They crowd around the figure encased in ice.
“The costume, the shield,” Jan says to the others. “Don't you recognize it?”
Tony recognizes it. Of course he recognizes it; he recognized it the moment he saw it.
“Captain America,” he mumbles under his breath. It's almost too good to be true, that here he is, finding the man his father had sought for so long-- and failed to recover.
But he keeps his answer to himself, even as his lips move, repeating the same words, Captain America, Captain America, like a prayer.
She is a child selling flowers in Brooklyn, her thin voice too soft to attract passersby. She is too small for her age, too thin, too pale, and her mother hoards pennies in secret to pay the doctor, because her father still speaks in undertones about how her older brother should have lived and she should have died.
He was a fine, strong boy, Joe Rogers says, outraged. He could put food on the table. Why did the ‘flu take the one of them that was worth something? he asked.
She is four when her mother tells her she's going to have a new baby brother or sister. She doesn't understand why her mother weeps when she says it.
There is a night, a few weeks later, filled with blood and tears. Her father doesn't come home for three nights. When he returns, smelling like vomit and whiskey, he tells her there isn't going to be a brother or sister.
She is six the first time she sees her father hit her mother.
Her mother works hard, works until her fingers bleed. Her father comes home later each night than the one before. He’s usually drunk. She starts to understand the difference: there is a quiet, serious, anxious, yet compassionate Joe, and a Joe with the force of a tornado.
Eve is nine the first time she steps between her mother and her father’s fist. She earns a broken nose and her mother's sobs.
She does it again. And again. Until her father hits her first and doesn't trouble himself with her mother.
She finds the pennies her mother has been squirreling away in a tin can in the pantry, hidden along with Eve’s birth certificate and a pamphlet from a mission for women and children.
Eve is eleven when, suddenly, there is money. It’s more money than she’s ever dreamed of. Her mother has a nice new coat and a haircut from a salon. Eve has new shoes and a little red purse with three pennies in it that belong to her alone. Her father has a smart new suit and he is always in high spirits. He doesn't hit her now. He promises her a dog, if she's good.
She never finds out where the money comes from, but it only lasts a few weeks. Joe doesn't come home one night. A week later they find him in an alley with his throat gouged open. The Russians, they tell Sarah.
“The Russians,” says the ruddy-faced man who comes to tell them that Joe is dead. “But alas,” he says, “Joe wasn't paid up. And there’s still the question of his debts.”
Sarah offers him everything she has: the tin of pennies from the closet, her wedding ring, her new coat, but none of it is enough.
He asks if she has any children. Someone has to work off Joe’s debt.
“Unless,” he says, “you can think of another way, a pretty lady like--”
Sarah Rogers does, in that moment, what she never could do to Joe, and decks the man in the jaw. But he's bigger, stronger. He grasps her by throat and pins her to the kitchen table while she lets out a litany of swears that Eve would never have believed could come from her mother's mouth.
At that moment, one thing happens. One thing, and many things:
Eve walks in. She is bundled up; it's unseasonably cold for October. She's wearing her brother’s coat and trousers, both far too large on her. Her hair is tucked up in one of her father's hats.
She sees the man with his elbow pressed to the back of his mother's neck.
“EVIE, RUN!” her mother screams
Eve doesn't run. Eve does what she has always done, and puts herself between her mother and the man.
“Stevie?” the man asks. By some miracle of poor hearing combined with Eve’s current state of dress, he makes a mistake that is about to change her life. “Stevie, don't be brave, son.”
Eve tries to stand like a boy-- no, not just any boy, the biggest, roughest boy she knows. She straightens her shoulders, stiffens her back, juts her chin out, widens her stance.
“Stay away from my mother,” Evie says, lowering her voice to make it sound as gruff as she can. “And I won't have to.”
The man picks Eve up and throws her across the room, shakes his head, tells Sarah to see to her boy, and warns that he’ll be back later.
She breaks an arm and two ribs. The doctor tells Sarah she can pay him back in mending.
A week later, a portly, red-cheeked man in a fancy plaid suit shows up at their door, saying that Tom Cassidy is paying all Young Steve’s doctor bills.
Eve is in a blue cotton dress, her straw-colored hair in a long plait down her back. Her arm is in a sling, but this man looks right at her and assumes that Young Steve isn't at home.
He grins at her and flips her a whole dime. “Courtesy of Mr. Cassidy, Young Miss,” he says.
And then, weeks later, when she's mostly recovered, comes the summons: Tom Cassidy has a job for Stevie Rogers. He'd like to put him to work.
Eve puts on her brother’s clothes. They're still too large, but they're the only thing she has. She tries to walk like a boy: back straight, head up, eyes direct, all the way to Tom Cassidy’s boys over at the Screaming Banshee.
Eve has never been in a tavern. She pushes the door open and gets a stinkeye from the barkeep, but she raises her head high in the air and says, “Steve Rogers, here to meet Mr. Cassidy, Sir,” in her gruffest voice, which still sounds like a bit of a chirp, and the barkeep waves her back.
Mr. Cassidy takes one look at her and bursts out laughing. “Well, my lad,” he says. “If you want a job, you've got it.”
And that is how Eve Rogers became the youngest and smallest of Tom Cassidy’s numbers runners.
The people staring down at her are strangers, wildly arrayed: a man in a winged helmet like some kind of Viking warrior, an impossibly tall man wearing antennae like an insect, and a woman no taller than four inches, sporting wings the size of her body, hovering just over her head. And a metal man-- whether he is a man in a suit or a robot, she isn't sure.
She is cold, impossibly cold. Disoriented, her vision blurry for the first time in years, she sits up, and is met with a rushing panic, a pain in her chest that feels as if her lungs are being squeezed by human hands.
"BUCKY!!!" she screams, and scrambles to her feet.
Her joints are stiff; her body doesn't work the way she is used to. But she raises her shield, guarding herself from these strangers, these potential threats.
"She... she's not Captain America," says the metal man. “She’s a woman.”
And images flicker before her eyes.
She has time. They think Stevie is just about ten-- she was always small for her age, and she seems to be staying small-- so no one is wondering why Stevie still chirps like a little bird when he opens his mouth.
But she wakes up bleeding one morning, and the red smear on the bedsheets is a warning, like fate is teasing her.
You'll be caught, you'll be caught, a cruel voice murmurs in her head. You'll be caught, and imagine what those other boys will do to you then.
She has to go by Old Paddy's place, tell him he's not paid up. He owes thirty-two dollars now, a princely sum, more money than Eve has ever seen in one place at one time, more than she'd ever be trusted to collect-- "not because I don't trust you, son," Cassidy would say, "but on account of you bein' so small, somebody'd knock it right out of you."
She expects Paddy to make excuses, to beg off, to plead or try to negotiate.
What she doesn’t expect is a police officer harassing the old, harmless drunkard.
“Leave him alone!” The words are out of her mouth before she knows what she’s doing; she’s forgotten the one rule she’s learned in all these years: turn a blind eye to the cops, and they’ll turn a blind eye to you.
Everything she knows, about being one of Cassidy's boys, about being under protection, none of it helps her now, as his hand comes up hard against her face, as his knuckles find her ribs.
"Hey!" shouts a voice behind her. "Hey, you take your hands off that kid if you know what's good for you."
Everything that happens next happens in a blur: Eve is suddenly on the ground, knees and palms scraped but out of the line of attack, and a boy twice her size, a boy in a nice shirt and nice slacks, is throwing his fist at the police officer’s face.
She knows she’s in trouble, in more trouble than she’s ever been in her life. If it had only been her getting smacked by a cop, that, that would have been forgivable. She would have gotten a smack across the back of her legs, maybe, docked a few days’ wages, but she was liked, and it would have been smoothed over. The moment this strange boy steps in, everything is different.
“STOP!” she screams, but it’s too late. The cop shouts at the new boy, threatens to have him arrested, but the boy only laughs and tells him to see his father about that.
He turns, grinning, unaware of the trouble he’s just caused for Eve, and offers her a hand up.
Then he’s speaking to her. She has to ask him to repeat himself.
“James Buchanan Barnes,” he replies.
“Steve Rogers,” she answers.
She is panting now, her back hard against the floor, her cheeks hot, her hair tangled and her forehead sweaty.
“Stay with us,” says the metal man. “Focus, come on, now… Ant-Man, oops, I mean, Giant-Man, can you… shrink down and take a look at her. Here, look, here… we’ve got a doctor.”
The doctor -- the man with the antennae -- is now human sized, is now shining a light into her eyes, taking her pulse. She is shivering on the floor of whatever this place is, shaking uncontrollably. She doesn’t know if these people are friends or enemies, and she doesn’t know where Bucky is.
Sarah tells them she hasn’t seen Stevie in two nights.
Cassidy’s boys go off to check the river, promising Sarah Rogers they’ll tell her if they find her boy.
This is two weeks before the Russians slaughter Cassidy’s boys down to the last man and move in on the neighborhood. A hulking man with a wide jaw and a torn ear comes to their apartment, asking the same questions: they’re looking for Stevie Rogers.
She thinks of the other boys, and she wants to fight. She wants to jab the big Russian in the eye with a fork. When she tries to slap him, he stays her by the wrist, and gives her a sympathetic look.
“It’s not personal, kid,” he says. “Just business.” Then he presses a dime into her hand, and it reminds her of another time, another dime in her palm.
Eve lays in the bed beside her mother and weeps bitterly.
The next day, James Buchanan Barnes shows up at the Rogers residence. He’s wearing a nice jacket, and Eve is even more tongue-tied than she’d been the day he’d held the cops off her.
But he, too, asks after Stevie.
He takes his cap off, like a gentleman, and asks after Stevie. “I heard--” he starts, warily.
“He isn’t here,” Sarah answers, both sternly and sadly, and Eve watches the boy’s face crumple like he’d lost a friend.
“I’m so sorry, Ma’am,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” Eve replies, and she wants to reach out, to touch his arm, to tell him she’s right here and she remembers what he did for her, but he looks at her, then, with big, unblinking eyes, and she knows that he knows.
He never says it, not out loud; he somehow understands that risk.
From that day on, they’re inseparable.
“You’re safe,” says the doctor, as he checks her vitals. “You’ve found your way to the Avengers; we are committed to doing good for our fellow man.”
“And woman,” says the tiny winged woman, clearing her throat irritably, as if this is a reminder she has to issue often.
Eve sees a panel of dials, a screen like a movie screen with bright, colorful, underseas images.
She’s underwater. This is a submarine. This is a submarine of technological advancement beyond her wildest dreams.
She shivers; her heartbeat is still too fast. “Where am I?” she asks. “How did I get here? Who are you?”
“That’s what we were about to ask you,” says the metal man.
They know she’s a woman. The vocal modulator Howard Stark had designed for her isn’t working; even with all her bulk, her voice is higher and softer than a man’s should be. Her uniform masks most of her anatomy, as it was meant to, but her cowl is off, and her blonde hair curls softly around her ears in her last futile attempt to look reasonably stylish. She’s wearing the small, simple gold hoop earring Bucky gave her, the ones she never takes out.
They don’t believe she is who she is; she knows that much, too. She sees her shield, just paces away, out of reach, and she wants to bolt, to grab it, as if it could somehow fix all of this, but it can’t.
They’re going to take it away, she thinks. But she doesn’t know what to do.
“Eve,” she answers, truthfully, looking down. “Eve Rogers. I’m an American soldier. I need to know the status of Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes.”
She puts on her best dress, the blue one, the one that everyone says brings out her eyes. She puts in the gold earrings he gave her, pins her hair up in a twist. Her mother lets her borrow her pearls, and her shoes, even though Sarah’s shoes are too big for her. They’re the only nice shoes they have between them.
They meet at a coffee shop, the kind that is much too nice for Eve to ever afford on her own, and Bucky holds the door for her, tells her to order anything she wants. She’s overwhelmed by the size of the menu; she has stars in her eyes when she looks at him, the way he’s pursing his lips nervously, now, while she orders hot chocolate and a slice of apple cake.
He waits until their food comes, pokes nervously at his own pie. “So I wanted to talk to you,” he says.
“Yes?” Eve says.
“Because I’ve decided to ask --”
Eve sucks in a breath, expectantly.
“-- Gail to marry me.”
She doesn’t hear the rest of what he’s saying. She tries to fix her eyes on his, tries to nod along, says of course, of course when he asks if he can show her the ring, and she feels all her organs twist into knots.
It sparkles, glimmers iridescent in the light, casting rainbows on the tablecloth.
Eve can’t eat her cake.
A man at a nearby table mistakes the moment. He saunters over, a big grin on his face, and holds up a camera. “You lucky kids want a picture?” he asks.
Bucky drops the hand holding the ring, covering it, and gives Eve an uncomfortable look. They can’t say no. So he grins and shrugs and tells the man sure, thanks.
She puts her fork down. “I’m going to nursing school,” she says, abruptly. “I'm going to be a nurse.”
“I think she might be,” says the tiny, winged lady. They call her Wasp. “Who says Captain America can’t be a woman?”
“It’s not that she can’t, Darling,” says the doctor. “It’s that... fifty years of history says otherwise.”
“Surely Tony Stark would know,” says the metal man. “His father was a personal friend of Captain America.”
“In the absence of Mr. Stark, though?” asks the Viking-- Thor. “She has said nothing, only her name. She’s not claimed to be this Captain of yours.”
“She has his shield,” says the Wasp. “And his uniform. And she’s asking for Bucky Barnes by name . Everyone knows who he is.”
She can make neither heads nor tails of this conversation. “I am right here,” she says. “You could ask me. Or do you want me to challenge you all to a fight? Prove my mettle?”
Thor chuckles. “Madam, we would never expect a lady to fight to prove herself.”
But Iron Man steps forward. “Are you saying you are Captain America?”
She pushes herself to her feet. It’s still difficult to stand; she feels weak, and woozy, but she’s of a height with the metal man, now. “I’m Captain America,” she answers, firmly but softly. “I can give you a list of people who can confirm my identity. Can you please tell me where I am? I was... in the middle of a mission. I need to find my partner.”
“Your partner--” the metal man begins, but he stops. “Bucky Barnes.”
The group shares a look -- and Eve knows that kind of look, the sort of look she’s seen a hundred times since the war began, the look of someone trying to decide how to say that a soldier didn’t make it home. But it’s reflected on four faces.
Her heart rips in two before any of them speaks.
“Miss-- er. Captain. Er…” The metal man seems to be at a loss for words. “I don’t know how to say this.”
“Say what?” Eve asks. “If Barnes is dead, I--” she lets out a sad laugh in spite of herself. “I’m a soldier. I can take bad ne--”
“It’s not that,” says the metal man. “Barnes is alive. It’s just…you’ve been dead. For fifty years.”
She is tired; she is overworked. Her apartment has been lonely since her mother died. Bucky hasn’t written in a month, not to her, not to Gail, and every time Gail begins fretting over his safety, it makes Eve feel sick.
Gail keeps asking if Bucky’s written to her. She can see the glint of suspicion in her eyes; Gail has never trusted her. She’s never outright accused Eve of trying to steal her husband, but it comes across in the way that Gail guards her wedding ring protectively when Eve is near, holds it closer to her body, shields it with her other hand.
Still, Eve listens, because Bucky is gone, and this is what she can do: protect his wife.
She is late to meet Gail, now, and she almost ignores the man’s inquiry.
“Miss Rogers?” he asks, in a more urgent tone.
“Visiting hours are--” Eve begins, but then she sees the man’s face, sees the way he tilts his head down at her, looks consideringly at her. “Do you need help?”
He pulls out a file full of papers. “My name is Abraham Erskine. I have a record of ten transfer requests,” he says, frowning at them. “You want to go to the front.”
She sucks in a breath. “Yes, sir. My father was a soldier, and--”
“You’ve been lying on your transfers,” he says next. “This one, from 1941, you list thirteen ailments. The asthma alone is enough to deny your transfer. Here, this most recent one-- are all your infirmities cured?”
“No, sir,” she answers.
“You are most certainly not five-foot-five,” he says, eyeing her again. His accent is thick, German, and she wonders at it.
“I’m five-two, sir,” she replies.
He raises an eyebrow.
“Five-one and a half,” she admits.
He smiles-- a broad smile, and his eyes twinkle. “I can’t promise you a transfer overseas,” he tells her. “But I have a project that may interest you.”
She is terribly late to meet Gail, and offers her apologies, explains that there was an emergency that kept her at the hospital late.
Her heart thrums all through their dinner. Eve eats in silence, and she barely hears the words coming out of Gail’s mouth like a river.
She walks straight home. She lays out the paperwork on her bed, begins filling out her application for the Strategic Scientific Reserve.
This time, she tells the truth.
Fifty years. They say it’s Nineteen Ninety-Eight. The sound of that year seems almost impossibly far off to Eve. The metal man makes jokes she doesn’t quite understand, until he realizes that she doesn’t understand them, and seems to flounder for words instead.
Iron Man. They call him Iron Man. Iron Man, The Wasp, Giant-Man, and Thor. She has no way to know if they’re telling the truth.
Giant-Man tells her to rest, and leads her down a tight corridor to a small bunk. Everything inside is mechanized, automated -- the door opens when she steps in front of it; the light adjusts as she walks into the bunk. The ceiling rises to suit her height; the bunk expands. The mattress has a little dial that allows her to adjust the softness.
“Courtesy of Tony Stark,” says Giant-Man, as he sees the expression on her face.
“Tony... Stark?” Eve asks.
“He’s our... patron, of sorts,” Giant-Man explains. “Iron Man’s his bodyguard; we just get him on weekends.”
“Stark, as in... Howard Stark?” Eve clarifies.
“That’s the ticket,” says Giant-Man. “Tony’s his kid. You knew the guy?”
“Knew…” Eve feels cold. Fifty years. Howard was dead. “Yeah,” she says. “I guess we were friends.”
“You might wanna keep that on the down-low,” Giant-Man says. “Tony’s not too fond of the guy. Daddy issues, y’know.”
“I... don’t,” Eve admits.
Giant-Man leaves her, and she lies down on the bunk -- it’s far more comfortable than anything she’s slept on on any military craft.
But she can’t sleep. She feels trapped, in this enclosed space, with these strangers, without any connection to the world outside.
The first time she meets Howard Stark, she doesn’t like him: he’s too bombastic, too flirtatious. He flirts with her, and she knows that can’t be serious. No one flirts with Eve. She’s too small, too prickly. If her best friend couldn’t see anything in her...certainly a millionaire inventor is being nothing better than shameless.
But she likes Erskine, and Erskine likes Howard, and finally, the third time he asks her to dinner, she says yes.
She realizes, when he picks her up in his car, that she is horribly underdressed.
She also realizes by the time they get to the restaurant that Howard doesn’t care, that he seems to delight in the looks cast down the noses of socialites in their evening finery, at the nurse on his arm.
“Some people,” Howard confides, when they’re seated, when he toasts her with wine that costs more than her month’s rent, “are afraid of real work. And the way they get around it is by acting like it’s beneath them. Me, I built everything I have with my own hands, and plenty of them don’t like me, either, but, Miss Rogers, you know, I see you and I see a gal who could do big things.”
“Me?” Eve asks, suspiciously. It all sounds like a fancy line to her. “I doubt it.”
“No,” Howard says. “There’s... something about you. A stubbornness, a tenacity.” He laughs. “I see you looking at me like I’m nuts, but listen, here. This is why I wanted to talk to you. A kid like you, you’re smart as a whip, and I know you’ve got this nursing gig, but... you ever think about something bigger?”
“Like being a doctor?” Eve asks.
“Well, that’s a possibility, too,” Howard assures her, “but I was thinking more like... my assistant? Abe says you want to go to the front; there’s a possibility for that. I-- now, I don’t need an answer right this second, we’re both gonna finish out our contracts on Project Rebirth, first. But give it a think, will you? I like you, kid.”
It is both a sharp relief and a sharp disappointment that Howard had asked her on a job interview and not a date.
She’s never been charming, never good at politics.
They all look up at her, but it’s the Wasp whose expression softens first. “We were wondering if you’d come live with us?” she asks. “Just for now, just ‘til things get settled.”
“What gets settled?” Eve asks, hesitantly. She has her suspicions.
“Your identity, for one,” says Giant-Man.
Eve thought so. She sighs, tries not to give him a piece of her mind.
“We must find your people,” adds Thor.
“My people?” Eve asks. “Hate to break it to you, but I don’t have people.”
Iron Man, in his heavy suit, gets up from his seat and walks over to her, holding out his metal hands in open invitation. “We don’t want you to be alone, with nowhere to go,” says Iron Man. “Come stay with us. You’ll be among friends.”
“We’ll have to ask Tony,” Jan says.
“Tony Stark?” Eve asks.
“Yeah, Tony Stark. He won’t mind,” Iron Man insists.
Eve steps into the mansion with a strange apprehension. She remembers the last time she was here, when it was Howard’s house-- a huge, empty place, too large for a single bachelor, full of art and automotive parts.
It's different, now, the broad foyer at the entrance cleared of mechanical parts, the emptiness creating a sense of grandeur, drawing attention to the vaulted ceiling, the fanciful columns, marble floor-- and the massive, mural-sized painting of Captain America that is the focal point of the room, a stunning and masterful portrait of the hero in the heat of battle.
Eve loses her breath: that's her own face beneath the mask; she sees her sharp jawline, the glimmer of her own blue eyes with their unmissable flecks of green, the flare of her nostrils she never liked, her nose too broad to be attractive on a woman. She wriggles her own nose as she eyes it.
She's been waiting, expectantly, to meet Tony Stark, expecting some echo of his father, some kind of familiarity in this strange world, but the man who greets her is an older gentleman in a three-piece suit. A butler, or houseman of some sort.
"Miss Rogers?" the man asks. "My name is Edwin Jarvis; I'm here to attend to your needs for as long as you're our guest. If I may take your--"
And he looks her up and down, sees that she has no bags, clears his throat. "If you'll come this way, Miss, I believe we have a room waiting for you."
"When will I meet Mister Stark?" Eve asks, curiously.
"Ah... Mr. Stark is an extraordinarily busy man," Mr. Jarvis says apologetically, as he leads her up a broad, sweeping staircase.
It's like a palace, she thinks, like the palace they hid in, in France, the bombed-out shell of a once grand estate, where Nazis had surrounded them on all sides, where Bucky had scaled the wall to get to the highest tower and sniped their enemies down one by one, in a breathtaking feat of both courage and idiocy (she had told him later).
She feels sick, suddenly, weak in the knees, and she has to clutch at the banister.
"However," Jarvis continues, "you'll find that the rest of the Avengers team is ever-present; you won't be wanting for company."
"I wanted to thank him," Eve says gruffly, and then realizes she sounds gruff, that years on the front have chipped away at her manners.
“I will relay the message, Miss,” Jarvis assures her brightly, and he leads her down a long hall, then slides a shiny white card through a slot in a door. There is a click, and the slot displays a bright green light.
“This is the key,” Jarvis says, and hands her the plastic card. “You are free to come and go as you like, although we would recommend that you only leave the grounds with an escort for now.”
“Right,” Eve agrees. She feels trapped at the very idea of an escort, but she also supposes that it might be needed until she gets her head sorted out.
“The only place your host requests you not go,” Jarvis says, “is the north corridor. That's where Sir keeps his residence.”
Eve shudders; the way he says it makes her feel like she's stepped into any one of those gothic novels she’d read in nursing school, the ones with big old mansions, young women staying as guests of mysterious hosts, and a forbidden wing hiding some dark secret.
She wonders what Tony Stark’s secret is, before she ever meets him.
Jarvis asks if he can be of any more assistance, she tells him no, and he informs her that dinner is at seven.
She steps into her new room. It's blue. It's all blue. Not Captain America blue, not bold, bright patriotic blue-- it's softer, in tones of periwinkle and slate, and she feels a prick at her eyes.
Someone knows, she thinks, as she fingers the coverlet, made of some soft, fuzzy fabric she’s never seen before, pale blue threaded with silver, patterned with tiny navy polka dots. Someone went to the trouble to find out what her favorite color was-- and to buy new things, to decorate the room to her tastes.
There is a drafting table, and a box of felt-tipped pens, a closet and dresser, still empty, a night table with a little blue lamp, a thick blue carpet on the floor.
Someone knows. She wonders who it could be, wonders if it’s one of these Avengers, if it’s her mysterious host, or if Jarvis is simply a particularly thorough butler.
His eyes light up; he grins, and his dimples show. “Evie!” he exclaims, and he catches her up in his arms, spins her around. “I didn’t know you were gonna be here.”
“I didn’t know you were,” Eve admits, trying to catch her breath as Bucky lowers her to the ground once more. “What are you doing here?”
“They say they’re gonna inject me with some kind of serum,” Bucky explains. “Turn me into a super soldier so I can punch Nazis a little harder.”
“You... you’re the subject for Project Rebirth?” Eve asks. “You--”
“Yeah,” Bucky answers. “And let me tell you, I sure jumped through a lot of hoops. The questions they asked... wanted me make sure I was a good-hearted soul--”
Eve smiles, and blushes, and looks at the floor. “You know you are,” she answered. “And I’m the one injecting you.”
“Well, what do you know?!” Bucky says, sounding pleased. “Good old Evie, still patching up my bruises. What would I do without you, Eve? What would I ever do?”
“I don’t know,” Eve answers, but she does. She knows all too well. Bucky’s life will be happy and full without her, she’s certain of it. After the war, he’ll start a career and a family, be a father. There won’t be room for her anymore.
Bucky doesn’t see that anything is wrong; he only looks genuinely happy to see her.
There is an audience here. Eve and Bucky sit quietly while she reads over some paperwork with him, and she looks up nervously at the military brass filing into the chamber.
Somehow, their hands find each other, their fingers twining tightly. She knows it's only for reassurance. She knows.
Then Bucky strips down. They parade him around like an animal in a zoo; it makes Eve terribly uncomfortable, but Erskine is standing and speaking now, explaining the dangers of Nazi eugenics, explaining that of course there are men who are bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, but that there is no master race, that the power of America is that everyone is given the opportunity to meet their potential. He says that sometimes, all we need are for the kernels of potential to be awakened in us all.
Eve brings the tray forward, a metal tray holding the vial of serum and the syringe they'll use to pump it into Bucky’s veins and change him forever.
Erskine fills the syringe, raises it in his hand.
They've practiced this part.
But something isn't right; there is a commotion in the back of the room.
Then Erskine is on the floor, a bullet in his head, his body convulsing, and the gunman aims at Bucky.
“Hail Hydra!” he shouts, as he pulls the trigger.
Eve throws herself in front of her best friend. She doesn't think about it; she is standing beside him one moment, then the tray is out of her hands, lobbed like a spinning pie plate at the shooter, and something rips through her chest.
Hydra. Eve’s heard of Hydra, heard Howard talking about fighting them in France, a splinter group of the Nazi party.
She sees Bucky’s lips move, but doesn't hear what he says. She's falling, falling, but the metal tray smacked the gunman in the chest; he's down, too, American soldiers wrestling him to the floor.
The next thing she knows, Bucky is dropping her onto the operating table, shouting for help.
And then he scrambles for something on the floor, snatches up the dropped syringe, punches the needle into Eve’s forearm.
Someone steps up to him, shouting, gesturing at Eve. Bucky punches them in the face.
Then everything goes black.
Iron Man is absent; Eve supposes this makes sense. Thor is gone, too. It is only Giant-Man and the Wasp, and they give her their real names: Hank and Jan. They say it’s only fair, after all.
“Everyone knows who Steve Rogers is,” Jan chirps. “Only you’re, well... you. But close enough.”
They’re friendly enough, and Jan offers to walk back to her room with her. “You settling in okay?” she asks. “This can’t be easy.”
“I…” Eve shrugs. “I’m here,” she says. “It’s disorienting, at best.”
“Well,” Jan says. “I don’t know what the rest of the team will think, but Hank and I would like to offer you Avengers membership. I, personally, think the team could use a few more girls.”
“It’s... a little soon for that, don’t you think?” Eve asks, frowning.
“Oh! When you’re ready,” Jan assures her. “But I want you to know you’re welcome, and you have people here. If you need us.”
Eve manages to work up a tight smile. “Thanks,” she says.
When they get to Eve’s room, Jan pauses and frowns. “You need clothes, don’t you?”
Eve looks down at her colorless, shapeless outfit. “I’m okay for now,” she says.
Jan snorts. “You are not okay for now, lady. We’re going shopping. Tomorrow. Where do you even buy dresses?”
Dresses. Eve shuts her eyes. “I haven’t had a dress,” she says. “Since, uh. This happened.” She gestures to her body, all six-foot-two of it, her broad shoulders, her chest like a barrel, arms as thick as Jan’s thighs. “Mostly I just wear what the boys do.”
“We’ll get you a dress, then,” Jan says, her eyes lighting up. She claps her hands together with all the eagerness of someone who has just discovered her life’s meaning. “We’ll get you dozens of dresses.”
“Do you... not want a dress?” Jan asks.
The next day -- after breakfast, after another inquiry after Tony Stark, who still appears to be too busy to meet his newest guest, Jan drags Eve into a car and takes her to what she insists is the most fashionable tailor in New York.
A few hours later they are piled with bags of clothing -- slacks and shirts nicer than anything Eve has ever seen, nicer even than anything she ever saw Tom Cassidy wear, and the promise of a tuxedo in the coming weeks. They don’t even blink at tailoring men’s clothing for a woman. Thank Marlene Dietrich, Eve thinks.
Jan cajoles her into putting some of her purchases on now; she leaves the store wearing comfortable brown corduroys and a blue and green plaid shirt, a tweed jacket with suede patches on the elbows and deep pockets. Jan teases that she looks like she stepped out of the nineteen forties, dressed like that, but assures her that it looks very stylish.
It’s a beautiful day. Jan suggests they have Jarvis drive their packages back uptown while they take a stroll from Midtown to the Mansion, up on Central Park East.
Eve agrees, tentatively. The sky is bright; the air is brisk. New York is a contradiction to her, almost alien now, everything just familiar enough to give her surroundings a strange, surreal quality, to make her feel something like deja vu at every corner.
So many things are like this: clothing, cars, buses, traffic lights, street signs, trash cans. They’re all just different enough to signal to her mind that something is wrong. There are bright, white lines painted across the intersections, bright lights with little walking figures to indicate when to cross the street. Cars are all shiny and sleek, with curved bodies that make them look a little like rocket ships.
“Oooh!” Jan exclaims, pointing to a huge tower. “You wanna go see Stark Industries? We could surprise Tony, take him out to lunch, maybe?”
The ever-elusive Tony Stark, Eve thinks, and she glances up at the tower. “Sure,” she answers, intrigued.
The security guards know Jan by name, and greet her amiably, but they ask Eve for ID and Eve hesitates for a moment, giving Jan a look of confusion before Jan swoops in.
“Boys,” she said. “This is Evie; she’s Tony’s guest.” She rolls her eyes. “She’s visiting from out of town; she got her wallet stolen. Just get Happy on the line if you have to, but trust me, she’s A-OK.”
A quick phone call, a sweet, chirpy Jan, and they find themselves on an elevator. It’s slick and mirrored on the interior, and it moves impossibly fast, climbing so quickly that Eve’s ears pop.
There’s a plump, middle-aged woman behind an even sleeker desk, wearing a headset that reminds Eve of a telephone operator. She has a big monitor in front of her, too, with a keyboard like a typewriter, only flatter, smoother, and she taps on it just as quickly as she speaks, a mile a minute. She asks whoever she is speaking to to hold when she sees Jan, and Jan races up to her, leans over the desk, kisses her on the cheek.
“Bambi!” Jan exclaims. “It’s been forever Are you good? You look good!”
They exchange pleasantries while Eve looks around the office, feeling terribly small and out of place. She wishes she had a sketchbook, something to occupy herself, something to hide behind.
“Who’s this?” Bambi asks, nodding at Eve.
“Didn’t Tony tell you he had a visitor?” Jan asks. “This here’s--”
“Miss Rogers,” says a voice, a male voice, a light tenor, lilting and musical even as he speaks. “I... wasn’t expecting you.”
The doors behind Bambi’s desk have opened, soundlessly, and a young man is standing there. He’s a bit shorter than Eve herself -- after all, who isn’t? -- and dark-haired, with an open, earnest face, a short, scruffy black beard, and blue eyes that are as wide as a child’s. He can’t be more than a few years older than Eve herself. He’s wearing sloppy jeans with holes in the knees and a plain black tee shirt; there’s a smear of something black on his cheek.
He’s handsome, in a different way from Howard, who was so deliberate, so careful with his appearance.
“Mister Stark?” Eve asks, hesitantly. She doesn’t know what she was expecting, but this isn’t it.
He watches her, quietly, for a moment, a frown on his face, before he steps forward, still looking at her quizzically. When he offers her a hand, it seems slow, uneasy, and his handshake isn’t as firm as she’d expect from a powerful businessman.
“Well,” he says. “I suppose that’s done with. Are you... finding everything at the mansion to your liking? Anything you need? Uh…”
He trails off, a hand rubbing at the back of his neck, and Eve waits a moment, expecting him to finish his sentence, but he doesn’t.
“No,” she says. “I’m... very satisfied.”
He nods, and looks her over. “Those are new clothes,” he observes. “You... look nice.”
She tugs at her jacket uneasily. He hasn’t seen her clothing before; she wonders if it’s that obvious that everything she’s wearing is brand new.
“I took Eve shopping!” Jan interjects, and when Eve looks at Jan, she sees that Jan isn’t quite her bright-eyed, excited self anymore. Her smile is a little dimmer, as if something hadn’t gone quite her way. “We were coming back this way, so I thought we’d pop in. Is this a bad time?”
“Uh…” Tony looks at Eve again. “Yeah, maybe,” he said. “Sorry, I…” His eyes shift nervously around the room. “I’m being a terrible host, forgive me. I... Dinner? Tonight?” he offers meekly. “I should be able to get home in time to join you all.”
“That’d be fine,” Jan says. “We could-- if you’re going crazy over here, Eve and I could pick up lunch and bring it back?”
“Not necessary,” Tony says, and he waves a hand at Jan. He stares at Eve again, a moment too long. “Nice to, uh. Meet you,” he says.
“Same,” Eve answers, and then bites her lip. She’s being too gruff again.
But it’s done, and it’s too late, and Tony retreats back behind those sliding doors, and Eve finds herself befuddled by the whole exchange.
“He’s usually not like that,” Jan says, in the elevator back down. “He’s usually much more affable; he... he’s got to be distracted, or something. He…” She sighs. “The way he’s always on and on about Captain America, I thought he’d be more excited.”
“On and on?” Eve asks, not sure she wants to know.
“Oh, you know,” Jan answers, waving a hand in the air. “How much better everything would be if we could all be more like him, uh... you…” She laughs nervously. “You know. Tony was a big fan of the comics, read all of them when he was a kid. I think he still does.”
Then her eyes brightened. “Maybe he was nervous!” she exclaimed. “Meeting one of his heroes, and all.”
Eve shrugged. “I’m not... I’m hardly the Captain America from the comics,” she points out. But then she’s struck with an intense curiosity, about these comics, about who these people see when they hear the name ‘Captain America.’
“Could... do you think I could get some of these comics?” she asks.
Jan laughs. “Could you? Sure. We’ll see what we can do.”
Jan slings her arm through Eve’s, and they walk the remainder of the way to the mansion with their arms linked. It’s the sort of thing Eve’s never done before. It feels awkward, given the difference in their heights, but also welcoming, reassuring.
She thinks Jan could be her friend. She’s never been friends with another girl before. She wonders what that might be like, and it starts to make her feel a little warmer, a little less alone.
But then, just as they’re nearing the mansion, something begins to beep.
Well, it’s something attached to Jan.
Jan groans. “Call to Assemble,” she mutters, and gives Eve an apologetic look. “You’ll be okay from here?”
“Sure, I-- Call to what?” Eve asks.
“Call to Assemble,” Jan repeats. “Avengers business. It means we need to suit up and go fight baddies or rescue somebody or something.”
“I could come,” Eve offers, suddenly wanting very much to help.
“That’s sweet of you,” Jan says. “But you can’t, not yet. We have to make sure your brain’s all hunky-dory first.”
Jan clearly sees Eve’s disappointment, and she pats Eve’s hand. “Soon,” she promises. “It’ll be soon.”
Eve paces around the kitchen of the Mansion, agitated, the radio tuned in to a newscast relating the Avengers’ battle. Her nervous energy is through the roof; she wants to go; she wants to fight, listening to the reports of the Avengers fighting off what sounds like giant space bugs in Hell’s Kitchen. It makes her blood rise, makes her itch for action.
At least Tony Stark will be there, soon, to keep her company, she thinks, but he never shows.
She eats alone, and the big dining room is terribly oppressive, too empty, the clink of her spoon off her soup bowl echoing like she's eating in a cavern.
Jarvis brings her a second course, chicken cooked with some kind of cheese and ham on it; it's delicious. Her appetite is warring with itself; she's at once starving and yet feels incapable of swallowing another bite. She manages to scarf down seconds, and she's just putting down her knife and fork when the Avengers walk in, jostling each other cheerfully in the aftermath of a successful battle.
“No Tony?” Jan asks, plunking into the seat beside Eve. “Ugh, I'm famished.”
Iron Man starts at that. “Tony was supposed to--”
His reaction is one of surprise, and a little dismay. She's heard that Iron Man is Tony’s bodyguard, that Tony is the one responsible for the suit, but Iron Man’s reaction leaves Eve wondering... if there's perhaps some tension between the two, and then, what sort of tension it might be.
“He said he'd come to dinner,” Jan answers. “I took Eve to meet him, but he was swamped, I think. He seemed really out of it. Not good old charming Tony at all.”
Iron Man mutters under his breath. “I'd better go check on him,” he says, apologetically. “Sorry to jet off so soon; Hank, I want to talk to you about those reports when you--”
“Sure thing,” Giant-Man answers cheerfully, and then Iron Man zooms off.
Eve squints after him. “Is he wearing... roller skates?”
Jan giggles. “That's Iron Man for you. I don't know whose idea that was, though, old Shellhead’s or Tony’s.”
“They're close, then?”
“Almost inseparable,” says Thor. “Did I not know that neither had siblings, I might think they were brothers.”
Eve bites her lip at the mention of brothers. She remembers her own brother, the boy who died too soon, and then her mind jumps to Bucky, and she sees him, not smiling proudly in his Army uniform, but screaming in a whirl of fire and blood.
Finger. Fingers. Her own are being clasped by a hand much smaller than her own. She can’t for the life of her figure out whose;it must be a child.
“Evie?” Bucky asks, his voice very meek, and the hand squeezes hers, but that can't be his hand, can it? “You awake?”
“I'm--” her voice is rough as sandpaper; her throat is parched. It sounds wrong, deeper, somehow. “I'm here, Buck.”
“God, you gave me a scare,” he says softly. “Well. I'm probably gonna get court-martialed for that, but I told them I'd do it all over again.”
Eve untangles herself from the hand and tries to push herself up; she isn't as weak as she expects. She waits for the jolt of pain -- she remembers the bullet going in -- but she feels nothing. Her throat, though, is burning.
The bed is small; impossibly small; it rattles as she sits and she wonders if it must be a child-sized bed. There aren't many adults as tiny as she is, so she isn't sure who else would fit. “You think I could get a glass of water, Buck?” she manages in her croak.
“Yeah, yeah, of…” She watches him stand and move to the sink, fill up a cup of water and bring it to her bedside.
She reaches out to take it. Her hand closes over his and she realizes that is his hand, and something is terribly wrong.
Everything is smaller.
She yelps and drops the cup.
It bounces, and the water splashes on the floor.
“Hell, I'm sorry, Eve,” Bucky says. “I thought you had it; I'll get another.”
She's cold and disoriented, and looks down at her own hands. They're huge, she realizes, no longer frail or delicate, but big, muscular, strong. She has no calluses, no blisters or scars. It's as if her skin is new.
This time, when Bucky puts the cup into her hand, she's prepared, and she holds onto it tightly. She brings it to her lips, drinks it all in one gulp.
“Better?” he asks, sitting back down.
She swallows. Her throat isn't as dry. “Yeah, but--”
She holds her arms down, looks down at her chest: it's massive, barrel-like, muscular, and she has breasts beneath her hospital gown.
“What the hell happened to me?”
“You were shot,” Bucky says.
“I remember that,” Eve says. “Why don't I hurt-- why... why am I a giant?” She looks down at her hands again, helplessly.
“I gave you the serum,” Bucky answers, matter-of-fact. “I already got chewed out by some military bigwig. But you-- Jesus, Evie.” His voice is low, awed, tremulous. “You took a bullet for me.”
“Of course I did,” she answers, rolling her eyes. “Someone shot at you, I wasn't gonna just sit there.”
Bucky sighs. “You stupid…” He shakes his head, but his eyes are twinkling. “I adore you, you know that, right?”
She knows, but she also knows it's not ever going to be the kind of adoration she wants. It hits her like a kick to the gut, but she nods. “I know it,” she says. And she's suddenly swept up in a wave of courage, and she's not sure where it comes from, and she rises to her feet-- her much bigger feet, that aren't so swollen or sore. “Buck,” she says. “Listen, there's something I've gotta--”
She's so tall. The floor is so far away. Bucky's far away, too. She can extend a hand and touch the ceiling.
“--Say,” she finishes.
“Yeah,” Bucky says, expectantly, looking up at her, completely innocent of what she's about to say, and in that moment, her resolve buckles. He's married. He's married, and her declaration can only end in tears for all of them.
It doesn't have to, she tells herself, and she takes a resolute breath. “Buck, I think I'm in--”
The door bursts open, man covered in medals walks in, looking irritable. “Who’s this?” he asks, glaring at Bucky.
“Sergeant James Barnes, Sir,” Bucky answers instantly, snapping to attention.
“Is this your wife or your sister?” asks the man covered in medals.
“No, Sir,” Bucky replies.
“Out of the room,” says the officer.
Eve begins to tense, and then realizes she’s a half a head taller than the officer, that she weighs a good hundred pounds more than he does. “All due respect, Sir,” Eve says carefully. She thinks about the way she’s seen men stand, the way they puff themselves up like cobras, and broadens her shoulders. “But I’m not talking to any strangers without Sergeant Barnes in the room.”
“Missy,” says the officer, and he does the same sort of puffing-up thing, tipping his head up to speak to her, jutting his chin out fiercely. “You understand you’re now the property of the U.S. government, and you’re going to do what we tell you? Somebody wasted priceless research that can’t be replicated on a bitty nurse; you’re gonna pay us back for every ounce of it.”
“Don’t talk to her that way,” Bucky snaps.
And Eve laughs. She laughs and laughs, out of nerves and fear and the sheer ridiculousness of Bucky being intimidating on her behalf, now, now when she’s the biggest thing in the room.
“I can take care of myself, Buck,” she says softly. She looks back to the officer. “What do you want?” she asks. “How, exactly, do you propose I repay you?”
The officer doesn’t seem to be prepared for that question. He removes his hat, runs his hands through his hair. “Ah. Well, y’see, Miss…”
“You wanted a super soldier, didn’t you?” Eve asks. “So give me a gun. I’ll fight.”
“Evie--” Bucky objects, but she puts a finger to her lips to quiet him.
“You?” the officer asks, shaking his head. “Impossible. You’re--”
Eve steps over to the officer, picks him up by the collar of his shirt, lifts him six inches off the ground. It’s the kind of thing she’s seen in cartoons, at the movies. She doesn’t actually think it will work, but it does.
The man is shaking.
“Let me fight,” Eve repeats, calmly.
The officer swallows so hard Eve worries for a moment that he may have swallowed his tongue. “I-- I’ll see what I can do.”
“I just have one condition,” Eve adds.
“Wh-what?” the officer stammers.
“Station me with Barnes,” she says. “Don’t split us up.”
“Sorry I missed dinner,” it says. “Things got busy. --T”
Two lines. No fancy words. At once it reminds her of Howard, yet feels completely different, and it makes her wonder more about her elusive host.
She sets the note aside, and picks up the first book. the name ‘Captain America’ is emblazoned front and center. And there is her picture, right on the cover, punching Hitler.
A reasonable facsimile of her picture, anyway. There's no way to tell its not her -- the figure has her build, broad and muscular, with a square jaw. But the book uses the wrong pronouns, says ‘he’ where it should say ‘she,’ calls her Steve instead of Eve.
Her index finger slides down the page, and she remembers being a little boy in Brooklyn. Little Stevie, the only one of Tom Cassidy’s boys to escape the Russian mob, grew up the be a hero, she thinks, and didn't he deserve it, after all the beatings he took.
Her chest burns with pride even as it smarts with resentment.
Some of the early comics, she's already seen. They cast Bucky as a child, as Steve’s kid sidekick, she knew that, and she still snorts at it. The stories are all retellings of things she did, some exaggerated, some not... but then she starts wondering, what did they do after 1945?
She skips ahead. 1946. The war is over. Steve Rogers and his team of superheroes -- the Submariner, the Human Torch, characters from other comics, and who knew if they were real, Eve had certainly never met them -- start fighting more and more fantastical villains.
None of this is real. Steve keeps fighting whatever the comic book writers see as evil, Bucky never ages, stays a teenaged boy forever. Steve has romances, falls in love with a pretty blonde girl named Betsy who fights alongside him.
When Betsy stands there, in her pretty golden dress, being lauded as a superhero, that's when Eve can't read anymore, that's when she feels sick to her stomach and shuts the book. She pushes it away, sits on the edge of her bed, clutching her middle, and bends over like she's in pain, like she's at the mercy of agonizing menstrual cramps, and hates Betsy.
She knows it's irrational, knows Betsy never existed, knows she's just a fictional character meant to prolong the propaganda. But Eve hates her nonetheless, hates the fact that she's so pretty and so comfortable, hates the fact that she's allowed to be herself, hates that she doesn't have to mask her voice or wear structured body armor that binds her chest so her curvy breasts aren't visible. She hates her because no one tells her she's useless, no one tells her she's not a real soldier.
Eve never cries. As a child, crying was a sure-fire way to invoke her father's wrath and sometimes his fists. Little Stevie the numbers runner had to learn to stop crying fast, had to be a man when he was too young to know how to be anything other than what he was told. Eve Rogers had tried, truly she had; there had been times when she desperately wanted to cry, but she'd never been able to. Punching things was always easier.
And Captain America? There was never any question about that. The pride of the U.S. Army, the Allies’ Secret Weapon, the Star-Spangled Man With a Plan? Surely he didn't cry. Surely he was such a perfect specimen, such an ideal American man, that he never needed to cry.
Eve tries to count back. The last time she cried was at her mother's funeral. She didn't cry at her father's. She didn't cry when Bucky got married, didn't cry when Cassidy’s boys were slaughtered.
Eve Rogers doesn't cry, but now there are tears rolling down her cheeks. She hastily unbuttons her beautiful new shirt before she gets saltwater on it, hangs it in the closet, and shuts her eyes, feeling how her eyelids twitch, feeling the ache at the corners of her eyes.
She falls asleep on top of her bedcovers, still in her trousers, in her undershirt and bra, face mashed against the decorative pillowcase.
The next day, Eve uses one of the computers Hank shows her to look up her own history.
She carefully punches S-T-E-V-E-SPACE-R-O-G-E-R-S into the terminal the way Hank shows her to. It's like a typewriter with a glowing screen; she's used typewriters a handful of times, but never enough to get beyond laboriously hunting out the letters she needs to type.
There's no report of her death -- his death, someone's death. Captain America’s death. Captain America, it appears, was seen fighting in action right up through the end of the war, and then he was seen with President Truman, seen welcoming troops home, seen on parade floats, serving as the Grand Marshal in Fourth of July parades, right up till 1953, it seemed, when suddenly the story broke: Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, had died in 1944, unbeknownst to all but the soldiers who witnessed him sacrificing his life.
They'd been paid handsomely for their secrecy, and a new man was introduced to the uniform. But ordinary men, without the famed super-soldier serum, were unable to fight like Steve Rogers could fight, unable to withstand the kind of physical toll that came with being Captain America. The title came with a string of deaths: tragic, avoidable accidents, casualties of combat and assassinations.
And then, something happened. Someone came forward, said the original articles in the New York Daily Bugle, under the condition of anonymity. Someone with intimate, graphic details of what the government had done. It had been a huge scandal; it led to an inquiry in the military, and Eve winces as she begins to see photos of some of the men she’d known in the war, giving testimony before Congress. She sees Dum Dum Dugan, brow furrowed, looking as if he were in grief, Nick Fury rubbing his temples frustratedly, Howard Stark posturing defensively, and finally… finally, Bucky.
Bucky, sitting in front of his microphone, with the placid look of someone who had made his peace.
She reaches a fingertip up, touches the screen where Bucky’s face appears in tiny dots of light, and she knows, knows instinctively from his expression, from his calm, that he was the whistleblower.
There is a long silence.
Then, “Holy shit, Stevie.”
She knows it isn’t good.
“Buck? Buck, come in, I need a location,” she says. She can feel her heart pounding in her chest.
“Cap, there’s a bomb the size of the Empire State Building with a timer on it,” Bucky says, and his voice is tense. “I’m gonna…”
“Don’t you dare do something stupid without me, Buck,” Eve orders. “Give me your location.”
“No time!” Bucky’s voice answers, but Eve sees him -- more accurately, she sees the bomb. It’s an immense, black warhead, and the sight of it sends a shiver up her spine.
“Bucky, stay where you are,” Eve snarls at him. “That’s an order. I’m on my way.” She sprints for the bomb, jumps an entire airplane to do it.
“I told you, there’s no time,” Bucky snaps back. She can see him, see him shimmying up the side of the missile, reaching for the control panel in its side. “I can disable it, but I’m gonna have to--”
That’s when the thing launches into the air.
Eve takes a deep breath and launches herself into the air.
“Evie... Eve…” Bucky says. “You... just tell Gail--”
She catches at his ankle, and the two of them rise with the missile.
“EVIE!” Bucky snarls, and he tries to kick her off, but she shimmies up the side of the bomb. “What the hell are you--”
“Sorry, Buck,” Eve says, as she straps one arm around the missile. “But you’re gonna have to tell Gail yourself.”
She measures the height down. At worst, he’ll break a few bones, she thinks.
And then she socks him in the jaw.
The look on Bucky’s face as he falls back, loses his grip on the warhead and plummets down toward safety is stricken, panicked, horrified.
“I got this one,” Eve says. “You get yourself home safe.”
And she clings to the missile with all her might, wrenching it upward and off-course.
She remembers shutting her eyes, feeling the wind whipping at her cheeks, and realizing, belatedly, that Bucky hasn’t called her by her given name since they left for the front.
They’re all dead, now. All of them. Fury had a kid, took after him, it seems. The rest of them have family members left, but nobody who would know or care about Eve Rogers.
Nobody except Bucky. And she’s having a hell of a time tracking down an address for Captain James Barnes.
Captain. She stares at the word when it appears on the monitor. He made Captain. She can’t help but beam with bittersweet pride.
Living with the Avengers is strange. They’re in and out, all the time, and it seems as if the world has changed -- there are supernatural threats lurking everywhere, battles to win, strange new enemies to defeat. Jan is still friendly; she comes up to Eve’s room sometimes, brings popcorn and disks that play movies on the screen in Eve’s room. She talks to Eve about her family, about the stories her grandparents told her about living through the Japanese Internment, and asks Eve what it was like to fight in the war. She paints Eve’s toenails, bright blue with little silver stars on them, which makes Eve feel strangely uncomfortable in her own skin, but she appreciates that Jan is trying to make friends.
She doesn’t see Tony again, but a few days after she started searching for information on the computer, another packet shows up, a packet stuffed with news clippings, news clippings about the Congressional hearings over her death, news clippings about Howard Stark losing contracts over something called the House Un-American Activities Committee.
And there are photos. Photos of the Commandos, photos of Howard with a pretty young woman she can only assume is his wife, photos of Gabe and his wife at their wedding, her bouquet in midair, and there, there in the back of one of Gabe’s wedding photos is Bucky, standing beside Gail, who is holding a dark-haired infant.
She sucks in a breath, touches her finger to Bucky, then to Gail, then to the baby. Things worked out, she thinks, with a wistfulness at the realization that she wouldn’t see it.
She puts the photo on her bed, face-down, so she doesn’t stare at it any longer than she should.
There’s another note.
“From Dad’s private collection,” says the note, in the same neat handwriting. “Thought you’d like to see. --T.”
This time, she gets up. She’s wearing her pajamas -- long, loose-fitting pants made of some impossibly soft fabric that only exists in the future, and an oversized tee shirt, socks with little treads on them to keep them from slipping.
She walks, resolutely, toward the north corridor. She expects someone to stop her. She half expects all the lights to flicker and a thundercloud to appear, or for creatures to come out of the walls and tell her to come back, but nothing so dramatic happens.
There are a series of doors; she’s not sure which one would be the right one, and she squints and tries to peer through a window inset in one of them, wondering where Tony might be at this hour, if he’s even home.
“Miss Rogers?” a metallic voice interrupts from behind her. “Can I help you?”
Eve sighs and turns around. Of course. She knew Iron Man was Tony’s bodyguard, but she hadn’t really thought about what that meant.
“I was looking for Mister Stark,” she answers. “I -- he left me some things. I wanted to thank him.”
Iron Man is quiet for a moment. Eve looks him over, wondering about the man in the suit -- does he ever take it off? When? What does he look like, under that faceplate?
“Mister Stark doesn’t like visitors without prior appointment,” Iron Man says. She can tell there’s some sympathy behind the warning; Iron Man’s voice has warmth and depth in spite of the heavy filter he speaks through.
It reminds her of her own vocal modulator, the one Howard Stark had built to make her sound like a man in the field.
Her eyes are drawn to Iron Man’s own -- bright blue, behind the mask. She wonders.
“Sorry,” Eve said. “I didn’t know. I... it’s a little weird, isn’t it?”
“Isn’t what?” Iron Man asks, and he sounds confused. Eve realizes that she has to listen carefully to his voice, that without facial expressions, the way he speaks is even more important. He gestures with his hands, too, shrugs his shoulders, but the voice, the voice is the key.
“I’ve been here for a week,” Eve explained. “And I’ve barely met my host. I kind of feel like I should know the guy, right? If I’m living in his house?”
Iron Man tilts his head at Eve, as if this had never occurred to him. “You... want to meet Tony?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Eve answers. “If he’s around. Is that a problem?”
“No…” Iron Man replies. “I could, ah, I could talk to him about that, maybe. But he’s not here right now. He’s... out.”
“Out where?” Eve asks.
“How do I know?” Iron Man asks. “He didn’t invite me.”
“Aren’t you... supposed to be his bodyguard?” Eve asks, crossing her arms over her chest. It’s nice, she thinks, a little bit amused as it crosses her mind, to be talking to someone her own height, for once.
“He doesn’t take very well to being guarded,” Iron Man admits.
“He doesn’t seem to take very well to anything,” Eve replies. “How’s he got such a reputation as a playboy, when he can barely talk to women?”
“I... wouldn’t go that far,” Iron Man says, and his voice is a touch defensive. Eve remembers what Thor had said, about them seeming like brothers, and she sees it now. “Where’d you, uh. Hear the playboy part?”
“Hank showed me how to use a computer,” Eve answers. “I typed in ‘Tony Stark.’ You ever tried that?” she asks.
“Oh, god,” said Iron Man. “Oh, god, you -- I’m so sorry, Miss Rogers. So --” He coughed into his hand. “Ah. How about I’ll let Mr. Stark know you were looking for him, when I see him?”
“Sure,” Eve replies, but even as she says it, she somehow doesn’t expect Tony Stark to take it very seriously. “Thanks for the, uh, help.”
It's an awkward conversation, Eve realizes, when she leaves the burnished red-and-gold suit of armor and its wearer in the hall. And she wonders about the armor, why anyone would wear it when they aren't in combat -- when, for all intents and purposes, they're off-duty for the night. The armor must be heavy and cumbersome; it can't be comfortable.
She thinks about the armor, and she thinks about Iron Man’s voice.
She thinks about all the times she went out in her uniform, kept her cowl down, kept being a man even when her work was over for the day. She thinks about all the times it was easier to let people make assumptions about her, to not have to be who or what she was.
“What do you know about him?” Eve asks Jan over lunch the next day. They've spent the morning at MOMA, after Jan had offered to take Eve to see all the art that she missed in the ice.
They've been sitting there for a while. When they walked in, the maitre d’ called Eve “sir” without a second thought; when she asked for a table for two somewhere in the back, he fell all over himself to correct the error.
Eve told him it happened all the time, with a shrug and an uncomfortable laugh. She still can't decide whether it qualifies as an error or not.
“Who?” Jan asks, as she stuffs shoestring fries covered in garlic in her face. Jan has the metabolism one would expect from a tiny, flying creature, and Eve is certain that Jan eats more than even she does.
“Iron Man,” Eve replies, picking at the remains of her own meal. There's a big dill pickle on her plate, and she crunches into it: it's crisp and juicy and as perfect as the pickles she used to buy for a penny from a street vendor’s barrel. “We were talking about Iron Man.”
“Oh!” Jan exclaims with a laugh. “I mean, I don't know. He's a good guy to have on our team,” she says decisively. “He’s clever, and gutsy, and, you know, all the kinds of things you want from a guy on a superhero squad.”
"Do you know who he is?" Eve asks. "Under the metal suit, I mean."
"No idea," Jan admits. "Damn if he doesn't have pretty eyes, though. So blue." She smirks. "Any time I wonder if somebody could maybe be Iron Man, I look at the eyes. Of course, it could be a trick," she says with a shrug. “Tony Stark's best friend is a pilot, military guy, super smart. But he's black. If it weren't for the eyes, I'd be convinced he was the one piloting the suit. The profile fits, you know? And he's the kind of guy Tony would trust with fancy tech. He doesn't trust that many people."
"So I've noticed," Eve replies.
Jan looks startled. "He still hasn't--"
Eve shrugs and shakes her head. "I don't know what he's got against me. Maybe, the, you know..." She doesn't want to talk about being Captain America in public, yet. She hasn't had the luxury of anonymity in so many years; she's not sure she wants to give it up.
“The Captain America thing?” Jan asks, throwing all of Eve’s subtlety out the window. Not that the other diners are paying attention, Eve notices -- and not, she reminds herself, that they’d know what they were talking about if anyone did. Jan laughs. “Pffft, I’ve known Tony since we were kids. If anything, the Captain America thing… Jesus, Eve, where do I start on the Captain America thing?”
Eve doesn’t know what Jan means. “What... thing?”
Jan purses her lips. “Oh, god, I shouldn’t have said, I shouldn’t have... Tony’s had a thing for Captain America, shit, don't tell him I told you. His room was plastered with pictures of hi-- well, you.”
Eve sighs. “And then I show up, and don't live up to his expectations,” she observes.
It pricks at the back of her neck, as she considers: is this what she has to look forward to, if she takes up her shield now?
“I don’t know,” Jan admits. “He’s not that type of guy. Listen, you want me to talk to him?” she offers. “I could... we’re friends, yeah?”
“It’s not that important,” Eve says. It isn’t. He’s still a stranger. She’d rather concentrate on the people who are actually talking to her.
Her back doesn’t ache like it usually does, but even the serum doesn’t alleviate the pain of her uterus sloughing off a layer of flesh.
She’s curled up in her bunk, in fetal position, her arms wrapped around her knees. It feels worse; she feels worse than she ever did before the serum, and she suspects the healing factor is somehow interfering with menstruation.
“Just my luck,” she says to Bucky, through gritted teeth. “For all I know, it’s fucking repairing the stuff that’s supposed to come out.”
The other boys abandoned ship the minute they realized she was having what they so delicately called “Lady Trouble.” Bucky, looking terribly uncomfortable, but present nonetheless, presents her with a hot water bottle and two aspirin.
“Best I can do,” he says, apologetically.
This is how Eve finds out that aspirin no longer has an effect on her.
She has to send Bucky to find sanitary napkins; he tracks down a nurse who, he admits only to Eve, seemed confused about why he was asking. “I couldn’t say it was for you,” he pointed out. “I had to make up a story about how one of the other girls--” He waved his hands helplessly in the air as Eve lurched out of bed and slung the napkin into its belt.
It chafed, pressing up too hard against her crotch in the tight uniform, but she supposed that was better than a bloodstain between her legs.
Eve takes down a Panzer with nothing but her bare hands that day.
“See, boys,” says one of the men in her squad, one of the few that have been trusted by the government with her secret. “Just goes to show we should have more ladies in combat, if that’s what they can do when they’re on the rag.”
Bucky clears his throat. “She took down two last week.”
Jan turns away from the men, and steps over to the door, where Eve is hanging back. “What is it?” she asks, nodding her head at the others. “We’ve got a call to Assemble; we’re briefing ourselves on this mission. I’ll--”
Eve takes a deep breath. “I need a, uh…” She can feel her cheeks going hot; she’s sure they’re the color of strawberries as she points at her crotch. “One of those.”
“Ohhhhh!” Jan exclaims. “Well, then! Boys!” she shouts over her shoulder. “I’ll be back in two shakes! Emergency!”
Jan shrinks to her small size and flits off ahead of Eve toward her room, a tiny black and red blur.
Eve jogs after her. Jan presents her with a package, a soft, squishy package, and Eve thanks her profusely and brings it back to her room.
She tears the package open and a dozen soft, slender pads spill over the floor. Eve stares down; she’s left with one in her hand, and it’s smooth and tiny and coated in a thin layer of plastic on one side and paper on the other. There’s no belt, no connector.
She frowns and turns the pad over, ripping the paper away. It’s sticky. Patting her fingertip against the adhesive for a moment, she finds herself grinning like a child on Christmas.
“Okay, future,” she says to the empty room. “You’ve got one thing going for you.”
But that’s the day that the Avengers get trapped inside some kind of crystalline structure, and New York is left vulnerable and under attack by a creature that spits the stuff.
It’s Hank’s ants that come to find her, creep in through the window en masse and turn on the television set to show the carnage.
Eve swears. She has no choice, she tells herself. She’s the only one left. She gets the box that contains her old uniform out from under the bed, without a second thought, and tugs it on. Howard Stark had done himself proud; even fifty years later, it looks like new.
She tugs on the cowl, shoulders her shield, and rings for Jarvis.
“Yes, Miss?” asks the butler.
“I need a ride,” says Eve. “To Madison Square.”
The traffic is so bad she gets out and sprints the last twenty blocks.
People on the street laugh and point; she hears it happening around her, but she ignores it.
“Is that fucking Captain America?” someone shouts.
That gets her attention, and she looks up, salutes, and keeps running.
And then she sees that thing, the thing that she’d seen on the television, that had entrapped the Avengers. It hisses at her, and opens its mouth, breathing out some kind of fume.
She deflects it with the shield, and the stuff solidifies on impact, creating a shield-shaped crystalline structure that drops to the ground with a crash. It doesn’t shatter, though; it stays solid, even when she smacks it with the shield again -- but she has to raise the shield up, now, quickly, to prevent another blast of the crystal-breath.
She knows she’s outmatched, at least the way things stand.
But she has an idea.
Madison Square is a public space, and it doesn’t take her long to locate a big metal trash can. She hefts it onto one shoulder, shimmies up the nearest tree.
“Hey!” she shouts, down at the creature. “Hey, you! Up here!” She aims her shield at it, strikes it squarely in the arm. The thing squawks at her and races toward the tree, breathing out more of the crystal gas.
And she upends the trash can over its head. The gas hardens on impact, trapping the creature in its own crystalline cage.
She picks up her shield, and only then does she notice the camera flashes all around her.
“It is Captain America!” someone yells.
“Or an imposter!” someone else adds.
“Hey, hey, Captain, are you the real deal?!”
She can’t speak; she’ll give herself away if she speaks. Instead, she salutes, again, and races for the petrified Avengers.
They’re still trapped, and no amount of pounding on them with her shield will free them.
“Fuck,” she mutters under her breath.
“You need some help, Captain?” asks a voice behind her. She turns. There is a man dressed all in black, with an eyepatch over one eye. “I was promised you were gonna take some time before you saw combat. Guess I overestimated what ‘time’ meant, huh?”
This is how Eve meets Nick Fury’s son.
They capture the disabled creature and take the Avengers to an underground laboratory, where a team of scientists analyze scrapings of the crystal. They somehow produce a concoction that turns the crystal into a liquid form that can be safely disposed of, and the Avengers are free to go.
Thor claps Eve on the back and says that he’s glad to count her among their allies. Jan flits up and kisses her cheek. Hank starts quizzing her on the creature’s anatomy. And Iron Man, Iron Man just stares at her, arms crossed over his metal chest, intention in his eyes.
Jan is right: they’re very blue.
He comes up to her as they file out of the lab, and walks alongside her. “You did good,” he says. “Thanks.”
“Anytime,” Eve answers.
The next morning her face is the front page story of every newspaper in town. A New Captain: To Be Trusted? says the Bugle, Captain A-Mystery! says the Globe. Eve turns on the television, and she's being debated on The Morning Show. She turns on the radio and hears men with thick Bronx accents calling in to brag about what they would have done differently if they had been there, speculating on her identity.
“The Bugle just hates superheroes,” Jan assures her over breakfast. “Don’t take it personally. They once published an entire article about how anyone who takes her moniker from a creature that stings obviously has ulterior motives. They published a whole feature trashing my wardrobe. They’ve never said anything about Hank’s costume.”
“I like my costume,” Hank said.
“Not the point,” Jan answered.
The mention of costumes reminds Eve that she’s been seen as Captain America. And of course, every article she reads calls her a mystery man, talks about her ‘predecessor,’ Steve Rogers, wonders how an ordinary man could exhibit strength like Captain America himself.
“It is safer,” Iron Man offers apologetically. “If you’re concerned about your identity being public, no one is going to guess you’re a... well, a girl.”
“Woman,” Jan corrects.
Eve sighs. She doesn’t care one way or the other. She stabs at her eggs with her fork. “It was a one-time thing,” she says. “You were all in trouble. Somebody needed to help.”
“Our hero,” Iron Man says, and she can tell by his inflection that he means it sincerely, even if a little half-joking. He puts a metal-clad hand on her shoulder, claps it in an amicable way. “One-time thing or not. You decide you want on the team, you only have to say the word.”
“Maybe,” Eve says. It feels good, satisfying, to be helping people again, but even in the war, even when she knew there were newsreels back home, that she -- or Steve -- was somehow a national celebrity, she'd never quite felt so in the middle of it before. She'd done her work quietly, without fanfare, and if other people made much of it, it didn't affect her apart from the occasional handshake and words of praise from military brass, the occasional proposition from a pretty nurse or attaché. Those she'd rebuffed politely but awkwardly, and perhaps the worst thing that had ever been said of of her alter ego during wartime was that Steve Rogers was a blushing virgin.
Which was true, really, if not quite in the way they expected.
“I’ll do it,” Eve says, from her corner, just listening in to the Avengers’ debate. “Let me talk to them.”
“You sure?” Iron Man asks.
Eve shrugs. “They’re a doomsday cult. They should be into resurrections and second comings and stuff, right?”
“I don’t think they’re Christian,” Hank puts in. “Just big on the end times.”
“Well, look,” Eve says. “All I have to do is convince them that the end times won’t come if they try to bring it about themselves, right?”
This time, when she shows up on the scene, the streets have been barricaded off. Washington Square Park is like a ghost town.
It’s easy to convince the cult to step away-- after all, if they only kill true believers, who’ll be left to usher in the rule of whatever this weird mantis-god they worship is?
What she isn’t prepared for is for the mantis-god to rise from the fountain and try to crush her with its mandibles.
Wrestling a giant mantis is somewhat different from wrestling a tank. With a tank, Eve only had to worry about the gun. The mantis, however, manages to jab her with a pincer, and her arm goes numb in an instant.
“Fuck,” she mouths, as the numbness races up her arm.
Her shield falls, hitting the ground with a clank, and she’s up in the mantis’ pincers, fading fast.
She’s distantly aware of the sound of something like a blast, and a deafening screech from above her -- it’s the mantis; she knows it’s the mantis, because now she’s being whipped through the air as the thing flails its legs.
And now she’s falling, falling fast, and there’s nothing she can do; her body’s limp, and even her eyes won’t blink. She doesn’t think the fall will hurt her; she’s fallen from greater heights, but still, she usually is able to control how she falls.
She stops. Something catches her -- someone, rather, and she knows who it must be from the metal against her skin where the mantis tore her shirt. It’s warmer to the touch than she expects.
“You with me, Cap?” Iron Man asks.
She can’t nod. She can’t even blink. It frustrates her to the point of near-rage, that she has no way to tell him that she’s there, that she’s conscious. She realizes that she would have sensed and felt every single thing, as that giant mantis had eaten her alive, and she can’t even shudder at the thought. Instead, she’s alone in her head with the horror of it.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
The venom wears off quickly, and by the time they reach the mansion, her fingers are working again, and her eyes. Her mouth is still a little clumsy, and she can make sounds but not quite articulate words, when she tries to thank Iron Man.
“Anytime,” he says, getting the gist of what she meant even if she’d only managed the vowel sounds. “That’s what teammates are for, right?”
Teammates. She isn’t quite sure how she feels about that word, yet.
Her uniform is badly torn, and after a little cajoling, she hands it over to Jan for repairs.
“I’m a fashion designer,” Jan points out, when Eve admits her reluctance to hand the uniform over to her.
“I don’t want to give you the women’s work just because you’re the only woman on the-- er. Only other woman on the team,” Eve says. It discomfits her, that she slips into that habit so easily, of referring to herself as one of the men, of how it might sound to Jan.
“Pff,” Jan answers. “You’re giving it to me because I’m the world’s foremost expert on superhero haberdashery.”
Eve smiles at that, and lets Jan take the uniform.
“Where’s Hank?” Eve asks.
“I told him and Jan they could have the afternoon off,” Iron Man answers. “I’d like to run a panel on your blood, if that’s okay,” he says. “Just... to check on that venom. You back to fully mobile?”
“Yeah,” Eve says. “Right as rain.” "But you've gotta understand, I don't want anyone taking my blood."
Iron Man pauses. "It's to make sure you really are right as rain, Captain," he says politely. "If...if I swear to you I'll destroy it, and no one else will see?"
She hesitates, but hops up on the examination table. "You'd better keep your word."
Iron Man doesn't answer that. She wonders if she was too rude. “No reflex issues?” he asks. “Recall okay?”
She nods to each of his questions as he draws a small amount of blood. She’s impressed with the versatility and flexibility of the suit, that he’s able to do all of this while encased in bulky metal.
“I hope this doesn’t... dampen your spirits about joining up,” Iron Man says. “We’d like to have you.”
“I know,” Eve replies. “I’m not sure I’m ready yet.”
“How--” Iron Man starts, and then stops. “Er. I don’t want to sound like I’m pressuring you, but... how come?”
“I’m still getting used to things,” Eve says. “And I’m not sure... what you said,” she says, tentatively. “About the costume. About it being safer, to let people think I’m a man.”
“It is safer,” Iron Man says. “People miss what’s in front of their eyes. You don’t tell them you’re a woman, they’ll assume you’re a man.”
“You’d know something about that, I guess?” she asks. The way he says it makes her wonder just what he’s hiding, what he thinks is in plain sight.
“A little,” he says. “Metal suits make pretty good closets.”
He swabs her inner cheek, gives her a cup and sends her to the toilet to pee.
She brings back her cup, and he sets it on the counter with the other samples. “I guess,” she says. “I saw those stories, about what happened after the war. And people fighting, just to have me remembered as Steve. And I’m not very good at lying. I wonder if I should let people know who I am.”
She bites her lip, looks at the collection of samples, neatly labeled in Iron Man’s even, blocky handwriting, and wonders if what defines her can be reduced to a collection of vials and jars.
“But I’m not sure I know who I am well enough to tell them,” she says. “And I don’t know if it’s somebody they’re gonna like.”
“I like you,” Iron Man assures her.
“No offense,” she says, “but you don’t know me.”
"I'd like to," he says.
There’s something in his voice that Eve can’t quite place -- or maybe it’s that she doesn’t trust that it is what it sounds like.
She’s not the sort of girl men take interest in, she reminds herself. She looks down at her solid, heavy shoes -- they’re nearly as big as Iron Man’s metal boots, rollerskates and all. She used to be too little, too mousey, too easy to escape notice. Now she’s too big, too intimidating, too much of a threat.
She doesn’t mean to sound derisive. Or maybe she does; maybe it’s easier to build a wall around herself.
“Kind of hard to do that when you can’t reciprocate,” she says, looking him in the eye. “Somehow I doubt you’re gonna take that mask off anytime soon.”
“Sorry,” he said. “You’re-- you’re right.” She thinks maybe he slumps a little, though it’s hard to tell, in all that armor, and she feels guilty.
“I don’t mean--” she blurts. “I mean, it’s nice to have a friend.”
“But I’m not going to tell you who I am,” Iron Man replies.
“Yeah,” Eve admits. “It’s... we can’t be on equal terms. And I’m kind of sick of never being on equal terms.”
“Got... it,” Iron Man says, hesitantly. She’s not sure he does.
“Who’s there?” she asks, even as she gets up to answer the door.
She doesn’t recognize the voice.
She reaches for her shield.
“‘Uh,’ who?” she replies.
“Me,” says the voice.
She rolls her eyes and opens the door to reveal a rather sheepish-looking Tony Stark.
He is the last person she expects to see. Well, not the last; the last is probably someone long-dead or half-imagined, but of all the plausible suspects. She’d given up on ever seeing his face again without some kind of deliberate planning on Jan’s part.
He’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans again, but there’s no grease on his face this time. He’s also carrying a large box.
“Speedy delivery,” he says, holding it out. “No, wait, that’s uh... after your time.”
“What’s after my time?” Eve asks. She’s not sure if she’s supposed to take the box or not.
“Kid’s show,” Tony answers. “On TV. Magic trolleys, purple pandas, visits to the trombone factory... uh…”
He’s staring at her. She can tell he’s staring at her, and she’s not entirely sure what to say. They haven’t even really been introduced.
“I’m Eve,” she says, finally.
“I know that,” Tony says. He’s still holding the package. “I’m Tony. You know that. Can-- can you take this? It’s for you.”
She lifts the package out of his hands. “You’re not very much like you are on television, are you?” she asks.
He flashes her an awkward grin. “No, I’m much more handsome in real life.”
She cocks an eyebrow at him, but the funny thing is, it’s true.
“I mean, it’s pretty rich, coming from you,” he says. “You’re a completely different gender on television. Er. Film. Things.”
“I’m the same,” she answers, shrugging. “Whatever people call me. The only difference is how they treat me. You can come in, if you want,” she says, as she puts the box down on a table. “Do you want something to drink?”
“Beer,” Tony answers.
“No beer,” Eve apologizes. “I’ve got about six kinds of fruit juice. Pomegranate juice,” she says, eagerly, as she moves to the small fridge in her room. “You have pomegranate juice.”
“Er. Yes,” Tony replies. “We... do?” He steps forward, looks over her shoulder. “Uh. Pineapple, I guess.”
She pours him a glass of pineapple juice and herself a glass of ruby red grapefruit juice, which isn’t red, but pink, and they sit down in the armchairs that fill a small alcove in the room.
“We didn’t have... juice was a luxury,” Eve explained. “I didn’t know... I mean, I guess, on some level, I had to know you could juice a pomegranate, but... we only got pomegranates at Christmas. Er. Rich people got pomegranates at Christmas. First time I ever drank orange juice on the regular was on the front. It came in cans. The boys used to just drop vodka right in the can with it.”
“Screwdrivers, huh?” Tony asked.
“Pardon?” Eve replied.
“Vodka-and-orange,” Tony answered. “Called a screwdriver.” He sipped at his juice, put it aside, and looked at her eagerly. His expression was like a small child waiting in anticipation, blue eyes wide. “Are you gonna open your present?”
She hadn’t been sure she was supposed to. “It’s a present?”
Tony rubs his hand along the back of his neck. He seems anxious, and she wonders why. “Yeah, uh. Unless you don’t want to open it now; you don’t have to... if you want me to go…”
Of course. He was only planning on dropping off the package, not sitting down and staying, and then she invited him in, and he wants to go. “You-- if you’ve got somewhere you need to be,” Eve says.
Tony glances at the door. “I was going to make Jan bring it,” he says, hesitant. “She told me no, I had to do it myself, but it’s from both of us.” He picks up his glass of juice, wrinkles his nose, and puts it back down, like he’s disappointed by the contents. “She says I’m being a bad host,” he confides. “Am I being a bad host?”
“I wouldn’t know; I’ve only just met you,” Eve admits. She gets up and walks to where she’d left the box, and returns to her chair, setting it down on her knees. “I couldn’t say if you’re good or bad, just… absent.”
“Sorry,” Tony says, shrugging. “I have... a lot of commitments. It gets hard to juggle, sometimes. You’re-- you have everything you want?”
“Not everything,” Eve answers, honestly. “But who does?”
Tony laughs at that, a little sadly, and then gestures at the box, waggling his fingers. “Open that up,” he says. “Hopefully it’ll help with that.”
She lifts the lid off the box, and inside... inside is her uniform, but not her uniform. It’s different fabric -- more elastic, yet also lighter, and a more flexible body armor sheath beneath the outer layer. It has a mesh wicking up the sides, under the arms, along the inner thighs and behind the knees, and the front is a placket that snaps on and off easily. It’s a softer, more grey-blue than her old uniform, as if she’s looking at a faded color photograph, and the reds are muted and more carmine than scarlet.
The star on the breastplate is metal and coated in a pearl-hued lacquer that glimmers, iridescent in the light. She taps it with a finger. “Vibranium, isn't it?” she asks.
“Yeah,” Tony says. He reaches over, presses his hand to the star, and it slides away, leaving an embroidered patch beneath the findings. He holds it out. “It's, ah, the edges are bladed,” he says. “For emergencies. If you need it.”
Eve tests one of the points of the star with her finger; it's sharp enough to slice the skin, and Tony winces.
She smiles at him as she reaffixes the star to the uniform. “Don't worry,” she says. “I heal quick.”
The wings on her new cowl are also iridescent, and so is the large letter A on its front. There are heavy-duty magnets fitted into the gauntlets, to hold her shield in place on her arm, a million secret pouches and pockets to hide things that could get her out of a difficult fix, lock picks and smoke bombs and tiny flares and a recording device that Tony shows her how to use.
The one thing that he never mentions, that she doesn't say, even though it it too obvious not to notice, is that the uniform is clearly built for a woman.
There are darts in the bust, a soft extra layer of wicking in the chest, and extra elasticity in the hips and abdomen, as if someone had actually considered that the suit had to account for regular swelling. There's extra fabric of some kind of dense, absorbent type, in the crotch.
It's something Eve's never seen before even in clothing made for women. She rubs her fingers against it, looks up at Tony, who is watching her intently.
"Jan's idea," he says. "Literally everyone will tell you I don't know a damn thing about women."
Eve snorts. She grips the uniform in both hands.
She takes a deep breath, looks at him questioningly. "Is this your way of saying you think I should do this?" she asks.
This is more momentous than Tony realizes. It’s the first time someone has told her to be Captain America and Eve Rogers at once.
"I think you should do this," Tony replies, but he rubs his hands against each other and looks away. "I know it's none of my business. I'm not any kind of hero."
"I've looked you up," Eve tells him. "You transformed your father's weapons plants into medical supply facilities. You took an R&D lab dedicated to making tanks and set them the task of making lightweight consumer automobiles. You... maybe you don't punch things, but that counts for something, right?"
"Oh, you read the nice articles," Tony observes.
"I read the not-so-nice ones, too," Eve answers.
He raises an eyebrow. "Well, then, and you still respect my opinion?"
She runs her hands over the suit. "I don't know you," she reminded him. "You talk to Iron Man about this?"
He gets a funny look then, almost sad, and shifts in his seat. "I don't wanna tell you what Iron Man thinks," he says. "It would be..."
He frowns, looking as if he's contemplating the correct words, and for a moment, Eve is convinced he's going to say Iron Man disapproves. She shrinks back, preparing himself, but Tony finally speaks.
"Misleading," he says, nodding to punctuate the word, as if he'd decided it was the right one.
"Why?" Eve asks. "Is he against the idea? I know he has... opinions about hiding."
"No, no," Tony says, but something in his whole demeanor has changed; he suddenly seems cagey, worried. He's shifting in his seat, glancing around the room. "It's not that. He loves it. He loves the idea. It..."
He swallows, and waves a hand dismissively. "It's not my place to say. You could ask him yourself."
Eve nods. "This is..." She looks down at the uniform. "It's big," she says. "Probably the biggest decision I'll ever make."
"Second biggest, right?" Tony asks.
Eve blinks. "What was the first?"
Tony cocks his head at her, like he's surprised by her question. "Climbing on that bomb, wasn't it?"
She laughs, in spite of herself, and shakes her head. "That wasn't any decision. There was only one option."
“How do you think?” Tony asked.
“Me or countless innocent lives?” Eve replied. “There’s no one who would choose differently.”
Tony raises an eyebrow. “You and I know different people,” he says, a little darkly. But then he gives her a tight smile. “But that’s why we -- I mean, the Avengers, we including myself as their key financial patron -- that’s why we need you.”
“Because I do dumb shit like steer a nuke into the atmosphere?”
His smile widens, and then he’s grinning. “Yeah,” he says. “Dumb shit like that.”
“I’ve heard the rest of the team is pretty dumb, too,” she replies cheerfully. “You have a pretty impressive reputation for stupidity to live up to.”
They’re both quiet for a moment. His smile fades, and he looks thoughtful, then chugs down his pineapple juice. “Anyway,” he says, getting up from his seat. It’s sudden, hasty, as if he’s suddenly decided this isn’t a place he wants to be. “There’s no rush, you can take your time... just... think about it, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Eve says, to a shutting door.
His departure leaves her with a cold ache. She wonders if she said something, or did something to make him leave so quickly, but he’d been smiling only moments before. She had thought she was making another friend.
Eve can’t bring herself to try the uniform on. She’s always been Steve in the uniform. Captain America is a different person than she is, a better person, someone stronger and more reliable and not so rough around the edges. It’s always been comfortable to be able to separate them, to see pictures of Captain America and think of him as a character.
If she puts the uniform on, there’s only her. Only one person.
She hangs it on a hanger right on the front of her closet door, right where she can see it when she lies in her bed, and the star glimmers in the dim light.
“You scolded Tony,” Eve says, patting the uniform like it’s a child or animal that requires soothing. “You didn’t have to do that.”
Jan laughs. “But he did talk to you, didn’t he?”
Eve shrugs. “I don’t think he likes me.”
Jan raises an eyebrow. “He doesn’t even know you,” she points out. “What would make you think so?”
“He doesn’t talk much,” Eve answers. “He got up and ran out of the room the second he had a chance. I’ve seen enough of what he’s like on television to know that’s not his usual--”
But Jan’s eyes are wide, and she puts a hand over her mouth.
“What?” Eve asks, suddenly very self-conscious.
“He has a crush on you,” Jan blurts. She rubs her head with her hand. “Of course he--”
Eve groans. “That’s not possible,” she reminds Jan. “We barely know each other.”
“And I’ve known him more than half his life!” Jan points out, still looking a little awestruck. “I should have figured it out; he... Eve, you’re Captain America, he’s had a crush on you since he was a tiny kid. Shit,” she added, shaking her head. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, I shouldn’t--”
“It’s one thing to idolize a celebrity,” Eve points out, shaking her head. “I’m not -- I’m not some dashing hero on a poster. And that’s... looking up to Captain America isn’t quite the same as -- the same as--” She gestures to herself, to her broad torso, her wide, blocky shoulders. “I’m not the sort of girl he likes. I’ve seen his dates.”
“Dates, plural, being the operative phrase, there,” Jan replied. “They’re apparently not the sort of girl he likes, either. And I know he likes Captain America.”
“Who was, until a few weeks ago, definitively not a girl, so--”
“Well, he’s not straight,” Jan says.
“What?” Eve asks.
“He’s--” Jan starts, and then puts her hand to her mouth again. “Uh.”
Eve is left processing this information.
“God, you can’t tell anybody,” Jan says, looking terribly flustered at the admission. “I’ll tell him I told you; I just... fuck, if people knew -- the media would eat him alive; it could kill his stock, it--”
“Jan?” Eve says, crossing her arms over her chest. “I think I know a couple things about keeping secrets. Don’t worry.”
Jan hugs her: an unabashed, real hug, the kind of hug Eve hasn’t had in years, because she and Bucky stopped touching like that the first time a man intimated that they were sleeping together. “That was terrible of me,” Jan says quietly. “It’s not my place to say; I don’t normally go blabbing people’s secrets. I just -- I’d told you about the Captain America thing, I thought you would have guessed--”
“I didn’t know it was that kind of thing,” Eve says, shaking her head. “And, uh, no offense, but while that would certainly explain the revolving door of dates, it sort of rules out the crush on me, too.”
“They're not beards,” Jan objects. “They're just boring. And Tony’s sort of... bad at intimacy. He likes everybody -- boys, girls, half-crustacean aliens -- he just, the minute he really likes somebody, he runs away.”
Jan thrust her hands out. “Case in point, you.”
“He ran away before he met me,” Eve reminds Jan.
“Because you're Captain America,” she says. “You're the ideal, the big, bad, unattainable crush he had his entire life and likes to retreat to because it's complete fantasy and safe. And then you actually showed up. And that's... not safe.”
“Kind of gives a guy-- er-- person a lot to live up to,” Eve observes.
Jan’s eyes are bright, and she shakes her head. “I don’t know,” she answers. “So far, I think you’re better than the legend.”
“I read those comics,” Eve reminds her. “From what I saw, Steve Rogers was pretty perfect.”
Jan looks at the ceiling for a moment. “We had this idea,” she says, slowly. “About what heroes were supposed to be. And Steve-in-the-comics, he’s all of those. I mean, Thor’s a different story, he’s a god, or something, but for the rest of us? He shaped what we wanted to be. But he wasn’t human. He wasn’t a real person. The hardest decisions he had to make were ones the writers already knew the answers to.”
“You gonna ask me how I decided to climb on that bomb?” Eve asks.
“No,” Jan answers, shaking her head. “I was going to ask you how the hell you’re keeping it so cool now, when you have every right to be a hot mess.”
“A hot--” Eve looks at her hands. “I am a hot mess,” she answers. “Just, back where I’m from, boys didn’t show it. You took your lumps when they gave ‘em.”
“And girls?” Jan asks. “What about girls?”
“I dunno,” Eve admits. “I wasn’t a girl very often.”
When Jan leaves, Eve thanks her for the uniform again.
“I just designed it,” Jan answers. “It was Tony’s idea.”
It makes Eve wonder, why they would both pass off the credit. It had to have been someone's idea, originally. She assumes it must have been Jan’s -- Tony doesn’t know her, wouldn't have a reason to think the current uniform was presenting any problems. The only people she’d talked to at any length about it were Jan and Iron Man.
Iron Man, she thinks. Maybe it was Iron Man. He was the one who’d caught her when she fell, he was the one she’d been the most candid with, he was the one who had told her it might be better to keep letting people think she was a man.
He’s nowhere to be found. She decides she’ll talk to him tomorrow.
The two uniforms now hang beside each other in her closet, bold cobalt next to the softer steel blue, and it feels like the same war going on in her head.
In the morning, they fight a trio of giant, acid-spitting lizards. Eve answers the Call to Assemble, in her old uniform, and she sees the frown on Jan’s face.
“It’s not--” Eve explains awkwardly. “I want to... do the other thing, but... I have to think about how.”
Jan nods. “You’re okay,” she assured Eve, and then they’re off.
“Where’s your new suit?” Iron Man asks her, mid-combat.
“Oh, so you do know about that?” Eve replies. “Haven’t tried it on yet. Want to make sure it’s battle-ready first.”
She decides she likes that explanation. It’s less honest, maybe, but it leaves her less vulnerable. She jumps onto the back of one of the lizards and wrestles it to the ground as it flails and screeches, but can’t reach her.
When the battle is over, a little boy runs up to them. Eve is panting, trying to catch her breath.
“Captain America?” he asks. “Can I--”
He starts to squirm, shyly.
“He’d like a photo,” says the man who follows with a camera. “Is that alright?”
Eve is suddenly overly conscious of her voice. She makes a big show of breathing heavily and wiping sweat off her cheek as she nods, and poses for the photo.
But then she sees the little girl hovering a few paces behind, staring at them, and she looks from the boy posing beside her to the father with his camera, to the girl watching, alone, from the sidelines, and something sticks in her throat. She turns, even as the father snaps the photo, looks pleadingly at Iron Man, nods at the girl.
She doesn’t know if he’ll understand.
She waves a hand at the father in apology, and poses again, but her eyes aren’t on the camera; they’re on the red-and-gold suit stomping toward the little girl, who is looking up at it in wonder, her jaw dropping.
Iron Man leans down, and hefts the little girl up in his arms, and she squeals with glee.
“Your turn, next, right?” he asks, as he whirls the child around and lets her back down safely to the ground. “You guys want a whole family photo?”
“I don’t think--” her father starts. “She’s not really interested in--”
“Please, Daddy?” the little girl asks.
They take photos,the little girl with Iron Man, both children with both Avengers, the whole family with all five of the Avengers, and while they’re snapping the biggest group photo, other strangers come up and start taking their photo, too.
Jan insists on doing one with funny faces.
“Unfair!” Iron Man objects. “My face--”
“Is always funny,” Jan replies.
Iron Man holds rabbit ears over Eve’s head, while she lolls her tongue out of her mouth and strikes a ridiculous pose.
“You want help testing?” Iron Man offers, as they bid farewell to the family, now out of breath from laughter instead of combat.
“Testing what?” Eve asks.
“The new uniform.”
This is how they wind up in the sparring room, facing off, Eve in her new suit that, of course, fits like a glove and is possibly the most comfortable thing she’s ever worn.
It’s entirely for show: the uniform is far better than her old one -- more flexible, more durable, in every way superior, and after a few rounds, neither of them are taking it very seriously anymore.
Eve collapses on the floor to unstrap her cowl and pull off her boots, and she drops the second boot to the floor to look up and see Iron Man watching her.
“I’m-- ah,” Iron Man starts. “I’m glad you’re joining us, now.”
Eve grins, sheepishly. “Thanks,” she says. “Me, too.”
“I always…” Iron Man is quiet for a moment, as if he’s trying to choose his words carefully. “Admired you, when I was a kid. It’s an honor to be fighting with you.”
“I’m not---” Eve shakes her head. “There seems to be a lot of that going around. I’m not the guy from the books.”
“No,” Iron Man agrees. He sits down, too, in a chair. “But you’re the inspiration for him.”
“Why do you do it?” Eve asks.
“The... you know, the Avengers thing. Seems like a kind of dangerous occupation. What made you want to do it?”
“What made you want to do it?” Iron Man replied.
“I asked first,” Eve pointed out. “Anyway, I didn’t choose it. I got stuck with a needle full of Super Soldier Serum, and what do you do after that?”
Iron Man chuckled. “I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I have the power to do this. So I should, shouldn’t I? I guess... if you've got a way to help people right in front of you, you're kind of a prick if you don't use it. I learned that the hard way. So I figure I have a lot to make up for."
"Are you saying you thought I was a prick?" Eve asks.
Iron Man lets out a strangled laugh. "Just kind of one. Not, like, a whole prick. Maybe one of those, like, micropenis thi--"
He cuts himself off. "Sorry, is that rude?"
"Most people assume Captain America has a giant horse dick," Eve assures him. "So it's kind of refreshing, actually. But still a little rude. I'm just…” She swallows. “It’s kind of hard, you know? To give up the safety of everybody thinking I’ve got a dick.”
Iron Man stops, and tilts his head. There’s something that seems familiar about the gesture, but Eve can’t quite place it.
“I never thought of it that way,” Iron Man admits.
Eve laughs. “So you’re not a woman under there,” she says.
“You thought I was?”
“I considered it was a possibility,” Eve answers.
“I could be a woman and have a dick,” Iron Man points out. “I dunno if people talked about that in the forties, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive, you know.”
There’s something about the way Iron Man says it that makes Eve’s cheeks feel warm, makes the hair on her arms stand on end, makes her mull over all the times she’s felt like Steve is the more authentic part of who she is. “Yeah,” she answers. “I guess I do.”
"Does the mask make it better?" Eve asks. "I..." She looks down at herself, at the front of her shirt. "You don't ever take it off," she says. "Not even around your teammates. Why?"
"I'd say it's because it's my agreement with my employer," Iron Man answers.
"Tony Stark won't let you?" She asks. "Why?"
"It's more than that," Iron Man answers. "My identity... if it were known, it would put people I care about in danger."
He has a family, she thinks. Loved ones. People who could get caught in the crossfire. It makes sense. She nods.
"But also," he says, with some hesitation, "I'm afraid that people wouldn’t trust me if they knew who I was."
"That," she says. "That's what I'm scared of."
"Why?" asks Iron Man. "Literally everyone loves you. You're... so good, so pure, so--"
Eve laughs. "So female," she adds. "The government covered it up for a reason, Shellhead. You saw those kids today. People... people still don’t want girls to be superheroes.”
“For what it’s worth,” Iron Man says, “I think you could help change that. And I’d like to help.”
The offer takes her breath away, unexpectedly. “Yeah?” she manages, looking up at him, staring hard at the mask, as if she could bore through it with her eyes, see his facial expressions beneath the metal surface.
“Yeah.” he says. “Why’d you... let them do it? You could have told everybody, anytime you wanted. What were they going to do, send you home?”
“They could’ve,” Eve replies.
Iron Man shrugs. “So let them.” he says. “Call their bluff. They would have--”
She shakes her head, wrapping her arms around herself. “I couldn’t,” she answers. “Too risky. They... might have actually sent me home.”
“What would have been so bad abou--” Iron Man looks at her, and stops himself, as if he can read it on her face.
“It was Barnes,” he observes. “Wasn’t it?”
She looks away, at the far corner of the room. “That obvious?” she asks.
“A little bit,” Iron Man answers. “You got... all scrunched up, there, for a minute. I... should I ask the obvious question?”
“You don’t have to,” Eve replies. “The answer’s yes. But he was in love with somebody else.”
“Sorry,” Iron Man says. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Eve replies. She touches the star over her chest. “I was always gonna have to leave him behind. It’s better that I didn’t have to break his heart.”
She rubs her arms, then picks herself up off the floor, collecting her shield. “Besides,” she says. “I’m never gonna be normal, I can’t give somebody else a normal life. It wouldn’t have worked.”
She wants to leave. It’s not Iron Man, it’s nothing he’s said or done, it’s not even talking about Bucky. It’s that she’s feeling too many emotions swirling in her chest, and she knows that if she lets them run rampant, they’ll show on her face, soon enough. She’s not ready for that, not right now.
“I know that feeling,” Iron Man says. He doesn’t question her, doesn’t ask why she’s leaving. He gets up, too, picks up her boots, holds the door for her.
Men don't hold doors for her, and men don't carry her things. Maybe back when she was small, if they noticed she was there and she managed not to prickle like a porcupine at the slightest suggestion she wasn't capable. Certainly never after the serum, not anyone but Bucky.
She wonders, watching Iron Man’s shining gauntlet against the brushed gray metal of the door, if this is what happens if she allows men to see her as a woman, to see what she looks like under all the years of running numbers and wartime that hardened her the same way they would have hardened anyone in her place. Or, she wonders, if this is how Iron Man would treat her regardless of what he saw, this person who knew the value of masks and secret identities.
She wonders if he’s married, if he has a family.
She wonders if he would be allowed to tell them, if they were allowed to know what he is.
She wonders what it would be like, waiting at home for someone without knowing that they were putting themselves in danger every day.
But that would never be her; she would be the one in danger; she'd be the one throwing herself into the line of fire, and there would never be anyone waiting at home.
And when Iron Man hands her things back to her and says his goodbyes, she hugs him impulsively, without thinking about it, huge arms tight around his metallic neck.
She jerks back when his hands touch her shoulders, steps away. “Sorry,” she mutters. “I had a nice time.”
There's that head-tilt again. “Don't be sorry,” Iron Man says. “I had a nice time, too. And we’ll, ah, we’ll have a nice time again sometime.”
When she leaves him and walks away down the hall, she realizes she never replied. She kicks herself, mentally, starts replaying their conversation in her head. She tells herself she's a jerk, and an idiot, all the while trying to write off the rising sense of dread that she's falling for a person she can't possibly know, might never even see.
“You didn't ask us for the new uniform,” Jan says, when Eve confides this in her. “We sort of thrust it at you. We can't tell you what you're ready for.”
Eve isn't so sure, and Tony never says more than a word to her in passing, if that, so she doesn't know how he feels about it.
And she, in turn, can barely bring herself to speak to Iron Man, now. She doesn't want to have these sorts of feelings about anyone; it reminds her that she'll never be the sort of person other people feel that way about, reminds her that it's all futile, reminds her of Bucky, who loved her so deeply and still saw her as a brother, of sorts, and not a potential lover. But it also makes her cringe the first time she looks at him across the table in the control room and imagines kissing him. She doesn’t see a face, only a metal helmet, lips on cold metal, and it repulses her, makes it hard to look at him.
She doesn’t know, really, if she’s repulsed by the metal or by the secrecy.
Tony Stark shows up again. He interrupts her while she’s listening to music: Hank gave her an annotated history of all the pop music she’s missed once he realized she’d been frozen before rock and roll ever hit the charts. Now she’s listening to nineteen-sixties folk rock and fascinated by the politics of it all, the sharp contrast from the propagandist tunes of her own time, the bittersweet-yet-cheerful songs about soldiers kissing their sweethearts goodbye.
She’s listening to Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Joan Baez, and she’s trying to keep Bob Seger and Pete Seeger straight in her head. She trembles with rage she didn’t know she had at Fortunate Son; she nearly cries at Gimme Shelter, and she can’t explain why, can’t articulate what the lyrics are making her feel.
And then there’s a hand on her shoulder, and it jerks her out of wherever she is, which is much deeper than she expects to find herself, and she jumps at the touch.
“Come on,” Tony says. He doesn’t react to her surprise, only waits while she takes off the headphones. He’s wearing a grubby leather jacket over his usual tee shirt -- however he spends his money, it isn’t on his everyday clothing.
“Come on, what?” Eve asks.
“We’re going for a drive,” says Tony.
“Do I have a say in--”
“I mean,” Tony says with a shrug. “You do, but you’re gonna miss out if you don’t come.” He scratches his head. “It’s something special.”
Eve gets up from her seat, puts the headphones aside, turns off the stereo. ‘What is it?”
The grin on Tony’s face is brilliant -- eager and mischievous all at once. “It’s a surprise,” he says. “A good surprise. Not a, uh, not a premature surprise like the last one.”
Eve gets her jacket -- noting that her own jacket is nicer than Tony’s -- and follows him to his car.
Apparently, cars were where Tony spent his money. There were six of them, lined up in a private garage beneath the city, and Tony swept a semicircle with his pointer finger. “It’s your surprise, you pick,” he offers.
Eve can’t choose. She didn’t know cars could come in so many types; they vary in size from tiny to enormous, in shapes from bubbly to boxy to sharp and pointed.
She finally picks the one that reminds her of an airplane, and she half-expects it to have hidden wings. It’s bright, flaming red, flamboyant and daring, and even the thought of riding in it makes her pulse race a little.
“Really?” Tony asks, though his surprise seems gleeful; he’s grinning ear-to-ear, and he has dimples in both cheeks and one in his chin that she hasn’t seen before.
“Yes, really,” she replies. She can’t be incredulous; his smile is too infectious. “What do you mean, really?”
“I sort of thought you’d be into something more utilitarian,” Tony replies. He clicks a button on his keychain, and the doors of the car lift into the air, like -- to Eve’s delight -- wings.
“What the hell is this?” she asks, as she steps forward, fascinated.
“Lamborghini,” Tony answers. “Countach. 1976. I didn’t take you for a car guy, Rogers.” He’s sliding his hand over the hood, and then looks over at her. “Uh. You know, guy-for-a-given-definition-of--”
Eve smiles. “I get it,” she says. “Believe me.” She climbs into the car. The ceiling is low, and she has to adjust the seat all the way back before her head stops hitting it.
Tony watches, amused.
“Cute wheels you’ve got,” she tells him. “I’m not a car guy; never had a car. Learned to drive in the war; still shitty at it. I can get a Jeep from point A to point B, and that’s most of what matters.”
She reaches out and runs her fingers over the dash. “But this is something else. We didn’t have anything like this back then.”
Tony smiles as he revs the engine, pushes a button on a little plastic case, and the garage door begins to raise itself. “Pity we’re in Manhattan. Sometime I’ll take you upstate, somewhere empty, with good windy roads, and show you what she can really do.”
Tony’s a careful driver in the city, and only a little more daring on the highway, and he chats while he’s driving, telling Eve about Stark Industries, about everything he’s done since his father’s death, about his new clean energy initiative, about his quarrels with Congress, about funding the Avengers.
“Iron Man’s the one who convinced me,” he says. “He usually knows pretty much what I’d like to do, and he thought this was a good investment. I’m proud of it, so far.”
“You should be,” Eve tells him. “You’re helping to do a lot of good.”
“I’ve still got a lot to make up for,” Tony replies.
“Do you know who he is?” Eve asks. “Under the mask? I assume you do, but--”
“Yeah,” Tony answers. “Doesn’t mean I get him, all the time, but I know him pretty well.”
“Does anyone else know?” Eve asks.
“A couple of people,” Tony replies. “Jarvis does, but we’d both trust him with anything.”
“What if he... does he date?” Eve asks. “Does he have a family? Do they know?”
Tony shakes his head. “Nah, no family.” He takes his eyes off the road to flash her a grin. “He dates too much, if you ask me.”
“I keep thinking of The Man in the Iron Mask,” Eve says. “Have you seen that movie?”
“Yeah, the one with Good Leo and Evil Leo?” Tony replies. “How did you see it? It’s not out on video yet.”
“In the movie theater?” Eve replied.
“It’s still playing? It was out in March.”
“And it’s Louis, not Leo.”
“No, it’s definitely Leo,” Tony answers. “You don’t wanna fight me on this: I know Leonardo DiCaprio. I mean, I don’t really know him, but he came to one of my parties on--”
“I meant Louis XIV,” Eve says. “The king. You’re talking about a real person?”
“Ahhh... yes,” Tony replies, and snorts. “God, we need to, like, schedule you some movie nights. Let’s do that,” he adds. “We’ll watch some movies. Are you... but we were talking about Iron Man,” he remembers. “What, so, you think he’s being held prisoner?”
“Does it get in the way of him having a normal life?” Eve asks. “I guess it’s... not really my business, but it’s... I’ve been there. I’ve had to hide who I am and had it hurt my ability to be myself.”
“How come you’re asking me and not him?” Tony asks. “I mean, I could give you my opinion, but--”
“It just... it doesn’t seem like the right thing to ask a person,” Eve answers, but she knows he’s right. “Sorry,” she says. “I probably sound nosy.”
“Nah,” says Tony, and he smiles at her again. “You just sound concerned.”
And then, when he finishes saying it, he looks back to the road, and frowns. “Huh.”
When they turn into a little housing development full of cute, neat little homes with green lawns, Eve squints out the window, trying to figure out why they might be so far out in the suburbs.
“Where are we?” she asks.
“Albertson,” Tony replies. “Long Island.”
He parks the car in front of a neat little house that looks like every other neat little house on the cul-de-sac. There’s a flag flying by the front door, but otherwise, there’s nothing particularly outstanding about it, nothing to distinguish it from its neighbors.
“Come on, Rogers,” Tony says, and he pushes a button and the doors rise up again.
Eve can’t for the life of her decide why they’re there. “What are we doing?” she asks.
“Paying a visit,” Tony replies. He walks up to the door, opens the screen, and holds it. “You ring the bell.”
Eve looks at Tony.
She looks at the house.
She looks back at Tony. “Whose house is this?” she asks.
Tony cocks her head at her. “Just an old friend,” he replies.
And Eve’s breath catches in her throat. She knows where they are. She can’t speak; she can feel her heart racing in her chest.
“Does he know?” she asks.
“Yeah,” Tony replies. “I’m not that big of a dick. Come on. I’ve been trying to get a number for him for weeks, he saw you on the news, I told him I would bring you by.”
She holds her finger out.
She can’t push the bell.
She doesn’t have to.The door opens and a careworn-looking little old man is standing in front of her. His hair is thin; his skin is loose and wrinkled, his sharp blue eyes are clouded with cataracts.
But they crinkle up at the edges the same way; his mouth curls the same way, and he holds his arms out to her the same way he used to before the war.
“Evie?!” he exclaims. “Evie, is that you?”
“Buck,” she whispers.
It’s the only word she can manage. Dumbstruck, mouth open, she stands frozen on the stoop until Bucky wraps his little arms around her, squeezes her tightly.
At first she's afraid to hug him back, afraid she'll crush him. He's so small -- smaller, certainly, than he was at twenty-four -- and he seems so frail. She puts her arms around him gently, so gently, and when she does, she lets them rest there for a long time. They stand, in the doorway, not moving, just holding each other, and she can feel him breathing.
"Good god," Eve says, when she regains the ability to speak. "Am I glad to see you."
"You goddamn idiot," Bucky mutters back at her. They part, and he moves from the doorway, to let her inside. "You stupid, stubborn, mule headed--"
He sucks in a deep breath, and shudders, and Eve sees tears in his eyes. She's never, not in her whole life, seen Bucky cry. He sniffles, and wipes the tears from his face.
His house is modest, but bigger than anything either of them would have dreamed of as children. The front room is a living room, with a sofa and chairs, a coffee table, a cozy fireplace and a big television set. The walls are papered with a floral pattern, and the largest one is covered with pictures in all kinds of unmatched frames -- the oldest photos in black and white, the newest in glossy color.
"I'm sorry," she whispers back. "You knew I had to do it, you knew. Come on, Buck, did you want me to just sit there?"
"I had it," Bucky says, in a cold, quiet voice, and the way he's blinking back tears, she knows he's been nursing this for years. "I almost had it disarmed; you could have--"
There’s a wedding photo, stiffly posed, in the center, and there, beside it, a beautiful, brightly colored portrait of Bucky and and a dark-haired woman surrounded by what Eve can only assume are children and grandchildren.
"I didn't want to risk you," Eve answers, and now she's feeling as miserable as he looks, her throat is getting tight. "If it was gonna be one of us--"
"It should've been me," Bucky said. "How the hell do you get the say over what I risk? Jesus, Evie, grow the hell up and stop playing hero!"
She felt her cheeks go hot, her hands curl into fists, and she opens her mouth to snap back at him, but then she realizes: it’s been more than fifty years. Fifty-something years, and all this time, Bucky must have been replaying the scene in his head, must have thought she’d died -- for all intents and purposes, she did die, to all the Howling Commandos, to everyone else they had known.
And then she sees what must be the oldest photo on the wall, a faded, yellowed picture of two teenagers sitting in a cafe -- a grinning boy and a pale, scrawny girl with a pained look on her face, with shoes that are much too large for her. She has a huge piece of cake sitting in front of her, a fork poised awkwardly in her hand.
She sighs, and her hands drop to her sides. “Sorry, Buck,” she says. “I know it’s been a long time.” She looks at him, really looks at him, at the crags in his face, the spots on his skin, the knobs of his knuckles, and counts all the time she's missed. “I'm sorry I wasn't here, but I'm back now--”
She fiddles with the zipper of her jacket.
“You're so young,” Bucky says, disbelievingly. “You haven't aged a day; you're still a kid, you--”
“Yeah,” Eve says, swallowing. “I don't know what happened; I woke up like this, with…” She looks over her shoulder at Tony, jabs a thumb in his direction. “His friends.”
“The Avengers,” Bucky agrees. “Good kids. I dunno what I think about that Thor, though.”
“Thor's also a good kid,” Tony pipes in. He's been standing back, but now he steps inside, up closer to Eve, so they're standing shoulder to shoulder, and at once, Eve is so grateful he’s there. “He’s a little weird, yeah, but he’s all right.”
“Is this guy taking care of you?” Bucky asks, and he gives Tony a skeptical look, as if he might not trust him. “He’s not making you do that superhero thing, is he?”
“Yeah,” Eve answers, and she glances at Tony. “And no. I’m doing it for myself.”
“Never met anybody with a bigger death wish,” Bucky mutters. He looks Tony up and down, as if he’s trying to make up his mind about him, and then looks back to Eve. “You need anything, you’ll let me know, yeah? You want to get out of that high-class joint and need a place to stay, you’re always welcome. We’ve got three bedrooms and just the two of us, now.”
“I’m okay, Buck,” Eve assures him. “But thanks. I’ve got... I’ve got everything I need, and--”
The front door creaks open. “Honey,” says a female voice. “Who’s parked in the dri--”
Eve turns. The woman at the door is old; her skin is papery but her eyes are still brilliant, bright, rich brown, and her hair is a lustrous salt-and-pepper. She’s dressed in an long wool coat.
She drops the keys that are dangling in one hand; they clatter to the floor.
“My god,” she whispers. “You look like a ghost.”
Eve bites her lip. “You look beautiful.”
Gail is beautiful, even at seventy-odd years, the kind of beautiful that looks elegant and refined and regal, the kind of beautiful that people notice.
“Thank you,” Gail says, and there are tears in her eyes, now, too.
Eve shrugs. “You always were,” she answers.
“No,” Gail answers, and she stares at Eve as she moves toward the sofa, sits down, as if she’s too overwhelmed to stand. “No, not for the compliment, even if not many people notice at my age. Thank you for sending him home.”
Eve bites her lip, now her eyes are stinging. “I--” She doesn’t know what to say. She tries again. “I--”
And then she feels a hand wrapped around hers, squeezing the fleshy part of her own reassuringly between thumb and index fingers. It’s Tony’s, and he twines his fingers between hers.
She smiles, first at Tony, then at Gail. “I couldn’t not,” she answers.
“There are things I wanted to tell you, that I never thought I’d get the chance,” Gail says, looking transfixed.
“Gail, she doesn’t wanna hear--” Bucky says, a little uncomfortably, and Eve looks between them. He’s shifting uncomfortably on his feet, and Eve wonders what she’s in for.
“Well, I want to say them,” Gail answers, and she pats the sofa beside her. Bucky coughs a little, but he sits down. He moves slowly, a little creakily.
Gail straightens up. “I thought you’d take him from me,” she says, and she slips her arm through Bucky’s. “I always thought -- I thought if he had to choose, he’d pick you.”
“Gail--” Bucky says irritably, and Eve gets the sense that he’s heard her say this before, that it’s been a thorn in their marriage for too long. “It wasn’t like that.”
“Be that as it may,” Gail says, rolling her eyes as she pats his hand. “Evie, you -- you made sure he got home. And even with you here I’ll never be able to thank you enough.”
Eve isn’t looking at Gail now; she’s looking at Bucky, at the pleading expression on his face. This hurts him, and she can tell, and Eve knows she’ll never know the whole of it.
“You don’t have to,” Eve answers. She nods at the pictures on the wall behind them. “That’s enough thanks, right there.”
Bucky reaches behind him for a picture of a teenager that’s hanging on the wall, a brown-haired girl in a basketball jersey, a ball tucked comfortably under one arm. He unhooks it from the wall, holds it out for Eve to see. “That’s our Evie,” he says. “Our youngest daughter.”
“That’s an old picture. She’s in the Air Force, now,” Gail says. “You’d be so proud.”
“She’s also ten years older than you,” Bucky adds, clearing his throat. “That’s a very old picture.”
Eve snorts. And then, the rest of them start to laugh, a little awkwardly, but the tension is finally broken.
Gail takes off her coat and goes to the kitchen, and a minute later, she calls Eve to join her, leaving Tony and Bucky in the living room. Eve’s mildly amused; it’s the first time in her life she’s been included in the ladies-in-the-kitchen faction of a social call.
Gail hands her a box of pretty Italian cookies and a tray. “Put those out,” she says.
Eve does as she’s told, arranging them neatly, and madly curious as to what Bucky and Tony might have to say to each other. She keeps wanting to glance at the door, and she forces herself not to.
“So,” Gail says. “You’re happy where you are?”
“Yeah,” Eve answers. “I mean, it’s... it’s tough; nothing’s the same. Adjusting is hard.”
“That young man in there--” Gail starts.
“Tony Stark?” Eve replies. “The ninth richest man in the world?” Hearing him called ‘that young man’ is intensely amusing to her.
“I don’t care about that,” Gail replies. “Is he treating you well?”
“Sure,” Eve answers. “I’ve got my own apartment, I have everything I need. He made me new gloves, he made me a whole new uniform, actually--”
Gail squints at her for a moment. “I never took you for the kind who’d go in for being a kept woman,” she says. “Be caref--”
And Eve bursts out laughing. “Is that what you thought?” she asks. “It’s-- he funds the Avengers, Gail; he’s paying for Iron Man, and Giant-Man, and The Wasp, and I think for Thor, though I haven’t quite figured out what Thor does when he’s not with us,” she admits. “It’s nothing like that. I’ve barely been here a month. I’m not having an affair with a billionaire.”
But then she thinks of his hand in hers, and then thinks of the way he stood beside her, like they were a united front, and then she thinks about how much time he must have spent just looking for Bucky to begin with, and that he knew how much it would matter to her, at all. How had he known that?
Iron Man, she realizes. She talked about Bucky with Iron Man.
“Shit,” she mutters, and she hopes Gail doesn’t hear it.
Gail hears it. “What was that?” she asks.
Eve feels a rush of uncertainty come over her. Whether intentionally or not, Iron Man is passing on information about her to Tony -- the uniform, now this, and she’s not sure what that means. Is he meant to be spying on her? Is he simply talking to a friend? Why the hell is Tony being so nice and is Jan right? If she is, if this is his way of expressing interest in her, are these things he’s done in earnest, or is he deliberately manipulating her emotions?
“Nothing,” Eve says to Gail, frowning. “Gail, you know men aren’t interested in me. Definitely not somebody like that.”
Gail shakes her head, even as she sets a pot of coffee on another tray. “That’s because you never let them see you,” she says. “James and I... we just assumed it was something you never wanted. He thought maybe you liked girls. I thought maybe you liked him. Which was jealous of me, I know. But I was a child.”
And correct, Eve thinks, but she doesn’t say that.
“I’ve never been around any girls enough to like ‘em,” Eve admits. “Only you, and you were, well, strictly speaking, off-limits.”
Gail smiles at that. “There are plenty of girls now,” she says. “And people aren’t shy about that anymore. Our granddaughter Meredith has a girlfriend, nice girl, very pretty, very ladylike, you wouldn’t know she was that way.”
Eve isn’t sure how she feels about the idea that there would be a way to tell, and she looks down at her buttondown shirt, her slacks and belt and oxford shoes. She's pretty sure Gail doesn't mean it as an insult, that Gail isn't thinking of her, but it smarts anyway.
She wonders, though, how she would feel about girls, if she'd ever been given an opportunity to sort out what she thought of them.
“I'm not exactly looking to… Well, you know,” Eve admits.
It feels strange, to be picking up a conversation she'd had with Gail before she'd left for the front, when Gail had fifty years’ more life between then and now.
“You never were,” Gail answers with a shrug. “Anyway, it's none of my business; I just know James and I would both be disappointed in ourselves if we didn't look out for you.”
And it occurs to Eve that there might be the mirror-image of this conversation occurring in the living room. She cringes, inwardly.
“If I have a problem I can't handle myself,” she assures Gail, “you'll be the first to know.”
“You think you can handle every problem yourself,” Gail retorts. “Don't think I've forgotten. Now, be a dear and carry the trays.”
Eve is slightly fearful of what she might find on the other side of the door, but when she pushes the door open, trays in hands, she finds Tony atop the coffee table, fidgeting with a pocketknife and the overhead lamp.
“Nah, it's an easy fix,” Tony is saying, and he’s screwing something shut and climbing hastily off the table. “And it'll help your power bill, promise. You want me to come over and look at the rest of the house sometime, I'd be happy to--”
He grins at Eve as he flips the pocketknife shut and shoves it in his pocket, wipes his hands on his jeans.
“What do you say, Eve?” He asks cheerfully. “We could come back for another visit?”
Eve puts down the cookies and coffee, and stares at Tony for a moment, before she realizes she's staring. “Sure,” she says. “I'd like that.”
They finish the cookies and the coffee -- Tony drinks most of it, black, and Eve’s astonished by the way he knocks it back like it’s fruit juice. Eve tells stories about the Avengers, Tony tells stories about scientific research, Bucky and Gail start by telling stories about each of their four children, move on to their grandchildren, then finally Bucky pulls out a photo album and shows Eve photos from just after the war.
And when Tony sees his father in them, Eve hears the little hitch in his breath before he asks if he can see that page a little closer.
“He looked so happy,” Tony says in the car, driving home, and it really seems to pain him. “By the time I came along, that was gone. He always said it was me,” he added.
“It wasn't you,” Eve answers. “It was the war.”
“I know, I know, logically -- and I am a big fan of logic -- I know that,” Tony says. “But try being a kid and having the man who's half your world telling you otherwise.”
There, Eve thinks. There is one thing he doesn't know about her. “I have,” she says, and as soon as it’s out of her mouth, she wonders if she shouldn’t have said it.
Tony glances at her, just briefly. “Yeah?” he asks.
She wraps her arms around herself. This isn’t a conversation she wants to have; it’s a conversation she’s only ever had with Bucky, and a little bit with Erskine, when he was interviewing her for the job on Project Rebirth.
“He was a drunk,” she says. “We didn’t get along.”
“They didn’t put that in the comics,” Tony tells her. “What happened?”
“They wouldn’t have known,” Eve answers. “He died.”
Tony is quiet for a moment. “You miss him?”
“Hell, no,” Eve answers. “Not for a minute.”
“Yours was worse than mine, then,” Tony says, nodding. “Couldn’t fucking stop loving him if I tried. I should be able to, right? Should be able to blame my problems on him and not me and get on with it like most normal people do.”
“You can’t control that,” Eve says. “You can’t control how you feel about someone.” She bites her lip, thinking of Bucky, thinking of her conversation with Gail in the kitchen. “Just what you do about it.”
“That sounds more like romantic advice than tips on how to get over my dead asshole father,” Tony says, a little brusquely.
“Getting over people is getting over people,” Eve says. “Doesn’t matter how come you have to get over them. I’ve been having to do a lot of that lately. I think it’s the same.”
When Tony rolls back into his garage and puts the gearshift in park, he turns to Eve. “You know,” he says. “You’re gonna do okay.”
“Okay with what?” Eve asks.
“Life,” Tony answers. “In general. I know it probably doesn’t seem like it, but I think you’ve got a pretty good handle on things.”
He doesn’t wait for her response. “So, you know, let me know when you want to head back out there; I’m always up for a drive. But I’d better run, I’ve got-- shit, we spent the whole afternoon out there, I’ve gotta check my calls.”
And he leaves her in the passenger side seat of the Lamborghini, wondering what just happened.
She tries to find Iron Man first, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Somehow, she feels like it’s easier to ask the man whose face she can’t see to tell her how Tony found out what he knows about her than it is to ask Tony himself, and she’s mildly irritated with herself for that.
Instead, she heads to the kitchen. There are voices coming from the entryway.
“So tell her,” Jan says, just as Eve walks in.
Jan is leaning against a counter, a glass of wine in one hand. Tony is sitting atop the counter, holding a beer bottle. There’s an empty one on the counter beside him, and it doesn’t appear to be his first.
The both turn to look when she walks in. Jan immediately looks to Tony; Tony’s cheeks go brilliantly red, and Eve is fairly certain she’s the ‘her’ in the equation.
“Hi?” Tony says. “Want a drink?”
“Sorry,” Eve apologizes. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Nah,” Tony says. “Jan was just browbeating me, as usual.” He flashes her a not-too-kind grin, and now Eve is burning to know what Jan wanted Tony to say.
She grabs a beer, hops up onto the counter beside Jan, across from Tony. She tells Jan about going to see Bucky and Gail, about seeing old photos of her friends, about learning about the life they’d had without her.
“It’s so... weird,” Tony says. “To think you’re all the same age. Or you started out the same age, were born around the same time. I felt more like I was talking to your dad,” he admitted, then winced. “I mean, not your actual dad, just... a person who could be your dad. Or your grandpa, even, I guess.”
“Well, Gail was mothering me in the kitchen,” Eve tells them both. “She told me that if you treat me badly, I can go live with them.”
“You hear that, Tony?” Jan chirps. “You’d better be nice, or she’s got another invitation.”
“I’m always nice,” Tony assures them, clapping a hand to his chest. “Scout’s honor.”
“You weren’t a scout,” Jan reminds him.
“I was a scout for three days before I got kicked out,” Tony insists. “Three whole days.”
Iron Man lingers away from the others, pointing out that he couldn’t exactly eat or drink in the suit. When they are about to leave, Eve sidles up to him -- or tries to sidle up. Instead, a group of drunks shout “CAPTAIN AMERICA” at her.
She tosses them a salute, acquiesces to a photo (which is met with cheers), and finally, finally manages to get close enough to Iron Man to clap a hand on his shoulder.
“Iron Man,” she says. “We need to talk.”
“We do?” he asks.
“Yeah,” she says.
“Walk home with me, and I’ll tell you,” Eve replies, as she heads for the door, getting to hear a group of drunks sing some song about Captain America she’s never heard before.
“I can do one better than that,” Iron Man replies, as he walks out onto the sidewalk. He presses a button on his suit, and two handles appear. “Hold on,” he says.
“Hold on?” Eve asks. “Just like that?” She grips the handles. The positioning is awkward -- she’s facing him, up close, and when he nods, his face is too near-- too near, she thinks.
“Yeah,” he says. “Just like.”
He wraps an arm around her waist. She imagines, for a moment, that this must be what dancing feels like -- although she’s noticed from television that that sort of dancing seems to have fallen out of favor.
And then they’re in the air, and the wind is whooshing up against the lower part of her face, the only part of her skin uncovered by her costume. She wishes her hair were free, to feel the breeze in it.
It’s fast -- faster than she could ever go on her own, and unlike last time he carried her, now she’s completely lucid, and the sensation is exhilarating. She whoops with glee.
“You like this?” Iron Man asks.
“Yeah,” Eve answers. “Yeah, it’s like... hell if I know what it’s like, Shellhead. It’s like nothing else.” She's telling the truth; it's exhilarating and gives her a rush, makes her skin tingle and her blood warm. The metal suit isn't as cold as she expected it to be, and she finds herself pressed against it in a way she's never been pressed to a human body. He can't possibly feel this, she thinks, but she wonders how aware of it he might be.
“So, what’d you want to talk about?” Iron Man asks. “And be cognizant of the fact that if I don’t like it, I can totally drop you.”
She can tell he’s teasing from his tone. “You drop me, and I’ll put glue in your joints,” she retorted. “See if I don’t.”
“Uh-oh,” says Iron Man. “Is it that bad?”
“No,” Eve says. “It’s not bad. It’s not... it’s... I need to ask you a couple things about Tony.”
Inside the suit, Iron Man coughs. That can’t be good, she thinks. She hopes they’re not angry with each other. “Uh. Sure. What... kinds of things? About Tony?”
“He took me to see Bucky,” she says. “Did he tell you about that?”
“Er, yeah, a few days ago?” Iron Man asks. “Yeah, he did. Did you-- was it good?”
“It…” Eve realizes that she’s not sure how to answer that, not yet. “It was what it needed to be.”
“That sounds like a mixed review,” Iron Man observes.
“I'm glad I went,” Eve says. “I wish he hadn't surprised me; I felt a little blindsided. But I also suspect I would have refused to go if he'd warned me. But I’m still sorting out how I feel about it. I just wanted to know…”
“I told him,” Iron Man says, without hesitation, as if he could guess what she’s about to say. “Is that, er, was that... bad? I’m not really-- you know, I’m not really cut out for keeping secrets, especially not from the boss.”
“It’s... it’s not bad, no, it’s just... I don’t really know him,” she says. “It keeps feeling like he knows me better than he should, and... I don’t know, maybe he’s good at that, or maybe it’s you telling him things, or maybe both. But I’m not sure I know why you told him and I’m not sure I know why he went to the trouble of taking me--”
“You’re not used to people doing nice things for you, are you?” Iron Man asks.
“Well,” Eve says. And in that moment, she realizes she’s not. People don’t do nice things for her. People don’t give her gifts, they don’t do her favors. Only Bucky, just Bucky. “No,” she says. “But I don’t know what he wants in return.”
Iron Man is quiet for a moment. They’re near the Mansion, and he descends gently onto the rooftop. There’s nearly no impact as he lands.
It’s late afternoon, the golden hour, and the New York City skyline is tinged with rose-colored light.
“People don’t always want something in return, Eve,” Iron Man says.
She blinks at him.
It takes Eve a moment to remember that she has to let go. She drops her hands, and he drops his, and she steps back. “Maybe not,” she says. “But the people who don’t-- that’s one in an million.”
She rubs her hands on the front of her trousers. “You talked to him about the uniform, too. Did you tell him to make it? Did you tell him to find Bucky?” she asks.
“I don’t think I was exactly telling him,” Iron Man answers. He rubs a hand over his metal face, a tactile gesture that seems amusing, coming from a metal man. Or at least it would, in another context. “Goddamnit, Eve, am I-- I want you to feel welcome here; I want you to feel like you’ve got friends, and you can trust us, but if I’m doing it all wrong--”
The statement seems so uncertain, so incongruous with his steadfast, solid armor, and Eve winces.
“This would be easier if I could see your face,” she says, a touch more sharply than she intends to.
Something in him seems to recoil, and he straightens up, his posture becoming more rigid, more mechanical, more like what she expects from a metal suit. “Yeah, it would be,” he answers. His tone is brusque, almost chilly, and he takes off again, hovering in the air just a foot above the rooftop where they landed.
“Sorry,” Iron Man says.
“And what?” Eve asks. “You gonna just fly away instead of talking about it?”
“Yep,” he answers, and ascends into the pink-hued clouds.
Eve kicks at the roof, muttering obscenities to herself, before she goes back down to the house.
She kicks a few things, takes her uniform off, goes down to the gym and punches a few things, then goes back up to her room and calls Tony at work.
At first, she thinks he’s answered the phone, but he hasn’t; it’s only that tape recording that answers for him when he’s away from his desk.
She hangs up.
She calls again.
Three tries later, she manages to talk to the tape recording. There’s something discomfiting about it; it feels like her voice is just disappearing, like she’s speaking to no one.
“Hey, uh,” she says. “It’s Eve. It’s not important. Bye.”
She wonders if that’s how she’s supposed to use these things; she’s pretty sure she’s done it wrong. But Tony finds her that night, when she goes down to dinner late, later than everyone else, so she doesn’t have to see Iron Man if he’s there.
She’s eating cold cereal without milk. It’s got some name with crunch in it, and a cartoon character on the box, but there are too many of them, and she can’t be bothered to remember all the names.
“What’s up?” Tony asks, without preface. Then he squints at her. “Is that your dinner?”
Eve shrugs. “It’s fine,” she says.
“It’s not fine; come on,” Tony answers, and then next thing Eve knows, he’s banging cupboards and refrigerator drawers, and has a skillet on the stove. “How d’you like your eggs?” he asks.
“You already have a skillet,” Eve observes.
“Yeah, because I’m hoping you’ll say over easy,” Tony replies.
Eve snorts. “Over easy,” she says, and Tony grins.
“So,” Tony repeats, as the eggs sizzle in the pan. “What’s up?”
“I pissed your buddy off,” Eve tells him. “And now I’m pissed off.”
“Which buddy?” Tony answers. “Iron Man?”
“D’you have any other buddies?” Eve asks.
“Sure. Lots.” Tony puts a few slices of bread into the toaster. “You want cheese?”
“Sure,” Eve replies.
“So, what?” Tony asks. “You want me to play peacemaker, or something? Cause I can’t do that; I’d be... unfairly biased.”
“I can fight my own fights, thanks,” Eve answers. “I want you to rethink your damn policy.”
“Which policy?” Tony asks.
Eve shrugs. “The whole secret identity thing. It’s a load of bull, if you don’t mind my saying.”
"It's not that easy," Tony says, with a frown. "The... implications of Iron Man unmasking himself go a lot deeper than I'd care to admit. They'd have personal ramifications for everybody I know, for my company, all my employees. You know I have twenty thousand people working for me, right? I have to consider what's best for all of them, even when it might not be my preference."
He scoops the eggs onto the toast, offers Eve a nice little egg and cheese sandwich, sits down across from her with his own sandwich, and plops a bottle of bright red sauce with a rooster on it down between them. "Try that," he says. "But be warned, it's hot."
"I'm not saying he needs to go public," Eve says irritably. Cautiously, she squeezes a small amount of the red sauce into her eggs and closes her sandwich. "But it's not fair to this team, is it?"
Tony's right, she realizes, as she crunches into the sandwich. It's delicious.
Tony's expression changes; it's suddenly sad, and she can't quite figure out why. "No," he answers, running a hand over his face. "It isn't." He takes a deep breath, looks down at his own sandwich, pokes it, and pushes it aside. “But you of all people know that trying to push someone to do something they’re not ready for…”
Eve mulls it over, over her bite of sandwich. “Is that the problem?” she asks. “What’s--” She stops herself. “Never mind. Like you said. I should be asking him, not you.”
“I don’t care if you ask,” Tony assures her. Now he looks from Eve to his dinner, reaches for the sandwich, loads it up with the rooster sauce, and takes a big bite. She can hear him crunching. “He’s as scared, I think, of how the Avengers would feel about it. Whether they -- you -- would still want him, if you knew.”
There’s an intensity in his eyes, a directness in the way he looks at her, that makes her wonder whether he’s talking about all the Avengers, or only her, what exactly he means when he says want.
She bites her lip. His eyes are strikingly blue.
She shakes off the thought that flickers through her mind. Jan would know, if that were the case. It was too simple, too easy.
“He doesn’t have anything to be scared of,” she says, finally. She supposes that could answer any possible question being asked.
She finishes her sandwich, pushes the empty plate away, and starts picking at the cereal again. “You said we could go to Bucky’s again,” she says. “Can we?”
Tony grins. “Sure.”
“Billy Joel,” Tony answers. “Patron saint of Long Island. You live here, it doesn’t matter what else you like, you’ve gotta listen to Billy Joel.” He drums his fingers on the top of his gearshift as he slides from one gear to another with a practiced ease that, Eve has learned, most Americans don’t have.
Tony seems to know all the words, and sings them along unabashedly, occasionally looking at Eve as if he expects her to join in.
“I don’t sing,” she informs him, finally.
“Everybody sings,” he says, in between lyrics. “Come on, Virginia,” he says, in a singsong, and she blinks at him before she realizes that’s the next line in the song.
He drums at the steering wheel, clearly enjoying himself. Eve finally relents and joins in on the “only the good die young” bit, which seems to be the only part of the song that repeats enough for her to sing along.
“So, listen,” Eve says, when they park the car. “I’m here with an ulterior motive.”
“Yeah?” Tony asks. “What’s that?”
“I wanna talk to Gail,” Eve explains. “So if you could, um. You think you can show Bucky some of your tech stuff?”
Tony snickers. “Sure,” he answers, and tosses a salute. “Aye, aye, Cap’n.”
Tony, magically, manages to tow Bucky upstairs with a promise of re-aligning their television dish, and Eve’s left alone with Gail.
“He’s thrilled you’re back,” Gail says, and she glances at the ceiling.
Eve smiles, shyly. “Of course I’m back. What, did you think you’d see us once and then not hear from us again ‘til the holidays?”
“Young people,” Gail says, holding her hands in the air. “That’s what you do. Up and leave home and never call.”
Eve snorts. “Well, I don’t have anybody else to call,” she says, resolving to actually call more often. “Look, uh,” she says. “I wanna ask you about something.”
“Me?” Gail asks. “We can wait for James.”
“No,” Eve replies. “You. I want to ask you.”
“Of course,” Gail replies, but she looks mildly confused, squinting at the request. “What is it? It’s not about--” She points upstairs with her index finger, and gives a meaningful look.
“No,” Eve answers, rolling her eyes. “I mean...I guess it is, but not the way you mean. He made me a new uniform,” she says.
“Yes,” Gail answers, nodding. “You mentioned that last time you were here. What does this have to do with--”
“It’s a girl’s uniform,” Eve says. “I mean. Cut.” She points to her chest. “For breasts. And…” She shrugs. “I look like a woman in it.”
Gail purses her lips. “I see,” she replies. “It’s not one of those terrible chainmail bikini things the ladies wear in comic books, is it?”
“No!” Eve exclaims, laughing. “No, no, it’s... it’s a proper uniform. It looks just like the other one. It’s just tailored to fit me, and not to fit the person I’m pretending to be.”
“But it was always you, Eve, wasn’t it?” Gail asks. “Even with a flat chest and a deep voice, you were always the same person. You may have been disguised, but you weren’t pretending.”
Eve considers Gail’s words for a moment, twisting her fingers around each other. “No,” she agrees. “I suppose not. But I…”
She sighs. “If I wear it, I’ll be me. Steve’s... safe. I can hide behind him; people don’t... they don’t joke about me being on the rag; they don’t talk down to me or call me ‘sweetheart.’ They take for granted that I know what to do. And I’ve been him for so long. All of my adult life and a lot of my childhood.”
Gail blinks at her. “Why not talk to James about this?” she asks. “He knew you back then. He was with you on the front. I wasn’t--”
“Because I need to talk to a woman,” Eve says. “I need to know. If I put on that uniform, it changes everything. It changes how people see me; it changes-- it changes how I see myself.”
“But for every man who makes a joke,” Gail says. “There’s also a little girl who sees another hero like her.”
“Yeah,” Eve says, biting her lip, and she swallows tightly. “And I want to know if it’s worth it.”
“I don’t know,” Gail answers. “I’m not a superhero. I’ve never fought in a battle. Evie, I’m a mother who raised four children and whose proudest moment was seeing them leave home and do better than I could. All I can tell you is what it would have meant to my girls. But I think you already know that, and that’s why you’re asking.”
“I’m not sure I know how to be a girl,” Eve says. “I don’t know if I can be. I have no idea how to act like--”
“Why does that matter?” Gail asks. “You don’t have to act like a girl. You just have to act like Captain America.”
Eve and Tony stay for dinner. The food is delicious, and Tony absolutely charms both Bucky and Gail this time, demonstrating his newest theory on atomic energy using various items of silverware and a dinner roll. They talk more about the Avengers, talk more about Tony’s business, more news about the grandchildren -- there are ten of them, and Eve can’t keep them straight for the life of her -- and Gail insists on sending them off with several cartons of leftovers.
“This is great,” Tony says, after they start back for home. “It’s almost like having parents.”
“What?” Tony asks. “You know my dad was shitty. I know yours was, too. And neither of us have any now, so--”
“No,” Eve says. “I’m laughing because you’re right.”
Tony blasts Billy Joel all the way back to the Mansion, with both windows down.
They pull into the garage and walk up to the house together. Tony has the bag of leftovers in his hand.
“So, did, uh-- did you get to talk to Gail about--”
“Yeah,” Eve answers.
“Good?” Tony asks.
“Yeah,” Eve says. “I think so.”
Somewhere between the elevator and the corner where the hallway branches off to their respective parts of the house, their fingers intertwined, but Eve doesn’t remember when or how it happened.
Tony doesn’t remark on it, just lets go, and salutes her. “Night, Cap,” he says, looking terribly pleased with his pun.
Eve nods, unsure what else to do. “Night,” she says, and she waves at him, even though he’s terribly close. It seems silly, then, and she shoves her hand back down to her side.
Which is when Tony stands up on his tiptoes and kisses her on the cheek.
He turns and leaves, and Eve feels her cheeks go hot.
“Fuck,” she mutters, as she starts for her own room, deliberately, faster than she normally walks, her head down as if she’s trudging through a snowstorm.
“Hey!” comes a call, a few moments later.
She starts, head jerking up uncomfortably fast, and turns back around.
Tony jogs to catch up with her, running a hand through his hair as he stops a few paces away. Safe, she thinks, not close enough to kiss her again.
“Hey, Eve,” he says.
“Yeah?” she asks, hoping her face isn’t red anymore, trying to seem unflustered.
“I have a, uh.” He snaps his mouth shut, like he’s forgotten what he’s going to say. “Sorry. A thing. Tomorrow night. A... a fancy thing. Dinner. Dancing. Charity thing. You could. Uh. You could come, if you’d like to.”
“Okay,” Eve replies, before she’s processed what he’s said.
Tony’s eyebrows pop up. “Yeah?” he asks. “Yes? That’s a yes-okay?”
“Um…” Now that she’s said yes, Eve thinks, she has to go through with it, though part of her is trying not to tremble. “Yes-okay?” She takes a breath. “I’d like to. Yes.”
Her heart is drumming in her chest. She hides her hands behind her back so he can’t see them shaking.
But he’s smiling, mouth open and goofy-looking, and his eyes are wide and bright. “Yes. Okay.” He gives her a thumbs up. “Seven. Jarvis can drive. I’ll, uh. If you need help with girl-stuff, ask Jan? She’s good at that. Okay. Tomorrow night,” he repeats, and bounces a little bit on the balls of his feet before scurrying away.
Eve makes it back to her room a little bit dazed, running Tony’s words over in her head, over and over. Now that she’s back, she’s wondering if this was meant to be a date, or if he simply had a seat free at this event. But Tony always had dates; if he wanted a date, he could ask any girl he wanted.
And she still hasn’t decided what do about Iron Man.
“Fuck,” she mutters again, and drags herself to bed.
She sleeps poorly; she tosses and turns and has anxiety dreams about tripping over a poofy ballgown and being made to wear high heels, about her hair suddenly growing down to her shoulders in long, flowing blonde curls, about being late, about getting to the event and finding out that she was expected to get up and sing a Billy Joel song.
It’s on nights like these, she thinks, that she’s fortunate the serum allows her to sleep so little. Still, she’s peaky in the morning, and she suspects it’s not the lack of sleep.
She does as Tony had advised, and seeks Jan out. Jan’s, fortunately, in her workroom, the one where she actually sews clothing, and Eve looks around at the rows of thread spools hanging on the walls, at the neatly organized bolts of cloth on racks, and wonders if this is where her uniform came into being. She finds her hand grazing along a length of something fluffy and impossibly soft.
Jan takes her foot off the sewing machine pedal, and the buzzing dies down. “Hey, there, stranger,” she says.
Eve waves sheepishly. “You got a minute?” she asks. “Or... it might take more than a minute.”
“I have a plethora of minutes,” Jan assures her.
“I have to go to a party,” Eve says.
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Jan answers. “I’m so glad; you…” She grins. “You’re going out! What kind of party is it?”
She suddenly fills with cold dread as she realizes she’s going to have to tell Jan not only what kind of party, but with whom.
Eve decides to rip off the proverbial bandage, but she can’t quite meet Jan’s eyes as she does it. “Tony asked me to a... charity thing.”
Jan makes a choking noise. “He did?”
“Why?” Eve asks. “What’s wrong?”
Jan laughs. Her laugh is throaty, musical, and she tips her head back like it’s the funniest thing she’s ever heard. “Nothing,” she says. “Only he was adamant a couple of days ago that he couldn’t possibly.”
“He--” Eve blinks. “The kitchen. That’s what you were--”
“I told you he was smitten,” Jan says, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Did you listen? Nope. Anyway. Assistance?”
Eve looks down at her clothing, at her corduroy pants and buttondown shirt and sweater vest. “Uh, Yes, please.”
“You want a dress?” Jan asks.
Eve isn’t sure. “I... guess so?” she answers. She rubs her hands against the weave of the soft corduroy. “I think... yeah. I don’t want heels, though.”
“Oh, I would not put you in heels,” Jan assures her. She steps over with a measuring tape, and sizes Eve up. “We’re not going to be able to find anything for you in a normal store. You’re at least an eighteen and I think even most plus-sized dresses are going to be too short on you. Why didn’t you ask me sooner?”
“Tony asked me last night,” Eve explains uncomfortably. “I didn’t know, or I would have--”
Jan lets out a very long sigh. “I am going to be having words with Tony about putting you on the spot. Off,” Jan says, gesturing to Eve’s clothes. “All of it, off.”
Eve pulls off her sweater, and then her pants, and begins unbuttoning her shirt when Jan frowns at her underpants. “Are those... boxers?” she asks.
“Yeah,” Eve replies. “I like boxers; they’re--”
“Please tell me you own panties,” Jan says, a pleading tone in her voice.
Eve grimaces and shakes her head. “I don’t like how the elastic--”
Jan sucks in a deep breath, as she whips the measuring tape around various parts of Eve’s body. “Okay,” she says. “What time do you have to leave?”
“Seven,” Eve says.
“Good, so, knowing Tony, we have until eight,” Jan says. She bites her lip, and her eyes look far to the left, and she counts, silently. “I can do this. But I’m going to need all day to do this. You are going to need to go buy yourself a thong.”
“Panties,” Jan says. “Really tiny panties. And probably a bra, too,” she says. “Thong. Strapless, backless bra. Think you can do that on your own?”
Eve doesn’t actually think she can, but she nods.
“Good.” Jan gives her a thumbs-up, and points to her clothes on the floor. “Go shopping. I’ll take care of this.”
“Thank you,” Eve says.
Jan hands her a card. “Go here. Tell them I sent you. Get your hair cut and your nails done.”
Eve gets a ride to a department store with Jarvis, who very kindly waits while she attempts to navigate the lingerie section. It’s a horror of lace and ribbon and confusing bra sizes, but a kind woman whips another measuring tape around her, whistles at the size of her ribcage, and packs her off with a tiny scrap of underwear that costs a terrifying amount of money, a bra that costs an even more terrifying amount of money, as far as Eve is concerned, and what she calls an extender that fits between the hooks in back to make the bra wider.
She goes to the hair salon on Jan’s instructions, and in an hour she leaves with hair that is softly waved and smells like vanilla and flowers, and fingers and toes that are painted a soft pink, after the manicurist told her to pick a bottle of polish and Eve, intimidated by the rows and rows of bottles, thrust her hand out, plucked up the nearest, and was grateful that it wasn’t bright orange.
They scrub what feels like all of the skin off of her hands and feet, and slice the calluses off her heels with a razor. She cringes, her toes curling inward, and the manicurist tells her to relax what seems like a hundred times.
Holding her hands out in front of herself, and her feet in the awkwardly-too-small flip flops they’d provided her in the salon, she shuffles back to Jarvis’ car. Her fingers feel funny, her nails feel heavy, and they’re too neat, too square, too pink. She’s afraid to move them, to touch anything, and ruin the paint.
By the time she gets back, Jan has something that's beginning to resemble a dress. It's a deep navy blue, and it makes Eve's eyes look like they're shining. Jan pins her into it in places, takes more measurements, and tells her to scoot and leave her to work. Eve's belly is rumbling with nerves; the closer it gets, the more terrified she is.
She feels like an idiot. Here she is, Captain America, literally capable of wrestling a nuclear warhead off-course, literally capable of taking down planes single-handed, and here she's panicking over going to a party. She's been to parties; she went to state dinners in Europe, but it was always in the costume as Steve, never as Eve.
She's too fidgety to do anything, so she finds a box of cookies and eats the entire thing, one by one, then devours two bags of chips, three apples, a batch of air-popped popcorn, a jar of pickles, a box of cereal, and three peanut butter sandwiches.
She looks at the mess of boxes and wrappers left on the kitchen counter, scoops them up, and deposits them in their various trash and recycling containers with a sigh. At least she doesn't lose her appetite when she's nervous, she supposes.
Then Jan's calling her down to her workroom, holding up a finished dress and showing her how to put it on. It's a halter that gives her arms a full range of motion with a high neck and a wide, sweeping skirt to accommodate Eve's long strides. The top is beaded just a little, delicately, right across the sternum in a five-petaled flower of silver-blue, and Eve smiles in amusement at the little nod to her costume.
The dress is beautiful. Jan pins it in a few spots, brings the waist in slightly, and then instructs Eve to take it off again to make the final adjustments.
"You okay?" Jan asks, as she looks up from her sewing machine, watching Eve sit nervously in her underwear -- still her own, usual boxers, though she'd had to abandon her sports bra to try on the dress.
"Yeah," Eve says. "I just... I've..."
"I know," Jan reminds her. "You want to go up to your room and put on your tux? I won't kill you."
Eve shakes her head. "I want to... it's stupid. I want to be one of those girls in those pictures, even though I know I'm not."
"You don't have to be them," Jan says. "You -- jeez, Eve. Tony won't care."
"I'm gonna be in the newspapers," Eve points out. "And magazines. I... I care. I told you, it's stupid."
"Yeah," Jan says. "Sorry. It is stupid, Eve. But I think we're all that kind of stupid, sometimes. And it's your first, like, big--"
"It's my first date," Eve amends. "I've never been on a date. And I'm not even sure it is a date."
Jan looks at her with wide eyes. "It's definitely a date," she says. "Oh, honey. Really?"
"I danced with girls during the war," Eve says. "In my uniform. Being Steve. I'm terrible at it, and also kinda scared I don't know how to follow."
Jan laughs. "So lead," she says.
Jan sends her up to her room to shower and put on her lacy underwear. She cuts her knees shaving and even a serum-enhanced healing factor doesn't stop the blood from dripping down her shins. She sticks adhesive bandages on both knees, which makes her feel like a small child, and she stands staring in the mirror, looking awkward and stupid. Her cleavage is deep enough to lose something in, and the thong doesn't even cover her pubic hair. She wonders if she should shave it, but the hairlessness of her underarms and legs already makes her feel like a plucked chicken. Her hip bones stick out weirdly: her shoulders are enormous.
She wants to call Jan, tell her to abort the mission, but instead she eats a bag of gummi bears and drinks a two liter bottle of Coke.
Jan comes up with the dress, and what looks like a plastic toolbox. It's full of cosmetics. "I had to borrow white people makeup," Jan says, almost apologetically. "But I think it'll work."
Eve keeps her eyes closed while Jan applies stuff to her face. It’s not quite as heavy as Eve expects from her limited experience with makeup before the war, but she can still feel it, moist and powdery in turns, a layer of film on her skin. The powder puff tickles her nose, and she has to fight not to sneeze. Then Jan spritzes her face with something from a spray bottle. She flinches, but Jan tells her she can open her eyes now.
Jan, very kindly, didn’t do much to her face. Her pores look smaller, her skin looks clearer, there’s a dusting of pale pink over her cheeks, and a sleek blue shadow over her eyes, but nothing else.
Jan puts tiny beaded barrettes in Eve’s hair that match the flower on her dress, and tiny beaded earrings that sparkle, and helps Eve into her gown.
She doesn’t look like herself, Eve thinks, she looks like something out of a movie: tall and blue and golden and regal.
The thong is sticking in the crack of her ass. She wants to pick it out.
“I feel like a moose in a dress,” she says to Jan.
“You look like a queen,” Jan assures her.
“Queen Moose?” Eve asks.
“You look like you’re going to smite people with your scepter.” But Jan gives her an encouraging smile. “It’s not too late,” she says. “You still have that tux.”
Eve shakes her head. “Nope,” she says. “It’s a mission, Jan. I’m treating it like a mission. I have to go be the prettiest girl at the ball.”
Jan grins, and waves her toward the door. “I’ll be standing by for a debrief,” Jan says cheerfully. “I mean, unless Tony is.”
Eve nearly chokes.
She expects him to be late, Jan says he’s always late, but he’s there in the foyer waiting for her.
He’s staring when she walks in, his mouth part-open.
It’s the one thing she hasn’t prepared herself for.
He’s wearing a crisp, well-tailored tuxedo, his hair is properly combed, his beard is trimmed, and he’s staring.
Her skirts float over the floor, and she catches the enormous portrait of herself looming above them out of the corner of her eye. It makes her feel self-conscious, like she has too much to live up to.
“Hey,” she says, when Tony doesn’t say a word.
He swallows, and slides a finger inside the collar of his tuxedo shirt, then holds out an arm to her. “You clean up nice, there, Rogers,” he says.
She takes his arm. “What’d you do, put a vest on to cover up the grease stains?”
He pats the front of his jacket. “Don’t joke,” he replies. “I’ve got my favorite wrench in my pocket.”
What Tony hasn’t told her is that the event is at the New York Public Library main branch. The entire library has been shut down; there’s a massive red carpet leading up the iconic staircase, and Eve finds herself breathless and gasping as they exit the car.
“Just follow my lead,” Tony says, taking her arm again. “Smile, nod, wave, you want me to do the talking?”
She nods hastily.
“You’ll be fine, Cap,” Tony assures her, softly. “You fucking punched Hitler.”
“That was a promotional still,” Eve mutters back.
When they get to the doors, there’s an area with a velvet rope and a high wall made of plastic sheeting with a lot of names printed on it that Eve doesn’t know. They have to stand and pose in front of it. Tony walks up first; flashes a grin at the cameras, raises a hand to wave.
“Who’s your date?!” someone shouts.
He crooks a finger at her. She hesitates, and then joins him.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?!” Tony crows back cheerfully. He puts a hand up against her lower back, and even though she knows it’s meant as reassurance, a tingle ripples up her spine, and she glances down at him, then up at the cameras.
“You okay?” he asks her. She nods.
“You wanna stay incognito?” he asks.
“What’s your name?!” one of the photographers calls.
She glances at Tony. “Yeah,” she decides, in that instant. “Please.”
“Sorry, pal,” Tony answers. “She’s my imaginary friend. Figment of your imagination.” He smirks up at her.
“Miss?!” one of the photographers asks. “Who are you wearing?”
“Who…?” Eve asks, blinking.
“Jan,” Tony murmurs.
“Oh!” Eve smiles at the photographer. “Janet Van Dyne.”
A few more flashbulbs go off, and Tony offers her an arm again, waving at the paparazzi. “Thanks, ladies and gents; we’re done for now; see you all indoors.”
Eve blows out a breath the moment they’re past the line of photographers. “Shit, that’s intense,” she says.
“You did good,” Tony assures her. “You get used to it, really, being in the spotlight all the time.”
“I couldn’t,” Eve says. “I--”
Tony lowers his arm, slips his fingers between hers. “People aren’t going to give you a choice,” he says. It’s an apology; she can tell, and he looks up at her earnestly.
“Okay,” she says.
“Yeah?” Tony asks, raising an eyebrow.
Every inch of her is screaming internally.
“Yeah,” she says. “It’s okay.”
He checks them in at the front door, and they walk into the palatial main lobby of the Library. The lighting is red and refracting through a waterfall of crystals suspended from the ceiling; there is live jazz music playing, and women in enormous dresses that, Eve realizes, extend out from their hips as wide tables covered in dainty hors d’oeuvres.
“This isn’t extravagant at all,” Eve mutters.
“Someday I’ll take you to a party at the Met,” Tony retorts, and squeezes her fingers.
She takes a chocolate bonbon off a woman’s dress, and catches herself before she apologizes.
Someone shouts Tony’s name. He waves and starts over.
It seems as if Tony knows everyone; he introduces her to a never-ending parade of people, calls her Eve, just Eve, and, when people ask her too many questions, when the questions delve beyond small talk, he diverts the conversation, and his arm slides protectively around her waist. They get their answers down pat soon enough, and Eve feels silly for being unprepared, but she’s rattling off white lies like she’s known them all her life: she’s from Brooklyn, that’s not a lie; she’s a commercial artist (she had wanted to be, once upon a time); she has a nursing degree (not a lie); and the reason no one’s ever met her is because she’s been in France for the past few years. Where? All over. Paris, of course, yes, does she know so-and-so, no, hmm, maybe, the name sounds familiar, but not well.
It’s exhausting. Tony presses a drink into her hand, and then another, and for once she wishes alcohol had an effect on her.
She still feels like a moose. She towers over everyone but the tallest men, and some of the men aren’t shy about pointing it out. Her arms are gigantic (“Stark, what are you doing with a girl who could crush you?”). Her chest is a brick wall (“Hey, Tony, you sure she’s a woman under there?”).
“Fuck off,” she says, to the last one.
She doesn’t mean to; she’s trying to rein in her temper, trying not to punch the guy in the mouth, and she knows Tony will tell him off: Tony’s been loudly disapproving of anyone who maligns his date, but this one--
“Fuck off,” she says.
“Whoa,” says the man. “You’ve got a mouth on you, Pretty.”
“She’s not the one using her mouth to insult strangers,” Tony snaps. “You wanna do what the lady says and fuck off?”
“You gonna make me?”
The last thing Eve expects is that she’s going to be the one holding Tony back from a fight. His fingers are curled into a fist (to be fair, so are hers), and he’s striding toward the man, when Eve tugs him back.
“Come on,” she says.
“Not worth it?” Tony asks.
She shakes her head. “Definitely not worth it.”
So Tony flips the bird at guy in question and stalks off, snagging several tiny cakes off one of the women’s dresses as they go up the staircase, into one of the smaller rooms, one that’s been set aside as a lounge. He passes a cake to Eve as he sits down on a remarkable-looking velvet plush sofa, runs a hand over his face.
“Sorry,” he mutters.
Eve shrugs. “I ended that as much for my sake as for yours. I could have actually killed him,” she points out. “Move over.”
Tony slides over, and she sits down beside him.
“This is awful, isn’t it?” he asks.
She shakes her head. “No,” she says. “Well. Yeah,” she amends, looking around at all the glitter, all the people, all the ruckus. “It’s pretty awful. But you’re not awful.”
He gives her a halfhearted smile. “I’m sorry,” he says. “You look gorgeous, for what it’s worth.”
Eve runs her hands down her skirt. “Thanks,” she says.
“But I can also tell you hate it,” Tony observes. “You look miserable. I shouldn’t have told you to ask Jan about girl things.”
“Had to try it,” Eve says with a shrug. “Now I know I hate it, at least.”
“You could’ve showed up in your jeans and a tee shirt, and I’d’ve been happy,” Tony tells her. He glances at her, hesitantly, reaches for her hand.
She snatches his hand up in return. “I’ll remember that for next time,” she assures him.
Tony raises an eyebrow. “Next time implies you’re planning to come to another one,” he reminds her. “Careful what you wish for.”
“Careful what you wish for,” she retorts. “You keep asking, I’ll keep showing up.”
“Is that supposed to be a threat?” Tony asks.
“Maybe,” Eve answers. “I look better than you in a tux.”
Tony’s eyes widen, and the look of adoration on his face is so complete that Eve half wants to kiss him, half wants to run and hide. “I’d love to see you in a tux,” he whispers.
Eve swallows; the hair on her arms is standing up and she’s sure, sure that Tony can see it, even in the dark, even when the hair in question is pale blonde. “You will,” she says, and she rubs at her forearm.
He’s leaning closer.
Her hands are shaking.
“But this is the last time I’m gonna wear a dress like this,” she blurts. “So I wanna get whirled around the dance floor like a princess at least once.”
Tony blinks, and then grins, and he holds out his hands to her. “Okay, Captain Princess,” he says. “Let’s go find a dance floor.”
The first room they find with music is blaring electronic music and flashing lights, and Eve still has no idea how to dance to it, and her dress seems much too large anyway. The bluesy jazz in the foyer isn’t right, either.
It takes them a trip all the way up to the third floor to find a long, massive hall lined with paintings, where there’s a small orchestra with a grand piano playing music Eve knows too well.
A smile spreads across her face. “Gershwin?”
“Yeah?” Tony asks. He squeezes her hand, glances out at the dance floor.
She squeezes back. “Yeah,” she answers, and starts for the floor, purposefully.
It takes them a few tries to get their arms sorted out, for Eve to follow Tony’s steps, and he looks entirely too amused.
They’ve barely begun when Eve realizes she’s leading. “Sorry,” she mutters, and attempts to readjust to match Tony.
“Don’t be,” Tony assures her cheerfully, waggling his eyebrows at her. “We all know you’re a born leader.”
She makes a face, but keeps on going. Any vision she had of herself floating around the dance floor as if her skirts were clouds is completely crushed by reality. “I’m... actually terrible at this,” she observes, the third time she steps on his foot.
He pulls her closer, tips his head up to look in her eyes. “You want to stop?” he asks.
Her cheeks go warm, and her throat goes dry. “No,” she answers.
“Good,” he murmurs.
They give up all pretense of dancing, swaying in place on the floor.
“Listen.” Tony says. “Not to, uh, fuck up the moment, but there’s something I need to say.”
“Yeah?” Eve asks. Her heart flutters in her chest. And then, suddenly, she sees herself back in that cafe with Bucky, and it’s replaced with a sense of impending doom.
“You’re, uh. I have a feeling you’re not going to be happy,” Tony says.
She cringes, but forces herself to shrug it off. “Try me,” she whispers.
They’re interrupted by a thundering crash, and suddenly there are shards of glass raining down on the dancefloor, party guests screaming and running for the door, a cacophonous screech from the orchestra as the confused and terrified musicians stop playing mid-song.
The thing that crashes through the glass is enormous, with a bulbous head and huge, leathery wings. It roars, exposing huge, stumpy canines.
Eve swears as she realizes she doesn’t have her radio on her, the one that lets her issue a Call to Assemble.
And then there’s a gun -- Eve doesn’t know where it comes from, but a man with a gun approaches the monster and shoots.
The bullet does nothing.
The monster aims its own gun at the man, and shoots. He’s vaporized before their eyes. There are more screams, more clamoring guests. The monster roars again.
It makes a sweep of the room with its fist.
And snatches up Tony.
Eve screams before she can stop herself. Tony’s clutching at the monster’s hand; he grimaces at it for a moment, and then bites down on its massive finger.
“Call Iron Man!” Eve yells at him.
“I can’t!” Tony shouts back.
Eve’s face is going hot, she’s casing the room for something to use as a weapon, but that gun -- she has to get it away from the monster.
“What the everliving fuck do you mean you can’t, Stark?” she roars at him, as she picks up a folding chair.
She whirls to face him as the monster raises the gun again, shooting a hole in the wall. The people behind it scream at it vanishes in front of their eyes.
“I was trying to tell you!” Tony cries at her. “I can’t!” There’s terror in his eyes; they’re wide and so, so very bright blue.
Cold dread hits her as she comprehends what he means. “Oh, fuck you, Shellhead,” she snaps. “Talk about timing!”
Eve lunges forward, but stumbles on her skirts. Growling, she tears the skirt at her knee. The sound of fabric ripping is like a scream in her ears, and she starts forward again.
The monster takes aim again, shoots the chair, which vaporizes in her hands.
The gun’s pointed at her.
She dives for the floor and rolls, tumbling directly through the monster’s trunklike bowlegs.
“What is she doing?!” she hears someone from the crowd scream.
“LADY, GET OUT OF THERE!”
The monster roars and lumbers around to face her -- good, she thinks, seeing that it’s not terribly speedy.
“I’M NOT A FUCKING LADY,” she shouts back.
She grabs a shard of glass from the floor, the biggest one she can find, and jabs it into the side of the monster’s knee.
The thing screams, and its arms flail. Tony’s struggling to free himself; he loses a shoe in the process.
Eve picks it up and uses the sole to hammer the glass further in, but now the monster is facing her again, and it points the gun as she scrambles over the floor, using the cello from the orchestra as a shield.
The cello is zapped out of existence, and Eve picks up the bass, hefting it one-handed like a club.
“How the hell is she doing that?!” someone shouts.
And then the flashbulbs start, coming as fast and as bright as they did on the red carpet.
“Fuck,” Eve mutters. “Fucking idiots.”
“Stop staring at me!” she yells. “And get yourselves to safety!” as she takes a swing at the monster’s gun-hand with the bass. The wood splinters over the monster’s hand, surprising it, but doing little else.
Eve retreats to the piano, sucking in a deep breath.
She bangs her hands down on the keys out of frustration, the hammers slam the strings inside, and the piano jerks forward.
It’s on wheels.
The monster aims the gun at her again.
She shoves the piano forward with all her strength.
It’s off like a shot, speeding toward the monster at the speed of a truck.
The creature topples on impact, and crashes into the piano. There’s a cacophony of snapping strings and splintering wood, and Tony screams.
“You still with me!?” Eve shouts.
“M-mostly!” Tony answers.
The monster flails, trying to get up, but its large body and short, squat legs make it difficult for it to right itself. Eve stalks up to it and tugs at the gun in its hand, but it won’t release it: its grip is too tight.
She snatches up the length of her torn dress and wrenches it around the thing’s wrist like a garrotte, tighter and tighter while the monster roars and tries to pat her away, until the monster’s hand loses its grip.
The gun clatters to the floor.
The monster swipes at her, and its claw cuts into her shoulder, slices through the strap of her dress. She falls back, grunting as she hits the floor, but she reaches for the gun, her shoulder in agony as she strains to grip it.
She fires it at the monster, and it’s gone.
Tony falls to the floor with a thud.
A cheer rises from the hall.
“Oh for god’s sake!” Eve snaps at the crowd. “You were supposed to go home!”
She sits, panting, blood streaming down the front of her ruined gown, glistening off the beadwork.
And the flashbulbs go off again.
She’s too tired to do anything about it now.
She reaches for the torn end of her gown and wipes the sweat off her forehead, and shuts her eyes.
She feels a hand on her shoulder, moving to her neck, then her face, cupping her cheek, one thumb stroking her lower lip.
“Eve?” Tony says. “We’ve gotta get you to a medic.”
She shakes her head without opening her eyes. “It’s nothing,” she says. “Healing factor, remember?”
She reaches for his other arm, catches at it tightly, and then remembers she’s supposed to be angry with him, and blinks her eyes open.
“You-- why the fuck haven’t you told anyone?” she hisses at him.
“I’ve told someone,” Tony mutters.
“Jarvis,” Eve agrees brusquely. “Not your team. Why couldn’t you just--”
“Do we... do we have to do this here?” Tony pleads. “Please, you can skewer me seven ways to Sunday the minute we’re home, just--”
“Tony,” she says. Her voice comes out in a low growl. “You’re an idiot.”
“Yeah,” he agrees. “Yeah, pretty much; I kind of use too much of my brain on improving the state of the world to, uh, have any left over for social niceties or--”
She sighs, and puts a hand to her forehead, and wriggles out of his reach. “I don’t wanna hear it,” she says, as she pushes herself to her feet. “I just fought a monster, I have a thong riding up my ass, and I look like a fucking mess.”
She wobbles as she steadies herself, and the photographers are at it again.
“Miss!?” one of them shouts. “Miss--”
She’s about to whirl on them, nostrils flaring and teeth bared, but Tony’s on his feet, too, and he catches at her elbow. The touch stills her, and she looks back at him.
When she turns, he offers her his arm again. His tie is undone, his jacket is torn, and his tuxedo shirt is smeared with what she suspects must be her blood. “You look like the prettiest girl in the room,” he insists.
She looks down at her blood-soaked front. Her hair’s fallen out of its pins, into her eyes. “Yeah?” she asks, a slow smile spreading over her face.
“Yeah,” he answers.
“Mission accomplished,” she whispers, and takes his arm.
“Healing factor,” she mutters, over and over.
“Yeah, but we don’t know what that thing is,” Tony points out. “Could be poison, could be able to counteract the serum. I’m not letting you die of super gangrene or super tetanus or super--”
Eve groans and allows herself to be examined.
Tony hesitates when she shrugs off what remains of her dress. “Is this, uh--” he says, nodding at her now-crimson bra.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Eve says. “It’s not like you’ve never seen tits before.”
Tony makes a face, and dabs away the blood on her shoulder with first water, and then antiseptic. “It’s been a while, actually. I might’ve forgotten what they look like.”
Eve snorts, and wrinkles her nose at the sting of the antiseptic -- which, with her tolerance for pain, is more like a tickle. “I somehow doubt that. I’m sure you can --”
“Can’t. I’ve got a metal plate in my chest; I mean, I could, but it would probably give my game away. Not a lot of people I want to trust with that.” Tony shakes his head, and when he puts down the cloth, he inspects the cut underneath. “I have no idea how to tell if your healing factor’s working,” he admits.
“I can tell. Trust me,” Eve says.
“I’m trying to,” he answers. And when she looks at him, she knows he’s not talking about her healing factor.
She lets out a long breath, and neither of them break their gaze. She reaches her hand up, presses her palm to the center of his chest. He’s still wearing his bloodstained tuxedo shirt, but there’s something solid beneath it, unyielding, unlike flesh.
She watches the way his lips part, the way he inhales sharply at her touch, as if he expects something to happen.
“Tell the others,” she says. “You need to tell them.”
Tony hesitates. “What if they don’t --”
“Are you joking?” Eve asks. “I don’t know what you’re afraid of.”
He purses his lips, and reaches to clasp at her hand where it still rests on his chest. He covers it with his own; his palm is soft and warm against her skin. “Tomorrow,” he agrees. “Not tonight. It’s already been --”
“A long night,” Eve agrees. “Tomorrow.”
Tony slaps a bandage on Eve’s shoulder, in spite of her protests that it’s already healing. “I think you’ll live, Captain,” he says cheerfully.
Eve bites her lip. “I probably need overnight observation,” she ventures.
He steps closer, and the way he cradles the back of her head with his fingertips sends a shiver down her spine. “Yeah?” he asks. He kisses her between the eyes, his lips feather-light, his beard scratching at her nose.
Her shoulders tremble. “Yeah,” she answers, and she wraps her arms around his neck to kiss his mouth. He tastes like whiskey and peppermint, and she forgets to worry about whether she’s kissing properly.
No one is entirely surprised.
When Jan walks in, she squeals, and gives him a hug.
And then she hugs Eve.
“I ruined your dress,” Eve says, apologetically.
“I saw,” Jan assures her. “It’s all over the news.”
“Fuck,” Eve mutters.
By afternoon, they find the first superimposition of her photos at the gala with previous photos of Captain America, of someone marking the square angle of her jaw, her broad shoulders, the way she stands when she wields a shield -- or an upright bass.
She sits at the table, grimacing at the photos. She has to admit she’s impressed with the detective work.
“Well, that’s out of the bag,” she mutters, when Tony squints over her shoulder at the images.
“Makes two of us,” he says, and he puts his hand on her uninjured shoulder, giving it a tight squeeze.
Eve makes a face. “Mine’s a little more public than yours,” she says. She tangles her fingers in his, and he kisses the top of her hair. To her surprise, it feels comforting. “What am I gonna do?”
“I figure you’ll do what you always do,” Tony says. “Go in without a plan and tell everyone to fuck themselves.”
Eve snorts. “They’re all gonna be disappointed I’m not as family-friendly as their goddamn comics. Maybe they’ll be so disappointed they’ll forget to be disappointed about my goddamn boobs.”
“Your boobs are hardly disappointing.” Tony shrugs. “And as perhaps the most devoted Captain America fan alive,” he says, in a rather grandiose tone, “I wasn’t.”
And when the battle is over, and the smoke clears, she steps up to the waiting crowd, signs a plastic shield for a little girl with wide eyes.
“Miss!” a journalist calls. “Miss, is it true you’re a clone of Steve Rogers? The original Captain America?”
She shakes her head. “I am the original,” she answers. Captain America rests a hand on her hip, flashes a grin at Iron Man, who is stepping up to join her.
“What’s your relationship with Tony Stark?”
Captain America laughs. “If you really want to know, you’re gonna have to wait till there aren’t kids around.”
“What are we supposed to call you now?” asks another, as she poses for a photograph, flexing her muscles. Her arms are massive, solid, and really do look like something right out of a comic book. “Miss America? Lady Liberty?”
And Captain America pushes back her cowl, revealing her face, her square jaw, broad, flat cheekbones, and long, straight nose. Her blonde hair is barely an inch long, and spiky. She runs a hand through it and cocks an eyebrow at the journalist.
“Sir,” she says dryly. “‘Captain’ is a gender-neutral title.”