The rain fell in heavy sleets, making the earth muddy and wet as well as difficult to walk in. However, Tony was fortunate he had flight on his side. His companion did not, slogging through the rain and mud the best he could.
“Would you like a ride, Captain?”
The Captain shook his head even though he must have been freezing with the icy water clinging to him. Wet leather and fabric weren’t the most pleasant items to wear. Tony could only imagine how heavy his boots must feel, laden down by cold water inside and slick mud outside.
“Are you certain?” Tony pressed. He flew a little lower, closer to the Captain. The sky was dark, everything around them a gloom. “I hope you realize that you are always welcome in my arms.”
He couldn’t help but add a hint of leer to his words. A surprised laugh escaped the Captain. He eyed Tony with amusement.
“Is that how you charm the ladies?”
“Depends. Do you desire being in my bed at the moment?”
The Captain laughed again, and Tony smiled inside his helmet. He enjoyed making the Captain laugh. It was a wonderful sound, hearty and full. He could have never imagined this—that he would have the opportunity to work alongside the Captain, if only for a little while, whenever their respective mission and adventure matched up.
Tony didn’t know the Captain’s identity. He couldn’t very well ask without admitting his own. How could he say that Tony Stark, the adventurist cad, was Iron Man? Still, he admired the Captain for every meeting that they had. He also couldn’t stop himself from spouting out lines that had more of his affections than he intended even if in jest. Thankfully, the Captain didn’t seem to notice.
“I think,” the Captain said. “It is the opposite. After all, you are the one asking me to lie in your arms.”
“Why, Captain. I merely offer a ride, nothing as salacious as you think.”
“Very well,” the Captain said. The exposed portion of his cowl revealed a broad grin. He lifted his arm up to Tony, hand open and wide for Tony to take. “I tire of walking.”
“How scandalous. What would the men say if they saw you now? The Captain doesn’t march on as stalwart as they claim he does! What sort of man is he for our country?” Tony steadied his boots as the Captain carefully lifted himself up.
“I would say envious. How many have the opportunity to say that they have ridden Iron Man?”
Tony bit back an assuredly impolite remark that would make anyone blush up storm. Instead, he settled for a less provocative return.
“I will drop you. I’m not a horse.”
The Captain laughed again to Tony’s delight. He flew them higher into the air. Although it rained, Tony couldn’t imagine any other place he would rather be. It was enough to make him forget for a moment that he had to hurry on. Forget of how tiring his adventures had been or how there were a number of matters that needed Tony’s attention and expert hand.
“I did not claim you were.”
“I know you thought it.” Then, as much as Tony was reluctant to ask it, “where would you like me to put you?”
“By the coastal town,” the Captain said. “There is a ship I need to catch.”
“Well, that is easily done.”
Tony didn’t ask about the ship even if he was curious. It was most likely another classified mission. He smirked to himself. How fortunate the Captain’s needs aligned with his. He had a ship to catch as well before someone yelled about his tardiness.
[One week later…]
Tony suppressed a sigh as he adjusted the cuff of his sleeve. It had to be Madripoor. Of all the cities in the world, it had to be Madripoor. Not that she wasn’t a beauty or unenjoyable. Really. Tony had to admire the fine brass copper that lined the buildings and how the air filled with puffs of different colored smoke. The city worked hard, running its massive gears and churning its steam engines. It was a technological marvel that thoroughly amazed Tony, especially with his love for all screws and gizmos. And, well, he was staying at the Sovereign after all. It was one of the grandest hotels in the world.
However, Tony frowned. Although the city was grand it was also a place of the most uncouth dealings and activities. His skin crawled to think at the filthy attributes many often applied to the beauty of the city. Here, he stood in Lowtown, one of the worst districts if not the absolute worse, trying not to attract too much attention in his fine clothes. Truly, could it not be more apparent that he waited for an unmentionable trade of an undoubtedly questionable sort? He should have hauled Rhodes along with him. It was an absolute bore and an utter waste of his time waiting here as if he was—he was the Merchant of Death once, but not now.
Tony grumbled, swearing that this was the last time he let the other party arrange their meeting. Really, Madripoor? His reputation over the years had been shaky, and it was only in the last five years or so that it improved. After suffering a betrayal from Obadiah Stane, his father’s associate, Tony turned his company from weapons to inventions that would improve the household. He created a more efficient piping system for the baths, developed four ways to reduce coal consumption, and the biggest thing? Tony took on adventuring, earning a wider fame in Marvel compared to all his engineering feats put together. People spoke of Tony, the man who discovered the trident, the missing jewels of Ursa, and a lover of the Amazon woman. His reputation soared with every new treasure trove discovered, every invention of Stark Industries proven reliable as he used them to travel catacombs and scale mountains, every time he achieved a task thought unattainable.
Thus, it was only natural that Tony felt wary standing in the middle of a dark and suspicious looking cobbled street. Pepper Potts, his company’s head, would be cross if he managed to get himself into any trouble. One article, even one photo, in the papers would be enough to destroy him. In fact, Pepper insisted on traveling with him to Madripoor for that reason alone. Madripoor could break a man if one wasn’t cautious. Tony was only glad that he managed to catch the ship in time to arrive in the city’s port otherwise he would have received an earful of her lectures.
He shook his head and reached into the inner pocket of his coat. The round pocket watch gleamed a brilliant yellow, a bit of sentiment for his father, and he flicked the lid open to see that it was already seventeen minutes past two in the afternoon.
“Ah, Mr. Stark,” a charming voice said just then. A rather pretty red haired lady came up to him. Her heels should have clattered against the stone, but she was soundless in her walk. Tony raised an eyebrow. She held her black feathered fan as if it was a weapon.
“To whom do I owe the pleasure?”
“Our mutual associate,” she divulged, giving him her hand. “Natasha, if you please.”
“No title, Natasha?” Tony asked, dragging out the syllables of her name on his tongue. From the embroidery on the hem of her skirt and her name, she was Russian and most certainly deadly. She also looked familiar, extremely so, but he couldn’t place where he had seen her. It didn’t matter however. Tony expected a reasonable amount of danger for any one of Fury’s people, and he simply kissed her gloved hand cautiously. “How forward of you. Without even the intention of warming my bed.”
Natasha’s smile was sharp. “I have no use for your titles or your bed, Mr. Stark.”
“Is that so?”
“You would not want me in your bed, I’m afraid. Now, if you would, as we are running late.”
“After you.” Tony dipped a bow and followed her to a dreary looking inn. Even the smoke that came through the pipes at the top were a dull gray. No imagination, Tony thought as they went through the backdoor and another that led underground and to the man of the hour. The entire covert meeting seemed almost exactly like those that happened in a gothic tale.
“Yer late,” Nicholas Fury intoned. His bald head glistened and gleamed underneath the gaslight, and his eye (just the one) had collected a shadow so deep it may have been permanent. The lack of sleep was apparent along with his surly mood. The addition of Natasha at his side did not soften his demeanor one bit.
“Only because you failed to gather me at the correct hour,” Tony replied glibly. He dragged the chair opposite of Fury out, settling into it with a casual roll of his shoulders. He grinned. “But what do I care? You called for this meeting, not me. And might I comment on how dreadful you look? You should do something about that eye of yours. Why, that jacket isn’t even your color!”
Tony enjoyed needling the man, and to his great satisfaction Fury’s lone eye twitched just the slightest. He wondered how else he could irritate the man until he could leave. Tony edged his chair further out and tilted back in it, resting his feet on the table as the chair balanced on two legs instead of four. Fury didn’t comment on the state of his unsightly boots or even how Tony didn’t deign to remove his hat as was custom. Instead, Fury went on as professional as could be.
“As fascinated as you are with my fashion tastes, we have more important matters to address.”
Ah, that was disappointing. Tony would have to try harder for a reaction. He pulled out the artefact he had just retrieved with the help of the Captain onto the table, swinging it on his fingers. It was a brilliant purple crystal crown, rumored to grant its wearer the ability to persuade anyone to do his bidding.
“Of course.” Tony spread his arms wide. “What if I gave you this instead, and I’ll take my leave?”
The lights from the crystal bounced against the walls of the room, enchanting and mystical.
“Take that back, Stark.”
“Fine,” Tony sighed, tucking the crown back into his pouch. “It will go to the museum. Now, what could you possibly require of my unique services?”
“This.” Fury pushed a folder over. Tony dropped his feet, the smack of the chair legs against the ground loud and grating. He pushed his goggles up over the brim of his hat to examine the contents with a clearer eye. Inside, the first item was a photograph of a cube.
“What’s this?” Tony flicked through the rest of the papers idly. “A toy?”
He was mildly curious, but it wasn’t enough to hold his attention. He closed the folder.
“Something we lost,” Fury said, and Tony had to gape at the honesty. He could detect no lies in Fury’s words.
“You lost it,” Tony repeated slowly.
“Yes, and we’ll like it back.”
“And I have no interest in playing your pet dog. I don’t fetch.” Tony tossed the folder back across the table. Fury already had a loyal dog, if it must be said, in the form of Phillip Coulson. He refused to be at Fury’s beck and call. He did what he will, and if his adventures happened to coincide with some of Fury’s needs then that was his prerogative.
“The cube would be dangerous if found in the wrong hands,” Fury continued as if Tony hadn’t just refused. “Our researchers know that much and—“
“I don’t care. It is as dangerous as the other items in your possession. Perhaps if I felt more charitable, but that is not today.”
“If it matters,” Fury tried. “This is something your father worked on. One of his last projects before his death.”
“Ha,” Tony said loudly, nearly tipping the chair as he stood. “I could care even less!”
The Brotherhood of the Shield was the elder Stark’s pleasure, and Tony had better things to do than chase after the ghost of an absentee feather. Suddenly, the pocket watch against his breast seemed that much heavier. The watch marked his father as a member of Shield. When it had passed to Tony upon his father’s death, he didn’t know the significance of it until Fury came asking for a consultation.
Tony had been aware about the Captain that consumed his father’s mind. Everyone knew the story, of a Brooklyn boy who became the Captain and led their men bravely in the Clock War. How he was lost to the sea after a harrowing mission that saved many. Howard Stark had spoken fondly of the man, and it had been a wish of his to find the Captain. To learn that his father was involved in much more than the Captain was a surprise. It left Tony feeling quite conflicted yet here he was assisting to Fury.
“We’ll pay you,” Fury said, and Natasha brought out a case to that effect. Tony sniffed, turning his nose away.
“Do you really think to bribe me with that? And this is not even accounting the little detail that you can hardly afford my time.”
Fury paused meaningfully. “It isn’t gold.”
That statement alone signal suspicion even without elaboration. Tony couldn’t recall a time when Fury devoted this much energy to convince him to take a mission or some other insane task. He narrowed his eyes at Fury.
“I don’t want any of your slimy offers.” There had to be more to the cube than Fury would care to admit. “I’ll likely receive more trouble than it is worth from your payment.”
“What would you like then?” Fury asked, exasperated. His hands were open to indicate that he would pay any price. And, oh, Tony had a number of unsavory things to describe Fury. Could have dug straight into the man and his damn brotherhood with all their secrets. He didn’t, distracted by that carte blanche offering.
“I can choose anything?” Tony asked in disbelief.
“Anything,” Fury said. It was a devilish dealing, but Tony took it. He picked the option that Pepper would prefer and appreciate the most. She hated when his doings for Shield took so much time from his adventures and company. He owe her that much for making a wreck of their lives, even breaking their courtship because he wasn’t a good man in spite of all his efforts.
“I’d like for you to leave me alone and stop wasting my time. Is that too much to ask?” Tony counted with his fingers, ticking off the last month. “The one in England and the one in—this is the fourth time you have contacted me this month, and I tire of it. Peace. At least for a measure of time because lord knows you can’t ever leave me be.”
Fury’s lips pressed together in displeasure, and Tony was just as displeased. He glared at Fury, challenging him to answer otherwise. It was a very good bargain for him, and Tony knew it.
“Well?” Tony prompted. “I could ask for something much pricier. Perhaps, some of those secrets you love and hold so dearly. That’s always—“
“Very well,” Fury capitulated. “A month.”
“Two, and that’s final.”
“Fine,” Tony accepted grudgingly. “I will take two. I only offered three as you could never afford my time nor make up for it. Be grateful I generously agree.”
“And you expect me to believe in your generosity?”
“It’s that or nothing at all.” Tony swept the folder he discarded back into his hands and then snapped his goggles over his eyes. He looked at Fury and smirked, tapping the edge of his folder against his shoulder. “We’ll have words.”
Back at the Sovereign, Tony complained bitterly to Pepper. He collapsed into the silken pillows on the couch.
“It was terrible. I never want to see his face again. Next time, I’ll send one of the automatons.”
Pepper didn’t reply. She was far too used to Tony’s dramatics and, to be sure, she was working her way through some figures at the carved wooden oak desk that came with their suite. Tony braced himself as he continued.
“Now,” he said in a rush. “You won’t like this, but we must be off again—duty calls. Apparently.”
“What?” Pepper stared at him, her fountain pen dripping ink onto her work. Her beautiful strawberry blond hair glowed in the sunlight coming in from the open window. God, she was too good for him and his work. It was why he asked for two months rest. She deserved more than to be dragged every which way around the globe, whether or not she agreed to come. Of course, Pepper didn’t mind, even enjoyed the adventures and wrote many of Tony’s pieces for Marvel when able, but the travels took their toll. She handled the full of Tony’s company, toiling numerous hours without rest.
“Believe me. I don’t desire it either, but you’ll like this, Pep. Promise.” Tony rolled onto his side and off the couch, getting up. He pointed at her desk where her hand still held the pen dripping ink. “You are ruining your sheets. Pep? Pepper?”
Pepper cursed extremely well for a lady of her station. She hurried to blot it out, but the damage was done. She sighed and crossed her arms.
“And how would I like this? You’ve already brought me out to Madripoor, and the investors here are the worst.”
“I didn’t bring you out here,” Tony corrected. “You decided to come along, and if you must blame someone then it’s Fury. He thought this was a proper venue for my consult, and you know better than to listen to those fools. You can hardly call them ‘investors’ with those brains.”
Pepper’s lips went thin as she pursed her lips together. She wasn’t at all amused, and Tony hurried onto better news. To reiterate how wonderful it was.
“Honestly, you’ll like this,” Tony assured her. “Hear me out. I do this one thing, one very small thing, and it’s two months of freedom. Two months! Fury and his men won’t bother me. We can have time to ourselves. Why, this even calls for celebration—as long as I do this one thing.”
“That had better be so,” Pepper replied tartly. “When do we depart?”
“As soon as we can,” Tony said. “Where’s Rhodes? He must know this too. I don’t want to stay another minute longer. Not on the same island as Fury at any rate. My skin just itches every time I see him. Do you think he has something beneath that eyepatch of his? A worm perhaps?”
Tony flicked his goggles and hat off, running his fingers through his hair. It was tousled into an awful mess, but it would do well enough for going down. He was Tony Stark, without a care for what society thought of him and his roguish ways.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Rhodes is down somewhere. Perhaps the bar? He’s helping me acquire a painting I desire.”
“Hm,” Tony said. He knew nothing about art, but Pepper had a large collection. “Who’s the artist?”
“As if you care, but if you must know he will be at the event back in New York. I’m pleased that he accepted the invitation. He is absolutely wonderful and—“
“You’re right. I don’t care, but spend all you wish on whatever you like.”
“I have,” Pepper said. “How else can I say I have a present from Mr. Stark?”
“Well, you made some fine choices.”
“My taste in art is impeccable.”
Tony checked himself in the large mirror hanging in the hall. Not bad, not bad at all. His red coat was splendid with golden buttons. One lapel was decorated with a pin that displayed the intricacies of several gears connected together. He pressed a hand to his chest where he could feel and hear the clicks of the gears that ran his own heart. It twinged just a bit. “I think I’ll go down and find him. You rest here.”
“You mean pack, don’t you?” Pepper shot him an unimpressed look. It was terrifying. “You had better not drink. I cannot spare the time to manage your drunk bottom.”
“No, no. I won’t be drinking.”
“Of course, Tony.”
And, of course, Tony was lying. He got a glass of scotch as soon as he got down to the bar. Rhodes was nowhere to be found, not surprising given the size of the place. The lounge was a rather large and ostentatious room. The ceiling was high and hung with chandeliers that were all glitter and sparkle while the walls were a reflective metal that left anyone looking into it a hazy impression. Naturally, the drink was superb as well. Tony downed the rest of his drink in satisfaction.
“Good, isn’t it?” a low voice murmured.
“Quite,” Tony said, turning to his companion. He was a tall gentleman with blond hair that clashed horribly with the copper of the bar. Tony tilted his head at the barkeeper, catching his eye. “Something for my friend here. He looks parched.”
“Only a little,” the man said. His blue eyes were magnetic, and Tony leaned his elbows on the counter as he bent forward. Closer.
“You certain about that?” Tony let his gaze rolled up and down the man’s form leisurely. The man flushed, pink all over to the tip of his ears. It was effectively attractive, perhaps even doubly so given how handsome the man was already. Idly, Tony wondered how far that blush went past neck.
“A-ah,” the man stammered. “Yes.”
It was sweet, but unfortunately Tony wasn’t buying it entirely.
“You realized. That if you mean to follow me, you are doing a rather poor job of it. I noticed you as soon as I came through the door.”
The man was very conspicuous with the broadness of shoulders and his overall size. He hunched as if he could hide his strength, as if he was small, and that alone was an irregularity that caught Tony’s eye. Now, it could be the man lacked confidence, but he had observed the man’s eyes on him since he entered the lounge.
The man jerked, nearly spilling the drink he was given. “I’m not—I don’t know what—“
That confirmed it. Tony chuckled. “Not your fault, darling. It’s expected, isn’t it? I’m not wrong, am I? Fury sent you.”
“No,” the man said. Then, he straightened up, determined. “Steve Rogers.”
“Tony Stark.” Tony shook Steve’s outstretched hand firmly. He wasn’t the sort of man Tony thought Fury would have employed, but neither was Natasha. “Now, run along. Tell Fury to rest his little black heart and let me work. I’ll get him what he wants.”
“Will you?” Steve asked, jaw set tight. His look scorched as he assessed Tony. “You don’t seem the man for it.”
“And you are?” Tony had the distinct feeling that he was going to hate this man.
“Yes,” Steve said.
Tony scoffed. The nerve of the man. “You’re not very smart. It’s as if you haven’t heard of who I am.”
“I’ve heard plenty. Now, if you will. Fury asked that I accompany you.”
“What a shame,” Tony said as he spotted Rhodes with something large underneath his arm out of the corner of his eye. His friend easily stood out of the crowd with his dark skin and how tall he was. Rhodes towered over most people, and Tony was glad he could excuse himself. Even if Steve was a good looking fellow that Tony would have liked to bed. “I fly solo, but do enjoy your drink.”
Tony tipped the barkeeper, smoothly depositing the bills and heading toward Rhodes. He met the man halfway to the door.
“You’re done?” Rhodes asked. They fell into step together, strides matching one another unconsciously, a familiarity that came from years of friendship.
“In a way. You couldn’t have been a bit slower? I could have charmed that man given time.”
Steve was astoundingly perfect in his features. Tony would give him that for being one of Fury’s. The only downfall was that the man didn’t seem to think Tony could find a cube alone. It was an insult to Tony’s talents. But, Tony had fallen into bed with people in the past who had far worse opinions of him. It made for a very passionate night.
“You could seduce everyone,” Rhodes sighed. He waved a hand at the elevator boy who pulled a lever. There was a shudder as the doors cranked closed. The metal gate had wide gaps which offered a voyeuristic view of all the floors as they went up to the top.
“Not you,” Tony replied waspishly. “You are the sole resistor to my looks, even Pepper gave in if only temporarily before regaining her good sense. I am hurt, Rhodey.”
“I’m sure you are, Tony.”
“See. There you go, laughing. I’m being quite serious. Have all these years meant nothing to you?”
“It means something, certainly. A thorn in my side.” A smile emerged on Rhodes’ face. “In any case, I’m glad I spoke to him before you did.”
“Rhodey! Don’t tell me—“
“Nothing filthy as you’re thinking,” Rhodes denied. He gestured to the large object he had. “He was the seller of the art Pepper wanted.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“I appreciate women, not men. Now, what’s with Fury? What did he want?”
“A retrieval mission,” Tony said quietly. It wouldn’t do to speak so loud, even if they were the only two within the elevator. In fact, just as soon as Tony had finished speaking, they passed a floor where a group of ladies were chuckling about a garden party.
“That seems hardly a use for your metal man,” Rhodes said when they passed several more floors.
“No, but I get two months of rest. He was amenable to it.”
“He’ll give you that much?”
“I asked for three,” Tony said with a shrug, leading them out as they reached their stop at the very top. “Come on. Inside.”
Tony ushered Rhodes in, checking the halls before closing the door.
“Are we packed, Miss Potts?”
“Already loaded in fact.” Pepper smoothed down her skirt primly and secured her feathered hat on her head. “Are we leaving or not?”
“Excellent. We’ll fly back to New York, and then we’ll see from there. And do you keep an eye out for any, ah, stray stowaways. Wouldn’t want anything terrible to happen. It’d be a pity if they slipped into the ocean.”
He didn’t think Steve would cling to the railing of his ship, but one could never be too careful. The men Fury employed were often dumb, but there were those who stood out. Coulson was one. He seemed bland on first glance, but he had an efficiency that no one could match. Though, that could be the fact the man promised to electrocute Tony once. He dared not think Steve was stupid or to underestimate him, especially if Fury handpicked the man to follow Tony. Yet, on second thought…
“No. What am I saying? Do not keep an eye out for any stowaways. I should be delighted if they fell into the sea.”
Tony sighed and sipped at his glass of champagne. It was excellent if one was expecting cow’s piss. He hadn’t, but Tony took another sip regardless. The trip back to New York had been mostly pleasant, uneventful aside from one wayward storm, and now he was home to rub elbows with all the other high society figures. People expected Tony Stark to make an appearance.
“Can we leave yet?” Tony asked, already bored. Pepper, splendid in a gown of the richest blue silk, merely smiled. Most of her hair was neatly arranged into a bun with a fine black net at the back, but a few stray wisps escaped, framing her face. The ostrich feather on her tiny matching blue velvet hat bobbed as she inclined her head to the many men and women mingling on the floor. Tony groaned. He had no desire to speak with any of these people.
“Oh, Tony. We’ve only just arrived. Do you really think I would let you go so fast?”
“You’re truly wicked.”
The woman ran his life and company with a will and force that could hardly be contested. She kept him on the rights, and he once more regretted that their brief romance didn’t last.
“You expect no less of me,” Pepper replied.
“No. I thought you’ll be more so than you are at present.”
“Tony!” Pepper swatted him in the shoulder. Maybe, Tony reflected, it would be better if she wasn’t so involved with his adventures nowadays. He swore again to himself that he would find the cube and earn that two months rest. He hated to disappoint her, especially when he brought mostly misery to her with his every action.
“This tastes terrible, I’ll have you know.” Tony pointed his glass at her, the angle nearly steep enough for the drink to spill.
“Perhaps you’ll stay sober for the night.” Her tone was playful, but the jest still stung far more than it should. Tony drank, but he wasn’t a drunkard despite what the society pages may report. He wasn’t his father.
“Of course.” Tony drained the glass dry, burying his feelings. “Now, onto business.”
Pepper sighed demurely into her fan as Tony deposited the glass on a passing waiter’s tray. He held out his arm, and Pepper took it with grace.
“Thank you. Now, if you please. Direct your attention to,” she said and stopped. Justin Hammer was coming towards them, sure foot and ready to gloat. His hair oozed with oil in a rather unflattering way.
“Stark,” he said, smiling. “Old friend, how have you been?”
Tony took his hand reluctantly. “Hammer.
“And Miss Potts,” Hammer continued, bending into a bow. “How are you this fine evening?”
He could see Pepper suppress a cringe as she gave him her hand. Hammer kissed it, with far too much salvia as it left a rather wet spot on the silk there.
“Well enough,” she said masking her disgust. Tony watched as she turned to the side, pulling her glove off discretely. “And you?”
“I came to see Stark here.” Hammer slung an arm around Tony’s shoulders, grinning widely. Tony could practically smell the oil in the man’s hair. He hoped none of the substance Hammer used smeared onto his coat. He would have to burn it, and he was rather fond of his attire tonight.
“You’ve seen me.”
“Ah, but we haven’t talked! In fact, why don’t we take a walk around?” Hammer looked far too eager, and Tony tried to step away.
“No, thank you,” Tony declined. He had much better things to do than indulge Hammer. “I’m rather comfortable standing.”
“Please. You cannot be tired that fast. The night is still young. Excuse us!” Hammer grasped Tony’s arm, tugging him away from Pepper. He left Tony no room to protest, cheeks still wide with a smile as if he didn’t know how Tony abhorred his presence. Tony looked wildly at Pepper for assistance, but she shook her head. This was for Tony to handle. That was her make nice look, and he resigned himself to his fate of being stuck with Hammer for the rest of the evening.
“Very well,” Tony acquiesced with a last forlorn look at Pepper’s retreating figure. Hammer clung to him as they circled the room. The man introduced them to other attendees and spoke about his latest affair with Christine Everhart. However, the woman did not even glance his way when they happened on her by the orchestra, turning to Tony instead. She was a journalist who loved a good story, had even reported on Tony through many of his newsworthy events. It tried Tony’s patience, and he had to nudge Hammer to a free corner to speak.
“You have me. What do you want?”
“Oh, Tony, Tony, Tony,” Hammer clucked. “What makes you think I want anything?”
“Well, you certainly didn't come to boast about your dwindling sales or how faulty your gears are.”
Hammer laughed. “You are such a comedian. The government thinks quite highly of my work.”
He had taken many of the contracts Tony forgone. Tony laughed too.
“Is that so?”
“Well, I do try. In any case, I thought you might want to meet a man of interest. Give you a hand and all, seeing how you are out of the business entirely.” Hammer said with relish, as if hoarding a secret that Tony didn’t know.
“I doubt that anyone you introduce could be anyone I want to meet.”
“You certain about that?” Hammer asked, face smug.
“Spit it out.”
“There,” Hammer said, gesturing to a man surrounded by a rather large group of people. It was Steve Rogers, looking very uncomfortable with all those eyes on him. Intriguing. The man managed to get to New York relatively fast. When there was no travel faster than Tony’s ship. Fury must have something new up his sleeve.
“Him?” Tony quirked an eyebrow. “What could be so interesting about him?”
Still, he kept an eye on Steve, observing him out of the corner of his eye. The man was magnetic, and even in his obvious discomfort, he commanded an aura that demanded attention. It bothered Tony that he could hardly tear his eyes away.
“Oh, Tony. Didn’t you hear the news? It’s all anyone can speak of these days. He’s an artist.”
Tony rolled his eyes. What sort of cover was that? The man didn’t even match the appearance of one. Steve was far too large to be anything other than brute force. A man suited to the military discipline if that stance was anything to conjecture by.
“Is he now? You wish to buy a commission from him?”
“Well, no. I thought you might do the honor, especially when there are rumors that he knows something about the Captain. I thought considering your father that you may find it interesting.”
At this, Tony perked up, his heart pounding loud at the name. Hammer said it with much fanfare, and…
“Is that so?” Tony drawled slowly so he wouldn’t seem too interested. He watched Steve blushed violently as a lady neared him too close, giving a calculated view of her bosom.
“Well, that is what they say. So, a man of interest?”
And Tony might have agreed. If it wasn’t for the mention of the Captain because that was surely an enticement from Fury. It was the sort of story that Tony might have latched upon if he hadn’t already known the Captain himself. Met the man two years ago in the Alps when Tony was chasing after a mineral rumored to be one of the finest metals on earth. It really was a wonder that the Captain survived the ice.
He was truly the embodiment of good his father had spoken of. Every now and then, his adventures matched the Captain’s missions. Tony had the opportunity to know the Captain, the man behind all the many tales. It also had the unfortunate side effect of attraction, but who wouldn’t fall for the Captain? At the very least, a person couldn’t help but like the man. He was perfect even in his flaws.
“Not at all,” Tony answered because he didn’t know the Captain as Tony Stark. Only as Iron Man.
Hammer’s face fell. “No?”
He was obviously disappointed by Tony’s lack of reaction.
“No.” Tony was going to enjoy recounting this to the Captain later, about how the gossip thought an artist might know him.
“But—“ Hammer wringed his hands together as if he didn’t know what to do. Tony enjoyed how Hammer struggled to figure out how to proceed. The man was all too certain that Tony would say yes. As if Tony would ever give the man that satisfaction if it could be avoided, regardless of how he actually felt.
“Then, perhaps I’ll have him. If you don’t—“
“Did I say that?” He shook his head. “If you’ll excuse me…”
Steve looked highly uncomfortable and, as much as he disliked Fury and his men, Tony felt terrible for him. Unless one grew up as such, it was hard to adjust to so many eyes upon you. Rhodes and Pepper had faced the same nerves before their stomachs harden over the years at Tony’s side. Besides, it would have the added effect of annoying Hammer. He headed straight for the crowd, easing into Steve’s space easily.
“Please forgive me. I need to borrow him. An important commission if you understand, alongside other matters.” He winked, and Steve slipped to his side, a look of relief on his face.
“Walk with me. At my speed otherwise they can smell your fear, and we can’t get past.” He took them through the crowd at an even measured pace.
Tony smiled benignly as they passed Hammer. The man seemed a little struck at how Tony had swept in, whisking Steve away. His mouth was open in disbelief at any rate. Well, if only Hammer knew, Tony was actually doing him a favor by sparing him the scrutiny of Fury’s men.
“I didn’t think I would see you again,” Tony said when Steve became his lone company for the evening. He had brought them out to the balcony where the night air was bitingly cold in comparison to the heat of the ballroom.
“You are not rid of me that quickly.” Steve paused. “Thank you. That was overwhelming.”
“It wasn’t for your sake.” He cut his eyes sideways at Steve. It was rather infuriating how much taller the man was than him. “Any fool would enjoy such pretty ladies and men.”
Steve’s jaw tightened. “Any fool would know that it takes more than beauty to hold one’s attention.”
“I am shallow,” Tony admitted with a roll of his shoulder. “Not that there’s anything to appreciate about beauty when it is there. Now, to the matter. What are you here for?”
“I already said that you won’t rid of me that quickly or are you hard of hearing?”
“I’m not that old yet.”
“Of course. I’m only imagining the gray in your hair.”
“And I’m imagining that you are here, but then we all suffer delusions. Now, kindly tell Fury to remove his nose out of my business. I assure you that I’m capable of seeking out his—“
“I haven’t seen you do a thing yet,” Steve challenged. He stood with his full bulk at his disposal as if to intimidate.
“Some tricks are done in the dark,” Tony snapped. The gears in his heart seemed to tick faster, as if it knew Tony was overworked to keep his anger contained. “You follow me a single day, and yet you think you know everything already.”
“Some would say you think you know everything already.”
“Genius,” Tony said breezily. He poked Steve in the chest. “I had better not see you again.”
Tony left, entirely done. He didn’t know why he thought to speak to the man at all. He should have left him to the crowd. Tony snorted to himself. The work on the cube had already begun, and in a few weeks Tony would soon have its location. It was only a matter of time. Also, his hair did not have one bit of gray in it!
Tony cackled as he darted out of a window, instantly firing his repulsors. He flew up high before turning around to watch. One of the men trailing him actually followed him straight out the window, dropping with a high pitched scream. Two more fell because they couldn’t stop fast enough at the ledge, and Tony grinned. He couldn’t believe how utterly stupid they were.
However, as stupid as they were, Tony still could not find the journal. Fury’s remark about the cube belonging to a project of his father’s had him scouring the old dusty office in the West wing of the manor. There he found a few random sheets talking about the Tesseract, the name of the cube, and a reference to a research journal. Unfortunately, the journal was lost. It took some work, more backtracking than Tony expected, to find out where the journal was currently.
So, here he was. Searching for a journal that didn’t seem to exist. He even tried tapping all the walls that seemed hollow. He found a pile of ancient Mexican coins, an old white handkerchief turning yellow next to a gold locket, and a pile of bones—but not the journal. Tony zoomed back in through another window. Perhaps, he was wrong about the location. He settled into rigging makeshift bombs in the halls. Although he couldn’t find the journal, Tony soon figured out it was a base for Hydra. Therefore, he aimed to cause as much mayhem as possible. Besides, Tony rather thought the Captain would appreciate it considering his efforts against them in the war.
A gunshot rang off on the brick behind him.
“Was that necessary?” he asked, the second bullet useless as it hit his armor and fell. He fixed the last bomb before flying out another window. It felt good to fly. The air was crisp and clean. It was the perfect backdrop to Tony sweeping down against the sky, a glint of red and gold.
“What?” Tony caught something blue and red in the distance. His eyes widened. That wasn’t?
He caught the Captain in free fall. The man looked just as surprised as he did at his presence. It was sheer luck the Captain was even here. Tony didn’t think he would see the man so soon after their last meeting in Siberia although it shouldn’t be that much of an amazement as Hydra was here.
“Well, look what I caught.” Tony’s voice came out modulated and flat through the speaker. The Captain shifted in his arms. Tony was glad he had made adjustments for hand holds. There was a better grip and fit for the Captain’s gloves. They worked together often enough to necessitate them.
“Iron Man!” the Captain exclaimed, both entirely in surprise and glee. “What are you doing here?”
“Did you not want me here? I am perfectly fine with dropping you—“
The Captain laughed. It was a good laugh, hearty and full of humor. It sent a thrill through Tony completely unrelated to the adrenaline of their flight. “You know what I meant. Of course, I like you here. I know you always have my back.”
“You are a sweet talker,” Tony informed him. “You truly missed my absence that much?”
“Don’t go fishing for compliments.”
“Then, wherever shall I get them?” He batted his eyelashes, but it was a moot point with the faceplate down. Still, the Captain laughed. It was a fine result for Tony’s aim to hear that laugh again. It had only been a month since they last met, but Tony felt the lack of the Captain keenly. The man truly was everything his father had said he was. Therefore, was there any wonder that the Captain made his heart beat faster than his gears could keep pace with?
He relished having the Captain in his arms even if he couldn’t feel the true sensation of it. The hold was still a coveted touch all the same, marked with the fact they could never truly be. Tony couldn’t tell the man who he was, and the Captain had his duties. A courtship of any kind would never last with that sort of secrecy. Tony also didn’t think he measured up to be any sort of lover for the Captain.
“Not from another man, I should hope,” the Captain teased in return.
“Never. You are all mine.”
It was easy talking to the Captain. The words flowed, and even if they could not have the sort of relations Tony would like it was truly something. If there was a little flirting involved, well, it was not like it mattered much for the society pages. Tony had enough of that already as Tony Stark. This was his as he said. Personal and just for him. Who could tell what two men did this high up in the air with all the wind to blow their words away? Tony could pretend, especially when the Captain did little to reject his more than friendly overtures.
“As long as you’re all mine, Shellhead.” Tony tightened his grip on the Captain’s waist. It was more than he could have expected to hear. He clung to those words tightly, but he had to let them go. They could not stay in the air forever.
“Was there anything else you needed?” Tony peered upward where there were several large plumes of smoke floating to the sun.
“No,” the Captain said. He patted his pouch with a free hand. “I have what I came for. Your timing is more than excellent.”
“Wonderful.” Tony steered them away from the mountainside. There was a crackle, several in fact that sounded, and fire danced across the trees.
“I did not think that would happen.” The Captain observed the burning building and trees with confusion as another boom echoed.
“Oh, good,” Tony said, without thinking. “They’ve received my gift.”
“Uh,” Tony cursed inwardly. That was an embarrassingly slip of tongue. Few knew about the Tesseract, and the Captain certainly did not know. He would have told the Captain as he usually did when on one of his adventures, but Tony didn’t want him to get involved even if Hydra was the Captain’s forte.
“I happened to be by doing some things for the locale,” he lied to some extent. “Did you think I spent my days following you?”
“Well, you are here.”
“Haha. I thought I would lend a hand seeing that I spotted your fine form falling from the sky. I didn’t expect to see you.”
“Thank you.” The Captain genuinely sounded glad. It was enough to make some guilt roll around in Tony’s stomach, but he ignored it.
“Where shall I drop you off?”
“About a quarter mile that way if you can spare it.”
Tony looked at the distance in wonder.
“Is that safe?” That would be skirting close to where Rhodes and Pepper waited for him.
“You need not worry. I have company waiting.”
Well, the distance was far enough that no one would make the connection between Tony Stark and Iron Man, Tony supposed. It was, it should be doable.
“Then, hold on tight.”
“What were you thinking?” Pepper asked. Her arms were crossed, and there was the most disapproving frown on her face.
“Well, the fire was not in the plan.”
Pepper glared at him.
“It wasn’t. It was, as it is, a side effect of all the bombs I laid down. I also learned that it belongs to Hydra! So, there was that.”
Tony would need to inform Fury. It was more than likely Hydra were aware of the Tesseract and also searching for it. The cube was just the sort of treasure Hydra would find intriguing. Pepper rubbed her forehead in exasperation as Rhodes snorted.
“It’s not as if I mean for that to happen.” Tony rubbed his chest. It ached. He was sure he needed a winding soon for the gears in his heart. Rhodes noticed and reached for the bag at his side, but Tony shook his head. He didn’t need it quite yet. He also didn’t feel like testing Pepper’s ire at the moment.
“Did you at least get the journal? In exchange for possibly exposing our position here?” The journal was the main reason why Pepper came. There were other things hinted in the journal that may turn their company a profit. Otherwise, she would have stayed in New York to handle their affairs and to write another piece for Marvel.
“Ah. I didn’t.”
“You didn’t get the item?”
Tony winced. He wasn’t even sure if the journal still existed. He really couldn’t find the damn thing. “I’m—I apologize. There was so many things that went on, and, and—“ He searched wildly for something to explain.”—the Captain was there!”
“The Captain?” Pepper said dubiously.
“Is that so?” Rhodes added. He had met the Captain once or twice. “He was there?”
“Yes,” Tony said, nodding his head furiously. “He was there. I thought I would help him out before he was blown to bits. Besides, I don’t need the journal.”
At that proclamation, Tony received another withering look from Pepper.
“I mean,” Tony said, backtracking. “I do need the journal, but if I don’t have it, why it isn’t a major deterrent. I can fashion a reading device for the Tesseract. The journal would make it easier as I have not seen the cube at all. Some speculations are better than none.”
Rhodes put a hand over his face. “What a waste of a travel.”
“Not so wasted,” a familiar voice said, interrupting them. Tony turned. The Captain stood there, the coveted journal in his hand.
“I—,” Tony felt a little faint. This was the company the Captain said he had waiting for him? Tony and his crew? He had just—he resisted the temptation to look at where he hid the Iron Man suit.
“Captain!” Tony said loudly. He breezed forward, looking the man up and down. He didn’t know the man like this. Tony Stark and the Captain had never met. “There were rumors you were alive.”
“Not rumors anymore. I would think a few years are enough for anyone to tell that I am alive.”
“I suppose so.” Tony pointed to the journal, curious. “How did you happen by that?”
The Captain’s cheeks, where it was visible beneath the cowl, turned a little pink. He handed the journal over, pushing it into Tony’s hand.
“Someone told me you might need some assistance.”
“Oh,” Tony said. Both to the statement and to the realization that the Captain was considerably taller than him with Tony out of the suit.
“Yes,” the Captain said, blue eyes earnest. “I was glad to help.”
Tony swallowed hard at their proximity. The Captain hadn’t even let go of the journal yet. It was the only thing keeping them from actually touching. The air was charged in a way that Tony couldn’t explain. He recalled how only moments earlier the Captain called him his.
“Thank you.” Tony’s heart stuttered inside his chest, the gear there still clicking and clacking away as if nothing was wrong. As if Tony was not introduced to the man as he was. Iron Man was noble and brilliant, but Tony Stark was merely a rich man who could afford a lavish living. How could he even began to want, much less lust after the Captain?
“You are more than welcome, Mr. Stark. I’ve quite enjoyed your stories in Marvel since I’ve read them.”
Tony coughed slightly, stepping back with the journal. He didn’t know the Captain read his stories. Tony felt slightly flushed. He felt his affections deepened for the man.
“You are a fan?”
“I am. I read every issue. You’re amazing. Daring. I can’t believe how you wrestled with that rhino or how you, uh, solved that sand puzzle in the May edition last year. It was brilliant. I would have never thought of using the moonlight to illuminate it.” The Captain practically gushed, stumbling over his words. He even slipped into the old Brooklyn accent.
“I—that means quite a bit coming from you.” Tony floundered. He wasn’t expecting that at all. “You’re amazing as well. Perhaps, even better. The stories about you and the Howling Commandos—it’s, fantastic. I can hardly believe that you’re real. My father would have loved to know you survived. I’m—”
“I’m told I have him to thank for that. I’m pleased to meet you.”
Tony nodded. The money and time Howard had sunk into countless expeditions to find the Captain was staggering.
“Yes.” He paused, awkwardly, and then waved the journal. “I really am much obliged, Captain. You will stay the night of course.”
“I’ll be glad to,” and Rhodes waved the Captain to sit and settled down around the campfire. They fell into a quiet dinner and conversation. Eventually, Rhodes brought up something that Tony’s mind had slipped in the excitement of the Captain’s appearance.
“If I may,” Rhodes said. “Who was that someone that mentioned we need a hand? As far as I am concerned, outside of a select few, no one should know about our being here.”
“Oh,” the Captain said, putting down his finished bowl of soup. He looked sheepish. “Steve Rogers.”
“Steve Rogers?” Rhodes repeated. He swiveled his head to look at Pepper. “Isn’t that the artist you admire, Pep? The one I bought in Madripoor? He was a nice fellow.”
“I love,” Pepper corrected. “Yes. That was the one in Madripoor. His work is amazing. Did you know? He was at the event the other night. Remember, Tony? You met him. I saw you with him.”
“I did,” Tony said shortly. Hm, he was wrong. Fury’s man did know the Captain after all. It wasn’t just a lie spun to catch his attention. Tony still held judgment on the artist aspect however. That was still a farfetched cover for Tony’s taste. He pointed at Rhodes.
“You shouldn’t have bought it.” Steve Rogers was infuriating. Mostly, he was irritated by the fact the man had captured Pepper’s heart easily and had Rhodes’ approval.
“Why not?” The question did not come Pepper but from the Captain. That threw Tony for a loop.
“Why shouldn’t he have bought the painting?” The Captain’s face was serious. Tony wondered if he had offended the man. He cursed Steve inside his head.
“Well,” Tony said flippantly. “Art comes and goes. There are many artists out there, and who’s to say he’s the best? I only want the finest for my walls.”
The Captain’s face turned blank, unreadable. Tony winced internally. He really must have offended the Captain by being dismissive of his friend.
“You mean my walls,” Pepper said, “but how does Steve know? Isn’t this classified?”
Tony could see her fingers twitch for some ink to note this exciting turn of their travels. It wasn’t every day one could meet the Captain, much less speak to him, or find that the artist was more than that.
“He’s one of Fury’s men,” Tony answered. He tossed a stick into the fire with a little force.
“You didn’t tell me that,” Rhodes said, a little annoyed.
“I didn’t think it worth mentioning,” Tony said. He flicked another stick into the fire where the flames licked at it greedily.
“You…don't seem to like him?” the Captain ventured to ask hesitantly. Tony snorted, head falling back to look up at the trees and stars above.
“That is hardly fair to say, but he does work for a pirate, and nobody enjoy pirates.” He truly distrusted Fury and his men.
“I see,” the Captain said quietly, in a tone that made Tony looked at him. The Captain appeared subdued, and Tony realized he blundered even further.
“You are very good friends?” Tony asked, seeking clarification.
“In a fashion,” the Captain said. “He is—you really don’t—“
“Perhaps I will change my opinion with your good words, Captain.”
“You don’t strike me as someone whose opinion change that easily.”
That stung. More so because Tony wasn’t expecting it. He wanted very much to be in the Captain’s good graces, but it seemed only Iron Man could manage that.
“You don’t know me,” Tony said instead. “You will see that I’m not that sort of man.”
Tony had the strange feeling that he should realize something in that those words, in that tone, but it was forgotten as Pepper spoke up just then.
“You will not,” Pepper interjected, smiling at the Captain. “He is very stubborn. Once he thinks he knows a matter, he will run with it even if proven otherwise.”
“I object to that!”
“It’s the fault of being intelligent,” Rhodes added, grinning. “Say, let me tell you about that time we were at a temple in Indonesia. Tony’s brilliant mind was more of a hindrance than a help in this case.”
Back in New York, Tony settled into studying the journal at once. He read through the papers from beginning to end. It wasn’t difficult with a brain such as his, but apparently there were things even his wonderful mind couldn’t do. He knew very little about energies and properties of stones, and certainly not in the extensive way the journal expounded on.
“Oh,” Tony muttered, scanning the pages once more. The content described how the stone had an energy that could be traced with the appropriate machine. However, to build the machine, it would require knowledge of how to tune the machine to the energy.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” Rhodes said, leaning against the corner of the desk. He had a cup of steaming hot coffee in his hand which he deliberately held out of Tony’s reach. “What is it? You cannot do it?”
“I will require expertise that is outside of my scope,” Tony replied with a scowl. He stared at the coffee in Rhodes’ hand longingly. “And give me the goddamn coffee.”
He stretched his hands out toward Rhodes who did not give him the caffeine he sorely needed despite his fingers wriggling.
“Pepper says I shouldn’t enable you.” Rhodes emphasized that by taking a sip of that delicious coffee himself.
He leaned back in his chair and was surprised by something bumping into his hand. It was DUM-E, his first automaton. “Yes?”
DUM-E hissed, steam pouring out of its joints. He wasn’t sealed quite properly, but every time Tony went to mend or improve him the automaton shied away. DUM-E clicked its gears, and Tony sighed.
“You wished to make me coffee?”
DUM-E clicked his gears, emitting more steam, and wheeled over to the table where a cup was sitting. He had already prepared it, and Tony wagered there was sludge within.
“If I cease to breath, it will be entirely your fault. You won’t have anyone to grease your wheels, but bring it here as Rhodes won’t give me any of his.”
“Don’t worry,” Rhodes said to DUM-E. “I will grease your wheels and oil your gears.”
Tony glowered at him, but he patted DUM-E, indulging the metal contraption’s need for touch. Then, he took the cup and promptly choked upon it. The liquid was vile, but he was instantly awake. Either that or it was all of DUM-E’s steam that he was coughing on.
“Well.” Tony put the cup down, afraid to drink any more of it. DUM-E clicked happily, having served him and wheeled off. “As I was saying, this is out of my expertise.”
“So, who is it that you need to ask for help?” Rhodes was still sipping his delicious coffee that was not made by DUM-E. “I’m assuming that is the case.”
“It is, unfortunately. I don’t know anything about energies, but the only one who would have the expertise…he lives in isolation if he can. I’m not even certain we will be able to find him, but he is the absolute best.”
“You tell me who,” Rhodes said, entirely optimistic. “I will find him. You know I live for the air and have the eyes to boot.”
Tony knew Rhodes could find the man if that was what it took to get the Tesseract, but that wasn’t quite the problem.
“That isn’t—there may just be some minor detail that may make this even more difficult. I would not advise you to come along.”
“And what is that?”
“Truth is, I don’t know if it’s true—and I don’t believe it either. He truly has a brilliant mind. I am a fan of his treatises and experiments.”
“Just spit it out, Tony.”
“Well, there are rumors that he’s not even human anymore.”
“What?” Rhodes spluttered. He looked at Tony as if he was mad, and well that wasn’t wrong either. Though Tony had to be mad. He was a genius after all. “And you mean to go after him?”
“He’s not a monster if that’s what you mean.” Tony shrugged carelessly. He looked at his cup of coffee and downed the rest of it. It was still vile.
“You just said that he may not even be human.”
“May not,” Tony emphasized. “It will be fine. You worry too much, sugarplum. It is all hearsay anyhow.”
“Please. Do you or do you not trust me?”
Rhodes gave him an extremely flat look. “I have followed you since I’ve known you. Twenty years of friendship, and you—if I wasn’t there for your harebrained schemes I’m not certain you would have survived to forty.”
“Excellent. We shall leave at once.” Tony toppled off his chair with a slight stagger. That smarted, and he squinted his eyes and stared at the blue glow in his chest. He didn’t notice it too often these days, but the fact remained there was still a ticking bit of machinery within him.
Rhodes sighed, steadying Tony with a good hand. “I suppose you haven’t even wound yourself up, have you?”
“I’m certain I did.”
“You have not.” Rhodes peeled Tony’s shirt open, working the buttons out with efficiency. “Look. The light is dimmer.”
And it was. Tony rolled his eyes. It was not too low. “I still have some minutes to spare. I will be fine.”
He shrugged off Rhodes’ hand, straightening his shirt.
“You are not fine.”
“I am—,” Tony had to stop and pause. He felt dizzy and tired all of a sudden. Rhodes pushed him back into the chair.
“You need to wind, and then we can see what to do about that monster man of yours.”
“He’s not a monster.”
“And you need this.” Rhodes fished out the tools that Tony need easily from the slight drawer with a false bottom.
“I’m like a windup toy,” Tony grumbled. He took the key from Rhodes and stared at it mournfully. He grimaced as he slotted it into his chest where the cover was removed.
“You make a wonderful toy. Especially with that metal man. Like a tin soldier.”
“Oh lord,” Tony said, reminded. “Speaking of soldiers, the Captain’s friend has been around again.”
“He’s like a dog. Always hounding you and nipping at your heels.”
“Fine,” Tony said. He wasn’t being entirely fair. He hated how Rhodes knew him so well. “I saw him following me on the streets. I imagine on Fury’s orders. Still, I swear he doesn’t leave well enough alone, and why the hell don’t I have a better machine? I thought I built one.” Tony’s hand was tired, getting cramped from twisting the key and hearing each slow turn of the cranks to all the gears and springs.”
“You did, but you left it on the ship.”
“Of course,” Tony said. He had put it there on their last travel as he only had the one. It just seemed more efficient since he spent half his time travelling. “I really ought to make another. I can’t keep carting that sole thing around without any spare.”
“I’ve been telling you that for ages. Here, let me.”
Rhodes took over for Tony, turning and turning the key. “Honestly, this is wearisome. Your steam powered crank is much better. This will take forever.”
“Hm, now tell me about Rogers. You were saying that you saw him?”
“He makes a poor spy.”
“He doesn’t seem so bad to me. He must be trustworthy if the Captain thinks of him as a friend.” Of course, Rhodes would find Steve as charming as Pepper did. Though, Pepper’s reason fell more upon the arts than anything else.
“Indeed. The Captain favors him.” Tony couldn’t help the irritation that bled through his voice. He felt wounded at how Steve didn’t seem to think he could do his job properly. As if he hadn’t been Iron Man for several years now. Well, the man didn’t know that, but even Tony Stark alone was capable of many things. Tony was a tad green to think the Captain would prefer Steve over him.
“You don’t need to like everything that the Captain favors.”
“Just wind me up.” Tony refused to think about the Captain or Steve Rogers. The thought of them made his heart ached, and the gears there clicked in the most troubling way.
It was Tuesday afternoon when Tony finally left his workshop after a seventy six hour period. He had been consumed by the latest workings for his company as well as repairs to his suit. He would need it if he was to find his scientist and the cube. Rhodes barely managed to bully him out of the door when he saw Tony hadn’t rested after his winding. However, he deeply regretted leaving his workshop now, especially as a red haired lady who wasn’t Pepper graced his doorstep.
“Natasha,” Tony said. He ran a finger along the edge of the hat he was going to wear. He spun one of the gears on it as he leaned against the door. “You surprised me.”
“Have I really, Mr. Stark?” Natasha smiled coyly. “I thought I had sent word ahead that I would come calling.”
“We all know that isn’t true.” Tony plopped his hat on, walking down the steps. He offered his arm, and Natasha took it. Her black umbrella fringed with lace was large enough to shade them both. “Did Fury sent you?”
“And if I answer in the positive?”
“I thought one of you was enough.”
“One of us?” Natasha tilted her head. “What do you mean?”
“Steve Rogers. He has been following me every time I go out in the city. I don’t need two of you. It breaks my concentration.”
Natasha looked startled as if she didn’t know that fact already. “He has been following you?”
“How interesting,” Natasha murmured thoughtfully. She smiled at Tony, blinking her eyelashes slow and prettily. “I merely thought you might desire some company today. You are meeting with General Ross at noon, are you not?”
Tony sighed. He was certain that his home was fortified suitably against spies, but it apparently was futile. The woman was as scary as the day he met her. Even now, Natasha still managed to walk on the cobbled street without making a sound. It was eerie, and he was too aware that she was talented.
“I am,” Tony admitted. “You may come along I suppose. You can charm the bastard, if only because you are of the female persuasion.”
“I can charm anyone, even my own gender,” Natasha declared. “Would you care to tell Pepper that thought of yours?”
Tony winced. “No. I didn’t mean that your skills are—you’re not less than a man. Please don’t say a word to Pepper. She will—wait. How do you know Pepper?”
“Who do you think told me about your meeting?”
Tony felt betrayed. “When did you two meet? I didn’t realize you two even—“
“We both appreciate the arts and ballet. It’s amusing how you think that our first meeting was in Madripoor.”
“It wasn’t?” Tony asked, confused.
“I was your assistant for a time when Pepper took sick last August. I suppose you were too troubled with your heart to remember me. You were quite ill then.”
Tony frowned. So, that’s how Fury knew about his heart and about the potion that would stop the poison from killing him. He hated that he was so unaware of her presence. He knew he recognized her in Madripoor even if he didn’t know how. She was probably how his home was being continually breached. He would have talk to Pepper about this. It was frankly unacceptable.
“You were Natalie?”
“So you do recall,” Natasha said. She shrugged, the drape of her shawl dipping with the motion. The action was insignificant, as if she hadn’t just revealed she knew Tony was Iron Man all along. Tony suspected that she was the one who delivered the cure to him anonymously. “So, shall we?”
They had reached a hotel, one of the best in town. Inside, General Ross stood next to a woman by a table with its meal mostly consumed. The woman seemed rather unremarkable, most of her hair and face covered in a dark veil. She stood up and bowed her head, looking meekly down at the carpet.
“I apologize,” she said. “I have matters to attend elsewhere.”
“Valentina,” General Ross started. “Please, couldn’t you stay a little while longer?”
“Perhaps next week.” She lifted her head, eyes to Tony and Natasha. There was a mysterious knowing wink in her eyes. “Besides, I think the people for your meeting has arrived.”
“Oh,” General Ross said. He seemed unhappy. “Well, then—“
“I will let you know. Perhaps, next week.”
“I should like that.” General Ross kissed the woman on the cheek before addressing Tony.
“General Ross,” Tony greeted. “Thank you for agreeing to see me.”
Ross laughed, clapping a hand on Tony’s back. It was hard, almost painful enough to make Tony buckle. His smile was as real as the china manufactured in the shops on East Street. Everything sold there were merely imitation, even as authentic as they appeared.
“My pleasure. It is always good to see you even if you don’t produce as much as you used to do. It is really a shame that you have withdrawn most of your contracts with the military.”
“I dare say Hammer does a fine job,” Tony lied. He didn’t want to make weapons again. He had only promised to make a more effective gear for today’s exchange if needed. He turned his head to Natasha for a distraction. “May I introduce—“
“Belle,” Natasha said, giving Ross her hand. General Ross kissed her hand.
“A beauty,” he said as Natasha giggled. It was terrifying how she looked exactly as one of those society ladies at every event Tony had ever been too. “You possess a fitting name.”
“Thank you for saying so.” Natasha slid into the seat offered gracefully. The table had been cleared, replaced with a fresh pot of tea and various petite fours. She took the pot, immediately playing host as Ross turned to Tony.
“So, what is it you need of me?”
“Not much,” Tony said. He sipped at the tea, burning his tongue on it. God, he preferred coffee but for some explicable reason everyone wanted tea in the afternoon. It was a trend that Tony didn’t understand. He put the cup down, making a show of looking for unwanted ears.
He groaned internally. A flash of blond had passed by with a tray of finger sandwiches. So, that was where Steve was. The man had followed him along today as well. His hair was neatly combined, and he was unfairly handsome. The shirt didn’t fit him at all, and Steve gave only the barest nod of his head to acknowledge that he knew Tony had seen him. It was enough to make Tony stare after him. Both for how fit those pants were on that buttocks and for how once again Steve appeared. Ross didn’t pay any mind to Steve, not at all concerned with the wait staff, but he focused on Tony’s question of security.
“You can speak freely here. This place is secure. It’s government property.” Ross gestured to the flags, and the men stationed at the doors. It was highly guarded for a mere tea establishment. For that reason, Tony didn’t relax even though he leaned back in his chair, steeping his fingers. He hoped Steve wouldn’t interrupt them.
“Well, I’ve heard of a project you were invested in from a few years back.”
“That is classified,” Ross said immediately before Tony could elaborate further. “I can’t tell you much.”
“Oh,” Natasha said, wide eyed. “He’s not asking for that.”
Ross looked at her uncertainly. “He’s not?”
Tony had to look too because that was unscripted. He didn’t think she would speak so soon. He wasn’t serious about needing her to distract Ross.
Natasha turned pink, casting her eyes down at her tea. She had hardly touched it, and she ran her index finger around the rim of the cup. Slow as if debating how to speak.
“Please forgive me for speaking, but he asks as a favor to me.”
Tony had to laud her acting skill. Natasha sound entirely sincere as well as earnest.
“For you?” Ross looked perplexed. “What do you mean for you?”
“I…I’m looking for a man,” she continued. “He’s a scientist. He—he caused my parents’ deaths. I wasn’t there when it happened, but I’m told he—well, he turns green.”
Her voice was low, soft, captivating as she drew out her tale even as simple as it was with hardly any embellishments.
“I want payment. Revenge. Only, I don’t know what the man looks like. Mr. Stark, he said that you might have a photo of him.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Ross said. He had laid his hand on top of Natasha’s. “However, this information is classified.”
“Please,” Natasha pleaded. “I’m not asking for anything more. Just a photo will do.”
At that moment, there was a loud crash. Steve was on the ground, a silver tray next to him along with broken teacups and bits of cakes. The main dish—a Waldorf salad—entirely decorated Natasha’s hair and gown. She burst into tears as Steve frantically apologized.
Ross shifted in his seat, looking discomforted by the display of tears. Everyone in the establishment was staring at them. He growled at Steve. “What are you still standing there for? Grab us some napkins.”
Tony handed over his unused linen napkin, and Natasha patted at her face, tears still streaming down.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just…I came all this way for nothing. And when, when—it was the last straw.”
Natasha looked entirely miserable. Ross faltered as he helped wiped the salad from her arm.
“I know,” Natasha sighed. More tears leaked from her eyes. “You can’t give it to me.”
“No, no.” Ross shook his head. “I—well, I suppose it won’t hurt. It is only a photo. I happen to have it on hand as well, if you would believe that.”
“You don’t mean?” Natasha looked at him, shocked. Her tears had stopped completely. Ross fumbled, reaching into his pants’ pocket. He pushed the photo at Natasha who took it gratefully.
“I don’t know how I can repay you.”
“Think nothing of it.”
Natasha smiled brilliantly at Ross.
“So,” Tony said casually. “I would applaud you, but it’s cheating to use Steve.”
“Is it?” Natasha asked, arching an eyebrow. They were outside, having left Ross an hour ago. The staff managed to find some clothes to replace the ruined ones.
Tony huffed. “I don’t know what I expected. Where is he? I want to yell at him.”
“Why? He didn’t do anything to you.”
“He—he’s.” Tony faltered. He didn’t have anything to accuse the man of other than the following. He disliked being watched so closely, and there was something about Steve that highly irked him. Tony couldn’t exactly explain how the man made him bristle and react.
“Yes. Do tell. Why do you wish to yell at me?”
Steve strode up to them in long steps. He was still dressed in that waiter’s outfit, looking unbearably poised. Tony swallowed.
“You are infuriating,” he said after a long moment.
“I just assisted you. Is that any way to talk?” Steve crossed his arms.
“Yes! I could have done this myself. Perhaps not as Natasha did, but—why the hell are you following me?” Tony turned his ire toward that. “I didn’t say a word earlier although I should think you realize how terrible you are as a spy.”
“I’m not a spy,” Steve said. Tony glared at him.
“He truly isn’t,” Natasha offered. She passed the photograph to Tony.
“You’re a liar,” Tony grumbled, taking it. He verified that she didn’t hand him something else before tucking the photo into his own coat pocket. “I don’t know why I should believe you. You said that you didn’t know Steve was following me.”
“Did I say that?”
“Well, no,” Tony said, thinking it over. She merely said it was interesting. “However, you must have had some plans. How else do you explain his fall earlier? To even spill the salad on you directly?”
“I saw him on my way in and took that to my advantage. I didn’t imagine he would spill salad on me either.” Natasha smirked, turning to Steve. “That said, I wasn’t aware you were following Tony?”
“I want him to stop,” Tony interrupted.
“It was on Fury’s orders,” Steve answered. He glanced at Tony, looking a bit nervous. In fact, there was a bit of pinkness on his cheeks as Natasha raised an eyebrow at him.
“On Fury’s orders?”
“Yes,” Steve said. “On Fury’s orders.”
“You must be keeping close to him,” Natasha continued.
“Way too close,” Tony added, but the two seemed lost in their own world. Steve looked Natasha straight in the eye.
“Only as my duty requires,” Steve answered diplomatically though his jaw was tight, strained as if to keep from saying something rude.
Natasha laughed. “You are amusing. I will let Fury know then that you’ll be accompanying Stark to India if not someone else. Perhaps, your friend.”
“Wait a minute,” Tony said. “Who said anything about going to India? Did I say that?”
Natasha snorted. “Please, as if you can hide a thing from me. Do give Pepper my greetings, and take care not to get a heat stroke. You should take better care of your health. Your heart might not be able to stand anymore of the various things you do to it.”
She walked off, umbrella twirling as she went, still in that unnerving soundless gait.
“What is this about India?” Steve asked. Tony opened his mouth. No, he wouldn’t bother. He closed his mouth, pivoted on his heels, and walked. He would leave before all of this.
“Tony!” Steve grabbed him by the arm. His eyes were full of concerns, and that made Tony pause. It was entirely too sincere and earnest. “Please. What about India?”
Their sudden proximity felt too intimate.
“Let go of me.” He pushed Steve’s hand off of him and straightened the lapels of his jacket. Shoving Steve’s hand away felt more of a loss than a prize. “If you must know, I’m going to India to find a scientist.”
“You shouldn’t go alone.”
“Did I say I was going alone?”
“Well, no, but—“
“You’re not coming with me,” Tony cut him off, sensing where the conversation was going. “I can handle the stalking, but not this. I don’t need one of Fury’s men hounding me every step of the way.”
“I'm not going to get in your way.”
“What do you know? You’re just some artist apparently.”
Steve flinched. Tony felt a little guilty. The man looked as if he had been punched.
“I—if not me, than perhaps the Captain—“
“The Captain. Yes, I know he’s your friend. Everyone talks about how you apparently know the man, but I don’t know him even if I met him once. I don’t want him to come either. I’m Tony Stark, an adventurer. Haven’t you at least heard the stories, if not read them in Marvel? I have gone on many much more dangerous trips than this, just fine on my own. I don’t need anyone’s help.”
He was also Iron Man, Tony thought, frustrated. He honestly hated how people seemed to underestimate his abilities regardless whether they knew his full talents or not.
“And quit following me!”
Tony wondered if he could find a way to communicate with the Captain as Iron Man. Surely, he could convince the Captain to tell Steve to leave him alone. Perhaps as a favor for the man who created the armor for Iron Man?
“You’re still following me,” Tony said, resisting the urge to punch the man. He didn’t look behind him, quickening his steps. Only once did he look back, and Steve strangely enough looked lost. Tony refused to let that depress him. No, he didn’t need Steve at all.
“Do you always wear goggles?” Steve asked. He trailed after Tony, following him as he trekked across a crowded marketplace in India. Somehow he had managed to find Rhodes and convinced him that Tony needed someone as a guard. Rhodes agreed and sneakily arranged for Steve to arrive on the land before Tony did. It had flummoxed Tony to see the man waiting for him in front of the city entrance where the scientist was rumored to be.
Tony didn’t appreciate it. It was more difficult for him to act should trouble arise as Tony could not be Iron Man. Tony was even forced to leave the suit behind because of Steve’s presence. It was true the suit wasn’t something a person could easily carry, but it was assurance. Without it, he felt quite vulnerable.
“Why? You fancy one?” Tony dodged around a cart and a crowd of people. Steve was not discouraged, keeping pace with him easily. It rankled Tony that the man probably had more energy and could go farther than him.
“No, it’s just—“
“Style. Flair. It’s all dramatics, you see. Have to make the very best impression.” Tony cut his eyes to see Steve staring at him in disbelief. “Don’t give me that. We may not be back home, but I can at least dress as well as I can. The advantage of being born with a silver spoon.”
“No, I just—“
“Look, Rogers.” Tony stopped in the middle of the square, earning himself some colorful cursing in a language he didn’t understand from a man. “This will not do.”
Steve apologized the man and tugged them to the side. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
Tony poked him hard in the chest just like he did the second time they met. “You. I don’t appreciate how close you follow me.”
“Well,” Steve said with a wry smile. He gestured to Tony. “You are my duty.”
He was a duty? Tony didn’t need someone who thought he was merely a chore to follow him.
“You may leave if you wish. I already told you that I don’t need assistance. I can get the cube without anyone’s help.”
“Like you did not need help from the Captain for the journal?”
Tony opened his mouth and then promptly shut it again. It was true, but in Tony’s defense he was preoccupied with getting out of that burning building and rescuing the Captain from a dive to death after.
“Yes. I heard. He said that—“
“I would have managed just fine by myself,” Tony gritted out. He didn’t want to know what the Captain thought, especially if it was disagreeable. To know he disappointed the Captain that much was almost too much to bear. “Your face displeases me.”
“I only meant—“
“Save the air for someone who cares.” He really hated this man. He didn’t understand how the Captain knew this idiot. He pivoted on his feet, intent on putting some distance between them. They could hardly function if at such odds, but Steve grabbed his shoulder.
“Wha?” Tony’s voice was muffled by Steve’s hand covering his mouth. He attempted to bite Steve’s fingers.
“Stop,” Steve said quietly, calmly, even as Tony kicked to free himself. He swore he would hit the man as soon as he could escape that death grip. He twisted in Steve’s arms. “Look.”
Tony saw them, eyes to where Steve pointed. A group of men that were clearly not part of the local population. They could be Hydra, but Tony did not want to assume. There could be other men after the cube.
“Possibly,” Steve finished. “We had better find that scientist of yours and quickly, Stark.”
“Yes,” Tony said. Then, “perhaps I do need you after all.”
He wished he had his armor. Steve huffed, warm breath coasting against the back of Tony’s neck in an oddly thrilling way. Tony shrugged Steve’s hands off of him.
“I think this way. Through the back,” Tony decided.
It was quick work getting through the side street and down several others, including an alleyway or two. However, it also had the unfortunate side effect of rendering them both quite lost.
“I thought that you knew the way.”
“Ah,” Tony said. “I said I knew the way out, not that I know the route.”
It was a poor cover, and he was highly embarrassed for their unknown bearings. He usually knew where he was heading, even without a map. After all, how could he be an adventurer without a sense of direction? He blamed their circumstances on Steve. The man was too much, disrupting Tony’s thought processes.
Steve snorted, not one bit fooled or swayed by Tony’s charms. “Any man knows the way out, especially when on the run.”
“Well, we are not getting shot at if that helps the matter.”
“How fortunate, but in my experience that only means we will be shot at later if not now.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “Are you implying that I cursed us? You, an artist that most likely never graced the field of war?”
“I have been shot at,” Steve said. His blue eyes were ice as they bore into Tony. “What of you? For all I can tell, your tales in Marvel are only tales.”
Tony bristled, pushing into Steve’s space. Every adventure, the rewards and failures, were earned honestly.
“I don’t see you offering a solution to our predicament.”
“Yes,” Steve said, looking down at Tony. Their height difference had never been so clearly identified, and Tony felt it keenly. It was a different sort of towering from the Captain’s. “I should follow you when you have no possible clue of where these streets lead. I thought you were a genius.”
Tony glowered at him. “As I said, you did not need to follow along. You insisted on coming.”
“If I did not, you would have ran into those men and failed to—“
“If you weren’t—“
“Excuse me?” A man interrupted them. “Are you lost?”
He had curly hair and a worn pair of spectacles on his nose. He lacked any of the items known to the Western world, having adopted the locale garb. There were no decorative gears on his linen shirt, and he was dressed rather plain. Despite this fact, Tony stared. Unable to believe his good fortune.
There were few pictures of Doctor Bruce Banner. Tony managed to acquire only one from General Ross with Natasha’s help. The photograph was an old one from before Banner’s disaster of an experimentation. Tony could see that the man changed very little though he was thin and gaunt from his few years in forced seclusion.
“Oh, good,” Tony said loudly, elbowing Steve in the stomach as he lunged forward to take Banner’s hands in his. He shook them vigorously, unable to contain his excitement. “You are the very man I have been searching for!”
“I’m, I’m sorry?” Banner was taken back, but Tony grinned as he if he was a loon. This was far easier than he expected.
“Why you’re Doctor Banner, aren’t you? I am an incredible admirer of your works. It’s completely fascinating. I thought it was a damn shame that the scientific community—“
“You have the wrong man,” Banner said. He shrugged Tony’s hands off. His earlier warm disposition had disappeared; eyes were distrustful.
“I don’t think I have,” Tony said.
“You are mistaken,” Banner insisted firmly.
“No,” Tony said and poked Banner in the stomach. “I am not.”
The doctor didn’t react to the poke although there was a tension that coiled in the air around him.
“Was that necessary?” he asked, a hand on his stomach.
“If you thought you were a danger,” Tony explained before he was pulled back by Steve. It was a purposeful poke.
“Is there something wrong with your head?” Steve eyed Banner, assessing for a danger that Tony was certain wouldn’t appear.
“Methods to ingenuity,” Tony said, shrugging off Steve’s hand. “He is not a danger.”
“You aren’t as clever as you think you are.” Steve pressed his lips together, tight.
“I thought I was being funny.” Tony stepped closer to Banner. “I would apologize for that. It was rather unkind, but I feel no regrets.”
“You are.” Banner shook his head, cutting that line of thought. “Who are you? What do you want with me?”
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, putting a hand forward. “I’m Steve Rogers, and this is Tony Stark. We would like to ask for your assistance with a personal manner.”
“Stark?” Banner asked, looking at Tony. He looked baffled as he shook Steve’s hand. “I do not think I—“
“Perhaps, we should discuss this inside,” Steve interjected. He lifted a shoulder as if to stretch it, subtly hinting that there may be unwanted listeners.
“Of course,” Banner said. He fidgeted, looking up and down the streets. There was no one, and he ushered them inside with haste.
Banner’s living quarters were small and cramped. There was a thick scent in the air that smelled very soothing, and there were many potted plants. The walls were decorated in airy blue, and the tiny space was harmonious in arrangement. The entire place was unsettling to Tony. It was utterly silent. His own home was full of sounds of gears clicking and clacking or steam hissing.
Banner poured them tea as they sat on soft cushions in front of a low table.
“I do not think,” Banner said when they had drunk half their tea and explained their need, “that I can offer my help.”
“Why not?” Tony asked. “Is it out of your expertise?”
“It is not. I merely believe it unwise with my current condition.”
“I believe we have established that you are not a danger,” Tony retorted. He leaned forward. “Please. I implore you. We would make a wonderful partnership.”
Bruce laughed, but it was humorless. “I am not exactly fit for company these days though I don’t deny that I would enjoy the opportunity to work with you.”
“I do not care,” Tony waved. “Do you not know who I am? They can’t say a word against the company I choose to keep.”
“No matters,” Steve said, setting down his tea cup with a clink. “If he declines we cannot force him.”
“Thank you,” Banner said gratefully. “If you desire, we can consider other arrangements.”
Tony frowned. He looked at Steve who only stared back at him steadily. He had a righteous glint to his eyes, as if he wouldn't stand for any injustice. He wouldn’t go against Bruce’s wishes. Tony paused. Bruce did look uncomfortable.
“Very well,” he conceded. “Perhaps, we can—“
There was a sudden sound as a window cracked. Tony stared at the splintered glass. There was a very neat circle in the center of the cracks.
“Get down,” Steve said, pushing Tony to the floor as a sudden volley of bullets shattered the window and became embedded in the wall behind Tony.
“What?” Tony asked.
“Must be Hydra,” Steve said. He pushed the table where it blocked another furry of bullets. “Doctor Banner, I am sorry. I did not think they knew we were here.”
Banner didn’t answer, and Tony watched as a pale green tinge appeared on the man’s face. Tony’s eyes widened. Banner’s shirt ripped as the man slowly increased in height and girth. The bullets had no effect on him, and still Banner grew.
“Tony!” Steve yanked Tony out of the way as Banner’s fist came down onto the table breaking it into pieces. The next round of bullets that came in through the broken window bounced off Banner with hardly any effect. They fell to the floor with a neat tinkle.
“Well,” Tony said. “Perhaps, I have cursed us after all.”
“Thank you for that admission, but I believe we ought to leave now.” Steve tugged at Tony as Banner’s hulking form trooped toward the window, directly into line of fire.
“Leaving is an excellent idea,” Tony agreed. It was far too dangerous. They would have to postpone recruiting Banner. He followed Steve out the doorway where they were greeted by the men after them. “Of course.”
Steve immediately shoved him back, picking up a fallen brick. He tossed it at the first man where it rebound to the next and the next, knocking them out. It was an impressive display of skill that left Tony speechless.
“How? What? Did you just?”
“Not just an artist,” Steve said. “Still don’t want me around, Stark?”
Tony smiled in spite of himself. “No. You just might do, Rogers.”
There was a roar accompanied with stomps that shook the ground. Banner appeared around the corner, still green. He was massive, full of raw power. His presence dominated the air yet Tony did not feel afraid.
“What are you—?” Steve asked.
“Shh,” Tony said. He smiled up at Banner sunnily. “I truly do admire your work.”
Banner snorted, the noise deafening. He put a hand down on the ground, palm facing upward. Tony stepped onto it. It was strange to stand on the palm, and Tony worried for a second that he might fall. However, Banner carefully closed his fingers up, bringing his other hand up to create a cradle. He lifted his hands up an inch from the ground. Tony sat down, making himself as comfortable as he could. He took of his hat, waving it at Steve.
“I believe we have ourselves a mode of transport.”
“You have a flying ship?” Steve asked, eyes in wonder. The ship was a beauty, a marvel built entirely by Tony’s own hands, machines and the automatons Dummy and You. It was probably the best of Tony’s creations, not counting Iron Man.
“Yes. How did you think I travelled? Surely, not by foot.”
“I’m not certain what to think at this point.”
Tony laughed heartily. Rogers was growing on him in some small way.
“I think I understand a little of what Captain must think,” he mused out loud. Steve looked at him, startled.
“Of you,” Tony clarified. “Don’t misunderstand me. I still abhor your very being, but you aren’t so bad I suppose.”
“Not so bad?” Steve raised an eyebrow at him. “You speak as if I was never needed in the first place.”
“You are not so bad,” Tony repeated. He gestured at Steve to follow him. “If we are doing this together, you may as well come aboard. This is Jarvis.”
“Aren’t ships normally female?”
“Did I say Jarvis was male?” Steve wasn’t wrong about that, but Tony named the ship Jarvis for a good reason. Tony watched as Steve tried to retract his statement and address his impoliteness.
“I’m—uh. Jarvis is a beautiful name. She looks sturdy.”
Jarvis was made almost entirely of metal, a gleam of copper brown and red. The sails were yellow, and Tony couldn’t help the blatant hint at his identity as Iron Man.
“He is,” Tony said.
“Wait? I thought you said—“
“I didn’t say Jarvis was male, but I didn’t say he was female either.”
“I named him after my butler,” Tony added. “He’s probably one of the few male airships out there.”
He tilted his head backward. “Banner, mind settling us down there? I think you would find that comfortable. I have tea.”
Once they were situated on the ship, Banner reverted to his original human form. He stood naked, shivering on the deck. Tony shrugged off his coat, passing it to Banner. He stared at them, confused.
“We were attacked,” Steve said. “I apologize for having troubled you.”
“I see,” Banner said.
“There are some clothes in the lower cabin that may fit you.”
“Thank you.” Banner tugged Tony’s coat around him. “I don’t suppose you have my spectacles.”
“No.” Tony shook his head. He looked up at the sky and sighed. If those were Hydra’s men, then the Tesseract must be more important than he originally conceived. Some lost object. Tony ought to have realized there was more to what Fury asked of him. It irked him to think he was so easily distracted by the chance for two months rest. He had failed to inquire further on the cube and in what fashion it was lost. In any case, he could not ask Banner for more.
“Where would you like to go?”
“Go?” Banner asked blankly.
“As much as I desire your assistance, this event reveals there is something more at hand. I will not ask for your involvement.” Tony would not add unnecessary blood to this task if he could prevent it.
“I think…I shall stay,” Banner said. Tony blinked.
“Are you certain? I understand if you do not.”
“I am without a home at present.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Steve said. “We are more than grateful.”
With Banner’s help, Tony made much progress on the Tesseract. The stone emitted a faint energy, almost magnetic, according to the journal. They did not have the stone, but Bruce was an expert in energies and estimating what they would require. It would not be too difficult to build some sort of locator to search for the stone. It would not be quite accurate, still it gave them a better chance of success than without.
Tony rubbed his chest as he pondered how to assemble the machine. His heart ached fiercely, especially with the airship so high in the sky. The weather was often colder at this altitude, even wet if they passed through the clouds. Tony could feel the chill seeping into him, and he trembled where he sat. His hands shook too, and he cursed as he failed to align two gears together properly.
“Manners,” Tony echoed. “Do you not know how to knock?”
“I did,” Steve answered. “Is it my fault that you have no ears?”
“I have more important manners to attend to instead of what you need.” Tony turned away.
“Oh,” Steve said. “I have no need, but you do.”
Something heavy dropped onto him. It was a blanket, warm and heated. It couldn’t quell the cold in his chest, but Tony felt marginally better. He discretely snuggled into the blanket as he turned to face Rogers.
Tony’s stomach grumbled as he took in Steve and what exactly he brought to his workshop. In addition to the blanket, Steve had a plate of hot rice and stew. It smelled heavenly, and Tony reached for it unconsciously. Steve held it back.
“Did you not bring it for me?”
“You may have it on the condition that you sleep. Doctor Banner informs me that you have not slept at all these past three nights. He at least has the good sense to take the hours of a normal man.”
“I do not require sleep,” Tony returned. He shifted the blanket more firmly over him, eyeing the plate with hunger.
“As you do not need sustenance. Come.” Steve urged him out of his stool toward a cot that Tony had placed in every single of his work area.
“I didn’t know I earned a mother in you,” Tony griped. Steve ignored him, pushing him down onto the bed, and pressed the plate into his hands. “Do you mean to sing me to sleep too?”
Tony scooped a bit of the stew into his mouth. It was delicious.
“If you wish,” Steve said. There was a strange timbre in his voice that made Tony pause. It sounded vaguely familiar, as if he should recognize it.
“I think I’ll save my ears.”
“I am not so bad at singing.” Steve was unnaturally close to Tony. There was a soft smile on his face, as if remembering something sweet. He radiated heat as if he was a furnace, and it warmed Tony more than the blanket did.
“I’m afraid that if you wish me to sleep well it will not be by your singing.” Tony slipped a bit of lewdness into his voice, dropping into a soft huskiness. Steve swallowed, a flush gracing his cheeks.
Tony set his plate down, having scarfed the meal in a matter of minutes. He leaned in. “No?”
Steve leaned in, almost as if drawn in. Tony could feel his pulse racing as his breath coasted over Tony’s lips tantalizingly. Even the gears in him click with anticipation.
“Yes?” Tony was entranced. Steve rested a hand on Tony’s face. His blue eyes were beautiful, mesmerizing. There was a flicker of conflict in them, and Steve pushed him down gently into the cot.
“Sleep, you fool,” Steve said roughly. Tony felt vaguely disappointed, but he settled down into the mattress. He closed his eyes and felt the heat and press of Steve’s body against his disappear. He turned onto his side. Tony could feel Steve’s gaze on him, then the workshop door swished shut as Steve left.
“You’re distracted,” Pepper observed.
“I’m not,” Tony said automatically. He was. He couldn’t help but think of Steve. Of what happened.
“You are.” Pepper put down her papers to study Tony more closely. Tony shifted in his chair. There were several whirling metal contraptions on her desk, and Tony stole one of them.
“You’re imagining things. My mind is indeed focused on your every word.”
He fiddled with his stolen good. He was certain that he disliked Steve. Although, Tony admitted those feelings have waned since their little jaunt to retrieve Bruce.
“Are you certain about that?”
“Yes,” Tony said. The thoughts didn’t go away. To be sure, they were more civil compared to their earlier hostility. Speaking to Steve now came with an ease and familiarity that Tony could hardly fathom. It was as if they have known one another from a previous life.
He winced, dropping screws and scattering bits of metal onto Pepper’s desk. He had taken it apart in his musing. “Yes?”
Pepper sighed. “You’re making a mess of my desk.”
She reached over, sweeping the metal and screws to the side. “You realize that if you don’t want to be here, you only need to say so.”
Tony grimaced. It was no excuse for him to think about Steve and whether if he would betray his feelings for the Captain even though there was nothing between them.
“I’m sorry,” he said, after a pause. “I suppose my mind isn’t entirely here.”
“I would have never guessed.”
“Just go,” Pepper waved. “You seem to need it.”
She really was too good for Tony. He leaned in, kissed her cheek. “I will be at Shield then.”
He arrived earlier and landed on the rooftop of the building. The space was cleared for him and any other flying vehicles that were small enough to fly in the city. Currently, there wasn’t anyone around. Tony was grateful for that, to have some time to himself before the meeting.
“Stupid,” Tony muttered to himself as he stared out over the roof. There were more important matters to think upon. Today, he was Iron Man. Now that the device was completed they could set forth in search of the cube. It was a task that belonged and suited Iron Man compared to Tony Stark. He was limited as to what he could do without his mask.
“I would not say that,” a voice drifted over to him. The Captain smiled at him as he climbed the last steps up to where Tony stood.
“Captain! What are you here for?”
The Captain nodded, a wicked grin on his exposed lower face. His smile was blinding. “Did they not inform you? I am part of your company.”
“No, I did not know.” Tony was entirely delighted. He hastened over to him with as much speed as he could walking covered in metal.
“I thought so. I came to fetch you for our meeting with Fury.”
“You would play messenger?” Tony teased. “How low have you fallen?”
“It is not the hardship you think it is.” The Captain shrugged his shoulders and pulled Tony into a hug. It really was a shame that Tony could not feel him with the metal. The most he had was a pressure that he barely registered. Tony could only enjoy however much he could for the brief moment the embrace lasted, and he wrapped his arms around the Captain’s in return in attempt to prolong it. “Especially when it is you.”
Tony’s cheeks heated at how honest and sincere those words were. He was glad that the Captain could not see his face.
“You are a charmer,” Tony accused. “Do the ladies know?”
“There’s only one person I hope to charm at the moment.”
“Oh?” Tony was curious. He knew his attraction to the Captain would always be so, but there was nowhere for any of their affections to move with both of them shrouded in secrecy. Still, he would not think of Steve.
The Captain shook his head. He merely smiled. “Do you know Tony Stark? I’ve been reading his adventures in Marvel.”
Tony blinked at the question.
“Yes—everyone knows the man. Who doesn’t?” Tony paused. Why was he asking this? Asking him about himself?
“He created your suit? I think you said it once.”
“I did.” Tony felt the gears in his heart spiked in speed.
“He’s very intelligent.”
Well, that was true. Tony was a genius, but that didn’t—
“Why the sudden curiosity?”
There was a blush on the Captain’s cheeks. He took a deep breath before continuing. “Tony Stark.”
“Yes. What about him?”
“I fancy him.”
Tony’s jaw dropped. Him? That—it wasn’t possible. Did the Captain know? No. Tony was certain he did not. He had been careful to prevent any hint of relations between Iron Man and himself. Frantically, Tony casted his mind for memories. He had only met the Captain once, back when he needed to obtain the journal.
“Iron Man?” The Captain had turned ashen. “Do you not approve?”
Tony realized that he hadn’t responded. He hurried to shake his head. “No. It’s not—I am merely surprised. I didn’t know you knew the man?”
“Yes,” the Captain said. He put a hand to the back of his head as if he could rub his hair through the helmet. The Captain was sheepish as he replied, “I, I met him once.”
“And you fancy him with the once? Upon first sight, I mean?” Tony chased the root of the Captain’s sudden declaration. He knew how he was as Tony Stark, and his manners then were hardly the type to attract the Captain. Smooth talking and inclined to sleep with any living thing that moved, Tony Stark was the very opposite of what the Captain should desire. He was a scoundrel, and it was completely baffling.
“You could say that,” the Captain admitted lightly.
“I don’t believe it,” Tony muttered to himself. Then, out loud, “you are utterly mad. What could possess you to want such a man?”
That, too, was another reason why Tony never sought to pursue the Captain. He could never measure to the man, putting all secrecy aside.
“He’s witty. I don’t care if you don’t like him, but I’m set upon him.”
It thrilled Tony to hear how steadfast the Captain was in his adoration, but it was misplaced.
“I think,” Tony said. “You ought to revise your thoughts. It could only end in heartbreak, and you have met the man only once.”
“I do not think my sentiments will change.”
“Please think on it at least.”
“I will consider it,” the Captain said after a long pause. “He doesn’t know who I am so it will be tricky.”
That was an understatement, Tony thought. He didn’t relish the thought of exposing himself as Iron Man. To explain that Iron Man was never as good as anyone thought he was. Just a man, full of faults and flaws, seeking a redemption that did not exist.
“I see. Well, we ought to leave before Fury suffers an apoplexy.”
“I apologize for our tardiness,” the Captain said when they made it down to the meeting room. Everyone who was needed was already gathered there: Fury, Natasha, Rhodes, and Banner.
“I’m sorry, Captain,” Natasha called out. Her eyes were bright. “I couldn’t tell when you would be done with Iron Man. I thought you might need some time alone before departing.”
At this point, Tony really shouldn’t be surprised that Natasha knew the Captain as well.
“What time? He came to fetch me.” He headed for the table where the device he and Banner built. He checked it over again for flaws, eyes easily cataloguing where an area might be weak or stress. It would hold well enough for any rough situation were it to occur.
“Oh, is that what it is?” Natasha asked. She poked the Captain in the arm. The Captain didn’t respond, mouth in a grim frown. He too walked to the table.
“How does this work?” he asked.
Banner pushed his spectacles up his nose where it had slipped a bit. He was nervous, probably from the smallness of the room and the many people there.
“It’s quite simple actually,” he said. He gestured to the how the device was connected to a larger machine. “Stark built this with my specifications. The Tesseract emits a faint energy, and this has the ability to tell where that energy concentration is stronger.”
“So, it will be stronger when near the cube?” the Captain asked.
“Ah, no.” Banner shook his head. “We did not have nearly enough to decipher an exact reading of the cube. Therefore, we can’t use it as an exact compass. What we mostly have are general impressions. So…”
Banner pushed a button, and there was a beep as the device started up.
“We can only determine a few locations where the cube may be.”
The device worked astoundingly well, and it brought up several general areas they could begin their search. Fury allocated Natasha to them as well as Rhodes. Tony immediately divided them into groups of two: he and Rhodes to one location and the Captain and Natasha to another. Tony told himself that it was a sound decision, not one made out of discomfort and in need to put his distance between himself and the Captain. He lent them Jarvis, citing that Rhodes and he could fly well enough without the ship. In that way, the Captain and Natasha could have a speed to match theirs.
Tony plopped down on a fallen log. He rested his chin on his hand, elbow propped on his knee.
“You haven’t removed your armor,” Rhodes said. He had gotten out of his and kindling a small fire for the night.
“Ugh,” Tony huffed.
“I know you have words, Tony. Use them.”
Tony grunted in response, and Rhodes looked up at him. The fire was already roaring away, and he had a pensive look as he watched Tony.
“You are miserable, and at least take off the helmet.” Rhodes sprawled in front of the campfire they had made, watching Tony stripped off his helmet.
“I know no such thing,” Tony said. He swiped a hand through his sweaty locks, grimacing at how sticky they were. Travelling in metal for extended periods was not joyful. He methodically undid his clasps. He didn’t want to wear the suit all night.
Rhodes laughed, knowing Tony too well to be put off by his words. “You have no other words to say? I admit that I am surprised you refused an opportunity to spend time with the Captain. You have been close friends. I do not understand why—“
“He fancies me,” Tony said tersely.
“He fancies me,” Tony repeated again. He sat down next to Rhodes with a huff. “As in me, Tony Stark. I don’t understand how. He has met me only once, and you were there for it.”
“I am speechless.”
“Lord knows I’m not fit for him even as Iron Man.”
“Come now,” Rhodes said. He bumped his shoulder into Tony’s. “I won’t hear you say that about yourself. You are not so bad.”
Tony rubbed his temples, sighing as he stared up into the night sky. “Rhodes, do you really think he could fancy me? It was truly only the once.”
Rhodes scratched his head. “It is difficult to say. If there were any feelings I did not detect them. If you are so worried, I suggest you ask Rogers. He is close to the Captain.”
Tony winced. “I don’t think that is a fine idea.”
“I—“ Tony rubbed his chest, listening to the gears click as they moved in him. “I may have flirted with him. Just a bit.”
“Please. As if I could have known? Besides, they are friends. It would be strange.” Tony also didn’t want to be the ruin of a friendship that the Captain valued so highly. It had become clear within the ensuing weeks that the Captain and Rogers were more than acquainted. After all, it was Rogers who asked the Captain to join them, not Iron Man.
“You get yourself into the most awful situations,” Rhodes observed.
“It is my luck,” Tony agreed. “Hand me that sack. I think I had better reset my heart.”
“Did you extend yourself that much?” Rhodes was aghast. He did not hand the sack to Tony, rummaging through for the crank himself.
“Not overtly so. I can do it myself.” Tony’s shoulders sagged as Rhodes passed the crank to him. “I never did get to build a better portable crank to wind myself up.”
“Perhaps after this adventure is done with. I’ll be glad for the rest that Fury promised you. Pepper says she has plans for us.”
“That mad woman.” Tony said fondly. He was looking forward to it. He started unbuttoning his shirt and stopped when he heard a noise. “Do you hear that?”
“Yes. It sounds as if it is from that direction.” Rhodes made a face. They would not be resting tonight. Tony merely made his way back to his suit, redoing his shirt hastily. They put out their fire, dampening and covering it with foliage.
Too soon, there were the sounds of footsteps treading through the forest grounds. The leaves rustled as if they did not care to hide their presence. Tony pressed himself behind the trunk of a large tree. If their metal did not make so much noise, they could have hidden in the branches provided their weight held. He only hoped the cover of the night would shield them.
Rhodes had hidden behind a tree that was directly opposite of Tony. They had a clear view of one another, and their positions would allow them both to provide a united front if needed. Tony held his breath and tensed when Rhodes motioned to him clumsily. He really ought to improve the dexterity of the gauntlets, but Rhodes favored a more heavily armed method. Tony stared, trying to understand what Rhodes was conveying to him so frantically.
There was a sudden soft thud. Tony searched for whatever it was and found it to be—
Tony jumped, a rush of fire blooming upward and lighting everything up. He was knocked to the ground, and he was glad the metal was thick enough to guard against that. Tony fired a blast at the first man that rushing in as Rhodes joined him.
“I told you to duck,” Rhodes said as he fired off his own matching blast. It caught a man right in the chest.
“I would have if I understood what you were saying.”
“I pointed at you to go down,” Rhodes argued.
“Yes, I’m supposed to understand why you are bouncing.”
Tony groaned and pulled his arm back to punch one of the enemies who thought to charge him. “I will make you a better suit.”
“More firearms, I think.” Rhodes swept past him, leaving a trail of smoke. That looked decidedly problematic, but Tony didn’t have time to ponder that. For some reason, their foes were retreating.
“Rhodes,” Tony said. “I think we have better—“
There were several thuds:
The explosions came one by one, creating pits and craters in the earth. The forest lit with fire, burning a bright orange. It was sudden, and even as Tony leaped for the air he was sent spiraling, jarred off course. His head knocked against something hard, and he knew no more.
Tony woke with a groan, hand going to his head. Everything single bit of him ached, and his head pounded something fierce. He blinked furiously, and the memories slowly filtered in. They had been attacked.
“Rhodes!” he gasped, struggling to sit. He felt hands on him, and Tony jerked away from them.
“Relax,” Rhodes said soothingly. “It’s me.”
Tony stared. “It is you.”
“Yes. We are in a cell. How’s your head?”
“My head?” Tony touched the back of his head. “I don’t think I have—it is only a little ache. And you?”
Rhodes stared at him with a frown. He did not looked any worse for wear, but it was hard to tell with the dim lighting.
“I am as well as you are, perhaps even better. I didn’t hit my head as you did.”
Tony nodded. Rhodes gestured to the bars, round rods with spikes at the top. The doorway was arched, and many of the ceilings had arches as well. The bricks that made up their cell were large and gray. Tony could even see there were holders for torches, and the ones nearest them were lit. The fire from them gave an eerie feeling to the entire cell. There was a pile of straw in one corner and an empty latrine bucket.
“They have our suits. I suppose they stripped us of them while we were out. I’m not certain where we are, but these stones here. The way this is cell is designed—why it looks as if a castle.”
“You may be right.” Tony recalled there was a castle or two on the map. “Has anyone been by?”
“No.” Rhodes shook his head. He tugged at one of the bar. “Though I believe we can force our way out with the proper leverage.”
“Excellent.” Tony crawled forward. He examined the bars, searching for a weak spot. They would not be in the center. Perhaps…
“Wait.” Rhodes twitched. “Someone is coming.”
The door opened, and four men entered. They were burly and large, just the size for manhandling them.
“Hello. Come to visit? I’m afraid I have no tea to offer,” Tony said.
They didn’t reply, splitting into two pairs. “Uh. I didn’t say you could touch me.”
Tony elbowed the one that crept up behind him. It was satisfying even though it did little to keep him from receiving a punch to the stomach. They hauled Tony up as if he was a limp doll and dragged him out. Their grip was tight despite how fiercely Tony twisted and did his best to get free.
They held Rhodes back, keeping him in the cell. Tony realized with a sinking heart that they only wanted him.
“Go,” Rhodes mouthed to him. Tony nodded, letting the damn bastards take him away. Rhodes would find a way out. He had to trust that, as he did on the many adventures when they were separated for whatever reason. The guards took him up several flights of stairs with a lack of considerable care. Tony was bumped, pushed and jostled thoroughly as they continued through winding corridors and into a large room decorated in fading splendor.
The guards pushed him into the center of the room, letting him go. Tony rubbed his sore wrist, wondering what to expect next. Then, it came from behind him.
“Well,” a voice said, rather amused. “Is it not the infamous Iron Man? Or should I say Anthony Stark?”
“So you have heard of me,” Tony replied. He ceased his attempts to escape, straightening up.
Tony stared. It was not a man, but a woman. She was tall and taller still in her heels. Her hair was black, and there was a strange streak of white in it that served to make her enchanting instead of old.
“I did not know you were such a beauty,” Tony said, the words slipping out easy.
Her lips curled into a smile as she lifted up her skirt and bent into a curtsey. “Thank you.”
“Though,” Tony went on. “There are far better ways to contact me. If you desire my company you need not resort to abduction.”
The woman laughed. She stepped up to him, heels clinking against the stones as she circled around him. Tony kept himself loose and limbered, waiting.
“Your mouth is nearly too charming. I think you know why you are here.”
“The cube,” Tony said because there was no point in stalling. “You have it?”
“Yes,” the woman said. The scent of her perfume was dizzying, and Tony suspected it contained a form of sedative. Something to loosen the tongue.
“May I at least have the pleasure of knowing your name?”
“I see,” the woman said, and her lips stretched wide. “Fury has not told you then.”
“I’m his lover,” she purred. “Did you think Fury truly lost the cube?”
Tony’s eyes narrowed. He could not say whether the woman told the truth or not. Fury did not speak about his private affairs.
“Oh,” he said. “I thought that was Maria.”
The effect of that statement was near instantaneous. The woman scowled, red brushed across her cheeks. “Hardly. She is too frigid, too cold to take a man such as Fury. Why I do not think she is even capable of pleasing a man!”
That was far more than Tony cared to hear, but she was ruffled. Enough to elaborate. The woman drew herself up imperiously.
“I’m Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine.”
Tony allowed himself a long look at her form, eyes trailing up and down. He memorized that hair streaked with white, the cut of her dress and the corset that held her bosom in tightly. He noted the silver ring on her left finger and how her earrings shaped like an octopus dangled. And, in particular, Tony observed the pouch that hung from the belt around her waist.
“Well, you are rather fine.” He met her eyes. “A passionate woman, and you hold the cube.”
“I do. As I said, I am Fury’s lover. He gave it to me for safekeeping.”
“Did he now? He told me it was lost.” Tony was dubious. For as long as he had known the man, Fury was akin to a rock. Perhaps, the man did have desires, but Tony certainly didn’t hear about them. To have someone declare that he did in such a blatant manner was suspect.
“He adores his tests, but no. The Tesseract isn’t lost at all.” The woman patted the pouch unconsciously, smoothing over the bump.
“So, you are on my side?” Tony asked. “Your men were rather rough with me and my companion.”
“Ah,” the Contessa said. “I apologize. They do not speak English, and so there may have been some misunderstanding.”
“I understand. The barriers of a language. I admit I thought they were our enemies, and so I may have struck first. I didn’t want to go with them willingly.”
“That does explain it,” the Contessa said, latching onto Tony’s explanation. “They were meant to gesture to you, but they must have been overeager and appeared frightening to you. I truly apologize.”
“Think nothing of it. I’m only glad there is someone we can trust.” Tony smiled wryly, hoping it convinced her that he trusted her. “May I have the cube? I should like to yell at Fury if it was never truly lost. I hate to be played.”
The Contessa eyed him back appraisingly. “Perhaps, we can come to some arrangements if you so desire it. I am meant to keep it safely for him.”
“Oh,” Tony murmured in a low voice. “What do you have in mind?”
Her smile was wicked. Promising in all the ways that might have entranced Tony if he did not already suffer some affection for another. She was close to him, so near that Tony could sense how her perfume marked an effect him much stronger than before. He slid a hand onto her, pulling her flushed against his body. His other hand hovered near her pouch.
“Why, Mr. Stark. I thought—“
The Contessa pushed back from him as something sliced through the air between them. The blur of red, blue and perhaps white? hit the wall and returned the way it came. To the Captain’s arm.
“Captain!” Tony said. He didn’t spare the Contessa a single thought. He fretted for a moment. How he would explain that he was Iron Man without his suit.
“She’s a traitor,” Natasha spat. She was armed with a pistol, and Rhodes was behind them, evidently rescued and with the addition of his suit.
“Natasha,” the Contessa said, wounded. “How unkind of you to say so.”
“She works for Hydra,” Natasha said, ignoring her. “She stole the cube from us. She was the one that Ross was with that day we went for the photo. That’s why he had it on had so readily.”
“I believe you stole that from us.” The Contessa snapped her fingers and a score of men marched into room with rifles. “I shall take my leave. And with the cube.”
“You meant this?” Tony dangled the pouch that had hung from her belt. The Contessa stared at him wide eyed. She glanced down at her belt.
“I know,” Tony said. He tugged the drawstrings apart, and a faint blue glow seeped out. Carefully, Tony pulled out the cube. It was magnificent, and he could feel how its energy pulsed as if alive. Full of power and wonder. Still, the allure of it was nothing compared to the Captain standing next to him. The man was steadfast, a grounding presence. It was enough to make Tony hesitate…
Then, it was gone. The Captain had pushed the cube back into the pouch. There was a grim tightness to his jaw. Tony had never been more thankful that the Captain was here at his side even if he didn’t know that Tony was Iron Man. The man practically radiated justice and all that was good in the world. In that moment, Tony remembered—realized exactly what mad the Captain as magnificent as he was. Why men would follow the Captain to the ends of earth and beyond. Even give the Captain their hearts as Tony had done.
“Don’t,” the Captain said. “That shouldn’t be exposed to the air.”
Tony believed him. He could have been drunk on the power of the cube, of the Tesseract. He pressed the pouch into the Captain’s hands. He did not think he could resist the temptation of studying it.
“Then, you keep it. How did you get here?”
“We went, but I could not help but feel wrongly about the place. That it wasn’t.” The Captain stopped abruptly. “How did you get here? I thought it was Iron Man.”
“He is,” Tony said. No, he could not admit that he was Iron Man. “He, he is away.”
The Captain stared at him, and Tony babbled. Entirely aware of how unconvincing that sounded. “I pressured him into allowing me to join. Because I couldn’t let him go alone. I—I thought I would be better at, uh, uh—if there was anything. That. Needed my expertise. So. I came and—”
“As splendid as it is that you are reunited,” the Contessa said, annoyed. “I believe you have something of mine.”
The Captain dragged Tony down. The force of it sent them rolling across the ground, just narrowly missing the volley of bullets.
“Get to safety,” the Captain commanded. “Natasha, you take the left. Rhodes, you take the right.”
He brought up his shield as the Contessa swung at them. The Captain grunted against the blow, and Tony marveled at that display of strength. The Captain pushed back against it, strong muscles bulging. The Contessa stumbled back, sword nearly flying from her grip. The gears in Tony’s heart clicked madly as the Captain turned to him, focusing his direct attention on Tony with an urgency of the battlefield.
“Go!” The Captain said, and Tony was scrambling. The sword came down on his side, but the Captain pulled him out of its deadly reach. There was a flurry of movement, blocks and all, in a speed that Tony could hardly keep track of.
“Captain!” Tony shouted. Because the shield was over Tony, protecting him instead of being in front of the Captain where he could use it. The blade came down, aiming for neck. The Captain turned in an awkward backward duck. It harrowingly cut across his helmet. The cowl of the Captain’s uniform fell, and a few strands of blond hair floated down. The sword missed, but Tony—
Steve cursed and wretched the sword from the Contessa.
“Yes,” he panted. “I’m sorry. I—“
“Not now,” Steve said. He did have a point, Tony thought. He scrambled, ducking and turning. He wished to hell he had his suit.
Tony skidded past Natasha who immediately gutted the soldier that followed him with a sickening crunch of her knife.
“Get out of the way, Stark.” Natasha swung herself up in a running leap onto another man, taking his gun. She crushed his head with her thighs.
Rhodes whisked past him, firing after the Contessa. It didn’t stop her though. She laughed, and too late Tony noticed the wires on the ground.
There was a loud bang, and then the stones were falling. Crashing. Dust flew everywhere. Tony cursed as a particularly large section fell right between Natasha and him.
“Tony!” Steve called, running in his direction. He had the shield over his head which blocked most of the dirt. “I—“
There was another boom, and this time the bricks cut him off from Steve. Tony hoped that he was at least with Natasha. He coughed as the entire building shook again. The dust blinded his sight.
The Contessa was running, hurrying outward. Tony looked between her and where Steve and Natasha were trapped. He knew they couldn’t let her go, and Steve would say the same. He didn’t think and ran, chasing after her. He was winded, and his chest ached with the exertion.
“Tony!” Rhodes picked him up, his aerial advantage much faster.
“Glad to see you are fine,” Tony said, shifting in Rhodes’ arms. “I don’t suppose you have my armor.”
“You suppose right. She’s running for the airship.” They could see it in the distance. Tony nodded. She was.
“Where is ours? I need it.” He searched the grounds, looking for their ship. He had to get to it before the Contessa took off.
“Tony.” Rhodes looked terrified, grip becoming tighter around Tony’s waist. “Please—“
Tony patted his cheek. “I can take it, honeybear.”
He had to otherwise what everyone else did would be for nothing. He tried not to think too hard about what the fallen bricks where Natasha and Steve were trapped.
Rhodes sighed. “Very well. I believe Natasha said it was—“
It took them a few minutes before they found Jarvis. The old man was faithful, docked neatly near the castle. Rhodes landed them onto the deck neatly. He squeezed Tony tightly before letting him go. Tony hurried for the helm.
“Go back and find Steve and Natasha. I will go after her.”
Rhodes frowned. “Stay alive.”
“You as well.”
Tony pulled the strings and the wires. He knew exactly how Jarvis ran, and it didn’t take long to take to air. He pushed hard, chasing after the Contessa.
“You cannot run from me,” he said. The Contessa’s ship fired, and Tony tapped the wheel right, out of the way of the canon. The ship went high, and Tony followed. He knew the sky like no other. He would get her, and he fired his own power. It was difficult as they battled in the sky.
The clouds were approaching, growing darker as they came. The wind was strong, and Tony could hear his ship straining and groaning against the speed and force of it. A loud piercing whistle rang in the air, the steam engine cranked to the max.
He stood on the deck, jaw tight. Watched as the sails rippled, seams nearly bursting in the wake of nature. Another whistle, and this time he felt the ship shudder, gears creaking and clacking. It was not going to hold in this weather. Tony stared at his ship, stared at how they were in the sky, in the blue changing to grey. Such an unexpected change in nature, but Tony would not fail. The Contessa’s ship fired again, its weapons steady. Jarvis shook and shuddered at the blows.
“Thank you, Jarvis,” Tony whispered and patted the steering wheel of the ship. “You and I are going to have one last flight, aren’t we?”
There was no other way around it. He fired one last time and knew he had the Contessa then.
He was wrong.
There was a final volley, a final stand, and all of that was coming straight at Tony. He braced himself as Jarvis splintered, wood flying apart and metal torn away.
He was going to fall.
Tony groaned. For the second time that day he woke to his head pounding. His heart ached, and Tony knew he had pushed his limits. He didn’t wind his heart before Rhodes and he was captured, and now here he was. Lying some place strange. It took effort to open his eyes.
He was in the Iron Man suit, miraculously enough. Tony hoped he still had energy to move. The metal were heavy, a crushing weight that made Tony wheeze for air. He could only guess that he must have gotten to the spare suit on Jarvis. He didn’t remember it, but that must be it for him to be in the suit.
Tony groaned again, shifting. Trying to lift his arms and struggle into a sitting position was more effort than he thought.
Tony froze. Steve.
Rhodes, Natasha and Steve were ringed around him. They must have found him when he fell.
“I am,” Tony said, voice coarse. Rhodes helped him sit, and Tony didn’t know what to do. He said Iron Man was away, but here he was. He looked at Steve with caution.
“I’m fine,” he said. He stood up, staggering a little under the weight of the metal. “I need—I need a minute.”
It took effort to walk, but Tony managed. He could not think. He had to—it was a little much. Tony sucked in a breath, tried to slow down his heart. The gears in it clicked madly, and Tony couldn’t process a single thing.
He made his way to a clearing, away from the others. Far enough that he couldn’t hear their voices. It was dark and cool beneath the leafy trees. Tony pressed a hand to his chest, right on top of his heart. His heart squeezed in the most painful way, and it wasn’t just from the exertion in battle. He willed his heart to calm down. Tony stood there only for a few minutes before footsteps came up behind him.
Tony’s heart pumped faster instead of slowing down. Steve’s voice was soft and gentle, and Tony looked at him, unable to help himself. The man was dressed in a fine suit with a hat. He looked far more handsome than he should.
“When did you?” Tony gestured. “I mean why are you?”
Steve glanced down at his attire. His outfit was out of place here in the forest, meant more for a fancy soiree in the States.
“Oh,” he said. “We made camp, and my…my uniform was ruined. It was—the only thing we had. That we could salvage from—“
The wreckage was the unspoken word. Because all their things would be scattered if their ship had broken. They must have collected what they could if they saw it, and…
“Jarvis,” Tony said. He looked upward. His ship was gone. Jarvis was gone.
“I'm sorry,” Steve said, reaching out to touch him. Tony shied out of his reach. He would have to give Jarvis a proper send off for that sacrifice.
“It’s—I’ll manage. What about the cube?”
“We have the Tesseract, but we don’t have the Contessa. She got away.”
“I see,” Tony said, relieved. His efforts weren’t entirely wasted. They had the cube at least. “What a pity. Fury will be mad we let his lover go.”
“I suppose.” Steve’s eyes were searching, as if he could read all of Tony even through all the metal. Tony realized belatedly that he erred. Iron Man didn’t know Steve, and here he was speaking to him so familiarly. He hoped that Steve didn’t catch his slip even though it was impossible to think otherwise.
“Well.” Tony’s voice was stuck in his throat. He did not know how to proceed. He did not think such a thing could occur. Steve knew though, and he took measured steps up to Tony.
“I thought you were sent away,” Steve said. Tony quivered inside his suit. He said that? Yes, he had.
“You weren’t.” Then, Steve’s hand was on his helmet. On the cheek of the metal, and Tony could think, could imagine and pretend that he felt the heat of Steve’s palm through it. “Did you think I wouldn’t know?”
“You’re the Captain,” Tony said instead, turned it back onto him. He was not the only one who lied about their identity.
He could feel his knees shake, threatening to buckle. The Captain and Steve Rogers were one and the same. Tony understood then that was how the Captain could claim he had feelings for Tony Stark despite having met only once.
“And you are Tony Stark,” Steve added. He smiled ruefully. “I thought so for a time. This only confirmed it or rather Natasha did that day with Ross.”
“What do you think of me?” The question was unexpected. Tony did not know how to answer. He knew what he thought of Steve. He knew what he thought of the Captain.
“I thought…I don’t know what I thought.”
Unthinkingly, Tony put his hand up, right on top of Steve’s. Inside the suit, he trembled just the slightest. He knew he desired them, him. He wanted him.
“Well, will you have me? I did confess that I’ve fallen for you though I thought I spoke to Iron Man.”
“You could not possibly want me,” Tony said automatically. He had denied the possibility for so long it was surreal to think this could be.
“I do. Let me see your face. Please.”
“I can’t.” Tony didn’t…it was what he wanted, but he didn’t dare.
“You can,” and Tony closed his eyes. The clasp was not hard to find, and Steve undid it. He pulled the helmet off, baring Tony to his sight. The air was cool against his temple, and he slowly lifted his eyes to look directly into Steve’s brilliant blues.
“There you are.” Steve’s hand burned. It was directly against his skin now, and Tony shuddered. The Captain and Steve were the same. There were no secrets between them now.
Steve kissed him, a mere press of his lips against Tony. For such a simple kiss, it burned Tony, struck him down to core. It was both everything and nothing as he imagined.
“I have you,” Steve whispered against his mouth. Tony melted into him.
They were in Madripoor. Again. Tony ought to question Fury for his preference to the city, but she was a beauty. If they only weren’t in the same dreary inn.
“The Tesseract?” Fury asked.
“Entirely yours,” Tony said, tossing the pouch over to Fury. He opened the pouch and confirmed that there was indeed a glowing blue cube within. Then, he closed it and passed it over to Natasha. There would be better defenses and safekeeping for it with Shield.
“You asked, and I delivered.” Tony shrugged, glancing at Steve with a smile. He had plans for his rest.
Fury eyed him in distaste. “Well, as you have earned it. Two months.”
“Excel—“ Tony started to say, but Steve cut him off.
“Three,” Steve said firmly.
“It was two,” Fury said, watching them with his one eye. Tony looked at Steve who only held his hands more tightly in answer. Steve didn’t need to say a word for Tony to understand how to proceed. Tony merely grinned at Fury.
“Is it my fault you never received it in writing?” Tony had every intention of knowing Steve Rogers with the time he suddenly had available to him. Pepper would understand. She approved of Steve after all.
He waved, moving to the door and pulling Steve along with him. He paused at the threshold, saying impishly, “before I forget. You didn’t say you had a lover.”
“I do not.”
“So you did not bed the Contessa?”
Fury colored, the red barely visible beneath his dark skin. Tony grinned. He had not thought he would have such a way to needled Fury. This was possibly one of the best he ever had in his arsenal.
“Ah, well. I do not care. I do not deal with lover quarrels.” Tony saluted him mockingly. “I will see you in three months.”
And Tony bounded out of the inn with Steve in hand, laughing. Madripoor was looking rather fine indeed, a perfect city for new lovers.