I see you there, don't know where you come from
Unaware the stare from someone
Don't appear to care that I saw ya. And I want you
What's your name
Cuz' I have to know it
You let me in and begin to show it
We're terrified 'cuz we're heading straight for it, might get it.
You're in the song playing on the background
All alone but you're turning up now
And everyone is rising to meet you, to greet you
Turn around and you're walking toward me
I'm breaking down and you're breathing slowly
Say the word and I will be your man
* * *
All things considered, it was only fitting that the first time Steve saw Tony Stark in person, the man was crashing through the ceiling, seemingly out of nowhere and very much in his Iron Man suit, huge fireworks going off around him like it was the 4th of July and Christmas day all rolled into one. Steve had never seen anything so extravagant and big before.
The first time he had heard about Stark, though… well, that had been more than half a year ago. Since then, he had methodically learned everything there was to know about the man and it was safe to say that Steve had become a low grade expert on Tony Stark.
He had read a dozen SHIELD issued psychological appraisals on the man's arrogance, his narcissistic tendencies, the love 'em and leave 'em lifestyle he’d been toning down lately but that had pretty much defined most of his adult life. He’d been informed and warned about Stark’s self-destructive behavior and the impulsiveness that had nearly gotten him and his personal assistant—or girlfriend, maybe, Steve wasn’t so sure about that one—killed.
The little things he had memorized like vocabulary: The way Stark drank his coffee (strong, black, and steaming), his favorite food, which would usually be either fancy and exotic gourmet food, as long as he didn’t need to cook it himself, or greasy fast food, as long as it didn’t take too long to get to it. He could easily recite Stark's favorite cars (mostly Audi or old-timers), his favorite fashion labels (and knew that he secretly preferred old ratty tank-tops and jeans, like that wasn’t contradictory at all), his favorite colognes, holiday destinations, movies and bands, and so on. It probably wasn’t the best use of Steve’s eidetic memory, however practical.
And then—then there was the list named character flaws. It was very long and included things like ‘stays up for over thirty hours on a regular basis’, ‘drinks coffee like it is water’ and ‘doesn’t want to be handed things’. That last one was even tagged as a minor disruptive behavior disorder, and, as with all the other strange little facts about Tony Stark, there was nothing left to do for Steve other than wonder how that man had managed to survive for all these years.
Certainly, there had been good things to know about Stark too, even if it took a little digging on Steve’s part. What had impressed him most obviously, were Stark’s inventions… from his helper bot DUM-E—which, Christ, he’d built when being 17 years old—to the arc reactor technology and the Iron Man suit. It had been a long, sleepless night when Steve had come across SHIELD’s files on Afghanistan, and while he was certain that the version he held in his hands probably wasn’t completely reliable… it was nothing if not an awe-inspiring tale. The way a single man—and let’s be honest here, Stark was a rich, spoiled kid, who probably never had to fight for anything in his life—how a man like that got kidnapped, and tortured and still refused to take the easy way out. How he single-handedly saved himself, how he simply refused to be used against his will. It was… well… it almost made up for every other bad thing that was written down in Stark’s file.
Steve watched how the gals in the tiny Iron Man costumes danced seductively around Stark, swaying their hips from left to right. How the man himself, now dressed in a neat tux, grinned from ear to ear, clearly enjoying the view and how the crowd cheered his name, the Marry Me, Tony’s, the Take Me Home Tonight, Tony’s, the I Love You, Tony’s.
Steve had already had his fair share of bizarre experiences in this new world, and whatever most of SHIELD’s agents seemed to think about him, he wasn’t fazed easily. Still, there were times, like right now, when he was left almost speechless.
“Please, it’s not about me,” Stark announced, grinning crookedly, and obviously meaning the exact opposite.
Next to him, Natasha rolled her eyes, but there was an almost genuine smile playing on her lips. She probably felt Steve’s scrutinizing gaze upon her and shrugged her shoulders, brushing a strand of her hair behind an ear. It was still a bit strange to see her with a platinum blond wig, although it wasn’t by far the strangest thing he’d seen her wearing when going on a mission. Not that this was a mission. This was his last observation.
“Don’t let him fool you,” Natasha practically shouted, however given the current volume of the cheers and whistles around them, she might as well have whispered. “He only gives them what they expect of him. He was raised to hold over-the-top speeches like that.”
“Yeah, I know,” Steve said, and on a second thought added, “You know, that’s how I met Howard. He was presenting the first flying car in 1943. Wasn’t called Stark Expo then, but all in all, it’s not all that different.” Apart from Stark’s showy entry and the beautiful way the Iron Man suit had slowly dissolved around him. Sure enough, that was something Steve had never seen before.
“What did I tell you about Howard Stark?” Natasha asked.
Steve sighed. It was one of many rules in the How To Behave Around Tony Stark manual. “Don’t mention him unless you want to quit the mission,” he quoted. He still didn’t get that. Not really. Obviously, Howard had changed in the years Steve had been frozen in the Atlantic and Steve had accepted that he hadn’t been the best father to Tony. Still, deep down, Howard surely must’ve remained a good fella. He couldn’t have changed that drastically.
“It’s easier to stick to some rules,” Natasha replied, like she had read his mind—which she probably did on a regular basis. “Otherwise you’ll constantly question your own words and actions and you won’t come across natural then. Stark may not be the most observant person, but he sure isn’t stupid. If he thinks you’re lying to him, if only for a moment, he’ll never reveal anything to you.”
“I know, Natasha,” Steve said, and he didn’t mean to sound so defensive, but he had heard all that before. He was ready for this. He had been trained for this specific mission nearly since the day he’d awoken in this time.
Anthony Edward Stark, however weird that sounded, was the one constant in Steve’s life and at this point, Steve was very sure, he knew more about him than any other member of SHIELD.
Natasha sighed. “I just…” she stopped and bit her lip in the kind of contemplative way that meant she was assessing how honest she had to be to get her point across. “I worry about you.” She finally said and the affection in her tone made him smile a little. “We won’t be able to have much contact. And Stark is… He can be a lot, Steve. And I don’t just mean his public persona.” She pointed at the stage, where Stark was currently taking a last bow, enjoying the applause for a moment, before leaving the crowd to an old film reel of Howard Stark. When the man took one last look at the crowd, Steve thought there was something flashing in his brown eyes. For a second it almost seemed like he was saying goodbye. And then he was gone.
“Deep down, he's just an insecure boy. He never got enough honest love in his life, and he's trying to hide behind all this macho-talk. He will do whatever it takes to get everything out of you without revealing anything about himself. And that is exactly what you’ll have to do, too, Steve. It won’t be easy, and this is the first time you’re doing an undercover–“
“Nat,” Steve interrupted, not unkindly. “I appreciate the thought, but trust me, I’ve got this.” He laid an arm around her thin shoulders. “I’ve learned from the best, now, haven’t I?”
And really, how hard could it be to reveal Tony Stark’s secrets? Surely, it couldn’t be all that difficult to make a self-centered man like Stark talk about himself.
* * *
Half an hour later, the main hall of Stark Expo was still brimming with people. The empty stage had done nothing by way of chilling the enthusiasm of being at one of the most talked-about places on earth.
“I brought your file.” Natasha said as they slowly made their way through the masses. “In case you had any last questions.”
“I’ve read the file a thousand times. He isn’t shallow, I know that. Still, at this point, I think I figured him out pretty well. Stop worrying about me. I can handle Stark.”
“I’m not talking about Stark’s file.” She said, pressing a few buttons on her phone, making his beep a second later. He opened his jacket, fishing it out of his inner pocket. He looked down at the screen.
“Scott Rowan?” he asked incredulously, staring at the file that had automatically opened up on his phone. There was a picture of him and Steve couldn’t even remember having it taken. Probably fake then. Nowadays, Steve thought, there was honestly no way of telling anymore.
“There is a printed copy in your apartment. Along with your new ID, social number, insurance information, background history, bank details, cash, even some family photos. I checked everything twice. You’re all set.”
“An alias? Why didn’t I know about this?”
Natasha eyed him with a smile. “Because I knew it would bother you, so I decided to put it off until there was an opening. And now that Stark made Miss Potts new CEO it’s too late for any major changes.”
“That’s…” Steve’s brows furrowed. “…Conniving.”
“Thank you.” She sounded earnest about it. It should probably bother him more than it did.
“I thought I’d go in as myself. He doesn’t know me. No one knows me. I am a ‘blank slate’, wasn’t that the whole point in choosing me over you?”
“The point is that Stark’s AI won’t be able to track your identity.”
“JARVIS,” Steve remembered with a nod. That was something he was very much looking forward to: Meeting the first and only artificial intelligence in existence. Fury had, albeit a bit begrudgingly, admitted that up until this point, there was nothing even close to compare to Stark’s creation.
“Yes, JARVIS. We’ll have to do something about him scanning you per facial recognition though. The photographs of Project Rebirth are publicly known. Coulson told me the science department invented some kind of jammer. They’re going to install it on-site tonight.”
“That’s risky,” Steve said. It was Stark they were talking about after all. And while the billionaire surely was careless in a lot of areas, Steve was sure that the security of his systems wasn’t one of those.
“It is,” Natasha agreed, and then she grinned and it was such a shit-eating expression, that he was instantly appeased. “And it isn’t. Coulson just has the best kind of ideas. You’ll see.”
Steve hummed, letting the subject rest for the moment.
They reached the exit shortly after. Once they were out of the exhibition site, Natasha pulled off the platinum blond wig, stuffing it in the tiny pink purse she was carrying around this evening.
“So, why identical initials?” he asked eventually. It seemed too odd to be a coincidence.
Natasha huffed, combing her fingers through her red curly hair. “It’s sort of a tradition, like a private joke around SHIELD. Coulson started it with going in as Phil Collins when he went off to an undercover mission in Romania. We figured it’s convenient to have a phonetically similar name. Keeps reaction times shorter.”
“He kept his first name, though. I don’t understand why I can’t be Steve, then.”
“Because,” Natasha started, throwing the car keys in his hand and looking intently at him over the roof of the car. “Believe me: it’ll be easier for you. It helps keeping some distance. It creeps up on you otherwise. Trust me. I’ve been there.”
“You went on a mission as Natasha?”
Her look became a little distant. She then shrugged her shoulders in a way that was disturbingly self-conscious. With Natasha, it was hard to say if it was an honest gesture or not. “Once,” she admitted after a moment while getting into the car.
Steve followed her and inserted the key, turning on the ignition. “And?”
A ghost of a smile graced her deep red lips while Steve steered the car in the direction of the highway. “I got too attached. Fell in love. Blew my cover. Betrayed my employer. Turned myself over… might have overthrown one or two regimes while I was at it.”
It had taken him half a year to figure out when Natasha was being serious and when she was just playing with him. Of course, he only realized that she was lying whenever she allowed him to. And now she was clearly and deliberately overdoing it, her lips twitching in a way that meant she was trying not to laugh.
“Very funny,” he said, smiling fondly.
She bumped their shoulders together. “Actually true, although that was much later. When I went in as Natasha Ramón, the mission went smoothly. Still—others who tried doing undercover work with their real names failed, and they failed fast, Steve. The ‘keeping your distance’ thing is one of those handbook rules you shouldn’t ignore.”
He itched to ask her about that other mission, but he knew her well enough to know that Natasha only revealed personal information about herself in her own time and under her own conditions.
“I just…” he said instead and furrowed his brows in a way that hopefully looked sorrowful. He’d learned to use the kicked-puppy-look to his advantage months ago. People always seemed to be too willing to believe that he was sad and alone and embittered. Not that he didn’t feel that way sometimes, but he was just too busy to dwell on it for the most part. “Waking up here made me feel like a stranger to myself… it’s just gonna feel weird, not hearing my own name for so long, I guess.”
“Блядь.” Natasha rolled her eyes and tossed her red hair over her shoulder. “Fine. I’ll get your name for you. Just don’t come crying to me if you can’t handle it.”
Steve nodded, trying to hide how pleased he was.
“It’s still Rowan, though.”
Steve chuckled. “I can live with that.”
For a moment the only sound was the gentle hum of the high-end engine and the wind that was blowing outside of the car, and then, “You know you didn’t fool me with that, right?” Natasha asked.
Steve laughed, looking over at her with a fond expression. Of all things, he would miss her most. “’Course not.”
“I had a second file ready the whole time. You are too predictable Rogers.”
Steve snorted, more amused than offended. But then Natasha was taking his hand in hers and she squeezed it a little. “It’ll be good enough for Stark though. I did teach you well.”
He couldn’t force down the little proud smile that took over his face. Then, his eyes flickered to the rear view mirror. The lights of the city that had been as bright as the arc reactor in Iron Man’s chest only a second ago, were now slowly dissolving in the darkness. “That you did,” he whispered, silently wondering what the next weeks of his life would be like.