In the spring of 1912, when Howard Stark’s madness had not yet come into being, his wife Maria gave birth to their only child.
When the doctor came out to announce the long awaited Anthony Edward was, in fact, Natasha Elizabeth, all eyes in the waiting room turned to the expectant father.
Howard Stark chomped on the end of his cigar, laughed sharply, and said, “Well, how do you like that.”
In 1935, the first issue of Marvels went to print, detailing the adventures of the dashing Tony Edwards: a rich, handsome explorer, genius inventor and pilot of a supposedly invincible suit of armor known as the Iron Man.
As far away and as close as the Lower East Side, a young Steve Rogers picked up the magazine, lured in by the colorful cover and its promise of adventure tales to rival even those of the Midnight Racer. He was hooked.
That Tony Edwards did not exist was not much of a problem. The fact that he was just a proxy for the very real exploits of a young woman known as Natasha Stark, might have been.
But no one was telling, least of all her.
In 1939, as a result of Project: Rebirth, Steve Rogers became the first and only successful recipient of Abraham Erskine’s super soldier serum.
War began to spread across Europe.
Natasha Stark received a phone call from General Nicholas J. Fury, asking her to serve her country.
In 1940, Iron Man and Captain America were sent on their first assignment together. The mission was a great success, and they founded a working relationship based on mutual trust and admiration.
Neither knew the other’s name, or even a face behind the helmet or mask, but that sort of thing didn’t matter so much as knowing they had each other’s back, and there was no doubt about that.
Steve Rogers was a fan of Marvels long before he became Captain America, so it had been a surprise to him to discover that Tony Edwards was, to some extent, real. At least, Iron Man was real, and there was a real person who had invented the armor and who piloted it now.
Virginia “Pepper” Potts, the woman behind the nom de plume of Frank Finlay - that part of things was not so surprising - had explained to Steve that Tony Edwards was merely an alias, and that the adventures chronicled in Marvels were based on true events, if sometimes embellished for entertainment value (or toned down to avoid compromising information).
At first, Steve had been uncertain that working with Iron Man would be a good idea. Captain America’s identity was secret as well, and while Iron Man and Ms. Potts knew his face beneath the cowl, along with Edwin Jarvis and Jim Rhodes, none of their crew knew his name, merely referring to him as ‘Cap’ when the need for a name arose.
Steve had no idea what Iron Man looked like outside of the armor. They spoke often enough, but Iron Man’s voice was always modulated through the radio inside the suit. Steve might have passed him on base and never known it.
And yet, after several years of working together, Steve would count Iron Man among his closest friends. He was just as comfortable sitting in the belly of the dirigible, waiting to deploy, across from this stony-faced armor, as he would have been with Bucky or any of the other Invaders.
The Iron Man was still, only the occasional noisy whirring of the servo motors as its occupant fidgeted or stirred giving away that it was not entirely empty. The metal was worked to a high polish today - Mr. Jarvis must have been busy at work for the last week hammering out all the bullet dents - and was much sharper in person than Steve had ever pictured in the past, based on the painted illustrations inside the pages of Marvels.
These days, Marvels was still publishing, but did not feature quite so many fantastical stories. Iron Man had been busy working for the government since before the United States formally entered the war, just like Steve himself, while most of the country remained clueless to the fact that this functioning suit of armor even existed outside of the supposed Frank Finlay’s imagination. Ms. Potts sometimes joked that she would like to write Captain America into her tales, but they both knew that was unlikely to happen.
Mr. Jarvis, coming through to announce the opening of the bay doors, jolted Steve out of his wandering thoughts.
Steve stood, adjusting the parachute that he did not plan to use, just as a burst of turbulence - they were under fire, it sunk in after a second - rocked the dirigible and sent him staggering.
A cool metal hand landed on Steve’s shoulder and put him steady.
“Looks like they’re on to us, boys!” Jarvis shouted. “Watch yourselves on the descent, and God speed.”
“Cap,” Iron Man said, voice oddly gruff and hollow through the helmet of the suit, “good luck down there.”
Though a part of Steve wanted badly to fluster, the usual calm that settled over him before battle did not allow it. “Thanks,” he said instead. “See you on the other side!”
Steve lunged from the bay doors into a controlled dive, while Iron Man’s boot jets launched him with effort into the fray. His onboard guns were already prepped and ready to return fire to the troops on the ground.
The gleam of sunlight on brightly polished metal was the last Steve saw of Iron Man before Steve found himself rolling to a stop on the snowy ground. He was back on his feet in a second and charging into the actually quite meager ranks of enemy guards.
Here in the Bavarian Alps, no one in German command suspected that any Allied forces would be so foolish as to attempt a ground incursion (least of all with merely two men), so the presence of the dirigible was certainly a surprise to them. Intelligence reports had gotten out prior to this, of course, about the Allies and their crack team of super-powered men, but the enemy remained ignorant of the knowledge the Allies had gained about Hitler’s growing collection of occult artifacts.
Items of an unusual nature were exactly the sort of thing Tony Edwards specialized in, which was presumably just why General Fury had tapped the man inside the Iron Man for this particular mission. Captain America was along as backup for Iron Man, while the rest of the Invaders were deployed with Fury’s Howling Commandos unit for a separate assignment.
By the time Steve met up with Iron Man again, there were no soldiers left on the other side who remained conscious. This was merely a smash-and-grab operation, a quick in and out to get what they were after, and there was no real need to clean up after themselves, but they wouldn’t want to be followed inside, so they dragged the half dozen men into the gatehouse, where Iron Man fused the lock shut, then turned their attention to their target.
The castle was little more than a ruin, actually, and Steve figured that explained the logic for keeping something valuable inside: who would believe an important artifact would be specially stashed inside some ruins?
“This way,” Iron Man said, and they were off again.
Steve was impressed, watching Iron Man clunk toward the dilapidated castle entrance, that the armor had reached such a level of mobility. Since he first began to work with Iron Man, the armor had been streamlined down, shrunken a good thirty percent; in its earlier depictions in the magazines, it was even a few heads taller than it was back in 1940. Now, it stood merely a head above Steve himself, coming in at just short of seven feet high.
Whoever was inside the armor really was a genius.
Inside the castle, Cap and Iron Man braced for an attack, but the place was eerily deserted. They shared a sidelong glance - Iron Man’s as subtle as it could be through that helmet, anyway - and continued on. It did stand to figure, from a certain tactical perspective, that defense of this location was only so strategically important. Major troop movements to guard what was supposedly a single item would call unwanted attention to the place.
Steve took the lead once they were further inside. Both he and Iron Man had studied the blueprints, and while Iron Man was armored, Cap was in a better position for close quarters contact right now, especially as the corridors narrowed and allowed the armor less space to maneuver.
It was a good thing, in fact, that Iron Man had brought him along, as they finally reached an area that was impassible by the armor, where it looked as if an explosive had collapsed a portion of the wall. Steve squeezed into a gap in the piled broken stones, and shimmied a few feet in before he called back, “It’s too deep for us to dig out. I can go ahead, grab the artifact.”
“I don’t like the idea of you going in without backup, Cap,” Iron Man said.
Steve smiled back over his shoulder. “With all this blocking the way? You can guard the entrance. The room is just over there, and it looks empty from here.”
Those were famous last words, if ever Steve had uttered any. He was technically correct, the room was empty save for crate upon crate of undoubtedly priceless items, stamped with markings indicating origin, destination, and coded hints as to their contents.
That did not, however, preclude the place from being booby-trapped. As Steve grabbed the comparatively small box they were after and tucked it under his arm, he handily forgot everything he ever learned from reading Marvels, right until the entire room began to shake.
Steve cursed under his breath; he barely had time to shout for Iron Man before the ceiling came rushing down.
Steve woke to the feeling of someone shaking his shoulder. The motion jostled his head, sending a pain shooting straight from his neck to his skull. Steve groaned and opened his eyes to a blurry face hovering over him. “What ...”
The shaking stopped, but the person lingered. Steve blinked, and the blur reconstituted itself into a shock of short-cropped dark hair, a full mouth, and very bright blue eyes. He blinked again, and his brain processed that the face was that of a woman, and not one Steve recognized.
“Cap?” she asked, voice ringing with a note of concern. “Are you with me?”
Steve moved to sit up, but the woman’s hands were firm on his shoulders, pushing him back down. There was something bundled under his head, a makeshift pillow on the snowy ground; the cold was seeping through Steve’s uniform, chilling the scales of his armored shirt and soaking the places where it got through to the leather.
“Watch it,” the woman said. “You took quite a hit on the head.”
Steve shivered, but gave up the struggle, mostly because his vision was sliding slowly toward the left, the more effort he put into moving. He spent a moment staring upward, over the woman’s shoulder; the sky was dark, he thought at first, but he soon realized the shade was coming from the canopy of trees stretched overhead.
“Who ...” he began, then paused, worry for his partner surfacing to the forefront of his addled mind. “Iron Man?”
The woman’s mouth screwed up into a wry twist. “I’m afraid so.”
Steve did sit up then, ignoring the woman’s protests that he should lie back down. Across the small clearing, the Iron Man armor was inert, in pieces, really. Steve’s eyes snapped back to the woman, and he gave her a second look. She was shivering, too, not at all dressed for the weather in a white shirt and pair of drab chinos, a jacket in the same dull shade providing what little warmth it could offer. Complete with the sturdy boots that ran up her calves, and the compass hanging on her belt, it seemed like just the sort of outfit Tony Edwards would ...
Steve spent an undignified moment with his mouth hanging open. “You’re Iron Man.”
“Yes,” she said, and her expression was wary.
Of all the times Steve had ever imagined what Iron Man would look like under the helmet - and certainly he had imagined it often enough over the course of four years fighting alongside each other - he had never quite pictured ... this.
A woman. Iron Man was a woman.
Of all the things Steve was feeling at the moment - and they numbered in a confusing jumble - chief among them was ... relief?
Steve ran a hand through his hair, wincing as his fingers caught on a mat of dried blood on the back of his head. She hadn’t been kidding about that hit on the head, then; he felt for his cowl, and found it stiff with blood, and torn as well. Steve imagined he’d gotten lucky to come out this unscathed from all that, as the last thing he remembered was the ceiling beginning to rumble.
With the matter of her identity relatively unaddressed, Iron Man sat forward, gently tugging Steve’s hand down from his head to have a look of her own at his scalp.
“It already looks better,” she said. “I put some snow on it, looks like it took the swelling down.”
Steve didn’t mention that the super soldier serum was meant to make healing easier as well. He was sure, being a genius, Iron Man knew already that Captain America was genetically enhanced.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
Steve shook out his arms and stretched his legs, doing a quick assessment of the rest of his body. “Okay, except for the head,” he answered honestly. “And that’s fading already. Where are we?”
“About two and a half kilometers from the castle ruins,” she said. “I dug you out and we got this far before the armor started to power down. We’re northeast of our extraction point, but I radioed Jarvis that our plans have changed. He should be here soon.”
Steve nodded carefully and looked around their makeshift campsite again. His own parachute had been his makeshift pillow, and Iron Man offered over a canteen still heavy with water. Steve took it and drank gratefully; the water was ice cold from exposure to the elements.
Iron Man had a box on her lap, the box from the castle. It was good to know they had completed their objective, even though there was absolutely no doubt left in their wake that they had been there.
“What is it?” Steve asked.
Iron Man looked up, surprised, like she had forgotten Steve was there. Or, more likely, maybe she wasn’t expecting him to make conversation. Iron Man shivered, obviously cold in her inadequate clothing, and Steve moved even closer under the pretense of getting a better look at the crate, to help shield her from the cold. He would have done it for anyone, really, but he got an idea that Iron Man would not enjoy the thought of being treated any differently now that her secret was known.
“This,” she said gradually, “isn’t important at the moment.”
Iron Man set the box aside and turned to look at Steve. She was tall for a woman, and sitting down, they were nearly at eye level with each other.
“We just risked our lives getting it,” Steve pointed out.
She shrugged. “All in a day’s work for Tony Edwards.”
Steve quirked an eyebrow. “You mean, all in a day’s work for ...”
Iron Man raised her chin. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, Cap.”
He took a deep breath, blew it out in a soft sigh. Tugged off the glove from his right hand, in spite of the cold, and stuck it out. “Private Steve Rogers,” he said.
She laughed, short, sharp, and obviously startled. Stared at his hand for a second, like it might bite, before she put hers in his and shook it. Her fingers were cold but her handshake was firm. “Natasha Stark. A pleasure to meet you.”
“I did sort of wonder,” Steve said, “why so many things around your workshop were branded with Stark Labs.” He had, admittedly, just assumed that the company was a supplier of equipment to Iron Man.
“Surprising no one has found me out before now,” she said dryly. “Maybe it’s symptomatic of the same condition that has people believing their resident six-foot-four, two hundred-and-fifty pound private is really on potato-peeling duty.”
Steve ducked his head, a blush coloring his cheeks.
Natasha glanced up at the sky, raising a hand to shield her eyes. “There’s our ride, Cap. Jarvis knows, of course, and Pep, but - I trust we’ll keep this between us?”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “Of course.”
But the knowledge itched at Steve, nagged at him, and once they were on board the dirigible, once he had cleaned up and changed into some dry civilian clothes that Mr. Jarvis provided, he found himself restlessly pacing his cabin. His head was much better, the gash on his scalp already scabbed over and closing, but now he had something entirely different wrong with his head.
Steve had known, for a while, that his feelings of camaraderie toward Iron Man differed considerably from what he felt toward Bucky, or Jim, or any of the others he trusted with his life on a regular basis. That he believed Iron Man to be, well, a man, had not made much of a difference in Steve’s feelings, only the manner in which he was willing to act on them. Not that there seemed too much sense in confessing an attraction to someone he’d never seen outside a suit of armor. He might as well be fancying a robot.
Iron Man being a woman, and what a woman, at that, changed things drastically. Steve knew Natasha’s identity now, and she knew his, even though his revelation had not been strictly authorized. He knew that his secret would be safe with her, just like he had always known Captain America could trust Iron Man to be there to watch his back.
But Natasha had been cool toward him once they got back on board the dirigible, retreating immediately to her cabin with the excuse of needing to recharge her batteries. She took the crate with her, and had not emerged since. Apprehension had rolled off her in waves; Steve knew, deep down, Natasha was probably worried that he would treat her differently now that he knew her secret.
Steve supposed that was true, just not in the way she was thinking. Whatever it was, they needed to work it out. They had a little time before they would be back in England. Steve steeled himself and went to knock on her cabin door.
“Come in,” Natasha called.
Steve let himself in, and nearly backed out again when he saw Natasha was abed. She had cleaned up as well, but lounged on her bunk in a set of what looked like silk pajamas and a robe. Strangest of all, though, the thing that made Steve reconsider, was that she had two cords running out of her pajama shirt, to what looked like a small generator.
How literal had her earlier excuse been, again?
“I thought you were Jarvis,” she said.
It was rude, but Steve understood.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can go.”
She seemed to consider for a moment, then shook her head. “No, come in. Have a seat.” She patted the edge of the bed.
Steve felt they were far beyond feeling shy about him sitting on a bed with her, no matter what rules society suggested they should adhere to.
“I was just getting ready to open this up,” Natasha said, gesturing to the box.
“Glad I didn’t miss the show,” Steve said.
Natasha slid open the lid on the wooden box Steve had stolen from the castle. It was more of a miniature crate; inside, it was filled with packing materials, which padded a much smaller and very ornate second box. Steve scooted closer to have a better look, as Natasha reached inside and carefully lifted it out.
“This,” she said, “is Ludwig II’s music box.”
The trinket was gold gilded, with embellishments in enameled white and blue. The lid was painted with a surprisingly complex scene for such a small surface, and while the extravagance of the style was not Steve’s preference, he had to artistically appreciate the skill that must have gone into painting such a thing.
Though Steve wanted to ask whether it was just a music box, whether they had nearly had a castle dropped on them just for that, he decided not to forget his lessons from Marvels for the second time in a day.
“What does it do?” he asked instead.
Natasha lifted the lid, and a tiny tune began to play.
“Wagner,” she explained. “Ludwig was fascinated by his operas. The painting on the lid is from Lohengrin.”
“What does Hitler want with it?”
“Ludwig was fascinated by operas, fairy tales, by flights of fancy. Before he died about sixty years ago, everyone thought he was mad. He had gotten reclusive, obsessed with building extravagant castles. The ruins we were at were only a short distance from Neuschwanstein. I went inside once ... they opened it to the public after he died. There’s a giant painting of St. George and the Dragon,” Natasha said. “And that’s where things get interesting.”
She handed the music box to Steve, and he handled it carefully, closing the lid again so that he could study the small painting.
“I know the story,” Steve said. “Of St. George, slaying the dragon with Ascalon.”
“There’s a version of the legend that states the dragon carried a plague,” Natasha said. “But the most obscure texts suggest that St. George did not truly slay the dragon, merely put it to rest - and that whoever controls Ascalon might wake it again.”
“But,” Steve said, “even if the legend is true, even if there were a historical St. George and something like the dragon, the rest of it must be a myth.”
Natasha shrugged. She took back the music box and set it into the crate, carefully closing the lid again. “There are stories that Ludwig became obsessed with the idea of possessing Ascalon, and that he succeeded, only to be killed for his trouble. The circumstances of his death were mysterious ... though, they say, Ascalon remains hidden.”
“So,” Steve said. “What does the music box have to do with it?”
“The House of Wittelsbach are no friends of Hitler,” Natasha said. “They fled to Hungary some years ago, and, if all this is true, were forced to leave behind the obligation they inherited from Ludwig. My sources suggest this music box holds the key.”
A part of Steve thrilled, in spite of his exhaustion and the numerous other things weighing on his mind at the moment. Getting to be in a Marvels style adventure was exciting, no matter how much he had grown up since those magazines first came out.
“You think Ascalon exists?” Steve asked.
“Some things do, some things don’t,” Natasha said. “In this case, we err on the side of caution and say, if there is a plague-bearing dragon out there, we don’t want a Nazi in control of it.”
“Or anyone, for that matter,” Steve added.
“That’s the truth,” Natasha agreed.
Steve raised his eyebrows. “You’re still going to go look for it, aren’t you?”
Natasha smiled. “Maybe when this war is all over.”
“I’d like to join you on that adventure,” Steve said. Only a little tentatively, he reached out and took her hand. It was warm now, the chill from earlier driven away; her palms were soft and her fingers callused from hard work.
“Steve,” she said. There was an odd note in her voice, something straddling a fine line between caution and encouragement. “I’m not some damsel you get to romance now because you know I’m a woman.”
Steve shook his head. “You don’t understand, Ms. Stark. Iron Man. Natasha. We’ve worked together for years ... I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like this was inevitable. No matter who you were inside that suit.”
“I’m nearly old enough to be your mother,” she said.
He laughed softly. “Older sister, maybe.”
“Are you trying to say you’d kiss your older sister?”
“No,” Steve said. “But I’d like to kiss you.”
Natasha seemed to debate it for a moment, then she laughed. “What the hell,” she said. “But I’ve got conditions.”
In 1945, to commemorate the end of the war and another important occasion, Marvels printed a very special tenth anniversary edition.
On the cover, Iron Man stood with her helmet off, hair blowing in a breeze, arm firmly wrapped around Captain America’s waist, as she dipped him in a kiss.