Tony looked down at the cards the government agent had given him, down at the ridiculous cover story they expected the press to eat up and spit back out at the public, down at Everhart’s smirking face, and almost said it. Almost.
But he stopped just short of it, jaw working as he thought about the danger he would put Pepper in – had already put her in. Obie – Stane had already gone after her once because Tony had put her in danger. He was dead now, but what would happen if Tony told the world that he was the man in the suit?
If he kept to the story, Iron Man would still be linked to him, but not so personally. No one ever expected the person the bodyguard protected to be close to the guard. So Iron Man could be distant from Tony Stark – separate from him.
It meant he could keep Pepper safe – safer.
But it also meant that no one would know. They’d think him a coward, hiding behind a man in a suit of armor.
But if it meant that Pepper would be safe? Tony could do it. He was a selfish jackass, but he would protect those nearest and dearest to his heart. Because he’d found something that could belong to him, and he was damn well going to hold onto that.
So he swallowed down the words (I am Iron Man), tore his gaze away from Everhart, and read off the cards word for word what Agent Coulson had prepared for him.
Tony had spent most of his life behind a mask or another. What was one more?
That government organization – S.H.I.E.L.D. – had probably thought that given their cover story, Tony really would find another guy to put into the armor. Ha, fat chance of that. Tony wasn’t going to be giving this technology to any old person. Rhodey was a possibility, but the man had obligations that weren’t Tony. And Tony didn’t trust anyone else (couldn’t trust a stranger) with the technology that could destroy the world as it was.
He could only trust himself (with hands that were red with blood), so he cultivated a careful identity as Iron Man, keeping it separate from Tony Stark, the man who’d built the suit. He lent his “bodyguard” to peacekeeping summits, went out to destroy caches of his weapons around the world, and then came back to play at being Tony Stark.
Despite Pepper’s worries, Tony didn’t stop. He didn’t stop even when the palladium poisoning crept up on him. He didn’t stop when a man called Ivan Vanko went after his head because of a grudge his father had against Tony’s father. He didn’t stop when S.H.I.E.L.D. infiltrated his company and his private life and forced him to create a new element.
Tony didn’t stop, only pushing forward. It was difficult to keep his two identities apart, but JARVIS helped. His AI was badass, and he piloted several suits on his own when Tony had to be seen at the same time and place as Iron Man. It also helped that once Pepper was CEO, Tony didn’t have to show up to most of the board meetings.
In the end, he wasn’t even surprised when he was rejected for the Avenger Initiative. Iron Man – yes, Tony Stark – no? He had no idea what they were playing at, but all right. They couldn’t have his suit; if they thought that was going to get them it, they were sadly mistaken.
Tony never managed a relationship with Pepper. The spark was there, but it fell short of ever happening because of Iron Man. He would have gone for it, but the thought of Pepper being put at risk was always there. She’d asked eventually, wondering why Tony had toned down the flirting, and he’d explained, haltingly, some of his reasons.
Pepper had called him an idiot, but hadn’t pressed him for more, accepting his reasons. She eventually hooked up with Happy, something Tony hadn’t expected at all, but they seemed to fit together well enough once he took a closer look at the relationship.
Since Tony mostly stopped throwing wild parties and sleeping with women like there was no tomorrow, the tabloids speculated about a forbidden but passionate romance between him and his bodyguard. Pepper saved him the best covers for posterity, and Tony had even found a file on JARVIS’s servers dedicated to the task of saving every single photo of Tony and Iron Man together.
Questioning JARVIS revealed nothing, but Tony still suspected that half of the fan sites dedicated to IronStark were run by his AI. There was no proof, but he knew his AI well enough.
Still, there was no harm in it, and Tony admitted that he got a kick out most of the sites and tabloids himself. But he’d drawn the line at looking at fan art of himself and Iron Man; there were only so many times he could see the Iron Man suit in a sex position before he started getting boners every time he looked at it.
Yet the pictures of a very detailed (and big – very big) dick on the Iron Man armor were something that Tony kept bookmarked. Just in case.
Tony was a man with few secrets. It was difficult to keep any considering who he was. What little the public didn’t know Pepper and Rhodey did, so there were only a very few things that no one but Tony knew.
One – he had a few regrets in his life. The Iron Man suit was not one of them. His behavior when he’d suffered palladium poisoning was one.
Two – he’d had a crush of sorts on Captain America since he’d been old enough to know who he was. It wasn’t something Tony was proud of, but it was true nonetheless, and it was a crush that hadn’t gone away even with time. In that aspect he and Coulson were more alike than the other knew.
And never in his life had Tony expected that these two secrets would merge. After all, Captain America was dead and gone in the ice, and everyone who knew he was Iron Man wished that anyone but Tony Stark was in the suit.
Tony Stark was a lot of things, but ignorant of what others thought of him was not one of them. There were days when he sneered and ignored what the world thought of him. And there were other days when all he wanted was to show them all who he really was.
And never before had the latter urge become so strong until after he met Captain America in the flesh.
Because the Captain – Steve – was amazing and not at all as perfect as Howard had made him out to be. And that, ridiculously enough, made him even more attractive to Tony.
So when it turned out that Steve didn’t have a clue who was really behind the Iron Man mask, Tony was faced with a hopeless dilemma.
Because he liked Steve. He liked him a lot. And his crush was in dangerous territory now that he’d gotten to know the person; it was crossing too close to being “love,” and that spelled disaster for the relationship because Tony didn’t do love.
And Steve liked Tony all right, but he was interacting more with Iron Man than Tony because Iron Man was an Avenger, and Tony was just the consultant. Tony so badly wanted to tell him who was behind the mask, it all fell down to Romanov’s blasted personality assessment because Iron Man had made the cut but Tony Stark hadn’t. And Steve had seen it; he was bound to have so that S.H.I.E.L.D. could keep him away from Tony’s “corrupting influence.” They’d almost made Tony sign contracts to that effect, but Pepper had quickly come in and told them exactly what she thought of that and that they were treading on the grounds of illegality there.
S.H.I.E.L.D. had backed off, but the problem still remained.
As long as Tony remained behind the mask, he was safe. Iron Man was a much better person than Tony could ever be.
But that resolution was continually tested, especially in the mornings when he ran into Steve in the kitchen. Steve looked particularly great then after his morning workout, with that tight, see-through shirt and sweat glistening on his skin. It was enough to make Tony almost lose his mind (and take cold showers).
“Tony.” Steve sounded concerned.
With a mental slap, Tony refocused on something other than Steve’s perfect face. “I’m good – fine. Is that coffee?”
“You’re not having any.” Steve situated himself in front of it. “Did you sleep last night?”
“Am I a robot? No? Then, yes, I slept because I need sleep to function well, so now give me my coffee.”
Steve didn’t move. “You don’t look like you slept.”
“What are you – my mother?” Tony went to shove him aside before he could think the better of it. When Steve still refused to budge, Tony bumped their hips together; Steve moved away two feet before Tony could inhale, face flushing.
“F-fine,” Steve stammered, not meeting Tony’s eyes. “One cup.”
Tony squinted at him, too busy mentally scolding himself for having gotten in Steve’s personal space against his will to really muster up the proper indignation. “Not my mother,” he repeated, filling up his coffee mug.
“Consider me a concerned friend,” Steve insisted. “That much caffeine can’t possibly be healthy for any human being.”
“Says the man who can’t get drunk.”
Steve looked strangely at Tony. “How do you know that?”
Mug freezing at his lips, Tony realized that Tony Stark hadn’t been there that night, although Iron Man had. It took him a moment longer to remember that the only reason they’d tried getting Steve drunk anyway was because Tony had read in Howard’s notes that it wasn’t possible. “Old notes from my dad.”
Now Steve seemed uncomfortable. “What else was in those?”
Tony tilted his head to the side, eyeing him curiously. “Little scientific notes about what the serum did for you. Nothing extremely personal if that’s what you were worried about. Though…” He took a drink of his coffee as he mulled over his next words. “He did have quite a few photos.”
“Nothing incriminating,” Tony assured him. They were simply photos that Tony had looked at from time and time again since receiving Howard’s things from S.H.I.E.L.D. (they were incredibly lucky he hadn’t decided to sue them for keeping that). He’d spent more time than was probably proper looking at them and taking in Steve’s unhealthily skinny frame in black and white. Even in photos, Steve’s determination had shone through in a way that inspired Tony.
It wasn’t something Tony was willing to tell Steve, though. Even he knew that it would come off as being too creepy.
“That doesn’t really make me feel better,” Steve said.
“I do have some sense of what’s decent,” Tony said dryly.
“Your innumerable photos on the Internet say otherwise,” Clint said, shuffling into the kitchen to grab the orange juice. He shuffled back out, scratching his butt through his sweatpants.
“I run a frat house,” Tony sighed a moment later, pulling out his phone to check his messages. “An honest to God frat house. I thought I left that behind at MIT.”
“Ah, sorry, got work to do. Have a great day, Steve.” And before he could think the better of it, Tony patted Steve on his very muscular chest and walked out, hearing incoherent spluttering sounds from behind him.
That he still had it was a given. That he couldn’t use it was a shame.
After the next time they fought together as a team (this time against a horde of rampant mutant trash cans for some strange reason), Steve cornered Tony in the Iron Man suit in an empty room and closed the door behind them.
Tony wasn’t really sure how to act at this point, so he remained still.
Steve cleared his throat. “I was wondering…is Tony – Mr. Stark, I mean – free next week?”
Tony forced himself not to tilt his head curiously; Iron Man didn’t do that. “There are no important meetings that I’m aware of, but I can check to be sure.”
“You don’t need to,” Steve said hurriedly, shuffling in place. “I just wanted confirmation.” He looked to be beet red under the mask.
Tony leaned in slightly. “Are you all right, Captain?”
“I’m fine!” Steve gave him a rather jittery grin and nodded once, jerkily. “So, ah…I’ll see you around?” He left the room before a bewildered Tony could say anything else.
What had that been about?
Despite Tony’s best attempts, he was unable to corner Steve in turn and find out what was wrong. Steve avoided him like the plague except for one conversation in the kitchen where he asked Tony if he was free Wednesday evening, and upon finding out that he was, he left the room and disappeared.
JARVIS was entirely unhelpful when Tony tried to get him to help.
So Tony was left in the dark until Wednesday evening, upon which he met Steve in the living room quite by accident. The other man was dressed nicely and gave Tony a rose, blushing rather furiously as he did.
Tony gave it a blank look before meeting Steve’s eyes. He didn’t want to presume, but… “Is this meant for me?”
“Yes.” Steve was looking rather panicky now. “Do you not like roses?”
“Roses are fine.” Steve’s hand was looking rather shaky, so Tony took the rose before he could think the better of it. “So…why are you giving me a rose again?”
“Our date,” Steve blurted.
It was no act this time. Tony honestly had no response to this aside from a blank look and a very confused “What date?”
“The date.” Steve was wringing his hands together now, and nothing had ever made Tony so uncomfortable but the sight of Captain America looking so strung-out. “I asked you last week!”
“You asked me if I was free on Wednesday and scrammed before I could ask why.”
“I asked you out!”
Tony managed to relax his fingers around the rose stem, even as his insides did a happy little dance before nose-diving into queasiness at the sudden reminder that this would never work. “In general, asking someone out on a date requires the other person knowing that they agreed to a date.”
“You didn’t know,” Steve said slowly, eyes darkening. His mouth twisted slightly, and he rubbed a hand through his hair, making it stand on end. “I-I’m sorry. I presumed – I shouldn’t have.” He swallowed thickly. “It’s just…Iron Man didn’t say anything, so I thought it was nothing. But I guess it’s true?”
Tony blinked, once again hopelessly off-kilter. “What?”
Steve looked like he wanted the floor to open up and swallow him. “You and Iron Man,” he said weakly.
“He’s my bodyguard,” Tony said, not sure what else Steve could be insinuating. Unless…?
Steve stared down at his feet, hands clasped behind his back. “You’re going out…”
“I find it generally helps if the bodyguard joins the person he’s guarding to whatever venues he goes to.”
“Dating!” Steve bit out, eyes squeezed shut. “You’re dating!”
“Oh God no!” Tony blurted before he could stop it. The suddenness of his response had Steve blinking in surprise at him, and with cautious hope lighting his face. It made Tony pause for a moment,
love hope tugging at his own heartstrings and he just…couldn’t. “That,” he managed eventually, “is not something either of us could do. And I’m not entirely sure where you got that idea but from numerous tabloid articles – and really, Steve, those rags are not news. Iron Man and I are not dating; our relationship is entirely professional.”
“So you’re not.” Steve sounded vaguely embarrassed now.
Tony gave him a small grin. “I think I’d notice if we were.”
“Ah…” Steve tentatively reached out, taking Tony’s empty hand. “So let me do this right… Would you…go out with me tonight?” He met Tony’s eyes, hope and trepidation warring on his face. “On a date?”
There were a dozen reasons why Tony should say no and go hole himself up in his workshop and not show his face for the next month. There were a dozen reasons why this was a bad idea.
But looking at Steve’s sweet, hopeful face, Tony didn’t want to think about them. Just this once…couldn’t he take something he really, really wanted?
“Let me get dressed,” Tony said quietly, smiling softly at him. “And then we’ll go.”
The bright smile Steve gave him was entirely worth any and all doubts.
Steve took Tony to this little Italian restaurant Tony had never seen before. It was out of the way of the tourist trap that consisted of what seemed like most of New York on a bad day, and while it definitely wasn’t the type of place Tony would ordinarily go to, it was perfect for this kind of date.
It was very Steve, and that was all that mattered.
“How’d you find this place?” Tony asked once they were seated.
Steve gave Tony a slightly nervous look. “I walked a lot…back then.” He shrugged, his smile painful to look at. “Only thing I could do to get used to the time. I found it by accident.”
Tony gave Steve a reassuring smile. “I like to think that the best things are found by accident.”
Steve opened his mouth, stopped when their waitress came by with their drinks, and then opened it again once they’d ordered. “Is that true?”
“They found you,” Tony said, too honest.
It had the desired effect. Steve blushed, ducking his head. “Thanks,” he murmured eventually.
The conversation was becoming too much for Tony, and he picked at his fingernails as he searched for a different topic. “You draw, right?” he asked before he could reconsider.
Steve seemed vaguely surprised but pleased. “Yeah.”
“Did you ever go to art school?”
It was surreal. Tony didn’t usually do small talk. He tended to dominate conversations and rooms effortlessly, leaving everyone behind in the wake of his presence. But with Steve he didn’t have to do that. He was content to just sit there and listen, giving information when Steve asked for it but never pushing to take over the conversation.
It was fantastic, and Tony hated to think of this date ending and going back to his lonely life. Because they couldn’t do this. Tony couldn’t let it happen.
The sobering reminder was enough to quiet him as Steve insisted on paying their date. Once they left, Tony let Steve take his hand and tangle their fingers together. Warmth tingled through his hand and up his arm, but it wasn’t enough to chase away the chill at the knowledge that he couldn’t have this. Not if he wanted to still remain Iron Man.
There was no way they’d let him stay on the team if they found out.
It was these thoughts that cost Tony when a mugger burst out of an alley, waving a gun and demanding their money. Tony didn’t think before his foot snapped up, hitting the mugger’s wrist and knocking the gun to the ground. Then he stepped forward, hand flashing forward to deliver a devastating punch right into the man’s face, his nose buckling under his knuckles with a grisly crunching sound.
With a pained scream, the mugger dropped to his knees, hand clutching his ruined nose. Tony kicked the gun away from the mugger, sending it right to Steve’s feet.
It took him a moment to realize what he’d done, and then all he could think was shit, he’d gone and done it because Tony Stark shouldn’t have the capabilities to do such a thing. Swallowing nervously, he looked Steve in the eyes, feeling even more nauseous when all he saw was shock and surprise.
“Well, would you look at that.” Tony managed a laugh, stepping away from the groaning mugger. “Looks like those lessons paid off after all.” He brought an easy smile to his face. “Iron Man’s a good teacher, isn’t he?”
“Good.” Steve sounded stunned. A moment later, he reached down for the gun and disarmed it, tucking the clips away and putting the gun in his waistband. “Good,” he repeated, blinking.
“I’ll call the police,” Tony said awkwardly, shuffling to the side.
Ugh, he was an idiot. This was why he couldn’t have nice things.
The rest of the date was spent in silence, although Steve tried to draw Tony into conversation. Tony didn’t let him, too aware of what would happen if he got even more attached and let this relationship grow. It was bad enough already; he wouldn’t be able to handle an honest to god romantic relationship when Steve didn’t even know.
So the moment they were back in the tower, Tony went and holed himself in his workshop, telling JARVIS to lock it down and not let anyone in. JARVIS sounded distinctly disapproving as he did it, but Tony ignored it.
He had his reasons. He did.
It was just difficult to remember them when Steve tried to enter his workshop and when JARVIS kept announcing his presence like Tony couldn’t see him. When Steve kept leaving food at the door when Tony didn’t respond, his shoulders slumping more and more with each failed attempt at drawing Tony out.
Tony made sure to have JARVIS bring Iron Man around once or twice, although he also made sure that the other didn’t speak much. Steve tried to speak to Iron Man, but the suit was even more adept than Tony at evading the other man, mainly because of its sensors.
Thus, Operation Avoid Steve Rogers Until He Gives Up was going perfectly until Natasha dropped in (literally) one night, startling Tony awake from where he’d taken a kip on the couch. He almost fell off, but clutched the blanket Dummy had laid over him to his chest.
“What are you doing in here?” Tony snapped, shifting up to a sitting position. “JARVIS!”
“My apologies, sir.” JARVIS didn’t sound very sorry. “She had a most convincing argument.”
“Oh yeah?” Tony eyed Natasha suspiciously. “What is it?”
“I was wrong,” Natasha told him bluntly, completely out of the blue. “And you need to rejoin the rest of us and put Steve out of his misery.”
“Wrong about what?” Tony demanded.
“We’re a team,” Natasha said, keeping her distance from Tony. “And teams shouldn’t keep secrets from each other.” Her mouth curled into a dry smile. “Or so I’m told.”
“You think I don’t know what’ll happen if I tell him?” Tony kept his voice even.
“Nothing will,” Natasha assured him. “I was wrong, Tony.” She seemed to sigh, her shoulders shifting with the movement. “Without the man, there would be no suit. It…the personality assessment I wrote was at the request of Fury, and the WSC members who wanted the suit for themselves. That was the best way we could do it.”
Tony stared at her for a moment, fingers clenching in the blanket before he pushed it off his legs. He swung his legs down, leaning his elbows on his knees and running his hands through his hair. “Thanks,” he said finally. “I guess.”
“Steve won’t care,” Natasha said. “But tell him. What you’re doing now is the height of idiocy, and this is coming from the man who blew up his house on his birthday.”
“I was dying.”
“You’re not anymore.” Natasha did sigh now, sitting down next to Tony. “You’re a part of a team now, Tony. And I’m a part of that team as well. I…find I worry about my teammates. And right now, I’m worried about two of them because one’s too miserable to do much of anything and the other is laboring under a misguided assumption that was S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fault to begin with.”
Tony sat back against the couch, turning his neck to look at Natasha. “Playing at matchmaking now?”
“Not so much matchmaking as giving one person a much needed kick in the pants.” Natasha stood, giving Tony a wry smile. “I’m giving you until the afternoon, and then you need to be out of here and upstairs. I’ll make sure you and Steve have privacy.”
Tony didn’t say anything until Natasha was almost out. “Hey, Natasha…thanks.”
“Seriously, Tony, don’t mention it.” Natasha’s smirk was pure mischief, and she was gone before Tony could check that he’d really seen it.
Then he was too busy thinking about what he had to tell Steve. The afternoon? He’d be out in the morning, but first he needed to clean himself up before finding Steve.
Tony was out by seven, freshly showered and smelling as sweet as a rose. He found Steve in the living room, the one with the big windows that allowed him to sketch/paint/draw the backyard.
Steve didn’t notice him immediately, and Tony took the time to simply watch Steve draw in his sketchpad (and muster up his courage while he did).
It took him longer than he wanted to admit for him to finally manage a soft, “Steve?”
Steve didn’t quite jump, but he startled enough that his pencil left a long line on the paper. His head snapped up to meet Tony’s eyes. “Tony?”
“Yeah, uh…” Tony shuffled closer, hands in his pockets so he wouldn’t fiddle with something and make a fool of himself. He winced upon seeing the line across an otherwise perfect drawing. “Sorry about that.”
“No, it’s fine,” Steve said quickly, closing the pad. He shifted, throat rippling as he swallowed. “What… Did you want something?”
“Yeah, I – I needed to tell you something.” Tony managed a small smile, though he couldn’t keep it for long. “Iron Man and I—”
“You’re together, right?” Steve interrupted him before he could finish, a sad smile on his face. “I’m happy for you, Tony, I am—”
Before Steve could dig his hole any further, Tony spat the words out, “I’m Iron Man!”
The words had the desired effect. Steve stopped speaking, his mouth dropping open in stunned surprise. “…what?”
“There’s no bodyguard,” Tony forced himself to continue, looking at Steve’s feet. “I’m in the suit, except for when JARVIS pilots it because we need to be in two places at the same time and it’d be weird to have a bodyguard who’s never around, but the suit’s mine and I’m in the suit, and I’m not so narcissistic that I’d have a relationship with myself—”
Steve surging up and yanking Tony into a warm kiss shut him up. Although Tony would never admit it, he squeaked in surprise, mouth open against Steve’s.
A second later, Steve pulled back, flushing heavily. “That’s – that’s great. You’re Iron Man. That’s…” His brows drew together into a deep furrow. “Why didn’t you tell us before?”
“Misunderstandings and badly written personality profiles,” Tony said, not bothering to elaborate. “Can we get back to the kissing? I much like the kissing—”
Steve kissed him again, more chastely. “I want to do more than that,” he said against Tony’s lips.
“That’s great.” Tony’s hands settled on Steve’s hips, and he drew him closer so that he could feel the solid line of Steve’s warmth and strength against his body. “So do I. But I also like kissing, so if we could—”
Steve’s big warm hands cupped around Tony’s face and pulled him into possibly the sweetest kiss Tony had ever had. Then, slowly, Steve pulled him forward and down onto the couch, stretching him out on top so they could indulge in some of the laziest necking Tony had ever participated in.
It was completely worth Clint coming in an hour later and shrieking to high heaven that he did not need that mental image in his head of Captain America necking with another man or any human being at all.