The other generals and their aides are staring in disbelief.
Fury of course looks unflappable, because he's Fury. "We'd also like to see your performance in hand-to-hand, Rogers."
Steve nods. "Yes, sir."
He moves to the mats, and a man separates from the small crowd surrounding the generals and follows him. He's dressed like Steve is, in a t-shirt and his uniform pants and shoes. This isn't meant to be a serious fight, Steve guesses, just a demonstration.
They shake hands. They circle each other, and suddenly it's like that fight in the temple: Steve can look at him and tell exactly how he's holding himself, how he's going to go left -- and Steve comes around on the right and throws him. He's down in five seconds.
"Best two out of three?" the man asks, and Steve nods.
The man crouches, a ready stance, and Steve can see his dog tags dangling inside the collar of his shirt. The light catches them, and they glint silver and he can't look away--
His entire world is silver. There's nothing but bright metal. It's like when he focused on the ring, in the temple, but more insistent, somehow more dreamlike. He can't worry about anything. Why would he want to look at anything else? There's so much to take in: the way the light plays unevenly off the metal where the tags are embossed, the oily stamp of fingerprints almost too fine to see, and most of all the pure intensity of the light itself. It's beautiful. He hadn't realized anything could be so interesting.
There's shouting. Someone is saying his name. His teeth rattle. Someone is shaking him.
He's lying on his side on a cool, springy surface. A mat. How did he get down here?
He opens his eyes and there's three concerned-looking men in white coats -- one of whom has been saying his name and shaking him -- and beyond them, General Fury, his face unreadable.
"What--" Steve begins, looking around. "What happened?"
"Your guess is as good as mine, son," Fury says. "You just froze up. Wouldn't move for about ten minutes."
"Ten minutes?" He swallows hard. "It was-- the light on the dog tags caught my attention, and I guess it was just... fascinating."
Fury just stares. Steve doesn't have to be told that this is a liability in combat situations.
"Maybe there's a way to bring me out of it faster?" he offers. "Or maybe I can avoid it with experience. Something like this happened in Peru, when there was lightning, and T-- Mr. Stark brought me out of it. He would have said if it had been ten whole minutes. I think it was pretty fast."
Fury's brow furrows. "What did he do?"
"I woke up and he had his hand on my arm," Steve says. He really doesn't know what Tony did. "I guess he just... touched me."
Fury gestures at the scientists, who have now backed away. "And what do you think we've been doing for ten minutes?" He sighs. "Do you know if there was anything that could have made a difference? Anything at all?"
"Nothing, sir," he says. "I have no idea. You already did the same thing he did."
He knows it was Tony who made the difference.
He can get by without him. He's got to. He can find someone else.
They don't ask him to do any more tests for the rest of the day. He goes back to his quarters.
He skips lunch and dinner and barely forces down some water, which, like everything else, tastes disgusting. Muddy. Scummy. But he knows he has to stay hydrated.
He can hear everything. Conversations down the hall. Conversations across the base. Conversations that he's pretty sure he doesn't have the clearance to be listening to.
"So, gentlemen, if we're agreed that--"
"--and how about those Dodgers, hey, Noonan?"
"But, yes! We have no bananas! We have no bananas todaaaaay!"
Steve dives onto the bed and covers his head with his pillow.
It doesn't help.
Eventually he sleeps. He thinks maybe he gets one or two hours of sleep, total.
He doesn't dream.
He wakes up.
Sunlight streams through the little high window, casting a long bright beam of light all across the ceiling, and isn't that pretty--
He wakes up.
He's in a hospital bed. He smells starched sheets, medicines, and faintly, blood. The nearest people -- somewhere down the hall from him, because he's once again alone in a room -- are moaning and whimpering, producing quiet little sounds of pain.
A nurse opens the door.
"Hi," Steve says, and he coughs. His voice feels rusty, disused.
She jumps, startled, pressing her hand to her chest. "Oh!" she says. "You're awake! I need to let the general know. Excuse me."
And then she's gone again.
He's getting worse, he knows. He's getting worse, very very quickly. He swallows hard. He's not going to be afraid. He's not going to be afraid. He's had worse than this. Heck, he'd been so sick he'd had last rites once, when he was a kid. He's going to pull through. He always has before.
"Six hours, Rogers," Fury says from the door. "Six hours since we found you. I don't know how long you were out before then."
Steve's eyes dart over to the clock. Seven hours total, then.
He'd promised himself he wasn't going to beg. He wasn't going to ask.
But he is afraid, and he's out of options. Incacha said he needed a Guide or he would become lost. He must have meant this.
He doesn't want to die. Not like this. Not for nothing.
"Sir," Steve says, clearing his throat. "Do you think-- is there any chance you could talk to T-- to Mr. Stark and ask him to come here? Even if-- even if he doesn't know what to do, or if he doesn't know how to do it-- Incacha said he could be my Guide, so maybe he can do it temporarily until we can find someone else--"
While he's been talking, Fury has crossed the room, and he's sitting in the seat next to him.
"I tried to call him yesterday afternoon, son. Right after you went catatonic on us. I thought maybe I should talk to my only Sentinel expert." Fury's face is grave. "The man who answered the phone said he wasn't Mr. Stark's 'bloody butler--''" his voice slips into an accent, and Steve is positive he's quoting Jarvis-- "but that Stark had left the city, alone, the day he returned from Peru, he hadn't said where he was going, and he hadn't said when he'd be back. No forwarding address."
"Oh," Steve says.
That's it, then. Tony's gone. There's no one left to help him.
"I told him it was a matter of utmost urgency," Fury says. "If-- when Stark comes back to town, he'll be here."
It will be too late, Steve knows.
The nurse comes and takes away his untouched dinner. He's starving, but it all smells rotten, and he can't eat it. He chokes down the water. He'll die faster without water.
Somehow he sleeps anyway.
In his dreams he's in the jungle, sitting in the dirt, and the eagle is next to him, half-covering him with a wing. There's another flash of red in the trees. There's something out there, and it's hiding.
When he wakes up, it's morning, and he's in agony.
His clothing is pressing into his skin. He can feel every last seam like it's the line of a knife wound; he can feel every inch of fabric grinding into him like a sheet of sandpaper. Everything hurts.
Experimentally, he moves his leg, trying to sit up. He hisses through gritted teeth, tears in his eyes, as the fabric tightens around his knee. It feels like the skin is raw, but it isn't, he knows. It's just his senses.
He's about five seconds from stripping off his clothes entirely when he realizes that he would have to move, and also that his bare skin touching the bedding would be exactly as awful. He'd have to stay standing.
He wonders how long he can stand up.
A nurse opens the door, tray in hand, and Steve retches.
"Please," he rasps. "Please, no food, I-- I can't."
She stares at him, wide-eyed, but then she takes the tray and leaves.
He can hear her all the way down the hall, heels clicking. "Poor Rogers," she's saying, to one of the other nurses. "He's just going to waste away, the poor thing."
There are noises of sympathy.
Steve shuts his eyes and turns his face into the pillowcase that rips across his skin like nails, takes a breath that scrapes at his lungs, and he tries not to cry.
Then he hears it.
Thump. Click. Thump. Click. Thump click. Thump click thump click thump click.
Hearing that heartbeat, it's like a switch flips somewhere him. He can breathe, and everything hurts a little less, and everything within him just homes in on the sound -- not in the dangerous way he's been doing, lately, where it consumes him and he loses his grip, but rather as something he can put his back to. Something that can hold him up. A focus. An anchor.
He's on his feet in an instant, and he opens the door, and then Tony's there.
Tony looks like hell. His eyes are red-rimmed, set in deep hollows. He looks like he hasn't shaved in days. His clothes are dirty and his shirt is buttoned unevenly. He's swaying on his feet.
Tony smiles at him weakly--
--and then Steve's in his arms, burying his face against the juncture of Tony's neck and shoulder as Tony wraps his arms around him like he never, ever wants to let him go. And nothing hurts, nothing hurts anymore, and the sudden surcease of pain is breathtaking, so amazing that Steve does start crying, because of how good everything feels, because it doesn't hurt--
Steve's holding Tony just as tightly and Tony's shaking in his arms and he's pretty sure Tony's crying too.
"So that idea I had where we never see each other again?" Tony sniffles wetly. "That was a shit idea, kid. Worst idea I've ever had."
Steve's laughing against Tony's neck in joy and relief. "Still not a kid, you know."
"Oh, I know," Tony says, and there are entire layers of meaning there that Steve cannot quite understand. "Believe me, I am very much aware."
"Where were you?" Steve asks, and he can't quite help the betrayed note in his voice. "Jarvis said you'd left--"
Tony pulls back a little, just far enough to see him, but he's smiling, and he doesn't let go. There are tears on his face. "Philadelphia," he says. "They have some papers of Burton's at Penn, and I'd wanted to see if he'd said anything more about Sentinels. Wanted to look up this Guide thing. Got there and realized I felt like death warmed over. I realized I could feel you." He frees a hand, splays it across his own chest, over his heart. "Right here. I could feel how you were feeling. I know it sounds crazy."
"Nothing sounds crazy anymore."
He tugs Tony inside; Tony follows him with no resistance whatsoever.
"You weren't doing so well," Tony says. "I was-- I was so scared for you. I was afraid I'd be too late." And then, more fiercely: "I never want you to feel like that again."
Steve thinks about how awful it must have been for Tony, to feel everything he felt, hurting and not knowing why. He subjected Tony to all of this. But it's fading like the last remnants of a nightmare, and all he can feel is Tony against him.
"I never want you to, either."
He tugs Tony back, back toward the bed, and pulls him over with him. Tony's legs tangle with his, and Tony's lying half on top of him. Steve is warm everywhere Tony is touching him, and it's even better than before, because Tony's touching him all over. He thinks he'd feel even better if Tony took his shirt off, or if he did too, because then he could touch more of him. The more he touches him, the better he feels. He feels grounded. Something within him says yes, says that this is where he belongs. He knows it with a bone-deep certainty. He's here and Tony's here and this is exactly how they're supposed to be. He is Tony's and Tony is his.
He untucks Tony's shirt and braces his hand on Tony's bare back. There. That's better.
Tony looks at him and then glances dubiously at the still-open door. Steve feels the tension in his body, the way his muscles coil up.
"Uh, Steve?" he murmurs. "Not that I object to the sentiment -- believe me, I definitely do not object -- but this is a rather compromising position to be found in, sweetheart." The drawled pet name makes Steve's cheeks go hot.
Steve shrugs off the objection. He feels like nothing can touch him, now that Tony's here. "They want to give me a blue ticket for something I've never done with anyone in my life," he says, "they're welcome to try."
Tony makes a strange choking noise, muffled against Steve's shoulder. "You're-- God, you're going to kill me." And then he looks up and his eyes go unfocused, like he's seeing something that isn't quite there. "And you're starving. When the hell did you last eat?"
Steve thinks about it. "Two days ago, maybe?" He looks away as Tony stares at him in horror. "It didn't-- nothing tasted right. It all tasted rotten."
"How about you eat something now?" Tony asks, in a very careful voice. "If I-- if I stay right here, do you think it will be better?"
"I think so." He feels like he can do anything now.
"All right," Tony says. "I'll just go find someone--"
He shifts his weight, preparing to stand, and Steve catches his arm. He doesn't want Tony to go anywhere.
"No," he says. "Stay?"
Tony relents and smiles. "Okay. Not going anywhere."
There are two birds perched on the rail at the end of the bed: a bald eagle and a scarlet macaw. They're leaning against each other; the macaw has its wing outstretched, covering the eagle.
Tony's sitting next to him and holding his hand as Steve slurps his way through the third bowl of chicken noodle soup, which -- thank God -- actually tastes good. Better than good. This is when Fury shows up.
Fury glances at their hands and says nothing.
"Sorry, Nick," Tony says, cheerfully. "I was out of town. I'm back now."
Fury hmphs. "For good?"
"For good," Tony confirms, and Steve's chest glows warm. "I-- realized that my presence was needed. And while I know that there are certain logistical concerns, if Steve wants me here I am more than happy to stay, if there's some way to make it work out with the postings."
"Something can be arranged," Fury says, and he looks to Steve for... permission?
"I want him here," Steve says, instantly.
Tony's gaze darts away, like there's something weighing heavily on his mind. "Before anyone signs anything, I have some new information on the nature of Sentinels."
Fury looks at him expectantly.
"For Steve," Tony clarifies. "In private. And ideally not here."
Steve blinks and wonders what all of this is about.
"Let me borrow him until tomorrow," Tony says, with a charming smile. "Take him over to my place. And if he's still interested then, I'll sign whatever you want me to sign, to make this official."
Fury looks between both of him like he's suspecting Steve of being complicit in this when Steve has no idea what's going on.
"Tomorrow, Stark," he says, sternly, and he leaves.
Tony looks over at Steve, a smile playing across his lips. "Let me take you home?"
Steve grins back. "Yeah. Sounds good."
Stark Mansion is the fanciest place Steve's ever been in his entire life. There's lush carpeting, gleaming chandeliers, dark-paneled walls, oil paintings. He can't imagine Tony living here. He can't imagine anyone living here, really.
And then Tony opens the door to the library and it seems a lot more like someplace he can picture Tony: there are shelves and shelves of books, well-used, neatly bound, and the blank spaces on the shelves are filled by all sorts of artifacts. There are a few little pedestals with other artifacts -- things Tony must have picked up on his journeys. There's a shelf of issues of Marvels, neatly stored in magazine boxes.
Tony gestures him to an overstuffed leather chair at the far end of the room and then sits down in the other chair, next to him. There's a side table just by his hand that has what looks like a sheaf of handwritten notes, and on top of that a slim, dark volume reading The Sentinels of Paraguay, a monograph by R. F. Burton in gilt letters on the cover.
"So," Tony says, and he shifts his weight nervously. His heart thump-clicks a little faster. "I found out a few more things about Sentinels when I was going through the anthropological holdings at Penn." He licks his lips. "I wanted to tell you now, before you agreed to anything permanent, because you should know what this entails and have the chance to back out." He smiles ruefully. "And if you say yes, well... it's better not to be at an Army base for this."
"I'm going to say yes, Tony." He can't imagine that anything would stop him.
Tony smiles faintly. "You haven't heard the story yet." He laces his fingers together. He's practically fidgeting. "So it turns out that Burton did write about Guides, only his research on Guides was even more unbelievable than his research on Sentinels. It was never formally published and was one of those things that, as far as I can tell, no one took seriously, much like his research on the Sotadic Zone, and for, uh, much the same reasons."
"The what zone?"
Tony waves a hand. "Never mind. Not important. What I mean to say is that it was never taken seriously because everyone who read it assumed that it was, well. Homoerotic fantasy."
Steve has a feeling he knows where this is going. "So you're saying--"
Tony sighs. "I'm saying that a Sentinel has a Guide, and that they bond, and that this bond makes it easier for a Guide to aid a Sentinel. You'd... be able to feel me a little, in your head, the way I feel you. And I would help you. So, all those things you've been experiencing -- those trances, the loss of control of your senses -- those would diminish or maybe disappear. We're part of the way there, but we haven't formed a full bond yet."
It sounds like everything he wants. But Tony still looks hesitant. "You don't-- you don't mind having me in your head?" he asks. Maybe that's why Tony looks like that. Maybe Tony doesn't want him.
"Not in the slightest," Tony says. "You-- you like me." His eyes are wide, awed. "I've never felt anything like this, really. It's... it feels really good. If anything, if I end up in your head, you-- you're going to get sick of me."
He leans over and puts his hand over Tony's, and he feels that bright surge of joy at the touch, and Tony smiles; Tony feels it too.
"I'm not," Steve says. "I promise."
"There's a catch, though," Tony says, and he can't meet Steve's eyes. "To form the bond, we have to. Uh. We have to be intimate with each other." Steve's face goes hot, even though he knew Tony's words were leading here. "We don't have to keep doing it, if-- if you don't want, but it would have to be at least once. Or--" he barrels on, clearly nervous-- "if you don't want that, if you don't want me, I'm sure we can find you someone else, a nice girl, maybe--"
"Tony," he says, sharply, and Tony looks up. "If you can feel what I feel for you in here--" he taps his chest and the side of his head, just to hedge his bets-- "then you should know that this... isn't going to be a hardship."
Tony looks at him like he's saying something unbelievable. "I know you've been attracted to me," he says, quietly. "But that's different from wanting to actually sleep with me, and both of those things are entirely different from wanting to form a lifelong empathic bond with a man you've known for a week and a half."
"Yeah," Tony says, and his face is grim, like he thinks this one fact will send Steve running.
Steve smiles. "If there's one thing you've figured out about me, Tony," he says, very softly, "you know that I see something I want and I don't let anything stop me. I'm not going to let anything stop me now."
Tony's mouth opens, wordless, and Steve leans over and kisses him. Tony's mouth is soft against his and the feeling in his head -- the bond -- lights up in pleasure and joy. Halfway through the kiss, Tony comes alive, leaning in, cradling Steve's face in his hands, kissing him back in a way that's achingly sweet and dirty at the same time, sending desire sparking through him like lightning. This, Steve knows, is going to feel really, really good. Right now, and for the rest of his life.
"Tony," he whispers against Tony's mouth. "I want you to take me to bed now."
Tony shudders against him. His eyes are dark. "Yeah," Tony says, and his voice is low with need. "Yeah. That's the best idea. You should have all the ideas from now on."
An excerpt from Engaging the World: A History of Marvels: A Magazine of Men's Adventure, 1929-1950, by Virginia Potts:
Marvels: A Magazine of Men's Adventure resumes publication in December 1945. For a year and a half the magazine consists entirely of fictional adventure short stories and reprints of the most popular of the earlier Marvels adventures; Tony Stark's work since he shut Marvels down in 1939 remains classified, and thus unavailable for publication. Marvels sells respectably well, but nothing like its sales in its heyday, before the war.
Early in 1947, the United States government declassifies a certain amount of material concerning superhuman activity in the war, and Marvels prepares a very special issue.
In July 1947, a double-sized issue is released. The cover artwork is a gorgeous, photorealistic oil painting of Captain America -- familiar to the entire world from newsreels and propaganda posters -- and Tony Stark. Captain America stands in full costume, chain mail gleaming from his shoulders, shield raised high. He stands in a defensive stance. At his side is Tony Stark, who towers over him in the Iron Man suit, helmet removed. The suit bristles with guns and his armored hands are raised; his face is fierce, determined. He stands as if he's defending Captain America, as if they're defending each other. The corner of the painting features the Invaders, also well-known from the news. Bucky Barnes stands at the front of the group in his bright costume and mask, clutching a rifle. Behind him are the Human Torch, who holds out one flaming hand; his sidekick Toro stands next to him. Next to those two are Union Jack and Spitfire, also brightly garbed, and then a man in dark clothes who seems to have pointed ears. He was absent from the newsreels. The artist seems to have painted them all as if he or she knew them intimately; there's no name listed on the cover or the interior of the issue, just a "SR" in the corner.
The words Tony Stark and the Sentinel of Liberty are emblazoned across the cover.
The contents of the issue itself are so fantastic as to be unbelievable -- and, as in all good Marvels issues, are assured by the editor to be true. The lead story is all about a journey to Peru with the man who was to become Captain America, purporting to recount how he acquired his super-soldier powers and what he now claims are his Sentinel senses -- a fact about him concealed during the war, lest the Axis use it against him. It's illustrated with little sketches by the same SR who painted the cover. There are short biographies of all of the Invaders, including Tony Stark, the Invaders' civilian member. Candid photographs accompany every one. Captain America and Bucky play cards. Toro reads a book by Torch's firelight. Union Jack and Spitfire are eating breakfast. The mysterious man with pointed ears glowers at the camera. Tony has grease on his face and he's sitting in the middle of a pile of machinery. After this comes Marvels' second story of the issue, this one written by Tony Stark himself, describing how he rescued Captain America and his sidekick Bucky from near-certain death in the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean. I just knew where they were, Tony says, in the story. I could feel it.
The last page of the issue is a full-page color photograph. Tony Stark is sitting on the steps of what must be Stark Mansion, dressed informally, sleeves rolled up. He has some kind of reddish sphere in his hand, and he's holding it out in front of him. He has the look of being halfway through an explanation of some sort. The man sitting next to him is dressed even more informally, in a t-shirt and blue jeans; he has blond hair and blue eyes. He's sitting so close that his legs are pressed against Tony's. Tony has his other arm around the man, and they're grinning at each other.
It's captioned two heroes at rest, 1947. It's the first picture anyone's ever printed of Captain America out of the uniform.
The issue sells out in a day, then goes to another printing, and then another, and then another.
It is the most popular issue of Marvels ever published.