When Tony wished that something would intervene before he had to deliver a full ten-minute speech about renewable energy to a room full of bored investors, he probably should have specified something like food poisoning, or the building accidentally being double-booked by the President. Something mild.
Not the Controller crashing the event with what looked like a hundred badly-melted clones of the Blood Brothers. They lumbered into the building and started smashing anything they could reach.
At least the Avengers had been present. That had been a last-minute offer from Cap, one Tony had gratefully latched onto. Having a friendly face in the audience was a boon, and the Avengers' support for his initiative was bound to help.
Except, however badly the Controller seemed to have physically made the Blood Brother clones, they still had that same ridiculous thing of being even more powerful the closer they were together. It was the sheer number of them that led to Tony ducking down behind a crushed section of wall and finding Cap and Hawkeye crouched behind the same part.
"We could do with Iron Man's help, Tony!" Cap yelled, covering Clint as the archer unleashed a stun arrow into the crowd of Blood Brother clones.
The problem was, it was pretty difficult to explain why Iron Man couldn't be there. Tony covered his head with his arms as debris from the fight flew overhead and his jaw tightened. The briefcase was just a couple of meters away. If Tony ducked down, he could still reach it, but there was nowhere to go once he had it. No way to wear it without Steve and Clint seeing him put it on.
Tony grit his teeth. He kept his identity secret for a bunch of good reasons, but if anyone got hurt who Tony could have saved, he'd never forgive himself. He took a deep breath and dived forward for the briefcase.
"Stark?" Clint yelled. "What are you doing?"
"No time to explain," Tony said, and threw open the briefcase. Putting on the suit was quicker than ever, muscle memory combining with his increasingly speedier deployment tweaks to make it faster with every iteration of the suit. Tony pressed the button to deploy the mask, slipped it over his head and hit the command to polarize the whole thing.
He thought he caught a glimpse of Steve and Clint's shocked expressions, but there wasn't time for that either. "Going up," Tony yelled, and powered on his boot jets so he could join the fight.
Afterward, feeling very self-conscious, Tony hovered over the floor, looking around at the chaos and clones that were melting into goo (the Controller had really done a botched job on the cloning process). It was a job well done. Sort of. The identity reveal hadn't exactly been at the top of his to-do list. Trying not to shake, Tony landed next to Cap, and shakily de-polarized the armor, focusing carefully on packing it away into the briefcase. Changing here meant that the press and civilians outside the building wouldn't know his identity, but it meant all the Avengers would.
Tony looked warily at Cap when he was done to be met by a very solemn, hardened expression.
"We need to talk," Cap said. "Back at the Mansion."
Tony gripped onto his briefcase and nodded quietly.
Back in the Mansion, Tony was petrified. He sat on a couch in the drawing room, surrounded by a full complement of Avengers, all looking at him seriously. His poor heart was pounding. Even though he'd been free of the chestplate for a while now, he almost wondered whether he needed it again.
He'd always known that if the Avengers knew he was the identity behind Iron Man that he'd be kicked off the team. Tony had lied to them, repeatedly. He needed to take his punishment so he could move on. He couldn't regret it. Who knows if the Avengers would have been able to defeat the Controller this time without him?
Cap took a deep breath to speak, and Tony thought, this is it.
"We appreciate that with Iron Man unavailable, for whatever reason, that you felt you had to wear his armor," Cap said. "We're grateful, but we've talked about it, and we know how severe your heart problems are. Please, next time, just let us handle the emergency."
"You didn't fly too badly," Jan offered.
"Well, I guess it's hard to build something you can't operate a little," Hank said.
"Chatter," Cap sighed, softly, and the Avengers fell silent. "Anyway. We wanted to let you know we appreciated the help, but next time, please focus on escaping."
Tony stared. What?
"And let Shellhead know we missed him out there," Cap added. "No offense, but his shot accuracy would have been a lot better out there. You can tell him we said that and we missed him."
Tony continued to stare in confusion as the Avengers all nodded solemnly at him and filed out of the room. It was probably good that they hadn't fired him (Iron Man) from the team as a liability. The Avengers apparently needed all the brains they could get.
Testing out new armor in the safety of the mansion walls was a luxury Tony didn't often get to experience. Most of his tech got its baptism in the crucible of experience. New York never slept and neither did its supervillains.
Tony supposed he was lucky when his sneeze reversed the polarization of his armor that he was inside, so it was only the Avengers present.
"Bless you," Steve said, automatically, looking at Tony like it was very funny to see Iron Man standing in a suddenly loose and floppy version of the suit.
"Thanks, I appreciate that," Tony said, sadly waving an arm. The loose armor flopped pathetically with the gesture.
Steve's eyes widened.
Shit. When the polarization failed, the HDU disconnected from the power source. Which meant the modulator wasn't working either.
Which meant that had just gone out in his own voice.
Tony re-polarized the armor sheepishly. "Uh, I meant...thank you?" he said, again, in Iron Man's modulated tones.
"It's a little too late for that, Mr. Stark," Steve said, sing-song, folding his arms across his broad chest.
For years later, the Avengers—instead of the more common idiom, Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted—would use Polarizing the armor after the identity has already been revealed.
"You're now officially an Avenger," Cap said, solemnly handing Tigra her new Identicard.
Tigra looked up at it excitedly. "Now I'm formally an Avenger—I get to know all the secrets, right?
"Sure," Cap said, sounding amused.
"Like do you really have your own submarine?" Tigra asked.
"We sure do," Cap beamed.
"And can your Quinjet fly from here to England in under an hour?"
"I can even show you how to pilot it," Clint offered, winking at her.
Tigra clapped her hands excitedly. "Oh, and Iron Man!" She turned to him, beaming. "44% of Americans already think so, but I wanna know for sure. You're really Tony Stark, right?"
Cap started to chuckle.
"Shit," Iron Man said.
Rhodey started to laugh hysterically.
Cap looked from Iron Man to Rhodey in confusion.
"I made him promise yesterday that he had to tell his identity to the first Avenger that straight-forwardly asked him," Rhodey laughed.
"You cheated," Iron Man howled, and lifted up his faceplate to reveal a red-cheeked, scowling Tony Stark. "I only promised that because these guys are way too polite to ask something like that outright. I didn't know someone new would join so soon or break the pattern." Tony glowered at the Avengers, and then he flashed his best corporate smile at Tigra. "Welcome to the team. Your first day might be my last. Hope you enjoy your time as an Avenger, Tigra."
Tony turned and threw a scowl at Rhodey, who was still laughing. Then Tony powered up his jet boots and lowered his faceplate.
"Where are you going?" Rhodey asked.
"If they're going to fire me, they have to catch me first," Tony yelped, and flew out of the window.
"Please excuse me for a moment," Cap said, nodding at Tigra before throwing himself out of the window. "Tony Stark, you get back here so I can yell at you!"
"Not as appealing a concept as you think it sounds, Winghead," Tony yelled back.
Tigra shook her head ruefully. "Is it always like that around here?"
"You'll get used to it," Carol told her.
Tony was glad he had his business as a cover for the six-month sabbatical he took into space. It had been nice to just get away and make new friends out in the cosmos. He was going to treasure his memories with the Guardians of the Galaxy for a long time.
Apparently, the Guardians missed him too. Tony was working in the mansion on a new shooting gallery for Clint when they touched down in a stolen Badoon battlecruiser. As soon as he heard the noise, Tony slipped into his armor to go outside and see what the noise was, and was able to intervene before the Avengers got into an unnecessary scrap with them.
"No Cosmo?" Tony said, disappointed, even though he was happy to see the motley crew of individuals pile down the ramp, already exclaiming about how green the planet was. Gamora didn't seem too impressed by that, probably assuming she was green enough for all of them.
"He doesn't like to leave Knowhere," Quill said.
Quill introduced the Guardians to the Avengers, and then Tony introduced the Avengers to the Guardians, and it was all-in-all a really pleasant moment. In the hubbub of excited noise, Tony sidled closer to Quill and Rocket.
"Remember, when I'm in the suit I'm Iron Man, not Tony," Tony hissed, keeping his voice as low as possible.
"Oh, yeah, that pesky weird secret identity shtick," Rocket said, waving a paw idly. "Yeah, we got it."
Rocket was as good as his word, so when "Iron Man" disappeared, and Tony Stark appeared to show them where they could set up camp in one of the sub-basement levels, the Guardians gamely all introduced themselves again to Tony, who was very pleased to meet them, as he'd heard such nice things from Iron Man about them.
"I bet you have," Quill said, with a smirk.
It was nice having the Guardians staying with them for a while, even if Tony did find out it was mostly because they were lying low so the Badoon didn't find them. It was nice to be able to chat with other superheroes who knew he was Iron Man.
True to their promise, they did try their best to keep the secret. They understood Tony's reasons, especially finding out he really was as rich as he'd bragged he was. (They took advantage of it. Well, Tony thought ruefully, the Avengers did deserve a hot tub in the back yard, and making it sturdy and big enough for Groot to use too meant maybe it stood a chance not to be pulverized by any of the Hulks that turned up in the roster. Maybe.)
The Guardians might have tried their best, but Tony was possibly going to be the weak link.
"I am Groot," Groot said one morning over a shared rowdy breakfast, and Tony nearly lost it. He had to run to the sink and pretend to be scrubbing very hard at a mug.
It was the funniest goddamned thing he'd ever heard in his life.
Holding in that cackle was the hardest thing he'd ever had to do.
Tony was sad to see them go. He was almost tempted to grab the armor and take off with them.
Quill dragged Tony in for a hug goodbye. "It was nice seeing you again, Shellhead."
Tony froze in the embrace.
Behind him, the Avengers started to make loud noises.
"…I thought that was a Stark nickname, not an Iron Man one," Quill hissed.
"You thinking? That's cute," Tony said. "You hold them off, I'll grab my armor, don't take off without me?"
"Are you saying that because you really want to come with us, or because you're running away from your feelings?" Quill yelped, but it was already too late, Rocket already had pulled his biggest gun out from nowhere and Gamora had unsheathed her favorite sword. "Because we're not picky, either reason's fine."
Tony caught a glimpse of Cap's frown and Jan's expression of shocked dismay. "Never mind the armor, I'll build a new set once we're at least five solar systems away," he yelped.
"Good call," Quill complimented, already yanking him on board.
They invited Iron Man along with the other Avengers to the premiere of Avengers Assemble!, but Tony had to decline. Having funded part of the movie so that he was allowed a small amount of say in the production, Tony Stark had to appear on the red carpet, or risk having his entire PR division send him snotty passive-aggressive emails for an entire month. He got enough of those from Agent Sitwell.
"I wish I was here as myself," Jan sighed. "I bet I could have come up with an amazing gown for this."
"You look beautiful," Hank assured her.
"Henry Hellrung might even be more handsome than you, Tony," Carol said, winking at him.
"Ugh," Tony said, without heat. He sort of suspected she was right.
"Maybe on a par," Steve said generously, because he was nice like that.
Tony was sat up front with the Avengers, of course. What he hadn't expected was that the Avengers would treat an outing like this in public like they were part of a Mystery Science Theatre taping.
"This is a ridiculous storyline," Steve muttered. "Putting me in the ice for five decades when it was, what, mostly two?"
"Feeling sensitive, old man?" Tony joked. Steve glared at him and stole some more of Tony's popcorn.
"I thought this was supposed to be accurate," Jan complained. "Where am I?"
"All I was able to do for my contribution was veto any nude scenes," Tony said, defensively.
"Did they want me to be naked for the whole thing, so that's why I'm not in it?" Jan demanded.
"Most of us aren't in this," Carol sighed.
"The best ones are," Clint said smugly.
No one paid attention to his whining when Carol justifiably elbowed him somewhere soft.
The plot was getting increasingly stupider.
"I can't be with you, Iron Man," the Black Widow on-screen sighed. "For I love Tony Stark."
"I'm telling Nat about this the moment this ends," Clint said fervently.
"But you can be with me," Iron Man said on-screen, "because the truth is, I am Tony Stark." And he whipped off his mask to reveal Henry Hellrung's beaming face.
Tony froze in his seat as the fictional Tony Stark started passionately making out with the fictional Black Widow. What?
"This is ridiculous," Jan said. "Natasha would never go for Tony."
"What's wrong with me?" Tony demanded immediately, even though he'd never considered pursuing Natasha romantically. Well, maybe he had once. He was only human.
"Well, you're no Iron Man," Clint said.
"Uh," Tony said. "Yeah. Haha. I'm totally not Iron Man. Nope."
"The shield bent when he threw it," Steve said, his mouth downturned.
"Yes, because it's a prop," Tony pointed out. "Would you have let them borrow the real one for the movie?"
Steve pulled a face, obviously picturing it in his head. "No," he relented. He squinted at Tony. "You didn't let them borrow the armor for the movie, did you?"
"Ha, no, that was all computer-generated imagery," Tony said, waving dismissively. "It would have been useless, anyway. It's only coded to work for me, for anyone else it's a paperweight."
Steve stared. "You mean it's only coded to work for Iron Man."
"Tony," Steve started, slowly, "are you—?"
"More popcorn?" Tony yelped, thrusting the last of his box at Steve's face.
"Ha, I'm still laughing at that twist," Clint said, as they left the theater. "The idea that you're Iron Man, Stark! It's hilarious!"
"Yeah," Steve said, heavily glaring at Tony. "Very funny."
A lull in the chaos left Tony standing by a wall, Steve his only company.
Steve's expression was carefully neutral. Tony's face felt hotter than he wanted it to be. He should have revealed his identity ages ago, it was dumb to have lied for this long. Steve must hate him, now he's had time to unpick some of the deception.
Tony had never felt so vulnerable before, and it wasn't because he was standing there naked but for a red thong. Tony kind of wished Don hadn't asked for his shirt back, but it wasn't the near nudity that made him feel vulnerable, it was the stripping away of his identity. No more shield of Iron Man to hide behind.
Steve's silence was unbearable.
"Now you've had time to process this, are you going to say anything else about it?" Tony blurted out the question.
Steve glanced at him, still silent, and his gaze hovered on Tony's face. "Yeah," Steve said. Then his gaze flickered downward and lingered. "Nice choice of underwear."
Tony's face grew impossibly redder, matching his thong.