“Don’t strain yourself, Tony,” the man with the thick glasses said in his heavily accented English and grinned at Tony like nothing in the world could give him more satisfaction. “This time you won’t escape us.”
Zola had risen through the ranks of Hydra in the wake of Strucker’s death. Since there had been no new Zemo to take the place of Howard Stark, he’d become the new chief scientist. Most of the weapons Tony had disassembled over the last year had been developed by this man. Some had been obvious adaptations of designs left by the previous Zemo, but too many had sprung right from his own unhinged mind. Just like the contraption he was strapped to now, his shirt in tatters, his mechanical heart exposed so Zola could inspect it.
He gritted his teeth, straining again against the leather straps that were holding his wrists and ankles in place on the slab. Zola laughed, enjoying his defiance.
“It’s really no use, Tony,” Gialetta said sweetly. She kept to the background of the proceedings, but she hadn’t let him out of his sight even once, since he’d been captured. “You knew you couldn’t escape us forever.”
If she was smiling he couldn’t see it. The green jade mask was still fused to her once deceptively beautiful face. Some people had taken to calling her the Green Skull, but among her Hydra agents she was known as Madame Masque or Lady Hydra these days. She and Zola had been fast in taking over when Tony had freed the world of Hydra’s previous leaders.
“Sorry, Gia,” he said and made sure to keep his tone amiable. “I don’t have it in me not to fight. It’s nice to hear your lovely voice, even if your face isn’t much to look at these days.” There was nothing that could upset her more than his devil-may-care attitude. It was hard enough to keep at it as it was, now that two men clad in green uniforms, less elaborate than the one Gia was wearing, had stepped forward to push down his shoulders and head, so they could fasten another strap across his forehead that would keep him from moving around. Zola was preparing a mouthpiece and that just meant he was in for a painful procedure. So far, nobody had been waving a needle at his eye, but that didn’t exactly put his mind at ease.
“Will his heart be a problem?” Gia asked, turning to Zola. Even from where he was struggling against strong hands, he could see that her hands had balled into fists. She was holding on to control. His jibes had gotten to her.
“It’s a wonderful piece of engineering, my lady,” Zola said and his grin widened. He made sure to lean a little forward and meet Tony’s eyes. They all knew that his chance of escaping was slim. This time, it looked like he’d been defeated. His greatest fears might be coming true after all.
Zola could probably see his heart beat faster.
“So, I’m not going to be your next Zemo?” he spat.
“Oh, oh, of course you are. There is just no need to be as crude about it as we used to be. No need to make your mind deteriorate at all. Tony Stark will be Hydra and you will believe there was never anything else. After all you are the son of our previous Zemo… It will only be fitting, if you start believing in your own legacy,” Zola babbled and Tony, unable to move, finally got an idea what the apparatus hanging over his head was going to do to him.
“You’re going to what? Brainwash me?”
“Nothing so crude,” Zola said and was making himself busy at the controls. “Your reprogramming will be complete.”
He hated the sound of that. For all his daring and for all of his technology, Tony Stark’s mind was his greatest asset and the thought of it being tampered with filled him with the darkest dread. He could still hear the pitiful gurgling sounds Zemo had made, the babbling insanity, the wide, crazy eyes. Perhaps everything was better than the syringe with the Zemo formula, but not this. This was another cold cruelty that would warp him into the most dangerous weapon to be used against his friends.
Suddenly the ceiling crashed in. Not able to move or even pull away he coughed, dust and dirt filling his lungs. He couldn’t see, could only look up at the hole in the ceiling, his eyes tearing up.
Shots fired right beside him, then a metallic thud and another and the soldiers holding him grunted in pain and went down. He heard them tumble to the floor. He could see a flash of blue and then, from the corner of his eyes, he could see Gia who was pointing her gun at him. He stared at her, wondering if this would make a fitting end to his own drawn out saga. Why she hesitated he didn’t know - perhaps she was thinking of the good times she had, but more likely, she was thinking for all the evil plans they still had in store for Tony. Death, he was sure, was not enough punishment in her eyes.
She fired and he braced himself for the pain.
A shadow fell over him and the only thing in his vision was blue tinged leather. The bullet made a clinking sound as it hit metal and nothing happened.
“You better run,” the man said and a younger man, also clad in blue and red tones, appeared at Tony’s side and started to cut through the leather straps. He was wearing a mask.
“This is not the end of it,” Gia shouted, but her voice was far away. Hydra was on the retreat.
His rescuer finally turned around and looked down at him and then, while his aide was struggling with getting his right wrist free, pulled the leather on the left one apart like it was made of butter. Tony, who could still not really move his head, stared at his now free hand and then up at the man. “You’re Captain America? I thought you were just a story.”
Half of the man’s face was also hidden behind a blue cowl mask. But his mouth was visible. “I thought the same about you, Mr. Stark.” He grinned. “No issue of the Tony Stark Adventures I ever missed. I’m a fan.”
The strap around his head went just as easily as the first. “Saved by a reader,” Tony said slowly and sat up, while the Captain freed his ankles. “I’m sure Hydra will love that.”
“Are we going to be in your next adventure?” the teenager in the black mask, who Tony now knew to be Bucky, asked.
“Least I can do,” Tony said and gave Captain America a lopsided smile, “for a fan.”
* * *
“What is that?” Jim pointed.
Cars were arriving and a person was pulled from the back of a truck, dead or unconscious. Tony turned to get a better look with the binoculars. He recognized the blue leather immediately. “That’s Captain America,” he whispered and he would be lying if he’d said he wasn’t worried. “He saved my life before.”
Jim looked too. “I thought he was a propaganda reel story.”
“Just like us, you mean?”
“Come on, Tony. You have your own Pulp Magazine and everyone knows you are the handsome heir of Howard Stark and owner of Stark Industries. You’re more than a propaganda reel and everyone knows it.”
“I suppose the people I leave in charge there in New York would actually like it if I were only a story, sometimes.”
Jim shrugged. “You are a handful. But you are also their best publicity.”
Thoughts of New York fled him soon enough. In front of their eyes Captain America was dragged towards the main building where Tony knew Zola was doing his experiments. By now, Tony had learned at least the barest details about project Rebirth and knew that Zola must be aware of the super soldier serum coursing through the veins of that man. His own last brush with the Hydra scientist was still fresh in Tony’s memories and he did not want to have someone like Captain America brainwashed or dissected.
“We are not going to let them take one of our heroes. We’re here to smoke out a nest of vipers, so let’s take the house down.”
Jim grinned. “Iron Man and War Machine?”
“We have them on hand, we might as well use them.”
They tracked back to where they had left Jarvis and the armors behind. At flying speed reaching the Hydra compound was a quick trip. War Machine - designed to dish out the heavy artillery fire, landed right in the middle of the courtyard, drawing the attention and fire, while Tony used the Iron Man to carefully land on the roof of the main building. He had an idea where Captain America had been dragged to. Now he only had to wait until all the guards were heading out towards Jim.
He did not have to wait long, as Jim made short work of the vehicles outside and threw a burning truck into the main building wall. The roof shuddered beneath him. Making the metal suit jump slightly, he let himself crash right into the room below.
“Hello, Arnim,” he greeted Zola when he came face to face with his enemy, doing for Captain America what the man had done for him before. “No need for formality. You can take your welcoming party and go.”
“Not happy to see me today? You usually make such a big deal of wanting me right here as part of Hydra?”
He had advanced on the handful of people on the room. Most of them were scientists, who now ran scared. Only Zola remained with two armed guards and none of the guards looked like they really wanted to take their chances with Iron Man. Advancing even further, sparing one glance to Captain America who had been thrown down on a metal slab, his hands bound, he used the Iron Man armor to block the men’s line of fire.
“I’ll get you, Tony,” Zola hissed. “We’ll get you.”
“Not today.” To make sure to send his own message, Tony fired his repulsor, hitting one of the military rifles right out of the hands of one startled guard, who started running without any further prompting. Zola used the other poor man as a shield and they ran, too, while Tony fired more shoots after them. Getting Zola was one of his personal goals, but right now he had other priorities.
He moved the armor over to Captain America. The man hadn’t moved, but now Tony could see his eyes had opened. “Hello, Cap” he said and saluted. “My turn to get you out.”
The wane smile the man threw up at him, put him a little more at ease. “My hero,” he said.
“What can I say,” Tony said, and his voice was amplified and booming because of the Iron Man, “I’ve become quite the fan.”
Captain America chuckled and it sounded like some of his strength was returning.
* * *
“I thought that was just a fancy title for an issue,” Cap admitted. He was grinning, like he was enjoying the whole thing.
“It made for a fancy title too.” Somewhere a few miles out a dinosaur roared. On of the big ones.
“I can’t believe it,” Cap mumbled. “I’m in a real life Tony Stark adventure.”
“Better believe it. Someone with your ability for strategy might have to get us out of this Tony Stark adventure before Hydra blows us up or one of them jungle reptiles decides we make a good lunch.”
Cap was still smiling. It was hard to believe that someone who was making his own name as a true hero on the battlefield, who was as exceptional as Captain America, had spent his years reading Marvels. It astounded him, that they had been thrown together like two protagonists in a book. “You have your own comic book now,” he remarked. The funnies were becoming more and more popular. New heroes had emerged for a new readership.
“I’m sure the editor would love to use… well you for an issue or two.”
“A fictional team up?” Tony laughed. “Do you think stuff like that sells in comics?”
Cap shrugged and Tony wondered if it was uncomfortable in all that leather and the tight cowl, with the dampness and the rain. Because he knew there were secrets you needed to keep, he had never pried into the Captain’s identity and had never once asked him to take off the mask. It had been an unspoken agreement that they would respect each other’s secrets. Now he really wanted to ask though.
“Get some rest, Tony,” Cap finally told him. He was still looking out at the jungle like a kid who was living his dream. “I’ll take the first watch.”
He didn’t protest. Hydra had given him a run for his money all week and he knew he needed the rest. He rolled out his bedroll on one of the crude bunks and remembered sharing the little treehouse with Pepper when they’d been last here. Things had been very different back then. He had been guarding her sleep. Now he was the one who drifted off without fearing what was to come, because Captain America was guarding him.
When he woke up, Cap was sitting inside the door, just beneath the roof. The thudding of heavy raindrops made for a steady melody above their heads. “Doesn’t want to stop, this blasted rain,” Tony muttered.
“It stopped for a bit and then picked back up,” Cap said and with a glimmer of appreciation looked over his shoulder at Tony who had gotten up and was stretching his limbs a bit.
There was something in Cap’s hand. A pencil. “Writing down your memoirs already?”
“No.” The man looked away and put down the notebook he’d been holding. “Just doodling a bit.”
“You’re drawing?” He had not pictured his war hero to be an artist at heart, so his interest was immediately piqued.
Cap seemed reluctant. “It’s not like I’m very good at it.”
He let Tony leaf through a few of the pages, but his body language communicated discomfort. There were some studies of Bucky and Iron Man and there was a fast sketch of one of the dinosaurs they’d come across today. There were four sketches of Tony in different poses. But the last sketch was what caught his eye. It was of Tony standing in the jungle with the torn shirt he was still wearing, a shadow following him.
When he stared at it too long, Cap looked away, like he was embarrassed.
“That looks like a real Marvels cover.” The man had only made a quick pencil sketch without too many details. But Tony could already see how it would turn out.
“It’s still months away, but looks like the anniversary edition will be a Savage Land story,” Tony joked. “We could use a cover for that.”
“Right, ten years of Marvels.” Cap grinned, back on even ground. “Looking forward to that.”
“We can credit you as Captain America if you can’t give another name.”
Cap looked at him long and searching. “I’m not keeping it a secret because I don’t trust you.”
“I know,” he said. “You don’t have to explain anything to me.”
He hadn’t wanted it to come out like a vow, a pledge of loyalty… or something else. But suddenly, thunder roaring over their heads, the heavy rain still drowning the world around them, they stood rooted to the spot, staring at each other, like something had finally been revealed that had remained unsaid between them for too long. It was Captain America who leaned forward to kiss him.
It was like all floodgates opened and Tony grabbed his shoulders, pulled him down for more and turned the kiss heated and filthy. He tried to push Cap back against the wall, but the man stood like a rock, let Tony feel his own strength and they both revelled in it.
“One day,” he promised and pulled away from Tony. “Now, let’s take apart Hydra once and for all. I’d like to get to that happy ending quickly.”
Tony, his breath still mostly stolen, laughed, exhilarated and shivering with anticipation.
He wanted to get there too.
* * *
His only regret was that he hadn’t heard from Captain America. Months ago the man had told him he was going on a mission - and he’d never returned. Tony had tried to prod Fury and Phillips about this whereabouts, but so far he hadn’t managed to get anything. Talk was of a bomb devastating enough to wipe out the east coast and of Cap having gone to seek out a base to the north to intercept or stop the plane that was carrying it before it ever took off. If it was true then, Tony wanted to know what had happened at least. It was beginning to look more and more likely that he would never see Captain America again.
“Look at this,” Pepper said. “Should cheer you up.” She shoved the new Marvels Magazine at him with the Tony Stark Adventures Cover. “10th Anniversary! More pages! More Adventure!” promised the by-line. But that didn’t catch his eye. The composition of the cover did. There he was with a familiar torn shirt, standing in the jungle like he was going to face an enemy soon and a gigantic shadow fell over him. He had seen this before. Not in color. Just a first sketch.
He stared down at the name of the artist. “Steve Rogers?” he read. Steve. He liked the name.
“Who’s that? The new artist? You know him?” Pepper asked and looked over his shoulder.
“Oh,” Tony said and grinned, “he’s just a fan.”
“Good,” she said. “He’s down in the office waiting to meet you and you won’t want to keep a fan waiting.”
“No,” Tony said and slowly smiled. “Not this one.”
They walked down to the office together and Tony half expected to be disappointed. A blond head and broad shoulders were the first thing he saw and his heart gave a first painful beat when it realized this might be the truth. The “new artist” was studying the collection of magazine covers that lined his office wall. Then Steve turned, having heard them at the door.
Just like back in the jungle, it felt like time stopped when their eyes met.
That man was Captain America alright.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you Mr. Stark. I’m Steve. Rogers.” He held out his hand in introduction.
Tony, still feeling like the world had slowed down, took it, felt the warmth of the touch mingling with the hope that blossomed in his chest. “It’s good to finally meet you, Steve,” he said and grinned. “Call me Tony.”
And just like that Tony was sure that whatever the world had come to, whatever scars the war had left, there were new adventures ahead for Captain America and Iron Man - and not all of them of a public nature.