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Playing the Cards

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Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game. - Voltaire*

I definitely could get used to this, Jason thought to himself, taking another pull on the stogie. He'd only been staying with Stark a few days and already he was settling into the lifestyle. Fine cigars, fine wine, fine food, all of it sitting at his feet. Or, actually, on the small table next to him. Except for the cigar, which he hadn't let go of since he'd lit it.

The California sun kissed his bare chest as he lay on the chaise lounge, clad only in swim trunks. Howard Stark’s swim trunks, since he didn't have his own. Stark had been in Malibu for a few days, and now that he was back, he told Jason to join him on the patio. Assuming it was a business lunch, Jason dressed accordingly. All of that went out the window when the words ‘pool,’ ‘cognac’ and ‘cigars’ were mentioned.

He still wasn’t sure what this new project was that he would be working on with Stark. It probably was foolish accepting a job just on what little information he had -- working in Malibu on an idea Stark came up with in Peru -- but the project didn’t matter. It was a job that he needed to take at this point in his life. Plus, it was a job with one of the most intelligent and creative inventors the world had ever seen, at least in Jason’s opinion, and since he’d worked alongside the man to save the world, he did have some insider information.

He was well aware that many -- scratch that -- most people thought his new boss was a crazy genius, but really, weren't all geniuses a little off in the head? Jason knew he was, even before everything that had happened. He didn’t get where he was by not taking chances, some calculated, some downright foolhardy. Overall, they had paid off.

From a poor boy working in an orange grove to a scientist working for Howard Stark, he'd made huge strides and was just getting started. Even though he was told from a young age that he didn't deserve more, Jason knew it wasn't true. He knew he would be something someday, but even he was surprised by the ‘something’ that had manifested recently. Some good surprises, some not so good.

It was all so surreal. From the second Peggy Carter had stepped into his line of sight, his life had stopped being normal. Though had it ever been normal, really? Normalcy was a state of your own mind, different for each person. His normal normal was keeping his head down, nose to the grindstone, and all of the other hard-working clichés, all the while making strategic decisions that would get him that much closer to success.

Jason knew being a colored man in any job other than menial labor was an accomplishment in itself. The older he got, though, the more he felt his color wasn't always an obstacle; he had turned it into opportunities. He used it as a way to remain innocuous, and even invisible, while learning everything he could. Even his work at Isodyne, which he now knew -- and, deep down, had always felt -- was a farce, allowed him to experiment and hone his craft on some of the finest equipment in the world. He'd had to work twice, no, fifty times harder than a white man for every success he had, but those successes were his and his alone. He was a colored man slowly but surely making it in a white world. A rarity in this day and age.

Maybe that was why he was so strongly drawn to Peggy. She was in a man’s job, working harder than any man there. Her ambition rivaled his own, wanting to make her mark. And make it she did, on the world and on a lowly, farcical Isodyne scientist named Jason Wilkes. It was a shame things hadn't turned out differently. Too many things, actually...

Jason shook off his thoughts as he heard the patio door open.

“Found it!” Stark, dressed in a smoking robe, came barreling onto the patio carrying an amber-colored bottle and two brandy snifters. “Forgot to ask Jarvis to fish this out for me before he and the missus left for Sacramento. Gautier Cognac 1865.”

Jason’s eyes widened. “That’s… really old.”

“And really good. This is my second bottle.” He set the glasses on the table next to Jason and poured a generous amount in each.

“I’m… honored,” Jason said, unsure why Stark was wasting a very expensive bottle of booze on him but not about to turn it down.

“Don’t be. It’s not the best in my collection, but trust me, it’ll put some hair on your chest.” Stark lowered his sunglasses down his nose. “Looks like you could use some.”

Jason laughed as Stark plopped down in a nearby chair and grabbed a cigar, expertly chopping the end and lighting it in seconds.

“Hell of an adventure, eh, Doc?” Stark offered.

Jason laughed again. “That’s an understatement. I’m a scientist but even Zero Matter was beyond anything I could fathom.”

“Life is full of mysteries,” Stark replied. “Science can only explain some of it. Courage can help with the rest.”

Jason shook his head. “Courage didn’t help Whitney Frost. She went mad from the stuff. Plain, flat-out bonkers.”

“There's a razor-thin line between genius and madness, and any one of us could walk right over it, with or without Zero Matter. Hell, everyone thinks I’ve already crossed that line. Sometimes I think they're right.”

Jason couldn't argue that point, for his boss or for himself.

“You and I are kindred spirits,” Stark continued, as if reading Jason’s mind. “Genius or madness, does it really matter? We’re using it for good, right? We could use it to conquer the world, like Whitney Frost, but we aren’t.”

Jason nodded. It was true; they weren’t all that different than Frost, except for the gossamer threads of humanity they possessed.

“Imagine what Frost could be if her mind were… repaired,” Stark thought aloud, then looked at Jason over his sunglasses. “We could do that, you know. Repair her mind. Hell, we saved the damn world. There’s nothing we couldn’t do.”

“I don't think you can repair what the Zero Matter did to Whitney Frost.”

“You made it through unscathed.”

Jason took a big gulp of the cognac. He’d told everyone he was fine. Stark, Peggy, Ana… they all thought he had no lasting side effects. None of them knew the truth. Physically, yes, he was unscathed. But mentally? No such luck.

He knew exactly why Whitney Frost had gone mad. The Zero Matter had the ability to dig down deep inside of you, down past what you thought you knew about yourself, and pull out your strongest desires and multiply them by a billion. With Whitney, it was power. Not just any power, but absolute power. She would not, could not stop until she had absolute power. She pushed herself until her mind couldn’t take it anymore.

Jason didn’t have that problem. What he had to have wasn’t power; in his mind, it was much, much worse. What he desired, what he needed more than food or air, were answers.

Curiosity was nothing new to him, of course. He came out of the womb curious. The first word out of his mouth was ‘why’. But since the Zero Matter had expelled from his body, he felt a new level of needing answers that was all-consuming. It filled his thoughts during the day. It kept him up at night. It was always in his mind, forefront and background. It was always there, pecking at him like a woodpecker digging in a tree trunk, searching for that one morsel that would sate its hunger.

With the exception of the first night after the rift, Jason hadn't slept a full night. He awoke every few hours with questions whipping around, debris in the tornado of his mind. He didn’t just want the answers, he needed the answers. He had to have them, no matter what. He’d spent every day and every night trying to relieve the tension in his mind and body for answers.

Luckily, so far the questions had been relatively easy. What is the capital of Luxembourg? What is pi to 100 decimal places? What is the longest word in the dictionary? How many named battles were there in the Civil War? His room at Stark’s looked like a disaster area, books and encyclopedias from the house’s library everywhere. He'd told Jarvis it was research for the new job so as not to arise suspicion.

Jason found that discovering an answer was almost orgasmic, the flood of euphoria and relief flowing through every part of his body. It was short-lived, however, as another question was ready to take the place of the answered one.

Yet those constant, inconsequential questions didn’t concern him because the answers were readily available. What would happen when he couldn’t deduce or research the answer? What if his mind started pecking at him with those questions that man had been unable to answer, such as…

Nope. He wasn’t going there. He wasn’t letting them in. But what would happen if they did get in? He didn’t want to think about that, so he forced himself to focus only on questions with answers. Yesterday, while walking down the street, he saw a woman with an umbrella, so he looked up the history of umbrellas. On the same walk, he spied a movie title on a marquee and that brought about how movie projectors worked. He kept his mind busy to keep the unanswerable questions at bay. Once he stopped being able to answer questions, he was doomed to the same fate as Whitney Frost, and he would do everything he could to prevent it.

One of the first questions to hound him was one that had no answer found in a book: What were Peggy’s feelings for him? That’s why he had to talk to her so soon after the rift incident. He had to know her decision, even though it was written all over her face as soon as Sousa landed on the hard ground and they all knew he was safe. In that brief look, there was no mistaking the spark between them, stronger than any chemical reaction Jason had witnessed in any lab. Yet he still needed to hear the words.

Once he got the answer he expected, a weight lifted off his shoulders. It wasn’t that he didn’t want Peggy; he did. She was beautiful, smart, exciting, a little dangerous. Not his usual type, but he loved a challenge, and he knew she would be a great one. Had he not been in this mental situation, he would have fought for her, just as he had fought for everything else he wanted. They would have been good together, but it was for the best. He had to get himself under control, learn how to tame -- or better yet, eradicate -- the uncontrollable curiosity urges before he embarked anything resembling a meaningful relationship.

That was the main reason he’d accepted the job with Stark. Having access to his labs and all of that state-of-the-art equipment meant not only would he have projects to focus on, he also could find a way to fix himself. If anyone could do it, he knew he could, but he needed the resources. It wasn’t like corporations were going to start knocking on his door, offering him jobs. He didn’t want to wait for another Isodyne. He couldn’t wait. His life depended on it.

Jason looked at the glass in his hand and realized he'd drank almost all of the contents. When did that happen?

“Cat got your tongue?” Stark asked.

“Sorry. Got a little lost in my head.” Jason offered his boss a lopsided smile. “So, speaking of what you and I can do if we put our minds together, what exactly will I be working on at Stark Labs?”

“Later,” Stark said with a flourish of his hand. “Relax. Enjoy the cognac and the company.”

“I assumed that’s why I was here, to talk about the job.”

“What gave you that idea?”

Jason’s eyebrows raised. Did Stark ask him here to talk about work or for something else? And what exactly was that something else?

Stark suddenly stood, took a few steps forward and dropped his robe. Jason fought to keep his jaw from dropping. He was staring the backside of a -- pardon the pun -- stark-naked Stark.

“How about that swim?” Stark asked over his shoulder.

Swim? What swim? Oh yeah, Jason thought. Stark had mentioned it a few days ago, when they were talking with Peggy. And he did say something about swimming au naturel, but...

Stark then turned to face him. “For the sake of full disclosure, Doc, my pendulum swings both ways.”

And there it was, physically and figuratively: the reason why he was asked here. He knew his new boss was a very sexual person, if his playboy reputation was any indication. So what if his playing included women and men?

Maybe Stark was going for the shock factor, to see if the new guy could handle curveballs. However, after everything Jason had seen and had coursing through his veins, a naked man propositioning him had little shock value. And he wasn't surprised, for some reason. He'd felt something in the lab with Stark, other than their shared annoyance with Samberly. He'd just assumed it was an intellectual camaraderie. Maybe it was more than that.

Before being chosen to work in the weapons propulsion lab, much of Jason’s time in the Navy was spent on submarines, underwater for months at a time. A guy had to relieve the sexual tension somehow, and for some of the men, it was at the hand -- or the mouth -- of another guy. He didn’t partake, choosing to solve his tension himself. That didn’t mean he didn't wonder about it, though. What was it like to be with a man? Would he find it revolting? Exciting? Would it turn him into a homosexual? How did the mechanics of this work, a man with another man? So many answerable questions, and now that Stark seemed to be offering…

He let his gaze rake over the man, taking in his toned body, nicely defined chest, nicely defined other areas. Even flaccid, he could tell Stark was a healthy length, good thickness. Normally men who advertised their conquests were making up for inadequacies below the belt. Stark was not one of those men. Jason felt himself stirring, though whether it was because of the man or the answers standing in front of him, he wasn't sure. Did it matter?

“You’re not offended?” Stark asked, punctuating his words with his trademark smirk.

Jason shrugged. “Should I be?”

“Interested, then?”

Jason couldn’t help but laugh. Stark was fishing, literally dangling his bait in front of him. Should he take it? These were dangerous waters, getting involved with your boss. Not involved involved, but sexual-release involved. Still, getting sexual-release involved with your boss was bad enough, but with your male boss? Talk about shark-infested waters. Stark-infested waters. He smiled; bad, booze-induced jokes weren’t his style but what the hell. He had something new that could occupy his mind. He had questions that could be answered.

“Should I be?” Jason replied again.

Stark let loose with a bark of laughter. He walked toward the pool steps, then turned to face Jason again. “You know how most of the time, the delicate taste of caviar will sate your appetite, but sometimes the only thing that will satisfy your tastebuds is a thick, juicy steak?”

Jason nodded, though he had no idea what Stark was talking about since he'd never tasted caviar. But it was crystal clear what the innuendo stood for: Jason Wilkes = steak. He'd been called worse. And the more he thought about it, the more his curiosity fluttered. Or was that his stomach?

“I could go for a steak,” Jason said, immediately regretting the stupid remark. However, seeing the man’s physical response told him he'd said just the right thing.

“Good to know,” Stark replied, smirk back in place as he spread his arms out to his sides. “And let’s face it. This one is pretty irresistible.”

Once again, Jason couldn’t argue Stark’s point. He watched the man take each step into the pool until he was covered to the waist.

“Water’s great, Doc,” Stark said. “Join me.”

Jason hesitated for just a breath before getting up from the chair. With top-shelf booze and uncontrollable curiosity fueling him, he shed his trunks and dived into the deep end of the pool.