The late afternoon sky is azure, the color of the untroubled ocean that borders his home in La Jolla. The temp is 43 degrees, warmer than it was this day last year, much warmer than the average for this day over the last five years -- not that he's made a special study of this, but he's not brain-dead, he knows some things -- a harbinger that the geothermal lifespan of the planet might be heading towards meltdown in approximately 13.25 years. Or not, there are other people whose job it is to actually keep track of these things, he isn't going to launch any inconvenient truths on anyone this Christmas season.
David Anthony Cook, playboy billionaire industrialist extraordinare or whatever his publicity statement says these days, is finishing up the last song of his live Christmas set at the Rockefeller Center's outdoor stage. He checks his foot pedal, turns his better profile into the spotlight, hooks in his earpiece, and strums the G chord intro into the most depressing Christmas song ever.
So this is Christmas and what have you done
Another year over and a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones The old and the young
A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one without any fear
When he's done there's 116 decibels of girl screaming. Boy-screaming too, actually, sounds like: not like Dave's particularly surprised. He hasn't made a secret of the fact that his open-door policy is totally open to all comers. "Bisexual billionaire industrialist" is not only accurate, but also makes for a good post-millennial tag-line; he should tell his publicist to make it so.
Their host, Ryan Seacrest, makes his entrance on onstage, and grins the grin American Idol made famous.
"Ladies and gentlemen, let's give it up for America's amazingly talented Iron Man, Mr. David Cook!"
The Amazing Iron Man raises an ironic hand to his adoring public, unhooks his earpiece, and hands off his white acoustic Les Paul to one of the Rockefeller roadies. Peace out, Christmas groupies -- another year older, a new world's just begun, indeed.
Dave walks down the ramp off-stage, past the cameras and the backstage crew. As always, Andrew falls into step at his side. Drew's holding an iPad and an old-fashioned clipboard, and is wearing the trademark sharp white jacket and jeans that he thinks fits the profile of the metrosexual-playboy numbers-crunching CFO of Cook Industries.
Dave thinks of the white suit as Drew's Sidekick Costume, even though he knows Hawkeye thinks it makes Drew look like a cat-stroking super-villain. Widow says it's cute, but she's probably being kind because she knows Drew has a huge crush on her.
Drew says, briskly, "Nice acoustic set, big brother. Two thousand sixty-four boots on the ground, there'll be much more after the CBS delayed telecast, not bad for your first major venue." He taps Dave with the clipboard. "You really want to aim for the big league, though, you should form a band. The Beatles were a band. Or if you want to appeal to your younger demo, maybe think about someone like Imagine Dragons, or Daughtry?"
"Don't think I can play like Daughtry," Dave shrugs, and Drew says, slyly, "Hey, you belong to a superhero team, right? Maybe they'll come play with you, like, in a band band!"
Dave considers the aforesaid superhero team. Maybe they'll call themselves the Iron Maniacs? The Avengers Ensemble? Hawkeye definitely belongs on bass guitar; Widow would kill on vocals. Thor has the right hair for the lead guitarist of a metal band, and there must have been harps or some kind of stringed instrument on Asgard. Maybe they could find a set of adamantium-reinforced drums Hulk wouldn't wreck at the first go...
And Cap -- the kid actually brought a keyboard to the Avengers Tower when he moved in, so Dave assumes he can play it. Cap looks like he can do most things, in that boy-scout-competent Captain America way of his that Dave still found infuriating, despite the recent detente they reached after the events of that summer.
Dave shakes his head at himself. He's taking this music thing way too seriously. He needs to remind himself he'd learned to play guitar from scratch on a whim over the fall and gotten this faux-rock-star gig to give himself something to do when he isn't sleeping.
And he's been doing a lot of not sleeping since the attack on New York in the summer.
He'd spent a lot of time building suits, too. Model 42 actually almost has the dexterity to play guitar; he just needs to get the OpenKEYS algorithm calibrated more precisely so playing those Red Hot Chilli Pepper frets doesn't result in broken strings.
Come to think of it, Cap helped the last time. Seems he'd been doing some not sleeping of his own; Dave would catch him walking the halls of the Tower at odd hours sweaty in running gear or on his way out in motorcycle leathers. That one time he'd asked the kid to help him adjust the calibration of the Gibbs sampling device, and Cap had come over and took hold of the sampling modulator in an untrained but deceptively sensitive grip, and, what do you know. One more thing the boy scout was good at.
Dave watches from the wings as the crowd starts to disperse, and the roadies and crew start to dismantle the outdoor stage set and lights and roll the equipment off-stage. Looks like it really does take a village to prop up a wannabe rock star.
Drew fills in the silence by engaging Ryan Seacrest in small talk. It seems there's a Christmas special after-party with execs from RCA and Kelly Clarkson, and Drew's keen to attend, but Dave's not sure he's in the mood. What he really wants to do is get back to the Tower, put on some Sgt Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band, and get to work on Model 42.
Around them, the sky is darkening, the azure shading to midnight, like the dark slice of alien sky that he remembers in his nightmares.
Without transition, Dave remembers NYC under siege, remembers the cold, remembers falling --
-- and he sees a woman in the dark sky.
The only thing that's falling, though, is her impressive rack out of her blue Spandex, and halfway down she bursts impressively into flame. Dave shakes of the memories of paralyzing cold and makes himself roll his eyes at the grand-standing of Ms. Christina Storm, the super-human Human Torch.
The clutch of die-hard fans that have stayed at the Rockefeller Center break into applause. Superheroes who double up as rock stars should be more of a thing!
The Human Torch describes a flaming parabola across the sky and lands gracefully onstage. "Flame off," she says, and the alien radiation flares through her atoms and abruptly snuffs out.
Dave says, "Nice entrance. You guys gonna play a set too?"
"Not a bad idea," drawls someone he can't see; a second later the tall, handsome bulk of Christina's brother Blake materializes out of the shadows. The Invisible Man always seems a little uncomfortable in blue spandex -- Dave doesn't understand why, because it's a really good look for him.
Blake continues: "Think we'd make a pretty fantastic foursome, in fact. Problem is, all these three other freaks are way too diva for a healthy band dynamic, and we can't all sing lead at the same time, y'know?"
The Fantastic Mister Levine says, smirking, "Dude, you're more of a diva than all of us put together."
Blake cuffs Adam's shoulder, and Adam winds his left arm round Blake's (and keeps winding it, around and around; Fantastic's super-flexibility must keep things interesting in the bedroom).
Adam smirks across at Dave. Clearly the kinky bastard doesn't have to be a telepath to know what Dave's thinking. "Anyway, my friend, we don't want to steal your thunder. We just heard Iron Man traded in his suit for a guitar this Christmas, thought we'd come watch your show."
"And I'm kind of hurt the Idol folks never invited us to play," Blake drawls.
"Screw them, hon," Adam says, comfortably. "You wanna sing as well as play hero, we'll go find some other franchise."
Christina is looking Drew up and down. "You're Andrew, right? The little brother? How come you never got Professor Cook to build you a suit too?"
"It's 'cause I'm a lover, not a fighter," Drew says, smartly, and Dave shoves him.
"C'mon, Pepper, the lady doesn't need more of your Cook Industries charm."
"How come he calls you Pepper?" Christina asks Drew. Dave wonders if she's unzipped her uniform even lower than its usual valley-deep-mountain-high levels, because his kid brother seems mesmerized.
It takes Drew a while to snap out of it. When he does, he says, "Why he calls me...? It's cause if Mr. Playboy had his way, he'd hire some perky blonde to be the Cook Industries' CFO and to do his personal taxes." Drew shrugs, "But Gwyneth Paltrow's too busy doing Glee! these days, and she doesn't have a CPA, so he hired his brother instead... He calls me what he calls me ‘cause he wishes I were more, y'know, peppy."
"I call you what I call you cause you're the Anti-Pepper. You're Bizarro Universe Pepper!" Dave shakes his head: wrong universe franchise. "I could do without your book-keeping skills and updated IFRS knowledge, man -- what I really need is some pep to balance my brooding darkness."
Drew sticks out his tongue at him, and Dave continues, "I would totally trade you in for Gwyneth if her schedule freed up. Or that kid Chris Evans, from Push? He's pretty peppy."
"He absolutely does it for me," coos Mister Fantastic, and winds himself even more tightly around his Invisible Man.
The Fantastic Four end up following Drew and Ryan to the bright lights and champagne of the RCA party. Instead of joining them, Dave suits up and heads for home.
The Manhattan skyline at night is as scenic as always, a blaze of LED and conventional lights like jewels on a debutante's gown, but Dave isn't in the mood to enjoy the view. In his viewer, Jarvis is silent, matching Dave's decidedly non-Christmassy spirit.
And there it is, the Avengers Tower under moonlight. Dave decided to scrap his monument to himself after the summer's alien invasion, and instead built a clubhouse for the team they'd put together to defend the world. Home sweet home.
Dave suits off. The landing pad floor is dark, and the lights are off in the rest of the west wing. "Anyone home, Jarvis?"
"Dr. Banner went into the city for the evening. Mr. Barton came in this morning to check his drop box and then left again. Ms. Romanov departed this morning for an undisclosed location; she took one of the passports and the contents of Box No. 5. The Captain is in residence, though."
The lounge lights in the west wing are on. When Archuleta's in the lounge with its six screens and dual 360 review and enhanced sound system, he's usually reviewing team battle footage or training vids; there's never an off-duty moment for their diligent Captain America.
Dave approaches cautiously. Battle footage of some kind is indeed on three of the view-screens, filling them with gunfire and troops and tanks, but on a fourth there's newscaster Rachel Maddow doing a special feature on 21st century military technology. She asked to interview Cook Industries for her World Business feature last year and Drew said no.
Captain David Archuleta isn't in uniform. He's wearing jeans and an old tee-shirt, sitting in his favorite place on the red sofa. Unusually, he has his keyboard on his lap.
As Cook watches, Arch's long fingers stroke music from the keys: a riff from Philip Glass, and then the most famous Beatles song on earth.
Imagine there's no heaven It's easy if you try
No hell below us Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...
Imagine there's no countries It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
Arch's voice is lush and heartfelt, Dave has never heard him sing like that, has never quite heard anything like it.
The lounge lights slide off the kid's enhanced muscles, the lines of his impossibly young face. He looks vulnerable, somehow, as if he'll never know age or doubt or post-traumatic stress.
Dave finds the breath has been knocked out of him, which is a first. Suddenly, in the blaze of light and music and unexpected peace-on-earth Christmas spirit, Dave realises that underneath Captain America's straight-arrowness and the goofy boy scout crew-cut, David Archuleta is gorgeous.
Between one heartbeat and the next, Dave tries to work out why he's never seen that before. After all, Dave has always been a hair-trigger, go-with-your-gut kind of guy: if he liked what he saw, he'd go after it, and he'd get it, too -- if you were a bisexual billionaire, it wasn't difficult to get laid, and he had the whole playboy reputation to maintain.
Maybe he'd just spent too much time arguing with the man. Boy scout hero, too goddamn perfect to be anyone real, he'd never put a foot out of line in his life, and Cook would be damned if he was going to follow anyone's orders, let alone this kid's.
They'd almost come to blows over it, before Loki had blown up the S.H.I.E.L.D. base that summer. Arch had said that he'd known guys worth ten of Dave, that Dave could stop pretending to be a hero, and Dave had actually seen red. He wasn't sure what he'd said to Arch in response, something about how Captain America was just a lab rat, how anything special about him had come out of a bottle, just wanting to hurt the kid in the way that Cap's crack about heroes had actually fucking hurt.
Then Phil Coulson died, still believing in heroes, and it changed everything for all of them. It made them want to be worthy of the name, somehow; made him want to do stupid things that he figured might make Coulson proud, like take a one-way trip into space with a nuke on his back.
It changed things between Archuleta and him, too. He remembers how Arch looked at him when he opened his eyes, as if Captain America finally believed in him, now that he believed in himself.
Dave feels something shift in his enhanced chest that he can't identify.
"Cook! Hey." Arch puts the keyboards to one side, and runs a hand through his hair. "Tonight was your concert, right? Did you have fun out there?"
Dave snorts and sits on the sofa beside him. "As far as vanity concerts go, it wasn't too bad. Coulda used you in Rockefeller Center to fend off the groupies. Didn't you have groupies when you took WW2 America on a cross-country tour?"
"There were no groupies, it's not like these were rock concerts! We performed for the troops, to keep their spirits up." Arch pauses, and then ducks his head a little in an old-school way, "And anyway, the guys were only there to see the girls."
Dave raises his eyebrows. "Oh, I'm pretty sure some of those guys were there for you. I mean, you in flag-coloured spandex? Gotta be some guys pinning that up rather than Betty Page."
A flush colors those perfect cheekbones. "That is so not true," Arch splutters, and Dave presses on, aware he's flirting outrageously: "Have you even seen you?"
Arch makes a choking noise, and Dave stops, but there's no stopping the mental image of a Captain America poster pinned to a thousand gym lockers across wartime America. Alongside a mental image of Cap out of his vintage WW2 red-white-and-blue uniform and naked in his bed...
Dave knows Archuleta isn't a blushing innocent, no one in that war would have been. In fact, in a particularly unguarded moment over beers one night before S.H.I.E.L.D. came down, Fury had told him about Arch's friend Bucky, whom Arch had loved and lost and had never gotten over. But then, Arch is probably not used to talking about these things. In America, in the forties, nobody was out of the closet. The general public may not have even known there was a closet.
"Okay, so, I'm stopping with the making you uncomfortable."
He pats Cap's shoulder. The muscles feel hot and tense under his hand, as if Archuleta's enhanced metabolism has filled his skin with fire.
Arch says, slowly, "It's not that. It's ... Being Captain America, being a soldier -- it was easier then, when you knew who the bad guys were, and you had to stop them. Now ..."
Arch waves his hand at the view-screen, which is filled with night-vision images of bombs exploding against the darkness; Dave doesn't know if they're watching Afghanistan or Iraq, Syria or Egypt.
Arch says, "Now, we're at war, and there are people, Americans, even, who think we're the bad guys, that America's the bad guy."
Dave is shocked into silence for a moment. In all their disagreements, and the tentative truce that came after, he's never seen Archuleta unsure like this -- of the mission, or of himself. Captain America was always the infallible hero, in this decade as well as in the forties: the golden boy, the perfect standard to which all Americans held themselves. There was no room for doubt or shades of ambiguity. Evil was evil, good was good, and golden boys always got the girl and to ride off into the sunset. They definitely didn't have their boyfriends die at the hands of a madman before they got the chance to tell them how they felt.
Dave says, slowly: "Don't have any answers. Don't think Fury does, either. War isn't black or white, there aren't always bad guys. We're not always fighting aliens or HYDRA or Kang the Conqueror. That's why I'm not a soldier."
Arch says: "I can't remember a time when I wasn't a soldier. It was the first thing that ever really meant anything. It was easier to be Captain America then, when war was so much easier. When everything was so much easier."
Was it really easier in the forties, when you couldn't tell the boy you loved that you loved him?
Trying to lighten the tone, Dave says, "Hey, the 21st century has its charms!" He nods at the TV: "Like the lovely Rachel Maddow. Then there's the Internet, and Twitter! And, you know, the tech that keeps me alive."
Arch looks down at Dave's chest, and Dave watches as Arch stares at the dull flicker of light under Dave's shirt, as Arch sees Dave's heart beating: light and heat and the hot pulse of blood at the core of Dave's body.
Under Arch's gaze, Dave can feel his heart beat faster. Maybe Arch is trying to tell him something, which he ought to be able to understand even without superhuman senses, without the suit.
Arch puts a hand over the artificial heart; Dave feels it from his scalp all the way to his human toes.
He's not sure what he's saying. "Anyway, who says being Captain America should be easy? It's a really important thing, it should be totally difficult. Not everyone gets to be Captain America."
Arch looks up at him, completely unguarded for once, and it's like plugging himself into the core of a star. It feels good, better than good, feels like something important's starting.
Maybe it's an equally hard thing, even in this liberated age, when you're trying to tell the man whom you'd fought with and fought beside and who might or might not like you... that you liked him back.
He takes Arch's hand. "Not everyone gets to be Captain Archuleta, either."
"That part's even more difficult," Arch says, quietly, and lets Dave lean in, and the metaphorical fireworks explode in slow-mo across the sky.
After they break the kiss, Arch says, "You know, I think someone explained to me in boot camp that soldiers weren't supposed to do this with each other."
Dave struggles to catch his breath, can almost feel his heart pounding like gunfire on a coast in the Pacific in a war that was fought and won more than 70 years ago. "Well, then, score one more for this century."
"At least this time you didn't say, ‘Did anyone kiss me?'," says Arch, snorting back laughter. Then, more seriously, "What happens now? I haven't been on a date in 70 years, so I'm really out of practise."
Arch is breathing unevenly, his eyes very bright. Dave makes himself sit back. Arch has spent the last 70 years on ice: they both need to take this more slowly. But the rest of Arch isn't out of practise at all, because he's already begun to respond to Dave's touch in a way that makes Dave want to push him down into the sofa and kiss him until they both forget war and the summer and memories of the cold.
"What happens is whatever you want to happen." Dave swallows; he isn't very good with self-restraint, and he knows all of his own body has responded, rather embarrassingly, to Archuleta. "You want to treat it as part of your 'situational adjustment', and stand down now, or even later, I'm good. I'd be happy to just take this one for the team."
The small smile doesn't waver. "And you're all about the team, aren't you?" Arch looks down at their linked fingers for a long moment, then says, "I'd be prepared to see how this goes. You know, provisionally, for training purposes."
"You call it, Captain," Cook says, fake-casually, but then holds his breath.
"It might be a one-way trip." Echoing the words Arch said to Dave when he realized what Dave had meant to do that summer, flying through the wormhole in an attempt to be a hero despite himself.
Arch has been alone for 70 years, on ice physically and emotionally ever since Bucky died. Dave feels as if he's been alone for even longer, the line of men and women to his bedroom door never meaning anything to him. Until now, maybe, until this man, whose respect he realised he wanted to earn that summer, and now something else besides.
"Only one way to find out."
"You could start by kissing me again," says Arch, helpfully, and the press of his lips is like a new start for the both of them: on this day when there's peace on earth and the world could be as one.