Your all is partial, Prospero;
My will is all my own:
Your need to love shall never know
Me: I am I, Antonio,
By choice myself alone.
—W. H. Auden, from The Sea and the Mirror
Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann'd,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
—John Donne, from "To His Mistress Going to Bed"
Two days after his spies reported that Anthony Stark had returned to England—battered, they told him, but alive—Sir Nicholas Fury rode to Deptford. He went alone, and he did not go at the Queen's command; but Fury had served the Queen for a long time, and he knew when to follow his own initiative over royal instruction. He was faithful to the crown, beyond measure and beyond reward, but no one survived in his business by merely following orders.
The house Howard Stark had built in Deptford was sprawling and magnificent, the ostentatious product of the riches Stark's trading ventures had brought to England, and it was dwarfed by the bulk of the workshop along the river. The sun was setting, and someone had lit the lamps in the workshop windows, but Fury went up to the house.
He was met by a footman. "Are you expected, sir?"
"Tell Master Stark that Sir Nicholas Fury is here to see him," Fury said mildly.
The footman did not even twitch, which was honestly fairly impressive. Instead, he ushered Fury into a sitting room. "If you will wait, my lord," he said, tonelessly formal, and shut the doors behind him. Fury took in the room with one quick glance. He had been here before, but the decoration had changed, and the upholstery and Italian paintings were far too tasteful and modern for Stark to have chosen them himself.
He did not sit, and they did not keep him waiting long: it was less than five minutes before the doors opened again and a woman came into the room. Her hair was as red as the Queen's had once been, and she had a kind of graceful poise that Fury instinctively respected, all the more for that it was earned rather than bred.
"Sir Nicholas," she said, holding out a hand.
Fury bowed over her hand, shallow and correct, "Mistress Potts. I hope you will forgive my rudeness, but I must see Master Stark."
"He has scarcely been home two days," Mistress Potts said, a hint of iron in her voice. "I am afraid he is not receiving visitors."
"I am not a visitor," Fury said, matching her tone. "This is business, madam."
"So much the worse," she snapped. There was a brief, pained silence, and then she took hold of her poise again. "Sir Nicholas, did the Queen send you?"
Fury said nothing, and allowed the silence to linger. It was usually one of his most effective methods of intimidation, but Mistress Potts met his gaze, quiet and unhesitating. Fury remembered everything—he could hardly be the Queen's spymaster if he did not—and he remembered Margaret Potts at twelve, orphaned and alone in Howard Stark's huge, echoing house. She was the illegitimate daughter of Stark's chief partner in the Company of Merchant Adventurers, and when Sir Edward Potts had died on a ship halfway home from China, he had extracted a promise from Howard Stark to look after his daughter. Howard had brought her home in a wagon of tea and cloth and spices, and she had stayed—was still here, twenty years later, looking after Anthony Stark with the fond frustration of kin. She had all the dangerous quicksilver cleverness of the Starks, and a good deal more common sense.
"Mistress Potts," he said at last, "Margaret. I must see him. It is my duty, and I was his father's friend."
She looked at him for another long, silent moment, and then sighed. "He is not at his best."
Fury spread his hands, "Understood."
She nodded slowly, making up her mind, and then turned to lead the way out of the room. "He's in the workshop."
Workshop, Fury thought as Margaret pushed open the heavy door, was rather a misnomer. He had not been here often since Howard died, but if Anthony Stark's cares diverged from his father's, most of them—if perhaps not the whoring and drinking and extreme overinvestment in the theatres—had only expanded the Stark enterprises. Anthony was an adventurer, but he also worked with his hands, crafting the instruments of his inherited trade: cannons and compasses, weapons and navigational instruments, and, above all, the ships themselves. Anthony Stark's ships were the best in England. He built them here; and in the shadowed darkness beyond this single lamp-lit room, Fury could just make out the perfect rising curve of a hull. Stark was standing in front of the forge when they went inside, pumping a bellows with his back to the door and the sleeves of his shirt rolled past his elbows.
"Master Stark," Margaret said, loud enough to carry, "Sir Nicholas Fury is here to see you," and then, sharper, taking in the bottles and decanter littering the drafting table, "and you should not be drinking so much, the doctor said—"
"Pepper," Stark snapped, dropping the bellows and stripping off his gloves as he turned, "will you not let me work—" He stopped when he saw Fury. His hair was cropped short, and there were bandages over his forehead and jaw, and long red scars on his bare forearms. He was not dressed for company: in addition to the rolled-up sleeves, his collar was open and his doublet partially unlaced; but what really arrested Fury's attention was the faint glow emanating from the open neck of his shirt. It was like a candle, or an ember from the fire, and it was coming from Stark's chest. It seemed Fury's instincts had been correct: something very strange had happened in Russia.
"A little warning next time, Mistress Potts?" Stark said between his teeth.
"If I had warned you," Margaret said calmly, "you would have been prepared, and you would have tried to hide it, and then I believe Sir Nicholas would have been required to force the answers out of you by some means other than confession."
"Sir Nicholas is not my confessor," Stark said harshly.
"Let us all thank God for that," Fury murmured. He already knew far more than he would like to know about Anthony Stark's sins. "Nevertheless, Mistress Potts is correct. However drunken, dissolute, and miserable you may be, Master Stark, I will have answers. When Her Majesty's subjects—and more particularly, Her Majesty's agents—return from the dead, it is my duty to determine precisely what happened to them in the afterlife. If you do not tell me the truth, there will be consequences."
"Is that a threat?" Stark demanded, crossing his arms over his chest.
"I never threaten," Fury said, and bared his teeth. "Tell me what happened in Russia."
Stark scowled, and then, in what seemed an almost involuntary gesture, uncrossed his arms and touched a hand to his heart. He looked at Margaret, and then he looked at Fury, and then he sighed. "There was a shipwreck."
"So we surmised," Fury said dryly.
Stark glared at him. "Do you want to hear this story or not?"
Fury opened a hand, "Proceed."
Stark leaned back against the table. "We met with our agents in Riga, as planned. You've had those letters?" Fury nodded, and Stark continued, "Then, I—Viktor told me this story, when we were drinking, and Viktor, he's a reliable man. Even if it was a myth, he believed it, and I thought—well." Stark looked away. "I thought the Queen would be inclined to reward the secret of eternal life."
Fury stared at him. "Stark—"
"Listen," Stark said sharply, "I know how this sounds, Fury. I have never believed in magic, either. But you know the Queen is dying, and you know the chaos that will follow when she dies. Viktor told me a story, about a—a god, or a demon, who hid his soul in a needle, in an egg, in a crystal box, buried under a tree on an island, and I thought—why not? If I did not find the island, we would carry on with our expedition as planned. But if I did—"
"And did you?" Fury was drawn in despite himself.
"Yes," said Stark, "and then I stole the box."
"What happened then?"
Stark scrubbed one hand over his face. "Well, then, I broke the crystal box. That was an accident—everything that happened was an accident, I—you do not expect myths to start coming true. When the box broke, I was left holding the egg, and it felt—there was a power in it, a charge that made my hair stand on end, and I knew that if I did not keep it safe, terrible things would happen. I did not realize that terrible things would happen regardless." He looked down at his chest, and then began to remove his doublet and shirt. "I carried a broken compass that belonged to my father," he said, "a sailor's good luck charm. Not even a lodestone would make it work again, but the lid was intact, and it opened, so I put the egg inside. Then I put the whole thing on a cord around my neck. I thought that was the end of things. I would bring it back to England, and no harm done, and maybe the rest of Viktor's story was true, and there was a needle in the egg that was the soul of Koschei the Deathless, and it could keep the Queen alive." He set his doublet and shirt on the table, and Fury took a step closer. That was a compass in Stark's chest, glowing faintly through the glass of the lid, its needle pointing unerringly north.
"But I had stolen it, you see," Stark said quietly, "and gods and demons do not look kindly on theft. Worse, I had not even stolen it with purpose. I had no bone to pick with the demon to whom the soul belonged. All I knew of him was his immortality, but it was his soul, and he came after us, chasing down the ship, and then—I cannot say what happened then, except that I—I tried to use the power, and there was an explosion, and the ship broke to pieces, and everyone was lost."
Whatever Fury had expected, it was not this. "You caused the shipwreck?"
"Yes," Stark said, "and the death of my crew, and the ruin of our expedition."
"Then how are you still alive?"
Stark shook his head. "I washed up on shore with the wreckage of my ship, but in the explosion and the shipwreck the egg had broken in the compass, and when I woke, the needle and the egg and the compass were joined, somehow, and embedded in my chest, and—glowing, as you see. I don't know what happened, not exactly, but I know that I was wounded, and that I should have perished with my crew, and instead I am possessed of the soul of a demon who does not die. There is no extracting it; there is no sharing it; I do not know if there is any using it, because the only time I tried I caused an explosion that could have killed a hundred men. It's a curse, Fury."
"A curse, and a weapon," Fury said, very softly. "How did you get home?"
Stark smiled mirthlessly. "The needle in the egg became the needle of the compass. My heart points north. I built a boat from the wreckage of my ship and went back to sea, where I was rescued by pirates. They saw me safely home."
They were all silent, for a moment, and then Fury said, "I do not know if I believe you, Stark, but I would be a fool not to concern myself with the possibility that your story is true, and if it is, then this power that you say you carry cannot remain undisturbed in Deptford."
"No," said Stark, his voice hard. "That is not the lesson. I cannot go on as I have, Fury, or continue in my merchant ventures, taking that which does not belong to me. Not even for England, and not as I am now. I have given the order to disband my company, and there will be no more expeditions in my name. This is the end of me. I will trouble no one; leave me alone to work."
"Her Majesty will not look kindly on that," Fury said mildly. Stark had always been one of Fury's more unpredictable agents, but whatever had happened to him in Russia, he was not the same man he had been when he left.
"I have failed Her Majesty," Stark said, and turned away to put on his shirt and doublet again. "I would fade into obscurity now, Fury. Let her forget I ever worked for her."
"And your shareholders?"
"They will manage."
"Do you really expect me to believe," Fury demanded—and here was the crux of the matter—"that you will not seek a way to work with this power? I do know you, Stark. It could be a very dangerous weapon, should you determine how to wield it."
"Of course I will try to solve it," Stark said incredulously, "what do you take me for? But I will keep those discoveries to myself. I have no desire to be a weapon, not even for Her Majesty. I will swear that on my father's name, and if you do not trust my word, then at least trust his."
Fury thought about that while Stark finished dressing. The thick fabric of his doublet obscured the compass, and Fury had kept secrets before, even from the Queen. Secrets were his business, and he always looked after his agents. "On one condition," he said. "Should I call for your aid in time of need, you will remember your debt to me."
Stark held out his hand, and they shook. "Always."
The day the Queen was murdered, Anthony was at the theatre. The Lord Chamberlain's Men had a new play—or new to Anthony, at least, first played for the Queen at Epiphany. It was a comedy about a shipwrecked lady who disguised herself as a boy. The shipwreck gave Anthony pause, but the play was very good (much more to Anthony's taste than that one about the prince who was haunted by the ghost of his father), and after the play he went to the Swan with the company and bought everyone drinks, just like he always used to do. Dick slapped him on the back and told him he was glad he was still alive to pay their way in liquor, and Anthony laughed, and complimented the play, and did his best to drown his sorrows in cheap wine and the kind of obscene jokes that only players told, and—later—went upstairs with one of the boys. That was a calculated risk, but he kept his doublet on, and he was drunk enough not to think of it as a disguise.
He slept, afterwards, and woke to what sounded like all the church bells in London ringing at once. He pulled his boots back on, laced up his trousers as quickly as he could, and went back downstairs. Dick and Will and John and Armin and Phillips were still at their table in the corner, and Anthony sat down on the bench next to John. "Is that—"
Dick slid a tankard of ale across the table. "Have a drink."
Anthony picked up the tankard. "The Queen—"
"Is dead," Will said quietly, and then he lifted his own beer and held it out to clink lightly against Anthony's. "May she reign in Heaven, and long live His Majesty the King."
John snorted, "His Majesty the King of Scotland."
"And our King now," Dick said sharply. "Keep a civil tongue in your head, John."
Anthony took a long swallow of his beer. Will was looking at him across the table, head cocked to one side in that curious, observant way he had. "Stark," he said, still quiet, "what do you know of the new King?" Anthony had never met James—his work for the crown had never taken him to Scotland, only to Ireland and Russia and Spain and the Indies—but even though the Queen was very old, even though he knew she was dying, even though she was dead—it was still impossible to think of her as mortal. He stole a hand to his chest, touching the compass through three layers of cloth. He could feel the sharpness of its metal edges, the uneasily banked fire of far too much power just barely contained under his skin. That power should never have been the Queen's, not even if it could have kept her alive, not even if it could have prevented England from falling into chaos when she died; but it should never have been Anthony's, either. He did not know if he could trust Fury to protect him from this new King—this King who, if rumor's many tongues could be trusted, loved the theatre but hated witchcraft, and had made it his business to stamp out anything and anyone that smelled of magic.
"Very little," he said to Will, "but I think the whole world is about to change."
"It already has, lad," Phillips said, "and there's nothing any of us can do about that."
The bells were still ringing, change after change after change, and outside the dry quiet warmth of the tavern it had started to storm again; but Phillips was right: there was nothing Anthony could do now but wait and see what happened. "I'll drink to that," Dick said, raising his tankard, "To Her Majesty, and weathering the world."
"The rain it raineth every day," said Armin philosophically, and they drank.
Nothing happened for a week and more. There were riots in London, and the usual talk of the end of the world, but Anthony stayed in his workshop, conducting failed experiment after failed experiment. There was no word from Fury, but Anthony felt poised on a knife's edge; he smashed expensive glass instruments, drank far too much liquor, burned his hands on metal newly-cast from the forge. Pepper's temper grew ever shorter with him—and then, maybe ten days after the Queen died, Anthony flung down his latest pages of useless equations and stormed out of the workshop to find Pepper coming down the walk from the house in the dark.
"Fury's boy is here," she said, "he brought a letter, and he says he was instructed to give it only to you."
Fury's boy was pacing Anthony's study, hands clenched around the folded paper. "Master Stark," he said breathlessly, when Anthony came into the room. "M'lord sent me—"
"Yes, yes," Anthony said impatiently, "give me the letter."
The boy held it out, and Anthony took it and went around the desk. Pepper had lit the candles and lamps, and Anthony slid his finger under the wax to break the seal. Fury's hand was chicken scratch—and not just chicken scratch, but chicken scratch in cipher. For a moment the cipher was entirely unfamiliar, none of the ones they had used for Anthony's recent expeditions, and then something unlocked in Anthony's mind and he started to laugh, because that was Kit's cipher. Kit, dead for almost a decade, and no simple way for the King or the King's agents to decode a cipher no one had used for years—but of course Anthony knew it; Kit had taught him.
Stark, the letter read, no salutation but his name, Your best and fastest ship to the Tower this night, and I will consider your debt fulfilled. I have charted a course from which I can never return, and for which I shall be rightly branded a traitor to my Crown and Country. Though I require your aid and trust your silence, this act may bring His Majesty's agents to your door, and so I may tell you nothing more. Burn this letter, and protect your counsel. Fury. Beneath Fury's signature were three scrawled lines of postscript: I neither like nor trust Doctor Stephen Strange, but if he should survive His Majesty's judgement against magicians, he too may require your aid; and should His Majesty's eyes turn to you, you may require his.
That was that, then—if even Fury was running from the new King, there was no hope for any of them. They would be lucky to live out the year, cursed or blessed or simply very unlucky. The compass was a cold hard weight over his heart. "What's your name, boy?"
"Peter, sir," the boy said, "Peter Parquagh."
He looked honest, Anthony thought, honest and brave and a little afraid. "Did your master give you any other messages for me?"
Peter shook his head. "No, sir." He paused, looking down at the rug in front of Anthony's desk. "I think he does not want me to know what he is planning, this time."
"He's protecting you, Master Parquagh," Anthony said gently, and then he stood and went to put the letter in the fire. The maiden voyage of The Eagle's Shadow had exceeded all his expectations. She would serve Fury well; and if Anthony could still not see his way clear to using the power in his chest, he had not forgotten how to build the best ships in England. "Come along down to the river, lad," he said to Peter. "We have to get your master a ship."
Margaret was writing letters in her workroom when Jarvis knocked on the door. The letters had piled up, over the last weeks, terse missives from company shareholders and contracted traders, all demanding to know what Stark thought he was doing by halting his expeditions. Their shock had worn off, by now, and their shock over the Queen's death, and with the new Scottish King something of a mystery when it came to trade, every member of Stark's Company of Merchant Adventures wanted some kind of solid ground. She could not give them that, but she could do her best to soothe their troubled waters.
"Mistress Margaret?" Jarvis said, putting his head around the door just as she stamped Anthony's seal ring into the soft wax. "There's a man here to see Master Stark."
She set the letter on top of the others, and turned in her chair. "Who is he?"
"He says he's from the King." Jarvis actually looked troubled, which was so unusual that Margaret stood up quickly, dusting off her skirts. When Jarvis began to show expressions, there really was something to worry about.
"I will see him," she said, "but let us leave Master Stark out of this for now."
"Of course," Jarvis agreed, sounding almost affronted that she had to ask.
She checked her reflection in the mirror over the stairs: not a hair out of place, and her dark dress was simple and austere. There was nothing whatsoever in her appearance to make her remarkable to an agent of the King; good.
Jarvis had put the man in the sitting room. He was standing in front of the fire, admiring the Caravaggio above the mantel, and he turned when she came into the room.
"I am afraid Master Stark is indisposed," she said, "but you can speak to me as you would to him. My name is Margaret Potts."
"Madam," the man inclined his head. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I am David Banner, servant to His Majesty." He had a calm, pleasant voice with a strong Scottish accent.
Margaret smiled. "I believe we are all servants of His Majesty, Master Banner, but I am pleased to meet you as well. Will you sit, and tell me what brings you here?" She gestured to the settee, and took one of the chairs for herself.
"Mistress Potts," Banner said when they were both seated. "The King has sent me to investigate some worrying rumors regarding Master Stark's loyalty to the crown."
Margaret raised her eyebrows. "I can assure you, Master Banner, that there is no doubt whatsoever about Master Stark's loyalty."
"Can you prove that, Mistress Potts?" Banner asked. "His Majesty understands that Master Stark worked for Sir Nicholas Fury, Queen Elizabeth's former spymaster, and Sir Nicholas Fury is a traitor to the crown. We cannot trust the honor of his associates."
Margaret bit her lip and glanced away, watching Banner track her movements out of the corner of her eye. "Master Stark broke with Sir Nicholas Fury some time ago, Master Banner, before the Queen's death. He was an agent of Fury's, that much is certainly true, but he found that their opinions—differed, when it came to the future of England." Blackening Fury's name was really too bad, all things considered—she had always liked Sir Nicholas—but he was in no position to protest.
Banner frowned, "Then can you tell me why Master Stark provided the ship on which Fury fled with those servants of the Devil that His Majesty was holding in the Tower for execution? These were the same servants of the Devil, madam, the same terrible monsters that arranged the death of the late and lamented Queen of England."
Margaret allowed her eyes to widen in surprise. "Fury stole one of Master Stark's ships? I know nothing of this—but I can assure you that Master Stark would never have allowed such a thing. His ships are precious to him, but they are also ships, you understand? They have captains, and crews, and sometimes they take the wrong course. Perhaps Fury took advantage of his prior connection with Master Stark's enterprises to bribe the ship's captain?" Master Banner, Margaret thought, was looking distinctly frustrated; she could almost hear him grinding his teeth. "Please tell His Majesty," Margaret said, hammering the nail home, "that Master Stark is his faithful servant, and desires only to be left alone to work on designing the very best ships for His Majesty's armada." Anthony would be furious when she told him that she had pledged his ships to the King; but he would be alive, and that was what mattered.
There was a moment of slightly pained silence, and then Banner stood. "Thank you for your time, Mistress Potts," he said, bowing. "I will deliver your message to the King."
Margaret rose, "Thank you, Master Banner. I'll see you out."
When Banner was out of sight down the road and she could breathe easily again, Margaret went back into the house. Her deferrals and disavowing of Fury might hold them off, for a while—but everything she had heard of King James of Scotland led her to believe that he would not be quite so easily deterred. Anthony wanted nothing to do with the crown, not anymore; but the weapon he had brought back from Russia, the weapon that had damaged him beyond her capacity to repair, was precisely as dangerous as the King would assume it was, if he ever learned of its existence.
Anthony came up to the house early that evening, looking thoughtful. His eyes were shadowed, but there was a strange calm to him that Margaret did not trust at all.
"An agent from the King came to see you, today," she said, following him into his study. "I thought it best not to disturb you, but—"
Anthony shut the study door behind them and leaned against his desk. "Should I be worried?"
Margaret shook her head. "I can't be sure. He wanted to know about The Eagle's Shadow, so I suggested that Fury might have bribed the captain, and told him that we knew nothing whatsoever about it—and, moreover, that you had broken with Fury some time ago."
Anthony grinned, "Why look at you, Mistress Potts, lying to the King."
Margaret scowled back at him, "Anthony, honestly—as if we did not already have enough to worry about with your company shareholders, and the King like as not to come storming down your door for ships for the Royal Armada, even aside from considering branding you a traitor, and if anyone should find out about—about—these are all stopgaps, now, but what are we going to do?" She had not intended for all her fears to come pouring out, not even to Anthony; but she had reached the end of her rope, pacing the sitting room after Banner had gone and trying to think of solutions that would not end both of them in the Tower.
"Pepper," Anthony was saying, "Pepper, look at me." He took her gently by the shoulders, and she met his eyes, familiar and beloved and so very stupid sometimes.
"Anthony," she said, "if the King ever finds out—"
"I know," Anthony said, "I need to be prepared. I must know how to use my curse, no matter that I never asked for it and would give it back if I could, it is mine to carry, now, and our new King does not like things he cannot explain."
"I know you are no devil," Margaret said seriously, and Anthony laughed and let her go.
"No," he said, "but I think perhaps I should consort with one. Fury told me to seek out Doctor Stephen Strange. I know him, a little, and it is only pride that has kept me from consulting him before this," he paused, took in the look on her face. "He's not a devil, Pepper, stop looking at me like that, I am no Faustus. But he is a magician."
"Can he help you?"
Anthony shrugged one shoulder, "I have no idea, but I think tomorrow I should ride to Greenwich."
"I am coming with you," said Margaret.
Mistress Clea Strange's wide blue eyes were red-rimmed with weeping. "The King executed my husband this morning," she said, "and in doing so I fear he has only hastened the end of this world. We have very little time. Will you come inside?"
Margaret looked at Anthony. He looked a little stricken, but he caught Margaret's eyes and tilted his head in an unspoken question. She quirked a brow; something about Mistress Strange's odd brusqueness appealed. "What precisely do you mean by the end of the world, madam?" Anthony asked, as they followed Mistress Strange into the library.
"My husband says this world is tearing itself apart," she said. "Surely you have not failed to notice the storms, or the increase in what I am told are very unusual phenomena? Your own situation, for example, Master Stark. My husband says that if we do not do something, then this world has only a few weeks left to live, and we shall all go with it when it ends." She pointed them to two chairs. "So you see, Master Stark, your own problem is rather less urgent than saving your world, and should we fail, you will no longer have any need to fear the King."
Margaret sat down. What Mistress Strange was saying was almost impossible to fathom, but Margaret had weathered Anthony coming back from Russia with the soul of a demon inside a compass embedded in his chest, and if the world was ending, then perhaps everything made a strange—impossible—kind of sense.
Anthony was staring at Mistress Strange with a kind of hunger Margaret had not seen in months, not since the last time Fury had charged him with a near-impossible task and an opportunity to see the distant unknown reaches of the world. "How will you save the world, madam?" he asked.
Mistress Strange smiled—a little bitterly, Margaret thought—and lifted a large wooden cask onto the desk. "James had my husband beheaded," she said, resting one hand on the cask, "and my husband has told me what we must do. A forerunner began all this, something out of place and time. It came through a rift in space in the New World, at a place known to a young woman named Virginia Dare, and to her Indian protector. Virginia came to London to seek resources from the crown for the colony at Roanoke, but James will not heed her requests, and has forbidden her to return home. If she does not go, the world will end, and so my husband and I will take Virginia back to America and return the anomaly to its proper time and place."
"Your husband and you—" Margaret said faintly, staring at Mistress Strange's hand on the wooden cask.
"Yes," said Mistress Strange.
"Mistress Strange," Anthony said incredulously, "is that your husband's head in a barrel?"
Mistress Strange nodded. "Wine seemed the best method of preservation," she said calmly, "and I can assure you that we will all need my husband before the end."
"I—see," said Anthony.
"Perhaps," said Mistress Strange, and then she went silent, tilting her head as if she was listening to something. Margaret and Anthony looked at one another, and the look in Anthony's eyes made Margaret cover her mouth with one hand to hold back a threatening bubble of hysterical laughter.
"Master Stark," Mistress Strange said, her voice frighteningly rational, "my husband says you may also be needed before the end. He has not seen your outcome, but he fears we may need the power you carry should someone fail, and the direction of your heart at sea. Will you come with us to America?"
Anthony was silent, and Margaret held her breath until he met her eyes again. There was that look—not a question at all, just the intrepid glow of desire for the unknown. Anthony liked to pretend that his passion was in the building and not the expedition, and it was never entirely a lie; it was Howard who had been the merchant venturer, and Anthony had never wanted that for himself. But Anthony wanted knowledge, not for trade goods or money or power, just the glorious rush of the endless uncharted sea. If he could have the voyage and be there when the world needed saving (and when she had started to believe Mistress Strange, Margaret did not know), then maybe all the things that haunted him would rest easier on his shoulders.
"Go," she said softly. "Go, and save the world, and come home."
"That's settled, then," Mistress Strange said briskly. "Master Stark, the ship is called the Virginia Maid, and we will sail two hours before dawn. May I entrust you to bring my luggage aboard? My husband says you will do him no harm, and I will have need of my hands."
Anthony blinked, "I—ah," and then, not at all to Margaret's surprise, he bowed. "Certainly, madam."
Mistress Strange set a cloth bag on the table next to the cask. "Good, then. Master Stark, Mistress Potts, I will let you see yourselves out. I have several things I must attend to before we can sail. Goodbye, Mistress Potts," she added, making her way up the stairs, "I will not see you again. Until this morning, Master Stark."
When she was gone, Margaret let the laughter come bubbling out. "This is crazy, Anthony," she said, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes. "Truly, I—the world is going to end."
"Not if I can help it," Anthony said, and that set them both off again. When she had finally stopped laughing, and Anthony was down to gasping chortles, Margaret stood up and eyed the cask askance.
"I am not taking that on my horse," she said, before Anthony could get any ideas.
Anthony widened his eyes at her, "But Pepper—"
"No," she said firmly, and then, almost by rote after all these years, "and stop calling me that."
Anthony caught her hand and raised it to his lips. "You know I only call you that because you are precious and rare."
He always said that, but it still made her blush. "Promise me you will be careful?"
"I always am."
"You are not," she said, and he laughed and let go of her hand.
"I will be as careful as I always am," he amended, which was really as good as Margaret ever got out of him. "Now come along, it seems I have a ship to catch." He picked up the barrel, handed her Mistress Strange's bag, and went up the stairs.
Margaret looked after him for a moment, and then followed. It was just like Anthony, to go haring off on another expedition just when he had said he was done with them forever, and leave her at home to pick up the pieces and keep them both safe. But she always did, whether the world was ending or not, and she always would.
"So let me see if I have this straight," Anthony said carefully, "You're from the future."
"Yes," said Rojhaz.
"The future, as in—over three hundred years from now." Mistress Strange had said there was something called a forerunner, out of time and place, but he had not entirely followed. He had been a bit stuck on her husband's head in a barrel telling her that he should go to America, and the world ending, and his own problems. Perhaps he should have paid a little more attention to the details.
Rojhaz crossed his arms over his chest, and glared down at Anthony. "Yes."
Anthony swallowed hard. Those arms and that chest were—impressive; but five minutes ago he would have called Rojhaz a savage, and now—now, there were whole centuries of uncharted sea in this man. "Can you tell me—"
Rojhaz shook his head sharply. "I don't know. I probably—everything is still a little like a dream, or a faded photograph, although I guess you don't have photographs yet, do you?"
Anthony blinked. "What is a photograph?" Light writing, fascinating.
"Mr. Stark—" Rojhaz said, sounding exasperated.
Anthony put up a hand, "Anthony, please."
Rojhaz bit his lip. "Anthony, then. Look, I—Ms. Strange, I don't know how much I should—how much I should tell any of you about my time."
"Hmm," said Mistress Strange. "I cannot answer that question, Rojhaz, but your presence here alone has unsettled this world enough to bring it to an untimely end. I am not sure what additional damage knowledge of your time could do."
"Are you going to send me back?" Rojhaz asked. Anthony was surprised, and tried not to let it show on his face: Mistress Strange had said nothing to Rojhaz or Virginia about what she planned to do with the portal once she found it, but it seemed that Rojhaz was clever enough to see through her obfuscation.
"My husband thinks it is the only way," Mistress Strange answered readily, "and from what you have said, those men in your time should never have sent you here in the first place. Your own time may need you back, and this time cannot afford your presence."
"Ah," said Rojhaz. "Well, I—alright."
There was a long silence, until Anthony broke it, "But can I ask you questions? Because I want to know—"
"No," Rojhaz snapped, and then he turned on his heel and left the cabin.
Anthony looked at Mistress Strange, and then at Virginia. Virginia looked as if she might cry, but Mistress Strange had put an arm around her and was speaking to her in a low voice. There was nothing for him to do here. He went after Rojhaz.
Rojhaz managed to avoid him for almost an entire day, which was an impressive feat on a ship the size of the Virginia Maid. Eventually, however, Anthony found him standing by the starboard railing looking out at the waves.
"Why will you not speak with me?" Anthony asked, leaning on the railing beside him. Rojhaz did not turn. "I do not wish to make you uncomfortable," Anthony continued, "but there is so much I want to ask you of your world." He paused. Rojhaz still had not moved, and Anthony took a breath and lowered his voice. "I have seen many strange things, in my travels, and—fallen afoul, myself, of magics and mysteries that I cannot entirely explain. I long to explain them, but more than that, I have never—I fear I no longer quite belong here, in my own time. Perhaps if I can learn more of yours, sir, I can begin to solve the problems of my own."
"Don't call me sir," Rojhaz said.
Anthony raised an eyebrow, "No? What, then? I would treat you with respect."
"I—" Rojhaz said, finally turning to look at Anthony. There was a strange look in his blue eyes, caution and a little fear, and something else that Anthony could not place. "Rojhaz is fine, or—Rogers. I was—I was Captain Rogers."
"Captain Rogers," Anthony said, "will you help me?"
Rogers shook his head slowly. "I don't know how I can. In my time, I—I failed a lot of people, and they died. It's not…I really don't want to talk about it, even if anything I said could give you answers. Some of the problems your world has, well, mine is even worse. I know you mean well, but please. Let me be."
Rogers looked troubled, haunted, and there was a kind of banked fire beneath his seeming calm that Anthony knew far too well. He was deep waters, Anthony thought, and there was nothing Anthony liked quite so well as charting the terra incognita—especially when the terra incognita looked like that—but he knew what Rogers meant, about not wanting to talk about the people who had died because of him. "As you wish," he said, and the surprised, grateful look Rogers gave him was almost enough.
He found Clea Strange belowdecks, sitting on the floor in the hold and talking to her husband.
"I am sorry to interrupt," he said—because there was a point at which, on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic with a witch who talked to her dead husband's head in a barrel of wine, a twelve-year-old girl who could transform into animals, and a very large and very handsome man from the future who was dressed like a New World Indian, one had to embrace the ridiculous—"but I was hoping I could have a word."
"Certainly, Master Stark," she said, smiling up at him. He looked from her to the cask, and elected to sit on an unmarked crate. "What can we do for you?"
"I had hoped, when I agreed to join this expedition," he said, "that you or your husband might be able to help me with my—curse. I do understand that the end of the world is rather more critical, but I—" He put a hand to his chest, where the compass was hidden beneath shirt and doublet. "This weighs on me, and I have found no means to use it safely. You said your husband thought my power might be needed, but how can that be, when it is so dangerous?"
Mistress Strange tilted her head. "You fear the magic that you stole?"
"I do not fear danger," Anthony said, "but I should not have stolen it, and it caused an explosion that killed my crew and tore my ship to pieces, and left me mortally wounded."
"And then it saved your life," offered Mistress Strange, almost a question.
"And then it saved my life," Anthony agreed, "and allowed me to find my way home. But madam, I have found no means to channel the power, no vessel that can contain it save the one in my chest, and should I let it go free, then—
She smiled grimly. "You are that vessel, Master Stark, will you or no. My husband tells you to trust the navigation of your heart. He also says that an explosion is sometimes precisely what is called for. Perhaps you are right to seek answers from Rojhaz, but all these miracles—they are out of their own time, and what was true for the heroes of his time may not be true for the heroes of yours."
"I am no hero," Anthony protested.
"Perhaps not," she murmured, and rose, "but my husband says that the power you carry may be required before the end, and if that is so, then he must also trust you to wield it. I am sorry I cannot help you further." She went out.
Anthony stared after her for a moment, and then sighed. "What do I do now?" he asked the barrel containing the head of Doctor Stephen Strange. Blessedly, the barrel did not reply.
The good weather held for almost a week: clear skies and strong winds from the southeast, and they stayed on course with the captain's charts, making exceptionally good time. Then Anthony woke on the morning of the sixth day to heavy cloud cover and a light spattering of rain, and by afternoon they were deep in the heart of the storm. Rogers took Mistress Strange and Virginia below, and then came back up on deck. Anthony offered him an oilcloth, but Rogers shook his head.
"Are you not staying with Virginia?" Anthony asked him.
Rogers looked away. "No, I—Ms. Strange is with her, and I'm no use sitting in the cabin. I don't know much about boats, but I am kind of, um, strong. What can I do to help?"
"The captain called all hands," Anthony said, and left Rogers to find the captain while he went to aid the helmsman. The rain was hard and cold in his face, falling in sheets so heavy he could barely see his hands on the wheel; and it was dark, and the wind and the rain carried the shouted cries of the crew to him in fragments, so it took him a while to notice when something changed. It took, in fact, the slick dark head of the sea monster cresting the side of the ship.
"Holy Mother of God," breathed the helmsman. The monster was scaled like the fire-breathing lizards Anthony had seen in Spain, but much, much larger, with huge gold eyes and teeth like broadswords.
"Get down!" Anthony yelled, and they ducked behind the wheel as the monster passed over them. The ship was shaking from more than the storm, now, straining under the deadly fracturing weight of the monster's sinuous coils. He'd thought—he'd always thought the kraken was a myth.
Next to him, the helmsman was murmuring the Lord's Prayer. Every one of the stories said the kraken was unstoppable, that it broke up ships in calm waters and stormy ones, that the men on those ships were never seen again. He threw off the oilcloth and started to unlace his doublet. There was no time to think. "Take the wheel," he shouted at the helmsman, throwing his doublet down after the oilcloth. The helmsman stood up, frantic and frightened, but as soon as he had his hands on the wheel Anthony left him there and ran across the deck.
The monster was perilously close to taking down one of the masts, but—that was Rogers in the crows' nest, Anthony realized; Rogers in the crows' nest with a makeshift net of ropes, trying to—Christ Jesus.
"I'm going up," he shouted at the captain, and ran for the mast. The ropes were slick, and Anthony slid and tangled and lost his footing; but he had been raised on ships, even before he began to build his own, and he knew how to climb. He pulled himself up into the crows' nest, soaked through and shivering in his thin linen shirt. "Rogers," he gritted out, "you cannot kill a kraken with a net."
"Did you come up here to argue procedure?" Rogers shouted back, not taking his eyes off the kraken.
"No," Anthony said, "I came up here to get us out of this alive." He tore his shirt the rest of the way open and put his hand to the compass. As soon as he touched it the light began to magnify, glowing bright and deadly like a cold white sun.
Rogers dropped the rope and turned around, his eyes wide. "Oh—" he said breathlessly, "Oh, I, you have—I didn't realize—"
"What?" Anthony said, distracted, and then the kraken hissed and snapped its teeth, and Anthony took a deep breath and flipped open the lid of the compass. "Stand back, Rogers," he said, "the last time I did this a lot of people died."
It was different, this time. The power rushed through him, terrible and overwhelming and indescribable, filling him up until it felt like his heart was exploding in his chest, like the needle of the compass was running circles around his cardinal points; but then it seemed to settle, directed, magnetized and weighted north, and he put up a hand, palm out, and let it go.
He felt the explosion with his body, and then he felt the ship shaking as the kraken fell. Somewhere very far away, Rogers was saying, "Tony—Tony—" and then everything went black.
He woke slowly. He was lying on the hard, narrow bed in his cabin, and the gentle rocking of the ship beneath him bespoke the return of fair weather. When he opened his eyes, he saw Rogers sitting on the floor next to the bed.
"Where are we?" Anthony asked. His voice was rusty.
"You're awake," Rogers said unnecessarily. "And, ah—I don't know, exactly, but the captain says we barely went off course, despite the storm and the sea monster." He paused, and then added, "He also says thank you. We all say thank you. I—you may have been right, about trying to kill a sea monster with a net, but my hands didn't quite cut it, and it doesn't seem like there are a lot of guns lying around, yet. I used to have this shield—"
"You're babbling," Anthony said, incredulous and delighted.
Rogers' cheeks went pink. "Sorry."
"No," Anthony shook his head and sat up against the bolster, "no, I just have to admit to a little surprise. You did not seem the talkative sort."
"Ah," Rogers said, "I suppose not. I—fighting the sea monster with you, it just—it reminded me of the things I used to do. Who I used to be."
Anthony frowned. Something about this was not adding up. Rogers' surprise when Anthony unveiled the compass had seemed more like unexpected familiarity than like shock, and then he had called Anthony by a name that was not his. "Did you—" he began, but it was preposterous. Not even the question made sense. "Last night," he started, again, "you called me—" Rogers looked away. "Who was Tony?" Anthony asked, at last.
"Well," Rogers said, "you."
Every time Anthony thought he'd hit the limit of the impossible, there was—something else. "You knew me. In the future."
Rogers gazed down at his hands, folded carefully in his lap. "Yes." Anthony waited—patient, he thought, he could be patient for once in his life. "Tony Stark and I worked together," Rogers said finally, "we were part of a team that fought villains, saving lives and making the world a better place. He had—" he touched his hand to his chest, just above his heart. "He had something called an arc reactor in his chest, and he used it to power this, this kind of metal suit that he wore. I can't really explain it, I'm sorry. The science was always way beyond me, not to mention probably inexplicable to anyone in this century; but we fought side by side, for a long time."
Anthony echoed Rogers' gesture, touching his fingers to his heart. The compass was only glowing faintly, now, but he could still feel the hum of power under his skin. "What happened to him?"
"He died," said Rogers. Then he looked up, and the look in his eyes made Anthony catch his breath. He knew that look: grief and longing and fear, and something else.
"In the future," Anthony asked, "what was I to you?"
Rogers shook his head, but the color in his cheeks was high again. "It doesn't matter," he said. "You're not him."
"I could be," Anthony said, very quietly. "I could be, or you could pretend." He knew it was unforgivably reckless even as he said it, but Anthony wanted to know this man; he wanted to peel away each and every one of his secrets.
Rogers was staring at him. "No, I—" he began, panicked, and then he shook his head again sharply, and scrubbed one hand over his face. "Oh, hell," he said. "I take it back, you're really—you really are exactly like him."
Anthony smiled, wide and bright and a little feral; he could ride this recklessness all the way down. "Then what are you waiting for?"
Rogers got slowly to his feet. "I don't want to pretend," he said, "but—"
Anthony swung up onto his knees on the bed, and reached out a hand to clasp Rogers' shoulder. It was the first time he had touched him, he realized suddenly, and Rogers' skin under his hand was warm and smooth and unfairly perfect. "Come here," he said softly. "What does either of us have to lose?"
Rogers sucked in a sharp, uneven breath, and reached out—too slow, Anthony thought, too cautious—but then he leaned up, or Rogers leaned down, and they were kissing. After a moment, there was nothing at all cautious about that.
The bed was much too small for two grown men—not to mention one the size of Rogers—but somehow they managed to fall back onto it together as they kissed. Rogers kissed like he was drowning: urgent and deep and as necessary as breathing. They had to separate for a moment to remove the rest of their clothing, and then there was a still, startled moment when they came back together.
"Are you sure—" Rogers began, but his hands were smoothing down Anthony's sides, his long fingers sliding into the hollows of his hips.
"Quiet," Anthony said, and kissed him until it was true, and then kissed him until Rogers made noise again.
"Will you do something for me?" Rogers said breathlessly, and Anthony sat back on his heels and looked down at him, glorious and breathtaking and his—for right now, all his.
Rogers' blush spread all the way down his chest. "Nothing like that, but—would you call me Steve? Nobody's called me by my name in such a long time."
"Steve," Anthony tried, carefully, and Rogers—Steve—shuddered under him. The name was strange on his tongue, not quite foreign and not quite familiar, but that suited him. "Steve," he said again, and then, "yes, Steve."
Anthony was sprawled bonelessly over Steve's chest with both of Steve's arms around him. Steve's hands were stroking absently down his back, and somewhere in the last dizzying hour Steve's long braids had come undone, and his hair was everywhere. "Well," Anthony said into the soft skin of Steve's neck, "I think that was rather a success."
He could feel Steve laugh beneath him. "Yes."
Sometimes, Anthony thought, the glory in discovery only lasted as long as it took to make the conquest; and then sometimes you realized you had only taken the first step into terra incognita. He'd been right: Steve was centuries of uncharted territory. He was deep waters and bottomless eyes and secrets, and Anthony could spend years learning him. "Do you mind," he asked, still a little reckless, "that I'm not him?"
"No," Steve said immediately, and then he paused, sounding as though he had startled himself with the revelation. "I guess I don't, when it comes right down to it." He turned onto his side, tipping Anthony onto his back on the bed and looking down at him. "I've been alone a long time, and you—I—I think this is exactly where I want to be."
Anthony smiled, satisfied, and Steve reached out to trace the edge of the compass. "How did you get this?"
"I stole it from a god," Anthony said.
Steve's eyebrows went up. "Huh."
"How did—" Anthony began, but Steve shook his head.
"I told you, I don't really—I can't explain the science. He made it himself, but he didn't exactly choose it, either; and I wouldn't call it magic, but a lot of the science of my time would seem like magic to yours."
"I would like to know more of him," Anthony said carefully, "if you would tell me."
Steve looked away, and then met Anthony's eyes again. "Let me think about it?"
Anthony reached up for a kiss. "Of course," he said, "take your time."
When Steve drew back from the kiss, he was frowning. "We don't—if Ms. Strange is right, and I have to go back, we don't—we don't have very much time."
Steve was right, of course, but Anthony had been trying not to think about that, or what it might mean. "Will it kill you," he asked, "going through this portal?"
Steve ran a hand through his hair. "I doubt it," he said, "I don't really seem to die."
Anthony caught his hand and pulled it back to his chest, to cover the compass over his heart. "The god I stole this from was said to be immortal. That's why I went looking, because I thought—I thought maybe if we could keep the Queen alive, then England would not fall to pieces. But then I—a lot of things went wrong, and now I do not know what will happen to me, or to England."
"I don't really recommend immortality," Steve said seriously, sliding his fingertips over the compass, and then over Anthony's skin until he shivered. "But if you were fighting against evil with the right companions, if you were making the world better, and you didn't have to do it alone, if you were making a change, then—then maybe it would be alright."
"I don't want to live forever," Anthony said, tangling his hand in Steve's hair and tugging him down.
"I don't want to be alone," Steve said against his mouth, and then they were kissing again.
"If you have to go back—" Anthony said breathlessly, "then I think—" The rest of the sentence was lost in Steve's mouth, and then Steve was kissing down his neck, laying lingering open-mouthed kisses on his collar bones and his pectorals and around the edge of the compass. "We should make the most of the time we have," Anthony gasped, at last, and Steve looked up at him, his eyes as blue as the endless sea, and nodded.
Virginia found him on deck several days later. America was drawing closer, and she looked happier—happy to be going home, Anthony thought, even if her mission for the colony had failed. It was strange to see her alone; usually she was shadowed by Steve, or by Mistress Strange. "Master Stark?"
"Anthony, Virginia, please," he said, smiling down at her.
She smiled back, sweet and a little tentative, "Master Anthony. I just wanted to say, I'm glad you came with us. Rojhaz has been with me my whole life, and he is my protector, and my friend, but I think he was a little lonely. I thought it was just because he was away from his own people, but now he says—well, I do not entirely understand what Mistress Clea has told me about this time travel, but I know that Rojhaz has seemed happier, in your company. Thank you for being a good friend to him."
"I like him very much, Virginia," Anthony said, and tried to look as though he had not been spending a great deal of time engaging in entirely illicit acts with her protector and friend. This was much worse than the time Tom Kyd had threatened to run him through if he hurt Kit; Tom had been drunk, and wielding a prop sword, and Virginia was twelve, and turned into animals when she was afraid.
"I know," Virginia said cheerfully, "but thank you anyway."
Anthony was saved the necessity of coming up with a response to that by a cry from the lookout: "Land Ho!"
Virginia turned, eyes widening. "Home," she breathed. "Master Anthony, do you think—"
"We likely have some few more days at sea, Virginia," he said, "but yes. I think we will very shortly have you home."
"I must go tell Rojhaz," she said, and whirled away.
Anthony turned back to the railing and looked out to sea. That was the New World, out there, somewhere just beyond the easy reach of his eyes. He and Steve were almost out of time, but if Mistress Strange was right, so was the world; anything could happen yet.
Steve wasn't going back. If there was anything left to go back to, he couldn't think of it as home. He couldn't be Captain America when America didn't exist anymore, when America had stopped being all the things it was supposed to be and all the things he was supposed to protect. Tony—his Tony, Tony in the future, Tony who was dead—would've gotten right in his face and demanded, "What's supposed to got to do with fucking anything?" But it wasn't that, really; he was who he was. He believed in America, even when America was just a little girl and a handful of settlers and the Native Americans who had taken him in. If he was here at the beginning, then maybe—maybe this time, they could all get it right.
In the future, or in his past—after all the other heroes had died, it had just been…him. One man against the darkness. Nobody could withstand that forever. The resistance had give him hope, for a long time, but even with the resistance he'd been alone. He wasn't alone, now: there was Fury, and Sue and Reed, and Carlos Javier, so very like the Professor Xavier he remembered. And there was Tony.
He'd been wrong, when he'd said that Anthony wasn't Tony, because in all the ways that mattered he was. Anthony was brilliant and irreverent and foolhardy and strange, impulsive and gorgeous and wickedly clever, and he looked at Steve the same way Tony had always looked at Steve: like he was a puzzle he wanted to spend years solving. If the universe was giving them another chance, then by God Steve was going to take it. They'd saved the world together once, countless times; they could do it again, and hold each other up while they did.
Ms. Strange said the only way to save this world was to send Steve back, but maybe she was wrong, too. That terrible future should never have happened in the first place, not in his America; and if he was Captain America, then this was America—and neither Ms. Strange nor her husband seemed to have reckoned on Tony. If anyone could find another way, it was Tony Stark. Tony was a genius in any century, Steve knew, and Tony—his Tony, now and then—could always find another way.
He went down to the riverbank for the blue and white clay, and wrote the A on his forehead, watching his watery reflection in the calm shifting waters of the stream. Then he went up to the ridge. Nick Fury was coming up the hill.
"Fury," he said, "I'm not going back."
Anthony was looking for Steve, and then there was a noise like the world ending, and a bright, terrible light, and the next thing he knew he was lying on the ground blinking up at Sir Richard Reed.
"Reed?" he said hoarsely. "What happened, where is—"
Reed's shoulders were somewhere else, but he tilted his head in something like a shrug. "We seem to all still be alive. Fury took Rojhaz through the portal."
Anthony sat up dizzyingly fast. "What?"
Reed raised an eyebrow. "That was how we saved the world, Stark."
Anthony shook his head. Steve was gone. He was still here. "But I—Doctor Strange said I might be needed, and I thought—" No, that was not right; he had been needed, and so had his power: on the ship, for the kraken, to get them all safely to America so that Fury and Javier and Reed could send Steve back to his terrible future. Maybe that was his curse: always just a little too late to save everyone, always dangerously misapplied.
Reed produced a hand from somewhere and helped Anthony to his feet. Anthony dropped the hand and scowled. "We could have found another way."
"Maybe," Reed said, "but we were out of time. I am sorry, Stark. I know you liked Rojhaz, and we have lost Fury to the future as well."
Anthony had not planned for this; he hadn't been ready. "What will you do now?"
"No decisions have yet been made," Reed said, "but I believe we will attempt to make this colony our own—perhaps secede from England, although I should like to return there, one day. But we wish to make a home for people like us, far enough away that King James will not come hunting. Fury promised Javier and his pupils a safe place, and here, perhaps, we can build one together. Your—ah—your talents would be welcome, Stark. You should stay."
Sir Richard Reed, Anthony thought, not for the first time, was just a little insufferable. "I do not wish to stay," he said, keeping his voice hard and unforgiving. "I do not believe there is anything in the New World for me now. Fury brought my ship here, and I will take it back to England. Anyone who wishes to come with me is welcome to do so, and any of my crew who wish to stay, but I am going home."
The King's guards met him as soon as he stepped off his ship. "I seek an audience with His Majesty the King," Anthony said, before anyone else could say a word. "I believe he will want to see me."
King James of England and Scotland did not look especially pleased to see him. "And why should I not throw you immediately into the Tower?" the King asked coldly. "You have aided and abetted the escape of traitors, Master Stark, and I have no reason to think you are not the worst of traitors yourself. I could seize your goods, and have you beheaded, and I would smile while I did so. I always smile when traitors lose their heads."
"Sir Nicholas Fury is dead," Anthony said. "Your Majesty."
The King's eyebrows rose. "What had you to do with that?"
God give me strength, Anthony thought, and said, "I killed him." If Pepper could lie to the King, so could he.
"Really," said the King, sounding appallingly delighted. "What happened to my agents?"
Anthony shook his head. "I am afraid I do not know, your Majesty. If they made it to the New World, I did not see them there."
"A shame." James leaned back in his chair, swinging one leg negligently over its arm. "And what prompted your decision to do such an extraordinary favor to the crown as ridding us of this traitor, Master Stark?"
"Your Majesty doubted my loyalty," Anthony said, pouring all his rage at Fury into his voice—how could he drag Steve through the portal like that?—"but Fury and I disagreed: he thought you would be the ruin of England, you Majesty, but I can see that you have a—vision."
"The King is God's anointed representative on Earth," said James, "and those who challenge that right, devils and the consorts of devils, those who would bring Satan into all our houses, must be destroyed. One by one, if necessary, but it is my duty and vocation to protect my people from the servants of darkness, and I shall do precisely what that takes, just as God would have me do. You seem to understand me, Master Stark, and such service to the crown should be rewarded." He steepled his fingers. "A knighthood, perhaps?"
"Your Majesty," Anthony said carefully, spreading his hands, "your grace is misplaced. I serve the crown, but my quarrel with Fury was also personal."
The King smiled, and Anthony bit down on his tongue. This was neither the time nor the place to challenge James; before anything else, he had to get out of this alive. "That is no matter, Master Stark. You have brought your ship home, I am told—see to it, and consider my offer. We need not put your talents to use in spying for the crown again, but come to court when you have considered. Your service shall not go unrecognized."
"Yes, your Majesty," said Anthony.
Pepper met him at the door to the house and threw her arms around him, hugging him tightly. "Pepper," he said into her hair, and she pulled back, frowning.
"What happened?" she demanded. "Anthony, what—"
Lying to Pepper was pointless. "I fell in love," Anthony said. "Fury is dead. I suppose we saved the world. I brought The Eagle's Shadow home, and—the King has offered me a knighthood."
Pepper stared at him, eyes wide and lips parted, and Anthony took a brief, abstracted moment to appreciate the look of shock on her face. Then she rallied, just like she always did. "Shall I start calling you Sir Anthony, then?"
"Dear God, no," Anthony said, appalled. "But actually—he, the man I—his name was Steve Rogers, and he was from the future. He called me Tony. I think I would—I think I would like to be Tony."
Pepper smiled at him, careful and beloved, and nodded once. "Tony," she said. "Welcome home."
Tony was working late, papers spread out on the drafting table in the workshop. He was studying the sketch Steve had drawn for him, of the strange metal suit his counterpart had made in the future. He did not understand it, but he would. One way or another, broken down to its component parts, wood and iron and glass and cloth, it was something like a ship. He had just dipped his pen in the ink pot when all the candles in the room went out, and there was a soft thud, like a cat landing on its feet.
"Anthony Stark," said a deep voice with a warm Irish lilt.
Tony turned, arms folded over his chest to hide the compass, and as his eyes adjusted to the darkness he could just make out the outlines of a man crouched on the ground below the window. "Yes," he said, "I am Tony Stark. Who are you?"
"I was an agent of Sir Nicholas Fury's," said the man, "and so, I hear, were you. I do not believe that you killed him. Tell me why you lied to the King."
"Why should I trust you?" Tony demanded.
"Because," he said, "I have no love for Jimmy of Scotland, and I had a very great deal for Fury; and you, friend Stark, are just the same. You have no reason to trust me, but who can you trust? There are not so many of us left in England to take on the King's crusade against our kind alone."
"Ah," said Tony. Maybe this was what he had been waiting for—someone who thought as he did, someone who knew that the King was wrong, and that something had to be done to keep the world safe. "I lied to the King because the King is wrong, and you are talking about a conspiracy."
There was a flash of teeth in the dark. "I am."
"A conspiracy against the King of England and Scotland," Tony continued, "to—"
"Protect and avenge our kind," the man finished, "people with unusual gifts, and unusual curses."
"To make the world better," Tony said softly. This was it: this was a conspiracy, a plot, a company of heroes. Tony and the man in the dark and anyone else who would help them fight against evil, and the King. His power was a curse, but Steve was right: if he could use it for this—
"What we need," said the man in the dark, "is a very large explosion."
Make a change, Steve had said, and maybe it was time to take a stand against that bastard on the throne. Maybe it was time for vengeance. "Well," Tony said, and then he smiled fiercely and uncrossed his arms so the light from the compass lit up the room, "I have something better than gunpowder."