4: and I gather the ashes in that hole in the ground where we fell
"...and stop. Time for a break. Think I've been sitting on my ass long enough, don't you? Can't even feel it. Do I have an ass, JARVIS?"
I believe you do, sir.
Tony slides out of the car and stretches while the lights turn on. He grimaces, squints at the light until his eyes adjust, and then rubs the back of his head as he saunters over to his desk. He waves aside Dummy and picks up a mug of lukewarm black coffee, extra strong; sipping, and cringing, he perches on the desk and glances down at the open suitcase.
There's still a stack of notebooks and blueprints for him to go through, but he's not really feeling it right now. His mind is fuzzy and overrun from the reels and tapes he'd been watching for the last three hours and...thirty-nine minutes. He's surprised his father thought them important enough to save, since most of them seemed to deal exclusively with the company's inner workings. What exactly does Fury want him to find? Couldn't he have given some kind of a hint to speed up the process? It's not like the antidote is permanent.
There are a handful of tapes that pique his interest, however. Three of them are of Howard and a couple unfamiliar men in his office, talking about some kind of serum and the kind of technology the 50s has to offer - or rather the lack of technology the 50s has to offer.
There's one tape that won't leave his mind, though. It's only six minutes and ten seconds long; someone obviously cut it to hide something but he can't tell what. The one certain thing he came away with from the six minutes and ten was that his father was on very familiar terms with the British woman whose very classy heels is the only visible part of her.
"Is there a reason why you're recording this?"
"Just in case I need to remind myself. I don't want to forget."
"Because we've done such a good job making the rest of the world forget?"
"It's just...it's an empty casket, Peggy. I can't just leave it like that."
"We've been looking and looking for ten years. I-I think it's gone on long enough. We can't waste our lives like this, not with all of our other obligations. Maybe it's time to move on."
"I don't know if I can."
"He'd have wanted it. You know that."
"Who is she?" Tony mutters into the rim of his mug. Who's Peggy?
He spots a bit of color sticking out under the haphazard stack he dropped on top of another stack in the suitcase and tries to tug it out without upsetting the balance. Unsurprisingly the whole thing tips over. Papers fly everywhere and something made of metal shoots across the floor. Dummy eagerly reaches down to pluck the suitcase out of the mess and he bats its claw away.
"Stand down, Dummy, or I'm shipping you to the dumpster at the bottom of the driveway."
Once he's done reshuffling the notes and blueprints he goes looking for the bit of metal that rocketed off to some distant corner of his garage. Eventually he finds it resting against the tire of one of his Audis; it's a bent piece of metal, an odd thing to find in the suitcase. On the way back he steps on something and discovers another one just like it.
"Looks like slugs," he says as he tosses them into the suitcase. "Weird."
He starts looking for that bit of color. Immediately Dummy swings its arm to him, the color in its claw. Tony gives it a look as he takes it and then glances down at the front page.
Time slows down as stares at the bold yellow letters spelling out "CAPTAIN AMERICA". Distracting as the front cover is - it's a muscular man wearing a ridiculous costume tailored from pieces of the Star Spangled Banner punching Hitler - his eyes flick to the top right hand corner; it's bent in exactly the way he recalls folding over the corner and then he realizes that this is the exact same comic he found in his father's office when he was six.
"Don't go through my things without my permission again, understand? Now get out!"
At the time he thought he'd committed a terrible sin for going through other people's personal belongings without permission but of course he was only six, he didn't know better. Now, almost forty years later, Tony wonders why his father almost hit him over him finding this vintage comic. It was published when his father was a younger man and it's eerie how pristine this copy is because he can't imagine Howard Stark as an avid collector of old comics, but it's still just a comic. And what's it doing in here anyway? What connection does it have to the meticulous notes on the properties of unexplained chemical reactions?
He makes to open it - carefully, of course, and he wonders if he should be holding it with his bare hands in the first place - but when he tilts the stapled pages something slides out. A lot of something slides out onto his feet.
He crouches down to gather them - and for the second time in the past ten minutes he freezes.
Someone took the time to carefully cut these sketches out of larger sheets of paper to hide them in the comic. Tony gingerly picks up a yellowed piece and stares at the man in the uniform. Frowning he pulls the comic off the desk and places it on the floor to compare the Captain America within the pages with the Captain America drawn in Howard's hand. He flips through the panels detailing the transformation of a frail man into a super soldier and the reveal of a Nazi spy to stop at a panel of the soldier in that colorful uniform.
The difference in style is clear cut; there's something inherently gaudy, awkward, and exaggerated about the 40s comic but the man his father sketched seems so natural and life-like. There's something about the slope of his shoulders and the weight of his gestures, the strange juxtaposition of the man's impressive build and the kind, unassuming smile on his face that's telling Tony that this man is-was real.
That's not possible.
Something pings in the back of his head. Fury was saying something as he left Tony in SHIELD's care and he managed to pick up "patch a line to Ross" and "don't recall giving permis... use the serum on someone we didn't screen" before the walls of his mansion bounced Fury's voice elsewhere.
Maybe he should take another look at some of the notebooks he tossed aside, and rewatch some of the reels. Tony makes note of this as he picks up another sketch, and then another and another, studying the variations in the very patriotic uniform as it slowly transformed from something straight from the pages of the comics into something realistic and wearable. At the same time he notices the drift in focus, the fewer details given to the uniform - he's assuming these were all sketches for someone's battlefield uniform, ridiculously weird as it all looks and wouldn't that be like walking around with a bulls-eye painted to your back? - and the more attention paid to the man's handsome, determined face and the very natural feel of his form.
Someone was obsessed, Tony thinks, and his name was Howard. Odd to think that his father didn't swing just for the women. And maybe he should go find something to eradicate the images taking shape in his head. He kneads at his forehead with finger and thumb, shakes his head, and then looks down at the sketch in his hand; underneath yet another drawing of the man is his father's scrawl. It's in pen and done long after the pencils were laid down. It's also slanted and the letters get loopier with each word. Tony wonders if he was drunk when he wrote...this...
Where are you, Steve? I can't find you. I can't let you go.
Steve? Where did he read that name? Tony glances at the comic, and then slowly, disbelievingly, flips back a few pages and scans the text until his eyes land on a name.
Tony sits down on the floor.
"That's not possible. That's just not possible."
It's quite possible, sir. As you instructed I pulled up several classified files with regard to Lieutenant General Ross's attempts to revive what was called the Super-Soldier Program in World War-
His fingers migrate to his right temple and knead at the spot. "Not now. Why don't you...find out when they stopped running these issues?"
When he thinks about it his father never talked much about his life during the war. Tony didn't ask much either, especially since as he got older Howard became more aloof and critical. Most of what he learned about his father's exploits he learned at MIT, which boiled down to "various clandestine weapons programs and the Manhattan Project".
Could one of those programs be this super soldier program? Or was "clandestine weapons programs" just code for the super soldier program? Tony isn't putting it past SHIELD to rephrase everything in order to keep its secrets.
It's quite possible, with the comic and these sketches and a couple previously baffling notebooks, that his father was heavily involved in it at some point. Tony sets down the sketch and slides the comic over, starts from the beginning and gingerly flips each page over as he reads. If the events in the panels parallel what happened in reality then only one super soldier was made before things went disastrously wrong. He looks at the sketches he laid out before him and picks up the one with the drunk scribble. He rereads the three sentences and thinks back on the strange tape of his father and the woman named Peggy, then shakes his head to clear out the questions.
Sir, the title Captain America Comics was superseded by Captain America's Weird Tales and ended its run in February 1950. The given explanation is that interest in superheroes waned following World War II.
"Bet SHIELD had something to do with it," Tony says. "Wouldn't be surprised if they shut it down to hush everyone up."
He notices a discrepancy in the small stack of sketches, like something of a different material worked its way in there. Sandwiched between two drawings of this Star Spangled Man is a folded piece of paper, thick and textured as though it was produced with the artist in mind. Tony presses his lips together, rubs his moustache and frowns to himself as he picks it up and carefully unfolds it.
Someone with far more skill had drawn a young Howard Stark holding up an odd round shield. Tony blinks, not sure what to make of it. The family resemblance is there but the expression on his father's face is completely foreign; memories of the man looking relaxed and well within himself, pleased with his work and with life, are so few and far in between. There's not even a hint of the playboy reputation Howard had cultivated during the wartime period; this artist - "Since when did Dad hang out with artists?" - was there at some point in his father's life to capture the genuine Howard Stark, and Tony presses his hand to his chest right above the arc reactor against the small hot flare of envy.
There's something else, though, something that must explain the attention and care given to each stroke, each smudge, each line, each detail and gesture that made up this portrait. Whoever drew this actually cared about Howard.
"Who are you?" Tony mutters, and then his eyes fall to the signature at the bottom.
Smudged and faded as most of the letters are he can still make out the "S" and the "R" of the first and last names. It's not hard to guess that the artist's name is Steve Rogers.
"I'm afraid I'm not, Mr. Stark."
"I distinctly recall you saying I was meeting the rest of Fury's boy band group in an hour."
"No, I said you were forty minutes late to a meeting. We sent you a memo three hours ago."
"I dismissed it. My name wasn't on it."
"Which is why I dropped by for a visit. To make sure you weren't late to both meetings."
Is it just him or is Coulson's voice radiating high levels of smug? It can't be healthy for such a small guy like him.
"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" Tony accuses.
"I enjoy doing my job."
"Ever heard of being fashionably late?"
"I know you're quite familiar with it. Unfortunately our line of work doesn't enjoy being fashionably late. Bad things happen."
Tony's still irritated about Pepper and Coulson kicking him out of the garage into the cockpit of the prototype jet he'd been building for SHIELD. He also loves seeing how far he can push this unassuming agent until he snaps but while being testy about flying to New York City at least twenty minutes earlier than usual he notices that the narrow hallway they're walking through isn't the one they usually take to SHIELD's giant fancy meeting room.
Shortcut, maybe. Wait, what meeting was he late for again?
"What's this meeting about?" he asks.
Not surprisingly Coulson gives him a non-answer. "You're lucky he's a patient man."
"Never took Fury for the patient type."
Coulson smiles. "We're not talking about Colonel Fury, Mr. Stark."
"Oh we're not? Then what..." Where the hell are they? "Where the hell are we?"
"The reason why Colonel Fury asked you to come two hours early," Coulson says as they swing left into an even narrower hallway; at the very end are two SHIELD agents, including a gorgeous brunette, "is because we believe this meeting should be held first to clear up a few things. Agent Carter."
The brunette nods and steps aside. "He's inside."
She gives Tony a funny look, which isn't encouraging at all, but then Coulson is opening the door and there's a sudden iron grip on Tony's elbow dragging him into the room.
It's small, the walls bare and windowless; the light is a horrible, soul-sucking white and he grimaces inwardly, wonders how he'd look if he pulled out his sunglasses - wait, they're in the jet. Even more distracting is the sudden jerky movement in the vicinity of the table in the middle of the room and his attention quickly swerves to the military man stumbling over his feet while quickly righting a chair. Coulson just stands to the side, hands clasped in front, watching and waiting.
Tony opens his mouth to ask Coulson who the hell he is but then the man looks up and it feels like his arc reactor is imploding.
There's no mistaking who he is, despite the sharp army green dress uniform, the shy skittishness giving way to utter shock, and the fact that he was born in the 20s and yet looks like a kid barely out of college. Tony's seen that face a thousand times since he first found them in his father's suitcase, had wondered and pondered about the connection to Howard when he wasn't destroying knock-offs of his suit and completing tasks for SHIELD - with the greatest reluctance, mind you.
He's a handsome face with handsome lines but now that Tony's seeing him with his own eyes he can see the sincerity and kindness and strength that must've made him a real superhero of the 40s. He's the lighthouse in this room, drawing everyone in like ships to safe harbor. Tony can't deny the tug in his mind and his heart, like he wants to follow this man anywhere and everywhere, and now he's starting to understand why his father was so obsessed.
Why Howard was in love for so long.
His eyes are fixed on Tony, a deep clear blue despite the light, and his mouth is moving, those perfect lips forming a single word, two syllables. There's no sound but Tony can read lips when he wants and he knows what was just said.
"Mr. Rogers," Coulson now says, and Tony starts, remembers that the agent is there, too. "This is Mr. Sta-"
"Name's Tony," he interrupts, striding over and holding his hand out. "Howard's son."
The grip is firm and very, very warm. Tony swallows hard against a dry mouth and doesn't quite let go.
"Steve," Captain America says. "Steve Rogers...sir."
"Oh don't call me that," he says automatically. "You make me feel old. Just call me Tony."
It's odd the way the kid smiles; it's not that it's as bright as the rest of him - it's so much brighter - but that it's so hopeful. Like he's the one who found something, or someone, safe. "Okay...Tony."
"Now that's more like it."