Salzburg, Austria. June 1938
The morning had started out beautifully; crisp mountain air, predawn light gradually bleeding into impossibly blue sky and the scent of fresh morning dew permuting the air. Antony Eduard Stark was familiar with slipping out of bed long before the sun rose and making his way through shadowed streets in search of one adventure or another. God knew, his poor governesses had tried to keep him under lock and key, but Antony’s mind had always been quicker than most children- most adults even- and even at his smallest he had never found a lock he couldn’t pick or a key he couldn’t fashion in lieu of picks.
The trouble with genius was that it required exercise (a sentiment wholly unappreciated at the monastery he’d had the misfortune of calling home for the last two decades) and the trouble with metal was how blasted heavy it was- especially when one had to cart over fifty pounds of it in a rickety wheelbarrow.
Tony had set out early enough in the day that he should have concluded his business at the mill and returned to the monastery between first mass and breakfast. Word had come from Jakob Friets a fortnight before of a broken generator at the mill that was soon to be replaced and might find its way into Antony’s possession for the right amount of coin. And since, as a monk, Tony was supposed to have neither personal funds nor personal time to go about procuring odd materials for his even odder inventions, it was safe to say that today’s exchange having taken much longer than expected, was going to result in way more trouble than he’d bargained for.
Oh well, Tony huffed as he continued to push his hard won spoils across the cobbled street with considerable strain on his muscles. There was nothing to do about it now. Father Niklas would be furious; but Tony couldn’t remember a time when Niklas hadn’t been furious with him for one thing or another. Why change things now?
“Father Superior, a moment please?”
Niklas Farkas had come to dread those words, spoken in that specific tone, and not without good reason. They always meant trouble, spelled with a capital T-O-N-Y, and frankly what with Austria under Nazi control and a war approaching he had much bigger things to deal with than another one of Antony Stark’s screw ups.
This time it was Brother Tiberius, the monastery treasurer, who was hurrying towards where Nik had been standing with brother Filip, a furious step to his gate. Filip Coulson’s visage remained smooth and unruffled despite the dark cloud the younger monk was undoubtedly bringing with him, but that was Fil for you- religiously unruffled.
“Yes?” Nik inquired dryly, not really wishing to know what Tony had done this time but suspecting that it likely involved the monastery’s treasury. He could already feel the beginnings of a headache.
“Forgive me Father, Sub-prior,” Tiberius nodded shortly to he and Filip in turn before rounding on Nik with every last drop of his pent up frustration and demanding, “something must be done about Antony! I know that you’re fond of him Father. Perhaps you find his antics amusing, but he isn’t a child anymore and I insist he be held accountable this time. The man is a menace!”
Yes, Niklas thought to himself that was definitely pressure building behind his eyes- sure signs of his imminent death.
“What is it he is supposed to have done?” Fil asked with the patience of a saint and he and Nik waited as Tiberius puffed up like a posturing bird and launched into another tirade.
“Someone has emptied the alms box-”
“I should hope. I ordered it done this morning,” Fil murmured and Tiberius fell short, clearly taken aback by Fil's cool demeanor.
“Yes, Sub-prior of course. Brother Aldrich was supposed to see to it, but Brother Antony insisted that you had instructed that he take over, only he has been nowhere to be found all day.” Nik closed his eyes, imagining himself far away from the monastery and upon the waves of the deep blue sea surrounding his home land, and not having to deal with a problem like Antony Stark. He'd loved the ocean as a boy, and even now as a man it was still his preferred place of refuge. Antony would have had something fresh to say about that no doubt, he did so like to liken Nik to a pirate.
“We've promised our aide to several suffering families. How are we to see to them if this is allowed to continue?” Tiberius demanded full of rancor and Nik held up a hand, commanding the young monk to silence.
“We can't know for sure that Antony has stolen-” Tiberius opened his mouth to interject but fell wisely silent under the Father Superior's stern glare.
“He is unconventional Brother Tiberius. It wouldn't be the first time he decided to do things his own way,” Fil reminded them all, as if Nik needed reminding.
“But... Father Superior I must-”
“When Antony returns I will get to the bottom of it Tiberius,” Nik ended the man's protest before it could begin, but before he could dismiss the younger monk there was a great clatter as something heavy and metallic fell against the cobble stones and a voice that sounded a lot like Antony's hissed a violent curse.
All three of the monks had turned at the sound to find Antony paused in the cloister beside an overladen wheelbarrow that looked in danger of spilling more of its contents on the next push. It was clear that Antony had already seen them, and that he had been attempting to sneak by unnoticed (no doubt down to his workshop where he liked to disappear for hours) and as soon as Nik's eyes met his the man rolled them heavenward, turning his back on the three staring at him from across the garth and bending to collect the spilled scraps and bits of metal that were now littering the cloister.
Tiberius turned to Fil with a smug smirk.
“I trust his punishment will be as severe as his crime warrants?”
Fil promised that Antony would receive an appropriately harsh assignment for his trespasses and Tiberius seemed to accept that, sweeping away in a dignified and well-practiced swirl of robes and Nik rolled his eyes heavenward.
“This can’t go on,” Fil murmured under his breath once the younger monk was gone. “Germany is tightening its grip on Austria every day. He takes far too many risks.”
“That boy is a pain in my ass.”
Any other monk might have died of shock, hearing an Abbot use such language but Fil didn’t so much as bat an eyelash, except for the tiny upward twitch of the corner of one lip.
“It’s been over twenty years Nik and his world is only getting smaller.” There was a note of finality in Fil’s tone that made Nik want to heave another sigh, that or retreat to his rooms for a long bath and order no one to bother him. He knew that Antony had never belonged there, and he didn’t need Coulson to remind him that his temporary solution had about run its course. The abbey was no longer safe for Tony Stark. The damnable trouble with that was few places in the world were.
Niklas, you have been a friend to me these many years. In times of war there are few who can be trusted even amongst friends. I am afraid for my son Antony. In many respects he is still a child and while he continues to keep ill company, I fear he may never develop the constitution it will take to see his legacy unharmed through the coming years. He will need guidance as well as direction if he is to make of himself the man I hope he can be. I can only hope that in God he will find these things.
By the time that Brother Bruce came to relieve him Tony had been scrubbing the floors of the infirmary for so long that the light from the candles had become little more than stubs. Although it was dim they cast a stubborn glow over the stone walls and mostly empty beds like the most resolute of soldiers. Looking at them reminded Tony of too many things he didn’t want to think about (too many bodies burnt through like cheap wax and just as carelessly tossed away). Tony had seen more than a few soldiers in his time, having lived through the Great War.
He’d been seventeen when war had broken out and had watched from the shipyard as boys, many much younger than him, had marched to their deaths with smiles on their faces and brimming with confidence. They’d been children, no way of knowing what was ahead of them, no way of knowing that the ships they were boarding would carry them far away from the shores of their home and would not bring them back.
And still, Tony had wanted to be with them. He had been young once too and despite all his protests to the contrary he had occasionally cared about something other than himself. But Tony’s father had forbidden it and he had practically kept Tony under lock and key that year- finally sending him away altogether before his eighteenth birthday could arrive and Tony would be old enough to legally enlist.
Tony had never forgiven him for that. Not the preventing him from throwing away his life on a forgotten battlefield thing. Tony would never forgive Hughard for taking away his home.
He heaved a sigh, nodding gratefully at Bruce as he sat up from where he knelt on the floor and unceremoniously dropped the rag he’d been using to clean into the bucket beside his knee. His black robes were damp and his hands were wrinkled. He gave his hands a token glance, noting that some of his old cuts had opened and were fairly stinging from the soap. If he was at all mindful of his health he ought to have Bruce take a look at it, but it was late and the quiet reclusive monk who ran the infirmary looked more than ready to find his bed. Although it was undoubtedly Tony’s preferred punishment poor Bruce was always having to suffer whenever someone found a reason to be mad at him (which truthfully, was probably way less often than he deserved).
It took only a few moments to clean himself up and dispose of the bucket, far longer to dissuade Bruce from mothering him. Thankfully it was late enough that even Bruce only seemed to want to put in the token effort when dealing with Tony’s issues. He sought his bed after only a few protests but not before warning Tony to go straight to bed, as there were only a few hours until wake up call; but they both knew Tony was far more likely to sneak down to his workshop to salvage what was left of the day than he ever was to attempt sleep.
Only, that night he didn’t seem in the mood for it. Maybe it was the hours he’d already spent stooped till his back ached or the soap seeped into old scrapes and burns reminding him of his own fragility but that night Tony did not make the turn that would have taken him to the workshop. It was as silent as a tomb in the monastery after hours, the silence only emphasizing the cold of the stone walls and the emptiness of each passage. Quite without thought Tony found himself where Brother Hanes and the rest of the monks designated for choir work practiced their hymns, but it didn’t surprise him that on a night like this he’d be driven to chasing ghosts.
The choir room was dark, the only light source a single window spilling moonlight over the worn top of the old Bechstien piano that Brother Hanes had plucked away on every Saturday morning for the last thirty years. Tony didn’t bother lighting the oil lamps before claiming a seat on the bench. Without any dedicated thought or purpose he set his fingers to the keys-he didn’t need to see well for this, the memory of the right notes and the right placement coming to him like second nature- and began to play.
For a time he just let the notes flow from him, allowing the soothing sound of music to carry him out of the dark and back to places far from the cold and dark of St. Péter’s Abbey. He was a boy again at home in Pola, standing on the shore with the crystal sea stretching out before him, the sticky sweet marmalade from a hastily gobbled burriche still clinging to his fingertips; and easy, like drifting into a dream, he was in the parlor at their villa, the leathery palms of Jacob Yinsen’s hands cupping his as they guided to the correct keys, his mother humming quietly as she worked, the words occasionally bursting past her lips in her beautiful soprano. Tony sang them now from memory, eyes drifting slowly shut as he tried to cling to the memory of her voice, the smell of her perfume, the vibrations in her chest when she sang lullabies in the dark.
“Va Penserio? I never took you for a patriot Antony.”
Tony jolted, hitting his first sour note since he’d begun, surprised by the voice and Nik’s sudden appearance. The Father Superior’s approach had been silent and he was now all but towering over Tony in his black robes, like a crow waiting over some poor beast drawing its last breaths.
“Niky,” Tony picked up playing again, refusing to allow Nik’s presence to disturb his peace. Niklas did not react to the pet name, not even to give Tony one of his famous glowers. He didn’t know what it meant that he was almost put out by that.
“What are you doing skulking about in the dark?” He asked, picking up tempo. “Something spy related?”
That got him his glower and Tony smirked.
Anyone who thought that Niklas Farkas was just an ordinary monk concerned with charity and prayers obviously had never met the fellow. He was a Hungarian born on the wrong side of African heritage and no wealth to make up for either his ethnic or economical short comings. He had made his way from the farmers fields to the battlefields as a young man and from there, inexplicably into the church. It had never been a friendly world for people of his sort and it had been downright hostile since the end of the Great War, yet there he stood in the center of one of the oldest churches in the once great Austro-Hungarian Empire still playing the game of kings from the shadows. Antony had heard his father once tell a colleague that Nik had the ear of God and the perfume of monarchs lingering in his pews.
Churches could be great friends to exiled kings and other men grasping for political power. Their walls kept public eyes out and whispers in.
Hughard Stark had known exactly what he was doing when he’d sent his son and heir to this particular monastery, and to whom he’d been sending him to.
“I came to see if maybe you had learned anything from washing up blood and sick all day,” Nik answered him with a droll expression. Tony could tell he thought it was doubtful, and never let it be said that Tony didn’t live up to people’s low expectations.
“You need better heating,” Tony quipped ignoring the sharpening glare from Nik’s one good eye. “I don’t understand your aversion to progress. There’s this wonderful new thing called electricity, hell even steam power. If you’d just allow me to, I could have this place-“
“Daniel Bohmer!” Nik interjected with a snap and Tony tensed. “Kristoff Hochberg, Rachel Schnieder-”
“Am I supposed to know these people?” he sneered in defense and Nik slapped the piano top with a firm hand. Tony jumped to his feet, his fingers dragging over the keys in a discordant jangle of notes.
“Jacob Yinsen,” Nik finished and Tony could feel himself pale.
“You’re a bastard,” he hissed. Nik didn’t nod or anything, though he likely knew it was true. Only a bastard would use Yinsen like this-just to shut him up.
“They’re all men and women I’ve known Tony. They’re all Jews, and they’ve all been arrested and killed, the same way you will be if you don’t get your head on straight.”
“If I’m not a good boy you mean?” Tony shot back, accusing. He was breathing heavily, his breaths sounding ragged to his own ears but he couldn’t let this go. Couldn’t let Niklas Farkas get away with thinking that Tony didn’t know the truth. “It was not my choice to come here! I never wanted to get caught up in your war games Farkas! That was you and that was Hughard! You made Yinsen a promise you couldn’t keep and you sent him to the lion’s den!”
“He was a scholar not a spy! You never should have let him!”
“There was no one else Stark!”
“Do you always lie this poorly? Obi could have-”
“Yes he could have! Did you ever stop to wonder just why he didn’t? Why your father sent you here, to the ‘lion’s den’ as you called it?”
Tony drew up short. There was something about the calm way that Niklas was looking at him, about the sadness clinging to him that he could not seem to bury. It made something heavy sink to the bottom of Tony’s stomach.
“Hughard was a wealthy man with national connections and plenty of clout. He could have sent you anywhere with anyone and he sent you to Salzburg, with a Jewish professor for protection. You never wondered why?”
Tony swallowed thickly but couldn’t immediately answer. He had wondered - especially after Yinsen - it was just that, he’d always assumed being sent away to a monastery was his father’s way of punishing him. For not being the kind of man at seventeen that Hughard had always thought he should be. For not being ready or willing to see Stark Industries through war time; but mostly as punishment for feeling more Italian than German and rejecting good German blood (for rejecting Hughard). Like many of the German people who had settled in Pola, Hughard had thought himself superior to everyone else. Tony’s father used to say the only thing worse than a lazy Croat was a lazy Katzenfresser, and it had never seemed to bother him too much that his wife Maria was in hearing distance.
He had never understood why his father had married his mother. He did not beat her like some husbands but he was far from a kind man. Hughard’s old friend and business partner Obadiah Stanislav had never understood it either. Though he was always courteous enough to Maria he’d also always been very forthcoming with the fact that he was against the marriage.
“Your mother is a fine woman, Tony, a beautiful woman… but her people are not like us. Not all of them are the same, you understand? Her kind, well they are fundamentally different. Weaker… Germans are built to last and Stark Industries is a solid German company. Your father shouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that reputation.”
Tony had always known that there were things about his situation at the abbey that Niklas wasn’t sharing with him; he was clever after all. More than clever. Some would go so far as to call him a genius. He had built his first boat when he was four years old. Which just meant that it had taken him entirely too long to figure out that Obie had never just been talking about his mother’s Italian roots but her Jewish ones, and that no matter what kind of love or lust had driven Hughard Stark into the arms of an Italian Jewess, Antony Eduard Stark was in no way allowed to be anything but a proper German boy.
Too bad for him that was the one thing he couldn’t be. The blood doesn’t lie.
Sure, he looked enough like Hughard that no one was going to spot him immediately as a Jew; but Tony had never even tried to deny his Italian heritage. Who wanted to be Aryan anyway?
It had never added up. Send him to Austria and imprison him in a monastery fine, but why sneak him out of Pola with Yinsen of all people?
“He didn’t trust Obie.” The conclusion when it came to him, seemed shamefully obvious. Knowing it now threw everything else he’d thought he’d known in shadow.
The night his parents had been killed had started like any other. He’d gone with his parents to the shipyard where Hughard was to give a special presentation to a bunch of high ranking military officials. Stark ships were the best ships in the world and Hughard had wanted to assure the Austrians and the Germans that their navies would be the best outfitted and best gunned in the world. It was an unpopular move with the workers. Italy had sided with the allies and too many of the men and women who called Pola home remembered the days when Pola had been part of it and did not think themselves Austrian.
The people, eager to see their dreams of a return to the ‘homeland’ become a reality were no longer content to keep their heads down or their hands idle. Riots had broken out before then and people had died, but that was Hughard, always so convinced of his own invincibility. Always so forgetful of the workers who filled his factories.
There had been a crowd of protesters waiting at the harbor that day. The family car hadn’t even made it into the shipyard. Shouts had rang out as the mob had pressed in close, pounding on the windows and hood of their motor car with fury, and then shots. In a split second Tony’s entire world had upended. There had been a spray of blood, and his mother had screamed so loudly next to his ear that he’d thought it might rupture.
He remembered the terrible fright when the door had been wrenched open and hands had grabbed him pulling him into the seething mob. He didn’t know how long he’d kicked and screamed before he’d recognized the man pulling him through the mass of bodies was his tutor, Jacob Yinsen. He just remembered the painful racing of his heart and straining to hear his mother over the roar of the crowd, the sick twist in his gut when he realized he could no longer hear her.
He had later learned that Hughard had intended for Yinsen to take Tony away during the demonstration. He had showed Tony the letter his father had written to an old friend of his at a monastery in Austria, practically begging for him to take in his wayward son and straighten him out. Yinsen had in turn begged Tony to agree to make the journey, to condemn himself for the unforeseeable future to live behind abbey walls if not for his own sake but then for his mother’s memory. Tony had agreed with his ears still ringing with his mother’s last scream.
“He sent you here to keep you alive,” Nik answered, pulling Tony out of his dark memories and back to the present. Only the present felt no less dark to Tony. Especially when Nik added, “Yinsen got you here, to keep you alive.”
“And they killed him,” Tony remembered bitterly. “He lost his life for mine.”
Nik, the bastard, didn’t even bother to disagree with him. He just nodded gravely and asked Tony why, knowing that, he seemed so determined to throw it away.
The thing about that was... Tony had no idea.
Despite getting to bed so late it had been incredibly hard for Tony to get to sleep that night. Damn Farkas; the one eyed bastard knew exactly how to get at a man’s underbelly. Tony had gone to his workshop after all, because there was no way he was going straight to bed like a good boy; not after Nik had cut him open like that. The workshop was really an old stable, gutted and refashioned to suit Tony’s needs and still reeking of horses and hay under the newer layers of iron and oil. It was only a little galling that the workshop itself had been a gift from Nik, after all there wasn’t much need for engineering quarters at the abbey, but it had been a hard adjustment for Tony to come from the bustling shipyards of the world’s biggest port cities to the deafeningly silent and still confines of the abbey. He supposed for Nik, finding him something to occupy his mind had been the lesser of two evils.
Tony had started taking apart the generator he’d gotten from the mill and at some point he must have finally passed out down there because when he was rudely awoken by the sharp sting of stones peppering his skull, it was to find that he’d missed breakfast as well as morning prayers.
The perpetrator of his rude awakening was one Clinton Barton, a novice at the abbey. Perched gingerly in the rafters above Tony’s head, the odd child was throwing pebbles at his head and peering down at Tony with a mischievous smirk like one of those exotic creatures you read about in adventure magazines. Grumpily, Tony began the business of waking up and stretching his protesting back – yes he was getting much too old for nights spent stooped over floors or workbenches – glaring at Barton all the while.
“How did you get in here?” Tony demanded to know as Barton swung his way down from the rafters, kicking up a cloud of dust as he landed. Tony had designed the locks on the door himself so that he could lock it from within as well as without. So he was a little peeved that the Abbot’s favorite minion had somehow managed to find his way inside.
“I climbed,” the boy answered in his accented German, as if that explained everything. At Tony’s dubious expression he grinned up towards the old hayloft and said, “There’s a window up there. You sleep up there so I know you know it.”
Tony did know it. The grimy little window wasn’t big enough for a grown man to slip through even if they were to break it so Tony had never bothered to reinforce it. By the time Nik had pinched his little underling from a traveling french circus it hadn’t even occurred to Tony to think about it. An oversight he’d have to correct.
“What does he want?” Tony asked. He didn’t feel like mincing words. His stomach was grumbling horribly and he could tell by the light filtering in from above that breakfast was long over. Given that he’d missed supper as a part of his punishment and he was likely to go without again as punishment for missing morning prayers… well it was a good thing Tony wasn’t in the habit of eating regular meals.
Clinton mostly ignored Tony in favor of climbing on top of his work table to poke and prod at the generator that Tony had spent the night disassembling for parts in his engine – currently the world’s fastest motor powered boat required four engines to reach a max speed of two hundred kilometers per hour, his single engine was going to do twice that in half the time, if he could just get the damn materials – and only responded when Tony slapped his hands away from his soldering iron.
“He wants to see you in his office. Give that here.”
“Excuse me but it’s mine. Not for sticky fingered little boys with deep pockets.”
“I wouldn’t pinch that” the little french boy huffed, not bothering to dispute the issue of sticky fingers. “Isn’t worth nothin.”
“This?” Tony effected a deeply wounded tone and Clint’s grin widened. “This is a revolutionary piece of industrial history. Where would I get another? Ersa? I made this when I was nineteen. Sachs was still figuring out how to turn the lights on.”
“So?” Clinton drawled, swinging his legs over the table ledge and kicking them back and forth.
“So, Clinton,” Tony dragged out the full name he knew the boy hated. “It’s mine. Remember our rules ‘we don’t touch Tony’s things or he’ll find horribly creative ways to engineer our death’, remember that one?”
Smirking Clinton swung himself off of the table and dashed for the door as if he expected Tony to make good on his word and chase after him with something sharp. He was up the ladder and leaping off the edge of the loft before Tony could really blink, and even though the boy caught and swung himself back into the rafters with the effortless grace of a circus performer Tony couldn’t help but cringe.
“T'as pas de coquilles!” Clinton laughed down at him, expression so unbearably smug as he reached for the bag of pebbles tied at his waist that Tony wasn’t sure if he was tempted to throw something at the little monkey or laugh.
And since the boy insisted on shepherding him to the Abbot’s office by pelting him with small stones, Tony considered it a show of his own maturity that he only just barely decided against the former.
It was because he was running from the stones, looking back over his shoulder in fear that Barton was going to pop out of some corner again with a fresh arsenal of stones, that he didn’t see the man coming down the corridor until he’d all but run him over.
More accurately it was like slamming into a brick wall and Tony was no physicist but there was only one way for this to end: heels over ass on the floor.
Or it would have, if the wall hadn’t proved to have an amazing set of reflexes on top of things. A set of firm hands grabbed him about the waist and caught him by the arm before he could tumble inelegantly to the ground and that was how Antony Eduard Stark found himself staring up into a wall with eyes.
“Are you alright?” the man asked, only he asked it in a way that implied he’d already come to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with Tony’s head.
And it was a man, not a wall, a certainly tall and well-formed man, but just a man all the same. A man with smart dress and a wicked mouth. A mouth that was dipping deeper into an annoyed frown the longer Tony stood their gaping at him like a witless fool.
Tony jerked away from the stranger, returning his frown with a peeved expression of his own and continued on his way without so much as a word of remorse or thanks. It was rude of him. But if Tony were honest, he’d found something really unsettling about the gentlemen.
Reaching the Abbott’s door he paused only momentarily to turn and watch the stranger’s retreat down the hall. His stride was long, his steps efficient and brisk in a way that screamed military. His clothing was expensive but not showy, his jacket framing a set of broad shoulders that had no doubt seen their share of burdens and still he walked proudly like a king in court. Tony remembered the flash of sea blue eyes and the golden glint of dark blond hair peaking from beneath the hat the man had worn and he shivered.
An officer. Whether Austrian or German it didn’t matter these days. He’d just brushed with death.
“You couldn’t have warned me you were meeting with the Nazis this morning?” Tony shut the door of Nik’s office with a snap. He was still trembling from the encounter in the corridor but he tried desperately not to show it. Nik’s office was dark despite the time of day. Tony suspected Nik preferred it that way, like a bat or some other nocturnal creature. How else would he look mysterious and intimidating behind his oak desk shrouded in dark robes if not for the compliment of harsh shadows?
“Sit down, Antony.”
“Don’t Antony me,” Tony snapped in reply, but he took a seat anyway. “You give me that whole song and dance about the danger of leaving the abbey and then you invite a Nazi for tea?”
“Captain Rogers came to me, Tony,” Nik replied, drawing out the man’s name with a poignant look and Tony halted mid breath.
“Captain Rogers?” That was not a squeak in his voice. “The Captain Rogers?”
Austria was a small country but fiercely proud of its treasures and contributions to society. Captain Rogers, hero of the Great War, was reputably both. Even Tony, cloistered away behind the walls of the abbey had heard of him.
Niklas nodded. His smugness was in his wording and not so much his tone as he replied, “Not a Nazi. Not yet anyhow.”
The foreboding thought sank any feelings of wonder or excitement Tony had previously felt at the presence of a national icon at the abbey. Captain Rogers for all of his nobility was still a soldier. He was sworn to serve king and country, even if said country had gone to the devil.
“What do you know about Captain Rogers?” Niklas asked. He was the picture of nonchalance as he leaned back in his chair, seemingly content to wait days, months, or however long it took for Tony to reply, but Tony knew he wouldn’t ask if he didn’t have a hidden motive behind it. Nik’s hidden motives had hidden motives. He could feel himself start to sweat but he was a Stark. Acquiring a poker face was practically a prerequisite.
“He’s a soldier,” Tony supplied pointedly and Nik immediately parried with,
“What else do you know about him?”
“Nothing you couldn’t read in the paper. He’s Austria’s favorite son. Had my dad lived long enough he’d probably have hung his picture above the fireplace like every other upstanding citizen. Is this going somewhere Farkas?”
It was a long pregnant moment before Niklas chose to reply.
“Captain Rogers is a powerful man Antony. He has ties to every office in this country, be it military or political. Not to mention he has friends abroad. You called him ‘the favored son’ and I suppose that’s true. He’s a symbol of Austrian strength and nationalism.”
“Sounds dangerous,” Tony quipped. Not to mention right up Nik’s ally. He was a monarchist through and through: a king’s man. Of course he’d want the people’s man on his side.
“There’s nothing more dangerous. The Germans know that. Now that Austria has become a part of the Reichland it is only a matter of time before they insist the Captain take up an active post. Only this time it will be under a Nazi flag.”
“You fight for one emperor you fight for another.” Tony shrugged. He wouldn’t let on that Nik’s predictions unsettled him in any way. Who was Captain Rogers to him, accept another German? Austrian or German it was all the same since Anschluss. And Rogers whether he was a saint or a sinner was one man in a world gone to the dogs and he’d undoubtedly do what all the rest were doing. Click his heels and fall into line like a good German boy; meanwhile Tony would bend his knees and say his prayers like a good German monk and if the S.S. ever came knocking he’d wave the expensively purchased papers that declared his greatest fault was a hopelessly Italian mother, but not a drop of Jewish blood.
Good men and women, the truly innocent ones like Yinsen, and the Grandparents he’d never really been allowed to know, they would be arrested or killed. Because that was the state of the world.
“Your father intended you to return home after the first war, but in case of the worst he left provisions for your upkeep and continued safety here.” Nik said, and Tony was quick to try and stave off whatever as yet unspoken ‘but’ was attached to the end of that statement.
“And I am well kept and very safe.”
But Niklas wasn’t impressed by his dismissive tone and didn’t let him get far out of his seat before he went on the attack.
“These walls can protect you from a lot of things but they can’t protect you from this!”
It was the return of that deep resigned sadness in Nik’s voice that frightened him the most. Tony turned to glare at him.
“Why not? Are the Nazis in the habit of arresting monks now?”
“Yes,” Nik’s reply was so final it stopped Tony cold. The Abbott pressed on a moment later. “The Reich is determined to stomp out resistance. And they’ve been successful with the use of spies infiltrating the resistance groups. Many men and women of the faith who have felt it their Christian duty to lend their aid to the resistance have found their churches raided without warning. No one is out of the Reich’s reach Stark.”
Not even you went unsaid. Then again it didn’t need to be.
“What do you want me to do?” Tony asked, because even if his mind was already buzzing with a million and one escape plans, without doubt Nik had an agenda of his own he wanted to push. It was worth it to hear him out before he formed his own plans largely because Tony wasn’t sure he had a chance in hell of pulling any of his own ideas off.
Patrols were everywhere. Traveling even with the right paperwork was dangerous. It was all ‘who are you and where are you going’ and the Stark name was too well known not to garner attention. Maybe he could feel a bit of sympathy for Rogers after all. He wasn’t the only symbol the Nazis would be interested in using for their own purposes.
When Niklas finally settled on how to answer he plucked a crisp envelope off of his desk and stood, extending it toward Tony. Tony stared at it suspiciously.
“A week ago I received a letter from Captain Rogers,” Nik explained, looking unimpressed with Tony’s hesitance. “He is looking for a tutor and companion for his children and wondered if the abbey had any educated Brothers who would be up to the task.”
Tony blinked, a horrible suspicion dawning on him.
“You want me, to be some sort of… governess?!” He asked incredulously and Nik scowled at him. It was official. Niklas Farkas had lost whatever good sense he was born with. He wanted to place this man’s poor children in Tony’s care? He was as irresponsible as they came. Just ask every last monk there! Never on time for anything, irreverent as they came. Flibbertigibbet wasn’t the worst thing he’d heard one of his brother monks calling him under the breath. Tony was deviant and known to play fast and loose with his vows of celibacy at that. He wasn’t fit company for polite society let alone small impressionable children.
“A tutor Stark. You will give the children lessons. They have other staff to see to their upkeep.”
“Yes but you said companion. That implies I have to keep their company.”
“Yes Stark as their tutor – ”
“ – and a paid companion, you might have to keep their company. It’s a simple enough job.”
“Except for the part where it involves children. I know nothing about them.”
“You do well with Clinton. He’s a child.”
“Clinton is an imp, not a child.”
“Stark!” Niklas exclaimed, exasperated but Tony refused to let up. This plan – no this idea of his – was simply preposterous.
“Please be frank with me Niky, are you trying to arrange my death? Because it sounds to me as if you would like me to walk into the house of a Nazi officer and ask to play with his children, hoping of course that he never realizes that the embodiment of everything our beloved Führer so detests is standing right in front of him!”
“I’m asking you to think Stark!” Nik demanded in harsh reply. “Think about your future. It will be very short, I guarantee, unless you step very carefully. You need to stay out of sight and slip out of the country the first opportunity you get or the reality is you will eventually be caught. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
Tony swallowed back whatever it was he was going to say. He was angry true enough but he knew that most of his resistance was based on fear. Whatever else St. Péter’s was, the abbey had been his only home for more than half his life. And he wasn’t blind or stupid. He was well aware of the danger to him out there in the world. It was perhaps the only real reason he had put up with the whole charade. In here the monks might despair of him and grumble beneath their breath but at least he had a guaranteed place. Out there he didn’t mean anything to anybody except dirty blood. He was something to be wiped away and they’d do it gladly if they knew.
“I’ll write Obi,” Tony decided. “I own controlling stock in the company. He can’t refuse to help me.” Whatever it was that had caused Hughard to mistrust his old friend Tony would likely never know and regardless he was right about Obi being in no position to say no. They were on the brink of war and Stark Industries was a German company. Obadiah had always been the most concerned with the company reputation.
“That’s a double edged sword, Tony. Are you sure you know which way it’s pointed?”
Nik, damn his hide, was of course correct. If Obadiah had played a hand in his father’s death as Nik seemed to be implying then the only thing that had saved Tony was his escape to St. Péter’s. As far as he knew Obadiah had never made any attempt to get at him there but now that Nik had raised the suspicions in his mind Tony could not forget how he and Yinsen been chased by armed officers all the way to Salzberg. When they had finally caught up with them Yinsen had told Tony to run for the Abbey, and not to turn back no matter what he heard. But Tony had never been good at doing what he was told and he had seen and heard plenty from his hiding place in the woods. They had called Jacob a filthy Jew and beat him bloody, all the while demanding to know where he was hiding Tony.
He could still hear them, cruel and mocking as they screamed at him in German. “Where is the boy? Jewsish dog! Where is he?”
Tony had run for the abbey and had practically screamed the walls down before Nik had agreed to fetch the police. He’d been told by a cold eyed altogether too bored officer that Yinsen had been arrested and taken to prison for abducting him and would likely face execution for the crime. Tony had insisted there had been no abduction and Nik had provided proof that Tony’s father had intended him to be committed to the monastery in the event of his death and an investigation had been launched; but the whole thing had been muddled from the beginning what with Hughard arranging it all in secret and Obadiah frantically searching for him after the riot that had taken the lives of Tony’s parents. By the time Obi had managed to get everything cleared up it had been too late.
Yinsen had taken his own life in prison. Or so they had said. Tony had never really believed it. He’d seen the way those policemen had beaten him. It would surprise him if Yinsen had even made it to prison still breathing.
He’d never know. He’d not been allowed to see him. The officer in charge of the investigation had no time to listen to any of Tony’s pleas or demands, and only disdain for the spoiled little Italian boy screaming at him in a garbled mix of German and Italian, who had not even the sense to know when he’d been rescued and how to show proper gratitude.
Had it really all just been a tragic misunderstanding? Or had Obadiah had a hand in it all: the riot, Yinsen’s death? Maybe if Tony had revealed himself to those men like he’d wanted to, maybe they would have just killed him and pinned his murder on the ‘jewish dog’ who’d abducted him. One thing was for sure, once behind the monastery walls and under Niklas Farkas’ watchful eye Obadiah would have had little choice but to let him be. Besides it wasn’t as if Tony could have much say over the company as a monk, controlling interest or not. In that way Obadiah would have won – out of sight, out of mind – and if that was the case, perhaps it was best to stay that way.
For the time being. Because now that the suspicion was there, Tony knew that he would never be able to let it lie. If Obi really had betrayed them Tony would make him pay, and then he’d take back his company; but to do any of that he had to live. If he couldn’t go to Obadiah then Tony was left with very few options.
“I still fail to understand how going to live with this Nazi is going to be less risky,” Tony grumbled.
“He’s not a Nazi and I never said there wouldn’t be risk”. Nik gestured for him to take the envelope again and Tony sighed snatching it from the Abbot's hand, impatiently extracting the letter within and flipping it open. While he took note of the Captains tight but no less messy for it scrawl – it spoke of common breeding, of a little boy whose days had likely been spent in farm and field rather than under the guide of tutors – he admittedly skimmed through most of it. The last few lines caught his eye, and he immediately saw the bait on the hook for what it was.
I hope to find someone who gets on well with the children, for while the Führer’s plans for our beloved country are no doubt grand, I do sincerely doubt it will be a place for children. I’ve plans to send them abroad and while I cannot guarantee my own comfort, I should like to know always that they are well and in good hands.
It was not uncommon for wealthier families to send their children out of war zones. Completely legal and above the board. Children had tutors and governesses with them all the time, no reason to suspect foul play. A tutor, coming from the captain’s own household? They’d practically write his ticket for him. If he could play his cards right, keep his head down as Nik was always insisting, well then he could sneak out of the country long before the S.S. even knew there was something to look for.
“So what is it you need from me?” Tony asked, because he knew Nik and he was smart enough to realize that the previous night’s speech had been prepping him for this exact moment. Niklas didn’t disappoint.
“I need you to report the captain’s movements to me. Any intelligence drops into your lap I want to know.”
“Of course you want me to spy on him,” Tony said, rolling his eyes heavenward. “What happened to keeping my head down?”
“Keep it down. But if you happen to look up and see anything at all noteworthy I want to know about it, almost before the ink dries. Are we clear on that Stark?”
As glass, but if Niklas had the notion in his head at all that Tony was going to make a good spy he had another think coming. Tony’s only real concern was keeping his genetic secrets secret, and getting on the first boat out of Austria he could. There was just one more thing he needed to know.
“How many children does Captain Rogers have?”
Niklas grinned at him like the cat in the crème and cheerfully replied, “Seven.”
“Seven children!” Tony gaped. “His poor wife. What desperate state must she be in? No one thought to stage a rescue?”
“The late Mrs. Rogers is deceased –”
“No doubt it is a well-deserved rest. Seven children!” Tony scoffed, scandalized and Nik prattled over him as if he hadn’t spoken.
“– and was very much in love with her husband while she lived, so I would refrain from making such comments in the Captain’s hearing. In fact, if I were you Stark I’d focus on not saying much to the Captain at all.”
Tony scoffed at him but didn’t say anything further. If he was going to learn to keep his mouth shut he supposed there was no time to practice like the present.
“Certain anthropologists would fain teach us that all races are equally gifted; we point to history and answer: that is a lie! The races of mankind are markedly different in the nature and also in the extent of their gifts, and the Germanic races belong to the most highly gifted group, the group usually termed Aryan... Physically and mentally the Aryans are pre-eminent among all peoples; for that reason they are by right ... the lords of the world. Do we not see the homo syriacus develop just as well and as happily in the position of slave as of master? Do the Chinese not show us another example of the same nature?”
-p.542 The Foundations of The Nineteenth Century.
It took two weeks for Nik to make the arrangements. Admittedly it would not have taken as long if Tony hadn’t refused to read the materials Nik provided him with to study up on the new Reich approved school curriculum. It had all been nonsense about the supposed superiority of the Germans: blah blah blah proud history of might and splendor and so on and so forth.
That, he might have been able to stomach on its own truth be told (Germany was hardly the first country to fabricate some far nobler history for itself than had actually occurred) but he just couldn’t bring himself to read all that tripe about the inferior blood of Jews (and anyone else who just happened to not be blond haired and blue eyed) and the inherent degeneration of character that was sure to be the death of good moral Germans everywhere as a result of their mixing. It was enough to make his blood boil; and seeing as how setting himself aflame seemed rather counterproductive to the goal of surviving these mad times he found himself in he’d settled for burning the documents.
Nik had given him a talking to, reminding him of the dwindling window of time he had to escape the country and his limited options to do so. Tony had kept up the front of refusal just on principal but they both knew he wasn’t about to waltz back into the world and betray himself on an issue of pride. He had an eidetic memory which would have made learning the drivel by heart easy enough never mind a genius level IQ. Whether Tony wanted it there or not the Nazi doctrine was up there to stay. He couldn’t help but feel very bitter about that. The weeks it took to get things settled with Captain Roger’s household and make sure Tony would pass any government inspection were primarily filled with hours in his workshop because as far as Tony was concerned the only way to drive out the utter poison he was being forced to ingest was with heat and metal.
His engine was likely never to be finished. There would be little chance for engineering in the Captain’s home and all the more suspicion about his origins if he were to display such a remarkable talent for it. It would sit here a thing interrupted like so many lives since Anschluss. For the time being it appeared this was one more thing the Nazi’s would take from him as their due.
It was too easy to feel a boy again, standing in his father’s nobler shadow, desperately trying to live up to an impossible ideal even as he was reminded that he did not deserve second chances any more than he had deserved the first one; that the day he had first drawn breath was a blight in the grand order of somebody elses perfect world. There was a singular comfort to be found in forging metal: in the reverberation of each strike through muscle and bone, in the singe of spark and flame against hair and skin. Proof that even the hardest of materials could be persuaded to reformation given the right minded hands. There in his workshop, Tony Stark’s hands had always been right and his mind sound, even if nothing else about him ever had been.
But it like everything else couldn’t last.
The morning of his departure from St. Péter’s Abbey Tony packed a small bag full of what meager possessions he owned, said goodbye to Bruce in the infirmary (the only man at the monastery who came even close to being called a friend) and went to his workshop to close it up in that order. He’d dismantled what inventions he’d stored there for fear of them getting into other hands and being reverse engineered. Tony’d had more than twenty long years at the abbey and no ships to occupy him so he had let his curiosity take him anywhere and everywhere that feasibly gotten materials would allow, including weaponry. He did not trust his work not to eventually fall into Nazi hands and he wasn’t sure he trusted it in Father Niklas’ hands either. He was far too fond of his little war games.
All that was left to do now was pick up his soldering iron bury it at the bottom of his bag and go.
Tony swallowed thickly finding the packing part easy and the picking up and going part much more difficult than he’d anticipated. His fingers tightened around the handle of his luggage but his feet stayed firmly planted in the middle of the workshop as if time would simply stop with him as long as he didn’t initiate further movement. He was frozen with indecision despite the fact that the decision had already been made. The time to go had come and past and he was more than capable of going out into the world and proving to it and himself that he had something to contribute. He would revolutionize and reform because it was what his hands and mind were good for. And if he couldn’t ignore the voice that whispered it was the only thing he was good for, well… there was supposed to be a drink for everything.
Tony was sad enough that he didn’t have the energy to jump a foot at Clinton’s unexpected voice at his back. He didn’t turn as the boy came to stand beside him, nor did he bother asking how he’d snuck up without Tony hearing him. Instead he just took a deep breath and heaved a sigh, feeling relief at the return of feeling in his arms and legs and the ability to inspire movement.
“Do me a favor?” Tony glanced down to watch a slight furrow crease the boy’s brow as he nodded warily before continuing. “Watch this place for me while I’m gone?”
Clinton looked surprised by the request but he nodded with a solemnness to his expression that Tony had rarely observed in him and he felt something in his chest region pinch. Right. Well that was enough of that. Clinton seemed to agree because a moment later he was jerking his head in the direction of the doorway and warning him he’d be late to catch the trolleybus and that the abbot had given him permission to stone him again if he didn’t get a move on.
Yet somehow it didn’t feel final even as the iron gates of St. Péter’s shut behind him with a clang and the startled flight of pigeons, or even as the driver of the trolleybus had barked at him for fifty reichspfennig rather than the half shilling he’d have paid not a month before (when Austria had still been Austria). He had walked outside the abbey before of course but always with the benedictine robes to shield him and never with the same sense of urgency. The people of Salzburg were technically the same as they had been the night of his last jaunt through the city but now Tony viewed them with new eyes.
There were the good citizens scurrying about with their morning errands, blithely ignoring those poor souls who could be spotted wearing the yellow band that marked them as Jews thanks to the newly enforced Nuremberg laws. There was a tension in the air only augmented by the still fresh appearance of Nazi flags and paraphernalia hanging from every ledge and window.
The soldiers were the worst, their feet drumming loudly as they marched boldly through the streets, proud as peacocks of their smart uniforms and flashy guns. And Tony walked among them not just a plain clothed monk on his way to assignment but a Jew, unmarked and falsely documented: a lamb hiding amongst the wolves. He put on a smile and a confident swagger because experience had taught him he had no better shield.
As Tony finally took his seat aboard the bus and watched the cobbled streets of Salzburg pass by his window he wondered when, if ever, the world would wake up from what felt like the longest of terrible dreams.
The iron bars of the front gate loomed above Tony as he stood outside the villa Captain Rogers and his family called home. A pigeon, sleek and thin, with head bobbing, landed on the heavy gate to pass judgment and ignored Tony's grunted attempts to get the damn thing open. The little rats had convened the moment Tony arrived, their little bodies poised upon the gate like gargoyles.
They glared at him, ominous as crows and Tony stood for a moment in defeat, battling a sudden and punishing desire to turn tail, morbidly aware of the life he was leaving behind (the safety). Tony gripped the cold iron bars in his hand and let his forehead fall against the gate. He found himself wondering again what it was for. The good of everyone.
That had always been a funny concept to him, especially when "everyone" had always excluded him and his people.
He could still go home, back to the monastery that was. Father Niklas would... do what exactly? Agree to hide him for another week or so until he too was thrown in prison with the rest of the Jews in- it didn’t bare thinking.
No, at best Tony would be pointed back the way he'd come. There were other options of course, but they too almost did not bare thinking about, at least not at the moment. Right now there was nowhere else to go, nowhere truly safe, and no better chance than this. Tony squared his shoulders, clenched his bags tighter and recommitted himself to prying open the stubborn gate.
Stark men were made of iron and he was the best built of them all. Still as Tony struggled and the gates finally sprang open with a groan and a horrible creek he couldn't help but think it an omen.
The villa gardens were in full bloom, poignantly back dropped by the stunning architecture of the house surrounded by the summer green of trees and the hazy blue of the distant mountains. Tony swallowed, reminded of the mountains surrounding St. Peter’s. He ducked his head, refusing to dwell. He was accustomed to the constant ache of it by now anyhow. Tony rubbed at his chest absently, took a deep breath and then another as he approached the front door and pressed the bell.
No turning back now.
And also no answer.
So much for pulling the bandage off quickly, he thought. He pressed the bell again, then again. Really? The service here was quite-
The door swung open and Tony stumbled back one arm wheeling to keep himself steady. A tall thin man peered at him from beside the door, scrunching his eyes and doing, what Tony thought, was a very good impression of a weasel.
"Captain!" Tony barked before he could stop himself. Of course this man was not Captain Rogers - the man he’d nearly run over in his haste had been an Adonis and this fellow was far from it - and he had just made a fool of himself in front of, what? The butler? Wonderful. If he kept up to this standard he'd be fired by dinner.
The Weasel blinked, his frown deepening. Tony righted himself, planting a hand on the door frame for support and thrusting out his out his hand in greeting.
"Ah, Guten Tag, I'm the-"
"I’m sorry, we don't accommodate vagabonds,” the fellow rudely interrupted. “There's a monastery down the road, I'm sure they'll be happy to assist you. If they're still open."
Tony made a grab for the closing door, forcing it, to the dismay of the butler, back open.
"As wonderful as the Ardagger Priory is they are in fact not serving food at this hour and even if they were, I'm not in need of it." Tony wrenched the door back, perhaps harder than he had meant too. Beetle eyes glared, the butler's face turning a very unbecoming shade of violet.
"Stop this! This...insa-"
"-And I wouldn't need it seeing as I have never needed it and am now employed by your master, so if you’ll kindly step aside!" Tony ground out, shoving the door aside with one last grunt. The butler paused at his words, hand curling on the door, crinkles of disgust forming at the corners of his eyes. For a moment Tony almost believed he would close the door and actually leave him outside in the dusk.
"You're Herr Stark." It wasn't a question.
"Broth- Antony Stark. At your service"
"We've heard quite a bit about you.”
"All charming things I'm sure," Tony replied with a cocky grin.
"Your father built a docking empire-"
"-Yes, and I chose the sanctuary of God. May I come in or is it custom to leave your guests waiting outside?"
The weasel twisted his lips, sighing, as if the whole endeavor had cost him. His eyes flickered over Tony's frame as one might flit fingers over a dirty rag and Tony might have felt intimidated, if the man where in any way intimidating. Even in his shabby suit and third hand shoes that looked even worse for wear next to the weasels three piece uniform, pressed slacks and pristinely slicked hair, Tony couldn’t help but feel bored by the man’s pretension. The man was impeccably dressed for a servant. People like him, in Tony's experience, we're so consumed with self that they failed to see what was right in front of them.
"Yes." The butler drew out the word. “I’m Herr Hammer, and you see, I'm afraid I've just done the floors. You wouldn't mind terribly if I asked you to use the pantry door?"
The smile felt frigid on his face even to him but Tony saw no other option but to smile, nod and say yes. It was a tried and true method for avoiding early conflict. Where was the Captain? He wasn’t sure how much more he could take of this man. If he was lucky he wouldn't have to see much of Hammer’s pompous ass.
"If you wouldn't mind, Herr Stark," Hammer asked tilting his chin up as if the answer really didn't matter. Tony supposed it didn't. Not to Hammer at least. Tony slipped his hands into his pockets, curling his fingers into a fist and jerked his head in what passed for a nod.
Butler most grand tilted his chin, if possible even further up, a smile playing across his lips. "Yes.... if you go around back you can’t miss it." Herr Hammer turned and without giving Tony a chance to reply closed the door. Huffing Tony picked up his bag and made his way around the side of the house, hoping that the door to the kitchens would prove as easily findable as Hammer had indicated. He was undisturbed as he made his way, though he encountered a pair of gardeners who gave him wondering looks the longest and most assessing of which came from a dark skinned fellow in a mud stained pair of trousers.
Tony had almost stumbled over a stone on the path at the unexpected sight of another black man outside of the abbey. Niklas was not the only man of African descent he had encountered in his life - he’d known another boy years ago, an Afro-Hungarian like Nik whom Hughard in a rare moment of compassion had offered lodging to in exchange for household labor - but they had never been popular, and these days they were about as welcome as Jews, gypsies, tramps and thieves had ever been. He did not know what it meant that a man like Captain Rogers had such a fellow in his employ. Perhaps the fellow had been employed there for years and the captain was unaware of the ever growing liability he had tilling his soil beds. Tony hoped for the gardener’s sake that the captain didn’t figure it out any time soon.
Tony felt the man’s eyes on his as he made his way to the open door where Herr Hammer now stood in wait. Though it would undoubtedly be looked down upon by any good loyal citizen of Austria he acknowledged the gardener with a small nod as he passed. The gardener’s eyebrows arched in something close to surprise and Tony couldn’t blame him. The only people who went out of their way to be friendly to the sort of people the Reich had classified as ‘sub-human’ were the sort with no sense of self preservation. His sort apparently.
Indeed, Herr Hammer’s mouth was twisted up in an expression of intense disdain by the time that Tony reached him, leaving him with no doubt of the man’s feelings on the subject. Hammer turned wordlessly with a sharp click of heels and led Tony inside. Tony had grown up in a grand house so he was not afraid of coming off like an uncultured simpleton, on the contrary he had an appetite for the finer things in life that had gone largely unsatisfied behind the abbey walls.
That was the only explanation he had for why he felt as small as he did faced by the size and splendor of the villa. He came to a complete halt in the fare, caught off guard by the sheer grandness of it all. There were two grand staircases coming down from the second floor landing that spilled out into the opening of the grand entrance like two arms open in embrace.
Richly decorated in muted gold trimmings and rich brown wood, the room belonged in a painting, a sentiment only encouraged by the enticing rays of light filtering through the large windows.
Well, Tony thought as he stood soaking it all in, at the very least he wouldn't be uncomfortable.
"If you'll wait here the Captain will be with you shortly," the Weasel simpered. Hammer turned his back and headed towards a set of doors to the left the heels of his shiny shoes clicking as he walked.
Tony saluted his retreating back thinking that if he saw that man in a month it would be too soon.
Herr Hammer quickly left his thoughts as he went back to examining his surroundings, his eyes coming to rest on the entrance way. The grand door was a prime example of craftsmanship, made of dark polished wood with intricately carved designs. He could well imagine the sort of entrance one could make coming down those stairs to awaiting guests. He would place money the late Mrs. Rogers had loved every second of it.
‘What must the rest of the house be like?’ Tony wondered as he slowly turned about the room. Close to the window, on a Bonheur du jour, stood a display of silver framed photographs, blue cotton runner protecting the dark wood from the metal frames. It took him a moment to identify the accompanying objects as medals and then he was blown away by the sheer number of them. Good lord this man was decorated. The captain no matter the boldness of his stature would look ridiculous with all of them on.
Tony touched one of the frames, gently running his finger over the finish. How many battles had the captain fought? Had he been honored for all of them? He must have. He wasn’t that old and yet there were so many of them. There were ten that he could count, gold and silver pelted stars all just as pristine as the butler Rogers employed to run his house.
Fascinated Tony turned to the pictures. Most of them where formal photos, depicting the different divisions Captain Rogers had served in. Tony peered closer looking for Rogers among them. He’d heard so many stories about the man since the Great War - about how he’d joined the army a sickly youth and grown into the exploits and stature of a modern Hercules - that he was halfway expecting his younger self to be all of three feet tall. While it was true that the young soldier near the far right of the lineup was indeed small he was not as small as legend would have you believe.
Still, Tony could understand the public’s propensity to propel man into myth. Eighteen, nearly eighty pounds soaking wet, and so small you could step on him the skinny recruit that no officer in less desperate times would have handed a gun let alone stamped for approval, had saved the lives of his battalion and that of his commanding officer Oberst Philips. A David facing off against the Goliath of the Italian forces; proof of the superiority and strength of good German blood.
Or so they said. Tony did not know what to make of Rogers but he was getting the inkling that the captain whatever his political affiliations wasn’t the sort to do the expected. The young man in the photo was everything the stories said he was except for eighteen. Tony didn’t know how anyone could miss it. The serious thin faced little boy in oversized army dregs could not have been over the age of fourteen, regardless of what he’d told the recruiters when he’d enlisted. Illness aside if he had looked like a child, Tony had no doubt it was because he had been one. The thought filled him with a sadness, for the nameless boys who had filled the ranks of Austria’s army with no less passion or fervor, whose lives had been expended in war bitterly lost, for boys too young to comprehend the gift of their childhood.
‘You would have been such a boy, if not for Hughard’ he thought, one of the first he’d had about his father in a long time that came anywhere close to charitable.
A small wry smile tilted Tony’s lips as he regarded the boy in the photo with his too earnest expression and spindly limbs gaining to grow. And grow they had. Rather nicely, if one had to speak objectively.
Discarding the thought to the growing pile reserved for ‘irrelevant day dreams’ Tony picked up the photo, flipped the frame over to read the inscription: Alpenkorps 1915, Oberst Carsten Philips.
He let out a slightly hysterical giggle. Captain Rogers had been a mountain trooper, part of the troops who’d filtered in through the hills to use the Italians as target practice. Irony was a cruel mistress. Despite the fact that he’d been picking off his mother’s people at the time, a small part of Tony couldn’t help but be impressed that Rogers had survived at all let alone performed feats as daring as the ones that had earned him those metals. The winters were unforgiving in the mountains. Tony had been tucked away in the monastery by then, hidden away and forgotten while his countrymen had bled into the snow.
He set the photo down with distaste, reprimanding himself for dwelling on a history he couldn’t change.
Another photo caught his eye. That of a woman he could only assume was the late Mrs. Rogers. She’d been a beauty that much was for sure. With her wide dark mouth, sharp eyes and dark waves of hair she could have passed for any silver screen siren. She reminded him a bit of his own mother. Alive, even in a picture.
Tony felt the familiar pang of old grief and shoved it too away. He wondered vaguely if Mrs. Rogers had had Italian in her blood and almost as soon as the thought came he dismissed it. Mrs. Rogers was a pure Austrian beauty, decidedly not Italian and certainly not a Jew, nothing like his mother. Salzburg’s national treasure would have had to have a proper Austrian on his arm.
Not the fame you thought you’d have was it sweetheart? The thought when it came was nowhere close to charitable.
Tony turned away from the desk and turned back to the rest of the room. The longer he surveyed it the more he noticed the troubling sterility of it. As beautiful as it was it was stale, too picturesque to be used for anything but pictures. Too clean, Tony thought, for children. There were no scuff marks to show a single child lived there, let alone seven of them.
With nothing more to discover within the room Tony’s eyes turned to the side doors and hallways that led to god only knew where. He paused as one of the doors caught his eye. It was slightly ajar, pale yellow wallpaper just visible, teasing with sights as yet undiscovered. Never let it be said that Tony wasn’t a precocious being by nature, as that was more than enough of an invitation for the man to find himself quietly pushing the door of the room open.
This room like the last was in perfect order, clean and preserved. Tony's fingers itched to take it all apart and see where the pieces fell. He stepped inside, careful to keep his steps light. The room - a music room, he thought - had far less of the ornate grandness of the entry and the differences didn’t stop there. This room seemed like a home. An untouched home but a home none the less.
His eyes fell on the mandolin rested in the corner next to the sofa. Tony's fingers itched to touch it. A few more steps in and his eyes caught the paintings lining the walls. Landscapes mostly, Tony particularly liked a cluster of three small landscapes just above the resting mandolin that featured the harbor at different times in the day.
It was an entire room full to the brim with art. Tony’s heart thudded, the closest he’d felt to feeling at home since he’d arrived. This would be useful. As Tony wandered further inside he wondered absently who the musician in the family was. He supposed with seven children, at least one of them had to play, even if, judging from the dust floating in the air, it was years ago. Even in this room, meant for company, everything was untouched, nearly abandoned feeling.
Except for the grand piano. He stopped in his tracks when he saw it.
ABösendorfers. Cherry wood that was nearly black it was so dark. He'd never seen one up close, constrained to watching the gleaming black wood from afar in festival halls and dimly lit concert arenas (Tony had been in attendance for charity work of course, though such expensive charities had only received Nik’s stamp of approval few and far between). He slid his hands over the heavy keys surprised when they came away clean. What he wouldn't give to play a Grand Bösendorfers: clean lines, the tone alone was superior to anything Tony had ever laid his hands on.
He should wait, he thought even as he slid onto the bench, fingers twitching with anticipation. He should wait until he had permission, or at the very least until after he was introduced to the family. Still, he found himself sliding his palm over the lid, found his fingers continually brushing the pale keys that begged to sing for him.
It wouldn’t hurt just to see, right? He pressed, the key releasing so pure a sound he shivered with delight.
“You tease,” he murmured with a delighted smile, pressing another and then another.
It was like a dream, the music coaxed from the belly of the piano thrumming through his fingertips and traveling up his arms. He slowly eased into a few scales and then with the embarrassing hesitation of a bride groom he began to play. The music wrapping around him and drowning out the residue of dark thoughts and fear that seemed to hover about him of late. He knew the song by heart, could have played it in his sleep.
His eyes wandered over the windows as he played, over the paintings, never really landing on anything, lost to the music.
Oh, mio Captain, what else do you have hidden away?
He paused for a moment, eyes catching on one painting in particular. The painting was of a trader ship in port, and it was the hull of said ship that held his interest. Yes. Yes, that was a Stark ship alright. The black and bold design of it was unmistakably Hughard’s craftsmanship. She was being held in port, sailors in still motion on her deck and docks, her sails raised catching the wind but unable to move. The artist had depicted her moments away from disaster. Tony could practically hear the groaning of the wood, the panicked shouts and lap of water clawing at her stern. For all that it was a quiet painting there was an underscore of painful aggression. Of chaos barely contained.
He was wondering at it as the door was thrown back on its hinges with a bang. Tony was off the bench before he'd finished his thoughts, bumping his hip in his haste to put the piano between himself and his unseen attacker.
His attacker didn't move, in fact his attacker might as well have been made of marble. Tony blinked and coughed out a breath, trying to quiet his racing heartbeat as he and Captain Rogers stared at each other.
"Captain," Tony croaked into the silence.
He’d changed since Tony had seen him last. The man Tony had nearly run over had been just that, a man. Standing there a dangerous silhouette in the doorway he looked and felt something entirely other. The sun's low setting light played shadows across his face, obscuring half of it even as it light up his eyes like sun on ice. If it weren't for the rise and fall of his chest Tony would have thought him a statue. Every trace of warmth drained out of him.
Speaking of barely contained aggression, the Captain turned on his heel and held open the door, eyes boring into Tony with silent command. Tony resisted the urge to scuttle from the room like a cockroach and cocked his head ever so slightly. Despite the air of tightly coiled fury emanating from the captain it was broad daylight. He was not going to die. No, not here. And even if he was, he refused to die toe heeling to anyone least of all this man, this Nazi.
“Stark,” The captain’s voice was a low murmur, perfectly German and a clear sign to keep it moving.
Tony hesitated for the barest of moments, and then deciding that cowering was even more detestable to him than immediate obedience. Slowly Tony moved away from the piano and made his way with deliberate ease toward his waiting host. The Captain closed the door behind him with a click that seemed obscenely loud and Tony flinched. It was stupid stupid stupid, to antagonize the man this way. Dangerous. What had he been thinking?
Not thinking, as usual Stark.
In the photos he’d perused on the desk the young Captain Rogers hadn't quite managed the same emotionless gaze as the rest of his company, but he was doing a first rate job of it now. It must have come with age.
“In the future Herr Stark, I expect you to stay where you are told,” the captain warned and Tony tried his best to diffuse the tension.
“I apologize Captain. It’s a beautifully appointed room. Curiosity got the better of me. Could you blame me?”
The Captain’s blink came too slow. His answer however was blunt and sharp edged.
Alright, so manners were not something the military excelled in, fair enough.
“Well then you don’t know what you’ve got. Do your children play? There’s seven of them I assume one of them plays, you could have your own merry band of Rogers’ players. Do they sing too? All hours of the night I’m sure. It won’t be a problem, well not for me, monk and all. Up all hours anyway, midnight vespers is great preparation for overzealous opera singers,” Tony babbled and the Captain's face twitched, something unidentifiable fluttering over his blank mask. In the face of his silence it seemed that Tony’s brain to mouth filter remained as unreliable as it had ever been.
“In fact if they-
“No Herr Stark,” the Captain snapped and Tony fell silent. He seemed to regret something of the brusqueness in his tone because he took a breath before he added, a tad gentler “My children don’t play.”
Well that was….odd.
“Do you play?” Tony asked, but the captain didn’t seem to believe in moving or holding up conversation (ever) so Tony charged on. “I used to play. Mamma had high ideas about culture and all the arts. To this day I can still dance a tarantella with my eyes closed.”
Sweet Jesus, did the man never blink?
As Tony continued to vomit words he had the uncomfortable feeling the captain was taking him apart and inspecting his insides with his eyes. It left him feeling far too exposed. Tony had had enough of that for one day.
“So the Children, where are they? You’d think with near a dozen you’d-”
“I’m sorry,” the captain interjected. “You were sent by the monastery for me, for my household, correct? Are you always so talkative?” Tony frowned, almost too distracted by the implied insult to notice the slight way the captain had slurred his words. Tony watched as Rogers made a move as if to rub his hand over his face but aborted the motion at the last moment.
“Are you alright?” Tony asked.
Again the captain blinked far too slowly.
There was definitely something off about him. Drunk perhaps. He wouldn't be the first war hero to succumb to the drink. Tony’s fingers twitched at his sides noticing now that the captain was in the light of the entry that his skin had taken on a gray greenish tinge. He looked sickly and again Tony was drawn to compare the officer he’d met so briefly at the abbey and the man in front of him now. Yes, he was statuesque but it was stiff, controlled, with none of the grace he remembered from before.
“You’re staring, Herr Stark” the captain accused. Tony scrambled for an explanation that wouldn’t offend the man.
“You-. I’m afraid you don’t look very much like a captain,” Too winced, caught himself and tried to rephrase. “Not how I imagined that is.”
The captain twitched again, only this time Tony was certain it had more to do with him than drunkenness or illness.
"I’m afraid you don’t look very much like a monk, Herr Stark,” came his dry reply. Tony ground his teeth keeping his lips shut for once. Smile, nod, and say yes that was his mantra for the unforeseeable future.
“I hope not, I’m your tutor now.”
Although as it turned out, it was looking less like that was going to be the case because the captain pinned him with the hardest look Tony had ever been given. It made him very much doubt that Rogers was finding any satisfaction with Tony’s presence. A suspicion confirmed when next he said, “I told the Father Abbot I was in need of the most educated monk he was in possession of, nothing le-”
“And here I am,” Tony bristled.
“Yes, here you are.” Rogers clapped his hands behind his back and Tony wondered if the captain had meant to fall into parade rest. “My children don’t need supervision as much as they need a tutor. I trust the Abbot has brought you up to date with my children’s circumstance?”
Tony nodded and the Captain plowed on, as if reciting from a handbook.
“My oldest son has a heart condition and will be home this school year. I have a private doctor to see to him, so you needn’t concern yourself. I expect him to be, if not ahead of his peers, keeping up with the rest of the school children. There is no exception in this, Herr Stark. Do you understand? They are not to waste their summer away day dreaming. Frau Hogan will give you the paperwork for the new school year.”
The clock above the mantle chimed five. Something in the Captain moved, Tony might have called it a flinch in anyone else.
“They are to march the grounds every morning for a half hour, breathing deeply. Then quickly to their studies, sciences and maths until noon followed by supper, then German literature, Frau Hogan has a list of approved material, choose whatever you like. History, economy and the rest is to be carried out in the evening.” The long list of instructions finished, the captain slipped his hand into his pocket producing a silver whistle. He slipped it back and forth between his fingers, absently.
“I don’t expect you to watch them after dinner as long as their studies are complete. Do you think you can handle all this, Herr Stark?” He paused, waiting for Tony’s answer. When Tony nodded he took a breath and continued.
“You are the third of a... disappointing line of tutors. I don’t wish to displace you.” The unfinished ‘but I will’ hung in the air. The fingered whistle went to the captain's lips.
“When do they play?” Tony heard himself ask. So much for keeping his mouth shut. The Captain hesitated.
“When do they play?” Tony asked again and Captain Rogers blinked at him mulling it over like he’d never heard the words before.
“I told you, my children don’t play any instrum-”
“- No, when do they play in the garden, with each other, alone, when do they...you know, do childish things?”
Tony was pushing his luck, he knew it, but in all honesty the man was kidding himself. No constant supervision, hah. That was exactly what the Captain wanted. Tony couldn't wait to see what the curriculum guides looked like. With a father so unabashedly militant it was no doubt little better than Führer propaganda signed and stamped with tiny swastikas.
“When their studies are complete. As I said, they will not waste away their summer,” Rogers answered stiffly. Then he held the whistle to his lips and blew four sharp shot trills. Almost immediately footsteps could be heard pounding throughout the upstairs rooms.
Did he keep elephants upstairs?
The children came from nowhere and everywhere at once. Upstairs, down the hallway, any number of doors opened revealing a child. One by one they lined up in a row tallest to shortest like tiny soldiers. It struck a sour note with him. Children should not be soldiers. Tony had seen all the propaganda for the Hitlerjugend, and in recent months he’d had the pleasure of witnessing them marching through the streets (who hadn’t?). Boys and girls of all ages delighted to be disposable to the German army. Smiling faces and blonde heads gleaming in the sunlight. Idyllic and dangerous. What was the country coming too? He shifted away from them uneasily.
Tony jumped as a door to the music room slammed shut and a tiny girl ran out, scuttling into line with her siblings. Captain Rogers frowned at her as she took her place. Where had she come from? The music room had been empty while he was in there. Apparently not.
None of the children looked at him, instead they stared straight ahead, chests out, arms rim rod straight at their sides. The Captain slowly walked down the line of his children inspecting his recruits with a quick eye. They seemed to know on some ethereal plane what he wanted. A quick adjustment to the collar of a shirt and fixed fly away hairs were all communicated with a look. It might have been something to wonder at if it didn't give Tony the chills.
He stopped in front of the girl who’d arrived late and gazed down at her quietly. She stared back with eyes wide and neck craned up to look at her father. The captain held out his hand. She hesitated and then pulled out a small book from under her dress, placing it in his outstretched palm. Without waiting for another word she turned around and bent at the waist. Rogers swatted her lightly with her book and turned back to Tony.
“These, Herr Stark, are my children. This, children, is your new tutor, Antony Stark.” He gestured gingerly at Tony. Tony’s eyes tracked the movement. “The children have a signal to call for them, as do the servants.”
Tony watched in horrified wonder as the captain proceeded to demonstrate, blowing on his whistle in sharp (not to mention increasingly irritating) bursts as one by one the children marched forward to present themselves for introduction and marched perfectly back into line.
First was Péter, the oldest judging by height: a tall skinny brunette wearing spectacles. Then came Natacha: too pretty for her own good, too old in her eyes. Ian: stiff spine, serious mouth, eerily reminiscent of his father despite the lack of obvious resemblance. James: clearly trouble. Artur: could have been his father’s twin aged down, but fidgety and desperately curious about the stranger in their midst. Maria: sweet, shy, a dark haired beauty, too reminiscent of home.
The last one (thankfully) was a little girl all of three who toddled forward belatedly at her siblings prompting with a huge baby toothed grin and failed to introduce herself. According to the embarrassed looking Captain the blond little cherub's name was Sara.
When little Sara had done her best approximation of a march back into line the captain produced another whistle from his jacket pocket and held his own to his lips again. “Now. When I want you, Herr Stark, you’ll hear-”
“No! I-that won’t be necessary!” Tony had been prepared for a great deal of things but he would not, could not answer to a whistle like some sort of trained canine.
The captain lowered his hand and surveyed him quietly. Behind him the children rustled in silent anticipation.
“It’s the most efficient way, Herr Stark. The grounds are very extensive and I will not have everyone shouting for one another. Learn to use it.” He held out the whistle to Tony and when he didn’t immediately reach to take it Rogers nodded to his mini gestapo. “The children will help you".
“It’s fine. It won’t be necessary, thank you,” Tony insisted stiffly.
"It is necessary,” Rogers insisted in return.
“For dogs. And possibly cats” Tony refuted and they stared at one another, the Captain's fingers slowly twisting the whistle again. The way his fingers turned over the silver piece, it might as well have been a knife.
“Tell me, were you this much trouble at the abbey?” Rogers finally asked.
“I’m sure I was more,” Tony admitted. He shoved his hand into his pockets and tried to smile, it felt more like broken glass stretched over his face but in this house he doubted anyone would know the difference.
The whistle was still held out between them.
Tony took the warning for what it was and reached for the offensive little thing. He made a show of pocketing it. There was that unreadable flicker again in the captain's eyes and Tony wondered if he might not have blown his chances here before he’d even really begun. Rogers clicked his tongue dismissively and to Tony’s complete surprise he let the matter drop. Rogers did not strike him as the type to back down however so he did not count on it being a regular occurrence but he appeared content not to press the issue. Indeed the man turned and without any real acknowledgment to his children headed for the hall, murmuring as he departed for them to carry on.
The children relaxed a smidgen and Tony watched the captain’s retreating back. A flood of hate inexplicably welled in his chest. Whistles and commands. Barely coded insults. Who the hell did this man think he was? What did he think any of them were, that he would behave so coldly, so unfeelingly? Imagine, appearing drunk on the day he was to hand his children into the care of a stranger and having the nerve to look down on Tony!
The whistles shrill chirp stopped Captain Rogers in his tracks. He turned slowly, dangerously, and Tony gave him his most innocent expression.
“Excuse me, Sir, what do I call when I want you?”
Rogers was not fooled by either the innocence in his expression or guilelessness in his tone, Tony could tell and he felt a thrill of satisfaction go through him. It was a small victory but it was his and he was pleased the captain knew it. As the man unclenched his teeth just long enough to bite out the reply, “You may call me Captain” the corner of Tony Stark's mouth lifted in a little grin.