Chapter 1: Prologue
Steve stared at the walls of the room that he'd been told was not a cell, no matter that he wasn't allowed to leave, and forced himself not to pace. He should have tried to punch his way out as soon as he woke up, he decided, before they trapped him like this. He shouldn't have believed that line they fed him about the Golden Age of America, and how his country still needed him.
So far all they'd needed from him was his blood, and a lot of information about the original Project: Rebirth. He didn't know many of the technical details about that anyway, and hedged on what he did remember. He'd figured out pretty damn fast that he wanted no part of this age, Golden or otherwise, especially after he'd met the latest incarnation of Captain America. He hadn't seen much of Walker, but the man did not strike Steve as notably mentally stable. Hadn't they learned anything from the other wartime attempts at recreating the super serum?
No one seemed to have given him a choice, however, and he hadn't figured out how to get out yet. They seemed to know exactly what he was capable of, and left him no openings that he'd found. Everywhere he went, young men and women with stun guns watched him from a distance. He'd had it mentioned to him, oh so casually, that any section of this flying monstrosity could be sealed and flooded with knock-out gas.
He hadn't seen the sun or breathed unfiltered air since they'd thawed him out.
He had a machine that played talkies and a selection of books (both mostly from before the '40s), but no radio or newspapers.
Flopping back onto his bunk, Steve picked up the briefing package they'd given him. It was supposed to fill him on major world events since he'd "died" and help him adjust to life in the twenty-first century, but he was finding it a bit difficult to take. It scanned like all the press the War Department issued about him and Bucky, and Lord knew less than a quarter of that was even close to true. Victories had never been that clean, nor justifications that clear.
As usual, he got no warning before the door slid open. Steve dropped the sheaf of paper, but didn't sit up. It was probably just one of the guards here to herd him into the labs for more tests. That, or another damn bureaucrat to give him a speech about his duty to God and Country. He'd been getting more of those the last few days. He suspected they'd started to figure out that he wasn't as forthcoming as he could be. Given a choice of the two, he'd go for the scientists with the giant needles.
As the door closed behind Anthony Stark's leanly muscled frame, Steve sat up a little straighter. He wasn't actually sure what category the current intruder fit into, which made him more wary. In the two weeks he'd been here, he'd seen Stark talking to the boys in the lab like he belonged there, and someone had told Steve that he'd made the technology that thawed him out alive. He also wore suits that obviously cost more than most people made in a year, and pretty much everyone listened to him, and not like they would to a technical expert. Steve had only spoken to him in passing, and didn't have enough information to make an accurate judgement.
"So, I guess you want to get out of here, huh?" Stark asked as soon as the locks finished cycling.
"You bet," Steve said, but without enthusiasm. Whatever the man was, he'd been collaborating with the fascists running the place pretty heavily.
Stark stepped over to stand at the foot of the bed. "I can do that for you."
"Really." Stark's tone stayed as level as Steve's. "And we need to do it soon. Our friends in the grey suits are only going to take so much more of this name, rank and serial number crap you're feeding them before they stop asking and start vivisecting."
Which made Steve feel so much more inclined to give vital information to the mad scientists. "You're the worst persuasion tactic they've sent yet." He really wanted to pick up the papers and pretend to read, but decided that might be a bit much.
Sighing, Stark ran a hand through his hair. It stood up a little, but still looked styled and professional. "Okay, that's a fair assumption," he admitted. "I am not, in fact, in league with the Evil Overlords, but I can see why you'd think I was. How about I just talk, and you and listen and decide if you believe me or not. Seem fair?"
Steve shrugged. It wasn't like he had a choice, and Stark was both more entertaining and nicer to look at than the briefing papers.
"So as you've probably figured out by now, this isn't exactly the land of the free anymore." Stark had jammed his hands in his pockets, and was rocking back on his heels, almost bouncing, as he talked. He seemed very much in love with his own voice. "We still have elections every four years, but there isn't much difference between one puppet leader and the next. The military and anyone rich enough to own their own security firm have the real power. Almost everyone else is too scared and poor to do anything about it."
Despite himself, Steve felt drawn in. Maybe it was all a pack of lies, but it sure felt more real than what everyone else had fed him. "And which one are you?"
"Oh, I'm the Money," Stark said, taking his hands out of his pockets and spreading them to encompass himself and the world. "I own, operate and do most of the design work for Stark International. In short: I make weapons that kill lots of people, which is why they like me here, though now I've moved more into nanotech, which is why we could thaw you out." At Steve's uncomprehending expression, he elaborated, "Little tiny robots too small to see. You have some mixed in with your blood right now, fixing you up."
There was no way in hell Steve was happy with that idea. "Get them out!" he snapped.
Stark raised a hand. "I'm going to," he said sincerely, "just as soon as you can live without them. It should only be another week or so. That's assuming the boys and girls in the lab here don't inject something worse, or accidentally kill you testing how strong you are." At the word "accidentally" he held up both hands and curved his fingers in front of his face, wiggling them. Steve thought he looked a bit like he was trying to make shadow puppets. "Which brings us back to getting you out of here before our beloved military kills you, brainwashes you, or both."
"Right." Steve stared down at the military-issue wool blanket folded at the foot of his bed. He was back at that again, it seemed. Too bad; he'd been enjoying Stark's ramblings. Despite his tailored appearance and outlandish tales, he seemed like the most authentic person Steve had encountered since he'd woken up. "I'd put more stock in that speech if I didn't know they've hidden recording devices all over this room."
Stark waved dismissively. "Oh yeah, those. I turned those off and looped the video feed. Then I bribed the guards at the door. So far as anyone knows, you're just staring blankly at that idiotic propaganda they gave you."
"You can do that?" Steve asked, trying not to think about the implications of the phrase "video feed." He was getting used to the idea that all this wasn't really magic, especially computers and hovering aircraft carriers, but every time he felt like he had a handle on things, someone would matter-of-factly spring some new wonder on him.
"Well, yeah," Stark said, shrugging easily, "I designed a lot of this bucket of bolts. That and I have a computer in my head that lets me do pretty much whatever I want with most tech." Which really was a case in point for Steve.
Steve swung his feet over the edge of the bed, putting his elbows on his knees and looking up at Stark. "So you're planning to sneak me out?" he asked, intrigued despite himself.
"Nah, they'd figure it out eventually, and then we'd both spend the rest of our lives on the run. I don't do on the run, not enough expensive booze or tall blonds. I like tall blonds." Stark flashed him a grin, but the expression quickly faded. "I've been trying to figure out how to break this to you gently," he told Steve, "But obviously nothing's coming to me, so I'll just say it." He dropped into a crouch, directly meeting Steve's gaze. Steve hadn't realised before how blue Stark's eyes were, or maybe it was the gleam of excitement that made them so bright. "I think the only way I can get you out of here legally is if you agree to marry me. Sorry." He clearly wasn't.
That this was not remotely the strangest idea he'd heard of late was a clear sign of how Steve's life had been going. He thought that he should feel relieved to finally know what Stark wanted from him. Instead, he just felt hollowly disappointed and a little sick. "I think," he said, leaning away, "that I'd rather be their lab rat then your boy Friday."
Stark's eyes glanced down, and his lips tightened slightly, but almost before Steve noticed the change, his smile was back in place. "You've got a dirty mind, Captain, but the arrangement I'm proposing... sorry, that's a bad word. What I'm suggesting would be as fake as... you're not going to get that cultural reference, are you? It wouldn't be real, just a meaningless piece of paper. If you accept, you'll have your own room in one of my houses -- preferably the one I'm living in now -- and we will have to appear together in public occasionally. That would be the end of your obligations to me."
Steve eyed the man in front of him cautiously as his babbling ground to a halt. Stark was either a phenomenal actor -- certainly possible -- or actually sincere, and somewhat insane. "What do you get out of it?" he asked.
"Well, I can't say it would hurt my reputation to be the one who bagged the original Captain America," Stark said, "but then I could probably get the same effect shacking up with an actor." Some things never changed with the rich and famous, Steve decided.
Then Stark's voice dropped back to that low, intense tone, and Steve felt the words drawing him in. "My family has run Stark International for four generations. My great-grandfather built it during World War One, and he and my grandfather created new weapons for the Allies in your war. I remember their stories from when I was a boy, stories about you and the Invaders. I remember my father's stories and even a bit that I saw myself fifteen-twenty years ago, when the X-Men and the Avengers, the real ones, were active and still out in the open." He paused, a far-off look in his eyes. Steve had seen the same expression on his grandmother's face when she talked about the lush glens of County Antrim. "This country we're in now, this isn't what America is supposed to be. Maybe America never was what it was supposed to be, but somewhere along the way we stalled. We stopped trying to make it better. We stopped trying to make it anything. And here you are, the living, breathing symbol of everything that should have been, and they want to cut you up?" Stark shook his head decisively. "I won't let it happen."
It was then that Steve decided that he was going to marry this man.
Chapter 2: Day One
Two days later, Steve walked onto the deck of the helicarrier for the first time. He owned nothing beyond the shirt on his back. Now that he thought of it, he probably didn't really own the military issue jumpsuit either.
He wanted to pause and look around at the varied craft parked on the surface, to watch the crew swarming over them, but he didn't have time. Stark and Ms Potts strode through the press at a pace that precluded gawking. He got an impression of gleaming, heavily armed technology that saw a lot of use. Some ships had obviously taken fire recently, and helmeted soldiers climbed into others and launched into the sky over New York. It felt a lot like an Air Force base during the war. Steve wondered who these people were fighting.
Stark and Ms Potts were talking quickly and using enough jargon and cultural references that Steve didn't really understand what they were saying. His eyes kept drifting back to the elegant briefcase in Ms Potts' left hand, knowing it held the papers that said he was now a married man.
Not really expecting to survive the war, he'd never put much thought into what his wedding might look like. Any details he'd imagined had not included an impersonal rendition of the legally required words, spoken in a small metal room with no windows. Stark had pressed the carrier's chaplain into officiating, and Ms Potts and a hapless guard into service as witnesses. Steve had signed his name to the prenuptial agreement and the marriage license, and that had been that. He thought of the resistance fighter he'd loved in France, probably dead for fifty years by now, and wondered what she would have thought of the choice he'd just made. He felt a little ill.
"Here's my baby!" Stark's exclamation caught Steve's attention, and he glanced ahead to see what Stark was talking about. "Or one of my babies, anyway. I have a sporty little Prowler too, but it hasn't got enough room for everyone. Remind me though, I'll take you for a spin." The sleek black lines of Stark's "baby" seemed especially elegant nestled between a pair of flying armoured personal carriers. It almost seemed to be lined after a Bentley from Steve's time, only leaner, smoother and hovering a foot above the deck.
An older man with sandy hair and broad shoulders leaned casually against the driver's side door. Behind the car stood some kind of gleaming red and gold robot. Stark gestured towards the pair, saying, "Happy Hogan, who drives me around and tries to keep my nose clean, and Iron Man, who bails me out when I get in trouble anyway."
"Hiya," Hogan said, waving cheerfully. Iron Man nodded slightly.
Steve stepped forward to get the passenger-side door for Ms Potts, but Hogan beat him to it. While he was trying to get out of the way, he heard a faint whir of machinery next to him and looked back to see Iron Man holding one of the rear doors open for him. Steve blinked and stared at the robot, which stared back with glowing blue eyes and didn't move.
"Are you getting in or not?" Stark asked impatiently from the other side of the back seat.
As Steve climbed in, he told himself that Iron Man had held the door open because Steve was his boss' husband, not because Steve was his boss' wife. It wasn't like he'd never slept with a man before. There had been Arnie, of course, and a few in the army, though he'd had to be careful there. He just didn't feel at all sure how this whole "same-sex marriage" thing was supposed to work, real or not.
The hum of the car's engines increased slightly, and it took off so smoothly that Steve almost didn't notice it starting to move. He looked back, startled. "Wait," he said, "What about your bodyguard?"
Stark grinned. "He's coming."
Before he finished speaking, a red and gold streak shot past Steve's window before looping up and back out of sight. Steve leaned forward to peer up through the skylight and spotted Iron Man keeping pace with the car about fifty feet above. He felt a pang of disappointment. For a moment, he'd thought he'd just seen Jim Hammond. "What is he?"
"Huh?" Stark asked, startled. He had been woolgathering, it seemed, and shook his head to clear it before answering. "Oh, just a guy in a tin suit. Though by 'guy' I mean 'highly skilled pilot,' and by 'tin suit' I mean 'several million dollars of unique hardware that I designed and built myself.' Some of my best work." He leaned back, sprawling in his seat and pulling an ankle across his knee. He gave Steve a smile that looked a little too smug and a little too much like a leer.
Steve looked away, turning to the window. New York City had grown since he'd seen it last, and mostly up. Not many buildings stood taller than the Empire State Building, but it seemed like a good third of Manhattan equalled its height. The style had changed as well, multiple times as far as he could tell, leading to a startling grab bag of angles and building materials. At least the Statue of Liberty was still there. He glanced back at Stark, who seemed to be ignoring the view in favour of staring into nothing again. "Stark," Steve said, causing Stark's gaze to snap over to him. "Are we on a controlled flight path?"
Stark shrugged, indicating that such trivial things as flight regulations and public safety didn't really concern him.
"Could we go down along the East River?" Steve asked, feeling a little guilty, but too homesick not to make the request.
"You heard the man, Happy," Stark said, and the flying car vectored east, off its line of flight from the entrance of the Lower Bay to Midtown. They lost elevation so rapidly that the car passed between the towers of the Manhattan Bridge. Then they were over a part of town that Steve should have known as well as his mother's face.
Everything had changed. He scanned the buildings below, searching for something familiar. He could pick out one or two tenements, heavily modified now, and several that seemed like someone had tried to build them in an older style but hadn't quite got it right. Mostly he saw clusters of gleaming apartment complexes and small skyscrapers. The alleys and footpaths he'd grown up in simply weren't there anymore.
Something brushed his back, and he started. "Turns out the We Have More Money than God Crowd had more sway than the Historical Preservation Hoard," Stark explained, breath tickling Steve's ear as he tried to peer out the same window. Steve could smell his doubtless very expensive cologne, underlain with something like scorched steel. "I don't think anyone who makes less than eighty thousand a year has lived in the Lower East Side in thirty years."
Steve's briefing package had included a section on inflation, with associated conversion tables. He tried to summon the math to figure out what such an unimaginable amount of money meant, only to give up almost immediately. It had to be more that his whole family had made in their entire lives, no matter how he looked at it. "Oh," he said hollowly.
"Let's go home," Stark told Hogan, flopping back onto his side of the car. The craft obediently rose and headed north again.
Though he continued to stare out the window, Steve didn't see anything until an almost-imperceptible bump told him they'd touched down.
"So it's pretty straightforward," Stark told him, gesturing at the expansive living room. Ms Potts silently handed Steve a map. "My apartment takes up the top three floors. Apparently, I have to share the other ninety, but I own the whole thing anyway, so you have free run of it." Ms Potts shook her head slightly.
Steve nodded, trying to look around without obviously rubber-necking. Everything here was on such an unbelievable scale. He'd been in the homes of wealthy people before, mostly as Cap trying to raise money for war bonds and such, but this really didn't compare. He felt like he'd fallen into a novel by Jules Verne, or maybe Lewis Carroll. Stark seemed to expect him to keep up though, so Steve followed along and tried to listen as they traversed the skyscraper. God, did the man ever breathe?
Ms Potts seemed to notice his growing discomfort, and looked at him, frowning thoughtfully. "Tony!" she snapped, stopping his progress by stepping directly in front of him and not moving. Stark paused in surprise long enough for her to tell him, "You have a meeting with the project engineers from Kyoto in twenty minutes."
"Cancel it." Stark waved her away. "No, wait, I actually can't skip this one again. Damn." He turned to Steve. "I guess I better show you your room so you can settle in. Then I have to go yell at people in Japanese. Go stall them, will you, Pepper?" He spun on his heel and started back the way they had come. Steve let him and Ms Potts pass before following. "Hey wait, aren't we supposed to be in Mauritius? How come I have to go to a meeting here?"
"You got back this morning, Tony," Ms Potts called over her shoulder as she took another branch in the corridor. "Keep your facts straight; I put a lot of work into that story."
"Mauritius?" Steve asked. He'd seen Stark almost every day for the last two weeks.
Stark shrugged. "The gossip pages say that I've eloped to a private island with a mysterious blond."
"But that's not true!" Steve realised how naive that sounded, but he couldn't seem to help himself.
"I have the usually-loyal-but-currently-stripped-for-cash employees and doctored pictures to back it up, so it'll stick," Stark told him easily. They got back in the lift, and Stark entered an access code before punching one of the top buttons.
"I didn't like this spy guff during the war, and I knew it was saving lives then." Steve didn't quite know why he was making such a point of this, of all things. He supposed that he had to start somewhere.
"It's saving your life," Stark exclaimed, jabbing his finger at Steve. "The more publicly we're tied together, the higher your profile, the more difficult it will be for you to disappear under a black bag if the military decides it wants you back. I know it doesn't exactly fit with that whole Truth, Justice and the American Way thing you've got going, but not much does these days."
The elevator door opened with a melodic tone rather than a ping, and Steve stepped out and turned to face Stark as he followed. "Maybe I wanted to be asked before you made a decision for both of us," he snapped. Christ, they really were married, weren't they? Then something occurred to him. "What else did you do to get me out?"
Stark moved right up to him. That close, he had to tilt his head back slightly to look Steve in the eye. "I called in three sizeable favours, bribed two officers and threw a fairly spectacular temper tantrum in the general's office. The sum of it being that if he didn't let us marry, I would take my military contracts and go home. Since his flying aircraft carrier wouldn't keep flying if I did that, he pretty much had to agree."
"Right," Steve growled, and ground his teeth to keep from saying anything else. He really wanted to grab Stark and shake him right now, or knock him out and make a break for it. Only he wasn't at all sure he knew how to even get out of the building, let alone how he would survive if he did. If this was war time, he'd know what to do, how to get by, but it wasn't. He was surrounded by civilians, and the Invaders or the Howling Commandos wouldn't come over the ridge, no matter how long he held out. Steve closed his eyes for a long moment.
When he opened them, he saw Stark, still in his space, but now peering at him with a small frown and shifting slightly from foot to foot.
Steve did his best to smile. "Why don't you show me the room?" He would have turned away, just to get some space, but he didn't know which way they were going.
"I thought you..." Stark started to say, still watching Steve intently. Getting no reaction, he sighed slightly, and started anew, "It's this way." He stepped around Steve and cut across the living room to a doorway on the far side. "I picked one close to the kitchen." Steve watched him walk away for a moment before following.
Steve slumped on the edge of the bed, which was both larger and softer than the last one, and absently fingered the edge of the handmade quilt. He'd had a chance to fight his way out when he first woke up, and he hadn't taken it. Had he just missed another one?
The more he looked around his new room, the more it reminded him of his quarters on the helicarrier. Visually, they didn't have much in common; this place was about five times the size of his cell, for one thing. It also had decorations, furniture that wasn't bolted down, and a window with a stunning view over Central Park.
It was the selectiveness of the contents that felt depressingly familiar. Before he'd excused himself and dashed off, Stark had said something about having Hogan and Ms Potts ransack Antique Row. "So you feel at home," he'd said. As Steve had flipped through the cloth-bound books and gramophone records, he couldn't help but think of the limited material the military had allowed him to access. He had a better collection of non-fiction here at least, but looking at the history texts, he'd wondered whose version of history they told.
Steve honestly didn't suspect that Stark intended to harm him. He didn't even think that Stark would try to take advantage of him, not intentionally at least. Steve still believed the pretty speech that Stark had fed to him just a few days ago, or he believed that Stark believed it at least. Steve knew he was probably better off here than he had been in the hands of the military. He also thought it was entirely possible that Stark was keeping him as a sort of exotic pet. Or maybe an antique: a relic of his grandfather's time that needed protecting from the outside world.
Which would almost be kind of nice -- Steve had never had anyone put this much time, effort and money into doing something for him that didn't involve killing people -- if he could have had a choice in the matter, or any choice about anything at all.
What would happen if Stark got bored with his latest distraction? Hell, the man travelled with a bodyguard; what if Iron Man couldn't protect his boss? What if Stark decided that it would be in Steve's best interest to... actually, he had no idea what Stark would think or do next, which, really, was the whole problem.
Steve had no contacts outside this building, no money that wasn't Stark's, and almost no information. He didn't have a plan, either, but that at least he could do something about. Only he needed more accurate intelligence before he could decide anything. Which, he supposed, should be the first part of the plan.
He got up and walked back to the bookshelf. Running his fingers over the spines, he picked two summaries of recent history that looked like they contradicted each other, and carried them to the chair by the window.
He read steadily and with increasing horror through the rest of the day. His enhanced vision allowed him to see and process information faster, and the army had given him the training to assimilate everything he read almost immediately. He finished one text and then another and another without noticing the passage of time.
A sudden ringing right next to him made him drop his book and jump to his feet. It took him a moment to remember the miniature telephone that Ms Potts had given him that morning. She'd showed him how it worked and told him to call her if he needed anything. Mildly chagrined, he fished the phone out of his pocket and activated it.
The clipped English tones of the voice that emerged sounded very much like the ring: quite close to the real thing, but still not quite right. "I thought you might be hungry, Sir," the voice said, "So I have taken the liberty of sending out for something to eat. It's in the dining room now."
Feeding time at the zoo, Steve thought, but he did feel hungry now that he thought of it. Looking down, he saw that the street lights had come on. "That's fine, thank you," he said.
"Very good, Sir," the voice said. "Mr Stark has been unavoidably detained, and I'm afraid that he will be unable to join you."
Steve shrugged, then thought that whoever was on the other end of the line couldn't see it. "That's fine," he said again. He'd had about enough of Tony Stark for one day as it was. He'd started for the door, still holding the phone to his ear, when he realised that he had no idea where he was going, and had to ask for directions.
It didn't take Steve long to figure out that the owner of the voice either had uncanny luck or some way of telling where he was. "Who are you?" he asked as he turned the last corner.
"I am not a person, Sir," the voice said, but it wasn't in the phone anymore, but coming from the air around him. "I am simply the house computer system. You may call me 'Jarvis.'"
Almost dropping the phone, Steve stopped cold. He had just spent five minutes talking to something that wasn't alive, and he hadn't even known it. "Can you see me?" he demanded. He glanced around the dining room -- all metal, stone and glass save for a paper bag incongruously sitting at one end of the giant table -- but failed to see so much as a speaker grille.
"Yes, Sir," Jarvis told him. "Mr Stark maintains electronic surveillance throughout the building, for security purposes." It paused before adding, "Though he removed all monitoring devices from the room you currently occupy. I had to patch my speech systems into the phone line to contact you there." It's voice sounded almost annoyed by that.
Steve had no idea what to make of that, or what to say to Jarvis. Did a computer appreciate good manners? He finally settled on, "Right, um... thanks for dinner," which sounded incredibly odd addressed to an empty room.
Taking the warm package of food, Steve made his way up to the roof to eat. He wanted to feel wind on his skin again, and smell unfiltered air. Now that he had his bearings, and remembered Ms Potts' map, he found his way relatively easily and without having to ask for help again.
The sky had grown almost fully dark by the time he stepped out into the rooftop, and the view of the city took his breath away. He'd always thought New York was a beautiful city, but he'd never seen it quite like this before. Even to his perfect vision, building after glowing building blended together into a wall of multi-coloured light and shadow. Entranced, he walked across the retracting landing pad to the high rail surrounding the roof.
This city had never been quiet at night, and it wasn't now, though distance muffled the noise from the street. He heard the growls and whirs of a dozen types of aircraft above and between the buildings, and watched the lights play against the walls of glass as they flew.
One engine, a soft hum probably only perceptible to his hearing, grew louder as it approached. Turning to look back and up, Steve couldn't see any running lights at first. Then he spotted a blue glow, coming in fast until he could make out the form of Stark's bodyguard.
It... he touched down with a enough force for Steve to hear the thud fifty yards away. As he walked towards Steve, Iron Man's steps made somewhat less noise, but he obviously did not rely on stealth as a major part of his job.
"Evening," he said. The helmet distorted his voice, making it gravelly and somehow hollow. It reminded Steve of nothing more than the radio dramas he'd listened to as a boy, where the Midnight Racer or the Shadow would drop his voice to protect his secret identity. He remembered how Jarvis, who wasn't even real, sounded over the phone, and wondered if the distortion was technically necessary or an affectation.
"Hi," Steve said. "Where's your boss?"
"Working somewhere," Iron Man replied vaguely. "There are place he goes where he doesn't want or need me -- not very many, but one or two." The left shoulder of his armour was black, charred-looking, and possibly dented. Steve couldn't see much detail in this light.
He wanted to know what kind of trouble he was in, and where he could have got that kind of damage if his boss didn't need protection right now, but had no justification for asking. Iron Man had very little reason to trust him now, anyway Instead, he commented, "Looks like you took a hit. Are you hurt?"
Iron Man's right shoulder shifted slightly in what Steve assumed must be a shrug. "It'll patch up okay," he said. "Mr Stark takes good care of the armour."
Which wasn't the point at all, but maybe whoever was in there thought of the suit as part of himself. "I'm sure he does," Steve said, "But are you okay?"
"Oh," Iron Man said, and had to pause and consider that. "Yeah, the suit absorbed most of the impact. I'll be fine. Thanks, Cap."
Having someone just call him that out of the blue cut to a depth Steve hadn't expected. "I'm not Captain America anymore," Steve told him, the bitterness clear in his voice. "Someone else is doing that."
Iron Man tilted his head, possibly studying Steve, though the face plate showed no expression. "Walker's an ass," he said. "You're the only Cap there ever was."
Steve turned away. Leaning his arms on the rail, he stared out over the city. "I'm not even sure there is an America anymore," he said. He'd been thinking it for weeks, but suddenly saying it out loud like that made his throat hurt. He had no idea why he was telling this to Stark's bodyguard, of all people. Maybe he just needed to talk to someone that badly, and Iron Man was here.
He heard rather than saw Iron Man move to stand beside him at the rail, the whir of a thousand machined parts giving him away. He didn't say anything, but stood silently next to Steve. "I thought maybe the Nazis had won, you know?" Steve said after a while. "Before I read those books. It would be easier to have a conqueror to hate. This is worse, the country having eaten itself like this. How did we win every war and still lose everything?"
Iron Man didn't say anything for a long time, statue-still while he thought it over. When he spoke, it was with the slow deliberation of someone who wanted to say exactly the right thing. "Mr Stark didn't just bring you here to save you. He brought you here because you're Captain America, and your country still needs you. I know the world looks hopeless, but there's a chance for change, especially now."
Steve looked at him sharply but couldn't read anything, of course. "Why now?"
"There are times when a power structure shifts," Iron Man said, and his helmet turned so that Steve's eyes met his glowing blue ones. "When a Zeitgeist is crumbling, and there's something in the air, something new. In those times, the right people in the right place at the right moment can change the world."
So I'm a tool, not a pet, Steve thought. "What does your boss want to turn the world into?"
"I'm not sure he knows," Iron Man told him. "I kind of think he wants your help there too." He rested a gauntleted hand on Steve's shoulder. The metal felt warm even through his shirt, like real flesh and blood. "Look, I've got to get my armour fixed," he said. "So..."
That was the first time anyone had touched Steve with anything like friendship since he'd woken up. He wanted to rest his hand over Iron Man's, but felt foolish. He wouldn't be able to feel it through the suit, would he? Before Steve could move, Iron Man had let go and turned back towards the entrance. "Wait," Steve called, "What's your name?"
Iron Man hesitated but didn't look back. "'Iron Man' is the only one that matters," he said. Then he disappeared into the lift that ran from the landing pad to the garage.
Steve stared after him, disbelieving. That really had been unnecessarily dramatic. He shook his head, turning back to the city.
Only then did he realise that he'd had the take out bag in his hand the entire time.
Chapter 3: Day Two
Steve didn't see Stark until late afternoon the next day. He came into the living room to find Stark sprawled on the black leather couch, tie and jacket gone, shirt halfway unbuttoned. His head lolled against the cushions. Steve thought he was asleep at first, but then he saw Stark's eyes: open and staring at nothing. A decanter and an empty glass sat on the side table.
Something twisted in Steve's stomach, and his own breath stopped until he saw Stark's chest rise and fall. He stepped forward cautiously, trying to see what was wrong. It wasn't until he got almost to the couch that he saw that Stark's irises were flickering. "What the hell?" He hadn't meant say that aloud, but somehow if came out as a choked shout..
Stark started and blinked. When he opened his eyes again, they were blue and clear. "Oh, you're back!" he said, smiling up at Steve. "How was your day?"
"What's wrong with your eyes?" Steve demanded. His brain hadn't quite switched out of panic mode. The last thing he'd needed on top of this day was to come home to find his... his husband comatose.
"My eyes?" Stark pushed himself a little straighter and stared up at Steve questioningly. "Oh, my eyes! Right. They do that now. It freaks Pepper out... and apparently you, too. Sorry. It's just the way the computer in my head feeds me data. It's easier for my brain to process if it comes in though the optic nerves like regular visual input. Slows everything down, of course. I'm working on fixing the code for that."
Steve frowned. He'd only understood about a third of that. He wasn't against computers in theory: one of his best friends was -- had been -- an android. He just wasn't feeling very keen on things he didn't understand right now, which seemed to be just about everything in New York. "Was that what you were doing when I came in?" he asked. "Rewiring your brain?" He didn't feel at all sure that was a good thing to be doing alone, while drinking.
As if to enforce the point, Stark poured himself another drink, looking mournfully down at the few slivers of ice floating in the Scotch. "Not really, just tossing the idea around a bit. And working on my armour. And yelling at people in Japanese. And following the gossip columnists eating each other alive trying to get an exclusive on our wedding." He waved the decanter at Steve. "Want some?"
"I'm fine," Steve said. He realised that he was standing directly above Stark, hands on his hips and possibly glaring. He forced himself to step back and relax. "Thank you, Stark, but I'm not much of a drinker." Especially not at three in the afternoon, he thought, but knew better than to start that fight.
Stark shrugged philosophically and took a sip of his drink, while Steve watched and tried not to fidget. "So..." Stark said, to break the building silence. "Pepper said you went walking."
Steve nodded. "Yeah, I went Downtown, then to the river," he answered shortly. The less he said -- and thought -- about that the better, really.
Stark set down the decanter and had another drink. "Some people," he mused, looking at his scotch instead of at Steve, "claim that poking open wounds makes them hurt more."
"Yeah, well..." Steve wanted to growl out a response, but suddenly he didn't have the energy for a fight. He slumped down on the loveseat next to the couch, hunching forwards with his elbows on his knees. "If you find a way to make them hurt less, let me know."
"I don't think you'd much like any of my coping strategies." Stark relaxed back onto the couch again. As he leaned back, his shirt fell open.
Steve couldn't help but take in the expanse of tanned muscles under a light covering of black hair. He swallowed and sternly ordered his crotch to behave. Just because he was alone in a room with a very attractive and somewhat undressed man, and almost no one had touched him affectionately in a long time, didn't mean he could afford to lose control. The fact that he was technically married to Stark was beside the point. He realised that the conversation had ground to a halt again, and asked, "Can you show me how to use your computer?" He flushed, remembering where Stark's computer was, and what his request might insinuate.
Smirking, Stark looked like he wanted to say something along the lines of "Any time, baby," but somehow managed to restrain himself. "Better make Pepper show you," he told Steve instead. "I'm a lousy teacher."
"I want you to do it, Stark," Steve insisted. He liked Ms Potts, but he was already starting to get tired of Stark interacting with him through her. This morning, she'd given him a wallet full of ID and cash cards and told him it was from her boss. Steve didn't know if she's been telling the truth, or was covering for Stark having forgotten that Steve might need such things.
"Okay," Stark levered himself to his feet, and turned to a hall Steve hadn't explored yet. "We better go into my office; I've still got some hardware there. Don't say I didn't warn you," he told Steve over his shoulder, as Steve rose to follow him. "Oh, and, Steve?"
"We're married. You've got to start calling me 'Tony.'"
Tony Stark was in fact a terrible teacher: impatient, sharp-tongued and way too smart for anyone else's good. Had Steve not spent so much time working with Namor – and thus become used to having his sentience questioned five times in two sentences -- he might have had to hit Stark in the nose. As it was, he grimly struggled along through the maze of jargon and blinking pictures, and kept a lid on his temper.
Also, it was kind of nice to sit shoulder to shoulder with someone, more or less working together. Stark was warm beside him, and he always seemed to smell nice. Steve found himself relaxing into the couch they shared and felt a little of the tension that had warped every muscle in his body for weeks now slip away.
Steve felt oddly disappointed when Stark stretched luxuriously and declared, "Right, well, you should be capable of using a search engine and checking your e-mail without accidentally infecting Jarvis with a virus and killing us all."
"And I can turn it on," Steve said. He felt that was an important step to have learned, in addition to the three hours of technical information. "Thank you, St... Tony," he added. "I know that you're a busy man, and I really appreciate your help." He tried to pass the computer -- which was about the size of one of his old sketch pads and seemed to be able to access all the information in the entire world -- back to Stark. He couldn't seem to bring himself to call the man Tony in the privacy of his own thoughts, even if he was starting to say it aloud.
"Nah, keep it," Stark told him, waving the machine -- and Steve's gratitude -- away. "I barely use them anymore, and you need one." He rose to his feet, looking distracted again. "Sec, Pepper's on my ass about skipping work. I'm trying to divert her." His eyes flickered briefly, then he must have realised that Steve was staring, and he closed them.
Steve tucked the computer under his arm and mentally added to the tally of things he was going to pay Stark back for once he figured out how to make money. It was getting to be an overwhelmingly long list, and he had to wonder if Stark was also keeping track. He hesitated then, unsure if he should leave Stark to his business, or stay and wait it out. He watched Stark's face carefully, taking the chance to study it now that it was as still as sleep.
When Steve had first seen him, he'd assumed that Stark was in his thirties, but the longer he spent with him, the more he revised that age down. Now he thought Stark couldn't be more than a few years older than Steve, maybe twenty-seven on the outside. He just had the confidence and care in his features to make him seem older, and the beard helped. Steve wondered how someone so young had this much power. Obviously, some of it had come from his family, but the military wouldn't defer to a spoiled rich boy the way they did to Tony Stark, nor to an inventor, not matter how brilliant. Stark must have enough cunning and ruthlessness to have earned his position, and held it, in this brutal time.
The silence stretched into minutes, and Steve decided that Stark had forgotten about him. Just as he stepped towards the doorway, however, Stark's eyes flew open. "I've managed to hold her off for now," he said. "Mostly by promising to work extra hard tomorrow, which I may even have to do. It seems I've let things slide; too much time defrosting you and bickering with jar heads or zippers or whatever they are."
"Ally Sloper's Calvary." Steve abstractedly supplied the old British infantry term for service men who didn't see combat, as he considered adding Stark's lost business to his IOU list. In the end, he decided it was incalculable, as was saving his life. Besides which, from what Iron Man had said last night, Stark had essentially bought Steve as a pawn in some Machiavellian chess game for the future of the country. Which Steve knew and kept telling himself, but it seemed a distant concern with Stark standing so close, open-shirted and smiling at Steve.
"Look, it's getting late," Stark said. "Why don't I order pizza or something, and we can watch a movie."
Steve saw a sudden image from his childhood. He and Arnie used to sneak into the Canal Theatre and sit near the back to watch silent films. Sometimes, when the piano rose to a crescendo, and the damsel seemed sure to die, he would reach over and take Arnie's hand. Arnie never pulled away, even when the music softened and the hero told the damsel he loved her. Later, when they were older, and Steve felt too crazy to have better sense, he'd once leaned over as the final act ended and quickly kissed the side of Arnie's mouth.
He wondered what it would feel like to kiss Stark.
Stepping away, Steve shook his head. "I'm sure you've got work to do, Tony," he said, "And I still have a lot of history to catch up on." He was going crazy. Stark was making him go crazy, and he needed some space.
"Oh, okay," Stark's smile dimmed. He restored it a moment later, but it didn't seem as genuine this time. "Well, the offer's open. If we're going to be living together, we should probably get to know each other at some point. Especially if we're going to fool the public into thinking we actually get along well enough to tie the knot." He sounded almost bitter at the end, and Steve tried to think of something to say, but he hesitated too long and too obviously, and Stark kept talking. "Which reminds me..." he turned to his desk, which was neat enough that Steve suspected that he did little or no work there, and produced a small velvet box.
It could only be one thing, and if Steve hadn't wanted to bolt before, he sure did now. He suppressed the urge and made himself turn to look Stark in the eye. He had agreed to the whole business after all, and this bit of symbolism shouldn't be more difficult to take than any other. Only, they'd all been so hard.
"I didn't have time to get anything before," Stark said, holding out the box and flipping it open. "But I made these today."
Steve stared at the rings, then took out the larger of pair. He had to concentrate to keep his hands from trembling. The ring looked something like white gold, but harder and with a slight internal shimmer. It had no gemstones or motifs, only smooth metal. It really is quite beautiful, Steve thought, glad Stark had not made something more ostentatious.
Steve slid the ring into the left hand. It fit perfectly. Of course it did. He knew that Stark had pulled his measurements off the military computers so he could make Ms Potts buy Steve clothes. The man knew everything about him, from his ring size to what he looked like naked. Steve wiggled his fingers, and noticed how he could only feel the rounded metal for its coolness. Once his body warmed it, he would hardly know it was there.
When he looked up again, Stark had put on his own ring. "There's that done."
Stark hesitated for a moment, indecision flickering across his face. "Do you dance?" he blurted.
Steve glanced around and decided that Stark couldn't possibly mean here and now, then shrugged. "Yeah, sure. Why?"
Stark grimaced. "I'm invited to some sort of grand ball tomorrow night. I wasn't going to go, not really my kind of thing, but I thought it might be a good place for your début, as it were. As parties in New York go, it's pretty sedate, and the press will be there, but not as a mob, and..." he wound down, seeming to have run out of information on the topic. "So what do you think?"
"It sounds fine," Steve said shortly, wondering, What does it matter what I think?
"If you don't want to go, let me know, and we can figure something else out," Stark said. "I think we should appear together in public soon, though."
Steve realised that Stark was at least trying to give him a choice in the matter, and felt a small glow of gratitude. He knew the feeling was ridiculous, that it wasn't any more of a choice than picking what to wear from the clothes Stark had bought for him, but it was more than he'd had in a long time. If I stay here much longer, I'm going to wind up doing tricks for cookies.
Still, as irritating as it was, Stark was right. They did need to feed the press, and Steve probably wouldn't enjoy a wilder party. He had used to love dancing. "No," he said. "It sounds like a good plan. We should go."
"I'll make the arrangements," Stark said. This time he didn't bother to close his eyes, but whatever he did only took him a few seconds. He tossed the empty ring box back into the drawer and kicked it shut. "Well, I'm still going for pizza and a movie..."
"I'm still going to read," Steve told him firmly. He needed time to think and plan, away from distractions. "Good night," he said, and left Stark standing in his office.
Steve read late into the night, and then again in the early hours of the morning when nightmares kept him from sleeping.
Chapter 4: Day Three
Steve decided that if he ever got his shield back from the military -- or access to explosives -- the first thing he was going to do was destroy the Roosevelt Island security checkpoint. He had known that the clean, prosperous streets of Manhattan had to come at a price, but he somehow hadn't imagined that it could be this high.
The whole idea of New York, for Steve, was that it was a microcosm of America, an ever-expanding, perpetually-changing melting pot. Now those with money had taken over the heart of it and walled it off from the rest. It was the sheer scale of the inequity that staggered Steve. Since he'd woken up, he'd felt a little bit like Gulliver, stuck in a different world that everyone claimed made sense but really didn't seem to for him. Only now, it seemed more like H. P. Lovecraft than Jonathan Swift.
The guards saw his clothes and pretty much waved him through the Manhattan Residents' line, only giving his identity card a cursory look. Beside him, a queue of men and women in work clothes and uniforms zigzagged through the main room and down the hall on either side of the gates. Soldiers with automatic weapons eyed everyone up as they waited, papers in hand. The scene reminded Steve strongly of the lines of refugees trying to get out of one country or another before the Nazis locked it up. He ground his teeth and tried not to look at the stars and stripes on the uniforms of the soldiers.
On the far side, one of the attendants tried to shoo him into the first class car as he reboarded the train, but Steve stolidly ignored the young woman. Then, as he stood amidst the press of commuters, he wondered if he'd made the right choice. Even dressed in the most casual clothes he could find in the formidable walk-in closet Ms Potts had stocked for him, he knew he stood out. He resolved to find a thrift store and change into something less tailored as soon as he got to Long Island City.
Steve felt intensely glad that he gotten cash before he left Manhattan. Stark had told him that the government could track his movements by following where he used the card. Aside from that, he doubted that any of the canopied vendors along the curbs took anything else, though he saw a few examples of barter.
A quarter of an hour after disembarking, Steve walked out of an alley in old work jeans, a heavy cotton shirt with a hood and a battered pair of tennis shoes, Stark's clothes in a faded rucksack over his shoulder. No one gave him a second glance after that. He knew the attitude and the movement he needed to blend in here. Fifteen -- and a hundred -- years ago, he'd been the poor kid who kept his head down and stayed out of the way of slumming rich men. Though he'd had four years as the centre of attention as Captain America, he still felt more at home here on dirty streets than he ever could in Stark Tower.
This place at least felt familiar. Not in that it reminded him of the same community when he'd visited it in his youth. Rather, it strongly resembled a neon-lit combination of the Central Park Hooverville and London in the middle of the Blitz. There must have been skyscrapers here once, and some still stood, though perhaps not to their original height, but now people lived where they could, in the shells of tenements or on the ground between them. It wasn't just poverty that had hit this place; Steve could see scorch marks and craters that general age and decay couldn't account for. Years of exposure and repair attempts had softened much of the damage, but some stood out fresh and clear. Smoke and the smell of burning plastic wafted down one of the side streets.
He followed it back, trying to remember the turns as he took them. It would be very easy to get lost in this tangle of alleyways and damaged streets. He found the source of the smoke on a relatively wide boulevard that he didn't recognise or remember the name of. Someone had obviously hit the far side of the street with a high explosive. Two buildings had collapsed in on themselves and still smouldered; nothing on the street had any glass left in the windows. Off to one side, a warehouse-like building was still mostly intact, with only the lower sections of the front damaged. A group of men and women were moving chunks of rubble away, trying to gain access to the main entrance. A tall black man seemed to be directing them, though he spent as much time hauling on ruined brickwork as anyone else.
Several passers-by had stopped to watch, and Steve moved to stand beside a skinny Puerto Rican woman, asking, "What happened here?"
She looked up at him with narrowed eyes, before concluding that he wasn't too obvious an interloper, and telling him, "Same as always. The damned military thought someone on their list was hiding out there, and blew it all to hell. They took out a good part of Sam's soup kitchen, too. Maybe that's what they were aiming at. Who knows."
Steve scowled, and repressed the urge to punch something. "How many people were hurt?" he asked.
The woman shrugged. "Some. We have to wait for it to cool down a bit before we can start counting the bodies."
Steve knew that tone: he'd heard it from so many people in war time who'd lost so much that they had stopped openly caring. They let each additional loss strike their souls, but never showed a sign of it for fear of breaking completely open. The woman couldn't be much older than he was. Too young, he thought. "I'm sorry," he said, and meant it.
She hesitated, a smart reply on her lips, but then her expression softened, and said, "Thank you."
He touched her shoulder briefly, then approached the man directing the clean up. "Steve Rogers," he said, extending his hand. "How can I help?"
The man looked him over with the same appraising expression the woman had used, and seemed to come to the same conclusion. His brown eyes seemed gentle, despite the lines of care and exhaustion around them. "Sam Wilson," he said. "How do you feel about lifting heavy objects?" Wilson's hand was rough, covered in dirt and very strong.
"Used to be a way of life," Steve said, and got to work. It felt good to put his body to use again. They hadn't let him use the gym on the helicarrier, and he had yet to find the one in Stark Tower. He's been reduced to push ups and sit ups for weeks now. Here he could so something tangible, move chunks of building out of the way, shore up standing walls, get things done. He was also working with other people again, touching hands, exchanging smiles, and he couldn't quite put into words what that meant. He'd been starving before.
By the time they'd worked down to the doorway, the sun had climbed enough to shine on the street. Steve stripped down to his tank top, tossing his shirt on a pile of rubble. Soon they had a way in, and he followed Wilson into the basement to assess the damage.
Wilson grimly looked around the space that had held a cooking range, cupboards full of dishes, and tables and chairs enough for four hundred. The room itself had held up okay, but a lot of the contents had not. Steve saw only Wilson falter for a moment, as he rubbed a grime-covered hand over an equally dirty face. Then he set his mouth and nodded. "Right," he called, loud enough to be heard up the stairway and to the street. "Let's get back to work. If we hop to it, we can get this place patched up and ready to go by the dinner shift." He clapped a hand on Steve's shoulder and flashed him a grin. "How about you help Fatima make us a new door? We don't want any looters tonight." Then he was off again.
Steve nodded and turned back to work. What else could he do?
They had the door on and most of the rubble swept up by lunch time, and someone threw together sandwiches out of the kitchen's remaining supplies.
Steve wasn't surprised when Sam plunked down on the bench next to him; he'd been expecting some kind of interrogation all morning. "So, Rogers," he said. "Where are you from?"
"Around here," Steve said, "I guess. I don't really have a home anymore."
Sam frowned. "You have somewhere to stay tonight?"
Steve hesitated, considering. He wasn't sure how much news made it to the slums, but Ms Potts had warned him that she was about to launch something called a "media blitz," starting that night and continuing for the next few days. German air raids hadn't been the only military analogy she'd used, and whatever it was going to involve, it sounded very serious. Steve had a feeling that he would be very recognisable very soon. Another bit of freedom lost.
As much as he wanted to be just Steve Rogers, from the Lower East Side, he wouldn't pretend now if he knew if Sam would read the truth tomorrow. He really needed one person to trust him right now. "Yeah," he said at last. "My... uh... my husband lives over in Manhattan."
"Oh," Sam said, eyebrows arching. "Slumming it today?" Surprisingly, his tone sounded more teasing than hostile.
"Sort of," Steve answered. "You wouldn't believe how complicated it is."
"Always seems to be," Sam said. "Anyway, we sure do appreciate the help, no matter where you're from."
They ate silently for a while, then Steve asked, "How long have you been running this place?"
"About three years," Sam told him, "And I made sandwiches and bussed tables for a couple of years before that."
"Are you from here?"
"Nah, I come from a very respectable family in Harlem." Sam grinned self-deprecatingly. "I guess I'm slumming it too."
Steve didn't think it counted if you lived there, but didn't say so. "Has it always been this bad?" he asked instead. Sam shot him a puzzled look, and Steve held up his hands. "I've been out of the loop for... awhile."
Sam pursed his lips, thinking. "It's always been bad. As long as I remember, anyway, but never like this. These last few years... I tell you, man, something's going to give, and soon."
A Zeitgeist is crumbling, Iron Man had said. "What do you think will happen then?" Steve asked.
"Hell if I know," Wilson said; he looked at Steve speculatively, and Steve realised that might be one too many questions. "Where did you say you were from again?"
Steve shifted uncomfortably. "Would you believe the Lower East Side?"
"Not with that accent," Wilson told him. "Actually, the only people I've heard talking like you do were in movies. Black and white ones."
"I'm an old fashioned guy," Steve said, trying to sound blithely casual but possibly not pulling it off. He knew that poor Irish immigrants no longer populated his old neighbourhood, but just hadn't considered... "Like I said: it's complicated."
"I'll bet is is." Sam knocked back the rest of his water and stood up. "Back to work, then. You and Fatima seem like a pretty good team, maybe you can knock some more of these tables together." He scanned the room. "Or at least sort them into fixable and unfixable."
"Sure thing," Steve said. He hoped that he hadn't alienated Sam. He didn't feel very sure about how to go about telling his story. It had been a lot easier as Cap; all he had to do then was either be a hero, and not explain anything, or pretend to be Private Rogers, whom no one expected much of anyway.
He felt a wave of nostalgic affection for those early days, before America joined the war, when he and Bucky mostly trained and got in trouble with the Sargent for skipping out to chase down the odd spy. Steve could hardly believe that he'd thought, all those years ago, that he'd had an immensely complicated life. Now he wished he had those times again. Especially Bucky. This would be so much easier with a friend at his back, and something told him that his sidekick might adapt to this century more easily than Steve had so far. He would have closed his eyes then, only he knew that if he did, he'd see Bucky on that plane, reaching for him, mouth open in a scream.
Lost in thought, Steve stayed quieter than he had in the morning. His companion wasn't much for words in any case, and his contemplative mood didn't seem to bother her. By the time they finished what they could of the tables, and moved onto chairs, the sun had dropped enough to shine through the doorway.
"I should go," Steve said. "I need to get home by dark." Ms Potts had made that quite clear before he'd left, something about "One being bad enough." Fatima nodded sympathetically, and Steve turned to Sam. "I can probably come back tomorrow?" He made it into a question, not wanting to return if he wasn't welcome.
Sam smiled with genuine warmth. "We can always use another pair of hands," he said. "Especially if they work as hard as yours." He shook Steve's hand again. "Thank you. I mean it. And good luck out there."
"You too," Steve said, and the grin didn't leave his face until he got back to the Roosevelt Island checkpoint.
Steve reached up to tug at his collar again, only to have Stark slap his hand away.
"Keep your tie on. It's not that kind of party," Stark said, "At least not this early in the night."
"I don't know how you breathe in these things," Steve grumbled, shifting uncomfortably in the limousine's back seat. He hadn't had much occasion to wear a tuxedo before, just the odd undercover thing in an army-issue disguise. He didn't remember them being this... closely fitted in the 1940s. His trousers bordered on indecent, and it all seemed rather streamlined, not a ruffle or bit of lace in sight. At least the the dress code had forbade wearing military decorations. Steve had enough conflicting feelings about the military right now that he didn't need to add public comment on top of them.
"Lots of practice," Stark answered. "Just be glad it's only black tie." He leaned over and patted Steve's upper thigh.
Steve flinched and instinctively jerked his leg away. "Sorry," he said when he realised how that must have looked. Heat rushed to his face. "I'm working on it."
"Well, work faster!" Tony snapped. "If you can't stop reacting like I'm going to give you cooties, we're not going to pull this off." He slumped back into his seat, moving to run a hand through his hair, then realising it was perfectly slicked back and gelled into place and abandoning the gesture. "I knew this was too soon," he grumbled. "I should have given you another week to settle in. This ball just seemed so perfect..." He looked disappointed, and tired, and maybe a little overwhelmed.
Against all previous experience, Steve found himself feeling sorry for Stark, or at least wanting to make him feel better. "Maybe..." he started, leaning forward, "Maybe if you don't touch me as much..." he trailed off. It wasn't really his best idea.
Stark shook his head. "No one who knows me will believe that." His tone was mocking and seemed directed towards himself. He sighed. "We should just skip it. I'll have Pepper start a rumour that I jumped you in the car on the way over, and we just never made it. We're newlyweds. It'll fly. Probably." Steve didn't think that Stark sounded like he even remotely believed it.
"No," Steve said, voice sharper than he'd intended, "I can do this." He closed his eyes and concentrated on the muscles in his shoulders, forcing them to relax. It's just a mission, he told himself. You've done this lots of times. When he opened his eyes again, Stark was giving him one of his intense stares, as if he was trying to see inside Steve's brain to figure out how it operated. Steve met his gaze, and, without hesitation, leaned across the seat and kissed Stark on the lips.
Something about the angle was off, so Steve wrapped his hand around the back of Stark's neck to tilt his head properly. Stark seemed entirely frozen at first, but when Steve licked his lips, he parted them. Steve applied more pressure, deepening the kiss, and Stark finally responded, leaning into it.
He held on to Steve's upper arm for balance, and kissed back almost desperately. He tasted of whiskey, and his lips were soft and very skilled. Steve's skin seemed hyper-sensitive, and he felt every hair of Stark's goatee as it scratched across his jaw. Their tongues touched, and Stark whimpered, gripping Steve's arm hard enough to leave finger-shaped bruises.
The kiss probably didn't last a minute before Steve let go and pulled away, but Stark's eyes were dilated. "I... um..." He couldn't seem to say anything more coherent.
"There," Steve said. "See?" He couldn't help feel a little smug that he'd managed put Stark off balance. The man could be so damned controlled and self-contained. He felt flushed again, but with power and excitement this time.
"I think..." Stark licked his lips before continuing. "I think we'll be fine."
Only then did it occurred to Steve that Stark had essentially goaded him into action. He wondered if Stark had done it deliberately, or if he'd genuinely been about to call the evening off. There wasn't any way to ask though, and just then the limo pulled to a halt.
Iron Man landed next to them with a thud, and opened the door for them. "Here we go," Stark said. He took a deep breath, smiled in a way that really shouldn't have reached his eyes, but somehow looked genuine, and stepped out of the vehicle. Steve followed right after, not wanting to seem like a lady who needed helping.
Stark stopped on exiting, then smiled and turned. It took Steve a moment to realise that the gaggle of people around them were largely reporters taking their picture. Cameras didn't need flashbulbs anymore, it seemed.
This Steve knew how to do. He had four years experience posing for pictures, whether he wanted to or not. He slipped one arm around the small of Stark's back and waved, what Bucky had called his "Aw Shucks Grin" firmly in place.
Stark leaned into him a little and briefly rested his head against Steve's. "No questions," he yelled over the clamouring media. "We're just here for the party."
Steve kept his hand on Stark's back as they navigated through the press of media and star watchers. He could feel the shift of muscles under the fine wool and silk. He noted again that Stark was in pretty good shape for a businessman.
The Roaring 'Twenties had pretty much wrapped up before Steve was old enough to properly encounter them, but he had certainly heard all about them. He wasn't sure if what he saw next more strongly resembled those stories or something from Twain's Gilded Age. They walked through a grand entrance, and gave an electronic calling card to a liveried electronic butler, who officially announced their names as they proceeded down a sweeping staircase and into... the outdoors.
Steve blinked. There was no way from the layout of the building as he'd seen it that they were in a courtyard, but he would swear that he'd just walked into an old drawing of an English garden party. Glancing over his shoulder, trying to look like he wasn't gawking, he saw what appeared to be a stairway leading up to a baroque manor house, only they hadn't come out of anything like it. Somewhere along the way, everything had shifted, and Steve couldn't even tell where. A marble dance floor spread before them, with precisely-laid out ornamental gardens fading into the distance around it. Only it was too early in the year for those flowering trees, and there just wasn't enough room for all this. Not in this area of town.
"Looks like Hank got the holographic projectors up and running," Stark said. He managed to look around without rubber necking, instead looking only professionally interested. "Good job with the ceiling." Steve followed his gaze and saw the night sky, stars clearer and brighter than they ever could be in the city.
"So this is an illusion?" Steve asked. It looked as real as anything.
"Some of it is." Stark opened his mouth to explain further -- probably in technical detail that Steve wouldn't understand -- when an ear-piercing squeal stopped them both dead.
Steve let his hand drop and stepped back, tensing for a fight, before he could make any further defensive move, something small, fluttering and high pitched had attached herself to Stark.
"Tony!" she cried and wrapped her arms around his neck. She made an aborted attempt to wrap her legs around his waist as well, only her floor-length evening gown thwarted her, so she settled for curling her legs up behind her.
Stark had to take a step back to brace himself. "Ru," he said, sounding rather stunned. "What are you doing here?"
People were starting to watch, inconspicuously, and without obviously gathering around, but Steve could feel their eyes on him. Fortunately, Ru dropped back to the floor, taking a step back but not quite reaching a decorous distance. Now that she was holding still, Steve saw that she was a tiny Japanese woman, a few years his junior, in multi-layered black dress. "My parents brought me," she told Stark, "but it's been terribly dull. I'm so glad you're here. Things are always more exciting when you're around. You look great!" She looked him up and down, before focusing on Stark's left hand, then seemed to notice Steve for the first time. "Oh!" she exclaimed, voice raising again. "So it's true! Are you his husband?"
"Um..." Steve said.
"Yes. Yes he is," Stark said, seeming to have recovered some of his equilibrium. "Steve, this is Ms Rumiko Fujikawa. Ru, Mister Steve Rogers." He stepped back, allowing Steve to lightly shake Ru's hand.
"Pleasure, Ms Fujikawa," Steve told her. He tried to think of something polite to say, finally settling on, "Have you known Tony long?"
"Call me 'Rumiko.'" She hadn't let go of his hand. "A couple of years, now. My grandfather tried to take over Tony's company, and I started sleeping with Tony to piss him off. Then we stayed together for a while because Tony knows all the best people. You're so lucky, Steve. If you can keep him from working twenty-four seven, you'll have a blast. Make sure you make him take you to his place in Dubai. It's a palace."
"I'll do that," Steve said. He knew that the twenty-first century was somewhat more open than 1945, her frankness still caught him off guard. She certainly seemed to mean well though, and she probably had felt entirely stifled in a crowd that seemed to skew towards the upper side of middle aged. He glanced at Stark, who was watching him intently, eyes narrowed. Steve smiled at Rumiko and squeezed her hand gently before detaching himself. "It was very nice to meet you, Rumiko. Maybe we can dance later?"
Her grin could have lit the room. "Sure," she said. "Pick a slow dance so I can tell you all about Tony. Oh, Jen's waving. I've got to go." Then she disappeared back into the crowd as suddenly as she'd arrived.
"I need a drink," Stark said, and his words seemed to summon a tray of drinks carried by a robotic waiter in an embroidered tabard. Stark lifted a Scotch and passed Steve a champagne flute.
Steve waited for Stark to take a drink before asking, "Can I expect a lot of that this evening?" He kept his voice low and tone casual, not wanting give the impression of trouble in paradise.
Scanning the room, Stark shrugged. "This isn't my usual crowd," he said, matching Steve's attitude, "so not as many as there might be, but essentially: yes." He lifted his chin slightly and looked Steve right in the eye. "That going to be a problem?"
Damn straight! Steve thought, but he couldn't say why. Rumiko honestly didn't bother him, and he had no right to jealousy anyway. He wouldn't even if they actually were married; Stark's past was his own business. It was just... an unknown number of people in the room knew more about Stark than he did. Hell, everyone in the room -- if not the world -- probably knew more about Stark than Steve did, and he'd known that when he got into this. No reason at all... but somehow it was a problem, and he felt another surge of resentment at the unfairness of it all rise in him. He shoved it down, and told Stark, "No, I just like to know what I'm in for."
"Okay." Stark had to have noticed Steve's hesitation, but thankfully didn't mention it. "I'll try to warn you before they pounce." He looked past Steve, eyes widening. "And speaking of..."
Steve didn't turn around. The quintet in the stone gazebo had just struck up the Emperor Waltz. Steve put his untouched glass back on the tray, took Tony's free hand, and said, "Let's dance."
It didn't occur to Steve until they stepped onto the marble dance floor that both he and Stark might want to lead. Which would be a problem, because he had no idea how to follow. By that time, however, his hands had slipped into their familiar places, and Stark had taken the follower's part, and they started moving to the music.
"Thank you," Steve said.
Stark grinned. "It was that or arm wrestle for it, and I figured I'd never win that one."
The steps came easily to him, more formal and tempered than the wild swing dances he loved, but with enough grace that he appreciated them. Stark followed him smoothly, never faltering or falling behind, and managing to keep a courteous space between their bodies. It felt odd to dance with someone who almost matched his size, slightly unbalanced somehow, but at least he was dancing. He'd never managed to get enough of this, before.
"You weren't kidding about knowing how to dance," Stark observed.
"I used to go up to the music halls in Harlem when I was young," Steve told him. The pleasure of the moment had overtaken him, and he didn't seem to mind Stark so much now. "I couldn't do much then, didn't have the lungs for it, but I'd watch. It was the best music in the world." He wondered if anyone remembered those artists now. Maybe he should do his own run to antique row someday, see what he could dig up. "Then after, when I was Captain America, and I could do anything in the world, I learned all the dances. I never had enough time to practice, and we didn't get to go out much, but I loved it."
"We can go dancing every night, if you want," Stark said. It sounded like an impulsive promise, one that Steve knew he couldn't possibly keep. Maybe the same mood had taken him as well.
Steve shook his head. "No," he said, "As much as I'd like that, I can't..." He stopped. He'd been about to tell Stark too much. As nice as it was to dance with him -- and, he admitted, kiss him -- he couldn't risk himself like that. Talking about his past was one thing. Stark probably knew all about that anyway. However, his plans and his dreams were the only things he had right now that were truly his. He wouldn't give Stark everything.
They kept moving, gliding around the floor to the call and rhythm of the strings, but the moment had gone. They finished the dance in silence.
The next piece was slower, something jazzy and modern -- at least to Steve's ears, though he supposed it must be as old-fashioned as the Viennese waltz now -- and he let Stark slide close, then spun them apart.
They'd gathered an audience by now, nothing obtrusive, just people chatting and watching the dancers. Only they didn't really seem to be watching any dancers besides them. Steve felt even more acutely how much he was on show. Fine then, he thought, A show is what they'll get.
"Where did you learn to dance?" Steve asked as he took Stark's hands and pulled them flush against each other again.
"Years of lessons." Stark dipped back, pushing their hips together briefly before he straightened. "My mother made me take them when I was a kid. I resented the hell out of them at the time -- I wanted to build computers with my dad -- but I guess I'm glad I took them. It made her happy."
It occurred to Steve that that was the first time Tony had told him anything at all personal since that first day on the helicarrier. He wondered why he'd chosen now. It also reminded him of something. "I've meaning to ask, do I have any in-laws?"
"Nope. It's just me," Stark said, not sounding like he minded in the least. "Well, I have the one cousin, but I only really hear from him when he needs money."
Steve didn't quite know what to say to that, so he twirled Stark under his arm, then away again. It wasn't that Steve needed more complications in his life, but Stark was awfully young to be an orphan. Living up in that skyscraper, with only his employees and machines to look after him... little wonder he seemed to have slept with half of New York. "You been married before?" Steve asked, when they'd come together again.
Stark gave him a grin that Steve could only describe as flirtatious. "Hey, would I do this for just anyone?" He somehow fit rubbing his chest along the length of Steve's into a dance step. Steve wasn't sure Stark's mother would have approved.
"I don't know." Steve dipped Stark again, rubbing their thighs together on the way down and kissing him lightly on the lips when he pulled him up. "You seem to be enjoying yourself."
"So do you," Stark told him, still smiling in that way. Still without breaking the pattern, he leaned in and touched his lips to Steve's ear. "I guess we're both pretty good actors."
Steve shivered, but he couldn't tell if it was because of the tickle of Stark's beard against his ear, or something in his tone. "You didn't answer my question," Steve drew away a little.
"Don't worry," There was no trace of whatever-the-hell-that-had-been left in Stark's voice. "No ex-husbands or -wives, vengeful or otherwise. What about you?"
"I was waiting to see if I made it out of the war alive," Steve said, "Now I'm glad I did." Even if he'd known the right girl, he wouldn't have wanted to risk leaving her a widow. Instead he'd outlived every woman he'd ever met.
Which pretty effectively killed the conversation again. Stark slid up against him, but they just smiled at each other as best they could instead of speaking.
Just as the song ended, a small hand reached up from behind Stark, tapping his shoulder. He tensed, hand tightening reflexively around Steve's, then relaxed as a woman's voice asked, "May I cut in?" Stark grinned and stepped off the dance floor, pulling Steve with him. "I hate to interrupt a pair of love birds," the woman continued. "But going by the number of people you know here, Tony, I thought you might try to dance the night away." Laughing, she pushed a lock of short silver hair back behind her ear. With the grey and her pale, wrinkle-etched skin, she had to be at least sixty. Her movements carried all the energy of someone a quarter of her age, plus a lot more grace. Steve glanced back at Tony, who was gazing at her with something that looked a lot like respect. "So are you going to remember your manners and introduce your young man, or what?"
Stark blinked, then bowed with exaggerated formality. The gesture should have been mocking, but he managed turn it into a tribute anyway. "Ma'am, May I present my husband, Mister Steven Rogers, late Captain America of the Invaders?" Stark spoke loudly enough for anyone casually listening to hear. She nodded, and he continued. "And this is our host, Ms Janet Van Dyne."
Steve rather felt like he should bow too after all that, but didn't think he could quite pull it off. Ms Van Dyne saved him by holding out her hand. He tried to take it lightly, as he had Rumiko's, but her small hand gripped his with surprising strength, and he returned the pressure. "Pleasure to meet you, Ma'am," he said. The name sounded awfully familiar, and he tried desperately to place it. He'd read so many damn books these last few days; they had started to blur together a little.
"Tony never did do things by half, did he?" Ms Van Dyne mused.
"Not so far as I've seen, Ma'am," Steve answered cautiously. From the way Stark treated this woman, getting her approval seemed very important. Steve wished he had more of an idea what was going on, but failing that, he'd do his best not to derail whatever Stark was trying to do.
"I take it you're mentally and emotionally stable?"
"Ma'am..." Tony started before Steve could open his mouth.
Ms Van Dyne waved him off. "Tony, I want to interrogate your husband in peace. Go find Hank; you two can talk about creepy robots you have loved."
Stark shot Steve a look that carried concern and a little resentment, but did as she told him. Even Ms Potts didn't get that response. Who is this woman?Steve wondered.
Steve shrugged helplessly. "No one's told me otherwise, Ma'am. The super soldier serum never had any of those side effects, if that's what you mean."
Ms Van Dyne nodded in approval. "Good. The man on the job now is an ass." She studied his face closely. Steve half expected her to pull out a monocle. "You can't be more than twenty-five," she concluded. "Time warp?"
"Suspended animation, sort of. It's complicated." Steve decided he should make that his motto.
"It usually is." She smiled, looking as if she'd just solved a puzzle that had frustrated her for a long time.
Something clicked in Steve's head then as well, and he suddenly understood Stark's odd deference. "Jan Van Dyne. Wasp! You're an Avenger."
Another smile flashed across her face, then was gone. "Used to be. We've been retired twenty years now." She started subtly drifting into the garden, away from prying ears.
"Of course," Steve said, following her. The gravel crunched under their feet as they walked, so that at least was real. He remembered the book now, how the government had tried to enslave the meta-human population, forcing them either out of the country or underground. It hadn't said what had happened to two key Avengers after the rest had left either to join the mutant colonies or to go back to Asgard. One had died, sort of. "The Hank you sent Tony after, that's..." he couldn't remember the code name. "Doctor Pym?" he asked. "And he made all this? The illusions and the robot servants?"
"Old age has reduced us to old hobbies, I'm afraid," she said, not sounding particularly regretful. "Meddling with machines is his; ruling fashionable society with an iron fist is mine."
Hell of an end for heroes, Steve thought. He hadn't thought about growing old. He would have liked to think he would have kept fighting until he couldn't anymore.
Van Dyne must have read something of his thoughts from his expression, because she snorted and said, "When you've spent twenty years saving the planet, with as little gratitude from the powers that be in the end, you may feel you deserve a peaceful retirement too." She sighed, looking around the flowers made of light and shadow. "I used to have your passion. I miss it sometimes, but I suppose there's always dancing."
"Fighting can be like dancing too," Steve said, hating her apathy. People who didn't care about the war had always bothered him the most, more than traitors. "You saved New York alone over fifty times. You led your team through blood and death and resurrection, how can you..." He shook his head, not sure why he was trying. Van Dyne was right: she and her team deserved rest. He just couldn't imagine Wasp giving in. Not to anyone.
"You read the Ben Urich book, didn't you?" Van Dyne asked. "Interesting."
"That was the main one, Ma'am," Steve admitted. "The others weren't very clear on what exactly the Avengers did." Quite a number of the newer books had not been very complimentary, in fact, and several had left the team out altogether.
"We became politically inconvenient," Van Dyne explained tersely. Now she sounded a little bitter. "I'm surprised you found a copy of Urich. The government labelled it seditious and banned it years ago. Not many people would risk owning it."
But Stark gave a copy to me, Steve thought. "I fought for four years to keep people who burned books out of America." He didn't say aloud that he wasn't about to give up just because they seemed to have won, but Van Dyne seemed to understand the implication.
"You and Tony are in for one hell of a marriage," she noted.
Steve wasn't sure if she meant that as a good or bad thing, or maybe a bit of both. "Looks that way, Ma'am."
"I was watching you dance," Van Dyne told him. "You can tell a lot about people by doing that, and I think you two might just make it. If you stop being idiots."
"If you don't mind my asking, Ma'am, what is your part in all this?" Steve asked. "I feel like I'm up for review."
Van Dyne smiled up at him. "You pretty much are." Behind them, another song drifted towards its conclusion. "You passed, incidentally. Why don't you let me have my dance? Then you'll be in, and Tony can get on with whatever he's scheming this time."
This time? Steve wondered. "You seem to like running people's lives more than Tony Stark does," he said, as he followed her back through the garden. "Is it enough excitement for you?"
"These old bones have had about all the excitement they can take." Van Dyne waved her hand at the musicians' pavilion, which had acquired drums and a horn section since Steve last had seen it, and the band struck up again. "Go easy on me, Cap," she said, and they were off.
"You should have picked a different song then," Steve told her, starting into a quickstep, which she didn't seem to have the least trouble keeping up with. "I remember when this one came out." It had been the first time they'd let him out after he'd become Cap, in a ball room in a better hotel than he'd been able to afford. He'd partnered with every girl there, and stayed until the band packed it in. He hadn't been much of a dancer yet, but it had felt like flying.
Tired old bones and all, Van Dyne didn't miss a step, and Steve found himself throwing more in to see if she could keep up. She could, and they tore across the dance floor in increasingly elaborate patterns. They had a good deal of it to themselves now, as it seemed like a lot of the guests hadn't quite known what to do with the music and had stepped out.
Steve didn't care if this made him even more the centre of attention than before. He didn't care if his partner was almost his grandmother's age, and probably plotting something nefarious at this very moment. He felt young again, and free, and he didn't want the dance to end.
Van Dyne jumped, and Steve caught her against his chest and spun with her before setting her down again. They both grinned like madmen. Okay, so maybe she wasn't plotting after all. Maybe sometimes she felt as trapped as he did.
It did end, of course, as it had to, and he swept her up into a lift on the final note. She wasn't expecting it, and he missed his grip and just about dropped her. They ended up leaning together at the edge of the floor, laughing. Van Dyne was breathing hard, and Steve felt his heart racing. They probably weren't the least decorous, but he didn't care.
Stark had joined the onlookers, standing beside a stocky old man with thinning blond hair and a huge grin. Stark wasn't smiling. He didn't look angry, either, more like sad.
Van Dyne let go and went to the blond man. "You keeping this one?" he asked, and she nodded emphatically, taking his hand.
Steve turned to Stark and drew him aside, asking quietly, "Are you all right, Tony?"
"Fine," Stark told him. "Good job winning Jan over. You looked good out there: happy." He smiled now, but it didn't look real.
"I like her. Whatever you're planning, I don't want her hurt."
Stark snorted. "She can more than take care of herself, and I'm not planning anything involving her, other than you having access to the richest and most fashionable people in New York."
"I don't need it," Steve insisted. "That's not what I want. Tonight was just supposed to feed the press."
"We don't know what you'll need," Stark snapped, keeping his voice low. "I'm trying to make sure you'll be okay. Jan's taken a shine to you, and she has a lot of resources. If I..." He stopped, took a deep breath, then continued. "She can help you. Also, people are staring, so I'm going to kiss you. Fair warning." Stark grinned -- sugar-sweet and false -- and casually lopped his arms around Steve's shoulders. "Hey," he said softly, touching their foreheads together.
Steve smiled back and closed his eyes. Parting his lips at Stark's touch, he allowed a soft, lingering kiss. Stark's jacket crumpled under Steve's hands as he ran them up his back. He stroked down then, smoothing the soft wool with his palms.
For a moment, Steve imagined giving up. He could lean into this kiss, into the dances and the parties and just let that be his life. He'd fought a long, hard war, and lost everyone he loved to it, and maybe he deserved a rest. He deserved not to have to fight for every breath and wonder if every stranger was an enemy. He could still do some good, make it a hobby like Van Dyne and Doctor Pym had.
Only... the government bombed civilians and banned books. Someone had to fight. Steve opened his eyes, and let the feeling pass.
Oddly, Stark broke the kiss before Steve could, though he kept his hands on either side of Steve's face. "Best not go too far," Stark said lightly. "We are in public. Though I guess pretty much everyone's seen me do more than this."
Steve let his hands rest on Stark's hips. "I'd feel better," he said, "if you didn't treat this like a game so much."
Stark's jaw muscles tensed then relaxed, and for a second his smile looked like a grimace. "I know what you probably think of me," he said, stepping back. He made it look like a natural withdrawal rather than a rejection. "But I'm not actually enough of a lecher to think this is very much fun."
Oh... God, Steve thought, dropping his hands from Stark's hips. He felt sick. He really had thought about Stark like that. With all his comments about liking tall blonds, and his flirtatious behaviour -- and well... he had slept with an awful lot of people -- Steve had assumed that Stark enjoyed pursuing him, with an aim to eventually catch him. It had made it okay for Steve to flirt back, to kiss Stark when he wanted to. If Stark wasn't enjoying it, if he was just going along to keep Steve alive or further his own politics, then...
Steve actually couldn't quite work out the implications of that. He felt quite sure that they didn't reflect well on him, whatever they were. "I'm an idiot," he said.
Stark opened his mouth to answer.
Then an explosion shook the room, and people started screaming.
Chapter 5: Day Four
The least embarrassing of the headlines read, "Captain America Foils Larceny." It had a picture of Steve, jacket-less, shirt streaked with soot and blood, caught in the motion of punching the masked face of a man in a garish purple jumpsuit. After that, the reports increased in sensation, and dropped dramatically in terms of accuracy. It was times like these that Steve wondered why he'd fought for the freedom of the press at all. His head already hurt from a blow to the temple, and this wasn't making it any better.
It would have helped if Stark hadn't looked quite so gleeful. "Hey, listen to this one..." he started cheerfully. He was lounging on the couch in his dressing gown, mentally scanning news reports while sipping something green, slimy and, surprisingly, non-alcoholic. "'The playboy CEO of Stark International is well known for the number of notches on his bed post. It's not surprising that no one short of a stunningly handsome resurrected hero could convince him to...'"
"I don't want to hear it," Steve growled. If he slouched down a little further into the loveseat, he could almost avoid looking at the computer on his knees. Stark had already programmed it to gather all media coverage of the previous night's debacle and flash it on the screen as it became available. A surprising number of people had had cameras, especially since Steve hadn't seen any inside the party. They must have been very small. "You know," Steve said, "Ms Van Dyne said to tell you that if you'd set this up as a publicity stunt, she would skin you. I thought she was joking, but..." He glared accusingly at Stark.
Stark held up his hands in placating gesture, the glass of slime making it look more like a toast. "I admit that I've occasionally arranged for dramatic events to happen at precisely the right time for photo opportunities," he said. Which sounded a lot like "I habitually lie to the public" to Steve. "However, if that had been one of my press pieces, I'd have hired someone less likely to accidentally kill us all. The Wrecking Crew isn't known for its reliability, or its restraint."
"That's why I wondered," Steve said. "They must have put a lot of time and expense into planning, the way they crashed the security systems and isolated the house. Then they just sort of fell apart." He glanced down. The screen now showed a slightly blurry picture of Rumiko standing glaring up at a man with grotesquely over-sized hands. Several people a lot bigger than her huddled in the background. The caption read "Accidental Heroine." Before Steve could read any more, it flipped to a picture of Steve and Tony smiling and dancing close. From that angle, they looked very much in love. Steve shivered and looked back at Stark, who was frowning.
"Are you saying it was too easy?" Stark asked. He tried to push himself up with his elbows, but didn't have the purchase and slumped back down. "It seemed like a hell of a fight to me."
Steve glanced down at his bandaged hands, scraped open from punching one too many people. He had stitches too, across his chest and upper arm from that damned magic crowbar. "It was," Steve acknowledged, though he wasn't sure a civilian was the best judge. "It's just that the way they had it worked out, there shouldn't have been a fight at all, let alone one they lost."
Stark was nodding. "Right," he said. "If I'd been running that show, I'd have taken the nearest four people hostage, grabbed the valuables and got out before security got there. Iron Man and I have had a few run-ins with the Wrecking Crew before. They generally seem big on ideas and not so great with..." He drifted off into his computer land for a moment, then came back. "Oh, I like that one. I think I'm going to frame that."
Stark blinked and a new image appeared on Steve's screen. The picture showed Steve and Iron Man crouched back to back. Van Dyne fluttered above them on tiny wings, long dress in shreds around her thighs. Dr Pym didn't fit in the picture, but Steve could see the blur of one of his legs in the background. The caption read, "New Avengers?" "I hope this won't cause Ms Van Dyne and Dr Pym any trouble," Steve said.
"I think the Manhattan Security Authority is too embarrassed about letting that rabble on the Island to pick on Jan and Hank for defending their own home. As much as she'd rather avoid this kind of publicity, Jan Van Dyne can take care of herself. I'm sure she'll turn all this into something spectacular."
Steve set the computer aside and got up to stand in front of the couch. "And what are you going to turn it into?" he asked. "You said that you didn't plan it, fine, but you still seem pretty happy with how it turned out."
Other than tilting his head back to look up at Steve, Stark didn't move. "I actually could have lived without the heroics," he admitted. "We want you in the press, sure, and it's entertaining as hell watching everyone go crazy over you, but I'd rather they thought of you as safely retired. We don't need the image of Captain America and Iron Man fighting the forces of evil fresh in people's minds."
Which seemed odd to Steve, as Stark had gone out of his way to make sure everyone know what he was. "Whose minds, exactly?" he asked. "What harm could it do?" Stark frowned and looked away, not answering. "Stark... Tony, it may not be our first choice, and Lord knows we're not in love, but we're still married. We should be trying to make something out of this, a friendship, a partnership." Moving carefully, Steve sat on the couch, keeping a safe distance between them. Stark sat up a little straighter, and turned towards him. "I know you're planning something big," Steve continued. "Both Ms Van Dyne and Iron Man said as much, and I know it involves me. Why else would I be here? I can't help you if you won't tell me what's going on." He'd meant to pitch his voice low and persuasive, but by the end it was close to a shout.
Stark ducked his head, which made Steve want to hit him, because he knew that Stark wasn't submitting. He was appearing to give in -- like he let Steve initiate physical contact -- so that Steve would co-operate. The gesture felt about as egalitarian as Stark ordering him around and not letting him out of the house would.
A small growl of frustration worked out of Steve's throat, and Stark looked up sharply, eyes wide. Then Stark looked away again, leaning back to set his glass down on the side table. When he turned back, Steve could read nothing from his expression.
"I wanted to give you a chance to get your bearings, see the situation for yourself," Stark told him. "Would you have believed me if I'd just laid it out for you?"
Steve didn't know if he wanted to say yes or no. He really would have preferred it if Stark had offered him the choice. "When were you planning to tell me, then?" he asked.
"I don't know," Stark admitted, shrugging. "You got your feet under you a lot faster than I thought you would; I should have known better. You're Captain America." He smiled then, genuine and admiring.
"No, I'm not," Steve told him, though it felt like he was the only one who believed that.
"Are too," Stark said, waving him off. "Though it might be an idea to design a new uniform if you're going to be fighting in public again. I have a feeling that anything you think is doing the right thing will land us with a lot of very angry people with guns chasing after you. I don't especially want them tracking you back here. I know, from unfortunate personal experience, that refurbishing after a battle in one's house really is something best avoided."
"So you're not going to tell me what's going on," Steve snapped, tired of Stark's dissembling. Under his anger, he felt a pang of disappointment. He had realised last night that Stark wasn't interested in making this sham of a marriage real, but he'd thought that Stark at least respected Steve. Now it seemed like he was really only interested in Captain America and what he could do. "Why can't..." He broke off. There wasn't much point talking, it seemed, and if he kept on, he'd be revealing his feelings in exchange for nothing. Again. He shook his head and stood up, leather creaking as the weight of the couch shifted.
Warm fingers brushed his hand, and he glanced down. Stark was reaching towards him, as though to catch his wrist, looking determined. "I am telling you," he protested. "Just... just listen, okay?" Steve hesitated, turning back. When he didn't sit down again, Stark stood to face him. His words tumbled one over another, as though he were thinking too fast to speak properly. "I'll lay everything out, I promise -- Hell, I'll draw pictures if you like -- just let me do it in my own way. I'm not..." Stark scrubbed a hand though his hair, which still had gel in it from the night before and stood straight on end now. "I've never had a partner, not a real one. I'm not used to explaining, or sharing, or waiting for people to catch up."
Steve inhaled sharply, unconsciously taking a step back. "I'm not planning on slowing you down, Stark," he growled. "That's not what partnership is about. It's about having each other's backs, building strengths and covering weaknesses." Having someone catch you when you fall, he thought. Bucky had been that and so much more, and Steve missed him more intensely than ever. He'd been incredibly lucky to have a friend he could trust with everything: body, mind and heart. It sounded like Stark had never known anything like that.
Stopping, Steve looked at Stark closely for the first time that day. He had dark rings under his eyes, hadn't shaved around his goatee, and generally seemed more rumpled than Steve had ever seen him. Lines of tension, and maybe anger, scored his face. The same tension locked the muscles in his neck and shoulders as though he was expecting a physical fight. Steve realised that Stark didn't really look angry after all. He looked overwhelmed, scared. This time, Steve couldn't really imagine that Stark was playing him.
Steve sighed, forcing himself to relax and step back again. "Look," he said. "We're both tired, in pain, and not at our best right now. I know Ms Potts isn't going to be able to hold off the press much longer, and we need to look less like she found us in an empty box car." They were an arm's length apart now, and Steve reached out and tentatively rested a hand on Stark's shoulder. The taut muscles trembled at his touch, but Stark didn't flinch or pull away. "Why don't you just give me an idea of what your plans are, and you can fill the rest in later."
"I..." Stark started, then he glanced down at Steve's hand and sighed. His face softened a little, which only served to make him look more tired. He stepped back, shaking loose, before looking Steve in the eye again. "Okay, in fifty words or less: the official government's collapsing. There's nothing to replace it. The current powers would rather carve out their own princedoms; the dissidents aren't unified enough to step up. As it is, the United States of America will disintegrate within the next year. I have plans in motion to prevent this." He met Steve's gaze unflinchingly, apparently not intimidated by the scowl Steve felt his face settling into.
"And who are you setting up to lead your great nation?" Steve asked, voice hard again. He decided suddenly that if the next words he heard even resembled "Well, me, obviously," Steve was going to sue for divorce, consequences be damned.
The corner of Stark's mouth twitched up, but the rest of his expression remained still and closed to Steve. "Well, you would be ideal," he said. "But I have a feeling you wouldn't go for it. I have my eye on a couple of the dissident leaders, but I haven't picked one yet. Whoever we put in place would be temporary anyway, just in until we got that whole democracy thing up and running again." Stark's hands clenched tightly at his sides, and he tilted his chin up a little, even though he didn't need to to meet Steve's eyes from that distance. He looked like he expected Steve to laugh at the idea.
Steve almost did. He should have. It was ludicrous: Stark expecting him to believe that someone who had reaped so much power from the current government would throw it all away for an abstract of right. Only, he'd held this point unwaveringly since Steve had met him, never as openly as this, but always implied, and Steve couldn't deny the belligerent sincerity in Stark's posture now. Steve took a deep breath, considering exactly what to say next.
He'd seen German soldiers -- generals even -- and ministers do exactly this same thing during the war. Steve had always wondered if he'd have had the courage to turn from his country, his family and his place in the world if his conscience called him to it. In the past, he'd quelled his misgivings by telling himself that his country would never force him to that. Now, the place he'd fought for was already long gone, along with the choice.
"What do you want me to do?" Steve asked.
Stark blinked, then relaxed slightly, sliding his hands into his pockets. "What you're good at," he said. "I want you to fight, lead soldiers, go out there and win this war. We don't have a hope of retaking our country without some serious battles. I like to think I see things sooner and clearer than basically everyone else, but the signs are too obvious to miss now. The military and other major powers are all scrambling for position by now. I'm trying to play them off each other the best I can in the business world, but the situation often calls for something more direct." He bounced a little, looking distracted but clear eyed.
"Like Iron Man?" Steve asked, remembering the burns he'd seen on the bodyguard's armour two nights ago.
"Exactly," Stark confirmed. "And a few others. Not all--" he flinched and closed his eyes briefly. Steve only caught the briefest shift in the irises when Stark looked up again. "I think that if we don't get out there soon, the gossip columnists are going to storm the tower with torches and pitchforks." He looked Steve up and down. "Are we good?"
Steve shrugged. "Sure thing." He'd gotten at least part of what he wanted tactically and... "Tony," he started. Stark had gone to the side table to pick up his glass of green slime. He glanced back at Steve, not fully turning. "Thank you for trusting me. I..." Steve hesitated, not wanting to assume anything, then said, "I know this situation is difficult for you, it is for me too, but I really do think we could be friends in all this mess, as well as working together."
Stark grinned, the expression more spontaneous and real than anything Steve had seen him do since they'd met. It made Stark look years younger, even under the bruises and lingering smears of ash. "Friends..." he said. "Yeah. Friends would be good." Suddenly, he turned away, freezing for a moment with his back completely to Steve now. He picked up the slime and downed the remainder in a single swig. The glass thudded against the table as Stark set it down roughly before saying, "I'm going to go make myself pretty for the cameras. Wear whatever Pepper set out for you. She usually knows best."
Steve nodded, even though only the cameras could see him, and watched Stark's retreating back as he hurried off to his room. He decided that someday, he was going to be the one to make a sweeping exit. This time, however, he looked down at the computer sitting on the loveseat.
The latest picture showed Stark sitting on the pavilion steps. He'd disappeared near the beginning of the fight, not long before Iron Man showed up. Steve would have worried if Iron Man hadn't assured him that Stark had just crawled into a control pit under the musicians to try and meddle with the system that made the illusions. Stark had stayed there, well out of the way and wrecking havoc with constantly-moving, not-really-there threats, until the fight had safely ended. Someone must have taken this shot right after he crawled out, before he pulled himself together and joined Van Dyne in chewing out the newly-arrived security forces. Here, smears of soot and grease ruined his suit, and he sat head down, shoulders slumped with exhaustion.
Steve told himself that the tightness in his gut right then was just stress, and powered down the computer before leaving the room.
"I should warn you," Stark said as Ms Potts went out to fetch another interviewer. "I've slept with this next one too."
Steve didn't even sigh this time. He'd pretty much given up worrying about Stark's past conquests. Ms Potts had herded them into something like a lounge, though Steve couldn't manage to relax in something that felt suspended above the city with no apparent glass between them and the nine-hundred-foot drop. He now sat at one end of a long couch that looked like it might have once been part of an alien spaceship, though a comfortable one, at least. Stark sat right up against him, leg pressed against his, left hand resting on Steve's thigh. "Is he or she still mad at you?" he asked.
Stark started to shake his head, then stopped, frowning. "I don't think so," he said. "I mean, it was hate sex, and she did smear Stark International in a globally-published monthly, but I honestly kind of deserved that one, so it wasn't personal... I hope."
"Ms Christine Everhart," Ms Potts said, coming in again.
Steve leaned in until his lips touched Stark's ear. "Then why is she interviewing us?" he asked, his voice a whisper. Stark and Ms Potts had chosen to allow access to a mere half dozen publications. Steve didn't quite get what Stark had seen in either of the first two "reporters," though the cameraman had been rather more obvious.
Ms Everhart seemed pretty obvious too, with her blonde hair and perfectly balanced features. She didn't quite stride into the room, at least not literally, but she managed to make small steps in high heels look like striding. Steve could tell from her appraising survey of both them and the room that talking to her wasn't going to be at all like the previous interviews. "She's our credibility," Stark whispered back before rising to meet her, but Steve had figured that out already. He fleetingly wondered what "hate sex" involved before sternly directing his mind back to the task at hand.
"Steve Rogers," he said, holding his hand out to the lady.
Ms Everhart nodded, smiling and saying something meaningless. Her expression matched Stark's, and her grip felt light and non-committal without being weak. Stark gestured for her to sit, and she perched on the edge of the chair facing them. She sat with her legs together and turned to the side, like women had in Steve's time, though she wore trousers. A little metal ball hovered over her shoulder, lens fixed on the couch. "Everyone thinks," she said once they'd sat down again, looking Steve right in the eye, "that the story is that someone finally managed to get Tony Stark to commit to something that didn't involve making money. Sure, there's the whole World War Two thing, and you'll probably have to fight the history nerds off with a stick, but I'm pretty sure I could tell you exactly what Tony let Marissa and David ask you."
Steve wasn't even touching Stark just then, but even so he could feel him tense in preparation for a fight. "I didn't screen the questions," Stark told her. Steve casually slid his arm around Stark's shoulders, which seemed to set him slightly more at ease.
"No," Ms Everhart agreed easily, "but you did pick the questioners. I'd bet my commission that those stories will be all about whirlwind romance and picking patterns."
Steve felt pretty confident that she would win that one. "Then what do you want to know?"
Ms Everhart grinned; she looked like Stark there too. "I want to know why you married Tony Stark," she said.
"He..." Stark started to say, but shut his mouth when Steve tightened his grip on his shoulder.
"I married him because I love him," Steve said, solidly without hesitating or flinching, knowing it wasn't true then or now. He loved his country; loved the idea of being able to fight to save it, of having that chance again, but he didn't love Stark, or even much like him sometimes.
"Really?" she asked, but didn't seem the least taken aback by Steve's directness.
"Yes," Steve said. He realised that his case might look a little stronger if he seemed to pay the least attention to his alleged dearly beloved, but he wasn't willing to break her gaze.
"Okay," she said, and set the issue aside, though he got the impression that she was only waiting for a better time to come at it. "You really are the American Dream then: the guy who comes back from the war and marries his first boyfriend."
"I uh..." Steve hesitated briefly. The whole point of Captain America press was that he didn't say anything as Steve Rogers, let alone talk about what he needed to here. The pause stretched on, with Ms Everhart watching him steadily, but Stark twitched beside him. If he didn't say something, she would turn to Stark, and Steve would lose the edge he had, the chance to lead the conversation. Stark had managed the last two fine, and he could probably handle Ms Everhart too, but she didn't trust Stark. Left between the two of them, Ms Everhart would pick up the same old war in her story, and people would believe her. So he said it: "Tony's not actually my first love, or even really my first boyfriend, though we didn't really call it that back then."
"What did you call it?" she asked, but not harshly this time. Her voice had lost the edge of challenge that had made Stark's heart pound so hard Steve could almost hear it.
Steve exchanged a glance with Stark, giving up eye contact with Ms Everhart for the first time since she'd come in. Stark's expression gave away nothing but for the deepening in the fine lines around his eyes. He'd put on makeup to hide the bruises and fatigue, and made Ms Potts do the same to Steve, he but still showed the cares of the day for all that. The connection only lasted a second before Steve looked away again, but he shifted over slightly, brushing his knee against Stark's.
"We didn't call it anything," Steve told her. "There wasn't anything to call it that wasn't vile. I guess we could have called it being in love, but kids from the Lower East Side don't talk like that. At least, they didn't in my time. I caught enough trouble for being poor and weak and reading too many books without all that. He'd protect me from the worst of the bullies when he could." Steve could see Ms Everhart's face softening, and he knew he had her there. Steve wondered briefly if Stark had planned that too, but no, he couldn't have. No one, especially not the army with its endless records, knew about him and Arnie. "He joined up around the same time I volunteered for Project: Rebirth. Neither of us knew what would happen, and it wasn't fair to ask him to wait. I saw him a couple times early in the war, but never got a chance to tell him..." He stopped, not sure what he would have told Arnie anyway. He was long dead now, of course, which Steve really couldn't quite picture. He wondered if Stark's computers would have any record of what happened to him, but wasn't sure he could bring himself to look.
Ms Everhart paused, perhaps waiting to see if Steve would say anything else. When he didn't, she asked, "Were you part of the gay community during the Depression?"
Sometime between freezing and now, someone had labelled everything differently than Steve remembered it. He had to think what the terms meant before answering, "Not really. It was really just the two of us, and I'm not sure..." he hesitated, remembering the stories, the prejudices he'd breathed in unaware. "I'm not sure we would really have fit in that well."
She nodded. "It must be a relief to be able to have a relationship out in the open," she said.
Steve nearly choked, but somehow kept his face still. He felt Stark shift minutely beside him. "Yes," he said. "A lot has changed in the last hundred years, and I can't say I've caught up with all of it, but that, at least, is a mighty big improvement."
"Are you unhappy with some of the other things that have changed?" she asked, latching onto that one about as fast as Steve had expected.
Steve shrugged. The first two had asked variations of that one, and he had the answer down. "Like I said, I'm still catching up. So far, I can tell you that I think flying cars and same-sex marriage are pretty swell, but I'm not sure I much like what they've done to my old neighbourhood."
Leaning forward a little, Ms Everhart narrowed her eyes. She didn't look like she believed him. "You don't have anything to say about the current political situation?" she asked.
All three of them knew that Steve had plenty of things to say, but Stark saved him from lying again by speaking up quickly. "I don't think Steve wants to pick sides before he knows all the facts," he said. "Come to think of it, isn't that supposed to be a requirement of good journalism?"
Ms Everhart didn't even blink. "Good journalists don't take sides at all," she replied easily. "They're supposed to tell the truth and let it speak for itself."
Steve heard Stark draw in a breath to reply, and gently stepped on his foot. "If most people in your profession still believe that, Ms Everhart," he said, speaking before Stark managed to alienate their interviewer again, "I'm sure that America will be just fine."
"You really do believe that, don't you?" Ms Everhart asked, her lips turning up into a small, rather humourless smile.
"'The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right;'" Steve quoted, "'and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.'"
Beside him, Stark snorted. "Didn't Jefferson also say, 'The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers'?"
"Well yes, but..." Steve started to say, then he realised what they were talking about and grinned. "See," he said to Ms Everhart. "I told you I loved him." Then he realised that Stark had probably used the computer in his head to look up the quote, rather than having it memorised. Still, he kept the smile in place and pulled Stark a little closer.
It gave Ms Everhart a chance to come back to her original question. "So your attraction to Tony is largely based on his ability to quote the Founding Fathers?"
Steve felt Stark's hand on his thigh again. "Well, no," he admitted, "Or only in that I appreciate how well read he is, and not just in science stuff." He put his hand over Tony's. "He really knows his history, and well, since I guess I kind of am history..." he trailed off and flashed the "aw shucks" grin at her.
"Steve's getting way more mileage than he should out of being a hundred years older than me," Stark added. "Though we're more or less the same age, biologically." Steve was pretty sure Stark was leering, but he didn't want to look and see for sure.
That led into almost as many questions as the military had had about the Super Soldier Serum, which Steve dodged, and about his legal status, which Stark explained in incomprehensible detail. By the end of the interview, Steve felt that Ms Everhart was a good two thirds of the way to believing them.
The next three interviews were easy ones, mostly more of the same, though one young woman was quite forward, and Stark almost did have to physically defend Steve from a history nerd.
"That was a good story," Stark said, when everyone had finally left them alone. Steve had moved to the interviewers' chair, and Stark lay sprawled across the couch, arm over his face.
"Which one?" Steve asked. He felt far too drained to deal with much of anything, let alone his husband.
"The one about the boy you left behind."
Steve sighed, considered lying, then couldn't see why he would bother. He'd had more than enough of that to last the rest of his life, and this was just his third day of marriage. "That one was actually true," he said. "His name was Arnie Roth."
Stark turned his head sideways, peering at Steve from under his shirtsleeve. "Oh," he said. He paused, apparently considering his next words carefully before noting, "I didn't realise you were gay."
"It's not like it matters," Steve said heavily. "Besides, I believe that the modern term is 'bisexual.'"
"Right," Stark said, and covered his eyes again.
They sat in silence for a few more minutes before Steve pushed himself out of the chair. "I'm going out for a bit," he told Stark. "Don't hold dinner for me or anything." Stark didn't say anything, but Steve laid a hand on his shoulder as he passed. "Thanks for having my back with that rabble," he said.
"Any time, Cap," Stark told him. "You didn't do too bad yourself."
Steve knew that he probably shouldn't feel a little glow at the compliment, but he couldn't quite bring himself to suppress the feeling.
The shadows had grown deep and long by the time Steve made it back to Long Island City, but it wasn't the growing chill that made him pull his jacket tighter around him. He'd promised Sam that he'd try to come today, and, late as it was, he was going to keep his word. He just wished he could feel sure of what kind of reception he'd get. If he'd learned anything over the past day, it was that having his name publicly tied to Tony Stark's brought a variety of reactions.
He almost didn't want to go at all, but he figured Sam would think whatever he thought of him whether he showed up or not. It was better to know. Probably.
The soup kitchen hadn't quite started serving dinner, but it was already bustling. People of all ages and descriptions were lined up in front of the serving area or gathered around the battered tables. Steve had had a vague notion, back in 1941, that fighting the war would keep him from ever seeing American children starve again. He wasn't sure what that belief was based on; he knew the 'thirties hadn't been Hitler's fault, no matter what the recruiters said. Steve supposed that he'd just wanted to be able to make everything better. Now he had to wonder if Stark's plan, whatever it was, accounted for the young faces in front of him.
Fatima saw Steve hesitating in the doorway and waved him over to the cooking area, passing him an apron when he got near. A wave of steam and noise hit him as she opened the door to the kitchen proper, and Steve felt his stomach growl at the smells. He hadn't realised until that moment that he hadn't eaten since the night before. Big pots of soup bubbled on the stove, and the back counter held bins of vegetables, which a cheerful assembly line of workers peeled, diced, and piled into new bowls. In another corner, a row of chattering people sliced and buttered bread before setting it on plates. Along the back wall, two young men fed a mountain of dishes into a steel machine. Steve stepped aside hastily as an old woman plucked a pot off the stove, calling "hot behind you!" and carrying it through to the main room.
Before Steve could ask where Sam was in all this din, a big hand clapped him on the shoulder. "You sure weren't kidding when you said it was complicated."
Steve turned, finding himself almost nose to nose with Sam, carefully gauging his expression. Sam's smile certainly seemed genuine enough, and Steve returned it. "You don't even know the half of it," he said, feeling immensely relieved.
Sam nodded. "When the dinner rush is over, you can tell me all about it," he said. "For now, how about washing up so you can pitch in? Can a rich boy like you peel potatoes?"
He looked slightly taken aback when Steve burst out laughing.
Hours later, they sat in a back corner, using bread crusts to mop the last of the leftover soup out of their bowls. Sam had made coffee, but Steve stuck to water. He felt punchy from exhaustion, but he didn't think he needed to go piling a bunch of stimulants into his system this late.
He didn't think he could blame fatigue for the way he found himself spilling the whole story of the last few days, if in an edited version. It had been building for weeks, and maybe it was the reporters that had gotten him started. He still couldn't say everything aloud, certainly nothing about where things between himself and Stark really stood, but just telling most of the truth seemed to ease his heart. Even if leaving out the centre of it made him feel like he was just adding more layers to his house of lies.
Sam listened impassively, nodding to show he understood when Steve's eyes sought his, and slowly sipping his coffee. "You've had quite a day," he commented when Steve finally ran out of words.
"Yeah, I guess I have," Steve said, then sighed. "Sorry. I didn't mean to show up on your doorstep and do nothing but complain about my life. You have bigger problems."
"Hey, you peeled something like a hundred pounds of vegetables," Sam told him, smiling. "With terrifying efficiency. You've more than earned an ear, and a bowl of soup. Besides, Fatima likes you, and she doesn't like anyone from the Island."
In the last few hours, Steve had almost forgotten that he was an outsider here. "Everyone was pretty good about leaving me alone," Steve said. "I guess maybe the news hasn't made it to this part of town yet."
Sam leaned back in his chair, pushing his bowl aside. "This is the twenty-first century, Steve," he said. "The news makes it everywhere all at once. I figure most people weren't expecting to see a resurrected hero around these parts, and the rest... well, it's kind of like the old French Foreign Legion down here; everyone tries to keep themselves to themselves."
"That's good," Steve said. "Trouble seems to find me, and I don't want to bring any more of it down on this place."
"Oh, it'll find you here," Sam told him, sounding unconcerned. "Especially after you spent the day with those media vultures like you told me. I give it a couple days, tops, before the story breaks."
Steve chased a grain of rice around the bottom of his chipped china bowl. "I can..." he hesitated, not wanting to make the offer, but knowing he had to. "I can stay away, if it will make things easier on you." He'd only known Sam for a little over a day, but the idea of never seeing him again cut unexpectedly deep.
"Don't worry about it," Sam told him, waving his coffee mug in his hand dismissively. A few drops sloshed over the rim. "Like I said before, we can use all the help we can get. Hell, a small media circus would probably do us some good. I wouldn't mind it if conspicuous compassion came back into fashion for a while."
Steve kept his eyes on the grain of rice, which he'd managed to squish flat, and forced himself to dismiss his initial reaction. When did I get this paranoid? he wondered. Sam isn't talking to me because I used to be Captain America, or because I'm married to Tony Stark. He realised that he was clenching his jaw and forced himself to relax.
The tap of china on wood made him look up. Sam had set down the mug and leaned forward to gaze at Steve intently. "Easy, man," he said. "It was a joke; I'm not selling you out to the vultures, okay?" He reached over and lightly punched Steve's bicep. "You have a few trust issues, don't you?"
Steve nodded stiffly, embarrassed. "Sorry," he said. "It's been a long couple of days." He had to ask, though, after that. "Why are you doing this, then?"
Sam lifted one shoulder in a sort of half-shrug. "I have a soft spot for lost souls, I guess. Lord knows we get more than our share around here, but... well, that look in your eyes when you first came up: you remind me of me when I got off track a few years ago. I didn't know which way was up, and I'd be dead or worse by now if someone hadn't helped me out. I'm just paying back the karma."
"I don't know what that means," Steve said, "but thank you." It didn't seem like enough, but he didn't have much else.
Steve let out a long, slow breath, trying to pull himself together. "I'm pretty much wrecked," he admitted. "I should probably head back. Thanks again for... well, for everything." He pushed off, dropping both their bowls with the boys working the dish machine, and headed out into the night.
It was cold now, and he zipped his light jacket up to his chin and stuffed his hands in his pockets. They trembled from fatigue, and he clenched them into fists, thinking fondly of his very large, very soft bed in Stark Tower. There were some advantages to this travesty of a marriage.
The streets weren't exactly deserted, but the people still on them seemed to make a point of not noticing each other. Everyone kept their heads down and hurried towards their destinations. Steve cut through an alley, trying to make his own way to the subway station as quickly as possible.
Steve heard the steps coming up behind him about the same time as he saw the flicker of movement in the shadows ahead. He dropped down and started to turn, intending to dive low towards the man behind him and the nearer path to the street. He didn't even halfway complete the motion before he heard a high-pitched whine to his right, and everything disappeared in a blaze of blue-white pain.
Dimly, as if he wasn't quite attached to his body, Steve felt himself hit the ground. He tried to blink, but his eyes either wouldn't open or they were open already and he just couldn't see. Move, soldier, he thought, trying to get his muscles to do what he wanted, or at least stop acting on their own. They wouldn't.
Every spasm sent another wave of pain along his limbs and straight to his heart, and he couldn't seem to even cry out.
It was then that Steve realised that he wasn't breathing.
An edge of panic crept in, and he forced it back. I can survive a few minutes more without air, he reasoned, glad his mind, at least, was working, but I'm in real trouble if I don't move right now, so focus!
He tried to relax, to let every sinew he still controlled fall slack. The worst of the shudders had abated, and though he still couldn't move, some of the pain had gone too. He could see a little now; his eyes hadn't been closed after all. Lying on his back as he was, there wasn't really much to look at beyond the ragged edge of the roof against the glow of city lights on low clouds.
Trying to expand his lungs set off another tearing spasm, but he got some air in at least. That cleared his head, and he realised that he could hear now too; or had he never gone deaf at all? It was possible that his brain wasn't working as well as he thought.
Something hit his side, possibly a boot, but it hurt a little less than pretty much every other part of his body. Steve didn't react, concentrating on breathing. If he focused hard enough, he could make his toes curl, and probably his fingers too. He didn't try it, not wanting whoever was above him to know he was conscious.
Soft-soled boots shuffled on the pavement near Steve's shoulder.
"Did you kill him?" someone near his feet asked.
"Nah," the person above him, a woman, said. "Just knocked him flat. He's still breathing, look."
"Get to it then, before he wakes up."
A blurry shape moved across Steve's field of vision, growing larger and resolving itself into a head-and shoulders-shaped silhouette. It took a moment for Steve to realise that the woman near his shoulder was crouching over him, reaching towards his chest. Steve didn't move as a finger jabbed sharply into the flesh over his heart.
"He's out, all right," the woman said. Her voice seemed too loud, or maybe it was Steve's senses that were off.
The hand on his chest trailed down, feeling for his jacket pocket.
Without tensing or hesitating, Steve smacked the woman on top of him in the head. He did it with both hands at once, though his aim was off on the one side, and he didn't quite cover the woman's left ear. It was enough to stun her, though, and knock her back on her heels.
Steve heard the man near his feet call out in surprise, but he still couldn't tell anything about the movement in the shadows that had tipped him off. He didn't give either of them a chance to react, rolling back over his shoulders and flipping to his feet. His balance still felt a little wonky, but he landed with enough security to lead into kicking the woman in the jaw, then twisting and rolling away again.
He was fast enough that time, but only just. An honest old-fashioned shot rang out, and Steve heard the bullet shatter into the stone wall near the mouth of the alley.
That had to be the silent man. Steve didn't look, just sprang to his feet and dove towards where he knew the gun had to be. The silent man didn't have a chance to fire again before Steve ploughed into his midsection, knocking him to the ground. His head hit the pavement with a thud, and he didn't move.
Steve grabbed the gun from the man's limp hand, but it was unfamiliar, and he couldn't see it well enough to figure it out in the time he had. He hurled it into a ruined dumpster instead, taking it out of play.
Where had the first man gone? Steve had one unconscious under him, and could hear the woman moaning against the wall, but nothing of the man who'd followed him. He hadn't run away; Steve would have heard. Surprise then, he thought.
He launched himself up, bouncing off the wall, bending, grabbing an old bracket -- which shuddered but held his weight -- and swinging to tuck, roll and fly. He hit the ground again on the absolute opposite side of the alley from that he'd left five seconds before. The landing jarred his head, shooting pain up and down his spine, but he kept his feet, spinning to search for the missing man.
The remaining thug hesitated only long enough to scoop something off the pavement before he turned and ran as fast as his legs could carry him.
Steve picked up a small chunk of masonry and pitched it after him. It struck the fleeing man neatly in the back of the head, dropping him.
It occurred to Steve that his attackers might well have friends, who could show up any moment. The fight had felt like an age, but they had probably only hit him a few minutes ago. No one would have had time to come yet.
He tried to stand straight, but wavered, dizziness overtaking him. His vision blurred so badly that he had to put his hand on the wall for support and dedicate a moment to not falling over.
When he opened his eyes again, he saw another form at the end of the alley. I have to get out of here, he decided, another kick of adrenaline steadying him. He didn't even realise that the man was calling his name -- let alone that he was someone familiar -- until he'd already dropped into a crouch, groping for another projectile.
"Steve!" the voice yelled again, high and rough with worry.
"Sam?" Steve whispered. He let himself slump to his knees.
Strong arms wrapped around his shoulders, so that Steve fell nose first into a solid wall of muscle instead of the pavement. Sam's shirt stank of bleach and sweat and coffee, but Steve breathed it in as deeply as he could. Then he passed out.
"No, man, just listen... hey... hey... I'm calling you, right? Would I..."
Sam's voice seemed to be coming from somewhere above him, but the words didn't make sense. Steve forced his eyes open, then realised he was lying half on his side, hips against the ground, and couldn't see anything but dirty pavement anyway. At least this time he had something under his head. It was soft and smelled like Sam.
"Look, this really isn't..." Sam sounded pissed off.
With some effort, Steve rolled over onto his back. He could see Sam now, crouched protectively above him, speaking to something black and shiny. It took him a moment to figure out what it was, and why Sam was talking to it. "Hey," Steve said, "You have my phone."
Sam glanced down. He probably would have looked relived if he hadn't devoted every muscle to immense irritation. Steve suddenly knew who he was talking to. "He just came to, so why don't you yell at him for a while?... okay, sec." Sam reached down, holding the phone to Steve's ear. "Your dearly beloved," he announced.
"Stark?" Steve asked. He tried to sit up, but Sam planted his free hand on his chest, keeping him flat on his back.
"Steve, thank God!" Stark sounded more worried than Sam had earlier. "How badly are you hurt?"
Steve considered this for a moment; his brain felt a little sluggish, like Masterman had punched him in the head a couple of times. He was pretty sure that wasn't what had happened, though. "I think I'm okay," he concluded. Above him, Sam snorted, so Steve added, "Maybe kind of disoriented. They hit me with something that felt like lightening."
"Who..." Stark started to ask, then broke off. "Never mind. I'm... sending Iron Man over. He'll be there in thirty seconds."
"Okay," Steve said, then realised something important. "Don't shoot Sam; he's my friend too."
"No promises," was all Stark said, and the line went dead.
"Tony?" Steve asked, sounding plaintive even to himself. "He's gone."
Sam flipped the phone shut and slid it back into Steve's pocket. "You picked a real winner there," he grumbled.
"He's just worried about me," Steve said. He tried to sit up again, and this time Sam offered him a steadying arm. "How long was I out?" He looked around the alley. From what he could see, the two men still lay where he'd left them, but the woman was gone.
"A couple minutes maybe, not very long," Sam told him, wrapping the jacket that had served as a pillow around Steve's shoulders. He looked up, hearing something that Steve couldn't, which wasn't right at all. "Here comes trouble."
Steve could hear it now too, the hum of Iron Man's boot jets. He saw him a second later, coming in fast, head first. At the last moment, Iron Man pivoted in midair, flipping to direct the jets on his palms and feet towards the pavement. Despite the practised look of the manoeuvre, Iron Man still landed with an even louder clang than he usually did.
He reached Steve in two strides, dropping to one knee and completely ignoring Sam. "Tell me where it hurts," he demanded. The helmet filters stripped the emotion from the words, so that Steve couldn't tell if they were a concerned plea or a clinical request for more data.
"Um..." Steve said, trying to assess his own condition. "Pretty much everywhere, but more on the side where she hit me with whatever it was." He thought back, piecing together the sequence of events. "Well, I think she kicked me in the ribs too, so that could be it."
Iron Man made a sound that might have been the helmet's interpretation of a non-committal "Hmm." He took Steve's chin and gently lifted his head, peering into his face. Even that close, Steve couldn't see the least sign that anyone was alive under the gleaming faceplate. After flashing a series of lights at Steve and asking him a dozen more questions, Iron Man concluded, "You're in shock." The tips of his fingers lingered on Steve's cheek a moment more before he let his hand drop. Steve found the metal warm and oddly comforting. "Mr Stark will want to get you checked over more thoroughly as soon as possible. He'll need to be sure you're okay."
"In a minute," Steve said. "I want to figure out what's going on first." He looked up at Sam, who had taken a step away and was watching Iron Man with a closed expression. "Help me up."
Sam reached down for Steve's arm, but Iron Man stepped between them. "He's in shock," he repeated. "He's supposed to be sitting down wrapped in a warm blanket, not wondering the streets."
"Steve's an adult," Sam snapped. Steve had to lean sideways to see him behind Iron Man's bulk; he looked angry but controlled. "I seem to remember hearing about him surviving World War II. I'm sure he knows his own limits."
"Right," Iron Man said, making a sound that could have been a laugh. Or a speaker malfunction. "You were the one who let him walk into this ambush in the first place. Obviously, a man like you has his best interests at heart."
"Hey!" Sam really was angry now, almost furious. "I had nothing to do with that."
Steve sighed, levered himself up, and, ignoring the argument, started towards the man he'd hit with a rock. He supposed it should be nice to have two people standing up for him. However, Sam wasn't really helping his point that Steve could look after himself by speaking for him, and Iron Man was probably only worried about protecting Stark's interests. Iron Man was right about one thing, however: Steve didn't have a lot of strength to spare, and he wasn't going to waste it breaking up a pointless fight.
Kneeling next to the downed man, Steve carefully checked him over. He had worried that he'd thrown the rock too hard and killed the man, but he seemed to be breathing okay. His hand still curled limply around a small black object. At first, Steve thought it was a cell phone, but it was a little too large and shaped more like the magazine of an M1911 service pistol. He gingerly picked it up, taking care not to touch any of the controls. "What do you think this is?" he asked, not particularly directing the question.
Iron Man answered, "Hopefully not what I think it is. I need a closer look." Now that the subject of debate had wandered off under his own power, he seemed to have given up arguing with Sam. Steve wondered if whoever was inside had an expression of curiosity mixed with mild horror to match Sam's. He came over now, and bent to peer at the object in Steve's hand. "It is, too. Goddamit, Cap, you're lucky to be alive."
"What is it?" Steve asked again.
"It's an FX7000 Neutraliser." At Steve's blank expression, Iron Man added. "Unfortunately, Justin Hammer's tech nerds tend to be better than his marketing department. It essentially shuts down a target's peripheral motor nerves, stunning him temporarily. Only the way it's set, it would have taken out a normal man's entire central nervous system. Permanently."
Steve didn't quite know what that meant, but he got the implication. "I don't think they wanted me dead," he said, trying to remember what his attackers had said. "Or at least they didn't care if they killed me or not."
"Right," Iron Man said. "I'm sure--"
A clang rang out through the alley, and they both spun to face the sound. Sam had slammed the man that Steve had tackled earlier against the dumpster. "He just woke up and tried to make a run for it. I wanted to have a few words first."
Iron Man reached down, pulling Steve to his feet. "So do we," he said.
Steve wavered again, and Iron Man slid an arm around his waist, carefully avoiding his sore ribs. "Thanks."
"I can't leave you there," Iron Man replied, voice turned down so that only Steve could hear. "You'll probably wander off to rescue kittens if I do."
"Thanks anyway." Walking, even with someone to lean on, turned out to require a lot more concentration than it usually did.
"I know you," Sam was saying as they came to stand beside him. He'd relaxed his grip on the man slightly, still pressing him against the metal, but not quite holding him above the ground anymore. The man's face was blacked out with facepaint, but Steve could just see the edges of white skin around his eyes and mouth. He didn't look more than twenty. "You're Jimmy Vanarsdale. I thought I told you you weren't welcome around here unless you left that chip on your shoulder in Flushing."
"James William Vanarsdale," Iron Man recited, wedging Steve between himself and Sam. "Currently wanted in connection with assault causing bodily harm, assault with a weapon, armed robbery, coercion, unlawful confinement, and entry to Manhattan without a permit. Considered armed and dangerous. Use of deadly force authorised."
That left Steve to play the nice guy. "All I want to know is why you attacked me," he said. "Were you just after my wallet, or did someone send you?"
"I, no... no one sent us," Vanarsdale said, looking at Steve like he was crazy. "Who would send us?"
"Then where did you get this?" Iron Man took the Neutraliser from Steve and waved it in his face. "This is worth about ten of you. The production costs are too high for anyone but a few private contractors to use them."
"I didn't get it," Vanarsdale said, but he wouldn't say who had, closing his lips tightly and looking away. Neither Sam nor Steve could persuade him to say anything else.
Finally, Iron Man said, "Look, as far as I'm concerned, you just tried to kill Captain America. You know what's going to happen next, don't you? We're going to find out one way or another. Why not make things easier and tell us now?"
Vanarsdale didn't look like he'd heard the last part, though. His eyes went wide and fixed on Steve. "C... Captain America?" he asked.
Steve frowned but nodded. He didn't like the title that much right now, but if being a hero helped get an explanation...
Under the facepaint, Vanarsdale's skin had gone sallow and sweaty. "Oh..." He said weakly. "Oh, God." Then he started to cry, huge gasping sobs racking his body.
"That was laying it on a little thick, wasn't it?" Sam said to Iron Man, looking tired and irritated.
"He wasn't talking."
"Well he's not talking now, either, is he?"
Steve felt a steadily growing feeling of horror rising up. He didn't really want to know, but he asked anyway. "I don't understand, why is he so upset?"
Sam looked at Iron Man, who turned his head slightly, possibly exchanging a glance. "Attempting to harm a government-registered metahuman carries the death penalty," Iron Man explained. "The word of the meta is usually good in lieu of a real trial, if the attacker has a record."
Sam nodded in agreement. "We hear stories on the street," he added, "about the contractors who run the jails torturing suspects until they give up their friends as accessories, no matter if they did it or not."
Iron Man's arm tightened around Steve as he swayed, stomach rolling with nausea. He drew his lips back into a grimace to keep from throwing up.
Back in the war, Steve and Bucky had run into an alternate reality -- or something of that sort -- where the Red Skull ruled the Allied World, putting a grotesque effigy of himself on Liberty Island. The image had kept Steve fighting through some of his most desperate hours. Now the war was over; the Allies had won; the Statue of Liberty remained, but...
The fear clenching his gut rose and transformed itself into fury. The anger seemed to lend him new strength, and he shrugged out of Iron Man's hold. "Never threaten anyone in my name again," he said tightly. Pushing Sam aside, Steve took over his hold on Vanarsdale's shirt. The man was still crying, and Steve felt like if he let go, Vanarsdale would collapse in a miserable heap. "Jimmy, listen," he started, but it took him a good five minutes to persuade Vanarsdale to look at him. "I'm not going to report this," he said. "Honestly, I have bigger problems than a couple of two-bit hoods who don't know how to use their own weapons." Vanarsdale still looked terrified, but he'd stopped weeping, so Steve pressed on. "I believe you when you say you didn't know who I was. All we want to know is where your friend got the Neutraliser. You don't even have to tell us her name, just where she got it." He tried to project heartfelt sincerity into his voice, and Vanarsdale seemed to be listening.
"You're--" Iron Man started to say, but Steve kicked him in the shin, making him trail off.
Vanarsdale swallowed a few times before saying, "She used to run for one of the river gangs, either the Skulls or the Three Flags, she wouldn't say which. I guess she must've lifted it when she ditched them and came back to us. That was a couple days back." He shifted sideways, trying to see past Iron Man and down the alley. "I swear she didn't know either. She would have said. What did you do to her?"
"We--" Steve glanced at Sam. "What did happen to her?"
Sam shrugged. "Ran off when I was picking your ass up off the ground."
"Okay," Steve said, turning back to Vanarsdale. "Here's what's going to happen: Iron Man will fish your gun out of the dumpster and destroy it, and then take me back to Manhattan. Sam will go back to feeding the hungry, hopefully in peace. You are going to take care of your friends, preferably by doing something legal, and definitely not in Queens. We'll all forget this ever happened. Does that sound good?"
"Yes, sir," Vanarsdale said. "Thank you, sir! But we won't forget this."
"You won't talk about it either, will you?" Iron Man said.
"No, sir!" Steve let go of Vanarsdale's shirt, and he bolted up the alley, pausing only long enough to help his now moaning friend up and half carry him out.
As Iron Man punched a hole in the side of the dumpster, Sam pulled Steve aside. "I'm sorry," he said in a low voice, resting a hand on Steve's forearm. Steve nodded numbly, afraid to wonder how much worse it could possibly get. He blinked when Sam added, "Iron Man was right: the shape you were in, I should have walked you back as far as the station, even if I couldn't take you back to Manhattan."
Oh, that, Steve thought. "It's fine," he said, shaking his head. "It doesn't matter." He put his free hand on Sam's shoulder, keeping him from turning away. "Sam, that law about metahumans, when was it enacted?"
Sam shifted from foot to foot, but didn't look away. "Something like ten years ago," he said. "Though it hasn't been very evenly enforced. I've never heard of anyone from Manhattan getting hit for it, that's for sure."
"Does the current Captain America support it?"
"I haven't heard otherwise."
"'Qui tacet consentire videtur,'" Steve quoted to himself.
Iron Man's voice overrode any explanation Steve might have offered. "This is the single most poorly designed weapon I have ever seen." The gun that he held disdainfully between armoured fingers still looked pretty advanced to Steve, but then, so did Stark's toaster. "I am fairly confident," Iron Man continued, "that Mr Stark could build something more efficient out of baling wire and duct tape, while blindfolded. In fact, I think he has." After ejecting the magazine, Iron Man snapped the weapon in half and ground all three pieces to dust under his boot. "Are you ready to go home, Cap?"
"I told you not to call me that," Steve snarled. Before, he hadn't been sure how he fit in with the new world, and that name. Now he knew that the legacy he'd founded had grown too foul to touch.
"All right, Steve," Iron Man said, taking a small step back and holding up his hands. It made him seem something like human.
"Sorry." It wasn't really Iron Man's fault, or even Stark's -- though the man could have warned him. "I didn't mean to yell at you." He shrugged Sam's jacket off and handed it back. "I'm ready to go."
He almost protested when Iron Man scooped him up in his arms like a bride, but that was silly really. It wasn't like he had the strength to hang on any other way right now, so he just put his arms around Iron Man's neck, and tucked as close as he to could to reduce their wind resistance. Sam said something about not having a camera, and then they were off.
Flying with Iron Man felt different than it had with Namor and Maddie's natural flight: more stable, for sure, but somehow rougher too. Even though the armour was slightly warm, Steve couldn't feel breathing or a heartbeat as their bodies pressed together. He couldn't see anything beyond the blue glow of Iron Man's chestplate, so he closed his eyes and let weariness overcome him.
He had a vague impression of something soft under him, and a warm, human hand on his brow, then he faded out entirely.
Chapter 6: Day Five
This time, consciousness came back all at once, and Steve snapped awake. The first thing he realised, before even opening his eyes, was that this wasn't his room. It smelled a bit like a cross between a garage and an aeroplane hanger, complete with the slightly-scorched coffee that mechanics everywhere seemed to drink by the gallon. A number of low-level whirrs and hums surrounded him.
The mattress under him felt firmer than the bed in his room, and only a sheet and a light blanket covered him. He still seemed to have all his clothes save his shoes and jacket on, though, so the cool, dry air of wherever he was didn't bother him.
Steve opened his eyes cautiously, not wanting to reveal that he was awake. He couldn't see any central illumination, but the glow of dozens of monitors and status lights partially lit the room. Bank after bank of equipment blended together in flickering light and shadow. He couldn't tell what even one piece of it was for, but he got the gist of it.
I'm in a lab, he realised, and felt cold panic spike through his body.
As if in response, the main lights came up, dispersing the worst of the shadows and revealing a figure slumped forward across one of the work benches. Steve could only see the top of his head, but figured there couldn't be two scientists in New York with hair like that, and relaxed. If Stark had wanted to dissect him, he would have done it weeks ago.
Stark muttered something indistinct and raised his head to blink groggily at Steve. "Jarvis? What? Oh, hey, you're awake." A small piece of red metal stuck to his cheek for a moment, then dropped back to the bench. "I didn't mean to fall asleep."
"What time is it?" Steve asked, sliding his legs off the cot so he could sit up. From that angle he could see that Stark's bench was covered in what looked like bits of the Neutraliser, mixed in with part of Iron Man's armour.
"Um... about ten thirty in the morning," Stark told him.
Steve figured he'd been out for more than half a day. "What's wrong with me?"
"Nothing! You're fine." Stark sounded alarmed by the idea. "You just needed the sleep, and time for my nanotech to kick the Neutraliser's nanotech's ass. Which it did."
"Oh," Steve said, imaging tiny crab-like metal creatures battling it out inside his veins. He shivered, unable to think of anything else to say. He didn't want to sound like he wasn't grateful to Stark for saving his life, again, but he really would feel a lot happier once the little machines were gone.
"So..." Stark said, when the silence stretched into a full minute. "I guess I never showed you my workshop before, huh?"
"Nope, can't say as you did." The original tour hadn't made it below the thirtieth floor or so, and Steve hadn't really explored much further.
"This is it," Stark told him, sweeping his arm to encompass everything. "I've told Jarvis to give you access whenever you want, which makes you one of about four people in the world. My board of directors hasn't even seen most of this stuff, and they never will see some of it."
Steve looked around again; even sitting up, with the lights on, he couldn't really tell what anything was. A lot of it seemed to have to do with armour -- Iron Man's and something else -- but that was the best he could do. "It looks very... complicated," he ventured. "Where's Iron Man?"
Stark shrugged. "I gave him the morning off." He dismissed his bodyguard with a wave, and slid off his stool to rummage under the bench. "Never mind that," he said when he emerged again. "Here, I invented something for you." He tossed the object he'd retrieved at Steve, who reflexively snatched it out of the air.
It looked like a black leather gauntlet, but it was slightly too heavy, and thicker on top. Pushing his sleeve up, Steve slid it over his left wrist and snapped the straps in place. Unsurprisingly, it fit perfectly with no adjustment. "It's... uh... very nice," he said. "Thank you."
"Make a fist," Stark told him, looking like he was suppressing the urge to roll his eyes. "Wait, better hold your arm further away from your face."
Steve had been peering at the leather, but backed off and obediently clenched his hand tight. It seemed to be faster to just do what Stark said when he was like this, rather than trying to ask questions. The gauntlet vibrated briefly, and something changed in air around it, but Steve couldn't make out what. Otherwise, nothing happened. He glanced up at Stark, but he was smiling, smug and expectant, so Steve tried examining the gauntlet again.
Something hit him in the nose.
"Ow," Steve said, more out of surprise than pain. He put his right hand out carefully until it found a hard, invisible edge. Following it around, and managing to bang his knee with the other side, he quickly determined the shape. "Hey," he exclaimed, "You made me an invisible shield!"
"Yeah. More or less," Stark agreed, still looking entirely pleased with himself. "I couldn't get yours back from the military, and I've never been able to properly replicate the alloy." He tossed a socket wrench at the shield and grinned as Steve deflected it back under the bench. "Besides which, the flag is a little too obvious."
Steve slipped off the bed, falling into a crouch, shield arm protecting his face. "Can I throw it?" he asked.
"I'm working on that," Stark said, frowning, "but the whole thing runs on a miniaturised arc reactor built into the gauntlet, which makes the shield pretty much indestructible. Unfortunately, it also can't really separate without losing cohesion. So, in short: no, but get back to me when I've had more time to be brilliant."
"Okay." Disappointing, but reasonable, Steve decided. It's not like I understand much of it anyway. He started to move through a series of defensive moves, sparing with a shadow partner. He couldn't seem to get his balance right: either he compensated for a weight on his left arm that wasn't there, or he moved like the shield wasn't there and ended up running into things. Like computer screens.
Stark winced. "Iron Man has a very spacious, nearly indestructible training room about two floors up," he noted coolly. "You're more than welcome to use it."
"Sorry." He clenched his hand, and the gauntlet vibrated again. This time, he thought he saw a slight distortion as the shield disintegrated. "Give me a couple of days; I'll be able to take on Axis Annie in a china shop with no damage done."
"Right." Stark looked like he wanted to question a couple things about that statement, but apparently decided he was better off changing the topic. "A couple of days is about right. There's an Underground meeting that I want you at tomorrow night, and you need to be in fighting form by then. If you're not ready, Iron Man can go alone, but..."
"I'll be ready," Steve told him. The words came out more harshly than he'd intended, but this sounded like a fight, a real one, not just crooks. It was all he'd wanted since he'd woken up. "I'll be ready, Tony," he said again, more softly. "Just tell me when and where."
"I know you will be," Stark said. "Have you thought to a new identity?"
"Not really," Steve admitted. Even in this new world, he'd always just been Captain America. When he'd just been Steve from the Lower East Side, he'd drawn pictures of heroes like the Sentinel of Liberty and Patriot Lad. Steve flinched at the idea of wearing colours like that now. He wondered traitorously if what he'd done back then had been somehow the same as what Walker was doing now. Had he hidden behind a flag and said nothing to protect himself or the people he loved?
Looking back, reading what the historians now said about his time, Steve didn't think that he had. Maybe in the beginning -- when he'd had a head full propaganda films and blood singing with new strength -- he'd missed things he should have seen. He'd been so impossibly young then. Even so, he never would have... he couldn't. By the end of the War, he'd had enough disapproving looks from his superiors and lectures from Nick Fury to prove that he wasn't very good at keeping his mouth shut.
"Steve?" Stark asked. He had stood up and was leaning towards Steve, hands planted on the bench between them.
"I'll have a design for you by the end of the day," Steve promised him. He took a breath, then looked right at Stark. "Why didn't you tell me about the metahuman laws?"
Stark's eyes flickered away. When they met Steve's again, he hunched his shoulders defensively. "I didn't want to drop too much on you at once," he said. "You've had a lot to adjust to."
"You didn't think I could handle it?" Steve challenged, stepping up to the edge of the bench so that Stark either had to look up at him or straighten up or away. The idea that Stark thought he needed to shelter him bothered Steve more than it should have. He had been trying very hard not to care what Stark thought of him, but it didn't seem to be working that well.
"You've only been here for three days, Steve," Stark said. He was looking up at Steve through his lashes, posture deliberately slightly submissive. Someday Steve was going to tell him how much that kind of managing pissed him off. "There's only so much I can tell you without overloading your brain."
Steve wanted to question Stark's priorities when it came to sharing, because this one seemed pretty fundamental. However, now wasn't the time for a fight. "Tell me now then."
Stark sighed. "You know about Registration twenty years ago, right?" Steve nodded. He'd read a number of accounts; they all told drastically different stories. "By about eight or nine years after that, the metahuman community had more or less settled out. A lot of the new generation didn't care about an old war, and wanted the benefits of registering; the government had a heck of a dental plan, and not being hunted down is always nice. A lot of people, regular humans too, wanted to the meta-related laws to lighten up. There'd been low level fighting for a long time, and the property damage was getting old. Hitting people with sticks didn't seem to be working, and offering carrots did, so..." A stream of data flashed past Stark's irises.
Steve realised that he hadn't noticed Stark using the Extremis since he'd woken up. Maybe he didn't need to as much in his lab. "So?" he asked, when Stark didn't seem likely to continue.
"Hang on," Stark said, waving Steve away impatiently. "And... found it." He pointed at the wall behind Steve, which now displayed about a dozen images of dead people. A few of them wore costumes; most of them had bullet wounds in their heads; they all looked very young. "I told you this was one of those times when the balance of power was teetering, and the smallest thing could change the whole country, right?" Steve nodded, knowing he'd heard the words before and wanting Stark to continue. Only, Stark hadn't said them, had he? That had been Sam, later, and Iron Man first. "That was the last time. With public protest, and negotiation, and other peaceful actions, maybe things would have gone a different way, and we'd live in a different world."
"But someone started killing metahumans," Steve said, seeing how this story was going to end.
Stark nodded. "The government said it was the start of a coup. Almost all of the underground heroes and resistance groups renounced the killings. No one really knows who killed them, and I'm not sure we ever will, but what happened next was inevitable." The gory pictures flickered and disappeared, and Steve turned to Stark again. He looked tired and maybe a little sad or perhaps sick. Steve realised it wasn't just history for Stark: he must have been a teenager when all this had happened. Steve wondered what side he'd taken then, and what side his parents had taken. "Laws can change amazingly quickly," Stark continued. "Pretty soon attacking a meta was punishable by death, and they didn't take a whole lot of time to find someone to punish. Hell, she may have even done it. Stranger things have happened."
Given the turns his life had taken of late, Steve wasn't about to argue that point. "And the judicial system just disappeared?" he asked.
"More or less," Stark agreed. "It didn't happen in a day, and, officially, it hasn't happened at all. It all depends on where you stand. You and I would get a fair trial. Sam Wilson might. What's-His-Name that you beat up, not so much."
Steve had to admit that Sam probably wouldn't have gotten much of a trial in his time anyway, but dammit, he'd fought to make that better. If he'd lived through the war he would have kept fighting for it like he'd read about happening in the rest of the twentieth century. It seemed inconceivable that the people of America had won all that only to let it slip away from them. He thought again of the statue of Red Skull, and wondered if there could be some influence behind this, someone pulling the strings. The only person pulling that many strings, however, seemed to be Tony Stark.
Who had now come around the bench and was studying his face, blue eyes narrow and maybe even kind of concerned. "What are you thinking about?"
"Nazis," Steve told him, which was sort of true.
"Yeah, I guess you would be." Stark brushed Steve's hand lightly with his own. His fingers felt soft and warm, and it didn't seem at all like any other time they'd touched. Steve couldn't find any awkwardness or artifice here. "Steve?"
"We're going to fix this, okay?" It sounded like a promise.
Steve had heard that tone before. "You said you'd take me dancing every night, too," he reminded Tony.
"Hey, you blew me off last night," Tony said, smiling. "We've only been married three days, and you've gotten tired of me already."
"Right." Steve bumped his knuckles against Tony's palm. "Like you could ever be boring." He felt himself flush. It was too much like the first few times he'd shyly touched Arnie. Only now he didn't have to check three times to make sure there wasn't anyone looking. He knew it was just him, Tony and Jarvis down here.
"It's not something I've been accused of, no." Stark seemed to feel something too, and stepped back. He bumped into the bench and had to catch the edge to keep from falling. He tried to cover himself in a burst of words. "You're right though, we haven't done much for our adoring public. I've been up for three days, or something, so why don't I grab a nap, and I can take you out for lunch, and... I mean, if you want." He trailed off, shifting uneasily.
Steve knew he should probably spend the day trying to get used to the new shield, but found himself nodding. "Some place American," he said, then realised that wasn't fair. "Not American. I mean, like burgers or something. No raw fish." Something terrible occurred to him. "They still have burgers, right?"
Stark patted him on the shoulder as he made his escape. "Don't worry, Steve. Some things are still sacred in America."
Once he got Jarvis to explain how the training room worked and set up a few exercises, Steve had to conclude that Iron Man was either much more powerful than he had originally thought, or quite mad. As he dodged another barrage -- seriously, what was with all the lasers? -- only to very nearly roll under a giant stomping thing, Steve generously decided to allow that Iron Man could be both.
Steve had only been at it for an hour and sweat already ran freely down his neck and back. He felt pathetically out of shape, too. Had he been keeping up, there would've been no way those thugs could have jumped him like that. The weeks since he'd been back had been the first in four years when he hadn't either fought a battle or trained more or less all day every day. Now, he just couldn't seem to get his body to do what he wanted, or if he could, it wasn't fast enough.
The shield wasn't helping either. The invisibility would have been a good feature if he was at all used to it. As it was, it tended to catch on things at extremely unfortunate moments. When he wasn't hitting himself in the face with it. Pain and practice were helping, but Steve wasn't feeling very confident about how useful he'd be in a fight.
He blocked a small missile, and flipped over something with a lot of spikes on it. Then the floor under him shifted suddenly, only it hadn't. It had... moved to the other side of the room? Steve had a moment of absolutely nauseating disorientation -- like he was on a small plane that had just lost a thousand feet of altitude while flipping upside down -- and found himself falling through the air. Towards what had been the far wall.
Swinging the shield as hard as he could at another laser embankment, he wedged it in place and brought his fall to a jarring halt. Then he realised that he couldn't let go of the thing and use it as a ledge because it was attached to his arm. He either had to stay stuck to the wall, or deactivate his shield and drop to the wall that was now the floor, fifty feet below.
Steve said something that had made him blush the first time he'd heard it from Nick Fury.
"I hope you don't talk like that in front of children, Mr Rogers," Ms Potts said dryly. Steve hadn't even heard the door open, but now she was standing in it, directly above him, and at a ninety-degree angle to the new floor.
"No, Ma'am," Steve said. "Sorry, Ma'am." He had, in fact, threatened to wash Bucky's mouth out with soap at least once. Bucky had replied by cheerfully offering to shoot him.
Now Steve really wasn't sure what to do. It seemed like there could still be lasers, and he should probably get between them and Ms Potts, but if he let go, he'd fall the wrong way. "Um..." he said, trying to work it out. He clenched his fist, and the shield dissipated; then, as he started to fall, he kicked off and up. He very nearly missed activating the shield again in time to bounce off the spiky thing as it swung by, but he was obviously starting to get his timing down because he deflected two laser blasts and another missile. Only he hadn't quite done it well enough to keep on course to make the edge of the door like he'd planned. He seemed to hang motionless for a moment, Ms Potts' feet just out of reach, then he started to fall again.
"Jarvis, end training simulation and restore gravity to normal."
Steve had picked up enough momentum by that point to skid across the floor for a couple of yards post-impact. By the time he scrambled to his feet, most of the nefarious devices had retracted back into their compartments, leaving the cavernous walls smooth and empty again. The only deformities showed up where Steve had managed to seriously damage something, like the destroyed laser embankment next to his knee.
Ms Potts hadn't moved from the doorway and was smiling in a manner that Steve thought looked suspiciously superior. Then he remembered that he was soaked in perspiration and entirely shirtless. A quick check for cover or alternate exits revealed no way to escape with any shred of modesty intact. Ms Potts, of course, looked immaculate in her cream silk pencil skirt and blazer, the lace edge of a chocolate camisole creating a tasteful neckline. She wordlessly held out a towel.
It was soft, fluffy, and not nearly large enough to cover as much of himself as Steve wanted. "Sorry, Ma'am," he said again, trying to use towelling off to cover tugging his cotton drawstring pants higher up his hips. It only made them cling. "I don't really have training clothes, and well... I wasn't expecting that there'd be a lady present."
"That's really sweet of you," Ms Potts told him. Steve couldn't tell if she meant it or not, but at least she was keeping her eyes on his face and not lower down. "Unfortunately, you're a bit late to preserve my delicate sensibilities. This is about the least scandalous thing I've ever walked in on one of Tony's guests doing." She hesitated slightly before the word "guests," as though she really wanted to call them something else. Steve was grateful she'd decided not to apply whatever it was to him as well.
He felt like he should apologise again, but he wasn't sure what for. Not offending her? Assuming that she would be offended? Ms Potts obviously wanted something, but it didn't seem like she was going to just say it outright any time soon. "Is Tony still sleeping?" he asked eventually.
Ms Potts nodded. "He should be down for another hour. I tried to get Jarvis to turn off his alarm, but Tony locked me out of that part of the system after last time."
"You really look after him, don't you?" Steve commented. He fidgeted with the towel, eventually ending up balling it up and holding it in front of his chest with both hands.
"I try," Ms Potts said. "Someone has to. Lord knows he doesn't look after himself." She looked him up and down now, but not like a lot of women had since he'd gotten this body. Her gaze held no lasciviousness, only critical assessment. Steve couldn't help but feel that he may have just failed the grade. "Like last night, staying up watching even when you were stable and had every monitor in the building focused on you."
"I didn't... I was unconscious!" It didn't really seem at all fair to Steve that she seemed to be blaming him for something he'd had no control over.
"I'm just not sure you're aware," Ms Potts continued, very deliberately. "Tony has a lot invested in you."
Steve flinched. It was true, but he hated that one of the few other people who knew would rub his nose in it like that. "Believe me, Ms Potts: I am very aware as to how much your boss spent purchasing me from the military." He gestured back at the training room behind him, towel sweeping an encompassing arc. "I'm doing my best to show that he hasn't wasted his money."
Ms Potts snorted in a way that made Steve feel silly for ever worrying about offending her. "Don't be ridiculous," she snapped. "Tony would never think of a human being like that. I meant emotionally invested; Tony cares about you a lot."
She looked at Steve expectantly, but it took him a moment to catch what she was saying. "Are you..." he paused to mentally review the conversation before continuing, "Are you asking me what my intentions are?"
Steve realised that Ms Potts more or less hadn't moved since she'd handed him the towel, standing like a breathing, nodding statue. Now that he thought of it, even striding after Stark in those ridiculously high heels, she had the economy of movement of a soldier. She blinked before answering, "If you want to put it like that, sure."
"I married him, didn't I?" It really wasn't a conversation Steve had imagined having with his spouse's employee. However, he'd never imagined marrying someone like Stark anyway, so he should probably just give up on any kind of normalcy ever happening to him.
"We both know what that's worth."
They did, and she was rubbing his nose in it again. Steve opened his mouth to make a nasty retort, but really, what was the point? His marriage was a sham, and that was that. For a moment, he felt something like relief that everyone who loved him had been dead for a hundred years, and he didn't have to try to explain what he'd come to. Steve ran the towel across his face, closing his eyes and burying his head in the damp cotton for a moment.
When he looked into her green eyes again, he didn't feel angry anymore. She was just doing what she thought was her job, after all, and protecting her friend too. "I do know," he said tiredly. "I also know what Tony's put on the line for me, and I'm not planning to jeopardise that, or him. We agreed to be friends, and I'm going to do my best to have his back."
"Friends?" Ms Potts asked, sounding mildly astonished.
Steve nodded cautiously.
"Friends," she said again. It wasn't a question this time, but she didn't really seem that much more convinced. "Whose idea was that?"
"Uh... mine," Steve admitted, rubbing the back of his neck, "but Tony agreed," he added quickly. He could tell that Ms Potts wasn't happy about something, but he really wasn't sure what it might be.
"He said he thought it was a good idea," Steve confirmed. Or it had been something like that. Stark had definitely agreed though.
Ms Potts scowled. "Okay then," she said. "I owe you an apology, Mr Rogers. Clearly, I've been talking to the wrong man."
"That's... uh... that's all right, Ma'am," Steve said. He still didn't have any idea what was going on, but it seemed like maybe she was confused too. "I meant what I said before; you do a good job of looking after Tony."
She nodded. "Thank you." Steve could hear warmth in her voice now. She looked like she might leave, but instead she added, "And I am sorry. You seem like a good man, but Tony has notoriously poor taste in 'friends.' Most days, I wish he'd let me screen people before he gives them this much power over him."
Steve almost asked what she meant by power, but then he realised that he had full access to Stark's lab, and knew about his and Iron Man's involvement with the underground -- and would have proof of it tomorrow. That was a terrifying amount of trust to put in a man one only knew by reputation. "I appreciate your honesty, Ma'am," he told her. "I'm not going to hurt Tony," he promised, then on impulse said, "Or let anyone else hurt him either."
Ms Potts muttered something about "friends" that Steve didn't quite catch. "Just remember that I have access to that lab too," she continued more audibly and with less apparent sarcasm, "and that I know all the best places to hide the bodies."
"Understood," Steve said.
"Good to hear," she said, still not sounding overtly hostile. "I'll let you get back to whatever it was that you were doing, then."
Steve towelled his hair thoughtfully as he watched her march back towards the elevator. "That was a very peculiar conversation," he said to himself.
"Sir?" Jarvis asked.
"Never mind," Steve said. He dropped the towel and turned back to the empty training room. "Jarvis, can you leave out all the lasers and things and set up something for gymnastics training? I've think I've had enough dodging for one morning."
"I'll see what I can do, sir," the computer said.
As Steve watched the room rearrange itself, he wondered what "emotionally invested" meant; he'd have to look it up later. Ms Potts had also said that Tony cared about Steve, which he supposed was true. He'd certainly sounded very concerned about him on the phone the night before, even to Steve who didn't know him well. Ms Potts had taken the same reaction and threatened Steve with death and dismemberment.
It only made Steve wonder about his husband more. Of Stark's former lovers, he'd only met Rumiko and several even more casual affairs. The idea of someone Tony trusted betraying him -- of enough people hurting him to put Ms Potts up at arms like that -- filled Steve with a surprisingly strong desire to punch something really hard.
Taking a deep breath, Steve clenched his fist to activate the shield and stepped back into the room. "You know what, Jarvis," he said, "Never mind. Give me something that explodes."
"What the hell happened to you?" Stark demanded.
Steve glanced up from his sketchpad. A few hours' sleep and a shower had almost erased the lines of strain on Stark's face, and he actually had some colour in his cheeks. He'd changed into clean, unrumpled clothes, too, and Steve absently noted that the soft dove-grey of Tony's shirt made his eyes seem even brighter. "You look better," Steve concluded.
Stark snorted. "Yeah, well, you don't." He walked over to the kitchen table and stared down at Steve. "I ask again: what the hell? I leave you alone for less than three hours, and you end up looking like you've lost three rounds with a tornado."
Moving his face would probably make the little sticky cold packs fall off, so Steve didn't quite smile. "Yeah, sorry. It may have been a better idea to start out with a visible shield."
Stark's expression flickered between appalled and an attempt not to look amused. "Well, you can't go out looking like that. Come with me."
Shrugging, Steve flipped the pad closed and followed Stark out of the kitchen and down the hall to the right. He'd gotten to know the penthouse pretty well by now, but he hadn't been here before. Ms Potts had marked it Tony's Rooms on her map, and Steve had pretty much let it be at that. He figured he ought to leave Stark some privacy.
He'd half expected something involving red satin, or maybe bear skins. He probably should have known better by this point. Not much of Stark's life looked like what he'd seen of tycoons in the pictures or the dime-store novels his mother had read in her rare free moments. Still, Steve's own room had a certain feel of personality, what he would have called cosiness if the place hadn't been so large. Stark's room felt, well... stark. It was spacious and well lit, and had the right furniture and art in the right places, but seemed austere for all that. If it weren't for the unmade bed, Steve would suspect that Stark hadn't been in the place since he'd approved the interior designer's work. Heck, Ms Potts had probably signed off on that anyway.
Steve's eyes drifted back to the rumpled sheets, and he hesitated in the doorway for a moment, hand resting on the jamb.
"I have not, in fact, lured you into my boudoir in order to have my wicked way with you," Stark snapped. "Come on."
"Sorry." Steve stepped further into the room, following Stark though to an expanse of chrome and tile that he supposed was the bathroom.
At Stark's command of "Jarvis, mirror," a corner of the room transformed into a vanity. He directed Steve to sit on the stool and stepped in close to peer at his upturned face.
Steve could smell booze on his breath, but only faintly, and under a layer of artificial mint. Tony's right knee brushed the inside of Steve's thigh, and he realised that he probably should have sat with his legs together like a lady. Now, with Tony standing between his knees, Steve found it impossible to ignore how close their crotches were to touching.
Not sure what was happening, Steve held his breath. They'd said they'd be friends, and Stark seemed to be able to laugh off the idea of seducing Steve. It should be okay; it should feel platonic, friendly. Only Steve couldn't forget that Tony was his husband, in name only or not. He couldn't deny the tension between them right now.
He started slightly when Tony slid the back of his fingers across Steve's cheekbone. "Sorry," Tony murmured as he peeled off one of the cold packs.
"No, it's okay. I just..." Steve fell silent, unsure of what else he could say. He sat, and let Tony remove the rest of the packs and examine his face.
Making a sound that lay somewhere between a snort and a sigh, Tony turned to the drawers under the mirror. "Close your eyes," he said, producing a small glass jar of white cream. "This will help keep the swelling down."
The cream felt cold, but not startlingly so, and it did seem to soothe Steve's bruised skin. Or maybe that was the feather-light touch of Tony's fingertips as they stroked along Steve's jaw.
"So... uh, Pepper said you were using the simulation room." Tony's hand left Steve's face, and the drawer hissed open again. "What programs did you try?"
"I'm not really sure. I just told Jarvis to..." Steve hesitated as a fine brush dusted something across his face. "To start me out on an intermediate level training run."
The brush stopped. When nothing else happened after a moment, Steve cautiously opened an eye. Tony was gaping at him, hand frozen inches from his face, so Steve opened the other eye. "Intermediate?" His voice sounded kind of choked.
"Well, yeah." Steve wasn't quite sure what the problem was. Stark had said that he could use Iron Man's training facilities. Was Steve not supposed to have used that particular room? No, that didn't make sense. "I must say I'm mighty impressed by what your man can do," he ventured. "Those lasers are something else."
That didn't seem to help. "I am going to reprogram that fucking AI into an answering service."
"Jarvis only did what I told him to." Steve wasn't really sure why he was defending Tony's computer, other than that it didn't seem fair to blame something that hadn't had a choice.
Tony put a finger under Steve's chin, tilting his face up. If Steve had done that to a girl, he would have kissed her next, but Tony just stared at him. "Those programs are meant for someone wearing armour, who can fly. Even with safeties on, which they'd better have been..." He closed his eyes, the motion lasting a fraction of a second too long for it to have been a blink. "Haven't you almost died enough for one week?"
Pulling Tony's hand away, Steve held it loosely in his own. "Your training programs aren't going to be what kills me, Tony." Stark's war might well be, but they both knew that pretty well, so it didn't need saying. "You worry too much."
Tony's eyes held his for a moment, wide and serious, then flicked down. "Not possible, I hired Pepper to do all my worrying so I don't have to," he said glibly, jerking out of Steve's grip. He lifted the powder brush again, and Steve obediently closed his eyes. A few moments later, he heard the clatter of Stark rifling through the drawer again. "Aaaand you're done." He swivelled Steve to face the mirror.
Ms Potts had worked the same transformation prior to the interviews the day before, but Steve still had no idea how it worked. Steve's reflection looked smooth-skinned and unmarked. Knowing where to look, Steve could pick out lingering swelling from the worst of the bruises but no discolouration, nor, apparently, any of that layer of powder that women of his time had coated themselves in. He touched his face gingerly. That still hurt, anyway.
"The coating alters itself to match the healthy colour and texture of your skin." Tony's hands lingered on Steve's shoulders for a moment, then he stepped away.
Steve couldn't tell if what he felt was relief or disappointment. All through the war, he'd had Bucky and the rest packed around him, stiflingly sometimes but reliably there, and now there was just so much damn space. He could feel the space between him and Tony now, and he missed the warmth of having another person close. More so, he had to admit, with Tony than with Sam, Iron Man, or Van Dyne, who had also touched him in friendship. He stood up, stepping a little closer. "Did you invent this stuff?"
Stark backed away another step, and Steve took the hint, not following. This time Steve knew damn well it was disappointment that he felt. "No, it's from before my time. I've always thought one of the old guard of heroes cooked it up, trying to protect his secret identity, but I never tracked it down."
"What do you use it for, then?" Steve asked. There seemed to be an awful lot of little drawers. Steve's thoughts drifted to how protective of Tony Ms Potts seemed to be, and then to all the cream and powder that Mrs O'Dell, the butcher's wife from down the street, had worn on the mornings after Mr O'Dell went out boozing with Steve's father.
He must have made his thoughts pretty plain, because Stark informed him rather waspishly, "I am not, in fact, the kind of guy who stays with someone who hits him. Despite my reputation, I don't always want the press, or my board of directors, to know about my wilder nocturnal escapades."
There was that again. The more Steve heard about Stark's nocturnal escapades, the less he liked about them. He muttered "Sorry" again, but didn't especially mean it.
Stark clapped his hands briskly, dismissing the topic. "So, when you said you wanted to go for burgers, did you mean a vaguely-meat-like-substance of indeterminate origins smeared with multi-coloured chemicals, or were you more thinking of free-range bison meat with cranberry goat cheese?"
Steve blinked, both at the sudden change in tone, and the flow of words. Freely-ranged what? "I just want a burger."
"Excellent! I know just the place."
"Just the place" turned out to be a self-proclaimed "Irish-Style Pub" which bore more resemblance to an Old West Saloon from the pictures than to the drinking halls of Steve's youth, Irish or otherwise. To be fair, he hadn't spent much time in Ireland itself, so the carved wood and oddment-covered beams might resemble something authentic from the Old Country. Steve doubted it.
The food didn't seem to involve either yellow chemicals or berry cheese, however, so Steve was feeling pretty good about the place. He decided not to look at the prices before he ordered; ignorance was probably better where Stark was involved. His running tally had hit "Too Much to Sanely Contemplate" with the shield. Though Stark was using it -- and Steve -- for his own ends, so it was possible that that didn't count. In which case, Stark had essentially purchased Steve, which was far worse than the unpayable debt. No matter which way he looked at it, the price of a hamburger, with or without inflation, wasn't going to make much of a difference.
"You look very concerned," Stark commented. He was lounging more than should be possible in a wooden chair, the effect aided by artfully-tousled hair and a partly unbuttoned shirt. The glass of whisky in his hand didn't hurt the image either.
Steve wrapped his hands around his cup of coffee-scented foam. "I'm just wondering why they're called 'freedom fries.'"
Successfully diverted, Stark rubbed the bridge of his nose. "It's a long story, and you really don't want hear it."
"All right." Steve gave up on the drink and fished his sketchpad out of his jacket pocket. His mother's admonishments about drawing at the dinner table flashed through his mind, but he shrugged them off and flipped it open anyway. The young woman at the table across from them was reading a novel -- or pretending to while staring at Steve a lot -- and Stark slouched even further, irises flickering as he lost himself in his electronic world.
Steve glanced over a few sketches he'd done that morning -- some vague costume outlines, and a more detailed picture of Red Skull on Liberty Island -- then turned to a new page. He stared at the small, empty sheet for a moment, then up at Tony again, pursing his lips thoughtfully. In that they were supposed to be showing New York how much of a couple they were, this probably wasn't the best image.
Reaching towards Tony, Steve laid his hand, palm up, on the table top. Tony's eyes cleared as he focused on Steve, frowning slightly, and Steve smiled and wiggled his fingers. His wedding ring glinted in the artificial gaslight.
Tony's lips parted slightly, and he straightened -- or at least lounged in Steve's direction -- before laying his hand on top of Steve's. "Hey," he said, smiling back.
"Working hard?" Steve asked.
Tony shrugged. "Just checking in. Pepper's supposed to be keeping everyone in line for me."
"Ms Potts certainly seems very dedicated." More so, apparently, than Tony Stark, who Steve hadn't seen doing anything work related since the previous afternoon. He wasn't sure how Stark kept such a massive company -- and a plot to overthrow the government -- rolling forward while spending so little dedicated attention on his business. Then again, this morning's nap aside, Steve hadn't seen him take time to sleep either. He wondered how much of what people saw of Stark -- of what even he saw, married to the man -- was just make up.
"Yeah, Pepper's a peach." Ms Potts, it seemed, was a subject Stark either wasn't willing to talk about or wasn't interested in. He'd leaned in a little to look at Steve's sketchpad. "What are you working on?"
"Just some sketches." Steve felt heat rise to his cheeks and hoped it didn't show though the stuff on his skin. "I'm just trying to get a feel for drawing again. I did some stuff for the army early in the war, but I never seemed to have the time later on. I'm kind of stuck now though. I can't really do anything to do with," he gestured with his pencil in a way that he hoped conveyed super heroic action, "in here, and..." Glancing down at the empty page again, something occurred to him. "Say! I'm not really much good at portraits, but I could try one of you, if you want."
"I... uh, sure." Tony ran a hand through his hair, which did nothing to make it more orderly. "How do you want me? I haven't sat for anyone in ages. Not with my clothes on at least."
Steve coughed and sternly ordered himself to under no circumstances think of what that might look like, not even a little bit. "I don't think a nude study would go over too well here." He took a moment to appraise the angle and light. "Just lean back the way you were before. Right, now look up a bit, and to the right. No, back towards me a little. Perfect. Don't move." He let go of Tony's hand and steadied the pad while he laid down the first long lines. Tony really did have a handsome face -- Steve was determinedly not thinking about anything further down -- all angles and fine bones, but maybe a bit too lean. It didn't help that he was trying to look thoughtful or gallant or something. "I'm doing a sketch, Tony, not an engraving for your tombstone," he said after a minute of failing to find a curve in his profile. Tony smiled then, and it seemed a little self-conscious but still widened and softened his features. "There you go." Steve filled in the smoother lines while they lasted.
He'd just started on the crinkles at the edge of Tony's eye when something blocked his light. Expecting their lunch, Steve pushed the pad aside, clearing space.
Only instead of a waitress, he was met with a swirl of chestnut hair and perfume. "Tony, darling," sang a low, languorous voice, tinged with some kind of West Coast accent. "I thought you'd given up on artists after that disaster with Heinrich." The woman's blazer and skirt didn't look that different from Ms Potts'. Only this one was in amber and black, and somehow cut a little cleaner and closer, in a way that made her seem completely out of place in a pub.
Steve glanced at Tony in time to catch him tense and slide towards the wall. "Sunset!" Tony 's smile shifted from slightly uncomfortable but genuine to a cool mask. "What on earth are you doing here?"
Sunset laughed lightly. It sounded about as authentic as Tony's smile looked. "Would you believe it? I actually looked up your celeb-tracker status." She edged around the table towards Tony, who'd run out of room to retreat. "I heard all about your new beau from the news, but then when I tried to call and congratulate you, that fierce little redhead of yours was screening your calls."
Good for her, Steve thought, pocketing the pad and raising to his feet. "I don't think I've had the pleasure, Ms..."
She started slightly and glanced back at Steve as if she'd forgotten he was there. "Sunset Bain." She held out her hand, allowing Steve to take it lightly. "You must be Steve." From the way she said his name, Steve figured she saw him in about the same light as had those ladies who used to hire him to run errands back in the 'thirties. He let go, re-evaluating her surprise as due to her not having expected him to dare to speak to her.
"Here you go then!" The waitress had shown up with their burgers. Ms Bain moved out of the way, taking the opportunity to slide her hip up against Tony's arm. If she moved another few inches, she was going to be sitting in Stark's lap. He didn't look at all comfortable around Ms Bain, but he was still gazing up at her, eyes dark and a little stunned. No help there.
Steve narrowed his eyes. There was no apparent way to get her to leave, not without a public incident, and he just wasn't doing that. "Why don't you have a seat, Ms Bain," he offered, stepping aside and pulling his chair out for her. "Could you get another chair for us?" He managed to manoeuvre the waitress so that the only place Ms Bain could decently go was into Steve's vacant spot, safely across the table from Tony. Satisfied with that arrangement, Steve planted himself at the end of the table, stretching his legs out under it.
Stark cast Steve an indecipherable look, then shook his head slightly and knocked back the rest of his whisky. The waitress immediately brought him another. Steve smiled warmly back before picking up his burger. It smelled heavenly. He didn't look at Ms Bain, but he felt pretty sure she was glaring at him.
"I'll just stay for a minute," she told Stark. "I don't want to spoil a romantic lunch."
Steve tried to put himself back in the conversation, but couldn't think of anything polite to say. He'd learned by now that "So, how do you know Tony?" was not a phrase that should ever leave his mouth.
"Really, Tony," she was saying now, "We must keep in better touch. I haven't seen you since before you left for Mauritius."
"I've been pretty busy," Stark said, slouching back again. "You know, running a weapons technology empire, advising the government, finding time to fall in love and get hitched." He sounded slightly defensive, and Steve had a sinking feeling that he was apologising to her. "I didn't think you had much time to spare either, considering." He raised an eyebrow significantly.
"So you did hear about that!" Under cover of taking a bite of the burger, Steve glanced at Ms Bain out of the corner of his eye. Her expression was as cool and polished as fine marble.
"I was in Mauritius, not on the Kree homeworld."
"I thought you might have been... distracted."
Steve had no idea what they were talking about, but it sounded very important, like something he should probably know. He nudged his knee against Stark's and raised an eyebrow inquiringly.
Stark nudged back sharply, but continued as though he hadn't communicated with Steve at all. "I was plenty distracted, but not enough to miss a terrorist attack against one of my main competitors."
"Especially since the methods were so similar to those used in the incident at your plant last year," Ms Bain concluded.
"I didn't think the details of that were public knowledge."
"I'm not the public."
"Apparently not." Stark's eyes had lost their uncertainty, and though they were still wide and dark, now they gleamed. "How much do you know?"
"Enough to see the connection." Another wave of perfume hit Steve as she leaned forwards. "We should pool our information, see what we can do about rooting out those irritating little traitors."
"I'll certainly think about it," Stark told her, though Steve could pretty much tell he already had, and had categorically decided against the idea.
Apparently, Ms Bain could too, because she rose, saying, "Suit yourself, but don't feel left out when we take out the source of the problem, and get the credit." She looked down at Steve, meeting his eyes for the first time. "Nice meeting you, Steve. Give me a call if you decide you want to try someone who'll show you a really good time."
"I'll certainly think about it, Ms Bain," Steve told her, matching Stark's tone as best he could. He didn't think he quite had the edge of the thing down. That must come with practice. "What was that all about?" he asked Stark when she was out of hearing distance.
He had to wait a moment for an answer. Stark had launched into his burger like he hadn't seen food in a month. "Just feeling me out. Or feeling me up, as the case may be," he explained at last, pausing long enough to take a drink. "Sunset doesn't know I know it, but she's going to lose the MacMillan contract unless she can prove to the military that her security's improved. Probably her spot in Project: Cadence, too. She's desperate; she'd have to be to ask for my help that directly."
Steve was beginning to understand the edge of what had just happened. "And can she, without your help, I mean?"
Stark shook his head minutely. "It's not very likely." He didn't look like a gloating rival, but his expression wasn't precisely regretful either.
"You've known Ms Bain for a long time, haven't you?" Steve asked.
"Since I was seventeen." Stark wouldn't meet Steve's eyes, looking intently at his plate and keeping his voice so soft that Steve had to lean in to hear at all. "I was young and stupid and thought we were in love. Funny story: it turns out she loved having access to StarkTech more than me. When she got that, she took off. We've crossed paths over the years, and every time I think... well, it doesn't matter what I think. I've changed; she hasn't." He met Steve's eyes at last, smiling palely. "You know, you're the only person I've ever told that to. Pepper and Rhodey know, of course, but..."
Under the pretence of moving back to the other side of the table, Steve pushed his chair back and stood up. Then he leaned down, far enough to put a crick in his back if he held the position for long, and pressed his lips against Tony's.
Even this close, he could see Tony's eyes go wide with surprise, and he slid a hand around the back of Tony's neck to keep him from pulling away. He didn't press forward after that, though, but kept the contact soft and tentative. He broke off for a moment to kiss the corner of Tony's mouth, the short hairs of Tony's van dyke scratching at Steve's cheek. He felt Tony's lips part and moved back for a proper kiss.
The edge of Tony's teeth felt sharp against Steve's tongue, in arousing contrast to the warm softness of his mouth. Steve shivered when the tip of Tony's tongue flicked forward to brush his own. His fingers dug into the fine hair at the base of Tony's skull. A flash of warmth had followed the shiver, starting in his face and flowing down his body. Suddenly, he wanted to yank Tony to his feet and press their bodies together and...
Startled by the intensity of the feeling, Steve broke the kiss. He stepped away and collapsed back into his original seat.
"What... uh..." Tony took a sip of whisky that turned into a gulp. "Okay."
Steve tried to remember the phrase he'd heard Ms Potts use. "PSA," he said. "That's the point of this lunch, right?"
Tony grinned. "I think you mean PDA, but that works too." He considered a ketchup-coated fry for a moment before popping it in his mouth. "Good job on that. I'm sure that young lady's" -- his eyes slid over to the woman at the table across from them -- "MyFaceInATube status is about to get a boost, at least."
"She just made a movie of us for the benefit of the Internet."
"Ah." Steve considered the implications of that, and decided he could live with them. He didn't tell Tony that he hadn't kissed him for the sake of their reputation.
Chapter 7: Day Six
Steve stepped out of the elevator, buttoning his shirt as he walked, then stopped dead in his tracks. He'd been headed for his room, to maybe read and listen to records a bit after a particularly gruelling training session with Iron Man. Now he was trying to figure out why there was a man who was not his husband sitting alone in Tony's living room.
"Tony didn't say he had a friend over," the man said, getting up off the couch. He was shorter than Steve, and thin but solidly built. He was also black and wearing an Air Force officer's uniform, which still wasn't a combination Steve was completely used to. Steve wasn't especially comfortable around uniforms these days anyway; too many mixed feelings.
"I was thinking the same thing," Steve replied. He stepped forward, holding out a hand. "Steve Rogers."
"Colonel James Rhodes. And I'm an actual friend, not a special friend, so don't think I'm up for the 'I'm thinking of a number between one and five' game."
Steve had no idea what that meant, other than, knowing Tony, it probably involved dirty sex. The name sounded awfully familiar, but Steve didn't catch on until after Colonel Rhodes took his hand. He was wearing a ring from MIT: Tony's school. "Say, you're Rhodey, aren't you?"
"What's Stark been saying now?" Rhodes looked extremely dubious, and Steve grinned, realising that he himself must have a very similar expression whenever he met one of Tony's former lovers.
"Nothing bad," Steve tried to assure him. "He's just mentioned you a couple of times, like you're someone he trusts. I'm glad someone has his back; it doesn't seem..."
This didn't look like it was going to be the gesture of good will Steve had hoped for. Rhodes was backing away, shaking his head. "Look, it's great to have the good opinion of Tony's latest fling and all, but I really need to see Tony now. Do you know where he is or not?"
"I haven't seen him in a couple of hours. Have you tried his lab?" Steve hesitated, not sure how to put the next part. As surreal as it was to have "Steve Rogers" open as many doors as "Captain America," he'd gotten pretty used to it. This was the first time he'd run into someone who knew Tony but didn't seem to know Steve's entire life history. "You don't watch the news a lot, do you?"
"I've been too busy to keep up with gossip rags." Rhodes had stepped around him and was headed for the elevators.
Steve followed him. "Oh." Well then, nothing else for it. "I live here; Tony and I are..."
The elevators doors slid open before they got near them. "Honey, I'm home!" Stark sang out cheerfully. He must have been working hard in the lab, because he was down to sweats, and his hair looked gel free and a little damp, like he'd just showered. "Oh, Rhodey, hey. God. I completely forgot you said you were coming. I've been distracted." He patted Rhodes absently on the arm and stepped around him, homing in on Steve.
"I see that," Rhodes commented dryly. "Since when do let your boyfriends move in with you?"
"I'm not his boyfriend." Steve wasn't sure to what extent Stark would want Rhodes to be in on the reasons behind their marriage, but he figured that it was better to be safe. Slipping an arm around Tony's waist, he added, "We're married."
Colonel Rhodes looked at Tony, who nodded; looked Steve up and down the same way Ms Potts had the previous morning; and then burst out laughing and didn't stop for a full minute.
"Well, we are," Steve said, somewhat defensively, when he figured Rhodes had gotten enough of a hold on himself to hear him.
"Oh, no, I believe you," Rhodes replied, leaning on a chair for support. His eyes glistened with tears of mirth. "It's just... it's just so very Tony Stark."
"Hey!" Tony protested.
"It's true!" Rhodes pulled himself upright enough to cross his arms over his chest. "So when did all this happen, and how come I wasn't invited?"
"Three weeks ago," Steve said, his words overlapping with Tony's, "last Thursday." Steve looked at Stark, eyes narrowed. Apparently Rhodes got to know the real story, which was fine with Steve, but they really needed to work on their lines of communication.
"Well, for once you're not the one lying, Tony. I was here three weeks ago, and you sure as hell weren't married then. You were ass deep in that ice man project and never even..." He broke off, and gave Steve another long look. "Tony?" he asked slowly. "Did you just marry the original Captain America?"
Steve started to open his mouth to tell Rhodes not to call him that, but Tony dug his fingers into Steve's side, so he shut up.
"It's a long story," Tony told him.
"With you, it always seems to be. Am I going to need a drink?" Rhodes asked.
"Yes." This time, they both spoke in accordance.
It seemed that Rhodes knew most of Tony's plans already, so it wasn't that long of a story. Though apparently, it was a highly entertaining one.
Tony half lay on one end of the couch, while Rhodes sat at the other, with decreasingly proper posture as they worked through a bottle of something hot and strange smelling. That left Steve the armchair next to Tony's end of the couch.
"So let me get this straight." Rhodes was slurring only slightly, from which Steve concluded that regular contact with Tony Stark must lend a high tolerance for alcohol. "My brothers in arms were going to kill Rogers, so you married him to save his life?"
"Yes." Tony was pretty much leaving Steve out of the conversation, which suited him just fine. He felt content to watch and pick up what he could.
"Then you recruited him into your nefarious plan for world domination."
Rhodes waved dismissively. The serving robot immediately cleaned the resulting sloshed alcohol off the carpet. "Whatever, Tony."
"And now you live together, and go everywhere together, and have to be all over each other all the time, but you're not having sex?"
That seemed a little personal to Steve, but Tony just sighed. "You have it in one."
"Only you could get yourself into this, Tony. Only you." Rhodes laughed again, shaking so hard he had to put down his tiny china cup.
"So," Tony said pointedly after another moment, "how was Wakanda?"
Rhodes straightened again, turning serious. "About like we thought. King T'Challa says he'll stay out of whatever happens, unless it affects his interests."
Steve leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. He'd met a Wakandian king during the war; he'd been a powerful man, physically and politically. Steve had always wished he'd gotten to know Azari better.
"I don't suppose he gave you a list? That man has his hands in everything."
Rhodes shrugged. "Nope, but he officially told the delegation I was with the same thing, so I'm calling this one a win." He frowned thoughtfully. "Unless I get malaria, which would be your fault for setting up the timing on this. You have no idea how many bugs there are there in the wet season."
"I'll pay your medical bills." Stark stretched his arms over his head, arching his back off the couch, and yawned. Steve's eyes traced the play of his muscles under his shirt. "No, it's totally a win: fewer wild cards, no foreign interference. I'm impressed, Rhodey."
"I'm glad someone is." Rhodes sighed and slouched back into the cushions. "I'm catching no end of flack for being part of the team that got turned down flat by every major player in the universe." He seemed to remember that Steve was there for the first time since he'd sat down. "Don't let Tony convince you that this spy stuff is some game. I tell you, Rogers, most days, it sucks."
Steve wanted to tell him that he'd done this before, in the war, but even the longer intelligence gathering missions hadn't lasted more than a couple of weeks. It didn't compare to the years Stark and, apparently, Rhodes had spent living one kind of lie or another. There were moments when they both seemed bone weary, and Steve wondered how much longer either of them could keep it up.
When Steve didn't respond, Stark said, "Aside from getting him to marry me, I haven't been able to talk Steve into very much." Which was patently untrue, but Steve didn't comment. "So, Rhodey, what does your schedule look like for the next few weeks?"
Rhodes rubbed a hand over his eyes. "I think we're all still on probation for poor performances. Why? What's up?"
"You heard about that thing with Baintronics?"
"I was in Wakanda, Tony, not on the Kree homeworld." Steve was really starting to wonder who these Kree were.
Stark lightly kicked Rhodes in the ankle. "Hey, you didn't know your best friend got married."
"The United States Air Force sent me a memo about Baintronics; one with things like "urgent" and "top secret" stamped all over it. You didn't even get Pepper to e-mail me." Rhodes probably had a right to be genuinely annoyed, but to Steve, his tone sounded full of affection, though perhaps mixed with resignation.
"Anyhow..." Tony said, drawing the word out. "I've decided that I don't need Sunset thinking I'm ignoring terrorists. Could you go out to San Francisco and look into the attacks? Make it as public and connected to me as you can."
Rhodes waved at the robot, which poured out the last of the bottle for him. "I'll set it up today," he agreed easily. "I assume you don't want mutants or the letter 'X' to show up in my reports." He and Stark exchanged a look that Steve didn't get at all.
"That would probably be best, yeah."
"Okay, one coverup, coming your way." Rhodes finished his cup in one swallow, and stood up, slightly unsteadily. "My real job is calling, but I'll be in New York overnight, if you want to.." he trailed off hopefully.
Stark pulled a face, shaking his head. "Can't, Steve's meeting the underground tonight."
"Oh. Next time then."
They both looked so disappointed that Steve couldn't help but say, "I'm sure Iron Man and I can handle it, Tony. Why don't you..." he almost said, "go play with your friend," but hastily substituted, "go and catch up with Colonel Rhodes."
He really didn't seem to be able to hit the right note with Rhodes. Instead of solving everything, Steve's offer only made him glare at Tony. "It's only Rogers and Iron Man going, so you have the evening off?" he asked very slowly. Stark met his eyes for several moments, then shook his head minutely. For some reason, this made Rhodes laugh again, the sound so loud and sudden that Steve started slightly. "Jesus, Tony, only you," he said again.
"I've got a million things to do here, and with Steve out for the first time, well, it's not a good night."
Steve was pretty sure that Stark and Rhodes had said all they needed to say to each other in that look, and that the words were for Steve's benefit. He just couldn't tell why. Was Rhodes worried about Steve's ability to do his part? Or maybe something about Stark and Iron Man. Did Stark not want to go out without his bodyguard? Did Rhodes have a problem with that? It was all very puzzling. He rose as well, holding out his hand to Rhodes again. "It sure was nice to meet you, Colonel Rhodes. Like I said before, I'm glad to know there's someone out there who has Tony's back."
Rhodes chuckled. "Someone has to. Iron Man can't do everything."
Stark didn't look too happy about that comment -- more or less confirming Steve's second theory -- but he pulled Rhodes into a brief hug. "Look after yourself," he said warmly.
"You too, Tony." As Rhodes passed Steve on his way out, he leaned slightly towards Steve, whispering so low that only enhanced hearing could pick it up, "Hurt that man, and I will kill you."
Steve stared after him, wondering what in the world Colonel Rhodes and Ms Potts thought he was going to do.
Chapter 8: Day Seven
"So, how does it feel?" Stark asked for the third time.
Steve ran a finger along the edge of his cowl, where not-leather gave way to skin. It fit about the same as the old one had, but felt different, somehow softer and more rigid at the same time. "I don't know, fine, I guess. Well, strange, actually." If nothing else, it felt weird to dress for combat after so long in either military jumpsuits or civvies. Wearing a costume in Tony Stark's living room felt even stranger.
"Well, you look good."
Steve didn't feel too sure about that either. Stark had turned the main window into a mirror, and as Steve studied his reflection, he concluded that his drawings hadn't looked quite like this. The not-leather of his pants definitely fit more tightly than Cap's leathers had. Maybe the material required it, because he hadn't lost any freedom of movement. Stark had told him that it was intelligent micro armour, or something of that kind. The shirt had heavier armour and wasn't as obscenely close fitting. Aside from black combat boots, gloves, belt and cowl, the whole outfit was an unadorned dark blue-grey colour. It would blend into an urban background, he supposed, but...
As he turned before the mirror, something in the fabric shifted, altering in the light. Steve stared at his reflection, turning back a little to catch it again. "There's a star on my chest," he said, glancing back at Stark. The outline disappeared as the light changed.
"Call it a talisman. You shouldn't have to give up your whole past." Tony picked a bundle of fabric off the coffee table, shaking the folds loose and holding it up for Steve to put on. "This is the part I'm not too sure about."
The black trench coat rested heavily on his shoulders as Steve slid into it. It was probably lighter than real leather would have been, but heavier than oil cloth. He liked the warmth and solid feel of it. Also, it came down to just below his knees, and did something to preserve his modesty. "I look like I'm wearing tight grey pyjamas without it." He looked a little like something out of the old Midnight Racer posters with it, but Tony didn't need to know about that bit of the design inspiration. Besides, he'd left the hat out.
Tony straightened the collar for Steve, then stepped back. "So long as you can fight in it."
"I once fought my way out of a U-boat with my arms and legs tied together," he assured Stark. The mission with the corsets was also something Stark didn't need to know about. "This won't be a problem."
"I suppose you're far more likely to brain yourself with your own shield," Tony agreed.
"Hey, you're the one who invented the blasted thing." Giving his reflection one last look, he decided that he'd present okay and turned away. "When do we leave?"
"Ten minutes," Stark told him. "I just need a moment to talk to Iron Man. Why don't you go up to the roof; he'll meet you there."
"Okay." Steve was still pretty sure that Stark could talk to Iron Man using the computer in his head, but maybe they thought some things needed saying face to face. "I'll just head up. Thanks for the suit, Tony."
Stark shrugged. "Normally I prefer to take clothes off a good looking guy like you, but hey, any time." He patted Steve's arm, the touch barely making itself felt though all the fabric. "What are you going to call yourself, anyway?"
"I was thinking 'Nomad,'" Steve said.
Something like pain flashed across Tony's face, gone so quickly that Steve almost didn't notice the tightening in his mouth or the way his eyes widened. "A man without a home, huh?" he said just a little too easily. "I guess that fits."
"I more meant without a country, but..." Steve wasn't quite sure what else to say. It wasn't as if Stark Tower felt like home, no matter that he lived here. "I'll be up on the roof."
A cold wind blew off the Hudson, carrying spatters of rain with it, but no real precipitation. The cowl covered the back of Steve's neck, but his flipped his collar up anyway, and folded the coat around him. He chewed his lip, feeling dissatisfied with how the conversation had gone.
Tony had been really good to him, kind in a way that Steve really thought went beyond offering incentives to co-operate. He seemed to be genuinely trying to make a home for Steve, and Steve had just...
He shook his head sharply. What does Stark think is going to happen? They were only married to save Steve from a short life in a military lab, and to provide a cover for working together. A future beyond the current war had never been part of the plan, so far as Steve knew. If they lost, where Steve called home would hardly matter, and if they won, wouldn't Tony want his life back? Steve had assumed that if the threat was gone, they would get a divorce -- quietly, he hoped -- and go their separate ways. Which will be good, Steve told himself; I'll be free. To do what, he didn't know, but free.
Which meant he could move past this ridiculous infatuation.
Steve was aware enough to know what this was now: the tension, the urge to kiss Tony when they weren't in public and there wasn't any need. More than that, the desire to pull Tony close and never let him go, the way heat flushed through Steve's body when they touched, and the way Tony's little moans of appreciation and the soft feel of his mouth seemed to go straight to Steve's groin. He hadn't felt this way about a man in years, and not about anyone at all since that nameless woman during the War. God, he'd seen her a month ago, a month and a hundred years. He couldn't tell if it felt more like one or the other.
Regardless, he was falling for Tony, and falling hard, and he couldn't decide what he was going to do about it. There was no way to tell if his feelings were even reciprocated. Steve knew that Tony found him physically attractive -- unsurprising, as Tony Stark seemed to find anything that walked on two legs and possessed a heartbeat attractive. From Tony's generosity, Steve had decided that Tony felt some kind of affection for him. It was possible that Tony returned his feelings, that his interest in making a home for Steve was based in a desire for a real marriage.
How badly Steve wanted that to be true bordered on ludicrous. Especially since he couldn't have it. Stark had made a game out of manipulating everyone around him; his whole plan depended on no one knowing his true motives or who he really was. Steve thought he could read Stark, thought that Stark wanted to help him, wanted to help the country, but what if it wasn't true? This whole marriage sham could turn out to be just another twist in Stark's Machiavellian schemes, and then what would happen to Steve? Stark still had the power to control every aspect of Steve's life, including whether he lived at all. Steve couldn't afford to tie himself any more tightly to Stark's side; there was too much at stake to risk himself like that.
Steve scrubbed a hand over his face and wished that none of this was happening to him. In the middle of the struggle, he'd wanted it to all be over, to just win and be done with the pain, but now he missed the war. At least he'd known what was going on.
"Banging your head against the wall only burns a hundred and fifty calories an hour," a metallic voice said from behind him. "It's not a great way to lose weight."
Spinning to face the newcomer, Steve silently berated himself. He'd been so wrapped up in his thoughts that he hadn't even noticed the launch doors opening behind him. Granted, they were damn near silent, but still, that kind of woolgathering would only get good people killed.
The voice hadn't sounded like Iron Man, and it wasn't. The armour in front of him was built along the same general lines, but it was larger, rougher, and a dull gunmetal grey. Weapons emerged from every surface, throwing off the balance of the construction, making it look ungainly. It didn't look like something that Stark would build, but at the same time, Steve recognised the gauntlet as being part of something he'd seen in the lab the day before.
Raising his arm, Steve smoothly activated his shield. "Who the hell are you?"
"Iron Man," the machine replied, voice too low and harsh for that to be true.
"Sure you are."
"No, really, I am." Servos hissed as the machine raised its hands. "You don't think Mr Stark would want me showing up at an underground meeting in the company colours, do you? That could be embarrassing for everybody."
Steve had to concede that point. Attacking government property dressed as an employee of the military's pet weapons manufacturer probably wouldn't end well either. Still, "What did I ask you that first night on the roof?" he asked.
"You wanted to know what my name was." Iron Man dropped his hands, stepping closer. This new suit made even more noise than the old one had. "I told you it didn't matter."
Steve narrowed his eyes, still convinced that Stark had somehow linked his brain into Iron Man's armour. The way the fight at Van Dyne's ball had gone down suggested it, for one thing; Steve had seen too much co-ordination in Iron Man's attack patterns and Stark's manipulation of the holographic systems. Stark also seemed to know a couple of things he shouldn't, comments Steve had made to Iron Man alone. So Stark would have known how to answer that, and he could have told some other employee so he or she could pass, but why would he bother? He could just as easily have told Steve that he was sending him with someone else, no need to build a web of lies. "What do you call yourself in that rig, then?"
Iron Man held an arm out to Steve. "I usually go by War Machine." When Steve didn't move any closer, Iron Man asked, "Are you ready to go now?"
"You bet," Steve told him, and stepped in. He slid his arm over Iron Man's shoulders, careful to avoid the gun mount on the right side. Iron Man wrapped his left arm uncomfortably tightly around Steve's waist, and they were off.
"Hold on," Iron Man said. "I need to bounce through a bunch of blind spots Mr Stark made in the military surveillance network. It might get a little rough." He shot straight up like a lark, then twisted and spun off at ninety degrees.
Steve hung on, bringing his left hand up to grip Iron Man's gauntlet, and maybe praying just a little bit. The rain had settled into a steady curtain, and it stung his eyes. He tried closing them, but every lurch and twist in their course only seemed more severe without being able to see the whirling lights of the city shift from above to below them. He felt intensely glad that he hadn't eaten in the last few hours. There has got to be a better way to do this, he thought, but didn't want to criticise the man holding Steve's life in his hands. "What about actual sightings?" he yelled over the wind.
Their path had levelled out a bit, now that they were past the East River and over Queens. "Stealth tech," Iron Man's speaker had switched to a patch of metal beside Steve's ear. "The suit projects a field which refracts the light around it. It's a bit sketchy in the full light, but someone would have to be right on top of us to spot us at night."
"Right." Steve decided to take his word that that was something that worked. As they turned east, then south again, he wondered if he'd ever feel like he was beginning to catch up with this era's technology. Every time he felt like he was getting a hold on it, Stark or Iron Man came up with something out of one of his wilder science fiction pulps, and presented it to Steve as fact. "I..." he had to break off as Iron Man dropped a hundred feet in half a second, and tried not to moan as the rocket launcher mounted on War Machine's arm viscously dug into his ribs.
"It'll smooth out after this," Iron Man assured him. " There's not as many eyes around here. I don't think they really care about the Bronx."
Steve grunted, and tried to shift his grip on Iron Man's neck without falling to his death. Travelling with Miss America had been a lot more fun.
Fortunately, they touched down a moment later, and Steve was able to let go. Rotating his shoulder gingerly, he looked around. The Bronx seemed to have survived a bit better than Long Island City had. In fact, though dark, most of the buildings seemed relatively undamaged, and apparently inhabited. Steve could make out a few threads of light where blackout screens didn't quite meet the sill. Careless.
Something had gone a bit wrong with the drain system, and the rain didn't have anywhere to run off into. Instead it flowed in little rivers as it could, completely taking over the street in places. One puddle came up to Iron Man's ankles as he walked across the deserted intersection. Steve frowned. His companion seemed to be heading right for one the one building that hadn't survived. It loomed over them, rain dripping off the outlines of girders and running in little rivulets across the rubble. It looked like it had taken a direct hit from some kind of fire bomb, and no one had touched it since. When Iron Man reached the edge of the debris, he turned and looked back at Steve. "Are you coming or not?"
"Coming." Steve slogged after him, pleased, at least, to find that his boots seemed completely waterproof. When he caught up, Iron Man nodded to himself and stepped forward without hesitation. "Wha..." Steve started to say, but broke off, perplexed, as Iron Man shimmered and disappeared. Steve glanced around, not seeing any sign of where he had gone. At least, not until a metal gauntlet reached out of nowhere and pulled him nose first into what should have been a chuck of blackened concrete.
More illusions, Steve realised and stepped forward into a street outside an old apartment building. Iron Man let go of his wrist and opened the door next to them without pausing to knock. "Watch where you walk. The building's in bad shape."
Steve kept track of the turns without too much difficulty, noting where there had once been stairways, and where the floor didn't look like it would hold much longer. Iron Man in his suit must have to be pretty darn careful in a place like this. Somewhere on an underground level, Iron Man led him through to what must have once been a parking space for cars. It had to be about the size of Van Dyne's ballroom, though a good deal darker and grubbier. A few bits of shabby furniture had been scattered around in an attempt to break up the space, but the clank of War Machine's boots still echoed uncomfortably.
The four... no, five... people gathered in a loose circle at the centre of the room stared at them expectantly. They made a rather mismatched group, dressed in a mix of costumes, uniforms, and civvies.
Steve felt his eyes drawn to the woman in tight yellow, red and black who lounged on a dilapidated couch. He couldn't see any of her skin or face beyond her long black hair, and though he was too far away to smell her, somehow he felt like he could. He felt his face grow warm without knowing why. The woman behind the couch rested both her hands on the back, bracketing the shoulders of the woman in red, and leaned forward. He'd probably caught her in the middle of pacing; her long blonde hair still swirled around her face. The non-regulation haircut made a striking contrast to her battered flight suit and bomber jacket, but fit pretty well with the trailing red sash around her waist. She was the only one in the room not wearing a mask. Steve had seen enough pilots to pick this one out immediately.
The man sitting astride one of the plastic kitchen chairs had a ski-mask pulled over his face, but despite the cold, wore only a black undershirt and torn jeans, leaving his dark, muscled arms largely bare. He barely looked up at Steve before turning to the blonde and saying something too low for Steve to hear. The blonde shook her head in response.
A rather ordinary-looking man leaned against one of the cement support pillars. He didn't look quite in fighting trim like the rest did, going a little soft in the middle, and showing off a few strands of white in his tightly-curled black hair, which again was all Steve saw of his features above the black-and-white mask. Still, the man stood with the causal poise of someone who had seen a lot of action over the years.
Steve almost hadn't spotted the fifth member, who was sticking to the side of the pillar above the leaning man's head, arms wrapped tightly around her knees. He figured that she must have some kind of suction cups on her feet, that or tiny hooks, because she sure wasn't falling like she should have. She seemed small too, too little to be in combat. Though Steve admitted it was possible that she was a thirty-year-old ninja under the costume, which covered her head to toe in a pattern of red and black lines. Something about her pose said she was younger though, a lot younger.
"It's about damn time you got here," snapped the blonde, standing up and away from the couch and folding her arms across her chest.
"We're half an hour early," Iron Man reminded her. He widened his stance, and Steve got the impression that he wanted to fold his arms to mirror hers, but knew how ridiculous it would look in a battle suit. "I thought this was supposed to be a training session. Is there something going on that I haven't heard about?"
"Yeah. Something came up," the man in the chair said. "So let's meet Coat Boy, so we can ramp up and get out."
"Right," the blonde said, and the others nodded, so Steve walked forward into the rough circle.
He took a certain comfort hearing Iron Man right behind him. He had no idea who these people were, or what abilities they had, but he felt pretty sure that he and Iron Man could hold them off if they needed to. "I usually go by Nomad," he said easily, deliberately dropping his Lower East Side accent in favour of something more like a midwest twang."But I'll probably answer to Coat Boy, too, so long as you shout it at me loud enough."
"Nomad: direct, short, easy to yell." The blonde jumped over the couch, landing with a slow grace that quite literally defied gravity. "I like it. War Machine said you're a super solder. Can you fly?"
"No, Ma'am. Not under my own power, at least." And probably not anything made in the last hundred years either.
The woman grimaced. "Okay then, we can brief you two on the way." The others stood now, gathering closer. "Nomad, you're with me. You too, Goliath. War Machine, you have Spider-girl and Power Man--"
"We have got to either find more fliers or steal ourselves a stealth jet," the girl griped, spraying some kind of padding on War Machine's shoulder. She had the high, clear voice of a teenager. Steve flinched.
"Suck it up, Mayday. Spider-woman, you fine on your own?"
"Aren't I always?" The woman in red stood close enough to the blonde to be in her space, but didn't quite touch her.
The blonde didn't seem to believe that, but shrugged off her jacket and stepped away anyway. Goliath defied his name by shrinking to the size of Steve's thumb. The blonde tucked him into an upper pocket before slipping an arm around Steve's waist and grinning up at him. "I'm Warbird, by the way. Also known as your fearless leader."
"We'll see about that." Warbird's smile turned savage, and she lifted off like they all weighed nothing. "I hope you came ready for a fight."
They'd just about gotten over Weehawken, New Jersey, when the storm front overtook them. Steve squeezed his eyes shut against the rain and tightened his grip. He could feel Warbird's breasts pressing against his arm, but with Goliath in her flight suit pocket, he couldn't really shift his hold. "Sorry," he said, pressing his lips to her ear.
Her shoulder jammed into his jaw as she shrugged. "Occupational hazard." She had to shout over the wind. "Spider-girl's right; we need to steal ourselves a jet."
Steve grimaced. He and Bucky had commandeered a lot of vehicles during the war, both civilian and military, but the idea of stealing something in America didn't sit right. This was another kind of war, on home soil, and he couldn't seem to feel like he had a hold of it yet. Still, "You need to understand two things about me," he yelled. He should have said this before, but she'd been too busy outlining the mission, and he hadn't gotten two words in that weren't "Yes, Ma'am." "Otherwise, you can drop me off right here."
"In Jersey City?"
"Well that's dedication. Okay. Shoot."
"I won't kill civilians, and I won't torture anyone."
Warbird didn't say anything for a moment, then she hummed low in her throat. "War Machine said you're ex-special forces."
Close enough. "Yes, Ma'am."
"How long were you in?"
"Four years." It had seemed like longer, his whole life, and he still couldn't quite believe that it was over.
"And you stuck to that rule the whole time?"
"Huh. Wish I'd been in your unit. You should fit in just fine here, though." Warbird dropped suddenly.
Steve's eyes snapped open. He saw a disorienting flash of black and grey and water in every direction, and he realised that they were plunging towards the river. He had told her he couldn't breathe under water, right?
Just as he drew the breath to cry out, Warbird pulled up to skim over the tops of the wind waves. "Good night for a mission. No matter how good the tech gets, we're still damn near invisible in this muck."
"As long as you don't fly us into someone," a small voice said from her pocket.
"As depressing as the thought is, I knew Newark Bay like my own living room. Probably better." She flipped on her side and swerved around the cement form anchoring a bridge tower, then another a moment later. Steve could only see shadows above them. Her breath sped up, and he felt her muscles tighten; he could almost feel her heart rate accelerate, even through two layers of armour. She swooped up and away from the water, then down again. He knew they were close even before she said, "Thirty seconds. Remember the plan; stay off the comms, and don't die. Go!"
Steve let go at the bottom of the arc, running two steps to keep his balance. Goliath touched down behind him with a soft thud. Warbird disappeared into the rain.
They kept low and headed back towards the bay. Steve's new costume blended perfectly with the towers of blue and grey shipping containers. Goliath's black and white stood out more, but he made up for it by not increasing to full size.
Until they spotted the first sentries, that was. In less time than it took to blink, Goliath grew ten feet and knocked the woman out with one punch. Steve hit her partner in the face with his shield, then stripped their weapons while Goliath -- small again -- tied and gagged them.
Shouting erupted from somewhere to Steve's right, followed by the metallic whine and thud of energy weapons. Goliath swore under his breath, and they both plunged around the last corner.
The headlights of a pair of trucks glared through the rain, only just illuminating the open space around them. Steve didn't know the team well enough to tell friend from foe at a glance in the dark, and he hesitated. Something green flashed on the opposite side of the loading area, bright enough for Steve to see Power Man take a blast in the chest and keep moving. His assailant lined up a shot at his head. Steve's shield arm twitched, and he wished, again, that he had some way to throw the damn thing.
Then something someone small and red, had to be Spider-girl, dropped on the thug with the pistol, did something to his eyes, and bounded clear just as Power Man levelled him.
Ahead of Steve, Goliath had grown to twenty feet, and was using one thug to hit the others. He made a heck of a target, but Warbird had arrived on scene. She darted through the air, catching energy blasts and slinging them back with interest.
He had his bearings now, and dodged between Goliath's legs, heading for the nearest truck. Inside the cab, a woman in a suit jabbed at a tiny computer. Warbird had said they needed something like that, so Steve was going to get it for her.
A goon saw him coming and raised his weapon, but Steve was already too close and elbowed him in the throat before he could get a shot off. He kicked the pistol under the truck before leaping onto the hood.
Without the weight of the vibranium-iron alloy behind it, the shield wasn't the offensive weapon Steve was used to. The windshield didn't even crack the first time he went after it; he grimaced and drew his arm back again.
Something that felt like a vice grabbed his arm and yanked back. Instinctively, Steve kicked off the hood and slammed back into his assailant. Even through his body armour, the impact jarred him to the bones. He could remember hitting granite cliffs with more give in them. Still, he did manage to twist free and find solid ground.
Shutting his eyes against the glare of the headlights, he lashed out at where he figured the thing's crotch should be, hoping whoever it was was male. Instead of a soft crunch and wail of agony, he heard a sharp crack followed by a grunt. He'd hit a kneecap.
Steve's assailant took a step back, giving Steve enough room to roll up into a crouch and figure out what he was up against.
The creature was big, and grey, and looked like the offspring of a rhinoceros and one of the trolls from The Hobbit. It snarled and threw a right cross at Steve's head. The move had no finesse at all, and enough speed and power to shatter a human skull.
Steve deflected the punch over him and retreated back a pace. He'd beat down behemoths like this before, but they didn't have time for a metahuman brawl. He couldn't disengage either, though, so he'd just have to do his best to take the thing down fast.
When the rhino-troll stepped in to take another swing at him, Steve dove under the right, caught the left hook with his shield, and slammed his fist up under its chin. Its head didn't quite snap back like he'd hoped, but the thing did stagger back, shaking its head. It didn't even seem to see the next two punches coming. "I'm gonna kill you," it slurred, and suddenly its head wasn't wavering, but sweeping its horns at Steve's face.
"Have to hit me first." He got in a kick at what he hoped were its kidneys on the way out from under its grip. Though he may have gotten the anatomy wrong, because the blow didn't seem to do much. He didn't really want to think about it just being that tough.
"I'm gonna kill you!" Blood and spit flew from its mouth, and it dove towards Steve, horns first.
"Not today, buddy." The voice came from above and behind the rhino-troll, and it tried to pull up, but it had already committed too much of its weight towards Steve. Spider-Woman dropped out of the rain, hair plastered to her face and neck, hands glowing gold. Steve took the distraction and planted the edge of his shield in the rhino-troll's diaphragm. At the same moment, Spider-Woman brought her hands down over the back of its neck.
Steve sprang back to avoid the branches of electricity that crackled across its body. It jerked spasmodically, and fell to one knee, putting a hand on the hood of the truck to steady itself.
The headlights revealed its features, and Steve realised that it -- he -- had a human face. He was just a man, somehow fused inside flexible armour. What a way to live. Steve almost felt sorry, but then the rhino-man started to push himself up, and he remembered that this had already gone on longer than it should have.
It took three blows to the side of the head and another healthy dose of spider stings to knock him out. When he looked up, he found the windows of the truck smashed, and both woman and computer gone.
"Status!" Steve started slightly at the sound of Warbird's voice in his ear.
Beside him, Spider-Woman tapped her throat before saying, "Rhino's down. Area's clear."
Steve copied her.
"Good here. We've got the database."
"My underwear is wet."
"Okay, fine. But it is!"
"Charges are set." That was Iron Man, voice still filtered and metallic, even though all the others sounded as clear as life. The man -- or woman, it suddenly occurred to Steve -- was very serious about his identity.
"Good. We have what we came for. Fliers: grab who you came with and meet back at the beta site for debriefing and debugging."
Steve held his arm up, bracing himself, and Warbird snagged him as she streaked past.
Steve had just gotten his grip straightened out when he felt, more than heard, the explosion. Warbird paused to look back, giving them both a view of darkness and rain. Steve could just make out the lights of the trucks, but nothing like flames or flying debris.
"Gotta love War Machine and his directed charges," she commented. They turned and dropped to just above the wave tops again, cutting across the wind this time. Towards Brooklyn, Steve realised, not back to the Bronx.
"How'd it go?" Stark had to yell so that Steve would hear him over the roar of the showers, but he didn't seem willing to wait for Steve to get warm and dry before harassing him with questions. Iron Man had disappeared off somewhere, presumably to clean up in his own quarters, wherever they were. It hadn't taken five minutes for Stark to track Steve down in the facilities adjoining the training room. Steve was slightly surprised he hadn't accosted them as soon as they'd landed. He'd probably wanted to talk to Iron Man first.
"Fine," Steve yelled back, "Well, Warbird seemed to think so, anyway. I don't know. Iron Man probably knows more." Even the debrief had been terse, more an excuse to check everyone over for tracking devices than anything. "I gather that we blew up a weapons shipment meant for one of the gangs -- maybe the one connected with my friends from the other night -- and that this will somehow damage the supplier of the weapons, or the gang." Or something. "Oh, and I beat up a guy who looked like a rhinoceros."
"Good for you." Tony sounded more amused than encouraging, but his tone sobered when he said, "Warbird plays it pretty close with strangers, but she'll trust you eventually."
Steve let the gloriously hot water pound against his head and back and didn't say anything. He hadn't taken any serious hits in the fight, which wasn't really surprising, as he hadn't done much either. Still, the shower felt good, and there didn't seem to be any limit on how long he could use it before it turned cold.
"You okay in there?" Tony asked eventually.
"Fine, just tired and cold." Injured or not, that much time in driving rain seemed to have sapped the strength out of his muscles. "Give me a minute, okay."
It was probably more like a quarter of an hour before he finally turned the water off. He felt something like warm now, but still immensely tired. One short fight after weeks of easy living shouldn't have taken that much out of him, but it felt like more than physical fatigue, too. As he towelled off, he wondered how long it would be before dealing with the most basic aspect of this world didn't seem like an inscrutable riddle.
Stark hadn't said anything for a while, and Steve half expected to find that'd he wandered off to bed. Instead, he was perched on the counter, idly swinging his legs as data streamed across his eyes. "It is..." Tony broke off when he saw Steve, eyes going wide. "Um... hey," he said, voice very small. "Nice towel."
"Thanks, Stark." The white terry cloth covered him from waist to knee. Steve had seen smaller bedsheets. Rummaging through his locker, he found a pair of cotton pants, but no shirt. He considered them for a moment, then decided to let the towel be for the moment. It wasn't like Stark hadn't seen this much and more when Steve was in the military labs, but he wasn't changing in front of him.
When he turned around, Stark had hopped off the counter and was leaning back against it. The posture made his hips jut forward solicitously, but it was impossible to tell whether it was just Tony being Tony, or if he was hitting on Steve again. Probably both, really. "So..." He sounded obvious, even awkward. "You flattened the Rhino, huh?"
"I had help."
"Well, yeah, but still, not bad for your first time out."
"Tony..." Steve ran a hand through his hair. His fingers caught in the damp tangles, reminding him that he badly needed to get it cut. "What am I doing here, Tony?"
"Saving America." The answer was too sure and pat to be real, even if Stark believed it. Which Steve wasn't at all sure of.
Tony shrugged, making his whole body ripple against the edge of the counter. "What do you want? I told you: we're breaking down the system so we can replace it with something better." Pushing off the counter, he stepped in to stand just outside Steve's space. "Maybe Warbird didn't tell you much, but tonight, you kept a bunch of pretty nasty guns off the streets, and did some real damage to the Three Flags Gang, who are bastards, in case you were wondering. The team also got some promising intel on Justin Hammer, which could lead to bringing his company down too. And Iron Man's pretty sure that Spider-Girl slapped trackers on a couple of the senior goons."
"That's not..." Steve tried to say, but Stark rolled right over him.
"I know it's not exactly storming Omaha Beach, but you have to start somewhere."
"I didn't ask why the team was there," Steve snapped. He should have waited until he'd rested to have this argument, but they were committed now. "I want to know why I was there."
It was going to be the same thing again. Steve shook his head, holding up a hand to silence Stark. "Don't tell me I'm special. You could have found a dozen metahumans more powerful than I am -- all with better tactical experience in this city at this time -- and any three of them would have cost you less than I did."
Stark folded his arms tightly across his chest. "First of all, I spent what I had to to keep you safe because it was the right thing to do, not because I needed a new tool. As for why I wanted you to join the underground..." He paused, shifting slightly away from Steve. "Will you hit me in the nose if I tell you it's because you were Captain America?"
Steve considered it. "I might."
"Okay, so I won't." Stark took another step back anyway. "Look, you want a specific, logical answer to why you're here doing what you're doing. You probably do not want it to be something to do with my general affection for tall blonds." He mimed trailing a finger down Steve's chest. Steve felt himself flush. "I've already told you some of the reasons, and I could go on about your war record, and personality types, and public relations until you die of boredom, but I won't. Not because it would probably kill me first, which it would, but because it's not true. Or it is true, all of it can be true, but it's not why you're here."
"Then why?" Steve stepped forward, closing the gap. If he moved any further, he'd trap Stark against the sinks. Stark tilted his head back to meet his eyes. He didn't look the least bit intimidated.
"Do you know anything about advertising?"
"What? Um... not really."
"Okay, bear with me for a second, I promise there's a point." By hopping back up on the counter, Tony brought himself level with Steve. He was all confidence and smiles now, and Steve knew that, true or not, this would be good. "Okay, selling things to people is something they've studied the fuck out of over the past hundred years. The theory was the more you know about how people's heads work, the more money you could make; it led to psychology being something of an industry darling, too. The point is, it didn't take the best minds in America that long to figure out that people don't decide to buy things for a good reason."
"But..." That was a rich man's theory if Steve had ever heard one.
Tony held up a hand, coming so close to touching Steve's shoulder that Steve could feel the warmth of his skin. "No, seriously, they don't. It's an impulse, a gut decision. Given any choice at all, people buy because they want to. Later, they build up a web of justifications: it was the best value; they did all the market research; the kids will like it; it's supporting the economy; whatever, but it's not the real reason."
Steve rubbed the back of his neck. Raising his arm like that let the towel slip down another inch, but he ignored it. "So you're saying that you got me because I'm a swell deal and you wanted me?" He vaguely felt like he should find offence in that, but it really seemed like too bizarre an idea to take that seriously.
"Well..." Tony chewed his bottom lip, dragging it slowly between white teeth. "I would rather say it was more of a gut decision, but in my defence, I have excellent instincts, the best. Most of the time I can see all the patterns and how the pieces fit into them. Even when I can't, I know when a piece is important, even if I haven't figured out exactly how or why."
"Right," Steve said, not sure what sort of comment that required. He had realised two things in the last few minutes. The first being that Tony Stark was a crazy son of a bitch. The second, well, "Thanks for levelling with me, Tony. Your honesty means a lot to me." He wrapped his hand around the back of Tony's neck.
Tony leaned into the touch like a cat, then tilted his head and parted his lips. Steve wanted to kiss him more than anything. He could let the cloth between them drop and step forward, and allow himself to have those moments -- hours, hopefully -- of pleasure.
Instead, he stepped back, hitching up the towel as he did. "I'm pretty much done." His voice sounded unnatural and too loud, but he continued anyway. "I guess I'd better hit the sack before I fall over."
"We wouldn't want that, I'm sure." Tony slid off the counter and beat Steve to the door. "I'll be in my lab."
Later, even in his immensely comfortable bed, it took Steve a lot longer than it should have to nod off. His mind just wouldn't stop replaying every moment, frequently with variations. It didn't help that he already knew exactly what it felt like to kiss Tony Stark.