June 04 -
Tony Stark greeted mornings with caution, because they interrupted his nights and brought surprises he couldn't be bothered with.
Case in point, Steve Rogers standing before him, the picture of rude health. He was in full dress uniform: shoes shone to mirror finish, creases where they should be, paper cut sharp, and his face scrubbed clean as the Sunday morning outside.
"I need a favour," he said.
See? Mornings and their surprises, absolutely ghastly things.
They were both in Tony's flat - the one above his offices - Steve standing in front of the windows, the picture perfect view of Upper Bay as backdrop, Statue of Liberty in the distance. The sight before him was army recruitment porn, Tony thought. Captain America as large as life, with Lady Liberty seemingly on his shoulder from Tony's viewpoint, holding her torch high, like a patriotic Jiminy the cricket. Never mind that the background of this sun-splashed scene was all munitions funded. Tony knew that when it came to such things, the military tended to soft focus those edges.
"Of course you do," Tony grumbled without heat, rubbing his temples with his index and middle finger, eye-balling the drink before him. His housekeeper decided that he needed a little sun, and arranged a mini 'breakfast nook' with padded chair and breakfast table with all the fixings, which essentially amounted to a highball glass filled with red juice and garnished with a celery stick.
"Isn't it a bit too early for that, Tony?"
"A Bloody Mary? Oh no, it's the breakfast of champions." Tony raised his glass in a mock toast before taking a sip, and frowned. "Granted, it's more breakfast than I'd like-" he groused, "but good help is so hard to find these days."
Steve only shook his head, as if utterly confounded by the small matter of Tony's existence. No matter, old bean, Tony thought, the feeling is mutual.
"But never mind that," Tony said, because this was not the time to get into a debate about the merits of help, and focused on the man standing before him. Steve's brows beetled over his eyes in a frown, his arms folded across his chest. Some people, Tony thought, were just not meant to be the life of any party.
"So," he sighed, as he pushed himself off the chair, ambling over to the freestanding rail of clothing in the middle of the room. "The favour?"
"I need-" at this a flush coloured Steve's cheeks, and piqued Tony's interest even more. Why you dirty dog, Tony thought approvingly. You're learning.
"A plane to Normandy."
"Normandy? But Paris is lovely this time of year," Tony mused, absently scratching his chin with his fingers. "Or even Brittany. I'd make the time to go if I were you. The wine, the women, the so- scratch that last part. you don't seem to be the singing type at all. And do you realise, it's France?"
Tony found himself at the end of a withering look, and sighed as he swiped a shirt off its hanger. Those were the only sort of looks he got from Steve, with the odd exasperated roll of eyes thrown in. Tony had long given up on anything else.
"I'd like to arrive at Normandy at 0600 hours on June 06. If that's okay with you."
"Fine," Tony shrugged into his dress shirt, feeling the chill of new silk on his skin. Now to find trousers that complemented a stone grey shirt, hmmm... ah, yes. There.
"That's not the favour," Steve's voice was strained, and his face even more sombre, if one could believe such a thing.
"Now you're driving me to distraction with the mystery of it," Tony laughed as he half hopped in, half dragged on his trousers. "You military men are an odd lot. Fine, I'll bite. Whatever do you need?"
June 06, 0:6:00 hours
The sky was the colour of asphalt ; despite the promises of a late spring and early summer skies by weather forecasts it was still cold, with the taste of water on the air. Tony burrowed into his coat, and popped its collar to ward off the sharp chill.
"Ouistreham," Steve murmured, and Tony was surprised at Steve's pronunciation. His accent was ... not bad. They were in the coastal village, and Tony took in the clean roads, the biscuit coloured municipal buildings which were squat and plainer on this side of the coast. There were lovely smells of a town waking up, the burnt sugar of pastries, the savoury tang of fish dishes on the air.
Before he had a chance to take in even more, Tony realised that he was alone in the middle of the road, halfway to the beach. He stopped and turned around, trying to find where Steve had gone, only to see him some distance behind, speaking with a woman. They were a picture: Steve in his fatigues, his hat in hand, tall, young, blond and strong. The woman blanched and fragile.
Her hands as delicate and spotted as parchment paper as they moved while she spoke; her face faded and creased, a flower past its prime, pale against the deep red of her shawl. Their voices carried downwind, and Tony stood there, thoughtfully sipping from the flask of whiskey he liberated from the pocket of his coat, listening with great interest.
"I was a girl when the soldiers came," the woman started, her voice surprisingly strong and unwavering. "My parents had been taken away, you see. My brothers and I were sent here under the cover of darkness six months before everything. We hoped, we prayed-"
"It was the only thing we could do," Steve said, his eyes on the woman's face. Tony found himself surprised at three things: one, for all his posturing, Steve actually spoke French. Granted, he sounded like an American speaking French, but it was serviceable. Two, the flask was now empty - bugger - and three, Steve could be personable, even gentle. An American soldier on foreign shores, representing the best of his country. "I'm sorry that we didn't do more."
"Ah, no," she shook her head, her eyes brimming with tears. "You brought the world."
From Tony's vantage point, he saw Steve nod, his hands being squeezed by her own. "Thank you, Madame."
"No, thank you," she said, before giving him a soft smile. Then she wrapped her shawl tightly around her neck and hair, before turning on her heel and shuffling away.
Tony watched Steve standing there in the middle of the road shaking his head, as if waking from a dream.
His eyes lit on Tony, and Tony waited for Steve to make his way towards him. They walked in silence towards the beach, the early waking sounds and scents of the town now swallowed by the white noise and brine of the sea, of waves breaking on the shore into foam and froth in the distance.
Every time Tony licked his lips he tasted salt, thought about Margaritas and wondered how soon he would be able to get one.
"Wah hey, Steve-o," Tony started, "I never-" and he paused at the sight in front of him.
To be fair, one never came to Ouistreham for the beaches. The sand was neither the colour nor the texture of powder, the water tended to be cold and choppy, and it was more a port than a seaside town anyway.
Today was even more foreboding. The sky and sea were leached of colour; if one looked carefully, you might have been able to see the bits of aqua or blue at the edges of the water, but it was all a grey moving sheet. The tide was out, an expanse of nothing but sand and the thin ribbon of ocean edged in lace froth. Marring this expanse of sand and sky was a life sized version of the clumsy Panzer IV tank, all power and mechanics and force.
Two soldiers from the local regiment were there in smart navy blue ceremonial dress, as well as a man of the cloth. With great ceremony, the first soldier ran the flags of the allies up the flag pole. The small flags: tri colour, stars and stripes, maple leaf and union jack, were already fluttering in the wind. The other solder stood there, a bugle by his side. There was the Chaplain, head bowed, saying a prayer, and Tony recited a few lines from the old poem, sotto voce. At the going down of the sun and in the morning/ We will remember them.
"Steve," Tony started, as a thought struck him. "This is Sword Beach, the British came here. They fought alongside the Forces Françaises Libres. I know that my history might be ropey but... Shouldn't we be at Omaha or Utah Beach?"
Steve turned to him then, his eyes shadowed. "If I told you, I couldn't go?"
"Couldn't go?" Tony's disbelief was plain.
"Everyone celebrates D-day as if it's some sort of history. Some distant memory, and it's not. Not while -"
Realisation dawned, and Tony felt foolish for not coming to the conclusion sooner. "You're still living it."
"Yeah," Steve nodded, looking out in the distance. "It's sixty five years ago. It's yesterday. I can't do the laurels and wreaths and the Presidents and the whole deal, I can't..."
Tony sighed, as he eased the whisky flask out of his pocket and shook it. Tch, it was still empty, and he was sober. And - "You used me," he murmured. "Because-"
"You can go off radar when you want to. I've seen you evade SHIELD on occasion," Steve's smile was faint, but it was a smile, and Tony was happy to see it, despite the God awful hour.
"Besides," Steve rubbed the nape of his neck, looking a tad self-conscious. "Bucky is ill, Gail's with him and I-" he cleared his throat. "I needed a favour, that's all."
For a long moment, there was nothing but the white noise of the sea, the frantic blast of notes of the bugle on the air, before they stilled.
"What must it have been like," Tony wondered for the first time. "I know that the Normandy Coast marks the final phase of World War Two. Six thousand ships and craft landed. Nine thousand allied troops injured, four thousand died on the day. But those are just numbers."
At the end of his recital, Tony found himself getting another look from Steve, and was surprised to see that it wasn't one of bafflement, or exasperation. His features were soft with memory, and Tony knew that Steve was not there with him at all.
"The sky lit up around us like... the fourth of July," Steve said, then laughed, but not from amusement. "Not the comparison you expected, but there it is. Some of us came by craft on water, some of us from the air. I was the - never mind what I was. You came through the water, felt it pull against your thighs, your calves. Sometimes you'd...have to crawl over the bodies. So I heard. I came from the air."
"I never knew."
"The air was... at first you couldn't breathe because it was just too much, punching your face, your lungs. Then, it was thick with cordite, and you could only just gulp, because even breathing was hard. The ground never stood still. There was the moon, all low and bright. I remember... I remember thinking about Gail. Over the rip of my parachute, the air pulling at my face, the ground coming up so quickly... I thought about Gail." Steve looked down, looked away.
There was nothing else for Tony to say but, "Of course you did."
"There was light and sound. So much sound that you couldn't hear anything, not a darned thing. The ground rolled and shook, and you couldn't stand, much less do a hundred yard dash. I- It was the worst day. It should have been the worst day ever, but it was the best day. The best day."
Steve paused to swallow, Tony watched his Adam's apple move, saw the clench of his jaw as Steve came back to the present. A blink of the eyes, and they were clear, and still sober.
"I never knew the numbers," his voice was lower, almost swallowed by the sound of the surf. "All this time, I never knew the numbers."
Tony shifted his feet, and swore that he could feel the sand creeping into his loafers, and absently noted that Steve had better footwear for this little sojourn: heavy laced up boots under his dress trousers.
"Right," Tony started, because this moment was bigger than him and he knew it. "I'll leave you to it then," he said, holding up his empty flask. "I'm absolutely gasping for a glass of, well... anything."
"Are you truly thirsty right now?"
"I..." Tony began, ready to make his excuses. There were calls to make. People to do, things to see. But the shadows in Steve's eyes made all his justificatons moot. "No," he admitted. "It can wait for a little while."
The small quirk of Steve's lips was thanks enough.
They stayed on the beach, their eyes tearing from the brisk, sharp wind, and waited for the sky to clear.