Pairings/Characters: Tony Stark, James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, Steve/Bucky (Bucky does not appear in Ch. 2, 3, & 4), Rosa Martinetti, Mario Martinelli, Ella Simms, Unnamed Teller, Arnie Roth, Howard Stark, Thor Odinson
Continuity: Captain America 1: The First Avenger (2011), Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America 3: Civil War (2016).
Series Notes: Any ideas that pop up about the boys in their early days will end up under this umbrella title. Skinny!Steve and Protective!Bucky for the win! ;) The entire series can be found here.
Genres: Angst, Drama, Historical
Fanworker: The talented taibhrigh! :) Link: here.
Fanworker: The superb dulcetine! :) Link: here.
Beta: The marvelous starsandsea! :) All mistakes are my own.
Warnings: (Ch. 2 & 4: Violence)
Spoilers: Captain America 1: The First Avenger (2011), Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America 3: Civil War (2016)
General Summary: After what Bucky Barnes did to his parents, how can Tony ever reconcile that with Bucky being Steve’s oldest friend? An inexplicable trip to the past may provide the answer.
Dates Of Completion: May 5, 2016-September 3, 2016
Dates Of Posting: November 8/9/11, 2016
Disclaimer: I don’t own ‘em, Marvel and Paramount do, more’s the pity.
Word Count: 27,327
Feedback welcome and appreciated.
Author’s Note: Written for the 2016 marvel_bang.
THE TASTE OF GRIEF
The taste of grief,
As the hand
Lifting the cup.
“The Gray Sky”
The silence closed in around him. Tony Stark was unaccustomed to silence. He surrounded himself with noise, whether heavy metal blaring at ear-splitting decibels or people rushing in and out of his presence with any manner of distraction.
He sometimes wondered if he liked the chaos so that he would not have to be alone with himself and his thoughts. Thinking about inventions was fine. Thinking about his own company was a different story.
He was supposed to be a futurist. Look forward, not to the past. Because his past? Littered with screw-ups and refuse from a lifetime of both. If it wasn’t the Merchant of Death it was Ultron. All weapons, all deadly.
The Avengers were supposed to fix all that. No more screw-ups.
He stared gloomily out the window of his Tower at the Chrysler Building. Maybe he should move back to the Mansion. No memories of the Avengers there. No romantic ones of Pepper from those days. But his parents’ presence was all over the place. It was hard enough to deal with that, but after…he abruptly stood up from the couch and strode to the bar, pouring a glass of whiskey.
The liquor burned down his throat as he tried to ignore the silence. The team had moved to a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility upstate after Ultron, but Tony had assured them they could stay here in the Tower whenever they were in the city.
He poured another drink. His hand shook as he lifted the glass to his lips. He tasted the whiskey and suddenly slammed the glass down onto the bar. The taste made his stomach turn.
Steve had been right. Oversight of the Avengers by the United Nations would have been a disaster. By the time the diplomats had finished debating whether or not to activate the Avengers, the bad guys would have succeeded with their plot.
The Government treated my friends like criminals, put them in a prison designed for supervillains, not superheroes.
The Sokovia Accords had tried to fix the problem of civilian deaths, but the bad guys never cared about innocent people. Heroes had to stop them, and sometimes people got hurt or worse. It was definitely a problem, but the Accords were a poor fix.
Tony rubbed his shoulder. He had accumulated quite a few aches and pains during the recent battles. Especially the last fight.
He downed the whiskey in a single gulp. That ancient film of his parents’ murders was seared into his brain. The Winter Soldier had killed them.
How could he process that? His friend Steve’s oldest friend had killed his parents. Yes, he was brainwashed, but his parents’ assassin was alive and enjoying his old friend’s company while his parents’ bones rotted in the ground. There was no justice in this world.
I can’t just go merrily along and forget what Barnes did.
The sky outside the Tower was a light blue with clouds drifting by. The weather app on his Starkphone predicted a storm later.
The silence grew too oppressive. It was time for his daily visit to Rhodey.
The military facility in upstate New York had been adapted for use by the Avengers after the Ultron events. Tony pushed away the memory of his disappointment at the headquarters move from his Tower. He supposed it was for the better, but he missed the Tower being full of friends and teammates.
Of course, there is no team anymore, and I’ve got no friends and teammates except for Rhodey.
Tony parked his Jaguar in the parking lot, seeing Steve’s motorcycle in one of the slots. He walked to the shiny entrance doors and signed in at the reception desk. He walked through several corridors, taking a left and a right until he reached a bank of elevators. The elevator ride was smooth and deposited him on the medical floor.
Hospitals were alike no matter where they were located. There was always the air of quiet efficiency interspersed with antiseptic smells.
He had experienced more than his share of hospitals since Afghanistan. The doctors had puzzled over the arc reactor, and only Tony’s ability to throw his weight around as only a rich man could got him out of their clutches. After the arc reactor had been removed, he had tolerated the poking and prodding, but only for so long.
Walking through the halls of the rehabilitation wing, he was back in that quiet, antiseptic world, and he was unhappy about it. He nodded to a passing nurse and reached Room 602.
Rhodey was in bed, flipping the pages of a magazine. He looked tired, but that was Situation Normal these days. Arduous physical therapy drained him, not to mention pain that only strong doses of medication could alleviate. The room was filled with cards, flowers and balloons, one of which Tony poked casually as he sauntered in.
“Hey there, Mr. Stank.”
Tony winced. Damn that doddering old deliveryman! His misreading of ‘Stark’ on the paperwork would plague Tony to infinity and beyond, as Buzz Lightyear would say.
“How did therapy go?”
“Okay. My therapist says I’m making good progress.”
“Great.” Tony looked out the window. “Nice view.”
“You say that every time.” Rhodey put aside the magazine onto the nightstand. “Does the pastoral view make you nervous?”
“I do prefer a view of skyscrapers.”
“Trees can be very soothing.”
Tony snorted as he sat in the one chair in the room. “Don’t go all New Age on me.”
“Didn’t Natasha teach you about tree spirits?”
“So she went undercover in a Wiccan coven once! Does that make her an expert?”
Tony could feel Rhodey’s eyes on him. The problem with old friends was that they knew you too well.
“What are you thinking about?”
“That leave it to Steve Rogers not to get in touch with me by text or e-mail but by letter.”
Rhodey laughed. “Sounds like Steve.”
“Such elegant handwriting, you know? Probably the Palmer Method.”
Tony deliberately did not mention the postmark and Rhodey didn’t ask. It was better that way. Nothing to tell his superiors.
For a lot of things.
“Well, that’s a start.” Rhodey sounded pleased. “That sounds like Steve. He knows he went waaay off the reservation on this one.”
“He didn’t apologize for his stance.”
“Of course not.” At Tony’s surprised expression, Rhodey laughed. “He isn’t going to apologize for his stand unless he changed his mind about that. I’d expect apologies for hurting you and stretching your friendship to the breaking point. That’s Steve.”
Tony grimaced. “What makes you think it’s not broken?”
Rhodey shrugged. “Is it?”
Tony rubbed his face. “I don’t know.”
“Bucky’s always going to be in the picture,” Rhodey said softly.
“Yeah.” Tony’s tone was bitter.
“Bucky is his oldest friend. Now that Peggy’s gone, Bucky is the only link to his past.”
“Sure.” The words grated on Tony, but it wasn’t Rhodey’s fault. He hadn’t told him about the fight in Siberia, or the reason why. It was all too raw.
“It’s like us…”
Rhodey blinked in confusion. He took a sip of icewater from his glass on the nightstand. “Something you not telling me?”
Tony abruptly stood. “Just that it all went to hell sooner than I thought it would.”
“Isn’t that always the way?”
The wind was blowing through the trees as the light blue of the sky turned a light gray. There were no birds singing outside Rhodey’s window. Damn, he wanted a cigarette. Pepper wasn’t around to disapprove.
Still, he had not smoked since the arc reactor had become a part of him. Even after its removal, he had kept himself smoke-free. Unfortunately, the craving was still there.
“Looks like a storm is brewing,” Rhodey observed.
“Yeah, it’s been predicted.” Tony picked up the magazine. “Pretty old school. Let me get you a new Stark Tablet and you can read hundreds of stories.”
“Old school aren’t dirty words, you know.”
“You going all Captain America on me?”
Rhodey grinned. “Is that so bad?”
Tony tossed the magazine on the bed. “It’s a brave new world where the old ways don’t work anymore.”
Rhodey looked skeptical. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
A gust of wind blew against the windows, rattling the glass. Tony frowned.
“Guess you’d better get back to town.” Rhodey sounded tired.
“Yeah, looks like I’d better.” Tony clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You keep up the good work.”
“You know I will.”
Tony smiled. “See you tomorrow.”
“I’ll be here.”
Tony wandered the living room of the Tower with a full glass of whiskey. He staggered slightly and the drink sloshed over the rim of the champagne flute. He felt the warmth of an alcoholic glow, a state of being he was very familiar with.
The sky was dark from the approaching storm, flashes of lightning arcing over the city. The clouds came in fast and rain began to fall. The living room lit up with a series of lightning flashes as thunder rumbled, rolling over the Tower like a gigantic wave of sound. He opened the balcony door and tottered out onto the concrete balcony.
Tony lifted his face toward the sky, the cool rain stinging his skin and drenching his clothes. The whiskey was spilling out of his glass and he staggered to the railing.
Wonder if all this is just Thor making a grand entrance.
He laughed and hiccupped, jumping as a loud crack of thunder shook the balcony.
Steve’s betrayal hurt you, Rhodey. All For Barnes. Always for Barnes.
Tony staggered out onto the ramp, falling to his knees as he drank his watered-down whiskey. Rage was boiling up inside him as the windswept rain buffeted his body. He stared up at the sky as he howled his rage just as a jagged blast of lightning sizzled down from the heavens and struck him.
Nothing was left.
ENCOUNTER IN AN ALLEY
“Time Waits For No Man”
Tony awoke, wincing as he stretched sore limbs.
I must have really tied one on last night.
He rubbed his temples as he felt his stomach roll. Damn! Hangovers were the worst. Always a payback for good times!
His nose wrinkled as he smelled the faint odor of smoke. Had he indulged in a cigarette after all? He opened his eyes and frowned.
Where am I?
The room was shabby with peeling wallpaper and cheap furniture. This was not the Tower.
He sat up and held his head. He must be hallucinating! Man, he ought to stop drinking. The hangovers were getting weirder and weirder. His head was pounding and parts of his body felt numb: his fingertips, toes, and his right shoulder. Just weird.
He squinted at the window. Sounds of car horns came up from the street. He was still in the city, then.
Slightly nauseous, he decided to see if he could find a radio station that played cool jazz. He would keep the volume low and attempt to relax.
He got off the bed and dragged the one chair over to the small table that held the radio in the corner. It was designed to look old-fashioned and he had to actually turn knobs to get anything.
After five minutes, he was frowning. Was this Nostalgia Day across the board? All he was getting was ‘30s/’40s swing music and old ads. On every station!
His head was too muddled to figure this out. He left the radio on a station playing swing and rubbed his face. He stretched back out onto the bed and closed his eyes. If he was lucky, his hangover would feel at least a little better after a nap. He fell asleep to the sounds of Benny Goodman and the honking of car horns from the street below.
…little brown jug.”
Tony groaned as consciousness returned. His head was still pounding but not as bad as before. He opened his eyes to stare at the nondescript ceiling.
“That was Glenn Miller and Little Brown Jug. Stay with us, cats, as we give you a little news of the world. From Washington, President Roosevelt declared that he was planning to send a new bill up to Capitol Hill…”
Tony stared at the radio. The announcer threw in a few more items from the capital, then started on world news.
“There are rumblings from European capitals that the Munich Agreement which Great Britain signed with Germany a year ago is going to break apart due to German aggression, but 10 Downing Street insists that the Agreement is still holding strong. As British Prime Minister Chamberlain said in September of 1938, we expect ‘peace for our time’.”
“Okay, this is just crazy,” Tony muttered. He staggered off the bed and looked out the window at the street down below. His jaw dropped.
Cars glided by, looking like something out of an old gangster film with running boards and gleaming black paint. People walked by leisurely, men in double-breasted suits and fedoras and women in dresses with shoulder pads and smart hats over elaborately-coiffed hair. Boys in short pants ran down the sidewalk carrying stickball bats while girls in floral dresses and saddle shoes pushed doll carriages.
Tony blinked several times, then his eyes sparked with anger. “Fury!” he growled.
He remembered Steve’s story about waking up from the ice in a ‘40s-style hospital room with a Dodgers baseball game playing on the radio. Unfortunately, Fury had selected a game that Steve had attended, and knew something was up. He started for the door with a head of steam but suddenly slowed down like a wind-up toy losing momentum.
Fury was no longer with S.H.I.E.L.D. Why this set-up in the ‘40s for him? He wasn’t a Man Out Of Time. So why the elaborate ruse? HYDRA was scattered to the winds, but was this a remnant of the fascist organization trying to psyche him out? Or was Thunderbolt Ross returning to form and up to something?
All these questions raced through his head as he turned the doorknob and stepped out into the hall.
The hallway was ordinary with slightly shabby wallpaper and a well-worn wooden floor that lead to a dark wood staircase. Tony headed straight for it and descended the steps, crossing a short foyer to the front door. An old-fashioned parlor branched off to the right. No one was in it. He opened the door.
The quiet of the brownstone disappeared as the sounds of outdoor life rushed in at him: car horns honking, kids shouting, and peddlers pushing carts while singing out their wares. Tony was nearly mesmerized by all the old-fashioned clothes and glanced down at his own outfit. He was wearing brown cuffed pants held up by suspenders and a white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The top button was undone and showed his undershirt. He blended in with the crowd.
He put a hand up to his chin. Why all the elaborate playacting, costuming and sets? Who had brought him here and set all this up?
He decided on a walk to clear his head. Noting the number of the brownstone, he set off at a leisurely pace with his hands in his pockets. People passed him by as they went about their business. Snatches of conversation reached his ears. Most of the accents were New York, mixed in with Italian, Polish, and Jewish accents. A few spoke fluent Italian and Polish.
The New York accent sounds…Brooklyn?
His journey took him down blocks lined with brownstones. People occasionally sat on the stoops, smoking or talking. A few drank bottles of Coke or Pepsi, and one man in a worn undershirt and pants drank from a beer bottle.
The weather was warm, and the intensity of the sun suggested summer, which matched the time of year he had left in 2016.
It’s still 2016. Don’t be fooled by this dog-and-pony show.
He would almost believe it a hex by Wanda, but she was with Steve and the rest of the dissident Avengers far away. Besides, Wanda had no reason to make him think he was in the past.
The detail is amazing.
The bottles of soft drinks were the classic shapes and made of glass, and the hairstyles on people were genuine. Too often a production set in the past seemed to neglect hairstyles and kept a contemporary look instead of the past era. Men wore their hair slicked back with pomade or cut very short, and women wore heavily-stylized coifs that required more than just a few minutes with a hair iron or a short visit to the beauty parlor.
He loved the cars. They were not quite as big as the cars of the ‘50s would be when Detroit reigned supreme in a postwar world, but they were more solid than modern cars of the next century, gleaming with hood ornaments and solid craftsmanship, including handy running boards. They were beautiful machines and he hoped he could get a close look at one before he went back home.
He appreciated the attention to detail. As an engineer, details were important.
He wondered if this ruse had something to do with the Sokovia Accords mess. Life had been pretty good before everything blew up. He thought he had a solid friendship with Steve.
It was true. We had forged a real friendship, one I was proud of. He kept up a steady walking pace. I guess that’s why it hurt so much when you took the other side, Steve. Why are you always so certain you’re right?
Tony remembered the good times he had shared with Steve once they had established their friendship. Steve could drink anyone under the table since his accelerated metabolism didn’t allow him to get drunk. Tony had a drinking buddy who could drive him home.
Steve literally had war stories to tell.
Some of the stories involved Tony’s father, but Tony discovered that he wanted to hear them. Steve didn’t know about his complicated relationship with Howard, so Steve related his stories, making Tony’s pain over his father’s loss even worse.
“Damn,” Tony said softly.
He had walked to a seedier area of the borough without realizing it. The crowds had thinned out, and there were more people drinking from bottles in paper bags before noon on stoops that looked shabbier and shabbier. Tony decided to turn around and head back to his brownstone, suddenly uneasy.
The clatter of a garbage can attracted his attention as he passed an alley. Tony hesitated. Should he investigate?
Probably a cat.
Just as he was about to start walking, he heard a loud thump. Sighing, he entered the alley.
It was gloomy even in the brightness of day. Tony cautiously picked his way down the alley, trying to avoid strewn garbage. Fortunately his shoes didn’t seem of the best quality.
He saw the source of the disturbance. A big, hulking guy was towering over a shorter, skinny guy. The hulk’s back was to Tony and he couldn’t see the shorter man’s face as the hulk (Sorry, Bruce) was cutting off Tony’s line of sight. In the end, he didn’t need to see the skinny guy’s face. He just had to hear his voice.
“I can do this all day.”
The voice was wheezing and stubborn and all Steve Rogers.
Why should I be surprised? Tony almost facepalmed. Of course a simulation back in the ‘40s would include Steve.
The bully pulled his arm back, ready for a pulverizing punch, but Tony grasped his fist and squeezed while his other hand aimed for the big man’s neck, landing a karate-style chop on thick skin. The man howled in pain, turning to face his attacker.
Tony briefly wished for his armor but kept his concentration on the fight. Ironically, he was using moves taught to him by Steve. He was able to avoid a huge fist and plant one of his own in the jerk’s solar plexus. The bully let out a whoosh of air and doubled over, letting loose a string of curses. Tony was impressed by the variety of words and chopped the man’s neck again, bringing him to his knees.
Suddenly a garbage can lid flew through the air and clocked the bully on the head. The bully toppled to the alley ground like a redwood tree.
The sound of labored breathing filled the alley. Tony knew the feeling, having suffered shortness of breath when the arc reactor was embedded in his chest.
Steve was doubled over trying to draw in air, his hands resting on his shaking knees. His blond hair hung over his eyes but the determination was pure Steve.
“Th…thanks, fella.” Steve’s wheezing was painful to listen to, and Tony approached him with his hand out. Steve’s shoulders shuddered as he began to cough.
Tony held his shoulders during the coughing fit. Even though he had seen pictures of pre-Serum Steve, he was still shocked by how frail he was. Steve’s shoulders were bony beneath his hands.
What the hell is going on here?
S.H.I.E.L.D. or the U.S. Government would not have de-serumed Steve just for this fakery. And why would Steve consent to all this?
They wouldn’t. Face it, Stark, we have Hulks and gods in our world now and invaders from freakin’ outer space. Is time travel so farfetched?
No, it wouldn’t be, he admitted as Steve struggled to control his breathing. The question he had left was how? And maybe an additional question of why?
Next Steve began to cough, but his fit was brief and he finally rasped, “Please help me up?”
Tony did and bolstered a swaying Steve. He hoped that he was keeping the shock off his face as he got a close-up look of Steve with his sunken eyes, bony physique, and constant wheezing.
Man, the Serum was a godsend for you.
“What was Bully Boy all upset about?” Tony asked.
“Oh, nothing in particular. He just doesn’t like runts.”
Tony was startled at the matter-of-fact way Steve spoke about being beaten up. He nudged the unconscious bully with his foot, wishing he could do more mayhem.
“Thanks, I think I’ll head for home now," Steve said.
“Let me come with you.”
“Thanks, but that’s not necessary.”
“Hey, I got nothing better to do.”
Steve arched an eyebrow but said, “Okay.”
They slowly left the alley and blinked in the sunlight. Steve said, “This way.”
Tony stayed close but kept his hands in his pockets. He well knew Steve’s stubborn pride and understood it, especially pre-Serum. They walked in companionable silence, Tony marveling how comfortable they seemed to be together.
Steve was so tiny! Tony seemed to tower over his companion, which was the reverse of their usual dynamic.
The surroundings were still strange to him but Steve was familiar. He watched as his companion walked with a bit of difficulty, bruised and battered and fighting his cough.
Stubborn to the end!
They reached a section of Brooklyn that was undeniably shabby but somehow seemed to escape the seediness of the neighborhood where Steve had gotten into trouble. Steve greeted people sitting on the stoops, most of whom smiled back at him. A few ignored him, but who knew about people, Tony thought.
Steve stopped in front of a brownstone with No. 66 on the front. “Thanks for the help.”
“Glad to do it.”
Tony was uncertain how to plausibly lengthen this encounter. He doubted that Steve would accept Tony helping him up the steps in front of everybody. He would just have to contrive another meeting in the future, so to speak.
Steve solved his problem. “Wouldja like to come in?”
Tony followed Steve up the steps into a brave new world.
“The Other Half Eats Cabbage”
The hall was similar to the one in the brownstone Tony had awakened in: shabby but not dirty, the wallpaper beginning to peel and the carpet having seen better days, but it was far from decaying. Perhaps the landlord of this building sent in a cleaning crew every so often, because the lobby’s floor was worn but clean.
Tony’s nose twitched. The smell of cabbage was strong. He remembered reading that poor tenements always smelled like cabbage because it was cheap. Steve probably ate a lot of cabbage.
They trudged up to the third floor, Tony grimacing at the close, oppressive heat in the halls. Someone had opened a window at the end of the second floor, but there was no cool breeze to enjoy.
It was slow going as Steve gripped the railing, each step slow but determined. Tony felt pained just watching him. He marveled at the strength of courage and endurance his friend exhibited on a daily basis in this era. Finally they stopped in front of a door labeled 304 at the very end of the hall. Steve fumbled for the key in his pants pocket and unlocked the door.
Tony was not surprised by the cramped shabbiness of the apartment. The living room held two uncomfortable-looking straight-backed chairs, an old couch with a faded green/blue pattern, and a chipped coffee table stacked with a pile of books. A good-sized Philco radio was set on an end table at the left end of the couch. A lamp with a pale violet shade and black tassels was set on a second end table to the right of couch.
Tony caught a glimpse into the kitchen, surprised at the absence of brown patterned wallpaper as he had seen in the halls and this living room. Instead it was painted in pale yellow and the white curtains were ruffled at the single window. He could see a chair that was probably part of the dining set, and the cabinets were a light wood.
“Would you like a Coke? We’ve got a few bottles left,” Steve offered.
“Thanks, I am kinda thirsty.”
“Sure is a scorcher,” Steve said from the kitchen a minute later. “Would you like some bread? It’s homemade. My neighbor Mrs. Murphy baked it.”
Tony sat on the couch, noting how old the piece of furniture was, at least twenty years or more. Still, at least the springs weren’t protruding. He could hear Steve moving around in the kitchen.
There was a stack of books on the coffee table. All of them were library books except for a large book on Greek art. Tony opened it and carefully flipped through pages that featured marble sculptures and painted vases and urns.
He smiled. In this era, the love which Steve and Bucky shared had to be cloaked in euphemisms. ‘Greek love’ was a time-honored traditional cover.
“Here we go.” Steve brought in a tray of refreshments, simple but effective. He set the tray on the coffee table and sat next to his guest. “I thought you wouldn’t mind drinking out of the bottle.”
“I don’t.” Steve had twisted off the caps and Tony took a swallow, glad the drink was cold. He was also glad that the Coke tasted exactly as it did in his own century. Apparently Classic Coke was timeless.
On the tray were two plates with thick slices of bread. Steve’s slice was buttered and a dish of butter was on the tray, along with a small pot of strawberry jam. Tony picked up the tiny spoon and scooped some jam onto his bread. He took a bite.
“Mmm, very good.”
“I’m pretty lucky.”
Tony took another bite, not sure how to answer that. Despite Tony’s knowledge of it, Steve’s poverty was shocking to someone who had grown up in the lap of luxury.
“I hope the heat wave will break soon,” said Steve, running a hand through his hair. His face was shiny with sweat, and Tony felt the same. He dearly wished for some air-conditioning. “Are you in town long?”
“I’m not sure.” Ain’t that the truth! “I haven’t been too well lately.”
Empathy showed on Steve’s drawn face. “It’s always worse in the heat.”
“Yeah, it’s brutal.” Tony took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. “Man, you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.”
“The kids will be opening the fire hydrants up soon.”
Tony laughed. “Kids never change.” He finished his Coke. The bottle was considerably smaller than the 2016 version. “Where’s the bathroom? Down the hall?”
“Actually, I’ve got one here in the apartment.”
Tony was surprised. Buildings like this usually only had one bathroom per floor.
“The landlord before the current one started to put bathrooms in the units but ran out of money. He sold the building to Mr. Merkel, who rented the four apartments with bathrooms at a higher rate. Mom and Dad moved in before the war and at the time could afford the extra rent. They liked the idea of the privacy.” Steve stood up. “I’ll get us some refills.” He laughed. “It’s the size of a closet, by the way.”
Tony laughed as he followed Steve’s directions into a short hallway. There were two very small bedrooms and what Tony would consider a literal water closet.
Steve wasn’t kidding when he said the bathroom was the size of a closet!
He could barely close the door behind him, but somehow a shower stall had been squeezed in. He did his business and washed his hands, noting in the mirror that his goatee was gone but his mustache trimmed to a pencil thinness. His hair was thicker than current fashion but slicked back in the proper style. He was uncomfortably reminded of his father from the old family photos.
He sidled out of the bathroom and realized that only one bedroom was in use, giving him an idea. He sauntered back into the living room.
“Say, I’m going to be in New York for awhile, though not permanently (at least I hope not) and my one-room flop is kinda depressing. Do you rent out that extra bedroom?”
“You’ve got a job?”
Tony thought fast. “I’m doing research for a new encyclopedia. Spend a lot of time at the library.”
“I do, too.”
Tony guessed that Steve’s precarious health made it difficult for him to hold a job. Did the New Deal help the clinically ill with some kind of financial assistance?
“I’ll have to check with Bucky.”
“Is he your brother?” Tony kept his voice carefully neutral.
“My roommate. He works on the docks and brings home the bacon. I keep the place clean and do piecework when I can here at home.”
“Well, if he’s okay with it, I’d like to contribute right away to the rent and groceries.”
“What’s your phone number?” Steve asked.
“Um, I just took my room. Haven’t used the phone yet.” Tony recalled seeing a phone mounted on the wall downstairs and figured his rooming house would have the same set-up. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay. Come by tomorrow. Noon all right? I’ll have an answer for you then.”
“Sounds good.” Tony returned to the couch. He picked up the frosty Coke. “Let’s toast to positive thinking that your buddy will be okay with me coming aboard.”
They clinked bottles and Steve said, “I like that. Positive thinking it is!”
Tony left after finishing his Coke and a second slice of bread. He had some things to check, hoping that Barnes would be amenable to a new temporary roommate. First he bought a newspaper from a kid at the corner, using change he had found in his pants pocket. The kid was wearing a brown newsboy cap, faded yellow shirt and ragged brown knickers. The shoes and socks had seen better days. Tony gave double the price of the paper.
“Keep the change, kid.”
“Gee, thanks, Mister!”
Tony sauntered over to an empty stoop and read the date: August 16, 1939.
So not quite the ‘40s.
He quickly read through the front-page stories, catching up on current events. The Depression was still hanging on and Europe was a mess. The Continent was technically at peace but gearing for war as sabers rattled incessantly. He dreaded to think what news in the Far East looked like as the Japanese had invaded China a long time ago.
Tony folded the paper and set off for the brownstone he remembered waking up in. After a few false turns, he found it and went upstairs. He jingled the change in his pocket. Someone had provided him with money. Maybe loose change wasn’t all that was provided?
He tossed the newspaper on the bed and opened the dresser drawers. Three pairs of socks, four pairs of clean-yet-slightly-frayed underwear, two white shirts. He crossed over to the closet and found a second pair of pants and a suit jacket. A battered brown valise was on the closet floor. He took it out and put it on the bed, unsnapping the locks and throwing back the lid.
“Never let it be said that Tony Stark was not persistent.”
He searched the valise and found a wad of money in the lining. He counted it and was pleased to find fifty dollars, more than enough to keep him free from money worries for a good, long while. Fifty dollars in 1939 was practically a King’s ransom.
He put the valise away with the money and stretched out on the bed to read the newspaper.
Time to get well-informed like a man of the late ‘30s.
Of a thousand miles.
And Other Poems”
Tony arrived at Steve’s brownstone at five minutes to noon. He carried his valise, the smug Stark confidence paramount as he jogged up the steps.
He knocked on the door of 304, heard Steve’s footsteps and shoved the valise a little further down the hall.
“Hi, Steve,” he said as the door was opened.
“Am I in?”
Steve grinned. “Yes.”
“Great!” Tony grabbed his valise. “All set.”
Steve burst out laughing. “Confident, aren’t ya?”
“Gotta be in this world.”
“I like your way of thinking.” Steve waved his hand. “Come on in, roomie.”
Tony sauntered in and Steve escorted him to his bedroom. “Sorry for the frills. This was my mother’s room.”
“It’s okay. Compared to my flop, this is heaven, frilly lampshades and all.”
Steve grinned. “Come on in the kitchen when you’re done unpacking. I’ll have lunch ready by then.”
“Great. Oh, hey…” Tony dug into his jacket pocket and held out a wad of bills. “My share of the month’s rent.”
“The month’s half over.”
“So take half. And there’s September’s rent in there, too. Keep all of the money. Groceries.”
“We sure picked a good roommate.”
“Glad Bucky agreed.”
“I vouched for you. Said you were a good guy.”
“You’re pretty trusting.” Tony opened his valise. “I don’t have much to unpack.”
“Join the club.” Steve left the room.
Tony lifted out his pants, wincing at the wrinkles. His shirts could use pressing, too.
“Well, I can’t send out for pressing. Too extravagant,” he muttered. “Hey, Steve, do you have an iron?” he called.
“Yep! C’mon in the kitchen.”
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
He put away his socks and underwear in the dresser drawer, smiling at the frilly yellow lampshades and the crystal ashtray that Steve’s mother had probably used to store bobby pins. He saw a gold-framed photograph on the dresser, a wedding picture of Steve’s parents.
Steve’s father was blond and Steve closely resembled him. The elder Rogers had a charming smile and his arm around his new bride, also blond and extremely pretty. Dressed in pre-World War I style, they were happy as any couple should be on their wedding day.
Tony felt an ache, remembering another wedding photograph of a young couple in early ‘60s fashions, and he hoped his parents had been as happy as Steve’s parents on their special day.
He quietly shut the drawers and brought his clothes to the kitchen. Steve had taken out the ironing board from a small closet. The iron rested on the board with a dangling cord.
“It’ll have to warm up once you plug in, but keep your eye on it. The cord’s old and we don’t want a fire starting.” Steve smiled. “I hope lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches are okay.” He had the fixings on the counter.
Tony almost said, “Light mayo” but realized that was anachronistic. “Sure.”
He plugged in the cord and leaned against the wall with his arms crossed. The kitchen’s yellow walls made a cheerful setting. The Formica table and chairs were a little battered but clean.
“After lunch we can go get some groceries. The icebox is a little empty.”
“Will you be going to the library today?”
Tony shook his head. “Starting tomorrow.”
Steve carefully held the knife as he sliced the tomatoes. His hands shook slightly, but he had complete control. He reached into the icebox for a jar of mayonnaise.
“Wonder if this heat wave will ever end?” asked Tony, his shirt sticking uncomfortably to his back. He decided to try the iron and carefully put it on his shirt, ironing out the wrinkles.
If Jarvis could see me now!
“Better speed it up a little. You’re going to scorch that shirt.”
Tony was chagrined. Here he thought he had been doing so well!
“That’s okay.” Steve put the sandwiches and mayonnaise jar in the icebox after finishing the former. “Once you’re finished ironing, we can eat.” He coughed, the sound hollow.
Tony found his stomach muscles tightening at the sound of that cough. If Steve had not been give the Super-Soldier Serum, how long would he have lived? Tony draped the shirt over a kitchen chair and started on the second one.
“Who did your ironing before? Your mom?”
Tony carefully set aside the pain as he thought of his mother. “Um, no, my girlfriend would do it for me after I left home.”
“That was nice of her.” Steve washed the knife and cutting board he had used.
“Yeah, Pep…Pep was a peach.”
Steve opened the icebox again. “Almost bare as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. Good thing for your grocery money. We’ll have to have water with our sandwiches.”
“Fine by me.”
When Tony finished his ironing and the two roommates sat down at the kitchen table, he stared at the glass of water in front of him. Tap water, not bottled.
You aren’t in Kansas anymore, Tony.
Henkel’s Greengrocer was filled with boxes of cereal, Hostess cupcakes, packages of Wonder bread, and any food item that was non-perishable. The roommates already had bags of freshly-baked bread from Nelson’s Bakery and Steve planned the next stop at Marinettis’ Fruit Store.
“Lot of good stuff in season,” Steve said cheerfully as they emerged from the greengrocer’s shop.
“Are we gonna make a beer run?” Tony asked as bottles of Coke clinked in the carton he carried.
Steve shot him a mischievous grin. “Here we go.” He went inside the fruit shop, tiny bells jingling over the door.
They browsed bins of peaches, nectarines, oranges, apples, plums, tomatoes, potatoes, and more.
“Vegetables in with the fruit, huh?”
“The Marinettis like to double-feature things.”
“I see.” Tony checked a peach. “What, no kumquats?”
Tony smiled. “An exotic fruit.”
“Sorry, no exotic fruits here. Just the good ol’ American variety.”
Tony coughed. “Um, right. Well, the peaches look delicious.”
“We’ll get some of your delicious peaches, plums and apples. Bucky’s especially fond of plums.”
“Why not get more than that?”
“Hey, the icebox only holds so much.”
“Are we going to the butcher’s?”
“Let’s save that until tomorrow. Too hot to cook any meat tonight.”
“Guess the ol’ stove warms up the place.”
“Great in the winter, not so much in the summer.”
A middle-aged Italian woman with dark-brown hair and eyes smiled at Steve as he approached the cash register. “Hello, Steve. What have you got today?”
Steve and Tony put their purchases on the counter. “Here you go, Mrs. Marinetti.”
“Ah, good to see you eat! And who is your handsome companion?”
Tony smiled charmingly. “Tony…Barton, ma’am.”
“You part Italian?”
“On my mother’s side.”
“I knew it!” Rosa Marinetti beamed. “I can tell by the eyes.”
Tony laughed. “You’re very observant, Signora.”
Her brown eyes sparkled. “Silver tongue, Signore. »
Steve smiled at Tony, who realized with a pang how much he had missed the other man’s pleasure in his company.
Rosa chatted as she rang up their order on the old-fashioned cash register. It was built to last, a sturdy machine of iron that could not be snatched up by thieves and run off with. It was a beautiful piece of machinery that wedded art and function.
Rosa and Steve talked about news of the neighborhood while Tony absorbed it all. He learned about Lily Frankel’s teething baby and Oscar Henkel’s bad back. There was the rocky romance of Gina Colletti and Tom O’Shay, and Rita Kalowitz was heading out to Hollywood to try her luck there.
“She’ll make it big and they’ll make her change her name to something very…how should I say?”
“Generic?” Tony offered.
“Si, that sound right. She will end up Rita Starlight or something, eh, Steve?”
Steve laughed, coughing a little but managing to stave off the worst of it. Tony relaxed, realizing how tense he had been when Steve had started coughing.
They took their leave of Mrs. Marinetti and walked back home, the rumble of trolley cars ubiquitous as Brooklyn had a multitude of them, hence the name Brooklyn Dodgers for the local baseball team. It seemed that Brooklynites spent half their lives dodging the trolleys.
Tony thought the trolleys were pretty cool. Primitive, sure, but even a futurist could appreciate their construction.
Back at the apartment they put away the groceries, filling the small icebox to its capacity.
“Well, thank you very much for your contribution to our food supply, Tony.” Steve’s blue eyes sparkled. “Do you realize I didn’t even know your last name until you told Mrs. Marinetti?”
“You never asked.”
“Bucky says I’m too trusting.” Steve jiggled the cereal box he was ready to put away in the cupboard. “Wheaties, Bucky’s favorite.”
“Ah, the Breakfast of Champions.” Tony closed the icebox. “So is Bucky a champion?”
“He did win some medals in track-and-field in high school.”
“A stalwart athlete.”
“He’s Jack Armstrong, all right.” Steve mopped his brow with a handkerchief.
“Any team sports?” Tony sat down at the table.
“Football and baseball. We played street hockey as kids.”
Tony wondered why the strong, athletic Bucky Barnes had fallen for frail, sickly Steve Rogers. Jocks like him usually tormented easy marks like Steve.
“Bucky says I’m a troublemaker.” Steve’s tone was affectionate as he poured two glasses of cold water from the tap. Tony gratefully accepted his glass.
“I’m melting,” he complained.
“I hear ya.” Steve drank his glass empty and poured another one. He shuffled to the table, pulled out a chair, and sat down. “Bucky’s a good guy,” he said quietly.
“Does he have family?”
“Yes, a mother and two sisters. They live in the neighborhood and Bucky sees them frequently.”
Tony wondered if Barnes supported them, too. He doubted a dockworker’s salary would cover all those people and Steve.
Maybe the Barnes women can support themselves.
Strong women were not uncommon in Tony’s life. Maybe Barnes was lucky.
He drank the cold water, trying to drown out the pain he felt as he remembered his parents killed by the Winter Soldier in grainy black-and-white.
“Tony, you okay?”
“You look pale.” Steve learned forward. “The heat getting to you?”
“I…think so. I think I’ll go lie down.”
“Sure.” Sympathy shone in Steve’s eyes. “Hey, I have a fan you can use.”
Steve brought the fan into Tony’s bedroom and put it on the dresser. He plugged it in and kept it a low speed. “You want it faster?”
Tony was already stretched out on the bed, his fingers laced across his abdomen. He shook his head.
“Holler if you need anything.”
Steve quietly closed the door behind him. The fan was mercifully just as quiet, a whisper of cool air teasing over Tony’s skin.
He started up at the ceiling. Intellectually he knew that Bucky Barnes was not responsible for the murder of his parents, but he could not get the image of the stone-faced winter Soldier coldly killing his father and…his mother. He closed his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Momma.”
A single tear slid down his cheek and he shuddered.
I can’t do this. I can’t play Three’s Company with the man who killed my parents.
He should get up, throw his meager clothing into that battered valise and just leave and go…
He let out a sigh in the hot room. He had no idea why he was here, how he got here, or if he would ever be able to get back to his time.
He could go to his father and explain the craziness, but he was reluctant to see him. He was keeping him as a last resort, because despite his issues with the man, Howard Stark was a certified genius and could get him back home.
Until then the only person he knew in this time was Steve, and the future Captain America was a package deal: Barnes was part of the package.
But how can I sit across the kitchen table from him and chitchat?
He let his mind drift, dozing as the heat sapped his strength. At least the fan was cooling him a little. He would never take air-conditioning for granted again.
“Oh, my God.”
Tony’s hand shook as he touched his mother’s face, blood streaming down her bruised cheek. She was trapped in the wrecked car, his father thrown clear, but he was moaning.
“My boy.” Maria Stark’s voice was sad. “Go away. There’s…nothing for you here.”
“I can save you!” Tony tried to open the jammed car door. He heard the sound of a footstep. His head snapped around and he saw the Winter Soldier approaching. “Go away, you murdering bastard!” he snarled.
But the Winter Soldier was relentless, his progress as inevitable as waves rolling down Niagara Falls. Brown, stringy hair framed the face of death as he marched inexorably to Howard. His father reacted in shock as he saw his assassin.
Bucky never spoke. He simply killed, not a flicker of emotion on his blank face. He dragged Howard’s body toward the car.
“Howard!” Maria screamed.
“I’ll get you out of here, Mom.” Tony was frantic as he tried to get the door open.
The Winter Soldier came around the car. Tony’s rage boiled up as Maria screamed, “Leave, Tony! Run!”
He was ready to face the Winter Soldier as he straightened up…
Tony gasped as he jerked awake, drenched in sweat. He clutched his chest, waiting for his heart to stop pounding.
Oh, my God.
The fan kept blowing air on his body. Mostly it was warm air, but it was at least some form of relief.
He heard muted voices outside his bedroom door. Bucky must be home.
Time to meet James Buchanan Barnes.
Tony slowly sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He took a deep breath, stood up, and opened the door.