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The Sound Of Music

Chapter Text

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!”

“Jacob volunteered.”

“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 – ”

“Governess,”

“ – 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.

“You sad?”

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.

“Yes.”

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.

“Excuse me?”

 “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.

“Herr Stark.”

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.

 

Chapter Text

 

While Tony had never known the taste of victory to be anything but sweet he had learned quickly and early on that, however sweet it could sometimes be, it could be just as fleeting. Such was the case that evening, when the captain had departed with a stiffness in his step and left Tony with seven pairs of assessing eyes looking up at him from little faces.

The middle boy and the three youngest were giggling, clearly amused by the tete-a-tete he’d just had with their father. The oldest girl looked far less amused, blue eyes staring into him with bored disdain as if he were the child and she already weary of his antics. The other two boys looked as if they might have wanted to join their siblings in their amusement, but found themselves torn between loyalties. Especially when their red haired sister turned those judging eyes on them as if to say: really?

Tony could already tell that this was going to be a nightmare.

Seven children, by all the saints, Rogers was a virile beast wasn’t he? Though it was perhaps best not to dwell on that given the man’s political affiliations and corresponding doses of extra dislike for things considered amoral (that others might have been more forgiving of in better times). Tony could not count on a man like Rogers to look the other way if he suspected there was something deviant about Tony, sexual or otherwise.

Right then.

Tony cleared his throat and Rogers’ mini gestapo snapped to attention so fast it looked painful.

“Alright, now that it’s just you and I,” Tony began with a sympathetic wince. “Why don’t you… at ease?”

Far from getting them to relax like he had hoped the Rogers children - in perfect synchronization mind you - went into parade rest. He was apparently going to have to work very hard to see if there were indeed really any children living in the Rogers household, or if they had all been replaced by astoundingly impressive androids.

“Okay.” Tony, never one to give up easily clapped his hands together. “Let us start from the beginning. Names, ages, and something important about yourself that I should know.”

Tony had barely finished when the oldest boy (the sick one) was already clicking his heels and marching forward to reintroduce himself with his nose in the air and the straightest spine Tony had ever seen on something that wasn’t a book. He certainly didn’t look too ill to attend school.

“I’m Péter. I’m fourteen years old-” here he turned his head just long enough to frown grumpily at Tony and spit out, “-and I don’t need a tutor.”

 Though it certainly didn’t make his job easier Tony could see the boy’s point. Fourteen was too old to be taught at home and he was sure that Péter would have rather enjoyed being at a public school with other boys and girls his age than coddled and cooped up at home, heart condition or no.

“That’s great. I’m not keen on being a tutor anyway,” Tony replied, nodding to Péter as the boy fell back into line. “I prefer friends.” If he’d hoped for some sort of confirmation from Péter his sister didn’t give it a chance as she was already marching her way forward to begin her own introduction.

“Natacha Rogers. I’m twelve.” And just to prove she was an obstinate little thing she looked directly at him and drolly told him that the most important fact about herself was that she was a girl. Only a simpleton could look at a young woman like Natacha and see only a girl, but then again Tony was a man of extreme intelligence who had run across more than his fair share of dullards and he was sure she’d grown used to them.

“A fact I’m sure you’re proud of,” Tony drawled just before turning to the next in line.

Next was Ian.

“I’m eleven, and I’m sure to get what’s coming to me!”

Tony didn’t know what he found more alarming at first, the rapid succession in which the late Mrs. Rogers appeared to have bred them all (god rest her poor saintly soul) or the completely assured and serious manner in which Ian had just announced he was due a grim fate (as if nothing had ever been more certain). Tony decided on the latter.

“Who on earth told you that?” he asked and the child did not so much as bat an eyelash before he earnestly replied.

“Frauline Glass, two governesses ago.”

Ian marched himself back into line and the next one stepped forward proclaiming to be called Artur with an innocent expression and an air of friendliness that would have admittedly suckered Tony had he not the advantage of an eidetic memory.

“And how old are you James?” Tony asked, emphasizing the child’s real name and grinning at the boy’s disappointed scowl. Maria chose that moment to step forward, out of succession, and despite her brother’s dark glower in her direction the dark haired little girl smiled sweetly up at him and said, “I’m Maria and I’m five. That’s James and he’s eight. You’re smart and very pretty.”

As she stepped back into line the little boy on her left (the real Artur) hissed at her that it wasn’t proper to say such things and Maria indignantly hissed back, “And why not? Don’t you think he’s pretty?”

Tony hid a chuckle behind a cough as Artur, Rogers’ miniature, answered back with, “Boys aren’t pretty.” He then marched forward with purpose and announced that his name was Artur, he was seven and a holy terror (no doubt something learned at the apron strings of the previously mentioned Frauline Glass). Tony was still biting his lip trying not to laugh aloud when he felt a tug on his pant leg and looked down to find little Sara staring up at him indignantly with hands on her hips. He knelt so that he was not towering over her and greeted her with a warm smile. So sue him, he was a sucker for cherubs.

“And you are Sara,” he acknowledged and the little girl nodded, blond bangs flopping as she held up three chubby fingers. Tony widened his eyes as if shocked and gasped, “and you’re three! Practically a lady. I was expecting cribs full of babies, how lucky of me to have such a grown up young lady to talk to instead. I’ll admit I’ve never done this sort of thing before-”

“You mean you’ve never been a tutor?” Natacha zeroed in on the heart of the matter like a bird circling prey and Tony had to admire how penetrating her stare was. “And I suppose you’ve never been in a house like this before?”

The judgment as well as the shrewdness in the girls tone was clear. Judging by the poor state of his clothing and the fact that he’d come from the abbey it was easy to assume he was some sort of ill-bred country yokel, a fool easily led by someone clearly as clever as Natacha Rogers. Tony smiled at her as he straightened up and shook his head just to see what she would do.

“Well then, you should know Father will expect you to organize our meals and see to the washing of our clothes. He had Frauline Glass giving him wake up calls so I imagine if you’d like to be half as impressive you’ll have to do that as well.” The advice was so blandly given, flung his way so carelessly, as if the girl were already bored with it and moving on to better thoughts, that had Tony truly had no prior experience with great houses like these he would have believed her. As it was he knew damn well that a house this size had servants and a housekeeper whom he’d only annoy and disrupt if he attempted to take over such household duties as the cooking and the cleaning; and he had no idea whatsoever why the Captain would have required a wakeup call from the ever more interesting Frauline Glass (though he could hazard a guess or two) but he very much doubted he’d welcome the same coming from Tony.

“And you should always slurp your soup! Father loves that,” Artur helpfully (and far less artfully than his sister) chimed in, and on his back James tried to convince Tony that the Captain appreciated his employees telling him to mind his own business. Natacha rolled her eyes ceiling ward and Tony laughed.

“No!” Sara cried from the throng of increasingly helpful voices, tugging once again upon Tony’s pant leg. “Don’t listen to them Herr Stark!”

“And why is that?” Tony asked with a grin and Sara glared furiously at her siblings as she clutched to him.

“Because I like you!”

“Can I share a secret with you?” Tony leaned down and cupped a hand against his mouth to faux whisper. Sara nodded eagerly and he continued. “I grew up in a big house, just like this one. Bigger maybe.”

Natacha glanced at him sharply, pink coloring her cheeks as she and accused suspiciously, “I thought you were a monk.”

“And I thought a lady never lied,” Tony replied with a shrug as Sara slipped her hand in his. It was slightly sticky with heaven only knew what but he supposed that was fairly typical with small children.

“Neither do monks,” Natacha shot back at him and Tony shrugged again.

“Misconceptions all around. But, now that we’re all better acquainted how about showing me to my room?”

At that very moment, with a clack of heels against the polished floor, a tall woman with a businesslike air came bustling into the hall from the direction that Captain Rogers had disappeared in. Her hair was not as red as Natacha’s but she was far more freckled, the becoming spots dotting her pretty nose like pepper in a way that Tony was sure her beaus had adored. It was a shame that she was already married. A dalliance here or there might have made his stay here less stressful on his nerves.

She looked young to be a housekeeper but the heavy set of keys hanging at her waist and the professional manner in which she stepped were telling. There was a worried set to her lips and lines on her brow that spoke of some unspoken stress of her own but her tone was fond as she clapped her hands and addressed the children.

“I’ll see to that children, it’s outside until dinner.” She turned to Tony even as she began herding the reluctant children towards the door.

“My apologies Herr Stark, but the Captain returned from his travels later than expected and the house is behind schedule.”

At the mention of the Captain Natacha perked to attention. She lingered behind as the rest of her siblings filed obediently out the door at Frau Hogan’s insistence, catching the older woman’s eye when the last of them had disappeared.

“Is Father alright? Does he need me?” Tony heard her whisper and he watched as the housekeeper placed a hand on her back and the two seemed to share an entire conversation with furtive glances alone before Frau Hogan quietly murmured, “he’s attending some business in his study. He has his duties and we have ours. The best way to help him is to see to them, yes? Go on now.”

Tony wondered at that as Frau Hogan gently nudged the girl out the door and closed it behind her with a small sigh. Alone, she turned back to him with an apologetic smile. Neither it nor the prettiness of her face distracted Tony from noticing the assessing nature of her glance nor the intelligence behind her eyes. She was observing him closely and Tony did not have to be a genius to figure that if there were something ‘rotten in the state of Denmark’ then she as the keeper of its keys was probably privy to it. Perhaps a little flirtation was still in order? Tony was supposed to be a spy now after all.

“Again, I must apologize for not being here to greet you when you met the children,” She began as she walked back toward him. “How did you find them?”  Tony only deliberated for half a second on how to reply, but some instinct told him that Frau Hogan would see through any pandering and would appreciate frankness much more.

“A charming bunch of schemers and manipulators.”

It was a barely missed step but still a missed one as Frau Hogan huffed a startled laugh but she quickly regained her footing as she began to lead him toward the stairs, leaving him no option but to follow.

“Well, consider yourself lucky Herr Stark. They put a headless chicken in the bed of the previous governess.”

“How delightfully blood thirsty. Would this be the bed of the infamous Frauline Glass?”

Frau Hogan (and Tony was really going to have to call her something else besides her married name if he was going to flirt with her properly) wrinkled her nose at the mention of the woman (Pepper, he was going to call her Pepper for the freckles) but the corner of her mouth twitched in merriment. She hadn’t liked Frauline Glass either it seemed.

“One and the same. I see the children were talkative.”

“More than I can say of their father. Is the Captain always so… militant?” Tony hedged, half expecting to be told off for his impertinence, but he’d already gotten this far and he was unable to resist the urge to push further (one of his many personality flaws according to Father Niklas).

“He’s been that way since his wife passed I’m afraid,” Pepper answered with an air of quiet sadness that told Tony not only of her fondness for the Captain but also for his late wife. “Though you might not believe it, this used to be a house full of laughter, oh and music. The Captain’s wife loved to dance. They would throw such wonderful parties people used to say this house lit up Salzburg.”

“A love match then?” Tony inquired, though he could summarize as much what with seven children running about. Indeed Pepper gave him a droll look as she replied.

“Quite.”

“A shame.” Tony hummed sympathetically as he followed behind Pepper’s swishing skirts, pretending to focus on his perusal of their opulent surroundings and not his line of questioning. “She was so young.”

“Struck down by fever barely six months after she’d had Sara. We were devastated.”

“It is no wonder the man drinks,” he murmured and Tony could not tell whether she halted so quickly because they’d reach the door of the room that was apparently to be his or because of his assumption but she turned to him with an arched brow and an expression of polite inquiry that did nothing to belay the underlining command in her tone as she asked him who he meant. Since his foot was already in it Tony decided on the direct approach. Frau Hogan had responded to it well thus far

“The Captain. I don’t judge. I hardly could – ask anyone – I never was good at holding the commandments, especially that one about drunkenness. Though you mustn’t fret about that either, I wouldn’t attempt to drink and manage children at the same time. I simply mean that I understand how such a loss could drive a man to drink.”

“Herr Stark. Forgive me, but I should make it clear to you that if you witnessed any odd behavior from Captain Rogers this evening it was a result of weariness and not, as you say, drunkenness. The captain is trusted with matters of grave importance. He is not a man known to indulge.”

Tony admired the woman’s ability to deliver such a scathing set down behind neatly packaged politeness. He nodded in deference but did not apologize for the misstep. Pepper’s loyalty to her employer was admirable but something had clearly been wrong with Rogers. He’d either been drunk or sunk to the level of exhaustion only achieved when sleep and regular meals were a distant memory. Tony should know, he was well experienced with it. If it truly had just been weariness that ailed the captain Tony had to wonder what sort of matters Rogers was involved in that could leave him in such a state.

While it would have been easy to assume that Pepper was merely covering for him and that there was nothing deeper to it, Tony had never been one to make things easy on himself. He hadn’t thought he’d make a good spy but as the good Alice said, things were just getting curiouser and curriouser.

~*~

Stefen Rogers leaned against the door of his office for support. What a sense of humor Father Farkas was turning out to have. What a waste of his time and energies (energy he had too precious little of at present). Surely the Abbot had not meant to send that man in answer to his request, unless it was in jest. Herr Stark was not fit to watch a cat let alone a child!

Steve unclenched his fists, keeping them at his side, trying to work the blood through white fingers, considering.

Was there time to get someone else? He needed someone he could trust, someone who would take the nature of his situation seriously. Not some silly, prattling, not to mention stubborn, fool who was likely to insist the sky was green just to be contrary. Schmidt would laugh himself sick before the ink dried on the children’s registration papers.

Steve’s breath hitched and he gritted his teeth against the swell of pain in his chest. His leg throbbed underneath him and he eyed his desk chair consideringly.

He wasn't sure if his ribs could take sitting down but was nearly just as sure he couldn't stand much longer.

He thought back to the moment he’d first seen Stark. Something in him had snapped tight at the sight of the monk at Peggy’s piano. He hadn't had the energy to do much but order him out, though he’d spoken with more force than he’d intended, judging by that flicker of fear he’d seen on Stark's face before the strange monk had covered it with senseless prattle and a confident smile. 

Steve hadn’t meant to snap. That piano hadn't been touched in three years. Since before the family had fallen ill to scarlet fever. His wife had played it for the children often, to sooth them. She’d been the last person to touch it and Steve could never bring himself to play it after.

His last clear memory of her there was from before the days of fever. He could recall her perfectly: back straight, fingers gliding over the keys. It had been raining, Natacha and Péter had whined all day about being cooped up indoors. Even Ian had kicked up a strop, only to eventually wander off to curl under a blanket and listen to his mother play.

Steve had just returned from Berlin, tired, wet, with a sore throat and ready to eat a meal for an army. He'd shucked his coat and stood watching her from the doorway. All of the tension that he’d carried with him from the road had melted away. He could have watched her for hours.

When the butler had retrieved him from his study, muttering about about the arrival of the monk, he'd expected to find one of the senior monks he’d encountered at the abbey: white haired, kind, if not of blank, expression. He’d thought perhaps, it would even be the collected quiet man he'd met briefly during his meeting with Father Farkas. He'd not been prepared to find the hall empty and to hear music coiling through the hallway like the echo of better days.

He'd forgotten himself and the next thing he'd known he was in front of the drawing room door, hand curling around the knob, foolishly hoping and unable to understand his conflicted emotions. The shock of seeing a man at the piano had stopped his breath.

One thing was for certain. Herr Stark didn't look a thing like what he'd expected.

Steve shook his head to clear it. The monk had to go. He needed a proper tutor and Antony Stark was a laughable liability he couldn't afford.

“Hire a tutor,” Bucky had said, knocking back the last of his beer, “Government approved, but a man you will have some control over.”

Steve had thought he’d carefully laid out what he needed from Father Niklas. Someone level headed, obedient, loyal, disciplined, and consistent. In retrospect what he'd needed was a soldier in the form of a monk. Someone who would pass Reich protocol but remain loyal to him.

Stark was not that man. Stark and discipline appeared to not have heard of each other.

Steve shed his suit jacket, letting it drop to the floor in a puddle of cloth and resisted the urge to rub a hand over his face.

He was exhausted.

He pulled out his chair, with more force than he meant to, the back of it bumping his thigh and swore. All he wanted was to be horizontal. Was that asking for so much? Probably.

There were things to be taken care of first.

The letter was burning a hole in his pocket. The sooner he could pass it off to Bucky the better. He meant to hide it in one of the boxed gifts he was to bring with him to Vienna. He’d phoned the hotel Bucky was staying at that morning from outside a shop to set up the rendezvous. Even over the phone Bucky had sensed something was wrong but he had agreed to meet as soon as possible. It was a relief all things considered.

But first things first. Another tutor was in order. 

He rifled in his drawer, pulling out a pen and piece of parchment. Pen poised Steve searched for the right words to write to Father Farkas. Though he thought he’d been perfectly clear regarding his needs, apparently he’d been grievously misunderstood. 

He was nearly finished when the door clicked open. Steve didn’t bother to look up as there were few servants he employed that didn't bother to announce themselves.

“I’ve shown the tutor to his rooms, Captain. I must say, he’s not quite what I expected for a…man of God.”

Virginia Hogan stood in the doorway, an envelope folded under her arm. She smiled when Steve looked up at her and approached the desk, heels clicking on hardwood floor.

“He’s an unemployed monk now.” Steve muttered, jotting down a few more choice words. “What is it?”

Frau Hogan paused, her eyebrows raising as she took in his wadded jacket on the floor before sliding the envelope onto the desk, her brow furrowed. Steve lowered the pen. He could already feel he wasn't going to like what came next. 

“Frau Hogan.” Steve prompted, not quite managing to keep the warning out of his voice.

She tilted her head and Steve could tell she was reading the letter upside down and disproving.

He shifted the unfinished letter closer to himself and she huffed a breath, her mouth twitching into a thin line.

“If I may speak freely sir?”

As if he'd ever stopped her before. He nodded automatically and she continued.

“I’ve not seen anything that would make me feel Herr Stark should be out of a job, just yet. His manners are lacking, clearly, but I see no reason to dismiss him.”

She paused, her voice lowering. “Especially when his position needs to be filled as quickly as it does.”

Pressure was building behind Steve’s eyes. He rubbed at his face without thinking and winced at the sharp pain. He rubbed his fingers together, grimacing distastefully at the thick concealer that had come away on his hand.

Frau Hogan made an aborted movement towards him, the hand that was reaching for his face falling to her side and smoothing her dress instead.

He found himself wishing she’d finished the touch but he quickly pushed the thought away.

“He seems eccentric to be sure.” She continued “He seemed more than ready to teach the children the curriculum you selected for them, and even more important he did not question it. Besides, I think the children like him.”

Really? He hadn't noticed but he supposed it was possible. It would be a better turn than the last two tutors. Considering James and Natacha had put a dead chicken in a previous governess’ bed, it really wasn't that hard to imagine.

His doubt must have shown on his face because her lips quirked and she sighed.

“They tolerate him, Captain.”

“They’re biding their time.”

“It's been a half hour and there's been no animal carcass, I’ll count it as a win, Sir.

Steve glared at her. She lowered her gaze but stood her ground.

“In my humble opinion, Sir, it would benefit your goals if you were to wait a while more. Yes? Just to see how things work out.”

No. He needed someone who would listen. The children had to be kept-

“Sir?” The desperation in her voice stilled him.

“What are they going to do if you’re...indisposed as you were this morning? The quicker you have someone on your side.” she huffed a breath through her nose, her lips pursed. No doubt the memory of that morning turning over in her head.

She'd found him bent over the sink, blood smeared on the porcelain, shirt off and skin mottled with deep purple bruises. For what seemed like an age she’d stared at him, eyes wide with horror, then she’d seemed to come out of it in a split moment. She’d pursed her lips, turned on her heel and left him. Steve's stomach had dropped but she’d returned a moment later with a medical kit and had silently seen to him.

He'd felt a burst of gratitude and something that felt like guilt settle in his chest as she’d cared for him. She'd even pulled out her makeup compact and covered the bruises on his face. Those ones had been accidents.

They’d meant to keep his face clean. No strikes to the back of the head, nothing that could be fatal.

It was a warning, He'd have been dead if it was anything else.

Frau Hogan had been picking up his shirt, grimy and ruined with blood, when she’d discovered the folded letter poking out of the lining of his jacket. She’d pulled it out and looked to him questioningly. Steve had held out his hand, feeling a flicker of pride when it did not shake.

“Give it to me,” he’d quietly ordered and she’d looked at him, slowly understanding.

“Will they come here? Stefen, the men who did this-”

He’d taken the letter, folded it into his trouser pocket and looked her in the eyes.

“No. It was a warning.”

“But Stefen, why?”

“For this.” His fingers had drifted to his pocket. “They have no proof, but they wanted their message to take.”

It hadn’t. Despite possible broken ribs.

Something indecipherable had passed over her face but she’d nodded after a moment. The unspoken plea ‘don’t let them come here’ drifting between them. 

Steve clenched his jaw tight. She was right of course. Completely right. He wasn’t thinking. He was acting out of emotion, out of fear. Had been for months now. He couldn't seem to stop himself though. He'd not seen a bed in what was approaching fifty hours and his body and it would be a while before he recovered from General Schmidt's warning. Even his writing, when Steve looked down at it, was leaning more and more to the right, nearly off the page in a sloppy lope. He blew out a rush of air, suddenly so bone weary he felt he could have melted through the floor.

“I don’t know if I can risk that, Virginia,” he finally answered her worries.

Her eyes trailed over his face, admiring her skill with the makeup brush, to a piece of unanswered post resting innocently on the corner of the desk. She reached over and pushed it closer.

“I think we might have to.”

With a sense of dread Steve sniped open the envelope, dreading its contents. It was the same as before. Steve flicked through the letter his stomach dropping with each line.

       

                Dear Captain Rogers

We are pleased to hear of the recovery of your eldest son and anxiously await the return of your boys to the Deutsche Jungvolk this fall. As you know, we in Austria welcome the intention of the German Youth Movement and expect the youth of all Austria’s patriots to participate.  No one questions the loyalty of a soldier of your reputation and we are sure that as a father you are as dedicated as we to assure the proper education of the Reichlands young minds. My friend, I was greatly worried to hear of your eldest son’s sudden condition and the force with which the summer fever took your younger boys. So healthy and yet stuck down so suddenly and viciously. Is it not proof that we must be ever watchful against the unexpected? Those insidious minds and voices who would corrupt the young minds of our children like disease in an otherwise healthy host?

In writing to you, a shining example of Aryan supremacy, I need not remind that a great responsibility relies upon us, responsibility for the Reichland’s future. Hopes are set upon you, Captain. I am confident that trust is not mislaid. The country has greatly missed the influence of any singular Rogers for some time. We hope to see this rectified as soon as possible, providing all is well and fair in the household. The HJ and I eagerly await young Péter’s enrolment at the end of summer. Do not trouble yourself with the BDM, the maidens have been notified and have set aside a place for all three of your girls. I’m sure with a well penned note they could be convinced to let the eldest bypass all the way to second guard. An honor befitting your stature...

 

The letter continued on, each word more barbed then the last. It was signed 

General Willham S. Striker, Reichjugendfuhrer

Steve crumpled the letter in his fist. He was going to be sick. It must have shown on his face because before he knew it Virginia was pushing gently on his shoulder and guiding him into his chair.

He buried his face in his hands. Between Striker and Schmidt he did not know which way to turn these days. Risk to his life was something he'd come to expect, almost didn't quite know how to live without if he was honest, but recently the target had shifted. Now it was pointed at him through his children. 

There was nothing for it. Herr Stark would stay because there was no other option. If he were honest the option of tutoring them at home was barely on the table. The State would have to approve him and the State had never intended to leave his children out of the spotlight. Their absence said too much and could not be allowed to spark people’s minds toward rebellion. The children’s various ailments and their removal from the city had, at best, irritated General Striker, as the head of the youth movement had made quite clear time and time again, no doubt pressured by Schmidt. Steve had bent over backwards to keep the Hitler-Jugend away and yet somehow they had found their way back to his doorstep all the same howling for his children.

Try as he might to keep it at bay it was changing them all and not for the better.

Last year Steve had given in to the pressure and Artur as well as his brothers had officially joined the program. He’d thought that a few hours after school would not change much, at least not quickly, but Artur had always been so keen to keep up with the older boys. He’d come home singing their anthems. While Steve was sure the songs were something they were all being taught the older children must have either guessed at his distaste for it or at the very least had a stronger sense of self-preservation than little Artur.

He’d been in the garden, playing happily with Maria, whacking bushes with a stick turned rapier singing with the gusto of ten boys.

“We will continue to march, even if everything falls to pieces! For today Germany hears us. Tomorrow the world....”

Steve had been on his way to his study, still on edge from a meeting with General Schmidt. Try as he might he hadn’t been able to shake the uneasiness the meeting had left him with. Steve had looked up from his papers to see Artur sitting on his knees next to Maria in the garden brandishing that stick. He’d heard his son's voice, still sweet with youth, start to sing and thwack the bushes, his little arm swinging the stick in sharp arcs. The body of the bush shaking and spasming violently, and all the while Artur was singing. Singing and stabbing.

Sharpen the long knives on the pavement, slip them into the bodies of the Je-

And then Steve had hit him. He'd hit his son.

“Don't you ever say those words! Never again.”  He’d hissed, grabbing him by the shirt collar and the boy had looked up at him with the shine of terror in his eyes.

Artur cried for an hour and gone missing for three. It had taken all of Péter, Frau Hogan and Steve’s efforts to find him. Though it had been the first and the only time - Steve had promised the boy so fervently - Artur still behaved sometimes as if he expected Steve to scream at him for the smallest infraction. To be struck...

Everything had gotten away from him so quickly.

Steve swallowed thickly. The ever present urge to find one of his children and... He wasn't sure what he wanted to do, actually. Hold them? Stand by them? Margret had always been so much better with them, had a gentle way of showing Steve how to hold their little bodies or what story was best before bed. The feeling of failure where they were concerned had become a familiar ache.

He could see the way they balked at his presence. Even his oldest were uneasy around him. It tore at him, kept him up at night, the distance that gaped between them... but it was necessary. He had no time to make them understand. They were too young to understand the dangers of the world they found themselves in and as far as Steve was concerned the less they knew the better.

Though he'd not received any orders, the Führer’s greed, Steve had no other word for it, was turned toward Czechoslovakia. Austria could not sustain another war, everyone knew it. But it seemed he and his men were expected to march out and reclaim “ What was theirs” for the German people, not just the land lost to Germany from the Great War but Poland, Italy, even England and France, for purposes that would boggle the mind of any sane man. The Führer desired the world and soon enough he would begin the fight to take it.

“-to highlight that nothing has changed in Salzburg.” Virginia sighed, and Steve realized she’d still been reading Striker’s letter.

Steve blinked up at her dazedly.

He shouldn’t have sat down he decided. He wasn’t so sure he could get back up again.

“Captain?”

Steve's mind was pleasantly blank. He licked his lips.  When had his mouth gone so dry? He scrambled to remember what he was meant to be doing.

He wasn't wearing his watch, his eyes fell on the clock. It was nearing dinner. 

There was the matter of Samuel, it was his last day on the grounds. Steve was to escort him to Vienna that evening. He should be up packing his things. Sam had told him he wanted to finish out the day in the garden but had he finished? Did he need anything for the journey?

Steve tried to stand and bumped his thigh against his desk sending a jolt of white hot pain through his injured leg. He collapsed back into his chair with a stifled grunt.

“Captain!” Virginia darted forward to catch his arm.

“It's nothing,” Steve hissed between his teeth, squeezing an arm around his middle. Bending double just increased the pain but his breath was hitching in his lungs and when he looked up into Virginia’s worried face it swam before him. He closed his eyes trying and failing to grasp a decent breath.

“You ought to lay down Sir. You don't look well.”

Steve shook his head but Virginia was already gently guiding him to his couch in the corner of the office. 

Steve struggled to sit. Managing a weak slump once she had situated him.

“Why didn’t you request more codeine?” She tutted, her hand ghosting over the hidden bruise on the side of his face.

“Didn't need it” he grunted, at least he’d thought he hadn't needed it. He'd taken twice the amount recommended, only stopping when Virginia stumbled upon him.

Sometime between then and now he'd gone disturbingly numb. The room danced a little as he refocused his attention on Virginia. She was muttering to herself.

“You're such a stubborn baby, ask for help when you need it.” Her hand stilled under his jaw and she frowned at him.

“Listen, I'm going to get you more codeine. Do not move. Understand? When you wake up I'll reapply the powder to your bruises but until then...”

Steve was barely listening, the minute his head had stopped swimming he'd begun to drift off. He began to lose himself.

He startled when Virginia kneeled down by his head (when had she left?) And rolled his shirt sleeve up and began to attend to the abrasion etched across his forearm just like she'd done that very morning. She'd done it up the way Peggy had shown her, cross bandage and all. His stomach rolled with grief and he shifted away from Frau Hogan, hiding his face with his uninjured arm.

“You'll have to undo your shirt,” she said, her nimble fingers already undoing his waistcoat. Steve let her, keeping his face turned away.

Any shame he had about losing his shirt to wounds had long since fled but she was familiar in a way that very little was anymore. That held its own embarrassment, as well as danger. Somehow he felt more exposed with his shirt open than he had that morning practically naked in the washroom.

Twelve years and she'd barely changed from the thin young woman whom Peggy had dragged into the cafe telling Steve in no uncertain terms that she would have a housekeeper and that was final. She couldn't keep up with her duties in the state, the house and a new baby. They had the money and they were damn well going to use it, she’d expressed vigorously as she had poured coffee for everyone. Steve had given in when Frau Hogan, then Fraulein Potts, had returned home with them and cradled a colicky Péter, miraculously (to Steve’s mind) calming him.

Virginia stood and Steve caught her arm.

“Don't go.”

He drew a shaky breath and forced himself to say the rest, to rely on his own strength rather than burden her with his nightmares.

“Don't go back to the cottage tonight. Stay with the children. I don't want... I don't know about Herr Stark.”

Virginia loosened his grip, tutting at him as she patted his hand gently, her gaze heavy. Steve thought she might have guessed the truth.

“Of course. I'll wake you for dinner, Captain.”

Steve slept. At some point he rolled in his sleep, fitfully jerking back and forth, his body protesting vigorously as the smell of blood and sewer penetrated his dreams. The ugly faces of his attacker morphed and molded into other faces: soldiers, younger, more Italian. The bodies multiplied, so that Steve was pressed close to their stinking cold flesh. They groped at him, his face, and his chest. He couldn’t breathe and he was so damn cold.   

He was yanked from the dream at the sound of a thump. Eyes fixed on the ceiling, Steve struggled to calm his breathing as his eyes darted around the room.

The door was closed, no one was in the room Steve scolded himself. He covered his face with his hand, a small whimper escaping him.

No one was there.

He was in Salzburg in his own house, his office for god's sake. When had he become so feeble minded?

He drifted in and out after that, running from night terrors until finally, blessedly, he sank into unconsciousness. Just before his eyes closed the final time he caught sight of a figure sitting at his desk table watching him, the dim light shifting on red braids.

 

~*~

 

When Stefen woke again he was greeted with a head full of fog. He should have slept in his bed. His joints clicked and clenched from his injuries and his position on the couch.

He found the pills Frau Hogan had left on his desk and downed them. It took a moment but he managed to tame his sweat styled hair and gingerly switch his clothes for fresher less wrinkled ones. It was time he pull himself together, take care of the situation before it endangered his family any more than it already had. He would go to Vienna right away.

The staff were digging into their meal when Steve walked into the kitchens. Their conversation immediately stopped and Herr Hammer jumped to attention, clearing his throat loudly.

“Is there something you needed Sir? I didn't hear you ring.” He glared at the night staff, Frau Hogan, her husband, Willamina the cook and his grounds keeper Samuel Wiess, gathered around the table as if it was personally their fault.

“I didn't ring.” He said dismissing Herr Hammer with a wave of his hand. “I was looking for Herr Wiess.” 

Hammer’s face barely changed but Steve could still sense the quiet irritation coming from his butler. Herr Hammer turned and jerked his head at Sam.

Sam, rising, shared a look with Frau Hogan.

“Yes, Captain?”

“Get your things, we’re leaving as soon as I finish with my bags”  Steve instructed, though in truth all he wanted was find his way to his bed.

“Sir, you've not heard? Can't take the main roads till tomorrow morning. Roads all torn up from the parades this week.”

That...made no sense. The parades had been pageantry at best. Only one tank had crossed the streets and that had been in town. There were plenty of other routes, less convenient but still available.

Sam smiled at him.

“No, I'd not heard that.” Steve peered at the rest of his staff. “Had you?” he turned the question on to his chauffeur.

Harold Hogan twitched a smile at him.

“That’s what they’re saying, Captain. I could drive you two tonight but it would be hard going. I wouldn't do it on your own.” He nodded at his wife.

“Ginn says you weren't feeling well.”

“I'm fine.” He couldn't make out if Virginia, because this was all clearly by her hand, wanted them to stay the night out of concern or something else. Either way the three of them had made up their minds it seemed. Just when you thought you were the master of your own house.

“Where is Herr Stark?” Steve asked, suddenly aware of the tutor’s absence.

“With the children,” Virginia chimed. “In the dining room”

Damn it, dinner, of course. He’d told the monk he wouldn't need to watch them at diner and yet he seemed to have forgotten all about it. How long must the children have been waiting?

He rubbed at his face again.  Hadn’t Virginia promised to wake him? Why had she let him sleep so long?!

“Thank you, Frau Hogan. I'll...I think I'll join them. Herr Wiess.”

Sam perked up. “Yes, sir?”

Steve tilted his head towards the door.  “A word, please.”

Sam followed him out, closing the door behind him. Steve pressed his lips together, heading for the dining room, firmly trying to stomp his irritation.

“We should leave. Now. As soon as possible.” He said, slowing his pace when Sam jogged to keep up.

“There’s no reason to leave tonight-”

“There’s every reason.” Steve bit out. More reason than Sam could possibly know. “We’ve no idea when they’ll close the borders.”

“Likely not tomorrow, and you're in no condition to drive me anywhere at night.”

Sam hesitated, aware that he'd overstepped an invisible line. It was a line neither of them normally bothered to toe but normal wasn't the usual so much anymore.   

“You've been away for a while,” Sam began again, gentler. “I just thought you'd like to spend more time with the children.”

Emotional blackmail. And a weak attempt at that. Sam was usually in better form. But maybe he’d thought too soon because a moment later Sam was making him feel about two inches tall with an innocent expression on his face.

“Maria had a surprise for you. She helped me tend the bed of enzian I planted a few years ago. I'm just afraid they won't keep until your return. We never know how long you’ll be gone.”

Sam knew damn well what those flowers meant. Sam had put in the little blue flowers the same year that Sara had been born and that Peggy had died. She’d insisted on them, had sat amongst them for precious moments of quiet before the fever had taken her strength.

Steve had not even thought about them, not bothering to frequent the garden much over the past few years. Had Maria remembered or had Sam planted the idea in her head? It was anyone's guess.

Steve looked away. He didn't like leaving the letter around where anyone could find it but he did not wish to be unfair to the children either. He had only just returned after all.

“It'll be fine, Sir. I’m just a poor man, not a wanted one.” Sam laid a hand on his shoulder briefly, too aware of the houses numerous eyes. He was right. He wasn’t a wanted man. No not yet.

Steve sighed heavily trying to abate the sense of dread that was a consent in his gut. He suspected it wouldn't ease until he saw Sam on the train. The only other option was for Herr Hogan to take him.

Which meant there weren't options.

He would not put Harold's life in such danger as that. The sooner he got the incriminating letter out of the house the better. He could practically feel the stolen letter burning a hole in the ceiling floorboards.

“Alright, go on then. Eat, drink yourself into oblivion” Steve stopped him with a hand on his shoulder “but first thing in the morning, be ready.”

Sam grinned at him.

“Of course! It'll give me a chance to say goodbye to the dwarves. Willamina baked a few berliners for me to take with, I thought I might give them some, bribe them into writing me.”

That got Steve’s attention.

Clearly Frau Reiner had not taken no for an answer. He'd agreed to the missions and correspondence but he'd drawn the line when Frau Reiner had suggested coded messages through his children. He'd shot the notion down immediately. His children were not to be used for the resistance effort. Ever.

Even if it was only their names signed on coded letters to their favorite gardener. There may come a time when their names would be all they had left.

Steve stepped forward, “Whatever you've discussed with Reiner about my children, I am their father and I've s-

Sam's eyes widening a fraction and he held up his hands in defense.

“No! That's not it, she hasn't- not yet, Stefen. She’d go directly to you first.”

She would, after she'd decided to do it. Somehow the thought held little comfort. 

Sam reached out again and patted Steve's shoulder as he moved to go back to his dinner.

“You really need to get some rest,” he advised and then with a cheeky grin he added, “You look like you've been hit by a truck.”

Steve chuckled softly “Almost. It missed.”

“You sure about that?” Sam called over his shoulder.

He watched Sam's retreating back.  After tomorrow he wasn't sure he'd ever see the man again. He hoped...well he hoped a lot of things and there was only so much of it to go around.

 

~*~~*~

 

Seven pairs of eyes stared at him as he took his seat at the head of the table. Seven because Herr Stark was very busily ignoring him.

That was just fine with Steve. He nodded a greeting at the children and sat. It had been at least a two weeks since he had last ate with them. It wasn't purposeful, when he was away he was away and when he was home he was in and out at all manners of the hour.

He unfolded his napkin and looked out at the children. He was startled to still find eyes on him. It had been so long since he'd seen another face at the opposite end of the table.

Even eating with the children had grown into an exercise, a drill of sorts. After Peggy had died Steve had forced himself to eat. He'd mechanically lifted fork to mouth, rarely ever tasting the food and somehow it had become a regular thing. He was so very aware he was alone when he sat down. He'd look over the expanse of table and at the other end would be a void, a space left and never filled. Steve had always been keen on seeing yourself for who you were if you could help it but the empty spaces left by his wife proved overwhelming at times.

“How was your nap?”

Steve glanced up, an apology on his lips before he realized to whom he was speaking to.

Antony Stark gazed back at him. His tutor, or rightly, his children's tutor, his employee and decidedly NOT Peggy waited for his answer.

He clenched his jaw, suddenly irritated with himself and unfolded his napkin, snapping it with more force than was strictly necessary.

“The children know to eat.”

Herr Stark glanced at the two closest to him, Natacha and Péter, and hummed.

“I'm sure they do.”

Steve paused, his spoon halfway to his mouth. The smell of cucumber wafting steam onto his face.

“Why don't you eat, Herr Stark? I'm sure you'll find it filling,” he snapped before he could stop himself.

The silverware clicked loudly as Herr Stark adjusted his food meticulously. As if he weren't going to mess it all up again by eating. When he dragged his fork over the surface of his plate, the china squealing in protest, Steve lost his carefully constructed patience.

“Maria.” Her head snapped up and she blinked at him, halfway through a piece of soggy bread, startled.

He cleared his throat, a little startled by the force of his aggression and took a breath, trying to settle his frayed nerves before starting again.

“Samuel said you had gathered something from the garden?”

She nodded hesitantly, “Two days ago.” She murmured “but you weren't home like you said you’d be.”

“I’m home now, you could show me after dinner if you like.”

Steve watched her hesitate before she nodded again, shoving another piece of soggy bread into her mouth.

When had she learned to dip her bread? It was a habit Steve himself had had to break long before she was born. Good table manners helped make the difference from one class to the next and, in his opinion, was one of the only differences.

He caught the monk’s eye as he looked up from Maria. The man was watching them curiously, dipping his own bread into his soup.

She was imitating him. Already? Whether it was out of admiration or simple curiosity Steve wasn't sure but for some reason the thought didn’t sit well with him. It only served to drive home how easily impressionable children really were.

He took another sip of his soup, not really tasting it.

Maria was losing control of her roll. It slipped, falling apart in her fingers and smearing her face as she tried to munch at it.

Steve caught her wrist without thinking and she jerked, her whole body tensing. It wasn't so much a flinch as it was caution, but cation for what? She tensed as if she expected...reprimand? Aggression? Violence?

The rest of the children were watching them, exchanging small looks of worry.

Was she afraid of him? 

His mind suddenly pulled an image of two children in the garden, playing with sticks. 

He felt sick.

 “Captain?” Steve blinked and released Maria’s wrist instead of helping her like he'd intended, his hand falling with a thud onto the table unsure of what to do. He felt suddenly like a brute, too large for the table. Shame pooled in his gut and flooded his face.

“Forgive me, Captain” Herr Stark said into the strained silence, “you never answered.”

What?

Steve met his eyes, distracted.

“Excuse me?”

“How was your rest?” Herr Stark repeated, drawing the words out as if he were speaking to a child. Herr Stark trailed off watching Steve with something curious in his eyes. Something like a challenge.

Steve was sure he was going to break something in his jaw. He would not be made to look a fool at his own table. Blue eyes met brown and Steve took a long sip of his drink. He refused to be a child about this.

“It was adequate,” he lied.

Stark raised his glass at him, that curious look intensifying.

They ate in tense silence. Péter coughing every so often and looking up to catch Steve’s eye. Steve ignored him, any trace of his mild mood slipping away with each minute.

“I remember this little boy in Pola, that's where I grew up, who died of a spider bite.” Herr Stark suddenly said into the silence and Steve paused.

What was this?

“Emile Costa, I think his names was, school playmate for years, fell down dead at the start of fall term.”

Natacha stilled, eyes going wide as she glanced worriedly at Péter who shifted uncomfortably.

“It was a quick death but brutal: swollen throat, bug eyes, red patches, the whole picture.”

Steve watched as the monk broke off a piece of bread and dipped it in his soup. Tiny flecks pooled on his plate slowly edging toward the table cloth. 

Steve eyed the droplets, waiting for them to spill. His stomach cramped at the vivid memory of swollen bodies.

“The kid just dropped right in front of me. Convulsing, rigid with the shakes, he was so swollen you could have burst him like a tick-”

“Herr Stark, is it your goal to put us all off our food?! I don't think I've ever quite been subjected to this particular type of indigestion.”

The monk smiled at him and Steve resisted the urge to bare his teeth.  Artur glanced at Steve uncertainly before asking in a quiet voice, “Did he die?”

“Yep, it was a painfully terrible death. Spider bites are not to be trifled with,” Herr Stark warned cheerily as he punctuated his point with his spoon. Artur's lower lip began to tremble and he looked back and forth between Steve and the monk, his eyes wide.

“Could you have died?”

“Artur, eat your food.” Steve commanded softly. “And don't encourage him,” he added under his breath bitterly. Rather than listen Artur sank further into his seat glancing back and forth between his siblings, one hand straying to his mouth with anxiousness.

“No," the monk prattled on. "I spent years building up an intolerance to venom, monk training is very vigorous and all, I'll be fine. I'm just worried that they might have spread about the house.”

Maria gasped and Natacha glowered and leaned over to whisper in James’ ear. What the devil was going on at his table?

“Herr Stark.” The monk looked up, his gaze slow this time, feigned innocence replaced by something more frigid. Steve had known his share of bullies and he'd be damned if he'd be backed into a corner by a mad monk and his looks. “I think we've had quite enough stories to curdle our stomachs for one night.”

How dinner had become a firing zone he wasn't sure, but let that be the end of it. He resumed eating. The quicker he finished the better, he wasn't sure how much more of Herr Stark's prattle he could-

“-There’s a brother back at the abbey, brother Filip.-”

My god what did it take to shut the man up! Was it attention the monk wanted? This game was all on purpose, that was clear but what end the man had in mind Steve couldn't begin to fathom. Hadn't he given the man a job? It was not an easy thing to come by nowadays.

He was beginning to see why the Father Abbot had so readily rid himself of the man.

“Every time I'd make a mistake he'd be there with a bucket and brush and the longest hallways always left filthy just for me. I spent most of my twenties on my knees.”

Steve glared at him. His headache pulsing threateningly and sucked in a breath. Perhaps this was some attempt to guilt him into apologizing for being late to dinner of all things-

“I must have scrubbed every hallway in the monastery by my eighth week there.”

“I'm surprised it took so long,” Steve grumbled. He looked up just in time to catch Maria’s worried glance and he tried to gentle his expression.

“I felt like such an outsider, so alone while this man I barely knew droned on about forgiveness and piety.” The monk continued as if Steve hadn't spoken. “It was several years before I understood what he meant by it.”

“Is there a point, Herr Stark, or is this just carefully designed small talk to put us to sleep?”

One of Stark’s eyebrow curved over his highly unamused expression. Next to him Maria ducked her head, her face going red. All of the children were silent.

“No, mein Captain,” the man’s lips turned up in a stale smile. Steve bristled, “It only occurred to me that, there was a reason for brother Filip’s pence. I learned that forgiveness is a luxury, sometimes hard earned. Brother Filip would always give it to me if I worked for it.”

This was, surprisingly, directed at the children.

Natacha froze, her gaze suddenly fixed on Stark. Péter too, had lifted his eyes from their steady fixation on his food.

They’d done something, Stefen realized. His children were doing their best impressions of rocks, all while turning various shades of pink.

So, the game had not been about him at all.

Steve bit into his bread, staunchly ignoring the man. His stomach turning, whether from his injuries or from what felt strangely like guilt.

“Is there something you’d like to share, Herr Stark?”

Next to the man Steve’s two eldest stiffened, shooting each other nervous glances.

The monk took a sip of his soup in a strangely dainty manner for someone of his energy and answered, “Oh, no Captain, it’s meant to be a secret between the children and I.”

Each one of them seemed to deflate, tension ebbing out of them. Natacha blinked at her tutor, eyes wide in surprise and Steve hummed, irritated. All the fancy pony tricks and the man refused to come right out and say it? Fine then, the children would not be punished and he’d just have to suffer whatever else they came up with to torment him. Spiders indeed!

 “Yes, then why don't you keep it a secret and let us eat.”

He couldn't discern the look the monk gave him in response to that. To others it might have been a mild stare but there was something just behind it, swimming in the depths. Steve just couldn't decide if it was a dangerous or not.

Just when he thought he’d managed the impossible and shut the man up, Stark took a breath and turned to Péter.  

“What about you? You like arachnids. You remind me of one of the brothers, I think you’d like him, brother Banner-”

“I like ara candids!” Artur broke in excitedly only casting his father a wary glance out of the corner of his eye. Steve swallowed more soup.

Péter frowned at his littlest brother.

 “You don't even know what that is! You can’t even say it right.”

Artur scrunched up his face and leaned into the table to better capture Herr Stark’s attention.

“I do! They're bugs with…” He trailed off, his face going red with frustration. Next to him James sniggered. Artur whined round standing up to holler across the table at his brother, “I know what they are, James!”

“Sit. Down.” Steve bit out. The last of his patience snapping.

Artur’s face turned redder but he slowly slid back into his chair, jaw clenched, as frustrated tears welled in his eyes.

Steve looked down at his soup trying to judge how much more of it he would have to swallow to appease his overbearing head of house before he could call the meal to end. He stirred it, watching the cream smother the tiny bites of cucumber and slowly loaded his spoon trying to ignore the way his stomach rolled in protest as he swallowed.  

For the first time Steve was thankful as the monk continued to chat away to the children and left Steve to his thoughts.

He was lost to them when his butler's voice brought him back to the moment.

Steve blinked at the telegram held under his nose, taken aback by its sudden appearance.

“A telegram for you, sir.”

This late?

Steve wiped his mouth with his napkin and took it the ever present unease in his gut rising to the forefront.

 

1124 East June 3 38

Captain Stefen Rogers

Shame on you, you imbecile. Stay home. I'll see you in the morning.

Wiener Staatsoper grand hotel.

James B Bakhuizen

 

Steve couldn’t help his slow grin, Bucky’s thinly veiled warning aside.

So Virginia had gone behind his back and contacted Bucky before Steve could get around to it. From the looks of the postdate it had to have been a few hours after he’d returned home. He couldn't decide if he was annoyed or impressed. Judging by his insults and thinly veiled orders she must have told him about the assault, something Steve had decidedly left out of their phone call.

“Ah, Hammer, who delivered the telegram?” Péter asked, more words than Steve had heard him say since diner had started.

Hammer paused at the door. “The young Osborne, sir.”

Péter’s eyes darted to the window and he sat up straighter.

“If there’s anything else you might need, Sir-”Hammer began.

“Father, may I be excused?” Péter interrupted.Steve eyed him, for the rudeness, but in truth he couldn’t blame the boy for making his escape. He only wished he could do the same.

“Yes, that’ll be all.”  Steve waved Hammer away distractedly, finishing the telegram and stopping Péter, who had half sprang out of his seat, with a look. “Just a moment Péter.”

“What's it say, father?’ Natacha was peering at him, sitting up in her chair in hopes of reading the letter upside down, or he assumed that's what she was doing, he wasn’t sure. Girls that age had all sorts of strange practices.

“Is it from uncle Bucky? James asked, the other six lighting up at the mention of their favorite and only uncle.

“I’m leaving for Vienna in the morning-” Steve was not prepared for the uproar from his children.

“No, Father, really!” James whined.

“You just got back!” Chimed Ian, louder than he’d been all evening.

Maria leaned forward in her chair and tugged at his sleeve.

“I don’t want you to leave, Father.” She whispered.

Steve gently pulled his arm free, silencing them all with a stern look.  He didn’t wish to leave them, but necessity demanded it and it wasn’t going to be any easier if everyone carried on like the world was ending.

“How long will you be gone this time?” Ian asked quietly, his voice carrying a hint of resignation.

“It won't be that long.” Steve leaned forward but directed his answer to Artur who was pouting into his plate. “A week at most.”

Natacha eyed him from across the table suspiciously. “Are you going to visit baroness Schrader again?”

She yelped and then glared at James mouthing ‘don’t kick me unless you want to be kicked back!’

“Why don’t we ever get to meet her?” James grumbled.

“Why would she want to meet you?” Péter snapped, his gaze falling distractedly on the window again.

He stilled however when he felt Steve's glare, his shoulders hunching. Péter had begun as of late to test Steve, speaking out of turn in ways he’d never been allowed, and sinking into moodiness at the drop of a hat. Even his younger brothers had noticed. Once, one stern look from either of his parents had been enough to make the child behave but now he refused to turn around without a verbal command from Steve.

“Péter.”

His son looked at him, his expression black, his gaze holding Steve's for the first time that evening.

“Sorry, father.”

Péter could have just said a healthy 'fuck you' and saved them all time. But as he was Peggy's son as well as Steve's he wisely kept his mouth shut and his gaze blank.

“Do you want to be excused?” It wasn't a question. Steve didn't tolerate bullying among his children and Péter knew that. A hard bit of morality to install when the outside world had decided to sanction it.

Péter clenched his jaw and he might have been the picture of defiance if it weren't for the way his eyes darted back to the window and he squirmed in his seat. 

 “Yes, Sir?” An odd answer, but perhaps some time alone with his thoughts would be in Péter’s best interest.

Steve jerked his head towards the door and instantly regretted it when pain flared and his vision swam. He steadied himself and then turned to back to Natacha, ignoring his oldest as Péter slunk from the room.

“As a matter of fact, Natacha. I’m not meeting the baroness. I’m taking Wiess to the Vienna station in the morning. I'll be back by-” 

A wrong inhale of breath reminded him it might be more than a week. If Schmidt felt his message hadn't gotten across Steve might very well be gone for much longer as it would take longer to be rid of the letter safely. But no, the General’s reach had not yet extended as far as snatching people off the streets.

“And you're bringing uncle Bucky back and not the baroness?” Natacha questioned with that same air of suspicion.

Yes, why wouldn't he?

He rested a hand over his bruised ribs, the reality of his situation sitting like a rock on his chest. He drew in a careful breath steady in the knowledge of his mission. They would just have to accept it.

“I'm off to Vienna in the morning and that's the way it is.” As he said it he caught Stark’s gaze from across the table.

The man was frowning at him.

“That's that,” the monk echoed, his tone just shy of mocking.

Steve stood and left the room, dislodging himself from the company of what was possibly the most irritating man in all of Austria.

Ironically the same man he was entrusting his whole world too.

So yes, he supposed it was. That was that.

 

~*~

Péter felt his new tutor’s eyes on his back as he got up and quickly departed from the table. Herr Stark’s watchful gaze reminded him a bit of Frauline Glass, whose furtive eyes had seemed never to miss a moment, unless of course they were too busy simpering at Péter’s father to notice much of anything. Women could be awefully silly when it came to that sort of thing. It was one of the reasons why Natacha always said that if it weren’t for Frau Hogan she’d be terrified of growing up.

Péter made it out of the dining room and out through the kitchen door without much notice – minus a wink from Sam the gardener as he scurried past him and the chatting cook- and breathed a sigh of relief once he’d slipped out into the muggy night air. Though wind from the lake brought cooler temperatures, and the onset of burgeoning clouds, the summer night was warm as Péter hurried through the gardens toward the spot by the lake where he knew Harry would be waiting.

Henry Reynold Osborne (Harry to his friends) had been Péter’s playmate since they were small boys. Their mothers had been good friends, but their fathers less so. Harry’s father Norman was an important business man from old money who had married into even older piles of it. Norman Osborne was the sort who looked down on people born into the wrong class. Péter had once overheard Harry’s father remarking to a fellow party guest that it was a shame for high born ladies to serve as nurses, because then just about any low born soldier could get ideas. He’d known Harry’s father was talking about his parents and the fact that Péter’s father had been born on a farm to nobody of account. It had made him angry and Péter had shouted at him and kicked him in front of everybody. Mother had been embarrassed and had sent him away without supper when he refused to apologize, but later when he’d told them what Harry’s father had said she’d told him that people like Norman Osborne were fools who didn’t know any better, but that he still had to mind his elders.

Father had surprised everyone with ice cream the following night, but the Osbornes hadn’t come to many parties after that. When mother had died father never seemed to get around to arranging any visits for the boys either. Not that Péter minded terribly. He didn’t like going over to the Osbornes alone (Harry’s mother sighed at him like he was an orphan and his father avoided him like he smelled bad) but he had missed Harry, and had hoped for the chance to see him once school started up again… only that had never happened either.

Harry was waiting just under their favorite climbing tree, just as he always did when he delivered a telegram to the house although this was the first time Péter had seen him in the uniform of Hitler’s Youth. His slicked hair and the crisp brown shirt of the Hitler-Jugend almost made him look like a stranger but the lazy smirk and the indolent wave he tossed Péter’s way when he turned and noticed him was all Harry. Péter’s face broke into a grin as he ran to meet his friend. Harry’s grin was equally big as they hugged, wrestling for a moment as they tried to mess up the others hair.

“That took you ages! What happened?” Harry gripped, finally letting him go and Péter shrugged. Harry glanced over him with something like worry, gripping his shoulders as he asked after his heart. Irritated, Péter shrugged him off.

“My father is home,” he reminded him and Harry nodded glancing back at the house, moonlight reflecting off the lake bathing his pale cheeks.

“Ah, I see. He’s not still mad about that comment my father made is he?” Harry asked, like he knew the answer already but wanted Péter to know how ludicrous he thought it was. Péter gritted his teeth and Harry smirked, reaching in his pocket for a lighter and a beaten packet of smokes. “Your father is a stubborn man, Péter.”

“Your father insulted him in his own home!” Péter insisted, though his eyes remained on the small white box in Harry’s hand. He was not the only boy their age to take up the habit but Péter’s father would have his head if he were to even think it.

“Things are changing Péter,” Harry warned with a dire tone as he lit the cigarette between his teeth. “This is not the time for the captain to hang on to petty grudges.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’d know, if the captain would allow you to return to school. A tutor is all well and good for a child, but for a young man it’s practically shameful.”

“The doctor said that public education would be too stressful on my heart,” Péter mumbled in reply.

“That’s shit Péter,” Harry cursed, releasing a long stream of acrid smoke with a glare. Péter was discomforted by the smell, the way the buttons on Harry’s shirt gleamed in the moonlight, the heat of aggression in his eyes that made him look far older than his fifteen years. “We’ve played together since we could walk. How many times have you fallen from this very tree?” Harry nodded aggressively at the branches hanging above them and Péter flinched.

“I have a condition Harry! You don’t think I’d like to go to school, to join you and the other boys?” Péter swallowed thickly. It wasn’t that he was jealous of Harry, even though every time they met Harry looked older and wiser and brought more stories. It seemed to Péter that Harry had grown up and he hadn’t. Perhaps it was just that. Harry had left childhood behind for something he felt was worthwhile and he had left Péter behind. It was not a feeling he enjoyed and he did not know why his father insisted on it being that way.

“Listen,” Harry began again, gentler this time. “I came to tell you that I’ve been selected for the school in Vienna.”

Péter’s heart thudded in alarm.

“Hitler’s school?” he asked and Harry nodded.  “But I thought they were only for Germans?”

“We are Germans now Péter.”

“My father disagrees.”

“The Captain should be careful who he disagrees with.” Harry warned as thunder rumbled distantly. “Austria was just the beginning, Pete. The Führer has promised to unite all German peoples and he won’t be stopped. They are going to train us. They’ve promised the best of us positions in the SS.”

Péter could not describe what it was he felt in that moment. Apprehension, because no matter what his father seemed to think he was not a child and he understood more about war than the captain probably wanted him to. How could he not with such a committed soldier for a father? His father did not like Hitler or the Nazis and he had trouble hiding that fact, though he never deigned to share his reasoning with his children. Stefen Rogers rarely deigned to share a meal with them let alone his politics.

“My father says the Führer is naive to think so many countries will just hand over their land. He says there will be war,” Péter warned but Harry only scoffed.

“Then there will be war. I’m not afraid of it. Are you? Péter you’ve always had more courage than anyone else I know. We’re not boys anymore. Are you really going to let your father make a coward out of you?”

Shame, hot and stinging, twisted in Péter’s belly as Harry’s words taunted him. He was sick. His father said it. The doctor said it, but Péter had never felt ill, or at least any iller than he ought to after that bout of summer fever the year before. He could still run as fast as any of his siblings, still lift more than Natacha and she was stubborn as a mule and refused to give up a contest until absolutely forced to.

He was sick but did not feel it and no amount of arguing with his father ever changed his mind about sending him to one of Hilter’s schools. Privately Péter thought that was because his father didn’t want to know the doctor was wrong. He wanted Péter to be labeled an invalid so that he wouldn’t have to fight, even if he himself was going to have to. Because his father didn’t believe Péter could be as brave or as strong as he was.

To Péter’s horror he felt the prick of tears and he ducked his head to hide the sight of them. But Harry must have seen because he sighed and pulled Péter in tight to his chest and clucked his tongue at him.

“Ah Péter it’s alright. Your dad he’s just… he’s just trying to protect you. He sees these skinny arms and thinks ‘my baby, a soldier?’ No way!” Harry shook one of the skinny arms in question and Péter reluctantly smiled, a chuckle bubbling out of him. “But we are men now, and the Reichland needs us. We are her sons and if we won’t fight for her honor, who will?”

Péter didn’t know. Thankfully he was saved from having to respond by a sudden clap of thunder, much closer this time, and the sudden down pour that followed. Harry cursed, but grabbed Péter’s hand with a grin, and together both boys ran for the shelter of the gazebo.

~*~*~

I met Captain Rogers and the children today, as scheduled, though I was surprised at Captain Roger’s condition. To my eye he appeared sickly and out of sorts. I suspect he was inebriated though he did not previously strike me as a man of excess.

Tony paused in his letter to the Abbott as another bout of thunder rattled the windows on either side of the bed. He eyed the storm shutters, wondering if he shouldn’t lock them if the storm was going to get much worse. Another clap of thunder followed by a sudden gust of wind that sent the shutters banging against the side of the house decided him.

He shoved the curtains aside and slid open the windows leaning out into the downpour just enough grasp the swinging shutters and pulled them closed. He did the same to the second window on the other side of the room, noting the poor condition of the lock. An easy fix with the right tools, but for now… Tony made do with a roll of twine fetched from his drawer. Shutters closed and the storm muted once more Tony returned to his task.

He is definitely a surly man of a stubborn temperament the likes of which you would not believe, Farkas, so if it was your intent to punish me by delegating me to this task you can rest easy in the knowledge of my suffering. He appears to be often away, which will provide some relief, though I pity his children who stare after him like puppies with longing gazes.

Tony paused with a scowl, thinking back to dinner. The miserable air that surrounded the table, the children flinching away from their father with fear of rebuke at every turn. It reminded him too much of his own childhood, leaving a sour taste in his mouth. Perhaps it had led him to be more snappish with the captain than was wise. But they were only children and they only wanted their father’s attention. Tony could handle spiders in his bed (he was thankful to have avoided a headless chicken) and any number of petty tricks or pranks, because he understood that it was just their way of pleading for notice. Or perhaps he was projecting. That was possible and even likely given his bad track record. Still he could not help but feel in this instance he was right. The children did not even have play clothes! When he’d asked Pepper (who did not seem to like at all that he’d taken to calling her such) about it while she’d overseen the final touches to the room before leaving him for the night she’d laughed and told him that the Rogers children did not play. They marched! Oh if Tony had a schilling for every time he’d heard what Stark men were supposed to do in lieu of childish things…

 The Captain received a telegram this evening from an old friend. A James Bakhuizen whom the children referred joyously to as ‘Uncle Bucky’. He promptly announced that he would be leaving, yet again, for Vienna and that he would be taking their gardener, a Herr Wiess, with him. Rogers has an unusual choice in gardeners and I suspect he now wishes to rid himself of a complication. The Housekeeper Frau Hogan seems certain that Rogers has become romantically involved with Charlotte Schrader, a Baroness in Vienna. She’s a cousin of his late wife, which if one were asking me is dipping one too many times into the same inkwell but Frau Hogan seems optimistic for the union…

Sudden banging jolted Tony’s attention away from the letter he was composing and back to the window. He thought for a moment that the shutters on the window on the left side of the bed had perhaps sprung open again but a quick glance assured him that his handiwork was holding fast. It took him a moment to realize that the sound he heard over thunder and rain was knocking, and that there was a child’s voice calling thinly from the other side of the window.

“Herr Stark? Her Stark are you there?”

Tony hurried to the window aghast at the thought of one of the captain’s children dangling from his window in the middle of a thunderstorm. By the time he’d opened it and undone the twine around the shutters latch he was practically shaking, and his nerves were only further strained when opening the damn things nearly knocked the boy off his precarious perch.

His midnight visitor was Péter Rogers, still in his dinner clothes and soaked to the bone.

“Péter? What the devil are you doing?!” Tony demanded as he hauled the boy inside, ignoring the cold and wet that seeped through his nightclothes.

“I was walking in the garden and got caught in the storm,” the boy explained through chattering teeth. His skinny frame was practically vibrating with chills and Tony immediately thought of his heart condition.

“And you climbed up here?!” he demanded disbelievingly as he rushed into the bathroom to collect towels for the shivering adolescent. Boy Péter might not have looked like much what with the skinniness and the spectacles but the child must have had incredible strength and dexterity to manage that in a rainstorm. He might even have rivaled Clinton in climbing ability, though Tony almost didn’t dare to think it. His heart was palpating enough as it was.

“Yep,” Péter answered as Tony returned. He shook his head like a dog and sent water flying every which way. He winced apologetically when he realized how he’d sprayed Tony and shyly reached for the offered towel. “It’s how we played tricks on the governesses. Artur can make it with a whole jar of beetles in his hand.”

“Or spiders?” Tony guessed with an arched brow, thinking back to the surprise that had greeted him when he’d first arrived. Péter’s smile fell and the boy nodded begrudgingly.

“Ah… sorry about that. We didn’t know they could be poisonous.” The boy’s face shifted into a hard expression, his brown eyes glinting with challenge as he asked, “You aren’t going to tell Father about them are you?”

“That depends,” Tony led.

“On what?”

“On whether or not you’re going to be honest with me. Were you alone during this late night walk in the garden?”

Tony wasn’t stupid. Getting caught in the rain was one thing but it had been raining for some time since supper and if Péter had been outside all this time it had to be for a purpose. Péter looked suddenly nervous, his eyes darting about in search of an escape route and now Tony was sure of it.  Rogers’ eldest boy had been meeting someone, but given his age and that rising flush in his cheeks Tony could hazard a guess or two that didn’t involve political intrigue.

“Is she pretty?” He asked with a waggle of eyebrows and Péter looked scandalized.

“What? No. It wasn’t… I don’t…” the boy fumbled. “It was Harry! He’s my friend, but Father doesn’t like him. Please Herr Stark he must’nt know!”

“Look, I have no problem with Harry. I’m sure he’s a nice kid. But let’s limit the climbing up the side of the house in the dead of night and trying to give Tony heart attacks bit in the future, yeah? Do that for me and we’ll just consider this whole thing a secret between you and me.”

“Do you really mean that?” Péter looked wary, but Tony could hear the hope behind it.

“Really.”

Frankly Tony didn’t give a rat’s ass what friends Péter wanted to sneak out to meet so long as he didn’t kill himself falling off the side of the house.

Slowly Péter nodded his agreement and the two stared silently at one another other – Péter looking like he wanted to say something more and Tony not knowing what to say next – until Tony decided he’d had enough of that and got busy getting some dry clothes for the poor child.

“Here go get dry, change into these, and I’ll see about getting your clothes cleaned tomorrow before anyone notices,” he offered, thrusting a folded night shirt Péter’s way. The boy accepted the offering wordlessly and headed for the bathroom and Tony breathed a sigh of relief. But just as the child reached the door Péter paused, turning back to Tony.

“Herr Stark?” Péter called hesitantly, cheeks once again flushing a faint pink. “Thank you.”

Tony took a slow breath, not sure what the feeling constricting his chest was. He nodded in response and Péter ducked into the bathroom, shutting the door with a snap, as eager to escape the awkward situation as he was. Well, Tony thought to himself as he set about making the bed, all thoughts of finishing his letter to Farkas banished until morning. His first night down and it could have been worse. Péter could have slipped and splattered on the ground below. That would have been a rather unfortunate end to this misadventure. Instead he’d hopefully wrangled some of the boy’s trust and their future dealings would be easier.

Another crack of thunder seemed to shake the house and the curtains billowed, rain flying into the room as the wind shifted. Belatedly Tony rushed to close the window they’d left gaping open. Finished, he grumbled under his breath something about leaving monkeys behind at the abbey as he turned away from it, only to yelp in alarm at the unexpected sight of another body in the room.

Maria Rogers stood in the middle of the room, shivering in her pale blue night gown with a stuffed toy clutched desperately to her chest.

“God in heaven.” Tony let out a relieved breath as his heart slowed and he forced something that wasn’t a scowl onto his face as not to scare the already clearly terrified child and asked, “Maria, honey, are you scared?”

The child was nodding emphatically as another round of thunder boomed. Tony was just extending a hand toward her when she squealed with fright and dove toward him like a missile. Quite without knowing how Tony found himself with an arm full of terrified little girl, Maria’s slight form trembling against his as she buried her face against him. Tony had looked up to call Péter for help, hoping the child’s brother would have some idea of how to handle this, when he noticed that now Natacha was standing in the doorway with little Sara in her arms. The toddler’s face was red and blotchy with tears.

“The girls don’t like thunder and Frau Hogan has retired for the night,” Natacha offered by way of explanation as the blond cherub in her arms reached for Tony and he sighed.

“Well then, I guess you had better stick with me.”

It occurred to him as Natacha helped him get the little ones settled with Maria on one side of Tony and Sara on the other, and then primly made a place for herself on the other side of Sara, that perhaps it wouldn’t go over well if Rogers were to discover his daughters cozied up in their very male tutors bed, but one look at Maria and Sara’s terrified faces and he just didn’t have the heart to send them away. Natacha was more subtle, but Tony noticed the way her shoulders tensed with every peel of thunder.

So let Captain Rogers have a problem with it if he was going to. Tony had a thing or two to say to him about leaving his children alone at night in a house this big with no one to care for them. He’d wonder what kind of heartless ogre could ignore the fear on their faces, but he doubted Rogers had ever stuck around long enough after supper to witness them.

“Hey,” Tony tugged playfully on Maria’s sleeve, pulling the child’s focus to him. “Don’t just lay there like a sack of potatoes. Make room for your brothers.”

The girl giggled even as she scooted. Natacha arched a red brow at him.

“They’re boys. They’re not scared.”

She said it like a dare, and even though she probably knew them better Tony knew his luck and would bet on it any day. As if on cue another round of thunder rolled in and a parade of footstep scurried down the hall, Ian with James and Artur in tow came all but hurtling through the doorway.

“I win that bet I think.” Tony quipped. “What do I win?” She gave him a look that seemed to answer ‘a kick in the groin’.

“Isn’t gambling a sin?” she questioned pointedly and he grinned. He turned to the three silent boys in the doorway who were doing their best to look as if they hadn’t come running into the room with their tails between their legs and unsure of what to do next. Tony waved them over.

“Ah see, didn’t I tell you girls the boys would be along to protect us? Boys? Didn’t anyone teach you it’s rude to keep a lady waiting?”

Their shoulders sagging in relief the three of them rushed to the bed, climbing in beside their sisters as the bathroom door opened and Péter reappeared. He looked surprised to see the lot of them there but pleased as Tony waved him over to join them.

Why the hell was his bed this huge? He wondered as everyone got resettled. Rather an opulent accessory for a guest bedroom. What on earth had Rogers’ previous governesses gotten up to? Then again, he couldn’t help but remember the much mentioned Frauline Glass and her morning visits to the Captain’s room. Should he include that in his letters to Farkas? Dear Father Superior, Captain Rogers is a drunken brute who spends his time neglecting his children and bedding the help. No sign of military secrets under the bed but will keep looking. How are Brother Banner’s vegetables coming in this season?

He was disrupted from his rambling thoughts by a particularly boisterous boom of thunder. Maria dove beneath the covers and Sara’s face scrunched up with the threat of more tears as her hands flew to cover her ears.

“Aw honey, its okay,” he tried to sooth as the little girls face continued to crumble. She let him wrap his arms around her though and even lowered her hands as she glared up at the ceiling in reprimand.

“s’ too Loud!” she berated before sticking her hand in her mouth to suck, fierce scowl still in place.

“It’s just the sky making noise Sara,” Ian explained though he looked uncertain and Artur was attempting to weasel under his legs to join Maria.

“He’s right you know,” Tony assured them. “It’s just the sky making noise at us. Some people are like that. All hot air. You know what you have to do though, when someone speaks to you that way?”

“Bite them?” piped Artur’s sweet voice from beneath the covers and Tony almost laughed.

“You boom right back.” At the seven (minus two lumps under the covers) pairs of eyes that met him with disbelief he nodded, getting up on his knees. “It’s easy. We can be way louder than a little thunder. Happier about it too, watch.”

Tony leaned back and took a deep breath, filling his lungs with air, and then released it in a long practiced yodel. He felt a little silly at first but it had the desired effect as one by one the children sat up, their interest piqued, looking to one another for permission to join in. The captain had stated for a fact that yelling was not allowed in the household and he was banking on the children’s natural bent towards the mischievous to be on his side here.

“How do you do that?” Péter asked and Tony turned to find him leaning close, expression eager.

“Yodel? It’s like singing, only really loudly.” He explained showing them again.

“Can I try? Teach me!” Artur asked, climbing over James to plop himself in Tony’s lap.

“You take a breath, find your note and it’s just yodel-lay-ee-oo. See? There’s even a song I know. We’ll sing it together. We’ll be so loud no one will even remember the thunder.”

“How does it go?” Ian asked somewhat hesitantly, eyeing Natacha’s doubtful expression. She made it clear she thought he was a lunatic but said nothing. Tony had never let that sort of thing stop him before. Fully committed he went forward with gusto, standing up on the bed as he began to sing, because if you were going to do something you might as well do it with a bang.

“High on a hill lived a lonely goatherd lay -ee-odllay-ee-odllay-ee-hoo.”

The little ones pealed with laughter as Tony danced about, singing and yodeling, shrieking with laughter as they avoided his feet. Tony sang about the folks in a remote town hearing the song of the goatherd and jumped off the bed with another yodel. He was gratified when James and Artur scrambled after him with jubilant whoops and did their best approximation of a yodel. He’d have to work on their form, but both of them definitely had fine lungs. Tony grabbed Sara and began to dance her about as he continued the game.

One by one the rest of the children joined in, pulled by the enthusiasm of their siblings. Even Natacha let Péter pull her off the bed and began to dance with them.

Was it a masterful piece of music? No, but the sound of their laughter and their voices raised high without fear or trepidation; Tony thought that was a beautiful sound indeed.

~*~*~

Steve had fallen asleep in his study again. This time at his desk. He'd lain his head down for one moment just to ease the pain and the next thing he knew he was being jerked from a light sleep by...banging? Thumping to be precise, just above his head. It was late, the household should be abed.

Steve reached into his desk and slid his fingers around his gun, his senses screaming with a sense of impending danger. For a moment he thought wildly about getting to the children, making sure they were safe, but he was torn between that and the impulse to seek out the threat and neutralize it.

As the banging continued above Steve realized the disturbance had to be coming from the servant’s quarters. Steeling himself he pulled the gun from the drawer, rising with the intent to seek out the source of the disturbance and deal with it however necessary, visions of Schmidt's private soldiers dancing in his head.

Later he supposed he would find it funny. At the moment, creeping through the darkened house, heart thumping heavily in his chest as the children’s screams blasted in his ears, he could find none of what occurred the least bit humorous.

Antony Stark was lucky that Steve was a man of caution, whose military experience had taught him to heavily rely on strategy, because as he’d hurried toward the sound of his children's hollering voices he’d wanted to rush in, shoot first and ask questions later, but instead he’d crept forward with singular focus and silently cracked open the door to assess the situation and formulate a plan of attack.

That was when he’d discovered his children crowded around the monk singing - what? A bar song? - something about goats on a hilltop in the dead of night, Steve felt like he was looking into a scene straight out of a mad house.

Stark was thumping about, Sara in his arms, the little girl giggling wildly. Péter was holding Maria securely in his arms as they bounced on the edge of the bed. Even Ian, the child he’d have credited with the most good sense, was dressed in bed sheets designed to look like an overcoat and...a dress? He'd tied what looked like a pillow case around his head in the fashion of a vail and was dragging James about the room, singing loudly in his brother's face. Natacha and Artur were thumping pillows like drums to a very mismatched beat. Enough so that Herr Stark, who was becoming winded had to keep stopping and repeating himself.

Despite the evidence before his eyes it was a moment before Steve really got it that the children were not in danger. They were not so much screaming as yelling, shrieking yes but with childish enthusiasm. They were singing and laughing... playing.

Relief rushed through him, and Steve sagged, his hands beginning to shake. He became aware he was still holding the gun and lifted it, staring at it with disbelief as if it had grown an extra muzzle, his heart still pounding madly.

He startled at a crack of thunder. In the room the children’s voices rose even louder as if they were trying to drown out the storm. And suddenly anger welled up within him, swift and forceful.

He’d just tucked the gun into his jacket as Frau Hogan came bustling around the corner looking harried as she tied her robe tighter about her night dress.

“Captain? What's happening, I heard screaming-”

Steve didn't wait for her to finish, pushing open the door to Stark's room, glowering as the monk narrowly avoided barreling into him.

Stark caught his balance and whipped around to face him and the room went silent as a tomb.

“Captain.” Stark, to Steve’s eternal frustration, looked as if he wasn't sure if he wanted to laugh or not.

“I thought I made it clear that bedtime was to be strictly observed.”

Stark inconceivably did not heed the danger in Steve’s tone, brown eyes bright and laughing lightly as he replied “well the children- no, well the storm frightens the children.”

Steve gritted his teeth with frustration, seething.

“Did you or did you not understand me, Stark?!” Steve snapped as he might to one of his soldiers, his temper flaring wildly.

Finally Herr Stark seemed to sober, his damnable expressive eyes losing their mirth and going cold.

“Yes, Captain. I understood perfectly.”

“What do you think you're doing?! Do you realize what I-” catching himself Steve bit off the words, and unable to finish the sentence he whirled away from the infuriating monk. His gaze settled on Frau Hogan.

“And where were you? Didn’t I charge you to watch them?!”

The woman sucked in a breath, clutching her robe to her frame and looked past Steve into disarray of the room, Stark and the children staring back with wide eyes.

“I’m sorry, Captain, but I didn't hear them over the storm.”

“I told you to stay near them!” Steve all but shouted into the silence.

She straightened, her jaw clenching as she answered stiffly.

“Yes, Captain.”

“Then where were you?!” Where was she when anyone could have snuck into the house, when Stark, a stranger, could have snuck into the children’s rooms and done just about anything, when they’d been screaming the house awake? Steve’s blood was pounding so hard in his ears that for a moment he almost didn’t hear it when the monk spoke.

“Asleep I would imagine, Captain, and I would also imagine that you would only order your head of house to disrupt her normal sleeping arrangements due to your own absence if it was an absolute emergency.”

Steve turned his head a fraction toward Stark, every last muscle in his body overstrained and exhausted. Stark was glaring at him coldly and Steve glared right back.

“Given your need to be away from them, I know it must pain you to learn the children were so frightened by the storm. They likely forgot Frau Hogan was so close, and it’s a good thing isn’t it that they came to me? They were terrified and now they are not. This of course eases your spirit?”

They stared at one another, neither one willing to look away or to give the appearance of backing down.

Antony Stark was loud, obnoxious, and downright disobedient!

But, Steve couldn't shake from his memory the way he’d seen James grinning as his brother, his normally quiet and reclusive brother… how the boy had nearly swung him into a dresser, wearing a coronet on his head for god’s sake... how they’d both been laughing. And no matter how much he resented it the monk was right. The children had always climbed into bed with him and Peggy when it stormed… he’d not even thought of that. How many storms had there been in the years since her passing?

Damn him, but Stark was right. One could even call him intuitive, at least where the children were concerned, and if Steve could just rein him in, make the rest of his behavior align with some sense of reason, then he might just pass Schmidt's inspection and Steve’s plans to keep the children out of harms way might just actually work.

Remembering the wide eyes as he entered, Steve nodded his head at his children.

“Get to bed,” he ordered them quietly but sternly and there was a small chorus of ‘yes father’ as the children hurried to obey. Péter paused to take Sara, fussing with his wriggling sister who slapped her hands against Péter’s wet hair in protest to the end of all their fun.

Steve wondered briefly on the state of his hair before he realized what it had to mean. He just barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes heavenward. The telegram, Osborne, how could he have forgotten?

“I don't recall seeing you after dinner, Péter” he groused and Péter froze, his face going red as he stuttered over a response.

Stark put his hand on Péter’s shoulder stilling him and Péter looked up at the man and swallowed, uncertainty in his eyes.

“We were having a chat. Getting to know each other better. Right, Péter?”

Péter nodded emphatically, little droplets of water landing on his shoulder.

Like hell they had been.

Steve hummed, and without taking his eyes off Stark nodded for Péter to leave them. Péter's shoulders sagged in relief and clutching his baby sister to him made a hasty exit. Steve could hear him murmur a good night to Frau Hogan as he slunk past.

“Was there anything else, Captain?” Stark’s voice brought him back and Steve grit his teeth before turning to face the man again.

Stark matched him gaze for gaze as if he weren’t a guest in Steve’s home, an employee… lord of the manor this one. Stark carried himself like he’d be king anywhere and it was annoying in a way that Steve couldn’t even begin to understand.

What a terrible monk he must have made Steve thought absently.

“As you know I'm leaving for Vienna in the morning,” he reminded the man and Stark nodded, his eyes flicking behind Steve, most likely to Frau Hogan.

“While I'm gone I’ll require you to send me a daily update on the children either by mail or phone. I’ll need to know of all their comings and goings and the progress of their lessons. The more detailed, the better. Is that understood Herr Stark?”

Stark cocked his head, “I thought you said you'd be gone a week, at most?”

Steve bit back his retort and took a breath. He had to remind himself that Stark was not a soldier who followed orders, who understood nuance and delicacy. He was an impetus monk who very well might have been raised on the side of the road. Steve had firsthand knowledge of what that looked like and Stark was not far off from the gregarious nomads he'd spent the beginnings of his life with.

“The nature of my business there is delicate and much as I’d like to, I don't know how long I'll be. It's... It's important that I know of everything about the children.”

Stark eyed him, his eyes roving, searching Steve's face for something. Steve stood still and let him, his body practically humming under the scrutiny. After a moment Stark seemed to find what he was looking for and nodded.

“Every last thing?”

“Yes.”

“So if Artur has the runs again like tonight-”

When had- oh of all the absurd!

“Yes. Stark,” Steve bit out “every last thing.”

Stark tilted his head, brown eyes glittering again with what Steve was coming to term mischief, considering thoughtfully as if he had a choice in the matter. He liked to pretend he had choices. It was something Steve was learning about the man.

“They'll be long letters.”

Good. Steve thought as his muscles finally unwound long enough for him to breathe properly.

“I count on it,” he sighed.

Stark moved away from him, his eyes raking up Steve's form. He was suddenly very aware that he was standing in his wrinkled day clothes in the middle of Stark’s room with a gun tucked away in his jacket. Well, today had certainly been eventful.

He took a steadying breath and turned to follow the hallway to the children's rooms, murmuring a quiet command to Frau Hogan to check the boys, when the monk spoke again.

“So really, what you want is for me to monitor the children like I’m the SS. Why not just put them back in school?”

Steve tensed, pausing at the door, his hand sliding against the door frame as he regarded Stark with an intense stare.

“If I were you Herr Stark, I’d be more concerned with who is monitoring you.”

He shut the door with a click, satisfied that for once Stark had nothing to say.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony had never slept well when the family traveled, and no matter how sweetly his mother had sung to him or how sternly his father had demanded that he grow up, he had never been able to force his mind or his fears to quiet. It was as if his bones knew the shape and feel of his own bed, his skin the sweet airs of home, and every sense he had seemed to long for them.

In retrospect he supposed it had been easier to travel without such a difficult child in tow. He should not have to wonder why he was so often left on his own while his parents travelled between their home in Pola and Hughard’s estate in Germany.

Stark Industries had started from a collection of small shacks at the edge of the river Elbe, and risen to the biggest private shipyard the world had ever seen. Even the Brits, who had held the undisputed title for best shipmaker’s the world over, had taken a back seat to Stark ingenuity and design: German ingenuity and design. There were simply no ships like Stark ships, and thanks to them and their specialized weaponry Germany had become a military giant. One could even say, as Hughard often had, that Starks had given Germany agency in the world. And my…what they’d done with it.

Stark and German had always been synonymous in Hughard’s mind. So maybe Tony had always been doomed to disappoint him – to be the irritatingly consistent reminder that Hughard had climbed into bed with the enemy and that such actions bore dangerous consequences. For Hughard, Hamburg was home and their villa in Pola had been delegated as ‘the summer house’.

Tony couldn’t recall a single peaceful night he’d spent in his room at the Hamburg house.

There had been so much to love about Pola. The salt in the air, the sweet smell wafting up from the bakers stalls down in the market juxtaposed against the pungent smell of fish and port city life. In Pola there had been the Rhuza boy, who had come to work in their kitchen and whom Hughard had not tossed out on his head despite their fears (not at first anyway). Tony had called him Rhodey, on account of the island his father had been born on and the stories the older boy had recited to him as they’d strolled the beaches (imagine an island surrounded by flowers!).

In Pola their butler Jarvis let Tony trail along behind him, and had never stopped him from asking questions (or made him feel stupid for not already knowing their answers). His mother wore loose silks and bright colors to rival the deep aquamarine of the waters, and she wore her hair down, singing more… laughing more. Nowhere else had ever compared.

His first year at the abbey he hadn’t slept a wink. In truth his night terrors had been so vivid (recalling the deaths of his parents and the loss of Yinsen in such lurid detail) he’d feared the moment he closed his eyes each night. He did not know who had given the Father Superior the idea to allow him to turn the old stable into a workshop (if indeed it hadn’t been Farkas’ idea all along) but he had no doubt it had saved his mind, if not his life. It was hard to remember that first year. He’d spent so much of it drunk that was hardly a surprise.

Tony did not sleep well his first night with the Rogers family. After the children had been ordered back to their rooms and the Captain had practically slammed the door shut on his face leaving Tony alone for the night, he’d tried but the room was too big, smelled too stale, and he couldn’t help but remember the press of seven smaller bodies around his and think that it had been better: if only not to be alone.

After that he’d given up, collecting the few tools he’d been able to bring with him and had gone about fixing furniture. It was rudimentary work (all wood, nails, and screws) but it kept his mind occupied and is fingers away from the bottle (not that he had one on hand, but in a house this size he didn’t doubt he could find one).

When Tony woke the following morning it was in a heap of furniture bits and to Pepper’s insistent knocking at the bedroom door. She’d been aghast at the state of his room and did not look at all appeased by his assurances that the desk would be better than new when he was done with it.

She’d looked wan, like she expected Rogers to appear over her shoulder any minute and start yelling the house down, and then furious. Through tight lips she’d informed him that breakfast had come and gone, and that the captain departing soon would expect Tony and the children to be out front to see him off. Shouldn’t he make haste if he was going to make himself presentable?

Pepper, as it turned out, could be rather threatening when she was displeased. Tony did not feel it wise to cross her.

~*~

By the time Tony had made himself presentable (dressed, teeth hastily brushed and face washed) and hurried his way to the front of the house to join Frau Hogan and the children on the steps, the chauffer had already brought the car around and was loading Herr Wiess’ luggage on top of the captain’s.

Hammer gave him a disdainful look and refused to meet his eye, but that was just fine with Tony. The less he had to do with the much too uppity butler the better. A shame that, he’d known some fantastic butlers in his day. Hammer should be fired simply for giving butlers everywhere a bad name.

Rogers certainly looked better this morning (less green around the gills) but he still held himself stiffly as if pained. Maybe that was just the way he was, Tony mused, constantly tortured by an invisible rod up the rear.

Rogers, who had been chatting quietly with Herr Hogan about the condition of the roads after the rain, turned once the last bag had been secured and the trunk of the vehicle closed with a smart thud and regarded his children.

The man just stood there like a plank of wood, as seven pairs of eyes in various states of distress stared up at him, saying nothing. Finally he cleared his throat and nodded toward Frau Hogan who was standing behind Ian with her hands upon the boy’s shoulder.

“I trust you all know how to behave while I’m gone?”

A chorus of ‘yes fathers’ rose up in reply and Maria’s lip quivered as she grasped little Sara’s hand, the toddler abandoning parade rest in favor of clutching the hem of her dress tightly in her tiny palms as her face crumbled. Artur had the same miserable pout on his face he’d worn at dinner. Péter looked as if he might say something but couldn’t figure out where to start. While Natacha and Ian just looked resigned, James was harder to read. Tony doubted the stony expression he was aiming at the ground meant anything good.

He caught the captain’s eye as his gaze swept over the line again and arched his brow, challenging the man’s intelligence (because really). The captain gritted his teeth and for a moment Tony thought he was going to march away just to be obstinate (stubborn goat of a man that he was) but then Rogers caught the gardner’s eye, of all people, and something about Wiess’ expression thankfully got him to turn back to the children and attempt a better parting.

“And I trust you’ll look out for each other?”

This was directed at Péter and Natacha, who nodded in agreement (Natacha with far more eagerness than Péter and Tony was not the only one to notice). His eyes narrowing on Péter, Rogers laid a hand on the boy’s thin shoulders, spoke the child’s name quietly, prompting the adolescent boy to finally meet his gaze.

“Péter, I’m trusting you to look after our family while I’m away. Can you do that for me?”

The two held each other’s stare for a long moment and Tony shivered, reminded keenly of his own boyhood. The responsibilities Hughard had held over Tony like weights. Weights that Hughard had slung there seemingly just to have the satisfaction of watching Tony fall beneath their load.

But, though the captain’s hand on the boy’s shoulder might have been heavy, the thumb that trailed lightly over Péter’s shoulder was betrayingly tender. Péter swallowed thickly, his spine straightening as he nodded with newfound conviction.

“Yes, Father. I’ll watch over them,” Péter was assuring Rogers even as his brother Ian stepped forward with a march in his step, his shoulders braced and hands clasped tightly behind his back as if he were addressing a commanding officer.

“And I have his back, Sir.”

The edge of Rogers’ mouth twitched as if he might smile, but he seemed to know not to. He simply nodded, resting his other hand briefly upon the younger boy’s shoulder and departing with a gentle squeeze.

“That I never doubted, Ian. Thank you.”

Ian glowed like the sun had taken up residence in his chest and in contrast Natacha and James had gone stiff, dark expressions staring somewhere past their father’s shoulders and refusing to meet his eye. Tony wondered if Rogers had any idea how much each of his children wanted his approval. How starved they were for it and how easy it would be to turn one against the other if he appeared too often to give the scraps of his attention to a favorite. He thought not at first. And then…

“Natacha?” The captain began and the girl turned sharp blue eyes on her father and mumbled through tight lips.

“Mind the little ones. Help Frau Hogan. Is that what you’re going to say?”

“And help your brothers. They need you.”

Tony had gone still, his breath holding somewhere in his throat as the weight of the unspoken pressed down upon them all. I need you, might not have been said but they’d all heard it. What was more, Natacha seemed to know it despite what Rogers actually said with a hasty clearing of his throat.

“I wouldn’t trust the house to run without you,” the captain finished and Natacha regarded him silently.

“Of course, Father.” She finally answered with a demure bow of her head, but her spine had gone straight, her shoulders braced as if for war. “It wouldn’t.”

Péter shot his sister an irritated look and she smirked at him. Tony’s heart sank somewhere into his stomach.

Mio dio, what a mess,” he muttered under his breath and hard blue eyes turned sharply upon him.

“Something to add Herr Stark?” Rogers drawled and Tony smiled stiffly back at him in reply.

“Me? Surely not Captain. Just remarking on what a fine day it is.”

“Indeed it is Herr Stark.” The captain agreed with an air of suspicion as he backed away from Péter, beginning a final check of the pockets of his suit jacket.

“A shame then, to spend it on the road.” Tony mused and Rogers paused to pin him with a smile so banal it was pointed.

“A shame that can’t be avoided.”

“Of course not Captain. It would be extremely difficult for a man of your importance to do as he wished when he wished it.”

Hammer gasped like a dying fish and the air crackled between Tony and Rogers like a sky full of fireworks. The Captain looked as if he wished to throttle him and Tony’s pulse leapt, though he wasn’t sure it was all for appropriate reasons. He had a nasty habit of poking sleeping giants (Farkas always said so) and never seemed to learn his lesson.

“Indeed,” Rogers drawled slowly, something rough and not at all genteel twanging through the syllables as he tipped his hat at Tony.

Tony was saved from having to come up with any sort of reply when Artur, dragging Maria behind him, approached the captain and tugged on his jacket to get his attention.

“Father?” The boy’s voice wavered as his father looked down at him with a startled frown but Artur gulped and bravely continued. “Did Sam do something wrong? Do you not like him anymore?”

Hammer closed his mouth with a snap, grimacing with distaste at the mention of the gardener and Tony scowled, bracing himself for the usual drivel people spouted about the supposed inferiority of people like Sam (people like him).

Rogers cleared his throat again and shook his head and Tony could only stare at him in bewilderment.

“No Artur. Samuel hasn’t done anything wrong. He will be sorely missed.” And color him shocked but Tony actually believed the man. The small boy standing in front of him however did not seem appeased, only greatly confused by this, his expression darkening.

“Then why does he have to go away? He’s a very good gardener. He knows tons about bugs and he lets Maria help with the flowers.”

“Artur- ” Steve began, six levels of exhaustion in the boy’s name. But Artur didn’t just look like his father, he had a stubborn streak to match.

“Maria will cry!” The boy insisted heatedly, balling his tiny fists like he was about to sock the person responsible. “And I don’t want to miss anybody!”

“I’m afraid that’s just the way it’s got to be for now Spaetzchen,” Sam spoke up for the first time taking a step toward the boy. He halted momentarily at Hammer’s warning glare but set his shoulders and continued forward a moment later as if he hadn’t noticed (or perhaps, didn’t care). “Most of my family has moved on. It’s time I moved on too.”

“But aren’t we his family?” Maria’s small voice pleaded, and it broke Tony’s heart to see the tears dampening her cheeks.

“Now that’s quite enough.” Hammer huffed, puffing up like a poked hen as he turned to Pepper and snapped. “Frau Hogan, please, take the children inside. The captain needs to be on his way.”

It was Hammer’s turn to be glared at as Sara’s wobbling mouth finally fell open in a loud sob at the announcement that they would be taken from their father and not allowed to see him leave. It was like someone had declared bedlam as suddenly Maria was sobbing into her hands and Artur, blinking back tears of his own, turned with the intention to run off heaven only knew where.

Tony suspected it was to hit Hammer, judging by the way the boy was pointed when Tony caught him, but even if Tony could sympathize with the impulse he didn’t think the action would go unpunished.

Artur struggled in his grasp and Tony made sure to hold him tight, leaning down to his eye level.

“Hey, hey, where are you off to so quickly? You’re going to miss saying goodbye.” Tear filled blue eyes met his, dark blond lashes clumped together over flushed cheeks as Artur snapped back at him.

“I don’t want to say goodbye!”

“Yes, I caught that. You don’t want to miss anybody. I don’t either, so we just won’t.”

Artur blinked up at him, cheeks still flushed with anger but his brow had wrinkled in confusion and he wasn’t attempting to run anywhere (or at anyone) so that was good.

“If only emotions could be so easily wished away, Herr Stark.” Pepper sighed, smoothing back Maria’s hair, something of a reprimand and a warning behind her tone. Tony got her point he supposed but he had a plan of action and he was going to stick with it. He took Artur’s hand and turned to reach for Maria’s, who to the surprise of all readily left Peppers arms to reach back.

“Exactly right Pepper, which is why we’re just going to skip all the wishing and get right to doing.”

“How?” Artur asked warily, wiping his tears with the back of his palm.

“Your father has got to go. There’s no stopping that, very important business, can’t be avoided; but that doesn’t mean we’ve all just got to sit around like moldy lumps on a log missing him, do we?”

Neither Artur nor any of the other children dared to answer. Everyone, including Rogers, was watching Tony like he’d just grown a second head and declared himself pope. Until over in Péter’s arms Sara, around gummy fingers once again stuck in her mouth, piped up with a solitary “No missing anybody!”

Tony beamed at her.

“That’s the spirit! We’ll be far too busy to miss anybody because the captain is giving us a special mission while he is away.”

“Must I?” the captain asked incredulously, his eyebrows climbing up his face and Tony gave him a pressed look.

“I insist Captain Rogers. I know you worry but the children are ready for the responsibility. Aren’t you, children?”

Tony had never seen seven bodies snap to attention so fast outside of a parade.

“Yes, Herr Stark. We’ll do whatever it is father needs us to do,” Ian assured him earnestly. Natacha looked more dubious but she crowded around him with the others.

“What is the mission?” she asked, ever suspicious.

“Yes, pray tell Herr Stark. What is this mission?” Rogers followed with another tired drawl. Tony ignored him.

“Well Herr Wiess is going to return someday and the captain has promised him a big celebration party, because that will be a fine day. Won’t it?”

“A very fine day,” Maria agreed with a nod, hope beginning to creep into her voice.

“The finest. And it will be the finest of parties. Fine china, wine so expensive it will make you sick, opera singers…”

“…fireworks?” James suggested hopefully and Tony nodded encouragingly.

“All night! Nobody will sleep for miles.”

“Sweets!” Artur demanded with a hungry gleam and Tony shuddered to think it but nodded just the same.

“You’ll have toothaches for months.”

“Elephants?” Natacha, catching on to the game, suggested dryly with a sardonic lift of one red eyebrow and Tony’s mouth lifted in an answering smirk.

“I wanted six, but your father insisted they’d ruin the garden and since the party is for Sam, he thought that was in poor taste.”

“Stark is there some point to all this?” Rogers interrupted with a sigh and Tony blinked at him as if surprised to still see him standing there.

“Oh Captain, you’re still here? We’d almost forgotten. You’d better get a move on. The children and I can’t start our mission with the guest of honor loitering around!”

“But Herr Stark, you’ve not told us what our mission is,” Péter reminded him.

“I haven’t? Well that won’t do. You see your father has got everything planned: the time, the place, the decorations, the fireworks, but we’re light on the entertainment and Sam was just telling the captain how long it has been since he saw a good puppet show. So I said we simply must put one on for him.”

Tony noticed that while the children’s eyes had widened and the Captain looked flummoxed, that Sam’s dark mouth had split into a wide grin, the gardener throwing back his head and laughing.

“See, he’s giddy just thinking about it. It’s very important, and it’s our job to see it done right.”

“But we don’t have any puppets!” James decried and Tony nodded solemnly.

“We’re going to have to make them I’m afraid.”

“Real puppets?” James inquired dubiously, “wooden ones on strings like at the theater?”

“Real puppets. The finest in Austria. Better even than the theater.” Tony promised.

“Are you a carpenter as well as a monk now Herr, Stark” Hammer sneered and Tony didn’t even spare the man a look as he responded to stupidity with the only thing it deserved: disinterest.

“I’m a Stark. If I can build a fully weaponized ship I can build a puppet Hammer.” Turning back to the children Tony said, “But I don’t think I can teach you if you’ll all be too sad.” 

To Tony’s relief the children’s protests were immediate, each of them clamoring to be heard over the other as they insisted they wouldn’t be too sad, that they’d be extra good, if only he would teach them how. Always willing to bank on luck when it was on his side, Tony secured their promises to be on their best behavior, starting with bidding their father and Sam farewell with no more tears and hysterics.

And to the amazement of all they complied with near perfect obedience (Sara refused to end her goodbye hug and sniffled when Frau Hogan finally pried her away). Hammer did not look at all pleased, though Tony didn’t know whether that had more to do with his behavior, the children’s, or the likelihood that one day Weiss would have to return and the house would celebrate it (he suspected the latter). The butler gave Tony a sour look before departing a stiff farewell to the captain and marching even more stiffly after Frau Hogan and the children.

Tony watched their progress and the tension that had been coiled tightly in his chest finally began to ease, until the captain’s quiet voice made him go tense again.

“Herr Stark?”

“Yes Captain?” Tony prompted without turning around, poised still to follow after the others.

He waited, heart pounding for the next reprimand (how dare he make such wild promises to the children, how dare he speak out of turn, how dare he fill their heads with such senseless hopes) but it never came. Instead the Captain cleared his throat softly and said, so quietly that Tony nearly missed it, “That was… I mean to say, that was rather well done.”

Tony blinked and was pretty sure he was wearing a gob smacked expression when he turned to find Rogers at his back, blue eyes not quite able to meet his with a countenance that Tony might have called bashful on someone less rigid than the captain. But then those eyes shifted and pinned his like darts to a board and suddenly Tony wished they’d look anywhere else.

“I know it was not my place to promise such a thing…” he was surprised to hear himself admit. “But the children seem so fond of Weiss I…”

“They are.” Rogers answered simply, as if it cost him nothing to say so. As if it made no difference for the pride of Austria to stand before a man like Weiss and say with such sincere fondness, “I hardly know what I’m going to do without him.”

“It’s been my pleasure, Captain.” Was all Weiss said in reply, but to Tony it seemed that a wealth of words had passed between them. And then the gardener’s dark eyes fixed on him as he said, “you be sure and take care now, Herr Stark.”

Tony heard the underlining threat and could hear Maria again pleading ‘aren’t we his family’. Tony nodded. He’d take care of them. Never mind the necessity for his own survival he’d never intended anything else.

He did not know what to think about any of it as Sam nodded farewell and climbed into the waiting vehicle.

“Stark.” Rogers barked and Tony jumped, eyes flying back to the captain.

“I’d heard that Hughard had a family. You have his look.”

Tony had to bite his tongue to avoid saying all the things that welled up in response to that because Rogers, damn him, looked hopeful for the first time in their acquaintance and it had nothing to do with Tony but his damned name. Hughard’s name.

Faced with Tony’s cold silence Rogers nodded again, straightening up with a wan sort of smile.

“No doubt they’ll be fine puppets. I trust the children’s studies won’t go neglected?” He asked and Tony grimaced.

“I’d be a poor tutor if they were.”

“You’ll remember to write?”

“Every detail Captain,” Tony promised, meeting Rogers stare for stare this time. He could see that Rogers had heard the underlining threat in his words and couldn’t help the swell of satisfaction that brought him. Rogers however, didn’t take the bait.

Guten Tag, Herr Stark,” the captain said with a final nod as he turned to depart and Tony knew he shouldn’t but he was still smarting from the admiring expression Rogers had given him when he’d fully realized who he was, that blooming hope in his eyes bought with his father’s legacy.

Tony gave him a loose two fingered salute and a grin to rival the Cheshire cat’s, jauntily wishing him farewell with an, “Addio, mio Capitano.

He didn’t stay to watch the words land. If the captain disapproved Tony didn’t care. He’d spent a lifetime living up to peoples low expectations of him and failing miserably at any and every attempt to rise above them. He wasn’t sure any longer that he knew who Captain Rogers was, but the sooner Rogers realized that Tony was never going to be his father the better.

~*~*~

When Tony reentered the hall Frau Hogan was waiting for him her posture and expression so severe that he faltered in his step, actually taken a step back.

“Herr Stark, a word please!”

“Pepper, my girl, I insist you call me Tony. This Stark business is- ” Tony began but Pepper cut right over him.

 “Is it your intention to remain employed here?” The slender young housekeeper demanded to know. She barely allowed Tony to babble a sound or two in affirmation before she smartly informed him that antics like the ones he’d pulled the previous night and just moments before on the front steps would see him promptly dismissed.

“Before the ink has dried on your dismissal papers,” she promised. “I can forgive your brash nature and your inappropriate refusal to address me by my proper name, but I will not let harm come to these children.”

Frau Hogan looked as if she would have gladly wrestled a bear in that moment, had it a mind to cross her, so Tony believed her and stayed quiet. But she had it wrong. He wasn’t out to hurt any of the Rogers children. Their father did not need his assistance in that regard. Tony had only been trying to help, to ease the burden of their loneliness. 

“Did it not occur to you how crushed they will be when your wild claims turn out to be nothing but daydreams?” Pepper berated and Tony couldn’t keep his silence any longer.

“I gave them a future worth dreaming about.” Tony, who apparently could not bite his damn tongue to save his life, found himself insisting with bite. “I know it’s a vain hope. So do they, Frau Hogan, but mio dio they’ve got to hope in something. Haven’t they?” Tony demanded and Frau Hogan’s back stiffened.

The housekeeper swallowed thickly, mouth pressed in a tight line and Tony waited his own body stiff with tension. It was a long moment before Frau Hogan spoke again, her tone more subdued but no less stern.

“The Captain wanted to dismiss you yesterday, Herr Stark.” It wasn’t a surprise to Tony but still the words somehow managed to cause a flash of hurt.  Frau Hogan took a step closer to him, something passionate returning to her voice as she spoke lowly, for his ears alone. “I spoke up for you, because the children seem to like you and god knows they need a friend… But these are dangerous times and their best hope is in their father’s ability to protect them. Stefen cannot do that without your help.”

Tony’s brow furrowed in confusion. It was true, the country was on the brink of war but he hardly understood what the Rogers children needed protecting from. They were Austrian (German now), wealthy, and as Aryan as it came. He could not help the surge of anger he felt and barely resisted the urge to bite out that the Rogers children were not the ones with something to fear (not the ones slowly watching the value of their lives deplete as the wolves sharpened their knives for the hunt). Frau Hogan must have seen something of his feeling in his eyes because she stepped away from him, something cold between them now.

“Follow the curriculum I gave you and you shall have no problems. Do not, and I shall inform the captain. Is that understood?”

Tony knew orders when he heard them. He nodded and the housekeeper left him with a swirl of skirts, her smart heels clicking on the floor.

~*~

The thing was. Tony wasn’t so good with orders.

Per the captain’s instructions, each morning after breakfast he met the children in the school room where he was to spend several hours brushing off last terms lessons, patching any holes, and preparing them in an advance for fall term. Their summer lessons were light in that regard (mostly review).

Tony was bored to tears within the first hour. By the end of second day he was ready to hit himself over the skull with something heavy.

He’d been surprised by the captain’s curriculum, its emphasis on maths and sciences rather than the socialists beloved racial history and ‘character building’ courses, but he’d almost have welcomed them if only  to stave off the mind numbing endeavor that was educating children who had no interest in an education.

All of the children were clearly well studied. Too well studied in Tony’s opinion. They sat in their chairs behind their desks as if they expected to spend their lives there, eyes glazed as they answered his questions in subdued monotone like monks chanting well known hymns by route (Tony should know).

And their answers were beyond lazy. Mostly they came from Péter, his younger siblings latching on and parroting his replies whether he bothered to think at all. Otherwise they all politely pleaded their ignorance and waited for the answers to be given to them. Ian was the only one who even bothered to take notes.

Artur, closest to the window, was studiously watching a fly buzz about as he mouthed along with his siblings. Tony imagined they could have started denouncing god right in the middle of the classroom and the boy might not have noticed. James was in danger of nodding off and Sara had actually fallen asleep curled up in her chair, sucking on one tiny balled fist.

Maria thought Tony hadn’t seen the novel she’d tucked inside her lesson book (something pastel with French in the title) her focus on it intent as she slowly mouthed the words to herself. The child couldn’t even speak French! Let alone read it.

Tony couldn’t say why such a strong flavor of contempt seemed to build on his tongue that morning as the minutes ticked by. Far from being satisfied that his unwanted job had turned out to be as easy as turning off his brain and droning facts off like a radio program, an unprecedented kind of anger had begun to simmer at the base of his gut, growing with each day that passed.

He couldn’t sleep at night, and when he turned on the actual radio it was only to hear the sounds of Austria’s inevitable march toward war (even as they blithely denied the war going on within). Daily the immigration office was packed to overflowing and yet the window of escape was getting smaller and smaller as other countries restricted the number of refugees they would accept by lower and lower numbers.

Though Tony had a mind that others would classify as brilliant, he could not for all the world make sense of it. How could it be that the world would collectively decide they wanted nothing to do with ‘the Jewish problem’, content to turn a blind eye to the plight of their fellow man? It was a bitter pill to swallow daily, the knowledge of abandonment, but the premonition of how they would all plead ignorance of what they had left in the wake of their indifference... that was an agony.

Perhaps then, it was indifference itself that he had grown so weary of. He’d been weaned on it and he may very well die by it but he’d be damned if he accepted it without protest; especially from children (these ones in particular).

“Taking into account that we started with two apples and the apples are delivered at a rate of twice weekly, four crates a delivery. How many apples can we expect to have at the end of the month if, say, a crate contains ten apples?” Tony asked, looking out over his comatose audience.

“We don’t know Herr, Stark,” came the prompt and expected reply. Natacha staring blankly somewhere past Tony’s head jumped when he loudly snapped the lesson book shut.

“Then you aren’t thinking. It’s easy. A child could do it and you’re children so come along.” Tony motioned impatiently with his hand and in his chair Péter sat up straighter, anxiousness stiffening his shoulders as he thought through the math.

“Three hundred and twenty two,” he offered confidently enough after a moment of deliberation but his face fell into a deep frown as Tony shook his head, tsking at him.

“Sorry, Péter. You’re good but I’m afraid you’re wrong this time.”

“No he isn’t.” Natacha refuted straitening in her own chair.

“This, from the girl who a moment ago didn’t know the answer?” Tony considered her with a bored expression. “Or are we just feeling lazy, frauline?”

Tony thought he saw her shoulders tense, something opaque flashing in her eyes but she didn’t cringe at the rebuke.

“Perhaps,” she allowed. “But Péter is right. I did the math.”

“And yet he is wrong.” Tony insisted.

“No I’m not.” Péter insisted right back, becoming frustrated. They were certainly all awake now staring between him and Péter with nervous expressions. The dark haired boy was frowning intensely at Tony as he grabbed the open journal on his desk and began to scribble out the equation. “Apples come in crates of ten, there are four crates per delivery so that’s forty. Deliveries occur twice a week so that’s eighty apples a week. There are approximately four weeks in a month, plus the two we started with. Three hundred-twenty two. See?”

“I see a scenario, that when considered at face value has an easy answer. You’re wrong Péter, if only because some questions don’t have easy answers and you didn’t bother to ask any. You failed to take into account that there are only two weeks left in this month.”

Tony turned at the sound of a loud scoff, to find James leaning forward in his chair, hands gripping his pencil in a death grip.

“So it was a trick?” the young boy accused. “You’re a terrible tutor.”

“Not a trick,” Tony denied softly. “A lesson.”

“A lesson in what? How to lie?” James retorted. Péter seemed surprised by the younger boy’s defense, saying nothing as he stared between him and their tutor with apprehension.

“You never told him you meant this exact month! That makes it a trick,” the boy insisted and Tony grit is teeth in irritation.

“Do you feel tricked James?” He asked, considering the boy with a tilt of his head. “I’m sorry for that. But I asked for exactly what I wanted. If any of you had bothered to think about it, even a little, you would have noticed there was a margin for error and done something to limit that. Do not blame me for your passivity.”

Tony began putting away the books that Pepper had provided ignoring the stupefied and lost expressions on the children’s faces (minus James who still looked sullen).

“Péter made a lazy assumption because it was easy to do so and he suffered for it. Sneaky on my part? Yes, I’ll grant you that.” Tony admitted with a shrug. “But maybe now he knows better than to listen with half an ear and make assumptions. As for the rest of you I can’t teach you if you refuse to use your brains. So we are done here. You’re dismissed.”

“But Herr Stark we have another hour of lessons!” Ian insisted, dumbfounded. Artur, halfway out of his seat jerked to a stop and began to sink back down into it.

“I don’t see what for. You know it all. Go play. Come back when you think there is something I can teach you.”

Tony focused on packing up his things as slowly the Rogers children began to gather themselves as well as their own things. He didn’t look up as they shuffled from the school room, indignation and quiet anger still simmering lowly inside.

He’d had a fair point. So why did he feel suddenly like a terrible bully? Maria’s trembling lip and downcast gaze as she slunk from the room was like a punch to the gut, and Tony flushed with shame.

Natacha’s quiet voice when it came startled him. The young girl stood in front of his desk, blue eyes boring down into him with censure.

“James is right you know,” she murmured lowly. “You teach above the little ones heads and below ours, and then you blame us for not thinking- throwing tantrums as if you were Sara’s age.”

She said nothing more, turning with a swish of her pale skirts to follow after her siblings and leave Tony to his own thoughts.

That…he sighed after a long moment to himself. That had not been very well done.

~*~

For the fourth night in a row sleep had been an exercise in futility. He’d attempted it for a half hour, staring at the ceiling, ticking through complex conjunctions in his head until finally giving it up as a bad job and making his way to the garage in his nightclothes. Getting in was as simple as picking the lock (Tony could have engineered a better one in his sleep, he really needed to talk to Pepper about their security) and only once he’d closed the door behind him did he feel the tension wound so tightly between his shoulders begin to ease.

 

It was a spacious garage neatly filled with various pieces of equipment: bicycles, what looked like parts to a boiler, an old clock that had apparently ticked its last. An unused automobile sat in the middle of the garage, gleaming black and beautiful and practically singing to him. Tony had looked around the garage at all the helpless equipment just waiting for tender hands such as his to soothe where they ailed and had, for the first time since laying hands on the captain's piano, felt a weight easing from him.

 

He’d gone to the automobile first, because it would have been rude to ignore a lady, the black surface winking at him as he'd run a hand over her hood, imagining it to still be warm with life. He could fix this, a broken belt, perhaps a new engine. All in do time, all a matter of the right tools and the right hands and she would be restored. The car was fixable, like so little else.

 

Tony spent that night and into the following morning half buried underneath the auto losing himself to a completely different kind of music.

 

He didn’t have to think about Weiss as he cracked away at gears, the click and clank of metal singing in his ears, or the way the Captain had looked at him with such resignation and sadness, even as Tony had been promising the children that this was not the last they’d see of their beloved gardener. He didn’t have to think on how a man like Samuel became ‘beloved’ to a man like Rogers.

 

Or the way Rogers he'd looked at Péter and the boys as Ian had all but sworn his life away for a scrap of approval from his father.

 

He didn’t have to think about how, in the end, they all might.

 

But of course he did. He thought about Rogers until his brain ached.

 

What was he to make of a man like Stefen Rogers? On the one hand he was everything Tony had expected from a vaunted military hero and on the other… the man who’d stood before Weiss did not fit the portrait of Captain Rogers, hardened office of the Reich.

 

That man’s existence was impossible and yet, Tony had seen him, heard him call Weiss a friend and had believed him. That man was someone even Tony would have followed into war.

 

Perhaps that's what Germany saw in him. Captain Rogers: a fixed star, a rallying point, a shepherd boy for the lost sheep.

 

And then Tony imagined so clearly those blue eyes watching him closely as he wiped grease from his brow that Rogers might as well have been looming over him; he could feel their intensity, the spark low in his belly they ignited.

 

It was around that time that Tony let his wrench drop to the floor of the garage with a discordant clang and pushed himself out from under the car with a muttered curse.

 

He’d worked through the night, but it was still too early for breakfast so Tony had given himself the grand tour again, moving through the rooms of the house feeling largely like an interloper as the staff went about preparing the house for another day. He made his way down to the kitchens, out to the garage and the gardens, and eventually back to his quarters to wash before breakfast.

 

After the meal he’d made his way to the day room near his own quarters. He hadn’t written to either Farkas or Rogers yesterday, and he couldn’t put it off much longer.

He’d made himself at home riffling through the drawers for writing supplies and made a gauge attempt at relating to Farkas what tidbits he’d gathered on the Captain.

There wasn't much, at least of a political nature. There hadn’t been anything suspicious or noteworthy in any of the rooms he'd been in thus far. He was certain anything of value or importance would be kept in the captain's office, locked, or in his bedroom, also locked, and since Tony had no reason to be in either of those spaces if he were seen he’d have to wait for a more opportune time to pick the locks.

He really was no good at spy work he thought irritable, and not very good at tutoring either it seemed.

But he couldn't fix that one anytime soon and the other he was working on, so in the meanwhile there were letters to be written. Tony resettled himself in his seat and flipped on the radio, using up the fountain pen ink just to be a brat and concentrated on detailing the mundane existence of the Rogers household for his two overly demanding masters.

Rogers has been gone nearly a fortnight and while his last letter indicated a desire to return the pictures of him in the paper swaning about Vienna with statesmen and pretty women would say otherwise…

 

Tony frowned glancing from the letter he was penning to Niklas toward the wall adjacent to his bedroom as if he could see through it into the drawer were he’d tucked the captains last letter in the nightstand. He was again having trouble reconciling the man he’d witnessed the morning the captain had departed with the man captured on the front of the society pages. None of it made sense to him. He grabbed the parchment where he was dictating the children’s activities in excruciating detail to the captain and added:

 

At precisely three o’clock in the afternoon James inquired on your whereabouts and when we could expect your return. I calculate that this is the fourth time since your departure that he has asked, which is only beaten by Maria’s three and an aborted ask – as interrupted by Artur’s arrival with a mouse (please see the graph below as a reference for said mouse). While I would never presume to interrupt your state dinners and no doubt important social gatherings, their consistent asking after you leads me to believe your presence at home would be of some value of its own.

 

Smiling to himself Tony flipped the dial on the radio, static fuzzing in and out until he found a new channel, still relishing the fact that he could. Radio’s had been banned at the abbey as Niklas had felt the brothers stood a better chance of staying out of German prison camps if they were left somewhat ignorant to the outside world (and of his own political activities no doubt). But of course none of them were stupid men, and news reached the abbey through the mouths of strangers and visitors passing through or the occasionally smuggled newspaper.

 

They’d all known what was happening to an extent, but it must be made to look as if they didn't, as if they had no other agenda outside the church. Harmless monks would not present a threat and could not be arrested so easily with the Vatican watching, even though the Führer was well aware that rebellion was spreading through the churches. He’d begun to ferret out the resistance by infiltrating the churches with spies, and if the Abbott’s dire warnings were to be believed, he was having great success.

 

No one could be trusted. No one was to really know how organized or how wide spread the resistance was. No one but Niklas himself, Tony didn’t doubt.

 

He’d been sheltered in that way, and now there was a shallow thrill to having as many choices of news as he did. He'd already leafed through a copy of Der Stürmer that one of the maids had left in the staff quarters but the endless ramblings about ethnic Germans in Poland and their plight of persecution had inevitable bored him. He'd gone searching for more of the magazines but had found only the daily paper and the local HJ magazine that held the youth programs schedule for the week.

 

He’d expected to find some of course, but for an officer of the Reich the good captain had far less S.S. themed literature than Tony would have predicted.

 

He caught himself puzzling over the contradictions that the captain presented and snorted derisively at himself. So the man wasn’t big on reading. It was hardly indicative of good character. If the penmanship in his letters was anything to go by reading and writing had come to Rogers late in life and probably reluctantly at that. Nothing more to it.

 

He turned the knob once more and Marlene Dietrich’s soft butterfly voice filled the room.

 

He finished the last of the abbot’s letter with a flourish and shuffled his papers, beginning again on his letter to the captain. Three pages about the mouse Artur had found ought to please him. The captain would enjoy reading the mathematical weight and length of the mouse as well as the ratio at which the little boy had held the creature to the ground. Tony had even drawn a picture.

 

It was intermingled with Natacha’s fight to plait her hair. Tony had seen her storming back upstairs after James teased her at supper. She'd spent the next half hour tackling her hair into submission. He'd been surprised there was any hair left on her head after seeing the hair brush she'd left discarded in her room so, of course, There were at least four paragraphs detailing the submission of Natacha locks with an estimate of hair depletion as well as estimates for her next round with brush and comb.

 

“Detailed enough, Mio Capitano?” He murmured with an accomplished grin. 

 

He'd never been accused of being mature. Brilliant, but never mature.

 

He had to change certain aspects about the lessons (mainly that they’d had them since the disaster the other day) and then it was onto Ian. Tony paused over the letter, once more, blinking as he drew a blank. He pictured the boy: average height, skinny, though not as skinny as his brothers (already Tony could see the makings of his father’s build). But he was lost as to what Ian had done with himself the previous day. Or anything he’d said for that matter, he was so quiet!

 

He and the little one, Maria.

 

He propped his head on his hand. What had Ian done yesterday? After breakfast the children had gone outside to exercise and then…

 

They'd gone outside Tony recounted to himself and froze.

 

The window across from him was cracked to let in the afternoon breeze. A bird squawked somewhere in a tree, the sound of panicked flaps filtering through the window. He could hear Herr Hogan clunking around underneath the family car as sounds drifted over from the garage. If he strained his ears enough he could even hear Pepper’s heels in the hallway as she paused to speak to one of the staff.

 

It was what he couldn't hear that had him worried.

 

Damn.

 

Tony folded the letter back into the drawer and sighed loudly. It was too quiet for seven children. Something wasn't right, the children were plotting or turning up trouble and Tony would hazard a guess that Natacha or James would be at the helm of it. He'd seen the look they'd shared his first night, it wasn't hard to figure who had decided on spiders in Tony's bed.

 

He hurried from the room and down the hallway, keeping his eyes peeled as he walked for anything amiss. They were clever but young and prone to bumping into things and he had only left them a few hours alone. Had they been this quiet yesterday? He couldn’t remember.

 

He checked their quarters first. Breezing past Pepper and, sure enough, the maids she'd been instructing.

 

“Can I help you fi-” she called out to him and he cut her off, ignoring the way her face settled into an unconvinced masked.

 

“No, no it's all under control!” He shouted as he sped up towards the children's rooms.

 

The ring leaders first. Tony skittered to a stop in front of Natacha’s room, pausing to knock on the door. He waited for an answer and when none came twisted the knob and let the door swing open. The room was pristine except for the hair trinkets she'd left out and a few of her GMC magazines.

 

Péter’s room was next. Tony wasn't sure what he had been expecting but it was, oddly, not the mess of books and knick knacks cluttering the room, enough for two boys he'd wager. It did look fresh however.

 

Tony merely glanced into the nursery where the little girls still slept. It was distressingly free of children. If the ring leaders were gone then there was barely any point in looking for the others in their rooms, Tony was thinking to himself as he turned his thoughts toward the outside and searching the house grounds.

 

He nearly tripped over his feet stopping himself as he darted past Ian's room. Ian's room with Ian very much still in it.  

 

Ian blinked at him from his upside down position on his bed, the comic book he held balanced precariously on his knees almost whacking him in the face as he attempted to sit up, his eyes widening at the sight of his tutor.

 

“Herr Stark?”

 

The room Tony knew was normally tidy even though it was inhibited by the three youngest boys. However, Ian sat in the middle of what looked like a bomb site. Everything clothes, books, toy figurines, even the bed sheets, were thrown about. If the dresser could have been dislodged Tony was sure it would have been across the room in smithereens.

 

Ian blinked up at him swallowing thickly.

 

“I didn't do it!” He rushed to explain, managing to sit up fully.

 

“Of course, it just came like this I suppose?” Tony countered still taking in the destruction in the room with a sinking feeling. Pepper was not going to be happy.

 

Ian shook his head and didn't offer up anything more; but his eyes betrayed him flickering to one of the other beds before he swallowed.

 

“I think one of the maids was looking for something. Or... maybe Herr Hammer? He comes in sometimes.”

 

Right, clearly it was one of his brothers then. Likely the one who slept on the bed his eyes couldn’t seem to stop straying to.

 

Tony sighed and wagged a finger at him. “Not fair, Ian. Don’t blame the staff for Artur’s temper. You could cost someone their job.”

 

Ian's faced colored but he sat up straighter and snapped.

 

“Artur didn't do anything!”

 

Okay then it was James. Tony really did not want to be dealing with this right now or to have to admit that it had happened because Tony hadn’t been keeping as close an eye on them as he should have been (considering they should technically have been in the schoolroom right now going over their History).

 

“Ian, where are they? Chop, chop, I don't have all day for games!”

 

Ian clenched his jaw and opened his book again. He'd made a clear little space for himself in the midst of James mess. He sat the book on his legs and turned the page, scratching the bare bit of ankle that peeked out from under his folded legs, his jaw set, determined to wait Tony out.

 

Tony was growing very familiar with that look (damn Rogers).

 

“Ian,” Tony prompted, warning clear in his voice.

 

“Where are who, Herr Stark?”

 

Tony raised a brow, not sure if Ian was capable of playing at innocence or if his usual forthrightness could be relied upon. Judging by the rolled up trousers ungracefully hidden under his night stand (one wet leg poking out, rolled and wet where the knees might be, as if someone had tried to rub out dirt stains and then hide them) Tony was willing to hedge a guess on it being the former.

 

That whole ruining clothes thing had to stop. He'd be damn if he was fishing out clothes from the drains because they were too afraid to show they had dirtied them.

 

“Natacha and James.” Tony supplied succinctly and Ian raised a brow of his own in challenge.

 

“Where do you think they are, Herr Stark?”

 

Tony wondered how Pepper dealt with so many versions of what Tony was beginning to coin the Rogers stubbornness.

 

He took a long exasperated breath though his nose and shot in the dark.

 

“I think James lost his temper again, and that they should have sent him to cool down instead of leaving you to deal with his bad mood. It’s hardly fair to you.”

 

His eyes flickered over Ian's crumpled pants again.

 

“James got you dirty. You hate being dirty and James hates being told what to do. You got into a fight and Péter probably sent you back inside, and that’s when James decided to redecorate.”

 

Ian lowered his book eyes wide with shock.

 

“If you knew all that, why did you need to ask me?”

 

“I didn't know.” Tony replied, gathering a little enjoyment from the way Ian's eyes widened even further in confusion. “It’s called deductive reasoning. If you’re interested, maybe it’s something I can teach you.” He turned and then with a wink he tossed over his shoulder, “Carry on.”

 

Tony disappeared towards the front doors determined to find James and the others now that he had an idea where he might find them (down by the lake), judging by the water on those pants. He'd told them to go play not start a civil war!

 

He’d made it just to the end of the hall before he heard the patter of little feet behind him.

 

He tried not to smirk.

 

~*~

 

Despite his fears Tony did not find Natacha and the others entangled in some mischief. Outside it was a gorgeous day- and had it been Tony he’d have found some way into mountains of trouble by now- but the five little bodies all drifting aimlessly through the courtyard were such a despondent sight that any irritation Tony had felt marching to find them, quickly dissipated.  

 

James, the farthest away, gave Tony and Ian a salty look from his spot by the driveway before turning back to the business of kicking pebbles.

 

The Rogers children truly did not know how to play it seemed. Well, not fully. Artur was dragging a stick about making drawings with Maria but even in that they were far more careful than any five and seven-year-old had a right to be when it came to sticks and dirt.

 

Péter, sitting beneath a tree nearby had his head buried in his arms as he watched Natacha play solitaire with herself. Or perhaps she was simply counting the cards (it was hard to tell). Either way they both looked miserable.

 

And it was at that moment that Tony made a decision that things could not go on as they were. The world might be screwed up but this he could fix. He was good at fixing things.

 

Tony nearly jumped out of his skin when a shrill whistle blew just behind his ear.

 

He turned to find Herr Hammer lowering the whistle and leering at him.

 

“Lunch is ready, Herr Stark.”

 

Well that was petty. He really could have just said so.

 

“Yes, I heard,” he growled as the children passed him, filing back toward the house. Surprisingly Ian stayed by Tony’s side. It might have had to do with the filthy look James shot him but Tony wasn't judging.

 

“After dinner Frau Hogan would like a word with you about the schedule for the remaining week.”

 

Tony shook his head, trying to rid himself of the ringing in his ears. The goblin of a butler only smiled and waited. 

 

“That's fine. Do you have a moment?” Tony asked because once decided he wasn’t one to wait around.

 

“For you Herr Stark, only just” Hammer sneered and Tony bared his teeth in a hard smile.

 

“I need to go into town tomorrow and pick up some items. Fabric and such. If Harold and I can get the car run-” but Hammer didn’t let him finish.

 

 “Fabric? For what? Frau Hogan has already order new fabric for your-.”

 

“-Not for me, for the children.” He interrupted because the faster he got permission the quicker the conversation would be over.

 

“For the children?” Herr Hammer stared at him as if Tony had slowly started to drool.

 

“For play clothes, something they can get dirty.”

 

“The Rogers children don't need play clothes.”

 

Christ on a mule, didn't anyone ever get tired of saying that?!

 

“With the lessons I have planned I think they very much do.”

 

Hammer’s lips puckered like he’d tasted something foul.

 

“Frau Hogan is the one to speak to, Herr Stark, but I warn you she wholeheartedly agrees with me on the matter. There is no need. It would simply be a waste of money.”

 

The butler tilted his head and glared down at Ian. “She's busy now with the mess left in the young Master Rogers room.” For Ian's part he stood his ground but his shoulders hunched and the boy didn't correct the butler, eyes seemingly fixated on the polish of his shoes.

 

“It’s fine. I’ll take care of it.” He found himself defending, stepping closer to Ian who blinked up at him startled.

 

“It is most certainly not fine Herr stark. He's even gone so far as to tear the curtains. They’ll have to be replaced. And it's not the first time either is it, master Ian?”

 

Ian was as still as a statue, his face going red as he mumbled a reply.

 

“No, Herr Hammer.”

 

“We should keep control of our tempers, shouldn't we? The Captain will be so disappointed.”

 

“Yes, Herr Hammer.” Ian muttered, shoulders sagging and face flushed with shame.

 

“Alright, it's time for lunch you said?” Tony placed his hand on Ian's thin shoulder, guiding him towards the door and away from Hammer’s domineering glower. “That's what I thought I'd heard but my hearings been off, what with all the sharp noises. Ian come along.”

 

He ushered the boy inside and allowed the door to shut in the indignant butler’s face.

 

~*~

 

Dinner that night was a quiet affair. The air of misery that had been hovering all afternoon had not dissipated, settling comfortably over the children's heads like the wettest of blankets. Even Sara seemed to know it was a night to be miserable. The only time any of them had spoken was when Natacha had asked if any word had come from their father.

 

They missed him, in that chronic way that children with absent fathers tended to. It was an ailment Tony had never figured out how to cure.

 

It also might have been why Frau Hogan had started joining them for dinner. Tony didn't think it was a coincidence that she was sat in the captain’s usual seat.

 

She was staunchly ignoring Hammer’s pinched look. Tony could practically hear the butler’s internal screech, aghast at the impropriety. It was not at all the done thing.

 

Tony grinned to himself, sipping quietly from his cup. He knew there was a reason he'd liked her from the gate.

 

Hammer was correct however. He couldn't think of a man, let alone an officer, that allowed their servants to eat at the table with them. Or hug the children.

 

They were an odd family of a sort. Weiss had a place here, as did Pepper. So where did that leave Tony? He ate with the children now due to the captain’s absence but what about when he returned?

 

He wondered if he might be sent to eat in the kitchens. He wouldn’t mind that too terribly. Almost reminiscent of his boyhood, when Hughard would be irritated enough to send him from table and he’d join Rhodey and the maids for their dinner. He’d always been far more comfortable with the servants than at table with his parents and their guests anyway.

 

Yes he’d be just fine with that: regulated to the kitchens with the cook Willamina and the other night staff. It was better there anyway, to be in the kitchens with the room to move about freely without the social constructions of a formal dinner weighing on your shoulders. He’d always hated formal dinners.

 

Only, he’d have to leave the children and stubborn lot that they were he’d likely miss them. And god knew they needed someone to help alleviate the demands on their shoulders. Little Sara barely reached the table.

 

Tony had gotten up to push the small girls plate closer to her (already thinking up ways to add length to her chair legs) when out of the corner of his eye he spotted James stealing a roll from Ian’s plate while his brother’s back was turned. Without much thought beforehand he grabbed the boy’s wrist and plucked the roll from his hand.

 

James blinked up at him in surprise as Tony sat the roll back on Ian's plate without comment, making his way over to Maria who was dragging her elbow in her meat sauce.

 

Tony could feel James glaring at his back but he was fine with it, amused even. He was no stranger himself with stealing food off of other people's plates (fasting had never been Tony's favorite way to applicate The holy father and unfortunately it was all the rage amongst monks) James was just sloppy at it. Fil would have caught James and had him cleaning out the old bee hives in the blink of an eye. And after Ian's show of (admittedly ridiculous) loyalty in taking the fall for James’ tantrum earlier that day, the boy ought to be far more gracious.

 

Pepper, helping Artur to cut his food, watched him, her eyes following Tony about the room. Still sensing James’ glare on his back Tony winked at her and cleared his throat.

 

“James, did you want another roll?”

 

The boy didn’t answer, grinding his teeth mulishly in that (patented, Tony was going to get the damn thing patented) stubborn Rogers way. Next to him Ian was already reaching for his own roll to offer to him and Tony frowned. What was wrong with him? Tony didn't know eleven-year-old’s existed who gave away their food by choice, and Ian’s little brother was terrible to him most of the time. Where on earth had Ian learned to be so self-sacrificing?

 

“Eat your roll, Ian” Tony admonished and Ian’s hand halted halfway to James plate, while the younger boy’s glare intensified.

 

“Jamie boy, you can't steal people's food. That'll get you a black eye, believe you me.”

 

“I wasn't!” James immediately started to protest but Pepper interceded with a stern clearing of the throat and even sterner frown.

 

James sat back in his chair with a sullen pout. And true to form, Ian pushed his untouched roll to the side of his brother’s plate.

 

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

 

Tony finished wiping Maria's arm off and looked over his miserable little crew. It was time to fix this.

 

He should have known it would be a losing battle doing things the captain’s way. Tony was no good at following orders and now look how turned around they all were. Better always, to do things his own way and ask forgiveness later.

 

“So!” Tony plopped back down in his seat, clapping his hands together to gain their attention. “It has come to my attention that I may have a lot to learn about this whole teaching thing. It’s my first time, what can I say? But I’m quick witted. I’ll get the hang of it. In the meanwhile I’m going to need your help.What is it everyone wants to learn?”

 

Everyone, even Pepper, stared at him.

 

“Come on, come on, I know you're all clever little foxes and the material is boring you to tears. It’s boring me, so let’s just toss everything-” noticing Pepper’s glower Tony quickly amended, “that isn’t required by your father that is, not those things surely, but we can toss everything else and design our days around things you’d be interested in learning. So, I’m all ears. What is it you want to learn?”

 

The children watched him with distrust (not that Tony blamed them after their last lesson). Not a single one of them volunteered an answer. 

 

“Herr Stark-” Pepper began but Tony rushed over her.

 

“We'll learn what Germany wants, of course. Can’t shirk the curriculum can we? But if so many hours of the day have to be focused on lessons I see no reason they can’t learn what they want too. Electives, children are allowed some electives aren’t they?”

 

The children in question looked at each other uncertainly but Tony could see the idea taking root. Péter shifted forward in his seat, giving Tony more attention than he had in the last twenty four hours alone. This was good. He could work with this.

 

“It’s your education so it’s your choice. What’ll it be?” Tony asked.

 

Péter wiggled in his seat, words all but battling their way past his closed lips as he tilted his head, eyes questioning.

 

“Chemistry?” he finally offered, hesitantly. “The other governess said I was too young.”

 

“Nonsense. There’s no age requirement for a scientific mind Péter” Tony's response might have come a bit too boisterous (judging by the anxious way Maria jumped in her seat) but he couldn't help the grin that was spreading over his face. “Perfect, Peter!”

 

“You’re a chemist?” Peter asked doubtfully.

 

“No,” Tony answered just as enthusiastically as before. “I mean of course I know of it, I'm just not an expert. But I can become one by the end of the week. You’ll have to excuse the wait time but I’ll have to write to Brother Bruce who has all the books – I doubt your father has a secret stash of chemistry books we don’t know about – and you know how slow the post is. Who’s next?”

 

Péter looked even more doubtful but his answer had stirred the rest of the children.

 

Natacha raised her hand then, snatched it back down, blushing faintly at the ingrained reaction before she straightened regally in her chair.

 

 “Do you know any languages?”

 

“Do I? Anything you want, English, Latin, Greek-”

 

“French,” she interjected with a gleam almost like lust in her eyes. It was the most enthusiastic he'd ever seen her be so of course he couldn’t resist teasing her.

 

“Italian it is!” he crowed and she blinked at him taken aback.

 

“No, I want to learn French” she repeated and, yes, there it was the clenching of the jaw, right on cue (although her version of it had her chin tilted up and lips pressed).

 

“Italian is a beautiful language, much better than French, better than German even. Italian is like spoken water-”

 

“-Herr stark” Pepper said from across the table, again warning him, though there was not much heat behind it.

 

“Pepper have you heard German?” he whined, as if they weren’t currently speaking it.

 

“French,” Natacha insisted stubbornly but she glanced from Pepper to Tony, her eyes narrowed, unsure if he were teasing her. Tony eased up.

 

“How about two for the price of one?” he bargained. Honestly she was the daughter of a German officer, one on the rise at that. She should be fluent in more than German, no matter what the ideology was. It was just logical.

 

Her eyes narrowed even further, “I can learn both?”

 

He hummed as if he were thinking it over when in reality he was dragging up the southern French his mother had drilled into him (he was in for a lot of studying himself it seemed). Natacha waited, her frame humming with suppressed eagerness.

 

“As long as you don’t mind speaking it with an Italian accent I don’t see why not.” And then, just to test a theory he tacked on a dare. “If you think you can that is. It’s a lot to take on.”

 

Her response was immediate.

 

“I can.”

 

Tony grinned at her. He had no doubt that Natacha Rogers could do anything she set her mind to.

 

Artur chose that moment to slap his palm on the table, causing Tony and the rest of the table to jump in alarm.

 

“Susopids!” he demanded eagerly, only for his face to crease into a frown at their blank expressions.

 

“What you said the other night. When father was here. Susopids!”

 

“…Pseudopods?” after a moment of wracking his brain Tony remembered his first night, chattering about the different types of spiders (mostly to get under the Captain's skin) and Artur making a fuss with James. He wouldn't have thought Artur had cared so much to remember the conversation.

 

“Yes, those! I want to learn about spiders! And all the other animals, bugs too!” the boy paused for a quick breath and then added as an afterthought “Please!”

 

In the corner of his field of vision Pepper was shuddering.

 

“Spiders, bugs and all the other animals. Alright, let's start with bees, she'll we?” Tony prayed the answer would appease him because he already had quite a bit of homework for the night.

 

Artur thought it over, his hand traveling to his mouth again. It was a nervous habit that only seemed to come out when Artur was very unsure of himself.

 

Tony opened his mouth intending to reassure him that it was okay to be excited and that his wants and wishes weren’t going to be rejected when James surprised them all. It wasn't so much his interrupting that was the surprise but the quiet volume at which he did it.

 

“Could we make a boat?” he asked, and the gaze he directed at Tony was guarded but for once lacked any sort of anger or dare.

 

 It was a night of miracles.

 

“Like a sail boat?”

 

When he asked this, James nodded and murmured that he liked boats.

 

“Well then you’re in luck. I might have to be an overnight chemist but I am without a doubt the best boat maker in the world.”

 

James tilted his head a small challenging smirk to rival Tony's own slowly easing onto his face.

 

“How do you know you’re the best?”

 

“Well my father, he revolutionized ship building, put Germany on the map, but all of that is just fanfare. He used to say nobody sinks a Stark ship, and that’s how you know we’re the best.”

 

“So your father was the best, but I thought you were a monk… so how do you know you are?” James countered and normally Tony would take all sorts of offense to that (and his smile did go a bit brittle around the edges he had to admit) but he couldn’t deny the open curiosity in James voice, and he didn’t want to ruin what progress he’d made by snapping at the boy and taking out all his issues on him.

 

“Because I might have taken a twenty year vacation to the land of dull and fasting, but I was building boats when I was Sara’s age. It’s in the blood. But I suppose you think I have to prove myself?”

 

“Yes.”

 

The smirk had returned to the boy’s face as he nodded, and Tony snorted shaking his head. Some people had some nerve. And he wasn’t grinning. His mouth had developed a tick that was all.

 

 To distract himself he turned to Ian and asked, “And you?”

 

Ian nodded his head at James and murmured something about liking boats as well, his eyes traveling back to Tony as if it had been a school question.

 

“Okay… but it’s for you. Just for you,” he pried and Ian looked back and forth between Tony and James, uncertain and fidgety as if he were searching for the right answer.

 

Before Tony could put the poor kid out of his misery, Ian was shaking his head and repeating boats.

 

“Ian, you can learn whatever-”

 

“-boats, please.” Ian insisted a touch louder and a lot more stubborn and Tony gave up while he was ahead.

 

“Antony.” Pepper cleared her throat and all eyes turned to where she was standing, smoothing Maria's perfect hair. She nodded encouragingly at the girl urging gently, “Go on Sweetheart.”

 

Tony was still gaping at the housekeepers informal use of his name even as Maria shook her head, looking back at him as if he might grow another head. Then she leaned to her left and whispered something in Artur’s ear and the little boy pinked sticking his hand into his mouth in a nervous gesture.

 

Tony waited, curious as Artur murmured something, his hand still mostly obscuring his mouth but Maria seemed to understand. She nodded hesitantly gaze fixed down at her lap.

 

Artur looked to Tony imploringly and Tony stared back at him in bafflement.

 

“Sorry, I missed that. I don't speak mumbles.”

 

Artur let his hand drop for a moment to answer again and then the tiny object was back into his mouth as if to stop any more words from coming out.

 

She liked music and would like to learn to sing. Tony's mind instantly went back to his first day, how she’d hidden in the music room and how she’d calmed during the storm when he’d taught them all how to yodel.

 

He could work with that.

 

Maria looked at him from under her lashes and muttered something that could have been German. Maybe. Tony highly doubted it.

 

He cupped a hand to his ear, leaning forward and asked her to repeat it (too many years of getting boxed around his ears) and she giggled, ducking her head as she repeated herself. Not that it was much louder, Tony was still at a loss.

 

Artur popped his hand out of his mouth with a groan of aggravation as if Tony were being particularly dense and making things difficult on purpose.

 

“She wants to learn French, Like Tacha, please!”

 

Tony blinked at the five-year-old girl, remembering the book she’d been sounding her way through during his lesson. She’d actually been trying to read it. She clearly comprehended enough to know what French was at least. Clever girl.

 

Pepper chuckled into her napkin and Tony glanced at her, ready to counter her criticism but the woman was looking fondly down at Maria. Though she hastily schooled her features when Maria looked up at her with large brown eyes.

 

“Perhaps you should finish learning to read in German, first? The housekeeper suggested with a poignant look Tony’s way.

 

“What about Italian?” Tony offered, pausing only to roll his eyes right back at Natacha before continuing.  “All the greatest music is in Italian Maria and you’ll want to know how to read it yes?

 

Maria’s eyes widened in delight as she leaned over to whisper excitedly into Artur’s ear. They all watched the boy, who was meticulous marinating his food in his meat sauce, expectantly.

 

“She wants to know if she would sound like Frauline Broise”

 

Tony tried not to heave an aggrieved sigh but it was a near miss. Anina Broise was a fine singer, if you liked lovely and female. Those (unfortunately) where her only qualities. Tony maintained that a woman like her, better than her even, could be found in every lounge or concert hall across the country.

 

She had a superb chest though, which heaved when she sang. Tony, during one of those rare events where Farkas had let him out of the abbey to travel among a contingent of brothers set out to lend aid to the poor and hear the woes of the people (or something of that accord, Tony had been more concerned with how quickly he could slip free) had gotten the chance to see her sing in just such a lounge a number of years ago. Admittedly he'd not paid much attention to her voice so he couldn't begrudge the woman too much of her stardom.

 

But hell if he trained Maria to be nothing more than a forgettable singer with a great chest. She wanted to sing? Tony would train her up into something truly great! No use doing something half way. No doubt his eyes had taken on a mad gleam because Pepper cleared her throat loudly.

 

“Herr Stark. I think something else would be more...appropriate.” Pepper caught his eye shaking her head slightly, a warning that looked far more like sadness in her eyes, and Tony couldn’t miss that he was back to being Herr Stark.

 

“Can you sing?” James questioned him curiously and Pepper's face shuttered a little.

 

“There are so many interesting things out there. Wouldn’t you children rather learn something else?”

 

Tony and the children stared at her. James hesitated and for the first time Tony could remember he shared a worried glance with Ian.

 

Pepper took a sip from her glass and asked if Maria wouldn't like to learn something else, painting perhaps. Which Tony thought was rather presumptuous of her. He could draw well enough, at least when it came to designing boats and machine parts, but he wouldn’t exactly call himself an artist. She had not rejected any of the other children’s suggestions; even Péter’s potentially dangerous notion of learning chemistry so there was no reason to stifle Maria’s hope to learn something of music.

 

Not unless she feared what Captain Rogers would think of it, and Tony knew that was the real reason for her protest. He scowled darkly. The man couldn’t be allowed to ban music for Christ’s sake!

Maria shook her head vigorously, turning from Pepper to Tony.

“No, I want to learn singing. In Italian, please.”

 

The request was loud enough for Tony to hear and his heart jumped a little as she fixed him with her earnest gaze. He couldn’t help the wild grin that split his features.

 

“Of course Honey,” he agreed without a second’s thought.

 

“Her Stark-”

 

Tony cut her off before she could finish. She must be getting so tired of saying his name  like that, he was certainly getting tired of hearing it.

 

“That's all settled then, after your other lessons tomorrow we'll start on your electives.”

 

“And the puppets!” Artur reminded him with a shout of glee. “Maria can sing while we have the show!”

 

Dear god, he'd all but forgotten the promised puppets.

 

From across the table Pepper smirked into her drink, the glass making her teeth appear shark like.

 

“Yes, Antony. You can't forget the puppets.”

 

~*~

Herr Stark,

I appreciate your dedication to my orders. I had begun to think that the brothers at St. Péter’s had embraced the teaching of the Protestants, what with your talent for interpreting commands however it pleases you. This one you followed to the letter and with admirable skill. I don’t think you missed a minute of the children’s daily activities. And good thing! Where would I be without such attention to detail? Artur’s mouse was 220 millimeters long? That is large for a house rodent and I can well imagine how long he must have mucked about in the garden to catch it.

No doubt he has ruined another set of clothing. I should be angry about that, but I find it hard to be angry in the face of my longing for home. I do miss them Stark. You have indicated on several occasions that I am too hard a father. If that is so, it is only because I wish the best for them. There is an advantage to good breeding that I myself did not have. I know the value of it even if they do not.

I love Austria with all my heart and proudly call myself her son; but there is great discomfort in being paraded as a symbol of Austrian purity. It is a lie told to sell more lies.

While I have always known that the components of my blood did not reveal any measure of my character, I remember a time when every name but Austrian was granted to me and I would not have been welcome to dine at my own table, let alone with the statesmen you so disdained in your last letter. There was some strife between myself and my late wife’s family the first few years of our acquaintance. No one could stomach a Von Trap girl taking up with a crass soldier quite literally born in the gutter; but my Peggy, she was always a woman of her own mind.

Margit was, in so many ways, my saving grace and I often find myself at a loss without her. War changes you in ways that are hard to dictate on paper- and as we head into another I can only ache for the boy I was before all this madness. It will seem absurd to a man of your upbringing I’m sure, but if not for her and the children, I’d trade every scrap of wealth I have to return to my boyhood in Nowy Sacz. For all that we lacked, we were rich in other ways. Men knew the value of their lives and the fickle nature of liberty. Never forget Herr Stark that she is wild, and must be held tightly or else she vanishes.

I digress, forgive me. I cannot answer at present when I shall return but I hope you will relay to the children my well wishes.

Sincerely,
Captain Stefen Gavril Rogers.

 

~*~

The children’s lessons had improved but there was no easy solution for the heat of the schoolroom, the length of the days, or the fact that with each day that passed the children missed their father more. Tony’s last letter from the Captain had been both surprising in its candidness and frustrating in the contradictions it continued to present him in regards to the captain’s character. He’d not expected Rogers to take his antics with such humor, nor to accept Tony’s thinly veiled criticism with such grace. He had definitely not expected Rogers to open up about anything personal. But for some inexplicable reason Stefen (Stefen Gavril Rogers) had seemed to find Tony’s rebellion funny (one might even have called his tone teasing in return) and for some reason even more inexplicable he’d chosen to share thoughts that Tony seriously doubted he’d shared with anyone else.

Stefen’s words (and it was so hard now not to think of him as Stefen) while not exactly riot inciting, were certainly despairing of the country’s direction, which nowadays was as good as treason.  If the letter had gotten into the hands of anyone else within the Reich… if Tony even had been more of a nationalist, Rogers might very well have found himself arrested. Perhaps he expected that his fame would protect him some, but nonetheless he had written dangerous words and it was baffling to Tony that he’d entrusted them to Tony of all people (Rogers didn’t even like him!). Was it learning that he was a Stark? Had Hughard been that much of a hero to him?

The thought didn’t sit well. But then again, Tony thought as he glanced out over the double row of small heads bent over their notebooks. Rogers had entrusted him already with far more. Perhaps it was as simple as that.

Tony tucked the letter back into the pocket of his trousers (that’s three times now he’d read it, one would think it was some great literature) grimaced at the heat, and then decided once more that it was time to take action and end all their misery.

The children were relieved to end that days lesson early (French verbs) and trudged from the room, no doubt eager to find cooler spaces. Tony set out for the maids quarters, newly resolved in his mission, because while it was all well and good for the children to be well bred little darlings with the right education to succeed in the world, someone had to see to their crumbling spirits; or else they would become the worst sort of adults the kind without any sort of imagination or hunger for the world- dull in other words. Tony hated dull people above all else.

It was far past time they got another of their electives underway and Tony thought that a little engineering lesson wouldn’t go amiss what with the puppets and boats in their future, but to get the right materials he’d need to go into town and since Hammer had already made it clear Tony wasn’t to use up Harold’s time with ‘frivolous nonsense’ he supposed he was going to have to hike it. Town wasn’t far by automobile but it was too far otherwise not to make a day of it. For that he’d have to take the children with; which in turn meant they were going on an outing. Tony had grand plans for the bikes he’d seen in the garage gathering dust (and for the ride along seat they were going to have to make for Sara) and by god they were going to have some clothes they were free to ruin if it killed him!

True Hammer had also denied him any extra fabric; but Tony was not called brilliant for nothing.

And that is why Natacha found him hours later stooped over a table in the day room transforming the curtain’s Hammer had instructed the maids to throw away after James’ fit into seven pairs of matching jumpers.

He didn’t hear her come into the room, perhaps because he was so focused on his stitches (stitching was not his favorite activity). One of these days he was going to invent a better machine to do it. Husqvarna was great and all but there had to be a way to increase the speed and dexterity of the needle, and some way to keep the fabric in place and turn it about (like a second pair of hands). Wouldn’t that be something? It would have to recognize shapes and lines to be fully functional. Why it would practically have to think for itself…

So you see, he was deep in thought when Natacha suddenly appeared at his elbow and hummed deeply in disapproval.

“What is that?”

Tony nearly jumped out of his skin. He stifled a curse as the jerking of his hands jammed the needle, effectively ruining the seam he’d been working on.

“Natacha!” He admonished, glaring at the girl who had appeared from nowhere to loom over the desk like a phantom in a magazine. “A little warning. I nearly lost a finger.”

But Natacha only had eyes for the stack of royal blue jumper’s he’d already completed, her brow burrowing deeply in displeasure as she grabbed the one on the top of the pile and examined it closely.

“What are these?” She asked again, though it was obvious she already knew.

“These are your new play clothes.” Tony informed her distractedly as he worked at freeing the fabric.

 “These are curtains,” She decried haughtily. “You can’t dress us in curtains. Father would be furious.”

“Your father will hardly know the difference-” Tony began, but to his shock the girl bristled like she’d been jabbed and dropped the jumper she held to the floor as if Tony hadn’t spent the greater part of the morning slaving away on it.

“Why? Because you think he isn’t coming back?! Then you are a bigger fool than I thought! He is coming back and when he does I’m going to tell him how you said we were stupid and how you tried to make us wear curtains!”

Tacere!” Tony barked. Natacha had worked herself up: the young woman’s face gone flushed and her whole body stiff as she glared at him with hands on hips but the command stilled her; though the tips of her red braids continued a fine tremble.

Tony opened his mouth – to demand to know what that had been about, to defend himself (he’d never called the children stupid he would never) to ask what had gone so terribly wrong in the space of hours for Natacha to behave this way – when the sound of running footsteps drew both their eyes to the door and Ian came bolting in, terror plastered across his face.

“Herr Stark, Herr Stark! You have to come. Come on!” Ian fell against the door as he shouted, waving frantically at them both and Tony’s heart leaped into his throat. He was demanding to know what had happened even as he and Natacha went rushing for the door.

It was Artur. Ian and the others had been playing outside. Ian had been practicing drills and Péter had wandered off when Harry had shown up with a telegram. Artur and Maria had wandered down to the lake without anyone noticing until Maria had started screaming. Artur was throwing some sort of fit, trying to drag Maria into the water. Neither child could swim.

When Tony reached the lake (Natacha and Ian running after him) his heart was pounding so fiercely within his chest he feared it would burst. The sight that met him was strange and terrifying. Artur – red face twisted up in rage – was wrestling with his younger sister, scratching at her and attempting to pull her by her hair as he screamed insults at her. Maria was wailing at the top of her lungs, curled into a protective ball as James attempted to pry the younger boy from off her back.

Tony had no idea what could possess the boy to behave in such a way, especially towards Maria whom he normally seemed so close with, but all he could think about as he grabbed the boy by the waist and yanked him away from his sister was the terror in Maria’s eyes.

Brown, wet with tears, and wide as saucers in her dirt streaked face: and suddenly he was back in that wood, peering through the leaves as he watched those police men beat Yinsen into the dirt, the white of his eyes going pink with blood as they struck him over and over again.

“Smettila! Stop it right now!” Tony barked in a frantic mix of German and Italian, his ears ringing loudly with the sounds of the children’s cries and Yinsen’s shrieks of pain. He felt ill, overcome with a sense of vertigo as he struggled to hold onto the boy’s writhing form. The boy lashed out with his feet, kicking Tony solidly in the shins and Tony cursed, his grip loosening just enough for Artur to slip from his hold; but it was not Maria he ran towards but the water.

He was shouting something, his voice warbled and broken on a sob so that it took Tony a moment to recognize it for what it was.

Mon ami. My friend in French (the French they’d been learning only hours ago). Artur, headless of his inability to swim had gone striding into the water, continuing to call out in French. He’d nearly gotten up to his waist by the time that Tony caught up with him, the mud and grime of the silty lake bed sucking at his shoes and billowing upward to cloud the water.

“Mon Ami!” Artur shouted, reaching desperately toward the water’s edge as Tony hauled him back to the shoreline. “Mon Ami!”

“Artur!” Tony let the boy drop onto the grass with a heave and a thud, gasping for breath and trying to blink the spots from his eyes. He couldn’t panic. He wasn’t a scared boy in the woods anymore. Yinsen wasn’t here. Yinsen didn’t need him anymore because Yinsen was dead. These children needed him.

“Artur what the hell is the matter with you!”

It went suddenly and starkly silent as Artur blinked up at him – stricken as if Tony had slapped him instead of merely shouted – shoulders hitching with aborted sobs.

When the boy didn’t speak Tony turned his head, laboring for breath to demand of James who had rushed to the boy’s side when Tony had dumped him into the grass “What the devil happened?!”

James swallowed nervously and licked his lips before he mumbled out a reply.

“…Artur caught a frog.”

“A frog!” Tony demanded. How the hell was this business about a frog?!

“He’s been showing it off for hours,” Natacha kneeling in the dirt with Maria’s head on her lap murmured in agreement and bolstered James nodded.

“He made it a little house… out of sticks. I think Maria was jealous because she kicked it over.”

“Am I to understand that you nearly killed your sister over a frog!” Tony glared down at Artur, and he had to struggle not to shout or reach down and start shaking him. And Tony could only watch as the boy’s face twisted up once more, this time in anguish as he crumpled once more into heartbroken tears.

“H-he was m-my friend! H-he wasn’t s-supposed to leave.

It wasn’t the explanation that drained Tony’s anger and left him feeling wrung, because that remained ridiculous (the idea that Artur could hurt his sister in such away over something as silly as a pet frog he’d owned for all of a few hours infuriating). It was the way Artur sobbed the word leave as if all he knew was the sting of abandonment (as if everyone he’d ever loved had left him).

To Artur, Tony knew, it had to seem like the truth. First his mother, now Sam, and his father left them over and over again (for a week with no end).

Tony knelt, hoisting the small boy into his arms with a grunt. Artur thankfully did not lash out this time and when he wrapped his thin arms around Tony’s neck and clung -burying his tear stained face into his shirt and just wept - Tony shuddered, holding him all the tighter.

“Shhh” he soothed rubbing the boy’s back as he began the long trudge toward the house. He gestured for the others to follow and they did, silently, Natacha carrying a now silently crying Maria. “Shh. It’s alright now.”

It was a lie. But Tony was determined more than ever to make it true.

~*~

The children did not see Tony for the rest of the afternoon or even at dinner, though the maids heard all manner of banging and clanging coming from the garage. Pepper would not tell them where he had gone, but they heard her mumbling to one of the maids something about curtains and frogs.

The reason for Tony’s disappearance was simple. Building a frog tank was easy (just a matter of cutting wood, pounding nails, and constructing a latched top with a grate) and only required the sacrificing of the broken clock.  Catching frogs was a lot harder and had never been something Tony had done much of as a boy to begin with and he wasn’t particularly skilled at it now as an adult. It took him far longer than he’d anticipated to catch one of the damn things that fit what shaky description James and Ian could provide. So long, that by the time he made his way to the room that Artur shared with James and Ian Pepper had already put the children to bed for the night.

When Tony walked up, tired wrinkled and wet it was to catch the hems of Natacha and Maria’s nightgowns slipping through the boy’s bedroom door. Curios, Tony approached as quietly as he could to peek through the door they’d left slightly ajar.

Artur was sitting up in his bed, Maria curled up beside him speaking too lowly for Tony to hear but the muscles in his chest tightened when Maria slipped her arms around her brother’s middle and pressed a soft kiss to his cheek. Thinking it an opportune time to present his gift Tony knocked and the children all turned as one to stare with apprehension as he pushed open the door.

“We’re going to bed,” Ian hastily reassured him even as Natacha laid a protective hand on Artur’s head.

“Maria couldn’t sleep, thinking Artur was still angry with her,” she informed Tony crisply, as if that were the end of the matter.

“Oh I’m sure,” Tony went along with it cheerfully enough.  “And that’s funny; because I know someone else who couldn’t sleep thinking Artur was mad at him.”

At that moment the frog Tony had spent his entire evening trapping for a life of capture (poor bastard) chose that moment to croak and Artur shot up like a rocket.

“Mon Ami!” He exclaimed, scrambling so fast over the comforter he nearly slipped and toppled off the bed.

“You found him! He came back!” the little boy shouted excitedly, rushing up to Tony with hands extended eagerly. Tony held the habitat out of reach and made a shushing sound.

“Shh quiet. If you wake Pepper we’ll all be in trouble.”

 Artur pressed his lips tightly shut as he accepted the wooden box from Tony, almost too small for it as he immediately had to set it down. The effort at quietness was ruined by how eagerly he bounced on his toes breathing heavily with barely contained excitement and by the excited exclamations of the other children as they gathered around it. In the habitat Mon Ami croaked and Maria giggled. Artur jumped up and down in place and said in the loudest whisper Tony had ever heard, “Mon Ami is the best frog ever! And now he has a house so he won’t get lost.”

“Yes, next time choose some wiser materials than sticks if you’re going to be building frog houses,” Tony drawled. “But listen, come here bambino,” Tony beckoned, mouth turning a grave line as Artur reluctantly left his prize and came to stand before him.

“You should be ashamed of how you treated your sister today. She’s small, and fragile, not unlike Mon Ami over there. I know you were sad and angry about losing your friend, but I hope you love Maria more than you ever could any pet.” Artur nodded earnestly and bit the lip that had begun to tremble. Tony felt bad for him but continued on.

 “Well you didn’t show her that today, not at all and it’s lucky that you’re both small and don’t have a lot of room in you for big grudges because she’s really forgiving. But before you think you’ve gotten off easy just remember it’s no desert for a week and early bed. Pepper and I have already discussed it.”

Rather than pout or protest as Tony half expected Artur nodded and fell against him. Tony jerked as Artur’s arms wrapped around him and squeezed.

The boy didn’t say a word, just holding on as if Tony were the last fixture on earth. But then again, Tony thought as his hand’s smoothed the blond hair sticking up atop his head, maybe they’d said it all.

Chapter Text

“That's where my father used to sell bread, after he left Malta. He’d bring leftovers home and crack the crust for me at night.” Sam recounted, pointing out the window to an abandoned shop. They watched it pass in silence, and it seemed the rattle and shake of the car as it rolled down the street spoke louder than words.

Since first sight of the city Sam had become strangely talkative for a man who had stayed up into the early hours drinking with the staff. Despite his familiarity with the city Sam gave Steve the gran tour, as if these weren’t streets he’d walked a million times. The words seemed to trickle from him without stop, the pained pause coming every now and then when the automobile gave a particularly harsh rattle, the indication of a headache.

It had started with places: people Sam had known and Steve through Sam. Stories upon stories comprising eleven years of friendship, well worn by retelling; and it had slowly branched out into a life that Sam had lived before coming to work for him, that Steve was realizing, too late to do anything about, that he’d known very little of.

As they past shops, practices, parks, and places Steve had known since he was a very young soldier (places Sam had known since he was a boy) Sam pointed them out. He told Steve about the underground music clubs (a motley crew of musicians and other passionate fools playing with the jazz sound coming out of America to hear him tell it), the first shop he’d ever delivered to after he’d followed his father from the farm his family worked, the first place he'd ever taken a girl (Der Nachtfalter nightclub) and the alley behind a shop where he and his friends used to go for a haircut (a clerk named Einar would cut their hair for a krone each, one after the other after his shift).

Steve sat quietly listening as Sam unwrapped his childhood. Most of the time he seemed aware that Steve was listening, other times Steve might as well have been part of the scenery.

It reminded Steve of his mother in the later days of her life. Steve had taken his three oldest boys to the coast with Sara shortly before she's died. She'd been ill for quite some time with a fever; the same that would infect him and later take Peggy.

His mother had wanted to see the sea and Steve always wondered now if she might not have known she wasn’t going to get better. She'd talked just like this, murmuring story after countless story as she sat beside him on the train, pointing out sights for the boys until eventually losing her voice. Just like Sam she’d spun tales from her girlhood and all the different places she'd called home before she'd met Steve's father and then finally, just as her voice had faded, about the first woman who had died in her arms, no older then Steve was now. She'd unwrapped her memories just so, her precious things, gently leaving them for Steve to pick up and keep safe.

Someone had to hold the proof that they had been there; they had lived.

Next to him Sam took a breath, pausing for the first time in a while and Steve caught sight of a familiar cafe, the same one he had met Virginia in all those years ago. The Rembrandt was closed now, boarded up with a large yellow Star of David painted over its windows.

Steve looked away, feeling sick.

Sam’s gaze lingered on the shop before he dropped his arm from the open window, keeping it safe inside the automobile, jostling the box of Wilamina’s blinners in his lap.

“That was a long time ago. I don't think I know this place anymore,” Sam finally said into the silence with a heavy sigh and Steve frowned, turning to counter him as outside the train station came into view down the block.

“It's still Vienna, Sam. It's still Austria.”

He wasn't sure if that was a hundred percent true, if the country he had loved and bled for was still unchanged in its heart, but he still hoped. What else was there to do?

Sam snorted, his eyes traveling over empty stores and their facades littered with Reich propaganda but he was silent on the issue the short distance to the station and Steve was grateful for it.

Together they exited and as Steve lugged Sam’s bags from the boot of the car he regret refusing Sam’s offer to help as his ribs violently protested. He was hunched over, taking a pinched breath when his eyes fell on a man a few yards away.

The man, smartly dressed in a long coat and hat, watched them closely, lifting a cigarette to his mouth, eyes intent.

Steve's insides went cold. The man continued to watch him well aware that Steve could see him.


***

Sam stayed silent through the emigration line and only seemed to start back to life when the officer at the desk demanded his papers with a pointed jab.

Steve watched from by the door, keeping out of the way.

There was nothing wrong in nature with a man seeing his long time employee off on the train, but in these times there was nothing quite right about it either when that employee looked like Sam. It was frustratingly stupid, in Steve’s opinion but he had a dangerous letter on his person and the children to think of. That man outside had been watching so closely, it still gave Steve the shivers to remember it.

A few people in the station were shooting him curious looks, no doubt wondering where they had seen him before. Luckily most everyone seemed inclined to keep their own heads down, ignoring each other mostly, shuffling in line, bags lined along their sides at their feet, children crying or chattering to their parents, bodies packed together in the tiny space. So many yellow stars among them. In this room, it was easy to get the impression all of Vienna was leaving.

Steve wiped at his neck, sweat dripping into the gap of his shirt collar. He wished they would hurry with Sam, there were too many bodies, not enough air. There was never enough air.

Unable to bear it a moment longer Steve started for the door, almost knocking an elderly man over on his way out. He swore under his breath as his bruised ribs flared in protest, making a grab at the man's shoulders before the man could tumble to the floor. The man, stooped with a broad work darkened face, grunted in pain and snapped at him in accented German.

Steve dropped his hands and took a step back.

“Przepraszam,” Steve babbled the apology, cringing as the foreign words leaped off his tongue and the man’s brow wrinkled in confusion. Too much dwelling on the past. He had slipped.

In proper German this time Steve gentled his voice and tried to ask after the old man’s welfare.

“Are you all-”

“No, no it's all right!” The man interrupted in Polish, similar in cadence to what the people of Nowy Sącz had spoken. His expression, which had been a frown so deep it had nearly creased his entire face, had gone slack in surprise and Steve didn’t know whether it was because he’d been knocked over by ‘the famous’ Captain Rogers or because said Captain had apologized in his native tongue.

“It's all right, sir. Captain Rogers.”

Steve stiffened as the two women closest to them perked in interest at his name. He nodded stiffly at them, biting out another apology as he made his exit.

Outside wasn't much better but there was less heat and press of bodies. Steve felt his breath come just a little easier. He looked out over the heads of people up at the swooping arches. He'd painted this station once, had at least a dozen sketches of it, yet as he looked out at the throng of people all jostling with their luggage and papers, their faces long and dark, olive and short, rosy white, a pallets of people all leaving Vienna, he couldn't help but think back to Sam’s words in the car.

He’d been right. Steve didn't recognize this place anymore.

Sam’s voice called out to him from across the tracks, prompting Steve to straighten up and look for him. He wasn't hard to find standing out amidst a group of pale faces lining up to board the train.

Steve made his way to the other side to where Sam waited, the trains steam pushing thick though the air between them.

“I guess this is goodbye, Stefen.” Sam began after a moment of thick silence.

Steve nodded struck by the sudden urge to touch Sam, to snatch hold of his coat sleeve and keep him there.

Sam lowered his hat, the brim obscuring his face and held out his hand. In fourteen years Steve couldn't remember shaking Sam’s hand, except perhaps during his initial hire. It felt hollow now, shaking his hand in thank you for his service as a grounds keeper and not as the friend he'd been.

Steve shook his hand, hoping the message came across anyway.

“I'll write you with Falsworth’s response, but I do wish you’d give it to me Captain.”

Quietly, not trusting the bustle of the station to completely mask their conversation Steve whispered, “I can’t risk it. Give Falsworth my message and have him contact Frau D’anvers. Tell them I’ll get the letter to them as soon as I can.”

Sam’s mouth twisted into a grimace and he continued in a whisper, “Have you thought this through? You stole from General Schmidt, a commanding officer!”

“I remember.” Steve interrupted, mindful of watching eyes and ears too close to them.

“This is getting bigger then either one of us,” Sam was insisting and Steve stepped closer, putting a hand on Sam’s bag to keep him from moving away.

“Which is why I need you to reach Falsworth. I'm in no position to be passing out leaflets.” And if he were honest he wouldn't if he could. Austria could not rely on the O5 alone. They needed a plan of attack. Civil unrest wouldn’t be enough anymore. “If we, if I do this, I do this all the way. There is no middle ground, you know that.”

Sam shook his head, his jaw twitching as he clenched it tight. He reached up and grabbed Steve's shoulder. “You know how I feel. This is my home, Stefen. I want to save it too but... look around you Captain. I'm not sure there's much left to save.”

The whistle blew behind them, the conductor's voice cutting through the crowd.

Steve stepped back, letting Sam's hand fall limp to the man's side, gaining much needed space.

“Someone has to save what’s left,” Steve called to Sam’s back as the other man grabbed a hold of the railing, hopping the little step and leaned out to yell over the noise.

“It doesn't have to be you. You have the children to think about!”

The train began to move, slowly squealing it's way out of the station. He jogged alongside Sam as the train picked up speed. “I am thinking about them.” he insisted.

“You'll get yourself killed! It's not safe to be who you are anymore.”

Something in Steve lurched, an unnamed fear awakening in his chest and he stumbled in surprise, swearing under his breath. Sam could not possibly know what Steve really was. He’d kept it close and locked away. He’d done everything, he was sure of it, to hide his difference.

“Soldiers are the first on the line and it's not just you this time” Sam hollered over the noise of the slowly moving train and Steve felt suspended, light headed in an unfamiliar way.

Sam had meant as a soldier. Of course. What else could he have meant? Nobody knew about the other thing.

Steve slowed, unable keep his pace, his ribs screaming at him to stop jogging.

He was jostled by the crowd of people running and waving as the train picked up speed carrying away their loved ones.

Steve, hoping Sam could still see him in that crush of bodies, lifted his hand in farewell. He saw Sam nod, almost imperceptibly, and his heart sank heavily into his chest.

“Look after yourself!” He yelled, throat tight. “Write!”

Sam saluted him and then turned to disappear inside the train, leaving Steve standing on the platform feeling disjointed. He wondered for the hundredth time if he was making the right decision by staying in Austria.

He’d been struggling with the decision to send the children away. He'd heard of people in the countryside taking in children. England, France, Switzerland , they were even making a profit out of it. While he knew it was perhaps bitterness that caused him to think so ungraciously, he could not think on the prospect with anything but.

The Kindertransport was for children in direr states than his own and would require splitting the them up. Families couldn't support seven children, and Steve, he just couldn't bring himself to separate them. There was still time to think of something else. It wasn't just his selfish desire to keep them close either. His mind drifted back to Strikers letter. He and the children were in a glass box, much like Artur's insects, afforded little privacy when they were so needed to perform in the governments parade.

They wanted people to believe in the Reich, to believe that the heart of Austria was untouched and that every citizen should be proud to give their lives for their new German masters. It said too much if the Rogers family did not play the part.

Every move they made was watched and Steve did not put it above Striker to intervene if word got out too early that Steve was planning on sending the children abroad.

He was making the right choice, keeping them together and appeasing the government where he could. They’d accept that Steve preferred the children be educated privately and they would find no fault in his choice of instructors.

Stark had been a lucky choice in tutors. Unconventional perhaps, but the power behind his name was irrefutable. The Stark’s had shaped industry, been almost the sole foundation of Germany’s economy after the loss of the Great War. If Steve was a symbol of Austrian strength than Antony Stark was the last living symbol of German resilience.

If he could somehow attain the man’s loyalty and get him to adhere to some semblance of sense, Steve knew that there was a chance the children might come out of this unscathed. It was something to believe in surely, a reason to keep fighting.

Because Sam was wrong about one thing. This was still home and a home was something to be defended. Steve would have to save it, and if he couldn't, well then, he'd have to avenge it.

 

~**~*~**~

 

Steve checked into the hotel that night and stayed in, the letter continuing to burn a hole in his pocket and his anxiousness to be rid of it only growing. The next morning he woke late from a fitful sleep and after telephoning the house to check in with Virginia on the welfare of the children he made his way to the Cafe Mozart in leopoldstadt where he was to meet Bucky. The coffeehouse was crowded with noonday patrons when Steve walked in. As the bell above the door chimed a familiar face looked up and started at the sight of him.

Kurt Dobas still had the beady eyes of a fox (not to mention the hair to match) and the man’s wide mouth split into a shark toothed grin.

“Captain Rogers! I can’t believe my eyes. It’s been years.”

Whether he meant to or not Cafe Mozart’s head host straightened his back with near military precision. Though Steve was sure he would have achieved full attention if his old injury would have let him.

It was impossible to see underneath the man's coal black uniform and crisp white shirt but Steve knew that if removed, it would reveal the long puckered scar that wrapped around Kurt’s body from navel to shoulder blade. A gruesome parting gift courtesy of the shoddy engineering of a mountain gun. Kurt hadn’t been the only soldier to kiss death that way.

Kurt bobbed on the balls of his feet and lowered his head to whisper somewhat dramatically, “I thought you’d be on tour. Otherwise I can’t see why you haven't come for a cup, Captain.”

Steve let himself a small smile though, trust Kurt to start straight in on the subject Steve was least comfortable with. Dobas had always been implosive, hotheaded and much too eager for good time and glory for Steve’s tastes. Even now Steve wasn't sure if Kurt had missed his company or the customers he brought in.

It felt uncharitable to think it. Dobas had a living to make as much as anyone, and not all the men in Steve’s unit had been as lucky as he was. He’d been decorated, paid handsomely for his contributions, and paraded like a hero to keep the civilians moral up while Austria rebuilt itself, while men like Dobas had been left to gather the pieces of their lives with next to nothing but their names.

Steve had helped with the rebuild, pouring his efforts into social reform while navigating the turbulent waters of Austria’s fractured government; but he’d always felt as if he should have done more. Peggy had warned him he’d run himself into the grave carrying the world on his shoulders, and in the back of his mind he’d privately thought she’d be right. He still wished sometimes that she had been, and that the damned fever would have taken him and not her.

Kurt grinned.

“shame on you, sir, If you’re not here when you’re not on tour I don’t know what you’re doing, clearly not living’

“I've been away, caring for my children. Colonel Phillips has been so kind as to give me leave to look after them.” Steve corrected, shortly.

Despite Steve’s agitation Kurt’s grin didn't waver. He waved a hand dismissively prattling, “That’s lovely. Gets you out of being shot at, doesn’t it. I should to have had seven myself.”

Steve had been called many things in his life but never once a cowered.

“I don't hide behind the cradles of my children,” he snapped.

This time Dobas couldn't miss the ice in his voice but the problem was Kurt had never been good at guessing when his charm had run out.

“I know Heil, Hitler!” He gave Steve a mocking salute and Steve tried not to snarl.

“One nation, one empire one leader! But a man’s got to stop and have drink and enjoy himself now and again yes? You ought to bring the children next time, they’ll love-”

“They haven't time either. I’ll need a table, Dobas.” Steve interjected, his voice earring on the side of military command. Kurt blinked at him, taken aback by his brusk tone, but thankfully even he had been too long a soldier not to hop to when spoken to in that tone by a commanding officer.

“Yes, yes of course, Captain.”

The thin man moved showed Steve to his usual spot, in the back near the east facing the windows. Even though it had been years since he’d occupied it something in Steve was relieved to see it unchanged. Kurt clasped his hands in front of him, leaning on the balls of his feet as if ready to take flight and asked with a painted smile if Herr Bakhuizen was to join him. The smile didn’t falter, when Steve gave a curt nod.

“I'll bring a plate of apfelstrudel” Kurt announced brightly walking away with a pep in his step. So it was the celebrity then and not his company, that had brightened Kurt’s day. While Kurt had tolerated Steve as his commanding officer he'd never gotten on well with Bucky.

Steve sat, heaving a breath as his ribs protested. The pain was good, he reminded himself, a needed reminder of the dangers of his situation. It would be so easy to forget, lulled into a false sense of security by the familiar and therefor comforting sights and sounds of the cafe.

The cafe crowd was mostly made up of artists, musicians, free thinkers. Most of them young people, university students who didn't know any better or care if they were seen in the leopoldstadt district, crowded as it was with Jews. The owners weren’t Jewish or gypsy to Steve's knowledge but it didn't really matter when the Reich was cracking down on places like this. Where passion and free thoughts were free to flow rebellion often sprung.

Cafe Mozart was one of the few coffee houses still open in the second district and given how much time they’d spent there in his youth Steve knew it was a risk to meet Bucky there; but he figured though it wasn't ideal the cafe with its crowded cushioned seats and constant din of conversation was a good place to get lost in.

Steve settled himself into a position that didn’t make his ribs ache quite so much and let the scent of coffee beans and baked bread sooth him. Had it really been three years since he’d sat at their little table in the back like this? He could still remember the night that he and Bucky had boarded the train from Nowy Sącz, or Novyj Sanc as their tickets had read, and made the trip to Vienna for the first time.

They’d spent a few months trying to find recruiting officers dumb enough to believe they were past the age of eighteen or desperate enough to pretend that they did. And by then Austria had been desperate. Steve was sure that the only reason it had taken them as long as it had to be accepted was because of how desperately young (not to mention skinny) Steve had looked at thirteen. But the war had changed them all. People were starving, especially in Galicia where people had been starving long before the war had even begun. They were too hungry even to fear the Russian’s guns.

Their little band of Bayash had dwindled to almost nothing, ravished by famine and disease and trampled under the feet of both occupying and defending armies. He and Bucky had seen one of the uncles killed over a loaf of bread…

The Monarchy had promised social reform, a new and better world for all of them, special privileges and full Austrian citizenship to soldiers and their families. Bucky had wanted to feed his father and sisters. Steve had wanted to be less of a burden to his mother, but more prevalent was the memory of his father reminding him of the proud history of Austria and the men who had fought to make it so. He had wanted to do his part in ushering in that brave new world the Habsburg’s had promised. He’d believed in it.

He’d still believed in it, even after the war was lost and the Monarchy in exile. He and Bucky had gone back to leopoldstadt after the war to celebrate their survival. They’d lived (when so many others had died) they couldn’t sleep at night but by god they could drink, and laugh, and kiss pretty women when so many of their brothers could not say the same. They’d barely slept, going from theater house to jazz club each night. Stuffing their senses with music, color, and flesh, and when all of that failed them the best liquor their pensions could buy them.

At least at first. For Steve the liquor had not soothed, the sweet sting of bile sour in his mouth reminding him too much of his father. It felt like a defeat drinking his nights away in such a way and he’d found better solace in his artwork; and it had the added bonus of bringing in more coin to send home to his mother. He’d sketched the entire district at one point. He’d been awestruck by the staggering height of the churches, the access to paint, music and food at every turn. It was a kind of paradise in its own way, a land of freedom and plenty, and for the first time he had felt pride in all that he had done. He’d fought for this, all of it, and it had been good.

He’d intended to live out his days here… looking out the window over the familiar architecture and the apartments squeezed wherever they could fit, he even imagined he might have been happy. But then the army had asked him to do a promotional tour and Philips had brought to him his concerns for the state of the country with Austria’s fragile new government and no police force or real army to speak of. Steve had seen no other way forward but to do his part. And then, while on tour, Margrit had come along and Steve had found happiness in measures he’d never dreamed of. Home to him became Salzburg with Peggy and she’d taken home with her when she'd left.

The rattle of dishes startled Steve out of his dark memories. He glanced up as Kurt placed a cup and saucer down in front of him.

“On the house, Captain,” the host said with a wink. “It’s good to have you back.”

Steve looked down into the large steaming cup and frowned. It made sense that Kurt would bring him his old favorite, but the smell of whipped cream and espresso curdled his stomach.

Einspanner was firmly set in a part of his life that was staunchly labeled ‘Before Peggy Died’ and he'd allowed himself little comfort since then. How that had happened he wasn't sure. If Stark were there Steve was sure he’d have something cutting to say about it; but Steve really hadn't woken up one day and thought, ‘I’ll never have espresso and cream again, to hell with chocolate!” it had just happened. Little things that reminded him of her: a certain song, the path he would take to the gardens at home, his room, the children. All the little things adding into big things until Steve hardly recognized himself.

The cafe was familiar and cozy hardly showing the strain of the times and yet Steve, seated in what was once a second home, felt out of place.

He forced himself to look up and smile at Kurt, sure it was falling flat, but Kurt nodded at him anyway in gratitude and swooped his way back to the front.

Steve sat, swiveling his spoon in his drink but couldn't bring himself to lift it to his mouth. Instead he thought about how he was going to explain to Bucky about the letter and how he was going to get Bucky on board with helping him stop the German army, which would mean in turn betraying their own country.

Bucky'd had Steve’s back from the first day they’d met. Sara and her odd little family had settled outside a new town, joining up with a small caravan of Bayesh, thankful at not being turned away when they could not fail to note her husband was gajo. One day his mother had left him with Bucky’s mother when it was her turn to sell at market. Rachel had sat Steve down with Bucky and told Bucky to look out for him because Steve was small and sick and Bucky would not be happy if a 'little brother' were to die.

Bucky, healthy, loud and presumably endeared with the way Steve followed him around their camp like a puppy, had taken the task to heart. The uncles had laughed and asked Bucky who his little gajo friend was and he’d declared that Steve wasn’t a gajo but his prala.

They’d been brothers ever since.

How then, did one ask a brother to risk everything on this one, and now perhaps final, venture? Bucky had a family, a father and sister, that he supported. Austria had made good on her promises to them both. Bucky had happily retired from the military with his citizenship and built a respectable life for himself. How could he ask him to betray that now?

“Stevie, you look like hell.”

Once more Steve started in his chair, yanked from his troubled musings, this time by the gruff voice of James Bakhuizen, better known as Bucky to his kin, as the man dropped his coat on the back of the seat opposite Steve and sat down. His face still carried a few days stubble from his travel and he quickly accepted the cup Steve pushed his way with a tired grunt.

Bucky drained the coffee half empty and then, licking the residue off his lip, regarded Steve with a heavy eye, drumming his fingers on the table. A staccato beat. Even now he was making music. Steve kept still as Bucky assessed his form.

“Hello, Buck.” He was unable to keep from smiling at his old friend, no matter the circumstances.

“Stevie.” Bucky greeted again, his tone short. His lips flattened into a line and he took a breath to cool his temper. He'd never been able to stomach Steve being injured. Seemed to take it as a personal insult.

“What the hell did you do to yourself?” He continued softer than before this time in Rromany, the language of their people slipping easier off his tongue than either the German or the Polish they’d learned ever could.

Steve’s heart lurched almost unpleasantly at the sound.

He and his family had spent much of his childhood traveling and he’d picked up parts and pieces of many languages out of sheer necessity, but for every place they’d settled and every jargon they’d picked up, they always had something of their own. Having a language of their own meant that wherever the caravan went they knew who and what they were. And no matter how Steve was teased for his blond hair and his gajo father, he knew he still belonged. He spoke what they spoke and they could never be strangers to each other.

Steve opened his mouth to reply and for the first time in years he couldn't instantly recall the words he wanted. A spike of panic shot through him as the words jumbling in his mind. Had he forgotten the words? Had he truly forgotten how to speak the language of his mother’s people?

It was only a moment of panic because in the next instant Bucky, who had grown impatient, leaned across the table and grasped a hold of Steve's chin flinched. Steve flinched as Bucky’s cold fingers held him in place.

Though it was a purely medical touch, the sudden movement still drew the eyes of several other patrons.

Steve closed his eyes, embarrassment heating his face.

“Buck.” His voice sounded like gravel.

“Zvekan!” Bucky cursed softly, some of the anger slipping from his voice, “let me get a good look at you.” He tilted Steve’s head and inspected the fading work of General Schmidt's men. Steve let him because the bite of Bucky's finger against his chin was as grounding as it had always been.

“Stefen,” Bucky murmured his name just the way he always did, drawing something warm up into Steve's chest where his heart had begun to pound.

Bucky held his face for a moment more, his hand sliding up to touch his check and Steve felt something uncoil in him. To his horror he felt tears begin to sting at his eyes and for a moment all he felt was wild panic as the shame of it began to overwhelm him.

Bucky smacked his cheek and thankfully the urge disappeared and that strange overwhelming hunger for touch he’d felt coiled back up into his chest.

He touched his smarting cheek and frowned across the table at Bucky who sat back and regarded him with a frank expression, like one would when they were assessing a stranger and Steve’s gut twisted. Had Bucky seen? Had he seen what Steve had tried so desperately to contain all these years? Why else would he look at him that way...

They had seen little of each other since the borders had tightened. The ban on jazz and American music had taken a toll on Bucky and his business. The young musician had taken to producing music through the cafes and nightclubs, traveling back and forth between Berlin, Vienna and Budapest. He’d been restricted to Budapest after border crossing had tightened in the last year.

But if Steve were honest, the distance had started before then. Peggy's death had changed Steve… and he knew not for the better. It had been hard on Bucky too, and hard on top of that to try and prop Steve up only to be pushed away at every turn. Steve had insisted on grieving alone and Bucky had left shortly after that for Hungry. He knew logically that Bucky had his family still to support, but somehow he'd not quite comprehended that Bucky would leave and then truly be gone.

He'd seen him every so often since then but it was not the same. Nothing was.

Bucky sighed.

“Well, Virginia's better at powder than I am. Good thing too. They got you good, Stevie.” There was a part of Steve that was glad to hear Bucky speak in his rough German, and another part that ached with loss. He shoved the feeling away because it had no practical purpose. They couldn’t go back and be boys again, even if it were safe to try.

Despite himself he could feel his smile twitching at the corners of his mouth.

Bucky glared at him, waiting, as Kurt Dobas appeared again and placed a plate of Bucky’s favorite strudel on the table and backed away, before he continued.

“Virginia told me the beating was bad. So whatever it is that you’ve found better be worth the artwork you got for it.” He picked up a strudel and bit into the crust. “ ‘Cuss from where I’m sitting it doesn't look like it was.”

Thankful that Bucky had decided to get straight to the heart of the matter Steve leaned forward, making as if to reach for a strudel, careful to whisper, “I've gotta talk to you.”

Bucky arched an eyebrow, unimpressed. “I’m here aint I? Start talking. I'm listening.”

“I mean somewhere else. I need-” Steve grimaced in frustration. He wasn't cut out to be a spy, had never been trained in this sort of warfare. He felt as obvious as an elephant in the parlor. To add to his embarrassment he could feel his cheeks starting to burn, as if he were a child caught in a lie. His gaze drifted to Kurt who had gone back to his position up from but was clearly still watching them.

Bucky snorted suddenly, drawing Steve's attention again.

“Jesus, Stevie you coulda just said.”

Steve's mouth dropped open a little in confusion.

“Excuse me?”

“It's about time.” Bucky drawled “Charlotte's only been throwing herself at you for months. Well as much as woman like that ever does. When-”

Steve’s face was on fire and he rushed to interrupt Bucky, grinding out in Romany, “-this is not about the baroness, you idiot!

Bucky laughed a full bodied sound.

“Oh, now the Bayash can speak Romany.”

Steve shook his head, gritting his teeth at the jab, “Listen to me, I've got something important I need to tell you about!” He had to stop himself from barking it like a command.

His eyes darted about the room quickly before he dared to go on. Everyone seemed lost in themselves, paying him no mind but then again they would. Quieter he whispered, “I'm being followed.”

Bucky's fingers stilled on the table top, raised and curled like a finger to a trigger, his face pale.

His lips disappeared again as he contemplated Steve's words. His expression blank.

“Followed? He said carefully. “By who?”

The unspoken word lingered between them.

Steve shook his head, frustration pooling in his gut again.

“Not anyone.. important” Yet. Steve had no doubt the minute they caught wind of Steve's intentions it would quickly be the last thing he did. “Most likely a puppet for Schmidt, hoping to catch me trying to hand it off.”

“So they're following you and now, by proxy, me.” Bucky nodded, far too calm for the news. “Damn it, Steve! Always gotta bite the big dogs.”

The moment was strangely reminiscent of their boyhood, of Bucky squinting down at him after landing his ass in the grass from yet another fight. He’d wipe the sometimes dirt, and sometimes blood, off his face and tell Steve what a fool he was. Always dragging out his name, doing something funny with the ‘f’ until it dragged like a ‘v’. He’d missed it Steve realized.

Steve took a breath and because he was fucking selfish, continued.

“I need help getting it into the right hands. Sam's too easily disposed of. A man followed us to the train and I don't think Sam would have made it to the border if I’d tried to give it to him. They’d kill him no questions asked, no one would notice him disappearing.”

“Steve, if what you’ve got is so damn important did it ever occur to you that the brass isn’t going to wait to see you pass it off to somebody? They’d jump Weiss first chance they got just for the excuse to search his body.”

Steve paled, the thought of Sam hurt, lying somewhere on the ground broken and bruised (maybe dying) because he’d been seen with Steve, because Steve had put him in danger and his gut twisted.

Steve shut his and shuddered, trying to block out the image from his mind.

A year ago, even months ago you needn't have worried about speaking your mind. Now it seemed like everywhere Steve turned there was another vacant spot where a friend had been. Caught supporting the wrong ideas. Arrested for the wrong politics. Knifed in their beds to path the way for Hitlers rise.

God, Sam. What had he done? There had to be someone to reach station, get in contact…

“Stefen!” Bucky’s voice snapped him out of the fog and Steve blinked at him, glancing down and startled to find Bucky’s hand gripping his shoulder. “Breathe, will you? It’s alright. Sam’s fine. You want to know why? ‘Cause you’re fucking paranoid. Some guy staring at you at a station could mean anything.”

Steve tried to take his advice and breathe. His fingers were numb. He glanced down at them, found them white knuckled and fisted against the tablecloth. He slowly unclenched them.

“It’s gotta be me,” he muttered. “People will notice if they get rid of me.”

For a moment Bucky looked as if he might get up and walk out. His face was pale and set in stone.

“You think you have impunity Rogers? You’re a soldier, disposable on the best days and these are not our best days.”

Steve steeled himself taking a breath to gather himself back together.

“If I can get the letter into the right hands it won't come to that.”

“And I suppose you need me to make arrangements for you, then?”

Bucky was still as a stone, that unreadable expression still resting on his face. Steve sucked in a breath, his body tight with tension as their gazes held.

“Do you know what you're asking me to do?” Bucky finally asked.

He did. Of Course Steve did, but there was no one else he could trust.

“Yes”.

Bucky stared him down.

“Do you know what you're asking of yourself, Stefen?”

“I wouldn't ask you if I didn't.”

And then as usual, Bucky struck right for the heart.

“Don't you ever get tired of war, Stevie?”

Tired of war? Life was war, Bucky ought to know that by now. Yes, Steve was tired (so tired he could barely think sometimes) but he was not yet so tired that he could turn his back on life.

Bucky was still speaking.

“There's always gonna be a war. You don't always gotta be in the middle of it.” The coffee sloshed as he picked up the cup to take another sip, droplets over spilling the porcelain rim. “Ever since we were kids” he finished with a slurp and a mutter.

“I’m trying to protect our country,” Steve bit out through his clenched teeth and Bucky sneered into his cup.

“The country’s changed, Steve. They all do. Hell, our home doesn't even exist anymore. Yesterday it was Galicia today it’s Poland, tomorrow it will be fucking Ukraine for all we know. You’ll spend your whole life fighting someone elses war if you aint careful. So busy protecting everybody elses life you never stop to have one of your own.”

“Bucky please,” he implored, searching his friends face for any sign of relent. He didn’t expect Bucky to understand, but he need his support just the same. He couldn’t do this without him.

Wordlessly Bucky swirled the cup and stared at the dregs at the bottom of the cup. When they’d been boys the street women had given them dregs to read, a practice they’d perfected and used to distract themselves from their miserable circumstances over the years. He could see them as they’d been, jostling about in the backs of wagons, predicting the most outrageous futures for each other. They used to predict things like fame, fortune, adventure and six dogs (Steve’s favorite prediction) but for all of that, Steve had never once predicted that he would die of old age. Bucky had, but only once, and that had been in the mountains surrounded by nothing but white and sheets of ice, the both of them so cold they were in danger of their next breath freezing in their lungs.

They'd been given their first cup of tea in months after a particularly harsh patrol that a fourth of them hadn't returned from, and Bucky, arms wrapped around Steve, had predicted that Steve would live to be an old man with seven grandchildren.

The memory, so clear and cold, stole his breath, and Steve blinked away the sting of tears, hot shame welling up within his chest once more.

Bucky sat the cup down with a clipped thunk and met Steve's gaze head on, oblivious to where Steve’s thoughts had gone.

“You aint special Rogers.” Bucky declared softly. “They know for sure what you’re up to and they’ll kill you, sure as rain. We’ve got to do this right. I know someone who might be able to get a letter out unseen but none of this midnight alleyway shit. The trick is to look like you’ve got nothing to hide. We’re going to spend a few weeks together: parties, drinking, celebrating whatever the hell we can come up with. Tons of people in and out, but it’s alright because you’re just living it up before you’re inevitably shipped off to a post in the S.S, right? There can be no room for doubt, you understand? If you give them reason to doubt they’ll destroy you.”

It was a long moment, with Steve’s heart pounding loudly in his ears, before he realized that Bucky was agreeing, and it wasn’t until he asked if it was true that he could bring himself to believe it.

“You'll do it with or without me and someone’s gotta teach you how to be covert.” Bucky answered; frowning down at his cup he muttered, “I think this calls for stronger stuff.”

Steve huffed out a laugh that made his head swim, dizzy with relief, feeling lighter than he had in months. He didn’t have to go this alone. He’d have done it, had been prepared to do it, but having Bucky at his side made even the impossible feel possible.

“Oh, are you our resident spy now?” He choked out, trying and failing to hide the constriction in his throat.

Bucky drained the rest of the coffee and waved Kurt over.

“Nah, it’s just that I've liked many girls but not the same one for very long. Eventually a man's got to learn to blend in or lose his cock. It's great motivation to keep your head down.”

As Kurt approached their table Bucky cheered loudly in German and clapped Steve on the shoulder, turning toward Kurt he boomed, “We're celebrating, Dobas! Bring out the orange cream and liquor.”

The man’s eyes lit up as he looked at Steve with interest. “Ah, what are you celebrating Captain?

“No, no. It's a secret for now, but it's gonna change things for the captain here, I promise you that.” Bucky insisted with a cheeky wink for Dobas.

Stupid bastard, Steve thought fondly, but Bucky’s easy charm seemed to do little too appease Kurt’s curiosity.

“Are you being promoted, Sir? I’ve always said-”

Bucky pushed him away before the man could finish talking.

“I said it was a surprise, Dobas. Jesus, Mary and Joseph you're no better at understanding commands now than when we were soldiers.”

Kurt stiffened, his lips twitching in a snarl. Steve could tell he wanted to say more but a glance around the room at all the faces now turned toward them stilled his tongue. He contented himself with turning back to Bucky, his face stony as he quipped, “And you're just as coarse as you were when we met. So I suppose we are both set in our ways.”

He turned briskly to Steve. “Captain. Anything else?”

“No thank you, Kurt. Forgive James his crass nature. I'd say he was raised in a barn but you know that already.”

Kurt nodded without any real indication he'd heard and bustled stiffly off. Steve tried to suppress a grin.

“Why do you always gotta get under people's skin like that, Buck?”

“Dobas? He's an idiot, Steve. Who else blows a fucking hole in their side and is proud of it?”

Steve could still smell the blood and could still see the open intestine, the way it looked lying in the snow. Grotesquely pretty. He and another soldier had helped hold the ribbons of organs in while a field medic stitched him into one piece for travel.

His throat was tightening again. He cleared it and looked back up at Bucky who was watching him closely.

“Buck, you don’t have to do this if-”

“It always gets me when you do that” Bucky interrupted, dismissing Steve's gratitude with with a wave of his hand as if he were waving away a bad smell.

Steve hesitated, narrowing his eyes.

“Do what, exactly?”

“That,” Bucky gestured vaguely at Steve. “Sound all posh and uppity, with your high class German. It makes me want to shit in your mouth.”

Steve nearly dropped the strudel he'd been idly picking at, shocked at the sudden vulgarity.

“Bucky, we’re in public!” he ground out but Bucky, almost as incorrigible as the child Steve had named after him, continued on louder than before, uncaring of their potential audience.

“I’ve heard worse come out of your mouth. You know I loved Peggy, and god knows she scrubbed you up nice, but you never used to apologize for being born in a barn.”

Bucky finished the last of his strudel, a defiant gleam in his eye and Steve pushed the last uneaten bit of strudel on his own plate toward him. It was a peace offering, one that Bucky accepted with a knowing smirk.

“That’s because I wasn’t.” Steve reminded him with a small smile. “You’re the high class one remember? I was born on the side of the road.”

~*~*~


Bucky’s contact was a dutch woman by the name of Janneke Van Dyne. An accomplished singer with a well to do father living in Holland, most of society chose to politely ignore the fact that she was part Siamese for the chance to have the woman lend her beautiful voice to their soirees and gatherings. Which meant she traveled quite a bit and could easily hide something like a letter among her entourage or so Bucky claimed. He wrote to her, asking her to come to Vienna on Steve’s behalf and there was nothing to do in the meanwhile but wait.

They spent the interim ‘recapturing their youth’ as Bucky put it, moving from one coffeehouse to the next, one smoke club to another. Bucky seemed to take it upon himself to introduce Steve to every singer, dancer, and socialite he knew, and Steve was sure he made a complete fool of himself not knowing what to say or where to look when Bucky’s pretty birds were fawning all over him.

For Steve’s part he let it be known where he was staying and when the invitations to dinners and well to do lunches poured in he surprised Charlotte by being the one driving their social calendar for once. He sat through readings and even an opera on the sixth day.

Though he had to put on the front of a man enjoying these last free days before answering his duty he couldn’t hide how massively uncomfortable the whole thing made him. By that point he’d have welcomed Shmidt and his men storming in with guns blazing to arrest him. He’d almost forgotten what it felt like not to be stiff and without a headache.

Actually running into Shmidt put a damper on that feeling however. It had almost felt like a relief the few times he was was called out to attend a rally or a demonstration in the city. While it made him sorely cross to don his new uniform with the bold swastika on the breast, the boots still felt right on his feet and he was still more at home with the men than he felt anywhere else.

It had all been fine until Schmidt had showed up at a rally for Hitler’s Youth, the boys waving him in, a sea of waving flags blaring horns and lifted voices. Steve had tried to stay out of his way at the following dinner but the General had cornered him, curling his long fingers around the barrel of his wine glass as if it were a neck as he inquired after Steve’s boy’s.

Where had the Rogers’ boys been, when the finest youths the Reich had produced were all here? Why weren't they attending the school that would hone them into warriors for the S.S? He’d asked the other other officers in the pavilion what they thought on the matter with a cutting grin and all their eyes had turned to him: curious, disapproving, and too suspicious for Steve’s comfort.

When Steve had repeated the story he and Virginia had come up with, about the children being ill and needing to be taught at home, Schmidt had clucked his tongue in a show of sympathy.

“It’s such terrible thing, not to be in good health. Your children always seem so ill. It’s not very German of them.”

They’d all laughed at that, and though the other men seemed to take it as a good joke at Steve's expense, Steve could feel the ice forming in his gut at what he’d known to be a thinly veiled threat. Schmidt was far from deterred.

Schmidt had held his gaze - the cold glittering expression in them promising that he would pry Steve’s children from his hands one way or another- and smiled, raising his glass in a toast.

“To your health, Captain.”

It was harder after that to keep up the pretense. Steve wanted nothing more than to fly home and see for himself that things were truly well with the children. There was a small terribly cowardly man in him who wanted to go home, pack all their bags and simply slip away into the night, abandoning everything and everyone else to whatever fate would meet them, so long as his children were not harmed.

It was a small part, but it was insistent and it screamed at him the warning that his failure to protect them would be the end of him. Bucky commented on his morose moods and even Charlotte had commented that he had seemed less than enthusiastic about their dinner the following night.

Charlotte Schrader was Peggy’s first cousin, and not the sort of woman any man easily forgot, but he found the blue of her eyes too sharp, the softness of her blond hair promised too much when he stood to lose so much else that was precious too him. He hardly knew what to say in her company, and though she never acted as if she minded his shuttered ways, he’d felt sick and at a loss as he’d left her that night.

He’d gone back to the hotel and when sleep had remained illusive he’d found himself pulling out Stark’s letters again. He remembered getting the first one, thankful to finally be off his feet and away from a crowd. When the desk man had come to deliver the post he’d been eager for news of the children. He’d torn open the envelope and eagerly begun to read, only to be met with pages and pages of the most dull drivel he’d ever been subjected to.

He’d turned the page only to have a detailed diagram slip from between the folds and land on the desk.

He’d picked it up to discover what looked to be rather impressive mathematical equations involving his son and a mouse. He’d caught himself wondering for a brief moment if Stark had made it all up or if he really had measured the number of centimeters on average that Artur preferred to hold the thing from the ground.

He hadn't been sure if he should be horrified or impressed. The two emotions had warred for dominance within him as Bucky had leaned over his shoulder to get a look at what had him so engrossed.

“What the hell?” He’d snatched one of the papers before Steve could stop him, and had sworn loudly when he’d turned the page over to reveal writing on both sides.

“Steve, what is this?” he’d demanded, and something about his gobsmacked expression had pushed Steve over the line of horrified at Stark’s childishness to down right amused.

He’d asked for every detail of his children's movements and he’d gotten it, down to an equation summarizing the amount of hair Natacha had pulled out while brushing her hair that morning.

Steve read the letter again, chuckling quietly as he reached the part where Stark allowed that it couldn’t be an hundred percent accurate equation as he would have had to get much closer to her for better data, and with the amount of hostility she was exhibiting he'd deemed it unsafe.

He was clever, Steve would give him that. He’d not expected the man the Abbott sent him to be so smart. Even for a Stark the man's mind was truly something extraordinary, flinging equations and algorithms about like an artist slung paint, easy as his next breath. And as more letters had come Steve could not deny that the man was insightful and did well with the children.

As agitating as Stark’s coded jibes could be Steve was hungry to hear about them, and he could not deny that he looked forward to the post as the brightest spot in his weary day.

At night with the sounds of the city at his back he would go over the letters, imagining Stark and the children as he’d described them, and for the first time in years he wished he’d had a sketch book.That night like many others he fell asleep to the sound of Stark’s voice in his head, describing his attempt to teach Sara her letters and declaring the child stubborn in the way of all Rogers.

 

~*~*~



Steve woke with a start his mind instantly awake and panicking. Pale violet light lite swept across the room. Over on the sofa Bucky shifted in his sleep and slowly Steve began to relax.

He’d fallen asleep to one of Stark’s letters. He remembered waking up in the middle of the night with a start, much like now, and for a horrible moment the sounds of Vienna drifting in from the window had mixed with blasts of bombs and his ears had been full with the sound of screaming.

It had taken him a moment to realize he had gotten out of bed and was standing in the middle of his room, half naked and trembling, another moment still to realize that the sound he’d heard wasn’t the screaming of wounded men but the plaintive cries of Bucky’s violin.

Bucky had been perched by his window sill, his violin cocked at his throat as he played a familiar tune. A folk song, not unlike the sort the Uncles used to play. This one was about a tiny flower. They grew everywhere, and in the alps they grew so numerous they covered the hills like snow. They’d seen such sights during the war. Even amidst all that blood and death they’d been soft lovely little things…

Steve had stared at him, dazed, until Bucky had lowered the instrument and sighed. Steve didn’t remember much after that. Bucky must have put him back to bed.

Circumstance hadn't called for the two of them to sleep in the same bed in more than a decade but as Steve laid back down and shivered at the coolness of his sheets he found himself aching for another body.

Not necessarily Bucky’s, though he couldn't imagine another person he’d feel safe enough to fall asleep next to, just... someone. Another body beside him solid and warm and reminding him that he was still alive.

He’d survived. All was well. He hadn’t frozen in those mountains.

Over on the sofa Bucky twitched, a violent motion that contrasted with the peaceful expression on his face, as if he could sense Steve worrying. Steve didn’t doubt he had a radar for that sort of thing. The blanket he’d tossed over himself slipped further off his chest and his body shivered.

Steve sighed and let his body settle back into the mattress. Bucky always bundled himself up before sleep. He was too used to freezing at night not to, but his body ran hot and he always lost the sheets by the end of the night.

Steve never did. He hated the cold but it never seemed to leave him either.

He exhaled, wincing as his ribs throbbed and he gingerly rolled till he was sitting up, rubbing his face with one hand.

“Go back to sleep. It's gods piss in the morning.” Bucky mumbled from underneath his arm and Steve snorted into his hands. Bucky had never been a morning person, especially when he’d had something to drink the night before.

“We've got work to do.”

Bucky frowned and opened one accusing eye.

“You barely slept Rogers, go back to sleep.”

He must have dozed because Bucky's shadow interrupted falling over him jolted him awake once more and when he blinked up at him Bucky was standing over him, a towel slung over one shoulder and his straight blade in one hand.

“Steve!” he called his name like someone who’d been calling it for awhile.

“What?” Steve rasped through a sleep roughened throat.

“I asked if you wanted to order breakfast. Are you alright?”

Steve shook himself and stood, stumbling toward the wardrobe. “I'm fine” he insisted.

Bucky shaved as Steve washed, dressed and comprised a telegram for Charlotte asking about a late dinner. He owed her a nice evening after last nights disaster. Stark was still waiting on a reply to his last couple of letters no doubt, so Steve began to put one together. Bucky was pulling on his undershirt when a young maid knocked on the door. She peered inside, the tray of coffee and breakfast food wobbling dangerously as she openly stared at Steve.

Bucky, still in his undershirt, swept the tray out of her hands, grinning at her lazily. He'd always enjoyed Steve's celebrity, got a kick out of it in a way Steve never could, but this morning he seemed less inclined to play the monkey.

“Danke, Frauline.” He closed the door pointedly in the young woman’s face and then frowned down at the tray in his hands.

“Is this it?”

Steve glanced up from his desk, his hand stilled in mid sentence over his letter.

“Hm, I'm not hungry.”

Bucky sat the tray down over Steve's papers and glared at him.

“Bullshit. Stevie I know eats like a horse and grows like one too.”

Steve pushed the tray away, his stomach already twisting at the thought of consuming more than he already had. He'd eaten...well alright, yesterday, yesterday morning to be exact and a few bites at dinner with Charlotte, but looking at the food on the tray he couldn't bring himself to muster the will.

“Right, well as you said. Things change.”

When Bucky made no indication he was going to move it Steve pushed the tray further still. It was then that he noticed there were three envelopes tucked neatly together against the coffee pot, narrowly missing falling into the food.

One of them, penned with a short but delicate feminine script (clearly intended for Bucky) and the other one bore military insignia and the last one...

Something bright opened in his chest and he snatched the letter up eagerly.

“I'm only saying,” Bucky droned on in the background. “If you were going to order for just me, I drink espresso now.

“Since when do you drink espresso?” Steve murmured, only half listening.

“It’s all the rage in Budapest. Is that from the children?”

Steve glanced at him, his brow furrowed in confusion, his mind still stuck on Stark’s words (hearing Stark’s voice the way he imagined he would have said them) and Bucky gestured at the letter impatiently. Steve glanced down at it in shock like he’d not realized he even had a letter in his hand to begin with.

“Oh, no! I mean yes… It’s Stark, writing about the children.”

Bucky watched, his gaze revealing nothing as his eyes traveled over him. After a moment he plucked the letter addressed for him with a derisive snort and wandered into the bathroom with his letter tucked under his arm.

“Let me know if he says anything about Ginger!” he called over his shoulder and without looking up Steve called back, “She hates when you call her that. And you shouldn’t encourage her. Dancing isn’t a proper profession.”

Bucky banged something loudly in the bathroom and Steve grinned as his friend’s voice floated through the thin walls.

“All the more reason we should all be dancers!”

Steve was gearing up to remind him why it mattered to him that his children had the opportunities they’d never had growing up when Bucky reappeared holding his letter in front of him with such a subdued expression that the thought fled Steve’s mind.

“Buck?”

“It’s from Jan,” Bucky announced tearing up the letter as he spoke. Steve watched him, heart fluttering anxiously in his chest. “She’s here, in Vienna.”

“Well?” Steve prompted impatiently. “What did she say about-”

“Jesus Stevie, you think I’d put something like that in a letter? Covert remember. Covert.”

Steve huffed, clenching his fists.

“Well when can we see her?”

“Tonight,” Bucky answered throwing the shredded pieces of the letter into the waste bin. “Where else but the ball?”

“A ball?” Steve sputtered. He vaguely remembered receiving an invitation to such an event, but he’d thrown it away as the expense had been ridiculous and he’d do a lot for this charade but he drew the line at balls. Bucky hummed in affirmation and Steve stared at him aghast.

“We can’t go to a ball.”

“Why the hell not?”

“Charlotte and I… It wouldn’t be-”

“If you say proper Stefen I’ll hit you. Don’t test me.”

“-it wouldn’t be at all the done thing,” Steve finished with a pointed glare and Bucky laughed.

“So bring Charlotte” he allowed, reaching out to mess up Steve’s hair. “God knows you owe the poor woman. You’re a miserable date.”

 

~*~*~

 

“I’m having a hard time deciding...” Steve glanced down to find Janneke Van Dyne’s brown eyes glinting up at him with unhidden mirth and his back went possibly even stiffer than it had already been. He supposed some men would be happy to find themselves in the arms of a beautiful flower like Jan, but Steve was too aware of the heat of her body pressed close to his as they stumbled through the waltz and the sticky sweet smell of her perfume in his nose made his stomach churn.

He wanted done with this farce, and to speak urgently about the letter. But they’d had not a single moment alone all evening in which he could safely bring it up, so when she’d asked him to dance he’d agreed before he could really think about what that entailed. He hadn’t danced with a woman since Peggy. Hadn’t wanted to and still didn’t.

“What?” he groused through tight lips as they moved to the steps, Jan’s skirts swirling about his legs as she turned.

“Which of you looks more miserable. You or the baroness.”

Steve’s gaze flew back to their table only to find Charlotte sitting with a table full of young admirers, including Bucky, laughing gaily at some joke that he was making.

“Charlotte? She isn’t bothered.”

Miss Van Dyne arched one slender brow and tutted.

“Whatever you say Captain, but no woman likes to see her fish caught on somebody esles hook.”

“We are not dancing for pleasure,” Steve reminded her, hand’s tightening in warning as he glared down at her.

“Who could tell, with how besottedly you gaze at me,” Jan quipped with a roll of almond shaped eyes. “You should smile Captain, or people might wonder why you bothered to dance with me at all.”

Steve understood the subtle warning and swallowed down his ire, attempting to look more like he was enjoying himself.

“Do you truly hate dancing so much? James is a wonderful dancer.”

“I know. He taught me when we were boys” Steve admitted, the fondness over the memory warming him to the conversation despite himself.

“Have you not danced with many women?” Jan asked, something knowing in her tone that set Steve on edge and he tensed once more.

“My wife,” he answered gruffly and Jan nodded sagely, as if she’d guessed as much.

“Not your baroness?”

“There hasn’t been an occasion,” Steve bit out, a tad too sharply, and instantly he felt shame because he knew that wasn’t entirely true. Jan’s arch brow called him a liar and seemed to wordlessly point out the truth of their surroundings. This was an occasion and he’d not even thought to ask Charlotte for a waltz.

“Charlotte and I are getting to know each other,” he tried to explain, to himself as much as Jan. “There’s a lot for both of us to consider. I have children, and if I’m to bring someone into their lives, well it’s important to me that I find the right partner.”

“Ah,” Jan nodded again with a soft sigh. “I’d like to see it.”

“See what?”

“How you dance with the right partner.”

Steve stared at her, mouth tightening grimly but said nothing. What was there to say to something like that? Women could be strange creatures at the best of times, and this one struck him as stranger than most; but Bucky thought she could be trusted and Steve trusted Bucky.

He pulled her tighter to him, forcing himself to take a slow breath and not to come off threatening. It was no small thing what he was asking her to do. A monumental amount of risk. There would be no one to save her if she were caught.

“Bucky tells me you’re touring,” he murmured as they moved and Jan simply nodded, closing her eyes as if lost to the music.

“Yes France, then a few days in London.”

“Sounds exciting.”

“Not as exciting as one might think. Sometimes you need a place to land.”

“I have friends in London. That is, if you find yourself in need of a friendly face...” Steve hedged, no good at holding coded conversations and wishing he could simply tug Janneke out of the dance hall and have out with it. “You might look them up. I’m sure they’d be happy to show you around.”

“I don’t know Captain…” Jan murmured softly on her next turn. When she faced him again her eyes were soft, but there was something incredibly tired in them. “There’s a lot of danger out there in the world for a woman alone. People like to take advantage. A woman in my position especially… well she has to walk carefully.”

Steve wanted to promise her that nothing bad would befall her but he could not bring himself to utter such empty promises, not in the face of her own frankness. As he searched for the words to convince, the right thing to convey, he could think only of the unapologeticly beautiful, and yet foreign, construction of her face in this sea of pale faces. A sea growing ever more turbulent as the Reich howled for racial purity. She could not hide the way others did (the way he did) and he found something incredibly brave about her presence there. She had stood among them, gowned like a queen and glittering from head to toe as her voice soared above them, forced them to feel the things she wanted them to feel, left them stinging and raw.

“We deserve a better world,” he rasped through the tightness in his throat, and she paused taking him in in silence. He swallowed thickly, too aware of her eyes on him as he burned with the conflicting need to hide his face in shame and to hold her tight and make her see. “We all deserve a better world. But it doesn’t happen unless we make it happen. We need to trust on another, to help one another.”

Help me he pleaded silently, and Steve could see in her eyes that the message did not go unheard.

 

 

Chapter Text

Herr Stark,

I write to inform you that shortly you will be visited by a Fraulein Dörthe Werner. She is an esteemed member of our local chapter of BDM. They are eager to meet Natacha now that the summer fever has passed and are willing to make concession for her frail constitution and adhere to the strict routine advised by doctor Erskine. We can only be thrilled at this development. Stark, it is important that she be prepared for this visit and that Natacha comport herself with the grace and deportment of a female of her station. Werner is a particularly harsh critic whom, I feel I must disclose, had something of a rivalry with Natacha’s mother Margrit. I fear this may affect her report of Natacha and jeopardize the girl’s future. Frau Hogan will make sure that she is prepared, but Werner will likely wish to question the children’s tutor. I hope to be home before her arrival but in the event that I cannot be I must impress upon you again the importance of this meeting. Keep the boys out of sight. They have a tendency to be rowdy.

-Stefen

 

Tony stared at the captain’s last letter as if the hundredth read would move the ink and rearrange the words into something less damning. But they stayed they same, their meaning unmistakble and their implications making a mockery of Tony as he wrestled with a feeling inexplicably close to betrayal, a feeling as damning as it was ludicrous, given whose house he was living in. Rogers was an officer of the Reich and he had not forgotten that.

And so it seemed that despite everything, the vaunted Captain Rogers invited the Hitler Youth into his home, as eager to indoctrinate his children into the German war machine as any other loyal fascist.  It made Tony sick to think about, which even he could admit was ironic given his first impressions of the children when he’d met them. They’d marched like mini gestapo he recalled again with a wince, but that had been uncharitable. They were only children: bright ones at that, with good hearts despite growing up in a world that was telling them that cruelty was their right.

Damn it all but Rogers was confusing. Tony had gotten the impression that Stefen cared little for the Nazis and their politics, which had only been enforced in Tony’s mind a dozen little ways over the weeks: his changes to the children’s curriculum, the lack of Nazi propaganda in the home, the seclusion of the household, his unapologetic friendship with a black gardener, the things he let slip in his letters about his childhood and his fears for the future.

If Tony were honest, he’d come to really enjoy receiving Stefen’s letters, to seeing the captain’s full name spelled out in sprawling letters at the bottom of the page: Stefen Gavril Rogers, like a flag stuck into soil. As if Stefen felt the need to claim everything contained within the letter as his own and close to his heart. It had become increasingly clear to Tony that despite the increasing length of his stay in Vienna that Stefen truly hungered after word of the children, to feel close to them and know that they were well. It was frustrating to say the least because the children were equally hungry to be close to their father and to Tony’s observation Stefen was the only one standing in his own way.

Perhaps to be encouraging Tony had asked the children to each write a letter to their father detailing their day when he’d sent his last correspondence, hoping it would prevail upon Stefen if not to come home where he was sorely missed, then to at least open the lines of communication between him and the children.

He’d not hoped for too much, but he’d never expected this short dismissive little letter begging him to play nice with Nazis. It felt like a blow, though he felt silly for even acknowledging the strange feeling of disappointment in his chest.

Crumpling the letter with a frustrated grunt Tony turned back to the task of finishing his report to Farkas. Today was the day Farkas had promised to send someone to pick up his report, though Tony had no idea how Farkas was going to manage that without arousing suspicion from the household.

There was little to report any how, except the niggling contradictions the Captain presented and not just him. Frau Hogan knew more than she was sharing, and then there were the children’s ‘frail constitutions’. Tony snorted. He’d never seen a healthier lot and yet every time he broached the subject of getting the children out of the house and out into the world he was met with a list of their ailments and the strict routines they must follow to remain healthy. Péter had the worst of it if the family doctor was to believed. Tony didn’t know much about heart conditions but given how Péter slunk about climbing in and out of windows to see that friend of his looking the picture of health while he was at it, Tony saw no reason the boy’s heart should burst over a trip to public school.

Either Dr. Erskine was a complete quack or Rogers did not want his children leaving home and was willing to diagnose them with every feasible ailment possible in order to achieve that purpose.

Natacha, frail? It was a laughable thought.

But it left the question of why, and yesterday Tony might even have dared to say it was to keep them out of the Reich’s hands but today… well he’d invited them to tea, so what the hell did Tony know.

He sighed, gripping the pen tighter between his fingers and leaning closer to the parchment as he prepared to detail his suspicions to Farkas, only he found himself hesitating.

The truth was, though he’d known the man something like twenty years now, the abbot remained a mystery to him. He always had his own agenda and was always sure to never reveal more than a few cards in his hand at one time. While Tony knew him to be loyal to the now obsolete Hapsburgs, he didn’t know why Farkas had an interest in Stefen and his activities, or what he’d do with the information that Tony suspected the children’s illnesses might be exaggerated. 

He owed Stefen no loyalty he reasoned. Rogers (he must stop thinking of him so familiarly) was a Nazi who invited other Nazis over for tea in the hope of polishing his children up into mini-Nazis. So what was it to Tony if he told tales on him? Why should he feel like he was betraying the man when he would do so much worse to Tony if he knew the truth?

Tony dropped the ink pen with a shudder and wrapped his arms around himself, feeling suddenly very small and very alone. He thought about the children-pictured each of their faces bent in concentration over their letters to their father- and took a deep breath, releasing it slowly.

He’d wait, he decided, and watch a little more. Grabbing the pen and paper again he scribbled a note for Bruce asking for advice on heart ailments.

It was at that moment that he heard the sound of an indignant squawk, an aborted yelp and a painful sounding thud and his eyes flew to the window which remained open to let in the early afternoon breeze.  There was some commotion outside, and fearing that Péter had been hurt by once again climbing up the side of the house Tony rushed to the window. The sight that met him was so far from what he expected that he could only stare incredulously as Clinton rubbed his skull and glared balefully up at Natacha whose feet he was inelegantly sprawled at.

“What the devil is going on?” Tony sputtered, caught between how suddenly glad he felt to see Barton and his shock at seeing him there.

Cette fille la stupide!” Clinton cursed in French, and Tony winced because Natacha was past her pronouns and had done very well with her adjectives. Oblivious to the girls murderous gaze Clinton went on in his thickly accented German, “She threw a rock at my skull, that’s what’s going on!”

“He was breaking into the house Herr Stark!” Natacha informed him, not taking her eyes off the other child as he righted himself and got gingerly to his feet, one hand pressed to the side of his head.

“I was not!” he insisted. “I was coming to visit Brother Stark. Is that a crime little girl?”

“It is when you climb over the gate and try to sneak in through the window,” Natacha returned hotly, ignoring Clinton’s muttered grumbling as she turned to pin her glare on Tony and demand, “who is he?”

“He’s a friend. A friend from the abbey.” Tony, realizing shamefully late for a genius what Clinton was likely doing there, scrambled to think of what to tell Natacha, who had her hands fisted on her hips in a distressingly Pepper-like way that did not bode well for keeping Pepper uninvolved.

“Clinton. Clinton Francis Barton,” Clinton extended one dirtied palm which Natacha stared coolly at while the boy prattled on. “You must have eyes on the back of your head. I waited till you’d passed me ta hop the fence. You’ve got killer aim too. Be more impressed when my skull aint splitting though.”

Natacha stared at him a beat longer, taking in his threadbare trousers and tousled hair with the intent of a spider watching flies buzz around its web.

“We have a front door. Why sneak in at all?” She asked slowly, and far too suspiciously for Tony’s liking. Clinton flashed a crooked grin and shrugged.

“More fun that way. ‘Sides. I used to sneak into Tony’s workshop all the time. He’d hardly know it was me if I came through the front door.”

He winked cheekily in Tony’s direction and Tony found himself laughing, relieved that for the moment Natacha seemed to accept this answer as part of Clinton’s overall strangeness. He’d never been happier that Clinton was such a queer little imp. Given that Natacha had discovered them and seemed content to watch their every move the boy was invited inside and forced to play out the charade of paying Tony a visit, right on time for afternoon coffee.

Hammer looked as if he would combust at the sight of the grubby boy plopping himself into one of the houses plush chair, and greedily grabbing at the cakes Pepper brought for them. She seemed amused by it, bless her, but Tony still had to scold the boy to eat slowly. The last thing they needed was for him to choke.

“Herr Stark, I really must protest this. The captain-” Hammer tried to halt the proceedings once more as Tony and his guest got settled. Meeting Clinton’s eye and battling a grin Tony cut the butler off.

“- surely did not intend for me to spend the rest of my days here without a chance to visit with friends. Sounds barbaric. What would my dear friends at the abbey think?”

“Theys treating you right, ain they Tony?” Clint barked through a mouthful of cake, casting Hammer with a downright menacing glare. The butler actually paled, mouth opening in a silent o’ of apprehension and Tony hid a snicker in his cake. The Brothers had sure tried to polish the boy up and make something civilized out of him, but they’d not done any better at it with Clint than they had Tony.

“Of course!” Hammer insisted with a snap. “But the captain would be unhappy with him receiving vagrants in his home!”

“He’s not a vagrant.” Natasha interjected quietly, sounding droll as ever. Tony was surprised to hear her speak up at all. Tossing one long red braid over her shoulder, she reached for one of the cakes and finished with a dainty little shrug that had Tony gawping both at the daintiness and the words themselves, “He’s a monk.”

Tony was suddenly struck by the notion that Natacha was at the age where little girls began to think like young women, and now that it was certain Clint was not some thief attempting to rob them in broad daylight, he must appear to her a curious new entity (around her own age) and possibly not bad looking. Tony wouldn’t know. He wasn’t a twelve-year-old girl but he thought that maybe Clinton had a certain roguish appeal to him. It was a wholly discomforting realization, because much as he enjoyed Clinton he was a scamp and Tony wouldn’t trust him to look after a paper bag let alone a young lady.

“Novice actually,” Clinton mumbled, shoving more cake in his mouth but Natacha was looking down, quite focused on pouring coffee for everyone. Tony narrowed his eyes at Clinton in warning.

The boy mouthed something suspiciously like ‘what’ as in the background Hammer hummed like a kettle about to shriek.

Somehow Tony doubted Natacha developing a rapport with a circus boy turned monk (who also moonlit as a spy) was what Stefen had had in mind when he’d pleaded with Tony to make sure Natcaha presented herself with the dignity of a proper German girl, poised to join the ranks of the Reich’s ‘League of German Girls’.

Well, Tony thought with a slight smirk as he sipped his coffee. Life was full of surprises.

 

~*~*~

 

“Alright, bambinos!” Tony clapped his hands together to grab the children's attention. It mostly worked, nearly all of them quieting their chatter to look his way. James was the exception, continuing to try and bat away Ian who had the misfortune of standing his bicycle too close to him.

“James!” Tony barked. The boy turned a sour look towards him but thankfully quieted so that Tony could begin giving his instructions.

If Tony had stopped over the last few days to consider what he was undertaking cycling into town with seven children he might have reconsidered, but hindsight was twenty twenty. The children were lined in a row, the bicycles that Tony had fixed up for them gleaming in the sunlight with new life. By some miracle he’d managed to get each of them into the play clothes he’d painstakingly stitched for them, though Natacha had been anything but happy about it. After all it wasn’t the smart blue skirt and crisp white blouse he’d caught Pepper helping size that morning.

When asked to dress for their outing she’d primly informed him that curtains were beneath a proper young woman, especially a future leader in the League of German Girls and Tony had been forced to inform her in reply that she hadn’t been accepted into the BDM yet, and he frankly he wouldn’t give a damn if she were. She could either wear them with grace or stay behind.

Tony didn’t know what it was but it always seemed to be one step forward and two steps back with these children. Though he truthfully didn’t know what he’d expected. Could he really be angry with the daughter of a Nazi officer for wanting to behave like a Nazi?

Maybe he was the fool, trying to squeeze blood from stones.

She’d relented in the end when the little girls had begged her not to stay behind, but she was refusing to so much as look at him now. Tony could admit he was just fine with that. He’d take James pestering his brother mercilessly over Natcaha’s indignant fury any day. He watched as James, tempted by Ian's focus on Tony, shoved an elbow into his brother’s side just for the sake of it.

“No more of that!” Tony snapped in warning. “If you lot can’t behave yourselves we won't be doing this again. I have many other things I could be doing with my time.”

Ian stopped glaring at his little brother long enough to send Tony a curious look.

“Like what? Aren't you meant to look after us?”

Of all the Rogers children Ian was the one least versed in sass. He seemed genuinely curious. 

 

Tony turned and situated Sara in her basket, tucking the braid Pepper had done up that morning back into her head scarf.

“I’m paid to teach you. The captain said nothing about playing matador to your little squabbles. 

“Are we leaving?” Artur poked his head out from where he was seated behind James, squeezing his brother’s waist impatiently.

Despite himself, Tony felt a smile tug his lips. Thank god for Artur. He and Sara were the only ones who embraced Tony's rebellious nature with cheer, brimming with such innocently youthful enthusiasm.

Even now Natacha's face was pinched as she pulled Maria onto the back of her bicycle, the little girl clutching at Natacha’s sides anxiously, not at all sure about this cycling business.

When she’d gotten her little sister firmly situated Natacha mounted the bike herself and turned in Tony’s direction, looking somewhere just past him, and murmured that they were ready. Despite her perfect posture she looked uncomfortable standing there in her blue and white pinafore. Now that Tony was looking at them all in a row it could be said that, yes alright, the pattern of their attire put one in mind distinctly of drapery.   

Even Péter, who at first had been excited at the prospect of cycling to town, had dug his heels in when he realized he might be seen by his friends. Well they were just going to have to find some way to live with being less than model citizens under Tony’s tutelage now weren’t they. 

Tony mounted his bicycle and adjusted himself to Sara's weight as they set off. 

“Why do I have to carry Artur? Why can't I help carry the supplies with Ian and Péter? I'm old enough.” James whined from behind them, not yet tired of the argument they had started a half hour ago. “I'm just as big as Ian!” he added, hobbling to gain enough speed to pull himself and Artur. His younger brother bobbed back and forth from their unsteady gait. Tony winced, seeing them spread eagle on the road in his mind's eye.

“It's boring when you complain James.” Péter called back over his shoulder with a roll of his eyes. “You're too little. You can't carry Artur, the supplies, and keep up.” 

If looks could kill Tony would be saying the Lord's Prayer for Péter.

James struggled forward and his voice, to Tony's surprise, wavered with frustrated tears.

“And you can?! You shouldn't even be on a bicycle!”

Péter all but caused a collision stopping in the middle of the drive to snarl at his brother in reply. “Shut your mouth, James-”

“I'm leaving!” Tony interrupted what was shaping up to be yet another spat between James and his older brothers, swiveling his bicycle around, countering his weight so Sara wouldn't end up face first in the dirt. If Tony had to pick one and call them poorly behaved it was definitely James. He was moody, confrontational and stubborn as a goat with none of the control that his brothers seemed to have.

In a strange way, Tony almost liked him better for it. He’d never been any good at keeping his own impulses or his emotions in check either and envied others their ability to remain aloof when he constantly felt like things were slipping out of his control.

James had become increasingly emotional as the weeks went on with no sign of the captain returning, and it hadn’t escaped Tony’s notice that with their personal letters to their father gone unanswered the boy had started melting down into a tantrum at least once a day. Tony felt for him (he could curse Rogers, and himself for ever thinking to have the children write to him in the first place) but his nerves were worn thin.

“Since you seem too hung up on picking fights, Sara and I can take care of the supplies. In fact she can build the damn puppets herself!”

At the sound of the curse Maria gasped in shock behind Natacha, leaning around her sister to stare at Tony with wide eyes.

Tony winced, but what was done was done and really who could blame him for his temper fraying. Weeks of this. Weeks.

James stared at him for half a second, shocked into silence right along with Maria, and then his face clouded in a familiar storm of temper and he opened his mouth- no doubt to shriek and carry on- but Tony cut him off before the tantrum could even get started.

“You want to be able to help James, then show me you can!” He barked. “Show me you can behave and keep up with your brothers and then we’ll revisit this conversation.”

Without waiting for a reply he peddled off again.

For a time, he simply focused on pushing them forward as if he could peddle away from the stress of the last few weeks as easily as he could the villa, leaving it all far behind him. Sara at least seemed to be enjoying the speed. It only took a few minutes before she was giggling in his face, her blue eyes sparkling up at him. He turned a fast corner and she shrieked with glee.

Pepper probably would have had a heart attack at his recklessness when he was carrying such a precious load, but it was such a refreshing change from moodiness and grim stoic faces to see Sara so delighted. She was laughing so uproariously he wasn't sure if he should be concerned for her health or laugh along with her.

Behind him Artur was shrieking for James to go faster and just like that it was a race with Péter rushing out in front of them followed closely by Ian and Natacha. James followed red faced but determined.

The fun of it helped clear away some of the cobwebs in Tony’s head, the frustrated exhaustion that had begun to cloud his mind. Eventually however they were forced to slow, the children not used to such exertion. He felt a stab of regret watching James struggling in the back. He was only eight, his legs considerably shorter than Péter's. Even with Péter's questionably weak heart, James still had to carry thirteen or so kilos of excitable little boy behind him.

He suddenly felt like a heel, being so short with him. Was he being cruel? Or was he simply following his own father’s example expecting far too much from the young when he should know better? It bothered him to realize that he didn’t know when the distinction between the two had begun to blur.

At a much more relaxed pace Tony and the children biked along the country roads, their spirits lifted and for a time Tony thought that they were over the worst of it and had neatly avoided calamity.

He should have known better. The children had begun a game of zigging (or at least trying to) around Tony, enjoying the speed of their bikes and the freedom of being out and about. They so rarely got to be uninhibited this way so he let them, largely amused by their showboating. The maneuver was harder for Natacha and James, both carrying small children on their backs, though it didn’t stop them from trying.

Tony had to call a stop to it when Natacha (ever competitive) slid off her bicycle onto the road. Tony’s heart nearly leapt into his throat as Maria went tumbling into the grass, the bicycle barely missing her by inches. Natacha was up and across the ground before Tony had even managed to slide to a stop. By the time he’d hoisted Sara out of the basket Natacha had already scooped Maria off the ground and was petting her hair and cooing at her as the tiny girl wailed in distress.

Ian rushed past Tony like a bullet to get to his sister, Péter not far behind, both boys kneeling down and brushing off her the smear of mud running up her pinafore. Artur watched fearfully from where he sat behind James, his fingers crammed in his mouth.

When Ian asked her if she was hurt anywhere Maria mumbled something intelligible through tears that had them all looking wildly between each other in alarm before Artur helpfully chimed in that she’d said she was fine but was very put out about the state of her new clothes. Tony blinked and caught Natacha’s eye and of all things to happen, they both started to chuckle.

They were both relieved, both just happy that neither of them had been hurt and happy for the moment to laugh at the silliness of the situation. And Tony hoped that after that they would be able to put the tension behind them… but it seemed not to be.

The girl’s fall seemed to have shaken something loose in James. Rather than take heed to their warnings to slow down he used the rest of the time to cycle in loops around them like a mad thing, weaving in and out of their line like a drunk and challenging Péter and Ian at every turn now that they refused to race. Tony could see Péter losing patience very quickly and he wasn’t the only one. Tony was more than a little grateful when the edges of town came into sight.

Entering Salzburg proper what energy the children had exhausted on the long trip was amplified and returned to them with gusto by the sight of the bustling crowds and white cream buildings (even Natacha was practically humming with excitement).

Artur was beside himself chasing pigeons and then a stray cat napping on a step. Sara gasped and shrieked when the water fountain in the town square shot water straight into the air and droplets sprinkled their faces. The amount of times one of the bicycles Tony had repaired went crashing to the ground as its owner scuttled off to point out some benign object or wondrous new sight, had Tony in a constant state of cringing.

But when he wasn’t wincing at the beating the bikes were getting Tony’s smile was beaming. This was far more like it. This was how children should be: messy and excited (innocent) and not somber eyed and buttoned up in uniforms for causes they had no hope of truly comprehending.

When Ian cycled back to them asking loudly about all the different shops and Tony realized that a month ago he would have been blessed to hear a full paragraph from the child, he had the thought that however it had begun, and however the trip ended, he would count it as a success.       

Eventually Natacha took charge of Maria and Artur’s hands in an attempt to keep the group moving forward while Ian tried in vain to keep a rein on James, who was refusing on principle to be within ten feet of his brother. They made quite a scene with Ian scooting past people, apologizing as he chased his brother who had no such misgivings about knocking into passerby rushing from one window to the next.

“That’s an exercise in futility if I’ve ever seen one.” Tony remarked to Sara who trotted along beside him swinging their joined hands.

“Yes!” she chirped, basking in Tony’s attention and he felt another smile split his face.

Péter, who was a little bit ahead of them, turned to look over his shoulder with a droll expression and say, “Ian doesn’t give up easily.”

Didn’t they all know it.

After a few minutes more of chase Ian appeared on Tony’s other side, out of breath and dragging his bicycle dejectedly. He didn’t say a word as he plodded alongside them dragging his feet and stealing puppy dog glances at Tony, but Tony knew what he wanted.

Tony sighed, half tempted to wait it out and force Ian to use his words. When he glanced down once more and was met with round pleading brown eyes that would have put an entire crate of puppies to shame he relented.

“James!” He called out to the boy’s back. “I said keep up with your brothers. They’re back here.”

James, who had sprinted up ahead to peer into the window of a toy shop trotted back agreeably enough (Tony could only thank their lucky stars) and seemed happy to walk next to Natacha, his eyes sparkling as she pointed at a display of sweet breads in the window of a small café house.

Beside him Ian’s shoulders relaxed and he glanced up at Tony through blond bangs with a shy half smile. He opened his mouth, presumably to thank him (Ian was the politest after all) when his gaze caught on something, his mouth closing slowly as his brow furrowed. Tony followed his eyes to find that it was Péter who had caught Ian’s attention. The older boy had stopped to catch his breath in the middle of the walk, his gaze stuck on a group of boys sat by a market stand smoking and chatting with one another.

Ian’s gaze went from confused to worried as Péter made no further attempts to keep moving.

“Péter? Do you need us to stop, Péter? We can stop.”

When Péter didn’t immediately answer Ian quickened his step to reach the older boy. “Tacha, we’re calling a halt.” he said in a surprisingly authoritative voice.” Péter needs us to stop!”

Péter jerked out of whatever daze had gripped him, his head whipping around to look at them, cheeks fire engine red.

“I’m fine!” he snapped, gathering up the rucksack he’d dropped, hastily glancing at the market boys who were watching lazily from across the square, blowing streams of smoke into the air with the careful disinterest of youth.

The group kept moving, Péter marching ahead of them with furious steps and Tony sighed once more. If it wasn’t one thing it was another.

Thinking on the incident Tony couldn’t help but wonder how many friends Péter had. He certainly only wrote to a few that Tony had observed and even then most of the letters leaving the house were addressed to the Osborn boy.

He felt stab of pity, reminded once again of the children’s isolation. Why a trip into town was proving an absolute marvel for the little ones, as if they’d never been. From all that Tony had heard about Péter's illness and how it had kept him from public school he wouldn’t have been surprised if Péter had not been outside the grounds of his home all year. In a way, he was almost as cut off as Tony had been at the monastery.

He turned to glance behind them at the boys who had held Péter's attention. They were handsome youths. The pair clearly at work a sharp contrast with their classmates who were sporting neatly slicked hair to match their sharp uniforms. The bold swastika insignia on their shirts struck Tony as at odds with the sight of their wildly grinning mouths as they jostled each other, knocking shoulders, goading each other as the two boys who worked at the market put out their cigarettes and went back to work; strong, spindly arms grabbing aprons and calling out goodbyes to their peers in uniform.

“You can grow out of a sickness.”

Tony turned to look at Péter, shocked to hear him speak but not at all surprised to find that he was also looking back at the disbanding group of boys, his face expressionless.

“Even if you’ve had it for a while. It doesn’t always stay.”

Tony winced at the hopefulness in the child’s voice. It was a heart condition. He didn’t know much about heart conditions but he was almost certain you didn’t just grow out of them.

That said, Péter was without doubt the most active boy with a heart condition Tony had ever met and that was not as small a thing as one might think.

Being a monk wasn’t all hymns and chants, it meant regular, sometimes grueling, charity work and other forms of community service. Tony had accompanied the other brothers to the local orphanages when they’d given lessons and sermons; so he’d met his fair share of the damaged and abandoned. Perhaps heart conditions weren’t the same in young adults as they were in infants but those children had been small, frail little things, and Péter was slight for his age but hardly in a way that struck Tony as unhealthy.

It was one of the many things about the goings on in the Rogers household that sparked lingering questions in Tony’s mind, but until Bruce wrote back they were questions that would go unanswered

Péter gritted his teeth at Tony’s silence, a tick forming in his jaw.

“And often you don’t grow out of illness.” Tony replied and Péter looked stricken. “But it doesn’t matter because it’s just what you have, not who you are.”

Péter gaped at him, eyes searching his wonderingly and Tony shrugged in response, feeling suddenly uncomfortable with the naked emotion in the boy’s eyes.  He’d been so caught up in Péter’s dilemma that he’d almost forgotten he was holding Sara’s hand, who was struggling to keep up with their longer strides.

“Sara, bambina, this would be easier if you would just let me carry-”

“No! Herr Stark, no! I want to walk with you!” The girl pulled away from Tony’s reaching arms in protest. Her tiny hand was still clutched in Tony’s however and she didn’t get very far.

“Sara, honey, your legs are tired-”

“I hate all this.” Péter mumbled, seemingly unaware of Tony’s distraction. “I’m just as brave as Harry and the others. I could do anything they can do. I could.”

Tony finally managed to scoop up a squirming Sara. He tried to juggle his bicycle and a flailing toddler as he turned back to Péter.

“I know that! Your father knows that. You know that! Fuck everybody else.”

Péter froze, eyes wide at the strong language coming from his tutor (not to mention a monk) and Tony hastened to amend. “What I mean to say is, not everyone has the benefit of being believed in. Not something I’d rely on personally. If you believe in you that’s all that matters.”

“Not to the Führer.”

“Of course not to him. But the Reich is not a group I’d personally rely on either.”

Tony didn’t need to look at Natacha to feel her disapproval. He could see it reflected in the widening brown pools of Péter’s eyes. It was treason to speak against their fearless new leader and his regime. He couldn’t help a smirk of satisfaction, but it was ruined by the fact that a second later he had to dodge one of Sara’s swinging arms, the child still attempting to find her way back to the ground.

“Besides, Pete.” Péter frowned at the pet name, but Tony breezed on anyway. “Do you really want to join them so badly? I can think of plenty of reasons not to: those ridiculous haircuts for one. And all those rigid rules. You’d think you’d have had enough of it by now. It isn’t as if you don’t have a commanding officer at home.”

He knew it was playing with fire to go down this route of conversation. He could feel Natacha’s eyes glaring a hole into his back and he’d heard stories of children turning in their own parents for saying far tamer things than Tony was; but he could not hold silent and watch these children with good hearts and good minds wander blindly into such a nightmare.

He remembered the zeal of youth all too well, though he could hardly remember what Yensin had told him when he had begged his own father to let him enlist. Only that the words of wisdom had strengthened his desire to go. That was the folly of youth it seemed, and since Tony couldn’t, wouldn’t, repeat the words that Hughard had said to shoot his confidence full of holes he could only do this small thing: talk to a boy confused and try and help him see that being a man was about more than fighting battles.

Whether Péter realized it or not his friends were heading to war. You did not put children in uniform and teach them to march unless you were preparing an army. It chilled Tony to think that Péter might very well know and not care. Or worse, relish it.

Péter had gone silent at the mention of his father and Tony couldn’t blame him. Stef-Captain Rogers, Damn it!

The captain had been a source of contention the past few days with all of them. Even Pepper seemed on edge at the mention of the children’s father.

“Father doesn’t think anything” Péter finally grumbled. “Not about me anyway.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony barked a laugh. “Were you missing in action when we met? A man without an opinion, your father is not.”

Least of all where his children were concerned.

“He’s…strict, yes Péter. But there are worse things a father could be.”

Far worse.

“And truth be told, your being too ill to join your friends might be more of a blessing than you yet realize. There are worse things that you could be too.”

Péter's jaw clicked shut. Tony knew that sound. The conversation was done, at least for now.

It was just as well. James was scuttling towards them excitedly. They’d caught sight of the carpenter’s shop.

 

*~*

 

Tony would call himself a practical man. One with his priorities in good order. Sometimes. Not now. Definitely not now.

The packages of supplies lay out in front of the children nearly obscuring his view of them.

Yes, he could see now that perhaps stocking up on his own much needed tools and supplies had been over ambitious when cycling with four children under the age of nine.

He heaved a sigh. The children blinked at him waiting patiently for instruction except for Natacha who smirked smugly.

Natural Science was her worst subject wasn't it? More science. That's what their curriculum needed.

There was nothing for it. They'd have to order a delivery for what they couldn’t carry. Mindful of his small salary, Tony was a little loath to admit it but…

He took a deep breath.

“James.”

The little boy was already at his side, practically wiggling with excitement. It was the most he'd ever looked like Artur.

“Yes, Herr Stark?” He looked earnest as a beaver, all red hair and blue eyes, and suddenly Tony could see so much of the captain in him that it was curious how quickly he melted.

Tony gestured at one of the packages, trying not to smile.

“Load up.”

Once the bags had been packed onto bikes and everyone situated, Tony led the children towards the south of town and up into a hill clearing that Frou Hogan had suggested over supper for a picnic lunch.

It was only a little way from the town, but even still it was a bit of a trek and the children were lagging what with the bundles of supplies tied to the back of their bikes. He couldn’t help but think he should have done things the other way around and taken them to lunch in the clearing first. The things you know after the fact.

When they finally reached the hilltop the children barely waited long enough for Tony to unpack their lunch bags and spread the blanket out before collapsing onto the grass. Not minding Artur’s sprawled form Tony placed their basket of food next to him and promptly flopped on to the ground in a similar fashion, exhausted.

For a time Tony and the children just lay, letting the sun shine down on them and the sweet summer breeze tickle their faces. Eventually though stomachs began to grumble, reminding them of their hunger and one by one the children attacked the spread of food like the seven ravenous little monsters they were and Tony grinned.

When he’d eaten his full Tony settled back into the grass and closed his eyes. He could sense the children staring at him, shuffling nervously, unsure what to do next.

Without opening his eyes, he waved a hand at them. Shooing them away like skittery butterflies.

“This is a free day. Go, play. Be as loud as you wish, do what you like, just don’t kill anyone.”

One pudgy hand slapped onto his chest and the other tried to pry one of his eye open (none too gently). Tony batted the hand away, rubbing his sore eye.

Fermata. Stop.”

Maria squealed suddenly and Tony opened one eye. The children had spread out some but continued to blink at each other like surprised fish. Only Artur had made any move to play, unfortunately this meant he’d shared one look with Maria before she was shrieking and running away from her brothers out stretched arms.

Appeased, Tony settled back onto the blanket, keeping one ear open for distress.

He’d played on hill tops like this as a child, traveling with his parents through France and Belgium, or rather when he’d traveled with his father and a contingent of governess (his mother preferring to stay at their home in Pola whenever she could) or Yensin. Those trips had never been fun, his father parading him around until Tony’s use as a trophy for buyers and delegates was no longer needed and then handing him off to the governess of the hour.   

Genius Stark and prodigy.

Strange as it was Tony had never felt real autonomy until he’d become a monk, the brothers taking him as he was with all of his cracks and fissures. He remembered a night after his third attempt at running away, having been dragged back by Fil, Bruce had sat with him. He’d dressed Tony’s various cuts and bruises and simply sat with him, like he was sitting shiva.

Tony had cried in front of him for the first time, tears flowing freely, ugly and unstoppable. Bruce had sat with one hand on Tony’s back and eventually he’d started to murmur a tune: a little ditty he’d most likely heard from one of the woman who came for food.

Di mattina non mangio perché penso a te,

a mezzogiorno non mangio perché penso a te,

di sera non mangio perché penso a te,

di notte non dormo perché ho fame.

He’d snorted through his tears but couldn't get enough breath through his laughter to tell Bruce that what he sang in his accented german was not in fact a lullaby for a child but a love song for the lovesick.

In the morning I don't eat because I think of you.

But Bruce had smiled that little half smile he only ever seemed to bestow at Tony and quietly sang on, and Tony had lost himself in the sound of his voice and the stillness of the abbey at night.

 

He missed those moments when the noise inside his head could not be tamed by mechanics or drink.

In the Rogers bleak little villa there was no peace. Silence, yes. God was there ever silence. Open and thick like a heavy fog: an effect like being drunk without any of the benefit.

Why in God’s name the captain kept a music room and yet forbade music was beyond Tony.

Perhaps he was waiting on Himmler to join them for tea.

Tony’s thoughts drifted back to the brothers. With each passing day it was harder to swallow the chafing loneliness that followed thoughts of them. It had only intensified with Clinton's visit. He missed being a monk of all things! Nik must never know. Tony would never live down the embarrassment.    

“What are you singing?”

Tony opened one eye, frowning when he spotted Maria standing over him, her little red ball in hand. Artur was waiting impatiently behind her, waiting for her to throw the ball back.  

“What?”

She hesitated at the question, holding the ball close to her as if it were a shield. Tony’s heart squeezed.

“You were singing Herr Stark.” she mumbled.

Had he been?

“It sounded sad.” She crept forward and stopped just before her toes touched the blanket.

“Sing it again!” Artur, giving up on waiting for Maria to throw the ball skidded into Tony's side on his knees and rolled over onto his back, grinning as he mirrored his tutors sprawl in the grass. “You promised to teach us to sing!”

Natacha strolled past, a handful of little white flowers in her hand. She handed one of fragile things to Sara who promptly began to take it apart with glee.

“Father doesn't like us to sing.” she scolded.

REALLY?” Tony couldn't help the sarcasm. “Why is that, Tacha? Did he lose a fight with a mandolin.”

“No, cause It’s the law.” Came James sing song response. The children stilled. Or rather the older children did. The three younger seemed to remain oblivious.

What law? Tony wondered. There were restrictions of course, delegated by the government, but nothing about the abolishment of all music.

He opened his mouth to ask when Natacha cut him off.

“Father wants us to be a proper, sensible, family. That means no nonsense James. Good families like ours don’t carry on like common gypsies.” She held her head up and if Tony hadn't been looking straight at her he might have believed her. He was looking at her however and could not miss the look she sent James way.

She was afraid. Tony had no idea of what but that settled it for him.

“We’re going to change his mind.” Tony announced and he didn’t miss the alarmed looks Péter and Natacha traded. “Rumor has it, he used to enjoy music. It’s a shame don’t you think, that he’s forgotten? There are enough terrible things in the world, it’s a pity to forget one of its most beautiful. But we’re going to remind him and by the time we finish you’ll sound so lovely he’ll forget all about laws against music.” He promised, touching Maria’s nose. The little girl beamed at him.

He didn't have to be looking at Natacha (or Péter for that matter) to know that they were wearing identical looks of incredulity.

“In Italian?” Maria asked fervently and Tony winked at her pulling her closer to him by her pinafore.

“I keep my promises, bambina.”

He did. Well when it suited him. It suited him now to keep every promise he’d made to her, to each of them. Which might be why all the promises he’d made to them could be counted on one hand. Tony had learned long ago the delicate math of lowering the average of broken promises.

Promise one: Teach them to sing.

Promise two: Never lie.

Maria nodded, pressing her cheek into her ball, suddenly shy again.

“What does it mean? What you sang. I couldn’t understand it.”

Tony sighed. No rest for the wicked. Not today it would seem.

“It’s a love song, bambina.” He rubbed his face and translated the lyrics Bruce had sung for him in the dark.

“At noon, I don't eat because I think of you. In the evening, I don't eat because I think of you,”

Artur’s head shot up.

“You don't eat! It sounds like a hungry song.” he said matter of factly.

Tony was startled into a laugh. Artur, for all his twig like limbs could eat for three. Sure enough,

“-I’m hungry!” Artur declared. “When is supper?”  

Natacha rolled her eyes, though there was fondness in her tone as she reprimanded him.

“You just ate Artur.”

“Alright, little potatoes gather round.” Tony clambered to his feet with a clap of his hands. The children gathered obediently (Natacha begrudgingly). “Let us get this lesson started shall we? It will distract certain bottomless pits we know from thinking about their stomachs.”

 

~*~*~ 

Es tönen die Lieder,

Der Frühling kehrt wieder

Es spielet der Hirte

Auf seiner Schalmei

La la la la la la la la

The Rogers children took the task of singing like new born colts, their voices shaky and uncertain as they looked to one another for permission to indulge in the pleasure that was uninhibited song.  But the little ones were so enthusiastic, so happy and eager to lift their voices and shout out over the hilltops that their merriment was infectious and slowly when it became clear that no one was going to appear to judge them, or berate them for engaging in such silliness, their siblings allowed themselves to become equally swept up.

Tony taught them an old school rhyme he’d been taught as a boy, making a game of it at first of who could be the loudest and follow him as closely as he pranced about the hill top, until there was no more thought of laws against music or their father’s disapproval.

And then, because it was a music lesson after all, he taught them about breath and notes, how to keep time, and how a group of voices performing a round could create harmony, not to mention great fun.

Because they should have fun. They should be children, no matter what else the world wished to make of them. Tony needed to remember that now more than ever.

It took some effort to convince Artur that hitting notes was less about shouting progressively louder and more about pitching his voice, but Tony was pleased by the time they’d packed up their picnic and begun the reverse journey home to have pushed prodded and groomed all seven children into performing a startlingly professional sounding round.

Tony continued to conduct them, a grin breaking out over his face as his line of singing ducklings skipped through the square without missing so much as a note.

“Very good. Fantastico!” he beamed at them. The sweetness of their voices raised in song was almost as pleasing as the pride brimming in their eyes at his praise as they finally achieved perfect harmony.

The songs are sounding,

The spring is back.

The Shepard plays his pipe

La la la la la…

A loud clatter pulled Tony’s attention away from the children, drew his eyes to across the square where an old man was standing in front of a store front with a tin bucket resting at his feet, water soaking one pant leg.

Tony remembered being a child, remembered the innocence with which he had approached the world- before angry bullets and an angrier mob had torn his family apart, before he’d ever believed that something so terrible as watching his parents murder could ever happen to him- and Tony remembered down to the last second, how it felt to have innocence torn away.

The old man stood alone in a crowd, passerby looking anywhere and everywhere but at the old man standing outside a ramshackle shop. Perhaps it was the crude yellow star across its doors, or the cruder words painted across its windows, or perhaps it was the pair of young men at his back, youthful shoulders straight and proud, backs as stiff as soldiers as they pointed first to the bucket at the old man’s feet and then to the graffiti littering the walls.

Either way the people did not look. They hurried by, eyes downcast, like mice scurrying back into their holes.

The children had stopped singing, baffled voices trailing off to follow his enraptured gaze to the scene unfolding meters away.

“It’s not break time, pick it up!” one of the boys was ordering gruffly and the old man bent his crooked back slowly to comply, bones creaking.

He heard Natacha murmur to Péter, “Isn’t that Robert and Johann?” and Tony realized that these boys were two of the same ones they’d spotted earlier on their way in. Swallowing past the tightness gripping his throat Tony pushed forward, urging the children silently on 

“What are they doing?” he heard Artur ask curiously behind him and that feeling of tightness in his chest just got tighter.

“They’re facilitating a cleanup, James” Péter explained. “It doesn’t look good, all that junk littering the streets.”

“But why are they making that old man do it?” Tony could hear the confusion in Artur’s voice but it didn’t stop the painful burning in his chest when James replied, as eager as a schoolboy in classroom who knew he had the correct answer for once.

“Because it’s the law! Jews have to do whatever we tell them to.”

Tony blocked their voices out. His heart was beating so wildly in his chest, it was difficult to breathe, each forward step more difficult than the last and dark spots appeared in front of his eyes.

He grit his teeth. A few more steps. A few more steps and they’d be past the old man with the sad brown eyes, past the young men in the smart uniforms with their sharp toothy grins. Just a few more steps.

The old man tripped again, the bucket of water clearly too heavy for him. It slipped from his gnarled hand and fell to the cobblestones with a thud and a clatter sending sudsy water spilling over the street and splashing their shoes.

The children jumped back, as if the bucket had contained a nest of snakes, and Tony froze, anticipating what was to come.

For one horrible moment the old man’s sad brown eyes meet his: beseechingly. Tony just stared. One of the boys pulled a small wooden bat from his belt and slammed it across the old man’s shoulders with an angry curse.

“Judenschwein!”

He heard the crack of the bat, hitting frail bone. Herd one of the girls, Maria he thought, let out a horrified gasp but he couldn’t look at any of them.  Those dark spots were dancing in front of his eyes and Tony kept hearing those officers from his childhood cursing Yinsen as they beat him into the ground.

Jewish pig! Jewish pig!

“Herr Stark?”

Tony was pulled from the violent memory by a pair of small hands tugging sharply at the hem of his shirt. For a moment he almost didn’t recognize Ian, his sight full of terrified brown eyes and blood, almost unable to process the sight of the child in front of him.

Blond hair, gleaming in the summer sun, long fingers twisting in Tony’s shirt as he called his name, voice wavering anxiously despite the strength of his grip.

“Herr Stark. The girls are scared.”

A terrified sniffle drew his attention to the others. Natacha had her arms around Maria and Sara who had frightened tears on their faces, moving her body to block their view of the man being beaten; but nothing could block out the sounds.

And just like that Tony snapped back to the moment, driven by the realization that he couldn’t give in to the panic or the fear because he had seven young charges to look after, seven children, whose father he’d given a promise, that he would protect them with everything he had – seven children who were being groomed to behave just as monstrously as these cowardly youths, but whom were still children, and they were terrified.

“We’re leaving,” he snapped scooping Sara up. The child clung to him tightly, pressing her face close to his chest. Tony began to march away, resolutely turning his back on the ugly scene, on eyes so much like Yinsen’s beseeching him.

“James!” Natacha snapped over her shoulder, and the boy snapped out of his horrified daze to grab Artur who was standing beside Péter, clutching his brother’s shirt with one hand as he watched the violence unfolding, driven to solemn silence.

One of the boys looked up from kicking the old man, his laughter fading as he caught sight of Péter and his siblings, his eyes going wide with delighted recognition.

“Péter!” the boy, the one Natacha had called Johann, hailed with a hearty wave. “Your father finally let you out of bed? Come join us! We’re cleaning the streets. That is if this old dog can still get back up.”

Tony heard the sound of someone spitting violently and turned. He saw Péter hesitate, saw the war going on in his eyes and the long horrible moment of consideration that held him back even as Tony and his siblings fled.

“Péter!” Tony barked, causing the boy to nearly jump out of his skin. He flushed an embarrassed red as his beastly friends snickered.  Tony did not give a damn at that moment how it made Péter feel, to be ordered about like a child. Remembering that he was a child was the only thing keeping Tony’s rage in check.

“We’re going home. Come now!”

He heard Péter mumble something about having lessons and Tony gritted his teeth (so tight he thought his teeth would crack) continuing their vigorous march as Péter scrambled to catch up with them.

~*~*~*~

 

“Take them.”

Péter watched helplessly as Herr Stark shoved past their butler. He’d not waited for the door to completely open before he was rushing up the steps, leaving Péter and his siblings clustered in the entrance way.

“Herr Stark!”

Péter followed their tutor, unsure of what to do now that they were home. The journey back had been miserably quiet. The girls had sniffled the whole way but Herr Stark hadn’t said a word to them that wasn’t barking at Ian and James to keep up.

Their tutor’s strange behavior had unnerved Péter almost as much as seeing the old man beaten. It wasn’t like Herr Stark to be so cold, especially where the girls were concerned. He hadn’t even looked at Sara, who had clung to him the entire ride with tears streaming down her face.

How could he show such little compassion after what they had seen?

The old man… Péter could still see his eyes, hear the sound of boots thudding against his flesh… he’d never seen anything like that before. It had scared the little ones… and rightly so. But he couldn’t be scared. There was a reason behind what Johann and Bobby had done, even if it had been a frightening thing to witness. That was part of being an adult. You had to protect yourself, protect the people you loved, because there were bigger and scarier things out there.

He was too old to be scared. He wasn’t. Honest. And Herr Stark had lived through the great war! He should be as brave as Péter was trying to be. Braver! He should be helping calm the girls, and helping Péter explain it to Artur who was pale and terrified because Péter didn’t know what words to use! He couldn’t just walk away from them.

“Herr Stark wait!” he cried.

“Go play, Péter.” 

Péter blinked. Tony hadn’t even turned around. Never once had Herr Stark dismissed him so thoughtlessly, as if he couldn’t even see Péter. That was more his father’s style. Herr Stark didn't turn around as he climbed the stairs.

Péter stood, shuffling his feet as his gut wriggled and burned, unsure of what to do. If it where his father he would turn and do what he was commanded, perhaps not speak to him for a day or two in punishment (as if his father had ever felt any real loss at not speaking to him) but with Herr Stark, things had been different.

He’d seemed to like Péter… Péter liked him.

Feeling wrong footed Péter called out pitifully to the man’s retreating back.

“Come back! They were just doing their job.”

To Péter’s surprise Herr Stark did stop. He turned slowly around to face him with an aghast expression.

“Their job?”

Tony made the word sound strangled even though if Péter hadn’t been standing close enough to know otherwise, he would have sworn that Tony’s mouth hadn't moved at all. Péter had heard his father sound like that before. That same timber, that same hardening around the lips heralding an explosion of temper: dangerous. Péter took a step back.

“It was their job to force an old man to clean up his own blood? Blood they spilt!” Tony barked and Péter winced.

This felt like another one of Tony’s strange tests. Péter was supposed to have grasped something, but once again he’d missed the important details, failed to ask the right questions.

What had he missed? His frantic mind tried to piece it together, tried to figure out why Tony was so terrible upset and how to make it better, but he couldn’t think past the loud buzz of panic in his brain and the taunting memory of that old man’s cries and the sight of his bloodied face.

Péter was nearly sure he knew the answer - it was the old man - but knowing it had his stomach seized in knots.

He didn’t know what Tony wanted him to say. He shouldn’t be explaining this to his tutor, Tony should be helping him explain things! Tony should be the one saying something to make this all better, to make that horrible need that Péter felt to find a table to hide under go away. He wasn’t a child anymore. He could take it!

Flushed with shame and swallowing the sudden urge he had to burst into tears like a useless baby, Péter bit out through his clenched teeth, “He was just a Jew.”

Herr Stark stared at him. Péter had never felt more like one of Artur’s beetles, Tony’s eyes pinning him in place. Swallowing back the lump logged in his throat Péter didn’t back down. He stood straight, head lifted proudly the way he’d seen his father do so many times and stood his ground.

“He must have done something wrong, if we’d asked Joh-”

“Enough!”

The shout rang out through the hallway and Péter blanched, heart dropping into his stomach. Behind them he could hear his siblings stir, the breath they sucked in, the cry of one of the little girls before she was hushed by a low murmur from Natacha. Then everything went still.

He did not take his eyes away from Tony’s, not because he wasn’t scared, not because he didn’t want to; but because he felt that if he looked away something terrible would happen. 

“Péter…” His name cracked from Tony’s throat and Péter was suddenly, undeniably afraid.  “It’s enough.”

 

Péter and his sibling stood in the hall watching as Tony turned on his heel and disappeared.

 

~*~*~

 

Péter looked up as Natacha closed the door to his room, a magazine tucked under her arm and two glasses of Fruchtschorle balanced on a tray. 

“The boys were sweaty.” She said by way of explanation and Péter nodded. Knowing their cook Willamina, she would have taken one look at the haggard state of them and starting putting together enough comfort food to feed an army.

“Did you...” Péter fumbled to a stop, suddenly embarrassed to ask after Tony. He wasn’t sure why. Herr Stark was their tutor after all. Part of them. The household that was. Father had always maintained that the household was important, even the staff, because they were all family and as head of the house it was very important for him to care for the people within it. With Father gone that meant Péter was the head.  

“Did you give everyone else a drink?” He settled for, taking the cool glass his sister offered and leaning back against his headboard.

Natacha snickered into her drink.

“There wasn’t much left after the boys had their turn. I had to steal the pitcher away from James.” With a prim press of her lips, ruined slightly by the way her tongue darted out to chase the sweet droplets on her lips, Natacha sighed. “Frou Hogan should really talk to father about his temper. James is too old to be behaving that way. Even Artur doesn’t throw so many tantrums.”

Péter shrugged, not bothering to answer. Natacha had always been better at taking control of the house than he had, warming eagerly to their responsibilities as the eldest.

“It’s an embarrassment.” She went on after a moment. “We don’t want another Christmas like before.” 

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and giggled. Péter fought a grin. Natacha was like father. She used to laugh more.

She'd danced too, mostly strong arming Péter into what might be called a waltz by forest gnomes. When the boys had come along they'd become her dance partners.

James still watched her expectantly when he thought no one was looking, whenever there was music.

He watched as she flicked open her magazine and scowled at one of the photos.

“Giesela Keats, Champion runner? I could run circles around her.” She said proudly looking up at Péter expectantly.

As far as little sisters went Péter had always considered himself pretty lucky. Natacha liked most of the games he did and was actually better at them than most boys. She’d beaten Péter and Harry most the time at their contests.

They’d been closer back then.

“Course you could, Tacha.”

Mother used to say they were ‘wild as gypsies’ but nobody said that about them anymore.

They’d had to grow up, because everybody did. He was a man now and Natacha a young woman. But sitting with her, hearing her laugh, Péter could not help but think that maybe Herr Stark had been right. There were enough terrible things in the world. Why must they forget how to laugh? Natacha should dance again. Maybe they all should.

He reached over to tug on one of her red braids. The Christmas that James had embarrassed them all had been their first without Mama. None of them had been well then, especially James who had still been weak from the flu and had been in a funny mood, dumping his glass down the front of their cousin’s blouse in a fit of temper.

Yes, they could all use a bit more fun around here.

Natacha swatted Péter away and took another sip of her drink. Snuggled comfortably next to Péter she flipped the pages off her magazine and for a time they sat in silence.

He knew Natacha. Each page turn sounded like a crack of thunder in the still room and with each turn she seemed to be nailing her resolve into place, as if she could simple flip what had happened onto a different page, where on the other hand Péter couldn't seem to erase the shuttered horror in Tony’s eyes from his mind.

It made him itchy and uncomfortable in his stomach.  

Willamina and Frou Hogan were fawning over the little ones in the kitchen, wiping sweaty brows and tear stained faces, griping about heat exhaustion and Herr Stark’s irresponsibility; because neither Péter nor Natacha had dared breathed a word about what had really happened. 

It wasn’t bad… at least it wasn’t supposed to be; but it had felt bad, and it was nothing for the little ones to have seen, and if Frou Hogan knew she likely would not let Tony take them out of the house anymore and Péter wasn’t alone in his desire to escape the confines of their home.

Next to him Natacha took an unsteady breath and Péter glanced at her. Her hand shook as she turned the next page.

“Father wouldn't like the way Herr Stark behaved this afternoon...” she drifted off, uncertainty in her voice. “I wish he were home. Then none of that would have happened.” 

“Of Course not. We'd still be at home cooped up inside.” Péter reminded her duly.

Natacha sent him a sharp look and Péter resisted the urge to roll his eyes, his stomach already sinking into the ground.

“Herr Stark knew better. He knew father’s rules and still decided to disobey-”

“Oh, because he knew that would happen?” Péter sneered, suddenly irritated with her presence and all her stupid page turning. “He’s a monk, Tacha, not a seer and you wanted to go into town as much as anyone!”

“Well I didn't know what would happen either!” She stuttered, her face going a little red. “He should have known better. You have a heart condition!” She flicked the page aggressively.

“The boys couldn't even keep up!”

Was she being deliberately stupid? Péter growled. No, tacha was too much like their mother.

Rules where all they had and tacha had taken to keeping them like religion.

“Tacha it wasn’t his fault!” Péter insisted, tired of beating around the bush. “That shouldn’t have happened. Something went wrong. Harry never mentioned- no one mentioned... what did that old man do?”

She pressed her lips together, just like she always did when she was trying hard to be a lady, usually with dirt under her nails.

“I’m not sure.” She sniffed. “But it was a good thing Bobby and Johann were there to... keep things in order. Who knows what could have happened. The children could have been hurt.”

She gazed at him and Péter didn't recognize the look in her eyes. It was hard and guarded and made him feel uneasy in his own room.

There used to be a time when he could recognize every look she gave him.

He took another sip of his drink, the fruit tasting sour when it hit the back of his throat.

All he could think of was the sound of skin on pavement, the look in Tony’s eyes, and that hard look in Natacha’s.

“Father should garnish his wages.” she mumbled.

That was the last straw. Péter downed the rest of his drink, like he'd seen his uncle Bucky do countless times with his beer and stood up. Natacha watched him fretfully.

“He should, Péter.”

Péter snatched the tray from its place on his dresser and tried not to rip the handle off his door when he reached it.

“Where are you going?” Now even his brave little sister sounded afraid.

He hardly stopped to throw out a reply before he shut his door with a click.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Entreat me not to leave you and to return from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God is my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part you and me. - The book of Ruth. 

 

Tony was sitting alone in his room when a hesitant knock on the door pulled his attention away from the small leather bound book open upon his lap.

“Herr Stark?” Péter’s uncertain voice came through the thick door and Tony felt a stab of pain, the origins of which he could neither place nor properly define. The annoyance of having his solitude interrupted intermingled with the pressing memory of Péter’s stricken expression as he’d abandoned the boy in the hall.

He’d gone in search of the only thing he’d known would numb the pain because fuck his responsibilities. Fuck being a good example to the children: these children with their mouths open, eager to have their milk teeth sharpened into fangs and to take their bite of the world. And fuck Antony Eduard Stark, that cowardly hypocrite of hypocrites for just standing there doing nothing while they tortured that old man. Fuck him most of all.

Though Tony did not reply to his knock Péter slowly opened the door, his brown head of hair poking inside before he cautiously crossed the threshold. He paused in the doorway, his eyes catching on a spot on the wall near the window where the remnants of a broken bottle lay scattered beneath a large creeping stain.

Tony hadn't been seriously drunk in a long time, but after leaving Péter and the others he’d felt a thirst the likes he hadn’t felt since his first year at the monastery.

He’d gone straight to Willamina’s supply of schnapps and retreated into the solitary of his room. He’d been half way through the bottle before the rage bubbling inside of him had become overwhelming, not in the least numbed by the spirits. He’d thrown the bottle against the wall and watched it break with a crash, bits of glass tinkling as the walls dripped, the room filled with the pungent scent of alcohol.

He’d relished it (the proper mess of it all) and thought it good.

Good, good, good. The good Austrians could clean it up.

And then he’d screamed, uncaring of who might hear or what the household might think if they did. Damn them all. Damn the whole house and damn Captain Rogers most of all. Rogers should be here. He should be there to clean up this senseless mess. He should be in the streets with those fucking little monsters cleaning up blood and sick. He and all the other good Austrians should be made to line the walls with their own insides. How dare they! 

And just as rage with no discernible outlet so often does, as suddenly as it had come it left, and Tony had sunk onto the bed with a tired sob.

He didn’t know what had made him remember the bible shoved at the bottom of his trunks. He’d known only that he was tired, a tired so deep in his breast that it ached like a wound, and something about holding that little book in his hands and flipping through it had managed what the liquor had not, his mind quieting as it focused on the familiar verses and the scent of old pages and worn leather.

To think that despite all his mockery and best efforts, after all these years the rituals of faith (if not the belief) could be so calming. It was almost funny. Bruce would have been proud.

“What do you want Péter?” Tony asked and the boy’s eyes flew from the mess in the corner back to him. As if snapped from a daze Péter’s mouth shut into a firm line, his back straighter and prouder than it had any right to be on a body so young and untried. Tony didn’t know what to think about the feeling of mirth that overtook him, watching this gangly boy (all limbs and bravado) square his jaw and ask with the sobriety of a seasoned General whether or not Tony was feeling fit to come out of his room.

“It was a trying day for all of us I think, not just the little ones… You weren’t well earlier.” Péter hedged and there was something too observant in his eyes, too knowing, that made Tony want to squirm. He’d been playing a dangerous game with his life saying the things he’d said to the children that day, giving in to a panic attack and all manner of erratic behavior when the reason why it was so important for him to stay in control was playing out right in front of him. Péter was an extremely intelligent boy and Tony had been so careless.

The fear tightening in his stomach eased when Péter, flushing slightly in embarrassment but soldiering on with conviction confessed, “My father gets that way sometimes. He doesn’t like us around when he’s like that. He’d rather be alone I guess, but I don’t know if you like to be and I thought someone should ask.”

Relief washed through Tony as he realized that Péter had come, not because he had suspicions or thought ill of Tony for the things he’d said, but because he’d looked behind Tony’s behavior and recognized his fracturing mind for what it was… something he’d been alone in for more years than he wanted to count. And Péter had recognized it because he’d seen the same symptoms in his father?

Tony had been dealing with the nightmares and the waking dreams, the shivers and sweats, all on his own for years; he didn’t know why he had such a hard time picturing the captain dealing with the same weakness but he could definitely imagine him pushing his family away and refusing help because of it. Stubborn idiot.

He sighed, letting the last of his tension drain from his body before patting the bed beside him. Péter clambered aboard with a hopeful if shy enthusiasm that had a smile tugging at Tony’s lips.

“That is very kind of you Péter.”

“What are you reading?” Péter asked after a moment of getting himself settled. “The Bible?” He leaned down to stare at the pages in Tony’s lap and wrinkled his nose with the same lack of enthusiasm that Tony usually brought to all matters of faith and this time Tony didn’t fight the smile.

“The book of Ruth.” He answered. And then, because Péter was a warm body pressed up against his with such a sweetness in his eyes it put Tony’s earlier thoughts to shame, he heard himself say, “My mother would get awfully maudlin around this time of year. She’d put me to bed and tell me ‘no magazines tonight Tony; but do you want to hear about the greatest adventure of them all?’ Are you familiar with the story, Péter?”

And of course Péter nodded because like Tony he had been raised at mass like any good catholic boy; but even Hughard’s best attempts to control his home and put their best socially and politically aligned foot forward had been enough to completely silence Maria Carboni or her pride in her heritage.

Buried in the heap of sad memories that constituted Tony’s boyhood there were happier memories of his mother. Her whispered stories and endless lists of songs and proverbs, honeyed apples to welcome in a new year ahead of the flock (a new year all their own), matzo cooked by loving hands and shared like a secret within his mother’s garden, putting him to bed with the story of Ruth because “Antony, don’t you know? It’s Shabbat. On Shabbat we remember.”

He’d always been too smart not to understand what it meant that his mother was a Jew, that he was by right a Jew, but with the filter of youth it had seemed a wonderful game; how nice to have something just their own, how nice to have wonderful secrets to keep from Hughard.

Those early summers back when he’d been a boy as young as Sara, when they’d journey from their villa atop the hill down into the village where she’d spent her days as a girl to visit his grandparents and his uncles, had seemed like a grand adventure. She was Ruth come home again.

Nonna used to kiss him and sigh as she stroked his cheek. She’d always looked so sad as she’d called him her little patatino that he’d refused to eat potatoes for years. He’d had to get older before he realized there was a whole lot wrong with the secret adventures he and his mother had shared, and a whole lot of other reasons besides potatoes for his nonna to bear such a terrible sadness.

“This book is not so bad,” Tony mused aloud tapping the pages of the bible. “Lot of things a guy can learn if he’s paying attention. Take Ruth. Ever thought about it Pete? A young woman alone. She goes from being a princess with everything she could possibly want to shack up with a foreigner, a guy so different from her it was like night and day, but she must have seen something in him, something worth giving all that up for. Then he has the nerve to go and die on her and she’s got nothing, not penny to her name and no protection.

She’s got a chance to go back home. She’s young and pretty. She could maybe find some fellow willing to overlook the fact that she married outside of her own people the first go around, sit pretty and maybe once a year think back and wonder what might have become of Naomi; but instead she sticks by her, journeys into the mouth of the unknown just so they can be together. She had faith that whatever life they built together no matter how poor would be better than any she could find on her own if she turned her back and walked away from what was right. She must have found who she wanted to be in Naomi’s family… I’m envious Péter. I’d like to be so certain. Wouldn’t you?”

Péter, who had curled his knees up to his chin stared up at Tony with warm brown eyes, something vulnerable in them as he nodded wordlessly. And then he sighed and said, “Mom used to tell us stories too.”

None of the children had ever voluntarily talked about their mother before. She was a ghost lingering over the entire household and yet nobody in the house seemed willing to so much as speak her name for fear of upsetting the captain. But the children should speak of her, remember her, if that was what they needed to do. Tony tried to trod carefully.

“You must miss her a lot.”

“It’s been almost three years.” Péter shrugged, though there was nothing convincingly careless in the gesture. The boy was stiff and he seemed no longer able to look at him, his hand unconsciously gripping the comforter and twisting. “Artur barely remembers her... Maria and Sara will never really know her. James remembers more but I think that just makes him mad. He was younger than Maria when she got sick. He used to go in her room all the time even though Father told us not to bother her.”

“I’m sure she didn’t think it was a bother.”

“I don’t think so either. She said it didn’t… mom was really kind. She told us stories too, about her and Father and the adventures they had during the war...” Péter trailed off, hands anxiously twisting the comforter and Tony could tell that he was building up to something so he stayed silent, though he took Péter’s hands in his if only to save the poor comforter. “Natacha thinks Father would have agreed with them but I don’t… I don’t think mom would have liked what Bobby and Johann did today Herr Stark. Even if it was their job.”

The admission was small and quiet and Tony did not miss either the confusion or fear behind it but he was overcome by such a feeling of tenderness and sorrow for the boy at his side (and such guilt for his words and thoughts of earlier) that he pulled Péter close and hugged him tightly.

“Well, some people say it is important to listen to the wisdom of our mothers and learn from the follies of our fathers. It sounds like good advise so lets not question it.”

Péter laughed and Tony smiled down at him. 

“And don’t think I haven’t noticed this Herr Stark business. I told you to call me Tony or Antony if you have to. I knew a Herr Stark and he was beastly.” Péter laughed again full bodied and wiped the last remnants of wetness away from his eyes.

“Alright Tony.”

Clapping his hands together smartly Tony pushed himself up and climbed off the bed with renewed purpose.

“Alright then come along, we’d better round up the others. It won’t do for all of us to sit around the house crying and wondering about the state of the others.” 

“I think Frou Hogan took the little ones for a bath.” Péter offered helpfully even as he scrambled to follow.

They did indeed find Pepper in the nursery with the girls and little Artur, all freshly bathed and scrubbed pink, dressed for bed despite not having yet had their supper.  At the sight of him Artur shrank back and Tony’s heart twisted in his chest but he barely had time to process the emotion he felt because Sara slipped off of Pepper’s lap and toddled across the room like a miniature missile to throw her arms around his knees. After a moment’s deliberation Maria rushed to do the same and Artur was on her heels like a shadow.

Tony had never been more grateful for the forgiving hearts of youth as he scooped the girl up and pressed her close.

“No more yelling.” Sara cried, burying her cold nose against his neck and Tony heartily agreed.

“No more yelling, patatina, I promise.”

Chapter Text

 

“We demand that the National Socialist Youth, and all other young Germans, irrespective of class or occupation, between fourteen and eighteen years of age, whose hearts are affected by the suffering and hardships afflicting the Fatherland, and who later desire to join the ranks of the fighters against the Jewish enemy, the sole originator of our present shame and suffering, enter the Youth League of the NSDAP.” - Völkischer Beobachter, published March 1922

 

Tony had sat up most of the night planning that days lesson. The events they’d witnessed at the market could not go unaddressed and Tony could not leave them so. In this endeavor he had to step carefully but step he must. He’d stood still and watched too many times already for his soul to bear.

He might have had an excuse as a boy still reeling from the deaths of his parents and the loss of all his familiars… but Tony wasn’t a child any longer. Now he was the tutor of seven young minds who would fall prey to a degenerative system aimed to silence those minds, so brimming with questions and blooming ideologies.

Standing still might keep him safe true enough. But as Tony sat mentally turning pages of books long ago etched into memory, considering and considering, he had taken a deep breath and come to a certainty. He was not made for standing still.

Tony strolled into the music room five minutes past their usual start time after noon break, unsurprised to find his charges lined from oldest to youngest patiently in wait. As requested they were all changed from their school uniforms into their play clothes, all except for Natacha.

She stood out like a flag amongst her siblings in the newly fitted dark blue skirt of her Jungmaedel uniform with her painfully white blouse. Her black neckerchief was tied precisely under her neck and her red hair was perfectly pleated to form a crown around her head. And my, did she not look every inch the queen at court, poised to pass judgment on them all.

As the children had raised their arms to give the required salute Tony raised a hand to halt them, waving their arms back down. He met their wary eyed confusion with the smile of the fearless.

“Let’s do away with the formality shall we? I’m sure you’re all curious as to why I asked you here and I won’t keep you in suspense. I thought we’d focus on a special lesson this afternoon and it’s lengthy so let us get started. Please take your seats.”

Tony gestured towards the stately couches lining both walls and the matching sitting chairs. He was glad to see that despite how little used the room was the maids were meticulous in their dusting and polishing. As the children trickled out of formation to find spots for themselves Tony moved to stand at the front of the piano in the center of the room and waited once more for quiet.

“I wanted to apologize for my behavior yesterday. It was beastly and an adult ought to know better, shouldn’t he?”

Though most of the children just stared back at him suspiciously (as if they were being tested) Maria hummed her agreement with a nod, smiling approvingly at him and Tony’s lips twitched with amusement. He’d already been forgiven as far as the little ones and Péter were concerned but the apology (much as it hurt his pride to have to give it) was still important.

“It’s rather stupid to blame children for not understanding what they haven’t been given an opportunity to understand. You know how I hate stupidity… but I find myself in the rare position of having to apologize for it. So enjoy this while it lasts. I suppose this means I have to reevaluate my level of intelligence as it may have dropped by a small percentage. That still leaves me miles ahead of everyone else but I hate miscalculations.”

As he’d hoped, words that would have had Father Niklas glowering and accusing Tony of all sorts of vanity and arrogance had James grinning with a wicked sort of delight and a chorus of hesitant snickers and giggles coming from the others. Natacha was the only one who remained silent. The girl watched him with the blankest of expressions.

Soberly Tony glanced from one child to the next, being sure to meet each eye as he said, “In light of what you’ve given me the opportunity to learn about myself I’d like, going forward, for this classroom to be a place where you are safe to educate your minds without fear. I’d also like it to be a place where you do not have to fear educating me. In fact, I hope you come to relish it. Now… is there anything at all you’d like to ask?”

For a moment following his speech there was just silence and then finally one of them proved brave.

“You mean you want us to teach you things, Herr Stark?” Ian’s brow was not the only one burrowed in confusion. Artur’s eyes were wide with uncertainty, his fingers creeping towards his mouth as he glanced nervously between his siblings.

Tony nodded opening his mouth to elaborate but Natacha smoothly interrupted before he could get a word out.

“You are our teacher. We are your students. Students don’t question their teacher’s Herr Stark.”

“That’s drivel.” Natacha’s eyes narrowed in fury and Tony met her angry gaze with a firm expression of his own. “I’m sorry patatinia but it is. You’re questioning me right now. The Führer called for complete education reform and he was once a student of many fine teachers, some he liked, some he clearly did not. Now everything has changed to reflect what he likes.”

“That’s because it was wrong before.” She insisted. “We were not being taught the correct things. There were bad people who poisoned our country and the minds of its young people and the Führer put a stop to it!”

“Which country is that exactly, Natacha, Germany or Austria?” Tony rebutted with a curious lift of one eyebrow. His gaze fixed on his oldest female charge didn’t prevent him from noticing the way James’ mouth had fallen slightly open and the other children were moving their heads back and forth between him and Natacha like spectators at a tennis match.

“There is no difference.” She bit out through gritted teeth. “We’re all German now.”

“Are you quite sure?” Tony asked quietly. “Last year there was a world of difference and for almost one hundred and fifty years before that. But our beloved Führer put an end to all of the ways in which, for a century or more, a group of people who built their own society before his very existence were learning incorrectly. This one man. He must have keen passion for education.”

There was a pregnant pause, in which Natacha sat silently seething, until beside her Péter took a slow breath and hesitantly spoke.

“… Actually. The Führer says that intellectualism and vain artistry has made Germans soft. He says that books provide too wide a window for corruption to enter the mind and that good citizens know that what Germany needs is dedicated men and women for labor and service.”

Natacha cast Péter a cold expression as Tony nodded in agreement, relief washing through him.

“And yet even the Führer attends the opera. He’s crazy about Tristan and Isolde. He also fancies himself a bit of a painter. And the might of his mighty army is birthed off the labors of not just servicemen but the engineers who build his ships, weapons, and tanks. It seems to me that the Führer finds great value in artists and intellectuals despite saying otherwise.”

It was silent as the children digested his treasonous words. Tony could hope of course that the little ones would listen to him out of hand, because he was a trusted elder and was to be listened to as a matter of course. They couldn’t completely grasp the notion that he might be bad, might be someone they shouldn’t trust.

But Ian and the older set were certainly old enough to understand defiance when they saw it and could easily decide to complain to another adult. Tony would be arrested and taken to jail where he’d likely be found guilty of treason because the trial would be a sham and he had no intention of pleading anything but guilty to the charges. He’d be sentenced to death.

Tony watched Natacha closely but her expression was guarded. He could not tell how his words had landed with her at all. Perhaps even now she intended to go to Pepper or Hammer to tell them about the things that Tony had said. So be it.

“It is my job to help you become the best versions of yourselves that you possibly can be, so there will be no shirking of either your intellect or your artistry in my classroom; and to have a real chance at either you must be given the freedom to question. The Führer may very well be an exception, but Antony Stark is just a man…” Tony took a breath and then went on with more gravity than he’d ever given any speech in his life.

“And children, if you believe nothing else I teach you, believe that all men should be questioned. Gustav Wyneken believed that. He also believed that true learning could only be done in a place where students were free to arouse their passions, where educators felt free to indulge those passions – morally and carefully, despite accusations to the contrary - in a search for higher understanding of ourselves and our surroundings.” Tony explained to them as he moved behind the piano to take his seat at the bench.

“He founded Germany’s first free school, a school for free thinking. The fundamentals and teachings which were at the heart of the Wandervogel, otherwise known as the German Youth Movement; the League of German Girls and Hitler’s Youth was born from their structure. The Führer must have admired their accomplishments greatly.”

“The wandervogel are dreamers. Silly children with backward thoughts who refused to grow up.” Natacha challenged and Tony smiled, because if she thought he was going to ask the children to start challenging the thoughts of others and then get mad when she challenged his, she was mistaken.

“Perhaps, but what makes Hitler’s Youth any different? You dream of a better world. A pure Germany for all German peoples, stability and prosperity for your great nation. Your youth does not preclude you from longing for a place in the world or a willingness to create change with action. If anything it gives you courage far beyond your years and that is powerful. The Führer knows. He commends you for it every day, doesn’t he? And so do I.”

Tony clapped his hands and waved for the children to join him at the piano. He was touched by their show of eagerness, Maria all but tripping over herself to be the first one to reach his side. Natacha followed behind the others her steps measured and face still unreadable.

“And since we’ve all had enough heavy thoughts for a lifetime we’re going learn a bit more about music now and be grateful that we’re together, happy, and that I’m beautiful.”

He winked at Maria who beamed up at him and felt something in his chest clench when James barked a startled laugh which quickly turned into an embarrassed cough.

“Don’t you mean handsome Tony?” Péter asked with a fond roll of his eyes and Tony made an affronted sound.

“I meant exactly what I said. Now: we’re going to return to our lesson on harmony. Artur, patatino you’ve a fine set of lungs but you’re still singing over your brothers so let’s try something new...”

As the lesson moved smoothly into music Tony could not help but feel a glimmer of hope. He could not say what was to come; maybe he already suspected that a hangman’s rope lay in his future, but that was alright. There were worse things to be than dead.

 

~*~*~*~

“The world is so high, hey, I have to die. Hey, I have to die. Hey, nothing hurts me, God, nothing.”

A Roma sorrow song as recited by Varhaňovce, 2001.

 

 

So hin učo oda svetos, hej, de te merel, jaj, mušinav.

Hej, de te merel, jaj, mušinav, hej, de ňič man Devla ňič na dukhal.

The world is so high, hey…

Steve, usually lulled by Bucky’s soft singing, gritted his teeth and snapped for him to quiet. Miles of that, and Steve’s nerves were worn raw. It wasn’t that he was worried about anyone overhearing Bucky singing in Romany out here on the open road, within the privacy of the car. It was just that Bucky was trying to prove some sort of point, as if it had been too easy for Steve to shut that part of him away.

“Relax, will you.” Bucky huffed from where he sat in the passenger’s seat beside Steve as they drove up the narrow mountain road. Worry had gripped Steve hard since he’d been summoned for a meeting with General Striker. Steve had hoped that Dr. Erskine’s testimony regarding the children’s many illnesses would be enough to keep Striker at bay, but he knew the man was under pressure from Schmidt now that they suspected that Stefen had stolen the letter; but he’d not expected them to move so quickly.

Striker had once more brought up the unfortunate circumstances regarding the children’s health and made thinly veiled threats, only this time not so thin.

“There are questions regarding Dr. Erskine’s loyalty to the Reich, I’m sure this comes as a great shock to you Captain.” Striker had said with a sneer in his tone. “Are you not worried that he may have exaggerated the extent of the children’s limitations, or might not in fact be the cause of them? A second opinion perhaps is warranted.”

There was no way that Steve would allow any doctor selected by Striker or anyone else in the Nazi party anywhere within five feet of his children but he’d known then that Striker wasn’t going to give him a choice; he’d force the issue unless Steve gave him something.

Informing the head of the German Youth that his daughter was showing significant improvement, enough to allow her involvement in the BDM, had been sound strategy. Natacha was sharp and intelligent, smarter in some ways than even Péter, and Steve trusted her to know what to say and how she must behave to keep their family safe… but she was a child still, and he her father. Moving her about like a pawn in this deadly game left his gut twisting sickly. He couldn’t relax. What sort of a father was he, to do this to his child?

Steve’s hands clenched on the steering wheel in a white knuckled grip, his eyes stuck on the road and the familiar scenery. They were close now. So close to home. Steve just wanted to see the children, his eyes suddenly hungry for them, the impulse to gather them close and run away from this madness stronger than he’d ever felt it. But it was a dangerous whim. They were being watched. Schmidt would not simply just let him leave the country.

“Look if you can’t relax Stevie, try and take a breath.” Bucky sighed once more. “You’re white as a sheet. You’ll terrify the children. Dottie isn’t going to show up with a tank before we can get there.”

Steve snorted, though his amusement was minimal. He wouldn’t have put it past a woman like Dottie to try. Dörthe Werner and Peggy had been close once, meeting as young women at a Swiss finishing school and bonding over a shared sense of adventure, but Dottie came from an old family with strong political motivations and she’d always had a far colder approach to the world than Margrit. Steve had never known Dottie to be anything but cold and snobbish, especially towards him, but Peggy held such fond memories of the other woman that he’d always endeavored to hold his dislike in check. But Dottie’s vocal disdain for Peggy’s choice of partners had continually come between them and then her heavy involvement in the National Socialist party had driven the final wedge.

“We need to be there Buck,” Steve grunted, pushing the vehicle a tad faster. “Striker didn’t choose Dottie by chance.”

“Think I couldn’t figure that out? The woman’s sharp as a tack and you’ve got her squaring off with Ginger. Christ. She’s just a kid, Stevie.” Bucky breathed out heavily and Steve pressed his foot down on the gas without another word. He couldn’t help but feel slightly vindictive. Now did Bucky understand? It wasn’t as if it made Steve happy to bury his heritage and Peggy had certainly never asked it of him. Assimilating had been his choice, being Austrian, had been his choice (he’d had such strong belief in what the country could become, what they could build together) and no matter how bitter it was to watch that dream die, it was only thanks to that decision that Schmidt hadn’t torn his family apart already.

The sight of the trees parting to reveal the lush grounds of the villa sat on the edge of a glittering mountain lake had taken Steve’s breath away the first time he’d driven up this road with Peggy, and despite everything else going on it was no different that afternoon. Bucky too seemed to sit up straighter at the sight of it, a small smile tugging at his mouth at the sight. This beautiful home tucked away from the city had become sanctuary. Steve realized quite suddenly, watching the unhidden gleam of anticipation growing in his friend’s eyes, that in his grief he might have pushed Bucky out of it. Bucky had a family of his own but they’d always been home for each other. He’d let that change.

“Welcome home Steve.” Bucky echoed his thoughts and Steve’s chest ached with relief. Perhaps it hadn’t changed as much as he feared. He knew he was lucky, because he had Bucky to thank for that. His throat was tight with emotion as he gruffly echoed.

“Welcome home Buck.”

 

*~*

 

Steve pulled the car around to the garage when they pulled in, because there was no reason for leaving it in the front besides making more work for Harold, and even though Bucky teased him for going through the trouble of employing a chauffeur and going out of his way to lessen his workload, it was a habit that Steve had never been able to break. Bucky had never had a problem enjoying luxury once it had started coming their way, but Steve had never gotten comfortable being waited on.

Harold came out of the garage at the sound of the car pulling up, shock bleeding into happy surprise as he recognized them.

“Harold! It’s good to see you,” Bucky exclaimed hopping from the car to envelop Hogan into an enthusiastic embrace, a shark toothed grin splitting his face wide at the driver’s startled expression. Bucky never had held with propriety. Steve watched them with an exasperated smile.

“You’ve gained weight Hogan. Look at you all happy and round, marriage suits you. I ought to try it.” Bucky sassed and Harold rolled his eyes.

“No woman would put up with you Bakhuizen.” Turning to Steve with a short nod of respect Harold went on to say, “We weren’t expecting you Captain. Ginny didn’t say you’d telephoned.”

“Yes, sorry…” Steve cleared his throat. “Buck and I got on the road this morning. The phone line was down at the hotel.”

It hadn’t been. Steve just hadn’t wanted Schmidt to be aware of his movements or try and prevent him leaving Vienna.

“How are the children?” He asked, unable to hold the question in a moment longer, eyes darting about as if he expected to find them nearby. A foolish thought. At this hour they’d still be at lesson.

“They’re fine Sir… but supper will be late now. Ginny will be miffed about that.” Harold shook his head jovially and Steve was distracted from the man’s troubling hesitance by the prospect of facing his housekeeper’s wrath. Virginia could be very diligent about keeping the houses schedule.

“Well I’m famished. I for one would eat a steamed boot if Willamina would boil it- hey you’ve left my bags.” Bucky prattled, switching tracks mid-sentence when he noticed Harold had pulled their trunks from the car and picked up Stefen’s but left his.

“I’ve only got the two hands and I know you’ll just make the captain carry them.” Harold shot back and Steve laughed when Bucky slowly nodded as if seeing the wisdom in his words.

“Too true. Stefen. You’re standing there looking fairly useless.”

“I have a staff to carry my things.” Steve reminded him, trying not to be so damn amused by his antics and failing (he’d missed them too much).

“Yes and years of pent up guilt over that very fact. I do this for your health and mine.”

Steve let out something between a laugh and a huff (which Bucky did not look fooled by in the least) and grabbed up his bags. He couldn’t help however getting in a jibe of his own.

“You have grown soft since the war. The stairs would probably do you in.”

“I’ll do you in Stevie if I don’t get some supper in me.” Bucky grumbled in reply as Harold led the way inside. “Where are the kids? We should have heard the herd coming by now.”

Steve was wondering the same.

“They should be in the school room,” he replied reaching for the whistle tucked into his breast pocket in order to call for them. Normally he wouldn’t interrupt their lessons but he couldn’t bring himself to wait.

“Captain?” The sound of Virginia’s voice calling out at the end of the hall and the clack of her heels stilled his hand. The woman rushed toward them, an expression of surprise mingling with something that struck Steve as troubled, and he tensed. She was quick to embrace Bucky when she’d reached them, not standing on formality and Steve wasn’t sure who was more pleased by that (him or Bucky). “James, it’s been too long.”

“Clearly. I heard you didn’t wait for me and got yourself hitched.”

Harold snorted as he set Steve’s trunks down, and Steve rolled his eyes to the ceiling.

“A woman could find herself married, grandmothered, and in the grave waiting on you James,” Virginia replied drolly and Steve bit back a chuckle.

“Awe that’s really not fair though is it darling?” Bucky pouted, a familiar gleam of mischief in his eye. Steve should know, he’d watched him use it on women enough. Virginia had long ago proven to be one of the rare immune but that just seemed to encourage him. “There you stand looking gorgeous and so very not a grandmother, and here I’ve come back for you. Whose gonna soothe my broken heart?”

“I’m sure you’ll manage.” Virginia smiled so sweetly at him it was just shy of insulting and Bucky grinned wildly at Steve as Virginia turned towards him with a business like air.

“When you wrote you were coming home I did not expect you to wrap up things in Vienna so quickly. I’m afraid it will take Willimina some time to get a proper meal on the table.” The contrast between it and the open friendliness she’d displayed only moments before was startling, but not alarming considering that Steve could hear even now what he recognized as Hammer’s hurried footfall.

Virginia stepped close to murmur quickly, “Frauline Werner rang to make the arrangements. I held her off until Wednesday.”

Steve felt a small bit of relief at that. There was time still to prepare, to speak with Natacha before she was thrown to the wolves… though any relief that Steve felt was quickly swallowed by guilt because he did not know what he would say to his daughter to explain what he needed from her. Too much information would put her in danger, but his silence left her to draw her own conclusions. How confused she must be.

Steve nodded, giving the woman’s arm a grateful squeeze and she stepped back just as Herr Hammer reached them. The butler looked a mix of flustered and indignant.

“Captain. I do apologize I was not here to meet you. No one informed me you had arrived.” Justin shot Virginia an accusing glance and the housekeeper just stared back at him, as impenetrable as fortress.

“Never mind that now, Hammer. I’m home now and glad for it. Where are the children?” Steve asked once more. He narrowed his eyes shrewdly at the sudden darkening of Hammer’s expression and the quick glance that Harold and Virginia shared. It was quick enough that a less careful man would have missed it but Steve did not, nor had he missed that this was his third time asking with no answer forthcoming.

“Virginia?” He snapped, worry tightening his gut once more, his hand itching to reach for the pistol tucked into his jacket.

“They are having a lesson with Herr Stark.” Virginia confirmed slowly and before Steve could dwell too much on his confusion Justin opened his mouth and launched into a long winded tirade.

“Captain, while the house is delighted to have you back, I simply must bring it to your attention that Herr Stark’s behavior while you’ve been away has been unacceptable – ”

“What do you mean?!” Steve snapped once more. “What has he done?” Had he hurt one of the children? Steve found it harder to believe than he’d have imagined weeks ago. Stark’s letters kept playing through his head, his obvious fondness for each child leaking through every word.

“I believe the behavior that Herr Hammer is referring to is Antony’s insistence on taking the children on an excursion-” Steve’s neck turned so quickly to stare at Virginia it hurt. Antony since when was Stark, Antony, to her? He was so taken aback by the woman’s slip he almost missed her last words. When they sank in a feeling like rage lit within his belly and he did nothing to mask it. To her credit Virginia did not flinch from his obvious fury. “- But he did ask for my permission Captain and I gave it.”

“An arrangement I assure you Captain that I was unaware of.” Justin was quick to say. “I warned Herr Stark to mind his place and your rules but he has no regard for authority. He’s caused nothing but chaos, unsavory visitors-”

“A novice from the church stopping in for kaffeetrinken.” Virginia interjected and Hammer swelled up like an agitated bird.

“-completely ignoring your chosen curriculum, singing and dancing like the house is a circus, excursions into town! The children came back in such a state I’m sure something must have happened but they won’t say. The children are terrified of him Captain.”

“Terrified!” They had Bucky’s full attention now. There was almost something savage in the way he snapped, “What the hell do you mean?!”

“The children love him, Herr Hammer.” It was only Virginia’s furious snap in Hammer’s direction that kept Steve’s anger from boiling over. “They really are quite fond of him Captain. They were simply not used to such strenuous activity. The heat exhausted them.”

“And what pray tell, gave Herr Stark the impression that he could take my children out of this house?” Steve asked, voice so dangerously controlled that even Justin knew better than to say another word. Virginia to her credit met his gaze without flinching, though Steve would not have wished to face himself at that moment had he been in her shoes.

“Because I gave him permission to Captain.” She held his stare though the tight grip of one hand on her wrist betrayed her nervousness.

“I’ll deal with that latter. Where are my children?”

This time there was no evasion, Virginia was far smarter than that.

“They’re in the music room Captain.”

Steve saw red.

“Right.” Though his voice betrayed none of his rage, when Captain Stefen Gavril Rogers turned on his heel and began marching down the hall there was no mistaking he was a man on the war path.

~*~

“Stefen!”

Steve heard Bucky calling after him but Steve didn’t pause in his march toward the music room, too focused on his target: that target being one disobedient, impertinent, fool of a monk who’d wish he’d never heard the name of Captain Rogers by the time Steve was through with him if he learned that he’d harmed so much as a hair on one of the children. And Steve would get the truth from him if he had to wring it out of his neck to do it.

The music room. Steve was livid about the little trip Tony had taken the children on but for some reason it was hearing that Tony had disobeyed this particular order that rubbed the rawest.

He’d been clear! The room wasn’t to be touched! Everyone on the staff knew, so how was it that this one man had turned the entire house on its head in the space of a month! Had Virginia just let the man run amok? It wasn’t like her but damn it all if there just wasn’t something about Stark that got under the skin. Even Steve had begun to soften towards him of late. Well no more. It would end here. Antony Stark was going to learn his place if it was the last thing Steve did. If he could bring an entire company of unruly soldiers into line he could certainly cow a monk!

“Stefen, will you wait a minute! You’re gonna frighten the kids half to death-”

Steve drew to stop just outside the open doors of the music room but not because of Bucky’s warning.

It was the sight of those doors wide open, the curtains pulled back so that bright afternoon sunshine spilled over every surface. It was like stepping back in time to three years ago when Steve would have come home and expected to find Peggy here, perhaps with James in her lap tinkling away at the piano while Natacha danced circles around Péter. Ian would be curled up in a chair, sounding through one of his books…

The sound pouring out of those doors was not that of his lovely wife, singing softly to amuse their children but it was no less stunning for that. He didn’t know why it struck him so dumb to learn that Stark could sing, he was a monk after all, but the rich sound of his voice stopped Steve in his tracks, his ears craning for every last word, his heart pounding wildly within his chest caught between the flush of fury that had carried him there and the strange yearning now holding him still.

Ade! Ade! Ade! Ja scheiden und meiden tut weh

The words to the old love song drifted up from his memory as If Peggy were right there beside Tony at the piano, their voices blending together in his head, singing the song of parting lovers.

Farewell, farwell, farwell, separation is like privation

And then, as if Steve weren’t knocked back enough a chorus of voices answered Tony, and if he weren’t staring at them lined up in front of the piano Steve would not have believed that his children could make such a beautiful sound... but of course they could. They were Peggy’s.

When do you think I'll get my darling back?

Farewell!

And if it isn't tomorrow, oh if only it could be today,

Farewell, farewell, farewell!

Oh separation and privation, how they hurt

Steve sucked in a desperate breath but something was grabbing his chest, squeezing the air from him. His eyes were stinging as Bucky who had stopped beside him to watch as Tony directed the children in song gaped. Slowly his expression bled into a delighted smile, something fiercely proud in his voice as he murmured, “wow. Listen to that Stevie.”

The sound of Bucky’s voice drew Natacha’s attention (the girl had the ears of a wolf Steve would swear) and at the sight of them she gasped. One by one the children turned to look where she was looking and within moments the room erupted into chaos.

“Father! Uncle Bucky!” a near dozen young voices called out in various orders and the whole lot of them abandoned their lesson to come greet them.

They crowded around him and Bucky chattering a mile a minute with unhindered enthusiasm and Artur almost knocked them both over colliding into their legs, wrapping one arm around Steve’s right and Bucky’s left and squeezing tight as he wriggled and bounced with excitement.

“…you didn’t tell us you were coming back…”

“…Tony helped me tie it! Do you like….”

“…my letter! You didn’t answer…”

They were all talking over each other and Steve’s head was pounding with the clamor. His hands shook as he placed them on Ian’s shoulders and he still somehow hadn’t managed to catch his breath. He looked over to Bucky who caught his eye and must have seen the pleading in them because he put two fingers in his mouth and whistled sharply for quiet.

“That’s better.” He groused following the sudden silence and the children giggled. “How’s a guy supposed to demand his hugs if he can’t even hear himself think?”

“I’m already hugging you!” Artur chirped abandoning Steve’s leg to clasp both arms tightly around Bucky. He squealed with delight when the man stooped and pulled him up as if he were still as small as Maria.

“Who is this?” Bucky gaped. “Stevie? My god you shrunk!”

“No it’s me, Artur!” the boy laughed at Bucky’s teasing and began to wriggle desperately in Bucky’s arms as Bucky began to mercilessly tickle his side, the boy dangerously tipping back and forth.

“Well here’s what you get for getting more and more like him every day. Didn’t I tell you to stop that?”

“Never!” Artur resisted with gleeful kicks and squirms and thankfully Bucky set him down before he dropped him and the other children crowded close eager for their turn at hugs and attention from their favorite uncle; all except for Natacha who Steve noticed hanging back from the others waiting patiently to be addressed, though he thought her eyes betrayed her eagerness.

Steve took that moment to step away and catch Stark’s attention, only to find that the monk was already watching him, waiting by the door as if he’d expected it. Steve narrowed his eyes, remembering his anger and his mission there. Right. Time to deal with Stark, once and for all.

~*~*~

Tony’s heart hadn’t beat so hard even when he’d stood up in front of the children to speak treason. There was no stopping it now it seemed as he and Captain Rogers slipped from the room and quietly shut the door behind them.

Rogers was wearing a familiarly murderous expression and it was a struggle for Tony not to let anything of the satisfaction he felt show.

“Herr Stark, was I unclear when I told you the music room was off limits?”

“Perfectly, Captain.”

“And was I not clear on my restrictions regarding the children’s activities?”

“As fine crystal, Sir.”

“Then you are just incapable of following orders?” the captain snipped, clipping his words and Tony smiled serenely at him.

“It does look that way, doesn’t it?” And when the captain opened his mouth to speak once more Tony tilted his head and beat him to the punch. “I’m afraid I’ve never been much of a follower, so when I find fault in your orders, and I usually do, I am forced to follow my own judgement.”

“Is this a game to you?” Rogers got in his face to snarl. “I do not give a damn Stark about your judgment, you’re not paid to judge you’re paid to –”

“To educate.” Tony interjected succinctly.

“Yes!” the captain loomed over him, crowding further into Tony’s space, but if he expected Tony to cower from the sheer size of him or the darkness of his expression alone, well then he didn’t know Tony Stark. “Following the orders I give you!”

“I’m not a soldier Captain! I do not march after orders just because you shout them. Your butler made it impossible for me to go into town and get the children’s supplies without leaving them alone for the day, and unlike some I do not take breaking my promises to them lightly.”

“Be very careful, Stark!” Steve growled at him, teeth clenched so tight they were all but bared and Tony shivered, but refused to back down.

“Frankly it’s unhealthy keeping them locked up here as if you feared they might catch the plague just by walking into town-”

“What business is it of yours! I have good reason for keeping them home and you – ”

“Can’t possibly be expected to care if you don’t share them, Captain! Or to apologize when I discussed the matter with Pepper, whom you put in charge by the way, and Péter agreed it was a splendid idea –”

“Who the hell is Pepper? And Péter is fourteen! Don’t bring my child into this – ”

“Péter will be a man before you can blink and you’ll have lost the opportunity to know him! The children are the god damn point! You asked me to protect them but nothing is going to protect them from the damage these walls will cause if you keep them locked up. They are children Captain, not soldiers. They shouldn’t be made to walk in fear!”

“They have every reason to be afraid!” Rogers shouted and Tony fell silent, taken back by the anguish twisting his features, the stark pain flashing in the blue of his eyes and Tony drew in a breath of sudden realization.

Firstly, Rogers might have become very practiced with his German and his high handed ways, but when his blood was hot like this and he let his control slip he slipped into a rough distinctly Slavic cadence that screamed of countryside and ill breeding (and it was just as gorgeous as the first time Tony had heard it).

Secondly, and far more relevantly, Stefen Rogers (national hero, the skinny boy who’d lied about his age to join a war, survived to single handedly rescue his entire company and push back the enemy forces) was deeply and profoundly terrified for his children. It was suddenly easy to see right through him, right to the fleshy heart undoubtedly beating rabbit like within his chest, and easy to see how one could so effortlessly rip it out.

You wouldn’t even need to touch him. He already had seven handy little targets.

And for a moment Tony wondered if Hughard had ever loved him that much… the things Hughard might have been driven to do to protect him if he’d learned there was a threat to them (something drastic like signing Tony’s life over to a monastery) but he pushed the thought away as grappling for straws. He’d never know Hughard’s true motivations. He’d not been given enough data.

It was with that thought in mind that Tony slowly reached for the captain, whose eyes were still shuttered and pained, but who for whatever reason did not flinch away from his touch as Tony rested his hand gently upon his arm.

“When I was not much older than Péter, my parents were murdered...” he began and Stefen’s eyes rounded in shock. The official story had said that Hughard and Maria had accidently been trampled to death during the riot because it was prettier than being executed by their own workers.

“I was alone and the world was at war. The bombs would shake the abbey walls whenever there was a raid. And I used to just lay there, wishing they’d just land on us… because then I might see my mother again…” Tony swallowed thickly and looked away from the penetrating blue of the captain’s eyes. It was too hard to get through with such intense focus fixed upon him.

“Soldiers would come through seeking food and medical aid. They’d ask for prayers and tell us stories of the war effort, but I hardly heard any of them. I was too numb. But then one day there was a new story, about this boy. They were calling him ‘the lion of Austria’. He was even younger than I was, but they said he stood up to an entire regiment of enemy troops and prevented the enemy from advancing on an undefended village.”

Tony could see the slow dawning of awe as Rogers realized that Tony was talking about him followed by a sort of wonder filled bewilderment as if he couldn’t comprehend himself as a hero to anyone, especially a young boy grappling with the harsh realities of war and the terrible loss of his parents.

“I immediately asked brother Bruce for his sobering draught because I thought, my god, if a boy with arms the size of toothpicks and shriveled lungs could do that… then I could sober up and face another day. It offends me now to see how they greatly exaggerated your skinniness. I have yet to determine about the shriveled lungs.”

A rough chuckle rumbled from the captain’s chest and he looked just as surprised by it as Tony was. It made something warm glow within Tony’s chest in response, his lips tilting upward in shared mirth as he returned an encouraging smile. While luck was on his side and the captain seemed captivated by his story Tony implored him once more.

“They have every reason to fear, Stefen, you are right, and only you to show them the meaning of strength. Don’t let fear become their master.”

Or yours. Tony did not say the words but they were heavy between them as Stefen considered him and Tony searched him for some hint as to how the chips would fall. He was very likely to find himself fired.

The captain took a slow deep breath – the movement of his broad chest catching Tony’s eyes and making his hand burn enough to drop it.

“You are right about one thing Herr Stark; I am their father. In the future all excursions are to be cleared with me or you will not like the consequences.”

As Captain Rogers brushed past him to head back into the music room Tony stared after him, something wild beginning to flutter within his chest. It felt like hope; because Tony had always been smarter than most and his mind put together quickly the things not said. Stefen had not expressly forbidden him to take the children out again.

“The singing, Captain, and their other lessons?” Tony pressed the captain’s retreating back. He paused and glanced back at Tony with a warning stare, but Tony could have sworn there was something almost warm glinting in that blue. Maybe he was just imagining things but the sweet rush of victory filled him when Stefen nodded shortly.

“So long as they don’t interfere with their regular school work; and they are never to sing in public. Good day, Herr Stark. You’re relieved.”

And with that Stefen pushed open the doors to the music room and let it shut smartly behind him leaving Tony alone in the hall. And though Tony had expected punishment and not received it, strangely that door between him and the family he was becoming dangerously invested in felt like a punishment all its own.

 

~*~*~~*~*~

 

Tony made his way up the stairs that night ready to attempt sleep again. His mind was oddly quiet. Well it wasn't firing at all cylinders, and with the way the past few days had gone he would take what he could get.

He cradled his drink to his chest; the balmy coolness of the glass had long since faded. He’d regulated himself to just the one glass (no sense in Pepper figuring out who stole the schnapps).

Tony’s room was on the same floor as the room that Pepper used when she chose to stay the night. They shared the floor with the family. An odd choice, but Tony couldn’t complain. It did make spying ever so much easier.

He rounded the corner to his room. The house was new and the way it talked always soothed him. His father had always said you could tell a great deal about a house and its builder by the way it talked. Its creaks and moans and shudders.

It’s cries…. Tony’s step paused as a low sound registered in the dark. He hesitated, his first thought being that Péter was finally showing the signs of someone with a heart condition but no, he'd passed Péter's room already.

He inched forward, eyes drawn to the door to his right where the low sounds of distress were emanating. Stefen’s room.

 It wasn't crying… perhaps choking? And it was definitely coming from Stefen’s- the CAPTAINS, DAMN IT- room. He was familiar with the sound of the mind trying to wake itself.

 A part of him had not quite believed Péter. Captain Rogers was as unbreakable, unstoppable and as morally upright as the pamphlets had ever said. And a small very young part of tony wanted desperately to believe it was all true.

 But he was a scientific mind and fantasy did not become him.

There was something wrong with the captain. It was as if the man he had written too in the past months had sent a pod person home instead. There had been little glimmers of the Stefen Rogers Tony thought he'd been getting to know, but the Captain had been mostly withdrawn all day and into the evening.

Tony paused in front of the door, reaching for the knob on instinct.

He was holding his breath. Damn it. It wasn't his job to look after Rogers!

Péter said his father preferred to be alone. That was if the captain was even having a nightmare! For all Tony knew he was having strange sex with one of the maids.

He almost laughed. It was always the quiet ones.

He was turning to go when a thump came from behind the door and then another cry, this one sharper.

Tony had opened the door before he could stop himself.

Captain Rogers frightened eyes met his. He was tangled in his sheets, his face contorted though it was hard to tell for sure in the dark. The bedside lamp had been knocked over and was shining it's light sideways so that everything was contorted or cast in shadow.

The captain was struggling to sit up his eyes darting about the room. Even in the distorted light Tony could see the front of his night shirt was drenched in sweat. He's movements were slow, sluggish again as if he were drunk only there was no smell of alcohol, no telltale glass like the one in Tony’s hand beside the bed.

That strangled little choking sound still coming from him- Tony had seen animals led to slaughter less frightened.

He took a step nearer which only sent the captain into more of a panic. A shout tore from him as he twisted his body to the side knocking the remaining items on the night table over.

What was Tony supposed to do? What did he do with his hands? Tony panicked.

What would Bruce do with a troubled patient?

Restrain them?

“Captain?” Tony inched forward “Captain Rogers?”

In the bed the captain stilled, his head bent between his arms as he held himself up on his stomach, his arms as rigid as poles, the muscles cording.

Tony swallowed, frozen in place. He should leave. This was a very private thing…

But that sound - Stefen was choking - that sound was him choking, and much like the way he came in Tony was darting forward at the realization without any command from his body.

Tony ripped the sheets away so that they no longer trapped Stefen’s lower body. He’d turned to grasp Stefen’s shoulders when he was suddenly struck.

Tony fell on his backside, too stunned to do much else but blink back up at the captain. Though he must have shouted because a moment later Herr Bakhuizen had appeared in the door.

Tony snapped out of his days and reached for the captain again. He managed to get an armful of frightened soldier before he was thrown back with surprising ease. He snatched at him again pulling at Stefen’s swinging arms, trying to restrain him the way he’d seen Bruce do on so many occasions. It was like trying to ride a bucking horse. There was another loud crack in his ears and then a bright burst of pain and Tony went down dragging Stefen with him.

Under his crushing weight Tony could feel the man trembling against him as if he was shaking apart.

Hands grabbed at him. Too many hands. One pair, around his neck and pushing at his face - dear god, his neck was going to snap from the force of it - another pair grasping for purchase. The second pair grappled and pulled, dragging Tony roughly out from under Stefen. The minute he was free he was dropped unceremoniously and his rescuer lunged forward, grasping Stefen by the shoulders. In the fractured darkness Tony could make out Herr Bakhuizen form bracing against Stefen’s.

Bakhuizen was murmuring something, face pressed close to Stefen’s which was still turned toward Tony. A string of low urgent words left Bakhuizen’s lips: neither in German or Polish. Tony strained to understand it but he couldn't. Whatever language it was it wasn't one he was familiar with.

Bakhuizen was stroking the side of Stefen’s face, a gentle motion in comparison to the white knuckled grip he had on his arm.

Tony sat up, the movement making his neck twinge.

Over Bakhuizen’s shoulder Stefan's eyes had turned glassy but the recognition in them was clear as they focused on Tony. If it were possible Stefen stiffened more.

Bakhuizen glanced behind him eyes meeting Tony’s.

“It's alright, everything's alright.”

Like hell it was.

Tony wiped his mouth, a smear of blood coming away on the back of his palm.

“He’s got the shakes.” Tony said stupidly. Bakhuizen must know, but what else was there to say.

“He’s fine!” Bakhuizen snarled and Tony winced.

Captain Rogers muttered something in that unfamiliar language again but whatever he said it was obvious he wanted Tony to know, the captain’s eyes boring into his.

He could try fucking German.

Bakhuizen shook him once more and the captain started. His eyes back on Bakhuizen’s he looked lost and Tony was sure, even in the low light, that he'd never seen the captain look so young.

“S-stark.” The captain's voice sounded like rusted chain. He licked his lips and continued, struggling with his words.

“That'll be all Stark.”

Tony blinked, taken aback by the order as Bakhuizen heaved, lifting Stefen up and shouldering him towards his bed.

“Stark, water if y'a don't mind.” Bakhuizen directed firmly with military precision.

The captain landed with a thump on the bed his voice cracking out of him as he continued to issue orders.

“That'll be all Stark.”

It might have been more impressive if Tony hadn’t witnessed the man nearly topple over.

Tony was already up, scooping his spilled glass off the floor with shaking hands.

“Water it is, Cap.”

Even in his state Stefen managed a frown at him, the nickname registering. Tony saluted a farewell, trying for jovial, and hurried from the room on shaking legs.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Steve had always been a light sleeper (first from illness in the caravan and then drilled into him in the army) Bucky not so much. He slept like a log these days. When he did sleep.

He rolled onto his front. Steve had already left to bathe and wash the sweat from his body. The moment he had left the bed Bucky, who’d been in the chair next to him (like a father at the sickbed of a child) had flopped into the bed. There was no going back to sleep for Steve but he hadn't complained when Bucky had pulled up a chair and proclaimed his inability to sleep and want of a good book.

A good book had been Peggy’s copy of “The Ego and the Id’. He hoped It had soothed Stevie. His wife had had very strange tastes. Bucky had struggled through the heavy German text, hardly understanding half of what he was saying. Steve had even called him on it, asking him to repeat what he’d said at more than one point, his voice scraping out of him. He'd asked why Bucky bothered to read it if he neither liked Freud nor understood him. Bucky had scowled back and told him to shut up. Steve, contrary bastard that he was, never did fall back to sleep. Instead he seemed to drift in and out, back pressed to the headboard, breathing stuttering every now and then. It gave Bucky time to observe his friend.

His brother.

Who was falling apart at the seams.

He could see that now. Steve had lost weight and even though it was clear he’d been out in the sun his skin, which had always favored his gaja fathers, was an unhealthy shade of pale. In Vienna Bucky had thought when the bruising faded his skin would return to normal. Instead Steve looked...ill. Just ill. Almost the way he’d looked as a little boy.

Bucky had found Steve after the great war was over. When Bucky had been released from their unit, he’d been determined to find Steve in one of the stationed hospitals. They’d met up and banded together just like always. Only this time there where pieces of themselves missing. They’d been like a china piece, shaken and glued back together until nothing was where it was supposed to be anymore. Together, however, it had not seemed so terrible. Together they had managed to be a whole person.

Time served, Bucky had snatched up his promised citizenship and left the mountain troopers without a backward glance. He’d been a good soldier, but so had his friends. The price for that piece of paper had been too damn high.

In ways he would only admit to Steve he thought they were all still paying for it. What was left of their company were all what Peggy had called ‘shell shocked’, unable to come back from the mountains and rejoin society like proper men.

His mother had had another name for it- for the men in the caravan that had fought and come back only half there. She’d called it an irritable heart.

Bucky sighed, listening to Steve move about in the washroom. No doubt scrubbing away all evidence of his slip the night before.

Bitterly he wondered if today his pulo would manage to scrub away the evidence of his Roma blood and his irritable heart. Surely there wasn't enough lye soap in the world.

Bucky snorted. It was harder now, a game he made himself play, looking for cracks in Steve’s perfect German persona to spot any remnants of the skinny Roma boy who had once lifted his grandfather’s coveted pencils in order to draw on the backs of logs.

He'd let Bucky back into the house he reasoned. By default, his resilience must be waning.

The washroom door opened and Steve stepped through, already in his morning clothes, his hair neatly combed and parted. You'd have no idea he had been somewhere outside of his mind the night before, not a hair was out of place to suggest he'd unraveled.

God damn it but that was scary.

Bucky rubbed his face, trying to shake the uneasy feeling that had settled in his gut.

“Jesus Stevie” he muttered under his breath.

Steve meandered over to his dresser, adjusting his suspenders and leaning over too look in the mirror. The room had been put back, every last surface immaculate, scrubbed clean of the night before.

“You alright, Stevie?” Bucky asked, louder.

Steve shot him a puzzled look and straightened.

“I don’t want the children to see me hurt.” He frowned at himself and reached for a jar resting beside the mirror. The bruises on his neck and jaw had faded to a translucent yellow but Steve had always been meticulous.

“Why did you sleep here?” the question was directed to just over Bucky's shoulder and before he could answer Steve was already pulling away and reaching for his tie, fashioning the knot around his neck with brutal precision. “I'm surprised the smell of breakfast didn't wake you.” he added, offering a rueful little smile at Bucky.

It was a fair question. He’d not been in Steve's room in years. It had been Steve and Peggy’s room then, and if Bucky had gone in it was mostly to tease Peggy from the doorway as she sat by her mirror.

Then it had been filled with the ordinary things. Pictures of the children, bobbles Peggy had picked up over the years, Steve's sketches. Possessions that spoke of two people in love in one space.

There was nothing to suggest Peggy had been there now. It was a Roma custom to let go of the dead, so the dead could find peace. A damn idiotic one if you asked him and certainly not meant to be done in this degree. Hell, Bucky still had a few of his mother’s things.

Looking around now, the only thing of personal value Bucky had clapped eyes on was the line of photos of the children. All of them formal, their mother nowhere in sight.

More worrying, there was nothing to suggest that Steve lived there either… as if he had counted himself among the dead.

“Hurry up, Buck.” Stefen called from the door. “You don’t want Herr Stark to have all the coffee.”

 

~*~~*~

 

“Children! Good morn and good traveling to you all.” Bucky greeted the table as he entered the dining room. The children echoed a chorus of hellos between bites of their- was that müesli? Praise the gods! Müesli, sausage and ham, three plates of fruit and of course coffee specifically made. He might marry Williamina, never mind the fact she was fifteen years his senior.

Bucky frowned, noticing that Herr stark had indeed commandeered the coffee.

The mad little monk sat at the end of the table with a dazed look as he clutched the coffee pitcher giving off the impression of a mother hawk clutching her eggs.

Bucky planted himself between Natacha and Péter, grunting a hello as he began to scoop bits of food onto his plate.

“Where's your father?” Bucky asked the boy and Péter shook his head, his lips tight.

“He hasn't come down yet.”

Bucky sighed. Just like Steve to get lost on the way.

“Thats your Da. More for us.”

Tacha gave him a smile but it was hesitant. Péter had gone back to his bowl, almost hunched over it as he ate.

Bucky slipped a piece ham into his muesli, swiveling the meat in the porridge wondering what was wrong with everyone? The mood at the table was as if someone had died, far too somber just for being disappointed that their father was late.

“Hello Bakhuizen, how was your night?”

At the greeting Bucky slowly glanced up at the children's tutor. He’d been purposefully avoiding meeting Stark’s gaze. He'd prefer to leave that problem for later in the day but one real look at Stark was enough to know that had been a mistake.

The monk regarded him coolly, his smile pinched around the eyes.

The dark stain on his pale skin was unmistakable and coupled with the vivid fingerprint bruises dotting his neck he looked like someone had attempted to murder him (and succeed).

Bucky jerked his gaze away, trying not to stare, his stomach dropping somewhere near his feet.

Steve had done a number on Stark in a very short amount of time. Bucky swallowed, pushing down the feeling of constriction rising in his lungs and the voice in his head berating him.

Should have been faster.

“Delightful.” Bucky responded cautiously. “And you?”

“Fine, thank you.” Stark answered. “Ian here had a question about last night.”

Bucky tensed. The mistrust he’d felt for Stark back in Vienna intensified as he regarded the man with a carefully blank expression and Stark just stared back at him.

“What?” he snapped.

If Stark meant to attempt some sort of blackmail, he had another thing coming if he thought Bucky was going to play that game. He'd feared this might happen. Seen it happen to some of the other guys. Any display of weakness and the wolves come salivating to the door.

Sure, the name of Stark had clout and Stevie was impressed by that, but Antony Stark wasn’t Hughard. Who the fuck was Antony Stark anyway? They had no idea who the man really was or where his loyalties lay.

For that matter, what had he been doing in Steve's room last night in the first place?

Bucky had not heard Steve crying out until he'd been about to strangle Stark to death. So how had Stark heard him before he did? It didn’t sit right.

Bucky stared hard at the man. He wasn’t Steve. He didn’t play nice or bother with pleasantries or war games. He hadn’t forgotten what they’d done in the mountains. They'd buried more than one Italian in the snow.

And as his eyes flickered to Ian sitting with wide eyes next to his tutor, his eyes round with an all too revealing level of distress, Bucky clenched his hand tightly upon his spoon, thinking that Stark was mistaken if he thought Bucky wouldn't bury another one.

“Ian would like to know why you and I shared a room with Captain Rogers.” Stark finished. ‘And came out looking like a Christmas Ham’ went unsaid, but the children were all looking at them, subdued and just this shade of fearful as they waited for someone to explain it away (make it better). Bucky gritted his teeth.

Well shit. All right. He'd have expected the nosiness from James or Tacha, but Ian came as a surprise. He was the quiet boy, the shy one. All the soft parts of Peggy and Steve. But then again, Bucky supposed that still left room for being a little snoop.

Now what the hell was he going to say to them?! Bucky felt something startlingly close to panic build within him until a voice shattered the silence.

“Good morning, children.”

Steve sat down, effectively commanding the attention of the table, seemingly oblivious to the tension as he poured himself a glass of water.

Bucky blinked at him, trying to calm the rushing in his ears. When had Steve come in? He needed to relax, he scolded himself. Breathe in. Breathe out. The last thing the kids needed was another adult losing it on them. Bucky eyed Steve warily as the children shifted uneasily in their chairs, hyper aware of Steve as he doggedly went through the motions of putting food on his plate. Bucky had to suppress a flicker of irritation as he watched. He'd bet his violin Steve wouldn't touch any of that food.

“Bucky.” Feeling their gazes Steve nodded a greeting to Bucky and then in the direction of the monk. “Stark.”

“Captain.” Stark replied neatly but his gaze was as razor sharp as a bird of prey.

“Buck, tonight I-” Steve looking up and fell quiet as he caught sight of Stark opposite him. His eyes roved over the man's face taking in the purple and black bruises cupping his jaw. Bucky could almost hear Steve’s mind sliding the facts into place.

Steve's mouth snapped shut with an audible click.

You could choke on the silence. Bucky reached for the maple sauce and drizzled it over his müesli and ham. The little droplets sounded like gongs and he mentally cursed the two of them for making him feel like he was one of the children. One thing was for sure if Stark didn't play along and keep quiet, Bucky was going to-

But Bucky never finished the thought because at that moment James broke the silence, voice low but firm… insistent.

“You never said where you got your bruise Tony.”

Shit. Shit. Shit.

James peered up at Tony. He'd nearly whispered the words and the quiet sound of them jarred something deep in Bucky’s. Virginia hadn’t been exaggerating. The children adored the mad little monk.

Stark kept his eyes on Steve but leaned a little to the side to answer James, his voice carrying softly across the table as he spoke and Bucky clenched his fist in his lap, ready to jump in should Stark forget himself.

“No, I didn't. Do you want to know why?”

James nodded, biting his lip anxiously.

“Because you didn't ask-”

“-Tony!”

“-nicely. It's a hard world James and sometimes you bump things that are harder. With your face.”

James made a face at Stark and Stark, finally breaking his silent war with Steve, made a face right back. And then he winced in pain, touching a hand to his swollen face.

Artur gasped and wriggled off his seat, rounding the few chairs to clutch at Starks arm.

“No, don't do that Tony. Father?”

Artur turned, his little face suddenly very serious.

“Tony’s hurt. We shouldn't have hard things for Tony to bump into.”

A startled laugh erupted from Bucky’s throat, nearly choking him on his food.

Steve didn’t even look at him. He nodded stiffly, eyes glued to Stark as if the man were a grenade about to go off.

“You should put Ice on that.” he murmured lowly.

“I know where to get ice!” Artur exclaimed, body already in motion.

“Sit down!” Steve bit out, anger turning his words sharp and the table froze.

Artur shrank suddenly unsure of himself, with a look back at Stark, he crept back into his chair as if he'd been kicked.

Next to him Péter stiffened, hands clenching tightly around his cutlery as he tracked his father’s movements carefully, as if he expected Steve to attack Artur and the sight felt like a stab to the chest.

They all watched as Steve took a breath. The hand that he had sat on the table was clenched in a white knuckled grip.

“Eat your breakfast first, Artur.” He finally said, quietly but with no less authority.

“Herr Stark...” He seemed unable to summon the right words, his lips pressed tight and eyes hard.

“Cap?” Stark tilted his
head looking for all the world as relaxed as you please.

The man had guts, Bucky’d give him that.

“I... I ought to apologize.”

Bucky choked on another swallow and for the first time Stark looked somewhat stunned.

Don’t do it, Bucky pleaded silently, staring hard at Steve, but he already knew Steve wasn’t going to look at him.

“For what…?” Stark asked and Steve let out another little breath, like air pressure from a tire.

Bucky knew that expression. It was the same expression he’d worn before he'd approached Peggy the first time, the same one he’d worn as he’d stepped into the recruiting line.

It was that jackass stubborn look he got right before he did something stupid.

“Children,” Steve began, voice loud in the quiet room and Bucky leaned back in his chair, cursing under his breath. “I hurt your tutor. I did not mean too but...”

Stark’s eyes widened marginally but otherwise he kept quiet as a mouse. The whole table watched and waited for Steve to finish.

Steve gestured at Starks face. “As you can see he’s all right, but I ought to be the one that brings him ic-”

“But how?” Ian interrupted and Steve winced.

“It doesn't matter how. Just that it happened.” Bucky could see his resolve wavering under the horrified expressions of his children and the fear etched there. Steve took another breath and something in his eyes softened as they pinned Starks, almost pleading as he finished.

“And I'm sorry.”

Stark blinked at him and for the first time Bucky had seen seemed at a loss for words.

“You apologize-” the monk’s expression was the same blank canvas his voice drawling slowly. Steve immediately tensed.

“Yes, Stark-”

“-To me for last night?”

“For anything you…” Stefen motioned over Stark’s body with a pained grimace. “Might have experienced.”

Bucky was certain Steve barely remembered last night. He supposed that was worse in a way.

Steve could have been made of stone for how tightly he held himself. He did not like apologizing and tried to avoid doing things he felt would warrant one.

Stark tilted his head again and Bucky felt himself tense again. If he was going to push it there was going to be a problem. Bucky opened his mouth to put everyone out of their misery and end the conversation that never should have started, but the look on Steve’s face stopped him. He and Stark were staring at one another, and when Stark spoke next in quietly uttered Italian it couldn’t have been clearer that the rest of the table had disappeared for them.

“Tu non c’è bisogno di chiedere scusa.”

Steve was a still as marble taking in the words. Bucky watched him take in a small breath before he replied.

“Ma devo.”

They held each other's gazes for a long moment - until Bucky thought he might shout into the silence just to break the spell - and then Stark looked away, almost shy, his eyes skating over Maria and Tacha.

“Consider it forgotten, cap.” the monk said with the same smart salute he’d given Steve the night before.

Bucky couldn't tell if it was out of cockiness, general disrespect, or something else but he did not like it. At all.

There was something off about Stark. He was dangerous to Steve. Bucky was sure of it.

They’d never been raised to trust people easily, not when any Roma man could be killed or mistreated with next to no consequences. It didn't really lend a hand to believing in the best of people, but somehow Steve had always found that easy.

But things were different now. Steve was a captain in the German army and definitely a traitor by anyone's standards. His superiors suspected it but couldn’t prove it.

It was damn stupid to admit to anyone how unstable he was. A complaint from Stark to the authorities was all it would take and Stevie would have a one-way trip to the mad house. It had happened to other soldiers who couldn’t hack it after the war ended. Schmidt would probably stamp the damn papers himself.

He and Stevie were gonna have words later. Long words in plain German about showing your hand.

For Christ sake! Bucky stirred his food mulishly. He couldn't even enjoy a constipated Rogers apology anymore!

They sat in always silence after that, cutlery scraping off plates and Bucky wondered how often this was the symphony of the meals together. He watched his spoon sink into his muesli with every bite, feeling as if it were an accurate picture of the situation Bucky had to dig Steve out of.

He finished his food and was loading his bowl with more when Stark interjected into the silence once more.

“Captain, you ought to come hear the children this afternoon.”

The man really didn’t know when to quit did he?

Steve looked up from his untouched plate (one violin for Bucky) eyes unfocused. Steve furrowed his brow in confusion prompting Stark to continue.

“You weren't able to hear them properly yesterday. We've been learning more complex melodies recently and I think you might enjoy them.”

“We sang about goats.” Sara piped in, her voice trailing off at the end with uncertainty.

“I'm sorry. Goats?” Steve blinked down at her, nonplused.

“On a hilltop.” she finished her voice nearly a whisper.

“And we've other songs, don't we?” Stark added helpfully. “Songs about flowers and dances and the seasons and... well you remember them.”

The children were rustling, eyes looking from Stark to Stevie and back again.

They wanted him there Bucky realized with a pang, because he knew Stevie.

“Thank you children, but I have something important to discuss with Uncle Bucky today.” Steve answered, disappointing everyone it seemed but Bucky.

They were too old to fuss but he could feel the way Péter and Tacha deflated, their eyes dulled as if they’d expected such an answer from the first.

“It's a music lesson! We're not that busy, Stevie.” Bucky heard himself say. James’ eyes sparked with hope and Bucky, remembering Artur’s fear and the way Péter had gripped his knife, committed himself. He waved his hand nonchalantly as if he weren’t lying through his teeth. “I've been itching to play anyway.”

He sipped his coffee noisily. Just to be irritating. In for a penny they said.

“Besides, you could do with a break. Little more music, yeah?”

All sets of eyes were on Steve again. Well all sets but Péter and Ian who were doing wonderful impressions of being deaf. Steve was wearing his stone face again.

Bucky sighed inwardly.

“We don't have the time Bucky.”

Oh and his command voice too! Even if it weren’t the best damn thing for Steve, Bucky would have dug his heels in just for that. When was Steve going to realize that had never worked on him?

“No, I think I do.” He almost sang in reply. “I want to hear about this goat.”

“Buck.”

“That'll be all of you singing, yeah?” Bucky turned to Tacha smiling broadly, “except this one. She'll be dancing.”

“Fine.” Steve snapped. It was looking like a fine day if his patience was already this thin. “Just be quick about it.”

Just like that. As if the children were some chore to be raced through.

Bucky gripped his spoon tighter, squinting at Steve. The bastard wouldn't make him do it would he? He wouldn't make Bucky beg him.

Steve drained his cup and nodded at the rest of the table, standing stiffly.

“Have a good day, children. Listen to Herr Stark.”

Stefen caught Stark’s eye again and something passed between the two of them. Steve nodded and Stark smiled, if you could call it that. It was more like a resigned wince.

“Buck, I'll be in the-” Steve began.

“Come on, Stevie. What's a half hour?” Bucky pleaded softly, gut churning.

God no wonder the older children had stopped doing it. It was damn embarrassing.

“-study when you're finished. Ask Virginia for my whereabouts if I'm not.” Steve finished as if Bucky had not even spoken.

He nodded again and was gone without a backwards glace before Bucky could stop him. Bucky stared at the seat Steve had vacated dejectedly, hands clenching and unclenching in his lap.

“Rude.” Stark said into the silence after a pregnant pause. “That's what that was. Rude.”

Bucky looked up as James coughed into his water, causing the other two boys to giggle nervously.

Unbelievable. But the children were cracking smiles.

“And he says I was the one raised by wolves.” Bucky added, purposely saying so with a mouth full of ham.

James’ giggles turned hysteric, his face turning red as he clutched his side. Bucky slung an arm around Natacha (who rolled her eyes at him) and looked up to find Stark watching them, his head cocked at Bucky with an inquisitive look swimming in his eyes.

Stark, whoever he was and whatever he was hiding, truly seemed to care for the children. Perhaps for now it was enough and between the two of them they could do a little damage in Steve's pristine little world. The closer he kept Stark the sooner he could figure out what he was about, and you know what they say, odd men must stick together.

Stark’s eyes darted down to Bucky's food and a horrified expression crawled over his face.

“Is that...did you put ham and fruit in your muesli?”

Well perhaps not that odd.

 

~*~*~

 

Bucky had always understood why music was hard for Steve. It had gotten them through long nights with empty bellies in the caravan, when they’d thumbed their noses to the gajo and kicked up their heels as if to say ‘I have nothing and still I am more than you’.

Even at war in the mountains, when no one knew who would wake in the morning, they could still cheer one another with the old songs. And after the war - when silence had almost broken Bucky and the Uncles had spit on the ground they both walked on - music had saved him, given him some purpose that wasn’t sending bullets into other men’s bodies and made him feel at home.

It was no wonder to him anyway why he’d become a man of music and Stevie had stayed a man of war. Steve had never been allowed to put the captain at rest. He’d been needed too much and God knew that Steve would always come through when needed. It was a mercy really that Peggy had come along.

The woman was a force to be reckoned with, a solider in her own right. The war had not spoiled her as it had them. She’d been so full of all the things Steve had forgotten laughter, love, and music, that it had not surprised Bucky in the least when Steve had lost his heart to her.

He’d never been so relieved when it happened, not wanting to imagine what might have eventually become of his friend had Steve continued to go on as he had been: pouring all that he had into the rebuild of Austria and forgetting how to live.

Bucky grit his teeth, thinking sadly that he didn’t have to imagine anymore. He was no more sure of how to help draw Steve out of that dark place than he’d been back then.

Stark’s invitation at breakfast had taken them both by surprise (the man’s audacity was as irritating as it was intriguing) but Bucky found himself agreeing with the monk in this one instance. Steve had missed the kids something terrible while they’d been in Vienna, but now that they were here he could barely look at them.

If Steve had his way they’d spend every hour cloistered in his office hashing over maps and letters trying to win the bloody war before it ever started.

Bucky thought again on the contents of that letter but a sickening twist in his guts had him dispelling the thoughts. They did no good to dwell on. His mother used to say misery would come in its own time. Why invite it in?

Stevie was missing out on something special, Bucky thought as he cleared his mind of his dark musings, allowing himself to enjoy the moment for what it was as he listened to Steve’s children sing, Stark directing them.

Begrudgingly Bucky had to give the man credit where credit was due. He’d brought music back to the house after all these years. Not only that, the children were not an easy bunch. And to corral them together and somehow get them to produce a sound like that

Bucky blinked away the sting in his eyes, because shit. He’d be no use to anyone blubbering like a baby, but as a pang of longing twisted in his chest he found himself wishing that Peggy could have been there to hear them.

They looked proud as peacocks up there, so much older than the last time Bucky had seen them and yet still the same. Tacha looked so regal it almost made him sick with pride but the foot slowly tapping against the floor and the barely discernable sway of her hips gave her away. That freckle faced little girl who dared anything and hated to lose to her brothers was itching to come out of this new grown up skin and it made Bucky smile.

As the last notes of the song faded Bucky stood and clapped, the kids beaming up at him with joyfully smug expressions as he met their eager inquiries, assuring them that they’d been the very best he’d ever heard and that yes he thought their father would have loved it. Privately Bucky made a promise to himself that Steve would be with him next time even if he had to drag him by his hair.

“But why all these slow dreary ballads?” He asked with an exaggerated expression of distaste and Maria giggled.

“Tony picks them. I think they’re pretty. Don’t you Uncle Bucky?”

“As a picture,” Bucky reassured her with a tap to the nose. He had not missed the unusual informality between Tony and the children, odd for someone so new in their life and an authority at that. He wasn’t sure yet if he like it.

“It’s just that they’re all so sad. Someone should give Tony a hug and be done with it.”

Bucky had to smile when Sara rushed over to her teacher, who was still sitting behind the piano bench, with raised arms in wordless demand. Stark rolled his eyes in Bucky’s direction but still pulled the small girl close and lifted her up onto the bench beside him. She looked happy to be there.

“Thank you Sara, I needed one of those.” He quipped dryly but Bucky wasn’t fooled. A fellow would have to be made of stone to resist Sara.

Grinning Bucky turned and knelt down to fetch his violin from its case beside his chair, happy that he’d thought to bring it to the lesson.

“Tacha do you remember when your Baka taught you to dance the Kolo?” he asked and beside her Péter’s face lit with delight. Natacha only nodded but there was no mistaking that she remembered or the wistful expression that passed through her eyes.

“I don’t. What’s a Kolo?” James whined, tugging on Bucky’s shirt.

“Don’t pester, James, and Kolo is a dance.” Stark over by the piano plinked out some boisterous chords that made Sara clap with delight. He glanced curiously at Bucky. “It’s popular in the Balkans. The captain mentioned you grew up in Poland?”

“Wasn’t Poland then,” Bucky muttered, tightening the strings on the violin and saying nothing more. Stark was too nosey. “And Baka is what we used to call your grandmother James. You were very little when she came to live here. You might not remember her but she was a special lady. She loved to dance, didn’t she Tacha? Taught Péter and Tacha the Kolo, the Krakowiak, and all sorts of things.”

“That’s not fair,” James pouted looking crestfallen. The boy never wanted to be left behind. “How come she didn’t teach me?”

“You were too little.” Natacha reminded him as if that were the end of it.

“I bet Tacha could teach you now though.” Bucky instigated and the girl’s eyes flashed blue fire at him. He grinned. “I know you didn’t forget the steps. Not our Ginger Rogers.”

“Really Uncle Bucky we mustn’t. Father would not approve.”

Around them the other children’s good mood began to sink, worry tightening their faces. Bucky wasn’t having any of that, damn whatever Stevie thought the danger was.

“You leave your Da to me. Have I ever steered you wrong?” he pressed and Natacha’s fingers bunched in her skirt. She was wavering he knew.

“We’re in the middle of a lesson. Herr Stark-” she tried but luck was on his side because for whatever reason, Stark threw his lot in with Bucky’s.

“Is perfectly happy to transition into the dance portion of today’s lesson.”

“Come on Natacha.” Péter prompted, nudging her side. “Unless you think I’ve gotten better at it than you.”

Bucky laughed as Péter received the sort of glare from his sister that someone would bestow upon a bug they wished to squash.

Without further prompting Bucky brought his violin into position and drew out the first few rousing bars of a song the Uncles used to play watching as Péter herded his younger siblings into a semi-circle leaving him and Natacha in the middle.

Natacha glanced at him and this time Bucky saw something almost fearful in her eyes but so terribly hopeful that he knew he’d made the right call.

“Go on, show them how it’s done.” He prompted and the corner of her mouth pulled up into the smallest of smiles as she moved her body into position, spreading her arms out gracefully as a swan about to take flight.

 

~*~*~*~*~

 

Several afternoons later found Tony and the children down by the lake trudging through the tall summer grass in search of bugs. Following morning lessons and lunch Tony had made good on his promise to Artur to teach them all about the local bug life. Following his lecture on the habits and patterns of such winged creatures as honeybees, butterflies, and moths, Tony had wrangled his motley crew once more into their play clothes, handed each a handcrafted net, allowed Artur to keep track of their glass jar for collection, and marched them out to the grounds to make an afternoon of it.

They’d not been out there long before voices on the terrace had drawn his attention and Tony had been surprised to see Pepper setting up Kaffeetrinken for the captain and Herr Bakhuizen. Though it wasn’t near as involved in his children’s day to day lives as Tony would like, it was a start. Stefen was out of his rooms at least, and the children seemed thrilled by his presence. Tony felt satisfied for the moment, even though he knew the achievement was far more likely due to Herr Bakhuizen’s presence than Stefen taking to heart anything Tony might have said to him.

They’d been at it long enough that Tony was considering calling a halt so the children would have time to take their finds to the schoolroom and wash up for supper, when suddenly a cry went up.

“Tony! I think I caught one!” James exclaimed excitedly and Tony twisted his torso to peer in his direction only to find the boy rushing across the grass toward them with one hand tightly clamped over the rim of his net.

James was so excited to share his catch he nearly tripped as he reached Tony who was watching carefully over Maria and Sara, who were searching the tall grasses close to the water’s edge for wild flowers. But the girls were quickly distracted by their eagerness to see what their brother had caught and came rushing over along with the others, cheeks flushed with excitement.

Artur eagerly thrust the glass jar (already containing one other species of butterfly, a poor housefly, and a strange looking beetle as yet unclassified) forward and as carefully as an excited boy of eight could manage James deposited the insect into the jar without managing to lose any of the others.

“Good catch James. Can you tell what kind it is?” Tony asked and James grinned up at him proudly, clutching the jar.

“I think it’s a busty blue!”

“It’s called a Dusky Blue,” Natacha corrected the younger boy with a click of her tongue as she peered at the pale blue butterfly fluttering within the jar. “And don’t address Herr Stark by his first name. It’s disrespectful.”

“No it isn’t!” James insisted hotly. “Tony said I could. Didn’t you say I could T-

“Yes, yes, calm down now. You’re shaking our small friend here.” Tony interrupted the brewing squabble to gingerly pry the jar from the boy’s hands and hold it up for all of them to see. “Okay, so James has caught what does indeed appear to be a Dusky Large Blue. But the question is, is our friend here male or female?”

“It’s a boy like me!” Artur declared. “You can tell because the wings are prettier than the girls.”

“Tony, why don’t girl butterflies like to be pretty?” Maria asked, tugging gently upon his trouser leg and Tony smiled.

“They’re very sensible like good little Austrians Maria, and Artur you’re correct. We have ourselves a fine young man here to add to our habitat.”

“Is it a baby?” Sara asked next and Tony grinned shaking his head.

“Butterflies are caterpillars before they become butterflies patatina, which look like little worms.” Tony wiggled his fingers in the girls face and she giggled, ducking behind her sister. “The females drop their eggs close to where the ants build their nests. Who remembers why?”

“Because the caterpillars give off a scent that confuses the ants.” Péter answered and Tony nodded. He opened his mouth to add something to the boy’s answer but Natacha beat him to it.

“They hide in the ant nest, pretending to be one of them so that the ants will feed them; but it’s very dangerous because if they don’t do all the right things, then the ants know that they’ve been tricked, and then they eat the caterpillars.”

Natacha watched their captive butterfly almost the entire time she spoke, but at the very end she raised sharp blue eyes to his and pinned him with such a stare that Tony could not doubt for an instant what she meant by it. It was suddenly hard to swallow, the air feeling so constricted that Tony might as well have traded places with the damned butterfly; but he took a breath and met that stare because he’d be damned if he showed her fear.

“Right as usual Natacha.” He nodded at the young woman in acknowledgment before smiling down at the others. “But I’m afraid we’ll have to call it quits for this afternoon-” a chorus of groans rose up and quickly quieted at Tony’s stern frown.

“Very good. Now run inside and wash up. None of you’d better dare bring dirty hands or faces to Frau Hogan’s table. She might skin you.”

Laughing and chattering amongst themselves the children began the trek back inside, waving cheerfully at their father as they passed the steps of the terrace. Tony stayed put, staring out over the water and collecting himself because he was far more shaken by the things that Natacha had said (and not said) then he’d have liked to admit.

He didn’t know how much she knew, but then again it didn’t matter so much whether she knew he was a Jew or not. She knew he was disloyal to the Reich and that was enough to hang a man.

“Clever girl,” he muttered with a half-smile, because despite everything he still felt proud of how she used her sharp wits. He’d probably still be proud when he was swinging by his neck, and if that didn’t say how utterly attached Tony had become to the Rogers children he didn’t know what would.

Not very smart, for a Genius.

Tony sighed after a long moment and turned back towards the house, resolved once more to let what would be, simply be.

Though their voices were low, as Tony approached the steps of the terrace where Captain Rogers and Herr Bakhuizen were sat, he still caught the tail end of their conversation and felt the obvious tension between the two men. He’d just climbed the first step when he paused, stilled suddenly by the tense secretive nature of their murmured conversation.

“… Jessika says there has been no word from Lukas in weeks, not since he was shipped to Dachau.” Bakhuizen was saying lowly. “She’s worried they’ve executed him already. No idea what she and the girl are going to do now. She shouldn’t be on that damn list.”

“They arrested him in Munich.” Stefen answered, voice pitched equally low. “By the time we heard they’d already transferred him to Dachau. I’ve asked after him but I have to be discreet. There hasn’t been a Deurr scheduled for execution.”

Tony’s mind raced. Dachau? The name tickled at his memory and it was a moment before even his powerful mind could dig it up out of the millions of bits of stored data. They’d built a prison in Dachau for all of Hitler’s enemies. When the church in Innsbruck had been raided they’d taken the men they’d arrested there, Tony remembered. The brothers at St. Péter’s had whispered about nothing else for weeks.

Captain Rogers knew someone who’d been arrested? Tony’s heart pounded as his mind whirled, examining the new information and trying to make it fit with the rest of the puzzle. The mystery was thick around the man indeed, but not impenetrable for someone of Tony’s intelligence. The clues were all there, he just had to find the piece that would bring them all together. Stefen was afraid (they had everything to fear). No singing or dancing. No singing in public. Dr. Erskine’s fishy diagnosis. Samuel and the staff were family. Sam was gone: shipped to safety. Lukas Deurr had been arrested in Munich and had left behind a wife and daughter and Stefen cared enough not to wish him executed.

A man with Stefen Rogers peculiarities did not fit within the Nazi machine. Tony was willing to say now that the captain was likely not a willing supporter of the National Socialist party. Was this why Nik had asked Tony to spy on him? Was Stefen involved in the resistance movement?

Don’t get crazy Stark.

Tony berated himself. It was one thing to let his thumping (and far too hopeful) heart get mushy over the man’s children, it was another thing to latch onto wishful thinking. He would imagine that many officers were less than genuinely supportive of the Reich, but that was a far cry from outright treason and rebellion. Many of those same men found it within themselves to follow their orders, no matter how distasteful. Captain Rogers was no doubt the same.

But Maybe not.

Hope never died it seemed.

This at least explained why Nik was watching the Captain so closely. Rogers was a powerful man with many connections. He could be a powerful ally.

Or a deadly enemy.

“I told Lukas to take her and Danijella and get on a boat, months ago. Now what the hell is Jessika going to do?” Bakhuizen cursed through a stream of smoke, catching Tony’s attention once more. “That’s what trying to be a damn hero gets you.”

“Jessika is a strong woman. She’ll take care of herself and Danijella. She knows her own mind Buck.” the captain replied and something clattered on the table.

“Ka xlia ma pe tute, Stevie!” Bakhuizen snapped in that tongue that Tony recognized from the night in the captain’s room. It just added to the mystery surrounding the man. Stefen had written in his letters that he’d been raised in Poland and Bakhuizen was supposed to be a childhood friend. Tony’s polish was restricted to greetings and asking where he could relieve himself, but he could tell it wasn’t that.

He didn’t get a chance to hear any more of it though because when Bakhuizen went on it was once again in German. “You’ve heard the stories. You know what they did to Strasser. If you had a damn bit of sense you’d send the children away Stefen.”

And there it was, the very reason that Tony had stepped into this Nazi officer’s home in the first place. Steve’s desire to send his children abroad was Tony’s ticket to freedom, and yet the captain’s foreboding silence on the subject did not inspire the fear it should have; at least not for himself.

Tony cleared his throat to make his presence known before he resumed climbing the stairs; because he’d long ago learned the thing about lurking around eavesdropping on conversations was that the longer you lingered the greater your chances were of getting caught.

“Captain. Herr Bakhuizen.” Tony nodded to them both though they’d gone silent at the first sight of him. Stefen was watching him intently as if trying to gauge how much he’d overheard before he’d made his presence known. To Tony’s surprise it was the seemingly ever peevish Bakhuizen who stopped Tony as he made to pass their table and gestured for him to take the empty seat.

“Have a drink with us. You must be parched from all that running around.” Bakhuizen gestured to the spread of coffee and bite sized treats upon the table.

Tony took a seat carefully. Though both men had been sat up here for most of the afternoon it didn’t look as if they’d touched much of the cake, and if the crumbs littering Bakhuizen’s plate were anything to go by he’d eaten the majority of what had been touched.

He’d pass it off as the captain simply not wishing to ruin his super but he’d shared enough meals with the man now to know that he hardly ate then either. There were many things that could take away a man’s appetite, Tony knew, but he couldn’t help but flash back to that night in the captain’s room- see the wild white of his eyes and his shaking limbs again.

At the abbey when the nightmares would get particularly bad for Tony he used to do whatever he could not to sleep; which usually meant long hours in the workshop. Brother Bruce used to bring him food. Sometimes he’d eat it. Usually not.

To busy his hands Tony reached for an empty cup and saucer from the tray and ignored the scrutiny of Stefen and his strange friend as they watched him prepare his drink.

First he unwrapped one of the small chocolates on the tray and placed it at the bottom of his cup, then he covered it with a thin layer of milk from the small pitcher before filling the cup to the brim with coffee. Stirred twice and it was perfection.

Tony sighed with pleasure after the first sip, the aromatic smell of it thick in his nose even as the sweet nutty flavor flooded his tongue. He’d say one thing for the Rogers household, their kitchen stocked some of the best coffee he’d tasted in years. The coffee at the abbey was steps away from being declared an actual sin against God (Tony should know; he’d written the petition and sent it off to His Holiness himself).

Tony smiled and settled deeper into his seat, determined to enjoy every last beautiful drop.

“Are you going to do right by that cup Stark? You’re making me feel dirty.”

Tony cracked one eye open to peer across the little round table and found Herr Bakhuizen sneering at him but Tony didn’t rise to the bait. Bakhuizen could shove his head up his ass and walk backwards with two hail Marys for good measure, for all that Tony cared. Good coffee should be appreciated.

“Melange?” Tony turned at the sound of Stefen’s voice to his right and nearly jumped, finding the man’s face much closer than he expected. The captain was leaning close to peer down at the contents of his cup. When his eyes flicked up to Tony’s he found them strangely intent. Too intent for coffee.

“Cappuccino.” Tony insisted pertly and he didn’t miss the small huff Stefen let out under his breath or the roll of his eyes.

“Kapuziner then.” Stefen tried but Tony was having none of it.

“No. Captain. A cappuccino. There is a difference.”

“I’ve been to a lot of coffee houses, Stark, including the Italian’s. There really aint much difference.” Bakhuizen countered and Tony, bored with the line of conversation already, plucked up one of the sweet cakes and gestured with it as he explained.

“There is actually a world of difference. It’s a matter of mathematics Herr Bakhuizen, the concentration of bean versus the cut of milk and we mustn’t forget the variable of foam and spices, but I won’t burden you with the details because the honest truth is I couldn’t make a proper cappuccino without espresso. Sweet Mary mother of Christ, I’d make deals with the devil himself for a good espresso.” Tony sighed dramatically closing his eyes once more (not missing the incredulous expression that flashed over Bakhuizen’s face). On his right the captain huffed once more but Tony’s mouth turned up because he thought there was a decidedly amused ring to that sound now.

Opening his eyes Tony began preparing a small plate of cakes, dipping the end of each daintily into the coffee within his cup as he went on, because in for a penny and all that.

“This is sadly lacking that, not to mention foam, spice, and the milk has long since cooled. So it really isn’t anything but delicious and comforting. Just as mother used to make it.” Tony extended the plate with the small portion of cake toward Stefen who stared at it and then back at him as if neither of them made any sense until Tony quietly murmured, “She was very fond of the combination with chocolate and sweet cake.”

Tony was tempted to look away as Stefen’s eyes searched his but he resisted the feeling as cowardly. He’d not talked about his mother in a long time, but if a fourteen-year-old boy could pluck up the courage, Tony could hardly expect less of himself. And besides, it was for a good cause. Mama would not have minded.

The captain nodded and took the plate from him. And because Tony wasn’t a fool he kept watching him expectantly, bright smile in place, until good manners demanded Stefen actually begin consuming the sentimental little gift. Tony was even happier to see that he didn’t just stop at the one, that apparently his mother’s favorite afternoon treat had found favor with Rogers.

“It’s very good.” Stefen murmured around a bite of cake somewhat defensively when he caught Bakhuizen gapping at him. Bakhuizen let out a sound between a grunt and an exclamation of shock, staring between the captain and Tony with his brow furrowed suspiciously as if he’d missed something crucial. Which of course he had. He’d not been there to hear Tony admit to his parents’ grisly deaths and his poor handling of it all, so he couldn’t know why Stefen would feel pressured to accept the offering. It was playing a bit dirty but the man should eat more.

“Let me.” Bakhuizen reaching for the plate and Tony frowned at him. To his relief the captain moved the plate away, shaking his head with the hint of a grin as his friend scowled at him.

“Herr Stark prepared it for me. Ask him and I’m sure he’d be happy to prepare some for you.”

Tony hid a smile behind the rim of his cup, taking a satisfied sip as Bakhuizen opened his mouth to retort back at the captain, but what he might have said was lost because at that very moment the doors to the terrace opened and Hammer appeared, the three men turning to watch as the stately butler approached.

Hammer looked surprised to see Tony sitting down with the captain and his mouth turned down in disapproval. The ridiculous man had his nose so high in the air he was in danger of catching flies as he reached them and pointedly ignored Tony’s existence, extending the tray he carried on one arm with a single envelope in the center toward Bakhuizen.

“A telegram just arrived for you Sir.”

Péter ought to be pleased, Tony thought as Bakhuizen took the small envelope and excused himself, following Hammer back inside. Beside him Stefen sighed and muttered under his breath.

“I suppose this means Péter will be late for super.”

“I suppose it does Captain.”

“And I suppose you’d think badly of me if I punished him.”

“I might.” Tony shrugged. “But I don’t think you’re all that concerned with what I think.”

“On the contrary Herr Stark, I find myself constantly curious as to what goes on in your mind.” When Tony narrowed his eyes at him Stefen’s mouth spread into the kind of expression someone kinder would have called innocent. It put Tony in mind of little James so fortunately he knew better.

“Constantly?” Tony asked succinctly.

“Frighteningly so.” Rogers drawled and the smirk only widened. Now the resemblance was uncanny. Or perhaps not. He was the boy’s father after all. Why shouldn’t they resemble each other? Tony could not figure out why he always tempted to wax poetic where Captain Rogers was concerned. There was only one thing for it. Tony would take the man’s invitation to share his thoughts, because who was he to waste a perfectly good invitation like that. Smiling once more into his cup Tony took a fortifying sip before lowering cup and saucer to the table.

“Well then, if I may speak freely Captain?”

“Have you stopped?”

Tony ignored the dry quip.

“It’s foolish to lock a child up in a virtual tower, set rules in place designed to isolate and restrict them, and then punish the child for rebellion. You should have predicted it. Your children are half you.”

“I believe you just insulted me.”

“Did I? Well they are also half their mother, but if I’ve got that story right she was a polished lady who became a war nurse while all her friends were at home clutching their pearls. The kind of woman who has the audacity to find the grubbiest, most ill-bred, of noble fools in His Majesties army and then marry the man against her families wishes, doesn’t sound likely to put up with towers either.” Tony glanced sideways at Stefen, still unsure about bringing up his late wife but other than a minor tensing of his shoulders the captain did not react. His lips did turn upward in a small hint of a smile, though it seemed sad to Tony.

“My point is Captain,” Tony sighed. “Your children want nothing more than to know the world and their place in it… and that starts at home. Don’t think that they don’t need you to be there, to take an active role, just because you put clothes on their back and keep a roof over their head. They could do without those things in a pinch… but they can’t do without their father. This I know for a fact.”

Tony looked away, unable to face the intense scrutiny of the captain’s eyes and picked up his cup once more. He could tell that Stefen wanted to ask him things but Tony was thankful when he didn’t. It was impossible to speak on this subject without remembering his own lonely childhood but this wasn’t about him… He could have admitted to Stefen that he’d heard the end of his conversation with, could have pressed the man to think of his children’s welfare and send them abroad already to secure his own wellbeing.

He should have, Tony thought to himself as he sipped his coffee thinking again of Natacha, remembering the way she’d stared at him that afternoon like a spider watching a fly caught in its web. If he were really as smart as he claimed to be he should heed the warning and leave this place, try his luck on his own. Nobody would blame him for running. He didn’t owe this family anything.

But, Tony thought, resolved once more, this was his fight (and what would be would be). It was a small thing perhaps: change one family, change seven young lives (hopefully for the better) and take them back from the hands of those who had taken his own family. A fool’s rebellion maybe. But his.

So perhaps it wasn’t small at all. Not to Tony Stark.

 

~*~*~*~

Clink. Clink. Clink.

Tony looked up from his meal to survey the seven despondent faces of his charges as they picked at their plates.

The captain had not joined them for lunch (yet again) and upon learning from Pepper that he and Bakhuizen had departed before lunch that day to parts unknown, and that they were not expected for dinner, gone were the children’s hopes of seeing him at all.

And gone was Tony’s hope that anything he’d said to the man that afternoon on the terrace had registered.

He swallowed another mouthful of soup and tried to ignore the bitterness that brought him.

“Eat up,” he announced into the silence, dabbing at the corners of his mouth with his napkin. The children turned to stare at him, waiting.

“We’ve an engineering lesson this afternoon.”

Tony expected it when Péter looked excited but it was James who lit up like someone had declared Christmas was coming twice that year.

“Are we going to build boats?!” He demanded eagerly. Tony nodded, daintily sipping his soup to hide the smile tugging at his lips and the boy whooped. Natacha frowned and scolded him to control himself but James largely ignored her, beginning to inhale his lunch as if he could not eat it fast enough.

 

~*~*~*~

 

“It will be very dangerous… but I think you are right Captain Rogers, if Austria is too free itself from this madness then it is up to the people. We must cry out for liberty.” Franz stated with a level of conviction that seemed to suck the air from the room.

Stefen had finally managed to have that talk with Bucky and to collect the final names for their list. List in hand they’d met that morning in the small flat above Mittlestaedt Press, where Franz Mittlestaedt had lived and worked for the past twenty years.

Mittlestaedt was by no means as large as some of the printing houses in Vienna, Franz owning just the one press and employing only a few helpers, he was largely in the production of local magazines and bulletins, but it was probably better that way. There would be less scrutiny and fewer eyes watching.

“They’re going to have to do more than cry before all is said and done.” Bucky grunted from where he sat on a stool by the window. Every few moments or so he would glance out it, keeping an eye on the streets below.

Steve withdrew the small journal he’d tucked within his breast pocket and pushed it across the table towards Franz.

“The list of names. It goes without saying that you are to show this to no one. The magazines are only to be sent to those listed as subscribers. No one is to be added to that list accept through myself or James and we will always do so in person.”

“Of course Captain.” Franz nodded slowly tucking the journal away. “I am sure we will all enjoy your artwork. How often are you expecting to publish an issue?”

“Once a month. I will send the drafts by post. The messages will be coded so your staff should not become suspicious of their contents.”

“Don’t leave that lying around either,” Bucky barked from the corner. “Last thing we need is the Nazi’s getting ahold of that list.”

“I’m not a fool James.” Franz sighed. “I’m putting my life at risk agreeing to this.”

“At risk?” Bucky scoffed. “They discover what we’re doing here and you, me, Stefen, and everybody else stupid enough to subscribe to that Mag is dead. You understand? It aint smart putting all our names in one place.”

“Right now the resistance effort is an unorganized shambles. We have to unify and we need a way of getting messages out and sharing news Bucky,” Steve returned to the same argument they’d been having since Steve had come up with the idea.

“Franz won’t know the code.” Steve turned back to the thin man sat across from him and shook his head when it looked as if Franz might protest. “That way if you are questioned you’ll have nothing to betray.”

Franz paled at the prospect of torture but the man’s grey eyes were still steely with determination as he nodded.

Steve left Mittelstaedt Press that afternoon feeling strangely uplifted. When he and Bucky had left that morning to finalize the names on their list and seek out Franz he’d been riddled with tension, sure that just around every corner they were going to find the S.S. crouched in wait. But they’d been undiscovered.

Their plan was in motion. As soon as Steve could draw up the first draft, the first issue of AVENGERS would publish and their network of resistance would go from the subversion of individual citizens to organized sabotage.

Somehow it was easier to breathe knowing this. The sun shone a little brighter. There were a million and one things to be done but suddenly all Steve wanted was for Stark to be there with the children, to take them on a walk through the square so they could bask in the same sun he was.

“Slow down Stevie,” Bucky grumbled behind him. “Where the hell are you going so fast?”

“Home.” Steve realized, faltering in his step for the barest of seconds and then quickening with newfound purpose. Tossing a smirk over his shoulder he waved at Bucky to hurry up. “You’ve gotten old on me Bucky, always falling behind.”

“Fuck off,” the man grumbled catching up to sling an arm around Steve’s shoulders. He didn’t flinch this time, laughing instead as Bucky muttered, “we can’t all be built like gods.”

The entire drive home Stefen could not shake the adrenaline rushing through his system. The words that Stark had said to him that morning outside the music room, along with the ones shared outside on the terrace, kept coming back to him like a carnival ride slowly doing a circuit though his thoughts.

He needed to get to the schoolroom, see his children, because Tony had been right from the beginning. Whatever else happened, Stefen did not want his children to look back on these years and wonder if he had been a good man or if he had loved them. They needed to be certain of those things and heaven help them, but he was all they had. He’d missed sitting in on their music lesson but if they hurried he could be back in time for their final lesson before supper.

When he and Bucky pulled up to the garage it was to find Stark and the children not in the schoolroom as he’d expected but outside with the garage doors open wide engaged in what at first glance appeared to be some form of carpentry.

They’d procured a long table from somewhere and there were boxes of tools and lumber stacked haphazardly around them. The children were back in those hideous jumpers Stark had insisted were play clothes (god only knew where he’d bought them) and his own breaches were rolled up exposing his calfs. His shirt was untucked and was also baring several questionable stains. Harold, who was sat on a chair nearby happily watching the whole production, jumped up anxiously as the car rolled up the drive.

“What the hell is Stark up to now?” Bucky wondered at the scene. Steve wondered that himself as the children paused at the sight of the car, their expressions torn between excitement and anxiousness. Their wariness made something funny pull in Steve’s chest.

“Captain! We weren’t expecting you home.” Stark greeted them cheerfully as they exited the car. Stefen deposited the keys in Harold’s outstretched palm wordlessly and nodded at the chauffer when he apologized quietly and explained he’d park the car in the front, seeing as Stark and the children were currently in the way of its usual place.

“Evidently not. What is all this?” Steve demanded waving to all the boards and the tools scattered about. Now that he and Bucky were close he was somewhat alarmed to see Péter operating a heavy looking saw and the smooth handled chisel in Natacha’s hands had his heart racing.

The only thing that kept Steve from launching into yelling was how Stark had clearly kept the smaller children down at his end of the table, occupied with the menial tasks of smoothing, turning the handle on the drill, and fishing out nails from the multitude of little boxes strewn about whenever Stark called for them.

“We are engineering boats, steam powered boats.” Stark explained, though it was no real explanation at all. “And not to worry Captain, the crew has been warned to only use the steam power in controlled settings such as the bathtub, as unfortunately the steering will be limited.”

“But Tony says we can work on that on our next model,” James chirped, Steve observing that he was turning the handle of a hand drill while Ian carefully held it and the nail in place, the pink of his tongue poking out the side of his mouth as he concentrated.

Steve frowned disapprovingly at hearing the child once more be so familiar with an adult. He hadn’t felt right bringing it up before because he’d been riddled with guilt for practically maiming Stark, and he found he couldn’t bring himself to say anything now because his sullen James was bright eyed and ruddy cheeked and looked entirely too serious as he finished with, “good engineers always know there’s something to do better next time and they aren’t discouraged by that. Right Tony?”

James looked to Stark with a flicker of uncertainty as if he’d just realized that the vein throbbing at his Father’s temple did not bode well and Stark nodded with a small smile, ignoring Stefen’s glower (like he always did).

“Couldn’t have put it better myself James. Slower on that drill or you risk bending the nail.”

“Stark! Can I have a word please?” Stefen growled intending to put a stop to the whole affair but he halted when he felt a tug on his hand. He looked down, startled to find Artur standing beside him.

“Do you want to help me paint my boat Father?” He pleaded, tugging Stefen toward the bench. “We finished the hard part already, honest, and Tony says it’s got the best body he’s ever seen. Which means it’s going to win the race for sure!”

“No it isn’t!” James immediately snapped and Artur stuck his tongue out at him.

“Boys, that’s not sportsmanly behavior.” Stark chided, though Steve noticed he’d gone back to banging the end of a thin piece of metal into a flat disk and hadn’t even bothered to look up. Steve was caught by the motions of his hands: their quickness and confidence as they plied the metal into his desired shape was arresting, like watching an artist at work.

“Fine but I want uncle Bucky to help me then!” James declared already pushing his brother away. Ian looked embarrassed. “Ian can help Péter.”

“No,” Steve barked, yanked from his thoughts as he let Artur lead him to his spot at the table. “Péter looks like he’s fine handling the saw. Though he’s young for it.” Steve glared in Stark’s direction but the man didn’t even look up, though Steve didn’t miss the way he smirked.

“Péter’s old enough to know how to handle himself Stefen,” Bucky said, clapping Steve on the back as he moved to join James and Ian. “And quit being so bossy James. We need Ian ‘cause I need one of you to tell me what we’re doing here and the other to show me.”

“So that means you’re staying?” Artur’s blue eyes widening with delight and Stefen remembered what had driven them home in the first place. Despite his reservations about the appropriateness of having his young children so close to dangerous tools, he found himself nodding.

“I suppose it does.” He conceded, lifting the boy onto his lap as he commandeered his empty seat at the table. “Why don’t you show me your vessel?”

As Artur scrambled to show him all the parts of the completed little boat and describe the litany of colors he was going to paint it, Steve listened. The sun shone down on them and the breeze tickled Artur’s blond hair; and slowly the energy that had wound Steve up tight after meeting with Franz began to leak out of him. In its wake was something quiet and still, but for once the quiet did not unnerve him.

He felt eyes on him and looked up, expecting to find Bucky or one of the children trying to catch his attention, but when he looked around everyone was busy, chatting away as they concentrated on their projects.

 

~*~*~~*~*~

 

Tony did not know what the captain and Bakhuizen did all day holed up in Rogers study. It seemed to involve a great many rustling of papers and telephone calls at all hours of the day and night. Had Tony been more concerned with his duties as a spy he might have tried his hand at peering through key holes and listening at doorways but he was no longer so concerned by whatever business kept Rogers away from his children, as he was with finding a way to put an end to it.

The afternoon that Rogers had joined them in their boat making had been promising. It had certainly come as a surprise to the children (as well as Tony) and it was painful to watch them get their hopes up for more of his attention only to have those hopes crushed when he retreated back into his solitude the very next day.

Tony didn’t understand it. Rogers was not the ogre Tony had once thought him. He was far from unfeeling. He’d given every indication of wanting to be a good father and domesticity looked far too good on him to fool anyone (least of all a genius) into think that family life didn’t make the man happy.

So why did he insist upon holding himself aloof? Pure stubbornness, Tony decided observing the man as he silently ate his dinner, doing very little to engage in the conversation Bakhuizen kept up with the children despite Ian’s longing looks and shy attempts to rope him in.

He didn’t know details but Tony didn’t need specifics to know that Rogers was up to his neck and sinking fast. He knew what type of man Captain Rogers was supposed to be, as surely as he knew that he’d never be that man. Rogers wore the uniform of a Nazi officer because necessity demanded it but it was as much a sham as the robes that Tony had worn at the abbey. Maybe Stefen could never be at home in that uniform because that boy that Tony had heard about, the soldier boy who defended the meek and stood up to tanks, was still alive in him. Or maybe that was just Tony’s foolish heart, getting dangerously mushy again.

It made Tony ache to think about. As much as he missed the abbey some days, Tony had never belonged there. But Rogers… Rogers was a soldier. He’d bled for this country. He’d loved and believed in Austria in a way that Tony never had. That uniform had once been a symbol of honor and pride. Now it was tainted. And where did that leave a man like Rogers?

His office smelled heavily of burnt paper these days. Hughard’s office had smelled like that, near the end, like secrets burned in the dark.

And where did that leave any of them?

Tony didn’t know what was coming but as his eyes moved over the table, resting momentarily on each child as if to memorize them, he was overcome by a swell of strange protectiveness.

“The boats have dried,” Tony heard himself announce and the quiet chatter between Bakhuizen and the children dwindled. James and Artur sat up straighter in their seats, already eager for what they hoped he’d say next. Tony didn’t disappoint them.

“I was thinking of taking the children on another excursion.”

The air of excitement in the room intensified ten-fold but the children seemed to instinctively know to keep quiet, their eyes watching their father carefully as he continued to eat. Stefen acted as if he hadn’t even heard Tony, his movements unhurried as he lifted fork to mouth and chewed.

“Where to?” It was Bakhuizen who grunted the question.

“Across the lake. You’ve got people boats. I’ve been teaching them about the local wildlife.” Tony explained with an expressive wave of his fork. “An appreciation and mastery of nature is essential in a robust German didn’t you know? It’s stamped all over the curriculum. We could expand that lesson by going on a hike. Perhaps even camping outdoors! And as a treat they could race their boats on the lake. But only after the educational portion of course.”

Bakhuizen snorted as if he found something funny about that. Tony watched the captain, both of them aware of the sharp inhale of breath coming from James, as if he’d forgotten how to breathe.

After what felt like a year Rogers finally looked up from his plate and stared directly at Tony.

“The children have not been well Stark. I don’t like them to exhaust themselves.”

“Father, Tony- ” Péter blanched at the glower that Rogers sent in his direction and amended quickly. “Herr Stark took us into town and we were fine. Weren’t we?” He glanced around at his siblings who all nodded eagerly, continuing to plead silently with their eyes.

“Is that so?” Bakhuizen laughed. “Way I heard it you all came back with heat exhaustion. Hammer says you were in hysterics.”

“That was only because those boys – ” James began but quickly aborted with a pain filled exhalation of breath that made Tony suspect he’d been kicked under the table by Ian.

“What boys?” the captain, no fool, demanded to know and Tony quickly tried to diffuse the situation.

“A couple of boys in the market square got rowdy is all. Unseemly business. Good thing we won’t have to worry about that way up here in the hills. It will be just us and the children. We’ll bring plenty of water this time and there will be a whole lake to cool off in.” And Tony, because he’d always press an advantage when he had it, decided to play his best card.

“And I know the children would be happy to have time with you.”

“You’re coming too Father?” Artur seemed to catch on first, blue eyes going wide with tremulous hope and Tony’s heart tugged. Around the table the other six were clearly in agreement, a chorus of voices ringing out in variations of enticement.

When Natacha sweetly pleaded, “Oh please father, say you will” something like shame twisted in Tony’s gut for getting their hopes up. His tug of war with their father was one thing, but he should not have put them in the middle of it. Now it was only going to break their hearts if the captain refused.

Bakhuizen cleared his throat and added, “What could it hurt Stefen?”

The children held their breath and Tony found himself holding it right alongside them.

Rogers held Tony’s gaze and Tony could see the anger in his eyes. He wasn’t a man who liked to be cornered. But he wasn’t made of stone either and Tony refused to balk, meeting the man’s stare and digging deeper for some hint of what he might be feeling behind that stony mask.

There was a flash of something vulnerable there. It took Tony back to that night again and he wondered what Stefen was so afraid of.

“You may take the children,” he finally relented with a sigh and Tony knew better than to get his hopes up, because no sooner had his emotions begun to soar then Rogers delivered the parting blow. “But Bucky and I have too much to do.”

The disappointment all but sucked the air out of Tony’s chest. He didn’t have to look at the children to know they felt the same. Maria sniffled.

“Speak for yourself Stevie,” Bakhuizen, ever a surprise, practically growled setting his cutlery down with a clatter. “I’m on vacation. I think a trip in the woods sounds fun.”

That at least seemed to bring back some of the good cheer, James grinning gleefully in delight, his legs swinging so furiously under the table his chair creaked and groaned. The captain glowered at his friend, looking somewhat betrayed, but nodded.

“Well then I hope you enjoy your vacation Bucky. I think I’ll retire for the night.”

He stood stiffly, appearing not to notice his children’s crestfallen faces, his eyes catching Tony’s momentarily as they often did. Tony stared right back, not bothering to hide his frustration.

Stubborn. That was the man’s problem. Stubborn enough to drive a man to either drink or violence, and at this moment Tony wasn’t sure which one he’d prefer.

 

~*~*~~*~

 

Bucky wasn’t sure what woke him so early that morning. Some sixth sense maybe. Maybe years of looking out for the same person just gave you an affinity for them, or maybe it was just one of those nights when his body sensed the nightmares were going to come and did him a favor by waking him up.

He’d thought about going to the kitchen, seeing what he could scrounge up. He’d stopped by Stefen’s room as part of habit, just needing to assure himself the man was alright, not as surprised as he could have been to find the bed empty.

He was surprised to find him on the terrace of all places, sitting at the table with a sketchpad open, pencil scratching away at paper. Bucky was happy to see it, as it had been far too long since Stefen had taken the time to draw anything. He only wished it wasn’t the dangerous endeavor of passing coded messages that had brought it back again.

“Don’t you ever sleep?” He grumbled taking the empty seat beside Steve and pulling the one across the table close enough to prop his feet up. “You’re going to lose your eyesight drawing in the dark.”

“The sun is rising,” Stefen disputed not looking up from his work and Bucky glanced out over the lake taking in the pink and gold splash on the water and sighing.

He frowned, eyes drawn to something moving down below by the lake. After a moment of squinting he realized that it was Stark and that the soft sounds of banging drifting up toward them were from the hammer the man was currently taking to the underside of a small fishing boat.

That’s right. Stark was taking the children camping that afternoon. They were still glum about the fact that Stefen had refused to join them.

For a few minutes Bucky sat silently watching the man work. God only knew where he’d pulled the old boats from. If memory served they’d belonged to Peggy’s family, old when they’d been dragged up here, and now likely full of leaks after years of neglect.

But Stark appeared to know what he was about, banging about down there, every movement smooth and confident. He was focused in a way that Bucky hadn’t observed in him yet, the man always twitching and talking a mile a minute… he looked at home.

Stefen exhaled softly next to him and Bucky became aware of a strange tension in the air. He looked up to find Stefen staring out over the water… but no, his gaze was fixed slightly lower than that, watching Stark fixing the boats down by the water’s edge the same way he was.

Bucky’s eyes flicked down to his sketchbook expecting to see drafts of the AVENGERS cartoon he’d described to Bucky when he’d laid out his crazy plan; instead he was met with the beginnings of a portrait. A portrait of a dark haired man wielding hammer and wrench illuminated by a rising sun.

Huh.

“You ought to come with us Stevie.” Bucky murmured decisively and Stefen stiffened beside him. “And before you go on about the war and all the shit you think you have to do to stop it, you ought to think about what happens if you’re right. What happens when we try our best but war still comes. What happens if they catch you, or you go off fightin like I know you will, and you don’t come home?”

Stefen continued to stare out across the water, shoulders set in a stubborn line and Bucky cursed.

“Shit Stevie, is that really how you want this to go down? They lose their mother and have to watch their father walk away from them and not come back? Fuck!” Bucky was so angry he couldn’t look at him anymore, reaching in the pocket of his pants for his cigarettes before remembering he was in his night ware and giving up.

“What the hell do you know about it Buck?” Stefen exploded, slamming his sketchbook down on the table. Bucky’s heart leaped in his chest but he braced himself, glad for the fight if only because he knew Stefen and would always prefer to see him come up swinging. It was a good thing. Far better than the alternative.

“It’s so damn easy for you!” Stefen shouted at him. “You get to waltz in and do and say whatever the hell you want, and who the hell cares if you do? The only one who gets hurt when you fuck up is you. This is my family, Bucky! And they will kill them.”

“Fuck you, no Stefen fuck you for saying that!” Bucky growled. “They’re my family too. And maybe it’s easy for you to forget where ya come from, but they are rounding people up out there.” Bucky swung his arm, gesturing out over the lake as if it stood in for all of the Reichland.

“Whole caravans shipped off to god knows where Stevie! My father. My sister. The Uncles. You think I don’t got people to worry about?”

Steve looked like someone had punched him and as much as that was viciously satisfying there was still a part of Bucky that felt like a bastard for saying it. Cursing, he lunged out of his seat, breathing hard as he paced the terrace. Stopping abruptly to lean against the railing Bucky paused to catch his breath, the silence thick between them.

“They’re going to take whatever you let them take Steve and a lot more than that. Who you are, what you stand for… don’t let them take that.” Bucky huffed after a long moment. “And the Stevie I know wouldn’t turn his back on family.”

Sighing deeply Bucky let it sit, glumly staring out at the water, fully expecting Steve to get stubborn on him and for his words to fall on deaf ears. It was a long time before he heard Steve stir behind him. He didn’t turn around to watch him leave, so he was a bit startled when the man joined him at the railing. Stevie didn’t say anything, just heaved a sigh and leaned, knocking his shoulder against Bucky.

A rusty chuckle rumbled in his chest and Bucky dropped his head, relieved that even now after all these years they could fight like cats and dogs and still come out the other end.

“Look I’m sorry I said it like that,” Bucky apologized. He knew that it hadn’t been any easier for Stefen to leave the caravan than it had been for Bucky.

“It’s alright…” Stefen responded quietly, and then after a moment he admitted, “You’re actually not the first person who has said something like that to me.”

Bucky raised his eyebrows, wondering for a moment who would have had the audacity, before his eyes were drawn to the figure of Stark below, still banging away at those boats. Of course.

“The Monk?”

Stefen huffed, mouth turning up in amusement and nodded.

Huh.

“Well…” Bucky drawled slowly, considering the man as he worked. “Even the crazy get it right every once in a while.”

“Hey Stevie?” Steve grunted in acknowledgment and Bucky turned to him. “What did Stark say to you, that day at breakfast?”

Steve didn’t answer for a moment, though Bucky could tell Steve didn’t need him to explain. After a long pause Steve got the words out, slow and a bit hesitant.

“He told me… that I didn’t need to apologize.”

Bucky blinked. The war had riddled Steve’s mind so full of holes that he’d nearly murdered Stark, and he didn’t need to apologize? Anybody sane would be ringing up to have the man committed.

“And what did you say to that?”

Steve answer came quickly, his voice firm and certain as pavement.

“That I do.”

“Huh,” Bucky huffed quietly turning once more to watch Stark as he worked.

The man was either truly mad, or up to something. Bucky was determined to figure out which.

 

End Part 1

Chapter Text

“You’ll remember to be careful Herr Stark, and that Natacha must not over exert herself.”

“Yes, yes, I will bring the girl back in one piece,” Tony waved away Pepper’s concern. She, Herr Hogan and one of the house maids had come down to the dock in order to assist Tony and the children in their final preparations and see them off on their excursion. The housekeeper had been a big help wrangling together their supplies, getting the boats packed, and organizing the children but now that there was nothing left to do but set sail, as it were, she was wringing her hands fretfully.

“Her meeting with Frauline Werner is the day after. Perhaps we should postpone – ”

“No, no canceling the excursion,” Tony smoothly interjected, handing Maria carefully off to Bakhuizen, standing in the boat, and watching until she was safely settled. She clutched onto the edge in a white knuckled grip, casting big round fearful eyes up at Tony still standing on the dock and he smiled encouragingly at her. She relaxed some when Tony handed Artur down and he plopped into the seat next to her.

He, unlike his sister, couldn’t have been more excited to be in the boat. He jumped up and down in his seat, standing suddenly, eager to watch Ian and Natacha boarding the small one person rowboats Tony had built for them (because apparently when the Rogers’ had purchased their home on the lake and procured a pair of dusty old row boats for their family they’d not foreseen just how fruitful their union would become).

Artur sent the whole boat rocking, which had Maria making small panicked noises and clinging desperately to the edge once more.

“Hey, hey, Artur relax or we’ll all be going for a swim.” Bakhuizen warned even as Tony sharply whistled for the boy’s attention and gestured for him to sit.

The little boy slunk back into his seat.

“Sorry Tony.” he mumbled past the fingers in his mouth.

“Tony?” Maria called, fright making her voice thin. “Are we going to go in the water?”

“We’re going to stay nice and dry in this boat for a while yet bambina, but perhaps later, it would be good for all of you to learn to swim.” Tony said, the memory of Artur striding into the water after his frog rising fresh to his memory. Yes… children could not be watched every minute. Living this close to the water it would be a wise thing to teach them.

“Some of us know how to swim,” Natacha volunteered from her boat and Tony glanced at her, curious. She elaborated with a small shrug. “We used to swim in the summer when our mother was alive.”

Tony nodded, saying nothing, thinking that was the first time he’d ever heard Natacha voluntarily speak on their mother.

“Yes, Frau Rogers was very fond of the outdoors.” Pepper remembered, certain fondness creeping into her tone that kept Tony feeling subdued. “Ian and James might remember something of how it’s done but the little ones… I’m afraid it has been some time since we’ve had time for swimming.”

Yes, Tony was sure they hadn’t. Three years to be exact. Sara hadn’t even been a year old the summer the fever had taken her mother, and Maria and Artur would still have been very young the summer before. But Tony could well imagine it: hazey summer days filled with sweet mountain air, the entire family down by the lake, sun bleaching their hair gold, Stefen holding one of his little ones in sure arms while they splashed about in the water…

Tony blinked the little day dream away, along with the strange pang of longing that accompanied it, because there was no getting back what had been. Only moving forward.

“Well then we’ll have to make the time. Won’t we?” he announced, to the cheers of all except Maria who looked extremely worried by this.

“Don’t you think you should be asking their father first?” A voice called out over the excited young voices and they all went silent turning to watch as the Captain approached them. Tony’s eyebrows shot up, because after how vehemently against the whole affair Stefen had been to begin with, it had not surprised Tony any that he hadn’t come with Pepper to see them off.

But, not only was he coming, the captain was dressed more casually than Tony had ever seen him in plain trousers and a white shirt and a pair of sturdy hiking boots.

“Father’s coming!” Artur shrieked before Tony could even dare to ask it, and something tight in Tony’s chest suddenly unclenched when Stefen nodded shortly, looking incredibly uncomfortable.

But he was here… and that was such a miracle, Tony barely knew what to do with himself.

“Captain Rogers, I think your children are overdue for a swimming lesson” he finally settled on and Stefen’s mouth twitched.

“I agree Herr Stark.” Stefen glanced down at the four boats bobbing about in the water and frowned. “Is there room?”

“Here, Father,” Péter stood eagerly, rocking the boat he sat in with Sara. Tony quickly went to take the little girl from his arms and help Péter back up onto the dock. “You can take my spot and help Tony row. Ian can ride in the boat with you guys, since he’s smaller, and I’ll take the small boat.”

Despite the struggle it had been to organize them the first go around not a word of protest was given to this plan. Ian abandoned the one-man boat in favor of switching with Péter without so much as a word of complaint and James didn’t even revitalize his complaint that Ian had been thought old enough to handle the one-man boat on his own.

They were switched around and resettled within minutes, Tony the last to board after handing little Sara into her father’s arms and watching as Stefen secured her. There was such an air of eager anticipation brimming within the group that Tony could not help but grin, his body thrumming with new energy.

“Glad you could join us Stevie,” Bakhuizen called from the neighboring boat, slapping the oars against the water playfully so that Artur and James giggled and shrieked as water rained down on them. Maria, less enthused by this game wiggled closer to her uncle and out of the line of fire.

“Just don’t drown yourselves.” Stefen called back in warning and Tony laughed.

“That’s the spirit. And if everybody’s here and accounted for, I say we’re off.”

Tony grasped ahold of both oars and began to paddle the little boat out into the open water, Bakhuizen following behind them. Stefen kept a close eye on Péter and Natacha in the single boats until he was satisfied they had a good handle on the oars and knew something of what they were about.

There was lots of giggling and splashing as they acquainted themselves with steering the small crafts, Tony shouting out instructions over the ruckus as Pepper and Harrold waved from the dock and generally laughed at the ridiculous picture they all must have made.

Somehow they got the hang of it and managed to be on their way. And as the Roger’s family (plus one Stark) rowed steadily across the lake toward the dark green of the forest with the mountains rising above them, a wide smile split across Tony’s face.

~*~~*~

They traveled father over the water than Steve would have liked. Stark had worked up a sweat rowing three of them so far all by himself but he’d shook his head when Steve had offered to take his place. No sense in both of them getting sweaty he'd said. But his eyes which had flickered over Sara - who was slapping the arm Steve had around her waist happily - were rather telling.

It was irritating, was what it was. For Christ sake. Steve loved his children. More than anything. More than his own life. He really could do without Bucky's chastising and Starks constant pushing and prodding.

He was here wasn’t he? Bobbing about in rowboat across the lake to go camping, of all things, when by rights there were a million other things he should be doing to keep them all safe.

He squeezed Sara closer and tried to ignore the feeling of uselessness that was washing over him.

Christ. What was he complaining about really? Forced to simple sit with his daughter in his lap and already his skin was crawling. If Stark would just let him row he would have something to do, a purpose to fulfil.

Steve couldn't seem to focus, the children's chatter flitting over him as they cut through the water in their boats.

“Cap?” Stark was watching him, that eyebrow of his arched in question. He had quite an expressive face, their monk.

And Steve did suppose that after what he’d done to the man, what stark was willing to forgive him, he was well and truly their monk.

A swell of guilt rose in his chest. God, he hoped that Stark really had meant his forgiveness. He didn’t like to think about would might happen if he hadn't.

“Where did you go, Cap?”

At the sound of Stark’s voice Steve shook his head and straightened his spine, gathering himself. He managed a feeble smile.

I’m here . He thought. And then thought it again. I’m here. I’m here.

“I’m here.” He said once more aloud, “what were you saying?”

Stark chuckled at the phrasing and Steve shifted, restless under his gaze.

Stark had a way about him that Steve struggled to put words to. He might call it star quality but that seemed silly. Stark had chosen to be a monk after all. His clothing was understated, his manners polished, but nothing about the man himself could be as easily summarized.

Steve could see the effort Stark was putting into keeping the conversation going. Not for lack of topic but Steve's sluggish delays in answering.

He couldn't help himself. He was so out of sorts. What was wrong with him? It was just a boat ride and yet he felt too large for the vessel, swollen and stiff.

So he didn’t try to keep up with any of the conversations and watched them all instead, trying to memorize the twerk of Péter's body as he turned to tease his sister, the way Artur and James looked as they tried to lean over the sides of the boats.

He was going to leave them, Steve realized. He just didn't know how to.

Now they had Stark of course, and there was always Bucky who would keep a watchful eye on them when he could.

If he could.

Thoughts of the resistance and Janneke slickered at the edges of his mind. Bucky’s self-preservation instinct was strong but, to Steve's horror, his loyalty to Steve had always proved stronger. Bucky might leave them too in the end.

He sighed, rubbing Sara’s hand with the tips of his fingers. He’d find a way to make sure they’d be taken care of, and at least there was Stark. They’d be in good hands.

They finally headed ashore what felt to Steve like hours later, dragging the boats up onto a small grassy stretch of bank and tying them to a pair of thick nails that Bucky helped him drive into the ground. Steve was glad to hand Sara off to Natacha in favor of unloading boxes of supplies and shouldering sacks and back packs on his back, as Tony led them into the trees in search of a proper place to make camp, lecturing the entire way about the local wildlife and what kinds of plants could be found in these mountains.

They found a spot to make camp not too far from the lakes edge (because, as he instructed the children, they should always stick close to a water source) and spent a good hour and a half after that struggling to erect their tents because Tony insisted on letting the children help and using it as an opportunity for another lesson.

Apparently one never knew when they’d have to set up a tent.

When they had four ramshackle tents set up and sleeping rolls at the ready James just couldn’t seem to take it anymore and demanded to know when they could race their boats.

Tony made them stop to eat the sandwiches that Willamina had packed first and Steve’s growling stomach was grateful.

He was happy to sit back and watch as Tony took the children down to the water and let them try out their steam boats.

This was just fine he thought. This was not nearly as overwhelming as he’d first found it to be. Simple really. Almost nice to be out in the fresh air sitting on the bank, watching the children play.

But then of course the children got tired of just watching their boats in the water, Bucky and Tony occasionally striding in to fetch a wayward vessel, and someone remembered Tony promising they could swim.

And Stark, damn him, would simply not leave him in peace.

~*~~*~

“We can’t swim in our clothes, so how do you suggest we go about this?” Tony was asking.

“I can swim naked!” Artur shrieked, his eyes wide and glowing with excitement. The smaller children shuffled together giggling.

“Your underclothes, Artur.” Steve corrected, helping pull Artur’s shirt up over his head after a moment of watching him struggle. He discarded it in the growing pile with the rest of the children's clothes.

“You can swim in your underclothes. Nobody is getting naked.”

Though he could hardly blame the boy for jumping to that conclusion. Swim clothes had certainly been overlooked when the packing had been done. He paused, Artur wobbling on one leg, and Steve knelt to help him out of his shorts.

Come to think of it Steve wasn't sure the younger children had any swim clothes that still fit.

He'd not taken them on a swim since before he'd contracted the fever. That summer had been unusually cold and Peggy had been having trouble with the pregnancy.

Of course Artur could always use James old clothes but then again, James hated to share.

Steve looked over at James who was leaning on Bucky rather rudely (why did Bucky let him do that?) watching the others undress with very little interest in leaving his uncle's side.

Steve frowned deeply in thought as the memories slowly trickled through his mind. They'd only taken James a few times that he could remember. He’d still been so small that Virginia had spent most of her time with him and Ian on the shore. Maria had been the baby then, tucked safely in her crib at the house watched over by the nurse maid.

Péter’s voice suddenly loud in his ears pulled him from the old memories.

The boy had already striped down and was helping Maria out of her clothes, chattering to her about being a mermaid. She looked less than impressed with this.

He smiled inwardly. If she was anything like Peggy she would not find this endeavor enjoyable.

Peggy could swim, was a strong swimmer in fact, but she’d always preferred to be on the shore where it was dry and comfortable. Not that she’d ever let a little thing like discomfort stop her. She was always first one in when Péter and Natacha wished to play, and last one out when Stefen didn’t feel like letting her go.

Stefen did not know when he’d begun to smile but he knew when he felt the smile bleeding away.

Peggy’s mother had always found the idea of swimming common and upon learning that her daughter had taken it up, had declared it only more proof that Margrit had married beneath herself and bred a gaggle of ‘common little tramps’.

Except for Tacha. Steve grit his teeth. They still wrote after her.

He supposed being the oldest girl and reminding them the most of Margrit she was acceptable to them.

“Bambina. Your dress has to come off!”

Stefen’s eyes flew to find Stark who was holding a cackling Sara upside down, holding her by her two chubby legs and shaking her gently like a sack of flour.

The children really had taken to him.

It was good. He was glad. The children would need him.

“That's what I ought to have done. Threaten death.” He heard Bucky mutter, watching Stark with Sara.

Bucky had tried his hardest to help Sara get undressed but to both their surprise she’d become resistant and then something bordering on frightened.

It struck Steve then that she’d only been a baby when Bucky had left for Budapest. She had no real memories of him besides the stories he and her older siblings would tell. A fault, he thought with a cringe, that was as much his own as it was Bucky’s.

She’d eventually scuttled away from him to hide and peer at him from behind Starks legs. She’d ignored all of Bucky’s sweet pleading, clinging close too Stark and shooting him distrustful looks when she thought he wasn't looking.

Bucky had grumbled something about Rogers and their stubbornness while Steve had tried not to laugh. Stark had just looked smug.

James shrugged and wrapped his arms tightly around Bucky's midsection as if to make up for the words even as he said them, “No, she just likes Tony more!”

Beside him Artur held his arms up excitedly.

“I'm done! Father I'm done! Let's go now, please.”

Artur grabbed his arm and began to tug. Steve thought he had a freakishly strong grip for a boy of seven.

He shook his head, looking up at Stark for help.

Stark raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Their conversation on the terrace echoing suddenly in Steve's memory.

“Artur.” Steve tried again through clenched teeth.

“Please, Father, please. Come swimming with me?” Just as quickly Artur decided to change tactics, pressing his little body into Steve's and wrapping his splindly arms around Stefen’s neck, familiar blue eyes pleading up at him.

Steve's heart twinged. His arms moving without his command to wrap his around Artur’s body.

It never ceased to amaze him how small they felt at this age, how fragile.

He opened his mouth but couldn't find the words. He couldn't bring himself to say yes any more than he could say no.

He looked up again, this time with the intent to order Stark into the water with Artur, when Bucky groaned.

“Just get in the damn water with him, zaldat. Stark can't save all seven of them if they drown.”

“I can swim!” Péter protested, sweeping Maria into his arms. Tacha nodded in agreement her expression earnest.

“Yes, we’ll be fine watching them, Father.”

“Nonsense, your father doesn't want to sit around being useless-” Bucky began to interject and Steve barked.

“Buck!”

Bucky snapped his mouth closed and graced him with a blank look. The corner of his lip twitching in what Steve was sure wanted to be a snarl and irritation settled in Steve's stomach. He was not an invalid who needed to be led to water. If he damn well wanted to swim he’d swim and not a moment before!

Fighting for calm, Steve turned his head back to meet Artur’s pleading eyes.

“You can go on ahead with your sister and brother.”

Artur squeezed him all the tighter. “You'll come in the water?”

“Later.”

“How much later?” Artur pouted, expression dubious.

Steve unclasped his son's vice like grip from behind his neck and held Artur's hands in his own.

“I'll swim with you. I promise. Bucky and I just have to finish setting up camp first.”

Artur eyed him cautiously and Steve ruffled his hair, unnerved by his sons stare and the surge of emotions he felt, and stood.

“Get in the water, Artry.”

Artur beamed up at him even as Steve felt his stomach lurch.

Artry? That had been Peggy's pet name for him. No one had used it in years. Steve certainly hadn’t meant to. It had just slipped out.

He didn't know where to look and feeling unbalanced he looked up at Stark once more, willing him wordlessly to take over. Please.

He was jittery like he’d just come off a patrol and his heart felt two sizes two big in his chest.

But Stark was busy stripping Sara who was giggling and trying to put her clothes back on as just hastily as Stark was stripping her just because she thought it was funny.

He swallowed thickly and motioned towards the water once more.

“Go on with Péter. I’ll be back.”

~*~*~*~

Despite the fear she’d shown on the dock Maria was not the most difficult child to teach the fine sport of swimming. That dubious honor (unexpectedly) went to Sara.

Ian, who stood on the bank quenching his toes and hugging his arms to his chest, watched as Tony struggled to hold onto the wriggling girl. He'd forgotten how much like bars of soap children were when wet.

“Come on bambina. There you go, just...” An arm thwacked him and her head ducked underwater momentarily. When Tony lifted her up a quick moment later she spluttered and clutched at him, kicking her legs wildly.

“Sorry, sorry,” he apologized. “You’ve got to keep your head up, bambina.”

Instead of crying like Sara (who had shrieked and climbed up Tony's body, practically perching on his head to avoid being submerged) Maria had wrinkled her little nose and jumped into the water full throttle, as if she’d decided the best way to tackle her fear was to literally tackle it. To Maria’s own surprise (not to mention Tony’s) once in it she loved the water. She just wasn’t any good at the swimming part yet.

The little girl who cried at dirt on her dress seemed far away now as she thrashed ungracefully in the water, smiling big and bright as water dripped into her mouth.

He was grateful. He'd been worried she might remember the unorthodox way Artur had tried to teach her about the importance of friends.

Flopping back and forth between Tony and Péter in some approximation of swimming, she seemed just fine. Better even than he had ever seen her. All the children were, Tony thought with satisfaction as he cast his gaze around. Except…

Tony glanced up and caught Ian's eye.

What was he doing still on shore? Nearly everyone else, save Bucky, Sara and Cap, was enjoying the water.

Péter had swum a few yards away to “catch” artifacts with Artur who was splashing about in the shallows looking for treasures, while Tacha was trying bravely to coax Sara back in the water.

The toddler was enjoying another game of keep away, creeping close only to rush out of arms reach before Natacha could actually get a firm grip on her. Until finally, done with the game, Tacha snatched her up and marched her back toward the bank so that the shrieks could begin anew. Grinning, Tony turned back to Ian.

“Ian. Are you going to stand there all day or help me hold this salmon I found?”

In the water Maria wriggled harder, tugging on Tony's arms to be lifted higher.

He hoisted her up and out of the water and she wrapped her legs around his waist. She clutched at his shoulders, rubery fingers digging into his skin and just when he was admiring the water beading in her eyelashes and the glint of happiness in her eyes, she sneezed lake water into his face.

Oh disgusting. Disgusting child.

Tony almost dropped her he held her at arm's length so fast, wrinkling his face. She sneezed again only this time he could hear a distinct giggle in the gurgling. She was grinning, or so he thought. It was hard to tell with her stringy wet curls obstructing her face.

Tony turned back to Ian, intending to tease him some more when he caught a real look at the expression on the boy’s face.

It was tight and contemplative, fear mixed with something else, something he was clearly warring heavily with if the tense set of his shoulders was anything to go by.

“Ian?”

On the bank Ian turned but it was not to answer Tony's call.

Cap and Bakhuizen had ambled into view followed closely by James (who had opted to delay swimming in order to shadow his uncle) both with large armfuls of dry branches in their arms.

James called out Ian’s name again, frowning and chewing on something (Tony could almost hear the smacking from where he was) regarding his brother thoughtfully. Ian clenched his lips tightly but did not answer his brother’s calls either.

Tony placed Maria carefully back into the water, even in the shallows the water reached to her waist (there was one Rogers who had not inherited Caps height) and watched the interaction.

“Ian,” he called out after a moment. “What's wrong patatino?”

Ian's head whipped back around to meet Tony’s eyes with a startled expression. He blushed a humiliated red, ducking his head and trying to appear as small as possible.

James dropped his armful of wood, either not seeing or ignoring altogether his father's vague look of disapproval, and trotted over to Ian.

The sight of both boys stood with their heads bent together gave them all pause. This could either be very good or very bad. In the short months Tony had been with the Rogers family he had yet to see them visibly collaborate together. Hell with those two even begrudging cooperation was a struggle.

After a moment of traded whispers James looked up and glanced back towards the captain and Bakhuizen who had piled the wood in front of the tents begun the process of digging a pit for the fire.

Cap was kneeling, trowel in hand, his back to Tony and the children.

Right then.

Tony lifted Maria up and headed toward the boys on the bank.

“No, I’m not done. Tony, I'm not done!” the little girl insisted petulantly as he set her on dry ground.

“Alright, alright, bambina I hear you. Why don’t you go play with your sisters?” He waved in Natacha and Sara's general direction.

Maria opened her mouth to protest but was distracted by a sudden shriek from Artur. Tony looked over that way, just to be sure no one was drowning, to find Artur gesturing wildly with excitement. Péter could be heard telling him to hold whatever it was he had gripped in his hands still.

Maria’s eyes grew around with curiosity and she looked up at Tony.

He winked at her.

“Go on. Make sure you save it for our next lesson.”

She nodded eagerly and scampered off towards the excitement and Tony watched her fondly for a moment before he turned his attention back to the boys.

“Alright, you've not been in the water all afternoon.” He said giving them another look over.

It was true. Ian had stayed on the bank hovering around his father like a moth to flame as the captain had gone about his work, mostly ignoring the boy’s presence. Only once had Ian ventured away from him to have a look at some interesting rocks that Péter and Artur had dragged up out of the lake.

The captain had noticed. Tony had watched as his blue eyes had followed his son's ghost like wanderings, but Stefen had still not said anything. Waiting for…waiting for what? Permission? He was the boy's father for god’s sake. Why didn’t he just try.

In his father’s shadow, Ian’s mood had dropped lower and lower after the boat race. His continence becoming unusually despondent and moody until he was acting far more like James than he was his usual self.

Ian squinted into the fading sun not meeting Tony’s eye.

“Are you done swimming?”

The question looked like it had physically pained him.

What was eating at him? Tony wondered and James seemed to be wondering the same, openly eyeing his brother who was staring off toward the camp.

Tony followed Ian’s gaze. The captain was kneeling over the fire pit, setting stones about the rim, seemingly in deep conversation with Bakhuizen who was holding an armful of them, handing them off when Stefen gestured for them.

Even from Tony's vantage point he could see the small smile playing at the captain's mouth as he spoke to his longtime friend. It wasn’t the first one Tony had caught but it was still strange seeing the man smile.

Tony suspected that in this one afternoon alone he had done thrice his monthly quota of smiling.

Six times. At least in Tony's presence.

All of the promotional photos published of the man after the Great War had been serious, elegant, things. Designed to inspire, and soldiers certainly didn't smile for press photos, so maybe with how he’d been held up in front of the public eye smiles had just stopped coming naturally to him.

It was a shame. Tony quite liked his smile.

“Uncle Bucky said to ask you.” James’ voice intruded on his thoughts.

Huh? Tony blinked, embarrassed that he’d almost forgotten Ian’s presence as he pulled his eyes away from the captain.

“I’m sorry, ask me to do what?”

He sighed heavily at James deadpan expression. It wasn't so much irritating that he'd been caught not listening but rather the reason why.

“To swim. I want to learn how to swim!”

“You can swim.”

Tony turned away, started up towards the camp site. His limbs were tired from lifting little ones up and out of the water, from the hike and general wear and tear of keeping up with seven highly intelligent not to mention headstrong children.

“Nooooooooo” James whined, the sound scraping across Tony's nerves. “Tony I can't.”

At least the whine had been on pitch. After Péter had said that their parents used to swim with them he’d expected that he and Natacha would prove sufficient swimmers and they were, both splashing into the water with the sloppy confidence of youth.

Tony had expected the younger ones to be lacking and there had been no surprises there. Sara was still perfecting regular motor skills after all. Ian and James had seemed eager enough at the idea when it had initially been voiced so Tony had assumed that James had stayed on shore in order to replace his uncle's shadow.

But on further thought, Pepper had said it had been a few years since the family had indulged, even before Frau Rogers had passed.

So it had been what four, five years maybe? Tony’s mind quickly did the math. James might only have been three or four the last time he got in the water and Ian not much older than James was now. Seven or eight.

Suddenly Ian’s strange mood took on a whole new light in his mind. Of all his siblings Ian was the most careful, not because he wasn’t as brave or daring but because it mattered to him to do things right; because he saw that as his responsibility. He took careful notes on all their lessons, he was the first to notice if the little girl’s shoes came untied and the first to stoop down and help them with them.

He stubbornly gave James the food off his plate and tried desperately hard to be a good big brother to him despite the little boy’s bitter resentment of his efforts. He took the fall for James’ tantrums and protected Péter even when the last thing Péter wanted was to be reminded of his own limitations.

The shelves near his bed were laden with books and they were the first thing he went to in leisure time. What he daydreamed about he kept to himself.

When the captain was gone (and when wasn’t he gone?) Péter was the man of the house but Ian volunteered to have his back.

Stefen had said he’d never doubted that, and why would he? Ian was his best little soldier and soldiers didn’t get scared. The captain certainly never got scared where Ian could see.

A little thing like swimming should be easy and if it wasn’t… well Tony suspected Ian would rather be sliced open than have his father look at him and see a little boy scared in need of help.

Having realized this Tony knew something must be done but he was equally sure it must be done careful. The Rogers were as prideful as they were stubborn and if he embarrassed the boy he’d just dig his heels in and that would be the end of it.

But James took the decision out of his hands.

Without any warning he went striding past them, stepping off the bank into the water with an exclamation at the temperature, not even bothering to strip to his underthings.

Thankfully he’d paused to yank off his shoes and socks before he plowed into the water, but the dark blue of his trousers had gone black in the water and Tony prayed his stitching would hold.

Tony watched nervously as James sloshed through the water and it wasn’t long before he was neck deep and struggling like a puppy. A drowning one.

Tony tensed to move just as James called out.

“Help! I don’t want to drown, Tony!” He was struggling now to keep his head above water and Tony cursed under his breath, jumping in after him.

What in god’s name had he been playing at? Tony had been in the water teaching the others for at least an hour and James had expressed absolutely no interest in joining them.

So what the hell had sent him dashing into the water like that when he clearly knew as much about swimming as a finless guppy?

“James? Tony do you have him?! Tony?” Ian was crouched now on the very edge of the bank, biting his lip anxiously as Tony cut through the water towards where James was thrashing, unwittingly propelling himself deeper and deeper out.

The sound of him spluttering and coughing carried across the lake.

A few yards away Péter and Artur had paused to watch fearfully and even though he couldn’t pause to look he just knew the captain and Bakhuizen had come running.

Well If James had wanted to get his father’s attention, he certainly had it now.

“Ian!” The boy called out with a terrified tremor just before Tony had reached him and then he slipped under the water.

God damn it! Tony cursed, heart thumping hard in his chest as he dove under after him. James had risked drowning right here in front of his father, in front of Tony’s very eyes and for what?! So that his brother would get in the damn water?

Because that was what it was about Tony realized. It wasn’t about Stefen at all.

James couldn’t just tell Ian to ask for help like a normal person though. No, he had to go jumping into the lake like a damsel in distress, expecting that what? The sight of him drowning would cure Ian of his fears and do something other than traumatize them all?

Foolish, idiot, utterly insane (wonderful) boy! Tony cursed as he grabbed ahold of the moving body in the water. It was hard to see even in relatively clear (for a lake anyway) waters what with the streams of bubbles they were rucking up, but he felt James slip his arms around his neck, his fingers grasping to find purchase. The combination of his struggles and the sudden addition of his weight dragging them both further under.

Tony hit the bottom of the lake bed, silt clouding up around them, but since he wasn’t a panicking child he was able to keep his wits about him.

He pushed up, propelling them upwards, and they broke the surface a moment later.

He desperately moved his legs while trying to maintain his hold on James, struggling to push them closer toward the bank and get his feet under him. James didn’t make it easy in his panic but Tony managed it, relief washing through him when the water became shallow enough for him to stand on his own two feet again.

Breathing heavily, he shook the water out of his eyes and held James close, his heart jittering in his chest.

“James please, don’t grab my neck so tight.” he pleaded gently after a moment when the boy’s grip threatened to choke him. He rubbed the boys back soothingly as James blinked at him, eyes wide, coughing up dribbles of water.

The crisis averted relief bubbled up through Tony in the form of laughter, though his grip on the boy remained tight.

“You know bambino if you wanted Ian to ever get in the water, giving him the memory of his brother nearly drowning probably wasn’t the way to go.”

James wet coughs actually turned indignant and Tony chuckled, patting his back to make sure there wasn’t any more water he needed to spit up.

As Tony walked them back toward the bank, water lapping at their shoulders, James shivered against his chest.

“Why didn’t he follow?” he asked voice small. He burrowed his head against Tony’s neck.

Submerged in water James felt as if he weighed nothing, his damp hair succumbing to its natural wave. Tony reached up and stroked the dark red waves out of his face and James let him, eyes watching Ian on the shore.

God Stefen was probably going to lose his mind, blame Tony for not watching the children closer or something equally ridiculous considering he was their father and couldn’t be bothered with them for more than five minutes.

Knowing him, he’d probably want to call a halt to the whole trip and if Stefen thought Tony was going to let a minor incident like a child getting himself into a bit of hot water – it was fine, Tony had been right there and it was fine now – Stefen had another think coming.

Looking up to face the music he found that indeed Stefen had made his way down to the bank. He was standing there next to Ian with arms crossed imposingly, but to Tony’s surprise he didn’t seem all that concerned with Tony and James.

He was looking down at Ian, who was looking up at his father with his arms crossed behind his back in what Tony could only classify as parade rest.

Stefen was clearly saying something to the boy, whose shoulders were hunching up nearly to his ears, his face turning red.

Tony felt a little sick, anxious at the sight. He could only hope whatever words the captain was trading with his son wouldn’t have negative repercussions.

So far the record did not look good.

“You were alright, “Tony belatedly answered James’ earlier question, slowly wading closer to the captain and Ian. “He probably thought you were being silly.” And then just for good measure.

“It was silly to do that James. You could have been hurt.”

James tucked his head into Tony’s neck again for a moment mumbling, “he always follows me. It’s irritating.”

“I’ll let you in on a secret.” James looked up, starting to wriggle as gravity came back into play and the water was low enough for him to stand on his own. “You irritate him too.”

James opened his mouth in indignation.

“I’m not-

“Herr Stark!”

Tony looked up just in time to see Ian slip off the bank, nearly going head first into the water. The boy blushed an even deeper red as he struggled back onto his feet, helped by his father who Tony still couldn’t believe he was actually seeing slip into the water even when they both began wading towards where Tony and James stood.

Tony just stood there, frozen as rain on a mountain top, uneasy as Stefen and Ian approached.

What was happening? Why wasn’t Stefen yelling and behaving like… well not like this!

“Where did you learn to swim like that?” Stefen asked when he and Ian had reached them and it took Tony’s brain way too long for a genius to make sense of the unexpected question.

“Like what? Swimming in a still lake with a child?”

Stefen just rolled his eyes, not quite as dramatic as Natacha could do it but still, wonders never ceased.

“Ships, Cap. Docking empire, I grew up by the sea.” Tony relented, offering as explanation still off balance in the conversation.

Stefen looked down at Ian and placed a hand gently on his shoulder. He could have placed a rock there for the way it made Ian shrink.

“I was just telling Ian that I was about his age when I learned to swim. You wouldn’t mind helping me teach the boys would you?”

Ian stirred back to life and tugged on his father’s arm, insisting with more than a hint of petulance. “I already know how to swim Father.”

Without answering Stefan sank down and began to glide along in the water ahead of them. The white linen of his untucked shirt pooled around him like the skirt of a jelly fish, revealing slips of the pale white skin underneath.

They watched as he turned gracefully in the water and came back toward them, popping back up beside Ian who started, nearly tumbling.

Cap righted him with a chuckle, easily supporting most of his weight.

“You learned from me, who learned from your uncle Buck and he was not a good swimmer to begin with.” Stefan’s smile was soft as he said.

Which really had to be a damn lie, or at least kin to one Tony huffed. If that little display was anything to go by Stefan was just as powerful in the water as he was out.

Tony mentally shook himself, because beautiful creature or not, Rogers was a Nazi.

“Meanwhile I’m practically Olympic gold at your disposal, Ian really. Have I taught you nothing about being an opportunist?”

Tony waved his free hand trying to encompass the fantastic being that was himself, managing to splash James in the face while he was at it. “You’ll do wonderfully Ian. That is if someone could take this amoeba that’s found a home on me-”

James launched off of Tony before he could finish, nearly throwing Tony backwards as he landed in the water with a great splash. He reemerged spluttering and reaching for his father who obliged by scooped him up.

Tony was almost glad after all the weirdness to see the return of the Captain’s unsure expression. He held James at arm’s length (like he might be dangerous) but James held onto the captain’s muscular arms and kicked his legs experimentally, inspecting his legs in the water with interest.

Held so close to his father he looked tiny Tony thought. He hardly looked his eight years at all.

“Are you alright?” Tony heard Stefen ask quietly and James just nodded, apparently no longer as concerned with the incident where he could have drowned as he was with testing out his swimmers legs.

Stefan held him in a sturdy grip but it was so clear he was out of his depth, Tony’s lips tugged into a smile. The man was hopeless.

Glancing over at Ian, who was swishing his hands in the water and trying his best to avoid looking at Tony or his father (as if they might forget he was there and escape the lesson) Tony couldn’t help but feel that might just be a Rogers family trait.

Hopelessly out of their depth and too stubborn to ask for help.

With a smile Tony slung his arm around Ian's shoulders.

It was just too bad for the Rogers that it was a Stark family trait to poke, prod, and tweak. Especially when no one had asked for it.

 

~*~*~

 

Once resigned to the fact that he couldn’t escape it Ian took to his lesson with single minded vigor, determined to abolish the discomfort of finding himself in an arena where he wasn’t capable (where he couldn’t help) as quickly as possible.

Stefan was holding Ian up by his belly, helping him to correct his form. And his father’s presence and sure touch seemed to give him confidence – bolstering that single minded drive. Even while Tony and his father struggled keep James afloat Ian paddled back and forth, back and forth, face screwed up in concentration.

James on the other hand still hadn’t managed to master the doggy paddle and it was completely from lack of trying. He was happy with their attention and being held up in their arms. Tony suspected actually learning to swim on his own would be counterproductive to that.

Even now he was latched on to his father’s shoulders and drifting along behind him like a king’s robe, smile wide as anything.

With a somewhat exasperated look Stefen had glanced at Tony and gestured toward where the other children were playing with Bakhuizen in the shallower water.

“I think I’ll take this one where he’s not in danger of drowning himself.”

He left Tony and Ian then, his human scarf trailing behind. Ian had not seemed bothered by his departure, concentrating hard as he was on his tasked. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Tony didn’t know how long he watched him until a sharp squeal from Artur pulled his attention away.

He and James were clamoring around their father, splashing as they fought, almost viciously, for the place of honor on his shoulders. Stefen appeared to be largely ignoring the pulling and tugging around his neck, focused as he was with watching Maria paddle her way between him and Bakhuizen, proud as punch with her own progress. Their voices drifted over the water toward Tony and Ian and Tony smiled.

“Hey Ian, patatino, let’s take a break.”

He’d not meant it as a suggestion, but Ian had raised his head from the water, blinked at him breathing heavily through his mouth, and then sank back under. His shimmery little body slowly swimming away from Tony beneath the water.

All right then. More laps.

James let out a sharp shriek and Tony whipped around, muscles already tensed for a dive, just in time to see James landing in his father's arms with a grunt of laughter, water spraying everywhere.

Tony couldn’t distinguish exactly what the others were saying but Tony was sure Arturs shrieked demands to be next could be heard from the house.

There was some shuffling and then Artur was being lifted in his father’s arms and then with a flex of muscle and a push the boy was airborne, momentarily appearing weightless in the sky before gravity kicked in and he plumped back into strong arms and the soft cradle of water. He looked elated with the experience, like he’d just achieved space flight.

Tony wasn't sure if the ache in his heart was from hope or fear. Perhaps it was both.

Artur was like a puppy, quick emotions and easily forgiven slights, but he was still a child, still a little boy who’d not had a father for quite a while. Even though Tony knew it wasn’t true, it was as if the children had completely forgotten the man from this morning. The distant man who couldn’t be bothered to pay them any mind let alone notice when they were hurting.

Tony wouldn’t deny them the forgiving nature of youth but privately, he wished he could afford the same luxury.

As he watched Stefen tossing Artur once more, the boys limbs splaying out like a starfish, he couldn't help but wonder if Stefen had forgotten too. He watched them as they played, Stefen’s bright hair stained a golden brown from the water. Every once and awhile, when the children had become distracted by some new trick or game, he would swim a little distance.

Tony watched those powerful arms as they rose and fell in quick breast stroke, watched his strong back supporting James, Artur or whichever child had won his attention that moment. He watched and watched, stomach tightening with a strange discomfort.

Some unknowable point later Stefen made noise that might have been about getting out of the water but James demanded to come with. Stefen obliged and after wading a ways turned track, effortlessly lifted himself out of the water and Tony caught his breath.

Oh this this had been a terrible idea.

He was suddenly without a shadow of a doubt, that this had been the single worst miscalculation of his life. Because there Stefen was standing waist deep, water streaming down face and neck to run over the dips and curves of his chest.

Oh sure, let's all swim around in our underthings. And he called himself a genius!

Tony inched backward, as if to put greater distance between him and sight as Stefan hitched his son’s legs around his waist, his stomach flexing with the added pressure, water clogged shirt clinging to him like a second skin.

Tony’s mouth went dry.

The pair was moving now, heading towards Tony and Ian and Tony couldn't help the feeling that he was being prowled upon as Stefen’s gaze fixed upon him.

It was all in his head of course, but for decorum’s sake he could have done without the image.

Tony swallowed, trying his hardest to keep his voice under control as he turned to Ian.

“Are we ready to get out now?” he asked hopefully. Avoidance worked really well in most situations too. Poseidon reincarnated including. James heard him though and immediately began to protest.

“No! Father I’m not ready. We’re not been in the water long at all.” James tightened his legs around his Father’s waist, wriggling desperately.

“You know you could try swimming yourself. It was a lesson after all.” Stefen said, but there was no heat behind the words.

James shook his head and tucked his face into his father’s shoulder blades. Tony could still see the smirk though as he replied, “I like it up here on you.”

Tony couldn’t fault the boy’s logic. He rather thought he would to.

On his return lap Ian squeaked, his head dipping under the water as his strokes faltered. Tony caught him under the arms and helped steady him.

“Ian, come on, you ought to rest.” Tony tried to keep his voice gentle but he was quickly losing patience. What was it about the Rogers that made them act like mules? You couldn't perfect anything in a day.

Well, unless you were him but thankfully Tony Stark was one of a kind.

“You don’t have to stay in with me, you can go back. I can manage.” Ian insisted, his head dipping under again.

“Take him please.” Stefen’s voice said next to his ear and Tony jumped, blinking in surprise as James was dropped into his arms. They looked at each other, both a little confused before Stefen said, with head cocking to the side. “Or you could put some real effort in and learn to swim.”

James tightened his arm around Tony like a vice.

Tony pretended to choke.

“Help, Cap. I’m being strangled by a sloth.”

“A what?” but before Tony could explain what a sloth was, Stefen had moved behind Ian and gently scooped him up from under the arms. The boy stiffened unsure of what was happening and Tony watched nervously, unsure either.

“Well done, Ian. Do you want to learn to float now?” Stefen murmured lowly, one arm rested around Ian's stomach holding him to his chest. “When you're tired it's a good way to rest without having to leave the water.”

Ian looked up at him still nervous but curious now and Stefen lifted a brow, the corner of his mouth turning up in a small but genuine smile.

Ian nodded his agreement, the tension leaving his body like a breath of air as he reminded them all, “I’m not done yet.”

Stefen chuckled lowly.

“No, never. Lean your head back on my shoulder” he instructed, drawing them out a little further into the lake. Ian did so, swishing himself into a plank as Stefen supported his lower body.

And slowly Ian began to float, his body relaxing into his fathers with trust as Stefen captained his drifting.

They were a picture. With their faces so close it was hard not for Tony to map out their similarities, brain putting angles and distances in categories.

The curves of Ian’s boyish face technically favored his mother, and normally Tony lived by the numbers, but watching him now – that soft trusting look in the blue of his eyes, the way they roamed over his father’s face as if he was memorizing every last inch the same way Tony was, before shutting them, his spiky eyelashes fanning out over his cheeks – Tony could not deny the true resemblance. Ian was his father’s son. For better and for worse.

 

~*~*~

 

Floating in Steve’s arms Ian closed his eyes. The next step was to push his head away until Ian was in front of him and was floating on his own. But Steve found himself lingering.

He brushed a stray strand of hair out of his son's eyes and let his head rest against Ian’s.

He couldn’t bring himself to let go.

He glanced up, looking for Stark and found him retreating back to the shore with James, his head bent close with the boys and saying something too low for Steve to make out.

Steve couldn't bring himself to peak any interest in following them. Ian had gone soft in his arms and whether that was from trust in the water or trust in Steve’s ability to hold him he didn’t really care.

The need to latch onto it, to hold Ian as tightly as he could, was as fierce as it was unexpected. Under the water his fingers skimmed over the knobs of the boy’s spine, propping him up in the water.

He used to trace his spine like this when he was little, resting on his mother chest. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done it.

There was a smattering of freckles on his back, Stefen remembered, just across his shoulder blades. He used to draw them too, when Ian was a baby – used to sit with his wife, fingers mapping blemishes and tracing the delicate line of his child’s back as he tried to capture the beauty of a moment gone too quickly. Stolen too easily.

Stefen swallowed, throat tight. He wondered if the freckles were still there. He wondered why he didn’t know.

He used to sing to him too. Little diddies remembered from boyhood. Songs in the language of his people and songs picked up in the language of the Croats, the Polish, the Germans, songs he hardly knew the meaning of but understood to be gifts when they’d been imparted with him.

He let a hand ghost over Ian’s chest, sliding over skin that was familiar in sight but so long untouched that it felt new, until he reached the boy’s sides.

Ian gave a tiny giggle at the ticklish touch, holding on to Steve’s forearm with one hand. His eyes still closed in a look of contentment.

So they floated.

He wasn't sure how long they floated because the sun could have risen and set without him noticing.

And then a hand snuck into his blurred line of vision and Steve started. He looked up and right into Starks soft brown eyes.

Stark was watching him, his gaze quiet and intent. Steve felt a shudder run through him.

He felt drugged. Slow and sluggish as he looked back down at his son who had opened his eyes to stare back at him, saying nothing, trusting.

And Stark just kept looking at him with those eyes of his, seeing too much. When he extended his hands Stefen understood what he wanted, but it wasn’t any easier to let go.

“Father?” Ian asked, uncertain, and Stefen tightened his grip. Pleading with Stark silently as if the Angel of Death had appeared on the bank to demand he hand over his son. And he didn’t know how, but he could see it in Stark’s eyes that he understood. He knew.

“Don’t worry. I’ve got him.”

And Stefen could never really be sure after that which of them he was reassuring, Stefen or Ian, but the words washed over him and holding the man’s gaze he gently pushed Ian away, watching as the boy gently drifted into the monks waiting arms.

~*~*~*~~

The sun dipping low in the sky and the rumbling of hungry stomachs was finally enough to convince the Rogers children to abandon the water entirely. Tony was partly grateful for it because after so many hours in the cool water of the lake even his over eager libido had flagged.

He trudged back up to the campsite behind the others, keeping an eye on the rear of the line for any small bodies that might stumble or otherwise deviate from their path, sternly keeping his eyes off of the captain’s rear (even if it was beautifully sculpted and splendidly presented in his soaked trousers).

"I'm hungry." Artur announced upon reaching camp with a halfhearted pout. The expression was wholly unconvincing considering his kingly perch upon his father's wide shoulders and the smile that wouldn't leave his eyes.

"Uh-oh, better catch us some food then." Bakhuizen teased as he passed them, on his way to procure dry clothing. Stefen wasn't the only one blessed with a fine figure Tony noted abstractly.

Pure scientific observation. Anyone would have noticed it, and it wasn't strange at all that Tony wanted to definitively prove his certainty that Stefen's was finer as fact and not preference.

His hands were itching to measure the exact breadth of those shoulders, compare the ratio from shoulder to waist- let his hands touch all that wet sun bronzed skin and memorize every last inch of it.

Good lord. Tony snorted quietly under his breath as he rooted around in his bags for his spare set of clothes.

He wasn't even fooling himself anymore. He'd been celibate too long if something as simple as going for a swim with another man was getting him this worked up.

Tony walked just beyond the ring of trees encircling their campsite in search of privacy and a moment to himself.

Then, clothing changed and wet things hung to dry Tony wandered back to the camp and busied himself going through the rest of the supplies in order to begin the prep for supper, doing his best to drown the others out.

He needed to get a handle on himself, and quickly at that.

"Well what am I supposed to catch?" Artur was squinting at his uncle with disbelief. "I’ve never caught food."

"Well that's a shame," Bakhuizen scoffed. "Your Da and I were catching rabbits when we were smaller than you. Hey Stark, did Willamina pack us any vegetables? "

"Is she Austrian?" Tony replied without turning around. "Turnips, onions, carrots. We won’t go hungry."

"What do you think Buck, rabbit stew?" Tony was surprised to hear Stefen offer. He couldn’t resist turning slightly to look back at the captain with a raised brow.

"Not that I doubt your hunting abilities, but Willaminia did provide us with enough for a decent meal. We're not quite reduced to scavenging in the brush."

"I'd like to hunt rabbits. I think it sounds fun." Said Natacha, from over by the pit that Bakhuizen had dug for the fire. She was still patting her hair dry but looked up long enough to smirk in Tony's direction. "You never know when such a skill might come in handy."

"Tacha’s right!" Bakhuizen clapped his hands together eagerly. "James, stop teasing Ian and come help me look for twigs for the snares."

"Snares?" James abandoned what looked like a game of keep away (wherein the thing being kept away was his person, which Ian was attempting to wrap in a soft towel) to scamper to his uncle's side. Ian bit his lip, looking troubled and his eyes sought Tony's beseechingly.

"He gets sick easily," the boy explained softly. His grip on the towel was tight.

"James, let Ian dry you off first." Tony called out, ignoring James responding groan. Casting a stern glance over each of the others he added, "That goes for the lot of you. You'll catch your deaths running off in wet underthings."

"But Tony," James dragged out Tony's name in a whine long enough to almost make Tony regret giving it to him.

"James." Stefen rebuked and the reprimand from his father was enough to have the boy snapping his mouth shut, allowing Ian to rub the towel over him. Tony hid a snigger at the dark glower he cast in Ian’s direction. After a moment he pushed his older brother away with a whine and Ian rolled his eyes.

"Your Da ever warn you about sour faces?" Bakhuizen teased, ruffling the James semi-dry hair, leaving it in spikes. "Come on, we're going to need to get those snares in if we want to eat before sunrise."

~*~*~*~*~

Tony looked up from his bowl of chopped vegetables as Stefen returned with the hunting party, their feet crashing over sticks and bramble, the sound of their laughter and chatter carrying through the air long before they appeared.

"How fares our mighty hunters?" Tony asked, poking at the fire. Artur zoomed to his side, Maria in tow, his cheeks flushed pink with exertion as he eagerly recounted the events of their excursion.

"Uncle Bucky caught a rabbit Tony! Only, he broke it's neck and Maria’s crying." Artur looked only half as guilty about this as he seemed to think he should, the gleam of excitement still in his eyes even as he shifted his weight bashfully and cast worried looks in his sister’s direction.

"Did he now?" Tony asked as Maria clamped onto his side. Tony picked her up wordlessly, looking toward her father who suspiciously couldn't seem to meet Tony's eyes just then. "Well I imagine that Uncle Bucky didn't want Herr Rabbit to be in any more pain than he already was."

"He didn't even ask, he just killed him Tony! And he's going to cook him!" Maria sniffled into Tony's neck, glaring balefully in Bucky's direction. The man had a pair of mountain hares slung over one shoulder, but he at least had the sense to hang back until Tony had carried the girl away from the fire before he began the process of skinning them.

"Maria, sweetheart, what did you think rabbit stew was made out of?" Bakhuizen pleaded at their backs, but the little girl just glared hatefully and turned her pretty little nose up. Tony bit back a chuckle.

"Obviously not bunny rabbits. Why don't you and I make sure we’ve got enough wood bambina while your Uncle Bucky gets the meat prepared?"

"He won't cook Herr Rabbit?"

"Hmm." Tony hummed, deciding not to lie to her. "He just might. But I promise you won't have to eat any if you don't want to."

Maria's face crumpled as tears began to slide down her cheeks anew and Tony sighed. He caught Stefen looking at them, and the captain quickly jerked his eyes away. Tightening his lips Tony strode toward him.

"Better yet, bambina, why don't you just lay your head here on your Father's shoulder and have a good cry." Tony could have laughed at the alarmed expression that leapt onto the captain's face as he deposited the crying child into his arms.

Stefen held her stiffly but Maria didn’t seem to care, after only a moments hesitance she wrapped her arms tightly around his neck and did indeed seem content to lay her head against his shoulder, silent tears trickling down her cheeks only interrupted by the occasional sniffle.

Tony smiled, rubbing her small back gently with a hum of satisfaction.

“Is she… I mean will she be alright?” Stefen asked in a hushed tone, tense as if he feared the girl might explode and Tony rolled his eyes.

“She’s going to be fine. Sometimes all you need is a good cry.”

One crisis averted Tony went back to their supply box to fetch the cooking pot. He sent Péter down to the lake to fill it with water while he resumed his work peeling and chopping vegetables (a rudimentary task made difficult by the lack of proper work space) listening with half an ear as Bakhuizen explained skinning rabbits to his eager audience.

As he worked his eyes kept drifting back toward the captain standing aways off with Maria. He seemed to grow more comfortable the longer he held her. One broad hand stroked her back with betraying tenderness as he spoke quietly to her, the words unintelligible from Tony's seat by the fire.

The sun was setting by the time the pot had reached a steady boil. Tony tossed the spiced meat and vegetables into its roiling depths and closed the lid confident that if not the fanciest of fare it would do the trick.

There was some time still before it would be ready but the children seemed happy enough snacking on the raw vegetables and fruits that Willamina had packed for them, and Stefen had surprised them all by cracking open the tin of small cakes Artur had been eyeing despite the fact that it would spoil their supper. Tony suspected that it had something to do with Maria's watery eyes and pouting lips, but far be it for him to suggest that Captain Rogers could succumb to the wiles of a girl no older than five.

The mood around the fire as the evening progressed was relaxed. When the food was ready Tony dished up steaming bowls for everyone, proclaiming it was an old recipe of his mother's. It wasn't (Tony's mother had probably never touched wild hare in her life) but he knew Stefen would eat it if he said it was.

Stefen gave him a suspicious look and Tony grinned because he'd always liked clever people. Not that it mattered. Stefen was too polite to risk offending his memories.

He was more relaxed than Tony had ever seen him as Bakhuizen played his violin for them while they ate, telling jokes and stories from their boyhood. Bakhuizen had an easy charm and a somewhat sharp wit that he seemed more than happy to poke Stefen with at any given opportunity and Tony found himself enjoying it.

While the man's scrutiny and frosty reception where Tony himself was concerned wasn't always pleasant, Bakhuizen cared so deeply about Stefen it was evident in almost everything he did.

It didn't take a genius to see how two boys largely left to their own devices in this big cold world had forged such a strong bond. They'd been forged together, become together, and there was something very enthralling about sitting next to the warm glow of the fire listening to their old stories, wrapped up in their warm familiarity.

"… And so the officer looks down at your Da's papers and says 'Eighteen. Who can vouch for you?! You're ten if you're a day. Have you even been with a woman yet?' And your Da just looks right at him, real serious and says, 'Three of them. And if you go talk to the Enns sisters down at the inn they'll vouch for me quick'. " Bakhuizen finished with a laugh and Péter and Ian dissolved into snickers over the story. The younger children laughed along, though Tony got the impression they were just happy to join in with the general feeling of merriment and couldn't perhaps appreciate all of the humor of the story.

Natacha looked less than impressed as she shook her head at Bakhuizen disapprovingly, a soft smile tugging at her lips.

"Did the Enns Sisters really vouch for you, Father?" She asked with an arched red brow and Stefen chuckled, looking somewhat exasperated himself as he nodded.

"Yes. They were quite fond of me, though not for the reason Bucky likes to imply."

"They were sweet on you Stefen." Bakhuizen winked at him roguishly explaining to their eager audience, "Only reason they let us stay at the inn with no money and fed us up is because they thought your Da was cuter than a button."

"They helped me stuff newspapers in my shoes and Giselle painted stubble on my chin." Stefen drawled and Tony couldn't help but laugh, nearly choking on a swallow of stew. "It was Uncle Bucky that the youngest one, Lara, was sweet on. He told her he was going to come back from the war a hero and marry her."

"What happened?" Tony couldn't help but ask with a slight sneer given Bakhuizen's reputation. "Young love didn't last?"

Bakhuizen shrugged, something tightening around his eyes.

"I tried looking her up after the war, but the inn was destroyed by then, hit in a bombing. Nobody could tell me much more beyond that. Probably married with a couple of babies somewhere." He shrugged once more but Tony got the feeling there was more he hadn't said. He did not know what it was... but he didn't believe that Lara Enns was anywhere or anything but dead.

"What was that song you used to sing for her?" Stefen asked, something soft but firm in his tone piercing the suddenly strained quiet. Bakhuizen looked up, and for a moment the two shared another of their private looks before he answered.

"About the edelweiss?"

Stefen nodded and to Artur who was sitting in his lap, craning his neck to peer up at him he murmured, "Your uncle Bucky will never admit it but he's a romantic. Always picking flowers and singing for pretty girls."

Bakhuizen glowered and rolled his eyes but there wasn't much heat behind it.

"Just because some of us know a thing or two about how to treat a woman doesn't make us hopeless or romantics. Your Da's just jealous because he was all thumbs and left feet when he was wooing your mother. It was painful to watch. You really should have been there."

"I imagine we were trying to be." Péter smirked with a knowing leer and Stefen gave him a warning look as Artur wrinkled his brow.

"Where were we? Was I supposed to be there?"

Oh boy. Tony was just in the middle of choking down another bite of stew as he failed to master eating and laughing at the same time when Natacha thankfully jumped in to save the conversation.

"Stupid." Tony heard her mutter under her breath before she leaned down to fetch Bakhuizen's violin from where he'd rested it near his feet. "Will you teach it to us uncle James?"

Tony blinked, surprised to be reminded that the man actually had a name other than Bucky and Bakhuizen looked just as momentarily startled as he was. There was something very refined about her in that moment but equally young for it. A sweetness that made it hard not to feel shamefaced at their crass humor. Tony thought that if he squinted, the layers of time would peel away and he could see the woman that Margrit Rogers had been as clearly as he could see the woman that Natacha Rogers would be, and it was as lovely a vision as it was frightening.

As Bakhuizen took the violin from her and once more began to fill the air with the sound of strings, not for the first time Tony wondered how a father alone was supposed to help a girl flower into womanhood and not feel completely out of his depth. He did not envy Stefen that task.

~*~*~

As the last song finished and the children’s voice began to fade with the telltale strain of exhaustion, a full days use catching up with them, Stefen clapped and stood commanding their attention.

“Time for bed” he announced to several groans of protests. In Tony’s arms Maria just blinked with a tired yawn, watching to see what events might play out and he smiled, standing with some difficulty.

“You heard the Cap. We have our marching orders. Into your night clothes now.”

“But what about the wildcats?” Artur asked nervously, and Tony couldn’t tell whether the boy was anxious to meet one or frightened. Given that it was dark and Artur was only seven, it was likely both. “Won’t they come out at night?”

“They don’t like fire; Father will keep the fire up while we sleep. Won’t you Father?” Ian murmured, reaching to unfasten Artur’s suspenders at his father’s nod of agreement. Artur accepted the help far more gracefully than James would have and there was relatively little fuss altogether as the children began their preparations for bed.

Tony kept a watchful eye on them while the captain and Bakhuizen went to gather more wood to get them through the night. By some miracle clothes were folded and set aside for morning, teeth were cleaned, and seven bodies secured under sleeping rolls by the time that Stefen and Bakhuizen returned to feed the fire.

“Father,” a small voice called out form one of the sleeping rolls, but over the crackling of the fire it was hard for Tony to distinguish which one. Stefen looked up and Ian squirmed in his sleeping bag until he was laying on his stomach, elbows propped up upon the ground. “Would you read to us?”

Tony watched as the captain paused like a deer caught in the lights of a moving car, and waited to hear what he would say.

“I don’t have a book…” Stefen hedged and Tony rolled his eyes, grateful that the captain was preoccupied with looking at the children. Thankfully Bakhuizen wasn’t keen on letting him off the hook that easily.

“But we know plenty of stories by heart.” The brunette said, clapping Stefen upon the shoulder and ignoring his glare as he said to the children, “Your Baka was one of the best story tellers in the- ”

“Village.” Tony’s eyebrows raised as Stefen cut the man off with a hard stare. “And that was a long time ago Buck.”

“Don’t you remember any?” Maria asked sadly, her dark hair poking out from the sleeping bag she shared with Artur. It was quiet for a long moment.

“I remember one.” Stefen finally answered.

“How does it go?” Natacha asked softly, blinking blue eyes sleepily. Though Tony had the strange feeling that the show of soft sleepiness was more for her father’s benefit than anything else.

It seemed to work because after another long moment and a hard swallow, to Tony’s surprise and the children’s delight Stefen took his seat next to the fire and cleared his throat, nervously beginning the tale.

“Well, I don’t think I’ve ever told you about ‘The Merciful Boy’. Once upon a time there was a boy, not much older than Artur is…”

Artur beamed at this prospect and Stefen looked somewhat taken back. Tony smiled. Stefen cleared his throat and began again with more confidence.

“The boy’s father was a shepherd and had many sheep in his care, which meant the boy and his mother lived very comfortably. But one day the father died… as sometimes happens, and the boy and his mother were left alone. Life became very difficult for them, and even though they both worked very hard they became poor and often very hungry.”

“Poor boy,” Maria murmured softly and Stefen nodded.

“Yes. But the boy was good and clever. He kept thinking up ways to try and improve their situation. Every day he’d go into the forest to chop firewood to sell, all day he’d work, but they still did not always have enough to eat or money to get by. The boy missed his father and the good life they once had. Until one day he thought ‘I am my father’s son’.

“So he asked his mother to borrow 100 coins so that he could purchase a lamb. He would raise it, breed it and one day become as great a shepherd as his father. At first his mother did not like this idea, she did not wish to go into debt, but the boy pleaded and pleaded until finally she relented and borrowed the money they needed.

“They boy took the money and journeyed to the fair where one could buy sheep, but as he was walking he encountered a crossroads. At this crossroad was a group of children, some just like him, some a bit older. They had caught a baby snake and they were torturing it with a stick.

“The boy pleaded with them to stop tormenting the baby snake, and though he must have been very frightened, he offered them a deal. ‘If you give me the snake I will give you all the money I have’. When they found out he had a 100 coins they were eager to make the deal.

“When the boy returned home with the snake and told his mother what he had done she was not angry, she was proud that he was not cruel like those other children and brave enough to stand up to them. They put the snake in a jar and fed it whatever they ate, though they had little to spare and the snake grew and grew until it out grew its jar. So they put it in a barrel but soon it outgrew even that. So they let it roam the house but soon it outgrew even that, and the boy realized that the baby snake had grown into a fearsome dragon.”

The children gasped enraptured.

“Did it eat him?” Artur asked between his fingers and Stefen chuckled.

“No. The boy saved his life. The dragon wouldn’t hurt him.” Ian insisted, glancing uncertainly back at his father. “Right?”

“Quite right. When the dragon was as big as the house itself it said to the boy ‘You took mercy on me. You saved me and fed me when I was smaller and weaker than even you; but I am big now, and I must go home.’ But the boy was sad to lose his friend, and did not know where the dragon’s home was to take him there. ‘Climb on my back and I’ll fly you over there’ the dragon said.

“So, the boy did and they flew across mountains and valleys, until they reached a place where a large fire was visible on the horizon. The dragon shared with the boy that his parents could be found at the large fire. The boy was to go to them and tell them that he knew where their long lost son was. But whatever they did and however they threatened him, he must not tell them where to find their son until the father dragon relinquished the magic stone he kept under his tongue.”

“Or they’d eat him!” Artur demanded once more, mouth dropping open and Stefen laughed, the sound rumbling deep in his chest.

“Worse. They’d probably burn him to a crisp.” Bakhuizen answered with a wink.

“What happened next?” Péter, irritated with all the interruptions, demanded to know.

“The boy went to the dragon’s parents and told them that he knew where their son was, but he would not tell them until they give him the magic stone. The dragons screamed and threatened him, spewing great columns of fire, but the boy kept silent. Finally, the father dragon agreed and gave him the magic stone he kept under his tongue.

“The boy’s dragon friend came out of hiding then and the family of dragons was reunited. They lived happily for many years after that. Once home, the boy told his mother all about his adventure and after a while they grew hungry. But they were poorer now than they had ever been and when they looked around there was nothing left to eat.

“But something magical happened then. The magic stone heard them say that they were hungry and began to glow, suddenly the table was filled with pots and pans containing every delicious food you can imagine. And from that day forward whatever the boy and his mother needed, the magic stone would give it to them.”

Stefen took a small breath and Tony waited, wondering at the strange sense of hesitancy that had returned to the captain’s manner. The children were instinctively quiet. Despite the story’s clear conclusion, they did not make a sound.

“I was there, I ate and drank with them, so I know it to be true.” Stefen murmured the words so quietly that Tony doubted anyone but himself and Bakhuizen could have heard him. He frowned, wanting to insist that a story fanciful enough to include dragons could not possibly be true, but he bit his tongue.

The words Stefen had uttered felt like a ritual and there was something intensely private about the way that he and Bakhuizen looked at one another when their eyes met.

He felt a pang of jealousy at the silent communication passing between the two men, at the lifetime of knowledge and shared memories behind such a look; because there was no one left whom he could share such an intimacy with. He gritted his teeth and grabbed a stick to poke the fire, wishing the feeling away with flying embers.

“Father.” He was almost glad when James, who had sat up in his sleeping bag to stare intently at his father, who finally broke gaze with Bakhuizen and grunted in acknowledgment.

“When Tony took us to town we saw these boys beating an old man.”

Tony’s heart dropped down somewhere into his stomach, his whole body going still as the fire crackled and popped and the silence that came over the campsite broiled thickly with tension. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Natacha slowly sit up and could feel the heat of her glare in her little brother’s direction. But for once James only seemed to have eyes for his father, his jaw set stubbornly, blue eyes meeting blue without flinching.

“You did?” Stefen asked slowly, face deceptively blank. Tony could read the mounting anger in every stiff line of his body.

“Yes. He was a Jew. He was supposed to clean up the streets but he wasn’t any good at it. He made those boys mad so they punished him. They made him bleed.” James licked his lips as he furrowed his brow in deep concentration, staring hard at his father. “Is he like the snake in that story? The one those boys were bullying. Should we have stopped them?”

There was a roaring in Tony’s ears that had nothing to do with the fire. He was struck by the urge to cover his ears, the desire to turn his back and simply walk away before he could hear the captains answer so strong his whole body twitched.

It would hurt too deeply, he realized, to hear Stefen hum and haw and step over the question; or worse to hear him say that those boys had been justified in their actions. That such brutality could be excused when it came to the Jews.

He clenched his fingers tightly around the stick he still held, the wood creaking dangerously. They were just words. No better than Tony should expect from a Nazi officer. But he didn’t think he could handle hearing them and he wondered when he’d been so stupid as to start falling for Captain Rogers.

Nobody spoke but Tony could see Péter sitting up now, staring as intently at his father as he imagined everyone else was. Waiting.

“Yes.” Tony jumped at the sound of Stefen’s voice, his heart hammering as he turned his head, eyes flying to look in Stefen’s direction only to find those too earnest eyes of his waiting. “Those boys in the story tortured the snake because it made them feel bigger. And there are people, even grown up ones, who will tell you that’s okay, but it’s not.”

Tony took a shuddered breath, unable to quite believe his own ears and unable to pry his eyes away from Stefen’s as the captain, pale even in the fires glow, swallowed thickly.

"Even if it's their job?" Péter challenged, a hard edge to his tone that made Tony wince, suddenly terrified of the consequences behind all their words. As if he expected the S.S. to come pouring out of the trees.

“Even then.” Stefen answered, firmness in each syllable. “And like the mother in that story, I’d be proud to have children who were kind and brave and stood up against cruelty.”

James was nodding slowly, looking equally chagrined and thoughtful as he lowered himself back into his sleeping bag. Some instinct drew Tony to the movement in the corner of his eye. He turned just in time to see Natacha sinking back down into her own sleeping bag, a flash of red hair and wounded eyes before she curled up and turned away from them.

~**~

Bakhuizen played his violin as the children drifted off to sleep, the sweet lilting notes a pleasant companion after the somber turn the evening had taken. Tony had gotten up after he’d begun to play, needing to breathe. He’d walked into the trees a ways until he was close enough to see the glint of moonlight on the lake.

What a day. He sighed tipping his head back to stare up at the expanse of stars in a velvet black sky.

“Stark.”

This time Stefen’s voice did not startle him. Some part of Tony had expected it. He opened his eyes slowly but did not turn. The ground crunched as Stefen approached, coming to stand beside him, the distant glow of the fire at their backs.

He knew why Stefen would feel the need to seek him out. The math was simple. By now Tony had witnessed enough to do the man serious harm if he wanted, never mind his suspicions about his activities. Stefen had injured him in an episode that any doctor would have classified as mentally imbalanced and he’d just outright called the actions of the HJ and the Reich senseless and cruel.

Tony could hang the man with a phone call. For a dark moment he wondered if he shouldn’t worry about the gun he knew Stefen carried. His mouth twisted in a bitter smile. Wouldn’t that just be ironic? Losing his life to a jumpy rebel too morally upright to just tell his children too quiet down now and go to sleep.

Tony turned to look at him, considering him quietly as they stood nearly shoulder to shoulder, neither of them speaking.

The thing was… Stefen had risked saying such a thing in front of him. He’d known the consequences. Which meant he either had decided he did not care… or he had consciously decided to trust that Tony would not tell. And he knew he shouldn’t put his faith in such naïve hopes (no doubt brought on by his treacherously fluttering heart) but he could not forget a moment not unlike this one, when Stefen had been equally vulnerable and still willing to accept Tony’s forgiveness. Stefen had trusted him then and he was trusting him now.

“Captain?”

Stefen turned, abandoning his thousand-yard stare at the lake to meet Tony’s eyes once more.

“Why didn’t you tell me about what happened in the market that day?” Stefen asked, only a hint of his early anger present. Tony arched his brows.

“Would you have listened to anything else I said? We wouldn’t be here now.”

And Tony hoped that Stefen could see that where they were was so much better than where they’d come from, and how things could get better for him and the children still.

“I’m their father. I need to know when things like that happen.” Tony nodded, conceding that point and Stefen finished with, “I’ll be cross if you keep something like that from me in the future.”

“Cross? I can hardly imagine it.” Tony murmured with a serious frown. Stefen blinked at him but Tony didn’t break until the man’s shoulders twitched and suddenly a rusty chuckle rumbled from his chest. Tony grinned victoriously.

“Has there been a time where you’ve not been cross with me?”

“When you prepared your mother’s snack for me the other day.” Stefen easily replied, and he seemed a bit surprised at himself. “Though I might have been too hungry to be cross.”

“Ah, so is that where your heart truly lies?” Tony teased. “Through your stomach?”

Stefen shrugged, grin fading slightly as Tony stepped closer. He heaved a tired sounding breath.

“I’m not entirely sure where my heart is these days Stark. Or where it should be.”

“I think with your children is a good choice.” Tony offered gently. “What you gave them today is priceless Stefen.” Tony wanted to say so much more than that, but he couldn’t. He hoped Stefen understood.

Stefen paused for a moment, thinking before he slowly shook his head, staring at Tony with something close to wonderment.

“You gave them today Antony. We wouldn’t be here if not for you.”

“Tony.” he heard himself say almost on automatic. He wrinkled his nose. “Nobody calls me Antony.”

Stefen’s lips pulled into a small smile.

“Tony,” he murmured, something intent about it, his gaze narrowing on Tony's face with intense scrutiny as he raised a hand to brush his fingers gently against the swell of Tony's cheek. The touch, so unexpected, felt like fire against his skin.

He couldn't even blame the bruise. The skin under his eye was no longer as tender as it had once been and the bruising had faded to a pale yellow he could easily cover in the morning with powders. He hadn't even thought about the makeup washing off during their swim.

The children hadn't seemed bothered by the reminder of it, thank God for that, but the way Stefen was staring at him now had Tony wanting to reach back. Some latent instinct for self preservation must have stopped him because he just stood there, breath caught in his chest as he waited for Stefen to speak.

"Does it still hurt?" Stefen finally asked, voice low and soft in the dark, and Tony heard the things not said. Did I scar you? Am I as monstrous as I feel?

"Sto bene, Stefen," Tony murmured ardently in reply with a dry swallow. Something about the motion of his throat caught the captain's eye and it wasn’t until he heard the quick intake of his own breath and he saw the faint flush of blood creep up Stefen’s neck, that he realized that the music from Bakhuizen’s violin had gone abruptly quiet.

Tony was leaning into Stefen’s space and for one reason or another the captain hadn’t moved. They were standing close enough for Tony to feel the puff of his breath against the skin of his cheeks and suddenly he had to fight down a blush of his own.

He hastily took a step back, averting his eyes as Stefen turned to look back at the camp where Bakhuizen was putting his violin away, making no secret of his focus on them.

Tony’s heart was beating wildly as Stefen made his goodnights and walked away.

That was entirely too close, Tony thought with a sick feeling in his gut. He needed to have a very serious talk with himself.

Stefen turning out to be not much of a Nazi was all well and good, but deviant was still deviant. You didn’t have to agree with the Reich to despise that sort of thing. There were others in the world out there who shared his perversions but to hope that a man like Captain Rogers was one of them was laughable. <I>Captain Rogers</i>, lion of Austria, a pillow biter? Tony didn't know when he'd gotten so pathetically desperate.

He took a deep breath, trying to clear his head but could not ignore the dull ache in his chest. A little voice in the back of his mind remembered that tomorrow was Tuesday. Wednesday afternoon Frauline Werner would come to ask all her questions and poke and prod at Natacha to see what disloyalties might come spilling out and Natacha... well Tony knew what he would do, were he a girl in her situation. He no longer even had the strength to be angry about it.

There was just calm now, and the absurd thought that if he really had abandoned all sense and kissed Captain Rogers it would have been a memory worth dying to have.

~*~*~*~

Natacha had been quiet ever since they returned from their camping trip. They'd woken in the morning and uncle James had made them breakfast and though Péter had tried to chat with her Natacha had kept to herself. Eventually he'd given up. They'd gone on a hike as a part of their lessons for the day and Herr Stark had quizzed them on the name of the mountains and the types of things that lived there. Natacha had not volunteered many answers. There was a buzzing in her head, it had started out quiet. Just whispered questions after that story father had told them, but the whispers had grown louder and louder until her head was filled with an angry buzz.

She didn't want to sing, or to know the names of flowers, or to listen to any more of Herr Stark's lectures. She wanted to scream.

He said dangerous things. He said things that people weren't supposed to say unless they were bad (unless they were enemies). He didn't listen. He didn't obey.

All her life she'd been taught the importance of obeying her authorities, and Father more so than most relied on their ability to follow command. He needed to know that they would behave because he couldn't always be there for them, not even when he was in the same room, and he didn't want them to get hurt.

But now, he'd changed. Now he said things just as dangerous as Herr Stark did and it didn't make any sense!

Tony had gotten hurt. It made something in Natacha's stomach twist unpleasantly every time she looked at those bruises on his face and neck, and it just made that anger inside her burn hotter.

It wasn't Father's fault. He hadn't meant to hurt anyone. It was just that Tony never listened!

Because he was dangerous, a small voice whispered in Natacha's mind. He was an enemy. He had secrets.

She was very good at keeping her thoughts to herself so no one noticed how bad she felt, not even Péter.

By the time they'd finally packed up, left camp and rowed their boats across the lake and returned home she'd been so tired she just wanted to fall into her bed and sleep for a hundred years like Briar Rose but Father had touched her elbow and pulled her aside.

He wanted to have a word with her alone and Natacha knew what that meant.

After supper was had and in those few hours of leisure before bed Natacha quietly made her way to her father's study. She knocked on the door and when he invited her in she slipped inside, shutting the door quietly behind her.

She sat in the chair across from his desk without saying a word and waited.

“I wanted to speak with you before your visit with Frauline Werner tomorrow. It means a great deal for the future of this family." He began and Natacha narrowed her eyes.

"I know Father." He already knew she knew that.

"Frauline Werner is not just here to question whether you are fit to become a group leader in the BDM, she is here to question the loyalty of this house and everyone in it. And where they find fault they will act." He asked slowly, "Do you understand?”

Natacha stared at him, watching the way he formed each word. He was direct because Father was always direct. Mother had said it was the soldier in him. She'd said he couldn’t always leave the captain at the door. Back then she’d said they could help him by not banging about and making loud or sudden noises and by giving him extra long hugs. She remembered liking that, believing with a little girl’s selfishness that she was actually helping her father with the simple act of wrapping her arms around him at any given opportunity.

Silly.

But now she knew better. She knew how to help Frau Hogan run the house, how to keep the little ones clean and well behaved, how to make sure that her father’s coffee was always delivered just as he liked, how to sneak into his study in order to make sure that he hadn’t fallen asleep at his desk again or passed out on the couch that bothered his back.

She’d guided him to bed many nights and most of them he barely seemed to recognize where he was, let alone who she was.

When he got like that sometimes he even called her Peggy. Natacha didn’t mind.

She knew he missed mama. Knew he wasn’t right without her. And Mama had known that he wouldn’t be.

She’d asked Natacha to look out for him and she would!

She would make sure everything was taken care of. She’d thought she’d been doing a good job of it too until he’d gone away so long, only to come back different, changed somehow, and saying things he shouldn’t say.

The hurt rose again once more and she stuffed it down because she wasn’t James. She wasn’t going to throw tantrums like a baby, but she wasn’t going to fail him either. She’d protect him even if it had to be from himself.

Swallowing back the jumping nerves in her belly she tightened her fists in her lap and met his stare, the way she’d seen her mother do before Frau Hogan would shoo them away so their parents could ‘have words’.

“Herr Stark gave us permission to question authority.”

Father blinked, looking taken back. A flash of something close to irritation crossing his face before he grunted.

“That sounds like Herr Stark.”

Natacha narrowed her eyes at him, the anger jabbing at her insides.

“You told us that we should take pride in our country, that we should respect the authority of our government. You told me it was my duty as a citizen to honor the law and protect the interests of the people. You said that. You’ve always said that.”

Father’s face fell. He looked sad now but Natacha would not comfort him. She needed to understand first, needed to know what she was supposed to do in order to ensure his wellbeing.

“I did say that.”

“Did you mean it?”

“I meant every word. I’m proud of Austria. I wanted you to be. You should be.”

“We’re not Austrian anymore. We’re German.” Natacha reminded him. “And last night you said what Johann and Bobby did was wrong, that it was cruel and cowardly. You said we shouldn’t let that sort of thing happen again. Did you mean that too?”

“Yes. I did.”

“You can’t mean both.” She hissed, clenching her skirt in her fists tightly. “It’s disloyal. It’s lying. Are you asking me to lie?”

“Yes.”

The bald statement hit her like a slap and for a moment she couldn’t form a single thought, but then…

“Why?” she rasped out and Father sighed, deeply.

“Because they will hurt us if you don’t.”

Natacha felt cold and suddenly very small. Father had never said as much. When they heard stories, rumors of families kicked out of their homes, people arrested and disappearing without word, they were always assured it was only happening to the bad people. People who were against the Reich, or people who were jealous and greedy and out to destroy all that good hardworking Germans had built like the Jews.

Those things didn’t happen to them, couldn’t happen to them because they were on the right side. Herr Stark wasn’t, but he could be fired, he could go away. She could make him go away but it would all be for nothing if Father was himself disloyal.

She was tempted to believe that all of this could be blamed on Herr Stark, that he’d poisoned her Father’s mind somehow (just like the Führer always warned against) but she knew her Father and he’d been afraid and unhappy long before Tony had come to live with them. Natacha had always liked to watch and when you watched you saw things, heard things… and Natacha never forgot anything either.

That was how she knew there was more.

“You mean they’ll arrest you for being disloyal. They’ll take us away from you.” She predicted fearfully, hoping that was all there was to it, that the things that kept her up at night weren’t true. “Then take it back! Tell Ian and the others that you didn’t mean it – ”

“Natacha.”

She snapped her mouth closed, biting back the threat of tears because he sounded ashamed (of her?) and sad, and tortured, and he wasn’t supposed to be any of those things! She was supposed to help him and make him happy, but she’d failed.

Except for yesterday, a little voice niggled at the back of her mind and she furrowed her brow in thought. He’d been happy yesterday with them in the mountains. Happier than she’d seen him in forever.

“Is it because of Grandmother?”

He did not answer her and for Natacha it was answer enough. He had not needed to ask her which grandmother. For some reason, that made Natacha furious again and it was easy to look at him even though she was ashamed of crying.

“Baka. Is it because of her?!”

She’d been as small as Maria when Father had first brought his mother to live with them. Harry used to make fun of the way she talked but Mother had said that was just because the Osborns were stuck up. Baka wasn’t wealthy and she was foreign and people looked down on that sort of thing. But Natacha had always thought there had to be more to it. She wished she was wrong but she knew she wasn’t.

“You weren’t happy when she taught me to dance. You weren’t happy when she tried to tell us stories. I thought you were ashamed of her, like the Osbornes, but that wasn’t it. It was because she was different.”

She wouldn’t say the word. She knew better than most that anybody could be listening (usually it was her) but Father didn’t need her to. She watched as he slowly left his desk, crossing the short distance from his chair to hers to stand beside her. With the anger giving away to cold fear it was too hard to look at him now. She bit her trembling lip and stared at the floor.

He laid his hand over hers and she sniffed back a sob.

“Yes.” His voice was deep and rough like he might start crying too and that terrified her. “I grew up different. I grew up rough and poor and not well treated. I didn’t want that for you. And your mother’s family… they wouldn’t have accepted the marriage if they knew. Your mother was against it, you should know that, but I didn’t want to take her family away. We agreed it was easier for me to just leave that life behind. And now, now it would be very dangerous to tell the truth and I’m sorry. If I had been a better man perhaps we’d be somewhere else, somewhere you would not need to lie or to be afraid. I’m ashamed of that. Not of you. I hope you can forgive me.”

Her eyes flew wildly to his, wondering how he’d known what she’d been thinking. Of course she forgave him. He hadn’t wanted them to live in shame. It had been the only practical decision to make. So why did it hurt? She didn’t know but she also knew it couldn’t be allowed to matter.

Because Frauline Werner mustn’t know. Nobody must know. Those people, her Baka’s people, were on the list. They were enemies of the Reich. They were just like that old man… and Natacha shuddered, unable to stop from picturing her Baka as she’d last seen her.

She shook the vision away. It wasn’t real. Her grandmother was dead along with her mother. It didn’t matter what they’d thought or what they’d wanted. They weren’t here. They weren’t the ones who could get hurt and they couldn’t keep the family from harm. But Natacha could.

“You should have told me before.” She accused, rising from her chair. “I could have made a mistake with Frauline Werner.”

She could have said something wrong. Those kinds of people weren’t allowed to own property, weren’t allowed to serve in the army, they simply weren’t <I>allowed</i> period. Her father could lose everything if people knew. She’d never have forgiven herself if she’d been the one responsible for that happening to her family.

“Natacha…” he reached for her but she backed away.

“May I be excused Father? I have an important morning ahead.”

She had a lot to think about. If she let her father touch her she’d start crying again. He might even hold her like he had when she was little and there was no time for her to be little anymore.

He let his hand fall and nodded wordlessly. She headed for the door only pausing a moment to look back when she’d reached it and pulled it open.

“I forgive you Father. And you don’t need to worry.”

She’d take care of everything.

*~*~*~*

Tony's last morning of freedom dawned bright, but clouded, the sun casting the sky in delicate pink and gold. It promised to be another beautiful summers day. An auspicious beginning for any man's last morning, regardless of its deceptive promises.

Tony soaked it in just the same, grateful for what it was. He doubted he'd see many more sunrises from his prison cell.

He'd not slept the night before, and when the sun had begun it's rise he’d finally given it up as a bad job and thought to go out to the terrace; but halfway there he'd changed his track, heading for the kitchen instead, realizing that this particular morning he did not wish to be alone.

Willamina was up before the rest of the house, already deep in preparations for the morning meal with lunch and supper hardly waiting their turn. She'd been in the middle of an argument with Hammer when Tony arrived, loudly proclaiming that she'd served the Rogers family for going on fifteen years and she'd thank him to remember it.

"Frauline Werner is a very esteemed guest, Willamina, and the Captain is sure to invite her for dinner! Frauline Werner and Frau Rogers were quite close you know." Hammer was insisting.

“I know who she is," Willamina had grumbled in reply and noticing Tony she'd muttered under her breath, "I never liked the woman myself. Terrible snob."

"Frauline Werner is an esteemed member of society and a patriot!" Hammer seethed indignantly, as Tony had busied himself procuring a cup of coffee (Willamina always left a fresh pot on the table for the staff).

"Every last thing must be perfect or it'll be the talk of Salzburg. I trust you'll be dining with the staff this evening, Herr Stark?" Hammer sneered at Tony’s back. Tony had toasted his cup to him with a roll of his eyes, not bothering to dignify that with a reply as he made his way toward the back door. Personally he didn’t think he’d make it to dinner. Frauline Werner sounded like the sort who would hardly wait to get home before reporting a rebel to the police.

"Willamina Did you -" Hammer had turned back to the cook who'd immediately cut him off.

"Put the bread in the oven? Why yes I did." She'd turned to Tony then and grumbled with a good natured wink, "It's a wonder I remembered how to wipe my own ass this morning, the way this one carries on."

Tony smiled fondly at the memory sipping his coffee as he turned from his view of the garden to glance back into the kitchen where Willamina was now scolding a kitchen girl for leaving the bread to toast too long.

"Oh yes, he's a pretty one, but while you're gawking like a ninny the loaves for lunch have gone to ruin. Justin will have both our heads!"

Tony chuckled into his drink, though for the maid's sake he tried to quiet the sound. The girl flushed a vibrant red but wisely scurried to be rid of the ruined loaves and ran into the pantry to fetch the supplies to begin a new batch. Willamina, standing over the stove with hands fisted on curvaceous hips glowered in Tony's direction.

"Yes, it's good for you to laugh. You won't have to listen to Herr Hammer going on for hours about the disrespect we've shown the Reichland by serving overly browned toast."

"That does sound frightful," Tony acknowledged with another laugh just as Pepper bustled into the kitchen.

"If you were a decent man Tony, you'd make good on all that flirting you do and take the poor girl on a proper date." She said as she grabbed two bowels off the table, preparing to take them into the dining room.

"Pepper, my dear, I'm a man of the cloth." Tony placed a hand over his chest in mock offense. "My heart belongs solely to God."

"I sincerely doubt that Stark." a smooth baritone interrupted Willamina's laughter and Tony tensed, straitening up from where he leaned against the doorframe. The jovial mood drained from the room as all eyes turned to meet the captain's as he entered the kitchen.

"Captain," Pepper greeted Stefen with a prim curtsey, Willamina following wordlessly. "Is there something you needed?"

"No, please don't bother yourselves on my account. I just found myself thirsty."

And, Tony thought, likely as unable to sleep as he was, but he stayed silent as Willamina tutted and brought down a glass despite Stefen's protests and poured him a cup from a pitcher on the counter.

"I'm afraid this one's been sitting out for a while, Captain, for me and the maids, but it's fresh." She apologized and Stefen looked uncomfortable and guilty all at once as he nodded shortly in reply.

"That's... quite alright, Willamina. Thank you."

Tony watched in amusement as Stefen took a polite sip and then fidgeted under the scrutiny of the women, before he caught himself, clearing his throat and straightening his spine like the most resolute of soldiers, and stepping toward Tony with purpose.

"Stark." He greeted with a cordial nod and Tony replied with a smirk.

"Captain."

"Would you care to walk with me? In the garden," Steve added as if Tony couldn't have assumed that on his own, and Tony was halfway tempted to tell him no, just to see that flustered blush of his once more, but with Stefen it was just as likely to aggravate and send him on the defensive.

He nodded his agreement and Stefen stiffly gestured for him to go first, so Tony pushed away from the open door and stepped into the back garden, waiting for Stefen to join him.

They walked in silence for a time, eyes idly casting over flower and shrub in a pretense of taking in the fresh air and scenic appeal of the garden, casting the occasional furtive glance at the other.

When Tony caught the corner of the captain's mouth tugging upward as if he might smile, he laughed under his breath. What a pair of geese they must appear. He had no doubt that Pepper and Willamina were spying from the kitchen.

"Herr Weiss did an admirable job with the garden." Tony broke the silence, gesturing to the garden in general, and Stefen startled at the sound of his voice, blinking rapidly for a moment as he gathered his wits for small talk. Tony bit back a smile.

"Yes, Sam has a gift with plants."

"If you don't mind my curiosity, Captain, how did the two of you meet?"

This particular piece to Stefen’s puzzle had been on Tony’s thoughts for weeks now, and on this morning – the last morning – he found little reason not to ask. The captain blinked once more, his lips tightening as he considered whether or not to answer. Tony waited, unusually patient.

"We met during the war.” Stefen said slowly. “We were in separate units to start, but as the war dragged on and numbers dwindled the army deemed it prudent to abandon some of its prejudices." His mouth twisted wryly in something of a pained grimace as he glanced at Tony out of the corner of his eye, as if to judge his response.

"We were better for it. Sam is one of the bravest men I've ever known."

While Tony didn’t doubt Stefen’s sincerity it was impossible also not to note that admired or not, he’d still had Weiss tilling his soil beds.

"And how did he end up working for you?" Tony asked as nonchalantly as he could, careful to keep any accusation out of his tone. Stefen winced anyway, his shoulder’s stiffening, but he still answered and for that Tony was grateful.

"Sam's family came from Deutsch-Ostafrika. His grandfather migrated here from Berlin as a young man.” Stefen explained stiffly. “Though Sam and the rest of his kin were born here in Austria, prejudices being what they are can make finding fair wages difficult. I was happy to help him."

Tony nodded, not needing Stefen to explain further the difficulties for a man like Weiss. Under the Hapsburgs things had not always been good, but the monarchy at least had shown the occasional interest in social reform and man could hope that bit by bit things could get better. The Great War had changed all that and the Reich had destroyed it for good.

Under Nazi law the Afro-Germans had lost whatever forms of citizenship they might have held before and with it their right to employment. Among other things.

"When he said the rest of his family had moved on. Was this recent?” Tony asked, though the pieces were already coming together in his mind. “Because I was under the impression that you had to be a citizen for your travel papers to be valid."

Immigration was not inexpensive. Tony had already summarized that Stefen must have had a hand in Weiss' late exit from the country. But an entire family?

"Money can buy a man a lot of things." Stefen answered cryptically, but Tony didn’t need a straight answer from him. He already knew the truth, and it was… flooring to say the least.

"But not respect. Not really. " Tony murmured, staring at Stefen in such a way that he'd have been blind to miss the real point: that Stefen had earned his. He was sure now that what he’d glimpsed between the two men was nothing short of love. Genuine, tested and unfailing.

"That must have cost you dearly."

"The right thing often does." Stefen twitched, uncomfortable; though whether it was from the praise or the intensity of Tony’s gaze was hard to tell. And then he turned slightly to stare directly at Tony for the first time, something almost nervous in his eyes before he took a breath and soldiered on.

"Stark, I wanted to thank you. Yesterday was... well the children quite enjoyed themselves."

"Only the children? You know Cap there were a few moments there, you almost convinced me you were enjoying yourself too." Tony quipped and the captain’s mouth twitched again. He crossed his arms behind his back in a distinctly military fashion and turned to face the path ahead of them once more.

"Tony, do you always insist on being difficult?" he drawled after a silent moment, and something warm bloomed in Tony’s chest at hearing his name cross the man’s lips once more.

"If I can help it."

A low chuckle rumbled from the captain’s chest and Tony grinned.

They continued to walk, side by side, only this time the quiet of the morning felt comforting. Wonderful, really, if Tony were being honest.

"Do you think the children would enjoy a trip into town today?" Stefen asked after a moment more and Tony’s heart thudded at the unexpected question. Eyes darting to the captain, who kept his gaze trained strictly ahead, Tony searched his expression for some hint that he’d heard correctly. When nothing else came he swallowed.

"Are you still afraid someone will take notice?" Tony asked.

"Yes,” Stefen admitted after a long pause. Then he sighed.

Tony blinked at him. Anxious hope mixing with a wave of such fervent relief it felt a bit like crashing. He’d all but given up hope that he’d made any sort of lasting difference here, but those words… those words were everything.

"Won't Frauline Werner expect to be invited for super, being an old friend of the family? Herr Hammer seems to believe that is the case." Tony reminded him, because there was always a catch (always a boot to drop) when it came to Tony’s personal happiness.

Stefen however, did not appear to even need to think about it, responding with a dry drawl and a mischievous twinkle in his eye that Tony was suddenly aching to see more of, and despairing over the loss (it wasn’t to be).

"I regret that very important business concerning the children’s health has called me away and I am uncertain of when I’ll return."

"That is a shame.” Tony forced cheerfulness through the unexpected tightness in his chest. “Willamina is making Nockerl."

“Well perhaps that business won’t keep us too long.” Stefen returned after a beat. “Artur might be driven to murder if he missed Nockerl.”

Tony barked a laugh, enjoying the quiet accompaniment of Stefen’s chuckles. Tipping his head up toward the sky he breathed in deeply, taking in a lungful of sweet air as he sorted through the strong and sudden urges he felt.

"Captain..." Tony began, but he found once he had started he did not quite know how to finish. Stefen turned to him expectantly and Tony found himself distracted by the gold of his hair as it caught the sunrise. He caught a quick breath and shook his head at himself.

He was hopeless.

"Stefen," Tony began once more, licking dry lips. "It truly has been my pleasure."

It was the closest thing to how he felt that Tony could manage without giving more away than was wise; because no matter how certain he was that Natacha would repeat the things he’d said to the vaunted Frauline Werner there was still always that one percent, and so much of him still that wanted to live.

The words tasted keenly of goodbye, and Stefen didn’t miss it.

He frowned, stopping to look at Tony, eye’s combing over him carefully as if searching for the piece that would put it all together and Tony flinched, unable to keep looking at him.

"We're glad to have you, Herr Stark.” Stefen finally replied, and then quieter, with a telling thread of uncertainty. “You do plan on staying with us?"

Stefen looked so disturbed at the thought of Tony not being there, that it was hard for Tony to ignore his thumping heart of the way that blood wanted to rush to his cheeks.

He pushed it all down, telling himself that of course a man as out of his depth where children were concerned as Stefen would be terrified of losing the help hired to deal with them.

It didn’t stop his damnable heart from overreacting.

With as much of a smile as he could muster, Tony made the only promise he could.

"As long as I am able.”

Chapter Text

Good Father, I’m afraid all of your wisdom has as usual, gone to no good. As predicted I have made a mess of things, though I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that I regret not a moment of my folly. I’m sure you are glad to have washed your hands of me. We once spoke regarding my father’s estate. While I can only be grateful to Herr Stanislov for his careful guardianship these many years, the Lord hath put it upon my heart, in the event of my passing, to bequeath all capital and shares left to me, to His holy church. I doubt this will please poor Herr Stanislov who has been such a friend to us, but we must argue not with the will of God.

-Antony Eduard Stark.

Tony was standing on the front steps along with Natacha and the rest of the household, minus Stefen, the other children, and Bakhuizen, when the sleek black automobile carrying Dörthe Werner rolled through the gate.

Harold was quick to step forward and assist the woman with her door, his expression more somber than Tony had ever seen it. He decided he didn’t like it. He much preferred Hogan’s usual jovial attitude and easy nature.

Frauline Werner was a tall woman, slender with a regal bearing that did nothing to soften the sharpness of her features. It was the coldness of her eyes, their slow almost feline appraisal as they took in the welcoming party standing to greet her, that really put Tony off.

She dropped her keys into Hogan’s outstretched palm without further acknowledging his existence as Hammer stepped forward with chest puffed out and arm raised in salute.

When Pepper and the others silently followed suit Tony gritted his teeth and mimicked the motion, though he refused to say the damn words. He’d already said enough for Natacha to bury him. One more little act of defiance was hardly going to change anything.

Werner appeared occupied by Hammer who grandly welcomed her. When he informed her of the captain’s regrets that he could not be there himself, her lips turned down in a disapproving frown and Tony swore Hammer broke out into a sweat.

“How terribly sad.” She murmured as she came to stand in front of Natacha, something graceful in her motion despite the efficiency of her step. “Seven children, and that all of you should turn out so frail.”

Tony tensed as she reached out to grasp Natacha by the chin, the grip appearing gentle but no less firm for it.

“It’s in the breeding I’m afraid. I did warn Margrit.” she tutted and Tony bristled, biting his tongue to keep from saying any of the hundreds of replies that leaped to mind. She stroked Natacha’s cheek with her thumb, bestowing the kind of fondness one might upon a pet as her lips spread into a wide smile that did nothing to warm her eyes.

“You have her look; we can be thankful for that. The Von Trapps are an old, noble, family. How are your grandparents my dear?”

Natacha answered promptly, voice as level and as emotionless as Tony had ever heard it. Polite as anything.

“They are well Frauline Werner, though we don’t see them often.”

The woman’s golden brown eyebrows arched, a calculating tilt to her mouth, despite the sympathetic hum she made.

“There is no discord between them and your father I hope? They were so very disappointed after Margrit married, but one must carry on and put a good face on things.”

“It’s the distance, Frauline Werner. They’ve retired to their second home. The Swedish air is good for Grandfather’s health.”

“Ah, the chalet.” Werner murmured and Tony thought he saw the first real hint of warmth in her expression. “I summered there a few times as girl, with your mother. Did she ever tell you?”

Natacha nodded wordlessly, and Tony could not tell by her expression whether it was a simple truth or the baldest of lies. No matter. Werner blinked slowly and the moment passed, her expression chilly once more as her gaze turned to the only unfamiliar face in the lineup.

“You must be new to the house.”

Tony’s mother had drilled social niceties too intently into him for Tony’s nod and reply not to come off polite and sincere, but it was a near thing.

“Herr Stark. I tutor the children. We’re glad to receive you Frauline.”

“When they are well enough to attend lessons I imagine you must enjoy your pupils.” The woman clicked her tongue and there was something secretive in her eyes that set Tony’s teeth back on edge.

“Of course.”

“Lovely.” She smiled once more, dismissing him to turn back to Natacha. “I look forward to hearing all about your studies. Shall we go inside?”

*~*~*~*

Frauline Werner asked for a tour. Natacha took her around the villa and listened to all of her old stories about the house and Natacha’s mother. Frauline Werner liked that she listened, that Natacha was impressed by all the grand things that she’d done and the money she had.

Natacha wasn’t. Not really.

When she asked which room in the house was Natacha’s favorite she answered her mother’s room, even though it was her father’s room now and hadn’t felt like just mamas even when she’d been alive.

Frauline Werner tutted softly at her and touched her cheek.

Natacha’s favorite room in the house really, used to be the music room. But they hadn’t been allowed in there after her mother died. She liked her father’s study now. It was quiet and it smelled like him.

Frauline Werner never said her Father’s name. She didn’t even say his title. He was just her ‘father’. She said it with sympathy, like it was something Natacha might be embarrassed by.

She wasn’t. But when Frauline Werner clucked her tongue and simpered that she must miss her mother terribly she agreed.

“Father is a good man…” she said, later when they’d sat down for tear, spreading liptauer over a slice of fresh bread. “I hope I make him proud, but it’s difficult sometimes knowing what to do.”

That was true. But Frauline Werner would never guess how much.

“Of course. You’re a young woman now, and heaven knows that’s not a soldier’s expertise.” Frauline Werner reached out to cover Natacha’s hand with her own, the way mama used to.

She said soldier like the word was dirty and Natacha wondered at the difference between it and the German officers she spoke so highly of.

Father was distinct because he was low born, only Frauline Werner had no clue how dirty his blood actually was.

She must never know. Nobody could.

“Father has so many important matters to worry about as an officer. I don’t want him to have to worry about me, or my brothers and sisters so much.” Natacha said. “I am the woman of the house and now that I am better, he needs my support more than ever, so that he can be free to serve the Reichland.”

Frauline Werner nodded approvingly and Natacha beamed at her.

“You’re a very astute young woman Natacha. I’m sure you’re an asset to him. You’ll make many friends in the BDM, and with the right guidance you’ll be an asset to the Reich, and that is even better.”

Natacha took a bite of her bread. Frauline Werner had called the dish delightfully quaint when Frau Hogan had served them. Natacha loved liptauer.

“How are your studies? Are you up to date with the state curriculum?” Frauline Werner asked taking a delicate sip from her tea cup.

Natacha’s hands began to sweat but she concentrated deeply and they did not shake as she lowered her bread back to her plate.

“Yes. Herr Stark has been very diligent.”

“Yes he seemed a very capable sort. I’m sorry he did not stay longer. Is he really Hughard Stark’s son? How delightfully curious. He must have been very young when he chose the cloth, for no one to have heard a peep about him in all this time. A strange choice for the heir to a fortune.” Frauline Werner hummed thoughtfully.

“Perhaps he is devout?” Natacha suggested the obvious and Frauline Werner’s lips curled in a grin very close to a sneer.

“Perhaps he is just eccentric. And that, my dear, is dangerous. There are many men who are crying their devotion to the will of God even as they betray the Führer, His chosen leader. The Führer is forced to weed them out of the church, revealing them for the charlatans and traitors that they really are. It’s a terrible business.”

Natacha said nothing. Frauline Werner’s gaze narrowed on her and Natacha stilled.

“Do you trust that Herr Stark is truly as devoted to God as his vows would suggest?”

Natacha took a deep breath.

She thought about Herr Stark and all of the dangerous things that he had said and she thought about her Baka and dancing in the music room. She thought about watching her mother getting paler and paler in the bed, and her promise to take care of her father.

She thought about her father; saw him holding Ian afloat in the water, lifting Artur up onto his shoulders. Saw him walking in the garden with Herr Stark.

She thought about secrets that must be kept at all cost, and the sacrifices that must be made to keep them safe.

*~*~*~*

“… so, since U-235 is far more potent than U-238. We’d have to isolate it and frankly progress in the area of isolating these kinds of isotopes is still very new.” Tony explained. The bed was littered with open books, papers and charts which had finally arrived from the abbey, curtesy of Bruce. Péter scribbled furiously in the journal on his lap, his face screwed up in thought.

Tony was happy to see Péter so involved in the lesson, truly challenged in a way that he couldn’t be when they had his younger siblings to consider.

Péter had declined to go on the outing into town to everyone’s surprise but Tony’s, choosing to hide in his room until Tony could excuse himself from the stifling interview with Frauline Werner.

It was wonderful that Stefen was putting more of an effort into being there for his children, but Péter was at an age that saw much, forgot little, and was particularly good at holding grudges. He wasn’t happy with his father and even after what had turned out to be a wonderful trip (perhaps even because of it) those feelings unresolved, had few ways but to manifest in bouts of rebellion.

Tony had his own fractured relationship with his father as prime example.

He didn’t envy the uphill climb that Stefen had ahead of him, as far as Péter went, he just hoped Stefen had the strength to stick it out. The reward would be worth it.

The fortuitous arrival of the deliveryman and an afternoon to themselves had seemed like an opportune time for Tony to make good on his promise of lessons in chemistry, and truth be told it gave Tony a reason to keep himself locked away out of sight while Werner carried out the rest of her visit.

If he was to be carted away by the police in a few hours he could think of few better ways to spend his last free moments than in scientific discovery with another sharp mind.

“Has it ever been done?” Péter asked, a hungry edge to the gleam in his eye and Tony grinned.

“No, Beams has gotten the closest I’ve heard of, but you can bet there are plenty of other scientists who are trying.”

“Have you ever tried?”

Tony hesitated for a moment but figured there was no harm in telling Péter the truth.

“Like I said, I never loved chemistry so much as I loved machinery and I didn’t have the right tools or the means of creating them to do the job right.” Tony sighed wistfully. “What I wouldn’t do for a proper lab and my best shot at it though.”

“Why, what’s so special about it?” Péter asked curiously and Tony tapped one finger against the page of his personal journal, laying open in his own lap, where he’d detailed notes on the atomic makeup of uranium.

“It’s in the math Pete. The fission of one atom of uranium two-thirty-five would generate how much energy?”

“Two-hundred-fifteen MEV.” Péter calculated correctly and Tony’s grin only widened with delight as the boy’s mouth fell open in awe. “Tony that’s… that kind of energy could – ”

“Light up whole cities for years. A reactor with that kind of energy output could change the face of the planet. Think about what we could do with that!”

A troubled frown creased the boy’s brow.

“I am. Tony, weaponized energy like that could destroy a city.”

“It could also mean the end of cold and a monumental leap forward for industry, not to mention medical research. This would advance society in ways we previously could never have imagined.” Tony insisted passionately.

“I don’t know…” Péter hedged, unconvinced.

Impassioned, Tony fervently turned the pages of the journal, looking for the old familiar diagrams.

“Péter a kitchen knife can either be used to feed the village or slaughter it. You and I, we make the choice daily what to do with it. I want to build a city Péter, not decimate one.”

Finally finding what he was looking for, Tony swiveled the journal around, presenting he pages with something bordering too close to desperation for his comfort.

These diagrams were old. Older than anything else in the journal. A product of insomnia and the lingering taste of night terrors, something Tony often came back to in his most desperate hours when sleep had evaded him too long and the demons of his past encroached too close.

He’d never shown anyone this; but he was certain suddenly that he wanted Péter to see. To know, and maybe one day he’d even do. Somebody should have them, and that somebody was Péter. He knew it.

Péter gingerly took the journal from Tony’s hands, his eyes widening as they slowly took in the sketches, the equations and schematics, his slender hands turning the pages with delicacy. It was impossible, but it did seem as if Péter understood their importance.

Péter turned another page and stopped at the drawing of the tower.

It was designed like the tower buildings Tony had only heard about in America. Bruce thought the idea of them was gaudy and strange, but Tony understood the appeal and the potential of such a design.

The tower standing in the middle of a city of gleaming metal was tall, impenetrable, possibly even imposing, but made elegant by sleek glass. It was a place where light could penetrate every corner, but nothing you didn’t want could get in. In such a place was all the hope in the world: the bitter, poisonous, dregs of the past cast away where they belonged for a brighter future.

A bright light shone from the top, powering the rest of the city. A bright light for everyone. So he was a bit of a romantic. Sue him.

“This is amazing Tony.” Péter breathed out in awe. “Do you really think something like this could ever be real?”

“It will.” Tony promised, swallowing past the lump rising in his throat. “One day we’ll build it.”

Tony could see the wheels turning in the boy’s mind as he considered his words. After a moment Péter nodded, the gleam of excitement returning to his eyes as he slapped his hands against his thighs enthusiastically.

“Why not start now? Between you and I we could build an atomic reactor! We can get the proper tools and together I’m sure we could figure out how to isolate U-235, and if we can’t, well then maybe there’s a way to create our own element. That’s possible right? It has to be possible -”

Tony raised his hand to still the excited flow of thought coming from Péter.

“Hold on a minute. Firstly, yes in theory it is possible to create elements. But we’re no closer to simply creating what we need than we are from pulling them from nature, and while I am all in favor of not letting the fact that no one has done it before stop us, you seem to have forgotten that I receive a small salary which is hardly going to cover the expense of the materials, so money is in fact a huge deterrent.”

“Yes,” Péter scoffed impatiently, “but father could finance us. He has loads of money.”

“Yes.” Tony rolled his eyes. “Your father is certainly a wealthy man and would make a worthy investor in our scientific endeavors, but the first lesson you’ll need to learn on investors is that rich men do not like to part with their money unless there’s something in it for them.”

“But Tony, this could change the world!” Péter whined, sounding so much like James at his most petulant that Tony laughed. “Why wouldn’t he want to help us?”

“Because, believe it or not, this is dangerous work to be undertaking in a schoolroom, and something about his son tinkering around with radioactive materials might make your father nervous. You could grow eight limbs if we weren’t careful.”

“I suppose,” Péter grumbled, face setting with disappointment and Tony clapped a consoling hand upon his shoulder.

“All inventors start small Péter. Let’s focus on something small, like the identification of acids. Something we can show your father and warm him up to the idea of having a scientist for a son.”

There was still something of a disappointed pout on Péter’s face as he accepted the compromise but Tony could hardly blame him, just as eager to chase their line of theory until it became a reality. He agreed with Péter. The boy was uncommonly intelligent in a way that Tony found invigorating. Together they might just have been able to figure out the impossible.

“Alright, but where are we going to find acid in the house?” Péter asked and Tony smiled.

“You’d be surprised. You wait here while I gather what we’ll need for the experiment.” Tony advised him and turned for the door. He paused when he heard Péter call his name, shyly, turning to look back at the boy with a brow arched in question.

“The theory of radioactivity…” Péter wet his lip nervously before looking back up at Tony, and going on with more determination. “Did a woman really do that?”

Tony huffed a quiet laugh.

“Yes, Péter, she did.”

“So, that means it’s not impossible… there’s a chance, isn’t there? I could discover something too?”

Smiling warmly at him Tony lifted his hands in a helpless shrug.

“That’s really for you to determine. But I’d never bet against you.”

Tony departed with a wink, shutting the door to Péter’s bedroom behind him with a quiet click. He went to the kitchen first to fetch the necessary supplies, where Willamina was finishing the preparations for supper and grumbled at him for being in the way until he complimented the delicious smell of her cooking and the equally delightful shape of her figure that fine day. She seemed more cheerful then, even though she shooed him away.

He was on his way to the closets where the maids kept their cleaning supplies when a movement at the corner of his eye caught his attention. He couldn’t say what it was, just a shadow likely, or why a prickle of apprehension went up his spine but Tony got the distinct feeling that something was wrong.

Without questioning the feeling further, he abandoned his quest for acidic materials to investigate, turning the corner just in time to catch Frauline Werner disappearing into the captain’s study, shutting the door with a soft click behind her.

Tony felt a twist of something painful in his chest, reminded suddenly of what the children had let slip about the infamous Frauline Glass when she’d been their governess. Tony had almost forgotten his assumptions that the captain must have been sleeping with the woman, but watching the woman slip into his private quarters when she had no other reason to be there brought it rushing back.

Except… it was difficult for Tony to imagine now, that Stefen would have done such a thing.

Tony knew he would not have opened up to someone that way.

And with that resolve in place it occurred to him to remember that Stefen had taken the other children away for the day and had likely not yet returned, if the quiet of the house was anything to go by.

Which meant that Frauline Werner had lost every available reason to be where she was.

A sane man knowing that Werner had just come from an interview with someone who had likely ratted him out as a rebel, and that Werner was directly tied to the authorities, would have kept his head down.

But genius and sanity weren’t the same thing and Tony wasn’t always sure the later was all it was cracked up to be.

Frauline Werner didn’t jump when he opened the door and cleared his throat, though she did go completely still for the barest of seconds, her hand still tucked into Stefen’s desk drawer.

“Ah, there we are.” She murmured a moment later, withdrawing with a clean sheath of paper and envelope in hand. Turning she flashed triumphant smile. “A house this large you’d think it would be easier to find good paper.”

“You must forgive us for making you go searching.” Tony drawled, not buying it for an instant. “Surely one of the maids could have fetched it for you?”

“Your cook called the girl away to help with supper and I did not wish to be more of a bother. Stefen and I are such old friends, I was sure he wouldn’t mind.” Werner waved away his concern as she marched from the room with an air of business.

“I’m on my way to meet with General Striker and simply must get this in the post before then. The ladies will be so happy to hear that Frauline Rogers is to be joining them. She’s a delightful girl. You must be very proud of your student. She speaks highly of you.”

Tony froze, fear darting through him, but the woman’s polite smile was unreadable. He simply nodded in acknowledgment and followed the woman out to the front door, because he was polite like that.

When he’d closed it behind her Tony stood for a moment with his heart thudding as his mind tore apart every word she’d said and every facial expression he’d observed, looking for some hint as to what was to come.

Once reported, he wondered, how long would it take for the police to come?

A soft sound in the hall behind him made him go stiff once more and he turned only to find Natacha standing there, still in her pristine uniform, the Nazi insignia curled against her breast like a crouching spider.

They simply stared at one another, the seconds crawling by.

Finally, she furrowed her brow looking deep in thought before her blue eyes seemed to focus on him and really acknowledge him.

“We ought to go hiking again soon.” She said slowly. “The little ones need to get used to the outdoors.”

She said it as if it was nothing, as if they were discussing the weather, but the ball of tension that had been sitting coiled in Tony’s gut for hours began to unravel and he had to brace himself against the door because suddenly his knees were weak.

“Are you sure?” he asked past the lump lodged in his throat. “Just for their sakes?”

She shook her head with a look of gravity that Tony thought had no business on the face of a child and said before turning away, “for Father.”

~*~*~*~*~

Dear Captain Rogers,

By order of Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop,

You are commanded to appear at the Parliament building in Vienna on July the 22nd

-

A sharp knock interrupted Steve's concentration and his pencil stilled. He halted as Bucky swept into the study without bothering to wait for a reply, quickly shutting the door behind him. Steve saw that he had an envelope clutched in one hand and could tell by the return of the brisk militant nature of his step that he'd brought news. Bucky might seem more carefree than Steve himself was but Steve knew he could still easily fall back into the role of a soldier, without even realizing it. In it's own way it was comforting to know he wasn't alone in that aspect.

"What's wrong?" He asked without preamble and Bucky withdrew a folded letter from the envelop and tossed it on top of the drawing that Steve was working on.

"His Highness the prince of Norway would like an audience. A private one if you catch my drift."

Steve's heart began to beat with anticipation as he opened the letter, skimming its contents.

the contents of the letter given to me by the incomparable Ms. Van Dyne are most troubling. If the nature of the plans outlined within have any validity or are allowed to come to fruition, I fear for the well being of my country. It is my father's hope that the crown can still call Germany friend and ally, and that we might put to rest these rumors and suspicions that might inhibit such a friendship. It is with great pleasure that we will be received in Vienna by the Foreign Minister at the end of the month. I look forward to making your acquaintance at that time.

It was signed in bold calligraphy ‘Thorson Christian Donald Carlson Blake Axel, Crown Prince of Norway’ and stamped with the royal seal.

Steve nodded, reaching for the discarded letter from Schmidt requesting his attendance at the meetings to be held in honor of the royal visit, all those official as well as social. He handed it to Bucky over his shoulder as he set the letter from the Prince aside and resumed his drawing.

"Why does Schmidt want you to be there?" Bucky asked gruffly a moment later and Steve replied without looking up from his work.

"Thorson asked to be received in Vienna rather than Berlin and they are accommodating his request. He'll be here long enough that he must be entertained and received with all manner of pomp and circumstance."

"And you're their dancing monkey?" Bucky guessed and Steve winced, but nodded.

"I think Frauline Van Dyne instructed him to ask about me."

"Makes sense," Bucky shrugged. "It's not like they haven't pulled this shit before. Phillips had you running around kissing babies after the war to convince their parents to put in with the Social Democrats. Fat lot of good it did."

Steve frowned darkly but found he didn't have much to combat that with. Though he wasn't always comfortable with it, people trusted him. They believed that when he said something was right or good that it must be true.

"We were tearing the country apart. A civil war was the last thing we needed after the great war Buck. I was trying to - " Steve tried but Bucky waved his words away impatiently.

"To help. I know. And you did. But now they want you to do the same for the Reich."

"I won't." Steve swore. "I may have to pretend. At least until the children are secure, but I will not fight for them Bucky."

He'd die first.

Bucky rolled his eyes, as if that should be obvious, and gestured to the drawing on Steve's desk.

"That for the Mag?"

He glanced down at the sketch of a young boy being lowered into the fiery depths of a volcano. In the next panel the boy's mother was pleading with the adventurer Stefen had created to feature as his title character in the series. He nodded.

"It's nearly finished. Captain Adventure has just agreed to rescue little Kurt from Dr. Doom. His mother is very appreciative."

Bucky tensed. He didn't have to read the issue to know what Steve was talking about.

They'd spent the day with the children in the city entertaining them with sights and stories. He'd worried about keeping them entertained with Tony unable to join them but they'd seemed happy enough in the back of the carriage that Steve had paid to drive them around.

It was hard not to be reminded of his boyhood riding with Bucky in the back of the caravan.

They'd stopped at a shop for a late lunch and they'd been halfway through the meal before they'd been approached by Jessika Duerr.

Jessika had seen them out and about and waited for an opportunity to catch Stefen alone. None forthcoming she'd approached them while they ate. While trading introductions and friendly chatter she'd slipped a folded scrap of paper with a telephone number inscribed upon it across the table before she'd made her excuses and departed.

"You sure Captain Adventure can handle that kind of heat?" Bucky asked quietly and Steve looked up from his sketch, where he'd been filling in the brown of Captain Adventure's eyes, attempting to capture the right sense of warmth and intelligence.

"He has his brother with him. They look out for each other."

Bucky just stared at him for a moment, looking unimpressed, and then sighed. He reached over and flicked the side of Steve's ear sharply with his thumb and forefinger and smiled when Steve hissed in annoyance.

"The bell rang for supper so you're late, as usual." Bucky said, saying nothing more of his worries or about the task looming darkly on the horizon.

He did however glance down once more at the stack of sketches Steve had finished with an appraising eye, before fixing Steve with a pointed stare that made him want to fidget like Artur caught sneaking sweets. Thankfully he was better than that.

"What?" Steve asked indignantly.

"Captain Adventure looks familiar," Bucky replied picking up one of the drawings to examine closer. Steve furrowed his brow, considering the artwork once more with new perspective. It took him a moment to realize, and when he did he felt a strange tingle of embarrassment. Even though there was nothing to be embarrassed for.

"Lots of men have dark hair. It's a passing resemblance," he grumbled, snatching the sketch back from Bucky and getting up from his chair.

"Of course," Bucky agreed as he silently watched Steve put away the drawings and lock the codebook in the bottom drawer of his desk.

"Charlotte will be happy you're back in Vienna." Bucky said to his turned back, and to anyone else it would have sounded like simply making conversation. But Steve knew Bucky too well for that.

"I suppose she will." He grunted in reply hopeful that Bucky would just let the matter drop. He wasn’t so lucky.

"I know you don't feel about her the same way you did about Margrit, but she's a good woman. You need a wife Steve."

Steve bristled, an old anger beginning to simmer in his gut as he and Bucky stared off, neither one willing to back down.

Steve had never faired well with women, always finding himself awkward and at a loss in conversation. The comradery of other men came naturally, easily, so he preferred it.

There was nothing wrong with that… had it ended there. But it didn't. He'd known it from those first stirrings at the cusp of manhood. He'd always wondered what Bucky knew. They’d never spoken of it, one didn’t speak about something of this nature, but Bucky knew him better than anyone.

Steve had never felt carnally for him, though he could honestly say he loved Bucky more than he loved himself and it was a feeling amply returned. Maybe Steve could have loved Bucky as a lover once, but it hadn’t happened that way. They had been brothers first and foremost and Steve didn’t need Bucky’s body to have his heart.

It had always been enough, so it was not that Stefen had languished or pined away for the unattainable… it was more that he had been lonely in the knowledge that one day Bucky, the closest person to him, would find someone and Steve would fall behind.

He’d expected to always be an outsider looking in on the happiness of others – while Bucky would go on to build a home and have a gaggle of babies.

But fate was funny. Bucky had lost Lara and Peggy had come along, and she'd paused when other women had kept walking, willing to see beyond Steve’s shortcomings to the man beneath…

And Steve had loved her with everything in him and gotten the life he’d never thought to have. He'd been glad that the old fear that he was incapable of loving a woman had proved to be false. He was capable, but Bucky was right.

He didn't love Charlotte the same way he’d loved Margrit. And as fine a woman as Charlotte was, Steve did not want to spend what was left of his life in what would amount to a pretense.

He hardly needed to, he assured himself with a shake. He had a firm hand on his more wayward desires and what with seven children to his credit it wasn't like he had anything left to prove to anyone.

He was fine with his status of widower. He didn't have to marry ever again; and truth be told the more Stefen thought on the exhausting exercise of finding another woman who could make him feel the way that Peggy had made him feel, the more he just wanted to be alone.

He was fine alone.

Bucky, astute as ever, stepped closer to him, laying a hand on his shoulder and regarding him with a sobering seriousness.

"What happens to the children if something happens to you?"

There was a stab of pain in Stefen's chest at the thought.

No one would be kind to the orphaned children of a traitor.

They could not stay in Austria and he loathed the thought of splitting them up.

If he married Charlotte, a little voice reasoned, they’d have a mother and the protection of her name. They could go with her to the family estate in Switzerland and wait out the war.

A solid strategy only foiled by how distasteful he found the idea. What good would he be to a wife? If by some miracle he survived the war he could hardly imagine what happiness he would bring her chained to half a man with half a mind who couldn’t love her, forced to live under the shadow of his shame.

He just wanted to be left in peace, to close his eyes and not be chased, to drift away on a black river rocked into sleep, no fear of either dreams or waking. It was a terribly selfish desire, but Stefen had never been as good as he tried to be.

But the children… surely for them he would do anything?

He bit his lip, waring with himself.

“Stevie.” Bucky’s soft voice pulled him from his head, the soft light from the lamp seeming suddenly too bright as Stefen blinked away the vestiges of the haze. He wondered how much time he’d lost.

“You with me?” Bucky knew. Bucky always knew.

"Yes.” He cleared the block in his throat. “Yes… I'll think about Charlotte."

"Good." Relieved, Bucky threw an arm around his neck and pulled him close, a grateful smile tugging at his lips as he let their foreheads knock gently together.

"I'll always look out for you, Stefen.” Bucky promised. “End of the line, remember?"

Steve wrapped his arms around him in a bracing hug, suddenly needing to hold on.

Because he did know. He hadn’t forgotten, not even when he’d shut Bucky out. Not really. He’d just been in so much pain, and so selfish with it. He didn’t know how to make up for a slight of that magnitude. There weren’t enough words.

But maybe that was just fine, Stefen thought as Bucky hugged him back. They had never really needed words.

~*~*~

Supper was proving to be as delicious as Willamina had promised. After such an eventful day the children were full of enthusiasm and chatter.

The ebb and flow of their voices around the table was surprisingly pleasant. Steve found himself relaxed in a way that he just hadn't been able to feel in a while. It was hard to relax in the company of others, even loved ones (especially loved ones) when one never knew if today was going to be a 'bad day'.

There was little rhyme or reason to what set Steve off.

Of course it was better to avoid loud sounds and sudden shouts for the obvious reasons, but sometimes those didn't bother him at all while all it took was a word or a certain smell and he'd be back on the battlefield, smoke in his eyes and canons bursting in his ears.

The thought of losing control of his mind like that in public had shame twisting up his insides, but worse was the thought of losing himself and hurting one of his children (again).

It made socializing an exercise of extreme focus, constant conscious control. it was exhausting.

Peggy had possessed such a way about her. A way of making him feel safe even when he was feeble, groaning and sweating in the dark, a way of easing the shame and making him forget what a burden he'd become.

She’d known how to tell the children when it was okay to be loud and when they must be quiet without shattering their innocence and turning their home into a tomb.

He'd tried after she left... but even he could admit that he'd failed so spectacularly that it bordered on criminal.

He owed them so much that he'd never be able to repay.

But...

The house wasn't tomb like now, Steve mused quietly to himself, listening to Ian telling Natacha about the bookstore they'd visited in town and the other scattered bits of conversation floating around the table.

It was very... nice.

The sound of quiet laughter drew his eye down to the other end of the table where Tony had scooted his chair close to Sara's and was helping her cut her food. His gestures were bright and expressive as he spoke to her, babbling about something to do with machines and washing and a need to invent something that could keep up with messy children.

He felt a twinge of jealousy at the ease with which Tony dealt with the children. He never seemed to struggle with what to say like Steve did, or looked like he felt too big in his own body and in danger of going off from one moment to the next.

But his own shortcomings aside Steve was grateful for the man, more grateful than he knew how to express. Maybe that was why his character had taken on Tony's likiness?

And why not. Captain Adventure indeed.

Sure, Stark was odd and frustrating at the best of times (utterly infuriating at the worst) but he was also warm, kind, frighteningly intelligent, and so full of life it was a wonder he didn't shoot off sparks.

Magnetism, Steve decided. The man was magnetic.

And it wasn't just the children Stark had drawn in either. Steve could hardly fail to notice the maids simpering after him, or how Willamina always had an extra pot of coffee set aside for “the staff” in the mornings, or how his ever pragmatic housekeeper answered to that ridiculous pet name he'd given her. Pepper of all things.

But then again, Stefen thought with a wry smile, it had been a long time since he'd let anyone get away with calling him 'Cap', so he might very well be the pot in this situation.

"Sara, bambina, your ridiculous behavior has broken your father. He's smiling at us." he heard Tony say and Steve started, blinking slowly out of a daze to find that Tony was looking back at him now, a teasing grin on his lips.

Sara had what looked like half her meal on her face for no apparent reason other than she was enjoying making Tony work for each bite that made it to her mouth.

Frowning without much heat he scolded his three-year-old to eat properly, because he knew she knew how, and he'd seen that shit eating smirk too often in the mirror to be fooled by the soulful pout that followed.

And wasn't that a sad thing, Steve thought with a wince.

His three-year-old knew better than to make a mess while she ate… or draw more attention to herself than was necessary, because her father found it hard to hear her whines or her cries… or sometimes even to look at her.

Not while knowing that she was stuck with him, never knowing her mother's sure comforting touch.

"Oh good. He's brooding again. I was afraid we'd lost him forever." Tony faux whispered and he heard Sara giggle.

Steve focused on them again just in time to see her chummily shove her spoon in her mouth, smiling right up to her eyes, and Tony still watching him. His smile had gone a bit sad, and far too knowing for Steve's comfort.

He cleared his throat and feeling somewhat left footed made a stab at humor.

"I wouldn't want you to think I was broken beyond repair."

Tony's smile got a little bit brighter.

"Heaven forbid." His eyes dropped to Stefen's full plate and his mouth pulled back into a slight frown. "Wouldn't want you to starve either Cap."

Steve looked back down at his plate. He hadn't eaten much, but he was not all that hungry.

"Father, don't you like your fish?" Ian asked with concern and Steve mustered up a smile and took another bite of the Pike that Willlamina had prepared.

"It's delicious. I just had a lot at lunch today."

"No you didn't."

Steve tensed, surprised by the confidence with which Ian challenged him.

He felt Stark's smug grin from across the table but he looked up to confirm it anyway and grit his teeth, remembering what Natacha had told him about Tony encouraging them to question their authorities.

He'd have to speak to him about that. While he could admit he agreed with the sentiment it was a stupid thing to say to a child, especially in times like these.

"You only ate a few bites of your soup. I watched you." Ian insisted matter of factly.

Steve noticed that the rest of the table had fallen quiet and he could hear Bucky snickering behind his hand. If Peggy hadn't ingrained better table manners in him he might have been tempted to flick his food at him.

"I guess you're right then," he replied stiffly. "I must have been thinking of breakfast."

"You left half your plate at breakfast too." Natacha added dryly and Stefen pinned her with a hard look (because she certainly knew what she was doing) before twisting his face into a smile that felt plastic.

Officially trapped he stabbed another forkful of fish and mulishly began to eat under the watchful gazes of his children.

"Satisfied?" He couldn't help grumbling and Natacha nodded primly, the ghost of a smile tugging at her lips.

The food was tasteless in his mouth and under so many watchful eyes it felt like lumps of wet clay landing in his belly, an unpleasant sensation that he was fearful would result in a desperate need to be ill if he continued.

"Did your Da tell you that I've been working with Janneke Van Dyne?" Bucky announced to the table at large, drawing all eyes to him and Steve sagged in relief.

"The Frauline Van Dyne?" Natacha asked, her eyes widening somewhat in awe. "We've heard her on the radio."

Bucky nodded.

"I've got her and a few of my other groups singing at the palace in Vienna next week for the crown prince of Norway."

Maria's mouth fell open.

"A real prince?" She sighed wistfully, eyes round and dreamlike. "I wish I could sing like Frauline Van Dyne."

"Keep practicing with Stark and one day you'll be better." Turning to Stefen he said, "You aught to let me represent the children. They're really something."

Steve stiffened in anger as excited gasps and pleading faces turned towards him in the wake of Bucky's words. Was he out of his mind?

"No."

Predictably a chorus of wails and protests followed and the pressure building behind Steve's eyes became a dull ache.

"Your father is right." Tony said, over the children's protests, and the table fell quiet once more. Steve blinked at him, surprised to find Tony of all people in his corner.

"But we're good aren't we?" James pouted.

Tony took a delicate bite of his fish and shrugged.

"Good yes, but good enough yet to sing for princes?" He shook his head doubtfully. "You'll have to work very hard to be ready for that."

As the other children promised to work very hard and pay close attention to their music lessons, Péter stayed quiet, his brow furrowed in thought. The intense focus of his stare made Stefen's neck itch.

"Is something the matter Péter?" He finally asked.

"Does this mean you're leaving again?"

Once more the conversation halted, the others going silent as they turned to him for an answer, the good mood that had prevailed over the meal slowly draining in the prospect of his departure.

Before he could even formulate an answer Péter had sighed, dropping his gaze to his plate in order to pick at what remained of his meal as he bit out, "How long will you be gone this time?"

He didn't know. There was so much to do, royal visits aside. People to meet with, pieces to set in place in order to strengthen their network. A month maybe? Two? If Thorson agreed to help them weaponize like he hoped it could be more...

"A few weeks I think..." he began but the look on Tony's face made him falter. It betrayed neither the anger he might have expected or even the disappointment he'd so often threaded into the wording of his letters.

It was accepting. There was no fall because he'd been expecting this and nothing better, because he'd learned long ago not to put his faith in others or else face bitter disappointment.

Steve didn't like it.

He flashed back to that day outside the music room, it seemed so long ago now, when Tony had admitted to idolizing those old war stories about him. He'd said he'd sobered up, kept going despite the horror he'd lived through because Steve had given him courage. Tony wasn't a boy anymore but Péter still was...

Steve's heart began to pound as he considered his next move and the consequences that might follow.

There would be no more hiding. No more safety in sheep's clothing. The end would come that much quicker.

That terrified him. But it was suddenly brilliantly clear that it didn't matter anymore.

Stefen took a deep breath and released it slowly, letting the tension drain from his body – blinking rapidly to dispel the betraying prick of moisture in his eyes and refocused on the faces of his children staring back at him without much hope.

"But I suppose..." he pondered slowly until even Péter had looked up from his plate, cautious but undoubtedly curious. "… I suppose if it drags out, like it did last time. You'll just have to come stay with me."

Steve swore he could have heard a pin drop and then not a beat later the table seemed to explode with excitement as the children (all but Péter) clamored out of their chairs to hug and touch and tug, all talking at once and getting progressively louder to be heard over the others. He couldn't really distinguish one voice from the other, what with his ears ringing and his heart pounding too loudly.

For a terrible lurching moment, he felt lost in that sea of sound and moving bodies until a sharp whistle pierced the din and silence reined once more. Steve's eyes met Tony's, filled with relief.

Tony lowered his fingers from his mouth. And though he was frowning sternly at the children there was something so bright and happy in his eyes that it carried no sting.

"While I'm sure we're all very excited, sit back down and eat. I for one refuse to be seen in Vienna with children who don't know how to behave at table."

Tony had barely finished before they were tripping over each other back into their seats.

Péter stared down at his plate, shoulders tight, looking angrier than he’d been before. He looked on the verge of saying something but he bit his tongue.

Steve didn’t really need him to say anything.

Artur, it seemed had the same reservations as Péter, but the contrast between them couldn’t have been more painful, because Artur was all trust and innocence. He was still so eager to place his faith in his father where it hadn’t been earned.

But that’s what happened wasn’t it, one minute they were seven and you were their hero and the next…

Tony was right. Péter was going to be a man in a few short years and Steve would barely know him.

Meanwhile his seven-year-old was leaning forward, blue eyes shimmering with fearful hope as he pleaded, "Can we really come to Vienna with you Father? Please."

"Not initially," Stefen reminded him, clearing his throat of the suspicious lump that had lodged there. "But if it carries on longer than a week or two... I'll speak to Herr Stark about it."

God help them all, Steve thought desperately.

But he really would.

~*~~~*~

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father!

This arm beneath your head!

It is some dream that on the deck,

You’ve fallen cold and dead.

-Oh Captain, My Captain. Walt Whitman.

 

Later that night Tony found himself in the kitchen attempting to make a nightcap (and having about as much success as one could expect in a home kitchen) with Willamina’s help when the back door burst open. He jumped, spilling and scalding himself on the hot milk Willimina had beat into foam, cursing his own jumpiness.

The disturbance was not, as his hammering heart still seemed to fear, the arrival of the police but Hammer. The toady butler was wide eyed and practically bursting with news as he flew into the kitchen, his unbuttoned coat flapping about his legs (and really who wore a coat in summertime anyway) ruining what might have otherwise been a very posh look.

“Virginia!” Hammer called anxiously, eyes darting every which way as if he expected to find Pepper hiding somewhere. “Virginia come quick!”

He dashed to give the service bell a violent tug even as Willamina was turning down the stove were a pot of chocolate was warming in order to rush to his side.

“Herr Hammer, is everything alright?”

“No, it’s Herr Boesch, who brings the milk. Well the order didn’t come this morning which I told Frau Hogan was terribly unprofessional.” Hammer began to explain in a rush of excitement. He paused only momentarily at the sound of Pepper’s rapid footsteps and the woman’s appearance in the kitchen door, Harold just behind her.

“Herr Hammer what is the –” she began but Hammer didn’t wait, rushing forward to grab the woman by the arms and hiss lowly as if he expected someone to overhear.

“Virginia I’ve just come from town. I called earlier about the milk and eggs that should have been delivered and never heard back. Which was so odd I just knew something had to be going on. You’ll never believe but they’ve arrested Herr Boesch!”

Peppers hands flew to her mouth in shock and Harold wrapped a consoling arm around her, face gone a bit pale. Next to Tony Willamina took a sharp breath.

“On what charges?!” She demanded.

Hammer turned to pin her with a disgusted stare.

“He’s a radical! His own nephew turned him in. He’s been consorting with communists.”

“I don’t believe it.” Willimina spat, “Ollie is a good man. His poor wife must be devastated.”

“He’s a dog!” Hammer sneered and Tony balled his fists. “If it were up to his sort this country would go to the devil. We’d still be at the mercy of the jews!”

“Still, it is a terrible thing for a wife to lose her husband.” Pepper growled through the prick of tears. “Willaminia we’ll have to make something to bring over –”

“Have you gone mad?!” Hammer interjected, looking completely scandalized. “Tarnish the captains good name by associating with known radicals! He won’t have it! He’ll be furious if you even suggest it. Nobody in this household is to even look in their direction.”

As Hammer continued to argue with the two women Tony kept his expression bland but tuned their voices out, neither needing nor desiring to hear more.

He was sad of course to hear about Ollie Boesch, but he had never really met the man. Beyond the brief glimpses caught when Herr Boesch came to make his weekly deliveries they’d never had an occasion to interact, but he’d seemed a gentle sort. His good mornings and well-wishes had always struck Tony as perfectly neighborly.

But now Ollie Boesch was in a jail cell somewhere, his future grim. Turned in by his own nephew.

~~*~*~

Tony paused outside the captain’s study, unsure why his heart had begun a steady pounding in his chest. He wiped his sticky (not sweaty mind you) palms on his trousers and shook off the uncharacteristic bout of nerves (because if the likes of Frauline Werner didn't make him sweat, neither should Stefen Rogers) and rapped smartly on the study door.

There was a brief pause and then a moment where Tony could hear shuffling coming from behind the closed door. He thought he heard the scrape of a drawer opening and then closing before soft footfalls.

A moment later Stefen stood in the doorway as imposing a figure as ever despite his hanging suspenders, rolled up sleeves and untucked shirt. Tony blinked in surprise at the man's rumpled state. It wasn't as undone as he'd been on the lake (and not nearly as undone as Tony wanted to undo him) but leisure certainly agreed with the man.

"Yes?" Stefen asked, somewhat impatient, after the silence had drawn on long enough to call Tony's mental health into question.

"Nightcap for you Cap?" Tony offered the steaming mug in his hands with a cheeky grin. Stefen gave him a peevish glance, no doubt because of Tony's continued insistence on using the nickname, but reached to take the mug just the same.

"Bit late for coffee," he remarked and Tony pretended shock.

"Heretic!"

"Somehow I doubt God has so strong an opinion on the subject."

Stefen's eyes glinted with amusement but if he smiled, Tony couldn't know as he chose that moment to sip from his drink. A pleased sound hummed in his throat and Tony tried not to fixate on the way it moved as Stefen swallowed, but he really couldn't miss the way that Stefen's pink tongue chased the sweet frothy residue left on the rim.

Staring deeply into the cup like a gypsy about to read tealeaves Stefen remarked with surprise, "That's very good. Your Cappuccino?"

"Yes..." Tony swallowed slowly as he fought to drag his brain out of the mud (he was a monk after all not a saint). "Yes, with a bit of coco and rum. Willamina is a treasure."

"That I know. Thank you for the drink."

"You're very welcome Stefen," Tony took a deep breath. "But it's not the sole reason I'm here."

Stefen stared at him for a long moment, eyes searching Tony’s face carefully before he nodded shortly.

"Why don't you come in."

He stood back and allowed room for Tony to enter the room and Tony crossed the threshold without pause. Once decided on a course he rarely dithered.

He’d expected Stefen's office to mirror what little he'd seen of the bedroom: richly furnished but sparsely decorated, bare of the typical assortments and clutter that marked personal spaces.

The captain's study was equally sparse, but it wasn't colder for it. The lack of heavy furnishings made the small room seem open and spacious and Tony could imagine that the light when daylight spilled in from the large windows reached every corner of the room. Late at night the view of the back gardens and the lake beyond under a starlit sky was a painter’s dream.

Stefen had discarded his jacket on the couch tucked unobtrusively against the wall as well as his shoes, the toes of which were poking out from underneath it. There was clutter on the desk in the form of folders (stuffed full of papers and unanswered correspondence) and to Tony's bemusement what looked to be pencils and charcoals.

He glanced once more at Stefen, noticing this time that the tips of his fingers were stained black. There in the middle of the room with his bare feet and dirty fingers sipping on his coffee he should have looked ridiculous. But of course he didn't, Tony sighed. The word adorable came to mind, and promptly made his brain feel like it might melt and leak out his ears.

"Would you care for a seat?" Stefen asked pointedly. He was clearly uncomfortable with being stared at and Tony wondered if it was because he wasn't as put together as he normally was. Even Tony wasn't vain enough to presume that it was because of his presence alone.

Tony took the offered seat, bypassing the open chair opposite the desk to settle on the couch- moving the captains jacket onto the arm. Stefen stood for a moment, lips pursed, before deciding to take his seat behind the desk, angling himself toward Tony.

"What can I do for you Stark?" he asked all business and Tony responded in kind.

"Captain, it has come to my attention that one of your neighbors, a Herr Boesch was placed under arrest last night."

Stefen was very good at keeping his expression unreadable but watching as closely as he was, Tony thought he knew what the tightening of his shoulders meant.

"Yes. I had heard." Stefen said in reply, voice low and expressionless.

"A terrible shock to his family I imagine." Tony kept his tone equally level.

"I imagine so."

Stefen didn’t offer anything more, waiting silently for Tony to either add more or take his leave, giving nothing of his thoughts on either Herr Boesch or the state of his family. Tony wondered if that was because he feared being overheard or if it was because he was unsure if he could trust Tony with his real thoughts. Probably both. Tony had his own secrets to guard, so he understood.

"I must admit, before I came, I had my reservations about undertaking the education of seven children, Captain.” He licked lips gone dry and took a small breath. “But they have proved to be fine students. I’m fond of them but… I worry for them."

"You worry, Herr Stark?" Stefen asked with a hard edge.

"Yes. Captain." Tony answered meaningfully. "I worry for their futures."

Stefen looked away and Tony braced himself for any number or response (each more negative than the last) when the captain refused to take his meaning. Coming here to intrude on his solitude this way and say the things he felt he must had been a risk, one that he was not all that hopeful of seeing paid off.

For a long moment the captain said nothing before he turned back to meet Tony's gaze with a startling level of frankness.

"I worry for them too."

Tony's pulse leaped uncomfortably but he ignored the sensation, leaning forward, heart hammering as he informed Stefen, "You ought to keep the day room better stocked."

"Pardon?"

Stefen was just as confused by this as he ought to be but Tony did not drop his gaze, staring intently as he continued.

"Frauline Werner could not find an envelope this afternoon and was forced to fetch one from your drawers. She was certain you would not mind."

And there, Tony saw Stefen’s eyes widen in realization before he nodded, humming to himself in consideration.

"Right, of course not.” Stefen murmured. “Still, we'll have to order more for the house.”

Tony nodded, relief washing through him and rose from his seat, confident that the captain had received his message and the warning in it.

"Tony."

Tony paused at the door and turned back to look at Stefen at the sound of his voice. The captain had risen from his chair and there was such a look of sincerity on his face and gratitude in his every word as he spoke that Tony’s chest felt tight.

"Thank you for telling me."

Tony swallowed and mustered a cheerful grin.

“Oh Captain, my Captain.” He departed with a cheeky wink and a smart salute, gratified at the annoyed huff of breath he heard Stefen release as he shut the door behind him.

~*~**~*~

Bucky sat out on the dock, lost in thought as he looked out over the lake. The days passed too quickly now that there was an end in sight, and Bucky was making a point to spend as much time with the children before he and Steve had to depart for Vienna as possible.

They didn’t expect trouble so soon, but only a fool forgot the possibility and didn’t prepare for it. That was the nature of treason and subterfuge, you hoped for the best and expected the noose.

Even Steve wasn’t holed up in his room as Bucky would once have expected. Though, he wasn’t sure if that had more to do with the danger they were stepping in to or the cajoling of that mad little monk Bucky couldn’t know for sure.

He had his suspicions, but he didn’t like not knowing for sure. He wasn’t used to not being able to predict Stefen. Even at his most stupid and stubborn Bucky could always predict Steve, read him like a damn book, but Stark was an unknown variable who had already proven adept at getting Steve to react in ways that Bucky would not have put his money on.

Bucky grit his teeth.

He’d resolved to try and dig up some dirt on the man by going to the children (because they were the best source) starting with James because Péter while the eldest was too trusting in nature. Watching him and Stark together it was easy to see that Péter liked the monk and anything he had to say would follow along the lines of burgeoning hero worship.

Natacha would typically be his go to source of information. He trusted her instincts and her insights, young as she was, but on this particular issue his gut told him that James was the one he needed to talk to. Natacha was struggling with a lot of things right now and any one of those things might color her perception.

James on the other hand had far less on his shoulders. Plopped squarely in the middle of the bunch James got tossed back and forth between ‘those too little’ and those ‘old enough to take care of themselves’.

Bucky loved the kid, but could admit that on his best days he was stubborn and manipulative and to manipulate others required knowledge of them, perception, insight, and sound strategy.

James had lost his mother too young and his father had not been well enough to pick up the pieces. He’d been left to pick himself up. Which he did.

He just chose to come up swinging and spitting in people’s eye while he was at it.

Bucky smiled at the thought. He and his little shadow were alike that way. Bucky’s mother had always warned there was power in names. First time he’d held the little brat, Bucky had determined that James Rogers was going to get a better hand out of life than he himself had been dealt.

So much for promises. His mother had warned him about making those too.

He’d asked James about Stark during their outing while they’d gathered firewood when the others had been swimming.

What he’d gathered: Stark was smart (seemed to know just about everything) and what he didn’t know was easily made up for by sharp wit and a scarily absorbent mind. He could leave a conversation knowing next to nothing about the agricultural history of the turnip in eastern Europe, and come back after a few hours of reading an expert on the subject.

Stark thought poorly of the Reich (a stupid and dangerous thing to let anyone catch onto).

Stark did not heed authority. He said what he pleased, went where he pleased, did what he pleased, based on his own judgment and (scarily) encouraged the children to follow the same principle.

Stark liked the children and the children liked him. Because somehow despite stripping away the rules and structure that Stefen used to govern their lives, the children (for the most part) remained well behaved as well as respectful. Even James.

“Tony doesn’t mind us calling him Tony. I like it better than Herr Stark anyway, and I like that he knows so much about making things. It’s fun.” James had said.

Stark didn’t demand respect or loyalty the same way that Stefen did. But people gave it to him just as readily. Likely because his competence was undeniable, his cleverness engaging, and his charismatic nature made all the more pleasant by the genuine warmth of his personality.

Stark cared about them and leveled with them in a way that others didn’t. They were drawn to that, like plants to sunlight.

It wasn’t just the children either.

Stark was dangerous to Steve.

Bucky wasn’t sure yet what he was going to do about that, because as true as that was it was also undeniably true that Stark was good for them. He’d been good for this family.

Bucky paused in his playing to draw his gaze back to where the kids were playing in the water. His eyes were drawn to Ian who was cutting a noisy line up and down the length of the dock, dogged in his efforts to become an accomplished swimmer and pleased as punch at the completion of each lap.

“He wants to be ready next time.” Bucky looked down to find Natacha bobbing near his feet, red braids turned almost brown by the water.

“What for?” he asked, though he thought he had some idea already.

“James could have drowned.” Natacha replied simply, as if that was answer enough. Bucky supposed it was. He snorted under his breath, shaking his head fondly even though something in his chest had begun to feel tight.

Natacha reached and without needing her to ask Bucky set his violin aside and reached down to help pull her onto the dock. She dripped water everywhere but he didn’t mind it as she took a seat beside him, tucking her knees up against her chest, and letting her toes wiggle over the edge of the dock.

So much time out in the sun was bronzing her skin and had brought out a smattering of freckles on her nose. It had been a few years but he was glad to see that hadn’t changed.

There was a lot of Margrit in her. Enough that she’d have no problem becoming a fine (proper) young woman and make a good match one day. But there was a lot of Steve in her too.

And maybe some of the uncles would have rejected Steve’s children the way they’d rejected Steve for taking after his gaje father, but as far as Bucky was concerned they were Rom.

And sure, little Maria’s dark hair and dark eyes could be attributed to her mother when she was locked inside the house all day keeping pale as a ghost, but under the summer sun?

Possibly it made him an asshole but Bucky was privately very pleased that nature wasn’t going to let Stefen burry all his sins. Not forever.

Bucky smirked, and Natacha rubbed her cheek, and then the bridge of her nose. The motion was quick but Bucky read the self-consciousness in it before she tucked her hand back underneath her knees. He was still staring at her he realized and laughed.

“Relax. I wasn’t sneering at you Tacha.”

“I should probably go inside. I wish I didn’t get so dark in the sun,” she sighed.

“Sun makes everybody dark,” Bucky replied with a shrug. Pressing his wrist up against her arm he said, “See. I don’t let it ruin my day.”

Natacha stared, and somehow managed to give him the impression that she was rolling her eyes at him without moving them at all.

“You’re a man. It’s different for you.”

Bucky grinned, arching an eyebrow at her.

“You’re a little girl Tacha. Why are you so worried about how you look?”

Her face didn’t change much but Bucky could feel her pulling away and he frowned, wondering at it.

“Because it matters.” She answered slowly, staring out at the water with her chin propped up on her knees. “I’m not as little as you think. You don’t have to hide it from me.”

And wasn’t that the god awful truth of it. Twelve years old and already she knew too much about the way the world worked. Bucky sighed, heart aching deep in his chest. He’d give just about everything if he could take the shadows from her eyes, remove the weight off of the children’s shoulders and give them the life they so deserved. Free of worry, free of shame.

“Did Father tell you that they’re making me a group leader?” She asked, after a long moment of quiet and Bucky tensed, throat going tight.

“Yeah. I heard. How do you feel about that?”

“Proud.” She answered without so much as missing a beat, tone as matter of fact as you please. Perfect and proper in anyone’s ears. He hadn’t expected anything less of her.

Bucky smiled sadly, and reached out to tug on the end of one of her dripping braids.

“Yeah, well I’m proud of you. Your father is too. He’s not good at showing it but he is.”

She didn’t respond to that, turning her head instead to consider him with sharp blue eyes.

“Are you happy to be going back to Vienna?”

He wasn’t sure how to answer that. There was a part of Bucky that was looking forward to returning to work, for however long he would have it. His business had suffered since the onset of Anschluss. The German public had a low opinion of music and other forms of "frivolous" entertainment, now that the Reich was urging the people to focus on what they considered far nobler pursuits.

But if Bucky knew anything it was that music was a hard thing to get rid of. It was too much a part of people. Even the dourest of Nazi supporters had a tune or a chant that brought sweet memories, and privately Bucky thought that as long as that was so maybe there was still hope for this world yet.

The state of things now meant finding work for his musicians was only getting harder as the opportunities dried up and travel just became more and more impossible. It wouldn't be long now until the work was gone completely. And Bucky didn't kid himself. With what he and Steve had going, he'd be lucky not to face a firing squad long before then.

“It will be nice getting back to work for a while,” he admitted. “I’ve got to get some things in order but I’ll be back.”

The artists that Bucky had signed were like his children in a way, in the fact that he’d helped them birth careers and had diligently fostered them over the years. He took care of them and they took care of him in return and it was just one more bitter taste on his tongue having to cut them loose. Some of them didn’t have much to go back to.

Bucky was the lucky one.

There was a splash as Natacha slipped back into the water, jerking Bucky out of his thoughts. A moment later she appeared above the water. She wiped her eyes and peered back at him just long enough to flash a bright little grin and say “good”, before she disappeared again.

~*~*~*~

“… and after breakfast I’d like to go over some documents with you. I think they could tell us a lot about their strategy. Poland makes the most sense to me as a starting point but the talk surrounding Czechoslovakia can’t be ignored.” Steve was saying as he rifled through the stack of papers on his desk.

Bucky had found him that morning already neck deep in intel. He only knew Stefen had made it to bed at all the night before because he’d ushered him there himself. He wasn’t surprised by it. They left for Vienna the next day, and there was still a lot to put together before then.

“Did you really mean it?” Bucky asked, wandering toward the window. The curtains were open because even if he’d never articulate as much Steve had always liked to watch the sun rise.

Bucky leaned his hip against the edge of the desk and waited.

“Mean what?” Steve asked distractedly, not even looking up, as he flipped through the file in his hands.

“Vienna.” Bucky turned to look at him, waiting. After a moment Steve looked up, brow furrowed in confusion. It was a second or two more before he seemed to catch on to Bucky’s meaning and his mouth tightened.

“I said I’d think about it Bucky.”

“I’m sure you will.” Bucky shrugged, reaching for a cigarette and the lighter he kept in his pocket. Steve watched him stoically as Bucky lit up, flicked the silver lighter closed and observed Steve like he was inspecting something interesting under a microscope.

Steve’s mouth twitched, brow arching as if to ask why he had to be so dramatic and Bucky couldn’t help a huff of amusement.

“They see you out and about with the kids they’re not going to let you keep them out of it anymore.” Bucky stated the obvious.

It was quiet for a long moment while they both thought.

He wasn’t sure what he was hoping to hear but he was pretty sure he’d know it when he heard it. It had meant everything to Steve, keeping the kids out of society as it had crumbled around them. It would kill them both, to watch them get plugged into the Nazi machine… to lose them.

Steve set down the file in his hands rising silently to join Bucky at the window. It was another moment before he spoke.

“I know.”

Huh. Bucky searched his face as if the clues to his change of heart could be etched there, despite the openness of Steve’s expression he found nothing forthcoming. He wasn’t a hundred percent certain what had brought it on but he was sure now that Steve really was serious about the decision.

Honestly, even though it would bring its own set of troubles… Bucky was relieved.

Releasing a breath of smoke Bucky shook his head and knocked Steve’s shoulder with his. “Well don’t you think we ought to teach them a thing or two before we just toss them out of the frying pan?”

~*~*~*~

Tony was in an unprecedented predicament.

The captain and Bakhuizen had arrived for breakfast that morning and announced that they would be taking the children for the day, giving Tony the freedom to do as he pleased. Tony had been forced to ask him to repeat what he’d said twice before it had really sunk in that Stefen not only intended to spend the entire day with his children unaided… he also seemed excited about it.

He and Ian could have been twins in that moment what with the familiar determined clench of jaws and earnest expressions.

Stefen was clearly on some sort of mission, and somehow it involved the children.

It was because Tony was a suspicious bastard (and not a worried mother hen) that he didn’t ‘take the summer air’ (as Bakhuizen had so helpfully suggested) instead he spent his day in the garage tinkering with the cars and pretending to keep Harold company when they both weren’t avidly watching the activity in the back yard where Captain Rogers and his surly childhood friend appeared to be engaged in teaching his children how to brawl.

That alone was strange but could perhaps be reasoned away by… well something, truth was Tony wasn’t too bothered with trying to reason it out, occupied as he was with staring.

In his defense, the captain made for a beautiful sight, all quick powerful movements and grace. He was smiling in such pure unfettered enjoyment, feeling every moment, every raw grunt and breath. Tony had never seen anything so alive as Stefen was alive while sparring with his best friend.

He wondered (though he shouldn’t) if combat was the only way Stefen knew how to let go. Would he be so raw, so unbridled, with a lover? Somehow he thought that even in bed it would be a fight with Stefen. Every moment of pleasure pulled from him in some strange parody of force because he’d never just give it up. Stefen didn’t do anything easy.

Tony clenched his fingers tighter around the wrench he held.

He’d never been more sure there wasn’t really a God.

~*~~*~

“Come on Stevie!”

Bucky’s laugh was cut short with a grunt of breath as he grabbed Steve around the middle, sending them tumbling back into the dirt. Steve hit the ground with an umfh, breath driving from his chest.

He stared up at the bright blue sky for a dazed, brilliant, moment before he sucked in a lungful of air and he flipped over, managing to get his feet under him just in time to dodge a kick to the ribs.

He heard one of the girl’s gasp and sprang up, exhilaration pulling his lips into an almost feral grin.

“Don’t worry, I’m too fast for him,” Steve assured Maria who had her hands clutched tightly to her chest in worry.

“That so?” Bucky laughed swinging at Steve’s weaker side. He countered the blow, grappling for Bucky’s shoulder in order to pull him in close and bring his knee up.

Though Bucky grunted in discomfort Steve wasn’t worried. They were both pulling their punches. It had been years had since he’d wrestled with Bucky but it was just as familiar, and yes, just as fun, as he remembered it from when they were young men.

The boys had gotten progressively more vocal throughout the lesson, eager to try the moves themselves. Steve pushed Bucky by the shoulders and sent him stumbling backward.

“That’s fighting dirty.” Péter remarked with an air of accusation from the sidelines, but Steve let it go, chuckling as he wiped the sweat from his brow.

“Who do you think taught me that move?” he asked, offering Bucky a hand to help pull him to his feet.

“Was tired of your Da always trying to be a hero, taking on people twice his size.” Bucky, dirt and grass stained, was grinning brightly even as he struggled to catch his breath. He limped over to Maria and knelt down to place a smacking kiss against her cheek and rub the top of her head.

“Anyone ever messes with you make sure you find one of us. And if we’re not around, better to run than to fight. Alright darling?”

Maria nodded solemnly.

“You can come get me Maria! I wouldn’t let anyone hurt you.” Artur told her, puffing out his chest. Turning pleading eyes to Steve he asked, “Can we try now?”

“Alright, alright. Artur partner with James, Natacha with Ian. Péter why don’t you and I-” Steve began but Péter interjected.

“I want to partner with Uncle Bucky.” Steve felt a pinch of what he only realized was hurt when Péter crossed his arms and impertinently drawled, “You said he taught you everything you know anyway.”

Steve clenched his teeth, suppressing a swell of irritation.

“Very well. Péter you’re with Bucky. The girls and I will critique.”

~*~*~*~*~

Bucky had thought that after agreeing to spend the day sparring with the children that Steve would be insistent on going back to his office in order to finalize their preparation for the meeting in Vienna; and maybe he would have, if not for the monk.

When they’d finally ended the lesson so that the children could have time to wash up and make themselves presentable for supper, Stark had appeared on the terrace with a tray of refreshments. While the children had rushed to slack their thirst and generally add the iced water to the sweat soaking their jumpers, Stark had poured a glass for Stefen and drawn him into a conversation about…. Mechanical wash tubs? Or maybe it was soap machines. It sounded like gibberish to Bucky but Stefen had seemed amused by it.

In any case, Steve had ended up agreeing to take a look at something he and Harold had been working on in the garage after supper.

The big clock in the sitting room seemed to tick louder and Bucky glanced up to read the time with a scowl.

Bedtime was approaching, Virginia had already come to collect Sara for a bath.

He needed a drink.

“Hasn’t anyone ever warned you about sour faces?” an upside down face appeared in Bucky’s vision as James snickered at him. The boy was stretched up on the tip of his toes leaning over the arm of the lounge chair that Bucky was laying on so that their noses were almost brushing.

“Yeah they get stuck.” Bucky replied making a nasty face with tongue poking out and James giggled.

At that moment Artur looked up from where he and Maria sat in front of the fire place playing with her dolls.

“Uncle Bucky where’s Tony?”

Ian, sitting in the comfortable chair not far away looked up from his book with a thoughtful frown.

“It’s leisure time… but he usually joins us.”

Bucky opened his mouth to answer but Natacha beat him to it. Not looking up from her magazine she turned a page and answered tonelessly, “He’s walking in the garden with Father.”

Bucky didn’t know how the hell she could know that since she’d been with them all evening and even he had lost track of Stefen’s movements, but he didn’t doubt her. But just what the hell was Stefen doing in the damned garden, when they had a rebellion to organize anyway?

It was damn typical was what it was. Stefen had a bad track record with a pair of big brown eyes and a sharp tongue. Or was that good? Cause god only knew Steve wouldn’t have survived childhood without Bucky and Margrit had been the best thing to happen to him in his adulthood so maybe it was a good track record?

Didn’t matter. Whichever it was Stark was a growing problem.

“Uncle Bucky, when we’re in Vienna do you think father would let us meet the prince?” Maria asked suddenly, pulling Bucky from his thoughts.

“I don’t know sweetheart, princes are very busy people,” he hedged. Thankfully Maria seemed to accept this, mouth only pulling down in the slightest of frowns. “Why not ask him. I’m sure if it’s at all possible he’d love to meet a lovely little lady like you.”

Her cheeks turned a faint pink as her eyes went dreamy with excitement.

“I could sing for him. Tony taught me a song in Italian and one in French. Do you think the prince speaks either of those?”

“He just might.” Bucky chuckled. “Seems like the sort of thing a prince would know.”

“Do you really think it’s wise, getting her hopes up like this?” Péter, who was sitting in front of the coffee table with a weathered book open in front of him as he scribbled in a journal, looked up to say.

As Maria shrank Bucky sighed, sensing an argument on the horizon. Really it had been brewing for days.

Sitting up on the lounge he asked, “You got something on your mind Péter?”

“Not particularly,” Péter, turning back to his notes, said in that snide way the young were so good at. But of course he wasn’t done, following it up a moment later with a mutter.

“We all know that Father isn’t going to send for us. So why does he bother pretending.”

Bucky kind of wanted to box the kids ears but he did his best to stifle the urge. It helped remembering that Péter had been served up his fair share of Stefen’s particular brand of bullshit, and even if he thought fourteen was nearly grown he was still a kid where it counted.

“Péter your Da said he’d talk it over with Herr Stark and he will.” Bucky reminded him, but Péter didn’t seem to be in the mood for it.

“He said he would think about it. I’m old enough to know that means no.” he insisted, dropping the pen in his hand loudly on the table.

“No it doesn’t.” James shot back with a worried frown. “He said that if it was going to take as long as last time, he’d send for us. Father’s always gone for ages!”

Bucky winced gearing up to say something when Péter fixed his little brother with a sneer and said, “Yes well, he only said that to make us leave him alone. That’s all he really wants.”

Dosta!” Bucky barked, the sound harsh in the quiet of the room and Péter jumped. He didn’t feel bad for it though. It hurt him down to his soul sometimes watching the children struggle, but the kid was dead wrong and way out of line.

“I hear you say something like that again I’ll smack you. Understand me čhavo?” Bucky growled at him. “Damn it, Péter you don’t know the first thing about what he’s sacrificed for you, so that you don’t grow up like we did.”

It was deathly quiet in the room which made Maria’s quiet sniffles and Péter’s heavy breathing seem all the louder. It was the fear that he couldn’t quite hide that helped cool some of Bucky’s anger. He’d gotten his fair share of smacks over the head growing up (most of them well earned) but Stefen’s children had rarely required strict punishments and if he was honest with himself, Bucky was loath to deliver them.

Péter was a child, he kept reminding himself, and like all children his understanding of the world was narrow and self-focused. Licking dry lips Bucky took a deep calming breath and gestured for Péter to come to him. The boy wisely complied without complaint, shoulders hunched and eyes downcast.

Bucky glanced around at the others and waved them over as well. When they’d all gathered around him he gestured for them to sit.

“You never met your grandfather and I’ll tell you something, It’s a good thing.” He began after a moment, choosing his words with care. “Smooth talking gaje, good for nothing but running his mouth and drinking his money and it wasn’t like we had any of that to spare.

“He took off when your Da was Ian’s age, thought he’d earn more money without the family in tow. The money came in at first, every few months your Baka would get a parcel with some coins hidden in it. Wasn’t much but it meant we ate that day.

“But then they stopped coming. That was bad because the whole family was starving and nobody could find work unless they were willing to get shipped off to the salt mines, and that was a death sentence. So you’d go stand in a line all day hoping for a days work and they’d take one look at you and spit.

“But your Da, people saw him different. So we’d go to the city and he’d get work – and he’d tell them I was his brother so they’d give me work too. We worked until he was too sick to do it anymore.”

He’d nearly died that winter Bucky remembered with a shudder. His cough had gotten so bad that he’d rattled with every breath he took. And even then the idiot hadn’t wanted to eat when his mother was forced to go without.

“He got better eventually but there was a war on and everybody’s still starving. So your father says ‘let’s go to and find my father.’ The uncles are mad. They say we don’t need help from a gaje but they’re wrong; so we go and I can see it in the eyes of our mother’s, how they’re wondering if they’ll ever see us again.

“We walk all the way to Karkow, cause that’s where the last parcel came from only to learn he’d gone on to Lodz a few months before we got there. Your Da says we can’t go back empty handed so we keep going, and the whole time I’m thinking I’m going to have to bury him and your Baka is never gonna forgive me.

“When we finally track down your grandfather in Lodz we’re half dead, standing on his doorstep holding our hands out like beggars. He said he didn’t have much, but he had more than we did. A father should feed his child but your grandfather wouldn’t even part with a loaf of bread.

“That’s why your Da joined the army so that he’d never have to beg again for what should have just been given, and he fights every day so that you don’t have to either.”

Bucky finished, and on the floor near his feet Maria sniffed back tears. Smiling softly Bucky leaned down and pulled her into his lap, not surprised when Artur scrambled up after her to squeeze into the space next to him.

“Frau Hogan says father stood up to an entire army and got shot. Was he really that brave?” he asked, voice tiny and muffled what with his fingers back in his mouth.

“Father is the bravest man in Austria.” Ian declared. Though his voice was soft in the quiet room there was a firmness to it and the stare he leveled at Péter. “He won’t let us down. If he says he means to talk to Herr Stark then he will.

~*~*~*~

Steve was the one who suggested that they drink together. Bucky had been surly from the moment that Steve had returned to the house to find him, and the long hours of poring over notes, maps, and letters, strategizing, had only left them both in a constant state of edginess.

He’d remembered the nightcap Tony had brought to him a few nights before and suddenly longed for the soothing comfort of liquor and Bucky had agreed, ringing Virginia for a bottle.

That had been a while ago.

The drinking had been a good idea. A pleasant relief from the barrage of his senses. Every day it was like… it was like water. Yes.

It was like running through water, everything heavy and swamp like, distorted.

But sometimes it was razor sharp too. So sharp that he’d be out for his morning run and he swore he could hear the grass shifting, the flapping of birds like thunder in his ears, his mind alert for the tiniest sound or change. Sometimes that was all the warning you had before the enemy was at your back.

But the war was far behind them tonight (or at least, the booze provided that illusion).

Sometime after the children had been settled into bed Stark had wandered into the study with barely a knock and helped himself to what was left of the bottle. Distantly Steve thought he should be more perturbed by this – because an hour earlier he would have walked right in on them knee deep in treason and that wasn’t at all good, also wasn’t this his private study? – but he couldn’t muster the ire.

He did raise an eyebrow as Tony knocked back his drink with all the hasty professionalism of a practiced drinker.

“Did they teach you that at the monastery?” he asked and Stark paused, tapping his fingers against his glass thoughtfully.

“Stefen, you have seven children.” his eye’s twinkled at Steve as he drained the rest of his glass. “Got to keep up with them somehow, right Cap?”

“Fair enough. But I’m also not a monk.” It felt brittle stretching his face, but the urge to smile felt natural and Steve tried his best to accommodate it.

Tony considered him. His stare was so potent it made the hairs on Steve's arm stand on end.

He took the seat across from where Bucky had sprawled out on the couch, feet propped up in Steve’s lap. Steve continued to sip on his drink watching as one of Tony’s dexterous hands unbuttoning his vest.

It was stuffy. Steve thought idly, wondering if he should open the window.

“You're no gentleman either.” Tony finally said and Steve’s stomach clenched.

What did Tony mean by that?

It was impossible not to feel see through, open and hollow all at once, and an impotent anger smoldered in the pit of his stomach as he squeezed his cup.

“Relax, Cap.” Tony murmured with a wink, lips returning to the rim of his cup. “Gentlemen don't keep their wives heavy with babies, and monks certainly never touch the good stuff-”

Steve managed a breath. The pleasant buzz in his mind had become something of a painful drumming (Stark’s fault of course) and he was still deciding on what biting thing to say in return when Pe- Virginia (damn it!) stepped into the study with a fresh bottle in hand.

“And housekeepers never sample the masters liquor. Pepper you naughty girl.” Stark teased, reaching for the bottle, or maybe Virgina herself it was hard to tell. Either way Virginia swatted away his groping hand and set the bottle on the desk before sitting primly down and pouring herself a glass.

“You're a fool.” She said sweetly.

Tony grinned back at her and Steve frowned.

It wasn’t proper for his staff to take such liberties with his booze and his personal space, some distant part of Steve’s mind noted, but he couldn’t be much bothered by that either. It was nice. Kind of like how it used to be before… well before.

Bucky heaved himself up to stumble over and take the bottle from Virgina. He hadn’t said much since they’d started, making his way with a dogged pace toward utter drunkenness. He helped himself now to another overfilling glass and turned to top Steve off.

He was shaking his head and chuckling, the sound lazy and warm as he fell back into his seat. His arm pressed against Steve’s doing something to sooth the buzz of irritation in Steve’s skull.

He let the conversation flow over him, chiming in with platitudes when it felt like he was supposed to answer. He took another warm swallow of wine and then breathed in and out, slow and deep.

>I'm here. I'm here.<

“Cap”

Steve blinked. Tony was leaning over him somehow. When had he moved? The bottle in one hand was extended toward Steve's nearly empty glass.

Steve held his glass up and watched the dark liquor fill it.

>Cap. That's me<

He could hold his liquor, he was a captain after all, but something about the sight of his cup being filled with black made him nearly giggle.

He took a sip.

>I'm here<

He chuckled into his glass. Bucky sent him a puzzled look.

“Slow down Stevie or all the boys will take advantage of you.”

He smirked and Steve raised his glass. “Fuck you, Buck”

“Gentlemen please, there is a lady present.” Tony gasped in mock horror.

“Yes and he has very delicate senses,” Virginia sipped her drink demurely as she patted Tony's leg and Bucky snorted into his drink, choking on a wet laugh.

It was only when he realized that the stretching sensation on his face was a dazed smile that Steve really understood.

Oh.

Peggy had died and they’d splintered, their pieces scattering to the wind… but they’d come back to being something like a unit again. A family.

Stark was part of that now. No. Stark was the start: the wave of reverb that had sent them spinning back into place.

He liked Stark. Even if the feeling seemed married to irritation with him.

He wondered if it was the same for Bucky. Did he feel it too or was he just putting up with their strange new addition for Steve's sake?

Certainly Virginia had taken a liking to him and he'd yet to find a better judge of character than her.

A dark cloud drifted over him as Charlotte’s face drifted up in his mind. He wondered how she would fit for a moment, before he was forced to accept the fact that she wouldn’t.

Charlotte was another start. They’d all go spinning in a new direction into… into something.

He didn’t have to, he reminded himself.

>Should you?<

They continued to chat the night away. Tony making leisurely passes at Virginia, cheekily leaning into her side as they spoke, she and Bucky piggy backing stories about the end of the civil war and the things the family had gotten up to.

And even though it was still painful to remember Peggy Steve let them talk. He hardly heard any of it. Not for lack of trying.

It was just patch work. One moment he would be listening and the next moment they had somehow jumped to a different topic all together and he would be left floundering.

As it turned out, even surrounded by friends with the slow drag of alcohol swimming through his veins, he still couldn't shake the odd feeling of edginess creeping through him.

~*~

“Sleep, don't just stay up drinking, Buck!” Stefen said to Bucky when he reached the door to his room. Bucky waved him off, as he continued toward his own room with all the sloppy grace of the truly drunk. He'd refused Steve’s invitation to stay up with him, shaking the bottle in his face.

They had called it a night when Steve had knocked over the bottle. There hadn’t been much left in it but Virginia and Harold, who had joined them some time after Virginia had, had finally suggested the two of them turn in.

He had a hunch they’d really meant it for Bucky, who was rushing toward black out drunk with a dopey grin smeared across his face. Turning in was the last thing Steve wanted to do but Bucky had been vocal enough about Steve's irregular sleeping habits in the past that he was hesitant to prove him right now.

He wouldn’t sneak back to his study either. For one night at least he refused to be a waif slinking around in his own home in the dead of night.

He watched Bucky’s progress down the hall and waited for the door to close and the light to go out, before he opened his door. There was always the possibility that Bucky, knowing Steve, had just turned out the light and continued drinking in the dark, but he was a grown man. He could choose his own mistakes.

Steve undressed methodically and lay down in his bed like a man being put to coffin.

His heart beat out a rapid rhythm against his ribcage.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

>I’m here. I’m here<

He thought the words hard, squeezing his eyes shut.

~*~

“Did I get him?” Bucky stood over Steve, eyes wide, face contorted.

Blood was seeping out of the fallen man’s uniform. His body was a brown dot below, like a squished tart where it had fallen from the small cliff face.

The blood pooling around him was dark, almost black like ink.

The snow under Steve's hands and in his mouth was cold but he didn’t feel the bite. He opened his mouth to speak and tiny white flowers fell out, floating to the ground.

He could feel that. Their petals soft and velvety against his tongue, brushing up against the walls of his throat.

“Did I get him?”

Bucky’s breath ghosted out in front of him, his frightened eyes huge in his face, going over the body then back to Steve.

“I knew what to do.”

There was so much blood.

Steve fingered his food into his mouth. Fish and beans according to the can. It was clumpy and red, reeking of copper and gunpowder.

Bucky sat across from him, utensils in one hand gazing out into the white swirl of snow at nothing. Steve scooped into the can and reached across the space to push the food between Bucky’s lips, and into his mouth.

“Eat.”

He spooned more of the bloody mess past Bucky’s lips.

Eat. Please.

Bucky choked softly, reaching past his teeth to pull a flower from his mouth.

Edelweiss. Only it was changed somehow, as dark as their flesh.

He let the blossom fall toward the snow, chest convulsing as he reached into his mouth once more. Bucky pulled out another one and looked up.

And it was Steve there, sitting in the snow looking back at himself, regurgitating flesh colored flowers into his hands like dribbled soup.

~*~

Steve gasped, jack knifing up in the bed, his sheets pooling around him as he clamped a hand violently over his mouth.

His breathing came harsh and scraped through his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut, gasping hard for breath through sore lungs.

When he had enough air and presence of mind for it he stumbled into the washroom to splash water on his face. He stood over the sink, staring into his reflection as the vestiges of the dream faded.

A familiar tightness in his gut made him glance down.

He was hard.

He grimaced, disgust turning in his stomach. It wasn't the first time it had happened after a dream like that. He knew, intellectually, that when the blood was high a man couldn’t always choose how his body reacted, had said as much to embarrassed men under his command in the past, but it never failed to make him feel sick when it came to his own body.

He should be better than this. Combining sex and carnage was a line he felt should not be crossed, and yet look at him.

Bile climbing his throat he crawled back into bed.

But Steve could not lay still. He lay, a towel from the washroom over his face willing the chill to leave his body. Thoughts bounced through his head, never catching.

His first kill.

He'd dreamed it many times through the years but never quite like that. He’d never put Bucky in his place like that.

Did it mean something?

>No<

It couldn’t.

>It can’t<

He rubbed his chest trying to keep his breathing down. He rubbed over his skin, maping over flesh and bone as he grounded himself in the moment. He was here, in the dark of his room. Not back in the snow, staring down at the body.

The soldier had been coming up behind Bucky whose back had been turned. Steve barely remembered pulling the trigger but he remembered the soldier tipping over the edge of the mountain, splitting open on the ground below.

Steve’s hand drifted to the puckered crescent below his navel, a present from enemy shrapnel.

It had been a partially nasty extraction. Not as nasty as an extraction as he'd been trying to make when the ground next to him had exploded.

Prazak’s lower body had nearly been fused to the cannon tank, his legs unrecognizable.

“Hush now, everyone's asleep.”

Virginia's voice floated in from the hallway.

“I'm always quiet. I'm a monk my dear that's how we go about it, quietly,” came a not so quiet response.

Tony sounded much more drunk than when Steve had left them. His voice carried that lazy soft slur it sometimes got late at night when they stumbled across each other, similarly exhausted but neither able to find sleep.

Steve shifted, pulling the damp cloth from his face.

He could hardly make out what more was being said, but a moment later he could hear the distinct murmur of Harold’s voice and then an altogether too loud giggle from Tony.

An almost uncomfortable warmth spread through his chest at the sound.

Tony was right outside his door. Steve could imagine that the slight thunk he heard was of Tony’s hand landing against it to steady himself.

He had such expressive hands, impressive in their dexterity. He was always moving them about when he talked. He'd watched them earlier in the garage when Tony had been bent over the engine of Peggy’s old car, watched as they twisted, pulled and shifted parts so quickly it was like the steps of a well-choreographed dance.

He was stronger to, than Steve had expected, able to row them across the lake all by himself. Near the end he’d strained Steve remembered but he would not hear of stopping.

He'd looked up from his upstroke as Steve had asked him for the rowers and smirked that way he had that was so damn frustrating it couldn’t be put into words.

Steve grunted softly, his breath hitching.

Those brown eyes had caught his, soft and electric, mouth slightly open and panting and Steve had been rattled down to his core.

He rolled his head to the side, his face heating with the memory.

Yes, he was much stronger than Steve had pegged him for but what had he expected, a feeble scholar with more book knowledge than people skills?

He chuckled deep in his throat. Stark was anything but that. He was so many things really… too many to properly put labels on him, but that didn’t stop his mind from trying.

Steve had never met anyone quite as insufferable and comforting all at once.

>Beautiful<

He thought as a memory floated up from their time on the lake. Steve had not been able to put a name to the feeling curling in his belly. Tony had been shooting off at the mouth again. Tony, dark eyelashes clumped together, his chest shifting under the water as he swished past Steve in a back stroke.

He'd thought about grabbing him, wondered what it would feel like to press against him, push him down some. Gently. That way the water would caress his face and Steve could fit himself to him without harming him. The water would hold them together.

Equally strong was the urge to sketch him again. He’d wondered if Tony would agree to sit for him. Let Steve take his time and map out every rich detail of Tony's body.

He’d work the lean lines of Tony onto the paper. The bend of his legs, the smooth dips and plains of his arms, the way his shirt hung open and his eyes caught the shimmer of the water.

Steve’s pulse pounded in his ears.

He wrapped a hand around himself, and jolted in surprise unable to cut off his whimper. He hadn't even been aware he'd slid his hand down his stomach to palm at himself, but now that he'd started he couldn't seem to stop.

Tony was long gone from the hallway but Steve’s mind eagerly supplied dozens of phantom whispers.

Because as much as Tony's continual chatter irritated him, as much as his smart talk and sarcasm could sandpaper at his soul, the evidence would suggest that he loved the sound of Antony Stark's voice.

Steve thrust up into his hand, almost squirming as he stroked from base to tip. He could imagine Tony's hands on him, clever and quick. They'd travel down his body, Tony sneaking one hand in between his legs, stroking his shaft lazily. Tony would be a tease. He just knew it.

He was stroking in earnest now, sweat prickling at his temples, one hand rubbing without conscious direction at his stomach. Up and over scars and patches of skin that alternated between deadened and electric with nerves.

He imagined Tony's mouth all over him, teeth and tongue peppering his ribcage, his shoulders. His hands on his back, caressing, nails digging in. Steve moaned, rolling onto his stomach at the thought of Tony's clever tongue leaving a hot strip over his abdomen, and rutted into the bed, fingers of one hand bunching into the sheets, choking on a whimper.

Tony’s lips stretched tight over his cock. Brown hooded eyes looking up at him. God he wanted…

Steve’s arms jerked, imagining his hands griping Tony’s waist, pressing against his back. Would his fingers leave bruises? He could be gentle. He could.

He knew he wouldn't be.

Not when he could hold Tony down by his hands. Shove him into the mattress, chest to chest. Hot breath puffing against his face as he pounded him into the mattress, drove the breath from Tony’s lungs, stole his ability to speak, molded their bodies together until he wasn't sure where he began and Tony finished.

The sounds he’d make. Because Tony wouldn’t just let Steve have it easy like that. He’d nip and bite and leave blood blossoms all over Steve’s skin, make his mark. And Steve would get a handle on his neck, his shoulder, and give it all back. There’d be bruises for day’s hidden underneath Tony’s shirt collar. Steve would know they were there every time their eyes met.

He buried his face in his pillow with a deep groan, biting into the soft fabric as he bucked into his fist, the bed frame rattling against the wall.

As the fantasy played out it in his mind, as he imagined the way that Tony would pant and moan as Steve took him apart it was all Steve could do to keep rhythm without losing his mind, pleasure building. So close. He was so…

Tony might touch his face, the way he’d so gently touched his arm earlier in the garden… might pull Steve down and kiss him. Press that sweetly smiling mouth to his like he’d been waiting his whole life for it.

And without warning Steve’s mind went blank, orgasm crashing through him as he spilled into his hand. All he could do is let it wash over him.

>So good<

Slowly the pleasure ebbed and Steve came back to himself, his body shaking in fine tremors.

He tried to catch his breath, sluggishly rubbing sweat out of his eyes. As the room began to come back into focus around him his heart began to pick up pace again but this time it was accompanied with the sour tendrils of fear.

Breathe. Just Breathe.

Steve clenched his teeth and pushed the fear unfurling in his veins down, listening to his heavy breaths in the stillness of the room.

>Alright<

In the space of a minutes he’d eliminated all his options. He was a realist, and realistically there was no going back from this.

Steve felt a surge of frustration wash over him; not at Tony, but at himself, and the foolish belief he’d so briefly entertained that he could keep this part of himself contained.

He couldn't keep any of them safe in the state he was in.

Steve lay in the dark, his focus drifting in and out.

He'd almost kissed Tony that night when they’d camped with the children. He could admit that now.

Bucky had seen it before he did.

>You need a wife<

He was a liability and they didn’t need any more of those.

He could feel the numbness creeping back in, making his body ache the ache of the ancient.

Steve pulled himself up like a puppet being lifted on its strings, thoughts now to cleaning up the mess he’d made.

It was a shame, he thought, reaching for the washroom cloth and wiping away at the mess of sweat and cum on his skin.

He'd grown fond of the little family in his head.

Chapter Text

Tony,

Their mother and I had hoped that our children would make something respectable of themselves. Now you tell my that my daughter wishes to become an opera singer. I do blame you for this because we both know you are entirely at fault. You might have a taste for divas with heaving bosoms, but you can kindly leave my daughter out of it. I preferred her previous suggestion that she should marry a prince. You can tell her so. Also, don’t you think this childish game of reporting every last dull detail of the children’s activities has gotten old? Last I checked I only had seven children.

-Stefen

 

 

There had been a time in his life when Steve would have traded much to know what went on at a Viennese ball. Now, there wasn’t much he wouldn’t trade to escape having to attend what amounted to a bunch of people standing in small groups and pairs staring at and gossiping about one another. Steve could do without an evening full of stares. The grand ballroom was stuffed full of important persons, from delegates to generals and celebrities. It was decorated to look like a crystal forest so that even the chandeliers hanging over their heads looked like crystallized roots. He wished he'd brought his notebook. Not so strange an urge. Stranger was the wistful thought that followed, that Tony would have loved all this sparkle and finery and that he’d have liked him to be there.

He’d made up his mind several days ago to send for the children (and of course Tony). in truth, the moment he’d stepped inside his suite and got a good look at the empty room and an ear full of silence the first day they’d arrived he’d made his decision.

He’d always missed his family while away. This time was different. He’d opened up his trunks to unpack only to find that someone had stuffed a raggedy old stuffed bear on top of his things. He’d picked it up, recognizing it as Maria’s and suddenly it and the thought of how little time there was left had made their absence unbearable. Bucky seemed to be feeling it as well, if his dark mood as the days ticked past was anything to go by.

He’d held off, mindful of the duties he absolutely could not shirk at the prince’s arrival, but there was no point in distance now. He would send for Tony and the children and make good of what time he had left by spending every moment he could with them.

“Where did you go?” a soft feminine voice sliced through his thoughts.

And with Charlotte of course.

Steve glanced down with a blink. Charlotte was watching him intently, her bright brown eyes roaming over his face. Steve gave her a tiny smile and straightened his back.

“I’ve been here the entire time.” Charlotte had gone to speak to Captain Pavlovic’s wife about...something or another, and had left him to mingle on his own.

At his answer she smiled and too a delicate sip of her drink.

“You know, I haven't’ decided if it should be considered a crime or not.” At his curious expression she waved her glass of champagne to indicate the room. “All these lovely women eyeing you, and here you are looking at the chandelier. Darling it's quite unfair.”

Steve forced his mouth into a smile. He had never been any good at socializing but she was right. He should be trying harder. Offering her his arm he did his best to carry on a conversation that wouldn’t be classified as stilted.

“I was just wishing I had my notebook. Our monk has an interest in architecture,” among other things, Stefen thought with amusement, “and I thought I might sketch it for him.” And then, because she was staring at him with an odd expression, he leaned forward so that his lips just brushed her ear and murmured “And it’ll never be a hardship, excluding all others while waiting for you.”

A hint of a blush dusted her pretty face and she sipped her drink again, lips parted around the thin glass as she kept her gaze on the crowd. “Now, really, you can say all the pretty things you like but next time there's a waltz, Captain, I expect results.”

He chuckled softly and squeezed her arm gently.

“I aim to please.”

She hummed, looking at him from under her lashes in a way she and Steve both knew drove nearly every man from here to berlin mad and murmured with a secretive little smile, “Yes, but whom I wonder?”

The irritation that flared up in his chest caught him by surprise.

No one! He wanted to snap.

There had once been a Stefen Rogers that hadn’t aimed to please anyone at all, but that man was long gone. Traded for this man who had to force his lips into a smile and dance for a crowd he despised, and he did not know what Baroness Shrader thought she knew about him but she didn’t know the half of it.

His laugh was a little more strained this time. Thankfully at that moment the royal party was announced. All five of their foreign guests descended the grand staircase in a glittering procession. Even from where Steve was standing in the crowd Norway’s Crown Prince was unmistakable. Perhaps he’d ask for a pencil and sketch them for Maria, there had to be paper someone could fetch. Tony had written about Maria’s never ending questions about the prince and his wife.

There would be no need to dress the sketch up for his daughter’s active imagination. His royal highness and his wife the duchess were already something out of a picture book as it was.      

Rarely did Steve have to compete for tallest in the room. The prince however stood at least a head taller than most of the guests. Thorson Axel of house Odinburg was a beast of a man, his form suited for battle rather than the refined life of a prince. His midnight blue uniform stood out in sharp relief next to the gray, black and lighter blue of the German officers.

Steve would have thought he was easily the most imposing person in the room (which was quite the feat when said room was stuffed full of seasoned generals, SS officers, and political giants) if he weren't standing next to his wife.

The duchess was, from what Steve could tell, as tall as her husband was. She wore a simple silver gown with one long, thick, blood red ribbon running around her waist and down her back. Her jet black hair coiled neatly behind her head. Really, though, it was her eyes that really caught him. Sharp and bright, they could pin a man from across the room.

He knew a fighter when he saw one.

“Sometimes I wonder why you bother with balls and gay parties at all Stefen. You seem so bored by them.”

Steve shook himself and looked back at Charlotte, who had a teasing pout on her lips.

“Unless of course it’s me you find boring?”

“A man would have to be dead to find you boring Charlotte and you well know it.” She smirked and he began to lead them through the crowd toward the prince and his party. “I think we've waited long enough to introduce ourselves.”

~*~*~

 

The prince and his entourage were already seated by the time a long thin man with a dropping mustache plucked Steve and Charlotte out of the receiving line and showed them to the royal table.

Prince Thorson turned keen light eyes on him as they approached. Steve stiffened at the penetrating stare those eyes gave him, wary now of the prince's request to for a private audience with him. A lot was riding on their negotiations. He only hoped he could convince the Prince it was in Norway’s best interest to help them.

Steve dipped his head in what would pass as a bow.

“Ah, Jeg vil gjerne presentere Kaptein Rogers, for dere, deres hoyhet.” one of the ancient attendants standing behind the prince’s chair shook to life in order to announce them. “Captain Rogers. His royal highness Prince-”

Prince Thorson waved his attendants words aside like they were a bad smell and turned an impressively wide beaming smile on them.

“Thank you, Jakob, but as it is a ball in my honor I am sure he knows to whom he speaks. Why don't you be of use to us and send for some refreshments, ja?”

His attendant blinked at him and then slowly turned on his heel, gliding towards the waiting staff.

Steve’s mouth twitched. If he had done that to Herr Hammer, the man would have had a fit. Well, perhaps not if a royal had made the command. Hammer did so admire the wealthy and powerful.

Once the thought had crossed his mind he couldn't stop the small bubble of laughter. He’d have to tell Tony about it in his next letter. 

 “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Captain.” Steve startled as the prince held out his hand. He blinked at it for a good moment, not sure in the least that it was real and he wasn’t having another vivid dream.

“Come now, I would you take my hand, Captain.” The prince demanded and Steve did, feeling a bit as if he were in a daze. This was unheard of. For all that Steve was something of a celebrity he was still just a common soldier from Leopoldstad. He might be paraded around royalty like a favorite toy but he was far from it and for the prince to shake his hand… he felt and embarrassing heat creep up his neck and the prince’s smile was knowing as he shook Steve’s hand with vigor.

Withdrawing, Steve collected himself as best he could and introduced Charlotte who was waiting patiently by his side. The prince kissed her hand and gestured to his wife who stepped forward to be greeted in turn.

“This lovely creature at my side is my wife, Siv. She does me great honor by ignoring a multitude of faults and continues to gift me with her adoration.”

Charlotte chuckled, eyes widening in surprise and Steve didn’t know what to do so he just stared as the duchess gave the prince an exasperated look that gave Steve the impression she might have rolled her eyes had she been a tad less regal.

 “With us are my brother Loki, and members of our parliament Volstag, Hogun, and Fandral.” Thorson waved to the four men behind them. The one he’d indicated as his brother was the only one not to smile as he greeted them. He and Thorson were as different as it was possible for two people to be. Prince Loki was nearly as tall as his brother but as slender as Thorson was broad, and so pale as to almost be sallow.  And where Thorson exuded warmth and good cheer, Loki’s expression was so aloof it bordered on disdainful.

“Captain, we’ve heard many tales of your exploits.” Loki said, giving no hint that he was at all impressed by them. His eyes flickering to Thorson gave away the first hint of emotion that Steve had witnessed in the form of fond amusement. “Thor has subjected us to them almost daily since we left home.”

“I’m honored your grace.”

“Thor, and I’ll hear no more of it.” Thor brought up a hand to halt the protest on Steve’s lips. “And you and your lovely companion must sit with us at dinner. I would hear more of your service.”

Charlotte beamed at him. He couldn’t blame her. Who wouldn’t be beside themselves being invited to dine at the prince’s table. Steve wasn’t all that fond of talking about the way, especially at the demand of curious noblemen who knew much of sending troops and little of battle, but he couldn’t risk offending the man.

But to his surprise the meal was pleasant and Thor’s questions, when he asked them, were non-invasive. He had a solid grasp on the military history of not just his own people but his neighbors and the major powers of the world and a keen interest in battle strategy. It made Steve hopeful for their private talk and reaffirmed the notion that he had that Thor was a warrior at heart who would always prefer battlefields to ballrooms. It was easy to like a man like that and in a different life where Steve survived the war, he could have seen them being friends.

~*~

 

Rain drizzled off the roof of the Grand Hotel splattering the rows of black umbrellas with the departing guests shivering under them as they waited for cabs and valets with black beetle cars.

Searching for Charlotte in the crush of bodies Steve’ started in surprise as Duchess Siv appeared beside him looking unbothered at all by the heavy rain. He held his umbrella out for her and she smiled gratefully at him, her red mouth a stark contrast to her pale skin, the sight hitting him rather viciously in the gut.

He told himself to breathe and remember where he was. He was in Vienna, attempting to hail a cab for him and Charlotte and this was not Peggy.

“Thank you, captain. I'm afraid I lost Thor in the crowd.” Siv said gratefully and Steve nodded.

“It seems I'm in luck then.”

He didn't believe for a second that Thor would lose his wife of all people in a crowd or leave her for another man to escort out, war hero or not. This had to be it. He’d waited all night but nothing further of their private audience had been mentioned or said.

Sure enough as soon as the sleek black town car pulled up beside the curb the Duchess turned to him and boldly squeezed his hand.

“It was most certainly a pleasure to meet you captain. Keep in touch. My husband would be most glad.”

When she released his hand Steve felt the edges of paper brushing the inside of his knuckles.

She did not look back as she slid into the back seat of the car alongside Thor’s brother.

Steve carefully tucked the folded piece of paper out of sight.

~*~

 

Two days later an unmarked car was waiting for Steve and Bucky at the end of the block at the time designated on the slip of paper Siv had given him. The driver didn’t speak to them as they slid into their seats, Steve taking front, but Steve appreciated the silence. He didn’t think he had it in him for small talk that evening.

Steve attempted to guess where they were going but after a time he gave up when he realized that the driver was taking unnecessary turns, likely to prevent their being followed.

The likelihood that they were walking into a trap was small but there and Steve was glad once more to have Bucky at his side. It was more comforting even then the gun he had tucked against his side. He knew that Bucky was armed as well. Nobody was a better shot than Bucky and when it came to defending them he wouldn’t hesitate.

When they pulled up to the back of the Imperial Hotel Bucky grumbled something about theatrics. A hotel attendant met them at the service door, and if he thought there was anything odd about ushering in a pair of visitors through the staff quarters in the dead of night, his unflappable countenance didn’t show it.

The attendant led them up to the Prince’s private suite, which was as opulent as Steve might have guessed, but he could barely appreciate any of the fine décor with his nerves strung so tightly.

Prince Loki met them at the door, nodding to the attendant who quickly took his leave and shut the door softly behind him.

“Captain Rogers, Mr. Bukhizen. I trust your journey here went smoothly?” Loki asked and Steve nodded in affirmation as he gestured for the pair to follow him toward the sitting room where they found Siv already sitting and Thor standing near the window, staring out over the lights of the city. He turned at the sound of their approach, a welcoming smile stretching his wide mouth but Steve noticed a sobriety to him that had been missing at the ball.

“Ah Captain. At last. We may begin to address this troubling letter I received from Miss Van Dyne.” Waving toward the many open seats in the comfortably appointed room he beseeched them. “Please be seated. You are among friends here.”

Steve did as asked, though in truth he’d have preferred to stand. This was too close to a battle and he liked to feel ready. But he didn’t want to insult the prince’s sincere offer of friendship. Especially when he needed it.

Prince Loki didn’t say anything but Steve felt a prickle go up his spine and looked up to find the dark haired prince staring coldly at him. Thor might think highly of him but Steve got the feeling the brother was going to be a harder sell.

“First, we must ask Captain, are you positive of the validity of the letter?” Siv asked, her dark eyes boring into his to ferret out lies and omissions. Steve didn’t doubt that she was not someone easily fooled or taken advantage of. Thankfully neither was he.

 “Positive. I took it straight from Schmidt’s desk myself.” He answered and Loki, looking up from where he was pouring an amber colored liquor into a collection of small tumblers sat upon the coffee table, made a small considering noise.

“And you’re sure Schmidt couldn’t have planted it there?” he asked as he handed one of the glasses off to Siv and Steve stilled momentarily. To be honest the thought had never even accorded to him.

“What would he gain by that?” Steve rebutted, eyes narrowing on the slender prince. Loki crossed the space between their seats and extended glasses toward him and Bucky, giving him a pointed stare.

“Ferreting out a traitor of course.”

Steve’s body went tight, faced with the clear suspicion in the prince’s dark eyes but he calmly accepted the drink though he made no move to drink it. He noticed Bucky didn’t either which told him that the other man wanted a clear head in case of confrontation.

“I don’t know what you think happened ‘Highness, but Schmidt beat him within an inch of his life the trouble of taking that thing. He’s had plenty of opportunities to take Steve out of the picture but he hasn’t, because he can’t prove shit and they want to keep the people pacified while Germany swallows their country.” Turning an angry gaze on Thor Bucky continued. “And that letter makes it clear that their not stopping with Austria. They’re coming for everyone Thorson, and Norway sooner than most. You’re a fool if you ignore it.”

“You dare much Mr. Bakhuizen.” Prince Loki sneered, something cold entering his eyes. “But I’ll remind you to whom you speak.”

A troubling growl rumbled in Bucky’s throat and Steve gripped his arm, shaking his head in warning. Now was not the time. Thor thankfully seemed to agree, waving away his brother’s warning and turning from the window with a prowl in his step, like a lion on the hunt.

 “It would have been remise not to ask, but I am certain of the validity of the Generals letter from Mr. Frank. It troubles me that Germany intends to march upon Poland and use such cowardly methods of subterfuge to defend their actions.” Thor’s meaty fists tightened at his sides like he wanted to hit something.

“We cannot come to Poland’s defense Brother when there is nothing visible to defend her from,” Loki warned in a tone that told Steve he’d said it many times before.

“Have you no heart Brother?” Thor demanded in a thunderous voice, gesturing violently with one hand toward the window. “You read the very words I did, yet you would have us stand by while they take what does not belong to them and go back on their word? We should mobilize our army. They will think twice before they think to come against the house of Odinburg!”

Prince Loki was neither swayed no impressed by his brothers show of temper, keeping still and aloof. A sharp contrast to Thor’s impatient prowl across the room.

“You’ll have to forgive Thor. He forgets that we are but a small nation and newly independent at that.” Loki drawled with a poignant look at his brother before turning back to Steve and Bucky. “Schmidt would just deny the letter and with no proof besides the captain’s word it would be argued that we were interfering with Poland for our own political gain. Father will never risk making an enemy of Germany based on so little.”

“Loki is right, Thor.” Siv interjected before the golden haired prince could object, and though his expression reminded Steve of James at his most petulant, Thor headed to her. They seemed to share a wordless conversation through looks for a moment before Siv nodded and looked back at Steve.

“How strong is the German force captain? Do you feel you could provide an accurate assessment?”

Steve nodded, reaching into his pocket for the notebook he kept. “I have clearance to a certain level of information. Enough to know that shortly I am to be promoted and assigned to the First Mountain Division.”

Beside him Bucky inhaled sharply. Steve didn’t look at him, though he could feel the anger in his stare. He’d not shared this news before but only because it was as recent as this morning’s round of meetings. He’d had no intention of keeping it secret because there was little point. They’d known it would happen. It was only a matter of when.

“Congratulations Captain.” Prince Loki said with a slight sneer. “Or is it Major Rogers now?”

“It’s still Captain until the official placement is offered and pending my acceptance,” Steve answered in reply, mouth tight. Turning to his notes he glanced up at Loki only briefly to indicate he may wish to pay close attention. “There are other officers in our network who can provide additional intelligence, some with higher clearance levels than I, but at present I estimate roughly six hundred thousand men across thirty-seven infantry divisions.

“Hitler has just implemented a new naval plan as well. He anticipates clashing with British forces in the Baltic sea and wishes to build a fleet massive enough to crush them and cross the Atlantic to reach British shores. If these plans are completed the German navy will consist of twelve battlecruisers, ten new battleships, over two-hundred-fifty submarines, one hundred-fifty-eight destroyers and torpedo boats, and fifty light cruisers. Not to mention additional armored ships and aircrafts.

“Historically Great Brittan has had the naval advantage in sheer numbers. Hitler intends to overthrow that balance and having been on a Stark made vessel, I can assure you that this is something that you do not want. The Navy suffered after the untimely death of their master ship builder during the great war. Had he lived perhaps that war would have ended differently. All the information I’ve received indicates that the company has stabilized and is eager to meet these new demands.”

And Steve didn’t mention it, but he was increasingly aware that even if the current minds behind Stark industries weren’t as brilliant as Hughard Stark had been, he knew someone that was. He’d never been more grateful for whatever on earth it was that had driven Tony to decide to forgo ships and weapons and pursue the faith. The thought of what the Reich could do with a mind like his at their disposal was frightening.

It was silent for a long tense moments before finally Prince Loki said what weighed so heavily on all their minds.

“To go against such numbers would be madness.”

“Our country’s waters stand between Germany and the Atlantic.” Thor stated gravely, seemingly for the benefit of hearing the words said aloud.

“It does. If they are to see their plans for lebensraum through you’re in their way, Thor.” Steve responded with equal gravity and the prince’s shoulders tightened, a dangerous expression, akin to clouds gathering before a storm, crossed his face.

“You say your network plans to sabotage their efforts. What do you need from us?”

“Weapons, transports for men and information when we need them.” Bucky immediately answered. “Our contacts in London are doing what they can but the English government wants to avoid war at all costs.”

“As does our King.” Siv bandied back with a raised eyebrow. “Odinburg may likely decide that it is better for us to cooperate with Germany than to try and resist them.”

“Ja.” Thor sighed. “My father is unlikely to agree to stand against Germany, but I fear that Germany would shake our hands with their right and stab us with the left.”

Thor looked to the duchess and they shared another moment of silent communication before Siv extended her hand to him, and Thor took it gratefully, pulling her out of her seat and to his side. She looked like she fit there, Steve thought with a pang worryingly close to jealousy. Not perhaps, for Siv herself… but for the unmistakable intimacy they shared, the trust and the support they lended to one another. He’d had that once.

“We will lend you what we can Captain, so long as it never becomes public knowledge.” Siv said and Steve’s heart leaped, almost not daring to believe the words. “We wish you success in your endeavors but we must protect the interests of our nation first and foremost.”

“If word of this comes to light you will cause an international incident Brother” Loki warned direly and Bucky snorted muttering beneath his breath.

 “Wouldn’t want one of those. What about sitting right at the mouth of the road Hitler needs to take does he not get?”

Steve rammed an elbow against his side, nodding shortly to Thor and Siv in understanding.

“We respect your need for discretion.”

“Captain, so long as Norway is free and I her Prince, we are behind you and your cause,” Thor promised ardently, extending his hand once more for Steve to shake. The simple and yet profoundly meaningful gesture no less surreal the second time. “I only ask that you remember the friendship between us. We may yet need you, far more than you need us.”

~*~*~

“Mountain troopers huh?” Bucky grunted later as the car took them back toward the hotel. There was a wealth of meaning behind the sound and when their eyes met Steve could see his own ghosts staring back at him. “Any of the old team crazy enough to come back for seconds besides you?”

“Just those who never left the service.”

The face Bucky made said it all. He’d advocated many times over the years for Steve to leave the army.

“If I don’t accept the post they’ll appoint Dittmar as Commanding-Major.” Dittmar was a good soldier but he was a poor leader. He was trigger happy and didn’t look out for the men.

“Jesus, Old Friendly? That Dittmar?” Bucky cursed. The old nickname had nothing to do with their old comrades’ personality (which was cocky and abrasive on the best of days) and everything to do with the likelihood that he’d just as soon shoot through a comrade to get to the enemy. Steve nodded. “I might have accepted just for that, but there’s not much choice anyhow. Rumor has it Schmidt protested but the orders for my placement come directly from Himmler himself. Refusing is not an option.”

“Stefen.” Bucky lowered his voice, eyes flickering to the driver. “I know it’s the last thing you want to hear, but you can still run.”

“You know what’s coming and you want me to run away?” Steve demanded incredulously, anger tightening his vocal cords. He couldn’t believe Bucky could still be suggesting that after everything they now knew.  

“Yes. Just one time in your miserable life, I’d like it if you got down and stayed there because you cannot and will not lead an elite task force for the Germans and survive the war. It’s not in you to kill for them, even in the name of sabotage. This will destroy you.”

“I don’t intend for my post to last very long. I never got into this thinking I was going to survive it Bucky, that was you.” Steve turned away from the wounded look in Bucky’s eyes because he didn’t think he could handle that particular look of betrayal on his face right now. He’d never lied to Bucky about the stakes or his intentions. Bucky was the one who’d fooled himself into believing this could end any other way but one.

“So that’s it huh? That’s why you’ve been so different lately.” Bucky laughed and it was an ugly sound. “You’re still just going to throw away your life and force us to watch? Jesus Christ Stefen you’re a selfish bastard.”

Bucky turned away from him, glowering out the opposite window. Steve let him. He could muster up no fear or offense at the harsh words because the simple fact was Bucky was right, and Steve knew that even so Bucky would be behind him the entire way.

Steve closed his eyes and reminded himself to breathe.

 

~*~

 

In the afternoon the children and I got back to the task of puppet making. James was rather insistent on this, but you’ll be glad to hear he seems to have taken the punishment you ordered to heart. He was far politer about it than he was last week. Yes, Stefen, I know I am softer with him than I should be, but I find it hard to deny him when he is so genuinely excited. I think having something of his own that he can focus his energies on will do him a world of good. You’ll just have to trust me on this one.

In any case, the lesson was a success and he was a great help with the designs. I had not expected one so young to have such a great eye for lines and sketch work, and I suspect that this is a case of apple not falling far from the tree. I have included a copy of the sketch he helped Maria to complete (please do not mistake it for the one Artur insisted I save for you, charming as it is). Madame Puppet is sure to be a fine lady. Perhaps overly round in hip and bosom, but I am not one to stifle a young man’s creativity.

And while you are no doubt filled with nothing but pride for the little beasts you were tricked into calling children, I regret to inform you that the vase in the sitting room took an unfortunate tumble. But if you don’t mind my saying, it was a rather ugly vase so this is not perhaps such a grievance in the grand scheme of things. Ian seemed to think it was worthy of a hanging, but I assured him that only a father most cruel (and limited in eyesight) would be overly bothered by such a loss. He and Artur have become quite fond of playing soldier, marching up and down the halls. They are very excited to see you march with your men in all the grand parades that must be held for the visiting prince. They ask when you shall send for them, and I tell them that a watched pot never boils.

Lastly, my love for the arts and my unending fondness for opera singers is rooted in the superiority of Italian tradition. It has nothing at all to do with heaving bosoms. And I would point out that a man whose nearly infantile son draws women so top heavy as to defy physics, has no room to accuse others of lecherous tastes. As for the length of my letters, I can only remind you that it was you who requested every second of their day be reported to you and, Captain oh my Captain, I am as ever your servant.  

-Antony Eduard Stark  

~*~*~*~*

The call came in the morning. The children’s regular morning exercises had turned into a duel lesson in breath control and chest notes, so that by the time Tony herded them back inside to wash up for morning lessons they were red faced but bright eyed with exertion.

Pepper had met them at the door to the terrace, handing him a small piece of fine paper with a long number scrawled upon it.

“The captain rang while you were out. I told him you’d call as soon as you returned.” She’d said and Ian, eyes going wide with excitement had grabbed Tony’s elbow.

“I bet he’s called to tell you to bring us to Vienna!”

An excited burst of chatter had erupted from the others and Tony had caught Pepper’s eye searchingly, relieved when she gave a barely perceptible nod. She smiled at him and the children seemed to take this as confirmation because the noise level escalated as if someone had declared that summer was going to last six months longer this year.

“Alright, alright, silenceo! Remember what I said, I’ll only be escorting well behaved children to Vienna. All I see before me is a rabble of sweaty chickens. Go wash for lessons.”

The children giggled but did what they were told happily enough, even if Péter did depart with a roll of his eyes and a cheeky reply.

“I don’t think chickens sweat Tony.”

Artur was asking James as they hurried down the hall, “How do you think chickens stay cool then under all those feathers? Don’t they get hot like us?”

As the group disappeared around the corner Tony chuckled to himself, heading toward the day room, making a note to include farm animals on Artur’s long list of creatures worth knowing about.

Tony had forgotten that the phone in the dayroom was an older model without a dial, but anxious to reach the Captain before he might leave his rooms he sighed, fetching the ear peace off the cradle and taking the seat beside the table while he waited to be connected to the operator.

He jiggled the cradle impatiently as he waited several long minutes while the operator did not appear. No doubt the women at the dispatch were gabbing away, while Tony suffered in wait. He really ought to update the phone system. The house was moving up in years but there was no reason that it had to stay locked in the twenties did it?

When the operator, a politely bored sounding young woman, finally announced herself Tony gave her the number Stefen had left and drummed his fingers upon the table while he waited to be connected.

He could make the entire house go electric he mused to himself. Stefen would balk at the cost of such a major renovation but once he experienced the efficiency Tony was sure he’d come around to the idea. There were –

“Hello?”

Tony startled as Stefen’s voice, sounding somewhat breathless as if he’d run to catch the phone, barked in his ear.

“Captain?” Tony asked, bringing the mouth piece up closer to his lips.

“Stark. Good.” Stefen began awkwardly, a hesitance between each word as if he was unsure of them. Tony fought a smile. “I rang earlier but Virginia said you were out with the children.”

“Yes. Morning exercise.”

“Good. How’d they do?”

“Just fine. Sara is still getting her legs, but give her a year or two and I think she’ll catch the hang of it.”

“Oh.” Stefen sounded somewhat sheepish. Tony heard his throat clear over the line. “She is young for drills isn’t she?”

“A tad,” Tony allowed. “But since Ian has started running with weights she makes an excellent stand in for a sandbag.”

“I’m not sure it’s wise to let him use them. He’s-”

“Eleven and determined to be every bit as strong as the fellow he watched carrying trees on his back during his morning exercise. If you can imagine,” Tony drawled, grinning at the irritated huff of breath in his ear. “Really you’ve only you to blame for this Captain. If you didn’t insist on setting such unbearably high expectations for manhood the rest of us might feel more confident in our own skins.”

“It wasn’t a tree. And confidence is the last thing you have a problem with Stark.”

Something funny in his chest pulled and Tony’s smile faded. He thought suddenly of the notebook tucked away in his bedroom drawer with all of his grand dreams and unrealized ideas, and then thought of being young again, rushing toward his father in the shipyard with his hands clutched tightly around his model engine. He blinked the memory away.

“I might surprise you.” He answered as nonchalantly as he could manage through the tightness in his throat.

There was an odd moment of silence where Tony worried that Stefen had picked up on his off moment (and God he hoped not, because the last subject he wanted to broach was Hughard) but then he heard a soft hum of breath in his ear.

“Well you have so far.” Stefen said, voice warm and low in that way that Tony was in danger of sinning over. Though shalt not covet or something along those lines. He was definitely beginning to covet that sound. He really shouldn’t. The reasons were endless, chief of which was that there wasn’t a snowballs chance in hell of his feelings being returned.

“If I have Harold drive you in the morning, do you think that will give you enough time to get the children packed and change your lesson plans?” Stefen was asking and Tony blinked away the haze of his thoughts.

“Yes.” Tony was good with working under pressure. He was also good with getting his way. “Who should I consult with regarding your schedule? I want to be sure to leave time for them to spend with their father.”

He could practically hear the captain’s eyes rolling.

“Restrict their lessons primarily to the mornings and leave the afternoons light. Does that satisfy you Stark?”

“Very much.” Tony answered with a short laugh and Stefen chuckled warmly in his ear.

“Good. Your satisfaction is my chief concern.”

Tony was still grinning as they made their goodbyes and he hung the earpiece back into the cradle. He nearly jumped a foot with an emasculated yelp when he turned to find Natacha, who had slipped in at some unknowable point, standing right beside his chair. 

The girl smirked at him.

“Must you insist on doing that?” Tony snapped.

“I did call your name this time. Artur cannot find one of his shoes and is blaming James, probably correctly, who is insisting that Artur will cut his foot, get an infection and have to have it amputated. They’re going to start fighting.” Nodding towards the phone she added, “When are we leaving?”

“We leave in the morning,” Tony grumbled rising from the chair with an unamused scowl, still coming back from the fright she’d given him. “So we’d better help Artur find his shoe, before James loses his head.”

 

~*~*~*~*

 

Any hope that Tony had of sticking to a normal schedule for the children went out the window as soon as the news spread that they were to leave for Vienna the following day. But it was just as well, because Tony might have underestimated the work involved with packing for himself as well as seven excitable small people for an indefinite amount of time.  There were trunks to haul out from storage, clothing to launder and press, and evenWillamina was kept on her feet boxing snacks and other small treats for their travels (because apparently you just couldn’t trust the food that came out of these big cities).

Tony had left the children to begin their own packing while he helped Harold in the garage giving a last tune up to the old car that had once belonged to Frau Rogers, trusting that they were mostly old enough to know what they were about.

But, as it turned out, eight years old was old enough to know that one needed a relatively equal amount of shirts and trousers in ones luggage, but young enough to forget the importance of underthings, and it was best just to assume that the nuances between day clothes and Sunday clothes were completely lost.

Twelve year old females came with a host of mind boggling complications (dresses that were fine for brunches but not for dinners, skirts that were perfectly serviceable yesterday that simply wouldn’t due today, and a plethora of stockings and ribbons and sashes that all had to be coordinated) and while Tony liked to think he was a man of elevated tastes, it had been quite a few years since he’d had any need to keep his finger on the pulse of fashion and Natacha was in no mood to wait for him to catch up.

She threw an outright fit when he reminded her to be sure and pack her play things.

“Tony no!” She’d growled with a stomp of her foot grabbing up the folded bundle that Tony had lain on the bed beside her in white faced horror. “It’s fine when we’re way out here, but we can’t be seen in Vienna in draperies.”

“Natacha, you can hardly tell. Your father hasn’t even noticed.”

“Father likes you in that horrible suit you’re wearing so he’s hardly the perfect judge.” The girl had sneered, and Tony would have been more affronted if one, she hadn’t just used his actual name instead of insisting on Herr Stark, and secondly, he personally agreed with her that the suit was hideous.

It was the same one he’d first arrived in and clothing donated to the abbey was notoriously undesirable, this one more than most. This suit looked like it had been coughed out of the belly of the clothes munching monster that inhabited the place where fashion went to die.

The clothing he’d made from the fabric he’d been given was better, if somewhat plain and unadorned, but with seven charges to look after Tony hadn’t exactly had time to throw together a three piece suit. He wasn’t a seamstress, and shocking as it might seem even he couldn’t be good at everything.

Tony sighed.

“Can we compromise? Pack them so that if we do anything fun you’ll have the option to join in instead of having to sit on the sidelines worried about getting dirty?” Natacha crossed her arms stubbornly over her chest and made to open her mouth but Tony beat her to the punch. “And the first opportunity we get we’ll go shopping for something a little less resembling drapery.”

Natacha had mulled it over for a moment before finally nodding in agreement to the deal, smoothing out the now wrinkled bundle and placing it back on top of the pile in her trunks. One more crisis dealt with Tony’s attention had been pulled away by the sight of Maria passing the door with an armload of books taller than she was.

“Maria, bambina, they’ll have books in Vienna you know.” Tony had admonished, easing her load by taking half the tower in her arms. She beamed up at him gratefully.

“These aren’t all for me Tony, some are for Father.” She was informing him sweetly when a door down the hall burst open and Artur appeared with an armful of brightly colored Knick-knacks, the handle of what appeared to be a tennis racket jutting out from beneath his elbow like an extra limb.

“We heard the maid Bergita saying that it’s good we’re all going to Vienna because Father’s always working, and she’s right Tony. I helped Maria squeeze her teddy in his suitcase and there was nothing fun in there.” Arturbabbled, only pausing briefly to bend over when a brightly painted block fell from his arms and clattered to the floor. “Do you think he likes blocks?”

“I think.” Tony began slowly, past the curious melting sensation in his chest, “That’s a very kind thought. But there’s only so much room in your bag.”

Arturs face fell, crestfallen, and Tony laid a palm on top of his head.

“How about we pick a few small books and toys that you might enjoy sharing with him and keep the rest here for when we get back?”

But Tony thought about it the rest of the afternoon. He was still thinking about it as he gathered up sheet music from the music room. Stefen did work entirely too much. It was better now that he was making such an obvious point to spend more time with the children but the kids couldn’t be his only resource for relaxation.

He’d been looser, that night they’d drank together, but not at ease. There had still been something tense coiled tightly within him, some specter behind his eyes that only he seemed party to. Not the way he’d been when Tony had come to his study to warn him about Werner’s snooping.

He’d been soft then, bright eyed, but warm and rumpled in sleepy sort of way that had Tony’s fingers itching to help undo buttons and lay down on  a bed somewhere. His fingers had been stained with charcoal.

Tony’s eyes were pulled like magnets to the paintings adorning the wall, his gaze landing in particular on the large portrait of a ship at sea riding the wind tossed waves.

He’d thought it looked like a Stark ship the first time he’d seen it. He’d been struck even then by the realness of the waves, the rawness in the artists brush strokes and the attention to details that could only be captured by someone who had walked those decks and seen the sun touch the water in just that way.

 

~*~*~*~*

 

Steve was concerned that by the time he made it out of the parliament building shortly after two in the afternoon, that he had missed Tony’s arrival with the children.

He’d ignored most of the traffic laws as he’d weaved through the busy streets towards the Grand Hotel (glad not for the first time that his uniform was enough for the police to look the other way) his rented motorbike humming beneath him in company with his thoughts.

He arrived at the hotel just after two thirty, anxiously handing the keys to the valet who rushed out the glass doors to meet him. He’d left instructions with the concierge when he’d requested an upgraded suite, to be on the watch for his families’ arrival and to see them settled but he’d still have liked to be there to greet them.

 Despite every effort on his part to hurry the meeting along his morning in parliament had dragged. There wasn’t much he could do to keep the meeting from dragging once Vice President Volstag broached the subject ofGauleiter Globocnik’s war against the church and the responding criticism coming from the Vatican as well as the English government.

All of this potentially effected trade and while Norway’s independent rule was still young the house of Odinburg was mindful of its economic position.

Thor’s English mother in particular desired to keep their ties with England close.

Globocnik, true to form, had launched into a passionate tirade against political Catholicism and a plea for the necessary subjugation of the church.

Steve didn’t know why Globocnik couldn’t just do as other politicians did and say whatever lies would comfort the prince and his parliament so that they all might salvage what was left of their day, but then again he might be the pot again in this situation because he hadn’t just been able to sit there idly either, while Globocnik tried to defend the imprisonment of men and women who felt compelled by faith to speak out against the Reich or to sympathize with those the Reich called undesirable.

“The Gauleiter speaks with a lot of passion your Highness,” Steve had finally said, interrupting Globocnik mid stride and all eyes had turned to him with wariness. Schmidt’s stare was particularly cold, his mouth pressed tight in a severe line as his eyes had burned into Steve’s. And though Steve had been addressing Prince Thor the words were really for Schmidt and they both knew it.

“But rest assured that in Austria, it’s every man’s right to follow the God of his choosing. That hasn’t changed, and as long as there are still free men in Austria, it’s not going to.”

Schmidt’s lips had curled into a wolfish grin as he’d murmured a quiet agreement.

“Let us hope not.”

There was a satisfied smirk on Steve’s face as he pushed through the glass doors and approached the concierge’s desk in the front lobby, flinching under the bright lights of the massive chandeliers that decorated the towering ceiling. Though he’d stayed there a few times now, he swore he’d never get used to the sheer opulence of the place.

“Captain Rogers!” a man behind the desk immediately called for Steve’s attention. Herr Shultz, according to his shiny brass name tag, saluted smartly as Steve drew closer and Steve returned the perfunctory gesture with his jaw clenched tight.

“Your family arrived but a moment ago. They’ve been escorted up to your suite. As requested you’ve been given the Presidential with a connecting room. Also, a message was left for you from Oxford. Will you be needing to make any travel arrangements?” the smartly dressed concierge inquired as he handed Steve a small thick card with writing on it.

Though he’d been expecting the call from Oxford that wasn’t the reason Steve’s heart quickened in his chest. His head was already turning towards the elevators. New since the renovation, electric, some lazy part of his brain remembered. Tony had probably been thrilled by it.  

Herr Shlutz cleared his throat and Steve came back to the conversation.

“Yes. Er… no, no, that is not yet. Thank you Shultz.”

“Very good Sir,” Herr Shultz answered with a nod of respect but Steve had already turned, headed for the elevators.

 

~*~*~*~*

 

Vienna was a feast for the senses. The children had been talkative through most of the five hour drive, lagging tiredly in the middle and picking up again after Tony had given in to grouchy demands to stop for lunch.

Harold had stopped in the small town of Grien while they picnicked for lunch, and Ian had struck up a conversation with a local boy around his own age who’d been kind enough to let them use the bathroom in his father’s shop.

If not for their expensive clothes and polished manners Tony was sure that he and the children would have been mistaken for a bunch of country yokels what with the unabashed awe holding them all in grip. It couldn’t be helped though, what with the children never having been outside Salzburg and as the countryside slowly disappeared and the sprawling arms of Austria’s urban capital enveloped them, it couldn’t have been clearer that they weren’t in Salzburg anymore.

All around them were the marks of industry, expansion, and that hardest to rid imprint of them all, time. Architectural splendor rose up alongside the rustic structures of previous centuries in the city center, joining the past with the present in a visually effortless marriage (though anyone with a newspaper knew it to be far from the truth). Even Tony had been humming with excitement by the time Harold had pulled up next to the Grand Hotel, the prospect of so much art, so much vitality and progress at their fingertips too tantalizing to stay still.

Once Tony and Harold had managed to get the children and their trunks unloaded and a bell hop had come to assist them with their luggage they’d been met by a Herr Shultz in the lobby, who had seemed amused by the children’s gasps of awe at all the gleaming marble and the grand staircase spilling out into the center of the floor like the very stairway to heaven, rails a brilliant shining gold.

The ride in the hotels brand new electric elevator (the new addition replacing the old steam model that the hotel had been built with) had been a smashing hit (James and Artur had begged the attendant to send them back down again and Tony had struggled to remember that he was the adult here and the poor man had a job to do) only dwarfed by their excitement over their room itself.

It was actually two rooms, a richly furnished private suite connected to a smaller room which provided an additional bedroom and bath. They were led into the presidential suite through a spacious entry hall decorated in bright colors and fine old furnishings. Beyond it was an equally spacious sitting room with three doors – one on the right leading into the conjoining suite, and the two on the left leading to the master bedroom (its crowning feature a truly enormous canopy bed with silk curtains) and a small guest room. The sitting room opened up to an elegant dining room just large enough by Tony’s reckoning to host them all.

The long square table in its center was framed by a breathtaking set of windows and glass doors leading out onto the first of two private balconies (the second could be found outside the master bedroom) which provided a stunning view of the city.  As if that weren’t worth the small fortune Stefen must have paid for their lodgings the suite also came with a small private study and a bathroom with  a tub so large that Tony was nearly certain even a man of Stefen’s size would have no trouble sinking comfortably.

Tony encountered the first snag since leaving the house that morning while trying to direct their attendant with the luggage. There wasn’t a hotel grand enough in all the world to provide enough beds for seven children and three adults so it was quite obvious that they’d have to share. Less obvious was how to pair off.

Obviously Stefen had claimed the master room and if the trunks in the bedroom of the adjoining suite were anything to go by Bakhuizen had claimed that one. Which meant that Tony should take the bed in the guest room and they should divide the children equally amongst the adults (give or take an odd number, because there would be no splitting anyone in half James, thank you very much).

But therein lay the trouble, because at the first real suggestion of sleeping in a strange bed in a completely foreign setting, the courage of his excited little companions began to waver.

“I want to sleep with you Tony!” Artur insisted clutching onto Tony’s leg, and Sara didn’t need words to make her views known, because as soon as the word bed had come up she’d latched onto the other one like a limpet and had yet to let go.

Maria bit her lip anxiously, staying quiet, but it didn’t take Tony’s level of intelligence to read her mind and James promptly followed Artur’s announcement by demanding to share the bed with Uncle Bucky and refusing to share one with Ian whom he insisted hogged covers. Ian immediately insisted that he ‘did not’ with the fervor of someone who’d had their honor besmirched and Tony was still refereeing the ensuing squabble when a voice called out from the hall.

“Gotta be vandals I hear. I know that can’t be James runnin his mouth.”

“Uncle Bucky!” James shrieked with delight, the argument completely forgotten as he raced to meet Bakhuizen who appeared in the entrance to the sitting room with a wide smile on his face.

The boy was chattering a mile a minute as Bakhuizen stooped to pick him up, even though he was getting a bit big for it.

“We’re here! Péter was dead wrong. Father did send for us, just like he promised, and the trip took ages! The girls kept having to go to the bathroom even though Tony told them to go before we left and Tony says I have to share a bed with Ian but I don’t want to. Tell him I don’t have to! Ian takes all the covers and he smells bad – ”

 Bakhuizen placed a hand over the boy’s mouth, muffling his words and shook his head with exasperation.

“What have I told you about watching that mouth of yours huh? You know words can really hurt people.”

“It’s alright Uncle Bucky,” Ian assured, though it was ruined somewhat by the peevish glance he tossed his brother as he reclaimed his seat on the couch, already reaching for the book he’d abandoned, intent now on shutting them all out. “I’m fine sleeping wherever you put me.”

Bakhuizen glanced meaningfully at Tony.

“You alright sharing with Ian and Péter?”

Tony nodded, looking down when he felt Artur tense next to him.

“Perhaps you could share with your father?” he suggested, hoping that the child’s desire to be close to his father would win out over the fears that came with sleeping in a new place. It was a good gamble because Tony could see the moment the idea took hold and the resulting war that crossed the little boy’s expression.

“Can you come?” he asked, almost meekly, blinking up at Tony with hopeful blue eyes, and Tony squirmed, sudden heat twisting uncomfortably in his stomach.

Could he sleep in a bed with Captain Rogers even with a small child between them and not give away the fact that where Stefen was concerned he was entirely compromised?

Maybe, but it wasn’t something Tony was keen on finding out.

Bakhuizen barked a laugh that didn’t sound all that amused.

“He’s got a bed already. How about if Maria comes with you?”

Artur seemed accepting of this and even though Maria cast Tony a nervous glance, she stepped closer to Artur in a way that suggested she’d not willingly be separated from him.

Bakhuizen nodded decisively and said with all manner of military briskness, “James and Tacha can bunk with me and Sara’s small enough, she can take her pick.”

 Sara clutched Tony’s leg tighter.

 

~*~*~*~

 

When Steve opened the door to the main suite he was immediately met with the sound of voices, floating in from the sitting room. It sounded as if Bucky had managed to end his business early today and the children were in fine spirits, shuffling and thumping about chattering about all the things they wanted to do. He heard Tony laugh, knew it was Tony even though Bucky’s voice had gone quiet, and his gut clenched with anticipation of seeing them all again. He quickened his step down the hallway, driven by some innate sense that seemed to say that a second longer not seeing them was too much.

When he rounded the corner into the sitting room Natacha saw him first, she stood up from where she was sitting next to Bucky on the couch her eyes going bright and soft as a barely contained grin split her face as she greeted him.

They were all moving and talking after that but what really struck Steve nearly deaf and dumb was Artur, who took one look at him and made an explosive noise of delight, zooming toward him like a bullet to target.

Vati!”

It took Steve’s sluggish brain a moment after Artur had clamped on to his middle to realize that he was really hearing the word come out of Artur’s mouth.

He was trying as his hands cradled the back of Artur’s head to remember the last time one of his children had called him daddy. He couldn’t remember… couldn’t remember the last time they’d tucked Artur into his bed and called him their ‘little Artry’ either, because there was no them anymore, just him, and it had taken him three years before he could use that pet name again, three long miserable years.

Stefen bent and pressed his lips to the crown of Artur’s head, his soft head of hair tickling Steve’s cheeks, the clean and sweet childish scent of him filling his nose as the strange sensation of laughter bubbled up in his chest.

“Hello Artry.”

They all wanted their moment after that and Steve was happy to give it to them, even if he found their chatter slightly overwhelming as he traded clumsy hugs and pressed even clumsier kisses on cheeks and foreheads but they were all so happy, so obviously blooming with it, that Steve couldn’t bring himself to care. This was right.

Less right was Péter hanging back next to Tony with an imperceptible expression on his face. The boy nervously twisted his left shirt cuff, gaze staring somewhere past Steve until Tony gave him a gentle nudge with his shoulder.

Tony was giving Steve this meaningful look as Péter took a hesitant step forward, cheeks flushing a curious pink, and Steve understood. He remembered being fourteen and awkward with his emotions. And some snickering little voice in his head (that sounded an awful lot like Bucky) reminded him that he’d never really grown past it.

Grinning slightly Steve reached out an arm to pull the boy into a one armed hug.

 “It’s good to see you Sir.” Péter sounded unsure, and Steve could only hope it was because of the way they’d parted. He squeezed Péter’s shoulders.

“It’s good to see you Péter, but I think at home we should drop the sir.” Natacha gave him an incredulous look but Steve went on. “And since we’re all together again… I guess that makes this home.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

Getting everyone unpacked and settled in their rooms took what was left of the afternoon. Tony finally had a brief moment to himself to unpack his own things when Péter and Ian, having already finished, were drawn away by the jaunty sound of violin strings striking up in the sitting room.

Tony shook his head fondly at their fleeing footsteps.

“You’d think that man had violins for hands,” he muttered to himself. “It’s a wonder he didn’t take to the stage himself.”

“He wanted to, back in the day,” Stefen’s voice took Tony by surprise, he looked up from where he was placing a pile of folded shirts into the drawer he’d claimed for himself with a curious expression. Stefen leaned on the doorframe, momentarily blocking out the view of the sitting room, not that Tony was overly bothered by that.

His eyes weren’t hurting for nice things to look at. Stefen’s long legs for one, the entirely unfair tininess of his waist juxtaposed against those broad shoulders, the crisp uniform that made those shoulders look even broader. Take your pick.

Stefen shrugged and Tony supposed the shoulders were going to win the honor of being stared at.

“We never had the money to send him for private lessons.”

Tony nodded somewhat dumbly, dragging his thoughts away from the gutter with a sympathetic wince.

“No teacher to recommend him. Got it. Who taught him, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“The uncles all played, Ludo in particular took him under his wing. Bucky’s Da always preferred the lute.” Stefen recalled. His voice was low and Tony wondered if Stefen was conscious of the way it slipped into that rough accented lit that Tony had begun to associate with country roads and Bakhuizen, when he said, “My grandfather made him his first violin. Made something for us both actually.”

It was quiet for a moment while Stefen appeared lost in the past and Tony mused on the boys they had been, and the grandfather with the skills to make instruments. There were so many pieces to Stefen, so many unanswered questions still, and it still might be his undoing, but Tony couldn’t help but want answers to them all.

Crossing back to his open trunk he reached for a stack of trousers. He paused, clutching them in his hands as he took a breath. You don’t get anything without effort.

“The uncles… these were men in your village? You both talk as if you were all family but you and Bakhuizen don’t share blood… do you?”

Stefen went very still, and for a long moment Tony was afraid he wouldn’t answer.

“No we don’t, but that never mattered to us or any of the others. We were family. Bucky he’s my brother. Blood doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t it?” he asked with a quiet sigh and Stefen blinked at him in surprise, his mouth twitching upwards. They both understood. From the looks of the world blood was about the only thing that had ever mattered.

“It must have been nice, growing up in such a close community.” Tony pondered somewhat enviously. His own childhood had always been a study in islands, the Stark’s living at the castle on the top of the hill, his Nonna and his mother’s people living down below with the rest of the peasants that Hughard used to build his empire and happily forgot at the end of each day.

“Thank you for escorting the children,” Stefen said rather than answer, and Tony took his cue and let the subject drop. “The trip went well?”

“Yes. They’re very excited. I hope you have your evening cleared because they have a list of demands already.”

Stefen smiled, but Tony thought there was something tired about it.

“Artur has brought some games he thought you might like to play, and Maria some books. It was a long car ride, it might do them good to have a quiet night to settle.” Tony offered and Stefen thought about it for a moment before shaking his head.

“It’s their first night in Vienna. It should be memorable.”

A rush of fondness filled Tony’s chest and quite without thinking he heard himself blurt.

“I brought some of your supplies.” When Stefen’s eyes narrowed on him with confusion Tony licked suddenly dry lips and babbled on in a rush. “Just some sketchbooks and some of the pencils and things, I confess I’m no artist myself so I wasn’t sure what you’d need, but I’ve noticed the paintings, and when I saw you sketching the other day I realized they were yours, and Pepper thought it was a good idea and helped me get what would be useful. Because I just thought you might like – ”

“Tony,” Stefen’s voice was quiet but it was enough to halt Tony’s verbal diarrhea in its tracks. He glanced anxiously in the captain’s direction, relieved when he saw that he didn’t appear to be angry. If anything there was almost something fond about the small smile tugging at his lips.

“Thank you. That was very thoughtful.”

That was fondness. Tony wasn’t imagining it. He wasn’t making it up now, and he hadn’t been making it up those times in the garden or that night camping in the woods either. His heart fluttered in his chest, remembering how close they’d stood, how close Tony had come to kissing him. Stefen hadn’t moved away. He’d told himself it couldn’t mean anything but now he wasn’t so sure.

Tony swallowed through a dry throat and smiled with bravado he didn’t feel.

“I told you Captain. I aim to please.”

“Oh you do?” Stefen snorted, crossing his arms as he lazily sauntered into the room. “And here I thought it was your life ambition to drive me out of my mind.”

And the thing about wanting someone, and wanting what made that someone a someone almost as badly, was that your mouth tended to get ahead of you. At least if your name was Tony Stark it did.

“Who says those things are mutually exclusive? You might enjoy the drive.”

Okay, so it was arguable that the little bouts of banter that he and Stefen seemed to fall so naturally into (now that the captain had managed to loosen the iron pole lodged in his ass) could be called flirting, by some very hopeful individual willing to overlook the very obvious fact that a man like Captain Rogers did not flirt. Obviously.

They weren’t. Not if Tony knew what was good for him. But that right there, ‘Maybe you’d enjoy the drive’, that was flirting. Because Tony obviously had no clue what was good for himself anymore.

But Stefen’s expression wasn’t darkening with disgust or clouding with confusion, or anything else that might have made sense, he was just staring at Tony with that infuriating smirk on his face looking too gorgeous for words.

“Maybe I’d get you first.”

Tony opened his mouth, probably to say something crazily suicidal like yes please, when a shriek of delight (in Sara’s dulcet tones) erupted in the living room and the jaunty tune that Bakhuizen was plying out of his strings kicked up a notch into something down right joyous.

Stefen twisted, and they both leaned to peer out into the sitting room where the children were happily dancing around their uncle. Tony recognized parts of it from one of the dances Natacha had taught them.  The boys were clapping and kicking their feet while the girls twirled. Maria didn’t look half bad spinning gleefully alongside her sisters. Sara was a wobbling mess of giggles but was all the more adorable for it, and Natacha was as graceful as a spinning top. There was a wide grin on her face.

Tony’s eyes flicked to Stefen wary of his reaction but Stefen made no move to interfere. He looked thoughtful, almost wistful, and Tony wondered at it.

“We’ve been invited to brunch tomorrow by a good friend of mine, Baroness Shrader.” Stefen announced without breaking his gaze away from what was happening in the sitting room. “Did they bring anything suitable to wear?”

Tony blinked, taken off guard by the sudden change in subject. He’d all but forgotten about the Baroness, but he hadn’t forgotten the gossip that the maids had shared about her. Rumor had it she and Stefen had something of an understanding.

And why not. Steve was a wealthy man of importance and she was a beautiful Baroness, kin of his late wife even. Perfect match.

Tony shifted, suddenly feeling that the room was too drafty.

“They’ve their Sunday clothes. If that doesn’t work, well, I did promise Natacha there would be shopping.”

 

~*~*~*~*~

 

The children, Natacha most of all, had been thrilled at the prospect of dinner and an evening out at the shops, though James was pouty when he learned that Bucky had plans to meet an old friend for dinner. Bucky’d a pointed look and Steve had nodded toward the card Herr Shultz had given him, laying innocuously on a side table near the entrance to the front hall. He trusted Bucky to meet their contact and get a proper tally on the situation. Meanwhile he needed to have a talk with Susann, the sooner the better. It had been some years since he’d visited … Peggy used to love it down there. They should all go, Steve decided. The children would enjoy it.

And they did. From the elevator ride down to the lobby to the carriage ride (Maria begged as soon as she heard the horses tinkling harness) over to the small intimate shops near the Old University. It was easy to fall in love with the old buildings, with their scarred walls (many that had survived the middle ages) and baroque finishings. It was a place with history echoing in every footstep, like an old mother full of stories just waiting for eager ears.

The traffic was slow at this time in the evening but Steve found he didn’t mind. Maria was a warm solid weight in his lap and even if Artur’s pointy elbows and knees gave him the odd jab as the boy twisted and turned to see absolutely everything worth seeing. it was nice. It had been too long since he’d enjoyed a carriage ride like this, someone’s thigh pressed close to his and their shoulders nudging one another’s companionably. Cars were faster and more practical these days but he hoped the city didn’t do away with the system entirely. There was something about it.

He felt a stare and glanced up, unsurprised to find Tony watching him, curiosity written on his face.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a look of nostalgia on you Cap.” Tony’s breath was warm tickling Stefen’s ear and his lips twisted into self-depreciating half smile.

“Been awhile, since I wasn’t rushing to get somewhere is all.”

 “Where are we going?” Natacha, who had been leaning over the side of the carriage to watch the swift steps of the horse turned to ask as they neared their destination, her blue eyes sparkling with excitement.

“Themen. I don’t know much about clothes but your mother used to shop here. Susann really knows her way around a needle so…” Steve shrugged, hoping Natacha wouldn’t be too disappointed.

“Oh I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful.” Natacha said, her eyes narrowing on the mannequins that lined glass windows as their carriage pulled up alongside the little boutique. She spoke with such vehemence that Steve doubted the universe had any choice but to comply.

Themen was just as Steve remembered it, the green paint on the door was still peeling and the silver bell still tinkled just the same way as they entered – so much so that a chill passed down Steve’s spine and for a moment the woman standing in front of the counter talking to Susann could only have been his Margrit, in one of those fashionable suites she liked (that her mother called mannish) and any minute now she was going to turn around in her bright red hat, and her precisely painted lips were going to spread into an exasperated smile because –

“I suppose you were just in the neighborhood Captain?”

“Captain Rogers?”

Steve jerked, slamming back to the present so fast it left him with an uncomfortable feeling of whiplash, his whole body tight with nerves. Tony gently touched his elbow and Steve looked down to stare at the fingers of his hand, dragging in a deep breath as he found his ground.

It was a hazy moment before Steve realized that it was Susann who was speaking but he was collected enough to offer a genuine smile for his old friend by the time the woman had come from behind the counter.

“Stefen I hardly believed my eyes!” Steve’s eyes went a little wide with shock as the woman threw her arms around him, squeezing tightly. She seemed not to care that he was in uniform or that she’d all but abandoned her customer, a stout woman with graying hair clutching a covered basket (she looked nothing like Peggy).

But then again Susann Richter had always been a bit too frank to care about social conventions when it came to friends. He’d always liked that about her.

“Susann, you look wonderful …” And she did, every inch of her Swedish heritage from her height to her fine blond hair presented at its best in the simple but elegant style Themen was so known for, but Steve stiffened, feeling the unmistakable poke of her stomach against his, and hastily stepped back as if he feared he’d burn her. “God you’re… congratulations!”

Susann’s eyes danced with quiet amusement at his reaction and next to him Tony coughed suspiciously into his hand. 

“Yes. I’m hoping for a girl this time. Between Frank and Ret I think I could use another woman around.” Turning, Susann’s eyes landed on the children, eyes sticking first on Péter and then Natacha. He thought he saw what might have been tears in the corner of her eye but with a toss of her head and a wide smile if ever they had been there, they were gone.

“Oh and you brought the children! You really should have told me you were coming I would have closed up.” Addressing Natacha and Péter directly she smiled warmly at them and said, “I haven’t seen either of you since you were just babies. You probably don’t remember me. I’m Susann Richter.”

She extended her hand first to Péter, who blushed as he reached for her hand. Tony shifted and Steve glanced at him just in time to catch the roll of his eyes and grinned. Natacha shook Susann’s hand with practiced firmness returning the woman’s broad smile.

 “You knew our mother?”

Susann nodded, surprised but pleased.

“Yes, she was one of my best clients and an even better friend.” She winked at Natacha before turning her attention to the other children who were eager to be introduced and bask in her attention.

“Oh, this is Ian, James, Artur,” Steve began to rattle off, gesturing to each child as he went. “The shy one is Maria and – “Sara marched forward and back in parade just like they did at home and Tony laughed. Steve’s cheeks felt hot.

“And this is Sara.” Nodding his head toward Tony he finished with, “Herr Stark. Their tutor.”

“Governess really.” Tony drawled shaking the woman’s hand. Susann barked a startled laugh even as the grey haired woman still standing at the counter, watching them unabashedly made a shocked noise. Steve glanced at her and she paled when their eyes met, flinching and looking away. He frowned, realizing that she looked frightened.

“Is that so? How scandalous.” Susann was saying.

“Oh To- I mean, Herr Stark, says he doesn’t mind watching children Frau Richter. He says that monks are especially good at capturing minds when they’re young.” Péter offered, cheeks turning pink again when Susann laughed, gaily.

That revelation was enough for Steve to pull his eyes away from the curious old woman and shoot Tony a look and the monk just smiled winsomely back. Susann’s eyes looked Tony up and down with amusement. There was a clever gleam in her blue eyes as she murmured, “A monk. I suppose it would take the grace of God to help you raise seven children on your own. Ret would burn the house down in a day.”

“I do have a staff Susann. They run the house just fine.” Steve grumbled. Susan hummed, but it sounded doubtful. She was still smiling pleasantly however when she asked.

“And what brings you back to my doorstep after so long?”

“They need clothes. That is -” Steve cleared his throat and tried again. “They have clothing of course. They need new ones.”

“We’re going to brunch with the Baroness.” Natacha supplied helpfully and Stefen nodded quickly, finding himself babbling.

“Yes, exactly, and perhaps to the park and the opera later in the week if…”

Steve trailed off as Maria drew in an excited breath, eyes going round as dinner plates. He could see her trembling against Tony’s side, pent to burst with excitement and Tony gave him a ‘now you’ve done it’ look.

Stefen grit his teeth. Taking all of them to the opera was going to cost a small fortune. He’d already spent too much on housing them all and Natacha had this hungry look in her eye that didn’t bode well as she eyed the clothing racks.

“Say no more Captain,” Susann said, taking pity on him. She seemed to remember her customer then because she hastily steered them over to a section filled with children’s sized clothing and saying, “Just let me finish up with Frau Neumann and I’ll be right over to help with measurements.”

The children attacked the racks with relish, and Steve tried to keep an eye on their progress while sneaking furtive glances at the counter where Susann was whispering with Frau Neumann, thankful that Tony was there to make sure they didn’t destroy any of Susann’s merchandise.

He couldn’t help but be suspicious. The woman was clearly nervous and wanting to leave the shop as quickly as possible. She was also wearing a shawl much too thick for late summer.

Steve realized with a sinking heart that she was selling her clothing as he watched her slide the basket over the counter and Susann examined its contents. A thick fur coat, and a stately men’s suit, joined a neatly folded pile of shimmery blouses on the countertop.

That was why she’d acted so strange. She was embarrassed. The ball of tightness in Steve’s chest began to ease and he turned his eyes away, giving the woman her privacy.

“Father can I get these?” little hands tugged on his jacket and Steve looked down, blanching at the sight of the navy blue short shorts that Artur was extending his way. He had the matching sailor top that went with it in his right hand, and there was even a floppy little cap pinned to the hangar. Steve hummed, buying time while trying to think up a nice way of saying he’d rather his son didn’t look like they had more money than good sense and too much of it to waste.

“Uh well…”

“That’s a nice outfit for brunch Artur, on a boat with Captain Ahab, but it’s not really suitable for having brunch with baronesses.” Tony came to the rescue. He had a similar pair of blue shorts draped over one arm (though they were thankfully longer) and a matching suit jacket hanging off a thin wire hanger. “But I like the color scheme. Let’s try this one.”

 “Who’s Captain Ahab?” Artur pouted his lip, but accepted the exchange.

“Who cares? We aren’t having brunch with him.” James, who was hugging a stripped vest to his chest, responded with a shrug. “Can we have brunch with Baroness Schrader on a boat?”

Tony opened his mouth.

“No.” Steve quickly interjected with a stern look.

Tony shrugged innocently, muttering, “the child like’s boats.”

Steve was about to reply but at that moment Frau Neumann pushed past them, nearly tripping over Ian who had crouched to examine a stack of folded fabric. The boy immediately stood up, reaching to steady her, an apology leaping off his lips.

The woman hastily backed away from him, like he might have been carrying some disease, muttering her own quick apology as she righted the shawl that had slipped down her shoulders and hurried from the shop.

Steve stared after her. It had only been a brief flash of color, there for a moment and then quickly covered, but Steve knew that he had not imagined seeing the yellow Star of David stitched onto her sleeve.

His eyes immediately flew to Susann, who was watching him closely, and then to Tony who was paying attention to neither of them. If he’d seen he didn’t show any sign of it.

He wanted to trust Tony, but he couldn’t be sure of where he stood on the Jewish problem. Sympathizing with an eccentric old soldier like Steve was one thing, Jews were entirely another.

Susann was crazy to have taken such a risk where anyone could have seen. If people found out she was still doing business with Jews she would lose her other customers, and much more besides.

Steve stared hard at her but she didn’t appear at all ruffled by it, meeting his gaze evenly as she clicked toward them on her low heels.

“Now let’s see what we have here children. Once you’ve made your final selections I’ll take your measurements and tailor them to you.” To Steve she said, “If you give me the address to where you’re staying I can have my girl deliver them to you in the morning.”

With Tony so close he dared not say anything so he just grit his teeth and nodded, body humming with tension. He watched as Susann took charge, taking suggestions and then making her own, giving each child attention and focus, and took Tony’s shameless flirting in stride.

They were all smitten with her, but Natacha in particular seemed in awe, the two of them giggling and whispering together as Susann took her measurements in such a feminine way that it made Steve itch uncomfortably. He was used to Natacha being so reserved and, well, sensible. He didn’t think he liked the secretive giggling and sly looks they kept giving him. He kept having to stifle the urge to make sure his shirt wasn’t untucked.

He wanted nothing more than to grab Susann and confront her about Frau Neumann but Natacha looked like she was having fun.

He held his peace.

“You were really a war nurse, like my mother?” he heard Natacha ask and his stomach clenched.

 “Yes.” Susann answered after a brief pause. “I learned a lot from my father, he’s a surgeon, I even had some schooling. With the war on… well I wanted to help.”

A pang of sympathy helped cool some of Steve’s lingering anger. He’d never doubted that Susann enjoyed her life or the business she’d built to support her family, but he also knew how smart she was. She was every bit as smart as her father and maybe, in a different world, she might have been a brilliant doctor herself one day.

And yet she was reduced to the role of invisible partner speaking through her husband, her many contributions to his work left unacknowledged.

Not that Ret wasn’t a brilliant man in his own right. Susann was lucky to have found someone like Ret who cared far more about the research itself than the gender of the person providing the data, but the world did not share the same obsession with data as Richter. Few did really. It was kind of creepy if Steve were honest.

With Natacha finished Susann hurried back to fetch a leather bound journal from behind the counter, quickly scribbling each child’s name and writing numbers next to it. Steve followed, as nonchalantly as he could.

“How is Risteard?” He asked out of politeness, struggling for a moment to remember her reclusive husband’s proper name. Steve had only met the man in person the once. Risteard “Ret” Richter was not what anyone would call a social animal. He was one of those scholars that people called an intellectual when they were being polite, and a massive bore as soon as his back was turned. When he couldn’t be found in a lecture hall at the university he was likely to be found buried in research. Tony would probably like him.

It had never made any sense to Steve why a woman like Susann would saddle herself with a man even less romantic than him, but love was funny like that he guessed.

Something twitched on Susann’s face and Stefen’s eyes caught the barely perceptible tightening of her lips. Her smile was strained when she answered.

“Very busy. They asked him to go to Germany to work with a coalition of scientists in Dachau.”

Steve stared at her, shock bleeding all expression off his face. Unless there was more going on in Dachau then his Intel had provided she could only be talking about one thing.

Project X-Gemina, or simply Project X as his contact had called it.

He wasn’t supposed to know about it because no one was. Steve had only spoken of it in hushed whispers and over secretive phone calls. The last place he’d ever expected to hear it talked about, and so openly at that, was in a dress shop in the middle of Vienna.

Susann must have noticed the look on his face because she grimaced.

“It’s not the cosmos, but they were impressed by the paper we wrote on ultraviolet waves and their geographical effect on reproduction – ” She paused, her mouth tightening once more and she sighed. “He can’t tell me much about it of course but he expects he’ll be of some help to the project.”

Steve’s mind was racing, suddenly regretting bringing the children with him. He needed to talk to her alone.

“Susann, be thankful you’re not involved.” He kept his voice low, as not to startle the others, but she heard the danger in it.

“What do you mean? Is Ret in trouble?” She began but she fell silent when Steve shook his head in warning. Mouth settling in a firm line she bent to scribble the last of her notes with a decisive scribble.

“I’ll have these orders ready for you by tomorrow Captain. Enjoy your evening with your family, but on second thought, the girl who does the running has not been well. Can you come by early to pick up your things?”

Her intentions clear, relief and reluctant admiration trickled through him as he took the slip Susann handed him with a grim nod. He’d known there was a reason he’d always liked her.

 

~*~*~*~

 

“They’re never going to get to sleep now.” Stefen remarked as he watched the three younger boys throw pebbles into the fountain, the ice from their cones slowly beginning to melt and dribble between their fingers.

“Their first night in the city loaded up on sugar? They’ll crash by midnight.” Tony snickered. “And I hope you enjoy skinny elbows and pokey knees in your back because Artur is adamant on sharing with you.”

Stefen smiled wistfully, watching as Artur sucked the sticky residue of melted cream off his fingers, and plopped back down into his seat at Tony’s side on the bench.

“It’s probably just deserts,” the captain said after a moment and when Tony arched a brow in question his lips twisted in a sheepish half smile. “Bucky was always complaining I was made of sticks.”

Tony chuckled, leaning back against the bench.

Picturesque. He thought. The night was the very definition of it.

The lantern lit streets casting light against the cobblestones, the stars above, the bubbling fountain at their backs, the happy chatter of the children only interrupted by the eager sound of wet slurping, the sweet cold slide of ice-cream on his tongue, the spice of cologne in his nose as Stefen leaned across him to wipe Artur’s sticky face.

A well-dressed woman on the arm of a gentlemen paused just slightly in her step, her eyes taking in the large family sitting by the fountain enjoying their after super treat. Her eyes, watching Stefen, went soft with fondness before meeting Tony’s briefly in curiosity before her attention was pulled away by the gentlemen at her side.

They were gone in a whiff of sweet perfume and musky cologne, just a single part of one of the many people walking off their dinners on their way to the evening’s entertainment.

Tony could remember few times before this moment when he’d ever been so halcyon. But no sooner had the realization settled upon him, it was followed by guilt twisting through his belly, Frau Neumann’s frightened face filling his mind.

He’d seen the star on her sleeve when her shawl had slipped but dared not draw attention to it, neither wanting to put her or the kindly Frau Richter at risk. But Stefen had seen. Tony had seen it on his face as he’d watched the woman flee the shop. He’d held his breath terrified at what Stefen might do.

Nothing, as it turned out. Though Tony was sure that Stefen meant to have words with his old friend if the sudden decision to pick the clothes up himself in the morning was anything to go by.

But Tony couldn’t help but feel a sense of wonder at it, bitter sweet as it was. Over and over again the thought circulated in his mind that Stefen had seen and had done nothing.

Tony couldn’t help but look at him once more, sure that his eyes betrayed the same softness as that woman’s had as they drank Stefen in. He knew what he wanted, and he knew it was an impossible foolish dream, and yet he could not shake the hope.

Because something had changed with Stefen. Tony couldn’t say why it was, but the Stefen who had come through the door that afternoon was different from the man who had left them, who was even more different still from the cold man Tony had met that first day in the music room.

He was relaxed even as he was more attentive in his interactions with them.

Purposeful, Tony decided. That was a good word for it. Stefen had found new purpose.

Tony was as anxious as he was curious to know what purpose Stefen could have discovered in the last few weeks to bring about these changes, because it struck him as eerily familiar.

He knew what a man looked like when he’d made his peace with death and the boldness it gave you when you realized it was all over but the shouting. This was a savored sunrise.

He’d walked that line himself not long ago. He was still walking it in truth, but he could not say he found acceptance as easy as he once had. How could he, when the want of something was opening up inside him begging for fulfillment?

He couldn’t have this, not forever. But he had the night and he was just selfish enough to take whatever it would give him.

“What’s so funny?” Stefen asked at the chuckle that erupted from Tony’s chest and Tony shook his head slowly, still grinning at the ridiculousness of it all.

“Romeo and Juliet. Ever read it?”

The captain blinked in surprise and shook his head, looking somewhat embarrassed as he said, “My schooling came pretty late in life, and even then… not a lot of time for Shakespeare. What’s so funny about them?”

“A pair of zealous idiots who threw away their lives for love?” Tony sneered and Stefen laughed. “Just about everything.”

“What’s wrong with that? It’s romantic.” Ian asked, taking a lick of his cone and beside him Natacha rolled her eyes.

“I think it was silly.”

“You think everything’s silly Tacha.” Péter drawled with a roll of his own eyes and Tony caught the way she poked her tongue out at him.

He was grinning as Stefen asked, “They’re reading Shakespeare?”

“It’s our literature this week!” Maria confirmed with an eager smile. “Tony says, after we finish we can start Les Misérables.” There was a wistful gleam in her eye and Stefen smiled, though there was something shadowed that passed over his expression when he looked at Tony.

Anxiety tightened Tony’s chest. And why not? It was heavy material, featuring a cast of undesirables. Definitely not Reich approved.

“That’s heavy reading don’t you think?” Stefen drawled and Tony tensed.

“So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” He snapped defensively, though he didn’t know why he expected Stefen to understand the reference or to care, when Tony was teaching his children banned material. So he went with the strategy of saying as much of whatever else came to mind as possible, in the hopes that maybe Stefen would get distracted and forget to be angry.

“I know it can get a bit dark, but so can the world, and better that they work through these things in a safe environment. The glass box always shatters Captain, and in my defense Sara naps during literature anyway and the rest of your children are uncommonly bright. They’ve already read everything available to them in the house twice over. Maria was picking her way through your copy before I ever got involved.” he rambled. “It’s in French did you know? She doesn’t even speak it. Well she does now, we’ve been learning, but my point –”

Stefen placed a hand firmly over Tony’s mouth and Tony jerked to a halt, surprised at the touch. He heard James snicker but he couldn’t take his eyes off of Stefen whose palm was a warm, barely there pressure against his mouth, but Tony was so aware of it he swore he could feel every hair on his body rise.

“Stark,” Stefen’s voice was rough but his eyes were warm with amusement. “It’s fine.”

Tony swallowed and when Stefen’s eyes followed the movement his cock twitched with interest. For a split moment he entertained the thought of slipping Stefen’s fingers into his mouth, but however stirring a fantasy it was, he was keenly aware of both the fact that they were in public and that the captains seven-year-old boy was giggling gleefully at their silliness not even an inch away.

Tony made a disgusted expression and pulled Stefen’s hand away from his face.

“Disgusting. I’ve watched you wipe germy noses and sticky faces with that hand Cap.”

Artur snorted loudly and then coughed as he choked on a mouthful of ice-cream. The others couldn’t help but laugh at the sound, but Tony became concerned when Artur continued to cough, his face screwing up with discomfort. Tony reached for him to begin patting his back, anxious that perhaps a piece of his cone had become lodged in his throat.

But after a moment more the coughing subsided and Artur curled against his side, content to continue licking away at his ice-cream between quiet wheezy breaths. 

Tony looked to Stefen for answers, not liking that sound at all, and Stefen leaned over him once more to stroke Artur’s brow, concern etched deeply onto his face.

“His asthma.” He murmured lowly and Tony’s frantic mind did manage to remember it had been on the list of the children’s illnesses. Honestly that list had been so long that it had all begun to blur before Tony had even finished reading what was wrong with Péter. He felt a flash of guilt, because somewhere along the line after he’d become suspicious of Péter’s heart condition he’d begun operating under the assumption that he need not mind that list at all.

“It’s not your fault Tony,” Stefen read his mind and Tony looked up at him, startled to realize how tightly he was holding Artur. “His bouts are usually pretty minor. He’s had a big day.”

“We have haven’t we?” Tony murmured, relief washing through him as he stroked Artur’s soft hair.

“Mother used to give us warm baths when we were little.” Ian informed them, biting his lip worriedly. “It helps when your chest rattles.”

“She’d sing to us too.” James murmured and Tony nodded, looking down at Artur.

“What do you say bambino, home and a nice warm bath?”

Artur coughed once more before he dejectedly stuffed the rest of his partially bitten cone into his mouth. His face screwed up in misery he stuck his arms out in a request to be carried and Tony chuckled, despite himself.

“Is Artur going to be okay father?” he heard Maria ask meekly as he rose with Artur in his arms, and Tony was grateful when the captain stooped to pick the little girl up and press a kiss to her hair.

“He’s going to be fine.” He murmured lowly as they began the walk toward the road.

“Do you think it would help to sing about our favorite things?” She asked and Stefen looked to Tony with confusion.

“I presume this is something you taught them?”

“It’s a song for when you’re feeling bad.” Tony explained. “When I had trouble sleeping my mother would sing to me about her favorite things.”

“Like what?” Stefen asked curiously and from where she was trailing along beside Natacha Sara began to sing, effectively ending the debate.

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.”

Tony laughed. Winking at Stefen he opened his mouth and quietly added his voice to hers as he gently rubbed Artur’s back.

Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. Brown paper packages tied up with strings. These are a few of my favorite things.

 

~*~~*~

 

Steve sloshed warm water over Artur's neck and shoulders, careful to keep the water off of his head. The air in the bathroom was thick and steamy, perfumed with the scent of lavender from a box of salts that Tony had found in the linen cupboard.

Steve frowned, as Artur coughed, blinking sleepily up at him from where he rested against the rim of the tub. Despite the soothing heat of the water the rattling cough had not completely subsided, though the wheezing was thankfully less audible.  

“It's too hot, vati.” Artur leaned into the arm Steve had rested on the brim of the tub, looking up with tired miserable eyes.

It shouldn’t be too hot. Steve had tested the water twice. Just to be sure he dipped his fingers again.

“We’re almost done, Artry,” he murmured gently. He wanted to give it a few more minutes in the steam to be completely rid of that rattle. Artur didn’t complain. He just continued to cling to Steve as he had done since Steve had carried him in from the car. While Tony had gone to gotten Sara undressed Péter had drawn the bath. Steve had just stood there holding his son, remembering the misery of his own youthful illnesses all too keenly as he rubbed his child’s back. Artur had clutched at his shirt, his entirely too long legs dangling listlessly in midair.

He’d traid every bit of strength he’d gained over the years to switch places with Artur now, just so his child wouldn’t be in pain.

Even after he drained the tub his normally playful little boy did nothing but shake and cling to him while Steve dried him off.

“How's he doing?” Tony asked, leaning on the door frame. His dark eyes settled on Steve, all the intense and worried. 

“Better, he's not wheezing as much but I want him in bed as soon as possible. He needs his rest.”

The moment he said it Artur began to wiggle, his voice wobbling pathetically as he clutched at Steve’s side.

“Can Tony sleep with us, vati?”

Steve’s eyes flew to Tony, who stared back cleared as taken off guard as he was.

“Artur Tony has his own bed.” He reminded as gently as he was able but Artur began to tear up, his little face screwing up miserably as he pressed his running nose and teary eyes to Steve’s thigh.

“No, vati.”

Steve looked to Tony helplessly.

“Maybe I’d better take him for the night?” the monk fretted, but Artur didn’t seem to like this suggestion any better, sobbing now as he locked both arms around Steve as he shook and shuddered.

“No. No vati, I want you.” As Artur’s voice trailed out into full on wailing. Steve scooped him up and held him close to his chest, heart clenching painful in his chest.

“Tony would you please?” He pleaded, looking apologetically at the monk who looked supremely uncomfortable all of a sudden. “I know it’s an inconvenience but it’s just for the night. He’ll be more reasonable when he feels better.”

“Tony?” Artur mewled, lifting one hand to reach for Stark as he stepped closer, and at the gesture the tension melted off the man’s face as he gripped Artur’s letting hand and rubbed it tenderly.

“Sure, Cap. It’s not a bother.”

Steve smiled at him, awash with relief and mouthed a thank you as he carried Artur into the bedroom.

 

~*~~*~

 

Steve lay awake listening as his son’s breaths slowly evened out, the wheezing fading as he slid into sleep, the hand he had rested on the child’s back rising and falling with each breath. He counted each one, the fear that they might suddenly stop at any moment repeatedly snatching him back from the edges of sleep.

“He’s alright Stefen,” Tony murmured from the other side of the bed. He was curled up behind Maria who in turn was clutching Artur close in her sleep, her dark hair tangled over her face.  

“I should have seen that he was struggling.” He confessed, his eyes searching Tony’s for the condemnation he knew he deserved but he was met with rich warm brown orbs, so heartbreakingly gentle that Steve wanted to hide from them. But he couldn’t bring himself to look away.

“None of us did.” Tony reminded him “But it’s alright now. He’s safe and his breathing is getting better by the minute. You can close your eyes you know.”

The thought of closing his eyes to sleep with Artur ill terrified him, unable to shake the fear that he’d slip away while Steve slept the way so many of his comrads had done in the mountains, that he’d wake to shake Arturawake only to realize his body had gone cold in the night that the sleep that gripped him was final. He tensed up, clenching his teeth tightly together prepared to shake his head adamantly before Tony’s hand slipped over his.

“Just for a little while,” he murmured. “I’ll take first watch.”

And the realization that he wasn’t alone in this, that Tony wasn’t going to try and make him ignore the fear, but that Tony would help hit him like a speeding car, a shuddering breath eeking out of his chest as slowly every tight muscle in his body eased, leaving him feeling weak and drained.

“You won’t – you won’t let –“ he tried to get out over a thick tongue and Tony just watched him with sympathy, pity thankfully nowhere in sight.

“I won’t let anything happen to him Stefen, trust me.”

Steve wanted to tell Tony that trust was much easier to demand than to give, and to confess that he hadn’t trusted someone enough to risk sharing a bed with them since Peggy. But somewhere in the middle of his exhausting swirl of thoughts he’d closed his eyes. He opened them only briefly when a sound from the door pinged at his senses, but Tony’s low voice in his ear eased him back into sleep.

He was only vaguely aware of a small body wriggling across his to join them in the bed.

 

~*~*~~*

 

The morning dawned bright and sunny. Stefen had been up and out of bed before the light had even begun to penetrate the curtains, his furtive movements waking Tony momentarily before he fell back into sleep again.

He was woken when the sun was doing its level best to penetrate the silk canopy surrounding the bed and a pair of little fingers decided to test his wakefulness by poking him repeatedly on the cheek.

“Tony?” a little voice that Tony would have called sweet at any other hour whined. “I have to use the bathroom.”

Tony groaned, squeezed his eyes shut and attempted to burrow deeper under the covers. He’d stayed up most the night before Stefen had woken in the wee hours to relieve him from his watch. He hadn’t thought that Steve would truly be angry if he fell asleep before then but couldn’t bring himself to do it when he remembered the haunted look in Stefen’s eyes. He’d given his word and that was that.

Still he was exhausted and nothing short of the second coming was going to pull him out of bed before noon.

A moment later however his nose twitched, the familiar scent of coffee wafting through the room and he kicked the covers off, blinking blearily through sleep gummed eyes, following his nose to where Bakhuizen was standing beside the bed sipping smugly from a tall mug.

He’d thrust open the canopy so that the light streaming in from the windows pierced Tony’s eyeballs.  Tony closed his eyes, a pathetic sound whimpering past his lips and he could practically feel Bakhuizen’s smirk.

“Sara has to go to the bathroom.”

Tony blinked blearily down at the little girl who squirmed in the bed next to him wondering how on earth she’d gotten there before he remembered that she’d joined them in the middle of the night, chased by a bad dream.

“Sara has a perfectly good uncle.” he grumbled, wiping at his eyes.

“No.” Sara immediately latched onto Tony’s arm, shaking her blond head profusely. “You.”

“Sounds like she wants you.” Bakhuizen took a slow sip of his coffee and Tony watched his throat move covetously as he imagined the smooth dark liquid disappearing down the man’s ungrateful gullet.

“Better be quick about it Stark. We need to get the kids fed and dressed if they’re going to have enough time for lessons before brunch. Stevie wants them to make a good impression.”

Right. Brunch with the baroness. The woman Stefen had an understanding with. Tony lumbered out of bed, nudging Artur awake (who was sprawled out like a starfish in the middle of the bed, one arm thrown over Maria) as he went.  If he did so with a scowl, it was only because he’d never been much of a morning person to begin with and he was dog tired on top of it.

Stefen returned just as they were wrapping up the days abridged lessons, the clothes from Themen in hand. There was relatively ordered chaos for a while as faces were scrubbed, bows were tied and shoes shined.

They were nearly ready when James looked up from where Tony was helping him fasten his suspenders, toward where Stefen was standing chatting with Bakhuizen on the couch, and asked curiously, “When are you going to sleep with the baroness?”

Stefen looked toward the boy with alarm crawling all over his face and choked on a swallow of coffee. Tony did not feel at all bad for him, but at least he stifled his snicker. Unlike Bakhuizen.

“Pardon me?” the captain snapped when he could breathe again, expression dumbfounded.

“When are you going to sleep with the baroness?” James repeated, heedless of the danger. “I heard the maids say that they didn’t think you’d slept with anyone since mama died. Julia said it’s a terrible waste.”

Stefen’s mouth dipped into a dangerous scowl and Tony bit his lip to keep from laughing. Tony had a feeling the maids were in for it when they got back.

“It’s not something for you to worry about.” Stefen replied stiffly but James was confused and embarrassed now, which just made for a battle of stubborn on stubborn.

“I’m not worried and I’m not a baby like Artur, I can know things! What’s the big deal? It’s just sleeping.” the little boy insisted heatedly, crossing his arms over his chest as he glared at his father.

“I’m not a baby!” Artur immediately snapped back. It would probably have been more convincing had he not had to take his fingers out of his mouth to do it.

And not that Tony didn’t appreciate the trickiness of the situation, but he couldn’t help but be anything but amused by the picture James and the captain made facing off with jaws clenched and arms crossed.

“We’re not discussing this. That’s the end of it!” Captain Rogers (and it was truly no less than the return of the vaunted Captain Rogers) snapped and James flinched, before swelling up like a puffer fish.

“Well I want to talk about it!”

Over on the couch Bakhuizen groaned like a man in need of a stiff drink.

“James, buddy, let it go. That’s no way to speak to your Da.” And before Stefen could open his mouth to add his two cents, he snapped in the captain’s direction.  “And any time you want to quit arguing with an eight-year-old, Charlotte’s waiting on us.”

That little matter settled (or not settled at all depending on your view) Bakhuizen called for a pair of cabs so that by the time the large family spilled out of the elevators (and Tony dragged James and Péter away from the attendant whom they were pestering with questions – a bright fellow who as it turned out was studying at the university when not working at the hotel, and whom Tony would really have liked to spend more time except Stefen had misplaced his priorities and insisted they couldn’t be late. As if his sweetheart was going to start without them) and finally made it out the front doors, they were right on schedule for a timely lunch with Baroness Schrader.

Stefen did not share Tony’s optimistic view, nervously twitching and grinding his teeth the entire drive to the cottage district; because it would just be the worst sort of shame if they offended his good friend the baroness. Tony, by contrast, was in a brilliant mood.

 

~*~~*~

 

Everyone said that Charlotte Shrader was a perfect match for Captain Rogers in every way. They were correct (but not for the reasons they thought they were).

They shared a certain familiarity, what with Charlotte’s grandmother being a Von Trap. She’d maid a fantastic marriage into a noble family (rich in title but hurting in purse) and even though the title was obsolete now, Charlotte had never been allowed to forget that she was related to emperors and princes (however distantly) though she didn’t care so much about that.

It certainly didn’t stop her being anxious as the vehicles carrying Stefen and his children pulled up the drive. It was not every day you met the children of the man you intended to marry.

“Are you nervous Frauline?” Agneta, her housekeeper, asked and Charlotte smoothed the nonexistent wrinkles in the skirt of her dress.

“I’ve never fared well with children. Let’s hope today proves to be the exception.” It wasn’t that Charlotte hated children, it was just that she’d never had any particular use for them. She was an only child herself with few cousins.

She’d always kept busy with a variety of activities and causes) had gained quite the reputation among the Viennese socialites for her forthright and formidable nature) and motherhood had never held any great appeal for her. 

In its way it was perfect that Stefen already had so many children. He was not likely to want more.

“They’re sure to love you as fiercely as the captain does.” Agneta reassured and Charlotte’s lips twisted into a dry little grin.

She had no doubt that at heart Captain Rogers was a very passionate man, but she would never apply that word to his regard for her. Their evening at the prince’s welcoming ball was a prime example if ever she’d needed one. He’d spent most of it either holding up the wall or talking about the military with Prince Thor, hardly paying any attention to her at all.

Charlotte Shrader was a perfect match for Captain Rogers because she knew him. He was a man who carried the world on his shoulders and war in his heart. His apathetic approach to their relationship might have broken a lesser woman. Charlotte was made of stronger stuff.

 

~*~~*~

 

The baroness served them in the garden. Her home was along the lines of what Tony had expected. Larger than what many could afford but quaint in its own way, filled with old furnishings and family heirlooms. The garden was well kept if somewhat unimaginative and Tony knew she didn’t spend any great deal of thought on it, leaving it to some likely overpaid Gardner.

It was dotted and line with cedar and maple trees, its crowning feature a glittering fish pond with a small bubbling fountain at the center.

The children, having already gobbled down their meal and grown bored with the adult conversation had been told to go “play, but they were mostly just wandering about the paved paths whispering amongst themselves. Natacha and Péter had elected to stay behind, perhaps to feel more adult, but Tony could tell Péter was regretting the choice as his eyes glazed with boredom.

Baroness Schrader certainly kept the conversation going, aided by Bakhuizen’s sharp wit, and Tony’s excellent conversational skills but Stefen had regressed to grunts and short answers, his discomfort at the table obvious. Tony did his best to relax him, steer the conversation away from those trigger topics he was noticing, and draw him out of his shell. He was having mixed success because it turned out that the Baroness was some sort of social activist and wanted to know the churches opinion on any number of topics that tended to make Stefen tight lipped. If Farkas only knew that Tony was being asked to speak for the church he’d probably roll his eyes back so far he’d lose the good one.

“Jobs are needed, absolutely, which is why more support should be given to the sciences. Industry is how we employ the public.” Tony was saying to Stefen’s suggestion that the previous years of civil unrest and poverty that had plagued the country was rooted in a lack of support for the common man. “As many people as you pay to think it, you employ ten times that to build it Captain.”

“Stark I’ve worked in the factories.” Stefen replied with a grim sigh, but he was sitting forward in his chair leaning toward Tony now, rebuttal practically leaping off his tongue which was all that Tony could really ask for even if they were in disagreement. “I’ve seen their conditions. We can’t keep allowing the wealthy to horde gains and squandering the rest. It’s a recipe for disaster every time.”

“You worked in a factory?” Charlotte asked, one blond brow quirked in interest and Stefen jerked his eyes toward her looking momentarily confused by her question before nodding jerkily. Tony wondered what the baroness thought of her beau getting his hands dirty on a factory floor. But if Charlotte thought anything of it at all she certainly didn’t let it show as she continued to sip from her cup.

“It paid the best, when you could find someone willing to give you a shift or two,” Bakhuizen filled in, waving the cigarette he held precisely between two fingers. “Stefen’s right, it was miserable. I prefer not to think about it. Let’s change the subject.”

“Yes. We’re all familiar with your preferences James,” the baroness murmured, a sly glint in her eyes and Bakhuizen chuckled richly. Seeing the curious expression on Natacha’s face the woman smiled, tilting her head toward Bakhuizen. “One day, a fellow like him is going to come along Natacha and try to convince you you’re his whole world. What he fails to tell you is that the next girl will be his stars and moon.”

“He’s a flirt.” Natacha stated candidly and Stefen snorted.

“Your uncle Bucky is just lucky the universe is so big else he’d run out of flattery.” Tony couldn’t help but laugh, hastily aborting a swallow of his spritzer. Even Bakhuizen threw back his head and laughed like this was the funniest thing he’d heard in a long time but Tony noticed that Natacha’s expression remained quite thoughtful.

“Stars are illusions.” She muttered almost under her breath. When she realized the odd looks she was getting she straightened, taking a dainty bite of pasty. “I just mean that we don’t see them as they actually are. They’re pretty only because we can’t get close to them. I don’t think I’d like being someone’s stars.”

“Really?” Péter needled, munching on a corner of his sandwich. He barely finished swallowing before he finished with, “I bet if one of those fellows you read about in your magazines called you his stars you’d give him a second look.”

Natacha gave him a sharp look and Péter winced, grumbling under his breath. Tony suspected she’d stomped on his foot.

“Your children are so clever Captain.” Charlotte turned to Stefen with a look that Tony could only classify as adoring. It seemed practiced. “You must bring them to the officer’s ball. Claudia would adore them.”

Natacha and Péter immediately perked up, squabble forgotten. The captain, Tony noticed, sat straighter in his chair, a tension appearing around the lines of his mouth that had not been there a moment before.

“It’s not a place for children.” He said and Natacha’s face fell. The baroness, seeing this, squeezed the arm she had entwined with the captain’s leaning all the closer and tilting her head in such a way that Tony knew only emphasized the length of her eyelashes.

“Oh don’t be such a bore Stefen. I was much older than these two when my parents started dragging me to balls. All our friends talk about it you know, how we never see your children. You’d think you were hiding them.”

And Tony couldn’t say what it was that made the pieces click together when they hadn’t before. Maybe it was the carefully blank expression on Bakhuizen’s face or the stiffening of Stefen’s shoulders. Maybe it was just hearing someone else say it out loud.

It’s as if you’re hiding them.

And that was exactly it wasn’t it? Because Charlotte and the gossipy ladies of her social circle couldn’t know the full extent of it. How could they without the full picture?

They couldn’t know that before Tony’s arrival the children had not been outside their own home in three years and even before that they’d not traveled far. They couldn’t know that they had a list of mysterious ailments as long as Tony’s arm that had prevented them from going to public school or (until recently) engaging in the mandated Nazi youth program.

They had no reason to speculate on Stefen’s upbringing because as soon as they heard ‘farming town’ and ‘Poland’ they filled in with ‘poor and foreign’ and either sneered or politely ignored the subject entirely.

Consequently they weren’t there when his guard fell and those little nuggets fell out of the jumbled bag of puzzle pieces that made up his past.

They didn’t know about the mother that had taught Natacha to dance, or the grandfather who had made him and his brother of choice their first instruments (didn’t see him cut the music away from himself or care about the obvious scars left behind) and they didn’t know about the uncles – these faceless men he mentioned in the glaring absence of a father – and therefore could never fathom that the loss he carried around with him might be bigger than the death of his wife.

And most tellingly of all they didn’t know how much he loved his children, and therefore could not contemplate the things he might do to protect them.

That terror that he’d witnessed in Stefen’s eyes couldn’t be explained away by whatever rebellion he was involved in, because if that was the case he had only to stop. With what he had to lose Tony might not even have judged him too harshly. But Stefen did not behave like a man afraid of the consequences of his actions. He behaved like the hunted.

Tony could have kicked himself for not recognizing the pattern for what it was. Hadn’t he and his mother been kept out of the public eye, only to be trotted out when some necessity demanded it, their lives kept largely a mystery?

Hadn’t Tony been tutored privately and forbidden from doing anything that Hughard deemed too ‘Jewish’ or might lead someone to suspect he came from that stock? Hadn’t Hughard paid people to conveniently forget that Maria Carboni was a convert on Tony’s birth records? And hadn’t he, upon suspecting potential betrayal, arranged for Tony to be tucked out of sight in the one place he couldn’t be touched, even if it meant stripping away his entire identity?

The thought left a sour taste in his mouth. He clenched his hands under the table as he chest panged with pain. He didn’t want to believe that Stefen was anything like Hughard, or to sympathize with any of his father’s choices where Tony and his mother were concerned, but that he could admit was childish.

The man had not been a monster… but his mistakes had been many and while he was no longer alive to either realize that or make recompense, Stefen very much was and that, Tony knew, was the reason behind why he’d changed.

For better or for worse he’d taken them out of hiding.  It didn’t surprise Tony one bit when Stefen, after a long moment of consideration and a telling glance at Bakhuizen, slowly nodded in agreement.

“You might be right.” He allowed. And when his eyes caught Tony’s once more they pulled, filled with an unspoken plea that Tony answered with a small smile of reassurance. “Someone told me that I was overprotective. It’s hard to help, but we should go together. As a family.”

 

~*~~*~

 

Susann and Ret lived in an old apartment building not far from her shop. The walls of number ten Alcot Ave had survived for over a century and though were cracked and crumbling in some places they stood firm, ready it seemed to stand a century more.

The days were moving by too quickly. Stefen’s mornings filled with meetings and paperwork as the army mobilized itself and prepared to take its first steps into what inevitably would become a war for the world (for life as they knew it).

His evenings were spent with his family, and occasionally Charlotte whom Steve was relieved to see unaffected by the children’s addition to their limited time together. A gracious and practical woman to a fault, Steve had to agree with Bucky that she’d likely make a fine mother.

He could tell that she was not entirely comfortable in the arena of parenthood, but that was only to be expected. He had to give her credit for putting forth an effort at least. She’d asked permission to steal Natacha from her lessons that morning in order to take the girl with her to a breakfast with the Christian Women’s Charity Society.

It was one of the few organizations the Nazi’s had not yet banned, in an attempt to maintain the appearance of tolerance with the church. Many of these women had formally been members of the Fatherland Front before the Nazi party had taken control and even though Steve firmly disagreed with many of their views, it was a moot point now with the Reich in control. Old wounds weren’t worth denying Natacha a chance to bond with Charlotte. Things headed the way they were, that was more important now than ever.

The other children had wanted to spend the day at the Park but Steve and Bucky only had a short window of time to organize their mission and could not afford to waist the rest of the day. Still, he’d hated to disappoint them. He’d almost been glad when Thor’s invitation to join him at the opera that night had come it was a chance to ask the Prince for one more dangerous favor as well as please his children. He’d still had to agree to take them to the park another day (because they were no fools and nothing if not opportunistic) but when they’d left that morning for a trip to the Albertina museum for an art lesson they’d been in good spirits so Steve counted it as a win.

Susann answered the door after the first knock, wordlessly ushering him inside. Stepping into the small sitting room he stood awkwardly, his hat held between his hands until Susann insisted he take a seat and not to mind the clutter. Her brother Jonny was in town again and she said that between him and her nine-year-old son it was a wonder the place hadn’t fallen down.  Stefen didn’t mind the toys and other nick-knacks spread across the sitting room. It gave the small space a certain kind of intimacy that was missing in the grand homes.

“And how is Jon?” Steve asked out of politeness as Susann tidied up. She made a rude sound under her breath as she gathered the magazines on the coffee table into a small stack.

“Flighty as ever. Worse even, if you can imagine it, now that there is so much pressure to enlist. Of course, all Jonny wants to do is race.”

Stefen winced sympathetically.

“Dangerous profession.”

“Sport,” she corrected tiredly. “Everything is sport to Jonny.”

Steve was about to answer when one of the magazine’s slipped from her stack and fell to the floor. He moved just when she did to pick up the fallen object. He was faster.

The cover caught his eye and he paused, recognizing the picture before he ever read the title sprawled across the top in bold letters.

“Frank loves Captain Adventure.” Susann murmured lowly, gently prying the thin little book from his hands. “I didn’t see the harm.”

“You shouldn’t leave this out,” he warned, tensing under Susan’s assessing stare. “I know you think I’m being overbearing, but I don’t think you fully understand the risks you’re taking. I know I came here to ask you for help…”

Stefen swallowed past the tightness in his throat and clenched his hands. He was the worst sort of hypocrite, but he needed to say this.

“But I can’t help but think of Ret and Frank, and wonder what they would do without you. I wouldn’t blame you for sitting this out.”

He waited in the stiff silence for her reply, sure that it would be something sharp. She’d not taken well to his lecture the other morning about Frau Neumann and the reckless way she’d put herself and her family at risk. He was here because it was her choice, and Susann had watched a fair amount of choices be denied her already. He understood that too well, but he still did not want to see her get hurt.

“I understood the risks well enough when I subscribed to the magazine Stefen. Nothing has changed.” She spoke with carefulness as she took the seat next to him on the worn couch. She primly smoothed the wrinkles of her apron before pinning him with a frank stare.

“Except that if your information is correct, my husband is now deeply involved in a dangerous experiment that he cannot condone; but you know better than anyone the Reich leaves us with few choices. Conformity or rebellion is all there is Stefen. And much as I would like there to be, there is no middle ground. Not here.”

“You don’t have to be a martyr Susann, to feel you’ve done the right thing.” He shot back. “There is no shame in protecting your family. You have a responsibility to them too.”

“You’re blatantly missing my point. “ She tapped the cover where the brave young Captain was depicted facing off against a pair of soldiers while guarding a frightened woman. “Since the issues started coming everyone in the network has wondered who the artist is. Stefen, I think you are the last man on earth who can lecture me on martyrdom. I know that I can’t stop you, and I’m not sure I’d try if I could. ”

Steve started, going still with shock and Susann smiled thinly.

There was a moment of quiet while Steve processed her words, unable to come up with anything to say against them. She was right.

He returned Susann’s smile with a twist of lips somewhere between a smile and a grimace.

“Susann, you know that if I had a better way I wouldn’t have come to you?”

“Of course not. You always think that only you are responsible for taking the risks.” She replied with a sardonic lilt and Stefen didn’t bother trying to argue against that point either.

“Xavier is willing to finance the extraction.” He began and Susann nodded, attentively, her eyes narrowed slightly as she focused on him. “If Ret is willing to provide the Intel and help us recover Dr. Leshner it would help the mission to go a lot smoother.”

“We’re both willing.” Susann said with quiet conviction and Steve nodded in acknowledgement.

“The first step is to get the twins to safety. They will be coming on a river boat at an unspecified date and time. I will send word through the magazine but for security’s sake there won’t be much warning.” Steve instructed reaching into the breast pocket of his jacket and withdrawing a pair of envelopes.

“An operative will bring them to your residence where they will need to stay until the boat leaves from Belgium. When the boat is in dock we’ll come and get them. This money is for their upkeep, and for you to make arrangements for transport to London for yourself and Frank.” Steve waved one of the envelopes and slipped it across the table. “When we pull Ret and the others out of Dachu you’ll need to be gone before the police come looking here. A number is in there to get in contact with the professor. You know what code to give him.”

Susann nodded, tucking the envelope into the pocket of her apron and glanced at the remaining one curiously, but she did not press.

 Lip twitching in the beginning of a smile Steve slid the second envelope toward her.

“This is for anyone you feel might need it,” he instructed with a meaningful look. She looked puzzled for a moment as she took it from him, her mind working quickly behind her eyes before it seemed to connect.

“I’ll have a devil of a time getting her to accept it but thank you Stefen. You’re a good man.”

The half-smile he’d been resisting slipped free. He wondered if it looked as sad as he felt.

 

~*~~*~

 

They went to the opera that night and sat in the box with Thor and Siv. Maria was instantly smitten with the prince (no surprise there) but unexpectedly (for Steve at least) he ended up as smitten with her as she was with him. He let her sit between him and Siv and answered all her many whispered questions about Norway (Where is it? Is it very green? Do they speak French there?) with attention and good humor.

She’d fallen quiet as the show began and seems almost transported by the story unfolding on stage. Her tiny lips falling open on shallow gasps when the singer’s voices soar with a varied spectrum of emotions, and when the two lovers are parted and the woman was singing out her lament, Steve caught tears in her eyes.

“She’ll either grow up to be a princess or a singer now for sure,” Tony whispered breath warm in his ear and Stefen bit back a grin.

“With you as a teacher Stark I’m sure she’ll manage both,” he turned slightly, leaning close to Tony to murmur. He could see the amusement glinting in his eyes even in the dark.

At the end of the evening Thor gave them all a warm goodbye but abandoned protocol altogether to hug Maria and call her ‘skatten min’.

“You and your family must come to Norway Captain, I insist. My daughter would love the opportunity to make so many new friends.” He said once he’d set the child free. Siv was giving him an indulgent smile but nodded in agreement.

“Your daughter has promised us a song captain. A lady keeps her word.”

Maria nodded with all the seriousness of a legislature passing law and looked up at Stefen.

“We have to go Father. Your word is your bond.”

Tony cackled and biting back a smile Steve nodded politely, thanking the prince for his invitation and gently pulling the child away, wondering how on earth his children had ended up so dramatic.

 

~*~~*~

 

The hills are alive with the sound of music

With songs they have sung for a thousand years

 

The pencil scratched against the paper as the children’s voices floated out through the open balcony doors. Bucky’s violin accompanied their voices in sweet haunting melody as lines filled the blank page of the sketchbook propped open in his lap, as Stefen attempted to capture the intense focus Tony brought to the music lesson (the gentleness of his hands as he straightened backs, placed palms on bellies to guide deep breaths) and the gleam of accomplishment in the children’s eyes with every soaring note.

He smiled as he worked, the familiar words of the old song taking him back: to being young, to festivals hand in hand with a pretty girl (his heart beating like a hummingbird, eyes stuck on painted lips in nervous anticipation) to long walks back from factories (coming over the hill and seeing the campfire, smelling the food cooking in the big pot, hearing the ghels singing and the uncles playing their instruments as the others worked, feeling his heart lighten enough to take another tired step toward home Bucky’s arm slung over his shoulder in steady support).

The hills fill my heart with the sound of music

My heart wants to sing every song it hears

He looked up, catching Bucky’s eye across the space through the open doors and realized that the low vibration in his chest was humming, coming from him no less. Bucky winked at him and Steve let the tension in his shoulders slide away, returning to his task.

He didn’t agree with Susann, that he was a good man. He’d known better. Men who hadn’t had half his chances and who had died before they ever got even close to what they’d deserved. Then there was Steve, who got everything and didn’t deserve half of it.

For the first time in years he found himself thinking about the mandolin his grandfather had made him.  They’d come back from the war. Steve had only been sixteen but he remembered it, like it was yesterday…

~*~

They come home after three long years. Steve’s no longer the boy who left, and it’s not just a difference in height, or the layers of muscle that have begun to cling to his frame. It’s in the age of his eyes, the new fear in them.

They’re both afraid that when they get to Nowy Sącz that they’ll find their family gone, and that the money they’ve been sending home has been squandered by the man they pay at the post office.

They knew it wasn’t the Romany way to stay when they left. They are exiles now, citizens of a great gadje empire. The caravan will have moved on a long time ago to see their fortunes through on the great wheel and unless they wanted to become exiles themselves their family will have left with them.

They’d begged their mothers to trust them to send money because that winter was not like others. That winter killed gadje and rom alike aided by the teeth of war. When the soldiers don’t wreck their camps and rape their women, they freeze in their beds. Still, most would rather die with the familia than to be without.

The worst sort of fear grips them when they come home to an empty clearing. No Roma have been in the area for over a year.

But the postman swears that Bucky’s mother came in two months back to pick up their last package. He says they move around a lot, the police don’t like vagrants and that they’ve probably been run off. Bucky beats him to pulp just for saying so.

They find them eventually, a few towns over, living on the outskirts of a dairy farm.

Bucky’s sister looks up first. She doesn’t recognize them until Bucky calls out ‘Rochel’ and then she’s running across the field toward them with tears in her eyes.

Steve’s so afraid his mother won’t know him when she sees him, but she holds him as if he’s still frail and tiny and tells him that there is an old man living in his body. He cries.

They learn that Bucky’s mother died before they made it home. He gets drunk and throws up for hours. Won’t speak to anybody. Even Steve.

Steve brawls with Bucky’s Da when he catches him muttering that it was the broken heart that killed her. No son. No familia. They’re all nothing now.

He’s drunk and bitter but Steve fights him anyway because he’s not little anymore and they’re alive. That’s what they are, and it’s thanks to Bucky that his father’s got beer to drink in the first place.

And that’s how it goes for a while in their broken camp full of ghosts. Steve fights every mean eyed drunk with something nasty to say about them and drags Bucky out of bars when Bucky isn’t dragging him.

Steve’s grandfather chops down a tree.

For Bucky he makes a violin, like the one Uncle Ludo used to let him play. For Steve he makes a mandolin and uses every last penny they have to get the instruments finished until they’re glossy as anything.

He carves their names in tiny dancing letters over the necks: Ian, Sara, James, Stefen, Rachel, Rochel, Bastian… Because they are familia, and they’ve got to keep pushing forward. Forward and together is the only way forroma.

“To be roma is to suffer today, laugh tomorrow.” Is all he says when he hands them over. Then he demands to know what is taking the women so long with supper.

 

~*~

He still remembered the first time he’d held it. The way it had gleamed in the firelight. The impeccable craftsmanship, made by his grandfather’s withered but sure hands (hands that had taught a hundred others and been taught by similar hands). It was simple in design, but beautiful for that in Steve’s mind, built to withstand a lifetime of travels and hardship. Just like they were.

Peggy had liked to hear him play. And even after… when it had become too painful to look at it anymore, he’d been unable to throw it away like he’d thrown everything else.

He was suddenly profoundly glad for that.

I go to the hills when my heart is lonely

I know I will hear what I've heard before

My heart will be blessed with the sound of music

And I will sing once more.

Good man? He didn’t think so. But these days he thought that if he could somehow get back some of that skinny Roma boy he’d once been, he might not land somewhere half bad.

Forward and together was the only way.

~*~~*~

 

As Cincirenella went tearing along,

Atop of his box he'd be singing a song,

Blithely he'd brave both the wind and the rain,

Trit -trot, trit-trot, he'd sing his refrain!

*

With the Prince’s departure looming the much anticipated trip to the park finally occurred near the end of that week. Stefen, Tony, and the children set out early (outfitted in their brand new play clothes) and in good spirits. They took a carriage to the station instead of a cab because Maria wanted to see the horses again. During the ride Tony taught them an old song about a man and the mule who had pulled his cart and they’d gleefully sung it the rest of the way.

They took the train into Rotunde Station. James had been excited to show off what they’d learned in that mornings lesson about the railway system to the indulgent ticket man, but as the line behind them was rather less indulgent Stefen had hurried them along with the promise that there would be plenty more train riding to be had.

Tony averted any potential sulking by teaching them the brief history of the Liliputbahn and promising that they’d have plenty of opportunities to ride it while within the park. He and Péter had gotten caught up in a discussion about fossil fuels, engines and possibilities for more powerful energy sources when he noticed how quiet Ian was being.

While his siblings were happily twisted in their seats to press their faces close to the windows and watch the scenery go by he was sitting hunched, staring blindly out the window as if he didn’t see any of it. Oblivious to the excited chatter going on around him.

Frowning, Tony called for the boy’s attention and patted the empty seat next to him (Artur having claimed a spot on his father’s lap some time ago). Silently Ian crossed the isle and gingerly took the seat offered to him. His shoulders were still slumped but the tension in them eased somewhat when Tony wrapped an arm around him.

“The last time we were on a train I was ten. We were with our Baka.” Péter said unexpectedly and Tony blinked at him, wondering at the sadness that had crept into the boy’s voice. Péter was looking at Ian though, who had lifted his head up just enough to give away the close attention he was paying to the conversation.

“Do you remember Ian?” Péter prompted and both he and Tony waited patiently for Ian to decide to speak. When he did, his voice was quiet and scratchy like he was hovering on the verge of tears.

“I was excited because it was just us boys… only not Artur, because he was still a baby like Sara and he has trouble breathing sometimes.”

“We went all over,” Péter reminisced. “She wanted us to see all the places she’d been in Austria. I don’t know why.”

“It was so we could hear the stories,” Ian chimed in, sounding more vehement than Tony thought he’d ever heard him. “She told me that once she was gone, that I had to remember because they wouldn’t be in any books. Only I don’t remember them very well. I didn’t do what she said.”

“How old were you?” Tony asked, sympathy lacing his tone and Ian hunched further in on himself until he was almost hugging his knees. He didn’t answer.

“He was seven. He was her favorite I think…” Péter answered for him in a subdued way, and when Tony opened his mouth to say whatever reassurances you said when a child said something like that, Péter’s mouth just twisted into a lopsided smile and he shook his head. “It’s okay Tony, I know she loved all of us. But Ian’s named after our great grandfather and that meant a lot to her. She used to say that children are the only way to cheat death… whatever that means.”

Tony smiled sadly, pulling Ian closer to his side.

“I think it means you reminded her of him. And seven is pretty young to remember so much… but you know, I bet your father remembers a lot.”

“He never talks about her.” Ian denied with a shake of his head and a startlingly contemptuous expression. “He forgot all about her, and mother.”

Tony chanced a look in the captain’s direction. Outwardly he appeared preoccupied watching the window as Artur pointed at something outside, but Tony could tell by the clench of his jaw that he had heard.

“I don’t think that’s true.” Tony began carefully. “It’s just that, when you love someone a lot and then you lose them, it can be hard to talk about them.”

Ian clenched his jaw but didn’t refute Tony. At least not with words, because Tony was an expert by now with that particular Rogers family expression.

“You know, in my family when someone dies we make a point to sit together and think about them. Sometimes, just having someone sitting beside you when you feel loss like that can make all the difference. But talking can be good too.” Tony explained slowly, looking up as if pulled by some magnet to find Stefen watching them. “Remembering them is how we show that their soul touched ours. By sharing our stories and memories of them, whether good or bad, we soothe the souls of the living.”

Ian stared at him for a long while, chewing on the words thoughtfully as he slowly relaxed against him.

“Do you have a grandmother?” he asked Tony after a long moment and a picture of Nonna’s face as he’d last seen it leaped into Tony’s head, hazy with the recollection of age.

“I do.” Tony answered.

“Did she die like mine did… like my mother did?”

Tony clenched his hands, struck by the realization that he wasn’t sure. Maybe Obadiah would have thought to write him if his grandmother had passed. Probably not. It wasn’t as if they’d kept in contact. The Carbonis had been held at a distance before Tony was even born. The reality was that Nonna and Nonno could very well have died and Tony would have no idea. But the thought was too painful to bear so Tony shoved it away, buried it so far down it would have no chance of rising again to haunt him.

“She’s alive. But my mother...” Tony’s voice cracked and he winced, carefully not looking back at the captain, feeling too exposed for words but unable to let it go with Ian looking up at him so woefully. “My mother isn’t either.”

Ian’s brow furrowed in sympathy. Wordlessly he wiggled back into the seat, leaning so that his blond head rested in the crook of Tony’s shoulder. Tony stiffened in surprise - Ian was not usually as cuddly as his other siblings – but as minutes ticked passed and Ian seemed content there, he slowly relaxed.

Fondly he ran his hands through the boy’s soft hair, allowing himself to think about his mother. He’d never sat Shiva for his parents or Yinsen. At the time their deaths had been too sudden, too horrific, for him to contemplate anything but drinking himself into numbness and by the time he’d sobered it had seemed too late. He’d been running from their memories ever since.

Tony took a ragged breath and looked at Stefen who looked back at him with concern. There was gratefulness in the way he was clutching Artur, but some skittishness held him in grip, causing him to swallow and clench and unclench his hands.

Tony mouthed for him to relax and smiled to himself, turning to look out his window.

Everything would be fine. Today would be a day full of great memories. Tony would make sure of it.

 

~*~*~

 

The children loved Prater Park. By the time they’d ridden the giant Ferris Wheel and looked out over Vienna from its top the somber mood that had dampened spirits on the train was long forgotten. Ian was just as excited as the others to be up so high and see so wide. They stopped at little trinket stands and snack shops and for once Stefen didn’t think about the cost of things as he bought pins and ribbons for the girls and (to Artur’s delight) warm gingerbread dusted with sugar to tide them over till lunch.

The children insisted on riding every ride, but the biggest hit was the merry go-round. Steve was happy to watch from the sidelines as they went around in circles, but he let Tony pull him with them when they discovered the joy of the giant swing. Observing Tony in the seat beside him, eyes bright and hair windsept with the most childish grin splitting his face, Steve wished furiously that he’d thought to bring his sketchbook.

He felt it again when they rode the train up to the Green Prater and had lunch in a little garden café in the shade of the chestnut trees. There were two peasant boys in lederhosen playing the zither, singing love songs about pretty eyes and pretty mouths on prettier girls, and all Steve could do was look at Tony with the flush of summer high in his cheeks as he clapped along to the music with Sara.

He recognized the urge to grab him for what it is.

It was the desperate want to claim Tony’s mouth and silence all that ceaseless chatter, the need (so big it’s frightening) to grab him and hold on because everything else just wasn’t steady and Tony has becoming solid ground for them all.

He looked at Ian, who was smiling and singing along with the others to lyrics he didn’t really know, and it was hard to breathe with the weight of his gratitude. That they are all here, having this moment, was a miracle of Tony’s influence. Every day was like waking up from a hundred years of sleep - and though his body still aches and his muscles are slack with atrophy Steve take another staggering step toward home every moment that he spends with them.

The closer he got to them, the more he hated the thought of having to let go.

They went walking under the shady trees after lunch to let their stomachs settle and he and Tony talked while the children skipped ahead on the paths. Tony told funny stories about his first years at the abbey and Steve couldn’t help but laugh at some of his youthful antics, even if they largely disagreed on how inappropriate some of his behavior had been (particularly where a certain Brother Tiberius was concerned). Tony spoke fondly of the monk who’d run the infirmary, so much so that Steve felt a twinge of jealousy at how often the man’s name came up.

He was distracted from the feeling when Maria skipped back to present them both with bracelets she’d weaved together out of edelweiss. His throat clenched tight at the site of the little white flowers but he let her slip it on his wrist anyway and tried not to blush when Tony beamed at him. The world didn’t end and the memories thankfully stayed at bay as they walked in the summer air. They were from his daughter and there was something precious about that in itself- but he couldn’t seem to keep his eyes from flicking back to where their match sat on Tony’s wrist and thinking he liked the way the petals looked against his olive skin.

But before long the children demanded they return to the amusement park and so they went, indulging in the sights and sounds and carnival games. They ran into the Osborn boy who was with a group of young people Steve could only assume to be school friends. He was surprised to learn Harry was starting school at Theresian Academy. It sent a sharp jolt through Steve to see the boy in the cadet uniform- a somewhat plainer, version of the SS standard. The cost of what was being promised to the cadets at those schools was standing right in front of him in the form of Henry Osborn, a boy turning soldier before he’d even turned sixteen.

It was hard for Steve to let Péter go off with them when he asked, every instinct he had telling him to snatch his son by the hand and lead him as far away from those cadets as possible. But he had no reason to refuse and knew it would only cause Péter embarrassment if he tried to tie him up with apron strings. Still he did not relax until Tony placed a hand on his back and nodded toward the other children who were quickly becoming in danger of getting lost in the crowd.

“We’d better carry on.”  

James and Artur wanted to see the freak show but Tony did not seem eager and Stefen resolutely turned them away when he spotted a tent at the entrance with a bright painted sign out front that heralded people to come have their palms read.

Artur was quickly on to the next thing, but James pouted for as long as he could hold out before he was in danger of missing out on the fun of a Punch and Judy show.

Of course afterwards, all the children could talk about was the puppets they were building back home and the prospect of putting on a show of their own. Steve had never smiled so much.

“Step right up! This game separates the men from the boys. Are there any men in the crowd? Step right up and ring the bell. A ring wins a teddy bear. How about you Sir, win a teddy for the little lady?” an operator, catching sight of Tony walking hand in hand with Sara, beckoned and Steve smirked as Tony was forced into complying by Sara’s puppy dog eyes going wide at the sight of the stuffed bear in the operator’s hands.

“What’s the matter Tony? Afraid you can’t hit that little bell?” Steve teased and Tony huffed, rolling his eyes.

“Please, Stefen. It’s simple math. Even if I couldn’t determine the amount of force needed I could do this in my sleep.”

Steve smirked as Tony took the hammer from the operator and swung, cocky grin faltering when the meter faltered well under the bell.

“That is impossible. It has to be rigged.” He glowered at the operator who was laughing heartily and he turned a sour look on Steve and the children who weren’t bothering to suppress their laughter either.

“Maybe you’re not as strong as you think you are Tony,” Steve suggested innocently and he laughed when Tony shot him a scathing look.

“You want to give it a shot Mr. Strongman?”

He took the hammer from Tony with a sly grin and gestured for him to stand aside. Stepping up, he shot a glance at the operator and flicked his eyes toward the back panel where he knew the lever was hidden. The operators’ brows raised and a delighted grin split his cheeks as Steve swung the hammer.

A cheer rose up as the bell dinged loudly and a smattering of applause broke out among the bystanders who had paused to watch when he struck it once more for good measure.

Sara bounced up and down with excitement as Steve shook the operators hand and received his prizes. She beamed happily when Steve handed her the teddy bear. When Steve handed Tony the second one he accepted it with far less grace.

“What is this? Do I look like a child to you Stefen?”

“I don’t know Tony, you are – “

“You finish that sentence you dirty little cheat and I’ll take that hammer to you.”

“- on the small side.”

“I am a perfectly respectable size Stefen, and a paragon of masculine virtues I’ll have you know.” Tony huffed, clutching the ridiculous stuffed toy to his chest with one arm and snatching up Sara’s hand with the other. Though there was a smile tugging at Tony’s mouth she took her cue from him and turned up her nose at Steve as if she found the suggestion that Tony was anything but the tallest of men as offensive as he did. They looked like a matched set with their flowers and their teddy bears.

Stefen laughed so hard his belly hurt.

Later when they were having dinner in the Swiss House he teased Tony about it and the monk threw his napkin at him.

“Don’t irritate me Stefen, and that stupid game is rigged. Just admit it!”

“Of course it’s rigged Tony.” Steve rolled his eyes, mouth stretched in a grin.

“Really?” James gapped. “How do you know?” and Stefen answered with a somewhat bashful shrug.

“I used to do the rigging.”

~**~

 

Harry had come to the park with Johann, who Péter learned would also be attending the academy that year. Péter didn’t know one of the girls with them but he recognized the pretty blond as one of his former classmates. Gwendolyn Staša had always been shy and sweet and popular with the other girls in the classroom as well as the boys. Harry used to tease her by pulling out her hair ribbons.

She seemed to have forgiven him, at least to be civil enough to spend the day with him and her friend, whom she’d introduced as Miss Anamarie Adler. Though she was also from Salzurg, Anamarie was as different from Gwen as could be. The two were like day and night, with Anamarie’s dark brown hair and moss green eyes with their permanently cagy gleam.

It was clear by the plainness of her clothes and the rough twang in her speech that she did not come from a family of means like they did, which Johann spent most the afternoon sneering not so subtly about, but she gave as good as she got and didn’t seem to think highly of his intelligence.  Harry seemed to find her and her antics with Johann humorous but Péter wondered if that wasn’t just because Gwen looked very pretty that day and was allowing him to hold her hand.

But neither she nor Harry seemed willing to curb Johann’s behavior, and Péter couldn’t help but think back to the old Jew they’d watched get beaten in Salzburg, and that story their father had told him.

“Knock it off Johann. You’re being an ass” he heard himself say before he’d even decided and Johann had fallen silent, more out of surprise than rebuke. Harry had laughed out loud and clapped him on the back.

“Look at you ready to defend her honor. We’ll make a soldier out of you yet Péter. I still can’t believe your father finally let you out of the house.”

Though Péter’s cheeks had flushed pink with mortification when Gwen had looked at him curiously he couldn’t be too mad at Harry because truthfully, neither could he.

It was so hard to believe that the man who’d brought them to Vienna was his father, that sometimes he thought he’d blink only to find that he’d dozed off in his bedroom back home.

As the fireworks burst over the park that night Péter wondered if they were high enough for the whole city to see. There was something nice about thinking of everyone in Vienna under the same bright stars and colorful lights. He wondered sometimes (even if he was either too afraid or unsure of who to ask) how it was supposed to be that some people were better or worse than others when the universe was so huge. What did it matter what you looked like or how much money you had? The sky sat over everyone, and they were all equally small under it.

Staring up at the beautiful display of exploding lights in the sky made him think of Tony’s tower again.  It would be great, he thought, to build a place where everyone really could be the same, where people didn’t worry so much about the things that made them different. In a place like that people would have less room for petty thoughts and more room for the curiosities of the universe. Péter had always thought there was so very much to be curious about but his father had never appreciated curiosity very much.

Péter’s mouth tightened.

Father never liked to be bothered with any of Péter’s questions or wanted to help him with experiments the way that Tony did. Sometimes he even got the feeling that his father was embarrassed by him. No one wanted a skinny weakling for a son who would rather be learning about gravity than learning to throw a punch.

He grit his teeth, trying not to let the thought bother him. He was so tired of trying to figure out what to do in order to make his father happy. He said he wanted them to study and take advantage of their education but hated it that Péter was ‘too smart’. He said he loved them but Tony always had to bug him to spend time with them. He hated the Nazis and the things they stood for and yet he wore their uniform and one day soon they were’ going to call him and he’d go and fight for them.

He didn’t want to be like that, Péter decided. Saying one thing and doing another.

“You can’t escape up there you know.”

Péter jumped, startled to find that Anamarie had vacated her spot on the grass next to Gwen and was now sitting very close to him. In the dark her upturned eyes gleamed with every flash and burst above their heads. Péter felt like his tongue weighed a thousand pounds. She smiled at him.

“How do you know what I was thinking?” he managed to mumble, because it had been a strange thing to say when really he could have been thinking anything at all. Anamarie leaned back on her palms and shrugged.

“I’m good at reading people. My mother calls it my seventh sense.”

“Seventh. What’s the sixth?” Péter asked, curious and she laughed.

“Finding trouble.” She winked at him and when his face flushed hot once more she rolled her shoulders and leaned forward, like she was about to whisper something intimately into his ear. “You were easy. There’s a show going on but you were looking at the stars, wanting to be anywhere but where you are.”

Péter’s mouth fell open slightly but he quickly closed it. He shifted uncomfortably, glancing at her speculatively out of the corner of his eye.  He wondered how she’d been able to tell he hadn’t just been watching the fireworks in the dark.

“I was thinking about science actually. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Why not, because I’m a girl? You know Péter despite what they teach us in eugenics class girls can be interested in science too.” she drawled and Péter winced. Way to stick his foot in his mouth.

“I know that. Some of the best scientists have been girls, Tony, my teacher, taught me about Marie Curie, and without her we wouldn’t have the theory of radioactivity. But that’s just my point. She was polish right? And a woman, so she wasn’t supposed to be able to do half of what she did. And it’s just stupid, don’t you think?” he asked, desperate to figure out how to say it all, and have someone understand the things he had been wrestling with. He couldn’t risk talking with one of the adults. Even Tony. Because Péter had examined the data over and over and the only conclusion that kept coming up was that everybody was wrong. Dead wrong.

Madame Curie could have done so much more if people had cared less about stupid things that clearly didn’t make the difference they thought they did. The science journals decried Einstein for being a Jew but they were just as wrong about him. They were wrong about so much, but there was nothing Péter could do about it. If his father, a respected commander in the army, was too scared stand up against them then what could Péter do?

 “You’re smart Péter Rogers.” Anamarie’s voice was hushed, barely perceptible under the pop and boom of the lightshow. She was staring straight ahead now so that if Péter had been watching them he might not even know she was talking to him. “And you behave like you know what it means to be a good person, but do you act on it?”

His pulse leaped with sudden fear, as the reality of his stupidity sank in. Sure Anamarie wasn’t an officer’s child like him and Gwen, and her father didn’t run a big business like Johann or Harry, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t find the courage to tell on him. Péter hadn’t needed to spend more than a few hours with her to know that if there was one thing she was short on it wasn’t courage. When she turned and looked at him he felt pinned in place like a bug to a show board.

“Or do you just look at stars?” she asked with a bite.

“Huh?” Péter gaped at her, unsure what she meant or what she was thinking as she turned back to the fireworks. She didn’t speak for a long time, and he became horribly anxiously certain that she was angry about what he’d said (and not said). And then she took him by complete surprise by turning and pressing a kiss to his cheek, whispering softly in his ear.

“Number Thirteen, Judengasse. Tell them you’re a friend of Rogue.”

~**~*~

 

Getting the children to bed that night was easy after such an eventful day. Sara had crashed during the cab ride and the others weren’t far behind. While Tony got the other little ones settled in the bed (shoes off being the only requirement that night) Steve slipped into the room that Péter and Ian were sharing, and watched as the boys sleepily got ready for bed.

Leaning against the door with his arms awkwardly crossed he wished he could help, if only to have somewhere to begin, but Péter would balk at being tucked into bed at fourteen and Ian didn’t like to be babied any more than Steve had at eleven, or any age for that matter.

His lips curved in amusement Steve crossed the room once both boys were settled and sat on the end of the bed, aware of their eyes on him. At least they did not look fearful.  Steve counted that as a small favor. He’d not done much to deserve their trust but he was trying to rectify that.

He’d been so selfish with his grief before, he realized that now, but it didn’t make opening up any easier. He was still so afraid of what could happen to them all… but he’d been a coward too long already.

Breathe. He reminded himself. Breath in, breath out. He was at the Grand Hotel Vienna, sitting in his children’s bedroom. It was half past eleven.

“Father?” Péter’s questioning voice sliced through the edge of panic and Steve let out a long breath.

“I’m sorry boys, if you’ve felt I was keeping you from your grandmother’s memory all these years. It wasn’t my intent.” Steve began, the words coming with difficulty each one harder than the last. “Your Baka was an amazing woman; you should know that. I’m very proud to be her son.”

“You told me I couldn’t say her name.” Péter challenged stiffly from the bed, voice going tight. Beside him Ian tensed, as if he were afraid of what Steve might do and Steve’s chest ached. He pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting for another deep breath.

He could do this. He owed them this.

“I was afraid.”

“When you’re afraid of something you have to face it.” Ian reminded him, because hadn’t Steve said that a million times to them over the course of their young lives – when they came to him with scrapes and bruises and nightmares, when he’d walked into the music room and found them huddled under Peggy’s piano still smelling of the funeral flowers?

What a hypocrite he’d been.

“You’re right, Ian. Your Baka taught me that, and her courage always gave me courage. I realize… that it was easy before to stand up to the bullies, or the fear of death, because I wasn’t really afraid of any of those things. Not really.” Steve swallowed past the tightness in his throat. “But I was afraid of losing your Baka, and I behaved badly because of it. And I’m sorry.”

Stefen looked to Péter first and then Ian almost unable to bear to do it, but he’d hurt them too much already by not being strong enough to do the things he should do. The least he could do was not hide from an apology. Péter didn’t say anything but Ian crawled out from under his covers to kneel in front of Steve on the bed like a child preparing to say his prayers.

“We all have bad in-clin-ations sometimes Vati,” he said, slowly over the unfamiliar word, and Steve wanted to chuckle (because that had Tony written all over it) but Ian had called him daddy, which he had not done in what was dangerously close to half his life now and he was struck by a fierce burning in his eyes and the urge to sob.

Ian was all seriousness, all innocence and earnestness, as he informed Steve that everyone messed up and did things they weren’t proud of, but it was never too late to do the right thing.

Blinking back the burn in his eyes Steve took a shallow breath, gesturing for Ian and Péter both to move closer. They did, wordlessly, sitting close so that their knees brushed his upon the bed.

“I want to tell you a story.” He began. “But this is not a story you can tell anyone else. Not yet. It isn’t safe. I’m trusting you both because I know you’re old enough to understand that. One day, when it’s safe I want you to tell the others.”

He watched curiosity, then excitement, and then finally sobriety flash across their faces in turn as they sat up in the bed, waiting earnestly for him to continue.

“You can trust us, Father.” Ian promised, his countenance dripping sincerity. He looked to Péter for confirmation before turning back to Steve and swearing, “We won’t tell anybody.”

Steve believed him. He knew that neither of them would willingly do anything to hurt the family but they were still just children. They could not be responsible for knowing what may or may not be dangerous to say, not completely.  

He hesitated for a long moment, unable to determine whether the powerful urge to take it back was gut instinct or fear. He’d learned to trust his instincts, but he was also learning that he’d been confusing the two for far too long.

Silently he prayed that this would not come back to hurt them. It was all he could do.

“Long ago, there was a young woman whose name was Sara. She was born into a roma tribe called the Lăutari. They are called that because they are musicians and dancers by trade. For hundreds of years they’ve traveled from place to place, beguiling people with their music and their dances in exchange for food or money. Nobody knows where they started, or where they are going. Because for the rom it’s not about the beginning or the destination. It’s about the journey they take together. They don’t believe land or the comforts it provides is something any one person can own… it’s something to be experienced and shared together.

“But living like that makes other people nervous. People call them thieves because they take what doesn’t belong to them, and maybe they have a point, but maybe the Rom way isn’t bad either. But rom don’t make the rules so nobody cries when they get killed or thrown in prison. Nobody protests when kings say that they can’t live on their land or work for a living unless they are slaves.

“You have already heard many Germans say that the people they call gypsies aren’t really people… but know that they’re wrong. The rom remember for each other, and share their stories with each other, because no matter what tribe this rom comes from or that rom comes from they are all of them familia.

“The rom follow few laws, but they live by the code, the romano… and part of that code is not to mix with outsiders.

“Sara broke that code when she fell in love with a potter from Zadar who was as fair of face and hair as she was dark. Though her potter was willing to travel with them and teach his craft, when she became pregnant with a baby boy her caravan was very angry. They called him gadje, which means ‘not rom’, and they expelled her from the familia. Her father Ian refused to leave her, because she was his last living blood and for rom to travel alone means death. Other rom will know you have been exiled and shun you, and the true gadje will continue to shun you as they always have.

“Ian, Sara, and her potter made the best of it, traveling from town to town always wondering where the next meal would come from, and it wasn’t helped any that her baby was small and sickly and could not be left alone.

“One day they were sure that he would die, if he could not get warm or fed, but there was nowhere to go and no one who would help. But that night a Bayash caravan made camp not far from them. Sara bundled her baby up and went to them despite the risk of being kicked and chased away with stones and pleaded with the Phuri Dae – the wise woman – for a chance to share their pot and their fire that night.

“It just so happened that Rachel, the daughter of the Rom Baro – that is the one they call the leader of the clan – was having a difficult labor. It had forced them to stop sooner than they’d planned, and her painful cries could be heard throughout the camp. Sara was very gifted with herbs and medicines. When the Phuri Dae learned that she’d delivered her baby without any help, and had kept her baby alive despite the hardships, they struck a deal. If she would help Rachel then Sara and her familia could share their fire for a night.

“Sara helped save Rachel and her baby girl, whom they named Rochel which meant ‘battle cry’. Learning that Sara was in exile Rachel pleaded with her father to offer her a place in the clan. The Rom Baro was very grateful as well, but Sara refused to leave the rest of her family behind and he did not want a gadje and his offspring in the camp because they were unclean.

“But Rachel insisted, and the Phuri Dae warned that terrible luck would follow if he repaid Sara’s kindness by allowing her child to die. And so, the Rom Baro welcomed Sara to his clan, and that is the story of how your Baka lost her family and found it again. I know it is true because I was there, I am the baby that Sara had with the potter. I saw them and ate with them.”  

 

~*~~*~

 

It was always crowded in Müttermilch this time of night, and Bucky was happy to see that this evening was no exception. Milch, as the locals called it, wasn’t the only pub house along the river but it was right on the dock and Etta (the mother in mother’s milk) made the best sausage in town, making it a popular choice for the sailors coming in off the Danube.

It wasn’t a fancy place by any means, and the sailors and seamen who made up the bulk of their clientele could be a rough sort, but Etta and Henrick kept the place neat and didn’t put up with nonsense. The cellar was always warm, well lit, and the smell coming from Etta’s ovens inviting.

When he walked in that night Hedwig (Etta and Henrick’s middle girl) was at the bar. She smiled brightly when she recognized him and Bucky gave her a wink before going to claim a table in the corner, in view of the door but tucked away from the others crowding the bar.

A moment later Hedwig came with a menu and a frothing mug of beer. Bucky smiled at her because he appreciated a woman who knew how to greet a fellow and it had been too long since he’d had the pleasure of a beautiful woman in his bed. His nights were full now, chasing rabbit trails. It was enough to drive a man to drink.

“Herr Bakhuizen, I’m surprised to see you here.”

“So am I back to Mr. now?” Bucky asked with an arched brow as he took a swallow from the mug. Hedwig hadn’t changed much since the last time he’d been through (what eight months ago?) all plump curves and buttermilk skin.

“No backing out of it Hedy, I’m meeting a fellow and he’s only got a short stop before he’s headed up the river.”

“Mama is still sore with you.” Hedwig clucked her tongue, a teasing glint in her grey eyes. “And Vati says that if you were a decent man you’d never have run off on our Nele.”

Bucky winced. Nele was the older girl and if he was remembering right (and Bucky always remembered this sort of thing right) she had an even rounder ass than Hedy. They’d had a bit of a thing before the work had called him away.

Laughing at his expression Hedwig shook her head at him.

“Don’t bother yourself about it James. Nele knew you weren’t the staying kind when she took up with you. She cried for a day or two and then when all the soldiers came in spring she was in fine color. She got married this summer to an officer.

“German?” Bucky asked, eyebrows rising and she nodded.  Bucky grunted, stifling the urge to say something rude. Nele was a nice girl. It was probably a good thing she’d ended up married to someone decent, instead of shackled to the likes of him, though he wasn’t much sold on the decency of Germans.

The door swished open once more as a pair of loudly laughing men entered (well one of the pair was laughing, the other one just looked surely and put upon). The sound of the happy ones voice carried over the crowd. Bucky was relieved to see that one of them was the man he was waiting to see, though he was surprised to see he’d brought someone. He waved for the man’s attention and when Kirk nodded in acknowledgment he turned back to Hedwig.

“Another beer Hedy and a plate of –” he began to order but Hedwig just cut him off with an indulgent smile.

“And a plate of Vati’s schnitzel. I know what you like James.” Leaning close to his ear while she plucked the menu out of his hand, the curve of one breast brushing against his shoulder, she said on a low breath, “And I’m just fine with it.”

Well. Bucky grinned as she departed, contemplating an evening that was suddenly looking more interesting by the minute. He was still watching the sway of her hips when Kirk plopped down in the seat across from him, emitting a low chuckle.

“Hedy knows what she’s about, but I’d be careful if I were you. She has a mean right hook.” The blond warned.

Bucky snorted and asked in his own broken English (less chances of being overheard that way).

“How do you know?”

“A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell Jaime my boy.” Kirk grinned at him and snickered. “Jesus your English is terrible. You sound like you’ve been chewing on glass.”

“Fuck off. And don’t call me Jaime.” Bucky reminded him for what felt like the hundredth time. Kirk just grinned at him like a professional shit eater; baby blues twinkling in the amber light as he tapped blunt fingers against the table impatiently. Since the fucker had called him Jaime Bucky was content to make him wait as he got out a cigarette and lit up.

Hedwig brought back Kirk’s beer and the plate of hot Schnitzel and Bucky happily took the liberty of staring down her blouse, since it was on offer (and one never refused a lady and all).

“I thought you said this was urgent?” Kirk asked after Hedy had left once more and Bucky sneered at him. He gestured toward Kirk’s companion who was sitting at the bar, making no secret of watching them.

“Thought I told you to come alone?” he countered, blowing smoke out the side of his mouth.

“My friend didn’t think that was a good idea, given that the last time I agreed to ship something for you I had the police crawling all over my ship. Something’s not adding up.”

“I’m no spy. Not for them.” Bucky snapped. He was a lot of things, but he’d never be that. Nodding jerkily toward the glaring man at the bar he asked, “What about him. You trust him?”

“With my life.” Kirk replied with immediate conviction and Bucky could only let it go in the face of that kind of certainty. “Now what is it you want Bakhuizen? Another run?”

“Yes.” Bucky nodded, not seeing a point in beating around the bush further. “Same as before. Live cargo.”

Kirk’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully.

“There’s a shipment headed up to Belgium not long from now, if they’re on it then my girl is docked there getting ready to take a load back to England. How many are we talking?”

“Two and they’re red.”

Kirk’s eyebrows crawled upward. All of the joviality he’d entered the pub with had bled away. He was assessing Bucky now with keen intelligence, and it was enough to remind Bucky that for all of Kirk’s wiles he was still a dangerous man to cross.  Kirk, a healthy decade older than Bucky, had lived through his share of wars by now, but he’d not married it the way some men did (the way Steve had). He’d retired from the navy but hadn’t been able to leave the sea behind. He sailed under an English trading company and knew just about every stretch of water from the North Sea to the Black.

“If you want me to put my crew at risk transporting wanted goods you’ll tell me what the hell this is about Bakhuizen.” Kirk demanded, white teeth flashing in the lamplight as he leaned forward in his chair.

“I’ve already told you. It’s just like last time.” Bucky tried to placate, but Kirk had never been a fool.

“Last time I wasn’t smuggling wanted people. Don’t bullshit me or we’re done here. We clear?”

“Alright. Alright. I’m sorry.” Bucky glanced around, lowering his voice before he continued. “Dr. Leshner, big time geneticist over in Germany before Hitler came to power. Guy‘s a Jew so eventually he’s out a job. But the Nazi’s want something from him. They take him and his entire family into custody and nobody hears a peep out of them for months. But a few weeks ago there’s a jail break. The wife catches a bullet but the kids get out. Leshner’sgot a friend in London who is willing to give them shelter but we’ve got to get them there first and they can’t travel in the open. That enough for you?”

“How much is this friend paying?” Kirk asked after a long moment of consideration and the tension in Bucky’s stomach eased.

“Name your price. He’s good for it.” Bucky immediately answered.

Kirk nodded minutely, a shark toothed grin splitting his lips as he slowly shook his head. “I’ll need to clear it with my first mate, either he’s in the loop or no deal. And I’ll need the money up front. I know better than to get gypped.”

Bucky smiled through his teeth.

“You’re all heart Kirk.” He stubbed out his cigarette on the table as Kirk shrugged.

“What’s the second thing?” he asked and Bucky paused before grumbling.

“Who says there’s a second thing?”

“Because there’s a pretty little thing at the bar looking for a good time and you’re still sitting here putting up with me. What’s the matter Buck, can’t get up for it? Cause if that’s the case I’m always willing to assist.”

Bucky sneered, taking a deep swig of his beer.

“A pillow biter like you Kirk wouldn’t know the first thing about showing a lady a good time.”

Kirk threw back his hea