It’s not that Steve isn’t a personable guy. And it certainly isn’t that he hasn’t met his heroes before.
He’d chatted with Spencer Tracy, and got on well with Mickey Rooney, who is, as it turns out, nearly the exact same age he is. Maybe he blushed a little meeting Rita Hayworth during that war bonds photoshoot, but he didn’t stumble over his words, not even once. Fred Astaire was a swell guy in person, and Steve privately asked Fury if Astaire’d had some kind of special treatment like Rebirth to make him so light on his feet. (Fury laughed at him, but also said that was “classified information,” so Steve’s not sure what the real story is there.)
Steve’s met lots of celebrities in the past year, and—he never thinks of himself as such, but he supposes it’s true now—he’s a bonafide celebrity in his own right, at least when he’s decked out in the familiar red, white, and blue uniform.
But, he thinks with a sigh, settling into his seat as a bright brass fanfare signals the start of the newsreel, none of that seems to matter at all when it comes to him talking to Tony Stark.
Today, he’s simply Private Steve Rogers, on leave with his young civilian pal James Barnes. To the average moviegoer, they are nothing more than two friends enjoying an afternoon at the pictures.
Steve isn’t focused on the Movietone News title card at all. He’s got more important things to worry about. He replays the last several days in his head, reviewing them like mission parameters.
He and the other Invaders have been stationed in Teddington for nearly a week, debriefing their British and American liaisons on their previous mission, and getting a little rack time before their next one.
Fury didn’t mention that anything out of the ordinary would be on the docket, or that anyone else would be joining them.
So when Steve arrived at SHIELD’s small base at the still under construction Camp Griffiss, he was thrown for a loop.
Looking for all the world like he was walking out of the pages of Marvels, there was Tony Stark. The Tony Stark. The hero above all other heroes in Steve’s childhood. The man who tracked down the location of the Siege Perilous before it was destroyed (issue 36, page 4). The champion who fought Fin Fang Foom (issue 76, cover story).
He was even dressed the same, wearing a slate blue shirt, a brown tactical vest, and a black neckerchief, paired with dark slacks and boots. And of course, his blue eyes and impeccably trimmed mustache were just Steve as had memorized from the pages of the magazine. He was every bit as handsome in person as Steve thought he would be. All he needed was some dirt and tears in the fabric of his clothes, a torch in his hand, and he could have been trekking through a Peruvian jungle or excavating an Egyptian tomb, eyes alight as he came across some lost sarcophagi.
What he was looking at, at that moment, though, was Steve, and he seemed no less pleased at the sight.
“Captain America! General Fury said your team would be joining us. It’s an absolute pleasure to meet you.” He extended his hand in greeting, smile as bright as… well, as the Soul Sword of the Himalayas, if you wanted to be specific about it (issue 16, page 10).
Something stuck in Steve’s throat, and he was suddenly having trouble breathing.
“Uhm,” Steve said haltingly, blinking. “Uh, Mister Stark.”
Way to go, Rogers.
“Wow, Mister Stark!” Bucky and Toro charged in, taking Stark’s outstretched hand before Steve could respond with anything at all, thankfully drawing attention away from Steve’s awkwardness.
Of all the times for Captain America to lose his nerve, he thought with a grimace.
He’s seen Stark a few more times on the grounds since, talk to Fury and other personnel, and Steve has only been able to manage a nod and a wave.
He can’t even seem to get out a simple, “I’m a big fan, Mister Stark,” or “Agent Stark, I loved reading your magazine.” How difficult can it be?
Too difficult for Steve, apparently.
Fortunately, not every day of their planned time on the outskirts of London is spoken for, and when he’s given the chance to have a day away from camp, he takes it. There’s a movie palace in nearby Twickenham, and he and Bucky are on their way there before Steve even reads what film is playing. Not that it matters much: he just needs some down time.
It’s a bit of strategy, he tells himself. A moment to regroup, come up with a new plan. It’s not a retreat.
Images flicker up on the screen in the darkened theatre, and Steve is barely paying attention to the narration being delivered in a crisp, British accent, until a familiar grey shape appears in frame, and Steve sits up straighter, taking it in.
“The best scientific minds in the world are providing new forms of weaponry for our troops to engage the enemy with new levels of accuracy and proficiency,” the narrator says, rolling sharp Rs and clipping vowels, as film of a distinctive sight begins to play: an unmistakable metal juggernaut, speeding down a runway, fire and smoke streaming from its rear wheels as it prepares for takeoff.
Iron Man. That’s what it was called, in the very last issue of Marvels. Steve would know it anywhere: that’s the Iron Man armor.
It was one of Steve’s favorite issues. He couldn’t articulate why exactly (not that he could articulate anything at all lately), but the story just felt more… personal.
Of course, it was the only time the lead author, whose byline graced the cover story, had been a woman. Maybe Steve just liked her writing style better. Maybe—he thinks of the illustration of the scared-but-determined young woman bracing herself against the colossal form of the Iron Man—she’d imbued the writing with a little more of a thrill. She’d had a perspective of Stark that none of the male chroniclers had seemed to capture.
Steve had turned eighteen the year that issue was released, a mere three years ago. His feelings for Tony Stark had… matured somewhat from those early days of boyish hero-worship.
He had, with a racing heart and trembling fingers, turned the pages of that issue, and imagined what it would be like if he were bracing again the Iron Man armor, if he were the one being rescued—
Steve squirms uncomfortably in the movie palace seat. Perhaps it’s better that he hasn’t approached Stark. He doesn’t want to be discharged for being “unfit to serve,” after all.
No, he reassures himself. He is a professional. They are both adults, and Steve can set his feelings aside and be courteous to Stark without fawning all over him.
On screen, the massive shape lifts off the ground, rising steadily, and he hears Bucky whistle beside him, evidently as awed as Steve is by the display.
“Say, isn’t that—?”
Steve nods, saying nothing, and oh, lord, apparently even Mister Stark’s inventions are causing him to clam up now. This isn’t good at all.
“Gosh, we really can’t seem to get away from Mister Stark, can we, Steve?”
Steve doesn’t want to get away from Stark, he decides. His feet, who want to head in the other direction every time that brilliant blue gaze falls on him, will just have to get new marching orders.
But how can Steve find the words? And if he does, how can he say them out loud?
Steve shakes his head, conceding. “Nope, Buck, I guess we can’t.”
The following day, Steve spots Stark just beside a half finished wooden hut. He stands in what Steve thinks of as his signature stance, with one hip cocked, head tilted in focus. He holds a worn briefcase of whiskey-colored leather in his right hand.
This is Steve’s chance. The Invaders are scheduled to leave tomorrow, and Steve has no idea if he’ll ever see Stark again. It’s now or never.
But as he approaches, Stark shifts just slightly, and now, over his shoulder, Steve can see the face of a beautiful blonde woman in a navy blue uniform; he can just barely make out the gold letters W.A.S.P. on her lapel.
Steve draws a deep breath. He can’t interrupt Stark now. He’s discussing official business. Probably. With a gorgeous dame. Er, pilot.
Steve turns on his heel, chiding himself for ever thinking this was a good idea.
“Thanks, Danvers. Hey, give me a moment—Captain,” Stark’s raised voice stops Steve dead in his tracks. “Can I speak with you?”
Steve turns back. The blonde pilot smiles at Steve before taking her leave. He clears his throat and tries to act as naturally as possible. He hadn’t considered this. Tony Stark wants to talk to him?
“I, ah,” Stark begins slowly, like he’s considering what to say to Steve. “I was hoping you could help me appraise an… ancient artifact I’ve had in my collection for some time.”
Steve shrugs. “That’s… not really my area of expertise, Mister Stark.”
He wants to kick himself even as he’s saying it. Stark gave him an in, and Steve’s throwing it away? What on earth is wrong with him?
But Stark doesn’t move. His mustache swings upward in a sharper curve as he smiles and puffs out a little laugh.
“Oh, come on,” he coaxes charmingly. “Big Marvels fan like you?”
Steve freezes. He thought he was tongue-tied before. He had no idea. None at all.
Stark knows. Somehow, Tony Stark knows how Steve feels about Marvels.
He doesn’t know... everything, does he? Was Steve that obvious?
Steve isn’t morbid, doesn’t imagine the worst happening too often, but he has thought that if he gets taken down during the war, it will be on the front line in the heat of battle.
But he realizes now it won’t be like that at all.
He’s going to embarrass himself in front of Tony Stark of Marvels, and he is going to die.
“Uh,” Steve’s eyes trace over the grass for a moment. “Mister Stark, did someone tell you—”
Stark takes two steps toward Steve, striding into his personal space—oh, god.
“It’s Tony, please. Can we—?” Tony swivels his head, on the lookout for a space for them to talk privately—why does Stark want to talk to him privately?—then moves to one of the completed structures nearby, gesturing for Steve to follow.
It’s empty save for the two of them, and Stark closes the door behind Steve. The room is sparse at the moment, save for a table at its center and a few chairs.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Captain,” Stark turns to face him. “But I wanted to address something.”
Steve stands ramrod straight, fingers gripping the back of one of the chairs, and says nothing at all: nervous, anticipating.
“When Fury asked me last week to visit camp to check on the new technology for the flight program, he mentioned the Invaders would be here. I went over your profiles, and caught a glimpse of your real name on your enlistment record… Captain Rogers.”
Steve opens his mouth and closes it. He’s not heard his superheroic title linked with his own last name before, and it startles him.
This is about Steve’s identity? What does that have to do with... anything at all? True, not a lot of folks know bumbling Private Steve Rogers is actually Captain America, but how that connects with Stark, Steve can’t begin to fathom.
“I actually consulted on Project Rebirth,” Stark continues, setting the battered attaché down on the tabletop. “Only briefly—Fury sent me some formulas, electrical equipment diagrams to review.”
He rummages around in the front-most pocket of the case, glancing back at Steve now and then.
“I hadn’t actually realized the project had not only been successful, but that it had taken a sickly young man and turned him into Captain America.”
Stark makes a delighted little ‘ah’ sound, apparently having found what he was seeking. He pulls out a couple sheets of paper, and straightens them in his hands. The one on the bottom of the stack looks significantly older and dirtier than the others.
“And then... the name in your file got me thinking. Your story, too. It took a little digging through my collection, and a day or so to put it together, but… well, you know me: I love research, and I’m a sucker for a quest.”
Stark says ‘you know me’ so effortlessly, Steve has to resist the urge to agree with him. He doesn’t know Stark, he reminds himself. He knows of him, about him. They aren’t close, and it’s likely they never will be—at least, not if Steve doesn’t get his act together.
Extending his hand, Stark offers Steve the papers.
Steve finds himself looking at, well, himself. A photo from him before Rebirth, part of a record of the project. Some of the technical information is redacted, but Steve can clearly see his full name, hometown, and date of birth has been circled in pencil, presumably by Stark himself.
He shuffles through a couple more pages of records, until he reaches a page unlike the others. It’s been worn thin, contains stains, and has clearly been crumpled and folded time and time again. The bottom of the page is torn in a jagged diagonal line.
But when Steve spies the writing on the page, he actually gasps aloud. He knows exactly what this is.
The lines are written in the bouncy arcs of a child’s hand, but one who is obviously trying to print as clearly as possible, both so their missive is readable, and also to impress with their penmanship. It’s faded in spots, Steve notes as his eyes sweep over it, but it really doesn’t matter. He knows exactly what it says.
He wrote it, after all.
Dear Mister Stark,
My name is Steven and I wanted to tell you that I think Marvels: A Magazine of Men’s Adventure is the Greatest Magazine Ever. I have read every issue you’ve put out many times, and I think you’re the best adventurer I’ve ever heard of.
I am sure that you are aware that what you do is very important—you do not need a kid tell you that! I’m glad that you find the artifacts you do, so they do not fall into the wrong hands.
But I wanted you to know that it is also important in another way. I am home sick in bed a lot, so I don’t get to do much even in the city where I live, let alone travel the world like you. But when I read your magazine, I feel like I am right alongside you every step of the way. It really brings people like me a lot of excitement and even hope, and I know I am not the only one that feels that way.
I hope your magazine is a big success for years to come, so I can keep reading about your adventures. More important, one day I want to come work for your magazine as an artist! Please see if the enclosed drawing is to your liking.
Say hello to Mister Munsey and Mister Rhodes for me.
Your fan always,
The tear at the bottom of the page intersects his signature, cutting off his last name. There’s no second page with an accompanying drawing (it had been of a Yeti; ten-year-old Steve had been eager to show off how well he portrayed unusual creatures), or an envelope.
Steve is silent for several moments. He can’t stop staring at the letter.
“You read this?” he asks, voice little more than a whisper. “I mean, of course you did, I mean, you obviously have, but, I mean...” He feels himself starting to babble, but he can’t stop now. “You read it… back then? When you got it?”
“I read all my fanmail,” Stark tells him, and the seriousness with which he replies causes Steve to finally look up from the page.
As if Stark didn’t receive thousands of letters a year. As if he wasn’t an internationally known star.
But Stark’s face doesn’t move a muscle. He looks like he’s just made an oath of some kind. Maybe he really does read everything sent to him.
That still doesn’t explain what Steve’s letter in particular is doing here.
“But you kept this one? Not that I’m not… uh, flattered, Mister Stark, but—”
“I don’t think you understand, Steve—can I call you Steve?”
Steve just nods and blinks.
“We’d only published… let’s see…” Tony’s eyes flick up momentarily as he recalls, “...eight issues at the time. No one had ever done what we were doing. Not with real adventures, anyway. I honestly wasn’t sure it was going to work. You were one of my earliest fans.”
And then Stark absolutely beams at him, like he’s grateful for what Steve did, like Steve is something rare and precious and worth going on a journey to find.
If Steve didn’t know better, if it were anyone else in the world, Steve would say that the gaze has a little spark of heat in it as well. Like Stark wants more from him than an old fan letter.
But that can’t be right.
Steve sets the papers on the table, happy to release them from his sweaty palms.
“I.. I didn’t even know you got this letter. I heard… that sometimes you wrote back—”
And his voice sounds so needy, even to him. He shouldn’t have said that. Isn’t it enough that Stark read the letter? Like he didn’t have better things to do than reply to little kids in Manhattan—
But now Stark is the one who looks sheepish. He lets a hand glide up across the back of his neck and looks to the floor before he goes on.
“Funny story. One that didn’t make it into the magazine.” He clears his throat. “I actually had your letter, along with a few others, with me when I was trekking through the amazon rainforest. And, to cut to the chase, the envelope and the drawing and part of the letter got eaten. By piranhas. That had been exposed to a supposedly magic ring.” Stark chuckles. “So, I guess you could say you’ve been a part of my adventures for some time now. In a very literal sense.”
Steve’s mouth falls open again in shock, and before he can stop himself, he laughs. Loudly. Repeatedly. Stark joins in after a moment, and he looks… relieved. He didn’t actually think Steve would be angry about that, did he?
Stark walks around the table, winding his way to Steve, and stops beside him. Steve turns to face him; he can feel his pulse speeding up in every part of his body.
“I didn’t have a return address for you,” Stark explains, still sounding a little chagrined. “Didn’t even have your last name. I always hoped you’d write again. But now that you’re here, and, ah, now that I know you... Well… I wanted to apologize for not getting back to you. Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?”
Every part of Stark’s body is angled toward Steve, like Stark is a compass needle, magnetized in his direction. His blue eyes look deep enough to fall into. He looks like he wants… like he wants.
And it hits Steve, in a burst of realization.
Even if words sometimes fail him, Steve is still a man of action. He should start acting like one.
He glances at the door to the room. It’s latched shut and they aren’t likely to be interrupted.
Looking back at Stark, Steve thinks that even if he’s wrong about this, Stark wouldn’t hurt him, wouldn’t try to get him discharged.
That doesn’t mean Steve’s not still nervous.
But if there’s anything he learned from Tony Stark growing up, it’s that you have to be brave to have an adventure.
“Maybe one thing,” he confesses.
He leans in slowly, to give Stark time to move, to change his mind. But Stark just closes his eyes, and parts his lips slightly, and Steve’s whole body seems to tingle when their mouths meet. Stark’s hands come up on either side of Steve’s face, and he hums softly as he kisses him, and oh, that’s not a detail Steve imagined from the magazines, not at all.
When they finally part, Steve sways just slightly. He can’t stop grinning. He can’t quite believe he just kissed Tony Stark on an Allied base, in the middle of a war, while wearing his Captain America uniform. It is absolutely terrifying and exhilarating and so, so worth the risk.
Stark takes a half step back, makes a little space between them. He, too, knows they can’t be found like this. But he grins back at Steve, as if to cover over the loss he feels not touching him. Steve feels the exact same way.
“Dear Steven,” Stark narrates clearly, projecting his voice slightly and over enunciating, as though he is reading from a written statement. “Thank you for your kind letter. I would very much enjoy going on an adventure with you—”
The way Stark says adventure, leaning deeply into the ‘veh’ and dropping the pitch of his voice, suggests maybe he’s thinking of a particularly private type of escapade; it is not something Steve would have imagined if he’d actually received this letter as a child, but, as the skin goes prickly on the back of his neck and his face turns hot, he knows he’ll never be able to forget it now.
“And,” Stark continues, “I would love to have you as a part of my team at Marvels. I know I don’t know you well, but I have a feeling you’ll go on to do important things, and bring hope to people, too…”
Stark darts his hand out and traces the top point of the star on Steve’s chest, like he just can’t help himself. Steve shudders and closes his eyes for a moment.
“You’ve definitely brought some to me. Your fan always, Tony Stark.”
Stark pulls his hand away, and Steve opens his eyes again. The idol of his childhood daydreams is still looking back at him like Steve is the hero. This is happening. This is really happening.
“Good reply?” Stark asks.
As if Steve could possibly say no.
“Yeah, Mister Stark—”
“Tony, Steve, it’s Tony.”
“Yeah, Tony,” Steve tries the name out, like they are friends—more than friends. “That sounds perfect.”