There’s a lot of the mansion to explore, more space than five people could ever need and probably more rooms than any of them, excluding maybe Thor, could ever know what to do with. Halls upon halls are decorated with antiques and paintings and lush, lavish carpets that Steve isn’t too sure people should walk on. Room after room, copies of each other with varying décor. Some are bedrooms with huge mattresses that are too perfect for true comfort, with large wooden dressers that probably haven’t and probably never will see a true owner. Others are offices, some sleek and modern in design, while others are filled with oak desks and liquor cabinets that are still full despite the house not being used in over two years. There are several living areas, dens, a library, a workout room. Steve thinks there may be two kitchens, but one only has two microwaves, three coffee pots, and a refrigerator.
Ms. Potts had donated the house to the Avengers after their first altercation as a team against Loki. She didn’t say much as to why, or where it had come from, only that she had an apartment close to SHIELD headquarters and a house in Malibu, and that she wouldn’t need this one. He thought he may have heard a conversation between her and Black Widow, something about how it was her right to do as she pleased with her property, and maybe, in a softer tone, that ‘he would have liked it this way.’ Sometimes this ‘he’ is an empty space beside Ms. Potts. This ‘he’ seems to leave a lot of empty spaces, though no one seemed to really know him save for Ms. Potts and her driver, Happy Hogan. However, this ‘he’ must have owned the house at one point or another.
Steve doesn’t ask. Doesn’t feel it’s in his right. Doesn’t think it’s any of his business. More importantly, doesn’t need to.
He can feel the ghost of ‘he’ in the house. Not an actual apparition, no misty white lines or strange coincidences that send chills down his spine. There’s just this feeling, a strange niggling around him that he’s walking in a place where someone else walked. A certain déjà vu that has him blinking rapidly and looking at his team to see if they can feel it too. It’s a distinct feeling that someone isn’t there, but that they should be. They’re in the small things that don’t mean much to anyone except for Steve. A series of the number six that Steve isn’t sure is coincidence. Six seats at the kitchen table, six available seats in the living room the team normally inhabits, six armchairs scattered in the library, and six bedrooms are the floor they all sleep in.
But there are only five team members.
JARVIS takes surprisingly little time to acclimate too. Steve has seen so many strange things in his life, like a serum that made him physically perfect to weapons that obliterated people from existence, talking computers are kind of...handy. Everything Steve could ever wonder about all he has to do is address JARVIS and ask his question. Anything and everything. Best subs in town; how to get a bank account online, what the hell is a schnoodle…various things that confound him and JARVIS sends him all sorts of links filled with all the information he could ever want on a tiny, plastic screen called a tablet. Even around the house, JARVIS seems to know every little thing. He answers where everything is from the cheese grater in the kitchen to ‘okay, JARVIS, where did this hole in the wall come from?’
He actually kind of likes JARVIS, as much as he thought he could ever like artificial intelligence. And strangely, JARVIS seems to like him. That is an awkward notion to entertain, because he’s an AI. He can’t imagine them having emotions or inclinations towards one human over another. But there are days where Steve is sure that JARVIS is just a little bit shorter with Clint or Natasha, while seeming to talk with Bruce and himself in an affectionate manner. He doesn’t bring this up with the others, because he knows it sounds crazy. It sounds crazy even in his mind.
But it doesn’t really bother him. If he’s crazy, it’s a comforting sort of crazy that seems to go with this entire 21st century. So when he is wandering the mansion, all of which he has still yet to traverse despite having lived there for a month now and reaches a section Ms. Potts hadn’t given a tour of, he wastes no time in asking, “Hey, JARVIS?”
And he doesn’t care how he feels when he hears the comforting British tones, so close to Peggy’s, “Yes, Captain Rogers?”
Steve looks down the narrow staircase which seems to stop in front of a door. “What’s this?”
There’s a pause. A very long pause, which isn’t normal for JARVIS in the slightest. For a moment Steve actually wonders if he really did ask his question out loud. It doesn’t happen often but he supposes being in a room deep in the bowels of SHEILD for two months…sometimes his questions just get lost in his head simply for having had no one to ask them to for so long.
Then, in a sad tone, almost depressed and longing, JARVIS answers, “That would be Mr. Stark’s laboratory, sir.”
His automatic thought is, “Howard Stark?”
Another pause, not as long, but Steve almost thinks he can see the sad, closing of invisible eyes. “No, sir. Howard Stark’s son.”
There’s a sharp pang in Steve’s heart that he completely isn’t expecting. Howard has a son? No one had mentioned that. No one had even hinted at it. He knows Peggy has two daughters and four grandchildren. He’s met Colonel Philips great-grandson. He’s even seen a few pictures of some of his old squads’ kids. But no one ever told him that Howard has a son. He feels a little hurt, a little guilty that he hadn’t thought to ask. He wonders why the son isn’t here in the house, or if he even cares that there are superheroes demolishing it one bit at a time.
“Perhaps you would be interested in the art room just down the way, sir?”
That is the short tone he can sometimes get with other members, and Steve notes it, before following JARVIS’s advice. If an AI is touchy about a room, about a person it was attached to…Steve makes a note to look for Howard’s son.
There are a few missions to take care of between when JARVIS denies him entering the lab and when he has time and energy to sit down at the computer console in his room to press in the words ‘Howard Stark.’ He doesn’t know the name of his son and he doesn’t want to ask JARVIS because he has the feeling the AI is actually quite sad about his mysterious friend’s absence. So, he starts where he can and with what he knows and he sifts through the information over his long dead friend, until he sees mention of an Anthony Stark.
He’s seen the name a few times, but until this page which had specifically names Anthony Stark as Howard’s son, he had thought maybe it could have been a cousin, or nephew, maybe even a brother. Anthony had been born in the mid-seventies, which isn’t so odd for Steve to think of. Howard seemed like one of those men who would wait until he was older to have children. It is almost odd for Steve to think of him having children at all, but he supposed a lot of people wanted families of some kind eventually.
He clicks Anthony’s highlighted name and everything, absolutely everything, about his life is displayed before his eyes. Genius, playboy, billionaire, even philanthropist in his own right. Anthony had taken over his father’s company when he was in his early twenties under the tutelage of Obadiah Stane. He was an arms dealer and came up with several weapons, but not only that, he personally designed several economical things. He reads and reads and reads until the end where he sees.
Anthony Stark died in 2008.
He was taken by Afghani terrorists, and died in an attempt to escape, though no body was ever found.
The suit he used in his getaway was assembled in Stark Industries.
Something opens in Steve’s chest, heavy and aching. A dark pain in his heart. Some part of him feels that he’s been jilted. He’s only missed Anthony by two years, and…
…and the strange empty spaces around the house, Ms. Potts, and in his mind fill up with this man. The man who was sharply dressed, with a goatee, and glittering eyes that were somehow shuttered at the same time. He sees him everywhere in his memories. Anthony has been walking in front of him in a time two years gone, sitting in the sixth seat so innocently and boisterous, full of life that even in death he isn’t really gone.
He’s left breathless as the pain intensifies in his chest. He misses Anthony Stark in a way that shouldn’t be possible let alone palpable, but it is, so much it is. He doesn’t think he misses anyone like this, not Howard, Peggy, not Dr. Erskine, not even Bucky and, sweet Jesus, that’s a kick in the teeth. He feels bereft of something, and angry that he didn’t even have the chance to meet it.
He closes down his computer and leaves his room; careful not to wake the other sleeping members of his team, and sneaks about in the dead of night until he’s at that same staircase JARVIS had denied him. He creeps down the stairs and sits in front of the door until the early rays of dawn are visible upstairs. He just stares and sees Anthony Stark staring back at him with dark eyes that are open, that are honest, unlike the pictures in the media.
He touches the closed door in silent greeting, and mournful goodbye, before going to take his morning jog.
Steve can’t get Anthony Stark out of his head for the next two weeks. It’s a weird fixation and one he doesn’t understand. Anthony Stark is dead, but so are Colonel Phillips children and one of his grandchildren. He has never known them, and yet feels strangely calm about their passings. He doesn’t know why Anthony’s absence preys on his mind, doesn’t know why it stalks his days, or tackles his dreams. It just does.
He feels it’s unfair that he only missed Anthony by two years. Feels it’s unfair that Anthony hasn’t left the spaces of his house, or his friends’ lives. He won’t even leave Steve. Steve, who has never known him and can’t talk about him because wouldn’t that just be awful. To go up to someone who had known Anthony, like Ms. Potts or Happy and just talk to them about a man that they had known and Steve can only dream of and connect to through pictures and videos. He can’t imagine their faces, doesn’t want to try. Ms. Potts alone seems to carry Anthony’s death around like an invisible badge, like she was the one who killed him and not a failed attempt to escape from his captors in Afghanistan.
Steve spends much of his downtime looking through pictures of Anthony Stark, trying to find a line between what he feels and what is reality. He shouldn’t feel so attached to someone he’s never met. It doesn’t make sense and he tries to read every hateful article he can about him just so he can distance himself. Yet with every article he reads he can’t help but feeling that he’s reading about his own life that the newspapers in the forties had been so keen to write about. There are only glimpses of truth and the rest is a made up reality meant to sell papers.
He can see why Anthony’s eyes are so guarded in his pictures. He can sometimes see them in his own shots, snapped by the paparazzi in hopes of catching something new, something they can weave webs around so that they can snare the general populace into their lair.
When he’s had enough of lies and webs he’ll close down his monitor and wander the mansion, feelings of déjà vu trapping him in Anthony’s timeline. He’ll walk the halls, look into offices. He’ll stand in the library and just feel like something is missing. And eventually, always, he’ll sit in front of Anthony’s lab, just staring, imagining, just waiting for Anthony to come out and look at him in confusion.
He’s sitting outside the lab after a particularly exhausting fight. He wants to sleep, but he just, he can’t. He’d thought he’d seen something earlier in the fight, just a flash of red trimmed with gold and, damn, it had nearly cost him a few broken ribs with the way that robot-thing was coming towards him. He doesn’t know what causes him to tell the door about it, about the strange illusion that had caught the corner of his eye, but he does. He whispers to the door from his seat on the bottom step.
He feels the dark ache in his chest grow, and his eyes burn as he presses his thumbs into them. His voice feels like its choking on the lump in this throat and he doesn’t know why but when he scoots closer to the door, leaving his perch on the stairs to lean against the jamb he feels just a little bit better, just a little bit closer to Anthony.
It’s honestly the most shocking thing when the doors slides open behind him, nearly causing him to fall inside.
He jumps to his feet, on edge, and wishing he hadn’t left his shield in his room. Carefully he peers into the lab, but it’s dark, and Steve can only see half-reflections that come from the light upstairs. He steps in cautiously, whispering, “JARVIS, where are the lights?”
A voice that isn't JARVIS’s answers, "Well, normal people put them to their right, but it's been a while since I designed this place. Sooo…"
Steve stops in the dark, just a step into the lab. He’s heard that voice so many times from his computer. He scrunches his brows, plays it off as a trick of his mind, and tries again. “JARVIS?” as he flicks the lights on.
“No, not JARVIS. Kind of like a sub-program of JARVIS that I started when I was really drunk.”
It’s not JARVIS but it sounds so much like…
Steve takes a deep breath. “Anthony?”
There is a long pause. “Okay, I may answer to that once I know who you are. Voice detection is giving me shit.”
Steve isn’t sure what to make of that. He’s talking to something that sounds exactly like Anthony Stark and…
He feels his heart rate triple. “Captain Steven Rogers.”
Another pause, longer, before Anthony’s voice comes back. “Oh! Captain America. Yeah. Y’know I so should have gotten that. But whatever. Aren’t you dead?”
Steve can’t help the comeback, “Aren’t you?”
He can almost feel the shrug in the room. “If you’re listening to an AI program of me…probably.”
Steve had been feeling something of hope building in his chest when he’d first heard Anthony’s voice, but with his last statement it shatters again. He’s not willing to admit it out loud, but part of him had been hoping that Anthony had become a hermit and would only communicate through computers. It sounds outlandish, but it is no more outlandish than waking up nearly seventy years after crashing into ice.
He knows that isn’t the case though. And he almost feels angrier about it.
He clamps down on it, grinding his teeth for a moment before asking, “You’re an artificial intelligence?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I am. I programmed JARVIS to initiate me if he hadn’t heard my voice pattern in more than a year.”
Those words tear Steve open even further, and he isn’t sure if it’s the fact that Anthony had designed a program of himself in the event that something happened to him, or the fact that no one had been here in over two years. No one had looked at Anthony’s lab, or tried to develop anything left here, or dusted, or even just came to be in space that had so obviously just belonged to this man.
He knows people sifted through his belongings, knows Peggy and Howard had looked for him long after they should have just given up. But looking around him, Steve sees so many things, so many wires, and metals, and half-put-together designs and he wonders if anyone had seen these in over two years. He wonders if anyone had wandered down to a place so apparently vital to Anthony or if, or if maybe it had just been too hard.
He reminds himself that he didn’t know Anthony. Still doesn’t know Anthony. He’s just, he’s just an interloper. He only stumbled upon this mansion, this lab, this memory of a man. Anthony doesn’t belong to him and he has no reason to be angry for him. He’s only seen videos and pictures. He’s only read articles. He has never known Anthony Stark. Never called him his friend. Only ever wanted to know Anthony because he had been Howard’s son.
“Are you still there?” Anthony’s voice calls out into the stillness of the room.
Steve almost wants to leave, just take a step back out of that door and pretend that this never happened because it hurts so damn much. He can’t though. There’s some bit of him that hopes despite knowing Anthony is dead. He is. He’s dead. But Steve doesn’t want him to be and, god, the AI sounds so much like Anthony, and it sounds so lonely.
He can’t do anything. Except answer, ”Yeah, Anthony. I’m still here.”
The room brightens considerably, almost as if the lights have been programmed to copy the AI’s moods. “Good,” Anthony’s computer voice says. “I hate talking to myself.”
Steve wonders how many times Anthony has talked to himself. He wonders if Anthony’s AI has only just been activated or if JARVIS had done as he was programmed and let the sub-AI into the world with no one to speak to. He feels a throb of depression in his heart at that idea and dismisses it because this is just a computer program. It doesn’t have feelings!
But then he thinks that not everything is as it seems. JARVIS likes Steve and Bruce over Clint and Natasha. Perhaps Anthony had integrated his emotions into hissub-system.
Steve forces a smile onto his face. “How often do you talk to yourself?”
“More often than I would like to admit,” Anthony says. “But enough about my sad, computer life. How was your day, Captain Rogers?”
Steve closes his eyes and he pretends that Anthony is in the room with him as more than a computer. He conjures up images of the man posted everywhere on his computer, imagines him in his lab, and makes up for the impracticalities. Anthony wouldn’t work on his contraptions in his suit. Jeans, yes, maybe a T-shirt or an undershirt. He would wear the gloves that Steve could see over on one table because metal would require welding. Goggles too. And a hood.
He imagines Anthony just like that and just, he just tells him about his day. He never opens his eyes and he thinks up facial expressions that he believes Anthony would wear. He thinks of Anthony wandering around his lab, working on projects as ideas came to him, because there’s just too much stuff to be a single idea here. He pictures Anthony in so many ways but in the end, when he opens his eyes, and says, “I’m feeling tired. I should probably go to bed,” there’s no one there.
Steve exhales loudly into the empty room, only takes himself out of the lab when he hears Anthony say, “Good night, Cap.”
The lights darken behind him and the door swishes closed.
The next morning is surprisingly quiet. Natasha and Clint have gone to SHIELD for the afternoon and Bruce is still in his room tinkering with various things that Steve sort of understands, but really doesn’t. It leaves Steve with Thor as his breakfast companion. It’s not a bad thing at all. Thor and Steve get each other on some basic level. They’re both from worlds that very distinctly aren’t the one they woke up in. They’re both a little befuddled by science. And they’re both still trying to learn how to not break the microwave and the flat screen TV is somewhat of a mystery to them, although Steve is close to figuring it out, and Thor has decided it is a mystical mirror that shows other realms.
Thor has a buffet of breakfast goods set out before him and then some. He’s plugged in a coffee pot next to him on the table just so he doesn’t have to wait to have his refill of coffee. Thor, Steve has found, is completely addicted to coffee. At the moment, he’s munching on his third package of Pop-Tarts, which today’s flavor is S’mores. Yesterday’s was brown sugar. In his other hand he has a fork that is scooping eggs so he can pile them on top of his pastry.
Steve would be amused if he weren’t tired and a little wrung out from his conversation with Anthony last night. As is, he dabs his toast into his runny egg yolks somewhatlistlessly, staring at them as if they will answer all of his questions.
Thor’s booming voice gathers his attention rapidly. “What ails you, Captain of all things America?”
Steve has yet to figure out if Thor speaks that way out of principle or just because he thinks it’s funny to exasperate the other team members. Either way he just shrugs. He doesn’t want to tell Thor about Anthony although he’s pretty sure Thor would accept it as a strange contraption of this Midgardian world. He just, he doesn’t want to, not right now. “Didn’t sleep much last night.”
Thor stares at him, just stares at him and Steve isn’t sure if his half-truth is completely believable. Thor can be pretty gullible; he’s learned that from Darcy. He can also be pretty damn intuitive; he’s learned that from Jane. But after a moment, he produces his last package of Pop-Tarts with lightning speed and proclaims, “These will help boost your energy. Natasha has informed me that with the amount of sugar compressed into these tarts, a normal human will be invigorated for hours! And,” he shakes the package a little and Steve’s eyes follow the movement, enamored, “It tastes like chocolate.”
Steve cracks a smile at him. Thor seems to believe that food and-or mead will solve any problem from sleep deprivation to pandemic viruses. “Thanks, Thor, but I like the strawberry ones. The s’mores are…a little weird for me.”
Thor wastes no time in hopping out of his seat, taking his coffee cup with him. “This is no problem, my good friend! I have a variety of popped tarts!” He opens the cabinet that houses his impressive collection of Pop-Tarts and searches through them. “I will be happy to share my spoils with you!”
He produces the box and rips the top off, letting the cardboard fall onto the ground carelessly. With great flourish he sets the box on Steve’s side of the table, the small portion that isn’t littered with Thor’s breakfast. Steve almost denies, but Thor’s smile is just so pleased that he could help Steve that he takes the box and pulls out a package.
The rest of their breakfast is spent trading plans for their day. Thor has plans to master Crashers of Castles on one of the several game stations Clint collects before relaxing in his spring…which is actually the Jacuzzi outside. Steve needs to take care of a few things, such as ordering their groceries from the online store, and then he wants to go over a few of their training regimens.
He forgets about Anthony for the morning.
Ms. Potts escorts Clint and Natasha back to the mansion. Usually Agent Coulson is in charge of herding the Avengers, as he likes to call it, but as Ms. Potts and Natasha are close friends one out of four times, she’ll take off from being Nick Fury’s assistant and hang out with the team.
They’re speaking in hushed tones and it doesn’t take long for Steve to join them, feeling concern roll down his spine and Bruce follows him without thought, feeling the urgency the three of them are exuding. As they get closer, Steve can hear the conversation become clearer and more worrisome.
“Stane is working on creating a weapon that will infect everyone within five miles with palladium poisoning!” Natasha hisses, her green eyes glittering dangerously. “It’s bad enough he and Hammer are running around creating killer robots that constantly fall into the wrong hands, but this…we can’t allow this to happen! If this gets into the wrong hands it will mean devastation for the United States.”
Clint has a strangely serious look on his face and a cold inflection in his tone when he says, “I could take him down.”
Steve feels a chill go down his spine. He knows that both Clint and Natasha have some shady pasts, but it’s strange to hear them talk about assassination so casually. It goes against almost everything Steve believes in, but a small part of him considers it, seriously considers it. Natasha is right, if this got into the wrong hands, America could be a potential target and mayhem would just break loose.
“No,” Ms. Potts says firmly. “If Stane goes down, who knows what will happen to the company or what direction it may take. Stane is keeping things in some manner of control. It may not look like it, but he is. I’ve met with some company holders overseas. They would make Stane seem like an angel. No one’s taking him down.”
“Is there some way we can stop the engineering of this weapon?” Steve asks.
Thor, who has finally noticed their confab over his game, speaks up quickly. “Yes, I could smash their diminutive computers with my mighty Mjolnir.”
“I don’t think that would work, big guy,” Clint says. “Stane’s just bastard enough to have plans saved all over the place.”
Bruce wastes no time in putting in his two cents. “I could do some work on it. At the very least work on finding a cure or something. I don’t know if I could make the poison inert, but it would be a start.”
Ms. Potts nods at him. “I think that’s a good start. I’ll have my guy bring a sample of it for you to look at, Bruce. Thank you.” As she says this, her phone is already out and she’s texting, most likely to her source.
Steve stares off into space, because he feels something niggling at the back of his mind. It’s something important, but it’s taking a moment to come to him fully. Then it hits him.
Stane was Anthony’s mentor.
His mind whirls around that information, trying to make sense of it, and wondering if Anthony would have approved of this. He wants to ask, but that empty space beside Ms. Potts is glaring at him, and he can’t force himself to actually do it.
Dinner is a tense affair. Everyone’s mind is on Stane and the potential of him creating a weapon with palladium poisoning. Clint seems to be going over plans in his head, because even though Ms. Potts said no assassinations, Steve is pretty sure he’s still considering it, just in case. Natasha is cold eyes and her hand runs over her belt where all of her weapons are. He wonders if she and Clint are having some sort of silent communication. Between the two of them, Stane would be a ghost in the wind and no one would have a clue what happened. Bruce seems to be going over the possibilities of palladium poisoning, and checking his mental periodic table for what could possibly combat it.
After dinner, they all need to let off steam. Clint seems to shoot arrows viciously at his targets. Thor hurls Mjolnir at a triply reinforced wall. Natasha is sparring with Ms. Potts, teaching her katas before switching to a more vicious fighting style. Ms. Potts takes to it well, sparring in clothes she keeps in Natasha’s room, and going at Natasha without relent. Bruce meditates in the corner before fighting with Clint.
Steve takes to the punching bag, feeling the same anger he’d felt after he first woke up in this strange century and only barely containing his punches.
Everyone retires to bed shortly thereafter, though Steve is sure no one is actually going to sleep. This discovery they’d made today is without doubt preying on everyone’s mind. It sure isn’t letting up on Steve. He can’t even stay in his room for long. He sneaks out into the hall, trying carefully not to make a sound when he sees the lights under the other doors, save for the empty one across from his, snaking out into the dark. He lopes down the stairs, his feet knowing where to take him before even he does.
He’s outside Anthony’s lab, staring at the door in silent contemplation. Anthony’s AI will never be Anthony, but he feels compelled. He steps towards the door, wanting to ask Anthony, well, anything, but it doesn’t open for him.
“JARVIS?” he calls.
“Yes, Captain Rogers?”
“Will you let me in?”he asks, though it sounds to his ears like begging.
He half expects to be told no. He isn’t sure why but JARVIS has been secreting this place away for a while. It seems like he doesn’t want anyone to know about Anthony’s AI, although Steve isn’t sure who opened the door for him last night. That could have been JARVIS. It could have been Anthony.
But surprisingly the door does open and Steve doesn’t stop to look a gift horse in the mouth. He strides in and the lights come on immediately, showing all of Anthony’s half-finished creations. He glances at them listlessly, wondering if any of these were weapons. Shaking his head, he focuses again. “Anthony?” he calls out.
“That name is atrocious, I just want you to know,” Anthony responds immediately. “What can I do ya for, Cap?”
“What do you know about palladium poisoning?”
He can practically hear the snort. “I’m a computer simulation, Captain Rogers. I know everything about palladium poisoning.”
He almost doesn’t register the sad undercurrent in Anthony’s sound waves, but he stops when it does register. He stares at all the blank computers, imagining that the AI would be traveling through them. It gives him something to focus on.
He takes a deep breath. “Stane is developing a weapon using palladium poisoning.”
The silence is deafening. “Well, that’s not good at all, is it?” the simulation says quietly.
“Would you have endorsed it?” Steve asks, because he wants to know. He doesn’t know if the AI would know if his real self would have approved of such warfare, but it’s worth a shot.
This time there is no silence. As soon as the words are completely out of his mouth, Anthony answers, “Absolutely not. I don’t play in germ warfare. Or didn’t. Whatever, this is confusing.”
Steve sags in relief, walking slowly over to a swiveling chair and placing himself in it with a dramatic plume of dust. He doesn’t know what else to say all of a sudden. He had been so afraid that the AI would confirm his fears that Anthony would have been this much of a monster. Truthfully, he isn’t even sure why that made him nervous, but it had.
He takes another deep breath. “Bruce is looking up some ways to help with it. Is there anything you can think of to help?”
“Bruce? Who’s Bruce?”
Steve has to smile. Somehow, it doesn’t surprise him that this program would be quirky and focus on weird things. Steve is beginning to understand that Anthony must have been a little eccentric.
He leans back in his chair. “Bruce Banner. He’s a scientist who lives in the manor with me.” He pauses, thinks about confidentiality but decides, to hell with it. Anthony is just a computer program. Who would he tell? “I’m on a team of superhuman people. We’re called the Avengers. We live here, in your mansion.”
“That’s really fucking cool,” Anthony chimes in immediately. There’s a pause. “So, it’s you, this Bruce guy, Natasha Romanov, Clint Barton, and some character named Thor?”
Steve laughs. “Thor is a Nordic god.”
“Really? There’s a god living in my house? Is it still standing? What’s his power?”
“His power is the ability to eat a restaurant into bankruptcy.”
Anthony generates a laugh, and it’s so close to his videos that something catches in Steve’s chest. Reminds him that this isn’t real, but it could have been. It really could have. “That’s an impressive power. Tell me more about this team of yours.”
And so he does. He tells Anthony about them all, about Bruce’s ability to turn into the Hulk, and Black Widow and Hawkeye’s focus on stealth and honestly terrifying fighting skills. He talks about Thor’s godliness and skill to call a mean thunderstorm out of nowhere. And it’s like talking to a friend on the phone.
He doesn’t know how Anthony did it, but he’s made this computer version of himself, as well as JARVIS, sound like people, behave as people would. It’s comforting, in a way, because if Steve can’t have Anthony, at least he can have this. This ghost in the wires that acts almost precisely how Steve has been imagining he would.
At the end of it, Steve takes a deep breath and says, “Alright. I should probably go to bed, now. It’s pretty late.”
Anthony comes back with an easy, “Good night, Cap.”
Steve smiles. “Night, Anthony.”
The lights dim into darkness as Steve closes the door.
The lab is silent for many moments in the dark. Air oppressive, blackness hanging heavily around inventions long since forgotten.
A computer screen flares to life.
“Delete the conversation between Captain Rogers and this console.”
A longer pause.
Steve wakes at six to take his morning jog, thinking over everything that happened last night all the way up to speaking with Anthony’s AI. He wonders what they’re going to do about Stane, if Natasha and Clint are still in the mansion, how Ms. Potts had felt staying the night in the mansion of her dead friend, whether Anthony would have had the power to fire Stane, if Anthony would have liked having so many people in his house.
He returns to the mansion, and it’s alive already. Natasha is in the kitchen making breakfast with Ms. Potts organizing the menu.
Thor and Clint are playing Wii Bowling, because that is their game. And Bruce is playing his iPod and watching the game from the couch.
Steve smiles and turns to his right only to realize no one is there. No one has been there since he woke up from the ice. He thinks of Anthony, and the empty spaces he leaves around the house and wonders if there are empty spaces around him now. He’s only spoken to Anthony twice but he feels the man, sharp suit and goatee, smiling next to him.
Like the ghost that he is.
Steve joins Bruce on the couch, because, god knows, if he went into the kitchen the militant duo would be all over him and he would be peeling potatoes like his days in thearmy. It’s sort of weird to be this close to people in the 21st century, because as he’s watching Clint and Thor play games, every so often Bruce will share his head phones and they’ll listen to a song they both love. Ms. Potts will come out and take votes on sausage over bacon, scrambled or singular order, hash browns or fried. Once even Natasha comes out with a spatula still in hand because she had heard Clint say something…well, not P.C.
It’s sort of entertaining to watch Clint scramble to the far side of the room in fear of what she could do to him with a cooking utensil.
Coulson arrives a few minutes before breakfast is ready, due to the fact that Fury’s assistant has not come back yet and he was sent to make sure she was okay. Ms. Potts is actually a large target and has been since before she quit Stark Industries. Ms. Potts seems to have already accounted for him and has his eggs set aside before he’s even to the living room, leaning against the entryway to watch as Clint and Thor play Wii Bowling.
When Natasha is finished with breakfast, there’s a mass of chaos as they all help to take everything to the dining room table, and then there’s a small tiff about who’s sitting where and if they can find another seat before the food goes cold, because this is a huge mansion. Natasha says Pepper can sit on her lap, but Ms. Potts says sharing a plate will never work. Thor says anyone is allowed to his on his lap, since he’s a god and really could care less about who sits their rear end in his lap. Steve just shakes his head and only blushes a little when Clint is walking by Agent Coulson and gets pulled into his lap.
That takes care of the problem. Clint eats from the plate he has in his hand and Coulson eats around him. Natasha pushes some of the onions she had cooked with onto Ms. Potts’ plate and Ms. Potts seems to have procured an extra helping of sausage just for her.
Steve tries not to feel jealous. Tries not to look to his right in search for a man who’s dead, because Thor will be there, and although he’s very fond of Thor, it isn’t who he’s looking for.
He doesn’t think on it. Thor seems to see words in his eyes and tags him in a conversation and hosts a small, unsophisticated battle with his fork. Steve isn’t even surehow it started.
The next week is silent. No bad guys, small or large, threaten New York or the world, and if they do, the police take care of it rather swiftly.
Ms. Potts comes by with a sample of the palladium poisoning and Bruce now has notes everywhere from his room, to the kitchen, to the living room. He’s working harderthan Steve has ever seen him to try and help the situation before the situation even becomes real.
Agent Coulson keeps them updated on any developments that may be happening in Stark Industries. He flocks around Clint and Bruce mostly. Clint because, well its Clint, and Bruce because he’s the one working on the antivirus.
Steve spends his time between Bruce’s room and Anthony’s lab. There are several hours in between where he assembles the Avengers to work through some exercise routines, but it’s never for more than two hours, which everyone seems to appreciate because what they’re fighting can’t be fought with new battle tactics.
Anthony had coined the term best when he said Stane was working in germ warfare. There aren’t a lot a flips and punches that can battle that. It’s weird to think, but at the moment, the entire team is resting on Bruce’s shoulders. Bruce knows science like this. He has the ability to counteract it and Steve doesn’t think anyone but Betty has been in and out of his room so much as the team has this previous week.
Steve is currently in Bruce’s room, listening to the scientist spout off so much, well, science it almost hurts his ears. He manages to catch, “I got an anonymous email, and it was actually pretty helpful. It didn’t give me a cure, per se, but it did give me a pretty good lead. If I use this element here,” and Steve is glad Bruce doesn’t go into more detail because he really doesn’t know. “It may have the ability to neutralize some of the more harmful effects of the poison.”
Steve leans in close to the computers in the room. “What effects are we talking about here?”
The scientist doesn’t hesitate. “With palladium poisoning, the effects are pretty vast. The toxicity levels alone have the ability to do damage on the body that is pretty far reaching.”
They’re interrupted briefly as Thor comes into the room, and…
He’s giving Clint a piggy-back ride.
“What news have you, great keeper of cures?” he booms, carrying Clint closer like he’s nothing more than a ragdoll. He jostles Clint a bit, but the archer has a firm grip around Thor’s shoulders and asks, “Can I shoot it through an arrow?”
Steve shakes his head. Sometimes he can’t believe this is really his life. When he glances at Bruce he can see his mirror image just looking at the two men. He looks quite confused about this sight and not sure which question he should answer. But Bruce is calm and collected and tells Clint he won’t be able to shoot it through an arrow for a while, but!
He relays everything he just told Steve, and Steve is happy to see that it almost goes right over their heads too.
Clint is a little concerned about the anonymous email and to be honest Steve is too, but he doesn’t know much about computers and Bruce was able to work with the information so he can’t find it in him to object loudly. Clint, though, Clint finds it in him to protest very loudly, demanding Thor to bring him closer to the computer and has Bruce bring up the email and gives all these orders. And this is new. Steve has always sort of believed that Clint’s electronic expertise was in game stations and the microwave. It turns out he can actually back track an email.
When nothing turns up, Clint hops off Thor’s back and basically takes over Bruce’s computer. He seems to be going through everything and Steve thinks that SHIELD must have taught him to do this, because he looks pretty dangerous right now and he doesn’t even have his arrows with him. But after an hour, Clint still has nothing on where the email came from. He looks peeved about it, but Bruce pushes him out of his way and says it helped so Clint can get over it.
Steve is tired of robots. He’s pretty much tired of all villainy, but it seems robots are the flavor of the month. It seems like every time they’re called out now, it’s for robots that are destroying New York. He’s not complaining, well at least not like Clint is.
Steve is pretty sure that if he whines one more time Natasha is going to ‘accidently’ aim one of her knives his way. Thor and Hulk are having a hell of a time though. They’re both smashing robots with a strange sort of glee. Hulk actually has a smile on his face as he clashes two robots together and proclaims, “24 and 25! Hulk is winning!”
Steve tries not to be shocked that this has turned into a competition between Hulk and Thor, but he sort of is. However, it all becomes clear to him when an arrow smashes through the circuit board of the next one Hulk is after and Clint says through their hazy comm., “Sorry, buddy, that one’s mine. 24 and catching up!”
Clint. It all makes perfect sense now.
Hulk actually rips off the robot’s head and chucks it at the archer and Steve just barely has time to intercept it with his shield. “Hulk! We don’t throw at friends!”
He looks slightly abashed as he rips another robot in half and pouts out, “Hulk sorry.”
Steve shakes his head and runs after his shield which is currently imbedded in a brick wall. As he goes he smashes his fist into two robots and takes out their circuits as well. “Black Widow! Six o’clock,” he calls to her because she’s fighting on ground level with them.
He yanks his shield out of the wall and
“Oh my gosh!” Steve nearly has a heart attack and almost flings his shield at an innocent car that is surprisingly still in one piece.
“Language, Captain America,” the voice that most certainly doesn’t belong to anyone on his team says with a hint of amusement.
Steve just barely has enough of himself to dodge an attack a nearby robot comes at him with. When the robot has been disabled he hisses into the comm., ”Anthony?”
He’s completely shocked. He doesn’t know how Anthony was able to patch himself into SHIELD’s comm. system but he has. He wants to ask how, but at the moment itseems a little frivolous.
“We’re seriously gonna have to work on that later, but it can wait. I’ve been going through some news feeds for you, and there are some big problems in Queens. Or one really big problem in Queens.”
“More robots?” Steve asks, and he really is just so tired of robots right now. He’s up to his ears in robots, and from the looks of it more of them seem to be rushing the team. They’re holding their own at the moment, but Hulk is getting really angry at this point and Thor’s hits are bordering on violent even for him. Natasha looks as if she’s itching for the gun she always has strapped to her thigh, but she’s refraining because discharging guns seems to lead to a public frenzy. Clint is even looking a little frustrated and though he has a never ending supply of arrows, he’s down on the ground with his back to Natasha’s and shooting robots that are coming at her from behind.
Steve starts running into the fray, slamming shield and fists into any robot that comes too close to him as Anthony says, “Not precisely. From the size of it, I’d say there’s a man or something in there controlling it, but it is metal and is very much resistant to bullets. A lot of people in black are getting their asses handed to them and it looks like half a block has been set on fire by a flame thrower that’s integrated into the suit.”
“Shit,” Steve grunts as he’s met with a literal wall of robots. He’s about to steamroll through them when they’re pretty much blasted by what looks to be webbing.
“Hey, guys. I’m new, but y’mind if I join in on the fun?” Steve looks over head and sees a red and blue clad man hanging off the side of a building. Literally hanging there with nothing more than his hands and feet.
“Oh that’s cute,” Anthony says in his ear, sounding a little nonplussed and Steve has to say, he shares the sentiment.
But he seems to actually be able to help. He doesn’t wait for Steve’s approval just jumps into the fray webbing and pulling at wires until the robots crumple. Steve returns to his conversation with Anthony, saying, “I got my hands full here, Anthony. This is a pretty big problem I’m looking at and it seems to be growing.”
“Yeah,” the AI replies sounding somewhat distracted. “That’s where I can help. As your resident intelligent computer program I am helpfully searching through data. With the way these robots are set up there has to be a central operating system. No one could program these individually.”
“How do you know that?” he asks as he runs towards three of the bots and flings his shield, perfectly slicing into all three circuit boards and disabling them.
“Watching the way they move on the reports. They’re attacking different parts of your team, but the movements they use are all pretty much the same. One fist moves to punch and they all do the same thing. They were mass programmed and I have a feeling if I can find the mainframe their programs are on, I can shut them down.”
Steve twitches a smile. “AI’s get feelings, too?”
“Don’t get smart with me, Captain Rogers,” Anthony comes back with quickly. “I’m a very intelligent artificial intelligence and with great knowledge comes great feelings.”
Steve laughs and it feels weird to laugh in the middle of a hostile robot melee. It feels weird to laugh in the middle of any fight. But it’s a good weird that only Anthony could orchestrate.
“You’re looking a little crazy there, cap’n,” the new kid says, swinging down from the building by one of his webs and landing next to him in order to blast two robots that Steve hadn’t even seen coming towards him. “Is it something you can share with the class or should we go ahead and add a pretty white jacket to your wardrobe?”
“Hey! How come he gets to crack jokes, but I don’t?” Clint complains as he slams one arrow through five different robots before actually shooting it.
Steve calls back, “I can’t make him run laps!”
“That’s cheap!” Clint says.
The new kid cackles a little and uses both hands to shoot webs at two robots and yanks, smashing them together.
Steve leaves them to their banter, because he has a feeling this is going to be ongoing through the rest of the fight, and moves closer to Hulk who has nearly twenty bots around him. Steve’s sure he could take them all, but he doesn’t see why he should have to take them all.
As he goes, he asks Anthony, “Tell me what’s happening in Queens and give me an estimation on how much time it will take you to disable these things.”
“Give me five minutes and I’ll have the clone wars ended. As for Queens, as soon as these robots are subdued, you better get your red, white, and blue ass in gear. Shit is hitting the fan.”
Of course it is. And of course, Anthony was programmed to cuss like a sailor.
He’s about to respond when every single robot just drops. “That was a quick five minutes.”
Anthony seems amused when he replies, “First time I’ve heard that.”
Steve is glad for the first time that Anthony is just an AI and can’t see him blush. “Switch me back over to the team’s comm. real quick,” he demands as a way to ignore the blush crawling up his ears.
“Sure thing, Cap.”
And then his ears are assaulted with the confusion of the other Avengers.
Clint’s repetitive, “What the hell? No, seriously, what the hell!”
Thor’s, “This is most baffling! I have never had such a formidable enemy surrender in such a manner.”
Natasha, naturally, doesn’t show her confusion, instead says, “I won, by the way. I got 97 robots. I believe you were only in your 70’s.”
He looks around to see their interloper poking at one of the robots with interest, as Clint goes haywire over how many robots he actually killed. Hulk is smashing the robots with his giant green foot, probably to make sure they’re actually disabled. Hulk’s thorough like that.
“Avengers!” he calls in his best commanding voice. “We’re not finished today. We’ve got more trouble. You,” he says turning towards their newcomer.
“Spider-Man,” he supplies helpfully, completely ignoring Clint’s “Spider-Man? That is so cliché.”
“You were very helpful to us. Would you be willing to help us in Queens?”
Clint’s “What web-head gets to go too?!” is ignored and over taken when Spider-Man perks noticeably. “What’s happening in Queens?” There’s an urgency in the man’s voice, and Steve doesn’t have to guess that that is where he hails from.
“I am so tired of robots!” Clint wastes no time in inserting, which leads to Natasha punching him.
Steve has to bite his tongue to keep from agreeing. “Sources say that it could be a man in a metal suit. He’s resistant to bullets and so far I’ve been told there’s a flame thrower integrated into suit.”
“Like a demonic Iron Giant. That’ll ruin that movie for kids,” Clint says.
Natasha, however, shrewdly asks, “Who’s your source and where did you find time to listen to it?”
“Missing the point, scary lady,” Spider-Man says, and Steve is sure he sees Natasha move for one of her weapons. “Giant metal man with torches is just a little more important. Let’s go.”
Agent Coulson pulls up with a SHEILD suburban, only leaning his head out the window to say, “Get in, people. We’ve got problems in Queens.” He doesn’t even bat an eyelash when Spider-Man jumps into the passenger seat and begins giving directions on the fastest way to get there. Most of the team jumps into the back, including Thor, but Steve has to tell Hulk to hop his way over to Queens to see if he can get a handle on things without ripping anything’s head off.
He can just imagine the look of horror on Hulk’s face if he found a human head inside his robot.
And the public probably wouldn't react well to it either; Steve hastily amends in his mind.
Thankfully the man in the iron suit is easy to take down and all credit goes to Thor. Apparently no one briefed this bad guy that demi-gods are pretty much impervious to everything. The flame thrower didn’t even singe Thor’s red cape before he swung Mjolnir with probably only a fraction of his godly might into the chest of the suit effectively cutting off power as well sending the robotic man a block away from them into SHIELD’s waiting arms.
The Avenger’s head back to SHIELD headquarters and Spider-Man swings away before anyone can even talk to him. Steve thinks he may be going to check on people he knows. He seems rather young and emotional.
At HQ, Agent Coulson begins interrogating the man. Ms. Potts already has his file pulled up and no one is surprised that he works at Stark Industries. Everyone thought it before they were even at the scene. Fury is looking ominous as always as Ms. Potts relays everything she can find to him. Steve watches the interrogation hoping that this man will roll over on Stane, even though it’s highly unlikely.
Stane wouldn’t hire someone who would squeal on him.
An hour later, Coulson comes out looking calm and unflappable as always. “I don’t think he’s going to break and in my opinion I don’t think he’s operating with a full deck. He seems to be in love with Stane and fanatical that he was able to operate the suit, even for a day.”
No one even acts surprised.
They give a quick review of the fights to Fury and Coulson and Ms. Potts both take them home. It was a long day, even for them.
Thor heads immediately to the Jacuzzi, stripping as he goes, because he doesn’t have an inch of modesty.
Bruce pulls out his cell phone and calls Betty as he heads for the kitchen. Hulking out usually means Steve will be shopping again tomorrow, but he can’t begrudge the guy food. Becoming a giant, green rage monster probably takes a lot out of a guy.
Clint takes Coulson to his room.
Natasha and Ms. Potts look to be debating on a movie to watch, which is usually pretty humorous, because Natasha loves action and abhors romances and Ms. Potts loves romances and abhors action. They’ll probably settle on a comedy, but Steve doesn’t stick around to watch.
He goes to Anthony’s lab.
The door audibly unlocks for him at the third to last step and Steve sends out, “Thanks, JARVIS” before entering the lab, noting that the lights are already gearing up. He looks around the expansive room, and notices for the first time that there is a couch in the corner. He heads over to it, because he’s a little tired and even as dusty as it looks, it’s more comfortable than standing or sitting in the swivel chair.
“Anthony?” he calls when he’s snug.
There’s a pause. A really long pause.
Steve feels something in his chest tighten. Feels a coil of fear in his belly.
“Anthony!?” he calls again and he hears his own panic.
It’s relieving when the telltale whir that Steve never noticed before starts up. He releases a breath he hadn’t been aware he’d been holding and relaxes into the couch when Anthony says, “Sorry, guess I didn’t hear you.”
But that panic Steve had just escaped comes back, because Anthony sounds, he sounds tired. Exhausted even and that doesn’t jive well with the other times Steve has talked to him. With how he’d been to Steve this afternoon. He doesn’t even comment on his name. And since when can an AI not hear someone? Steve had called pretty loudly he thinks.
“You don’t…” he’s not even sure he should say this because it sounds weird. “You don’t sound too good.”
Anthony’s reply is instant. “It’s just a glitch in the program, Steve. JARVIS is already working on it.”
Steve has the strangest feeling that Anthony is lying to him. He leans forward, closer to a ghost that isn’t there. He stares at nothing intently and finds himself wishing so clearly, that Anthony could just be there, could be sitting on the swivel chair so he could feel the weight of Steve’s stare. Or so Steve could walk over to him and look in his eyes and just see the lie that he knows would be there. Steve thinks he would be able to spot it. He’s looked at enough of Anthony’s pictures and has figured out which smiles are fake and which are less fake.
But he’s not.
Anthony is dead and Steve shouldn’t wish for something that will never happen.
He focuses on the fact that at least he can have this. Have something that sounds so much like Anthony; that has Anthony’s personality ingrained…
“Thanks for the help today. I don’t think we would have managed quite so well if you hadn’t hacked my comm.”
It feels like the room shrugs. “Nothing any super intelligent computer wouldn’t do to keep from talking to itself.”
Steve forces a smile. Super intelligent computer. That’s it.
Anthony startles him after a few seconds and says, “Seriously, you’re quietness is the most depressing thing my programming has ever had to handle. Did someone die that the press didn’t cover?”
Steve bites his tongue to keep from saying, ‘Only you, Anthony.’
“Y’know what? Don’t answer that. You wanna play a game?”
Steve is shocked right out of his melancholy. “What?”
“A game like…Monopoly or Life or…I dunno. I’d play a drinking game with you but as a computer I can’t get drunk and you’re like all super solder or whatever so you couldn’t get drunk. Maybe one of those super silly ‘get to know you games’. Your file says a lot but it’d be more fun to play with you.”
“You read my file,” Steve asks a little uncertainly.
Anthony actually snorts. “I’m a computer program, Steve. That’s all I do.”
Steve sits and thinks about it. He thinks of everyone upstairs and how they’re connecting with someone. He bets even by now Thor is talking to Jane from his ‘spring,’ probably listening to commentary thrown in by Darcy. He doesn’t want to go too in depth into his next thought, but Clint and Coulson are probably talking by now. Betty and Bruce are probably talking very seriously because that’s the only mode they have. Natasha and Ms. Potts are probably cuddling on the couch and laughing at the movie.
Steve wants that…even just a little bit of it. So he says, "Alright. What do you want to know?"
"Oh, we're actually playing a game! Awesome. Let me simulate a question. I don't even know. What's your favorite color? That's a shit question, don't answer that."
Steve can’t contain the small smirk that takes his lips. Anthony is very life-like, even for an AI. The way he rambles is so familiar to the Anthony in videos and press conferences and some part of Steve can see him, the real Anthony, sitting on his swivel chair and playing a game with him. "My file didn't mention my favorite color? ... It's green, by the way."
He can actually see the annoyed eye-roll, as Anthony says, "I told you not to answer that question. You're horrible at taking orders. How did you ever manage in the army? I get another question just for your disobedience. What was your favorite thing to do as a kid?"
Steve is still just so amused listening to the AI ramble, so it takes a moment to actually take the words apart in his mind and then its, he doesn’t know. A lot of his time as a kid was spent in sickness. He wasn’t always able to do anything, due to being bedridden so often. He plays with the hem of his tee and wonders if perhaps Anthony would know that. His file does mention that he had damn near every ailment a kid could get. He answers anyway, because Anthony wants to play a game, and really so does he. "I was... I spent a lot of time indoors. I loved to draw."
"That's, actually that's really cute.” Anthony says, sounding affectionate. And then he asks, “Can I say cute? Or is it some sort of offense to your patriotic vibe?"
He feels heat crawling up his face, but there’s a small smile still curling his lips. "You can call me cute, if you want."
"Okay then. Yeah, definitely cute. What did you draw? Do you still draw? Is there I site I should look up to see your art? There has to be." And he’s getting distracted again. Steve is sure AI’s can multitask but Anthony must not have had time to program that into this version of him.
Steve tries not to think about an entire site dedicated to his doodles. Instead, he says, "I... don't know. I've never looked. The internet still confuses me most of the time."
It’s a lie. He’s actually getting pretty decent at navigating the internet, or he thinks so. He does have to ask JARVIS for help sometimes but not nearly as often as he used to and these days, he asks just so he can talk to JARVIS. Like Anthony, Steve believes that JARVIS gets lonely when no one talks to him and perhaps that’s why he doesn’t react so well to Clint or Natasha, because to them he’s just a computer. He and Bruce detect the feelings that JARVIS portrays.
Again, Anthony calls him out of his musings by proclaiming, "No problem. If it's there, I'll find it. Oh, it's, it's your turn by the way.
It startles him that, oh yeah, it is his turn. He was almost expecting the game to skitter away from Anthony, because he was off searching for half-hearted sketches from Steve’s old pencils. And then he seriously has to think. What do you ask an AI of someone that's been dead for two years and who never lived in the same time period as yourself? He bites his lips against the tightening of his chest at the thought, opts for a safe topic, not knowing where he can tread without spinning himself into sadness. "What were you like as a child?"
"I was. Oh, Jesus, I don't know. I was a genius. I liked building things. I caused a lot of mayhem like all kids with the things I invented. Troublemaker comes to mind. Yeah. That."
He takes in the lab, all of Anthony’s half-finished inventions. It looks like a genius’s playground. He imagines that not even Reed Richards could be bland in this place. "Looking at all the stuff around here, I can tell the genius part didn't change."
"Oh look! There is a site!" A computer screen powers up and Steve sees some of his art from over the years on the screen. It’s, it’s actually really creepy to see all of his work just on one screen. He has a brief moment of just trying to figure out who was bored enough to collect all the scraps of his artwork. "You're really good. I really like this one," Anthony continues, and a picture of a monkey on a unicycle fills the screen.
He blinks and it sadly takes a few seconds to figure out where he had done that picture, despite the fact that the monkey is wearing his costume, and the conversation with Peggy had been so monumental to him. He blushes at the thought of her, and immediately her four grandchildren are in his mind and it, it doesn’t hurt him as much as it used to. There’s an entire lifetime between them now and though it’s only been six months since he woke up in a strange, technological world, he’s fine that she’s gone because she got old and she died and she died with a full family around her.
"Thank you,” he says, and he means it. He really does.
Anthony sounds a little embarrassed as he says, "Yeah. No problem. So, it's my turn now. Okay. So, how did Erskine find you?"
"When I saw what the Germans were doing to Europe, I was determined to join up and fight for my country. But, I was... not the best candidate for a soldier." He clears his throat, and then decides to leave it at that as Anthony most likely read the whys in his file. "After the last time they rejected me, I pleaded... begged, really. It wasn’t even my name I gave them, and, well, you know it’s illegal to lie on government records. The doctor left and all of a sudden an MP was in my room. I gotta tell you, I was a little nervous. But Dr. Erskine had apparently overheard me and he walked into the room and just started asking me where ‘the little guy’ was from. The rest, as they say, is history.”
"Wow,” and Anthony has simulated his sound waves to sound impressed. “That's, so you’re like really stubborn, I'm guessing."
"I was determined."
"Okay, I can go with determined. That's like the PC version of stubborn. Yeah, determined. You're picture is probably next to it in the dictionary." A pause and the computer screen with the monkey is filled with a computer version of Webster's dictionary and has Steve's picture next to the word 'determined'.
Steve is suitably confused. He can only blink at the word and the picture and ask, "That's really in the dictionary?"
Anthony laughs. "No, I just manipulated that real quick. Don't worry, Cap."
“Oh." He breathes a little easier with that information. "You're very quick at that."
"I'm quick at most things. I can go slow though."
"It's alright. I... like you just how you are." He fakes coughs because he’s embarrassed with himself and there’s this feeling in his chest that flairs so brightly it almost hurts. "Is it my turn again?
"That would be a yes, so, fire away!"
"Right." Steve says as he abandons his place on the couch, wandering to one of the half finished projects that caught his eye. "Will you tell me about something you were creating?"
"You...want to know about my works?” Anthony sounds, well, shocked. Like no one has ever asked him about what he was working on in his life. “Alright. That thing you’re standing next to is actually part of a repulsor design I had when gas prices first spiked. Inflation doesn’t mean shit for me, but I knew a lot of people were hurting. I was trying to find a way to help people who were financially struggling and make it pretty cheap. That wouldn't have actually been cheaper, but it was a pretty cool idea so I messed with it in my spare time. I couldn't find something economically efficient for the lower class, but I tried when I could."
He absorbs the information slowly, running his fingers over the detailed metal surface of the half finished invention, proud that Anthony was looking out for the welfare of people even if he was never able to complete it. "That's wonderful of you."
"Yeah, well.” The room shrugs again with the offhand way Anthony speaks. “I had to do something to balance out my demons. So! It's my turn again! I want to know about your friends. Past, present. I don't care. Just tell me about them."
He gives a half-laugh and considers what friends to tell him about. He considers Bucky, Dr. Erskine, Colonel Philips for a moment, because the Colonel had been his friend. He even considers Peggy and Howard. But in the end, that’s not his life anymore. They were his friends, in the 1940’s, but who he considers his friends now are wildly more eccentric. "I suppose they aren't so much teammates as friends anymore. Where do I start? Thor is probably the most amusing. He's the god. He likes to end his sentences in 'verily' and has a Pop Tart habit that I can barely comprehend. Then there's Clint. He's... an interesting fellow. He likes his arrows and his off color jokes, but he can be scary sometimes with how ruthless he can be, but not as scary as Natasha can be.”
And he goes on and on because after he’s finished telling Anthony about Natasha’s knives and Bruce’s weird love of Dora the Explorer, he keeps popping up with stories about them, about living together, and fighting together, and sometimes fighting each other, because Steve will admit that some of those first days as a team, he had not been above throwing soda cans at Clint’s head.
Anthony sounds amused and, maybe Steve is imagining this second emotion, but a little sad too. "They sound like a fun group of people. Natasha seriously fought Bruce when he was in Hulk form?"
"She did. They were actually fairly evenly matched, except that Bruce has a tendency to throw things like cars when he gets really upset. Natasha is lucky she's quick on her feet."
"That's amazing. Is she single? Is she into computer programs?"
He laughs, and maybe it’s only to cover his sinking heart, but Anthony doesn’t know that and Steve sure as hell won’t tell. "She and Ms. Potts are something of an item. Sorry."
"Ms. Potts? Pepper Potts? They're...Oh God, that's so hot!"
"Anthony..." he admonishes.”Natasha may find a way to make it into the mainframe and delete your program if she hears you say something like that."
"Right. Uncouth and all that. I apologize to her non-corporeal form. My bad and so on."
A subject change is in order, and fast. "It's my turn again. What do you do when I'm not here?"
The question is just barely out of his mouth, before Anthony is answering without pause, "Watch videos of you. Do you know how many phone recordings there are of you taking a jog?"
He blushes, like blushes all the way down to his core, then groans, sinking into the swivel chair. "Why is the modern world so obsessed with my morning regimen?"
Again, Anthony has no problem answering him immediately. "You're America's icon? You're over 90 years old and still look 26? You have the body of a god? Really if I were asked to pick the god and looked at a picture of you and Thor, I wouldn't know. Just take your pick, Steve."
Steve thinks this blush may be a permanent thing. He will walk around beet red for the rest of his life. "I'm still not used to being considered attractive."
"Well, you are. You were before the serum, just in a different way. Very attractive and I know. I make a living on knowing attractiveness."
He, he wonders about the way Anthony seems to be talking even through his blush, like he's still around. Wonders if the AI still considers itself alive despite the original being dead, then discontinues that thought in hurry because it hurts him right in the heart to think that Anthony is gone and will never be within his reach. "I don't think anyone has ever called me attractive before the serum..."
"You were still you before the serum. Anyone with any sort of IQ can see that."
"I'm not so sure anyone has what you consider a good IQ, Anthony... but thank you for the sentiment."
"Probably not. Okay, my turn again. What's the weirdest thing you can think of in the 21st century?"
Steve goes through all the strange things that come with waking up in the 21st century, and there are a lot. But what he decides on, what his mind keeps coming back to… "It's going to sound silly."
"This is a silly game. Just roll with it."
"Alright..." He gathers himself and mentally prepares himself for this answer because he’s never told anyone about, not even Thor, and Thor is probably the closest person he can consider as his best friend. "The strangest thing about the 21st century to me is the way people have changed. Back during the war and my youth, people were... less open. I'm sure they had the same flaws, and the same desires, but no one talked about them. People didn't swear in polite company, people wore different clothing; they never ever talked about what they did behind bedroom doors… The strangest thing for me to get used to is the way opinions have changed about those things. And being called a fuddy duddy for blushing about it."
Anthony laughs, but it isn’t mocking. It’s like he can understand it. Then, naturally, he ruins it by asking, "Are you not a fuddy duddy? Are you secretly into BDSM?"
Steve seriously believes he will never stop blushing at this point. "No. I..." He sighs, deciding he can talk about it here, because Anthony is AI and he feels... safe enough to say it. "I'm not as virginal or prudish as people think I am. Sex is more than missionary position and creating a child... I just can't get used to talking about it the same way you'd talk about what you ate for dinner last night.”
Anthony's tone changes, and it’s not to something Steve can immediately comprehend. It sounds like someone poured water all over his programming and he’s being forced to work through it. "Okay. Yeah. Okay, I can see that. That's, well, that's actually sort of...you know what? You probably don't want to know. Wow."
He perks up immediately. "What? Tell me? Consider it my question. It's my turn after all."
“Oh, I feel regret curling in my wires. Okay, well you asked for it. It’s…really enlightening and honestly a lot sexy. There’s really something about knowing you think like us but have like valor or whatever to keep it to yourself. Being in the bedroom with you must be something special.”
And…he has to bite his tongue hard to keep from saying something like 'I wish I could show you,’ because it just invites all sorts of hurts that thinking about, alone, is hard enough to endure. Saying them aloud would probably physically wound him in a way not even the serum could fix. "Sex is something special to me. It's not something I partake in unless the someone I'm with is special to me."
There’s a loud silence and Steve almost, almost thinks he hears a sigh before Anthony takes his turn. "So I take it you have a special someone?"
Which has Steve almost groaning aloud in pain, the thought that he does have someone special, he really does, but he's dead and gone and only around through a damn computer bites into him sharply. "I... No. Not... really,” he manages somehow.
"That's, that's surprising. Who wouldn't fall all over themselves to have Captain America?" And it’s fond, and sweet, and so life-like that the pain Steve feels can only quadruple. He sounds like there could be no possible way anyone would not want to love him, like if he were alive…
"If it were you, would you want one of those people that took videos of your morning jog to be the one you made love to?" he asks and he isn’t sure how he manages to keep his voice even and lofty.
"That would be an absolutely insane idea to entertain. I've never taken morning jogs."
"You know what I mean. That's not who I want."
"Is there someone you do want?"
Steve hesitates, but like so many of his decisions in this room, his answer is ruled by the fact that…Anthony is an AI and can’t betray his feelings. "Yes, there is."
"Tell me about her?" is the computer’s instant demand.
"It's not a her. It's... someone I've never met. At least not in person."
"You have an internet relationship with a not-her. That's...Can I say that's hot?"
Steve makes a face, he knows he does. He would never consider his situation ‘hot’ but, well, Tony’s an AI and hot seems to be in his immediate vernacular. "I... guess? It's... complicated. To me, at least."
"What's complicated? He not want to meet you?"
"He, he can't? What kind of sad romance is this?" And it’s kind of funny how Anthony sounds so, so offended on his behalf.
"I did say it was complicated."
"Is this like some weird X-men thing? Does he have Rogue-like abilities? He can't? That's just not even right!"
He takes a deep breath, and just says it. Pushes the words out between his teeth. "He's dead."
Steve doesn’t even think about politeness as he cuts Anthony off. "If the next thing that comes out of your wires involves the word necrophilia, this conversation is over."
There’s a long pause. "Okay, scrapping the necrophilia joke. That was in bad taste anyway. Not that jokes about my father are ever in good taste, but you know what I mean."
And then it’s Steve’s turn to stay quiet. He thinks about letting it go, letting Anthony believe that it’s Howard, but the thought drops to his stomach where it curdles like bad milk. "... It's not Howard. Just so you know."
"Oh right. Internet relationship,” Anthony reminds himself, and then it must click in his circuit board because he says, slow and sad, “...with...a dead man. Right."
Steve fidgets, just a little, just enough. "I... yeah."
"I'm sure I'd feel the same way,” Anthony tells him, quiet and assuring.
He lets out the breath he was unintentionally holding, relief sagging his shoulders. He can’t help but smile sadly. "You wouldn't have to, if you didn't want to. But... sometimes I'd like to think..."
He doesn’t know what he’d like to think, and that’s the sad part. What he’d like to think, he won’t let himself, because again with the hurting and aching in all of his body and possibly in his soul. So really, what he’d like to think, he doesn’t like to think and what he does allow himself to think is just, it’s ashes in his mouth.
"Jesus, this got super depressing in a hurry!" Anthony says with some amount of forced levity.
Steve laughs despite himself and lets Anthony’s not-so-subtle change of subject wash away the gloom webbing itself into his mind. "You started it."
"I knew we should have played Monopoly."
"Didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. Can AI get uncomfortable?" he asks with a small smirk.
"I'm blushing right down to my server."
"Sorry,” but he’s not. He’s enjoyed this conversation and game despite the cruel, underlying truth that this is as close as he will ever get to Anthony.
"Don't be. I like it."
He tries not to think too much about how that lightens the weight in his chest, trying to remind himself that the hope is a foolish thing when it comes to loving a dead man. And that’s how it is. It hits him suddenly and without fanfare. He’s falling in love with a computer simulation. He feels that’s even sadder than calling the program a friend, but this is the 21st century and he woke up after being frozen for seventy years, so why not?
He takes a deep breath that turns into a loud yawn.
"You should go to bed, Steve,” Anthony says firmly and softly at the same time. Fond as hell and Steve feels warm just at the tone.
"I know,” he says reluctantly. He doesn’t want to go to bed. He’d like to stay and talk with a computer some more and maybe actually play Monopoly. But he battled way too many robots to comprehend and watched an interrogation and talked with a dead man. It’s been a long day. He needs sleep.
"I'll be here tomorrow."
He bites his lip against the desire to make the AI promise, because he knows it's childish. "Then I will to." He pulls himself out of his chair, walks to the door slowly, pausing when he hears Anthony’s voice again.
The simulation sounds sad. "Hey, Steve? I have a complicated crush too. I have this crush on this living guy. Think he'll reciprocate?"
Steve turns in the doorway, looking back and all around the workspace where a ghost is lingering in the most welcome of ways. He smiles gently. "Yeah. I think he will."
It’s like the room nods with relief. “Night, Cap.”
"Good Night, Anthony,” and he takes his leave, sagging against the door as it closes behind him and pressing a hand to his eyes.
When he’s recovered, he trots up the stairs again and notices again all the empty spaces that have been left by Anthony. He can see them even in this hardly trodden part of the house that seems as if only Steve and Ms. Potts know of. As he goes to the main section of the mansion, more ghosts spring to life. He isn’t sure if they’re real, but they seem real. It could be because he’s seen other people do it, or it could be because Steve really has been following Anthony’s footsteps with a two year gap between them, but it doesn’t matter to him at the moment.
He checks the mansion to make sure everyone is inside before locking all six doors. He walks through the living area, to make sure the electronics are off, and it still seems strange to Steve that the living area isn’t near any of the doors. Natasha and Ms. Potts are still on the couch. Ms. Potts is curled so tightly Steve thinks he could hold her in his arms, and her head is resting in Natasha’s lap while Natasha has her head leaned back on the couch.
It, well, it doesn’t look too uncomfortable. Natasha is spry and made out of some gelatinous goo, but it would still be more comfortable for her if she took herself and Ms. Potts to her room.
He reaches out his hand, only a little surprised when Natasha’s death-like grip encircles his wrist. “Don’t. She’s comfortable.”
Steve spares himself a brief moment to recollect himself and in that moment realizes that Natasha has painted her nails pink. He shakes it off as her eyes slit open and she stares at him with a silent dare in her eyes. Steve should feel lucky that she doesn’t have one of her knifes to his throat. After a second, she releases his hand and lets it rest in Ms. Potts’ hair.
He smiles to her lightly, raises his hand before he can convince himself it will likely get him killed, to run lightly through her red tangles, and says, “I was actually thinking you would both be more comfortable if you went to your room.”
Her eyes open fully, and the green of her irises are soft as she looks at him with something he usually only sees when she looks at Ms. Potts. There’s love there, and Steve isn’t really shocked to feel it in his chest. She’s his friend, no matter how scary she is, and Steve thinks to himself that he probably would kill for her, and she would hesitate even less than normal to kill for him. He feels himself regarding her as a sister, in a way, though he will never be as close to her as Ms. Potts and Clint are. It’s just there.
She takes a deep breath, and sighs out, “You’re right,” before she’s gently shaking Ms. Potts into a state of half-wakeness.
Steve sees them off to their room. Considers going to his room, because he is tired. He absolutely is. But the bed doesn’t sound appealing to him, and he can’t even force himself to go into that empty room that he’s called his for the last six months.
He goes to the gym instead.
He’s only in the gym for about an hour when he hears the steady shuffling that is familiar to him, and yet still isn’t.
He halts in lifting weights, sets the dumbbell in its hold before turning to meet Thor, who is in the doorway and watching him with worried blue eyes.
“You sleep less and less in these times, my friend,” he says and his voice is actually something close to a normal human being’s. “It causes me worry.”
Steve doesn’t try to coddle him. He says, “There’s a lot on my mind, Thor. Stane is becoming…”
“Quite nefarious, I agree,” Thor picks up without hesitation as he comes into the gym. Steve is thankful as he sits on a weight bench and feels even better as he hears the metal groan beneath the god. He’s thankfully wearing clothing. There have been some nights when Thor felt the need for a heart to heart while he was completely naked. He has sleep pants on and what looks to be a robe, but on him, sort of looks like a jacket. He leaves enough space for Steve to sit next to him, as he says, “But this is not what keeps you up at night. You have secrets in your eyes and I would know them, if you would let me.”
Steve looks at Thor, and he sees a greater friend than anyone else on his team could ever be. Yet, still, Anthony is also close to him. Despite knowing that Thor could never judge him, he won’t tell the god about the program. It’s still just his and he likes it like that. It may be selfish, but he’s his.
He stares into Thor’s eyes, says quietly. “Let me keep my secrets for a few more weeks, Thor. I promise, you’ll be the first person I tell them to.”
Thor nods. “I find this to be an acceptable agreement.” He sits for a few seconds in what to humans would be awkward, but he only takes a deep breath and says, “I shall practice with you, my honorable Steve. We shall become mightier at hand combat.”
And even though Thor is a god, there’s no way Steve could deny that.
Steve and Thor are still awake in the morning. They’ve nearly thrown each other through the wall a few times and Thor eventually proclaimed he was starving and that’s how they got there. Two coffee pots are working now, and Steve is actually starting the third and fourth one. Thor has his Pop Tarts and is munching on a package of wildberry happily as Steve makes himself an omelette.
Natasha is, without surprise, the first one up, and she steals Steve’s breakfast without hesitation. She grabs a cup of coffee and eats her breakfast daintily despite the fact that Steve knows she isn’t awake.
It’s also not a surprise that Agent Coulson is the next one awake. He comes down and takes Steve’s second omelette. He’s wearing, Steve has to stop his smile, he’s wearing a pair of Superman pajama bottoms. And those are sooo Clint’s because Clint loves Superman.
He makes a third omelette but Thor is so hungry he’s staring at Steve’s eggs like he could eat them raw so Steve hands it to him. And then Bruce comes down the stairs and Steve has to cook three times a normal human’s amount for him. Next is Clint, and he actually just wants scrambled eggs so Steve makes them for him real quick. Ms. Potts is last down the stairs and she doesn’t want eggs. She pulls out a parfait from the fridge and this time she does sit on Natasha’s lap, actually.
And before he knows it he’s making one for Anthony. He gives it to Thor, because he actually doesn’t like onions in his omelettes and he’s running out of ham pieces, but it seems like a fair trade as he settles another plate in front of Thor, seeing the knowing in his eyes.
When Steve finally has his breakfast, he takes the last seat between Clint and Bruce and Bruce is telling everyone that he has a working treatment for palladium poison.
And it’s not a moment too soon.
Ms. Potts is actually in Los Angeles when the first strike hits less than a month later and every super hero team in current existence is gearing up with Bruce’s serum and getting ready to help with the poisoning, but then it hits in Chicago and in Dallas and Miami and finally two New York City.
There’s just, there’s not enough.
No one could stop Natasha from going to L.A. and Steve sends Clint with her, because if she’s going to do damage the least he can do is send her with someone who can do some amount of damage control. The Fantastic Four head to Chicago with a copy of Bruce’s treatment. Storm leads a team of mutants to Dallas and Cyclops leads a team to Miami. There’re rumors that Magneto is even springing to action to see if he can find the next target before it strikes.
The rest of the Avengers stay in New York and try to keep down the panic.
They head to the sights where the missile had exploded over and even though really only Bruce has to wear gas mask Thor and Steve don them as well. Finding all the pieces of metal that had to be surrounding the poison is a difficult thing but with a few SHIELD members and themselves they make due.
Over his comm. Steve can hear Fury cussing up a storm alternating between barking orders at agents in the field with them and agents in Headquarters with him.
“I want the best fucking doctor’s in the world working on this! Spare nothing to get them in these cities.”
And Steve listens and feels respect for him and Coulson, because he’s on the phone in a heartbeat, talking to probably the same agent Fury is yelling at, and giving off a list of names that has Steve’s head spinning and makes Bruce lean closer to him and ask, “Does he seriously have the best doctors in the world memorized?”
Steve wouldn’t be surprised if he does.
And he’s definitely not surprised when Anthony breaks into the comm. and says, “No, no. Those won’t work, agent.”
Steve can practically hear all the air in Fury’s office being sucked into his lungs. “Who the hell is this and how the fuck did you get this comm. link?”
“Just a friendly hacker. I’m here to help. Look, I’ve already got this sorted. Doctors House and Wilson are in Chicago taking care of the problem there so no need to send someone to trip them up,” Anthony says all business and only a little cheek. “A Doctor Hank McCoy is being sent to the biggest hospital in New York along with a Doctor Jean Grey. I’ve contacted Starfleet Enterprises and they’re sending out their best scientists and doctors. A Doctors Leonard McCoy and Philip Boyce are headed to L.A. from San Francisco as we speak. Don’t get the two McCoy’s confused. One is blue and fuzzy; the other is loud and grumpy. I’ve also sent an email to a Doctor Watson over in England. I’ve heard news from his partner that they’re already on their way to Miami. And in Dallas I have a Doctor Samantha Grimm heading to the major hospital there. Everyone will be getting in contact with you within the hour.”
And within the next five seconds, Steve hears Fury’s phone ring.
“Nick Fury,” is dragged out of the man’s lips. It sounds like they’re wrapped in barbed wire. “Director of SHIELD. With whom am I speaking?”
He hears Coulson trying to get a focus on where Anthony is located, but SHIELD’s backhackers are about as lucky as Clint was at backhacking the email Bruce had received which, golly, looking back at it, that had to be Anthony as well.
He looks around the scene. There isn’t much debris other than the missile particles. An agent had earlier given an estimation that the missiles were set to deploy the poison about 2500 feet in the air, letting the poison rain down in a green mist over a ten mile radius. Currently, Steve, Thor, Bruce and three suburban loads of SHIELD agents are just outside the red zone.
He’s about to ask an agent how the other site is looking and if they’ve evacuated everyone out of the premise when he feels something he hasn’t felt in years. His tongue is swelling like he’s having an allergic reaction. He swallows, takes a breath, but it’s getting hard to do. He’s actually having an allergic reaction and his windpipe is closing up.
He wastes no time in turning to Thor and rasping out, “Take me to the hospital, Thor. Now!”
Thor doesn’t hesitate. He grabs Steve by the shoulders and crushes him to his chest. Without another breath wasted he jets them both into the air and heads to the closest hospital as Steve feels oxygen expire in his lungs. He’s beginning to see spots in front of his eyes. The world goes tilty even in the air. When they land what is probably only a minute later but feels like a lifetime, Steve nearly collapses and he’s so glad Thor is there with him, because the god just hefts him over his shoulder, and his cape is really soft, how did Steve never notice that? He carries him in the doors and even through the haze that is taking over him, Steve can hear that this place is in chaos.
Thor doesn’t give one good god damn, and that’s his favorite cuss phrase. He’d heard his mom use it a few times to his uncle before she had died. He misses him mom.
Thor bellows, “Captain America is in need of assistance!”
The world fades to black but there are a few seconds where Steve can still hear everything around him. Especially Thor’s matter-of-fact, “I will be with him while he is in your care! I refuse to let you strap him down!”
And Steve thinks that Thor is his best friend.
Steve wakes on a hospital bed and he’s alone, but he remembers pretty much every single time he was in the hospital as a kid and buzzes a nurse so that they can check vitals and whatnot. Less than two minutes later he hears Thor, who is apparently waiting just outside his door, yell, “What business have you with my companion!?”
He takes a deep breath and feels better when the air goes all the way to the bottom of his lungs, and shouts out, “I called the nurse, Thor! Let ‘em in!”
Thor peeks his head inside the door like a child and grins. “My wonderful Steve! You’ve recovered from your ailment!” He then opens the door fully and ducks through, holding the door open long enough to glare at a nurse mistrustfully.
The nurse is a young man about half the size of Thor, but he doesn’t look intimidated in the least. In fact, he looks downright peeved. He glares right back at Thor as he stalks past. He checks all Steve’s vitals and says the doctor will be in to see him soon, but with the palladium poisoning it may be a while. Steve nods and gestures at Thor. “I’ll have company.”
The nurse leaves with one more glare directed at Thor, but Thor seems to be so happy that Steve is awake that he doesn’t notice. When the door is shut Thor literally just plops himself down at the end of his bed and sits Indian style. He bounces a little. “Steve! I am so glad to hear that you are well. You suffered from an allergic reaction.” He mispronounces ‘allergic’ so bad Steve can’t even try to copy it, but he understands anyway. “The doctor informed me that it was the poisoning in the air. You had inhaled it, but with a pen of epicness they were able to save you!”
Steve smiles, leans back against his pillows. He’s comfortable with Thor watching him from the end of the bed. He looks at the god and he’s stared at in return and physically feels the affection in the other man’s eyes. He wonders how the rest of the team is. He wants to know if Ms. Potts is okay and how the civilians are. He glances around the room for his phone, but doesn’t see it. “Thor, where’s my phone?”
He looks a little abashed as he looks around the room. “I believe it may have taken escape from your pocket on the way to the hospital.”
He lets his head thump back against the bed and sighs. “Do you have your phone?”
It’s always a fifty-fifty chance for Thor to have his phone on him. As an Asguardian, he doesn’t see the need for a phone and electronics pretty much escape him, but Steve is happy to note that he does have his phone and produces it with flourish.
He dials Bruce first to make sure he’s okay. “Bruce?”
“Yes?” the man replies like he’s not sure who the voice on the other end of Thor’s phone is.
“It’s Steve. Are you okay?”
Bruce is audibly smiling when he answers. “Steve! Oh, wonderful! You’re okay!” He sounds relieved. “I’m fine. I’m helping Dr. McCoy at St. Anthony’s Hospital.”
“Have you talked to anyone else?”
“No,” Bruce says. “I’ve been busy in the lab and running around New York.”
“Okay. I’ll call them. Do you need any help? I can arrange for it.”
“No. McCoy brought a team of his own and I’m just giving them the instructions for the treatment.”
“Okay. I’m going to call Natasha and Clint. Make sure everyone in L.A. is doing alright.”
He can practically feel Bruce nodding. “Update me,” he says before he hangs up.
Steve gives Thor a brief update on Bruce as he scrolls through to find Clint’s number. Thor says that its ‘magnificent,’ and then Steve is pressing the phone to his ear. It is so not Clint who answers and it isn’t Natasha or Ms. Potts or even Anthony.
“This is Jim Kirk. I can give you my number and hopefully it will redirect you to a superhero.”
Steve takes the phone away from his ear to stare at it in shock. When he presses his ear to the phone again he says, “You have Hawkeye’s phone?”
“Yeah. Apparently people with too much money have the same phone. You’re Thor?” The fellow on the other side of the line asks.
“No. I’m…” He looks at the phone again because he can’t help it. “I’m Captain America.”
“Oh!” The phone is apparently taken away from his ear as he yells, “Hey, Bones! I’m on the phone with Captain America!”
Far away from the phone is the response, “Whoopee for you, Jim. Come back to bed!”
“Good idea!” The voice comes closer to the phone. “Whatcha need, sir?”
“Do you know how my agents are?”
Jim is quick to respond to his urgent tone. “Uh yeah. And Pepper Potts. She was actually talking to me when the missile burst. Oh, by the way, if you wanna tell Director Fury that Starfleet Enterprises is willing to sponsor them or whatever, that’s a go.”
“Um…good?” Steve responds.
“Yeah, so Hawkeye and Black Widow are fine and I feel that I should tell you that no one has mysteriously gone missing.” Steve bites back a sigh of relief. “Pepper is good. Happy got a good whiff of the poison but he’s doing well thanks to certain doctors.”
Again Steve hears a man in the background saying, “Damn straight. Now hang up that stupid phone.”
“Gotta go, Super Flag.”
“Hey! Hey!” Steve calls really quick. “What’s your number?”
Kirk is quick with his response. “Oh, yeah!” He rattles of a number and hangs up quickly.
He calls Kirk’s number and it’s Ms. Potts who answers, sounding frustrated and wrung out. Steve can’t say he blames her and thinks he might understand why she’s taking it the worst. But before he can even say hello, she’s speaking, “Thor? Thor, how’s Steve? We just heard he went to the hospital over the news. As soon as Doctor Boyce releases Happy we’ll be on our way back okay? Thor?”
He’s not surprised that she has Thor’s number memorized. “I’m fine, Ms. Potts. It was just an allergic reaction. How’s Happy?” he asks.
She takes a deep breath, releases it slowly. “He’s fine,” and even though Steve doesn’t think Ms. Potts can lie, she sounds like he’s a step away from death and it’s taking all her will power not to breakdown. “Doctor Boyce says he didn’t get too much into his lungs and we got him in pretty fast. Boyce says he can leave at the end of the night, but I think he really just wants the bed space. This place is flooded. Mr. Kirk called his boss and had them send out more help and I think Starfleet Enterprises is actually calling a few other companies they work with to send out their doctors.”
She takes another breath and Steve jumps in quickly before she starts outlining just what that will entail and gets it into her mind that she should organize the entire setup. “Where are Black Widow and Hawkeye?”
“They’re in the hospital at the moment. Natasha’s keeping an eye on the newsfeeds and keeping up with the media and Hawkeye is playing Fruit Slicer on my phone.” She huffs a laugh. “He’s trying to beat my high score.”
Well that explains why Ms. Potts has Kirk’s phone instead of her own. He laughs with her. “It’ll never happen.”
“Yeah,” she says and she sounds a little better. “I’m going to head back inside. When will you be out? I’ll have someone come by for you and Thor.”
He shrugs. “I haven’t spoken to the doctor yet, but I’ll send you a message when I’m out.”
“Okay. That’s good.”
He pulls the phone away from his ear and hands it back to Thor. He’s updating him when the speaker in his bed springs to life and its Anthony again. How he keeps hacking into everything is a mystery, but he’s kind of used to it by now. Steve can’t stop himself, he smiles.
“Cap?” Anthony asks. “You okay?”
Thor doesn’t even hesitate. He gets close up to the speaker and nearly covers Steve completely. “Who are you and what business do you have with my friend!?”
There’s a long pause after Thor speaks and Anthony says, “Uh…who are you?”
Steve thinks about this and how he had been promising to let Thor in on the fact Anthony had integrated his personality into an AI system, so today was as good a time as any. He says, “Anthony, this is Thor. Be nice.”
Thor turns his head, because he’s still halfway covering Steve, stares at him for a moment and his eyes light up, because he must know that this is Steve’s secret.
“Anthony?” he asks softly. And then he smiles. “Anthony, it is good to make your acquaintance!”
The speaker sighs. “You had to get him in on that too?”
“Where do you hail from, great Anthony?” Thor demands.
“Anthony of the Wires! It is a great thing to make your friendship!” the god’s voice is booming again, which right next to Steve’s ear is really loud.
He jerks away and Thor immediately sits back on the end of the bed, looking a little apologetic. Ms. Potts has had very lengthy conversations with him about proper speaking levels when next to someone’s ear.
“It’s nice to meet you too, Thor.” He doesn’t completely sound convinced. Like he’s totally unsure how to deal with this situation. He sounds panicked. “Look, I was just calling to make sure you were okay.”
A strange click and then there’s silence in the room. Thor stares at the speaker with a frown creasing his forehead. “Most strange.”
Steve, also staring at the speakers, nods. That is completely unlike Anthony. He wonders if its part of the glitch Anthony had mentioned a few weeks ago.
But then the doctor comes in.
Thor makes the car taking them home stop at a homey looking restaurant after having been texting furiously on his phone. He flings the door open and Steve, who had been halfway dozing in the back, comes back to himself as the door slams shut behind his friend.
He looks at their driver for clarification on what just happened, but she looks absolutely as confused as he is and actually stares after Thor as he nearly yanks the door off the restaurant.
They wait twenty minutes in the car and Steve suddenly finds himself wishing he hadn’t lost his phone so he could play Fruit Ninja, or Sudoku or that weird gloppy game that Clint just loves and downloaded onto everyone’s phone! He considers getting out and following the god to make sure that he didn’t succumb to playing a game with a child, but knows if that’s what happened he will likely be joining in the game.
So he stares out the window at the door, silently urging Thor to come back so they can get back to the mansion.
The agent behind the wheel is actually unbuckling her seatbelt and muttering ominously when Thor comes out with five bags full in one of his massive hands and he looks to be on his way back to the car when he looks down.
And though Steve can’t see what he’s looking at, he knows that look. Steve has seen it all the time when they go to the zoo, or the park, or once for some reason the pound. He’s found a small animal. Steve is scrambling out the door, because he’s still having problems with the entire concept of seatbelts. It’s too late though. Thor has bent down and scooped something into his mighty palm and runs towards the suburban.
He gets in the car and he’s grinning wildly.
“Thor,” Steve says as Thor shoves the bags into the back.
Thor apparently knows what’s coming because he shoves his free hand into one of the bag and comes back with the bucket and forces it into Steve’s hands, proclaiming, “My lovely Jane has imparted the wisdom that chicken soup is in fact a magical cure for all ailments!”
Steve thinks that Thor’s family in New Mexico just likes to mess with him.
He looks down at the bucket and through the clear lid he can actually see yellow broth. He’s torn between thanking Thor for his thoughtfulness and demanding to know what Thor is holding.
The agent fixes his problem. “Is that a puppy?!” and everyone has weaknesses. Hers is apparently puppies.
Thor smiles, but quickly switches his gaze to Steve and curls his hand closer to his chest
“A puppy?” Steve asks. “Thor, we’re superheroes. We don’t have…”
This time Thor refuses his attempt at logic by dropping a puddle of multicolored fur on top of Steve’s bucket, which is kind of unsanitary, but not the worst thing he’s ever had to deal with. “He doth look at me with loving eyes! My good Steve, he is a loyal canine. His eyes tell me that easily.”
“I wanna see him!” the agent says, turning in her seat to grab the puppy up from Steve’s soup.
Fury would probably be having a fit if he could see one of his agents act as anything other than terrifying.
She holds him up in the light given off by the streetlight and smiles at it, scratching one ear lovingly. “Oh, he is just the cutest!”
Steve sighs. “Thor, remember what we talked about? When you brought the bunny to the mansion?”
A sad look comes over his face and Steve wishes Natasha or Ms. Potts were around. They can actually stand up to the wide-eyed look of sorrow Thor is giving him. “But he will be a better companion and I will train him to be mighty!”
He has never respected parents all over the world more than he has now; trying to convince a demi-god that he can’t have something fluffy.
He sighs again. “You can have him,” Thor perks up immediately, “if you can get the team to agree.”
But he’s said the words and Natasha and Bruce are probably going to glare so hard at him for this.
Steve is going over the events of the day while he eats from his giant bucket of chicken noodle soup. Even though it’s not homemade, he can tell that someone had prepared the soup today and that it isn’t from a can. It isn’t as good as him mom’s or Agent Coulson’s but it helps with his hunger and lets him focus.
He isn’t sure what to do about Stane. There are arms dealers all over the world and sometimes certain things get into the wrong hands. He knows that to be the case, but with Stane, and Hammer as well in a sense, he can’t help but think that some of these things weren’t necessarily accidents.
Even now, the U.S. president is meeting with congress and everyone is trying to find out who had sent the missiles. No foreign country is springing up. All major suspects are collectively raising their hands screaming, ‘not me!’ Stane has given the first press conference saying that as soon as the culprits double-dealing Stark weapons have been uncovered they will be handed over to police. Steve wonders who’ll be the patsy for this crime.
In the meantime, there is already a public frenzy to keep in mind. Several people have been affected today and fear of what will happen if there are more poison missiles in the future. SHIELD is mass producing Bruce’s treatment, but it’s not a cure and already there is panic of what will happen if the poison becomes immune to the treatment, or how the poison will affect the lives of those infected. There’s fear of what the next hit could be, if it will even be the same poison or something worse.
The press is having a field day and many of the superheroes and political leaders are being watched. Pepper gives an update that the hotel she, Natasha, and Clint are staying at is a madhouse. The security around the Fantastic Four’s premises is almost breaking under the craze. Steve can only shudder when he remembers the SHIELD suburban navigating through the crowd in front of Avenger Mansion.
Steve takes another sip of his soup, but it’s getting chilled, just like Steve himself is in response to this entire situation.
He needs to get his team back to the mansion so they can speak together and after that Director Fury is probably going to call them in for a meeting. With the chaos going on, other villains are likely to emerge to spiral the world into a worse state of fear. Dr. Doom has recently escaped jail again. Magneto is still free and although rumors were he was trying to help them earlier, now who knows what his mind is thinking. Not to mention petty villains who have dreams of being the next super-villain.
He suddenly wishes there were a lot more superheroes to go around. There’s talk in SHIELD of bringing up an Avengers team on the west coast, and more vigilante’s are springing up around the U.S. and quite a few in Europe and Asia, but the world is constantly back and forth about what qualifies as a hero and what constitutes as a citizen taking the law into their own hand.
Spider-Man, himself, is being targeted as a menace in Queens even now.
There are whispers that a Registration Act is being considered in the government, so that there can be more government influence over superhumans. It wouldn’t truly affect the Avengers or The Fantastic Four, as the entire world knows their identities, but there are some lone heroes who would prefer their anonymity. Steve can’t say he blames them.
He dips his spoon back into his bucket of soup, but now it’s completely cold and he doesn’t want anymore anyway. He snaps the lid back onto it and takes it to the fridge.
His mind is whirring with too much and he needs his team around to talk to. Natasha and Clint won’t be back until early in the morning hours. Pepper estimates about three or four. He knows he’s not going to be able to sleep much until then.
He goes out to the living area and finds Thor on the floor with the puppy. Bruce hadn’t seen it when he came in earlier, and Steve is glad for that. Thor currently seems to be telling the little fuzzball that he will grow mighty on Asgardian meats and become the fiercest of all Midgardian hounds.
Steve just smirks and turns away. He does a course of the house, ends up in the gym again. His punching bag sways lightly, but it holds no appeal for him.
He knows what he wants to do.
He wants to talk to Anthony. Talking to Anthony always makes him feel better, gives him a brief escape from the reality building up around him, the unease that permeates through the house and beyond in the city he loves.
But the conversation from earlier spirals into his mind like a whirlwind. He sits down on the weight bench, and wonders about the glitch. JARVIS was supposed to be working on it…
"Hey, JARVIS?" he calls out, leaning his elbows on his knees.
"Yes, Captain Rogers?” come his bland, yet somehow affectionate tones.
"Did you fix the glitch…” he pauses to make sure that was the word he actually wanted. The internet was getting simple. The jargon used in the computer-world was still a little iffy in his mind, “in Anthony's system? I think there may still be one."
JARVIS doesn’t answer immediately, and Steve thinks that this would be the perfect time to get the terminology wrong. "I'm not sure I follow, Captain."
"A few weeks ago, he mentioned a glitch that you were fixing with his voice program,” he expounds, trying to think of exactly what Anthony had said to him. He thinks it was ‘glitch’. “And today, he talked to Thor and me at the hospital. But he didn't sound the same. I'm not sure you got the glitch-thing."
"I am afraid I was not aware of a glitch in any system in the house, sir."
"Are you sure? Anthony seemed to know what he was talking about." He looks up at the ceiling as if JARVIS’s face will become visible to see his confused stare.
There is no face, but a palpable silence. "Yes,” JARVIS intones just a fraction slower than he normally would, “he usually does. One can always count on him to know his way around the circuits.”
Steve isn’t sure what to make of that. "What was he talking about then? Did he...did he lie?" He had that thought when Anthony had brought up that it was only something wrong with the computer system. He had cast it away though, because Clint had made him watch enough AI movies, shortly after the never-ending robot infestation and before it became such a hated topic, to know that AI’s were programmed. And more importantly, if Anthony had been lying, and if Steve is honest with himself, which he mostly is, it had brought with it a certain hope.
A hope he is trying to keep at bay even now.
"I am merely stating that if there were a glitch in the system, I was not made aware of it. That would be an odd thing for me not to be aware of, would it not, sir?"
"So there wasn't a glitch in the sys--" The hope isn’t being held at bay anymore. It slams into him painfully and near angrily. He takes a deep breath, breathes through it, the hope, the pain, and the growing rage in his chest. He flies to the closest office, one with a computer and demands, "JARVIS, list the systems available in the house."
"Right away, sir.” JARVIS activates the computer and a list springs to life before his eyes. But it’s not in anything Steve has ever seen so he just stares at it for long moments, hoping it will soon make sense before his eyes.
"Where's Anthony's program?” he sighs in frustration.
"Mr. Stark's program is held on a remote server, sir."
That doesn’t make any sense to him. He’s heard the words before exchanged between Bruce, Natasha, and Clint, but it’s always flown right over his head. "What does that mean, JARVIS?"
"It means that, while I have access to it and connections from it, I am not the primary means of control for his program, sir."
The hope is nearly crushing him, as is the fury. "Do you know who does control his program?"
"Yes, sir." Steve has the thought through all the emotions rolling through him that JARVIS would have coughed uncomfortably if he had been programmed with the ability to do so.
He takes a deep, breath, feels weak and so confused for the first time since he woke up in this strange world, and collapses into the seat behind the desk. "Who is it? JARVIS, tell me."
"Captain Rogers, please know that I hold you in the highest respect. But I have been forbidden to divulge that information. What I can tell you is this..." JARVIS says comfortingly. "Mister Stark's programming is of such a nature that there are precious few who would understand it enough to operate it, let alone remotely."
He takes in the information. Anthony had been brilliant; it was obvious even before Steve had been down in his lab. The articles over him had been varying on whether he was a good person in life, but what they all agreed on was that he had been probably one of the top three minds in the world. Hope overtakes the rage completely, and he swallows. "Okay,” he says, feeling himself fall back into his problem-solving mode. “Can you answer things about the operator? Or is all of that strictly forbidden information?"
There is a moment’s pause and Steve thinks the computer must be checking the parameters of his orders. "It is not strictly forbidden, as such."
"Okay,” he says eagerly, casting about for the proper wording for his question. “Is the operator of Anthony’s program the creator? Just yes or no. Not looking for names JARVIS. Can you answer that?"
"The operator and the creator are one and the same."
JARVIS is saying, he’s all but telling Steve Anthony is alive. Everything he had said to Anthony over these brief two months, everything Anthony had done for him and the team, what they had admitted to each other under the pretenses of a man talking to an artificial intelligence…So many things roll over Steve in crushing waves, but he keeps one central part of him focused.
He ignores all the angry emotions, the sad ones, the betrayed ones, and focuses on the fact that this man that he has been falling in love with is alive, and he wants to know where!
“What about the server’s location? Can you give me that?” he asks, and his voice is so hoarse.
“I am aware of the server’s location, Captain, but am unable to disclose where it is being operated from.”
“But you know where it is?”
“Yes, sir. But I am unable to disclose this information to you,” JARVIS repeats.
Steve feels a bit of him deflate but most of him flare up to the challenge just as he had when Colonel Philips had told him about men from the 107th being captured. He’s preparing all sorts of plans in his head, thinking of the possible outcomes of them when the computer screen changes to a press conference and Obadiah Stane is proclaiming his promise to the world that Stark Industries will tighten down security and that those employees who had sold the weapons were being escorted into police custody even now. Steve watches the spectacle, and feels anger push at his chest and curl his hands into fists.
He really needs his team back now. And he needs to talk to Anthony.
“Anthony?” he calls out as he enters the laboratory. His voice sounds a strange combination of flat and light at the same time. He doesn’t know how. In the three minutes it takes him to traverse from the gym to Anthony’s lab, there are so many things, thoughts, and emotions just swelling in him, trying to rule his heard and his brain, and just nearly taking over his soul.
And it all hurts. Even the joy and relief he feels that Anthony is alive. It hurts. Because he should have known. He should have been saving Anthony two months ago.
“Steve,” Anthony replies jovially and maybe a bit confused. Nothing like he had been at the hospital. “I see you’ve been released from the hospital. That was fast.”
“It was just an allergic reaction to the palladium. I’m apparently still allergic to nickel and the poisoning was a palladium-nickel alloy, or something. It’s only really toxic to me if I inhale it,” he says by quick way of explanation and reassurance. But really he just wants to get to this as quick as possible. He wants to cut to the chase. So he does. “If I ask you something will you answer me honestly?”
There’s a pause in the air, an unsure wavering crackling in the room around him as he comes further and further in. Finally, there seems to be a distance sigh, before Anthony answers, “Sure. Yeah. No, I was programmed for honesty.”
Steve can tell the lie for what it is now that he knows. Now that his eyes have been pried open and made to see. “Swear to it, Anthony.”
“What is it with you and that name? I can’t lie, Steve. I’m a computer prog--”
“No, you’re not,” Steve growls, surprising even himself. “You’re not a computer program. You’re not artificial intelligence.”
The words have barely left Steve’s mouth, before Anthony retorts, “That’s absolutely ridiculous. Who put those ideas into your head? Have you found a conspiracy website or something, because some of those--”
“You did.” Steve has no problem interrupting him. Because he’s getting angry; he has been angry since JARVIS, and he’s not sure who he’s angrier at. He’s not sure if it’s Anthony for playing dead for so long and haunting empty spaces everywhere he’s been, or if it’s at himself for just so blindly believing it! How could have not seen that… “You have with each thing you say to me every time we talk! You’re alive! Tell me you’re alive!”
“I can’t!” Anthony snaps. “It wouldn’t be true, Captain! Computers--”
“Computers are made to follow orders, Anthony!” he yells back heading to the center of the room and looking around like he will actually see the man appear from hiding behind one of his half-finished inventions and talk to him like he should have been all this time. Arguing at him face to face like Steve now knows he could! “Like you programmed JARVIS to. I ordered you to tell me you were alive. And you didn’t. Computers don’t get angry, Anthony! And you are!”
“I programmed this simulation…” the other man says through the feed before Steve has the chance to go on.
And he gets spared the same courtesy. “If you even have started programming this…you said you started it when you were drunk. You would have been a subprogram, like you said. And you’re not. You’re not even a program in this house. I asked JARVIS about the glitch in your voice program. He said…”
“He didn’t say anything, Captain Rogers. Anthony Stark is dead. He has been for over two years now.” A computer flares to life, and articles start popping up rapidly in new windows. Mountains of pictures, pictures of Afghanistan flash angrily in front of his eyes before they’re hidden by other articles, other photos, other lies orchestrated by Obadiah Stane and kept by Anthony. “He died in an attempt to escape from an Afghani terrorist group. The only remains of his escape were--”
“Were the pieces of the suit he built to escape. I’ve read it. DNA was found in the casing of the mask, but no body was ever found. An empty casket was buried next to your parents, and the suit you used to escape is now at Stark Industries’ main office in New York City,” he takes a deep breath because he’s barking words out like he’s in an actual physical battle and Clint is favoring a tactic that isn’t working. He doesn’t want that. He takes another deep breath and finishes, “as a token of your bravery.”
“Oh yeah,” Anthony says derisively; completely unbelieving. “Some bravery.”
A long silence wallows. No words hang between them. They’ve fallen like lead to the ground. Steve imagines he can hear Anthony breathing, deep and deceptively even. Steve closes his eyes and leans both hands against the table in front of him. “Anthony, just tell me you’re alive and I’ll find you.”
“There’s nothing to find, Steve.”
His eyes squeeze shut in frustration and longing and he growls out, “Anthony!”
There’s no response. He hears the sound of Anthony leaving.
“Anthony!” he calls louder, hoping it can get him back. “Anthony? Please.”
Steve finally goes upstairs an hour later. JARVIS calls down to tell him that Clint and Natasha are arriving with Ms. Potts and Agent Coulson.
He’s just outside the lab’s door when he pauses, and asks with a sinking heart, “JARVIS?”
“Can you tell the team what you told me earlier?” he asks, and there’s part of him that hopes yes, and part of him that hopes no. If the answer is yes, it means he can get them onto his side quickly. If the answer is no, well, at least that means he at least has solid proof though. A ‘subprogram’ couldn’t tell JARVIS what to do.
Doesn’t stop him from nearly sinking onto the stairs when the answer is, “No, sir. I have been forbidden all opportunities to assist with our earlier conversation.”
He manages though. He pulls himself up the stairs and has a meeting with his friends freshly returned. He sees Happy, and he looks a little loopy, but he says he’s fine and agrees to stay in one of the many spare rooms in the mansion.
A right that should have been Anthony’s to extend.
Despite the catastrophe in the U.S. right now, he goes down to the lab the next two nights, calling for his friend and growing love, but Anthony doesn’t respond. Steve sits on the couch, leaves the lights off, because he’s gotten so used to computers turning them on for him and no longer feels the need to do it himself, even though the knob is still just to his right when he enters.
He sleeps there the second night and his replacement phone wakes him early in the morning to go upstairs and live his life as Steve Rogers. Not the one that he is losing down here in the lab. He’s not tired physically. He’s still able to go on his morning runs, still able to consult with his team, and go to meeting after meeting Director Fury holds, but it doesn’t hold emotionally. He’s tired on the inside, snappish and withdrawn.
Thor says he convinced the team to let him keep the puppy, and it takes all his will power to smile and not bite out something hurtful just because he’s hurt. Clint makes smart mouth comments and the team gets put through nearly double the paces Steve has been keeping. Bruce takes to hiding in his room. Natasha takes to alternating between glares and inquisitive stares. Ms. Potts glances at him concernedly, and even Agent Coulson and Director Fury shift their mannerisms if only in the slightest way.
He knows he’s hurting the team and he makes the mental pledge to stop being such a jerk, but with each “Anthony?” that goes unanswered, it’s harder to keep.
His heart has barbs in it and it only gets worse when he’s in the lab. It gets worse when the silence and darkness pervades and his feet kick the words that still lay on the ground like lead and the empty space to his right just keeps growing and growing. The sixes come back again, more of them. Six coffee pots in the house, six tablets left in the living room, six passenger seats in the suburban, and six seats left in the conference room for his team when Fury calls a meeting.
And still only five people to take them, when they should be filled.
The third night, Steve finally hears a slight whirring noise. Tony is linking. The lights don’t come on though and Steve’s “Anthony?” is not answered. It hurts, but at least he’s listening. It’s better than the last two days.
“You know,” he breathes. “I was kind of lying when I said I had a crush on you. I knew then that it wasn’t just a crush.” The dark quiet is a friend and an enemy. “I’ve… gosh, I’ve kind of been falling in love with you since day one and I’m not even doing that anymore. It’s the most unbelievable and terrifying thing I could ever have imagined. I’m in love with a computer simulation that isn’t really a simulation.”
“No, you aren’t,” whispers across the lab.
He inhales as deep as he can, leans back against the couch. Closing his eyes, he says loud enough for Anthony, “I know you’re alive. And I’m going to find you and make you believe me.”
He almost believes he hears an amused, yet nonetheless resigned snort.
The days are too long, and nights become too short. It’s not even summer.
Steve feels his team grow weary. Ants crawl under their skin and his too. An invisible restlessness as little villains crop up like weeds in the sidewalk. No one is called thatoften. Unless there’s some dunce holding a freeze-ray, or a time-table the Avengers are pretty much left in the Mansion. But there are people with freeze-rays and a time-table and, of course, just their luck, more robots. There’s an explosion at a chemical plant, which the media already speculates to be a bomb before any power-enhanced human can get there. And Dr. Doom does strike.
All within the week it’s been since Steve heard Anthony’s denial. Heard his whisper, “No, you aren’t,” through the air as if Steve could never have heard him. He’s tired. Today had just been meeting after meeting, and Fury is going to have them do public relations next week to give the United States a feeling of comfort. It’s, it’s probably going to be more taxing for all of them than getting swarmed by robots or half frozen to a wall.
After they return home, Steve goes down to Anthony’s lab. The team has spent so much time together that even Thor picks up his puppy, still unnamed, and kind of runs to his quarters. Not even Clint and Natasha are hanging out. The door opens for him and wastes no time in plopping onto the couch in the lab, feeling run ragged and exhausted down to the very marrow of his bones. He hears the humming of Anthony’s computer, has half given up on Anthony returning his greeting, but gives it anyway. "I know you're listening."
"Of course you do. You're Captain America. You know everything."
Steve feels his chest swell at finally being answered, an actual breath of relief, and he doesn’t even mind Anthony’s barb. He smiles a little and says, "I don't know everything."
The man on the other end of the connection has apparently given up on acting like a simulation, harrumphs and replies maybe a bit snippy, "I don't think many would agree. At this point only religious people believe there is anyone more all knowing than you."
There’s something in his tone, something angry, and deprecating, and a little lost. Steve feels it poke at his chest with sharp claws and jagged edges. It makes him say what he would have anyway. "I don't know where to find you. I don't know why you won’t tell me. I don't know why you want everyone to think you're dead..."
"I am dead,” Anthony says quickly, firmly. “My body is just two years behind on figuring it out. It's better this way. Would have been better if you had never figured it out, but Artificial Intelligence needs intelligent instructions. I should have known JARVIS would squeal on me."
JARVIS suddenly comes in out of nowhere and says, “My sincerest apologies, sir,” in a bland sarcastic tone.
"Hold on.” Steve interrupts, feeling confused. “You are dead, but you aren't?” he questions, feeling his brows fall. He quickly decides to deal with that in a few minutes, instead asking, begging, “Anthony, please let me help you. Let me find you."
"There is nothing to help, Steve,” he replies solemnly, with a finality in the air that drags Steve’s anger out. "And I really hate that name, I hope you know."
"You hate your own name?" he asks bitingly.
Anthony scoffs. "Of course I do. It's an awful name. Horrendous even. So pretentious. I don't know anyone who likes hearing their full name."
He sighs, sinks further into his couch in some attempt to keep from prowling the lab. "What should I call you then?"
There’s a long pause, poignant and strange. Then he finally breathes out audibly over the connection, says somewhat sadly, "Tony. Though I suppose you can call me whatever you like. I'm programming the simulation to answer to 'Anthony' as well. It's just...It doesn't matter. Call me Anthony if you like."
The lance of terror that races through him at his tone in his words and what he says. It takes over any rage and he’s bolting upwards on the couch again, staring at the still empty room with wide eyes. "What do you mean ‘programming the simulation’?"
"I did start the program when I was drunk.” It’s a sidestep of an answer that he’s giving. “Lots of tequila, not enough time to lock myself out of my computers. I deleted it the next day. I thought it'd be a good idea to start it again. Give you something...nice."
Steve feels his breathing speed up, panic pounding in every fiber of his body. "No!" he chokes out through shallow breaths.
"What do you mean 'no'? This isn't something you can control. No one can. I know. I've tried. It just is. Take my present when I'm done and forget about me." The way he says it. So offhandedly, like it’s no big deal.
"Don't do this, Anthony! Don't..." He gets up, starts pacing to keep from doing something stupid, like breaking things in the lab out of anger and heartbreak. His eyes are stinging, and his hands are actually shaking with rage or the strain it takes to keep from breaking down, he’s not sure. "Why? Just tell me why you won’t let me find you! Tell me!"
"Don't...look, okay. Will you just listen? For just one second?" He doesn’t wait for a response, the rhetorical bastard. "I told you. I'm a dead man. Where do you think Stane got the idea for the poisoning? I tried to stop the bombs but there's only so much you can do from a computer, especially when the bombs are disconnected from the computers. There's nothing left to do. Even with Banner's treatment."
Steve falters at having the man give him so much information at once, staggers until he can collapse onto the swivel chair. "You... Stane?" He stops himself, breathing hard, and let's his mind download and process all that information. "Stane has you. And he's killing you."
His heart is just torn out of his chest.
"I didn't mean...Steve..." He huffs, clearly not sure what to say. "It's not like how you think."
Steve doesn't, can’t acknowledge what Anthony said, because rage replaces the hurt again at the other man confirming he's being held by Stane despite not saying it out loud. His fists clench on their own and he thinks very clearly and succinctly, 'I'll tear that son of a bitch limb from limb'*
"He's been trying to keep me alive. He has been for nearly eight months. It's just not working. Steve? Steve? Okay. You need deep breaths. I can't see you breathing." Anthony sounds a little panicked now.
Steve takes a deep breath and huffs it out his nose, and the red recedes from his vision, if only fractionally. "How is he trying to keep you alive if he's holding you hostage?" he demands, keeping his voice low and quiet.
"Hostage is a really nasty word. I don't care if it is kind of, maybe, a little true. And he has doctors. Not the best, he has no head for them and I keep them pretty far off his radar. But there are doctors and sometimes, okay, really, not often, but every now and again, they help. Steve...I, this really has been a lost cause since day one."
"That doesn't explain why! Why? Why won’t he let you go? Why are you dying? Why won’t you let me help you?"
"He won't let me go because I'm a liability” Anthony snaps in reply to Steve’s raging. “He's known I was alive for two years and he’s been keeping me! I won't let you help me because it's no damn use! I've tried everything and you may think the world bends to your will, but I'm the genius! I am not going to get better because the thing that's keeping me alive is killing me!"
"How do you know if you won’t let me try?!” Steve hollers. “Damnit, Anthony, I don't... I can't lose you, not when I have the chance to do something, even if it doesn't work!"
"And I can't watch you watch me die!” Anthony’s voice thunders through all of the lab. And then it’s just them, breathing heavily on opposite side of an electrical connection but it almost feels like they could be sitting in the same room glaring at each other. Finally, Anthony says, quieter that before, almost apologetic, yet still not yielding. “It's not fair to you, alright? It's not fair to anyone. I've been dead for over two years. On the outside, I have two months left. Just fucking let me go! Pretend this was all some shitty dream and forget me!"
Steve can’t stop the moan, part frustration, part defeat; all devastation. He has images in his head, tinged in the red of anger and the gold of love, and tries to just imagine a world where he would try to forget Anthony, live without him and, and it’s not possible. As many empty spaces as he leaves, he leaves them because he should be there. As many times as they’ve spoken, Steve has been speaking to a man who he has always imagined in the room with him. He would never just forget. He would never just let go.
"Sure you can," Anthony says easily, loftily; trying not to care; trying to believe that this is not big deal. "There has to be hypnotherapy, acupuncture...what's that weird thing they do with rebirthing, or whatever? A few sessions of something good, oh! Try drugs! And I'll just be a ghost in the wires."
Steve shakes his head violently. "Not to me."
"Oh, sweet Jesus. Look. Steve?" He says it in mixtures of patience and sadness. Airiness gone and seriousness trying to convey itself as he continues, "You don't love me. You can't. You don't know me. If you did, you would agree I'm an ass. It's just...It's loneliness okay? You'll find someone better. Just forget about me. I'll scrap the program. You can just...I don't know. You can..."
"Don't finish that sentence. And don't tell me what I feel! I love you. You're just going to have to get used to the idea. I will not just turn my back and forget, not when there is still time. They have the best doctors in the galaxy working on the fallout from those missiles, they can help you. I'm coming to find you."
"And I...okay fine. I love you too. There. I said it. Happy? And that's as far as we would ever get, even if you somehow, miraculously could find me."
He glares at the room, and hopes Anthony can feel it through their connection. "Humor me and tell me where to start. Then you can say it to my face."
"Where to...Shit, your picture really should be next to the definition of 'determined'. Fine. Have it your way. Start under suits."
That, that wasn’t what he was expecting. "... Under suits?"
"Yes. Under suits,” Anthony says with finality, like that’s all he is going to say on the matter and you know what?
That’s fine. Steve has worked with less.
“I’ll see you soon.”
The ‘double-dealers’ of Stark Industries are cast into light merely a day after Steve has his clue, and as the three men and one woman are being taken out by police, the Avengers are in a meeting with Fury, who tells them Stane has asked for a public meeting with them, to publically thank the Avengers for all the fine work they did when the missiles were launched.
Steve feels his teeth clench and his fists tighten. He’s not so sure letting him around Obadiah Stane is a good idea. Looking around the room, no one else does either. Thor actually reaches to his side, around the puppy he has still yet to name but carries everywhere if there’s no imminent danger, like he’s going for his hammer. Natasha and Clint seem to be having a silent conversation about how they’re going to assassinate him at the meeting without getting caught. And Bruce’s watch-thingy gives and irritated beep.
But Fury is stern and when he can’t convince them to, Ms. Potts steps up before them and practically just says, “You’re going to do it, so smile for the camera,” with a grimace of her own and the empty space beside her shudders.
Which is how the Avengers find themselves dressed for battle in a SHIELD suburban at seven in the morning on the way to Stark Industries. Agent Coulson is driving, and Clint is in the passenger seat begging him to pull into McDonalds for a breakfast burrito, because, according to him, if he doesn’t eat he might not be able to control his impulses. Coulson gives him a cool look and promises lunch if he’s a good boy.
When they get to Stark Industries, they all pile out and Thor literally climbs out, he’s so huge. Steve glimpses Natasha pressing a hand down the side of her outfit and Steve has no doubt she’s concealing a weapon there, just in case.
They meet Ms. Potts at the door with Director Fury looking ominous beside her. They and other SHIELD members lead them to a discreet room to get ready, passing through the lobby briefly.
Steve looks around. He’s been in here a few times, though it’s often overwhelming to come here and he’s always had a bad feeling about Stane, so he’s always tried to stay away. Its clean lines and tall walls. A grand gesture of a building and the lobby alone looks like it could easily fit fifteen tanks and still have room to spare.
And in the corner, is Anthony’s metal suit from his escape.
He nearly comes to a complete halt as it hits him like it should have immediately. He had thought until then that Anthony had been telling him to follow Stane, to see what he did, but it’s so clear. How could no one have ever thought…?
Bruce stumbles into his back and he immediately comes back to himself with a small apology, his eyes glancing back to see Bruce muttering his own apology and staring at his watch. Steve looks back at the suit, encased in glass, and calling to him sadly.
However, he’s paraded on until the suit is out of sight, though he doesn’t feel that it’s too much of a bad thing. He has his start. Already as they’re in the backroom waiting for the press to arrive and the cameras to be set up, he’s thinking of where would be the best place for reconnaissance, making plans to get schematics to the building, and trying to decide how much security he should expect to run into.
He knows he can do it alone. He ran into a Nazi prison camp alone, for goodness sake. He shouldn’t need his team to get into this with him. It would be good to have his back up, but with no way to prove that Anthony is actually alive…well, they’d probably still think it was a good way to stick it in Stane’s face how easily they could infiltrate his premise, but he doesn’t want to risk them on the off chance he’s caught.
Stane is in the back room when they get there and the team flocks away from him, while Fury goes to make brisk conversations about the nature their meeting will take. Fury always does that. There are make-up artists around, but Natasha does her own and Ms. Potts takes care of Bruce because she thinks the artists always make him look orange on the camera.
Ms. Potts tells them where they’ll be sitting and takes Clint and Natasha aside and whispers to them before holding her hand out. The two agents glance at each other before discretely handing her their weapons, which she puts into her briefcase.
Steve manages a smile, just before Thor declares he will not be putting any mud on his face with an intense glare.
He doesn’t know why they even bother anymore. Thor is a make-up artist’s worst nightmare, and always looks good anyway. He wanders over to the god and distracts him from glaring impressively at the two artists.
Then they walk out to the mostly silent room, taking their seats where their names are on the table. Steve sits next to Fury, who sits next to Stane. He hopes Stane doesn’t address him. He isn’t sure he could keep the anger out of his voice if he tried. Next to Steve is Thor and on his other side Clint. On the other side of Stane is Bruce, which seems to be an ill thought plan because on his other side is Natasha and from the way she keeps glancing at Ms. Potts, she may forgo her weapons and use brute strength. Clint at least has three people between him.
A sharply dressed man to the side of the room declares, “This press conference is called so Obadiah Stane can thank SHIELD and the Avengers for their help in assisting with the leak of Stark technologies. No questions until after the conference.”
Obadiah is the next to speak, leaning forward in his seat. “I would like to thank you all for coming. I know this last week has been especially taxing on the Unites States of America. I would like to personally say that Stark Industries will be tightening down security to prevent this from happening again, as well as running full background reports on our employees. I would also like to give a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to SHIELD and the wonderful Avengers who were so helpful in helping with the outbreak. Without their help this would no doubt have turned out much worse than it did.”
Steve nods appropriately and bites his tongue against the retort that wants to come out of his mouth. He sees a few of his teammates do the same, and Director Fury takes over from there. He speaks frankly, as he always does.
And then the floor is open to the reporters, who’ve been scribbling on notepads until now. They burst into action, hands rising with their pens in the air eagerly. They call to everyone, though most are split between Stane and Bruce.
Many want to know about the four Stark employees. Know more about their history. Others want to know about Bruce’s treatment, and how he managed to come up with it so fast, which Fury coached Bruce enough on the lie that it falls out of his lips easily.
One reporter asks, “Mr. Stane, are you working on a cure to the palladium poisoning?”
“I do have many of the best minds in the world working for me.” Stane smiles delighted. “We’re working on it even now.”
From the corner of his eye, Steve can see Ms. Potts go ramrod straight and a glare he’s only seen twice take over her features. He glances at her and sees her lips tighten and her gaze narrow in the most hateful way on her previous employer.
He can’t say he blames her. He feels the slick emotion of loathing slide over him as well.
A question goes to Captain America about what led him to the hospital, which he answers with a quick, “Allergy attack. I’m allergic to nickel.”
The conference seems to last too long especially as Stane goes on and on, halfway between faux remorse and narcissism.
It does finally end though and Steve can see the line of tension leave Bruce’s shoulders as they stand and begin shaking hands.
He reaches to take Stane’s hand, grips harder than necessary and pulls him in, still forcing a smile as he says through gritted teeth, “I know you have Anthony.”
And they’re both too good at PR because Stane pulls away with a laugh and Steve copies it. It’s to make the press believe they’re just so jolly right now, when Steve feels he should be going fisticuffs with him. He pulls Steve in, lips away from the press as he says, “You’ll never find him.”
And he keeps smiling though it becomes easier.
He’s heard that line before.
He heads to his room when Coulson brings them back to Avenger Mansion, after getting Clint a breakfast burrito from McDonald’s. He asks JARVIS if there are schematics on Stark Industries’ building in New York.
“Yes, sir,” the computer answers instantly. “There are several copies on Mr. Stark’s mainframe.”
“How accurate are they?” Steve asks, grabbing a backpack and wandering over to one of his dressers. He pulls open the third drawer, and grabs out some gear he’ll need. He remembers doing recon from his days in the forties. He remembers what he’ll need.
“Mr. Stark always kept his designs up to date, Captain Rogers.”
He nods to himself as he’s shoving all the things he’ll need into his pack. “Good, send me the most recent one.”
“Of course, sir.”
From his bedside table, he hears the ding of a new file attaching itself to his tablet. “Thanks, JARVIS,” he says as he pulls the draw strings tight on his pack. He grabs the tablet from his side table and brings up the designs. He studies them intently, his brows furrowed and his face going closer to the tablet as he memorizes every detail.
When he has it memorized, he puts the tablet into his pack as well, before changing into civilian clothes, an outfit he believes is closest to the style of today. He grabs a pair of sunglasses that Ms. Potts gave him for some reason and a baseball cap. He may get a few snapshots of him, but he’s had a map of the New York alley systems rememorized since a week after he woke up and knows he should be able to lose a follower soon.
He puts the Dodgers cap into his back pocket, the sunglasses into the neck of his tee and lopes downstairs with his pack. He makes sure his comm. link to SHIELD is in his ear and his phone is in his pocket just in case. Most of the team is preoccupied.
Thor and Clint are playing Wii bowling again while Bruce seems to be teaching the puppy to sneak. Natasha leans against the entrance way, but she glances at him on his way out. At her confused look, he only says, “I’m going to stretch my legs for a few hours.”
Her gaze narrows on him, and he can feel it like a touch, but he leaves out the manor’s side exit, taking the longer way around, knowing that it will take more time, but it has less chance of getting him seen.
There are too many ways to be seen in this day and age. There’s a problem with not being seen.
He’s doing pretty well, he thinks. He doesn’t see anyone following him and he escapes into the alleyways of New York City easily. There are some homeless people, maybe he’s getting paranoid for noticing them, but they catch his eye for looking… well, not terribly homeless. Instead of stopping and passing off what he could, he keeps moving, eyes lowered and head down. He navigates through the city by his tablet, because Google maps is probably the best thing ever be invented in the seventy years gap of his life.
He starts at the beginning, seeking out suitable buildings to do recon from. Trying to find a building with good vantage point as well as calculating ways he could get in and roofs that would offer him the most protection is as aggravating as he feared, but he plugs along, thinking of Anthony the whole time. He doubles back out of an alley after surveying the layout, the back entrances, and fire escapes and get lost in the masses of people walking by.
He plans to come back later, at night. He figures the security will be lowest then and he should be able to find the best time to sneak into the building. When he looks back on it later, Steve can’t quite pin down the moment he lost touch with his surroundings and was consumed with nothing but rage at Stane and worry for Anthony. He should have been paying attention.
They grab from behind. His first thought is that he’s been detected as Captain America. A lot of people notice him and would probably continue to notice him even if he wore a full body suit. Steve is disturbingly used to being grabbed from all directions by strangers. He turns quickly, expecting to see a mother and child or something, but instead there are two other people in his personal space and they don’t look at all friendly.
The two men behind him are dressed completely in black. One of them snaps a wire out of a pocket and lunges, trying to get it around Steve’s throat to strangle him. He manages to pull back just in time and step away.
The words are barely past his lips when a shot rings out from nowhere, sending a bullet zinging past his head. He glances up to find the sniper, but the sound of gun fire tends to create havoc and sends civilians start running for cover. The guy with the garrote comes at him again and the other follows, pulling out another gun.
At least this gun isn’t a high powered rifle. He doesn’t have his shield on him; his attempt to not be recognized immediately required leaving it behind in his room, and now he’s thinking that perhaps it would have been worth the attention, because he’s feeling pretty exposed at the moment.
He blocks garrote guy with a well placed kick, taking the wire as he goes down and using it against him. He dodges out of the way of the guy with the gun, just missing a round to the chest, and tackles him to the ground before he gets another chance. From the roof, the sniper fires a second time, and this time Steve feels the sharp bite of the bullet graze past his bicep.
To make matters worse? The guy on the ground with him raises his gun again as he’s assessing the damage to his arm.
A short, loud whistle sounds over their heads, a merry tune that sounds like ‘yoo hoo.’
It catches everyone’s attention; fortunately his opponent’s more than his own. Steve wants to land another punch on the guy with the gun and ignore the wound on his arm, he’s had worse, but before he can reach the guy Natasha is around him like a spider with its prey. She dislodges the gun and does her strange flip thing that brings the man crashing to the ground with a painful cracking noise. Thankfully it’s not his head, but his shoulder will probably need extensive work done on it.
He turns to the guy with the garrote, but instead of an enemy he sees a massive green body staring at his captive menacingly, a low growl coming from his mouth. Thor stands beside him, looking mighty as ever. Steve isn’t sure if it’s to have extra eyes on the detainee or to scare him further. The guy looks about three seconds away from fainting. Good.
Natasha stands up, a glare on her face as she drags her knocked-out bounty, hopefully by the arm she didn’t mangle, next to the first one.
“What the hell were you doing?” she demands grabbing his arm, inspecting at the already healing wound.
He lets her, because she looks like she might rip his arm off and beat him with it if he doesn’t. He shrugs. “I was just walking.”
“Without your comm. or your phone?” she growls, actually growls and sounds like Hulk does. “You’re lucky I followed you!”
“Hey, I have both of those!” he defends reaching to grab them, but they aren’t in his pocket.
Clint drops in next to him suddenly. “Yeah, you were pick-pocketed back in the alley. One of the homeless guys was your sniper. He’s on the roof by the way and I am keen on leaving him there for a few hours. You have no idea how much of a mouth he has. Makes the amazing webhead look pleasant.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out Steve’s electronics, regardless of the looks both Natasha and Steve are giving him. “Here ya go, Cap.”
He claps Steve’s healing arm and it stings just a little. He probably did it on purpose. Maybe.
Natasha takes a deep breath, and returns her glare to Steve.
“We need to get these people to headquarters,” he says as a way of heading her off. It won’t last long, but he’d like to know who these men are and if they have anything to do with Stane.
She knows exactly what he’s doing, but she takes her comm. out and calls for assistance, glowering at him the entire time.
When she’s done she turns to Clint, who’s been keeping his eyes on Steve though he tries to look nonchalant about it, and says, “Go get the third guy.”
He deflates. “Can’t I leave him there until the backup comes? Seriously, he’s the most annoying sniper ever!”
“Then gag him!” she bites out at him and he scrambles to do as she says.
It doesn’t stop him from calling back, “Phil would taze me and then him!”
Steve flushes a little and then something occurs to him. “How did you follow me with Hulk? I know I would have noticed that.”
She looks over at Hulk like it’s the first time she’s noticed him. “Bruce was with us until the first snipe-shot fired.” She looks the green monster over. “He really doesn’t like his friends being shot at.”
“So, your undercover look. It’s terrible. You look like Bruce did when Natasha first found him,” Clint says immediately as Steve closes the door to the observation room.
“Hey!” Bruce snaps, clearly offended. “I was on the run!”
Steve shakes his head, moving to stand by Thor, who stares at him with his worried blue eyes. His last hour and a half has been spent listening to Director Fury scold him for running away, getting his communication gear stolen from him, and being the target of an assassination between filling out an incident report. He isn’t really looking forward to hearing a personalized version of it from Clint.
“And the backpack? You seriously told her you were going for a walk with a backpack? One with your tablet poking out of the pocket? Dude, come on!” Clint continues, uncaring of the look Steve is sure is setting on his face.
“Is this going somewhere, Clint?” Steve asks.
He’s trying to watch the interrogation that Natasha is conducting with one of the men from earlier. He’s hoping that garrote guy will roll over on Stane. It would make it easier to get Anthony. He and his team could storm Stark Industries without much suspicion. SHIELD would be able to help, making it easier to take care of Stane, not to mention quicker.
With Stane out of the picture Steve would be able to focus on finding Anthony, to helping him, and sorting out the damage done to Anthony’s body from the palladium poisoning.
Clint goes on beside him, giving him a very perturbed look as he proclaims, “It’s already gone to Hell. Lone Ranger is getting you nowhere. I thought maybe you would be into that teamwork crap you’re always on about.”
“He’s right,” Bruce puts in from Clint’s other side, and Clint and Steve both whip their heads around to look at him. Clint looks awed that Bruce is agreeing with him. Steve feels oddly betrayed. Bruce shrugs carefully. “You’ve been acting strange for a few months now, but it’s become worrisome the last couple of days.”
Empty spaces, this is what happens when there are empty space that need to be filled and suddenly can be. This is also what happens when those empty spaces aren’t brought up. Clint, Bruce, and even Thor are looking at him as if he has besmirched their honor by not including them on what was going on. Steve is aware that he probably has been.
Clint is sarcastic, but he’s right too. Steve is always demanding that they work as a team, and he’s been very rogue soldier.
“It’s,” he sighs, trying to find a place to start. Does he start all the way back to the recurring sixes, the empty spaces, the ghost he’s been following for two years? Should he start when he first met Anthony masquerading as a computer program? He doesn’t know. It gets jumbled in his head when he thinks about how this mission came to be. “It’s a bit complicated.”
Clint is obviously not impressed with his explanation. “It’s complicated? Like Facebook complicated or like Mission Impossible complicated?”
And everything that just came out of his mouth is lost on Steve. “What?”
“What is it that you keep from us, my good Steve?” Thor finally speaks up, which is really kind of odd for him. He usually has no problem saying exactly what’s on his mind even in the most inappropriate of situations.
“I…Look, this is gonna sound crazy--” Steve tries again, but he’s quickly cut off from even trying to get something like the word ‘crazy’ over on his friends.
“Crazier than a giant green rage monster?” Clint demands.
“Crazier than a guy who woke up after 70 years?” Bruce points out.
Thor’s input is to ask, “Crazier than a man who has stolen a hawk’s eyes?”
They stare at him for a second, but he just looks back at them, confused why they are all zeroed in on him now. It doesn’t take long for Steve to shake himself of it. He still thinks Thor speaks that way to get a rise out of them. Instead, he acknowledges, “Well, maybe not so much, when you put it that way.”
Yet still he pauses. He doesn’t know where to start and for him it’s a little unnerving.
Thor must read something in his face, because he leans down to whisper, actually whisper for the first time since Steve has known him, “Is it Anthony, my good Steve?”
“Whoa! Anthony? Who’s Anthony? Secrets destroy the world unless they’re told to me!” Clint whines, jumping over to stand nearly toe to toe with them. “C’mon, save the world, guys.”
“Anthony of the Wires! My newest friend!” Thor declares, with all the flourish he normally does.
“He’s not actually from the wires, Thor,” Steve tells him, and Thor for a moment looks confused. “You guys know who Anthony Stark is?”
Bruce nods. “Everyone knows who Tony Stark is. The guy was an engineering genius.”
“He still is. He’s alive. Stane has him.”
Whatever he’s expecting, it isn’t Bruce immediately asking, “When did you find this out?” like he had been expecting something along the lines of this all along.
Clint looks a little skeptical, but like he could go along with it.
“About a week and a half ago,” Steve answers Bruce. “but he’s been masquerading himself as a computer program in his lab for about two months.”
“And Stane has him? Where in a dark, dank cave?” Clint asks, sarcastically. He shouldn’t because they have found hostages in dark, dank caves, the sewers, and in a hollowed out hotdog stand. It’s not that hard to imagine.
“I think he’s somewhere below Stark Industries. Anthony told me he was beneath the suit.” Steve replies, thinking back to that suit. He wants to go back to it so bad. He glances quickly at Natasha in the other room. She looms ominously above garrote guy, a cold, deadly smile on her lips. He hopes she hurries.
“Why?” Bruce interrupts him.
“I second that ‘why’.” Clint doesn’t hesitate in asking.
“Why does Stane have him?” The three of them nod. “I think he’s been using Anthony to makes some weapons for Stark Industries,” he answers, thinking of when Anthony had admitted that the palladium poison had been based on him.
“You know, there was once a time when this would have seemed strange to me,” Bruce murmurs, staring hard at the ground, like he’s trying to figure something out.
“So we must rescue your Anthony!” Thor exclaims, lifting his hammer into the air and nearly smashing a light.
“And if not I’ll at least get to shoot some of his computers.” Clint shrugs, then smirks. “So, we’re, just, gonna sneak into Stark Industries.”
Natasha throws the door open at the moment, saying, “We’ll have to. If Stane knows we’re coming he’ll probably tighten down security and have an escape plan. As much as I’d love to shoot him down, I’d rather he…what?”
All four of them are staring at her, a small amount of shock written on their features, Steve’s sure. She stares at them with sharp green eyes, before crossing her arms and demanding again, “What?!”
“Did you hear all of that? Really? That’s super-ninja even for you,” Clint says.
Natasha rolls her eyes and picks her belt up off the table in the corner. Director Fury has forbidden her to conduct interrogations with it on. He says it made the detainees wet themselves, in various manners. “I conducted the interrogation…” She begins, as she’s clicking the belt and other weapons into place. She stops though. “You’re not talking about the interrogation are you? What are you talking about?”
“The nefarious Stane is holding Steve’s Anthony, my newest friend, in his magnificent fortress!” Thor booms immediately, though this time he doesn’t lift Mjolnir into the air.
“Steve figured out that Tony Stark’s alive,” Bruce clarifies.
“And Stane is apparently using his brain to create weapons of mass destruction,” Clint adds, not at all helpful.
Steve sighs. “Now, that actually does sound crazy.”
Natasha doesn’t flinch.
“Well that’s double the reason to go then,” she says, slipping her last knife into a secret pocket of her suit. “Coulson is getting the car. Steve, one of the agents is on the way with your uniform.”
Two minutes later, Steve has his Captain America uniform on. Ten minutes later they’re all loaded up into SHIELD suburbans, rubber squealing as they head for Stark Industries.
Steve, Natasha, and Coulson come up with a plan of action in the car. It’s dark outside, but they keep the lights off so they can zip through traffic without being seen. Natasha fills them in on the details of garrote guy rolling over on Stane with an impressive roll of her eyes. Coulson is detailing their entrance into the building, while Steve inputs some various tactics they should employ at certain parts of the building, since he has the blue print on his tablet.
Steve’s team keeps Anthony between them.
The Avengers go through a side entrance, one that is thankfully near the suit. Natasha takes out the locking mechanism with a small focused bomb.
Once they’re in they form a loose circle, checking the area.
It’s silent, which immediately strikes all of them as odd. The hall they’ve entered into is devoid of life, and they hear no signs of anything. Clint says there will probably be a silent alarm that’s been tripped, so someone has to know they’re here.
Steve and Thor lead the way to the end of the hall, one that will lead them to the lobby as well as the main way to the staircase which would lead them to Stane’s office. SHIELD agents are on their way to the different floors of the tower even now, but the Avengers have taken over the most likely places the current CEO would be.
He and Thor lean around the corners of the room, pulling back just in time as a jet of flames roars by the hall entrance.
Behind them Clint says, “I swear if that’s a robot I will fucking destroy this place.”
Steve leans back against the wall as fire continues to shoot. He looks at Clint, feeling the frustration of the other man. He really kind of hopes the archer keeps his promise. “It’s a robot.”
“Fuck my life!” Clint exclaims as the flames die down.
Steve makes use of his time and swings his shield around the corner, attempting to cut the board in half. His shield makes a dent but it flies back towards him without slowing the robot. He grabs it up just in time to slam himself back into the hall as the robot starts shelling out bullets.
Steve hears Bruce changing behind them. He knew it would only be a matter of time.
Soon the heavy clanking of robotic feet joins the sound of bullet fire, and above all that an electronic voice taunting them, “What the matter guys? Not going to at least put up a fight?”
Steve hasn’t felt this much rage since Red Skull, but at this moment he’s willing to say he hates Obadiah Stane.
Clint yells at Natasha with a cold look on his face he only gets when he’s thinking of doing bodily harm to the bad guys, “Least he’s not running!” It doesn’t shock Steve when she grins in response.
The gun fire still reigns. Glass shatters down the hall.
Steve glances over at his team. “He can’t have many bullets left. As soon as he’s paused, Black Widow and Hawkeye will have enough time to move in behind him! Stay out of his firing range if you can and get behind him!”
Another taunt, louder this time as the grating metal of the suit’s footsteps comes closer. “You wanted this Captain America. You wanted this fairy tale. You’re gonna have to take him over my dead body.”
The entire team looks like they would love nothing more than to do just that. Steve gets their attention again as the footsteps are almost on top of them. “Thor and I will keep him busy from the front. Hulk, I want you to do what you can to smash that suit!”
“Hulk smash!” he agrees.
Steve makes a motion with his hand, to which all of his team save for Hulk nod at.
When the bullets stop churning through the air, Thor and Steve rush out first, having reversed the plan just in case Stane could hear them. They draw the fire away, Steve behind his shield managed to take on the bullets with Thor just walking steadily behind him looking for the perfect throw with Mjolnir.
Just as the hammer goes soaring past Steve’s head on his right, he sees two black blurs of Clint and Natasha to his left. They slink past Stane while his glowing eyes focus on Thor. Mjolnir takes out the machine guns bracketed to the metal monstrosity and there’s a grunt of dissatisfaction from inside the suit.
As Stane aims his other arm, Natasha takes a leap to his back, pressing more centralized bombs onto the back plating. Stane rotates his attention to her, arm still poised in the air to breathe fire down on them all. He doesn’t have the chance as the small bombs slam him forward. Natasha and Clint back away. Behind them, Hulk has decided that to be his marker on entering the battle and stomps his heavy feet towards Stane, who is still stumbling.
“Hulk smash!” he yells, as he crashes into the metal in a silver and green mess.
Stane obviously isn’t sure what to do with a giant green monster tackling him and swipes around trying to get a hold on Hulk. They stand back for a few seconds before Clint raises his bow and takes a shot, aiming for glow from the chest plate. Two miss, but one manages to crack the glass that is obviously protecting the light.
“Think that could be his power source!” Hawkeyes yells.
“Try aiming for that then!” Cap yells back and is about to circle for the front, when Thor grabs his arm and booms, “You must locate your Anthony, Captain America! The Avengers will have glory on all fronts this night!”
Steve has reservations about running off in the middle of a fight, but over the comm. in his ear, he hears Natasha yell irritably, “While he’s still distracted!” as Clint throws in, “Go on, Captain Charming. We got the Iron Mongrel.”
He nods briefly, takes a running jump over the fray of green rage and silver metal. He clears it, looks back to check on his team. Natasha has both over legs around Hulk neck, trying to get into Stane’s suit. Hawkeye shoots another arrow at what they believe to be the energy source, missing when Stane ducks which sends it zooming by Natasha’s hair. Thor looks on, catching Natasha when a violent churn sends her off of Hulk’s shoulders.
He wants to go back, but he also wants to get Anthony out while Stane is distracted. After another brief hesitation, Steve runs into the lobby, his mind made up. He needs to get Anthony.
He sees SHIELD operatives on the way, all of them fighting robots and taking them down easily. These haven’t been fully put together, making them vulnerable to bullets. He goes by them, sending his shield smashing into robots when he can, until he stands before the metal suit that Anthony had made to escape.
He moves around the glass encased suit, looks it over. Anthony said he is under the suit, which leads Steve to believe that the entrance to the bowels of Stark Industries has to be around here somewhere. Unfortunately, he isn’t finding any seams or buttons around or behind the glass case. Frowning at it he looks again, trying to see if he’s missed something, a crevice and indention.
The shield settles easily over his shoulders, as a new plan comes to mind. He gets a good hold of the glass and pushes. It budges, obviously not screwed into the marble. Steve feels hope in his chest. Another push, and something clicks audibly over the fray of bullets and metal shrieking on marble. The suit shifts on its own, and the wall starts folding, moving back and away just enough to reveal a long narrow entrance.
He’s moving down when crashing sounds nearly deafen him. He looks back to see the robots have fallen.
“TONY!” Stane’s voice echoes throughout the lobby.
Steve gets to the opening, loud, electronic crashes resounding as Stane obviously comes toward the entrance. The metal man moves quickly though and a cold grasp takes him by midsection.
“You got close, Captain. But I told you you’d never find him. And now I’ll make sure of it,” Stane says as the metal fingers begin closing around Steve’s midsection.
He feels his bones creaking almost instantly and grabs for the metal he can reach. It proves to be ineffectual. It actually has the opposite effect as the grip tightens.
Steve gasps through pain, looks around to see SHIELD members and his team coming towards him at a rapid pace.
Stane sees it too. He aims his free arm and sends a wall of fire towards them. “Oh no. No. I built this company up for the last thirty years. I won’t see it fall because of you!” His grip tightens, causing Steve to grunt in pain as his ribs crack. “If fact, I think this is the perfect way to push the Registration Act. The Avengers coming to destroy my company after the conference we had this morning. It’s in poor taste guys.”
The flames are spent for this round, but Stane wastes no time in shooting off small rockets towards them.
“Good bye, Captain America,” Stane growls.
Steve sees spots before his eyes. Breathing is causing him more pain than not, and it causes him to feel lightheaded. He’s sure his team is trying to come closer again, but isn’t sure how long he’s got being crushed as he is.
A bright blue light flashes and Steve is dropped to the ground. He coughs upon impact, immediately forcing himself up to see what just happened. Through blurry vision, he can see Stane stumble a few steps. He turns his head, his vision clearing.
Anthony, with shaggier hair and a network of green tracing over his body, is coming towards Steve, electrical wiring leading up his arms and under an undershirt where a blue circular light can be seen glowing from the center of his chest.
The pain in his ribs is intense, but without them being compressed he can feel the serum doing its work. Still, Anthony stands over him, left arm out with the high-pitched electrical sound buzzing from his palm. The blue light flashes again, hitting Stane in the helmet.
The metal man stumbles, before aiming at Anthony, demanding, “Tony, you little prick. Where’ve you been hiding that?”
He apparently doesn’t really want to know the answer, because he gears up another rocket. Steve scrambles up, taking no care as his ribs protest while he yanks the shield off his shoulders and drags Anthony behind it with him. The missile hits his shield and it jars them both, sending them skimming across the floor a few feet.
When they halt, Steve peeks around to see another missile being aimed at them and curses under his breath.
The shot of the missile sounds, but not before both Hulk’s and Thor’s angry yells rock the building and the sound of Mjolnir crashing against marble shakes them violently. The missile never strikes Steve’s shield and he looks up to see it in Hulk’s hand as he redirects it forcefully into the glowing chestplate of Stane’s armor.
The explosion rocks Hulk back next to Steve and Anthony while sending debris of metal particles over them all. Steve raises his shield over their heads, protecting them from the slag. In that few seconds, Steve and Anthony make eye connection, and Steve breathes a sigh of relief to see his face, even through the latticework of green that is so obviously from palladium poisoning.
Steve smiles. “I told you I’d see you soon.”
“Yeah, yeah, I guess you did, didn’t you?” Anthony replies, a strangely sad and happy smile on his own face. He sits up a little more, reaching under his shirt to disconnect some wires from the blue light in his chest. He strips the wiring efficiently and mangles the copper beneath before smashing the discs that had been in his palms onto the floor repeated.
“I doubt anyone would be able to replicate these, but just in case…” he murmurs to himself, unaware of the strange look Steve is sending him as he destroys his invention. When he does look up at Steve, he asks, “Can you, like, I don’t know. Smash this to bits with your shield?”
“Anthony,” he starts, but the man is reaching under his shirt again and pulling out the blue circle.
“Could you just do it please? I don’t want anyone getting a hold of it and if I’m going to with Men in Black over there, I have a feeling they’ll try to confiscate it,” he says with a mistrustful glance at the SHIELD agents, who are gathering around Stane. As he does this the blue circle which seems to be and energy source releases a smoking chip, which looks like Steve phone battery.
“You put that in your body?!” Steve asked incredulously.
Anthony quickly chucks it into the hidden passage without care and from his pocket pulls out a plastic bag of more phone batteries, saying blithely, “I’ve put worse things in my body, trust me, Steve.”
He then presses the glowing thing back into his chest and breathes deeply. He looks at Steve, who still hasn’t crushed his invention with his shield. “Would you please?”
Steve does as he’s asked, feeling sadness that he’s destroying Anthony’s product. Then, he stands, helps Anthony to his feet as well. The Avengers had apparently been waiting patiently for them to do so, because suddenly they’re on top of them, including Hulk who is doing a small dance on his feet to avoid more damage.
Clint gets into Anthony’s face, studies him momentarily before saying, “You could design a whole new Pac-Man game outta your face, Stark.”
Anthony stares at him, non-plussed. “You have to be Barton.”
Clint doesn’t get to respond before Natasha cleanly pushes him out of the way, producing a syringe from one of her pockets. She stands eye to eye in front of him and studies his face. Anthony immediately tenses. “Uh, hi. This is actually really unnerving, and uncomfortable, because you’re really hot and all but what is in that…”
She jabs it into his neck and some small part of Steve feels he deserves it, even though more of him wants to scold Natasha. “He’ll need more soon, but this should help until we get him back to headquarters,” she says in a clipped tone, regarding Anthony with acidic eyes.
Agent Coulson is on his way over, having delegated what to do with Stane’s body and the remains of his suit.
“Mister Stark,” he says evenly, unflappable as ever. “Welcome back. We need to escort you to SHIELD headquarters and have you checked out. If you would.” He holds his hand out towards the exit of the lobby.
Anthony sends Steve a brief look of questioning, but it’s Coulson who answers, “Captain America will be riding with you. He likely needs to have his ribs checked anyway.”
Steve refrains from sighing, puts his hand on the middle of Anthony’s spine and takes them towards a suburban with Coulson and the Avenger’s following.
Steve’s personal SHIELD doctor tells him to take it easy until his ribs are fully healed by the serum. As she says it she gives him a meaningful stare that says she means it this time and if he doesn’t heed her she will tell Director Fury.
He walks out from behind the curtain after she leaves and he has his uniform top and shield on again. He looks around the medical unit and sees a few agents getting patched up from some of the lucky robots who landed blows. There are several doors to private rooms, and he moves toward the one he’d seen Anthony through. The one where Thor stands guard as if his mission is now to interrogate anyone who may try to strap Anthony down.
However, he stops when he spots Natasha with Ms. Potts. They’re in the corner of the room, Ms. Potts in one of the few chairs scattered around with the empty space she’s kept so close to her wavering. Natasha kneels in front of her, affectionate the way she only is with Ms. Potts, holding both her hands in one of her own and brushing gently at her hair. Ms. Potts shakes her head a little as soothing words are spoken to her, her eyes watery but no tears come down her face as she meets Natasha’s gaze.
He takes a step towards them, but they both catch his movement and turn their heads to him. He stops as Ms. Potts shakes her head slowly. She gathers her briefcase, coming towards him with her head held up high. As she comes directly in front of him, she takes a deep shuddering breath, saying, “Tell him that I need a day. Tell him I need to call Rhodey and Happy. And tell him that I’m sorry, but I’ve been having this dream for two years and I need to wake up with him still there.”
The watery edge that takes her voice isn’t a surprise to him, but he still places his hand on her shoulder. She slides away gracefully and gives a tearful smile. “I’m really, really happy you found him, Steve. Thank you.”
He nods, his heart going out to her as she turns back to Natasha. He can’t imagine what it would be like to suddenly have a friend from his past prove not to be dead. He isn’t sure if he would handle it the same way. There have been many nights where he had dreams of Bucky and Anthony both, sitting with them and feeling light, only to wake and find that they weren’t actually there. He watches her hand rise to her eyes discreetly. Natasha presses her hand to her shoulder, giving a light rub as they exit the infirmary.
Steve stands there for a few more moments, wondering about how she must be feeling before his thoughts once again turn to Anthony. Anthony who’s been alone for the most part for over two years. He wonders how he’s handling Ms. Potts exit.
He heads to the room.
Natasha can comfort Ms. Potts. He’ll do the same for Anthony.
When he comes to the door, Thor is staring into the small window, frown on his face as he glares most likely at the medical people there. Steve touches his shoulder which makes the god whip his head around to glare ominously until he realizes who it is.
“My dearest friend Steve!” he booms clapping him on the shoulder. “I take it you are well?”
He nods. “Yeah. Nothing that won’t heal in a day or two. How’s Anthony doing?”
Thor glances back. “He grows weary of this place quickly, and seems to fold within himself the more these medical people come into his room.”
Steve nodded. “Did you hear what happened when Ms. Potts was in there?”
“Nay, the formidable Natasha stood guard against intruders.”
“Okay.” He takes a deep breath, as he asks, “How is Bruce? And Clint?”
Thor immediately answers, “The incredible Bruce recovered well from his battle with few injuries. He has minimal cuts or burns from plunging the exploding arrow into the Iron Monger. He now helps in the lab of science. Mighty Clint also does well. He has already returned to the Mansion.”
Steve claps him on the shoulder. “Why don’t you head back too? I’m sure your puppy is missing you.”
“Yes, I had thought to speak of that with you, great Steve.” He leans close to him, asking in an almost shy voice, “I wish to name my powerful hound after our glorious new friend?”
Steve smiles, feels his heart swell over having such a wonderful considerate friend. “I’ll ask him. How about that, Thor?”
The god stands tall again, booming, “Wonderful! I shall eagerly await your missive!”
“Alright,” Steve says with a slight laugh. “Go on. I’ll see you later.”
Thor tilts his head. “Of course, my wonderful friend.” He takes his leave them, stopping only once to glare at a medical personnel who gets too close to him with roll of gauze.
Steve turns away and enters the room quietly, setting his shield against the wall, hearing Anthony immediately through the curtain around his bed as he argues, “No! No, you see I actually don’t think you need any more of my blood! One of your Dracula clones was in here earlier and she took two of those bags away full. Find the Bloofer Lady and tell her to share. You’re not getting any more from me.”
Steve smiles at a reference he actually understands. He had read Dracula to Bucky when they were younger. It had given them nightmares while reading it and a week straight after. But he had drawn the beautiful and strong Mina Harker, stunned when Bucky had said it looked like his mother.
The phlebotomist sighs. Clearly this has been an ongoing mission of his. “Mister Stark, I only need a phial…”
“Then get it from her!” Anthony demands again, and this time he sounds angry, frustrated.
Steve steps further into the room, calling, “Mind company?”
“If you can get him to leave,” Anthony responds the same time the phlebotomist says, “If you can get him to cooperate!”
Steve steps through the curtain, and sees Anthony literally pressed against one side of the railing while the nurse leans toward him. Anthony is wrought through with tension, his entire form rigid as he holds himself away from the needle. He steps immediately to Anthony’s side of the bed, hesitating in reaching out when he sees the trapped look in his eyes.
“Will this be the last phial you need from him?” Steve asks.
The phlebotomist looks peeved. Steve supposes that he would too if someone were impeding with his work. “For the rest of the night.” Seeing as it’s already 0200 that’s not very comforting.
“I’m sure if you would make it for the next twelve hours Anthony would be more obliging.”
They both glare at him for that one, but Steve prefers to meet Anthony’s gaze, trying to convey without words that it will likely happen whether he wants it to or not. The sooner he gives up the small amount of blood, the sooner the nurse will leave. Finally after what feels like forever, Anthony forces himself to uncurl himself from the side of the bed he’s on, flopping lifelessly onto the mattress with his arm thrown out for the phlebotomist.
“If I see you come in here again before the twelve hours is up, I will wreck this place,” he promises, staring at the nurse with determination in his eyes.
The nurse nods in placation as he sticks Anthony flawlessly in the vein and the phial fills. He leaves with the threat that food will be here for Anthony soon, and the way he says it really is a threat.
When the door shuts, Anthony sags. His muscles relax into the bed and he closes his eyes briefly.
Steve watches, reaches his hand out to touch him, to feel his skin warm beneath his palm. He’s refused the impulse to even let himself want to do so since he first saw Anthony striding towards him to keep Stane away. He refuses it now too, lets his hand drop to his side as he instead asks, “How are you feeling?”
Anthony shrugs. “Well, you know. I’ve been imprisoned in a twenty-by-twenty foot cell for the last two years and just got down downgraded to a ten-by-ten cell. Pepper ran crying from the room at the sight of me. I’ve been stuck with needles more times than Pinhead. I’m, uh, feeling great, actually. Fantastic, even.”
Steve frowns at the strange catch in his voice, sits at the edge of the bed. “I talked to her actually. She said to tell you that she was sorry. She just needs a day to wake up and have you still be alive. She said she had this dream a lot.”
“Well,” he shrugs. “No one can blame her. I bet her dreams didn’t include this.” He waves around himself. He turns his eyes on Steve, gives a wry smile. “I told you it was bad.”
And it is, in a way. Even with Bruce’s treatment pushed into him, the latticework of green creeps up his neck and jaw. It slithers down his arms until just above his wrists. Steve almost wants to see how far down his legs it would go, which causes a faint blush to start up his neck. And that’s not to mention the blue circle in his chest. It is bad, but not as bad as before. Now Steve has hope in his heart, bright and burning. This is much better than dead and it gives them time to figure this out.
Steve finally allows himself to touch Anthony’s face, his fingers gliding into his shaggy hair, his thumb at his temp as he says, “I’ll help you though. You’ll be fine.”
Anthony watches him with searching eyes, like he’s trying to detect a lie somewhere in Steve’s words. But Steve has no lies there. He believes Anthony will be fine; he will make it. He has too. He must see that conviction in Steve’s eyes, because he nods ever so slightly, and presses his cheek into Steve’s palm.
Steve is still in Anthony’s room the next day. Anthony fades in and out of sleep, waking each time with a jolt, a terrified glint in his eyes. He’s afraid. He’s afraid he’s only had a dream and afraid that this time when he wakes, he will wake in the cell Stane has kept him in for two years. Each time, Steve wakes from his own half-sleep, already reaching for Anthony’s hand. He holds onto his fingers until he feels his grip returned and Anthony turns his head towards his, catches his eyes and finally relaxes.
The phlebotomist keeps his promise. No one comes in through the night, except those who come to give Anthony a bit to eat or give him another injection of the palladium treatment. It’s strange to watch the green weaving on Anthony recede, and sad to watch as it slowly creeps up again.
Every time the hiss of the injection floods into Anthony’s veins, his hand will tap against the blue light in his chest. Steve watches it carefully as Anthony stares off into a corner of the room, listens to the muted tap, tap, tap. He knows there’s a connection. At 0500, a young agent comes in with a machine that she explains will deliver the treatment to Anthony every hour, until they can get it under control. Anthony only smiles grimly and holds out his arm for the nurse to put in the IV. It’s in the hand closest to Steve, so he has to be careful about how he holds his hand.
It’s easier for him to pull the chair up and rest his hand upward on the bed so Anthony can lace his fingers over his.
At 0600, there’s a knock on the door, causing the man on the bed to tense. He’s only just had his latest treatment and the last doctor who had come to check on Anthony had said breakfast wouldn’t be until 0800. He tightens his grip on Steve’s hand momentarily before forcing himself to relax. Steve thinks he can see the mask he’s seen in so many paparazzi photos.
“Yes,” he calls, and Steve sees the way he swallows.
Two sets of shoes pace the floor and Anthony pastes on a smile as the curtain hesitantly pulls back to reveal Ms. Potts and Happy. “Pepper, nice to see I haven’t completely scared you off. Happy, you’re looking well as ever. I heard you’re also employed by SHIELD?”
Happy looks like he can’t believe his eyes and Ms. Potts…she reaches out her hand slowly to touch Anthony’s shoulder. Her fingers press slowly, before the palm. She smiles. “You know it would take a lot more to scare me off, Tony,” she says with audible relief. “I’m sorry about earlier I just…”
Anthony waves her off. “Steve explained it to me. I get it. It’s weird. I know. Weird for everyone.”
Both Happy and Ms. Potts look at him as if he’s just magically appeared there. They follow the arm that rests on the bed and see Anthony’s fingers pressed between his. Steve feels strangely uncomfortable.
These two are Anthony’s friends, had been in his life for years before he died and mourned him for two years before Steve had even woken from the ice. Yet, here he is, holding Anthony’s hand, a man he’s known through computer wires for only a few months, and known to be alive for only two weeks. He feels like the interloper again, as their eyes travel back to Anthony, clearly unsure what to make of this or where to go now.
“I should go,” Steve says.
The words aren’t even out of his mouth before Anthony’s fingers tighten around his and he’s facing the smiling face and guarded brown eyes. “No, no, you can stay. It’s okay, right?” he asks turning towards the other two.
They both nod, and Ms. Potts says, “No, Steve, you stay. I have to go in twenty minutes anyway. I, oddly enough, have a ton of emails and memos to go through after last night. It seems something happened with SHIELD down at Stark Industries.”
Steve ducks his head, knowing that they must have done some serious damage with Stane at Stark Industries after the assassins rolled on him.
Anthony though deflects with an easy, “I plead the fifth. I think I was somewhere else. Malibu or something. I think there were little umbrellas in the drinks.”
“You don’t like little umbrellas in your drink, Tony,” Ms. Potts says fondly. “You like ice in your drinks and that’s it.”
“Unless it’s a martini,” Happy adds, with a slight smile.
Anthony smiles tightly. There probably aren’t a lot of drinks when one is held hostage. Anthony’s loose fingers tap against the blue light in the center of his chest.
Steve wonders if he wants one.
The room drops into an awkward silence. Ms. Potts keeps her hand on Anthony’s shoulder like she can’t believe he’s there, and Happy just stares at him with a growing half-smile on his face. Anthony looks a strange mixture of content and uncomfortable. Like this is a heaven and a sort of hell.
He runs his thumb carefully up the side of Anthony’s hand in a way to reassure him. To make him relax just a little bit more.
“So…” Anthony says. “You and Natasha, huh?”
Ms. Potts levels him with her famous unimpressed stare. “Really, Tony?”
“I’m just saying, it’s actually kind of hot.”
“Tony, I’m not discussing my personal life with you right now.”
“We don’t really have much else to talk about. I kept up with the world through the computer, and…”
“No, that’s not…”
“…I’m actually very interested in how you met.”
Ms. Potts takes a deep breath, targets him with an exasperated look. “We met in the break room of SHIELD, shortly after Director Fury hired me.”
Anthony smiles at her, despite the look she gives him. Some of the walls have come down; his eyes seem a little less guarded. Steve feels a smile of his own as Ms. Pottstries to suppress her own delight, her eyes glittering with amusement. Happy is smiling fully now, though he hasn’t said much. He looks between them all, even Steve, and joy just seems to eat his face.
And the empty space beside Ms. Potts fades away, bowing out to the man in the bed as he asks Happy how the cars are going for him.
Ms. Potts takes a seat on the side of the hospital bed, while Happy crosses his arms over his chest.
Anthony says, “Okay, Happy, seriously, you need to sit or something. I now know what it feels like when you stare one of my fans down and I don’t like it much. I’m, yeah. Just sit.”
Happy laughs out a sincere, “Yes, boss.”
There’s a chair by Steve’s shield, still settled by the door of the room and Happy drags it over, sitting down for the last ten minutes of their visit. He settles next to Steve, hunkering down in a slouch he rarely displays normally. When he offers his hand to Steve, the one that will match his own free hand not holding Anthony’s, he gladly takes it with a smile.
The man in the bed smiles, and asks, “So when do you both clock out?”
Ms. Potts laugh and so does Happy. They both glance at Steve who has the presence of mind to look abashed, as she answered, “It depends on what he and his team have done with their day.”
“In my defense, we aren’t the ones who go looking for trouble,” he tells Anthony with a flush heating his face.
“No, you aren’t. And I’m not trying to imply that you are.” Ms. Potts smiles at him, glances at his and Anthony’s linked hands. “I’m often quite proud of my long days, especially after this morning. But I have to get going. Happy, are you going to stay for a little longer?”
Happy shakes his head as he stands from his chair. “No, I’m commuting a few agents around for Director Fury. I’m needed at seven.”
“Alright, then, when will you be done?” Ms. Potts asks standing as well.
“Probably around three, why?”
Ms. Potts smiles at back at them and says, “I’m sure Tony and Steve would like something that isn’t from SHIELD’s cafeteria.”
Anthony’s head drops back to his pillow in relief. “Oh, Pepper, you’re a saint.”
She wastes no time in saying with a tempered face. “I know. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”
He lifts his head up with a lopsided smile. He gives her a slight nod, flopping his hand over his chest. “Yes, Ms. Potts.”
Her grin grows brighter. “It’s good to see the treatment is working for you, Tony.”
Anthony’s fingers drum on the blue glow.
She and Happy give their goodbyes. Happy says he’ll call Steve’s phone later for their preferences, and then they’re both gone, leaving the room in silence.
Steve stares at Anthony’s hand as it rubs idly at the blue glow. He wonders what it is. He has since he first saw it, but it hadn’t really occurred to him to ask until now. It’s been so relieving just having Anthony here with him, and the treatment—
--pushes into his veins, making the patchwork recede down his neck, back up his arms. Yet, it always creeps back.
It’s not just the palladium poisoning. Anthony isn’t just sick from the poison.
“Can I ask you what that is?” he asks, nodding towards the blue light coming from under his shirt.
Anthony glances at him, before looking down at his chest. “This? This is an arc reactor.” Steve’s lost expression must have been question enough. “It’s keeping my heart from going into cardiac arrest. I was, I was in an artillery fire when I was in Afghanistan. Would have died, but, uh, the Afghani rebel group had this doctor held captive. A very enlightening man named Yinsen. He, he helped me make this and put it in my chest. It keeps shrapnel from entering into my heart.”
Steve stares at it, makes a snap decision. He picks himself up to his feet and moves his fingers over the blue light, pads hovering just above the material of Anthony’s shirt. The chest beneath his hand immediately picks up as Anthony breathes harder. Steve moves to take his hand away but Anthony catches his fingers.
“Wait, no. No, it’s fine. You can touch it.” He presses Steve’s fingers to the reactor, taking a deep breath. Steve feels the warmth of it under his pads, like pure life, and something else… “Just bad memories; nothing to fuss about. Just, just Stane. He took it out of me one night. Um, paralyzed me, and just ripped it out of my chest, actually, until I agreed to build a power source for his suits of armor. Wasn’t the best night of my life.”
He flattens Steve’s palm over the blue, both watching as the light disappears beneath his palm. Steve tries not to shudder at the mental image it conjures of someone just snatching out Anthony’s arc reactor as if it were nothing more than a toy.
Anthony squeezes his hand over the arc reactor, says quietly, “It has a palladium core.”
Their last argument comes careening into Steve’s head.
Anthony’s words, “I am not going to get better because the thing that's keeping me alive is killing me!”
His eyes race to Anthony’s, and he only sees sadness in the brown he finds. It suddenly makes sense. That’s why the poison recedes only to crawl back so quickly. That’s why Anthony continued to hide. That’s why he hadn’t wanted to be saved.
“Is there nothing…?”
Anthony shakes his head. “I’ve ran every known element known to man. I think were there something I would have found it by now. This is, I may be able to live off of Banner’s treatment, but I would probably have to be connected to this thing,” he gestures at the IV beside him, “for the rest of my life and even that isn’t really guaranteed to keep me alive for long.”
Steve takes both his hands and presses them to either side of Anthony’s neck, his thumbs tracing the latticework they land on. He stares into brown eyes and says firmly, “We will find something. We will keep looking until something presents itself, Anthony. You can’t have expired all the solutions.”
He stares back, a half-hearted smile on his lips. “I reall--”
The protest he’s working on is lost as Steve presses their lips together. The stubble is a little weird. He’s never really kissed a guy. And Anthony is shocked for a moment, but it doesn’t last long and he brings one of his hands to grasp at Steve’s arms, using his other to press himself up into the kiss. When he parts his lips, Steve gently urges his tongue between, tasting metal and the faintest hints of coffee.
When he does, Anthony pushes him back just a little, “Wait… Uh, yeah, wait. Aren’t you, um, allergic to me?”
Steve scrunches his brows. “What?”
Anthony pulls back just a little. “You’re, uh, you’re allergic to palladium.”
“No,” he says, a slight smile stealing his lips. “I’m allergic to nickel.”
Anthony frowns. “Oh, okay.” Then he apparently discards his confused information in favor of mashing their lips together again, scooting himself closer, as Steve treads his hands through soft, shaggy hair while the other helps to keep Antony upright, though he doesn’t appear to need much help.
Despite the poison coursing through him from the arc reactor keeping him alive, Anthony retains much of his strength as he slings one arm around Steve’s shoulders, the other holding his waist. Their tongues meet in the middle, testing, before Steve takes the initiative to move further, pushing into Anthony’s mouth, moving between his teeth.
Anthony moans, pulls him closer and the hand that had been resting on his waist moves up to cup his cheek.
He tries to keep going, but his ribs aren’t completely healed. He has to pull away, but he can’t help but to rest his forehead against Anthony’s. They’re both breathing quickly, Steve’s hand still in Anthony’s hair, while Anthony’s slips down over his chest.
Steve breathes out pain, inhales hope, a very much needed hope. “We will find something.”
Anthony nods. “Yeah. Of course we will.”
He’s not sure if Anthony actually believes him.
Anthony is not content to sit still. He apparently has no concept of the word ‘still’ and his attention span is only so-so. His mind is constantly in motion and it’s usually about engineering, or electronics, or the problem of his palladium powered arc reactor.
The nurses come to take more blood from him, which has him scowling and trying to hide in turn. Ms. Potts comes by with a tablet for him to “play with” as she termed it and no small wonder. He takes the thing apart and looks inside, ripping out certain parts until it’s scattered delicately over the bed before Steve’s eyes and Anthony starts reorganizing the mess into three piles. It gets left there for an hour, as his attention turns to Steve.
Twenty minutes later, he’s granted an old phone from the bowels of who knows where in SHIELD, and soon that is broken down into small pieces and separated into the groups with the tablet bits.
The doctor comes in, says that Anthony’s levels are better in the fact that they aren’t near as high as they were when he first came in. He tells them what Anthony already knows, what he’s told Steve, and Steve watches as a sort of mask falls over his face and he actually begins to crack jokes. The jokes only become more volatile when the doctor announces a psychologist will be in the next day to speak with him.
He wanders the length of the room, talks some more to Steve, sounds a little more jittery every time. He rattles off equations, sighs forlornly at the scattered pieces of the tablet and phone.
Happy brings him coffee with their dinner. Steve watches as Anthony practically attaches himself to the shocked man, he’s just so happy to have it. He asks for Happy’s PDA, which is given just before Happy takes himself away to get something for Ms. Potts from the car.
Soon the PDA is disassembled, organized into the three piles.
It isn’t hard for Steve to see he’s going crazy here as he walks around with his IV slowly hissing the treatment into his veins and nothing to keep him occupied. His hands actually start shaking after a few hours. They run through his long hair and catch on tangles, yank viciously. His drum out a strange Morse code on any surface that doesn’t run, including Steve’s chest once when he catches him on a lap around the room.
He starts putting bits and pieces of his collection into something resembling a new product, wincing every time he jerks the hand with the IV to fact. Steve has to intervene before he pulls it out.
It hurts Steve to watch him, to know that this was his life for two years, that in a way this is worse than his life the last two years. It’s smaller. He has nothing here to keep him busy. To take his mind off the silence that presses down on them when they aren’t speaking. He has nothing to do with his hands.
Steve asks about it, though he really isn’t sure if he can take the answer. He had almost never been able to stand it when Bucky and the Howling Commandos spoke of their time in the prisoner of war camps.
Anthony gives him a soft smile in return as he says, “The view has gotten better.”
Steve watches him continue to pace, like a caged lion, and thinks this place will kill him long before the palladium ever would.
“This place is completely maddening,” Anthony says three days later. “Really, I don’t think I can stand another second of it. These people with their needles and poking and prodding and seriously, the food is awful. I’m not one to bitch about hospitality, but this is subpar. I would like to complain to the manager.”
Which is interesting, because as Steve comes further into the room after spending a few hours at the mansion he sees that Anthony is complaining to Director Fury.
The man stands at the end of Anthony’s bed, looking increasingly frustrated. Steve has the sense that this has not been the first time he’s heard some variant of this rant. Or the first time he’s heard it in the last ten minutes.
Anthony carries on, “And this décor? You don’t set the mood for anything light or fluffy do you? I mean the least you could do is try to put up some crappy fake flowers to try to lighten the mood. Did you take interior decorating from Edgar Allen Poe? Mary Poppins couldn’t crack a smile here! I want to leave. Or at least have something positive. No, scratch that! I want to leave.”
“Stark,” Fury says, his voice carrying the hint in it that he is reaching the end of his rope. “You don’t have anywhere else to go. You are sick and as of right now everything you own belongs to someone else. We’re working on the details, but until then you will stay here.”
Something shutters in Anthony’s eyes, something visceral that he’s unable to hide completely. Steve sees it and knows exactly what it is. He’d said earlier that this felt like a smaller cell than the one he was afforded at Stane’s hands. To hear Fury say that probably helps his theory to ring true.
The look leaves quickly, secreted away to somewhere no one but himself will ever know. Anger blooms across his face quickly, and he snaps back, “Look, I’ve spent the last two years in captivity. I’ll be damned if I’ll spend another day here. Now, you can either help me or I can see myself out, but either way I’m going to be leaving regardless of personal health and-or monetary status!”
Fury looks ready to pop a blood vessel.
Steve intervenes. He takes another step forward, catching their attention, and says, “He can stay at the mansion.”
“Oh! Now that! That’s a great idea!” Anthony quickly throws in, anger fading marginally under Steve’s offer though he still glares at Fury.
Fury’s eye narrows on him, and his lips tighten. “With you? At Avenger mansion?”
Anthony quickly stares at Steve. “Avenger mansion? Wow. That name is going to be emblazoned on the gate!”
Steve shrugs the idea unfolding perfectly in his mind. “It is technically his. And it’s not like there’s any shortage of space. He can come back for appointments, and we’ll take his IV stand with us…”
Fury settles his not unimpressive one-eyed glare on him. “You would let him into Avengers mansion with as much intel as we have set up there—“
He takes a deep breath, steeling himself just a little as he says, “He’s been hacking into our systems for a few months now, sir. I think if there were anything he wanted to sell to enemies, he probably would have taken the opportunity by now.”
The man looks apoplectic as his gaze switches from Steve to Anthony and back. Finally he decides to focus his considerable rage on Steve, his finger flying up accusingly at Steve as he says, “You and I need to have words, Rogers. My office.”
From the bed, Anthony says, “No more than thirty minutes.”
“I’m not joking! I will take your pretty IV stand and run!”
Fury stares at him. “I’m posting security.”
Anthony waves at him. “Thor’s probably already out there.”
And he is. Thor makes it his mission to make sure that Anthony has everything he wants as well as surveillance to make sure the staff doesn’t do anything untoward to his newest friend. Steve spares a few words to Thor to see if he can keep Anthony from running off with the IV stand and if can, will he try to keep him in the room?
When he has that settled he makes his way to Fury’s office, where he’s surely waiting after not having stopped to make sure Steve was following. He spares a wave to Ms. Potts, and she looks at him like he is in so much trouble now. He has no doubt that her look tells the absolute truth.
After shutting the door to the office, the takes a deep breath and jumps in, knowing this will probably end with Fury yelling no matter what direction he takes. "Look, sir, I know I should have told you earlier, but the information was incredibly helpful, and at the time I thought it was a subprogram of JARVIS."
He spins on his heel, having been staring at the wall in silent contemplation apparently. Leveling his eye on Steve he seethes, "I don't give a good god damn about how helpful or not helpful Stark was, Rogers, when there's a breach of security you report it!"
"Sir,” Steve responds, his spine immediately straightening at the tone. “I understand I breached security by not coming to you, but technically so is having JARVIS in the mansion. I'm sure you know he records everything."
Fury inhales deeply through his nose, and Steve has the briefest, unexpected thought that the man may actually breathe fire at him. His good eye is burning into his skin. "Rogers, so help me, you are not helpin' your case here. Do you know anything of what Stark did before he convinced everyone that he died?"
"Stane convinced everyone of Anthony's death. He had his hands tied. As for what he did, it isn't necessarily a well kept secret." He meets Fury’s eye equally, refusing to back down from this despite knowing it is his folly.
"You say that sentence to yourself again and I think we'll hit the heart of the issue. He broke through our security while Stane was tying his hands. What makes you think he had nothing to do with any of the attacks you and your team have had to deal with?!"
Steve’s reaction is immediate. Fury’s words are filled with accusation and insinuation, making it seem like Anthony had undergone the last two years as a dead man on his own. As if there had been no choice. But he knows, with the arc reactor, then the palladium poison, and probably more reasons Anthony has yet to say. His jaw sets, and he bites out the words, "Sir, the only thing he had to do with any of the attacks we dealt with stem from the fact that Stane had leverage over him and his body.”
The director puffs his chest out in indignation, at his tone or his implication, Steve isn’t sure. "And that give him a free pass to break into our data sources whenever he damn well feels like it?!"
"No, but he did it to help. He was the one who disabled the robots more often than not, including in Stark Industries. He was the one who helped Bruce with the treatment. He helped SHIELD with the outbreak of palladium poisoning. He's been trying to help us whenever he can. I don't think he would want to sell us out when he could have given all of our information over to Stane months ago!" Steve impresses, stalking closer to Fury as he argues his point.
Fury is suitably unimpressed. "You got a lotta nerve, Captain Rogers. Maybe Stark didn't sell us out then; maybe he did help us like you say he did. But the fact remains, he broke in, he had access to our information, and you didn't report it!” He gestures at the wall as if Anthony is just on the other side of it, but with each jab a flame of irritation stokes and recedes in him. Fury has the right to be angry at him. Has the right to question him. He tries to remember that. “If you were me, would you trust him not to do it again? Because for where I'm sitting, I trust Stark about as far as I can throw him!"
"I'm not you, sir. But I do trust Anthony not to break into our system as long," He cuts himself off, unsure if he wants to actually say this. He isn’t sure if he wants to just throw it so carelessly onto the table. He has to though. He has to try to get Fury to understand. "As long as he has a link to me and what's happening."
Fury, for all Steve’s effort to put himself on the line, just gives him a look that says there's something wrong incomprehensively wrong with him but I can't bring myself to delve into the psychosis right now. He walks behind his desk and plops down into his chair. With an expectant look he folds his hands over this desk top and demands, "You wanna tell me something about what's going on between you and Stark?"
"Not really, but if it gets Anthony out of here fine."
Fury only crosses his arms over his chest, sets his face into a glare, and waits.
And for a while, Steve waits with him, used to interrogation. He’s been stared down before by several impressive bad guys. He performed in front of thousands of people. But in the end he finally caves. Someone has to if he expects to leave with Anthony. "I love him... Okay? You asked, and that's, that's it."
Fury looks at him incredulously. "You love him." He parrots before he presses his fingers to bridge of his nose and exhales. There’s half-hearted muttering about crazy superheroes and not getting paid enough for this shit. Steve thinks he may have just succeeded in breaking Director Fury. Then still pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose he snaps, "You know what, Rogers? Fine. You take him home, but that man is your responsibility. If he so much as sneezes without permission then I'll have him right back here where we can monitor him. I find his signature snooping around my mainframe, and it's your ass. Got it?"
Steve can’t help the dopey grin that takes over his face. "Of course, sir."
"Don't make me regret this, you hear me?"
Director Fury gives him another long stare down obviously trying to debate whether or not the decision he just made is the right one, but finally makes up his mind and demands, "Get out of my office."
Steve doesn’t wait for Fury to change his mind. He exits the office, still feeling a little dopey as he heads back towards medical. He doesn’t even make it five steps before Ms. Potts is there, glaring him down and crossing her hands over her chest.
“Director Fury just told me you’re taking Tony back to the mansion.”
He stares at her for a moment, trying to detect where this may be going. He knows she’s aware of his condition, but she also has to be aware how Anthony is handling this. How close it must be for him to being in Stane’s prison? How maddening it is to sit and wait idly for someone to tell him something he already knows?
Steve has been kept in a room similar to that one before. He remembers the way it felt like desolation.
“I think he’d be more comfortable there,” he says, hoping that she’ll actually be for this plan. An angry Director Fury is one thing. A worrying Ms. Potts is an entire battle he doesn’t have any weapons for.
Her lips thin. “He would be more comfortable, yes, but Steve, what about the palladium treatment? What if something goes wrong and there are no doctor’s there to help him? There is no recorded case of palladium poisoning this bad. Who knows what could go wrong.”
They’re all viable questions, ones he had taken into consideration on the second day after watching Anthony stalk around the room.
“Ms. Potts,” he says reaching out a hand to reassure her. She’s wound nearly as tight as Anthony is right now. He tries again, “Pepper, the IV can come with us to the mansion, and if something goes wrong there’s an entire team of heroes trained in rapid response.”
She exhales just a little of her tension, but not much. She stares at him with her worried eyes her unease with this. Then, blinking, and probably organizing protocol should something happen to Anthony, she says, “Okay, I’ll go with you and have his doctor’s appointments set up. Hopefully with that I can send a car three hours in advance to head him off before he runs.”
He smiles, thinks that after these last four days she should probably make it five.
Anthony near visibly sags with relief when they enter the mansion, Steve and Thor following behind him. He jerks off the sunglasses Pepper had given him and just stands in the entrance way, taking everything in. He palms the medium sized case filled with a newly condensed serum to counteract the palladium as if it’s the only thing that will keep him grounded right now.
Steve hears him murmur, “I never thought I’d miss this place so much.”
And then Thor’s puppy comes scrambling from around the corner, disproportionate paws working for traction on the wood flooring. Thor kneels to pick him up proclaiming, “My steadfast hound!”
Anthony stiffens immediately and takes a step away from Thor and his puppy as if they have mutated before his eyes. He turns his unhappy gaze onto Steve, who may have forgotten to mention the dog living in the mansion. With so many other things going on, it just slips his mind so easily. Most of the time unless he’s at the mansion he completely forgets that Thor even snatched up the puppy three weeks ago.
He rubs the back of his neck, and says a quiet, “Sorry,” but that’s all he gets to say before Clint and Bruce come from their respective entrances. Clint comes strolling out of the kitchen. Bruce strolls down the staircase.
Anthony stiffens more, mask back in place. “Wow, a welcoming committee. I’m honored, really. You guys didn’t have to do this just to me,” he says with a practiced ease that he still has after two years away from the paparazzi.
Clint just smirks and crosses his arms. “I just came to find out where the dog went. If I wanted to see your ugly mug, I’d turn on the news.”
Bruce comes up to Anthony, reaches for his neck to see the patterns creeping up after the last injection thirty minutes ago. “You are pretty much everywhere in the media right now. Thankfully no one’s thought to look for you here yet, or you probably wouldn’t have been able to get through the gate,” he says distractedly, as he inspects the network of veins.
Anthony bats him away, looks at him incredulously. “Excuse me. Where did the Avengers learn the definition of personal space, because you all have none.”
Steve takes over then, says, “Guys, he just got here. Give him some space, will ya?”
Clint puts his hands up. “I’m just here for the dog. Hey, Thor, let’s go teach him to play the Wii!”
Thor noticeably perks up and jostles the dog a little. “Come great four-legged friend. Verily, we shall teach you the ways of chucking stones at strange logs!”
He strides off after Clint, explaining the basics of bowling incorrectly.
Bruce lingers for a brief second longer, before thrusting out his hand. “Enjoy the insanity,” he says. “It’s incurable.”
Anthony takes his hand and gives a firm shake, before Bruce turns to follow the other two, pulling out his iPod and earbuds. When everyone is gone the mask falls off and crashes to the ground. So many pieces of his energy scattered around their feet. Steve reaches out, takes Anthony’s free hand in his, reveling in the openness he finds there.
“What do you want to do?” he asks. Anthony doesn’t really have anything other than the case in his hand.
Ms. Potts said she would get him clothes tomorrow, moving behind him to check tags and make suitable guesses as to what his waist size is for at least some jeans. Anthony had looked somewhat uncomfortable when she had made the offhand comment that he had lost a lot of weight. He isn’t skin and bones, but Steve has to say he agrees with her earlier statement. The man he sees in front of him now is much thinner than the one in the media photos.
Anthony shrugs, looking down at the medicine container in his hand. “I suppose I should put this down somewhere,” he says, a slight scowl on his face. After this it would be unsurprising if he went running at the sight of needles.
Steve nods, gives his hand a gentle tug toward the staircase.
He sets Anthony up in the sixth room on the floor everyone else sleeps in after Anthony says that he didn’t really claim a room when he lived there three years ago and he doesn’t want to stay in his parents’ old room. His room is just across the way from Steve’s. When the Avengers had first moved in they had all seemed to shy away, that ghost, Anthony’s ghost lingering in it.
Anthony puts his case down on the bedside table, looks around the room with relief written on his face. Steve feels his sense of freedom, just as he had the first day SHIELD had left him alone in this house, with four other superheroes, but four superheroes that were largely unconcerned with him, who mostly left him to his own devices unless electronics were involved. Even then, once Steve had become accustomed to JARVIS, they hadn’t even done that. Steve knows how nice it is to feel that.
“I never thought I’d come here again,” Anthony says. “Even before…” he pauses, just stares at the lushly colored walls. “I just never really had an affinity for this house. Too many memories; not a lot of them good.” He looks around the room, making a complete three-sixty. “I can hardly feel them anymore. The last few months I even thought of this place…”
He stops but locks his eyes on Steve, takes a deep breath. Steve can guess what he was going to say, and steps further into the room. He touches his fingers beneath the collar of the shirt Anthony had been procured upon his discharge from SHIELD medical. The green lines are raised ever so slightly from his skin, and feel like a strange netting threaded under his skin. Anthony’s pulse is escalated, but it isn’t racing.
He’s cut off. “No! I’m really done with that now. No more ‘Anthony’s.”
Steve smiles slightly. “I like ‘Anthony’.”
He snorts. “You grew up in the ‘30’s. You probably like names like Alfred and Edmond. Knew little girls named Eunice and Gretchen.”
“I never knew a Gretchen,” Steve replies quickly, stroking his thumb across Tony’s jaw, knowing that that will be the name he asks to be called. “Alright, Tony.” He nods, rolling it over his tongue. “Tony.”
Steve brings him close, presses a chaste kiss to the corner of his lips. Tony turns his head and there’s this perfect moment where their lips are just touching, just enough pressure that it feels real and special. They breathe each other’s air; stand in each other’s space that Tony had been bemoaning earlier. His hand slips from Tony’s neck, over his shoulder and down his shoulder blade, while Tony raises his hands to rest on Steve’s hips.
He can feel Tony’s reactor pressing against his chest, feels the whir of it against his shirt and inside his ribcage as if it were part of him. The warmth between them is comforting as Tony moves his lips to his jaw down his neck before pressing his face into the crook of Steve’s neck, breathing deeply as his hands tighten on his hips.
Steve wraps his arms around him, the air in the room changing quickly into something sullen and lost. No more freedom. Tony is still losing to his own body, and Steve has no way to help.
At 0200, Steve is awake and staring at the ceiling, listening to sounds of the mostly quiet house.
Most of his team is sound asleep. He thinks he can hear Thor meandering about the house with his unnamed puppy. He hasn’t asked Tony if Thor can name the dog after him, but he’s thinking that perhaps he’ll tell Thor no. Cruel voices keep whispering in his mind, all the what ifs, and Steve doesn’t want to listen to them, but if they, if they are right, he also doesn’t want to run around calling a dog ‘Anthony’.
Other than him though, he’s pretty sure the mansion is asleep. Natasha and Ms. Potts sleep in her room after a long day. Clint is in his room snoring up a storm. It seems he only sleeps quietly when Agent Coulson spends the night. Nothing can be heard from Bruce or Tony’s room.
But he can’t sleep. Something nags at him, something longing and bone-deep. He feels an itch in is bones to go to Tony’s room, to make sure he’s not staring at the ceiling and convincing himself this is a dream. He wants to make sure that Tony is with him, here not just a ghost. This is the first night since Tony came back that he’s even tried to sleep away from him.
Somehow four days has become enough to become addicted to someone’s breathing pattern, the way they sleep and can sometimes jerk him out of slumber just by the way they tense.
He sighs and turns over on his side, stares at the far wall and his shield which rests next to his closet door. He waits for sleep to overtake him, though at this point in may be a long time in coming. It’s a need that slithering up his skin, urging him to just make sure Tony is okay.
He closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath.
He breathes deep and even, trying to coax himself to sleep until his eyes shoot open again. This isn’t working. He has to go make sure Tony is okay. It’s nearing an ache that he doesn’t understand.
He doesn’t think he’s ever felt this way about anyone, least of all another man. It was different when Tony had been Anthony as a computer program, and even up until they rescued him. But these last few days, Steve, he feels a deeper connection than he has with anyone.
He pads quietly across the carpet of his room, opening the door as quietly as possible into the darkness of the hall. He’s a step and a half out when he sees a shadow resting against the wall next to his door. Steve stops, stares at it for a moment before he recognizes the shape of a man in the dark, back to the wall and knees drawn up to his chest. His arms are wrapped around his legs and his forehead rest against his arms. There’s a blue glow reaching out from beneath limbs.
It’s not hard to see its Tony after a second.
Steve crouches next to him and reaches out to touch his shoulder. It causes a flinch below his fingertips, a sharp intake of breath, before Tony’s form relaxes under him. The blue backlit form blinks at him with shadowed eyes then lets out a sigh. “I didn’t want to wake you.”
“I was up anyway,” Steve says, offering his hand for Tony to take, closing his fingers gently when Tony’s hand trembles tiredly in his. “C’mon,” he goads gently as Tony rises to his feet.
For a moment he hesitates as to where he actually wants to take Tony, whether back to his room, or to the closest bed behind him. But Tony’s treatment case is beside him as well as an alarm clock. He looks like he hadn’t been planning to sleep in the room given to him anyway. With that in mind, he takes Tony into his room, only briefly pausing to grab up the case and clock.
He checks the alarm clock as he and sees it’s set for ten minutes from now. He has no doubt he could keep Tony up for the remaining time, but wonders if it would harm him to take it a few minutes early. His mom used to give him his medicine a few minutes early or late depending on the day. It shouldn’t hurt Tony to take another dose before the precisely scheduled time.
He settles him on the bed, takes the case and prepares the injection in the half-light of Tony’s arc reactor.
Tony moves to take it from him when it’s ready, but he pulls it back a little and asks as he kneels on the floor before Tony, “Let me.” Tony gives him a choked sort of look. “Please? I want…”
He doesn’t know what he wants. He wants to feel useful. He wants to help. He wants this to go away all together.
When he receives a nod, he aims the injector like he had been taught to do and presses the trigger. Tony hardly flinches, but Steve feels the need to kiss his cheek anyway, to run his lips across the expanse, just below his ear. Tony brings his hand to hold him there, his breath immediately shortening. He turns his face into Steve for a moment, his lips against Steve’s temple.
Steve returns the injector into its carrier, looking over at Tony sliding hesitantly under the covers. He feels his heart pound in his chest, for a moment, unsure what to do with this. This isn’t something he’s ever done before. He’s never really shared his bed. Yet as he’s thinking this, the thoughts are, they’re melting away.
Steve just, takes himself over to the open side of the bed and slips behind Tony, keeping respectable space between them until Tony inches just a little closer to him. He smiles to himself, knowing that Tony can see it.
It’s strange to try sleeping with the arc reactor between them. At SHIELD, some light had always been on, sure, but he’s never seen the arc glow so brightly or so…ominously.
Tony touches Steve chest, before his hand covers his eyes. “You think too loud. It’s time for sleep. And that’s something coming from me.”
His eyes move beneath Tony’s hand, before he brings Tony closer to him, resting his hand on his hip and testing his own bravery enough to slip his last two fingers just a little below the elastic of Tony’s borrowed sleep pants.
Tony’s hand eventually goes slack.
The blue glow fills the space between them.
When Steve wakes, Tony is still in bed with him, though he now lounges on top of the covers. He blinks a few times to wipe the sleep from his eyes and Tony comes into sharp focus. He’s pillowed his head with one of his arms, staring at the little bag of phone battery things that Steve had seen him put into the arc reactor. He’s staring at it, a contemplative frown on his face as he tilts the bag around.
Steve understands why. The bag that had a handful of batteries, only has three remaining.
He watches for a few moments at Tony stares at them, before asking, “Can you make more of those?”
Tony jerks, his eyes flying to Steve’s form as he presses the bag onto bed. He looks at Steve like he hadn’t meant for anyone to see them, to know. Then with a slight smile, he says, “Of course I can. I can make anything. Hell, I could probably make ten before the end of the day with what’s in the lab.” He looks down at the bag at his hip, and Steve leans over to see them too.
“This was going to be my last batch,” Tony admits quietly. “I was going to stop making them. He couldn’t hold anyone hostage against me if I died of seemingly natural causes. Pepper, Happy, and Rhodey would have been okay. I was…I was okay with going. Wasn’t too pleased at the prospect, but I figured there was no reason to come back from death only to die again.”
Steve lies his head down on Tony’s stomach, letting his hand slide under the shirt he’s wearing. He wants to feel skin, the warmth there. His fingers catch some of the raised veins on his stomach, presses his hand flat against them. He delights in the simplicity of feeling blood thrum under his fingers, the way Tony’s stomach lifts his hand with each breath he takes.
Tony’s hand slides through his hair as he continues. “Of course then about a week after I decided that JARVIS decides to let some guy stumble into my lab who just happens to be the best guy I’ve ever met and he says he loves me and I’m so desperately in love with him. It completely opened a flaw in my plan. Absolutely ruined everything.”
Steve smiles. “Sounds like a hell of a guy.”
He receives a hum of agreement. “He is. You should meet him. Very interesting. Very old. He’s totally robbing the cradle. And he gropes in his sleep.”
Steve jerks his head off of Tony’s stomach, proclaiming, “I do not!”
Tony smiles. “Yeah, you really do. Completely handsy, and I was the only one awake to enjoy it.”
He blushes all the way to his roots, but somehow manages not to stutter when he says, “That’s too bad.”
He chances his luck and moves is hand further under the shirt, skimming a scar on his way until his fingers graze a nipple. He’s rewarded with a sharp inhale from Tony, and glances up to see Tony staring at him with lust and, unfortunately, hesitation.
He pulls his hand away with a quiet, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t…”
“No, no! I…” He huffs. “I cannot believe I’m about to ask this. Are you sure? I mean, have you done this with a man before? You don’t have to…with me. I mean I am d…”
Steve can’t help the droll stare he sends Tony and is actually kind of surprised it works so well. “There’s honestly no one else I can think of that I want to do this with more, Tony,” he says, voice low and serious as a plan forms in his mind. “No, I haven’t been with a man before, but I’m not quite as virginal as people seem to believe. I know how it works and…I want it to be with you.” He tries to quell his blush but he isn’t sure he’s managing it. He honestly can’t believe he’s about to say this. “I want to feel you inside me. I want you to be part of me.”
Tony looks at Steve like he’s some sort of gift from above, rising to a sitting position. His mouth opens and closes a few times, before just shutting. He gets a strange look in his eye, far off and lost, before reeling himself back in and settling his gaze on Steve. “If you’re sure.”
Steve leans in closer to him, staring into his eyes for a moment before taking his lips in a kiss meant to reassure, to show how much he wants this. Tony takes to it immediately, his hand shooting into Steve’s hair again and pressing his lips harder to Steve’s as if trying to become part of him.
He doesn’t make a protest this time when Steve’s hand maneuvers under his shirt, first pressing his palm to the reactor without cloth in his way, feeling the warmth of it, the scars around it, and the network of raised veins. He strokes his thumb around it, eliciting a strangle sound from Tony as he too works his hand under Steve’s shirt.
He seems to catalogue ever dip of muscle as his tongue traces the seam of Steve’s lips. His other hand starts pulling on the hem of Steve’s tee, but Steve doesn’t want to let go of the arc reactor at the moment. He loves the sensation of slight buzzing beneath his hand, an odd sensation to love but still there. He wants to feel it for the rest of his life.
Tony eventually gives up his attempt to strip Steve in order to pull off his own tank top, albeit with a little hesitance. There are scars around the arc reactor. Steve knows they’re there. He has felt them only moments ago, but there’s something about seeing them, light pink and raised skin. He traces one with the tip of his finger across the pectoral muscle until it fades to nothing. He wonders at the pain it must have caused Tony when it was first installed.
Tony doesn’t let him wallow in imagined pains for long. He takes Steve’s hand away from his chest and yanks his shirt off as well, touching Steve’s chest reverently.
“You’re like ridiculously hot,” Tony says, and Steve doesn’t think that he’s talking about looks as much as he is the temperature of his body.
He takes Steve’s arm and guides him down to the bed, pressing him into the mattress and encasing him with his arms. Steve is a little…out of his element here, but he, he wasn’t lying when he said he wants this. He wants to feel Tony just like this, hands on either side of his ribs and leaning in close again. Even with the latticework moving over his body and the scars slithering away from the arc reactor, he’s the most breathtaking person Steve has ever seen.
He maneuvers his leg, and brings Tony into the cradle of his hips, both of them choking on their own breath when it brings their half-erections into contact. Steve feels his cock harden even further, and decides that could possibly be one of the best ideas he’s ever had. His hands grab at Tony’s hips on impulse, pull him closer as their lips meet near desperately, teeth and tongue clashing, clacking, colliding in a cacophony of passion. He doesn’t even notice when his hands slink down to grab Tony’s ass, tugging him even closer, orchestrating their grinding.
Tony drags his lips and stubble down Steve’s chin, leaving ragged breathing half finished gasps in the air of the room. Tony’s lips trail down his neck, strange but no less nerve rattling as they drag over sensitive skin, nipping at his pulse point before wandering behind his ear. His moan is ripped from him and Tony clamps his teeth down for a hard second and he scrabbles at purchase against his back, pulling him closer, feeling the reactor against his chest, humming soothingly, dauntingly.
He bucks up into Tony, realizes for the first time that Tony is practically shaking apart in his arms. He runs his hand down Tony’s spine once, twice, but it’s not helping. He winds his hand in dark hair just at the side of his head as Tony slides down to his collarbone.
He lifts his head from where it’s currently making a home on Steve’s chest, asks quickly, “Lube? You have lube or lotion or…something?”
His eyes are brighter than just a few moments ago. Steve feels something in his chest crumple; he can’t help but running the back of his hand down Tony’s cheek. “Hey,” he says gently, trying to drag Tony’s eyes to his. “This is not going to be our only time.”
But Steve still feels the tremors beneath his hands, even as Tony says, “No, of course it won’t,” in such a completely reassuring manner that’s so heartbreaking to hear because Steve knows he doesn’t believe it. Not completely.
Tony covers his eyes in a flashback to last night, says, “Less thinking, more nakedness.”
And if the only way Steve can convince Tony is to continue being there, so be it. He won’t be able to get through with comforting words, no matter how true they will be. Instead, he points to the bedside table, feeling his face heat up again.
Tony doesn’t notice the flush, leans over to open the drawer and dig out a medium tube of lube and a condom. He drops them on the bed before sitting on his haunches, his hands playing lightly with the ridge of Steve’s pajama bottoms. He seems to stumble there, looking into Steve’s eyes, giving him another way out.
Steve lifts his hips as his answer.
Tony nods at him, hands dragging his pajama bottoms down, blunt nails lightly scraping at his skin, leaving tingling paths behind them. At first it’s, it’s nerve-wracking to be so exposed in front of someone. He’s been in various states of undress in the military and since joining the Avengers, but he’s never had someone so focused on him. And Tony is. His eyes rake over Steve’s body, his hand rubbing his calf. Steve feels a little ridiculous, under such naked observation. There’s a scientific glint in Tony’s eyes as he moves forward again, not cold, but something experimental.
His lips close over Steve’s left nipple, tongue laving at the nub until Steve is drawn tight, his back arched as Tony delivered a sinfully wonderful torture onto him. Tony’s teeth dragged at the skin just hard enough, circling pleasure with pain and both of them going straight to his cock. His hands roam, nails dragging along his ribs, as he switches one nipple for the other.
Steve runs his hand through still shaggy hair, enjoying the soft strands that slide through his fingers. They begin to design patterns of their own on Tony’s skull as he moves down, kissing and tonguing the dips, groves, and valleys of skin and muscle.
Tony runs his hands down the outside of Steve’s thighs, up again on the inner side, gracing butterfly touches over his cock as his teeth press down on his hipbone with a small amount of pain behind it.
And it’s everything Steve had never let himself imagine, everything he had dreamed of, because he has, over the last few months. He’s kept it secreted away, buried it, until he could have Tony here with him. But he’s dreamed of Tony in all the ways one does when pining for someone who’s just too far away.
Steve nearly jolts off the bed when Tony finally takes him in hand and his lips close over the tip of his cock, hot tongue wet as he swipes at the slit. One hand holds him down, steady as he takes more of Steve into his mouth.
He almost doesn’t know what to do with his hands, whether to grip the sheet or if he can run them over Tony’s hair. His breathing is coming in short gasps, and he feels hot all over, as Tony drags up with long, tight pulls that seem to be taking all of Steve coherency with them. He keeps his hand firmly on the base of his cock, staving off any release.
And then he just stops and Steve can’t be blamed for the whimper that comes out of his lips.
Tony stands momentarily, and, gosh, why are his pants still on? But that thought is quickly taken away as Tony steps out of them and Steve gets to see all of him, lean muscles of his legs leading up to his erection, ruddy and glistening.
He reaches out; his hand landing on Tony’s hip to lead him closer. He maneuvers himself closer, reaches out to taste the beads gathering on the tip. Salty mostly, a little bitter and metallic but Tony so he does it again, wrapping his lips around the head and running his tongue under the ridge.
Tony’s breathing, already erratic, hitches and he rests his hand on Steve shoulder for balance. “Oh, um, okay. Yeah, that’s…that’s good,” he breathes, his hand massaging Steve’s shoulder.
Steve explores for a few more minutes, trading between his hand and his tongue and just feeling it, because this is something new and he wants to catalogue all the nuances, especially when Tony makes little moans and gasps above him. He licks a long stripe to the vein on the underside, and that gets him a quick inhalation of breath. His hand gives a few short tugs, tight with a twist at the end. That gets him a groan of appreciation.
Tony eventually has to stop him, lifts his chin and says, “This will be all foreplay if we don’t move on soon.”
Steve smiles a bit at that, but sits back on the bed, watching as Tony follows after him, moves over and around him. He doesn’t feel nearly as exposed as he had earlier, and feels a rush of lust and affection settle over him as Tony took the cap off the lube and dribble some over his fingers. He leans back, tries to do as Tony instructs when he says, “Relax. That’s the key.”
He feels Tony’s finger probe at him, slick and warm, and press against his entrance. Steve relaxes as much as he can, tries to ease it along by pushing back. The first finger slides in with little discomfort and he forces himself to relax around it, like Tony said. Tony moves slowly, almost maddeningly, pressing kisses to Steve’s knee, while his free hand rubs his thigh.
Steve feels heat sparking like matches over his body as another finger works into him, a little uncomfortable, but still unbelievable arousing because it’s Tony who’s pressing smooth strokes into his body, scissoring him open and eventually hitting something inside him that just makes Steve see stars and feel electricity rolling over him.
By the time Tony is moving three fingers into him, he’s pressing back, body oversensitive and just wanting to feel Tony inside him.
“Tony,” he manages somewhat raggedly. “Tony, please.”
His brown eyes flicker to meet Steve’s before nodding. He grabs the condom and sheathes himself with it, giving a stroke before squeezing the base. He moves closer, pulls Steve’s knees up, balances on one arm above Steve and stares at him, still lost, but somehow not. He presses his mouth to Steve’s, takes him in a disorienting kiss that leaves his head spinning.
He feels Tony against him, pressing into him, and it’s different than fingers, bigger, fuller, but sliding in so smoothly. It, well, it’s weird to be so full and he breathes through his nose and makes himself adjust to the feeling, his hands falling in place of their own accord and squeezing as Tony pauses, waits for him while kissing the corner of his mouth, his cheek, ear, neck, everywhere, like there’s no part of Steve that Tony doesn’t want to feel with his lips.
Steve rolls his hips experimentally, gasps at the feeling, just so full and it’s a little uncomfortable, but damn, it’s not overwhelming because the crux of the matter is its Tony. Tony is moving inside him, slow and steady, and it looks like it’s taking all of his control not to just let go. Steve keeps his legs suspended, gets used to the slow motions and then Tony shifts.
“Oh jesus!” Steve hears someone shout and oh, god, that was him. It’s even better than when the fingers hit him there. “There, do that again!”
Tony looks smug for a moment, but does what he’s asked, aims every stroke to hit that place inside of him. He leans back, raises Steve’s knees higher. It feels like he goes deeper with every thrust, falls further into Steve and Steve wants him to. Wants all of Tony. He’s falling apart under and around him, and he wants Tony to fall apart too.
He reaches up to touch the reactor, traces it for never ending awe. “Harder,” he manages to breathe out.
Tony picks up, stroking harder just like Steve asks, one hand grabbing for Steve’s to push messy kisses onto his fingers. Then, he brings their hands down and settles Steve’s grip on his cock, setting a pace that matches his thrusts.
Steve can’t take it anymore. Pleasure and heat pools at the base of his spine and there barely reprieve before he’s arching into Tony, a long groan pulled from deep within him as he comes so hard he sees universes explode behind his eyes. Tony groans with him, his pace becoming erratic as he comes just moments behind Steve, and he just barely manages to open his eyes to see Tony in the middle of ecstasy.
They take a shower and Tony takes another dose of his treatment. Steve feels lethargic, heavy in such a wonderful way. He’s sore, but it’s a good sore that makes him want to make love with Tony forever and a day. He’s content to lie with Tony for a while after their shower, under the covers.
Tony has Steve’s tablet in hand, going through all the applications and games Steve has downloaded. He’s in the process of proclaiming them all too easy as he flips through them, leaning most of his weight against Steve’s chest, when Thor, ever the unhelpful god he can sometimes be, bursts into his room with all the flourish befitted to his title, even with a puppy tucked under his arm.
And he has Steve’s shield.
How did he get that?
Thor hoists the shield up above his head, nearly touching it to the ceiling and booming, “Friends! You have missed our morning breaking of the fast! I thought it only wise to bring you such delectables!”
Steve is momentarily mortified. He had not expected Thor to come in when he and Tony were like this. But Thor, as in every facet of his nature that doesn’t involve villains, simply deposits his puppy onto the bed and wiggles over next to Tony, placing the shield on their laps. Steve looks over at the side of his closet, where he was positive he had left his shield last night. “Did you sneak in and take my shield?”
Thor grins, happy and enigmatic. “I required no use of stealth, my good Steve! You were in the shower with great Anthony. Your shield made a perfect implement with which to carry your sustenance to you,” he says as he plays with the puppy.
The puppy, a strange mixed puppy, hops around on Steve’s bed, little mouth open and tongue lolling about. He hasn’t seen much of it in the last three weeks, but it already looks like it’s doubled in size. From the looks of his paws, he’d be a good sized dog. Thor would be so thrilled.
Tony, actually looking inside the shield, asks, “Are these all Pop-Tarts?”
Steve looks down, and yes, they are. His shield is loaded down with Pop-Tarts. One of every kind Thor owns. Multiples of every kind he owns, because there are at least two boxed worth of strawberry flavor mixed in. He feels a tinge of appreciation at that.
Thor grabs the puppy to his chest, leaning over and snatching a packet of wild berry, with a joyous laugh. “They are but the most invigorating of Midgard cuisine!” he declares which makes Tony snort quietly beside him.
Tony flicks through the flavors offered to him, sneering a little, probably out of knee-jerk reaction as the puppy abandons Thor and trots over to him. It hops around Tony, crouching down at looking up at him playfully. He actually leans away from it, further into Steve, not that Steve can honestly say he’s complaining.
“Have you named it yet?” Steve asks, because he’s getting tired of calling it puppy, dog, or it.
“Does it actually have to have a name?” Tony retorts, a look of disgust on his face as the mutt noses the shield. He looks like he may actually punt the puppy at any moment. “Does it even have to stay? I mean really, look at it. It’s…”
Steve covers his mouth quickly, not that Thor takes notice. He’s happily scooping up his puppy and tossing it up into the air. Steve spares a brief thought to the fact the puppy should not enjoy that half as much as it appears to be. It even yips happily.
Tony looks so completely unhappy about a puppy anywhere near him, let alone one that yips. “I think we should name it Target,” he murmurs darkly.
Steve knows what he’s getting at, but the god seems to be leaning towards innocence at this moment. He holds the puppy up and proclaims, “Target! Yes! This is a wonderful name for a canine that will no doubt always be glorious on the hunt and surely never miss his mark!”
“Jesus,” Tony breathes, searching through the Pop-Tarts one more now that…Target is in Thor’s arms. He grabs onto the shield and is in the midst of reaching for one when he just…stops.
Steve is immediately leaning forward, trying to discern what suddenly glues Tony to his spot, staring at the shield and running his hands over the metal of his shield. As he gets Tony’s face in his view, he sees the contemplative look, practically sees the cogs working in his head as he just stares at the metal. His hands running over and over the shield, he has the face Steve had seen him wear so many times in the hospital when he was turning calculations over in his head.
“This metal isn’t one I’ve ever felt before,” he mutters, lifting it up and spreading Pop-Tarts over the bedding. He holds it up in front of him, letting the bedroom light shine off of it.
Steve glances over Tony’s head to Thor, who quiets Target in order to stare at him with concern.
He glances back at Tony, says slowly, “It’s…vibranium. Your dad made it…back in the forties.”
Tony is quiet for a long while, but instead of staring at the shield he stares off into the distances of the room. He looks around all of it, seems to see past the walls and past the entire house.
Steve worries about where this is going. Tony has been in a fairly decent mood since they turned off the shower, and he’s hoping that he won’t spiral into another sort of depressive state. He looks over at Thor again who seems to be about one second away from shaking the man between them.
Finally, he snaps back to himself and breathes, “Welcome to the Future.”
Steve is suitably confused, but the look of contemplation becomes slightly manic as he scrambles off the bed, searching for his shirt and halfway stumbling out of Steve’s room as he yanks the shirt over his head.
“Pepper!” he calls and Steve is automatically scrambling after him, yanking his own shirt over his head as he pursues the other man down the stairs. “Pepper!” he yells again louder.
He’s making a ruckus, and it gains the attention of everyone in the house. Clint and Bruce come out of the living room and Ms. Potts and Natasha come out of an office. All of them look bewildered and confused, seeing as Tony had been nigh on anti-social all of yesterday, and especially since Tony looks nearly frantic as he runs towards his friend and grabs her by the shoulder, spinning her around in a loose circle.
“You know that crappy model we had in the Los Angeles branch of SI for so long? The one my father made?” Tony asks, as he comes to a stop, staring at her raptly.
“The one you always covered with the most expensive rugs you could find?” Ms. Potts asks drolly, her brow raising and only a little shocked by the way Tony is acting. It’s a step up from the rest of the onlookers.
“Yes. Yes! That one! Is it still at the west coast Stark Industries?”
She shakes her head. “No, Stane sold it.”
“Fuck!” Tony exclaims, but Ms. Potts is hot on his expletive with an, “To me.”
Tony gives her an incredulous sort of look and she sighs. “It meant something to you, Tony. I wanted to keep something like that. He sold it at an auction and I bought it under an assumed name.”
“You…donned an assumed name? That’s…nevermind. You’re girlfriend will hurt me and more importantly, I need it,” Tony demands, his eyes traveling over her face to convey his sincerity. “Like pronto. Is it in the Malibu house?”
Something crumples on her face at the thought of the Malibu house. “No, I…I never went back there. It’s in a storage unit in Manhattan.”
“Bring it here! Have it down in the lab!” Tony says before he races off. Everyone stares after him as he takes the most direct route to the lab.
After a moment, Bruce turns to Clint and says, “There is no way Fruit Ninja is better than Angry Birds. There’s actually some sort of story line to…” he trails off as both he and Clint return into the kitchen.
Natasha rolls her eyes but Ms. Potts is instantly on her phone, calling a few SHIELD agents to retrieve the model from the shop. From behind him, Thor gives Steve a nudge and he follows Tony instantly, trying to find out what has gotten into the genius.
Steve enters Tony’s lab with a quick, “Thanks, JARVIS,” and is assaulted with chaos, complete and unapologetic chaos. And Tony is in the middle of it, moving more things out of the way, muttering to himself as his projects are rearranged, fingerprints smearing in the dust left from over two years disuse and Steve, of course, has realized it.
Of course he has. He’s been coming to Tony’s lab for months now. He’d told Director Fury that Avengers mansion is Tony’s technically. He felt ghosts of this man damn near since he first moved in, but it hits him with stunning clarity as he watches the man move around in what is obviously his space.
He’s home and he’s making the biggest mess ever, and it’s the best thing he’s ever seen, even if he has no clue what Tony is doing or what the heck is floating in front of him.
“I think I’ve got it, Steve, or my old man had it. Then you had it. But it’s come to me now, so I’m working with it and if it is what I think it is, this could work perfectly,” Tony says as he continues rearranging his half-finished projects, having JARVIS do a really weird scan thing on all of them as he goes, pulling up schematics and designs in thin air.
“Okay, you’ve got it. Wanna clue me in?” Steve asks as he steps further into the room, his brows furrowing as he touched one of the blue layouts. He jerks his hand back when what looks to be a line print jet explodes beneath his finger.
Tony comes in behind him and compresses it all into the original jet outline and moves it to the side of the room, saying, “My dad, every once in a while, he would talk about you. He said that he gave you the shield, which, hey, for a while made him the coolest dad in the world, but he would always say that the last of that metal was put into your shield. There was no more left on earth. Bummer. But I remember he made this ugly-ass model for Stark Expo ’74.”
“Right,” Steve says even though he isn’t quite sure what this is all boiling down to. Tony’s points seem to be random plots around the globe with no real connection.
“It always looked like something to me, Steve. Even as a kid, I remember sneaking into my dad’s study to look at it, which, of course, lead to my father yelling at me because I kept touching all the little pieces. But I knew there was something there. When he died I put it in the west coast Stark Industries facility, but I never really looked at it, and I should have. You know? I should have because dad was a genius despite being a glorious dick.”
Steve’s head is buzzing as he tries to keep up with Tony’s rapid speaking. He tracks his movements around the room, frenetic as they may be. He ignores the barb about Howard, because he rationalizes that Tony would probably know more about Howard than he does. “What was it?” he asks instead.
Tony pauses, turns to look at him. “An atom. I think it’s an atom to an element that can’t naturally be found on earth except in Captain America’s shield. It actually makes perfect fucking sense when you think about it. My old man discovered it, worked with it, and even if he used it all, he would have known the structure of it.
“He wouldn’t have been able to recreate it though, because the forties sucked,” Steve throws in an indignant, “Hey!” and Tony quickly amends, “for technology. Even the seventies sucked, and not just for technology. The clothing was terrible, you should be glad you missed that. That’s not the point,” Tony says with a wave of his hand. “The point is, I can recreate it. I can make vibranium again.”
Steve looks at him in awe and shock. “You can make an element?”
Tony smirks. “Don’t be ridiculous, Steve. I’m a genius. I can do anything. I just need that model.”
Steve suddenly doesn’t think genius will ever be an impressive enough word for what Tony actually is. If he can actually pull this off…Steve doesn’t even know. It’s honestly quite mind-blowing to even consider the concept let alone know that Tony probably actually can do it.
He looks around at the mess Tony has made of his lab, thinks he sees what he’s trying to do, and asks, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Tony’s smirk grows to an actual grin, one no one ever sees in photo shoots. “Oh, yeah, big boy,” he says patting his bicep. “There’s a lot you can do to help. I need to clear out this space. The model’s going to be pretty big, but if I’m right about this I’m going to have to start some demolition on this place. Start over here…”
Tony directs him to a large piece of machinery, and Steve sets to work, following Tony’s orders and clearing out a large space so that they can hopefully find a way to fix his arc reactor.
Steve leaves the lab to get Tony something to eat as well as grab the medicine from his room while Tony sets up the model. It took two hours to get to the mansion thanks to New York’s traffic, but now that it’s here, Tony is spitting out orders to JARVIS with such speed it’s almost making Steve’s head reel. He’s known that JARVIS is pretty much capable of anything, but to see the computer doing what Tony demands like that is pretty incredible.
The team is dispersed throughout the house; Ms. Potts having gone to work almost immediately after the model was delivered. She still has some work to do after the confrontation with Stane and apparently working with attorneys to have Tony reinstated back into his place as CEO of Stark Industries. She says by the end of next week he’s going to have to make a public appearance, but when she sees the green network along the side of his neck, some of the bite leaves her words.
He hops up the stairs to grab Tony’s case and then backtracks to the kitchen to make a quick lunch and grab them some water from the fridge. Tony said he wanted coffee, but with all the work he’s been exerting, water would be better for him. He can have coffee later.
When he returns down to the lab, Tony is sitting in the center of it. The model has been forgotten as he spins in the center of a million different lights with a delighted smile on his face. Steve steps further in, balancing everything in his arms and looking around in disbelief. It looks like a firework froze mid-explosion and it’s, it’s really beautiful. Setting all of his goods down on a table they had pushed over by the door, he walks into the center, still trying to take in the beauty of it.
“What is this?” Steve breathes as he comes up beside Tony.
“This,” Tony says jovially, “Is what your shield looks like at a microscopic level and what JARVIS has just proven will run the arc reactor.”
Steve looks around at it again, almost letting the words drift in and out of his mind. Then they do catch up with him, and he feels a smile crawling up onto his face. “What made my shield is going to keep you alive?”
Tony looks up at him, eyes soft and happy. “Kind of ironic, isn’t it?”
It’s actually really perfect.
6 months later
“You are insufferable!” Steve growls as soon as they enter the mansion. It’s an ongoing argument that started the moment they were in the car with Happy and has carried on for now over forty-five minutes. It had amused Happy quite a bit, but he keeps professionalism like the best of them and it was only when Steve had glanced at him that he saw glints of amusement in his eyes.
Tony continues on through the mansion, tripping over one of Target’s toys and hissing, “Dammit, dog!” before turning back to Steve and saying, “I’m really not sure how this is such a big deal. I…”
He cuts him off. “You just announced to a press conference on live television that you were Iron Man, Tony! You have enough enemies between you and the armor and now they know you’re the same person!”
Tony rolls his eyes at him, heading towards their room. “Steve, everyone in Avengers mansion has given up the premise of secret identities. I don’t see how you can somehow expect me not to, especially seeing as I run a multi-billion dollar company. I can’t answer the call to fight crime in the middle of a board meeting without looking suspicious. It will be easier in the long run to just have the general public know.”
Steve follows him up the stairs and into their room. Target is on their bed, because Thor had gone to visit Jane and Darcy in New Mexico and where Jane was currently doing her work couldn’t have dogs, no matter how much Thor pouted. He jumps off the bed though when he sees Tony, wagging his tail exuberantly as Tony goes about taking off his tie.
“Pepper and Fury are going to personally rip you limb from limb,” Steve glares, ignoring the temptation of watching Tony strip out of his suit. “Rhodey looked like he may have attempted it then if you hadn’t both been on live camera. The man is a mother-hen and you know how hard they’ve been trying to keep you out of immediate danger.”
Tony’s jacket is over the back of the desk chair, and he’s working on his shirt buttons, his cufflinks already undone. Beneath the shirt is a wife-beater and he can see the faint glow of the arc reactor through it, even though Tony routinely tapes gauze over it to keep the public from noticing.
As he’s throwing the shirt over his suit jacket, he retorts, “Well it’s a good thing I’m not in immediate danger. I’m not in anymore danger than I was yesterday.”
“Yesterday a Hammer-drone attacked you.”
He waves his hand over himself, now only in slacks, socks, and his undershirt. He leans down to pet Target, having grown stoically attached to him. “And I’m still here, right? All in one piece?”
Steve feels his heart tighten in his chest and the pain must show on his face because Tony rakes a hand through his hair, now short. He meets Steve’s eyes with a bit of frustration in his eyes. “I know it’s still taking some getting used to, the entire me being alive after two years, but they should know that I don’t need constant protection. You should know that too, since weren’t you dead for seventy years?” he adds with a significant look. “You talk about Rhodey being a mother-hen? You can be just as bad, Steve.”
“Well,” Steve says dryly. “Forgive me for worrying about the man I love when he puts on a giant metal suit and goes dashing off into battle.”
“At least I have a metal suit. You have a shield and some bullet-proof plating in your suit’s top.”
Steve refrains from reminding Tony that he had re-outfitted his outfit with more than ‘some bullet-proof plating’. They’ve been going over this on and off since Tony built the Iron Man. “Tony, I don’t feel like having this conversation again. It isn’t the point.”
“No, the point is,” Tony says as takes the gauze off of the reactor, letting the blue shine through his shirt. “That everything will be fine. Stark Industries may fluctuate a little in the stock market. I’m going to have my ear chewed off for two hours each by Fury, Pepper, and Rhodey. Tomorrow there will likely be a few more reporters outside the mansion’s gate. Nothing else, Steve. Everything is going to be fine. So now can we give up on this really, really boring argument and focus on maybe, I don’t know, you fucking me against the wall; because that’s all I was thinking of at the conference.”
Steve can’t help the smile that takes over his face. It’s just so Tony and, god, as much as he can worry Steve, and annoy him, and drive him insane just by the way he takes almost no care of himself, he loves the man.
He looks to Target, sitting by Tony’s knee. He’s still a growing puppy, but his head reaches Tony’s thigh impressively enough. And between the six of them, he’s probably going to start writing down quantum physics equations here soon. Because as soon as he says, “Target, out boy,” he’s trotting out of the room and looking at them with a suspicious eye like he knows exactly what’s about to happen.
Steve shuts the door behind him, looks at Tony from beneath his lashes and gives a coy smile. “Against the wall, huh? Shucks, that sounds pretty alright, I guess,” he says. Tony, he has discovered, has a mild fetish for when Steve speaks ‘innocent’. According to Tony, it is its own dialect of English and sounds really ‘fucking hot’ when it’s from Steve.
Sure enough, Tony’s eyes get darker and a slight flush crawls across his cheeks. Steve ignores his own flush that’s covering his face and slowly creeping over his body to settle in his cock at the thought of having Tony pressed against the wall with his legs wrapped around his waist, clinging to his shoulders and breathing harshly in his ear.
He shudders as he takes a step closer to Tony, reaching out to touch his arm, squeezing as he rushes in to press their mouths together, teeth already working at Tony’s lower lip. He’s usually one for foreplay, but Tony, when he gets in these moods, likes fast and rough. He likes fast and rough most days actually, and though Steve isn’t always sure if he’s overstepping it with his superhuman strength always tries to make love to Tony how he wants it.
He nips at Tony’s lips, drawing a delighted moan from him, as he pushes him towards the wall behind them. He grasps as tightly as he dares at Tony’s biceps, hard enough that he’ll probably leave bruises, and that too bothers him, but Tony always seems to find a strange contentment in seeing them. When his grip elicits a gasp, Steve pushes his tongue between Tony’s teeth, curling around his tongue and moaning when they’re both slightly jarred as Tony hits the wall with a little more force than intended.
Tony revels in it though, especially as their cocks rub against each other’s body, breaks free long enough to gasp, “Yeah, yes. That’s really…that’s really good.” Then he crashes Steve into another kiss, breaking his arms away from the hold their in to start undoing the buttons of Steve’s plaid shirt, nimble fingers unholstering buttons at bullet’s speed.
The shirt is shed off his shoulders and they both spare a moment to yank off their undershirts, before Tony has attached himself to the juncture of his neck and shoulder, sinking his teeth down enough to toe the line of pain and pleasure and Steve has to bite down against the shout of pleasure.
The team is all absent at the moment, but it’s a habit he doesn’t want to break.
His fingers begin working at Tony’s belt, and when that’s done and the slack’s fly beneath it. He turns his head to lick the shell of his ear, smothering a grin when he hears Tony gasp. He about to pull the pants down when Tony’s hand flies into one of the pockets as quick as he can and pulls out a small tube.
He pulls back enough to look at Steve with lustful eyes. “I really have been thinking about this since I got stuck in that horrible make-up woman’s chair,” he breathes, his own hand pressing the tube into Steve’s palm as he wiggle out of his pants and boxers, kicking them off into a random corner of the room. He curls one leg around Steve’s waist, rolls his hips sinfully against Steve as he continues. “I kept imagining your fingers inside me, preparing just barely on the side of enough.”
Steve chokes on a groan. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to Tony talking to him like this, but he hopes he never stops. Despite the shock, the words and breathless tone go straight to his cock and with the way Tony keeps rubbing against him, he has to press Tony harder against the wall to keep his hips still, not wanting to end this too soon.
He nearly sends the cap flying across the room in his haste to get it open. With it spread over his fingers, he makes quick work of hefting Tony’s leg up higher, which causes a strangled noise to come out of his mouth as his cock is still trapped between their tightly spaced bodies, and begins pressing in, gently at first, but eagerly as Tony tries to move against him.
Steve smiles, amusedly, as he quickly presses another finger into Tony’s willing body. He leaves wet kisses on his neck, relishing the way he can nearly feel the small noises Tony makes before he hears them.
He’s only pushed his third finger in when Tony scrambles at his belt and pants, mumbling, “Okay, that’s enough. Time for you to fuck me.” Steve twists his fingers which almost distracts Tony entirely from his goal. “That’s not fair,” he breathes.
He doesn’t bother unbuttoning Steve’s pants, merely pulls down his fly and take’s out his cock, taking the lube that Steve had put in his pocket and pouring considerably less than a decent amount over to cover Steve in. He throws the tube on the floor somewhere behind them and braces himself against Steve’s shoulders as Steve lifts him up and guides himself into Tony’s tight, slick, heat.
They both groan loudly at the feeling, Steve tilting his head back to reach Tony’s mouth as he starts thrusting into Tony, minute thumping sounds striking a staccato rhythm with each snap of Steve’s hips. They’re both ridiculously close, and as their tongues wrestle each other, Tony’s grasp is getting tighter as he rolls his hips back onto Steve and closer to Steve’s belly in search of more friction.
It’s over too fast for either of them, but they come with smothered groans, stuttering breaths, and Tony clutches at Steve as he milks the last of his come out of him. Their foreheads rest together as they breathe the same air. Steve can suddenly feel the arc reactor pressing against his chest and it’s soothing, still to feel the whir of it on his skin and not feel the webbing of the palladium poisoning.
He presses his hand to Tony’s neck and hears a breathy chuckle come from him. “Yeah, that was so much better than arguing.”
Steve snorts. “You’re still not out of trouble.”
“Yes, dear.” Tony gives him a kiss that could almost be chaste for him and they disentangle themselves from each other.
They shower quickly and dress in lounging clothes. Target is at the door bouncing off of it in an attempt to get them to leave quicker and Tony starts mumbling, “I’m going to lock that thing in the cellar,” as he reaches for the door.
Steve stops him though, tugging him back and wrapping him in a tight hug. “I love you.”
Tony’s surprised at first but relinquishes to Steve’s hold. “Okay, that’s good to know. I love you too.”
Steve smiles and presses a kiss to his temple, missing the longer, shaggy hair, before heading down to the lab with Target close on their heels. They’re almost there when they hear one of the doors slam and Natasha’s voice rings loud and clear through the hallway, “Stark!”
Target actually whimpers behind them as Clint calls, “Hide, metal-head!
“We can sneak out the back,” Tony says suddenly.
Steve rolls his eyes. “You said it would be okay. Time to see how okay it really is,” he says pressing his hand to the small of Tony’s back and leading them back upstairs.
It’s going to be a very long night of making sure no one actually pulls Tony limb from limb, even if he probably should be beaten with his own arm every now and then.
Steve smiles when they crest the staircase to see Natasha’s furious and near worried glare.
There are no more reoccurring sixes that dog the house or SHIELD headquarters. There are no more empty spaces glaring around Ms. Potts and himself. Steve has stopped following a ghost.
He has Tony.
His ghost in the wires, come to life.