When Tony Stark first meets Steve Rogers, it’s on move-in day for the Strategic Scientific Reserve. The S.S.R., under supervision of one grumpy Colonel Phillips and his inexplicably grumpier commanding officer, General Fury, has commandeered space in the complex devoted to Stark Labs’ temporary home in London. Tony himself pulled many strings to procure this space, and Fury and Phillips were all too happy to grab on to the ends and tow their people along. Underground real estate is scarce in London these days, of course, so it’s only somewhat grudgingly (and very compulsorily) that Tony gives up a sliver of it for the S.S.R.’s work.
The new command center takes the largest space in the facility, next to the storage bay and hangar for the armors and the dirigible. While Tony has run several missions for General Fury, he is not, in the strictest sense, interested in the spirit of collaboration with the S.S.R., due in no small part to the fact that Colonel Phillips is the sort of no-nonsense soldier who tends to think of Tony as being useful only to the extent that his genius and wealth can benefit the Reserve.
Tony Stark did not go to war to make friends, so he has little intention of getting to know any of Phillips’ bunch too closely. Besides, getting to know them just makes it harder to lose them.
Unfortunately, Tony’s attempts at social avoidance with his new neighbors are thwarted by the determined curiosity of Captain America; the fact that Steve Rogers, the young soldier behind the cowl, is big and blond and very good looking certainly doesn’t hurt.
The conversation stumbles a little on the introductions, but Steve is a fan of the magazine, and before Tony knows it, he’s invited Captain America into his workshop and is showing off the Iron Man. The way that Steve regards the armor with a mixture of reverence and awe, the way his hands look as he traces the dents and dings with his fingertips, convinces Tony that he just might be in trouble where keeping this one at arm’s length is concerned.
What Tony once described as the beginning of a beautiful friendship - shamelessly snatching a line from Bogie - turns into a partnership. Iron Man and War Machine become near regulars of the Howling Commandos’ lineup, and even Fury and Phillips are impressed with how seamlessly Iron Man works with Captain America.
Only a week after Iron Man first hits the news reels, seen providing aerial support to the Howling Commandos, Tony gets a telegram from J. Jonah Jameson, announcing his desire to ‘GET CAPTAIN AMERICA FOR MARVELS. STOP.’
To Tony's surprise, Fury consents to Cap's inclusion in the magazine. Pepper is delighted to have a means of breathing new life into her tales - adventure stories not being quite so easy when no real adventures are being had - and, as a fan, Steve is thrilled to get to be a part.
The rules are strict, but not difficult to adhere to: no mention of classified operations or operatives that would compromise their integrity. No likenesses of Captain America without the cowl. No identifying information that clues anyone in to the fact that Steve Rogers is the man behind the flag. The Commandos are all given fictional aliases so that no two members of the unit can be connected by parallels.
Before long, the press rarely mentions one of them without the other. The Daily Bugle (a company which falls under the same umbrella as the magazine) and Marvels wind up having a spirited competition to see who can capture the best and most patriotic images of Cap and Iron Man together on the field of battle. Sales for both publications soar, and the division that prints Captain America's official comic book begins negotiations for inclusion of Iron Man in the tales of the Star-Spangled Man.
A born cynic, Tony suspects their adoring public would be far less thrilled if they knew what Steve Rogers and Tony Stark got up to behind the scenes, but that's their little secret to keep.
Tony is elbows-deep in the War Machine armor, working on a recalibration of the left leg servo motor when the doors to the workshop burst open and Steve strides inside. He's just the adorable but awkward Captain Rogers today, looking fetching in his Army green. Everyone in the damn complex knows who Steve is, of course, but it gives the brass some sort of relief to have him masquerade around in his Class A’s with the shiny S.S.R. pins on the lapels.
The broad smile on Steve's face draws Tony’s attention away from his work, and Tony takes a step back from the armor, pushing his goggles up to his head.
“Don't tell me,” Tony says, holding up a hand. “We've won the war, Old Adolf’s called it all off.”
Steve raises his eyebrows, clear disapproval in his expression. They both know the war would hardly end just because Hitler said so; the machinations of Hydra behind the scenes would simply take the center stage.
“Alright, I’ll concede: that was in poor taste.” Tony strips off his gloves and tucks them into his tool belt. “What brings you here today, Captain?”
Steve glances around the lab before he moves any closer, and Tony is momentarily thrilled by the idea that Steve might have sought him out for an afternoon rendezvous.
But Steve sidesteps Tony’s attempt at a kiss, even on the cheek - adhering to his own strict policy of not cavorting on base - before thrusting something he's been holding into Tony’s hands.
Tony blinks down at the comic book he's now holding, a bright new copy of CAPTAIN AMERICA #8, so fresh off the press that it still smells heavily of ink. On the cover (which probably has very little to do with the contents of the interior, a thread Tony has found rather common in comic books), Captain America has clearly been caught mid-jump away from an explosion, held under his arms by the gauntlets of the Iron Man armor.
The Iron Man armor which is, to Tony’s chagrin, rendered in brilliant, bright yellow.
Tony can tell from the way Steve is vibrating with anticipation just outside his field of vision, that Steve expects him to be excited. But he can’t quite tear his eyes away from the glaring error, and he quickly flips the book open to page through it, checking to see if the error has carried over to the rest of the panels.
Steve clearly can’t contain himself any longer (in addition to Marvels, he loves comic books; the man is a huge fan of the Midnight Rider’s exploits), and after a second more, he bursts out with, “Well? What do you think?”
“My armor isn’t yellow,” Tony says, unable to quite look past his offense to offer any valuable critique.
“I noticed that.” Steve winces apologetically. “I think it’s supposed to be gold.”
“It’s not gold, either,” Tony sniffs.
Steve takes the comic book back from Tony, prying it gently from his hands. “I’m sorry. I don’t think it’s easy for them to replicate silver. I can write to Mr. Jameson, see if it can be fixed -”
“No, no, it’s ...” Tony shakes his head and holds his hand out for the comic again. “Have you read it, yet?”
“No.” Steve ducks his head sheepishly. “I got excited and wanted to show it to you, first.”
“Tell you what,” Tony says. “I think I heard the boys saying something about going out tonight ... how about we skip the revelry, stay in, and have a look at it together this evening?”
Steve smiles. “I’d like that.”
Tony leans toward Steve ever so slightly, and Steve has just begun to curve toward him, and Tony begins to believe this might be the end of Steve's cautious, reasonable, and completely inconvenient rule ...
... when the doors slam open again.
The sound of one door loudly whacking against the brick startles them both into jumping apart a solid foot. Steve’s eyes widen a hair before he sags in relief on seeing who has just walked in, and Tony turns to see Jim Rhodes and Steve’s partner, Bucky Barnes, walk into the workshop.
Jim and Bucky are carrying a heavy-looking box between them, which they heft onto one of Tony’s work tables. The box is shaped like a cube and made of a dull gray metal, the hinged lid locked with a heavy padlock.
“What’s this?” Tony steps closer, to see that the top of the box is stamped with the symbol of Hydra. Warnings stenciled onto the sides of the box warn in German against tampering, and suggest caution.
“A gift from Captain Namor,” Jim says. He steps back, brushing dust from his hands. “Lady Dorma had a dust-up with a U-boat, Namor’s crew recovered this from the wreckage.”
Tony takes the lock in hand and turns it over, leaning close to inspect the mechanism. “Namor’s here?”
“He sent it on another ship headed this way,” Jim says.
“It’s a shame,” Bucky adds. “I was looking forward to meeting your pirate friend.”
Bucky, much like his best friend, was a fan of Marvels before ever meeting Tony. Unlike Steve, Tony is fairly certain Bucky has become less of a fan since.
“Captain Namor isn’t a pirate any longer,” Steve says.
Tony snorts. “For now. I’m surprised he would send any cargo our way.”
“Junk, maybe?” Bucky asks.
Jim shakes his head. “Namor wouldn’t waste his time if it was junk.”
“More likely he just didn’t know what it was,” Tony agrees. He grabs a prybar and drops it neatly into Steve’s hands. “Captain, if you’ll do the honors?”
Steve gives the lock one good whack with the tip of the prybar and broken metal goes skittering off across the floor. Tony rubs his hands together and moves to open the box, but Steve grabs one of his wrists and Jim the other.
“It could be booby-trapped,” Steve says.
Tony tugs his hands back, sighing his exasperation. “Would you like me to put on the Iron Man to open it?”
Steve completely misses - or willfully ignores - the sarcasm, because he answers, “That might not be a bad idea.”
“If it was dangerous,” Tony says, “the Nazis wouldn’t be carrying it around on a submarine, would they?”
“Maybe,” Jim says slowly, “they were carrying it on the U-boat because it’s dangerous.”
Tony pulls a face. “Traitor.”
Jim steps back, holding his hands in the air. “Hey, Boss, no need to get offended, I mean, what do I know? It’s not as if I’ve ever seen you make a bad judgment call or anything.”
“You’re all conspiring against me,” Tony complains. “Where’s Jarvis? Or Pepper? Might as well get them in on it, too.”
Bucky shrugs. “If it makes you feel better, I wasn’t trying to talk you out of maybe blowing yourself up.”
“Sergeant Barnes, I’m truly touched by your concern,” Tony says, at the same time Steve says, “Bucky!”
How Steve Rogers manages to sound scandalized by ill manners while being adept at sarcasm of his own, is beyond Tony’s comprehension.
“While I think you all lack in adventurous spirit,” Tony says, “I’ll concede the point. Let’s move things to the lab and I’ll take a look there.”
Tony’s laboratory is a cleaner and neater space than the workshop, devoted to research and development, where he frequently dissects captured Hydra technology and weapons.
Steve waves off Jim and Bucky’s attempts to help and carries in the box himself, while the other two men lurk just outside the doorway. Tony washes up as best he can, scrubbing grease from his forearms, and steps over to the box on the counter.
“Alright, let’s see what we have here.”
With a ripple of nervous anticipation - the paranoia of the others rubbing off on him, clearly - Tony opens the box.
Resting in a padded lining within the box is a small metal sphere. A seam runs along its circumference, a clear line of separation between what Tony presumes is top and bottom. There are markings near the seam, along with notches, but he can’t decipher them as any letters or numbers in any alphabet with which he’s familiar.
“What is it?” Steve asks.
Tony shakes his head. “I don’t know. More Hydra tech, that much is clear, but I haven’t a damn clue what it does. Yet.”
“Tony ...” Steve begins, but Tony is already reaching for the sphere.
When Tony makes contact with the sphere, his fingertips brushing the cool metal surface, the thing hums to life, all the etched lines and symbols lighting up in an eerie blue glow. The light grows brighter, and brighter, until finally it explodes like the flash of a hundred cameras at once.
The force of it flings Tony back into the wall, and he barely makes out the concerned yells of Steve and the others before everything goes dark.
to be continued ...