Tony Stark hates cooling his heels waiting for Army brass. Rousted out of his luxurious London hotel by Fury’s boys, he’s still wearing his best tuxedo. And he’d much prefer to be back there than in this freezing, muddy, all but deserted base at the crack of dawn. But this is an invitation he’s in no position to turn down.
Right now it looks like every other Army base Tony has seen. Still being built -- more tents than actual buildings -- with soggy footpaths and gravel roads cutting through what used to be farmers’ pastures. Tony is an observant man, and feels in his bones that something is not right. There’s more here than meets the eye.
He studies his surroundings, but all he sees are tents and hastily erected barracks with one or two men milling around. But the general feeling of wrongness lingers.
The smell of smoke and cooking food draws his attention to the mess a short distance away. A blond soldier is seated next to the tent, working steadily through a small mountain of potatoes. Stopping to roll up his sleeves, he gives Tony a gorgeous smile and a wave before he turns back to his task.
The potato peeler looks like an all-American boy-next-door from a Hollywood movie set. The occasional eye candy in an army uniform is one of the few benefits of this terrible war. Pepper’s going to be jealous.
Tony finds General Phillips is a hard man to say no to -- not that Tony’s willing to turn down the opportunity to use the Iron Man against assorted Nazi scientists. Philips offers Tony workspace and a supply of materials. In return, Tony will be on call for special operations missions. A quick shake seals the deal, and Tony is out in the cold dawn waiting for his ride back to London.
This will be a change from his usual adventures; here, he can make a direct contribution to the effort to end the war. And, someday, after this is all over, he’ll get the gang back together and head out for new horizons. Maybe fill in some of those blank spots on the map.
But, for now, the landscape is ramshackle tents and piles of military equipment and materiel. Even the potato-peeling soldier has gone, a distinct downgrade in the scenery. Soon Tony sees the jeep coming down the muddy track to take him back to civilization.
Dropping his personal luggage in the small tent he’s been assigned, Tony heads to his field workshop. One of the few buildings on base, the interior smells of raw wood, metal shavings and drying paint. He inspects his crates, mentally going over the packing lists. His fingers itch to get to work reassembling the armor. He may need to make repairs after his last adventure, when he was unceremoniously rescued by the walking propaganda poster Captain America.
“So, you’re the man behind Marvels,” a man says.
Tony looks over at the man leaning against the door frame. His khaki uniform shirt is open at the neck, revealing a small triangle of white undershirt, and his eyes are blue as the sky.
It’s the potato-peeler. He’s even more handsome close up. “Yours truly.”
Another brilliant smile greets Tony’s statement. “I read that magazine all the time back in New York.”
Nice. A Marvels fan. Tony decides he can leverage that for a favor or two. The potato-peeler looks exceptionally sturdy and well built, in addition to being easy on the eyes, and Tony has crates to open.
The soldier continues, “It’s kind of hard to get issues out here.”
Tony and Pepper have tried to to keep the magazine going with recycled stories mixed with exaggerated versions of Tony’s mostly unexciting adventures in Europe. Although Pepper didn’t need to doctor up Tony’s rescue on the frontlines by Captain America. That made for a fantastic story, and they sold enough copies to keep the magazine afloat a while longer.
But right now, Tony wants to open his crates and get cracking on his armor.
“Rogers! KP duty, now!” a sergeant yells outside.
The man shrugs an apology. “Got to go.”
Tony waves off the pretty potato-peeler and goes in search of a crowbar. He wonders if he can requisition help.
Rogers does help to uncrate the parts Tony had sent from America. In camp, it’s an open secret that Tony is in fact Iron Man. But Tony doesn’t talk about it and no one asks. It works for him.
He likes working with Rogers, for the most part. The man talks about Marvels, asks him about his adventures, and is enthralled with Tony’s tales. But Tony’s heard things about Steve Rogers -- that he’s lazy, a bit on the dim side, and a poor soldier. He hangs around the young con-man and troublemaker Bucky Barnes too much. Tony’s noticed how Rogers can be awkward and clumsy. Shame, really, that all Rogers has going for him is a nice face and an agreeable personality.
Fury shows up to see how Tony’s doing.
Tony first met Nick Fury when they teamed up to take down a secret Nazi base -- Fury under orders, Tony hating the people who wanted to turn him into the next Zemo. That’s how Tony met Captain America. He was in a desperate spot -- repulsor energy down, facing a horde of soldiers, the only way was to fight his way out. Captain America burst on the scene, saving Tony’s bacon. Although Tony doesn’t remember much, except for Cap’s impressive jawline and commanding presence. And his beautiful smile and that he was a fan of Marvels.
Fury looks over Tony’s workshop, which is outfitted the best Tony can, given the limitation of wartime. “We have a mission. Next week, maybe sooner. Depends on the brass. They ain’t telling much.” He shoves his hands into his pocket and chomps on his cigar.
“I signed up to fight Nazis,” Tony says. They’ve done a couple of missions so far. Tony wants to get back in the field.
“So did I, buddy. But this is big. Real big.” Fury steps closer to the crates as he talks.
Rogers is stacking wood from the crates while Fury talks. He stands up when Fury approaches.
“Private Rogers -- so he’s got you doing his dirty work,” Fury says, jerking his head in Tony’s direction.
“Mr. Stark could use the help,” Rogers replies. “I don’t mind.”
“Beats washing pots,” Fury agrees.
He and Rogers exchange a laugh and a smile. Fury claps the private on the shoulder, an unexpected sign of familiarity. He turns to Tony. “Look forward to seeing your improvements on the suit.”
“So do I.”
Tony has a long afternoon of work ahead of him and he only has Rogers for another hour. He covertly studies Rogers while he works. He wonders about Fury and Rogers. There’s a story there. Maybe. He’s been wrong before.
News that the famous adventurer Tony Stark is working on secret projects for the Army spreads rapidly through the base. Tony has a worldwide reputation as a superior pilot, an engineer better than the college boys at MIT and Stanford, and a ladies’ man who can beat any a newly minted Hollywood actor at the game. And Tony never disappoints the people he met. He graciously nods and waves at the soldiers who whisper rumors about Tony’s racier activities as Tony goes about his business.
He eats dinner with Fury and the other commanding officers. They talk about everything that isn’t the war. Lots of questions about Tony’s adventures, especially Iron Man. But his dinner companions don’t ask fawning or simple questions. They are professionals who have professional questions. Tony appreciates the detail, but also notes the lack of amazement or awe from his companions.
Tony’s been the toast of London with his stories of Iron Man partnering up with the famous yet mysterious Captain America. Here all they care about is the repulsor’s accuracy.
Fury launches into his own story of how the Howling Commandos met up with Iron Man. Tony listens as Fury embroiders the truth with his own flourishes like a born storyteller. The table laughs and applauds at all the right moments. An odd thing, though, is that no one asks about Captain America.
Back in London and New York, Tony is always interrupted. What does Captain America look like? Is he like he is in the comics and the movies? Is he really that strong? Does he really punch that hard? Do you know who he is? What color hair does he have?
But here, there are no questions like that. The conversation turns to Nazis, and Zemo, and Iron Man’s firepower and range. Tony studies the men around the table and glances at the entrance of the tent. Rogers, on guard, has stuck his head around a tent flap to listen to the conversation.
Maybe Tony’s found a kindred soul in Rogers, who marches to his own drum despite being a soldier. Tony grins as he tucks into the over-boiled food on his table. He doesn’t fit in with any of the men around the table -- he’s not a soldier and he hates living on base where everyone knows every move he makes. He wonders how much convincing it would take to get Phillips to loosen his leash. He could use a stay in London, if only to escape the monotony of base living.
Somewhere along the line, Private S. Rogers turns into Steve. And Tony somehow knows whenever Steve is around. He has the idea that he could offer Steve a job when this little adventure is over. He’s confident Steve will jump at the opportunity for real adventures. And Tony offers a lot more than the Army offers a private. Assuming Steve survives the war.
Besides being the base’s designated potato-peeler and overly curious guard, apparently Steve is also General Phillips’ chauffeur. He is waiting by the general’s jeep while Tony demonstrates a new targeting system to the General.
Not that Steve isn’t a major distraction as Tony sets up his artillery. He leans against the jeep, watching the group of officers and Tony. A breeze ruffles his blond hair, mussing it perfectly, the army khaki shirt pulling taut over his biceps as he crosses his arms. He’s either an angel escaped from Heaven or a Hollywood actor caught in the draft. Tony’s not yet sure which he’d prefer.
The test goes well. Unlike the impressed brass, Tony thinks he could do better. He looks forward to a solid afternoon of work on the system.
Steve drives him and the General back to the base and lets Tony off at his workshop. He’s driving Phillips to London and won’t be back for two days.
Strangely, Tony misses the big lummox. Steve has wormed his way into Tony’s life just enough that Tony knows when he isn’t there asking about Atlantis and the encounter with Captain Namor. Turns out that Steve was an artist before he decided to join the army, and he sent artwork for consideration to the magazine. Tony has no idea about his art, but he damn well would’ve remembered him if he showed up at the office, with or without a portfolio. Pepper would have said something. Steve shook his head at Tony and said something about looking different before the war. Tony replied it was because he wore a uniform these days, not a suit off the rack. Steve just smiled.
The next day the base is abuzz about the latest adventure of Captain America, who personally took out a squad of Nazis trying to land a U-boat on southern beaches of England. Tony watches soldiers swarm Steve for news of the good Captain when he returns with Phillips. Steve shrugs, says he doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and disappears to his KP duty.
The day after Steve’s return, Fury pushes a reluctant Barnes into Tony’s workshop. The kid hands over a dented shield. “It’s Captain America’s. Can you fix it?”
“Kid, he can fix anything,” Fury states. “And I mean anything.” He turns a baleful eye on Barnes.
“Yeah, well, Cap says that too.” Barnes squints at Tony.
Tony lifts the dented triangular shield. The already famous shield isn’t made of anything special. All Tony needs to do is pound it back into shape and give it a new paint job. He frowns. The metal is getting thin in spots. He estimates there’s maybe four months of life left in the shield.
“I’ll do my best.”
“It needs to be replaced, right?” asks Fury.
“Yeah,” Tony replies.
“Do what you can,” Barnes says, grudgingly.
As he works on the shield, Tony wonders briefly how Fury and Barnes ended up with Captain America’s shield. Or why Cap thought he could fix it. That night, he draws up ideas for a much better shield.
The next day he shows Steve his plans for the shield and new updates for the armor. He thinks it’s because he misses talking about his designs with Rhodey or Jarvis. Or maybe because he knows that Steve will be impressed.
Standing, Steve holds Tony’s armor drawings up to the light. “Wow, Tony.”
Tony comes up behind him to point out the changes he made to the armor to carry more ammo. “I have to machine the parts. But once I do that, it won’t take me long to make the changes.”
Steve turns his head to look at Tony. Tony swallows, suddenly aware of how close Steve is and the feeling of electricity between them. Steve cocks his head to the side, taking in Tony’s discomfort. Steve grins and turns back to studying the drawings.
Tony is never at a loss for words and he has a reputation to uphold. Even if Pepper always warns him about the pretty ones. “Like what you see?”
Steve lowers the drawings. “They’re beautiful drawings, Tony,” he replies, not quite taking up Tony’s challenge. “The design, everything.”
Tony folds up the papers and tucks them away on his makeshift desk. “Hopefully I’ll get the changes done before I have to use the suit again.”
Steve leans against the desk. “So that’s what you mean when you ask someone back to your workshop to show them your drawings.”
Only years of practice help Tony conceal his surprise. He’s not sure how far to push whatever this is. He catches a hint of Steve giving him a heated look, but that’s hard to believe since Steve is so gosh-darn-nice-boy-next-door.
“Not always drawings. Sometimes it’s etchings or photographs from my adventures.”
“Maybe sometime when we’re back in New York you could try again,” Steve says. “I need to report in before taps.”
“Just like a co-ed. Back at college and I can’t stay past visiting hours.”
Steve bit back a laugh. “I’m sure that wouldn’t stop you. Do you need me tomorrow?”
“I’ll need to clear it with your sergeant, right?”
“I have KP and drill. And driving duty. He might be able to pencil you in.”
Phillips holds a top-secret meeting with Fury, Tony and a couple of aides. The mission sounds too simple for words. Tony and Fury are to retrieve a classified shipment sent from the United States from an agent in Liverpool and return it to the base.
“Really,” Tony says, after listening to the mission debrief, “you could send Fury’s boys to get it.”
Fury strokes his chin as he studies the map. “Liverpool and back, eh? With Stark and the suit and us as the escorts. Which of the Commandos do you want for the driver and muscle?”
“I have a driver in mind,” Phillips says. “I can’t stress how important this mission is. This package cannot fall into the Nazis’ hands. So I’m sending my top men -- you two. This’ll take a day. You better be back by midnight tomorrow.”
Fury grumbles as they leave headquarters. “That means we’re leaving at 0-dark-thirty-- if not earlier. Get your beauty rest, Stark.”
He wasn’t kidding, as Tony finds at 4 a.m. when Fury pounds on his workshop door. Tony has started bunking in his workshop to avoid sharing quarters. “Come on, Stark. Get yer party suit and let’s hit the road.”
They’re assigned a nondescript truck with no Army markings. It has a dull red paint-job and a canvas cover rigged over the cargo area. Fury helps Stark to load the armor into the bed and secure the tarp.
“I’d prefer a jeep,” Steve says as he approaches the truck. He’s wearing civvies -- pants and a long-sleeve plaid shirt buttoned up to his neck -- not his usual uniform. Tony very much approves, though Steve would look even better with a touch more skin revealed. “But that would attract the wrong sort of attention.”
“Damn. Don’t think I packed nearly enough ammo for this mission,” Fury growls. “Stark’s riding shotgun.” He gets in the back to ride with Tony’s crated armor.
Tony climbs into the cab with Steve. Steve is ridiculously cheerful for that time in the morning. Denied even a cup of the miserable dreck the mess calls coffee, Tony wants to sleep all the way to Liverpool. Steve is kind enough to leave Tony alone.
Half-asleep, Tony watches Steve drive. Surprisingly, he is an excellent driver. “You know, if the whole potato peeling doesn’t work out for you after the war, I could have a job for you.”
“Rhodey deserves a promotion,” Tony mumbles.
He stares at Steve’s large hand as he moves the shift lever. Tony blinks and nods, lured into sleep by the truck’s motion. But his restless mind is full of questions -- about the mission, about Steve. He shifts in his uncomfortable seat to look over at Steve. Steve has a slight smile on his face and seems a different man from the one Tony’s come to like. More than like, to be honest, over the past few weeks. He has a familiar jawline. But then again, Steve looks like a lot of other men -- it’s his smile and the shine in his eyes that marks him as special. Tony drifts back into sleep, fantasizing about meeting up again with Captain America.
Eventually Steve nudges him awake. “Can’t listen to Fury back there complain about the roads all morning,” he says.
Tony straightens in his seat. “How much longer?”
“An hour, probably less.”
He hears a groan from the back. “What’s with him?”
“Fury? Oh, he was up all night drinking with the boys.”
“Is that why you’re the driver?”
Steve shrugs. “When’s the next issue of Marvels coming out? Anything interesting?”
“A couple of weeks.” For the first time ever, Tony’s not sure what’s in the magazine. Even Pepper, crack writer that she is, can’t make a good story out of Tony’s time at the base. Her last letter said that she would work it out somehow. “We’ll see together what the issue has.”
“Do you miss it? All that adventuring?”
“Let’s just say that I’d prefer to be in the Amazon or Mongolia right now.”
“Phillips thinks the war will go on for a few more years at least.”
Tony nods. He’s heard all sorts of rumors and opinions about the length of the war. “It’s a long road to peace.”
Strangely, he’s expecting Steve to say something about Captain America paving the way. He’s heard all that and more from the admiring soldiers on base and elsewhere. Steve doesn’t talk about Captain America or being a soldier or war. If Rhodey was here, he’d tell Tony that he’s only fond of Steve because Steve likes to talk about Tony and Marvels and all their adventures.
It’s not that, Tony knows. He’s managed to get Steve talking about art, museums, and books. Before the war, Steve had dreams of visiting the great cities of Europe to see things he’d only seen in the movies.
Tony could show him all that.
“How’s a matinee idol like you end up in a joint like this?”
Steve laughs. “How old is that line?”
“Older than us,” Tony replies. He grins at Steve. And it doesn’t escape him that Steve seems intrigued. “But, how, really?”
“Long story.” Steve shoots a blindly beautiful smile at Tony. “If we had time in Liverpool, we could talk about it over a beer.”
“I’ve read the mission brief. We don’t have time, you know that.” Tony runs his fingers along the top of the door. “But I’m still interested in that story. I’ll warn you -- I’m a persistent bastard.”
“That’s why I like you.”
“I know your price, though -- a beer for a story.”
“You forgot the location. That might be a big part of the price.”
“You’re not going to hold out for Paris? London would be easier.”
“It might be a story worth a beer in Paris.”
The landscape around them changes from village to city outskirts. “Guess we’re here,” Tony says. He hates to end their conversation.
“Fury, wake up!” Steve shouts, thumping on the back of the cab.
Fury has the right passwords and the contact hands over a large, unwieldy package. Tony sees the name “Myron McLain” scrawled across the brown-paper wrapping. The name rings a faint bell.
Steve is sketching as he waits with the truck parked at the curb. Fury shows him the package. “I bet you know what this is,” he whispers to Steve, thinking Tony can't hear him.
Steve snorts. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He glances in a not-at-all suspicious way at Tony.
Tony looks at the both of them and narrows his eyes. He’s never been a fan of Fury. But he’s seen how Fury acts around Steve. Nothing squares up at all.
On the way back to base, Steve zips along tiny country lanes faster than he really should.
“Nick,” he shouts suddenly.
Tony looks through the window between the cargo bed and the cab to see Fury whip out his gun and shift around to aim at something that Tony can’t see.
“What’s going on?” Tony asks.
“We’re being followed. And they have guns pointed at us,” Steve says firmly. Tony does a double-take. The friendly, curious, and slightly awkward private has disappeared. Face set with determination, Steve masterfully handles shifting and braking while steering on the twisty roads. He never even breaks a sweat.
“How far back?” Fury asks.
Steve glances at the tiny side mirror. “About a quarter-mile. Don’t know know how many -- I just noticed the truck and the guns.”
“Think they’re catching up?”
Steve says nothing as he hits the gas harder.
“We should be close to the base,” Tony remarks. He pulls out his own sidearm. Never hurts to be prepared. He shouts through the window. “Now I know why Rogers was picked to be the driver.”
Fury snorts. “He does more than drive.”
Steve blows through an empty intersection and heads for the main road. It’s two hours past sunset and they seem to be the only ones on the road bathed in moonlight. Then Tony finally sees what Steve saw -- another truck and a couple of jeeps bearing down on them. “We’ve got company,” he says.
“Yeah,” Fury mutters. “Hey -- are our friends ahead of us?” he shouts at Steve.
“Haven’t seen them -- we’re not at the rendezvous point,” he yells back over the roar of the laboring engine.
From the noise, Tony can tell that Steve is pushing the truck to its limit. But if he slows down, whoever is following them will catch up. And they can’t let the Nazis get the package.
“Want to try your new toy?” Fury shouts back at Steve.
“Stark has his armor. We’ll pull over so he can suit up.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Tony says. He focuses on the jeeps getting closer. But he picks up on Fury’s toy comment.
Despite the weight of the three men and the cargo, their truck shudders violently and shimmies across the road. Then the timing chain blows. With inhuman effort, Steve manages to wrench the truck to a controlled stop. He jumps out of the driver’s seat and runs to the back while ripping off his civvies.
Tony admittedly has wondered what Steve does or doesn’t wear under his uniform many times since they met. But he never guessed it was a Captain America uniform.
“Give me the shield,” Steve shouts at Fury.
Fury grabs the shipment and hands it over to Steve, no -- Captain America. Who tears off the wrapping to reveal a circular shield decorated with bands of red and white around a white star on a field of blue. Perfect match for the uniform. Steve makes a stand in the middle of the road, ready to stare down their pursuers.
“What, are you gonna just sit there and gawk all evening?” Fury says.
Indignant, Tony climbs into the back of the truck to put on the armor. He has streamlined the armor to reduce the assembly time. He curses as his fingers fumble with the armor fastenings. Clearly he has work to do.
Fury jumps out of the truck, shooting as he goes. Tony yanks on the helmet. He surveys the scene outside the truck. Captain America, holding his own against two jeeps of Nazi spies. Tony can help with that. He powers up the armor and joins the fight.
He swoops through the crowd of Nazis, bowling over several, before taking out the truck with his repulsors. He lands next to Cap. Cap nods at him and punches out another Nazi. It feels right to stand next to Cap and fight side by side. With a squeal of brakes, a U.S. Army truck pulls up and spills a mob of Howling Commandos, all shooting and shouting. Together they soon make short work of the Nazis.
After the fight, Tony goes over to kick through the debris left by the Nazis while the Howling Commandos line the survivors up for processing. He doesn’t find anything special except for a piece of metal stamped with lettering spelling out HYDRA. Hmmm. Something to look up later.
“Ready to get back to base?” Captain America asks. “We’ve got a ride.”
Tony notices traces of Steve -- the smile, the sky-blue eyes, the jaw line -- under the cowl and uniform. He had his suspicions before, but seeing it all together, it still seems a little unreal. “So this base, it’s all a cover, right?”
“You just now cottoned on to the fact that we’re all Special Ops?” Fury says. Assorted Howling Commandos laugh.
“Give Stark a break,” Steve says. “He’s a civilian contractor. The General didn’t tell him.” He hefts his new shield and smiles like he’s found his soulmate. “And it’s, uh, complicated. Not everyone on base knows.”
“Right. Which is why we have Captain America peeling our potatoes,” Fury chimes in.
Back at base, Tony retreats to the quiet of his workshop. The wood walls drown out some of the Howling Commandos’ celebration, but not enough. He gets an unexpected knock on the door. “Come in,” he answers. He’s given up on getting sleep tonight.
It’s Steve. He’s back in his Army uniform, except now his shirt is unbuttoned, revealing his white t-shirt and dog tags. And he has a bottle of liquor, possibly vodka, in one hand, and shot glasses in the other. Tony could eat him up with a spoon.
“Can I come in?”
“With that calling card? Sure, pull up a chair.” Tony reaches for the liquor bottle. He doesn’t know the brand.
“Fury liberated it from somewhere. I suspect it’s moonshine.”
“Moonshine in Great Britain?” Tony sniffs the liquor. He’s betting it’s vodka.
Steve shrugs. “I don’t ask.”
They each take a shot. The neutral-grain alcohol in the probably-vodka burns Tony’s throat as it goes down. He narrows his eyes at Steve and smiles. “Are you trying to get me drunk?”
Steve laughs. “Afraid for your virtue?”
“No. But I’m a man of experience.” Tony runs his finger around the rim of the glass. “So. Captain America?” he finally asks.
“Yes. Have to do something when I’m not on KP.” Steve pours Tony another shot.
“Does this count towards my beer-for-your-story trade?”
“I brought vodka and we’re not in Paris.”
“You drive a hard bargain, Private Rogers. Assuming that’s your real rank.”
Steve turns up a corner of his mouth. “I’m a private -- enlisted. Though the brass are talking about giving me a promotion.”
“So everyone but me knows you’re the good Captain?”
“No. Just Phillips, Fury and a few others on a need-to-know basis. I figured you guessed a while ago. I’m a classified, top-secret Army project that Phillips trusts you to know.”
Tony nods. He raises his glass. “A toast?”
“To Captain America and Iron Man. Long may their partnership flourish.”
“I’ll toast to that.” Steve clinks Tony’s glass and gives him a wink that sends a shiver down his spine. “To great beginnings.”
Tony salutes Steve with his glass and drinks. That sounds promising, most promising, indeed.