Cover Art by MassiveSpaceWren
“Don’t get impatient, tovarishch,” she called back, her voice sounding clear and calm in the hallway, just as always.
“Easy for you to say, sweetheart,” he shouted and dived out of the way when the next soldier came around the corner and fired at him. “And don’t call me tovarishch. We’re not even supposed to know each other. Marvels is selling bad enough as it is with this damn war on. The last thing I need is someone thinking I’m secretly a communist sympathizer. The other friendly capitalists would never let me live that down, believe me.”
Somewhere down the corridor and over the sound of gunfire he heard her breathy laugh. “We’re allies in this, Tony. But I’m sure you’re right. Industrialists make bad communist in my experience. But you’ve come a long way playing the anarchist. I’m proud of you.”
He laughed, startling one of the soldiers in front of him, allowing Tony to take him out with a well aimed kick, picking up his rifle as it fell, before diving behind a wall for cover.
Working with Natasha reminded him of why it was so much better to share the excitement. He appreciated someone who loved a good adventure at his side, appreciated to have someone at his back who was trustworthy and capable. And it was nice to have someone like Natasha with him on this - someone with the right expertise and knowledge, someone with the guts to do what needed to be done when orders hadn’t come in yet. Good soldiers where very often the worst kind of adventurers, but Natasha was exactly the kind of companion he wanted on his team on a mission - and it had been a nice surprise to see her when he’d arrived at the rendezvous point. When Fury had told him he had a mission for Tony, talk had only been of a Russian operative who would help him locate the German facility where scientists were working on a new long range guided missile system that had the potential to be decide the war in Germany’s favor if it ever saw the light of day. Tony had taken the mission because every scientist involvement meant there was a chance that the Hydra division was involved, a chance for him to get closer to Strucker and his crazy plans of world domination and bottle made horror and put a lid on it. Tony had met some evil men in his time, had fought against bandits and people ready to kill for money, gold and fame, people who were ready to deceive and murder you in your sleep after you did the dirty work for them. He’d met people who were cruel not as a means to an end, but because cruelty had become their way of life. And even after all this Hydra and the sort of people the division recruited always managed to remind him that their cruelty went beyond anything that he could ever have imagined.
That was why he was here. To get one step closer to taking them down. That was why he’d agreed to this mission easily and without asking too many questions. Had he known before that he would be meeting up with the lovely Natasha Romanova again, well, he would have agreed even faster, because he and Natasha were old friends.
And it was always nice to see a true professional at work.
With one hand he pulled the pull ring from his hand grenade and then threw it down the corridor while with the other he had pushed a down a lever that would seal the doors to the inner labs behind them. Before the gate had even reached the floor he was after Natasha.
He found her standing in the middle of one of the clinically white lab rooms. “The labs are empty, Tony,” she said, with something that came close to a frown. “But there are… corpses.” She pointed at a big door down the hallway. He wasn’t used to seeing her give any sign of fear or insecurity and that was what he thought he saw in the gesture. It made him nervous. “I was told to find Vanko and destroy the long range missile plans. There was no word about human experiments,” she continued, her voice carrying a level of accusation.
If she had found what her words were suggesting the she was confirming some of his worst fears about Hydra. But nobody had warned him about that either. Nobody had even mentioned anyone but the scientists and guards being here. “If my side knew about this they didn’t tell me either.”
Natasha looked him over, very unsubtly trying to read him. “Then perhaps they really didn’t know.”
He wanted to believe it. But Natasha’s full lips were pursed up in disgust or distaste and Tony had a feeling that he wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t be surprised if this information had been withheld on purpose. They were only the blunt instruments here while other people were pulling the strings behind the lines — and not all the people trying to win this war were better than the ones they were fighting. Soldiers and politicians weren’t always Tony’s favorite types of people for a reason.
Outside the shouting had died down, but it was only a matter of time until the soldiers would come back, breaking down the security doors. The amount of time they had to take this place apart would not be enough to give it more than a cursory glance. They were very much on a tight schedule here. Destroying the missile launch system was the top priority.
“This is Dr. Vanko’s handwriting,” Natasha said, after looking around carefully, and she took down a paper that had been pinned to a board on the wall to Tony’s left. With a frown Tony looked over the rest of the papers. It looked like a design for an armored suit, much bulkier and clunkier than his own, but also bigger in size. That didn’t bode well.
“So you know they have him now. That the kind of proof you were looking for?”
Natasha nodded. “That and more. But they’ve moved him. If he ever was here he isn’t here any longer. I won’t be able to retrieve him and that was part of my objective.” No hint of regret or fear crept into her tone this time, just the slightest hint of annoyance. She hated losing just as much as Tony.
Tony went on looking at the papers. He zoomed in on a formula that seemed vaguely familiar, when suddenly he made the connection and froze. “Lautloser Tod” someone had written at the top of the page in his father’s slightly scrawly handwriting. Silent death. He didn’t like the sound of that. Especially not because he had been sent here to find missiles and bombs were rarely silent. This was something else and even more worrying.
He was an expert in the field and his company made a not inconsiderable amount of money by developing and selling weapons. He should know.
From where she was standing Natasha was staring at him. He must have gone pale, when he pieced together what the formula actually was, because now Natasha looked actually unsettled. The scrawly jotted down notes beneath the suggested formula spoke of trials and untested manufacturing processes, so at least it seemed they hadn’t actually made this one work yet. It was all still hypothetical and far away. He found the first Bunsen burner in his vicinity and lit the piece of paper on fire. He just hoped the mind that had thought it up wouldn’t be able to simply reproduce it. Zemo had written over old notes Howard Stark had made in firmer handwriting, before the war, before he’d been taken, and then another handwriting that Tony couldn’t identify had added to it even after that. Somebody else had taken over Howard’s work, so Tony could only hope that meant “Zemo” was really dead for good.
“What was it?”
“A formula,” he said. “For a gas that isn’t detectable and only triggers symptoms much later. Don’t ask. The answer will not be pretty.”
“They wanted to use the missiles for that? Spreading it?” Apparently she had found the plans to the weapon they had been looking for. “They are being assembled here. Or were before we found this place.”
“If we take down this place then it will throw them back at least a year or so. They won’t get to poison our cities and kill thousands of innocents at home. If we’re lucky they’ll never make it work.”
Natasha nodded. “What do we do now?” she asked. And he liked the simplicity of the question.
“We burn it down to the last scrap. The whole facility.”
She grinned. “I like that. Dramatic and efficient. Just like us. And how are we going to do that?”
“We aren’t,” he said. “Iron Man is.”
* * *
“It’s dramatic,” he said, remembering Natasha’s words to him, and meant that as a good thing. It looked like a good old fashioned adventure cover - the kind they had gone for before the war. The only thing that gave away that it was another war adventure was the swastika flag above above the flames, torn and burning.
It was a good cover. A really good cover.
But for some unfathomable reason Tony didn’t like it very much.
He was so tired of this war. The war adventure Marvels weren't even selling that well – the whole industry was struggling with paper shortages and general changing of the times, or maybe the readership had caught on to the fact that the age of true excitement had been ruined by tyrants and petty bureaucrats who were pushing around their brave boys on the battlefields like they were toys. Tony hoped that it wasn’t true that the times of real adventurers had been snuffed out by war and grief and despair, because not even Depression had managed to snuff it out. In fact Depression had spurred it on, because people had needed heroes more than ever. And wasn't it just right out ironic that war of all things was making people doubt their heroes, making it harder for people to believe in adventure - while every other poster on the streets asked young men to join up and become the next great hero for their country?
After all he'd seen, Tony couldn't really fault anyone out here for losing faith in humanity. True heroes had no place in this war.
But still, he wanted to fight that kind of resigned thinking and made sure Pepper was busy even when there were no new Tony Stark Adventures to write with chronicling the less fictional accounts of their deeds and getting them to the papers at home. There were enough soldiers around who had stories to tell. And Tony himself still got into enough trouble to warrant a chronicler of his own, even if not all the details could go into the papers.
Pepper wasn't complaining. Finally the newspapers bosses were taking her seriously. Even the Bugle was ready to pay her real money, happy to have the byline read Virginia Potts. The war more than Marvels was making her carrier.
He was happy for her, even as he wished that it would be possible for him to go back to simpler times.
Tony had seen death and bloodshed long before he’d set foot on a battlefield. Still war was something else; different from the violence one encountered in a South American jungle, where giant snakes wanted to eat you, Mayan pyramids just came crumbling down to bury you alive and the usual cutthroats thought they'd have an easy time getting one over on you. War wasn't as romantic or heroic as the war stories had always made it seem; the ones he remember hearing from Jarvis and his father's army friends who were quick to pat him on the shoulder and tell him how proud Howard would have been of him if he could see his son now.
None of them with the exception of Jarvis knew, of course, that Howard in some really twisted way had actually been around to see what kind of man his son had grown up to be and that he knew exactly how “valuable” Tony had become... Like the rest of the world they thought his father had died of a war injury when Tony was little, short weeks after coming home. Only a handful of people knew that Howard’s fate had been worse than that and even Tony had only found out years later. It was hard to say if Zemo still remembered enough of the life he’d lived before the serum to understand that he had a son in Tony. But for Tony it mattered. Howard was his father and he would never forget that. Tony was very much here on the frontlines as his old man's son - not just retracing the steps of the man who had fought and suffered in the first great war. No, half his efforts on the front were not so much on winning this war for what was right and proper as they were on making sure that a certain part of the Nazi war machine didn't survive it.
As Howard's son this was very much his personal duty. The revenge he owed both of them.
With a war on, Hydra spies watching his moves and hunting for him, there was danger about him every single day. Everyone would have said this was the kind of life fit for someone like Tony Stark. And still the truth was he missed the simplicity of his previous adventures, the selfish purity of his own childish wish to heal himself. Compared with this urgent need to save the whole world from what it might become if he let Hydra unleash nightmares beyond imagination it had all been so clean and easy back then. The only lives he’d been responsible for where those of the people he dragged along on his crazy expeditions - and his own life, threatened by his failing heart for years, had never seemed all that important. Responsibility was making everything much more complicated now.
Pepper had laughed at him when he’d voiced that thought just days ago. “It’s the army. You just hate to be told what to do, Mr. Stark.”
“I’m no soldier, Pepper,” he’d shot back. Part of him envied Rhodey for falling so easily into this new line of work as exceptional pilot and soldier. Tony had never done well with hierarchies and authority figures. As much as the boy from long ago had wanted to make his father proud, he’d never actually dreamt of following in his footsteps and fighting a war.
“It’s the same, boss,” Rhodey had said. “Risking my neck to keep you safe while you try to kill yourself with another daring scheme or risking myself to keep the free world safe? It’s still risking my neck. And you know I was ready to move on. I would have gone to France anyway. These people need me more than you do.”
And Tony agreed with that to some extent. He’d rather be here in the middle of it all and make a difference, make sure the atrocities that Hydra was cooking up in hidden labs would never be unleashed on the world, than feel the gnawing guilt of being the coward he knew he would have been if he'd taken the next safe expedition to a place far away from Nazi Germany. Still… He missed the real adventures, the ones that had danger and intrigue and a bit of romance on the sidelines; the ones that ended with some insane discovery, some forgotten city, some mystery solved and a bit of treasure that wasn’t worth anything to people just looking for gold and gems and a fortune. It was looking for knowledge that he missed the most.
Finding mass graveyards, being haunted by memories of death and cruelty even in sleep just wasn’t the same.
Or actually it might be that Pepper was right and he simply missed the times when he’d not been anyone’s glorified errand boy, when he’d been his own man, choosing the things he risked his life for and decided how exactly he was going to do the risking; when instead of being the responsible man he was trying to be now – who checked in with his company regularly and who was developing technology that he hoped would make its way into households everywhere in a few years, even while he was sitting in Europe fighting a war – he'd been an irresponsible child running from the fact that he was dying and instead had seen the wonders of the world. Cruelty and intrigue and danger, yes, but also true wonders, ingenuity and legacies worthy to be preserved and live up to. War hadn’t had much of that in store for him so far. He missed the wonder, the excitement, the discovery. But maybe Pepper was right and he missed the independence even more.
At least that would explain why he felt something more than irritation rise inside him the moment General Fury just pushed into the tent without announcing his presence and very much like he owned the place, dragging in all the mud and grime from the outside world that Tony would have rather forgotten about for a minute or two. He looked up, not bothering to stand or salute, and just glared.
“Stark,” Fury barked. “I have a mission for you. Top secret. Hush, hush. I need you to go into...”
He didn’t allow him to finish his sentence, his hackles rising instantly. “Look, general, I'm not your personal undercover secret agent. I don't work for you and I’m not a soldier. You wanted someone to publicly take up fighting to be an example and I am. But I'm my own man, still. We've been over this...”
“Yeah, yeah,” Fury said indifferently, having heard all of it before. “And it helps to have your pretty face pop up in the newsreels and propaganda films, but we both know you're not here to be nothing more than a puppet for the propaganda machine and to fly your brand new plane out over France to deliver some crates of guns and supplies. It looks good on film, but whatever the other generals and our scrambling politicians at home may think about your being here, you're not really a dancing monkey and you’re not really someone who does the jobs every kid from home could do. So, come on then. Stop dancing for them and again do some more hands-on work for me. What’s another little errand? Or do you want me to ask you very nicely, to pack your stuff and go home? What’s wrong? Does your leg hurt? I can have you on the next machine back to New York for recuperation, if that one little mission was too much for you, adventure boy.”
Tony narrowed his eyes. The scar left by the painful, but minor and now mostly healed flesh wound he’d received to his right thigh was testament to the fact that he wasn’t here just to bring his name to the effort and remain passively behind the lines where it was safe, it was just the latest souvenir he'd brought back from another mission Fury had convinced him to go on; just a quick “errand”, not a true mission like the weapon's plant he had torched to the ground as Iron Man.
“You're right, we both know why I'm here and we both know that while I decide to work for you – there's no way that you'll get me to go home before I've done what I came to do. So, do you have any useful information you want to share or are we only meeting up to piss each other off? Because I can do that all day.” Pepper gave him a warning look. As always she was right. They needed Fury’s intelligence network if they wanted to have a chance to get close to Hydra. And he'd be damned if he couldn’t make sure that Strucker didn’t survive this war, just because he’d been too proud to play Nick Fury’s tedious games. Hell, if his father’s body and what was left of his brilliant mind was still trapped by the Zemo formula then he owed it to him to make sure he didn’t survive this time either and put an end to it once and for all.
“From what my agents can tell, the Nazi science division on the west front we were talking about is involved in all the things that give us nightmares, adventure boy. But we already knew that.” Fury stared at him from his good eye, partly amused, partly searching. Fury wasn't stupid and Tony already knew that he wasn't your typical general either. That was why he was working with him in the first place. He was hands-on and smart, and always planning, always one crucial step ahead, and Tony was sure that basically nobody had any idea what he was actually setting into motion behind the scenes next or how many secret operatives he had in the game right now. Nick Fury trusted only one man with all the information — and that was himself. They could all be glad that he was on their side, because if he actually turned on them — well, then it would be worse than bad. He'd worked with the British and French long before the States had even been formally involved in this conflict and he had built up an intelligence network of agents across Europe that probably made him one of the main players on the field these days. The eye patch made him look even more sinister in the dim light of the tent now, but Tony had faced more ferocious looking men all across the globe and wasn’t that easily impressed by the looks of a person. Especially not one looking like a pirate in proper military uniform. He had worked with Namor for far too long. Pirates weren’t exactly a mystery to him. And their attitude wasn’t either.
He could deal with tough guy attitudes.
“There's someone who wants to meet you,” Fury finally declared in a much quieter tone, when Tony wasn't reacting to his jibe about Nazi induced nightmares.
“Meet me?” Tony said, scoffing. Half the army seemed to be after his autograph.
With the soldiers he didn't mind so much. They were simple guys, some of them kids who had come here for a cause that had been held up to them, the possibility of glory perhaps, and who now found themselves in the middle of a real war and found the reality bleak and dangerous. They were excited for Tony Stark from the Marvels adventures to be among them — so excited actually that Stark Industries was making sure the new magazine got to the front and into the hands of their boys in the trenches every month. He was glad to give them a little hope just by being present and it didn't bother him that much when they asked for him to sign a magazine or picture. Occasionally it made getting around camps tedious.
But all the generals and officers that were after the details of his “fighting robots” and hoping to convince him to build more weapons for their side were becoming a real nuisance. Tony was even less inclined than he'd ever been to make his name come to be remembered for that kind of lethal tech. He'd heard about the scientists that the army was gathering to work on bombs and superior artillery. He'd heard of one project in particular when he'd met Reed Richards in New York recently that had worried both of them profoundly. Splitting the atom the physicist in him could get behind – to solve society's growing need for energy, for making space travel possible even in the next two decades and open a new Frontier for adventurers like him – but he didn't even want to think about a world devastated by a weapon making use of that kind of lethal energy. It was enough that the Nazi's were working on the stuff of nightmares, that they were looking into mythical artifacts and lost technology to further their own cause. There was really no need for their own people to add to that.
They would win this war — he'd make sure of it — but not by using the far advanced killing machines that he knew he could build if he put his mind to it. It was lucky that his father’s name would never be officially remembered for the atrocities he must have committed as Zemo, only some of which Tony knew about. He wanted the Stark name to be remembered for better things than that and he was sure the real Howard had felt the same.
“Barnes,” Fury barked. “Come on in. Adventure boy is ready to see you.”
A handsome, young brown haired sergeant, a couple of years younger than Tony himself, but with the old eyes of the experienced soldier, stepped into the tent, looking serious and not at all like a nervous fan who wanted to meet his hero. His brown eyes settled on Tony immediately, going from his mud caked boots to the dirty standard issue army pants he was wearing, to his hands and face, measuring him up like cattle. Not after an autograph, then, Tony mused, grinned and leaned back to show both these men exactly how impressed he was feeling with all this. “What is this about, Fury? You think I'm looking for recruits? You know I work with my own people and that's that.”
But it wasn't his friend, the sneaky bastard general, who answered. “We need your Iron Man now,” the sergeant declared without even bothering with any niceties first, which under different circumstances would have endeared him to Tony right away. He seemed like someone with a temper who'd had quite enough of pussy footing around and who wanted things done now and didn’t care whose toes he would have to step on to get there. And right at this moment Tony was ready to give back as good as he got, because he felt exactly the same way.
Pepper, who was sitting at her typewriter at the little desk in the corner, made a snorting sound as she looked up to asses the situation. Her eyes narrowed and she made a point of looking at Tony, cautioning him, silently warning him not to throw away their chances for information because he was feeling bored. It wasn't new that the army was making requests for his “robot” to be sent on special missions. It wasn't rare for them to actually be looking for either a way to control the “machine” or get their hands on the technology in hopes of cutting out Tony's influence once and for all. But at the very least she wanted him to make these two men lay all their cards on the table — or at least see how much information they were willing to give him, before Tony made them angry. It was the smart thing to do.
“What for?” Tony asked as calmly as possible, giving the handsome young man another none too discrete once-over, trying to gauge what exactly he was after, and in what kind of position a young sergeant like him must be to have Fury's ear on the matter. He'd do better not to underestimate him.
Fury nodded to Barnes, who looked cautiously back and forth between all four of them, suddenly seeming less secure, less brash, his eyes lingering on Pepper for a moment longer than strictly necessary, communicating his unease loud and clear. Apparently he hadn’t expected Tony to have company. Or maybe he hadn't seen a beautiful woman in far too long. Both of these possibilities weren't exactly suited to set Tony’s mind at ease.
“We really don't need to involve someone who is practically a civilian,” Barnes commented in a low voice. “We just need the...”
“You won't get the Iron Man without me. End of story. Fury already knows my stance on this. You want my help, you deal with me, soldier.”
Barnes threw him a look that under other circumstances might have spoken of pure and simple annoyance, but there was a deeper nervousness under the surface, that made Tony sit up and pay attention. Something was going on here and the adventurer in him was instantly interested.
“He's an annoyance sometimes, Barnes,” Fury barked out, “but he's the best man for the job. And he does have the robot. He fights these people, has fought these people for longer than you've even been a soldier. It's him or nobody if you want to go through with this.”
Pepper stood up from her chair, her article forgotten for the moment. She knew all about “these people”, just like Tony did. There was no necessity to spell it out. And Fury had very deliberately put the one piece of information on the table that would pique his interest. And they all knew it — with the exception of surly Sgt. Barnes perhaps.
If Hydra was involved, Tony had to go. After all that was why he was here.
Fury nodded at his companion one more time and Barnes set down his satchel and pulled free a thick manila folder. He stared at it for a long moment, hesitating to pass it on, but then straightened his back and shoulders and threw it down on the surface of the makeshift desk in front of Tony like a gauntlet before the duel. “I really do hope you live up to your legend, Stark,” he said in a rather scathing tone. Tony didn't mind. He was used to that kind of reaction from all the “serious” soldier boys around here, especially those who were aware of his most outrageous exploits described in the “Tony Stark Adventures” and thought him a braggart at best.
He reached for the folder, aware of Pepper stepping up behind him to read over his shoulder. As his chronicler and the person that he very frequently dragged along with him into danger, she had all the right to know what they were getting into next. Barnes still watched her with a drawn expression and Tony was ready to snap at him that he had no business glaring at a person like Pepper, who in Tony's mind wasn't just a beautiful, capable and brave woman, but the picture of integrity.
But whatever was in this file, it was clear that Barnes was nervous about sharing it with anyone so Tony decided to hold his tongue and not antagonize him any further.
“Operation: Shield” was written on the cover. Tony thought that as far as story titles went, this wasn't a bad one. For people who reviled him for having his own life and adventures fictionalized in his own pulp magazine, all the higher-ups in the army seemed to have the right flair for the dramatic when it came to naming their operations.
The first thing that sprang out at him was a picture, a photo on the enlistment documents of a young man. Steven Grant Rogers it said on the file. A stamp in red across it, read “classified”. The man looked slight of build, a bit on the underfed and sickly side, and all too nice and friendly to make the kind of soldier Fury usually recruited. He read quickly through the most important data on the sheet and whistled, looking back at the two men before him. “Who the hell allowed this kid to enlist? His health is worse than mine. Bit frail for a soldier.”
Barnes looked at him with narrowed eyes, probably not sure how to take his comment about his own health. Tony's heart problems weren't exactly something he allowed to come up in Marvels adventures. Vulnerabilities like these were better kept quiet, especially when you had a business to run, and with Stark Industries and Marvels he was running two.
“He has spunk,” Fury replied.
“Man of my heart then,” Tony said and leaned back with a grin. He was already looking through the other papers. Apparently the kid had volunteered to play spy deep in enemy territory after he’d been rejected in the proper medical examination. He whistled again, as he came across the notes on his training. “You made sure he knows what he's doing, that's for sure.”
“I did,” Barnes snapped. “He is my partner. Was, until he took that mission.”
“Taught him how to work explosives? Sabotage? That’s an impressive résumé for someone who would not have been allowed to enlist under normal circumstances.”
“Explosives, intercepting messages, how to use a gun. He was good at all of it. The best.” The young man looked at him proudly. “I don't care what you think about this, but Steve is my friend. He's a good man and a good soldier. And he’s done a better job of helping us win this war than most, health be damned.”
Tony didn't even doubt it for a minute. From what little he had just read, it seemed that most of the commanding officers he’d had had no good word to say about him - “too frail” was the most frequent complaint, but there were also complaints about “willfulness” that made Tony's heart go out to the lanky soldier boy. He knew what it was like to fight your own body, not letting your own shortcomings hinder you when you had set yourself a goal. And, damn, anyone who was declared “willful” by a superior officer and still made Nick Fury notice him to the extent of becoming one of his special projects, must be quite special indeed. “I can tell,” he told Barnes with a lopsided grin.
Pepper silently caught his gaze and quirked an eyebrow, and Tony shrugged. He couldn't help it. They still had no idea what all of this was about, but he already knew he was going to say yes to it. If nothing else, Fury was shoving interesting people at him at least and that was much more than the rest of the army was doing for him at the best of times.
He skipped to the next page, reading down quickly, taking in some of the missions that Steven Rogers had been sent to work on and, yes, he was intrigued. The frail guy had been a good enough cover to send him to Paris before America had ever joined the war, posing as an art student who was trying to get better at his craft. Apparently he'd worked with the British S.O.E. and the budding French resistance movement as an agent for both the U.S. and the Brits next. The papers called him “liaison officer”, which meant he'd been keeping his own government informed, giving them first hand information, before the rest of the army had ever joined up.
“You let him go in under British colors?”
Fury shrugged. “Information makes the world go round, Stark. We knew whatever he could learn would come in handy in some way at some point.”
That was how the spy network worked.
“Code name: Nomad,” he read. “I think I heard of him. He got that British officer out of the prison in Rennes, right? Sounded like an S.O.E. legend to keep the agents happy.”
Barnes nodded, finally looking a little less confrontational.
“Nomad,” Tony said, trying out the name. “Like a man without a country. He’s rather more than that, isn’t he?”
“He thought it was fitting,” Barnes said tightly. “It wasn’t even our war when he started working with the S.O.E. and got ready for work on the continent.”
He nodded. By now, Tony had an idea of where this whole thing was going, had to admit that although he wasn't exactly fond of Fury and his spy games, he thought this soldier here was an oddity and he deserved someone to root for him. If there was still something of him left to root for. Nobody had said anything about the exact nature of the predicament Rogers must be in, and that could mean a number of things, none of them comfortable. “So, you want me to do what exactly? Get your spy out of enemy territory?” he asked without even turning another page. It would be quicker to get the information directly from the source and read up on all the details later. “Isn’t that the kind of extraction the S.O.E. does for all their agents on a regular basis? Why do you think we need the robot for that?” He drew out the word “robot”, always amused at how easy it was to pretend that there was no pilot needed, just a bit of clever remote control. People had been reading altogether too much science-fiction published by people like the idiot Justin Hammer. They were nowhere near close enough to make that happen, not in away that allowed the Iron Man to act as he did.
“Captain Rogers checked in with us every week, using special equipment and encryption that changed every two weeks. We communicated with him via the BBC radio transmissions mostly, through our intelligence network directly only if we had to. He did good work and we didn’t want to jeopardize it by extracting him. As of three weeks ago there has been no contact made by Rogers and his partner in the field fears the worst.”
He filed away the information about special equipment and a partner for later scrutiny and nodded at Fury to go on. None of this explained Fury's willingness to involve him in one of his spy missions. The missions he reserved for Tony always involved science, always involved trouble that made someone with a good knowledge of technology and current research an asset. Sometimes he called Tony in because he just needed someone who could act on his own without any military orders having to be issued. But he had hinted at Hydra involvement and Tony suspected that was why he was here. He wished they would get to the point already, so that he knew what he was agreeing to. “And that is why Barnes thinks he needs to get my Iron Man to stage a rescue mission? Not your usual style, Nick. A bit visible, don’t you think? So why the hell are you here and what do you really want from me?”
Fury reached forward and skipped to the final documents in the file. He was still standing, because Tony had very deliberately not offered a chair to either of his guests, but he was coming to regret that now with Fury hovering over him. There was a picture of Rogers wearing a long coat his lean form was nearly drowning in, talking to a dark haired, bespectacled and nervous looking man. “This,” Fury said slowly. “Is Dr. Erskine. He has been forcefully recruited by the Nazis to work on what they call Operation Wiedergeburt.”
Rebirth? he thought. What the hell are they working on now? Surely this couldn’t be about bringing back Zemo… If they weren’t recruiting and poor Erskine had been chosen as successor, then it was too late for him anyway. “Forcefully recruited means kidnapped? I get the picture,” he said instead of voicing his thoughts.
“He’s a British citizen. We had him on the list of potential traitors when he did not report back to our London science division. Rogers found him and made contact when it became clear that he’d been kidnapped and forced to work for the Nazis. They were holding his family at the time; his Jewish wife and their two daughters. Before we lost contact Rogers helped our operatives in Paris to locate them and break them out.”
“They are safe and sound in England now and owe Steve their lives,” Barnes added, as if he thought he still needed to make a point about Rogers. Which he didn’t at this point. Tony could appreciate this kind of life and death situation, could appreciate a man who had gone seeking adventure and might have very well ended up sacrificing himself for someone else.
“And that is when you lost contact? After the family was out of the occupied zone?”
“Not on the day, but a few days after. Rogers checked in twice during the operation and once after, to make sure everything was going well. Then he told his partner that he was going back to make sure they wouldn’t kill Erskine. That’s the last anyone heard of him.”
Barnes was looking nervous, agitated, but he kept silent, staring at the file and the pictures, but not meeting Tony’s eyes. Finally, Tony thought, he had a good handle on him and his motives. If he was genuine, he was worried for a close friend. If he wasn’t — which Tony had learned was always a possibility — then he was a darn good actor.
So Tony latched on to the next bit of information he needed: “What’s Erskine’s specialty? Any hint what Operation Rebirth is all about? They’re not raising an army of un-dead, I hope. That would be… inconvenient.”
The silence that descended over the tent was eerie and made a chill run up his back. The name “Zemo” ghosted through his mind like a warning, but he tried to shake himself and get rid of the warning bells. But the fact that even Fury didn’t seem unfazed by the information he was about to reveal was worrying. More than worrying.
“He’s a doctor. He was developing a vaccine that was meant to enhance strength when the army recruited him. In London he worked on a secret super-soldier program.”
“Super-soldier?” Tony asked slowly. He was an engineer and stayed clear of most of the science that involved trying to enhance the human race for battle purposes without caring about the consequences, but for the longest time he’d been looking for a cure for his ailing heart and he’d come across more than one crazy scheme to create super humans, “Übermenschen”. So far he was sure most of them had been spurred on by fiction more than science, but the idea that Hydra might be working on creating a physically enhanced army was a nightmare worse than the un-dead.
He stared at Fury hard, daring him to finally come out and say why he’d come to Tony with all this in the first place. But Fury just stared back and made no move to talk. Barnes looked grave and slightly pale now, too. Apparently they were all imagining exactly what a breakthrough on the front of human enhancement for the Nazis would mean for their war effort.
“Why come to Tony with this? Don’t you have your own spies who can work this?” Pepper asked, apparently now just as fed up with the dancing around the issue they were doing as Tony. They had been cautious not to let anything slip about Hydra and their personal vendetta against them, but at some point Fury would learn of it. It was likely he already did know and was waiting for Tony to come clean about it. Still they could never be sure how many German spies were in their own camp and so Pepper, Rhodey and Tony were always cautious when Hydra information was brought to them, making their search too easy, too convenient.
There was no doubt in his mind that they were still after him — for Zemo related reasons, perhaps, but most likely to get revenge, to make it close, painful and personal.
“There is something else,” Fury finally admitted and Barnes’ head snapped up. “I’m not here to appeal to your bleeding heart and go safe the little guy. He might already be dead or on his way to the other side.”
Barnes bit his lip hard to refrain from shouting and Tony didn’t miss the moment of struggle he went through. “Someone is using his call-sign,” he ground out.
Fury nodded. “They might have gotten to him, Barnes. Torture is part of the game.”
The sergeant closed up immediately. He wanted his friend to be alive. He wanted a chance to get him out and not be too late. But Tony hadn’t missed a beat of their tense by-play and he threw a covert look over at Pepper who hadn’t missed it either. Barnes was here for personal reasons. Fury was here for something else.
Finally Fury reached into his army coat and pulled free a small brown notebook with well-worn brown leather binding and threw it down on the desk on top of the open file of Steven Rogers. “This is why I came to you, Stark. This should be right up your alley.”
Barnes eyed it with as much interest and apprehension as Tony and Pepper did. Obviously Fury hadn’t shared this tidbit of information with his soldier boy. Interesting and perhaps also worrying.
Scowling, Tony picked it up and looked through it. Ink-painted maps, disjointed notes, transcripts of Latin inscriptions. He went through it with a frown until he found the leitmotif of these scribblings: “Laser?” he asked, pronouncing the ancient word slowly, incredulous, and with a long drawn out a. “They think they found Silphion? That’s not even possible by a long shot.”
“What’s Silphion?” Pepper asked, trying to look over his shoulder.
Fury’s expression was unreadable.
“You didn’t know?” Tony asked and glared at him.
“When the girls and their mom got to us, this was the only message of Erskine’s that made it through. The notebook. I hoped it had some information on the super-soldier formula, instead it’s the map to treasure island. And then the last thing we learned from our agent before he vanished from the face of the earth was that a division under the command of Wolfgang von Strucker was going to take Erskine and move him.”
“Don’t let them find it,” Barnes said. “That’s the last message Steve got to us. Don’t let them find it.. He was talking about this, right?” He wasn’t looking at Tony for an answer though, but to Fury, and there was a frown on his face. Yes, Fury was a man who didn’t share information if he didn’t have to.
So the spunky soldier had saved the lives of a family, gotten his own cover blown and had still been trying to throw a wrench into the science machine that was the Nazi science division called Hydra. Poor guy. There would be nothing left of him until they got there, not if he’d really fallen into enemy hands. America owed much to this man without a country. A better name to be remembered by than “Nomad”, for sure.
Pepper tapped him lightly on the shoulder to get his attention. ““What’s Silphion, Tony?”
“It’s a plant. A plant that was extinct when Rome was still an Empire.”
“What’s so important about a plant that doesn’t even exist anymore?” Barnes asked. “They’re not botanists on an expedition. We are talking about the worst part of the Nazi war machine here. They’re not the kind to go looking for flowers.”
“The plant was said to have incredible healing properties. When the Greeks found it the only place it was growing was in Kyrene, an ancient city on the coast of Libya. People were buying the sap of the plant, called laser, all over the ancient world to heal even the worst ailments and because it was said to have an intoxicating taste. It’s also said to have granted longevity and superior strength. Some sources claim it could heal the dying with just a sip of the sap, but that seems really unlikely. A legend says that the sick cattle that ate it on the meadows either became healthy instantly or in very few cases died instantly. It was the miracle cure of the ancient world. An all cure. None of that can be proved or tried without the plant, so in the end it doesn’t matter. It was wiped out thousands of years ago, exactly because it was so high in demand and there was no way to cultivate it. This little plant that was said to give youth and strength and health — it only grew wild and only in this one area on the globe. Isn’t that fantastic? Like a script?” Tony shrugged and leaned back to look at the notebook, pondering what could have been so important about the legend that the Erskine had put so much work into researching it.
Barnes was watching him carefully. “You’re not a botanist either, but you seem to know an awful lot about it.”
“I know a lot about archaeological mysteries,” he said lightly. The truth was, of course, that for a long while he had actively looked for all ancient mysteries that promised him a cure for his ailing heart. “Laser”, the sap of the Silphion plant, had come up a few times and he’d only abandoned that research because there was no way at all to bring back an extinct medicinal herb and thus it had all been a waste of his time.
The notebook in his hand seemed to suggest a different story, though. There were maps and some obviously encrypted notes speaking of locations. Someone had been hunting for the Holy Grail of medical herbs and apparently they had found better leads than Tony ever came across.
“So, Stark, I hope all this is intriguing enough for you. You and Barnes will move out tomorrow.” Fury grinned, as Tony’s eyes snapped up, away from the scribbles and inky sketches.
“To where?” Barnes asked, incredulously.
Fury was already halfway out the tent as he called back: “To establish what happened with Erskine and Rogers, of course. Between the two of you, I’m sure you’ll figure out where to go from there. Have fun boys, and keep me informed.”
As the tent flap fell closed again. as abruptly as when Fury had shoved his way in, Tony and the person who he supposed was now his new liaison officer exchanged a long unhappy look. “I should make it clear that I’m neither a spy nor a detective,” Tony said slowly, closing the small notebook with a flap and slipping it into his jacket pocket. “I’m not even a soldier.”
Barnes narrowed his eyes. “You could have fooled me,” he nearly spat.
Tony could tell that as far as beginnings went, this wasn’t one of the better ones. But he had something that worked like a treasure map in his pocket and a chance to thwart Strucker’s evil plans and, perhaps, help out a faithful, brave little spy of Fury’s along the way. He’d been on adventures for worse reasons.
“So tell me Barnes,” Tony said and grinned at Pepper. “Why exactly did you think my robot would have come in handy here?”
* * *
But he woke up sometimes, dreaming of being injected, laughing hysterically like his father under the mask. What secrets would they get from him? What weapons would he build if his mind had been “reformed”, unhinged by the Zemo solution in that dreaded syringe. The metal in his heart alone was too valuable and dangerous to fall into the hands of Hydra.
“I should send you home,” he said instead of offering her any form of reassurance. It had been on his mind since that first moment — since Fury had mentioned sending him into enemy territory. He had lost a chronicler, a good friend of long years of adventure to betrayal once. Pepper had been with him for a few years now and she was part of his family, the band of associates and friends he trusted. Above all he did not want to see her hurt. And he did not want her close by when his worst nightmares came true either.
“I hope you know me well enough by now to realize that you can’t tell me what to do.”
“Which is why I’m not sending you home,” he admitted. “We’re going to London right now.”
“Does Fury know that?”
Tony nodded shortly. They were going to take Barnes, although the soldier had been less than happy about the announcement. Only the hint that the Iron Man needed to be picked up before they went on that mission had made him agree to this.
“Okay,” she said slowly. “But Tony… You’re not leaving me behind in London either.”
He tried to make his smile soft and understanding, but something about it must have been off, because she was instantly on her guard. “I’m not taking you along for this. I already asked for Rhodey. I know I’ve made you do lots and lots of crazy stuff over the years and so far we’ve always come out on top, but…” - he held up the notebook - “this has trap written all over it, Pepper. It’s like Atlantis all over again and this time they know I have tricks up my sleeve.”
“You think Strucker wants to reel you in?” It had crossed her mind too, of course, right from the beginning and she didn’t act surprised. Perhaps there was a hint of relief on her face, now that she realized that he was going into this with open eyes.
He shrugged. “If they indeed still have a Zemo, then he’s clearly burning out. It’s time for a replacement.”
Pepper went pale instantly. “You think your… he survived the blast back then?”
“That or they recruited after and it wasn’t a good fit. There have been records of Zemo’s movements, but who truly knows who or what’s behind that mask at the moment?”
“Tony,” she said and he looked up at her, meeting her eyes, and she faltered, her arms closing around him in a hug. He hugged her back, and just held her there, feeling like he was saying goodbye.
“Look, Pepper, you’re my best girl? Who can I trust but you? I need someone who will get us out of this mess if it goes sideways, someone on reserve.”
“Reserve?” She didn’t like the sound of that; that much was clear.
“We’re going to London to make our preparations. Me, Barnes and Rhodey, we move on to whatever this is — looking for a spy who stopped transmitting, looking for a mystical cure from ancient times, getting close to Hydra and ending it. I don’t care which of these it turns out to be. But I need you to contact Namor. All plans are set on us being picked up by a small aircraft somewhere, wherever the resistance cells we come across can arrange it, and get us back to Britain. I don’t like the odds. The Nazis know that if we go here,” — he pointed at one of the encrypted maps in the mysterious notebook — “we’ll be at the southern coast and the quickest route out will be by air, which is why…”
“You want a sea route out.”
“A ship that can get me to my home shores quickly and in secret.”
“No.” He shook his head. “Tell Namor, that if this actually plays out and I get away with company or with the Silphion or whatever, then we go home. I won’t let it get into the wrong hands and I hope that I can deal Hydra a blow that lasts and then my involvement in this war is no longer necessary.”
She frowned. That was the problem when your associates knew you too well; they could detect when you weren’t telling them everything without even trying.
“You think you might not come back,” she finally concluded after a minute of scrutiny.
“I’m never sure of that,” he said, deliberately deflecting.
“No,” she disagreed. “You’re always sure of that, even if you shouldn’t be. So don’t tell me this is normal for you.”
He shook his head and shrugged. There wasn’t much he could say to make her like this whole undertaking more. “Can I count on you, Pep?”
“Always,” she said, but her eyes were sad, as she nodded. “We’ll see this through to the end. And you’ll make god damn sure that it’s going to be a good and happy ending. Because if I’m the last person to write a Tony Stark adventure, then you’ll better see to it that it’s not going to be a bummer for your loyal readers. I’m going to be very cross with you otherwise. Don’t make me write a tragedy. I suck at it.”
He smiled and chuckled. “That’s the spirit,” he said and patted her on the back. They both knew that even if this was going to be his last adventure, Pepper would give him a great literary eulogy. They were both hoping it wouldn't come to that.
“I wish you could just let this whole thing go and find another way to take out Strucker.”
“Look, Pepper, you saw that soldier’s file. If a scrap of a man like him goes into the viper’s nest to do what he thinks is necessary, how can I of all people stay safe hiding behind men like Barnes? That was a truly brave man who went to war because he believed he was doing the right thing. And I believe taking down Hydra for all of us is the only thing that matters.”
She sighed. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand. After all she was here, writing all their stories, trying to make people at home see what was really going on at the front. Finally she nodded. “At least promise me you’ll hide behind your armor whenever it gets too hot. They really have it in for you.”
“No kidding, Potts. No kidding.” He hugged her to his chest and whispered. “Rhodey will be right there taking care of me.”
“That only means that I need to worry about both of you.”
There wasn’t much to pack and the plane wasn’t really big enough to hold much equipment beside the passengers. Barnes was wearing his uniform, looking grim, as he stood beside Fury, waiting for them. “You have a day to get whatever you need, Stark. This is urgent. Who knows...”
“I know,” he said. “Every day counts if any of this is true.”
Fury watched him board the plane with narrowed eyes, but didn’t say any more. He didn’t contradict him on the assumption that this might all be false information and Tony couldn’t be sure what that meant with Fury being the unmatched champion of secrecy, but he was inclined to believe that the man had come to him, because he trusted his judgment on this. And Tony would be sure to watch his back.
Fury and Barnes stood outside the plane for a moment longer, talking in hushed tones, before the young soldier finally joined them. Nobody was looking particularly happy. The tension was thick enough that Tony could have cut through it with the beloved machete that was still lying on the desk of his New York office, because he’d naively expected not to need it in Europe.
“I hope this detour is necessary,” Barnes commented scathingly.
“It is, Barnes. Never fear. If you want to have a chance to even get to your friend in time, then we can’t rush in like fools. If they actually seized him and know who he is, then they’ll suspect some rescue attempt. And if the rest of the information is any indication, then they might actually hope someone will come.”
“You think this is a trap?” Barnes looked at him cautiously. “Steve isn’t anybody…”
“Not your friend I fear, but Erskine and the information the family carried with them. They’re what we’re supposed to take an interest in. Where exactly was your friend when he was last seen?”
Barnes shrugged. “He was on the way back to Lyon, which is where they were holding Erskine at the time.”
“And his call-sign has been used since? How?”
“There was a coded transmission. We can’t be sure, but the code was correct and up to date. And a low ranking Maquis liaison received a message from Nomad warning their operatives to leave Avignon a day before Gestapo rolled in and raided flats that had been used by agents.”
“Nothing else? No sign of where he went after? No information about what happened? Wouldn’t we hear about it if he had ended up in prison?”
It took Barnes a long moment to answer and then he grimly said: “If he was shot and disposed off right away, who knows? We might never find the body. Best guess is that they are holding him in Lyon. Or he can’t call in, because he’s afraid to compromise other resistance fighters.”
Tony nodded. He was beginning to see why “Nomad” was worth taking a few risks for. “He is smart. Good. Can he survive on his own?”
“In Nazi occupied France? In the woods? What do you mean? He survived until now as a spy and that’s not the easiest way to live.”
Or at least they both wanted to believe he had survived, because if he wasn’t alive then they were wasting resources, instead of going after Erskine and the Wiedergeburt project. “So the only lead we have is a notebook that speaks of an extinct plant and unreliable messages using his code name. That’s not much to go on.”
“What exactly is it? The notebook?” For the first time Barnes was looking at him as if he actually believed Tony actually knew the answer to something.
“Research, maps, some formulas. I haven’t looked through all of it yet. There’s years of research in that little book. Some medical notes,” he explained. He was about to add that this was not exactly his area of expertise, but it would be a lie. He was maybe not good enough to perform surgery on anyone, and he’d probably be the wrong person to ask to diagnose the flu, but he’d been searching for a cure for his own not insignificant ailment for so long that he’d come by a lot of medical knowledge over the years. And the kind of danger he went into with open eyes had made some hands on knowledge about field medicine a question of survival.
Erskine had made some notes, not encrypted and haphazard that Tony had been able to understand. Apparently he’d been searching for a way to make an “all-cure” and had stumbled onto something that might make super-soldiers instead. Human perfection was a concept that Tony disliked more than anything, most of all because he knew that perfection usually did not hold up to scrutiny. And he’d seen the kind of perfection that Strucker was working towards and the only thing that stuck in his mind was cruelty and hate, hubris. The lunacy involved and the ugliness it had helped to bring into this world already was too much to bear as it was.
And from what he could see Erskine had shied back from his own discovery, too. Pages had been torn out of the notebook, things had been scratched out. Even the hints of the completed cure had vanished, if they had ever indeed been part of the notes. What was left, was legend.
“Fury told me about the Wiedergeburt thing. They are trying to breed supermen. That’s what’s in the research?” The way Barnes’ jaw set and communicated clearly what he thought about that, made him much more likable in Tony’s opinion. “I still think the best thing to do would have been to take your robot and torch it all to the ground.”
Well, Tony could certainly empathize with that approach in light of what he had seen recently. “Torching doesn’t sound like a bad plan, I admit. But you’d have to make sure that you get the whole project. And there’s no way they are keeping all the heads of this things in one place. No, the best thing to do is to make sure they don't succeed.”
The name had been very deliberately chosen. It was hard to kill a Hydra. Impossible if you only managed to take one head off at a time. You’d have to wipe it all out at once.
“The truth is,” Barnes said and he was looking at him with a good deal of skepticism, “I’m not sure what you’re doing here. You have no stake in this. And I don’t think even half of the stories about you are true. I’d feel better going on this mission with a real soldier, an S.O.E. officer who knows the lay of the land..”
It was perfectly endearing how Barnes seemed to think Tony cared the tiniest bit about what he thought about him. “All you need to know about me, Barnes, is that I have the robot you think we might need. And I also have an idea what we are up against. What you believe or don't believe doesn’t matter much to me one way or another.”
“You’re not claiming you really brought down a magical dragon in China?” Barnes asked with no small hint of exasperation.
Pepper, who had been silent up until now, was looking at Tony with a smirk. “I never got to hear your version of that story either, Tony.”
“That’s because Virgil told it so much better than me.” He smirked right back at her.
Barnes huffed. “Stories,” he muttered. “I don’t need any more stories. I need someone who can help me find my friend without getting us all killed.”
Tony decided not to take that personally, but couldn’t help pointing out: “The Fing-Fang-Foom story isn’t even a very popular issue of Marvels. For someone who seems to dislike stories so much, you sure know your way around the Tony Stark Adventures, Barnes.”
But his new “friend’s” expression darkened immediately not ready to take the joke for what it was. “I knew someone who used to gobble that stuff up. Always ‘Tony Stark this’ and ‘Tony Stark that’ with him. Wanted to see the world too. Wanted to go on adventures. Wanted to be just like you. That was all pretty harmless and nice until the war came.”
The implication took the humor out of the joke. It also explained some of Barnes’ animosity towards him.
“Is he okay?” Pepper asked in a hushed voice.
Barnes only shrugged his shoulders and leaned away, not looking at them anymore.
Tony could piece together the rest of the story. Soldiers who survived wars were the lucky ones. And as his father’s example had taught him, surviving didn’t always mean you had won either. He hadn’t even been in a war, not even on an adventure, when someone had for the first time made an attempt on his life and nearly succeeded.
“You do realize this is not a Marvels adventure campaign. My friend’s life may well depend on this mission. You can’t take her with you into the frizz either to write down your good deeds. Not this time.” Barnes nodded towards Pepper, who instantly looked less sympathetic.
“Don’t worry,” Pepper said in a scathing tone. “The weak little woman will stay safely behind in England.”
“That’s not…” Barnes started to protest, but wisely stopped halfway through. Whatever he was going to say next he was only going to dig a deeper hole for himself.
“We’re going to pick up James Rhodes and the Iron Man. That’s what you wanted,” Tony interrupted curtly. He didn’t say that he wanted the extra day to figure out what to do about the notebook. He didn’t say that he wanted to make sure things were settled in case things went south.
Barnes was here for one thing: The mission Fury had given to him and more than anything that involved saving a friend, a fellow soldier.
Tony was here for his own reasons.
He was here to do the impossible: Kill a Hydra before it could grow even more ugly heads.
* * *
He dropped off Pepper and Barnes at the S.O.E. headquarter and left them with their British liaison and then went straight there.
Jarvis was the only person to greet him when he entered the construction hall.
“There you are,” he said. “I was beginning to think you were avoiding us.”
“You? Always,” Tony shot back and stepped towards the armor that stood propped up in the center of the room. “Him? Never.”
“Ah, I was sure the suit would be a lady to you.”
“Invincible Iron Man,” Tony said. “What does that sound like to you?”
“Like a bad tagline of a pulp story. Now get on the bench and let me have a look. I want to make sure your ticker isn’t giving out on you the minute you leave London. Can you imagine the obituary that Pepper would need to write for you then?”
“Don’t worry so much. The orichalcum is doing a fine job, just as we knew it would.” Despite his protests he was obediently walking over to the work bench and sat down. Never a patient man, Jarvis hands were already on his shirt, opening the buttons to get a look at the glass plate and surrounding metal that was protecting his heart. He opened the little hatch to get a better look at the small energy source there that was keeping him going.
“Looks less crude than I remember,” Jarvis huffed and reached for his tools, picked up a bottle of alcohol and poured some of it over his exceptionally clean hands. Obviously he had been prepared for Tony’s arrival. “Any trouble?”
“It’s still a superconductor. I try not spend too much time in rainstorms.”
“Hmm,” Jarvis said and looked at the little piece of metal they’d formed out of a small piece of the orichalcum trident. “You’re fine, Tony.” How he managed to sound somewhere between unspeakably happy and disappointed was anyone’s guess.
“I know.” He watched as Jarvis reached for the charger.
“I’ll take it you’re here to take the big metal toy and go gallivanting again. So let’s get you up to 100% to make me feel better. I wouldn’t put it beyond you to kill your heart now that it’s perfectly fine, just because you need to run that thing to the breaking point.” He nodded towards the Iron Man armor.
He shrugged. The process of charging was still uncomfortable, even if it wasn’t as painful as it had been before. And he still hated his heart being this exposed even if only Jarvis was around. But if he was going to make a ditch into enemy territory he’d better make sure he wouldn’t run out of juice a day in. The electric jolt made him gasp, but he could take it sitting up, breathing through his nose and taking in gulps of air. It took, nearly 20 excruciating minutes — his hands clenching on the edge of the wooden bench, his heart beating fast and his muscles contracting — until Jarvis finally nodded and released him. He got his breathing back under control as he replaced the little glass hatch, feeling much better when his beating heart wasn’t so exposed.
Jarvis nodded, started moving around the shop. His expression was dark, but he said: “Your heart is going to keep going for at least a hundred years with that piece of marvelous metal.”
“You think?” he asked lightly.
“Not if you get yourself killed first, Tony.”
He’d seen that coming. “I’m taking Rhodey. I’m taking the armor. I’m as safe as I can be under the circumstances.”
“Circumstances,” Jarvis spat.
Tony got slowly up from the bench, methodically buttoning up the shirt again. “Don’t start. Pepper is giving me these speeches daily.”
“Smart bird, little red,” Jarvis said.
Tony nodded. “I’m not actually disagreeing.”
The old engineer turned his back to Tony and he watched as he started tinkering on something that looked distinctly like a gun design that Tony had jotted down when he’d last seen Jarvis in New York. “I thought we said we wouldn’t build that one.”
“We said we wouldn’t mass produce it and provide it to the army. But if you insist on doing this crazy thing, then at least you should be better armed. They are going to gun for you and the best outcome I can think of is that you get them first.”
With a significant lingering look at the armor Tony told Jarvis exactly what he thought about that, without uttering a single word.
“You can’t be Iron Man all day, Tony. Rhodey says you’ll have a soldier with you. And you don’t want the army to know that we didn’t build a robot as a combat machine, a very sophisticated, human shaped tank. They’d come to the conclusion that all soldiers should have one, the moment they find out this is a combat suit.”
“The Germans likely already know all about the armor, Jarvis. We don’t need to keep up the pretense.”
“We should,” Jarvis said sourly. “You want to have a life after all this, don’t you? Make sure Iron Man remains its own thing.”
“Yeah,” he said, trying not to sound unsure or ungrateful. “I just… you know I need to do this, right?”
Finally, Jarvis put down the small screwdriver and turned to again look at him. He carefully put down the mostly assembled super-machine pistol and sighed. “I’m not trying to keep you here, Tony. He’s your father. He was my friend. Who knows if I’d ever survived the last war without him. I get why you have to do this. Doesn’t mean I need to bloody like it.”
There was an unspoken objection still hanging in the air between them and Tony waited for it. He and Jarvis they’d known each other for so long. The man had been at his side through some of his worst years and stood by him. And today he was going to ask something more of him. The least he could do was listen to what he had to say.
“I promised to take care of his son. And now look at you.” His finger pointed right at the point where his heart was hidden under the shirt now.
“We can’t let Hydra go on. The rest of the world thinks Hitler and the Gestapo are what they should fear. But we know better. And they’ll recruit again and again if we don’t put a stop to it.”
“I understand. I saw lots of people die, Tony. I understand the need for revenge. I understand that you need to know that it’s no longer your father under that mask. I know that they will never stop coming after you if they’re not stopped. I bloody understand. But you have to understand that keeping you away from them is the best way I know to keep you from ending up under the mask next.”
“I made Rhodey promise not to let it happen,” he said and let no ounce of fear or regret enter his tone. He owed Jarvis that much. He’d been the man to bring him up after all.
The frown on Jarvis’ face deepened. He hated the thought. “And you’d want him to live with the thought of having killed one of his best friends?”
“I wouldn’t be Tony Stark any more. Just like Howard Stark died when we thought we buried him and whatever went on after to become Zemo wasn’t him any longer.”
Jarvis sighed. Clearly he wasn’t going to stop Tony from doing what he thought was right, even if he didn’t like it. And although they were both not saying it, they both knew why this conversation had been put off for so long, and why they were having it now. Howard Stark was — had been — his father. But that father had died when he’d turned seven. His mother had died a year before that. And the heir to the Stark fortune had suddenly found himself all alone and thrown to the sharks who wanted some of Stark’s money and genius before the ship sank. And then Jarvis had stepped in. His mentor, his friend, the closest thing he had to a real father.
If anyone had the right to claim they’d brought him up then it was this gruff old soldier and engineer.
“Can you do me a favor?”
“A favor? It’s not like I never do anything for you, is it?”
“I swear I’m grateful. I’m just not very good at showing it.”
The joke earned him an unamused huff. “Spit it out, Tony.”
“I need you to go to New York. I put the rest of the orichalcum into the mansion vault and it needs to stay safe. I put some specs with it for an energy source that might come in handy after the war when the first thought won’t be to weaponize it. We need to make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.”
Hard blue eyes met his. “You want me in New York? Now?”
“I want you in the company, making sure it stays on top. If I’ll get back it’s really time to make this world a better place and I have an idea how to do it.”
Finally Jarvis nodded. “That’s all I want for you, you know? To finally settle down. Safe. Find someone to do less dangerous adventures with.”
“You know I’m not good at safe. I’m not good at facing life. But when this is over it’s time to tackle a new kind of adventure and that starts with my fathers company. And I want you to help me get Stark Industries out of the business it still does and make it better.”
Jarvis huffed. “I’d always hoped you’d meet a nice girl like Pepper and she’d set you straight.”
He tried to smile, but he was thinking of Gia and the way she’d twisted the knife with her betrayal, how she’d manipulated him into finding Atlantis and the orichalcum for her and then sold him out to Strucker. He would never know how long the betrayal had gone on. Has she found her way into his bed with the purpose of betrayal already in mind? Clearly he wasn’t good at relationships. Had never been really. Not at the ones that lasted. “Maybe with the right person,” he said without conviction and Jarvis saw right through him, nodding his head, playing along for both their sakes. They both knew that Tony had a playboy reputation, but that the papers and his own story accounts only told part of the story. Tony went around with a devil-may-care attitude, but was still careful that his more controversial exploits stayed out of the papers.
“If you find a nice soldier to settle down with, I’m not going to complain. You know that.”
Tony laughed mirthlessly. “It’s not that I don’t have options. It’s that I’m not made for this settled down life.”
“I’ll help you, Tony. But I’m not going to New York just yet. I’ll come with you on the plane make sure the armor is in peak condition when you need it. And then we’ll bring you home and make sure you’ll get your chance to make the world a better place, maybe figure out that settling down isn’t so scary after all.”
“Only if you promise me you go on the plane and get out of there when I don’t get back. Something goes wrong and you go to New York immediately. My will is in the safe, too.”
They stared at each other for a long moment fraught with unspoken emotions, before Jarvis nodded and Tony gave in. Heaving a sigh, Jarvis finally asked: “Tell me then. What do you need? The new plane? The armor? You already have those. New weapons?”
“Expertise,” he explained and finally pulled out the notebook. “Our Hydra friends are trying to create an Übermensch and I’m trying to figure out if they are trying to use me to get to this or if it’s not a trap and I need to get there before they do. Either way, if this is genuine we can’t let them have it.”
He let the little book fall onto the table and sat down.
Time to start the adventure.
Tony Stark was new to being responsible, he was bad at settling down, but he sure as hell was good at this whole adventuring business.
He had the Marvels covers to prove it.
Jarvis took up the little book without prompting and sifted through the pages. “You do realize where this is?” Jarvis asked and held up a sketch on one of the later pages.
He looked at it for a long time, wondered how the penciled sketch looked so different from the earlier sketches and maps made with ink. Something there was different, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. As he inspected the drawing more closely, trying to see something in the sketch of what looked like Greek ruins, a heap of chiseled stones and three thin pillars he couldn’t shake the feeling of having seen it before somewhere. But it could be any ruin of any city with Greek influences…
“I have a picture of you standing on that heap there. You were 15,” Jarvis said. “It’s sitting on the mantle piece in the mansion. You liked the name and the mystery. I still think I should have packed you in the trunk of the car and taken you back home that very moment, before you got a taste for it all.”
“The Valley of the Sacred Spring!” he exclaimed and grabbed the notebook, staring at the uncannily well done sketch.
“That’s the one.”
“That’s not near Kyrene at all! That’s in…”
“France,” Jarvis concluded.
“Near Avignon,” Tony said at the same time. Things were starting to form a picture. He just wasn’t sure he liked what he was seeing here.
* * *
The supposed wonder drug of the ancient world had been used for all sorts of processes, but none of the real medical procedures had been described. Tony was still very much inclined to just write most of its more wondrous properties off to the realm of legend — and he was a man who lived with a little piece of Atlantean technology in his body. Why had Erskine believed the legends? Why was he convinced there was something to even look for, with a plant that had supposedly been snuffed out millennia ago? Had he found the missing clue and had he been about to use some lost herb to create the superman the generals on all sides were craving?
He hoped not. The little that was told of its potency was so incredible that Tony could only hope that this wasn’t true at all. Because otherwise there was too good a chance that the Nazi’s had already gotten there and this war was going to turn and not in favor of the good guys.
He carefully looked at all the notes, the encrypted passages, the maps. He needed a hint. A more substantial point to start from. There was a map of Kyrene, some descriptions from Latin texts that went into details exactly where the historically recorded spots for finding the plant had been. Notes about the habitat, projections, speculations.
He wasn’t exactly a codebreaker, but he found some notes about medical procedures next and managed to crack enough of the text to make sense. Some of it didn’t make much sense to him, but he understood the parts about gamma radiation and what the good Doctor called “Vita Rays” and wasn’t sure he even liked the implication.
Then something changed on the final pages.
The sketches grew more elaborate, cleaner, more realistic. And there they were again the uncannily accurate pictures of the ruins of Glanum and the Valley of the Sacred Spring. But there was nothing there, right? He’d been there himself and there was no mystery to uncover in those little ruins of a Celtic settlement that had at some point met with Greek and Roman influences. Even the spring was gone, if he remembered correctly. Nothing to find that went beyond the obvious.
Nothing that would call to a treasure hunter, an adventurer like him. There hadn’t even been a giant snake for him to fight. He and Jarvis had been there on vacation and it had been unspectacular. Fun and interesting and a nice memory, but nothing to write a Tony Stark Adventure book about.
He turned the page and found another map. He supposed it marked the stones and ruins of the little oppidum that made up Glanum and the surrounding area and there were some markers that Tony couldn’t make sense of. Some notes scribbled to the side: a date marking the map as having been drawn only three weeks before, a note about a statue of Hercules, some notes about the tasks the legendary Hercules had to fulfill to become a god. A note to the side said: “Valetudo? Panacea? Hercules? Connection?”
Panacea was underlined twice.
He knew the goddess Valetudo; Roman name of a greek goddess of health and cleanliness. But Panacea wasn’t the Greek name of the same goddess. “Panacea,” he muttered. “The goddess with that all-cure.” He was beginning to think Erskine had been making wild guesses and had been chasing a phantom, hoping to have the answer to his scientific problem at his fingertips.
Or perhaps this was all a trick. How authentic was this research even? How would he know without talking to the scientist in question?
But why would Erskine’s wife and family bring them false research? Surely they couldn’t all be decoys, spies, traitors? Was someone using the kids to lend this credibility?
Hercules, he mused. Half-God. Protector of springs. A sacred spring. Glanum had a sacred spring. A place of healing. A temple to Valetudo. A statue of Hercules.
It sounded like a fairy tale. Everything fell into place all too neatly. And still it made as much sense as an Atlantean superconductor sinking an island into the ocean depth or a piece of it making his mechanical heart work like clockwork without needing much energy anymore. He couldn’t exactly dismiss it just because it sounded implausible.
Implausible happened to be the right solution too often.
He looked through the next pages, found a sketch of Corinthian pillars against the backdrop of what looked like a wall. He was sure that wasn’t Glanum. His memory served him well usually and he did not remember a location like that in the ruins he’d visited. Had there been new excavations? Someone was working there at some point. He couldn’t remember.
“a sketch of Corinthian pillars against the backdrop of what looked like a wall” by MassiveSpaceWren
And the handwriting…
He went back a few pages.
Another person taking over.
Another person made the sketches.
He finally came to the last page and found something that really stunned him.
“Code” by MassiveSpaceWren
Written code. Little markings that looked like runes, or stick figures spelling out a message. He knew that code. Darn it, he knew it. He’d thought it up with Rhodey to stand in for the Toltekian signs that had been used in the real life version of that adventure. Darn it. It was code from Tony Stark and the Feathered Mask.
“I don’t believe this,” he said and huffed. “Who the hell, would…?”
But the message said it all.
“Mr. Stark, when you read this, the book has made it back to you. The doctor has not made it out yet and I’ll have to go back for him. But I know this is important. Keep this, but do under no circumstance come to France. Your name has been coming up in all sorts of communications recently and Erskine is worried that they want you here for a procedure. Hydra wants you here. Do not come, please.
It would have been an honor to meet you, but I’d rather you stayed out of their hands.
“Nomad?” he mumbled to himself. “I don’t believe this. Now even people I don’t know at all tell me to stay out of trouble. What’s the world coming to? People used to ask me when I would go on my next adventure.”
He got up, put the notebook on his nightstand and made himself ready for bed. It would be a long few days before he got to sleep in a soft bed again and he was more determined than ever to solve this mystery quickly.
It might still all be an elaborate mousetrap with his name written on it.
But he’d be damned if he’d start taking the advice of strangers talking from secret messages.
And if “Nomad” had hoped to make him stay safely behind in England, then mentioning Hydra had been the wrong strategy. Tony Stark wasn’t after the treasure this time.
He wasn’t even after revenge.
He just wanted a clean ending.
* * *
“All set,” Rhodey told him. “Two crates, boss?”
“You never know, Jim. You might have to suit up and get me.”
“This is no routine mission. I’m aware.”
“We all are,” Jarvis complained. “Which is why we should run the other way real fast.”
Tony had given Jim the complete run down, had for the first time right out loud admitted to someone that he was going in to make sure that none of these mad men got out of there alive, because he was not seeing a way to kill the idea of Hydra without wiping out the people who kept it going. He had also imparted a brief summary of what it seemed Hydra was looking for.
Rhodey grinned a big toothy grin at him. “Hydra is trying to make a Hercules? That sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy waiting to happen.”
Tony snorted and shook his head. The irony of the endeavor hadn’t escaped him. Killing the Hydra had been one of the tasks set to Hercules after all. “Don’t get me started.”
“So that’s what this is? Operation Hercules? Bring down Hydra? Make a super-soldier?”
“If this works out I’ll tell Pepper that you had this novel titled before it was even written.”
“Oh, she won’t complain. And don’t you think that honor goes to our generals? Whatever they are saying about this Erskine and ‘Wiedergeburt’, they are working on their own super-soldier,” Rhodey said with a straight face. “As if an Iron Man on their side isn’t enough to win this thing.” He grinned. It was a relief how easily they could fall back into the old pattern of relaxed banter when in fact they both knew they might not come back from this one. It was just like old times, nearly getting buried in ancient ruins and set upon by panthers and a mob and whatever lurked in the dark.
“An Iron Man or two. I’ve upgraded mine a few times since you last saw it. The other one is still the model you are used to, but I gave it… more firepower. I thought you might like that.”
“If it gives me the firepower I need to get your skinny ass out of trouble, boss, then I’m not complaining.”
“I’m not your boss anymore, soldier.” Rhodey had joined up as a pilot — and a damn good one he was.
“Right, boss. That’s why you could request me for this mission without anyone putting up a fight.”
“Oh, I think we have to thank general Fury for that one, Rhodey. He’s a true Marvels fan at heart. So he got the old team back together.”
They both snickered. It was hard to imagine Fury sitting somewhere reading pulps or any kind of fantastic story. It was hard to imagine him having downtime at all. No, by now they both knew that Fury had come by his knowledge about the truth of Tony’s adventures from other sources and that was why he had wanted Tony to join him in this war. Fury had a good eye for assets and he had the uncanny ability to figure out secrets. He knew about Iron Man, of course. He had never given any indication of knowing, but Tony was 100% sure that he knew that Iron Man wasn’t just a robot. But he hadn’t passed on that piece of information to anyone yet and Tony would be thankful for that if in back of his mind there weren’t the sneaking suspicion that Fury was keeping it to himself more because it gave him something to keep Tony in line with than because he was just doing him a favor.
People whose secrets had secrets usually knew about their power.
When he and Rhodey were satisfied with securing the crates and other equipment, they climbed back out of the plane together, Pepper was waiting for them and Barnes, for the first time wearing civilian clothes, stood near her, taking in the plane and trying very hard not to show he was impressed. When Rhodey stepped up behind Tony Barnes’ eyes snapped to his face and there was a moment of real wonder there. “You’re Rhodes,” he said and held out his hand.
“That’s what they tell me,” Rhodey said amiably and shook the sergeant's hand. “I’m going to be the pilot of this baby and your backup, right, boss?”
Tony nodded. “But I might need you on the ground at some point. I feel better sneaking around mysterious temples when someone who knows his way around traps and archaeological pitfalls has my back.”
“I have a bit of experience with that, thanks to you, yes.” Rhodey gave him a dirty look and then grinned at the “new kid”. “You’re Fury’s man?”
Barnes didn’t seem to know how he was supposed to react to that, but nodded curtly. “I suppose I am.”
Just minutes ago Tony had told his friend what he knew about Barnes and his objective. He’d given him the abridged history of Steve Rogers and his job behind enemy lines and Rhodey had nodded, smiled and said: “He wants to save his friend.” He hadn’t said much more, but Tony knew just like that Barnes had earned his friend’s respect. Tony had shrugged, because he wasn’t sure how good he and Barnes would get along on a real mission, but it was good if he got along well with someone on this team. He had a feeling that he and Barnes wouldn’t exactly be on the same page for most of this, because Tony wasn’t sharing his main objective for going to France. It was neither the fate of Captain Rogers or the Silphion. He was looking for a scenario that after some years of playing hide and seek and spy games with Strucker would bring him face to face with the enemy.
Getting Erskine back to Great Britain and the brave soldier back home safely along the way was a matter of pride, a matter of honor, maybe. Even more a matter of respect. He’d gladly make sure that more soldiers, more brave men who were fighting for the freedom of their home country in France got home safely, but to do it, he had to make sure that Hydra’s influence died with this war.
Barnes pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket. It had the name “Stark” scribbled on it in Fury’s forcefully efficient handwriting. Tony took it reluctantly. On the one sheet inside it someone had typed “Operation: Invaders” and a few details of recent codes and contact persons. Agents and people in the resistance movements. The address of a Paris safe house and meeting point and times in Avignon.
“The smart thing to do would be to bypass Paris altogether,” Rhodey said reluctantly.
“If they have Steve, where would they take him for interrogation?”
The word work camp ghosted through his mind, but he wasn’t sure they would bother even. They’d interrogate him wherever was convenient and then kill him, take Erskine, be done with it. What was there for Rogers to give up that they couldn’t get from another agent? “We might be too late, Barnes, you know that, right?”
“If we are, I want to know that I tried anyway until hope was lost. He’s my best friend and I should have gone in his place.”
That was a tune Tony knew to dance to. He nodded and looked at Barnes with a new level of respect. “We’ll do our best to make sure he’s not left behind or forgotten.”
The unhealthy soldier’s brave story had impressed him. The loyalty of a friend impressed him more. People who commanded that kind of respect were usually worth meeting.
But there was something more at the back of his mind. A message written in a code out of a pulp story. The animosity Barnes had been showing him from day one made much more sense when you looked at it in a different light. “Your friend Steve,” he asked, “he wasn’t a fan of Marvels by any chance, was he?”
Eyes narrowing and expression growing darker Barnes went immediately back on the defense. “Not everyone likes that drivel, Stark, some of us live in the real world. I knew you’d be full of yourself.”
“Oh,” he said. “The real world is not a nice place. People need stories.” Or perhaps that was just him. He doubted it though.
“People need heroes. The ones that are made on battle fields, who risk everything for what they believe in where it matters. Who cares for wrestling giant snakes and finding ancient stone idols?”
“You’d be surprised.”
But he knew already. And Barnes knew that Tony understood exactly what he wasn’t saying and he accepted the dislike. So he finally came clean and nearly spat: “He wanted to be a hero like you, Stark. And that’s what he got for it.”
“Heroes,” Tony said neutrally, “belong in story books. They belong with a world that’s better than ours.”
He wasn’t surprised when Barnes took no ounce of comfort from his words. “Right,” he said and glared.
“You didn’t answer my question though. Steven Rogers? He the Marvels reading friend?”
This time Barnes’ eyes narrowed dangerously. “Why?”
The notebook was out of Tony’s pocket before Barnes had even voiced the question. He’d reread the message several times yesterday and pondered the pictures and handwriting. The notebook fell open to the picture of the Glanum ruins and Tony held it up for Barnes to look at. “The handwriting? Is it Rogers’? I’m looking for someone who apparently read Jungle City often enough to remember the code we used for the novel.”
Barnes swallowed and reached for the book. “The drawing that’s Steve alright,” he muttered. “Yes, that’s Steve…” He looked at the notes and nodded. “Is he alive?”
“It just tells us he was alive when he helped extract Erskine’s family. But that we already knew.”
Worry about his friend was written all over the soldier’s face. It was obvious that he had questions. Then he stared at the code. “That’s from the pulps?” he asked and this was probably the first time that there was some fondness in his voice while he mentioned the Tony Stark Adventures.
Tony shrugged. “We used something that was printable, not the real thing we encountered. So whoever is using this, he has taken it from that novel.”
“It was a message to you. That is why Fury…”
“Might be,” Tony interrupted. “Is that something that Steven Rogers would do? It was signed with his codename.”
For an instant Barnes looked somewhere between elated and exasperated, and then finally conceded: “He loves your stupid adventure stories.”
“There’s no accounting for taste,” Tony shot back tartly. “Good. Okay, okay. Then Rogers was with Erskine when he made whatever discovery this notebook is connected to. Or Erskine sent him to bring back something… I think we have to talk, Barnes. If he’s alive we will get your friend and figure this out!”
And Barnes looked about ready to do it, too.
They turned to Pepper and Rhodey and Barnes froze in surprise. Pepper’s arms were around Rhodey’s shoulders and he was just holding her against himself. “Be careful,” she whispered as if the other two weren’t there at all.
“I always come back to you, don’t I?”
“Yeah, but that’s when you’re fighting a war. This time it’s you travelling with him,” and Pepper nodded over his shoulder at where Tony was standing, watching them with a grin. Rhodey also looked at him, but didn’t let go over her yet.
Barnes still stood rooted to the spot and then looked uncertainly between Rhodey and Tony. “I thought she was your girl.”
“Mine?” Tony asked and rolled his eyes. “Pepper will be glad to tell you that she belongs to nobody.”
“Right,” she said, and Rhodey chuckled. “I went for the better pilot,” she said and beamed.
“That’s debatable,” Tony protested and Rhodey shrugged, grinning widely.
“Just come back in one piece, all of you,” Pepper finally let go of her lover and stepped up to hug Tony. “I want to know every little detail, when you get out of there.”
“You know me, Pepper.”
She sighed. “Yeah, I think I’ve come to know you quite well, Tony. So don’t get killed over something that might not even exist.” The look she gave him said more than her words. They were still not sure how much information they should be sharing with Barnes at this point and where avoiding to speak about Hydra or Zemo or Tony’s personal issues where he was close-by. The warning Pepper was voicing was as much about the extinct wunder plant as it was about Zemo, he may or may not be alive still.
“Don’t worry, Pep. I’ve survived worse.”
He didn’t tap his hand against his chest. His meaning was clear.
Rhodey was already boarding the plane. Barnes followed him, pale now and impatient. Tony patted Pepper on the back. “Remember to get us home, if the plane doesn’t work out.”
“Namor is picking me up tonight,” she whispered.
“Don’t let him push you around. He thinks he’s the king of pirates.”
She grinned. “In some ways he probably is. But I’m queen of the Tony Stark adventures. I think we’ll get along fine without you.”
“Are we going to leave here today or are you going to make me wait any longer? I’m not getting younger and the suspense is killing me,” Jarvis called from the plane.
They’d all be glad if this was over.
* * *
“Desperate times, Rhodey,” he said. “The least I can do is see that we have the best equipment at our disposal.”
Barnes was standing behind them, watching over their shoulders, while Jarvis had strapped himself in, studying the notebook. Crossing the channel would be the easiest part of their journey. Their journey to the south of France wasn’t a long one, not at this altitude. They just needed to remain undetected. “We will meet Steve’s partner in Marseilles,” he said decisively. “She’s been looking into his possible capture for days. It’s the best place to start.”
Tony nodded. “You’ll have to do that. My face is on too many wanted terrorist lists of the Reich these days.”
“Which,” he said slowly, but this time not as if he was admonishing Tony, “is why I told Fury we really only needed the robot. You are just too recognizable.”
“You could have gotten rid of the beard,” Rhodey joked. “That worked well in Poland that one time.”
“Only because the Gestapo person was so drunk on beer that he could barely stand.”
They laughed, some of the tension lessening now that they were on track to a new adventure.
“Steve is my priority,” Barnes said softly. “But I understand that Fury wanted you to look into that super-soldier project they are trying to launch.”
“Erskine was working for us first?”
Barnes nodded. “Until an agent got to his family and he just vanished.”
“We’ll get him. And if we’re lucky we’ll get your friend along the way.”
It was obvious that Barnes was nervous. Like Tony he knew that they might already be too late, but he did not want to have to tell himself later that he should have at least tried. “He’s tougher than he looks,” he mumbled.
“He’ll need to be. If they suspect he’s the one who got the family out then he’s the reason they lost their most valuable bargaining chip. Gestapo doesn’t enjoy being made to look like fools.”
“It’s not Gestapo you're worried about though, is it?”
Rhodey whistled through his teeth. It was as much a warning that a spy might have asked the exact same questions as a sign that he was impressed with Barnes deductive skills so far.
Tony shrugged. “Can you imagine them having a successful super-soldier trial before us? Doesn’t make you nervous?”
“Scares the hell out of me,” Barnes admitted.
“Then whatever this is, let’s stop it and go home. You trained Rogers. I gather you know your way around occupied territory? Know your way around a facility that needs to be blown to kingdom come?”
A curt nod. “I’m not really worried about me here. Have you ever done anything like this?”
“So Rogers knows the Tony Stark Adventures so well he can use a code that we only made up for that one issue without much time to look it up, and you’re telling me you have no idea what I do for a living.”
“You build planes and robots and have some of your exploits novelized. Big deal. Will you actually be of help to me down there? And in what way?”
Rhodey suddenly laughed. Tony hoped he looked somewhere between affronted and amused. “You think I’m a fraud and you still stepped into this plane with me, Barnes? I’m not sure if I should admire your courage or be worried I’m on this mission with a dangerously foolish man.”
Barnes shrugged. “Fury says you worked for him since the war started. I knew that must count for something.”
“Ah, but he didn’t give any details?”
“Of course not.” Tony rolled his eyes. “He can be so annoying with all his secrets.”
And that for the first time made Barnes smile at him as if he meant it. “Half the time it’s just like he sends you on missions without even telling you half the things that are going on. He’s a bastard like that.”
Tony gave him a lopsided grin. “Tell you what, Barnes? I think I’m beginning to like you.”
Looking over his shoulder and giving no indication that he cared either way about what Tony thought of him, he continued on: “So we go down there and I can be sure you’ll have my back?”
“Depends on what you think we should be doing exactly? How do we locate your friend?”
Barnes nodded, sure of this next step. “We’ll meet up with his partner. Hopefully she can set us on the right track.”
* * *
And for now this was a covert mission.
He hit the ground with a thud the fabric of his chute tangled in the tree branches and he had an uncomfortable moment, when leaves and twigs hit his face and left long scratches. But he came to the ground relatively unharmed and not crashing down after the trees messed up his fall. He cut himself out of the lines as fast as he could in case they needed to make a quick getaway. Barnes had arranged for a Maquis agent from Lyon to get them here and Tony carefully scanned the darkness between the trees. It was unlikely that they had met the exact coordinates in their fall and he wasn’t surprised that nobody was around.
Barnes crashed down behind him, swearing. Apparently he’d had a bit more trouble than Tony.
“Are you alright?” Tony asked as he stepped closer.
“Came down a bit harder than expected.” Barnes was untangling himself from the fabric and Tony helped him get out. He was sitting on the ground and was cutting himself out of the harness of his chute. “My ankle got twisted when I was knocked down.”
“How bad is it?”
“Not as bad as it could be,” Barnes said and bravely tried to get up on his own and managed to stand. He was limping a little. Not a promising start, Tony thought. But things like that happen. He helped gather the now useless fabric together and then found a good place for it to be hidden away in a hollow tree trunk. Usually he’d make sure that it couldn’t be found at all, but making a fire out here would only make them more noticeable and they wanted to be in and out of here as fast as possible and with the fewest possible number of people even aware of what they were doing.
“We need to get to the meeting point. You said it was a good way away for safety reasons?”
They picked up their equipment, shouldered their bags. Fury had equipped them with false passports and papers, even though all of them knew Tony would have to be very lucky for that kind of deception to work. He was sure he’d been officially branded a terrorist by the Germans after the Iron Man incident at their weapons research facility. Although people were less likely to know his face here, he had been the focus of enough international articles, and some of his adventures had been translated. Surely the Gestapo would at least have his physical description.
It took a moment for them to get their bearings in the darkness and then followed a path towards their rendezvous point. Barnes didn’t say anything, didn’t show he was in pain, but he bravely hobbled along until Tony offered him a shoulder to lean on.
The sergeant didn’t protest and whispered a grateful “thanks” as he leaned on Tony.
“Let's get this over with,” Tony muttered.
He hated to rely on people he didn’t know well. One of the reasons why he had never properly enlisted or worked with anyone but his own team was because he had terrible trust issues. Even Barnes, who in his worry and his shows of animosity towards Tony seemed genuine enough, was an unknown quantity to him.
“Will Rhodey be alright?”
“Up above? He’s safer than we are. As long as he doesn’t get detected and stays out of range, he’ll be fine.”
“Where is he going to take the plane now?”
“Don’t worry about that. He’ll be there when we need him.”
Barnes huffed. “Is this how you make all you plans? ‘He’ll be there when we need him?’”
“I hate sharing information when it’s not necessary,” Tony admitted. “It’s not personal.”
“But you don’t trust me,” Barnes said through gritted teeth.
Tony chuckled. “That feeling seems to be mutual.”
Barnes huffed again. “Nick trusts you, so I trust you. I just don’t think you’re as amazing as you let other people believe you are.”
That was not even that far off from the truth and Tony tried not to laugh too loudly and draw any unwanted attention their way. The woods were silent and dark this night, but the activities of the French resistance were known to the Gestapo and much depended on secrecy. You never knew who was watching from the dark, waiting to gather information, spying on those who defied the German oppressors, or who was spying on the foreign spies. Often the arrest of one agent who might give the Gestapo access to sensible information could lead to a number of arrests in a matter of hours. And whoever got arrested was then the next liability, likely to be put to torture until he gave up the names of friends and compatriots.
Tony hated to get himself into the kind of situations where his own safety depended on too many factors he couldn't control. Not that he lead a particularly safe life, but still he preferred if he was the one who controlled his own fate, decided when to put himself in mortal danger.
Which was why he had taken some precautions.
Nick Fury wasn’t the only person who had contacts.
It was cold and damp out here and a slight chill was creeping into his bones, even as he was helping Barnes along. They were slowly getting closer to their rendezvous point, stumbling along and checking their exact position a few times. Tony had not yet revealed to Barnes that he had a Stark patented long range transmitter in his jacket pocket. He was going to use it to tell Rhodey where he needed the armor dropped, before Rhodey was setting the plane for a home trip or joined them if necessary. For the time being an American Aircraft carrier was waiting for him somewhere in the Atlantic ocean, where he could get some rest and make sure to be ready, whenever assistance or extraction was needed.
Barnes stumbled over a thick branch in their path and Tony caught him, before he could fall. It was too dark to see clearly, but Tony was glad that his companion was already stepping more securely than he had right after the fall. Surely, it couldn’t be as serious as it had seemed at first. It was not a bad omen, just a minor hindrance on their first night in enemy territory. Nothing a bit of rest and a good night's sleep couldn’t make better.
Suddenly Barnes stopped and tugged at his arm to do the same, staring ahead as if he was trying to see in the dark.
Then Tony could hear it too. A running motor in the distance. A car. A truck maybe. Or maybe more than one. The crouched down and listened. The car wasn’t moving. Then the sound ceased.
“That’s the right direction,” Barnes said, but sounded grim.
“There was supposed to be on person waiting for us, with forged papers and…”
“Bicycles,” Barnes finished. “A car would be nice and convenient, but…”
“They would never risk it with the curfew.” They were close enough so that they could see each other’s eyes narrow in the dark. “Could be nothing.”
“Could mean trouble.”
Then there were voices in the dark, not close-by, but drawing nearer slowly. Not one voice. At least three men. When Barnes gave him a sign, Tony got up carefully and helped the other man to move. Slowly and as silently as possible they edged away from the people making their way through the underbrush, both listening for anything that would give them a hint of who was out there. They had reached one of the broader tree trunks they’d passed minutes before and gave themselves a minute to stay there to just listen.
Two men were walking past them, maybe 500 meter to their right and they crouched low to stay out of sight and use the night for cover. The men weren’t alone either. A whole group of people had arrived. Clearly it wasn’t their contact.
“Sie müssen hier sein,” one man spoke in German. “Wir haben das Flugzeug gesehen und der Informant hat uns diesen Ort als Treffpunkt genannt. Sie müssen aus dieser Richtung kommen.”
“Still,” the other one ordered his companion to be silent.
He couldn’t know he was too late. Their targets knew now they were headed for a trap. They waited silently as the two Sicherheitsdienst men walked deeper into the woods.
“Etwas gefunden?” a gruff voice asked loudly as a big man followed the two, appearing suddenly and much too close to where they were hiding. Tony’s breath caught inside his throat. He was not wearing the standard uniform and there was no SS sign on the lapels, but a roundish emblem that Tony couldn’t make out in the night. “Strucker will sie lebend.”
The familiar name sent a shiver down his spine.
Barnes looked at him, and in the night it was hard to tell if there were any signs of fear and nervousness. He gestured for them to move away in the opposite direction. When he wanted to start on that track Tony shook his head and pointed away into yet another direction. Although Barnes didn’t seem to know what he was up to, he followed his lead. They kept from running, there was no way for Barnes to move at a faster pace at the moment and the noise caused by running would just draw attention. They walked silently for half an hour, through the cold, damp night, careful about every single step.
“We can be glad they had no dogs with them.”
“Dogs would have given them away. They’ll bring dogs when they figure out we are not going to show at the rendezvous point.”
“So what now, Stark?”
They were still whispering, making sure not to give the men on their trail a way to locate them. “We use the backup plan.”
“There was one?”
“Be glad I’m paranoid. There is always a backup plan,” Tony whispered, all too cheerfully. Now this was feeling more like a situation he could handle, than when it had all just been about keeping a low profile and infiltrating an enemy facility. Stumbling through the woods at night, thugs right behind him, that had the right touch of a Tony Stark Adventure.
He pulled the transmitter out of his pocket and started to make some adjustments. Barnes didn’t give any sign of surprise, but he watched Tony’s every move. “Požar,” Tony whispered into the device.
“Ya ponimaju,” a female voice answered quietly.
“Fire?” Barnes asked.
“You speak Russian?”
“Part of my job,” Barnes retorted grimly. “There are many communist anarchists in America that bear watching.” Apparently he didn’t like the thought of involving someone who hadn’t been cleared for their mission.
“You’ll like this one,” Tony promised.
“Means we’ve run into trouble. We use one-word phrases to make sure that whatever is overheard doesn’t give our enemies too many details.”
They walked down the next slope and the next. They must have slowly been going for over an hour and the cold was getting uncomfortable. Barnes remained silent, concentrating on getting forward as quickly as his ankle allowed and probably pondering the fate of their contact, or the whole cell of resistance fighters from Lyon. Tony had a feeling they’d been played all along, and that was no promising start to finding their lost soldier-spy.
“Where exactly are we going?”
“New rendezvous,” Tony explained. “I set up an emergency meeting place in case anything went wrong.”
“Emergency meeting place,” Barnes repeated. “I’m not sure if I’m impressed or worried.”
“Be impressed when we’re out of here, until then you can be worried.” They were nearly over another hill top now and Tony hoped it wouldn’t be much further. If the Gestapo came back with dogs they needed to be as far away as possible. “You also had a back-up plan, didn’t you? Don’t tell me Fury didn’t see this coming.”
“I wouldn’t say he saw it coming. I’d say he’s paranoid.”
“So there’s another meet-up.”
Barnes made a open handed gesture. “We would have made our way to a farm on the other side of the woods.”
“And aren’t you happy that this won’t be necessary?” a female voice asked from the darkness. Tony hadn’t heard any footsteps approach or any other sounds that would have given away the person standing beside a tree now, wearing a dark outfit that nearly melted into the night. Only her pale skin and fiery red hair gave her away in the scarce moonlight.
She was in front of him with one quick movement and hugged him briefly. “It’s good to see you, Tony. Although as always the circumstances are dire.”
“I know, I know. I never call when it’s just for pleasure.”
“The woods are swarming with Gestapo. Quickly now,” she said and pulled Tony along and nodded to Barnes to follow. “We can talk when we are out of danger.”