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.
With hushed voices
And muted steps
On polished floors
As ceilings vault
To the skies.
The House of Knowledge
Is a jewel
Amidst city noises
And country quiet
For the mind.
“Ode To Books”
Tony walked into the kitchen and Steve said, “Hey, roomie! Meet your other roomie.”
Steve and Bucky were sitting at the kitchen table with Bucky’s back to Tony. Tony put on a smile he hoped was convincing as Bucky stood and turned toward him.
“Glad to meet you, Tony.”
Tony felt a small jolt as a face that resembled the Winter Soldier smiled at him. His brown hair was not long and stringy but neatly combed and much shorter. His physique was excellent but not as buff as his Serum-enhanced body. His hazel eyes were not lifeless but sparkling with life, and Tony had to admit that his smile was charming.
Bucky was holding his hand out and Tony took it, the handshake firm. “Nice to meet you, too,” said Tony. He took a seat at the table. “Man, this heat wave is killing me.”
“Not just you, brother.” Bucky wiped his brow with his handkerchief. “I think I lost five pounds sweating on the docks today.”
“Me, too, and I can’t afford to lose that much weight,” Steve said jovially.
“Well, we’ll just have to fatten you up, pipsqueak.” Bucky winked and sat back in his chair. “Thanks for the rent and grocery money, pal.” This was directed to Tony.
“Though where’s the beer, Steve?”
“You want me to spend all our money at once?”
Laughter rolled around the table, though Tony did not join in. He attempted a smile but doubted it looked convincing.
“You still feeling poorly, Tony?” asked Steve in concern.
“Yeah, it’s this damned heat.”
“Maybe you better go lie down again. If you’re asleep I won’t disturb you at suppertime.”
“That sounds like a good idea.” Tony stood up.
“Need any help?” Bucky asked. Concern was in his eyes.
“Nah, but thanks.”
Tony left the kitchen to return to his room. He felt shaken as he kicked off his shoes and stretched out on the bed. Bucky’s genuine concern had unnerved him.
It’s just so weird. The Winter Soldier caring about me? He closed his eyes. This is a man before unimaginable torture and brainwashing tore him apart.
He was still troubled as he fitfully fell asleep.
The next morning at breakfast, Bucky and Steve solicitously asked how he felt.
“Much better, thanks.” Tony was still wary around Bucky, but he thought that he had a better handle on his rollercoaster emotions. “Though it’s still hot as hell.”
“It might be a little cooler in the library.” Bucky looked at Steve as he ate his cereal. “Are you going, too?”
“I’ve got shopping to do.”
“Hey, I can go with you,” Tony said. “I can go to the library after.”
“I don’t want to put you out,” Steve protested.
“Don’t worry. I’ll have plenty of time to do my research.”
“Okay, I’d like to come to the library with you later.” Steve finished his cereal. “I’ll be right back.” He exited the kitchen quickly and closed the bathroom door.
“Is he okay?” Tony asked.
“His stomach’s a little…delicate.” Bucky drank his orange juice. “I’d like to ask you a favor.”
“What?” Tony put his spoon down.
“You’ve seen how sickly Steve is. You also met him while he was being beaten up in an alley.” Bucky sighed. “Steve’s mouthy. He’s the target of bullies because he’s so frail and he compounds it by shooting his mouth off.” Bucky’s clear hazel eyes gazed into Tony’s brown ones. “I’d appreciate it if you could just keep an eye out.”
“Sure.” Tony picked up his spoon. “Mouthy, huh? That seems to be a perfect description.”
This time Tony joined in the laughter around the kitchen table.
“What’s so funny?” Steve asked as he entered the kitchen, looking a little worse for wear.
“Oh, just shootin’ the breeze,” Bucky said casually.
Steve picked up his bowl and spoon and washed them at the sink, putting them in the drying rack. He looked tired even though it was only 6:45 in the morning.
“Today’s Friday, right?” Tony asked suddenly.
“Yeah, why?” Bucky asked.
“How about a boys’ night out? Get into some refrigeration at the movies?” He remembered that term used in the 2009 movie Public Enemies by John Dillinger for air-conditioning.
“That sounds great,” Bucky said.
“That sounds even better!”
Tony laughed. “It’s settled, then.”
The butcher was a rotund, cheerful fellow who reminded Tony of Ernest Borgnine, which made sense, as the genial actor had played a Bronx butcher and won an Oscar. Or would play Marty in the film of the same name in 1955.
“We’d like some pork chops, Mario,” Steve said.
“This is Tony Barton, our new roommate.”
“Hey, hiya, Tony.”
Mario expertly cut the pork and weighted it, quoting a price that sounded incredibly low to Tony’s 21st-century ears.
“Could you add a couple of sausages?” Tony asked.
“Breakfast,” Tony said to Steve. “I’ll get us some eggs at Henkel’s.”
“Bucky will love that.”
“He’s got a healthy appetite.”
Steve blushed a little and Tony restrained his laughter. Steve and Bucky had no idea that he knew about their romantic relationship. He had wrestled with revealing that knowledge but wasn’t sure if it was better for them if they knew he knew or not. They would be understandably worried that he would expose them, and in this era, exposure was dangerous.
“Absolutely.” Steve smiled and led Tony to Empire Liquors, a small store packed with shelves full of bottles of all kinds of booze, Tony noted.
“Any preferences?” Steve asked.
“Any beer’s fine by me.”
“You’re an easy fella to get along with.”
Tony laughed. “So they tell me.” Not!
Steve chose beer on the cheap end of the price spectrum and they headed for home after picking up eggs at Henkel’s.
Once they put away the groceries they both picked up notebooks from their rooms and boarded a trolley for Manhattan. The car was crowded with people looking forward to a day’s outing in the big city, or working various jobs. Two teenage girls in summer dresses and curled hair giggled as they talked about window shopping at Macy’s, and a weary, middle-aged woman wore a faded housedress and black straw hat with a forlorn flower as she absently ate salted peanuts from a small bag. An elderly man dressed in black was staring out the window as he rested his hands on his cane. Three middle-aged women in print dresses and summer hats were chattering about the latest gossip in their tenement.
They were all just ordinary people, Tony reflected, who had struggled during the Great Depression and were facing another World War, destined to start in two weeks. It would change everything, and Steve and Bucky would suffer in ways that Tony could barely comprehend.
Am I really here? Or am I just dreaming this? This isn’t some sepia photograph or black-or-white film. It’s real life, in living color, like the NBC peacock.
Steve was watching the people on the sidewalks as the trolley car rumbled through the streets of Brooklyn. It was reality that Steve had to often struggle for breath or be sick in his closet-sized bathroom. He possessed incredible inner strength that would serve him well in the dark days ahead.
The two roommates got off at the library stop and Tony was glad to see the pair of familiar lions flanking the steps. The Beaux Arts architecture was always impressive, and Tony wondered if the interior would be the same.
“What are you researching today?”
“The New Deal.”
“Yeah? That’s sharp.”
They ascended the steps and entered the New York Public Library.
Yep, still the same.
The vestibule was all polished floors and pillars as Steve and Tony headed for one of the Reading Rooms. High, vaulted ceilings let mellow lighting stream into the paneled chambers and long, mahogany tables and chairs lined the quiet rooms. Chandeliers provided lighting as the paneled walls gleamed. Bookshelves stretched endlessly in specialized areas designed for browsing.
It’s like a cathedral for learning.
“It looks all very intellectual, doesn’t it?” Tony asked.
Steve smiled. “Let’s stake out a table and go to the card catalogue.”
They put their notebooks on a table by one of the windows. The large window was too high to see out, but a view of the spires of other buildings and the sky lent a serene air to the surroundings.
Steve led Tony to the card catalogue, a massive set of glossy, walnut drawers in a cabinet. Tony nearly laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Steve asked.
“Oh, just celebrating this fount of knowledge.”
Steve shook his head. “You are one odd guy, Tony Barton.”
Tony smirked as he chose a drawer and pulled it out. Not surprisingly, there were numerous books on the New Deal, even as the Administration was still in progress. Tony had done his share of research on FDR and the program he had brought to Washington in the depths of the Depression, particularly after Steve had been discovered and thawed out. Understanding the 1930s meant one had to understand the New Deal.
Steve was flipping through cards and said, “I’ll be back.” He hobbled off to the stacks while Tony wrote down the call numbers of the books he wanted, using paper thoughtfully provided by the library. He too went off to the stacks.
Books were the backbone of this venerable library. No computers or Internet, no videotapes or DVDs, no shunting aside books or magazines. Libraries were respected instead of denigrated as outmoded or superfluous. It was a sobering thought as he was completely wired in back in his time. He could not even remember the last time he had read an actual book instead of a Tablet or Kindle.
Tony gathered the books he wanted and returned to the table. Steve followed about ten minutes later and dumped a stack of large books on the table.
“Art books are heavy,” groused Steve. He sat down and opened one, pulling his sketchbook toward him. “You know an encyclopedia should have plenty of New Deal information.” He turned another page. “This Administration is the most important since Lincoln’s.”
“A lot of people would disagree with you.”
Steve snorted. “Who, Republicans? The people who told the country in the early days of the Depression to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps when most of us didn’t have boots?” He paused at a page showing a Greek nude. He opened his sketchbook.
“Yeah, people like that.” Tony spoke quietly and so did Steve. Getting scolded by a librarian for loud talking was a no-no!
“I guess people are always gonna grouse.” Steve began to sketch. “But how people can complain about what FDR has done is beyond me. In 1929 when the banks crashed, folks’ life savings vanished. That was always the case until the New Deal established the FDIC and insured deposits, and we’ve got unemployment insurance now and Social Security for old folks. What’s bad about that?”
Steve’s hand was quick and confident as he drew. “The GOP sure isn’t the party of Lincoln anymore. It’s old, stodgy, rich guys. You can’t trust the rich.”
Tony opened his notebook. “Really?”
“Yeah. I mean, do you?”
“Well, I usually don’t like tarring a group with a broad brush, but why wouldn’t the rich be untrustworthy? They don’t want the status quo to change because they’re on top.”
“Sounds like you believe in class warfare?” Tony joked. He wanted to keep it light until he knew where Steve was coming from.
“Class does exist despite what society pretends to believe.” Steve’s eyes were on the art book while he drew.
“What do you think of Socialism?” Tony was genuinely curious. Steve had missed the entire Cold War during his time in the ice, and during World War II the Russians had been allies.
“I went to some meetings with Bucky back in ’31 or ’32. We like the idea of Socialism with everyone equal economically, but we found the Party way too restrictive. You have to be in lockstep with Moscow at all times. I like the freedom of give-and-take in our politics. Besides, I doubt it’s really a Socialist Utopia in the U.S.S.R. like some people would have you believe.”
“So you’re a capitalist?”
Steve shrugged. “Capitalism has its uses. I guess it fits human nature better than Socialism. Wasn’t it said that Christianity has never really been practiced, just like Socialism? Both are high ideals that don’t fit human nature.”
“That’s an interesting take on things.”
Steve shaded in the background of his drawing. “Ever read the Bible?”
“Long time ago,” Tony said after a moment’s hesitation.
“There’s a passage in Acts of the Apostles where the new Christians sell their worldly goods and pool their resources to live together.”
“Yeah, that’s a good word for it.” Steve added more definition to the muscles of the nude. “A committee came to the Apostles and complained that some were getting more food and clothing than others. The communal experience, even among devout Christians, was petty and time-consuming. The Apostles were spending all their time mediating disputes instead of preaching the Word of God.”
“And I don’t think collective farms in the Ukraine are as rosy as the Communists declare.”
Tony thought of the famines in the Soviet Union kept hidden from the West and said, “I think you’re right, pal.”
They were silent for several minutes until Steve spoke again. “What kind of books do you like?”
“Oh, books on science.”
“You mean science fiction? Bucky loves those kind of books.”
“He does?” Tony’s interest picked up.
“Yeah, he reads Amazing Stories and all that stuff.”
“Heinlein and Asimov?”
“Probably. I don’t remember the authors. I’ve read some of the short stories and novels. Lots of imagination but a lot of doom ‘n’ gloom, too.”
“You prefer happy endings?”
“Or at least optimistic ones.”
“I guess science fiction stories can go either way and are plausible.”
“I’d like to think things will be better in the future for everyone.” Steve grinned. “Bucky and I are saving up to go see the World’s Fair. They say you can see robots and something called ‘television’ there.”
“Do you think it will happen in, say, the next few decades?”
“Things getting better.”
“Oh.” Steve’s smile turned rueful. “Somehow I doubt that with war coming, life is going to become a Utopia.”
Tony tapped his pencil on his notebook page. “So you think war’s coming?”
“Don’t you?” Steve leaned back in his chair, suddenly weary. “The world’s barely recovered from the last war. While the U.S. went on a decade-long party, some of Europe joined us, but not all. The defeated countries were in chaos, and even the winners had to face unbelievable destruction and all the men lost in the trenches. Civilians fared little better. The Russians were so devastated they threw the Czar out and went Bolshevik.”
“So the last war is pushing the next one.”
“Something like that.” Steve rubbed his eyes. “The merchants of death are probably gearing up for more war profiteering. How can men like that sleep at night?”
Tony’s muscles tensed. « I guess they just…” He shrugged. “Maybe they’re too boozed up to care.”
Steve grimaced. “I’ll never understand men like that.”
“I never will, either,” Tony said quietly.
They were silent again. A librarian walked by, her shoes nearly soundless on the polished floor while a patron at a nearby table coughed. A chair scraped as someone pushed it back as the murmur of voices drifted from the Circulation Desk.
“I’m worried about Bucky,” Steve said suddenly.
“If war comes, they’ll probably institute a draft like in the last war. He’ll be a prime specimen."
You have no idea.
“Well, maybe like the last war, it’ll be awhile before the U.S. gets involved in it. It’ll mostly be a European war.”
Steve nodded but still looked worried. Tony sighed, feeling queasy as he thought of what was to come.
“WE’RE OFF TO THE SEE THE WIZARD!”
The Wizard Of Oz
The line outside the Bijou Theater was a long one, stretching out around the block. The crowd was varied, families mixed in with young couples out on a date, and middle-aged couples looking for a night out. There were groups of women out for fun and men like Steve, Bucky, and Tony ‘going stag’. The atmosphere was festive as people chatted and laughed. The line moved steadily toward the ticket window.
“Pretty good turn-out,” Tony said.
“Always on a Friday, and on a hot summer night? Bedlam,” said Bucky.
“Too bad it wasn’t Dish Night. We could pick up a plate to replace the one you broke drying the dishes last week,” Steve teased.
“Hey, call your shots when you’re gonna hand stuff off.”
Tony smiled wryly as he noted the words Cooled By Refrigeration on the marquee. In an era of little air-conditioning, it was a definite draw.
“I heard that The Wizard Of Oz is going to be released nationwide next Friday, but this is a special release here in New York.” Steve looked at the colorful posters advertising the fantasy film. “Bucky and I had all the books as kids. We shared them and together made the full collection.”
“Two halves of a whole, eh?” If either of his companions noticed the brittle edge to his tone, they made no indication of it.
“Judy Garland’s the star of this movie.” Steve pointed at the poster. “That’s an all-star cast.”
“Should be good, especially with Technicolor,” Bucky said, studying the poster. He brushed an arm across his forehead. “Can’t wait to get into that refrigeration.”
All three wore dress slacks and lightweight summer shirts with the sleeves rolled up. Suspenders were worn instead of belts and their shoes were loafers, slightly scuffed but it could not be helped. None of them had bothered to wear a hat, though plenty of men in the crowd were wearing straw boaters. Tony still had to get used to dressing up to go places like the movies. Going to a baseball game would require the same clothes, and some men at the park would be wearing suits and fedoras, the women wearing pretty dresses, gloves, and hats as they wore tonight. It was definitely a different world.
Ten minutes later they got to the ticket window, Tony paying seventy-five cents for their admission. Inside the lobby, he was impressed by the gilt-framed floor-length mirrors that lined the walls and a rich, red carpet that matched a swath of curtains that framed movie posters of current and coming attractions. Marble pillars lent further elegance to the glittering lobby as chandeliers provided the light. All in all, it looked pretty grand, Tony thought, a far sight better than the bland, cookie-cutter multiplexes of his era.
“Popcorn,” Steve said, digging into his pants pocket.
“Your money’s no good tonight, boys,” Tony said expansively.
Bucky grinned. “In that case, the large bucket.”
“With lots of butter,” Steve said.
“That stuff’ll kill ya,” Tony grumbled.
“It tastes good.” Bucky smiled at the girl who looked about twenty in the candy-striped uniform behind the counter. “Extra large popcorn, hon, with plenty of butter. And Jujubes, please.”
“Good ‘N’ Plenties!” Steve added. “What about you, Tony?”
“I’ll take a small popcorn.”
“Watching your figure?” Bucky smirked.
“You’re damned right.”
Steve and Bucky chuckled. Tony noticed how in sync they were in practically everything. He paid for the concessions, including drinks, and the trio headed for the theater.
It was already packed in the interior venue, but they managed to find three seats together in a row toward the back.
“We’re lucky we don’t have to go up to the cheap seats,” Bucky said. He was sitting on the aisle, Steve next to him and Tony on the other side of Steve.
The babble of voices was intriguing to Tony, a mix of languages and accents that only New York could offer. Tony could hear Greek, Italian, Yiddish, Polish, Spanish and some other languages he could not quite identify. It was a typical polyglot in a Brooklyn theater in the summer of ’39, and he was surprised how much he felt like he fit in. Even if only for a night, Tony was feeling like he was part of the scenery, which amused him. Tony Stark a wallflower? What would the Avengers say to that?
A Warner Brothers cartoon started playing. “Bugs Bunny, huh?” Tony was delighted. “Elmer better watch out.”
The crazy antics of rabbit versus hunter flashed across the screen. Bucky chuckled, “Whatta maroon,” and Steve laughed.
“Bugs always wins in the end,” Bucky said in a satisfied tone.
“He’s a sharp operator,” Steve added.
“He came; he saw; he conquered,” Tony drawled as Bugs triumphed over the hapless Elmer Fudd.
Bucky and Steve shared the huge bucket of popcorn as a Three Stooges short, Calling All Curs, came on next.
“Whoo whoo whoo,” quipped Bucky.
Steve grinned. “Spread out.”
Tony smirked as Moe, Larry and Curly did their thing, completely messing up everything in sight. The Marx Brothers had nothing on these guys.
As the last strains of the Stooges’ theme song, Three Blind Mice, faded, the stentorian staccato of </i>Movietone News</i> started. Black-and-white footage flickered as the harsh cadence of marching jackboots filled the packed theater and a deep voice began to intone:
“The first anniversary of the Munich Pact is fast approaching. The annexation of the Sudetenland in September 1938 prompted the Pact as the Czechoslovakian Crisis erupted. Despite British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s belief in ‘peace in our time’, many believe that time is running out. Tensions are rising in Europe, and seasoned watchers are predicting further aggression from Germany. Some predict it will happen before the year is out.”
Tony shivered as he watched the goose-stepping Germans on the screen. If only the war could be prevented, millions saved, including…well, Steve and Bucky…but of course that could never happen. He had watched Star Trek’s City On the Edge Of Foreverenough times to know that screwing with the timeline never worked out for the best.
The Germans were singing on the screen, eyes right toward their sacred leader as Hitler held out his arm in the Nazi salute. The full panoply of German grandeur was in evidence as swastika-decorated flags hung from city buildings and people shouted and laughed on the sidewalks while giving the salute.
Tony could not fathom how people could have fallen for Hitler’s garbage. He had read the historical accounts and knew how devastated Germany was after the Great War with the economy in shambles and people wheeling wheelbarrows full of German marks just to buy a loaf of bread. He understood how the Nazis bringing prosperity and order would endear them to a harried people, but the virulent anti-Semitism chilled Tony. Still, how could one understand the kind of prejudice that accepted Kristallnacht and yellow Star of Davids pinned to Jewish clothing as their savings and property were confiscated by the State.
Even that is despicable, but watching people being taken away to camps simply for being Jewish? That’s another level, though I suppose people would equate the U.S. doing the same thing to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. The thing is, there weren’t gas chambers or crematoriums in the American camps.
The clomp-clomp-clomp of jackboots unnerved Tony. He noticed Steve and Bucky watching with solemn faces as the harsh, guttural tones of Hitler grated on the ears as a speech of his was shown next.
No, I really don’t get the attraction.
He was relieved to see the news switch to domestic matters. The featured story was the remarkable tale of the carving of Mount Rushmore. Gutzon Borglum and his army of sculptors were creating an incredible monument in the hills of South Dakota as the announcer breathlessly ran down statistics of height and pounds.
People came into the row and edged past him and his companions. It looked like it was going to be a full house.
“The First Lady visited Elkhorn, West Virginia, and square-danced with the townsfolk.”
“Go, Eleanor,” Steve chuckled.
The news gradually segued to Coming Attractions.
“An idealistic junior Senator from the heartland comes to the nation’s capital and fights for justice.”
Tony began to laugh.
“What is it?” Steve whispered.
“You are so Mr. Smith.”
Steve smiled quizzically as Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur appeared on-screen.
“Corruption exposed, but powerful is the barrier for young Senator Jefferson Smith as he goes to Washington. Coming this October.”
“Looks like a classic to me,” Tony drawled.
Steve shook his head again. “Strange man,” he intoned, returning his attention to the screen as other movies were promoted.
An old, familiar (to Tony) theme song blared as the words Gone With The Wind scrolled across the screen.
“Vivien Leigh is Scarlett O’Hara, spoiled yet seductive Southern belle whose passion for the forbidden Ashley Wilkes plays out against a backdrop of the American Civil War. Clark Gable is the dashing Captain Rhett Butler, captivated by Scarlett while the South falls down around their heads. This is the most spectacular rendition of the conflict that pit brother against brother since D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation.”
Tony had to admit that 1939 was a banner year for movies, agreeing with conventional wisdom. Finally the MGM lion roared on-screen and The Wizard Of Oz started playing.
The sepia portion of the film gradually turned to dazzling Technicolor as Dorothy stepped out from her crashed house into Oz and the audience murmured appreciatively. Tony glanced at his companions and noted their rapt faces.
Well, why not? This movie is very clever with its special effects, which are state-of-the-art for 1939. The color is brilliant, too, something that people in this era aren’t used to. Black-and-white is their movie world.
Despite Tony knowing this story well, he watched it with fresh eyes.
"Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Glinda the Good Witch appeared and coaxed out the giggling Munchkins from their hiding places. It was a tour de force of little people as they sang and danced in colorful costumes, scattering as the Wicked Witch of the West made an explosive entry. The ruby slippers became American folklore as Glinda magically put them on Dorothy’s feet.
The movie played out as Dorothy and Toto met the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion on their way to see the Wizard. The Art Deco-style Emerald City was supposed to represent the light at the end of the tunnel for Americans weary of the Great Depression, Tony remembered. He wondered if these contemporary Americans got that symbolism as an upbeat tune was sung.
When they reached the flying monkeys scene, Tony looked at Steve, remembering the man’s delight in the 21st century when he finally got a cultural reference as Nick Fury had used it. That was when he noticed Steve and Bucky holding hands.
It was subtle, using the dark to conceal their gesture. Tony smiled and took a quick look around. No one could see a thing.
“We’re off to see the Wizard,” he said quietly.
“Huh?” asked Steve.
“Nothing, just muttering.”
“You seem to do that a lot.”
Tony chuckled and ate some more popcorn.
Dorothy and the gang defeated the Wicked Witch of the West with a thrown bucket of water, and they happily presented her broom to the fierce and powerful Oz, who tried to weasel out of the deal he had struck with them: get the Witch’s broom and he would grant their requests. Outrage replaced fear as the supplicants cried foul. Toto ran to the curtain by the stage and pulled it back with his teeth, revealing an elderly man pulling levers and turning dials. The impressive voice of Oz commanded, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
“Biggest fraud ever,” Tony said with a grin.
“Cynic,” Steve teased.
Bucky jabbed Steve with his elbow. “He’s right.”
They kept their voices low as the fake Wizard had to confess but he was still able to grant the gang’s requests in clever ways. Tony had to admire the old Wizard. He had conned an entire city, even the whole Land of Oz.
Dorothy clicked the ruby slippers as she intoned, “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!” and was back in Kansas with Auntie Em and Uncle Henry and their hired hands that bore a remarkable resemblance to a certain Oz trio. The audience clapped enthusiastically as the lights came up.
Tony, Steve and Bucky spilled out with the rest of the crowd onto the sidewalk. Steve declared, “I’m calling that a classic.”
"I'd agree," said Bucky.
"That film will become one of the most beloved of all time and become even more popular in the future than today," Tony said.
“And how would you know?” asked Steve in amusement.
“Because I see all and know all,” Tony answered loftily.
“Mr. Crystal Ball,” Steve teased.
“The Gypsy King?” Bucky asked.
“Isaac Asimov,” Tony replied.
“A fine choice.”
“Let’s go get something to eat.” Steve looked eagerly at his companions.
“Didn’t you fill up on popcorn?” Tony asked incredulously.
“I finished my share over on hour ago. Let’s go to the Automat. Fast and cheap.”
“That’s true, but I’m not in the mood for the Automat. Let’s go to the Empire.” Bucky tossed the empty popcorn bucket into a trash can.
“I’ll go along with that.”
“Our treat,” Bucky said to Tony.
“Lead on, MacDuff.” Tony bowed and gestured expansively while Steve and Bucky grinned.
The three of them headed for the restaurant as they went with the flow of the Friday night crowd.
THE MEATLOAF PACT
The Food Network
The Empire was a popular diner lit up in neon and chrome with a Wurlitzer jukebox, shiny counter and yellow booths. Everything looked bright and new, Steve explaining that the owner had recently splurged on renovations.
“I gotta admit, it’s a snazzy place.” Tony eagerly looked around. This was no retro diner but the real thing. Little Brown Jug was playing on the red-and-yellow jukebox and there was only one booth left. Laughter and conversation were mixed in with the music. One waitress worked the counter while two worked the booths.
The three friends slid into the empty booth. Steve and Bucky sat on one side with Tony on the other. Tony pushed away unsettling memories of the fight in Siberia and concentrated on being with his two roommates in a noisy diner after a night at the movies which featured a cartoon, a Three Stooges short, Movietone News, and The Wizard Of Oz.
A middle-aged waitress with taffy-colored hair and a matching uniform came over with menus. “Hiya, boys. Who’s the new cutie?”
“Tony Barton, Ella,” Steve answered.
She snapped her gum and set the menus down while she smiled at Tony. “Have the meatloaf, honey. It’s good.”
“Thanks for the recommendation.”
She winked and said, “Be back in a few, boys,” and went to the open space between diner and kitchen where plates of food waited to be picked up by the waitresses.
“I’m taking her recommendation, because it is good.” Bucky did not bother to open the menu.
Steve skimmed his menu and flipped it shut. “Me, too.”
Tony scanned the pictures on the plastic menu, always amused by the prices. “Okay, meatloaf, green beans, and mashed potatoes and gravy for me, three.”
“See? Easy.” Bucky grinned.
Five minutes later Ella returned with glasses of water. “What’ll it be, gents?”
“Meatloaf all around, Ella,” Bucky said. “And three Cokes.”
After Ella left, Steve leaned forward and rested his arms on the Formica table. “So you can see the future?”
Tony held out his hand. “Cross my palm with dough and I’ll predict your future.”
“How about I hold out my hand and you give me a reading?” Steve asked with a saucy grin.
Tony took his hand and studied the palm. He traced a finger down the palm. “I see a long life for you.”
“Hey, Steve, you’re gonna make it, buddy.” Bucky clapped a hand on the blond’s shoulder.
“Go on, Great Wizard.”
“I see fame and fortune in your future.”
“Hey, I could use some of the fortune.”
“What, fame doesn’t interest you?” Tony asked.
“Fame is highly overrated. Why would I want to go around with flashbulbs popping in my face all the time?”
Tony thought of social media and considered Steve lucky if he only got the flashbulbs.
Ella arrived with the Cokes, unfazed by the tomfoolery. She smirked as she went to another table.
Steve pulled away and Bucky took his hand. “I see a lot in your future, too.” He ran a finger lightly down his friend’s palm, Steve shivering slightly.
Oh, very clever, guys, Tony thought. He smiled as he relaxed against the booth.
“Yeah?” Steve played along. “What kind of things in my future?”
“Good things,” Bucky said softly.
Moonlight Serenade began playing on the jukebox. The quintessential music most associated with the World War II era was just right, Tony thought. Bucky and Steve had their moment in a diner full of people.
The food arrived and Tony tasted his meal. “I never knew meatloaf could be this good.”
“Didn’t your mom make it?” Steve asked, handing Bucky a bottle of Heinz 57 ketchup. Bucky promptly poured ketchup over his meatloaf, mixing it with the brown gravy.
“These are good-sized portions,” Tony commented. “And my mother wasn’t much of a cook.”
“Ah. Well, not everybody’s mother has the knack.” Steve took a small bite of green beans. “So, Great and Powerful Oz, who will run for President in 1940?”
Steve shook his head. “He can’t run for a third term.”
“Who says?” Tony cut a piece of meatloaf with his knife and fork.
“Well, it’s tradition. Washington declined a third term, so everyone else does, too.”
“Since when has Franklin Roosevelt ever followed the book, or at least tweaked the pages? Isn’t he the guy who moved Thanksgiving? These are unusual times. If war comes, who better to lead us?”
Tony could see Steve mulling over the idea, and Bucky was intrigued as well. He ate a slice of meatloaf, noting bits of onion in the beef.
“Well, if he does run in 1940, I’ll vote for him!” Steve nodded definitively.
“I’ll pull the lever for him,” Bucky agreed.
“Me, too,” said Tony. “Let’s call it the Meatloaf Pact.”
Steve and Bucky laughed, raising their glasses and clinking them with Tony’s glass to seal the Pact.
Back at the apartment Steve emptied the doggy bag taken from the diner and stored the food into the icebox. “I’m beat. I’m gonna hit the hay.”
“I’ll be in after I have a smoke,” said Bucky.
Steve shuffled off to bed as Bucky climbed out onto the fire escape.
“Mind some company?” asked Tony.
Tony followed Bucky out onto the fire escape. Bucky lit a cigarette and held out the pack of Lucky Strikes. Tony took one and Bucky lit it for him. Tony took a deep drag.
It’s been a long time since I had a smoke. I probably shouldn’t, but what the hell? Everybody smokes in 1939.
Despite the mild light pollution, stars were scattered across the dark sky. Tony could barely see Bucky, the glow of his cigarette like a firefly as the younger man smoked.
Snatches of conversation could be heard from open windows as traffic was light at this late hour. The streetlight directly below them was broken, making the street darker than normal.
Suddenly Bucky spoke. “I have to come out here to smoke. Cigarette smoke would have Steve coughing his lungs out.” He took another drag. “So, you’re a future kind of guy.”
“Pretty much.” Tony blew out a ring of smoke. “Steve says you are, too.”
“He says you’re a science fiction fan.”
“I am.” The glowing tip of Bucky’s cigarette moved as he lowered it. “Steve enjoys Amazing Stories and the novels, but I think he’s more at home with the 19th century novels.”
“Yeah?” Tony was genuinely curious.
“All that honor and gallantry jazz is right up his alley.”
“I’d agree with that,” Tony said in amusement. “You know him well.”
“I love him.”
Momentarily startled, Tony figured that Bucky meant as a brother. “He is like an annoying little brother.”
“I don’t mean that way.”
Tony took a drag off his cigarette, his stomach fluttering. “Yeah?”
“I’ve seen you watching us.” Bucky’s face was completely in the dark. “You know about us.”
Tony wondered why Bucky was taking this enormous risk. “Some would say some things are best left unsaid.”
“Why tell me your secret?”
“You haven’t exposed us. At the very least, you could have just left.”
“True.” Tony did not quite know how to feel at this show of trust. “I promise you, your secret’s safe with me.”
“I appreciate that.”
Tony remembered walking down the hall last night and hearing laughter and muted voices as he passed Steve and Bucky’s room. The door was slightly ajar. Tony had smirked all the way to his bedroom.
“Um, what’s Steve going to think about you telling me?”
“I haven’t decided whether or not to tell him. You’ll know when I do.”
“You’re a man of many facets, Bucky Barnes.”
Truer words were never spoken.
THE HEAT OF THE DAY
Melts the spirit,
As it presses down hard,
A blanket of brick
Spare us the heat,
The endless heat,
In the steel canyons
And yellowed meadows
Of the withered
Tony knew when Bucky had told Steve. The morning of his seventh day in the past Steve smiled at him in a way that let Tony know he knew that Steve and Bucky were not just sleeping together in the literal sense in the bed they shared.
He was still puzzled over their willingness to trust him with such a dangerous secret. Maybe it was the same thing that mellowed Tony out. He seemed unconcerned about his sojourn here in the past or when he might return to the future.
How will I get back home? Click my ruby slippers?
The thought amused him as he and his roommates fell into a routine: Bucky would go to work on the docks while Steve and Tony went to the library. Steve would read or sketch while Tony did his research. He still had enough money but it would run out eventually. He had a plan to get more if he needed it.
Why aren’t I anxious to go back home? Tony tapped his pencil against the yellow cover of his notebook. Sunlight streamed in through the high windows of the Reading Room. It set Steve’s lemon-blond hair afire.
I can see why Bucky’s so nuts about him.
Steve was looking tired today. Tony hoped that he was all right. Steve getting sick in this era of pre-antibiotics made him nervous.
He rubbed his eyes and shut them the notebook in front of him. “You know, this heat has me beat.”
Steve grunted. The sheen of sweat on his skin accentuated an unhealthy pallor.
“I’m calling it a day early.”
“Okay.” Steve had been listlessly drawing in his sketchbook. He now closed the book and he and Tony left the library.
He was quiet on the trolley car ride home. When they disembarked from the streetcar, Tony stayed close to Steve, who was looking frailer than usual as he could barely walk up the steps of their building. He accepted Tony’s help, letting Tony know how tired he was by that concession.
It was an excruciating trek up two more flights of stairs. Somehow they made it to 304 and Tony helped Steve to his bedroom. Steve was white and shaking as he stripped down to his shorts and crawled into his bed.
“Can I get you any medicine?” Tony asked.
Tony turned the large floor fan on as he went to the bathroom. He scanned the medicine bottles and wished that there was penicillin or other wonder drugs in the cabinet, but even penicillin would not be available for civilian use until after the war. And you needed to get the shot in a doctor’s office, but since he was wishing for the moon, why not go all the way? He grabbed the bottle of Bayer aspirin and returned to the bedroom.
“Hold on while I get you some water.”
Steve was curled up on his side, breathing heavily. Tony grabbed the pitcher off the nightstand and quickly chipped some ice off the block in the icebox to put in the pitcher. He had been fascinated to watch the iceman come down the street with his horse and wagon and deliver a large block of ice to their apartment. He filled the pitcher from the tap and brought it to Steve’s room.
Steve looked like he was asleep but opened his eyes when Tony entered the room. Tony helped him sit up and take the aspirin and water.
“Thanks.” Steve managed a shaky smile before lying back down again.
“Try and get some sleep,” Tony urged. He put the glass on the nightstand within easy reach.
The fan was noisy and Tony wondered how Steve could sleep at all with that racket. He studied the fan and shut it off.
“Mmph?” Steve mumbled.
“Just gonna make an adjustment.” Tony ran to the kitchen and yanked opened the drawer at the end of the counter. He grabbed a screwdriver and hustled back to the bedroom. “Just a minute.”
Tony tinkered for ten minutes, then turned the fan on again. There was still some noise but it was considerably less now.
Steve squinted up at Tony. “What did you do?”
“Just tinkered. Get some sleep.”
Tony went to the kitchen and chipped off some ice to use. He poured a glass of water and drank it greedily.
He was really worried. The symptoms did not appear to be heatstroke, but maybe his friend’s frail health was allowing the heat to drain him even more extensively than for a normal person.
He glanced at the small bulletin board affixed to the wall. There was a note tacked to it with Bucky’s work number. Should he call him?
He decided not to just yet. Undoubtedly Steve was ill often and Bucky could not risk losing his job by taking time off for every bout of sickness his lover suffered.
Tony finished his water and went back to check on Steve. He found him sleeping and gently touched his shoulder, nearly snatching his hand back.
He’s burning up!
To be honest, he could not be sure if the heat was from a fever or the weather. He decided to start a rudimentary treatment and went to the linen closet in the hall, taking out two small towels. He wet them in the tiny shower and was back at Steve’s bedside.
He started wiping Steve down, hoping that the towels could bring his friend’s temperature down. Steve was so tired that he slept through Tony’s ministrations.
Tony was pleased to feel Steve’s skin become a little cooler. He fetched a small hand towel and placed it around the back of his patient’s neck.
Maybe I shouldn’t be worried. Steve is destined to survive his sickly years to become Captain America, but what if my presence here has disrupted the timeline?
His lack of curiosity about how he had been sent back in time should have disturbed him, but he was uncharacteristically calm. He had vague memories of a stormy night back in 2016, but nothing was clear. How was he going to get back home?
Maybe I’ll need that pair of ruby slippers after all.
Why was he not more concerned with getting home? He checked Steve’s brow, still warm but a little cooler now.
Could be I’m not anxious to return to a future with Rhodey hurt, no Pepper, no team, and no friends.
Steve moaned and moved restlessly but did not awaken. Tony pulled over the rocking chair from the corner and sat down, applying his cold compresses.
Man, you sure suffered a lot before the Serum, didn’t you, Steve?
Tony leaned back in the rocking chair and closed his eyes.
“Hey, wake up.”
“Huh?” Tony blinked. “What…?” He found himself looking at the concerned brown eyes of Bucky Barnes.
“You okay, Tony?”
“I’m fine. I’m not the one who’s sick. Steve!” Tony jolted forward and saw Steve with fresh towels on him.
“Glad you thought of the cold compresses. We’ll have to keep an eye on him. The heat can do a number on him, and this heat wave is just going on and on.”
“Should we take him to the hospital?”
Bucky shook his head. “They won’t do anything for him that we can’t do.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I’m going to shower off the day’s sweat.”
Tony checked the compresses. They were still cool.
After Bucky showered and changed, he brought in a kitchen chair and sat on the other side of the bed. “How is he?”
“Pretty much all right. Though I wish his temperature would go down.”
“You sound certain.”
“Why not? I’ve had plenty of practice.”
Bucky’s tone was brittle, whether from weariness or something else, Tony could not tell.
Steve moved restlessly. “Bucky,” he muttered.
“Right here, Stevie.”
Bucky touched Steve’s thin arm. “Love you, too, kid.”
Steve subsided into sleep. Bucky’s hand lingered on Steve’s arm, then he took it away and leaned back in his chair. “Good thing you know the score. Might have to do some fancy explaining otherwise.”
Tony nodded. “You’re right.” He smiled mischievously. “Gonna spill any pillow talk?”
Bucky laughed. “God, I hope not.”
Tony realized how relaxed he felt. Was he being charmed by Bucky, obviously not the Winter Soldier who he remembered? Did he consider Bucky separate from the emotionless assassin of the future?
When we fought in Siberia, Bucky said he remembered killing my parents. He said that he remembered them all.
The thought chilled Tony. What would it be like to kill against your will and remember every one?
Bucky’s attention was on Steve so he missed the pity in Tony’s eyes.
Bucky and Tony kept vigil together until the evening closed in, then they took shifts. Bucky slept in Tony’s bed when Tony attended Steve.
Steve babbled at one point as Tony put a fresh compress on the sick man’s forehead. Most of what Steve was saying was unintelligible, but suddenly his words were clear.
“Don’t leave me, Bucky!”
At least not by choice.
Steve groped blindly. “Bucky!”
Tony took his hand and Steve quieted. Steve’s grip was firm despite the fragility of his bones. There was always strength in this man, no matter what. Stubborn, tenacious, forever determined…that was Steve Rogers, poor Irish-American from Brooklyn, U.S.A.
“I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that once you decided not to sign the Accords, you’d stick to your guns. You’re a man of conviction, not to mention stubbornness.” Steve moved and Tony chuckled. “Even when conked out, you have to challenge my assertion, huh? Well, I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.”
Tony put his hand on Steve’s forehead. The ache in his chest underscored how much he missed Steve in his own time.
Irritating, annoying, exasperating…caring, funny, intriguing…
Steve squeezed his hand and Tony thought he was conscious, but the sick man was too deep in fevered sleep. Tony squeezed back and Steve seemed to relax.
“He’s pretty tactile.”
Tony looked around to see Bucky standing in the doorway. “Yeah, I guess so.” Tony gently extricated his hand and patted Steve’s.
Bucky walked in and put a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Why don’t you get some sleep?”
“I will.” Tony looked pensive. “I know he’s strong, but he’s so damned frail.”
“I know.” Bucky’s voice was sad. “That isn’t going to change.”
Tony knew that would have been true without the Super-Soldier Serum. It still did not make the present any easier as Steve suffered.
“How do you stand it?” Tony asked.
“Sometimes I can’t.” Bucky looked down at Steve while he crossed his arms. “He really got the short end of the health stick.”
“Yeah.” Tony smiled a little. “You know, he really is like Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.”
“You mean that Coming Attraction we saw?”
“Yeah.” Tony chuckled. “A naive, true-blue American who will fight to the bitter end for justice.”
“That sounds like Steve all right.” Bucky picked up the water pitcher. “I’ll refill this. Want some icewater?”
Tony nodded. After Bucky left, he put his hand over Steve’s. “You won’t have to suffer too much longer, Steve. You’re going to be the greatest hero this world has ever seen.”
When Bucky returned, Tony gratefully accepted his water. The icy-cold goodness was just what his parched throat needed.
Bucky took the other chair and drank from his own glass. They kept their vigil in silence until Bucky said, “He’s had it rough. He and his mother always had to struggle.”
“What happened to his father?” Tony asked, even though he knew the answer.
“He died in the war. Mustard gas.”
“A bad way to go.”
“Even for war.”
“Yes, even for war.” Tony suddenly felt very tired.
“When his mother died, Steve was really shaken up. He and Mrs. Rogers were very close. Steve was always sad about his father, but he never knew him since he was born right around the time his father was killed.”
Tony thought of his lifelong battle with his own father until…the Winter Soldier killed him. He stared at Bucky, who looked very little like a brainwashed killing machine. He just looked like a very young man in love, worried about his sickly lover.
“Go to bed, Tony,” Bucky said, not unkindly.
The next morning, Steve was much better. By the end of the day, he was sitting up and eating, albeit lightly. Tony and Bucky ate in the bedroom on trays they set at the edge of the bed. Tony watched Steve and Bucky laughing and came to a decision.
“Whatever you guys go saved up for the World’s Fair, I’ll make up the rest. If you’re up to it, Steve, I say let’s go to the World’s Fair and see the World of Tomorrow.”