Sasha raised an eyebrow at the Mandarin, or as she sometimes sardonically called him, “Father”. He was talking with some other scientists around the conference—AIM, by the looks of him, unless those beekeeper suits were suddenly all the fashion. Sasha rolled her eyes and threw back her flute of champaign in a long swallow.
With all the grace and poise a lifetime in the business world had imparted on her, Sasha strolled over to the men standing in the center of the room. “Father,” she said smoothly.
“Daughter,” he replied.
Sasha narrowed her eyes at him for a moment, then turned to the AIM scientist. “Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?”
Sasha's expression clearly read “Really? John?” but she gritted her teeth into something resembling a smile and said instead “Nice to meet you, John. Sasha Hammer.” She held out her hand and shook the scientist's firmly.
“So what are you two discussing?” Sasha's arms folded over under her breasts, champagne glass dangling precariously between two fingers.
If it was possible for a beekeeper suit to look disappointed, John managed it. “Steve Rogers.”
Sasha blinked, surprised. They were at a technical conference in Madripoor—of all the names she might have expected to hear, Steve Rogers was not one of them.
“Steve Rogers?” she asked. “Not Tony Stark?”
The Mandarin turned to her, eyes sharp. “No. Why? Do you have information about Tony Stark?”
The silence between the three villains was telling. None wanted to reveal a lack of information, because all wanted to be perceived as having something for trade if someone else had information. Unfortunately, none did.
The Mandarin's gaze grew less sharp as the silence stretched, until it had morphed into something condescending, or a twisted version of doting. “Do not worry, daughter,” he cooed, as only he could. He reached out to touch a hand to Sasha's cheek, who stepped away with a sneer. “Neither of us have any interesting insights to offer, either.”
“Which is why we're talking about Steve,” John put forward.
“Captain America?” Sasha asked. “But why?”
“Haven't you heard?” the Mandarin questioned.
“Apparently they're an 'item'.” The beekeeper outfit squeaked as John brought his fingers up to place scare quotes around 'item'.
The champagne flute slipped in Sasha's grasp, only barely held onto at the last second. She took a step back, shock written clearly across her features.
“An- An item? As in...?”
The Mandarin's voice was silky in her ear. “Perhaps this is a reason your seduction of Tony Stark failed.”
Sasha snarled as she spun on him. “Maybe you should have tried, if this is true.”
“For some reason I do not think I'm his type.”
John fumbled for a champagne glass himself from a passing waiter's plate. “Technically I'd guess Stark's bisexual. Rogers, too. All those past relationships couldn't have been faked. Statistically it's unlikely. We actually worked it out, back at Barbuda. We figure Stark's roughly two-point-seven-five on the Kinsey scale, and Rogers is a one-point-nine. See, Stark's dalliances with Henry back in-”
“I don't need to know about all of Stark's homosexual experiences,” Sasha snapped.
John shrugged. “It was amusing to calculate.”
Snagging a nearby waiter, Sasha exchanged her empty champagne flute for two fresh ones. She finished one off in a single swallow, dropping the empty glass on the plate, then proceeded to nurse the second one.
“I don't understand this,” she murmured to herself.
“The Kinsey scale-”
She rolled her eyes at the AIM scientist. “I know what the Kinsey scale says. I went to an all-girls boarding school: I'm familiar with bisexuality.”
She drummed her fingers on her champagne glass. “I mean: Why Rogers, of all people? I once saw him upload a selfie of himself to twitter. On accident. That he had taken accidentally. And Stark chooses him for a partner?”
This gave both the Mandarin and John pause.
“It's true it's an odd match,” John conceded. The beekeeper helmet almost looked upset, glowering, from what little emotion could be gleaned from it. “Why, Rogers still uses that old vibranium shield of his. Doesn't he know it's obsolete? Stark has to know. Why hasn't he upgraded it for him?”
Sasha smirked. “Rogers probably has a sentimental attachment to the relic.”
“Unsurprising that Rogers would cling to it. The shield is a symbol of an outdated, fascist world order. I thought Stark was unprogressive in his political thinking, but compared to Rogers he's practically John Rawls,” the Mandarin drawled.
“Once when the Avengers were doing battle against us AIM forces, Rogers needed Stark's help getting past a simple 10-digit hexameter electronic padlock.”
Sasha was looking down at her mobile. “Rogers changed his relationship status to 'In a Relationship with Tony Stark'. The next post is Rogers asking Tony if other people can see the status change. The next post is Rogers removing his relationship status.” A moment as she scrolled up. “Then he says 'What do you mean people can still see it? I changed it!'.”
“Rogers comes from a worldview that still thinks of nations as key players on the world stage. He considers jingoistic nationalism to be safe, satisfying. A virtue. How can a man like Stark, who claims to be a futurist, be with someone whose views were outdated thirty years ago?”
“Once Rogers thought we AIM scientists had aligned ourselves with 'magic' users because we were testing a new magnesium bomb on an underwater contingent of theirs. He's a luddite.” John choked back something that sounded like a nerdy, weaselly snort beneath that helmet of his. “He probably doesn't know his nanobots from his nanites!” Wheeze snort. Wheeze snort.
“His 'hobbies' read: 'Gee, I don't know what to put here. I suppose I like what every other fella out there likes. I enjoy going on long walks down nature trails when I can find the time, backpacking across this beautiful country of ours and really appreciating the sights that inspired this great nation to expansion and conservation.'” She scrolled for a moment. “He continues like this for at least six dozen lines.”
“Why would Stark pick him to be with?” John asked.
A long pause as the three villainous elite looked to each other for answers.
Finally the Mandarin shrugged and said: “I suppose it is consistent with the rest of Stark's bad taste. He is, after all, an Avenger.”
Well. That settled that.
“Zemo,” Shmidt said curtly.
“That's Baron Zemo, Johann,” Zemo snapped back.
“Will you two cease your incessant arguing?” Zola's voice drifted to the front door from further inside the apartment. “I didn't come here for the tea and scones, after all.”
With one last mutual sneer, Johann Shmidt and Baron Zemo strode into the apartment, Zemo shutting the door behind him as he entered. Zola was already seated around a quaint little round breakfast table. Lace doilies sat beneath carefully positioned tea cups and plates piled high with scones. Zemo took his seat stiffly, hand on the butt of his sword. Shmidt sat across from him, eyes narrowed on him even as he reached forward for the teapot.
A moment of quiet as the two men poured themselves their tea, preparing it to their liking. Zola looked on in electronic silence.
Zemo was the first to break the silence. “Have you heard the most recent word about Rogers' personal life?”
“So disappointing,” Shmidt put in. “You speak, of course, of this dalliance with Stark.” He said the name like he had just discovered horse shit on the bottom of his boots.
“I do not understand how Rogers could lower himself to such a mate!” Zola growled. Feedback hissed from his speakers: an angry, artificial sound.
“So disappointing,” Shimdt repeated. “Stark. Really. He's a runt.”
Now that the topic of physical forms had been taken up, Zola spoke excitedly. “His body modifications are far inferior to what they could be! Compared to Rogers' serum, compared to what his futurist mind should be able to produce! Far inferior! Far!”
Zemo stirred scornfully at his tea. “He has no appreciation for the beauty of destruction, the honor in combat.”
“Rogers should be with anübermensch,” Shmidt snarled, his blood-red visage curling cruelly. “Instead he chooses to align himself with this... violent neanderthal. This weakling of science.”
“It reflects badly on all of us,” Zemo pointed out. “Do you know the sorts of people who do battle with Stark? Slaves to technology like AIM drones.”
“That Oriental fascist 'Mandarin'.” Shmidt's voice dripped with the certainty of his racial superiority.
“Not to mention the homosexual nature of the relationship,” Zemo said. “Pathetic.”
“Stark could have engineered it out of himself. The serum should have!” Shmidt's voice went so high it nearly registered as a squeak. “How a super-soldier became a homosexual is confounding.”
“Must have been the American adjustments,” Zola put in. “I control for sexual orientation in my experiments. No need for non-breeding creations.”
“It is blasphemy that a specimen such as Rogers should not breed,” Shmidt said.
“Though it is for our benefit,” Zemo pointed out.
“Stark is a poor excuse for a meta-human,” Zola changed topic, mind obviously stuck on the genetics of it all. “His 'Extremis' is no super-soldier serum. Nor is it a wonder of genetic engineering. It's junk DNA, is what it amounts to.”
“It's as if he's never even heard the word eugenics,” Shmidt said, clearly baffled.
Zemo sipped angrily at his tea. If one could sip angrily at tea.
“Do you know: I met him once. This Stark. In combat. Do you know what he did?”
“Flew away?” Shmidt guessed.
“Sent his poor excuse for 'creations' after you?” Zola asked.
Zemo came close to slamming his teacup down on its saucer, but controlled himself at the last minute. “He refused to engage me in direct combat. Refused to remove the armor.”
“He is a coward, we have always known this. It is why he insists on hiding behind his armors; it is why he created those foolish Avengers in the first place: because he is not a man willing to stand on his own, to face a threat with dignity and then perish,” Shmidt sneered.
“Then,” Zemo continued, ignoring Shmidt, “he made jokes at my expense—in the middle of combat! At least Rogers was always good enough to utter a singular quip and then focus his mind and body solely to the task at hand. And then, when it would seem that I would still best the mongrel Stark, he called in his reinforcements, his children playing at heroes.”
“He is a menace,” Zola's modulated voice crackled.
“He is a human,” Shmidt growled.
“He is a coward,” Zemo said.
“It's all about standards,” Shmidt sneered. “And it's clear Rogers has none.”
Zola's voice gratingly pointed out: “I could have told you that decades ago.”
“Did you delete your Facebook account?”
Tony strode into the living room, where the security cameras at Stark Tower had told him he'd find Steve. And there he was, in the flesh: sitting cross-legged on the couch with a sketchbook covering his lap, laptop closed on the coffee table in front of him like it was in a time-out. Which it probably was, in Steve's mind.
Vaulting over the couch, Tony dropped down next to Steve with a kiss on his cheek. Steve's mouth curled up in a smile, but he didn't look up from what he was sketching. Tony peered over at it. It was a portrait of some of the flighted Avengers: Thor, Tony, Carol, Sam. It might have been an impressive feat from memory, if Tony didn't know Steve had an eidetic one. Actually, it was still pretty impressive.
“Want me to set it back up for you?” Tony was grabbing at the laptop even as he asked the question.
Steve's mouth quirked down for a second, though his charcoal pencil never hesitated in its trajectory over the page. “I didn't mean to 'out' us.”
“We were 'outted' two weeks ago by TMZ,” Tony pointed out as he bent over the laptop. “You just confirmed it.”
“Then I didn't mean to confirm our outting,” Steve shot back. Tony grinned as he reactivated Steve's Facebook. Their PR team liked them to keep ones up for the public. Tony snorted as he skimmed through Steve's hobbies, favorite movies, and so on. He closed out of the account after changing only one thing: reverting the relationship status to “In a Relationship with Tony Stark”.
“I don't have a problem with it,” Tony replied. Then he moved himself into Steve's personal space, wrapping a hand around his lower back. “You busy?” he murmured, pressing his nose into Steve's neck.
Steve was smiling again. “I was sketching,” he mumbled. But then he set the sketch aside on the coffee table and turned his attention to Tony. “I guess you're not?”
“Nope,” Tony replied happily. “Finished up a board meeting a while ago, nothing imminent to get done in the lab. Thought you might want to grab dinner.”
Steve nodded. “I did want to talk shop with you sometime. We can do it at Enzo's.”
“Oh?” Tony raised an eyebrow as they both stood from the couch. Steve stretched, popping the kinks out of his back. He must have been sitting there a while.
“I've got some new information about the Mandarin's whereabouts and movements. He's up to something, but I think I have enough for you to get the drop on him.”
Moving forward, Tony grabbed the front of Steve's shirt and pulled him in for a sloppy kiss. Steve grumbled at his shirt getting all wrinkled, but he slid into the kiss easily enough, all tongue and suction and commanding fervor. Tony shivered and stepped closer, pushing back with his own enthusiasm and manic devotion.
When Tony pulled back Steve was doing his best to look disapproving, but couldn't hide his own approval of the action.
Tony grinned. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around.”
“Besides my... what was it? 'Rocking tits'?” Steve asked sardonically.
“Besides those,” Tony acquiesced.
“You're a lug.”
“Your lug,” Tony shot back. “And besides: you're the idiot who decided to shack up with this lug.”
Steve shrugged. “You've got a pretty nice pad. And a guy's gotta have standards.”
“You're gonna get it tonight,” Tony grumbled.
Tony laughed and pulled Steve in for another kiss. His shirt ended up so wrinkled by the end of it that Steve had to change shirts before they left. But he didn't seem to mind.