"A person lived - a person died. Only the name remains-"
The only furniture in the room was a grey metal table and two chairs, although the hammer and sickle hung on the wall, the red and gold of the flag a gash of color against the dull institutional green of the paintwork. Overhead, the bar of the electric light crackled and hissed, dusty and flyblown, and the metallic clangs echoing from the barred window suggested other rooms and other doors.
Sour and stale and familiar, the air smelled of cabbage soup.
Stretched clammy and still damp over his thighs, Steve's leathers creaked as he moved. Time had rotted the stitching on the seams, faded the red and blue of the dye and rusted every rivet into crumbling decay. His boots were sodden with mud, his gauntlets singed and tattered, his shield missing. A week after he had woken from the ice, six stories underground, he was beyond thirteen checkpoints and two heavily fortified gatehouses. The guards he had seen wore uniforms he did not recognize, and the SHIELD insignia on their uniforms was not the image for which he had fought, although their Russian had the sharp-cadenced military emphasis Steve knew well. Their weapons were lighter and sleeker than the weapons he had used, their boots were sturdy and their faces were round and well fed. The closed car in which he had traveled had moved smoothly and quietly over roads that were neither the rutted tracks of the steppe nor the concrete slabs of wartime engineering.
He thought he was in Moscow. He knew he was in prison. He had seen the future, and it was not his friend.
But when the door opened to a man in uniform, he stood up and saluted.
The man in the doorway was black, just like some of the GI drivers Steve had shared American candy and Russian vodka with, on the road from the railhead at Murmansk. The eye patch over his left eye gave him a rakish air, but the set of his shoulders and his face were weary. In his hands he held a dusty manila folder, and a newspaper so freshly printed that the smell of the ink was still acrid and sharp. His uniform was plain, without rank or epaulettes, but his stance was that of a man who expected to be obeyed at all costs. This was not a party functionary. This was a man who had fought and won and expected to fight again.
"Sir," Steve said.
"You present us an almost insolvable problem," said the man.
He slapped the folder down on the table. Dust clouded the metal, little puffs of dull shading. Steve's own name stared back at him, and under it a red stamp which read, 'Deceased.' It was a thin folder.
The headlines on the newspaper read, 'Putin refuses talks with Chechen rebels.' The date was November 11th, 2004.
Sixty years after he'd gone into the ice.
He had no idea who Putin was.
The packet was an unfamiliar red and white cardboard, with a clear plastic wrapping that crackled as it was unwrapped. The cigarettes themselves were ready rolled, fat cylinders of white and brown, stuffed with coarse golden tobacco. Steve thought of his commandos picking apart butts for shreds of tobacco, rolling cigarettes with pages torn from newpapers and propaganda leaflets.
Between his finger and thumb, held away from the proffered packet, the man held an unlit cigar.
"Thanks, but I don't smoke," Steve said.
"Suit yourself." The ratcheted wheel of the lighter snapped, flint on steel, the flare of the flame sharply bright. His cigar lit, the man breathed out a thin trail of smoke and let it spiral up to the ceiling.
"Colonel Fury," he said.
"Commander Rogers," said Steve. "Captain-"
"Captain America," Colonel Fury said. "Yes, I am aware." He took another pull on his cigar and stubbed it out, half-smoked, on the tabletop. "You have no idea," he said, his single eye narrowed, "What an embarrassment you are to us."
"Sir," Steve said stiffly.
"If you hadn't died at Verhoyansk," Fury said, "You would have died soon enough. Stalin won the war, soldier. All references to American lend-lease supplies were expunged from the record. Your films were destroyed. They tore your posters down a week after you went missing. Your unit was disbanded. Your country no longer exists."
He tapped the cigarette packet on the table, frowning.
"You're obsolete, Captain," he said.
"The super serum-"
"Never existed," said Fury sharply.
Steve looked away. The paintwork on the wall was sloppy, streaks of light grey among the dark green.
"I could bury you so far under the ice a nuclear strike couldn't blast you out of there," Fury said.
Steve set his shoulders. There was something subtly off about the color of the flag, a brighter red than he remembered, but the flags he had followed in the war had been smoke-grimed and faded. "Sir."
Fury said, "But you're in luck. I have one last mission for you, Captain." He flipped open the file. Lying on top of the first document was Steve's party card and his internal passport. Fury slid the cards across the table. "Let's call it...a loyalty check to our new Russia," he said, tapped Steve's signature on his hard-won membership card, and flipped the newspaper over. At the bottom of the front page there was a photograph, the ink of it cleaner than any wartime image, of a man in his early forties with a neatly trimmed goatee. He was wearing sunglasses, smiling, as false and sharp as any cartoon image of an arms profiteer. The byline read, 'Stark returns to Moscow.' For a moment hope bloomed warm across Steve's skin, and then was gone, because as he read he realized this was not Howard. This was Howard's son, the industrialist, the inventor, the leader of private enterprise, every value opposed to his father's, every skill turned to profit alone. Steve, horrified, wondered to what kind of Russia he had come back, if scientists no longer worked for the good of the state and industry was governed by the selfishness of private gain. How many workers suffered and starved so that this man could have his dacha and his crisp white shirts, those cufflinks, the shark smile that gleamed even in black and white?
Fury leaned forward. "This man could be a greater threat to our country than the Third Reich," he said.
Steve set his jaw and said, "I'm not an assassin."
Fury smiled, small and vicious. "We have other people," he said. "No. I want you to follow him. Note what he does, who he meets. What he says. Any information could be significant. Anything," he said. "Work with him. Learn from him. Watch him."
Steve said nothing.
"Your country still needs you," Fury said.
They'd left one NKVD informer in Malgobek, another in Ordzhonikidze. In Kalach, they'd stopped the train to get Yaakov back, after an ill-judged drunken chorus the wrong ears had heard. Yaakov had taken a bullet to the head two weeks later, but it had been a clean death.
Steve had dragged himself out of the ice with nothing but his uniform. He lacked intelligence, weapons, communications, anything that would allow him to find his feet in this strange new world. He had no commanding officer, no unit, no idea to whom or to what he owed his allegiance.
He said, "Yes," and picked up his cards from the table. Steve had left off the sir, and by the thinning of his mouth the colonel had noticed, but he said nothing.
Fury took the file with him when he left, and then the lights went out.
They sent a woman for him later, small and slim and red-haired, and by the fit of her uniform and the weapons on her hips she was as lethal as the women Steve had served with on the Eastern Front. There was a pinched blankness to her eyes that told him she'd fought her own wars. She introduced herself as Agent Romanoff, a name that had to be assumed. He wondered, following her through the institutional anonymity of the corridors, past checkpoint after checkpoint, if she had orders to kill him if he tried escaping. He'd thought about it, when the electricity had flickered and failed, and the darkness of the cell had pressed down on him as heavily as the ice had done.
Outside, it was still snowing, soft, wet flakes of snow that spiraled down in the glare from the floodlights. Damp and split, Steve's boots did nothing to keep out the knifing cold underfoot, but Romanoff walked as if she could slide between every flake. Her footprints were small and crisp-edged.
The car waiting for them was big and black, the doors silent when they opened, but the interior smelled of cigarette ash and old sweat. Steve was stiff with cold. Romanoff sat bolt upright on the leather seat, staring ahead as they drove through the gates.
"Ma'am," he began.
She pinned him with a stare dark and hard as gunmetal.
"Just don't get in my way, soldier," she said, "and we'll be fine."
There were no handles on the inside of the car doors.
Outside the window, the roads were wide and dark, unrecognizable. Concrete buildings, blind-windowed, towered up into the night sky. The architecture was brutally plain, the streets empty of people, but knotted and tangled with overhead telegraph wires, as if every house had a telephone. A cat ran in front of the car's headlights. If this was Moscow, it was very different to the Moscow Steve knew, with its crowded tenements and bustling streets.
It was only when the car pulled onto New Arbat that he knew where he was. He couldn't help leaning forward, realizing with an absurd lift of his heart that the domes of Saint Basil's and the walls of the Kremlin were lit against the night sky, familiar and strange at once. Red Square shocked him with its emptiness, but the rows of houses along the streets behind the square were startlingly well kept, the car's headlights passing over ironwork and neatly trimmed plants in ceramic pots. The car gathered speed. Romanoff glanced at the driver. They must still be in central Moscow, but the road was empty and unlit.
It was just as likely that Stark was a government agent as a traitor. No soviet, no government, would allow him to be what he was without powerful patrons. Steve wished he'd been able to read the full article, but he didn't need to read about Stark's dedication to crop yields or factory production to know that his party record must be impeccable, his connections powerful, and his position as dangerous as any wartime general's. His access to information alone must put him in a position of power many would envy. The party...the party knew best, of course, but the higher up within party circles the more dangerous the air. Even Steve knew that.
Russia was the party. The party was Russia.
Neither of these things were true.
His fingers clenched, fisting.
Sooner than he expected, still in central Moscow, the car stopped in front of a set of wrought iron gates. They were closed, but the arrogant display of the Stark forged into the metalwork was identification enough. Romanoff waited for the car door to open and then walked up to the gatepost, where a small square box was fixed to the stonework. She pressed a button, and spoke into the grill. Stark must have telegraph wires routed to his gateway.
There were guards watching from the gatehouse, alert, unmoving figures behind darkened windows.
Swinging slowly apart, the gates opened unaided, silently. The snow on the driveway behind was pristine in the car's headlights.
Romanoff, sitting, did not brush the snow from her shoulders.
The house was big. A bourgeois mansion, massively built in Tsarist times, the windows blank-paned, snow settling on the unnecessary curlicues and architraves of the stonework. Steve thought of the towering concrete tenements, and wondered how many families a mansion this size could house. He'd seen places like this, burned out and blackened, on the Eastern Front. The rooms had been the size of barracks.
There'd been a curtain across the corner of the tenement room Steve and his mother shared with two other families. She'd smiled at him, and said it was a good job he was small.
The first time he'd had a room to himself, at the laboratory, he hadn't been able to sleep.
The snow was still falling. Romanoff spoke her name into the metal box at the front doors. A man's voice replied, tinny. Steve didn't catch the words, but the tone was unmistakably disgruntled. He looked away, but the car headlights, cut with snow, turned the night into impenetrable darkness.
The doors opened. Romanoff looked back at him once and jerked her head, and Steve walked up the steps behind her.
Shocked by light and silence, Steve's impression of Stark Mansion was emptiness. Then dirt. The floor under his feet was tiled with marble, chequered black and white, but covered with dried mud and cold underfoot. There was a staircase, broad, also marble, leading up to a balustraded landing. Then another. The roof was a skylight, the glass black with night and the design of it both elegant and simple, and Steve caught his breath at the beauty of it even as he winced at the privilege it represented. Extravagantly wasteful, the whole space was illuminated, electric light gleaming from the marble and striking the balustrades into sharply defined shadows.
All the doors were closed. There was nothing he recognized from the crowded apartment buildings of his childhood with their dark entranceways and glimpses of the noise and color of other families. No children laughing behind closed doors, no lovers tucked under the staircase, no pair of old comrades sitting on the steps, sharing a bottle of vodka and murmuring songs about forgotten wars. There were no bicycles stacked against the railings, no iron frame for beating rugs, no grandmother slipping from door to door with a hoarded jar of tea or sugar, no bustle of shift workers leaving for the factory gates.
The place echoed with loneliness.
This was a house in decay. There were drifts of leaves on the tiled floor and canvas cases leaning against the wall, battered, dusty packing chests and boxes stacked in corners. The balustrades leaned dangerously from the staircase and landings, missing spindles, and the paneled wooden doors around the hall and the landings were splintered, their paint peeling. The plasterwork of the walls was stained and cracked. A panel of glass was missing from the skylight: Steve was standing in a small puddle of melting snow.
Standing, very still, Romanoff had her head on one side, listening. Then machinery rumbled, the sound of it muffled and absent, as if it was far underground. The floor under Steve's feet vibrated and the muddy water on the tiles shook, spilling sideways. Moments later, the door beside the staircase opened, and Stark was there.
In the photograph in the newspaper, Stark had been dangerously urbane. There had been arrogance in the cut of his suit, the glint of his cufflinks, the whiteness of his predatory smile and the manicured vanity of his beard. The man that Steve saw now, the same man, wore a grubby pair of blue overalls, tied at the waist, and an undershirt, stained with oil. There was a wrench in one of his hands, a smear of grease on his cheekbone, and his hair was raked into spikes, although his beard was as carefully shaped as it had been in the newspaper photograph. But the way he stood, feet apart, hips canted, louche and arrogant, was exactly the cartoon figure of the industrialist Steve had expected. It was men like this who had beggared his country and enslaved his comrades.
"Romanoff," Stark said, not moving.
"Stark," said Romanoff.
Narrowed, Stark's eyes moved from Romanoff's small upright figure to Steve. Consciously, Steve found himself straightening under that hostile glare, squaring his shoulders and raising his chin. Stark's eyes flickered once, a dismissive up-and-down glance that made Steve's hand itch for his shield.
"I don't do charity," said Stark.
"Article 437D," Romanoff said.
"Fine," said Stark. "You know what, I'll just open a home for orphans right here. Kittens. Nuclear missiles. I hear the Ayatollah's got some to spare. Shame about the guidance systems but hey, can't have everything, right? It's not as if I haven't got more important things to do. Tell you what, Romanoff, let's get chummy and polish some casings together. What'd you say, huh?"
He stood with his head cocked, his smile all teeth behind the thrust of his absurd goatee.
"You're under contract," said Romanoff.
"I agreed to inspection visits," Stark said, "For the tech. Prearranged. I did not agree to have a SHIELD operative living in my house. I certainly did not agree to...who the fuck are you?"
It would be so easy to punch Stark's words down his throat. Steve gritted his teeth and said, "Commander Rogers."
Stark blinked, once.
Romanoff turned and walked towards the staircase. Her heels clacked, hard and sharp, on the marble, and her shoulders and hips moved in perfect military cadence, tight and exact as the tick of a metronome.
"You're dripping on my floor, Commander," said Stark, using the offensively familiar ty rather than vy. His voice was different, a little strained, but he was walking forward. His eyes ran over Steve's tattered uniform, his boots, the gauntlets he was clutching in one hand. Just out of arm's reach, Stark circled around the puddle, and Steve standing in it.
Swallowing, Steve suppressed both the urge to apologize and the punch his fist itched to give.
Stark's eyes lingered on the split in Steve's leathers, where the skin of his thigh showed, reddened with cold. "I just want to put on record that I am not okay with this," he said.
Steve said, "I heard you the first time. Comrade." Emphatic, Steve's formal vy echoed between them.
The bark of laughter that was Stark's response was short and sharp. "Comrade," he said. "That's so...dated. What, shall we sing the Internationale and affirm our manly bonding while we plan to stab each other in the back?"
There were so many things wrong with that question Steve nearly choked on them.
"Judging by that dumbstruck expression, big guy, I guess they didn't brief you," said Stark. "Work on that. Meantime, pick a room. Any room. It's not like I haven't got the space."
"I noticed," said Steve. "But then, it's not like people actually need homes. Workers. People that produce things while you banter."
"I'll get right on that," said Stark. "When I've finished actually employing people and paying them wages which they can use to, you know, buy their own homes." He paused. Then he said, "If it wasn't for the fact that Fury loves to mess with my head, I could almost believe you are who you say you are. Prig."
"Bourgeoisie," said Steve.
"Grunt," said Stark, with contempt.
"Profiteer," hissed Steve.
"Guilty," said Stark, his eyes glittering. "So why don't you take advantage of my ill-gotten gains and stop freezing to death in my hallway?"
"You don't do charity," Steve said, furious.
"Maybe for you I'll make an exception," said Stark. "Captain." He smiled, rocking back on his heels, quick and sharp and alienating as a photographer's flashbulb.
"Your father would be ashamed," said Steve, flushed with anger, warm at last.
"Huh," Stark said, poised. He looked away for a second, and then smiled again, tight and hard and false. "You know what? You're right. And I don't care." He spun around, hefted the wrench in his hand, and cocked it over his shoulder as jauntily as any soviet farmer on a railway station billboard. "Turn the lights out when you go," he said, "Wouldn't want to waste the electricity."
In seconds, the door slammed behind him. The machinery under the floor rumbled.
Steve, alone, climbed up the staircase. Away from SHIELD's sharp eyes and Stark's mocking voice, he was willing to admit that, despite the super serum that ran through his veins, he was cold, tired, hungry, and utterly out of place. He missed his unit. He missed his shield. He'd lost his bearings, somewhere along the way. Sixty years later, he felt as if he was still at war, with an enemy he did not understand, and without the steadying comradeship of his commandos. He could not trust Fury. Howard Stark's son was everything the newspaper had told him and more. Everything had changed, and not for the better, and he did not understand anything about the world into which he had woken.
At the top of the stairs, he stopped. On either side, the balcony curved around the gaping space of the hall, every door closed and unwelcoming. There was carpet on the floor of the landing, red, worn, but Steve still bent down and took off his muddy boots. When he looked up, he'd been wrong: one of the doors was cracked open, and when he peered inside there was a bed. The windows were barred, and the door had a lock and a key, stiff with old, thick paint. There were two closet doors, both sealed, and a battered wooden chair he could jam under the door handle.
He was as secure as he could be in enemy territory. He rolled onto the bed, and was asleep in moments.
When he woke up, instantly alert, someone had given him a blanket. On the chair were a set of fatigues in a soft, warm fabric the exact shade his uniform had been, new, in the war. Underneath it, a pair of lightweight ankle length boots in his size, and to the side underwear wrapped in a packet of plastic as thin as onion-skin, a toothbrush, soap and a washcloth, and a razor. His own boots and his gauntlets were missing. He'd slept too deeply to notice, which was worrying in this place where there was no one to watch his back, a habit he couldn't afford to repeat.
By the angle of the sun through the uncurtained window and the long shadows on the floorboards, he'd slept through morning and into the afternoon. He needed a shave, his leathers had dried onto his skin and felt stiff and awkward, and his stomach was growling with hunger, but rested, he felt as if he was nearly himself again. Stretching, his muscles were as firm and elastic as if he'd just come out of the iron coffin, and for the first time since he'd crawled from the ice he could feel the familiar itch under his skin that demanded action.
The door to one of the closets had been pushed open. The inside, flushing toilet he'd almost expected. The shower, all steel and chrome and glass, endlessly hot, was a sybaritic pleasure he could barely bring himself to ration. The towels were positively decadent, and the heated, carpeted floor a revelation. The rest of the house was a mess; the bathroom was a modernist's dream.
When Steve went for his new clothes, Stark was sitting on his bed.
"Fury never sends me nice things," said Stark. He was leaning back on his elbow, his feet crossed at the ankles, as conscious as a model striking a pose. He wore smooth-soled shoes and a suit that was cut to fit, the stitching on it so fine it was almost invisible. He'd shaved, the line of his goatee razor sharp. "I mean, look at Romanoff. The best secretary I've ever had, and she can kill me in eighty-four different ways before breakfast."
"Count again," said Romanoff, from outside the door.
"See?" said Stark. He seemed unconcerned.
Steve let the wet towel fall from his head to his shoulders. Stark's eyes tracked the line of it, then snapped back up.
"How much do you know about background radiation?" asked Stark. "Nothing? Right. I guess the unstable isotope conversation's gonna go just as well. Seriously, what the hell did they teach you in school?"
"Russian," said Steve.
"Okay fine," said Stark. "So, the mass spectrometry tests..." He dried up.
Steve glanced back, pulling up his fatigues.
"They weren't lying on the serum front," Stark muttered. He had Steve's gauntlets in his hands, considerably cleaner than they had been the night before.
"What he meant to say," said Romanoff, leaning against the door, "Was that he ran tests on your clothing last night. He came and hung over your bed with a scalpel."
"Like that's not creepy or anything," said Stark. His face was all wounded innocence, sly as a saboteur.
"I wasn't lying about who I am," Steve said. He pulled hard at the laces on the soft boots, snapped one, and had to knot it, fumbling.
"So," Stark said. "Moving on. Let's put this on the table, Captain. I know SHIELD got to you first, but hell, Romanoff works for the enemy and she still plays a mean game of basketball. Just don't suggest poker, take it from me. So, you wanna hang out, take some time, it's totally cool with me. Pepper says I have to..." he squinted down at the bed. There was a flat, black slab of glass sitting on the blanket. "Show you the kitchen. And find you some clothes. I did that, didn't I? Well, Jarvis did that. And Jarvis says thank you for the boots," Stark said, and frowned. "What? Jarvis, what did he do with his boots? I have his boots. Those boots are crap. I could make you boots so much better than those boots. I could make you boots that would blow those boots out of the water. In fact-"
"Kontech," said Romanoff.
"Are you Pepper?" said Stark. He stood up, still glaring at the glass in his hand. When he moved his fingers over the flat surface, the colors changed, patterns and text scrolling over the screen, oil on water. "So, right," he said. "I've got a meeting. Jarvis will show you...Jarvis?"
"Sir," said a voice Steve didn't recognize, clipped and educated.
There was no one else in the room.
Right," Stark said. "Jarvis, Commander Rogers. Rogers, Jarvis. Jarvis will show you around. I have to go."
He was gone.
"Is he always like that?" Steve asked, but Romanoff had vanished as well.
Perfectly modulated, a little dry, the voice said, "Mr. Stark is a unique individual."
"That'll be a yes," said Steve, and wondered how Stark had escaped arrest. There must be a file of denunciation letters, a magazine of them, a warehouse, all of them whitewashed by money and connections. Not something he'd mention out loud in Stark's house.
He asked, "Is there a loudspeaker I'm missing?"
"You'll find one built into the doorframe, with the camera," Jarvis said. "Nanotech."
"You'll need to explain that," said Steve. "And is there a canteen nearby?"
"I would be failing in my duties if there was not food in the house," said Jarvis. "If you would like to exit the room and go down the staircase ahead, the third door on your left is the kitchen. You should find it fully stocked."
Steve hesitated. "You're his..." He fished for the word. "Servant? Secretary?" He was imagining a man leaning over a microphone. The guards at the gatehouse, he understood, were a barometer of how insecure his country had become without the party. But only an industrialist like Stark would be selfish enough to employ someone who did nothing but look after an adult man perfectly capable of sweeping his own hallway. Granted, Steve thought, it was a big hallway.
"I am an artificial intelligence," said Jarvis. Although his voice was perfectly pitched, there was a note of astringency in his comment.
"Artificial?" asked Steve. "You sound real enough to me."
"I'll take that as a compliment, Commander Rogers," said Jarvis. "And if you would care to descend to the kitchen, I have a crash course on nanotech."
The crash course on the coffee machine came first, and it nearly sent Steve reeling. He'd had coffee before, boiled in battered saucepans on the side of the road, German rations pilfered from overturned trucks and misplaced parachute drops. Bitter, sour stuff that tasted of chicory and ash. Stark's coffee machine was Italian, a gleaming, sturdy object of chrome and ebony plastic which was utterly out of place on the battered wooden cupboards of his kitchen.
Steve rubbed his fingers over the nameplate on the chrome, wondering. The coffee was Kenyan, the smell of it dark and rich. The mugs were English china, unchipped. Stark had a refrigerator of steel, the size of two packing cases, double-doored. It sat half-blocking the scullery passage, as if dropped there and forgotten, although the chill inside proved that it was powered and working. In his refrigerator, Stark had fruit, orange juice, fresh milk in waxed cardboard cartons, eggs, salad vegetables, mushrooms stacked carefully in wooden trays. Caviar, sour cream, pickled beetroot and salmon and herrings. Food of kinds that Steve had never seen in his life, stored in colorful plastic wrappers. Champagne, wine, vodka. French champagne. Swedish vodka. More food than one man could eat in a month, so much food Steve had to slam the door closed and take a moment, thinking of rationing, and the nights when he and his mother had gone to bed on a slice of black bread with a smear of fat.
Salad, in winter. Fresh milk, in Moscow. Swedish vodka. Swedish. Steve's unit could have feasted for a week on the food Stark displayed so casually.
Learning to use the coffee machine was no different to the first time he stripped a gun, complicated only until he understood the process. The disembodied Jarvis - Steve was reserving judgment on the artificial - was an excellent teacher, precise and timely. Once the machine was hissing quietly to itself, he searched the kitchen. Crazily, it was almost bare, cupboard after cupboard yielding nothing but dust and spiders' webs. Eventually he found an iron pan under the washboard in the scullery, rusted, and a fork, caught under one of the doors. There was a stove, pot-bellied and familiar, and outside the scullery door there was a coal bunker. Under the snow, Steve found enough coal to build a fire. He did.
Jarvis explained nanotechnology while Steve fried foraged bourgeois eggs and industrialist ham, feeling no guilt. Then, over a second plundered serving, the radio waves which allowed Jarvis to communicate, powered the intercom system, and connected the house to the satellites suspended in the sky above. From there transmitters bounced signals around the globe, and allowed Stark instant access not only to radio, but to the personal cinema of television and the animated encyclopedia of the internet.
Over grapefruit segments and more coffee, Jarvis explained space travel. By the time Steve was washing up in the wooden sink with its cold running water, they were on to globalization. At global warming, Jarvis sent Steve into one of the packing cases in the hall, and he came back with a flat rectangle of heavy glass Jarvis referred to as a tablet.
By the time it was dark, Steve had discovered the internet. Then, the end of the Great Patriotic War, the gulag, the Berlin Wall, the Cold War. In swift succession, the Hungarian uprising. The stagnation of the Brezhnev years. Perestroika. The collapse of the Soviet economy. The collapse of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Party, which had rendered his hard-won membership card and his Moscow passport as null and void as his name. The Korean War, the Afghan War, the Chechen War. More wars than he could count, layered and inconclusive. Food shortages, the space race, nuclear submarines, the disintegration of the commune, the dishonorable disarray of the Red Army. Famine. And hand in hand with the slow death of his nation, the rise of global powers. Germany, risen from the ashes. Japan. China. America. America, that golden, impossible dream shrouded in the mockery of capitalism, a two-edged sword that had taken Steve from wartime conscript to propaganda hero.
The super serum rendered his hands as unshakable now as they had been on the trigger of a gun, but Steve had limits. Late into the night, halfway through an article on the great leap forward, he had to stop. Stop, and reach out carefully and turn the tablet off, because it was not his but Stark's, and grip his hands so very carefully on the edge of the kitchen table, which was also Stark's, and breathe, because the future was nothing at all as he had envisaged.
They had thought they were fighting for a better world, he and the Howling Commandos. Their sacrifices, their faith, their courage, had been spent for a future they could not have envisaged. A future Steve himself could barely encompass.
"Commander Rogers?" Jarvis said softly.
"I'm okay," said Steve. "I'm okay."
But the empty kitchen, with the fire ashes in the belly of the stove and the boastful hum of the refrigerator was, suddenly, uncomfortably alien. The hall was too large, the staircase endless, and with every step Steve felt haunted by the ghosts of men who had died under his command, in a war which had not been the last war, for a country which no longer existed. The shrouded packing cases could have been the remnants of any wartime depot. The empty rooms, a billet that could have been home for a few hours to men Steve had fought with and laughed with and loved, who were now dead. The glimpse of red and gold in a mirror could still have been the flag under which they fought, but when he turned around, he saw nothing there.
There were pillows on his bed now, and a cushion-covered chair pulled up to the window. Steve checked the lock on the door, rolled himself into the coverlet, and slept the fitful, starting sleep of a haunted man.
He woke, and knew he'd failed. For all that the territory was strange to him and Fury's word unproven, he had been given a mission he had sworn to complete and had not even started. Romanoff reported to Fury, Jarvis' loyalty to any side other than his own was improvable, and Stark was an unknown, mercurial and probably hostile quantity. Any one of them and quite possibly all could be reporting on his actions to an unknown number of unpredictable agencies. Steve had been wasting time on events that were long past and beyond his control.
Nevertheless, he still showered in the blissful heat of Stark's bathroom before he drew on Stark's clothes and went downstairs to reconnoiter Stark's house.
He'd been forestalled. There was a man in the hall with a tape measure and a bright yellow helmet, another in the passage to the kitchen with a clipboard and a radio. Jarvis checked in for a distracted good morning and apologized for both disruption and mess. By the time Steve had lit the stove and made coffee, three Ukrainian contractors had started to demolish the kitchen cupboards. He took his breakfast outside, only to discover the driveway blocked by two trucks, a fleet of mismatched cars and a small crane, and went back inside only to be hastily shuffled out of the way by a tall woman with a device that looked like a small mortar, firing red beams of light. It took measurements. Tucked into a corner, fascinated, he watched her survey the hallway, and then was politely moved on by a small fleet of engineers and builders. One of them left a helmet on the stairs.
Lightweight and flimsy as the equipment looked, the workers were all wearing coloured helmets, almost the same pattern as the steel versions the Red Army had sweated and frozen under, on the Caucasus grasslands and iced-over rivers of the front. Steve picked the abandoned helmet up and turned it in his hand, looking at the plastic - Kevlar - of the shell and the insubstantial cotton webbing of the harness. Then he tapped it, hard, on the marble staircase, but the fabric barely shivered. Steve rapped his knuckles on the Kevlar that was as tough as the steel helmets he was used to, and four times lighter, and smiled. A small smile, but still a smile. He left it, prominently, on the stair, and began to explore the upper levels of the house, skylight down.
He found nothing. Literally, nothing. The rooms were empty, often not just of furniture but rugs and curtains. There were no boxes of papers, no secret code machines, no caches of weapons or treasonous books. No laboratories. Just room after room, grandiose and battered, their ceilings sagging and their plasterwork cracked. On his own landing, there were four other rooms with beds and bathrooms, like his, the rooms equipped only with bedsteads and mattresses but the bathrooms stunning. At the front of the house, a single room spanned the whole of the central frontage, light gleaming softly on the worn varnish of uneven floorboards.
Outside, the crane was lifting panels of glass to the roof, and the tangled mess that must once have been a garden was being cleared by a bulldozer four times the size of the ones they'd had at the front.
By the time he'd worked his way down to the entrance hall, empty-handed and a little frustrated, the workmen had gone, although bangs and occasional shouts suggested they had only moved on. The hall had been spray-painted with symbols and arrows, the tiled floor protected with sheeting, and all the canvas-wrapped pictures and packing cases had been moved to stand under the skylight.
In the first room to the right of the double door, there were three plasterers and a plumber. In the next, small and dark, nothing but the skirting board scurry of a terrified mouse. The room behind, with its line of shuttered casement windows, contained several workmen cheerfully tearing up the floorboards. There was a closet under the stairs, also empty, trailing telegraph wires so old their rubber coating had cracked.
To the far side of the staircase was the door Stark had used. Steve put the flat of his hand on the woodwork. It felt warm, under his fingers, and there was the slightest hint of vibration under his fingers. He should try the handle. He had nothing to fear from Howard Stark's son, with his absurd beard and his posturing: Steve had faced down far worse. Yet he still walked away and circled through the last of the rooms on the ground floor, the library with its echoing empty shelves and what must have been a drawing room, with its great louvered windows facing onto the driveway, dust floating in white cold sunlight. There was a woman repairing the plasterwork who smiled cheerfully at him. Steve ducked his head, nodded back, and she took up her brush again, whistling a tune he did not recognize.
He went back to the door by the staircase, and turned the handle. It was not locked, but it did not need to be: there was nothing behind the door but emptiness.
It took him too long to recognize the rumble of machinery as the approaching elevator. His reflexes were off, slow. Ice, maybe. He wished Stark's house was warmer. Then, thinking of the amount of coal it would take to heat every room, did not.
The doors were burnished metal, and there were no buttons on the panel, just lights, like a miniature cinema screen. Steve, frowning, had not even touched the screen when the doors slid shut. Startled, his right hand clenched, a grip that ached for the phantom weight of his shield. Descending, the elevator did not shake or rattle, running as smoothly as a freshly oiled pair of skis to a stop so gentle he did not realize it had happened until the door opened.
Steve almost flinched from the noise. A crash of it, discordant and primitive, drums and the wail of a stringed instrument and a man's voice, not singing but screaming. Then glass, a wall of glass, and behind it light, brighter than the electric light of the house above, sharp on steel and machinery. The room behind the glass was a surreal landscape of metalwork and wires and screens, tools, desks and worktables. Although the layout was similar to Dr. Erskine's laboratories and the Hydra experimental stations he'd destroyed, the machinery it contained was far more complex. There was no command console, no centerpiece, and no scientists in white coats. There was only Stark, his back turned to the glass, a pair of goggles pushed down over his eyes and a welding torch in his hand.
Like Steve's mechanics, cobbling together repairs at the side of the road, Stark welded in battered gloves with his forearms bare. As Steve watched, a spark landed on the hem of his grubby white T-shirt, smoldered, and was brushed aside without even a glance. Wiping his forehead on his arm, Stark shook his head, and glanced up at the screen in front of him. On it were blueprints, not static but shifting, a three dimensional view of a complicated mechanical design that Steve found beautiful in its complex lines. There were little inserted images around the edges of the screen: the front doors, from outside, the kitchen, the tangle of trucks and cars on the driveway, the hall, the head and shoulders of a figure standing behind glass. Other images, of other places Steve did not recognize, the deck of a boat, an empty room, and the back of a man with a bow on his back, crouched by a chimney. A set of statistics, a moving graph, another, in different colors, almost hypnotic in the beat of its changing shape.
Bending his head, Stark picked up the torch again.
There was a door in the glass of the wall. It had an intercom on it, the same design as those on the gates and the doors, a pad of numbered buttons and a grill for speaking.
Steve knocked on the glass.
The music was so loud his ears were ringing. But Stark was, quite suddenly, still. The welding torch flickered, and went out. Stark's head was bowed to the metalwork in his hands, but his eyes were looking up, to the screen. He blinked.
Then the torch ignited, and Stark was working again.
The glass was cold under Steve's palm, although the workshop was warmer than the house. The air smelled of hot metal and acetone, oil and steel: it was familiar in a way the streets outside and the empty rooms had not been, in its chaos and life. A rich man's toys, although Steve could not but notice that Stark worked like a man who knew what he doing.
Although Stark never glanced in his direction, Steve was almost certain the man knew he was being watched. There was a tension to his shoulders and a circumscribed range to his movement that meant Steve could not see on what he was working, and some of the lights that had been on when he'd first seen the workshop were off, only the glint of metal from darkness showing that the spaces behind Stark's desks were not empty. The metal in Stark's hands glinted red and gold, the torch sparked white, the text on Stark's screen was multihued. Steve, starved for color, was unwillingly fascinated. Even the dark blue of Stark's overalls and the white of his sleeveless undershirt was arresting, the way he moved, sure of himself, absorbed, entirely different from the posturing of the hallway or the challenging, territorial drape of his body on the bed in Steve's room.
If there were secrets in this house, this room would be where they were kept.
Then Stark waved his hand in the air, short and sharp, and the music changed. The first notes were familiar, simple, cheerful, a tune Steve had heard over and over again, whistled in the street and sung around the fire, from the needle of a radiogram and from the voices of a Young Pioneer choir. It was redolent of summer evenings and winter nights, the taste of fresh fish fried over a fire and his mother's quiet voice in the dark.
spring wind blows over our country
It gets more joyful and merrier to live
He couldn't listen. The door to the elevator was still open. He ran for it, hit the button, and caught one glimpse of Stark's face, surprise carved along the rising curl of his eyebrows and the line of his mouth, watching him, as the doors closed.
nobody in the world
Knows how to love and laugh like us.
He did not run away. He made a carefully considered judgment to assess the surrounding area, rolled his feet experimentally in the soft boots and decided he'd trained in worse footwear, and set off at a steady jog from the door that opened into the street. The rhythm of his own feet on the pavement, the strong beat of his heart, his own steady breathing. He had never felt comfortable in the body he was born into, but the one he had now was big enough to contain everything he was. Stride by stride Steve ran out his grief and his anger, past the renovated bourgeois houses with their clean stonework and polished windows, the massive gates with their barbed wire crests and barking Dobermans, the sleek black foreign cars and the glimpses of gardens and driveways. He ran past the school with its uniformed students and the line of brightly lit, clean shops where no one queued for the clothes in the windows or the complicated, black electronics. Past the canteen, with its small, spaced-apart tables and checkered tablecloths, and the garage with its ranks of new cars, priced. Past the food shops, the bakers with its window of fresh bread and pastries and the butcher with its trays of fresh meat, the obscenely huge greengrocer where Muscovites spilled out the glass doors clutching bags of food, laughing and talking.
This was not the Moscow he knew, this Moscow with its clean streets and private houses. It was the future Moscow of which they had dreamed, distorted by greed, a city where money could buy anything. Even the street corners carried little corner kiosks, selling newspapers and cigarettes and candy to the tinny beat of foreign music.
He ran past the beggars huddled in doorways, and the street children, their faces as pale and thin as the faces of the orphans of the war years, and the young men posturing aimlessly at the park gates and outside the canteens. This city provided, but only for those with means.
Steve ran, and the evening fell around him, soft and gently misted, a Russian evening with its melancholy and memories woven into the pattern of streetlights on snow. From an open doorway came the sound of a guitar, the smell of soup and bread. A grandmother called to children playing in the street. A woman walked swiftly home with a string bag of mushrooms, her headscarf pulled tight and her hands gloved.
Above Tretyakovskaya, the Moskva flowed as it always had, deep and slow. The streets had changed their names, but Steve knew where he was. He turned back.
Past the silent guards, on the gateposts, the intercom. He pressed the buttons in the same pattern as Romanoff, and the grill spluttered and buzzed. Waited. Nodded at the silent figures of the guards.
"Oh, you're back," said Stark's voice, metallic, disgruntled.
"Yes," said Steve, and wondered if Stark would refuse to allow him entry, but the gates were already opening and the intercom silent. The trucks and cars were gone, but the house was still lit, a blazing beacon in the fog, and although the snow on the driveway was churned into ruts and furrows over the grass of the lawns, it stretched smoothly into the night. The doors were open, the hallway warm, and there was a chest of drawers in his room with small piles of shirts and undershorts, still wrapped, soft and new. Two pairs of pants in a stiff, double-stitched dark blue fabric hung in his closet, and on the back of the bathroom door, a robe. He showered, quickly, and dressed in clean clothes, and went down to the kitchen, where there were now no kitchen cupboards but a box of steel pans so new they still bore labels. And an electric stove Jarvis had to tell him how to use.
The coffee machine was still there, though. This time, curious, he heated the milk.
He took the tablet back upstairs. Sitting on his bed, he looked up SHIELD, relieved to learn that it was a government organization, a possibility that had not even occurred to him while he had been sitting in that institutional cell. But Russia had privatized food, healthcare, childcare: he would not have been surprised if the army owed its allegiance to the highest bidder. SHIELD, though, was legitimate, although the information he could find was sketchy.
The information on Stark was a burgeoning mess of scurrilous gossip and grudging admiration, academic papers and underdressed women. Stark Industries, their website slick and efficient, their statements smooth and their photographs glossy, was almost a different creature. Yet the irritating Stark was unquestionably the man behind the company, his name on thousands of private patents, his signature sliced across the clean energy projects and the reclamation factories, the investment in high tech machinery and in education. He'd been a child prodigy, a genius educated and supported by the party he had rejected. Stark showed no allegiance to either the party or the fragmented political alliances which followed the Soviet collapse, and he was reported wealthy enough not to care.
The internet was as invasive as a neighborhood committee. Stark liked his vodka straight, his women bounteously curved, and his toys shiny. He'd also survived fifteen recorded kidnapping attempts and, a year ago, one that had actually worked, which must have cost him a generous ransom contribution to the Chechen coffers and explained why the gossip blogs had been reduced to frustrated speculation. The goatee was a constant, the cars changed with the calendar, the smile was as much a mask as the showy privatized charity of his donations. Steve thought bitterly of the difference Stark could have made, harnessed to the needs of the people and not to his own ego, and wondered if this was what Fury meant when he considered Stark a threat. Everyone needed heroes, but Stark, with his selfish arrogance and his sycophantic media, was not one.
He turned the tablet off, drew Stark's blankets over his shoulders and pulled down Stark's pillow, and fell asleep.
Morning woke him, slamming through the blinds with the shouts of workers and the rumble of trucks delivering timber. Showered, dressed, he went in search of coffee and found the front door propped open and a small forklift truck maneuvering in the hallway. The house smelled of cut pine and new paint, and the shouts of the workers were cheerfully polyglot, although they worked with a discipline any sergeant with a raw squad of conscripts would have envied. Steve, ushered out of the path of a five meter beam and waved away from a pallet of pipes, retreated to the kitchen.
Where he found, at the table, Stark. Stark with his hair on end and his hands dirty and his face as drawn and weary as any commando coming off a month-long patrol. When he looked up, his eyes were so tired Steve nearly winced in sympathy.
"Cap," said Stark shortly, and nodded. His hands, engrained with grease and pitted with small burns, were wrapped around a mug of coffee.
"Stark," said Steve, equally brief, and stepped around Stark's sprawled legs to the coffee machine.
"So how's the twentieth century treating you?" asked Stark. "Any surprises?"
Steve changed the filter.
"Nothing?" said Stark.
Steve shrugged. "I like the coffee," he offered.
"Huh," said Stark, but there was a weary grin at the corners of his mouth.
Inexplicably, Steve liked it. That one was real. He said, "It's not what I expected."
"I can see that," said Stark. Tired, his voice was slow, rasping.
"Are you going to fall asleep in that mug?" Steve asked. Stark's eyelids were drooping, his mouth soft.
"Probably," said Stark. "Jarvis, what's the time?"
"Eight am," said Jarvis. "I would suggest at least five hours sleep. Miss Potts arrives tomorrow."
"That time already?" said Stark. "Didn't I tell you to call me at two?"
"I did," said Jarvis.
"Right," Stark muttered, and pushed himself to his feet. "Tell me if anything happens I need to know about," he said, and stumbled out of the kitchen. Judging by the shouts outside, he'd hit a piece of drywall face on, before he made it to the stairs.
"That often happen?" asked Steve.
"Mr. Stark's working practices can be onerous," Jarvis acknowledged. "Should I heat the stove? The pans are in the scullery."
"Thanks," said Steve, and made breakfast. There was considerably less food in the refrigerator, and he suspected Stark had not eaten much, which meant the workers were benefitting. Maybe it was a perk of the job. For people who worked for wages and not the good of the community, perhaps it was enough to encourage the early start.
Then he washed up, pulled his boots on, and went out to explore his city.
Limousines and beggars. There were restaurants on Red Square where a plate of food cost a year's wages, but on a bench in Gorky Park Steve found two tank corps veterans sharing a half pint of potato vodka and three blankets. Teenagers strutted through the streets in sunglasses and intricately cut leather jackets, but the subway, vastly expanded, was home to pale-faced children as swift and hungry as rats. Red Square was crowded with tourists, cameras strapped around their necks, and some of them spoke languages Steve had heard only from enemy soldiers. The corner shop kiosks sold coffee and newspapers to everyone, but the magazines pinned to their shutters showed women who were baring everything, as if they valued their privacy no more than their dignity. Steve was no prude, the army had seen to that, but the cheerful grins of the canteen girls giving their all for the Red Army were nothing like the fixed, red smiles of these women.
"You gonna pay for that?" the vendor snapped.
Steve moved on.
And the phones. Little phones, just like wartime radios but smaller, ubiquitous: people having conversations in the street, as if no one else could hear them. Conversations about food and movies and music, gossip and business, just like they were in the privacy of their own homes. The music, from cars and shops, so very different from the rousing marches and patriotic anthems of the war, often, unintelligibly, in English. Cars, crowding the streets, noisy and impatient, as if owning a car was normal and not an earned privilege.
But the longer he walked the more familiar the streets became. He could see the traces of his own Moscow in the faces of the old women talking in the bus queue and the weary smile of the shop girl closing up, the tram rails on the streets and the overlaid posters on the wall. The ramrod pride of the honor guard at Lenin's tomb, their dress uniforms and the tilt of their chins, the hustle of bureaucrats on the steps of the Kremlin, black-suited and silent, the snatches of elaborate, cynical anecdotes and stifled laughter. The flags might have changed, but Russia remained.
Then on Tverskaya Street, on the way back to the house, Steve stopped a robbery which was not a robbery at all, but something entirely different.
It was almost accidental. He'd glanced into a shop window, his eyes caught by the familiar Stark Industries logo on a poster, and the stiff stance of the man behind the counter had jerked him into instant awareness. His hand had been reaching for a shield he no longer had, his attention caught by the threatening stance of the two black-clad men in the shop, and when one of them went for a gun Steve was through the door and knocking it out of his hands in seconds. A single upper-cut dropped him to his knees; a left-handed slice an instant later felled the second and sent another pistol sliding across the faux wood floor.
Steve looked thoughtfully at his hands, kicked both pistols under the counter, and gave the man groaning at his feet a smile, because that had felt good.
But once he'd got over the spluttering, Georgios was very clear on not waiting for the police. Georgios was pushing wads of rubles at Steve, asking him to go away, white and shaking. It took Steve too long to realise that what he had interrupted was not a robbery but an exchange of protection money, and that there was nothing he could do to salvage the situation. He'd made a mistake. All he could do was apologise over and over again, offer to pay, and leave as soon as Georgios plucked up the courage to ask him to go.
Chagrined and angry, Steve went back to Stark House. He was late enough for the workers to be gone, but the hallway was still crowded with ladders and stacks of paint and tools. The staircase was shrouded in dustsheets, most of the paneling had been torn down, and there was a steel and glass structure where the door to the elevator had been. But Steve stalked past the building work and lay on his bed until he was calm enough to think about food.
kitchen, demonstratively awake, Stark was sitting in an elderly bath chair
with his feet up on the table, uncouth as a child, a tablet propped on
his knees and a stack of boxes in front of him that were still faintly
"Hi," Steve said, practicing.
"Hey," said Stark absently, fingers sweeping across the tablet. There were designs on the screen, linear patterns the shape of a man's hand, swollen at the knuckle, smoothly metallic. "Chinese?"
"...sorry?" said Steve.
Stark looked up, blinked, and waved a hand at the boxes. "Food," he said, and frowned. "Jarvis, did I eat?"
"No, sir," said Jarvis.
"Knock yourself out," Stark said to Steve, and went back to the tablet.
It wasn't, Steve thought, a phrase that was meant to be taken literally. He found two plates in a box of kitchen equipment that hadn't been there eight hours ago, a fork and a spoon, and began dishing up food that looked like nothing he'd ever seen in his life before. It smelled both sweet and savory, the small cuts of meat more of a seasoning than a main course. Prodding the noodles, he blinked at a virulently red piece of chicken, and speared a very strange looking vegetable. Then another. It was...odd, but good. He settled against the stove and began to eat.
After a few minutes, he put his plate down, and tapped the table by Stark's elbow. "Eat while you can," he said.
Stark's eyes followed the tablet.
"Eat," said Steve, with a little more force.
Reaching for his fork, Stark ate, absently. Halfway through, he started a conversation about thrust and metal stress with Jarvis that was both unintelligible and almost domestic. He still looked tired, but the undershirt was clean. He worked while he ate.
Steve helped himself to more food, ate it, watching Stark's fingers on the glass screen of the tablet and the colored designs unspooling under his touch. Then he washed up, finding that the single tap now gave him hot water, not cold, and the scrubbing brush had been swapped for a rough-surfaced sponge pad that worked just as well. Done, he found a stool, dragged it into the kitchen, and sat down.
Stark's eyebrows went up, although his eyes were still down. "Is this a vodka conversation?" he asked. "If it is, there's a bottle in the fridge. Even if it isn't."
There were no glasses, but there were mugs. Steve poured, generously, and sat back down. It was Stark's vodka, but he'd poured. "Your health."
"Yours," said Stark, and let the tablet fall flat.
"Fury told me," said Steve, because Stark knew all too well who was pulling Steve's strings, "That we'd been forgotten. The Red Army, the commandos. My commandos. What we did, in the war." It was nearly seventy years over, Steve's war. Not ignored, but faded. Russia was a different country. Steve said to Stark, remembering the way Stark had faltered for that one moment, that first night in the hallway, "But you. You remember." He turned the mug in his hands, unsure how to actually phrase the next sentence. He should have thought it through, before he opened his mouth.
"Oh, the Cap thing," said Stark.
"Yeah," Steve said. "The Captain thing."
"My dad wasn't exactly discreet," Stark said. "Guess he thought he had nothing left to lose. And when you're stuck so far north the sun only comes out to play for six months of the year, there's not that much to read."
"What?" said Steve blankly.
"They ran a Captain America cartoon," said Stark. "He had the full run. I'm not sure," he added, head on one side and his eyes glinting, "If that's more embarrassing for you or me."
Steve had acted for the movie reels and posed for the cameras, pulled punches and false smiles, fodder for the propagandists but necessary for the war effort. No one had ever mentioned a cartoon. But then, every time one of the guys had come back from leave, there'd been laughter about things the war effort had made Steve say or do. "Did you know you took out two submarines in the harbor at Vladivostok?" Oleg had told him, muddy and grinning and four days back from leave. They were cutting the German telegraph wires at Vyazma, four thousand kilometers away, on the wrong side of the front and on the other side of the country. His guys had been great about it, knowing as Steve did that people needed heroes. Growing up, Steve's had been aviators and explorers; if, after the serum, posing with his shield and storming a few cardboard barricades in front of the cameras on his off hours helped the war effort, he'd do it. The two brief tours they'd sent him on had been embarrassing and eye-opening, before it became obvious he could do far more good on the front lines than earnestly promoting the war effort in small town theatres and lecture halls and party meeting rooms. He gathered the films had been popular, and a couple of the younger guys had known who he was when they joined the unit, which had been mortifying, but mostly Steve just let it go. He had more important things to worry about.
"Captain America storms the Reichstag," Stark said. "Captain America and the Beast of Bosnia. Captain America in the jungle...I liked that one," he said. "But, take it from me, while owning every issue of a magazine called America in the fifties wasn't close to the worst decision my Dad made, it didn't help."
"But Stark was a scientist," said Steve.
This time Stark's eyebrows went up and stayed there. "It kept him out of the prison camps," Stark said. "Just." He took a mouthful of vodka, tapped his fingers on the mug, and his eyes were narrowed. "There's shit there I'm not gonna get into," he said. "How much did Fury tell you? Not enough."
"Nothing," said Steve. He thought of the hammer and sickle hanging on the wall, and wondered if Fury had thought about not telling him that everything had changed, that the country he and his men had fought for and died for no longer existed.
"Par for the course," said Stark, and looked at Steve, head on one side. He had extraordinary eyes, dark-lashed, sharp and veiled at the same time. "So, what, mission brief?"
"I think that's classified," Steve said uncomfortably.
Stark laughed. "Yeah, right," he said. "Let me know when you find out." Then he said. "Dammit. I know you're right here, but it's not real, you know? It's like, this is not my life. And I still don't know. I don't know if Fury found the costume and stuck you into it. You're too real to be real, Cap, you know that? What with the muscles, and the..." Stark's hand waved, indefinite.
It was good vodka, but too cold; Steve shivered, drinking.
"I'd say clear your browser history out, but it's not going to make any difference," said Stark. "But if I was you, and I really was here, I mean you me, not me, what you're looking at is exactly what I'd be looking at. Maybe with a few more diagrams."
"You think I'm a plant," said Steve, eventually.
"Well, yeah," said Stark. "Obviously. It wouldn't be the first time."
"You might be right," said Steve.
"Well, that makes everything clear," said Stark.
"At least we were fighting for something," said Steve. "You...it's all about you. This house. The parties. The cars. Seventy years on and there's still beggars on the street. How do you live with yourself? How does anyone?"
"I've got a whole speech for this moment," said Stark. "It's got footnotes. But you're not CNN and I haven't got a microphone, so let's take it as read that the world's not perfect and everyone's getting by the best we can. Also, I'm just going to mention that you're living in my house, eating my food and wearing my clothes. Maybe not literally, that last one, not that I'd mind, in fact..." Stark stopped. "Let's not go there," he said.
The thought hadn't crossed Steve's mind. But it must be Stark's money paying for the clothes on his back and the food in his belly. He'd lived so long on rations and army issued uniforms it hadn't occurred to him that he had nothing, so used to the state providing.
"I need to get a job," he said, conscience struck.
"A, I don't mind," Stark said. "B, you're on Fury's payroll. I'll get someone to bill him."
Steve didn't look away quickly enough. Stark's eyebrows were up, his fingers tapping on the edge of the table, his mouth curling, all too amused, at the corners. His face was so uncomfortably open, every mercurial emotion as clear as an actor's. "No," he said, "I wouldn't want Fury's name on my paycheck either. You won't have back pay," he added, musing. "But I think I can wrangle you a pension."
"I don't need a patron," said Steve. "I'll earn my money honestly or not at all. You'll be paid."
"I'd take it in trade," Stark offered, and the smile that had been sly was growing.
"For what?" Steve asked, honestly puzzled.
For a moment, Stark was still. Only his eyes widened, fixed on Steve's. Then he looked down, shaking his head. The smile was gone. He said, "On second thoughts, maybe you'd be better off with Fury. I'll sort it out."
"...are you asking if I would sleep with you for money?" Steve said. It had taken him a moment or two, and he could feel the warmth in his cheeks, but he was not going to look away.
"...maybe?" said Stark. His grin then was swift, broad, all teeth, and he leaned the chair back and took another shot of vodka. "Would you?"
Steve was pretty sure he was giving a good impression of a poleaxed goldfish. There was no reply to that. Nothing that Stark couldn't twist into his own image. "No!" he said, and "Why?" both of which were embarrassingly yelped, and then as Stark's grin widened he had to leave, stumbling up from the kitchen table and knocking over the stool and having to pick it up. He didn't want to turn his back on Stark, had to resist the urge to cover his ass with his hands, walked into the refrigerator and nearly sat down abruptly on the new slate floor.
"Chill," Stark advised him, dry. "It was worth a try."
"I hate that you always have the last word," Steve told him, from the safety of the doorway.
toasted him with the vodka and said, pointedly, nothing. Although lying
in bed, still awake two hours later and with the back of a battered chair
jammed under the door handle, Steve thought of two excellent replies he
could have made.
"Life has become better, comrades; life has become more cheerful."
1935 (Soch. I (XIV) 106)
Stark had a point.
Spread out over his bed, Steve's uniform was a mess. The fabric was little more than rags, scorched and salt-stained. The elbows and one knee had worn through, ragged and tattered. Ice had popped the rivets on his boots and rotted the stitching of the seams, faded the colors to a blue that was actually grey and a red that was little more than pale pink. He had no shield.
When he'd crawled out of the ice, he'd thought he'd been trapped a day. Two, at most. He winced away from the thought, set his jaw, and thought.
Captain America had not been the first role Steve had played for the Party, and the Red Army had not been his first employer. He'd worked. Of course he'd worked. He'd hauled water and coal, newspapers and potatoes, cleaned shoes for a kopek and run errands for two, although he'd never traded on the black market the way most people did. He'd always thought that was cheating the system, taking food from people who needed it, although there had been times when he wished the state would be a little more generous. But they'd survived, he and his mother, eeking out rations and using folk remedies for Steve's breathlessness and the colds neither of them ever really lost during winter. Then after art college, there'd been the newspaper, where Steve had inked in sketches and cartoons, working towards a better future with his pen. Hard as he tried, Steve was never going to be a Stakhanovite, not with his asthma and his skinny build, but he could fight with his pen as surely as others fought with the strength of their arms, and he did. And he loved his work: the inspirational sketches of industrial workers and factory girls, the face of modernization reflected in images of people working for a different, better world. A world of heroes. There'd been a phrase for it: when we reach full communism.
There'd been a joke, too, many jokes, whispered jokes. When we reach full communism, there won't be any queues, because there won't be anything left to queue for. Black humor, Russian humor. Scurrilous sketches of party officials posted up in the bathrooms, passed from hand to hand, unsigned. Steve had never drawn any, but he hadn't denounced those who did. His world had not been perfect and he'd known it, but it had meant something.
Then there had been the war, and conscription, and that strange conversation with Dr. Erskine in the hotel, and the new set of orders that had sent him on a three-day train trip to the laboratory. And the serum. He could still remember the pain of it in his bones. But afterwards, when it had worked, the tests, and then, finally, when they'd sent him back to the front, the war. Steve had... The war had been necessary. But Steve had never had a purpose so immediately compelling, so utterly consuming, never had the companionship he found with his unit, never before felt himself flushed with the knowledge that he was helping, useful, needed. He'd liked that. Steve had been almost happy.
Now he was as much use as a summer coat in a Moscow winter.
Yet, in this strange new world, this privatized world with its poverty, its demokratiya and bodyguards and mafia, he wondered if people needed symbols as much as they had done when he was young. Something that reminded people that the world could be a better place, that disinterested good was a possibility and not a pipedream, that not everything could be bought with money. A different kind of war. He thought of the shopkeeper on Tverskaya Street, the veterans on the park bench and how they'd appreciated telling their stories to an audience that listened and understood, the smile on a little girl's face when he'd handed back the doll she'd dropped on the tram steps.
In contrast to the rest of his uniform, Steve's gauntlets were clean. Somehow, Stark had even managed to get rid of the stain the Hydra venom had left, and although the fabric was still faded, they looked almost functional against the faded blue of his tunic. Steve had been scrubbing his tunic top in the bath for an hour, and it looked as if he'd barely touched the worst of the dirt.
He took the uniform down with him to the kitchen and stared at it over breakfast. Stark's food. Stark's kitchen.
After eating, he took it to Stark's workshop.
The music was quieter, and the lights were already dimmed. Stark sat with his back to the glass wall again, working on something small and complicated, but this time when Steve knocked he stood up and came to the door. Sometime after the Chinese and the vodka, he'd slept and shaved and put on clean clothing, although to Steve's eyes the soft, short sleeved shirt Stark habitually wore still looked like underwear.
Maybe it was. Steve looked up, and met Stark's sharp eyes. He held up the costume, and waved the gauntlets at the glass.
Stark smiled, and waved back.
"Open the door," Steve mouthed.
Irritatingly, Stark cocked his head on one side and raised an eyebrow.
"Please," Steve gritted out.
On the other side of the door, Stark did something complicated with the keypad. Steve heard the locks click open, and then the door. The music quieted, a surprisingly melodic rhythm of guitars, and a man's voice in English.
"What is it?" asked Stark. Then he said, "Fury's put you on retainer. You'll be paid for what you do."
"I'm not doing anything," said Steve.
"You will be," said Stark.
"Good?" Steve hazarded, and then wondered why he'd believe Stark, of all people.
"Has Fury ever-" Stark said, and then looked at Steve's hands. "Ha. He did. Bring that here." He reached out for the uniform, tugging at a sleeve, dragging Steve into the workshop. "You should see what I've done with the boots."
"I don't think so," said Steve, firmly extracting both himself and his clothing from Stark's hands.
"What?" said Stark, grabbing back. "No, seriously, they're cool as fuck, you've got no idea what you were missing."
"Let go," said Steve.
He was more than surprised when Stark did. Not only let go, but stepped back, hands up. "Okay," Stark said, and didn't move.
"Right," said Steve.
"Right," said Stark.
They stared at each other for a moment. Then Stark said, "Too much?" He wasn't moving.
"Yeah," Steve said, unclenching his hands from his uniform finger by finger.
"Huh," said Stark, and nodded once. Then he said, "So. I might have...done stuff to your boots. Nothing drastic. Just some Kevlar. Same kind of armor that was in the hard hat you liked. Different fabric. Waterproofing. Flame retardant stuff. Better soles."
Steve said, uncomfortably honest, "I liked what you did with the gloves." He looked down at the battered folds of fabric in his hands, frowned, and confessed, "I can't get the mud off."
"That's beyond..." Stark swallowed the rest of the sentence. "Take a look at the boots," he said. "See what you think. I could do more." He nodded at one of the work surfaces. Sitting on it were two pairs of boots, Steve's old set, and another that looked almost exactly the same as his had done over sixty years ago.
It was only when Steve picked up one of the new pair that he could tell Stark had done a little more than just change the fabric. A little heavier in his hands, not much, the new boot had a stiffer, cantilevered support structured into the ankle and instep. The fabric looked the same, but felt different to the touch, slicker and thicker. The sole was a variety of soft plastic that was almost sticky on the palm of Steve's hands. This pair would grip on surfaces where his old boots had slipped and struggled.
"Put them on," Stark suggested.
Looking over, Steve had expected him to look smug, but Stark's mouth was pursed and his eyes considering, just as if Stark was evaluating the results of a laboratory test.
He was, just like every other scientist Steve had ever met. Steve stripped off the soft boots he'd been living in, pulled on Stark's experiment, and obligingly jogged in a small circle across the floor and over a couple of tables. The grip was extraordinary, but he'd lost the ability to slide. His ankles, though, felt as if they'd been strapped in support bandages, solid and secure. His first moves had been tentative; after the tables, he tried running up the wall, and managed two whole vertical strides before pushing off into a back flip.
"What did you say?" he said, jogging back to Stark. "Cool?"
"Yeah," said Stark. "No. Hot. Covers all the bases." He smiled, too swift to be real. "Good enough for you, Cap? You gonna let me get down and dirty with the rest of it?"
"You know these slang references are gonna bite you in the ass one day?" said Steve.
Stark's eyes snapped open. For a moment, Steve thought, he looked almost shocked, as if Steve had said something he hadn't expected. Then, "I'll live," he said, and nodded to the boots. "Wadda'ya say, huh, big guy?"
"Thanks?" Steve said, and Stark's hands went up in exasperation. "Yes," he added hurriedly. "Go ahead."
"About time," said Stark, and reached for the costume.
"I want it back," Steve said urgently.
"Yeah, yeah," said Stark. "I got you the first time, Cap." His voice was casual, abstracted, but his hands were gentle, spreading out Steve's tunic on the bench. "Jarvis," said Stark. "Full scan. Three dee. Projection. What the hell did those guys make this out of, tissue paper?"
Opening his mouth to object, Steve was startled into open-mouthed silence by the lights that sparked to life in the center of the workshop. Life-size, just as if it was being worn by a model, his costume was echoed in a linear display of blue light. He was stunned. It was like...not fireworks, exactly? The northern lights, harnessed? Fascinated, he hadn't realized he'd walked forward until an alarm buzzed. His hand was two centimeters from the light, hovering above the image of his elbow. Even the trailing threads were there, and the uneven stitching where he'd had to sew up his shoulder seam in the dark.
"That's amazing," Steve breathed.
Stark said, "It gets better."
When Steve looked back, Stark was grinning, and it was real.
Then, he made Steve take off his clothes.
Once Steve saw his own torso reflected next to the tunic, then under the tunic, spinning slowly as Jarvis and Stark discussed Kevlar and spandex and Lycra, he did understand. It was a dressmaker's dummy, his image, just made out of light.
Stark let him keep his undershorts on, which was more than the army had allowed.
"...Range of motion," said Stark, musing. "Cap, put your arm up? Higher? Yeah, that'll do it. Now backwards?"
Steve's actions were mirrored in his image. He experimented, flexing his elbow and his fingers, twisting from side to side. The lights were fascinating, so finely detailed Steve could see the tiny rise of his own nipples and the cut of muscle at his hips.
"Do the shield-throwing thing," demanded Stark.
It felt odd, without the familiar weight in his hands. He was too tentative, wrongly balanced. "That's not right," Steve said, critical. "I need something else." There was an oddly shaped piece of metal on the work surface, half burnished. He picked it up, hefted it, and the shape was wrong but the weight was right. He posed. The colors and images on Stark's screens changed as he moved his body, as Stark's hands stabbed and coaxed his own screens and virtual images.
Steve had posed like this before, for photographers and artists. He knew how to relax into the stance, steady his breathing and think of something else. Anna Karenina at the train station, betrayed by her lover and the structure of the world in which she lived. If he was ever going to get to ride a real Cossack horse. Deployments and supply. The last time, he'd been worried about winter boots, wondering if command would send supplies they actually needed, but the metal in his hands had been familiar, then. His shield must be somewhere in the ice, he could remember seeing it fall beneath him, unreachable.
"Okay," said Stark. "Okay, good." He waved his hand across the screens, and the lights abruptly condensed. Both images vanished. "Come back in a week," he said.
Pulling on his jeans and leaving them to fall loose around his hips, Steve reached for his undershirt. It was tighter than the clothing he was used to wearing, just another difference between his own life and this one, and he had to drag it over his head and tug the sleeves over his biceps.
When he looked up, there was a woman staring at him from the other side of the glass. A tall woman, in heels, young, with her hair smoothed back into a ponytail but the traces of a smile fading from her face. Her mouth shaped a startled, half-finished, lipstick-pink oh.
Steve saluted, a casual salute, just as he would have greeted the machineers and telegraphers at base. Her eyes widened. He tried a smile.
Her mouth snapped shut. She jabbed at the keypad, and the doors opened for her. Her heels clacked over the smooth floor. The sideways glance at Steve was so suspicious he had to look down to check his flies, and then drag his zip up, tuck his shirt in, and pull his belt together in a hurry, hoping she hadn't noticed, although she struck him as the sort of woman who would. He hoped he wasn't noticeably blushing.
"Tony!" she said. She had a lighter voice than Steve expected, authoritative, a little dry. "Tony."
"What?" said Stark, and although his voice was edged with a whine that was almost peeved, his face had softened. "What did I do? I signed everything. Kontech ratified. I ate. Jarvis, tell Pepper I ate," he said, "What?"
"Tony..." she said, and looked at Steve. Her eyes were green, to go with the pale red of her hair, and she had little smile lines waiting at the corners of them, but when she looked at Steve her gaze was so carefully blank he had to look around to see if there was anything else he'd inadvertently done to offend.
"Oh," said Stark. "Him."
"Yes," she said, "Him."
"One of Fury's," said Stark.
"Right," she said. "So, I mean, exactly why is he standing in your workshop, looking very, very like Captain America?"
Steve's "Ma'am, I-" hit Stark's "Semantics," head on. Stark said, "New undersuit," and Steve said, "Commander Rogers. Captain America." They glared at each other. Then Steve said, "Very happy to meet you, ma'am," because he knew how to be polite to other guy's girls. He put Stark's metal plate down on the worktable.
"Delighted," said Stark's girl. "I'm Miss Potts. Pepper. Commander..." Her head was on one side, curious, focused, just like Stark's when he used his screens.
"Rogers," said Steve, and came forward with his hand stuck out. "Steve."
"That's what I thought you said," said Pepper Potts, and she let him hold her hand and kiss her briefly on one cheek.
"I swear to you, Pepper, whatever you're thinking, it's wrong," said Stark.
"I've known you a long time," said Miss Potts.
"I guarantee, ma'am, I'm real," said Steve, smiling, just like he had for the girls with the worn hands and tired eyes, the ones working their fingers to the bone for the war. Miss Potts was immaculate and sharp as a tack, but she had their strength in the set of her mouth and in the line of her shoulders under her jacket. And Stark under her thumb.
"Debatable," said Stark.
"We'll talk later," Miss Potts hissed to him, and then she smiled at Steve, and said sweetly, "You were Tony's hero growing up, you know. He's got all the magazines. Ask him nicely, and he'll show you the films."
Rolling his eyes, Stark said, "Pepper, you know I love you, right? But, not now, it's..."
"He has them?" asked Steve, startled.
"Yes," said Miss Potts.
"Complicated," said Stark. "Embarrassing. Maybe."
"You had a full blown crush, Tony, don't lie," said Miss Potts. "So forgive me if I find it a little disturbing to see Commander Rogers with his clothes off, unless it's exactly what I'm hoping it's not?"
"No, no," Stark said hurriedly, "There was no touching."
"Then what were you doing?" asked Miss Potts.
Stark said, "I wouldn't send Luke Cage out in what he was wearing. It was obscene. Even if I factor in sixty years, the stuff they gave him was primitive. It's only fair-"
"You have commitments," Miss Potts said.
"I have you," said Stark.
They stared at each other over the desk. Steve took the opportunity to bundle up his sweater top and his soft boots, creeping towards the door in his bare feet.
"Fine," said Miss Potts. "But don't expect me to cover for you while you play with your new toy."
"I'm not playing," said Stark, his voice wounded.
Quietly, Steve said, "Jarvis, can you let me out?"
In the kitchen, Steve found Agent Romanoff, in a woolly sweater over her uniform leggings, her hair wet, tangled into an untidy bun.
"Hey," he said.
"It suits you," said Romanoff. "Here. You didn't look too good at the Lubyanka."
"Thanks," said Steve, "I think." He felt at ease with Romanoff, the conditional, professional ease of knowing that she was military, that she understood the same limits and structures of the role. She didn't have to like him.
Romanoff nodded. "Surviving our pet industrialist?" she asked.
"He's something," agreed Steve, twiddling with the coffee machine. It hummed happily at him and he pressed more buttons, in a logical sequence that resulted in a worrying head of steam.
"Tony's...Tony," said Romanoff.
The coffee machine beeped. His mug was warm, and the coffee in it was a soft, almost fluffy pale brown. Steve looked at it warily, blew, sipped. It wasn't bad. Encouraged, he raided Stark's refrigerator. There was a box of cutlery by the stove, and several of crockery.
Romanoff said, "Jarvis, when is the kitchen refit scheduled?"
"Next week, Miss Romanoff," said Jarvis.
"Can you bring it forward? Rogers is scavenging. We can't all live on take-out."
"Already done," said Jarvis. "And I should mention to you that the gymnasium was finished this morning."
"I thought that was due yesterday," said Romanoff.
"Mr. Stark upgraded," said Jarvis.
"Understood," said Romanoff, and quirked an eyebrow, looking at Steve. "You know," she said, "I always wondered if those films were faked."
Steve put his sandwich down. "Those were actors," he said uncomfortably. "They got paid."
"Not them," said Romanoff. "You."
"Sorry?" Steve said.
Although he could have sworn not a muscle moved in Romanoff's face, somewhere behind the beautiful, blank mask of her face Steve was absolutely sure she was rolling her eyes. "The way you move," she said. "Your balance. Your power to weight ratio."
"I knew it," Romanoff said. "They sent you out there without any training, didn't they? You picked it up on the job."
"Agent Romanoff," Steve said stiffly, because there had been test after test after test, the weight lifting and endurance training, the target shooting and the memory sessions, the weeks he spent learning to be who he was.
"Oh, I'm sure they did the best they could," said Romanoff, "But I can guess what they put you through. The first time you went out on a limb, it blew your training to shit."
She couldn't know that. "Combat conditions are different," said Steve.
"Bullshit," said Romanoff. "They didn't know what your body could do and they didn't know how to train you. You were the first. You learnt on the fly, because you had to, and you kept learning." Slim and small inside the fluffy wool of her wrap, she stood up, her hands on her hips. Her nail varnish was darkly red. "Spar with me," she said.
"I'll break you," said Steve, horrified.
"No," said Romanoff. "You won't." Then she smiled, little white teeth gleaming. "You wouldn't refuse a lady, would you?"
He couldn't beat her. She was tricky, small and neat and so fast he was never quite sure where the next move was coming from, unruffled, slippery, sly.
He didn't lose. She hadn't got the weight of strength to pin him down, or the endurance to last him out, although Steve thought she was built of steel springs and adamantine behind the gloss of her skin. Just occasionally, she grinned at him, small and triumphant.
He was out of practice, stiff, and she had a full portfolio of moves he'd never seen, but that was no excuse.
They made a mess of Stark's new gymnasium, strewing the mats across the floor and slamming a hole into the drywall, pulling down one set of blinds and smashing the overhead lights. When they were done, the clock was face down in a corner, the horse up-ended, the parallel bars splintered kindling.
Steve was smiling. Flat on his back, he was sweaty and well worked, his muscles aching gently and the grazes on his hands already fading. Romanoff, sitting cross-legged under the window with her eyes closed, was breathing in a deep steady rhythm that was almost meditative. She had bruises on her wrists and her forearms, and the fabric of her leggings was ripped over one thigh. Steve had to roll his head sideways on the mat to see her. He said, squinting against the light of the afternoon sun, "How did I do?"
"Reasonable," said Romanoff, "For a beginner."
Her voice was very, very dry. Steve stared for a moment, until he could catch the almost invisible curl at one side of her mouth. Then he laughed.
"Thanks," he said, and meant it. Then he said, "I could do with the practice."
"When I'm here," said Romanoff serenely. Then her eyes snapped open. She was looking at the door.
Stark was in the doorway, welding goggles pushed up into his hair, one sleeve rolled up and the other hanging loose. He looked at the wreckage they'd made of his new gymnasium, at Steve, at Romanoff. Pushed the goggles up a little further. There was oil on his hands, a trace of it smeared on his forehead.
"You had a party," he said, "And didn't invite me."
"No vodka," said Romanoff.
"That can be fixed," said Stark.
"Natasha. It's lovely to see you," said Miss Potts, behind him, her voice warm
As Steve stood hurridly Romanoff looked up, smiling. "Pepper," she said. "How was New York?"
"Oh, you know," said Miss Potts.
"Busy. How long have we got you? When does the Colonel want you back?"
"Oh, you know," said Romanoff.
"One day, you're going to work for me instead," said Miss Potts.
"Maybe," said Romanoff. She was still smiling. It looked good on her, softer than the grin she'd had for Steve.
"Hello?" said Stark. "Can we stop with the hiring assassins?"
"Babe," said Miss Potts, "We already did that bit."
"And it worked out so well," said Stark. "Natalie."
"Off the payroll," said Romanoff.
"In my house," said Stark.
Romanoff shrugged. "You could have Coulson instead," she offered.
"Fine. Right," said Stark. "You can stay."
"Tony," said Miss Potts.
"What? You don't like him either!"
"He's a perfectly acceptable functionary with an admirable bent for administration. I don't like him because one of these days he's going to wear you down," said Miss Potts. "And I can't-" Her eyes flicked over to Steve, and she frowned.
"No," said Stark. "No, he doesn't. Pepper, tell me we don't need to talk about this."
"We don't have to talk about this," said Miss Potts. "We're two weeks behind on the Sudanese tender. You still haven't replied to Hammer. The Reykjavik agreement is not going to go through without your signature. And I have a whole folder of e-mails from R&D just mentioning that occasionally - just occasionally - you might demand the impossible. Acquisitions want you to know that you've used up most of the November budget on a shipment of mineral ores from Baotou, and if you want them freighted, they're going to need your signature on the export license. And an airplane. Do you ever read your e-mails?"
"Yes," said Stark. "Mostly. If we got the official no military usage clauses in the Sudan contract, I'll sign it. Hammer can kiss my ass. If there's no one in acquisitions who can negotiate with Beijing over airspace, get me someone, stat. And Jarvis?"
"Sir?" said Jarvis.
"We're upgrading the gymnasium again. Remind me tomorrow."
"Of course," said Jarvis.
"Not the point," said Miss Potts.
"I know," said Stark.
"One of the things I appreciate about Fury," said Romanoff, looking at her fingernails, "Is that he is at least predictably insane."
"Oh, baby," said Stark, amused. "You ain't seen nothing yet."
"Why does that not surprise me?" said Miss Potts. "Tasha, are you done training? I stopped over in Paris. I have macaroons."
"I'm done," said Romanoff. "I have three reports due yesterday. I'm assuming you don't mind working?"
Miss Potts laughed. "No," she said. "We'll have tea. I need to catch up as well. Tony, I'd be very grateful if you didn't blow anything up in the next twenty-four hours. Jarvis, do I have a desk?"
"In the library," said Jarvis. "I believe I have accommodated your preferences, but if there is anything I need to have changed, please do not hesitate to let me know."
"Thank you," said Miss Potts. "Tony, later. Please check through your e-mails; if it's marked urgent, it probably is. I'll catch up with you over dinner, you're buying. Commander Rogers, it was a pleasure."
"Ma'am," Steve said.
"Pepper, please, Steve," said Miss Potts. "I like you. Tony, you can keep this one."
Beside her, Stark rolled his eyes, but by the grin on Miss Potts' face, it was a familiar and expected reaction. Disconcerted, Steve watched them leave, Miss Potts and Romanoff with their heads bent together. Miss Potts was a little taller, even taking into account her shoes. Behind them, Stark sauntered towards the elevator.
Alone, Steve tidied the mats. He would have swept the floor, but there were no brushes.
By evening all of the hall, the entire length of the staircase and the two balconies were painted with white undercoat, and the kitchen was newly floored and stacked with pre-cut wooden cupboard fittings. Copper pipes and wires hung tangled from the walls, waiting for the new machines which sat in the scullery, still wrapped. The stove was already in place. Steve peered at the buttons and dials of Stark's devices, frowning over full spin and half load, temperature gauges and ecofriendly settings, wondering why anyone would need a dishwasher. That's why there was a sink.
On the table in the kitchen was a stack of flat, colored boxes with a note on top that said, 'Dinner. Help yourself.'
"Jarvis?" Steve said, poking at one of the boxes. "Is this meant for me?"
"Indeed so," said Jarvis. "As no one knew your preferences and you were showering at the time, I took the liberty of ordering a selection. The box you are currently holding is pepperoni, cheese, tomato and Italian sausage. The Margarita underneath is cheese and tomato, the Hawaiian has pineapple, mushrooms and ham. There are two slices missing, Ms. Romanoff being fond of pineapple."
"Pizza," said Steve.
"An Italian dish of flatbread topped with various condiments," said Jarvis. "Commonly ordered as take-out. There are several vendors of choice in the area."
Steve opened the box and took out a slice. It was vivid with flavor. He took another, standing at the table. And another.
When he was halfway through the second pizza, Agent Romanoff came into the kitchen with another stack of boxes, empty. Steve hustled to his feet, she frowned at him, and he made a note to consult Jarvis on changes in basic etiquette. But what she said was, "Bring that through. Stark hooked up the flat screen."
Which meant nothing at all to Steve, but Romanoff nodded at the box and said, "Tradition." She paused at the doorway. "Don't think you're not welcome," she said. "And I think you should call me Natasha."
It startled Steve. He managed a muffled "Thanks," followed, and only then realized that flat screen meant a cinema screen, and that on it there were dinosaurs in motion, so sharply defined they could almost be real.
"Steve. Come in and shut the door," advised Miss Potts from the couch.
He should not have been surprised that Stark could not keep his mouth shut. At a movie showing, surrounded by strangers, it would have been irritating to hear his acerbic, critical commentary. In the library, the shelves empty but the floor newly varnished and covered with rugs, with Black Widow, Natasha, curled up on a pile of cushions and with Miss Potts - "Pepper, for goodness' sake" - sitting with her feet up on the couch, Stark's commentary was not just endurable but unexpectedly amusing. The man could be surprisingly droll, and twice Steve had to choke down an honest laugh, unwilling to cede quite so much to a man about whom he was so uncertain. He did not understand Stark, wasn't at all sure if the man was likeable, was failing to get a handle on what Stark did that was so interesting to Fury, but he was beginning to wonder if he should have offered Stark the benefit of the doubt. As a person. The pure selfishness of what he doing as an industrialist...that Steve could neither understand nor forgive.
On the other hand, pizza was probably the best thing the twenty-first century had offered him, so far.
In the morning, by the time Steve was showered, there was a team of painters clambering over ladders and hanging from the staircase. The other doors on his balcony were propped open with paint cans, and there was a woman in overalls at his bedroom door with a steady glare and a foam covered roller in her hands. Steve, apologizing, fled to the kitchen, only to discover two plumbers and an electrician. Breakfast was coffee and cold pizza, eaten on the house steps.
He went for a run, apologizing all over again to the woman painting his ceiling as he changed, and came back to a house considerably brighter and cleaner than it had been when he left. His bed was in the middle of the room, and someone else was glossing the woodwork. It was obvious he was in the way. He had to tiptoe around four trays of paint on his way down the stairs. In the hallway, he hesitated, but his options were limited.
He called the elevator.
The music was different and deafening, and Stark was surrounded by images of molecules and chemical equations. The lights were still down, and Steve could see again his own image on the corner of Stark's flat screen monitor, which made sense, although he felt an unexpected spur of annoyance that Stark didn't trust him either. It wasn't Steve who had anything to hide.
When he knocked, Stark did mute the music, and come to the door.
"What?" It was testy.
"I was wondering if..." Steve didn't actually know what he wanted. Somewhere else to be.
"What do you need?" said Stark, frowning. "If it's the costume, come back later. I'm good, but even I can't reinvent polymers in twenty-four hours."
Steve said, "Can I help? It's just that..." He shrugged, tried to convey how crowded the house was, how useless he felt.
"No," said Stark, his hand reaching for the keypad. Behind him, something whirred, demanding. He glanced back. "Seriously, no," he said, and slammed the door. On the workbench, something was flaming gently, while a metal arm attached to what looked like a small, wheeled mine hovered over it, flexing. Stark, running, shouted something; white foam covered the tabletop. Most of the holograms winked out. Stark waved his arms around, violently.
Steve, who had assumed Miss Potts had been joking when she mentioned explosions, reassessed. The situation seemed to be under control, but there was a faint prickle in his fingertips that suggested he should be thinking about saving the day.
Jarvis said softly, "It's always best to leave Mr. Stark alone when experiments...do not proceed as predicted."
"Thanks," said Steve, and turned back to the elevator. Then he said, "Jarvis, is there anything I can do?"
There was silence.
As the elevator door opened onto the hall, still crowded with workers, Jarvis spoke again.
"While everything in the house has been scheduled," he said, "The outbuildings have not been touched. Mr. Stark deemed it unnecessary as yet to extend my network to the whole of the exterior of the estate, although I believe there to be various storage areas. If you would consider clearing and cataloguing some of the material which has been delivered there prior to our arrival, I would be most grateful."
"I can do that," said Steve, grateful.
"If you were to take your tablet with you, I would be able to assist," said Jarvis.
"You can see through the screen?" asked Steve, heading upstairs to pick it up.
"Not quite," said Jarvis. "An image is relayed to me via the webcam."
"Run through webcam for me?"
"Of course," said Jarvis.
In his room, the paint undercoat had dried, and the woman with the roller was back, whistling a tune Steve did not know. He smiled, grabbing the tablet from the dresser, and she smiled back.
The overall she was wearing read Stark Industries. Steve felt his smile drop, just a little. He'd forgotten that Stark had ordinary people at his beck and call, subject to every whim. Exploiting workers for profit, the very definition of a kulak, a recidivist, a traitor. He said, "Steve Rogers, ma'am. I wondered if I could ask you something?"
"Sure," she said. "I'm Leila Dorokhin. I'd offer to shake your hand, but I'm all over paint. What do you need to know?"
She was slightly pink, comfortably round, paint splattered. She didn't look oppressed or starved, but Steve already knew that appearances could be deceptive. He said, "I saw the label. Do you work for Stark?"
"Stark Industries?" she said, frowning a little, "Or Tony Stark?"
"They're the same?" said Steve.
"Not quite. I work for the industries arm - that's SI. But, um... Miss Potts and Mr. Hogan work for Tony Stark personally. I just work for the company."
"Stark owns the company," said Steve.
"The shareholders own the company," said Leila, a little puzzled. "It's a little different from...it's the company that pays me, not him?"
Steve would have to go back to that one. He said, "Do you like...what you do?"
"It's great!" said Leila, and there was no disguising the grin on her face. "They hired me straight out of college, and I get to do all sorts of stuff - like being here. I mean, it's a privilege, right? Where else would I get to work somewhere like this? And the samples are going to be brilliant."
"What?" said Steve.
"I work on paint," said Leila. "Chemical composition. It's hard to get datable samples. But this house hasn't been touched since the revolution, and the company has all the estate diaries - this room was last painted in 1910. It's going to be awesome for my dissertation."
"But you're working," said Steve.
"I get a day a week to study at college, and Stark Industries pay my fees," said Leila. "It all works out - once I've graduated, there's a place in R&D waiting for me. I can't wait." She bounced a little, grinning.
"So it's...not bad? Working for a private company?" Steve frowned over designating Leila class enemy, and added, "Do you have a union?"
"No?" said Leila. Then she said, "But we have great picnics. And on Fridays we have a potluck lunch, and my boss bakes amazing cookies. Biscuits," she added.
"Right," said Steve, and added, cautiously, "You don't feel you're...oppressed?"
"Sorry?" said Leila, and stared at him, her forehead wrinkling. Then she said, "You're one of those. No, I don't. I own my own apartment. I don't have to spend my life queuing. And," she said, "I don't eat cabbage soup for dinner. Do you know how much my grandfather gets from the army pension? It's enough for bread and potatoes. That's not going to be me."
Something had gone badly wrong. Steve said, "Thank you," with more questions left than answers.
"Not at all," said Leila, still frowning a little, but she picked up the roller with intent.
Unhappy, confused, Steve took the tablet back downstairs, and as directed, around the side of the house to the outbuildings. What he saw there was a small courtyard of stables and carriage houses, far more dilapidated than the house had been. Most of the crumbling doorframes lacked doors, rafters jutted, roofless, above the brick of the walls, and the yard was stacked with scraps of lumber and ancient machinery.
Jarvis said, his voice a little different heard over the tablet's speakers, "I arranged to have two skips delivered, and more as required."
"I see them," said Steve. "I'll start here."
He filled four, letting the simple pleasure of labor subdue his unease for now. Instinctively, he'd sorted the materials as he cleared, but even reuse was regulated in this new century. Jarvis, approving, told him that the usable lumber went to a theatre reclamation project in Tverskoy District, and the usable metals were reclaimed by a Stark energy project that provided apprenticeships for young, vulnerable adults.
Steve would have left the gates open if he could, but his definition of need and Stark's were very far apart.
There were piroshkies for dinner, brought in hot from a privately owned restaurant and eaten around the new kitchen table. Afterwards, Pepper and Natasha convened in the library. Steve, feeling a little out of place, tried to work his way through old party archives on his tablet. Stark had already gone back to his workshop.
In the morning, there was a rolled up carpet outside his room. Steve went for a run, and when he came back, his floorboards had vanished under an unfeasibly warm layer of dense red wool. It was so luxurious he almost wanted to roll in it, so wastefully extravagant it could only be Stark's choice. After his second shower, though, he could not resist curling his bare feet into the softness of it, amazed.
He seemed to have some new clothes too, shirts and pants, in fabrics that clung to his skin and slid over his body. Some hooded sweaters, a winter coat and a scarf in red and gold. It was too much. No one needed this amount of clothing. He went to find Stark.
It was Pepper, though, who found Steve. "Tony's out," she said, as he stood waiting for an elevator which would never come. "He's at the Kremlin. A meeting about building zones. But I wanted to talk to you anyway. Do you have a minute?"
"Sure," said Steve.
"In the library," said Pepper. She made him sit down, and then she brought out a folder of paperwork. "I had someone on your finances from the moment Tony called," she said. "It's something that comes up often, for our staff and their families, so we're used to investigating. The financial situation is still not stable. We work with what we've got. But the fact is that the mechanism put in place to provide state pensions and allowances failed. The government's in no position to fund the gap between the marketplace and public funds."
"I understand," said Steve.
"Tony said you'd been checking," said Pepper. "I was really hoping not to have this conversation until you were a little more settled."
"You're going to say I have no money," said Steve. He never has had. Anything else would have been an unwelcome surprise; the party had always provided, although occasionally less generously than really needed.
"Yes," said Pepper, and looked away. Then back. "We did everything we could," she said. "But you were declared dead a week after your disappearance. No pension. And your belongings were confiscated after you were...after Captain America was denounced."
It still hurt. He'd expected it, but the rejection stung, not so much for him but for his men, and the image for which they had fought.
"I grew up poor," said Steve. "It's fine."
"You're not on SHIELD's payroll yet either," said Pepper. "We could have done that. But there are obligations attached we thought you could do without, right now, although if you change your mind later it's fixable. So whatever Fury thinks he's got over you, he hasn't."
Fury was the only person who had spoken to Steve as if he still had a use. "I understand," he said.
"So," said Pepper, "I was thinking...I could set you up with a couple of sponsorship deals. Just to tide you over. I mean, we have a very active program with young athletes, mostly travel fees and equipment, but we've paid for accommodation and living costs where someone really needs help. I'm sure we could fit you in." She smiled, a little tentative.
"Stark Industries?" said Steve.
"Yes," said Pepper.
"No," said Steve. "I'll sort it out. And speak to Stark. I owe him for clothes. And food."
"Sorry?" said Pepper, blinking.
"When you looked at my records..." Steve said, "Was that just me? Can anyone look at the database? Will it tell me if people I served with are still alive?"
"Wait," said Pepper. "You're turning us down? Tony won't like it."
"Tell him thank you, but no thanks," said Steve. "I'm not an advertising campaign."
"That's not the point," said Pepper.
"Ma'am - Pepper," said Steve, "I'm sorry. But no."
"Okay," said Pepper, looking down at the file, and frowning. Then she said, "But we can pay you for what you did today? That's fair?"
Steve turned that one over. "Yes," he said. "Or you can show me where you found that data."
"I'd do that anyway," said Pepper, and showed him.
Afterwards, he took his grief and anger out on the rest of the open yard, clearing the last of the timber and the stacks of broken tiles. Anything valuable must have already been taken, years ago; he was surprised the wood hadn't been burnt, but the house was so tucked away it might have been missed. It seemed unlikely. Possibly, so close to Red Square, the area had been well protected, inhabited as it had been by party deputies and Kremlin bureaucrats, although desperate people do desperate things. He'd been hungry and cold enough times himself to know.
The larger of the carriage houses were stacked with packing cases. The new ones, labeled Stark Industries, were neatly layered on one side under the remains of the roof. Those Steve left where they were, but the haphazard, tumbled stacks of boxes in the open were older and beginning to split apart. The grey, splitting wood and the drifted leaves suggested they'd been there for years, but Jarvis, asked, had no idea where they were from.
Between them, Jarvis and Steve found some of the large plastic sacks the builders used, and Steve opened the first box. In it, mildewed and moth eaten, he found women's clothes. Skirts and blouses, aged to brown and grey, the sort of clothes his mother had worn. In the next box, a man's suits, his shoes, and a coiled mass of fabric that must once have been ties. More boxes. A stack of paperwork, so damp the sheets with their cramped notes and diagrams could not be separated and the ink had blurred into illegibility. Books. Burlap bags of rocks. More books. Engineering and literature, consigned to the skips. More rocks. A box of complex metal fittings he dropped by the front door, for Stark. More paperwork. At the bottom of the pile, he found two boxes made of hardwood, not pine, their lids still sealed and their seams intact.
Inside them, wrapped in tarp, were magazines. America. The top one, soft with use, had his own image on the cover.
Shocked, Steve had to lean back on his heels and breathe hard for a moment. He looked so very young, so untouched, the colors of his uniform and his hair overexposed and bright, his face so very bland. It had never before seemed so clear to him that they were selling dreams, the men and women who had created his image in the same way he'd created pictures for the newspaper.
On page 34, in the cartoon strip, Captain America defeated a patrol of Germans in the Ukraine, with nothing more than his shield and his trusty sidekick. There were emphatic blows and bombastic asides. He was heroic. The colors were garish. The Germans were thuggish brutes.
In the next issue, he'd stormed a castle in Poland, retrieving the plans for a secret weapon. Given that Steve had been there at the time and the event was considerably messier than described, he'd pass.
Under the magazines, there were a few posters, small and badly printed on wartime paper. A cardboard shield, flattened. Wrapped in tissue paper he found a couple of photographs, the kind they handed out at the films. A ribbon, red and gold, which must have come from one of the tour girls. Yvette and Zhenya, Gigi and Lara, and little Mariska who'd been the one on the motorbike.
"Jarvis," Steve said softly. "Jarvis, what do you want me to do with this?"
The pause was telling. Then Jarvis said, "I believe these items belong to Mr. Howard Stark's estate." If it had been possible for Jarvis to sound shaken, Steve thought that might have been the moment.
"Stark's," said Steve.
"Indeed," said Jarvis. "Mr. Stark has never responded well to comment about his father. Perhaps it would be for the best if we were to move these boxes to secure storage."
"Sure," said Steve. But he was still bent over the box. There was an envelope at the bottom, with more photographs. He opened it.
Unlike the publicity shots, these were not staged. He knew these men. His own face, drawn and muddied. The bandage on Yaakov's knee, the shabby uniforms, the cook pot with its missing handle. Himself, balanced on a tank, pointing, a spray of dirt showing just how close a German shell had come. Bucky, running. Himself again, with a map spread out on the bonnet of a jeep and a mug of coffee in his hand. A group shot, which must have been that village on the Don, the one where Grossman had caught up with them. They all looked so very young, and so very familiar, but the photographs were yellow with age and faded.
"How did..." Steve swallowed. "Jarvis, I can't, would Stark..."
"Tony," said Stark, "Tony. What the hell are you doing?"
Steve couldn't speak. He hadn't got words. He nodded at the photographs, spread out on the box.
"What?" said Stark. Close up, he smelled of hot metal and something acrid, burning plastic, perhaps. "What?" Then, "Oh, balls. Way to go, kid. Nothing like having my embarrassing hobbies - hey. Are you okay?"
"Your hobby is my life," said Steve.
Stark looked down, focused. "Oh, fuck," he said. "Me and my big mouth. You want these? Yours."
"Just the photographs," said Steve.
"I could..." Stark said, peering at Bucky. Then he glanced up. "No. Take them." He was shuffling prints back into the envelope, pushing it back at Steve. "There's a couple more, too, studio shots. You found them?"
"They weren't real," said Steve. His voice sounded a little thick.
Stark had his head cocked on one side, his eyes narrowed, frowning. He said, "I have some scans. Digital images. If you're interested."
"Yes," said Steve, holding on to the envelope.
"Would you believe me if..." said Stark, and then, "You know what? Let's just take this one on trust, okay?"
He had hundreds of images. Scans from photographs, stills from the films, newspaper cartoons and publicity shots. He had photographs of missions Steve had thought entirely unobserved, a couple of shots of the guys clowning around, Steve on tanks, jeeps, his motorcycle. He had newspaper photographs of the mortifying two hours Steve spent on the Kremlin balcony.
"I'm not sure you want to see this," he said, fingers poised over the forward tab.
It was the same image. For a moment, Steve couldn't see what was different. Then he realized, he'd been expunged. There was nothing but grey space where he'd been standing, a complete absence. Even the sleeve of that general's uniform had been painted in to cover the suspicious gap.
"Flick back to the last one," he said.
Steve wasn't the only person removed. Of the fifteen men standing with him on the balcony in 1941, only eleven remained on the second photograph.
"When was this done?" he asked.
Stark said, "'45. When Stalin didn't need you anymore."
"It was never about him," said Steve. "Never."
Stark shrugged. "I know that. You know that. He didn't."
"What else did he do?" said Steve, "To us?"
"Cartoons," said Stark. "Articles. Once people knew... You don't want to see. You were convenient. He needed to destroy the myth."
"They killed my men," Steve said. "Sent them out on missions no sane person would have ordered. Split them up. No one came out of the war. Not one of them lived."
Stark didn't say anything.
"There's no one left," said Steve.
"There's you," said Stark.
"As much use as a stuffed puppet," said Steve. "Turn it off."
Stark's hand moved. The screen went blank. He spun on his chair, his fingers tapping at the arms, staring over Steve's shoulder. Then his eyes refocused. "I'm only going to say this once," he said, "And you never repeat it. Ever. But when I was a kid, you were this image of...something I wanted. America. Freedom. Choice. Power, but not...responsible power," said Stark. "I didn't care about what happened after you died. I'd seen it happen to other people. It was the dream that mattered."
Steve took a deep breath. He felt a little shaky, not quite real, a little angry. "It wasn't your future we were fighting for," he said.
"Yeah, I know," said Stark. "But this is what we made. And, hey, what'd you know, there's some other kid out there dreaming of Captain America, some kid who's going to change the world all over again?"
"That never turns out well," said Steve.
"Yeah?" said Stark. "So it wasn't you trying to unionize my workers?"
Steve blinked. "I...might have mentioned?" he hazarded.
"You go ahead, Cap," said Stark, grinning. "Start small. Well, not that small. Or take up politics. Everyone and their dog does that. You won't enjoy it. Or crime fighting. You'd like that. Get Fury to buy you a cape and hang out on street corners looking noble. You could do that in your sleep."
"That's not the point," said Steve.
"Yeah, yeah," said Stark. "I get it. You want to be useful. Hang on in there, okay? I'll think of something."
"Right," said Steve.
"No, really," said Stark. "I might have something. It just depends. Well, depended. Heroes don't grow on trees, you know? It's not every day one comes along. I kind of expected fireworks. Now that's...Jarvis, make a note."
"Sir," said Jarvis.
"I'm not one of those guys," said Steve hastily.
"Which guys?" said Stark.
"The ones in your adverts," said Steve.
you saw the Starkphone v2 one?" said Stark, grinning. "Totally.
Moment you buy one, supermodels climb all over you. True fact. Hell of
"I saw the press launch pictures," said Steve.
"Image sells," said Stark, the grin still curling the edge of his mouth. "You know that."
"It never got me-" Steve stopped
"Oh, Cap," said Stark, eyes wide. "Really? Because, I wouldn't have pegged you as that kind of player, but I can totally do that for you, Jarvis can hook you up, we'll get you a sweet ride for the day-"
"I don't understand you at all!" said Steve, exasperated. "Every time I think - and you-"
"Yeah, yeah," said Stark, and stood up. "Stuff to do. Jarvis, download that folder to Cap's personal drive, okay? Catch you later."
He was not military, Stark, but for the first time, as Steve watched the man walk away, he recognized the stiff brace of Stark's shoulders and the almost imperceptible stiffness to his gait. Stark had never served in the army, managed to avoid conscription by some means that were probably highly illegal, and his withdrawal from the arms trade had drawn so much under-the-table opprobrium from the military Stark's companies were still weathering the storm. But when he walked, he had the constant, dangerous alertness of a man in a war zone. It was something to think about.
Steve went back to the boxes. Everything salvageable, he salvaged. The two boxes of magazines and pictures he put with the box of scraps for Stark. Tony. Stark.
Then he started on the stables. Midafternoon, he was joined by a couple of teenagers from a Stark work program, a little confused, but willing. He worked them hard, asked Jarvis for rations, and sent them away dirty, tired and beaming. It was on the last walk around, when the floodlights were already shining across the snow and the builder's trucks had left, that he found the motorbike.
The skeleton of it, rusty and battered, leaned against the stable wall. The engine block had fallen out of the frame, bolts sheared. The wheels were piled behind a stack of wood, tires rotted off the rims and spokes sprung from the hubs. There were no handlebars, but he found the front forks and the yoke, pitted and bent, behind the engine block. He did not need the embossed, rusted initials on the engine casing to tell him the manufacturer's name. It was an IMZ M-72, the same kind of bike he'd had during the war.
In the carriage house, he'd been piling tools as he found them, a few wrenches, a couple of screwdrivers, an axe. Spare nuts and bolts and screws, a few scraps of coated wire that might come in useful. There was a space in the last of the stables which was almost under cover. He moved everything there, stacked neatly, ran his fingers over the rust on the frame, straightened a wheel spoke and forced it back into the socket. He'd have to get something to get the sheared engine bolts out. One of the mechanics at base had owned a reverse screw, and maybe Stark, amidst his futuristic holograms, would have something....
Steve picked up the tablet, and walked back to the house. Waiting for him, in the hall, Natasha was already dressed in her workout gear.
The two boxes of photographs were at the side of his bed, and on top of them, a Starkphone. St- Tony had not left a note, but Steve smiled, all the same. Although when he turned the phone on after dinner, it took him half an hour and a whispered consultation with Jarvis before he managed to change the background image to something he would be comfortable with anyone else seeing. Either underwear had got considerably warmer as well as briefer, or Stark was a sadist with a disconcerting bent for ice.
He took both options under consideration.
In the morning Yuri and Maxim were waiting for him at the stables, blowing into their cupped hands in the early morning cold, but still cheerful. Steve scavenged them work gloves from Stark's builders and rations from Jarvis, and made sure he kept a safe eye out for where they were working. That day they cleared the last of the lumber, ripped out the rotten door and window frames, and made the roof as safe as it could be. At lunchtime, one of the site contractors arrived with a clipboard, making notes and measuring up for renovations.
Yuri, Maxim and Steve spent the afternoon clearing weeds, sweeping up, and moving the remaining packing cases to the cellar. They were good workers, willing, a little reserved just like Steve's youngest recruits had been, the sort of shyness that a few swift jokes and a shared mission usually dispelled. He thought they'd enjoyed themselves; he had, in the shared camaraderie of work that was both physical and quickly rewarding.
He sent the boys home once he judged the light too low to work safely, and went back to the house for lanterns. He had a pair of pliers and a hammer, cadged from Jarvis, to work on the bike. He whistled his way across the yard, glad to have achieved something with the day, happy to have worked as a team.
Finding Yuri piling copper wire into his satchel, stealthy and quick around the back of the carriage house, was both shockingly familiar and surreal. Ill equipped and underfed, the Howling Commandos had traded and scavenged along the Eastern Front, exchanging labor for food, robbing out abandoned gardens and livestock run wild. Even Yuri's stance was familiar, that cautious crouch, ready to run.
Steve was quicker.
"Get your hands off me, you fat bastard!" Yuri hissed, struggling, vicious as a trapped rat in Steve's grip. "I wasn't doing anything! He won't miss it!"
"Yuri," said Steve.
"It's not fair that he has so much! I could have - you don't know what it's like, you got no fucking clue, I could have-"
"Explain," said Steve.
"Fuck you," said Yuri, and burst into angry tears. "Like you're not rolling over for him. Like you're not sucking his dick. What makes you so fucking special, while the rest of us-"
"I'd appreciate it if you'd reconsider that statement," said Steve, "And tell me the truth. Why? Food? Drugs? What do you need so much you'd steal for it?"
"Like it matters to you - you've already got everything," hissed Yuri. "The computer and the clothes, that fucking phone, you're such a big man and you act like it doesn't matter, like you're one of us, and it's a big fucking lie."
"I bet he takes you to all the parties," said Yuri miserably.
"I bet Irina Klavatskoya sucks your-"
"Be quiet," said Steve. "Neither you nor I know the lady concerned, and it's none of our business what she does with her free time. You, on the other hand, you're my business. How old are you?"
"...seventeen," said Yuri, quietly. He sniffed, and looked up with big, piteous damp eyes.
Steve pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and passed it across. "Old enough to know that the only person who's going to get you where you want to be is yourself. You know where this ends up. If I let you go today, what happens next week? Next year? When you know Petrovka 38 better than your own apartment? When you're sharing a cell in Butyrka? What happens when the mafia find out what you're doing and want in?"
"I just want to fit in," muttered Yuri. "I want...I want a phone like yours. And a car. I want Ludmilla to look at me like I'm someone."
"Right," said Steve. "So you want more money. To buy things. And that's going to make you happy? You think if you own enough, people will like you? Look up to you? Yuri, that's not the way it works."
"Look at Tony Stark!" said Yuri.
"Do you really want his life?" said Steve. "Because I've seen it. Eighteen hour days, so tired he can barely pull a sentence together, always on the phone, never going anywhere without bodyguards - Yuri, he's a genius, and he worked for every penny he's got, but if you think he's a happy man you are so very wrong. I don't want to live like that and I don't think you do either." The boy had gone limp in his hands. Steve let him go.
"What do you really want to do?" he asked.
Yuri wanted to fix cars. Actually, what he wanted to do was build racing cars, work on engines and tires and calibrations, be one of the guys in the Grand Prix pit with the overalls and the baseball hats. "I don't want to drive," he insisted. "I want to - it'd be so cool if that was my engine that won, you know? I just need a chance. I've got ideas. I've got good ideas."
"Okay," said Steve. "So. If you and I spoke to St- Mr. Stark, and we arranged for you to start learning about car engines - racing car engines? Properly?"
"You could do that?" said Yuri, blinking upwards.
"I could," said Steve firmly. "But in return, you'd have to promise never to steal again. And apologize."
"You must be kidding," said Yuri.
"No," said Steve. "I'm not."
Stark's face, when Steve tipped out the satchel on his desk and Yuri stammered through his apology, was so taken aback Steve almost thought he'd have to make Yuri say everything twice. It wasn't until Yuri got onto McLaren's injection systems that he began to rally, and even then it was with a couple of quiet questions, not the explosive rage or disbelief Steve had feared. And Yuri himself seemed unstoppable, bursting with ideas about turbos and boosters and compression ratios - Stark held up a hand.
"Kid, you're trying to fly already," he said, although there was an ironic glint in his eye that suggested, Steve thought, Stark himself might have done the same.
Tony. Tony. Although it was hard to think of Stark as anything other than himself when he was on the phone to the head of R&D, arranging a placement, suggesting training, pointing out that if they were going to offer an apprenticeship there would be funding, mentioning that Stark Industries sponsored, not only a Formula One team, but a GPA and a WPA team as well. Yuri was starry-eyed.
"Don't screw up," Stark told him, putting the phone down. Yuri would be starting at the SI factory workshop on Tuesday.
Yuri shook his head, eyes wide. He said, "I - I. Thank you. I'll-" He looked at Steve. "I won't," he said. "I really won't."
"Now scoot," said Stark.
Yuri scooted. He left his satchel behind, and Steve folded it carefully. He could give it back tomorrow.
Behind the desk, Stark raised an eyebrow. Steve shrugged, palms out.
"That kid had better win me the Grand Prix," muttered Stark.
"You thought he had good ideas," said Steve.
"Don't ever do that to me again," said Stark. "I'm not Santa Claus."
"Who?" said Steve.
Stark said, "Just don't - I can deal with the chin, and the shoulders, but the sad looming thing? Don't."
"I don't understand," said Steve.
"That's a good thing," said Stark. "Haven't you got something else to be doing? Some other kid to put on the straight and narrow? Seriously, I've got stuff to do, so..."
"Thank you," said Steve.
"Out," said Stark.
Steve stopped in the doorway, hand on the frame. When he turned around, Stark was looking back. "You didn't have to do that," he said. "And I can't pay you back. Not yet. What..." he swallowed. He could feel the flush in his cheeks, hoped Stark couldn't see the color. "What can I do for you?"
There was a moment, before Stark spoke, when Steve couldn't breathe. His hands were suddenly cold on the doorframe, and his stomach had taken up acrobatics. A double twist. A loop-the-loop with a dive-bomb of an ending.
Stark shrugged. He said, unsmiling, "Call me Tony."
It was relief that made Steve stumble on the way out.
He almost didn't expect Yuri to turn up at the stables again, but the kid was there, standing next to Maxim with a chagrined smile and a box of his grandmother's kulich. There was little left to strip down. They surveyed the site instead, borrowing the electronic Total Station and its friendly operator from SI to do the survey, downloading the images and measurements onto Steve's tablet and then taking it into the library to argue over materials and building styles. It was a theoretical exercise, but the completed plans were a decent piece of draughtmanship and Steve was proud of the way they'd integrated reclaimed material into the finished design. For Yuri and Maxim, it was a finished result they could take away and use - Maxim for his product manufacturing paper, Yuri for his new college course in CAD.
While Steve didn't expect the way both kids returned his thanks and asked him to let them know if he wanted to demolish any more old buildings, he surely appreciated the thought. When they were gone - actually gone, rather than popping back for Yuri's gloves and then Maxim's notebook - the house seemed very quiet. The builders had left, and although there had still been painters on the second landing that morning, there was no music coming from the upstairs bedrooms. He hadn't seen Natasha for a couple of days, and Pepper only over the breakfast table, glued to her cellphone.
"Jarvis," Steve said, "Are there any colleges looking for part time help?"
It was evening before he went back to the bike, but one of the surveyors was still pacing around the stables. He was a friendly guy, he'd helped out with the skips and given the boys a pair of pallets to stack the tiles, and he chatted amiably about his own college courses and where his friends had studied while Steve sanded down the front frame bracings. It was only when it was too dark to work that he said, "You've got somewhere to move this? We start work here tomorrow."
"No," said Steve. He hadn't realized. He should have asked before, the bike belonged to someone else, the tools were not his; he really should have sent it off with the rest of the metal for scrap. There wasn't any other place to store something that size until the stables had been rebuilt.
"Bring it in here," said Tony, consulted.
"What what? I keep my space clean, you can borrow my tools, there's plenty of space."
"But this is yours," said Steve. He wasn't even sure why it was to Tony he had gone.
"I can share," said Tony. "C'mon. Where is it? I'll give you a hand. Just let me open up the doors." He pressed something, and at the back of the workshop - Steve had always thought it was underground - two massive overhead doors opened with a hum of hydraulics. Outside, under the floodlit snow, a steeply curving drive led up towards the front of the house.
Tony was wearing an undershirt, no jacket. "It's in bits," said Steve hurriedly, "I'll get it."
"Sure," said Tony. "Pick a spot. There's good, in the corner. Car tools are there in the cabinet, help yourself."
When Steve looked around Stark was already back at the screens. The frame and the engine he took in one trip, and everything else in the next. He was stacking the frame back on its blocks of wood when Tony's shadow leaned over his.
"Super strength, huh?"
"Serum," said Steve, bending over the back axle, jammed in against the seat struts.
"Huh," said Tony again.
Steve got the whole of the front end sanded down that evening, sheets under the frame to stop the rust making a mess of Tony's workshop, sandpaper torn from the massive rolls in his store. There were still little spots of rust caught in the welding ridges and inside the hollows of the yoke. He was frowning over them when Tony's shadow came back. "Give me twenty minutes or so, I've got a sandblaster. That'll work."
"I was thinking it was time to eat," said Steve. "It's past nine."
"Nine?" said Tony. "Nine? Hell. I was meant to call Pep at eight. Jarvis. Jarvis!"
"I did, sir," said Jarvis. "Twice."
"Oh right fine," said Stark. "Call her now?"
"Miss Potts' phone has been switched off for the past twenty minutes," said Jarvis. "I will attempt to connect you as soon as I am able."
"Shit, shit, shit," said Tony. "Jarvis, what did...?"
"Should I order the usual?" said Jarvis.
"Yeah," said Tony, "Thanks." He had his chin up, but there was a sagging despondency to his shoulders that Steve had never seen before, there for no more than a second or two.
"Sorry," said Steve.
"It wasn't - Pepper's used to it," said Tony, although he wasn't looking back. "I'm just going to - tweak this bit - if I-"
Steve went for food. There were take-out boxes by the stove, only just warm but spiced. He tried a mouthful, and then tipped all four containers into a stockpot. The kitchen warmed, smelling of something sweetly peppery, pleasantly fragranced. Steve filled two plates, and took them downstairs.
Tony ate with one hand on his keyboard. He had some kind of material on the screen, and seemed to be testing it under stress. Steve watched it stretch in more dimensions than he thought existed, hold steady under virtual blows and resist seven different kinds of virtual sharp edges.
"And if I...body temperature...composition molecules..." muttered Tony.
"It's midnight," said Steve.
"Test...what? What did you say?" Tony had spun around. "Cap. What's your body temperature? No, never mind, Jarvis?"
"I'm going to bed now," Steve said.
Tony didn't notice.
Morning crashed awake with the slam of his bedroom door. Startled upright, Steve asked, "What? What is it?" already listening for the crack of mortar rounds and patter of small arms fire, and finding nothing but the quietness of snow and Tony Stark in overalls.
"Get up," said Tony, "Come on, rise and shine, I've got something for you."
Steve rubbed his hand over his eyes, but Tony was still there. He reached for his shirt and pants.
"Seriously, don't bother," said Tony. "Shower afterwards. Come as you are." He grinned. His eyes slid sideways for a second. "Heh."
"I can't walk through the house in my underwear!" said Steve, scandalized.
"Why not?" said Tony. "I do. Plus, you won't need any clothes."
Despite Steve's best subduing-the-recruits glare, Tony didn't drop his eyes. "Turn around," said Steve.
"Oh for-" said Tony, and did. "Hurry up."
Steve was already scrabbling into his pants, one sock on and one off. "Okay. Okay. What?"
"Workshop," said Tony, rattling down the stairs. He had two screwdrivers and a flexible socket wrench in his back pockets. "It's not that different," he said, skidding across the marble tiles of the hallway into the lift. "And don't worry, I only took the smallest sample from the old one, you won't even notice." He slapped his palm on the intercom, and the door opened. The lights were almost up; the alcoves at the back were still in shadow, but the center of the room was spot lit, and in it....
"Yeah," said Tony. "Do you want to look? It's a bit of a mess just now, I had to...work on this new fabric, and it took longer than I thought it would, and then the proofing was a real bitch, I've only just got the armor in, hang on a second, let me-"
...Steve's uniform. Gleaming as it had never done, even brand new. The same colors, the same style, a little bulkier around the shoulders, a little smoother to the touch, although the fabric felt curiously dense.
"-turn the spotlight on?" said Tony.
Steve was touching the edge of the cowl, stiffened to hold the fabric in place, flexible enough to allow him to uncover. The paper-thin armor over the shoulders and elbows, hips and thighs. There was a kidney plate and a cup, almost imperceptible padding on the knees. He trailed his fingers over the shape of it, couldn't find a seam.
"I thought gloves next," said Tony. "Under gloves, I mean, and socks."
There was a pair of new, bright gauntlets on the workbench, next to his old uniform. The contrast was striking.
"Can I..." said Steve, dry-mouthed.
"What? Oh, fine, it's not a prototype, be my guest, fastens at the back, watch the cowl. You won't need thermals, there's a fiber in there that reacts-"
Steve found the back fastening. His pants weren't going to fit underneath: off they came. And his shirt.
"Just carry on," said Tony's voice, a little strained.
He'd thought, skin tight as the fabric was, he'd have to struggle and drag to get the suit on, but it slid over his skin as easily as if it was oiled. The pants went on in seconds, the top practically fell into place. It felt so fitted that only the reassuring weight of it on his shoulders and the slight tension across his thighs told him he was dressed. Experimentally, he moved his elbows, bent his knees, bent over, and the fabric moved with him supple as his own skin.
"This is amazing," he said, a little thickly. It felt almost as if he was himself again. "I don't know how you did it."
"Boots," suggested Tony, feet up on the desk. He had a mug in his hand and a bottle of vodka by his elbow, and he was smiling, a small smile like no other Steve had seen him make.
"Yes," said Steve, and drew them on. Then his belt, his old belt, all the leather dark and soft and gleaming and the seams restitched with waxed cotton. And his gauntlets, as red now as they had been sixty-seven years ago, the cuffs stiff and the fingers so smooth to his skin he could imagine picking a lock still wearing them.
"Jarvis?" said Tony softly.
"Of course," said Jarvis, and then, "Mr. Rogers, a most impressive figure, if I may say so."
"Thank you," said Steve. He looked up at Tony's smile, smiled back, a little soft and blurred.
"Go on," said Tony, and gestured with the mug. "Do something."
"What?" Steve did a few stretches, loosening up his muscles, thought about a high kick.
"It needs field testing," said Tony critically. "I built in compensation, but I'm not sure how the armor's going to react to temperature changes. All the projections were fine but I didn't predict the ice, so let me know if it feels wrong, okay?"
"It feels amazing," said Steve softly, blinking down at his own arms, his chest, his feet, suddenly in the right colors and the right shape. He felt as if he could win wars in this suit, not just fight them. If he'd had this on the front, they might have lived a little longer, fought a little harder - he jogged on the spot, then around the workroom, took a deliberate header over the polished bonnet of a car that looked older than he was and came up smiling. "Tony. I've never felt anything like it. This is - you did this?"
Tony crooked an eyebrow at him. "It's all me," he said. "Genius, here."
"I believe you," said Steve. He stroked the material reverently, pulled his glove off with his teeth to touch it again with his bare hands. Bounced on his feet, looked up and then leapt for one of the steel rafters. Pull-ups in uniform had always dragged at his elbows and irritated the back of his neck. Now, they were effortless.
"You can do that all day," said Tony, dry.
Steve grinned back at him. "Maybe one day I will," he said. "But. Tony. This is stunning. How can I ever-"
"Take it off and have some breakfast," said Tony. "Go for a run. It's not sitting right on your knees. I want to check now I've seen you move."
"But I've only just put it on!" Steve protested, holding steady
"You'll get it back," promised Tony. "Bigger and brighter than - well, maybe not. Better. Seriously, get down, you're making me feel inadequate and that's against the rules."
Steve dropped, falling loose and easy to an impact-negating crouch. Even his ankles felt cosseted. "Can I take it-" He stopped, and bent his head to the seams. He'd almost forgotten, in that moment, that in this one he was nothing more than Steve Rogers. A lot older than he looked, a little under-equipped to deal with the world, no room, no job, no hero.
He stripped down again, his hands lingering on the blues and whites of the fabric. It fell into such lightweight, thin folds he was almost sure it would pack down to the size of a tobacco tin. "Thank you," he said, hands lingering. "Thank you."
"Yeah, yeah," said Tony. "Pass it over, I want to tweak those pads."
Tony's hands were clammy and cold. When Steve glanced up, he was close enough to see how red Tony's eyes were. His hand, in Steve's grasp, was shaking. Just a little, an unsteady vibration.
"When did you last sleep?" asked Steve. The vodka bottle was half empty, the desk scattered with half a dozen mugs and a carafe of cold, black coffee.
"Yesterday?" said Tony.
Steve firmed his grip. "It can wait," he said. "Sleep. I need to run. I'll be here when you wake up." It was his best no-nonsense voice, usually saved for the moments before the balloon went up.
Tony blinked. "Yeah?"
"Yes," Steve said, tugging. "I know you can fix it now," he said, glad that the door opened from the inside and the elevator was still there. "But you'll do it better later."
Pepper was in the hall, with a stack of paperwork and a laptop. She took one look at Tony's face and rolled her eyes. "Lunch," she said. "No later."
"Pepper!" said Tony. "Kidnap alert. No, no, Cap, you're fine, keep your hands right there, it's all good." He was leaning into Steve's hand, and there was a tired grin lurking at the corners of his mouth.
"First door on the left," Pepper said to Steve, slowly, looking at Tony's face. "Thanks, Captain."
He kept his hand in the small of Tony's back all the way up the stairs, an intimacy that seemed so comfortably natural he wondered if Tony noticed. Perhaps it was normal for him. Perhaps it was normal for everyone, these days. Steve elbowed open the bedroom door and urged Tony through it, catching a glimpse of floor-to-ceiling blinds and the end of a bed covered in scarlet silk. "Sleep," he said.
Tony blinked, twice. "Okay," he said, and took two steps forwards, measured his length on the mattress, and started to snore.
Steve, smiling a little ruefully, closed the door.
He went for a run, cooked breakfast, and walked out to look at the builders working on the stables. There was a great mass of scaffolding being erected, and a small crane. The fanlights above the carriage house doors had been taken out and were being packed in crates. Even the old stable paneling was being removed with care, photographed and labeled before being dismantled.
"Full renovation job," said Steve's friendly surveyor, which was just about all he managed before being called away to forestall the imminent collapse of the feed store.
Steve would have liked to help, but he could see that the workers knew exactly what they were doing, fitting together as if they'd worked as a team for years. He'd just blunder and fall over loose planks. Instead, he went back to the house, wondering if after lunch was too soon to check if Tony was awake. The nearer he got to the workshop, the more he wanted to feel his uniform on his skin again, take it outside, test it properly - he planned a route up the outside of the house to the first chimney, skirted the ridge of the roof and fixed an imaginary abseil from the stone guttering. If he put one of those loose undershirts over his tunic top, he could probably take it running.
He wondered, suddenly, if this is what Fury had been waiting for, if now he had his gear, he'd get his orders. His heart lightened at the thought. He'd do anything. Anything honorable, just to feel useful again, needed.
"-you do like it, don't you?" said Pepper. "The costume."
"It's amazing," said Steve sincerely, looking up. Pepper had a hammer in her hands and a stack of paintings leaning against the hallway wall. "I can't believe it. Perfect."
"Good," said Pepper. "Tell him. He'll never thank you, but it matters." She paused, head on one side. "What are your thoughts on Kudryashov? Too obscure?"
"What?" said Steve, wrong-footed.
"Kudryashov." Pepper waved the hammer at him.
It was a small hammer, meant for tacks, but prudent avoidance seemed a wise course. Steve stepped backwards, and looked at the paintings. The one at the front was indeed abstract, the color and energy almost uncomfortably emphatic. It wasn't a painting he'd seen before. "Where did you get that?" he asked. "I haven't seen it."
"Really?" said Pepper. "It's a keystone of late Suprematism." She stopped. "Malevich? Black square, square head?" she said.
Steve was already sorting through the paintings. "I've never seen anything like this," he said. "This is - this is Russian? The coloration? The light? This is...almost floating. We were taught - How did you get these?"
"We invest in art," said Pepper. "Estate sales, open auction - I pick the pieces I like, but I have good advice. Some of these have doubled in value since I bought them. It's a lovely thing to have; Tony swears by the stock market, but I like something real."
Steve set the painting down, gently. "You have some good work here," he said.
"You studied art?"
"I used to," said Steve. "I drew cartoons, before the war."
"These were painted before the war," Pepper said gently. Then, as Steve looked at her, shocked, she said quickly, "I was trying to decide where to put them. I thought the big Popova could go over there - there's space. And maybe some of the small prints on the library wall, where the light's good. What do you think?"
Gently, because Pepper had been so kind to him, Steve said, "I think they should be in a gallery. That way everyone can enjoy them." He was still staring at the paintings, the angular shapes and use of color so very different from the realist art he'd been taught, and yet so very Russian.
"We loan them out," said Pepper. "We had a big show at the Guggenheim last year, in Barcelona - we timed it for the first Starkphone launch. And there was a retrospective at the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam. That was stunning. Tony liked the spaceships," she said, and shrugged.
"I have never seen anything like this," said Steve. He let his fingers touch the edge of the frame, and then he said, "Do you want a hand with that hammer?"
"Thank you," said Pepper. "Yes. Please."
Tony surfaced for a late lunch, hair tousled and eyes unfocused until his second cup of coffee. Pepper and Steve moved around him in the kitchen, piling plates with curry sandwiches and fruit, talking softly about Pepper's plans for an online archive and Steve's enthusiasm for prints. "You should help," said Pepper.
Startled, Steve jabbed the knife harder through the apple than he was intending. "It's been too long," he said. "I missed out on so much."
"You'll catch up," said Pepper, confident.
Steve looked down at the perfect curves of a halved apple. He could see how it would look in charcoal, in pencil, in ink; his fingers shuffled and itched. "Maybe," he said.
"I'm right here," said Tony. "Whose art?"
"SI's," said Pepper. "Company asset. My budget, my asset."
"So how come he gets a say?"
"Because he knows what he's talking about," said Pepper.
"No, really, I don't," said Steve.
"Don't sell yourself short," said Pepper, patting him on the arm. "Tony, more coffee?"
"Don't forget I saw him first," said Tony, holding up his mug. "I get dibs."
"That's only because you kept saying no to Fury," said Pepper. "On this theoretical, non-existent project that I know nothing about. He tried threats, now it's bribery."
Over his steaming coffee, Tony's eyebrows scowled.
"I'm sorry?" said Steve. He was thinking about an apple cubed, an apple in four dimensions, the soul of an apple in paint, something new.
"Have another sandwich," said Pepper. "Take it down to the workshop. Tony's fingers are tapping."
"I hate it when you tell me what I want to do," said Tony. "Especially when you're right."
"I know," said Pepper. "I'll deal with Coulson."
"Have I told you lately you're awesome?" said Tony, and drained his mug. "Jarvis? Make a note. Daily."
Pepper was smiling, shaking her head, suddenly just a little pink. "Tony."
"Pepper. Cap, finish up, I want to look at your knees."
"What, now?" said Steve.
"Yes, now," said Tony. "No! Not here, in the costume."
"Oh," said Steve, tucking his jeans back down.
"Still now," said Tony, standing up.
Steve grabbed his plate, and followed.
Awake and alert, Tony was as demanding as any serum researcher. Sit ups. Press ups. Stretches, leaps. Frozen poses while he messed with positioning, while Jarvis ran yet another scan. While Tony muttered at the computer and swore and posed himself, hands raking through his hair, dancing over the screens, his body poised and then explosive. Steve ran eight kilometers on a treadmill with sixteen sensors attached to his body, breathed into a plastic bag attached to a valve attached to a machine that grumbled at him every time he lost his rhythm, and stretched his body in more ways than he'd realized were possible. Apparently, he was surprisingly flexible.
Tony swopped the knee pads, the shoulder padding, and adjusted a couple of seams, and Steve did it all over again. In the end, he gave up waiting, and told Tony he was going for coffee and food.
"Yeah, yeah," Tony said. "Whatever. I just don't..."
"What?" said Steve, peering over Tony's shoulder. On screen, his own body, outlined in colored light, twisted and stretched. Little red dots on the uniform expanded into menus with constantly changing data streams. Tony's eyes flickered from one to another.
"There's something not right," said Tony, leaning forward, eyes narrowed. "I'm missing something, and I can't..." He flicked a couple of dots away, zoomed in, brought down another menu and frowned.
"It feels great to me," said Steve. Tony was all twisted up, one shoulder higher than the other, hands cramped. He wondered if it would be presumptuous to drop a hand on the man's shoulder, just as he would have done for one of his commandos after a rough raid.
"You don't get it," said Tony. "This is what I do, there's no one does it better, and I can't, it's all wrong, I don't get what I'm missing."
"No shield," said Steve softly. He'd felt uneasy without it when he was just himself. Now, with Tony's uniform almost a reality, the ache was almost impossible. He'd reached for the familiar weight and curve of the metal half a dozen times today, his hands fastening on nothing.
"Oh my God," said Tony, frozen, eyes widening at the screen. Then he swung around so suddenly Steve had to step back. "You're right. You're right. That's it. I need to allow for - I could make you one-"
"No!" said Steve. Then, quieter, looking at Tony's utterly shocked face. "I'd rather...it's very kind of you, but...I can't."
"Okay," said Tony, his voice low. Then he said, "Do you want yours back?"
Did he want the sun to rise? "I should have searched harder, when I woke up. I was...I was...Cold. It's under the ice. I watched it fall," Steve said.
"No, it's not," said Tony.
"Someone found it?" said Steve. "Someone has it? It's safe? Maybe I could borrow it? Even just see it, know it's still-"
"It's on your tomb," said Tony.
"What?" said Steve, utterly blindsided.
"They built a tomb for you. Like Lenin," Tony said helpfully. "That was before Stalin decided red, white, and blue wasn't the way to go. There were guards. A procession. People cried."
"But," said Steve, and found he had nothing more to say.
"When you were denounced, they moved it to Novospassky. I don't know, maybe Malenkov had a soft spot for you, usually they just broke up the stone and used it for roads. But, no, last time I was there, that's where your shield was."
"On my tomb?"
"You know what, Cap?" Tony said. "I'll tell you what. Let's get it. It's yours."
"It's state property," said Steve, and "Are you sure?"
"I'm pretty sure it's yours," said Tony, "And the state haven't wanted anything to do with the thing for the last sixty years. Let's get it back."
"I mean, are you sure it's there?" said Steve, still unable to get past the possibility that his shield had survived the crash and the ice. "Are you sure it's real?"
"I'm sure," said Tony. "You can count on - no, don't, don't look at me with those eyes, I feel like I've been murdering small fluffy kittens behind Pepper's back. Hang on in there. Let me..." his hands moved, sweeping data off the screens and bringing up an image of the world, turning. It seemed extraordinarily detailed, but the image was eating up the screen, growing larger and larger, Europe, Russia, Moscow, close enough to see the line of the Moskva and the dark mass of buildings across great swathes of the steppe. Closer. A network of roads, tower blocks, houses, cars... "Hang on," said Tony, and the image on the screen slid sideways, dizzying for a second before it steadied. Grass, trees, a single-lane concrete road leading up to fortified gates and a fifteen foot wall topped with razor wire. There were guards on the gates, but Tony's image dipped a little, rose, and then suddenly showed ranks of serried, dark gravestones.
"Die before Stalin killed you and this is where you ended up," said Tony. "Sometimes if he did kill you, too. Meyerhold is here, Tukhachevsky, Mandelstam, the poor sod. If you were lucky, you got a gravestone. If you were really lucky and someone liked you enough to stick their neck out, your tomb ended up here, too. I know it's here," said Tony, squinting along with camera's angled image. "I just need to find it."
"That's...some kind of map?"
"It's a satellite image. I can focus down a bit further if you want, it's great for beach watching."
"A camera," said Tony absently. When he moved his hand over the screen, the image moved. "I think - yeah. That's you. Let me zoom out a bit. Monumental, isn't it?" He sounded almost pleased.
The tomb they'd made for him was monolithic. Black granite rising from the white of the snow, almost plain, horrifyingly heavy, solid as a frozen tank. For a second, Steve couldn't breathe, as if the ice was creeping back into his lungs, suffocating.
"There's a statue of you on top," Tony said cheerfully. "Some sort of knight. I think the guy that did it was having a Teutonic moment, you know?" The camera rose again, and steadied. Snow covered the top of the tomb, untouched, but faintly under it were the lines of a still figure, lying on its back, its chest oddly rounded "Look," Tony said, and the camera moved in again. "Look."
There were bird prints on the snow, neat and angular, except in one spot where the bird must have slipped and then taken to the air in fright. The snow was disturbed, and under it, darkly gleaming, was not stone but metal. Red metal.
Steve put out his hand to touch the screen. He almost expected to feel the chill of snow-cold vibranium under his fingers, not the glassy smoothness of the image.
"Right?" said Tony. He waited, looking at Steve's face.
"Right," said Tony. "So, Cap, are we going to get it back, or what?"
He had to clear his throat. "Yes," Steve said.
"Ace," said Tony. "Okay. Right. Let me..."
"Now?" said Steve.
"Wait up," said Tony. "Let's - oh look, that's where the guards go to smoke. Just let me..." The camera zoomed in, showed a fortified gatehouse and a pair of guards in a uniform Steve did not recognize. Spinning slowly over the flat roof, it detailed a forest of aerials and wide, white dishes pointed at the sky, a mortar on a turntable and stances for marksmen. Three other guards were sharing a flask, leaning against the parapet, rifles at the ready. "That's a lot of firepower for a cemetery," Tony remarked.
Then, swiftly, the camera was zooming out again. Suddenly the screen was almost dark, only the outline of the walls and the gatehouse showing, a plan view that marked the tomb in red. Around it, slowly, other lines flickered into view, a network of straight red lines and a series of green dots. "Fuck me," said Tony, eyes wide. "What've they got buried there, Marx?" He fussed over the screen. "You see this, right? The red lines, they're heat - laser beams. You can't see them, but walk into one and you break the connection. Sets the alarms off. The green patches, where the drainage is disturbed, they're motion sensors. Step on one, and the alarm goes off. I don't think they're mines," Tony said, a little doubtfully. "Jarvis?"
Steve said, "Can't we just ask for it back?"
"From the government?" said Tony, the tone of his voice utterly contemptuous. "Only if you want to be working off that particular debt for the rest of your life, no matter who's holding the reins... No."
"I can get over the wall," said Steve. "Maybe through the gatehouse. But even if we turn the lasers off - there's a control panel somewhere, got to be - are those sensors electronic? Do they need live current?"
"I like the way you think," said Tony. "No. Batteries. Radio transmitter. I could block it, but Air Traffic Management wouldn't appreciate the effort and I don't want another Flight 352 on my conscience." He was frowning, toying with one of the empty mugs.
"I can't fly," said Steve, staring at the screen. So close.
Tony looked up. "I can," he said.
He sounded so very sure that for a second Steve believed him. Then he realized what Tony meant, and said, "You saw the guard post. There's enough firepower there to bring down a tank."
"I'm not talking about a helicopter," said Tony, an edge of contempt in his voice. "I'm talking about Iron Man."
"What?" said Steve.
"What?" said Tony, staring. "Where have you been for - oh, crap. Okay." He looked away, dragged a hand through his hair. "It always sounds so much better in front of the mirror," he said. "I'm Iron Man. This is Iron Man. We're one."
The lights were up in the alcove. Steve, following Tony's pointing finger, could see a full size humanoid figure that would have looked like a suit of armor were it not for the reds and golds of the metal, and the brutal simplicity of its curves. For a moment, he half expected the statue to creak into motion like one of Hydra's metallic creatures, but it was unmoving.
"That's yours?" he said, and frowning, deeply doubtful, "That's you?"
"That's the most advanced work of engineering in the world," said Tony. "Iron Man. I'm going to revolutionize the way we look at war. Peace. The army. It's the ultimate deterrent. The only weapon you only have to fire once." His voice was utterly convincing.
Tony Stark, showman.
"How do you control it?" said Steve.
"I am it," said Tony.
"Yes," said Tony. "Biointeractive HUD, autopilot, auto engager. Tops out at 1.8 mach, so far, but I'll break that sound barrier soon. Repulsar units are primary weapons, thrusters primary mobility. It flies," said Tony. "I fly. Theoretically, I can carry someone else. The stats say the payload - okay. Also, very big explosions. Very big."
"Okay," said Steve. "So. How low can you fly? Low enough to avoid the cameras? Low enough to skim over the lasers?"
"Don't insult me," said Tony. "Yes. And yes. You don't even need to be there. I'll just slip over and pick your baby up with a magnet, no sweat, no cheese."
"It's a vibranium alloy," said Steve. "It's not magnetic. And I think the less visible we are the better. If you can fly low enough...look, see this - Jarvis, can you focus in on the sightlines here, and here, around this tomb? Thanks. If we come in low, from this corner, we're completely hidden from the gatehouse. Drop me at the bottom of that thing they built in my name, and I'll get the shield. It's going to have to be levered free, and I don't shine. Once I've got it, I'll signal."
Tony's face was closed off, tight. For a moment Steve wondered what he'd said, and then Tony looked back and grinned, all teeth, nodding. "Okay, Captain. Run that, Jarvis," he said. "Okay."
On screen, colored dots swooped and paused. The sightlines were clear, the sentry dots in the square of the gatehouse undisturbed. Jarvis said, "Further parameters?"
we're good," Tony said, and stared at the screen. Then he shrugged,
and said, "I wasn't anticipating company. I need to get some form
of communicator set up. It'll be radio silence for this mission, Cap."
Steve nodded. "One last thing. I don't want anyone hurt, even if it goes wrong. Those are soldiers, they're just following orders."
"It's been privatized anyway," said Tony. "That's not the army. Those are private security guards."
"The party sold off dead bodies?" said Steve.
"Yup," said Tony. Then he said, "When you say it like that...wait a second...yeah. Sent out to tender. Only one bidder - that's not unusual - and it's a shell company...Hammer. What the hell is he doing? Hammer doesn't do security. Who's paying him off? For what?"
"What's Hammer?" asked Steve.
"Justin Hammer. He's an idiot," said Tony helpfully. "So what's with the...hm. Is it just me, or do those laser beams converge? There." He tapped the screen. "What's Hammer hiding?" he mused.
"We'll find out," said Steve. "Shall we?"
"I'm good to go," said Tony. "Glove up." He was walking towards the suit, but the suit was moving towards him at the same time, a splitting wave of hard-edged steel and sinuous gleaming curves. The floor was moving, rolling open. Even as Tony walked, machines unfolded around him, offering, equipping, covering, a re-clothing in metal that was surreal and magical to watch. By the time he reached the alcove, Tony was a figure of red and gold metal, dangerously beautiful.
He turned his head. "Cap."
Steve, arrested, had to snatch at his gloves. When he looked up, the man looking back at him had become an iron mask, elegant and blank, the eyes brilliantly lit.
"Come here." Tony's voice - Iron Man's voice - was deeper, all Tony's stuttering words smoothed out into electronic modulation. "Put your hand on my shoulder. Hold on." Iron Man's arm was warmer than Steve had thought it would be, but the metal under the warmth was steel. His grip around Steve's waist felt unbreakable.
"First time for everything, right?" said Iron Man.
Startled, Steve turned his head, caught the sly glint of light in Iron Man's eyes, and tightened his grip. Then - then, then, he screamed. 0-60 in three seconds, the sheer power of the thrust tearing at his eyes and his hands, dragging at his belt and tugging at his boots, wind pressure so hard he could barely breathe, the ground ripped out from under him in a dizzying fall. But he was...he was a hundred meters above the house, two hundred, three, looking down on Moscow as he'd never seen it before, the blocks of the Tsarist squares and the straight avenues of Stalin's dream of a new Moscow, the miniature figures of Muscovites and the toy-like bustling of the bright colors of the cars. Everything was white, snow-covered, gorgeous: the great expanse of Red Square and the onion domes of the Kremlin and Saint Basil's, the churches, the blockish tower blocks and the sweeping heights of Moscow's Seven Sisters, the awnings of the shops on New Arbat and the long, dark iced-over curves of the Moskva. She was beautiful in winter, his city, an ice princess.
He could breathe again, blinked the cold tears from his eyes and realized he was grinning.
"Cool, huh?" said Iron Man. The words were casual, but there was a suppressed, gleeful exhilaration in his voice. Slowly, they spun in a full circle, all of Moscow spread out beneath them, from the bustling center to the factories and the suburbs, the dark line of the forests and the evening-blue curves of the hills beyond.
Steve could have stayed there all day.
He nodded, and Iron Man took them down in a rolling, lazy curve, flat out now, legs tangled. The new uniform was so warm he could only feel the chill of the winter air on his face, and Iron Man's arm was unyielding, a solid, reassuring weight. They flew low, over rooftops and roads and bridges, following the line of the river until the trees closed in and there was nothing but forest seen from the air, dense snow-frosted treetops like clouds. Iron Man held up five fingers; Steve nodded. They went lower, slower, almost brushing the tops of the trees, until suddenly there were no trees and they were sliding even further down, a long, swift swoop as if they were children again, playing on an ice slide. The graveyard wall was in front of them. Iron Man rolled them over the top of it, feet centimeters away from the razor wire, and then they were creeping along over the surface of the snow. Drifted headstones and crypts made of the place an angular, futurist architecture, all squares and flats, and over the snow their entwined shadows were evening-long and utterly silent. It was so quiet Steve could hear the whirr of the armor adjusting, the moment when Iron Man was ready to put him down at his own tomb.
There had been no movement from the gatehouse. No alarms had sounded, no sirens. Iron Man landed so gently in the snow that even the soft compression of their feet was silent. He let Steve go, held up three fingers. Steve, looking into the brilliant light of those eyes, nodded. He swung around and leapt for the top of the tomb, his fingertips nearly slipping from the granite slab, then gripping. Pulling up, he rolled onto the top, keeping as low a profile as he could. There was just enough space to almost hide, full length, behind the figure of the knight.
When he reached out, his shield was under his fingers.
He closed his eyes. Then, only halfway through the mission, snapped them open, jammed his hands under the edges of his shield, and tugged. He didn't have enough leverage. It rocked on the metal struts the sculptor had used to fasten it down, but didn't loosen. He crouched, curled all the power of his thighs and his shoulders behind the lift, and jerked upwards. Something cracked, and his shield was suddenly loose in his hands, wobbling on one brace. When he pulled again, gently, his shield slid up into his hands as easily as if it had never been lost.
Sharp as ice cracking, a shot rang out. A single shot, a rifle - Steve was spinning around, shield on his arm, peering across the snow, and then the machine gun opened up. It kicked the drifts into a snowstorm, bullets smashing into stone, ricocheting, a trail of disorder at Iron Man's heels. He was running towards Steve, smashing through the snow, and the bullets sparked off his armor into the spindrift behind. Between Steve and the gatehouse, he was using his own body as a shield.
Steve waved him upwards. Iron Man made a gesture he recognized, hit the thrusters, and took off at such a sharp angle he nearly clipped the edge of the tomb. He did cannon into Steve, sent him flying, tumbled him sideways and upside down and did not let go. Close as a harness, Iron Man's arms held Steve steady as they dived into the sky, but it was Steve's shield behind their backs that protected both of them from the security guard's fire. He had his hand so firmly grasped on the edge he was going to have to pry his fingers from the metal.
"Yee ha!" exclaimed Iron Man.
Steve tugged at the arms holding him still, rocked around until he was a little more comfortably situated, and tapped Iron Man's helmet. When those glinting eyes came around to his, he mouthed, "What did you do?"
"People always assume it's my fault," said Iron Man.
If the mask could smile smugly, it would do. Steve rapped his knuckles on the metal, and Iron Man pushed them both through a twisting tumble that left Steve's stomach somewhere near his ankles and his knees wrapped around Iron Man's hips. When he opened his eyes again, the world was upside down and moving fast, but the clouds were very pretty.
Iron Man landed them back outside the workshop, the overhead doors already lifting. "Whoa, whoa, whoa, did you see that?" he said, and then his gauntlets were off and he was fiddling with the helmet. "And what the hell?" Tony said, almost running to his desk, the armor unfurling around him.
"What did you do?" Steve said. It was his Captain America voice. It was Steve as Captain America, settling back into his own skin, sure of himself. His boots were on his feet, his shield on his arm, he was whole.
"Hammer's never going to believe I found it," said Tony. "Idiot. How long does this machine take to boot?"
"Tony. Found what?" He'd stripped the gloves off, but the shield was still in his hands. He needed straps, could use his belt if there was nothing else; the fittings, of the same vibranium alloy as the shield, were undamaged.
"This," Tony said, holding up a hunk of rock in his bare hand. "Whatever it is. There was a crate of it in that crypt, the one the lasers were protecting."
"Grave robbing," said Steve.
"There weren't any bones in there," said Tony. He put the rock on a metal plate, slid it under some form of microscope. Lights flickered. Something whined. Abruptly, the rock lit up, and smoke curled from the rough edges.
"Stop," said Steve.
"Wait, wait, the readings - oh shit!"
With a small burst of flame, the rock disintegrated. Four separate alarms went off. A small machine Steve had thought stationary bustled up to the desk and wielded, inexpertly, a fire extinguisher. Tony said, "...goggles?"
Blinking, Steve's eyes were a little sore, but when Tony turned around, his were already bloodshot, red at the edges and weeping. Poison gas. Steve, dragging Tony over to the sink and shoving his head under the tap, cursed all scientists and the tanks they rode in on. Tony, spluttering, kept trying to fight him off. The small machine clearly saw him as some kind of threat and sprayed both of them with foam. With no spare hands - one holding Tony down, letting the water run over his eyes, and one cupped over his face to let him breathe, Steve shouted, "Jarvis!"
"Carry on, Captain, I estimate another three minutes of total immersion will bring the contaminant down to within background range."
"Thank you," said Steve gratefully, and angled his hips so that Tony was hitting muscle, not ribs. "I'm trying to help you," he yelled. Tony's ears must be flooded. "It's gas!"
"Mmmph bastard," said Tony, blinking up. "Turn - Jarvis! Jarvis!" It was decidedly watery. "Turn the-"
"Already done," said Jarvis. "Would you like the results now, or after Commander Rogers has administered first aid?"
Tony said, "Now. Steve, stop."
"When your eyes are clear," said Steve. "Jarvis, tell me when?"
Tony glared upwards, and Steve, looking down, counting the seconds off in his head, could see the inflammation fading. By the time he got to minus one it was almost gone. He wrapped his hand in Tony's undershirt and pulled him upright.
"Never do that to me again," said Tony, and stumbled to a chair. "Pass me a towel."
The hooded sweatshirt Steve had been wearing that morning was still folded on the desk. He passed it across, watched Tony screw his eyes up and rub himself down. He was ready to intervene, but Tony knew what he was doing, he didn't rub his eyes.
"Sorry," Steve said awkwardly.
"Seriously, don't," said Tony. "I'm not good with water. Jarvis, what's the damage?"
"Without running any tests-"
"On the sample!" said Tony.
"Four rare trace elements, one radioactive," said Jarvis.
"What?" said Tony. "Shit. How high?"
"Unknown," said Jarvis, "Unquantifiable."
"Really," said Tony. "Isolate. Contain. Run the scrubbers in here, test for everything. Cap, strip off, we're going to run you through decon. Uniform too. Showers are over there, soap in the basket, clean everything and don't worry, no one's watching. When you get out the other end there'll be a robe for you. Don't come back, hit the intercom and I'll tell you when it's safe. Go now."
When people said things in that tone of voice, Steve tended to believe them. He said, "You're coming after," and waited for Tony's impatient nod before he went. But, leaving, he gave the Iron Man armor one last look, and then his shield.
The showers were hot, the soap pungent, the robe velvet. Tony, via intercom, distracted. Steve, concerned, went for coffee. Ate, nibbling at refrigerator leftovers, tried to catch up on his reading and ended up playing electronic chess against himself with desultory, distracted concentration. It wasn't until well after midnight that Tony made it up from the workshop, newly damp all over again and bringing with him Steve's uniform and shield.
"All clear," he said. "Yours." His smile was tired around the edges.
"Thank you," said Steve, and his own voice was a little soft with relief.
our country demands that we become heroes
Then anyone can become a hero
March of the Happy-Go-Lucky Guys (1934)
"You could use this for so much good," said Steve, circling the Iron Man armor. Even partially dismantled - Tony was tinkering with one of the gauntlets on the workbench - it was awesome. Every metal plate was burnished, the enameled red and gold gleaming under spotlights, a brutal beauty that was all the more threatening now Steve knew exactly and intimately how powerful Iron Man's thrusters and repulsars were. With Tony inside it, the suit had an astonishing strength and grace, as if it had stepped straight out of a Caucasus folk tale. A firebird, tamed.
"Listen to yourself, Cap," said Tony absently. He hefted the gauntlet, fired, and on the far side of the workshop an insulated target disintegrated into a few ceramic shards. "I'm a businessman. I leave disinterested good to the professionals."
"You could win a war with this," Steve said wistfully.
"Iron Man is not a weapon," Tony said sharply.
Steve flicked a glance at the destroyed target.
"That's why Fury's never getting his hands on this tech," Tony said. "You might be waiting for orders. I'm not."
"It's not that simple," said Steve. "I know that. On the front-"
"Grandpa," Tony muttered.
"All I'm saying is that people need heroes," Steve said stiffly.
"And you really think I'm one?" said Tony. "Steve."
"Why not?" said Steve. "Every man I've ever fought with was a hero."
"Yeah, yeah, you all sacrificed yourselves for Mother Russia," said Tony. "And look what it got you. Stalin won the war and everyone left got shuffled off to the camps. You didn't choose to be a hero, Steve, you got conscripted. Did they tell you the failure rate on the serum before you took it? No? I thought not. Then they hung you up to dry. So sue me if I'm not gonna sign on the dotted line for Fury, it's not my scene. Besides," he added, tipping the gauntlet again, squinting. "Can you see me kissing babies and opening shopping malls?" Another target disintegrated, this time into a puff of dust. Tony's smile was wicked.
"Fine," said Steve uncomfortably, and wandered around Iron Man again. In the corner, his half-finished bike was a tidy array of polished metal and rusted pipes. Tony had been running parts through the sand blaster.
"Don't mope," said Tony. "Fury'll be on the phone soon enough."
"Natasha's away again," said Steve.
"Black Widow's got a skill set you don't have," said Tony. "Pretty as you are, Cap, you're not cut out for undercover work, trust me." He sighed, and put down the gauntlet. "Wanna spar? Get your sweats on."
"Out of the suit," Steve wheedled, pushing his luck.
"Don't think - yeah, fine, okay, out of the suit," said Tony. "Crap."
Somewhere, someone had taught Tony to fight, and taught him well. Steve tended to go fists first into his fights. Tony, naked without the suit's power, was downright dirty, never afraid to go for a man's eyes or his balls. He had a knack of sliding away from Steve's best moves, and slipping in with a crafty sucker punch the moment Steve was distracted. Unwilling, chagrined, far too often Steve found himself wrong-footed by a snide, wickedly funny aside. And Tony was no fool; he'd never stepped into a bout with Steve without wearing body armor. For all that Steve pulled his punches and consciously slowed his speed, Tony was never less than full on.
But Tony hadn't won a bout yet, and Steve wasn't about to let it happen. He just hadn't bargained on the firecrackers. For the briefest of moments, he was back on the battlefield, smelling gunpowder and fire, snapping his shield up his arm, rolling up onto one knee, head up looking for Tony.
Light flashed. Instinctively, Steve ducked.
"Don't move!" Tony snapped.
They'd made a mess of the gym. Again. There was a gash in the floorboards the size and shape of the edge of his shield, a couple of the mats were shredded, the punching bag listed uneasily against the horse and one of the balance bars had snapped.
But Tony was smiling.
"What?" Steve asked, still kneeling.
"Nothing," said Tony, and tucked his phone back into his sweatpants.
"Did you just take a photograph?" Steve said, suspiciously.
"Fanboy," said Steve darkly, and came out of his crouch in an extended tackle that took Tony down to the mats in a tangle of flailing limbs and suppressed sniggers.
"It's not my fault if-" said Tony, laughing.
Steve held both of Tony's wrists in one of his hands and was worming the other into Tony's pockets.
"Careful with the oomph-"
Steve let his full weight fall, keeping Tony down and leaving himself one hand free to scroll through Tony's phone. "I recognize that pose," he said, squinting at the screen and ignoring Tony's muffled squeaks. "Pretty sure I should be charging for that. For a good cause. Want it autographed?" His thumb hovered over delete.
"I've created a monster," said Tony. "No. Do your worst."
Steve glanced down. "Tapping out?"
"No," said Tony, and arched, once, briefly and ineffectually, under Steve's weight. His eyes narrowed. "Maybe."
Wriggling, Steve made himself as comfortable as he could on top of three centimeters of explosive-repelling body armor covering a body that was all sharp angles and hard muscle. This close, Tony smelled, oddly comforting and familiar, of hot metal and engine oil and sweat. He ran hot, too. There was a patch of heat under the armor the size of the palm of Steve's hand.
Rolling a little, Steve frowned down. He couldn't see anything under the armor, but Tony was the kind of tricky foe that let off firecrackers in someone else's ear. There could be anything under there. "Tony?" He pressed his palm down.
"Tapping out," said Tony, fast.
"Get the fuck off of me," said Tony.
Steve did. "Sorry," he said, awkward.
"Yeah, well," said Tony, and stood up. "We're not all indestructible." He walked to the bench and picked up a towel.
Left in the middle of the floor, Steve frowned after him. He wasn't quite sure what had just happened. "Are you...okay?" he asked.
"Fine," said Tony, the word so sharp it was nearly angry. He was toweling his face, eyes covered.
"No, you're not," said Steve.
"None of your fucking business," said Tony, towel down, glaring.
"Fine," said Steve.
He didn't see Tony for the next three days. The workshop windows were darkened, and Jarvis wouldn't tell him if Tony was actually in there behind the screens. The builders were gone. He couldn't work on the bike, and with Natasha away and Tony sulking, there was no one to spar with. Even Pepper was in Paris. Steve rattled around the house like a bullet casing in a helmet. He took up going for longer and longer runs, taking his frustration out on the pavement and the punching bag.
Sometimes, he could swear there was a second set of footsteps behind his, so soft that only his enhanced hearing could pick up the sound. Outside, the back of his neck prickled with the certainty that he was being watched; there were shadows on roofs that were a shade too dark, a set of light-footed prints in the snow that were not his. Yet when he turned around, when he looked up, always, there was nothing to see.
He sewed himself a set of straps and then a carrier for his shield, and never went out without it on his back or within reach. The telephone stayed silent, and it was almost as if that meeting with Fury had never happened, but Steve was itching for action. Of any kind, and yet it seemed that this new world had no place for him. His phone calls to the technical colleges and youth organizations went unanswered, his attempts to track his commandos were lost in the labyrinthine paperwork of the administration, and all the telephone numbers and e-mails he could find for SHIELD rang out or flung themselves back at him. Tony, impatient, caustic, would have known what to do. Tony, who had vanished.
There was only so long Steve could spend in the gym. He raided Tony's library, but modern literature left him frustrated and miserable, all discordance and anger and references he didn't understand. Steve had grown up on the sweeping, doomed love affairs of Prince Mishkin and Yevgeniy Onegin and Caucasus folk tales, his mother's small and treasured library. Jarvis, consulted, gave him Robsky, whom he had to give up on in horrified rage halfway through, and Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, over which Steve, unashamed, cried. He monitored the contents of the refrigerator and the tire tracks in the snow to see if Tony was eating, and discovered instant coffee and toasted cheese sandwiches. Restitched one of the shield straps. Worked his way around every one of the new exercise machines, gently, with Jarvis' help.
When Tony finally surfaced, casually leaning against the kitchen counter with a mug of coffee in his hands, Steve was so unexpectedly relieved he could have hugged the man. "Are you," he managed, knowing he was smiling too hard and unable to stop, "Can I-" Too late. In his arms, Tony felt warm and utterly real. Steve patted him on the back in the manliest of Russian bear hugs and pretended not to hear the exasperated huff in his ear.
"You can let go now, Cap," Tony said, but he wasn't pushing away.
Reluctantly, Steve allowed a couple of centimeters between them, but kept a precautionary grip on Tony's belt. "Tell me what I did wrong," he said.
"Whoa," said Tony, leaning back. "Beat around the bush, why don't you? We need to find you more people to play with."
"I needed to get to the bike," Steve said. "And nothing works as well when you're not here."
"That was blatantly obvious," said Tony, "What with the sulking, and the bad coffee. Cheer up. Daddy's back." He patted Steve on the cheek, patronizing, but he still wasn't pulling away. "And just so you know, you can let go any time."
"Okay," Steve said, calculated the angles between the hall door and the scullery door and the kitchen window, and positioned himself to take advantage of all three should sudden movement be necessary.
Tony raised a pointed eyebrow.
Steve shrugged, and didn't move.
"Fair enough," said Tony. "Okay. So. I might be a little oversensitive about the fact that there's an arc reactor in my chest. Permanently."
"A what?" said Steve.
Tony was taking his shirt off. Then his undershirt, arms crossed. Under it...under it....
"Okay," said Steve, looking, very deliberately, at Tony's eyes.
"It's a magnet," Tony said. "Basically." His mouth was an unhappy line, his eyes defiant. Then he smiled, and that was almost worse. "I have shards of metal above my heart, too close to operate. The arc reactor-" he tapped the metal ring embedded in his skin "-stops them moving."
"I understand," said Steve. The vivid lights around the metal were strangely beautiful, an almost eerie blue. Around it, Tony's skin was tanned, except for the puckered white lines of scars that were, surely, inexpert and repeated. But the metalwork was elegantly simple. "You made it."
"Yes," said Tony. He grimaced. "Three times now."
Steve had to close his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, Tony was looking away. "That's a hell of a lot of respect, right there," Steve said softly.
"Yeah well," said Tony. "Kinda shiny."
"Yeah well," said Steve, "Kinda magic." That brought Tony's head around and widened his eyes. "I like it," Steve said.
"Seen enough?" said Tony. "Only, not the weather." He must wear some kind of shield over the metalwork, usually, because the lights of it shone blue-white through the fabric of his undershirt, and then through the silk of his shirt over that. There was still a faint glow when he pulled his hooded sweater on top of both.
"Thanks," said Steve.
"My issues get their own parades," said Tony. "Calendars. Awards. Message boards. None of them are news." He dragged the sleeves of his hoodie down, tugged on the cords, ran a hand through his hair. Smiled, all white teeth and dead eyes, the smile Steve had first seen on the cover of a newspaper in a cell in Lubyanka. "Everyone knows Tony Stark's lost his marbles. Welcome to the ringside seat. Cap." He might as well have flourished his cape.
"Right," said Steve, and then, "Coffee?"
Tony said, "You know where the vodka is."
"I need steady hands for the bike," said Steve, "If you're going to let me near it." He crooked an eyebrow, waiting.
"That depends if you're going to try cleaning out the cylinder head with sandpaper again," said Tony. "Bring the bottle."
Tony came out of a cave in Chechnya with a car battery wired to his heart and a brand new plan. "And then," he said, sprawled out on the concrete of the workshop floor as if it was Steve's bed, "And then they tried to vote me out, but you can't get shot of the guy who owns all your patents and over fifty percent of the stock, so fuck 'em, we pulled out of the contracts and the Dow Jones dropped us fifty percent overnight. Woke up in the morning and restructured. It's okay, we shut a few factories, redeployed, pulled out the magic tricks. Starkphone. Cool, huh? Saved four hundred jobs," said Tony, and took another swig of vodka from a china mug emblazoned with a Stark Industries banner and an overlapping pattern of greasy fingerprints. "Then I made the Mark II," he added, rolling over and propping himself up on his elbow so he could see the alcove where the Iron Man suit stood.
Steve's hands hesitated on the ratchet wrench, tightened up again. No one man should have that kind of power over other people's lives. Four hundred jobs saved, but Steve wondered how many had been lost.
"And the arc reactor," Tony said. "You know that's the tech Fury really wants?"
"He didn't say," said Steve, leaning in to tighten the lower engine bolts. The engine casing gleamed, cleaner than when it had come off the factory floor, the bolts were new, copper-slipped, the torque wrench was graded steel with an ergonomic handle. Tony had never kicked his starter motor into gear with a stolen screwdriver and a piece of wire for a key, crouched in the mud by the side of the road.
"Clean energy," said Tony. "Cheap, clean energy. That's where the money is. There's a hundred and twenty billionaires in Russia and most of us made our money from the oil industries, voucher money, dirty money, and everyone knows it," Tony said, and smiled, small, all teeth. "The arc reactor cuts the Kremlin out of that equation. I just need to...make it bigger." He looked down at the mug in his hands, frowned, and drained the last of the vodka. "I show you all my best toys," he said. "And you don't want them."
Steve lined up the two top fairing bolts and changed the socket. "A hundred and twenty billionaires," he said, and fitted wrench to bolt. "It's obscene."
"It's the one check and balance against a totalitarian state," said Tony sharply. "I'm through making excuses for my money. I'm not buying votes in the Duma, and I'm not accountable to you."
The second bolt was sticking. Steve, eyes closed, delicate, turned it with his fingertips, looking for the moment when both threads kissed and held. He heard Tony unscrew the cap on the bottle, and then the clink and splutter of more vodka being poured.
"Times have changed, old man," said Tony. "I'm not slogging my guts out in some laboratory north of the arctic circle, trying to prove communist wheat grows in ice. I don't have to hide my notes or live off charity parcels from the Party. My ideas, my company, my rules, my money."
"I get that," Steve said. He bent and picked up the bike's frame, bracing his hands under the engine where the weight was heaviest, and turned it to lean the near side against the wall. They'd straightened out the base struts before Steve had lifted the engine back into place, and the last two bolts slid smoothly into their sockets.
"That never gets old," said Tony. His eyes were a little darker, half-lidded, and the vodka had left a flush on his tanned cheeks.
Steve sighed. "Tell me about Chechnya," he said.
"It's a clusterfuck of epic proportions," said Tony. "Don't even think about it." He was still for a moment, watching Steve's face. Then he said, "I'm working on it."
"Maybe you should get some of your friends to help," said Steve. "Some of those other billionaires. A few hospitals. Some schools. A university. Give people some hope. Something to dream about. Pocket change, right?"
"What the hell do you think I was doing there in the first place?" said Tony. "Chasing girls?"
"That too," said Steve. "Although I thought you were selling arms."
Tony's head went back so fast Steve might have punched him on the chin. "That was a mistake," he said.
"That was a multi-million ruble industry," said Steve, and in his hands the wrench snapped and shivered, as unexpectedly fast, he'd tightened the bolt to its maximum load.
"Billion," said Tony. "Never forget the zeros. You know what?" he said. "I spent half my life looking for the perfect weapon. Bigger. Faster. Better. And now I've got it, and I can't - Steve. Half the weapons the Chechens have come from Russia - I spent three months looking my own damn tech in the face. Face it, our army's as corrupt as the Kremlin. The moment I hand over the suit, everyone gets their own knockoff copy. America. China. Korea. That what you want? What if Hitler had his own super soldiers? How long do you think your war would have gone on if there were a hundred of you on each side? A thousand? You think that would have saved people?"
"My war's over," said Steve, and drove the shaft through frame and swinging arm with a single tap of a wooden mallet.
"You think?" said Tony. "Don't be so - Jarvis," he said, and his voice had changed, sharper and more urgent. "Pull up that screen. What the fuck is that?"
Two minutes ago, Steve would have said Tony was halfway to maudlin, but he scrambled to his feet, glass discarded, as easily as if the bottle was still full. "Zoom. Expand. No no no, cut it with the tags, get me a satellite." His hands were already tapping at the glass. "Yeah yeah, no!"
"What is that?" said Steve, staring. All he could see was an expanse of black mud, heaving.
"Fuck if I know," said Tony, and the image on the screen exploded in a fireball that could have flattened a small mountain. "But that," he said, as statistics rolled along the bottom of the screen, "Was a Stark Chevalier. Short range, deep impact, and five years beyond its use-by date." He was frowning.
The screen showed nothing but smoke. Then a jeep, bucketing over rough ground, soldiers clinging to the struts. "...disturbance at Lake Svyatoe," said the measured voice of a television announcer, as a second jeep drove out of the smoke, awning tattered. "A Kremlin spokesman has stated that the explosions are part of a planned training exercise. With the army preparing for a spring push against Chechen rebels-" The smoke was clearing.
"Sir, I have Colonel Fury on the line," said Jarvis.
"Put him through," said Tony.
There was something black, moving, behind the smoke. Steve leaned forward, and then started back as a second image, of Fury's face, appeared in front of his nose. The Colonel was stone-faced, in the same black uniform he'd worn in the bunker.
"I got it," said Tony.
As tall as a tree, misshapen, oozing black slime, the monster behind the smoke was roaring. Flame curled across the width of its shoulders and burned down both legs, a dirty, sullen red, but the monster barely seemed to notice, shaking its fists at the sky. It was as black as a Siberian night, the surface of its skin uneven and almost liquid, bubbling, stained with the rainbow sheen of oil, and the smoke coming from its skin was a dirty grey.
The camera image shook with every stride it took.
"That's what you get for dropping your industrial waste in a tar pit," said Tony, but there was a tight edge to his voice. "So, what, you want me to sponsor a bill, Fury? Hold a fundraiser for cleanup?"
"I want you to reconsider your decision," said Fury.
"No. I am not giving you the suit," said Tony.
"Sir," said Steve.
On screen, the monster had caught up with one of jeeps.
"Mr. Stark," said Fury, and behind him there was a muffled explosion. "Pull back!" the Colonel yelled. "And get those civilians out of my sight!"
It was only then that Steve realized the Colonel must be on site. "Sir," he said again, and then behind Fury a slim redheaded figure ran towards a waiting jeep. "That's Black Widow," Steve said, disbelieving, while on the background image the monster shook its head, sending gobbets of flame into the smoke.
"...full scale evacuation of affected..." said the television announcer.
"I will consider your failure to co-operate a federal offence," growled Colonel Fury, his single eye narrowed straight into the camera lens.
"Good luck with that one," said Tony, "Given we're not a federation anymore."
"Call me in," said Steve. "I can help." He was already dragging on his uniform, pulling on his boots with one hand and snapping his belt fastened with the other. "Sir. Call me in."
There was a rocket launcher being dragged into position by the abandoned minibuses, and a man in a suit was sighting through a pair of binoculars. Beside him, there was a man with bare arms and a bow. Steve, pulling his cowl down, felt as if he was looking at a warped illustration for a children's fairy tale.
Fury said, "Rogers, you're as much use in this day and age as a MacDonald's wrapper," and the screen went blank.
"Did he hang up on me?" said Tony, disbelieving. "We were having a conversation there. An actual - Oh hell no, I am not-"
"Those were school buses," said Steve, and, "Black Widow was there." He was still staring at the blank screen, where the Colonel turned him down, and he was starting to get angry.
"Are you trying to make this about some kind of gender war?" Tony said. "Because I thought we got past that with the revolution." But his eyes were watching the screen, and his hands were tapping over the LED displays, and there was a rising red bar that said 'power levels' and another that said 'pre-flight check', and behind both of them the electrical servos that powered Iron Man's dock were whirring. "Fury can kiss my ass," Tony muttered.
Steve slammed his hand down on the desk. Small pieces of metal skittered and jumped.
"You're good to go, Cap, just gimme a second," said Tony, turning on his heel, dark eyes flicking from Steve's cowl to his boots, and then Tony was walking into the Iron Man suit while the workshop doors opened.
They flew hard and fast across Moscow, high enough for the cold air to burn Steve's throat. He tucked his head into Iron Man's shoulder and let the shield on his back take the brunt of the wind, running through everything he had noted. Fire, obviously, was not a viable weapon. The missiles were having a limited effect, and the firepower Steve had seen on screen was infinitely greater than the 152mm howitzers of the Guards Artillery, the biggest guns he'd ever seen fired before. This was the kind of mission that needed a plan, not brute force.
Iron Man's voice said, "I hope you're as good as advertised, Captain."
Steve snorted. He could smell smoke.
Then the rock music started.
The helicopters were no more than a distraction, until a casual backswing sent one of them down in flames. The missiles, it swiped out of the air; the one that exploded - Iron Man's - blew a hole the size of a tank in its shoulder which closed up in seconds. The tar was so hot Steve could almost feel his skin redden, and the snow around them was pockmarked with cinders and melted in steaming circles, where molten tar had dripped from the creature's paws. Even the air stank of bitumen and ash. His arms were sore, his thighs aching, and his hands bruised where his shield, thrown over and over again, had hit back into his grip. Beside him, Black Widow was panting, her hair tangled and damp with sweat but her hand still steady on a single handgun that had just enough kick to be noticeable. Even Iron Man's armor was dented and sooty.
"This isn't working!" Steve shouted.
It wasn't. They were being forced back to the forest, with its vulnerable, flammable trees, and behind the forest were the first of the dachas, and behind them, Moscow.
"So what do you suggest?" yelled Black Widow.
"It's got to have a weakness somewhere!"
"Hold that thought," said Iron Man, hovering. "Steve. Can you distract it? I want a sample."
"You see something?" screamed Steve, and dodged a flaming lump of tar.
"I don't know yet. Crap!" said Iron Man, spinning away from the much larger boulder that followed.
The exclamation was so familiar Steve almost smiled, even as he was shielding himself and Black Widow. Duck and run, throw - Iron Man was shoulder-height on the thing again, so close he'd be lucky not to be breathing flame. Steve leaped, throwing the shield at the broad empty mass of the creature's face; Black Widow was covering, as automatically as if they'd practiced the move half a hundred times. Iron Man was even closer, plastered against the black tar. Spitting, Black Widow's guns sounded again, and Steve's shield was back in his hands. He threw, just in time to stop a left-handed swipe that would have knocked that red and gold figure halfway to Kiev. There was an exploding arrow there too, enough to distract the thing for the seconds it took Iron Man to disengage, although Steve had yet to spot the archer.
Throwing again, he dodged a blackened tree stump, and then had to run for it as the creature surged forward, one three meter long foot landing on the spot where he'd been a second before. Black Widow hadn't even moved, guns in both hands aimed at that foot. Hard tar cracked and shattered under her bullets, almost as if it was the thing's skin, and between the cracks fresh tar oozed, black and steaming. When the arrow exploded on the same spot, the creature lurched sideways, its knees folding for a moment.
"Gotcha!" shouted Black Widow breathlessly, and stood almost underneath the thing's belly, gun in each hand, firing at both feet.
"Get out of there!" shouted Steve.
But it was Iron Man who screamed past, knocking Black Widow into the snow just quickly enough to avoid the stream of tar running down the creature's back. Scrambling, Black Widow ran for it, and Steve threw and threw again, his shield spiraling up like a child's toy. He almost lost it to the next missile, had to run for the catch and made a lucky turn that saved him from being squashed under one massive grey foot. He hadn't realized how much of the creature's attention had been focused on Iron Man until Stark had gone, and he'd never faced anything like it before. It seemed almost surreal, the smoke, the smell, the noise of the missiles and the whistle of the arrows from that unseen archer - who ever thought of bringing a bow to the battlefield in this century - or the next, Steve thought wryly, and sent his shield up again in an arching curve that severed a finger the size of a tree trunk. Behind him, Black Widow was silent, letting her guns speak for her. Already, Steve trusted her to have his back.
They were almost at the fringe of the forest. Steve hoped the Colonel had some experience at evacuation, and threw again. He'd barely caught his shield before the drums sounded.
"We need comms," announced Iron Man.
"I'm aware," grunted Steve, and ducked. A gobbet of tar steamed briefly in the snow, driblets freezing solid against the frozen earth.
Iron Man sent a couple of repulsar blasts upwards and said, "It's tar."
"Tell me something I don't know," said Black Widow, executing a dive and wheel that would have put a champion gymnast to shame and firing at the same time.
"No, I mean, it freezes," said Iron Man, and bent to pick up a dinner-plate sized spatter of the stuff. "Solid."
Steve spun on his heel. "The river!"
It took them an hour, ducking and weaving, to lure the thing into the freezing waters of the Moskva, and a lucky missile strike in the middle of the thing's back to knock it back into the ice. Its feet froze in place, but its arms were still windmilling long after Fury's artillery had set up camp on the far side. Black Widow was long gone by the time the last missile fired, and they'd lost their archer, too, but Steve sat the thing out grimly, determined to finish what he'd started. Watching the thing gradually seize up was almost saddening, a giant's death, but there was no spark of intelligence in this brute, just blind fury.
"Good plan," said Tony, Iron Man's helmet tucked under one arm.
"Good call," said Steve. "That thing is huge."
"It's not just the size of the boat," said Tony, sly, "It's the motion of the ocean."
"I get that - Tony!" yelped Steve.
"Cap," Tony said, "I'm surprised at you." But his eyes slid sideways, the glint in them irrevocably roguish.
Steve found himself looking at something else very important on the other side of the river. The creature was almost still now, a frozen, cracked slump of tar, ice already freezing to the black slabs of its skin.
"Wanna blow this joint, Cap?" said Tony. "I get itchy if Fury's too close."
"You go," said Steve. "I want to catch Black Widow."
Tony said, "I have been known to leave a party with the guy I came with. I can wait. Actually, Jarvis, have we got anything on the pad? Cap's starting to shiver."
Behind them, Natasha said, "I've got a helicopter."
"With or without strings?" said Tony. "And tell me it's one of mine."
"Stark 140-T," said the man beside Natasha, the man with an unstrung bow slung across his back and an archer's guards on his wrists. "I'll get you home, Mr. Stark."
"That was you, wasn't it, with the arrows?" said Steve. "Steve. Steve Rogers. Glad to meet you." He held out his hand.
"Hawkeye." His handshake was brief and hard, his hands calloused. "Captain. That was a good assist."
"That was some shooting," said Steve. "And," he added firmly, glancing at Iron Man's smut-stained armor, "We'd be grateful for the lift back to barracks."
"Did you just-" said Tony.
"Sure thing," said Hawkeye, clapping one hand to his headset and turning up the ridge.
"-call my house your barracks?"
"Not the worst posting I've ever had," said Steve, following Natasha's straight back. He could see the rotors of the helicopter on top of the ridge begin to spin, and he'd never ridden one before.
"Not the what?" said Tony. "Steve."
"I've had worse rations too," said Steve.
"Ingrate," said Tony, and, "Duck," as they went under the rotors. But he was smiling.
The helicopter was surprisingly comfortable for a military machine, but slow and clumsy compared to Iron Man's flight, and the clatter of the rotors forestalled conversation. Tony had crawled into the co-pilot's seat before they'd taken off and was doing something with the wires behind the instrument panel. Natasha, curled up in one of the battered bucket seats, raised Steve an eyebrow and the tiniest of smiles. She'd been amazing out there, as smooth as she was in the gym, lethal and beautiful. Tony's armor had been invaluable, but it was his mind that had won them the day. And Hawkeye's arrows had been perfectly timed; that one shot, the explosive that had been a perfectly placed rebound from Steve's shield, had been almost impossible and yet exactly on target.
For a first mission, they hadn't done too badly. Steve nodded back at Natasha, and watched Moscow come back into view through the open doors.
Hawkeye brought the helicopter down on Tony's lawn, a perfect landing in the snow, and let the rotors slow, but the way he snatched his headset off was very different from his controlled descent. "Don't ever do that again while we're in the air!" he yelled.
Appearing from behind the co-pilot's seat, Tony's hand waved dismissively. He was holding a fistful of multicolored wires. "C'mon," he said. "I took you off line for two minutes. Two minutes! I designed this baby, Barton, I know what she can do."
"Yeah, right," said Hawkeye. "But I was the one flying it!"
"Nope. That was Jarvis," said Tony, and something crackled and sparked.
Hawkeye folded his arms.
"Just-" said Tony, a little more strained. "Just go on without me, yeah? Natasha knows where your room is."
Tony sat up, and his swift grin was all teeth. "About time you came in from the cold, Clint Barton."
"You're-" said Steve, in belated realization. "You're the guy with the bow. I mean, the guy on the chimney." Then, "Have you been following me?"
Hawkeye rolled his eyes. "Took you long enough," he said.
"The Captain had you down from day one," said Natasha.
"I did?" said Steve.
Tony said, "Incoming. Fury. Steve, don't say a word."
"Nothing," said Tony, and ducked out of the cabin. "Guys, what gives? Let's go!"
By the time they'd cleared the rotors the first Black Maria was through the gates and drawing up in front of the front door. It wasn't Fury who got out, but a short man in a suit, balding, the man with the binoculars. He was the kind of man it would be easy to underestimate, the kind of man easy to miss in a crowd, pale and anonymous, but the brace of his shoulders said military to Steve as clearly as the cut of his jacket said armed.
"Coulson," Natasha whispered to Steve.
"Agent," said Tony, his voice unwelcoming.
But Coulson's eyes were on Steve. "Stark," he said. "Black Widow, Hawkeye. Captain."
"Sir," said Steve, held out his hand, and smiled.
"It's...Captain," Coulson said again, and seemed disinclined to let go.
"Right," said Coulson, and leaned forward. "Captain America," he said confidentially, his face a little pink. "Colonel Fury thought it was time to bring you into the fold. I'm empowered to offer you a commission."
"Let him speak," said Steve to Tony, and thought of his uniform, and the days of waiting, and the bunker where Fury had interviewed him, that first meeting.
"Are you toeing the party line?" Tony asked suspiciously. "You are, aren't you?" He'd flung his hands in the air: bareheaded, his hair an untidy mess, his face smoke-grimed. There were tiny, blackened pockmarks on the armor, just as Steve's arms and chest were peppered with bruises, although his new uniform had been utterly impervious to the molten heat of the tar.
"We'd be glad to have you back," said Coulson, so emphatically not looking at Tony the omission was almost underlined in red. "At your previous rank, of course. And we could come to an arrangement about your pension. There would be paperwork, but-"
"With all due respect, sir," Steve said slowly, "I already have a team."
Coulson's expression was unchanged, but Steve was suddenly aware that Natasha was standing at his side.
"They told me you might be difficult," Coulson said, and looked away for a moment. When he looked back, the set of his face was harder and his voice quieter. "Don't forget where your loyalties lie, soldier."
"I am well aware," said Steve, and he held Coulson's eyes for a very long moment.
"So," said Tony, as they stood in the driveway watching the car drive away. "Not quite the golden boy you were painted, huh?"
Steve stared down at him, and said, "Those were strategically vital decisions."
said Tony, and clapped Steve on the back. "So," he said. "Pizza? Jarvis!"
washed out jeans
Became too small for me
We were taught for so long
To love your forbidden fruits
Good bye Amerika - oh
Where I will never be
Pompilus, Goodbye America (1986)
After the third mission, the one with the genetically modified cockroaches, it was almost impossible to keep the cameras away. Tony Stark's Iron Man was a headline event, an image on every newsfeed and television screen, and Steve, exasperated, watching Iron Man ring the new scaffolding of Stark Tower in circles of red smoke to the sound of Jumping Jack Flash, knew it was only a matter of time until Tony cracked.
It never occurred to him that if Tony went public, so did he.
"It's not my kind of thing either," hissed Pepper.
"What?" said Steve, spinning around so fast he nearly knocked the pink umbrella from his cocktail.
"This," said Pepper, nodding down at the dance floor.
"But," said Steve, "You look-"
Pepper wore an off-the-shoulder red dress in a fabric so smooth it looked wet under the lights. Her hair was up, her eyes such a vivid green Steve wondered if she'd had them dyed, and her earrings were diamond. She looked beautiful.
"-you look-" said Steve, lamely. "Stunning."
"Just think of it like a uniform," said Pepper, wrinkling her nose. "It's not like, I mean, this is Tony's thing, you know?"
"I can see that," said Steve, and peered over the balcony railings again at the dance floor where Tony, in the suit, was dancing to some noise of some kind of electronic telegraph music. Moving jerkily, maybe, although the woman he was dancing with was slickly sinuous against the gleam of the armor. Quickly, Steve turned back to Pepper. "I thought you would be backstage?"
Pepper shrugged. "Have you ever heard a speech Tony wrote?"
"Yes," said Steve.
But Pepper was giggling. "Your face!" Then she said, "He's been practicing this one since he built the Mark II. Of course I was going to watch. I'm just not going to be here long."
Steve sneaked a quick glance down at the dance floor, where a different woman was rubbing up against the armor like...like...something that wriggled.
Pepper said, "Someone had to make sure the cancan girls get fed. Tony's great at fireworks. Maybe not so much at making sure the contractors get here at the right time. Or answering the phone. Actually, Steve," she said, frowning, "I wanted to talk to you. How do you feel about a press conference?"
"What?" said Steve, horrified. And then, "I don't think that's necessary."
"I'm getting a lot of enquiries," said Pepper.
"No," said Steve.
Pepper raised an eyebrow at him.
"I can't see why anyone would be interested," said Steve.
"Oh, come on," said Pepper. "Do you really think no one's noticed the uniform? Current gossip is you're a Spetsnaz operative."
"I don't care what people think as long as it gets the job done," said Steve.
"Even when that means you're associated with the Kremlin?" said Pepper. "I've seen a couple of articles asking why you haven't been deployed to the Chechen front. And if it's in the newspaper, you've been noticed by ODON."
"SHIELD's only concerned with domestic security," said Steve uncomfortably.
"I know that," said Pepper. "But do you think that matters to the Kremlin? Or to anyone whose son is serving with the Ground Forces? The problem is," she said, "That saying nothing works fine when it's a position of strength, but when it's a validation of a policy you don't support, it can be a problem."
"Whatever I think about the war, those are our boys fighting," said Steve. "If Fury wants me to serve with the army, I'll go."
"Oh, Steve," said Pepper.
"I might not have signed a commission," said Steve, "But I'm still a serving soldier."
"We're not even the same country," said Pepper. "And if you knew - it's Tony's money that keeps SHIELD independent," she said. "Steve, sign up with Fury if you must, but never, never let yourself get caught by the Kremlin. You have no idea."
"I'll be careful," said Steve. "But-"
"Steeeve!" said Tony. "Steve, Steve-" His arm was heavy across Steve's shoulders, his head so close Steve could smell the sour alcohol of his breath. "Are you having a good time?" Tony said confidentially. "Tell me you're having a good time. Good party, huh? And Pep - you found Pepper!"
He was almost lurching in the armor.
"Tony," said Steve awkwardly, "Do you think you should-"
"Hey, Pepper," said Tony, "Dance with me."
"Oh, I'm not dancing," said Pepper.
"Did you see my speech? Great speech, right? C'mon, Pep. This is one off, right? A Stark exclusive. One for the history books. Give yourself something to remember."
"But-" said Pepper.
"It's the toes, isn't it?" said Tony, one hand still on Steve's shoulder, leaning forward. "I promise not to step on your toes. I'll even - I can change the music, it's my party, what d'you want?"
"How much have you had to drink?" said Pepper.
"Not enough," said Tony. "Pepper, please. Don't say no, not tonight."
"Fine," said Pepper, and swallowed the last of her drink. "Yes."
Tony's smile was blinding.
Left alone, Steve abandoned his own cocktail and wished he could safely sneak away. He felt uncomfortably trussed up in the tuxedo Pepper had insisted he wear, and his dress shoes seemed insecure and slick on the polished floors of the exhibition hall. He'd seen the YouTube videos of the Stark Expos and the product launches, but actually watching Tony's speech - Tony's act, all manufactured smile and dancing girls and fireworks - was utterly disconcerting. Almost dismaying. The man he knew, the Tony Stark with his casual undershirts and overalls and dirty, clever hands, his swift grin and his pursed mouth and his eyes - Tony's eyes - was entirely different from the man who had stood on stage tonight in the glare of the lights. He'd known who Tony Stark was from the beginning, but seeing him now from the other side - the oligarch, the aristocrat, the showman - had brought home to Steve just how different they were.
He remembered the heat of the lights, and the way the faces in the audience blurred, but Steve had never stood on stage for his own benefit.
What had really shocked him was the way people behaved around Tony. The toadying, the envious looks and the false smiles and posturing. The casual asides, "My dacha," "My daughter, at Goldsmiths', you know, London," "The Contessa? Ivanovich, the Diablo's the one to have. I'll take you out for a test drive, show you what you're missing." The blatantly sexual posturing. He'd accepted that Pepper and Tony were...probably a couple. And that Clint and Natasha were...possibly a couple. These things happened, it's not that he didn't understand. But there was an ill-matched pair canoodling in a corner he knew had been introduced half an hour ago, a couple on the dance floor who were practically simulating sex, a woman who had slid up to him at the bar and made him an offer, straight-faced, to which tongue-tied and flushed bright red with embarrassment he had not even been able to reply. Men who introduced themselves without even mentioning the woman on their arm, men who had looked at him as if he were...as if they wanted the same things from him as the woman at the bar. Everything seemed too bright, too glittering, too false, a veneer of gaiety over a rotten core, and yet Tony was as home here as he was in his own workshop.
"Hey," someone said, a man in a grey suit with rings on his fingers. "Don't I know you?"
His face was flushed, his hand damp with sweat. Steve let go as soon as he could. "I don't think so," he said.
"You're the guy in the suit. Captain..." snapped fingers. "Captain America."
"Yes," said Steve cautiously. "Mr...?"
"Nice shield," said the man in the grey suit, and laughed. "Hammer. We should talk."
"No," said Tony, short and sharp, from Steve's side. He must have moved quickly, he'd been on the dance floor last time Steve looked. "He's mine, Justin. Get your own."
"Oh, it's like that, is it?" said Justin Hammer, and suddenly he was backing away, his face tightening. "Well, Tony, never let it be said you're not at the forefront of progress."
"Always," said Tony, chin up. His shoulder nudged Steve's and did not move away. "Futurist, don't forget it."
"I'm sure our friends in the Kremlin will be very pleased to hear that," said Justin Hammer. "We're not America, Stark. Your private life-"
"Is none of your business," said Tony. He was still wearing the armor, but there was a familiar flush on his cheekbones and his eyes were artificially bright. "And have you met Pepper? My CEO. Miss Pepper Potts." His smile was so sharp it was vicious.
Glancing between them, Justin Hammer's smile faded. "I'll - I'll call you," he said, turning away. Then he spun back. "You'll want to hear from me then," he said, the words sharp and short. "You wait, Stark. You wait." He was glaring.
"Yeah, yeah," said Tony, and made a face at Hammer's back.
"Don't," said Pepper, between her teeth. "Ass."
"Okay, Cap?" said Tony, and then without even waiting for an answer was gone.
Pepper, though, was still at Steve's side, looking a little wearier than when she'd left the balcony. Steve said gratefully, "Thanks. This isn't my kind of party."
"Had enough?" said Pepper, and sighed. "We've done our bit. Come on. I'll find you a limo."
"I can walk," Steve said.
"Not looking like that. Not tonight," said Pepper, and took his arm. "Back door is this way."
"No, really-" said Steve.
"No," said Pepper. "Half of Moscow knows what's happening tonight. You're not going home alone. Trust me on this one."
"Pepper." He'd left his shield at home, and his arm had been aching for the familiar weight of it all night, but he was Captain America still.
"Steve. I'm coming with you," said Pepper, and did not look back.
He did not know what time Tony arrived home, but the woman sitting at their breakfast table in the morning was no one he recognized. She was almost as tall as him, blue-eyed and blonde, and she was wearing Tony's dressing gown draped around her shoulders, so casually belted it seemed to be losing a dare with gravity. Her hair was tousled, her skin still damp, and the languid grace of her pose was disturbingly similar to the brightly colored images on the covers of the magazines in the street corner kiosks.
"Uh," said Steve, caught unexpectedly with his sweats rumpled and his hair still damp from the shower in the gym. "Good morning?"
"Why, hello," she said, and her smile was slow and sleek. "Tony didn't mention he had guests."
"No," said Steve slowly, "He didn't." The coffee machine had already been used, early enough for the pot to be only faintly warm. He poured himself a mug anyway, holding it to his chest, wrapping his fingers around the faint heat. "I don't think we've been introduced," he said awkwardly. "Steve Rogers, ma'am."
"Oh," she said, and leaned back a little further. The edge of the robe hesitated at her cleavage. "You're that guy with the shield. Captain...Captain America." Her smile was broadening.
Steve said, "Well, ma'am, it's been a pleasure, but I have to - I have to-" The robe slipped a little further. "Go," said Steve, and made for the door in a rush.
Pepper was standing on the threshold.
Horrified, Steve stopped, and in that moment he felt so disturbed he could have hit Tony, for the expression on Pepper's face. It was one of the mornings when she'd put her make-up on perfectly, when her hair was impeccable and her suit cut to fit, and every centimeter of her was Miss Pepper Potts, CEO. But her face was so carefully blank the back of Steve's neck was itching, as if the NKVD officer was looking over his shoulder.
She didn't even glance at Steve when she said, "Your cab will be here in fifteen minutes. Please be aware that there are security cameras throughout this building."
"Oh, honey," said the woman at their breakfast table. "It's been my pleasure." She was still smiling, and her eyes were on Steve as she stood. "But don't call me. I'll call you."
If he hadn't stepped back, she would have patted his cheek on the way past, but the faint smell of her skin was almost worse. She'd showered, and she smelled of Tony's soap and her own skin and under both of them, rich and faint and intimate, of Tony himself. Steve, flinching, felt as if his stomach had twisted in his belly.
"Bitch," Pepper muttered, watching her sashay across the hall.
Steve opened his mouth, found he did not know what to say, and shut it again.
"Oh, honey," said Pepper viciously. "I love Tony dearly, but I wish he'd take his own trash out."
"Sorry?" said Steve, and his voice was higher than he'd anticipated. "But I thought, you, Tony - I thought you were-" He was digging himself into a deeper hole with every word. "Together."
"Oh, we were," said Pepper, still watching Tony's bedroom door, left open. "But not anymore. Not for a long time."
"But then - how-" said Steve.
Pepper looked around. "Steve," she said. "Are you really so blind?" She was staring at him, and then she shook her head. "It's complicated."
Complicated was a setting on Facebook, not a relationship, but Steve wasn't going to ask. He went back to the gym instead, showered - again - and then asked Jarvis what he wanted for the kitchen and got it, most of the way through a fifteen kilometer run, showered - again - surfed the web looking for parts for the bike and sent a few e-mails, cleaned his bathroom - pointless, the housekeepers kept it pristine - re-stitched the loose button on his dress shirt and ironed his slacks, hoping that someone would call. Fury or Jarvis or Natasha, even Clint, and something need saving.
He'd known, of course he had, all those pictures on the internet, but seeing Tony's picture with woman after woman was very different to the reality of facing someone Tony had actually, to Steve's certain knowledge, taken to his bed.
In Steve's day people got married. Sex between two people was something private, unmentioned, a precious intimacy that was one of the few things the party did not control. Steve himself - Steve hadn't even indulged in the half-joking, competitive wisecracks of his Commandos. His experience of sex had been so limited, the occasional wet dream that had been excruciatingly embarrassing in a shared living space, the horrifyingly rampant erections of those first few days after the injection, studied and recorded in mortifying detail by the scientists of the super soldier project. He'd trained himself to clamp down on every stray thought, and learned to control his body's reactions until lust was something he felt only as a brief impulse. He'd taken that energy and put it into the war; anything else would have been selfish. Even the willing, pretty girls of his tours had been nothing but sweet with him.
Yet that single drift of scent from Tony's half-open robe had hardened his cock so quickly he'd felt almost faint with the force of his own arousal, standing exposed in their shared kitchen with his balls suddenly heavy between his thighs and the sweat breaking out in his armpits and the back of his knees. He'd been terrified then that Pepper would notice, could not seem to control the flush in his cheeks or the half-hard stir of his cock in his drawers, and ever since, his thoughts had slid away from him in unexpected, shocking directions. The image of Tony's robe curled so low over that tanned shoulder, velvet against skin, held such an erotic charge that he shivered every time he thought of it. The remembered scent of skin sent a thrill through his body so strong that even the most quickly dismissed memory still flushed his cheeks. And try as he might, his thoughts kept drifting away from him to that one, heated moment.
He dreamed of warmth and the scent of her skin, in his sleep comfortably arousing, and then of a hand that was not his, fingers running along the edge of the robe, one thumb, broad and flat and uneven around the knuckle in the way that scarred flesh often was, sliding under velvet to touch skin. In his dreams, Steve was both watcher and wearer, voyeur and participant; the robe slipped off - was slipped off - his shoulders and left him exposed, but that exposure was thrilling in both reveal and sensation. He was aware of the strength of his own body, his flesh, his skin, sensitive and warm, and of someone else's presence, an unknown figure for whom he was smiling, unafraid. Hands that were not his own teased the robe apart, pressed themselves against his chest, slid lower, curled around his belly and tucked into the hollows of his hips, never still. Exquisitely, Steve could not move, breathlessly anticipating the slow slide of those nimble fingers, but at the same time he wanted - he wanted to rock into that touch, his hips rising, his cock so hard and heavy it bobbed between his thighs. There was someone breathing on the back of his neck, heated and uneven, and the smell of their skin was metal-sharp and sweat-sour and so familiar Steve closed his eyes and rolled his face into the comfort of touch without a moment's hesitation.
It was Tony. The hairs of his beard were soft and prickling at once, rough stroked against the grain and smooth with it. The hard lines of his cheekbones were solid against Steve's own and his mouth was open against Steve's chin, his breath damp and hot. His hands - Tony's hands - those were Tony's calloused fingertips cupping Steve's balls, his thumbs stroking the base of Steve's cock, just where the vein of it began to swell. And Steve - Steve was rocking his hips, twisting in the chair, thrusting against that touch that was just not quite enough, begging for more, harder, oh God, Tony, touch me -
He woke up with his own hand clutched hard around his cock, panting, knowing he was going to come in seconds and completely unable to stop himself. He felt as if he were diving out of a plane into a barrage of flack, the fall uncontrollable, inevitable, blindingly violent, exhilarating- "Oh fuck, no," Steve groaned through clenched teeth, his head rolling on the pillow but his hand stripping his cock as if he was thirteen again. "Oh fuck. Oh fuck. Oh-"
Then there was only the noise of his own uneven, heaving breath and the hot, sticky mess he'd made of his fingers and Tony's sheets.
He was going to have to apologize to the housekeepers.
He was going to have to look Tony in the face, when he'd just - Steve rolled over to bury his head in the pillows, horrified at his own actions, but when he brought his hand up to cover his face his fingers were still damp with his own come, the smell of it sharply sour. He shuddered, rolling back, and lay rigid in his bed with his arms by his side.
If he knew, Tony would be so disgusted he'd throw Steve out of the house. Out of the team. No real man would ever - but in Steve's mind Tony's grin was wide and lascivious, and his eyes were - that thing Tony did, when he looked up through his eyelashes, wicked and wanton in a way that always made Steve's breath catch.
"Oh hell," said Steve helplessly, appalled, and scrambled out of bed, racing for the shower and its necessary shock of cold water, because his cock was hardening again.
Natasha hammered on the door when he was dressing. "Steve! Get your ass in gear - Tony says field test!"
"Copy!" Steve yelled back, dragging his hoodie over his head and running a hand over his hair. It was going to be okay. He was going to make it okay.
It was okay. It was training.
Tony had changed the frequencies on their comm units, redesigned the interface so that it was voice operated, extended the range, and finally, eliminated the annoying two centimeter long aerial that had stood up from his cowl and Clint's caps as if they had antennae. Steve found himself making a tour of Moscow's suburbs in a Stark town car with an imperturbable driver, stopping every half hour to test the small black earpieces beside every possible source of interference Tony could remember. The infirmary, the telephone exchange, the power station, Hammer House - unexpectedly busy - the Kremlin, where Steve scrunched down in the back seat and the driver darkened the windows. Clint had the helicopter and Natasha the control unit. Tony in the suit was probably halfway to Afghanistan, but his voice over the comm unit was as clear as if he was by Steve's side.
"Testing. Testing. Three two one. Yesterday, all my troubles were so far away-"
Clint's snortled laugh across the airwaves made Steve grin even if he didn't understand the reference.
"Now I need a place to hide away..."
"Iron Man," said Natasha, "You can't sing. Don't."
"Oh, you wait," threatened Tony. "Karaoke night at the Underground, here we come. Team bonding. Barton, Cap, you're up for it."
"Count me in," said Clint.
Natasha's "Call signs on the comms, comrades," was sharply exasperated. "Location?"
"Roof," said Clint. "Nah...make that the balcony. Coming in."
"Arbatskaya," said Tony.
"Hawkeye, I have you on visuals," said Steve. "Front door."
"Roger that, Rogers," said Tony, and then sniggered over the comm. "Heh."
"What did he say?" Steve asked. "No, what? What did he say? Tony? Is that funny?"
"It is if you're me," said Tony, dropping to the asphalt, the glint in Iron Man's eyes bright. When he dragged Iron Man's helmet off, his hair was tousled and his face tired, but the little laughter lines at the corners of his eyes were curling upwards. "Hey, Cap. Looking good. Get changed, we're going out tonight. You in, Natasha?"
"You buying, Stark?" said Natasha.
"For you? Always," said Tony, although he was looking at Steve. "No, seriously, Cap. You okay?"
He hadn't thought of anything but grid references and power lines all day. "I'm good," Steve said, and smiled back.
The Underground was a cellar bar in the shadow of the Kremlin, next to a pizza shop and two minutes from the Teatralnaya metro station. The bar was tiny, smaller than Steve's bedroom, but Tony, herding them past the bouncers, had somehow managed to reserve a pair of dinner-plate sized tables and enough stools for all of them. It was crowded and rowdy, badly lit, but the rough-edged street Russian and the clink of glass were familiar to Steve from other bars in other places. But there were other languages in this bar, German and English, and the drinks came in glasses, not bottles, and the music was that ubiquitous dance beat that was faster and harder than the songs Steve knew. He'd grown used to the way people looked these days in their jeans and leather jackets or their business suits, but there were people standing at the bar in high-heeled shoes and leather trousers, motorcycle boots and ball gowns. There were men with earrings and women in men's shoes, and there were some people whom he could not place at all. He didn't know where to look, had no idea if he should be offering his seat to the person behind him with long hair and layered, plaid shirts, and could feel himself start to blush at their waiter's frank stare at his own chest.
"Hey," said Tony, "Eyes up. We'll take a couple of pitchers of Klassicheskoe - Natasha?"
"Russian Standard," said Natasha. "Imperia. Hold the ice."
"Just bring the bottle," Tony said, "And turn the music up."
Karaoke was a messy and dangerous activity best left to professionals. Clint, for example. Tony couldn't hold a note to save his own skin, but Clint had a surprisingly smooth baritone. Everyone sang in English. Beer had improved, but Tony's tab could have paid for a small apartment and made Steve feel guilty every time he took a sip. Natasha won every bet, Clint got drunk, and Tony kissed a boy.
Even Steve knew it wasn't a joke.
He was blonde and blue-eyed, Tony's boy, so young his hair flopped over his eyes and his skin was cotton-soft. He'd spent the evening quietly collecting glasses, wiping tables and passing orders to the bar staff. Their table had been pristine and Natasha's glass always full, but it was Tony the boy had glanced at every time, eyelashes down, sweet as a young fawn. Steve hadn't even realized Tony had noticed, but when they were getting up to leave Tony glanced over, and the clip of folded notes palmed in his hand was both discreet and substantial.
The boy didn't even look down. He shook his head, and said something too low for Steve to hear. Clint and Natasha were already near the door. Steve was shrugging on his jacket, watching Tony.
The boy took a step forwards, the movement a little ungainly and coltish in the way young men often were. He reached up to brush his hair out of his eyes, and smiled, so small a smile it barely lifted the corners of his mouth, but so sweet it was stunning. Tony said something, and shook his head, and then the boy did look down, still smiling. When he looked up, he said something else, short, Steve did not hear. But Tony did. Tony laughed. Tony laughed, and reached out, one hand on the boy's shoulder and the other curled around his hip, and for a moment they were pressed together as close as any pair of wartime lovers. They were so intimate Steve's heart missed a beat, and he could feel his own eyes widen.
Then Tony's hand slid up the smooth arch of the boy's back, over his shoulder, and cupped his face. He dipped his head, and they kissed.
Steve was sure his heart had not just hesitated but stopped. Then the beat of it thudded against his chest, hard and uneven. He tried to make his body a shield, terrified of the inevitable informer, couldn't believe that Tony - that this was real. The shock of it rocked him down to his bones, made him shiver, made him feel protective and terrified and so desperately unsure that he was frozen in place with his jacket half on and half off.
When they drew apart, both of Tony's hands were cupping the boy's face. He said, very quietly, "Sweetheart, you're going to make some guy a very lucky man, but you're too young for me."
The boy was not smiling now, but his face looked a little slack, his eyes dazed. His mouth was damp, and there was a new flush of color in his cheeks. He took a step back. So did Tony. Then, Tony was spinning on his heel, striding to the exit, and Steve was left blinking in his wake. He stumbled to the car, couldn't look Tony in the eyes for the twenty minutes it took to reach Stark House, and had to keep his legs crossed and his jacket done up to hide the way his swollen cock pressed against the fly of his jeans. He had no plan for this, the tenderness with which Tony had touched another man, as if they could have been lovers. A doomed romance, a Prince and a Firebird, a princess and a snow goose... Nor for the insistent thrum of the serum in his veins, making his body something new and strange, an urgent, insistent want that centered in the heat of his balls and the hard pulse of his cock. Steve wanted Tony's hands on his own body. Wanted to rut against Tony's bare skin like an animal, but he wanted, too, the fingertip stroke of Tony's fingers and his sly grin, wanted to hear Tony's voice roughened and gasping. He was nearly shaking with the effort of staying still, as if he was caught in the moments before a mission began, that uncanny edge of adrenaline and excitement.
The relief of moving, when they arrived at the house, was almost exquisite.
"What did I do?" said Tony, his hand on Steve's arm, in the hall. He spoke quietly, but Natasha was a stone's throw away, going up the staircase, and Clint could be anywhere. "C'mon, Cap, you look like I took your last slice of the orange."
Steve could feel the heat of every separate finger. "Nothing," he said. His whole body yearned to move forward, crowd Tony against the wall and touch all of him, skin against skin. He was infinitely stronger than Tony. He could take what he needed so easily - and the surge of intoxicating triumph at the thought, the image, rocked him back on his heels.
He stepped back.
So did Tony. His hand fell from Steve's arm; his chin was up, his eyes hard. "Fine," he said. "You know what? You can take your recidivist values and you can shove them up your ass. I thought you were better than that, Captain. Looks like you can take the man out the party, but not the party out of the man." Contempt sharpened his words into weapons.
Steve took a deep breath. He said, "You've got no idea."
"Well then," said Tony. "Give me a clue, because from where I'm standing-"
Steve had his fingertips on Tony's face, his little finger grazing the sharp line of Tony's beard and his thumb touching the faint laughter lines by Tony's eyes. That close, he was suddenly aware that he had six or seven centimeters on Tony, and with his other hand flat on Tony's chest, Tony's arc reactor was as vulnerable as if Steve held it in the palm of his hand. He swallowed.
"Oh," said Tony, and he reached up and smoothed Steve's hair back into place. His body arched into Steve's with the motion, smooth and solid with muscle. "It's like that, is it?" The words were so quiet they seemed almost a secret, and Tony was smiling, his eyes wide; there were little flecks of green and gold in the shining brown of his irises. For a moment, he waited, and then he said, "You know what, hold that thought, Cap. Take a rain check. You know the answer's hell yes, but I'm damned if I'm splitting up this team because you decide to freak out."
It was Tony who turned away. Jarvis had called the workshop lift.
Steve stumbled up the stairs into his bedroom, struggled out of his clothes, and jerked off thinking about Tony Stark. He didn't even make it to the bed or the shower, his back pressed against the door, his right hand tugging urgently at the blinding, molten heat of his cock, steel-hard and so swollen it throbbed under his own touch. He was light-headed, sweating, his eyes closed, and orgasm when it finally came sent him to his knees.
He crawled to the bed.
A month ago, Tony had offered, and Steve had thought that offer was an insult, a joke at his expense. Now, he wasn't so sure. He was beginning to think Tony lived outside every rule and stricture Steve had lived his life by, that Tony was not just a capitalist but a degenerate, corrupt and selfish in every aspect of his life, fascinating, generous, ridiculous, tender, a peacock armored in his own genius. A man. A man who had stood under the touch of Steve's hands and smiled as if he had known exactly how Steve felt.
He was hardening again, gently, a rolling wave of arousal that offered rather than took. But Steve, eyes closed, deliberately, drew his fingers up the line of his cock. Rolled his palm over the damp skin, and stroked again. In his mind, the hands that touched him were broader and older than his own, scarred, tanned, and Steve arched into his own touch and panted into his pillows and did not stop. The party had forbidden sex between men, but here in the privacy of his own bed, Steve's thoughts were his own, and they were incendiary.
In the morning, Hammertech announced the launch of their new fusionchip. On the steps of the Kremlin with the Minster for Industry and the Minister for the Interior at his back, Justin Hammer read out a four sentence statement that was accompanied by four MiG-29s screaming over Red Square and the simultaneous arrival on the desk of every newspaper editor and retail magnate of an embossed black box containing the new Hammerphone. The laptops were shipping, the servers were being built as he spoke, and every government department would switch to fusionchip, paid for by Hammertech, as of midday. Fusionchip was five times faster than the nearest equivalent processor, cheap, manufactured in bulk, and readily available to the ordinary Russian.
It was a revelation that changed the face of Russian commerce. The headlines were six centimeters deep. The internet went crazy. The stock markets opened to a day of manic trading that sent the FTSE skyrocketing and the Dow Jones to an all-time high. Hammer's face was blazoned on every billboard in the city and on the screens of traders in London, in Dubai, Hong Kong, Delhi, New York, Beijing. Suddenly, he was the man of the hour, a genius, an industrialist with the good of the people at heart, an inventor with the common touch, the savior of the Russian economy, a hero.
Stark Industries halved in value in two hours. Pepper was midair over the Atlantic, screaming down the phone at editors and investors. Tony had stopped taking calls on the house lines fifteen minutes after Justin Hammer walked down the steps of the Kremlin to his town car, smirking so obviously Steve's fist itched on principle. Ten minutes later Natasha had been doubling the guard on the main gates and Clint, silent, had no jokes left to make, but none of them could do anything about the panicked managers of Stark factories from Detroit to Taiwan, the walkouts, the Starktech swept from shop windows and dumped into landfill, the film of closed doors and obsolete tech and investors burning share certificates.
Steve, horrified, on the edge of his seat, saw the news reports. Tony didn't. Tony was in his workshop, all doors barred, and the only way they knew he was still there were the deliveries that came and went from the gates: twenty Hammerphones, twenty more, a laptop that should not have left a sealed warehouse for the next two weeks, another, five more in anonymous cases with a SHIELD driver and no manifest. A box of chips, a shipment of ore marked with Chinese characters Clint and Steve had to drag into the house, a van load of components from one of the Stark factories on the outskirts of Moscow. The house crackled with the smell of solder and electrical fires, and Jarvis was so distracted Natasha rewired the switchboard and fielded calls, but Tony did not surface all day. Steve sent coffee down in the elevator, then food, and saw the plates come back untouched. If he stepped through the doors - and he tried - the machinery stopped.
The only person who made it down to the workshop that day was Pepper, arriving just before midnight with her face pale and drawn and her shirt crumpled, one phone pressed to her ear and another clutched in her hand, the ring tone screaming. There was a moment when she closed her eyes, leaning into Natasha's touch, but when she straightened her skirt and stalked to the elevator her back was as straight as a five-star general's.
"Tony," Pepper said, and the doors opened.
By then, Stark Industries had suspended production at every outlet outside Russia and offered full compensation to every private customer on their books. The management team had restructured, half their employees were on indefinite leave, and every single holding they held outside the core business had been used as collateral against restructuring loans so convoluted none of the banks concerned were aware they were financing Stark. It wasn't enough. Stark Industries - Tony's life - was on the verge of meltdown and they all knew it.
"I don't understand how it happened," said Pepper, shell-shocked, her hands wrapped around a cup of hot chocolate and her eyes so tired the shadows underneath them were black. "We were watching. Hammer just doesn't have the brain to invent something like this. And it's not just Stark - look at the American markets. Hammer's destabilized the whole industry." Her voice was hoarse. "It's like Microsoft won all of their market share in a day."
"Pepper, eat something," said Natasha.
"I can't," said Pepper, and tugged at her shirt again. "I've got - oh crap, we've got a shareholder's meeting at eight tomorrow. I have to pull the figures."
"I can do that," said Natasha. "I still have codes."
"Tony would-" said Pepper, and then, "You know what, let's do it. I need the loan accounts, the diversification holdings - everything, Tasha."
"If I do this, however much you need to do, you work another half an hour and then you sleep," said Natasha. "I mean it." Her hand was on Pepper's, gripping so tightly her fingernails were white.
"I'm not sure I can manage that long," said Pepper. Then she said, "Jarvis?" She was spinning the open laptop so both she and Natasha could see the screen. "Clint, would you mind getting the printer? Steve, we need paper - it's in the cupboard in the library. And pens. Can you bring the screen from the desktop, too, and the keyboard? Thanks." Then she turned off her phone. "Right," she said. "Let's fix this."
Steve had felt useless all day. He understood the principles of what was happening, but he was no use to Pepper and Natasha now, any more than he'd been able to help Tony all day. He'd moved things and fetched things and made coffee, cooked food that no one ate, patrolled the grounds and liaised with the new guards and made sure no one was getting into the building without explicit permission, and in-between times he'd watched Tony's company fall apart. In technicolor. And there had been nothing he could do to help. He wasn't going to sleep; the super serum kept him restless at the best of times, and now the low buzz of adrenaline kept him moving from room to room, staring out at the floodlit grass of the yard and the empty driveway, the refurbished stables and the cluster of guards at the gate. The half-completed art catalogue could not hold his attention. Frustration dogged at his heels, dragging him from gym to library, from an unread book to a newsreader in Chicago commenting on Stark's failure to secure their market. Even the Americans were watching Stark Industries' collapse.
He was standing outside the doors to the elevator, hand on the wood, when the front door opened. There was no one Jarvis would let pass who should have been arriving; it was two o'clock in the morning. Clint was...somewhere, Natasha in the kitchen, Pepper in bed.
It was Coulson.
Coulson dropped his briefcase on tiles, rolled up his sleeves, and said, so precisely every syllable was carefully delineated, "I'm sorry I couldn't get here before. I was in Tunguska, and Air Traffic Management was in chaos with the changeover."
"What are you doing here?" asked Steve, astonished.
"It's not in SHIELD's interests to see Stark go down," said Coulson. "Captain, I'm here to help. I'm authorized to offer every resource we have, and that includes staff, security and intelligence. Can you find me a desk and someone senior enough to know what we should prioritize first?"
Steve blinked. Coulson had been the team's SHIELD logistics officer since their second mission, and he was unmatchable, but he'd always been so bland and tightly buttoned up he could have been just another anonymous nomenklatura. Now, his sleeves rolled up, his hair ruffled, in need of a shave, he looked just like one of the team.
Then Steve processed what Coulson said. Natasha was busy. Tony had been buried in the workshop all day. Pepper was in bed. But Steve had been listening to phone calls and television news all day; he knew where the factories were, the workshops, the subsidiaries and the retail outlets and the regional headquarters. He knew which divisions Pepper had stripped bare and which she had fought to keep standing. And he knew how to plan a war.
"There's a desk in the library," he said. "I think I can help."
"Good," said Coulson, and hefted his briefcase.
By morning, there were SHIELD staff deployed at fifteen sites across Russia, with more flying in as Air Traffic Management allowed. SHIELD forces were protecting Stark Industries across the country, even the Yekaterinburg branch, where the Uralmash mafia had moved in the moment the manager had walked out. The production lines were staffed, the offices manned with a skeleton staff of Stark loyalists and SHIELD admin. Even some of the foreign manufactories were being guarded by SHIELD staff hurriedly enrolled as Stark subcontractors. They'd got the guards in place in Manila five minutes before the local Hammertech crew had arrived, and Steve thought they might have lost the Chad refinery; there was no answer to any of their calls. But as dawn broke over Moscow, Stark Industries across the globe were ready to open their doors for another day.
"Thanks," he said.
Coulson snorted. "I didn't do this for you," he said. "Or Stark." He looked, after a night of phone calls and maps and flight plans, red-eyed and exhausted, but his hands were steady and his mouth as firm as it ever was.
"Thank you anyway," said Steve, standing up and stretching. "Coffee?"
"Oh God, please," said Coulson, the first time he'd allowed any expression into his voice. And it was a doozy - Coulson was near pleading.
"Give me five minutes," said Steve. "Milk? Sugar?" He frowned at Coulson's face. That was a smile. That was definitely a smile, thin and almost shocked. "What?"
"Thank you," said Coulson, "Captain."
Natasha was asleep, head buried in her arms at the kitchen table, but there was a stack of finished reports next to her elbow Steve glanced at but did not pick up. He walked quietly, and did not steam the milk, but by the time he was emptying the carafe into three mugs, Natasha was blinking up at him.
"Report?" she said.
"Coulson got in last night," Steve said. "We added security to every site we could. Admin, too. There's a time limit, but Tony's covered for now."
"Good work," said Natasha, and picked up the reports. "I'll take these up to Pep," she said. "Is that water for tea?"
"Yours," said Steve, and passed over two more mugs and the samovar. He took his own coffee and Coulson's upstairs to the library, showed Coulson to a spare bedroom and made sure he had towels, and then drank it looking out at the sun rising over the pointed roofs and domes of his city. The house was quiet, and he was weary, but not ready to sleep.
So when the gates opened, Steve was watching. The limousine entering was black, with diplomatic plates but no flag and darkened windows, and the guards at the gates had let it through immediately as if expected. But, as far as Steve knew, he was the only member of Stark House awake and upright.
Then he saw Tony walk out of the front door.
Steve had never seen Tony look as he did then. There was a slump to his shoulders even the angle of the window could not disguise, and his hair was raked into a tormented mess of rat's tails. Although the snow had gone, Steve could still feel the chill of the spring morning through the glass, but Tony wore only a sleeveless vest and jeans. And, oddly, gloves. He had a briefcase in his hand.
Two men got out of the limousine. The first was a bodyguard, carrying, shaven-headed, heavy with muscle. Even his hands were tattooed, and he was missing finger joints from his left hand. The second, smaller and slighter, so well groomed his shoes sparkled in the light of the rising sun, did not even step beyond the open door of the car.
Nor did he shake Tony's hand. Looking down, Steve could see Tony brace his shoulders as he spoke. The man did not move. He was wearing sunglasses. Steve could not see his eyes, but he found himself leaning forward, wishing he could open the window and hear what Tony was saying.
The bodyguard frowned, his hand slipping towards the shoulder harness that bulged under his jacket. Steve tensed. If he had to, he'd go through the window.
Then Tony flung the briefcase onto the roof of the car and sprung it open. Inside, so cleanly, neatly stacked Steve could have been looking at a chessboard, there were more rubles than he had ever seen before in his life. Ever dreamed he would see. Enough to...there must be millions.
The bodyguard reached forward and snapped the briefcase shut. Tony said something. The other man, the man who had said nothing, nodded once. Tony said nothing, standing still. The bodyguard took the briefcase around to the back of the car, opened the trunk, and brought out a cardboard box. He dropped it in the middle of the driveway, and then both men were getting back into the car. The briefcase was gone as if it had never existed. The limousine moved, windows dark again, and slid unchallenged through the gates. It was only when it had gone that Tony walked to the box and heaved it into his arms with an effort Steve could see from three stories up. Then, head bent, Tony took it around the corner to the workshop.
Steve had never been so sure he'd seen an illegal transaction. Everything about it stank: Tony's stance, the bodyguard, the money.
His coffee was cold. Thoughtfully, he set it down, and sat at his table with his hands steepled. He hadn't stopped to think, yesterday, aware only that Tony was in trouble and that Steve needed to help. Yet what Hammer had done was open a privileged market to people who could never have afforded a Starkphone or a Starkpad. Ordinary people. The people for whom Steve had fought his war, workers, the kind of people he met every day in Moscow: secretaries and shift machinists, nurses and engineers and soldiers. Hammertech was a company, just as Stark Industries was, both of them a product of the market economy that was so very different from the values in which Steve believed. Stark's profits came from the pockets of the people of Russia, just as Hammer's did.
Was there really any difference, Steve thought, between Justin Hammer and Tony Stark?
By the time he went for breakfast, the hall was crowded, but it was Tony Steve saw first, immaculately dressed in a suit so cleanly cut to his figure it might have been English. Then Pepper in brilliant scarlet with Natasha holding the stack of reports, a Natasha so discreetly anonymous Steve's eyes skipped over her face. Coulson, immaculate.
"And if I hear of one security infraction-" Tony was saying.
"I hear you," said Coulson, his voice weary but firm. "That is not our policy on this occasion."
"Fine," said Tony, and added, "You haven't heard the last of this, Agent."
"I know," said Coulson.
Then Tony looked up, and saw Steve. He nodded, once, but did not smile, and Steve, used to Tony's absent grin, had not realized how much he had depended on that acknowledgment until it did not happen.
"Captain," said Coulson.
"Thanks, Steve," said Pepper.
Tony clapped his hands and said, "Right, people. Let's get this show on the road." He was already turning away to the waiting car.
"Hey, Tony," said Steve. "Good luck."
"Yeah thanks," said Tony, and didn't even look back.
"Captain?" said Coulson, as they watched the gates open. "There's something I need you to know."
When they went upstairs to the library, Clint was waiting. The table was bare, cleaned of the maps and papers Steve and Coulson had used last night to allocate and deploy SHIELD's forces, and Clint's expression was resigned.
He said, "Phil."
"Clint was one of my agents," said Coulson, looking at Steve's face.
"Still is," said Clint. "Natasha, too. So if you've got a problem with that, better leave now. There's more to this mission than saving Stark's ass."
Steve said, "I can live with that."
"Then," said Phil Coulson, "Let's look at Plan B."
Tony came back from the shareholder's meeting and vanished into the workshop. It was Pepper, giddy with relief, who sat at the kitchen table with Natasha at her side, and told them about the silent room, about the grim ranks of investors who had seen their money vanish overnight, about the way Tony had walked up to the podium with his hands in his pockets and his tie askew. About the reports and the slow, grudging offers of help. About the finance director who had walked out halfway through, and his deputy, who had offered to remortgage his house. About Tony saying that the only thing which stood between Stark Industries and bankruptcy was his own brain. "And if you don't believe in me," Tony had said, "You're investing in the wrong company."
The shareholders had voted not to sell for a week. Seven days. Seven days for something - anything - which would save Stark Industries, and it was all on Tony.
After the second day, Steve could no longer face the television. Justin Hammer was ubiquitous, giving his views on education, on finance, on the world economy, pushing Russia's exports and downplaying its volatile economy, arguing for greater state control of vital industries, pushing for the development of military technology, urging investment in apprenticeships and housing and information technology. He gave fusionchip powered laptops to universities in Latvia and primary schools in Kiev, orphanages in Vladivostok and hospitals in Chechnya. He argued for a global community, extolled employee share ownership, and gave speeches advocating socially responsible capitalism.
Justin Hammer was perfect. He pinpointed every issue Steve had with this new world he had been dragged into, and offered a solution. He was personable, trustworthy and honest. The Russian people loved him.
Set against that public image Steve had the evidence of corruption Fury had compiled, the dossier Coulson had produced when he and Clint and Steve sat in Stark's library and discussed exactly what they would do should Hammer succeed. Justin Hammer, quietly, held the Kremlin in the palm of his hand. Yet, even knowing the bribes Hammer had paid, knowing the dachas along the banks of the Moskva that were owned by Hammertech and rented at peppercorn rents to members of the Duma, even understanding the illegal, fraudulent protection Justin Hammer paid for and received from members of the government who should owe their loyalties, not to the company that paid for their Black Sea holidays and Bolshoi tickets, but to the people who had elected them, Steve could not bring himself to dislike the man. He still felt that, if Tony had come up with the idea first, Stark Industries would have done exactly the same. And if it had been Tony behind the tax exemptions and the convenient waiving of safety inspections, the artificially low export charges and the flouting of labor laws, Steve would have stood against Tony the way he had signed up to stand against Hammer, should Stark Industries fail. For Steve, it was not Hammer who had failed his country, but the capitalist system which had birthed his company.
Plan B was Fury's last resort, but if Tony failed, it was Steve's dream.
But Steve's dream had sent Howard Stark to the Siberian labor camps. Had ordered his commandos into battles they had no hope of winning, had killed millions of his own people in wars that were nothing more than posturing, had exiled and imprisoned anyone who had spoken up against the regime that Steve himself had believed would bring a better life for everyone, and had instead failed so terribly it had become a mockery of the values it espoused.
Tony would not fail.
The week dragged on. Pepper stalked the house, never far from her cellphone, alternately cajoling and bullying the journalists and investors she spent hours cultivating. Trailing her, Natasha wielded her laptop as if it was a weapon, her fingers sharp and exact on the keys and her eyes narrowed. Coulson had practically moved in, setting up camp in the library with Clint, running projections and deploying SHIELD staff across the globe. Stark employees bustled in and out of the house, bringing technical specifications and reports and grim, lined faces.
Tony was a ghost in his own house. That week, Steve saw nothing of him but the fractured memories of a man he thought might have been his friend. A dry coffee stain on a kitchen table. A set of discarded overalls, filthy with grease and speckled with solder burns. Delivery after delivery, uneaten meals and closed doors, the almost silent thud of rock music against the soles of his bare feet on the hall floor, the endless deliveries. Steve ran, worked out, cooked. Slept in snatches, alert to every movement in the house, joined Clint and Coulson for exhausting strategy meetings, stood, out of uniform, at Pepper's shoulder for press conferences and argued with Fury over tactical decisions and supply chains for a campaign he did not want to fight, but would.
His motorbike lay incomplete in Tony's workshop, untouchable, and there was an unfinished conversation between them, haunting the hours Steve spent staring up at the ceiling above his bed. But Tony was fighting a war only he could win, and Steve could do nothing now but wait.
Day six crept into night. No Tony. No word from Tony. No miracle, no plan, no solution. Steve's ceiling gave him back nothing but the glaring trace of a headache that vanished every time he looked away. The clock ticked on. Midnight. One o'clock. Two o'clock, the darkest watch of the night.
When Steve gave up on sleep and dragged himself to the kitchen for coffee, Tony was there. He sat with his chair tilted back and his boots on the table, a tablet in his hands and a mug by his elbow, as if nothing had changed. The room was warm and the overalls he was wearing were stripped to his waist, and over the unshielded glow of the arc reactor he wore nothing but a thin, sleeveless undershirt.
Tony said, "Hey," and did not even look up. His hands, on the screen on the tablet, were unmoving.
"Tony," said Steve. He hesitated. "I came down for coffee. Do you want me to leave?"
"What? No," said Tony. "Why would I..." He ran a single finger across the screen, frowned. "Black. No vodka."
Steve made coffee. Tony, as if he were alone, was still staring down at the tablet in his hands, but he was doing nothing with it and his eyes were nearly closed, his eyelids so heavy that the shadows of his eyelashes lay across his cheekbones. Tony's face was drawn with tiredness, his cheeks hollow and his skin dull under the kitchen lights. He looked exhausted. If he had been one of Steve's men, he would have been in his bunk even if Steve had to carry him there and tie him down to the mattress.
The sound of the coffee dripping into the mug made Tony look up. His eyes were nearly unfocused, wide and dark. "Is it ready yet?" he asked.
Steve pushed the coffee across the table and sat down. Wrapping around the warmth of the mug, Tony's hands were little short of battered, and there was a dirty, bloodied plaster peeling from the knuckle of his thumb.
"Put that clause back on the table," Steve said quietly.
Tony blinked. "What clause?" he asked, slowly.
"The one where you pay me to sleep with you," said Steve.
Tony choked on his coffee, coughing. "What did you say?" he said, once he'd wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his overalls. His voice was steady, but his eyes were even wider.
"It's a fair exchange, isn't it?" said Steve. "A good deal. Value for money." He took a mouthful of coffee. He'd made it sweet and hot, but weak.
"Babe, nothing..." Tony started, and then he swallowed. "You know there's a certain irony to that I didn't appreciate first time around?" He was still looking at Steve. "Your timing stinks," he said.
"I know," said Steve. Then he said, "Did you want me to suck you off there, or would you prefer a bed?"
Tony went white. He said, "What?"
"I said," said Steve, "Did-"
"Yes, I heard that bit," said Tony. He was still staring across the table. "I suppose - I guess this is the bit where I point out what a crap shot this is, Cap, and you tell me- fuck. No. I mean yes. Whatever. No, scratch that, definitely a bed. Are you-"
"Bring the mug," said Steve, and stood up. The impulse to hold out his hand seemed absurdly sentimental, misplaced, but as he followed Tony across the hall and up the stairs he almost wished he had offered. Tony was so tired his boots dragged on the tiles, and Steve could see the huff of breath he took before climbing the first stair.
At the top of the staircase, Steve said softly, "My room." Someone else, not him, had shared Tony's scarlet sheets. It shouldn't matter, but it did.
Hand on the door, Tony paused, head down. The back of his neck was oddly vulnerable, bent. Steve curled one hand over Tony's shoulder and pushed the door open. Even bare, Tony's skin was warm to the touch, smooth, but the muscles under Steve's hand were tense and Tony shivered as he stepped into the room. Steve had to let go to lock the door, and behind him he heard the quiet clink of the mug and the rustle of the tablet being set down.
When he turned around Tony was so close Steve nearly stepped back into the door. Then, he did, because Tony's hand, wickedly insinuating, was pressed hard against his own cock, and the shocking intimacy of that touch was an electric thrill. His knees quivered. He reached out, almost blindly, and found Tony's shoulders.
"If I make you come right now," said Tony, "Can you go again later?"
His voice was dispassionate, but Steve could feel the sweat break out on Tony's shoulders, and under Tony's hand Steve's cock pulsed so hard he could feel the spurt of blood in his veins.
Steve said, "Yes."
"Good," said Tony, and dropped to his knees.
Shocked, Steve made a grab for his shoulders, but found his hands tangled instead in Tony's hair, stiff and electric with a week's worth of workshop dirt. The breath he drew to tell Tony to stop hissed back through his teeth when he looked down, because Tony's hands were on the belt of Steve's jeans, undoing, stripping back the cloth, and when Tony glanced up through his eyelashes the grin on his face was smugly anticipatory. Even the rush of embarrassment when Tony drew Steve's boxers to his knees and stared, unabashed, at the heavy fall of his hard cock could not make Steve look away. His hands tightened instead, weaving into Tony's hair, but Tony himself was leaning forward and then, catlike, rolling the line of his cheekbone against Steve's cock. Tony's mouth was open, his breath coming in little hot pants, and the grip of his hands dug into Steve's thighs.
Steve's knees were shaking. He managed to brace one leg, but the other juddered under Tony's hand, and Tony looked up and smiled. Then he opened his mouth and rolled Steve's cock onto the wet heat of his tongue, still looking up. He winked.
"Fuck," said Steve, the word punched out of him.
Tony was laughing around the cock in his mouth. The sensation was maddeningly powerful. Steve had to let go, had to grip at the wood of the door behind him, and only just managed to translate the instinctive drive of his hips into a slow arch that still sent his cock so far into Tony's mouth the sight of it was almost impossible. But Tony opened for him, head tilted back, eyes still open, as if he'd let Steve do anything he wanted. Then, he swallowed.
Steve nearly came. He could feel wood splinter under his fingertips, had to close his eyes and knock his head on the door panel in an attempt at control, and only then realized with a dizzying flush of heat that Tony's hands were clawed into his skin.
The air on his cock was suddenly cold. "Let go, Cap," Tony said softly.
As if the words were a command, Steve could feel himself start to come, the twisting pressure in his balls and the hot rush of spunk in his cock. He looked down, and saw Tony open his mouth again. Then, worse than the shock of a shell bursting overheard, orgasm struck him down and rolled him over in a blind, terrifying rush of sensation so strong he nearly blacked out.
When, gasping, he could open his eyes and look down, Tony had sat back on his heels. His face was almost meditative, but there was the hint of a smirk at the corner of his mouth and Steve's come splattered his neck and chest. There was a drop of it caught in the hairs of his beard, gleaming. Sliding down the wall, Steve reached out, and Tony came willingly into the space between his splayed legs. Holding Tony's face between his cupped hands Steve licked away that streak of his own come, and then could not but push his own mouth clumsily against Tony's own.
Tony was laughing. "Hold on," he said, "Gently first, Cap, see, like this-" His mouth against Steve's was hot and tender, soft as rabbit fur.
It was an intimacy Steve took, tilting Tony's head to his, the kiss gentle at first until Tony opened for him, and then the hot roil of Tony's tongue against his was not just pleasure but arousal. Steve was hardening again, just as he had done when he'd jerked himself off to Tony's image, and the insistent urge of his own cock reminded him that Tony had asked for nothing. He let his hands drop from Tony's face to his shoulders, and then over the strong rise of his chest to his hips. When Steve closed his right hand, unhesitating, over the heated, rigid line of Tony's cock, the shuddering gasp he won blazed through his skin. He had to see. He leaned back and opened his eyes, and was stunned by the hectic flush on Tony's cheeks and the bitten-red color of his mouth. For the first time, he understood why artists fought over and over again to capture their lovers in paint.
"Now is not the time to back out on me, Steve Rogers," said Tony.
Steve said, "Just looking. You're..." and then he said, daring, "Can we be naked? And on the bed?"
"That can be arranged," said Tony, but the way he staggered a little when he stood suggested he was almost as unsteady as Steve had been.
Steve knew how that went, now, and with a confidence he had not expected he took hold of Tony's undershirt and stripped it off. His fingers itched to circle and pet the arc reactor under it, to see if Tony's nipples were as sensitive as he had heard women's were, but he had a task to complete. Tony's overalls slid down in a stiff rush of dirty fabric. His engineer boots needed only to be held down whilst he stepped out of them, stumbling, one hand on Steve's shoulder, and it was easy to drag off his underwear and throw it aside. Easy to follow Tony's smile and his hands onto the bed.
Tony, naked, was gorgeous. Not in the way young men were, but in the way his life was written on his skin, hard muscles under his scarred skin. Tony carried the burns and bruises and welts of a man who earned his trade, and Steve wanted to pay his respects to each mark, but his hand was drawn irresistibly to the hard, reddened shaft of Tony's cock. It was both iron and velvet under his fingers, softly dry and slickly damp, a fascinating contradiction that he itched to touch. But Tony was groaning and pulling away.
"Babe, I can't-" he said, and then, "I don't want to come from a hand job." His voice was harsh, now, and when Steve looked up he could see Tony had bitten his lip.
Barrack room gossip had equipped Steve with the mechanics of what two men did together, but what he and Tony had done had felt so very different from that sniggered disgust he felt lost now. One of them would play the woman's part, but who? Steve had surrendered, but Tony had come into his hands as if he were lover rather than victor. Stumbling, ashamed, he said, "I don't know, I've never - Tony."
"I'm going to ride you, Captain," said Tony. "Watch." When he rolled over to struggle with the drawer of Steve's bedside cabinet, the curves of his ass were so elegantly rounded Steve had to palm the muscle under skin. Where his hands went, his mouth itched to follow. He was bending down when Tony pulled away.
"Save that thought," he said. "I'll take you up on it later. Here."
The flat packet in his hands was unfamiliar, but in context, obvious. Steve ripped the plastic apart and nearly dropped the slippery condom that fell into his hands. For the first time in his life, so very carefully, terrified he'd rip the latex skin of the thing, he rolled a condom over his cock.
"Pinch the top," Tony advised, a little breathless.
The skin was so thin every vein showed through the translucence of the plastic, and every touch of Steve's own fingers was a blurred, sharp sensation. He had to snatch his own hand away from the unfamiliar feel of his skin under latex, but when he looked up, he could not have moved a muscle.
Splayed on Steve's bed, Tony was opening his body with his fingers. Lubricant gleamed around the knuckles of his right hand, and on the furled, stretched skin of his ass. Sweat stippled his shoulders and his chest, and Tony was panting, his eyes almost closed. The way he looked - "Tony," Steve said helplessly, "Tony. Tony."
Tony's eyes cracked open. "What?"
Steve couldn't say anything. He leaned forward instead, let his fingers tangle with the thrust of Tony's own, and bent his forehead to Tony's belly. Licked up the line of Tony's cock, so hot under his tongue,
"Yeah, yeah," said Tony, and pushed Steve's face away. "Any time now would be good. Roll over, Cap." He was tugging at Steve's shoulder.
Obediently, Steve rolled to his back, blinking up as Tony crouched over him. Instinctively, he wrapped his hands around Tony's hips, steadying, as Tony leaned back and wrapped his hand around Steve's cock.
"Don't move. This might - take a moment," he said, and then his mouth snapped shut and his head went back.
It took everything Steve had not to thrust up into the viciously tight heat of Tony's body. The veins on Tony's neck were standing out and his hand on Steve's ribs was a white-knuckled fist, but every gasp Tony took eased him further onto Steve's cock in breathtaking snatches of sensation. "Do not move," he hissed, "Don't fucking move."
Steve had to let go of Tony's hips and wrap his hands around the bars of the headboard. Shut his eyes, force the thrust of his hips into a slow squirm that still made Tony pant and hiss, brace his toes against the disordered mess of the eiderdown and bite his lip. Only Steve's own will kept his strength at bay for the sweating minutes it took Tony to open up for Steve's cock, and it was badly frayed. Worse when Tony eased up, shuddered, rocked down, looser, changed his stance by three millimetres and ran his own hand over his cock in an inelegant, grasping stroke as if he was almost unaware he was on display. It was an intimacy that burned through every image of Tony Steve had ever watched.
"Tell me I can move," Steve begged, and barely recognized his own voice, it was so hoarse.
He could feel Tony's muscles contract from the inside out when Tony took a breath and held it, then let it go. "Gently," Tony said.
Steve swore, and suddenly the vise of pressure around his cock loosened as Tony snorted in amusement. "If I'd known that was all it would take-" he said.
His hands back on Tony's skin, Steve rolled them both into a breathtaking thrust. Halfway through, Tony grasped the idea and threw his own strength into the rhythm, a breaking tug and heave that went far faster than Steve expected. He hissed, Tony gasped, and then Tony's weight slammed down on his in an electrifying surge. And again. The rhythm of it was almost violent, and at the same time, Steve, grabbing for leverage, caught at Tony's hand and found their strength matched in the intimate squeeze of Tony's fingers.
"This - isn't going to - last," Tony managed, his chest flushed red around the lights of the arc reactor and his eyes so dark they were almost black, sweat sparkling in his beard and on his shoulders.
"I don't care," panted Steve, dragging his feet up onto the bed for a better angle.
Tony said a bitten off "Cap," that was nearly a groan. Seconds later his cock bobbed and spat, Tony coming, one hand splayed wide and the other, luxurious, obscene, unselfconscious, milking his own come.
The image floored Steve. He was gone himself, coming, absolutely out of control, dragging Tony down to feel every last sensation, thrusting, Tony's come between them as hot as molten steel, Tony's mouth open under his, Tony's back so strongly arched under Steve's hands he felt he held a wild and magical creature in his hands, a firebird -
He bit the scream that marked his orgasm into Tony's shoulder, but he could not escape the soft black wave of sleep which drew them apart.
Minutes later the serum woke him, drowsy but himself again, but Tony had already slipped from his hands. Steve rolled his head on the pillow, and then had to lean up on his elbows.
"Well," said Tony quietly. "Well, that was something, huh."
Flopped sideways on the bed, he was staring at the ceiling, all his sharp angles and edges softened and at peace. His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed, and one hand twitched, groping, tweaking at the rumpled sheet. Caught in the dark hairs of his belly, his own come gleamed, sticky and viscous. There was a reddening mark on his hips that would bruise, and another on his shoulder, where Steve had held him down at the end. When he had known nothing but the feel of Tony's body around his, the heat and softness and strength of him where Steve had been steel hard.
He might have to apologize for that, later.
There was a trickle of liquid on Tony's inner thigh, thick and slow. Come. Steve's. He must have careless stripping the condom off, but his hands had been shaking. Fascinated, possessive, Steve put out a hand to chase the path of it, and felt his body start to respond so quickly he had to duck his head before Tony read his face.
Tony cleared his throat.
"Guess I'd better..." He was shifting on the bed, trying to get up, his face sharpening, blinking. His right hand was patting over the sheets now, searching for the tablet.
Steve might have won the battle, but he had not won the war. He rolled up onto his knees, shoved Tony's leg over his shoulder and took a firm grip of his ass. Eyes wide, Tony stared up at him, flush on his cheekbones, silent. Then he nodded, once, short and sharp as a command. Just as if he hadn't come five minutes ago, Steve was stiff with need all over again, aching with it, and it took all his concentration to unroll the condom Tony shoved into his hand. Then, Tony was still so wet and open that the thrust that should have been gentle punched home harder than he meant it to be. But Tony's whole body arched up under Steve's hands; his head went back, eyes closed; his toes curled.
"Ah," he said, "That's, fuck, Steve, don't do that to me, you're killing me here, that's not-"
Tony's eyes snapped open. "Carry on," he said.
Afterwards, Tony slept in Steve's arms, utterly relaxed, the weight of him as warm and comforting as the blankets of Steve's childhood bed had been. His chin buried in Tony's hair, his hands, still, on Tony's back, Steve kept watch until the moon had crossed through the top panes of his windows and the sky had begun to lighten. He would not have woken Tony before dawn for anything less than a call to arms.
It was the last day, the last chance Tony had to rescue everything he had worked for, the last day before Steve might have to stand with Fury and bring down his own country.
The last few hours. Steve sighed, almost soundless, and let his thumb describe the lightest of caresses against Tony's skin.
"Sir?" said Jarvis, his voice so low-pitched it was almost diffident.
"Should I wake him?" asked Steve, equally quietly, waiting for the flush of shame to curl over his skin, because Jarvis must know what they'd done, he and Tony.
It didn't come.
"I am actually asleep," muttered Tony, and his hand tightened on Steve's arm. "Seriously."
Steve smiled down at the top of Tony's head.
"Sir, you asked me to alert you should traces of radioactivity in Commander Rogers' room exceed background levels," said Jarvis. "This is now the case."
"What?" Tony was struggling up, the sheet slipping back, his eyes still closed but his hands already reaching for the tablet he'd lost in the sheets and Steve had slid carefully under the bed. "Steve." He snapped his fingers.
Tony's hair was on end, and the bruise on his shoulder that was Steve's mark on his skin had darkened. The hand that wasn't reaching for the tablet was still fastened around Steve's bicep, and although Tony was sitting up, the sheet pooled around his waist, his thighs were tucked against Steve's. And there was a single trace of dried come on his chest, just below the surreal, beautiful light of the arc reactor that kept Tony alive.
"Jarvis. Full scan. Now."
Steve rubbed his thumb over that trace, but it flaked away under his touch.
"I knew it," said Tony, and opened his eyes. "You're a romantic, Commander Rogers."
"You're..." Steve shook his head, let his fingers do the talking, cupped Tony's cheek in his hand and let the tiny, sharp hairs of Tony's beard grate against his palm.
"Yeah yeah, a damn good lay," said Tony. "Jarvis."
Steve firmed his grip. "That's not what I said," he said, and held Tony's eyes for a moment. Then he leaned down and dragged out the tablet. "Here."
But Tony was looking away. When he looked back, his eyelashes were down, but there was a heartbeat's wait before he reached for the tablet. "'Kay," he said, and ran his fingers over the screen. "What the...how did I miss this? Trace, trace, what's the isotope analysis? I'm not Banner, Jarvis, take it down to the base for me, yeah, come on - crap. Gamma." He was flinging himself off the bed, backing up to the wall. "That's how he did it, the sniveling pustule." He was staring down at the screen. Then he looked up, his face utterly drawn. "Decon, Cap, now. And don't come back in here. Clothes too, there's spares for you in the lockers. Take the suit with you, Jarvis will tell you where to put it. And don't-"
His hand halfway to Tony's shoulder, Steve frowned.
"Don't touch me," said Tony. "Please." He slid down the wall, the tablet still clutched in his hands, glaring. "Just go."
Jarvis had the doors open and the showers already running. There was a new machine Steve bundled his suit into, and a set of lockers on the other side of the washroom with his own clothes waiting for him, once Jarvis hit the green light. He dressed fast.
"Jarvis, where is he?"
"Mr. Stark is in his workshop," said Jarvis.
Steve came three centimeters away from punching his fist through the wall. "Still? Now?" The door slammed behind him, he was taking the steps two at a time.
"As a consequence of the fluctuation in radiation levels," Jarvis said, "Mr. Stark is engaged in a new area of investigation which appears to offer a promising solution to our mutual problem." He paused. "Should radiation levels in the workshop exceed common safety parameters, or Mr. Stark's personal safety become threatened, I am empowered to allow you access. This is not the case at present."
Steve slowed. "So the radiation you found in my room - that was Tony?"
"Yes," said Jarvis.
"From Hammer's machines," said Steve.
"We believe so," said Jarvis.
"So Hammer-" Steve said, and then, "Hell."
Justin Hammer was standing on the checkered tiles of their front hall. He was not alone. Standing at his side was the Minister of the Interior, smiling faintly, and behind both were a group of men in suits, unsmiling, with briefcases.
"Tell him I'll save his ass," said Hammer. "I've got an offer on the table he can't refuse. The shareholders will jump at it. Stammer Industries. We can change the world, my brain, his...inventions. I've got the paperwork right here. All he needs to do is sign."
"I am CEO of Stark Industries," said Pepper, "And I will not make deals with you."
Clint was on the balcony, bow in his hands. Natasha was poised at Pepper's shoulder. Flanking, Steve moved to cover the doors to the workshop.
"You're nothing but a jumped-up secretary and everyone knows it," said Hammer. "Get me Stark."
"I don't think so," said Pepper. "I think you should leave."
"You stupid bitch," Hammer said, unaware that Clint had notched his arrow to the string and Steve's hand had tightened on the straps of his shield, although it was Natasha he should fear most. "I own your shareholders. If I'm prepared to offer Stark the courtesy of a role in the handover, he should be licking my boots, not hiding his stupid face-"
The Minister coughed.
Hammer said, "Although of course Stark's history of effective military solutions almost guarantees Hammertech would welcome his input."
Pepper said nothing, but all the cameras Steve could see were focused on Hammer.
"Miss Potts," Justin Hammer said, "You don't understand me. This is a done deal. Given the implications for national security of allowing Stark Industries research to become available on the open market, our friends in the Kremlin have been prepared to make a very generous offer. Legislation will go before the Duma this afternoon."
"That's illegal," said Pepper, although her face was pale.
"I think you'll find it's not," said Justin Hammer, and smiled. "Now, be a good girl, will you, and take us to Stark. We have a press conference at noon." He was still smiling.
Then his phone rang. "Killing in the name of," it bellowed. Hammer was fumbling in his pockets. "And now you do what they told ya, now you do-"
"I turned it off! That's not my ringtone!" Hammer hissed, nearly dropping his cellphone before he fumbled it open. "Justin. What is it?"
"Right," he said. "Yes. Yes of course Mr.-"
Natasha was tapping Pepper on the shoulder.
"You won't regret this-" Hammer said, and then pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at it, puzzled. "He hung up."
"Tony will see you now," said Pepper, walking to the doors. She smiled.
The elevator was waiting. Seven of them inside was a crush, and the two bodyguards squeezed into a corner, but the Minister was still brushing uneasily at his jacket sleeve when they walked to the doors of the workshop. Justin Hammer's eyes were everywhere - the ceiling, the machines, the displays - but the Minister tugged uneasily at his collar. Steve was relieved to see the alcove where the Iron Man armor was stored in darkness, but the rest of the workshop was almost brutally lit, and Tony's work tables and desks were aggressively clean. The music was mute, and all his screens were blanked out, even the main screen with the feeds from the house cameras. Tony himself was standing at the closed glass door, waiting. He nodded, but the door did not open.
"Tony!" exclaimed Justin Hammer. "My dear chap-"
Tony looked at him. Then at Pepper. On the desk behind him was a fusionchip laptop, gutted. Tony pointed at it, then at Hammer.
"What?" said Hammer. "What is he-"
Then Tony held up a sign. It read, 'Don't come in.' He let it fall.
On the next sign, in black, was the three-armed symbol for radiation.
Even Steve knew that one.
"Is he saying that thing is radioactive?" asked the Minister, stepping back.
"Yes," said Natasha.
Glancing at her, Hammer pulled his glasses from his pocket, polishing them absently with his silk handkerchief. He was staring at the laptop.
"I'm not sure that's-" said Pepper, as the Minister turned smartly towards the elevator. "Exactly what-"
"Get me out of here," said the Minister. "Now!"
"He meant?" said Pepper.
"I can explain," said Hammer. "It's perfectly safe. All the predictions were optimistic. The half-life of the coating alone is-"
"Wanker," read Tony's next sign.
Justin Hammer choked. He went red, an ugly, blotched flush, he put his glasses on again and snatched them off, bunched his hand into a fist and drew it back -
"I wouldn't," Steve warned, his hand firmly around Justin Hammer's wrist.
"And you, you're nothing but a failed experiment," hissed Hammer.
"The Minister's waiting," said Steve, although most of him wanted to see Hammer struggle and fail to break his grip. He let go instead, and watched Hammer half-run to the closing doors.
"Sir!" he was saying. "I can explain!"
The doors closed. Steve turned back to the workshop. "How bad is it?" he asked quietly, his hand splayed on the glass.
Tony said, "Stay with Pepper, please."
"You know I will," said Steve. He looked back, and the elevator lights were on, the servos running. "Tony."
"Trust me," Tony said, and for the briefest of moments his hand was flat against Steve's, on the other side of the glass. Then he was turning back to the worktable, and the elevator doors were opening.
When Steve got up to the hall the Minister was already dragging Hammer to the waiting BMW. "You promised me there would be no bad publicity," he was saying.
"I can assure you-" said Hammer, ducking into the back seat. "I know what-"
"Press conference at noon!" said Pepper cheerfully, hand on the car door. "Don't be late! We'll be there!" She slammed it shut. Justin Hammer's tie, caught outside, fluttered as the car sped away.
"Now," she said, smiling. "Where do we need to be?"
The press conference was on the steps of the Kremlin.
Hammer's team had prepared thoroughly. There were banners on the lampposts and the crowd were waving professionally printed signs. Leaflets scattered the pavement, and overhead a Hammertech helicopter hovered and wheeled, a photographer leaning out of the open doors. Security was military and obvious, armored cars and soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs patrolling the borders of the square, while the Minister and Hammer himself were surrounded by bodyguards.
"Tony's cutting it fine," muttered Pepper.
At her shoulder, in uniform, Steve said, "He'll be here." But he was beginning to worry, himself. The Minister and Hammer appeared to be arguing about who took the microphone first. Both of them had sheaves of notes. Below the steps, a crowd of photographers and reporters were already filming. There was a second helicopter circling now, with 'CNN' painted in white letters on the undercarriage.
Steve tapped his comm unit and looked up. He could see the top of Clint's bow wave in acknowledgement and Natasha, among the photographers, flashed a camera at him. He'd even seen Coulson standing in the group of functionaries behind the minister, so anonymous in his grey suit the man could have been working at the Kremlin for all of his life.
Whatever happened, they were in it together.
The microphone crackled. Hammer had won the argument.
"Citizens of our great country!" he said. "It is my very great pleasure to announce today the merger of two great industrial giants. From this moment onwards, walking hand in hand into the future, Hammertech and-"
The microphone screeched, and went silent.
"Huh?" said Hammer, and tapped it. "Hammertech and - somebody fix this thing, now. Now!"
Already one of the secretaries was running forward with another microphone. But Steve could already hear the rumble of music, and when he looked up, Iron Man was falling from the sky. Feet down, arms wide, showy as a circus ringmaster with every repulsar glowing and the enamel gleaming in the afternoon sun.
Iron Man landed right in front of Hammer's nose.
"I always think the best parties are the ones you crash," his speakers announced, over the screams of the crowd. "Hello, Moscow!"
The crowd roared back at him, but Justin Hammer was shaking the microphone and trying to push past Iron Man's wide-legged, arms spread stance. He was failing.
"Are we having a good time yet?" said Iron Man. "Do you want me to make it better?" Not accidentally, he elbowed Hammer in the diaphragm. The man choked, bent over, and one of his aides patted him ineffectually on the back.
"Oh, Tony," groaned Pepper.
"Because I have some good news for you," said Iron Man, and even through the cranked-up echo of the amplification Steve knew Tony was smiling. "Justin Hammer and I have come here to today to announce that - Captain?" Iron Man said, turning around, "Tell me the suit's holding up, will ya? The radiation levels in here are steaming."
"Nod and smile," Coulson hissed, at Steve's elbow.
Spotlit by every camera, Steve did.
"Just checking," said Iron Man, and turned back to the crowd. "Oops," he said. "Didn't mean you to hear that. But are you ready for this?" He waited, but the crowd was beginning to mutter. One or two of the placards dipped. "I am delighted to announce," said Iron Man, "That Hammertech have agreed to offer a full refund on every fusionchip product shown to be radioactive! Justin Hammer himself would like you to know that every effort is being made to secure your personal safety. Just take your laptop or phone back to your retailer, where specially trained Stark Industries operatives are waiting to make your product safe." He paused. "Hammer fucked up," he added. "But he's actually really sorry."
Pepper had her head in her hands. Hammer was creeping backwards, not looking at the Minister, his shoulders hunched and his head down.
"Now I know you came here to hear the man himself," Iron Man began, but already people were beginning to shove back from the steps, and the rumble of their voices was rising. "Don't panic," Iron Man said. "Any trace of radiation is minimal at this point in time, before the plastic coating decays."
Steve could hear the wail of a small child. He spoke, just softly enough to the comm to pick up. "Coulson."
"On it," said Coulson, and around the square the soldiers had shouldered their guns and were beginning to hustle people away, making space for the crowd to flee.
Stepping forward, Steve touched Iron Man's shoulder. "Can you make the mike work?" he asked. "Let's get people out of here safely."
Iron Man looked at him, head tilted, then nodded. "All yours, Cap." He stepped back.
Steve tapped the microphone. Then he said, "For your own safety, please walk slowly. Passageways to the Metro stations are clear. Don't run. If you are having difficulties leaving the area, our soldiers - that's the 14th Guards, our own Moscow regiment - are here to assist. I repeat, please do not run. Precautions for your safety are already in place."
Natasha had already slipped into the crowd, and around her people were already slowing. Whatever she was saying, it worked. The small child had been reclaimed by her mother. Gradually, the crowd dissipated, leaving only discarded placards and leaflets fluttering in the breeze.
The press were more persistent. When Steve stepped back from the microphone, voice hoarse, they surged forward.
"Mr. Stark!" he heard. "Iron Man! Tony! Over here! Tony!" and also, bemused, "Captain! Captain America!" They were waving microphones, setting off camera flashes, shouting, far more aggressive than the journalists and photographers Steve worked with during the war.
"My turn," muttered Iron Man, and then said, "As I'm sure you've realized, there's a lot of work to do to be sure everyone who has purchased a fusionchip is protected and reimbursed. Stark Industries will be putting every resource available into this project. My CEO, Miss Potts, will be having a press conference later today to be sure you know exactly what issues are involved and how Stark Industries are working with Hammertech and our Kremlin counterparts to minimize disruption." He paused. "Don't get on a plane today, folks."
"Tony," Pepper wailed silently into her hands. "Tony!"
"That's it," Iron Man said. "Unless - oh, no, he's gone. Guess you won't be hearing from Justin Hammer today after all."
Even the press laughed.
Steve wasn't laughing, though. He hissed, "I need to talk to you. Now."
"What?" asked Iron Man. Tony's face was unreadable under the mask.
"How radioactive are you?" said Steve, urgently.
"Er," said Iron Man.
"Iron Man, go home," said Steve. "Please. And do whatever it is you need to do to get clean."
"Sweet of you to care," muttered Iron Man.
"Now," said Steve. "You did a great job. But we can't lose you from this team."
"Captain's right," said Clint, over the comms.
"Tony," Steve said, very quietly.
"Fine," said Iron Man. His take-off was almost discreet.
Steve, rushing Pepper to the waiting Stark town car, cupped a hand around his comm unit. "Jarvis?" he asked. "Can you explain the implications of continual exposure to radioactivity?"
How Coulson managed it Steve would never know, but he was waiting on the steps to the house when the car pulled up. This was Plan C, the one where Tony won and somehow, the team pulled Stark Industries, its scientists and military technologies, its manufacturing plants and laboratories, back into functioning. Their plans had been long term. Tony's announcement had crushed Hammertech - shares were being offloaded so fast Hong Kong had already closed the stock exchange - but Stark Industries, beleaguered and underfunded, was going to have to pick up the pieces. Now.
"Phil," Pepper said, and smiled, a little shakily. "Glad you're here."
There was a new switchboard, eight SHIELD staffers in the library with a bank of computers - Starktech - and a screen in the study that listed every industrial waste disposal site and laboratory in Russia. Clint already had the maps spread out on the table he'd dragged in from the hallway. The Kremlin was on the phone - so were Reuters. Pepper took the press, Natasha took comms, Coulson and Steve logistics. One of the anonymous SHIELD staffers had a hotline to the Kremlin, liaising with the Ministry of the Interior and, from the little Steve heard, calling the shots.
But it was when Tony skidded into the room that the campaign really wound into action. Tony had it all at the tips of his fingers, information, contacts, priorities, solution after solution ticked off and actioned. There were retired scientists from the old Soviet nuclear program and first year grad students suiting up in hasty decontamination labs all over Russia. There was a site in Calcutta, another in Chicago, one in Manila. Adverts went into every major newspaper, e-mails to every major retailer. Tony signed off on millions in minutes without even blinking, and suddenly the investment banks were calling him, offering short term loans and financial assistance. Hammer's head of R&D arrived in a SHIELD car with his laptop, promptly confiscated, gutted of all its data, and removed. Denuded, he sat at the edge of the library, white, the focus of Clint's barked queries and Pepper's pitying gaze. Justin Hammer himself was nowhere to be found, but Hammertech had been destroyed.
By midafternoon, they'd moved onto containment for all the government agencies affected. Tony had already rushed the production lines for Starktech into motion, but all the old systems had been destroyed, and the Kremlin's demands were almost impossible. Hammertech had equipped the hospitals, schools, universities, the police, the fire brigade, the security forces - the list went on.
"No," Tony yelled down the phone, "You do not prioritize your campaign office over people who are actually dying, do you hear me, Minister-"
"Stark, put that phone down," Colonel Fury said, from the doorway.
"Crap," said Tony, and did. "I think this is where you earn your retainer," he said quietly to Steve, watching Fury walk towards them.
"I heard that," said Fury. "At least Commander Rogers is military. Stark, you wouldn't understand chain of command if it bit you on the ass. Pass over that phone. I'll need a laptop. And Romanoff. And don't call anyone else, ever, with a government e-mail address. You hear me?"
"Yes," said Tony.
"Get your factories back on line," said Fury. "I'll deal with the Kremlin."
By evening, almost every contingency plan they had discussed was in force. Even Pepper's phone was silent, although Steve suspected Natasha of blocking the signal after Fox News had called and Pepper ended the call shaking. Jarvis had ordered in, and decimated trays of sandwiches decorated the sideboards and the kitchen table. Tony was on his thirteenth espresso. Coulson was tirelessly churning out background checks for Stark HR - Tony seemed to have employed half the suddenly devastated Hammertech staff - and keeping track of every single financial transaction at the same time, paperwork flashing across his screen. Fury, imperturbable, was videoconferencing someone in a NATO uniform. Steve, liaising with all the managers and security staff he, Clint and Coulson had worked with during the last week, had just finished reassuring the Nairobi site manager that indeed, production should not only restart, but double. That was the very last site on his list, and although the Chad refinery was devastated, the cleanup crew was already mid-flight.
"Jarvis," Tony said quietly, standing up. "What's our share price?"
"Twenty-seven rubles above last week's average," said Jarvis, and flashed the figures onto the main screen. "And holding steady. None of our major shareholders have sold. In fact, Lloyds, Price Waterhouse Cooper and the Royal Dubai have been buying."
"Thank you," said Tony, and sat down, a little abruptly. "Guys," he said. "I think we won."
They left Stark Industries' second shift and SHIELD's staffers with the last of the cleanup, and raided Tony's fridge for vodka and anything edible. Steve could have sworn Clint made cheese and beetroot sandwiches, but Natasha was handing out hastily warmed blintz and sturgeon's roe gouged out of the jar, and Pepper was passing out plates and napkins, and Steve was suddenly starving.
It was only after he'd eaten that he realized Tony wasn't there.
Silently, Jarvis opened the elevator doors for him. Steve wasn't surprised to see the workshop lit, but Tony was standing, not at his desks, but outside the glass door. Inside the workshop everything was damp, faintly steaming, as if the sprinklers had gone off. There was no paperwork, the screen had vanished, the desks, Tony's robots, the armor - there was nothing left but bare walls and fittings.
"You had to clear out the lab," Steve said.
Tony must have showered again. His hair was still damp, and he was wearing a red silk robe, belted loosely, his hands in the pockets and his head leaning back against the door. He'd turned around when Steve walked out of the elevator, but he was not smiling. "Decontamination," he said. "Lucky I... This area was shielded."
"It'll be fine. Jarvis is working on it. And your bike. My 'bots." Tony's voice was so tired it was almost monotone, as if, the moment he did not have to carry the weight of Stark Industries' survival, he could finally rest.
"What about you?" Steve asked.
"I've been through decon twice now," said Tony. "I think I'll be fine. Look. Cap, I'm-" He looked across at Steve's face. "I should have done better."
"What the hell?" asked Steve. "Tony? What?"
"You had your cock in my ass, Cap, and I would have redlined a Geiger counter at that point," Tony said bluntly.
Steve blinked. He said, carefully, "That wasn't my first concern."
"Maybe it should have been," said Tony.
"I'm more worried about the fact that Jarvis only picked up the radiation in my room," said Steve. "Did you turn off the monitors down here?"
Tony shrugged. "They kept going off," he said.
"Right," said Steve, thought, and then nearly spat out, "So it was more important that you saved Stark Industries than yourself? Suppose - Tony, what if we hadn't-"
"I have over three thousand employees," said Tony. "The best scientists, the best - people - have you met Hammer? Would you trust him with a guinea pig? And if I go down, SHIELD goes down with me. The only reason Fury gets to do what he does is because I'm the one funding him. Without me - without Stark Industries - SHIELD's just another cog in the military machine. They'll be part of the Spatsnaz before you can blink, and where does that leave Russia next time the aliens come calling? Steve, I had to."
"I don't think you're listening to me," Steve said. He was close enough now to see the way the lines at the corner of Tony's eyes had deepened.
"I think I can hear you just fine," said Tony.
"Right," Steve said. "Then hear this, genius. You never, never risk yourself like this again. Ever. You hear me? And next time this happens, Stark, you do not just vanish into your lab for a week. You talk to us. Talk to me."
"And you were so upfront with me about Plan B," said Tony.
Steve said, "Jarvis heard every word."
"Point," said Tony, and then, "Hang fire there, Cap. Am I misreading this? Did you pull that clause-in-the-contract shit to keep me out of the lab to sleep?"
"Yes," said Steve. "You-"
"Who do you think you are?" said Tony.
"The man who had his cock in your ass last night," said Steve, deadpan.
For a moment, he thought he'd called his shot wrong, but then Tony started to smile. He shook his head. "Okay," he said. "Okay, Cap. Good one. You got me there."
"You slept," said Steve.
"I know," said Tony. "Not one of my best morning-after-the-night-befores, though."
"You can do better," agreed Steve.
Tony let his eyes drift, then, from Steve's bare head to the tips of his boots. Slow and obvious enough for Steve to object, if he'd wanted to, but he didn't. "Tell me if I'm reading this wrong," Tony said, and his smile was beginning to take on a wicked, gleeful slant. "But, you know I'm naked under here, right?" His eyebrows waggled. "And you're standing awfully close for a straight guy, Cap. A man might get the wrong idea."
Steve choked. But he didn't step back.
"So. You wanna go there again? This one's on you," Tony said softly. "Wanna play?"
Steve pushed off the glass with one hand. The other was already undoing Tony's belt, although Steve at least managed to keep his boots on his feet until they made it upstairs.
In the morning, for the first time in this new century, Steve woke and felt at home. His bed was warm, disarrayed but not uncomfortably so, and his body felt loose and relaxed. He was alone, but the pillow next to his was dented and he could hear the whirr of Tony's electric shaver from the bathroom. Two mugs of coffee sat on his bedside table, one mostly drunk, and beside them Tony's tablet was running schematics on what looked like a new version of the armor.
He'd made a radical miscalculation of how far Tony would go to protect the people he cared about. His team. His country. Tony Stark was a good man, Steve thought, and sat up in bed, reaching for his coffee. Irritating, most of the time. Vain. Egotistic. A genius. Unexpectedly limber. Unexpectedly affectionate, off guard and nearly asleep, burying his nose in the crook of Steve's arm and tangling their knees.
Steve was smiling into his coffee.
"What?" said Tony. He was leaning against the bathroom door, a smudge of shaving cream on his cheek, stark naked and brazen. Comrades, Tony Stark, playboy.
"Nothing," Steve said. "Thank you." He tilted the coffee mug at Tony's wry grin.
"Thank Jarvis," Tony said. "He sent Clint up with a tray. Cat's out the bag, Captain. Do you mind?"
"No," Steve said, and took another mouthful of coffee. Jarvis had spiked it with some kind of spice. Cardamom, perhaps. "I don't."
Justin Hammer issued a statement from an undisclosed location that was bitter, vindictive, and utterly unapologetic. The Kremlin issued a warrant for his arrest, and a class action suit was filed in Washington, but Hammer had vanished. Fueled by contracts from every government department Hammer had switched to fusionchip, Stark Industries took on half the redundant Hammertech staff and found jobs for hundreds more. Pepper made the cover of Forbes: Tony made the cover of Playgirl. Again.
Steve learned to sleep naked, and grew accustomed to the shift of the mattress as Tony clambered into bed in the early hours of the morning. Jarvis bought him a coffee maker with a timer. Clint laughed himself nearly sick, but Pepper took one look at Steve's face and gave him the most excruciatingly embarrassing hug of his life. Coulson flew back to his meteor strike in Tunguska and Fury, to everyone's relief, went back to SHIELD. A samovar appeared in Tony's kitchen that had once belonged to Natasha's grandmother, and while no one else dared lay a finger on the battered silver, they all knew what it meant.
It took two days to decontaminate the workshop and three more for Tony to set it up again exactly the way he wanted. The renovations would have taken less time, but the team spent a wet afternoon wrestling a giant electric eel from the Don. Then there was the witch holed up in the Ural Mountains, making weather soup out of climber's bones and ptarmigan feathers, the devastated swath through Sayanogorsk Natasha called them in to clean up and refused to discuss, and the pink whale that surfaced in the harbor at Magadan. Steve picked up casual art tutoring when he had time, and polished his engine cases and his wheel rims watching Tony work.
There were no more starlets in Tony's bed, but Steve had almost finished the detailing on his mudguards when Tony barred him from the workshop. "It's just for a couple of days," Tony said earnestly, eyes wide and slipping sideways under Steve's frown.
It was a week. Then two. Iron Man still flew every mission to which they were called. Tony still crawled, damp, cold and later every night, into Steve's bed. "There's a meeting in Shanghai he has to attend," Pepper said. "Steve. Can you...?"
"Of course," Steve said, and put down his sketchbook.
Jarvis let him into the elevator, but Tony had the workshop windows blacked out and there was no music. It wasn't the first time. Steve had let himself in once or twice and found Tony napping on the new couch, and when he rapped on the door there was no answer. Tony had not come to bed, either. Frowning, Steve tapped in his access codes.
But when the door opened, Tony's worktables told their own story. On them, in various states of dismemberment, sat five Stark laptops. Next to them, a stack of crumpled, waterstained papers, rocks laid out on glass dishes with paper labels, some with Chinese characters. A group of circuit boards, wired, a group of motherboards, so very familiar to Steve now after the Hammertech collapse, although these were Starktech, and the glass boxes they were in, the air scrubbers and the decontaminant chemicals, were also horrifyingly recognizable. Steve stared, his heart sinking. Then he looked around.
Tony had a miniature smelting furnace contained in exactly the same kind of safety chamber, and he was wearing the armor, visor down.
"How much radiation am I exposed to?" Steve asked evenly, although he could feel anger begin to flush his skin and curl into his fists.
Tony put the visor up. "You're safe for twenty minutes," he said, and did not move.
"And this is what I think it is," said Steve.
Tony hesitated. "Yes," he said.
"You fool," said Steve, hands on his hips. "You stupid, crapulous idiot. What is this, some kind of pissing contest? Anything Hammer can do, you can do better? Were you planning on telling anyone before you put these up for sale?" He stabbed his finger at the isolated motherboards.
"You don't understand," said Tony. "Fusionchip was a piece of crap. Steve, these are so much better. I've already doubled the processor speed, I can show you the figures. And the costs will be cut by half if I can size up production-"
"It's not about cost!" said Steve. "It's about protecting people! Tony, you're standing there in the suit with the air scrubbers going full blast and talking about processor speed? How deluded are you? This is crazy!"
"This is the biggest innovation Stark Industries will ever launch," said Tony, chin thrust forward, mouth thin, eyes narrowed. "This year," he added.
"This is not about money!" Steve yelled. "This is about keeping people safe!"
"My chip will be safe," Tony hissed.
"Sometimes I wonder if you're really Russian," muttered Steve.
"What, the vodka and the jokes didn't clue you in?" said Tony, glaring. "Every damn centimeter, baby. You should know."
"What part of you?" shouted Steve. "Your shoes are Italian, your suits are English, your factories are all over the world, you have a house in London and a flat in New York-"
"Condominium," hissed Tony.
"The only thing we have in common is our language, and sometimes I wonder about that!" Steve shouted. He could have Tony on the ropes, he knew it, but he wasn't going to throw punches at the man who shared his bed.
"Is that what you really think?" said Tony. "You think I'd betray everything I worked for - my own country? My people? Fuck you," he said. "Fuck. You."
"I don't think you understand what you're doing," said Steve, stung, every word a repressed blow.
Tony stuck two fingers up at him, arc lights glinting off the metal, and snapped the visor down. It was Iron Man's voice which said, "Out."
spun on his heel, walked into the elevator, and out of the front door.
We were born
to make fairy tales come true
To conquer distances and space
Reason gave us steel wings for arms
And a flaming motor for a heart
of the Aviators (1920)
"You are batshit insane," said Clint.
He was making his point with the fork he'd been using to toy with the unidentifiable meat on his tray. Steve, accustomed to army rations, had already managed most of his own lunch and was using the stale rye bread to mop up the last of the gravy.
"Look at this place," said Clint, gesturing at the bare, windowless walls and steel tables, the subdued groups of SHIELD staffers and the sullen catering staff standing guard over aluminum canteens of soup and potatoes. "Are you honestly going to tell me that living here tops Stark House?"
Steve glanced up.
"Fine, right, I get it," Clint said. "But I think you're making one hell of a mistake, big guy." He let the fork clatter onto the tray and pushed it aside, leaning forward. "I'd rather take it up the ass from Tony than our great leader any day."
"I'm sure he'd appreciate the thought," said Steve, and swallowed his last mouthful of bread. He was always hungry these days, a low-grade ache in his belly he had forgotten was normal, but SHIELD rations were carefully husbanded and he was not going to request extra.
"Right," said Clint. "That's a three line memo from Coulson - hey, Phil!" he said, waving at the camera in the corner of the room. "Interpersonal relations: staff are reminded-"
"Clint," said Steve.
"Fine," said Clint, and rocked his chair backwards. "C'mon, Cap. We miss you. Even Tasha's sulking. It's just not the same without your ugly mug."
"Thanks for stopping by," said Steve, and dragged up a smile.
"Kinda forgotten what you look like in civvies," said Clint.
He'd walked out of Stark House with nothing but his suit and his shield, but SHIELD's commissary had issued him not only two uniforms, but a set of sweats and a couple of changes of underwear. Three months of Stark's housekeepers had left him craving the touch of clean clothes; Steve was washing out his socks and boxers every night. He had a room to himself and use of a shared shower block, and if he ever regretted, forcing reluctant suds out of the hard yellow soap, the ridiculous luxury of Stark's shower gel and shampoo, it was a thought he did his best to ignore. He was in the army, and lucky to have what he did. Other people had it far, far worse.
"Jarvis would send over your clothes if you asked," said Clint. "And I have something for you."
The tablet he put on the table was sleek and black, a little bigger than the one Jarvis had found for Steve on that first day. There was no logo on the case, but Tony's fingerprints were all over the thing.
"Mission ready," said Clint. "We've all got one. Just put your thumb on the screen and stare at it, there's a print and retina check."
"Tell Tony thanks," said Steve, his shoulders tightening.
"Tell him yourself," Clint retorted. He stood up. "Come over. Hang out. Kick the shit out of him if it makes you feel better, no one's gonna object, the guy's been an ass since you left. Seriously Steve, I spent five years in this place and I don't think anyone said anything to me but Agent Barton, disciplinary the whole time. You don't have to live here to do whatever it is Fury's got you doing."
"Training," said Steve. His fingers hesitated above the blank screen.
"What else, Grandpa," said Clint, and pushed his chair back under the table. "This place makes my skin itch," he said. "Always did."
"You don't have to stay," said Steve, and managed another smile.
"Fuck that," said Clint. "We're hitting the gym, and then I'm talking you through that thing. Jarvis gave me a list of shit he wants you to know and Tasha sent macaroons. Get your stuff, I'll meet you on the mats."
When Steve logged on to the tablet, he was sitting on his bed, head bent and screen tilted at exactly the right angle to hide what he was doing from the two ceiling cameras. He'd expected anything from Tony's face to the kind of pornography he'd had to delete from his Starkphone, but all he found was a menu listing every mission they'd ever completed. Curious, he clicked the first link, and watched his team battle the Lake Svyatoe tar monster from Iron Man's point of view; Tony must have had cameras on the armor. Watching, he could see now how much they'd improved over the last few weeks, but there were still obvious weaknesses in their strategy he recognized.
"Jarvis-" Steve said out loud, just as if he could still make notes by speaking.
'Commander Rogers,' scrolled across the screen. 'May I suggest, under the circumstances, written rather than verbal commands?'
Steve closed his eyes for a second, but when he opened them, the flashing cursor was still waiting, a little blurred. When his vision had cleared, he put his hands to the keyboard at the bottom of the screen. He could type with two fingers now. He did.
'Notes,' he wrote. 'Svyatoe 04. Jarvis, would you bulletpoint these for me?'
'Of course,' said Jarvis. 'This is a private network, Captain, independent of the SHIELD servers. Rest assured your commentary will remain secure.'
'Thank you,' wrote Steve, and pulled together a series of options for training maneuvers and combat strategies he did not know if he was ever going to be able to discuss with his team. At the end, he paused. 'Jarvis,' he wrote, 'What kind of search facilities do I have on this?'
Jarvis said, 'What do you need to know?'
'Can you search the military archives for me?' Steve wrote, 'I'm looking for any information on James Buchanan Barnes, recruited March 1941, died 1944, on Isadore Cohen, recruited April 1939, on Eric Koenig, recruited June 1941....'
Someone had loaded the tablet with folders of martial art movies, Japanese and Korean titles Steve knew he would never be able to access via the SHIELD libraries. Books, modern history and literature, and the art programs he'd started to learn to manipulate. His digital photographs were there, his notes from the searches he'd tried already, scanned images of the letters he'd sent to the military archives with their 'unknown' stamps. There was a set of photographs of Pepper and Clint and Natasha, even one of Fury in his dress uniform, smiling, and Steve wondered how Tony had laid his hands on it - he put the tablet down.
His SHIELD issue mattress was better than anything he'd had during the war, but Steve still could not sleep. It was almost a relief when the alarm went off and he could suit up and race to the airfield, where the military jet co-opted for SHIELD's use was already fueled. Coulson briefed him in the air. A suspected terrorist attack on one of the Siberian pipelines had escalated, and a small team of retreating dissidents had been trapped in a pumping house. Special Forces had been repelled by invisible shields, soldiers had returned from attacks disorientated and confused, and arms had been rendered unusable.
"We have reason to suspect," said Coulson primly, "That there may be supernatural elements involved in the attack."
"No shit," said Clint, coming in clear over their comm units. "Agent, Captain, you with us?"
"Loud and clear, Hawkeye," said Steve. "What's your position?"
"About fifty miles northwest of you and gaining. You wanna take the training wheels off that thing?"
Steve sighed. "Roll call?" he said. Missions would be so much easier if he was with his team, but the quinjet was based at the new landing pad out at the house.
"Black Widow with me. Iron Man on your wing."
Steve had to shuffle past stacks of equipment and peer out of the flight cabin window, but Hawkeye was right on target. Fifty meters off their left wing, thrusters almost idling, Iron Man was flying beside the jet.
"Give me that reading," Coulson was saying. "What do you mean, Air Traffic can't see anything? I'm telling you, he's right here."
Steve nearly waved.
He spent most of the mission waiting for Tony to mutter about how much he hated magic, but Iron Man fought their flight quadrant in utter silence. It must be killing Tony, and Steve missed the banter over the airwaves he was supposed to quell, with an aching misery Black Widow's vicious grin and Hawkeye's solid backup could not dispel. He felt, all the time, as if he was missing some vital part of himself, and yet Iron Man was undeniably present.
No music, just the deadly hiss of the repulsars. Iron Man broke comm silence only once - "Captain, on your right," - a clipped warning that saved Steve's shield arm from a bolt of pink lightning. But they could have been better. They won, of course they did, but Steve knew that they could have been better and faster, could have worked together as a team instead of a group of individuals; they'd done better at picking off cockroaches than they had here, five months later.
"Debrief," he said over the comms, but only Hawkeye and Black Widow sat down in the ruins of the pump station and analyzed where they'd failed. Iron Man was long gone.
In the jet, Coulson was frowning over the same analysis Steve was compiling. "We need a magic user," Steve muttered.
Coulson raised an eyebrow.
"Know something I don't?" Steve asked.
"Classified," said Coulson, and tapped out an e-mail that landed in Steve's inbox seconds later. "Don't just cut and paste if you want a new pair of gloves," he warned.
Steve inspected the charring on his cuffs with a rueful eye, but he could have avoided the forms. His new gloves arrived the next day, an infinitesimal degree thicker and slicker than his old ones, as if Tony had been improving the fabric again.
Stark Industries had still not released their new processor. Steve scoured the financial pages and the developer blogs, stopping every time Tony's name was mentioned, but there was nothing, not a hint, not a whisper. For all he knew those damning, radioactive motherboards were gathering dust in a secure storage unit. Maybe Tony had never meant to release them in the first place. Maybe he'd been working on making them safe. Maybe Steve should have listened, rather than launching into the kind of rhetoric he'd have been ashamed to illustrate in the thirties. He still thought Tony should have considered safety before profit, but...maybe Tony had been, and Steve hadn't given him a chance to explain.
When Steve slept, it was uneasily, shuffling blankets and pillow, and although it was summer he was still cold. The room was too dark, too quiet, and he found himself lying awake waiting for the shuffle of Tony's feet and the dip of a mattress ten centimeters deeper and considerably softer than the one on which Steve was lying. He'd always thought of sexual interaction between two men as being an emotionless coupling, raw and animalistic, but Steve's skin ached, not for the brief ecstasy of orgasm, but the comforting warmth of Tony Stark's touch.
It hurt, to realize that he had been playing Lensky to Tony's Yevgeniy Onegin, and not his Tatyana. The innocent friend, easily discarded, and not the beloved.
Steve's chess improved, but not his temper.
They persuaded a Yukagir shaman to end her winter and a disaffected Submariner to lay down the brass diving helmet which allowed him to control any commissioned member of the Russian Marine. Tony funded a school on the banks of a river running free after three years of ice. Steve spent five days in Severomorsk, coldly furious at the conditions naval staff endured, negotiating between Fleet admirals, SHIELD liaison officers, and the Kremlin. For the first time, he learned that serving officers respected not only the tarnished reputation of his war years but his new missions. There was a submarine captain who had his picture, one of the old ones, pinned above his bunk. "My grandfather served in the Great Patriotic War," he said quietly, unembarrassed.
Steve could only nod back, his throat suddenly tight. But all he could do was bring his own voice to the negotiating table, although Fury's influence and Tony's money stood like shadows at his shoulders, and when he left there were promises of subsidized supplies and better managed pensions and a new accommodation block. And new allowances for dependent children, and trucks of new equipment from a storage facility on the Afghan frontier only Fury seemed to know existed.
When he got back to his quarters at SHIELD, Jarvis had an address for him. It was in Murmsk. Steve asked Jarvis to book him a flight, but when he ducked out of his room the next morning with his duffle bag in his hand, Clint was leaning against the opposite wall.
"Heard you could do with a ride," he said, shrugging, already pushing off from the wall. He was wearing flight overalls.
Steve said, "Thanks."
Grigoriy Budnikov was never one of the Howling Commandos, but he was a veteran of the Finnish campaign who had served with the Guards outside Stalingrad, when the siege was broken. In those desperate, strained months of combat, Budnikov had been one of the men following in the footsteps of the penal battalions who had cleared the Wehrmacht's mined defenses with their own bodies. He'd known Leibnitz and Komonsol, Durchenko and Ishutin, and there'd been nights when he'd huddled around a single fire and heard the Howling Commandos sing.
"They were brave men," he told Steve, his pale blue eyes rheumy and his shoulders sunken, but Budnikov still hung his campaign medals on the wall above his bed and his daughter kept his uniform pressed. "None of them shirked a single duty. Every day, they walked out. Every day. Even the NKVD looked aside." He spat. "It was the party that killed them, not the Wehrmacht. After ten years in the camps," Budnikov said, "I thought they were the lucky ones."
He was in his eighties, but Budnikov's memories were as sharp as the edge on his voice when he talked about the war. One by one, he dragged up for Steve his memories of every death and every betrayal, and Steve listened dry-eyed and coldly furious to the state-sponsored murder of his comrades. Even Bucky - even Bucky had been stripped of his medals, his pension stopped and his family's food parcels halted.
In the afternoon, the old man slept, and Steve mended the rattling kitchen window and cleaned the stove pipe, carried coal up from the cellar and rehung the closet door, so that Budnikov's daughter unbent far enough to offer him tea instead of wincing in fear with every low-voiced question. "We thought you worked for the Kremlin," she whispered at last. "But you're not here to arrest us, are you?"
"No," Steve said. "No. Nothing like that."
If he'd walked out of the ice, he would be Budnikov's age now, and maybe his Commandos would have survived the war.
Steve was silent in the helicopter for the return trip, but Clint asked him back to the house anyway. "Those showers suck," he said. "And we've got HDTV." After a minute, he added, "Pepper's back in Paris. Tony's in New York."
Steve had a bath, not a shower, and the water was steaming, and he had a mug of the best coffee he'd drunk since he'd walked out the door. Then they watched an American movie with explosions, Natasha's pick, and there was pizza, and Clint kept up a sardonic running commentary that made Steve smile. He almost slept in his own room, because it was so late it was nearly morning and Clint had promised him a ride back to SHIELD, but when he opened his bedroom door the covers on his bed were turned down and his pillows were tumbled. There was a mug on his bedside table that still held the dry dregs of a cup of coffee, and a screen built into the wall that had not been there when he left. If it was not for his own copy of August 1914 with the bookmark still in the same place, he would have assumed Tony had just moved rooms.
Taking it gently, Steve ran back to SHIELD instead, watching the sun come up over the skyscrapers and the towers, the satellite dishes and pylons and onion domes of his city.
In between missions, Jarvis found Steve other veterans and other contacts. Not even Jarvis could speed the Russian depositories into haste, and most of the records had never been digitized. He discovered Bucky's body had never been found and that most of his Commandos had been buried in unmarked graves on the Eastern Front. That was when Steve extended his search to families.
"Commander Rogers, we are not a charity!" Fury screamed at him, over a forty-five page report detailing exactly what the Russian government owed to the men and women who had fought and died for their country.
Steve held his ground. Fury had already reinstated Budnikov's pension and forced General Forces Command to readdress their staff support policies.
Leaning forward over his desk, hands planted on the mahogany, Fury said, "Why don't you do something about it, Captain America?"
For once, Fury had a point. That night, Steve asked Jarvis for contact details for the veteran's associations, the ones who were active in campaigning for better living standards and pension rights, not the mercenary companies. He began going to meetings in dusty party halls and dilapidated bars, cramped apartments and cheap cafes, learning what was needed, where aid would best be placed, what he could do to help. He listened to old soldiers reminisce and sang old marching songs over shots of cheap vodka, told his own stories and shared memories of a past that was all but forgotten. For many of the veterans he met, the war had been overshadowed by the camps that came after: half the officer corps, any unit foolish enough to be caught behind enemy lines, a new recruit who had a good pair of boots, a private who looked at the wrong officer for a second too long - the purges had been indiscriminate and deep, and for the men and women who endured them, the camaraderie of the war years had been a golden age compared to the privations of Siberia.
In September, he met a man who had known Howard Stark. Not as Steve had known him, in the months of the super soldier project when Tony's father had been a golden boy of the scientific front, untouchable, one of Stalin's pet protégés. Grigoriyiev Levin had known Howard Stark in the camps. Tony had let Steve assume that Howard had lived and worked in Siberia, as if his Moscow passport had been withdrawn, but his freedom no more curtailed than that of any other exiled scientist. But Levin had met Howard Stark in a transit camp at Nakhodka and then followed him to the forced labor laboratories, the sharashka of the gulag, and the man he knew was not the urbane, cigar-smoking party playboy of Steve's memories. Levin remembered, even in the better conditions offered to convicted scientists and engineers, cold and hunger, the desperate scrabble for food and warmth and the fight to live for another day.
They were drinking sloe gin from an unmarked bottle, but the glasses were clean and the gingham tablecloth fresh. Levin tied up his trousers with string and there were buttons missing from his waistcoat, but he'd retired a professor of mineral engineering and the dacha bookcases were lined with his papers and books. He'd brought out some of them to show Steve the research and experiments Stark had been working on before he died. Even in the camps, Stark had been collecting samples for his own work, working on a blast furnace, sweet-talking the camp commander into allowing him to experiment with ores none of them could identify. When the amnesty came for both of them, Levin had moved to Magadan, as far south as his passport allowed him to live, but Stark had stayed in Norilsk, close to mineral deposits he'd been studying, and brought his wife out to join him.
Levin said, "That was no place for a child." He poured another shot and clicked his tongue at Steve's half-full glass, tapped his fingers on the yellowed pages of the first paper on petrology and mineral exploitation Howard Stark published under his own name. "But Howard Stark forgave you."
"What?" said Steve, startled into closing his hand on the tabletop. It creaked, but he did not look down.
"Every scientist who worked on the serum project went into the camps," said Levin. "Dr. Erskine was lucky to die when he did. The rest of them..." He shrugged. "They failed. It was inevitable."
"Stalin wanted an army," Steve said slowly.
Levin was nodding. "You were a symbol he could not afford to own," he said. "In retrospect - but what is life worth without dreams? I could say to you now, I regret the decisions I made then, but I am here now talking to you, and in a little while my daughter will call and make sure I have taken my medicine and put on clean socks, and tomorrow I will pick the last of the blackberries. Who is to say things would have turned out differently? I am content."
Steve drank the last of his gin. Outside, Clint was knocking his boots against the scraper and clapping his hands against the chill of the autumn air. "Thank you," Steve said, "For your time."
"Thank you," said Levin, "For yours, Stefan Rogers."
In Moscow, two days later, Tony said, unsmiling, "Steve Rogers."
He was standing at the open workshop doors. Steve had imagined, had meant to, climb up the steps to the house and go into the hall, just as he'd done on that first night. But he'd come in through the side gate and realized that the workshop shutters were raised, which meant Tony was home and working. He had turned down the driveway without even thinking.
"Hey," Steve said, and hitched the weight of his shield in its case higher on his back.
Tony was cleaning his hands with a cotton rag that looked as if it might have once been a towel. Slowly. "Social visit?"
"No," said Steve.
"I'm a little busy right now, Captain," said Tony.
"This won't take long," said Steve.
"Well, that doesn't sound ominous at all," said Tony. "Come to duke it out, Cap?" He was still standing in the entrance, back straight, shoulders squared, chin up.
"No," said Steve. "I came to apologize."
Tony's eyebrows went up. "That's a new one," he said.
"I had a plan," Steve said, and tugged at his shield again. "But - Tony."
"You're lucky you're cute," Tony said. "The muscles don't hurt either. Don't let anyone tell you size doesn't matter. Spit it out, big guy."
"I didn't know about your father. About Howard," Steve said. "I'm sorry. If it hadn't been-"
"Whoa, hang on there," said Tony. "I thought this was about me?"
Steve had to look away. Sunlight cast the workshop into shadow, but he could still see the glint of red and gold where the armor stood, and beyond it a gleam of chrome and black paint.
"-you finished my bike," Steve said, wondering, distracted.
"Yeah," said Tony.
"Do you mind if I look?" Shrugging out of the straps, Steve laid his shield carefully down on the worktable.
"Be my guest," said Tony.
He'd finished the detailing on the mudguards and painted the tank to match, but the paint was new, a dense, hard enamel that looked as if it could weather a shell blast and, knowing Tony, probably would. The seat had been reupholstered, the handlebars rebound, and there were switches on the clocks, looking as if they were factory made but new to Steve, that must have been Tony's work. Investigating, Steve traced a new switch box, new coils, and a whole new wiring harness that looked almost exactly like the last one but was clearly built to carry more power.
He was beginning to think he'd misjudged what Tony said and what Tony did all the way down to the wire.
"I fixed the misfire," Tony said. "Take it out. See what you think."
Steve stood up. "I'm sorry," he said.
"Yeah, I got that," said Tony. "Look, seriously, I've got-"
"Put the music on. And put the mug down and come here. I missed you," Steve said, and was amazed he wasn't blushing.
"That's it?" said Tony, "That's your plan?"
"Pretty much," said Steve. "Jarvis?"
"Pleasure, Captain," said Jarvis.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," said Tony. "No. Turn it off. Jarvis. Steve. Steve. You do not get to lead in this relationship. This is not the way my life works. Do not-"
Steve held out his hand and waited. After a moment, Tony stepped forward. Briefly, they fought over whose hands went where, but Steve was taller. It would have helped, Steve thought, if he'd known what he was doing, but he let himself match Tony's body, an intimate familiarity, and hoped for the best. It looked so easy, when guys danced with girls on film, but he really didn't know what to do with his feet.
"Not that I'm complaining," Tony muttered, a little muffled. "But I thought this was the kind of relationship where we just fucked."
"I don't think it ever was," said Steve. If he hadn't been so close, he would never have felt the shiver of tension that ran through Tony's body. But he did. He said, "You don't have to...you don't have to buy me things to make me happy. Make me things. It's you I'm interested in. Who you are. The things you make - Tony, they're amazing, and the art of it - that's part of you. But it's not all of you. Your kindness. Your honor. Your..." he smiled, leaned back a little to catch Tony's eyes. "Your need to make the world a better place. So. Not just sex. Not anymore," said Steve. "If you'll have me. And I'm sorry I forgot who you were."
Tony didn't move away. Warming, slowly, Steve shuffled uncomfortably for a few moments more, and admitted, "I'm terrible at this."
"Yeah, I get that," said Tony, and tightened his grip. "Just don't - too late."
"Sorry," Steve apologized, snatching his foot back.
"Steel toe caps," said Tony. "Knew they'd be good for something." But his voice was only gently mocking. Then he added, "Yeah. What you said. Me too."
"Tony," said Steve, and turned his cheek into Tony's hair and closed his eyes. Things worked much better if he just swayed from one foot to another, Tony's weight warm and solid against his skin.
Jarvis, seamlessly, turned the record over. Then again.
"Well, this is fun," said Tony. "Because, generally speaking, if there's no flowers involved most apologies come with blowjobs attached, and that's a model I'm all for, pros and cons considered, but if you want to practice your footwork I can fit you-" He landed against the wall with a little more force than Steve had intended. "In," said Tony, looking down, eyes already dark.
"I hear you," said Steve, concrete floor hard under his knees, hands already on the last button of Tony's overalls.
It wasn't much of an apology. He fumbled with the condom Tony made him get from the desk, choked over the first couple of inches where Tony had been smoothly controlled, and felt he needed another pair of hands. But he'd underestimated how good it would feel to own Tony's cock with his mouth, when he had always thought of cocksucking - say it, Steve - as something vaguely shameful, and by the end Tony was downright speechless and Steve utterly flushed with triumph. He brought himself off with three strokes as Tony was still gasping, and only just managed to field Tony's slow collapse as he slid down the wall.
"Fuck," said Tony succinctly, and panted into Steve's neck.
"I could do that again," Steve offered. He felt absurdly happy about the idea, proud of the clutch and knead of Tony's hands and the way his voice had broken on Steve's own name. Steve was, in this moment, unabashedly comfortable with Tony's solid weight, the muscled strength of his forearms and thighs, the bristle of his beard and the bergamot smell of the cologne he used.
But Tony, suddenly distracted, was looking past Steve's shoulder at the screen over his worktable. When Steve craned around, an announcer with improbably lacquered hair was saying, "-a Kremlin spokesman stated that registration was no more restrictive than the measures currently imposed on-"
"What is it?" asked Steve, his hands still spread around Tony's back.
But Tony was frowning. "Nothing," he said. He shivered. "Cap, I'm gonna shower. Tell me you'll still be here when I get out."
Getting his knees under him and giving the screen one last bemused glance, Steve hefted both of them up and let Tony slide down his body to land on his feet. "I've seen your shower," he said.
"Apology accepted," said Tony quickly.
Afterwards, Steve tidied up the towels while Tony shaved. Then, hungry, they sat in the kitchen, Steve in sweats and Tony in a red silk bathrobe that gaped alarmingly over his knees, and over pizza discussed Tony's Mark IV suit and Fury's taste in desk ornaments, Pepper's plans for the online archive and Steve's students. They argued over every mission they hadn't talked about, in detail, with video evidence, and then made up over cocoa and vodka. Clint had popped his head through the kitchen door and waved briefly, but Natasha had come in with brownies and stayed long enough to make her views on teamwork perfectly clear. Tony was almost offhand when he mentioned that, given Steve's unfinished book was on the bedside table, it seemed perfectly logical for him to stay the night.
Stripped down and in Steve's bed, he had bigger plans.
"Change your mind," he said, propping his elbows on Steve's chest, looking down. He was very nearly naked, the lights of the arc reactor an unshielded, bright blue, the silk of his underwear smooth against Steve's thighs. "Move back. No one else can cook." He paused, looking down. His eyes were tired, the shadows creased underneath his lower lids darker than usual, but there was a softness to his face Steve had never seen before and liked. "I think you could do more. With the veteran thing. I've had some ideas. And if you wanted - that kid's doing well. Yuri."
"You left your sketchbooks here," Tony said softly.
Steve hadn't realized Tony had known. He had to look away for a second, touched, a little uneasy. "I can't understand a spreadsheet and anyone can use a microwave," said Steve. "You just want me for my party card."
"Really, Captain? I don't think so," said Tony, "I'm not even slightly convinced socialism should be the new world order, my communist friend. Try harder. No promises."
Rolling both of them over, Steve let his body press Tony's into the mattress. He was never going to be anything but who he was, but Tony was smiling back, his hands sliding south.
said, "I can do that."