"London?" Jarvis asked. His snowy brows were furrowed, the creases in his forehead darker, deeper than usual. "You realize the city's—"
"Under attack?" Tony interrupted. He lay on the brocade sofa in the parlor of the Long Island estate, filthy boots up on the armrest, the front of his shirt unbuttoned to accommodate the two cables attached to the device that powered his heart. He liked the incongruity of his rough-and-tumble form, the sparks and electrodes, gears and grease, amongst all that elegance and grandeur. "That’s why I’m goin’ now."
Jarvis drew up a chair, leaning forward, elbows locked against his knees. “What’s the matter, boy? You have another death wish? Have to seek out the most peril per square inch?”
Tony tapped at the brochure that sat on the table beside him.
“Have to get in there before the Nazis swarm all over the place like goosestepping ants at a picnic buffet, is more like it," Tony answered. "I remember that summer, before Howard—”
Tony frowned, his mouth a grim, narrow line, and he pinched the bridge of his nose. “You knew Bloodstone, didn’t you?”
“Oh, aye, back in the day,” Jarvis answered. “Man was as reckless as you are, never met a man so eager to shake Death’s hand and run. Helped us put away Centurius and that wild sea-beastie of his.”
“Goram,” Tony replied. “That...hybrid monster of his. I remember Dad telling me.”
Jarvis cracked a smile, looking distant for a moment, as if he were lost in memory, before his eyes locked on Tony once again. He ran his hand over his whiskers. “What happened that summer?”
“We went to visit him—Bloodstone,” Tony explained. “In England. I was just a kid; I wasn’t interested in...whatever the hell they were doing. But they were working on something; I know it.” He took a breath. “And this is my last chance to find out what the hell it was. Once his estate’s sold off, there’s no way I’d be able to trace any of it.”
“Fine,” Jarvis said, his expression softening. “We’ll ship out—”
Tony shook his head. “No,” he said. “Too dangerous; we can’t take the whole crew, not with all these Krauts in the sky.”
“Son, if you think for one minute I’m going to watch you go alone, after everything—”
Tony chuckled. “J, I promise you, I won’t go alone.”
Pepper clinked her own glass against his and brought the champagne to her lips. She took a generous sip, and smoothed down the length of her burgundy gown, the chiffon sleeves shimmering in the light from the crystal chandeliers above.
The Bloodstone Estate was opulent, glamorous, the hall where they stood carpeted in red plush, the walls paneled with gold-veined marble, Ionic columns rising up toward the ceiling. Inside this palatial manor, among the hubbub of wealthy guests, it was easy to pretend that there wasn’t a war in progress across the English Channel, that there weren’t bombs being dropped on London every night.
“Fifth,” Pepper answered with a sly smile, glancing sidelong over her shoulder, as if she expected to see another adoring gentleman.
“That penniless Duke what’s-his-name proposed twice,” Tony objected. “It only counts if it’s a new suit.”
Pepper snorted and rolled her eyes, looking up through her thick lashes. “And why have you never proposed?” she teased.
“Do you have to ask?” Tony asked. “For one, I need to be sure that Frank Finlay isn’t biased in his reporting.”
Pepper tilted her head to one side. “Oh?”
“And for another, I know how that works. The minute I get tangled up with a gal, she turns out to be a Nazi, or an evil sorceress, or a demon, or—”
“Isn’t that a little hyperbolic?” Pepper asked.
“I don’t know,” Tony admitted. “Are succubi technically demons? Because—you think I’m joking,” he realized, looking at the expression on Pepper’s face, and then he crossed himself. “God’s honest truth, Pottsie. You ask Rhodey about it when we get back, we were almost a blood sacrifice to a—”
“Tony?” called a voice—an American accent, in this sea of King’s English. “Tony Stark, is that—”
The pair turned to see a tall, brown-skinned man with a chiseled jaw and golden eyes that caught the light. He was a good deal older than Tony, with fine lines etched hard into the skin around his mouth and eyes.
“It is you,” he said eagerly, and he reached forward with a hand.
Tony hesitated. “Sorry, but—” He frowned, though he took the man’s hand and shook it. “Do I know y—” And then he blinked, astounded as he recalled something faintly recognizable in a face he hadn’t seen in decades. “Dr. Black?”
The older man’s eyes lit up. “You do remember! You were so small the last time I saw you; I wasn’t sure if you would.”
Tony grinned. Dr. Black had worked with his father in Cold Spring Harbor, when he’d been very young; he’d shown Tony all sorts of fantastical new hybridized plants and animals in their laboratory. “Of course I do,” he answered, awash with warmth. “It’s not everyday I see one of my dad’s old friends. Sir, this is my associate, Miss Pepper Potts. Pep, Pepper, do you know who this is?”
Dr. Black shook Pepper’s hand, raising an eyebrow, visibly amused by Tony’s display.
“This,” Tony said, grinning, as he gestured from Pepper to Dr. Black. “Is Noah Black, the Noah Black, the first African-American recipient of the Delphos Trophy.”
Dr. Black waved Tony away, looking a bit sheepish. “Really,” he said. “That wasn’t even for my best work—”
Tony coughed. “You beat out Wyndham and Essex for the honor.”
“What subject?” Pepper asked interestedly.
“Genetics,” Dr. Black answered. He glanced around the room. “I conducted a series of experiments to discredit eugenics, just as the Nazis rose to power.” He chuckled, and gripped his champagne a little more tightly. “Frankly, I’m just relieved that under the circumstances, I’m not dead yet. What are you doing in London?”
Tony waved a hand at the dais, where a crew was just beginning to set out the first few lots of the auction for display. “This,” he answered. “Bloodstone and my dad worked together back before Howard kicked it,” he explained. “I wanted to poke around the auction. It looked like some of Howard’s stuff might be up for grabs. You?”
“There’s a meeting going on, top military brass,” Dr. Black explained. “There’s an initiative to bring scientists into the war effort, to try to turn this thing around``. I was called in to consult.”
Tony and Pepper exchanged a glance. “Military brass, huh?” Tony asked.
Dr. Black shrugged. “There are some of us who don’t take well to a position of neutrality against Nazis,” he answered, matter of fact. “I’m sure you can appreciate my position, Mr. Stark.”
And Tony smiled. “Well, don’t let the papers fool you. I don’t spend all my time taking pot shots at the Luftwaffe.”
“Ah, no, you need a break now and then to recover stolen treasure,” Dr. Black agreed, clapping Tony on the back. “Some of us are a little too old to get into the thick of it; I’ll leave the fighting to hotheads like you and stay safely locked away in my lab.”
“Winning the war with test tubes, eh?” Tony asked.
“Something like that,” Dr. Black agreed, just as the auctioneer called the guests to order.
Tony and Pepper followed Dr. Black forward toward the dais, trying to get a good view of the lots up for auction. Ulysses Bloodstone, it seemed, had quite the collection of oddities and antiquities, and it was all Tony could do to keep his bid card at his side as the auction’s staff paraded out a golden staff, an ancient stone sepulchre, and an enormous skull that didn’t look like it belonged to any living creature Tony knew.
“Is that a dinosaur?” Pepper whispered.
“Either that or a dragon,” Tony whispered back.
“And now,” the auctioneer said, “we have Lot Three-Five-Seven, which is a small collection of personal effects to be auctioned together.”
A crate was opened, and a few small items were taken out and displayed: what looked like a brass astrolabe, a series of wooden cards, and a large, heavy-looking stack of well-worn journals and correspondence bound together with string.
“According to the accompanying correspondence, these devices appear to be a collaboration between Mr. Bloodstone himself, and the late Howard Stark, the famed American explorer and scientist,” said the auctioneer. “The letters and journals detail some of the men’s journeys together during their partnership.”
Tony twitched; electricity rode down his arm, into his fingers, and he nearly raised his card by reflex.
“We’ll be starting the bidding at just two pounds for this collection,” the auctioneer said.
Tony raised his card.
“You there.” The auctioneer pointed at Tony. “Number Thirty-Nine.”
There were a few other cards up, but by the time the bidding reached eight pounds, Tony was only competing against two other bidders. He was surprised that there were even that many. One was a small, slight young man, who barely looked twenty, with pale skin, large glasses, and an ill-fitting suit. The other was taller, ruddy-cheeked and mustachioed, with a neat beard and a shrewd look on his face, his suit well-tailored and ostentatious, cut from plum-colored wool.
The sum went higher and higher, to ten pounds, and then twelve. As it neared twenty, Tony looked to Pepper, perplexed.
“It shouldn’t be going this high,” he murmured.
“Maybe someone doesn’t like you,” Pepper replied cheerfully. “Maybe they like old nautical trash. Maybe they think Ulysses Bloodstone’s journals are going to be saucy.”
“Should I drop out?” he murmured. “I didn’t think whatever it was was important enough that there’d be competition.”
“Twenty?” asked the auctioneer. “Do I hear twenty?”
The rest of the audience was beginning to whisper. Tony saw some of them pull out their brochures, hastily check what exactly Lot Three-Five-Seven was supposed to be, heard them wondering aloud if they’d missed something.
“Well,” Pepper said, thoughtfully. “If it is important, wouldn’t you rather have it in your own possession?”
“Twenty-one, from Number Seventy-Five,” said the auctioneer. Even he appeared perplexed. “Do I hear twenty-two? Twenty-two for this lovely...crate?”
The skinny young man lowered his hand, looking a bit dejected. He sighed and turned around, looking directly at Tony over the rims of his spectacles.
“I don’t know everything that Howard worked on with Bloodstone,” said Dr. Black. “But your father built too many weapons to risk letting them fall into the wrong hands, Tony. If those notes—”
Tony put his card up before Dr. Black finished speaking. “Thirty!” he called.
The entire room erupted in gasps. The man in the purple suit turned and glared, and then raised his card again.
“I have thirty-one,” the auctioneer announced. “Thirty-one for this collection of, ah, fine bits and bobs—”
“Thirty-five,” Tony bid, smirking at the stranger.
The other man raised his card again, waving it about in the air, and glared back at Tony.
Tony shrugged. “Forty,” he tried.
He watched as the man’s jaw tightened, and his shoulders squared, and, finally, his mouth twisted into a grimace, he lowered his card.
“Very well, then,” said the auctioneer. “Forty it is. Forty pounds, going once, going twice...sold to the gentleman in black, bidder Number Thirty-Nine.”
Tony relaxed, and shot Pepper a grin.
“Forty pounds,” Pepper observed, and whistled low. “For a box of junk.”
“Chump change, if you ask me.” Tony replied.
“That’s half my rent for the year,” Pepper informed him. “Chump change yourself, Mister. I hope it’s worth it.”
“What I want to know,” said Dr. Black, “is what’s in that box, that anyone else wanted it.”
“And why they wanted it,” Pepper agreed, nodding. She tilted her head, curiously, at the other men.
When the auction ended, Tony waited for the milling audience members to thin out before striding toward the front, to see about collecting his items.
“Excuse me?” asked a man’s voice from behind him, in thickly-accented French. “Excuse me, Sir? Am I not mistaken, you are the winner of Lot Three-Five-Seven?”
“Yeah,” Tony answered, and he turned to see the man in the purple suit. “Ah,” he said, grinning, “you did put up a good fight. I’m sorry to win it from you.”
He held a hand out.
“Believe me, I am more sorry to lose,” answered the Frenchman, and he shook Tony’s hand. His palm was hot, and clammy, and Tony had to tamp down the impulse to wipe it on his trousers—for one, these trousers were much too nice for that. “May I inquire, for what purpose you wanted the items?”
Tony laughed. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t even know what’s in it, just—” he shrugged. “Howard Stark was my dad, and—”
The man blinked, and he put a finger to his mustache. “Howa—ah!” he exclaimed. “Tony Stark? The great adventurer of lore and legend?”
“Or trashy pulp novels, but yeah, that’s me,” Tony said, with a grin that belied any attempt to downplay his delight at the man’s description of his work.
“I have been most impressed by your travails,” the man in the purple suit said, and he slipped his hand into his pocket, removing a business card, embossed in flowery gold script.
Funeral Director & Care of the Deceased
Silverman Funeral Home
“Mister Stark?” called another voice behind him—a reedy, breathless voice, that sounded like its owner had overexerted himself. “Mister Stark?”
And here came his other competitor, the tweedy, pallid young man. His straw-colored hair had fallen into his eyes; his glasses had dropped too far down his nose. His eyes were huge and impossibly blue, Tony thought, and he was thin as a rail—looked like he’d break if Tony breathed on him. He was carrying his handkerchief in his hand, and he sneezed as soon as he spoke, pressing the thing over his mouth and nostrils.
“That’s me,” Tony answered. He frowned at the young man. “What can I do for you?”
The young man took a deep breath, shakily. “Name’s Roger Grant,” he said. His accent instantly pegged him not only as an American, but as a New Yorker. “Uh...I…”
Poor kid, Tony thought to himself, as Grant stammered. He was clearly intimidated, out of his element.
Grant straightened up a little bit. “I, uh. I was wondering...I’m here...as a representative of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, and we were hoping to, uh, to acquire your father’s work for our Arts & Industries collection—”
He, too, reached for a card. It wasn’t as nicely printed as Batroc’s; the stock was flimsier, and the text was a plain black typeface, but it was stamped with a little globe flanked by two torches, like a Smithsonian pamphlet.
Tony turned the card over in his hand, and looked back at the young man, who still looked a little bit like a deer in headlights. “Well,” he said. “I have to get the shipment back to the States, and take some time to look through it. But if there’s anything I’m willing to part with, I’ll keep you in mind, yeah?”
Grant frowned, pursing his lips like he’d expected a more favorable answer. “We...the museum doesn’t have a lot of money,” he said. “But we firmly believe that work like this should be collected in public institutions, where it can, uh—”
“Benefit all mankind,” Tony finished, flashing Grant a smile. “I know, I know; you do know who you’re talking to, right?”
“Yes,” Grant answered weakly, and he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose just in time to keep them from falling. “I, uh...I read all of your—”
Tony couldn’t help but smile, and he glanced sidelong at Pepper. “Well, I’ll let Mister Finlay know,” he said. “Believe me, half the tale’s in the telling.”
Pepper blew him a kiss, surreptitiously.
“Would you?” Grant asked, then caught himself, and straightened up, looking serious as he adjusted his jacket. “I mean, I—uh. I appreciate that. Sir. If you can be persuaded at all to…”
Tony patted his pocket. “I’ve got your card,” he assured him. “Tell you what—” He drew the auction listing from his pocket, circled the description of Lot Three Five Seven, and signed his name with a flourish, offering it to the young man.
Grant gulped, glanced up through his golden eyelashes and thick lenses at Tony, and reached for the listing, hesitantly, as if he expected it to burn up if he touched it. “Thank you, Sir.”
“‘Sir’ makes me feel like my dad,” Tony replied. “It’s Tony. Just Tony.” He grinned, and Grant bit his lower lip.
“Tony,” Grant managed, meekly.
“Better,” Tony said. He was enjoying himself too much. He clapped the younger man on the shoulder for good measure, watching as Grant stiffened and went a shade whiter than he already was, if that was even possible. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got to arrange transportation for my things.”
“Oh. Uh. Of course,” Grant said, and he shuffled backward a little bit. “I. Tell Mister Finlay I love his books?” he asked hopefully.
Tony grinned, and shot a sidelong look at Pepper.
“I’ll let him know,” Pepper said, tossing her copper hair. “He’ll be very pleased to hear it.”
As Grant left, a flush in his cheeks that suggested to Tony that he was very unused to talking to beautiful women, he turned back to his other companions, only to see that Batroc had vanished.
“Huh, where’d our new friend putter off to?” he asked.
Dr. Black shrugged and pointed off in the direction of the exit. “I think he got bored waiting for the kid to stammer out his words,” he said. “Or maybe he saw a friend? I don’t know, but he headed off that way. Say,” he said, with a considering look. “Do you two want to get a drink? I’d love to catch up, trade stories about your old man, Tony. Where are you staying?”
“The Savoy,” Tony answered. “It’s over on the Str—”
But Dr. Black’s eyes lit up, and he laughed, easily. “Wonders never cease,” he said. “I’m at the Savoy as well. Split a cab back to the hotel?”
“I’d be honored,” Tony told him, and he meant it, too.
With Tony’s crate safely secured in the trunk of the cab, the three of them piled in, Pepper watching the two men chat avidly as she made notes in a little book on the long drive back to the hotel. The driver, with her headlights hooded, took the turns carefully in the darkness.
“How long are you in London?” Tony asked.
“I’m just about wrapping up my work here,” Dr. Black answered. “Just have to get the sign-off from the officer overseeing the project, and I’ll be on my way back home. Can’t say I’m not relieved,” he admitted. “The way things are looking around here, the bombings—”
“I can’t believe we don’t have boots on the ground over here,” Tony admitted, shaking his head. “We’ve got to—”
“Do something about it,” Dr. Black finished, grimly. “I know.”
“Let’s get this up to the room,” Tony said, indicating the crate, “and then we’ll meet you down here, Doc? Have a little nightcap?”
Dr. Black inclined his head, and started for the elevators. “I’d like that very much.”
“Just give me a little while to change,” Pepper said, indicating her gown with a soft chuckle. “I need to get out of the...contraption that holds all of this in place before I fall over.”
Pepper peeled her dress off the moment they shut the door to the hotel room, stretching her arms out until her joints cracked. “Well,” she pronounced, letting the soft burgundy fabric fall to the floor. She began to rummage through her suitcase, comfortably unconcerned with her lack of clothing in a way that made Tony feel just as at ease. “What do you make of all this?”
“What do I make of it?” Tony asked. He followed suit, stripping off his jacket and tie and hanging them in the closet. He unbuttoned his shirt, and tapped at his repulsor through his undershirt. “It seems like this crap of my dad’s is a heck of a lot more valuable than I ever gave it credit for. Huh,” he said, frowning down at his chest. “Be a doll and plug me in here, will you?”
Pepper tugged on a blouse and a pretty pair of high-waisted trousers, leaving the shirt unbuttoned as she stepped over to Tony’s generator, picking up a jumper cable in each hand. “One charge coming right up, Boss,” she answered, waiting for him to sit down on the edge of the bed before she connected the cables to the repulsor and turned the dial on the generator. “You want to see what’s in this box?” she asked, lifting off the lid of the crate.
“I wish I’d known what he and Bloodstone were working on,” Tony admitted, as Pepper unpacked the crate, lifting the contents onto the bed beside Tony. “I wonder if Black knows something about it; it seems like he was friendly with both of them. I was just a kid, you know. Dad used to just give me a cryptex and tell me to solve it, send me on treasure hunts to keep me out of his hair.”
Pepper laughed softly at that. “Sounds like fun,” she said. “My father was never that creative.”
“It was,” Tony said, softly. “He was...always teaching me, even when I didn’t realize it. He’d send me on makeshift adventures, all the time. Gave me codes, challenges...well, I guess I’ve got somebody to blame, for how I turned out. What’s this?” he asked, holding up the wooden cards they’d seen at the auction. They each had a length of knotted string attached, and various markings. “They’re like...these look like kamals.”
“Kamals,” Tony repeated. “Old Arabic navigational guides, helped sailors find latitude. Only these have more markings than a traditional kamal, huh…” He poked at one of the cards, at the holes bored into its center.
“And that looks like an astrolabe,” Pepper agreed interestedly, pointing at the brass instrument with the disks.
“Only it’s not one,” Tony said. “I mean…” He picked it up, shifted the dials, slid his fingertips over the recessed markings. “There’s no way in hell this thing could get you anywhere. Huh,” he said, frowning at it. “You think they were trying to measure something?”
Pepper turned toward the mirror as she buttoned her shirt. “Measure something, or locate it,” she said. She smoothed her hair through her hands and twisted it up, pressing in a few pins. “Try the books.”
Tony reached for the first one, folding back the cover.
His father’s handwriting was staring back at him. He cringed, inwardly, feeling a sort of cold melancholy wash over him. “Speak, memory,” he read, tracing his fingers over the black curlicues of Howard’s script. “Of the cunning hero—”
It felt somehow familiar, but Tony couldn’t place it.
“Is that what it says?” Pepper asked, tilting her head at him.
“Yeah. ‘Of the cunning hero, blown off course—”
“Time and again,” Pepper finished.
Tony looked down at the page. “Time and again,” he read back at her. “Yeah, how’d you know—”
“It’s Homer’s Odyssey,” Pepper replied. “The opening lines. What does it say after—”
He was interrupted by a crash, as the glass in their window burst in, shards flying through the air as the blackout curtains at their window were knocked aside. Pepper shrieked, and backed up against the vanity.
A large man dressed in black landed on two feet on the floor, training a gun on Tony, who was still lying on the bed with his heart hooked up to a generator that was cheerfully sputtering black smoke.
Tony swore, and put his hands up as he took stock of the room.
“The box, Mr. Stark,” said the man with the gun. “You’re going to give me the box, and all its contents.”
“If you say so,” Tony said. “But, ah, as you can see, I’m a little indisposed, and the contents of the box are...scattered, so, if you’ll just give me a minute…”
“You,” the man said, pointing his gun at Pepper. “You put everything back in the box like a good girl.”
Pepper raised an eyebrow and moved to the center of the room, trying to carefully avoid the glass on the floor in her stocking feet. “Does a good girl put things in boxes differently from a bad girl?”
“Enough with the mouth,” the man said.
“I only wanted to know if you expected it sorted neatly,” Pepper said, reaching for the kamal-like cards. “Or just dumped in willy-nilly.”
The man growled. “Hurry the hell up, you.”
Pepper sighed, and slowly started putting the items back in the box. “You know,” she said. “My mother always said, you catch more flies with honey, Mister—hey, hey, I don’t know what to call you, Mister. Can I call you Harry?”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass what you call me, so long as you hurry up,” the man replied.
Tony watched Pepper, tried to catch her eye, but she was busying herself with packing the box, as slowly as she could, and started humming a little song.
“Say,” Pepper said. “Say, Harry, what do you want this old junk for, anyway? Me and Mr. Stark here, we couldn’t make heads or tails of any of it; it’s all funny cards and dials and stuff. Very disappointing. And to think Tony just dropped a big chunk of change on it—there!” she exclaimed, grinning as she finished packing, and she closed the crate up with a pat. “All yours.”
She shot Tony a sidelong look, mischievous, and he realized why she was so nonchalant.
The crate was too large for the man to carry easily with one arm.
“Do you need help with that, Mister?” she asked.
The man in black growled. “Just tie him up,” he said, pointing at Tony with the gun.
Pepper grinned at Tony and licked her lips. “With pleasure,” she answered.
She removed the jumper cables from the repulsor plate, and twisted them around Tony’s ankles and wrists, tying them off with a tight knot. “Like that?” she asked the man in black.
He nodded at the box. “Now hand it over,” he said. “And no funny business.”
Pepper put her hands underneath the crate, and strained. “It’s...ugh, it’s too heavy,” she complained. “I can’t—”
“Oh, for chrissake,” said the man, and he shook his head. “It can’t be that heavy, Missy, put your back into it…”
She made another attempt, and Tony watched as she gritted her teeth, grunting and moaning, and she finally managed to budge the crate a fraction of an inch. “I—”
She panted and huffed, and gave the intruder a plaintive look. “I don’t know what you think I am, but I don’t lift weights in the circus, Harry,” she answered irritably.
The man sighed, and gestured for her to move out of the way. Keeping the gun in his hand, he hefted the crate up off the bed, and frowned. “Missy, this isn’t half that heavy; you—”
But Pepper had already lifted the much heavier brass table lamp up off the vanity, and she swung it like a club at the back of the man’s head.
It hit its mark with a crack, and the man slumped to the floor, just as Tony slipped the trick knots Pepper had tied and staggered to his feet.
“Well,” Tony said. “I’d better get dressed.”
Pepper snatched the items back out of the crate, and started stuffing them into her suitcase. “Way ahead of you, Boss,” she answered. “Where the hell are my sensible shoes?”
They had just managed to tie up the intruder and shove him into the closet, locking it from the outside, when there was a hasty rapping on the door.
Tony reached for his gun, then reached for the handle, opening it to a wide-eyed, terrified-looking Dr. Black.
Dr. Black took one look around the room, and shivered. “My god,” he said. “You, too?”
“What do you mean, us too?” Tony asked, but then he saw Dr. Black’s torn shirt, the smears of dirt on his clothing. “Jesus! They went after you, Doc?” he asked. He clapped a hand to the older man’s back. “You—are you alright?”
“I managed to ring the desk without them noticing,” Dr. Black explained. “The bellhop scared him off, but—”
“But why would they attack you?” Pepper asked, as she reached for her coat. “Did they say?”
“They—no, he didn’t,” Dr. Black said nervously. “He searched my room, said...said something wasn’t there, and threatened me...with his gun....”
“We’re going to the train station,” Tony said, slipping his shoes on. “Getting out of town. How about you join us, Doc?”
Dr. Black’s brow furrowed. “Join you...where?”
“We’ll improvise,” said Tony. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up and get while the going’s good.”
“Good job,” Tony said. He looked up at the massive statue that looked over the hall, and gave it a little salute as if to thank it for the good luck.
They left the warm light of the Great Hall for the dark, moonlit platforms, walking hastily—but not too hastily—to their train. Dr. Black, older and slower than Tony or Pepper, kept them walking at a pace that was less suspect than what Tony might have been inclined to on his own. Tony carted the luggage—all three of their suitcases, and the generator for his heart, which had been carefully boxed up.
“You want to come with us?” Tony offered, looking back over his shoulder at Dr. Black. “On the airship, I mean. You’d love it; it’s—”
Dr. Black smiled back at Tony. “Much obliged,” he answered. “Let me think about it; I don’t know if—”
“There!” shouted a thin, reedy voice behind them, followed by a hacking cough. “Right there! That’s them, those three.”
“Oh, for god’s sake,” Tony groaned, though he kept walking.
“You there!” called a deeper, more sonorous voice—another American, Tony noted. “Stop where you’re going.”
Tony and Pepper exchanged a pained look, and finally, slowly, Tony turned around, putting his hands in the air as he did. “Look, we’re just—”
“Take their bags,” ordered the man who walked toward them: a tall, imposing figure, with an eyepatch and a large cigar lodged in one corner of his mouth. “Mr. Stark,” the man said, crossing his arms as he drew close. “I’d say it’s good to see you again, but we always meet—”
“Under the most fascinating circumstances, don’t we, General Fury?” Tony asked, flashing the man a grin. “Look, I’ve got a signed bill of sale and everything this time; there is no way in hell you can accuse me of stealing any precious artifacts.”
“Rogers here says he spoke to you about maybe making a donation of some of your acquisitions,” the General said, nodding at the smaller man who drew up beside him.
Tony narrowed his eyes at the man that General Fury had called ‘Rogers.’ He was unmistakable, even without the terrible suit he’d worn to the auction.
“Well, if I’d known he was working for you, I might not have brushed him off so easy,” Tony answered. “Isn’t that right, Grant?”
“Give the kid a break,” Fury replied. “I gave him the alias. We were trying to do this discreetly.”
Tony walked up to the two of them, staring down Grant, or Rogers, or whoever he was. “So, what’s your name, then?”
The young man swallowed. “Rogers,” he replied, fidgeting with his hands. He finally shoved them into his back trouser pockets. “Steve Rogers.”
“All right, Steve Rogers,” Tony said. “But I’m gonna have to sign you a new autograph; you don’t want one made out to an imaginary person, do you?”
Steve Rogers glowered back at him. “Really, I don’t need one,” he replied.
“Oh, come on.” Tony rolled back onto his heels, squared his shoulders. “Anything for a fan.”
“I’ve never read your books,” said Rogers, in a dull tone. The wide-eyed look was gone, so was the awkwardness and the stammering. “I read your file and figured you’d be more inclined to do me a favor if I seemed impressed by you.”
“Oh,” Tony said. “Oho.” He waggled both eyebrows at Rogers.
Rogers looked back, his jawline hard and his expression withering.
Tony rolled his eyes and turned back to Fury. “So, what the hell do you want? You want my dad’s stuff? The stuff he worked on with Bloodstone?”
“We suspect their research could lead to a breakthrough in the war effort,” Fury replied, tapping his cigar so his ash fell to the floor. “If we can stop Hitler—”
“I don't mean to be a wet blanket about this whole war effort thing,” Tony said. “Because god knows I wanna kick Hitler’s ass along with the best of ‘em, but we—I mean, you, Sir, serve a country that has a stated policy of non-involvement in this mess. What happens when this hits the press?”
“I guess we’ll have to make sure it doesn't,” Fury replied. “Is that a threat, Stark?”
Tony put a hand to his chest in mock offense. “Me? Threaten? Listen, General, old buddy, I don't think far enough ahead to make threats, you know that. I just want to know what's going on. We’ve got U.S. military picking sides—not that I'm not glad to hear it's the right side, but, you know, some people are fuzzy on that.”
Tony glanced up at the clock. The minute hand was creeping dangerously close to their departure time. “So listen, we have a train the catch, and I know you can't just seize my stuff, so—”
“And I know you’re eager to help,” Fury said. “And it would be a shame if there were something wrong with your paperwork when you tried to leave the country.”
“Landing permits for privately-owned dirigibles are tricky to come by,” Fury went on. “Especially in wartime.”
“Goddamnit,” Tony growled, through gritted teeth. “Is the government gonna foot the bill for our extended stay? Seeing as our rooms at the Savoy were trashed. I don't suppose you want to take credit for that.”
Fury’s eye twitched. “Someone broke into your rooms?”
“Yeah,” Tony replied. “All done up in black, real bandit type.”
“Someone burglarized my room as well,” said Dr. Black.
Fury and Rogers both peered at the scientist.
“Who are you?” Rogers asked. “What the hell do you have to do with this?”
Dr. Black laughed nervously, and shrugged. “Wrong place, wrong time.”
“He was at the auction,” Rogers informed Fury. “Why would they go after you?” He demanded of Dr. Black.
Tony stepped between the two men, feeling rigid and warm, his teeth on edge. “Are we going to have a problem here?” he asked, leaning forward, raising his shoulders, trying to loom over the smaller man, which was somewhat undermined by the fact that he was standing so close to Fury, who was taller than the lot of them.
“Are you going to let your friend answer my question?” Rogers snapped.
“Is this a racial thing?” Tony asked, seething. “Because if—”
“Tony,” Dr. Black said, in a placating tone, and he sidestepped Tony, patting his arm. “It’s fine.”
“It’s not fine,” Tony muttered, glaring at Rogers, who glared back.
“It’s a fucking question,” Rogers snapped. He growled, low, rolled his eyes, and looked to Dr. Black. “Sir?” he asked. “I’m sorry about—”
“Working with some of General Fury’s associates,” Dr. Black answered. He glanced at Fury. “You know Abraham Erskine?”
Fury frowned, and his eyes met Rogers’ for a moment. “As a matter of fact, we do.”
Dr. Black shrugged, and then held his hand out. “Noah Black,” he said. “Dr. Noah Black. I was called into consult on Erskine’s research. It’s possible the criminals thought I had something of value in my possession, since I had been in Mr. Stark’s company, but they left without taking anything.”
“Are you sure?” Fury asked, his own tone far less accusing than Rogers’. “None of your research? Do you think—”
“Hey!” Pepper shouted, and the men turned just in time to see her dive after another woman—a tall blonde who ran faster in heels than Tony had thought possible. Pepper reached out, snatching at the woman’s coat, but only managed to pull the belt away as she landed, skidding, on the platform surface, as the blonde woman took off with Pepper’s suitcase.
Tony swore and sprinted after the thief, but the woman hopped onto the train car—the very train to Manchester that they had meant to depart on—just as it lurched forward, slowly chugging out of the station.
“God’s sakes!” Tony shouted, and he caught the railing just by the train door, running to keep up with the train as it accelerated. He tripped over his feet, then leapt up, just barely making it onto the train. He turned, panting, looking back out the door to signal to Pepper, when, to his horror, he saw Rogers gripping the side of the train, his knuckles white, a look of fierce concentration on his face.
Rogers’ head perked up when he caught Tony’s eye, and he flung a hand out. “Gimme a hand!” he shouted.
“Are you out of your mind, kid?!” Tony demanded. “Let go before you kill yourself!”
Rogers grimaced, and splayed his fingers out. “Give. Me. A. Hand!” he repeated.
Tony groaned. “I’m not—” But the train was already moving too quickly, and he didn’t want anyone’s death on his hands, so, finally, he reached out and caught at Rogers’ hand, easing him slowly into the railcar.
Rogers collapsed on the floor just outside the door to the main cabin of the car, balling himself up into fetal position, hands around his knees, and wheezed. His cheeks were red; his eyes were glassy.
“Jesus, Rogers,” Tony muttered, dropping to one knee. “D’you have a death wish?”
“Need—” Rogers answered, breathlessly, “to get—”
Tony gritted his teeth. “I know,” he said. “And I’d have it, if you hadn’t—”
Rogers glared up at him. “Go get it,” he snapped. “I don’t need you here.”
“But you—” Tony began.
“I’m fine,” Rogers snapped, in between ragged breaths. “It’s asthma.”
Tony shook his head, threw his hands up, and got to his feet. “Sure,” he said. “Enjoy your self-inflicted misery.”
Tony raced into the cabin, letting the door slam shut behind him.
This late in the evening, there weren’t many passengers, but the few who were there looked up irritably at the intrusion.
He tried to slow his pace, to walk quickly without running, when he saw no trace of the blonde woman, he kept moving, hastily, to the front of the car.
The next car on the train boasted a series of private compartments, and Tony didn’t hesitate to open up the door to the first, where he surprised a woman in a frilly nightgown, who, in turn, surprised him by shrieking loudly.
“Sorry!” he exclaimed, putting his hands up, palms forward, as he backed out of the compartment. “Sorry, I. Uh. Wrong compartment.”
“You’d better be,” snapped the woman.
After that, Tony resolved to knock.
The next two compartments were empty, and the third one contained an elderly gentleman who asked Tony if he had brought him his pie.
“Ah,” Tony answered, shrugging. “No, it’s delayed, it’ll be, ah, right out, Sir, our apologies.”
On the next car, though, no sooner had he stepped through the door, then he saw a commotion ahead, as the woman lifted the suitcase and began hurrying forward.
It was easy to catch up to her, in this enclosed space, even if the lone passenger on this car looked up from his newspaper just long enough to scold them both and tell them to keep it down.
Well, Tony thought, oblivious was better than screaming.
Tony stopped her just as she reached the door. “Alright, sweetheart,” he said, gesturing with his hand. “Give it over.”
“What?” she asked, batting her thick lashes at him, as she pushed the door open with her free hand. “Give over what?” She lifted the suitcase in her hand. “Oh, do you mean this old thing?” she asked, giggling. “Gladly.”
Tony held his hand out, as the woman slowly turned, and shoved her other hand, the one that had been holding the door, toward his chest.
The shock of whatever she jabbed him with ran through his entire body, the current jolting him and sending him to the floor.
His ribcage was suddenly overcome with immense, suffocating pain, and he clutched at his chest, doubling over, his vision fading in and out. The repulsor that maintained his heart had stopped when the electrical charge ran through his body.
He could feel himself go weak as his blood pressure slowed, and his head felt heavy, too heavy to lift. He turned it to one side—
—And there was Rogers, crouched beneath a railway seat.
Rogers put one finger to his lips, and then launched himself from his hiding spot, grabbing at the woman’s ankles.
She went careening backward, half out the cabin door she’d been standing by, and lost her grip on the suitcase, which flew through the air—and clattered to the floor.
Rogers slammed the cabin door, tugged off his belt, and looped it through the latch to bind it shut.
He snatched up the suitcase by its handle. “Time to go,” he said, before he looked back down at Tony. It was only then that his lips pursed, and his brow furrowed, and real concern showed on his face. “Are you—”
Tony gasped for air. “I need—” he managed. “I need you to—start my heart.”
Rogers blinked, uncomprehending. “What?”
“My heart,” Tony said, tapping it. “Runs on a...pump. It’s gonna stop if--”
Rogers looked paper-white. “Okay,” he said, dropping down to one knee, and Tony could see his chin trembling. Rogers sat on top of the suitcase, putting all of his admittedly unimpressive weight on top of it, and looked Tony over. “Okay, okay, what do I need to do?”
Tony gestured at his shirt. “Off,” he said. “Tear it, if you—”
Rogers didn’t even wait for Tony to finish. He grabbed either side of Tony’s shirt and tugged, the buttons popping off and ricocheting off the cabin walls and windows. “Holy hell,” he said, as he peered at the chestplate.
“Would you keep it down?” the lone, irritable passenger at the far end of the car snapped.
Tony managed to lift his hand, though it was slow, and numb. “Here,” he said, gesturing to the general area. “There’s a...the motor. Restart it...uh.”
Rogers frowned, leaning in closer, his fingers sliding over the surface of the chestplate. “Uh. Is this...the thing shaped like the key?”
Tony managed a nod.
Rogers gave the key a sharp twist, and Tony relaxed against the floor in relief as the repulsor began running again. He was still weak, still foggy, but whatever the woman had done hadn’t permanently damaged anything, just shorted it out.
As the strength returned to his body, he gave the chestplate a little pat, then hauled himself to a sitting position.
“Jesus, Stark,” Rogers said, cocking an eyebrow at Tony. “D’you have a death wish?”
“Okay,” Tony said, catching his breath, his hand still firm against the repulsor. “I deserved that. Thanks, pal.”
“You may be a jackass,” Rogers said. “But I’m not about to let you die.”
“Ha, ha,” said Tony. “I can return that sentiment, at least.” He peered up at the door, which was rattling, no doubt as their thief attempted to open it. “Come on. We should—get out—”
He pushed himself to his feet. He was still weak, still not quite certain of his footing. Rogers eyed him for a moment, then stood, and, with the suitcase in one hand, propped Tony up with his other arm. “How are you proposing we do that?”
Tony grinned. “We’re about to cross Hampstead Heath,” he answered. “How d’you feel about jumping?”
“You okay?” Tony asked. He pushed himself to his knees, checked his repulsor, then looked the younger man over.
“Fine,” Rogers muttered, wincing as he wrapped his arms around himself. Like Tony, he was a bit worse for wear: trousers ripped, knees skinned, grass-stained, spectacles cracked.
“You jumped with your glasses on?” Tony asked.
Rogers grimaced at the mess of bent wire and shattered glass as he dangled it in one hand, above his face. “You didn’t tell me not to,” he pointed out. “It’s not like I’m well-versed in the art of hurling myself from a speeding locomotive.”
“Sounds like a sub-par education, to me,” Tony said cheerfully. “How well can you see without those?”
“You’re blurry around the edges,” Rogers admitted, squinting in the darkness. “It’s nothing I’m not used to.”
“We’ll get you some new ones. Make Fury pay for ‘em; it’s his fault.” Tony shrugged. “You didn’t break anything worse, did you?”
“No,” Rogers replied, easing himself up gingerly. The way he moved-- slow, deliberate, not without effort, Tony wasn’t sure he hadn’t broken something.
“You sure?” Tony asked.
Rogers rolled his eyes and let out a few long, slow breaths. "You tell me," he replied. “You’re the expert.”
"Well, I know what I'm getting into," said Tony. "But you—I'm curious how a little twig like you got mixed up in this mess. Here, you need a hand up?"
Rogers accepted the offer, and Tony slung an arm around him. Together, the two of them staggered to their feet. "There's a government program," he said. "Scientific research. Not exactly soldier material, so I signed up for this. Whatever I can do to fight the Nazis.”
“This doesn’t look like research to me,” Tony observed.
Rogers jutted his chin out stubbornly. “They’re assessing candidates,” he answered. He rubbed at his arm, wincing. “Had to test my mettle.”
Tony dropped his arm from Rogers’ shoulders, took a step back, and sized the younger man up with a frown. “Well,” he said. “Just don’t let them make you do anything you don’t want to, Rogers.” He leaned over, reaching for the now-thoroughly-beaten-up suitcase.
Rogers couldn’t beat Tony to the punch, but he apparently could kick the suitcase out of Tony’s reach, which was exactly what he did. The suitcase fell over, onto its side. “I’m still not letting you take that,” he said, planting his hands firmly on his hips. Without his glasses, Tony noted, Rogers looked even younger, and the petulant pose reminded Tony of a defiant teenager. He tried not to chuckle.
“You really think you could stop me if I put up a fight?” Tony asked, raising an eyebrow.
Rogers squared his narrow shoulders, and jutted his chin out, and the vain attempt to seem threatening made him look less threatening, which Tony hadn’t expected was possible.
“No,” Rogers said. “But I think you’ll do the right thing, when push comes to shove.” He stepped over to the suitcase and hefted it up, grimacing a little as he did.
“And you’re so sure the government is going to do the right thing?” Tony asked.
Rogers opened his mouth, then hesitated, his free hand curling into a fist.
Tony watched, as Rogers struggled with an answer, his face moving through expression after expression in a matter of moments.
“It’s okay,” Tony said, finally, when Rogers still seemed to be stuck. He put a hand on Rogers’ shoulder. “Come on. We’ve got a hike ahead of us.”
They started hiking back toward the center of town. The streets were dark, the lights struck to hide signs of life from the Luftwaffe. The moon reflected a soft glow on smooth cobblestones, on the occasional window. Rogers was slow, and wheezy, and insisted on hauling the suitcase himself, even when Tony promised that he wouldn’t run off and ditch the kid in the middle of nowhere.
“Let me pay for a cab, at least,” Tony insisted, sighing, as he watched the younger man struggle.
“You want to trust a cab driver?” Rogers asked skeptically.
“I mean, I figure there aren’t too many cabbie-Nazi-spies,” Tony said, “so...yeah?”
“I’m not leaving anything to chance,” Rogers said, clutching the suitcase protectively. He glanced across the street, then nodded at the familiar sight of a red telephone booth. “You have change?”
Tony patted down his pockets and found a penny, and held it up, the bronze face of George VI glimmering in the moonlight. He glanced at Rogers, then glanced at the suitcase, and a thought occurred to him. “Catch,” he said, flicking it into the air, toward Rogers.
Rogers glowered, and watched the penny fall to the street with a clatter. “You’re trying to get me to drop the bag,” he accused.
Tony snorted, impressed. “You might be smarter than I gave you credit for.”
“What did you give me credit for?” Rogers asked. “The intellect of a carrot?” He kept his hand on the suitcase as he dropped to one knee and picked up the penny.
“Ooh,” Tony retorted. “Give me some credit. I would have pegged you for something sentient, at least. Sentient carrot?”
Rogers let out a ‘hmph,’ and started across the street to the phone booth.
Tony held the door open while Rogers dialed, so he could hear the conversation—or, at least half of the conversation.
“It’s Rogers,” Rogers said into the phone. “I’ve got the suitcase. Yeah. Stark’s with me. You mind sending a car around? It’s a hell of a walk back.”
He gave them the cross-streets of the nearest intersection, and then lugged the suitcase back out of the phone booth, sitting down on top of it, on the curbside. “Fury’s sending someone.”
“Great,” Tony replied. “Just what I wanted, to get told I’m betraying my country again.” He dropped onto the curb beside Rogers.
They sat in silence for a long while.
“You’re not the conversational type, are you?” Tony asked.
Rogers gave him a sidelong look. “I’ve got a lot on my mind,” he said, a little stiffly.
“You mind telling me why the hell everyone wants these things?” Tony asked. “Before I blindly let you turn ‘em over to the Army or whoever the hell this is?”
“It’s...not exactly the Army,” Rogers admitted, tentatively. “It’s an...international coalition.”
“I guess I don’t get to know more than that?” Tony asked.
Rogers gave him a considering look, then shook his head. “Not without clearance.”
“So what do you want with my stuff?” Tony ventured. “Or don’t I have the clearance to know that, either? The—” he matched Rogers’ look, then leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “Pep and I looked at some of the things in that crate. They looked like some kind of navigational tools.”
Rogers raised an eyebrow. “You mean you don’t know?” he asked. “I thought this was your father’s project.”
“My old man had a lot of projects,” Tony replied. “I was a little kid; I wasn’t always paying attention to the adventure of the week.” He raised an eyebrow at Rogers. “Come on, Rogers. Don’t hold out on me.”
Rogers wrapped his arms around himself, then licked his lips, and watched Tony for a moment—when the sound of a motor—no, motors, and wheels on pavement, sounded from the other end of the street. In the darkness, without bright headlights, it was hard to see, but Tony got to his feet, craning his neck to try to see through the windshield of the first car.
But the cars rolled slowly to a stop, and Pepper rushed out from the second car, hurrying over the cobblestones.
“Tony!” she exclaimed. “Are you alright?!”
“Fine,” Tony assured her, and flashed her a grin, just to make certain she knew he believed it.
She cocked her head to one side. He was fairly sure she didn’t believe it.
“We’ll talk about this later,” she cautioned.
“No, we won’t,” Tony answered easily. “They didn’t push you around, did they?” he asked.
He squinted toward the cars, as Fury, and a group of American soldiers, started toward them. There was still one more silhouette in the second car—a slumped-over Dr. Black, dozing, with his cheek pressed to the window.
“Dear god,” Tony said, when he saw Dr. Black. “You couldn’t send the old man home? Er...somewhere? Safer? To sleep?”
“We tried,” Fury answered, not looking entirely amused as he approached and lit a big cigar. “He said he needed to wait and see if you were alright.”
“Well, that’s awfully noble of him,” Tony said. “But if you can boss me around, you can boss a little old scientist around.”
“We’re going to send you all to a safehouse for the night,” Fury explained. He nodded to the suitcase. “And we’re going to put that in a safe place.”
Rogers stumbled to his feet, picking up the suitcase, and looked uneasily at Tony, then back to Fury.
“You know, no one has told me the first thing about what the hell you want with that, General,” Tony said. “And it seems like Rogers here isn’t too sure, either.”
“I never said—” Rogers started, defensive.
“We haven’t withheld any information from Rogers, here,” Fury replied, and he gave Rogers a pointed look.
Tony cleared his throat, and matched Fury’s look. “Yet,” he added.
Rogers’ grip on the suitcase tightened, but Fury gestured toward the soldiers, who lifted the suitcase from his hand, and Tony saw the way Rogers tensed when they did.
“I’ll go with you back to HQ,” Rogers said to Fury, stiffly, his eyes fixed on the suitcase.
“We don’t—” Fury began.
Rogers’ eyes flicked over to Tony. “I’ll go,” he said, again.
Tony couldn’t contain a smile.
The safehouse was at the end of a bombed-out block, the only building still standing in the midst of piles of rubble. Looking at the destruction, so close, sent a shiver down Tony’s spine.
They were escorted to a small, shabby but serviceable apartment, a guard stationed at the door. Tony was relieved to see that they had his generator, still, and his suitcase.
“Well, the U.S. Army confiscated my clothes,” Pepper said, with a sigh, after they sent Dr. Black to bed. “I’m going to borrow something from you.”
She snapped open Tony’s suitcase, and began rummaging through it.
“Good,” Tony replied. “See what I’ve got that’s suitable for a burglary.”
“A—” Pepper raised an eyebrow.
Tony pulled out a tiny receiver, switched it on, and waved it in the air with a crooked smile. “Planted a tracker on the suitcase.”
By the time Tony and Pepper, now dressed in the most shapeless and unremarkable of Tony’s clothing, managed to make their way to the source of the tracker, everything was that hazy gray monochrome that accompanied the pre-dawn hours of morning.
The building the tracker led to was a nondescript sort of apartment building on a nondescript sort of block, that would have been indistinguishable if not for the fact that it was well-guarded by men who were smoking and playing cards on the stoop.
“They’re trying so hard to be inconspicuous,” Pepper murmured, from where they stood, hugging the wall of a nearby building in order to stay out of sight. “Somebody ought to tell them people don’t sit on the stoop in the middle of the night.”
Tony grinned. “Speak for yourself,” he teased, then gestured for her to follow him into the narrow alley between the buildings, until they were facing the back of the safehouse.
“Look,” Pepper said, pointing upward, at the third story window. “Do you see—”
“Light?” Tony asked, watching a warm glow wink on and off, almost like a signal beacon. “During blackout hours? How much do you want to bet that’s what we’re looking for?”
Tony leapt up, tugging down the fire escape ladder, and they climbed up the rickety iron frame as quickly and as quietly as they could.
“Pep?” Tony whispered, when they were a floor below the light. She had been looking at the window, her head tilted upward intently, but now she glanced back at him.
“Yeah?” she asked.
He pulled one of the guns out of his shoulder holster, keeping the other for himself. “Just in case,” he said, offering her the grip.
She closed her fingers around it, tentatively. “If I shoot you, it’s your own damn fault,” she informed him, and hefted it for a moment, taking a deep breath.
“If you shoot me,” Tony echoed. “I probably deserved it. Come on, up, up.” He gave her a boost up the next flight of the fire escape, then followed up after her.
He heard her gasp softly as she reached the landing, and she gestured at him with a finger. As he neared, he saw what was wrong: the window had been smashed in, and the breeze blowing in the window, dislocating the heavy black curtains, was the reason for the winking light they had seen below.
Tony pushed the curtain back just the slightest crack and tilted his head to risk a glance inside. The room was devoid of life, but thoroughly ransacked, and there appeared to be signs of a struggle—overturned chairs, marks on the floor that looked as if something—or someone—had been dragged.
Pepper began to right the chair. “Don’t touch anything,” Tony said, gesturing for her to leave it. “This already looks bad enough; we don’t want anybody to think we did this. Shit,” he murmured. “I wonder if—”
Pepper grimaced, and leaned over, and now she did pick something up: a lacy bra covered in tiny, delicately-embroidered pink flowers. “Well,” she said, with a grimace, “this is mine.”
Tony swallowed, and felt his throat go dry as he turned to survey the room and found a single, well-worn, tiny brown oxford shoe, with the shoelace untied. “There’s only one person I can think of who’d wear a shoe that small around here,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “And it ain’t Cinderella, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh, no,” Pepper said, breathless. “Do you think he’s alright?”
“Rogers?” Tony asked. “He’s little, but he’s stubborn as an ox. He’s probably fine.”
But Tony couldn’t help feeling afraid, in that moment, and his weak heart pattered too fast. He gulped at the air and shut his eyes, trying to will his pulse back down. He tore his eyes away from the shoe, looked back at Pepper. “See if you can find anything useful,” he said. “Any clues, anything that looks out-of-place—”
Tony tried the knob to the closet door, and, as the closet swung open, Tony yelped: there were three men, all much bigger than Tony himself, bound and knocked out cold.
Pepper drew in a breath. “Oh, my god,” she murmured. “Are they—”
Tony pulled out his knife, held it in front of the nearest man’s nose. When steam condensed on the blade, he shook his head. “Alive,” he assured her. “They’ve just been...drugged, or…”
He spotted something sticking from the man’s neck, and tilted his head, frowning. “Tranquilized,” he said, as he plucked out a small dart.
He held the dart up for Pepper to see just as the door to the room burst open, and Tony found himself staring down the barrels of the guns of the card-playing men from outside.
“Hands in the air!” one of them shouted.
Tony put his hands in the air.
“Drop your weapon!” the guard barked at Pepper. Pepper, shaking, put the gun down on the nearest table.
And then the guards parted to make way for General Fury, who walked in with an extraordinarily irritable expression on his face. “Stark,” he said. “I should have known I’d find you here. Where’s Rogers? Where’s—”
“I—” Tony shook his head. “I don’t—” And then he laughed, in spite of himself. “You think I—ha—Jesus, Fury, I was slow on the draw; we didn’t do this.”
Fury put his hands on his hips. “I got a distress signal from Rogers,” he said. “If you didn’t...who did?”
“Come on, you think I could take out your muscle on my own?” Tony asked.
Pepper cleared her throat.
“You think Miss Potts and I could take out your muscle on our own?” Tony amended. He shot Pepper a wink. “Not that the lady isn’t formidable, but three to two—four to two, if you count Rogers, though I guess that’s more like three-point-five-to-two…”
Fury didn’t look amused, but he gestured for the guards to lower their guns. “You know where he could have gone?”
“Sure,” Tony said. “I have a transmitter on the—” But even as he said it, he realized that the transmitter had led them here, not to the suitcase itself. He took out his receiver and followed the signal, until he found the transmitter stuffed in a desk drawer. “Well. I have a transmitter on a stack of paperclips,” he amended with a grimace. “In case you have any important documents you need to clip together, like—”
“Do you have any idea who would have wanted it?” Fury asked. “Apart from the obvious? What about that woman at the station?”
“No idea,” Tony replied. “And I don’t know how she would have found us. I’d never seen her before; I don’t even know why you want that collection of trash. I was just in it for the sentimental value.”
Fury’s expression was impassive. “Well, we need to find it.”
“Yeah, yeah, war effort; Rogers told me all about it. Y’know, you might get a little more cooperation if you told me what the hell it was.”
Fury’s single good eye narrowed, and he watched Tony with a skeptical expression. “I don’t know what you’re fishing for, Stark.”
Tony smacked his forehead with the heel of his palm. “Really?” he asked. “I just told you what I’m fishing for.”
Pepper took a step forward, clearing her throat. “Before we help you melt the skin off Nazis or something, could someone please explain what the hell was in that suitcase?”
Now Fury chuckled.
“That’s not fair,” Tony muttered.
“What isn’t?” Pepper asked.
Tony stuck his tongue out at Pepper. “He cracked a smile for you.” He crossed his arms over his chest and looked accusingly at Fury.
“Does this mean you will help us?” Fury asked.
“If we like what you say, sure,” Tony answered. “If not, well. No promises.”
Fury sighed, and leaned back against one of the desks. “Let’s start with Bloodstone,” he said. “What do you know about him?”
“I mean, I was a kid the last time I saw him,” Tony answered. “Big guy, jovial. Howard liked him because he was practical, a businessman, but not afraid of risks. They got into some mess with that...mad scientist, Centurius, together. Besides that, Bloodstone was...he was a pretty famous guy. Everybody’s read about his adventures.” Tony glanced sidelong at Pepper. “But as far as I know, they could be fiction. It seems to me that he had more tales than years.”
At that, Fury cracked a smile. “And you would know better than anyone, wouldn't you?” He asked. He walked to a bookshelf, pulled a book out with a practiced motion, and a small drawer shot out, filled with files in manila folders.
“Here,” said Fury, and he opened one of the folders, laying it out on the desk. “Here’s a picture of Bloodstone with your father in 1920.” He splayed his long fingers over a faded photograph and pushed it toward Tony, who swallowed tightly at the image of his father’s face.
“Yeah,” Tony said. “I remember.” He tried to fix his eyes on Bloodstone: a full head taller than Howard, with long, flowing blond hair tied in a messy ponytail, Bloodstone was grinning broadly, hands on his hips, wearing worn khaki trousers, a loose-fitting white shirt, and a massive stone that glittered against his chest. He looked every inch the pulp hero in the flesh. He had a rifle in one hand and one boot atop the massive head of a carcass that didn’t quite look like any animal Tony recognized. “Of course I remember; that’s that sea monster Centurius spliced together in a lab.”
“And here,” Fury replied. “Is a picture from 1910.”
Fury produced another photograph, this one of Bloodstone by himself, dressed in much the same way. Tony told himself it was just the angle of the photograph, or maybe the way it had faded, that made him look no younger than he’d been in 1920. “Right,” he said, squinting at the photograph. “Okay.”
And then Fury passed over another photo. “Here’s 1900.”
“These look the same,” Tony said, though this time, Bloodstone was holding up some scaly creature—something like a fish, but not quite. It took Tony a moment to realize that what was off-putting about the animal he was displaying was that it had scales, gills, fins, and tiny, squat feet, like some Victorian artist’s poor guess at the shape of a prehistoric creature.
“The same,” Fury agreed. “Twenty years apart. And here’s 1880, 1870, 1850…” Fury stacked up older and older portraits, the last ones grainy and crumbling even behind glass.
“This…” Tony held up the 1850 photograph in its frame, squinting at the blurry image. It looked just like the man in the photo from 1920. “This can’t be right. It’s...his father, or—”
Fury set down a painting, in miniature, on wood, carefully preserved in a round frame. “1780,” he said.
Everything but the style of clothing was identical, and there, always against his sternum, the same stone: glimmering red in the tiny painting. Tony felt his jaw go tight. “You’re trying to tell me you think he’s immortal,” he observed. “But he’s dead, now. What’s this got to do with me, or my dad, or—”
Fury tapped at the most recent picture, his fingertip just over the stone that lay against Bloodstone’s heart. “We think,” he said, “that the stone is what kept him alive.”
“Philosopher’s Stone?” Pepper asked, coming up closer to the desk, her eyes fixed on the photographs.
“Bloodstone,” Fury answered.
Pepper tilted her head as she stared at the scarlet gem in the painting. “He named the stone after himself?”
“More likely, he named himself after the stone,” Fury replied. “We think...from what we know of his research with your father, that there was more than one stone...or more than one fragment—five, to be precise—of a larger stone. We think they had located them all.”
“Navigational tools,” Tony said. He looked over at Pepper. “Only they’re meant to navigate to something very specific.”
“So…” Pepper ventured, biting her lower lip. “If one stone can extend a man’s life for more than a century, what can five stones do?”
“You’re catching on,” Fury said, with a nod. “We aren’t sure. But we’d rather not let the Nazis find out firsthand.”
Tony tapped at his chestplate, looked back at the portraits, at the way the gem covered Bloodstone’s heart just as the repulsor covered his own. “Interesting.”
He felt Pepper’s eyes on him, and met her gaze, certain she knew what he was thinking. Better her than Fury, he supposed.
“So you think Nazis did this?” Tony asked.
Fury stacked the portraits back up, put them back in their folder, and turned to replace them in the drawer. “Well, if it wasn’t you...”
“You know it wasn’t me,” Tony replied. “Even if you think I had a motive for taking my stuff back, there’s not a single goddamn reason I’d want Rogers.”
“Then again,” he added. “I can’t think of a single goddamn reason anybody’d want him, let alone Nazis. He’s hardly an advertisement for Aryan superiority.”
“He’s more impressive than he looks,” Fury answered. “They had a reason for taking him, or a reason not to leave him behind.”
“He had to’ve known something,” Pepper suggested. “He knew something that could lead him to the thieves. Either he overheard something, or recognized someone, or—”
Tony snapped his fingers together. “Batroc,” he said. “Georges Batroc. The guy from the auction.”
“Who?” asked Fury.
“Frenchman,” Tony explained. “Runs a funeral parlor, I have his card—” Tony dipped his hands into his pockets before recalling that he’d changed his clothes—multiple times—since then. “Fucking hell,” he muttered. “I don’t have it.”
“Silverman,” Pepper supplied. “Silverman Funeral Home. I remember reading it over your shoulder.”
Tony held his hands out, shrugging at Fury. “Silverman Funeral Home,” he said.
Fury nodded. “He won’t suspect you of anything,” he said to Tony. “Why don’t you pay him a visit? I’ve got to look for Rogers.”
“Good luck,” Tony said cheerfully, trying to mask the worry in the pit of his stomach. “Kid’s so goddamn tiny, he could be in this mess, and we wouldn’t know it.”
Tony shook his head. “No time,” he replied. “Anyway, we’ve got everything we’d need.”
Pepper gave him a skeptical look, pursing her lips as they followed the directions the phone operator had given them for Silverman. “You need another charge, Tony.”
She yawned, and Tony couldn’t tell if it was deliberately exaggerated to make a point. He was tired, too; he could feel the corners of his eyes drooping, the way everything felt a little slower, a little heavier.
“I can hold off a while, yet,” he insisted.
“What do you mean when you say ‘a while?’” Pepper asked.
Tony shrugged. “An indeterminate amount of time that may change definitions to suit my purposes,” he admitted.
Pepper sighed, heavily.
“Anyway,” Tony said, “it’s just barely starting to get light out. If anyone’s there, they’re probably asleep. We might be able to peek around without anybody catching us.”
“Peek around?” Pepper asked. “Don’t you mean break in?”
“Well, I wasn’t going to break anything, per se,” Tony assured her. “But, sure, if you want to argue semantics.”
They finally reached the funeral home: a humble-looking storefront in a nondescript-looking building; a large truck was parked just outside, by the curbside. The sun had risen; there was pale early-morning light in the sky, a haze limning the rooftops, and the early stirrings of a waking city.
“Good luck peeking around,” Pepper said, “with all the neighbors awake.”
“Well, we can pretend to be customers,” Tony offered cheerfully.
“Funeral home customers?” Pepper asked. “Do I need to look more bereaved?”
The door opened, then, and Tony reached for Pepper’s hand, tugging her back. She reacted reflexively, turning to walk in the opposite direction, grabbing his hand and leaning against his shoulder, staggering slightly.
Tony gave her a pointed look, and then slid his arm around her back. “C’mon, lass,” he said, in what, he could assume from the expression on Pepper’s face, was probably a terrible approximation of a Cockney accent, “we oughter get yer ‘ome.”
Pepper looked like she was trying not to choke, but Tony could hear the door of the truck open behind them, and he chanced a peek over his shoulder: and there was Batroc, dressed in work clothes as garishly-colored as his suit the night before, getting into the cab of the truck.
“Pep,” Tony hissed.
“Yeah,” Pepper replied, nodding, as Batroc slammed the door.
The engine of the truck started up, chugging, spewing brownish smoke out of the tailpipe. Tony grabbed onto the latch on the rear door, forcing it up as quickly as he could, even as the truck began to roll out of its parking spot.
The truck lumbered haltingly over the uneven surface of the narrow, cobbled street, slowly enough that it didn’t require too much effort to take a running leap for the open trailer, and Tony boosted Pepper up before jumping in himself.
He lowered the door, the trailer rattling all around them, and, as he got to his feet, he heard Pepper gasp softly.
“What is it, Pep?” he asked.
But then he turned, and, as he spied the arsenal, firearms racked neatly across both walls of the truck, he knew he didn’t need an answer.
“Well,” Tony said, swallowing. “That doesn’t give me much confidence.”
Pepper, meanwhile, was hauling a rifle off one of the racks. She checked the receiver, then slung it over her shoulder and began rummaging for spare clips, shoving a few into either pocket.
“Right,” Tony agreed, and he reached for a handgun. And then, on impulse, snatched up a flashlight.
The truck lurched as it turned a corner, weapons clanking in their racks, and Tony stumbled, righting himself by grabbing onto one of the racks.
He dropped to the floor, and Pepper followed. “You should have slept,” she informed him.
He shook his head. “Can’t,” he replied. “If these assholes had come after me, Rogers would’ve followed.”
Pepper shook her head. “You don’t know that,” she said. “You barely know him.”
“No,” Tony said, and he pursed his lips. “No, I kinda think I do.”
The truck finally rolled to a halt, and Tony could feel himself holding his breath as the door to the cab opened. His gaze met Pepper’s, and they sat, alert, in the dark, the hair on the back of his neck prickling up as the door slammed.
But the footsteps that sounded outside led away from the truck, not toward the trailer, and Tony let out a long sigh of relief.
“You think we can sneak out of here without being noticed?” Pepper asked.
Tony reached for his pocket knife, jabbing it at the rear door to make a puncture in the metal. Daylight winked at them from outside, a bright beam bouncing off the floor of the truck. Tony squeezed one eye shut and leaned forward, peering out the tiny hole.
He saw a large, open lot: unpaved dirt on all sides, surrounded by shabby, tumbledown warehouses. There didn’t seem to be anyone around, at least, not from this angle.
“Looks like the coast’s clear,” he told Pepper, and he slid the door up just far enough for them to squeeze out on their stomachs.
They landed on the ground, dirt smudged down their fronts, and Pepper looked amusedly at the shirt she was wearing as she tried, to no avail, to wipe it off. “I think this might be a record,” she said.
“Hmm?” Tony asked.
“Do you know how many clothes we’ve gone through in…” Pepper looked at her watch. “Twelve hours?”
“You’ve uncovered my plot,” Tony said, clinging close to the rear of the truck as he snuck a peek around one side, keeping an eye out for Batroc, or any other signs of life. “I’m trying to seduce a laundress.”
Tony held up a hand, flexing and curling his fingers. “They’ve got very strong hands,” he informed her with a grin. “Come on, I don’t see anybody around, and there’s—” He pointed to the clearly-marked footprints in the dirt, fresh prints over a mass of older, untidy ones.
Pepper’s grip on her rifle tightened as she followed Tony in the direction of the footprints.
“If they...we can see theirs,” she pointed out. “Someone might see ours.”
“We’ll just have to get them first,” Tony replied. He frowned as he observed the tracks on the ground more closely—mixed in with the clear prints of various boots were two sets of long, scuffing marks, punctuated here and there by a sharp divot in the dirt, as if someone had been dragged, kicking, between two other walking figures.
He raised his gun as they stepped into the warehouse.
It was dark inside: the windows, like all the other windows in and around London, had been blacked over—these ones with paint—so that it was hard to tell whether it was day or night. Tony squinted into the darkness, waiting for his eyes to adjust.
“Flashlight?” Pepper whispered, nodding at the one he’d taken from the truck.
He shook his head. “Not...till we know if it’ll give away our—”
Tony cried out as he was cut off by a heavy thwack to the back of his head. He stumbled forward, his pistol dropping from his grip.
“Tony!” Pepper shouted.
The blunt force made his vision blur and his ears ring, a sharp pain stinging in his forehead even as the back of his skull throbbed. “Fuuuuu,” Tony moaned, as he staggered back, then flailed in the general direction of the source of the blow, striking out with the flashlight as if it were a club.
The flashlight hit something solid: a man’s chest, and he grunted, but he was a full head taller than Tony, and twice as broad, his face masked apart from his eyes. He was dressed all in black.
With a red armband on his left arm.
Tony felt his stomach lurch, and the man swung at him again with a black, club-like bludgeon. The blow landed, hitting Tony’s ribcage, and now Tony fell back, dropping to his knees just as he heard a loud crack.
It made his ears ring again, and he was disoriented for a moment, blinking as the man fell to the ground.
Pepper, her face grim, and her eyes narrow, stepped over the man, aimed, and shot again, into the man’s head. She staggered at the recoil, then caught herself against the wall, her body going slack, her chest heaving with every breath.
“You…” Tony looked up at her, wincing as he reached for his pistol and pushed himself up to his feet. “You okay, Pep?”
She glared at the man’s unmoving form, and spat on the floor. “Yeah,” she said, though her face looked drawn. “Good riddance.”
Pepper shuddered, and looked away from the dead man. “Well,” she said. “You can use that flashlight. If there’s anybody else here; they know where we are, now.”
Tony squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, and then followed her instructions, waving the warm, golden beam of the flashlight around the room, until it fell on a door in the back wall—in the direction from which Tony’s attacker had come.
“There,” he said. He glanced back at Pepper again. In the ambient lamplight, he could see her face was gray and drawn, and he reached for her arm, giving it a squeeze before he ventured toward the door.
His head was still buzzing, his ribcage throbbing with pain, and he moved slowly, cautiously, opening the door a crack to get a look inside the room.
It, too, was dark, and seemed empty, and he frowned as he squinted into the blackness. “Nothing—” he started.
“What was that?” Pepper asked.
“There it is again.” Pepper stepped up to the door, tilting her head to one side, ear to the room. “Listen.”
Tony frowned, and focused, tried to listen past the ringing in his skull, until there it was: a scratching sound, faint, like something scraping against wood.
“Probably mice,” he said. “Probably—”
But then there was another noise, something like a moan, or a muffled voice, and Pepper’s shoulders twitched at the sound.
“That’s not mice,” she said.
Tony pushed the door open without hesitation, listening again.
“Hello?” he called. His voice echoed, bouncing off the walls and the high ceilings of the cavernous storeroom.
And it was answered, again, by a plaintive, muffled noise.
Tony and Pepper turned toward its source: a stack of crates, piled against a far wall.
Tony strode forward. “Knock if you can hear me?” he tried.
There was silence, for a moment, and then a knock. Tony grimaced and took a step toward the knocking. “Again?”
He followed a series of knocks, each one a little louder than the last, until, finally, he was standing in front of one crate.
He knocked on its top.
The crate knocked back.
He knocked out a pattern; the crate repeated it back perfectly.
“Well, shit,” Tony muttered, and he pulled out his knife, prying back the splintery wooden boards while Pepper kept her rifle trained on the crate.
Finally, he was able to pull back one side of the crate, and as the wood clanked against the floor, a pale, skinny hand dropped away.
“Stark?” Rogers asked, squinting up from the darkness of the crate. His voice was hoarse; he looked weary and worse for wear, the side of his face bruised, his hair lank and hanging in his face.
Tony sucked in a deep breath, and looked to Pepper, who slowly lowered her rifle and dropped to one knee. “Mr. Rogers,” she said, softly. “Are you—”
“Fine,” he answered, obstinately, and struggled out of the tight, enclosed space. “Little cramped in there.”
“You know how it is,” Tony said. “This London housing, just piling folks right on top of each other.”
Rogers snorted and dusted himself off. “If I’d known I was gonna have company, I would’ve gotten out the fine china.” Rogers accepted Pepper’s help to get to his feet, and he stood in place, wavering slightly, as if he were trying to regain his balance.
“You don’t have to go to that kind of trouble for us, pal,” Tony said, and he winked at Rogers.
The look on Rogers’ face surprised Tony: the way he blinked, surprised, and then flinched a little, before frowning back at Tony, his brows in a sharp divot, with more curiosity than irritation. “What are you two two doing here?” he asked.
“Relax, kid,” Tony said smoothly. He wondered, fleetingly, how Rogers would respond if he brushed his hand against his torn shirtsleeve. “Fury sent us. You know what they did with the stuff from the suitcase?”
Rogers glowered at him. “Yeah, I had such a great view,” he answered. He looked warily over his shoulder. “There’s a guard around, big guy, they’re—”
Rogers took a deep breath. “They’re Nazis.”
“We know,” Pepper answered. “And the guard’s not a problem anymore.” Tony watched the way her jaw tensed as she said it, heard the strain in her voice.
Rogers looked back and forth between the two of them, and then nodded, tensely. “Thank you,” he said, in a quiet voice.
“Just don’t do it again,” Tony answered. He shrugged—and pain seared his ribs again.
“You’re hurt,” Rogers observed. “You’re—”
Tony cut him off by reaching for the shoe from his back pocket, and holding it out. “Nothing a little rest won’t fix,” he said. “You dinged up at all?”
“Nothing a little rest won’t fix,” Rogers repeated. He snatched the shoe out of Tony’s hand with a glower, and dropped to one knee to put it on his foot.
When they returned to the lot, Batroc’s truck was gone, leaving nothing but tire tracks in the dirt.
“Hell,” Tony said. “Well, we know where the stuff’s at, anyway.”
“You know where to find them?” Rogers asked.
“Yeah,” Tony answered. “Batroc’s got a base at a funeral home in town. We hitched a ride on his truck from there.”
“A truck,” Rogers muttered. “Lucky you. I got dragged here tied up in the back of a hearse.”
Tony couldn’t hold back a chuckle. “Plush accommodations all the way, huh?”
“Yeah, real high class,” Rogers retorted, rolling his eyes.
“We look a sight,” Pepper observed, eyeing their bedraggled clothes and bruised bodies as she discarded her rifle—too obvious to be carrying in a crowded city in broad daylight—in the bushes.
“May I remind you,” Tony said, “you’ve got no more clothing.”
“I was planning on taking more of yours,” Pepper said sweetly. “Come on, we should check on Dr. Black any—”
But Pepper was cut off by the shrill of a siren as it blared through the air, and all three of them stared up at the sky.
“Fuck,” Tony said, and he watched the crowd, hastening in the same direction as the locals. It hurt to walk; he could feel himself favoring the leg that did the least disturbance to his injured ribs.
Rogers sidled up next to him, looking even smaller as he hunched over, his hands in his pockets.
Rogers glanced over at him, then back at the cobblestone streets in front of them: once, twice, a third time, before he set his sights on the feet of the people ahead of them, as the air raid warden herded them down into the tube station.
“You don’t look fine, Stark,” Rogers said, quietly, as they slowed in the crush of people on the staircase.
“What’s that?” Tony asked.
“I’m saying,” Rogers repeated. “You don’t look fine.”
Tony flashed Rogers a crooked grin. “I look better’n you,” Tony assured him. “Have you seen your face?”
“My face isn’t bleeding,” Rogers said. “Unlike some people.”
Tony blinked. “What?”
They reached the station platform; people were spreading out, finding space along the walls to wait out the raid. Rogers caught at Tony’s arm, tugged at his sleeve, so that Tony halted midstep, and then he reached up, one finger extended, and brushed a fingertip along Tony’s neck.
Rogers’ touch was cool against his skin, and soft, and it sent a little electric jolt down Tony’s spine.
“See?” Rogers said, showing Tony the smear of red on his skin. “You’re bleeding; it’s soaking into your collar, you—”
And then there was a rumble, and the station shook: the attack had begun. Tony shook his head. He wasn’t thinking straight, he told himself.
“Here,” he said, as they reached a spot on the platform with enough space to sit, and he dropped to the ground, grunting as he aggravated his ribs again.
“You need a doctor,” Rogers said, firmly, as he sat down beside him.
“He won’t go,” Pepper chimed in. She leaned against the wall, sliding down to sit between the huddled crowds that had already staked their claims. “Foolproof way to make sure Tony doesn’t see a doctor is to tell him he needs one.”
“What?” Tony asked irritably. “You want to ask if there’s a doctor down here? Hell, we have plenty of time; let’s find a doctor. My skull’s fine, if that’s what you’re worried about, it’s—” He reached up, pressing a hand to his scalp, but it was tender, swollen, and he winced at the touch. “Ow.”
“Let me see,” Rogers insisted.
Tony huffed. “Are you a doctor?” But he turned so that the back of his head was facing Rogers, and inclined his head.
“No,” Rogers replied. “But my mother was a nurse.” Tony could feel his fingers in his hair, parting his curls, could feel the way the hair was stiff and sticky with blood in places. He tensed expectantly as Rogers touched the welt on the back of his head, but somehow, it didn’t hurt as much as he expected.
Tony shut his eyes as Rogers’ fingers pressed gently down against his scalp, the pain fresh with every touch. “What’s the diagnosis, pal? Am I gonna die?”
“Probably,” Rogers answered, as he smoothed Tony’s hair back down. “But it’s gonna be on account of the next dumb thing you do, not this.”
Rogers removed his hand and leaned back against the wall, staying close—closer than Pepper, closer, Tony thought, than most people might sit to someone they’d just met. Their sleeves brushed along Tony’s upper arm, Rogers’ shoulder pressing against him gently, solid and warm.
“He’s got a whole crew of people to warn him not to do dumb things,” Pepper said nicely. “You think you can manage any better than the rest of us, Rogers?”
“I listen. Sometimes,” Tony insisted.
“Rarely,” Pepper corrected.
“On occasion,” Tony compromised.
“Someone should take a look at your ribs,” Rogers said.
Tony shook his head. “You don’t wanna take a look,” he said, moving back slightly without meaning to. He was suddenly all too aware of the metal plate beneath his shirt, the machinery keeping him alive.
Pepper seemed to catch Tony’s hesitation. “I’ll patch him up when we get back to the safehouse,” she assured Steve. “He’s—”
“I’m what?” Tony demanded. His heart seemed to thump more loudly; the beats seemed to reverberate against his chestplate.
Pepper smirked, and tossed her head coyly. “Shy.”
“I’ve seen the—” Steve gestured to his own heart, pressing a hand to his sternum. “If that’s what you’re worried about.”
Tony coughed. “I’m not—It would be indecent,” he insisted. “All these people around? And me—” He tried to count back the hours since he’d charged the battery last. It had been too long, and then...they’d been interrupted; he’d never gotten a full charge.
“It’s a war zone, Stark,” Rogers pointed out. “I’m sure they’ve all seen worse.”
“Doubtful,” Tony muttered, peering down into the tunnel, where darkness swallowed the tracks of the railway. “Look, it’s just not the kind of thing I want getting around. Press, y’know.”
The tunnel rumbled again, the sound echoing all around them. “Hey,” he said, gripping his flashlight. “I’m gonna take a little walk, yeah?” He pulled out his pistol, handing it over to Pepper.
“A walk?” Rogers asked. “Tell me you’re not going to—”
He gave Rogers a pained look. “I have to piss,” he answered, staggering to his feet. “I’m not going far. You and Pep, make friends, get to know each other.”
Pepper held her hand out to Rogers. “Pepper Potts,” she said, shooting Tony a sidelong look, and the slightest nod. “I don’t believe we were ever properly introduced.”
Rogers glowered at Tony for a moment, and then shook Pepper’s hand. “Steve Rogers,” he replied.
Tony eased himself—gingerly, given his broken ribs—onto the train tracks, shining his flashlight down the rails so they glimmered as the beam of light bounced off them. He stepped from one tie to the next, making a game of it, until he reached the signal box several few yards past the platform’s end.
He pulled out his knife, using the blade to unscrew the front panel, tugging out a nest of wires. He flashed his light into the box, checking the notations he found until he’d separated the right wires from the tangle, and cut two of them cleanly, stripping away a bit of the casing before he unbuttoned his shirt and connected the wires to the nodes on the repulsor.
Only then did he look at the meter on his chestplate: the reading was dangerously low, low enough that the needle was dipping far into the red ‘warning’ level.
He watched, tense, willing the indicator to move faster, trying to force it back into the ‘safe’ levels through sheer determination.
The tunnel shook again, harder this time, and Tony tensed, resting his hand against the signal box, forcing himself to take measured breaths.
He wasn’t sure how long he had been standing there; he could only measure time by the slow climb of the meter and the rumbling of the tunnel.
The needle was just creeping toward the green section of the dial, where he knew he could at least last long enough to get back to the safehouse and get a proper charge, when he heard a shout behind him, and some kind of commotion.
“Hey!” The voice shouted. “Hey!”
It was on the second “Hey!” that Tony became certain the voice belonged to Rogers: it was thin, reedy, and a little hoarse. Tony safely disconnected the wires from the repulsor, but he was in the middle of reconnecting the circuits inside the signal box, so as not to risk causing some sort of rail catastrophe, when he heard another shout—closer, now. He whirled around to see Rogers, huffing painfully as he chased a figure running toward him: a woman, with long blonde hair and a glamorous-looking coat, too glamorous among all of the ordinary wartime clothing he had grown accustomed to seeing.
It was the woman from the train station, the one who had stolen the bag the first time, though she’d changed her shoes: the new ones were just as absurdly high-heeled as the last, not at all cut out for running across the uneven tracks.
Tony looked at her with some resentment: it looked like she, at least, had managed to bathe since then, and he wondered if she’d gotten to sleep.
She was running right toward Tony, Rogers in dogged pursuit, but lagging behind. “Hey!” Rogers shouted again, waving both arms. “Hey, Stark!?”
Tony hastily buttoned his shirt—well, two of the buttons of his shirt, trying to obscure as much of the chestplate as he could—and drew his gun, aiming it at the woman.
“Okay, sweetheart!” Tony called. “Game’s up; you can quit running.”
The woman stopped, only a few paces away from Tony, and looked him over with a smirk, her hair falling into her face. “Okay, sweetheart,” she repeated.
“Stark—” Steve said, and Steve’s face went a little gray. He backed up a step, just as something bumped at Tony’s skull.
Tony tensed. “Is there a gun pointed at my head?” he asked, not wanting to move.
“There’s a gun pointed at your head,” Pepper said angrily, as she appeared just over Steve’s shoulder, red-cheeked from sprinting, wisps of hair plastered to her forehead.
Two more men came out of the shadows; a big, round man with short arms snatched up Pepper, while a thin man in a red suit with a sharp goatee grabbed Rogers by the arms.
The man holding Rogers had horns. Tony swallowed. He glanced at Pepper’s captor: that man was enormous, his skin grayish, his nose long and beaklike and his eyes black and beady, giving him every impression of being a dolphin in a suit.
“Game’s up,” the woman said, looking supremely pleased with herself. “Now, where are you hiding the goods?”
Tony laughed—it was a strangled laugh, helpless, the sort of laugh that forced its way from his mouth in spite of himself. “That’s what I’d like to know,” he answered.
“Give ‘em up,” said the big man. He clutched at Pepper’s arms more tightly. “Or the girlie gets it.”
“I’ll girlie you,” Pepper snapped, and she stomped down on the big man’s foot. He let out a high pitched squeak, and flapped his arms, dropping his grip on her, just enough that she was able to jab an elbow into his gut and pull the gun Tony had given her.
She pointed it at the man’s chest, a glint in her eye, as if she were daring him.
“Bub—Bubbles,” the big man said, his voice trembling. “Bubbles, she’s—”
Tony blinked and looked at the blonde woman. “Your name is Bubbles?” He asked. “What kind of name is Bubbles?”
“Atlan, calm down; she won’t shoot you,” Bubbles said.
“Won’t I?” Pepper asked. But Tony could see the way her mouth stiffened when she shut it, and he knew she didn’t relish the idea of taking another life.
“If you do, Dr. Bardham will shoot your friend, Miss Potts,” said Bubbles. “Lower your weapon, and someone tell me where the contents of the suitcase are.”
Pepper slowly lowered the gun. “Tony’s telling the truth,” she said. “We don’t know. Someone took them.”
“Nazis,” Rogers put in. “They were stolen by Nazis.”
“I hate Nazis,” said a voice near Tony’s ear, the voice of the man holding the gun to his head, whom he supposed was Dr. Bardham.
“You and the rest of us,” Tony said. “So if you don’t mind—”
Bubbles blinked. “He’s hiding something under his shirt,” she said. “Something flashed. Search him, Bardham.”
“I’m not hiding anything,” Tony insisted, crossing his arms over his chest. “I promise you, it’s not—”
“Then let him see,” Bubbles answered, and she raised her own gun—a dainty thing with a mother-of-pearl handle—at Tony. “I’ll give you to the count of three. One, two—”
She didn’t finished her countdown. The tunnel began to rumble again, but this time, the vibrations grew, steadily, and a light shining behind Tony cast a shadow on the ground in front of him.
Rogers’ eyes went wide. “Train!” He exclaimed. “There’s a train—” His captor gasped, and dropped his grip on Rogers, who glared at the man as he backed away, reaching for the pistol Tony had given him.
Pepper took the opportunity to hold the gun back up—this time, at Bubbles. “Let him go!” She snapped.
Bubbles pursed her lips, her expression stony, and she tossed her head in Tony’s direction.
The light was brighter now, the sound of the oncoming train louder, the rumbling underfoot shaking the ground beneath them.
“Fine,” she said. “Bardham. Let him go.”
The man holding Tony released him, and just as he began sprinting out of the path of the train, he gave Tony a shove—a hard shove, and Tony found himself falling, face-first, onto the tracks.
“TONY!” Pepper shrieked.
Tony’s ribs exploded with pain, and he grunted, trying to force himself up. He tried to turn, but he couldn’t twist his neck far enough to see the train; all he could see was the light, now filling the tunnel. “Go!” He shouted, waving his hand, and he tried to push himself up again, only to find his shirt caught on something—a tie, a spike, he wasn’t sure, only that it ripped as he got to his knees.
And then came the horn, the shrill, deafening cry blasting in his ears, imminent and terrifying. He felt numb, felt every hair on his body standing on end. He told himself not to look, not to look, only to run, but before he could get to his feet, something hurtled into him, knocking him flat onto his back.
Tony choked and struggled, but just then, the tunnel was obscured from sight by the hulking black mass of the train as it sped overhead, the horn still blasting in his ears, sparks flying from the wheels, white-hot and blue.
There was still a weight on his chest—and fingers, tangled into what was left of his shirt, small, trembling fingers. And there was a head pressed to his shoulder, legs draped over his, knees bracing his thighs.
“Rogers,” he muttered, but the sound of the train overhead drowned out the sound of his voice. He shut his eyes against the soot and dust, and realized that he could feel the other man’s heartbeat, light and quick like a small, frightened animal.
Tony sighed. “I’m going to regret this,” he said—said it out loud, because he knew Rogers couldn’t hear. He clasped Rogers in his arms, pulling him in closer, bowing his head until their foreheads were pressed together, and tried to hold completely still.
One of the hands released its grip on his shirt, slid down, over the solid surface of his chestplate, where he could feel the pressure on his sternum, but not the sensation of contact.
It felt like it took the train a lifetime to pass over them, when in fact Tony was certain it couldn’t have been more than a minute; a lifetime of his heart beating so hard it reverberated in the back of his throat, of trying to hold his breath, of darkness and rumbling and deafening noise in his ears.
The air suddenly cleared, cooler and free of dust and filth. Tony gasped, and blinked his eyes open, dropping his head back against the railroad tie. He stared up at the stonework of the tunnel ceiling, his breath slowing gradually.
Rogers lifted his head. Tony felt the way Rogers’ chest expanded as he sucked in a breath, and could hear the rasp in his lungs as Rogers breathed back out.
Their eyes locked for a moment, Rogers’ eyes large and blue, staring out from a soot-smeared face. Tony suddenly became very conscious of Rogers’ fingers, still pressed to his shoulders, of his own arms crossed over Rogers’ back.
“Tony!” Pepper shouted, her voice strained. She ran back onto the tracks, her face white.
Rogers coughed, a hacking, brutal cough, and then wheezed loudly, and he disentangled himself, sitting upright and curling into a ball as his coughs escalated into a full-blown fit.
“Fuck,” Tony muttered, and he dragged himself to sit upright, putting a hand on Rogers’ back. “You—”
Rogers raised a hand, waving Tony off, and only hunched more tightly, his shoulders racking with every cough, until they slowed, grew quieter and farther apart, and finally subsided. He sat like that, head buried against his knees, a moment longer, then staggered to his feet, giving Tony a tense look.
Pepper stepped over to Tony, offering him a hand up, looking him over with a furrowed brow and pursed lips. “We need to get back off the tracks,” she said softly.
“Where’d they go?” Rogers asked. “Did they—”
Pepper shook her head. “They were on the other side of the train; by the time it passed—” She shrugged, holding her hands up, and started trudging back toward the platform.
Tony lingered for a moment, then turned back to Rogers, and reached for his shoulder, steering him off the tracks. “Are you gonna be okay?” He asked. “Do we need to get you to a doctor?”
Rogers shook his head. “No. I mean, no to the doctor, it’s—it’s normal.” He shot a pointed look at Tony’s chest, where his torn shirt revealed the metal plate in his chest.
Tony touched a hand to the plate. “It’s normal,” he echoed.
Now, huddled back down on the platform, there was no uncertainty about it; Rogers leaned tightly against Tony’s side, his breath still ragged. Tony’s ribs ached more with the pressure of a body against him, but he couldn’t bring himself to shift away.
“Rogers—” Tony said.
“Steve,” Tony echoed. “What are you doing? You—you don’t need to be doing this.”
Steve snorted. “What, you don’t think I’m cut out for it, either?”
Tony clenched his teeth. “I didn’t say that,” he replied. “I know you want to help fight, but...It’s my job to almost get myself killed. You—I don’t know what you think you’re getting into.”
Steve bit his lip. “I signed up for...the project I joined,” he explained. He rubbed a hand over his face, leaving streaks in the dust and grime. “They’re going to fix me. If...If I…”
“Steve,” Tony said, reaching up to brush back the hair that fell messily into Steve’s face. “You’re little. You’re not broken.”
Steve gave him a long look. “I think my lungs would disagree with that assessment, Stark.”
“Yeah, well, you can’t fix ‘em if they stop before you get a chance,” Tony pointed out. He tapped a finger against his chestplate. “I know a thing or two about that. And it’s Tony.”
“Tony,” Steve repeated, slowly, like he had to think about how to say it.
Tony inclined his head to him. “I’ve got a pretty good track record with vital organs,” he said, and he slung an arm over Steve’s shoulders. “We get through this, I’ll work something out with your lungs, and you won’t owe anybody anything.”
Tony looked up, away from Steve, glancing over at Pepper. She was sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees, watching them with heavy-lidded eyes, a sleepy smile on her face, and when Tony caught her glance, she gave him an amused little head-tilt, and mouthed something at him.
Tony didn’t catch it, and he squinted at her. She mouthed it again, and when he realized what she was saying, he mentally kicked himself, and then looked back to Steve.
“Thanks, pal,” he said. “You—you saved my life back there.”
“Don’t mention it,” Steve assured him. “I figure you build me a set of iron lungs, we’ll be even.”
They sheltered in the station a little longer, dozing for the first time in more than a day, until the all-clear signal came, and then they picked themselves up carefully and started back for the safehouse.
"Awful long game of pinochle, don't you think, boys?" Tony asked as they approached.
The men stood, drawing together shoulder to shoulder, so that they couldn't reach the door. "Fury wants a report," one of them said, puffing up his chest and standing as tall as he could.
"Then I'll report to Fury," Tony answered.
The man crossed his arms over his chest. "Did you get the—"
Steve cleared his throat. "No, but they got me," he answered. "I'll make sure they report in; we've just got to patch up some cuts and scrapes."
“Rogers,” the man said, raising an eyebrow at Steve. “You look like hell.”
“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “Come on, we’re just gonna wash up and take a nap; we’ve been out all night.”
The man gave Steve a skeptical look, then moved away, letting them in the door.
Dr. Black jumped to his feet when they walked in the door. He'd been sitting at the table in the small room that connected the bedrooms, reading a book and drinking a cup of tea.
"My god!" he exclaimed. "Tony, son, what happened to you?"
Tony shot him a tight grin. "Looks worse than it is," he said cheerfully.
"He's a liar," Pepper assured Dr. Black, "but he'll live."
"I woke up this morning," Dr. Black said, shaking his head as he looked them over, "and both of you were gone. I wasn't sure if it was safe to leave...the guards downstairs didn't know where you were."
“We tried to steal the stuff back from Fury,” Tony answered.
Dr. Black raised an eyebrow. “And?” He asked.
“No luck,” Tony admitted, shrugging. “It got stolen by Nazis before we could steal it.”
Dr. Black’s expression tightened, and his eyes went dark, his mouth hardening. “Nazis,” he repeated. “Of course.”
“Batroc,” Tony said. “The Frenchman, from the auction. Remember him?”
“The funeral director?” Dr. Black asked. “With the mustache and the purple suit?”
“That’s the one. And we saw that woman again,” Pepper said. “Tony, sit down. Let somebody look at your ribs, please?”
“What woman?” Dr. Black asked.
“The one from the train station.” Tony sighed, but relented and dropped into a chair. His shirt was torn, the buttons gone, stained with blood and sweat and filth from the railroad tracks and the underside of the train. He stripped it off and let it drop to the floor, grimacing down at the bruises on his ribs, by now vibrant purple. “We ran into her again during the air raid.”
Dr. Black looked concerned. “And...she’s working with the Nazis?”
“I don’t think so,” Steve put in. “We saw her after the Nazis took the stuff; if she were working with them, she wouldn’t have thought we had it.” His face went dark as he peered at Tony’s bruises, and he moved toward the kitchen.
“She had three men with her,” Tony offered. “They called her Bubbles. She...one of them was named Atlan, another was Bardham. I don’t suppose those sound familiar to you?”
Dr. Black shook his head. “Don’t ring a bell, I’m afraid,” he admitted. “But then, I don’t normally socialize with thieves.”
Tony snorted. “Didn’t think you did.”
Steve re-emerged from the kitchen, with a bowl full of water and a stack of cloths. Pepper got to her feet, and held out a hand for the bowl. “Let me take that.”
“Sleep,” Steve answered softly. “You need to sleep; I can take care of T- of Tony’s injuries.”
He offered Tony an arm. Pepper tilted her head, giving Tony a questioning look.
“He’s right,” Tony said, and he nodded, reassuring, at Pepper. “Steve had a nice long nap in that crate of his; he can handle this.”
He strained as he got to his feet, leaning heavily on the back of the chair. Pepper looked him over, and finally nodded. “You wake me before you do anything stupid.”
Tony flashed her a grin, then leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “Don’t kid,” he said. “I’d never do anything stupid without you.”
She kissed his cheek in return, then tweaked his nose, a twinkle in her eye, and retired to her room.
“Alright,” Tony said, raising an eyebrow at Steve. “Do your worst.”
Steve looked Tony over, then gestured for him to follow him into one of the other bedrooms. Tony lurched after him, stiffly, his ribs still aching. He pointed at the generator, still carefully packed and sitting on the side table. “Better take that, too.”
Steve gave him a considering look, then heaved the generator off the table with a grunt. It was too large for him, too heavy, and he walked unbalanced as he hauled it into the bedroom, but he didn't complain, didn't say a word, just slowly strained along until he'd set the generator down on the bedroom floor.
“Sit down,” Steve said, pointing to the bed. The room was shabby but neat; the bedsprings creaked when Tony sat.
Steve lowered the bowl and hovered over Tony: his own clothing was torn and filthy, too, but he’d rolled up his sleeves and washed, and the skin of his hands was pink and clean, and Tony could smell soap on him.
Steve gave Tony’s ribs a considering look. “I wish we had ice,” he said. “Or something to get the swelling down.” He dropped to one knee, doused a cloth in water, and reached up, hesitantly, guiding the wet cloth over the bruised area.
Tony shivered. “That’s cold enough,” he assured Steve. “Shouldn’t we wrap it, or—”
“No.” Steve shook his head. “It’ll keep you from being able to breathe. You—they’re not shattered; you’ll be just fine. You want to tell me what to do with that monstrosity?” He asked, nodding to the generator.
“It should be all fueled up,” Tony replied. “Just...open up the front panel; you'll see two cables in a coil.”
Steve knelt in front of the generator. “Two cables,” he repeated, unwinding them from their storage compartment. “Got it. Now what?”
“Black one connects here,” Tony replied, pointing to the first node on his chestplate. “And red goes here.”
Steve got to his feet, frowning, as he held up the two ends of the cables. “What if I mix ‘em up?” He asked. He cocked his head to one side, lifted an eyebrow, as if to communicate that he was joking, but there was a wary note to his voice that told Tony it wasn't all in jest.
Tony flashed Steve a grin. “Then I die,” he answered cheerfully. “But don't worry, no pressure, yeah?”
Steve scowled, and stepped closer. He met Tony’s gaze, and clipped the cables carefully into place. “Like that?”
“That’ll do the trick, yeah,” Tony assured him. “Now switch the generator on.”
The generator sputtered and chugged as it came to life, and Tony watched the little needle in his chestplate flutter slightly, and begin its slow climb.
Steve sat back down beside him, crossing his arms over his middle. “Really, you should be resting,” he said, sternly. “But let me guess how plausible that is.”
Tony chuckled. “You’d have to hold me down,” he answered.
Steve held the cloth in place, and looked up at Tony, meeting his gaze, his cheeks flushed. “Don’t think I wouldn’t,” he replied.
It took Tony a moment to realize that Steve might not be expressing concern for his health. He took a breath. “Once we get the stuff back,” he offered—and he looked at Steve with intent now: earnestly and without guile. “You can, if you still want to.”
Steve blinked, and he drew his hand away from Tony’s ribcage quickly, as if he’d burned himself. “Tilt your head this way,” he instructed, tilting his own head to illustrate. “I want to get the blood out of your hair.”
Tony did as he was told. Steve picked up another clean cloth and dunked it in the cold, clear water, then sat down on the edge of the bed just beside Tony and ran his fingers through Tony’s hair again, over his scalp.
It felt comforting, even when Steve pressed the cloth to it, and water trickled in rivulets down Tony’s neck.
“Why do you do this?” Steve asked. “Run around like a lunatic, almost get yourself killed? You know my reasons, but…”
Tony laughed. “I just wanted my dad’s stuff back,” he replied. “I dunno, it just...just happens.”
“And you run headlong into it when it does,” Steve observed.
Tony tapped at the repulsor. “My heart,” he answered. “I'm trying to fix my heart.” He raised an eyebrow at Steve, challenging him silently.
“Well, I'd give you the same line of drivel about not needing to be fixed you tried to feed to me, but, nope.” Steve lowered the cloth, reached forward, and, with a moment’s hesitation, touched his fingertips to the repulsor. “I ain't gonna lie. That's pretty goddamn broken, Tony.”
“It's better than the alternative,” Tony replied. “I've lived with it this long, I figure maybe by the time I find a better solution, I'll miss the damn thing.”
Steve didn't remove his hand. “What did Fury tell you? You know about the Bloodstone?”
“Maybe—” Steve started, and he took a deep breath. His eyes locked on Tony’s, blue and fierce: protective almost, Tony thought. “You should lie down,” Steve finished, abruptly, and Tony was fairly certain that wasn't what Steve had been planning to say when he'd opened his mouth. “Just for a little while. It should be safe; I don’t think you’re concussed.”
Tony lifted Steve’s hand from his chest, and held it, palm to palm, Steve’s skin soft against the rough calluses of his own hand. “So should you,” he said. “I'm not gonna be held responsible if you drop dead, pal.”
Tony eased himself back onto the bed—the longer he sat still, the less adrenaline he had in his system, the more anguished he felt, and he gritted his teeth as he lay back. He only remembered his head at the last moment, and curled onto his side.
He could feel Steve’s eyes on him, and then felt the mattress shift as Steve lay down beside him. He wanted to turn and look at him, wondered what he looked like there, imagined him lying with his back flat against the mattress, cradling his head in his hands, elbows jutting outward.
Steve’s breath, even calm and slow, was wheezy, labored, each inhale an effort. Tony shut his eyes and listened, wondering if he could keep his promise.
“Pepper,” Steve said, after a moment.
“Hm?” Tony asked.
“You and she—” He could hear Steve swallow, and when he realized that he knew what Steve was about to ask, he kept himself from turning to look at him, kept his eyes carefully shut. “You and she, are you—?”
“She’s my chronicler,” Tony answered.
The mattress shifted again. “Your what?”
“Chronicler. She—” Tony didn’t need to finish his sentence; he was interrupted by a sharp intake of breath from Steve.
“She’s Frank Finlay,” Steve said, his voice full of awe and admiration. “She—”
Tony couldn’t help but crack a grin. He chuckled. “I thought you never read our books,” he reminded Steve.
“I’ve read them,” Steve said quietly. “I’ve read all of them. I was just trying to strike a blow to your ego, when I said that.”
“And then you found out my ego is ironclad and impenetrable, and you gave up your assault,” Tony observed.
Steve was quiet for a moment. “Something like that,” he answered.
Tony felt something touch his back, and he started, before realizing that Steve had only brushed him inadvertently as he settled down to rest. “I’m setting an alarm,” Steve said. “One hour, and then we get back to work.”
The ringing subsided, and he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Tony,” Steve murmured.
“I’m up,” Tony muttered, and he pushed himself stiffly to his feet.
Steve looked him over. “Where are your clothes?” he asked, frowning. “You need new—”
“So do you,” Tony pointed out.
Steve looked down at his own ruined clothing, and Tony chuckled in spite of himself.
“What?” Steve asked.
Tony shook his head. “Come on,” he said. “I guess that’s the end of my wardrobe.”
Several pins and tucks later, and Pepper and Steve were both dressed in the last of Tony’s clothes, though Steve had four-inch cuffs in both his shirt and his trousers, and looked a little bit like a child playing dress-up with his father’s wardrobe.
“Guns,” Tony said, laying out their firearms on the table. “You know how to handle a gun, Steve?”
“I—” Steve looked timid, wide-eyed at the suggestion. “I can try.”
“Look, I’ll show you,” Pepper offered, and she reached for two of the pistols, briefly showing Steve how to load, how to fire. Tony watched Steve’s growing discomfort, the way he eyed the gun skeptically.
“You won’t need to use it unless there’s an emergency,” Tony said kindly. “Keep it holstered; only use it if you’re shooting something you know you can hit and you’ve got no other choice, okay?”
Steve nodded nervously. “I’m afraid I’m gonna shoot one of you in the foot,” he admitted.
Tony flashed him a grin. “My feet are too big, anyway,” he assured him. “I could stand to lose a toe or two.”
It didn’t seem to set Steve at ease.
“I can shoot,” Dr. Black offered. “I served in the War, I'd be happy to—”
Tony sighed. “I can't ask you to do this, Doctor,” he said. “You're a civilian; this is my mess—as usual—and—”
Dr. Black put his hands on the table, splaying his fingers out. “You're not asking,” he said. “I'm offering. And technically, you're civilians, too. Except for him,” he said, nodding at Steve. “I'm not sure what he is.”
“I'm a lab rat,” Steve volunteered. “I thought the beady eyes and the tail were a dead giveaway.”
Dr. Black smiled at that, and then looked back to Tony. “I can't help thinking there's a reason we ran into each other at that auction. And if that reason is that we’re meant to help each other, so be it.”
“You’re positive?” Tony asked.
“Certain,” Dr. Black replied.
Pepper looked to Tony, and when Tony nodded, she handed Dr. Black a gun.
Without a better lead, they agreed to start at the funeral home. This time, the truck was gone, replaced with, as Steve had said, a hearse. The heavy curtains in the front windows made it difficult to peer inside.
“I’m going around back,” Tony said. “There’s gotta be another way in; they can’t bring the cadavers in the front door. Come on, Pep. The two of you—” he nodded to Dr. Black and Steve—“stand guard.”
“I’m coming, too,” Steve offered.
“Stay,” Tony replied. “We can’t have too many—”
Steve gave Tony a pointed look. “I’ve gotta be able to tell Fury I’m doing my job,” he said.
Tony pursed his lips. “This isn’t your job,” he reminded Steve. “And if anybody makes you think—”
But Steve jutted his chin out, stubbornly, and gave Tony a fierce look. “You think I’m gonna let the two of you slip out on me?”
“I wouldn’t—” Tony started, but then he sighed. “Fine,” he replied. “Pep, you keep a lookout?”
“Got it, Boss,” Pepper replied.
“You,” Tony said, beckoning to Steve. “Come on.”
The alleyway led to a small, walled courtyard, the pavement cracked and the walls overgrown with ivy. There was, in fact, a back door to the building that housed the funeral home, the glass window in the center boarded up. “That’s the problem with the blackout,” Tony muttered. “You can’t see inside anywhere, no way to tell if anyone’s in there.”
But Steve kicked at something, and it made a hollow, clunking sound. “Cellar,” he pointed out.
Tony grinned as he saw the sloped wooden door that covered an entry in the ground, and began to lean over...before his ribs twinged, and he hissed with the pain.
Steve put a hand up, waving Tony back, and dropped to his knees. The door was chained shut; Steve reached for the padlock, frowning at it.
“You’re gonna have to jimmy the—” Tony began, but a moment later, there was a sharp click, and Steve looked up at Tony, raising an eyebrow.
“You were saying?” Steve asked.
Tony blinked in surprise. “You—”
Steve rolled his eyes as he threw back the cellar door. “Right, right, I’m full of surprises or something trite like that.” He got to his feet. “You first. I don’t think I’m gonna trust myself with a gun.”
Tony raised his own pistol and started down the rickety stairs. The cellar was damp and musty-smelling, with a claustrophobically low ceiling; cobwebs brushed across Tony’s face as his eyes adjusted to the dim light.
The room was full of shelves, stacked with jars and crates, but nothing that appeared out of the ordinary.
Steve lowered the cellar door behind them and they were plunged into darkness. Tony pulled out the flashlight, squinting around the room until he discovered a large, black mound in one corner of the cellar floor.
Steve appeared at his elbow, and Tony shined the flashlight over the corner. “Ash pit,” he observed, and stepped closer, peering up at the ceiling. “That means there should be…”
Sure enough, a narrow iron trap door was fitted into the ceiling just above them, easily within Tony’s grasp, but far too small for him to pass through.
Steve cleared his throat.
“Yes,” Tony whispered, “you’re right; you were absolutely right, it’s a blessing that you volunteered to come along, what would I ever do without you?”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “Do you want my help or not?” he asked.
Tony made a face, then reached up, trying to ignore the ache in his torso, and slid his knife along the crack between the trap door and its frame, unhooking the latch on the other side.
The trap opened, swinging down with a rain of ash and soot that dusted both of them.
Steve looked down at his shirt. “You were saying, about these being the last of your clothes?”
Tony chuckled. “I’m just gonna borrow yours,” he retorted. He tilted his head up, broadened his shoulders, made himself look as big as possible in comparison to Steve. “They’ll fit real well, huh?”
“I'm sure they'll be stunning,” Steve agreed.
It took every ounce of Tony’s effort not to buckle from the pain as he gave Steve a boost up, through the trap door. He stumbled to the ground, his ribs searing, and he put a hand to his chest as he recovered. Steve peeked back down, his face appearing through the hole in the ceiling. “All clear,” he said.
Tony left the cellar and returned to the back door, which opened a few moments later. In the bright sunlight, Steve's appearance, his front half dusted in ash, was comical enough to send Tony snickering.
"What?" Steve hissed.
"You look like a chimney sweep," Tony replied, following after Steve into the back room. "What've we got?"
What they had was coffins: rows upon rows of coffins, coffins in all shapes and sizes and types of wood. Some were open, some shut. Some were plain, some had metal fixtures and satin padding.
“This here,” Tony said, stroking the velvet interior of one of the fancier coffins. “This is what I want when I die,”
Steve snorted. “You got it all planned out?” He asked.
“Sure do,” Tony replied. “Just waiting for the old ticker to go out.” He tapped at his chest, and grinned, but Steve returned his smile with a tight look.
“I don’t think that’s funny,” Steve murmured.
Tony ignored Steve’s response. “You see anything—”
A bell rang, a loud, cacophonous jangling, coming from the front room. Tony stiffened, and he exchanged a wary glance with Steve.
“Shit,” he mouthed.
There were muffled voices, and footsteps, growing louder.
Steve glanced at the coffins along the wall.
Tony hastily backed into the nearest one, the big one with the padded lining, and Steve, a step behind, followed him, tugging the lid shut on its hinges.
The space was cramped, and Steve was pressed up tight against Tony, and Tony felt his heart beat faster, his skin buzz with electricity wherever they touched. Tony shifted his feet back and moved his arms to his sides.
“You couldn't find your own hiding spot?” he asked Steve.
“I wanted—” Steve began. His breath was hot and close on Tony’s neck; his voice was soft.
But the footsteps sounded louder, coming into the room, and Steve went silent.
“The fourth? Already?” asked a man's voice, one Tony didn't recognize.
“Oui, oui,” came the response. Batroc. Tony bristled. “We have only the fifth left to acquire. If we regard the navigational tools, we must be going to Kens—”
Tony could feel the muscles in Steve’s chest tighten, could feel Steve’s knees lock, and the tension was palpable, even if it was pitch dark.
The bells rang again.
Steve’s fingers brushed Tony’s hand. Tony wasn't sure if the gesture was deliberate at first, and his own fingers tensed at the touch, but Steve’s hand lingered there, and then, slowly, trembling, caught at Tony’s.
The men cut their conversation off. “Hello?” asked the man Tony didn’t recognize.
Steve threaded his narrow fingers through Tony’s larger ones, and held on, tightly.
“Hell-o,” said a woman’s voice, cheerful and melodious. “Hello, are you Mr. Silverman?”
“I’m sorry, Madame,” said Batroc. “The back room, it is closed to guests. If you would give us one moment?”
“Oh, oh of course,” said the woman. “But it’s—” she cleared her throat. “Miss. Miss O’Day.”
“Ah, my regrets!” Batroc exclaimed. “So sorry, Mademoiselle. Of course. Now, if you will just follow me…”
Tony could hear the men’s footsteps as they left the room, could hear the snap of the door behind them.
He sucked in a deep breath, squeezing Steve’s hand. “Go,” he whispered, and he shoved at the lid of the casket, so it swung open again.
Tony’s breath caught in his throat. There, in the center of the table, sat the brass disks, the ones that resembled an astrolabe, one of the kamals, and the book. Howard’s book.
He reached for the lot, and felt something like a current in his hands: electric, chilling. He froze, staring at the disks for a moment longer than was safe.
“Tony?” Steve asked, warily.
“Here,” Tony said, and he thrust the kamal at Steve, shoving the disks into his own shirt, and then he snatched up the book. “Let’s split ‘em up; we can—”
There was a loud bang from the front room, and Steve looked at Tony with a start.
It sounded again, but this time, a shot ripped through the door, splintering the wood. Steve jumped back, panting and gray-faced.
“Run,” Tony urged, and lunged for the back door.
They made their way out of the funeral home, sprinting until they reached the alleyway on the side of the house.
Pepper and Dr. Black were waiting there, pressed up tight against the wall, alarmed expressions on both of their faces.
“Are you alright?” Pepper asked.
“Fine,” Tony answered. “But we’d better hightail it out of here.” He headed down the alleyway away from the funeral home, to the next block over, pausing to look over his shoulder to make sure the rest of the group was keeping up.
When he got out onto the street, Tony leaned back against the nearest wall, pressing a hand to his aching ribs as he caught his breath, and waited for the others.
“We heard gunfire,” Dr. Black said, emerging last. “And that woman, she—”
“The one from the train,” Pepper added. “From the tunnel. She was heading into the funeral home, and then—” Pepper gestured with her hand, in the shape of a gun. “It was all inside; we couldn’t see a thing. I don’t know who shot who.”
“Shit,” Tony replied. “Well, I don’t know who to root for; the madwoman or the Nazis.”
“Did you get any information?” asked Dr. Black. “See anything?”
Tony waved the book in the air. “Yeah,” he said. “But not on the street, right? And we…” He glanced at Steve. “I think we’ve got some bad news, too.”
“Four, yeah, is what I heard ‘em say,” Tony replied, tapping at the worn cover of his father’s book. He took a sip of his beer, but the moment he swallowed, his stomach rumbled, reminding him of how long it had been since he’d eaten.
Pepper frowned at him, and put a hand down on the table. “Food,” she observed. “I’ll see if they can scrounge anything up for us.”
“How many did you say there were?” Dr. Black asked.
“Five,” Steve answered, sitting down beside Tony on the long wooden bench. He was dripping, his hair and shirt soaked through, and, like many animals, seemed smaller wet than dry. “If the Nazis have really found four of the stones already, we’re in trouble. We’ve got to—”
“Well,” Tony said, pulling the disks out from his shirt. “The good news is, we can.” He offered Steve a small smile, and then, tentatively, experimentally, reached with his foot beneath the table, hooking his ankle around Steve’s.
Steve reached for the kamal, glancing up at Tony, and Tony wasn’t sure if he imagined it, but he thought Steve slid closer to him, along the length of the bench.
Steve lowered it onto the table. “It’s only one of them, though,” he said, with a frown. “The original collection had five, like—”
“The stones,” Tony finished, and then gave Steve a pointed look. “Too bad somebody decided they needed to be taken out of my hands, huh?”
Steve made a face, but he didn’t move away, didn’t remove his foot. “If I recall, you got attacked first.”
“I also got away,” Tony pointed out. “Which one of us got shut in a crate?”
Steve jabbed Tony’s arm with his elbow—though the jab wasn’t very hard, and Tony thought that Steve might have let his elbow brush Tony’s shirtsleeve for longer than it absolutely had to.
“Tony, give our new friend a break,” Pepper said cheerfully, as she arrived with a tray laden with assorted hot pies. “You want me to tell him about all the times you’ve been shut in crates?”
Steve perked up slightly, his eyes dancing. “How many times?” he asked.
“You can’t trust her,” Tony said gravely. “She’s delirious. Suffering from lack of sleep.”
“And you hit your head so hard you don’t remember,” Pepper retorted, dropping the tray on the table. Tony snatched the nearest plate, stabbing at the pie with a fork. The steam rose from the crust as he broke it, the savory smell of gravy inside wafting up to his nose and making him salivate.
He suspected it was probably no more exceptional than any other pub food, at best, but right now, as he bit into steak and potato, it tasted absolutely delicious.
Steve, meanwhile, was scarfing his pie down like he’d never had a meal before.
“So,” Dr. Black said, frowning as he reached across the table for the kamal. “How do we read this? How do we know where we’re meant to go?”
“The—ordinarily you’d line it up—” he gestured to the kamal where Dr. Black held it. “With the string in your teeth and the horizon at the bottom of the card, Polaris at the top...like...yeah,” he said, as Dr. Black raised the card into the air. “But it’s not an effective navigational system this far north, which means...we’re looking for something that isn’t Polaris to line it up with.”
“Well,” Pepper said, in between bites of her own food. “We need to start with what we know: if Batroc and his friends have only had one night to recover these things, they’ve got to be within the city limits.”
“Batroc said something, when we were in the—” Steve cut himself off and glanced uncomfortably at Tony. “When we were hiding. Ken- something. Kensington?”
Tony put down his fork and reached for the disks. “London,” he said, twisting the disks into place. “It’s a map of London; if I hold it like…”
And, as the disks slid around on their axis, light filtered through when the cutout patterns in one disk overlaid the other. When he matched up the long, snaking curves of what presumably was meant to depict the Thames, he found himself with five tiny pinpricks. “This,” he said. “There are our locations.”
He put the map down on the table, carefully, so as not to displace the disks.
“Kensal Green,” Dr. Black said.
Dr. Black pointed to the pinpricks. “All of these locations are graveyards...cemeteries,” he explained. “Private cemeteries, the ones from the eighteen hundreds, all erected by private interests. Kensal Green would be the oldest.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “Private interests?” He asked. “How much do you wanna bet that our friend Bloodstone was an investor?”
“I...should have thought of that,” Dr. Black admitted, rubbing at his chin. “So...this means Bloodstone and your father acquired and hid the stones right here in London.”
“Explains Batroc’s front with the hearses, too,” Steve observed. “Easy to be inconspicuous in a cemetery.”
“Something’s not right about this,” Tony admitted. “They could’ve hidden four of them, sure, but...the fifth? They would have had to...that would have been the one Bloodstone wore. Someone else would’ve been tasked with hiding it after his death.”
“If we knew who that was,” Dr. Black said. “We’d be having a much better time of it.”
“Don’t you have any idea?” Steve asked, frowning at Dr. Black. “You’re the only one here who knew him.”
“Not well,” Dr. Black said, with a shrug. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t know where to start. I hadn’t spoken to the man in years. Do you remember anyone, Tony? Anyone who worked for him, maybe, when you were a boy?”
Tony grimaced, and shook his head. “Jarvis might know,” he said. “Jarvis was with them when they defeated Centurius; that’s the kind of thing they left kiddies home for.”
Dr. Black’s eyebrow raised. “Well, it would be too much trouble to bother him, I’m sure.”
“And we know where we’re going,” Steve pointed out, looking up at the kamal. “Tony, if Batroc could find four of ‘em, how hard can it be?”
Tony flashed him a grin, and gathered the disks back up. “Depends whether they’re in French or English,” he retorted.
They finished their meal at Pepper’s command, hastily shoveling the food into their mouths, and then poured into the street, where Tony hailed a cab for the cemetery, the name Quick emblazoned on the side of the car..
The driver, a young man with bronze skin and dark hair covered by a small skullcap, eyed Steve’s damp, still soot-smeared appearance with a look of suspicion.
“Problem with the chimney flue,” Steve said, without hesitation. “I won’t get your cab dirty.”
When the driver hesitated, Tony took a breath, and leaned in closer to the driver, flashing him a smile as he dug about in his brain for the Yiddish he’d heard his father speak as a child. “Gut morgen,” he tried.
The driver blinked, and looked up at him in recognition. “Gut yohr,” he answered, and his expression softened to something more amiable, before he gestured for them to get into the car.
They let Dr. Black take the front seat, and Tony slid into the back, followed by Steve, who, tiny as he was, fit neatly in between Tony and Pepper.
Jewish cab driver or not, Tony wasn’t about to discuss the stones in front of a stranger, and they rode in silence. Tony found himself gazing out the window at the passing scenery.
London was a living contradiction: tall, ancient spires rising high in the air, clouded by the smoke of roaring fires, while whole blocks of homes were reduced to rubble all around them. People rushed past the bombed out shells of storefronts, grocery bags in hand. Cars honked, buses rumbled, vendors shouted as they hawked their wares. The city was vibrant in the wake of disaster, even as they passed by entire neighborhoods that had been decimated.
They found themselves on winding roads, narrow backstreets that doubled back on themselves. He wasn’t sure when his hand found Steve’s, but it was as the car took a sudden turn that he realized that their fingers were intertwined, tucked down at their sides, in the space between them.
“So sorry,” said the driver, as he navigated another sharp turn. “The main road’s been—”
Tony didn’t hear the rest of what he said. He glanced at Steve, tilting his head to the side, and squeezed his hand.
“No worries, Mr. Lockley,” Pepper assured him, squinting at his name on his operator’s license. We’d rather be safe than quick, whatever the side of your car says. We can pay for the time.”
Steve looked back at him, his gaze direct and unblinking, and squeezed back.
The driver shot her a grateful smile. “Thanks, Miss,” he said.
The neighborhood they drove toward was more sparsely populated, and with that, came fewer bomb sites and less damage, more greenery and less smoke in the air. Finally, they rolled up in front of an arched, pillared gateway, and the cab came to a halt.
“Here we are,” said the driver. “Do you...are you going to need a ride back?”
“Nah,” Tony answered. “A dank.”
It was only when he reached for his wallet that he dropped Steve’s hand, with some regret, and as he slipped out the money for the driver, he could still feel the heat of Steve’s palm on his. He flexed his fingers at the ghost of sensation, wondered if there were a way to discreetly take his hand again—but there wasn’t, now, not walking in broad daylight.
He tipped the cab driver generously—more generously than necessary, and whatever he said was too rapid-fire for Tony to work it out, but it sounded like profuse thanks, and Tony nodded his goodbye in return.
They walked through the archway, and the sight inside was breathtaking: this resting place for the dead was nearly untouched by the bombings, but much of it was in shambles: the grass overgrown, old tombstones toppled, aging mausoleums caving in.
Steve stayed close, just to Tony’s right, hovering at his elbow, as Tony wandered several paces in.
The graves were like something from a ghost story: ornately carved relics, monuments left over from the Victorian age. Some were carefully-crafted statues, others were tall, imposing obelisks. There were tombs topped with angels, with death’s heads, with grim reapers. Little lambs sat atop stones left to memorialize children.
Tony found himself craning his neck upward, at a tall pillar topped with a statue just as something roared overhead. A smoke trail scarred the sky, white against blue, and then another followed it, and the sky exploded with light as one plane pursued the other: a dogfight, over the city.
Tony felt his jaw tighten at the scene, and he took a step back, his shoulder brushing Steve’s. “Pep?” He asked. “The kamal. Let’s try it here; there’s—” He pointed at the skyline, at the irregular shapes of the grave markers. “That’s gotta be it, huh? All those points on the card; it must match up with something here, yeah?”
Pepper pulled out the card again, and held it up, string in her teeth, squinting as she turned a complete circle. “I think,” she said, reorienting herself and the card, pausing for a moment to level it. “I think it’s this...yeah...see that?”
She pointed with her free hand at a figure of a woman with one hand pointed upward, who stood at the top of a high pillar. “There,” she said. “It matches with this—” she tapped at the card. “And that cherub matches here, and…”
They were facing an imposing-looking building, all white, with four pillars at the entrance.
“The chapel,” said Dr. Black. “There are catacombs beneath it. That must be where the stone is.”
“Let’s—” Tony started, but he stopped at the sound of a blast above: there was a fire in the sky, the flaming skeleton of an airplane plummeting to earth. It was too far off for Tony to tell whether the victor had been English or German; all he could see was the smoke in the sky, and he shuddered, and started forward again, training his eyes on the chapel door. “Let’s go.”
The catacombs were musty-smelling, and damp, though in relatively good repair as far as catacombs went. Tony slid the book into the waistband of his trousers and snapped the flashlight on, and kept one hand pressed flat against the clammy brick wall until they reached the first chamber: a set of shelves recessed, stacked with coffins.
“It looks like a pantry,” Steve observed, frowning.
“I don’t know what kind of dry goods you keep,” Tony retorted. He shot Steve an amused look, then grimaced at the rows of coffins.
“Hey, Boss?” Pepper said, reaching over to tap his shoulder. “Look at this.”
Tony turned, and his gaze followed Pepper’s pointing fingers to the floor, where what appeared to be a trail of footprints marked the dust on the floor ahead of them.
“Someone’s been here?” Steve asked.
Tony crouched, looking more closely at the set of prints. They appeared to be a man’s shoes, walking down one of the long, dark, crisscrossing halls.
“But they said they hadn’t,” Tony said, frowning. “Unless they beat us to it; if they knew which cemetery they needed to go to…” He grimaced, scratching his head.
“But they’re not—” Steve started, dropping down to one knee, putting his fingers to the print. “They’re not fresh; they’re...carved into the stone.”
Sure enough, when Tony pressed his hand to the floor, he felt divots where the prints lay. “Huh,” he said, and he squinted down the tunnel. “I guess we go this way.”
Tony got to his feet, and reached back for a moment, nearly grasping at Steve’s hand, before he remembered himself and carefully rubbed his palm on the seat of his trousers in a fluid motion.
The footprints took them down a winding corridor, the floor sloping downward and turning in on itself, until Tony was certain they were deeper underground than before. The ceiling grates that had let a quantity of yellow-green light into the catacombs vanished, and the halls were darker here, so that the coffins that lined either side of their path were harder to distinguish, felt more like solid walls rising up on either side of them. Tony flipped his flashlight on again, the warm golden beam marking out the imprinted footsteps in front of them.
“This is old,” Steve observed. “How long ago did Bloodstone die? This has to be older than—”
“Maybe the rumor’s true,” Tony answered. “Maybe he had a hand in building this place.”
Then, finally, they came to an open area, where a massive door stood before them, tall and dark and imposing, heavy wood reinforced with rusting iron. There was a motif across the iron, a pattern that looked like a series of double-bladed axes.
Tony frowned at the door: it had no handle, no apparent way to open it. He pressed his palms against it and shoved, but to no avail.
“Look for a lever, or a button, or another way to open it,” Dr. Black said, as he stepped back and squinted at the walls.
“Ulysses,” Pepper said, suddenly. “The axes.”
“Hm?” Tony turned to look at her, but she stepped forward, past him, and put her hand to one of the axes.
“In The Odyssey,” Pepper replied. “The notes in your book. Odysseus—Ulysses —”
“Like Ulysses Bloodstone,” Steve murmured.
“Yes,” Pepper agreed. “Ulysses has to shoot an arrow through the heads of...one, two, three…” she counted the axes on the door. “Twelve. Twelve axes. Just like this. So…”
“I hate to break it to you, but I left my Robin Hood getup at home,” Tony said, though he tilted his head as he considered the axes.
“No, look,” said Steve. He, too, stepped up to the door, and ran his hand over the sculpture until his fingers stopped, in the dead center of one of them. “Here.”
There was an audible click as he pressed down, and then he moved to the next, and the next, each clicking in succession until the door gave way with a creak and a groan.
Dr. Black stepped back, putting a hand against the wall. “If you all don’t mind,” he said. “I’m going to wait here. I…” He raised an eyebrow. “If I know anything about Bloodstone’s adventures, I’m not sure I’ll survive the kind of excitement that might be behind those doors.”
Tony snorted, but nodded to the older man. “You’ll be okay out here alone?” he asked.
Dr. Black patted the gun they’d given him. “I’ll be just fine,” he assured him. “I’ll yell if I need anything, alright, son?”
Tony grinned. “Alright, and we’ll holler if we need you to rescue our asses,” he replied.
The chamber inside was massive, and here, again, a door was set in the far wall, shut tight.
In this room, a ring of coffins—no, sarcophagi, carved exquisitely from stone—stood in a ring, radiating outward. Each one was different, each more ornate than the next.
Steve started past the tombs, toward the door.
“Wait,” Pepper said, and she pointed to the coffins.
“More Odyssey?” Tony asked.
“They’re…” She tapped her finger on the head of a carved stone pig nuzzled up against the bare breast of a woman. “This one’s Circe. She turned Odysseus’ men into pigs. And that one—” she pointed across the ring, to a sarcophagus covered in fallen blossoms. “That one’s a Lotus Eater.”
“So they mean something,” Tony observed. “You think we open a coffin to open the door?”
“Something like that,” Pepper said. “It’s just a question of which…”
“So, we’ve got Ulysses, and he's, what, he's stuck on an island while the gods get in a pissing match over his fate, yeah?” Tony asked.
“Right,” said Pepper, “and meanwhile, his wife is at home being besieged by suitors.” She stopped at the coffin of a woman whose heart was a lock in her chest. “Penelope.”
“So do we look for the one that holds the Bloodstone?” Steve asked. “Or the one that opens that door?”
“I'm not sure,” Pepper said. “What have we got?”
“Here,” Tony said, touching the lid of a sarcophagus covered in swirling clouds, the head of a man blowing air furiously. “Is this wind? Would wind do it?”
Pepper frowned. “It’s Aeolus. He gave Ulysses a sack holding the winds on his trip home.”
“Worth a try,” Tony said, and he wrenched up on the lid.
“But—” Pepper began, but in the next moment, the doors back into the main catacombs slammed shut with an echoing boom, and a mighty gust filled the room. The wind was forceful, brutal, and Steve lost his footing first, toppling to the floor even as he tried to grasp at the nearest sarcophagus to steady himself.
Tony lunged for Steve as he fell, but the moment his feet weren’t firmly planted on the floor, he tumbled after him, fast, his shoulder smacking the stone floor with brutal force. He cried out, and reached out for Steve’s arm, the winds stirring furiously just above him, so that every time he raised his head, they gusted in his face so hard that it brought him to tears.
Pepper, watching the two men fall, had dropped to her stomach, and was slowly squirming across the floor toward them.
“But what?” Tony asked, gritting his teeth, expecting he wasn’t going to be too keen on the answer.
“But the sack contained all the winds but the west wind,” Pepper said. “The one he needed to get home. The winds blew him further out to sea.”
“Great,” Tony said, through gritted teeth. “Well, at least we have a hint what we’re supposed to do.”
“You think they all work the same?” Steve asked. He was half-shouting to be heard over the gusts of wind. “We have to open the right one?!”
“It seems like a good bet!” Pepper answered. “Problem is, we’re going to have to shut that coffin before we can open any of the others.”
Tony grimaced up at the place where the lid lay at an angle to the sarcophagus itself, and tried again to push himself up from the floor.
The wind smacked him down again, and his cheek hit the stone with a slap. “Fuck,” he muttered, as his face smarted from the impact.
Steve took a breath, as if he were bracing himself, and then reached for Tony’s hand. “Other side,” he said, as he linked his fingers through Tony’s. “We go up on the other side, the coffin’ll shield us from the wind.”
Which seemed obvious when Tony heard it. He gave Steve’s hand a squeeze before he let go and crawled, on his belly, just as Pepper had, until he had rounded the side of the sarcophagus. The winds blew less violently here, and he waited for Steve and Pepper to join him before the three of them, in unison, pushed themselves to sit, backs against the side of the stone coffin, pressed flat to avoid the wind from either side as much as possible. They reached up, hands finding purchase on the lid, and finally, with a heave, slid it shut.
The wind died down instantly, subsiding to a whisper, and then to nothing.
Steve dropped back down against the sarcophagus, breathing heavily, and Tony thought he could hear a wheeze as he inhaled.
“You alright, pal?” Tony asked, trying to look less concerned than he was, flicking at a stray lock of Steve’s hair that had been flipped up by the wind. “You sound a little winded.”
Steve coughed, but then nodded, and Tony watched as Steve took a long, deep inhale, and then another, chest wavering, slowly trying to regulate his breath.
Steve nodded again, roughly, gulped, and, without further hesitation, pushed himself to his feet. “Fine,” he said. “I’m fine.” He kept his eyes on the floor.
Tony scrambled up after him, and then offered Pepper a hand up. “Sure,” he said, giving Steve a pointed look. “Just, you know, there’s no shame in breathing. Most of us have to do it.”
Steve glowered at him for a moment, and Tony raised an eyebrow, and tapped at his repulsor. “Take it from an expert,” he said.
Steve’s expression softened, and he put his hand on the nearest sarcophagus, looking Tony over with the barest hint of a smile on his face. “I get you,” he assured him.
“Just tell us if it hurts,” Tony replied. “That’s all I ask.”
Steve nodded, and then he looked away, pondering the nearest sarcophagus. “So,” he said. “What’s going to open the door? Ulysses, so...something to do with the sea? How about—”
He tapped at a metal trident, gripped in stone hands.
“Not Poseidon,” Pepper implored. “Poseidon hated Ulysses. Kept trying to kill him. It’ll probably flood the whole room with seawater.” She made a face, as she combed through her hair with her fingers, pushing it back into place. “We need to find…”
“Immortality,” said Tony, and he glanced at Steve. “I mean, something that symbolizes immortality,” he amended, though he was not quite sure, in that moment, how he meant it.
He rested his hand on a carving of Zeus—at least, he thought it must be Zeus, the way the figure held a burnished lightning bolt. “Do you think—”
“I think it’s most likely to get us electrocuted,” Pepper replied, and she pointed, with her chin, at the sarcophagus that showed an elderly man, his eyes wrapped tight with a cloth, a cane in one hand. “That one,” she said, sounding quite firm. “That’s Tiresias.”
“You sure?” Tony asked, and he walked, hesitantly, over to the tomb in question.
“Positive,” Pepper said. “Ulysses travels to the land of the dead to speak with him, and he’s the one who tells Ulysses how to get home.”
Tony glanced at Steve, who shrugged. “Beats me,” Steve admitted. “We have to solve a riddle about pulp novels or comic books, you tap me for that one.”
“Alright,” Tony said, and he frowned at the stone cloth over the old man’s eyes. “Tiresias it is.” He pressed his hands down against the lid and pushed, so it slid to one side.
The room was instantly plunged into darkness.
“Hell,” Tony said, squinting into the pitch black, fumbling to reach into the coffin, unable to see a thing.
“Flashlight,” Steve and Pepper reminded him, synchronously.
He reached for the flashlight. In the darkness, the steady beam shone focused and solid, and now Tony could see into the tomb.
He half-expected to look down into an empty coffin, shallow rock, and see the Bloodstone resting in the bottom. He half-expected to be staring at a corpse.
He did not expect to be peering down a narrow, cramped staircase, the walls mottled with algae and lichen, a smell of damp and decay stinging his nose.
“Well,” Steve observed, and he hoisted himself up the side of the sarcophagus, landing on the top step. “Gimme the flashlight, Tony.”
“What?” Tony asked.
“You see how tiny that space is?” Steve asked. “You don’t think you’re gonna wedge yourself down there, do you?”
Tony frowned down at the descending staircase, then sighed, and held the flashlight out to Steve. “Be careful,” he said.
“Says the king of self-preservation himself,” Steve retorted, his fingers curling over Tony’s as he took the flashlight.
Tony lingered with his grip on the flashlight for a moment longer, Steve’s pulse warm and even where he clasped Tony’s hand. Their eyes met, and locked, and then Steve took a deep, hesitant breath, and started forward.
Steve remained seated on the stairs, crawling down them one at a time, cautious and careful, until Tony could only see his silhouette, backlit by the flashlight, far down the tiny staircase, and then nothing. The room itself, where they stood, was bathed in blackness.
Tony felt himself tense, more and more, the worry in the back of his head mounting the longer Steve was gone.
And then there was a yell, piercing, from the depths of the staircase.
Tony bolted toward the sarcophagus, crashing into it as he misjudged its distance in the dark. “STEVE?!” he shouted.
“TONY!” came Steve’s cry in return. “I can’t—I’m—”
“I’m coming,” Tony replied. “I’m on my way.” He fumbled his way into the tomb, tried to pull his shoulders in as tightly as possible, and closed his fingers around his gun, then looked up at Pepper. “Stand guard?” he asked. “If I—if we—”
Pepper blew him a kiss, audibly, her lips smacking together loudly in the dark. “I’ll rescue you,” she assured him.
Tony wished he had the flashlight as he crept down the narrow, dark staircase, keeping his free hand firmly on the wall as a guide. The walls were damp, slightly fuzzy, and everything smelled dank, so dank that his throat tightened and he felt as if he might retch.
He went down, and down, and still nothing. “Steve?!” he called.
“I’m here!” he heard a voice, from yet further down the stairs.
“Stay put!” Tony called.
“Believe me!” Steve yelled back. “I don’t have much of a choice!”
And then Tony turned another corner, and the light from the flashlight danced wildly around, flickering and bouncing off the walls.
Steve was entangled in something, something black and writhing, and whether it was ropes or vines or shadows, Tony wasn’t sure, but in the center of the mass, just out of Steve’s reach, a shimmering red jewel was planted high in the wall.
“Steve!” Tony moved forward, raising his gun.
“Don’t come closer!” Steve shouted. “They’ll catch you—”
Tony aimed and fired at the mass, but no sooner had he let off a shot than the swirling tendrils that had trapped Steve seemed to reach out and snatch the gun from his hand.
He growled, and lunged forward, without thinking, catching at Steve’s ankle.
The dark ropes began to curl around him, too, but he couldn’t feel anything: no pressure, nothing rubbing against his skin. Only when he tried to move away from them did he feel them snatch him back, closer to the wall.
“You...you okay, Steve?” Tony asked, as the mass raised him up off the floor. It was an eerie sensation, to be suspended in nothingness by something he couldn’t feel.
“I…” Steve swallowed, and he reached for Tony with an outstretched hand. “Yeah, I’m…”
Tony grappled for Steve’s hand, and caught it, then tugged, hard, until he had a hold on his forearm. Whatever held them swung like vines, too, and with enough force, he managed to encircle Steve with one arm and draw him close.
Steve clutched at Tony with his free hand, and managed to steady the flashlight. “Sorry,” he said. “Aren't you thrilled you brought me along?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” Tony retorted, and, impulsively, protectively, he bowed his head and kissed Steve on the crown of his head.
Steve’s lips parted, and his eyes went wide, and Tony couldn't tell what his expression meant, but the fear in Steve’s eyes, the way the corners of his mouth pulled down in a grimace, didn't look like someone happy to have been kissed.
“You—you okay, pal?” Tony asked.
Steve nodded, brusquely. “We've gotta get the stone,” he said. “Anytime I get close, these—” he jabbed the flashlight at their restraints, and they wound around his wrist, immobilizing it. “See?”
Tony shifted his weight, holding Steve close enough that he hoped, if they were immobilized, they’d be drawn together and not pulled apart. “Stay close,” he whispered, turning his body so that Steve was pressed up against his side, and he unbuttoned his shirt, using his free hand, until the repulsor was bared.
“What are you…” Steve trailed off, watching warily, though he minded Tony’s instructions, snaking his arm around Tony’s back to clasp at his shoulder, twining his feet around Tony’s ankle to get a better grip.
Tony shut his eyes, comforted by the solidity of Steve’s body beside him. “Just a second,” he said, silently apologizing to Jarvis before he slipped his finger over the valve release on the repulsor. “If something goes wrong,” he said. “Count to three and switch this lever, here.”
He tapped at the release. Steve’s expression turned to one of horror, and he reached to snatch Tony’s hand away as he realized what Tony was about to do.
Tony slipped the release, and for a split second, he felt a tremendous surge, as the current powering his heart was suddenly directed outward, out toward the things that pinned them in place.
“TONY!” Steve cried.
The vines, or ropes, or whatever they were, froze instantly, sparking with an electric crackle.
Tony snapped the valve back into place, and, without hesitation, threw himself forward, toward the stone.
His fingers curled around something solid, and smooth, and warm, just as everything went dark.
“Tony,” said Steve’s voice. The floor beneath him was rough and cold; his ribs burned again. It was hard to see; the flashlight was pointed away from him, resting on the floor, creating a pale pool of golden light. But there was a warm hand cupped around his, a pressure at his chest.
“Tony,” Steve repeated, in a soft, low tone. “You fell. You—”
“I’m okay,” Tony assured him, and he gave Steve’s hand a squeeze. The other hand was still cupped around something solid and slightly warm to the touch, very unlike what Tony expected from stone.
He pushed himself up, and it was only when he was sitting—a little dazed, but upright—that Steve’s expression relaxed slightly, and Steve stopped hovering over him, dropping back onto his knees.
But Steve was still looking at him with big, worried eyes, his lower lip quivering.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Tony said, glancing away, toward the beam from the flashlight.
“You could’ve killed yourself,” Steve said, gravely. “You could have—”
Tony sighed. “Listen, kid,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since you were in diapers, and if you think—”
Steve apparently didn’t think, because he cut Tony off with a kiss, rough and unsteady, pressing his lips to Tony’s as if on an impulse, and then suddenly going very still. Steve’s mouth stiffened against Tony’s, and he let out a shaky breath.
And before Tony could respond, Steve had shifted away. “I—” he started, and he rubbed at his mouth. “That was. I—”
“You need to take a do-over, is what,” Tony informed him, and he snatched at Steve’s shirt, his heart pounding at a frantic pace as he tugged Steve closer and kissed him back.
It was only the knowledge that Pepper was waiting upstairs that coaxed Tony out of Steve’s arms, dragged him reluctantly to his feet, encouraged Tony to straighten his collar and un-muss his hair. When they went back up the stairs, they did it with their hands intertwined, and Tony felt warmer, somehow, than he had on the descent.
When they left the sarcophagus, Pepper helped them out, and the three of them slid the coffin lid back over the staircase to obscure the underground chamber once more. The door behind them opened, slowly, and there was Dr. Black, who started up from where he appeared to have been dozing against a wall. Tony was secretly relieved, that the old man had remained safe.
“Well?” Dr. Black asked. “Did you find it?”
Tony raised his hand, parting his fingers.
The shard of Bloodstone was warm, brilliant and scarlet and glimmering with an internal light. It was nearly the size of his palm, and he curled his fingers around it, his hand throbbing with the power that pulsated from the stone, that tickled its way up his forearm.
“Tony?” Steve whispered.
Tony had forgotten his companions.
“It’s beautiful,” Tony murmured back, and he had to rip his gaze away. He swallowed roughly, realizing that he had been lost, for a moment, in some kind of reverie.
“It sure is,” Steve said, and he clapped his own hand atop it. “But maybe we can look at it when we’re back on the surface, yeah?”
Tony looked around, at the dank walls of the catacombs, and nodded, hesitantly. “Okay,” he agreed.
“We can go back to the safehouse,” Pepper offered.
“We should talk to Fury,” Steve objected.
"Not so fast," said a woman's voice, musical and rich in the way it echoed around the catacombs.
Tony heard a click.
His eyes locked with Steve’s.
"Miss O'Day!" He called cheerfully, as he turned around to find himself staring down the barrel of her gun. "Fancy meeting you here."
Bubbles sneered and popped her chewing gum. "Hand it over, Mr. Stark," she said.
“Well,” Tony said, clasping the stone in both hands. “Lemme think about that.”
He drew his own gun, pointing it back at the woman, and took a step back. “I think the answer’s gonna be no, but it was nice seeing you again, pal.”
He glanced over his shoulder, at the others, and motioned for them to run. He kept backing up, slowly, kept Bubbles’ attention focused on him, kept her gun aimed at his chest, where a shot would only hit the chestplate.
The next time he risked a glance, Steve was reaching for Dr. Black’s arm. “Here,” he offered. “Here, Doctor, let me hel—”
It took Tony a moment to process what happened next. Dr. Black’s mouth twisted up into a cruel smile, and he lifted Steve into the air, with a single hand. As small as Steve was, Dr. Black was hardly a young man, and the swiftness and strength he displayed took Tony aback.
Bubbles’ compatriots encroached upon them, and Dr. Black stepped backward, standing with his back to the wall, still holding a struggling Steve aloft.
Pepper drew her gun, but the big man, Atlan, wrested it from her hands, casting it to the floor, where it fired off a haphazard shot at the impact. The bullet splintered a brick in the wall, ricocheting to the floor.
“The stone, Tony,” said Dr. Black. “Give the stone to Miss O’Day, and we might let you walk out in one piece.”
Stunned, Tony turned to Dr. Black. “I don't—you were friends with my father; you—are you working for the goddam Nazis? You?”
“You're asking if I would work for scum who've convinced themselves by way of pseudoscience that they're genetically superior,” Dr. Black said. “Do you think I'm an idiot? That stone is rightfully mine; your father and Bloodstone cheated me out of immortality, and I intend to make that right. Immortality for me, immortality…” He smiled beneficently at Bubbles, “for all those who assist me.”
Tony let out a choked, nervous laugh.
“You can't be serious,” said Pepper, and she tried to elbow Atlan, but he neatly blocked her, grappling with her wrist.
“Shut yer blowhole,” Atlan scolded, in a high, squeaky voice that seemed dissonant with his huge, hulking body.
Tony swallowed. “Immortality?” he asked. “How—”
Dr. Black’s eyes twinkled, brilliant in the dim light of the catacombs. “Take him,” he said, looking to Bubbles, as he dropped Steve to the ground. Steve stumbled, falling to his knees hard, palms against the floor, and Bubbles dragged him up. He kneed her in the shin, and she laughed, barely wobbling in her high-heeled shoes, as she shoved the barrel of her gun to his temple.
From his pocket, Dr. Black drew a blood-red gem, identical to the one Tony held in his hand. “You must know the power of these stones,” he said. “I almost fell for your act at first, pretending you had no idea what was in that crate.”
“I didn’t,” Tony replied. “What, is this the part where you laugh maniacally and talk about living forever like Ulysses Bloodstone apparently did?”
“Forever?” Dr. Black asked. “It’s hardly forever; the man is dust.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Centuries, millennia, whatever you want to call it. Longer than average?”
“Longevity is merely the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Black replied, and his hand curled possessively around the stone. “The power locked within these stones, when combined—” He shook his head. “The Nazis barely have a clue what they would wield, and I don’t intend to let them find out.”
Tony felt his own grip tighten over the stone in his hand. “What power?” He asked. “What are you trying to do, Doc?” He was trying to formulate a plan; the longer he kept Dr. Black talking, the better his chances of finding a way out, or at least figuring out what the hell was going on.
“The force that powers these stones is a sentience,” Dr. Black explained, “greater than all of us. It is the intelligence borne from the violence of Creation, that brought life to us all.”
Now Tony was certain Dr. Black was insensible. “Creation?” He asked. “No offense, but you're starting to sound like a mad scientist.”
Dr. Black ground his teeth. “And that's what they'd have you think!” He snapped angrily. “Bloodstone and your father—they did everything in their power to keep me from achieving...this. From finding the key to all life!”
He drew out his own gun, the one Tony had given him, and held it up—not to Tony’s head, but to the repulsor motor, with all its fragile internal mechanisms.
Tony wouldn't die right away, not if Dr. Black took the shot. He'd die slowly, in pain, feeling every ounce of anguish as the device that kept him alive failed.
Tony blinked. “You're Centurius,” he realized. “You're the one they fought together.”
“You're not as slow on the uptake as I was afraid of,” Dr. Black said smoothly.
He cocked the pistol.
“Don't you even—” Steve snarled, somewhere just outside his line of vision.
“It's okay, Steve,” Tony said, hefting the stone in his hand. “I'm not gonna—”
A smile spread slowly across Dr. Black’s face.
He aimed the gun at Steve instead.
And Tony’s entire body went cold; his stomach wrenched.
Steve snarled and gnashed his teeth. His eyes met Tony’s, vivid blue and icy.
Tony could feel his heart racing, could feel rivulets of sweat trickling down his brow.
“Don't give it to him,” Steve urged. “It's not worth—"
Tony held the stone out to Dr. Black. "Take it," he said. "Just don't—"
Dr. Black trained the gun back onto Tony, and he reached out, still cautious, as if he expected Tony to turn into a snake and bite him.
“Just let us go,” Tony said. “Let them go, just—“
Dr. Black snatched up the stone, and Tony might have imagined it, but he thought the man’s eyes glimmered red.
“Now let them go,” Tony snapped.
“As much as I would love to,” Dr. Black replied, “I’m afraid that’s impossible. Dr. Bardham, if you’d be so kind?”
Dr. Bardham wrested Tony’s arms back, restraining him with some kind of rough cord that abraded his wrists when he struggled.
“You’ve got your goddamn stone!” Tony said. “Let us go—or let them go, let—is this because you’ve still got a gripe with my dad? You want a piece of me, you come get me, but leave them out of this. You know they’ve got nothing to do with this.”
Dr. Black looked into the chamber with the sarcophagi, at the massive door in the far wall that still stood unopened. He stepped toward it, glanced over his shoulder at the others. “In we go,” he said. “And do shut up, Tony. I’d hate to have to knock you out. I want you to be present for what I’m about to accomplish.”
So that was it. That was why Dr. Black hadn’t killed him, why Dr. Black hadn’t injured him or merely hit him over the head and taken the stone. Tony winced at his own thought, at the idea of being hit in the head again; he wasn’t sure he could take it.
They were half-dragged toward the door, as Dr. Black paused, surveying the sarcophagi.
“Hmm,” he said, as he hovered over the carved figure of a woman dressed like a warrior, a gorgon on her breastplate, carrying a spear and shield. He pressed his hand against the shield, and as the coffin lid moved, the massive doors swung back with a rusty squeal.
“Athena,” Dr. Black said, delightedly. “The key to ultimate wisdom.”
Beyond the door, down the length of the dark, narrow hall, was a wide, circular chamber with a vaulted ceiling, and sunlight streaming down from a narrow skylight in the center of the room that glinted with slivers of red stained glass.
The light filtered down, dancing white and red on the stone floor—on a large, flat stone centered just beneath it: a white, luminous stone, round and flat and smooth, like marble, as if Michelangelo himself had decided to carve a millstone.
Tony could feel his breath catch. “What is this?” he asked. The walls were rough, the stones of the floor worn so smooth that it seemed as if the room had existed far longer than the surrounding catacombs.
“This,” Dr. Black said, splaying his arms out, “is the hall of the Great Sentience, of the thing from which all life springs.”
Tony glanced back, over his shoulder, meeting Pepper’s eyes. The look on her face matched his own thoughts.
“Pardon my, ahem, skepticism,” Tony said, “but aren’t you supposed to be a scientist?”
“But this is science,” said Dr. Black. He produced one of the stones again, fit it into a carved-out slot in the center stone, and then did the same with another, and another, until all five were set in a formation like a stylized rose, catching the beams from the skylight.
And then, as the stones sat in their places, they seemed to become one, single, larger stone, fusing together before Tony’s eyes into something darker, more menacing.
“That,” Dr. Black said, “that is the Bloodstone. The true Bloodstone.” He leaned over it, his face glowing crimson in the light reflected from it. “I never thought this day would come.”
He turned, now, looking from Tony to Steve to Pepper in turn, his eyes flickering in amusement.
“Great, great,” Tony said. “Five little rocks, one big rock, real entertaining.”
“This is only the first act,” Dr. Black replied. He looked back to Bubbles, beckoning her with his finger.
She stepped forward and shoved Steve, hard, toward Dr. Black, so he stumbled, nearly falling into the other man.
“Steve!” Tony exclaimed, before he could stop himself, and he jerked forward. Bardham’s fingers clawed into his shoulder, preternaturally strong as he tugged Tony back. Tony tensed, remembering the way that Dr. Black had raised Steve over his head, and looked at Bardham. “What-“
“It takes life to make life,” said Dr. Black. “And to call forth the thing from which all life comes—“ He tilted his head to one side as he considered Steve, holding the younger man at arm’s length. “—It will take a particular spark of life.”
Tony felt himself go from cold to hot and back to cold, and then the heat rose again, prickling his neck and boiling in his chest in a matter of moments, and he swallowed harshly. “Then take me,” he answered. “I already told you to let him go; I already—“
Behind his back, tied as they were, his hands curled into fists.
“And I already told you,” Dr. Black replied. “That I wanted you to see this.” He pressed a hand to Steve’s chest.
Steve glared up at Dr. Black, gritting his teeth. “Get your hands off me.“
“Very well,” replied Dr. Black. He shoved Steve backward, so that he fell onto the circular stone. He cried out as he hit it, breaking his fall with his hands in the exact sort of way that Tony had learned, from years of falling, was a terrible idea. He cried out in pain as he hit, and Tony winced at the sound.
But the moment Steve’s body hit the stone, a sharp, deafening ring filled the air, and the room was suddenly filled with light. Steve’s body convulsed, glowing white, his eyes open wide, and they should have looked terrified, Tony thought, but they were blank, empty, and it made Tony shiver.
“Let him go,” Tony murmured, his mouth moving, no sound coming out. Behind his back, his hands went slack, icy and damp, and he felt as if all the strength were draining from his body.
In front of him, above Steve’s now-limp body, the light was taking form, shaping itself into something curiously like a twisted ladder: two ropes, curling around each other, connected by many rungs.
“That’s a double helix,” Pepper observed, her voice quivering. Tony wanted to look back at her, but he was transfixed, couldn’t rip his eyes away if he tried. “That’s genetic—“
“That’s the Helix,” Dr. Black corrected. “The first Helix, the source of all life, trapped inside the Bloodstone for eons like a prisoner when it should be revered as a god.”
The thing was becoming solid, crystalline, and the high-pitched ringing grew louder.
Dr. Black turned to Tony. “Just think…just think, access to all the secrets of life are within our grasp. You’re a man of science yourself. Surely you must appreciate—“
“I appreciate not killing my friends,” Tony growled.
“Some sacrifices must be made in the name of science, my friend,” Dr. Black said.
And then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he slumped to the floor.
Bardham let Tony go, rushing forward. “Doctor!” he exclaimed, dropping to his knee in a panic. All the while, the light from the Helix grew brighter and brighter, the sound louder, but now free of Bardham, Tony struggled to release himself from his restraints.
Then Bardham fell, and it was then that Tony noticed the tiny, brightly-colored dart in Bardham’s neck, a dart just like the one he’d found on Fury’s agent the night before.
He whirled around. The rest of Dr. Black’s cadre had also collapsed to the floor, and lay there, motionless.
Pepper, too, was staring back at the entry.
“Monsieur Stark, Mademoiselle Potts,” said Batroc, nicely, as he stepped into the room, a broad grin on his face. “What a pleasure to see you again. And look, with our stolen jewels.”
“They’re not yours,” Tony said. “And I’m not the one who stole them.”
“We know that,” said another voice, and Tony recognized it as the other man he’d overheard in the funeral home. He squinted into the darkness of the tunnel, and another familiar face appeared: in full Nazi regalia, his red armband bright and worn without shame. “And that’s why we’re inclined to ask for your cooperation.”
It was Baron von Strucker: a man Tony hadn’t seen since his run-in in the ruins of Atlantis. Strucker smirked, walking slowly toward the center of the room, toward Steve and the still-growing, still-solidifying helix.
“Yeah,” said Tony. “Nazis, so much better than murderous geneticists—oh, wait.”
Strucker, though, didn’t wait for anything: he leaned over, scooping the massive Bloodstone from its cradle in the rock.
There was a sound like a cry, like a howling infant, and in a moment’s time, the Helix collapsed, falling away in front of their eyes as if it had only ever been a trick of the light. Steve’s eyes shut, but he remained limp on the rock, pale and gray faced and unmoving.
“Fascinating,” said Strucker, as he tilted the Bloodstone from side to side, examining its facets. “And which one of you did this?”
“Our pal Dr. Black,” Tony answered. He struggled against his bonds, but he had little success freeing himself. Instead, he stepped toward Steve, dropped to one knee beside him.
“Steve, buddy,” he whispered. “C’mon, pal, wake up.”
“So, Black proved a more…interesting foil than even the great Tony Stark,” Strucker mused.
“And here I had thought he was some doddering old fool,” Batroc said, shaking his head, looking rather impressed.
“Yeah, yeah, he had us all tricked,” Tony replied. Unable to release his hands, he dropped lower, pressed his ear to Steve’s heart.
It was beating, if faintly. But it was beating. Tony felt himself awash with relief, and then, unable to help himself, he laughed, out loud.
“What’s so funny, Monsieur?” Batroc asked, narrowing his eyes at Tony.
“Nothing,” Tony answered. He turned to face the men, and then, behind them, saw Pepper crawling slowly across the floor, toward Bubbles and her gun. He quickly swallowed the laughter. “Just…the absurdity of being saved by Nazis.”
“Always so quick to bring politics into everything, Mr. Stark,” said Strucker. He hefted the jewel—like this, the five stones combined, it was larger than his palm, and looked quite heavy.
“I’m not the one wearing mine on my sleeve,” Tony retorted.
Strucker tsked. “There could be a place, for a smart man like you, in the new world order.”
Tony glared, waiting until the gun was in Pepper’s hands. “You know I’m half-Jewish, right?”
“We might make an exception for your other half,” Strucker assured him, with a chuckle.
“You assume that half would make an exception for you.” Tony watched Pepper climb to her feet out of the corner of his eye, not wanting to draw attention. “Go screw yourself, Baron von Fucker,” he spat. “You think you have anything to offer me?”
Pepper kicked off her shoes, stepped up slowly behind Strucker.
“At the moment, I’m offering you your life. It’s not my fault it’s so worthless it’s barely worth bargaining for,” Strucker replied.
Pepper aimed the gun, carefully, quietly.
“Not so fast,” came a new voice. Pepper fell, her gun clattering against the stone floor—the victim of one of the same darts that had taken out Dr. Black and his friends.
Tony snarled. “If you’ve hurt her—“ he started.
And then he froze. Because the man who had spoken was wearing a cloth mask that covered his face, obscuring his identity and his voice.
“Nonsense,” said the newcomer. “And risk losing essential information about our quarry? It’s only a tranquilizer. As long as she cooperates, your friend will be fine.”
The man wheeled a box into the room—a long, narrow box, polished to a high shine, with brass hinges on one side: a coffin.
Tony stammered before he spoke. “Baron- Baron Zemo,” he managed, and shuddered again. He could only begin to imagine what Zemo was doing with a coffin.
And as he watched, Zemo’s face transformed into his father’s, gaunt and blank, the way it had looked when Tony had seen him last, in Atlantis, and once he had seen it, he couldn’t push the vision out of his mind.
“Don’t worry,” said Strucker, and he circled around, clapping Zemo’s shoulder. “It’s not that Zemo. This is our new recruit.” His gaze shifted to Dr. Black as he spoke. “Although I’m eyeing a replacement.”
Tony grimaced. “Welcome to the party,” he said to this new Zemo. “You’ve got some big shoes to fill.”
“I know it,” said Zemo, and he rested a hand on the coffin. “That’s why we’re here.”
“Oh,” Tony breathed. “Oh, no.” It was then that he realized, that at some point, he’d managed to clasp Steve’s hand, cool and limp as it was, between his two bound ones, stroking the spot between Steve’s thumb and forefinger.
He wasn’t sure whether he meant to soothe Steve or himself.
They opened the coffin—and Tony remembered what Steve had said in the pub: of course, of course a funeral home was a perfect cover for moving a coffin around and searching through graveyards. And there, inside, was another figure dressed identically to the masked man before them, his arms crossed over his chest, seemingly dead.
“Dad,” Tony whispered, in spite of himself, and he squeezed Steve’s hand a little harder, without meaning to.
Strucker stalked toward him, reached for Tony by the arm, and dragged him to his feet, away from Steve’s prone figure. He shoved Tony toward the body, until Tony was pressed up against the edge of the coffin, looking down at the corpse of the man who used to be his father.
“I’d offer to let you do the honors,” said Strucker, “but it looks like you’re indisposed.” He smirked at Tony’s hands, still tied behind his back.
Strucker lay the stone atop the chest of the man in the coffin.
"This must be infuriating," Strucker said, "being so close to a cure for your condition, and being unable to touch it."
The stone was beginning to glow, pinkish and warm.
"If you cooperate with us, we might let you try it someday," Zemo put in.
The old Zemo was bathed in light, not the dazzling light of the Helix, but something softer and rosy.
"I don't think it works the way you want it to," Tony said. "Black is obsessed with it; there's got to be a reason Howard wanted to help hide the pieces. It...I think it takes hold of people's sanity." Tony coughed. "Not that you Nazis know what sanity is."
"The one thing that's been puzzling me," said Strucker, rolling his eyes at Tony, "is, if Bloodstone was dead, who hid the last piece."
"I did," came a raspy voice, from inside the coffin.
Zemo—the Zemo in the coffin, the Zemo that had once been Howard, reached for the edge of the coffin, gripping it with a gloved hand that clutched with knuckles that bent stiffly, clawlike.
Tony couldn’t look, couldn’t stop imagining his father’s features superimposed over the mask, couldn’t help hearing the notes of his father’s voice as Zemo spoke.
“You…” Tony narrowed his eyes, so that all he could see was a blurred silhouette, his stomach tight and his heart aching. “You would have known Bloodstone’s plan. Howard would have known—and you—”
The blurred form that was the old Zemo sat up in the coffin, moving slowly and with caution, as if his body ached. He rubbed at his spine, then turned his neck, and, after a moment, sprung from the coffin with surprising ease.
Zemo looked down at his hands, clenched his fingers into fists, then flexed his fingers again, and laughed.
He stepped up to Tony; he was too close, close enough that Tony could see that his chest didn’t rise or fall. Tony opened his eyes, and stepped back.
He was too slow. In the next moment, Zemo’s hands were around his throat, gripping him tightly, and his feet were off the ground. Tony gasped, feeling his windpipe narrow, and fought the bonds at his wrists, to little avail.
“Zemo!” Strucker shouted, while Tony kicked at his assailant. “Zemo, set him down; we need him! He’s the only one who knows—”
Zemo dropped one of his arms, still holding Tony aloft by a single hand, and he reached for his hood.
Tony braced himself, even as he gasped. He knew what came next.
He knew, but when it happened, when Zemo removed the hood, when Tony saw his father’s face, now hollow and pale, staring at him with dead eyes, Tony still wasn’t prepared. He winced, and Zemo’s —Howard’s grip grew tighter; he could feel the man’s fingers bruising his skin.
“You need him?” Howard replied. “There is nothing I don’t know.”
“My predecessor has a damn big head,” said the new Zemo. He reached for the Howard’s arm. “You haven’t even heard the plan, Sir. You—”
But Howard’s dull eyes suddenly came to life with a red fire, and licked his lips. He slammed his fist—the free one—into Zemo’s skull.
Tony had never seen a man killed by a single blow before, not like that, not the way his own father’s fist connected with the faceless mask of the other man, the way the sharp crack sounded, the way the blood seeped through the cloth: the shape of a nose and two eyes bleeding through bright red, marking the mask like a skull.
The new Zemo’s body fell limp the floor.
Tony shut his eyes completely, squeezing them hard, and he gagged, choking and sputtering while he dangled in midair.
“Are you mad?!” Strucker. “Are you—”
But Howard—no, Zemo, this was not his father, no matter how hard it was for Tony to separate the two—Zemo ignored him, walked toward the circular stone, stepped over Steve’s fallen form and stood at the center, raising his other hand into the air. The sunbeams that poured through the skylight seemed to shift, became more directed, and vibrant, blood-red, streaming into Zemo’s open palm, and the stone in his chest glittered dangerously.
Tony felt himself growing lightheaded, but he felt something else, too: something in his chest, a strange, stubborn, clicking sensation, as if the repulsor was struggling against an invisible force, fighting to continue the flow of blood to his arteries.
“Zemo!” Strucker shouted. Zemo turned, and Strucker had a gun pointed at him. “Whatever you think you’re—”
Zemo turned his palm, directed it so that it faced Strucker, and a magnificent blast of crimson light streamed forth from it, throwing Strucker halfway across the room, so that he slammed into the wall, and crumpled to the floor.
Then he looked back to Tony.
The stone in Zemo’s chest had grown brighter, more luminous, and Tony struggled to breathe. “You’re—” he managed. “You’re not Zemo. You’re that...thing....the Helix.”
Zemo’s eyes danced, and he showed a mouth of rotting teeth and blood-red gums. He caught at Tony’s throat with both hands again, but Tony felt something stronger, something like a claw that probed its way into his mind, tugging at him to give himself over to its power. “And you will be the first,” he said eagerly. “To submit your life to my eternal glor—”
Tony was vaguely aware of a loud crack, and then Zemo’s—his father’s—the Helix’s—head exploded, blood spraying across Tony’s face.
The light in the Bloodstone dimmed, and then winked out, as Zemo’s grip on Tony’s neck loosened, and Tony fell to the floor, hard, just barely shielding his head from another hard blow with his arm.
Zemo fell too, backward off the circular stone.
Tony felt a hand on his arm—a small, weak hand, and he twisted his neck to see its owner.
“Steve,” he murmured. He looked at the gun in Steve’s other hand, the way Steve still held the trigger down tight, as if letting go might reverse what he’d done.
Steve smiled weakly at him. “Gun came in handy, after all,” he said, in a thin voice.
Steve’s hand slipped down the length of Tony’s arm, his fingers working the bonds that held Tony captive, and Tony let out a breath as his wrists came untied, and reached for Steve, but in that moment, in the very outer periphery of his vision, he saw Batroc run up to Zemo’s body.
Tony lurched forward, clapping a hand over the stone just as Batroc reached Zemo’s corpse, and he closed his fingers around it; wrenching it free.
Batroc lunged for the Bloodstone, and Tony felt a surge of power from reserves he didn’t know he had. He threw a punch at the other man. It landed harder than he expected, knocking Batroc off his feet.
“Don’t—” he snapped at Batroc, but with the Bloodstone securely in his hand, it drew all of his attention.
It was warm, and Tony wasn’t sure if he imagined it pulsing in his fingers, but the moment he touched it, he could feel it pulling at him, felt a sudden urge to press it to his own chest. Somehow, somehow he knew it would cure him, knew that if he wore the stone, all his ills would be healed forever.
He shut his eyes, and the stone called out to him, even when he wasn’t looking. He took a breath, opened his eyes, looked down at his chest, and he longed.
“Tony?” said a voice, that seemed very distant. Tony felt a hand on his shoulder, light as a feather. “Tony, you have to get rid of it.”
The words weren’t enough. Tony drew the stone closer to himself, and he felt it grow warmer, as if every inch filled it with deeper and deeper joy.
He pressed it up against his chestplate, and the power surged through him, rich and alive, like nothing he’d ever felt before. He suddenly felt so alert, so awake, so strong. It was as if he were surrounded by a heavenly light; it was blinding, and twinkled everywhere.
He turned his attention toward Batroc again, and he sneered at the man—he was so weak, Tony thought, such a pathetic animal. He sneered at him, a cold glee filling his body, and he wondered, wondered if the power he felt was real, if he could make Batroc pay for what he’d done.
Batroc, still lying on the floor, stared up at him, frozen in horror.
Then something hit his face, sharply, and he was thrown back by the blow.
He caught his cheek; it smarted. Suddenly, the light was gone. Suddenly, there was nothing in front of him but Steve, Steve with his palm raised, pink from the impact.
Tony gaped, and lifted a hand to his cheek.
“Sorry,” Steve said, his voice shaking, “but you were—the look on your face, Tony—”
But it only took a moment for the light to reassert itself, for Tony to be surrounded by bliss again.
This time, something wrenched at his chest, though, and when he was shaken from his reverie, the stone was in Steve’s hands, and Steve was staring down at it, his eyes wide.
Tony shook himself. “Steve,” he said, hesitantly, knowing just what Steve might be feeling in that moment.
“Help,” Steve said, weakly. “Help me get rid of it.”
Tony held his hand out, and they each grappled at an edge of the stone, and Steve wrenched hard at the fragments, but they wouldn’t budge. He was panting; his cheeks were red and his breath was ragged.
Tony took a breath, and reached for the valve on his repulsor once more. Steve’s eyes followed the motion of his hand, and he heard Steve’s breath hitch.
“You can’t--” Steve started.
“We need more firepower,” Tony replied. “Remember what I showed you. If it goes bust--”
Steve shivered, visibly. “Count to three and pull the lever,” he murmured.
Tony raised the stone in front of his chest again, and he could feel Steve’s fingers on his arm, digging into his flesh as if he were holding on for dear life.
Tony let the valve release slip. The force of the power from his repulsor tore through the Bloodstone, sending the fragments flying across the room, shimmering ruby in the light as here, one ricocheted off the wall, another lodged itself hard in the ceiling.
No sooner had the stone been torn apart, then Steve’s fingers flew over Tony’s, forcing the valve back into place before Tony could shut it himself.
“We...can’t leave it here,” Steve said, and he hacked, loudly, his body curling with the force of his coughs. “This is only temporary. We need to...it’s gotta be destroyed.” Sweat slicked his hair and trickled furiously down his neck.
“Steve,” Tony murmured, worried at the toll it seemed to have on him. He reached for Steve’s wrist.
Their eyes met, and Steve’s were furious, glinting icy as he blinked at Tony. “You—” Steve murmured. “You can’t keep—”
The next thing Tony knew, Steve’s hand was tangled in his shirt, tugging him forward, and then Steve’s lips were on his, kissing him soundly.
Tony’s heart began to beat so fast he was sure the repulsor wouldn’t keep up. At least, he thought to himself, there were worse ways to die.
But then Steve’s mouth went slack, and Steve slumped against him, limp and listless.
Tony reached for his cheek. “Steve?” he murmured softly, his voice quivering. “Steve, are you—”
Steve didn’t respond.
Tony gathered Steve up in his arms, listening to his faint whisper of a heartbeat.
“Steve?” He whispered again. “Steve, c’mon, you—”
He was interrupted by loud footsteps in the hall. Before he could turn, Tony heard a familiar voice in the doorway.
“What the hell is this mess?”
Tony staggered weakly to his feet, catching Steve up in his arms. He wobbled a little, unsteady. “Fury?” he asked, turning to see the man with a half-dozen well-armed soldiers.
“Rogers put out a distress call,” Fury answered. He tapped at his cigar; ash drifted to the floor. “Unless you wanna tell me you were just having a friendly gravedigging party.”
Grimly, Fury pointed to Strucker and Batroc, both knocked out cold. “Arrest those men,” he said. “And—” He frowned at Dr. Black, at his compatriots. “Are these with you, Stark?”
“Nah,” Tony said, and he nodded at Pepper, where she still lay slumped from the tranquilizer. “Just Pep. Though—” he frowned. “They might not have been acting of their own volition. I—I dunno.”
Fury sighed. “Arrest them, too.” He rubbed at his chin with a hand, and squinted at Tony. “We’ll decide what to do with you later.”
Tony looked down at Steve, limp in his arms, his breathing faint. “What about Steve?” He asked. “You got him into this; you owe him.”
“Do I?” Fury raised an eyebrow.
Tony took a rasping breath. “He thinks you can fix him,” Tony replied.
Fury’s mouth might have twitched.
A day later, Steve was still out cold.
Tony and Pepper both sat vigil in his hospital room, an eerie, dimly-lit room in some kind of secret facility hidden beneath a barbershop, and if Tony slid his chair a little too close to Steve’s bed, or if he pressed his fingers to the back of Steve’s hand a little too often, or whispered a few too many pleas for Steve to wake up, Pepper didn’t mention it.
Pepper sat with her pen between her lips, frowning in consternation at the next page on her notebook.
“Writing?” Tony asked.
She bobbed her head. “We’ve just arrived at the auction. Well, you've arrived at the auction. I'm trying to decide whether Steve should be a blonde or a brunette. I figure I can call him Penelope, just to see if anyone gets the joke.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “You're making him a girl,” he observed.
Pepper shrugged, running a hand through her own marmalade hair. “I can't leave out the romance,” she said, smiling softly at Tony. “That's the best part.”
Tony looked from Pepper to Steve, and clutched Steve’s fingers a little more tightly. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
Doctors marched in and out of the room, pushing Tony aside, speaking in murmurs over Steve's unconscious body, and as much as Tony strained to hear them, he couldn't make anything out.
"How is he?" he asked, when Fury stopped in.
"You think I know better than you?" Fury asked, his expression suspicious. "They said you haven't left the damn room."
"Yeah, but the docs won't tell either of us what the problem is," Tony said. "It's like having a front-row seat to a play where everybody's mumbling their lines."
"You two don't have to stick around, you know," Fury said, and he looked Tony over with suspicion. "I'm sure you got graves to rob or something; I'd hate to keep you."
Tony looked at Pepper, who gave him a reassuring smile in return. He flashed Fury a bright grin. "We figure if the kid doesn't make it, I can lift his wallet or something," he answered, with an easy shrug, trying to carefully train his expression to one of cheerful Indifference that showed none of the turmoil he felt.
Fury gave him a skeptical look. "Suit yourself," he said, as he turned toward the door. “I’ve got better things to do than babysit, and I doubt Rogers has much of value in his wallet.”
Tony must have drifted off to sleep at some point that night, because he dreamed that he and Steve were walking on a beach, hand in hand.
Steve was taller in Tony’s dream, taller and more muscular, healthier-looking, not so pale. They were talking, very intently, when Tony remembered that he had to dig for something, and he dropped to his knees in the sand, digging a hole right there on the beach.
The seawater rushed in, smoothing out the hole, eroding its walls, so that when the tide cleared, Tony could see a cavern below, and he climbed into the hole—now a tunnel—and began lowering himself down.
“Tony,” Steve said, and then he repeated himself again. “Tony, come back. Tony.”
Tony kept climbing down into the cavern; it was lit with lanterns, and there was a cart, a horse-drawn cart, and his father—not Zemo, but Howard, his father, with all his faculties intact and his eyes bright—waiting for him in the driver’s seat.
“Tony,” Steve said again, and this time, Tony felt a pressure on his hand, and shook himself awake, to find himself looking at the fuzzy silhouette of Steve’s figure in the pale light.
His vision resolved, and Steve was looking at him, head tilted to one side.
Tony hooked his fingers through Steve’s. “You’re awake,” he whispered.
“You’re here,” Steve whispered back.
Tony scooted his chair a little bit closer. He squinted into the darkness, spied Pepper asleep in the chair in the corner. Looking back to Steve, he raised Steve’s hand to his cheek, pressing it there for a moment.
“Yeah,” Tony said, when Steve didn’t pull his hand away. He kissed Steve’s hand, once on each knuckle. “You had me worried for a second, there, Rogers. You feeling okay?”
Steve nodded. “I’m sorry, Tony,” he said, looking away uncomfortably. “I know you wanted to...I know it might’ve fixed your heart...I just couldn’t…”
“No,” Tony answered. “It was the right call, Steve. You listening to me? It was the right call.”
Steve went back to sleep again, not too long after that. He curled up on his side, now facing Tony, Tony’s hand still tight in his. Tony watched him warily at first, but Steve’s breathing seemed even, and his pulse seemed normal, and after a while, he fell asleep again, too.
Steve slept on and off through the morning, but he had enough energy to swallow down breakfast and to scold Tony into bathing and changing his clothes.
Not that Tony had any more clothing—they’d gone through every last item in his luggage in the past two days. So, instead, Fury loaned him some sort of drab, military-looking gear, and he returned to Steve’s room in beige pants and a beige shirt, just in time for Fury himself to visit.
Uncertain what to do with himself when anyone else was in the room, Tony stood awkwardly by the wall, feeling stiff and out of place.
“Doctors say you’re up,” Fury said, as he looked Steve over.
“See for yourself,” Steve answered with a shrug.
Tony could see something calculating in Fury’s gaze, something Tony didn’t quite trust, and he could feel his chest puffing up and his shoulders squaring in spite of himself, and he tugged himself back further against the wall, hoping Fury didn’t notice.
Fortunately, it seemed as if Fury’s attention was all for Steve.
“Feeling alright?” Fury asked.
“Peachy,” Steve replied. “Y’know, for having my life-essence sucked out by an immortal monstrosity. Could be worse.”
Fury cracked a smile. “Good boy,” he said. He rested his hands on his hips, more casually than Tony was used to seeing from Fury, and shifted his weight between his feet. “So, Rogers, we’ve been talking.”
“Yeah?” Steve asked. “About what?”
“About you.” Fury glanced at Tony, briefly, but meaningfully enough that Tony knew what was coming next, and it left him with an unexpected sense of relief.
“Project Rebirth,” Fury said. “We’ve talked it over. You’re in. You’ll be our first subject.”
Tony smiled, relaxed and satisfied, looking Steve over as Steve frowned at the news.
Now Steve looked to Tony, and Tony shot him a thumbs-up for encouragement.
Steve smiled back. “No, thanks,” he said.
“What?” Tony asked.
“What?” Fury said, simultaneously.
“I’d still like to serve,” Steve said, straightening up in the hospital bed, bringing himself to his rather unimpressive full height. “But I’d like to withdraw my application from Project Rebirth. If it’s all the same to you.”
Fury squinted at Steve, his mouth tightening into a grimace. “Mr. Rogers, you know what the serum’ll do for you. If it’s successful, it stands a good chance of fixing—”
Steve smiled, easily, his eyes full of light, and shook his head. “Sir,” he said, conviction behind every word. “I’m little; I’m not broken.”
Tony blinked as he heard his own words echoed back at him. He looked at Steve, and felt a surge of warmth travel up his arms and across his chest.
Fury raised an eyebrow. “You sure about that?” He asked. “There’s not gonna be another chance like this, y’know.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, and he nodded now, resolute and sharp. “I’m sure.”
They discharged Steve after another day, and after some wheedling, Tony convinced him to come back to the Savoy to recover for the few short says it would take for Jarvis to pilot the Zeppelin across the Atlantic.
On their last day, Tony and Pepper packed up their things—the number of things somewhat depleted by their misadventures—while Steve sat in a chair, sipping lemonade, and trading stories of boyhood in Brooklyn for Tony’s stories about boyhood in Queens. And when the car came, Steve joined them on their trip.
The airship’s balloon glimmered in the rose-colored beams of late afternoon sun, limning the vessel with a hazy halo.
Tony teased at Steve's fingers, swinging their arms between them, and waved at Jarvis as Jarvis lowered the gang.
"I don't suppose I can convince you to come aboard, let me show you around?" Tony asked.
Steve smiled, a close-lipped smile, wistful and a little shy. "Is that a trick to get me to stay forever?" he asked.
Tony raised an eyebrow. The back of his throat felt tight; his eyes stung. He tried not to blink, didn't want Steve to see him go misty-eyed. "D'you want it to be?"
Steve looked at him, long and hard, and his lips parted. "Yeah," he said. "But I can't. Not yet."
The words wrenched at Tony's heart, and he wrapped his arms around Steve, embracing him tightly. "I'm gonna hold onto that 'yet,'" he said, in a whisper.
Steve's fingers twisted into the fabric of Tony's shirt, untucking it from his trousers. "Thank you," he murmured.
"For almost getting you killed?" Tony joked, trying to ignore the way his voice was cracking. "My pleasure, anytime you want to stare death in the eye, ring me up."
And Steve pulled away, clapping Tony on the arm in an affable way, his grin a little too large.
If Steve had been a woman, if they had been somewhere more private, Tony would have swept him up in his arms and kissed him hard enough that Tony's lips would have smarted all the way back to New York.
Instead, he clapped Steve's arm in return. “You sure about this?” he asked. “You know you have a place aboard.”
“I know,” Steve answered. “I’ve gotta tie my loose ends up here. Finish things up with Fury, even if I’m not gonna be his lab rat.”
“You’re a better man than I am,” Tony informed him. “I woulda hightailed it out of there in a minute.” Tony shoved his hands in his pockets, to keep himself from reaching for Steve again. "Don't be a stranger," he said.
Their eyes lingered on each other a moment longer before Tony turned toward the airship.
He looked over his shoulder three times, then four, and finally a fifth before he boarded.
Jarvis dropped the mail down atop his paper, and Tony frowned as he saw the topmost envelope, the battered one addressed in his own blocky hand, with a big ADDRESS UNKNOWN stamped across the front.
He pressed his fingertip to Steve’s name, written neatly in blue ink, and sighed.
The rhythmic tapping of Pepper’s typewriter keys stopped. “No dice?” She asked.
Tony shook his head. “Nope,” he answered. “Still no.”
He put the envelope aside, atop the stack of returned letters that was growing higher and higher.
“He’s probably still working for Fury,” Pepper said, reassuringly. “He…” she pursed her lips. “He’d get in touch if he could.”
“I hope so,” Tony said, and then the room fell into silence, so quiet that tear of the paper as he opened the next envelope in the stack seemed to echo up to the vaulted ceilings of the library.
A book fell out of the envelope and onto the desk.
It was battered, and worn, and had no title on the embossed leather cover.
He opened it up, and read the careful cursive letters in the inside cover.
Maria Stark, 1911.
Tony gasped audibly, and dropped the book as if it had burned him; his hands stinging, a chill going up his spine.
“What is it?” Pepper asked.
He didn’t answer. Instead, he carefully picked the book up again, and turned to the first page.
On it, in fading ink, was a crude, hand-drawn map, with a few landmarks picked out in gilded paint.
He slid his finger along the curve of Lake Pontchartrain, to a spot where someone had drawn a red X.
The next page had a list of three words: Barataria, Castillon, and Beluche.
The third page had a brittle, yellowed newspaper article pasted to it, detailing a rumor of a treasure in the Natalbany River.
Tony tapped at the page, and then stood up. “Well, friends,” he said, taking a deep breath. “Who wants to go to Louisiana?”
When they got to the airfield the next morning, Rhodey was already aboard the airship, making a final check of their supplies.
“Good to have you aboard again, pal,” Tony said, giving Rhodey a firm pat on the back.
“I saw what you did to your ribs in London, remember?” Rhodey reminded him. “No more adventures without me, yeah?”
“To be fair, I was expecting an auction, not an adventure,” Tony said, a little apologetically. He held his hands up to either side. “Believe me, if I’d known what we were getting into, there’s no way I would have gone without you and J.”
Rhodey grinned, and picked up a wrench from the workbench. “Like anything you do doesn’t turn into an adventure, Tony.”
Tony made a face. “I was caught completely off-guard. Believe me. Big surprise. Huge. Gargantuan.”
“Speaking of surprises,” Rhodey said, and he turned away from Tony, focusing his attention on one of the metal suits that stood in wait on their racks, “there was a delivery for you this morning. It’s in your bunk.”
“Delivery?” Tony asked, frowning. “You know what it is? I wasn’t expecting any—”
“Like I said,” Rhodey replied. “Surprise.”
Tony rolled his eyes and made his way down the corridor to his bunk.
The delivery was sitting on Tony’s bed, blond hair tousled, blue eyes glowing as Tony stepped into the narrow room.
“Steve,” Tony said, his heart skipping a beat, and he blinked, hard, half-expecting Steve to disappear.
Steve stood up, walked forward, and looked up at Tony with wide eyes that moved over Tony’s face as if he were studying it. His lips drew apart into the widest grin Tony could remember seeing on Steve’s face, and he stepped up on his tiptoes, pressing his lips softly to Tony’s.
Tony bumped his forehead against Steve’s, catching Steve up in his arms, and he shut his eyes as he kissed him back.
Steve reached out a hand, steadying himself by catching at a handful of Tony’s shirt.
“Hi,” he said. “Think I could get that tour now?”