Tony Stark had already decided that S.H.I.E.L.D. owed him like... one million vacation days. He was getting to the point where he was willing to entertain the possibility of cloning himself, even with the potential risk of winding up with an evil one, just so he could get some sleep. Between thwarting the Makluan invasion, getting the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier out of darkspace, getting outed as Iron Man, and getting all but molested by the paparazzi, Tony hadn't slept more than three hours in almost two months. He knew he got like this sometimes - that was just the price of overwhelming genius - but he was exhausted. Even his Extremis-granted near-superhuman endurance was starting to flag.
He and dad had actually, finally, made it home to the penthouse condo they hadn't actually lived in in over two years, since before the airplane accident that had left Tony's heart damaged and his dad kidnapped. The Rhodes' had been Tony's home for those two years, and even Howard had seemed to prefer that in the weeks he spent fighting Justin Hammer for control of Stark International.
"We need a vacation."
His dad arched an eyebrow at him. "What? Saving the world tire you out, Anthony?" But his dad was just as tired, Tony could see it. The lines around his face and eyes were etched far deeper than even just a few months ago, his hair was flecked with far more grey, and he just... looked old. It terrified Tony; his dad was hardly an old man, as much as Tony liked to rag on him. His dad was barely into his fifties, but now he looked older.
Tony stuck his tongue out, in spite of his nerves. "You totally helped save the world, too, dad. Stark International-slash-Solutions needs a holiday."
"Alright, son. I'll take some time off if you do." Neither one of them were much for actually taking vacation days. Growing up, a 'vacation' had usually meant a trip to a foreign country to meet with engineers, or to investigate some new piece of technology or one of his father's more old school interests in archeology or art. The offer only meant that his dad knew his weakness - he wasn't really going to be able to talk himself into taking that much time away from his labs. "How about you and Pepper go to the beach before you have to start at college."
"Whoa, just me and Pepper?" Because Pepper was great and all, but Tony usually relied on having Rhodey around to help him with the unending Pepper-chatter. Plus, without him he wasn't sure what he and Pepper were supposed to do, especially on a beach. "Should probably invite Rhodey along, too, then."
His father opened his mouth, and then closed it again, before he turned back to the oven, pulled their dinners out, and set them on the breakfast bar to cool. That was one thing he definitely missed about living with the Rhodes: home cooked meals.
"Check it out," Tony said, dragging the prototype he'd been working on yesterday over to the bar. "Ultra-thin, portable, interactive touch screen securely interfaced with the Stark Solutions mainframe. Now I can work from anywhere! And there's no processor power limitations, it's strictly a dummy terminal."
"I'm beginning to think Starks just don't understand the meaning of the word 'vacation'," his dad answered, putting forks and knives down and joining Tony at the breakfast bar. "Anthony."
Tony looked towards his dad, but continued to also poke at the screen, so he was slightly surprised when his dad took it and set it down behind him. It was far enough away that Tony would have had to uplink with Extremis to use it, which was a bit distracting if dad was going to try to talk to him.
"Tony, son. The whole point of... the reason I had my will written to have you go live with Roberta and James, the reason I wanted you to go to high school, and now college, is so you don't let life pass you by." His dad looked so serious, and so sad.
"I get it," Tony answered, and he did, even if it had been hard to live with at the time. "It didn't really work out that way, but I did get to make new friends, meet Pepper and reconnect with Whitney before... stuff got in the way. I had a life in between fighting to make sure your legacy didn't turn into a weapon manufacturing juggernaut and trying to stop ancient technological world domination. I have a life, I have Iron Man, I have Stark Solutions, and I have my friends."
His dad's face said that he thought Tony was completely missing the point. "Your life was never going to be normal, Tony. I suppose I thought you would jump at the opportunity to take some time off, just you and Pepper."
Just because he was a genius didn't mean Tony couldn't occasionally be a bit slow on the uptake about some things. "Ohhhhhh. No, no, see... Pepper and I are friends, friends who dress up in high-tech super armor and save the world from destruction from time to time, but friends. She saves me when I'm going to get splattered against a wall, I save her when she's falling down from being smashed by a Makluan champion, we have a mutual watching each other's backs society, just like me and Rhodey, or Rhodey and Pepper."
Tony waited, expectantly, for his dad to get it, because while he did totally kiss Pepper - in front of a lot of people, too, actually - it was on the cheek, and it wasn't like he was going to have a big long conversation in front of his dad and Roberta and Mr. Potts and cellphone cameras about how he mostly wanted to stay friends and was still a bit hung up on a lot of things.
"Does Pepper know that?"
"Yeah... I ended up with a unibeam to the face, but it blew over in a week or so. Pepper doesn't hold a grudge... as long as I'm not dating Whitney." Tony shuddered, because that had not been a pretty thing to live through. "And, you know, most dads don't try to send their eighteen year old sons off with their supposed girlfriends to the beach, unchaperoned. Besides, the way I figure it, you're not getting great-grandkids until... 2069 at the earliest, so grandkids probably no sooner than, what, 2039? 2029? Plenty of time."
His dad at least sputtered at that, which he totally deserved. Tony didn't really want to have the whole conversation about dating and all that jazz, because his dad hadn't exactly done great at it when he was sixteen, and it wasn't like eighteen was any less awkward, especially when he was an armored, crime fighting, celebutant vigilante with a startup company that had annual earnings larger than many small countries.
After he recovered, and took a small bite of dinner, his father finally asked: "Care to share the justification for your math on your grandchild prognosticating, son? And for the record, I'm not worried about grandkids, I'm worried about you... having someone at all. Your life has only gotten more complicated in the last few months, and dating isn't easy."
"Tell me about it." Tony poked his own food. "And the grandkid thing? That was Andros." Tony put out his hand and his dad returned his little computer interface; Tony poked a few buttons to pull up the S.H.I.E.L.D. surveillance feeds that had been taken during the whole Vortex incident. The armor still was far beyond anything Tony could imagine, but he knew he would eventually understand it all. It was nice to know his brain still remained spry so many years in the future. "There he is."
"He does look like you," his father answered, taking the screen.
"I'm beginning to think facial hair is the genetic destiny of all Starks. Pepper doesn't like the goatee." Tony decided he could go with sarcastic deflection, rather than the father-son talk that went over the fact that the last two years had also found Tony decidedly also interested in boys; boys who inevitably ended up betraying him, but boys nonetheless. His dad might have been ok with a lot of things, but Tony didn't really know how that would go over. "Anyway, he tried to kill me for infoterrorism or something to stop his horrible future from ever coming to pass... my horrible future where I have a grandson named Andros, because seriously, who names their kid Andros?"
By comparison, his father took it well. That was the thing that Tony had really come to appreciate about dad since he came back, he just went with it. Tony was Iron Man? Fine. Flying around in spacesuit armor? Good enough. Megalomaniacal kid bent on world domination? Make an anti-Makluan laser. His dad seemed to have an answer for anything. It made Tony sort of want to try his luck with the orientation thing, while at the same time worrying that he'd sort of used up his father's supply of reasonableness with time traveling great-grandsons and lizard aliens.
"Alright, I'll stop bothering you about Pepper," his father conceded.
"Good. And I promise, as soon as I meet someone who's totally unimpressed by my money, my looks, my charm, my company, and my armor, and who actually likes me for me, I'll bring them right home for dinner." Tony poked his food. "Although one of us might actually want to learn how to cook first."
It turned out neither of them really had any idea how to take a proper vacation, so the two of them ended up tag-teaming in their respective laboratories, investigating the smattering of Makluan tech that had escaped the explosion of the mothership and generally inventing all sorts of cool new stuff. He and his dad were still waiting for Roberta to clean up the last of the paperwork that would help assure that the whole nightmare of Tony's last two years would never repeat should anything happen to him or his dad, and generally making sure that Stark Solutions and Stark International had a fantastic working relationship but were also separate companies. The Stark International board was clamoring for StarkTech armor, and Howard got to look them in the eye and say that was Stark Solutions tech and they couldn't touch it.
That worked for about four days, before Nick Fury made a particularly annoyed face at Tony and explained in very small words that there was no way they could rely on Stark Solutions to privatize world peace with exactly three trained suit pilots, one of whom was going to go to college all the way out in Colorado at the Air Force Academy. It brought Tony face to face with a fact he'd been running from for almost two years: Iron Man was a weapon, a weapon he'd built, and by unleashing it on the world he'd opened up the door for people like Mr. Fix and Hammer and Stane to make everything from cheap knockoffs to genuine innovation... and Tony couldn't exactly keep up. He was in an arms race that wasn't going to end anytime soon, and he needed to face up to the fact that he'd opened the box and now it was out there.
He wasn't thrilled by the Stark Solutions-S.H.I.E.L.D. alliance, but it was the lesser of two evils, and it put Tony mostly in control of how the armor might be used. He would pick the pilots, he would train them, and he would engineer the suits specific to the user and keep them as locked down as possible from another person stealing them. It was the best he could do.
"I don't know if it's even the right thing to do," he admitted to his dad as they poured through the latest hazmat containment gear specs together. "But I started this, and... I can't go back and undo it. Iron Man is who I am."
"Your grandfather felt the same way." Howard put away the designs they were working on and pulled up a few old photographs, digitized, kept on a private section of the SI mainframe. It was grandpa, standing with the one and only Captain America, probably sometime in 1942 or '43. "He was lucky, I suppose, that Project Rebirth was mostly destroyed after its first success, or we would have found ourselves with Augment Wars instead of Armor Wars. As it was... I don't think he ever really recovered from losing Captain America and working on the Manhattan Project. It's part of being a scientist, Tony, part I don't think I prepared you for properly. It's easy to get caught up in the thrill of discovery and forget that weapons can end up in the wrong hands and be turned against innocents."
Tony had to wonder if Cap would have understood what Tony was going through. Just like Tony had gone against knock off armors, Cap had fought the Red Skull, another product of a prototype Super Soldier Serum. He must know what it was like to go up against someone who no one else could touch. "I wish I could talk to grandpa about it."
But his grandfather had died of a heart attack when Tony was a baby; apparently weak hearts ran in the family.
"Or Cap," Tony added. "If only I could figure that out."
"Figure what out?"
"Well, Fury asked me with help waking him up. I've been so busy I almost forgot about it entirely."
"Forgot about... waking up Captain America?"
"Oh, right... I forgot you're like the biggest Captain America fanboy ever." Tony punched up the specs he still had from the whole 'Extremis Incident' that he still hadn't given dad the full details. "They found him in the Arctic last year and brought him back to the Helicarrier. According to all readings he is alive and has some minimal brain function but they haven't been able to figure out how to wake him up. What do you say? Stark International-Solutions joint project task force: wake up Captain America."
"These readings are incredible," his dad said, completely ignoring the actual question and going to work on the problem immediately. "We need to take on this project, Tony."
"Yeah, alright, that's what I just said." But he smiled and poked a few more buttons. "We could probably grab some armor and go visit the Helicarrier right now, take a look. Fury would be happy to have us. Actually... you know, I think we might actually be able to alter some elements of Extremis to jump start his healing, maybe keep it from replicating so it wouldn't interfere with the main healing boost provided for by the Serum and... Yeah, that could work."
It took almost a month, which in Stark Time was pretty damn slow, but in Tony's defense he'd just started classes at MIT and engineered like seventeen new inventions as well, so it wasn't really that slow. Fury also insisted on a million simulations and tests beforehand, so it wasn't too surprising. Tony maintained that the risk to Captain America was minimal, the Extremis was all but deactivated, and Cap's immune system would crush Extremis in a matter of days even without that. Caution was good, though; Tony knew he could have been more careful with his own treatment himself.
The actual thawing procedure itself was to take place on the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier in one of the sterile and self-contained medical suites. Tony joined almost a dozen S.H.I.E.L.D. medical personnel in helping to hook up Captain America to several medical monitors and get him set up on a mild Extremis 1.0b drip to help jump start his own natural healing. Tony watched the monitors as his systems indicated Cap was slowly coming to.
After the Extremis infusion was finished, Tony's own part in the procedure fell away as the medical staff managed any remaining problems with the thawing. From his position at Cap's feet, he saw the tilt of the man's head, the flutter of his eyelids as they started to open. "He's moving," Tony reported. "Might be waking up."
"We have him under heavy sedation," one of the techs protested.
"Healing must be working overtime," Tony answered. "He can't get drunk, sedatives aren't going to work for long. Hey, Captain Rogers? Hello?"
Tony elbowed his way to Rogers' side, taking up space that wasn't being used by one of the techs. There were still a few bits of ice clinging to Rogers' lashes as he blinked, very slowly, finally revealing bright blue eyes that tracked around the room before finally landing on Tony. Rogers was... still slightly blue skinned, his body not yet fully up to temperature, but he seemed alert.
Rogers' eyes flicked over Tony's, glanced up to his hair - not really restrained under the surgical cap like it should have been - falling around his face, and then back to his eyes. "How--?"
A scientific and inquiring mind, excellent. "That's an excellent question, Captain. I'm sure we'll be exploring it in depth--"
"Mr. Stark!" Fury yelled from behind him, and Tony glanced over his shoulder long enough to see the irritated look on Fury's face behind the observation window before he looked back to Steve.
"One that we'll have to save for later..." Tony checked over his shoulder again, saw his father also standing there, confused. "Cap, I need you to stay still, relax. Can you do that?"
"Ye--" The answer was still broken off, things clearly weren't moving at full speed, but Tony couldn't really blame him. "Howard?"
Tony glanced over his shoulder at his dad, both of them a little shocked by the question. He supposed between the blue eyes and the dark hair, he must have looked a good bit like his grandpa, and maybe the voice was similar, but that was still too bizarre for words. There probably should have been more briefings on what to actually say to Captain America when he woke up out of his icicle coma. "Anthony, still a Stark, though. We'll have you better in no time, but you've got to stay still."
He punctuated the request by pressing his hands on Rogers' shoulders, not really capable of pinning him, but enough to make his point clear. The man felt... oddly warm under Tony's hands, and he realized, a few moments later, that the warmth was part of the natural connection that Extremis tried to make whenever he was near technology. He'd never been near another Extremis user, not since Mallon, and Mallon had been completely out of his mind.
"You're warm." Cap must have felt the same fuzzy connection as well.
"Pretty sure anyone would be after an Arctic ice bath." But Tony left his hands on Rogers' shoulders, rubbing slightly. A glance at the monitor showed Rogers' heart rate elevating. Nothing dangerous but... "Everything's fine, Cap."
Tony leaned up against the surgical bed, relaxing his hip against the side, hands resting against Captain fricking America. He should probably have been less ridiculously excited, but at first glance, Rogers appeared to be fully functional in the brain department, with none of the psychotic fixations Mallon had; round three of the Extremis development also went to the Genius Starks.
"The War?" Rogers asked; apparently his mind was warmed up enough to get inquisitive. Tony hadn't really been briefed on what to say... but...
"War's over, Cap," Fury answered for him.
Rogers obviously couldn't see Fury, but he could hear him, and his authoritative tone. "That's General Fury. His job is to say 'Stark, what the hell do you think you're doing?!'," Tony said, conspiratorial. Rogers smirked up at him.
"Stark, shut the hell up."
Tony gave Cap the look, the universal 'see what I mean?' look. He was rewarded with an answering quirk of a smile. "War's over..." He closed his eyes, and Tony decided he seemed to... deflate, not exactly relax so much as like a puppet with his strings cut, the Iron Man armor with no power. "Alright. As long as they still have a Stark as SSR."
Tony had no idea what SSR was, probably the S.H.I.E.L.D. analog from Rogers' day, but he nodded. A few moments later, deciding that it wasn't like Captain America was going to be carrying horrible germs from the 40s, he tugged off his mask and gave Rogers another smile. "You're going to have to stay quarantined for a few days while the treatment you're on works out of your system."
"Why did you take your mask off, then?" Rogers frowned. At least he was smart enough to know Tony probably shouldn't have done that under normal circumstances.
"Oh, no worries on that with me." It wasn't as though they had any worries about Tony picking up Extremis. "Just wanted to make sure you had a friendly face."
That was apparently just the right thing to say, because Rogers nodded and closed his eyes, content to relax and allow himself to get well.
Any actual rest was interrupted a few moments later by klaxons sounding, causing Tony's head to shoot up and Rogers' eyes to snap open. Tony placed his hand back on Rogers' chest, but turned towards Fury. "What's going on?"
"Medical personnel, report to Mallon's holding chamber," Fury ordered. "Get Rogers unhooked, stat."
Tony watched as a flurry of activity happened beside him, leaving Rogers covered in monitoring equipment but no longer hooked up to the Extremis drip or any other medication.
"What's going on?" He shouted at his dad and Fury.
Fury was already gone, but his father was looking into the chamber, eyes scared. "Mallon just went into some sort of anaphylactic shock; they think it’s some sort of reaction to Extremis. I'll tell you as soon as I know more. I will be right back, Anthony." And then he was gone. Tony glanced over to Rogers, the other man's eyes also wide and concerned.
Oh that was so not good.
Steve was doing his absolute best to remain calm, but the team that had been tending to him had all but disappeared, leaving only Anthony Stark in the room with him. He felt... stiff, and couldn't really move yet, but he slowly managed to flex his fingers and wrists, followed by his toes and ankles. It took him several minutes of stretching and flexing to finally lever himself up onto the cot where he had been laying.
Anthony was still in the room with him, hunched over some sort of console. Steve didn't recognize it; there were no obvious switches, and Anthony appeared to be typing, but there was no obvious paper. He peeled away the pads stuck to his chest, and the thing pinching his finger, and slid off of the cot. Steve found he was wearing only tightly fitting shorts, and a residual chill clung to his bones. The shiver that ran down his spine made him rub his hands against his shoulders as he walked over to where Anthony was standing, pressing buttons and... watching a movie.
"It's in Technicolor!" Steve had never seen such a bright color on such a small television. In the theaters, of course you could have color, but on a tiny little screen it was unheard of.
"Yeah, yeah," Anthony said. "Better details than the old cameras." He seemed... tense.
Steve watched him for a moment; Anthony's mouth was turned down and set in a hard line. The image on the television was of some doctors, busying themselves around a man who appeared to be glowing, but there was no sound and no cards to show the dialogue either. That was nothing compared to the oddness of the television itself, which was perfectly flat, with no curve to it. It was also more like a movie screen than a television, but when Steve pressed his fingers to it, it was glass, not cloth.
"Computer, patch me through to Mallon's vitals," Anthony said, and he pressed more buttons on the flat typewriter with no paper.
The television flickered and showed a bizarre display now, one Steve didn't recognize. It seemed to be... measuring things, but there were no dials or valves. Instead numbers went up and down seamlessly.
"He's not getting any oxygen..." Anthony said. "Computer, is it an allergic reaction?"
"Treatment with high dose anti-inflammatories has commenced," a soft, female voice reported from somewhere behind Steve. He turned, but no one was there. "Prognosis unfavorable, neurological problems anticipated."
"Get me a tissue sample," Anthony ordered the voice, Miss Computer. "Recommend treating with EMP. Forward the recommendation to my father."
Steve could tell that there was something wrong. Anthony was clearly not watching a movie: the screen was now split between the images of the measures and the doctor movie, but he was too tense. "It must be some sort of antibody response, plasmapheresis might help. Computer, get me blood samples as well, isolate any unfamiliar antibodies in Mallon's system. We might be able to short-circuit them."
Some sort of new medical treatment? Steve looked around the room again, useless in the movie-yelling that Anthony was doing. His room was metal and black, with the window that everyone must have watched his treatment on. Behind it there were boxes that had dozens of glowing lights on them each, as he peered in, he also saw... himself? It looked like him, a blond man with broad shoulders, almost naked, filmed from behind. He wasn't unfamiliar with having his picture taken, but this looked like... the film was on the screen itself as it was recorded. The man on the film was looking into a window. When Steve put his hand to the glass, the man on the film projector screen did as well. Now that he was looking he could even see Anthony moving around in the background.
"Anthony! We're on the film screen."
"We're in the middle of a medical emergency, Cap. That can wait." Anthony didn't seem to find it surprising at all. Instead he continued to frown down at his television. "Dad, what's the status on that EMP?"
'Dad' reported a few moments later, from the same place Miss Computer came from. "We're working on it. We need a concentrated blast to knock out Extremis. Anthony..."
"Report back later. I need samples, anything to figure out what went wrong with the treatment." Anthony continued to poke, and Steve returned to his side, trying to figure out what on Earth was going on. There was something wrong with the treatment, something that had Anthony concerned. Steve figured it might have meant he, or both of them, were in danger. "Computer, where's my analysis?"
"Processing," Miss Computer answered. "Isolating antibodies that are creating immune response."
"So it is some sort of immune response?"
"Confirmed. Displaying now."
And then... and then... a picture came to life... right in the middle of the air, with red bubbles and other items, with an underlying sickly green. In his life he had faced a man with no face, blue weapons that didn't even leave ash, and a glowing cube that had somehow swallowed a man whole, and yet this... Steve didn't even know what was happening...
"Anthony, what is going on?" Steve all but shouted at the man across the room from him. The things he could wrap his mind around were dwindling rapidly and anything that might have seemed familiar and safe was rapidly falling away. "Who are you? What is happening? Where am I? What are you doing to me?"
His questions barely even started to cover what he wanted to ask, but he managed to wait and not yell further. He looked over to Anthony, where the man was standing at his machine, mix of horror and terror on his face. "I'm sorry..." Anthony answered. "It's... it's been a long time, longer than just a few years. The year is twenty-twelve, Howard Stark is my grandfather, and I will answer your questions, but the man on my screen? His name is Mallon, he's dying, and if I don't figure out how to stop it, I'm next."
Twenty-twelve. It almost didn't register as a year at all. He did the math in his head, almost seventy years. Anthony looked... strangely normal in his medical outfit, but now that he was looking more closely things... fell into place. The typewriter must go to the television, and there was some sort of... telephone, perhaps, that let Anthony talk to his father and Miss Computer. He wanted to shake Anthony around the shoulders, to demand answers, but he'd said that lives depended on his work. Steve couldn't interrupt that.
In that moment, it hit him. His friends would be... almost a hundred years old, the youngest ones. Peggy would have been at least ninety-five, Howard a bit older. Even without the risk of war looming, people just didn't live that long. And there was war, or something else dangerous, because Anthony was... fighting a sickness of some sort on his typewriter.
"Run a comparative analysis on the antibody with known immunosuppressors," Anthony ordered Miss Computer. "Where's that EMP?"
Anthony's father's voice came through, quiet. "We tried... Extremis was barely affected. It shut down for milliseconds before it rebooted." No one said anything for a moment. "Oh God."
Anthony's eyes went wide and Steve scrambled over to the screen... several of the numbers weren't moving, set to zero. "He's dead?" Anthony asked, voice trembling and sounding very young.
"Yes. Fury's ordered a rush autopsy. I'll have everything over to the bioengineers as soon as we have it," Anthony's father answered. Everything was quiet. "And Anthony, try to stay level headed. You won't do anyone any good if you're panicking."
"Same to you." But Steve could see Anthony's face was pale, and he was sweating. He laughed, weak, a soft little chuckle. Then he shook his head, went over to one of the medical trays, and produced a drop of blood, which he dropped onto a little square on the console. "Computer, give me an antibody level analysis, compare it to Mallon's."
Miss Computer answered almost immediately. "Mallon antibody concentration: approximately 54 per mL. Stark antibody concentration: approximately 14 per mL. Continuing analysis on antibody for known counteractive agents."
Anthony turned around, leaning against the console now, eyes closed. "Well... Captain Rogers, welcome to the future."
Steve stood like that, frozen, too many questions whirling through his mind for him to even guess what to say next. "Hello."
"I'm... Anthony Edward Stark." He raked his fingers through his hair, flipping it back, looking... so painfully young. "Any questions?"
"Aren't you and Miss Computer still working on the antibodies?" He asked, because someone had just died, and he could see the look on Anthony's face that said he wasn't just afraid for his own life; he was in mourning for the life that had been lost. Steve had seen that look hundreds of times on Howard's face during the war.
"Miss..." Anthony laughed, nothing warm and friendly, but almost bitter. "That's just 'computer', that's the name of the machine I'm working on. I talk to it... her, and she responds with my answer."
"Your typewriter television?" Anthony nodded, and swept a hand over the entire console.
"It's my own design, the AI anyway... the voice in the computer. You can ask her questions if I'm busy." Anthony pressed a few keys on the console-computer and then turned back toward him. "She'll respond to you and provide you with any non-forbidden information."
"Is Howard... your grandfather, is he still alive?"
"No, he... um... died when I was a kid. I'm sorry." Anthony pressed a few buttons and Steve saw... three men, standing next to each other. The two grown men both looked so much like Howard, one around Howard's age, maybe, the other much older, maybe closer to seventy or eighty. Both had thin mustaches, one in grey, the other in dark brown streaked with grey, the younger man was holding a baby. "That's me, dad, and grandpa. Dad's name's also Howard, Howard Junior, obviously, so you don't get confused."
Steve could see how he could have gotten confused. If he'd woken up to Howard, he wondered if he might have just thought he'd only been asleep for a few days. Anthony's father would be older now, closer to fifty or fifty-five. "How can I help?" He asked. "With Mallon and... whatever made you sick."
"You're... I mean, thanks, but your biology is a little out of date." Anthony looked away.
"If I don't help someone, I'm going to keep thinking about how all my friends are gone." And Steve wasn't certain how long he could avoid thinking about that, not with Anthony looking at him with Howard's face and eyes and even his voice, almost.
"Alright." Tony grabbed a needle and uncapped it. "I'm going to need a baseline. The treatment we gave Mallon is called Extremis, we used a semi-deactivated variation on it to wake you up. Your own immune response could give us an idea of what we're dealing with for the antibodies."
Steve was used to the lab rat routine. He sat on the cot and held out his arm while Anthony wrapped a band around his bicep. "So you don't think I'm at risk."
"We'll check. It looks like what killed Mallon was his body's delayed response to Extremis. It's like... when you get a cold, your body learns how to fight it off, makes something called antibodies. Your antibodies fighting with the virus is part of what makes you feel sick. An overactive immune system can kill you, like an asthma attack." Anthony talked very... calmly for someone in his situation. It made Steve think that the chatter helped him focus.
"I had asthma as a kid." He knew what it was like, struggling to breathe while his body didn't do what he wanted.
"I've read your file," Anthony answered. "It's a wonder you didn't keel over in Basic."
Sometimes Steve wondered how he hadn't. "So you'll look at me, Mallon, and you... to try to figure out what exactly caused Mallon's death and how to stop it on you?"
"Exactly." He gave Steve a brilliant smile. "You keep up pretty well for a guy who was frozen for seventy years."
Steve felt his cheeks heat, slightly. He couldn't say it was just that he enjoyed listening to Starks ramble on about science. Anthony had the same infectious enthusiasm that Howard had, years and years ago, he was also... painfully young. Howard had been approaching thirty when Steve had known him, but Anthony couldn't have been much older than twenty; he wasn't even as old as Steve, if he had to guess. Anthony finished with the blood, taking several tubes, and then he put a bandage lightly on the crook of Steve's arm before giving him a little grin.
"We'll get this figured out," Anthony assured him. It was obviously more for Anthony's benefit, than his. Steve knew he would be fine.
"Tony," Anthony's dad's voice came through the computer-sound again. When Steve looked around, he found that Howard was standing in the window, looking out onto the lab where he and Anthony were. "They got the first look at Mallon - massive immunological response, inflammatory response in the organs. Anaphylaxis was just the most obvious factor while he was still breathing."
"Extremis must build up some level of presence in the bones, in the organs, and eventually the antibody response gets so concentrated that the body... shuts down." Anthony uncapped one of the tubes and dropped a drop of Steve's blood into the computer-table. "My antibody concentration is about one quarter of Mallon's when he died. We have some time."
No one spoke. Howard bend his head over his own computer-table. "Mr. Stark?" Steve asked, looking into the window. Howard looked up at him. "I'll stay here with Anthony while he figures this out. I'm certain he will."
Howard smiled at him. "Thank you for that, Captain Rogers."
"You should both call me Steve."
"Well, thank you, Steve. Welcome to the future."
Steve felt a dangerous twist in his stomach and heart, but he gave a weak smile up to Howard. "That's your motto, right? 'The future is now'?" That silly Stark Expo motto had never felt more apt, or more terrifying.
Tony glowered down at the computer monitor, wishing it would say something else even if he knew the exercise was pointless. Captain Rogers - Steve - had a far greater concentration of anti-Extremis antibodies than either Tony or Mallon, despite only having been injected an hour or so ago. That meant his immune response was... truly incredible, but he also wasn't susceptible to the negatives. Maybe since Extremis hadn't had the chance to permeate his organs.
He sent the data on the antibodies to his father's console.
"Antibody suppression agent located," his computer reported, finally. "Estimated therapeutic levels 30mcg/mL, 100mg injection recommended every four hours based on Stark, Anthony's current mass."
His father answered before Tony could. "What are the expected side effects for that level of therapy?"
"Common side effects include: nausea, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite. Rare side effects include: heart palpitations, trouble breathing. Warning: estimated therapeutic levels also create moderate to severe immunocompromised status. Patient is recommended to not come in contact with any potentially infectious agents." Tony stared at the computer, agast.
"See if you can find another agent." Because that sounded horrible. "But... we should get that on standby. Dad?"
"I'll consult with the doctors and get something rigged up," Dad answered.
Tony felt... defeated, and he slumped against the console before he slid to the ground, staring at his hands. This was way worse than Technovore. He raked his fingers through his hair and hung his head, mind running through options and finding few. A moment later, Steve touched his shoulder and sat down next to him.
"Don't give up, Anthony."
Tony smiled. Anthony. That's how he had introduced himself to Steve and it must have stuck. "I don't give up, I just keep fighting."
"What's our next move?" Steve asked him.
"We... get you some clothes." Tony was a genius, but even he wasn't going to be able to stay focused on work if Steve was going to walk around wearing nothing but a pair of boxers. "That will help with the cold."
Tony could see nothing but blond hair and bright blue eyes for a moment, Steve looking at him, smiling. "I meant what's next for your computer?"
"Well, I get one of my biomonitors. That will tell me if I start getting a larger immune response or inflammation, so we can know ahead of time if I'm in danger the way Mallon was. We keep track of that, and start the therapy as soon as I'm in an estimated danger window." Tony didn't think the therapy sounded particularly appetizing, but he had no other choices at the moment. "We figure out how we might be able to fix my antibodies, and then we do that."
Steve nodded, clearly trying to take it all in. "Is that hard?"
He laughed. "Oh, you know, never been done before. It can't be that hard, though, right?"
The pressure on his shoulder tightened. "You're a genius, Anthony. You'll figure it out."
Tony's days always had a certain tone to them. Before their plane accident where Tony was nearly killed and his father kidnapped, Tony's days had always been hours of nothing special to do, his time crammed full of innovation and the occasional time spent hanging with Rhodey; he and his father would argue and laugh and invent awesome things, and then he would sleep for a few hours before doing it all over again. After his father had been declared dead, Tony's days were filled with Iron Man, school, and more Iron Man, dedicated to revenge and taking back what was his.
After Mallon's death and Steve waking up, Tony's days changed again. He wore the medical monitor, checking it even more compulsively than he had his heart implant when he had had it. He woke up early in the morning to Steve exercising in one of the corners; Steve had chosen to stay in the quarantine zone with Tony even after his concentration of Extremis virus had gone to zero. He was then force-fed something by Steve, usually mushy oatmeal, even though the treatments he was taking made him feel nauseous and not particularly interested in food. He poked around with permutations of the Extremis antibody, and the Extremis code, while Steve sat on the floor at his side, playing with a datapad and a stripped down version of his computer AI that mostly just popped up Wikipedia and Youtube whenever Steve asked it a question. Steve read and doodled and asked his AI questions while Tony worked. Tony had made certain the computer wouldn't allow Steve any access to information concerning his identity as Iron Man - that wasn't something you could leave to an AI. He'd tell Steve after he was out of the woods, medically.
Around eleven thirty every day, Steve would prod him, start pulling him away from whatever he was working on, sit him down at a table and make him eat... more food. Tony had never been a fan of 'lunch', but Steve was apparently a stickler for it. Lunch became the time when Steve would ask Tony whatever questions he'd been saving up. The subjects ranged from nuclear physics - which Tony understood - to politics - which Tony did not understand, and Steve hung on his every word. After lunch he was allowed to work again, which he usually did until six, or a bit later, only to be force-fed more food and conversation.
Every day at nine, Tony was forced to stop work. Steve dragged him over to one of the two cots they'd made their own, and they crowded together onto one, shoulder to shoulder, hunched over the tiny little tablet even though Tony had explained, over and over again, that he could make the television play through the holographic projector on the computer.
Tonight they were watching a James Bond movie. Steve was A Fan. Tony usually ended up dozing off with his face pressed against Steve's shoulder. He curled up on his side, back pressed to Steve's side when he heard the credits roll; he had been using Steve's arm as a pillow.
"Anthony?" Tony grumbled a response. "Did you make any progress today?"
"I'm compiling a new version of Extremis for dad to run simulations on. If that works... it will integrate fully with my immune system and my body will stop producing antibodies for it," Tony answered. He kept his eyes closed, trying to pretend he didn't like the way Steve felt, even the way he smelled. It was so inconvenient having a crush on Captain America. He was just so... muscley, and earnest, and he wasn't dumb at all.
"I hope it works." Steve rolled towards Tony, and he ended up putting his hand on Tony's shoulder. "Your friends miss you."
"They're just on the other side of the glass whenever they visit," Tony protested. Rhodey had come once, Pepper came almost every day since she heard. "And you're here." It was... more honest than Tony really expected to be, but it wasn't like Steve would get it. Tony hadn't exactly been pushing Steve towards programs that might make him ask a bunch of uncomfortable questions about boys kissing boys. He wasn't sure he was ready for his own uncomfortable questions when it came to boys kissing boys.
Steve didn't answer right away, and it made Tony nervous in its own right. He didn't know if he'd said too much. "I'll be there after you get out, too."
"Of course, who is going to make sure I eat three meals a day if I don't have Captain America chasing after me?" He meant it to be sarcastic, it was supposed to be sarcastic, but instead Tony realized he sounded... happy.
"It's hard thinking of you as just... 'Steve'. Growing up my dad and I both got all sorts of stories about you." Tony still remembered most of them, and he wondered how many were even true. A large part of him didn't even want to ask; it was neater when they were all true. "After the war... grandpa went on expeditions looking for you."
Steve's hand, the one resting gently on Tony's shoulder squeezed. "Howard..."
Tony sat and then looked down at where Steve was still sprawled back against his cot. He was frowning, a troubled and cloudy look on his face. "You two were pretty good friends, right?"
"I'm still getting used to the idea that he's gone." It was easy to see that thought remained on Steve's mind frequently. If Tony had to guess, he would have said that was a large part of the reason Steve was happy to stay cooped up with Tony while he was sick. "You and your father are so alike but so different from him."
"Well, I'm working on the goatee!" Tony said, stroking his hands over the pathetic showing of facial hair he'd managed to grow over the past week.
Steve reached up, fingers brushing against his face, and in that brief moment, Tony thought he felt his heart stop. It was only a moment: Steve's thumb swept over the fine outline of what might eventually be a goatee, from just under his nose, around his mouth, and down to his chin where he finally finished with a little pinch of his chin. "It will look good on you."
"Hey, it already looks good on me." His protest was half-hearted.
"Very dashing. Roguishly handsome," Steve answered with a weird sort of tone that made Tony not entirely sure if he was putting him on or what.
Steve just shouldn't say things like that, he put a serious twist in Tony's ability to share close quarters with the man. It wasn't Steve's fault. He was just devastatingly attractive; he was, quite literally, the pinnacle of human perfection. Next to him he was certain almost anyone else would feel wimpy and scrawny, but Tony was painfully aware that he needed a suit to protect his squishy insides, and even the hand-to-hand training he'd taken to beef up his fighting couldn't match the raw... sexy muscles of the man currently reclining on a cot with him, browsing the internet. He'd need to be roguishly handsome when put up against that, he couldn't compete otherwise.
"Gonna shower." He fled the comforting embrace of pretending that curling up next to Captain America on a cot in an isolation chamber meant anything.
When he got to the bathroom he stripped off his clothes for the day, found them replaced with brand new, completely sterilized ones. Tony's immune system wasn't completely compromised by his treatment, but he knew a bad cold could have put him down without immediate medical attention. It made sense to be so cautious. He scrubbed himself off, washed his hair and the rest of him, ignoring the medical band around his arm that measured everything that was wrong with him. He needed to stop thinking about how good Steve looked, how good he smelled, how sweet he looked when he smiled. It was a recipe for disaster. Tony didn't even think people knew what gay was in the forties, much less whatever he was... which seemed to be leaning towards 'bisexualish', but with a definite preference for boys he couldn't have.
Having his attention newly focused on his childhood hero rather than his former arch-nemesis should have been comforting, but instead Tony just realized he really sucked at liking people. He had no better answers when he finished showering than he did before he started, or last week when he'd first seen Captain America mostly naked. People shouldn't be that attractive; it should be illegal.
He ended his shower with a freezing cold blast of water, and climbed out of the shower, shivering, and dried himself only enough so his boxers didn't cling indecently when he walked out into their sleeping area again. The temperature was already knocked up to eighty.
"Do you feel cold, still?" Tony asked, climbing up onto his cot a few feet from Steve's.
"Yeah." Both of them fell silent, Tony picked gently at the bottom of his boxer shorts. "Are you sure there's not still cooling liquid in me?"
"Positive," Tony answered. He forced himself to wriggle off of the cot, even though he didn't want to, and he pulled out a few more of the thin, washed and sterilized hospital blankets they were provided with. He tugged up the one on the bed, laying it over Steve, and then piled on two more.
He knew Steve didn't sleep well. Tony still didn't sleep entirely peacefully, even with his father back home. He sometimes dreamed of the crash, of bleeding inside the Iron Man armor, of nearly getting pounded to death any number of times. He dreamed of feeling his throat close, phantom fingers against his throat that made it impossible for him to breathe; in the worst of them, Steve was holding him as it happened, crying. Tony didn't want to make Steve cry.
There was nothing else he could do, though. "I'll talk to S.H.I.E.L.D. about increasing the temperature in here for tomorrow night," he promised. Tony kept it cooler during the day, but he deferred to Steve at night; he didn't sleep much these days anyway. After giving Steve a final squeeze on the shoulder, he climbed into bed and asked the computer to turn off the lights.
The room was too hot, nearly stifling, but Tony closed his eyes anyway and let himself drift. He barely slept anymore, between the coffee and stimulants laying atop a restless stomach; he couldn't find the peace to allow his mind to settle into sleep for long. Though his days felt blended together, they were... decidedly pleasant, even with the lingering threat of death. The company was good. Finally, hours later, he drifted off.
Between the fact that Steve didn't require much sleep, and the residual cold that clung to him in spite of being thawed for over a week, Steve woke long before Anthony. He savored it somewhat guiltily. Because of the heat, Anthony slept in nothing more than a thin pair of boxer shorts, not even bothering with a top sheet; Steve doubted it had been Anthony's intention to leave himself on display, but that was the result.
Anthony was exceptionally attractive. He couldn't deny that the resemblance to Howard had been part of the initial allure, but any advantage that had given Anthony had long since been overwhelmed by his own merits. Anthony was brilliant, thoughtful, and sensitive in a way that surprised him. Steve wasn't used to men who showed their emotions as keenly as Anthony did. Steve had first thought that Anthony must have been responsible for Mallon's treatment, to be so devastated by his death, but he hadn't been. When Steve had asked, Anthony had been only too willing to speak of his failures, of the times his genius couldn't save others and left him with a deep guilt. If Anthony hadn't been attractive, Steve still would have still found him beautiful. That did not stop Anthony from also still being exceptionally attractive.
His head shot up, guilty, as he found Howard standing in the observation window to their shared quarantine rooms. "Mr. Stark." He owed the man's family better than leering at his son, the grandson of his own good friend.
"How is he?" Howard looked just as pale as Tony, and Steve could imagine the way he must have been working the problem on the other side of the glass.
"Miss Computer says his treatments are being well tolerated and his side effects are minimal," Steve answered.
Howard was grinning. "You know it's not actually a woman named 'Miss Computer', right?"
"Yes," he answered. "But Anthony has explained that she is an intelligence, even if he has not named her, and she doesn't respond to 'ma'am'."
"And the guy from the forties sees through the crux of sixty years of science fiction in under a week." Howard rested against one of the tables, hip cocked like that. "But I meant how is he, not his medical condition."
Steve looked over his shoulder to Anthony. He was still asleep sprawled, pale and beautiful and relaxed in a way he never was when he was awake. "He is upset. He is not eating well. He often wakes up in the middle of the night, screaming. I think he's worried about not finding an answer, and he's..." Steve had his suspicions, he knew men who'd seen combat or gotten too close to the edge. Even the pieces that Anthony had volunteered did not quite add up to the weight he carried on his shoulders, even accounting for his age. "He's had a hard time, hasn't he? More than just the plane accident."
Howard didn't need to answer in words. His face said that Steve was right. "I've been running simulations on Tony's changes to Extremis all night. It works. I've recommended to Fury that Tony be allowed to upload the changes, and Fury has accepted."
Relief flooded him. "Should I wake him up?"
"Let him sleep. It will still be there when he wakes up."
"Sometimes he acts like the weight of the world's on his shoulders." Steve knew that feeling well.
"Sometimes it is."
He thought maybe Howard was exaggerating, but one glance at his face told Steve that he wasn't, that there were times when the fate of the world genuinely rested with Anthony. The hard lines at his mouth and the bags under his eyes took on new meaning. "I'll have Miss Computer call you when he wakes up."
Howard chuckled, started to walk away from the window.
"Mr. Stark?" Howard glanced back through the window. "How are you?"
"I'll live." He didn't elaborate, just walked off out of Steve's view again.
The very first thing Steve was going to do when he finally met Howard face-to-face was shake the man's hand, or perhaps hug him. Anthony's behavior suggested that such things were just the way a man expressed himself. It was comforting to know that a man might do that, but it also made things far more dangerous. Rather than start his morning workout, Steve settled back into his cot and pulled out the little hand computer that Anthony had given him. For the very first time since waking up, he asked Miss Computer about the things he least wanted to know about: Howard Sr., Peggy, Bucky.
Bucky's body had never been found, Steve wasn't surprised, but it saddened him to know his friend had never come back home to Brooklyn. Howard had died of a heart attack, age 75; after the war he'd continued with Stark Industries, the company that eventually became Stark International under his son and grandson. Peggy... Peggy was still alive, nearing a hundred. It was the best and worst sort of feeling all rolled into one; she even still lived in New York. Steve wondered if she answered e-letters.
Curled up on his own cot, eyes flicking occasionally towards Anthony's loose-limbed, sleepy form, Steve wrote his e-letter. It was slow going - he'd never been much of a typist, that was more for dames when he'd been a young man - but the skill apparently transcended gender now.
Dear Agent Carter,
The three words stared up at him for long minutes.
I'm sorry I missed our date to go dancing.
Anthony groaned. Steve pressed the button to hide his letter, feeling weirdly guilty about it, considering everything. Anthony rolled, rubbing his eyes and brushing his fingers through his hair while Steve looked on, trying to pretend he didn't enjoy the way sinewy muscles moved with every gesture. Moments later, Anthony's blue eyes found him. "Hey."
"Good morning, Anthony." Steve gave him a little smile. "Your father said Fury approved your newest Extremis version."
All sluggishness fled, Anthony scrambled up onto his feet. "Why didn't you wake me? Oh man! Lemmie just... can you? Yes!" Anthony scrambled towards the bathroom.
"Miss Computer, please inform Mr. Stark that his son is awake."
The little observation room ended up packed full of people only a few minutes later, General Fury, Howard, a pretty red haired woman and several men that Steve didn't know. Miss Potts didn't come, which could have meant anything, but Steve supposed she was probably still at school. Steve stood to the side, feeling useless; there was science going on that was so far beyond him he might as well have been a chimpanzee - and they could fly spaceships, he’d seen movies. So he stood, waiting for Anthony to give him instructions.
Anthony had chosen to not wear a shirt. Steve really wished he'd wear a shirt. Maybe there was a scientific reason for it, but Steve mostly was distracted by him now.
"Computer, begin active monitoring of my vital signs. Extremis version 1.36 is ready for phase 2," Anthony said. He then pressed several sticky things to his chest and brain, which must have been the scientific reason for why he was not wearing a shirt, but Steve still sort of wished he would wear one.
"Why not version 2?" General Fury asked.
"This variation is still based on the core programming of the original Extremis. After I'm out of the woods, I'll be working on version 2." Anthony pressed some keys and Steve watched the holograph-screen in front of Anthony light up with an outline of his body. "Uploading the new version software is not as simple as sliding in a DVD, checking 'I accept', and hitting install, unfortunately. This represents the first attempt to update the Extremis programming in a live subject."
That didn't sound good at all. Steve didn't know enough about computers to really follow along, but one glance to Howard said that he was very worried about this.
"How are we proceeding, Mr. Stark?" Howard had taken up a position at one of the outside consoles.
"Well, Mr. Stark," Anthony answered, grinning back up at his father. "Multiple EMPs to take Extremis offline. I've designed a virus to attack and insert the new code in the old version of Extremis. Unfortunately, there's that little problem with my heart. Taking Extremis offline for too long could cause heart failure."
Anthony pressed a few more buttons and a syringe of slightly greenish liquid appeared in the console. He handed it to Steve.
"That's for you. If I go into heart failure for longer than twenty-five seconds, you need to inject me directly with the newer version of Extremis and I'll hopefully be able to manually shut down Extremis 1.0 with 1.36." He took a deep breath. "Alright."
"Wait." Steve looked from Howard to Anthony and then back again. "You're really just going to do something that's going to cause heart failure and maybe not even work?"
"It'll work," Anthony said. "It will just... be a lot more painful if option one doesn't work. On the plus side, Extremis 1.36 has a secure firmware updater built in so I'll be able to push updates less painfully next time."
Anthony was obfuscating.
"Alright." Steve took ahold of the syringe, and then squeezed Anthony's shoulders. "You still owe me pizza."
"I do." Anthony clapped him on the shoulders and then turned. "I'll be reporting any subjective observations concerning the progression of Extremis as it moves. Turning on monitoring." Anthony flipped a switch and Steve watched the screen light up with red. "Extremis 1.0 monitoring is go." He turned back to the console and pulled out another item, pressing it to his chest. "This will help keep my heart going... a bit. It's not as useful as the actual implant."
Anthony then put a hand on his shoulder, directing him to stand in a different place. Steve knew that the EMP made computers and things not work properly, but that Anthony had a directed one, so he needed to stand away from the pulse.
"Steve. If my heart monitor goes flat, a timer will start."
"And if it hits twenty-five seconds, I inject you." He knew his part.
It became a flurry of activity after that. Anthony started more monitoring, did more things on the computer, and then, very ominously looked at his dad, smiled, and just said 'give Pep and Rhodey my best'. Steve just closed his eyes and prayed.
"Ready. All monitors recording, ready for your command."
Anthony nodded. "Updaters ready. EMP primed. Commencing in: 10, 9..." Anthony continued to count down, when he reached five, he flashed five fingers rather than speak, before finally arriving at one, and his gesture was accompanied by a soft, mechanical-electronic sound that Steve wasn't familiar with. "EMP away, Extremis falling offline."
One of the monitors warbled.
"Heart rate fluctuating out of tolerance, blood pressure dropping. I feel dizzy." Anthony grabbed the edge of the console, and Steve grabbed him around the waist, holding him upright between the two of them. "Extremis 1.36 coming online, approximately five percent rolled over, seven percent... monitor suggests incoming tachycardia."
Anthony's heart was racing, Steve could feel it from where his hand was pressed against his chest, beating wild. He was panting.
"Wow, that hurts. Steve, put me down."
Steve let him crumple, gently, easing him onto his back, wiping his hair out of his eyes. The heart monitor stopped, made a high-pitched whine that didn't stop.
"Heart rate flatlined," Miss Computer said. "Commencing count of time since last detected rhythm. One second."
"Extremis is still coming online," Howard reported through the speaker.
Anthony looked so pale...
Steve rolled Anthony's arm so he could see a vein, needle poised over him.
He counted, silently, in his head. Waiting for any sign of life in the man under him.
"Steve," Howard interrupted the countdown.
Steve had the needle against Anthony's arm when he man under him gasped, the sound of a normal heart rhythm starting up at almost the same time. He pulled away the needle, grabbed Anthony in his arms and hugged him tight. Anthony chuckled uneasily in his ear. "Hey, Steve... I'm fine. I'm fine."
"Extremis saturation has reached seventy percent and still climbing, Tony."
"Oh, that's good..." Anthony grabbed ahold of Steve, tried to use him to lever up onto his feet, and instead just wobbled. Steve scooped the man up and placed him on one of the cots, even though Anthony whined in response. "I'm not an invalid."
"Steve." Howard knocked on the glass. "I'm sending you in some medicine to help Tony's immune system come back up to snuff. Somehow I don't think our resident teenaged genius is going to stand for being cooped up for much longer. And you keep those monitors on, Anthony Edward Stark, we need them to monitor your body's response to the new version of Extremis."
"Yeah, yeah." Anthony grinned up at Steve. "Heart attacks, not so awesome."
"You should be more careful, Anthony." But Anthony didn't seem to be listening to him at all, just laying there with his eyes closed, arm tossed carelessly over his eyes. "Could you eat something?"
Steve helped Anthony through a few more injections and blood tests, and then helped him sit up and eat some eggs, toast, and orange juice. Even though Anthony insisted he was fine, Steve stayed close - perhaps closer than was really prudent - but he wouldn't have stayed so near if Anthony's heart rate wasn't still fluctuating so wildly.
"Is your heart alright?" Steve asked, the little, audible flutters finally making him nervous enough to question outright.
"Oh... you know," Anthony said. Steve was getting used to a certain sort of not-answer from him. "It's normal fluctuation. I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie, fight or flight, get the blood pumping." He finished with an awkward laugh.
Steve knew the rush of combat, but... he couldn't see any reason for Anthony to be nervous. "Do you think the new version of Extremis won't work?"
"Then why are you nervous?"
Anthony looked down at his hands. "Well... to start, Pep's gonna kill me when she finds out I upgraded without her. And there haven't been any obvious emergencies, but I'm sure S.H.I.E.L.D.'s been keeping me in the dark of any big issues on the horizon."
Howard's words about how sometimes the fate of the world rested on Anthony's shoulders came back to the forefront of Steve's mind. "Your dad said you... do a lot of important work."
"Things had been quiet for a few weeks." Anthony smiled, picking up a piece of toast and taking a bite. "You'd think that would mean I could just invent medical equipment or disaster recovery AIs, but no. It's been months since I had time to just be in a lab, building things. Dad and I used to do that all the time."
Steve nodded even though Anthony was obviously talking about something more than he was saying outright.
"Did you ever think about changing the world, you know, after you had the treatment and were basically the pinnacle of human evolution?" Anthony's question seemed such an abrupt change, but it obviously mattered to him.
He had to think about it. "I was so busy trying to stop the guy trying to destroy the world it was impossible to think about changing it."
The answer earned him a chuckle even though Steve hadn't meant it to be funny. "I know the feeling. Well... think about it. What would you like to change in the world for the better? The S.H.I.E.L.D. guys might play it close to the chest, but you're a hero, the first hero. Seventy years of engineering and you've never been duplicated."
"Thinking like that gets a man to do the wrong things because he thinks he knows what's best," Steve answered.
There were things he wanted though, things he'd been afraid to look for when Anthony told him S.H.I.E.L.D. would be monitoring his outgoing and incoming work with Miss Computer. People still hated each other, that much was obvious, even if Anthony and Howard and maybe some of the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. talked about peace.
Anthony didn't answer right away, looking at his hands and frowning.
"I'm too new here to know what needs changing, Anthony."
"Fair enough." Anthony stretched out his legs in front of him. "You know, if you don't want to keep living here on the Helicarrier, you could come crash at my place... well, my dad's. We've got Stark International and... some industrial space, you could get a... art... studio... thing."
Anthony's inability to understand art beyond 'it's good, I like it' was truly amusing sometimes. Steve slung an arm around Anthony's shoulders and pulled him closer. "That sounds wonderful, Anthony."
"Heart rate elevated ten percent," Miss Computer announced.
"Oh, shut up!"
"You really should be nicer to Miss Computer, Anthony."
Tony had decided his heart was an utter traitor, as was his computer AI. He could have felt far less awkward about Steve being so close if it weren't for how frantically his heart raced when Steve did something innocuous like fling an arm around him. Things were going to change, very soon; Tony was under no delusions that he would be able to keep his secret from Steve for very long. Iron Man was out there and everyone knew he was Tony, yet so much about being a hero had changed in the last seventy years and he had no idea if Cap would understand that.
"Have you thought about it much? Do you know what you want to do when I'm finally allowed out and you... Steve, you can do anything you want." Tony didn't think he was nearly as interesting as any one of the billions of other people on the planet. Steve was going to get a life and find something else to do with his time than hang out with a kid.
"I think S.H.I.E.L.D.'s going to ask me to work for them." Steve let go of Tony's shoulder and sat across from them instead. "There were... holes in the information about the invasion, but there were aliens, Anthony."
"And they always want to eat us," Tony answered.
"You work for them, too, don't you?" Steve just looked at him. "Your father... he said sometimes the weight of the world really falls to you."
"Yeah..." He didn't know how to answer. "You saw some of the footage from the invasion, right? Iron Man and War Machine and Rescue worked with S.H.I.E.L.D. to bring them down and force the Makluans to leave."
Steve nodded. "I don't know why they'd want me with a team like that. I'm just a kid from Brooklyn. You designed the armor, didn't you?"
Tony had to hand it to Steve, he was sharp. "What makes you say that?"
Steve just answered with a look. Tony wasn't fooling anyone.
"Yeah, yeah... alright." He pulled up the tablet that Steve had made his eyes and ears to the outside world for the last few days. "There's something I haven't told you. Before I handed this over, I put... one or two things behind a lock that I asked the computer not to give you, even if you asked. It's not that I didn't trust you, it's just something you sort of need to tell your friends in person." After he disengaged the lockout, it barely took a second to find the video; the damn thing had been all over the internet in a matter of minutes after the danger cleared.
If he did say so himself, it was all very daring. The video started with the explosion of the Makluan mothership, proceeded through Tony's spectacular and fiery descent down to the streets of Manhattan, his crash landing - leaving an impressive crater right in the heart of downtown - and then Tony standing up and waving that everything was fine... sans helmet. The rest of the video played in silence, Steve watching it beside him. Pepper trying to confess her feelings, Tony kissing her, dad arriving in the space armor. He shut down the video.
Steve didn't say anything for several long moments, his fingers resting against the computer pad, considering. "Iron Man has been active for almost two years, Anthony. You're eighteen."
"I put on the suit the day my father was kidnapped by the Mandarin," Tony answered. "The world needed me... and I needed Iron Man to get through it all." If it weren't for the armor, Tony had no doubt he would have died several times over before it even came down to the Makluan invasion. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. As soon as you get out of this room, you'll know. The whole world knows now."
Tony sighed. Somedays he wished he could take it all back, could go back into hiding so he wouldn't have to be faced with it, but it did have its benefits. The Stark International/Solutions labs were now outfitted with the latest tech he could afford, and the legal firewall between Stark International and Stark Solutions was - at least according to Roberta - rock solid. They wouldn't have another Justin Hammer or Obadiah Stane situation if anything happened to his father or Tony again. Tony's relationship with S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn't always the best, but saving the world together did cement enough bonds to make Tony feel he could trust them to some extent as well.
"You have your friends now," Steve answered. "And... your girl."
Tony frowned. "Pep? Nah, we... it's not like that." Tony had no idea how you were even supposed to explain that to a guy who was sort of old enough to be your grandfather. "We didn't really date. I--" He thought about telling Steve that he was bi, but if he was having trouble sorting out modern dating, he didn't want to touch that right now. Besides, S.H.I.E.L.D. was likely listening in. "I'm not seeing anyone, right now. I'm too busy working on Stark Solutions tech and going to college to worry about that." And having a crush on Captain America didn't help.
Cap seemed to take that all in stride, as he took back the tablet and held it in his hands. "So you'll be back to Iron Man when you're better?"
"And being a student at MIT, and the CEO of Stark Solutions. Fury's asked me to help put together a team of first responders as well, but I don't know how I'm supposed to feel about..." Tony closed his eyes and brushed his fingers through his hair, trying to put the problem into words. "Dad stopped making weapons the day I was born, and I started the day I thought he died. I feel like such a disappointment; I should have done something else."
"Anthony..." Steve ran his hand up and down his arm. "Your grandfather made my shield, my uniform, and many of the weapons my men used out in the field. I listened to some of the interviews he gave and the words he wrote after the war, and I think what pained him more than inventing the bomb was how it was used."
"I can't follow around every piece of equipment I make," he protested.
"So you shouldn't make anything?" Steve asked. "I can read the Wikipedia and it said that the gangs you first started fighting against had men in armor that didn't have anything to do with your designs. The... armor race was going to happen anyway."
"Armor race?" Tony asked, giving Steve a little smirk.
"That's what it's called. There's other countries working on their own versions. That Crimson Dynamo was built years before yours, and it nearly beat your first armor almost as soon as you built it. You're a genius, Anthony, but you're not the only genius." Somehow that was oddly comforting. His dad wasn't wrong that sometimes he felt as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and the idea that he wasn't the only one driving was a moderate comfort.
"I didn't take you for the guy who'd advocate an arms race."
"Adolf Hitler wasn't going to sock himself in the jaw," Steve answered, threading his fingers through Tony's hair and pulling him so his head rested against Steve's shoulder. At least this time the computer didn't announce it as blood rushed to Tony's ears and made his head pound so hard he could feel every frantic beat of his own heart. "Just remember what this is for."
"Saving lives," Tony answered.
He reminded himself, again, that Steve had almost full run of the internet from Tony's console and he hadn't looked once for anything about being gay. It probably wasn't even on the guy's radar, he was just touchy. Really.
"Do you... wanttowatchsometv?" Tony asked, all but throwing the words out as a paltry defense for how his heart was racing and how frazzled he felt.
Steve let him go, finally, and Tony could breathe again. "Alright?" Steve looked horribly confused. "It's alright that you're Iron Man, Anthony. You've already done a lot of good, and you're going to keep it up. You have a lot of time to figure things out."
"I'm glad you don't mind."
"No, I don't, it's... wicked?"
Tony laughed. "Let's just leave it at 'bee's knees' or something, we'll work on your vernacular later."
The two of them grabbed a tablet and settled in beside each other on a cot while Tony pulled up the new Sherlock Holmes miniseries to watch; they’d had Sherlock Holmes in the 40s, after all. It wasn’t the movie series that had the actor that Tony very much wanted to look like when he grew up, but Tony had heard good things.
Tony hadn’t exactly been vetting Steve's media consumption, but they had definitely been watching some older stuff before, getting Steve used to the change in entertainment, but even Tony hadn’t really expected the very modern and blase approach to gay relationships. At first he thought Steve hadn’t even noticed; Steve seemed to let the mention of committed lesbians pass, but Tony definitely caught his frown when John assured Sherlock it was fine if he had a boyfriend, and when the episode was finally over Steve was frowning. And it wasn't because of the minor plotholes - Steve was a guy who could watch James Bond movies and not get hung up on plotholes, the issue wasn't the plotholes.
"Everyone thought Sherlock and John were going steady," Steve said, almost... tentatively.
"Dating, Steve, it's called 'dating'." Which wasn't what Steve asked at all, but Tony was trying to avoid the question while he thought. They weren't supposed to have this conversation like... ever. He could have brushed it off, said it was supposed to be a joke, but then he'd lose his window to make a point. "But yeah... I guess that's new for you. In New York and a few other states two men or two women can even get married."
"That's allowed?" Steve sounded... damn, he sounded horrified.
"It's fine," Tony gritted out, putting distance between himself and Steve, standing and backing away. "I didn't think you'd have an issue. The Howling Commandos were one of the first integrated units, you're alright working for Fury..."
"Anthony, I..." Steve held up his hands. "It's just a shock. When I'm from, you wouldn't even hear of two fellas going steady." Steve seemed frantic, and as Tony settled he saw Steve do the same, the two of them stood a few feet from each other. "You... seem to care a lot about it?"
Oh crap. He was in a damn S.H.I.E.L.D. medical facility, he couldn't even think about outing himself in privacy. If he said anything he knew it would be to Fury and his dad in... maybe an hour. "Lots of kids my age do. It's just not a big deal and I guess we're a bit more open to..." Experimenting with genetically enhanced supersoldiers. "Irritating our parents."
"So Howard would mind?"
"It hasn't exactly come up," Tony offered. "There's a lot of crappy rumors that float around about it and I guess that's just what older people grew up with. I don't even know what they thought about it when you were a kid."
The two of them waited; silence filled the room, but eventually the two of them sat back down again and Tony found Steve now reading up on gay marriage with a very confused look on his face. "Well there sure wasn't anyone talking about it."
"Well... people our age - when I'm counting you as twenty-four instead of a billion - tend to not mind." That was one good thing about Steve; even though he was actually over ninety years old in raw years, he was still young enough that a lot of that stupid culture stuff hadn't drilled all the way into his head. "There's always a few gay kids in your school, and even though everyone thinks it's the artsy and drama kids, it's not."
Steve frowned slightly, hopefully just taking it in.
"So it's not like you can tell just by what someone's like..." Tony shrugged. It was complicated enough as it was, trying to figure out what you felt when there was a whole internet that could actually answer your questions. "I don't really know how it works," he confessed. "I think you're supposed to start by telling your friends and maybe some of your family if they're probably gonna be alright with it." Which in Tony's case would have been Rhodey, Pep, Steve, dad and Roberta.
"That seems complicated."
"Yeah." Yeah it really was.
"Well..." Steve took a deep breath. "A lot has changed. I think it's good, though. There shouldn't be anything wrong with loving someone."
Tony sort of wanted to kiss Steve right now. The guy really was as wholesome as he seemed, and ridiculously open-minded. He probably loved puppies and long walks in the park, too. "Exactly."
The two of them paused - suspended in a moment where they both seemed poised on doing something, on saying something - but finally the moment passed and Steve finally seemed distracted from the issue of gays and getting married, and the two of them eased back into their more relaxed moments.
"Anthony?" Tony just answered with a soft 'mm?' before Steve continued, the two of them pressed loosely together as Steve sketched on his computer tablet and Tony read. "You'll be careful when you go back to work as Iron Man, right?"
"I'm a big believer in not making promises you can't keep."
Steve set his pad down and glared in Tony's direction. "Then you'd better get used to me following you around making sure you don't get blown up by aliens."
"And making sure I'm home for dad's horrible cooking?"
"How is his cooking horrible? The whole internet has shows on how to make all sorts of food. I don't know what a quinoa is, but it sounds delicious." Steve tilted his pad in Tony's direction, showing a recipe for some sort of quinoa fritter or something.
Tony made a face. "How about something less complicated, like pasta?"
"You saved the world from aliens but you're scared of trying new food?"
"I'm not scared, I'm dubious."
"We didn't have any of this when I was a kid," Steve said, prodding Tony in the side and grinning. "But if you and Howard don't like it, I'm sure I can make something else. I can't believe you still have The Joy of Cooking, some things never change."
Tony's life was occasionally very, very surreal. He was fairly certain that having Captain America cook for him ranked pretty damn high on the weirdness scale.
Steve had thought, perhaps a bit sillily, that living with Anthony and Howard would be different than it was. The two men lived in something called a 'condominium' which seemed to largely just be a very nice apartment that they owned. The condo was also bigger than most houses and took up the entire top floor of a very large building. Steve had his own bedroom and his own bathroom, there was a gym, two additional bedrooms and bathrooms for Anthony and Howard, and an 'office' that was larger than the quarantine room he'd shared with Anthony for almost two weeks and had several computers in it.
Even if the Starks supposedly lived in the condo, he found later that really the two of them all but lived in the Stark Industries building. The two of them had the run of the fifty-ninth floor with their own laboratories and the fifty-eighth floor was another - slightly smaller - version of their condo. Anthony outfitted him with a little wristwatch that had a Miss Computer in it who could help him if he got lost. He worked out in the company gym, made sure Howard and Anthony ate food several times a day, and became more comfortable with... the world.
Steve was still sorting it all out, and he didn't think he was going to be done any time soon.
Anthony's laboratory was currently making very loud noises that he'd assured Steve were 'music' but Steve still didn't think Anthony had any idea what that word really meant.
"Anthony?" Anthony continued to dance - or something like dancing - around the room, probably not able to hear him. "ANTHONY! Miss Computer can you please turn off the music?"
The room went silent and Anthony pouted at him. "What's up, Steve?"
"I would like to go out for the day."
"Do you need a tour guide?" Anthony asked, starting to put away his things.
Anthony frowned at his answer.
"I... need to do something personal. I'll come back when I'm done."
"You got your SI and SS badges?" Steve held them up. "Credit card?" Steve also presented that. "Phone?" Steve pulled the thing out of his back pocket.
"I am going to be fine, Anthony," Steve said. "You showed me how to work the credit card and Miss Computer can help me whenever I don't know how to get somewhere."
"Yeah, it's uplinked to the Stark One satellite so I'll be able to locate you in real time if you have any issues. Don't hesitate to call."
"I think you're going to be too busy inventing things." Anthony always seemed happy to help him, but Steve knew he had to find his own feet. He couldn't keep obsessing about Anthony, and living with the Starks wasn't helping that.
"Still... if you need me..." Anthony turned back to his work, which Steve supposed said everything about Anthony. Steve knew what that was like; his own work would come first as soon as he was back in the action. Fury had asked him about joining S.H.I.E.L.D. before they'd left quarantine, and Steve had said that he very likely would. "Tonight, do you want to go over the potential S.H.I.E.L.D. recruits for the armor pilot program? Or we could... go to a concert?"
"I've heard your music, Anthony. We can work on picking recruits."
"It doesn't have to be pop! We could... go to a jazz concert, or a museum." Anthony was turned back towards him, biting his lip, nervous and awkward, and Steve had no idea why listening to music or looking at art would be something to cause him any nervousness. They'd sat together watching television and listening to older music together all the time when they were quarantined.
Steve appreciated Anthony trying, but Steve knew he'd rather be working. "We should get your work done. You don't need to keep showing me around if you don't want to."
"Yeah... I... of course, Cap. Have fun today."
Anthony's response, his downturned eyes and hunched shoulders, bothered Steve all the way to the nursing home where Peggy was staying. He'd asked through S.H.I.E.L.D., Peggy was well enough, but too frail to be living on her own anymore. The way Fury had said it, it sounded like she was there more so she had friends who remembered what it was like before the war.
Steve took a cab to the home, followed by paying the taxi with the credit card machine and climbing out.
He walked up to the front desk. "I'm here to see Miss Peggy Carter."
He signed in and was slowly escorted to one of the day rooms, which had floor to ceiling glass and even though it had been years he recognized her. Her hair was grey, of course, without a single streak of brown remaining, but her face was the same, just older and worn. Steve thought she was still beautiful. Seeing her like that made his heart break; she was everything he'd wanted all those years ago, a tough-as-nails dame who liked the scrawny kid he'd been before all the treatments.
In his wildest fantasies of years ago, she was gonna be the gal he settled down with; they'd have one of those tiny little houses together, kids, and a normal little life. Steve would have loved her, Steve still loved her.
"Excuse me?" He asked, throat suddenly very dry and feeling even more nervous than he would have thought. "Agent Carter?"
She turned. "Nobody calls me..." He saw the beginning of recognition, as she slowly tried to work out who he was, how he looked familiar, and then he watched a few more pieces fall. "...Captain Rogers?"
"Ma'am," he answered.
"You haven't aged a day." She smiled up at him, eyes very terribly sad.
Steve stood, still awkwardly groping for something to say. "You look just as beautiful as the last time I saw you."
"You've never been much of a liar, Steve." She pressed her fingers to the chair next to her, and Steve took his cue to sit. "General Fury told me they had recovered your body and they thought perhaps they might be able to revive you. I never thought..."
Steve reached out, brushed his fingers gently against the back of Peggy's hand. It felt thin, almost parchment-like; he could feel every vein there. "Howard and Anthony Stark found a way to treat me."
"Look at you." Peggy laughed. It wasn't a sound he was used to; there had been little enough to laugh about when he and Peggy had known each other. "How long has it been for you?"
"Three weeks." He fished a compass out from under his shirt. It was the one that held Peggy's picture, like a locket. He pulled it over his head and showed it to her. "I'm sorry I missed our dance." The compass itself was broken from the crash. He'd almost asked Anthony to fix it, but knowing him he'd end up with some digital thing because it was 'better' and that wasn't what he wanted.
"I'm sorry, too." She reached out and threaded their fingers together, both looking at the compass and the young woman there who had only been a few years older than Steve. "You've found your way back to both Starks and Carters, though."
"I'd have come sooner, but I was quarantined and... it didn't seem the type of thing you said in an e-letter." Steve had tried to write that letter a dozen times and it had never sat well.
"An e-letter?" Peggy smiled again. "I hope you don't let those Stark boys drag you too far into the future, you're quite endearing."
They traded a dozen pleasantries back and forth. Peggy told him about each of the lives of his Howling Commandos, who they'd become after the war, their lives. It was nothing if not bittersweet, hearing the lives that had happened while he was asleep. He'd lost so much when he'd gone down; all of them had lived a full life without him, and it was a bit humbling to know exactly how much their lives had moved on without him.
Steve had tea with her, they ate cookies. It was everything that they might have had years and years ago. He wondered if it would have been this comfortable to be married to her all those years ago. They spent hours like that, thumbing through albums and turning over the past. He lived a different life for those hours, a life where he and Peggy had laughed and danced and grown old together, a life where there wasn't an empty place setting in the wedding photos of all his old friends.
"Are you going to be working with S.H.I.E.L.D. moving forward?" She asked, finally, when the tea had gone cold and the cookies were eaten.
"I think so. General Fury has asked, but I haven't said yes just yet." He wanted to be there for Anthony and his armor pilots, he wanted to be there for Howard and his own projects. Steve wanted to be there for them both.
"I have a grandniece, Sharon. She just finished Columbia and will be a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent soon." Peggy showed him the photograph and Steve recognized the face; not quite as striking as the resemblance between Anthony and Howard, but still striking.
"Pretty dame," he answered, because that was what you said, and she was pretty, with dark blonde hair and pretty dark eyes. "I'll keep an eye on her. Not that a gal like her needs a fella looking after her, though."
"Of course not."
Steve's phone beeped. He looked at it; it said 'wru?' from Anthony. Steve was in the midst of attempting to type back 'wru??' when it beeped again 'that means where are you'. He realized it was almost four pm; he'd been out since lunch time. No wonder Anthony was concerned. "Miss Computer, can you please inform Anthony I will be back at Stark International in under an hour?" He turned back to Peggy. "He's worried since he doesn't think I've learned how to use a credit card and a taxi. I should go."
"Don't let me keep you."
"Can I come visit again?" He asked, standing, suddenly nervous. "I... ah... still owe you a dance."
"Captain Rogers... save it for a younger girl." She gave him a warm smile, but the meaning was obvious. Peggy didn't want him to feel hung up on her.
"You were the only dame I ever wanted to dance with, Agent Carter," he told her, in complete truth. He bent at the waist, placed a hand very softly on her shoulder, and pressed his lips to her cheek. She was warm, but it was hard to miss the frailness there.
Peggy responded by reaching out, pressing her own kiss to his cheek as well before he stood.
The trip out to the street was a long one, Steve's feet felt heavy as he flagged down a cab and gave the address of the Stark Tower. "Miss Computer, call Anthony."
Anthony answered on the fourth ring. "Steve! You haven't been kidnapped by gangsters, have you?"
"Does that actually happen?"
"All the time!" Anthony did sound vaguely worried.
"Well I'm in a cab now. When I return we can look through S.H.I.E.L.D. recruits together." He watched the city slowly move by. Anthony had explained that New York had something called 'rush hour' where absolutely everyone was on the streets. 'Rush hour' took several hours, and it being four pm meant it was already well underway.
"Great, I'll order pizza. It's a date."
Steve took only a moment to recognize the vernacular, but before he could think of what to say, Anthony had hung up. Steve had almost a half hour to mull over the choice of words. Steve knew it was just slang, a way of setting an appointment, and yet... it threw several things into perspective. He remembered the War, and what it had been like to be enchanted with Peggy even though he usually was attracted to men; they had danced around each other for years. He wasn't used to histrionic 'I love yous' or the sort of raunchy cinematic embraces that James Bond found himself in three or four times a movie. Anthony was usually so forthright, perhaps Steve had missed... everything.
He wanted Anthony to have meant something more, but he also knew he should be cautious. Anthony was forthright; that meant he might not understand that subtlety the way Steve might have hoped. Perhaps he should have accepted Anthony's invitation to a concert or a gallery.
In the end, he found himself standing in front of the Stark building, wondering how he could feel out that space and discover if Anthony might have meant something more. Normally he might consider a bottle of wine, but Anthony wasn't old enough to drink and Steve didn't have a license; flowers seemed a bit much, and Steve knew he couldn't impress Anthony with some little gadget or knickknack from the corner store. He headed upstairs empty-handed.
Miss Computer directed him to Anthony's lounge where he found Anthony on the couch, prodding his keyboard... He was wearing a red buttoned-down shirt rather than his usual red t-shirt, although he was still wearing jeans; his hair was combed, his beard neatly trimmed, and he had obviously showered; and soft, relaxing jazz - not Anthony's usual brain-melting music - played through the speakers in the walls. Steve thought he looked... perfect.
His throat felt dry and he swallowed around the thick lump in his throat. "That's... a nice shirt, Anthony."
Anthony blushed nearly as crimson as his shirt, and some of Steve's nerves faded. "The pizza will be here soon. Did you have fun out in the city today?"
"I did." Steve took his seat on the couch, right next to Anthony. "I went to see... an old friend."
"Oh..." Anthony frowned. "I'm sorry, I wouldn't have messaged you if I knew you were out with a friend."
"We'll see each other again," Steve assured him. "I was looking forward to... pizza and looking through the recruit options."
"Yeah, super fun," Anthony said, sarcastic.
"I do enjoy spending time with you, even if it's for work."
Anthony was spared from answering by the pizza arriving, which he paid for, and the two of them ended up sprawled on the couch, using the pizza box as a plate, spread across their laps, Anthony with one of those disgusting energy drinks and Steve with a Coca-Cola.
"We're going to be very selective to start," Anthony said after they had settled in. "We need people who are smart and able to think on their feet, people who won't freeze when they're faced with the impossible. They need good reflexes and good instincts, the younger the better so they can train fresh on the HUD." That was Anthony's name for the controllers that made the armor go. "I want them to be the type who will keep trying even when the energy reading says five percent and they're taking a pounding and maybe that one more hit will be what finally wins the fight."
"Is that you, Anthony?" Steve asked.
Anthony's jaw twitched. "I'm just a genius with a high-tech suit."
Steve didn't fight the urge to squeeze Anthony's shoulder. "Miss Computer, could you read us the specifics of the candidates?"
The two of them watched the show as Miss Computer narrated; several of the candidates were unsuited, either in Anthony or Steve's estimation for one reason or the other. Steve knew you couldn't just find someone who was going to be able to handle the responsibility.
"Dr. Erskine, when he selected me, he said he was looking for... a good man." Steve had beaten out tougher and stronger men, but... there was something to be said for the guy who'd throw himself on the grenade.
"He found one," Anthony answered, so soft that Steve almost missed it.
Miss Computer interrupted what Steve might have said. "Sharon Carter, engineering degree, Columbia." Steve's head snapped towards the screen. Anthony followed his gaze.
"Yes..." He answered. "Well, no. I-- she's the grandniece of..." Agent Carter, his friend, the only person who'd believed in him. "My old girl."
Anthony made a face like he'd been punched, giving him a pained and winded expression that was unappealing and made Steve's chest hurt. He recovered badly, brushing his hand over his face, trying to smooth the harsh lines that had taken up residence around his mouth. "You... ah... want her in the program?"
Anthony sounded so tentative, so unlike himself.
"If she's the best option," Steve answered. "Peggy asked me to look out for her. I'd... hate to put her somewhere dangerous if she weren't the best for the job."
Steve took a deep breath. He could do this, he could... put himself out there that last step. Anthony wouldn't, Steve knew, no matter what reassurances Steve might think to give he didn't think Anthony would believe he'd be able to confess an attraction. He turned towards the screen, swallowing his nerves. "I... usually prefer fellas."
Neither of them said anything. Steve stared at the screen.
"Yeah?" Anthony's voice... cracked.
Steve risked a glance to his side; Anthony sat there, stunned, eyes locked on Steve's face with such unbridled want that it took Steve's breath away. He hadn't begun to imagine what longing might look like on Anthony, but he saw it there in the barely restrained way he brushed his tongue over his lips, the way his eyes darted between Steve's lips and his eyes. Steve could practically feel the pounding of Anthony's heart even with a foot separating them.
"Yeah," Steve answered, wildly inarticulate. "Had my eyes on a... specific fella for a few weeks now."
He'd seen those ridiculous movies that passed for romance for Anthony's generation, and he found he expected to be grabbed, pulled down onto the couch and kissed senseless, but instead Anthony only moved forward a bit; it was just enough to wrap his fingers against the back of Steve's neck and for their lips to barely touch. It was more than enough to know that it was right.
When Anthony pulled away, he didn't protest. "Wanna go steady?" Anthony asked.
"I believe you kids today call it 'dating'," Steve answered. But in spite of his flippant words, he was flying. Anthony wriggled himself close, wrapping two arms around Steve's waist and pressing his nose against Steve's neck. Steve wrapped an arm over Anthony's shoulders. "I'd like that."
"How do you even go steady?!" Anthony asked, now panicking. "I'm not very good at planning, Steve. I had an action plan: find out of Steve Rogers is into me. There was no step two!"
There were benefits, Steve decided, to technically being a ninety-some year old stick in the mud. "Let's finish our pizza and figure that out, alright, Anthony?"
"Yeah... yeah... I totally just kissed you."
Anthony really was surprisingly bad at this for an attractive eighteen year old
Tony had always known he was like the least suave person ever; he'd screwed up pretty hilariously bad when he was dating Whitney, he'd finally picked up on Pepper's feelings for him months after he probably should have, and he had really had zero plan of what to do if Steve was interested in him. In his defense, he figured it would take more than wearing a clean shirt and buying Steve pizza, so no one could blame him for being surprised. Really.
"So... dating." Tony stared at the screen and found it still had his... Steve's ex-girlfriend's grandniece on it, so he pushed a key to move onto the next file. "I'm really bad at it. At least if I miss a date because I'm saving the city you'll understand."
Steve looked at him slightly side-eyed, and then smirked. "Is that usually a problem for you, Anthony?"
"Yeah! Well... not really. I didn't date much in high school." Mostly he'd dated Whitney, and that had only been because she asked him out and they had a good deal in common. She was pretty, and Tony did care for her, but by the end they'd sort of fallen out a dozen times over because of Madame Mask and Stane being in a coma. "Yeah, I'm really bad at dating. But I guess the general principle is the same, right? You go out somewhere, you do something fun together, and then you go home."
"And how is that different than our last three weeks?" Steve asked. He had a point; they'd mostly spent their evenings watching movies and TV together, pressed to each other's sides. That was a lot like dating.
"There would have been way more kissing, second base at least... maybe third." Tony looked Steve up and down and realized he was dating the pinnacle of human perfection. "Definitely third."
"Are we dating or playing baseball?" Steve asked. Clearly Steve had missed the dating sports metaphors. "Can we go to a Dodgers game?"
"You know they're in Los Angeles now, right?"
"Yeah... I guess that's too far."
"No... I have a jet, and flying armor; we can get to L.A. in an hour, two tops." Tony made a mental note to make sure he and Steve could take in a Dodgers game. Maybe one a bit closer to home, but he still wanted to take him. "The baseball thing was more me saying we would have made out more."
He waited for Steve to say something, taking in the information. Tony had no idea how dating went back in the forties, and he was even less sure how gay dating went back in the forties; he had a feeling it wasn't particularly romantic. Steve had said it before that there wasn't much talk of two men dating, and Tony wasn't innocent enough to think that meant there hadn't been sex going on.
"Do you want to neck on the couch?"
Tony didn't even answer out loud, just shoved the pizza box off their laps and straddled Steve in one quick motion. Steve's hands ended up somewhere by his hips and Tony wrapped his arms around Steve, pulling him in for what he hoped was an enthusiastic kiss. Steve had no complaints. This was everything Tony wanted; they had a few false starts - figuring out which way to tilt their heads, getting the top of Tony's shirt unbuttoned, learning where to put their hips so they didn't give into the urge to just rut against each other - before they settled into a lazily paced exploration of each other's secret weaknesses.
The expedition's final - although likely not exhaustive - tally was: the shell of Steve's ears, along with that little indentation where the jaw met below the ear, the side of Tony's abs, his nipples a million times over, pretty much just his whole damn torso, Tony's fingers digging into Steve's back hard enough to leave marks on anyone but him, Steve's stomach, below the bellybutton, where Tony was only too happy to let his fingers slide lower...
"Anthony, you need to stop that."
Tony pouted, looking down at where Steve was sprawled under him, back on the couch, sad plaid shirt flung somewhere over the table and his undershirt flung in the other direction; Tony's dress shirt remained mostly on, but completely unbuttoned. Steve's hair was a mess, and Tony's efforts had finally produced an appealing kiss-stung look to Steve's lips. "You're... beautiful," Tony said, allowing his fingers to trail up to safer territory along Steve's rib cage. "Not just... you know, because damn, but... you."
"I think I have been permanently scarred by your generation's communication skills, because I think I might have understood that." Steve grinned up at him, unfairly running his own fingers along Tony's sides probably just to watch his eyes fall closed and his mouth open. "You, too."
"My generation?" Tony answered, smirking before he actually tried to lever himself off of Steve and found his anatomy way too constrained; the two of them both look a few moments to rearrange themselves on the couch more comfortably, and Tony had some small measure of satisfaction that Steve seemed just as flustered as he was. "Just because you're almost as old as my grandfather doesn't mean people aren't going to look at you and see a GenY kid."
Steve didn't make any response out loud, instead wrapping an arm around Tony and tugging him into a one armed hug, and the two of them rested there relaxing, Tony concentrating on his own breathing and just realizing that he might have managed to find a little piece of the world that could make him deliriously happy.
"Maybe I don't suck at this dating thing."
The answering fingers rucked through his hair were completely worth it. They stayed tangled together like that, Steve's fingers playing with his hair while Tony left his head to rest on Steve's chest, eyes closed, listening to his heartbeat. Such a stupid, simple, and commonplace thing filled him with a contentment not even the highest victory high could match. In that moment, the two of them were safe, protected, and completely wrapped in their own little world that not a single problem could penetrate. Steve's fingers slid down the back of Tony's shirt, playing with the nape of his neck. He could have just stayed like that forever, alien invasions need not bother them...
Steve cleared his throat, breaking the temporary reverie. "I've figured that most people do not invite their parents input on all of their relationships, but... if I do intend to eventually go steady with you, should I ask Howard's permission?"
Tony realized, only then, that in his haste to make out with Captain America, he may have accidentally forgotten he still needed to come out to his dad. He was pretty crappy at this planning thing sometimes. He groaned. "Dad doesn't even know I'm bi yet."
"Bisexual... it means I sort of like both, men and women." They definitely needed to work on Steve's sexual politics research, especially if he was going to be out superheroing he should probably know what to - and not to - say.
"Do you want one of each?" Steve asked.
Tony flushed. "Look at you and your sexual revolution, but no, one is more than enough." Way more than enough, Steve was awesome, inside and out. "It just means... if we weren't dating maybe I'd date a girl, that's all. You're a bit bi too, if you dated Sharon Carter's great aunt."
"Sorry." Steve tugged him down for a soft kiss. "I didn't think this would be important any time soon."
"I'll tell dad, and then you can ask his permission to date me." Assuming dad didn't freak out royally. Tony didn't want to think about it.
"I'm already dating you."
"Yeah, it's sort of a forgiveness instead of permission deal," Tony explained. "You do something and then say you're sorry rather than getting permission beforehand. It saves a lot of begging and whining. I'm a fan."
Steve chuckled and shook his head. "I'm going to ask your father permission for something we haven't done yet, not something we have. I could ask to pin you, maybe."
Tony flailed, scrambling to get up and look at Steve, wide eyed, because yeah he was thinking about that, you know, in the future, but you seriously didn't ask someone's dad for that. And Steve was just looking up at him with the most earnest and serious sort of face, like he hadn't totally just been asking about sex. "I have no idea what you think that means, but don't ask dad for that, ever."
"What?" Steve looked like he was trying to figure out how what he'd said was wrong. It was a cute look, and he did it a lot; Tony had managed to remove some of the worst accidentally racist and sexist parts of his vocabulary, but they obviously had a lot of work to do.
"It's a sex thing," Tony explained.
That apparently hit the right buttons, because Steve looked thoughtful for a moment, before he flushed. "That's not what I meant at all!"
Now Tony was desperately curious what the hell Steve thought pinning was, because it was sort of cute he wanted to ask his dad permission for some relationship milestone. The computer interrupted that thought, however. "Alert: Howard Stark is coming to floor 58 of Stark Tower."
"Crap!" Tony heaved himself off of where he was sprawling on Steve, before he started to scramble to button up his shirt and flung both an undershirt and that silly plaid top shirt at Steve. "I'm not coming out to dad by having him catching us making out on the couch like horny teenagers."
Steve dutifully tugged on his t-shirt and shrugged into the button down. Tony righted the pizza on the table and tapped a few buttons to bring the profile screen back up onto the television. They both looked at each other, Tony trying to see if Steve looked notably rumpled, and then he realized Steve's hair was a mess. Tony scrambled to flatten his own hair back into something resembling order, and Steve took his cue to do the same. Outside of their lack of shoes - which was completely acceptable indoor wear - they didn't look too horribly rumpled. Good. He shot Steve a thumbs up before heading to the lounge door.
"Steve, want another coke?" He didn't really pay attention to the answer, because dad was now poking around the kitchen, looking for something to eat. "Hey, dad. Steve and I have lukewarm pizza in the other room if you want some."
That was probably for the best, a check over his shoulder showed Steve was sitting on the couch looking almost hilariously nervous. Tony may very well have been dating the only person in the universe who was a worse liar than him, at least when it came to his dad. He tried to adopt his best casual air as he raided the fridge for a pair of sodas. "Take out menus?"
His dad took the menus gratefully and spread them out on the countertop. "What are you and Steve up to tonight?"
"Uhh... looking over the files Fury sent over for potential S.H.I.E.L.D. agents for the armor corps, you know, temperament pre-screening." Much better answer than 'making out'. Tony wasn't horrible at the lying thing.
"Cocky, self-assured, genius?" His dad asked, holding up a menu from a Japanese place.
Tony answered by making a face at the menu; he'd totally got food poisoning from there once. "And... you need a good mix for a team. With Rhodey at the Air Force Academy we need a new team mom."
"Have you given much thought to how you're going to divide your time, Tony?" His dad asked, leafing through the menus again and taking a soda when Tony offered. "S.H.I.E.L.D. has been spending a lot of time around New York because of... everything, but they are answerable to the U.N. not the United States, and the Helicarrier could end up anywhere in the world. Are you going to train out of the Makluan Temple and the Stark testing grounds, or work off the Helicarrier?"
"Ug, why doesn't my company run itself?" He asked. "I hadn't really thought about it. Stark Solutions needs me, and a lot of the armor wars have concentrated in the Manhattan area because that was where Stark International and Hammer Multinational were, but if we have a bunch of recruits in New York they can't be somewhere else when they're needed. I don't think there's room for a whole Armory on the Helicarrier though, and I'm going to need to make lots of prototypes."
"I suppose that goes for you, too, Captain."
Tony glanced over his shoulder and found Steve standing in the doorway, looking very small and awkward for someone as tall and beefy as he was. "Sir?" Steve asked.
"Well, you and Tony are friends. If you decide to work more fully with S.H.I.E.L.D., you'll probably be assigned to the Helicarrier, Captain America or no. Rhodey will have the same problem when he receives his commission." His dad was being so... reasonable, Tony hated it.
Tony had the near irresistible urge to ask Steve to stay, to ask him to work for SS or something, because he didn't want Steve that far away.
"I hadn't given it much thought, either. Anthony and I will have to discuss the merits." Steve made it sound so easy, but Tony's head was already spinning with the projects he had already and how many more there were going to be in the future. He wished Solutions could have just been his own braintrust, but he knew that it wasn't going to get very far unless he brought on some more engineers. Maybe he could recruit them as part of S.H.I.E.L.D...
"Did you boys load up on pizza, or do you want to join an old man for some Chinese food?"
Tony then discovered that the only thing that was more embarrassing than having a conversation with your father after you'd been secretly making out on the couch was going out for dinner with your dad when all you could think about was how much you sort of wanted to go back to making out with your boyfriend on the couch. Tony decided his life was simultaneously suck and awesome.
The awesome mostly came after dad decided to go home and Tony begged off on joining him because 'Cap and I should finish up with the S.H.I.E.L.D. recruits’, at which point they totally ended up making out on his bed and sleeping curled up in each other's arms.
Dating Anthony Stark was, in Steve's opinion, overwhelmingly nice. He was smart, and funny in a biting, wry way that Steve was still getting used to. It might have been more frustrating were it not for the fact that not even a month and a half after meeting Anthony he'd already seen how deeply worries could affect him. If he needed to occasionally pretend not to care in order to keep moving forward, Steve thought it was fine. Steve hadn't exactly been handling the transition to the future as well as he had hoped, and he knew it was really only Anthony that kept him grounded somedays.
They had been dating for a little over two weeks, but Steve found it was the sleeping together that really made him able to relax. Anthony had said there was a colloquial meaning - sex - and the more literal meaning, but the two of them had so far remained mostly literal. Steve had very little practical experience in dating, and Anthony had very little practical experience involving sex, so between the two of them they managed to meet somewhere in the middle.
Howard didn't even seem to have noticed anything was amiss, which Anthony had explained was 'very heteronormative' - which he ended up having to look up and that still hadn't explained anything - but it meant that no one looked sideways at a pair of guys out to dinner or a movie. The issue of telling Howard aside, Steve was beginning to understand why Anthony was reluctant to subject Steve to the rigors of being his 'public boyfriend', as within a few hours of Anthony being back out and around there were magazines hypothesizing that: he'd been in an alcohol rehabilitation program for two weeks; he'd eloped with Black Widow; Anthony and Pepper were in need of a 'Relationship Rescue' when the two of them spent a few hours shopping; and Howard Stark was a robot that Anthony had built to replace his dead dad. Steve had gotten off comparatively lightly, with only some hypothesizing on where he fell in the S.H.I.E.L.D. hierarchy and if it meant the agency was going to keep Iron Man on a tighter leash. No one had connected him to Captain America yet, which made sense; even if he was living in the future, cryogenics weren't very advanced or mainstream.
The future was so different and nothing like what Steve would have expected. He was still getting used to the fact that they were eating at a Japanese restaurant, and that Anthony mostly fought with the Japanese over market share for the StarkPhone and not... other things. Steve still didn't have much taste for sushi, though. Anthony was plowing through an entire plate of the stuff.
"Anthony, we need to talk."
The other man froze, comically. "Are you breaking up with me?"
"What?" Steve looked around, but the two of them were pretty much alone in a secluded corner. "No! Is that some sort of modern code?" He didn't wait for Anthony to answer. "I think we should discuss S.H.I.E.L.D. and our future with them. General Fury has been very accommodating, but I think he wants an answer the sooner the better."
"Oh." Anthony stopped conspicuously panicking. "And yes, it's code; it's a prelude to 'Tony, I've been thinking about it, and this whole relationship thing isn't working anymore'."
"Well, not that," Steve assured him. Never that. "Back during the War, I didn't have a choice where I ended up, but now I do and... my country comes first, but I want to consider your thoughts as well."
Steve had worried that perhaps Anthony wouldn't like to hear that, but the two of them seemed to understand the duty aspect of each other's lives better than Steve could have hoped. He supposed that if anyone understood it would have been Anthony; it had only been two weeks, and yet already two dates and some very involved heavy petting had been interrupted by criminal activity raising the call for Iron Man. Steve could handle Anthony placing the world above him.
"I've been thinking about it, too," Anthony answered, finally calming down enough to talk. "Things have been comparatively quiet in New York lately, and Pep can handle most of the day-to-day of Team Iron Man, but... I can't leave Stark Solutions right now. We're only into our third quarter as a company and even with S.H.I.E.L.D. paying for my R&D costs there's no way SS can be a one contract pony."
Steve didn't want to know how things had been before he arrived if three high-tech crimes in two weeks was 'calm'. "So you need to stay in New York."
"At least until the Power Suit Rangers are up and running." Anthony waited, expectantly. "That's a joke... there's this team of superheroes called the Power Rangers... Never mind. You want to be reassigned to the Helicarrier." His face was a mix of tired and resigned. Steve knew the decision would hurt Anthony, but he did hope he would understand.
"It is where I will be the most use," Steve answered. "You will always be a mix of research and fieldwork. I'm not a scientist, Anthony, I wouldn't know where to start."
"I know." Anthony nodded, eyes still downcast. "We can call at least, video phone. I'll get you something secure uplinked to the Stark satellite to S.H.I.E.L.D. can't listen in."
"I think you can trust them, Anthony. You are working for them."
"It's better if I don't," Anthony answered. "And I mean... do you really want S.H.I.E.L.D. listening in on our mushy conversations about how much I miss you?"
Steve blushed. Anthony wasn't always the best at putting it into words, but he could be demonstrative and sappy at times. "That will let me prove I'm serious, after all, if a fella's serious he should be calling three or more times a week."
"You never call."
"... We live together."
And yet Anthony pouted at him anyway. "You're alright with trying then? Long distance?"
"That was all a man ever had back during the War." Steve knew most of his men in the Commandos had girls back home; some of them had even been married before the war even started. There was also the very real fact that a man might not come home again and ever see his girl - or in this case, his boy - again. "Are you going to write letters for me to keep close to my heart, Anthony?"
"Please, I'm going to email you and put racy pictures of me on your phone."
There were some things that definitely had a bit more - or less - charm in the twenty-first century. "You're never going to be more than a few hours away, anyway. With orbital entering and things you can be anywhere in the world in a few hours."
"Trans-oceanic booty calls are still probably frowned upon," Anthony said, sulking.
Steve was slowly starting to recognize the creeping sarcasm and snark that masked Anthony's disappointment. He knew Anthony didn't actually resent the decision and was no stranger to tough choices, but he did know Anthony was young and that he often got what he want, even after a protracted struggle. "If you want me to stay..."
"No," Anthony interrupted him. "And you know you would be upset if you did. It's the right thing to do, doesn't mean I can't be surly. I missed a lot of teenaged years being responsible and shit, I can be a bit selfish every once in a while. Besides, dad and I put together an ultra-thin poly-fiber-mesh that is fireproof, bulletproof, and cut resistant. We can appeal to your desire to be dressed in a skin-tight uniform and protect your innards."
"Are you sure that's not your desire to dress me in a skin-tight uniform?"
"I'm a man of simple needs," Anthony answered, smirking. He was... so self-assured in his element, inventing, making fantastical leaps of scientific knowledge, and it was all Steve could do to hang on sometimes. "It's only a prototype, and we need to work on reducing the cost for a mass-produced variant, but you're welcome to field test it. Keeping you safe is a Stark Solutions business objective."
They both knew what that meant. Anthony was worried about him and he confronted that fear the only way he knew how: by inventing something to protect Steve when he couldn't be there. It was beyond endearing. "Will it be ready in time for me to leave next week?"
‘Next week,’ disappointment was written over Anthony's face. "Yes. Come over to SS after your dinner and I'll do a full body imaging scan to get your measurements for the fabrication."
"Different body scan to follow?" Steve asked, smirking.
Anthony's eyes went slightly hazy for a moment, lost in thought - or 'short circuited' as Anthony liked to describe it. "Absolutely. And... things over at International are calm for the first time in a week so... dad and I are having dinner." His tone lent added weight to the words; this wasn't simply 'dinner,' this was the conversation with Howard. "I'll text you how it goes."
They finished up lunch talking about nothing in particular: Anthony's classes (another reason to stay closer to New York and Boston), Solutions market share, corporate alliances, the Yankees’ batting order... the little things.
"I need to get back to the lab. Simulations running."
Anthony paid the bill and left, heading the few blocks back to the Stark Building while Steve finished his coca-cola before heading further uptown. Steve had some time, so he walked, lost in his own thoughts. He and Anthony would be separated for days, and possibly as long as months at a time. Back when Steve was from, a man might have taken that opportunity to propose, but even if he hadn't fully integrated with the modern world, he and Anthony had only known each other a few weeks; a proposal was very premature. Steve had suddenly gone from a touch old to be unmarried to being young to even consider it, and Anthony was almost a child by modern estimations.
Those factors didn't keep Steve from feeling the deep, culturally ingrained desire to give Anthony a token of some kind. People Anthony's age seemed to mostly skip what Steve would have called 'dating' - it had been replaced with 'hooking up' and 'hanging out' in modern teens - and he and Anthony were quite practically going steady. Anthony might have joked about sending him racy pictures on his phone - although knowing Anthony he would likely do it anyway - but Steve knew there was something nice about the permanence of a photo or a letter as well.
His wanderings from downtown to midtown brought him to the Park. It was one of the few places that was slightly more timeless, even if there were people flitting around on rollerblades listening to music on tiny little earbuds. After he had made it a few blocks north, he pulled out his datapad and started to sketch. Getting used to the strange feel of the digital pen rather than proper art supplies was a challenge, but out on the front he'd been lucky to have a pencil, so he had learned to make do. His room at Anthony's was filled with proper art supplies, but for stealing a moment of peace, the little tablet did well enough.
"Miss Computer, is there a modern equivalent to giving a gal your pin?"
"Giving class pins has been occasionally replaced with: giving class rings, the female partner wears the ring on a chain necklace." Anthony couldn't wear a chain around his neck. "Additional premarital milestones include: moving in together, having a child together..."
"Stop." Steve sighed down at the computer screen. He was pretty sure his class ring was somewhere in a museum, maybe the Smithsonian or something, and even then he didn't think giving that to Anthony set the right tone; rings were rings and they meant something. "I doubt Anthony is stressing over a goodbye gift."
"Mr. Stark has attempted fourteen separate designs resembling class rings, class pins, promise rings, and other jewelry or momentos," Miss Computer answered his unasked question.
Steve gawked at her. "I don't think Anthony would appreciate you telling me that."
"None the less, I am fully integrated with the Stark Solutions mainframe, you have been granted full access, and Mr. Stark has not forbidden me from sharing it." Miss Computer was a very devious AI from time to time, Steve had noticed.
"Will you look after him while I'm away, Miss Computer? I would ask Howard but... he's not great at looking after himself some days."
"Of course, Anthony Stark's well-being is my primary objective, within certain parameters better defined after Version B incident," Miss Computer answered. Suddenly Steve really didn't want to know. "I will look after him. Alert: if you continue your best walking pace towards Miss Peggy Carter's location you will arrive on time."
Steve tucked away the tablet in his backpack and started walking north, chewing over the problem. Knowing it was on Anthony's mind as well left him feeling like he needed to make his own statement... perfect, but it also meant that Anthony had similar thoughts concerning their seriousness. It was somewhat comforting.
He picked up flowers for Peggy closer to the nursing home, and spent a very pleasant, and yet again bittersweet, afternoon and evening with the woman who could have been.
"This time... it's a proper goodbye." It wasn't nice to say, but Steve was heading overseas, potentially for a long time. Peggy was... as healthy as a dame in her nineties could be, but there were limits to human endurance. "So... I do hope we can have that dance before I leave."
Peggy only had the strength for one dance, with Steve holding her tightly enough to keep her on her feet, but loose enough not to strain her bones. They were, as ever, quite the pair, and even though he cared for Anthony desperately, there was always a piece of his heart that would belong to Peggy.
Even with no true sense that a grim ending was in store for them, Steve knew they both knew this was goodbye; if not forever, it represented a tearing of something that had been between them for a long time. "I want you to take my albums, Steve. The ones from your friends from the War should be yours."
"You don't want to keep them?" In spite of the question, he took the offered albums, four of them, thick with photos that Steve hadn't even seen the end of yet.
"They're a reminder of... something I have to give up on." Of Steve. "I'm... so glad I got to see you again, one last time."
"Me too." Steve took her hand.
"Sharon sent me a letter. She said she was accepted into a special S.H.I.E.L.D. program; it was something to do with Tony Stark. You didn't have anything to do with that, did you, Captain Rogers?" Peggy clearly thought her... matchmaking, if it might have been called that, had been a success.
"Anthony and I went over several recruits, but the final decision was his."
She was a good recruit, and Steve had neither argued for or against her inclusion, even though he knew Anthony was a touch jealous of her, for no reason.
"You call him Anthony? Every paper I read just calls him Tony, or Iron Man, of course."
At this point it had long since elevated to a pet name. "That's how he introduced himself, and it stuck." The memory - that moment, as terrifying as it had been, and in spite of the fact he'd mistaken him for Howard - brought a smile to his face. "She'll be in the city for a while longer, training with Anthony, rather than one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. main locations."
"That isn't desk duty, is it, Steve?" Peggy asked, obviously accusing him of the worst sort of favoritism and condescension.
"No, ma'am. It's hard work, and more dangerous than I'd really want for someone I care about. You've seen the sorts of things Anthony and War Machine and Rescue've faced, it's no desk job." And he really wished someone other than Anthony could do it. Some dim, faint, selfish hope made him wish that Anthony might eventually hang up the suit for good, but he knew that was just as unlikely as him leaving the shield to gather dust.
Peggy seemed to take his answer just the right way - or the wrong way, really - allowing Steve that thin layer of untruth. He had met Sharon, and had even helped to interview her with Anthony, before deciding that she would be suited. He had even - at Anthony's insistence - taken her to lunch and talked about old times they had never shared. She was beautiful, and a wonderful girl, but just as Anthony didn't need a man and a woman, neither did Steve; he was very happy to have Anthony. If Peggy wanted to think that Steve had become slightly enamored with her grandniece, it could make her happy.
He left the home at a little before seven.
"Miss Computer, locate Howard and Anthony, please."
"Howard and Anthony Stark are at: Stark Tower, Level 58."
Steve took a deep, calming breath and caught a cab downtown to the little sandwich shop near the Tower while he waited - hopefully not in vain - for Anthony to text him the all clear.
Tony had gone all out for this, he really had. Mostly that meant he'd ordered in some good food, very steak and potatoes, and gotten some cake. He'd seriously considered some wine because that would probably help mellow his father, but Tony continued to not be old enough to drink even though he'd saved the world at least once. Very not fair. He even did the whole my-assistant-called-your-assistant-and-made-an-appointment thing, rather than trust it to chance that dad would drag himself away in time for dinner.
So, at exactly 6:26pm, dad arrived at home to a set table, some sodas, some steak, potatoes and asparagus, and Tony looking really damn nervous.
"I'm pretty sure I would have heard if you blew up Midtown or Stark One or unleashed a deadly nanovirus," his dad said, taking in the scene and correctly determining that Tony was very tense. "Sooo... what did you do, Anthony?"
"I prefer to think of this as... a Stark hangout date, or something." Not that that excuse would hold up for long. "Can't I just be happy to see you?"
"You saw me in the lab three hours ago."
"Point." Tony foisted a drink at his dad and then pointed to the table. "Just let me work up to it, okay?!" He said, finally, more than a little whiny, but he was trying here and ambushing his dad with the datepocalypse in the middle of a lab full of heavy machinery was probably unwise.
His dad, at least, seemed to accept this, and they sat, starting on dinner. Tony started to ramble about his slight increase to the energy shielding tech, as well as some fun communication gizmos he'd been working on, and his dad relaxed enough to just enjoy it, at least a little, back-and-forthing about the potential for Makluan energy even without the rings to study. Towards the middle of their way through their food, Tony dropped the 'Steve's going to be stationed on the Helicarrier' news.
"Is that where he is now?" His dad asked. "Did you exile him from the Stark household for this Stark-date?"
"No, Steve's out with his ex-girlfriend while we have a Stark-date."
Howard smiled for a moment, confused. "He's only been here a few weeks, how does he have time for an ex-girlfriend?"
"Agent Carter," Tony answered, his voice... hopefully not too bitter. It wasn't like he was (too) jealous; he knew that there was love and affection there, but he also knew Steve was struggling his way into the future and that meant accepting some things were gone. "They were... apparently a thing?"
"Your grandfather told me that, once. Steve was... jealous when grandpa Howard offered to take her out for fondue."
"Fondue? Seriously?" He giggled slightly at that, imagining Steve in his vaguely jealous glory. Steve didn't really do jealous, he just got a little sulky and growly at worst. It was a bit endearing.
Speaking of dating Captain America, Tony's head unhelpfully supplied. Worst, segue, ever.
"Speaking of..." Tony bit his lip. "Awkwardly timed segues about personal things..."
Dad, thankfully, didn't freak out even at that, just a slight tilt of his head that said that he knew that whatever Tony had been winding up to say was about to be said. He sort of wished it could have been like telling dad about Iron Man, dad had just already known, easy.
"I know how you mentioned you really wanted me to have someone in my life, someone who I could share my life with and... all of that." Dad didn't say anything, just nodded, spurring Tony on as he let forth a long, rambling stream of consciousness. "And I'd been thinking about it for a while, even before I thought you died, but after that it just didn't seem right to be thinking about someone like that. I mean there was Whitney, and she was pretty, and I liked her and we sort of worked in this 'our dads ran the same company and were rivals' way before the 'you're never around because you're a superhero and I think your dad killed mine and then you put my dad in a coma' thing got in the way, so that was sort of doomed even without the whole Madame Mask issue. And so I was thinking about it, but not thinking about it. I've always sort of had this inkling that maybe, but I figured whatever because of Whitney and a few other girls and so it wasn't really something that was right on my mind."
Tony cleared his throat.
"So yes," he finished, a bit stupidly.
"I have no idea what you just said, Tony," his dad answered, smiling, soft and potentially understanding, but completely and totally clueless.
"I'm bisexual." Tony took a moment, thinking back to what he'd just said. "Didn't I just say that?"
"No, you really didn't." Answering gave Howard a few a few moments, and Tony could see him collecting his thoughts, looking at him with that look that said he was trying to figure out how to have a conversation that made Tony feel very young and probably made his dad feel very old. "Thank you for telling me, even if it was a bit roundabout."
"I just figured after Iron Man I owed it to you to actually tell you rather than pretend I could keep it a secret." Tony poked his food around, waiting for dad to say something. He knew his dad had known about Iron Man before he had told him, but... he didn't think he'd let anything slip before then...
"It's fine, Tony. I'd like to think I never gave you any reason to think I wouldn't be alright with that, but obviously I have some work to do in that department." His dad stood, took the few steps to Tony's side, and wrapped him in a hug. "If you're happy, Tony, and not a super villain bent on world domination, I'm happy."
"Nice caveat," Tony answered, but he wrapped his own arms around his dad and squeezed. "So does that mean I could be a regular, boring super villain?"
"I'll get back to you."
Tony felt... fine, as though a huge weight had been lifted and he could finally relax. "Phase one: success."
Dad laughed and dragged him into a tight hug. "There's a phase two?"
"Yeah. I... well we only needed phase one because of phase two." Tony pushed dad away, not far, just enough so he could actually look him in the eyes rather than deliver the news to his dad's shoulder. "I have a boyfriend and he's... pretty much perfect."
The look on dad's face was... considering. "Perfect, huh? Well, good, nothing but the best for my son." And then he broke out into a huge grin, and wrapping a hand around the back of Tony's neck. "So, tell me about this perfect boyfriend. To be honest, I'm surprised you've had any time to date with how... with how much time you've been spending with Steve." His voice held a hint of question, but Tony's face had apparently already given away the rest of the game and it was obvious from the look dad was giving him. Busted.
He was so much more transparent than he gave himself credit for. Dad was totally onto him. "Surprise?"
"You're dating Captain America?" His dad didn't have to sound so incredulous, Tony was a catch.
"Captain America and Iron Man. There are way weirder couples in the world." Because there were, and honestly Tony thought they were a damn good fit.
"Anthony!" Dad... snapped at him, stern and disappointed, and maybe even bordering on angry. And seriously, Tony had not figured phase two was where the problems would be. Who wouldn't want their kid dating Captain America? That was like... the most wholesome boyfriend you could have in the whole world. "You invited Steve into our home under false pretenses."
"Whoa, we weren't even dating until after the Helicarrier. That was all... pre-dating, getting to know yous. I didn't even know he liked guys." Tony failed to resist the urge to cross his arms in front of his chest. "When you invited Steve to come stay with us he was only the frozen coma guy I had a wicked crush on. There were no false pretenses."
"He's old enough to be your grandfather."
Tony found himself... surprisingly angry, especially in the face of a dad who was usually so level-headed being completely unreasonable. "He's twenty-four!" He was shouting now, just... completely furious, because while apparently dad was alright with the generalities, the specifics of Tony having a boyfriend were not alright, and he wasn't sure he could deal with so much hypocritical crap right now.
Steve would know what to do.
Crap, Steve. Tony pulled out his phone and saw it was way later than he should have sent him the all clear. He punched out a message.
"What on Earth is so important that it can't wait, Anthony?" His father asked, voice back to a calculating, but cool, tone.
"I'm messaging Steve, you know, my boyfriend, and telling him he should go home." Tony shoved his phone back in his pocket. "You and I aren't going anywhere until we fix this."
His phone chimed from his back pocket and he pulled it out. 'Don't lose your head, Anthony. Your father is not an unreasonable man. Less than three.' Tony... Tony just laughed. He had the best boyfriend ever. But Steve was right, dad wasn't unreasonable and... although he looked sort of irritated now, but Tony was used to that from grownups when he used his phone.
"Ok, um... we'll get some sodas and... talk, right?" There had to be something Tony could do. His dad had just said that as long as he wasn't a super villain he was happy, so... he just had to figure out which part of this made dad think that there was something wrong. He could do this, he talked down criminals and super villains with alarming regularity.
Dinner sat mostly forgotten on the table, and dad did go to the refrigerator and pulled out a few drinks. "It's... Tony... it's not that you're bisexual, it's not even that it's Steve..." Dad's shoulders hunched. "No, it's that it's Steve."
"But..." Tony just tried to wrap his head around that. "It's Steve. If you can't trust him, who can you trust?""
"That's exactly the point," his dad answered. "Tony..."
They both made some sort of silent agreement to adjourn to the couch, and dad passed him a soda and they both opened the cans and took a long drink. Tony totally should have gone for some wine. "Ok, I'm ready. Reasons why you're for some reason pissed I'm dating Steve Rogers: go."
At least his dad smiled. "Tony, I'll admit, I missed a lot of time in your life that I really wished I could have been there for you. Part of me still has you as this sixteen year old boy who had never had a friend other than James and your latest computer AI. The idea of you dating someone older - and Steve is a good deal older, Tony, six years is a third of your life - makes me nervous."
"I'm not sixteen." He bit the retort back in the heat of the moment, but then he realized he really couldn't rely on that right now. "I... there's really no way to say it that doesn't sound like I'm whining, but... I'm not a little boy, dad. I made some hard choices from the day you were kidnapped, and sometimes... sometimes I got taken advantage of because I was too trusting when I shouldn't have been. Steve is just the nicest guy you'll ever meet, ever. I like him a lot. I can't really imagine two people who are more different, but all the important stuff is the same, helping people, making the world a safer place, and doing what's right. He doesn't need a Myface page or to get my stupid Power Rangers jokes."
His dad fell silent, mulling over Tony's rambling defense. "You like him?" Dad's tone was far too amused for Tony's liking.
"We're not at the 'Steve 'n' Tony 4eva' tattoos stage of the relationship. It's way new, two weeks. Two and a half, really." And that was way too soon to be talking about love. "I mean it's been six weeks since I met the guy; I know he's attractive and we love talking with each other, I can just curl up with him and design and he'll doodle and... but don't act like that means it can't be real."
"I'm not saying what you feel for Steve isn't real." Dad scrubbed his fingers through his hair, tugging for a moment. "I really didn't think we'd ever be having this sort of conversation so forgive me if it's a bit of a mess. There's a big gap between you two, age, generational, and experience; I'm not saying it can't work, you're stubborn enough to make it work, I'm saying it makes me nervous that you hid it, that you brought Steve into our home, or worse that he came here while he had designs on you. And a rather large part of me is finding it hard to deal with the man I admired growing up crawling into bed with my son."
"All bed sharing had been in a strictly snuggling capacity." Which was mostly true; sometimes the snuggling involved no shirts, however. "Steve... wants to do it right, or something. He wanted to ask you, day one, for... permission for us to go steady." Tony hung his head, letting his hair fall into his eyes, chuckling. "And the only reason he didn't was because I hadn't told you I was bi yet. I told him it would be better to ask for forgiveness. I sort of get why you're mad, but... if I'd waited I might have completely missed out on this amazing person because Steve's leaving next week and we wouldn't have been in a place where that could work yet."
"He's still leaving? Even though you're dating?" And... weirdly that seemed to be the first moment that dad seemed like he might be coming around to all this for whatever reason.
"He belongs with S.H.I.E.L.D., as much as it kills me to admit it." And it made Tony miserable. "He offered to stay, I said no... and he..." Even the simple memory of it made him laugh. "He said it would give him a chance to call me, which apparently he'd been missing since we were 'going steady' and he couldn't call me enough."
Tony glanced over at his dad, who was staring at him with his mouth open.
"What? It's cute." Tony pulled out his phone again. "He texted me 'less than three', the words, not the symbols." He tilted the message towards his dad, and dad leaned forward to read it. "He's a really good guy. If you're going to not like him, it should at least be for things that are his fault, but he didn't move in with us to seduce me and he wanted to tell you right away and he wanted to ask permission to like... pin me, which isn't sexy at all, it's like giving someone your class ring. Less a marriage proposal and more like... super steady or something."
Dad didn't answer, didn't say anything, but Tony could tell he maybe, maybe had his dad on the ropes. All he needed was to just... seal the deal, make dad get that this was the real thing.
"I'm happy, I'm not a super villain, and I'm not dating a super villain." Which was really more than he could have said if his crush on Gene had turned into dating - disaster.
"Alright, alright." Dad wrapped an arm around him and pulled him into a hug. "I'll give him a chance, but... Anthony, I want your word, no sleeping together under my roof. That includes here at the office."
"Does that include actual sleeping?" He asked, probably seriously trying his luck on this point. "Because Steve and I had a whole conversation on literal versus figurative sleeping together."
Tony wanted to whine; Steve probably would have had something to say like 'his house, his rules'. Tony tried to channel a bit of Steve and be sanguine about it. "Alright. And I did mean what I said, Steve and I are trying to do this right." Because Tony had never dated anyone for long and Steve was unused to being with someone who would allow a relationship, and between the two of them they had enough nerves for four relationships. "Oh... crap. If I don't get Steve scanned tonight I'm not going to have enough time for the polymesh fabricating before he needs to leave."
"... Most fathers would probably think that was an excuse to make out with your boyfriend in a lab."
"There would have been a bit of that, too." Because Tony really did like science, and Steve. Science plus Steve was a guaranteed winner.
Dad considered, and then got a vaguely disturbing look in his eyes. Tony wasn't certain if he should be excited or terrified. "Text him, have him come to the lab, I'll do the scan."
"You're going to ambush my boyfriend with lasers?"
"He's Captain America, Tony. I'm pretty sure he can handle me."
It was a pity, he really did like Steve. Dad was going to smoosh him with lasers and Tony was never going to lose his virginity ever. Dad didn't say that he couldn't spoil the worst of the surprise, though.
'Dad's... dealing alright? He wants to talk, and do the full body scan with you. Come over?'
Steve's message took forever (32 seconds), but Tony was getting used to that. 'Isn't that with a laser?'
'Yeeeah... Just be yourself, I think it'll be fine.'
He really, really hoped it would be fine.
Steve had faced down near-overwhelming dangers as part of his everyday life during the war. He'd done everything from confront HYDRA agents in the streets to jumping out of airplanes while they were being fired on, but nothing could quite match the overwhelming terror of walking into Stark International's office, waving at the guard as he received a 'hello, Mr. Rogers' and taking the elevator up to the pre-appointed laboratory floor.
It seemed unlikely that Howard intended to murder him, but Steve was fairly certain many other painful options were still on the table. He'd never faced something like this... he knew some gals the boys had dated when he was in high school had overprotective fathers, but this was something else. Howard was waiting for him when he entered the lab, arms crossed and face serious.
Anthony was a rambler, as far as Steve was concerned it was one of his more endearing qualities; Steve was what Anthony very seriously termed a 'strong, silent type', so while he was sure Anthony had rambled at great length to Howard, Steve was content to wait. "You wanted to see me?"
"Tony dropped something of a bombshell on me today at dinner." Howard was a calm and level-headed sort of man, so flustered air to his words was far more disconcerting than one of Anthony's nervous rambles. Steve waited. "And I'm left here feeling like the two of you played me for a fool, which Anthony assures me wasn't the case, but that doesn't change the fact the two of you have been using my hospitality to cover up your relationship."
"That wasn't my intention, sir, but I apologize."
"You knew you shouldn't have kept it from me while you were living in my house." It was a mix of an accusation and a question, and Steve wasn't quite certain how to respond.
Steve nodded. "I did. Anthony and I discussed his unwillingness to bring up his sexuality with you at that moment and it didn't seem right to force the issue. I followed his lead."
Anthony better understood and appreciated current relationship mores, he knew the landscape. That didn’t keep him from being younger and inexperienced, and although Steve loved his enthusiasm he knew that Anthony was still feeling tentative about the relationship; all of that meant that he wanted Anthony to set their pace. He looked over to find Howard watching him.
"You'll need to be unclothed for the scan," Howard said, changing subject abruptly and without preamble.
It took him a moment, but he was used to being a lab rat long before Anthony made it seem appealing. Steve put down the albums that Peggy had given him, shucked his t-shirt, and folded it neatly before he kicked off his shoes and unbuttoned his jeans. They followed on a neat little pile at the side of the room, socks followed, leaving him stripped down to nothing but a very comfortable pair of boxer-briefs. He glanced at Howard to see if he wanted him naked, but the man just gestured to the center of the room.
"Inventive interrogation technique," Steve said, amused, but if Howard intended him to be nervous, he was.
"Arms out, mouth and eyes closed."
Steve complied. The soft hum of the mapping lasers started up, and he felt the warm touch of the lasers on his forehead; uncomfortable but fairly mild compared to being pelted with vitarays.
"I want to be alright with this, Steve. You obviously make Tony happy, but I just keep thinking of how completely different the worlds you come from are. I'm not trying to dictate his relationships, but have you two even thought about how hard it's going to be? Six weeks isn't long enough for a crash course in the twenty first century, I'm not sure six years would be. Times have changed, the way people look at the world's changed." Howard didn't seem to want an answer, or at least Steve's current position barred him from doing so.
Steve knew that, though. It was more than just phones and computers and science and... everything. Anthony couldn't fill in seventy years of culture even if he was brilliant and knew all the facts. For him, the War was a fact, history; for Steve it was years of his life that had hurt him in ways he didn't think Anthony could ever really understand completely. That cut both ways, though; there were pieces of Anthony that he would never be able to touch in that same way.
"You can talk," Howard said. "Don't breathe too deeply, though."
He opened his eyes. "I can't speak for Anthony, Mr. Stark, but he and I are aware of the problems. I know he sometimes likes to joke about my... grandfatherly understanding of his technology and his music and his tv shows, but he knows it has been a difficult adjustment for me. He is... startlingly empathic. I know he has been hurt by that in the past, but it means a lot to me." It meant everything to him. Anthony could be insensitive, and miss the obvious sometimes, but it was always because he was wrapped up in his head. Steve knew he felt deeply when he thought no one was looking... and more recently Anthony had even allowed himself that where Steve could see.
"And you're just alright with this? Dating another man? Dad never said much about it, but a few of his business associates had a thing or two to say about men who preferred other men and it was never flattering." Steve couldn't see Howard's face, but he did sound concerned. Steve wondered if that was a big part of the issue, knowing when Steve came from and the times.
"One nice thing about the time I came from was people weren't talking about it." It was only in retrospect that Steve could imagine preferring that crushing loneliness to what he saw kids Anthony's age were subjected to. "I felt... constantly lonely, Mr. Stark. But a fella could be less lonely for a time, and I never hated myself for it and there wasn't anyone shouting on the internets or the radio that I should. Some men... hated themselves for wanting that, but by the time I went down with Red Skull I figured if the Serum fixed skinny and scrawny and asthmatic and every other thing that was wrong with me and I could still look at a man and see someone I wanted, I figured it couldn't be near as bad as the people who were talking about it thought."
Without warning the lasers went dark and the lights came up, and Howard was behind a screen, working a console with goggles over his eyes, looking so much like his father that it made Steve smile. "We're done," Howard told him.
Steve started towards his clothes, stopped, and the turned back towards Howard. "Mr. Stark, I'm sorry what I did broke your trust in me. I care about Anthony a lot and I know your opinion of him means the world to him, so it means the world to me too. I hope you'll... give me a chance to prove I'm on the straight and narrow with your son."
"Put on your pants, Steve," Howard said, smiling now. "Come upstairs and have some cake. It was round four or five in Tony's attempt to bribe me."
Of course Anthony would think cake was the way to bribe someone. "You're lucky he didn't just go with chips and soda," Steve answered. "He is addicted to salt and sugar."
"He gets that from me, I'm afraid. I'm a terrible influence."
"Not at all," Steve answered. "Some of his most admirable qualities are ones I recognize from both you and Howard: a desire to change the world for the better, to protect others, and to risk it all for what's right."
Howard waited while Steve stepped into his jeans and pulled on his shoes before he patted Steve on the shoulder. "You should probably go easy on reminding me you were BFFs with my dad if you want me to think of you as age appropriate for my son, Steve."
"What's BFFs?" He asked. It was probably another internet thing.
"Best friends forever. You're dating a tech mogul, better learn the lingo."
Steve tugged on his shirt. "Anthony's teaching me. I just learned 'less than three'. Anthony says it's a heart but I still don't understand how that works."
"No... it..." Howard laughed, going back to the desk and punching a lot more buttons. "It's the symbol 'less than' and the number three. Type it out."
Steve pulled out the phone and spent several minutes trying to find which combination of shift and alt made there be math symbols on his phone; after that finding the number three was comparatively easy. "Oh! It's a little sideways heart! I sent him that as words earlier." He'd really thought he was getting the hang of this, too...
"Don't worry about it. Tony thinks it's endearing." Howard finished up whatever he was doing on the console before sweeping them both out of the lab. Steve was cradling Peggy's photo albums to his chest as they walked. "Maybe I shouldn't tell you this, but it works wonders on Stark men: just... try. Tony knows he's a bit of a trial to deal with, and the fact that you're bothering to try is the most endearing part. My wife, Maria, was a very competent chemist and the heiress to a small biotech company, she actually..." Howard stopped, and for a moment Steve thought that Howard might have been thinking something less happy, but he was smiling. "She actually had her father organize this little Carbonell-Stark dinner party, she pulled me aside and... asked to talk about mergers. I was maybe twenty, twenty-one at the time, and I said I wasn't in charge of Stark Industries."
Steve wasn't great with nuance and even he could figure that one out. "What did she say?"
"She laughed... and kissed me. And really, in the end, it was a very successful merger, personally and professionally."
"That's... sweet." Steve hadn't really had the chance to get to know Howard, but the idea that he was such a romantic was a revelation. "It's hard to imagine a gal being that forward, but that's just one of those ways things have changed. Your son takes after you, I'd say."
"Not particularly suave?" Howard asked, punching the button to the elevator. "I'm not surprised. I didn't get to see it, but James was very graphic in how spectacularly Tony bungled his last attempt at a relationship."
Whether Howard meant Whitney or Pepper didn't matter, he was right on both counts. "He does seem very prone to earning a violent reaction from his girlfriends."
"You really do know him," Howard said. He sounded genuinely surprised.
"Anthony and I had... a very dedicated amount of time to get to know each other. We talk about everything." Perhaps not everything, but they were well aware of the spaces in each other's lives that they hadn't dug deep into, and Steve was comfortable with that.
The two of them finally arrived back at the Stark Tower home-away-from-home, revealing Anthony pacing the floor in front of the elevator, his head snapping up the moment the elevator opened. "Woohoo, you're not dead."
Steve chuckled. "I appear to be in one piece, yes." Anthony ran up to him, asserting his right to grab him and pull him into a fierce hug that Steve could only return one-handed, still carrying the albums. "Your father invited me up for cake."
"And muuuurder?" Anthony asked, turning to look at his father.
"It's 'death', Tony, cake or death," Howard answered, but he seemed amused. "Why don't you get us some plates?"
Steve found himself ushered over to the table, now cleared of dinner, and he also saw the empty soda bottles by the couch where Anthony and his father must have had their conversation. The albums he'd been carrying around like a lifeline since returning from seeing Peggy he sat on the table, one hand resting on them.
"What'd you get, Steve?" Anthony asked from the kitchen.
"Peggy gave me her photo albums, the ones from the War and after. She stayed in touch with all the Commandos and went to all their weddings and baby showers and... everything." And in some of the pictures an empty place and a full glass sat untouched throughout the festivities, even as everyone else caroused.
"She was at dad's wedding," Howard said. "There might be some photos of your grandmother and grandfather there, Anthony."
"I haven't seen those... but we didn't look through all of them." Seeing Howard... the man who he still felt some small amount of affection for even as he was falling for his grandson, might have been too much while he was with Peggy. Sharing that with Anthony and Howard seemed more right. "When was he married?"
"Fifty-four, I think, maybe fifty-three."
Steve pulled out the album that covered those years, thumbing through it slowly before Anthony set a piece of cheesecake in front of him and then another two for him and Howard. Anthony sat a few moments later, scooting close and taking his hand. "Hey, how was she?"
"She looked well." Steve knew his face said it all. It wasn't easy to see Peggy like that. It wasn't even as though she was sick, only frail and old. Anthony answered with a squeeze of his hand. "Do you want to see your grandfather's wedding photos?"
"Sure." Anthony scooted closer, moving the photos out of the food-and-soda danger zone before he flipped the book open. "If you'd like I could get these digitized, you could keep them on your phone or in your cloud storage."
Steve still completely didn't understand what a cloud was, other than that anything that was in it, he could ask Miss Computer to get for him. "But... I like the albums."
"But they could get lost or get food on them or get left somewhere! You could keep the originals somewhere safe but always have the digital version wherever you have line of sight to a Stark satellite, we cover over ninety percent of the globe at all times." Anthony obviously had a point, but there was just something about the presence of the album that Steve didn't want to give up.
"Sometimes I think you would leave your brain in a cloud if you could."
"My cloud has better encryption than my skull," Anthony answered. "A talented telepath can easily hack my brain."
Steve prodded his cheesecake. "But your Extremis makes you a... technopath, you could hack someone else's cloud with your brain, too."
Anthony blew a raspberry at him.
"You can cloud my photographs, Anthony." Steve wasn't going to argue the topic, he just enjoyed listening to Anthony defend his satellite-computer-cloud, or anything else, really. "The Helicarrier quarters are not luxurious and there is not enough space to bring such an unwieldy set of albums, as much as I might want to. I need to leave room for my Iron Man poster."
Anthony laughed, and then Howard laughed, which actually reminded him that the man was there and that Steve and Anthony were being rude by ignoring him. "What are your thoughts on cloud photos, Mr. Stark?"
"Seeing as that the Stark Phone is a very affordable satellite phone option, I have to agree with Anthony on the topic." Howard was smiling at him, back to being amused, it seemed. "You also have the very capable Miss Computer who will be able to interface with the Helicarrier computers and display the photos on your personal computer. Maybe you could make one of the pictures your background, assuming you aren't saving that honor for Iron Man."
The photographs that Anthony was intimating he was going to take for him were not fit for background material on a computer, not that he could say that to Howard. "I think the poster will be sufficient. I do like the phone... I think about how much some of the men in the Howling Commandos would have liked being able to call their sweethearts while we were in Italy or Germany, and now you have a telephone that lets you even see them while you talk."
"Do you think that will make you miss Tony any less?" Howard asked.
Steve didn't think anything could accomplish that. "I hope it doesn't make me miss him more."
"Hey, I have at least two Fury-ordered training runs a month to the Helicarrier with the Power Suit Rangers," Anthony reminded him. "And that'll be up and running in under a month. Seriously, I can fabricate new suits in my sleep now."
"I'd prefer you sleep in your sleep, Anthony."
He wrapped an arm around Anthony and kissed him square on the forehead. For a genius he really could be an idiot sometimes. When he pulled away, he caught a glance of Howard, the older man watching them both with at least some amount of approval. Steve hoped that would continue from here on out; he owed it to both Howard and Anthony to do so.
I want you to take a look in your pockets. Go ahead, I'll wait. If you're like over half of the United States, and much of the world, you have at least one thing with Tony Stark's name on it. It might just be his father's StarkPhone, but far more likely it's one of the dozens of applications, games, utilities, or other gadgets designed by Howard Stark's son. There is no one denying that Stark is a chip off the old block. He holds more patents personally than most corporations, and as he enters into his third decade, his personal net worth is expected to break a billion dollars US.
And just to make you feel like you're not doing enough with your life, he's also a Junior at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the CEO of a major corporation, a Captain for the international peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D., oh yeah, and he's Iron Man. I sat down with the genius at his R&D facility in New Jersey to ask the hard questions.
'So, boxers or briefs?' Admit it, you would have asked it, too.
Tony laughs, at least, and humors me. 'Briefs work better inside the suit.’'
I go easy on him from there. Tony is obviously most at home when we talk design, programming, and machines. He makes programs that make your life easier, answer your questions faster, and access your data better; after an hour of walking through an Iron Man simulation, playing a few alpha versions of some games and applications, and just looking at the vast array of technology before me it's impossible not to feel as though you're in the presence of genius.
Steve rolled his eyes and actually started to scan the article he had been making a very concerted effort to read. Anthony had called it a 'puff piece' and even though Steve had been in the twenty first century for almost two years he hadn't realized exactly how 'puffy' that could be. Steve knew what the author meant, though; it was impossible not to feel as though he was in the presence of genius when he was with Anthony. He just preferred if she kept her smitten genius-groupie thoughts to herself rather than all over his magazine.
It was funny how much the piece reminded him of those Captain America war reels where he was fighting Nazis to save the day all to be run in the cinema and embarrass him endlessly. So, even seventy years later, puff pieces remained the same.
A few things had changed, though, more than a few, and those were the ones that Steve both clung to and ran from. He flipped to the cover of the magazine where Anthony was looking up from the glossy magazine, clad in most of the parts of the Iron Man suit, the helmet tucked under his arm. The cover proclaimed 'Iron Man: Under the Suit'. Steve didn't resist the urge to run a thumb along the sharp line of Anthony's jaw and over the barely visible star on one of the epaulets of the suit. Every time Anthony wore the suit, he wore Steve's pin in the form of two neatly etched stars over the shoulder casings. Most people thought they were a tribute to Anthony's position as a captain in S.H.I.E.L.D., but the two of them and Howard knew it for what it really was: Steve's claim of Anthony's affections.
The pair of them saw each other infrequently, once every month or two at most, but the little town of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier hadn’t picked up the nature of their relationship. The gossip could occasionally be brutal. This gossip, the item contained in the silly, puffy magazine article hadn't hit the Helicarrier yet.
Towards the end of our interview, I ask the question that the internet has been buzzing with since Tony Stark reappeared on the socialite scene after his father's disappearance: any chance for an Iron Lady in his future?
'I'll skip the obvious Margaret Thatcher joke,' Tony tells me as he leans in conspiratorially. 'There is actually an Iron Gentleman.'
I admit I’m surprised.
'Yup, Tony Stark, equal opportunist. Not at the moment though, I am off the market.' I ask if there are any plans for Tony and his Iron Gentleman to celebrate his 20th birthday. 'Oh, good luck getting him to take the day off. Quiet dinner, maybe, assuming I can drag him away from his work.'
In Steve's opinion, the whole thing was completely unassuming and not particularly sensationalist. That didn't mean the whole internet wasn't throwing (in Anthony's words) ‘a massive freakout'. The rest of the article just included some notes about Howard liking Anthony's boyfriend and then some closing about the amazing work Anthony was still doing. It wasn't a bad article, Steve liked it.
Anthony had warned him there would be a buzz, that there would be consequences, but Steve had been with Anthony for almost two years and their mutual affection showed no sign of waning. They had left the honeymoon period where everything was endearing, and it was rare that they didn't have a philosophical argument at least once a month, but they remained a solid force in each other's lives and at each other's backs when times got rough. He knew times might get rough now, but not in a way that he could sling his shield at or punch. People were calling Anthony amoral for loving someone.
His phone beeped, and he took it off of his bedside table: 'ETA: 15m'. Steve set the magazine down and stood, checking his suit - he looked nice - and then pulling on his suit jacket. His phone was neatly tucked in the pocket and then he checked his hair. In his opinion, he looked very ready for a night on the town with his boyfriend. Anthony had made a dinner reservation for two and... well he'd pretty explicitly said he expected the restaurant to leak that news to the press.
After a few moments' hesitation, he headed up to the control tower where Fury look in Steve's suit and arched an eyebrow at him. "Night on the town?"
He wished he had Anthony's easy facility with smirking; instead, he probably just looked bashful. "We've been together for almost twenty months." Because they were beginning a phase of complete and total public honesty which Steve thought was just about perfect even with all of the issues.
"You don't waste time," Fury said. Fury wasn’t wrong, Steve had only been thawed for a little over twenty one months.
A few of the surrounding communications officers were looking at Steve now, eyes wide and appraising, and Steve ignored every single one of them. Nothing else mattered but his boyfriend and his ridiculously tiny personal jet that he had flown straight from Manhattan for the last hour. It wasn't even really a jet, so much as a personal car that also flew. Steve loved it.
"We're going to need to debrief on how to handle missions moving forward - knowing you're involved with Stark complicates things," Fury said. Steve understood the concern, but honestly they had been working in the field together for months and while they certainly took risks for each other, it was no more than Anthony or Steve would have given for anyone else.
"Anthony has dibs on all debriefings, sir."
The face Fury made was priceless.
Steve nodded to Fury and the bridge crew before he headed down to the Helicarrier landing deck; he arrived almost the moment the StarkPlane touched down. The passenger door opened easily and Steve slid inside. Anthony looked perfect in a neat dark grey suit with a ridiculous gold and red theme to his tie and shirt. It shouldn't have worked, but Anthony always seemed to make the colors work.
"Hello, love you, let's get to the restaurant before some S.H.I.E.L.D.ie tweets and outs us." As hellos went, it was a bit spartan, but Anthony followed it up by leaning in and kissing the hell out of Steve while the plane lifted itself off the ground and started to fly towards their dinner reservation.
Steve really thought that people should look at the air when they were flying, but Anthony really did enjoy letting Extremis do the work. He went back to concentrating on his flying after breaking the kiss.
"Did Fury freak out?" Anthony asked as soon as he was looking forward and flying.
"He wants to debrief us."
"That's what I told him, you should have seen his face."
"And you didn't take a picture?" Steve shook his head in response. "I'm disappointed, Steve, I thought I had taught you well." The humor of the moment faded and Anthony glanced over to him, face serious. "You ready for this? It's a big step. We've got about... seven minutes to back out if you're not sure."
"I'm still getting used to the future, Anthony, but there is one thing I am absolutely certain of, and that's you."
One of the many reasons Anthony was a terrible liar was because of how minutely expressive his face could be; on hearing Steve's response, Anthony melted, his face softened even more than usual and he gave Steve the most intensely fond look that he'd seen for the evening. "You sap!"
But he reached out his hand and he and Steve threaded their fingers together while Anthony flew the rest of the way to the restaurant. Steve didn't know much about it other than Anthony had assured him he could get a steak if he wanted. It was just one of those all-American style restaurants with those old food favorites, just taken to a super-expensive level. They slid into the spot designated for a valet drop off. The sidewalk and even across the street had more than a few conspicuous journalists.
"Last chance," Anthony warned him.
"Never." Steve had never run from a challenge, not for a single moment in his life.
Anthony stepped out of the car, making certain to leave the door closed enough that it would be impossible to get a clear look at Steve. Through the tinted windows he watched Anthony throw a few peace signs and wave at the few fans who yelled variations on 'we love you, Tony!' before he circled around the car and handed the valet some money. It wasn't like they could park the thing anyway.
Steve waited as Anthony took his time on the sidewalk by the barely hovering car-jet, waving, signing a few autographs, using the moment to collect himself and give himself the pep talk he'd been going over in his head for the three months since Anthony had suggested marking his birthday by coming out as a couple. "Smile, wave, arm around Anthony. It's just like every other day. You love him. He's the best part of the future."
The door clicked unlocked, and Steve made the final push to open the door, stepping out into a hail of flashing bulbs, doing his best to look more put together than he felt. Anthony didn't offer a hand, but Steve found his feet a moment later anyway and slung his arm effortlessly around Anthony's shoulders as a corresponding arm slid around his waist. Without a word, Anthony sent the car up to neatly park and hover on the roof of the building, leaving the two of them alone in a crowd on the sidewalk.
More bulbs went off, Steve tried to get used to the blinding flashes of it all, but he gave a slight wave anyway. Very few people recognized him outside of the costume in the general public. It was well known that Steve Rogers was Captain America, but he mostly worked with a helmet (designed by Anthony) and intentionally kept a lower profile. Anthony squeezed his waist lightly - kiss time.
There were so many things that Steve didn't understand about the media, but Anthony said they needed to kiss before the crowd yelled at them to do so, so they wouldn't be pandering. He curled his arm to bring Anthony towards him and he immediately responded by rising up on his toes and tilting his head just right. Their lips met, soft and more chaste than usual.
Steve ignored the few cheers and the very loud boo, and he went willingly as Anthony deepened their kiss to just the right side of what Steve considered lewd for public before the two of them stepped apart and threaded their arms back around each other. They took their time, Anthony still facing the assembled crowd and being himself. Time and a few inch growth spurt had made him even more handsome, and even though Steve never worried he'd stray he did take advantage to flirt shamelessly.
And so Steve abused his position to pull Anthony closer, lips pressed close to his ear, nose teasing just along the shell. "Should I be jealous, Anthony?"
Anthony kissed him again, completely overboard, arms slung around Steve's neck, clinging to him for dear life, and kissing him like Steve was air, even though he didn't think he had any left in his lungs. When they broke apart their kiss was greeted with a wolf whistle. "No," Anthony answered. "I don't think you should be jealous. You're the one I'm taking to a classy hotel room and debauching for my birthday."
Steve wondered if the debauching made it less classy or if the hotel made the debauching more classy... a question for another time.
With more than enough time spent dawdling, Steve finally gave Anthony a more emphatic tug towards the restaurant and a final, tentative wave towards the crowd.
A few seconds into the wave, just as Anthony was about to drag him inside, a loud voice yelled from somewhere off to the side: "Holy shit! Is that Captain America?!"
He and Anthony fled into the restaurant, like the heroes they were.
Later, much later, naked in a hotel bed later, he and Anthony were curled around each other, dozing while Steve pressed his lips lightly against Anthony's back. "Are you checking the internet on your phone with your brain?"
He didn't really need to ask - he knew the answer - but at least Anthony didn't insult him by denying it. "Twitter is freaking out. You and I look hot when we're kissing." Steve would never quite understand the relationship between Anthony and Extremis; he had a hard enough time with the internet just being something on his phone and his computer, much less the idea of being constantly tuned into the internet from your brain. Anthony truly was a genius if he could figure that out.
"Is the internet sad it can't date you?"
"A little." Anthony snuggled closer, nose pressing against the crook of Steve's neck. "You'd be sad if you couldn't date me."
"I would." Steve had gotten too used to this. Anthony was - in spite of his impulsiveness and his mouthiness and his tendency to fly off the handle from time to time - a steadying force in Steve's life. He was the one constant that he knew he could count on in this strange future he had landed in. Any time, day or night, he could call and Anthony would be there, smiling, sometimes sleep mussed and sometimes frantic with energy, but always there. "I love you."
"Love you, too." Anthony sprawled, lazily. "Best birthday ever, and you easily beat out the last three."
"So I beat out: an attempted assassination by an android zombie, alien invasion, and your best friend barely not killing you." Steve didn't think that was a very stiff competition.
Anthony rolled over, pressed a kiss to Steve's chest, and Steve could feel the scratch of his goatee as he smiled. "Beating out an alien invasion is pretty awesome." The two of them just stayed like that, slow, lazy. "We should go to the beach."
"What?" Steve blinked away his confusion; in their years of being in a relationship, Steve had gotten somewhat used to the non-sequiturs, even if he had no idea what they meant he accepted that Anthony's brain didn't always work the way Steve expected.
"Malibu, the Bahamas, whatever. We should go. The world is temporarily safe, it's my birthday, I love you, and we should just do something normal like go to the beach." Anthony still wasn't making any sense to Steve, but he had long since come to expect that. "Can we be normal for a day?"
Normal. Anthony was brilliant, a genius, he owned a company worth millions, he was Iron Man, he had saved the world, he was dating Captain America, and for his birthday he wanted to be normal. Steve could almost understand, but there wasn't a single thing about him that was normal; maybe that was what made it so appealing. "Can I wear American flag swim trunks?"
"Yes. In fact, I now demand it."
"I'm going to email my boss that I can't come to work because I'm taking my boyfriend to the beach."
"Already did with my brain."
That was absolutely not normal, but this was Anthony, even his normal was out of the ordinary. The future wasn't normal, the future wasn't ordinary, but he had Anthony now, and that made every little change - and all the big ones - that Steve had been forced to contend with completely and totally worth it. Anthony made it all worth it, and Steve suspected he always would.