In ’45 when Steve got back from the war, this place was already shifting from a local cop bar for the L.A. County Sheriffs to a hangout for less important players in the Hollywood game. It was near empty on weekdays, and on Friday and Saturday nights the clientele was strictly below the line. But with Tom Breneman’s turning monster business just a stone's throw away on Vine near Sunset, over the years the faces of this crowd have slowly shifted as people wandered further on down the road.
There are no mobsters or molls here, nor any of LAPD’s finest, but there are movie stars aplenty. They cozy up to one another in the rounded banquettes, lounging against rich red leather as they try to mix business with pleasure. The next contract discussed over the next cocktail. The next producer easily confused with the next paramour. Everything and everyone mingles.
Except Steve Rogers.
He doesn’t frequent The Shield often enough to have any claim to a regular seat, but this spot half in the shadows at the far, curving end of the long mahogany bar is the closest he’ll ever come to one. He angles his back to the wall, his eye line toward the door, and he nurses the same scotch and soda until it becomes far too warm and watery to taste worth a damn.
“I'd say it’s good to see you, Rogers, but I don’t count myself a liar.”
Nick Fury places both hands flat on the bar top as he stops in front of Steve, glaring at him with his one good eye. Steve sits up straight, rather surprised by Fury’s unexpectedly harsh greeting. He opens his mouth to defend himself – against what, he doesn’t quite know – when Nick gestures in a circle around Steve’s body.
“In case you haven’t noticed, there’s nobody around you in a five foot radius. You’re scaring away all my customers.”
Steve raises an eyebrow and makes a show of surveying the room.
“I dunno, Nick, the place looks pretty well packed to me.”
Fury points to the empty stool to Steve’s right, the only seat Steve can mark as empty in the joint.
“Saving it for a friend.” Steve shrugs.
“Your friends are over there.” Nick jerks his head toward the booth in the furthest corner.
To anyone else, the scene might seem inviting. They may not be famous but they are undoubtedly a group of attractive people, well dressed enough to be noticed but not so much as to signal intimidating riches. They are warmly lit, their body language open. They smile and laugh pleasantly, passing drinks and gossip, camaraderie practically spilling forth from them like the groundswell of an uplifting music cue.
Bucky’s eyes are bright and his color high. His tie is loose, the top button of his collar undone. His pint glass is once again empty in his hand. Beside him, Natasha is cradling a snifter of brandy, her full lips playing at a smirk as she surveys the men surrounding her table. Her dark red hair falls in perfect tight curls and her black, bead-encrusted dress hugs her curves. She looks every inch a silver screen starlet, and Steve suspects most everyone here would be surprised to discover she spends her days bent over a typewriter, entirely away from public view.
Clint has shed his suit coat, a bold move for an upscale place like The Shield, but he flouts the rules of etiquette even more than Bucky these days. He's also sporting a purpling bruise and a row of stitches over his right eyebrow, and somehow this only adds to his puckish charm. His body, run roughshod from years in the stunt business, sports a fantastic number of scars and Clint has a fabulous story for each and every one. Steve often catches him with some wide-eyed ingénue, rolling up his sleeve or his pant leg and doling out the crazy story of how he received each particular injury.
Tonight’s addition to the gallery is the result of an overzealous rookie grabbing a real piece of wood rather than pre-scored corkboard to hit Clint clear across his face. Steve had heard the story from clear across the room.
Clint shrugged off such incidents as if they were of no matter. Two years ago, he lost hearing in one ear due to faulty rigging setting off a staged explosion far too early, and he now counts anything less than that level of serious injury as a mere flesh wound. He likes to joke that he made it through the whole real war without getting a single hit, only to get injured in a fake one.
Thor is with them tonight, his blustery, booming laugh audible even over the din of the crowd. A recent émigré from Sweden, he’s been a boon to the studio’s special effects department. He specializes in weather simulation, and Steve has to admit that his thunderstorms read as near believable onscreen.
He can also drink every one one of them under the table. That hasn’t stopped Clint and Bucky from trying, though it's only Natasha who really stands a chance. She may be slender and petite, but she’s got a stalwart constitution worthy of her Russian roots.
They’re a great group of people, and Steve should join them. He almost wants to. But he won’t.
Across from him, Nick sighs in frustration and wipes the bar top down as if Steve’s no longer sitting there.
“Go tell Sam to take a break.”
“What, I work for you now?”
“Rogers, I’m secretly running this whole town.”
Steve could almost believe that. Most of the people who frequent The Shield are none the wiser that the black man behind the bar is actually its owner; the proprietorship is under the name of his old war buddy Alexander Pierce, who is as blond-haired, blue-eyed as they come. Pierce makes an appearance every now again to glad-hand the customers, but it's just for show. Fury knows how to make this life work, knows which angles to take, what rules to break. Steve considers Nick a friend, but he wouldn't be surprised to find out that he has far more secrets up his sleeve than his real stake in the bar.
Nick tosses the towel over his shoulder, and then reaches over and pulls Steve’s tumbler from his loose grasp. Steve sputters and Nick briefly mimics his gaping before snapping at him.
“What, you wanna sit here and pretend you’re drinking this some more?”
Steve concedes the point, putting his hands up in surrender and standing from his bar stool.
“All right, all right, I’m going.” He gathers his coat and his fedora, dropping the light jacket over his forearm and donning the hat, tipping it up casually to sit high and loose on his forehead.
He digs out his leather wallet and puts down a couple of bills for his drink. Nick swipes the money up and hands it back to him. Steve starts to protest but Nick shoots him down with flat stare.
“On the house, Rogers.” Steve must look as skeptical and surprised as he feels, because Nick’s stare turns to an outright glare. “What. I’m nice like that. Now get outta here.”
Steve nods his thanks and turns into the crowd. Nick may play like he’s a hard-nosed bastard, but he’s got a soft spot for Steve and his pals, most likely because they were patronizing his place long before the Hollywood elite sashayed in. Steve appreciates the loyalty.
He heads toward the tinkling of the piano, some old Hoagy Carmichael tune a familiar comfort as he weaves through the throng of patrons near the bar and then works around the maze of round five-seater tables that fill the center of the room.
When he reaches his destination, Steve leans on the top of the upright piano, resting his elbows on the polished wood surface. He looks down at Sam as his fingers dance nimbly over the black and white keys.
“‘Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By.'”
Sam responds with a deadpan grin, not missing a beat.
“You’re hilarious. I’ve never heard that one before.”
“Well, I know the lyrics, but I don’t know about teaching you the music. Guess I could hum it for you.” Steve shrugs and circles around, taking a seat on the edge of the bench beside Sam. He’s careful not to interfere with his playing, but Sam shifts slightly to his right anyway, giving him more room.
“I meant the joke, Rogers. The joke.”
“Why assume it’s a joke? Maybe I’m feeling sentimental.”
“The only way I’m ever playing that song is if Ingrid Bergman herself walks in here and asks for it. If she can stand it, I can stand it.”
“So that’s how it is. Good to know where our friendship stands,” Steve retorts. “Not even worth a song.”
Sam winks at him, ending his current number with a flourish of keys and transitioning seamlessly into The Inkspots’ “You’re Breaking My Heart.”
“That’s how it is.” Sam replies. “And not to discourage you further from my sterling company, but is there any reason you’re over here and not over there?” He jerks his head over his shoulder toward their friends’ table. “I’d like to be over there.”
“Well you can be, if you wanna. Nick sent me over here to tell you to take a load off.”
“Could’ve told me that before I started a new number, you know.”
“I could have,” Steve shrugs. “You were too busy waxing poetic about Ingrid Bergman.”
“If you think that was poetry, Rogers, I think I’m beginning to understand the state of your love life.”
“Folks are just full of opinions today,” Steve mutters to himself, standing up and returning to his former position leaning against the piano. “I have to be on set early tomorrow, so I’m gonna head for home.”
“The night is young, stay awhile longer,” Sam entreats kindly, and Steve hedges, torn between his honest desire for the quiet of his apartment and the innate need to avoid disappointing the people who matter most in his life.
“I’ll give you a call later this week.” Steve pats the top of the piano twice with his palm and then gives Sam a small wave goodnight.
Sam wraps up his song early, ending a verse and skipping right to the last few bars, played at twice the normal speed. A few patrons turn their heads toward the piano, curious. The layer of sound once provided by the music is noticeably absent for a long moment, but soon the murmur of conversation adjusts to fill it.
“Rogers, wait a second.” Sam’s hand lands firmly on his shoulder, and Steve begrudgingly stops and turns around. “Steve, seriously – you all right? 'Cause you don’t look all right.”
Steve sighs, feeling guilty for causing concern. He should have stayed at home rather than ruin Sam’s night with unnecessary worry.
“I’m fine,” Steve tries to sound reassuring. “I just…I had a bad night last night, that’s all. Didn’t get much sleep. You know how that goes.”
“That I do,” Sam doesn’t make him explain any further. Sam’s coped better with life after the war, but they’ve both had the nightmares. Steve just happens to get them more often, is all. Yesterday had been particularly relentless; he couldn’t so much as close his eyes without being assaulted by memories he desperately wanted to forget. Around 4am, he’d given up the ghost and went to the living room to get a jumpstart on the day’s work, tiptoeing around the apartment as not to wake Bucky.
“I’ll be better tomorrow. I just need some rest.”
Sam is still looking at him with those earnest eyes of his, clearly not believing a good night’s sleep is going to solve much of anything.
“I have my break – we have time to talk if you want to.”
Steve musters up a smile. He genuinely appreciates Sam’s offer, but the last thing Sam needs is to spend the only half hour he gets away from the piano tonight listening to Steve’s problems.
“Really, I’m fine. Tell Bucky and everyone else I’ll see them tomorrow.”
“So that’s how it is. You’re leaving me to play messenger?”
With the return of this particular tease, Sam makes it clear that he is letting him off the hook. Steve plays along gamely, even though he knows Sam’s just tabling this conversation for a later time.
“Oh that’s how it is.” He starts backing toward the door.
“All right, all right. Don’t blame me when Barnes gives you hell in the morning.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. See ya, Sam.” He gives Sam his best grin and a two-finger salute before pivoting on his heel and making for the door.
A strikingly elegant redhead in an emerald green dress is approaching the club just as Steve exits, but it’s the rakishly handsome man on her arm that makes Steve’s steps stutter. Thinking quickly, he tilts the brim of his hat low across his brow and ducks his head, looking away as he courteously holds the door open for the young lady.
She nods politely in thanks, not really looking at him, and her companion doesn’t give him so much as a glance.
The door falls gently closed, taking the noise of the nightclub with it, and Steve is left with the soundtrack of the city as somewhere a clock chimes eleven. Further in the distance, there is a mournful wail of police sirens.
He flags down a cab with surprising ease, and once inside breathes a deep sigh of relief.
It had been a close call.
He hadn’t been ready to meet Tony Stark tonight, of all nights.
Behind him, the projector rattles. Dust motes dance in the white beam of light streaming from the back of the room. It cuts a widening swath just over his shoulder to reach the big screen he’d recently installed on the wall.
“Cross her off the list.” Tony doesn’t look back at his casting director, knowing full well that she will hear his every word.
“What’s wrong with this one?” Maria inquires, her voice as sharp as the jab of her pen as she strikes out another name on her notepad.
“She sounds like a little girl. How old is she really? Nineteen?”
“She should act like it. We need a woman. If I wanted a kid, I’d hire Shirley Temple.”
“Shirley Temple is twenty-one now, sir.”
“Really? Huh. Can we get her in here?” He’s only half-kidding.
“She’s retiring. And she hasn’t had a hit in ten years.”
“Pity. Regardless, we need someone with a commanding presence; this one, I keep expecting to call me Daddy and beg for a spanking.”
“Lovely.” Maria replies tightly, not amused. Tony shrugs off her displeasure.
“We should take a break. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m sick of looking at beautiful women.”
“What is the world coming to.”
Tony ignores Maria’s sarcasm and shakes his head sadly, flicking his hand toward the projectionist dismissively. The playback is switched off, the film shuttering to a stop.
The lights come up low, illuminating the screening room softly. They’ve been locked in the darkness for so long that even this seems offensively bright. Tony squints uncomfortably as his eyes adjust.
“Can we do another casting call?”
“It’s not really in the budget, Mr. Stark,” Coulson pipes up from the shadows in the rear of the room. Tony hadn’t even realized he was here. The man has such a meek, unassuming presence; he tends to blend in with the walls most times. “We’ve already done two rounds. We’ve got to find a girl for the part soon.”
“No, we’ve got to find the right girl for the part soon, Phil. The right girl. This is the first picture we make, we can’t start lowering our standards right off the bat. It’s gotta be perfect if we’re going to make a lasting impression, let the Hollywood players know that we mean business.”
Behind him, the casting footage starts to be rewound; two reels whir whip fast.
“We also have to have enough money to get the picture made. We can’t do that if we can’t get beyond casting.”
“You’re a very pessimistic man, Coulson, anyone else ever tell you that?”
“They have, sir. I prefer to think of myself as realistic.”
Tony waves him off, then stretches his arm enough to shake down his sleeve, let him get a look at his watch face for the time.
“Ok, wow, it’s later than I thought. Let’s forget the break and just call it a day. We can start with the men tomorrow – hopefully they’re a better lot than this sorry bunch.”
“That’s the spirit, Mr. Stark,” Maria replies dryly. Tony finally shoots her a look over his shoulder, tilting his head down to look at her over the rim of his wire frame glasses.
“I admire the way you barely conceal your disdain for me, Miss Hill. It’s refreshing.”
“I’m thrilled that you’re thrilled.”
Both he and Maria start to rise from their seats, but Coulson clears his throat.
“Before we go, Mr. Stark, there is still the matter of the Captain America film library.”
Tony huffs impatiently, slumping back down.
“Not this again. What about it?”
“Well, there has been interest in reviving the character for children’s audiences, at least in certain sectors. A lot of people seem to think the property would be ideal for a television program.”
“Really. God, why?” He turns fully in his seat, screwing his face up in puzzlement. Coulson leans forward, resting his elbows on the chair back in front of him.
“Television is an up and coming –”
“We already have television on the agenda, Coulson.” He holds a hand up to stop the man from talking. “Christ. I’m not a Luddite, or Jack Warner. I mean why Captain America?”
“Kids love superheroes,” Coulson states simply. “There’s already talk, even at Warners. Maybe a Superman feature, leading into a television serial sometime over the next few years if the movie gets off the ground, no pun intended. I think they’re waiting for television to gain a bit of a stronger presence in suburban markets. Captain America would really be an ideal venture for us in order to get a foothold in that corner of the industry. He’s a great character.”
Coulson seems a little too enthusiastic about this.
“Pepper mentioned something about you having quite the interest. Let me guess – you have all the collectibles – the comics, the trading cards, the whole kit and caboodle.”
“I do, in fact.” Coulson frowns, clearly resenting the implication that this is anything he should not be proud of.
“Those films were nothing but cheap trash propaganda.”
“The production values may not have been the best, but if you want to talk about presence….” Coulson gestures like that’s enough said.
“He is right,” Maria surprisingly chimes in, tapping the end of her pen against the spiral binding of her notebook. “Steve Rogers does have charisma.”
“We’ve got some of the reels in here, don’t we?” Tony had seen the box sitting along the back wall; he’d been purposefully ignoring it until now. “Slap one on. I’ll take one look to satisfy your insanity and then we can talk about selling off the rights to the highest bidder. Then at least something useful can come out of my father’s ridiculous foray into filmmaking.”
There is silence in the screening room, as if no one is really sure he means what he says. He waves a hand onward.
“I’m not kidding.”
There’s noise behind him as a canister is uncapped and the film loaded, looped and fed through the gate to the uptake.
“Here we go,” Tony mumbles to himself as the lights fully dim. He stubs out his cigar and makes a show of rubbing his hands together and leaning forward in anticipation, making a mockery of the very idea that this could be more than an exercise in futility.
The leader flips by, sync sound beeping at 2 before the screen goes dark. The titles come up – Captain America and His Howling Commandos! – and a patriotic fanfare blasts forth. Way too much trumpet and snare. The sound level actually hurts his ears.
Captain America marches onscreen, followed by his band of merry soldiers. Tony snorts at the sight of the men that make up his so-called unit. The very idea that so many different races and ethnicities would be integrated in one company is lofty but ludicrous. He wonders exactly who the OWI thought they’d be fooling with that one.
The story is a simple one. German soldiers are terrorizing a beachside town in England, clearly conveying that without American intervention, German forces were sure to succeed in their invasion of our closest ally. If Great Britain falls, America will be next! Captain America and his compatriots successfully battle the Germans back to the shore, where they scurry back to their boats and presumably retreat to mainland Europe. The adoring townsfolk praise Captain America for his efforts, and a sweet bonny lass innocently bats her eyelashes and kisses her hero chastely on the cheek in gratitude.
The sets are shoddy, the acting atrocious, and half the footage is marred by a hair in the gate, the ragged black line twitching at the top edge of the frame.
Admittedly, Steve Rogers, the actor playing Captain America, is quite fit; his tight costume clings to the sharp lines of his muscled body in a way that borders on obscene. His face is mostly covered at all times by a silly mask. If his strong jawline, full lips and piercing eyes are anything to go by, covering that all up was a really poor decision.
He is handsome, yet it’s more than that. He’ll never admit it aloud, but Coulson had been right about the man’s presence onscreen. It’s difficult not to instinctively follow his every move. He’s magnetic.
Though it’s his first time seeing Captain America in action, that Steve Rogers has the makings of a matinee idol is not exactly news to Tony.
His father had been sure they’d discovered a star, and Tony read all about it in his father’s short missives. Tony couldn't have possibly cared less at the time, and found his father’s focus on wartime propaganda frankly appalling. Howard didn’t want to go to war to save the world; he wanted war because war meant more money in his pocket, and Steve Rogers was going to help him sell the idea to the American public.
While Howard had been taking cushy Hollywood gigs and his factories had been pumping out as many munitions as the metal supply would allow, Tony had been in Tunisia, unwisely trying to do his own part by using his Italian roots to his advantage. Thanks to his mother, he looked the part and could speak the language, and his background in military armaments made him a great candidate to infiltrate the Italian forces posing as a black market arms dealer.
And so as Howard fawned over Steve Rogers like he was the obedient son he’d really wanted and never had, his real son nearly got blown to smithereens while on a mission in Vichy-held French North Africa. It was the Germans, not the Italians, who held him captive in Morocco until Operation Torch brought the Allied forces to his rescue.
He’d been honorably discharged, done with the war by 1943, just as Captain America went off to Europe to become a real hero. He’d received a chest marred with battle scars and permanent heart trouble for his efforts; Tony doesn’t know how or where Steve Rogers wound up, and he doesn’t much care.
“Mr. Stark. Mr. Stark?”
“Huh, what?” Tony snaps to at the sound of his name. Pepper is standing beside him, her hand on his shoulder. The film is over, the screen bright white and the tail of the film thwapping wildly as the projectionist sets about shutting the machine down. It slowly winds down to a stop.
Tony rubs his face, wondering how long he’d been lost in his thoughts. The run time on those Captain America flicks was only about fifteen minutes, if he recalls. Couldn’t have been too much time inside his own head.
“When did you get here?”
“A few minutes ago. I see this particular Cap film made quite the impression?”
“It couldn’t even keep my attention, Pep. I was thinking about something else entirely.”
“If you say so.”
Pepper’s knowing smile leaves him ruffled. There are three people who are permanently in his life who know that while he’s enjoyed the attentions of many women in the past, he frequently prefers the company of men. His chauffeur, Happy, knows by necessity. His best friend, James Rhodes, knows because once in an ill-advised drunken moment, Tony had laid one on him. Pepper knows because she understands him. He couldn’t love her the way she’d wanted, and she’d guessed why; he hadn’t even had to tell her.
But now her smile implies that his distraction had something to do with the handsome mug onscreen, and it truly doesn’t. Not even a little.
“Coulson, you can put the rights to the character and his library up for sale. I don’t want this hanging around my neck.” Tony tugs at his tie, suddenly uncomfortable and feeling it too tightly at his throat.
“Are you sure?” Pepper asks softly. “It’s your father’s –”
“All the more reason to be done with it.” Tony stands up, ending the argument by removing himself from the room. No one follows him out.