When Steve offered, he wasn’t expecting laughter, and for a second he didn’t know what it was. Sometimes it was hard to tell, with the voice modulator box in the armor.
He’d pulled Iron Man aside after the Avengers meeting, during which Iron Man had once more said “I’ll talk to Mr. Stark about this” as a way of solving a problem, and Jan had looked at Steve, and so had Wanda, and Clint had winced.
So he’d said “Iron Man, a moment?” and had prepared for Plan Alpha (Alpha was okay, and not as difficult as Beta, which involved covert coercion if not outright murder of their sponsor, Tony Stark).
"Sure, Cap, what’s on your mind?" Iron Man asked, lingering in the conference room after the others had filed out.
"Look, I think you should know that as much as we value Mr. Stark’s contributions," Steve said, measuring his words very carefully, "we, the Avengers, we would be able to find other sources of support if Mr. Stark withdrew his. None of us want to leave the mansion," he added hurriedly, "but we could. I’ve spoken to the others about it."
"Why…would he withdraw his support?" Iron Man asked curiously. "Mr. Stark has always been dedicated to the Avengers’ cause — "
"And we appreciate it, we do! God knows," Steve had said. "But…look, if we had to, we could find other ways. More than that, I — I’ve thought this through and rather than just walk away, I’d be willing to lend a hand, you know, with your duties. If that would work, if you think it would."
Iron Man didn’t have facial expressions, but he conveyed emotion very well through movement, and Steve had learned, as the others had, to read his gestures. He tipped his head just slightly, puzzled.
"What duties are we discussing? Mr. Stark hasn’t complained about me," he said confidently.
"Oh, ah…your discussions with Mr. Stark," Steve said. All of this hinged very carefully on not implying Iron Man was in any way deficient, or treating him like he was helpless. "When you…convince him to help us out."
"I’m afraid I’m really not following," Iron Man replied. "Mr. Stark is my employer. I bring issues to his attention, he helps out. There’s really no need for assistance."
"But we all know what you really do," Steve burst out, then regretted it. Iron Man went still, a sign he was tense, watchful. "We know, Iron Man, and we just don’t think you should have to — to do anything you wouldn’t — "
"Oh my lord," Iron Man said. "What exactly is it you think I do to convince Mr. Stark?"
"You know,” Steve said. “And I’m just saying, he’s a fine-looking man, he seems nice, so I would help, if you wanted. I could take over for a while. Of course, if it’s….consensual, that’s a different thing entirely — I’m not that old fashioned, you know — but if it’s not, if you’re trading yourself for toys for the Avengers, just…well, you shouldn’t have to, and it’s not worth it. To us.”
The stillness got, if anything, more intense, and then Iron Man started to laugh.
It came through the modulator as a slightly rusty burst of static followed by clear, ringing, metallic laughter. After a second, Iron Man doubled over, head bowed, shoulders heaving under the armor.
"Oh my god!" he wailed through his glee, while Steve worried he’d driven the poor man into some kind of breakdown. "You think I’m fucking him!"
"Iron Man!" Steve said, scandalized.
"But you do, don’t you? Oh my god," Iron Man said, and went off into another peal of helpless laughter.
"Well, can you blame me?" Steve said, as Iron Man collapsed into a chair, leaning on the meeting table, still laughing. "Everyone thinks it, Shellhead, and we’re worried about you.”
"Haaah, aaah, haaah," Iron Man panted, waving a hand in front of his face to fan himself, as if it would do anything in the suit. "Ahaha. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, thank you, I appreciate your concern, hahahaha, but your face…"
Steve waited, arms crossed over his chest, while Iron Man went into another fit of laughter.
"We all respect Mr. Stark," he said. "But none of us know him very well, and we know he has a reputation — "
"Stop, sweet Jesus, stop," Iron Man managed, and then to Steve’s horror he reached up to his helmet and pressed a button under the jaw. There was a hiss. "Just, don’t say anything else about him, okay, hang on…"
The helmet of the suit seemed to hinge apart at the mouth, just below the seam where gold met red, and then it was coming off, tugged off by its owner —
"Mr. Stark!" Steve said, aghast.
Tony Stark settled the helmet next to him on the table, smoothing his hair. His entire face was creased with mirth, tears of glee running down his cheeks.
"I’m so sorry, Winghead, I really am," he managed, then pointed at Steve’s face and burst into laughter again. “Your face, seriously.”
"I don’t find this funny," Steve complained.
"No! It’s not! Ahahaha! I’m so sorry!" Mr. Stark giggled. "I’m sorry, Steve, honest to God. Here. Help me out of this tin can."
He stood and offered one arm, catches clicking back all the way along it, and Steve suspiciously tugged at the armor, helping him shed the arms and shoulders. He tugged on the chestpiece, but Mr. Stark clapped a hand over it.
"This doesn’t come off, I’m afraid," he said, shucking the hip plates and leg armor instead. He was wearing a plain pair of mechanic’s dungarees, and the breastplate shone with the dull light of Iron Man’s arc reactor. Steve set his questions aside for another time.
Then Tony Stark reached out and, without hesitation, drew Steve into a tight hug.
"You are wonderful," he said, as Steve tried to gather his scattered wits. Mr. Stark released him and clapped him on the arms, casually, as if they were still Iron Man and Cap. "I mean, you can see why I couldn’t tell you guys. You wouldn’t have let me fight half as much as you do. Sweet goodnight, I can’t believe you thought Iron Man was trading sexual favors for my sponsorship of the Avengers. It’s sweet. I mean, I am thankful, just…it’s so funny…"
"I suppose I can see that," Steve admitted, trying to cut him off from yet another round of laughter. "But it came from a genuine concern."
"Oh, Cap. The Avengers are the most fun I’ve ever had," Mr. Stark said, giving him a sweet, almost wistful smile. "I love being Iron Man more than anything in the world. I’d pay twice what I do just to keep you around."
"But that’s just it, you know you don’t have to, Mr. Stark," Steve said, distressed. "We’d find another way, and we’d bring Iron Man with us. You don’t have to pay for us to stay our friend."
"Yeah, well, what else am I going to do with the money? Eat more?" Mr. Stark shook his head. "No, I owe a certain debt, and the Avengers make repaying it a joy. And call me Tony, Steve. I think we’re past Mr. Stark, don’t you?"
"Tony," Steve said, trying the fit of the word in his mouth. He smiled at Mr. St — at Iron Man — at Tony.
"So," Tony said, leaning on the table, a grin curving his lips. Steve hadn’t often seen Mr. Stark smile; usually he was hurrying through the mansion on his way somewhere else — probably, Steve realised, on his way to get his armor on. "Mr. Stark’s not so bad looking, huh?"
"Well," Steve said, feeling his cheeks heat. "You aren’t. And clearly if Iron Man liked you, he had to be seeing something in you."
"Oh?" Tony asked. He batted his eyelashes, and Steve knew he was using...wiles. Iron Man had that kind of stupid horrible sense of humor.
But god damn, the man did have his good points. And this was Iron Man, his best friend, his first friend in the new world. He’d have done anything for him.
"So you’d have been willing to offer me sexual favors to save Iron Man, hm?" Tony continued.
"I — I didn’t — I mean of course, yes, I just — " Steve stammered. Tony pushed himself off the table and walked up to him, and Steve had played this game with Iron Man many times — during bickering matches, once in the heat of anger over a badly-timed quip, sometimes just to measure himself against the Golden Avenger. They’d stood toe-to-toe and just stared each other down, Steve trying to see through the glazed white lenses of the suit. Sometimes one of them would walk away. Most times one of them would laugh.
This was just Iron Man out of his armor, and Steve’s lips curved upwards. Iron Man, he knew how to handle.
"So, what is it you want, Mr. Stark?" he heard himself ask. "In return for helping out the Avengers."
"Oh, Captain," Tony said, and his voice after the vocal modulator was a deep growl as he smoothed a hand up Steve’s chest, ruffling the small scales of his uniform. "You’ll learn this about me. I have a reputation. I always want everything."