Steve Rogers shivered in his chair, toeing his foot nervously against the smooth, grey carpeting. The air conditioning was turned up far too high, even for someone with extraordinary cold tolerance, even for the sticky-hot summer in New York City, hotter and more humid than any summer he remembered from boyhood. The flatscreens recessed into the chrome walls were all displaying different video clips, clips of colorful cartoons and fast-paced action films, and the cacophony of music and voices made it difficult even for him to concentrate.
His throat was dry, but he didn’t dare ask for a cup of water; he got the sense that the woman at the desk didn’t like him very much. He had been tapping his fingers against the portfolio he was holding across his knees, until she'd shot him a glare, and now he was sitting as stiffly and as uncomfortably as possible. The chair was too small for him—all chairs were, really—and he felt bunched up and a little cramped.
The door in front of him slid open with a breezy, popping sound, startling him a little, and a tall redhead, with bright orange freckles smattered over her cheeks, strode into the room.
“Mr. Rogers?” She asked, raising one pale orange eyebrow. She gave him a sort of quizzical look, as if he wasn’t what she was expecting.
Tall on her own, her heels were impossibly high, and when Steve stood to shake her hand, she came to his full height— unusual for men, even rarer for women. He rubbed his palm on his slacks— his hands were clammy from the nerves— and gripped her hand firmly.
“Welcome to Timely Comics. I'm Pepper Potts,” she said. “I—”
“I know who you are,” he answered, his heart skipping a beat, and he had to remind himself not to gape. “I mean, ah. Your run on Midnight Racer was fantastic. Top-notch. Ah— It’s an honor to meet you, Miss Potts.”
“It’s Pepper, please,” Miss Potts—Pepper— said, cheerfully. “And that's what I like to hear,” she said cheerfully. “I loved your portfolio.”
Steve felt himself go breathless for a moment. “You saw my portfolio?” he asked, his voice uncharacteristically raspy.
“I did,” Pepper answered eagerly. “Very retro, so classic; You’ve got this kind of early-Caniff-thing going on with your inks. Like, early Terry, before he got more into brushwork.”
Steve tried not to gape. “You really think so?” He chuckled, a little nervously, and ran his hand through his hair. “I grew up on that old stuff,” he explained.
“Good,” Pepper said, nodding enthusiastically. “Not too many people even bother with it anymore; I can't blame them, it's sometimes a little hokey, but... it's where we come from, you know?”
“Yeah,” Steve agreed with a laugh. Pepper had no idea how close to the truth she was. “Yeah, I do.”
He glanced around, unsure what came next; he had assumed he'd be meeting with an editor, not a writer, and certainly not with the formidable Pepper Potts herself. “I, ah. I met you once,” he admitted.
“You did?” Pepper asked interestedly.
“At New York Comic-Con, this year,” Steve explained, suddenly wondering if he was coming off as too giddy. His hands felt hot; he was shifting on the balls of his feet. “You did that panel, on, uh—”
“Not the Diversity in Comics one, I hope,” Pepper said, rolling her eyes.
“Oh, no, no,” Steve said, feeling faintly embarrassed. “I mean, I went to that one, too, but…”
“Someone needed to shove a sock down J. Jonah Jameson’s throat?” She tossed her red hair over her shoulder; it fell in a curtain of glimmering copper.
Steve snorted. “Only after about the fifteenth time he said ‘menace?’”
Pepper chortled. “I get that he’s a titan of publishing, but dear god, someone needs to stop him from talking in public.”
“Ah—” Steve nodded. “Yes. But, the other panel.” He swallowed, trying to regain his composure, certain his cheeks must be pink at this point. “The one on, uh, breaking into comics. That one.”
“Oh!” Pepper exclaimed, looking relieved. “Yes, that one was much—” She frowned, and squinted at him. “Are you the guy who asked the question about making a career change?”
“Yes!” Steve said, feeling relief wash over him. “That’s exactly it.”
“I remember you,” she said cheerfully. “I was gonna say, when we saw your work, I couldn’t believe you’d come out of nowhere— I haven’t seen you at cons, haven’t seen you online— someone would have picked up stuff this good before now. What were you doing before this?”
Steve shrugged. “Ah. I was in the service.”
“Yeah?” Pepper asked interestedly, and she gave him a considering look, as if she were sizing him up. “What branch?”
“Army,” he answered easily, on firmer ground with the truth. “Served three years, got wounded, discharged, decided I wanted to try something different.”
“Oh, that explains your—” Pepper grinned. “You see so many guys who come through here, they have no idea how to draw guns. They’re too big, they have handles, who knows. Your stuff...it looks authentic. Your combat scenes, too. There’s something visceral about them. I figured maybe you had good references…”
Steve tapped his temple. “First-hand ones,” he answered.
“Well, I’m glad we found you before our distinguished competitors did,” Pepper said, wrinkling her nose. “Now, this is...it’s a little unorthodox, I guess, but there’s someone who wants to meet you.”
“Sure,” Steve said, as if this meeting weren’t already unorthodox. “I— honestly had no idea I’d be meeting you,” he said, as Pepper pulled out a key card, tapped it against the security pad at the door.
“Well, this is an extenuating circumstance,” Pepper explained as she pushed the door open and held it for him. “It’s not normally how Timely does things. Steve Rogers, I'd like you to meet—”
The room inside was huge, positively huge, a lush office with a full wall of windows looking out on Columbus Circle. The carpet was thick, plush, red, and the walls were paneled wood and hung with huge posters of Timely’s most popular characters: there was The Human Torch, The Angel, The Thin Man, The Masked Raider, Red Raven— his own favorite, The Midnight Racer— and more, characters Steve was unfamiliar with, newer characters, superhero teams, schools and families with all kinds of unique powers. The Avengers, in the brightest, newest frames, hung on the wall on either side of the desk: Iron Man, Thor, Wasp, Giant-Man.
In the very center of the room, larger than all the others, above the desk, was a brilliant painting of Captain America himself, in his bright blue uniform, his shield held proudly aloft.
And there, on the desk, sat a man, a young man, about Steve’s own age, tall, but of a more slender build, with dark hair falling askew into his face, a neatly-trimmed goatee, and large, luminous blue eyes that looked at Steve with an expression of childlike wonder.
Steve blinked. He knew this man, though they’d only met a few times, when Steve was disguised as Captain America, his face hidden behind a cowl. But he would have recognized him instantly no matter what.
“Tony Stark,” he said. “You’re—”
Tony grinned and hopped off the desk, holding a hand out with a grin. “Heard of me?” he asked, and from his expression and tone of voice, Steve couldn’t tell if he was feigning surprise or not.
Steve had no idea that Tony would actually be there. Tony owned the company, sure, but as far as Steve knew, Tony Stark spent his time in scientific research or jet-setting, not overseeing the day-to-day of his entertainment interests. Especially not comic books.
Steve couldn’t tell Tony that he’d met him before. “You fund the Avengers,” Steve said, glancing at the portraits behind him.
Tony’s grip was firm, stronger than Steve expected from the man’s slight frame.
“Yeah, well,” Tony said, smiling rakishly, his dimples deep furrows in both his cheeks. “It’s worth it. They bring in a mint, if you couldn’t tell.” He prodded a thumb backward, at the paintings behind him. “It’s good to keep ‘em around.”
“You got a favorite?” Steve asked, eyeing the enormous portrait of Captain America behind Tony’s head.
“That would be like picking a favorite child,” Tony answered.
“Captain America,” Pepper said, with a dramatic eyeroll. “You should see his house.”
“I’ve seen—” Steve carefully cut himself off. “Photos of the Avengers Mansion.”
“His house is worse,” Pepper said. “He has a giant—”
Tony made a face. “Well, I’ve moved my own permanent residence out of there. Too many people, not enough privacy. Anyway, I wouldn’t want to hurt my reputation hanging out with a bunch of goody two-shoes.”
“You say,” Pepper interjected, “completely discounting the amount of money you give to charity.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m a philanthropic superstar, whatever,” Tony said, waving a hand dismissively, even though he looked extremely pleased. “I mean, what wouldn’t a guy do for instant access to that gunshow?”
Tony looked approvingly at the portrait behind his desk, and sighed, loudly.
Steve could feet his cheeks burning, and he slouched a little, trying to look less-Captain-America-like. He puzzled it over; he’d only met Tony a handful of times, mostly at formal events, mostly limited to a quick handshake and a photo or two for the press before Tony whisked himself away, always seeming too busy. He certainly had never seemed like he was eager to chat.
“You, ah...you know Captain America personally?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, I mean...Avengers patron, and all— I convinced him to, uh, join up when he got out of the ice,” Tony said, straightening up proudly.
“Tony’s also terrified of him,” Pepper said cheerfully. “The number of times he’s run away at a party because he gets tongue-tied the minute Captain America walks into the room—”
Tony cleared his throat “Before Pepper completely dismantles my dark, mysterious, bad-boy image—”
Pepper snorted. “Stop flirting with the new hire. Just because he looks like a stand-in for—”
Steve cleared his throat before Pepper had the opportunity to say what he was pretty sure she was about to say. “I haven’t technically been hired.”
Tony blinked, and looked wide-eyed at Steve. “You’re right,” he said, looking mortified. “We’re going about this all backwards, Pepper; why haven’t we hired him?”
“We were going to,” Pepper said.
Steve felt suddenly self-conscious, and he ran a hand through his hair. “I, ah, I brought my portfolio; I—”
“We already saw all your stuff online,” Tony assured him. “You’re an Avengers fan, too, huh?”
Steve smiled, sheepishly. “Well, they’re good subjects,” he answered. It was true, though he meant it more literally than the statement implied.
“Do you have a favorite?” Tony asked, waggling an eyebrow.
“Er—” Steve clutched his portfolio a little more tightly, and he watched as Tony’s eyes drifted to his hands.
“No, don’t answer that,” Tony replied. “Lemme guess. Iron Man, right? You draw a hell of a lot of Iron Man.”
Steve prayed he wasn’t blushing. “The suit’s a gift to any artist,” he said, nodding. “Human form and machinery, working together in the same figure? It’s absolutely extraordinary, not the kind of thing you usually get the opportunity to draw.”
Tony grinned. “You know I built that suit, right?”
“I’ve heard rumors to that effect, yes,” Steve answered.
“Well,” Tony said. He leaned back against his desk again, crossing his arms. “Artists all work off the same photos, you know? There are a few iconic images, they get rehashed. And they look at each other’s art, they draw the suit the same way. You—” He tilted his head. “Maybe I could see that portfolio again, after all?”
Steve was more nervous now than he’d been sitting in the waiting room, more nervous now, even though Tony Stark himself had said he had a job. He tried to will his pattering heart to slow, will his heart to stop shaking, and held out the portfolio to Tony.
Tony unzipped the slender file, laying it down on his desk, and licked his fingers before turning the pages, tilting his head in admiration.
“See? See, this is what I’m talking about; these poses, these gestures; they’re so natural; it’s like you’ve watched him, up close. I never had the knack for this kind of thing,” Tony said, stopping at a two-page spread of Iron Man flying high over New York, the newly-constructed Freedom Tower in the background. “Diagrams, technical drawing, sure, but…” He smiled, softly. “The way you make everything seem so alive. And you’re still working in ink, not digital?” he said, glancing up at Steve. He turned to the next page; there was a drawing of Wasp, lifting a television remote twice her size, and chuckled. “I remember—” he started, and then closed his mouth.
Steve shrugged. “Yeah, I get the old folks jokes a lot,” he admitted. “Maybe I can’t learn new tricks. Still, there’s no replacement for a good old crow quill.”
“Crow quill?” Tony asked interestedly. “You ever get your hands on a G?”
“A what?” Steve asked, blinking.
“G nib,” Tony replied. "Oh, god, tell me you haven't used a G. He smiled broadly, put up a finger. “Wait! Wait one minute!”
Tony boosted himself back onto his desk and rolled over its surface, landing on his feet on the other side. Steve tried to suppress a grin— he supposed Tony could have walked around the desk like an ordinary person, but this was eminently more entertaining.
Tony rummaged through the top drawer of his desk, and then grabbed something tiny and gleaming, silver, and held it up.
“Ha!” he exclaimed, gleeful, and held up a tiny pen nib. He tossed it at Steve, who snatched it out of the air.
“That,” Tony said triumphantly, “is a G pen. It is only the single greatest nib ever to grace humanity with its smooth transitions and impressive ink load.”
Steve blinked and turned the nib over in his fingers. True to Tony’s word, it had a clear “G” stamped on it. He wasn’t entirely certain about Tony’s level of enthusiasm over a pen, but it did seem nicely flexible.
“Thanks?” he said.
Tony shrugged. “I’ve got a load of ‘em; I’ll have some mailed to you,” he said, flashing a grin. “New hire gift, or something.”
“I keep hearing,” Steve said, cautiously, glancing at Pepper, “that I’m being hired, but I’ve yet to, ah...actually sign anything, or be told what...er...for?”
Tony blinked, and straightened up. “Ah,” he said, as if he’d completely forgotten that little formality. “Iron Man,” he answered. “We want you to draw Iron Man.”
Steve blinked. “What?” he asked.
“Iron Man,” Tony answered. “Pep’s gonna be taking over the title after this next storyline wraps up; we’ve got plans for a sort of...relaunch, and we’ve got—” He shrugged. “We’ve got a ton of artists who would just kill for the gig, but, I don’t know. Something feels wrong; we can’t find the right match for what she wants to do.”
“It’s a space story,” Pepper explained. “Very retro, very space opera, think Star Wars, or even…Flash Gordon. You know Flash Gordon, right?”
“Who doesn’t?” Steve asked.
Pepper shrugged, and gave him a wry smile. “You’d be surprised.”
“It’s not a big job,” Tony explained. “It’s...consider it a trial run. Six-issue miniseries, you’re gonna be doing pencils and inks, and I’m personally overseeing this project.”
Steve blinked at that. “Really?” he asked. “Don’t you have...editors?”
“I do,” Tony answered. He stepped back around his desk, the normal way, this time, and looked up at Steve, with a sort of curious expression, if Steve was reading it right. “But this one’s special to me.”
Steve bit his lip.
“Tony oversees everything that happens in Iron Man himself,” Pepper explained.
“And I try to keep my eye on the rest of the Avengers. It probably makes me seem like one of those eccentric rich guys,” Tony said. “Buy a comic company, insist on editing the stories about my favorite characters? But—” His tone was softer, almost reverent. “These ones, these ones are important to me.”
Steve felt somehow warmed by that revelation, and he nodded along. “They’re important to— a lot of us, I think,” he said.
Tony’s eyes twinkled. “Then you’re in?”
Steve felt the hair on his arms stand on end. “I...guess I’m in,” he answered, half-expecting that he was going to wake up from a dream.
“Good,” Tony said, and he grinned until his dimples puckered into tiny canyons. “Great. I—” He nodded, and zipped Steve’s portfolio back up, handing it back to him. “Pep, can you take him out and see if Bambi can get him set up with his paperwork? It’s, uh, regular starting page rate, standard contract—”
It was only when he said it that Steve realized he hadn’t even asked about money.
He didn’t care.
He floated through the paperwork like he was walking on a cloud. It was only toward the end, just when he was signing the last of his contracts, that the little buzzer on his keychain began to vibrate, that he came back to earth, back to forced presence of mind.
He swallowed; his throat going dry, and tried to initial the pages faster, didn’t read them quite as closely, hoped he wasn’t signing his soul away, but it wasn’t exactly the sort of time or place to be rapidly excusing himself.
Tony came back out of his office, a jacket draped over his shoulder. “Still here?” he asked Steve.
“Yeah, I—” Steve was feeling sweat beading on his forehead. “Lots to sign.” He prayed, prayed that Tony wouldn’t start up a conversation, not now, not when he was almost out, and the vibration in his pocket was getting harder, more insistent.
“Well,” Tony said, cheerfully. “Mrs. Arbogast, put Steve and Pepper in my book for Tuesday; we have to have a kickoff session. You want to do it in person, or over Starkchat?”
“Either,” Steve said, trying to hurry the conversation along without sounding brusque. “Whatever works for you.”
“Great!” Tony answered. “Come on by; I always like a face-to-face. Looking forward to it!” He tossed off a little wave. “Well, Steve; good meeting you. I’ve got an appointment; can’t be late!”
Steve thanked his lucky stars, and hastened through the rest of the paperwork, tried not to look hurried as he said goodbye to Mrs. Arbogast, who seemed much more friendly on the way out than she had on the way in, and raced out of the building.
He hopped on his motorcycle.
“Helmet?” He said to his helmet, weaving through Midtown traffic and hoping, hoping he wouldn't get too slowed down by successive red lights. “Helmet, call the Avengers.”
“Cap!” Iron Man greeted him, when his call connected. “Status?”
“On my way,” he answered.
“Everything okay?” Iron Man asked, a note of concern in his voice.
“Peachy,” Steve assured him. “Got stuck in an appointment I couldn't duck out of.”
“There's trouble in Washington Square,” Giant-Man replied. “You want to meet us down there?”
Steve sighed, and zipped to the right so he could follow the one-way traffic and turn downtown. “Sure,” he said. He glanced back at the compartment on the back of the bike, wondering where the hell he could change between here and Waverly Place. If there was one thing the New York of the twenty-first century lacked, it was convenient alleyways or buildings that could be accessed without a key.
Breaking into an apartment building cellar just to put on his uniform seemed a bit convoluted, but it was the only real choice— and Steve hoped that no one would walk in. He hopped out of his slacks, button-down shirt, and tie, musing as he stuffed them in his bag that he had felt overdressed compared to Tony and Pepper.
He climbed into his uniform— his Stark-designed uniform— and fastened it snugly, before climbing back out the cellar window and sprinting the last few blocks.
He was getting used to the staring, the shouting, the way people stopped still on the street when he hurtled past, shouting, "Hey! Captain America!" and other exclamations, some much more colorful. It wasn't like fighting during wartime; he was acutely aware that he was always on display, every movement judged and dissected by everyone from the venerated journalists of the Daily Bugle to random— randos, Wasp called them— people on the Internet with names half-constructed from strings of numbers. He carefully schooled himself to smile and wave at the young children, and ignore any angry expletives.
The other Avengers were already there— the advantage of flight and gigantic size, he supposed— when he reached the park.
"Winghead!" Iron Man shouted, as he zipped through the air. "Nice of you to join us!"
"Hey, not everyone's got rocket-powered roller-skates!" Steve quipped back. He slowed, scanning the park. "What's the damage?"
The damage was obvious, because the damage was perched on top of the arch.
"Well," Iron Man said, with a flourish.
The thing let out a bloodcurdling shriek and flapped its wings.
Steve squinted. "Is that a...Pterodactyl?" He asked.
"Technically," Iron Man replied, "it's a Comodactylus. We think. It's much larger than the average North American pterosaurs of the Upper Jurassic period."
Wasp alighted on Iron Man's shoulder. "I'm not going anywhere near that thing," she fretted. "They eat bugs, don't they?"
“Only infant pterosaurs eat bugs,” Iron Man assured her. “You should be safe. Hang on,” he said. “I’m gonna zoom up there and take a body scan of that thing,” he said, as he rose into the air. “Thor, cover me?”
“My hammer is with you, as always, Iron Man!” Thor assured him.
Iron Man zoomed up faster.
Steve couldn't help but watch Iron Man as he moved, now— not that he could before, but he was overly conscious of the way his gaze slid over the metallic surface of the armor, and now he wondered about the man beneath.
He knew him, by now, months into working together, knew him better than almost anyone else in this new century. Iron Man had spent hours of his free time introducing the man he only knew as Captain America to all the new technology the present day could provide. He’d gone out of his way to ask how Captain America was adjusting, made it known he realized there was a man separate and apart from the larger-than-life entity. He’d stood at his shoulder, offering words of encouragement, at some of those same events where his employer had vanished into thin air. But it was a delicate thing, feeling close to someone and being unable to know anything about their life outside the Avengers.
There was a fictional life, of course, the one from the comic books, the one Steve had pored over for hours in his spare time, the one he had almost memorized by now, but he was fairly certain it was all fabrication. Surely none of the usual writers had any idea about Iron Man’s true identity; surely they were just spinning tales from their respective imaginations.
Mark Edwards, Iron Man’s fictional pilot, was a scientist-adventurer who had been shot down by men who wanted to steal his inventions. Edwards was an intrepid, daring globetrotter who traveled the world in his metal suit, not simply the bodyguard to a corporate tycoon. Steve sometimes wondered just how much the popularity of the Iron Man comics were responsible for giving Stark the luxury of keeping a high-powered weapon on his payroll as a bodyguard.
But that bodyguard was brilliant in his own right, a steadfast Avenger, and he’d been nothing but kind to Steve, given more of himself than Steve would ever have asked for, so he usually tried to push any reservations he had about potential corporate abuses to the back of his mind.
Right now, Iron Man was sizing the creature up, using all the high-tech artificial intelligence built into his suit to get instant data readouts on the animal. When he’d first met him, Steve had been convinced that Iron Man must have one of the most impressive minds in human history, the way he was able to spit out facts and calculations at the drop of a hat, but now he knew that he was hooked into literally every global database in existence.
“Hold it,” Iron Man said, after a moment. “I don’t think we’re in a combat situation, here. According to this body proportion analysis, that thing’s a baby. It’s just... hungry.”
“Now I’m definitely not going up there,” said Wasp.
“You’re saying we need to feed it?” Steve asked. “What do they eat? Other than bugs?”
“Fish,” Iron Man answered. “Fish, and, uhh...roadkill. Dinosaur roadkill. Do we have any dead dinosaurs lying around?”
“Yeah, I’ve been saving one in my back pocket for a special occasion,” Steve retorted.
“I mean, given you’re a living dinosaur, it probably gets lonely without some company, huh, Winghead?” Iron Man said cheerily.
“Can you blame me?” Steve replied. “Tin cans make lousy dinner dates.”
“Ooh, I’m wounded,” said Iron Man, clutching his head. “Who wants to find a local restaurant willing to sacrifice some ground chuck to a good cause?”
“Already ahead of you, pal,” said Giant-Man, as he strode easily across the park. He paused where the pterosaur was perched.
“AWK!” the pterosaur cried.
“Hi there,” said Giant-Man, and he gave the pterosaur a little head-scritch. “Hey, team, this little guy’s pretty cute. Can we—”
“ABSOLUTELY NOT!” Wasp shouted back. “If you think for one second I’m cleaning dino guano off the—”
Giant-Man let out a long-suffering sigh and started downtown.
“Awk!” squawked the pterosaur, who stretched its wings and took off, a little wobbly, as if it had only just learned to fly, after Giant-Man.
“Oh, look, it’s got a new friend,” Iron Man observed.
“Hey, Giant-Man!” Steve called. “Just take it straight toward the piers, yeah?”
Iron Man coughed. “Just don’t let the Food Network get their hands on it; I bet that’s on Anthony Bourdain’s bucket list or something.”
“Awk!” the pterosaur cried again.
And then, suddenly, slowly, the sky above began to darken.
“Hey, Iron Man,” Steve said cautiously. “You, uh, said that was a baby right?”
“Oh, shit,” said Iron Man, looking up. “Mama’s incoming.”
The creature that flew overhead now let out a deafening screech, its wingbeats whipping up a wind that blew Wasp through the air. She screamed, and Thor went bolting after her, catching her in his hands.
“Geez, thanks,” Wasp said, returning to her ordinary human-size. “I was certain I was going to splatter on someone’s windshield!”
“Awk!” the baby called to its mother.
“Uh, Shellhead?” Steve asked Iron Man. “You think we’re gonna be able to lure that one away with food and snuggles?”
“Snuggles?” Iron Man said. “I didn’t know you liked older women, Winghead. The real question is, where are we going to park that thing? I don’t want to kill it, but—”
“I’ve got a better idea!” Giant-Man called down to them. He held a hand out to the baby pterosaur, who alighted on his wrist.
The mother screeched again and dove for Giant-Man, who tossed something in her face.
“Awk!” cried the baby, as, in the blink of an eye, the mother was no larger than a hawk.
“Awk!” cried the mother. She dove angrily for Giant-Man, but her shrunken beak was no match for the protective layers of his uniform. A few moments later, the baby was the size of a pigeon, and he cupped both animals in his massive hands.
“You think the Central Park Zoo wants a special exhibit?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Steve said, clutching his notebook a little more tightly, and hoping that Iron Man hadn’t noticed that he’d been doodling details of a particularly tricky bit of Iron Man’s gauntlet construction instead of taking notes. “Yeah, just...personal stuff.” He flashed Iron Man an easy smile.
“Right, right,” Iron Man said cheerily. “Captain America’s secret life of glamour and mystery.”
Steve shrugged. “It’s not that glamorous.”
“Sure it’s not,” Iron Man retorted. “You’re probably some globetrotting billionaire playboy, and none of us have the slightest idea. That’s why you don’t live here at the Mansion, isn’t it?” he asked. “You’ve got some kind of posh estate, huh?”
“Ha,” Steve replied. “No, I just…” He tugged at his cowl; even new, high-tech fibers got sweaty after a while. “I like having my space, you know? Besides, I don’t know about relying on Tony Stark for everything. I barely know—”
“I don’t—” Iron Man said. “Uh. I don’t think he minds. Really. It’s a nice set-up.”
“All the same,” Steve said with a shrug. “SHIELD thought it was better for me to have my own place, you know, sense of routine, regain my footing, get used to things around here. It was part of the agreement, when they let me move out of the facility and cleared me to team up with you folks.”
“Life in the twenty-first century, huh?” Iron Man asked.
Steve chuckled. “Something like that.”
“Huh,” said Iron Man. “What’s that entail? Did they make you get a job? Did they make you go on dates? Have they found you a nice girlfriend yet?”
“What about you?” Steve retorted.
“Everyone knows I have a job,” Iron Man pointed out. “I’m Tony Stark’s bodyguard.”
Steve raised his eyebrows before he remembered that his eyebrows weren’t visible. “I meant about the girlfriend, Shellhead.”
“Ha,” Iron Man’s head tipped back as he laughed; it was the closest Steve could get to seeing a real laugh, from Iron Man, whose facial expressions were even more hidden than Steve’s own. “Who said it was a girl?”
And Iron Man’s words gave Steve a start; he wondered if Iron Man had noticed Steve looking at him, wondered if all their banter was actually the flirtation it sounded like.
Iron Man talked that way with everyone, Steve told himself. He was imagining things. After all, they wore masks; they had a pact that their identities would remain a secret. Even if there was a tiny bit of flirtation at work, it didn’t amount to anything, couldn’t amount to anything; it was all for fun.
He grinned, then, hoping it didn’t look forced— unlike Iron Man, Steve’s mouth was visible. “You got a boyfriend, then?” he asked.
“Nah,” Iron Man replied. “Nah, I’m an old bachelor.”
“Same,” Steve answered, wondering if this was going too far, wondering if this was too much identifying information, too personal, but he couldn’t just accept Iron Man’s revelation without a fair trade. “Except I’m older.”
“How do you know?” Iron Man asked. “I mean, I know you’re, like, a thousand years old, but maybe I’m two thousand. Maybe I’m Darth Vader, maybe the suit is the only thing keeping me alive.”
“Darth who?” Steve asked. “Is that a pers—”
“Oh, fuck me,” said Iron Man. “SHIELD is not doing you any favors. Remind me to talk to Fury about your pop culture education.”
Steve laughed. “You know, you could educate me yourself, Shellhead,” he offered.
“Believe me, I’d love to,” Iron Man replied. “But as comfortable as this armor is, I’m not watching three whole movies in it. Damn condition of anonymity.”
“Damn condition of anonymity, indeed,” Steve muttered under his breath.
Sharon gave him a look, put down her fork, and sighed. “You read comics, Steve,” she said patiently. “You have a roomful of comics; you’re the biggest dork I know. How have you missed Star Wars?”
“I saw Star Wars,” Steve replied.
“You saw the new one,” Sharon realized. “You didn’t see the originals.” She covered her face with her hands. “Okay. Add it to the list.”
She got up, and wrote STAR WARS in big letters on the whiteboard on the kitchen wall, just beneath HAMILTON LOTTERY, LABYRINTH, and PARKS & REC.
She frowned at the whiteboard, wiped out STAR WARS and moved it above the others.
Rubbing her hands together, she moved back to her seat, spooling up spaghetti onto her fork. “I saw you on the news,” she told him. “With the pterodactyls. Nice work.”
“It was mostly Giant-Man,” Steve admitted between bites, shrugging. “Not the big news of the day, though.”
Sharon looked up, raising an eyebrow. “Yeah?” she asked. “Good, you have good news? Something I can report back to Fury so he won’t keep telling me I’m a shitty superhero liaison and I’d better make you get off your ass more?” She stabbed at her last meatball and shoved it in her mouth.
“I don’t know about that,” Steve answered with a shrug. “It’s probably going to keep me on my ass, actually.”
“Oh, good, did you get challenged to a couch potato duel?” Sharon asked him.
He flashed her a grin. “I got a job.”
Sharon’s fork clattered against her plate, her eyes widening as her face lit up. “You did? That’s wonderful; what—”
“Comics,” Steve answered. “I’m—ah.” He chuckled, and shook his head. “Get this. I’m drawing Iron Man.”
Sharon nearly choked. “You’re drawing—” She burst out laughing. “How, Steve? How are you going to draw a fictional comic about a guy you actually work with without anyone catching on?”
“It gets better,” he told her, waving his hand in the air. “It gets— Sharon, I report to Tony Stark.”
Sharon’s expression of glee was gone. “Are you sure you can do this?” she asked. “Stark’s a smart guy, Steve. If you’ve got a day job with the guy, and he sponsors the Avengers, he’s going to figure something out, don’t you think?”
Steve took a deep breath. “It’s...it’s the chance of a lifetime,” he said, shrugging. “I’d be a fool not to take it. It’s...it’s been my dream, since I was a little kid.”
Sharon gave him a thoughtful look, and then a small smile. “And here, the rest of us grew up dreaming about being you. All you wanted to do was draw pictures.”
“Excuse me,” Steve said, his head held high, feigning haughtiness. “They’re picture stories. Anyway, I doubt I’ll see Stark that often. It’s not like they expect artists to sit in a cubicle nine-to-five at the comics office. I’ve got my studio set up in the spare room. I just have to meet with him occasionally, and he barely talks to Captain America.”
He remembered, wincing internally, what Pepper had said, about Tony running away. That couldn’t be true, could it? Tony Stark hardly seemed like the type to be intimidated by anyone, even a superhero.
He shrugged. “The mask covers most of my face, and when I’m Captain America, people look at the uniform, not me. Stark’s not going to recognize two guys he sees every couple months in completely different contexts. I...I think I’ll be safe.”
“All right,” Sharon said, though she didn’t look at all certain. She got up, starting to clear the dishes. “If you change your mind, let me know, okay?”
“Yeah,” Steve assured her. “Yeah, I will.”
“It’s my job,” she said. The plates clanked as she loaded them into the dishwasher. “To worry about this stuff, I mean. I’m happy for you, Steve. But I’m assigned to protect Captain America.”
Steve nodded. “I know,” he said. “And it’s not like I haven’t thought it myself.” He pushed himself up from the table just as Sharon shut the dishwasher.
She grinned at him. “Good. You want to walk to Brooklyn Farmacy and get milkshakes?”
“Milkshakes?” Steve asked, secretly delighted, but uncertain how sincere the offer was. “In this weather? Sharon, it’s freezing out.”
“I know,” she said, tossing her hair as she grabbed her jacket. “But we have to celebrate somehow. Come on, my treat.”
By the time the door opened, Steve was caught in a horrible daymare in which Tony hated all of the art and cancelled the book and blacklisted Steve out of the comic industry forever.
“Steve!” Tony exclaimed, as he popped out of his office, looking particularly jolly. He was dressed in an old, grubby tee shirt, with a pair of safety goggles propped on his head, holding an electric drill in one hand. “You’re early!”
Steve checked his watch. “Noon?” he asked.
“Oh!” said Tony. “Then I’m late!” It didn’t seem to suppress his cheer. He plopped the wrench down on Mrs. Arbogast’s desk. “I thought we’d get lunch; do you eat lunch?”
“I...eat lunch,” Steve assured him.
“Good, Pep’s going to meet us there,” Tony said. “I know this cute little bistro; you’ll love it. Great fries.”
The great fries at the cute little bistro turned out to be eighteen dollar fries cooked in duck fat and covered in aged cheese with white truffle shavings. Tony ordered two baskets of them the moment they walked in the door, insistent that one wasn’t enough.
Steve had never seen a basket of fries that cost eighteen dollars before. He hesitated as the fries were set down on the table.
“This is on Timely,” Tony assured Steve, waving at the menu as he munched at his fries. “Order whatever.”
“Shouldn’t we...wait for Pepper?” Steve asked, glancing over his shoulder. He was still holding his portfolio awkwardly under one arm.
“Oh, she’ll get here when she gets here,” Tony answered. “Oh, get the lobster bisque, the lobster bisque is fantastic.”
The lobster bisque was twelve dollars a bowl.
“And,” Tony said, glancing down the menu, “oh, you can’t come here and not get the iceberg wedge, it has the best crispy pancetta, we’ll get you one of those, and—”
When the waiter brought their drinks, Tony ended up ordering for both of them. The list of menu items that spilled out of his mouth sounded like enough for eight people.
When the menus were cleared, Tony looked eagerly at the portfolio that Steve was balancing precariously on his knees.
“So?” Tony asked. “Did you bring me something new?” He tapped his fingers eagerly against his knees, leaning far across the table, as if he could see through the portfolio cover if he tried hard enough.
“Ah…” Steve handed it over, the butterflies returning, sudden and severe.
Tony’s eyes lit up at the first picture. “More Iron Man!” he exclaimed. “You— wow, Steve, you really—”
“I saw it on the news,” Steve explained, as he leaned over, still nervous, while Tony admired the pencil sketch of Iron Man and the pterosaur.
“Yeah, but this angle,” Tony said, whistling. ‘It’s almost like you’re watching from right below him.” He grinned. “Not to admire my own handiwork, but I did give that suit a nice ass, didn’t I?”
Steve coughed and hoped his cheeks weren’t turning red. “An absolute masterpiece,” he managed, still very self-conscious.
“Say,” Tony said, eagerly, as he looked through some of the other drawings. “You don’t think you could...maybe...work up something with Iron Man and Cap, could you? The goal, after this next series, is to work up to a group Avengers comic title, you know, a big crossover team-up kind of—” Tony cut himself off, and looked at Steve’s face. “What?” he asked, warily.
“I hate crossover events,” Steve said apologetically. “You have to buy so many books just to figure out what’s—”
“Oh, no, no, not like that,” Tony said, reassuringly. “I’ll leave that to my competitors. No, like, I’m thinking just a monthly book, just like the solo books, but with everybody hanging out and, you know, fighting pterodactyls together. There’d be some witty banter, some interpersonal drama, what do you think?”
Steve thought that this was hitting a little too close to home. “Like the Invaders?” he asked. “Or the Fantastic Four?”
“Yeah, exactly like!” Tony agreed.
“I…” Steve bit his lip, and tried to look thoughtful. “Think maybe it could use more women on the team? You know, if it’s going to be a comic book.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “What, you want to give Captain America a love interest?” he asked.
Steve tried not to look startled. “How about Iron Man?” he asked back. “Seems like the guy could use a love interest.”
“Oh, could he?” Tony asked interestedly. “What makes you say that? I mean, apart from the fine ass—”
“Think of all the narrative possibilities,” Steve offered. “Beyond the shiny rear end, Tony. He’s got the suit; his, ah, girlfriend can’t know about it, he’s angsting about whether to tell her, he has that apparatus keeping him alive, he…” Steve shrugged. The part of the Iron Man story where Edwards had to use a machine to keep his heart beating, Steve suspected, was only to heighten the drama of the comic, and not actually true, but he had always found it one of the most compelling parts of the character. “He has to wonder, doesn’t he, about whether he can have an ordinary life like that.”
“Huh.” Tony frowned, blinking at Steve, just as their bisque arrived.
“Huh, what?” Steve asked.
“That’s...interesting,” Tony replied, still looking a bit far-away. “You may be onto something there, Steve.”
“I thought lunch wasn’t until one!” Pepper exclaimed, as she arrived, in a bit of a bluster.
“Hiya, Pep!” Tony said, suddenly cheerful. He shifted his seat, making room for the woman. “It was, but Steve was early. I mean, I was late. I got the time wrong. Here,” he offered, shoving his bowl of bisque over. “We’re just starting! Have some bisque!”
Once Pepper was settled, the conversation shifted dramatically. Tony showed her Steve’s new sketches, and she nodded approvingly. They discussed the story arc for the planned miniseries— a space adventure, as promised, one where Edwards was to be held captive by the race of creatures who inhabited the moon. Tony giddily turned the pages of Steve’s portfolio, showing Pepper some of the sketches Steve had done, of Iron Man, and then of Mark Edwards— who, Steve noted, with some amusement, looked like a more cartoonish version of Tony himself, albeit with less facial hair. But Edwards was classically handsome in a ways that Tony wasn’t— high cheekbones, a square jaw, a typical hero’s face, a more bulky build. Tony, in turn, looked less polished, but, Steve thought, as he studied him, sketching on a napkin, more visually striking, with his expressive, quirky eyebrows, lopsided smile, and deep dimples.
“Of course, escaping without his armor shouldn’t be easy,” Pepper said, thoughtfully, as she polished off the filet mignon Tony had offered her when their ludicrous number of main course dishes had arrived. “There should be a race against time, here...if he can’t charge his heart in a certain amount of time…”
“I love it,” Tony assured her. “Listen, about the escape...Steve had an idea...what do you think about introducing a love interest?”
Pepper frowned. “A…”
“You don’t like it,” Tony observed. “Come on, Pep; it’ll be fun. You always say we should put more girls in the comics; I’m giving you a chance to create some kickass lady. You could make her a superhero, or a moon princess, or—”
“I always say,” Pepper said, rolling her eyes, “we need more female protagonists, Tony. Not love interests. Love interests die the minute somebody wants the male hero to have some kind of crisis of conscience. I’m not putting all that development time in just so the next guy on the book can kill her.”
She stuck her tongue out. Tony waved down the waiter and ordered a slice of key lime pie, a slice of cheesecake, and an apple tart, and coffee for the table.
Pepper changed her coffee to an Earl Grey tea, with the ease and practice of someone who had been subjected to Tony Stark’s propensity to order for everyone else on countless occasions.
“So, fine,” Tony said. “Don’t put a girl in it. Just… I don’t know, use Captain America, or something.”
Pepper squinted at Tony. “As a love interest?”
Steve coughed into his hand, and tried very hard not to make eye contact with anyone at the table.
Tony laughed out loud. “Oh, that would be rich. They’d kill us if we did that,” he said, cheerfully. “Skewer us to death. We’d wake up and we’d all be impaled and beheaded and my stocks would all be in the toilet and it would be glorious. You think we should do it? Hey, Steve,” he asked. “Should we make Captain America and Iron Man fall in love?”
Steve had no idea what his face looked like at the moment, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t flattering. “Ah.”
“Come on, you can tell me the truth,” Tony said. “Is it too out there? Too gay?”
“It’s just that they’re both real people,” Steve pointed out. “So maybe you should, ah, ask them? Since they have to work together, and all, it might get a little—” Steve was feeling incredibly, incredibly warm. “Awkward.”
Tony sighed, and leaned back in his chair. “Point,” he said. “Fair point. But we could use Cap for the rescue, couldn’t we? I just told Steve I wanted to do a team-up; this could be a good lead-in. What’s he doing in his book?”
“Fighting Batroc the Leaper,” Steve answered. “I don’t know how long that story’s—”
“It’ll be over before this one goes to press,” Pepper replied. “After that, he’s fighting an evil Bucky from an alternate dimension, but I don’t think having him guest here is going to mess with the continuity.”
“What d’you think, Steve?” Tony asked. “You want a crack at Cap, too?”
“I...don’t draw him as much as Iron Man,” Steve admitted. “But—”
“Oh, come on,” Tony replied, looking Steve up and down. “You’ve got almost the same build, that cute All-American thing going on; just draw yourself in the mirror a few times.”
Steve chuckled, and tried not to react to the fact that Tony Stark had just called him cute. “Probably part of the problem,” he admitted. “He never seemed as exciting to me.”
Tony gave Steve a look, arched his eyebrow, and cleared his throat. “Are we going to have words about Captain America?” he asked. “Because, believe me, you won’t win.”
Steve was rescued by the arrival of dessert, which seemed to shift Tony’s attention entirely.
“Ooh, Steve, try the key lime,” Tony said eagerly, shoving the plate forward toward him. “It’s the best, the best in the city.”
It was very good key lime.
They finished up their dessert, Pepper and Steve worked out a schedule, and Steve tried his best not to crane his neck to see the check when Tony took out his credit card to pay.
“Thanks for lunch,” Steve said, as they waited just outside the restaurant to see Pepper off in a cab that Pepper swore up and down she didn’t need, but Tony insisted on paying for.
“Great, huh?” Tony said, grinning like a child.
Steve looked down at the massive doggie bag of food Tony had foisted on him. “Well, you also bought me dinner, and probably tomorrow’s lunch, too, so—”
Tony tilted his head at Steve, and blinked, as if something had only just occurred to him. “Tomorrow!” he exclaimed.
“Huh?” Steve asked, feeling as if he was missing something.
“There’s an opening, tomorrow, at the Society of Illustrators; you’ve been there, yeah?”
Steve nodded. “Yeah, they do a good sketch night,” he answered. “And I saw the Chip Kidd exhibit.”
“This is the new show; you want to come?” Tony asked. “It’s a comics history thing, probably right up your alley, a bunch nineteen-forties stuff, actually. Some Cap from the early days, you know, maybe good research? Some of my personal collection’s on loan; there’s gonna be dinner—”
“Are you trying to fatten me up for the slaughter, or something?” Steve asked, holding up the doggie bag as if to demonstrate.
Tony looked Steve over, intently. “Definitely something,” he answered.
Steve blinked, but couldn’t quite bring himself to ask what ‘something’ meant. “Ah—”
“It’s nothing fancy, just comic stuff; you don’t need to wear a tie or anything,” Tony said. “I can pick you up?”
“I live in Red Hook,” Steve said.
Tony put a finger in the air. “I definitely can’t pick you up,” he admitted. “Seven at the Society?” he said. “I’ll see you there.”
“That was...not what I expected,” Steve admitted.
“In what sense?”
“Tony Stark,” Steve said. “He’s like a little ball of charisma; he—” Steve shook his head.
“Do not tell me you have a crush on Stark,” Sharon said, snorting into the phone.
“It’s not— no,” he said, a little strangled. “It’s like...when I’ve met him before, when I’m in uniform, everything’s so formal, so…official. Firm handshakes, polite nods, and then he always say he’s got to run, he’s on the clock— I just thought he was like that with everyone. But I just had lunch with the guy; we were at the restaurant for two and a half hours, and it’s like talking to a lightbulb; he’s perpetually on.”
“Interesting assessment,” Sharon said. “You want me to grab his file for you?”
“I’ve read it,” Steve said. “But I might have some intel to add. Do you have any idea what a nerd that man is?”
Sharon laughed. “Steve, you’re drawing for Timely. Timely wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Tony Stark. They went bankrupt twice in the nineties. He sank a huge chunk of his parents’ wealth into buying a comic book company when he was eighteen years old because he wanted to keep buying comics. Turned the entire thing around...believe me, everyone knows what a nerd that man is. And that’s just his hobby.”
Steve frowned, as he mentally shifted puzzle pieces in his mind. He’d known the facts of Tony’s acquisition of Timely, knew that Tony used the money from the entertainment and licensing side of the business to fund the actual superheroes on the Avengers team, but it all existed as discrete floating bits of information in the enigmatic cloud that was Tony Stark in his mind. He’d never put it together quite that succinctly before.
“He asked me to go to a gallery opening tomorrow,” he said, then.
Steve could not put a name to the type of sound Sharon made, but it involved choking, sputtering, laughing, and at least three other reactions of incredulity.
“He what?” she asked.
“He told me to come to an art opening with him,” Steve explained. “What— what’s—”
He could hear the sounds of Sharon still struggling not to laugh “Is that a date?”
“I don’t— no?” Steve said. He had been trying to put the idea out of his head since that look Tony had given him. “I don’t think it— it’s about work; it’s— a comic exhibit; he wants to show me some things before I start work on the book.”
Now he was mentally running over his conversation with Tony in his head, over and over. He had offered to pick him up; that didn’t seem quite like work, but then...nothing Tony did seemed quite like work.
“Either way,” he said. “I have no idea what to wear to go to an art opening with Tony Stark, and I have about twelve pounds of leftovers from the fanciest restaurant I’ve ever eaten at. You want to come over for dinner, pick out my clothes, and watch…” He glanced back at the whiteboard, which was only just visible through the doorway to the kitchen. “Star Wars?”
Sharon snickered. “I can’t believe I get paid for this. I’ll grab a six-pack on my way.”
“What’s the matter?” Wasp asked. “You have somewhere to be?”
“As a matter of fact—” Iron Man said, irritably. “I do.”
Steve had been trying not to be too obvious about the fact that he’d been checking the time, over and over, on the big digital clock on the holoscreen. He still had time, plenty of time, if he counted— the Society of Illustrators was only a ten-minute walk from the Mansion, and he’d brought the clothes Sharon had advised him to wear— not, she had said, absolutely not a tee shirt— but nice jeans, a button-down shirt, and a sweater. They’d all been assigned their own doors to the Mansion, specifically for the sake of preserving everyone’s identities, so they could make their way in and out out of uniform without being seen by their teammates, if necessary, so he all he needed to do was shower, get dressed, and make a break for it.
But if Iron Man had more pressing plans, Steve thought, that let him off the hook. No one needed to know that his stomach was starting to do somersaults.
“All right, Iron Man,” Steve said patiently. “Motion to table till tomorrow?” he offered. “I’m still concerned about this report— if folks say they saw Hydra; I’ve got to get this intel directly to SHIELD, but I’ll take care of that tonight, and we can pick up in the morning where we left off. Say, ten-hundred? All in favor?”
All five of the Avengers raised their hands. Iron Man jerked himself up from the table and made a beeline for the door.
“What’s the rush, Shellhead?” Steve asked, as he caught up with Iron Man in the hall. “Is everything okay?”
Iron Man turned with a start. “What?” he asked. “Oh. Yeah. It’s— fine, fine Cap. I’ve just got a date.”
Steve blinked. “You have a—”
“What’s the matter?” Iron Man asked, slowly. “You jealous?”
“Surprised, is all,” Steve answered, rolling back on his heels. “What happened to bachelorhood?”
But he still felt a jab of envy, felt the way he held his jaw tighter at it, even as he mentally admonished himself for it. He wondered about his own evening plans, suddenly, wondered if Sharon had been right, after all.
“Turns out bachelorhood sucks,” Iron Man replied.
Steve snorted. “Really? You don’t say.”
“Anyway, it probably won’t go anywhere,” Iron man said, a touch bitterly. “But you meet somebody who seems like they might get you, you’ve got to at least try, right?”
“I g—” Steve swallowed, stopping himself from saying something that was actually pure jealousy. He understood Iron Man, he thought, probably better than anyone else, didn’t he? And his mind started barraging him with question after question. Did Tony Stark get him? Of course not, a brilliant inventor had no use for a run-of-the-mill comic artist. It was just a bit of philanthropy from a businessman who wanted his newest asset to feel at home.
“I guess,” Steve said, shrugged, and forced a smile. “I hope it goes okay,” he said to Iron Man. “You— it’s tough, doing what we do. It’d be nice to know at least one of us has a life outside of here.”
Iron Man tilted his head at him. “Don’t tell me Captain America spends his off-hours sitting in front of the TV in his boxers eating ice cream,” he said.
“Of course not; don’t be ridiculous,” Steve retorted.
He watched Iron Man visibly relax. “I wear briefs,” he added cheerily.
“Sad, Winghead,” Iron Man said, shaking his metal helmet. “Sad, sad, sad. What happened to that cute SHIELD agent they assigned you? You should ask her out.”
Steve felt his ears go hot, and was grateful they were hidden by the cowl. “I did,” he muttered. “She doesn’t date assignments.”
“Ooh, drama.” Iron Man rubbed his hands together. “What about that pink-haired snake girl we fought? What was her name? You totally had a thing for—”
“Iron Man.” Steve said, becoming increasingly twitchy at the uncanny way the man in the armor seemed to have clued in on all of Steve’s infatuations.
“No, her name wasn’t Iron Man,” Iron Man retorted cheerfully. “I’m Iron Man, Cap. She—”
“She’s a supervillain!” Steve pointed out. “I can’t—”
“This is what you get,” Iron Man said, tsking. “If you’re gonna be so picky, you’re gonna be sad and alone forever.”
Steve coughed. “Enjoy your date; I’ll see you in the morning, Shellhead.”
He waved as he turned to go.
“Hey, Cap—” Iron Man said, and Steve stopped, and glanced over his shoulder.
Iron Man was silent for a moment. Without any facial expressions, it was impossible to tell what he was thinking, but Steve supposed that he’d meant to say something, and then changed his mind, from the silence that stretched on too long to be comfortable.
“Have a good night,” Iron Man replied, waving back. He hesitated a moment longer before starting down the hall.
And Steve took a deep breath and went to shower.
It was blustery and cold on the streets of Manhattan, and walking downtown felt like heading into a wind tunnel as Steve headed toward the Society of Illustrators. He pulled his jacket a little more tightly around him, buried his hands underneath his arms, and wondered how people who didn’t have a serum-enhanced endurance in cold temperatures survived as his breath made puffs of steam in the frosty air.
At the door of the Society, a young woman welcomed him and asked if he was a member.
“Ah...no,” he answered. “I’m, uh...I’m Tony Stark’s guest?”
She whipped out a StarkPad, scrolling through the guest list. “Name?”
“Steve Rogers? I’m a, uh—” His eyes caught sight of a huge painting of himself just inside the door to the main gallery. Not really him, not Steve, but Captain America’s comic-alter-ego, Jeff Mace, who looked like a more cherubic version of Steve himself, his hair curling in a perfect forelock, his teeth big and white and straight in his dimpled grin.
“I’m an artist,” he finished. “With Timely?”
The young woman frowned. “You’re not on the list; it’s a twenty-dollar admission to the event, or—”
“He’s good!” a voice insisted, as Steve fumbled for his wallet, hoping he actually had twenty dollars. “Put that away, Steve. This one’s with me.”
And he felt Tony Stark’s hand on his sleeve. “Come on, come on in, let me take your jacket—”
Steve tugged his jacket off and handed it over before he realized that the fourth-richest man in the world was carrying his grubby leather jacket to the coat check. For a moment, he felt compelled to apologize before he reminded himself that the man had asked.
And then Tony’s hand was on his arm again, and he was shepherding him toward the main gallery. “Come on, Steve,” he said eagerly. “You’re gonna love this.”
And then they were standing right there, in front of the painting of Captain America, and Steve found himself looking up to it with a strange sense of surreality as this Captain America who was most definitely not him looked back down at him with a benevolent smile, like the portrait of a saint in a church.
And then he saw the little brass plate beside it, the name of the artist, the medium, and the words on generous loan from the collection of Anthony E. Stark.
Steve twitched, slightly. “This is yours?”
“Yeah,” Tony answered. “I commissioned it, one of the first things I did with the family fortune, right after my parents died.” He looked a little wistful, a little reverent, as he folded his hands behind his back and looked up at the painting, and Steve realized, as his heart skipped a beat, that this was Tony’s saint, this was Tony’s church.
It made him feel incredibly uneasy. “Why’d you do that?” he asked. “Captain America, of all things?”
“I don’t know,” Tony replied. “I guess I...I needed a friend. I needed somebody to look to, for guidance. This guy—” he gestured at Captain America— “this guy always fought for the right thing, even when it was scary, even when it was hard, even when it meant fighting his friends. Always stood up for the little guy, too, which is—” He shifted, on his feet. “It’s a tough thing to learn, when you’ve always had power. You have to be careful, not to take advantage of it, not to leave people in the dust.”
Steve wasn’t sure what he’d expected to hear, but it hadn’t been that. Tony’s words seemed truly sincere.
“I know,” Tony said, shaking his head, “poor me, poor little rich boy, the hardest thing I have to do is not be an asshole.”
Steve scratched at the back of his neck. “But you know it,” he said. “Most people in your shoes...don’t.”
And Tony gave him a shy, pleased sort of smile, and gestured for him to follow, pointing out a series of original inked pages from an early Captain America comic hung on the wall.
Somehow, a glass of sparkling wine was pressed into Steve’s hand, and then another, and they kept being interrupted as Tony chatted with some person or another. It wasn’t a fancy crowd, as promised, but it was a room full of writers and artists with names Steve recognized from comic book covers, and he felt somewhat outclassed. But Tony would put a hand on his arm and introduce him with grand, sweeping pronouncements, called him a luminary, and the next big thing, and people would look up at him with renewed interest.
Tony was in the middle of showing off a series of toys, old Invaders toys from the 1970s, he said, proudly, explaining that they were his own, personal collection, and that the Human Torch was exceptionally hard to find, because of a recall due to the light-sensitive paint used to make him look as if he were actually on fire, when a woman came up. She moved lithely, with a practiced grace, as she situated herself between them.
“Fancy seeing you here,” she said, her voice like velvet. She cradled her glass of wine like it was an expensive jewel, with long, elegant, perfectly manicured fingernails, and she wore a dress that showed off the curves of her body in a way that seemed out of place for the rest of this very casually-dressed crowd.
Tony turned, and blinked for a moment. “Phee?” he asked, blinking again, as if she was not the person he’d expected to see. “This isn’t exactly your scene, is it?”
She grinned, and her green eyes danced. She was very attractive, Steve thought, very composed, very graceful, and he couldn’t tell for sure, but he thought that her jewelry was all made of real stones, the way it caught the light and sparkled.
“I heard a certain Mister Stark might be making an appearance,” she said, with a tilt of the head.
Steve felt his jaw clench, his fingers curl into a fist, and he realized, right now, that he was feeling the same sort of jealousy he’d felt talking to Iron Man, earlier. That couldn’t be good, he told himself, and he mentally willed himself to stop, stamp down even the tiniest hint of a crush on his new employer.
“Well, you never can count on that asshole to show up when he’s expected,” Tony said, cheerily. “Phee, this is Steve Rogers, my latest addition to the Timely squad. Steve... Steve, this is Ophelia Sarkissian, the—”
“Princess of Madripoor?” Steve said, his jealousy giving way to awe for a moment. He held a hand out, awkwardly.
“The same,” Ophelia said, and she shook his hand, firmly. “But it’s Ophelia to my friends, and any friend of Tony’s—” She looked admiringly at Tony, a smile playing over her lips, and held her glass out to toast.
Tony clinked his glass against hers.
Steve took a breath, told himself it was unfair to instantly dislike someone just because of the way she smiled at a man he barely knew, and raised his own glass to clink.
“Artist or writer?” Ophelia asked Steve, interestedly.
“Oh. Ah. Artist,” Steve answered.
“He’s drawing Iron Man for me,” Tony said, giddily. It was a wonder, Steve thought, that a man who owned a company that hired artists day in and day out could still be so enthusiastic.
“How lovely.” Ophelia bore the distinct expression of someone who had absolutely no interest in this conversation. She tapped her fingertip against her champagne flute. “But of course, we know the real prize is Captain America.”
She looked up at the massive painting, and raised her glass to it.
“Phee,” Tony said. “You don’t have to—”
“Oh, come, now, Tony, everyone knows how you feel about the good Captain,” she said, sweetly. “You’re funding that little superhero team, aren’t you? You couldn’t get him to come to your party?”
Tony frowned. “I...didn’t ask him,” he said, looking uncertain. “I try to stay out of the regular operations of the Avengers.”
Ophelia gave him a sly look. “Of course you do,” she said. “Are you really telling me you don’t take advantage of that connection to the fullest?”
“Look, if you want me to take advantage of that connection, I’ll be happy to ask Captain America if he’s single, which I’m pretty sure he is,” Tony said cheerfully. “But as for me—”
He glanced at Steve. It was a tiny glance, a fraction of a second; it could have meant anything, but it made Steve pause.
“I’d rather stick to admiring from afar,” Tony finished. “Hey,” he said, putting a hand to Steve’s back. “You want to come see—”
That was the moment when the lights flickered out. There were a few cries of surprise, and a murmur and a groan that ran through the room.
Ophelia yelped, and Steve felt a splash on his face— and he reached out, managing to catch a flying champagne glass in midair— as the woman went toppling to the ground. He let out a sigh of relief that, without the lights, no one had been able to see quite how speedy his reflexes were. “There’s a cord or a— something, right here,” she said, as Tony offered her a hand up. “Careful where you step; my heel got caught.”
“Well, I didn’t wear my stilettos tonight,” Tony said cheerfully. “Just great. You know what, I’m telling you, this is what happens when the city won’t give me an energy contract.”
“The lights are on on the rest of the block,” someone observed.
“Give me a minute!” shouted the girl from the front of the museum. “I’ve gotta get to the circuit breaker.”
There was some nervous laughter from the crowd, but the conversation went on around them.
“You okay?” Steve asked Ophelia.
“I’ve got champagne all down my front,” she lamented. “I’ll go to the ladies’ room and dry off.”
“In the dark?” Tony asked. “In heels? Steve, let me walk her there; I’ll be just a second.”
Steve found himself standing in a dark room, in a crowd, alone, and he supposed he could introduce himself to the strangers around him, who were now laughing at the predicament of being stuck in the museum in the dark, but instead, he stood where he was and sipped at his champagne.
“Back,” Tony said, a minute later, tapping at Steve’s elbow. “It’s me.”
“Great exhibit,” Steve informed him dryly.
“Hey,” Tony replied. “You don’t like the romantic mood lighting?”
“It’s very romantic and very moody,” Steve agreed. He frowned. He had a sense of deja vu that he couldn’t quite put his finger on, a sense of having had similar conversations, but that wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be. Still, something in Tony’s voice...seemed familiar.
He shook his head; he was feeling a little foggy, and he frowned at a whiff of something sweet in the air. “It’s practically putting me to sleep.”
And that was when they heard the first thump. There was a yell, and then another thump.
“Gas!” Steve shouted, and he grabbed hold of Tony before he started for the door. He tugged his sweater off, holding it up to Tony’s mouth to try to create a makeshift filter. “We need to get everyone ou—”
Steve hit a thick panel of safety glass— the door was shut and locked. The people inside the museum were dropping like flies; the ones who were still awake were screaming, panicked, in the dark. Someone slammed into him, frantic.
He could break the glass; he knew he could break the glass, but no ordinary human would be able to. But there wasn’t time. Steve snatched up the fire extinguisher and slammed it, hard, into the door. There was a loud cracking sound, and then the rush and tinkle of thousands of shards falling to the hard floor.
The rush of cold air swept in from the outside. “Everyone out!” Steve shouted. He pushed Tony in front of him, then helped a few other stumbling guests through the door, hoping that no one noticed that the gas was having relatively little effect on him. “That kid went to the basement,” he said. “I’m going to get—”
Tony handed back Steve’s sweater and gasped, hacking as he breathed in fresh, cold air.
“I can call the Avengers,” he pointed out. He held up a little keychain not unlike the one in Steve’s pocket. “You get out of here; go home—”
Steve started to protest, but he realized he couldn’t compete with himself. “You gonna be okay?” he asked Tony.
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony said, sagging back against a wall, taking in deep breaths. “Just fine, see?” He held up the keychain, and pushed the button on it.
Steve felt the vibration of his own buzzer against his thigh, and he watched Tony; watched as Tony’s ragged breath came back to him, watched till he was certain that Tony wouldn’t collapse, and then, shakily, nodded. “I’ll be—”
He couldn’t tell Tony he’d be right back.
“Call me when you’re home safe,” he said.
Tony flashed him a lopsided grin. “Sure, Mom.”
“How’s the date?” Sharon asked.
“Ha ha; the date— which was not a date— was interrupted by poisonous gas of some sort,” Steve said.
“Shit!” Sharon answered. “What the—”
“Society of Illustrators, get a SHIELD team there as soon as you can? Stark was calling in the Avengers, so I’m going back there, but it’s a crime scene; the Avengers shouldn’t be handling it alone.”
Sharon whistled. “Right. On it. I’ll see you there.”
Steve took the stairs three at a time up to his rooms, threw his clothing on the floor before he realized he’d left his jacket at the Society. He pulled on his uniform, which was still sitting out where he’d left it before going to the opening, and pulled out his buzzer.
As usual, being the only relatively-powerless human on a superhero team meant that Steve was the last to reach the scene.
“Iron Man!” he called, spotting the red and gold armor among the crowd. “What’s the situation?”
“Sleeping gas,” Iron Man replied. “Everyone’s fine; we’ve got a few concussions, Giant-Man is seeing to the injuries, but…” he shrugged. “Nothing notable, at least noth—”
Steve glanced around, looking for signs of Tony. “Stark was here, wasn’t he?” he asked. “Where did he go?”
“Sent him home,” said Iron Man. “Told him to get some rest.”
“Hey!” Wasp called from inside. She fluttered over to Steve and Iron Man. “Cap!” You have to see this place. It’s like a shrine to you.”
Steve coughed, and tried to look surprised. “Really?” he asked. “I—” He looked up at the enormous portrait. “Well. That’s certainly...something.”
“Come on, Winghead,” Iron Man said, elbowing him gently. “We know that’s exactly what you look like under that mask.”
“I should hope not,” Steve muttered, but he flashed Iron Man a grin. “Yeah, you’ve got my number, Shellhead; don’t give away all my secrets.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Yankee Doodle,” Iron Man answered cheerfully. “I’m just gonna do a scan of the—”
A soft blue glow beamed from Iron Man’s eye slits, and moved slowly over the room. “Well, fuck me,” he said.
“What is it?” asked a new voice from the doorway. There was Sharon, right on time, armed to the teeth and with a team of agents behind her.
“I found our target,” Iron Man said, pointing to a smashed showcase. There were a set of small dolls with worn clothing and faded paint jobs. There was Namor, The Human Torch, Toro, Bucky…the very dolls Tony had been bragging about just before the lights had gone out.
Captain America was missing.
“Well,” Steve said, stepping over to the exhibit, and peering down at it, “if it’s any consolation, I know that’s the least rare of the collection. Stark’ll be relieved it wasn’t his Flaming Torch doll.”
“Ah—” Iron Man started, and then seemed to decide against whatever he had been about to say.
“We have any suspects?” Sharon asked. “Who the hell would go to all this trouble just to steal a doll?”
“We’ll have to ask Stark,” Iron Man said. “It was his toy; he’s the only one who’d know.”
Sharon walked over to look at the showcase, frowning at it, and took out a small analysis kit. “I think SHIELD can take it from here, friends,” she said. “It’s a crime scene, not a monster attack. I’ll call in for a report when we’re done here.”
She glanced at Steve, gave him a small smile.
“Thanks, Agent Thirteen,” Steve said, with a nod. “Okay, Avengers. Move out.”
“Sure you don’t want to stare at your pretty face some more?” Iron Man teased.
“Why would I do that,” Steve asked, clapping Iron Man on the back, “when I can look at your ugly mug?”
Iron Man looked Steve over when they got to the sidewalk. “Hey,” he said. “I could fly you back to the mansion, if you—”
Iron Man had carried Steve before; it wasn’t new. But it was normally to the scene of an emergency, or to a better vantage point, to a safe height in the midst of a battle. Now, when everything was quiet, when they were only a few minutes away from the mansion, it seemed indulgent.
He grinned. “I’m all yours, Shellhead,” he replied, and he wrapped an arm around Iron Man’s metallic waist.
The moon was high; the sky was dark in that hazy, starless way that the sky always looked over Manhattan, thin streaks of grey clouds dusting it here and there. Steve remembered his jacket, with mild irritation.
“How was your date?” he asked.
“Interrupted,” Iron Man answered. “I had to send him home when I got the call.”
Him, Steve thought. Iron Man had said him, and that...that meant he might have a chance, someday. It sent a tingle down his neck, and he wondered what Iron Man saw, behind his mask, if he could sense the little bubble of hope that was forming in Steve’s chest.
“You could call him back,” Steve pointed out. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”
“I don’t know,” Iron Man replied. “It was a terrible first date.”
Steve felt cheered by this, and then felt mildly guilty that he felt cheered. “So he didn’t get you after all?”
Iron Man barked out a laugh. “Ha, no, it wasn’t him. He’s...Cap, he’s…perfect.”
And there went that little bubble of hope.
“I’m just pretty sure I made a total ass of myself,” Iron Man said. And Steve couldn’t feel jealous, not at that, because the way Iron Man slumped slightly, even in the suit, even in the air, he just wanted to make everything better.
“You’re at your best when you’re making an ass of yourself,” Steve said, reassuringly.
“I talk too much,” Iron Man said. “It makes me look like I’m full of myself. I get nervous, and then...words. Words just come out of every orifice.”
“I don’t think that,” Steve said. “I think you...talk just the right amount.”
They touched down on the roof of the mansion, and Iron Man chuckled. “I think all those years on ice did something to your brain, Cap,” he said. “But thanks for the vote of confidence.”
Steve wanted to tell Iron Man to ask him on a date, that he’d listen to him talk for hours, that he loved hearing him talk, loved imagining what his voice must sound like without the vocal alteration device built into the suit, wondered what he looked like under that armor— though, after tonight, he made a mental promise to never again imagine that Iron Man looked just like Mark Edwards did in the comic.
There were a hundred things he wanted to say.
Instead, he said good night.
It was too cold to take his bike back to Brooklyn without a jacket, even for him, and the Society was so close, it would be easy to jog over and pick it up in the morning, Steve supposed, assuming his jacket wasn’t now evidence in a crime. So he peeled off his uniform and paced the floor of his rather sparse room at the mansion in his underwear, trying to play the events of the night over in his head.
His phone rang— his personal phone, the one that belonged to Steve Rogers and not Captain America, and he frowned at the number he didn’t recognize for a moment. It was a local number, a 212 area code, but he couldn’t place it.
And then he laughed.
“Tony,” he said, picking up the phone. “You home safe?”
“Hey, mom,” said Tony’s voice. “Snug as a bug in a rug; how ‘bout you?”
“Doing all right,” Steve replied. “Listen—” he said, and then he realized he couldn’t ask Tony about the missing doll, couldn’t ask him what was so special about it, or who wouldn’t want it.
“I’m listening,” Tony said, sounding hesitant. It was a peculiar note, to hear in his voice, which was always so confident, so certain.
“I…” Steve had to think of something to say. “I’m sorry your show got busted up? I should have the outline of Pepper’s script next week; I’m gonna work up some character designs in the meantime, if you wanted to maybe…”
“Pick a time and a place,” Tony said, his voice brightening. “I’ll make it happen.”
“Wednesday?” Steve tried. “Wednesday afternoon?”
“I can do Wednesday,” Tony replied. “I’ll just...yeah, no, I can push the meeting with the Defense Department to—”
“You don’t have to cancel a—” Steve started.
“I’m not canceling it; I’m pushing it back,” Tony answered. “I way underbid and they know it; they can’t afford me, so if I want to reschedule, I’ll reschedule. Fuck the government, right? I want to reschedule. Hey, you open to dinner?” he asked. “I owe you dinner. We never got dinner.”
“Dinner?” Steve bit his lip. Sharon was going to laugh til she wet herself. “Yeah, I can do—”
“Great,” Tony said. “Six. I’ll have my people make a reservation.”
That definitely sounded like a date, Steve thought to himself, as he hung up the phone, his throat dry. He thought about Iron Man, one hall over, and a wave of guilt washed over him, even as he tried to push it out of his head.
He sat down on the foot of his bed, adding an event to his calendar: next Wednesday, six, when his other phone rang.
“Cap here,” he said, picking up the other phone.
“Hey, Cap, you still in the mansion?” Iron Man asked.
“Yeah,” he answered. “Too blustery to go home; I was going to—”
Iron Man let out an audible sigh of relief. “Good,” he said. “Listen, I just got off the phone with Stark.”
“You did?” Steve asked. “I just— wondered if anyone had gotten in touch with him yet.”
He bit his tongue. He’d almost told Iron Man that he’d just gotten off the phone with Stark. It seemed quick, at any rate, but he wasn’t going to question results.
“Yeah, listen,” Iron Man replied. “He says the doll’s the key to some very sensitive information; it’s locked up in a secret facility somewhere, but I’m not taking the risk that whoever’s after it isn’t already on their way. You up for another ride?”
“Always,” Steve replied. He glanced at the pile of clothing from the opening on the floor, and kicked it under the bed.
Then he sighed and suited up, giving his pillow a resigned look. “You’re going to have to wait,” he told it.
“He has secret labs,” Steve said, and winced internally. Of course he had secret labs. The man was one of the leading scientists of the day, not just an effusive comic nerd.
“Yep,” Iron Man replied. “Top secret. Anyway. The doll’s the key to the safe. I told Stark we’d go over there, secure the goods, and take ‘em back to the Mansion. Nobody’s going to attack a house full of Avengers; they’ll be safe.”
“Does he have any idea who it was?” Steve asked.
“Some lady,” Iron Man said. “Ophelia Sarkissian, the—”
“Princess of Madripoor,” Steve finished, a sour taste in his mouth. “What would she want with—”
“I don’t know,” Iron Man replied. “But Stark says he’s never trusted her.”
“I should call SHIELD,” Steve told him. “She’s a foreign head of state; this could be an international incident. And if this poses any kind of major security risk, that’s really their—”
“Don’t call SHIELD,” Iron Man replied. “Please don’t call SHIELD.”
“Why not?” Steve asked, cautious at Iron Man’s plea.
“Because this is technically their purview,” Iron Man answered. “And if they know what I— was asked to get— they’re going to take it. And I don’t trust them any more than I trust, well, anyone but—”
It might have been Steve’s imagination, but Iron Man’s grip felt a little bit tighter.
“You,” Iron Man finished.
Steve swallowed, hard. “I’m playing this your way, Shellhead,” he said, seriously. “But if things take a turn, or I decide I don’t agree—”
“Sure, call up Thirteen,” Iron Man replied. “The minute you change your mind. But trust me on this; I promise it’s the right call.”
“I’m trusting you,” Steve answered, quietly. It was the least he could give him.
The lab was downtown, all the way downtown, in a renovated warehouse on a pier.
“Oh, this looks incredibly legitimate,” Steve observed, as they landed in the parking lot.
“Hey,” said Iron Man. “Discretion is the name of the game, here.”
Steve frowned as they crept closer. “What the hell is Stark working on?”
“What isn’t he working on, is the question,” Iron Man replied. “Probably a shorter list. We’ve got to get to the sixth floor, but if I fly up, we’ll trip the alarm.” He plugged in a passcode on the door keypad, and it popped open. “So far, so good,” he said.
The inside of the warehouse was a dark, steep stairwell, with large doors to either side. “Sixth floor,” Iron Man repeated, and Steve started hustling up the stairs.
The sixth floor looked identical to the other floors: two doors on either side of the stairwell, though here there was a sort staircase to the roof.
“You know which way we go?” Steve asked, but Iron Man was already fiddling with a complicated-looking combination lock.
“Right through here; Stark told me exactly what to look for,” Iron Man replied. “There’s an old safe, a big, black—”
“Hello, gentlemen,” said a smooth, female voice that Steve recognized at once.
There was Ophelia, a satchel slung over one arm.
“Your Highness,” Iron Man said, stalking toward the woman. Steve hefted his shield as he slid it off his back, staying a step behind Iron Man.
“I think you’ll find,” Iron Man said, “that the contents of that safe are property of Stark Industries. If you’ll—”
Ophelia laughed, musically, and tapped at the small mouthpiece she wore. “I’m all done here, boys,” she said. And she leapt out the window.
“I’m calling SHIELD,” Steve said.
“Don’t,” Iron Man replied, shortly, as he flew into the air and sped toward the same window. “Call. SHIELD.”
Iron Man zoomed out of sight, and Steve checked the safe— it was open, and empty— before running to the open window and staring out of it.
There was Iron Man, of course, gleaming red and gold, the light from his jets brilliant against the night sky. And he was grappling with a figure that was nothing but a shadowy black smudge in the darkness.
“The safe’s empty,” Steve radioed to him.
“Yeah, big surprise there,” Iron Man replied. “Meet me on the roof.”
Steve stepped back into the stairwell, where he was met by a man wearing black from head to toe.
He thrust his shield forward, blocking the volley of gunfire that followed as the soldier aimed a rifle at him, and then knocked the assailant backward.
“There’s more of them,” He radioed to Iron Man, as another soldier rushed up the stairwell toward him. He kicked the new opponent squarely in the face, then ran for the rooftop.
“Wait!” came a voice from below.
He turned, hand on the railing, the door to the rooftop only an arm’s-breadth away.
The second man had a bright red remote in his hand— a detonator.
“Shit,” Steve murmured.
The man’s fingers depressed.
Steve flung himself for the door.
The stairwell erupted in a blast of light and heat, and Steve was thrown from the building, flying through the air across a rooftop that was rapidly collapsing in on itself, into a pit of smoke and flames. He found himself in freefall, tried to arrange his body to slow down as he plummeted through the air, his shield above his head to create a sort of makeshift parachute, but he was still speeding downward.
“CAP!” he heard Iron Man yell. The sound of Iron Man’s voice surrounded him, in his ears through his receiver, and all around him as his cry echoed off the building.
He’d live, he told himself; he knew he’d live, but a fall of this height would likely still do some damage, and he braced for impact.
And then he stopped falling.
Hovering in the air, he craned his neck to peer at Iron Man, who was holding onto him with both hands. “You—”
“I’ve got you,” Iron Man said.
“I would have been fine,” Steve told him. “You—” He squinted at the empty lot. “She got away, you didn’t need to—”
“I couldn’t have you getting your pants torn,” Iron Man answered, as he lowered them both gently to the ground. “Shit,” he said, the light of the billowing flames flickering off his armor, painting him a flashing amber. “I’m calling Thor.”
Steve found his footing, and his breath, and starting peering around the lot again. “We’ve got to find her,” he said, wincing at the heat from the fire. “We can’t let her—”
Iron Man took Steve’s arm. “Cap,” he said. “There’s more important things to worry about.”
He couldn’t see Iron Man’s eyes, couldn’t see the expression on his face, but the longer Iron Man looked at him, the longer Iron Man held onto his arm, the harder it was not to imagine that Iron Man meant him, and it made his breath catch.
“Anyway,” Iron Man said, as he produced a small, metallic vial. “I got what matters.”
“What—” Steve squinted at it. “What is that?”
Iron Man dropped the hand from Steve’s arm, and hesitated, looking down at the vial, then up at Steve, then down at the vial, and back up at Steve.
“Is it some kind of biological weapon?” Steve asked. “A virus? A—”
“It’s your blood, Cap,” Iron Man replied. “It’s the only sample of your blood left over from the war.”
Steve felt himself go cold all over. “You’re telling me Tony Stark had my blood in—”
He couldn’t finish the sentence. Tony Stark, the ridiculous, energetic, effusive man he was truly beginning to like, Tony Stark, the man who admired his artwork and made him feel confidence in something besides being Captain America, Tony Stark, the man he was growing to truly like— had his blood. It felt somehow invasive, somehow like a betrayal, even though he knew that Tony Stark had no way of knowing that Steve Rogers and Captain America were one and the same.
“Before you came back,” Iron Man replied. “When we all thought you were dead. I wouldn’t have— worked for the kind of person who—”
Steve stared at Iron Man, wishing he could see his face, wishing he could see the man beneath the mask, but there was nothing but emotionless metal. “That’s why you didn’t want me to call SHIELD.”
“Can you blame me?” Iron Man asked.
“They have their own,” Steve told him. “Samples. As much as I don’t like it, they have every sample they could take from me under observation. They don’t need Stark’s.”
“Of course not,” Iron Man replied. He curled his fist around the vial. “But they’d confiscate it, if they knew. And...they may not need it, but you might, someday.”
Steve took a deep breath. “You really want me to believe that Tony Stark is holding onto my blood sample for me?” he asked. “Or, I don’t know— he’s your boss, maybe you believe that, but—”
“Yeah,” Iron Man said, more firmly. “Yeah, Winghead, I believe it. You know why?”
“Why?” Steve asked, lifting his chin, squaring his shoulders as he peered at Iron Man.
And Iron Man held out the vial. “Because he told me that we had to return it,” he said. “He said it belonged to you, and you were the only person who should get to decide what happens to it.”
Steve was speechless as he opened his hand, and Iron Man lay the vial in his palm. He’d judged wrong, he realized, with a pang of guilt.
But he didn’t have time to examine his guilt too closely, because Thor arrived just as he curled his fingers around the vial and slipped it into the pouch on his belt, and he set to work calling down the rain to put out the fire, even as they heard the first sirens of an alarm in the distance.
And as they watched the last of the smoldering embers wink out, Iron Man reached for Steve’s arm again. “Want a lift home?” Iron Man offered— but there was something tentative, something uncertain in his voice, now.
“Yeah,” Steve said, and he stepped closer.
Their ten o'clock meeting, the one he'd called the evening before, was now a full report on the attack at the Society and the break-in on the pier. Iron Man didn't mention the blood to the other Avengers; he merely mentioned that the stolen item had been retrieved, but that the thief had gotten away.
“And you didn’t get Stark’s doll back, did you?” Giant-Man asked.
Iron Man shook his head. “But the doll’s secondary. Like Cap said, you can get a decent replacement for about thirty-five bucks on eBay.”
“What you’re saying,” Wasp piped in cheerfully, “is that knowing Tony, he already had sixteen of them.”
“Excuse me?” Iron Man asked. Steve couldn’t tell if he was confused or mildly offended by Jan’s jab at his boss.
“Everybody knows exactly how much Tony likes Captain America,” Wasp said, wriggling her nose. “I’m surprised he doesn’t follow Cap around like a puppy. Cap, does he ever—”
Iron Man cleared his throat.
"We need to find this Sarkissian woman," Steve put in, before the conversation went in a direction he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. "Stark— Iron Man, you said she had some connection to Stark?"
"She's foreign royalty," Wasp pointed out. "Convincing anyone that she's a thief and a saboteur is going to be tricky."
"The lady speaks true," said Thor. "It would be unseemly to level accusations."
"With everyone's permission," Steve said, "I'd like to call in Agent Thirteen."
He gave Iron Man a cautious look. "This isn't a firefight. SHIELD's an international organization with the kind of clout to make a charge on a princess of anywhere stick, with the right evidence. And they have the resources to gather that evidence. We’re only five people, even if we’re extraordinary people."
Iron Man nodded, which surprised Steve, after his insistence against SHIELD involvement the night before. "And I'll talk to Stark," he agreed. "I may be able to convince him that it's worth his time to cooperate.”
“Much obliged,” Steve said, nodding gratefully.
Back in his civilian clothes, Steve snatched his jacket from the Society of Illustrators and rode his bike back to Brooklyn.
He took out the vial of blood, frowning at the viscous liquid protected by an airtight seal and who knew what other technology. It felt alien to him, and he wondered for a moment if he had any way of knowing it was actually his. But Iron Man thought so, and he supposed that was worth enough in his estimation.
He wondered where it would be safest— it seemed to him that it might be safer to get rid of it, entirely, but then, Iron Man was right, having a sample of serum-laced blood could be useful in an emergency. No one but SHIELD agents with the correct clearance knew that Steve Rogers was Captain America, so the apartment, it seemed, might be the safer place for it, but the mansion had better security. He frowned, and dropped it back into his pocket.
He called Sharon, who told him she’d be right over, and sat down to check his email. He hadn’t looked at his personal email in nearly twenty-four hours, and he sighed as his inbox was flooded with spam messages and fundraising pleas from fifteen different political candidates. He’d made the mistake of registering for multiple mailing lists while he was getting accustomed to the frantic pace of modern-day news, expecting them to disseminate some sort of useful information, but all he knew now was that he’d developed a Pavlovian response to hit the delete button every time he saw the words, “Koch Brothers,” “Second-Amendment Rights” or “Planned Parenthood.” “Liberty” and “Democracy” were fast rising on the list, which he suspected might be a problem considering his line of work.
He was in the middle of swiping emails into the trash when he realized, narrowly after deleting one, that the subject line that had read “Draft” might not actually be about a military draft.
“Shit,” he muttered, shaking his phone. “Undo. Undo.”
The email reappeared, and, just as he thought, there it was: Potts, Pepper...Draft.
His heart skipped a beat as he opened the message, clicked on the attached file, scanned the page.
It wasn’t a full script, only the first few pages, but what was there felt like a revelation, made the entire project feel more real, more concrete. He’d been drawing sketches and doodles and dreamed of drawing comics from the time he’d seen his first page of The Phantom, and now, here it was, a story that he was going to draw, that he was getting paid to draw.
He sat back in his chair, a chill running through him, and the same feeling of awe and humility he’d felt the first time he’d watched Iron Man fly.
He shut his eyes, savored the reality of the moment, and then scrolled back to the beginning, reread it all again eagerly, ravenously.
He was sitting at the kitchen table, with the few pages of script printed out, a sketchbook in front of him, a mechanical pencil in one hand, sketching away furiously when Sharon got to the apartment.
“Is that it?” she asked, eyes bright as she looked over his shoulder at the pages. “Is that the comic?”
“Yeah,” Steve answered. “Well, it’s sketches. I’m trying to get my thoughts together.”
Sharon plopped a bag from Doughnut Plant down on the table and reached for his sketchbook. “I’ll trade,” she offered, and he grinned, letting her take the sketchbook and he peered into the bag and hunted around for the creme brulee donut he knew was somewhere inside. He plopped it on a plate, poured Sharon a cup of coffee, and started munching away happily.
“Oh, no,” Sharon said, shaking her head, and she looked up at Steve with a chastising expression.
“Oh, no, what?” Steve asked.
“Steve,” Sharon dug out her own tres leches donut while she held up a picture of a half-clad Mark Edwards, one gauntlet on, his shirt torn, his skin gleaming with sweat, his face looking a little more like Tony’s than Steve had meant it to. “Really?”
“It’s a scene in the—”
Steve felt his face going warm. He took a big bite of his donut, and then swallowed before speaking again. “I didn’t write it. Pepper wrote it; it’s—”
Sharon blinked. “You’re working with Pepper Potts?” she asked. “No fucking way.”
“I told you,” Steve answered. “It’s a chance of a lifetime. I—” He frowned at her. “I had no idea you liked comics.”
“I wasn’t allowed to read them as a kid,” Sharon answered. “Nothing with guns.” She laughed, then tapped at the spots where her shoulder holsters were concealed in her jacket. “See how well that turned out? I used to sneak into my aunt’s stash, hide in the closet, and read all her Captain America— which doesn’t absolve you from drawing softcore, Steve.”
Steve reached for the sketchbook and pulled it back toward him. “It’s in the script,” he said. “Go ahead, read it.”
He passed over the pages of the script, and Sharon gave him a dubious look, but read along. “The script is not,” she said, putting it back on the table, “nearly that scandalous.”
“Oh?” Steve asked. He turned to a clean page, handed Sharon the book and a pencil. “You do better.”
Sharon rolled her eyes. “I can’t draw. The only thing I can draw is cocks.”
“And you accuse me of drawing smut,” Steve said, with mock-anguish.
“I’m not drawing fabric barely clinging to the well-proportioned muscles of a guy I work with,” Sharon pointed out.
“Shar—” Steve gave her an uncomfortable look.
“Don’t do anything stupid, Steve,” Sharon said. It was a caution, but there was affection in her voice, all the same.
“I’ve got better judgment than that,” Steve answered, and he closed the sketchbook. “I wouldn’t—”
Sharon raised an eyebrow. “You were smitten with me,” she pointed out. “Your judgment’s terrible.” She sighed. “Which one of them is it?”
“Which one of what?” Steve asked.
She dunked the last bite of her donut into her coffee. “Stark, or Iron Man?”
“They’re two completely different things,” Steve said. He rubbed his forehead and gave her a pleading look. “Both,” he admitted.
Sharon sighed, and shook her head like a disapproving mother. “Do you fall for everybody you work with?”
“I didn’t—” he started to object, and then sighed. “You know I don’t. But hell if I know what to do about it, because they don’t even know I’m the same guy.”
“Don’t let it bite you in the ass, okay?” Sharon said, her expression softening. “I don’t want it to fuck over the Avengers, or...your comics, or— you’re doing pretty good for yourself, Steve.”
He gave her a sheepish smile. “Good marks in my SHIELD reports?” he asked.
She shrugged. “The therapists say you’re doing okay; I told Fury you’re adapting all right— this isn’t an ultimatum; there aren’t going to be consequences from SHIELD unless you really fuck up. I’d just hate to see you—”
“I got it,” he said. “Believe me, I don’t need you to tell me it’s terrible. I’ll figure it out.”
“But call me if you need anything, right?” Sharon offered. “That’s my job.”
Steve shook his head, but he smiled at her. “I know it’s not your job. Thanks. It’s...nice to have a friend whose facial expressions I can see.”
Sharon grinned. “I could get a metal helmet,” she offered. “But then I’d run the risk of you asking me to dinner again.”
“No offense,” Steve said, “but I don’t need to make things more complicated. Anyway,” he said, finally. “That’s not why I called. I— I want SHIELD in on this Sarkissian thing.”
“The woman from the gallery?” Sharon asked, straightening up a bit. “The one who poisoned all those people?”
“Yeah,” Steve answered. He told her, leaving out minor details, like the vial of blood, about the break-in and demolition of the Stark warehouse, about the fight, about the Avengers’ concerns.
He also left out the minor detail that the reason she’d gotten away was because Iron Man had stopped him from falling.
Sharon agreed to get a team on the search for Ophelia, just as Steve’s phone— his Captain America phone— rang. He frowned at the number— it looked familiar, but it wasn’t programmed into the phone, and it took him a moment, squinting at the digits, to place it.
It was Tony Stark.
Steve answered the call, and nearly swore as he realized he’d almost greeted him by name. Captain America wouldn’t recognize Tony’s number.
“Hello?” he answered, in the most professional tone he could muster, pitching his voice deeper and praying, praying Tony wouldn’t notice how very similar he sounded to Steve Rogers.
There was a long pause, and a scuffling noise. “Uh. Cap?” Tony said, sounding surprised. “Is this Captain America?”
“Who’s calling?” Steve said slowly, politely.
“This is, uh, this is Tony Stark,” Tony said. “Sorry, sorry, I was, uh, I half-expected it to go to voicemail, you know how that is, or, haha, maybe you don’t, you didn’t have voicemail back in the, uh…anyway...”
Tony sounded incredibly flustered, and Steve remembered what Jan had said— what Pepper had said, what nearly everyone who knew him had said, about his crush on Captain America. Steve felt sympathy well up in his chest, and he bit his lip, wondering if this was how he ever sounded.
“Mister Stark!” he said, in his professional-Captain-America voice. “A pleasure; what can I do for you.”
“I, ah— I’m here with Iron Man,” Tony said. “And he told me about your help last night at the warehouse. I wanted to thank you personally.”
“Of course,” Steve said. He glanced at Sharon; he couldn’t mention the blood in front of her. “And, ah, thank you, too, sir.”
“It’s nothing,” Tony assured him. “Please, think nothing of it. I, ah— I managed to salvage the security footage from the warehouse, and Iron Man was hoping for some help scanning it.”
“They’ve got the footage from the warehouse,” Steve said to Sharon. “I’m here with Agent Thirteen,” he told Tony. “My SHIELD liaison. They’re going to put a team on the Sarkissian woman. I’ll be right over— tell Iron Man I’ll— actually,” Steve said. “Put him on?”
“Ah.” There was a hesitation on Tony’s end, and then a pause. “Just a sec, he—”
Steve could hear motion on the other end of the line, and then Iron Man’s familiar, electronically-manipulated voice, greeted him.
“Cap!” Iron Man said. “Tony says you’re coming back to the mansion?”
“Yeah,” Steve answered. “Thirteen’s on the job; I can come watch that footage with you.”
There was a short pause, and then Iron Man said, “Good. Good, it’ll be— I’ll order takeout, dinner and a movie style, huh?”
“I somehow doubt this is going to be the most engaging cinema, and I know you can’t eat in the armor,” Steve retorted. “But yeah. I’ll be right over.”
Sharon gave him a very dry look when he hung up the phone. “You’re going to snuggle up on the couch and watch closed-circuit cameras with Iron Man?” she asked.
Steve rolled his eyes at her. “For work.”
“Right, right, surveillance and chill,” Sharon said nicely.
“Nothing’s going to—” Steve sighed. “He’s in a suit of armor, Sharon,” he said, and his irritation dropped away. “All the time. And I keep the cowl on. We’ve never seen each other’s faces. I somehow doubt— just let me have my completely inappropriate and unresolvable crush in peace?”
“Fine,” Sharon said, and she held out the rest of the sack of donuts. “Here, take him a treat.”
“Just want to see where else she went,” Iron Man replied. “Whether she took anything apart from the blood. The upper floors were completely incinerated; it would be hard to tell if anything else was missing.”
“You mean there were other things in that building that might have interested her?” Steve asked.
“There was a lot of crap in that building, Cap,” Iron Man replied. “Some of it dating back to my— boss’ parents.” He shrugged, sat back in his seat. “I don’t know if we’ll find anything,” he admitted. “I just wanted some company while I bore myself to death.”
Iron Man’s helmet and its visual enhancements made him far more capable of scanning the video than Steve was— perfect eyesight or not, it was still only eyesight—and the videos weren’t the highest quality.
“Doesn’t Tony Stark make security equipment?” Steve asked. “You’d think he’d have better cameras than this.”
“Yeah, well, that warehouse wasn’t exactly public knowledge,” Iron Man replied. “I don’t think he wanted to draw too much attention to it. Or maybe he just got lazy; it’s probably the same system his dad installed way back when. Not the kind of place Tony Stark’d be keen on visiting.”
“How do you mean?” Steve asked.
Iron Man shrugged. “Bad memories, I think. He doesn’t like to talk about his dad.”
Steve knew that the Starks had died in an accident, but beyond that, he hadn’t heard much— Tony certainly hadn’t brought them up in their few conversations. “Did you know him?”
“Yeah,” Iron Man replied, and there was a sharp note to his voice. “His dad was an asshole at the best of times, and a drunk at the worst.”
It was all Steve needed to hear. A memory flashed through his head, a memory of cheap corn whiskey on his father’s breath, of his father holding him too tightly, of shouting frantically about things that didn’t make sense, of hiding in a cupboard when his father came home later than usual, in case that night was a drunk night.
They fast-forwarded the video through hours of nothing. True to his word, Iron Man ordered Chinese takeout, from Steve’s favorite place, and dropped the cartons off on a coffee table to one side of the control room.
“How about a break?” he said. “I can’t eat in this get-up; I’m gonna go back to my room. You okay down here?”
“Sure,” Steve answered. In all honesty, he was relieved. He had been itching to draw since they’d sat down, watching Iron Man in the chair, intent on the video, watching the way he tilted his head, the way he tapped the fingers of his gauntlets against the desk where the monitor rested. They were the sorts of motions, the sorts of poses he hadn’t normally paid attention to, favoring the stunning image of the armor aloft, the brilliant flashes and lights of the repulsors as they fired, the dramatic image of Iron Man standing sentinel. The things he was paying attention to now, the tiny quirks of his motion in the suit, were more intimate, more precise.
It had been hard, to keep his eyes on the screen and not on Iron Man, even if his friend was completely encased in metal.
He didn’t dare bring his sketchbook to the mansion— there was too much of a risk that someone would see, and while he was normally more than happy to show the people who were his subjects the pictures he’d drawn of them (Sharon had at least a dozen sketches by now, simply by virtue of being the person he spent the most time with), he worried that letting the rest of the Avengers know about his drawing was a surefire way to give away at least one big part of his identity. Even if they didn’t know he was a professional, even if there were thousands of artists in New York, it narrowed down the count considerably.
He still wasn’t used to digital art. He’d picked it up easily enough, but manipulating a stylus and manipulating a pen dipped in india ink were not quite as similar as they might have seemed on the surface, and he still wasn’t sure about texture or color, or how to create lines that didn’t look so much like he’d drawn them on the computer. He knew he could; he’d seen screens and screens of art that were colored so much like a painting or a pencil drawing that if he hadn’t known they’d been drawn on computers, he would have been shocked, but he hadn’t quite figured out how, yet, and in the meantime, he was still drawing with his pen and ink and bristol, and knew he wasn’t getting in enough practice to learn to use the digital programs better.
It was intimidating to see all the artwork, often by people far younger than he was, beautifully painted and fully rendered on a computer, and he wondered if he would ever be able to do that.
Now was as good a time as any to try.
So, resting on the couch, in the midst of cartons of chow fun and kung pao, he took out his Avengers-issued StarkPad, and opened up the drawing program, using the stylus to sketch brisk lines.
He sketched Iron Man’s back as he sat, the way the rigid planes of the armor were at odds with the slouched position of the man inside the suit. He could use this, he thought, trying to mimic the twist in Iron Man’s hips, the way he sat on the edge of his chair, the way he splayed his knees out, the thick bases of his boots elongating his legs.
That was an important detail, Steve noted: Iron Man's legs, in the suit, would be a bit longer that Mark Edwards’ legs, he would sit with a different posture, perhaps with a deeper bend to his knee, in the armor.
He started drawing the man inside the suit again, puzzling out the right physique— fit, he thought, but not extremely muscular. This was a man who had to be athletic by nature, adventuring in the wilderness as he made his way across the globe, agile enough to do combat in the suit, but probably, he thought, more wiry than Steve was.
He drew in broad strokes, playing with the stylus settings until he could work almost as if with an inked brush, and he looked at the way the his lines tapered out with feathered edges, the way it described the muscles of the torso and added dimension and depth in a way he rather liked.
The opening scene in Pepper's script put Mark Edwards on the moon, stripped of his suit, imprisoned by the ancient, subterranean dwellers who had hidden from humans for all this time.
He tried adding color, with a spongy-textured brush that let him layer translucent shadows and highlights onto the body he'd drawn. It was only as his stylus grazed over the hipbone that he realized that he might want to put some sort of clothing on him.
He paused, stylus poised above the image, trying to decide what sort of underwear the character would wear. A globetrotting adventurer had to wear something more exciting than plain white briefs, he supposed.
He pressed the stylus to his lower lip.
“What’cha up to?” came a voice from behind him, and he nearly jumped out of his seat, tapping at the screen a few times to shut the art program, and bring something— anything— to the fore.
“Nothing,” he answered, a little too quickly.
“Nothing?” asked Iron Man, who cleared his throat loudly and reached for the tablet, waggling his fingers.
Steve shifted it out of the way, even though there was nothing incriminating on the screen anymore. “Nothing!” he exclaimed again.
“Ca-ap’s looking at po-orn!” Iron Man singsonged at him. “Ca-aps looking at po-orn!”
Steve coughed. “I am not,” he answered, “looking at—”
Iron Man snatched up the StarkPad while Steve was busy defending his honor.
“Ha,” Iron Man said, repositioning it upright. He tilted his head, frowned, and handed it back. “With that reaction, I thought it had to be porn.”
“I told you, it’s not—”
“Steve,” Iron Man said, very matter-of-fact.
Steve stiffened as he heard his own name cross Iron Man’s lips, and he blinked. “What?” he asked, praying he had heard wrong.
“Six across.,” Iron Man replied. “Six across is Steve. Perry, of Journey. Steve Perry. I don’t know how the hell you can do crossword puzzles when you missed seventy years of history, buddy.”
“Steve—” Steve looked down at the tablet. Sure enough, when he’d closed the drawing app, he’d left a crossword puzzle in full view.
The relief rushed over him so quickly, he forgot what he’d been doing. “Steve—uh—”
“Six across, Steve Perry,” Iron Man replied. “But you only need the the Steve part.”
Steve let out a short breath, hoping Iron Man hadn’t noticed the sudden shift in his demeanor. “S-T-E-V-E,” he said aloud, as he carefully typed in the letters. “Yeah, they’re uh, it’s kind of hard. But once you know the clues, the same things keep showing up.”
“That’s no fun,” Iron Man said, shaking his head. “You want to get back to work?”
“Ah…” Steve shrugged. “Yeah, I figure we ought to.”
They sat back down, pressed the play button to watch the video.
“We’re going out again,” Iron Man said, after another several minutes of blank footage.
“We—hm?” Steve asked.
“That guy,” said Iron Man. There was something tentative, cautious in his voice, almost as if he was waiting for a certain reaction. “He...actually asked me, this time?”
Steve found himself less than enthused. “Oh?” He tried not to breathe too deeply, tried not to look at Iron Man, not to look like he was reacting with anything but vague interest. “And?”
“Yeah, so, I guess we’re gonna try that again?” Iron Man replied.
“Good,” Steve said, a hair too slow. “That’s good. I’m glad for you; that’s— it’s great news.”
When Iron Man didn’t answer, Steve glanced at him. “Isn’t it?” he asked.
Iron Man was still quiet. He put the video on pause. “I—”
He looked at Steve, long and hard. “Sorry,” he said, hesitantly. “I shouldn’t be—”
But he stopped speaking, and turned the video back on.
“Sorry?” Steve asked. “What are you sorry for?”
“We should fast-forward this video,” Iron Man said. “To the timecode for when, uh, for when the breach registered on the security system; I think this is probably a waste of time.”
“What are you sorry for?” Steve repeated. “Come on, Shellhead, I don’t know what—”
“Nothing,” Iron Man replied, as he focused on the timecodes. “It’s just—”
Steve wished, more than he had ever wished before, that he could see Iron Man’s face, that he had some clue as to what the man inside the armor was thinking and feeling. “Pal,” he said slowly. “Come on, spit it—”
Iron Man stopped the video, but this time he didn’t look at Steve. “Sometimes I wonder,” he said. “If things were different, if we didn’t have these masks, if we…”
Iron Man trailed off. He didn’t finish the question, but Steve was at least half-certain he know how it was going to end.
Steve felt his heart sink, and he stammered for a moment before finding the right words. “We do have the masks, Shellhead,” he said, slowly, measuring his speech, trying very hard not to say the wrong thing. “And I don’t want to risk SHIELD revoking my clearance. But...you’ve got to know how important you are to me. I’ve only got two close friends in the whole world, you and Thirteen, and I—”
Iron Man shrugged, looked down, and again, without being able to see the human beneath, Steve wasn’t sure what it meant, though he suspected it wasn’t good.
“Yeah, okay,” said Iron Man. “I’m sorry; it’s not fair of me to say; I really shouldn’t have asked.”
“Well, considering you never got a full question out,” Steve said wryly, and he forced a smile.
“Ha, ha,” Iron Man retorted. “Well, at least I know that without the mask, you’d still be a royal pain in the ass, Cap.”
“Happy to oblige,” Steve said. He went on smiling, even though his stomach was in knots.
They watched the video in silence, watched Ophelia use the doll to open the safe, saw themselves appear on the screen. It didn’t look as if anything was disturbed, but Steve realized that he hadn’t been looking as closely as he could have.
He’d been thinking about Iron Man.
He tried to force out the images that were dancing in his head, remind himself that there was Tony, Tony who was taking him out to dinner, who knew him without his mask, whom he could have normal conversations with about comics and art and be an ordinary person, and he winced at the thought that Iron Man might ever find out that Tony Stark had asked him out. They did talk; they were friends. It was entirely possible that Tony had told Iron Man all about Steve Rogers. And then, he realized, it was possible that Iron Man had told Tony about Captain America.
"I don't think we're gonna find a anything new on these videos," Iron Man said, sounding a little dejected. "Sorry," he muttered, as he stood up. "I hate to drag you here from wherever the hell you live to waste your time."
"You didn't waste anything," Steve assured him, with the distinct sense that they weren't talking about the video. He followed Iron Man up from the table. "At least we know for sure, yeah? It was worth the time to find out."
Iron Man looked at him again, the mask still infuriatingly inscrutable. "Yeah," he said.
Steve watched his for a moment. The lack of clarity, double meanings— it all frustrated him to no end. "You—" he said, wanting, at least, for everything to be laid out in plain English. "You like this guy, huh?"
"Yeah," Iron Man replied. "I don't— Cap, I don't really date. It just...between this—” he gestured at the suit, shrugging, and then looked back at Steve. “I’ve tried. It’s never worked. Double lives, secret identities…it’s hard for feel like you deserve anybody’s trust.”
“I know,” Steve said, feeling a bit guilty. “Believe me, I know. But if you like the guy...give it a try?” he offered. “Don’t just give up on it all.”
“There’s a good potential I could fuck it up entirely,” Iron Man admitted. “And it would...fuck up a lot more than just him-and-me.”
Steve nodded. “I know how that feels,” he said. He thought, then, that whatever it was, it was obviously less than a superhero team. He wondered what Iron Man did in his off time, whether he had another job, what kind of places he’d go on a date. “Still. You can’t let this be your whole life.”
Iron Man looked around the room, turning in a full circle before he faced Steve again. “Sometimes I think it could be,” he said. “Sometimes I think that if this is where I’m meant to be, and you’re the people I’m meant to spend my time with, that— I’d be okay with that.”
“Maybe,” Steve said then, and he pursed his lips when the word escaped his mouth. He went cold as he said it; he knew instantly that it was too much, that it was more than he should ever have said, because he couldn’t lie, couldn’t say he meant something else, and he knew Iron Man would ask.
He tensed, waiting for the inevitable question.
It came almost instantly. “Maybe what?”
“Maybe,” Steve repeated. “If things were different. Maybe. Yes.”
Iron Man was quiet, then, and he put a hand up to the back of his neck, to the place where the helmet’s pressure seal locked. Steve felt himself holding his breath, forced himself to inhale through his nose, exhale through his mouth.
But Iron Man’s hand dropped, and the tension broke. “I don’t want to fuck this up, either, Cap,” he said, with a pained laugh.
“It’s okay,” Steve answered, even if he wasn’t sure it was, anymore. “Go on your date, have fun.” He flashed Iron Man a grin. “Maybe you’ll fall madly in love, and this won’t be a question.”
He wasn’t sure if he was talking to Iron Man or himself. Or maybe both of them.
“Good plan,” Iron Man said, with a snort. “I’ll see what I can do.”
And, feeling uncomfortably as if he were betraying someone, Steve went up to bed.
Iron Man didn’t mention their discussion again, but he barely said two words to Steve that didn’t have to do with their work— when he called for Cap to stick around after one of their briefing sessions, Steve braced himself, wondering if Iron Man had decided they needed to hash out whatever the hell they were doing dancing around each other. But Iron Man simply asked Steve to pass along a series of files, on a flash drive, to Agent Thirteen.
He got more of the script from Pepper, and every word of it seemed sheer perfection; at least, in Steve’s mind it was, and he let the images, the panel layouts, the placement of the word balloons, the expressions on the character’s faces, the rich spot blacks and lush gradients of color that would have been unattainable to him in the 1940s, to play out in his imagination.
He drew. He drew more and more, and when he got the page the script where Captain America first appeared, he felt a shiver run down his spine.
His sketchbook filled up, fast, as he tried to draw a version of himself that didn’t look entirely like himself, that looked more like Jeff, the imaginary Captain America, than like Steve Rogers, the man who was supposed to be a perfectly ordinary illustrator.
And then, as he was doodling faces, trying to make Captain America’s nose less angular, his jaw more square, more like a comic book hero should look than like the genuine article, he had an epiphany that both startled him and hit a little too close to reality.
He called Pepper.
“Hey,” Pepper said, when she picked up the phone. “I’ll have more pages for you tonight; I’ve been a little backed up with the new Wasp series.”
“No worries,” Steve assured her. “I just...I’ve been reading. And I have a question.”
“Shoot,” Pepper replied.
“In the script. In the part where Cap just showed up,” Steve said slowly. “He says Iron Man’s missing, that he has to find him.”
“He does,” Pepper answered. “He’s going to, by the end of the series. It’s...going in a little bit different direction than I initially planned, but I think it’s going to be good; it’s a great jumping-off point for the Avengers team book we’ve been planning.”
“Edwards is in a cell on the moon,” Steve observed, carefully. “Without his armor. And Cap’s going to show up there, and—”
“Yes?” Pepper asked. There was a little bit of a chuckle in her tone; she sounded playful, and expectant. “Are you guessing what happens next?”
Steve sucked in a breath, hoping that he was on the right track, hoping that he wasn’t wasting her time or disappointing her. “Cap’s going to discover Iron Man’s identity, isn’t he?”
The laugh that came from Pepper’s end of the line was gleeful. “You got it!” she exclaimed. “It’s not too obvious, is it; it’s not going to—”
“I don’t think so?” Steve replied, but he wasn’t sure. “I only figured it out because I was sitting here sketching things out; and I—”
He couldn’t tell her how much it had been on his mind lately, how much his curiosity had been eating away at him, wondering who was behind Iron Man’s mask, what he looked like, what he did when he wasn’t being Iron Man. He wondered what his hobbies were, what kind of food he liked— Steve had never seen him eat, because of the helmet. He wondered what style of clothing he favored, how he walked when his body wasn’t encased in a metallic shell.
He already knew what sort of man he was, Steve thought. He didn’t need to see him to know that. But he found himself wanting so badly to know if he let his teeth show when he smiled, what he smelled like apart from metal and machine oil, how he kissed.
“It’s a good prelude to an Avengers comic, isn’t it?” Pepper asked. “It levels the playing field. Mark has known who Jeff is for ages; everyone in the modern day knows Jeff’s secret identity, it would be impossible to hide. But no one’s seen Mark’s face. I think it clears the air, gives them an added reason to trust each other.”
“It’s good,” Steve replied. “I like it. I just...I’m trying to imagine Cap’s reaction.”
“I haven’t gotten that far,” Pepper said. “I think he’ll be understanding, won’t he? Of Mark’s need to keep his identity secret?”
Steve nodded into the phone before he remembered that Pepper couldn’t see it. “Yeah, of course he would,” Steve replied. “He’d understand better than anyone.”
“But he’d been surprised, wouldn’t he?” Pepper asked. “That it’s someone he knows, I mean.”
Steve frowned, and thought, long and hard. “I think...at first, he would. But if he thought about it, he’d realize there’s really no other answer, wouldn’t he? The only reason he didn’t guess a long time ago is because he hasn’t really tried to, he’s tried to respect Iron Man’s privacy.”
“Huh,” Pepper said. “Yeah, I think you’re right. That— that’s good.”
Steve bit his lip. “And I think, also,” he said, unsure if unsolicited suggestions were welcome, but he was thinking of his Iron Man, thinking about what he’d do if he found him, naked and bruised in a jail cell. “I think he’d be very protective. Fiercely so, seeing his friend out of his armor. He’s so used to thinking of Iron Man as this solid, powerful, fearless figure, and here he is, an ordinary, vulnerable man. With a heart condition, to boot.”
Pepper was quiet for a moment. “I like that,” she said. “I think Tony’ll like it, too. He’s been very attached to their friendship, for a long time. It’s a nice development for them, I think.”
“It would be,” Steve agreed. “It has to be hard, working with someone you know nothing about, having that kind of...friendship.”
Mrs. Arbogast called with the name of the restaurant— a tiny, out-of-the-way, but highly-rated Italian place that had a reputation for a month-long waiting list for tables.
Steve looked at his limited wardrobe and called Sharon.
“I’m out of my depth,” he said.
“Tony Stark?” she asked.
“The same,” he replied. “I could...I could cancel? I could just...let the whole thing go before I make an ass of myself?”
“Wear that blue shirt; it brings out your eyes,” Sharon said.
“He’s seen the blue shirt,” Steve said. “He’s seen all the shirts. All the shirts I own.”
“And you waited until it was too late to go shopping,” Sharon pointed out dryly. “White shirt? Lots of people have more than one white shirt.”
“Is it too—” Steve pulled his white shirt out of his closet, made sure it was clean, and held it out, frowning. “Is it too boring?”
“Yes,” Sharon replied. “But come on, Steve. He’s the one who asked out a twenty-six-year-old cartoonist.”
“Comic artist,” Steve corrected. “Technically cartooning is a different artform.”
“Comic artist, whatever,” said Sharon, and he could practically hear her roll her eyes over the phone. “Point is, he knows you’re broke as fuck; the fact that you have three shirts is a minor miracle. If that’s going to make or break this dinner, he’s got some issues.”
“Anyway,” she added. “If I were on a date with you, I wouldn’t be looking at your shirt.”
“Hey,” Steve reminded her. “You could have gone on a date with me. You’re the one who—”
Sharon snorted. “Yeah, well, I can look at your ass without dating you,” she pointed out. “All of the benefits, none of the drawbacks.”
“What are the drawbacks?” Steve asked, hurt.
“The fact that you’re head over heels for a guy in a tin can,” Sharon answered.
Steve winced. “You’re not making me feel any better,” he said. “I— we talked about that. Me and him, I mean. I...probably said too much.”
“Yeah,” Sharon said. “I guessed as much from the fact that you’re barely speaking. Seriously, Steve, it’s— he’s not worth it. It’s too messy. Go for the cute rich guy. Whatever the... weird thing with Iron Man is, you guys’ll get over it if you just stop it now. Rip it out like a weed.”
He took a breath. She was right. “You’re right,” he admitted.
“I’m always right,” she assured him. “White shirt, blue tie. The skinny one, not that godawful one that looks like you brought it with you from the ‘forties. Wear the charcoal slacks that you think are too tight. Matching jacket. Okay?”
Steve sighed. “Okay. Good. Thanks.”
“Good luck,” Sharon told him. “Don’t puke.”
Steve dressed in exactly the outfit Sharon instructed him to wear, then decided the pants were definitely bordering on indecent, and he suspected they might not fit by the end of the evening if Tony made a habit of ordering everything on the menu. He changed into a different pair of slacks and a different jacket, though he couldn’t remember if they were the ones he’d worn to his interview.
He felt queasy. It was far too early for him to leave. He took out his sketchbook, and sat down.
He started sketching the scene he’d discussed with Pepper, Captain America discovering Mark Edwards trapped in a prison cell, seeing the man he considered a friend— but not the man he’d expected to find— on his knees, in chains, stripped down to his underwear, bruised and bleeding and cold.
Edwards’ face looked too much like Tony’s. Cap’s face looked too much like Steve’s. And it was impossible, impossible, to deny the eroticism of the scene that unfolded on the page in front of him.
He bit his lip. He’d been thinking about bringing the drawing to dinner, to give to Tony, but this was definitely too much.
Sighing, he ripped the page out of the sketchbook, left it on the coffee table, and did a quick doodle of Cap and Iron Man, in full costume. Cap was grinning, and they had their arms slung around each other’s backs, easily.
This was safe. This one, he could give to Tony Stark. But he frowned, and tapped at Iron Man with his finger.
He took out his Avengers phone, and scrolled to Iron Man in his contacts, tapped the “Message” button.
His cursor blinked expectantly.
He started to type.
“Are you free tomorrow?” he wrote. “Maybe afternoon?”
He hit send.
He stared at the phone, waiting for the little icon that told him his text message had been delivered.
And then he waited for the “read” receipt.
It didn’t show up after a minute, or two minutes, or five, but he couldn’t look away. He watched the phone, his anticipation growing even as his brain told him he shouldn’t have sent that, he should have left things alone.
And then, he realized, with a surge of new apprehension, that it was time to go. “Shit,” he muttered, and he pocketed his phone, hurrying out the door.
Iron Man hadn’t replied.
He tapped on his message to Iron Man.
Read, it said, 5:42.
He couldn’t fight off the sinking feeling as he dropped the phone into his pocket and walked into the restaurant.
Tony’s eyes lit up when he saw Steve walk in. He stood, and looked at Steve with an expression that could only be described as adoring— too adoring, Steve thought— it was unsettling, almost, to see another person look at him that way, and he suspected he didn’t deserve it.
There was already a bottle of wine on the table.
“Sorry I’m late,” he apologized. “I lost track of—”
But Tony grinned and shook his head. “I’m usually the late one,” he said. “I’m always apologizing, always so busy that things come up at the last minute. It’s nice to not be, for a change.”
They stood, facing each other, for a long moment, and Steve forgot that he should probably sit down— while he remembered exactly how taken he’d been with Tony before, exactly why he’d wanted to go to dinner. At once he felt a little freer, easier, more relaxed.
But when neither of them spoke, Steve felt his nervousness surging again, and he thrust out the sketch he’d drawn. “Hey. I have a present for you.”
Tony smacked his lips, and looked up at Steve, surprise and delight evident on his face, as wide-eyed as a child. “You didn’t have to—”
Tony took the paper, and his expression changed, became more thoughtful, and almost a little pensive, the corners of his mouth turning down. He tapped a finger at the star on Captain America’s uniform.
“It’s great,” he said, his voice quiet, holding the drawing in both hands. “Really great. Did you— Pep sent you the new pages, huh?”
“Yeah,” Steve replied. Neither of them were sitting, he realized, and he supposed they should sit, so he slid into the chair opposite Tony’s. “Yeah, I...I think I really like the way the story’s shaping up. I just—”
Tony followed suit, and he carefully set Steve’s drawing on the side of the table, wedged between a small vase of flowers and the wall, so that Captain America and Iron Man were looking out at them.
Steve touched his phone in his pocket, just feeling for it, not pulling it out, as if it could give him some reassurance, and tried not to make eye contact with the drawing of Iron Man.
“Just what?” Tony asked.
“I want to know what you think about it,” Steve said. “About Cap and Iron Man, about— I guess, about them working together. How you want that to look, how you want us to portray that, uh. That relationship.”
“Steve, I’m just your editor,” Tony answered. “And I’m not even really an editor; telling people how to draw comics is not actually in my skill set. I’ve seen your work; I trust your instincts. And this is why I set you up with Pepper. She’s a pro; she won’t steer you wrong.”
Steve took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said, nodding. “I just—”
And Tony bit his lip. “I— uh. I hope this— I mean, I hope I didn’t screw this all up, but I didn’t want to have dinner to talk about work. I sort of—” His usual confidence was replaced with a look of uncertainty. “Sometimes I read things wrong, and sometimes I, uh...sometimes I’m not as clear as I should be, but...I kind of was hoping this was a date. I don’t know if you meant it to be a date, but I’d...like it to be one.”
Steve couldn’t help but smile, and he shut his eyes, laughing quietly.
“I mean, if that’s okay with you,” Tony said. “If it’s not, uh, then...we can have a nice dinner and pretend I never said that and I’ll just go back to being your number one fan, and uh—”
“It’s okay,” Steve assured him. “It’s—definitely okay. I was...hoping the same thing, I guess.”
“Good. That’s good.” Tony visibly relaxed, and pointed to the bottle of wine. It’s a Piemonte, you like reds? If not I can—”
Steve frowned at the wine. “I have no idea what a Piemonte is,” he admitted, hoping he wasn’t butchering the Italian. “I’m pretty sure I’ll like whatever you give me,” he added, with a smile.
“I hope so,” Tony said, and there was an intent in his voice, and in his eyes, that suggested he wasn’t entirely talking about the wine. He filled Steve’s glass, and then held up his own. “To a lack of interruptions and doll thefts,” he said, cheerily.
“I can toast to that,” Steve said with a laugh, and he clinked his glass against Tony’s, then tasted the wine.
He had no palate for wine, didn’t have the slightest idea how to talk about wine, how to taste, how to judge his quality— although he assumed that anything Tony ordered had to be very good.
“Like it?” Tony asked.
“Yeah.” Steve took another sip for good measure. That was true, at least.
Tony beamed as if someone had just given him an award. “Good.” He held the wine in one hand, swirling it a little, and gave Steve an earnest look.
“So,” he said, carefully. “I have to, uh...I need to start out by saying I usually don’t mix business and pleasure. Well—” he pursed his lips. “I usually don’t mix anything and pleasure; it’s been a really, really long time since I dated anybody, and that didn’t work out so great, so…”
Tony shrugged. “I guess this is the long, totally awkward way of saying that I am absolutely not the suave guy you read about in the tabloids? And I’m not really sure how to do this? So if I, uh, if I fuck anything up—”
“Don’t worry,” Steve assured him. “I don’t read tabloids.”
Tony grinned, broadly, his dimples showing. “Good. So, um. We can order off the menu, if you want, but this is one of my favorite places, and I...like to put myself at the mercy of the chef? In ah, ha, in a non-kinky way?”
Steve was realizing, slowly, that Tony was nervous. That here he was, in one of three nice shirts he owned, his shoes scuffed, awkward and self-conscious of his height at the tiny table, and Tony Stark, genius entrepreneur and inventor, was nervous about being on a date with him.
And that when Tony got nervous, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
Steve was not entirely sure he actually knew how to flirt properly, but he supposed that if there was ever a time to try, this was it.
“I’m all yours,” he answered, and he watched Tony’s adam’s apple bob as he swallowed.
“Ha, aha, technically, you’re all the chef’s, but, hey,” Tony replied. “I’ll take it. I, ah—” He flagged down the waitress, told her to bring them whatever the chef wanted him to taste, and then glanced at Steve, sidelong. “Tell him,” he said to the waitress, “that I have a very cute boy I need to impress.”
“You don’t need to impress me,” Steve said, when the waitress was out of earshot. “I wouldn’t be here if I needed to be impressed. I—” he rubbed at his head. “I don’t really know how to do this, either.”
“We just sit here professing our mutual admiration until our heads get so big they have to roll us out?” Tony offered. “Hey. I don’t know anything about you, apart from the fact that you like superheroes and live in Red Hook. Where are you from, originally?”
“The LES.” Steve used the new acronym for the Lower East Side. It seemed like every neighborhood in New York now had a cutesy nickname. “But the rent’s gone up so much, I can’t afford it. So Red Hook, it is.”
“Yeah?” Tony asked. “So you’re an actual native New Yorker? We’re a rare breed, these days. Where’d you go to school?”
Steve’s usual lie, that he’d gone to Stuyvesant, and then Pratt, was on the tip of his tongue, but Tony had grown up here, and they were close enough in age that he couldn’t risk the likelihood that Tony knew people who had actually gone to school there, that he’d try to find someone who knew him, that Steve wouldn’t have a ready answer to a question. “Homeschooled,” he said, instead. “I was sick a lot, as a kid. It’s how I spent so much time drawing.”
That was true, at least.
“And look at you, now,” Tony replied, raising an eyebrow. “Don’t look like the sickly type.”
“I grew out of it,” Steve said, with a shrug. “How’d you end up owning a comic book company?” he asked. “You—saved it, didn’t you?”
Tony shook his head, waving away the question, just as the first dish was laid out in front of them— a big chunk of marrow bone, sliced lengthwise so that it looked like a boat full of golden, glistening beef marrow, served with crispy toasts.
“People say that,” he answered. “But really I just loved it. I—” He looked away. “This is gonna sound silly,” he admitted. “I had a huge fucking crush on Captain America as a kid. He was— like, he was the guy I told all my secrets to, even if he was dead and in a comic book. I didn’t— my dad was kind of an ass, but I had Captain America, you know? As long as there were books, he was there with me. He made me want to be better, made me want to be a hero, too. And the idea of him...the idea that there would be no more books, it was like— it was like they’d really be letting him die. And I thought about other kids out there, who were maybe doing what I had done, sitting at home, depending on those stories to give them a little hope in life. And I couldn’t let him die—”
Tony looked up, at the ceiling. “I could keep him alive when nobody else could So I did.”
“That’s—” Steve was mesmerized; he didn’t trust himself to speak. He couldn’t tell Tony what that meant, couldn’t tell him that Tony had kept him alive, while he was still frozen in ice, couldn’t tell Tony that the Avengers were his home and his friends and his support, and that that was all because of him.
He swallowed, and reached for one of the toasts instead, spreading a generous layer of marrow on it.
“Pathetic as hell?” Tony volunteered sheepishly.
“No,” Steve assured him, shaking his head. “I mean, there were a lot of us who felt that way, about one comic or another, about a character or a story, or— anything, really. But you went out and did something about it. You understood how much it meant to everyone.”
“I think you’re giving me more credit than I deserve,” Tony said. “I was a spoiled kid with a lot of money and a crush on a fictional character. I blew through a ton of my parents’ cash— not even money I made— keeping those comics going till I actually figured out how to make them successful.”
Steve bit his lip. “I’m glad you did,” he said.
“Yeah,” Tony admitted. “Me, too. I mean, not least of all ‘cause I wouldn’t have had an excuse to ask you to dinner.”
“To be fair,” Steve said. “You wouldn’t have met me.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “I choose to believe that would have happened, somehow. You read comics. You know there are things that are always the same, across all universes.”
Steve glanced at the picture behind the vase, at Captain America and Iron Man, with their arms around each other, and he wondered.
“What, we’re already saying it’s destiny on our first date?” he teased, looking back to Tony.
Tony visibly winced. “I mean, technically, if you really think about it, it’s our third date. We had lunch, and the opening okay, except lunch was sort of for work, and the opening got weird, so— we’ll count those as one complete date, maybe one-and-a-quarter? Which makes this our second-and-a-quarter date, which means that according to pretty much all reliable dating wisdom, I at least get to play footsie with you, or something?”
Tony looked hopeful.
Steve snorted, and, looking thoughtfully at Tony, slid his foot forward, hooking Tony’s shoe with his own. “Acceptable?”
Tony blinked, like he hadn’t quite expected that. Now he glanced at the drawing, and Steve couldn’t quite read his expression, it was as if he were seeking something out, or asking a question, and Steve didn’t know what it was.
He pressed his own foot back against Steve’s. “I think we can work with that,” he answered, and then he let out a nervous chuckle.
Steve frowned. “Is it weird? The whole— Iron Man being a real guy thing? Overseeing a comic about him? Having to balance the fiction and the reality?”
“Shit,” Tony answered, shaking his head. “You don’t know the half of it. There are— things I know about him, you know, him being my bodyguard, and all, that nobody else knows, and it’s...hard, sometimes, not to let ‘em slip.” He rubbed as his forehead. “The number of close calls I’ve had, lately.”
He gave Steve a sheepish smile. “It’s hard not to tell you,” he admitted.
The idea that, somehow, Iron Man might have heard stories about his real identity, might have seen his art, was all too tempting for Steve. “Did you tell him about me?”
“Of course,” Tony replied. “He knows all about you. I—” Tony took a breath. “We weren’t supposed to talk about work,” he said, cautiously, “but if I float an idea—”
“Yeah, sure,” Steve said, shrugging. “Hey, if— if we’re going to do this, we’re probably going to end up talking about work a lot. I don’t— I don’t mind; it’s obvious we both love it.”
Tony nodded. “Good. I— I’m not sure it’ll fly,” he admitted. “It might be too, uh, too much even for modern-day audiences, and you can say no, because I don’t want you to be stuck drawing something you don’t want to draw, but I keep thinking about what we said at lunch, and I want to know, what would you think if, uh, we really did do a romance?”
“A romance…” Steve trailed off, and then followed Tony’s gaze to the drawing. He felt his cheeks go hot. “A romance between Captain America and Iron Man?”
“You can say no,” Tony repeated. “I know it’s kind of—”
The waitress came back, brought them a plate of creamy polenta covered in a layer of crispy prosciutto. The smell was enough to make Steve’s mouth water.
“No, no,” Steve assured Tony. “I just— are they okay with it? That could get a little controversial.”
But Steve’s heart was pounding in his chest; the idea of drawing something that hit so close to home made him uneasy, the fact that he was trying to put his feelings for Iron Man to rest, that he’d be doing this while he was trying to date Tony, while Tony was also his boss— Sharon had been right. This could get too messy.
Tony frowned. “You’re right,” he said. “It’s probably a bad idea, probably taking things too far, I just—”
“It’s too much for a short story arc, anyway,” Steve pointed out. “Maybe later. Maybe—”
But Tony’s face had gone white, and he was staring— staring past Steve. “Ste—” he started.
And in the next moment, something was pressed up hard and cold against the back of Steve’s head— the barrel of a gun.
Steve froze. He wasn’t at an angle where he could see a reflection; without knowing who was behind him, how many people were there, he couldn’t size up the situation. He glanced at Tony, but Tony’s eyes were fixed on whoever was behind him.
“Phee,” Tony said, slowly standing up from his seat.
“Uh-uh,” said the woman behind Steve. “Back down, or I shoot your new boy toy in the head.”
“Steve’s not—” Tony dropped, slowly, back into his seat, slowly lowered his hands into his lap. He had a call buzzer, like Steve’s own, Steve remembered, and a moment later he could feel the vibration of his own buzzer in his lap.
“Leave Steve out of this,” Tony said, tensely. “He’s none of your—”
Steve grabbed the muzzle of the gun, whipped it upward ins a single, swift motion. A shot rang out, cracking into the ceiling, so that plaster rained down onto their table, into their food, their wine. Tony ducked, covering his head to escape the shower.
Steve was stronger than Ophelia, and he managed to wrest the gun out of her hands, but not before she’d emptied it into the ceiling. He turned to face her, whipping his chair around to use as a weapon, and wishing, wishing that he had his shield.
But she wasn’t alone, and they were surrounded.
He stepped back as the men accompanying her all raised their weapons.
“You’re cute,” Ophelia said. “And you’re coming with us.”
“I told you,” Tony said. He stood again. “Leave him out of this. What do you want?”
“You know what I want,” said Ophelia. “Give me Captain America’s blood, and we’ll call it even.”
“No,” Tony answered, stiffly. “I—no. I don’t have it anymore.”
“I’m sure you can get a replacement,” Ophelia replied, with a sly smile. “Or I’d settle for sperm; I’m sure you can get that.”
“Fuck you,” said Tony.
Ophelia tsked. “So uncooperative.”
She pulled out another gun. It wasn’t an ordinary pistol, like the first, but a long-nosed thing that had a cable connected to a cannister. She smirked at Steve, and pulled the trigger. A cloud of greenish smoke burst from the gun, surrounding him, and his eyelids grew instantly heavy.
“Steve!” Tony yelled, as Steve felt his body begin to slump and his vision to swim. “Steve!”
Tony’s voice sounded so far away.
“It’s okay,” Steve managed, though he could feel his tongue becoming lazy in his mouth, his lips struggling to form words. “I won’t—”
The world faded to black.
His ankles were bound, and so were his wrists, tightly, behind his back, with plastic ties that would restrain an ordinary person, but that he could snap, easily. He didn’t try, not yet; he didn’t want to call attention to himself.
He reached, slowly, so that the motion wouldn’t call anyone’s attention, sliding his hands down toward his pocket for the buzzer that would call the rest of the Avengers.
Nothing. There was nothing there. His buzzer was gone, his wallet was gone, both of his phones were gone.
He took a breath, braced himself, tested his range of motion in his ankles and wrists. He still felt a little lethargic, but not so much that he couldn't fight.
He shut his eyes and counted to three.
Snapping the restraints and springing to his heels, he targeted the nearest guard, reaching for his rifle with both arms, squaring off to put the man between himself and the other guards.
There was a shout, and someone— he wasn't sure who— fired off a shot that ricocheted dangerously around the truck. Steve wrested the gun from the man he was facing, pointing it at the other guards.
He considered, for a brief moment, taking the man hostage, but he suspected they might just shoot their own man, and he didn't want to risk it. He shoved the guard back at his companions, hard, so that he stumbled into them, and another shot rang out.
The next shot was aimed at Steve. He dodged— a hair too slow, just a hair, as he felt something tear at his flesh, leaving a shallow, ragged gash in his right thigh. He stumbled, catching himself on the wall.
And then, the truck came to a screeching halt. The space began to fill with a greenish smoke, and the first guard dropped to the floor almost instantly.
Steve slammed his elbow into the door to the truck— it dented, but didn't open.
One by one, the men succumbed, until Steve was the only one standing. Steve took off his jacket, bunched it up and held it to his mouth, breathing through the fabric, and he tried to wedge the nose of one of the rifles into the seam of the truck’s door to pry it open.
But then it rolled up of its own accord, and there, dressed in full body armor and armed with her gas gun, stood Ophelia.
She was wearing a smug expression, one eyebrow quirked up interestedly, as she kept her weapon trained on Steve.
He took a deep breath. Tony had sounded a call. Someone would be here; the rest of the Avengers would find him.
“Well, look who woke up early,” she said. “Looks like we need to up the dosage, don’t we?”
And she fired the gun again, full blast, into his face.
The next time he woke, he was in a holding cell— a cell that was more than prepared to contain even a supersoldier. Thick walls of safety glass surrounded him, and those were enclosed by steel bars.
The lights were bright, cool white, and almost blinding here, a sharp contrast to the darkness of the truck, and even Steve flinched a little bit at them. The ventilation system blasted the room with cold air; Steve gathered his jacket up off the floor, and shrugged it back on. This place was made to hold prisoners, he realized: made to intimidate, made to keep the prisoner susceptible. There were no furnishings, no bedding, only a cold, hard, lumpy floor and a drain in one corner.
There were no guards, only four cameras, spying in from outside the glass, too out-of-reach to be tampered with.
There was a sharp flare of pain in his thigh, where the bullet had bitten him, but he pulled himself up to his feet nonetheless.
He paced the floor, limping slightly as he made a single circuit of the cell, looking for seams in the glass, weaknesses in the floor.
He was alone for less than a minute.
An automatic door opened in the far wall of the room that held the cell, announced by the sucking sound of airtight seals being broken.
Ophelia walked in. She was still wearing body armor, still dressed as if she expected Steve to leap through the glass and attack her. She stepped close, up to the bars, watching him intently, a dark glint in her eye.
“Steve Rogers,” she said, tilting her head interestedly.
He stepped forward, toward her, squaring his shoulders, crossing his arms over his chest, trying not to wince at the pain in his thigh.
And she grinned. It was a cold, heartless sneer of a grin, and her eyes flashed. She pulled out his phone.
His Avengers phone.
“Does Tony Stark know that his boyfriend is secretly Captain America?” She asked.
Steve’s throat went dry.
“I'm not his boyfriend,” Steve answered, matter-of-fact.
She flicked the phone back and forth in her hand. “I notice you didn't try to deny the Captain America bit.”
“What do you expect me to say?” Steve asked, raising an eyebrow at the woman. “My golly, I don’t know how Captain America’s phone got there, it must have just fallen into my pocket?”
She watched him, with a wry smile. “I expected Captain America to be a little more...commanding,” she said. “A little more bold, powerful, virile...”
Steve rolled his eyes. “I expected my night to be a little more uninterrupted,” he pointed out. “So excuse me if I don’t live up to expectations. What do you want?”
“You’re cute,” Ophelia informed him, tilting her head to one side. “And this is much too convenient. You know exactly what I’m after.”
“My blood.” Steve shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time. And you didn’t take it while I was passed out. Hell, I’ve even got some for free right here,” he said, gesturing at the wound in his thigh. “What’s stopping you?”
“Let’s just say I’m enjoying your company, for now,” Ophelia replied.
Her fingers brushed the gas gun, strapped to her waist, and Steve knew the answer: the gas. She didn’t want a blood sample that had been exposed to the gas; she was waiting for it to leave his bloodstream.
“The rest of the Avengers will find us,” Steve said. “Stark sounded an alarm; one of the beacons was in my pocket.”
“And that’s why I threw it on the side of the road,” Ophelia answered. “I’m sure the Avengers are having a fine time investigating a trash-filled ditch about now.”
“But,” she added, smirking, as she held up the phone, “we can call them now, can’t we? Won’t they be surprised, when they’re expecting a call from Steve Rogers, professional doodler, and instead get Captain America?”
And what would Iron Man think, Steve thought, what would Iron Man think, would he think Steve had been leading him on. Steve had suggested they might have a chance, that he had feelings for him, when he was dating Iron Man’s boss, of all people.
He was certain Iron Man wouldn’t forgive him.
And Tony? He knew that Tony and Iron Man spoke about everything; Tony had to side with Iron Man, he’d never let a potential new romance get in the way of one of his closest friendships.
It left him cold, left him uneasy, and he found himself gritting his teeth as Ophelia scrolled through the contacts list on the phone.
“Tony Stark,” she announced brightly.
Never mind the job, Steve thought. There was no way he’d get to keep drawing for Timely. But the job mattered less, much less.
Sharon had been right. He shouldn’t have let it get this messy.
Ophelia tapped the phone screen, and then put the phone on speaker, so that Steve could hear the ringtone.
The phone picked up. “...Cap?” asked a confused-sounding Tony. “Cap, where are you? Did you get the call to Assemble; did you get my—uh. Iron Man said you never— Look, I hate to be a—”
And Ophelia laughed. Her laugh was lilting, musical, the kind of practiced laugh of a socialite used to entertaining people and pretending to be entertained in return.
“Hello?” said Tony’s voice. His tone went dark, accusing. “Who is this? Where the hell is—”
“Hello, Mister Stark,” said Ophelia. “I have your boyfriend right here.”
“You have—” Tony started, and then stopped. The line went quiet. “Steve?” he asked, finally, his voice pitching up, sounding slightly panicked. “Steve, are you there?”
Steve straightened up like a shot as Tony said his name. “I’m here, Tony!” he called back. “I’m alive!”
“Steve!” Tony shouted. “Steve, everything’s gonna be okay, just sit tight. Is…”
Tony’s inhale was audible. “Is Captain America there with you?”
And now Ophelia laughed again, a loud, genuine-sounding belly-laugh, nothing like the delicate laugh before, her eyes crinkling with amusement. “In a manner of speaking,” she answered, still laughing.
“I swear, Phee, if something’s happened to Cap, I’ll—”
There was a strain in Tony’s voice, a fear Steve knew, but had never heard from Tony Stark, of all people. The valiant tone he’d taken when he’d assured Steve everything would be all right, just moments ago, was gone, replaced with something anguished and terrified, an audible tremble. Steve wondered where that came from, what brought in on now, when he thought Captain America was in danger, and it stabbed at Steve’s heart.
“Tony, it’s me!” he called.
“Steve?!” Tony yelled back at him. “Steve, what’s happened to Captain America?”
“It’s me,” Steve repeated, his voice barely better than a croak. “I mean, he is me. I’m—”
“Are you—” Tony wasn’t shouting anymore. “Steve, don’t— are you fucking with me?”
“No,” Steve said, shaking his head even though Tony couldn’t see it
Tony was quiet, so quiet. “Oh, god,” he said, finally.
“I’m— I’m sorry,” Steve said. “I didn’t mean to deceive any—”
“Don’t apologize,” replied Tony. His tone was grim, now, urgent, angry, and Steve felt tension rising in his shoulders. “I’m on my way. I’m on my way now, Steve. Cap. Uh. Steve-Cap.”
“Tony,” Steve said, cautioningly. “Don’t— you can’t come here. It’s not safe; it’s not—send Iron Man; send the Avengers.”
“I said.” Tony’s words were sharp, staccato, and the rage behind them was palpable. “I’m on my way. Phee, if you hurt a goddamn hair on his head, you will rot.”
The line went dead.
There was a frisson of tension in the air, as if Tony’s anger still hung there, electric and sparking. Steve found himself overwhelmed, uncertain.
“He’s always so emotional,” Ophelia said, shaking her head, as she looked at the phone. “Those sort of outbursts can lead a man to take unnecessary risks. It might be dangerous.”
She smirked at Steve, who glared back. He was certain, now, that Tony had traced the call, used the phone as a beacon, knew exactly where they were, but he didn’t know how far they’d traveled, how much time had passed while he had been knocked out. He didn’t know how long it would take for the poisons to clear his bloodstream. He didn’t know how long it would take Tony to get there, and he hoped, hoped that Tony would see sense and actually send Iron Man, send the Avengers.
Even if the idea of seeing Iron Man, of having to explain everything to Iron Man filled him with apprehension.
“I don’t know what you think you’re going to get out of this,” Steve said.
“I’ve been nothing but transparent from the beginning,” Ophelia replied.
“I know, I know,” Steve answered, trying to sound as bored as possible. “What do you think you’re going to do with it, once you get it?”
“Reverse-engineer a derivative of the serum,” Ophelia replied. “Administer it to my soldiers.” Her eyes flickered and danced, eager, delighted by the idea. “Build a real army of true super soldiers, instead of a lone, pathetic guinea pig. Do you ever think, Steve,” she asked, “that you were so weak, so helpless to start, that maybe you’re not half the man the serum might have created with a better subject?”
All the time, Steve thought. He thought it all the time. “Never crossed my mind,” he answered, leaning back against one of the glass walls.
And that was when the building rumbled. The walls of Steve’s cell stood firm, but he could feel the vibrations of the floor, and the sound of a thunderclap that echoed through the room.
An alarm rang, shrill in his ears, and colored lights flashed, on and off, red and yellow and glaring.
Steve looked heavenward, even as guards came rushing into the room, surrounding his cell.
The room shook again, and now an enormous fist came pounding through the wall, leaving a massive hole. Huge, heavy raindrops pelted the floor where the room was now exposed to the outdoors.
A tiny shape, moving at lightning-speed, wings fluttering like a hummingbird’s, zoomed into the room, flitted up toward the lights, and there was a bright pulse of light, before the room was plunged into darkness.
“Wasp!” Steve called.
The room erupted into chaos, as guards who could no longer see attempted to shoot the tiny creature, who flew faster than any of them could aim in the dark. Steve heard bullets pelt the glass wall of his cell, heard someone cry out that they’d been shot— shot by their own fellow, and he stood back, in case the glass should break, wishing he had his shield.
And then, in the gap in the wall, a familiar image appeared— a white star, on a blue field, surrounded by red and white stripes. A shining, solid red-gloved hand reached out, into the room, and a blast of light came from its palm, sending guards shouting and diving from its path.
As Iron Man flew into the room, Steve couldn’t tear his gaze away. He murmured a silent thanks that Tony had had the good sense not to storm this place himself, and watched, mesmerized, as that armor gleamed gold and crimson in the dim light, as Iron Man carried the shield with one arm, and cleared a path to the cell with the other.
Ophelia shot her gas gun at Iron Man, but it had no effect— Steve was so confident in the suit’s filtration devices that he didn’t even flinch as he watched— and he retaliated by shoving her, hard, with the shield, so that she fell back, onto the floor.
“Wasp!” Iron Man called. “Restrain the lady?!”
“On it!” Wasp shouted back, as iridescent wings flitted toward Ophelia’s prone form. Steve watched the pulses of light come from Wasp’s hands again, knocking the woman out before she tied her up, firmly.
But one of the guards snatched at Wasp with a gloved hand, and Steve yelled to her— just as a silver hammer flew through the room, catching Wasp’s would-be captor by the chin and throwing him to the ground.
Iron Man landed, with a clank, just in front of Steve’s cell, snapped the shield to his back with its magnetic mount, and put his gauntleted hands up to the glass. “Steve?” he said, and his voice sounded tentative, unsure.
Steve walked to where Iron Man stood, and watched him, raising his own hands before he hesitated. He took a breath.
He was aware, that somewhere, behind them, SHIELD had arrived— he saw Sharon directing her team, out of the periphery of his vision, saw the agents arresting the guards who were still standing, saw Sharon herself stride over to where Ophelia was struggling on the floor.
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, and he held his palms to the glass, matching them to Iron Man’s own. “I’m so, so sor—”
“I told you not to apologize,” Iron Man answered, shaking his head. “Step back.”
Steve blinked, confused, but he stepped back, just as Iron Man instructed. “You didn’t—”
Iron Man’s gauntlets glowed, rosy light flowing from the repulsors in steady, concentrated beams, and he moved his hands up and across, then down, as they burned through the wall, leaving a shape like a door cut out in the glass. “Further back.”
Steve moved out of the way as Iron Man pushed the glass cut-out to the floor, where it fell with a loud clatter— but, to Steve’s surprise, still didn’t break.
And then Iron Man stalked into the cell, stepped toward Steve, purposefully, and stopped in front of him: close, almost too close, close enough that Iron Man reached out a metallic hand, still warm from the repulsor’s heat, and stroked Steve’s cheek.
“I told you not to apologize,” Iron Man repeated, and he pressed his solid forehead to Steve’s own. “Cause if you apologize to me, then I’m just gonna have to apologize to you, and then you’re gonna want to apologize to me again, and we’ll spend, like, the next year saying sorry, which is a waste of goddamn time, Steve.”
“I can only think of one person who told me not to apologize,” Steve said, slowly. Steve couldn’t quite believe it. It made sense, and the more he puzzled it out, the more sense it made, the more it seemed like the most logical explanation, but a tiny voice of doubt told Steve he must be wrong, he must not be understanding.
“Good,” said Iron Man, “because this could have gotten really weird really fast.”
Steve squinted at the mask, as if he could maybe see through it, if he tried hard enough. “Tony?” he whispered.
Iron Man stepped away, dipped his head into one hand. “Shit, now I really want to apologize,” he muttered.
Then Iron Man snapped the shield from his shoulders and held it out to Steve. “I thought you’d want this,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Steve staggered forward, then winced at the pain in his leg. He watched Iron Man cock his head in his direction.
“You’re hurt,” Iron Man observed.
Steve shrugged, and took another, limping step. “It’s nothing; it’ll be fine.”
Iron Man was quiet for a moment. “Is it a gunshot?” he asked.
“It’s barely—” Steve began to assure him.
But before he finished his sentence, he found himself in Iron Man’s arms.
“I’m taking you home,” Iron Man said softly. “Hope that’s not too forward for a first date.”
Steve wrapped his arms around Iron Man’s neck, and held on tight.
“You can put me down,” Steve said.
“You’re hurt,” said Iron Man— said Tony, now, the vocal modulator turned off, his voice his own, sending a wave of tension through Steve’s body, across his shoulders, down his spine.
“Shellhead,” Steve murmured. “You don’t have to—”
And Iron Man’s faceplate flipped up, leaving Tony’s face visible, pale and drawn and tired, sharp blue eyes trained on Steve. “We’re gonna take a look at your fucking bullet wound,” Tony said. “And if it's bad, we’re letting Don Blake look at you, and then we’re putting you to bed.”
It was disconcerting, seeing Tony’s face there, inside Iron Man’s helmet, and Steve squeezed his eyes shut.
“You okay?” Tony asked.
Steve pursed his lips. “I don’t know if it’s stranger to think that you’re Iron Man, or that you’re Tony Stark,” he said slowly. “It’s— It’s jarring. It’s going to take some getting used to.”
“Well,” Tony said. “It explains why the hell I was so goddamn smitten with you twice.”
He stepped into the Mansion, through sliding glass doors into a suite of rooms that Steve assumed must belong to Tony, or Iron Man, or both, really; he wasn’t entirely sure how that worked, now.
Tony lowered him to the sofa, propped a pillow under his knee.
“I’m going to get blood on—”
“Cap,” Tony replied. “Steve. It’s a couch. Your leg’s more important than the furnishings.”
Steve watched as Tony pushed a button on his side, as the armor collapsed into itself automatically, packed itself away, until it was folded up, compactly arranged on the floor, and Tony was standing in front of him, wearing the same slacks and shirt that he’d worn to dinner, now grimy and sweat-stained.
He rolled up his shirtsleeves, and Steve couldn’t help eyeing Tony’s forearms, both slender and sinuous, deceptively strong for their size. “Lemme wash my hands and get you a drink,” Tony said.
When Tony came back, he had two glasses of whiskey, and he pressed one into Steve’s hand, placed one on the table, then dropped to one knee, flipped open a panel in one of the pieces of armor he’d just removed, and pulled out the makings of a first aid kit— antiseptic, bandages, the works.
He found the place where Steve’s slacks had been torn through by the shot, and tore the fabric neatly open to expose Steve’s thigh— and an ugly wound that would have been serious for anyone else, but for Steve, by now, was barely bleeding, for all it hurt.
“I told you it wasn’t that bad,” Steve muttered, though he gritted his teeth and let Tony dab at it with antiseptic. "I have an accelerated healing factor; it'll take care of itself on its--"
“Shut up and let me take care of you,” Tony said. “This is like, one of my preteen fantasies, definitely. One of the ones I seriously never expected to come true.”
Tony slapped a bandage on the cut, looked up at Steve, and then, as if on impulse, kissed the top of the bandage, quick and soft.
Steve tensed, and he knew Tony felt it, because Tony looked up at him, hesitant, and pursed his lips as he reached for his glass of whiskey.
“So,” Tony said.
Steve wasn’t sure what came next. “So,” he echoed, and he took a drink. The whiskey was soft, a little sweet, with warm notes of caramel and campfire.
Tony was still crouching on the floor beside him, and his free hand reached up, rested on Steve’s knee. “Things, uh…things are different, now?”
Steve couldn’t help but laugh, and his cheeks went warm. He rested his head back on the sofa’s armrest. “I think...I think things were always different,” he admitted. “We just didn’t know how much different.”
“You think—” Tony bit his lip. “You think they can stay the same?” he asked.
Steve watched Tony, saw his own mix of eagerness and apprehension mirrored in Tony’s eyes. He reached out, touched Tony’s hair— cautiously, at first, a trial run, before he slid his fingers through the fine, soft curls at the top of Tony’s crown. “You’re still one of the closest friends I have,” he assured him.
Tony smiled, a closed-mouthed smile like a contented cat, and Steve could almost imagine him purring. “And I’ve still been in love with you my entire life.”
“Two?” Tony asked.
Pepper pushed two stapled photocopies out: one toward Steve, and one toward Tony. “I’m not sure...it might be too much,” she admitted. “I didn’t know if you’d go for it, so there’s an alternate…it’s just...Steve’s art...the chemistry between the characters...I’m starting to feel like, if there’s a right time to do this—”
Steve’s eyes scanned the page, until they locked on a single line.
Cap and Iron Man kiss for the first time, it said.
Tony chuckled. “People are going to be furious,” he said.
Steve was still looking at the paper.
Cap and Iron Man kiss for the first time, it still said, even though he half-expected it to change.
He could hear Pepper take a deep breath. “I’m nuts,” she said, a little sheepishly. “I’m probably nuts; I knew it wouldn’t fly, I just—”
“What do you think, Steve?” Tony asked.
He was still staring at those words.
Cap and Iron Man Kiss for the first time.
He tore his eyes away, put the paper down, and reached for his sketchbook, then glanced sidelong at Tony before he opened it, displaying a page about halfway in.
“I’ve already drawn it,” he said.