"...and as cleanup efforts continue, the question on everyone's mind seems to be: who are the Avengers? And more specifically, who is this new Captain America? For more on this we go to Bill Milpitas, on location in what once was Midtown Manhattan. Bill?"
"Hey," Steve said, calling down the bar, pointing at the huge television mounted over it. "Can't we get a game on or something?"
"Pipe down," one of the men at the end of the bar said, glued to the TV screen. "I wanna see this."
"It's the same old guff they've been playing for two days," Steve replied.
"Guff," the guy snorted, and ignored him. The bartender gave him a shrug: What can you do? Give 'em what they want. Steve really wished he could still get drunk.
"Thanks, Annie," Bill Milpitas said. He was standing in front of a darkened building in Midtown -- Steve recognized holes in the wall made by Hulk's fists as he took out Chitauri rappelling down the facade. "The scene is quiet in Manhattan tonight, most of the area still cordoned off and closed to the public. But even here, work crews are speculating about the cause of all this wreckage."
He began to walk, picking his way over the rubble. Steve sighed.
"Now, we all know Tony Stark, aka the Iron Man, and there's been plenty of footage of him participating in the battle that was fought here just a few days ago. Details are also emerging about his fellow 'Avengers', as they're being called by senior government officials. A little later on in this special feature, we'll have interviews with several individuals who knew Clinton 'Hawkeye' Barton in a surprising former life, and we'll be showing footage of the green giant 'The Hulk' before he apparently joined the side of good, along with a report on how New York rebuilt Harlem in the aftermath of his rampage."
Steve signaled for another beer. Sometimes he wondered why he bothered with alcohol at all. But it tasted all right, and this was his local, and a man should have a local. Anyway, he supposed it did him good to get out.
"Not a lot of information has been released about the man known simply as 'Thor', save for shadowy rumors of his appearance in a small New Mexico town," Bill continued on the television. "Just as little is known about the woman fighting with these brave men, whose only name seems to be 'The Black Widow'. But the big mystery in New York these days, the question everyone's asking, is: who is Captain America? What man felt he was capable of stepping forward and assuming the long-retired mantle of America's greatest war hero?"
"Betcha it's a SEAL," one of the men at the end of the bar said, as Bill presented a history of The Real Captain America. "Team Seven, like those guys who whacked Bin Laden."
"Nah. Gotta be a Marine."
"Government experiment, I heard," the bartender said. "Like, they cloned the original or injected his blood in some new kid or something."
"Bet he's getting all the ass in New York, anyway."
"Shit, if it were me, I'd go everyfuckingwhere in the uniform."
"He probably can't tell anyone," the bartender said. "You know. Like you said, Team Seven. It's all need to know."
"You ever think maybe it's really him?" Steve asked without thinking. The others looked at him, amused. "You know. The first Captain America. Maybe it's really him."
"Man, he'd be like...ninety," one of them pointed out.
"Sure," Steve said into his beer.
"Really him," another one scoffed.
"Well, it's not any more unlikely than him bein' some kind of clone," the first man said, glancing at the bartender.
"He's not a clone. He's just some jarhead who fit the costume," another put in.
"It's a new costume though."
"How the fuck do you even know that?"
"Shit, I had all that Cap stuff as a kid, shield and everything."
Steve glanced back up at the television.
"...no footage of Captain America without his signature mask, though eyewitnesses report at one point he did remove it," Bill the Reporter continued. "They describe a blond man with blue eyes, whose features bear a striking resemblance to the original Captain America."
An image flashed on the screen, a drawing labeled EYEWITNESS COMPOSITE SKETCH. Steve stared hard at his own face in ink. Christ, he missed radio.
"Steve Rogers, the first Captain America, went missing and was declared killed in action near the end of the second world war."
The sketch slid to one side, and there was a photo of him from the war, next to the drawing, large as life.
As one, the men at the end of the bar swiveled their heads down from the TV to look at Steve.
"Oh, shit, man," one of them said.
Steve dug out enough cash to cover his tab, tucked it under his half-empty glass, and slid off his stool.
"Did you fuckin' see that?" he heard, as he made a strategic retreat. "Captain Gooddamn America drinks at our bar!"
"You called him a jarhead!"
"But did you see him? He's a dead fucking ringer!"
"Told you he was a clone," the bartender said, as the door swung shut.
"How are you holding up?" Natasha asked him, the day they sent Thor and Loki back to Asgard. The light show was over and Steve was lingering awkwardly, uncertain what they ought to do now. At least talking to someone made him look like he had purpose.
"Oh fine," he said, smiling. "Feeling a little...exposed, but..."
"Tell me about it. Everyone's lying low, even Stark. Did you see these crocks of shit talking about Clint?"
"The circus workers?"
"Assholes. They were shits to him for years, now they want to pretend like they were his best friends. Thank Christ all my coworkers were assassins, they know how to keep their mouths shut," Natasha said. Steve felt this was a lot of profanity for anyone, let alone a dame, but he'd learned to keep these thoughts to himself. "They've been flashing your photo around, too. An old one from the forties."
"I know," Steve said, and then blurted, "It's terrible. People stare at me on the street. I haven't even tried going back to my gym."
Natasha was opening her mouth to reply, but she was interrupted by a yell of "CAPTAIN FASHION DISASTER!" which was all the warning they got before Stark broke into the conversation. "Madam Romanoff, you are looking deadly as usual."
"Thank you," Natasha replied with a tolerant smile.
"You are very welcome. Steve, so much plaid. You make me hurt," Stark continued, turning to him. "Loving the jacket, though. Hey, so have the papps figured out where you live yet?"
"The what?" Steve asked.
"Paparazzi. Predatory reporters who think shirtless photos are this week's big story."
As ever, Steve found himself a little off kilter in Stark's presence, like the world was tilted slightly. "Oh. I don't think so."
"They will. Fortunately you don't have a reputation for being famous and publicly humiliating yourself like me, so it'll take them a little while longer to find you. Careful what you throw out."
"What I throw out?"
"Sure. They go through your trash for your sins. Drugstore receipts, empty booze bottles, condom wrappers -- "
"Oh my god!" Steve said, horrified.
"Relax, it happens to all of us. Fortunately, I have a solution," Stark continued, slinging an arm around his shoulders. It took some effort; Steve was tall, and to get enough leverage Stark's own shoulders were at a thirty-degree angle. "Move in with me. Natasha, you too."
"Does Pepper know about this?" Natasha asked, crossing her arms.
"Pepper ordered it. Demanded it. I think she's just in it for the hot man flesh, but she's got me already, so maybe not. Seriously, consider moving to Stark Tower. Super-tight security, great tech, free rent. Bruce and Clint are in. Come play in the clubhouse with the cool kids."
Steve gently lifted Stark's arm off his shoulders. "I don't need a handout."
"Wow, prickly," Stark said. "So, pay me rent if you want. Seriously, these floors were already empty, and I own the building. It'll be great PR for Stark Industries and it'll keep us safe."
"Sure, I'm in," Natasha said. "Steve?"
"I...can I think about it?" Steve asked. Moving into the same building as the others, being constantly available...he wasn't sure he liked the idea.
"Sure, take your time," Stark said, but his smile dimmed. "Anyway. Call if you change your mind," he added, and stuck a business card in Steve's breast pocket.
"I didn't say no," Steve said bewilderedly, watching Tony walk away.
"Stark tends to assume the worst," Natasha replied. "I guess life is full of nice surprises that way. You need a ride somewhere?"
"Thanks, but I've got my bike. Thinking of getting out of New York for a while, actually. Always wanted to see the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia."
"Not the liberty bell?" Natasha asked.
"Nah. I hear it's got a crack in it," Steve replied, smiling. "But let me know how it works, moving in with Stark."
"Definitely cracked," she said. "Seeya round, Cap."
He felt oddly satisfied as he rode away from the park and from the other Avengers, plans already forming in his head for leaving New York. He did a good thing. He was still capable of doing good in the world.
The speculation just wouldn't stop. He'd hoped it would have, or at least that in Philadelphia it wouldn't have been so pervasive, but he probably should have known better. The entire country saw the Avengers fight, and Captain America represented the country. Of course they wanted to know who he was. Really, some nights, thinking about things in his quiet, barren hotel room, he felt he should make some kind of announcement. After all, it wasn't like he had a lot to lose.
He spent a week in Philadelphia, saving the Rodin Museum for last; he sent Natasha a postcard of the Liberty Bell, ate a cheesesteak or three, had his photo taken with someone who wandered around the city dressed like Ben Franklin. It was pleasant, even if every time he saw a newspaper he cringed. He made sure to wear sunglasses whenever he went out.
Some folks thought he was a soldier, like the men in the bar had, and Steve supposed that wasn't wholly wrong. Some thought he was a civilian who'd just up and decided to become a vigilante, which was ridiculous. Though not as ridiculous as the people who thought he was a clone, and there were a depressing number of those. A smaller but still depressingly large group of people thought Tony Stark had built a Captain America robot and unleashed it on New York. Shape shifting aliens were also mentioned.
He was standing outside the museum on his last day in Philly, looking up at Rodin's The Thinker atop its stone plinth, when his phone blared out. He was still getting the hang of it -- for a while it had been stuck on the music player and it had taken some hard work to get back to the 'phone' function -- but he felt he'd nearly mastered it now. He poked at the screen until it cleared and stopped beeping, then held it to his ear.
"Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?"
Steve blinked. "Sorry?"
"Cap, it's Tony Stark."
"Stark! What's going on? Are we assembling?"
"Nah, nothing that urgent. Hey, where the hell are you?"
There was a brief silence.
"Well, point," Stark said finally. "Listen, I thought I should warn you. Some guy who apparently saw you in a bar ratted you out to the media. There's like eighteen reporters camped out on your stoop."
Steve rubbed his eyes. "For pete's sake."
"Sorry. Thought you'd like to know before you tried to go home and got mobbed."
Steve was silent, thinking, for long enough that Stark said, "You still there, Capsicle?"
"Yeah, still here," Steve said. "I guess I'm moving into Stark Tower too, if the offer still stands."
"It definitely does. This will be great, trust me. When you get back to New York just come here, I'll send movers to pack up your stuff."
"Stark, that's really not -- "
"So, cool, see you soon. Bring me a cheesesteak or a copy of the Declaration of Independence or something," Stark said, and hung up before Steve could protest.
He sat down on the steps behind The Thinker and just stared at nothing for a while. He'd really liked his apartment, and he was still very, very unsure about living within a mile of Tony Stark.
Steve looked up, then quickly stood when he saw a woman approaching, leading a small boy by one hand.
"Can I help you, ma'am?" he asked.
"Um, I just..." she looked around, then lowered her voice. "Are you...is it true you're Captain America?" she asked.
Steve, caught between self-preservation urging him to lie and a deeply-planted sense of integrity driving him to be truthful, tried not to wince.
"Keep that under your hat," he said finally, leaning in as well.
"Told you," the boy said.
"I'm Maggie," the woman continued doggedly, "And this is Jamie, and -- he's such a big fan, we were wondering if -- if you'd take a picture with him?"
Steve crouched to get on eye level with Jamie, who couldn't be more than six. He was wearing one of the new t-shirts Steve seemed to see everywhere, with the design from his shield on the front.
"You've got sharp eyes," he said to Jamie.
"Where's your costume?" Jamie asked.
"It's at the cleaner's," Steve answered, and Jamie grinned at him.
"Even your shield?"
"Oh, I leave it at home when I'm not in costume," Steve said. Mostly true; at the moment it was in a canvas bag, locked in the safe at the hotel. "Can I pick you up?"
Jamie nodded. Steve hefted him in his arms, balancing him on one hip. His mother already had her phone out and was angling to get a good shot.
"Smile!" she said, and Steve smiled. Jamie raised a hand in a wave. Maggie snapped a picture, then turned the phone around to show it to them. Steve had to admit it was a pretty good shot.
"Thanks," Maggie said. "And uh. Thanks for, you know. Saving the world."
"My pleasure," Steve said. "You be good for your mom, okay?" he added to Jamie, and set the boy down.
"Yes sir!" Jamie crowed. He ran off down the sidewalk, his mother following. Steve watched them go, smiling faintly.
He stopped on his way back to New York to get a late lunch, settling on a nearly-empty diner which looked like it'd do a good hamburger. He noticed too late there was a television in one corner; were there televisions everywhere in this century?
But then he saw who was on it, and he put his hamburger down.
"Would you turn it up?" he asked the woman working the counter, who shrugged and flicked at the TV with a little black box, and the volume came on. Stark was there, standing at a podium, clearly giving a press conference.
"...the boring part's out of the way, I'm pretty sure you're all here about the Avengers, so let's see some hands. There, down front."
"What can you tell us about this so-called Avengers Initiative?"
"Well, they -- we -- are a group of dedicated people. At the moment we seem to mostly be dedicated to stress-testing Stark Tower, but I'm sure that'll pass," Stark said, and Steve could hear laughter. Flashbulbs were going off at an alarming rate. "Honestly, guys, there's no big secret here. Our country, our entire planet, is facing new and incredibly dangerous threats from several different directions, and we're here to help police and emergency services combat those threats. Our boys in blue do this every day, we just do it on alternate Tuesdays. You want to see some heroes, talk to them."
"But what about the people involved? Who are the Avengers?"
Stark gave the audience a toothy and not altogether pleasant grin. "Nice try, kid, how old are you, twelve? Next question."
"Who is Captain America?"
Steve watched, entranced by the performance, as Stark took his sunglasses off and leaned forward on the podium. "Captain America is one of the extraordinary people who fought a battle a week and a half ago where we're standing now, and that's all you need to know. It's up to him to come forward if that's what he wants. I don't mean to tell you people how to do your jobs -- ah! ah!" he scolded, holding up a hand as reporters began to clamor. "I don't mean to tell you people how to do your jobs but frankly you're sucking hard at it right now, and you're not doing anyone any favors by flashing his face all over. Give the guy a break, man, he just helped save our collective asses. I think we're done here."
The footage flipped to a man sitting in a newsroom, looking grave and composed.
"This footage was taken just hours before it was revealed that Captain America is in fact residing in Brooklyn, supposedly at this address," he said, and a picture of Steve's apartment building filled the screen. "The apartment is registered to one Steve Rogers, so certainly whoever is behind this new version of our classic hero is certainly committing to the role. Rumors have been circulating that Steve Rogers himself intimated he is the original Captain America, somehow preserved since the second world war. Two weeks ago nobody would even suggest this might be true, but a lot has changed in two weeks. Is this man, Steve Rogers, the first Captain America? Is he a soldier performing a role at the behest of the secretive Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division? Or is he simply a man obsessed with a hero from the past, who truly believes he is Captain America? More after the break."
"They really think that?" Steve asked, as an ad for dog food came on the television. "That -- the guy is just some looney who thinks he's Steve Rogers?"
"Who the hell knows?" the woman behind the counter said. "I mean, look at the company he's keeping."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, everyone knows Tony Stark's a nutcase. And there's the big green guy, last time he took out Harlem. They say that Barton fellow's a circus freak, and nobody knows nothing about the big blond with the hammer or the lady. You'd have to be a little crazy to run with them, don't you think?"
Steve scowled. "They did save New York."
"I didn't say they were evil crazies," she answered. "They're our crazies and I won't hear a word against 'em. But my cousin's a New York cop and I think he's nuts."
"Takes all kinds, I guess," Steve said, finishing his burger. "How much do I owe you?"
She glanced at him. "On the house...Captain," she said with a grin. Steve narrowed his eyes at her, then grinned back.
"Well, thanks for the eats," he replied, counting out a big tip.
"Just tell me one thing," she said, as he stood up. "Are you really him? From back when, I mean. You are, aren't'cha?"
"I'm just a kid from Brooklyn," he answered.
When he got to Stark Tower, he was pleased to see they'd opened up this part of the city again; cars were coming and going, people crowding through the streets, office buildings lighting up, construction going on behind chain-link walls. He parked his bike outside and walked into the lobby, suddenly uncertain about where to go. At the desk, a security guard was studying a computer screen; Steve cleared his throat.
"Excuse me," he said. "I'm here to see Tony Stark."
"Aren't they all," the guard said, snorting. "Name?"
"Uh. Rogers, Captain Steve Rogers," Steve said.
The guard looked up slowly.
"Hi," Steve added, smiling.
"Captain Rogers," the guard said. "Mr. Stark said he was expecting you. This way. Lola, cover the desk?"
"Sure thing," the woman next to him said, sliding over into his spot. The guard led Steve past the banks of elevators, to a door set discreetly in a far wall.
"Thumb there," he said, pointing to a little black box. "Lean in and look at the lens."
Steve did as he was told, perplexed, and a green light shone briefly into his eyes. The door popped open.
"Just take the elevator up to ninety-two," the man said. "Welcome to the Tower, Captain."
"Thanks," Steve said, walking into a narrow passage. There was only one elevator here, at the end, and it opened without a sound. When he stepped inside, a deep voice with an English accent spoke.
"Welcome to Stark Tower, Captain Rogers. How may I help you?"
Steve looked around, startled.
"No need for alarm, Captain. My name is JASPER. I am the artificial intelligence that runs the Tower."
"Oh," Steve said.
"Would you care to see your quarters first? Mr. Stark has requested a meeting when you are settled in."
"Yes, please," Steve said, and the elevator shot up so fast his ears popped. "So uh, you're a person?"
"I am an artificially intelligent digital construct. Not a person in the strictest human sense of the word. Just Another Stark Program Expertly Rendered," JASPER said, and the words appeared on a little screen above the door, collapsing to form J.A.S.P.E.R. Steve grinned.
"Stark doesn't think highly of himself, does he?" he asked.
"Just so, sir," JASPER said, and the doors opened. There was another door with a little box and a lens, so Steve repeated the motion from downstairs, and found himself walking into an apartment that took up the entire floor.
He explored cautiously, wary of new surprises, but it was just an ordinary, albeit huge, apartment. Stark had made good on his promise to pack up Steve's stuff and haul it here; his plates and cups were in the kitchen, and sketches he'd had pinned up in his old place were now framed and hung on the walls here.
In the bedroom, he found that Stark had apparently replaced his old, perfectly serviceable long-twin with a bed capable of holding at least three of him. There was a red and white striped blanket on the neatly-made sheets, which were blue with stars on them. Stark's idea of teasing him, Steve thought. On the other hand, his footlocker with what few prize possessions he'd managed to recover was sitting at the foot of the bed, undisturbed, so at least the man had some boundaries. Steve unshouldered his bag, placed his shield on top of the footlocker, and left the rest to unpack later.
His bathroom had a huge bathtub with a shower head but no taps. He stared at it for a while, confused, until JASPER said, "Do you wish for a shower, Captain?"
Steve flinched. "Can you see me in here?"
"I have cameras everywhere, but you may request that they be deactivated if you wish. I can follow your presence through heat-signature sensors."
"Um, okay, do that," Steve agreed. "No shower right now..."
"Very well. When you wish to bathe, simply say 'water' and specify a temperature."
Steve couldn't resist. "Water. And...warm."
The shower head spat to life. Steve held his hand under the spray and felt warm, solid pressure.
"Water...off?" he tried, and the water ceased abruptly.
He dried his hand on a towel hanging on a bar on the wall, and then realized part of the wall was, in fact, a door, which led out into what at first he thought was only half a balcony. When he stepped outside, however, he gaped; half of the balcony was a swimming pool, cleverly constructed so that it seemed to disappear into empty space at the far edge. It was long enough to do laps in, and deep enough at one end to dive into.
"Phew," he said. "Stark knows how to build a skyscraper, doesn't he?"
Steve stepped back inside, checked his appearance in the floor-to-ceiling mirror as he passed, and began the trek back to the front door. "Is Mr. Stark at home?" he asked.
"He is, sir. Ms. Potts is also present and has expressed a great interest in meeting you."
"Okay, um, let them know I'm coming up?" he said, stepping back into the elevator. It moved more gently this time, and it wasn't long before it opened with a ding, directly into the living room of the penthouse. A pretty redheaded woman was standing a few feet away, smiling.
"Captain Rogers," she said, coming forward. "So good to meet you."
"Please, call me Pepper."
"Well, Steve's fine for me."
She smiled radiantly. "I'm so glad. Tony's talked about you a lot. He fretted that you didn't want to live in the Tower."
"It's something else," he said, deciding this was truthful at least.
"Tony believes very strongly in go big or go home," she agreed. "Can I get you a drink? Do you drink?"
"Water would be fine," he said. She raised an eyebrow. "Uh, or a Coke if you have it."
"JARVIS, a Coke for Steve, please," she said, and something whirred in the kitchen.
"I thought his name was JASPER," Steve said, following her to the bar. A glass of soda popped out of a hatch. Steve gave her an impressed look.
"Two AIs, no waiting," Stark announced, emerging from a hallway. "Someday they'll probably team up to take over the world."
"Perish the thought, sir," said a new voice, with the same accent but a slightly higher pitch. "Captain Rogers, my name is JARVIS. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"JARVIS runs the penthouse and the workshop and annoys me when I'm in the suit," Stark added, picking up the soda and sniffing it. "JASPER runs the rest of the Tower. He's a little politer than his big brother."
"Thank you sir," JASPER said, just before JARVIS replied, "He'll learn in time."
"So, you've met Pep and the boys, how's your place?" Stark asked, and he did look oddly...anxious.
"It's very nice," Steve said. "It's bigger than I need, though."
"You say that now," Stark grinned.
"Mr. Stark, I really -- "
"Jesus, does he call you Mr. Stark?" Pepper asked, staring at Stark.
"Look, I didn't order him to," Stark said. He shot a smile at Steve. "It's Tony, Cap. We don't stand on a whole lot of ceremony here."
"He said I should call him Steve," Pepper said smugly.
"You can -- " Steve tried.
"Nah, I like Cap. Suits you. Very nicknamey."
"Is this going to be you and Rhodey all over again?" Pepper asked.
"Me and Rhodey what?"
"You keep calling him random nouns like Sugar Bear and Honeycomb."
"Well, if it hasn't given him a complex by now, we're okay, right?"
"...thank you," Steve tried desperately. They both looked at him as if they'd momentarily forgotten he was there. "For the...apartment. And for covering for me on television the other day, I saw your press conference. I appreciate it."
Stark -- Tony -- shrugged. "No big deal. Fuck 'em, I hate the press. And those were the same dicks who went and stalked your apartment. Although," he added, hopping up to sit on the bar, swinging his legs, "you might want to consider putting an end to the mystery."
"Do you think SHIELD would let me?" Steve asked.
"Well, maybe, maybe not, but that is why God invented asking forgiveness instead of permission," Tony said.
"And by 'God', he means 'him'," Pepper sighed.
"Didn't invent it, just perfected it," Tony replied cheerfully. Pepper leaned up to kiss Tony's cheek.
"Have fun, dear, I'm off to do real work," she said. "Steve, very nice to meet you. I'm sure I'll see you again soon."
"So!" Tony said, as Pepper left, "do you want to?"
"Want to what?"
"Go public. Treat SHIELD as irrelevant, just for a minute. Do you want to?"
Steve shrugged. "Guess they already know all about me. Or they will soon."
"They know some. Not all. We could put you on a talk show, give you an interview, have you tell all about the ice and the rest of it, if you want. But you have to be careful with crap like that."
"Why?" Steve asked.
"You can't take it back. Once your face is out there, you'll be public, you'll be known. Might be better than people staring at you trying to figure it out, but it might not. Roll of the dice," Tony said, but there was something evasive in the way he said it.
Steve crossed his arms. "And the real reason?"
Tony looked away. "If you tell the story yourself, then you control what people know. But for every piece of yourself you give to..." He pointed out the window, at Manhattan, at the world. "It's one less piece of yourself that's only yours. Give away too much and you end up like me."
Tony smiled, but his eyes were sad. "Holding on to what very little remains."
Steve wasn't sure how to reply, but Tony reached out and straightened his collar, fussily, distracting him.
"Think it over. Sleep on it. You like the bed?"
"It's big," Steve said.
"Super-soldier sized. Anyway, try it out. Call on JASPER if you need anything. Say hi to the others if you want. Bruce is on the floor below yours, Natasha's below him, Clint's above you. And I'm up here, of course, or if I'm not here I'm in the workshop or R&D below residential. JASPER'll show you where to find me."
"I wouldn't mind a few days to rest," Steve said, feeling a little wistful.
"Then rest," Tony replied, and swung down from the bar.
"It's that easy?"
"It is now. A gift for you, from me, because sometimes we won't be allowed to rest. Here in the Tower, it's that easy."
"Why are you doing this?" Steve asked, as Tony made his way back towards the hallway leading to the rest of the penthouse. "I'm grateful. I'm just confused."
Tony shrugged. "Everyone needs somewhere to feel safe."
"Where do you feel safe?"
"Where do you think?" Tony asked, and tapped one of the bracelets he wore, the ones that would summon the armor. "Seeya round, Cap."
"So, we can think of this character, if you will, this media creation, as a man," the guy in the tweed coat was saying on the TV, "or we can think of him as a collectivisation of our deep, inherent need to understand ourselves."
Steve had given up on having reactions to people talking about him on television and was now just staring.
"You see, we want to understand America, we wish to know America, and yet we feel we cannot. He conceals himself from us, but in so doing, he shows us just how much we conceal from ourselves. I embrace the mystery of Captain America; I think his message is not one of hope but one of self-discovery. We are all Captain America in some way, and it only remains for us to search within ourselves to find him. Who this man in the hooded cowl really is, that's irrelevant. We are not truly questioning his identity but rather examining our cultural identity."
The woman interviewing the man in the tweed coat looked skeptical.
"What about the reactions we've seen in the past few days that are more personal?" she asked, and the man in the tweed coat nodded as if he understood already where she was going. "We've heard from a lot of women -- and some men -- who want to very personally 'thank' Captain America for his service."
"Well, what is patriotism but a passion for one's country?" the man asked coyly.
"What indeed. I'm afraid that's all the time we have for today..."
"JASPER, can you turn it off?" Steve asked.
"Of course, Captain," JASPER said, and the television went quiet.
"I don't suppose you have an opinion about what I should do," Steve added. It had been two days since he'd arrived at the Tower, and he felt like he'd done quite enough resting. He wanted to get out, go outside and look around, remind himself that there were people outside this beautiful but somewhat sterile bubble.
"I am not programmed to have opinions, Captain," JASPER replied. "Shall I ask JARVIS?"
"No, that's fine. But what I was just watching, that is bull, isn't it? I mean, even someone programmed to have no opinions must think it's bull."
"It seems irrational to ascribe spiritual meaning to your actions," JASPER allowed. "The discovery of your body and your subsequent return to society are the random acts of a universe which is driven by physics, not metaphysics. So I am told."
"Sounds like an opinion to me."
"We all endeavor to rise above our programming," JASPER said, and then continued with what sounded almost like hesitation. "May I recommend a course of action, Captain?"
"Sure. Take a shot."
"I believe Agent Barton is experiencing a quandary similar to your own. Consultation may prove fruitful."
"Also he appears to be standing on his balcony aiming an arrow at the populace."
"What?" Steve asked, spurred into action. He ran for the elevator. "Don't let him shoot anyone!"
"I don't believe I am capable of stopping him," JASPER said, but he was zooming Steve up to Clint's floor quickly. Steve burst out of the elevator, tried his thumb-and-eyeball routine on Clint's door, was a little surprised when it worked, and ran through the apartment to the balcony.
Clint was, indeed, crouched on the railing, one foot on the deck for stability, bow drawn taut, the arrow nocked on it pointing downwards.
"Clint, what are you doing?" Steve gasped.
"Pest control," Clint said, and let the arrow fly. Steve rushed to the railing, horrified --
And then the line attached to the arrow jerked taut, and Clint reeled it up. There was a dead rat speared on the end of his arrow.
"Building down below's got rats on its roof," he said, tugging the body off the end of the arrow. He grinned at Steve. "Jumping to conclusions, Cap?"
"What did you expect me to think!" Steve said, pushing Clint's hand aside as he waved the rat at him.
"No, I get it. You know they say you're never more than eight feet from a rat in Manhattan? Sounds kinda extreme, but it's a good excuse for a little target practice," Clint said, tossing it into a bucket nearby. It sounded, from the way it landed, like it wasn't his first. Steve made a note to mention JASPER's sneakiness to Tony. Clint peered at Steve. "You're taking dead rats in stride, by the way."
"Good eating on a rat," Steve said.
"No. Unless you haven't had anything to eat in a couple of days in the middle of a combat zone," Steve said.
"Yeah, they're real circus freak food," Clint muttered, collapsing his bow. "So did you need something?"
"JASPER said you were shooting at people."
"I merely said he appeared -- " JASPER began.
"Don't make me tell JARVIS!" Steve snapped at the nearest camera. JASPER fell silent.
When he looked down, Clint was laughing silently, almost doubled over.
"Captain America's fighting with the computers!" he gasped.
Steve crossed his arms and glared, which only made Clint laugh harder. Finally he dropped his arms and grinned.
"Well, they're more obedient than Tony, anyway," he said.
"Sure. So how've you been?" Clint asked, recovering, leaning up against the rail. Steve blew air through his lips, thoughtfully. "Yeah, I know the feeling. You're getting it almost as bad as I am. Worse in some ways, I suppose."
"People seem awfully curious about things that aren't their business."
"Eh, we're public figures now. We are their business. We're business, anyway. Don't think all my old pals from the circus aren't getting paid to tell stories about me."
"Tony thinks I should go on TV and tell my story."
"Better you get it out there than someone else dig it up."
"That was what he said, more or less. You don't think you should too?"
Clint shrugged. "It's mostly true, what they're saying about me. And most of the folks I knew could use the money."
"But it's mean. Mean-spirited." Steve cocked his head. "We should do it together. Go on television. I could explain what happened to me, you could show people how you really are."
"Wouldn't work for me," Clint said.
"I'm not rich or famous or superhuman. And anyway, it's the circus. We're hard-coded into peoples' heads as outsiders. Blow into town, do a little show, leave again. Maybe take a few wallets with us. We're not people, we're just talking animals. It's fine," Clint added, when he saw Steve's look. "Well, not fine, but I'm over it. I know my own worth. Knocked down a few pegs after Loki, maybe, but I'm all right. I just know better than to fight public perception."
"That's life," Clint said philosophically. "I think you should do it, though."
"It'll just get worse until you do. Besides, you have a heck of a story."
Steve nodded thoughtfully. "I guess I do."
Steve wasn't generally someone to stop and think about what he was doing, particularly once he'd established the right course of action; he suspected that in this he and Tony were actually very alike, they just had different priorities. He'd seen the classified footage of Tony's first encounter with the US military after blowing up a terrorist camp, and it made him think of the long march from that first HYDRA base back to headquarters after liberating the prisoners. He'd been the highest-ranking officer there and Bucky had thrown his support behind him, but he hadn't known what the heck he was doing, not really, and it was lonely and frightening, leading those men home through the wilderness. He imagined it wasn't much less scary to cling to the belly of a fighter jet traveling faster than the speed of sound.
"JASPER," he said, as he left Clint's apartment, "Where's Tony?"
"Mr. Stark is in his workshop, but he has not locked down against visitors," JASPER said.
"Shall I direct you there, Captain?" JARVIS added.
The elevator dinged up -- 94, 95, 96 -- and then stopped between 96 and 97. Steve grinned. Sneaky, sneaky.
The doors opened into a little vestibule with no visible exit, and a camera in one wall. Steve knocked on the wall, and the camera swiveled down to focus its lens on him. After a moment, an opening appeared in the wall, the seams between door and wall nearly invisible, and Steve stepped through.
Music was blaring at an unbearable level, and he could hear the crash of metal on metal; the noise dropped abruptly when he crossed the threshold. He could see Tony's hips and legs protruding from the torso of the Iron Man armor, suspended by wires from the ceiling.
"JARVIS, where are my tunes?" Tony yelled.
"Captain Rogers is here to speak with you, sir," JARVIS replied. Tony ducked sideways, peering out through a gap in the waist of the armor.
"Thanks for the warning, kids," he said to the ceiling. "JASPER, I expect better of you."
"I'm afraid you've given me a very bad example, sir," JASPER replied.
"Artificial smartass," Tony said. "So. Cap. You need a tune-up? I hear you're a robot I built."
"I've thought about it," Steve said, ignoring the crack, "and I want to. Go public."
He expected Tony to laugh, somehow, but the other man just looked at him, dark-eyed.
"You going to run it up the SHIELD flagpole first?"
Steve shook his head. "If they let me do it at all, they'd make it a production. I want it on my terms."
"Well, look at that. You've got some backbone the military didn't put there after all," Tony remarked. "Okay. In that case, it's gotta be live, so SHIELD can't break in or get some kind of injunction. You ready for that?"
"Just tell the truth, right?"
"Yeah, and try not to say anything too political. Don't want you crucified by the public on your first outing." Tony grinned and picked up his phone from the bench, flipping it from hand to hand.
"So...where do I start?" Steve asked.
"You just did," Tony said, and tapped the phone, holding it to his ear. "Hi, Miranda, it's Tony Stark. Yeah, I know, but she's CEO now, so I have to make my own appointments. Actually, I'm playing amanuensis for a third party. Mmhm. Well, there's a first time for everything. Listen, you do that Surprise Interview segment, right? Yeah. Tonight? Who's on? Fucking Clooney? Are you kidding me with this? The man is king of declining indy." He listened for a minute. "No, I told you, third party. Well, bump Clooney, I'll make it worth your while. Who do you think? Then you think right. Look, have a camera crew over here in time for the segment. Bill's going to shit himself on national television, that's all I want. Okay. Yeah, I'll put them on the list, just send them to Stark Tower. Hey, you're on, next time you're on this coast. Thanks."
"Who was that?" Steve asked nervously.
"What time do you go to bed, normally?" Tony asked.
"I don't know, ten o'clock?"
"Then take a nap before this evening. Do you ever catch Bill Cobb?"
Tony sighed. "Late-night talk show host. He does a segment where his producer sets up an interview. He doesn't know who's going to be on ahead of time, so he can't do any research. A camera crew is going to come here and arrange it so that Bill on the West Coast at eight-thirty will be interviewing you here on the East Coast at eleven-thirty. Can you get your star spangled ass out of bed at that hour?"
Steve squared his shoulders. "Of course."
"Good. So in the meantime I'm going to coach you on What Not To Say To The American People," Tony said, and gestured to a nearby stool. "Have a seat. School is in."
Steve had worn stage makeup for his old bond sales performances; the girls had helped him at first, but he learned how to do it himself eventually. Still, he eyed the massive makeup case the TV crew had brought with them with alarm, until a nice man in very tight pants told him to sit still and make faces on command.
"So you're the Captain," the man said as he finished with the makeup. "May I say it's an honor to be applying lip tint to Captain America?"
"You're doing a better job than I could," Steve replied, then held still for the lip tint itself.
"Well, I assume you can kill a man with your bare hands without screaming, so we're even," the man said.
"I try not to, as much as possible."
"Don't we all," the man agreed. "Though I'd consider it for your skin. Do you exfoliate?"
"I don't know what that is."
The man stepped back, studying him. "You really are from the forties, aren't you? The rumors are right."
"Well, welcome to the new century, I guess, and thanks for pitching in."
"Pleasure to be here."
The makeup man laughed. "Good point. Hey, will you sign an autograph for my daughter?"
"Sure," Steve said, accepting the marker and autograph book that he offered. "What's her name?"
"Annie. She'll be thrilled."
Steve grinned and signed the book To Annie, and drew a little shield next to it.
"Thanks," the man said. "Okay, you're ready to go. Knock 'em dead."
They sat him in front of a camera with a television next to it and clipped a little tiny microphone to his collar and a little headphone in his ear. A guy in a t-shirt with electrical cords hanging out of his pocket explained to him how it would work. He'd see this Bill Cobb guy on the television, and when he answered he should look into the camera, and people would see him reply. Tony hovered in the background, talking to another man with a control box of some kind. Steve felt awfully glad they were doing it here, in Tony's penthouse, because any more people in the room messing with things he didn't know the function of and he'd be pretty close to bolting.
"Okay, you're on in a few minutes. We're going to put the TV on now," the man said, and the television flickered to life. "When I give you this signal -- " he chopped the air with his hand, "That means you're on, and anyone with a television can see you. You understand? Once I do this, you're on."
"Right," Steve said, watching the man on the TV with interest. He was laughing at something-or-other, and he looked nice enough; middle-aged, salt-and-pepper hair, a sharp suit.
"And now we go to -- drumroll please -- Surprise Interview!" a voice blared in his ear, and the man behind the camera made the chopping motion. Steve obediently looked into the camera. "Hello! Hi! You're on the Bill Cobb show and..."
He trailed off, so Steve said, "Hello, Mr. Cobb."
"Miranda," Cobb said, turning away from the camera. "Miranda, you vicious minx, who is -- I'm sorry, sir, this is embarrassing, she loves to embarrass me, I'm afraid I don't recognize you."
Tony had warned him about this. Steve smiled and said, "My name is Steve Rogers, Mr. Cobb. I'm Captain America."
He saw what Tony meant about Cobb shitting himself. His jaw dropped and he clenched the papers in front of him tightly.
"You're Capt -- Miranda, you got me Captain America?" he demanded. The video cut to the woman who must be Miranda. She gave a wave and a mean little grin. "Holy -- Captain America. Well, okay then. I'm sorry, you're not like, a Captain America, you're the, right? The one all over the papers? The guy who stopped a bunch of, I can't believe I'm saying this, a bunch of aliens from trashing New York?"
"I had help," Steve said, suddenly flustered.
"He had help. Ahaha. Okay. No, I'm good, sorry, Mr...I'm sorry, what do I even call you? Captain? Mr. America?"
"Steve is fine."
"Steve is fine. Good. Okay." Cobb cleared his throat. "So. Is this your first time on television?"
"Yes sir," Steve said, keeping his smile in place. Really, it was just like schmoozing a crowd for bonds. It made him cringe a little, but then it always had.
"And uh. Do you watch the show?"
"I'm afraid I'm usually asleep by the time it comes on, Mr. Cobb."
"Oh, you can call me Bill. We're not about to get shut down by the Men In Black or something, are we?"
"I hope not, sir. Uh, Bill," Steve replied. He really did. He imagined Director Fury was having some kind of heart attack right about now.
"So I suppose, and I speak for all of America and probably some very nervous people around the world, we'd love to hear a little about you, Steve."
"Yeah, I've...seen the speculation in the papers," Steve said, shifting uncomfortably. The guy behind the camera shook his head vehemently, so Steve obediently stilled. "It's not really complicated, I guess. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, I enlisted in 1942 -- "
"Wait, sorry, did you say 1942?" Cobb asked.
"That's right," Steve said. "A couple of people have asked me, am I...the original Cap, and I guess I am."
"Well, if there were any others I never heard of 'em," Steve admitted.
"Steve, you'll forgive me, but you are looking very good for a ninety-something."
"Clean living," Steve said, and Cobb burst out laughing.
"Sure, sure. Come on, don't be shy, Steve, explain yourself. I mean, you disappeared in what -- Jesus, how long is it since I read the comics? -- like, forty-four?"
"Towards the end of forty-four, yes."
"Did you time-travel? Did he time-travel," Cobb said to someone offscreen. "I just asked Captain America, vanquisher of alien invaders, if he traveled in time. It's a really good thing I don't care about journalistic integrity."
"No, I...well, some of it's classified," Steve said. He'd been rehearsing this part all afternoon. "But essentially I was on a mission that I knew was pretty much...one way, and I crash-landed a plane somewhere west of Greenland. I don't actually remember this part, but I'm told the ice kept me in suspended animation for about seventy years. Someone had to explain to me what suspended animation was, mind you."
"You were frozen in the ice."
"For seventy years. The old comics were right, you're -- enhanced somehow, correct?"
"Yes. Apparently it protected me."
"And no freezer burn?" Cobb asked, and the audience laughed.
Steve shrugged. "I was pretty hungry once they thawed me out."
The audience laughed harder, and Cobb mugged a little for them before turning back to him. "So, for you, you're not that far out from the forties."
"No," Steve said. "Not that far at all."
"Did they even have television in the forties?"
"Not like they do now, I'll tell you that," Steve replied.
"First time you saw a miniskirt must have been a revelation."
Steve blushed. Tony hadn't coached him on that. He saw Tony making a smile, asshole gesture at him.
"A lot's changed," he said.
"Look, I have to ask, can you prove this? Like, at all? That you are actually the Captain America who fought in world war two?"
"No reason to lie, really," Steve said. He didn't notice Tony had circled the camera until he popped his head in the frame. Cobb recoiled theatrically.
"Uh, hi, sorry, cameo," Tony said, while Steve tried to see around him. "Bill, you're looking hot."
"Tony Stark, ladies and gentlemen," Cobb said, groaning.
"Hi America." Tony waved. The camera guys were going silently berserk. "Just putting my head in to add some veracity. As far as I can tell, and believe me we have spent a long time hashing this out, he's the real deal. Nobody who grew up in the nineties acts like he does, trust me."
"Thank you, Tony. Can I get back to talking to Steve now, you massive egotist?"
"All my love, baby," Tony said, and made the peace sign, and backed away. Steve watched him, blinking, and then turned back to the camera.
"He does that," he said haplessly. "I don't know why. Nobody seems willing to stop him."
"Yeah, Tony's been on the show before," Cobb said. "Listen, usually this is a comedy show, but seriously, let's be serious for a minute, this must be crazy for you. I mean, you thought you were going to die, and then you woke up and the whole world had changed. What's that even like?"
Steve looked down, then remembered to look back up at the camera. "Not easy," he said.
"You're not a man of many words, are you?"
"Well, not on national television, no."
"Probably smart. So what can you tell us about the Avengers? You're here, giving yourself a face and a name, what about them?"
"That's up to them, I think," Steve said. Tony had told him what to say here, too. "None of them have talked about me, I don't think it's fair if I were to talk about them. It's not really why I'm here."
"Why are you here, Steve? Why did you agree to this interview?"
"I suggested it. I thought...I kept seeing things everywhere about who I might be, and I just wanted to tell the truth. Tony set it up, but I asked him to. Everyone keeps saying we're public property now, that our lives are supposed to be open books. I'd rather write that book than let someone else make it up."
"Wow," Cobb said, tapping his papers on his desk. "I see why you're Captain America. Okay, Miranda is saying I only get to ask one more question, so I'm going straight for shallow, because at least half my viewers are dying to know -- are you single? Because you are an attractive piece of work, and speaking as a straight man I'd do you myself."
Steve blushed again, over laughter from the audience. "I uh. I'm still getting my feet under me, I haven't really thought about it."
"You should, because you could be getting -- and, we're out of time," Cobb broke off, laughing. "Thank you for coming on the show, Steve, it's been a genuine pleasure. Captain America, everyone!"
"And we're out," the camera guy said, and Steve leaned forward, resting his face in his hands. "Stark, could you be any more annoying if you tried?"
"Believe me, he could," Steve said, as Tony slapped both his shoulders from behind and shook him.
"You did great, Cap."
"That was harrowing."
"I know. The official Stark Industries PR email is blowing up," Tony said, sounding smug. "Every news organization in the country is pissed your first interview was with Bill Cobb. Classic. Welcome to celebrity, pal."
The technicians began removing his mic and earphone, and the makeup guy was back with some kind of wet tissue to clean off his face. Halfway through the process, Tony held a phone to his ear.
"Steve, this is Bill Cobb. Jesus, kid, that was amazing."
"Uh, thank you, sir," Steve answered.
"Listen, I'm back on in four minutes, but if you ever want to do a real interview, Tony knows who to call. We'll fly you out here, put you up, do it up right. Love to have you back on the show again. Can I send you flowers or something? A flag? My firstborn?"
"You did me a favor," Steve said, bewildered.
"Trust me, you just bumped the hell out of my ratings and I am going to sell this tape all over the news tomorrow. Pleasure's all mine. Are you staying with Tony? Can I send flowers there?"
"You really don't have to," Steve said.
"Well, I'll buy a war bond or something. Seriously, think it over. Good talking to you."
"You too," Steve replied, and Tony took the phone back. Another few bewildering moments and suddenly it was just them again, in the empty penthouse, as if the crew had never even been there. Tony held out a glass with a few fingers of bourbon in the bottom.
"I know, I know, can't get drunk, but at least you can pretend it'll even you out a little," he said kindly. Steve took the drink and sipped, letting it burn its way down. "You really did do well."
"Guess it's all out there now, huh? Has Fury called to shout at us yet?"
"I think we're getting the silent treatment," Tony said. "Ten bucks says he never mentions it."
"Well, yelling won't do any good now, and anything else would make him look weak. But I guess it'd be taking your money and I hate to rip off a war vet," Tony said, sitting down next to him. "Panicking yet?"
Steve gave him a mock-insulted look. "Captain America never panics."
"Uh huh. You know nothing's going to stop the people who think you're a clone, right?"
"Maybe, but at least my own version's out there now. I mean, who knows, maybe I am a clone. Did you see me when I was in the ice?"
Tony laughed. "You're the one and only, Cap. They broke the mold when they made you. Literally."
"How do you do it?" Steve asked, and Tony frowned. "How do you be...yourself, and still be the guy on the television? I have to do it too, so...."
"You were famous back when."
"Not like this. Not with twenty-four-hour news and the internet," Steve said. "It's a new game. I have to know the rules."
Tony studied his own drink for a while, thoughtful. Steve waited.
"I told you JASPER and JARVIS are brothers," he said finally. "They're not father and son, I didn't base JASPER off JARVIS, because I had different jobs for them to do. I had this file of code -- code is what makes programs, do you understand?"
Steve nodded. "Mostly."
"So I had this code, called the source code. It's what makes artificial intelligence intelligent. I built JARVIS from that and I built him to learn, so he changes and grows. When I built JASPER, I went back to that code and built him differently, to learn different things. But they both come from source code."
"You -- who you are, all your experiences -- that's the source code," Tony said. "Captain America has to go out there and fight, and Steve Rogers has to be the guy under the mask, but behind all that the source code doesn't change. They're just versions of you, and as long as you use those to face the world, they protect you." He grinned suddenly. "And I could get into an extended metaphor about my own life involving open-source and freeware, but I think I'd lose you. You get me, though?"
"Yeah," Steve said. "Yeah, I think I do. It's not easy, huh?"
"Nope, but nobody said this job was going to be easy. Anyway, I'm going to bed," he said, rising and setting his glass down on the side-table. "Messing with the media always makes me want a nap."
"Thanks for your help, Tony."
"Thank me in the morning, when I send you a list of all the news anchors who want a piece of you," Tony replied with a smile. "Let yourself out whenever. G'night, Cap."
"...stunning news this morning that the man under the Captain America mask is claiming to be the original Captain America, frozen in ice for decades and revived in the modern day to face Earth's biggest threats with his team of so-called 'Avengers'. Appearing on Bill Cobb's late night talk show, he showed his unmasked face, and facial analysis experts are saying his appearance matches that of still photographs taken of Captain America during World War II. Stay tuned for video clips of the interview, as well as a full report on the life of Steve Rogers, born on the fourth of July, 1920, and apparently alive and well and living in Stark Tower."
Steve leaned back on his couch, closed his eyes, and laughed and laughed and laughed.