There is a folder on his desk with art for Marvels. Pepper hasn't said anything about it, but the one she has sorted to lie on top is probably the best thing he has seen in years. It's of the Iron Man armor, making a stand against a tank, fiery explosions going up all around it, a woman that could be Pepper, red hair, yellow blouse, is crouching behind the armor. She's not timid, not unconscious, not a damsel in distress. No, she's holding a machine gun, ready to jump back into the fight. It's amazing and it makes for a powerful and unexpected composition.
The armor on the cover doesn't actually look like the one down in his workshop that Jarvis is tinkering with right now. It looks like the one that has been described by Pepper in the stories, that has only once so far gotten an illustration in Marvels. But the details are amazing, streamlined and beautiful. His fingers itch to turn this one into the specs for the next model. It's time to make an upgrade anyway.
But the remarkable thing is not the detail, the beauty of lines and composition, the power behind it. To him it's the fact that this looks like it was done by a person who understands war, understands Marvels, understands Iron Man. He likes it.
Damn, no, he loves it.
He sifts through the rest of the illustrations and they are stunning.
There's one of him without a shirt fighting his way through the jungle and it's more vibrant and amazing than most covers that have his face on it and that's saying something. Rhodey, who is looking over his shoulder, chuckles. “Very flattering, boss,” he says, “but you haven't gone for the shirtless look in ages.” He motions to Tony's chest with a lopsided grin.
“They don't know that,” he says. All references to his “little” heart condition have been kept out of the stories for a good reason. Nobody wants to read about a frail hero.
“You love it, don't you?”
“Well...” he says and grins. Pepper has probably anticipated his reaction. Looks like they found their new artists.
“Steve Rogers” says the name on the envelope. There's a short bio and contact information.
Some young, starving artist will be glad to find he has a new job with the most amazing magazine on the stands.
* * *
They are back in Europe and Hydra is hot on their heels. They are trying to get their hands on a mythical artifact that presumably has been hidden in a cloister in Italy, bur Tony thinks he has the better lead.
“The artist,” she says. “Steve Rogers.”
It's a bit of a disappointment, but his mind is preoccupied with more important things. They'll find another artist when all of this is over. Pulps are only part of the business. He's right here living the real life.
“Kind of a shame,” Pepper says. “He was really cute.”
Tony nods, his mind already back on the map. He never met the young man in person and it seems now he never will.
It's a shame that this sort of talent isn't going to join his venture, but sometimes it can't be helped.
* * *
It's signed “Steve Rogers.”
The name brings up the memory of amazing illustrations and a wave of relief that he has left Pepper behind in London this time.
He's going to Paris anyway, of course.
Tony Stark isn't running away from himself anymore, he'll be damned if he runs away from Hydra. Attempts on his life are just par for the course.
But there is a lingering doubt. Why would “Steve Rogers” - artist turned soldier - even know about Hydra movements? Had the name been a front from the start to get a spy into his inner circle?
* * *
A bomb explodes, taking a train car with it, but the “Iron Man” protects him. He manages to save most of the passengers, take out the German spies and save the day. But it means Hydra is getting close. It's lucky that they are only halfheartedly trying to kill him, because they haven't found a better Zemo candidate yet.
A British agent working with the French resistance hands him a note that warns him of Hydra agents having infiltrated the cell he's working with. “Steve Rogers” seems awfully concerned for his life and safety.
A day later he has a knife at his throat and Gialetta laughs behind that terrifying stone mask as if she's finally gone completely over the edge. “It's time for you to take your father's place, darling,” she drawls. “Won't you be happy, wearing the mask of the Baron? Just like I now wear this one forever because of you.”
“Because of me, sweetheart? Who double-crossed who? I didn't force you to betray me.”
It's good that he has a trick – or ten – up his sleeve.
But he has to wonder about “Steve” and his eerily accurate warnings.
* * *
And this time it will be hard to get away: Confined space and only one way out. They can't even hide anymore; there's nowhere to go.
“Someone's already there!” a voice shouts in English. That's a bit odd.
Pepper freezes, but he pulls her behind himself, just as a young man appears in the gap between walls they'd come through themselves. The man is still on solid ground while Tony and Pepper are stuck in the muddy water. Tony aims his pistol, hopes it's not so full of mud and rank water that it will leave him hanging when it counts. (But then he constructed it himself and that should count for something.)
When the man finally leans forward, Tony freezes and Pepper gasps. The guy could be Rhodey's little brother with the dark skin and cautiously schooled expression and doesn't even look remotely like someone who would join Hydra – or be taken on by them.
“Damn it all to hell,” he says startled, his own gun at the ready. Another smaller soldier, also wearing a uniform that's very decidedly not German appears at his side, face slightly red from exertion, blond hair ruffled and blue eyes wide and shining with excitement or fear; it's hard to tell which. “You're Tony Stark!” he blurts out before Tony has time to be glad that these young fellows aren't Hydra, or at least are very good double agents or something.
“Yeah,” he mutters, confused.
“Sam!” the blond soldier shouts and makes his friend put down his arm. “Don't point a gun at him, he's...”
“Yeah, Steve, I get it. Tony Stark. I hear you talk about him as if he's a superman often enough.”
Steve. Tony gapes.
“Steve Rogers,” Pepper says and she sounds as startled as Tony feels. “This is not how I thought I'd meet you again, I swear. Not after that job interview.”
“Sorry,” “Steve” looks flustered and Tony still thinks he should tread carefully around a guy who seems to know too much and has tried to conveniently become very useful to him. Whatever he tells Gialetta when he sees her: The betrayal still stings.
“Nice to meet you,” he says shortly. “But we're in the middle of something and time is running out.”
“Yes!” Steve says. “Bucky is guarding the entrance, but we need to hurry.”
Tony has no idea what is going on, but he's going to figure it out. For now he can roll with the punches. He just needs to get that treasure first.
* * *
Tony is holding another piece of ancient Atlantian technology in his hands and Hydra will find nothing but rubble left in their wake.
“So, everyone knows who we are. But who are you people?”
“We're the Howling Commandos,” Barnes provides, not taking his eyes from the road. “We're Nick Fury's boys.”
Tony looks from one to the other. Steve looks back at him over his shoulder, his cheeks still red.
“Howling Commandos?” His eyes are still glued to Steve's face. “You look a bit young. What's your Call-sign then? Cover artist?”
Steve laughs startled and real and it's a much better look on him than the nervous excitement. “Captain,” he says and salutes.
Better, Tony thinks. So much better. “Captain? Why?”
“Because he's our tactical genius. He calls the shots,” Barnes says and elbows Steve in the ribs.
“He also jumped at the chance to follow in your footsteps and fight Hydra, when Fury opened the files for us.” Sam grins at him mischievously.
Tony laughs. “I'm not complaining. Nice getaway car.”
Steve gives him the most brilliant smile he's ever seen. “It's really an honor to meet you, sir. And you, Ms. Potts, of course.”
Pepper nods, pleased. She shrugs at Tony when he looks at her quizzically. “He's cute,” she mutters.
That he is. “Call me, Tony.” But there must be more to him than an adorable smile if Fury lets him run around the battlefield with his crew.
* * *
When he woke up here, he remembered falling unconscious inside the armor and now he bites his lips and strains against the leather straps holding him down. They can't be allowed to have the armor, they can't be allowed to get their hands on the precious metal that keeps his mechanical heart going, and he's so not ready to become their next Baron Zemo. He needs a way out.
He fights, the leather cutting into his wrists as he tosses and turns.
Where is everyone? Why aren't any guards here stopping him? Is this another trap?
An explosion startles him, shaking the table he's strapped to, and he has the urge to hold hands in front of his face, but there's nothing he can do, but turn his face away. One wall of the room just crumbles, dust choking his lungs, pits of concrete and stone falling all over him. He's ready to die, welcomes it as a better fate then the one waiting for him in the syringe, when he opens his eyes again and startles. The Iron Man is bent half over him protecting him from the worst of the still falling ruble.
“Mr. Stark,” a voice that's obviously Steve's says. “Are you alright?”
Alright is not really a word that describes him well at the best of times, but he nods. “Holy cow, Steve Rogers? How did you even get here?”
The helmet comes off. “Aren't you glad to see me?” A wide grin and twinkling blue eyes greet him and he laughs, still bound to the table, his heart exposed to a dusty, dirty lab, but, damn, this is exactly the kind of stuff that makes Marvels. Saved in the nick of time by the cover artist. What more could a pulp hero ask for?
* * *
“I'd volunteer,” Steve says and grins. “It's brilliant.” The hero worship has ebbed somewhat, but the more comfortable he gets around Tony, the more sassy he becomes and that presents a whole new problem. Tony thinks he could fall in love with that sass.
“You just get out of here alive, illustrator boy,” Tony shoots back. “We already accepted your application for a different job.”
“I applied before I knew that my hero needed a wing-man.”
“Sorry, Captain,” Tony jokes. “I'm the only man I take orders from.”
Steve grins, but he's a stubborn one. He will not let that go.
Tony thinks he might find ways to distract him, if Steve's up to it.
* * *
“We'll get you home, Steve.”
They get him to the hospital in time, he thinks. But then it's the last he sees of the “Captain”.
Hydra is still trying to turn the tides and Tony Stark and his armor are needed. Then suddenly it's all over.
And there is no trace of Steve.
* * *
Pepper is publishing her first book – nothing to do with Marvels or Tony. Different war stories for a different readership. Rhodey is still with the army, helping where he can. And Tony is building the highest building that New York has ever seen. It's an amazing project and he calls it “Stark Tower”, a new marvel for the home he has neglected for too long. He looks down through the windows of the recently finished but still empty floor that will have his office soon. His apartment will be even higher up.
But without his friends it will be a bit lonely.
How will he cope sitting still here, without running around facing mad men and hunting for ancient treasures and knowledge? Without sassy cover artists watching his back?
The elevator comes to a halt and the doors open behind him. He expects Pepper and grins, but to his surprise it's Steve stepping out of the doors, smiling. “Hi,” he says simply.
It's like a rug is pulled out from under him, until he realizes that this is what he's been waiting for. “So you didn't die?” he asks and smiles to take the sting from his words.
“I'm tougher than I look.” He shrugs and walks up to stand beside him, then he gets a good look at New York beneath them. “Wow!” he says, comes forward to touch the glass to get a better look. After all he has seen, he can still be excited by the view. It's purely Steve. Tony feels a warm, fuzzy feeling rise in the pit of his stomach.
“This is one amazing building. I already sketched it. Want to see?”
“Why? Are you applying for a job?”
“I already applied,” he said. “Is it still free?”
The real question underneath it is much more complex. “Do you still want it?”
“You bet!” Steve says without missing a beat.
Tony grins. Maybe his adventuring days aren't quite over yet after all. “Welcome aboard, Mr. Rogers,” he says and holds out his hand.
“It's an honor, Mr. Stark.” Steve shakes it, his grip surprisingly firm and strong.
As they turn back to enjoy the view, standing shoulder to shoulder Tony can see both their smiles reflected back at him in the window pane.
Seems like peace time won't be boring at all.