"This is you being funny, right?" Tony asked, not looking away from a holographic armor schematic that rotated lazily a few feet from his face. "You're rocking that whole deadpan sarcasm thing?" He'd come to recognize, over the last couple of weeks that, yes, Steve did have a sense of humor. It was just drier than Pepper's martinis - so much so that he had missed it, at first.
He didn't need to turn around to know Steve was frowning at the back of his head, arms folded across his chest in that way that made his muscles look just-- well. It wasn't fair. Part of Tony wished Steve wouldn't do it so often, because dammit, he thought that he'd plumbed the depths of his own depravity decades ago, and there was something distinctly unwholesome in how erotic he found being the focus of Captain America's stern, disapproving attention. The whole 'titillated by the prospect of a sound scolding from a patriotic living legend' didn't quite fit in with his jaded playboy routine.
Steve was wearing that half-patient, half-stubborn look he always got whenever he waited for Tony's mock-offended exclamations to run themselves down. They'd been through this drill enough times before. Soon, Tony would stop ranting and teasing and would get around to revealing whatever piece of cultural information Steve had missed.
"C'mon, Cap, you've gotta be kidding me. Alan Turing was around in your day. Hell, I'm surprised you didn't meet him." Tony manipulated the hologram deftly, zooming in to focus on the knee joint. He needed to make some adjustments to the armor, optimize protection and support in key stress areas. After the last few missions he'd come home stiff and sore, and hell would freeze over before he admitted that maybe it wasn't the armor's fault, maybe he was just a bit old for this superhero nonsense.
"I know that. I did the math. If the gala tonight is celebrating the hundred-year anniversary of his birth, he was eight years older than me," Steve said, settling in on Tony's workshop couch. Tony contemplated a Rip van Winkle joke, but then he shifted on his chair and one of his knee joints popped, and he thought better of it. Physically, Steve was about half his age. Tony knew how far he could push a running joke before it started to seem like an outlet for insecurity. And he wouldn't want anyone thinking that, after all. He was Tony fucking Stark: 'genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, deeply insecure human being' just didn't have the same ring to it.
"Contrary to popular belief," Steve continued, "not everyone in the 1940s knew one another. We didn't exactly have facebook."
Tony laughed at that, splaying his hands so that the various components of the holographic armor spread themselves evenly through the air. "I thought Fury stuck you in SHIELD summer school to catch up on all the stuff you missed while you were on vacation. Don't tell me they left out Alan Turing?" Steve's expectant silence was answer enough.
Tony sighed dramatically, swiveling in his chair and calling out, "JARVIS, why don't you give the good Captain a rundown of your grandaddy's biography for me, since he doesn't seem to grasp the concept of just googling this shit rather than bothering me while I'm trying to work." As he completed his 360 degree rotation, Tony just caught sight of Steve's scowl deepening, and damn if that didn't send a tiny shiver down his spine. Seriously, he had a problem.
Of course, Tony knew that Steve was perfectly capable of using the internet to get information, knew that he only asked Tony because he enjoyed the conversation. Truthfully, Tony enjoyed it, too. He liked that he was the one Steve came to, liked having the opportunity to add his own layer of commentary and, once in a blue moon, to make Steve laugh. If it were some other topic, he’d have kept working and explained at the same time.
But this wasn’t like telling Steve about Michael Bay, or Monica Lewinsky; Alan Turing was someone that Tony actually gave a shit about. He was worried he’d have a hard time keeping his usual cynical distance. It wouldn’t do to let Steve think that he was capable of being genuinely emotionally invested in anything. Besides, he wasn’t sure he was going to like Steve’s reaction to certain aspects of Turing’s biography, and he thought it would be easier to feign indifference if he wasn’t the one telling the story.
"Of course, sir," came the crisp, disembodied voice, its tone just this side of condescending, as per usual. "Alan Mathison Turing was a Cambridge-educated mathematician, logician, and computer scientist who served as a code-breaker for Britain during the second World War. His work at Bletchley Park decrypting German ciphers is estimated to have shortened the war by at least two years. He is also widely regarded as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence.”
“Ah,” Steve said, “So that’s why—”
“—Sir referred to him my grandfather, yes,” JARVIS confirmed. Tony listened intently, only pretending to focus on the hologram. The line of his back was tense with expectation and anger. He knew what was coming next.
“Why haven’t I heard of him?” Steve mused aloud. “I’ve read a couple books about the war. You’d think they’d mention someone so important.”
Tony let out a soft snort of unsurprised annoyance. “Lemme guess, these books published before the ’70s?”
“They may have been.” When Tony smiled and shook his head, Steve added, defensively, “That way I know the people who wrote them actually lived through it. They’re more accurate. The information hasn’t gotten twisted over time.”
Tony didn’t respond immediately, turning to assess the defiant expression on Steve’s face. Steve had admitted to him, once, that one of the worst things about 2012 – other than everyone he’d ever known or loved being dead, of course – was the way that people misremembered the war. He’d had more than one argument with historians, Tony knew. They’d flocked to him, when word first got out that ‘the man out of time’ was living in Stark Tower, clamoring for interviews. Steve, being Steve, had agreed to meet with every single one. The problem was, some of them hadn’t liked the way Steve’s honest answers had swept the legs out from under their pet controversial theories. They had monographs to complete, tenure-track positions to win. More than one had argued with Steve, interrogated him, gotten hostile, refused to believe him. And Steve, who’d had to live through it all, had done his best to keep his temper. Tony had happened to be walking past, once, when he’d heard a young hot-head from Columbia accusing Steve of remembering incorrectly due to being brain-damaged by his time in the ice. Tony, being Tony, had hauled his ass out to the curb without ceremony or hesitation.
“His work wasn’t de-classified until the 1970s,” Tony explained, turning back to the hologram, “That’s why he didn’t show up in any of your books.”
“Oh.” Steve, mollified, settled back against the couch. “I guess now I see why Stark Industries is hosting a gala in this guy’s honor.” He sounded content, obviously thinking he’d gotten all the relevant information. Tony waited for JARVIS to go on, to finish the story, but the silence stretched unbroken. He’d have to step in, say something, or Steve was going to get a nasty shock at the event that night.
“Go on, tell him the rest, JARVIS,” Tony said, his tone an approximation of bored distraction.
“The rest, Sir?” JARVIS asked, and if he’d had a face, Tony would have been tempted to punch it. There was no way JARVIS misunderstood his request. This was yet another of the AI’s misguided attempts to get Tony to behave like a responsible adult – a Sisyphean undertaking that annoyed Tony to no end.
“Tell him what the grant’s for,” Tony clarified, getting to his feet and ambling over to a workbench, putting some distance between them. Easier to seem uninterested while juggling a laptop.
“Stark Industries awards the Alan Turing Grant annually to an exceptional scientist who has faced persecution from his or her government—” JARVIS supplied, with a level of dispassion that Tony envied, “—as Alan Turing did.” Tony scrolled through schematic after schematic, eyes not taking in any of it. His pulse was racing; he was recalling when he’d first researched Turing’s life, during his second year at MIT.
He’d read all of Turing’s seminal papers years before, of course. Had more or less memorized ‘On Computable Numbers’ and ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ by the time he was a preteen, already neck-deep in his quest to develop a functioning AI. But he’d never given any thought to the man behind the concepts. His budding futurism, combined with youth’s natural contempt for the past, rendered him fundamentally uninterested in biographies of the dead.
It was only by accident that he’d come across it at all—a bullshit assignment for a hippy professor who’d insisted his students write a few pages on someone whose work inspired them. Normally, it was the sort of assignment that Tony would ignore without a second thought, but he’d had some bad karma to make up. The funny thing was, Tony couldn’t remember anymore exactly what it was he’d done. Some prank that had sounded like a good idea at the time; that was the year when he’d really started drinking.
“In 1952, Turing was arrested and convicted for acts of gross indecency,” Tony heard JARVIS saying, “which, in contemporary British law, often stood for—”
“Homosexuality,” Steve supplied, his voice soft.
Tony opened a document and began typing a memo to Pepper that was little more than gibberish. He shouldn’t have been surprised, he thought, that Steve knew of the law and its common applications. He had been alive during that period, after all, had spent time in London during the war.
“Quite,” JARVIS replied succinctly. “Turing was given the choice of a jail sentence or chemical castration, and opted for the latter. His security clearance was revoked and the government, fearing that he would sell secrets to the Soviets, kept him under close surveillance. I’m afraid he committed suicide approximately two years later.”
Tony quickly abandoned his resolution not to look in Steve’s direction when he heard a loud scrape. Steve had shot to his feet so quickly that he’d dislodged couch by about a meter. Tony recognized that posture, that expression: it was Captain America, through and through, all tense muscles and flaring nostrils and righteous indignation. When he got like that, Tony thought—blue eyes blazing, jaw set—he looked exactly like the man from the posters, the comics, the trading cards he’d collected as a kid: fierce and just, without the slightest hint of doubt or self-consciousness. All that was missing was an American flag backdrop, gently rippling in the patriotic breeze. Tony curbed his runaway train of thought; he could see Steve’s broad shoulders shaking.
Steve fixed him to the spot with a single look.
“How could they, Tony?”
Tony’s guts twisted with a mixture of pity and something he couldn’t quite name. He should have predicted this. Of course, Steve would be upset. Injustice was injustice, and Steve hated it more than the average man.
Tony thought that it shouldn’t bother him as much as it did, running aground against Steve’s unfaltering idealism. His naivety. Tony had learned, in the last few weeks, that Steve’s optimism wasn’t an act. He really was that corny, that big-hearted, that deluded. His outlook wasn’t just a relic of his era, either: Tony knew that cynicism must have been almost as rampant in the 40s was it was in the present day. No, it was just Steve Rogers, himself, resolutely clinging to the belief that people, that the world, was inherently good.
And that was why, Tony knew, he would be disappointed, over and over again. Why he would keep being hurt by the pettiness, the cruelty, the ugliness of human nature. It was an abusive relationship in microcosm: Steve being blindsided by some new instance of commonplace, unspeakable evil; Steve letting himself be comforted by anecdotal goodness and the occasional Samaritans; Steve superimposing patterns of decency and order on an indifferent and chaotic universe; Steve making justifications, empathizing, letting his guard down, until the process began all over again. He always expected it would be different the next time, always forgave and forgot because it was easier than the alternative.
Tony knew that cycle, intimately. He knew it would go on, and on, and nothing would change. Not unless Steve changed, hardened himself, numbed himself, lowered his expectations until they were underground.
It had been a long time since Tony had let himself be disappointed or hurt.
“It happens all the time,” he said. He was surprised by the normalcy of his own voice, by how easily he could hitch a jaded half-smile to his lips. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have anyone to give the grant to, now would we?”
Steve kept looking right at him with that pained puppy-dog expression, expectantly, like it was his job to explain. Tony felt anger flare up in him, sudden and white-hot. He wasn’t sure quite where to direct it—at humanity, at Steve, at Alan Turing, at himself. The tension that had been building in him ever since Steve had walked into the workshop and asked about Alan Turing finally became too much.
“Actually, you’re a little bit like him,” Tony snapped. “You know what JARVIS didn’t mention? It was Turing’s own damn fault he was arrested.” Tony didn’t know how it had come to this again, why he always seemed to end up picking fights with Steve. “Some dude he’d been screwing stole some stuff from his place, so he reported it to the police and just… flat-out told them he’d slept with the guy, even though he knew it was illegal. Because he didn’t see anything wrong with being gay, and he thought they’d do the right thing. And of course, they didn’t. So, really, it was his own damn fault for expecting any different.”
“Tony—” Steve began, until he was interrupted.
“I looked up to him when I was a kid. Fucking worshipped him. That was before I realized there’s nothing heroic about being blind to the way the world works,” and it wasn’t just Turing that Tony was talking about, anymore. He’d told Steve, a few weeks before, in a moment of drunken and unguarded stupidity, about his Captain America-loving phase.
The air in the room seemed to go cold. Tony was already retreating, drawing his barriers back up, regretting his rant. Steve was looking at him in silent disappointment and there was absolutely nothing sexy about it, now. Tony swallowed hard, avoided his eyes.
“I’ll see you at the gala, Tony,” Steve said, showing himself out.