The spy had become nothing but a vanishing shape in the fog. But Iron Man's partner knew that this man could not be allowed to escape with the information he'd gathered in Tony Stark's office. Protecting their friend and benefactor was what they did, but this was much greater and more important than even that. America was in danger if any of the man's genius inventions fell into the hands of the enemies of freedom today.
The speech Stark had given on how he wanted the soldiers in Europe to have the best help his technology could offer and how Stark Industries would supply the best they could give still rang in Pepper's ears. Tony had only wanted the best for the world, had wanted to give their soldier's hope and their families some comfort. But if the enemy stole his plans now then America and the allied forces would face dark times. But worse… Only few people knew how dark things would look on the home front. Only Pepper and Iron Man had seen the terrible figure who was pulling the strings behind the scenes right here in their city. While the army had only heard whispers of the name, “the Red Skull” was already making New York’s crime lords tremble, had taken control of all underworld dealings.
And now he was coming after Tony Stark.
They couldn’t allow it.
Pepper ran down the corridor, gun in hand. There was no time to waste and no reason to hesitate. Iron Man would follow the call soon and until then Pepper could keep these thugs distracted inside the vast building. As always they were prepared and ready to face impossible odds.
The blue mask was hiding the boyish features, as the young aid of both Tony Stark and Iron Man set to work.
Pepper reread the paragraphs twice to make sure she hadn't missed anything. Her arms were still aching from carrying a gun around, climbing walls in training camp, where she had been run ragged by her new drill sergeant, Happy Hogan. The man looked like bulldog, but Pepper had already discovered that he wasn't as unrelenting as he liked to pretend. Not an hour ago Tony had picked her up to take her out and about to make sure she was seen in New York. Her training was supposed to be so secret that long absences from her home would only lead to suspicion among their enemies.
They knew they were being watched closely from friends and enemies alike.
Because she wasn't really a soldier and her training was taken on by Fury's own secret war commando, her life had become a lot more complicated lately. She had to be careful not to slip up and give herself away. When her training was finally finished then she'd be another secret weapon in their arsenal. Part of her enjoyed the secrecy, but as someone who made her living by telling stories, their previous adventures had been much less troublesome. Outrageous adventures you could talk about, loud and proud, because people generally believed you were exaggerating anyway. This new work the war had pushed on them was difference. As interesting as she found the actual work, as tedious the secrecy was becoming.
Her life at home had changed drastically and she yearned for it all to be over so she could show the world what she was made of.
But at least she wasn’t alone in this. There was someone she could always talk to, because without every planning to he was the one who had led her to this point in her life. To think that once all she had wanted had been to write and publish under her own name, to be taken seriously and be accepted! Pepper could never have known back then that taking the job as Tony Stark's chronicler would changed her life in more than just the little ways.
The recognition she had wanted, wasn't the priority any longer - making a difference against one of the most dangerous and evil organizations the world had ever seen was.
“I still don't understand why you think you have to do it, Pepper.” Tony was lounging in the seat across from her at the small, clean table. He had brought her to his new favorite diner for the second time this week, because from here they had a good view of what exactly was going on across the street in their temporary place of residence, but Pepper had the feeling that wasn’t the only reason why this was Tony’s new favorite place. As his chronicler she knew that there were usually more layers to Tony's decisions and not all of them were obvious right away.
After some Nazi collaborator who had been sent by the man they called the Red Skull, aptly named because he was wearing a red skull mask whenever he revealed himself, had tried to break into the Stark Mansion in Manhattan in search of information on Iron Man, Tony had become even more restless than before. It never sat well with him to be stuck in one place, even if the place was New York City with all its wonders. Tony hated to be at a disadvantage and the Red Skull had played him a few times to often since his appearince in their city. That he'd gotten close, that he had shown how dangerous he was, rankled more than anything.
Tony hated not being in control of his own fate.
The red Skulls near win was a challenge he couldn't let stand. Heneeded to get back at him for his own peace of mind.
Tony had a reputation to live up to.
But even that bore complications. In New York Tony wasn't just the awesome adventurer. He was a highly public figure, a well-known celebrity. Reporters were after him to get more information about his adventures or to get news on Iron Man their companies visible mascot who had recently debuted in the pages Marvels and some news sections as Tony Starks bodyguard and close friend. People were also after news of newest Stark Industries developments and products – and quite a few hoped to get the first glimpse of Stark and whoever was playing lady of his heart at the moment. The gossip surrounding his every move never died down. But to the utmost disappointment of the press and his female admirers Tony had kept away from dalliances so far and not provided them with any pictures or saucy stories that would fire the speculations.
The people closest to him knew better than to ask, but Pepper wasn't the only one who thought that the betrayal of Gialetta ran much deeper than Tony let on. It wasn't the first time that he had to keep himself in check and move on from betrayal; it wasn't even the first time he'd been betrayed by a loved one, but Gialetta had been close to him for so many years and he'd never suspected. And her betrayal hadn't been the only blow he'd received. While Tony was good at bouncing back and keeping his eyes on the future, Rhodey, Jarvis and Pepper knew better than any of his numerous admirers that the hailed futurist, Tony Stark, was at the heart of things a man who was always haunted by his past. The tragedies – his mother's early death, his father's apparent succumbing to a war injury and his early experiences with deadly competition that had led to the life threatening injury that had finally turned him into the adventurer he was today – had made the man as much as the successes that he let the world see.
While the world knew his name and the image he'd built, only a handful of people knew the man he was underneath.
That Iron Man was his secret alter ego fit too well in her opinion.
“Why do we have to do anything, Tony?” she asked after he impatiently drummed his fingers against the table's smooth surface, moving around in his chair like a displeased predator, held by an invisible leash. She looked up from her new and disappointing manuscript for the next Marvels issue and grinned at him, before taking a sip from her glass of juice.
“We don't. That's what I'm saying,” he said, an arm thrown over the back of the seat now, sitting in a careless uncomfortable position that made it seem like he was ready to spring up again any minute now. It wouldn't surprise her, if he just ran out on her.
“Precisely.” She smiled and let her words sink in. “We don't have to, but for some reason we end up doing things anyway. All the time. Why is that?”
He studied her, which was the first time that all of his attention rested on her since they had come to the diner. She knew he was on the lookout - after all they had been waiting for some time now for the enemy party to make their move on him. The Red Skull was out there and they knew he was only the newest guy Hydra sent in another desperate attempt to get to Tony. But she was observant, and she knew that wasn't the only reason why her partner was glancing around the room to catch a glimpse of someone.
It was easy to see now why he favored this place so much. "Point taken," he finally conceeded and nodded.
His attentions was wandering, but his eyes had also narrowed. Sometimes she forgot how he got when he was playing his own games. Tony's habit to keep thing to himself had been ingrained over a whole lifetimes of having to hide his weaknesses, of following secret trails and hunting to treasure.
But she had been with him for a while. She knew how to read him at least a little. "You're scheming, Tony. Why are you scheming?"
"Have you read the paper?" he asked.
"We know there's a lot going on."
"Dr. Erskine is dead. He was killed during a raid on his lab. Resembled the one that was staged on the mansion."
"You said you worked with him..."
"For a while," Tony agreed. "He tried to help me. Never went anywhere. Worked for the army recently."
"You want to tell me something was stolen?"
"Something was stolen. Something a lot of people were after."
"So this is where it turns personal for you?" She wanted to sigh, because it was so like him to not take threats on his own life as serious as something that had happened to someone else.
"It's Hydra. Doesn't get more personal than that."
He sat up a little straighter his attention no longer on the surroundings, on the exits. In fact he visibly relaxed and Pepper had an idea why that was.
Tony had come to this place for every single day during the week and it wasn't because this was the only strategic place to observe and be observed. He could have done the same while inconspicuously reading his paper in the hotel lobby. Following Tony's suddenly flitting gaze over to the counter where a young, lanky man was picking up the coffee pot, before strolling over to them and filling Tony's cup once more with a smile without being asked to so, confirmed her suspicion.
“Mr. Stark,” he said and positively beamed.
How sweet, Pepper thought. An avid fan. Just what Tony needs to lighten his mood. She threw a nervous look over at Tony, who usually avoided the enthusiasts he met at high society events - those who wanted to clap him on the shoulder and hear all the spicy gossip an oddity like Tony Stark could give them about the secret world beyond civilization -, but never seemed to have a problem giving autographs to children on the street. The young man probably wasn't one of the former sort and he was easy enough on the eyes to hold Tony's attention for a bit. She was still surprised when Tony didn't just smile the smile of the charming adventurer and rouge who had an outrageous story to tell. He beamed back at the man, oddly innocent and open, like she'd only every seen a couple of times.
She hid a grin behind her own glass and looked away, trying not to be obvious about her amusement. She hadn't yet learned all the ins and outs and secret codes involved in meeting men who shared Tony's occasional interested for closeness, but Tony wouldn't be this open with that particular smile if he wasn't hoping for some chance to get to know the young fellow at least a little better.
Idly, she wondered what he had done to even be noticed?
It wasn't that he wasn't good-looking in his charming, slightly fragile way, but Tony usually went for a special kind of headstrong person who could hold their own against him, who had their own adventurous stories to tell – the kind of people who often turned out to be more dangerous than was good for him.
His history proved it.
“You are not going to threaten me with pouring that coffee all over me this time, I hope?” Tony asked and the glow of the smile had yet to vanish. In fact it was shining a little brighter.
“Not if you behave,” the young man said with a stern narrowing of his eyes. He hadn't right out ignored Pepper, but perhaps he had forgotten her while he had gotten lost in Tony's eyes, because now he turned to her, his smile suddenly shy and a little nervous. “He said, Iron Man wasn't all that the pulps made him out to be – wasn't that amazing when you got to know him up close. Can you believe it?”
“I also said, his partner punched like a girl,” Tony informed her with a shit-eating grin aimed solely at her.
It startled a laugh out of her. “He does not,” she said between chuckles and was tempted to “playfully” punch his shoulder across the table to prove it. It was so like Tony to use the new stamp of secrecy the army had put on their little operation, to make the kind of self-depreciating jokes only a select few would ever get.
“Steve here,” he explained to her in a conspiratorial tone, “thinks that Iron Man and his sidekick Pepper are heroes. The real deal.”
“Steve” blushed a little. “I mean...” he said and he wasn't stuttering, just stumbling over the words a little. “Or course they are! The papers are full of their deeds these days! They are making a real difference! You're Tony Stark. Adventures are nothing to you, of course. And you've built the suit... So you probably can't see it. But it's so amazing. He's just a man and what the armor lets him do! It's honestly so important and so... I don't know. It makes me feel like we should all give our best.”
The beaming grin was back on Tony's face. “I'll be sure to let him know you feel that way. He likes compliments.”
It was perfectly sweet. Tony hadn't smiled a real smile since Rhodey had left for Europe and since it had become clear that Hydra was hunting for American secrets on American soil. A frown had creased Tony's brow for nearly every day since he'd realized there was nowhere that was safe from Hydra. And then Jarvis had been seriously injured a month back, when a group of masked men had raided the mansion, apparently in search of Tony Stark, ready to take him out and take the armor, take his secrets and use them against him, against the world. They had known exactly who they were dealing with and no subterfuge, no secret identity, would have fooled them. They'd come with orders issued by someone who knew everything there was to know about Tony - knew right down to the locations of all the secret compartments in his office desk drawers.
Gialetta it seemed had picked up some of the pieces of Hydra and taken charge. Together with a new leader who had taken Strucker's place, she was now hunting for a new Zemo to help her rule the world, remake it in her image.
“Don't worry,” Pepper reassured Steve. “He's really going to let him know. He thinks Iron Man is pretty grand himself. Too much so sometimes. Thick as thieves, those two.” She kicked Tony's shin under the table without letting her smile falter.
To his credit, Tony barely flinched. “He's okay,” he said, with a mostly straight face. “But his partner is the brains of the outfit.”
“No question about that,” Pepper agreed easily and narrowed her eyes.
“So Pepper is real? The papers never caught a picture of him.”
“Of course!” She wasn’t even appalled that it was so easy to keep a straight face. She’d played her part as male author for such a long time that playing the boyish sidekick under the superficial alias provided by her own name was terribly easy. Clearly, Tony was rubbing off on her. Or perhaps it amused her to look at people and think how shocking it would be for them that this redheaded dame wasn’t just the hero’s love interest in this story.
“I'm sorry,” Steve suddenly said and looked flustered. “I didn't want to interrupt anything, Miss...”
She readily held out her hand. “Potts. Virginia Potts,” she enunciated her name carefully. After all these years it was strange to go by her full name again.
Across from her Tony was trying not to smile this time. He knew she didn't like her first name very much and she'd gone by simply "Pepper" for so long that the recent need to introduce herself that way was still foreign. It was like she was talking about someone else all the time these days. Someone who wasn't her.
The fact that the army's propaganda machine had seized control of Marvels Magazine and changed her “character” into “Pepper”, vivacious masked army brat, and obviously meant to be a boy, wasn't helping.
But just now, Steve eyes bulged. “You are V. Potts? The V. Potts?”
“The one and only,” Tony supplied and smiled at Pepper, friendly and more content than she had ever seen him, while someone was discussing Marvels no less.
“Yes,” she admitted.
“I read all of your Marvels issues! I had no idea that V. Potts was...”
“A woman?” Her smile was probably a bit tight now.
“...not a house name,” Steve finished and smiled at her sheepishly, scratching a hand through his hair, messing it up and blushing a little as he did so. "Most magazines use more than one writer."
It was, Pepper had to admit, quite cute, actually. No wonder Tony was amusing himself by coming here so often. Steve was quite the sweet guy, full of enthusiasm, and full of hero worship. And he wasn't afraid or cowed by the presence of Tony Stark in his little diner. While he clearly looked up to him, he behaved in a natural, unspoiled way that Tony would absolutely find charming.
Nothing long lasting would come off this, but at least Tony's mood was already much improved. That alone made Pepper thankful for the young man crossing their path by chance. Once in a while her haunted hero deserved a bit of sunshine in his life.
“So, you must know all about Iron Man and Pepper?” Steve asked, looking at her with wide eyes.
Tony grinned at her expectantly, waiting for her to pick up the thread and spin her own little white lie around their secret. “We're close,” she said mysteriously.
“So, Pepper? That's an alias? A nickname?”
“Yes, obviously we can't use his real name,” Tony answered immediately, enjoying the whole charade more than was healthy. “Quite the explosive person, the little guy. They often are, if you catch my drift?” He wriggled his eyebrows a bit for emphasis and Steve's eyes, wide and startlingly blue, flitted back to him, amazed. A red tinge colored his cheeks.
He had it bad.
Perhaps Pepper should have taken Tony aside and given him a stern talking to for using this kind of obvious innuendo with a nice person like Steve. This young man was too nice to have his heartbroken by someone with a broken heart like Tony. It wasn't like Tony was callous or uncaring, but if Pepper knew anything about him, then it was that his life had no room for playing it safe with a nice fellow who made his living in a diner, probably because by the looks of him he was not the kind of guy who would make it out alive if he got in too deep.
But then, a harmless flirt wouldn't be dangerous. As soon as Pepper's training was complete, Fury was sending them out. Protecting the home front was a temporary assignment. Others would be able to do that job just fine. They wouldn't be here long enough for Tony to do something he would regret and break this poor fellow's heart too badly and Steve would have the memories of meeting his hero in the flesh and having held his attention for those meetings for the rest of his life.
Surely there was no harm in it?
“Rogers!” a corpulent, angry looking man shouted from the counter suddenly. “Stop bothering the customers and get your sorry hide to work. You have more customers to entertain with your wit, if you'd be so kind?”
“Sorry,” Steve apologized and ducked his head at Tony and Pepper. The apology was more for them than his boss, evidently.
“Sweet guy,” Pepper whispered across the table when Steve was out of earshot.
Tony shrugged. He was trying not to watch their new friend walk away and instead, chin in hand, coffee forgotten, went back to silently observe the street and the hotel across from them. “Think they'll bite before I go stir crazy?”
Bitterly she looked down at the manuscript. “Too late for that. You're already like a caged tiger, dear. I hope they bite soon. I'm not sure I can write this... stuff any longer.”
“I'm sorry,” he said and quietly mouthed “Pepper”.
“I'm sorry, too. You didn't want us to have close strings with the army and keep all these secrets. I talked you into this.”
He shrugged. “I don't want to see you get hurt.”
She kicked his shin under the table again, a little harder this time.
"I'm sorry. I know I'm not supposed to be overprotective. You're your own woman and you make your own decisions."
"Well, I made this one for both of us. So I'll allow you to be grumpy. But the worry gets tiring very fast."
"I think you're on the best way to get yourself killed. And if there has ever been a rule in this outfit, then it's that getting killed is my job. I'm just grumpy, because I am worried you'll steal my act."
Of course, it was a very Tony thing to say that he was the one who was supposed to get himself killed, taking all the risks, and recently she had come to understand that his past, his present, his future – it all connected there in that belief. He had been running from death and been playing with fire for so long that he really had lost sight of how precious his own life was a long time ago. The fact that Gialetta Nefaria was hunting for him now with the help of the secret organization known as Hydra, that had already taken Howard Stark, to give her old flame an end that was worse than death, just worried Pepper more. Tony was hurrying towards a confrontation, fully aware that he might not come out alive. When Fury gave her the final clearance, she wanted to fight by his side even better than ever before, not just relying on her smarts, but also on her skills as soldier in the field. She had promised Jarvis to look out for Tony. They both knew, he needed someone beside him who could protect him, too. “Don't ever say that,” she admonished. "Bad enough that people are dying."
“Then do me the favor of dropping this. It's not too late, Pepper. You don't want to be a spy or a soldier. You have an amazing talent and you are the best partner I ever had in the field. We don't need you to have saboteur training or go to secret spy school. You're already the best partner I ever had.”
“I want to do my part. Like any young man joining the army. Don't you think I have as much reason to kick some German ass as you do?”
He contemplated it only for a minute. “I understand. It's not that don't understand. I just...”
“You hate losing people and you're scared, Mr. Stark. Get over it.”
“Don't write that,” he said and motioned at the manuscript. “Sucks as an addition to my public image.”
“You’re not even denying it!”
He shrugged. “I’m not too proud to admit it.”
She tried to smile, but none of this was particularly funny. “Do you want to write the amazing adventures of a boy named Pepper? Perhaps that would cheer you up? I'll let you be a worry wart if you help me out here.”
“No can do. I love Iron Man and Pepper. I love Iron Man. He gives Tony a new kind of freedom that I feel I never had before. People want to know all about him and not me for a change. It's amazing. Last night Sunset Bain couldn’t shut up about him. But I... I miss the Tony Stark Adventures and I miss my fiery redheaded assistant in the skimpy ripped dresses she never really wore in real life. She was a cool act." He groaned. "Listen to me, Pepper, listen real close: The man who envisions the future is missing the past. It’s all very sad, isn’t it?” He threw up his hands dramatically,
She shrugged. “You and me both miss it, Tony. It's not like I planned to join up or become a spy. I wanted to write about it, about the war, about the soldiers and their stories. But now... If not us then who? And you were going to go and join the fray one way or another, because you have a score to settle. I'm just making sure that I will be right there with you. Someone needs to have your back, Mister.”
He grimaced. The reminder that he was also working with the army, as convenient contractor and capable operative in the field never made him particularly happy. It wasn’t even that he and Fury weren’t getting along. They understood each other better than most men did. But memories of war heroes and soldiers always brought memories of the father who died a hero once and then came back as nightmare born from Hydra. So she let it slide.
Silently they kept each other company for a while longer, while Pepper tried to get the events of the mansion raid into a coherent and readable adventure that did not jeopardize their many secrets. Still it felt more like lying than any of the “edits” she had done when writing down the adventures they'd had before. Part of her wondered if that was because those adventures had been so fantastic even before they had been fictionalized, that the exaggeration hadn’t been a lie, just a way of catching the atmosphere of the adventure that had to be adjusted a little for public consumption, because the world couldn't know about some of the gruesome truths and some of the mysteries that were too dangerous to be announced and that most people wouldn't have believed in the first place.
Keeping with their casual routine, Tony left the diner before her to walk to the Stark Industries office that was located in the neighborhood, where they pretended he was working on some important business for now, in hopes of luring out their enemies. She tried to write for a while longer, pondering the waiting game they were playing. Just like Tony, she felt it was time to move, to stop being stuck on the wrong shore in this war. Over in Europe was where this fight would be won in the long run and not here fighting the spies that the Nazis were sending over to obstruct their war effort and steal their secrets. But until the army was confident they could do their job, she and Tony weren't going anywhere. General Fury had been very clear about that.
He had even suggested once that Tony hand over the technology of his Iron Man suit or build them an army of Iron Men. Of course, Tony had refused. And Fury didn't even realize that it was the tiny piece of Orichalcum in his mechanical heart that allowed Tony to power the newest, more sophisticated version of the suit. Tony was not ready to share a personal secret of that kind with anyone. It was bad enough that Hydra knew too many of his weaknesses, he was not going to give the army that kind of power over him.
Steve came to collect her plate and gave her a half-rueful smile, when he noticed she was watching the way his gaze flitted over to Tony's abandoned seat. “That the new adventure?” he asked finally and nodded at the manuscript.
“Perhaps. One day. If I get it past the Marvels editor.” She thought of the sergeant Fury had put in charge of reading all their adventures before publication with a mental sigh. Blessed were the days when Tony had only left a few notes here and there, before things were published.
“He's quite something, isn't he?” he finally asked under his breath.
Pepper looked up and searched his face.
“Mr. Stark, I mean. He's quite something. I knew him from pictures and reels, but it took me a while to understand that it was really him, in the flesh. Right here.”
“He's quite something, yes.”
Steve's eyes flickered. “Swell guy,” he added and then cleared his throat. “I'm sorry to have interrupted your...”
And finally the penny dropped and she tried not to smile too widely at his predicament. “Business talk, actually. We're good friends, but 80% of our relationship is business.” Even the deadly parts. She was his chronicler after all.
Art by FictionForLife/ireallyshouldbedrawing
“Stressful sometimes, really.” She said and hoped her expression was too happy. Steve's hopeful, happy expression was simply too cute.
“I can... imagine.” It took him a moment to get over his flustered excitement and gather his courage again, before asking: “So, you're not...?”
“No, Steve. Our relationship has always been much more complicated than romance. Not that romance with him is not complicated. He's a handsome devil, but he's also one of the most dangerous men I ever met. Not always by choice.” There was a warning in her words, but not because she wanted to scare the cute guy away from his hero, just because she didn’t want either of them to get hurt. Tony’s life was complicated and for her the complexity was very much what made it interesting to be his friend and partner, but she did not want it to get even more complicated if it could be helped at all. Her adventuring hero could use a bit of stability and happiness in his eventful and ever changing life now and again. But Steve should at least know what he might be getting into.
“Ah,” Steve smiled ruefully, then shrugged. “Sounds about right. He's Tony Stark after all.” He gathered all tableware, but for a fresh cup of coffee that he shoved towards her, and then left her to her thoughts.
* * *
Not because of the money.
When he had first attempted to join the army he had not imagined his work would consists of so much scrubbing of floors and and so much boring kitchen work and spending rainy days like today staring out of the window at the front of a Manhattan hotel, while he was only paying half a mind to the customers coming in. No, he had joined up to fight in a war. He had only been thinking of the injustice that was happening over there in Europe on the other side of the pond. People were dying and Steve wanted to do his part, even if everyone in the neighborhood had laughed at Sara Rogers' sickly boy for even thinking he could ever be a soldier. Only Arnie had smiled at him sadly and patted his shoulder: “You need to do what you think is right, Steve. We all do.”
Now here he was - doing his part in an unremarkable little diner, waiting on people asking for coffee and food.
He still wanted to do his part on the front, but little Steve Rogers' had wisened up, since he'd first tried to join up. By now he knew very well that to win a war you needed more than just soldiers, more than just the visible strong men carrying guns and rifles.
And he couldn't go on lamenting his fate and grumblingly spend his days wallowing in the boring day to day misery of the work here at Danny's Diner. Something wonderful had already happened that would likely never have happened to him if he'd been sent off to war. Next time he saw General Fury he would take the time to shake his hand and thank him personally for not sending him to the fighting right away, for keeping him back here for other jobs "until he was ready". Something he had always dreamed about since he'd first picked up an issue of Marvels had happened right here.
Even now, when the doorbell jingled and he looked up his heart jumped in his chest. Because there he was again: Tony Stark, in a clean shirt and expensive suit, wearing a flashy red tie that seemed a little much for an outing to a diner across the street, especially with his hair slicked back expertly and his beard neatly trimmed. His hero in the flesh looked like a man out to woo someone on a first date.
Steve swallowed, his throat suddenly dry.
He was here wearing a tie in a color that said he might actually be here to tell Steve something about that. It wasn't all wishful thinking, Steve hoped, because so far Tony had been real nice to him, real charming. And surely he hadn't talked with anyone else for long enough to try and send them signals. He came here to spend his time looking out the window, to drink and eat – and talk with Steve. Surely, the tie was something of a test of the waters, one of those little signs only someone who was in the know even knew existed.
Steve grinned and grabbed a coffee pot before he walked towards him, before Teresa could act and get there before him. Tony was his regular and he would be damned if he shared his attention with anyone today. And he often had Tony's attention – which was probably the greatest surprise of this whole affair. It wasn't like Steve was the kind of looker who could take home whomever he wanted.
He felt perhaps just a teeny little bit light headed at the thought that all of this wasn't just taking place in his head. This wasn't one of these boyhood fantasies.
This was happening.
“Mr. Stark,” he greeted, when Tony slid into a seat. But when he saw the raised eyebrow and the grin, he smiled and softly added: “Tony.”
“Hungry?” he asked, because every time Mr. Stark came over to strike up a conversation with him, and Steve, very carefully and covertly checked the diner and street to make sure that no danger was likely to spring up unexpectedly, his boss watched them carefully. Twice already Mr. Gareth had told him to take his “fairy ways” and leave his "customers" alone, but he had very obviously only been talking about Tony and Steve had spent a whole sleepless night about the thought of having shown his “appreciation” too openly. But then Tony had come back again and again. And again.
And there must be a reason for that.
Of course, he knew that he wasn't the only one who kept an eye on the hotel. General Fury had told him to stay alert, because according to him while Stark was a smart man, he had a tendency to get in over his head and the army couldn't afford to lose their “secret weapon”. Steve hadn't asked if he was talking about Stark and his smarts or Iron Man and his armor – or about some other top secret program that someone like Steve would never even hear about. He just knew that people were right here, in the heart of New York, hunting for a man whose adventures he still followed through every issue of Marvels he could get his hands on, and the man was refusing to let the army protect him.
And this was his chance to help. Even if Tony didn't want it, Steve could do his part and secretly watch his back.
“I was going stir crazy sitting around in my room,” Tony admitted and there was a sort of self-depreciating smile playing on his lips that Steve had seen a few times before, but would never have imagined to ever see on the face of the Tony Stark.
“You're not used to sitting around?”
“Usually when I have to sit around, it's because someone locked me in or I'm stuck in an ancient temple chamber and there is a frantic need to get out before walls come crashing in or worse.” His eyes were shining with mirth.
Steve was sure Tony had told these stories a thousand times before, that some of what he said was exaggeration and playing his part. But he had seen enough in the army files to know that Tony Stark wasn't just a man who had gone on fictional adventures. At least some of what he'd seen there had corresponded to things he'd read about in Marvels. And quite a bit there suggested that Tony had fought Hydra even before the war, before the U.S. military had become actively involved. “I'll get you something to eat,” he promised, because right now that was the only "help" he was allowed to offer without breaking his cover.
Aware of the eyes of his temporary boss following his movements around the room, he made a step backwards, but Stark, with a quick move of his own, caught him by the wrist. Surprised he stopped, feeling like a mouse trapped by a cat. Tony too looked past Steve towards Mr. Gareth, who was watching them closely, and then back up at Steve. “Sorry,” he said, for the first time since he'd met the man he looked a little nervous. “I really shouldn't take up so much of your time. Actually, I was looking for some... company. The... loneliness of an empty hotel room gets a little oppressive.”
It wasn't what Tony had been about to say. Steve understood immediately that something was going on that Tony didn't want to talk about when he felt he could be overheard.
Like Tony had ordered something else from him, Steve nodded and then walked quietly away to fetch the coffee. He gave himself a moment to covertly watch Tony, who was leaning into his seat and looking out of the window just like he would on any other day. There was no heightened sense of nervous energy about him at all. He was still just the best looking costumer in the little diner and he was playing at not noticing the longing looks that Teresa was throwing his way. Or Steve. Because Steve knew he was throwing the same kind of look his way.
Quietly he brought Tony a sandwich that hadn't been ordered and then watched him eat it, slowly but like he really had been hungry. Meanwhile Teresa took care of a woman who had come in with her boy.
Today there was just too much scrutiny.
Steve already regretted that he wouldn't get to listen to one of Tony's outrageous stories or untold adventures, while the diner was full of people. At least he would be able to report to headquarters once more that Stark had been sitting right there in his line of sight and hadn't had a chance to get into serious trouble. Not even the kind of trouble that Steve was more than ready to get into with him. The kind of trouble that involved friendly embraces and the shedding of at least some of their clothes. It was hard enough to walk through these mundane tasks all day feeling lightheaded and nervous like this, while actually he should be on high alert and make sure that nothing escaped his notice. But the man he was supposed to keep an eye on had become more and more distracting with every passing day.
Steve tried not to blush.
Mr. Gareth finally gave up watching them too closely and slunk off to the kitchen and Tony, who was scribbling something down on a napkin, smiled at Steve a few times when he caught him watching.
Damn it, he thought. Half the time it was close to impossible to convince himself that this wasn't a dream. Really, when Tony had come in with the beautiful red head the other day, he had been half convinced the man was going to introduce him to his girl now and crush all his hopes, but it hadn't happened - and Steve still wasn't sure he wasn't making this all up in his head. It was simply too surreal. Perhaps he was reading too much into some friendly conversation. But for a ladies man... Tony knew a little too much about saying exactly the right things and giving the right cues to a fella who was looking for a bit of male company. It couldn't be coincidence.
But that he would want to get with Steve was just so... God, he didn't even know a word for it.
It was very good that the general would never have to know what kind of road he’d sent Steve down when he’d send him to keep an eye on Tony Stark. But, damn it, he really needed to get his head in the game and focus, even if Tony was here and he wanted nothing more than to find out if he was really up to a a little lips on lips action, some stolen kisses and company in the back alley behind the diner. Because if he was up to it, then Steve would have a hard time finding it in himself to pass up the chance. He'd offer himself up on a plate, more like.
He only spoke once more to Tony in the next hour, brought him some pecan pie and wasn't surprised when he saw scrawled numbers and equations scribbled messily over a napkin. Tony smiled at him with that slightly apologetic smile that was surprisingly gentle for someone who had the reputation of the tough, rich adventurer and businessman. “I should bring a notebook sometime. Wouldn't use up so many napkins.”
“I really don't care. Just tell me if you need more.”
“Your boss might not think that so funny.”
Steve frowned. “He realizes who you are and he likes the thought of you being our best costumer. You’re a bit flashy.”
He watched as Tony pulled the pie closer and picked up a fork to try it. “Ah,” he said in a very neutral tone, but with the hint of a satisfied smile. Rich people probably were used to the thought of other people talking about them all the time. “I see.”
In a slightly smaller voice, Steve added: “He likes telling everyone you come by a lot. Makes him feel important.” Hoping Tony would understand the unspoken warning he watched his face for any sort of reaction or hint of dismay, but Tony just took a taste of his pie and then leaned back, relaxed and apparently not even uncomfortable at the thought.
“Thanks, Steve. This is delicious.” The way he was looking Steve up and down spoke of other things than pie.
Steve shrugged, glad that Tony was enjoying the pie and the company, but a bit worried about the unconcerned way he treated any talk about his person. For someone who knew he was being on the top wanted list of an organization of spies and traitors operating right here under their noses, he really didn't seem at all concerned with his own safety. It was dangerous. Foolish.
“Is Iron Man close-by?” Steve asked on a whim. So far Tony had been very open to a bit of chatter about his adventures and about the hero he had helped create. But now for the first time, Tony hesitated, looked him over with a quiet attention that was different from the way he'd been checking him over before.
“He's always close-by,” he finally said and when he smiled his very own mysterious smile, it was like the moment had just passed.
“Good,” Steve said, when what had been on his tongue was: “And how does that work?” It was good to know that Tony wasn't without his own protection. He indicated the equation, suddenly aware that he was being nosy and that the best thing would be to stop asking questions right now if he didn't want to make Tony suspicious. But he couldn't. He was curious. “Developing something for him?”
But Tony's smile didn't dim. “I'm working on a new... plane. We might need it soon.”
“Wow.” Steve smiled and got ready to retreat, before things got out of hand. He knew his job, but he didn't want to miss his chance at getting to know Tony better in other ways.
“Have you ever flown?” Tony asked and he was studying him.
“Once,” he lied. He really did not want to go into the details of flight training he had received since joining Fury's squad of handpicked Howling Commandos. “It's quite something.”
Tony grinned. “It's the best. There's nothing better than flying.”
“You should know, with all the things you did. Some of the things you've seen must have been truly amazing.”
“Yeah, kid, take it from me. Danger is exhilarating, but really, flying... It's just fun. There's some true beauty out there in the world, but really being just up there, the world just a memory...” He smiled and looked back out of the window. “Ultimate freedom, Steve.”
“Yeah,” Steve agreed, even though Tony didn't seem to hear him any more. He seemed to be lost in his own happy memory of flying, his face was happy and content. He committed that look to memoty, feeling the slightest flush creep into his cheeks. It made so much sense that the adventurer in Tony Stark missed the freedom of his vast travels more than anything else and what was flying if not the essence of all that? “Must be strange to be stuck in New York.”
Tony immediately shook his head. “I wouldn't call it stuck,” he said and smiled. “New York is the most exciting place on earth, if you know where to go looking for the right sort of adventure. I got into trouble here long before I traveled the world. And really,” he paused and looked at Steve, “New York has lots to offer, doesn't it?”
“Hmm,” Steve said, because he could agree with the sentiment, even if a part of him thought he should be in Europe, helping, so that New York could go on being the exciting city it was now. “It's home. I'm a true Brooklyn boy.” There were more questions on the tip of his tongue, but he really didn't want to seem too eager.
Tony still winked at him, as he moved away. Trying not to blush, Steve told himself for perhaps the hundredth time that he wasn't here to enjoy the man's charming company, but to protect him.
For another half an hour Tony remained at his table, sipping coffee and scribbling, seemingly lost in thought. Then he suddenly got up. He had been watching the hotel, or perhaps he had just been forlornly staring out at the rain and then just jumped up. Usually he was in no hurry to leave. But now he shoved too much money at Steve to pay his check and pushed a napkin in Steve's pocket as he moved past him. In his confusion, Steve looked flustered and tried to see what had suddenly set Tony off. “I'm sure you won't mind if I go out the back, huh? You're a darling,” the man muttered and grinned.
“Oh no, no,” he said too fast and sounded cheerful. “Everything is very right. See you tomorrow, Steve. Or indeed anytime.”
He slunk out the back, winking at Steve one last time, and Steve waited just a second before pulling out the napkin. “I might be going away for a while. But when I get back, I really want to see you again,” was written there in an elegant scrawl. "Wish me luck."
Steve felt his stomach drop. His head snapped up as two men stepped into the diner. One was tall and wearing a gray suit and Steve instantly had the feeling that he had seen his pale, serious features somewhere before. His companion was slightly smaller than his dark haired companion, but with his blue piercing eyes and rigid posture he seemed like he was the one in charge here. And it was he who walked straight towards the table Tony had occupied just a minute ago, gave it one glance, and finding nothing there, looked over at Steve and at Teresa who had dutifully walked up to take their order or help them settle at a table. “Where is the man who sat here not two minutes ago?”
Teresa blinked up at the newcomer in sudden confusion and stuttered: “He left...”
“Where did he go?” the man barked.
And Steve, sure that he was looking at the kind of threat he'd been waiting for, a threat Tony had seen coming somehow, shrugged and with the most innocent expression possible said: “He just paid and went. He always does. Must have gone home.”
To her credit Teresa met his eyes and said nothing.
“Are you sure?”
“What's it to you?”
“Never mind,” the taller man said and they moved back towards the door as if on cue, both looking determined.
“He's a regular,” Steve offered. “Should we tell him something when he comes back?”
The men didn't even turn to look at him, already focused on the task at hand, which was quite possibly to find Tony Stark and kidnap or kill him or worse. Steve remained rooted to the spot until they were out the door. Then he took the apron he was wearing and threw it on the counter. “I'm sorry, Teresa, I need to go.”
“If you go now, you don't need to come back,” Mr. Gareth grunted, poking his head out of the kitchen. "Good for nothing slob."
“Don't worry, Mr. Gareth. I won't.” His heart was beating fast, but his voice was calm. Down the street there was a pay phone he could use to call this in, but now he had to hurry. He didn't even care what Fury would say if something happened to Tony, because he would never forgive himself.
* * *
She wasn't even surprised when she found Tony standing in front of her apartment door, grinning like a little boy. “I hope you're up to some work, Pepper, because Hydra is making a move. We've tried their patience and they're leaving an opening for us.”
“We? You, you mean! Hydra? You're sure?”
“Oh, I'm damn sure, darling. They've been tracing me for the last week, but they finally lost their will to wait and watch today and became a little more obvious about it. Which gives us all the time in the world, really.”
She laughed. “What did you do, Tony?”
“I secured the hotel room and left enough clues to send them off on a wild goose chase to our new, but still empty plant in New Jersey. I have an idea where they ar hiding their stolen goods. Now let's go. There's something we need to get back.”
It was getting better and better. “You had some fun while I was drilled, yeah? Any you blame me for wanting to be a spy?”
“Entirely your own choice, sweetheart. I know you want to learn how to be a bombshell and crawl through mud on the battlefield, but you could have trusted me that all we need is right here. There's only so much you can learn from your soldier friends, while the true action is already in front of our doorsteps. And there's only so much Fury can do to keep us on this side of the ocean. After this he won't be able to keep us here any longer, Pepper. Face it. You already are the best.”
Tony had his most self-satisfied grin plastered across his face and Pepper chuckled. She had grown so fond of this man over the last few years, over shared adventures and excitement. One day, she hoped he would finally allow himself to slow down and be happy again here at home. She thought he wanted to, but so far his life was simply too dangerous for any thoughts of settling down. “Well, one of us had to learn or the general would never allow us to join the fray in Europe – and I can't imagine he would give us much information or help if we just went there without his say so. He seems like a person who takes these things personal. We both know that we have a score to settle over there and we can use all the help we can get. This is the quickest route.”
He shrugged and in the confines of her small New York apartment he looked a bit out of place with his fancy suit and the impeccable hair. But he was slipping out of the suit jacket as she was thinking it. “We have some work to do. And it's going to be just Mr. Stark and Ms. Potts. Iron Man is going to sit this one out.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
“Don't be silly. I've spent the last two days tracking the people who were tracking me and evading them just fine. Today they are going to be busy walking into all the booby-traps I left for them at the plant. And we can break into their hideout and get back all the army supplies they stole. But we need to remain under the radar and we can do that much better without clunky iron boots. It's going to be just like Tripoli.”
Which had been a disaster, if she remembered correctly, but she wasn't going to point it out. She could she he was determined to do this his way and she wasn't going to stand in his way, if it meant they could finally get rid of their pursuers. Even a temporary respite would make life easier.
She followed his cue and went to her bedroom to slip into something more comfortable for this kind of exploration, once again shedding the nice ladies clothes for something simple, something more suited to the task at hand. A dark pair of pants and a white loose fitting shirt seemed like the way to go. Tony remained by the window and wasn't even paying attention to her, just peering down at the street from his hiding place behind the curtain, checking that their exit would be an easy one. “Ready?” he asked and looked her over, when she finally stood ready at his shoulder. “Bring your rifle.”
“Just the one?” she asked jokingly, but was already rummaging around the dresser for more bullets.
There was no use protesting when Tony opened the window and motioned for her to crawl out onto the shaky fire escape outside. This was what you had to expect when you wanted to adventure with the best. With a shrug and a roll of her eyes, very much ignoring his bright grin, she nimbly climbed out. “This better be worth it, Mr. Stark.”
“Have I ever disappointed you?”
She shrugged and smiled. “I wouldn’t say disappointed.”
“Come on.” He waved at her to hurry up. “If I had ever really let you down you would have given me the slip years ago. And don't tell me you're afraid to get hurt, Pepper darling. You're too good a soldier now.”
“True, true.” With her rifle in one hand she stepped out into the drizzly rain. “Not exactly the excitement of a rain forest this time or the exotic backdrop of a Chinese city though. Won't that be a bit boring for Marvels?”
“You and Jarvis have been hounding me about staying closer to home. This one is on you.” He started to climb down, looking ridiculous in the expensive suit pants. She had to smile at that, because the perfect paragraphs to describe this newest adventure were already springing up in her mind.
Even in his expensive business suit, making him look like he was out to get another well-paying contract for Stark Industries or to win the heart of every lady in New York, he was still Tony Stark. And he never shied away from an adventure. Pepper followed him out the window, excited to get to it. The bad guys wouldn't know what hit them.
“Do you really think we won’t need Iron Man for this one, Mr. Stark?”
“Don’t worry, pal. I’m not scared of Hydra. I fought these cowards long before I built the amazing armor for my helpful bodyguard. The two of us can deal just fine.”
After all the secret training, Pepper was ready to get back into the hands on part of fighting the bad guys. Hydra had it coming.
* * *
Just like he had said, Tony hadn't come back and just like Steve had told his "boss", he hadn't come back into work again either. After he had lost the two men who had come to the diner that day he'd waited near the Arcadia to keep any eye on things; he'd tried to find a trace of Tony anywhere, but Stark did not return to his room. His inquiries with the hotel staff had not led to anything. The room was paid for and Stark had apparently promised to return soon. Nobody had dared ask him anything beyond that. Of course, Steve had called it in, but after he had finally been put through to him, General Fury had just told Steve he had done the right thing and that he should stay close-by and tell him if Stark turned up again, because something was going down and they might need him soon. That he hadn't sounded worried for Stark in the slightest had not helped at all to put Steve's own fears to rest.
"He's not alone," Fury had reminded him as a parting shot. Iron Man was out there with his boy sidekick Pepper and Steve knew their job description was to keep Tony safe. Stark was not without protection and it made him feel much better to know it. But now that the threat of German spies had become more tangible, the story book adventures of an armored man and his friend seemed even more like fiction than before. Tony had joked about his "bodyguard". But why had he always been alone? Unprotected? Visible and very much without his friends?
As alone as Steve was now.
He had followed the two thugs to a Stark Industries office building and found another way inside, trying to get into Stark’s office to warn him before the two men would reach him.
The office had been empty. There was no trace of Tony anywhere.
"Not so fast," a gruff, heavily accented voice said and Steve crashed hard into a wall, as someone took him by the cuff of his shirt to pull him off his feet. "What exactly were you doin' in Stark's office? And his hotel room? Did he send you here to fetch something? You know where he is, don’t you? Don’t you, boy?"
Hands were choking him and Steve knew he would not stand a chance against the brute. "Go to hell," he said and spat the man right in the face. It was the big guy who had come to the diner, looking for Stark.
"Ah, loyalty," another voice said, as steps finally came closer and he could see the smug blond man who had appeared to be in charge when they'd stormed after Stark. "Stark seems to inspire that in a lot of people. And it never ends well for anyone but him."
Steve gritted his teeth He had been in and out of Tony's hotel room and had hoped that nobody had noticed. He hadn't even touched anything, just had tried to make sure that Tony really hadn't been in at all. But then he'd come across these two again and after watching them from outside a window, where he had perched out of sight on the window sill, trying not to get in too deep, as they had grabbed everything Tony had left behind and stuffed it into the trunk of their car, he had decided to interfere.
He really had been trying not get in over his head. But at the very least he had wanted to find out more.
Instead of following the clues Tony had left behind, he had started following his own gut and had started looking into the threat on his own. After all Nick Fury hadn't recruited him, because he made a passable waiter or because he wanted to charm Tony Stark. He had been recruited, because he was stubborn and wouldn't be refused his chance to help and stand up against bullies and that attitude had impressed the general.
"You're stealing from the American army, the American people," he ground out, just before a fist connected with his stomach and all air was knocked out of him. He strained in the hold, but an arm pressed hard against his windpipe made it impossible even to fall. Breathing was becoming hard.
"Of course," the blonde man said. "But not only the army and not only your precious American people."
"We should dispose of him right now," the other man warned. "Where there's one rat..."
"Oh, we will, we will." The man smiled like a shark, sharp and unforgiving. Steve was glad that he had so little to lose, because right now he saw no way out of this one. "He has followed us right here to the harbor. You're right, we can't let the little rat live, Georg. But where there's one rat there's more and we should take the chance to smoke them all out. At least we can make him tell us every little thing he knows about Stark and his plans. Madame will be so thankful, if we bring back the real catch."
There was a core of steel in himself that people liked to overlook, because he looked like anything but their ideal image of a tough man. He was glad for it now, because he would not simply give in and that would buy time for Tony and Iron Man. Try your worst, he thought. It's not like I can really tell you anything.
"Karl and his crew are out looking for Stark, sir. Isn't that enough?"
He shook his head vehemently. "Oh no, no, no. After all this time Stark spent evading and fooling us, an easy end to this is simply not enough. Won't do at all." He patted Steve's check in a mockery of affection. "You can thank your good friend for what happens next." Then he turned away. "Take him to the warehouse. Make him talk. I'll take the men and see if something is to be found in Jersey. I really don't want to disappoint our Madame again."
Steve found it in himself to laugh. They had just let him know that Tony was most likely safe and he wasn't afraid to give away any secrets, because he knew nothing that would help them.
But then the man turned in the door and for the first time Steve realized that he was holding something in his right hand. He didn't recognize what it was even when Georg pulled him forward and after his leader. Only when the man finally grasped it in both hands and shook it out, before slipping it on, die he realize it was a red mask. The mask of the Red Skull.
Icy fear froze his insides and he steeled himself for what was to come.
Sara Rogers had not brought up a coward.
* * *
This was what their adventures had been all about.
"Are you sure about this?"
"How would you try and get a load full of weapons out of the country if you were a Nazi spy, Pepper?"
She shrugged. "I would steal closer to home, to be honest. Seems a bit impractical to have to ship it all to Europe. But that's not why they are here, is it? And that wasn't the question I was asking anyway."
They were uncomfortably crouched behind a car. From here they had a good view of what was going on at the docks. "They're not shipping things necessarily. They are making sure essential war material never reaches Britain. And they are using some of these warehouses to store what they have stolen. We hit them here, we hit them hard."
"That's not your only concern."
"Oh no," Tony said and there was that wickedly amused grin again. "They are not after us because they want to keep us from getting to Europe, Pepper. They want to get to us, because they want me in Europe, but under their power. Hydra – Gia – has sent someone to get me, and we both know why that is. They want to dissect my brain or worse and we can't allow it."
"No," she said gravely. "And we won't allow it. We're going to get back at them, before they can back at us."
"Because we have to."
"And because it's the right thing to do."
He grinned and looked towards the warehouse again. "Now or never, Pepper. If I'm right, the coast is clear. If not.. well we'll find out."
She had her trusted rifle at her side and She could see that Tony, wearing his blue dress shirt and the grey business suit pants and suspenders, hadn't come unarmed either. He had a Stark issued army revolver in a holster at his side and was holding a flashlight in one hand. The wristbands of leather didn't quite fit with the rest, but that little detail made him look more like the adventurer than even the gun. His eyes shone brightly as he looked at her.
He was happy.
A man back in his element.
The waiting game was over.
Like he said, they weren't here just to get back stolen goods or blow up this one nest of brownshirt spies – they were here to challenge the Red Skull, to force him to make another move against them, because only then could they take him down once and for all.
Tony led the way and Pepper followed slowly.
As always, Tony had done his research. He walked through the first door as if there were no security locks keeping him out. It took him only a few seconds longer to get past the electric lock that secured the second one.
There was no sign of guards.
"No guards at all?"
Tony shrugged, but she could read from his demeanor that he didn't like this either. They had expected most of the thugs to be out on a wild goose chase to get their hands on Tony Stark and the secret of Iron Man, but no resistance at all was too good to be true. It was suspicious.
It smelled of a trap.
"We could find another way in," she suggested.
Tony carefully nodded and they quietly snuck back out and around, surveilling the warehouse and the docks around. Dockworkers were busy. "Any of them could be with our Nazi friends," Tony whispered.
"And you thought we should come without Iron Man." She huffed.
"That's not exactly what I said," Tony countered with a smile. It was a good sign that he was still acting like the daring hero. None of this had shaken him yet. He was sure that he was one step ahead.
They finally found a window. It was the least comfortable option, but Pepper didn't mind. Using rope and a hook, using what they found and could use as tools, was familiar. A skill set that had been sleeping, but not forgotten.
Tony climbed in first, torchlight secured in his belt. He helped her down. She landed beside him on her own two feet between crates and boxes. "They must have been busy," Tony whispered.
Busier even than they had expected.
They waited for a few heartbeats in silence. But the warehouse was quiet. There was no hint of people in the darkness. Rustling announced Tony's movements, before he finally lit up the space and they could look at each other again.
At least they were not suddenly facing off some shadow warriors, like that time they had stepped into the underground temple in Peking. Gesturing at Pepper to quietly follow him, Tony carefully snuck around the first few crates. She knew what they were looking for. Tony had made it pretty clear that he planned going in and out and leaving nothing behind, but he wanted to get back some plans that Fury had told them had been stolen from one of their top secret military bases. Last they had seen it, the chemical had been in an unremarkable gray metal case and looking for it would be like searching for the needle in a haystack.
A noise made both of them stop and listen.
But everything was quiet again as soon as they had stopped moving.
They held still, waiting for the inevitable attack. But nothing happened.
Then Tony edged slowly forward again, carefully lighting their way around sharp corners. They had to skirt over a box to get further in, tried to make as little noise as possible as they did so. "Where would you store it?" Pepper asked, softly.
"If they know how important it is," he whispered back, "they won't have it down here. But they were preparing to send some things out, so if this was supposed to reach Hydra, then it will be with the things that will be shipped out."
Finally they reached a door again. "Another lock?"
"Stands to reason that valuable things be kept behind lock and key?" Tony muttered to himself as he bent low and pulled his lock pick from his pocket. It was easier to blast your way in sometimes, but she was beginning to see why he had taken the silent route this time. Their enemies had accumulated crates full of weapons. They were armed to the teeth and ready to hurt anyone who dared to stand in their way. It wasn't late enough in the evening and dockworkers were still busy outside. Their lives meant nothing to Hydra. But they meant something to Pepper and Tony.
"Done," Tony said softly, before sliding the door to the side, carefully. They stepped in, one after the other, Tony having both the flashlight up and his weapon pointed forward. And there it was. On a narrow table positioned at the far back of the room sat the metallic box they were looking for.
"Mr. Stark," a weak voice whispered and startled them both. "You shouldn't be here..." Pepper pulled up her rifle, as movements startled her.
Art by FictionForLife/ireallyshouldbedrawing
"You really shouldn't be here. They're gunning for you." Then the tired blue eyes settled on Pepper. "And you brought Miss Potts. You should have brought..."
"Pepper and Iron Man?" Tony asked and threw a carefully look behind himself, meeting Pepper's eyes briefly.
"I wouldn't worry about that part," interjected an unpleasant voice from the darkness behind them. "You see? Your young friend is overly worried about your well being, Herr Stark."
"Not like you, you mean?" Tony asked and slowly turned. There was still not the slightest hint of surprise in his actions.
“Oh no no, that is not at all what I mean,” the man, who stepped towards them now, wearing a green uniform and a red mask that formed the outline of a bright red skull, told them. Tony made a step forward and Pepper knew immediately what he was trying to do. He was trying to remain the center of attention so that Pepper had time to plan and act. They had become much better at this game since her spy training had started. As saboteurs in the field it would be Tony’s job to be the flashy distraction, the Iron Man who drew all the fire, while Pepper could act in secret, slip in and out undetected. She kept her face neutral, because they were already playing the game Fury wanted them to play.
And they were going to play it well.
Pepper edged closer to where Steve was standing, barely keeping himself upright by leaning against the side of the crate. One eye was swollen shut and there was blood on his shirt. “Are you alright?” she whispered, trying to think of all the scenarios that would have led Red Skull and his men to take the young man hostage. Had Tony's interest been noticed and he'd been interrogated because of them?
Steve looked at her curiously, took in her form, took in the rifle in her hands and then glanced over at Tony, who stood with his back to them, facing the enemy. “I came to warn, Mr. Stark,” he whispered back at her.
Of course, the sweet, smitten guy had to get involved, because he had perceived his hero in danger. That was always how the good people got hurt around them. He must have seen something like pity in her eyes, because he suddenly straightened himself and then reached out to slip something into her hand. "Be ready," he said.
Across the crowded space, the Red Skull, hands behind his back and two armed guards at each shoulder, continued his speech: “You know we are not here to harm you, Herr Stark. There are too many important things you still have to do for us. Like handing over the armor. But that will be a minor favor you will do to us compared to what you will do when you follow in your father’s footsteps.”
Tony scoffed. “Really? You goons still haven’t given up on the idea to make me your new Zemo? Can't Hydra find anyone who is interested int he job?”
“Oh,” the Red Skull said unpleasantly. “We have a new Zemo. And he has devised a better way to make you submit to us. Now, our dear Gialetta sends her love. She so wants to see you kneel before her. And you will. It will be a pleasure to work with you.” Sure of his victory he stepped to the side and towards the table where the metal box was sitting. “It is better to come with us now, Herr Stark. Soon we will have an army of supersoldiers. And with your help an army of Iron Men. Our victory will be complete and glorious. It’s a shame you didn’t bring the armor. Beating you wearing your contraption would have been so much more satisfying.”
"You," Tony ground out, very aware of Steve hearing every word, "talk too much."
"You're right, of course," the Red Skull answered. "It's time to end this. We have promised that we'll make a shipment tonight and the shipment is supposed to be you, Iron Man. And this." He gestured at the box. "The ingredients we need for out final victory."
When Pepper looked over she could see that the words had not failed to make an impact on Steve. The eye that wasn't half swollen shut had widened and then Steve's head snapped to the side to meet Pepper's eyes.
She shrugged a little, not exactly apologetic for their slight bending of facts under the circumstances. They had not wanted to involve or endanger Steve after all.
"It's time to drop your weapon, Miss Potts. The two of you will live as long as your boss decides to cooperate."
"We're all pretty much out of luck then," Pepper hissed.
Tony didn't move a muscle. "You think we came here to just let you take us and present us to Gia and the new Hydra leaders without a fight? Does that sound likely to you?"
"No." The muffled voice behind the mask had that dangerous edge that was both amusement and blood lust. "I expect you to fight and make it that much more interesting for me." Confidently he finally moved to the box on the desk, let a black-gloved finger run along the top. "We could come to an agreement or I could break you. The choice is up to you. Madame wants to see you brought down, but... you could also swear your allegiance to me."
Tony slowly moved a few steps to the side and threw a short look in their direction. Steve too was moving backwards slowly and Pepper, now that the guards were looking at Tony and the Skull was looking at the box, she finally examined what Steve had shoved in her hand.
Her eyes snapped up. Steve nodded.
It was a detonator.
Steve nodded in the direction of one of the crates and a thousand questions about the unassuming young waiter they'd met by chance were rushing through her head, but now was not the time to ask them.
They had to act fast.
"Ah, you want me to swear my allegiance? That's a bit old fashioned. Also not going to happen. But are you suggesting that you want to use me and the serum for your own plans?" Tony asked. The hand holding the revolver had fallen to his side, but he was still gripping the weapon.
"If you finally throw down your gun. See, I have no interest in hurting that brilliant mind of yours. Brilliant men are hard to find. And it would be stupid of me to waste the opportunity to strengthen my own position."
Tony's laughter rang uncomfortably loud in the warehouse. She could feel Steve tense up beside her.
"Drop your weapon," the Red Skull said, his voice icy cold and menacing, and suddenly all men raised their own weapons to aim at Pepper and Steve. "You too, Ms. Potts. It's over. Breaking you will be my pleasure."
Pepper's fingers tightened on the rifle. But Tony gave her a warning look over his shoulder and she knew immediately that he already had a plan. "Pepper," he warned and again Steve, who could barely hold himself upright, stared at her quizzically.
Her rifle dropped to the floor just as Tony's own gun fell.
"Ah," the Red Skull intoned, satisfied. "So good to see Iron Man and his trusty sidekick brought to their knees."
"Not on my knees, yet," Tony said and met the human eyes under the mask without flinching. "Like you say, I'm brilliant. Smart enough to walk into a trap without a way out, you think?"
He had his hand up, thin pieces of metal springing out of the leather wristbands and forming a half formed gauntlet around his hand and before any of the thugs with guns could react he blasted one right out of the doorway and the gun out of the hands of another. Pepper jumped to the side, tried to push Steve out of the way, but the young man suddenly grabbed something from behind the crate and ran forward.
He pushed Tony out of the way and to the side too, away from the crate that Steve had indicated to her before. "Now, Ms. Potts," he shouted and Pepper realized that what he had grabbed was a large, round metal shield and he was using it to shield both himself and a surprised looking Tony.
She wasn't sure it would do them any good, but if she didn't do something they would all be done for anyway.
She pushed the button from behind the large crates and boxes and the sudden explosion ripped through the building like a volcanic eruption.
* * *
And in the semi-darkness a man was sitting on the edge of the bed by his legs.
"Am I in your bed?" Steve croaked. "That's a little forward, don't you think? We haven't even talked about meeting in an alleyway."
"Is that how it's done in Brooklyn?" Tony asked and turned to study him.
Steve realized he had the shield he'd used to protect them in front of him and had been studying it. It looked just like when he'd picked it up, undented and whole. "It's Vibranium," Steve explained.
"I know." Tony bent forward to hoist it up a bit. "How did you know?"
"It was stolen from the U.S. Army a month ago. Not sure what they wanted to use it for, but the Vibranium is rare enough for this to have been a heavy blow."
"I see," Tony said. "So, what exactly are you? A spy? An information broker? A thief?"
"Private Steve Rogers. I'm one of Fury's men."
"Private, huh?" Tony was still studying him, calmly. Steve had been warned that he did not appreciate working with the army, and Fury had laughed loudly one day when Steve had suggested they just call Stark in and tell him they wanted a protection detail on him at all times. "Tony Stark," Fury had said, "values his freedom more than his safety. It's what makes him both valuable and dangerous. He's also a stubborn son of a bitch and after he and I disagreed on the handling of a recent Latverian mission, he's making quite sure I know he's not going to play this game by my rules. You'll like him, Rogers. He might be more stubborn than you."
"You dislike that?" Steve asked carefully.
Stark didn't look away and he didn't smile. Aside from a cut on his cheek and a cut on his forehead he looked fine. It meant Steve had done his job. "I liked not-Private Steve Rogers just fine. You weren't supposed to be a honey trap that lured me into finally playing the part of good soldier, were you? Because I've had quite enough of people trying to force my hand for a day."
Steve felt heat rising in his cheeks. "Hardly."
"Good," Tony replied and looked away.
"If Fury had wanted to play that game he would not have sent me."
Tony finally got up, the shield still in his hands. The silvery surface was glittering in the sparse light of the room, drawing Steve's eyes. "He obviously has no idea what he has in you then. Want a new job? With an appreciative boss?" He flashed the perfectly round Vibranium surface in his direction.
A lightheaded laugh escaped his throat, before he could stop it. "Are you offering a job? Or are you flirting?"
Stark shrugged as he slowly moved around the bed to come to his side. "Both. Worth a try. I can always use good people. It's hard enough to be my own bodyguard."
Steve smiled. "I would have liked to see Iron Man."
"Iron Man? You saved me and Pepper with a quick round of thinking."
"You would have found a way out. You're Tony Stark."
"Yes, but perhaps not as quickly and without this." He pointed towards a desk in the corner. "You know what that is?"
Steve shook his head.
"It was stolen from the lab of Dr. Erskine a good few weeks ago. I helped him with his research years back when I had... when I was looking for a cure to an illness, but it never worked. He never gave up the idea though. Before the raid on Stark Industries the broke into his house and left him for dead, taking only the formula he was in the process of producing. There is no way of telling if the process worked this time, but I couldn't risk Hitler – or even worse Hydra – to get their hand on this to produce their own supersoldiers."
"That's what he was talking about?" Steve tried to sit up and Stark, dropping the shield to lean beside the bed and stepping up in one quick movement, was suddenly too close, helping him to sit up and righting the cushions. He gasped in pain.
"You took quite the beating. For me."
His cheeks were burning now and he couldn't look away.
"Because of me," Tony whispered before he leaned down and kissed him. His heart was beating so fast in his chest that for a moment he had no idea what to do, fumbling with his hands until he just leaned back and relaxed into the kiss. It was perhaps the softest kiss he'd ever received. People like them – who met in back alleys and in the secret backrooms of certain bars and clubs rarely had the time for niceties.
Art by FictionForLife/ireallyshouldbedrawing
"You had that coming, sweetheart," Tony said and grinned. The smile made him seem much more like the man from the diner.
"I still can't quite believe it."
"Better start believing, Mr. Rogers," Tony declared as he stood up from the side of the bed, picked up the shield and walked over to the desk, where he put it down beside the box. "Because this is going to be more than just a fleeting partnership."
He wasn't sure if he was still lightheaded from the kiss, or if he'd taken a very hard blow against his head and was only dreaming this, but he was feeling a bit overwhelmed. "I hope so," he said, before the vertigo got worse and he just dropped back into the cushions and darkness took him.
When he woke again, there were no rays of sunlight trickling through the curtains and his head was much clearer. Beside him Stark was sleeping, curled on his side as if he had fallen asleep watching Steve. Seeing a pitcher with water and a glass on the nightstand he wriggled beneath the covers to free himself and tried to sit up, hissing, when pain exploded in his side and back.
"Hey," Tony said softly and sat up quickly, blinking sleep out of his eyes and springing back into action like a man who was accustomed to be alert at any time.
He helped Steve sit up by letting him lean against his chest and kept quiet while he drank. Steve was really out of his depth here. "What's going to happen to that?" he asked and pointed at the box and shield.
"We already informed Fury that the serum was destroyed. I'm not comfortable with the thought of an army of superhumans. The man who made it wanted to heal people. We should honor his wishes."
"So, you'll destroy it?"
Tony hummed in the back of his throat. "I probably should. But I'm going to hide it away, keep it safe. Sometime it might actually come in handy. It does actually help with accelerated healing, of Erskine's notes aren't misleading."
Steve contemplated the box and the shield that had saved their lives. His life had already turned upside down and Tony... Tony had already kissed him. It was time to face that his life would never be quite normal again as long as he was with Fury's secret Howling Commando. He turned and leaned up to kiss Tony, wonder and lust warring inside of him to make a decision.
A hand caught his chin so that Tony could deepen and control the kiss and Steve had never felt so wanted, so ready to give himself up. But even now duty was nagging him at the back of his mind and he mumbled against Tony's lips. "I need to call this in. I'm still a soldier."
"You're a spy, Steve. You're not exactly on the record." Tony chuckled. "And I already called your general. Told him I'm ready to play this by his rules for a while. Congratulations. You're our liaison now."
"I promised, you'll see a lot more of me. I keep my promises. Especially those. The promises, scribbled on napkins."
It was an enticing promise and Steve wanted to believe it wasn't all a weird hallucination, so he initiated another kiss, to feel, to convince himself, letting Tony's desire wash over him. His body still ached, but weeks of flirting and tiptoeing around the unspoken questions had made him impatient and Tony didn't exactly seem like a man who went slow when he wanted something.
It was just so amazing that he wanted Steve.
They made love, achingly slow and in ways that Steve had never thought possible. It seems, he thought as Tony nibbled on the back of his neck, his chest plastered to Steve's back, their sweaty thighs pressed close, his hot length driving into Steve with long powerful strokes until all Steve wanted was to sing his praises at the top of his lungs, that Tony Stark really keeps his promises.
He came with a loud moan, clenching down on the hard cock inside of him and was gratified to hear Tony's surprised gasp.
"Steve," he moaned and it sounded like the sweetest promise of all.
* * *
Pepper connected the last wire, ducking out of sight. Her long hair was bound in a ponytail and hidden under a blue cap and her face was obscured with a blue mask. Behind her shots were fired, but not at her. She jumped into a sprint, making sure she got away before the whole hangar collapsed, keeping the newest super-bomber of the German army on the ground forever.
She surprised two guards as she suddenly burst out of the building, took one out with a knee to his face and used the man's rifle to knock the other out of her way, sprinting behind the next bit of cover before he could take aim. Her face was hot from the exertion and there were tears in her eyes from running, but she was sure that her grin was blinding.
With a huge boom the bombs she's planted went off and the building gave out, burying everything in it under the rubble.
"You'll pay," one of the soldiers coming her way said in English, but there was a loud metallic whump as Iron Man landed in front of her, and another as War Machine landed in their backs.
"I'm sorry, the lady is with me," Tony said and aimed with his arms – armed with the newest Stark weaponry – right at them. "Your move, gentlemen."
Pepper had seen the green skulls with the arms of an octopus sewn to their uniforms. She knew these weren't just German soldiers. They were Hydra. They would make the wrong choice.
"Es ist Iron Man!" one of them shouted to their comrades and salves were fired.
A man finally cornered Pepper. Her gun was out of bullets, but she wasn't out of weapons. Three soldiers advanced on her, but she jumped out of the way and then forward knocking the air out of one of them and then got ready to get back to her feet to get to the other two. But out of nowhere a metal sphere shot forward getting the first man in the head, and careening off from him to hit the final one right in the chest. When she looked up she wasn't surprised to see Steve catch the silvery metal shield with both hands. He was getting really good at this. "Enter the Captain," she stage-whispered.
"In the nick of time," he said and grinned amiably.
"Ah, good," Tony said as he used one arm to just swipe Hydra footmen away. "Weren't you supposed to extract us?"
"You guys are running late," Steve answered, using the shield to protect himself from shots fired in his direction. "The America is waiting for all of you, when you're ready, sir."
The America was the newest, secret plane with amazing stealth technology that Tony had developed. Steve had become their trusted liaison and pilot and had named the plane to remind them all that they were doing this to go home again some day.
"Give me a minute, sweetheart," Tony said, sounding like he knew they had won already. "I want Hydra to tell their deceptively beautiful leader how old we made them look today."
"Take your time," Steve shouted back.
"Go, boss," James Rhodes shouted. "I think I'm done for today."
Pepper laughed, getting back to her feet.
In the middle of the war, none of them were safe, but Tony was fighting back with a newfound will to go home everyday. And finally they were making a difference where it counted. Gialetta, the new Zemo and the Red Skull – whoever came to power next – they better watch their back. Because Iron Man and his team were coming after them, wherever they were hiding.
There hadn't been a lot of time for writing, but Pepper had so many more stories to tell now, about Iron Man and his three clever aids. She would feature in the reels soon and the world would better be ready to discover that Pepper was no boy at all.
They would need a mask for Steve. They're thinking a blue one, like hers. Tony was even joking about painting the shield and Steve was slowly falling in love with the idea. She was sure he wouldn't say no when Steve finally asked him to actually do it.
Hydra already knew to fear them, now they were ready to really introduce themselves to the world they were trying to keep safe.