Tony Stark has a secret.
Well, Tony has many secrets, but there is one in particular that he’s been careful about. So careful, in fact, that only one living person on Earth knows about it--even if the term ‘living’ is debatable. He’s not sure if there’s an actual name for his condition and he’s definitely never met someone quite like himself. In his head, though, he thinks ‘Octo-merman’. On his more inebriated days it’s simply ‘OctoTony’. He knows it’s corny but at least it’s descriptive.
It’s not like he lives his entire life with his bottom half a writhing mass of tentacles instead of legs, but about every ten days he has to spend at least eight hours soaking in a tub of water. ‘Tub’ is relative, of course. He may have constructed a faux ocean-side paradise complete with a sandy beach, palm tree, and a fake holographic sun. The water isn’t salty but it’s a pretty good facsimile for when he’s feeling particularly fancy.
He’s done his fair share of experiments, figuring out timing and what ratios work best and he’s pretty much got it down to an exact science. There are variables, of course, but the schedule and routine Tony has been using for the past decade has yet to fail him. So, as it stands, his routine is ten days human, eight hours spending time as an Octo-merman, soaking in water.
He has an extensive list of excuses to get his eight hours of privacy but with the insanity of the Avengers schedule and Tony’s own reputation of working himself to the bone and being the phantom of the tower, no one even bats an eye when he mutters that he’ll be out of contact for the day.
No one except Steve, that is.
“JARVIS, do you know where Tony is?”
“Indeed I do, Captain.”
Steve pauses, out of sorts. JARVIS is never purposefully vague. Much like his creator he often has a tendency to tell you more than what you’ve asked for. “Uh, can you tell me where?”
“I’m afraid not. Mr. Stark has requested that he be left alone for the rest of the day. He is taking care of a sensitive matter of a personal nature.”
Steve ponders that for a moment, confused, and then he feels his cheeks heat, and a small twinge further down, at the implication. He clears his throat. “Okay--alright. Well, can you at least tell me if he’s in the tower?”
“Indeed he is.”
“Thank you, JARVIS.” Steve says, his curiosity not satisfied but he’s content with the knowledge that Tony is safe at least.
If, after a quick dinner in the (empty) kitchen and a walk-through of the (empty) living room, he later finds excuses to drop off papers in the (empty) workshop and to return a borrowed book to Tony’s (empty) bedroom, well, no one else has to know. He’ll just have to make sure to tell Tony about the funny sloshing noises behind the wall on on the Avengers communal floor. It must be a broken pipe, he thinks. According to the floor plans and Steve’s knowledge of the tower, there aren’t any rooms back there.
Re-reading the same line in his book for the fifth time, Steve comes to a realization. No matter what implication JARVIS may have made, Tony wouldn't dedicate an entire evening to taking care of... well, that. Not that Steve was thinking about Tony doing that for the past few hours, of course, but Steve’s curiosity starts to grow. This isn’t the first time Steve has noticed Tony’s abrupt disappearance.
Mind made up to ask Tony about it later, Steve sets the book down and gives in to the sudden desire to take a shower. He tells himself to not think about Tony while he’s in there, which of course means he does the exact opposite. It ends up being a long shower.
“Steve. What’s up?” Tony asks, screwdriver in his mouth as he manipulates the holographic projection in front of him.
Steve walks into the room a little awkwardly and Tony’s immediately on alert. It’s been years since Steve has acted awkward around him.
“Can I ask you a question?” Steve asks.
“I’m an open book, Cap.”
“I asked JARVIS where you were last night and he said he wasn’t allowed to tell me.”
Tony’s stomach does a little flip. He hates lying to Steve, the man who has worked his way into his life and under his skin, but this is something he isn’t sure he’s ready to share. Even if Steve is his best friend.
Silence permeates the workshop for a few seconds before Tony hedges. “Still waiting for that question, Steve.”
Steve sighs. “I was looking for you last night and JARVIS said he wasn’t allowed to tell me where you were. He did say you were in the tower, but you weren’t in your workshop or your bedroom--”
Tony’s eyebrows go up and he turns to face Steve, giving him a smirk. “Steve, if I had known you’d be there waiting for me, I would’ve come to bed sooner.”
Steve ignores him, far too used to Tony’s personality for the comment to jar him, and just lifts an eyebrow in return.
Tony sighs and takes the screwdriver out of his mouth. “Sorry, Steve. It’s a… personal matter that I need to deal with on my own.”
Steve nods, obviously a little disappointed but otherwise accepting. “Alright. I understand your need for discretion. Just… if you need to talk to anyone, about anything, I’m around. You don’t have to handle anything on your own, Tony.”
Tony’s heart clenches and he absently rubs his hip before sitting down on his stool. “I appreciate that. I do. But for now I’m playing this one close to the chest.”
Steve nods and gives Tony a small smile, he turns, about to head back up the stairs, but pauses. “Oh, I heard some strange noises in the hallway by the bathroom on the Avengers floor, it sounds like maybe a pipe burst? I went back earlier today to check but it was gone, but maybe someone should check it out just in case.”
Tony chokes back a laugh and gives Steve grin. “Sure, I’ll have someone check that out ASAP. Thanks, Cap.”
Tony’s feet tap on the floor and his hands rub his thighs quick, like he’s trying to warm them up. Before Steve can leave the room, Tony stands back up. “You know what, I think I’m done here for now. What do you say we hit up that pizza place down the street?”
Steve gives him an odd look, eyes glancing down to Tony’s hands, but he agrees with a smile that makes Tony’s chest ache.
Tony’s notices that people don’t believe in his ability to take care of himself. It’s understandable with his history. A few too many marathons in the workshop, a few too many drinks consisting of alcohol instead of water... He might even agree that maybe there have been a time or two where he’s forgotten to tell the team when he’s feeling under the weather. But about this one thing he is extremely careful.
He has failsafes upon failsafes to prevent himself from shifting at inopportune moments. Not only is shifting involuntarily incredibly painful, but he’s still not sure if he’s ready for anyone to know. Sure, The Avengers have stuck around him for longer than most people in his life… but this is a secret he hasn’t even shared with Pepper. Not even Obie knew. This is something he needs to be certain about. There’s no taking it back once it’s out there and there’s no telling what could happen if the information fell into the wrong hands.
His schedule is down pat and if he finds himself with a few extra hours (which is rare, but it happens) he’ll go ahead and soak early just in case. The life of a superhero is never one to acquiesce to convenience and Tony has learned his lesson on more than one occasion. So, he doesn't have the best track record in keeping the needs of his body at the forefront of his mind, but he is careful about finding time to soak by necessity.
Of course it would then figure that he fucks up. Because of course the world is ending and of course it’s up to The Avengers to save it and of course Tony ends up being a vital piece of the plan. The team is up in space using their fists to solve problems and he’s left on Earth to be the brains. He pushes himself to his limits. Even when he can feel his entire body turning a bit wobbly with the desire to shift, he keeps going. His Iron Man suits have a built-in hydrating system that helps stave off the change for a day or two but at some point in the immediate future he needs to find a tub of water. If he doesn't, it’s about to get awkward for everyone in the room-- and very painful for him.
They manage to save the day, of course. They always do. Tony is still rushing around wrapping things up (or getting them to a point where he can ready the bow for someone else to tie) when Steve shows up and he smiles at Tony like he always does after a mission gone right. Tony smiles back even as he feels his legs turning loose and weak with an impending change that he's no longer going to have a choice about. Moisture gathers on his forehead, he feels warm and cold at the same time. When Steve’s expression shifts into concern, Tony’s faceplate snaps down. He takes a couple of jerky steps before he takes flight, citing the need to check to make sure the tower is still in tact (he knows it is). Giving the room a final series of commands, he takes off and is gone before Steve can say a word.
Steve, being Steve, finds Dr. Strange and asks if he can give him a ride back to the tower quickly, concern for Tony nearly palpable. Strange gets an odd smile on his face but he agrees, and thanks Steve for his help that day. Colors swirl in front of Steve’s face as the lab fades from view and Tony’s bedroom materializes in front of him--
Just in time to see Tony land on the balcony. Tony takes a couple steps in through the door as the suit falls away from him in pieces. Steve watches as Tony’s legs shift and grow and split into multiple limbs. Tentacles, Steve realizes a little light-headed. Tony is trying to walk, in a rush, but he’s stumbling and tripping over the things that are now protruding from his lower body. When Steve’s shield drops from his arm, his hand going slack with the swirl of thoughts and emotions, it clangs to the floor. Tony looks up at him in surprise.
The look of surprise slides into a self-deprecating smile before Tony speaks. “Oh hey, Steve. I didn’t see you there. Do you mind helping me into the bathroom?”
Steve is still too shocked to say anything, but he sees Tony’s pale face looking so ill and he can’t not help him. He quickly walks over and helps Tony up, putting an arm around his warm body, and helps him walk--scuttle?--over to the open door. He tries his best to stifle a gasp when one of the things--the tentacles-- rubs and curls around his calf tentatively. Tony chuckles and mumbles a quick apology.
Tony’s bathroom is huge, the tub itself is the size of a small pool. Steve rushes him to the edge and Tony lets go, allowing himself to fall in and soaking Steve in the process. The look of relief that Steve catches on Tony’s face as falls is close to pure bliss.
The moment Tony resurfaces, he’s already looking healthier and brighter. Grinning at Steve, he settles his elbows on the edge of the tub. They’re silent for a moment, Tony watching Steve’s face, and Steve unsure of what it is Tony finds there. Even he’s not sure how he’s feeling at the moment.
Tony clears his throat and says, “So, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you…”
drawing by charmaine