Steve knows this is a dream because he can feel the weariness in his bones.
His thighs ache, and his shoulders burn from the repeated motion, the familiar heft and the edge of the shield biting into his hands. He knows how these sensations might feel, from a boyhood spent lifting sand-filled milk bottles, trying to coax some strength out of his scrawny muscles, from teenage years lugging brushes and cans to paint murals for the WPA.
But puny Steve Rogers is Captain America now, and Captain America shouldn't be feeling this kind of fatigue.
It has to be a dream.
Yet it is a dream of a place Steve has been: this small room with the high ceiling, his shield bouncing off the padded walls, harsh light lending a ghostly sheen to his skin, set off against the olive green of his standard issue T-shirt and shorts. Above his head a microphone crackles, and a deep voice intones, "Again."
Steve raises his chin, despite the weariness and the pain, because Captain America is a soldier, and these are orders. He lifts his shield, feels its comforting weight in his hand, and pulls his arm back to throw, when, right in front of him, the heavy door clangs open.
"Enough!" the newcomer's voice rings out. Steve squints to look, but he's staring at a dark silhouette, its features indistinguishable against a background of blinding sunlight. "You call yourself a soldier?"
"Haven't you slept enough? And you call yourself a soldier!"
Steve blinks against the light, thinking that this government scientist, this man who has come from no one-asks-where to perform unexplained tests of the super soldier's strength and endurance, sounds oddly jovial.
In the next instant, Steve is fully awake. Ahead of him, standing next to the bedroom window with a hand on the blinds, the smirking figure of Tony Stark resolves into view. "Morning, sunshine," Tony says.
"What time is it?" Steve pushes aside the blanket and gets up quickly, his feet sinking into the soft carpet. "Did I miss an Avengers' alert?"
"Of course you didn't. Do I look like Iron Man? This is Steve and Tony business. It's almost six. Now, come on, slow guy." He brushes past Steve, into the corridor toward the kitchen. "I made you breakfast."
It's only been a few months that Steve has been awake in this strange modern world, but he's already learned a few things. Perhaps foremost among them: when a certified force of nature like Tony Stark -- that is, a force of nature who also happens to be the one who set you up in this nice townhouse, the one paying all of your bills -- comes into your bedroom and informs you that he's made you breakfast, it's a good idea to go and eat it.
Besides, something out there smells really good.
Steve replaces the gray T-shirt he's slept in with a drab olive one (the Wasp provided him some in gaudier colors, too, but he hasn't worked up the courage to put them on) and, after a moment's hesitation, walks out of the room in striped pajama pants and bare feet
The kitchen smells like fresh-brewed coffee, and spices Steve can't identify. Tony's at the stove filling a heaping plate with a combination of eggs, brightly colored vegetables, and some kind of ground meat. Steve stops in the doorway. He's never been more than a functional cook himself. He knew how to keep from starving in the field. The one who always scrounged for roots and herbs and wild berries, trying to find some way to liven up a serving of C-rations was Bucky.
Stop that, Steve tells himself. He knows what he needs to be doing: finding a way to focus on the people who are here instead of the ones who are not.
"So," he says. "Tony. Should I be getting up earlier? Nobody's given me a set schedule. I don't know what's expected, working with the Avengers. I'm afraid I've occasionally gotten caught up in the television. The Mets were playing in California last night, and -- it's troubling, isn't it, with these nighttime games that children have to wake up and go to school the next day?"
"Tragic," Tony hands Steve a plate. "I'll set up a commission to study the problem." His eyes travel down to the pajamas. "Nice pants. You going running in those?"
"We're going running," Steve repeats and, as he takes his plate to the table in the breakfast nook, he dimly remembers the outlines of a conversation, last time the Avengers met at Tony's home. Somewhere among his opinions regarding the best recordings of Bach's cello concertos, the viability of baseball as an international sport, and the chance someone named George Clooney had of becoming a full-fledged movie star, Tony had, in fact, mentioned that since they both lived so close to Central Park, they ought to take the opportunity to exercise there.
Tony sets a cup of coffee in front of Steve and takes a seat across the table. Steve looks down at the food and he has to ask. "Do you usually go running after you've had a hot drink, and sausage and --?" He pokes cautiously at the egg and vegetable concoction. He has no idea what to call it.
"Frittata. Maria Stark's recipe." Tony frowns as he chews. "Is that a bad idea? I'm not much of a morning person."
Or a runner, Steve suspects. "Potentially bad." Quickly, he takes a bite, hoping his appreciation for the food makes up for the implicit criticism. It's really very good. He wipes his mouth with a napkin. "You seem to be wide awake this morning."
"Oh," Tony looks at his watch. "Morning. Right. I've been up since two o'clock yesterday afternoon. In which time, I have --" While Steve calculates the hours in his head, Tony counts out on his fingers. "-- met with the Stark Industries research team on Long Island, attended a Maria Stark Foundation board meeting in midtown, crashed a Doctors Without Borders charity gala uptown. Then there was a girl, and so that happened; then she went home. And of course, if you saw the news, Iron Man had the thing in Bangkok, and I can never sleep when he's on a mission anyway. So I spent some time in the lab in the basement, and then that all worked out so --" He stops counting off and lifts his coffee again "-- I came here."
"And cooked me breakfast. Thank you." Steve is far from a lazy man, but just listening to Tony's litany has made him a little light-headed. He tries the coffee, which is darker than he likes it, and burns his tongue. But he doesn't want to appear ungrateful. And besides -- he'll heal quickly enough.
Tony, no signs of being tired, stretches his arms back over the chair and looks around. "How do you like the place?"
"Very much. Of course. It's incredibly generous of you --"
"Generous!" Tony laughs. "Look at the American institution, the epitome of everything that was wonderful and unselfish about my father's generation. All I did was give you a house I wasn't even using. Hey, as far as I'm concerned? Every one of the Avengers could have a room in the mansion. But I figured you could use the privacy."
Steve manages not to choke on his coffee, but his eyes must give something away. Tony frowns. "Is that not working out? Has Rick Jones been in the way too much?"
"Not at all. Rick's great," Steve says, sincerely. He wonders, as he finishes off his breakfast, whether there is a tactful way to point out that your privacy has been compromised by someone letting himself into your home, cooking you breakfast, and subsequently coming into your bedroom to inform you of the fact. Tony, after all, is presumably aware of this, based on having been the one to do it.
"I've had no problems with my privacy," Steve says, and it isn't a lie. The life he remembers, the life that still seems real, is life in the barracks, crowded and communal. He doesn't particularly need to be alone; he's not even sure that he wants it. Spending the morning with Tony doesn't exactly replace the camaraderie and cheerful mocking of several dozen men from all walks of life in America. On the other hand, one conversation with him can have as much content as ten conversations with anyone else he's ever met. He hits on so many subjects in succession that Steve feels like the pages of a book are flipping past him, and he has to reach out and mark a place, then slowly turn back toward the original. "You said your father was part of my generation. You mean he was in the war. Aren't you a bit young?"
"I'm well-preserved. Clean living." He flashes the grin that seems to be his signal for What I've just said is manifestly untrue, but I imagine you were charmed anyway. If that's what he means by it, he's not wrong. But his expression becomes more somber as he says, "I was a late-in-life baby. Dad was definitely part of your war."
Your war. Steve wonders if Tony realizes how odd that possessive seems. In the world Steve remembers, the world that still feels like it was only a few weeks ago, it was everybody's war. "What branch?"
"Officially? He was essential civilian personnel at my grandfather's aircraft company. Unofficially. . ." Tony twirls a fork in his hand, watching its motion as though it's the most riveting thing in the world. "One day, I may have a security clearance that goes that high. As it is, we're lucky we got what we did out of your file, and that's just because Fury owes me a favor or two." He sets the fork down. "It's a boring story," he says, and Steve realizes this smile means something different, too, but he hasn't known Tony long enough to untangle what it is. "Tell me what's going on with you."
And mostly because he feels the need to say something, to reward Tony's attention or compassion or whatever it is that means Steve has someone here with him right now -- friendship, could it be friendship? -- mostly because of that, Steve tells him. "I've been having dreams."
"Nightmares?" Tony sounds blessedly matter-of-fact, as though the notion of Captain America having nightmares is entirely reasonable (something Steve has been less than sure of himself).
Still, he is glad he can reply, "No. Well, not exactly. The dreams aren't pleasant." They're painful. Literally. "But they're not nightmare-like. They feel like things that could have happened. That did happen. Like some combination of dream and memory."
Steve thinks he might sound crazy -- do doctors for hysterical neurotics still ask about their dreams, in this new decade? -- but Tony nods, then asks, "Did you dream when you were in the ice?"
The question takes Steve by surprise, though once it's been asked, he isn't sure why he hasn't thought of it before. "I don't know," he admits. "I don't remember."
"Hmmm." Tony stands, picking up his plate and then Steve's. "Tell you what. I'm meeting with a Professor at Columbia this afternoon. He's a genetics professor. I have this idea about overcoming the circadian day- night sleep-wake cycle. See, it's never never really applied to me. And I think that might be genetic. But Chuck's good with weird stuff." He glances at Steve. "No offense."
"It's all right. Frozen in the ice for five decades is weird."
Tony sets the dishes carelessly in the sink, without rinsing them. "I'll head out in a bit and when I'm there, I'll ask Xavier if he has any insights about this." He stretches his arms over his head, and begins to yawn.
Steve catches his eye and frowns. "After you've had some sleep, right?"
Tony flashes the maybe-I'm-lying-but-you-love-it grin again. "Sleep is for the weak."
Steve is back in the high-ceilinged room.
Another dream, another night.
The stranger steps toward him, his figure still a shadow against the light from the cracked door. "You call yourself a soldier." It's neither a question, nor a taunt. It's simply stated as fact, and it's a fact that no one can dispute.
Steve juts his chin out higher. "Sir, yes, sir."
The shadow lets out a weary sigh. "At ease, Captain." His voice lingers over the ersatz rank. Steve lowers his head slightly, shifts on one foot, and clasps his hand behind his back. "More at ease. Assuming that you are capable." Steve drops his hands, wishing he had a better idea of what to do with them. "I am not your superior. I am here at the sufferance of your superiors. I simply want to engage you in conversation. Now. Look at me."
The man stands almost at Steve's own height, but is considerably thinner. His voice is American, or a very good imitation, but with nothing distinct that Steve can pick up in tone or accent. He's dressed like a civilian, wearing the kind of woven jacket that Steve associates with the Ivy League, without having any real experience to base this on. And, although Steve's vision has adjusted quickly to the change in the light, the man's bright eyes peer out from a face still veiled in shadow.
"You are every bit as good as they say you are," says the shadow. "You represent the very peak of human perfectibility."
"Thank you, sir."
"There is no need to thank me." Hands clasped behind his back, he begins to walk around Steve, eyeing him like -- no, not like livestock; that's a cliché that has nothing to do with Steve's life in New York City, or in Europe's war zones. The shadow is looking at him in a way that reminds Steve very much of something he has seen before, but can't recall to mind.
Stopping on one side of Steve, the other man rocks back on his feet. "There is no need to thank me," he repeats. "It was not very much of a compliment." And now Steve knows what he is remembering: the life drawing class from his one abortive year of art school. The model would take her seat and drop her robe, and Steve's feelings would move from initial embarrassment -- for himself, for her -- to the impersonal and conscientious act of committing lines to paper. He assumed most of the class felt the same as he did. There were always a few to make lewd remarks, of course, but he most remembered one arrogant young man, who would sniff and sneer, saying that the girl wasn't worth his time. That she was a waste of his talents.
The shadow is examining Steve that way, right now. "If there's anything else I can do for you. . ." Steve just manages to bite back the instinctive 'Sir'.
"Not you." The shadow shakes its head. "You can do nothing. And neither praise nor blame for Erskine's quixotic super soldier project falls on you. But to speak of the world's most perfect human is as much as to speak of its most intelligent ape. Its fastest horse and buggy. Its best-evolved dinosaur. Tell me --" He steps closer, and says, almost into Steve's ear. "Have you thought about what your place in the world? Do you think that victory in the next war will be determined by the quality of human soldiers?"
Steve has no idea what the man might want to hear. He shifts on his feet again. "I don't suppose I've given any thought to the next war."
The shadow steps away, shaking its head. "Forgive me. I know they did not create you to think."
To Steve's surprise, he hears his own voice rising. "I suppose I think -- I hope -- we are fighting, now, so that there won't be a next war."
Laughter rises in the shadow's throat, and he lifts his eyes so that the words are addressed to the two-way glass at the top of the room. "Tell me, General, is the personality an implant, as well?"
The loudspeaker crackles, and an American voice drawls, "Absolutely not. This is exactly the way we found him, Mr. Stark."
Startled, Steve turns to look at the shadow to see that it now has a clear face. The stranger is much younger than he had imagined, and his features -- the grin, the blue eyes, the trim Erroll Flynn moustache -- belong to Tony.
And Steve wakes up
Just another dream.
Steve is waiting at the door, seven minutes before six the next morning, and pulls it open before Tony can knock.
"Two days in a row," Tony says, jogging in place on the doorstep. "You know how rare it is for me to do anything two days in a row? You must be a good influence." There's not a hint of levity in his voice, and Steve doesn't have the heart to point out that they had never actually ended up running the previous morning. He had done the dishes while Tony talked about Russian poetry and the future of biofuels (Steve was mostly but not entirely sure these topics were unrelated, though when Tony talked they blended together in a pleasant kind of fugue), before dashing off to his appointment with the genetics professor.
"I made you breakfast this time." Steve hands Tony a toasted English muffin and a bottle of water. He steps out and locks the door behind him, cutting off any potential distractions, as Tony stands on the stoop and wolfs the bread down.
"Carbs. Good idea." Tony's tongue darts out to lick a crumb out of his moustache. He's wearing a track suit, in a shiny red fabric that seems garish for civilian garb. But then, Steve remembers, Tony doesn't really share his predilection for trying to blend in. Race you," he says, completely deadpan, and it's so ridiculous that Steve has to smile.
Tony is actually not a bad runner. His form is strong, and, while Steve isn't going at anywhere close to full-strength, he gets a respectable workout.
Tony stops to stretch, near the entrance to the park, and cocks an eyebrow at Steve. "Not bad for a desk jockey."
"As long as you can --" Steve stops himself from saying 'keep up with me.' "As long as your heart --" His eyes move to Tony's chest. The zipper on the tracksuit is pulled up almost to his chin, though sweat is beading on his forehead. Steve wants to remind him that he was in the war, that he knows about men with scars to hide, that there's really no need. He looks up, quickly, and Tony holds his gaze for a long moment. "My heart's fine." Then a grin. "As long as I remember to keep the battery charged." Repeating the smile that signals a charming lie, he dashes off, and Steve, for a second or two, really has to make an effort to catch up.
Tony starts running backwards now, so he looks like he isn't really trying, when Steve approaches him. "You like the Park?" he says "This was my backyard growing up."
"I always preferred Prospect Park, myself," Steve answers, with instinctive Brooklynite loyalty. "But I've spent some time here, too. In art school, sometimes I'd take the subway to midtown, set up an easel or sit with my sketchpad. It didn't look so different then, really. Although the people --" He can't quite help turning his head to look at a woman jogging past, in very small tight shorts, and a bright colored top that looks like little more than a brassiere. The soldier in him can't help admiring her athletic limbs, but his main reaction is embarrassment. He looks quickly away, but makes the mistake of meeting Tony's gaze.
Tony winks one of his startling blue eyes and, before Steve can register what is happening, veers aside and jogs after the woman. "Miss," Tony says, "Excuse me." He's pulled something out of his jacket and is holding it out toward her. "Did you drop this?"
She pushes the long dark hair out of her eyes and leans down to look. "No," she says, "Is that one of those new digital music players? Wow, I wish, but no." She smiles up at him. "Thanks for asking, most people in this city wouldn't. Wait, are you --?"
"Who, me? Nah." Tony spreads his hands. "I get that all the time, but -- Sorry, I'm messing with you." His hand brushes her shoulder as he says, "Yeah, I'm Tony Stark."
It's not as though Steve has never witnessed a first-class flirt in action. The kind of friendships he seems to gravitate towards, even the ones he formed as a kid, have often involved him standing back and watching someone else show off his skills in that department. Still, he's not sure he's ever seen a man do quite so well just by saying his name. He understands, now, a little more of what it means to be a Stark.
Of course, even if he wasn't a Stark, he's still Tony, with the gift of gab that never seems to fail. As Steve listens, Tony establishes that the woman's name is Melina, that her mother is Greek, and that Tony may or may not have seen her star in a production of Antigone at the New School Theater. Either he really does know everybody and everything. . .or he saw the school's logo on her bag and took a lucky guess.
"Your face is so striking," Tony is saying. "I knew you were an actress." He steps back and holds his fingers out in front of him, making a square with his hands to frame her image. "Steve, come tell me what you think."
Steve blinks, steps toward him, and murmurs, "Don't let me get in the way."
Tony lays a palm flat against Steve's back, still holding the other hand out towards Melina. "Melina," he says, "this is my good friend Steve." She smiles at him, dipping her head a little. She has smooth olive skin, with a thin beading of sweat on her upper lip. Steve offers a hand and she takes it, eyebrows arching with her smile, and presses her palm lightly against his, just for a moment.
Tony is talking. "My friend Steve is an artist. He's working on some commissions for me. Classical themes. I know you're not necessarily a model. Steve actually said that to me, when we were going by. You have to forgive him, he's shy. Artistic. But he said to me, 'She's too pretty to be a model.' Most of them have such generic faces, you know. But an artist's eye can tell."
"Actually." Melina is digging into her pocket. "Here's my card. I have modeled, a little. Just to get through school." And she's pressing the card into Steve's hand, for some reason. "This is actually my agent's number? Who's also my husband, just so you know."
"Your husband?" Tony repeats. "That always ends well -- I mean, goes well." He steps back from her and nods in the general direction of the reservoir. "We really need to get going, but please. Take this," Tony says, and he's pressing the music player back into her hand. "I don't know who dropped it, and --" He taps the logo on the back of the device. "I have one already."
She laughs. "I guess you do. Thank you. And feel free to, you know, call me." Steve has the card, but he can't help thinking she's looking more at Tony. Tony nods again, then starts to run.
Steve follows him, with a little shrug in Melina's direction. For a moment, there is only the steady rhythm of their footfalls, as Steve considers what just happened. Because it seems like the easiest place to start, Steve asks him, "Did you just give her your radio?"
"It's a prototype digital media player. And she deserved it. Most people would have said it was theirs in the first place. She has good moral fabric," Tony proclaims, then amends, "Better than average, anyway." He lets out a sigh. "By tonight, I could have had --" Tony glances at Steve. "I could have a date with her. If I was a different kind of person."
"You mean you wouldn't because she's married." These are good things to discover about people when you first start to know them, the things that they would and wouldn't do.
"She is that," Tony agrees. "And also, you saw her first."
Steve slows his pace a little to take a hard look at Tony.
"Well, she's not appropriate for obvious reasons. But if you want a date --" Tony lets the words trail off and again there are only more footsteps, and the sound of a siren on the other side of the park.
"If by a date you mean a woman to take her clothes off so I can pretend to paint her --" The words come out clipped, sharp, in a way that surprises even Steve.
Or maybe it surprises only Steve, because Tony barks out a laugh. "I was wondering what it would take to see that side of you."
Steve stops in his tracks now, and turns around. Tony doesn't stop on time, and crashes into his outstretched hand. "Are you deliberately trying to annoy me?"
"You think I'm annoying?" There's a note of hurt in Tony's voice, and yesterday (or even ten minutes ago) Steve would have fallen for it.
"You're playing a game." Steve crosses his arms. "I don't know what it is, or why. I'm not an artist who works for you. I'm not even a very good artist, which you wouldn't have any way to know, even if I was. And I certainly didn't ask you to find me a date."
There's something infuriating and comforting, at once, about the way Tony won't stop grinning. "See, I heard you could be like this."
"You heard what?" Steve's confidence wavers, and so he stands up straighter. "From who?"
Tony leans in and speaks softly. "From the Avengers. Giant Man, Wasp, Thor, Iron Man."
"You talk about me with Thor?" Steve tries to picture it: Tony letting himself into Asgard, surprising the God of Thunder with an omelet. He's not entirely sure that he finds it implausible.
"Iron Man, mostly," Tony admits. "And don't get mad at him for talking out of school. I asked. It's in my interest to know how the Avengers work together. So I asked my most valuable and trusted employee if he thought a well-mannered, deferential Boy Scout, with a little strength enhancement and an outdated, albeit aesthetically pleasing, fighting style, could hold his own alongside a couple size shifters, a god, and the best weapon modern technology has to offer."
"And what did Iron Man --" Steve swallows, surprised to find his mouth so dry "-- what did your bodyguard say about me?"
"Well, for one thing --" Tony moves aside and starts running again; Steve, somehow, finds himself falling into step. "He said he'd never met any mild-mannered Boy Scout named Steve. He knew a guy named Captain America who didn't mind telling other people what to do."
"Did he mention that certain other people don't always seem to know as much about field tactics as they think they do? So sometimes they need to be told what to do?"
"He admitted as much." Steve looks at him in surprise; Tony touches his shoulder, and leaves it there as they keep running. "He says you're a tactical genius, and the bravest man he ever saw. He also thinks --" Tony moves his hand away and says the next part quickly. "After fifty years on ice, you could maybe stand to get laid."
"I don't -- It's not --." He stammers a little. It doesn't feel like fifty years. It feels like weeks. And it wasn't as though, before the ice, he was running around getting laid all over the place. Or, really, at all. He's not sure how he could explain that to a man like Tony Stark, even if he particularly wanted to.
Tony slaps his shoulder again. "Iron Man also thinks you might have a sense of humor, but the jury's out on that. You're still holding that girl's card."
Steve darts his hand out so that Tony's stomach runs straight into his palm. "Not anymore." He slips the card into the waistband of Tony's pants, and pulls his hand away. Tony looks down, then over at him.
"You trying to tell me something, Rogers?"
"That was supposed to be humor," Steve explains. "There's a reason I don't do it much."
"Duly noted." Tony pulls the card out, slips it into his breast pocket, and turns his head toward Steve. The morning light strikes his face at a certain angle, so he looks like he's coming out of a shadow. Steve speaks before thinking.
"You were in my dream last night."
Tony's stride breaks, for once. He stumbles, and Steve puts a hand out to steady him. "I think that was a dramatic change of subject," Tony says.
"It was another of the dreams I told you about. I just now remembered."
"I meant to tell you," Tony says. "I talked to Xavier. The weird-stuff guy. I had to couch the whole thing in an elaborate hypothetical. Though I'm sure he'd be glad to meet with you, if you're up to it. But based on what I told him, he thinks that you're processing."
"It's been fifty years for you, physically. But your mind was apparently in some kind of hibernation, all that time. Whatever kept you from aging had an effect on your memory function. That part of your brain has to catch up with the rest of you now. Fill in some holes. Hypothetically. "
"So -- hypothetically -- this could be why I'm seeing you?"
"I think that would fit, yeah. Your mind is missing details like faces. Voices. So you fill them in the best you can."
"With somebody I've been seeing a lot of, in the present."
"Is that a problem?" Tony flashes that smile again. "If you'd like to be seeing less of me, you can just say so. Captain America would."
"I'm fine with it. It's nice, actually. I'm not used to having --" It seems stupid to say 'friends,' stupid and a bit presumptuous. "People who know both sides of me. Other than, you know --"
"I know." Tony gives a tight, sharp nod so neither of them has to say Bucky's name. Quiet falls between them, and Steve feels surprisingly comfortable with it. But Tony, who Steve has gathered is not a fan of silence, eventually asks, "Your dreams, are they lucid?"
Steve digs back into the bit of psychology he learned from the Army. "You mean do I know that I'm dreaming? Always, and right away."
"But you're not doing anything about it?"
Steve shakes his head. "I don't follow."
"Well, this isn't my field, thank God. There's nothing I won't try with a microchip or a circuit board, but the mysteries of the human mind are beyond me. That said. If your brain keeps taking you back to some place you've been before. Maybe there's a reason. Maybe you're supposed to do something."
He thinks of himself, back in the dream, his body sore from the workout, stiff from standing at attention. "I hadn't thought of that."
"It might be something to try. Turn it into a choice instead of something that's just happening to you. Besides. If you've really got me in your dreams, you can get me to do whatever you want. You know how many people fantasize about that?"
Tony takes off ahead of him again, as though he'll really be able to outrun Steve. Steve, for the moment, decides to let him.
Steve doesn't remember there being a table in the room, but now there is a table in the room. A table and two chairs.
He sits back in one of them. The man who isn't Tony Stark stands over him, blue eyes piercing. "You look comfortable, Captain."
"You said to be at ease and so I'm at ease." The chair is stiff, actually; it hurts his back. But there's a kind of power to sitting while the other man is standing. It might not be much, but it's a choice. Steve puts his feet up in the opposite chair for good measure.
There wasn't a third chair a moment before, and yet the man pulls one out and takes a seat at an angle from Steve. "Don't look so disappointed. Your friend was only half-right. It's your dream, but that doesn't mean you get to make all the rules. Now --" He laces his fingers behind his head. "Is there something you want to say to me? Or maybe to your friend whose face you've given me."
"You mean your son," Steve says. He knows now that he's always known this, though he didn't let himself know until the dream words left his mouth.
"You're mistaken. I don't have a son." A smile curls on his lip, and Steve can see clearly now that he isn't Tony. He's never been Tony. His face is thinner, his nose sharper, his eyes more severe. "You're mistaken, and yet you may be correct."
"You don't have a son, now. But you are Tony's father."
"I'm Howard Stark. I don't know anyone named Tony," he says. "And yet, if you're in the future, I imagine, it's entirely possible that I became sentimental in my old age, and pretended that we were creating a world worth inheriting."
"Why do you think we fought -- why do you think we're fighting? If it's not to make a better world?"
"A better world," he muses. "Better men. You believe in that, do you? As much as old Erskine did, in his way. Perhaps you are right. Perhaps I am wrong. I cannot say, because you know the future, and I do not. You could tell me, knowing how it ends. Do we win the war, because our biologists made better men --" He leans across the table, and puts a hand to Steve's hand. "Or because our physicists made better bombs?"
"It's more complicated than that," Steve snaps, pulling his hand back. "And besides -- that's no reason to give up on the future of the world. Just because things could go badly."
"I never said I gave up on everyone. Wars will never stop people from having children. But for myself, you see -- I always feared I would have a child who wanted to fly."
Steve opens his eyes and the sun is already high outside. It's after nine, and he goes out into the kitchen, but he sees no sign of Tony.
Well, Steve reasons, he didn't exactly promise he was coming. He had basically said the opposite, in fact. 'I rarely do anything two mornings in a row.' There's no reason to be disappointed. Steve picks up his Avengers communicator, then feels guilty about wishing for an emergency. There hasn't been anything notable in a few days; Giant Man called on Tuesday about a disturbance on Riverside Drive but noted, 'The Mad Thinker is really a Fantastic Four problem,' and they'd never gone off of reserve status for that one.
Steve puts the communicator down. Maybe he'll call Rick. He has his hand on the phone and is ready to dial when he realizes the person he imagines picking up the line isn't Rick, but Bucky, and he can't call Bucky, and if he thinks about calling Bucky for a minute longer, he's going to throw Tony's nice phone against Tony's expensive wall, and this is all too stupid, and he's going for a run.
He looks up to see the gate of the mansion before he realizes that he's been headed there all along. Using a code Tony gave him, he opens the front gate, and then a side entrance -- servants' entrance? He decides not to think about whether that's actually a misnomer -- but quickly finds himself lost in the elaborate floor plan.
As he steps into a room that's some kind of gallery, or foyer -- a parlor? Is this what a parlor is? -- a throat clears behind him. "May I be of assistance, young man?"
The voice is familiar, and Steve turns with a sheepish smile. "I'm sorry to disturb you, Mr. Jarvis. There's no emergency. I was just hoping Tony was around."
A gray eyebrow shoots up. "You are the painter, I presume? Mr. Rogers?"
"The --? Oh. Yes. I am." Steve hasn't been here in his civilian identity. It's the kind of thing he would normally think about. All this displacement, the dreams, it's damaging his clarity.
"If you will wait in the parlor, sir, I will attempt to locate Mr. Stark." Steve suspects that Jarvis is in on the joke. Perhaps on several jokes that Steve himself doesn't have a clue about yet.
So it is a parlor. Steve folds his hands behind his back, and paces, walking toward a display case of black and white photographs, to pass the time. Family pictures, he realizes, then leans closer with renewed interest. The centerpiece is a man in an aviator jacket, with a helmet and goggles pushed back over his forehead. He's standing on a seaplane, half out of the cabin. His hand rests above the name on the side. Daedalus.
There's no doubt this is Howard Stark. There's no doubt it's the face from Steve's dream. Of course, I must have seen a picture before, he reasons. The room with the high ceiling was real, though; it's made its way into his waking memories now. And there was a man there, a man he spoke to, a man whose name he never knew.
He wishes he could tell if he's been talking to ghosts, or to memories.
Footsteps clatter behind him, and Steve stands straight. "Oops, well, never mind me. I'm just looking for the back door." It's a female voice. Steve thinks of the Wasp, at first, because she's the only woman he's ever seen at the mansion. He turns around and, because she's wearing a tiny black dress and sunglasses now, because her hair is flowing loose around her shoulders, it takes him a moment to recognize the jogger from the park. "Oh. Wow," she says. "Awkward. You're the painter, right?"
Steve's sick of answering that, so he crosses his arms and gives her a hard look. "Don't let me get in your way."
"This isn't what it looks like," Melina says. Then she pushes the glasses up on her forehead, showing heavy circles under her eyes. "Unless it looks like I'm a slightly hungover married woman, sneaking out Tony Stark's back door in the clothes I wore last night. In which case, I really have no defense."
"It's none of my business," Steve says, and he knows he's said it too quickly.
"Well, there is that. Unless you really were planning to paint me, and now I'm starting to think that isn't such a good idea. You know, your friend --" She steps past Steve, toward the display case. "Your friend looks just like his dad. Wow. No wonder Tony goes for that old-fashioned Howard Hughes look; it runs in the family."
Steve, whose ability to judge old-fashionedness is pretty much nonexistent, looks at the picture again. "That's from before Tony was born, I guess."
"I'd say," Melina laughs. "He's certainly not that old, and anyway --" She points at the name on the plane. "No father of an only son wants to compare himself to Daedalus." Steve tries to remember his mythology, as Melina touches his shoulder on the way out the door. "I like your friend, but he's sort of a mess. I don't need that in my life right now." Without looking back, she says, "He's in his workshop, right down the stairs. He could probably use the company."
He's in his workshop, to Steve's mind, means, He's working, but he ought to know Tony better than to put those kinds of parameters on Tony. He's wearing headphones, lying back in a chair with his eyes closed, fingers moving on the work table as though they're piano keys. There's a half-empty bottle of vodka in front of him, and several glasses lying around it on their sides. Steve walks in and stands at parade rest, in what would be Tony's line of sight if he'd just look up. After a full minute, he walks closer, and taps on the table.
Tony jumps, then thrusts his hand out with the palm exposed, as though that's a defense. They both look down at it. After a few seconds, Tony sets his hand on the table and pushes to his feet, pulling the headset off at the same time. "Well, good morning" he says, and his arm ends up slung around Steve's shoulder. "I'd say don't sneak up on me but it's not like I could do anything about it anyway. Was I expecting you?" The smell of alcohol hangs on him like he's a olive or a cocktail napkin.
"Not exactly. But you've been at my house the last two mornings. I wanted to make sure you were all right."
"It's morning?" Tony looks at his watch and Steve realizes he isn't kidding. "I might not be up to running right this second."
Steve shrugs out of Tony's embrace, and walks to the table to touch the vodka bottle. "I suspect you might not be." Seeing that Tony is looking around the room, he says, "Melina's gone. I saw her on the way out."
"Sweet girl." Tony nods. "Smart as a whip. We did shots and talked about Sophocles. Among other things. Just talked, as I see you disapproving."
"It's not my position to approve of you or not." Steve's hand tightens around the neck of the bottle.
"Nothing happened, all right? When I say 'talked and drank,' I mean 'talked and drank.' And no, that's not necessarily why I called her. But it was obvious you weren't going to. And. Nothing happened," he repeats. "Although between you and me, her husband sounds like a jerk."
"Oh, really? Is he a jerk who owns a gun, by chance?"
Tony lets out a sharp laugh. "That's a very good question. Good thing I have a bodyguard. What do you think Iron Man is for, if not to protect me from the jealous husbands of New York City?" He puts his hand on the bottle, so that his fingers brush against Steve's. "You want a drink? I'll pour you one."
"It's ten in the morning." Steve pulls the bottle back.
"Depends on how you look at it." Tony shrugs. "I haven't been to sleep since two p.m. on Tuesday, so for me it's more like sixty-eight o'clock. Which, if you think about it, is really late."
"It's ten in the morning," Steve repeats, "and I don't drink alcohol." He takes his hand off the bottle, and shoves it toward Tony. He turns toward the door. "It's not my business, anyway. I'm in no position to tell you how to live your life."
"Oh, God, Steve," Tony mumbles. Steve doesn't look back, just strides toward the door. Tony calls sharply, "Cap!" He stops, but doesn't turn. "Captain America," Tony says.
Steve stands still, and waits for him to give an order. Just tell me what to do, Steve thinks. Just try it, and I walk.
The next word out of Tony's mouth is, "Please."
Steve turns, slowly. Tony has set down the bottle and has his hands spread. "Please don't ever think you're not in a position to talk to me. Nothing that you think I've done for you should get in the way of you speaking out. Talk to me like you're Captain America, and I'm Iron Man."
There are a lot of things Captain America could say to Iron Man. 'I've spent a good part of my life around people who are habitual liars, either by compulsion or profession'; 'I had a secret identity for years myself, I know how it works'; 'You just noticed me noticing that you tried to hit me with a repulsor blast'; and, 'What kind of cover story is 'he's my bodyguard,' anyway?' But there's some professional courtesy involved here. He's not even entirely sure that Tony thinks he's fooling anyone, much less Steve.
Besides. Steve hasn't come here today to talk to Iron Man.
"I knew your father in the war," he says.
Tony crashes back into his chair. "You win, I wasn't expecting that."
"Did you say he was in weapons development? Sort of a roving expert?" Steve walks back slowly, taking a seat across from him.
"I think so. That's what I've been able to get out of Fury. Dad maxed out all their aptitude tests, as an undergraduate. So they gave him the option to go wherever he wanted, and he was all over the place. His codename was --"
"Daedalus," they say together. Their eyes meet for a moment, then Steve cautiously suggests, "Great engineer, lousy father?"
"That's not fair," Tony answers sharply. Then, with a more even tone, he adds, "Daedalus gave Icarus all the tools for success. He wasn't responsible for what the son did with them." He turns the bottle on the table in front of him. "My father was a very rational, very serious man who taught me all the right lessons about responsibility and moderation. Except when he was drunk, of course." Tony pushes the bottle toward him. "If you're going to disapprove of me, you should really have a drink before you do it. Then you'll be just like him."
"I'm not an expert. . ." Steve remembers standing, listening, digging his thumbnail into his palm to keep from answering back. "But I think maybe your father was a very exacting man, who trusted machines more than he trusted people. Who understood the future very well, but couldn't see anything in it to be hopeful about."
Tony looks up at Steve. "I understand machines," he says. "Even better than Dad did, maybe. But I understand them well enough not to trust them as much as he did. And also, I guess, I try." He swallows. "More than he did. With people."
Steve stands, moves toward Tony, and puts a hand on his shoulder. "You do. I think the Avengers are your way of saying you still trust people more than you trust weapons. That you trust us to be more than weapons. I believe in that. I want that. It means more to me than I can say that you think of me as a person."
Tony swallows. "Not just a person. A friend."
"That's good, Tony," Steve says, and he doesn't know how much he's been unsure of that, until he realizes how grateful the declaration makes him feel. "I want that, too. But just so that you understand. Your friends aren't weapons. They're also not toys. They aren't games. If I'm your friend, it means you respect my space as much as you respect your own; you respect my schedule, so you don't leave me to my own devices because you found a pretty distraction."
"Smart and pretty, and nothing happened," Tony says. But he's smiling; not smirking, not grinning, smiling in a way that's entirely new, and Steve thinks he may be making a dent.
"It also means that you respect my preferences. When I tell you I don't drink, you don't try to get me to, just so I can remind you of your father. Who, by the way, is another thing that I am not."
Tony tilts his head to look up at Steve. "Anything else, Captain?"
"Yes. When I tell you things that you don't necessarily want to hear -- the things that Captain America would say to Iron Man -- you will pay attention. For instance --" He reaches down and takes the bottle out of Tony's hands. "You've had too much to drink. And you need to get to sleep. Just like any other human being. You hear me?"
"Aye aye, Captain." Tony lifts his hand in a salute. "If you talk to me like that, every time I ask you to be honest with me? We're going to get along great."
Steve looks down at him, and says quietly, "I have no doubt."
In the dream this time, Steve is the one with the bottle. He's sitting at the end of the table, in Tony's workshop, when Howard walks in the door, sunlight streaming behind him.
"Welcome to the future," Steve tells him through clenched teeth.
Howard moves to Tony's workbench, runs a hand over the surface, and sends an array of tools crashing to the floor. "I don't think much of the future."
"So I'd gathered." Steve pushes the bottle toward him. "Have a drink."
"I thought you disapproved." Howard's eyebrow rises, but he pours a glassful, and offers it to Steve first.
"I don't drink," Steve says. "Even in my dreams. But I don't see much point in telling a ghost not to drink himself to death."
"It wasn't drink that killed me. The brakes were defective. Tony proved it in court." He drains his glass in one swill. "Of my son's many obsessions, that one, at least, could hardly be called frivolous."
"Why do you hate him so much?"
Howard pushes the bottle toward him across the table. "Have a drink and I'll tell you."
Steve crosses his arms. "I don't."
"Neither do I," Howard laughs. "Hate him, that is. You do realize, I'm sure, that we long ago crossed from anything you can reasonably claim as memory into the depths of your lizard brain. So if you want me to, I can sit here and tell you that I resented my son because he proves the world could be better than I wanted it to be."
"It can be," Steve says.
"Perhaps." Howard shrugs, unconcerned. "But it won't. Not because of my son and his collection of circus freaks in any case. Certainly not because of you. Although, don't mistake me. I admire your noble gestures. Offering to be Tony's conscience, to tell him the difficult truth, every time he. . .what was it he said?"
"Every time he asks me to be honest with him."
"Oh, that's very good. Now, tell me." He leans closer. "What happens in the times when he doesn't ask you to be honest with him?"
Steve lifts his chin into his best soldier pose, and says, "Of course, I'll be honest, then, anyway."
"Very good, then," Howard Stark says. "I have no doubt that you two will be very happy together."
When Steve wakes up, it's still dark outside, but he knows with the certainty of approaching day that he will never dream of Tony's father again. It's early, and he does not know whether Tony will come to see him this morning. There's no reason to be up this early, no mission or drill or emergency to keep him from going back to bed. But for now Steve prefers to sit here awake, in the quiet dark, to wait, and hope, and believe that there can be a future.