The air smelled of rain when he opened the door. He had been assigned a facility a little further away from the soldiers than the main research facility. In the dark of night he could even imagine he was out there somewhere in the wild looking for adventure and not here in the special military base used by the Strategic Scientific Reserve. It was his sixth week on the home front and he was beginning to worry that he would never go back to the European theater at this rate.
He wasn’t sure what was worse: feeling sick or feeling caged in.
With a huff, he stepped out into the darkness. After hours of work it was time to stretch his legs a bit. It helped him keep his head clear and his mind in good working order.
Because he'd come to feel uncomfortable with all eyes on him, he made his rounds when it was dark and most recruits were in their barracks. Everyone knew that Tony Stark was on base working on something to help them win them the war, so the boys were understandably excited and rumors were making the rounds unchecked. Usually he did not mind. But lately, Tony had his reasons to not show his face around the camp too often.
Of course, even at night, this was a military base. The soldiers on guard duty all knew him and his strange habits well by now and he took the time to talk to all of them without getting them into trouble with their superiors. It paid off to be on good terms with the soldiers who saw you sneaking around, especially when you were the non-military "contractor" on the grounds everyone wanted a piece of.
And night had it's advantages. Nobody thought twice of your tired look or your pale face. The darkness took the edge off all details.
"Making your rounds, Mr. Stark?" Sergeant Ames asked him as he passed by.
Tony smiled at him without stepping into the light and nodded. "You know me. Can't go back to my den before I check myself that everything is in order. Never know when Hydra will hit next."
Ames chuckled good-naturedly. "I feel safer knowing I have the Tony Stark keeping his eyes out for trouble. Not that much is happening out here in New Jersey."
He hummed. "Don't let the quiet New Jersey night fool you, Sergeant. We're not safe anywhere."
Standing right by a lamp as he was, Ames could not hide his reaction. Tony saw him squint uncomfortably. "Yes, Mr. Stark," he said and saluted. "I won't forget it. I'm sure you know more about it than I do."
He shrugged. "I've seen a thing or two. And I've seen too much where our Nazi friends are concerned. Hydra has agents everywhere. Don’t let your guard down."
Everyone knew Tony could spin yarn with the best of them. But this was no simple story meant to excite and scare. And Ames understood the urgency. This was a secret operations facility after all. "We have you," Ames said. "Iron Man must be worth more than a league of Hydra?" He smiled, believing every word of it.
And Tony laughed. "I hope so," he said and hoped his words didn't sound as hollow as they felt.
He walked along the outer edge of the camp, just inside the fortified fence, aware that the men on the towers were following his every move. They were getting better at doing it without giving his location away, after he had chided them about focusing all their attention on one man when there might be someone out there taking advantage of their distraction.
The men took him seriously. More seriously than the generals perhaps. Tony wasn't sure which attitude he preferred.
Howard Stark had been the soldier in the family and Jarvis had been the veteran bringing him up, but Tony himself had never aspired to become a soldier. Inventions had been on his mind until his little heart problem had turned him into an expert of krypto-science and lost artifacts.
God, despite all the pain it had brought him, he missed that life.
Feeling restless, like a tiger in a cage, he took the long way around and then made his way back towards the facility that housed his research. He had taken to sleeping in the workshop and even General Fury had by now decided to just let him do what he wanted. After all he wanted Tony back at the front as soon as possible, too, and right now the only person who could make sure he would be able to was right here.
The clear night air had helped calm his frayed nerves and refreshed his tired mind. It was time to get back to work.
But there in front of the barracks stood someone who was not in uniform. A tall and lanky blond man stood right beneath the floodlights and waited. He fidgeted nervously. Tony walked closer to get a better look. The man watched him approach with some wariness.
“You one of the 4-Fs?”
The gaunt face grew pinched and then the owner of it winced.
“Phillips brought you in?”
The man nodded. “Not sure what I’m allowed to say to be honest. They’re setting me up right now.”
Tony nodded. He knew the procedure and had watched some of the other recruits being brought in. This was the first man who’d been carted here at this late an hour. “You’re from New York?” he asked, basing his suspicions on the accent, while he took another few steps toward the new recruit for Project Rebirth and looked him up and down. General Phillips had gathered a whole bunch of young men who weren’t fit for army service and promised them a chance here. The man seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
“Brooklyn,” the man admitted and cautiously looked at him. “You’re…” The 4-F took in the civilian clothes and probably got a good look at his face before he gasped a little and then said slowly: “I’ve seen your picture in the papers and… well, on the magazines.”
It was to be expected. Tony shrugged. “A lot of people have.”
The man took another long look at him then extended his hand: “Steve Rogers,” he said firmly.
The confidence was interesting. So Tony took the offered hand without hesitation and shook it: "Tony Stark."
The man chuckled. "I kind of knew that. It's an honor, sir."
There was something extremely honest about Steve's smile and that seemed so out of place here, out in the middle of a secret army base where the SSR worked on there most dangerous military secrets. Nothing here was honest or straightforward.
Was Rogers just a good man or too good an actor?
Aware that the handshake had gone on a little too long, Tony pulled back his hand. He was careful with any sort of touches these days - not only because there were people out there who wanted him dead and could think up the worst kind of poisons, but also because he couldn't allow himself any hint of weakness. Somewhere out there Hydra was waiting for the first news of his deterioration.
How long had it taken Howard to succumb to the Zemo formula? Months? Tony had tried to piece together the facts and call up his memories over and over again. The truth was, he didn't know. He might still have weeks - or he might be too far gone tomorrow to save himself.
"Ah, there you are, Tony! Getting to know the new man?" a loud voice said and General Phillips stepped from the building, making a beeline for both of them. Philips was one of the men who had an eye for people and he and Tony got along fine. Their mutual respect kept them from interfering in each other's business, but Phillips had extended an invitation to Tony to vet his recruits. Tony wasn’t sure he wanted any part in it though. He was only interested in the man working on it.
"Making introductions," Tony said when he realized Rogers had tensed up.
"More bravery than sense, this one," Phillips said. "Reminds me a bit of you."
"That's not..." Steve started, but Tony cut him off: "We both know I have no sense at all, but I'm not a brave man either. I'm just a little too in love with my own hide to go down quietly."
Rogers’ eyes snapped to his face and the man opened and clsoed his mouth like he wanted to say something, but thought better of it.
"Don't listen to him," Phillips said in Steve's direction. "He's trying to be humble, but it's the one thing he is extremely bad at."
"I didn't even think..." Steve started then bit his lip and shut up.
"Didn't even?" Tony prompted.
"I thought that some of the stories going around about you were all for the propaganda," he admitted.
"Oh," Tony said and flashed a bright and very much studied smile, "Of course, they are. My chronicler is the real hero for putting up with me and letting me look good." The temperature out here hadn't changed, but by now Tony felt chilled. Cold sweat had started to break. He formed a fist and tried to keep himself from shaking. It was time he got back to his workshop and away from prying eyes.
Phillips snorted. "Come by tomorrow," he told Tony. "As long as you're here I don't see why only Nick should get your input."
The subtle rivalry between the generals had not escaped his notice, but he tried his best to keep out of it. He was here to focus on his work - and himself.
The door opened again and Tony was more and more convinced that it was time for him to make his escape.
"This is Mr. Rogers?" the new person asked and when Tony looked over Erskine had already stepped out to greet them. "Good, good," he said and nodded at Rogers. His German accent was thick and Rogers reacted surprised.
"Mr. Stark," the doctor said when he finally noticed him. "Everything alright?"
He tried to smile. "I think so."
"I'll come by later," the doctor promised, one hand already pushing the new recruit towards the building. "I'll need some more... you know."
"Yes," Tony said and nodded.
"Scientists," Phillips said jovially towards Rogers. "Always collaborating."
Tony nodded one final time at Steve Rogers before he pushed himself to walk back to his own work, slowly and without giving away how bad he was feeling.
"It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Stark," Steve said after him.
"He'll be around," Phillips said. "He doesn't admit it, but he needs to get out of his iron cage once in a while."
It was perhaps the most astute assessment of his situation yet. But Phillips had no idea why Tony had really been "called back" from the front. Only General Fury and the doctor knew the truth and had set Tony up here at Camp Lehigh to make sure he was in close proximity to Abraham Erskine.
When he entered the workshop he wasn't surprised to see Jarvis sitting on the workbench, hands in his lap. Pepper stood to the back of the room and was inspecting the Iron Man armor. He’d made a few changes recently she hadn’t seen yet.
"Took a walk?" Jarvis asked, his hands busy with tools.
"How's the heart?"
"Ticking," he said. He was always glad to see his friends, but right now he had wanted nothing more than some time alone.
"Good," Jarvis said.
Pepper turned to give him a once over too. "Any changes?" she asked delicately.
"Some," he said and pulled his hand from his coat pocket. It was shaking and they all knew what it meant.
Pepper was in front of him with a few quick steps and her arms closed around his back, her head coming to rest on his shoulder. She sighed. "Oh, Tony. I’m so sorry."
Jarvis only watched him with narrowed eyes. "When did it start?"
"A few days ago. It hasn't happened at all yesterday and only started up again today."
That man there was the closest he had to a father and Tony sometimes wished he'd done what Jarvis had asked of him years ago and settled down. But they both knew that he would never have found happiness in a quiet life.
"Sit down," Jarvis ordered. "Let me have a look at your ticker. That at least I can help with."
Nothing was wrong with his heart. He'd not had problems with it since his return from the front - most likely because without the need to power the armor there was barely any strain put on the amazing new energy source that kept it going.
He sat down anyway, let Jarvis pull another chair closer and fuss and complain about his bad habits and reckless lifestyle, tried to smile at Pepper who watched them with a sad, pale face. Jarvis opened his shirt and opened the glass plate that kept his heart safe and ran through his usual inspections of the mechanism. Tony tried not to look at what he was doing.
He focused on Pepper instead. "No word from Jim?"
She shook her head. "That's probably a good thing, isn't it? Means the secret mission is still a secret."
"He's good," Tony said. "He has this."
He had told himself that over and over again. If something happened to him, James Rhodes was more than capable to pilot the armor. Hydra wouldn't win that easily even if Tony were out of the picture.
Finished with his inspection, or unsure of what else he could really do, Jarvis carefully closed the mechanical heart again and hunched over. Tony had a feeling he could see his heart clench right in front of his face. Then Jarvis sighed heavily and clapped a hand to his shoulder. "Why did you have to go back there? Why do you always have to go into trouble?"
Jarvis was not someone who shared his feelings openly, when it wasn't anger. Anger the old soldier could deal with. But this was something else. Tony patted his hand and then held it, pressed against his own shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said. "I know I was a troublesome charge."
"Don't start saying goodbye," Jarvis barked. "You're not a quitter."
"I haven't given up yet. But I know we're on a schedule."
Six weeks ago, Tony had gone on a special rescue mission in Northern Europe. It had all been a set up, a trap waiting to close around him. He remembered Gialetta laughing, he remembered the nightmarish horror of the red skull shaped face above him, as finally a doctor bent over to stick a needle inside of him.
"It's not the same set of treatments my father got. I remember. I know what they did. I'm not shellshocked or confused about what happened to me."
"You think you were freed before they could set you on the path?" A hint of hope swung in Pepper's questions.
"I don't know."
"I remember your father. He was a mess when he came back from the war. You are... calm."
Tony shrugged his shoulders. "I know what is going on. Maybe it's that... Maybe it's that they weren't finished when you and Jim got me out. I think they said it needed more injections." His smile was all a brave front for Pepper. "Whatever it was, I know I still have a chance to find a way out and I don't want to waste it. I'm good at last minute escapes. I can turn this story around."
Jarvis looked at him, grave and serious, and Pepper only managed a sad half-smile. They knew his last minute escapes. They knew how often he escaped on the skin of his teeth and not at all unscarhed.
"Believe in me, come on, I need both of you to believe in me." His mouth was dry and a knot was forming in his throat. He tried to swallow, make it go away, and said: “I can’t do it on my own.”
"Show me what you have," Jarvis said and his voice was much thicker than it usually was. "Show me."
Pepper only nodded.
That Tony could do, glad, especially that they were willing to treat this as a problem that had a solution. Thoughts of his father had been wearing down heavily on his mind. Howard’s contorted face - the face of the man he'd thought dead for many year before finding him under the mask of Baron Zemo - was edged into his memory.
He pulled up blueprints and some drawings he made just that morning to show to Jarvis.
Jarvis looked it over. "That is extremely advanced, Tony," he said.
"I know. There is no guarantee it will work or that anyone would survive it if it indeed would work."
They watched him carefully, Pepper bent over the table to get a better look and Jarvis sitting in his chair.
"Jarvis," Tony said and grinned, "when exactly have you ever know me to play it safe or by the rules? I kept my heart going when doctors told me I’d never get out of my sick bed. I learned to fly since then. I’m not going down without a fight."
"Good," he said. "Let’s get to work then."
Pepper watched them set up the equipment, watched Tony roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty, like he would with the armor. His hands were still shaking, but with every bit of focus he won back, the tremors subsided a little. Tony smiled at her across the room and was glad when she smiled back tentatively.
When the people around him believed in him, his own doubts didn’t matter that much.
He wasn’t going to lose to Hydra.
They had taken too much already and he still had options.
Together, he and Jarvis worked for another hour while Pepper sat down in the corner to write down notes for her articles and for chronicles that had not yet been written. A gentle knock on the door made all of them stop.
“Who?” Pepper asked.
“My backup plan,” he admitted.
The door was pushed open. “Mr. Stark,” a heavily accented voice said, “I’m here for your blood, like a vampire in the night in one of your funny magazine stories.”
“Nothing fun about vampires,” Pepper muttered and gave the doctor a suspicious once over. Her attitude made Tony smile. Pepper was protective of her friends.
Dr. Erskine only smiled at her.
“I’m an engineer and you know field medicine and the way around the thing in my chest, Jarvis,” Tony said and gestured at Erskine: “Meet the man behind Project Rebirth.”
“Rebirth?” Pepper listened up immediately.
Not particularly bothered by the scrutiny, the doctor started to set up his equipment on the table. “I promised to help,” he agreed. “We’ll have better chances working together.”
Tony nodded and in a small water basin he washed his hands, made sure his arm was clean and sat down to have his blood taken. The silence in the room was loud and scary. He still smiled at Erskine. “Help me then.”
* * *
Right now he had no stories for her to write and no research for her to do. And in all honesty, he wasn't sure if he wanted his chronicler around to document his descent into madness or worse.
Their radiation experiments were far from safe.
For two days he tried to convince Pepper to return to New York. Together with Jarvis, he had started to work with electromagnetic radiation and some results were promising, but he had no idea if he was actually on the right track to stop his own deterioration.
And there was nothing here for her to do.
She would be better off in New York, writing for one of the papers or working on a different project. "There is no adventure here," he told her, his hands buried inside a machine that looked more and more like a huge metal coffin.
“Sorry, Tony,” Pepper said. “I’m not going to just leave you.”
Jarvis looked over his shoulder as he connected the advanced circuitry and sorted through the cables he was connecting. Some of it had been inspired by recent changed he'd made to the armor - and it would come in handy the next time he upgraded the armor.
If there was indeed a necessity to upgrade again.
"There's always adventure," Pepper said and looked unimpressed. "You can't sit still without something happening around you."
"This is a secret army base. So even if that's true, you can't write about it."
She huffed. "I can't write about the secret army base. I can write about you all I want, Mr. Stark. Fire me if you don't need me anymore." He knew there was no arguing with her.
"This might not even be safe to be around," he muttered and closed the panel on the machine.
Jarvis laughed. "Just like you then."
He grumbled and ignored them for the next hour and then thought about taking Erskine up on his offer to take up space over in his lab instead. As much as he wanted and needed the help and support of his friends, right now he really wasn't sure he wanted Pepper around to record the details of his slow deterioration. And he was already of half a mind to find some better way to die if there was really nothing to be done about it. He could still take the armor and head for the front. He could still take a plane and see to it that it crashed over a Hydra base. Pretty much any scenario he could think of was better than what Hydra had in store for him.
The last glimpse he'd gotten of his father's deranged face haunted nearly all his hours now. He dreamed of himself as Zemo and woke up upset and scared nearly every night.
Jarvis looked at their handiwork at the end of the day and asked: "Are you sure this is going to work?"
"On me or on something?"
"On you, Tony."
He shrugged. "The doctor had access to the labs, you know? I think he knows what he’s doing - and this is only meant to stabilize his work. He’s working on an antiserum for me. For a while he was one of the hot candidates for Zemo, but they are looking for a candidate who is more hands on with weapon designs."
"They aren't looking anymore," Jarvis said flatly. Every time they came close to talking about what was going to happen to him, Jarvis’ face showed some of the anguish and sorrow - and Tony couldn't take that. Anguish and sorrow - he'd caused so much of that over the years.
"No," he said, "not right now. Right now they are waiting."
"You father..." Jarvis voice faltered and that wasn't at all like him. "It took weeks. Months. We thought he was deteriorating; that the torture had irrevocably broken something in him. But he was already... changing by the time he got home. We didn't know it, but he was not a man who had any chance to recover."
"I know," Tony said and tried not to think about it. He remembered. He'd only been a little boy, but he'd remembered his father coming home after the war, he remembered playing in the garden in front of the mansion and being both happy and afraid when his dad walked out. In the later days, Howard hadn't even recognized his son.
Was that where he was going?
He couldn't shake the thought that maybe he was fighting a destiny that maybe had been set for him during the previous war. "Do you think they would have ever come after me like this if not for father?" he asked.
Instead of answering Jarvis looked pained.
Jarvis had looked after him all his life- after the rich little orphan, the stupid young industrialist, and the adventurer. What would he have done without Jarvis after the injury that nearly ended his life? He'd always been there.
There wasn't much he could say to him now to make it better.
Perhaps we would all have been better off, if the heart had killed me years ago, he thought later, when they'd left him alone in his workshop, where he worked on the armor to relax. Something about working on Iron Man made him feel like himself again. His hands were steady and his mind was focused and there was no fear or doubt when he looked at the silver-grey of the mask.
The soldiers out in the fields of Europe had given him the nickname "Invincible Iron Man".
He smiled and knocked his knuckles against the torso of the metal suit. A little invincibility would have helped right about now.
"Rhodey'll take good care of you, if I don't get to take you out again," Tony said but smiled.
He hadn't given up yet.
Too often in the last decade he had been told that he was as good as dead - and here he was, alive to tell all outraging tales with flourish and a charming smile. He could do it again.
With a rag he polished the plate of the armor until his knuckles went white and his right hand started shaking, taking some of the optimism with it. "I'm not so easily defeated," he muttered. "Not by my body."
There was an ancient metal alloy keeping his heart ticking. If there was a miracle cure that could save his mind, he would find it.
But because he was not only the protagonist of his own adventure stories, but also a businessman and realist, he got up to fetch something from his room that he had kept for the day when he thought he was too close to the brink. And he wasn't there yet, he knew he wasn't. The headaches were annoying and the tremors were getting more frequent, but he wasn't losing his mind.
He was still Tony Stark.
But he wanted to be sure not to miss his window. He needed to be prepared to do what was necessary.
He knelt in front of the uncomfortable army bed and pulled out one of the unpacked pieces of luggage he'd brought. In a metal box in his suitcase he found his father's old army revolver. It was a Stark revolver - one of the first - and in perfect condition. Jarvis had made sure of it. He'd kept it in pristine working order in memory of the friend and hero he'd fought with in the Great War and to pass it on to his son finally.
"This is for you too, dad," Tony said to the empty room and the gun. "I promise they won't get me. They've gotten too much from this family already."
He pushed the revolver in his belt, hit it beneath his jacket and got to his feet, glad that his hand had stopped shaking.
He rummaged around the suitcase for a bit longer and took a bottle of expensive Scotch out that he’d brought from Europe. He had earned himself at least the small indulgence. And what could it hurt?
A look at the clock told him it was early morning by now. He'd lost himself in work like he'd done so many times before. It was long after curfew and most soldiers were in their barracks, sleeping. The best time to get some air.
He wandered outside with the gun in the belt and the bottle in his coat pocket.
Tonight he had no plan to make his usual round. He'd breath some air, have a drink and get back inside. Tomorrow he would talk to Erskine. He could feel they were onto something, but he was no doctor and he had no idea how to test this kind of apparatus.
Across the lane that crossed the camp, he could see the building that housed Erskine and his special project in the cone of flood lights. Two guards were standing in front of the doors.
Phillips and Fury feared that despite the secrecy, word of Erskine's work for the SRR had already reached Germany. And going by his own experience in these matters, it was more than likely they were right. Who knew who was a spy these days?
Once upon a time he'd had the traitor in his bed and nearly lost the chance to fix his heart to the people who were now trying to make him their pawn. There was no trusting anyone where Hydra was concerned.
He wanted to walk over and see if the doctor was spending a sleepless night in his lab, working through his nights just like Tony. In the end he sat down on one of the steps in front of his own door and just stared out into the night. It was already helping to ease his frayed nerves to be out in the open again.
Work had always been important and he had always been able to forget everything - the pain, the failing heart, the threats lurking in the shadows - when he was working. But he missed it, that other part of his life that consisted of jungles and mysteries and the sun burning down on his face as he crossed the seas. He missed it.
He was so tired of war.
Smiling sadly, he took a swig from the bottle.
Over there at what he knew some of the other soldiers had started calling the reject shack the door opened and a scrawny silhouette walked into the light, talked to the guards. Tony sat up a bit straighter to watch. He would have thought that everyone but the workaholic scientists and the guards on duty would have been asleep by now.
Then the scrawny soldier walked away from the building in his general direction.
Even in the darkness, Tony could tell before the man reached him, that it was the one he'd met a few night ago with Phillips and Erskine.
"Mr. Stark," he greeted and stopped a few feet away. He was wearing slightly baggy army pants and a pristine white undershirt and nothing else.
Tony wondered what had made him come out here. It looked like the cold alone could kill him.
He didn't seem unsure exactly, but a little nervous.
"Rogers?" Remembering names had always been one of his useful skills in business and adventure - where knowing the right names and when to drop them could decide your fate.
The man looked startled. "You remember?"
Of course, Steve Rogers could have no idea that Tony was analyzing the way his own memory worked these days, watching like a hawk for any inconsistencies. He knew his father had been taken over by the Zemo persona, before his death as staged and he'd been picked up by Hydra to start his new life. Any stretch of missing time could be a warning sign, could mean that he had started to spirit away information or notes about his own inventions. That was not going to happen to him.
"I do," he said. "It was only two days ago."
Flushing, Rogers said: "I'm Private Rogers, now. Call me Steve, please."
"Steve," Tony said and motioned for him to come closer. "I'm Tony," he said and grinned.
"I'm not..." Like he'd been caught in another startled spell Steve shook his head and then straightened his shoulders. He reached into the pocket of his uniform pants and Tony froze for a half-second, immediately tense and expecting him to draw a gun. That was ridiculous, of course. Hydra did not want him dead.
Not right now. Right now they were waiting for him to come to them.
What Steve held up in front of him was a piece of folded paper. "The doc told me to bring you this message."
"Ah, Abraham still working?"
"Yeah," Rogers admitted. "I'm not sure he sleeps. He says geniuses are like that." He gave Tony a significant look.
"I'm not working."
"But you're still awake." Steve laughed and held out the note for Tony. Now that he was up close, Tony noticed that he had a nasty bruise on his face.
"Well, I was working until now," Tony admitted, laughing too.
In Erskine's messy doctor's scrawl it said: "You shouldn't be drinking alone. Be nice to Steven. He's not a spy and he's too stubborn to sleep. You should have something in common."
Tony chuckled and folded the paper back together and let it vanish in his coat pocket right next to the army revolver in his belt. "Sit down," Tony said and put his arm out in invitation. "It seems you were sent here as my bodyguard."
Frowning a little, and probably unsure of how to take the joke, Steve hesitated a moment and then sat down with a hilariously determined expression. Really not a spy, Tony thought. For that Steve was too open with his emotions. Or maybe one of the very good ones. One who really knows how to play human emotions. Those were rare. Most spies lost that kind of ability after too long in the service.
"How did you get on the list?"
Steve looked at him sideways. "The doctor and General Phillips brought me in."
"I remember. Just how did they pick you?"
Suddenly Steve chuckled. "You're Tony Stark and you're here, but I realize I have no idea what kind of clearance you have or what you're doing here - or what you’re allowed to know."
That explained some of the tension.
Without much humor, Tony chuckled: "Probably too much clearance, to be honest. The army hopes if I’m part of the official documents it will make me a soldier." If Zemo began to emerge that could become a serious problem. "I'm just a privateer playing war hero."
"I'm not sure I want to start my unlikely military career by blabbing out things you're not supposed to know about. Or this is a test."
He had to laugh at that. "I have no idea why anyone would want a military career, but I'm not going to ruin yours. You're a 4-F," he said, "and you're with Erskine. So you're one of the candidates for Project Rebirth. You're on the list. I know about that."
Steve watched him sideways. He had a very gaunt face, but his eyes were alert and awake and something in them was smiling. Tony liked it. Eyes were the windows to the soul and there was something all around good about what he saw in the gaze of Steve Rogers.
"I... never realized your eyes were blue," Steve blurted out. "I mean the novels say they are, but..."
Startled, Tony stared and caught the moment when Rogers cheeks turned red and he looked away. "I'm sorry. That was such a stupid thing to say. I'm not... Gosh, sorry. I never expected to actually meet you. When the general said you were on base... I just thought you were here in passing before heading out again."
"Read a lot of magazines? Marvels?"
"Timely Magazine mostly," Rogers admitted with a half-barked laugh. "I used to ink for them."
Tony laughed. "You are certainly unexpected for a Rebirth recruit."
"I read all of the Tony Stark Adventures. It was hard to get a copy of Tony Stark and the Secret of Iron Man though. Before it was taken out of circulation; before you started working with the army."
"Ah," he said, remembering the shouting match he'd had with Fury after he'd assured his cooperation and willingness to go to Latveria and the general had felt free for the first time to interfere in his business. Tony Stark and the Secret of Iron Man had been Pepper’s first Tony Stark story and he remembered vaguely how many of the details had been changed. It was not Howard Stark under the mask in that story now.
"So? Apart from the eyes, do I meet your expectations?" There was a deliberate note of flirting in his voice, but he kept it low. American soldiers weren't as free and open about some of the aspects of their bunk sharing habits as people he'd partied with before he'd started adventuring.
He wanted to laugh at the serious way Steve studied him now. "You live up," he said and grinned.
"Thanks." Today he wasn't sure he could believe that. He pulled the bottle from his coat pocket and said. "I don't have glasses. I didn't plan on companionship and worried doctors watching me through windows."
“I don’t drink much.” Steve looked back at the barracks at the mention of Erskine. "He is worried. They're gunning for him. The Germans." Of course, they are, Tony thought. They want a super soldier as much as we do. "That's how I ended up on the list, actually."
"You really are a secret bodyguard?" Tony hoped he didn't sound too disbelieving, because he knew never to underestimate someone based on their looks. Across the globe fighters had learned to turn their weaknesses into advantages and to play the role of the harmless innocent, before they went straight for your throat.
Tony should know.
"A car went straight for him and I pushed him out of the way. The general was right there."
"Dark car," Steve said, caught up in the memory. "He was just walking along the street and the car went right for him. Phillips thought I had spunk."
"Did you get hurt?"
Steve shook his head. "Banged up a bit. I had just walked out of the army physical with my 4-F and..."
"You wanted to be a soldier?"
"You sound surprised."
He shrugged. "Nobody in their right mind would accuse me of being army material, Steve."
Tony shrugged. "And not interested in being anything but my own man."
"I'd like to make a difference," Steve said and there was so much honesty in his voice that Tony really sat back to watch him when he spoke. People with integrity and conviction were harder to come by than the stories would have you believe. And here was a man who didn’t only believe what he said, but also wanted to do it. "Not sure this will actually happen, but I want to try. I believe this is the right thing to do. Terrible things are happening and we can’t just stand by without doing anything. The Nazis can’t be allowed to win."
"You're a better man than me, Steve." He clapped a hand to the man's shoulder and got up. "I just want to get out of this alive and see the world still standing on the other side."
Steve looked up and him and blinked.
"Good night," Tony said and Steve got slowly to his feet while he watched Tony make his way back inside.
"Good night, Mr... Tony. Good night, Tony."
He smiled and nodded before he closed the door behind him.
Something about the scrawny soldier was giving him hope.
And there was a lot of work left to do.
He’d better get to it.
* * *
He watched the doctor work and then asked: "How did Steve get...?" he moved his hands around in front of his face where he'd seen the bruise on Steve's face yesterday.
Erskine smirked and didn't even bother to tell him to sit still, while he tried to take blood. They were building a sort of routine here and Tony wasn't sure how he felt about a routine like this. But the doctor looked less worried and less downtrodden today and that must count for something.
Tony had always looked to the future with hope.
Looking at the doctor gave him hope.
Even talking to Steve had given him hope.
Maybe it was time to not see everything in the darkest light and look forward again.
"Steve is a brave soul," Erskine said sagely.
"The bruise. It's not from when he rescued you. He did not have it that first night."
"Helpful skill to have when the whole world tries to kill you."
"I can only imagine."
"So? Did that happen during a drill?"
"Is it classified?"
"Can you tell me?"
The needle pierced his skin and he sharply took in a breath.
"You could have sat still," the doctor said, satisfied when the blood started flowing. Tony stared at it.
"What did he do?"
"He protected one of the other 4-Fs. Some soldiers are bullies. Being the stronger man means a lot in war."
"Huh," Tony said and watched as the needle was pulled from his arm, watched the doctor dab at the small puncture wound and set the syringe aside. "How are the chances?"
"Tony," Erskine said gravely, "the radiation has stabilized the antidote. You might have to get a few shots to make it last. I can't tell."
That didn't sound as hopeless as it had sounded weeks ago, but he met Erskine's still worried gaze that told him there really were no guarantees. "Not mine," he clarified and started to roll his sleeve back down. "His."
"To get picked?"
"Chances of survival."
Erskine grimaced. "No guarantees. All the German attempts I witness failed. And then there was Schmidt. And look at him now."
Remembering the terrible red face, he shuddered. He had expected an answer like that and wondered how much Rogers knew about the process he hoped to subject himself to. He nodded at the blood and the lab table. "The antidote. The thing we are trying on me..."
"It's part of the formula," Erskine admitted immediately and Tony had know that this was what they were working on. "It's not the full range I'm working on for Rebirth, but a formula specifically matched to counter all I know of the mixture that has made Zemo for a couple of generations."
"Will it change me?"
Erskine gave him the lopsided grin that said loud and clear: "I don't know, but I'm doing my best here."
Tony nodded. "Thank you."
"You met the last Zemo?"
"Once," Tony said. "Only once and it haunts me."
It was no lie. He had seen Zemo only that one time. The man he'd grown up missing more often than not, had not been Zemo, but Howard Stark.
* * *
Pepper surprised him too. "I'm watching the recruits. Phillips says he wanted you to do it, but you declined."
He was polishing his armor again, trying to hide the paleness of his skin and the sweating. He felt queasy and light-headed and he did not want Pepper to see. "I was a little preoccupied."
"How are they doing?"
"Terrible. By army standards," she laughed. "We are taking notes on their physical state, to have something to compare against after."
He nodded his head, while she told him of the men she'd observed all day. "I know that at least three of the five weren't chosen. They are here because their fathers are... brass."
He wanted to laugh. "Well, secret projects need all possible support."
"Of course." Pepper smiled at him and her gaze turned searching when he smiled at her, looking straight at her for the first time since she'd joined him in the workshop. "How are you doing, Tony?"
He shrugged and sighed. "We're slowly getting somewhere." Because he couldn't stand her searching gaze, didn't want her to worry, and yet felt like a liar, he turned back to the armor. "I think Mark XIV will be sleeker than this one. I found a way to reduce the weight and bulk of this. Better alloy. Better circuitry. Nazi Germany won't even see me coming."
A body threw itself at his back and then Pepper's arms were around him, holding him in a tight embrace.
He stopped talking.
No words were necessary.
"I'll come look at the boys," he said lightly when she didn’t let go, trying to shake the feeling that they were saying good-bye. "One of them must be a good thinker. He'll have brass and brawn when the doc is finished with him. But what he needs is the mind of leader. Military strategy. Quick thinking."
"Moral fiber," she mumbled against his back.
"If it can't be helped," he joked and laughed when she hit him in the ribs.
* * *
"You look like you know what you're doing."
"Worked in kitchens," the man said grimly.
The bruise on his cheek had turned a darker purple with ugly brown around the edges. It was healing slowly. "You're headstrong and don't back down from a fight?"
"What are you saying?" Steve let his hands sink and stared at Tony like he'd lost his mind.
"I'm saying you took a hit for one of your comrades and now you're here peeling potatoes. What did you do this time?"
Some redness crawled into the man's cheeks. "Never mind."
"He got distracted during running yesterday," Pepper explained and she looked amused. Apparently she knew exactly what had happened.
"Never mind," Steve repeated.
"Don't worry, Private," Pepper reassured him. "Tony won't mind that you tripped over your own feet because you were watching him walk past."
The man’s mortified face was reason enough not to laugh. “Don’t worry,” he said when Pepper had walked away and left them alone, facing each other across the counter. “I really don’t mind.”
* * *
Pepper took Tony out in a jeep to watch the exercises the men were doing and the most remarkable thing about the procedure was that any of them even got through most of it without fainting. The other thing he noted were the crowds of other privates - all healthy young volunteers who were here in preparation for their own special assignments. They were laughing.
"Do they need to be here?" he asked Pepper.
"No, but it's hard to keep them away."
Tony watched the group of unhealthy recruits and his eyes strayed towards Rogers who was performing his side-straddle hopping with a sullen, strained expression. He was on his last leg and wheezing. Tony could see it from his vantage point across the field. But Steve was pushing on.
"He's going to kill himself."
"Ah," Pepper said and chuckled. "I see you do have a favorite. Does the dogged determination remind you of someone?"
"Ha ha," he said at an exaggerated volume. "Are these new recruits, too?" He nodded at the group of the laughing soldiers.
Pepper looked over. He could always rely on her journalistic curiosity to get the better of her; she kept track of all the comings and goings. If there was something to know, Pepper knew. "Some of them were assigned to the camp two days ago."
The men were engaged in their mocking, but one of them - brown hair, sharp facial features and piercing stare - had stopped to watch Tony and Pepper. Quite used to the attention, Tony stared back, unsmiling and unblinking. He hated scrutiny more than he used to now that he thought every moment by the one where he gave away that the great Tony Stark was done for.
The soldier laughed and looked away and Tony, looking at the few stubborn sickly men who hadn't given up yet down there, stepped out of the car to walk down towards Erskine and Phillips. "Does this actually serve a purpose?", he asked.
Phillips said: "Right now it only makes me sad."
But the doctor harrumphed. "Determining resilience."
"What does that even mean?"
"I want to see who is too stubborn to die," he said and his smile was so inappropriately impish that Tony barked out a laugh. "The procedure will be a strain. We do need a fighter."
"So you're trying to determine who has a chance to pull through?"
Erskine threw him a still slightly amused look. "You would have been my prime candidate."
"Ha," Tony said. "Today everybody thinks they're so funny, huh?" He was aware that the pack of laughing soldiers was still there and that more than one pair of eyes there was now on him. From the corner of his eyes he checked if that one soldier was among them again - and no he was talking with one of the others and pointing at the Project Rebirth recruits down in the field.
Something about the man just seemed unnerving.
"You would have been. A wonder you're even still here, Mr. I-power-Iron-Man-with-the-power-of-my-heart," Pepper said and patted him on the shoulder. She sounded like she was simply joking, but there was an underlying sadness that never left her voice recently.
Phillips looked at him sideways with a frown.
"It's a joke. I'm just a guy with a big heart."
Not even looking at any of them Erskine chuckled. "And stubborn, too."
Tony leaned forward. "So what you're saying is you are looking for a Tony Stark?"
Erskine laughed again. "Oh god, no. One of you is enough, Mr. Stark. You get to be Iron Man."
"We can agree on that." He noticed Pepper and the general exchanging a look. Until he had really relaxed around Erskine they had been very formal with each other. Their jovial joking was a relatively new thing between them. Tony found that the threat of losing yourself had always been a good motivator to find the right friends and fast. The last thing you wanted was a beautiful woman to stab you in the back right before your heart gave out, right? So you better picked the right people to be around you.
He nodded to himself, as he watched Steve Rogers fall to his knees, the last of the stubborn, unfit men to give up.
"You know why you would have been my first choice?"
"Because I'm dashing?"
"Because you know what that is like." Erskine nodded at the men, some of whom looked green in the faces after all the exertion. "Being powerless, but not wanting to accept that."
"Hmm. Does that sound like me? I think it sounds like one down there. You do have a favorite," Tony concluded.
"I think I do, yes."
Later that night, he showed the machine he'd built with Jarvis to Erskine. "We need to test it. We can consistently create and contain the same wavelength."
"It's perfect," Erskine reassured him after they ran one more test and Erskine looked at all the readings himself. "It will stabilize the serum I'm developing for you and it will be enough energy to make the enhancement process possible."
"I won't become some sort of reverse Zemo instead?"
The doctor pulled a face. "What we want is to have you come out as the person you are now."
The chances for that were getting slimmer and slimmer with every tremor, with every bit of memory that slipped away. He was getting used to the thought of giving up again, but hope was too addictive.
"We can go over the formula together. There are no guarantees but it might make you feel better." Erskine patted the machine and said softly: "It really does look like a coffin."
And suddenly the words Tony hadn't yet spoken to anyone just spilled out: "Don't show me the formula. Don't, please. I caught myself taking notes about Project Rebirth. I have this little notebook. I never kept one before, but suddenly there it is and I'm wondering..."
"If it has already started? If you’re already becoming Zemo?" Erskine didn't need to say anymore. The cloud that settled over his face said enough. "We better give you an out soon then."
Tony didn't answer that he had an out already. He was carrying it with him wherever he went these days, strapped into a holster. He only hoped he had the courage to use it before it was out of his hands.
* * *
He didn't even bother to clean up, before walking over to the Project Rebirth facility later. There was oil on his face and cheeks and he could probably use a shave.
He was surprised when he found Rogers leaning casually against the wall beside the main door of shack, behind where the two MPs were posted. "Don't you have orders, soldier?"
"Hmm?" Steve had been watching the cars come and go and only now turned to Tony. "You look like hell, Mr. Stark."
"Not the best compliment I’ve ever heard, Private."
He opened the door for him and followed him in, throwing a last look over his shoulder. Tony knew how to not be obvious about it, but he threw a quick look back too. Laughing soldiers.
One the brown haired one he'd noticed before.
He had been watching Tony more than once since that day in the field. Paranoid as he was, he knew that might just be because he was Tony Stark. People had a way of watching the rich and famous.
"Are they giving you a hard time?"
Steve raised his eyebrows, but to his credit he didn't look back or do anything else to indicate they were talking. He really was one of the truly smart ones. "They've been keeping a close eye. Making our lives a little harder where they can. Some of them at least. These two specifically are watching closely."
"Watching? Huh?" Tony pondered that.
"Can I ask you something, Tony?" Steve motioned Tony towards the lab as if he was the host inviting in a guest. From the start Steve Rogers had been the this dazzling mix of someone who knew exactly what he wanted and someone who didn't quite know how to live in his own skin.
"Sure," he said. His mind already on the things he wanted to talk through with the doctor.
"Are you sick?"
He stopped short. "Sick?"
"You look pale. You sweat. Sometimes your hands shake. You come see the doc all the time. It's for more than just the project, isn't it? You're sick."
"I'm..." He wanted to lie, but the words got stuck in his throat. He wasn’t even sure sickness was the right word. Poisoned.
"My mother died of tuberculosis. I know what sickness looks like when it sneaks in."
He released a breath and opened the door to the lab, then nodded for Steve to step in with him. "There is a well kept secret," Tony told him, "that I've been dying in one way or another for years."
Steve's eyes widened as they followed him across the room. "Dying?"
"Bad heart," Tony said and waved a hand around. "Built myself a new one. Kept myself going."
"Oh, don't worry. That's the least of my worries these days." He knocked a finger against his chest and against the glass and metal hidden by his shirt.
Steve was still staring. "Least of your problems how?"
"Oh, the artificial heart is working fine. There's something else that I can't shake off as easily." There was a reason why they'd been so careful to keep his heart problems secret. And it wasn't just that people looked at you differently.
"As easily as a bad heart?" Steve asked and his eyes were wide. "How long? Are you telling me you had a bad heart when you... The Temple of Dawn? During the Silent Dessert? Are you telling me you were..."
Perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising that someone like Steve wasn't looking at him with disbelief or pity. Admiration shone so brightly from his eyes that Tony had to smile. "Some people are lucky and they don't know it," he said. "They think they can't be happy with good health and a home. I was a lucky and then life got complicated."
He saw Steve's doubting look and explained: "I got in an explosion, years back. Came with a lot of pain and a permanently damaged heart. Sometimes even I forget that life is more than loss and suffering. And then I try to remember the most important thing."
Steve was hanging on his very lips as he spoke. "What’s that?"
"That even when you're in pain and your own body is trying to keep you down, life isn't primarily about suffering and grief; it's an adventure. It's about taking your destiny into your own hands turning it upside down, sometimes. Never let anyone else tell you otherwise."
The smile that answered him was soft and unexpected. "My mother would have really liked you."
"Huh, don't fool yourself. I'm not they kind of man you bring home to meet your mother."
He heard Steve laugh even long after the door had closed behind him.
That day he received his first injection from Erskine. The doctor called it an Anti-Zemo-Formula and had used Tony's vita ray machine to stabilize it. In a few weeks they would know if it had done what it was supposed to.
Until then Tony would keep the revolver close by.
Erskine dabbed at his arm with a cloth. "We were lucky that they didn't have you long enough to attempt the prolonged procedure and that they only gave you a normal injection. If they'd gone through the eye, I fear the damage would be irreversible."
"Lucky," Tony said, "yes. That's me."
"We can't really assess how much damage it did do to you. Stay alert. Watch yourself. Come to me if there are any signs of problems. I'll have another injection ready by the end of the week. This will be a process, Tony. We won't let them win."
Once, in the beginning, when he'd helped the doctor run from Hydra, he had shared the true story of what had happened to Howard Stark. "They have," he agreed.
He pulled down his sleeve. When he got up he felt a moment of vertigo and held himself against the examination table.
"It will take some time to settle," Erskine said and shrugged in an apologetic gesture.
"Will the other serum work this time?"
They had never talked about the failed experiments that had been undertaken by Hydra and - Tony was sure - their own scientists.
"We'll see. There is a risk. But with the Vita Rays I'm sure this time everything will work fine. First I have to convince the government of my chosen candidate."
Tony hoped he was right. He'd really come to like Steve Rogers. It would be such a shame if he was chosen for enhancement just to die in the process. "I can be there. Help with the machine and radiation levels."
"You're not saying this purely out of gratitude," Erskine observed - and Tony didn't see any reason to disagree. Seemed like they all had a favorite.
* * *
Pepper told Tony he next morning. "We should have been aware," Tony grumbled. "This is on me."
"Not everything is on you. You weren’t feeling well after the injection. You still aren’t. What would you have done?"
He disagreed silently. Most of his work was done. And despite the Anti-Zemo-Formula his hands were shaking and he was feeling sick. The least he could do was sure they were safe.
"Everything is on me." Longingly he looked at Iron Man. If he could trust himself again then he could go and help win this war, crush Hydra once and for all.
"Don't you want to know how the spies were discovered?"
"How?" he asked, but he didn't really want to know. It was bad enough he hadn’t discovered them before.
His heart jumped in his chest and then clenched painfully. It couldn't be true. No, he wasn’t going to believe it. "He’s a spy? That’s..."
"No," Pepper said and grinned. "He discovered what was going on. Got a little beat up in the process. But this is the final endorsement he needed."
Tony stared. "He tried to stop a spy on his own?"
"Oh, he got backup first, but he did refuse to sit it out."
"Stubborn and crazy," Tony exclaimed and shook his head.
"Yeah," Pepper said. "Seems to be a trait in true heroes."
* * *
“I’m your height now, Tony,” he said, breathing heavily, but smirking delightedly.
“A little taller, maybe.” Tony said and looked at Erskine. The Anti-Zemo-Formula seemed to be working. He’d had no more spells during the last week.
Now they even had a super soldier on their side.
Hydra wouldn’t know what hit them.
He began to prepare Iron Man, had another injection before getting ready and making his goodbyes. He wanted to be back at the front as soon as possible. He had a war to win - for his own sake as much as the world’s.
“You will need those,” Erskine said and smiled sadly. “Be careful.”
When he went to see their new super soldier, Steve told him: "I’m jealous. They want me to stay in the US. I'm their only super soldier and they have a uniform and code name all picked out for me, but are not quite ready to let me go off into danger alone, apparently. And I hear you are moving on. Feeling better?"
He felt better and he wasn't sure that part of it wasn't just knowing that he looked at Steve Rogers - broad shouldered, tall, healthy and just a sight for sore eyes now that he'd been transformed, but still the same man with the same stubborn glint in his eyes and the determination to see through whatever he set his mind - gave him hope. Hope was new and so empowering. Why had he ever forgotten about it?
Oh right. He had been dying - and then he'd been on his way to become the devil.
"Do I look better?"
He noted the slight blush, when Steve cleared his throat and said: "You always looked good, just not like the picture of health. I was... worried. I know the doc is still treating you."
Tony laughed and at first it was just a barking laugh, but then relief mixed with the lingering feeling of dread that while he was keeping the very real demons at bay, there was no guarantee yet that Zemo would never make an appearance. "You are much too observant, Captain America."
He stressed every syllables of the new code name as he said it very slowly.
He shrugged. "I'm a sneaky bastard, too. People tend to overlook it because they are dazzled by my good looks."
It was Steve's turn to laugh.
"Don't let them herd you around, Steve. You fought for this. And Iron Man will be in the field. I’ll wait for you."
"Iron Man and Captain America." Steve grinned. "Has a nice ring to it."
Yes, Tony thought. That was hope alright.