It’s an accident, really – just a weird coincidence. Just one of those random confluences of events, and Steve’s world is turned completely upside down. Again. He should probably use the word again. He’s too dumbstruck to say anything, too, because the moment is over before his mouth can move, and then it’s too late, because there’s no one left in the kitchen to even talk to. It’s both staggeringly surprising and epically, annoyingly obvious now he thinks about it.
Steve mentally rewinds the last ten minutes to make sure he’s not hallucinating (in their line of business it’s not unusual), but his memory is impeccable and the events are unmistakable. How did he miss it before? His breath quickens as a thousand memories all jam into his head at once and Steve has to force himself to calm down. He presses his hands flat to the table and thinks through his sequence of memories one more time.
Breakfast time. Several Avengers have been staying in the mansion because of the Gargantus clones appearing all over Manhattan, smashing buildings and civilians alike with giant clubs, leaving mind-controlled people in their wake. There hadn’t been any new sightings for two days, but the Avengers were on standby. Jan was at the stove making wasp-shaped pancakes. Thor and Bruce were playing some sort of card game with packets of Oreos as the currency. Simon and Carol were at the table, arguing about cereal. Steve was reading the newspaper. Simon gestured with his spoon exuberantly, accidentally spearing a hole in Steve’s newspaper with the handle.
Steve lifted up the newspaper to check out the damage. There had been two holes right through a double-page spread on the Jasper Johns retrospective that Steve had been meaning to read. Steve leaned in closer to examine the holes, just as Tony and Jarvis walked into the kitchen, talking animatedly about the coffee, and just at that second, somehow, the holes lined up with Tony’s face, and Steve got a glimpse of Tony Stark’s so-very-blue eyes flashing in his direction and yep, that had been when Steve’s brain imploded.
It’s been years since the Iron Man suit showed the pilot’s eyes, but Steve’s never forgotten it. Never forgotten how it felt to fight alongside Iron Man, and catch a glimpse of those triumphant eyes through the mask’s square eye-holes. Steve has always thought Iron Man had beautiful eyes. He secretly mourned for days when the mask was redesigned to hide the pilot’s eyes…
But Tony did that deliberately.
Because Tony is Iron Man.
Tony Stark is Iron Man.
Goodness, Steve thinks, absolutely dazed.
Now Steve’s put it all together, it makes frightening sense. Sure, there’s been a couple of times Iron Man and Tony Stark have been in the same room, but how does that frequency of occurrence even make sense? Twice in two years? That doesn’t feel very likely. If they were two separate people, manufacturing that level of distance would be incredibly difficult. There’s no exceptionally credible reason why Iron Man would be seen so rarely with Tony Stark.
Steve thinks painfully to back near the beginning, when most of them didn’t live in the mansion, and they just used the townhouse for their regular meetings. Iron Man would always make an excuse to leave last. Why should he leave at all? It was his house!
Steve actually kind of wants to laugh, and he sort of wants to bash his head against a very solid wall, and then he thinks about Tony’s heart and he wants to cry, because Holy Hannah, Tony’s heart. His heart condition. All the times he’s been out fighting with them, and putting strain on it, and how many times has Steve seen Iron Man falter at the end of longer missions, but still push through to fight?
Steve is alone by the time his thoughts become somewhat less rapid, and he looks around the empty kitchen, and he can hear his own heartbeat in his ears. He’s still in shock. He doesn’t know what to do. All that means is he doesn’t have the muscle memory for a scenario like this. It’s a brand new situation, for a brand new world.
He has no idea what to even say to Tony. Or to Iron Man. Approaching him as Iron Man is probably going to be easier for Steve, because he probably has more of an excuse to talk to Iron Man.
Steve can’t rush into this. He needs to think through the pros and cons of the situation. He’s really angry at the fact Tony’s lied to their faces for so long, so he has to think that through and not let that affect his judgement. First and foremost, Steve’s a strategy guy. He needs a plan. He needs to think through every angle of how to proceed, because he cannot function like this. He needs to gather more information, but… subtly.
He also, kind of, needs to mess with Tony, for lying to them for so long, but if he just starts teasing Iron Man, there’s every possibility that Tony will freak out and just do a disappearing act.
Steve ponders the problem. First he needs a vehicle to test the water, to see how Iron Man reacts to the hypothetical possibility of someone (Steve) knowing his identity. He thinks he has a good idea.
Step one to Steve’s plan, introduce the game.
Steve sidles up to Bruce as they take a breather between training drills, and sits down next to him.
“Hypothetically,” Steve says, “if you had the choice, would you rather turn into the Hulk every time you were angry, or every time you sneezed?”
“What?” Bruce says first, which is reasonable. He glances at Steve and something in Steve’s face must be reassuring enough for him to try and answer, even though he obviously doesn’t understand why Steve is asking something like this. “Uh, I guess I’d keep the anger, I guess?” He squints at his hands as he flexes them before reaching for his water bottle, shortsighted without his glasses, but they’d learned the hard way not to let Bruce have his glasses during training exercises. Well. Simon’s butt learned the hard way. “Otherwise the Hulk exploding out whenever I passed by someone with particularly noxious perfume might be a problem?”
“Yeah, I can guess that,” Steve says. He turns to the next nearest Avenger – Simon. “How about you?”
“What, if I was the Hulk?” At Steve’s nod, Simon pulls a face as he thinks about it. “I’d take the sneezing,” Simon says. “Mostly because it’s hilarious to picture.”
“Could be a good element of surprise,” Thor muses, realizing it’s an open discussion. “In the middle of a melee, for your opponent to sneeze and suddenly shrink – that’s a good opportunity for a surprise hit.”
“Suddenly shrinking is a good distraction technique,” Jan says. “I can vouch for that.”
“Or it’s a good opportunity for me to be squashed flat,” Bruce says, sadly. “I suppose it’s a good thing that fights aren’t a calming medium for me.” He pauses reflectively. “Did something happen to bring on that question, Steve?” He looks a little worried, actually.
“No,” Steve says. “I just wondered, I suppose. Like… hypothetically, would you rather fly like Carol, or swing like Spider-Man?”
“Fly,” Carol says, immediately. “It's the best."
"You can't pick your own power in a question like that, can you?" Jan asks.
"Well, then I'd be stuck as Spider-Man," Carol says. "And although I do look good in red and blue, I feel like I should still get to choose."
“I guess if you could swing, you’d get more bang for your buck if you lived somewhere like here, with lots of things to swing off,” Simon says. “But if you lived out in the country with nothing to swing off, flying is the only choice.”
“Except you could lasso cows with spider-web,” Bruce says. “If you were a rancher, that might be helpful.”
“And being able to tie-up your enemies with the same skill would also be a boon,” Thor says. “All I can do is bash foes unconscious. Or put the hammer on them, but that only works for one foe at a time. With multiple enemies, it might be helpful to be able to tie them up easily.”
“Maybe Tony Stark would help install web shooters on Mjölnir if you asked,” Jan suggests.
“Maybe he would,” Steve agrees. He takes a glance over to where Iron Man is putting some of the training bots back in place. Iron Man tends to tidy things up while the others take a quick breather. Tony can’t exactly drink something or wipe his sweat with a towel while he’s in the suit, Steve supposes. “Hey, Shellhead, what do you think? Would Stark put web shoots on Thor’s hammer?”
“Uh,” Iron Man says, “um, I guess so, if Thor really wanted it? You’d have to ask Stark yourself?”
“Why, can’t you ask him for me?” Steve asks, as innocently as he can. He’s somewhat cackling on the inside.
Iron Man is silent for a second. “I suppose so.”
“Hey, Thor,” Carol asks, “hypothetically, would you rather Mjölnir had web shooters, or Mjölnir could give you cookies every time you struck the ground?”
“It depends,” Thor says, “are these those cookies as those delightful girls bring too rarely to our door, or are they the invisible cookies that our currently absent friend Hawkeye keeps howling about that apparently sicken his computer?”
“That’s not cookies giving him viruses, it’s the disgusting porn sites he likes,” Simon says, and then the conversation disintegrates into a disgusting conversation about how come Simon knows the kind of porn that Clint likes, and Steve’s too busy being smug to be as appalled about what they’re talking about. Because now the game is embedded into the Avengers’ vocabulary, and he can mess with Iron Man some more without it being too odd. Steve just has to wait for the right opportunity.
Steve's busy lifting weights in the gym when he sees a blur of red and yellow in the corner of his eyes. Iron Man. Perfect. Steve side-eyes him carefully.
"You okay there, Shellhead?" Steve asks. "Got something on your mind?"
Iron Man shakes his head. "No, I was just passing by," he says.
Steve nods and is about to let Iron Man past, but then he sees the mobile stunblaster in the corner of his eye. Well, he was waiting for good opportunities. He resists the urge to smirk. Tony Stark made the stunblaster himself. Tony Stark knows exactly how it works. He lowers the weight he's currently using and heads over in the direction of the stunblaster. "While you're here, I should show you something," Steve says.
"It's a new machine your boss made us. It's called the mobile stunblaster," Steve says. "Tony Stark really outdid himself with this one. Don't you think?"
"I—suppose so?" Iron Man says.
"It's great for reflex training," Steve says, putting his hands on it, admiring the shiny blue metal. It must be frustrating to design something so clever, Steve thinks, and have someone who doesn't really know how it works explain it back at you. "It circles and maneuvers like a living opponent – and fires potent concussion beams at random split-second intervals."
"Right," Iron Man says, slowly, "I'm familiar with the design! I—"
Steve cuts him off swiftly. "You've got to be very quick with the insulator gauntlets to block every shot!"
"Yeah, I know—"
"Look, you're not paying attention to how it works," Steve says. "Watch. Mr. Stark worked very hard to make this for us, we all need to use it. You need to know how to turn it on for yourself, how to work with it, because I won't always be here to turn it on for you. C'mon, I'll crank it up to the highest settings, let's see what happens when the beams hit, could be fun!"
"Okay," Iron Man says, "uh, I'm going to go and see Mr. Stark, maybe— maybe get him to give me a personal lesson on it so I know, uh, more details about it— See you later, Cap!"
Steve grins as Iron Man flees from the room. Messing with him is going to be fun.
More Gargantus clones, another day, Steve sighs. The whole team is split up over Manhattan, taking the clone invasions in pairs, and Steve, obviously, assigned Iron Man as his partner. As Steve bashes one of the Gargantus...es? Garganti?… uh, whatever the giant Neanderthal-robot invaders are called… with his shield, he wonders idly whether they should be calling them clones, because they’re all robots. But they’re identical robots. From outerspace. Steve’s life is weird.
But not as weird, he thinks triumphantly while decapitating another alien robot, as Tony Stark’s life. The more time Steve has to think about that, the more impressed he is. He’s always considered Tony Stark amazing, even right back at the beginning, when Tony had been so generous, and Steve felt like he was just waiting for Tony Stark’s conditions to kick in, because surely no one with Tony’s history of selfishness and egoism could give the Avengers so much and want to little in return? Steve had been so wrong. Tony’s selflessness is incalculable.
But oh, he needs to stop getting distracted by how amazing Tony Stark is, especially when Tony’s right there, and currently getting clubbed by a second Gargant...ic? Right in the shoulder. Iron Man actually lets out a noise of pain, and ooh, that has options, Steve thinks. Because Tony has to be bruised from an impact like that.
And then Steve is suddenly appalled at his own thoughts, because yeah, Tony must be bruised right now. And how many times has Tony been injured, and not had the right kind of help, because how could Tony Stark go to hospital with so many of Iron Man’s injuries? What the heck has he been doing? Cleaning up his own injuries? Stitching his own wounds?
“Hey, Winghead, wake up,” Iron Man says, and Steve shakes himself, realizing the two Gargantus clones they’d been battling are both now pulverized into pieces. He’s been staring into space for maybe five minutes, because Iron Man’s already assembled the remains of the robots into one nice heap, tagging it with an electronic sensor so that SHIELD can come pick up the parts later.
Steve moves in and surrounds the pile with the yellow tape that the New York City Council gave them for incidents like this, to ensure locals didn’t crash into any dangerous alien remains, and then the two of them retire up to the top of a near skyscraper, Iron Man letting Steve climb on his back as usual, and Steve spends the whole flight up thinking about how close Tony Stark really is to him right now.
How close Tony Stark has always been to him.
Steve sits down at the edge of the building, carefully putting his shield into its harness, and he looks out over the city. Iron Man, after a second, sits down next to him. Steve glances down, at how far they’d fall if they just tilted forwards too far, and he glances across at Iron Man, just casually swinging his iron feet as he sits, mask turned to the horizon.
“Why do you do this?” Steve asks.
Iron Man doesn’t respond for a long moment, and then says, “Wait, did you mean me?”
“I was talking to a pigeon,” Steve says, and stares at Iron Man, deadpan.
“You mean… sit down? Because I’ve been on my feet for hours today, I’m tired.”
Steve frowns, because he’s struggling with the reminder that Tony Stark works his insane number of hours and then he does Iron Man’s duties on top? It’s awe-inspiring, really. “I mean… the whole hero gig. You’ve been Tony Stark--” and Steve might be impressed by Tony’s dedication and work involved in maintaining his dual-role, but he’s not going to pass up on such a good opportunity, so he breaks off his sentence there, and pretends to have a little coughing fit.
Iron Man is almost hilariously silent as Steve hits his own chest with his fist.
“Sorry,” Steve apologizes. “You’ve been Tony Stark’s employee,” he continues, trying not to smile too slyly, “for years now. No stop. Even when you weren’t with the Avengers. You accompany Stark practically everywhere. And then in your spare time, you continue to throw yourself in the path of missiles– ”
“And improbably giant wooden clubs,” Iron Man interjects, pointing exaggeratedly at a small dint in the armor on his right shoulder. “Don’t forget the clubs.”
“In the path of missiles and clubs,” Steve amends, “all to protect people. I guess I’ve just never really asked your motivation.”
Iron Man’s mask stares in Steve’s direction. “I have to,” he says.
Steve wonders what misinterpretation of that will wind Tony up the most. He blinks owlishly at Iron Man. “You mean Tony Stark is blackmailing you? Why didn’t you say something? That’s outrageous!”
“No, no, no, no – not at all,” Iron Man says, obviously flustered. It’s taking all of Steve’s skill to swallow back a laugh. He wonders for a brief second how Tony’s been able to stand lying to their faces for so long, but then… Iron Man’s mask obscures his face entirely now, and that’s probably partially for that reason. “Before the suit, I’d made a lot of bad decisions. Didn’t really think of anyone who might be hurt from my reactions. Never thought of anyone but myself. But then Iron Man happened, and I got a chance to redeem myself, I guess.” There’s a metallic buzz from Iron Man’s mouthpiece, and Steve wonders what sort of sound Tony made for the modulator to expel that as a noise. “I’ve still got a long way to go to make up for my mistakes. I’m grateful every day for the opportunity.”
Steve gazes at Iron Man, somewhat surprised his friend has been so honest. Then he thinks over his reaction again, and how he mentally termed Iron Man his friend still, and that’s a good thought. He’s still a little angry that Tony lied, of course, but if his subconscious is still convinced Iron Man is his friend, then Steve’s certain it won’t take him long to get over that.
“Uh, Cap, you might want to take a picture, it’ll last longer,” Iron Man says.
Steve startles. Oh, he’d been staring. “Sorry, Shellhead. Just thinking.”
“Ouch.” Iron Man then straightens, looking out to the west, and it’s something too far away for Steve to see. “Hold for a second, I’m gonna check out something.”
Steve slides his shield on, just in case he has to be ready. “Come back either way,” he says.
Iron Man nods, and leaps off the building gracefully, powering up his jet boots mid-leap so he can shoot up in the air and closer to whatever he’s noticed to get a closer look. Steve shields his eyes with one hand to look up at the sight, Iron Man hovering up in the sky, a dark sleek silhouette against a bright white cloud. He’s always thought Iron Man was a beautiful piece of work. Now Steve knows the artist who created the Iron Man also wears it… That Tony Stark is the one risking himself every single day… There’s a weird tension in Steve’s gut. A warmth he can’t explain.
Iron Man hovers up there for a long moment, but by the slow speed of his descent, Steve can tell Captain America’s not needed yet, and he returns the shield to his back harness.
“There was another one out at Washington Square, but Thor and Hulk are on it,” Iron Man says, as he comes down and sits next to Steve again, and Steve relaxes. If he and Iron Man can take out two at the same time, Thor and Hulk will be beyond capable. His fingers graze the pocket he keeps his identicard in, reassuring himself it’s still there and ready to vibrate if any of the Avengers do need their help.
“This is such an odd villain,” Steve sighs, and Iron Man nods.
“Same question back at you,” Iron Man says, and Steve squints at Iron Man, because… where was the question in what Iron Man just said? “I thought your memory was supposed to be eidetic?” There’s a note of suspicion even in Iron Man’s digitized tone.
“It is,” Steve says. Then he thinks about it. “Oh, you mean, why do I dothis?” He gestures at his uniform and the shield as if that covers this adequately. “You know already, I suppose? First I wanted to go back to the 40s, and helping out meant I would get help to do that, but when I got the chance to be there, I realized I didn’t belong. I belonged here. So then I came back to try and deck Zemo in the face, personally.”
“Ah, that was a good day,” Iron Man says, somewhat dreamily.
Steve grins, wide enough that his canines are showing. “But even revenge wasn’t really enough. I’ve tried to stop, you know that. It’s impossible.”
“Yeah, I hear you,” Iron Man says, nodding.
They’ve both quit the Avengers, more than once. It never sticks. They always come back to each other.
“Whatever your reasons,” Steve says, “I’m glad you’re Iron Man. I’m glad I got to meet you.”
Iron Man makes a strangled sort of sound. “Are you okay, Winghead?”
“What?” Steve blinks. “Yeah. I’m just… Sometimes we don’t tell the people around us what we think while we have the chance, y’know?” he finishes, somewhat pathetically, because he can’t exactly explain out loud why he is so grateful. Not without letting Tony know he knows. Which he can’t. Not yet. As much as he thinks, as much as he tries to come up with a strategy, he can’t come up with the words yet. He can’t explain he knows who Iron Man is yet, not without failing to explain how necessary he is, and how okay it is, and how awed Steve is by him.
“Whatever you say,” Iron Man says.
Steve hums, non-committal.
So, Tony thinks he still has to amend for his years of making weapons. Okay. That makes sense. He hides his identity from the public because… well, he supposes the legal implications of owning a company worth billions might be complex. Sometimes the Avengers encountered negative reactions from the public sphere of media, maybe that’s not so good when you’re working with other companies that don’t have their varied reputation to deal with. Maybe Tony doesn’t want to leverage Iron Man’s heroism for financial gain, which is so ethically pure Steve sort of wants to swoon. And Tony has friends in the public eye – the Hogans, and Rhodes – supervillains would target them to get at Iron Man. Tony’s identity not being publicly known makes sense.
But Tony’s identity remaining secret from the Avengers? How does that make sense? It doesn’t. Steve can somewhat believe it being necessary at the beginning. They were just getting used to each other. The trust hadn’t been built up by enough experience then. And okay, they’d known Tony Stark had a bad heart, and if they’d known Iron Man was Tony back then… they probably would have insisted he stopped. They liked Tony. They didn’t want him hurt. Even that one incident, where Tony donned the mark one suit and fought on their behalf and nearly died…. Every single active Avengers had haunted that hospital until Tony was okay.
Okay, so Tony kept the secret for the first couple of years to be sure he could stay as Iron Man. Steve supposes that also makes sense. But even if Tony’s heart is still on the weak side, it’s been years, there are hundreds of missions to prove Tony’s heart isn’t an obstacle to success.
Hmm. There’s definitely still some thinking through to do.
Steve drums his fingers on his knee as they wait. His eidetic memory is a gift and a curse. He remembers everything, but that sometimes makes it harder, because he has hundreds of mundane memories to sort through, memories that don’t add any more clues to the answer.
It’s probably fear, Steve thinks, slowly. Tony’s scared of them knowing? Fears are like that, they linger even after all rational thought would believe them impossible. He’s probably still scared that they’ll boot him off the Avengers.
“What are you thinking about?” Iron Man says, breaking through Steve’s thoughts. When Steve turns to him in surprise, Iron Man elaborates. “You look worried.”
“I’m not worried,” Steve says. “Hypothetically...”
“Are you still doing that?” Iron Man sounds dismissive.
Steve continues regardless. “Hypothetically, if you had something difficult to tell someone… would you wait until you had the right words for it, or would you blurt it out, knowing that you’d probably say it wrong and hurt someone’s feelings?”
Iron Man isn’t just silent, he’s still. And then he starts beeping so loudly that Steve’s vibrating with it, and-- oh. No. That’s his identicard frantically beeping, and Steve swallows back the question to focus on the task at hand – Carol and Simon are fighting five of the clones inside Madison Square Gardens, and something’s happened to Billy Joel’s piano, and one of the Gargantus has stolen a zamboni? How are all of their lives this weird?
While Iron Man and Captain America’s schedules often match up all right, Steve kind of wants to see Tony, and that’s more difficult. Which at least Steve understands now, what with Tony’s crazy double life schedule. There’s this tiny part of the morning, usually around 4am, that Steve’s had most of his interactions with Tony Stark as opposed to Iron Man. Well, Steve thinks it’s morning, but Tony usually thinks of it as night-time, but whatever their own definitions of the time are, it’s a time of day that Steve gets to meet what he thinks is the real Tony Stark. The real man behind the flashy business persona. And now Steve knows it’s the real man inside the beautiful Iron Man armor, and for a moment he’s consumed by how utterly unfair it is that someone so awesome could be two different awesome people. At once. Ugh. Some people are just too talented, in Steve’s opinion.
If Steve gets up at 3am for a few days in a row, just so he doesn’t miss Tony’s crawl to the kitchen for coffee, he doesn’t admit it to anyone.
He’s lucky on the third day, and is treated to the sight of Tony staggering into the kitchen and leaning against the counter with the coffee maker, his body obviously relying on muscle memory. Steve clocks that his movements are even stiffer than usual after a night of working. It’s probably from where the Gargantus clone hit Iron Man in the shoulder. Tony’s wearing a long-sleeved shirt, thick black material that looks soft, and Steve has to push his mouth into a line to resist the urge to clamber to his feet and push the shirt to the side to check out the bruising for himself. Tony has nice shaped shoulders, Steve thinks.
“Woah,” Tony says, and Steve startles a look upwards to see Tony’s finished getting his coffee, and has spilt some of it on the floor, possibly in shock at seeing Steve brooding there.
“Ah, did I startle you? I’m sorry.”
“Wasn’t expecting anyone to be up at this time,” Tony says, and before Steve can stop him, he wipes up the coffee with– his foot? Steve squints, watching Tony swipe at the coffee on the floor with his right foot, the dark liquid soaking into one grubby once-white sock. “It’s a little early even for you, isn’t it, Cap?”
“Uh,” Steve says, and side-eyes the clock. “Guess I wanted some thinking time.”
“Been doing that a lot recently, haven’t you?” Tony asks, hooking a chair with his coffee-soaked foot and pulling it out before sinking down onto the chair and making a sound as he takes a sip of coffee that makes Steve’s face feel oddly warm.
“Guess so,” Steve says, and tries not to thrill too openly, because Steve hasn’t been overly think…ful? Ugh, his brain doesn’t work at 3am. Thinky? Whatever the word, Steve hasn’t been it in front of Tony Stark at all. But he has been relatively thinkful in front of Iron Man. Steve wonders how many times Tony does actually slip up a day. How many times he’s missed something so freaking obvious.
“I’m not good at talking about, y’know, things,” Tony says. “Things that aren’t actual things. I can talk about actual things.”
3am Tony isn’t any more coherent than 3am Steve. “You mean… feelings?”
Tony scowls into his coffee. “I suppose I do. But. If you need to talk, I’m here. Or I can see if Iron Man’s awake, if that’s helpful?” He sounds deeply unsure.
Steve pulls a face like he’s taking a while to think about it. “I suppose maybe it might help having both your opinions at once,” he says, slowly, and enjoys Tony’s sudden expression. Tony hides it very quickly, but the brief second of panic is delightful. He takes pity on him. “No, you’re okay. I’d rather sit and think things through a while longer.” He looks at Tony and takes in the shadows on his face, the clear ache and exhaustion in his posture. “You should probably go to bed, huh?”
Tony makes a non-committal humming noise, too tired to even make human words.
And Steve suddenly, achingly, feels so guilty. Tony runs himself ragged to the ends of his energy, trying to maintain this stupid charade, trying to keep everyone safe and unaware and Steve’s heart feels like it’s growing, pushing against his ribs, trying to explode, because Tony’s so amazing, does Tony know how amazing he is?
“I don’t say it enough,” Steve says, trying to be genuine, because now isn’t the time for a sly Iron Man prod, “but I really appreciate everything it is that you do for us. You really put your everything into the Avengers, into making this world better, and I’m just– Really grateful. For you. And for the home you gave me.”
Tony lowers his coffee mug and stares at Steve, wide-eyed. “Uh–”
“I just wanted to be sure you knew how thankful we are. How thankful I am.”
“Uh,” Tony says again, and squints at Steve. “Thanks?”
“You’re welcome,” Steve says. He gets to his feet, and almost reaches out, to pat Tony’s shoulder, but he aborts the movement halfway through, because Tony must be bruised, and Steve doesn’t want to hurt him more. “I’ll see you later.”
“Later,” Tony mumbles, and Steve can feel Tony staring at him as he goes. Steve heads up the main stairs, heading into his room in a semi-daze. This identity business has got his head spinning. For a moment, when he reached his hand out to Tony to pat his shoulder in a companionable sort of way, he’d wanted briefly to cup Tony’s face. Ha. Weird. Steve’s just a little tired, that’s all.
But not as tired as Tony Stark, Steve thinks somberly. Steve falls asleep thinking happily of how amazing his friend is. Way more amazing than anyone knows.
They’re supposed to be having one of their regular meetings, but Iron Man is late because of an explosion at Stark International, and Steve’s kind of frantic. It’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened, because Tony’s technology is phenomenal and is always the kind of bright and shiny awesomeness that bad people want to steal or destroy, but before Steve just assumed Iron Man was there to clean up the debris, as some sort of super handy and intelligent person-sized digger. But it’s probably not Iron Man tied up with the disaster, it’s Tony Stark. It’s not Iron Man, per se, that’s really unavailable.
How many times had they waited for Iron Man, with Tony Stark tied up with his civilian needs and demands, and been upset Iron Man had abandoned them? Steve thinks back to the times they penalized Iron Man for ignoring the call to assemble.
“Uh, Cap,” Jan says, in a small voice, “are you aware you’re grinding your teeth so, uh, loudly?”
Steve blinks, and freezes, and yeah, his jaw kind of aches. He winces. “Sorry, Jan.” His identicard vibrates, but silently, meaning it’s just a message, and he glances at it. “ETA 3 minutes for Iron Man,” he reads out loud. “Guess we should just wait.”
“Like we have been for two hours,” Clint gripes. He’s probably just sore he’s missed a lot of fun Avengers outings recently (threat to the public aside, punching robots is always kind of fun) and instead, on his first day back and on-call as an Avenger, he gets to attend a meeting.
“We wait,” Steve says, firmly.
Jan sighs, and slides down in her chair a little.
The silence veers into uncomfortable.
“Hypothetically,” Simon says, and glances speculatively at Steve, “would you rather have Professor X read your mind and announce what you’re thinking every day for a week, or spend a sexy weekend with Deadpool at a couples-only nudist camp?”
“What?” Clint says.
“New team game,” Carol explains. “Cap came up with it. You come up with a weird hypothetical situation, then others have to give their opinions.”
“Cap did?” Clint gives Steve an approving gaze that’s tinged with disbelief. “Huh.”
“Weekend with Deadpool,” Steve says, somewhat glumly.
“Please, like you have any secrets for the Professor to even divine,” Jan says, rolling her eyes.
“I have secrets,” Steve says, probably overly defensively. He has one great secret! Iron Man’s real identity! And oh shit, now Steve has to be extra careful around telepaths and psychics. Steve wants to frown, but he pushes the impulse away. No wonder Tony always makes excuses that he’s busy working whenever the X-Men make an appointment to visit them!
“Sure you do, Cap,” Simon says, sarcastically patting Steve on the head. Steve ducks away, scowling, and the others laugh at him, and he wants to be angry about it. He wishes Iron Man were here. He loves the sound of Iron Man’s laugh. And now he’s suddenly struck with the thought – has he ever heard Tony Stark laugh? Sure, he’s heard Tony’s polite laugh at the galas for the Maria Stark foundation, or whenever Tony’s schmoozing up to big company CEOs or government bigwigs when the Avengers need some extra funding, but has he ever heard Tony Stark laugh in genuine amusement? Steve has a new life goal, that’s for sure. He wonders whether Tony is a handsome or an ugly laugher. Handsome, he bets.
“Actually, from that expression, I kind of think he does have secrets,” Carol says, folding her arms and leaning forwards, glancing at Steve with overt speculation. “That’s very interesting.”
“No, it’s not,” Steve says, immediately, and that’s probably the worst response, because Carol’s eyebrows rise and he flushes. “Hey, you’re just deflecting from making your choice.”
“I’d pick Deadpool too,” Carol says, meeting his gaze almost aggressively, and then she grins and stretches languidly, “but that’s because if he promises to keep the mask on, he’s really absurdly flexible.”
“My mind just immediately pictured that and now I feel unclean,” Simon moans.
“What have I told you about thinking of me naked in any scenario?” Carol demands, and does something to Simon under the table, and he howls, and Steve gets to join in with the laughter this time.
“I thought we were supposed to be having a meeting,” Iron Man’s voice smoothly cuts over the laughter, and the Avengers turn to look at him. Steve’s stomach clenches a little. There are a couple of scorch marks on Iron Man’s legs, and a few extra dents on the chestplate that weren’t there yesterday. “Did you start without me?” Iron Man says. “I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”
“And have you miss out on all the scheduling talk?” Simon says. “Never!”
“We are having a meeting,” Jan defends. “We’re just playing Cap’s hypothetical game while we wait. For you.”
Iron Man sits down to the empty seat on Steve’s other side. “I actually have one of those, actually.” Steve shoots a curious look at him. “Hypothetically, if a teammate’s behavior had changed, and they were starting to do weird things, like give you lots of unsolicited compliments… what would you assume?”
“That’s not an either or,” Simon says, disapprovingly.
“I’d probably assume they like you?” Carol suggests. “What is the company byline on interoffice dating here, anyway?”
“Considering who the founding Avengers were,” Jan says, always proud to be one of that number, “it would be rather difficult to forbid it, considering it’s already happened?”
“Ah, yeah,” Clint says. “Because Iron Man and Cap have been married since day one. It’s why we call you mom and dad.”
“Hilarious,” Iron Man deadpans.
“Wait,” Steve says, “am I the mom or the dad in this scenario?”
“Definitely the dad,” Bruce says, confidently nodding.
“That’s what you’re focusing on?” Iron Man says to Steve, ignoring Bruce and sounding almost hilariously appalled.
“Yes?” Steve says, puzzled as to what he should be focusing on.
“How about we are not married and we never have been,” Iron Man says.
“Ah,” Jan says, and obliquely says, “that teammate.” She glances at Steve thoughtfully for some reason. “I’d agree with Carol. They like you. Like you, like you.”
“Leave me out of that sort of conversation,” Simon says. “I like to believe you’re all celibate and are never, ever unclothed.”
“I suddenly feel like I should apologize,” Bruce says, glumly, because even though Hank Pym made him a lot of clothes that could accommodate the Hulk’s transformation and de-transformation, sometimes Hulk just likes to smash the chinos.
“What do you think, Cap?” Iron Man asks.
“Bruce doesn’t need to apologize, nudity is perfectly natural?” Steve says.
“The hypothetical,” Iron Man explains.
“Oh,” Steve says. He blinks. “Maybe the person’s secretly dying?” He shrugs. That kind of makes sense to him.
“Woah, morbid much?” Carol looks at him askance.
Steve shrugs again. “It’s one of the things you’re supposed to look for, if someone’s too accepting of imminent doom.” He’d had to watch out for it a lot while in the 107th. Sometimes men just reached the abyss of war and tumbled in. You had to look out for a lot of things and warning signs.
“If I knew I was gonna die, I think I’d sell everything I had, so I didn’t inconvenience my loved ones with a whole pile of crap after I’m gone,” Simon offers. “Probably leave them the money too, to cope with the funeral costs.”
“And if you didn’t have anything to sell?” Bruce asks.
“Compliment people,” Jan says, slowly. “Because I’d want people to know how I felt about them, while I still could. Carol? How about you?”
“Well, we’re a team,” Carol says, “and I’d like to think I’m a good part of this team. But I still wouldn’t be happy, uh, going, unless-- Well, unless I was sure you would be okay without me.”
“Aw, that’s actually sweet,” Jan says.
“Don’t sound surprised!” Carol laughs, though, so Steve relaxes that she hasn’t actually been offended. The meeting room is a small room and there’s still scorch marks high up one wall from the last time someone took a comment too personally.
“Hmmm,” Iron Man says, drawing out the sound. “How about you, Cap?”
“Me?” Steve blinks. “I guess… what Jan and Carol said. And I’d spend as much time with my favourite people as possible?”
“Yeah,” Iron Man says, oddly adding on, “that’s what I thought.”
Steve furrows his eyebrows, confused by the tone breezing through Iron Man’s modulator. He sounds almost wistful.
“This isn’t as fun a game as I thought it would be,” Clint says, cutting through the sober mood.
“You try it, then,” Jan says.
“Okay. Hypothetically,” Clint says, pursing his lips, “would you rather have a penis for a nose, or have everything you eat taste like manure?”
There’s a stunned second while everyone, with matching horrified expressions, mentally absorb the scenario.
“New game rule,” Iron Man says, and everyone can hear the grim expression in his voice. “Hawkeye isn’t allowed to play this game.”
“Hey!” Clint squeals, but is met with a full Avengers complement of nods. He sags. “I suppose that’s fair.”
“To be fair,” Iron Man says slowly, “I’d have to go for manure. I did have one mask with a dubious nose. I think that’s swayed me away from bad nose decisions.”
Iron Man is also met with a full Avengers complement of nods – at least from the members that remember the Iron Nose.
Another day, another mad villain, except this one isn’t local. Normally they would spend the whole quinjet flight talking up strategy, but this time is different and it’s all Steve’s fault.
“Hypothetically,” Jan says, even as Bruce hisses, “ if this hypothetical has penis nose in it again, I am Hulking out in here, god help me ,” and she ignores him to continue, “would you rather kiss Miek, knowing what he looks like, or would you rather… kiss Iron Man’s pilot. Considering he could look like anything and we don’t know.”
“Penis nose?” Thor questions in the background, having missed that meeting.
“I’ll tell you later,” Steve assures him quietly.
Iron Man shouts a bark of laughter. “I love you too, Wasp,” Iron Man says. Jan winks at him.
“No offense intended,” Jan says.
Steve thinks about Miek and grimaces. He has the advantage of knowing what face is below Iron Man’s impassive mask, and there’s no contest,hands down Steve would kiss Iron Man. Tony Stark has beautiful everything, Steve thinks, and he’s obviously a very good kisser. He wouldn’t have a list of ex-girlfriends the size of a phone directory if he was bad at it, surely?
“Which of our foes was this Miek?” Thor asks.
“The giant alien bug with daddy issues,” Clint whispers back.
“I remember him,” Carol says. She purses her lips. “He did kind of have an impressive six-pack? And I’ve always thought multiple arms would be beneficial in a bedroom sort of situation. But that mouth?” She winces. “There’s no way Iron Man has teeth that big.”
“Maybe not my teeth,” Iron Man says, and gains a few startled laughs.
“This game gives me nightmarish mental images that can never be undone,” Bruce sighs.
“Iron Man,” Simon decides. “Definitely Iron Man. You could be a dripping gory zombie under that thing, I’d take that over a bug.”
“I think I’d have to go with Miek,” Steve says, and is met with a lot of stares. He perfects his most innocent expression. “Hey, I’m adventurous.”
“You have a death wish,” Bruce mutters.
“Aw, baby,” Iron Man purrs, “does that mean you’d choose me?”
“Daddy issues either way,” Bruce sniffs.
Steve freezes for a second. Tony Stark’s daddy issues are unmistakable; Howard shoved him into a boarding school at a young age to toughen him up. Does this mean that Bruce knows Tony is Iron Man?
He manages to corner Bruce later, as he shrinks down from being the Hulk in among a pile of debris from an old abandoned power station that Hulk decided needed to be smashed.
“Can I talk to you for a second?” Steve says.
Bruce shrugs, starting to pick splinters out of his hair. “I guess.” He eyeballs Steve. “Especially if it’s an apology for starting a game that causes my will to live to wither.”
Steve grimaces. “Yeah, sorry about that. I was just-- trying to wind Iron Man up, really. Guess it hit the wrong Avenger, huh?”
“We’ve all had nightmares,” Bruce informs him. He squints at Steve speculatively. “Why are you trying to wind up our golden Avenger?”
Steve squints back at Bruce. “For… reasons,” he says, vaguely.
“Reasons,” Bruce repeats. He nods and purses his lips. He glances at Steve. “Do you… know something?”
“Maybe,” Steve says.
“You don’t know anything,” Bruce says, sounding a little more confident.
“I do, actually,” Steve says, feeling like he’s maybe losing his grip on this conversation. He looks across the battlefield, an actual field for once, to where Iron Man is helping clean up.
“Nah, you don’t,” Bruce says. “Because if you did, you probably wouldn’t be winding him up.”
Steve looks at Bruce, stung, but Bruce is ignoring him to watch across at Iron Man. “What would I be doing?”
“You’d be telling him the truth,” Bruce says. “You’re an Avenger, Steve. You’re brave.” He turns to Steve then, and puts a hand on Steve’s shoulder comfortingly. “Just have courage and tell Iron Man you have feelings for him. I think you’ll be happy with his response.”
Steve stares. Bruce pats his shoulder awkwardly and sets off away from him, picking his way over scattered bricks.
Steve is quiet as they clean up the battlefield, and quiet as they fly home in the quinjet, and quiet as they disembark on the roof of the mansion and scatter their different ways. Steve watches them go, swallowing hard.
Bruce’s daddy issues comment hadn’t been about Iron Man’s identity, but about… Iron Man’s feelings? When Steve had questioned who was the mom and who was the dad, Bruce said Steve was the dad, and Bruce is a scientist, a scientist who makes really large theoretical leaps at time, but he rarely says things he isn’t sure of.
Bruce thinks Iron Man has feelings for him? Steve really isn’t sure how he feels about it. His face warms and he goes over the memories of the last few days. How quick he was to insist he wouldn’t kiss Iron Man. Why? What does it all mean?
“Hey, you coming inside?”
Steve startles at the sound of Iron Man’s voice, and he turns to look at him, wide-eyed and assessing.
Goodness. Iron Man is Tony Stark and Iron Man maybe has feelings for him.
Steve’s plans crack into pieces. He can’t handle this. He can’t coax a confession out of Tony one step at a time. He can’t keep messing with him. Not if feelings are involved. And Tony– Tony’s not good at talking about feelings. That’s something Steve knows for sure.
“Um, actually,” Steve says, “we probably need to talk.”
Iron Man is silent and he doesn’t move. He’s probably staring at Steve. “Okay,” Iron Man says, slowly. “What about?”
“There’s just some things we need to be truthful about,” Steve says. “The truth. That’s a good thing, right?”
“Oh god,” Iron Man says. “Oh god, it’s happening? Now?”
“You’ve been struggling with something for a few days now,” Iron Man says, “and I’m pretty sure what it is, and can you honestly deny it’s terrifying?”
Steve honestly really can’t. He feels wretched. “Do you want to sit down?” he offers. He casts about. There’s a wall they can probably manage to use as a seat.
“Do I want to sit down?” Iron Man makes this helpless gesture with both arms that subsides after a few manic waves, and he straightens and stills, moving over closer to Steve. “I’d rather you just said it, quickly. Like ripping off a band-aid. Yeah.”
“I know you’re nervous,” Steve says, “but don’t be, it’s a good thing. It’s good for this all to be out in the open.”
“If you’re going to say it,” Iron Man says, gritting the words out, “then say it.”
“Well,” Steve says, feeling impossibly awkward. He pulls a face. Even after all this time, he can’t formulate the words. It’s ridiculous. He’s been agonizing over this moment for days. He should have the words, surely? “It’s–”
Iron Man sighs. “Let’s just say it together. Count to three, then say it.”
“Okay,” Steve says, and takes a deep breath. “Let’s do that. One, two, three–”
And Iron Man blurts, “You’re dying.”
Right at the same time Steve says, “You’re Tony Stark.”
There’s a very long moment of silence.
Then Steve says, “What?”
“You’re… dying?” Iron Man says, and then stops, realizes what Steve has said, and takes a rapid step backwards. “Wait. You think I’m what now?”
“I don’t think,” Steve says, somewhat patiently, “I know. But put that aside for the second, why do you think I’m dying??”
“Because you’ve been spending so much time with me!” Iron Man’s arms wave exaggeratedly. “And giving me compliments! And spending so much effort on making sure we’re all bonding and having fun, and– Of course I’d think you were dying! Not that you’d given up and gone insane.”
“I’m not insane!” Steve protests. “I just know the truth! Why does that terrify you so much?”
“You don’t know anything,” Iron Man insists. “And you need to go to the hospital for tests. Immediate psychiatric help.”
“I’m not insane,” Steve repeats through gritted teeth. “You’re Tony Stark.”
“We should have known you were losing it when you said you’d rather kiss Miek than me,” Iron Man says. “That should have been the first clue of your insanity. No one would rather kiss a giant bug over me.”
“Please,” Steve says dismissively, “I said that so that no one would figure out how much I want to kiss you.”
“You want to kiss Tony Stark,” Iron Man huffs, “not me.”
“They’re the same person,” Steve yells. “Which you very well know! So who’s insane now?”
“But--” Iron Man says, and then pauses. “How would you even–” And then quieter, “Why would you think something so crazy?”
“Well, it was sort of an accident,” Steve says. “I just… saw your eyes through some holes in my newspaper, and I just… knew. All the facts slotted together and I figured it out, really. Everything made sense. Two of my best friends were just one person after all.” He smiles wryly. “It’s been a fun week trying to think it all through. I get why you’re worried, Tony. But you’ve more than proved you can do this job even with your heart condition. And you have to know, you have to know how much we like you. Both of you. You’ve lied to me the most, and if I can forgive you for it, the others will. I know why it terrifies you, but there’s nothing to be scared of.”
Iron Man just stares at him, and then says, in an odd sort of voice, “I meant why would you want to kiss Tony Stark. He’s kind of a jerk.”
Steve opens his mouth to protest, because Tony’s anything but a jerk, but then Iron Man lifts a hand to his neck, makes a gesture, and the faceplate slides up, and goodness, it’s just as amazing as Steve’s been thinking it would be, to see Tony’s handsome face framed by the Iron Man armor. Tony Stark quirks a lopsided smile at Steve, and he’s obviously trying to be brave because his shoulders straighten, but his mustache is quivering a little, like he’s actually shaking, and he’s so brave, how could Steve not want to kiss him?
And oh. It’s not even a hypothetical. It’s not that Steve would kiss Tony rather than kissing Miek. He would choose kissing Tony Stark over anyone.
Oh. Oh. So many of Steve’s own reactions to Iron Man’s real identity slip neatly into place. He has feelings too. Feelings for Tony. Feelings for Iron Man.
“This week is just full of discovery,” Steve says, feeling a little faint.
Tony’s face creases, and that’s wonderful, to see Iron Man’s actual expression. He squints. “Did you just figure out something else weird?” he demands.
Steve shrugs helplessly. “Only that I’m probably in love with you,” he admits. “Be gentle with me. It’s been a long and difficult week.”
Tony stares. “Are you sure you’re not insane?”
“Hypothetically,” Steve says, very slowly, enjoying the way Tony’s eyes are lingering on his face, “would you rather I was insane, or that I was telling the truth?”
Tony’s eyes drift to Steve’s mouth, and Steve smiles at Tony, wider and wider. Tony steps forwards, his eyes now scanning Steve’s face, like he’s looking for a trap, and he looks bewildered, when every step brings him closer without discovering anything bad.
“The truth,” Tony admits, his voice soft and gentle, unlike any noise that can come from Iron Man. Tony brings up one hand and puts it against Steve’s chest, flat, his fingers spreading into a star. His voice is even softer when he looks up at Steve with wide blue eyes, and asks, “You’re definitely not dying? For days, I’ve been–” He smiles, but it’s a sad smile. “I’ve been in agony thinking about it. About you dying, and not telling me–” His fingers clench into the material of Steve’s uniform.
Steve leans forward and presses his forehead against Tony’s, and for a second they both just stand there, breathing the same air. “I’m sorry,” Steve says. “If it helped, I relived every single moment you nearly died over the last few years, and they were not my favorite memories.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Tony says.
Steve lets one of his hands drift to Tony’s waist, and then he realizes the position they’re in, and what he can probably do, because in Steve’s limited experience, people who didn’t want to kiss you, they didn’t snuggle in so close after you’ve admitted you want to kiss them. He thinks about how to phrase his next words, fails, and falls back on an easier opening. “Hypothetically,” Steve starts, but Tony interrupts him.
“Hypothetically can shove it,” Tony says, and Steve opens his mouth to protest, but he can’t, because Tony kisses him. Steve promptly kisses back, and is smugly happy to realize his previous assessment of Tony Stark’s kissing skills is spot on. When Tony pulls back, mouth pleasingly swollen and pink, Steve’s busy thinking he’s feeling the best he’s ever going to feel, and Tony quietly says, “I probably love you too,” and Steve’s brain implodes for the millionth time that week. In a good way. In a really good way. Steve’s grin is somewhat insane as he reels Tony in again and kisses him firmly.
And then there’s yelling in the doorway and Steve and Tony freeze, instantly.
“We were wondering what was taking you so long,” Jan says, somewhat apologetically.
“Ah, look, Cap lied,” Carol yells, pointing at them, as Tony immediately flips the faceplate down and turns around to stand protectively at Steve’s side. “Guess he wouldn’t rather kiss Miek after all!”
Steve’s cheeks burn red. Iron Man was facing away from the doorway, so the others probably didn’t see his face. When Steve sheepishly raises his gaze, the Avengers are all staring, but they look more amused than accusing.
“There should definitely be a penalty for lying when we play hypothetical,” Jan says.
“I am glad Iron Man isn’t actually a secret zombie,” Simon says. When Clint glances at him, Simon shrugs. “There’d be gore all over our esteemed leader’s mouth.”
“I will never get these mental images out of my brain,” Bruce yelps.
“I thought our titles of father and mother for the Captain and the Man of Iron were honorary,” Thor says. “I apologize if I have ever been disrespectful of your relationship.”
Iron Man’s hands twitch, like he’s resisting the urge to facepalm.
Steve squirms and glances across at Iron Man, feeling like he understands. “I feel like I need to get revenge on these idiots,” he sighs.
Iron Man tilts his mask a little. “I may have an idea,” he says.
Steve contemplates it a little. “Me too,” he says. He beams at Iron Man, and just knows Tony is grinning at him in return. Whatever the ideas are, Steve knows, they’re gonna be good.
[CODA: The revenge]
Tony’s idea is beautiful and simple, Steve agrees. Until Tony sort of leaves him with the clean-up.
Breakfast time. Several Avengers have been staying in the mansion because of the dragons appearing all over Manhattan, smashing buildings and civilians alike with giant claws, leaving slightly-charred people in their wake. There hadn’t been any new sightings for two days, but the Avengers are on standby. Clint and Jan are playing cards against Thor and Bruce, using packets of Oreos as their currency. Simon and Carol are at the table, arguing about whether it is morally reprehensible to skin dragons from an alternate dimension and make them into shoes. Steve is reading the newspaper. He looks up from his newspaper as Jarvis and Tony come into the kitchen, chatting about dinner plans, and Tony grabs a mug of coffee, and sidles over to the table, snagging an apple from the fruit bowl.
“Sorry I can’t stay for breakfast, sweetheart, gotta jet,” Tony says, and leans in to press a quick kiss to Steve’s cheek. Steve hums happily, and lowers his newspaper to drag Tony in a little closer for a better good morning kiss. Tony grins at him, straightens, claps Jarvis companionably on the back, and saunters out of the kitchen, whistling.
Steve watches him go, making sure to check out Tony’s ass as he goes. He picks up his newspaper again, and starts to flick through it.
Simon smacks it out of his hands and glares at Steve, and hisses, “Dude, the fuck?”
It takes Steve the better part of two hours to calm the Avengers down. Afterwards, he goes to find Tony in his lab, and Tony apologizes for leaving Steve with the awkwardness of the entire team thinking Steve is cheating on Iron Man with their generous benefactor , and Steve tries to pretend he’s mad about it, because Tony tries extra hard to make up for leaving him with the fallout. Tony’s attempts at redemption are very, very nice.
Steve’s idea is also beautiful and simple, Tony agrees, and helps him make the appropriate purchases.
The next day:
“Why,” Clint asks, “is there a purple glittery dildo superglued to my mask?”
“Penis nose,” Simon stage whispers.
Bruce Hulks out in the quinjet bay.
Steve leaves Tony with the clean-up.
And makes up for it later.