“Tony, no. We talked about this. In fact, he’s coming in at nine, and that’s in ten minutes. Be nice.”
That’s Virginia “Pepper” Potts on the phone, the giant tortoise on which Stark Industries rest upon. And he is Anthony Edward Stark, said company’s CEO who is also currently nursing a fantastic headache that he swears, is not related to late nights or alcohol. He’s on his best behaviour recently. He exercises, keeps to a six-hour-sleep every other day, chugs fruits-and-vege smoothies by the gallons…
“Pepper, I don’t have time to babysit visitors. Have Bambi show him around. Or the intern, I don’t care. I just don’t –”
“If Phil says it’s necessary, then it’s necessary.”
“It’s ‘Agent’ for you, and do you realise how ridiculous this sound? Iron Man and his bodyguard?”
“He’s not a bodyguard –”
“You sent me his CV. I’m looking at it right now.” With one flick of his wrist, Tony pulls a page from his desktop to the hologram pad in the middle of his office. “I’m not nitpicking, but Pepper, I expect better of you. This thing is missing a name, a birth date –”
“They’re on the first page, you must’ve skipped all the preamble. Again.”
“Says here he’s uh, spent a year in art school, undergone basic military training, experienced in piloting, military strategy – OK, need I remind you that we’re a Fortune 500 tech company, not the CIA – he was with the Army before he becomes an… intelligence operative.” Tony squints at the image. “Let me zoom into that. Yes, I kid you not. He was – is he still an intelligence operative?”
“If you mean does he belong to the same organisation as Phil, yes he does.”
“He’s on SHIELD’s payroll. That’s all you need to say, Pep.”
“Don’t make things difficult for him, Tony.”
“I’m turning him away.”
Pepper’s sigh echoes in the room. Even the holographic CV seems to waver with it.
“At least grant him the thirty-minute appointment you promised him.”
“Let the Human Resource handle the interview –”
“It’s not a job interview.”
Tony kneads the side of his head with his knuckles. It’s a thirty-minute one-on-one appointment with an accompanying CV – how is this not a connotation of a job interview?
“I’d love to give you more, Tony, I do, but this is all I get from Phil. Happy is here, so I really have to hang up now. Go back to the first page. At least know his name. In the meantime, take care of yourself, all right?”
The click! in his earpiece goes off like a cannon in the middle of the night.
Well, one glance at the first page won’t do much harm, will it? Besides the fact that it’s going to be a complete waste of time. But he can’t go around calling the guy “Agent of SHIELD”…
The name is Steve Rogers. Born July 4, 1920.
Tony swipes the file away and brings up a blueprint of a fuel cell. New guy is hopeless if he can’t spot an effing typo in his CV.
Steve has always associated the family name “Stark” with futuristic technology. A bloodline of visionaries. Howard’s son definitely doesn’t disappoint. The ultramodern Stark Tower stands out in the vista like a sore thumb, looming over the rest of New York City almost tauntingly, “Yo, catch up!”
By the way, Phil says flying cars don’t exist yet.
Howard had a thing for drama and flamboyance. That… probably is genetic. The internal décor of Stark Industries’ foyer is minimalistic, surfaces sleek and metallic with the occasional wooden accentuation to soften the edges up. The wow factor lies in all the virtual pop-ups that are meant to either – Steve can only guess – entertain guests while they wait for their appointments, educate them, or simply to impress.
Or maybe all three. Howard never settled for one-at-a-time. Just look at the number of dames he’d fondued with.
In a place like this, always expect the unexpected.
“Good morning,” Steve approaches the holograph of a red-headed, young and pretty AI that has just greeted him, “I have a nine o’clock with Mr Stark?”
“Mr Stark is ready for you. Step through the gate, please.”
Steve has seen one of these archways in SHIELD’s training facilities. He walks through it and waits for two seconds as the computer does some computations – he knows they’re checking for contrabands, weapons, any abnormal physiological signs – and when the bulb goes green, the holograph continues, “The elevator will take you direct to the office. Have a good day, Captain.”
There must be close to a thousand employees housed in the Tower. He looks down from the see-through wall of the elevator and sees the canteen on the twelfth floor packed full with people. People walking around with tablets and devices in their ears and over their eyes. And all he’s spoken to so far is an AI at the foyer, and ah, let's not forget the AI on the phone when he called to confirm if the appointment is still valid.
Steve thought it’d be nice if he could talk to a flesh-and-blood staff or two, just to have a handle of who Anthony Stark is from the grass roots point of view.
The CEO office is, surprisingly, pretty low key. Not even a name plaque on the frosted glass door.
Steve looks around for a secretary, or a PA, because he is not going to just knock on that door and announce himself as is.
“State your name and your business, Sir,” a cool, machinic voice intones.
The door is talking to him.
“Steve Rogers. I’ve a nine o’clock appointment with Mr Stark.”
“Please come in.”
The far end of the office has floor-to-ceiling glass windows for walls, and from this height, New York City is but a flat terrain with miniature buildings sprinkled around in blocks. A man with familiar dark, wavy hair in a three-piece suit stands over it with his back facing Steve.
The resemblance is uncanny.
“Good morning, Mr Stark.”
He turns around. Yet it becomes immediately clear that Anthony Stark – in the way those brown eyes meeting his are sharp and searching, warm with years of practiced professionalism – is nothing like his father.
“Captain, pleasure meeting you.”
Tony gestures to an empty seat, opposite of the straight-backed executive chair that has a red cardigan draping over the armrest. The cheapest item Steve could find in the spaciously uncluttered office.
“I don’t know how SHIELD did it, but they found a way to squeeze you into my daily planner. A remarkable achievement. Is Miss Potts the de facto liaison officer between your bosses and SI now?”
Steve folds his hands in his laps. “Miss Potts has been most helpful. Director Fury –”
“I’ll have to stop you right there.” In three strides, Tony retakes his seat and scoots closer to the desk. “Director Fury and SHIELD have no stakes with the company – financial or otherwise – and therefore no business interfering with our management. I’ll let this trespass slide, Captain, but I must say I can’t be gladder to see the back of you, or anyone else from your side for the matter.”
Steve doesn’t immediately reply, and Tony lets the silence plough on for the next uncomfortable seconds.
“Mr Stark, I think this might interest you.”
And Steve pulls out a pen drive – seriously? – and holds it out for Tony to take. Which he does, while also thinking if he has a device with a USB port in the entire Tower that can read this thing. Wireless rules, what can he say? Bytes riding on EM waves across time and space is titillating.
“I don’t like to be handed things.”
Steve raises an eyebrow, but eventually points to the CPU on the table. This is where Tony feels he should clarify once and for all that that hunk of metal is there for sentimental value.
“May I?” Steve raises the pen drive like he’s toasting at a banquet. Tony nods.
There’s only one file on the drive and it goes direct to the holograph pad. Tony admits, he thinks it’ll be another copy of Steve’s CV, or some propaganda slideshow about everything SHIELD, hell, maybe porn, who knows – point is, he’s ready for anything Steve is about to show him. Anything under the sun.
Anything, save for a fearsomely detailed blueprint of the Tower, all the way from the deepest foundation to the lightning rod on the rooftop.
“That is confidential – where did you –”
“The same way Director Fury gained access to your home in Malibu.”
Tony smirks, and it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Digital interloping, how quaint.” He straightens up in his seat and rests an elbow on the table. “Give me one reason why I should not call for security, right now, have that pen drive confiscated and your ass in jail for wrongful possession of P & C materials and information theft.”
“Believe it or not, Mr Stark, we’re not here to make enemies. Your safety is our priority,” Tony scoffs openly at that, and Steve presses on, “I agree the method is… questionable. Things will be a lot more straightforward if you and Iron Man are two separate entities.”
“Mm. Sweet advice. First-hand experience?”
Steve cracks the vaguest hint of a smile. “I’m not a superhero, Mr Stark.”
“You may have heard a lot about me. Not all are savoury. But cowardice is not one of them. I don’t hide behind masks and secret identities.”
Steve’s lips grow thin, and Tony mentally gives himself a pat on the back.
“Director Fury is concerned that you’ll be victimised by anti-vigilantism movements. These can be pre-empted.”
“… Your past experiences speak of valour, Captain. But I’m not having SHIELD agents parked on this premise for just-in-cases. We're running a business here, we don’t need to remind our customers of the occasional grenades launched through our window –”
“You misunderstand me. We’re not here to offer you such services.” As if on cue, the holograph blinks and the original skeleton of the Tower is now superimposed with various other structures, red against the building’s blue. “I’m here to advise you on Stark Tower’s building security.”
Tony gives the flickering image a cursory glance. “What's next? A free makeover on my house?” Tony plucks the pen drive from the back of his CPU. “I assume I can hold on to this for a while? Run it by some simulations, get a better understanding of your proposal.”
Steve nods and gets to his feet. Their half an hour is almost up.
“I’m not an unreasonable man. I do value the safety of my employees. I’ve been thinking of overhauling the security systems, and if this,” he waggles the pen drive between his thumb and forefinger, “offers me solutions, I’ll make time for a second discussion. Send my thanks to Fury.”
They shake hands, and Steve motions for the door.
“Uh, wait up!” Tony quickly ducks under his desk and Steve hears him doing some serious rummaging. “Mind giving this a look over?” And he holds out a roundish model made of plaster of Paris, whitewashed without colour, but so detailed that Steve can see every brick on the cobblestone walkway.
“This is the Stark Expo. A miniature version of it. There’s a microchip stuck on the underside, pretty sure SHIELD has a reader for it. I just gave ‘em one hundred last month. I would’ve given you something less bulky of course,” Tony claps his hands and flakes of plaster sprinkle all over his desk like dandruff, “I didn’t know you were coming. There’s a strap on it somewhere, makes it easier to carry.”
Steve smiles wryly. “Of course, Mr Stark.” With practiced ease, Steve slings the model across his shoulder and lets the gloriously fragile hemisphere drape over his back. “I look forward to our next meeting.”
Even after the entire afternoon has passed and there’s nothing left to remind Tony of his morning appointment, he can’t shake off the feeling that he knows Steve Rogers from a time before.
“Sir, he’s holding on to the drive.”
“Impressive. Sounds like you’re the right guy for the job after all, Captain. That man never holds on to anything that isn’t blonde or drop dead gorgeous.”
“He is right about one thing, though. Iron Man may be under our jurisdiction, but Stark Industries by and large isn’t, and we’re banking on his goodwill that he remains cooperative with SHIELD.”
Steve slides his phone into his pocket and huffs. There’s nothing left for him to do at the Tower, unless he wants to join the crowd in ooh-ing and aah-ing over a holographic Iron Man zipping about the foyer.
Stark sure doesn’t do subtleties very well.
This is that time of the day when the job’s done and he’s got until the next sunrise to do whatever he wants. Which should be great, shouldn’t it? Gone are the days of spending an entire afternoon doing the laundry, cooking and making homes. Yet people have never been busier. Seventy years is a lifetime, he knows that… but still. One of his attending doctors assured him the Earth he knows is just the same as this one. It still goes around the Sun at the same distance, at the same orbital speed.
So why does twenty-four hours feel so long?
Oh, wait. He has homework.
Steve dismounts his bike and re-opens the rear storage compartment. It’s still all there… well, the Belgium waffle stand has a chipped umbrella, but otherwise everything looks pristine. He shrugs off his jacket and wraps it around mini-Stark Expo.
Should he report this to Fury? He’s suddenly a locum architect-safety advisor for an Expo he’s only heard about ten minutes ago, an Expo that looks so sprawling as if it’s trying to compensate for something. But between this and demolishing reinforced punching bags into the night? There’s no contest.
“JARVIS, are we in the clear?”
“Sir, may I remind you that hacking into SHIELD’s mainframe is –”
“Nuh-uh, delete ‘hacking’ from your vocabulary. It’s so last century… and it’s only fair, don’t you think?” Tony flicks a mint five inches into the air and catches it with his mouth. “An eye for an eye, tit for tat, that sort of thing. And what were you doing when they got over the firewall?”
“I can only work with what I’ve been given, Sir.”
A sea of black and white fills up all three screens in front of him. The primary code takes centre stage on the holograph pad, and Tony slips copper bracelets about his wrists. Some distance over his head, JARVIS’ marquee in ASCII blinks uncontrollably.
“Is that an excuse? Gee, look at the damages they’ve left behind. No sense of subtleties.” He waves his arm once, left to right, and SHIELD’s emblem luminesces in turn. He tiptoes and peeks out of the glass door. “We don’t work like that, do we? I need my trails covered, J. Can you still do that?”
“Erasure of event logs and command histories can only be done at twenty percent the usual rate, Sir.”
“That’ll do.” This is great. This is the equivalent of flying-foxing into the Triskelion. There’s going to be broken glasses and blown off door knobs – regrettably, there’s no such thing as an immaculate forced entry – but hey, he can at least pull stocking over his head.
Now. Let’s see what comes up with this query: Steve Rogers.
The server obediently regurgitates pages after pages of results. “That’s a lot of information.” Because all Tony sees is a blur. “Throw a rock in New York and it’ll hit a Steve Rogers or two. JARVIS, use his CV as a guide. Look for keywords.”
“Sir, Captain Rogers’ year of birth stands out. Shall I include that in the filter as well?”
“… Looks like the damage done to your programme is more extensive than expected. A World War Two veteran won’t look like Mr Hallmark Channel in 2010. That’s a typo. Ignore it.”
It doesn’t take long for the “right” Steve Rogers to show up in the final search. That mugshot is golden, all right? It’s the same piercing blue eyes, sharp nose, strong jaws, frown as deep as the Marina Trench. Tony gives the holograph a slap across its virtual-cheek and watches it swivel. Yep, this is their guy. Austere in every angle.
Tony removes the image and proceeds down the accompanying biodata.
Captain Steven Grant Rogers… July 4, 1920…
Which idiot did SHIELD hire – can’t even key in employee’s personal details correctly –
Male… 6’ 2”… blue eyes… blonde hair… 240 lbs… O type…
Tony gets it. He’s looking at a specimen of Aryan perfection.
Operation Rebirth, 1941…
Collapse of the Nazi regimen… Red Skull oppression…
Lost to the Arctic Oceans on April 18, 1945…
America’s Fallen Son…
Staying up till late – back then – wasn’t always a good idea. Ma used to say, “Watch the oil. Light is a gift we shan’t squander.” Steve slips a bookmark over page fifty of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs and tucks an arm under his head. It’s ten o’clock, and that’s the time when Ma would take matters into her own hands – literally – and extinguish his kerosene lamp with saliva-wetted fingers. An attendant with SHIELD – nice fella as old as he is, give or take, nah, take seventy years – told him about light bulb evolution one noon when he dropped by the med bay for another blood test.
Halogen incandescents, compact fluorescent lamps, and LEDs…
Fancy names for light bulbs, Steve recalls. They don’t escape his memory. Nothing much do. He also remembers that these next generation of bulbs use twenty five to eighty percent less energy than anything else, and last three to twenty five times longer.
Steve stares at the table lamp on his nightstand. He can leave this thing on till the crack of dawn and it won’t matter anymore.
Steve jolts up in his bed. It sounds as if someone’s coming at his front door with a battering ram.
“I know you’re in there!”
“Be right out!”
Jesus Christ, if the hinges give out, can he afford a replacement?
Steve checks himself in the reflection of his TV set – just in case he’s missing out a garment or two – and opens the door.
And he’s certain the look of shock on his late-night guest – Tony Stark – mirrors his, from the raised brow to the loosely-hanging lower jaw.
“Mr Stark? What can I do for you?”
Tony draws himself up so they’re eyeball to eyeball with one another, and he’s since schooled his expression to one of polite apathy. The seconds trickle by, and Steve watches his lips move in slow motion, voice low to an almost-growl, saying, “Hail Hydra.”
Steve flinches – hard – and Tony’s eyes dart to the right where Steve’s accidentally left indentations on the wooden door frame under his fingers. Tony smirks, “It’s true then –”
In under two seconds with one fluid motion, Steve’s reeled all of Tony into his hallway, the door slammed shut behind them, and he has his guest pinned to the wall. Pretty sure even if this is the new turn of the century, squeezing the life out of a man with an arm shoved into his neck doesn’t count as a gracious hello.
“Rogers, stand down –”
“Not funny, Stark.”
“Dying here –”
Steve backs up and Tony draws in a single, overdramatic intake of air. A glint of metal – red and gold – on Tony’s right wrist catches his attention, and he takes another cautious step back. If Iron Man were to total his apartment – an apartment he hasn’t owned long enough that he'll lose his deposit if he vacates it – is it OK to bill Stark Industries for damages?
“Good evening, Cap. Sorry about that.” Steve folds his arms across his chest but says nothing. “Shall we cut to the chase then? I feel like tonight’s the night to be in Flushing Meadows. Thought I’d ask if you want to come along?”
“Welcome to Stark Expo!”
It’s dark, it’s quiet, and it looks more like a desolate warehouse in the middle of nowhere, albeit one that’s aesthetically designed and built, maintained and –
Tony grabs Steve firmly by his biceps, stalling him in his steps. “Careful now. We have motion and heat sensors installed to ward off the hippies.” Something metallic cool and smooth nudges the side of his wrist. “Put this on.”
Then Tony claps him once over the shoulder before walking through the gates himself.
And lights come on sweepingly.
“To conserve energy,” Tony spins on his heels so he’s facing Steve again, “this bracelet,” he raises his right arm, “activates the necessary electronics within a thirty feet radius. Yours does the same, of course. Minus all the access codes to the building.”
When the foyer is properly illuminated, Steve sees a portrait of Howard mounted front and centre behind the reception desk. He isn’t even aware that he’s gravitating towards it until his forearm bumps against the counter’s marble top.
“What do you remember of my father?”
Steve frowns and pulls his attention from the portrait.
“How do you know? How long?”
“A while. Listen, if you don’t want people to find out who you truly are, don’t use your real name. A word to the wise.” Tony rakes his hair with his fingers. “It also helps that my old man couldn’t shut up about you back in the days, so.”
A strong grip closes about Steve’s arm again, steering him to the “Courtyard” – says so on the direction sign.
“Let’s go for a walk.”
Garden lights come on one after another, one step at a time as they amble down the cobblestone pavement. There are makeshift booths flanking the main walkway, and Steve assumes this is where some of the more outdoorsy demonstrations will be housed.
Tony does a little sprint and goes off towards a gazebo, the pavement lighting up dutifully in his wake.
“I can’t see it clearly from here, but you should be able to.”
Tony points northward. Steve follows, peering through the murky night and makes out the outline of scaffoldings holding up boards and screens, and a raised platform that can only mean one thing.
Tony looks away, triumphant for the briefest of moment. He returns his hands to his pockets. “You have an insane volume of health reports with SHIELD, which got me thinking, what’s so special about Steve Rogers, about you, that makes their penny-pinching scientists blow all their money studying… you?”
“And you know this, how?”
“At least they’re careful with data storage, I’ll tell you that.” Tony leans over the handrail. “Results of every test pertaining to your cell’s biochemistry – everything they know about the Super Soldier serum – are stored on Fury’s private server that cannot be accessed remotely. You got to break into his office to get those information,” he adds when Steve’s face goes blank. “Knowing Fury, he’s probably stowed them under his pillows or something, so you got to get through him first. I don’t like him much, but he’s one tough son of a bitch.”
Tony shifts, and Steve sees his knuckles go white over the stainless-steel bar.
“What do you want from me?”
“I either want you to sign my shoe or punch you in the face.”
Tony flicks him a smile, as genuine as it is subdued. He pushes himself off the railing, and sways. Steve catches him quickly about the arms.
“Are you all right?”
From this proximity, the lines on Tony’s face are even more pronounced.
“Long day. I thought I’d show you the left wing…”
“We can do that later. It’s late, if you haven’t noticed.”
They don’t exchange another word until they get to the parking lot where Tony promptly tosses his car keys over and they swap seats. As Steve draws the handbrake up at the intersection on their way back to SI, he notices a bright red button beside the gear stick. The question dies on his tongue when he hears Tony’s breath hitch.
But morning will come, and they will meet again.
It’s two hours past midnight and there are as many stars in the sky as there are along the Interstate.
“Vehicle bombs are a common model of attack. The blast effect depends primarily on the amount of explosives, type of vehicle and distance of the blast from the building. The latter, we can control for. And you have a lot of open spaces on the outside. I noticed quite a few cameras installed – are all of them real?”
Tony taps the centre of his forehead with his pen. “Sixty percent of them are.”
“As long as you have eyes in high-risk areas –”
“Oh no, all the grounds are covered. We have prototype camera-on-drones doing rounds in areas with less traffic.”
But, of course.
“We should maximise the stand-off distance between a hot vehicle and the Tower’s entrances and exits. There are a few ways to go about it. The exterior compounds can be cordoned with concrete bollards –”
“The grounds are kept clear of obstructions to create a sense of openness and welcome. Concrete bars sticking out of the ground hardly –”
“Concrete planter boxes work just as well,” Steve suggests, his pen making soft tapping sounds on the clipboard propped up against his knee. “Low screen walls, automated barriers.”
“We have a helipad on the roof. What can we do about that?”
“There’s not much we can do about an aerial attack –”
“Maybe a bunch of suits can do something about that.”
“… This isn’t fool proof, but we can deploy bollards to prevent unauthorised landings. Consider fortifying the structures – the walls and floors. Limit access points. Increase surveillance.”
Steve looks down to his clipboard and sees that they’re only midway through midway of their briefing, and Stark’s eyes have started wandering. They’re focused, sharp – but not on Steve. One minute it’s on the door, by another it’s on the Jackson Pollock. Steve has half a mind to reschedule the meeting for another time, when he can have all of Stark paying attention to this, the real-life version of Tower Defense.
“A penny for your thought, Cap.”
Steve looks up and sees Tony watching him with a bemused expression on his face.
“It does get boring after a while, doesn’t it?”
“This is important, Mr Stark. The strategic location and dense occupancy of this Tower makes it an ideal hit, and we’re trying our best to –”
“I’m paying attention here. I uh,” Tony grabs his mug and gets up, “Pepper says I’ve a tendency to ‘zone out’ – I don’t, believe it or not. We’re all busy people. It’s not possible to get a day’s job done doing one thing at a time, is it? I multitask. Do you want a drink?”
Steve pivots his chair around and takes in the huge repertoire of alcohol lining the glass cabinet. “I don’t drink when I’m on duty.”
“You don’t drink when you’re on duty, or you just don’t drink? I bet you metabolise all the good stuff faster than us unenhanced mortals,” Tony chuckles and fills his mug – and another – with water. “I’ve gone through your proposal. Ran it through simulated attacks. Threats in all forms – explosives, fire, biologics. They hold up fine. Casualty was reduced by fifteen percent. It’s pretty good, by all means.” He places the mug before Steve, and leans his hip against the edge of the table.
“I take it you’re agreeing to implementing these plans?”
“Not all of them can be done, unfortunately. It’s not economical to tear down the West Wing, or the entire upper floors to say, revamp the elevator shafts. Replacing all our windows to laminated, blast resistant ones, doable. Installing next gen cell enhancers in the basement labs, also doable.”
Steve drinks his water. This is a life model decoy of SI’s CEO. It’s got to be. This isn’t the man he’d watched on national TV. Big man in a suit, goes around kicking ass, taking names, thinking the whole world is his oyster with him as the centre.
“I’m hungry,” Tony announces suddenly. He grabs Steve’s mug – the fact that he’s still drinking from it doesn’t matter – and reaches over for the car keys. “We can grab something on our way to the Expo. In the meantime, there’s a thing I want to discuss with you – so you can bring it up to Fury.” He pauses. “… Me working with Fury. What has the world gone to?”
Their passage down the elevator is swift. When an intern from R & D got off the ride on the fourth floor with a glazed I-can’t-believe-Mr-Stark-is-interested-in-my-work look, Tony quips, “You know, the only way I can fully implement your proposal is when aliens rain bullets on us and raze the Tower to the ground.”
“Good afternoon, Mr Stark, Captain Rogers,” the red-headed AI greets as they walked out to the foyer. “Tap your card on the reader and step through the gate for a security search, gentlemen.”
Tony lays his ID card face-down as indicated and looks over his shoulder at Steve. The words don’t get spoken, but Steve understands that sly smirk all the same: take notes, Rogers, we do take security very seriously.
The glass globe over the gate flashes red.
“Tachycardia at 108 beats per minute. Elevated systolic blood pressure and respiratory rates. Anomalies detected in volatile breath metabolites –”
“That’s enough. Override, Stark-3490.”
“… Voice authorisation approved. Have a good day, Mr Stark.”
And Tony steps out of the gate, steps aside and beckons Steve to take his place.
“We have a couple of genetics and biochemistry labs downstairs, and we scan our staff and guests for changes in their physiology. Just in case, you know. Exposure to harmful, or God forbid contagious vectors… but those sensors are prototypes. They work a bit wonky sometimes.”
The master orator he is, Tony abruptly steers the conversation to global warming and the Writers Guild of America strike.
Steve doesn’t miss the rapid rise and fall of Tony’s chest in between sentences. Neither makes any mention of it.
“Tony, I must say, I am… surprised. I thought you would tolerate him that half an hour, and that’s it.”
“He brought up some good points. In fact, I think I’m gonna commission him to the same for the Expo.”
Tony scratches his nose. “What?”
“He must be something. You rarely pay attention to someone who doesn’t speak leet –”
“Nobody says leet anymore, and give me some credit, Pep. I appreciate talent, expertise and commitment to the course no matter what form they come in. By the way,” Tony peeks through the ajar door and sees Steve’s back against him. He too is talking on his phone. “I’ve approved Rogers’ proposal. JARVIS will send you a copy in a while, and you can have a look at it yourself.”
“Very good. One question: are we paying him for this job?”
“Stark just did what?”
“He has approved our proposal for the Tower, and he’s asking if I can stay and work on the Expo as well –”
“I know he’s got a penchant for surprises, but this exceeds expectations. Hell, just yesterday I heard the grunt agents were wagering how long you’d last in Stark’s office!” Fury goes quiet, and Steve presses his phone to his ear. “But your assignment stops here.”
“Yes, Sir.” Steve crosses the seminar room he’s in to stand by the window. “May I stay here nonetheless, until the next assignment comes in?”
“… Need I remind you that we’re a counter-terrorism agency. Our job is to defend this good earth against paranormal and superhuman threats. Captain America is our leader on the battlefield. You’re not a building safety advisor.”
What a shame. That half an hour drive to get to the Expo is all for naught.
“But if you wish to stay, then, by all means.”
Steve’s chin lifts. “Are you sure?”
“Until the next assignment, Rogers.”
“Is everything OK?” Tony pushes the door a fraction and leans against the frame. Belatedly Steve realises he’s been staring out of the window since Fury's call. Going by the slight creaks in his kneecaps when he turns to Tony, it’s been a while.
“Yes.” Steve gestures vaguely around the room. “Do people spend the night here?”
“Yeah.” The northwest corner has a plush cot, a nightstand and a cloth wardrobe. A pair of indoor slippers lay by the foot of the cot. They’re obviously in someone else’s makeshift bedroom. “This is where I sleep when I have to come down here to work.”
“You sleep here?”
“I forget the time when I’m in my workshop. It’s candy land. Like the casino. No windows, no clocks. You lose track after a while.”
If Tony says so. Steve hasn’t been in a gambling den his life.
“I meant to get the servers and JARVIS online, but that can wait till night. You, Captain,” Tony nudges the door wider with his foot, “deserves a proper tour of the Expo. Want to check out the museum?”
Only, it’s more than a museum.
It’s a memorial for the founding fathers of Stark Industries, and that means walls decked as far as the eyes can see with yellowed newspaper cuttings and photographs of the War, and inventions it gave birth to. Steve runs a hand over a framed photograph of a young Howard shaking hands with Dr Erskine – good old days – standing in front of the Vita-ray machine. He reads the inscription below it.
“Operation Rebirth,” Tony comes to stand beside him. “Feeling nostalgic?”
When Steve first came to – to the hustle and bustle of modern New York City, gender and social equality and the microwave oven – all he’d been told is welcome to 2010, we won, enjoy the future he’d laid down his life for. The first three months was just him catching up on post-World War Two history and how far technology has marched on. Nobody talked about what it was like then – though it may have more to do with the fact that none of his attendants existed yet. They said, why talk about then when he has the future to look forward to?
“We’ve finalised the list of presenters and booth allocation. Logistics have been sorted out. Press has been informed. We’re on the final lap of the Expo’s launch. Unlike the Tower, we’ve a lot more space to work with here. We can consider renovations to a reasonable degree, if you think they’re necessary.”
Fury says Tony Stark doesn’t warm up to people easy.
“I appreciate the opportunity given, working on the Expo.” Steve’s been itching for something to do since the thaw. And yet, “I have to ask, is there another reason for it? For keeping me here?”
“… Free country, Cap. You don’t have to work on it if you don’t want to.”
Steve can’t seem to peel his eyes off a particular black-and-white photograph. He’s lost his own in the War. Not that he needs a photograph to remind him of the Howling Commando.
“Is it for information?”
“The same thing SHIELD wanted to know the moment I regained basic body functions. Hydra? The Tessaract? I know Howard didn’t stop working on either, perhaps his work is missing some pieces and here we are,” Steve waves around the exhibit, “jogging memories?”
And Steve swears, if he could’ve foreseen how deep it cuts –
“It’s pretty obvious how much you miss your life. The stuff in this gallery belongs to Dad’s private collection that… I inherited. Thought I’d showed you first hand. At least someone appreciates them for what they are.”
Tony raps the wall lightly with his knuckles.
“I’ll leave you to it then.”
“Your bracelet will give you access to the common areas. Take a look around, assuming you’re still keen on working on the Expo.”
The hall is still furniture-less. Echoes accompany Tony’s every step.
“I’m gonna go take a nap. Wake me up for dinner?”
Eventually, Steve finds the strength to leave the comfort of the bygones and exit the building. He spends the rest of the evening surveying the grounds because damn right he’s keen on working on the Expo. And for the first time in the longest while, he feels like there’s a chance’s chance he can do right by this God given second take on life.
He has work to do.
Tony has all the intention to get his servers and JARVIS online when he dials his access code on the keypad. He has it planned out for the evening. He’s going to get his AI comfortable with the grounds, create a seamless connection between the Tower and the Expo, catch that forty winks and then, dinner with the Captain. There’s just one thing that’s throwing a spanner in the works.
He’s seeing double of everything.
The only reason he’s managed to unlock the lab is because he went full-on Braille on the number pad.
“OK, what’s wrong with me? Go.”
Tony pulls his T-shirt over his head and promptly slaps the wearable wireless sensor next to the arc reactor. He likes this lab already. It’s meant for researching regenerative therapies for cardiac diseases – his recent trip to Cambridge led to a chance meeting with this young postdoc with ambitions and intelligence as she was pretty. The brightest set of emerald eyes he’s seen – only second to Pepper’s. These two benches near the fire exit are for her, but she’s not coming down to the States until after the Expo is officiated, so that means, finders keepers.
He sits in the dentist chair and waits for the sensor to equilibrate. He wishes JARVIS can upload himself onto the mainframe and handle all the doctoring and nursing, so that frees him up to play the role of the difficult patient.
The handheld monitor in his hand buzzes.
“What in the world…”
He doesn’t like how his vitals are looking. Body temp is bordering feverish, he is going tachycardia, his ventilation rate is five breaths per minute too fast and his BP is going through the roof. Naturally, he does what any self-respecting scientist would do; he peels the sensor off and gives it a good slap over his thigh, before replacing it on his chest.
And it’s still the same bullshit.
The monitor buzzes again, and this time, a smaller window pops up in a corner.
“Heavy metal poisoning?”
He turns the monitor in his palm a couple of times, thinking how nifty this thingamajick is, to be able to narrow down causes just by cosying up his breast for one whole minute. There’s no other choice. He’s got to run some tests on his blood.
Fixing the lancet up with a needle, Tony briefly considers asking Steve for a favour, see if he could bleed the finger on his behalf.
Five minutes later, the blood is on a coverslip, loaded onto a mass spec and Tony’s changed his mind – he’s going straight to bagging those Z’s.
There are no glaring issues with the buildings. They’re clearly designed with the occupants’ safety in mind. Fortified structures, clear signage, strategic placement of exits and entrances. The only thing that doesn’t sit right with Steve is the courtyard.
There’s that stage, the ground beneath his feet and the endless sky over his head.
It’s a kill box.
He understands the need for space, given the tendency of Stark Expo – Howard’s or Tony’s – to draw in the largest of crowd. Any two-bit villain will know to hit the courtyard when the ceremony begins onstage. Without bottlenecks, surveillance won’t be able to systematically and effectively capture their culprits on tape. There will be a stampede. Chaos and casualties.
They can start with upping the brightness level around here.
The sun is already slipping past the horizon.
Since Tony didn’t tell him where he’ll be, Steve decides to drop by the seminar room where the cot is. Also because he’s not sure he’s allowed into the workshops and labs.
Tony’s there, all right. Snoozing, as he promised he would. The blinds are drawn, casting the room in shadows and Tony is half-propped against the wall, cradling his tablet in one hand. Steve knocks on the door louder. Tony doesn’t rouse.
He crosses the room and lifts the blinds. Orange fills the room so glaringly even Steve squints at it.
“Stark, wake up.” He shakes Tony around the shoulder and hopes there are no Iron Man suits on stand-by ready to take down unfriendlies who dare to disturb his slumber.
The tablet slips from Tony’s lax grip, and crashes to the ground.
Steve shakes Tony again, harder –
“Hey,” Tony slides sideway with the force, and Steve catches him before he tumbles out of the cot. Then it starts to get worrying, because Steve is supporting all of Tony’s weight while he’s half-dangling off the cot, and those eyelids are still adamantly closed. As awkward as this is, Tony doesn’t stir.
Steve piles him back onto the cot and taps him firmly over the cheek.
Does this warrant a call for 911?
Just as he reaches into his pocket for his phone, Tony jerks up, eyes roaming wild and panicky. Steve rests a hand over his knee and – he sees this one coming – Tony twists around to swing an arm heavily into Steve’s face. It’s fast and forceful for an unenhanced, but Steve catches it effortlessly about the wrist, and stays it.
“Calm down, it’s just me.”
Tony hangs on to the words and the voice with everything he got. He doesn’t pull away from Steve as he steadies his breathing.
“You're burning up. You should go to a doctor.”
“No.” Tony scoots further down the cot. “I’m fine. Just need uh, dinner – you’re here for dinner, aren’t you? That, and a good night’s sleep, and I’ll be right as rain. Give me a minute, I need to use the bathroom.”
When the door closes behind Tony and Steve’s left to his own in the room, he bends down to retrieve the tablet that’s now sporting a small crack in the corner. A sweeping glance – he hasn’t intended to look at it, but he can’t stop his much agile mind from registering facts – tells him Tony was in the middle of working on an Iron Man suit before he falls asleep.
If he can call that a normal sleep.
Tony better knows what he’s doing.
It's happening too fast, too sudden.
Tony slips into the nearest washroom and locks the door, just in case. He goes to the sink, hikes his shirt up and stares at himself in the mirror. Really stares at himself.
For the love of God. How did he miss that?
He admits, he doesn’t like staring at the mess that is his chest in the mirror much, because nobody needs to relief memories of having his ribcages sawed away – without adequate anaesthesia – and then hooked up to a car battery in a dingy cave in the middle of nowhere, all right? Nothing’s changed: the scar tissue surrounding the metal casing of the arc reactor is still as extensive.
And it’s tainted black.
The app on his phone tells him the mass spec is still processing his blood.
What is going on?
“Stark? Are you in there?”
Tony shrugs his shirt down and winces when Steve does all kind of things trying to get through the locked door. When he sees the knob jiggles, followed by the entire door heaving in its frame –
“I’m coming out!”
Steve is still angling his shoulder at the door like he’s about to batter the wood down if Tony doesn’t answer him sooner.
“Christ, Rogers. Are you always this wound up?”
“I thought you need help.”
“For the nth time, I’m fine.”
“… You’re bleeding.”
Tony’s heart does a painful flip. He looks down and checks himself for blood – he honestly feels fine, what blood is Steve talking about – and sees red splotches dripping, twice, onto the front of his shirt. Steve immediately cups him by the jaws, and the next thing he sees is the ceiling.
“Uh… what’s happening?”
“Your nose is bleeding. Can you breathe through your mouth?”
Awkwardly, Tony nods. He rolls his eyeballs downward and makes out blonde tuft of hair under his chin. Steve pinches his nose, and that’s how they are for the next five minutes. Two grown men occupying most of the width of the hallway, just slightly off the door to the gents, one of them clamping the nose of the other in a pincer.
If his staff were to see this…
“Have you told anyone else about this?”
“See a doctor, Stark. Just in case.”
“… OK.” The taste of copper in the back of his throat is getting nauseous. “OK, leggo.” Not to mention his neck is about to break. “Thanks.”
And Steve takes out something else from his pocket, something Tony is a hundred percent certain has been extinct since Y2K.
“Use this.” Steve shoves the piece of cotton antique under his nose. “It’s fine. You can have it.”
Because, of course Steve Rogers has a drawerful of handkerchiefs at home.
“Thank you,” Tony sniffs audibly. “So, how do you feel about Chinese take-out?”
They are in a vibrant Asian neighbourhood, so why not? To Steve’s surprise, they don’t even have to leave the compound to get food.
When Steve asked why he had to loiter around the foyer instead of driving into town, Tony explained to him the concept of food delivery. And he had to immediately follow that up with, “No, it’s not a cruel form of servitude. They’re profitably run businesses. People are willing to pay for convenience these days.”
To make his point, Tony lets Steve deal with the delivery guy. And Steve decides to open their transaction with, “Son, how old are you?”
“Do you enjoy delivering food?”
“… Well, the rates per hour ain’t that bad. My girlfriend wants an iPhone-Fiction for Christmas, so,” he loads the bag of food into Steve’s waiting arms, “this is me working my ass off for love. That’ll be forty-five dollars, Sir.”
Steve brings the food back to the gazebo where he finds Tony exactly where he’d left him – on his back, on the grass, his head resting in a pillow of forearms as he stargazes into the night.
“What’s an iPhone-Fiction?”
“Mm?” Tony eyes have their crosshairs over the brown bags Steve’s cradling. “A costly ego-booster. Bring that here. I can eat a horse.”
They proceed to having an impromptu picnic-dinner in the middle of the courtyard, the stars and the garden lights illuminating their slices of pork belly and rice.
Savour the serenity.
“Still thinking about the phone?”
Steve pierces his wanton with his chopsticks. He’s checked. His bag doesn’t come with a fork. “I notice people’s priorities have changed.”
“The world has changed, Cap.”
“So has your company’s directions.”
There are still replicas of prototypical torpedoes, self-propelled artillery and tanks in the gallery. War has always been a part of SI’s foundations. Then. Now. Steve knows what spurs Tony into donning that Iron Man suit. Fury’s shown him footages before SHIELD dropped his ass in the Tower’s front yard. There are still wars to be fought today. Wars in magnitude incomprehensible in the forties.
Yet, the only thing in SI that’s remotely combat-active is Iron Man.
“We don’t do that anymore,” Tony smiles wanly. “I shut down our weapon manufacturing division and kick-started something better. Green energy is where the money and interest is. We are weaning off dependence on fossil fuel. Germany is heading towards a blanket ban on combustion engine by 2030. They got the ball rolling. It’s just a matter of time before the rest of the world jumps on the bandwagon.” Tony uncaps his bottle of oolong tea. “It’s noble, ambitious, and all around impossible. Happily, Stark Industries is in position to make that happen.”
Tony hands the bottle to Steve.
“So, it’s all good business, huh?”
“Seventy percent of disasters are climate related. Intense tropical storms, flooding, droughts lasting for months on ends. Global warming.” Tony’s chin lifts as he turns to Steve. “Money is irrelevant. I think, with the talent and resources that we have, we can do something about it. And that’s a promise.”
The world has moved on in his absence. War is a constant, but it’s not one in which Captain America is needed. Tony is right. Muscles have no more place in this century. At least, not as much as they were needed back then.
But he’s already here.
“Looks like the future isn’t as hyped up as Dad envisioned it to be,” Tony scoffs openly. “Makes you want to go back into the ice, doesn’t it?”
“Doesn’t mean we give up. Are you?”
“Look around you, Cap. Part of the solution is here. I used to resent him for paying too damn much attention to this thing. And look at me, twenty years later.” Tony squashes his bottle flat and takes aim. It hurtles through the cool night air, towards the gaping mouth of the thrash can, and misses. “Feel free to use any of the seminar rooms as your office. I can ask Human Resource to set you up in the Tower, but I thought actually being here will help you get a handle of things.”
“I should’ve re-opened the Expo earlier. Speaking of which,” he lifts himself up with a tremendous heave, “I’m surprised you don’t talk about your past much. Like, at all. Not even about Dad. I thought you two were friends.”
“We were.” Steve looks up at Tony and returns the smile. “Talking about the past doesn’t seem to matter.”
“It’s your past. It’s America’s past! Of course it matters.”
“It does. But only to me.”
“I don’t mean to prod,” Tony holds his hands up, a gesture of placation. “I just feel it’s unhealthy if you keep yourself segregated from the present. It’s 2010, and… nothing you can do about it. I know things can get pretty crappy sometimes, but this is the best we got, might as well learn how to love it, no?”
“Is it? Me, isolating myself?”
“Aren’t you? What do you do when you’re off the clock, hmm? Hang out with the guys much?”
“Maybe I like the quiet of my home. Enjoy a good book and a cup of tea. You’ll say I got a lot to catch up on.”
“So, you spend your free time alone?”
Steve starts picking up empty food packages and plastic wrappers. “Pot and kettle, Stark. You’re a lone wolf yourself.”
“Nonsense. YouTube me in Bern, Switzerland, 1999 –”
“You may win a battle or two with your suit of armour. But you need a team to win the war. Allies you can fall back on in times of need. You’ll be stronger in numbers.”
For a full minute, Tony remains silent, almost contemplative if going by the rapid yet subtle shift in his irises. It’s dark, but Steve tracks them all the same. He continues, “The way I see it, you’re piling too much on your plate. SI to tackle problems of tomorrow. Iron Man as today’s regional peacekeeper.”
“What are you implying?”
Steve wipes his hands on the front of his pants. “SHIELD can help.”
Then, Tony’s pocket glimmers. Steve expects him to pick it up, but Tony merely covers it with his hand.
“I’m sorry. Iron Man doesn’t do sidekicks.”
“You don’t trust SHIELD.”
“I don’t trust SHIELD. I don’t do trusting much, period.” The brightness and vibrations within his pocket intensify. “Good talk, Cap. Thanks for the dinner. I…” he gives the handheld remote a quick once-over, “have to go. See you around.”
The mass spec hums dully in the background. It’s since spit out the glass slide with his drop of blood and the confirmation of the wireless sensor’s ominous diagnosis. He doesn’t like it, but it's a start. This is a lead.
He taps on his arc reactor with his fingernail.
He can work on this. Heavy metal toxicity isn’t all that uncommon. Top of his head: lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium. Most common heavy metals associated with poisoning. Absolutely manageable. No need to get panicked.
He should stop exposing himself to palladium. A rare element, weighing at least 1.6 grams per reactor, and so far the best catalyst he could put together for the longest lasting battery ever known to mankind – this blue light hugging his beating heart – a fact that remains true even two years after Afghanistan. He did tinker with the arc reactor for a while, and he'd since fine-tuned the make of his reactor's casing, switched out some of the electronics... there was no urgency in looking for a replacement element, so he didn't.
Guess he should start looking again. Fast.
Purging the existing palladium from his circulation is a fantastic idea, too. Metal chelators perhaps? Symptoms management.
This is a doozy.
Regardless, he can achieve nothing in this lab. He needs immense processing power. He needs JARVIS.
He calls up Steve.
“Rogers, still waiting for the cab? I can give you a lift back home.” Tony rubs at his eyes wearily. “I thought I’d drop by the Tower for a bit.”
“Good morning, Sir. State your name and your business.”
“Steve Rogers. I’ve an appointment with Mr Phillip Grant. Of R & D’s software development team?”
The red-headed AI does a typing motion on a tablet as virtual as she is, and Steve wonders if this is its default buffering animation. The holographic Iron Man – a staple of 3D visual entertainment in the Tower’s foyer, Steve realises it’s the only holograph that hasn’t been replaced with other flashy graphics – is currently hovering near a polished bronze bulletin where names of the company’s board of directors are engraved on. He turns to his attending AI, but it’s still ignoring him.
A short queue is starting to form behind him.
“Is there a number I can call instead?”
Another red-headed lady emerges from behind the security gates.
This one is corporeal.
“Good morning. I’m Pepper Potts.”
He shakes her hand, and steps out of the queue. Steve has heard of her name. Something about Pepper chastising Tony Stark for not paying attention in meetings not so long ago.
“Are you meeting Tony this morning?”
“No, ma’am. I’ve an appointment with Phillip Grant from Software –”
“R & D is level thirty upwards. I’m headed there myself. I can get you to level thirty-two – that’s where the Software teams are – and you can ask one of the guys for Phillip.”
Steve glances at the red-headed AI to his left, which’s already talking rather animatedly with another customer. “Thank you, Miss Potts.”
Since the gate isn't calibrated for him, nothing happens when he steps through it. Pepper, unfazed by the obvious breach in security, smiles and holds the door open for them. Just as they slide to a close, the holographic Iron Man’s helmet turns toward them. Nobody’s piloting the hunk of pixelated metal can, Steve knows that, but it’s difficult not to feel the prickle of cold air on the back of his neck.
Iron Man reangles his shoulders. The entire suit tips downward and charges at them.
Steve instinctively draws himself to his full height –
Pepper rests a hand gently over the small of his back –
The elevator leaps smoothly, and through the see-through doors, Steve sees the holograph make a sharp U-turn mid-air and flies back to stand guard beside the entrance.
“Is that the usual animation for the Iron Man holograph?”
“It’s preset in the algorithm, but a rarely executed one. I guess it’s your lucky day, to be able to see it up close and personal. One of Tony’s little pranks for the Towers’ visitors.”
“If Mr Stark has the technology to build a flying suit of armour, how come flying cars are not around yet?”
Pepper’s smile widens. “I’m not sure myself. I suspect that the flying car is his father’s idea, and Tony, being who he is, wants to outdo that dream. He says flying cars are boring. And the suit can do so much more. Better agility. Speedier.” Steve nods. “Of course, that’s what we say to the media. It’s been two years since Afghanistan and he still doesn’t talk about it. I hope one day, he’ll find someone he trusts enough to confide in.”
Steve sees the elevator zooms past level fourteen. The Iron Man holograph is but a smudge of gold and red from this altitude.
“So, what about your appointment with R & D? Tony hired Phillip Grant personally many years back. He specialises in software security, so I presume you’re going to have him run by you the Tower’s firewall for inspection?”
“A couple of months back, Mr Stark wrote a new programme for Iron Man’s fight simulation. One thing led to another, he decided to make an antivirus out of it for the general consumer market. He’s given the source code to Mr Grant to do some embellishment of his own. I’m here to learn how to operate the beta version for the Expo project.”
The elevator has now gone past level twenty five.
“Miss Potts, since Stark Industries no longer operate a weaponry division, I’m assuming the company doesn’t take on any government-linked military contracts?”
“… You are correct.”
“And they haven’t knocked on your door since?”
The elevator continues its journey up smoothly. Pepper shifts her weight from one black pump to another.
“The company is moving towards consumer- and industrial-based products. Developing green technologies is our priority. We have ongoing projects on telecommunications and transportation. Most of them are kept under wraps, and we’ll do the announcements in due time.”
“That’s a lot of power in the hand of one man.”
“Tony is not his company, is he?” Pepper returns sharply. “Every decision and directive issued by the board of directors go through a legal and secondary executive advisory committee. As… eccentric as he is, his concerns are not misplaced.”
“Iron Man and the arc reactor technology are not patented because sharing even the vaguest of parameters will crack the dam. The government has been… insinuating for the company to turn over these technologies for the benefits of the people.”
“And Mr Stark disagrees.”
“We have no intention of cornering the free market with these technologies, Captain. But the government has all the intention of weaponising Tony’s work, and that’s something he won’t allow, not as long as he still lives.”
The elevator chimes and a cool, artificial voice intones, “Level thirty-two. R & D.”
“This is where you want to be, Captain.”
Steve takes two steps forward -
“Before you go,” Pepper holds the door with her hand. “You’ve asked some dangerous questions. Agent Coulson requested your attendance on the front of boosting the Tower’s security. Your work on the Expo is unprecedented, but there’s no doubt your military experience and tactical prowess will greatly benefit the company.”
She lets go of the door.
“And that should be all, Captain Rogers. Have a good day.”
“Tony, the Captain is heading your way.”
“Hmm? What did he say?”
Pepper’s heels click incessantly as she walks down the hallway of level thirty-five. At the speed she’s going, she’s close to breaking the sound barrier with the tip of her pumps.
“He’s meeting Phillip Grant to test out the beta version of a security software. He says it’s for the Expo.”
“That, I did ask him to do.” Tony kicks off the edge of his table, successfully propelling himself to the adjacent table because crossing the distance in one stride is too much hassle. “It’s a fun programme. You can simulate frogs raining down on E3 and –”
“I think he’s already in one of the labs. Do you keep top-secret projects there?”
“No. You know I keep those things locked down in Malibu.” The twin monitors on his desktop are still bleeping once per second. “You sound agitated.”
“I’m not agitated.”
“You are. What’s going on?”
“I think,” and Pepper draws a big gulp of breath, “you should be careful with your show-and-tell when he’s around.”
Tony chuckles. “You’re saying I’m right then?”
“Right? How are you right?”
“He’s SHIELD. Nothing good comes out of SHIELD. Nobody you can trust anyway.”
“… Do you know something I don’t?”
“Nothing you don’t know already,” he returns smoothly. His monitor now shows “Structural analysis completed”. “OK, I got to get back to this.”
“Be careful, Tony.”
“I will.” Why is his monitor blinking red? “Thank you, Pep.”
Steve. Spies. SHIELD.
“JARVIS, show me what you got about replacement palladium.”
“Replacing palladium with every known element was unsuccessful.”
He was hoping his calculations about palladium being the best catalyst would be wrong. Seems like genius doesn’t get tarnished even after an open heart surgery in a cave.
“Shall I proceed with permutations of the elements, Sir?”
“Yeah. We should try that. Check for compound stability before you run the simulation, would you? Beats the purpose if it keeps blowing up in our face.”
“Understood. Would you like to see the search results for palladium chelator?”
Goodie. His tonic.
The blinking red window shrinks into a circular icon, and an array of shrubberies are projected in its place.
“My herbology isn’t the best, I admit. You sure this is going to work?”
“There are no medical precedents for palladium poisoning. Drugs commonly prescribed for other heavy metal toxicity aren’t likely to be helpful.” Due to palladium’s distinct chemical structure – he understands that. If palladium were that easily interchangeable with lead or arsenic, he would’ve stuck those in his chest in a heartbeat. “Ingestion of the herbs displayed on your screen, in the correct proportion is shown to reduce blood palladium by fifteen percent.”
“In the meantime, you may consider extraction, purification and identification of the active compounds to improve their bioavailability.”
“Bioavailability?” Tony scrunches his nose. “Jesus. How much of this go-juice should I take?”
“At the current palladium level, two hundred and fifty mil a day.”
Maybe it’s the air-conditioning. The metal casing feels suddenly harsh in his ribs, like it doesn’t belong.
“Lock the doors, J,” he sighs, and presses his palm against the underside of the arc reactor. He’s – unfortunately – stuck in one of the labs on level thirty-two. He could’ve done his research in his suite, but everything is so conveniently placed in the labs. Everything within striking reach.
He looks out of the window and sees young employees banging heads over their tablets. Still, as much as he enjoys basking in the energy and passion of everything science, the sight of their CEO massaging his chest while hunched over the keyboard isn’t exactly employee-friendly.
“Have the tonic made ASAP. No, wait.” Details, details. Who’s going to make the goop for him? “Do we have a spare robo-arm in the inventory?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Don’t we make a few thousands of those in a day? And there’s no extra left that I can repurpose into my personal juicer? I should consider a pay raise for those Logistics folks.” The pain in his chest isn’t subsiding. “Do I have to do everything myself around here?”
“Sir, Captain Rogers is approaching.”
Tony jolts in his seat. He kills all his running programmes and smoothens the creases in his T-shirt.
“I don’t recall an appointment with Rogers.”
Unprompted, the screen monitor comes back alive. JARVIS is feeding him a live recording of the CCTV camera mounted right above his door. Phillip’s talking and Steve’s nodding, and Tony’s about to have JARVIS increase the tint of the window when at that exact moment – call it kismet – their eyes meet across the rooms.
Steve cracks a smile.
Can’t hide no more.
“JARVIS, get the door.”
It swings open and Phillip spills into Tony’s commandeered lab, his voice chirpy, “You can use the computers in this lab. People don’t come in often – Mr Stark!” And he glances around the machineries nervously, as if he’s intruding an ongoing holy ceremony.
The lab is their temple.
In his haste to beat back a retreat, he bumps into Steve, who’s holding the door open.
“I’m done here,” Tony announces. “You can use it.”
“You don’t have to – I’m just showing Captain Rogers the computers he can work with. In fact, I think that’s the last thing I have to show you, Captain.” Phillip extends a hand to Steve. “You have my number. Call me if you need anything. See you later, then.”
One acknowledging nod to Tony later, he’s gone in a whirlwind.
“So,” Tony stretches over the table to manually turn off the monitors, “Phillip’s pretty good at what he does, isn’t he?”
Steve eases off the door and lets it close with a curt click. “Looks like he’s done some impressive expansion on the original code.”
“It’s his baby. Hard not to feel attached to it.”
Tony does a quick mental check of his daily to-do. He needs to make a juicer fast, and Pepper has a stack of grant proposals for him to go through – which will easily take a good chunk of the daylight to complete. So naturally, he asks, “Listen, I got a new suit I wanna test in combat. Want to give it a spin tonight?”
Tony Stark is Iron Man. The whole wide world knows that. But, Stark Industries isn’t Iron Man.
And he’s not his company.
Tony keeps anything even remotely associated with the Iron Man tech separate from SI. Every doodle of a mechanical gauntlet, sketches of the piston systems – everything goes straight to Malibu. JARVIS, the dutiful watcher will request for his biometrics before access is granted –
Come to think of it, he can’t be the sole person allowed to access the information. That’s one more thing to go into his to-do… Just to be clear, he’s not talking about a will. Nor is he in a hurry for giving his stuff away.
But, damn, sure sounds mighty morbid, thinking about it.
He’s… what, thirty-six years old now? That’s a milestone. Even if the arc reactor isn’t giving him problems, his Iron Man stunt isn’t going to be great for longevity. Not saying that he’s going to drop dead the next instance, but let’s be honest. The palladium thing can get debilitating… in due time, he might not have the constitution to wear the hats of SI’s CEO, Chief Engineer and Iron Man. He has to be prepared for that possibility.
“My, look at that baby.”
With the Expo’s opening day looming closer, he doesn’t want to leave New York if he can help it. All of the testing facilities are in West Coast. Wide open space. But no matter. This big boy he’s packing?
It can’t fly.
“Is that the shield?”
It’s six in the evening, on the dot, and Steve shows up at their rendezvous point with the shield slung over his back. He looks like he’s just gotten off work – SI’s lanyard still hanging from his neck – and the hemisphere is packed in a cloth satchel backpack.
“Can I see it?”
Steve pulls it out and hands the shield over. Tony runs callous finger pads gingerly over the smooth edge, and traces the outline of the silver star in the middle.
“It’s beautiful, even up close.”
“Howard pulled a lot of strings for the vibranium. It was rare then. The deposit in Wakanda was only discovered over fifty years later.”
“Thank you,” Tony itches to give it a good fling. “Let’s get started then.”
“Are you calling in the suit?”
Oh… yes, it does seem that way. Them standing in the middle of Ground Zero – the Expo’s backyard, as it were, just red earth with little plantations in the way – the shield and Tony’s metallic silver briefcase lying in despondence on the ground.
“The suit’s already here.”
Steve watches Tony step on the briefcase and immediately after, stops blinking.
The briefcase morphs into modular pieces. They creep up Tony’s body systematically. The grieves clasp over his respective legs, and smaller pieces flow over them to latch onto his thighs – the cuisses – and his crotch, God that looks uncomfortable – and before Steve knows it, Tony is fully encased in his suit.
The faceplate remains up.
“Pretty cool, huh?”
Steve secures the shield over his left forearm. “Let’s go.”
It takes every fibre of restrain from both sides to not just lay it into the other. It’s a test drive on the suit, not a dick measuring contest.
For the first bout, Steve decides to play the evasion game. He doesn’t go on the offense, and dodges Tony’s every single attack. Effortlessly. Five minutes in, he realises it’s not so much about the suit’s lack of nimbleness but more of Tony’s inexperience in hand-to-hand combat. Iron Man is a flyer, best suited for ranged attacks.
Tony goofing around on ground level isn’t helping his case.
Steve collects his distance and hikes his shield to his chin.
The face plate comes up again. “Running away is not cool, Rogers.”
“… You can easily close this distance with a pulse in your boots. Gain momentum mid-air, aim for the shield.”
“Can’t do that. This suit can’t fly.”
“This suit can’t fly! Didn’t I tell you?”
“… This suit can’t fly.”
Bout two. Steve isn’t ducking out of those flimsy punches and kicks anymore. He parries them, masterfully creates his own openings and lands his first hit on Tony’s chest plate. It’s a warm-up punch – just forceful enough to make a small dent in a Ford – and Iron Man staggers.
“Didn’t see that coming, Stark?”
Ten minutes of impressive beat-downs later, Iron Man is on the ground, sporting a couple of embarrassing depressions all over and Steve, straddling the suit over its waist, the shield stuck vertically in the loose soil.
“You done, Cap?”
“Yeah. Your suit’s close to shutting down. I can’t afford to pay for damages.”
“… Show off.” Tony bops Steve’s back with his knee. “Get off me.”
The suit folds itself into a briefcase, and Steve decides not to ask how much metal scraps are priced per pound in 2010.
“Why the new model?”
Tony rolls over the ground, twice – to Steve’s amusement – and fetches his drinking bottle. It’s a miracle that plastic cylinder fares a lot better than the suit, despite lying sprawled, undefended in the middle of their skirmishes.
“Meet the new Mark V!” Tony nudges the briefcase almost lovingly with his toes. “A light-weight suit that’s portable and public-friendly. I can have it by my side all the time.”
“You sacrificed key advantages for portability,” Steve watches Tony down a chunk of green goop. His eyebrows knit into a frown. “The suit’s less durable, and it can’t fly. You want to do some damages, you got to work on your hand-to-hand.”
“I do boxing.”
“You’re a sitting duck, the way you are. What are you drinking?”
Tony burps. “Believe me, I’m not thrilled either. It’s supposedly good for health.”
“So, you’ve gone to the doctor? What did they say?”
“The usual,” Tony sits up and pulls a stray blade of grass from his hair. “Sleep well, eat well. For the record, I have been looking after myself.”
“There’s always extra time between the business and the engineering and the superhero-ing, huh?”
“You know what they say about time?” Tony smirks. “It’s like cleavage. Squeeze anyway you like, you’ll always get some more out.”
“Appreciate the pointers, Cap. I’m calling this a night.”
Tony scoops up his briefcase – Steve his shield – and together, they begin their long traipse back to the light and warmth that is the Expo. A walk that could’ve been cut shorter if somebody’s suit were able to fly.
Before long, Tony has to turn on the flashlight feature in his phone and lead the way.
“Why, though?” Steve asks. A stray gravel crunch under his shoe.
“The superhero-ing. What makes you decide to continue wearing the suit?”
Tony’s phone reveals a deep crater two yards in front of Steve.
“Apparently, blowing up the cave wasn’t enough. Bad things still happen to people. Good people.” Steve takes a long stride over the hole. “They went after a village called Gulmira. I took the suit out, taught them a lesson.”
Steve chuckles. “So, the bogey that USAF picked up on their radars was you all along?”
“… No comment.”
“After that press conference, we did a lot of backtracking and cross-checking – just to make sure. Every time you put your suit on – your virgin drive above the Pacific, some twenty short trips in Malibu’s air space, you were probably optimising your machines, since the flight patterns differ one from another – we know.”
“Hmm,” Tony brings the light up so it shines directly at Steve’s face. Eat that, sucker. “In summary, you and your bosses don’t trust me. The bigger stick doesn’t work, Rogers. I tried. It keeps the worst of human atrocities at bay, sure, but we can do better. We don’t have to be kept in check by threats of a nuclear fallout. What I’m doing is for the greater good.”
“Look at it from our point of view, Stark. The people need to know your intentions –”
“My intentions? What have I done besides –” Tony’s foot catches on the uneven terrain – his light zips out of focus –
He’s flailing and falling – and he’s suddenly on his knees, arms outstretched for balance. A pair of strong arms are holding him in place – one clasped painfully tight over his shoulder, another cupping the side of his face.
His face, which is buried in Steve’s… crotch?
It… does feel like that.
“Jesus Christ, Rogers. I’m so sorry –”
Tony flails more, and he pushes himself away from Steve –
“Stop moving – let me get your light –”
Where Tony’s kneeling, he’s closer to the phone than Steve is. He scrabbles for it, secures it, and holds it in front of him like his life depends on it.
Steve winces at the glare.
Today is decidedly not a good day.
Tony gladly runs up the stairs, makes a beeline for the public showers and locks himself in the cubicle farthest from the door. He needs the shower badly, but not as badly as he needs to attend to the bulge in his pants.
It’s ridiculous. It's almost like puberty again. Does whatever the hell it wants to, whenever the hell it wants to.
He hangs all his clothes over the door and runs the water cold.
That should fix it.
He stands under the spout and sighs. His mind wanders to his rough housing with Steve. The new information he’s gleaned from their little exchange. What Steve thinks – what SHIELD thinks – about Iron Man.
Tony won’t let it. He won’t have missiles, bullets and blood painting his legacy. No more bloodshed in the name of peace.
He glances down. His prick is still standing at attention between his thighs. He blames his workout. It’s the hormones and the blood flow that for reasons unknown decide to concentrate down south. And damn, the cold water isn’t helping one bit.
Or, maybe it’s because he’s been monkish for two entire weeks. This is his prick rebelling against his lack of womanising.
Tony sighs. So be it.
He turns the water temp up and grips his cock. He works himself slowly, and closes his eyes. He doesn’t even have to think about anything to help with the process… just keeps it steady and firm…
Has it really been that long?
He groans, he doesn’t bother keeping it down. It’s just him and himself… he needs this release –
Something clicks and echoes in the far distant. Ignore it. It could be the random creaks of the building. It happens. Tony pants – the steam is making it harder to breathe – and he groans louder as the knot in his lower abdomen tightens –
He quickens his pumping. Almost there –
Tony’s eyes flip open. Too late – he ejaculates in his hand, so hard his semen splatter against the tiled wall before him –
“Hey, what’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
Afterglow be damned.
He collects shower water with his palms and sprays them over the wall. Shit, shit, shit –
Steve. Steve and his knack for bad timing. Steve and his proneness to jumping to the worst conclusion.
Tony washes his thighs quickly.
“Stark, open up!”
Steve’s banging incessantly on his door. Tony gives himself one last rinse, when the cubicle wall trembles and Steve’s blonde head peeks out of the top of the door –
“Holy crap – Rogers, don’t –”
Too bad. And too fucking late.
Tony swears he can cut the tension hanging between them with a freaking knife. Steve is dangling from the door ogling at him, wet and naked under the stream of hot water – until two whole seconds later, Steve promptly leaps off while Tony wraps himself with his towel.
Then, the door opens.
The worry is not completely gone from Steve’s features.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” it comes out harsher than intended. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I heard… sounds.”
Tony’s face goes up in flames. “I’m A-OK. Never been better.”
Steve nods. He has the decency to look a bit embarrassed – he should damn well be – until his attention slides to Tony’s chest and his eyes widen in some semblance of shock. A most welcomed winds of change.
“It’s my arc reactor,” Tony explains. “This must be your lucky day. You’re – what, the fifth person on earth to have seen this thing?”
“What is it?”
“I said it. It’s my arc reactor.”
“Don’t your suits have one? Why do you have one in your chest?”
Pepper will skin him alive if she finds out how close he is to spilling his beans. Since when has Tony not exceed her expectations?
“It’s my ticker. In a way. It keeps the shrapnel in my chest away from my heart.”
Stray water droplets drip from his fringes.
“We’ve beaten around the bush enough, Rogers. I know why Fury sent you here.”
Tony leans against the frame of the cubicle’s door and crosses his ankles. Steve is still his rugged post-battle self, smidgens of red earth dotting his clothes. Tony is tempted to unravel his towel, chucks it into Steve’s face and makes him shower. Look at the trail of muck Steve’s left behind in his urgency to annihilate the shower cubicle.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Steve’s expression goes blank.
Tony rolls his eyes. “The Chinese has a saying that goes, ‘I’ve eaten more salt than you have eaten rice.’” His head tilts sideway. “I know people, Rogers. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Your and SHIELD’s agenda can’t fool me. The only reason I haven’t thrown you out on your ass is because you did make the Tower and the Expo safer.”
Steve looks away at that. Tony presses on, “I’m a man of principles. You’re good at what you’re doing, and I appreciate that expertise. Don’t force my hands, Rogers. My pacifism has limits.”
“What do you think I’m doing behind your back?”
“Oh, you mean besides the amateurish attempts at espionage?” Tony pointedly ignores the flash of confusion crossing Steve’s face. “I’ve said this once, I’m saying this again. I’m not interested in joining your super-secret boy band. The – the Avengers Initiative, or whatever Fury calls it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Why else would Fury send you in the same month I’m opening the Expo, huh? An Expo I’m opening in memory of my long dead old man –”
“The timing’s a coincidence –”
“Fury’s a super-spy, all right? He’s the super-spy. He knows what you mean to Dad, and what Dad and the company means to me – and he’s wrong on all levels about that, I guarantee you. This isn’t personal, Rogers. But using Captain America to bait me into becoming SHIELD’s lapdog ain’t gonna work.”
Steve’s frown deepens. He takes a step forward, “You misunderstand me –”
“Stand down, Rogers.”
“That’s not the –”
A loud bang erupts from the sink area and a speck of red and gold whooshes between them. Tony flings his right arm out and that chunk of metal latches over his wrist –
“Stark, don’t –”
“Cap.” Jazz hand, check. The repulsor is activated, Tony can feel minute vibrations against his palm. “Don’t force my hand.”
Steve slowly raises his. He’s weapon-less. Defenceless. Tony realises his shield is not with him.
“What’s next? Take me in by force?”
“Nobody’s taking you in…” and Steve’s blue eyes shift south, subtly. Tony soon feels the cascading warmth of blood along his philtrum. He quickly pinches his nose, stems the flow with a free hand while keeping his repulsor steadfastly aimed at Steve’s forehead.
Steve takes another tentative step forward.
“At this range,” the repulsor in the gauntlet glows brighter, “I don’t need an AI for the headshot.”
“I’m not here to hurt you.”
“’Course. What good am I to you dead?”
“I’m here to protect you.”
“Yeah? Keep talking.”
“That’s all I’m allowed to say. On my life,” Tony’s gloved hand wavers, “I will keep you safe.”
The foregone conclusion is, obviously, nobody died from the altercation, though Tony doesn’t buy half of the bull that came out of Steve’s mouth.
“So… we’re good?” Steve asks. He’s again riding shotgun in Tony’s Audi. “I thought I’d need more than words to convince you.”
“Yeah,” Tony flicks the turn right signal. “The fact that I’m not dead-by-Super-Soldier yet is evidence enough.”
Fireworks. Cheers. Crowd.
All according to the plan.
Iron Man making a three-point landing on the centre stage, and Tony dismantling it in front of thousands of people, grinning ear to ear to the raucous clapping and declarations of I-love-yous?
Not in the plan.
“I’m not saying that from ashes of captivity, never has a greater phoenix metaphor been personified in human history!”
Steve checks his watch. It’s six thirty in the evening.
“I’m not saying that Uncle Sam can kick back on a lawn chair, sipping on an iced tea because I haven’t come across anyone who’s man enough to go toe-to-toe with me on my best day!”
Steve has parked himself strategically in the gazebo. The PA controllers and crew are here, managing from the distance. It’s not a lot of altitude, and it doesn’t give him as clear a view as he wishes to have.
“Please, it’s not about me.”
Steve coughs into his fist.
“It’s not about you. It’s not even about us. It’s about legacy. It’s about what we choose to leave behind for future generations.”
Steve thinks he’s imagining it. He knows Tony won’t be able to make out even the faces of his rabid fans seated in the front, what more Steve who’s standing guard in the distant gazebo.
Tony’s eyes on him.
“Please welcome my father, Howard.”
Tony takes his exit. And Steve leaves his station.
That’s five minutes before his cue to get back onstage. It’s time for some self-pampering. He breaks out his sipping bottle from the inside of his jacket – the bottom is beginning to stain green from the chlorophyll – and a flat, plastic piece he’s managed to 3D-print yesterday night.
“I can get you bottled water,” Steve suddenly speaks from behind. Tony almost chokes on the goop. “That doesn’t look… palatable.”
Smacking his lips, Tony holds the bottle out. “Nonsense. Have a taste.”
Steve shakes his head. Tony briskly pockets the plastic piece. It’s a one-time use only, but he can’t dispose of his blood-on-a-chip in the general bin.
Nineteen percent, it says.
Palladium toxicity is up by five percent overnight.
He gulps the rest of the tar-like concoction. This isn’t working as he thought it should. Maybe two hundred and fifty mil per day isn’t enough anymore?
“How is it looking out there, Cap?”
“So far, so good.”
“Hmm. Shouldn’t you be out there with the people? They’re at risk, not me.”
Steve’s lips grow thinner. Tony claps him once over the shoulder.
“Eyes open, Rogers. Let’s get the show on the road.”
The procession of can-can girls in red, white and blue bikinis with matching top hats bow their generous cleavages offstage and the giant screen wipes back to a generic Stark Industries corporate slideshow. Steve lingers in the gazebo, his eyes raking the throng of people zig-zagging their way out of the courtyard. He leans over the lighting control console and nods at the staff-in-charge, “Up the intensity by fifteen percent.”
The spotlight shines brighter on the centre stage, and five designated exits. The PA system is playing the obligatory “Mind your step and the people around you” recording because as time goes by, people need to be reminded of common courtesy.
“Gentlemen,” a strong hand clamp amiably over his shoulder, “Good job. That was pretty wild.”
Tony has magically sprouted behind him, grinning from ear to ear, not so much because of elation but because he is positively high. His pupils are dilated, Steve sees it even the dark, but there is no whiff of alcohol on his breath or his collar.
Steve looks at Tony meaningfully. “Come on, let’s get you some water.”
Steve descends the steps as Tony trails behind him. By then, the crowd has thinned significantly and there isn’t much cover as they hurry along the cobbled paths, multi-storey buildings flanking their ways. If a sniper is gunning for a headshot, this is where the X is.
Steve grabs Tony about his elbow and urges him to keep up.
“What’s the hurry?”
“Party’s over, Stark. I’m driving you home.”
“Uh, no it isn’t.” And Tony wrenches himself away from Steve’s grip. An impressive feat. “The afterparty is on Level 3, Block E2. Only Expo presenters are invited, that’s why the other guests are not told about it.”
That stops Steve completely in his track.
“Don’t sulk, Rogers. I didn’t tell you ‘cause it’s tech babble. It’ll bore you to tears.”
“I’m not sulking –”
“I’m asking you to come with me now. There’s a bunch of people from the military you might flock comfortably with. Just keep the talk generic and clean, this Captain America thing is still hush-hush right?”
There is a lot of people presenting at the Expo, if going by the queue for the elevator.
“We can take the stairs,” Steve suggests helpfully.
“No, no, we can take this one. Squeeze in.”
Tony making an appearance in the long line of wait is like an ambulance in the midst of a jam. Twenty after-you-Sir and I’ve-a-proposal-that-might-interest-you, Tony – and by extension, Steve as well – find themselves stowed in a corner of an empty elevator, after which the line starts filing in systematically, each vying for the closest proximity to Tony.
It’s nerve grating.
Steve has somehow parked himself firmly in front of Tony, at once successfully cutting off Tony’s contact with the guests. Fortunately, it’s only a short way up. Three floors.
God, people don’t start walking more, they’re gonna get flabby.
An elbow shoves into Steve’s ribs out of nowhere and Steve backs up into Tony –
And Steve becomes acutely, intimately aware of Tony's little problem, where his butt is pressing firmly into the front of Tony's pants, which seems to be doing a piss poor job at concealing Tony's massive erection. And there's nothing he can do about it.
They were among the last ones to file out of the elevator.
“You OK?” Tony snickers. He points to Steve’s ears. “Your ears are red.”
“Good. Tell you what,” and Tony turns to search the corridor. “I need to use the bathroom. Just follow the crowd. Say hi to Pepper.”
Locating the punch bowl and buffet spread is easy enough. Pepper locates him first – she waves at him, her pearly accessories casting a gentle glow to her natural beauty, never once diminishing the gravitas of SI’s second-in-command. Steve doesn’t want to intrude on her ongoing discussion, so he shuffles to the punch bowl –
“I’m Justin Hammer.” A hand shoots out right under his nose. “Pleasure knowing you.”
Steve mumbles a “Likewise, Steve Rogers” and begins filling his cup with peaches.
Steve has heard a bit about Hammer Industries. Frankly, to every one newspaper coverage of Hammer Industries there will be five more of Stark’s, and Hammer’s MO is so vanilla that quoting Fury, he’d rather his Agents fight with brass knuckles if their option is to stock up on HammerTech.
“You’re Anthony’s new employ? You two seem pretty close. Which department do you work in?”
Steve ladles clear red liquid over his peaches. Tony is still nowhere to be found.
Justin raises an eyebrow, amused. “Oh? You’re Anthony’s bodyguard?”
“… Not exactly.”
“I’ll bet… imagine that job description. Iron Man’s bodyguard. Big shoes to fill in.”
Steve brings the ream of the glass to his lips –
“You know what I find fascinating, Steve? You look so alike that guy in the memorial downstairs. What’s his name… Captain Ameri –”
“Hammer. Rogers. Having fun without me, I see?”
That’s a fantastic save. Steve has only spewed a small mouthful of punch over the lapel of his jacket.
Tony and Justin talk-debate-undercut at such a rapid pace Steve only gleans one thing from their exchange – they hated each other.
“Looking forward to your proposal and prototypes, Hammer.”
“Sure. My assistant will be in touch. Night’s still young, Anthony!”
“You bet it is.”
Then, before the next hopeful fund-seeker manages a good-evening-this-is-my-name-card-Mr-Stark, Tony steers Steve away from the punch bowl.
“OK, when I say mix around, I don’t mean mix around.”
Steve slurps at his peach. “OK.”
“That man is so conniving you’ll be spilling your guts out before you even know what happens – oh hey. May I get you something to drink?"
Steve and Tony break apart to welcome a third comer, and what a lovely thing she is. Though both men tower over her by a head-ish at least, there's something in her posture that suggests discipline and confidence. It's wonderfully familiar.
“And you are?”
“Irish,” Tony nods appreciatively at Steve. “I like it. You… are not a presenter. What are you doing here?”
“Yikes. You got a badge?”
She checks out. Anthony Edward Stark is hereby ordered to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee tomorrow morning at nine in the morning.
One quick word with Pepper later, Steve finds himself in Tony’s Audi again – behind the wheels, and he’s intending to remain so for all of two hundred of fifty miles to D.C. He checks on Tony once in a while when he gets too quiet or still.
It’s very late, but those hazel eyes are clear and focused. An inscrutable doorway to thoughts too many to form and to process.
Steve turns the air-conditioning down and reaffirms his grip on the wheels.
“Mr Stark, can I have your attention, please?”
The drive was arduous and neither Steve nor Tony slept a wink. Steve’s positive Tony’s functioning on virtue of cheap coffee from the vending machine which he's imbibed all but five minutes before the session begins. He cares not of hiding his nonchalance toward the proceedings, or is this par the usual for Tony Stark?
Steve swears, as the morning drags on, he wishes the ground beneath him would open up and swallow him whole.
“Do you or do you not possess a specialised weapon?”
Senator Stern presides over the session.
“I do not.”
“You do not?”
“I do not,” Tony repeats louder. “It’s a high-tech prosthesis. That’s actually the most apt description I can make of –”
“It’s a weapon, Mr Stark. My priority is to get the Iron Man weapon turned over to the people of the United States of America.”
That blatant admission startles Steve so much he glazes over whatever audacious come back Tony’s vomited at the Senator. Fury fails to mention that the government wants the armour tech locked up in its own vault. But if the government is interested, who’s to say SHIELD isn’t? That Fury isn’t?
Steve looks up just in time to take in the carnage onscreen of multiple suits of armours in various designs operating from different geographical locales. Time prints on these videos indicated the clips to be no older than twenty-four hours.
The cinder that Iron Man was has now become uncontrollably vicious.
“The point is,” Tony gestures magnanimously to the committee before him, “you’re welcome, I guess.”
“Because I’m your nuclear deterrent. It’s working. We’re safe. America is secure! You want my property? You can’t have it. But I did you a big favour.”
A muscle in Steve’s jaw twitch.
“I’ve successfully privatised world peace.”
“Got to strap in in five, Rogers. Keep up!”
Steve has only realises how tiring it is to walk abreast with a man like Tony Stark. After he’s moseyed himself out of the court, making fun of Senator Stern and the very idea of procuring the Iron Man tech itself, private security’s whisked him and Steve into a black SUV and deposit them at the Ronald Reagan Airport.
A private jet of Tony’s namesake is already waiting for them.
“Where are we going?” Steve shouts back. It's hard to hear over the chopping wind.
Tony is already ascending the linoleum steps. “Malibu.”
So, a getaway plan, then.
There may be only a pilot and themselves on board, because the soonest Tony shakes hand with the Captain – a balding chap – Tony takes Steve by the elbow and pushes him into the nearest seat. Around them, accessories to complement the nicer of things look dull and meek without their partners – a wrought-iron wine holder with no bottles and an actual bed frame without a mattress.
“This all looks very last minute,” Steve offers, passing a bottle of water to Tony, who’s taken the seat opposite of him.
“Yeah. I… miscalculated.”
“You tell me, Rogers. Aren’t you with the government? If you – SHIELD, Fury – want a piece of this sweet ass, why would Stern ask for it again? In front of national TV no less. Why the uproar? To put pressure on me? To plant the idea how potentially dangerous Iron Man can be?”
“SHIELD doesn’t operate wholly within the –”
“Oh, give me a break…”
“We’re asking for two completely different things. They want to take the armour from you.” Steve frowns. “We simply want you.”
“Huh. Look who’s singing a different tune. What’s that about protecting me instead of baiting me into the Avengers Initiative –”
“At least they’re innocuous implements. You said you didn’t believe in the bigger stick. The Iron Man is exactly that. You’ve been keeping an eye on mechatronic development since the creation of your own suit, and you’ve kept yours consistently out of everybody’s reach –”
“The suit wasn’t a choice.”
The last of Tony’s words reverberate between them, and Steve closes his mouth.
“If you’ve noticed,” Tony starts, and there’s deliberateness in the way the words roll over his tongue, “I haven’t been Iron Man-ing much. The suit is just a by-product. It’s a product that’s been made possible by the repulsor technology,” he taps his chest, and Steve hears the tell-tale chink! “In layman’s term, this is a forever-lasting fuel cell. The Tower runs on one, the factory over in Long Island runs on one, and my house in Malibu runs on one.” Tony leans into his seat and shakes his head. “A power source as perpetual as this will only be useful if mankind on the whole are willing to share. But I know, some point in time, some crooked bugger is going to try to make a quick buck out of it and jeopardise the entire ecosystem. Which is why this remains with me. No argument there.”
Steve makes to slide the blinds over his window. “You’re saying Iron Man is a mistake?”
Tony chuckles. “Everything after the FunVee might be.”
Then the cabin gets a little rocky as the pressurised tube glides through the clouds, and Tony mumbles something about getting himself some go-juice. As he walks past Steve’s seat the cabin shakes again, harder, and he careens into Steve’s armrest. His hip knocks Steve’s elbow cleanly off the expensive leather, before he promptly sinks to a knee.
Steve doesn’t suspect anything amiss until a quiet gasp slips between Tony’s suddenly, very pallid lips.
Tony blinks rapidly as one would when clearing out obstructing spots in his vision. His fist comes flying to his heart and he clenches about it –
“Oh – somebody help!” Steve all but leaps out of his seat and picks Tony up from the floor. He charges to the end of the cabin, yelling for help – there really isn’t anyone on board? – and sets Tony on one end of the L-lounge.
Maybe the other staff are resting deeper in the belly of the plane?
“Rogers,” Tony pulls at Steve's sleeve before he goes off into another search rampage at forty-thousand feet. “There’s no one else. And I’m fine.” He tuts at Steve’s deepening frown. “Acid reflux? I’m not getting younger.”
“You sure you’re fine?”
“What do you need?”
At this, Tony closes his eyes gratefully and sighs, “Home.”
Steve has no words to describe Tony’s house. It’s perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. It has glass for walls for the most part. Elegant and modern, and private above all. It takes them quite a while for the chauffer to get them there, and Steve sees no other properties during the hour-long drive.
There aren’t prying eyes in the vicinity. No wonder Tony has no qualms blasting off into the sky in his suit at his whim.
It’s a sprawling mansion. Steve never knows what a man can do with so much space. It’s probably as huge as one of SHIELD’s smaller training facilities, and those halls house hundreds of men at any one time.
“In you go, Rogers. Chop chop.”
There’s no need for keys or security PINs. Tony walks up the door and it swings open immediately.
“Do you live here alone?” Steve asks as he steps awkwardly into the foyer. It doesn’t look like it’s been lived in lately, but there isn’t a speck of dust in sight. It’s sterile. More like a penthouse hotel than an actual home.
“Yeah, most of the time. Pepper drops by sometimes… and that’s about it.”
“No uh, butlers, or helpers?” Lights come alive as Tony paces his sitting room. “Can’t imagine you dusting the furniture, you know?”
“They come in once a week. Otherwise, it’s really just me here. I have my bots to remedy the cabin fever.”
“As in, robots. They’re in the workshop downstairs. Which is, by the way, off limits to most people.”
Steve follows Tony deeper into the bowel of the mansion. They walk past the dining hall and into the kitchen, where Tony starts filling two glasses with water.
Now that Steve has some down time hydrating himself and actually thinking, he realises that all things considered, what’s really happening right now is that he’s just been spirited away by Tony Stark. Everything’s been on the go, go, go since the court proceedings that he’s yet to update Fury about anything – which also means he’s currently cut off from SHIELD, and that makes him a wee bit nervous – plus he’s planned to do his laundry after putting it off for two days. Speaking of laundry, what is he going to wear for the next foreseeable future?
“What?” Tony speaks suddenly. “Something on my face?”
“What are you planning, Stark?”
“Ah,” Tony settles his glass in the sink. “Sometimes I wish I’ve the gift of telepathy, you know. Project thoughts into your mind. There’s a bunch of stuff going on here,” his finger makes a random circular motion by his temple. “Sorry. Think I just shanghaied you all the way to the West Coast.”
“Glad we’re on the same page, then.”
“OK. As CEO of Stark Industries, as your boss, kind of, I’m giving you a couple of weeks off.”
He’s going to be stuck all the way out here in Malibu for weeks?
“All right, technically, I’m not CEO anymore, or, not going to be CEO anymore, but hey, I think Pepper likes me enough to agree with your –”
Steve’s hold on his glass almost loosened to the point of letting it slip and shatter on the pristinely polished floor. “Wait. Back up. You’re not CEO anymore? Since when?”
“Uh, since a couple of hours later? Pepper and I will be teleconferencing at seven, she’s feeling antsy about all the shenanigans that is Stern. I’ll pop the good news then.”
Steve’s acutely aware of how low his lower jaw is hanging.
“Look, the transfer of executive power doesn’t affect you in any ways. I’m telling you now, so stop looking like I’d eaten your breakfast without permission.”
Steve blinks. “Why?”
“I… wanna catch a break. SI is in good hands. I’m thinking of doing something else with the rest of my time, you know.”
He turns his back against Steve and rinses his glass under the tap. So, in addition to being abducted, Tony Stark decided to jump him with the news that he’s relinquishing his position in SI, and… retire?
“You’re focusing on the Iron Man project from now on?”
“… What are you up to?”
He returns the glasses to the drying rack, turns around again and flashes the phoniest smile Steve’s ever seen plastered on Tony’s face. “Tying up loose ends.”
Tying up loose ends?
“OK. So, let’s see. We can have some clothes delivered, I can make arrangements, no problem. There are a few guest rooms upstairs, take your pick. Maybe you want the room that oversees the garden? Or the ocean? Each has an attached bathroom. Anytime you’re hungry, the kitchen is yours to use. Or we can have takeout’s.” He checks his wristwatch. “It’s way past lunch time. Knock yourself out,” he gestures at the fridge. “I’m gonna go catch a couple of winks.” He claps Steve once over the shoulder. “See you later?”
And with that, Tony traipses up the stairs and disappears. Steve looks around the kitchen, completely at sea.
What on earth is he supposed to do in Malibu?
His stomach grumbles something fierce and he decides he can save the freaking out for later. With the homeowner’s permission, he raids the fridge, and the first thing that catches his attention is the jugs of green goop occupying the third rack. Out of equal part curiosity and disgust, he extracts one out and gives it a little slosh. It’s almost of tar-like consistency, and he dares to take a sniff.
He can’t judge the palate of a man born to class and finesse. Maybe it’s acquired taste. Like foie gras. The canteen served it once. Let’s just say with that price tag, he’ll happily trade his foie gras for a week’s worth of bacon.
Fixing himself a sandwich and ploughing through it in under a minute, he slips on his tactical cap and formulates a what-the-heck-should-I-be-doing-next list.
First off? A call to Fury.
“This is getting really annoying.”
Tony slumps readily into the couch by the floor-to-ceiling window of his bedroom’s northwest corner and tugs his necktie free. There’s a reason why he prefers a printed T under a jacket to a formal wear, because what insane fashion rule states that tying a noose around the neck every morning is a good idea?
“Welcome back, Sir,” the cool, mechanical voice intones. It’s all around him, in the room, a familiar sense of comfort.
“There’s something wrong with the tonic.” He swallows thickly and undoes the buttons on his sleeves. “Seriously wrong with it – I don’t know how I’ve missed it after what, two weeks of chugging that crap.”
“Are the side effects bothering you, Sir?”
“Yes!” He pulls his sleeves up and looks down into his lap. The tent in his crotch is unmistakable. “I’m thirty-fucking-six and this,” he starts undoing his belt, “thinks it’s sixteen. This is unusual, J.”
“I understand that it isn’t life-threatening –”
“I can’t function with this up all the time. It isn’t socially tolerable.”
“What will you have me do, then?”
“Go through the ingredients again, and tell me which herb is responsible for this.”
“As you wish, Sir.”
And in the meantime…
He pulls his erection free and watches it stand at attention in between his thighs. He scowls at it, whacks it lightly over the head.
What the hell. Might as well get it over and done with.
He grips it firmly and pumps. It’s annoying, it’s disruptive to his otherwise productive daily activities. Since JARVIS told him to imbibe copious amount of that God-awful tonic to manage the symptoms of palladium poisoning, this has been happening. He didn’t put two to two together quick enough because amidst the under-the-weather and science-ing and trying to run the company, he hasn’t had time to – putting it loosely – entertain his more humanly desires. This is normal, he thought. This is his body telling him to get out and have some fun.
He eases into the throw pillows and tries to derive some pleasure from the motion.
It’s always been him and Rosie Palm, in the privacy of twilight hours when he’s lucky, or in a public bathroom when he’s not. It’s bordering sickening, and it won’t subside no matter how much he ignores it or pretends that it isn’t happening.
Precum drips along the length of his cock, and he continues, tightening his hold and wishing it’ll just end by the next minute.
Steve must be thinking how much of a pervert he is, after that unfortunate incident in the elevator.
He pants as his underbelly churns with desires.
He lurches slightly in his seat, and has enough presence of mind to wrap his necktie haphazardly about the tip. He spews semen into it, his breaths stuttering as he lets go… ah fuck, this tie is going straight to the bin, he swears.
Done deal. He’s met the quota for the day. Can he have some semblance of normalcy for the next twenty-four hours or so?
“Sir,” JARVIS begins – there’s a quality of echo to its voice, like it’s trying to be discreet. “I believe the herb responsible for the side effect is Eurycoma longifolia. It’s native to the South East Asia region, and is well known for its aphrodisiac properties.”
The back of Tony’s head collides with the couch. “You got to be kidding me...”
“Sir, I advise against removing this herb from the concoction. Every ingredient included has been optimised for the best pharmacodynamics.”
“Right. If we can’t take it out, can you add something in? Something to neutralise the God damn thing.”
JARVIS pauses. Tony understands pauses in robospeak. It generally means not-a-good-idea. Well, then he’s truly and thoroughly fucked.
Steve clears the kitchen, makes sure everything’s back where he found them, and he too ascends to the second floor. He can pick his room, Tony said. He’s not fussy. Anything that doesn’t look overly grandiose – and hopefully farthest from Tony’s own will be good. At the first landing, he has a choice of going left or right. His legs decide left it is, so left it is, and the first door on his right is ajar.
It’s probably the master bedroom – he spares the interior a passing glance – and quickly spots Tony sitting on a couch.
He feels his blood freeze in his vein and immediately spins on his heel, heading off in the opposite direction instead. He practically tears into the last room on the left and throws his body weight against the door. All right, whatever a man wants to do in his free time, behind closed doors – ideally – is none of Steve’s business. Tony’s reputation reaches far and wide. He just never expects the guy to be that open with his, uh, sexuality – OK, that’s enough Tony-ness for the day.
Fury. He’s supposed to be calling Fury.
He fishes his phone out of his back pocket and speed dials his Director.
Fury’s voice blaring through the earpiece has never been more welcomed. “Captain Rogers, how nice of you to finally report in. Where exactly on this good earth are you?”
“… I’m in Malibu. With Stark. In his house.”
“Let me get this straight, Rogers,” he hears how clipped Fury sound on the other side. “After the fiasco in D.C., Stark decided it’s a good idea to immediately take off to the other side of the States, let things simmer down and hope that everybody will miraculously forget about the hearing the morning after?”
“There’s been some unprecedented updates on his side, as well. He’s going to resign as CEO of Stark Industries tonight, appointing Miss Potts as his successor.”
“… Repeat that.”
“He’s been behaving strangely, even more so lately. I don’t want to be jumping the gun here, but he mentioned doing something else with his time, and tying up loose ends. Nick,” his shoulders slump somewhat as he adjusts the phone pressing against his ear. “I think he’s ill. He doesn’t mention it, I think he’s trying to hide the fact that he is. I’m afraid he’s getting worse.”
“… This is quite a development.”
“I know it’s not what we set out to do the first place, but can we help –”
“Captain Rogers?” the room suddenly comes to live and addresses him from the ceiling. Steve almost drops his phone. “Do not be alarmed. I am JARVIS, an artificial intelligence programmed by Mr Stark for the purpose of assisting his day-to-day activities.”
“Uh, Nick… I got to call you back.” He holds the phone limply by his side, and searches his room bewilderedly for the source of the voice.
“More importantly,” JARVIS goes on with a tinge of urgency, “Sir requires your immediate assistance. He can be found in his bedroom.”
And Steve bolts to where he’s last seen Tony.
Steve remembers what he’s last seen when he casually strolled past Tony’s bedroom. The door is still ajar, and he raps on it twice, just in case. Getting no answers, he pushes it until it yawns wider. His eyes dart straight to the couch Tony was… helping himself previously, but he isn’t there any longer.
“Stark? Your AI says you need help with – Jesus Christ.”
Tony is sprawled on his front, on the carpeted floor, by the bed. Steve rolls him over to his back and is dismayed to find his eyes stubbornly closed. Lifeless.
Steve taps him on the cheek, just short of full-on slapping him awake. He jostles him by the shoulders, also to no avail. He lowers his ears to Tony’s mouth and is somewhat heartened to hear raspy breaths, no matter how shallow.
“Rogers! Answer me, damn it!”
Steve blinks at the crispy crackles of Fury’s voice. His knuckles brush against the plastic of his phone. The screen is still flashing Fury’s number. He thought he’d killed the line.
“Nick,” Steve speaks hurriedly into it, “Not good. He’s unconscious. His AI alerted me to it. I need to get him help –”
“No,” Fury cuts in. “You’re not calling 911. The arc reactor cannot be revealed to civilians. It’s too risky.”
“You’re asking me to do nothing?”
“… We have experts on the line. Doctor, thank you.”
“Captain Rogers? I am Dr Streiten. I will coach you step-by-step on what you can do for Mr Stark.”
Steve has no inkling to whom this new voice belongs to, but if it means getting Tony some form of aid, he’ll co-operate.
“I hear you. First step?”
“We have suspicions that this sickness originates from the arc reactor malfunctioning. Describe to me how it looks at present.”
All right. He can do that. He tugs Tony’s shirt free from the waistband and makes quick work of the buttons. The metal orb stuck in his chest is still as blue as he remembers it, but the black veins surrounding it seems to be even more extensive than the last time he saw it in the Expo’s bathroom.
“The arc reactor looks fine. The uh, scars surrounding the metal casing are black. They’ve spread out, I think. Extensive. Web-like.”
“… Captain, could you snap a photo of it and send it to us? This line is secured.”
That’s a breach of privacy. If Tony finds out about this…
He does as the doctor says, all in under a couple of seconds. When he’s slapped the phone back onto his ears, there’s a flurry of commotion on their side, and he suspects the doctor and whoever else on his team has projected it onto a larger screen for further inspection.
“We need his blood sample.”
“We don’t need much. Just a couple of drops –”
At that exact moment, Tony chooses to stir and groan and grapple at thin air. Steve catches his hand and stills it, and Tony’s eyes snap open.
“He’s awake. I’ll call back later.”
“Wait, Captain –”
Tony makes to sit up as he cradles his head with his free hand. He’s still as white as a sheet, and his fingers curl even more viciously into Steve’s. They sit on the floor like that, for something like five whole minutes. Tony looks like death warmed over, and Steve is torn between hauling him to SHIELD medical or waiting for further instructions from someone who knows better.
He thinks they’re going to stay here until the cow comes home when Tony finally lifts his chin to spare Steve a tired look.
“… OK. Let’s hear it.”
“I might be kinda out of it, but I’m not dead.” He finally loosens up his death grip and folds his hands in his lap. “Cat’s out of the bag. I wanted to keep it quiet for a while longer –”
“And suffer in silence?”
Tony’s face crumpled in annoyance at the heat in Steve’s words. “What did you tell SHIELD? How much do they know?”
“They suspect there’s something wrong with your arc reactor.” Steve notices the way Tony stills at that. “They asked for a picture of it.”
“And you gave it?”
“I didn’t have a choice. You need help.”
“And what part of SHIELD and Fury being the world’s greatest spy organisation that you don’t get, huh?” Tony lifts himself off the ground and wavers, but he slaps away Steve’s outreaching hand and glares at him in return. “You don’t get to decide who I want to ask help from, if I wanted to.”
“I know you’re ill. And I know it’s getting worse.” Tony looks away, and Steve stands up as well. “You’re self-medicating, that much I know. And it’s not working. SHIELD can help. They have experts on the matter, chemists and physicians who can offer professional advice –”
“Stop. I heard ‘SHIELD’ somewhere along the line. Nope.”
This is infuriating.
Tony sets himself on the bed gingerly, and glances at his chest. A muscle in his jaw twitch as he snatches his shirt into place and fixes the buttons that Steve’s undone not so long ago.
“How bad is it?”
Even Tony can’t dismiss the unadulterated concern lacing the question. He sighs, and runs his fingers through his already messy hair. “Bad enough.”
“Is that why you’ve been drinking that disgusting –”
“It’s not as disgusting as you think it is –”
“Are you going to tell me anything at all? After all these?”
Tony’s expression darkens. If anything, Tony Stark will definitely be great for field duties. The way he guards information so strictly, SHIELD doesn’t have to worry if he’d spill his beans at the first sign of danger.
“It’s the palladium,” Tony relents. “It keeps the arc reactor running, so to speak. And it’s leaking into my blood.”
“I don’t really know. The symptoms begin… a couple of weeks ago? About the same time you showed up at SI, really.”
“… You know what’s going on, you got your drink made up. Are you working on a cure?”
Tony laughs bitterly. “Yeah, I’ve been working on a cure for a while. A palladium replacement, to be exact.”
“No go.” Tony takes a deep breath, the kind one takes before he gives an ultimatum. “I’m sorry for bringing you here. I’ll have JARVIS book your first flight out of Malibu.”
Steve has been thinking about leaving this place ever since he’s gotten here.
“No. I’m staying.”
“No, you’re leaving.”
“And leave you here? If something happens, God forbid, and there isn’t anyone here for you, it’s on me.”
“… Sour puss. Do you take yourself that seriously every waking second of your life?”
Steve’s lips grow thin. “Let me help.”
Tony shakes his head, and he stares far into the Pacific, at the bluish evening sky. “You’re really something else, you know that?”
It’s seven o’clock. As prearranged , he turns on the mini-holographic pad on his coffee table and reclines on the couch in his bedroom, trying his darndest to ignore the incessant pounding in the back of his skull.
Pepper’s glorious head sprouts from the disc in 3D. Tony’s heart pinches at how crestfallen she looks the instance she sets her brilliant green eyes on him.
“Tony, are you OK?”
“Have you been sleeping? At all?”
“I get my hours. And before you ask, I eat, I exercise. Contrary to popular belief, I do look after myself. How else can I handle playing CEO and Chief Engineer and Iron Man and –”
“That’s the thing. I’m worried you’re putting too much on your plate.”
“… I know.”
She purses her red lips – he can’t see it from the holograph of course, since it’s all blue pixels, but he knows she likes her lipsticks red – and says, “I thought that ruckus you kicked up in D.C. would’ve backfired on our stocks and investors’ interests, but things are looking up so far. The problem is,” her words come out in little chunks, like they weigh too heavily on her tongue, “some are having the idea that you’ll reopen the weapon manufacturing department –”
“That’s not happening.”
“– or, you’ll begin mass production of the Iron Man suits to fulfil your promise –”
“– that you’ll be America’s first line of defence, quote unquote our nuclear deterrent.”
Tony sighs and massages his temple. “I did say that.”
“Is that what you’re planning to do?”
He wriggles his nose. “No.”
“Tony, you are just one person. You can’t… I don’t know, go solo on this one. Like a vigilante in those old comic books? Do you intend to work with the government, or some military agency? Or as Senator Stern suggest, hand over the reigns? Turn over the Iron Man tech to trained combatants –”
“You know I can’t do that, Pep.”
“Am I getting an answer out of you tonight? Do you have the slightest clue to what you’re doing next?”
He sits up straighter and interlaces his fingers over his knees. “You’re right about one thing. I’m wearing too many hats. I’m losing sight on what’s truly important.”
“It’s the right thing to do. Pepper, I hereby irrevocably appoint you chairman and CEO of Stark Industries, effective immediately. Yeah? Done deal.”
Her jaws are hanging apart. What’s up with the people around him lately? Everyone’s always wearing that look of astonishment, like he’s just turned water to wine.
“I’ve actually given this a fair amount of thought, believe it or not. Doing a bit of headhunting, so to speak. Trying to figure out who a worthy successor would be. And then, I realised… it’s you.” He smiles wanly. “It’s always been you.”
She blinks like there’s dust clogging her eyes. Rapidly. “… Has something happened?”
“Nope. I… this is a fantastic arrangement, Pep. You do what you do best, and I do what I do best. Here. I tinker.”
“… Something’s clearly not right. I’m coming over to Malibu.”
“No! Pep, no! You can’t just leave the company at a moment’s notice!”
And then she looks like she’s almost going to cry. “What are you not telling me?”
“There’re things that I must attend to. Urgently. Do this for me?” he pleads. “You know best what SI represents, at its core. I trust you to steer it to the right directions.”
“It’s your family’s legacy, Tony. I can’t.”
He’s suddenly and miserably reminded that he’s the last of his bloodline. “The company… is founded by my forefathers, but the virtues and values of SI isn’t solely Stark’s. This legacy, it’s about what we can do for the people of tomorrow. Why does it matter whose name is on the marquee?”
From the tail of his eye, his tablet flashes red and a map of Europe is splayed across the screen.
“Something’s come up. I have to go.”
She nods and loose strands of strawberry blonde hair falls over her face. “Promise me you’ll take good care of yourself.”
“… Good night, Pepper.”
Steve makes sure the door is closed, the windows are shut and the curtains are drawn. He shouldn’t be making this call from the premise, but he doesn’t want to leave Tony alone in the mansion, not if he can help it. This… JARVIS, the voice in the wall, the AI that labours on the behest of Tony Stark – for all he knows, it could be tapping into every single deed he does on the compound, up and including within the so-called privacy of his room.
“Captain, it’s good to hear from you again,” Fury’s greeting is as clipped as ever. “How is Stark?”
“He’s doing much better. He’s now teleconferencing with Miss Potts in his room.”
“… Are we in the clear for a mission briefing?”
He lowers himself in one of the cushy armchairs by the window. “No, Sir. I’m sorry, but I can’t leave him alone either.”
He thinks Fury will cut the conversation short and resume it tomorrow, elsewhere, but, “Vanko’s paper and financial trails have gone cold. It’s likely that he’s simply stopped his activities, rather than noticing we’re onto him and gone under the radar.”
“Have they identified the materials he’s stocking up on?”
“After cross-checking with Howard’s notes, we’re pretty sure Vanko’s attempting to engineer a knock-off copy of the arc reactor. Has he made any forms of contact with Stark yet?”
“Constant vigilance on Stark. If it’s true the purchasing has stopped, then whatever he’s building is near completion. And when he strikes, I want both your eyes glued on Stark like band-aid on a wound, is that understood?”
After the call to Fury, Steve went down to the kitchen to put together something simple for dinner. But Tony didn’t show up, so he ate his mushroom cream spaghetti alone on the kitchen island. He saved a portion for his absent host nevertheless. Maybe when it’s late enough and he gets hungry, he’ll forage for food and Steve can heat this up. If that doesn’t happen, he’ll simply have to take this up to the bedroom and force feed Tony his dinner.
Thankfully, use of excessive force is unnecessary when Tony eventually turns up, fresh out of shower.
“How’re you feeling?”
“Better, thank you. What’s that on the table? Is it edible?”
“I made extra. Is spaghetti good?”
“I’m famished. Anything’s good.”
Steve makes a pot of tea as he watches Tony shovel strings of pasta into his mouth. His colour has improved and the way he carries himself belies the palladium poisoning that’s ailing him. They don’t speak as the water boils and the plate is polished, till Steve brings his cup of tea to his mouth, till the fork clank lightly on porcelain and Tony declares, “We’re attending the Monaco Grand Prix this Thursday.”
Steve promptly spits tea into the sink.
“Come on,” Tony adds, cajoling, “it’ll be fun.”
“Thursday? That’s two days later!”
Steve wipes his lips with the back of his hand. This endless streak of hastiness sticks on Tony like spots on leopards. Fast and hard, pedal to the metal leaving fumes in his wake. Monday, D.C. Tuesday, Malibu. And two days after, Monaco.
“I less than three things that constantly push speed limits, you know? I’ve always had a thing for fast cars but… don’t think I’ve ever seen an actual race all my life. Now’s a good time as any.”
Right. This doesn’t sound like a man who’s trying to fulfil as many items on his bucket list.
“OK,” Steve sets his cup on the counter. “I’ll handle the logistics.”
“JARVIS can handle that. You, Captain,” and he brandishes a tablet from under his cardigan, “should use your time for issues of more import. Take a look.”
It’s a virtual portfolio ready for his perusal. The first slide has a map of Europe with Monaco highlighted in red. There are smaller windows surrounding it offering general informal on the city’s geography and climate, demographics and economy – Steve swipes the screen to the next page and sees a grainy mugshot of a man he does not recognise.
“Anton Vanko,” Tony helpfully supplies, and Steve tears his eyes from the tablet in favour of scrutinising Tony like he’s just grown wings. When Tony’s lips curl upward into a little triumphant smirk, Steve instantaneously knows that again, he’s been had.
“Bingo. Vanko is the reason Fury send you over, isn’t it?”
Steve chews his tongue while Tony searches his face for a reaction. He drops his gaze back to the tablet and goes to the next slide.
“The truth is, you were right, I’ve been keeping an eye out on mechatronic advancement since my debut as Iron Man. Yes,” he drums his fingers on the table top, “guilty as charged. Whatever video clips that I shared with the court, they were part of that surveillance system. But that’s not all.” He points to his chest and Steve stares at it, knowing that the arc reactor is just hidden from view beneath layers of thread. “You can’t buy the stuff required to build this from Walmart. Certain metals, certain chemicals – palladium included – are rare, and are controlled items.”
“You can’t buy them without the proper license.”
“Exactly. I have eyes on deals like these. Any bulk purchases for two or more combination of the materials that can be traced to the same person or organisation will be flagged as suspicious. It’s not the best algorithm, I admit. Purchases can be made to look like they’re done separately. Fake IDs. Cash transactions can’t be tracked by the system.”
It’s all done with the best of intentions, Steve’s sure. It’s the legitimacy that’s getting to him.
“And that got me thinking. What if it’s just one guy, no name, no face, no money just wanting to work low profile? If all you want to build is one reactor, you don’t need that much starting material. A few grams of everything, at most. Where will you go to source your stuff, then?”
“… The black market.”
“Now that, is kind of easier to manoeuvre around. Pay the right people the right amount of money, and you have eyes and ears at the right places. Vankko’s purchases are confined to Russian purveyors, and… I don’t usually judge books by the cover, but those gang tattoos, that name? He’s probably Russian.”
Steve tracks the way Tony’s long fingers are still dancing on the table, the way his eyes are staring intensely at the fridge. Tony Stark is a dangerous man. With access to this kind of money, influence and power, he’s mighty glad that Tony is fighting on the side of justice. Someone he can call an ally.
“Something tells me you don’t mean to just watch the cars in Monaco.”
Tony’s smirk widens. “Russian immigration reports he’s just left for Monaco two days ago. He’s using a fake passport, of course, but I’d circulated his mugshot so unless he gets himself a plastic surgery… A rather helpful – I don’t wanna say corrupt – personnel supplied the info. And that’s why we’re joining in the fun, too.”
Steve replays the information in his mind, cataloguing them in order of importance.
Out of the pan, into the fire.
“At first, I thought this is going to blow your mind away,” Tony pushes his dish aside and folds his arms on the table. “So, am I right then? That nothing I’ve said is new to you? Vanko is the reason you come to SI in the first place.”
“… I’d rather not discuss that.”
“Why not? We can compare notes. You want me to play ball with SHIELD? This is the free trial period.”
“Is this all you’ve got on Vanko?”
“Stark,” Steve leans into his chair, “I wish I can tell you more, I really do. But it’s not my place to do so –”
“Then, why are you here?”
“I wasn’t lying when I said I’m here to keep you safe.” Tony huffs and looks away. “That’s the truth. Now, listen. I don’t think it’s wise for us to... ‘join in the fun’ in Monaco.”
“You intend to meet up with Vanko?”
“That’s the whole purpose, Rogers. Where were you the last ten minutes?”
“We shouldn’t go.”
“Fine, if you want to stay here, stay. I’ll go.” Tony’s chair scratches against the floor as he gets up. “I can’t let him re-create the arc reactor. You understand? This is priority number one. The repulsor tech must be safeguarded no matter what the cost. And I got to know where he gets his blueprints from.”
“It takes years of costly investment, the best of brains and facilities to build a working prototype. All roads lead to Rome. He might’ve been trying to build a longer-lasting battery, whatever, and just by working on different assumptions, different axioms… he would be combining different metal, different catalysts to build his reactor. But his formulae are frighteningly similar to the one in my chest, and nobody knows the first thing about my reactor. So, God help me, I got to know.”
There’s no other way to go about this.
“I’ll come with you. Pack a suit. Just in case.”
I just realised that Formula 1 races are always held on Sunday, after the qualifying round on Saturday. I'm SO SORRY for the ignorance. Shall we pretend that in this -verse, the race happens on Thursday. Suspend your disbelief. Poof. Thank you.
Thursday arrives as if Wednesday never existed.
Tucked snugly once again in Tony’s private jet, Steve spends the hours reading the portfolio JARVIS has assembled on Vanko. Anytime he reaches a part that mentions the maybe-arc-reactor that he’s building, Steve finds himself glancing up at Tony surreptitiously.
Actually, Wednesday did happen. He updated Fury with the fact that Tony planned to head out to Monaco in two days with all the intention of shaking hands with Vanko. It almost gave Fury a heart attack, and they agreed that Steve would not be sharing intel with Tony.
Not like it would’ve stopped Tony in the slightest.
Steve puts the tablet to sleep. There’s a frightening amount of information about mechatronic projects from around the world, he suspects Tony is secretly vying for the title of super-spy himself.
He takes another peek in Tony’s direction again, and this time, their eyes meet.
Steve clears his throat. “We better be right on this one, that Vanko will show up at the Grand Prix.”
“It’s an educated guest at best,” Tony stretches in his seat, pulling his arms above his head. “The timing feels right. I don’t know what he’s planning to do with a reactor, but if he wants to make an impact, the Grand Prix is the place to be.”
“What if he’s not there?”
“Guess we’ll have to start searching the streets. Hand out flyers, maybe?”
Tony excused himself the moment they’d cleared custom. He told Steve the location of their seats by the circuit, told him to go ahead, get comfy and have fun with the showgirls, before hopping off in a cab.
He also told Steve that he’s going to settle their checking in at the Hermitage. Very out of character, he knows. Which explains the nowadays-constitutive-pinched-concerned look on Steve’s face as he watched him pile into the cab’s back seat. Tony hands over a card that reads Hermitage’s address to his driver, slinks back into his little niche and fights to keep the vomit down.
It’s… an issue that he wants to masquerade with bravado and smiles. At least for today.
The splendour of his suite is completely lost on him as he fumbles through the sitting room and plunks into a chair. He cups his clammy face in his palms and not-think about the taste of his tonic, which he fails to do, so it ends up with him retching into the daffodil pot.
He hooks the strap of his duffel bag with his ankle and drags it over. He comes packed with supplies.
He pulls out a sterile, white plastic piece from the side pocket and presses his thumb over a circular indentation. One blood drop and the knowledge that it’s up to sixty percent palladium toxicity later, he extracts his bottle of tonic-cum-Viagra.
He checks the time as he pretends he’s gulping down banana milkshake. It’s eleven in the morning, and all he’s accomplished is jilting Steve at the race.
That’s close to seven hundred and fifty mil of gunk he’s downed. He burps. That’s also three times the amount he’s supposed to take at any one time. But JARVIS isn’t here. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.
All right. He’s rested, he’s medicated.
It’s showdown time.
“Where have you been?”
He locates Steve rooted under the midday sun, without a head gear, without sunglasses, most definitely without sunblock since all their luggage was with him. The imagery of Steve burnt red like a boiled shrimp is entertaining.
“You’re gonna get sunburn. At least get yourself an umbrella. Haven’t I given you some Euro pocket money?”
“I’ll pay you back when we get home.” Steve forgot to exchange his monies, and since Tony had some – a lot – to spare, he helped pad up Steve’s wallet – which is so used it’s falling apart at the seams, by the way – with the exchanged currency. “And I don’t get tanned.”
Too bad he has something else coursing his veins. “Well, I don’t have that stuff in my body, so I’m getting an umbrella. Wait here.”
He flits through the crowd in search for an umbrella peddler, and as he walks past aisle B12, somebody waves at him with reach-for-the-sky level of enthusiasm. It obliges Tony to pull his shades off and see if he actually knows that guy.
“Mr Stark!” the person shouts over the roar of engines.
The racing getup he’s wearing has the word “STARK” emblazoned across his chest in bold, white Helvetica. The guy’s still waving and Tony’s afraid the arms are going to detach, so he waves back, and he suddenly has the brilliant idea of swapping seats with his sponsored driver.
Privilege of being a wealthy patron, no?
“There’s been a last-minute change to the driver line-ups –”
“What is the use of having and owning a race car if you don’t drive it?”
Steve is about to pay for his glass of orange juice when that comes along on the LED billboard screen. One smashed glass on the tarmac by accident later, he’s running along the race track, scouring the area for a billionaire who’s clearly just lost his mind and reminding himself to watch his language when he finally has his fingers around his neck.
Steve leans over the railing and waves frantically at Tony. Tony, who’s already all geared up for the race, and is wedging his helmet under his armpit.
“Jesus Christ, what are you doing?”
Tony jogs over to where Steve is and flashes him a thumb-up. Steve swears he’s this close to jumping off the platform and hauling Tony back to their box seat, where they belong.
“Don’t tell me you’re racing!”
“How do I look? This is going to be amazing!”
“Are you nuts? Get back here before somebody gets hurt!”
“Nobody’s gonna get hurt. Look, Iron Man breaks supersonic speed, all right? These Form One cars are like Animal Riders.”
“No. No! I’m not letting you –”
“OK, heads up, Rogers. I’d left Mark V – the briefcase? – in the box seat. Under yours. Better get to it quick before someone else spots it and reports it as a bomb or something. You see this?” Tony taps his right earlobe and Steve sees a black piece of plastic jammed in the canal. “I swapped their noise-cancelling earpieces with a com device. There’s a pair for you by the briefcase. Put them on. Keep in touch.”
“What? You can’t –”
“Wish me luck, Cap!” He crams the helmet over his head and jogs over to his car.
Steve has never wanted to wring a man by his throat so bad until this moment.
Having no choice, he returns to his seat as swiftly as he could, short of breaking into a faster-than-probably-even-Ferrari running pace and kneels before his seat. The briefcase is still there, the same one he remembers pummelling mercilessly into at the Expo’s backyard not so long ago. It looks brand new now, all hints of scratches and walloping gone. An ordinary, black box sits atop it, and it looks like it’s originally meant to hold a ring. Steve springs that open and equips the listening devices into his ears –
Tony is already prattling over their communication line.
“– so I told Pepper to stop flaring her nostrils, and she –”
“Stark, I’m online.”
“Ah, goodie. You like my invention? It’s supposed to assist communication between me and whoever it is on the ground when I’m all locked up in the suit. Speaking of which, you got the briefcase?”
Steve props it up more securely over his knees. “Yes.”
“Hang on to it. That’s a six-billion-dollar investment there. Minus overhead costs and so on.”
Steve squints at the still empty racing track and the TV screens decking the front of their box. This is the best form of surveillance he has access to, so he makes sure to scan the crowd every time the camera changes angle.
“Keep an eye out on Vanko, Rogers.”
“That goes without saying.” Then, Steve sighs. “Just… don’t die.”
He hears Tony scoff.
When the five red lights go off, cars after cars speed past him in a blur. He chews the insides of his cheeks when he realises all cameras are now focused on the tracks – for obvious reasons – so he tries to trace Tony’s car instead. For someone who claims he’s never watched a single race in his life, he’s doing OK so far.
At least he’s not dead last.
Regardless, at this rate, he won’t be surprised if the next phone call from Fury is just him firing Steve from all positions at SHIELD. The Monaco circuit goes around the streets of Monte Carlo and La Condamine, and that means Tony being completely out of sight and reach for the next foreseeable hour. Even if Vanko were to appear right here, right now – what good is this suit for if the pilot is half a city away?
He misses his shield, truly.
Sometime later, track marshals in orange jumpsuits start filing into the finishing line area, followed by ladies in too little clothes, and a few more others.
A camera pans to the congregation. Steve cannot yet see his face, but someone’s puffing away. Smoke billows in the wind where he stands.
“Yeah? Just got out of the tunnel, dammit. What’s my lap time?”
“Vanko’s at the finishing line.”
Tony doesn’t comment, and Steve makes his move. He dashes in and out of the crowd, keeping his eyes focused on Vanko. He knows that face. He’s committed that grainy mugshot on Tony’s tablet into memory. And he sees it first, amidst the cheering and clapping and fuss over the champaign bottle – a pair of electric blue lassos, sizzling by his sides.
“Move!” Steve screams, shoving people aside.
At the first crack of energy whip on the tarmac, cries of terror erupt, first from those closest to Vanko, before the chaos permeates the vicinity of the racing track. Steve pushes through the torrent of people charging at him.
He sees Vanko’s jumpsuit disintegrate at the sheer heat his weapons produce. He walks calmly to the middle of the track, lashing his whip as he goes.
It’s hard enough not to be stampeded over. The first casualty happens when Vanko brings his whip down onto an unsuspecting race car, the first one that emerges from around the corner, one that would’ve otherwise been crowned champion of this Grand Prix. It splits into two, and that’s when he knows the pandemonium is for real.
Vanko prowls the track, leering at the fires and ashes he’d brought about with his own hands. Steve – with the six-billion-dollar briefcase in tow – hops over the railing and makes a mad dash towards Vanko, who’s for some reason chosen to idle by the curb instead of gleefully demolishing passing race cars like they’re made of wafers –
“Rogers! Don’t engage him!”
“He’s killed someone. I got to take him down before he strikes again.”
“No! Stay back!”
“Just get here quick!”
“Rogers, stay back! You go into a fight, you’re telling the whole world Captain America is back!” Steve almost trips over his shoes at the revelation. “This is an international broadcast, you understand? You can’t fight him!”
At that exact moment, the front of Tony’s car comes into view. Steve watches it blaze across the tarmac, smoke venting from all tyres before it drifts to one side and slams headlong into Vanko.
Tony’s killing someone – he runs to the car –
“I said, stay back! Give me the suit!”
With great effort, Tony extricates himself from his car. It’s totalled, smashed against the sidewall and by sheer force of miracle, he hobbles away from the wreck of shapeless metal to the open track. Blood is already streaking his face.
Vanko spots him immediately.
“Rogers! The suit!”
Steve adjusts his grip on the briefcase – fingers curling around the side instead of the handle – he affirms his stand on the ground and hurls it through the air. It cuts cleanly across the distance to land neatly in front of Tony. And just like it did many nights ago, it unfolds itself and the pieces fasten over Tony’s body, one by one in precise order.
Steve can help. A simple tactic to neutralise the threat.
“Stark, engage in melee, his whips are useless in close quarter combats. Deactivate the device. I’ll bait him –”
“No!” Tony is taking a lot of heat from Vanko, trying but failing to get within range. “Get the people out of here, Cap!”
And watch Vanko lay waste to Iron Man? To Tony?
Steve forces himself to go the other way, to leave. Some of the stragglers he found are injured, so he picks them up in a fireman carry and runs to the nearest exit. Over and over again he does this, clearing civilians from the carnage as quickly as he can, and each time he returns to site, he sees smog and sparks enveloping Iron Man and Vanko.
Their com line has long gone dead. Tony hasn’t been making a chirp since he sent Steve out on evac duty.
Just as he was searching aisle J8, he hears a deafening pop! followed by a sudden quietness. No more cracking of electricity on metal or tarmac, and Vanko’s on the ground. Tony’s on his knees, his suit charred –
“Stark?” Steve speaks into his device. “Stark, answer me!”
The suit is still, unmoving. Steve vaults over the railing and sprints towards Tony.
He’s there in a heartbeat.
The face plate lifts and the stench of copper and sweat is overbearing. Tony lists to the side and would’ve ended up on the ground himself if not for Steve catching him in the nick of time, and his face contorts in a display of pain and shock.
“Easy,” Steve cups him about the chin. “It’s done. It’s over. You’ll be OK.”
Tony’s eyes flit open and they snap not to Steve’s blue eyes, but to an inch over his shoulder. Titanium gold gauntlets wrap tightly around Steve’s arms. There’s a pull in his stomach and a ridiculous manoeuvre that ends up with his nose suddenly an inch away from the tarmac, Iron Man bracketing his body.
And pieces of concrete blocks littering around them.
“God, that kinda hurts…”
This time, Tony tilts to his left and does end up on the ground. He starts coughing, and Steve pulls him up by the elbows –
Blood. Tony coughs, harsh and long, and blood spurts between his chapped lips. Most of them end up on the front of Steve’s shirt –
“Hang on!” Screw this, he’ll carry Tony in his full Iron Man glory if it means getting him into one of the ambulances, if it means risking blowing up his cover.
The next thing Steve knows, pieces of the suit melt away from Tony’s battered form. They reassemble into the innocent façade of a briefcase, now looking worse for wear. Steve pulls Tony closer to his chest and lifts him off the ground.
“Stay with me. I’m getting you help.”
“No, somewhere private,” Tony gasps, a bloody hand coming to clench about his arc reactor. He blanches violently, “Please.”
Steve bends over to retrieve the briefcase and hunts for a nook safe from prying eyes and falling debris. There’s one near the juice stall – a shed of sort that stores tyre-changing equipment – and he lowers Tony onto a bench.
“You need to go to the hospital,” Steve helps Tony undo the racing vest when Tony’s trembling too hard to do so.
“My pocket,” Tony wheezes. “Palladium core.”
Steve frisks Tony’s pants for… whatever it is he needs. He finds one the shape and size of a cell phone’s lithium ion battery and presses it firmly into Tony’s palm.
“Take it out.”
“Take what out?”
“My arc reactor.”
Steve assumes that’s one of Tony’s mindless rambling, and continues to peel the bloodied and singed vest off.
The arc reactor isn’t glowing as brilliantly as it used to. It’s alternating in blinks, between luminescent blue and the dimmest of black.
“Take it out for me.”
“I don’t – you should –”
“It’s a tight fit. Don’t think I have the grip,” his eyes slide to a close. “Twist it, counter-clockwise. That’ll eject the core. Replace the old one with this.” He holds his palm out, still shaking like a leaf.
Steve does not anticipate smoke coming out of the old core, and to his dismay, when he plucks it off the slot, he finds it rusted through and through.
What is Tony Stark?
Happy Chinese New Year, folks! Welcome to the Year of the Rooster! I might have to stay away from my computer on Day 1 and 2 - family visiting and all - but I promise, if I've some me-time in the middle of the night - if we decide not to gamble or drink or have fun XD - then working on this ficcy is top on my to-do. In the meantime, an early chapter for your enjoyment. Cheerios!
“You have this in your body?”
“Replace it with the new one.”
Steve quickly swaps the smouldering piece with the one in Tony’s palm, and re-inserts the arc reactor into the metal casing. It’s soon becoming a norm, Steve waiting on Tony to collect himself after a fainting spell, or a sudden burn in the chest –
“This has to be done,” Tony rasps after a while. “One of the reasons I don’t put on the suit these days. It accelerates the uh, condition.”
“I can’t watch you do this to yourself,” Steve eyes the dried dribble of blood down Tony’s chin. “We can help. Why won’t you trust us?”
“Just no, all right?”
“Are you even managing this? Has it gotten worse?”
Tony fixes a tired look at Steve. “Last I checked – that’s about two hours ago – I’m at sixty-percent palladium toxicity.”
“Sixty.” Steve runs his hand through his hair, smidgens of red staining his fringes. “Stark, no more games. You got to get help.”
“I will. In due time.” With his good elbow, he heaves himself up into a sitting position. He winces again, and raises his brows. “What do you know? Seems like I haven’t broken anything.”
“Enough.” His desire to throttle Tony comes back in full force. “I’m taking you to SHIELD’s medical. Fury will be more than willing to –”
“We should pay Vanko a visit. Say hello. Where are our manners?” Ignoring Steve, Tony gets up and limps out of the shed, one arm clutching his stomach. They’ve netted their fish. He can’t wait to dice and slice information he’s squeezing out of Vanko. Did Steve collect his whips? Shame if he didn’t. That deserves a closer look, too. Or have they been bagged, labelled and locked up in some police evidence vault?
Steve shakes his head. Tony’s worse than a mule. “Last I saw him, he was unconscious and bleeding into the ground. We can drop by the hospital – or the lock-up – tomorrow.” Tony pauses in his tracks. “Let’s go back to the hotel. Let me at least give you a once over with the first aid kit.”
And Steve has never been gladder when Tony works up a slight nod.
“I thought you said you’re getting the band-aids.”
Steve is having a hard time herding a bruised and battered Tony into the bathroom. On one hand it means that he’s recovering fine, on the other Steve knows it’s going to hurt his conscience less if he has to end up manhandling this man-child into the tub.
“Rogers, no – the sitting room is fine –”
“You look like roadkill, Stark. You have blood covering you like a second skin. We’re lucky the driver didn’t ask too many questions.”
“So I don’t look like my usual, gorgeous self. Sue me. How about I take the shower alone?”
“There might be glass or metal shards embedded and you don’t see them –”
“You are not coming into the shower with me.”
It’s the most one-sided battle of strength ever. Steve steers Tony through the bathroom door like he's thin air and makes him sit on the edge of the tub. If he can’t win against a super-soldier the old-fashioned way, guess what, in Tony-verse, the tongue is mightier than the muscle.
“Why, any excuse to see me naked, huh?”
Steve purses his lips, and Tony does a booyah! high-fiving an imaginary Mark V in the dark recesses of his mind.
“Sometimes I wish you were an actual metal man yourself.”
Tony quirks an eyebrow. “Wowzies. That’s your fetish?”
“So I can switch you off when you’re being an ass.”
“And… Captain America isn’t allergic to swear words after all.”
Steve relieves the shower head from the hook and runs the water. “Just for ten minutes. Co-operate. Is that too much to ask?”
“It depends. I asked you to leave me alone, did you listen?”
Icy water is now lukewarm. “Take your shirt off.”
“Either you do it, or I do it.”
“You know what,” Tony teeters a little in his precarious perch on the tub before upheaving himself with great effort, “I’m done. With your righteousness, with your… misguided concerns –”
“What are you talking about –”
“It’s a mistake, lugging you around. I told you I work alone. Iron Man doesn’t do sidekicks. You can’t just walk into my life and all over me, harping on SHIELD and the Avengers Initiative – I don’t care, Rogers. I really don’t. Get that into your serum-enhanced memory and play my words like a broken recorder next time you see Fury.”
He takes one step towards the door when Steve stops him with a barely-there grip around his wrist.
“I promise you,” he begins slowly, the running shower serenading every syllable, “let me have a look at your injuries, treat them the best I can with the first aid kit,” Steve’s fingers close tighter, “then I’ll go.” Tony whips around so fast his neck creaks. “For good.”
Tony breathes in deeply, Steve’s promise echoing in his ears. He slogs back to his corner and slouches. Hesitance flashes across his face, and he begins to work on his buttons.
“Hold still.” Tony is beginning to show signs of restlessness - trust him to try making things more difficult than they already are, even if he's given his word that he'll cooperate. “I’m going to palpate some places. Tell me if you feel any pain.”
With Steve kneeling on the floor, Tony’s now able to look at himself properly in the mirror above the sink. And to his dismay, Steve’s right. He does look like roadkill. He looks like Carrie at prom. Steve is multitasking – washing and jabbing and prodding like he’s inspecting a pile of mangoes. Long fingers run along his neck, then pressing against his collar bones, his sternum – every inch of exposed skin, Steve’s touched them all. And it’s all going swimmingly until Steve aims the shower head deliberately over the arc reactor.
That mother is water proof, no problem, but Tony doesn’t like the way Steve’s studying it –
“I know it’s been spreading out,” Steve’s finger ghosts along the blackened veins, up, up until it lingers by his jugular.
Tony scratches his ear. “It’s uh, I’ve no idea, actually. Kind of neat for the palladium to accumulate under the skin though, don’t you think?”
Steve opens his mouth in what looks like the beginning of a scolding, a marathon of nagging – whatever, Tony is more than ready to tune it all out – before he shuts it and goes back to scrubbing the grime off the rest of Tony’s body.
As Tony sits there uselessly, the sensation of his soaked pants sticking to his thighs begins to irritate him – who on earth showers with their pants on? Tony does, because Steve doesn’t ask him to remove them, so he didn’t.
And he says hallelujah to that.
Because, remember the seven hundred and fifty mil of gunk he ingested earlier this morning? It’s come to bite him squarely in the ass.
Steve redirects the stream of water to the floor. “Take off your pants.”
“What? Oh no, no, no, no. I like my pants where they are.”
“I can’t check your kidneys and pelvis. Take them off.”
“My kidneys and pelvis are fine –”
“There’s no need for – for saving face, or getting embarrassed – or is that it? I’ve seen worse in the army, if you’re hiding any wounds –”
“Nope, no wounds. I’m fine from the waist down –”
“Then you’ve nothing to worry about. Take them off.”
Tony has everything to worry about. Steve wants to make this difficult for them both? Want to really back him into a corner?
Making sure to glare at Steve with all the intensity of a laser beam as he strips, he unbuckles his belt and pulls the leather free from his waist. He gives it to Steve, and he unbuttons and unzips his pants. Oh, Steve is going to regret asking for this, as much as he’ll be himself. Pulling his drenched woollen blend slacks and tossing them to a corner, he stretches his arms in a you-ask-for-it gesture, and with considerable amount of determination refrains from looking down into his lap.
Why should he when Steve is already staring at his obvious erection, his wet briefs clinging to it like a second skin.
The sadist he is, he considers peeling that off too and parading his hard-on like an Oscar statuette. Make Steve blush like a virgin bride. Serve him right.
Steve’s still staring.
Clearly there’s a misunderstanding.
“Get your brain out of the gutter, Rogers, and don’t get the wrong message.”
Steve’s eyes flicker back to him, and Tony purses his lips, annoyed.
“This is the side-effect of my tonic. It’s got aphrodisiac in it, I swear to God, I tried removing it from the recipe but JARVIS won’t let me, and I drank close to a litre of it just to make sure I don’t go into cardiac arrest when Vanko appears. It’s just biology. Increased blood flow to a certain anatomical part. That is all.”
“… How often do you relief yourself?”
Tony does look away then. “Daily.”
Now, Tony has no issue with nakedness. Many people have seen him naked over the years. Naked and more. Steve is just one guy, one of many, and if he knows one fact for sure, it’s that Captain America doesn’t do iniquity. Tony wriggles his toes and watches droplets of water run down his ankle, colouring the floor brownish red – he should tip their housekeeper bigly the next morning – and counts down from ten. He bets by the time he reaches seven or six, Steve would’ve bolted, leaving him to have some me time with his prick.
With his free hand, Steve grips Tony's left thigh firmly and parts it, before parking himself there like it isn't a trespass of personal space.
“Tell me to stop, and I will,” is all Steve says before those long fingers press against the hardened flesh, through the soaked underwear.
Tony swears, if it weren’t for Steve’s other hand securing him in place by the calf, he would’ve fallen backward into the tub.
Tell Steve to stop, and he will.
Tony's throat isn’t working, and he isn’t quite sorry for it either.
In those days when every morning he woke up to was War, when nobody knew if the guy in the next bunk was going to come back for another night, Steve learned what it meant to survive. Sometimes, the nightmares were bad. He wished he could’ve done things differently, if he could do over. Maybe he could’ve saved one more person.
Sometimes, the men took out their frustration, their guilt, their horror on each other. It usually led to doing time in solitary confinement.
Sometimes, it meant providing comfort, no matter how little.
Steve understood both giving and receiving.
He palmed Tony’s erection through the briefs. Lightly at first, with conviction soon after. He half-expected Tony to push him away, to punch him in the face – a reaction, anything – but Tony just let him, half-stunned. He sits there with a face too pale and eyes blown up, and Steve doesn’t stop.
Tony said he blames the aphrodisiac he was forced to take. Be that as it may…
So, Steve gets bolder.
He tugs the briefs down and it springs into view. Steve’s genuinely anticipating a repulsor blast through his forehead, and he looks up at Tony, finding him surprisingly well-adjusted to the whole event. Tony’s still avoiding his gaze, his eyes latching on Steve’s left ear.
Yet, he doesn’t object.
Steve grips the length in one hand and works on it like a piston. The silence is broken by a squelch – Tony’s wet fingers closing tightly around the edge of the tub’s enamelled steel – and they both know it isn’t enough. Not when cotton briefs are still in the way.
Steve makes easy work of it, shredding it along the seam. He grips Tony with both his hands and pumps, and he sees the clenching and unclenching of Tony’s lower abdominal muscles.
Still no objections.
He can feel the heat emanating from Tony’s body, and as he kneels there in between his thighs, bath water seeping into his skin, he wonders if this is how it’s going to end? Tony dying without a friend by his side, and him back in New York, pretending that the past three weeks did not happen.
A shadow looms over Steve as Tony lurches forward. His breaths are ragged, his eyes hazy and unseeing.
The motormouth he usually is, Steve expects Tony to vocalise pleasure. Tony gives no warning as he comes, and as he spurts semen all over Steve, the loudest he gets are the little gasping sounds that seep between his teeth.
Steve is truly sorry that this is it.
“Are you all right?” he asks tentatively, picking up the shower head he’s left lying on the floor.
Tony nods, saying nothing. A muscle in his jaw twitch when he notices evidence of his ejaculation on Steve’s sleeves and pants.
“The scratches and lacerations are superficial. They don’t need dressing.” Steve holds out the shower head until Tony sluggishly grasps it around the handle. “I’ll leave you to it.”
After wiping himself clean with some freshly laundered towel he found in the wardrobe and changing into new clothes, and then circling the suite once – the sound of shower running in the background – Steve locates his luggage next to Tony’s, their bag tags still affixed. So much has happened between landing in Monaco and here, and now he’s getting ready for New York.
He sits in one of the chairs, deciding-not-deciding if he should wait for Tony before he takes his permanent leave. Considering that he’s about to be fired from SHIELD anyway, he’s also deciding-not-deciding if he should spill all he knows of SHIELD to Tony. It’s like paying his due. He owes Howard this much at least.
Tony emerges from the bathroom with the hotel’s towel wrapped around his waist. The black and blues are starting to show on his body, and he stares at Steve like he’s spooked.
Steve can take a hint.
“I just want to say goodbye, properly,” he gets to his feet and heaves his bag over his shoulder. “The last three weeks have been eye-opening. Inspiring, even. Thank you.”
Tony’s expression hardens and he shuffles to the kitchenette. The bottom of Steve’s stomach sink even lower, it also kind of makes him want to throw a pillow at Tony’s head. He clears his throat, but Tony keeps his back against Steve.
So be it.
He makes his way to the exit, thinking about how he’s going to have camp out in the airport if he can’t buy a same-day ticket –
And that reminds him. He still has to pay Tony back for the Euro.
“I uh…” he turns to the kitchenette. A glass of water now sits on the counter. “I still owe you some money. Can I wire it to your bank account,” he knows how ridiculous this sounds, but a debt is a debt, “or do you prefer cash?”
Tony’s shoulders slump somewhat. Steve can’t help interpreting that as… reluctance? A reluctance to meet up with him again. Bank transfer it is –
Tony collapses, his back sliding against the counter like a mannequin cut loose of its strings. That can’t – didn’t he say he’d drunk a litre of that tonic, shouldn’t it stave off the worst of symptoms –
“What’s wrong?” Steve rounds the counter and pulls Tony into his lap. Tony’s bleeding again from the nose – and his body feels cold against Steve’s despite fresh out of a hot shower.
“I’m fine.” Steve presses two fingers against the side of his neck. “Let go.” Steve thumbs away the blood that has dripped past Tony’s lips. Why isn’t he surprised when Tony pulls a Tony-stunt again and claws his entire person away from Steve, on four –
He carries Tony to the bed, and the lack of fight he finds disturbing. By the time he arranges Tony in a position he thinks is comfiest, Tony is already irresponsive to Steve calling his name. But the little ticks in his fingers and the meek batting of his eyelids tell Steve that he’s still somewhat here.
A bleary eye creaks open. “I don’t mean – don’t mean what I said –”
“You need rest. Sleep.”
Tony doesn’t seem like he wants to sleep, but sleep claims him swiftly, and not before he lets one more word escape his lips. He hasn’t the strength to speak it, but Steve understands it nonetheless.
“You’re not yet due for your report, Rogers. What’s this about?”
“Nick, it’s palladium toxicity. It’s what making Stark sick. He’s self-medicating with some homemade tonic, and I don’t think it’s working at all. Has Dr Streiten worked out a cure?”
“They need Stark’s blood sample for a diagnosis. You may be right about palladium toxicity, but we can’t take yours or even Stark’s words as they are. And without a diagnosis, there is nothing to cure.”
Steve draws the sheer curtains close, casting Tony’s bedroom in light shadows. “He vomited blood on my shirt. It’s dried up now, but will it work?”
An uneasy pause settles on Fury’s side of the call. “Send it over. We’ll try to make do.”
The feeling of suddenly waking up, of gaining consciousness is decidedly repulsive. There’s a reason why he doesn’t go to sleep in between projects. Going to sleep is like resetting… like right now. He breathes deeply – let his lungs expand to their fullest capacity, they feel so desiccated inside his ribs – he stirs under his sheets, assesses the urgency to empty his bladder and finally, he opens his eyes.
First thing he sees is Steve. And he jumps a good inch off the mattress before propping himself up on one elbow.
“How are you feeling?”
“Have you been watching me sleep?”
That’s not rape-y at all.
“… Do you remember yesterday?”
It’s “tomorrow” already? Well, of “yesterday”, he remembers Vanko, and the half-an-hour he spent in the bathroom with Steve that he wants to delete permanently from his memory.
“Oh yeah,” he scratches his scalp. “We are supposed to meet Vanko. You’ve been up for a while. Why aren’t you dressed? Get dressed. We’ll get breakfast on the way –”
Steve pushes him back into the pillow and pins him there. Once bitten, twice shy.
“That thing you keep drinking. How long is it supposed to last? Half a day?”
“What am I drinking? Booze? I don’t do boozing anymore – Rogers, let go –”
“That green stuff you call your tonic.” Tony is still doing his damn best prying Steve’s fingers from his forearm. “You pumped yourself full of it, we… dealt with the side effects,” Tony’s fingers blunder in the works, “but you – it’s stopped working, hasn’t it?”
“Forget about Vanko. We go back to New York. Or Malibu. Work on a cure. Your life –”
“Is secondary to what I’m working on here.” He just wanted a muffin for breakfast and be on his merry way to Vanko. This doesn’t have to be so complicated. “You want the truth? Yes, the tonic isn’t as effective as it used to be. It’s a palladium chelator. It binds to free palladium in my blood, so I can purge it from my circulation. It’s not working anymore because this,” he jabs sharply to his heart, “is dumping more palladium than the tonic is able to scavenge.”
Steve swallows thickly and shakes his head. “Are you saying that –”
“This is it, Rogers. Until and unless I can find a substitute for palladium – and trust me, I’m good at this stuff. I’ve tried every combination, every permutation of every known element. Nada.”
“And you’re giving up?”
Tony rolls over to the other side of the bed. “Vanko. Fifteen minutes.”
Vanko is held at a top-security prison instead of a normal lock-up despite not having been convicted of his crimes. “It’s just a matter of time,” quips their escort – a junior warden who seems to be more concerned with being star-struck walking abreast with Iron Man than doing his job right. He brings Tony to Vanko’s cell and shakes his hand profusely, and when Steve walks past him, he drags Steve all the way back to the surveillance room.
So, only Tony, huh?
“He’s Iron Man, and Vanko’s a supervillain straight out of comic books! Yeah, we mere mortals best stay back and stay alive.”
Regardless, the cell is so well bugged that he sees and hears the conversation unfold as if he’s standing in there with them as well.
“Anton Vanko. I’m impressed. That was a pretty accurate copy of the original repulsor tech.”
“… If I were, you wouldn’t be here in handcuffs.”
“Anton is my father.”
Steve sees Tony still onscreen. “You come from a family of thieves and butchers. And now, like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your own history. And you forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed.”
“The reason I’m alive is because you had a shot, you took it, and you missed.”
It must’ve been cold in there, and Vanko is sitting on a stainless-steel bench wearing nothing but prison’s pants. Tony has on an additional leather jacket that Steve knows is meant to cushion the hurt and hide blooming blemishes under his shirt. Despite the layers, even he has his hands buried deep in his pockets as he circles Vanko from a distance. Steve reads this language well. He’s calculative, cold and distant. He went in with a purpose.
Tony stops his pacing when Vanko continues, “If you can make God bleed, the people will cease to believe him. And there will be blood in the water. And the sharks will come. All I have to do is sit here and watch as the world consume you.”
It hits Tony hard, the implication of the words, the threat. And he does what he always does, deploy his umbrella as hellfire rains on him, “You focused the repulsor energy through ionised plasma channels. It’s effective. Not very efficient. I don’t get it. A little finetuning you could’ve made a solid pay check. You could’ve sold it to North Korea, China, Iran, or gone into the black market. You look like you got friends in low places.”
Vanko huffs, and his harsh puffs of air don’t stop. He’s laughing, but it’s unpractised, like he hasn’t done it in the longest of time. “You will pay for what your father did to my family for forty years.”
Tony edges to the door. His five minutes is almost up.
“Hey, Tony. Before you go, palladium in the chest,” Steve deepens his stare at the monitor, “painful way to die.”
Tony exits the cell, and Steve hurries in his direction.
When Tony rounds the corner into the hallway Steve’s brisk-walking in, Tony’s instincts – which are reliable fifty-point-six percent of the time – tell him to do a hundred-and-eighty and go the other way. Those set on instincts also tell him that Steve will catch up in less than three seconds, and probably will pin him up against the wall grilling him about the why’s and what’s. He looks at Steve in the eye, a fleeting moment that lasts too long nonetheless, before he walks right past him.
Steve doesn’t stop him.
He walks and walks until he’s out of the prison block. He doesn’t stop until he slips into his car, into the driver’s seat, and then he waits.
Even when Steve is seated beside him, he doesn’t move.
“Do you want me to drive?” Steve offers, because he’s the politest person on earth. Tony ignores it, and in the stretch of silence he becomes aware of how rapidly he’s breathing. At least Steve’s not suggesting him to check himself into ICU, so that’s a win, but then, “Iron Man is, in the eyes of the people, untouchable. You’re their saviour, their defender against threats of unimaginable magnitude.” Steve folds his hands in his laps, and Tony looks out of his windshield. “Vanko is right. Tearing down that image is all it takes to prove that you’re only a man.”
“I am just one man, aren’t I? That’s the point of not hiding behind a mask or a secret identity,” Tony feels like punching his window. He grips his steering wheel and turns sharply to Steve. “Because deep down, I know that if Iron Man were to go superhero-ing without a name or a face, that I remove him from being remotely human, it’ll breed fear. Just fear – and confusion, and there’ll be a manhunt.”
“You said it best, Stark. You ‘haven’t come across anyone who’s man enough to go toe-to-toe with you on your best day’.”
“I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing just because a man bent on revenge gave me a shiner. That’s cowardice. That’s not the message –”
“It’s inevitable.” Tony huffs, and leans back against his seat. “And I know you know it, too. That one day, someone with the guts and might may come to challenge Iron Man, or the idea of it, and someday, they will succeed. When that day comes, the ‘bigger stick’ fails –”
“It’s not a ‘bigger stick’ –”
“More will take up the mantle of a superhero, and more will step up to be supervillains. The losers are the ones stuck in the middle, the ones we vow to protect – the people.”
Tony closes his eyes and winces, and Steve isn’t sure if that’s the weight of this burning burden or something else.
“Now that Vanko has gotten the ball rolling, some… people may be getting ideas. Your safety is at stake. Keep your suit with you at all time.”
The irony isn’t lost on both of them.
It’s close to midnight by the time they step foot in the Malibu mansion. Tony quickly excuses himself to his bedroom, which leaves Steve to the menial tasks of attending to their luggage and getting a pot of tea to brew. Tony promises to make it up to Steve in the morning somehow, but Pepper has been trying to call him all the way from New York for the most part of today.
He feels… that it’s time for Pepper to know.
Three hours into the flight earlier, he’d locked himself in the restroom and did another check on his blood palladium level.
It stood at eighty percent.
After a quick shower, he stalks to the kitchen and pours himself some tea when again, his cell phone rings. It’s Pepper, unsurprisingly, and he thinks of returning to his bedroom. Shut the door behind him, have a seat in one of those armchairs beside his window that overlooks the Pacific…
He sits on a barstool and answers the call.
“Tony? I saw the news. Are you OK?”
“I’m OK. A few bumps here and there, but I’m good.”
“God, that’s – I’m glad you’re OK.”
“Don’t mean to make you worry, Pep.”
“When have you never?” she sighs. “Tony, your birthday is coming soon.”
“We’re throwing a birthday party. We’re inviting potential investors, existing investors and key stakeholders, some representatives from charity organisations –”
“Wait, stop.” Tony settles his mug on the table top. “I can’t tell if this is a birthday party or an SI gala.”
“It’s good PR.” And Tony rolls his eyes. “Look, your involvement in Monaco is starting to raise questions. People are saying that the French government is closing one eye because you’ve aided the capture of a wanted terrorist, but after Gulmira? People are wondering if Iron Man is going to be the next international peacekeeping watchdog –”
“Pepper, can we… shall we not talk about that for a minute?”
“About – about what, the fact that I’m trying to stop SI stocks from nosediving, or salvaging the reputation of the ex-CEO –”
“Yes. Yes, Pep. All of them.”
“… What’s possibly more important than that?”
“I,” his tongue feels like lead in his mouth. “I’m glad you’re CEO. I’m glad that… that you’re with us.”
“Good,” she replies without missing a beat, “then trust me that this party will help us mend ties and hopefully, restore some amount of confidence in our operations, no matter how little.”
“I do trust you.”
“Then, it’s settled. It must've been a long day for you. I’ll talk to you soon. Good night, Tony.”
He keeps the phone pressed to his ear until Pepper hangs up. He holds it there for another minute, not wanting to break away from the remnants of her voice and concerns and presence.
Eventually, he puts it down on the table, beside his steaming mug of tea. It’s midnight. Another day. He’s survived another attack. Tomorrow has come.
And so will his end.
Tony cradles his face in his palm, wanting so bad to have Pepper in his arms.
And he starts to cry.
When Steve comes down to the kitchen as he’s towelling his hair, he sees that it is dark, and Tony is slumped over the island he’s sitting at. Motion sensors pick up his presence as he approaches the unmoving lump, and the recessed lighting comes alive. And with them, Tony too.
“Were you napping?”
Steve lingers by the fridge, not wanting to distress the pair of sleep fairies obviously prancing about Tony’s head in togas. Tony sits up and blinks in stupor, and Steve frowns at the redness and wetness of what’s always been a pair of clear, piercing hazel eyes. The lines on his face look deeper. Larger than life Tony Stark is now a little greyer, a little bit worn. He yawns and stretches, and Steve edges to the teapot.
“You look tired. You should go to bed.”
Tony perks up. He drums his fingers on the table top. “Hey, you haven’t been outside, have you?”
“… If you’re thinking about taking the suit out for a ride, no.”
“Ah, no. I would like to, but… JARVIS would throw a cyber tantrum if I insisted. I mean, outside. By the beach. You don’t live on a mansion by the Pacific if you’re not going to frolic on the sand.”
“I’d rather not.”
“You want me to take your hand and stuff? ‘Cause I can do that. For you, Cap.”
Tony offers his hand with his palm facing up, and grins. Steve sighs, because this is yet another one of the more annoying moments of Tony Stark that he’s learnt to tolerate. He grips Tony around the bicep instead.
“I can walk on my own.”
The miniscule tremors under Steve’s firm grasp don’t escape him. The flesh is as cool as the moon.
“Humour me, would you?”
“Captain Rogers,” JARVIS speaks, and for goodness sake he’s forgotten about the omnipresent AI that the suddenness of it goes straight to his fist, and Tony pulls away from him.
“Jesus Christ, remind me not to piss you off in the future,” he rubs at the angry five-fingered imprints on his arm. “In case you wanna turn me into your personal stress ball.”
“I’m so sorry, did I hurt –”
“Captain, Sir is refusing to take his tonic, citing extreme discomfort and lack of efficiency as reasons. Please see to it that today’s portion is taken, or the rate of palladium deposition in his circulation will increase by point five.”
Steve whips around, “Stark, is it true?”
“I’m not drinking that anymore. JARVIS, it’s over. I’m not –”
“Captain, today’s portion is in the fridge, on the second shelf.”
“Mother of God,” and Tony promptly rolls himself away from the kitchen and into the foyer. Steve pulls the fridge open and fetches the stainless-steel tumbler that has today’s date labelled on the cap.
He runs after Tony, who’s left the front door open and himself trudging down a side stone stairway that seems to lead to nowhere.
“Stark, slow down!”
When Tony reaches the first landing, spotlights shine brightly all around, but they aren’t glaring, surprisingly. A gentle tone of sugary brown that illuminates their every next step and a patch of the beach – Steve sees it now.
Tony, who’s already barefooted from the beginning hops closer to the waves. He raises his arms high above his head and turns around, “Just you and me, Rogers!”
He stands facing the wind and God, it is freezing. The harsh blow of midnight sea breeze isn’t very forgiving and Steve, a walking furnace himself feels goosebumps creeping up his back.
“Stark, it’s too cold out here. Let’s go back.”
“What? But we just got here.”
“There’s fog just off the coast –”
“What fog, I don’t see – oh yeah, your super-vision.”
“Come on, you’re almost blue –”
“No, no, not that way. Let me show you something cool.”
Steve’s ready to go up the stone steps when Tony tows him towards the freaking ocean. Their feet are wet on the sand and Steve whole-heartedly believes that Tony is going to walk them deeper and deeper into the depths of Davy Jones’ Locker, when somewhere off to the side of the cliff there’s an opening. Not very wide and obvious, and Tony steers them there.
It’s a cave.
“Welcome to my secret playboy clubhouse.”
It’s very cave-ly.
“Stark, stop this madness. We go back or you’ll go hypothermic – oh.”
It’s not very cave-ly. A gust of warm air blows over his head as a heater churns above them, and garden lights illuminate their immediate vicinity. There are rugs under their feet – Steve’s were too cold to note the difference between calcite and Persian’s finest.
“Sit where the rugs are. It’s drier and warmer there.”
There’s a spotlight installed above the entrance of the cave, too. They watch the waves crash against a large boulder just off right to their little hidey hole.
Steve is suddenly reminded of Tony’s description of the cave. He clears his throat. “You mentioned this is your… uh, ‘playboy clubhouse’? So, you bring your dates here?”
Tony is busy adjusting his thermostat. “Huh? No – I was kidding. The girls I bring home don’t dig places like this. Personally,” he pulls out a box-on-wheels as big as a footstool, “I hate places like this myself.”
“Exactly like caves.”
“… Why are we here?”
“’Cause… I feel like coming here? Here, have a look.” He invites Steve to peer into his box, which just happens to be filled to the brim with books.
Steve pulls one out.
“My private collection of Captain America comic books. They’re not exactly in mint condition, but this box keeps them dry. Being in a cave and all.”
Steve flips to a random splash page and it’s him and Bucky and the rest of the Commando. He feels his cheeks pulling as a smile grows on his lips, and he flips to the next page in which apparently, Bucky tried sneaking the bunch of them through the border while cross-dressing as can-can girls.
“Did that happen, by the way?” Tony’s suddenly hunched over the comic book, their foreheads almost touching.
“No. Definitely no.”
Tony scoots away and dips his hand into the pile, and pulls out another one. He too flips to a random page and eases himself into the story, as he lies in a heap of throw pillows, chuckling to himself.
The first in so, so many days.
Steve is so enthralled by the absurdity and nostalgia of Chapter Forty that he doesn’t look up from his book until Tony starts coughing. The first few ones were light and dry – understandable, it’s still pretty cool in the cave despite the heating – until they graduate into deep, full-bodied hackings that bring a frown to Steve’s forehead.
He sets his book on the rug, splayed on page thirty-two and thirty-three because there’s nothing he can use as a bookmark. “Put something on. You got an extra jacket or –”
Tony is doubled over, one hand still holding his comic book, the other cupping his mouth.
“Hang on,” Steve hooks his arms under Tony’s, urging him to stand. Whatever Tony needs to do – puke, spit, he can do it outside of the cave and into the ocean.
But with all his might, Tony pushes Steve out of the way – he shudders and coughs once, wetly. And threads of vivid red flow between his fingers.
Steve frisks himself for a handkerchief, tissue paper – anything – as Tony sinks into several seconds of muted shock, eyeing the blood dribbling onto his rug.
“Just breathe,” Steve pulls off his shirt and uses it to mop up the mess, starting with Tony’s nose and chin – what looks like an impossible case of explosive nosebleed – that at the end of it, they both agree to incinerate the blood-soaked shirt. It's beyond saving.
“I’ll get you a new one,” Tony claps Steve amicably over the shoulder, some colours returning to his face.
“It’s SHIELD’s. They gave me a dozen on my first day.” Steve gently coaxes Tony to rest against his pile of throw pillows.
And Tony stares at Steve for one full minute. Nothing creepy, just searching, questioning. Steve lets him, until his lips begin to curve upward in a goofy grin that Steve decides to penalise him with an offering of JARVIS’ tumbler.
Tony’s eyes flicker to his tonic. “Right. And here I was, wondering what’s gotten into you. You used to make a big fuss over everything. Like when I sneezed –”
“No. Not touching that.”
“Doesn't matter it’s not working as it used to. If you drink this, it’ll –”
“I know very well what drinking that does, thank you.” Tony glares at the tumbler, and reaches for the comic book he was flipping through. “What good will it do? Delay the inevitable?”
The way Steve clenches his jaws when he hears those words, Tony subconsciously scoots deeper into his pillows. He’s always wondered if Captain America’s patience has limits. If there’s a giant, red button that he can push –
“I don’t get you,” instead, Steve softly asks. “You have everything. Friends, family, comfort. A future that means something. Why do you give up?”
“… For one, that’s not how people usually describe me.”
“Nobody stares down Death the way you do. Like you’ve nothing to lose.”
Tony swallows, and flinches at the lingering taste of copper on his tongue. “That’s unnecessarily melodramatic, Rogers.” He closes his book, not bothering to mark the page he was last on. “I’m not… in denial? After Afghanistan,” and he sighs, ghosts of a battery car wired to his chest tearing through his mind. “Don't mistake this nonchalance for morbid bravery. Look, I didn’t willingly choose to hang out in a cave. Yet here I am. You know how it gets sometimes. On a bad day, the nightmares become real, so real they haunt – I can’t let them control me. So, I decide to control them first. One afternoon I was testing a prototype thruster set – yes, without filing a flight plan, sue me – and I saw this cave. Guess I got a little masochistic. I sat here until sunset, and… it was bad. Flashbacks,” he explains simply. “I came back the next day, and the day after, until I could sit here for one solid hour without passing out. Then, I thought, it’s got a good view. Good feng shui. Pepper would agree.” He laughs, and it rings hollow. “She likes to watch the sunset. The view from this cave is spectacular.” Steve nods, and returns the sad smile Tony has on. “But it’s not gone completely. The uh, the bad dreams. So, after I’d done putting my finishing touches to this place – I mean, let’s face it, just because it’s a dingy ol’ cave doesn’t excuse it from being plain uncomfortable – I brought the comics here. Because you’re… you. Fearless. Steadfast. Eye on the ball, always in control.” Tony drops his gaze to the ground. “Everything I am not. Everything I’d wanted to be. Dad told me of your conquests over his nightcap’s nightcap.”
“Fear doesn't make you any lesser a man, Stark.” He holds out the tumbler. Tony still doesn’t take it. “Don’t tell me you’re done. You’re spearheading a revolution on green energy with the repulsor tech. Founding the Expo to rally the greatest of minds under one banner towards a common goal.”
“I am. I am done. Just because I started those things doesn’t mean I’ve to see them through myself. SI will be fine, with or without me.”
Steve fingers curl tighter around the tumbler. “Please. Drink this.” Even if it does mean delaying the inevitable. “At least we get to watch another sunset.”
“With you?” Tony chuckles, a single tear leaking out of his eye. He quickly thumbs it away, surprised at the wetness. “And watch the stars until tomorrow’s sunrise.”
“A new day.”
Tony finally reaches for the tumbler, his fingers overlapping with Steve’s. And when he cries – sincerely regretting all the other sunrises he’d missed, every second of Pepper’s laughter and nagging that he should’ve cherished – at least Steve is here.
For he understands the hopelessness of walking in Death’s courtyard.
The empty tumbler lies forgotten beside the comic book on the bloodstained rug.
Tony burps and reclines in his makeshift fort of pillows. They’re behind and around him, and Steve sits a respectful distance away, now topless because he didn’t think of using one of the many pillowcases as a handkerchief.
“There,” Tony burps again. “Happy?”
They both know full well what’s coming next.
Steve tasks himself with rearranging the comic books in sequence while Tony busies himself with studying air molecules. Sometimes he hums to himself, an obscure tune from AC/DC’s B-side. He’s not daydreaming, that much Steve knows, because between the air guitars and imaginary drumming, he mutters a string of inane gibberish that includes “theta” and “Laplace’s”.
Steve pushes the box against the wall and sits there. Just them in a cave, occupying opposite corners, staring at each other. See who blinks first.
“Why SHIELD?” Tony suddenly asks. He pulls a single pillow from his gigantic pile and tosses it over to Steve. He’s generous like that. “Didn’t think Captain America agrees with all the clandestine stuff.”
“Why do you become Iron Man? It’s not exactly great for longevity.”
“Nuh-uh, I asked first.”
Steve fiddles with a corner of the pillow. “They found me in the Arctic. Took me in. Got me used to this,” he waves around the cave, “new world? Gave me a purpose to get out of bed every morning.”
“That’s not life, Rogers. That’s just paying your dues. Hey, free country, all right? If you want, resign from SHIELD and join SI. Pepper would love having you.” Tony’s eyes flicker up, hesitant. “I think.”
Steve smiles appreciatively. “Thank you. Maybe someday.” He unfolds his legs and stretches them fully across the rugs. “Your turn. Why Iron Man?”
“It’s an unsexy story. Not the kind you tell your children at night.”
“Everybody loves a heroic tale.”
And Tony laughs, brusque and harsh. He runs his fingers through his hair, pulling at his dark curls to ground himself. “Yeah. Someone died in that cave. His tale is worth telling, but it won’t be told. He exchanged his life for mine, and told me to make it count. There’s all there is to it. A big, winding, trip of survival’s guilt – and there’s only so much time I can borrow.”
Steve picks himself up and closes his distance with Tony in two long strides, returning the pillow to its pile. Tony kneads his temple with his knuckles. The dreaded moment is beginning. His reptilian brain has migrated southward. “OK, this has been a most enlightening impromptu slumber party, but –”
To his surprise, Steve promptly plops into the vacant spot beside him. He starts to scoot away, when Steve stills him about the wrist. There’s barely any gap between their bodies.
“Once is quite enough, Rogers.”
“Why?” Steve’s voice drops to a silent whisper. “Because it’s unusual? Because it’s wrong?”
“… Because it’s really none of your business, that’s why. Go back to the mansion. I’ll catch up in a bit.”
Steve doesn’t press on. He doesn’t move away either, and his thumb caresses the underside of Tony’s wrist, a wan pressure over the steady pulse.
“I can’t give you what you want, Steve.”
“What do I want?”
“A companion. A friend.”
“… That obvious?”
“Takes one to know one,” Tony replies, his pulse gaining some pacing. “It all ended in ’45 for you when you crashed your plane into the Arctic. This is your borrowed time. Who are you kidding? Who are we kidding? But what do you want us to do? Fuck each other until things somehow fall into place again?”
Steve flinches. “Is that all there is – that means, to you?”
“No. No, it –” and Tony shifts his legs, obviously trying to hide the massive tent in his crotch. “Half – no, three quarter of this is the awful gunk talking.”
“… Did I hurt you? Then?”
“No. But did I hurt you? It’s just two dudes sweatin’ it out, I get. This isn’t real. If you’re looking for something more –”
“It’s only a favour, Tony.”
What does it all mean?
Steve pulls the drawstring to Tony’s sweatpants. Tony doesn’t stop him. His erection springs free from its cage and Steve grips it around the base. Tony doesn’t stop him. Even when Steve takes Tony fully in his mouth, his head bobbing with practised ease and control, Tony doesn’t stop him.
It’s only a favour.
It’s a wild ride they’re on board without a destination in sight. Just them, and now. Tony holds onto Steve’s shoulder, fingernails digging into bare flesh as Steve edges him closer to his climax. He’s so close he’s leaking, and he bucks his hips, warning Steve of what’s to come. Words fail him, and Steve won’t let up, so he lets go, all of him, all of him into Steve’s mouth.
“God, Steve, I’m sorry,” Tony rips off a pillowcase and dabs them about Steve’s lips. “You can go bulimic on that spunk, I don’t mind.”
When they’re back in the mansion, locked up in their respective space – as far away from each other as they physically can, Tony in his basement workshop and Steve upstairs in his bedroom in the other wing – Steve walks out to the balcony and leans against the railing. It’s that perplexing juncture in life when things have happened, but kind of not, that something fundamental has changed, but hasn’t quite either.
He still feels the scratches Tony left on his shoulders and back. The bitter aftertaste of Tony’s semen in his throat. The stretch of his lips as he engulfs Tony whole.
It’s only a favour.
Sixteen hours later, they’re back in New York.
Quarter hour after landing in LaGuardia Airport, Tony and Steve are brisk walking through the foyer of Stark Tower and into the elevator that’ll take them to level thirty.
“The Expo’s first show is on Saturday. This Saturday. That’s in five days.” And then, Tony starts rattling about date lines and meetings he’s scheduled to attend sometime within the week – his calendar is packed, Steve is well-informed, because he has an identical copy of Tony’s daily planner, so detailed he gets to remind Tony about his morning tea break with the software team at nine.
It’s already nine thirty.
“Thought I’d forgotten something. Where did you get that? Only Pepper has that.”
“Miss Potts is now CEO,” Steve reminds Tony of that, too. “Your daily log is now uploaded automatically to mine and Mrs Abrogast’s.”
“She’s doing this on purpose. Now I have two people babysitting me?”
Level thirty is relatively duller compared to other parts of the Tower because the people working here prefer talking to robots using lines of codes to their vocal cords.
“Mr Stark!” a motherly looking, middle-aged lady pops up from the reception counter – Mrs Abrogast herself, Steve notes. Says so on the well-preserved, laminated staff ID hanging from her lanyard. Her ballet shoes tap smartly on the polished floor as she makes a beeline towards them, a hefty stack of documents in her arms. All of which she promptly pushes into Steve’s chest.
“Bambi!” Tony grins widely at her. “New haircut?”
“Hold ‘em for Mr Stark, would you? Thank you.” She turns to Tony. “That’s everything you asked for. List of the Expo’s presenter this Saturday. You might want to look at the blue folder first.”
“Yeah? What is it about? A time machine? A teleporter?”
“That’s Hammer Industries’ proposal.”
“Hammer? Hammer made it to the list?”
“The committee agrees to give him a slot,” she shrugs. “I think you’ll find their presentation interesting.”
Tony lifts a brow and picks out the blue folder, the only one among the other browns that Steve’s cradling in his arms. A couple of flips through the pages and a long, hard stare at the attached technical drawing later, he suddenly takes off to the elevator – the one they’d just exited from.
“Tony,” Steve hurries after him, “your meeting with the software team is –”
“Reschedule it for later,” Tony barely spares a glance at Steve. “Hash it out with Phillip. He’ll talk to the rest.”
While Steve types his memo, Tony buries his nose in that folder, and whatever information those pieces of paper hold, they’ve got to be something huge. Tony would never otherwise lock the elevator so it goes straight to his office suite. Something about being CEO – or ex-CEO – doesn’t justify his hogging of public facilities.
“Your meeting is postponed to tomorrow’s lunch –”
“Look at this.”
The door opens and they spill into the empty hallway. By the time they’re seated around Tony’s desk, Steve’s read enough of the proposal to share Tony’s look of mixed shock and apprehension.
“Suits of armour. They don’t look the same like Iron Man, but –”
“Inferior design and workmanship, is what I can deduce from the material included here.” Tony crosses one leg over a knee. “Think about what Iron Man can do. Think about the AI, the firepower and its flight capabilities. What sets Iron Man apart from these knock-off wannabes?”
Steve thumbs to the next page. It’s another schematic, roughly drawn with barely any accompanying notes, but he recognises the arc reactor the instant he sees it.
“The power source,” Steve looks up at Tony. “No matter how perfectly made a suit is, without a powerful enough battery –”
“It’s as good as a Gundam collectible. Yes.” Tony chews his fingernail. “Vanko.”
“You think he sold his tech to Hammer?”
“I certainly suggested him to it. Maybe not to Hammer per se…” Tony stares far into New York’s skyline, the whirring in his mind almost palpable in the room.
“It’s done, Tony. The repulsor tech is not patented, so unless you prove that Hammer stole the tech from Vanko – not likely to be the case –”
“Now everybody can have nukes of their own,” Tony shakes his head. “Should’ve burnt my schematics after I got out. I knew this is going to happen one day.” He stands and walks to the minibar. “It’s over.”
“But it’s only a copy, isn’t it?” Steve studies the arc reactor again, re-reading every sparse sentence that he finds on the page. “Maybe it’s a hypothetical fuel cell.”
“You really believe that –”
“I’m saying, we may be jumping the gun here.” Steve closes the folder and places it on the desk. “Wait for Saturday. Watch his presentation and decide for yourself if those suits are powered by the repulsor tech or not.”
Tony doesn’t reply, but he’s staring daggers at Steve, and behind those irises Steve see anger, frustration, and he gets it. Everything that Tony’s trying to prevent from happening – putting his life on the line protecting – has all gone to hell. Technology that he swears are too advanced that the world isn’t yet ready for is already here.
What then is left of Tony’s legacy, but a suit of armour around the world? A tomorrow ruled by fear. Power in the hands of those in possession of the repulsor tech. What is left, but a cold, unforgiving world?
Troubling times are like prolonged draught. Tony gets so thirsty, and the sight of his well-stocked liquor cabinet is so tantalising. Like a siren calling, beckoning him to unlock the God damn door and pour himself a glass. He can start with a beer. What, there’s barely five percent alcohol by volume in that thing. He might as well pour his beer into a sippy cup because come on, where’s the vodka? His stash of bourbon?
Then, Steve’s phone rings.
Tony breaks his gaze from the bottles and goes to the sink.
“Yes, he’s here,” Steve speaks into his phone. Tony runs the tap and splashes water onto his face. “Hang on. Tony? It’s Miss Potts.”
He takes the call.
“Tony? Why aren’t you answering your phone?”
“I’m uh… a bit tied up with the Expo.” Steve clasps his shoulder firmly and walks out his office door. Alone, he drops onto his couch and lies flat on his back, his legs dangling off the arm rest by his knees. “What is it?”
“The Expo? Don’t you have a department of people hired solely to manage the Expo?”
“Yeah, but the laissez faire approach blows, Pep. This is important. Bambi’s just catalogued the list of presenters and I’m thinking of going through each of them –”
“I understand what the Expo means to you. Look, that’s a Saturday event, and your birthday party is a tomorrow event, so maybe you want to rearrange your priorities in chronological order?”
“Tomorrow?” Tony rubs his eyes with his knuckles. “Already?”
“Yes. Funny how it goes. Always the same day every year.”
“Pepper, I don’t think… how about we treat the Expo like a birthday celebration? It’ll be fun. We can have longer firework shows or something.”
“Tony, but –”
“Doesn’t it make more sense to bring people together celebrating a purpose? Let the kids see what the future holds for them. We’re revolutionising an entire industry, and the Expo is the gateway. What can possibly top that?”
Pepper is quiet, and Tony is about to flip the scoreboard to give himself a one, until she says, “We throw the party every year. Just because you’re not CEO anymore doesn’t change the fact – and those folders you got from Bambi? I’ve gone through them yesterday. They’re primarily defence projects. Iron Man itself is positioned as pro-hostility – no, don’t argue with me Tony, Senator Stern has been all over your case since D.C. – and a press conference is neither appropriate nor is it likely to clear up this PR mess. It’s just a party, Tony. You’ve always enjoyed them, I promise this one isn’t going to be any different.”
Tony cups his eyes with his palm. “Pepper, I can’t.”
“We need you on the forefront again, Tony. As a person. The party humanises you. Jet yourself over to Malibu by tomorrow evening. We’ll handle the rest.”
There’s a click and she’s gone, and Tony wants nothing more but to get back to work.
“Sir.” It’s JARVIS this time. “You should be drinking the first two-fifty mil of your tonic. There is one in the fridge.”
Tony sits up. “Haven’t I cleared the fridge – JARVIS, this office isn’t mine anymore, it’s Pepper’s, and I’m only borrowing it because she’s in Malibu tearing my house apart so she could pitch a party tent on the foundations. What happened to our deal about keeping this hush-hush? What if she finds out?”
“… To be honest, Sir, it might be best to inform Miss Potts of your condition –”
“I will,” Tony shoots back, marching to his fridge. “Later.”
“The tonic is prepared earlier by Captain Rogers. He kept the tumblers in the fridge while you were on the line with Miss Potts.”
Sure enough, there are five tumblers on the rack, each labelled clearly with dates and times in Steve’s handwriting.
“Christ,” Tony pops one out and sniffs it. Steve did follow the atrocious recipe to a T. He takes a gulp, and another until the tumbler is empty, and he makes sure JARVIS have the entire office on lockdown, the lights dimmed to twenty percent, and himself stowed away safely in his bathroom.
After the lunch meeting with his software development team, he prowls the cafeteria hunting for a third cup of coffee.
Steve is already in the queue, and then he isn’t when Tony waves at him.
“Hey,” he greets.
“You don’t have to get out of your line – it’s peak hour.”
“I’ve some time.”
“… You’re dallying. At work. You, and you’re telling that straight to my face?” And Steve looks like he’s just caught shoplifting red-handed. Good God. Captain America, ladies and gentlemen. “It’s a joke. Recognise a joke when you see one, Rogers. Here,” Tony returns the phone he’s borrowed in the morning. “Thank you. I think your battery is half-dried. I was thinking about hooking it up to my reactor – that is also a joke. By the way, you’re invited.”
“My birthday party.”
“What I said. We’re leaving for Malibu again – I know, I’m really sorry, it’s not my idea – by midnight.”
When midnight strikes, they’re already midway through their flight, and Steve wishes Tony happy birthday over two glasses of orange juice. It’s the first birthday wish he’s received this year. And they drink to Tony’s health, clanging the rims of their glasses together.
The rest of the flight is spent in silence.
“Happy birthday, Tony!”
That is all Steve hears as he zigzags his way around the crowd. Someone looks at him funny, he averts his eyes to the nearest pillar. It’s still far too early for boozing but boozing is all the guests have done – he walks past a particularly rowdy group trying to stop them from pawing the Jackson Pollock with their grubby paws, succeeds, and has his butt groped as a reward.
It’s going to be a long night.
“Steve,” Pepper sidles to his side wearing a classy, sleeveless black dress and a charming smile. Her green eyes bring out the shine in the golden chains hanging from her neck. “How are you?”
“Good, thank you. We still have a number of security details to take a look at before we open up the Expo this Saturday. Since Vanko’s attack –”
“You’re preparing for a terrorist attack at the Expo?”
“I’d rather err on the side of caution, Miss Potts.”
“… Very hardcore.”
A booming sound blasts through the speakers. Somebody coughs into the microphone, “Is this thing on?” followed by a raucous cheer of “Tony!” and “Blow something up!”
“No, honey, I want to have a roof intact over my head after the party’s over.”
Pepper sighs and wearily, she rubs the bridge of her nose. “Jesus Christ.”
Steve feels like facepalming himself as Tony does a weird jig on the platform he’s standing on. “Is he drunk?”
“I thought I’d locked the liquor cabinet and thrown the key into the Pacific.”
Steve sighs audibly when Tony turns around. His back against the crowd, his arms stretched, and he falls back onto a bed of waving arms. He’s crowd-surfing.
“Should we do something about this?”
“It’s Tony Stark’s birthday party. This is par for the course.”
The people cheer, so Tony cheers, too into his mic, and the guy standing next to Steve nudges his elbow and says, “Pretty wild, isn’t it? Whoo!”
Steve gives him a wry smile. He gives Steve two thumbs up.
“All right, fellas,” Tony booms into his mic again, “Send me back!”
Once again standing on solid ground, he straightens his clothes and grins.
“Thank you all for coming! It’s not every day a guy turns forty!”
Steve shifts subtly where he stands, his sleeve brushing against Pepper’s arm. Despite all the death-inciting habits Tony adopts and won’t swear off, he really doesn’t look the age. Steve sighs again when he remembers how SHIELD trainees won’t stop talking about Captain America’s real age: ninety-three.
Steve doesn’t want to acknowledge the extra seventy years. They mean nothing but an endless void, anyway.
Tony’s almost twice his age.
“It’s a beautiful world we’re living in today, am I right, people?”
Steve’s left eardrum would’ve gone bust if not for the super soldier serum. Mr Wild Party has a mean roar and he’s roaring his throat off right next to Steve.
“A world crafted by our parents before us. And we’re supposed to care for it, nurture it, so we can pass it down to our children. But hey, what’s the fuss about, yeah? We’re doing a pretty decent job, aren’t we?”
Mr Wild Party goes “Yeah!”.
Then, Tony gingerly lowers himself onto the cuboidal audio speaker. He sits there, his mic in his lap, and he starts loosening his necktie.
“Can you hear me without the mic? The echoes are giving me a headache.”
He’s still smiling, and he calmly studies the congregation before him. His eyes eventually seek out Steve and Pepper, both pressed against the far wall, away from the craziest attendance of the party. His smile widens.
“It’s a responsibility we’re saddled with from the very beginning. We can whine all we want, about how we didn’t even ask to be born. Then God help us, think about the people we love. The people we call home.” He folds his hands in his lap. “There was a time when polio kills.” Tony looks pointedly at Steve. “Thanks to Dr Jonas Salk, we’re protected against the virus after he invented the vaccine, which he then proceeded to… not patent it.”
Tony stands up again. He sways, but catches himself quickly enough that nobody notices.
Nobody but Steve and Pepper. They stand straighter, and Pepper grips her purse tighter.
“Knowledge empowers the people. Knowledge is power. And as with all forms of power, it has no moral alignment – I guess, what I’m saying is, knowledge is only as good as the people who wield it. And there is no better Master to this power than the common people, you guys who collectively make up the world that we have today.
“Please understand, that power in the hand of the select few – the elites, the so-called chosen ones – just means that we’re so much closer to midnight on the doomsday clock.”
“With due respect, Mr Stark,” a lady wearing her dirty blonde hair in a bun raises her hand to draw Tony’s attention, “Do you mean that you’re releasing the specs on the Iron Man suit, or at least, as Senator Stern suggests a month ago, turning over the suit to the US government?”
“I… can’t do that,” and dull chatters break out in clumps in the foyer. “Neither Iron Man nor the repulsor tech is patented for security reasons. Already, as you’ve learned from the insightful hearing in D.C., military R and D around the world are actively researching similar designs. Don’t you see it? The repulsor tech can mean so much more, but in the wrong hands and minds, all it’s going to be good for is making another murderbot. Swing by the Expo this Saturday – for the uninitiated, it’s in Flushing – and see for yourself in what other ways can we improve our future with these tech advances.”
“Sir,” a youngish man whom Steve recognises as an intern working on level thirty-two raises his hand. “If the suit of armours are, by your admission, the wrong way of using the repulsor tech, then why did you build Iron Man in the first place?”
And Tony searches deep inside him for an answer. After building Mark I, after avenging Yinsen and Gulmira, after all that, he could’ve been done with the superhero-ing. No more living on the edge. Surprisingly, the truth comes easily to him. He’s always known it to be right, deep down in his heart.
“But, Mr Stark –”
“Isn’t this hypocritical, that the one deciding how Iron Man is used is Stark Industries –”
“Or yourself, as Iron Man –”
“How are you the better decision maker than the government of the United States?”
“There are rumours that the government is going to confiscate those suits –”
Pepper wedges her purse under her arm. “This has to stop. Steve, follow me.”
She excuses herself as she pushes past the crowd, carving her own passage with the grace and ease of an NFL quarterback. With Steve hot on her heels, they step onto the platform, flanking Tony. Pepper eases the mic from his hand, all smiles and glitters with an extra glare at Tony that says “or else”.
“Does this guy know how to throw a party or what?”
The crowd breaks into another wave of subdued murmurs. Hands are still shooting up in the air, either with questions or insults, ready to crucify Tony with his bluffs. Pepper nods at Steve, he steers Tony off the platform – the crowd’s too confused and angry and loud, he can’t hear Tony protesting his manhandling – and up the staircase.
“Tony, we all thank you so much for such a wonderful night. And we’re gonna say good night now and thank you all for coming.”
The discords meld into ringing silence once the bedroom door closes behind them.
“You guys are…” Tony props his chin up on his knuckles, elbows pressing into knees, “mad.” Pepper stops her pacing and turns acutely to him, who’s seated on the edge of his bed. “Pissed?”
Something comes crashing down downstairs – glass on tiles. Pepper squeezes her eyes. “Understatement of the year, Tony.”
“All things considered, I think I did OK! You wanted me to clarify my stand on Iron Man and the repulsor tech, it worked, didn’t it? Redirect their focus on good tech. It was a PR success!”
“It was a PR disaster! You shouldn’t have mentioned any of those. Talk about your mother’s foundation, perhaps. Or the other charity programmes – leave the science to the Expo.”
Something else smashes against the wall. Pepper rolls her eyes and promptly stalks to the door, where Steve intercepts her gently by her shoulder.
“I’ll take care of that.” He looks over her shoulder at Tony, and subtly shakes his head.
“Tony,” Pepper begins with a tone that frequently precedes her first point of Tony-Stark’s-latest-screw-ups. “You should know better. You don’t go shooting yourself in the toe in front of all your strategic political and economic allies, at your birthday party!”
“Pepper, what I said was important. They need to understand the importance of altruistic technology –”
“Which sets you up in a very hypocritical position! The people are right. What you’re saying and doing are two completely different things. You won’t share your tech with anyone, not the NGO, not the government, neither are you selling it in any forms. You’re hoarding your tech. That makes you the one in possession of power, the elite, the chosen –”
“The suit will be destroyed, the arc reactor, too and the schematics for the repulsor tech will be given to… someone trustworthy for safeguarding. Until the world is ready for the responsibility.”
Pepper cups her cheeks, so close to straight out pulling her hair around her ears. “Unbelievable!”
“Look, we can put this in simpler term. I’m just one person, Pep. You’ve known me for the longest of time. You can make poetry out of my endless list of character flaws. I’m not a superhero.”
“You’re a taxpayer, Tony.” The bed shifts as she sits beside Tony. Their shoulders touch, and he wants to lean into her warmth so bad. “They’re your stuff, anyway. You can do whatever you want with them. But as for giving up Iron Man… I hope you’ve thought long and hard about it.”
“… I thought you disagree with my Iron Man-ing.”
“Alone, as a part-time vigilante? Yeah, you’re only going to get yourself killed someday. But there’s got to be another way. A better way.”
Tony huffs, “Yeah. Been spending some time thinking about ‘a better way’.”
“… You’ll figure it out.”
“Over here. Don’t bother with the lights. I’ve got a stupid headache coming up.”
“Is Miss Potts still around?”
“She left a while ago. Didn’t you see her on your way in?”
Steve closes the door and steps lightly towards the window. Tony is occupying an armchair, looking every bit dishevelled and depressed. He takes his feet off the footstool, so Steve sits on it.
“You heard the people, Steve. They’re not ready – I know,” he waves his hand impatiently, “Arrogant of me to judge them just because they asked me a few questions that frankly, don’t sit well with me. Can you imagine what’s gonna happen when the tech gets released to the public? Only those with resources – the intellect and facilities – to build this will build this, and then what? Sell it exorbitantly to equally privileged people? It’s a perpetual battery cell, it’ll throw the energy market off the reels. Oil and gas, wind farms, solar companies – and that’s not even touching the suits.”
“What do you have in mind?”
Tony takes a long, deep breath. “Exactly what I told Pepper. I’m destroying the suits, all of them. Grind them to dust, bury ‘em in cement and launch them into space. Same goes for this,” he points at his chest. “The arc reactor’s got to go.”
“Don’t you need that to… stay alive?”
“Yeah, but soon, that’s not going to be an issue.” Tony gets up and steps around Steve, who seizes him firmly about the elbow, halting him dead in his track.
“Have you told Miss Potts?”
“… Couldn’t bring myself to.”
“Tony, you can’t keep delaying this –”
“It’s unfair to unload this – burden on her – that’s what it is, because she can’t help, you can’t help – and it’s mine to bear. I didn’t ask for it, neither did any of you, but if I can spare you…”
Steve pulls at Tony’s arm, and when he’s certain Tony isn’t resisting, he draws Tony in. After one long minute, after standing there like idiots hugging for the first time not quite sure what to do with their spare limbs, Tony eventually sags and rests his forehead against Steve’s shoulder.
It’s easier this way.
“I… truly believe that one day, the repulsor tech will transform this world. But, until that day arrives,” Tony grips Steve’s arm, “I’m giving it to you. So, take care of it. Don’t douche it up with SHIELD, or I swear I’ll come back and haunt your ass.”
“… Do you have a thing for talking morbid on your birthday?”
“If this was the last birthday party you were ever gonna have, how would you celebrate it?”
“Tony, it’s going to be fine.”
“… I’ll sit on the steps of Capitol Hill, watch the fireworks and listen to the drunk singing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’.”
“That’s what usually happens on my birthday.”
Tony clamps his hands over Steve’s shoulders like a koala bear on the Eucalyptus. “… You smell nice.”
“I’ve no idea what it is. It’s in the clothes, I think. Miss Potts got everything laid out, I just… put them on.”
“… I need it.”
Fingers dig deeper into Steve’s shoulders. “You.” Tony pushes himself away. He stands his ground, and his gaze into Steve is absolute. “Another favour?”
Five seconds roll by and Tony’s sure Steve’s going to laugh it off and awkwardly excuse himself from the bedroom.
Then, Steve’s face approaches, their breaths mixing as one, and he feels the first brush of Steve’s dry lips on his.
A lingering touch, the tips of their nose brushing, and through the crack of his eyelids, Tony can almost count the washed-out freckles on Steve’s cheek. They break apart then, and Steve’s voice is low, rumbling, “OK?”
Tony claims those dusty lips once more, and he leans into it, hands rising to cup along Steve’s jaw. Steve pulls him closer, and it’s exactly this – this proximity of holding someone in his arms, to remind him that this is what being alive feels like. Their kisses grow into something more, something bolder, and there isn’t time for petty breaths. Tongues darting and sliding past, lewd as it is ravenous, and Tony pulls back.
Whatever comes tonight, it’ll be all right because Steve’s here.
Steve’s arms wrap around his waist, and he’s lifted – what the hell – and pressed headily against the window. It’s reinforced glass – bulletproof, Pepper and JARVIS both insisted on it – but the way Steve’s pinning him against it, chests flushed, lips locking, falling into the Pacific will be worth it.
“How much did you drink?” Steve asks – for no effing reason, is this really the time? – as his mouth travels down the side of his neck instead. Tony winces when teeth bite into flesh. That’s bound to leave some markings.
“Uh,” Tony rewinds his memory. Steve suckles on his collarbone. “A glass of fruit punch? I think that’s what on the table.”
“… Did you take the tonic?”
“No. Save the scolding for later, yeah? Now’s not –”
Steve grips him painfully tight by his biceps and grinds his hip into Tony’s. Tony freezes, sandwiched between what’s got to the be the most righteous erection ever and his bedroom window.
Steve eases off him somewhat. “Tony,” all signs of rawness gone in that one word. “Tell me,” his fingernails forming little crescents in Tony’s flesh, “Are you sure about this?”
“Then,” he looks away, so all Tony sees is blonde hair and a pale earlobe, “comes morning, what are we?”
Tony studies Steve – whatever he can see from here – his perfumed collar, the stretch of his white dress shirt across muscled chest, the slight flush in his cheek. “… What do you want from this? From me?”
A small sound erupts deep in Steve’s throat, and his Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows. He looks up at Tony again and smiles, “Nothing.”
Then, why does he look so sad?
He kisses Tony again, and this time it’s tender, that as he lingers, Tony feels the warmth seeping into his body. His own heart drums painfully against his ribs. No tongue, no spit – just, Steve, bared and wanting.
Tony pulls at his sleeve. “Steve, it’s over for me. Look at me.” Tony waits until he’s gazing direct into blue eyes, and he tugs at his collar, exposing the other side of his neck, the side that Steve hasn’t tasted, hasn’t seen. “Look at this.” His jugular is black, cleverly hidden beneath clothes. The veins are branching out, and a thin tendril is already reaching his right ear. Steve lets out a shaky sigh, and his tears break free from the well in his eyes. “It’s over for me. And you’ve so much more to look forward to.”
“… Don’t give up,” Steve whispers, “not ever.”
“My body’s failing. Breathing hurts. Crying hurts. Listen, this is important – my will has been updated, and it’ll take care of Pepper, Rhodey – he’s my buddy, a good man, I wish you two could’ve met – the company, the Foundation… you’re in there, too – I know, but let me, OK? Let me have this. It’s the least I can do.”
“This is your goodbye?”
“Hey, chin up, Cap,” Tony tries working up a smile. “It’s a privilege. Not everybody has the chance.”
Steve breathes in deeply, wetly, Tony thumbs away the tear tracks under his eyes. “Thank you.” Steve takes his wrist and presses his lips against the pulse. “Thank you, for staying.”
Not many have.
And that’s how Tony single-handedly ruined the perfect opportunity for bedding Steve Rogers on his fortieth birthday. They hold onto each other, close, because there may be no tomorrow. Steve’s arms are wrapped so tightly around him that he’s afraid he’s going to lose his shit, too – that if Steve’s not ready to let go…
So, he lets Steve cry on his behalf. He’s done, so done. He’s bone-tired trying to squirrel his way out of this one, alas! Close, but no cigar!
“It’s gonna be all right, Steve,” he mumbles, and pats Steve around his back.
It takes a while for their breathing to even out and be drowned by the tick-tock of an analogue alarm clock. At this rate, they’re both going to be falling asleep standing – that’ll be a sight – and Tony shifts. “Well, it’s close to midnight, I think? What’re we gonna do?”
“… Go fish?”
“Come on,” Tony does it first, slowly easing himself from Steve’s embrace. “By the way, do you still want to… you know…” He raises a brow knowingly, and Steve laughs. That’s it. That’s what Tony wants to remember Steve by. The ringing laughter, the wrinkles by his eyes as he goes.
“No,” he shakes his head. “No. Do you?”
“Shame on me, but no.”
“… What time does the sun rise nowadays?”
“Six. Why, you wanna sit around waiting for it?”
“… We have time.”
Steve repositions the couch like it weighs nothing so it faces the window. They strip down to their slacks and dress shirt – an hour later Steve removes that too, and is happy to recline in his seat wearing his sleeveless undershirt – and they wait. Tony watches the waves beating the sand, rhythmically, and he starts nodding off.
“I’ve been wondering for a while,” Steve suddenly speaks, and Tony jolts awake. “Why won’t you let me fight as Captain America?”
“Because… you’re an undercover SHIELD agent?”
“… Yes. But it really doesn’t matter now, does it? You’re my target, and you knew, so my secret hasn’t been a secret for a while.”
“Point.” Tony stretches his legs, his joints creaking away like an unoiled sewing machine. “This superhero gig isn’t all glamour and glitter, as it turns out to be.” Steve snorts at the admission. “The moment I outed myself as Iron Man, I’d also installed a neon pink signboard saying ‘come-get-me-if-you-can’ right above my head. And I thought it was fine, because… you know, it’s just me and my macho swagger.” Tony’s lips tugged at a corner. “No family, no friends – well, I do care about quite a few people, but none of those relationships are public enough, but the point is, I’ve nothing for them to use as leverage. I thought, the conditions were just right, you know? We don’t need another neon red, blue and white signboard, really.”
“The world’s marched on since the forties, Tony. I don’t know if the shield is relevant anymore.”
“Ah,” Tony leans subtly in, his arm resting against Steve’s. “Well, sometimes the world needs a little old-fashioned.”
When the first gleam of orange peeks out from the horizon, Steve stirs and looks over to Tony, who’s since fast asleep. Steve’s draped his duvet over him, and propped his head gently against Steve’s chest. Tony did mumble something as he was arranged and moved, but that was some four hours ago.
Steve caresses the side of Tony’s face with his knuckles, urging him to wake.
“Sun’s up, Tony.”
Tony lies there, content and unmoving against Steve. No matter how hard Steve shakes him and whispers his name in his ears, his eyes are adamantly closed, dark lashes against his cold, pallid cheek.
“Tony, wake up. Come on, don’t do this –”
Tony’s chin slips against the soft fabric of Steve’s undershirt. He sags sideways, and blood drips freely from his nose. The first of morning ray shines upon his forehead, still he lies asleep. Like a sparkplug igniting, Steve immediately scoops Tony in his arms, when –
“Captain Rogers,” the bedroom speaks, too loud in the crack of dawn, “there’s supplemental oxygen in the basement. Set Sir up in the chair and follow my instructions.”
“OK…” Steve heaves Tony up more securely as he makes for the stairs. “Basement?”
The sight of Tony after all is said and done is far from comforting. Steve has to turn up the temperature after he divested Tony of his shirt and slapped sensors around his heart. The oxygen mask that he slips on carefully over Tony’s mouth and nose begins to fog as he draws shallow breaths, and Steve collapses onto a stool, somewhat relieved that he’s bought Tony some time.
He speed-dials Fury.
“Nick, please tell me you have a cure.”
“Not yet. Come back later. Tell him to just keep drinking whatever it is he’s drinking –”
“He can’t be roused. I’m afraid – you got to have something, Nick.”
“Captain Rogers,” Dr Streiten’s voice is commanding, “what is Mr Stark’s percentage toxicity? Have you checked?”
“Ninety-five.” The white chip sits on the table marred only with Tony’s drop of blood – a tad blackish to Steve’s eye. Could be his imagination.
“Director, he’s running out of time.”
“I understand it’s not a cure, Dr –”
“What do you have?” Steve interrupts. It’s only a matter of time before Tony’s vitals deteriorate.
“Captain, it’s not a cure, just something to abate the symptoms.”
“… Bring them over.”
Tony wakes up to bright, white light. His bed is far too narrow and plastic to the touch. He twitches, and there’s an unfamiliar pull in his wrist. Rough PVC armrest under his elbows. A dentist chair, then? He blinks once, twice – and lets himself a few seconds to adjust his vision to – holy shit –
“Welcome back, Stark.”
“Oh God,” Tony coughs, his throat too dry from lack of use. “Get out of my face, Nick.” He swallows thickly and quickly resorts to closing his eyes again when things remain stubbornly blur. “Is this hell? Just can’t leave me alone, can you?”
“Hey, stay awake,” warm, callous palm closes around his non-intubated wrist. Tony frowns at it. “We got you.”
“Take it easy.”
“… How long was I out?” His mouth tastes like roadkill.
“Half an hour.”
“We got here in time,” Fury says, and Tony blinks his eyes open again, grateful to find his vision finally clearing up. “Congratulations, Stark. Blood palladium has dropped to seventy-five percent. Your body is responding well to our compound. We expect it to drop further to fifty by dinner time.”
Seventy-five? Tony groans tightly and cradles his face with his free hand. “You’ve been holding out on me, Fury. What is it?”
“… Lithium dioxide.”
Tony gives his woolly head a bit of a shake. “Come on, what d’you take me for… lithium’s valency makes it impossible for –”
“It’s almost impossible to manufacture under Earth’s atmospheric conditions. Almost, Stark. We only had enough time to make so much.” Fury pulls a cigar box from the inside of his trench coat and opens the lid. Tony counts five syringes arranged parallel to each other.
“Great. What’s the recipe?” he winces. Steve’s fingers curl tighter into his flesh. “I’ll make my own.”
“… Lithium dioxide isn’t a cure. It’s just a much more efficient palladium chelator. Observe the difference between a team of world’s leading chemists versus an engineer playing Masterchef Junior in his kitchen.”
“OK, you win. What’s next, then?”
As if on cue, his heart prickles and he gasps, black dots crowding the edge of his sight. A knot forms between Fury’s eyes, black eyes fixated on him – with concern? – before he squeezes his own shut.
“Nick, what’s going on?” Steve’s taken his hand fully in him. As the burn in his heart intensifies, he clenches his fingers, vaguely reassured that at least, Steve’s digits would survive the ordeal.
“This is next, I’m afraid.” Someone drops blankets on him. Cold sweat starts beading near his hairline.
“Please tell me you’ve given this first to a mouse –” Tony groans tightly, “or a rabbit –”
“… You’re the first.”
“Oh God,” his fist leaves Steve’s and flies to his arc reactor. “You don’t know if this is even gonna work?”
“It’s an unfortunate side effect, Stark. You remember, during the earlier stage of the poisoning, this happened frequently, didn’t it? Then, it stopped. As the poisoning progressed, your nerves became damaged, so you don’t feel pain – this is part of the recovery process, I’m sorry.”
This would be so much easier if he were a freaking masochist. He pants as he rides out the agony, Steve and Fury hovering mere inches about him. Someone please do him a solid and clock him squarely in his jaw, bet Fury would like to have the honour.
“It’ll be all right, Tony,” Steve, a constant beacon of optimism by his side. “We got you.”
The next time he wakes, it’s dark outside the windows. He’s somewhat alone in his workshop, and by alone it means that for the first time today, nobody’s actively occupying his personal space. There are murmured conversations going on in his vicinity, so he sits up straighter in his dentist chair. This seat clearly needs more padding, either that or he’s getting too old for it… and here they come, hurried footsteps and worry, worry, worry…
“It’s down to fifty percent.”
“… Oh? It actually works?”
Tony watches them going back and forth over the science of the arc reactor poisoning his bloodstream, like they’re the foremost scientists to go to when it comes to curing a first-time-in-medical-history. Tony clears his throat once and fidgets because his butt cheeks are cramping up – seriously, more padding for the dentist chair – and they’re still talking over his head like he’s not there.
“Gentlemen, hey,” short of clapping his hands to get their attention, Tony clears his throat again. Nick shoots him a glare while Steve studies the IV bag. “Dinner time, right? I can smell garlic on your breath, Nick. Got something for me?”
“… You seem pretty sprightly for a man on his death bed.”
“Did I disappoint you?”
“Too soon, Stark.”
Steve wheels the IV closer and lifts Tony’s intubated arm. “Hold on to this,” he says, and Tony raises his you-got-to-be-kidding brow. “Can you walk? We can move you to the table.”
And. What. The. Hell.
“OK, this is – I’m hyperventilating,” Tony crosses the distance in a few quick limps, his IV stand squeaking in tow. His favourite workbench – the one with a brand new soldering set and a hot plate he’d spent half an hour scrapping paint off – has been transformed into a buffet spread. “What is this?” He picks up a wax paper packet between his thumb and forefinger like a pincer and looks at it, aghast. “Rogers, what the hell is this?”
“… Your sandwich. We were heating it up –”
“On my hot plate? The surface temp is hot enough to keep metal malleable – God, I am hyperventilating –”
“Out. Get out of my workshop. Clear the damn table – we’re eating upstairs.”
Steve climbs the stairs at half the pace he’s used to, following in Tony’s track in case he needs to catch a body when it falls. He’s glad that Tony’s up and about and motormouth-ing whenever there’s two seconds of silence, but who is he trying to kid? Fury would never allow such insubordination, yet here he is, taking every jab that comes his way like a champ. And Steve. Really. Tony makes off-colour remarks at the most insignificant thing, trying to get a rise from either of them, and all he gets in return are silent glares and shallow frowns.
The IV stand that Tony has insisted on carrying himself wobbles and instinctively, Steve reaches out to steady it. Tony mutters a “Thanks” and does not wrestle for it back. A character improvement, what are the odds? Bringing up the rear is Fury, who promptly sighs audibly.
Like he said, who does Tony think he’s kidding?
“And what in pluperfect hell is that?”
Steve and Fury lay out their half-eaten dinner over the coffee table, ignoring Tony who’s inspecting a humongous iron-clad crate occupying a good amount of floor space in his hall. He tries to lift the lid, shift it around – all to no avail. Giving up, he plops into the nearest chair and wipes away the sweat on his forehead with the back of his hand.
“Tony, your sandwich – head’s up.”
Steve flings his pocket sandwich across the space, over the coffee table, over the mysterious crate, and it lands nicely in Tony’s lap.
Steve counts two bites off the sandwich before Fury drops the brick, “It’s high time you learn the truth about last two months’ events.”
Tony’s mouth stops moving. Steve notices a subtle shift in his eyes, but he quickly resumes his eating. “No shit. Why tell me now?” He licks away stray mayonnaise from his lips. “Why tell me anything at all? Kinda against your usual MO.”
“You’re a man of outstanding intelligence, Stark.” Tony’s eyes narrow, but he doesn’t speak. “So, let’s cut to the chase. We need you back on your feet and ready for work.”
Tony averts his armour-piercing gaze sideway – on Steve – and he feels his mouth go dry.
“OK,” Tony rewraps his sandwich. “You’ve lost me my appetite. Thrill me.”
“How ‘bout this? Let me tell you what I think you’ve already deduced to be true. You believe I planted Rogers by your side to entice you into joining the Avengers.”
Tony snorts. “If I were wrong on that one, I’d shave my moustache.”
“You’re right. I was hoping Captain America would remind you of what your father fought for in his time.”
“See? What did I tell you, Rogers?” Tony spares an accusing glance at Steve. “And you think I’d give a damn to what my dad did in the past? Here’s a hint. I don’t.”
“He’s also here to assess your suitability for the Initiative.”
“… So, you’re assessing me for a job I don’t want, behind my back?”
“If you want to put it that way…”
“More importantly,” Fury presses on, “we have concerns about Ivan Vanko, but we didn’t want to alarm you with maybe’s, so we assigned Rogers on his first mission: protect you at all cost.”
“Right. Did you know about this from the start?” Even from here, Steve sees the way Tony’s chest is heaving with the exertion, with the newfound revelation of how he’s been played – worst case scenario – for two whole months.
“OK.” Have Tony’s eyes gone colder? “Why is SHIELD interested in a no-namer like Vanko?”
“Because of the bad blood between his father, Anton and Howard. Because Ivan wants you dead, and we need you otherwise. This,” Fury places a holograph pad on the coffee table and switches it on. Newspaper cutting flits through the air one after another, headlines after headlines detailing the sordid affairs between the two families.
But, nothing in particular stands out. “He overstayed his visa, he got shipped back to Russia… where he manufactured weapons illegally… so he got shipped off to Siberia. Your everyday nine o’clock news.”
“The entire thing was a ruse. That light in your chest,” and Fury’s lone eye shifts to Tony’s arc reactor, “is a collaborative effort between Anton and Howard. Your father wanted to use it to revolutionise green energy for the greater good. Anton saw it as a way to get rich. When Howard found out, he had Anton deported. Anton promised the Russians a copy of the reactor. He couldn’t deliver. So, they shipped his ass off to Siberia where he spent the next twenty years in a vodka-fuelled rage. Not quite the environment you want to raise a kid in.”
“OK, I’ll bite. Doesn’t explain why SHIELD’s so enamoured of Dad’s work, though. What’s of his that SI isn’t already producing and marketing?”
“Obviously,” and Fury looks like he’s just met Tony for the first time. “The arc reactor.”
“… Have you seen the original reactor? It has never been particularly effective until I miniaturised it and put it in my –”
“That thing in your chest is based on unfinished technology.” Then, Fury slides something small and metallic across the coffee table, all the way to the far corner, and gestures for Tony to take it. Not bothering to hide his grimaces as he stands up and walks, he carefully collects the key and lets the coolness of it burn into his palm.
He lowers himself onto the crate. “What’s in this hunk of scrap metal?”
“I’m willing to bet that Howard either left you his personal journals or he hid parts of his experiment logs on some servers, so that when you take over SI, the knowledge returns to you.” Tony studies his key intently, his expression betraying nothing. “For better or worse, not all of them made it back. His lab in SHIELD’s HQ –”
“His lab in what HQ?”
“Let’s say the rest of his ongoing work was placed in our custody.”
“… The world wasn’t – probably still isn’t – yet ready for Howard’s brand of science. These are dangerous knowledge, Stark. In the wrong hands…”
“That’s just groovy. Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“Howard left you only the best of him –”
“No, this is typical Dad’s dick move, all right? He didn’t trust me not to screw up, he’d rather give it all away to some shady, underground organisation –”
“Or,” Fury interlaces his fingers over his knees. “Maybe he wanted his son to see him as a man who did not invent world-ending atomic bombs. Maybe,” Fury peers at Tony even more, it makes his skin crawl, “he wanted to protect you from this part of his life. From SHIELD.”
Tony smirks, and tersely he replies, “Bang up job on that one, by the way.”
“… What do you remember about your dad?”
“He was cold, he was calculating. He never told me he loved me. Never even told me he liked me – you’re talking about a guy whose happiest day was when he shipped me off to boarding school.” Tony looks like he wanted to say more, and his eyes just mechanically dart towards Steve – the same blue eyes he’d been looking at as lies after lies got thrown in his face – and God help him, the same blue eyes his father had squandered away his childhood for on a never-ending search mission.
“Stark,” Fury calls him, a tone lower than his conversational usual, and he’s holding out a piece of paper napkin. “Your nose is bleeding again.” Tony brusquely rubs away at his lips. “Your body is still healing. You got to calm down.”
“I am calm.” He takes Fury’s tissue, but doesn’t use it. “Isn’t this a wonderful digression. One more question, how does this,” he waves over the crate he’s sitting on, “connect to Ivan? I get that his dad had a pissing match with mine, but I guarantee you so had one thousand others. Why single out Vanko?”
Steve leans forward and activates a second switch on the holograph pad. Tony keeps his attention fixed on the graphics, knowing full well that Steve’s is burning into his forehead.
“SHIELD’s been working on Howard’s work for decades, and they’ve finally made some progress with this particular project.” Steve flicks the holograph, and a glowing cube swivels before them. “The Tesseract… was coveted by Red Skull in our time, and he wished to harvest its power to build weapons. Our scientists found remarkable similarities between the Tesseract’s radiation signature with Howard’s original reactor’s, and by chance, as we were gathering materials, we found one other individual with a near identical shopping list. Once we’d confirmed it was Ivan, we looked for possible connections with Howard, and Anton appeared to be the missing link. That’s how we knew he was on to you.”
“Which brings us to the one-million-dollar question,” Tony looks back at Fury, refusing again to meet Steve’s eyes, “What do you want from me? This lithium dioxide can’t be a freebie.”
“We want you to finish your father’s work.”
“… You want me to work on that,” he glances at the holographic cube, “the Tesseract.”
“Disregarding the other million-dollar question, which is what the hell is a Tesseract – why? What do you want it for? If –,” a muscle in his jawline twitch, “If Captain America had to stop the Skull from getting it, I don’t see what good can come from that.”
Fury’s lips stretch thinner. “You’ll see. Once you join us.”
Tony reaffirms his grip on his IV stand and makes to stand. Before he makes it past two steps, Fury swiftly says, “Understand at least one thing, Stark. SHIELD is Howard’s legacy. The fact that he hid this fact from you tells me that he doesn’t want you to have to do what he did. He was a great man, a dear friend, and one of the best I’ve had the privilege of working with. And for that, I respect his wish, which is why we had to keep you in the dark. If only for a bit longer. It’s the only way to ensure that you’re safe from Vanko and SHIELD. But I’m here regardless, because I’d like to show you our door. Walk through it if you want to, the offer still stands.” He reaches into his trench coat and pulls out the cigar box. “Consider this a favour from an old friend.” And he pushes it into Steve’s hands. “I’ll drink to your good health, Stark.”
He exits the mansion, leaving Steve and Tony in the deafening, roiling, silence.
Tony cocks his head at an angle, and curtly, he says, “A word, Steve. Upstairs.”
The ascend was arduous, and equally painful for both of them. Before they even got to the first landing, Tony suddenly stops and leans against the wall. His shoulders sag, and Steve stays where he is, three steps behind.
Neither say anything.
Then, they continue upward.
After three pauses – longer in the subsequence – Steve grabs the IV stand. That makes Tony freeze between step twelve and thirteen, and Steve decides that if they were going to be adults, the cold war has got to stop somehow.
“Let’s… let’s sit here? Let’s take a break?” Somebody’s got to make a chip at the wall first. Tony exhales, and slowly slides down, letting go of the IV stand completely for Steve to balance on the narrow step.
This is a good start. He half expects Tony to take a swing at his head with the metal rod, IV bag and wheels and all.
Steve counts a minute and fifteen seconds, and Tony still shows no sign of wanting to talk, despite initiating it in the first place. From where Steve is sitting, the side of Tony’s neck is visible, and is deeply relieved when he finds no sign of black veins in the jugular. The palladium poisoning is receding, and if in return it means losing this friendship?
Better than losing Tony for good.
“Tony,” Steve’s surprised at the sound of his own voice. It just happens, he doesn’t mean to end this so soon. Because that’s what it is. “The orders just came in. I’ve been reassigned to another unit, we’re going to bring Vanko in and seize his tech. The things in the crate… they belong to Howard. Fury’s confident that all you need to know to fix the arc reactor is in there. The instructions on using the lithium dioxide,” and Steve lifts the cigar box in his hand, “are printed on the lining of the case. They told me this should be enough to last you a week. If I know you, you’ll probably crack the puzzle before you hit the third syringe.”
Steve holds out the box, and Tony stares at it. Really stares at it like it’s the strangest box he’s ever seen, and slowly, he reaches for it, only to close his fingers around Steve’s wrist.
“… Is any of it real?”
Steve averts his eyes, unwilling to bear the weight under Tony’s own. “I withheld the truth – part of the truth, sometimes – because that was what the job required. The end does not justify the means. I believe in that, too. And every night, I told myself that… you knew anyway, so…”
“… Why are you here, Steve? Really.”
Something tells him “SHIELD asked me to” isn’t the right answer, and he vaguely understands what Tony means, between the truncated sentences and feigned indifference. And for that, he doesn’t reply.
“OK,” Tony quietly concedes. “Was it for Dad? Were you chasing a ghost, memories from the forties – am I a convenient memento of your past?”
“Tony, that kind of thinking is only going to hurt –”
“Or was it really for SHIELD? You’ve been busting ass keeping me alive because you were ordered to. Just another job, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not –”
“D’you know what gets me, Steve? It’s not about SHIELD prying into matters they don’t belong, or even the duplicitous nature of this entire affair. It’s this fucking charade that you’ve been keeping up since, that when it’s come to the very end, you still keep that mask on, because – what – this is the least painful way out? Break some hearts, Steve. I deserve at least the truth.”
Tony is still gripping his wrist like a vice. Steve doesn’t try to pull away.
“I woke up alone in a world so alien – they told me it was New York, but it sure didn’t feel like it. They might as well tell me I was in outer space. I’ve been on my own for a long time, Tony… and I know what to do with time when I’ve some to spare. I work with SHIELD because they gave me a purpose. Until I met you,” he looks up at Tony again, whose piercing hazel eyes are still set on him, “I thought, I can really make this work. Build a life I can call my own. You taught me that.” And he smiles wanly, one that Tony doesn’t return. “I never had the… privilege to – shall we say – do things for myself. Like, take the Saturday off and have brunch, visit the galleries and the parks in the evening. You – and the people of this generation, I suppose – made it worthwhile. It’s this… peace, liberty… and the future that we fought for in the past. Being able to see this with my own eyes… you showed me what more we can do for our children. You taught me that the fight is never over, even if we can’t fight it ourselves.”
Tony’s fingers tremble, and Steve casts down his eyes. “You’ve been a constant presence in my life, Tony. I value our friendship, and your company.” He swallows. “… And that’s the truth.”
The grainy surfaces of the cigar box scrapes over Steve’s palm as Tony eases it out of his grip. Then he reels Steve in, and Steve relents. Tony’s warm breath sail over his cheek. Their lips meet, and so do all else that remained unsaid and undone.
Steve misses it as Tony leans back.
There’s a hint of fingers tracing the curves of Steve’s jaws, and Tony whispers, “For me to remember you by.”
And… the main door slams shut.
Steve’s heart does another painful leap and he tears away from Tony, both men eyeing the door, mouths half-gaping, and Fury returns their glare, clearly unimpressed with… come to think of it, how long has he been standing there?
“Time-out, gentlemen.” He waves around a mini-tablet. “Update from Monaco Department of Prisons. Rogers,” and he nods pointedly at Steve, who nudges Tony’s shoulder with the IV stand, wordlessly asking him to hold it.
Tony takes it back and sits there on the step, watching Steve’s back as he descends. Has the talk concluded? Should he continue sitting and mopping, or should he lock himself in the lab and start working on the arc reactor?
From here, if he squints a little, he can still aim for the crown of Steve’s stupid blonde head with his semi-empty IV bag…
Fury either has no social tact, or is a closet sadist. “I ordered you to guard him, Rogers, not bed him.” Steve’s ears promptly turn a light shade of red. “At oh-three-hundred CET, Vanko’s prison cell was hit. No suspects identified currently. Plastic explosives. He didn’t make it,” Fury adds at Steve’s questioning look. “Is what they want us to think. They found a body in there – same built, same ID tag. No post-mortem ordered. So, we took the body back and did ours. Not a match.”
“A body double. Either this is part of Vanko’s escape plan –”
“Or someone else took him. Question is, what for?”
“… For the Expo,” Tony speaks up and he rises to his feet, using his IV stand and the wall as leverage. Leaning heavily on a leg, he continues, “Hammer’s presentation includes suits of armour. I know their tech capacities, they’re never really good at mechatronics. But, this time, the specs look decent – inferior to Iron Man, but there are similarities – and,” Tony’s voice hitches and the IV stand wavers, “and they’ve got arc reactors to power the suits.”
“Many others are duplicating the Iron Man tech, Stark. Hammer is no different.”
“No, Tony’s right,” Steve turns to Fury. “Nobody has built a workable suit because they don’t have the right fuel cell to power it.”
Tony slowly walks down the steps. “Hammer’s proposal comes with a rough schematic of the arc reactor.”
“At first, we suspect Vanko had simply sold his tech to Hammer.”
“We could be wrong. Maybe Hammer’s bought him, and he’s personally working on the suits.”
Fury’s lone eye grow narrower and narrower as he listens to speculation after speculation. They stop talking when that very eye is reduced to a slit, and hastily look away from one another.
“I can’t mobilise an army based on a fairy tale. How sure are you that Vanko is now working with Hammer?”
“Men like Vanko who have nothing to lose,” Tony feels his throat constrict, “the only thing driving them forward is their singular objectives, and his is to see Stark in ruins. He said he wanted payback.”
“The Expo?” Steve frowns.
“It’s where I’ll hit the hardest.”
Fury wets his chapped lip while glaring side-to-side at Steve and Tony, obviously considering if there’s a nugget of sensibility between the bull and its shit.
And his verdict?
“When’s the Expo, Stark?”
“Seventy-two hours, soldiers. Fix your heart,” Fury jabs his index finger at Tony’s chest, “and take care of Vanko.”
Once Fury is gone – again – they stand there in the hall, waiting. Something like five minutes later, and Fury’s still gone, so Steve asks, his voice just a cut above whispering, “Think he’s really not coming back?”
“… I guess so.”
“Is this a truce?”
“… I guess so.”
“… Are you OK?”
Tony turns the IV stand around and limps towards the crate. “Ask me that again and I will throw you out of my house, Steve.”
“You’re… not actively trying to murder Nick, are you?”
“… Why would I do that? Look,” Tony pulls out Fury’s key from his pack pocket. “Your enemy is my enemy, and that makes us allies – or something like that.”
He unlocks the crate and flips the heavy lid over, and an opaque cloud of dust spews right into his face. He coughs and clamps a hand over his mouth and nose, and wonders why the hell is Steve not moving his ass from there to here, because here is where the motherlode is.
“What are you waiting for? A red carpet?”
Tony spares him one short, meaningful look – whatever it is, it’s not frosty, and as short as it may be, it’s long enough for Steve.
He’s kneeling by the crate in an instant. “How can I help?”
The first sixteen hours went by swimmingly. Tony was Brain, and Steve his Pinky. Steve went through the pile of documents and catalogued them in a certain order. Sometimes, Tony wanted them chronologically sorted. Sometimes, he wanted them shredded to million pieces and incinerated.
Steve ignored those instructions. He stole them, hid them in a black thrash bag after promising Tony that they’d be delivered to the dumpsite pronto. They were mostly photographs, including a hefty album of young Howard in his workshop, a slightly older Howard courting Maria, Howard cradling baby Tony in his arms, a wide, toothy grin plastered on his face.
An assortment of family trinkets, a jumble in the black thrash bag.
As the clock crawled to midnight, Tony suddenly leaned heavily against the crate, a tight fist clutching his heart. Within seconds, the back of his shirt was drenched in cold sweat, and Steve loaded the syringe and shot the first cartridge of lithium dioxide into his jugular.
Tony was already unconscious by then.
Which is how Steve finds himself, alone, trawling through yellowed documents so ancient they feel like they’re about to disintegrate between his fingers. He checks on Tony every other minute, whom he had carefully laid out on the couch. It’s going to be one hell of a ride. Steve sighs and reaches into the crate again. The pile of journals Tony has managed to go through in the day is stacked high by the coffee table. An impressive feat, but at this rate, nothing short of a miracle can save him.
Tony stirs and groans croakily. Steve wipes the surface of another journal with a damp cloth.
“Steve?” Tony croaks as clumsily, he pushes himself up to a half-sitting position. “How long was I out?”
Steve takes one glance at the wall clock. “Fifteen minutes.”
“That… was decidedly… not fun.” He joins Steve on the floor and scratches at the band aid on his wrist. Four hours ago, the IV tube got in the way of him tossing a portrait photograph of Howard into the thrash that it was accidentally torn out, blood and saline a messy splatter everywhere. They’d wasted another ten minutes nursing the puncture and getting the bleeding to stop, and Tony’s nose decided to follow suit.
“Calm yourself down, Tony,” Steve mutters, rinsing his cloth in a pail of water. “Every second counts. The more you hurt yourself –”
“I’m not doing this on purpose.”
Heaving a heavy exhale, Tony returns to the last notebook he was reading.
The night drags on without any breakthroughs, and Steve relegates himself to babysitter duties. He makes sure they’re both fed and watered, and in between hash browns, Tony taps Steve’s elbow with a dusty film reel.
“I don’t know,” Steve studies it front-to-back. It has no labels. “Do you have a projector?”
“… Yeah, the twenty-first century kind.”
Steve considers driving all the way downtown to an antique shop until from the tail of his eye, he spots a cluster of metal bits resting against a corner of the crate.
“OK,” Tony peeks over his shoulder, a stray potato fleck stuck on his cheek, “I know that’s a disassembled projector. There’s got to be an IKEA manual somewhere…”
“I can set this up. I can’t tell if it’s still working… give me an hour?” And Steve, with all the absent-mindedness in the world, picks at the potato fleck. His hand lingers on the side of Tony’s face one second too long, and Tony promptly pulls away.
The next hour is filled with the clanging and banging of wrenches on metal, and papers flipping at an insane reading rate.
“I think it’s good to go,” Steve calls out after one last satisfying hammering. Tony looks up from his book.
“JARVIS, brightness to twenty percent.”
Steve slots in the projector and he waits with bated breath, because Tony sure isn’t holding his. How on earth is the film still readable? Has it been rewound to the start? Because if it hasn’t, guess who’s going to have to do that manually? It’s a large reel… and that aside, reels from the fifties employ magnetic sound, and he doubts the iron oxide coating on the film is still magnetic, if the coating hasn’t already corroded or somehow fallen off.
But he forgets one thing. This is Howard Stark’s personal effect.
There’s always more to his stuff than meets the eye.
Steve chuckles lightly when the video plays.
“Everything is achievable through technology. Better living, robust health. And for the first time in human history, the possibility of world peace. I’m Howard Stark, and everything you’ll need for the future can be found right here.”
“I’ll be damned,” Steve’s voice carries gently over Howard’s mumbling, “it really does run in the blood, doesn’t it?”
“City of the Future? City of Tomorrow? City of… I’m Howard Stark –”
Great. This isn’t even the real take of the promotional vid. Tony yawns and is slightly annoyed at the smile still playing on Steve’s lips. He never could believe that a person could look at his old man and be happy.
“I’m Howard Stark and everything you’ll need in the future can be found right here. So, from all of us at Stark Industries, I would like to personally… Tony, what are you doing back there?”
Tony perks up. Howard is not looking at the camera anymore, and his seven-year-old self has suddenly appeared in the film. He… doesn’t remember this incident.
“What is that? Put that back. Put it back where you got it from. Where’s your mother? Maria? Go on. Go, go, go, go.”
At least Steve isn’t smiling that brightly anymore. But hell, that sad-ish expression kills him all the same.
There’s a brief static and blaring white noise, and then, the scene changes. The camera is still recording the room in which Howard was doing his presentation, and the Stark Expo model he kept referring to is still dead centre in the projection.
Of course, there is Howard too, Tony mentally notes with a half-eyeroll.
There are subtle differences to this Howard though. His sleeves are rolled up, his hair a clump of mess. He leans casually against the glass cover of the miniature Expo, and the way his eyes bear into the camera… Tony rarely, if ever, sees that. A touch of sincerity, and pride? What won’t he give to have his father look upon him that way at least once?
“Tony,” and he almost jumps a good inch into the air, “you’re too young to understand this right now, so I thought I would put it on film for you. I built this,” Howard in the film waves over the Expo, “for you. And someday you’ll realise that it represents a whole lot more than just people’s inventions. It represents my life’s work. This is the key to the future.” Tony finds breathing suddenly impossible, because no way in heaven or earth this is the same man he’d called Dad for twenty-one years of his life. This just can’t be Howard. “I’m limited by the technology of my time, but one day, you’ll figure this out. And when you do, you’ll change the world.” Howard smiles. He freaking smiles, and Tony gasps, oxygen refusing to fill his lungs. “What is and always will be my greatest creation, is you.”
The film cuts to black, and there is nothing but the crackle of white noises, yet Tony still stares at the screen for one good minute.
Steve goes back to removing dirt from anything he gets his hands on.
After lunch, Tony excuses himself to the bathroom. Said he needed the shower. Steve can’t disagree with that, but the sitting room feels too large for comfort when it’s just him and the giant crate in the middle of it.
The projector is still running.
Steve rewinds the reel and glances at the staircase. He’ll know if Tony’s done showering – he’s not being very discreet with the sound of water pounding on the floor. Maybe he’s even left his bedroom door open.
Steve replaces the reel and starts the video again.
Howard’s flamboyance, diction and pompousness is just as he remembers, but there are differences. In his cryosleep, the world has moved on, so did Howard – he never expects the man to actually marry Maria and then proceed to having a kid. Imagine that! If Steve did not perish in the Valkyrie then, if he were allowed to live on…
“What is it about Dad that’s so important to you?”
Steve twists his neck to the stairs so fast it creaks, and he finds Tony staring down at him, one hand towelling his hair.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry –”
“It’s fine. You wanna watch it, go ahead. I’m done with it.”
Tony goes back to the crate and picks a book from the topmost pile, his damp towel draping his shoulder. Steve pauses the vid, the projection of Howard leaning against the miniature Expo a static picture on the white screen.
“He cares for you, Tony,” Steve says quietly, and Tony abruptly stops flipping through his pages. “Perhaps it’s not in my place to say so, but… well,” and Steve sighs, “he could be quite an ass, that is true.” The edge of Tony’s lip pulls. “Be that as it may,” and Steve turns back to Tony, “he was courageous, and tenacious. Brilliant in his methods, far beyond his time no doubt. He wasn’t the easiest person to befriend, and I’m sorry that he wasn’t the father you needed him to be.”
Tony shakes his head, already flipping to the next page with more force than necessary. “That was twenty years ago, Steve. I had time to adjust.”
“… You can’t wash away the blood running in your veins, Tony.”
Tony promptly curls away in his seat so his back is set against Steve.
Steve stares blankly at Howard, wondering what’s gone so wrong so badly, and his attention inadvertently lingers on the UFO-like structure that young Tony had previously uprooted.
Come to think of it, he’s unfamiliar with that UFO-structure. Though, there’s a half-circle open air amphitheatre at the current Expo’s courtyard…
“Look, If you’re gonna wax lyrical about Dad, I’m not interested. I’m trying to work here –”
“The Expo in Flushing, is it the same one as Howard’s?”
“… I sure hope not. Not a fan of that one.”
No, of course not. Stupid question. The World Exposition of Tomorrow… that was what Howard used to call it.
“What I meant is, is the Expo built on the same ground? How extensive was the renovation?”
The top of Tony’s forehead peeks from the back of the couch. “Yeah, the land belongs to SI. We built the current Expo from the ground up using recycled materials, we upgraded the electronics and plumbing – what are you getting at?”
“So, you demolished everything?”
“… OK, not everything. We retained certain landmarks for sentimental reasons. Only the workspaces got a major overhaul.”
Steve knows the Expo layout like the back of his hand. He’s memorised every detail for security reasons – as what is detailed in his undercover job description – yet Howard’s miniature, while remarkably similar, doesn’t quite add up.
“No, it doesn’t make any sense…”
Tony drops on the floor next to Steve. He, too studies the projected Expo.
“Huh,” he frowns. “Guess you’re right.”
Steve points to a five-storey building in the eastern corner. “That’s supposed to be a lecture hall – it’s currently Block EA2 – but look at the entrance.”
Tony squints, and he understands where Steve’s coming from. The entrance of Block EA2 faces a wall. He checks the miniature for other anomalies, and boy they’re abound. Mobile toilets in a circular formation, brick roads that end abruptly, standalone buildings that wouldn’t have passed fire prevention and safety measures…
Steve leaps to his feet and pulls the projector back. The stilled image of Howard and the Expo shrinks, and Steve goes back to standing by the wall where the screen is mounted on.
“Tell me if I’m right,” and he tugs at it so it tilts. It makes Howard looks like he’s twerking, and the Expo is now a 2D render of –
“Holy shit,” Tony’s jaw falls into his lap. “I need – I need that thing right now.” He jogs back to the crate, and is visibly dismayed to find it empty. “It’s not here. The miniature model is not here, Steve.” His irises retract in the dimness. “JARVIS, scan that image of the Expo. Steve, hold still, we wanna get the dimensions right.”
“Scanning completed, Sir. What will you have me do with it?”
“I need a 3D modelling and rendering of that Expo. Scale it one to one. How fast can you do it, J?”
“… One hour, Sir.”
And Steve sees the first glint of hope, of confidence lighting up Tony’s face.
“Better cram in all the carb you need, Cap, the sweatshop’s opening in…” Tony checks the clock, “twenty minutes.”
Forty minutes ago, JARVIS loaded the 2D model of Howard’s Expo into a holographic pad and projects it mid-air. Steve acknowledges its impressive accuracy while Tony acknowledges Steve’s eidetic memory. But it’s still a glorified, computer-generated map. Non-interactional. It’s going to take JARVIS the better chunk of an hour to churn out the 3D model.
“What do you think it is?” Steve collects water in a pot. Looks like they’re having lunch, dinner and supper at one go. “It looks like some sort of chemical structure.”
“I’m surprised. Do they teach you Structural Chemistry and Crystallography in school back in the days?”
“… Project Rebirth. I’ve seen a lot of pictures like that in Howard’s lab. Have a hunch it’s got something to do with the formula.”
“… Right.” Tony wrenches the fridge open. Good God, there’re still jugs of that ridiculous tonic lining the second rack. “I’m not sure what exactly it is, probably some sort of compound. Identifying the elements is gonna be a bitch…” His voice trails, and Steve looks up from the sink.
“Uh,” he blinks, and he closes the fridge. “Steve, I think –”
And his knees buckle, his hand fisting the clothes over his heart. Steve catches him before he can give himself a concussion, and makes a mad dash to the sitting room. He hasn’t miscalculated the timing or the dosages, has he? Tony’s entire body lurches as he is lowered onto the couch, and Steve empties the second cartridge into his jugular.
The black veins are back.
Steve watches the hard lines of concentration marring Tony’s expression. He’s been extremely tight-lipped about his suffering. As mulish as he is proud, Steve kneels by him, offering a hand for Tony to crush as he endures, and they wait. It won’t take long for this to subside.
Five minutes later, Steve feels his fingers going gangrenous.
“Tony?” he calls out hesitantly. He gives Tony’s shoulder a shake.
“It shouldn’t take this long.”
“… Shit,” and Tony grits his teeth so hard Steve worries he may need an RCT and a crown after this is all over. “It’s… not going away.”
“How bad is it?”
“I’m… considering asking you to knock me out.” Hazy brown eyes pierce into Steve’s. “Not joking.”
Steve scrabbles for the used syringe. It doesn’t look any different from the one he injected Tony with before. One finger prick and a cursory blood test on Tony’s kit tells them that the palladium level is indeed, receding.
“OK,” Tony pants, swiping sweat from his face. “OK, I’m good. Like a million dollar… yeah,” he clasps Steve quickly by the shoulder. “Thanks.” Even as he sits up and corrects the crumples in his shirt, the creases of apprehension in his visage don’t disappear.
Chemistry might be above his paygrade, but even Steve understands the implication, and they let it hang between them, until JARVIS announces that the Expo 3D modelling is completed.
“Shall we keep the spare lithium dioxide in the fridge?” Steve suggests nonchalantly as he helps Tony up.
“… You know, I’m starting to get this… vibe that there’s a lot more brains in you under all these pounds of muscle. No offense, of course, I sincerely respect your tactical skills and quick wit –”
“You need your strength for work.” Steve notices how heavy Tony is leaning against him for support. “If the lithium dioxide isn’t working anymore –”
“And you’d know the best way to preserve stuff is by cryofreezing.” Steve visibly flinches at that, and Tony grips him by the elbow. “Shit, sorry, I don’t mean that. You OK?”
“… So, will it work? The fridge?”
They’re good at brushing away the nightmares.
Tony sighs, “Fury said this lithium dioxide thingy isn’t very stable to begin with. They synthesise these five under extreme conditions, and we just store ‘em in the open on a freaking coffee table. Yes, they’re degrading, and no, I don’t think four Centigrade is gonna do much good. Personally, determining the rate of degradation will satisfy my scientific curiosity, but priorities, priorities…”
Steve loosens his hold on Tony, who promptly lists to his side.
“All right,” he gasps, blinking away the dots in his vision, “this is… not good.”
“… Call in help? Any… genius scientist friends on speed dial?”
Tony chuckles and puts more weight into his own two feet. “No, it’s got to be me. The arc reactor isn’t a puzzle you can crack in thirty-six hours. That’s just not Dad’s style. It’s his life work. And if I can’t solve this, no one can.” He pats Steve awkwardly over his knuckles. “OK, I’m all right. Let me go.”
“How else can I help?”
“… Well, get ready for a major remodel. We’re back in hardware mode.”
This is their game plan: JARVIS their secretary, Steve their renovator, and Tony?
Steve scratches his chin. The word “BOSS” glows blue luminescent above Tony’s head. “You’re having fun with this, aren’t you?”
“Eh, I take what I can get.”
They don’t know for sure what kind of machine they’re going to be building, but they know it’s not cutie-sized.
“We need… a hall. A big one. Start tearing down the walls.”
Steve heaves a sledgehammer over his shoulder and marches into the dining room. That’s a fantastic use of a super-soldier, Tony congratulates himself. Between the manly, thunderous booms and bashes, Tony fools around with his mini 1974 Expo.
“JARVIS, how many buildings are there?”
“Am I to include the Belgium waffle stands?”
“That was rhetorical.” He taps his forehead with a stylus. “Just show me.”
JARVIS enlarges the holograph until it expands the entirety of the sitting room.
“Too cluttered. Anyway. What does that look to you, J? Not unlike an atom. In which case, the nucleus would be here.” He points to what should’ve been the outdoor amphitheatre in the courtyard. “Highlight the unisphere. Lose the footpaths.”
And the fog starts to lift.
“Lose the landscaping, the shrubbery, the trees. Parking lots, exits, entrances.”
“What is it you’re trying to achieve, Sir?”
“I’m discovering…” he pokes thin air with his stylus, “Correction. I’m rediscovering a new element, I believe. Structure the protons and the neutrons using the pavilions as a framework.”
The cleaned-up version shines ominously before him. Then, around him.
“Dad.” He snaps his fingers and the giant holograph shrinks to sit comfortably on his palm. “Dead for almost twenty years, and still taking me to school.”
“The proposed element should serve as a viable replacement for palladium. Unfortunately, it is near impossible to synthesise.”
“Beating the odds is becoming a lifestyle, J.” A clunk later and the cacophony of plaster crumbling in the kitchen baits Tony’s gaze to the entryway. Steve’s busting his ass for this. Steve’s planted himself in this shitstorm for the sole reason he – Tony effing Stark – is in the centre of it, and for once it’s not about his money, booze or dick.
Maybe it’s a relationship worth fighting for.
“OK,” Tony claps his hands. “What are we waiting for. Figure out how to reformat the subatomic particles of palladium into that. What are we calling this… Howardium?”
Long story short, Tony collapsed by the fireplace, the clanking of fire pokers on tiled floor alerting Steve to what’d happened. Suddenly they were down to two lithium dioxide cartridges, and they were nowhere close to figuring out how to build a particle accelerator powerful enough for the purpose.
“At least you’ve figured out what you have to make. And how to make it.”
“Yeah.” Still breathless from the hit, Tony leans back, the back of his skull thudding against the wall. “It’s the how to make it that’s the problem.”
“What do you need?”
“It’s an element that we’re gonna be making, so that greatly simplifies things. We have to bombard palladium – it’s the most expedient starting material – with a beam powerful enough to knock out some protons and neutrons from the nucleus… I’m... well, that’s highly inaccurate, but essentially, that’s how we’re transforming this palladium core to a… I don’t know, Howardium core.”
“… Howardium core?”
“I haven’t the time to put out an ad asking for name suggestions, have I?” He struggles to his feet, and takes a generous inhale of air. “I’d just programmed something for JARVIS, we’ll see if the calculations work out.” Steve doesn’t look convinced, so Tony tries to mollify it, “I’d done this before, in a cave, with a box of scrap. I can do it again.”
The simulation will take a while to run, and Steve is in dire need of some mood-lifting, so Tony sends him down to the storeroom for more chores. It’s the best remedy for a troubled heart, no? It’s what he does when he’s anxious. It works great.
“Get this stuff for me,” he slaps a roll of paper onto Steve’s palm. “Just ask JARVIS for clarification if you’re unsure of the items. They get pretty jargon-y, I’m sorry, I tried.”
The soonest Steve disappears down the stairs, he sinks gratefully into the couch and presses a throw pillow into his chest. The scars around the arc reactor have remained adamantly black, and he’s not letting Steve know. In fact, this perpetual throb he’s feeling that’s starting to get pretty distracting, and the fact that his nose drips blood for the fifth time in three hours, and he wipes every rivulet away before Steve notices… nope.
He rests his forearm over his forehead and closes his eyes. A nap won’t hurt. Steve’s going to be down there for a long time, he’s sure of it. So, in the meantime –
“Wake up!” A sharp sting on his cheek. “Tony, come on –”
What’s going on?
Another sharp sting on his other cheek.
“Don’t – we’re getting there, please –”
Lordy, what’s the urgency?
Someone’s wrangling him by his collar. Now that’s rude. He needs to give this fella a piece of his mind –
“Tony, come on –”
He gasps, deep and loud, and he shoots upright, his face almost smashing into – blonde, very frowny – Steve’s.
“I’m up,” he announces. He tastes copper in the back of his throat. “What? Something exploded?”
And… he sees an empty cartridge on the coffee table.
So, they’re finally down to the last one, huh?
Steve looks like shit. “… I thought I’d lost you.”
“I’m… not dead, am I? I mean, this is still Malibu, right? Or Hel?”
“… You stopped breathing for half a minute.”
“Yikes,” Tony glances down and sees his shirt torn apart. “And… whoa.” There’s barely a button intact on it. “Geez, Steve. Whatever happened to subtlety?”
“I was gonna start CPR if you didn’t wake. Didn’t want to destroy the reactor.”
That’s all fine and dandy – the possibility of having all his ribs pulverised by Captain America as he’s knocking on heaven’s door.
“You got all the stuff from the basement?”
Steve nods to a corner.
“Awesome. Let’s get started.”
It is eighty percent done. It’s amazing what one can achieve with a beat-up microwave and three Iron Man prototypes, among other things. He’d stripped everything he has available in the mansion and repurpose them to this mother of all accelerator. It’s so incredible he can cry.
He actually does, somewhat, stray tears leaking out of his eyes as he tries his damnest to contain the searing agony in his heart. Steve has his back against him, and there are rods upon rods snaking the space. He only has to duck under one of them and suffer gloriously in silence.
He can’t take the last lithium dioxide now. Not yet. There’s one more thing he’s got to build. Another part that’s unequivocally important.
He coughs, a gurgle of blood and spit – and that’s all it takes for Steve to hold him up against his chest.
He swears, if he survives this… he wants to sleep for two days straight, eat nothing but cheeseburgers and fries. Give Steve a goddam pay raise.
“Just hang on. I’ll get the lithium dioxide, it’s next door –”
“No. I’m saving that for later.”
“Why? What else is there to do?”
“… Shooting a beam isn’t like firing a rifle, Steve. This accelerator, I’d removed all possible safety measures, failsafe, all of ‘em, to increase firepower. It’ll… probably explode in my face when I switch it on. No, we need to mount it on something, and I need JARVIS to get the angling right so the beam hits the core dead centre.” He forces in another shaky inhale. “I’m saving the last one for that.”
Steve presses two fingers into his neck. Tony sighs and shuts his eyes.
“Steve, please, you have to let me –”
“You’ll be dead before you get the setup right. You have to take the shot now.”
“Two hours, top. I guarantee you –”
“You’ll be dead, Tony.” Steve grips him painfully by the shoulders. “Take the shot, I beg you.”
“I can’t. What’s the point of building this if I can’t use it?”
Steve wets his bottom lip. “You say you’ll need to aim the beam and shoot it?”
“… I’ll do it.”
Tony’s eyes widen to show all his bloodshot whites. “Not funny, Steve.”
“Can it be done?”
“… I’ll tell you why that’s crazy. It has to be mounted because one, it’s heavy like hell, two, it’s got to be held steady for at least five seconds, and three, the momentum from the blast is going to throw itself off the ground, straight into the Pacific, you hear? And because it’s essentially a five-second-nukish EM beam, it has to go direct into the core, on its first try. Because I don’t wanna think about the repercussions of missing that shot.”
Some terrible odds stacked against them.
“It’s not about not trusting you with the shot, Steve,” Tony adds quietly. “If it has to be done manually, you’re probably the only human being alive who can do it.”
“Then, let me –”
“And I won’t, because it’ll kill you.” And Tony returns Steve’s dagger glare. “You can’t counter the momentum with your body. I’ll either have to cement you to the ground, or build a freaking two-meter concrete wall for you to be crushed against. And if that doesn’t do you in, guess what, blasting palladium with high energy beam releases extra stuff into the surrounding. Ionising radiations – gamma rays, you should know that, huh, Dad blasted you with some of that, didn’t he? God, what it could’ve done to you…” Tony’s rambling, and Steve can’t seem to stem it. “It’ll kill you, and I can’t live with that.”
“I’m still doing it.” And Tony blinks stupidly at Steve. “I hear you, and this is my choice. I’m doing it.”
“Are you nuts?”
“I’ll do my best to stay alive,” Steve smirks. “I survived a plane crash, seventy years in the ice. I survived New York, 2011.” Tony lets out a huff of air. “We can do this.”
But, time… is still running out.
The last dosage of lithium dioxide probably contained more of degraded than intact ones. In five hours, Tony starts shaking like a leaf, his hands no longer able to hold the soldering gun steady. He’s forced to leave the last of his works to his robots – You and Dum-E, Steve quickly learns their name – while he sits slumped and useless in an armchair. There isn’t time to build a proper wall – brick and mortar and all – so Steve brings in the largest and heaviest rocks he can carry from the beach and parks them behind the accelerator.
Each time Tony’s eyes slide shut, Steve shakes him vigorously about the arms.
They’ve come so far. Nobody’s dying on anybody’s watch.
“Sir, everything seems to be in order. The accelerator is ready for initiation.”
Tony searches Steve for signs of second thoughts. Hesitations. Doubts. A glimpse, a shadow, hell a flutter of his nostril hair, anything.
Steve gives Tony a small nod and steadies himself with one deep breath. Tony doesn’t know how the man does it. Steve’s literally sandwiched between the accelerator – which is strapped over his front like a baby carrier – and beach rocks. There’s no issue with Steve’s improbable aiming skill – Steve can work out the vectors in a fraction of time Tony needed to fling a disc towards the north wall so it bounces against the east and south east pillars and end up smashing a vase on the western parapet. It’s crazy. Know what Steve is born to be?
A billiard player. That he is. He’ll have to take Steve to the rec room. Maybe billiard will be an official Olympics event when Steve’s ready to represent.
So much more to look forward to. This cannot be the end.
“JARVIS,” Tony finishes the last of his prayers, “Do it.”
Unlike Steve, Tony’s a squishy mortal, so here he is in his bedroom, tucked under layers of blankets, watching every second that’s transpiring in the hall where Steve is.
Steve adjusts his hold on the accelerator a bit, and with conviction, he flicks the switch under his finger.
So, it begins.
It’s insane how at this magnitude, even EM waves exert mechanical forces on the surrounding. He’s calling bullshit on this one – maybe there’s something else going on, whatever, as long as it hits his palladium core good, it’s fine. Easy enough for him to say of course, considering he’s here and Steve’s there.
Steve has somehow tucked the base of the accelerator against his lower abdomen – his arms are vibrating as hard as the machine. It’ll rip them clean from his shoulders – what was Tony thinking, he shouldn’t’ve allowed this in the first place –
Steve cries out – short and strained – as he’s pushed back against the rock. The insanely gigantic boulder from the beach is cracking around the edges.
But he’s still not letting go.
How can five seconds be this long?
“Captain Rogers,” JARVIS’s ever cool voice intones above the commotion of furniture pieces breaking down and thrown about, “brace yourself.”
Like a supernova, the sudden burst of energy stops, the lack of power throws Steve off his feet and he’s slammed completely against the rock – wearing an expression of pain and bewilderment –
“Steve!” Tony shouts at the screen. He throws his blankets aside and hobbles down the steps, leaning against the wall for support –
“JARVIS! Check his vitals!”
Tony skips the last few steps with a jump. He’s barefooted and his floor is grainy and filthy. He steps around shards of glass and porcelain – it’s ridiculous, Steve’s not moving on the ground and he’s thinking about foot injuries –
“Steve, come on,” Tony sidles down to Steve’s side and props him up against his chest. “A freaking tank couldn’t kill you – you can walk this off, come on –”
Steve’s blue, blue eyes are suddenly on him squarely, clear and piercing and somewhat blown wide apart. His face is caked in dust, so is his hair, his ears – every inch of him, and it really brings out the hues in his irises –
“… Did it work?”
It takes Tony three full seconds to fully comprehend that, and by then Dum-E has taken the liberty of dismounting the new core from its stand. It’s still smoking around the periphery.
“I honestly don’t know.”
Steve sits up straighter – he’s in Tony’s freaking embrace, and there’s no way neither is unaware of the intimacy – when he reaches out tentatively for it.
“Whoa, easy.” Tony snatches Steve’s hand away. It’s like stopping an idiot from burning himself on the side of a kettle. “JARVIS, I’m not sure what you can do, at least tell me it’s not palladium anymore.”
“A rudimentary scan on its structural property confirms that it is not palladium.”
“Is it the element we’re gunning for?”
“… That requires a more thorough investigation, Sir.”
Tony breathes out heftily, and a quirky tug plays at his lips. “Only one way to find out.”
Now, he reaches for the new core, and Steve pulls him back. That’s quite a grip for someone half-slouching on the floor, a constant grimace fixed on his face.
“It’s fine,” Tony murmurs, poking the surface of the core. “It’s quite cool to touch.”
“I have a nasty hunch that –”
Before Steve can even complete that, Tony lifts the hem of his shirt and yanks the arc reactor out of his chest – Steve would’ve screamed if he could manage one – and tosses the blackened palladium core casually to the side.
“Here goes nothing,” and he replaces the slot with the new, untested, made-in-his-backyard, bleeding-edge Howardium core.
They might as well ask how fast can they get a hearse over to this mansion.
Five minutes pass by.
“Feeling anything?” Steve asks so quietly as if he’s speaking by a person’s deathbed.
“… Just checking.”
And then, twenty.
“You know, after this is all over, and I got a great feeling it’s gonna be over soon – let’s go shoot some pool.”
“Or would you rather play Frisbee? I mean, it’s the same set of skills. You’re a natural.”
One hour after the fiasco, Tony’s still alive and emerging more of a nuisance than the prickling in Steve’s ribs.
“Wow,” Tony eventually admits. “That actually works.”
Tony gets up and brushes dust off his pants. Steve stays stubbornly on the floor.
“… You OK?”
“… Another minute?”
“What’s wrong?” Steve doesn’t fight Tony as he lifts the shirt and gapes at the colourful blossom of bruises over Steve’s torso. Each blue and black look painful.
“I’ll heal,” he says simply.
“You bet you will. You,” Tony beckons at the whining robot – his mechanical pincers are restless, “get me the palladium kit, will you?”
The percentage of palladium toxicity doesn’t make sense, however.
“Eighty?” Tony gives the plastic piece a flick. “This is worse than lithium dioxide.”
“Tony, your… uh,” Steve gestures to the side of his neck, and Tony cups his own. “The black veins are still there.”
“… Are you sure you feel fine?”
“Yeah. Nothing’s hurting. I would know.”
“… It works fine, then. Probably. It’s not getting worse, at least.”
“It’s not getting better, either. I don’t get out of bed for ‘no change’.”
Steve presses a hand into his side. “I got an idea.”
“It’s pretty wild.”
“You’re just saying that? After the past twenty-four hours? I mean, please.”
“The last batch of your tonic is still in the fridge.”
Tony raises both eyebrows. “… That is pretty wild.”
Tony half-heartedly slams the empty jug on the coffee table. Its bottom is stained green with tonic dreg, and he’s somehow managed to drink every last drop straight from its lip, because this isn’t booze, and he doesn’t have the patience nor class to pour out one litre of goop into glasses and drink ‘em like they don’t taste shitty.
He burps heartily and wipes his chin with his knuckles.
He can also see that even Steve is not convinced that this is a good idea. Super soldiers don’t fidget when they’re uncomfortable. They just white-knuckle through it and keep still like they’ve been paid for. This Steve is currently tapping his heel on the foot of the armchair he’s occupying, the tiniest hint of slouch in his back.
He catches Tony watching him with a lopsided grin. “What?”
“… Tony, I don’t want you to take this wrongly. I don’t mean to take advantage of your situation –”
“Relax, Cap. You’re all jittery and you’re making me nervous.”
“I wasn’t, and now I kinda am? Look, I can do this alone.” Tony scratches the dark stubbles along his chin. “I think.”
“… Should we move to the bedroom?”
“… Might as well.”
Tony gets up and makes for the staircase, expecting Steve to follow in his steps. Steve doesn’t, and Tony makes a dismissive sound at the back of his throat. He leaves the bedroom door open and saunters to the opposite corner.
Oh, they are fucked.
He looks over to the bed longingly. Wholesomely. He remembers this personal promise he wants to keep so bad – he wanted to sleep this nightmare away. Two days straight. To hell with the Expo and Vanko – if only.
The door taps and closes and Steve’s suddenly there, solemn.
Tony looks out of the window. The sun’s setting again. The Expo is… tomorrow? No rest for the wicked, they say. One problem at a time. Baby step.
And Steve’s standing right before him, also by the window, too far to be inappropriate. Too close to be inappropriate? Impossible. Tony rests his forearm on the window and – hell.
It’s getting darker and their reflections are getting clearer. Steve’s blonde hair is actually blonde in the window, and he’s slowly unbuttoning his shirt. Tony swallows nervously, but keeps his eyes on the reflection. Steve leaves his shirt hanging, a sliver of his torso visible under the parted article. When his hands go lower to his belt buckle, Tony flinches – too minute a shift to be caught in the dimness – and studies how the Pacific reflects the sun. He hears metal clinking, and it drowns the thumping of blood in his ears.
Steve’s strip-teasing? He’s not. But he is. Tony clenches his fist.
Steve pulls his belt free from his waistband. Tony’s crotch throb.
Steve unbuttons his trousers.
Shit, shit, shit.
And thankfully, leaves it at that. Tony’s this close to a heart attack.
“May I?” Steve asks, no more than murmur. He grips Tony by the elbow tentatively, loose enough for Tony to break away if he has second thoughts, but tight enough to get his intention across.
Tony doesn’t fight him.
Steve comes closer, his warmth and cologne permeating the space. Thighs against thighs, chest against chest – Tony’s attention snaps to Steve’s eyes and –
Steve’s dry lips are on his. Polite. Curt. And Tony just stands there, taking whatever Steve is trying to offer him. Those dry lips soon travel to the side of his face, his ear, his neck, his throat. One large hand runs down his front, and Steve thrusts his hips into his –
Tony withdraws into the window, and Steve persists. His thighs rub against Tony’s erection –
And Tony lurches forward, his forehead colliding painfully into Steve’s collarbone as his insides erupt in a warm, wet mess of cum. It ends as soon as it begins, and breathlessly Tony blinks through the confusion.
“Yeah, wait a sec.” It’s like puberty, it’s embarrassing. “… Sorry.”
Steve, in all manner of seriousness, goes to cup Tony through the pants. He frowns. “You’re… still not done.”
No shit. He’s very aware of his still raging hard-on.
All air gets knocked out of his lungs when Steve effortlessly lift him up and bodily press him against the window again, and this time, his kiss is ravenous. Tony can’t keep up between the bites and the playful licks. He relents and parts his lips for air, and Steve dives in – this is a murder attempt, Tony hazily thinks to himself. He clinches tightly into Steve’s elbow, fingernails digging into unblemished skin, warning Steve to back the hell up – and he gets his way. Gasping for respite, the back of his head thuds against glass, and Steve sinks his chin into Tony’s neck and shoulder and –
“Steve, what’s gotten into you?” Tony winces as Steve sucks too hard on his exposed flesh. That will leave a mark. Not cool. And Steve proceeds to marking him here, and here, and here –
He’s completely lifted off the ground, he realises. He’s somehow wrapped his legs around Steve’s waist, joined by their pelvises.
“Go easy on me.”
The tip of Steve’s tongue trail lazily over his Adam’s apple. “I’ll try.” He bites, lips closing over the tender spot, and Tony winces again.
Steve snakes his arms around Tony’s back and carries him to the bed. At least he’s not going to be taken between a hard surface and a set of iron abs. Small mercies.
Perhaps a dialysis can achieve similar results as with chugging Viagra tonic and fucking a super soldier?
As he’s laid on the bed, Steve straddling his legs and watching him earnestly with those deep-set eyes, he figures… there is no contest.
Why is Tony Stark so embroiled in the idea of breaking supersonic in a metal can?
Same way he fucks.
He likes it rough, he likes it like that movie – fast and furious – because time is money, and he’s sure the girls have places to be, people to meet. And he’s pleased to say that in all the years he’s been rocking his dick, so far everybody’s happy with that sort of arrangement.
Bam, wham, thank you ma’am.
And Lordy, Steve on the other hand fucks like a snail.
Very slowly, very carefully, Steve undoes one button after another on his shirt. Tony wouldn’t mind if he’d just ripped the thing apart. Very slowly, very carefully, Steve sweeps the shirt aside, the blue glow of his arc reactor illuminating the darkened bedroom. Tony is starting to lose his patience – and Steve, very slowly, very carefully, runs callous palms down his torso. Knuckles brush past his abdominal packs, fingernails catch the bumps of his navel and nipples –
“Steve, I swear to God –”
Steve bows and parks his head next to Tony’s. One hand still caressing his flank, Steve says, “I can take you the way you think you want it, Tony. I can break you. This much control...” and he folds Tony into half, ignoring the pained, sharp intake of breath as bones are manipulated beyond acceptable limits, “Say you want it,” Steve’s tongue darts along the shell of his ear, “Say it, and I’ll wear you out and down.”
“… Did the radiation addle your mind?”
“Just a word, Tony.”
“Yeah,” Tony still has command over his arms. He flails with all his might. “I say, back off, Rogers.”
Steve pins both arms down to the bed by the elbows. Wild panic rises in the recesses of Tony’s eyes – this isn’t what it is, is it?
“Sorry,” Steve mutters. Tony’s going to need more convincing because his limbs are still held prisoner under all of Steve’s two-hundred-and-twenty pound of glory.
“… You don’t wanna be doing this, Steve.”
“What?” Steve blinks twice, and suddenly seems to take notice of how he’s restraining Tony. “Jesus Christ.” He withdraws like he’s touched hot iron, and Tony rubs at his reddening elbows. He doesn’t creep away, but the suspicions in his narrowed eyes remain all the same.
“… Got to say, you’re scaring me a bit there.”
“I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry,” and he glances at Tony before he turns to the nightstand. “You OK?”
“… You do that often with other people?”
“I… sex isn’t for personal gratification. To me. Or even to us? Back in the days,” and Steve runs his fingers through his hair, “it’s all we have sometimes.”
“Something like that.”
Tony heaves a sigh. “That shouldn’t be complicated at all. But it is. Anyway,” he pats Steve’s knee – the one that’s pinning his thigh to the mattress, “I think I got to be honest with you on one thing. I, uh…” The absence of tantalising pressure on his dick is driving him crazy. “I’m pretty… let’s say, inexperienced in this department.”
“This department being?”
“Sex. With another man.”
Steve rocks his hip against Tony, their crotches pressing against each other. “We can work with that.” He runs his free hand up Tony’s bare chest, a thumb caressing the outer casing of the arc reactor. “Still want this?”
“How far do you want me to go?” Steve deftly tugs Tony’s cock free from the confinement of his pants and briefs. Giving it a few good pulls – his expression still as stony despite the way Tony twists and hisses under him – he pulls his own erection free and aligns it with Tony’s. “Answer me. How far do you want me to go?”
“… How far can you go?”
“All the way.”
“Shit,” and Tony does gasp audibly as large hands work on where it feels best. “I really don’t know you at all, do I?”
“… No,” and Steve cups his sacs, these are just appetizers, just teasing, and Tony feels precum leaking out of his tip already.
“Steve, slow down –”
There is something seriously wrong with him. Steve must’ve felt him pulsating – his body arches as he feels it coming – when Steve just pulls away and swallows his cock fully in his mouth. A sweep of his tongue over his slit and Tony’s gone – he curls into himself, his orgasm choking him as he cries, and fuck, Steve’s still servicing him –
“Stop, let up –”
The blackness in the periphery of his vision grows with each suckling on his spent cock. Just too much. He wants to give in to sleep, he’s begging – and he twitches some of the relevant downstairs muscles experimentally. This much play has got to take care of the tonic, please…
The smart rap of something being uncapped and capped clears out the haze in his mind almost immediately.
The bed indents under the shift of Steve’s weight. Tony’s knees are raised even further, he groans tightly – he’s just turned forty, damn it – and to his horror, he feels his erection sprawled majestically over his underbelly.
Why is it still hard?
A smatter of goo is slathered over his –
“God, no – Steve –”
At that, the hint of fingernail pressing into his entrance disappears. Tony immediately raises both his arms to his face – mouth gaping for air, heart racing with need.
“Hey, calm down –”
This is real, this is real –
“Tony, you’ll knock yourself out like this –”
“Nuh-uh,” he manages to grit out. “Time-out.”
The soonest Steve lifts himself up, Tony rolls to his side and pulls a pillow or two into his chest. His cock is still a rebellious piece of meat between his thighs, but the idea of actually having sex with Steve?
“We’ll stop if you don’t want to,” Steve reassures him. He’s probably taken the opposite corner of the bed.
Well, isn’t this embarrassing? Tony Stark, playboy billionaire who’s been fucking pussies and assholes since puberty can’t take a freaking finger up the backdoor? Come on…
Still, this prick that won’t stay down is getting really annoying.
Tony grips himself firmly and tugs. It’ll be all over in a jiffy, and Steve can fucking show himself out –
He groans into his pillow by the third pull – the kind that’s a mix of regret and frustration. Even if he feels it, it’s just not going to cut it.
“What is it?”
Tony lifts his head a fraction. “… I can’t come.”
He just said that. He definitely did.
“… Do you want to lie down?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake –”
“It’s desensitisation, probably. Don’t be alarmed –”
“You think, Steve?” Tony angrily chucks his pillow to the other side of the bed. He spreads his thighs and flicks his still-rigid dick with a knuckle. “Never in my forty years of living. Short of castrating myself, what should I do with this?”
“… If you’ll let me –”
“No, you stay there. You tell me what you’re planning to do, and then I decide if it’s cool to go ahead or not.”
“OK.” From where he’s kneeling, Steve flattens his palms over his knees, and using the most dignified voice and facial expression, he suggests, “Prostate stimulation may do the trick.”
“… Get out.”
“That actually sounds inviting, to be honest. This fella,” Tony whacks his dick over the head again, “says he’s all for it. Problem is, I’m not.”
“… I’m sure we can figure something out. Want to watch the news as we while away the night?” Tony’s dick makes a miserable, squelchy sound. “Cold showers?”
“Or, you can choke me out. I can sleep this away.”
“… I can do that, if you want me to.”
“No – don’t, I was kidding.”
By the grace and benevolence of Murphy’s Law, Tony decides against going all me-me-me and finally sees what’s unhidden in Steve’s crotch. When Steve catches him staring a second too long at it, he quickly folds his hands over his cock. Tony starts to grin, and Steve starts to scowl.
“How do you feel about switching?”
Steve opens his mouth, the question about to spill from his lips when the oh! moment dawns on him, and it manifests not as a blush, or unease. Tony frowns as he studies the gloom.
“It was just a half-assed suggestion, Steve.”
“No, it’s fine.” Steve exhales generously. “I’ll do it.”
“I know what you’re asking, Tony. And I’m willing.”
This feels like sitting in a plane that just got shot down and is currently nosediving into the waters. Or a train derailing from its tracks. Or a car skidding and plunging into a ravine.
“Steve, this isn’t exactly life-and-death, you don’t have to do this –”
“Shall we?” Steve interjects, and he collects the tube of lubricant lying on the pile of discarded clothing. It’s exactly like peeping at something so private and personal through a crack in the wall, that Tony finds himself chewing his heart as he follows Steve bringing his right hand to his rear, him taking measured breathing, and the way his wrist slide up and down for the prep.
It’s all insinuated. Tony can’t see anything – Steve’s careful to angle himself in such a way. And it doesn’t matter.
His cock jerks a bit between his thighs.
There’s another quake in the mattress as Steve scoots closer to Tony, who’s still gaping at Steve in awe because this last hour? He’s unearthed so much more about Steve Rogers than he did the past month. And it looks like there’s something else under the brains and muscles –
Steve bows over Tony’s cock and takes him once more in his mouth.
Steve will be fantastic at multitasking – blowing another while working on himself back there. Tony can’t help feeling a bit embarrassed when he hears a slurping sound from both their ends.
At least one of them is taking this super seriously.
Then, with a wet pop, Steve’s sitting upright again, and –
“Are we?” Tony instinctively steadies Steve by his hip as Steve clambers over his legs. “I mean, now?”
Steve reaches down for Tony’s cock and aligns it into position. “You know,” his fingers curl about the shaft and he pumps, slowly. “I’m surprised. I thought this kind of thing is second nature to you.”
“Oh, trying to shame me now?”
“It’s difficult to get a read on you tonight.” Steve eases himself downward on Tony. It’s stretching up nicely, but there’s no hurry, is there? “You want it, you don’t want it.”
Tony’s grip on Steve’s hipbone tightens. “You know why.”
“… Actually, I don’t.”
“I know why I’m doing this. But, do you?” The fraction of pause in Steve’s movements is answer enough. “I told you before, Steve,” Tony speaks so softly into the wide expanse of Steve’s stomach. “I can’t give you what you want.”
“What do I want?” Steve lowers himself some more. He closes his eyes, and lets Tony guide his descend. “Tell me,” and Steve is seated in his lap, his breathing ragged, his eyes half-lidded. “What do I want?”
The high of carnal desires – the musk of sex and all the wrongness attached to it, everything is displayed so blatantly on Tony’s features. From the thin veil of sweat on his forehead to the swelling of his upper lip. But those hazel eyes that never seem able to lie tell Steve what he already knows.
Tony’s arms come up to wrap around Steve’s back and neck.
“You can’t love me, Steve. And I’m sorry.” Cracked lips ghost over the centre of his chest. “So sorry.”
Steve cups Tony about his jaw and traces his lips with a thumb. Chin bowed, stray hair covering half his face, Tony can only assume the truth has cut deep. Then Steve grips him about the shoulder and pushes.
Tony won’t ever forget the view. Can’t ever. Steve’s flushed from the head down, his breathing ragged as he rolls his hip and rides on. From the sheer concentration it takes to not literally break Tony to the lines of regret on his face marring unadulterated pleasure – Tony remembers them all. Steve’s weight bouncing against him, Steve’s heat, Steve gasping for breath and his name spilling from those lips.
“Steve,” Tony bucks his hip, his cock digging deeper into Steve. “I’ve to pull out. I’m close.”
“It’s fine. Just go.”
“I can’t – I’m not –”
“Serum. Won’t get sick.” Obviously not wanting to hear more, he sits up straighter and –
“God, Steve,” Tony grimaces, willing his everything to not go. “Can’t –”
“Let go, Tony.”
“Come on.” And Steve clenches down him. It’s all it takes for his release. There’ll be hell to pay, he thinks, maybe, as he thrashes under Steve. It’s all he has to offer. He lies on the bed, spent between crumpled sheets and flattened pillows, limbs too numb to move. A shadow looms over him and he has no strength left to even see who it is, and it gets darker, warmer –
One kiss on his forehead, and another on his lips.
That is the last he remembers.
Tony’s said this before, and he’s saying this again: he hates sleeping. He has done so, obviously, at many points in his life. Regrettable incidents, indeed. Just, sleeping. Then there’s the waking up to a huge bed, the space beside him vacant and cold.
Was he expecting something different? Why would Steve hang around his bedroom after the deed’s done, anyway? As if Steve likes him or something…
There is that.
“JARVIS, where is he?”
There is a gentle, almost ignorable electromagnetic hum in the far corner as JARVIS replies, “Who are you referring to, Sir?”
“The Living Legend, Sentinel of Liberty - America's favourite son? Steve Rogers, J, who else is there? Where is he?”
“… Captain Rogers is not on the compound currently.”
“Huh.” Tony swings his legs over the bed. God, he’s sore everywhere. There’s not one place that Steve has touched that’s not flaring with discomfort. “Right. Did he leave a message?”
“He said he’ll be back in half an hour. The fridge has run out of milk.”
Tony snaps his head up so quickly his ear feels like it’s been lashed by a rubber band. “So, he’s not gone ‘gone’?”
“… I believe so, Sir.”
Bracing himself for the worst, he puts more weight into his feet and ups, and –
“Crap. JARVIS, what day is it?”
“Saturday, May –”
“Nine oh five in the morning, Sir –”
“Oh, doubly crap.” He pulls his pants to his waist and hobbles to the door. “Get the jet ready for New York. Where’s my phone?”
“I believe it’s in your back pocket, Sir.”
“Got it,” he fumbles with the freaking “on” switch. “The bat’s dried up.”
There’s a knock on the door. Tony almost drops his phone.
“You want to borrow mine?” Steve offers, his phone already in his hand.
Tony blinks himself out of stupor, forgetting that he’s shirtless with his belt hanging from his pants like a tail. “You’re back.”
“… Do you want me to go?”
“No.” Tony pulls a shirt – at least he thinks it is – from the bed and gives it a nice whip in the air. “No, you’re coming with me. It’s Saturday.” And he zips past Steve without another glance, a determined furrow in place.
“New York. The Expo? Hammer and Vanko?”
Steve folds his arms across his chest and leans against the door frame. Tony stops at the top of the staircase. “Well? Are you coming or not?”
“I’ve called your flight team in advance. Your pilot is waiting for you. FTA has been notified. I’d sent a memo to Miss Potts detailing your arrival at noon.” A small smile grows on him. “Your breakfast is downstairs in the microwave. Clothes and towel in the bathroom.”
“… Thank you?”
Then only does Steve get off his butt and make for the stairs, and before his foot could even reach a step further, Tony seizes him by the elbow.
Steve doesn’t look at him. “You’ve made your intentions very clear, Tony. I respect that.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I want you gone.” He lets Steve go and huffs. “I’m garbage at this kind of stuff, contrary to popular belief. Feeling the feels, I mean. You don’t understand what’s going on, I know. Me neither. But.”
“But, Vanko and Hammer first.”
“Afterward.” Tony offers a smile of his own. First one of the day. “I need you with me on this one.”
“Whatever happened to the whole lone gunslinger gig?” Steve asks in between gulps of water. They’re forty thousand feet above ground and four and a half hours’ flight to trouble. “I thought Iron Man doesn’t do sidekicks?”
“… I’ve a parachute thing at the back, if you’ve other stuff to do…”
“You do understand SHIELD will be a part of this. I’m accountable to them, and honestly, I think we’re going to need all the help we can get.”
“I understand the implications, Cap. Next thing I know, you’ll want me to put my signature on a contract.”
“Have you worked in a team before?”
“… It’s not something to be smug about, Tony.”
“Look, it’s not like there’s a second Iron Man for me to kick ass and take names with, is there?”
“… Guess you got yourself one, now.”
And indeed, Tony thinks he can deal with a plus-one on his side. Between the saving-his-life and lending-a-shoulder-to-lean-on and fucking-him-where-and-when-he-needs-best, having a friend to wade through the muck with ain’t that bad after all.
If only Fury is less of a cause for ulcer.
One can still hope.
It’s good to be back. Only…
The reactor gets too bright for its own good at night. Tony crosses his gauntlet over his heart and sighs. What he wouldn’t give for a stealth suit on stand-by. Matte finish, black or grey, weaker propulsion, that’s a fair trade-off. Quieter engines –
“Tony? Is this online?”
“Hey, Cap,” Tony grins under the permanent scowl of his face plate. The earpiece is a bona fide success. This could either be his three-hundred-and-second patent or an exclusive, pain-in-the-butt deal with SHIELD. “Care to join in the fun?”
“I’m behind the block. Are you among the crowd?”
“Nope. Look up. I’m the good-looking one.”
“… Get out of the sky. Let’s rendezvous. Third door from the corner washroom.”
As low-key as he can manage, he turns his boots around and flies towards door number three from the right corner of Block F, and –
A dark figure is already there on stand-by. Tall. Built. Lethal.
Tony landed behind him with a thud. The figure turns around, and Tony lifts his face plate.
Steve cracks a smile. “Hey.”
“OK.” Not bothering with subtleties, Tony does a visual sweep from the top of Steve’s helmet – it has a freaking “A” printed smack in the middle of his forehead – to the heel of his boots. “Jesus Christ. Who designed this?”
“Focus. Any sign of Hammer or Vanko?”
“Hammer’s presentation is next. No eyes on Vanko yet or any drones for the matter.”
“Doesn’t mean they’re not present.” Steve turns slightly to his left as he watches the amphitheatre, and Tony catches the glint of metal perched on his broad back.
“You have a stash of Captain America getup on my property?”
Steve tightens the clasp on his gloves. He spares Tony a meaningful look, and turns to the amphitheatre again.
“Is Fury here?” Naturally. They must’ve met. “How many of you to the party?”
“We need more fliers on our side, so we’ve got the Quinjets to cover us. STRIKE team is on the ground. They’re an elite tactical squad,” Steve elaborates after Tony raises his brow. “Nat is on back-up.”
“What’s a Nat?”
Steve hikes his shield more securely over his back. “She’s one of the best.” He clasps Tony firmly on the shoulder. “We need altitude. Take me to the balcony of Block F2, third floor. You’re too visible in the dark. Park yourself by the stadium light near Exit B. The glare will keep people away.”
Tony nods and lets down the face plate. Gripping Steve by his waist, he boosts their collective weights up and deposits Steve where he’s asked to be.
By the time Tony gets into position, the stage is already booming with that sickly sweet voice of Justin effing Hammer.
“Thanks for coming! Ladies and gentlemen, for far too long, this country has had to place its brave men and women in harm’s way, but then the Iron Man arrived –”
Tony scoffs openly in his helmet. Like JARVIS is going to chastise him?
“Don’t let it get to you, Tony.”
“And we thought the days of losing lives were behind us. Sadly, that technology was kept out of reach. That’s not fair. That’s not right. And it’s just too bad.”
Tony rolls his eyes. Steve can’t see that.
“Ladies and gentlemen, today I present to you the new face of the United States military. The Hammer drone.”
“Scan those drones. How many heat signatures?”
The platform on Justin’s left splits apart and seven suits of armour emerges from the gap.
The middle platform opens up next. Like before, seven more suits of armour come through.
“These are unmanned. There’s no one piloting the suits.”
“They’ve got to be commanded from somewhere. Can you trace the connection?”
“No. They’re offline? They’re just hunk of metal sitting on the stage –”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa – what are you doing, man?”
There’s a tumultuous boom as all twenty-one drones collectively stomp their feet on the stage. They bring their right gauntlets to their heads – a salute – and on cue, the bulbs in their chests and joints flare out, brighter than the stage’s spotlights.
“I got signals!” Twenty-one red dots appear on his HUD. “JARVIS, trace the lines. I need to know where the command is coming from.”
“Tony, take the Air Force out. The Quinjets are on their way from the south, ETA five minutes. I know you can hack into their com line, so hack it if you need to, they’ve been warned.” Looks like somebody has learned how to roll with his underappreciated flavour of creativity. “STRIKE – Echo, get the civilians out. Keep them on the move. Delta, the Navy is headed for the aquafier. Take them out before they reach it. The rest of you are with me. Aim to contain damages to the courtyard.”
Tony can’t help the grin creeping up his face as he takes in Steve’s every word, every command to the team. He can’t see the soldiers, but he knows they’re there in the shadows, on the hunting ground fighting the good fight on his side.
“Tony, be careful.”
So, this is what teamwork feels like?
“JARVIS, ten percent power into propulsions.”
It’s not too bad.
A blast to the right, a feign sharp turn by the pillar – boom! Eat that point five missile, sucker! And that’s just his Christmas prototype.
There’s nothing more satisfying than thrashing his own Expo, an Expo he’s spent a good year planning and building and advertising the crap out of.
He does a three sixty twist and dodges Gatling bullets mid-air. In all honesty, JARVIS deserves all the credits. It’s been since Obadiah that he last put on a suit, and that feels like eons ago, between cleaning up the mess at SI and not dying from palladium poisoning. His body does whatever the suit does, until he sees an Army drone pulling a jazz hand before a five-year-old.
“JARVIS, five o’clock!”
Thank God for bleeding edge sensory-based piloting. He leans forward, urging the suit to where the boy is staring into a freaking canon charging up in his face –
“Hey, buddy.” Tony lands neatly between them and wastes no time in popping the drone’s head off its shoulders. Checking over the boy for obvious injuries and finding none, he flicks his thumb up. “Nice job.”
“Tony,” the inside of his helmet reverberates with Steve’s voice. “Get back in air. A pack just peeled off. They’re heading back to the courtyard.”
He takes off in a blast of smoke – little kid is going to need a good shampooing – and immediately picks up the herd making a headway to the amphitheatre. The ground is mostly clear now, but he has a nasty feeling those drones aren’t gunning for blood. A quarter of SI’s labs and workshops are housed on that part of the compound, and he’s pretty sure they aren’t volunteering to wash his test tubes.
“Hey, Robocops!” Tony shoots one in the back, and it goes clean through its bodywork. The others halt mid-air to face him. “OK, now that I’ve got your attention…” And he charges like crazy towards the opposite direction. In other words –
“Tony! Get back there and take them out!”
“Uh,” he counts five red dots on his HUD. “Are they chasing me?”
He’s definitely running away.
“OK. Watch me, Cap.”
The Air Force drones are flying faster than anticipated. Even with an additional seven percent of power directed to propulsion, he’s barely keeping himself out of reach. JARVIS is kind enough to remind him that he’s down to fifty percent before his suit is drained.
Drastic times call for drastic measures.
That’s several G’s he’s tanking – his nose pops and blood flows freely down his philtrum – and blasts off in another direction. Two of the drones slam into a garden statue, and he makes for the biodome.
“But, Sir –”
“Pull up when I call it.”
The concrete frame is right in front of his face –
Iron Man shoots up into the sky like a cannon ball, leaving behind a gust of smoke and a mini-explosion as three drones smash headily into the structure. Pieces of metal scrap frizzle as they scatter around the globe, and Tony hovers a good distance away, gasping for air.
Steve’s com line blinks from a corner. “What the hell was that, Stark?”
“I had to thin out the herd!”
“… STRIKE, stand down. Targets neutralised.”
Steve Rogers is most welcome.
The com line crackles again, but there’s an awkward whoosh quality to it. Steve’s line is still open, and he sees a second blip next to it.
Did someone else just hack his com line?
“Well done on the new chest piece,” a woman begins to speak. “I am reading significant higher output and your vitals all look promising.”
“… Do I know you?”
“I’m borrowing your Expo’s command centre. This is Agent Romanoff of SHIELD. Pleasure, Mr Stark.”
All right. Nobody hacks into his stuff.
“Ditto, Agent. For the moment, I’m not dying. Thank you.”
“What do you mean you’re not dying?” It’s another woman’s voice – he sees a third blip in his HUD, next to Steve’s and Romanoff’s. “Did you just say you’re dying?”
“Pepper? Is that you?” It’s probably the only woman’s voice he’ll recognise anywhere. “No, I’m not. Not anymore.”
“What’s going on?”
“I was going to tell you. I didn’t want to alarm you.”
“You were gonna tell me? You really were dying?”
“You didn’t let me.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that?”
“I was gonna ask if I could cancel the PR disaster that was my birthday party and tell you.”
“Enough chatter, people,” Steve’s curt order cuts through. “Miss Potts, where are you operating from?”
“The Expo command centre. Agent Romanoff has overridden Vanko’s access to the drones.”
Only because Tony knows her well, he detects a brief hesitance as she ends her sentence. She must be dying to know how Steve Rogers the security expert morph into Captain America one fine Saturday evening.
“Thank you, ma’am. But I’ve to ask you to leave the compound now, for your own safety. Agent Romanoff will be escorting you.”
“Yes, you are, Nat. Clear the control room. Echo has eyes on a rogue.”
“You think it’s Vanko.”
Pepper and Nat Romanoff – huh, what are the odds? – fizzle out from his helmet.
“Tony, stay where you are. I think he’s heading for you.”
“JARVIS, give me an area scan.”
He sees the rogue drone Steve implied. He sees it real good. It’s huge and clunky with a significantly higher heat output from the exoskeleton.
Tony smirks. “Take him to church, JARVIS.”
“I see him, Cap.”
“I’m on my way. Look alive. I’ve a bad feeling about this one.”
Vanko’s new suit isn’t anything like the previous one. That rackety, BDSM-ish full-body metal cage? Please. He must feel very attached to the whips because he’s still using them, violently pruning daffodils and petunias by the sidewalk as he goes. That’s bad combat strategy because this time? Iron Man can fly.
“Calculate the reach of his whips, J. Let’s not get too close.”
“Disengage lethal weaponry. We’re taking him in alive.”
Vanko is entering the biodome – on foot. A warm welcome is in order. As he descends, a thought comes to him. He offs Steve’s com line and instructs, “Track Steve’s whereabout. Put his vitals on the side.”
Glass and steel break away as he thrusts downward through the ceiling, landing ostentatiously before Vanko. Whatever form of agriculture his gardeners so lovingly cultivated now look like kimchi, and that makes him like Vanko even less.
“Hey, Tony.” Vanko’s suit doesn’t come with a helmet. He sneers, his gold canine catching the glint of a distant light. “How you doing? I double cycle.”
“You told me double cycle’s more power. Good advice.”
“We’ll be best science bud if you tone down the homicidal part.”
“Now, the true history of Stark name will be written.”
Tony’s HUD lights up in orange. He’s recording a sudden surge of power in Vanko’s gauntlets. “Sounds good. Let’s hash it out.”
The whips are about his neck before he’s ready. Maintaining balance as Vanko reels him in is an uphill battle. The suffocation, the dread of sparks a thousand degree hot melting the paintwork on his suit. He grabs the electric blue of Vanko’s whips.
Give ‘em hell.
He makes for the sky, already picturing Vanko dangling from the handle of his whips, swaying five storeys high from the ground – when his thrusters in his back and boots splutter like a semi-empty mayonnaise squeeze bottle.
“We need to go, J!”
“Power is rapidly diminishing, Sir.”
Vanko’s whips have been upgraded, so it seems. The longer they’re strangling him, the more power he’s sapping.
“Damn if I’m gonna sit here and be milked for what’s worth.”
He blasts several repulsor shots at Vanko square in his chest. Man doesn’t even budge an inch.
Another whip whizzes between them and catches him in his legs. Swept clean from the ground, Tony finds himself slinging through the air, crashing into flower pots and concrete pillars before ending in a crater in a dried-up pond.
His HUD is red all over.
“Sir, there is only enough power left for life support.”
What is left for him to do?
“Steve, you there?”
“One minute, Tony. Keep him busy.”
“… There’s a bunch of liquid nitrogen tubing under the planters. Douse Vanko with it, and shatter his suit when it’s brittle.”
The closest planters and tubing are just over there, a couple of yards away. He’s a sitting duck like this, immobile and useless.
But that also makes him the perfect bait.
He lifts his face plate and grins. “You did awesome, Ivan.”
“Good to be back,” Vanko leers, putting one heavy footstep after another. His whips crackle by his sides, but he seems content to not decapitate Tony just yet. “I want to make good on my promise, Stark. You will pay for what your father did to my family for forty years.”
“Look, there’s more to life than revenge. You’re done being angry for forty years, all right? You’re a man of talent, don’t let it go wasted. Start anew. I will help.” With his face plate off, the helmet’s com line is smothered by ambient noises, but he hopes what he just heard was soil and metal grates being lifted. He hopes that’s Steve uncovering those damn tubes. “Your work will help the world. We can make it happen.”
Vanko does not hesitate. He lifts his left whip above his head. “See you in hell, Stark.”
A metal disc knocks Vanko in the shoulder, throwing his angle off and the frayed ends of the whip land a couple of inch to the left of Tony’s ear –
“Steve, watch out!”
The shield bounces off Vanko’s suit and Steve catches it, just in the nick of time as he parries an incoming lash.
Vanko steps away from Tony, knowing full well that Iron Man is down. Permanently. He isn’t wrong. Not really. And Steve keeps pelting him with bullets, trying and succeeding in gaining Vanko’s attention.
Tony lets down his face plate.
“JARVIS, tell me we have some reserves left.”
“The back-up battery is drained, Sir.”
For better or worse…
“Hook the suit up to my arc reactor.”
“Sir, that is not wise –”
“Do it. Tick tock, J. Don’t make me hotwire this suit myself.”
A breath later, his HUD comes alive, and so does the internal circuitry. He’s online, kicking and pissed.
“Thirty percent power, Sir, before you go into cardiac arrest.”
“… What’s new? Let’s go!”
Vanko is making Steve skip ropes with his whips. Two long gashes decorate Steve’s front. His blood is staining the ground. It’s evident that Vanko is the worst kind of opponent for a fighter like Steve. And Tony does the one thing that comes to mind.
He leaps and hugs Vanko from the back. He curls his legs around Vanko’s waist, and arrests him in a chokehold.
This isn’t very well thought out, is it?
His gauntlets and pauldrons creak as the suit’s mechanics strain even more under the increased pressure.
“Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep –”
“Tony!” Steve is back in his view. He’s cradling a huge tube overflowing with clear liquid, fuming with bone-deep coldness. He only needs to pluck it clean from the ground. “Tony, get away!”
“Just do it! I can take it!”
Steve nods, and he pulls the tube free.
And it rains like hail and the Arctic, like never before.
“Sir, critical power reserve. Last ten percent –“
“I don’t wanna hear it!”
Meanwhile, structural integrity is down to twenty-five percent. He can handle the liquid nitrogen shower. He just needs to hold on a bit more, at least until Vanko gets a frostbite –
“Tony, get out!”
He unclasps his gauntlets and rolls away from Vanko. Iron Man is sporting a thin sheen of snow, but it’s nothing compared to the coffin of ice encapsulating Vanko. Can’t believe the antifreeze coating he’s invested in three years ago is still saving his butt. Once he’s out of striking reach, Steve aims his shield for Vanko’s chest plate and throws it.
That’s all, folks. Good game.
Tony flips to his back and lifts his face plate. He needs the twenty-one percent atmospheric oxygen in his lungs, right now. Steve and his STRIKE team and Nat Romanoff and Fury and the rest of SHIELD can sweep glass shards from his porch, cuff Vanko to prison, all the fun stuff…
“Tony, get up.”
“Let me at least breathe for one sec –”
Steve’s shadow and hell, all of him is suddenly on him. His strong arms wrap about Iron Man’s cuirass and he heaves Tony up by the armpits.
“Oh, shit!” Tony sees it now, once he closes his helmet. Another spike in energy in Vanko’s suit and all of his drones. They can mean anything –
Vanko’s death rattle sends a chill down his spine. “I win.”
Tony makes a blind grab for Steve and bolts. They barely clear the perimeter of the biodome – or what’s left of it – before flames engulf the grounds, licking at the soles of his suit.
“Sir, three percent –”
“I know! Just leave the counter on the HUD!”
He hopes there are no other casualties on the ground. He’ll have to wait for Pepper on that front, if he makes it back to her alive. Speaking of “alive, he isn’t exactly in the clear –
“Tony, watch out!”
He’s losing altitude. He can’t carry both their weights at this speed – not sustainable – and there’s a familiar pinch in the centre of his chest.
The inside of his suit goes dark. Looking through the eye holes, he glimpses the red and blue of the shield that Steve’s cradling on his stomach. That’s about it. He’s flying blind as a near-dead stick in the air. JARVIS is gone.
“Steve, the landing’s gonna be rough.” He prays that Steve hears him with his helmet on. “Tell me if there’s a roof under us.”
“Yes. There’s a roof under –”
And Tony just lets go. Iron Man goes freakishly silent – all engines dying at the same time – and Steve angles his shield under their bodies to cushion the impact.
Utter blackness shrouds his vision. There’s no sensation. Not the slightest touch of midnight’s breeze.
His face plate is gone. There’s warm liquid dripping on his forehead. Sweat, blood, whatever.
“Don’t you dare, Stark. Wake up.”
The modern-equivalent of his cuirass is gone. Steve palpates his neck, his sternum, his ribs –
“I’m up,” he grits out eventually, before those long fingers ghost over his tickle spots. That will truly be the end of him. “How’s my reactor?”
“It’s fine. You’re bleeding all over, are you hurt?”
“… I don’t know.” Well, what Steve doesn’t know is, there’s always a risk of his eyeballs exploding each time he absorbs the high G’s. And what Steve doesn’t know won’t hurt him. “Before JARVIS checked out, he said I was down to one percent on my reactor.”
“… Where’s your spare?”
“Haven’t had time to make a spare. Hey, no problem, one percent will last my heart a good month as a pacemaker.” He brings a clammy hand to his head. That’s a mother of headache coming up. “Pepper’s gonna murder me.”
“We need to talk about that.” Steve drops both his hands to Tony’s waist –
“Hey, careful with the goods there!”
And wrenches away the metal crotch piece. The rest of the suit peels away spontaneously – greaves, boots and all – freeing him from the clutches of Iron Man’s carcass.
“Is tonight Iron Man’s usual fight behaviour?”
“What’s with the condescending tone?”
“I’m talking about your suicidal tendency, Tony.”
“Why, do you take issue with that?”
“Yes.” Tony flicks ash off his knee. “You don’t always have to jump in with both feet. There’s a difference between making a sacrifice and an active pursuit of death.”
“Well, all things considered, I think I did OK!” Tony waves his hand over the wide expanse of his Expo, a quarter of which is either on fire or a heap of rubble.
Steve shakes his head and looks away.
“Steve, you’ve taken such good care of me. You’re right, I’m – I’ve been in a tough spot, but you got me through it. So.”
“Yeah.” Steve sure is easy to placate. Saying “sorry” – or something of similar value – once is never going to fly with Pepper. “Yeah, so let’s talk clean-up. I’ll bill Fury for damages – I know SHIELD blasted the hell out of Block F – Pepper’s gonna handle the press, you and I will have to rebuild part of this place –”
Steve reaches over and presses his lips against Tony’s. There’s a rich tang of oil and metal in the contact, and Steve runs his fingers through Tony’s bloodied hair. This must be what they call comfort after the battle. They’ll take whatever they have.
Then, bright, white light beams down on them. Tony yelps and pulls away so fast he trips over his right ankle and crumples into the remnants of his totalled suit.
“Captain, Mr Stark,” Fury greets through his megaphone that echoes from the Quinjet hovering above them. A rope ladder is tossed out of the jet. “I want a debriefing in fifteen.”
One month half after Steve Rogers walked into Stark Industries, Tony Stark emerges a changed man. It’s unprecedented. Tony thinks about all the crazies that’d come to pass in that one month half as he’s wheeled into SHIELD’s medic bay. He isn’t the least surprised that his first visitor is Pepper, and boy is she not pleased. She brings not flowers or fruit baskets, only a flurry of rage for her boss. See that? Boss, not ex-boss.
“I can’t take this anymore.”
“My body, literally, cannot handle the stress! I never know if you’re gonna kill yourself or wreak the whole company!”
“I think I did OK!”
“I quit. I’m resigning. That’s it.”
“What did you just say? You’re done? That’s surprising.” Pepper turns a deeper shade of scarlet. “No, it’s not surprising. I get it. You don’t have to make excuses.”
“… I’m not making any excuses!”
“You actually were, just making excuses. But you don’t have to.”
“No, I wasn’t! I’m actually very justified! I’ll handle the transition. It’ll be smooth.”
And then she starts crying, big fat tears rolling down her cheeks and Tony shuffles to the other side of his gurney for gauzes. They’re cotton soft and he hasn’t tissue or handkerchiefs to offer, so he passes Pepper some of that, which she blows her nose into. After that, she enters the phase of hiccupping, which is cute, which gives him the opening to apologise for virtually everything. For hiding stuff from her, for being the reckless piece of shit he is…
“… Have they done a brain scan on you?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“– ‘Cause you’re not yourself. You’re being nice.”
“I am nice, Pep, what are you talking about? You’re not leaving me, or the company, OK? Look, how are you gonna resign if I don’t accept?”
Concerning him being a changed man. After Pepper left – taking the box of gauzes with her – Tony slinks readily into his gurney, as his next visitor takes his seat by the bedside table.
“Hey, Cap. You OK?”
“Some scratches. Nothing major.”
“… I saw you take those whips in the chest. You sure you’re OK?”
“Yes. They’ve closed up fine.”
Then, he takes the shield he’s sandwiched in place between his knees and leans it against the wall. That’s how he keeps his shield when at home. It’s oddly charming, Tony thinks. It’s like how he leaves his socks in the hallway after a hard day’s work. He can do something about that. He can build Steve a shield-buffing machine.
“So... you’re here to talk. I bet you’ve plenty to talk about. I can do talks. Go.”
Definitely the worst preamble to “The Talk” one can possibly have.
“Hammer’s been charged with abetting the escape of a wanted criminal, malicious damage of property and attempted homicide.”
“… Sounds serious. Attempted homicide, you say? So, that’s the worst case that’d happened?”
Steve considers Tony for a while, and slowly, he replies, “We found some bodies trapped in the wreckage. Body count is up to five. We’re still working on it.” Steve leans forward in his chair. “We did the best we could. I know what you’re thinking, and you have to stop that.”
Tony smiles fleetingly. It doesn’t reach his eyes.
“Fury would like to meet you at the Triskelion this Saturday.”
“… For what? A second debriefing?”
“No. I can’t tell you what it’s about –”
“Oh, the same tune, huh? All these secrecies in SHIELD – with you – don’t sit well with me. I’m gonna give it a pass.”
“No, I can’t tell you because I don’t know what he’s thinking. Tony,” and the chair scrapes against the floor as Steve scoots closer to the gurney. “I’m sorry. Truly, for all the things I’d hidden from you. For lying to you.”
“You don’t have to do this.”
“I do. I have to.” He clasps his hands over his knees. “I’ve actually decided. I’m re-joining SHIELD.”
“You can’t re-join something you’re already part of, Steve.”
“Not as who I really am,” his blue eyes twinkle as he smiles, and Tony sees not the lost soldier in a wrong timeline, but the revered Son of America he’s come to love and look up to. “The Avenger Initiative will happen, though recruiting new members seems strangely challenging.”
“… Have fun, I suppose. That’s Fury’s wet dream comes true huh, henpecking a bunch of superheroes in New York.”
“No, he won’t. I’ll be leading the team.”
Now that, Tony can get behind. He nods, and in the back of his head he sees Steve, tall and strong ordering around his ragtag assembly of people who try to do some good in this crapsack world.
“This is your temp access card to Fury’s office. It’s biometric-activated, but still… don’t leave it lying around.”
Tony takes it – with his hand that’s not in the sling. It’s awkward and stiff, so Steve presses the card gently in his palm, and he closes Tony’s hand with both of his. “You don’t have to do anything, for us, I’m not expecting you to.”
“… You misunderstand me. I see what we have here, and how we can… build on it?” Tony’s bandaged fingers tighten over the card. “I couldn’t make it work with Pepper. Hell, I’d never… Mom and Dad were a tough case, and they’re Mom and Dad. There’s… it’s something I got to work out on my own, I think.”
“No,” Tony chuckles a little. “No, I can’t have you waiting on me. You deserve so much more, Steve. You deserve to be happy, and I can’t give you that. Look at us the past month. Did you hear Pepper just now? Oh, don’t bullshit me, I know you heard us from down the corridor.”
“Be that as it may…” Steve sets Tony’s hand to rest atop his stomach. “I’d learned that leaving you alone is a fool’s hope. I might have to return your body to Pepper in a matchbox.”
“What do you propose then, Captain?”
Steve picks his shield up and fixes it on his back.
“Come to the Triskelion.”
“… Will you be there?”
Steve smiles wider. “I’ll be there.”
At breakfast on Saturday morning, JARVIS is reciting e-mails while Tony chews on his wholemeal toasts. They’re mostly work, and those Tony asks to be KIV-ed in a separate folder until Monday, because weekends are for tinkering.
“The next e-mail is from Captain Rogers.”
“Oh?” he butters his next piece of bread. “What does it say?”
“Three p.m. Don’t be late, Tony.”
“… Yeah, that.” Clamping down on his bread with his lips, he claps his hands and lets crumbs snow over his table top. “Lock the lab down, J. I’ve a feeling it’s gonna be a long one.”
Fury’s office in the Triskelion looks a bit like his. Corner lot, topmost floor. Nice view of New York. And a high executive chair to complete the lordliness appearance.
That’s all Tony gathers by tiptoeing in front of the door, over the frosted lamination when –
“Stark?” The door swings open and Tony almost topples forward into the room. “What the hell? Get your ass inside.”
“Nice to see you again, Nick.”
Fury harrumphs and holds the door open for Tony to walk through it, but instead of conducting their business over the mahogany-table-of-authority, Fury gestures for him to sit around the coffee table. There are two glasses of water placed on opposite sides and a thin folder between them.
“Avengers… Initiative Preliminary Report?” Tony reads it aloud.
“I don’t think I want you looking at that. I’m not sure it pertains to you anymore. Now this, on the other hand,” and he pulls out another folder, “is Captain Rogers’ assessment of you. Read it.”
The idea of Steve writing up an assessment on his character is… disturbing, to say the least.
“Is this, uh,” Tony gulps as he flips to the first page, “PG 13?”
Tony reads the first line that catches his attention. “’Personality overview. Mr Stark displays compulsive behaviour.’ In my own defence, that was last week. ‘Prone to self-destruction tendencies.’ I was dying. I mean, please. Aren’t we all?” He crosses his leg over a knee. “’Textbook narcissim?’”
Fury quirks one eyebrow, and says nothing.
Tony concedes. “Agreed. OK, here it is. ‘Recruitment assessment for Avenger Initiative. Iron Man? Yes.’” He lowers his folder to his lap. “I gotta think about it.”
“’Tony Stark… recommended?”
“Highly recommended, what he said over dinner. But that is the Captain’s opinion.”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
“You know, Nick – off the records? You said you wanted me to finish up Dad’s work. It’s done. It works. But I’m not building you a weapon, you know that. I’ve no intention of doing this Iron Man gig long-term, I’m sure Steve told you that. I guess I’m saying, I’m hellbent on doing everything you don’t want me to. So, why?”
“Why am I not strapped to an A-frame getting waterboarded? Why am I sitting here chatting with you over – over a glass of water?”
And belatedly, Tony realises he’s clenched his fists so tightly over the armrest that his fingernails are digging into the cushion. He winces.
It doesn’t escape Fury, naturally.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there to prevent Afghanistan, Tony.” And bit by bit, Tony regulates his breathing with the hum of the air-conditioning. “It’s a tragedy, but silver lining is, if it weren’t for it, you wouldn’t be who you are today. Howard would’ve been proud of you.” Fury leans forward and pops a knuckle. “I’m not a slave-driver. I’ll show you the door, you choose if you want to walk through it. The last month had been fun though, hadn’t it?”
Tony’s eyes narrowed. That’s an effed-up life Fury’s been leading if his last month was fun.
“You’ve been on your own for so long, you forget how it’s like to work in a team. What it means to trust someone, and have someone look out for your hide. You might not realise this, but you’ve saved Rogers’ life.”
“… Pretty sure he did all the saving himself.”
“You know how he’s like. The three months he spent in SHIELD, he was lifeless. Just going through the motion. You know how it feels like, living the days without a purpose.”
Tony looks down to his lap again.
“You’re family to him. In our line of job, it’s all we have sometimes.” Fury gives the coffee table a rap and stands up. “Anyway, since you’ve shown absolutely no interest in the Avenger Initiative, guess I’ll have to ask HR to put up a new ad on Craigslist.”
“Wait, hold on a sec. I got a new ticker. I’m trying to do right by… by Pepper, by Steve. I’m… in a stable-ish relationship? No, not really, but I’ve got something going on here – Nick?” Jesus Christ, is he bipolar or something, first he doesn’t want it, now he wants it… and why is he even justifying himself to a super-secret spy he has only distrusts for, who’s leading an organisation which coincidentally, he has only distrusts for?
“Which leads us to believe at this juncture, we’d only like to use you as a consultant.”
Tony gapes at that.
If that’s the case…
He stands up, clears his throat, and flashes his best megawatt grin. He extends his hand, which Fury shakes. “You can’t afford me.”
Oh, seeing the vein in Fury’s temple pop is so worth it.
“Then again!” Tony adds quickly, because he doesn’t want to be shot. “I will waive my customary retainer in exchange for a small favour.”
“… I’ll see what I can do.”
“Rogers, for you.”
“… What, my salary? I thought this goes straight into my bank account.”
“Just open the damn envelope.”
“… Spam mail?”
“I mean, it says two-week vacation in the… mountains? No, or a yacht, or a vineyard… what? Bike rental, lodging… they look expensive. I can’t afford this.”
“I’m giving you two weeks of day off, Rogers. Those things are paid for, so don’t worry about the expenses.”
“… Is Stark involved in this?”
“Get out of my office. See you in two weeks.”
Since someone’s already paid for it…
Steve chose the smallest cabin on the mountaintop that overlooks the Pacific. It’s sunrise, and he’s sitting on a stool in his porch, nursing a glass of freshly pressed orange juice. The morning run was good. Ascending some seven-hundred feet was a bit taxing even for a super soldier, but serve him right for not stopping after the thirty-second round.
It is only Day Eight of Fourteen.
Peace on earth.
It’s the right place to be, he ponders. And the change in atmosphere was initially so jarring that a week ago, the minute he dropped his luggage on his bed he checked his bathroom and kitchen twice before he was convinced that he was truly, alone. No bots watching him or listening in, no Agents doing double-takes when they walked past him down the corridor.
No resident motormouth Tony Stark, either.
Just him, his orange juice, and the beautiful sunrise.
Steve spits said orange juice on his jeans.
“I know you’re in there! I see your bike!” Three knocks on the door rattles the entire cabin. “If I don’t see you in three, I’m gonna let the air out of –”
Steve just has to lean over the railing and poke his head out a little bit… and there he goes. His eyes crinkle at the sight of his guest.
“… The man’s alive!”
“Why won’t I be?” Without leaving his seat, Steve slides a broomstick through the window to lift the hatch to the kitchen door. It swings open with a rackety squeak, and Tony stares at it, aghast.
“I paid good money for this trip! You could’ve picked anything this side of America, and you chose the one where your arm extends across two sections of a house?”
“I don’t need that much space. Orange juice?” Steve uncaps another bottle and slides it across the table. An empty chair sits by it.
“You couldn’t have picked up your phone? Or answered your e-mails?”
“I forgot to pack my chargers. That never is a problem since the dorms, the Tower or your house always have a spare lying around. Nothing’s wrong, is there? I’m on vacation, after all?”
“You’re taking the vacation too seriously,” Tony grumbles as he slinks into the chair, and nearly topples sideway because their legs aren’t levelled.
“Last time I checked, vacation means away from work.”
“… Last time you checked, pants were still worn at the high waist.” Tony drains half of his bottle. “That type of vacation sounds awesome, actually. We should bring it back to the present.”
“So, why are you here?”
“Oh, now I need a reason to visit my friend, who’s on vacation, a vacation I’m paying for?”
Steve laughs and reclines in his chair until he’s tilted on two legs. “I’m good, Tony. I should’ve dropped you a note. I’m sorry.”
“… You make it sound like I’m worried about you. Who says I’m worried about you?”
“Are you sure it’s OK to leave New York? Construction’s just begun on the Expo, right?”
“Re-construction. It’s a tough time, but Pepper’s holding down the fort. I needed something from my private server, and I thought of dropping in for a bit. It’s a relief actually, passing on the reign. Pepper’s doing such an amazing job with the company.” The tail of Tony’s eyes skirt towards Steve. “I could never do that before. So, thank you.”
“For being an ass, that’s what.”
Steve laughs some more. The sun is properly up in the sky now.
“I’ve decided, too. I’m joining the Avengers.”
Steve doesn’t comment, though there’s something in the quirk of his lips that suggests… triumph. “I see that, Steve. What’s that look? You don’t think I’m gonna take up Fury’s offer?”
“I have confidence that you would.” Their knees bump a little as Steve brings his chair down to all four. “It’s an honour, Iron Man.”
“… Wow, can’t believe you just said that.”
“So, are you leaving for New York immediately?”
“Yeah. The jet’s cleared to leave at one.”
“We still have time?” Steve closes his hand over Tony’s and angles his chin. Tony meets him midway and it’s chaste, a little bit goofy, when Tony starts to grin and Steve’s kissing his two front teeth.
“Well, isn’t this a tease?” Tony runs his hand through Steve’s hair, still damp with sweat and brings their foreheads together. “I’ve missed you, but I really need to be on that plane. You have another week here. Just have fun.”
“This place is perfect. Thank you.”
“… Yeah. I know there’s a lot going on in this turn of century, I know you missed the quiet. I’ll see you in New York?”
“About that.” Steve pulls back, but not completely so that their fingers are still kind of touching. “I got a message from Fury yesterday night.”
“… I thought you weren’t answering your phone and e-mails.”
“Let’s just say SHIELD has other ways of contacting their agents when it’s urgent.”
“Urgent? Something top secret?”
“… Well, this is the cue for you to tell me what it is.”
Steve turns away. He surveys the distant canopy of greeneries and jagged cliffs. “SHIELD lost contact with an asset five hours ago. A patrol and scout unit was despatched thirty minutes after. I think Fury wants to send a STRIKE team in by nightfall.”
“They’ll want their leader back.”
What they really need – after all is said and done – is a freaking superhero union. And by that Tony means sick leaves, minimum wage, pension, the whole nine.
“I’ll be leaving tonight.”
“Wish I could stay the week.”
Something will always come along. Duties, above all.
“I made extra pancakes. You have some time for a quick breakfast?”
“… Yeah. Sounds great.”
And that makes every second that much more precious.
Steve Rogers and Tony Stark will return in Iron Man 3: The Winter Soldier.
This is it, folks! Thank you for reading this to the end, and above all, thank you for your continuous support! I hope to see you in the next one, so until then, take care!