The reinforced steel door was a study in vault security. As far as Steve could tell, almost every type of lock had been employed. Retinal, fingerprint, and voice scanners were all present. Below the scanners was a keypad. Not an ordinary ten digit keypad, but a 45 key grid featuring the 26 letters of the alphabet, the usual ten digits, and a series of symbols. But what Steve found truly interesting was the wheel set into the center of the vault door. He'd attempted, by invitation, to turn it and knew it had such a high resistance that it required enhanced strength to turn.
Steve looked curiously over at Iron Man. "Your boss is comfortable with the idea that he couldn't open his own vault without your help?"
"I have Mr. Stark's complete confidence," Iron Man replied. He sounded vaguely amused when referring to his employer. He often did. Steve wondered at the relationship between those two. Iron Man wasn't always particularly respectful of Mr. Stark, and he was often downright casual about making promises on the man's behalf. But they had to have some sort of understanding; Tony Stark had never once hesitated to fulfill any of the promises made by his bodyguard.
"Besides," Iron Man went on, "enhanced strength isn't so unusual that he couldn't find another way to turn that wheel without me if he needed to. The rest of the systems are the real deterrents."
"Anything that requires that much security makes me a little nervous," Steve admitted. "What, exactly, is it that A.I.M. is after?"
"It's an experimental energy amplification assembly," Iron Man said. "Mr. Stark hopes that it might help replace both coal-fired and nuclear energy one day. It would be the next best thing to cold fusion." Steve couldn't see Iron Man's expression, of course, but he got the impression he was smiling. "Of course, Mr. Stark is funding research in that direction as well."
"Knowing A.I.M., it's not the prospect of clean energy that's driving their interest," Steve said darkly.
"Even if it was, the assembly wouldn't help them," Iron Man said. "It's not 'experimental' as in 'prototype'. It's 'experimental' as in 'not working yet'."
Steve raised his eyebrows. "If it isn't working yet, why do they want it?"
"Because of the way it isn't working," Iron Man said. "Mr. Stark can get it to amplify energy, but he can't get the assembly to generate the amplified energy bursts in a predictable or controlled way. Instead it releases energy at random intervals in huge bursts." Iron Man's tone was intensely frustrated. He paused, as if to calm himself. "Feed the right kind of energy into the matrix and it could become an immensely powerful, if somewhat unpredictable, weapon. A.I.M. might even be able to stabilize the matrix; as much as I abhor their goals, they have some unquestionably brilliant scientists."
"I'm beginning to understand why Mr. Stark is keeping it under such heavy security," Steve said.
"I just hope the Avengers' presence doesn't drive A.I.M. off," Iron Man said. "I can't ask you to stand guard with me forever." Since the intelligence on A.I.M.'s plan to attack Stark Enterprises had come in the Avengers had been standing guard in shifts. It was Steve and Iron Man's turn now, but the others were just a communicator call away.
"It hasn't even been two days yet," Steve reassured him. "A.I.M. has always been overconfident; they won't duck out if they've decided to go after it."
Just then, sirens started sounding.
"I should have known," Iron Man said dryly. "They couldn't resist a dramatic cue. But I expected a little more subtlety than a full frontal assault."
"That's even more overconfident than usual," Steve agreed, frowning. "Something's not right here."
"I'm calling in the rest of the team," Iron Man said, activating his communicard.
"Hopefully we won't need them," Steve said grimly, but he had a very bad feeling about this. Part of him wanted nothing more than to run out and meet the enemy before they caught him and Iron Man in this dead end, but they couldn't take the chance that A.I.M. might get around them and at the amplification assembly.
Instead he waited, nerves wound to an almost painful readiness. Iron Man finished calling for the team and stepped up next to Steve. "You ready?" he asked. "Security has orders not to take undue risks. They'll be here soon."
Steve turned and smiled at him. "Bring them on."
Moments later, yellow jump-suited A.I.M. foot soldiers poured into the room. Most of them were carrying laser weapons that sent scarlet beams slicing through the room. But even as he deflected the laser with his shield and leaped forward to engage the soldiers, Steve noticed that several of them were carrying guns like he'd never seen before. They had flared muzzles and large, cylindrical reservoirs. They looked like nothing so much as pesticide sprayers--and they didn't even attempt to strike at him.
Instead, those soldiers went straight for Iron Man and the vault. Steve tried to hold the line, but there were more than two dozen A.I.M. soldiers, and a couple got past him. Well, Iron Man was more than capable of taking care of himself, and the A.I.M. men couldn't work on the vault as long as the Avengers kept them busy.
The room soon grew warm and filled with the peculiar scent of scorched air. Agents of A.I.M. lay scattered across the floor, unconscious. There were so many that Steve had to start watching his footing. How many more of them could there be?
Spinning, Steve used his momentum to toss another foot soldier onto a growing pile of unconscious men. The vault, he noted, was still secure, though the door was deeply pitted. Strange. The beam weapons had only left scorch marks. Even as he ducked a pair of energy bursts, Steve noticed Iron Man dodging a spray of liquid from one of the strange weapons. That was even stranger; Iron Man's style tended more toward letting his armor absorb attacks than it did to dodging.
Before Steve could consider the point much further, a voice boomed in the hallway. "Your weapons cannot touch the god of thunder!"
Steve grinned. The others were here. Surely they'd run out of men to throw at himself and Iron Man soon. Steve deflected a series of beams and rolled swiftly to the side, out of the line of fire and into the perfect angle to throw his shield. It spun through the air and sliced through the barrels of three of the laser guns before ricocheting off the wall and ceiling and returning to Steve's hand. The A.I.M. agents looked down at their ruined weapons, looked up at Steve, and looked at each other before dropping the useless hunks of metal and running from the room. Not that it would do them much good, with Thor out there.
Glancing around quickly to make sure none of his downed adversaries were stirring, Steve turned his attention to Iron Man and his last two opponents. Both of them were armed with the spray weapons. Iron Man ducked nimbly out of the field of one spray, but-- "Iron Man!" Steve shouted in warning, throwing his shield.
The shield slammed into the second agent, driving him to the floor, but it was too late. The wide field of spray had coated Iron Man from head to toe. For a moment it seemed to have no effect; Iron Man struck the last A.I.M. agent remaining in the room and he crumpled, the spray gun slipping from his fingers.
Then Steve realized that there was a faint smoke rising from Iron Man's armor.
"Iron Man!" Steve said, alarmed, rushing across the room.
"Don't touch me!" Iron Man said, raising his hands. "It's some sort of acid."
"It's eating through your armor," Steve said in horror. He started to reach out and had to force himself to stop.
"It's doing worse than that," Iron Man said, grimly. "It's combining with the armor to create an even more aggressive solvent." He reached up to touch the armor around his neck. "I have to get the armor off."
Steve barely had a moment to register what that meant before a series of metallic clicks sounded and Iron Man pulled off his helmet. Steve blinked. "Mr. Stark?"
Tony Stark smiled wryly even as he balanced on one foot and worked on stripping off his boots. "I think you've more than earned the right to call me Tony, Steve." He got both boots off, but red liquid was running off his gauntlets now, splashing on the floor and eating pits in it.
"You have to get your gauntlets off," Steve said urgently. "The rest of your body can recover from a lot more damage than your hands can."
"If I take them off, I can't touch the rest of my armor to take it off," Tony said grimly. He stripped off the thinner armor covering one leg and Steve clenched his jaw at the chemical burns that were revealed. It had to be nearly through the heavier gauntlets.
"Get those gauntlets off," he ordered, stepping forward. "My gloves should protect my hands long enough to get the rest off."
"It'll eat through leather even faster than armor," Tony argued, almost finished with the other leg.
Steve started working on removing Tony's groin guard. "Gauntlets. Now," he said sharply. "I can still throw a punch with damaged hands, if it comes to that. You're an inventor. You need better motor control." Steve tried not to think about what it would be like to try to draw with scarred hands.
Tony didn't respond, but he stripped off the gauntlets.
The pieces of the groin guard came loose and fell to the floor with a loud clang. Steve ran a quick eye over the exposed area and couldn't help a rush of relief that there was no damage. Even aside from the delicate private parts, there were major arteries in the groin.
Steve managed to get both arm coverings off before his hands began to sting, but when he reached for the chest plate Tony stepped away. "Not yet," he said, though the skin around his eyes was tight with pain. "I need my spare armor."
"I can tell just by looking that it's almost through the chest plate!" Steve protested. "There'll be time to get your armor after we get it off."
"It's already through," Tony said tightly. He was growing pale. "But I can't survive more than a few minutes without the chest plate. I need my spare armor now."
"Thor!" Steve shouted, stripping off his own gloves as the sting became a burn. "Someone needs to stay with you," he told Tony grimly.
Tony looked over Steve's shoulder at the doorway. "Thor. There's a secret room behind my office on the top floor," he said, the words fast and clipped. "I have a spare set of armor there. I need it as fast as you can get it here."
"Verily, it shall be done," Thor announced from behind Steve.
Tony met Steve's eyes again. "He's faster than you," he said, his breath coming in short, harsh gasps now.
Steve reached out and gripped Tony by the elbows. "Sit down before you fall down," he said roughly, helping to ease Tony down onto a clear patch of floor.
A new problem became immediately apparent. The corrosive liquid formed in combination with the chest plate wasn't just eating through the armor, it was dripping off of it in ever-increasing streams. Tony had to lean forward to keep it away from his groin, and even then it came dangerously close. Steve could only be grateful that the armor covering Tony's back hadn't been touched, or leaning forward would have meant worsening the situation there.
Tony was frighteningly pale now, his breathing labored. He reached out, fumbling, and gripped Steve's forearm. "I think we might as well take off the chest plate now," he said, struggling for each word.
"What's changed?" Steve asked. His gloves were done for, so he pushed back his cowl and stripped off his mail and leather shirt and used that to protect his hands as he found and released the catches.
"The circuits have been melted through," Tony gasped. "It's not working anyway."
Steve froze for a moment before quickly finishing removing the chest plate and setting it out of the way. He turned back to Tony and his breath stopped in his throat at how he looked. Large swathes of Tony's chest and abdomen were blistered and raw. Steve could see several areas where Tony had visibly lost the entire thickness of his skin, perhaps even muscle mass.
Steve reached out to clasp Tony's shoulders, then stopped, realizing with dismay that Tony's arms were burned even worse than his legs had been, though not so badly as his chest. After a moment Steve clasped each of Tony's hands in his and squeezed tightly. "Stay with me," he said urgently. "Talk to me. Tell me...tell me why you need the chest plate to survive."
Tony grimaced and Steve wondered if he shouldn't have asked, but he couldn't think of a single other topic to keep Tony talking, not now. "One of my own land mines," Tony said, struggling for each word. "I have...a piece of shrapnel in my heart." He stopped, sucking in short, too-shallow breaths.
"Shrapnel," Steve prompted, squeezing Tony's hands again.
Nodding, Tony squeezed back briefly. "The chest plate...keeps my heart...beating," he managed, laboriously. "It's too damaged to keep going on its own...for long. The chest plate forces...it to beat normally."
"You couldn't settle for a standard pacemaker?" Steve asked, struggling for a light tone and, he knew, not quite making it.
Tony scraped together a tiny, pained smile anyway. "Too much damage," he said. His complexion had faded to a disturbing shade of grey. "Not enough power...'specially not for this life."
The last few words were faintly slurred. Tony's eyes rolled back in his head and for a moment Steve thought his own heart had stopped. Tony's hands went limp in Steve's and he sagged backwards until Steve was forced to lower him to the cold, metal floor. Moving around Tony, Steve pulled Tony's head and shoulders into his lap. Gut tight with tension, Steve laid his fingers over Tony's throat and gasped in relief when he felt the beat, weak and terribly uneven, but there.
"Where the hell is Thor?" Steve asked aloud, his heart pounding as it hadn't even in the midst of battle.
There was no answer, of course. Steve kept his fingers pressed to Tony's throat, monitoring the struggling heartbeat. He couldn't help holding his breath every time the gap between beats drew out longer than normal. Tony couldn't die, not now. Steve had always known that the man beneath the armor must be unusual, but knowing that it was Tony Stark... Tony was more remarkable than he'd imagined. Steve couldn't lose him now, not when he'd only had a chance to know pieces of the man.
Almost unconsciously, Steve found himself brushing the hair off of Tony's sweat damp forehead. He looked half dead already. "Hang in there," Steve said aloud. "You've come through worse than this."
Hadn't he? Steve tried to think of another time when Iron Man had been injured and felt a chill as he realized how very many times there had been. Knowing what he did, now, about Tony's heart, he remembered a dozen different times when Iron Man had seemed terribly weak, only to miraculously recover after a few minutes. Iron Man's weapons could recharge themselves during battle; the chest plate must be the same.
How many times had Tony hovered on the brink of death without his teammates ever guessing? Steve felt a stab of guilt. He should have noticed. How could he have overlooked something so damn serious?
Then Steve laughed, short and tight. "Because you didn't want me--any of us--to know," he said, looking down at Tony. "If anyone could fool the Avengers for years on end, it'd be Tony Stark."
"Captain!" Thor's voice boomed out and Steve's head snapped up, looking at the door, just as the thunder god came striding quickly into the room. "I return." He stopped a few steps into the room, his arms full of red and gold armor, expression stricken as he took in Steve and Tony. "By Odin, say I am not too late!"
Tony's pulse still fluttered, almost imperceptibly, under Steve's fingers. "You're not too late. The chest plate, quickly!"
Thor joined Steve, kneeling next to Tony and spilling the armor from his arms onto the floor, picking out the chest plate and the back piece quickly. Steve lifted Tony and let Thor fit the back piece in place. He lay Tony down on the floor as Thor lifted the chest plate into place.
"Please, God," Steve murmured, "let us just have to put it in place." If there was some control to activate, Steve knew he'd never get it right. Iron Man's armor was incredibly complex.
"I know not why such is necessary," Thor said with surprising calm as he carefully set the chest plate in place, "but if Iron Man must at times change his armor in dire circumstance, he would not have made it difficult." With that, the chest plate and back piece locked together with a dull, metallic noise and a series of clicks.
Steve reached out to take Tony's pulse again, but even as he laid his fingers to Tony's throat Tony's breathing grew visibly easier. Under Steve's hand his pulse grew stronger almost immediately. After a moment, his eyelids fluttered and then opened.
"Tony?" Steve asked anxiously.
"I'm okay," Tony said. He paused and took a careful breath. "Well, I'm not going to have a heart attack, anyway."
He didn't say it, but Steve knew that having the armor pressed tightly against raw flesh and fresh chemical burns had to be agony. "We have to get you to a hospital."
"A.I.M.?" Tony asked. He pushed past Steve's restraining hands, forcing himself first to his knees and then to his feet.
"Valiant Giant-Man and the beauteous Wasp gather them together even now, with the help of yon security men," Thor assured him. "'Tis safe for you to rest, friend."
"You need medical help," Steve insisted as Tony struggled into the rest of his armor despite his injuries. "Stop moving! You're only doing more damage."
Tony grunted as he forced armor over burned limbs. He swayed afterwards and Steve stepped forward quickly to steady him. "Tony Stark can't go to the hospital with injuries like these."
"Then Iron Man will have to go," Steve said flatly. "They can work on the rest of you without removing your helmet."
"I can take care of myself," Tony insisted. He took a step forward...and crumpled, only Steve's quick reflexes catching him before he struck the floor.
"The hospital it is," Steve said wryly. Tony didn't reply. Steve couldn't check his pulse through the armor, but surely he was just unconscious. Surely. Steve wanted to carry Iron Man to the hospital personally, but he knew Thor could get him there faster. "Thor," he said. "Take him to the hospital."
"He is in good hands," Thor said solemnly, gathering Tony from Steve's arms.
Steve watched the doorway for a long moment after they'd gone. Then he turned back to the A.I.M. agents strewn about the room. A couple of them had begun to stir. He couldn't do anything for Tony now, and there was still clean up to be done here.
But he didn't have to like it.
It was hours before Steve, Giant-Man, and the Wasp were able to hand the A.I.M. agents over to SHIELD and hurry to the hospital. When they got there neither Thor nor Iron Man were anywhere to be seen, but a quick inquiry was all they needed to learn that Iron Man was in surgery. God only knew where Thor had gone.
There was nothing the three of them could do but sink into the hospital's hard plastic chairs and wait.
Steve leaned forward, his forearms braced on his knees, hands clenched into fists. He hated waiting, hated that there was nothing he could do to help his teammate.
Iron Man. Tony Stark. With nothing to occupy his attention, Steve found his thoughts dwelling on that startling revelation. The more he thought about it, the more sense it made. The way Iron Man often sounded amused when discussing his employer. The degree of scientific insight possessed by a man who was supposed to be a bodyguard. The way no one ever seemed to see Iron Man taking his employer to safety before a battle.
In hindsight it was obvious, so obvious that Steve had to wonder why the possibility had never occurred to him before. How many times had one of the Avengers commented that, with all the gadgets he provided for them, Tony ought to be an Avenger himself?
But despite all those comments, they'd never actually offered to make Tony Stark a member, honorary or otherwise. The suggestion had never even been seriously tabled, and if Steve was honest with himself, he knew why. For all that they respected Tony's brilliance and his commitment to their cause, as demonstrated by the wealth he put at their disposal, they agreed without discussion that Avengers were heroes and that it took more than financial and intellectual support to make a hero.
They respected Tony, but there was also an unspoken awareness that he was different from the Avengers themselves. He was a civilian. He stayed out of the line of fire. He had a bodyguard to make certain of his safety. He did good with his money instead of his actions.
Not that there was anything wrong with being a civilian, of course. The Avengers existed specifically to protect the lives of civilians. But if you'd asked any one of them whose contribution they valued more, Tony Stark's or Iron Man's, they would have answered Iron Man's without hesitation.
Steve couldn't help but feel vaguely ashamed of that now. He knew that he'd always have a stronger bond with those allies that put their own lives on the line than with those who didn't, and he knew that he'd no way of knowing that Tony was one of the former, but he still winced away from memories in which he'd thought dismissively of Tony.
As it turned out, Tony had taken more risks with his life than any of them. He'd been more dedicated to their cause than they could ever have guessed. What had made a man who could live any kind of life he wanted choose this one?
Steve had thought that he knew Iron Man pretty well. They'd spent a fair amount of time together in the Avengers Mansion even in their down time, enough for Steve to honestly call him friend as well as teammate. He'd thought that Iron Man's identity couldn't make much of an impact on they way he thought of the man. Steve snorted softly at that thought.
"Steve?" the Wasp said softly.
He looked up at the Wasp and Giant-Man, seated across from him. He hadn't shared his discovery with them; it wasn't his place to tell them, even if both he and Thor knew now. He did hope, though, that Tony would choose to tell them soon. "Sorry," he said aloud. "Just lost in thought."
"He'll be okay," the Wasp said, smiling. "Iron Man is strong. And the injury isn't life threatening. They're just doing skin grafts."
Steve managed a smile for her, but he couldn't feel casual about it. Any surgery put a strain on the body, and strain was a tricky thing for someone with a heart problem. And, from what Tony had said, his heart was in worse shape than anyone else still walking around could claim. Too much damage and not enough power for a regular pacemaker, he'd said. What was he doing running around in a tin suit, fighting super-villains?
And that, Steve told himself, is why he never told you about it. He doesn't want pity. He doesn't want you to make allowances for him. He wants you to be able to rely on his strength. He wants you to trust him. To value him as a teammate.
A doctor approached the waiting area and everyone seated in the uncomfortable plastic chairs turned to look at him. The doctor came straight over to Steve, Giant-Man, and the Wasp. Steve supposed, wryly, that there wasn't much question which of the people in the waiting room were there for Iron Man.
"My name is Doctor Hamilton," he said, nodding politely at the three of them. "I operated on Mr...ah, on Iron Man."
"Doctor," Steve acknowledge, polite but tense. "How is he?"
"The procedures went very smoothly," Dr. Hamilton reassured them. "We had to perform several skin grafts, but Iron Man should make a complete recovery. He'll come out from under the anesthetic in an hour or two; you'll be able to see him then."
"Thank you, doctor," the Wasp said warmly.
Dr. Hamilton smiled at her. "I'm glad to be able to help you folks," he said simply.
If Tony had been under general anesthetic, how could they be sure his identity had been protected? "I hate to ask, Doctor," Steve said. "But Iron Man's identity--"
"Thor brought in a trusted associate of his, Dr. Don Blake, to assist," Doctor Hamilton said. "Thor wasn't able to stay, himself, but he informed us quite clearly that Dr. Blake had his complete confidence."
Steve relaxed a little. He didn't know this Dr. Blake, but if Thor trusted him, Steve was sure Iron Man's identity had been protected. "Thank you," he said to Dr. Hamilton. "I know working on people like us must be complicated."
Dr. Hamilton smiled wryly. "It does present some unique challenges," he said. "I need to give someone instructions for Iron Man's recovery, but I have no idea who would be appropriate under these circumstances. Normally I would inform a relative or spouse, but I'm not sure how to handle confidentiality in this situation."
"You can tell me," Steve volunteered. "It was necessary for Iron Man to reveal his identity to me when he was injured; I don't think he would object to me being briefed on his recovery."
"And you are the Avengers' current chairperson," Giant-Man said. "It makes sense for you to take responsibility."
The doctor hesitated for a long moment. "All right," he said eventually. "Captain, if we could speak privately?"
After the doctor had filled him in, Steve made his way to the recovery room. Now that they knew Iron Man was going to be okay, the Wasp and Giant-Man had decided to go home. Steve knew they'd be back to visit before Tony was released, but right now they needed some downtime. He should probably go back to the mansion to shower and eat something, too, but instead he talked his way into the recovery room and stood looking down at Tony.
Tony looked more than a little ridiculous, dressed in helmet, chest plate, and hospital scrubs. He also didn't look nearly as badly injured as Steve knew he was. The burns on his arms and legs had been cleaned and bandaged, but they hadn't been serious. The worst damage was covered up by the chest plate, hinted at only by the bandages peeking out at the shoulders.
Somehow, Tony looked more like a robot lying in the hospital bed than he ever had in battle. Even completely encased in armor, Iron Man's personality and body language had always come through clearly. But now...he was so still. Steve could hardly even see him breathing and for once the armor truly did seem blank and expressionless. Without thinking, Steve's fingers found the inside of Tony's wrist, pressing against the pulse point. Tony's heart beat steadily under Steve's fingers.
It was a long time before Steve could make himself leave.
Steve knew he was hovering, but he couldn't seem to help himself. The doctors had wanted to keep Iron Man in hospital for at least another day, but they had agreed, with reservations, that he'd be more comfortable if he didn't have to wear the helmet continuously. So Tony had retreated to Avengers Mansion to recover, a far more comfortable locale than the apartment he kept at Stark Industries.
It also meant that he'd reluctantly revealed his identity to Giant-Man and the Wasp. Steve couldn't help but be glad of that; he hadn't been looking forward to keeping secrets from his teammates, though he'd have done it if Tony had asked him to. They'd reciprocated with their own identities and maybe it was just Steve, but he felt that the demonstration of trust had brought the whole team closer together.
Which was a good thing, really, but if there'd been more distance between them, Steve was sure he'd have been able to resist the urge to...to fuss over Tony. But he lived at the Mansion, and between the physical and emotional closeness and the responsibility entrusted to him when the doctor instructed him in Tony's recovery, Steve found himself wandering through whatever room Tony was occupying every ten minutes or so.
On his third pass through the library, Tony looked up, set aside the scientific journal he'd been reading, and waved Steve to take the armchair across from him. "If you can't stand to let me out of your sight for an hour," Tony said dryly, "I'd rather you stayed."
"Sorry," Steve said sheepishly, sitting. "I know you've been in worse shape and come through it okay. It's not so much that I'm worried as it is that I'm still trying to put Iron Man and Tony Stark together in my mind."
"Are the two really that different?" Tony asked, raising his eyebrows. "I don't go to that much effort to act differently in the armor versus out of it."
"It's not your behavior that's tripping me up," Steve said. "It's my assumptions. I-- You've got so much going on in your life. Why put it all on the line to do this?" Steve waved at the Mansion.
"This is more important," Tony said simply. Steve shouldn't have been surprised, but he was. He hadn't thought Tony could so easily dismiss all he'd accomplished. "But I'm betting you'd like a more complete answer than that," Tony added after a moment.
It was answer enough, for all its simplicity, but Steve wasn't about to turn down more information. "If you don't mind," he said.
"I was overseas, witnessing a demonstration of one of my newest weapon designs," Tony began. The story wasn't terribly long, but Steve found himself absorbed regardless. Tony himself seemed to forget his audience after just a few moments. Absorbed in his memories, his grief for Professor Yinsen, his bitter satisfaction at his victory over the man who'd imprisoned them both, and his pride in Iron Man's later deeds showed clearly in his expression.
"I never would have guessed," Steve said when the story wound down. It was a story of Tony Stark's self-discovery as much as it was of Iron Man's creation.
Tony blinked and focused on Steve again, a wry smile curving his lips. "I originally came up with the idea of Iron Man being my bodyguard to provide an excuse for him to frequently appear wherever I am," he said. "But I find having an official position like that leads people to assume that his origin is prosaic, as if I created a job description and advertised for the position. It helps keep the identities separate in people's minds."
"Any no one else knows the truth?" Steve asked.
A shadow passed over Tony's face. Steve wondered if he knew how clearly his emotions showed on his face; he might be used to letting the helmet mask his reactions. Maybe, hopefully, he was just comfortable right now.
"Happy Hogan knows," Tony said, answering Steve's question. "Though I'd take that knowledge from him, if I could."
Steve raised his eyebrows. "Don't you trust him?"
Tony waved a dismissive hand. "Of course I do," he said. "But knowing that Tony Stark and Iron Man are the same person has put him in danger far too many times. I chose this life; he didn't."
Steve could sympathize with that. Part of the reason he'd had such a hard time dating was because just being seen with him was often enough to put a civilian in the line of fire. He couldn't let that happen. But... "He chooses to help," Steve pointed out. "He chooses to stay with you, despite the dangers."
"I think Happy feels responsible for me," Tony said. He shook his head. "I've tried telling him I can take care of myself, but he just ignores me."
Given the way Steve had been reorganizing his memories over the past couple of days, he wasn't sure he didn't agree with Happy. He suspected Tony had gone into battle injured, never mind coming out injured, far more often than the rest of them knew. But Steve didn't say anything; now wasn't the time for that conversation.
"Do you ever wonder what your life might have been like if you'd never become Iron Man?" he asked instead.
"I don't have to wonder," Tony said. "I know."
Steve could feel his brow wrinkle. "How can you know?"
Tony snorted. "I know myself," he said dryly. "I was smart, but careless. Or maybe I just thought I was invincible. When I wasn't working, I was looking for something exciting. By the time I caught that shrapnel in the chest I was pretty well established on my path in life. I'd have just kept going in that direction until it killed me, one way or another."
"I imagine you get your fill of excitement these days," Steve commented.
Tony flashed him a sudden grin. "You'd be surprised." He paused and quirked an eyebrow. "Then again, maybe you wouldn't. You spend even more time in costume than I do. You can't tell me you don't enjoy it."
"I like knowing I'm helping people," Steve allowed. "I like getting people like the Mandarin or Baron Zemo off the street, even if only for awhile."
"Oh, come on," Tony urged. "I'm not saying you'd ever pick a fight just for the fun of it, but aren't there ever times when your blood is pumping and adrenaline is making your senses extra sharp and clear, and everything is working right, every kick or punch is connecting, and the bad guy is going down and you wish it could last just a little longer?"
Steve found himself smiling a little despite himself. "Okay, maybe there are times..."
Tony grinned and laughed. "I knew it."
"I was physically frail for so long," Steve said contemplatively, "sometimes it hits me all over again how much of a miracle it is for me to be strong now."
Tony tilted his head. "I occasionally forget that we've known of you as Captain America longer than you've actually been Captain America. Almost sixty years of time, but only about five or six years of lived experience."
"It's just as well," Steve said, smiling. "I'm not ready to be eighty years old yet."
"Hey, you're a pretty well preserved eighty," Tony returned. "At this rate, you might live forever."
Steve shuddered. "Who wants to live forever?"
Tony's eyebrows rose. "A lot of people. How many of the people we've fought as Avengers have been after exactly that?"
"I wonder sometimes if anyone who wants to live forever has to end up a villain," Steve said. "How could anyone who really cares about people stand to see them get sick and age and die around them?"
"Thor is immortal," Tony pointed out
"Thor is immortal by nature," Steve pointed out. "He didn't choose that. Besides, he's a god; you can't apply the same standards."
"Now that's one thing I didn't bargain on when I strapped on the armor," Tony said. "I wasn't completely sure any god existed."
"And now?" Steve asked curiously.
"It's pretty hard to argue with Thor's patent reality," Tony said dryly.
"That wasn't quite what I meant."
"I know," Tony said. "But I was a scientist first. That's how I think. Magic and myths still make me want to twitch."
"Most people find the idea that there's something out there," Steve waved a hand, "that's greater than us comforting."
"There is something out there that's greater than any individual," Tony said. "Humanity. People. Life. Consciousness. Why do we need something 'greater' than that?"
Steve found himself smiling. "It depends on the person, I suppose..."
Just over a week after Tony had been injured, Nick Fury called Avengers Mansion to let them know that he'd decided to release a couple of the captured A.I.M. agents in hopes that they'd lead SHIELD back to their headquarters and did the Avengers want in on the operation, since they'd captured them in the first place?
"Have you informed Mr. Stark?" Steve asked Fury, frowning into the monitor. "It was his work that was targeted." Tony hadn't said anything and Steve couldn't imagine he'd fail to mention a chance at rooting out another A.I.M. cell, especially one that was intent on one of his own inventions.
Fury snorted, biting down on his cigar. "Stark is incommunicado at some resort in South America."
Steve blinked. A resort in South America? He'd seen Tony in the kitchen, at lunch, not two hours ago. He couldn't have caught a plane since then. Steve very nearly opened his mouth to inform Fury of this before he realized, with a bit of a jolt, that of course Tony Stark couldn't be seen with his current injuries and would have put out a suitable cover story.
"I know, you'd think the man would be a little more concerned with his security after a large scale assault on his labs," Fury said when Steve's moment of disorientation drew the pause out a little long. "You folks got the foot soldiers, not the mastermind, which means a follow up attack is a good bet, but I guess when you've got his kind of cash you don't worry so much."
"I'm sure Mr. Stark is confident his people can handle the situation," Steve protested.
"His people and the Avengers," Fury said. "Listen, you want in or not?"
"In," Steve said firmly. "When are you releasing the A.I.M. personnel?"
"An hour ago," Fury said, smirking slightly. "I'm sending you the brief on the operation; meet my people at the coordinates in an hour." He signed off without bothering to say goodbye.
Steve shook his head, but printed out four copies of the file Fury had sent along and went to find the others. He found all of them in the living room, where Hank and Jan were trying to explain The X-Files to Thor. The Asgardian looked puzzled, though that might have been because Tony kept interrupting to poke holes in the premise of the episodes Hank and Jan kept trying to use as examples.
"They're meant to be entertaining, not scientifically rigorous!" Jan was saying, exasperated, as Steve stepped into the room.
"I'm not asking them to be scientifically rigorous," Tony argued. "Just to open a basic textbook every now and then. It'd take all of ten minutes of research to avoid some of the worst mistakes."
"Hank, Jan, Thor," Steve said as he stepped into the room. "We've got less than an hour to meet up with SHIELD if we want to take a shot at A.I.M." He handed the three of them copies of the briefing papers.
Tony frowned and snatched the sheaf of papers out of Jan's hands. "Is there some reason you didn't include me in that comment?" he asked, skimming over the papers as he spoke.
"You're still recovering," Steve pointed out.
"I'm recovered enough," Tony said, not looking up from reading.
"The doctors said to avoid major stretching or trauma for at least two weeks or you could lose the skin grafts," Steve argued, setting his jaw. "Stretching is inevitable in a fight and unless you've rebuilt the armor to withstand that chemical--"
"I know what my weaknesses are," Tony snapped, looking up to glare at Steve. "And I know what my limits are. I can handle this."
"We don't need you on this one, Tony," Steve said sharply. Tony recoiled marginally and Steve cursed himself for how that had come out. "We can afford the time for you to get back to full strength."
A strange shadow crept into Tony's eyes. "This is my fight. They're after my technology," he argued.
Steve found himself frowning, trying to figure out what Tony wasn't saying. "You asked for our help," he pointed out.
"I asked you to help me, not to sideline me!" Tony said. "I can still pull my weight."
"I don't doubt it," Steve said. "And if we were going after the Mandarin or Doom, we wouldn't be having this argument. But the four of us can handle A.I.M. Give yourself a chance to heal."
"Some injuries never heal completely," Tony shot back.
"This one will!"
Tony just glared at him. And he had, Steve realized, seen the rendezvous coordinates. If he decided to just show up regardless, he could. How on Earth was he going to convince Tony to sit this one out? He'd only been digging himself into a deeper hole every time he mentioned Tony's injury.
"Tony," Steve said finally, "I am looking forward to fighting alongside you again more than you can know. But I am asking you, please sit this one out. I swear that we will call at the first hint we've gotten in over our heads."
Steve could almost see Tony wavering. Finally his shoulders slumped and he looked away from Steve. "Fine," he said dropping the briefing papers on the coffee table. He turned and left the room without another word.
"I think I screwed that up," Steve said, sighing.
Jan put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "I think he's worried we're going to ask him to leave the team, now that we know about his heart."
"But I didn't say anything about that!" Steve protested. "The damage is done there and he's been working around it for years. He isn't any less capable just because we know about it now."
Jan shrugged. "From his point of view, we just found out and now we're shutting him out of missions."
"He's got another injury," Steve said. Then he sighed again. "Not that he cares about that," he said wryly.
Jan just smiled. "We better get going," she said. "We don't want to be late for the rendezvous, do we?"
They headed for the Quinjet hanger, but Steve couldn't help glancing over his shoulder as he ducked inside, as if he expected to see Tony watching them leave. He'd have to try to explain when they got back. He hated thinking that a man who'd been at Steve's shoulder during some of his most desperate moments believed he wasn't valued just because of his heart.
His heart, Steve thought, was the most valuable part of him.
It turned out that A.I.M.'s base of operations wasn't even remotely local. SHIELD and the Avengers trailed them for more than a day before they finally arrived back at their headquarters. After a quick meeting to confirm their plan of attack, their combined forces overwhelmed the base and captured the latest Scientist Supreme and just about--but not quite--all the scientists and technicians.
The entire operation went like clockwork, but Steve still kept expecting Iron Man to show up in the middle of it. He might have promised to wait for their call, but they'd been out of contact for more than 24 hours. That was enough to fray anyone's nerves.
So when Steve got back to the Mansion, he was anxious to check in with Tony. He looked in the communications room first. Then the living rooms. Then the labs. Then Tony's bedroom. The man was nowhere to be found.
Had Tony gone after them after all? Had he only just left, or had something happened to him? Steve went back to the communications room and checked for messages, but there were none. Finally, desperately, Steve went looking for Jarvis. He found the butler tidying up in the library. "Jarvis, do you know where Tony is?" Steve asked, an anxious edge in his voice.
"Mister Stark became somewhat restless, sir," Jarvis said, pausing with a pair of books in his hands. "I believe he arranged to have dinner with a young woman whose name I'm afraid I did not catch."
Steve frowned. If Tony was supposed to be at some resort in South America, how could be afford to be seen in public? And who was this woman? She hadn't come here looking for him, had she? "You weren't introduced to the woman?" he asked Jarvis.
"Mister Stark picked her up," Jarvis said, with a faint air of disapproval.
Steve could sympathize. Should Tony even be driving? Was that too much stretching for the skin grafts on his chest? "Did he mention when he'd be home?"
Well, Steve hadn't really expected he would have. "Thank you, Jarvis," Steve said, and left the library. He showered and changed and went down to the kitchen and put together a late dinner for himself and the whole time he couldn't stop repeatedly glancing alternately at the clock and the door that led to the Mansion's garage.
Nine o'clock came and went. Then ten. Steve flipped through the channels on the TV, only occasionally stopping to check the time again. As the clock edged towards eleven o'clock he started to wonder if Tony had 'arranged' for more than dinner.
Steve scowled. God knew Tony wasn't in any shape for that. How would he explain the armor, anyway? How did he explain the armor to the lovers he'd had since his heart had been injured? Steve was certain there had been at least a couple. He checked the time again. Surely Tony would be home soon. Surely.
The door to the garage finally swung open, almost silently, at 11:17 p.m. Tony's footsteps echoed slightly on the hardwood floor of the hall. Steve rose from the couch and crossed the living room as Tony walked past the doorway and headed for the stairs.
"Tony," Steve said, stepping into the hall.
Tony didn't jump, but he did turn sharply. "Steve," he said. His expression relaxed marginally. "You're back. How did it go?"
"Smoothly," Steve said shortly. "What were you doing out?"
A faint line appeared between Tony's eyes. "Is there a reason I shouldn't be out?"
"Aside from the fact that you're supposed to be in South America right now?" Steve asked.
"It wasn't that hard to create an appropriate paper trail for my return," Tony said. "I do have some experience at protecting my identity."
"But not at protecting yourself, apparently," Steve said.
Tony bristled. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Should you really be dating in your condition?" Even as the words came out of his mouth, Steve wanted to snatch them back. Hadn't he learned his lesson before the mission?
"I think I can handle turning a steering wheel and raising a knife and fork," Tony said sharply.
"I'm not worried about you raising a knife and fork," Steve said. "I'm worried about what comes after that." My God, what the hell was he saying? Tony's personal life was none of his business!
"What, you think I went to bed with her?" Tony asked incredulously.
"Tony--" Steve began. He needed to get this conversation back under control somehow.
Tony cut him off. "I don't want to hear it, Steve. I'm not so stupid as to risk setting back my recovery for a little casual sex. I'm back late because, even if I wasn't screwing around, I needed people to think I was." He snorted. "Tony Stark has a reputation to maintain."
"I'm just worried you'll overdo it," Steve tried to explain.
Tony stared at him, pressing his lips tightly together for a moment. "Do you seriously think I'm that fragile? Have I lost your respect that completely?"
"Of course not!" Steve protested. Why couldn't he seem to have a normal conversation with Tony lately?
"Maybe Tony Stark never had your respect at all," Tony said tightly. "Maybe it was all Iron Man. I'm sorry if you're disappointed with the man inside the suit, Steve, but we can't all be the pinnacle of physical human perfection. Some of us have to make do with the hand we were dealt." He turned his back on Steve and stalked away, quickly jogging up the stairs when he reached them.
Steve walked slowly over to the stairs, but he sat down on the last couple of steps instead of climbing them.
He just couldn't seem to say the right thing to Tony lately. Every sentence came out so wrong! He hadn't had this problem before he'd known that Tony and Iron Man were the same person. Heck, he hadn't had this problem for the first couple of days afterward, either.
But the more time he'd spent with Tony, the more he'd started to worry over his injury. Had he started thinking of Tony as fragile? As someone to be protected? God knew the man needed taking care of; his reaction to anything that might impair his ability to work seemed to be to push himself twice as hard as he would have if he'd been healthy. But did that desire mean he'd lost respect for Tony's strength?
Steve rubbed at his forehead. He couldn't quite figure out how he'd stumbled into this quagmire. He just wanted to Tony be well again, to be happy, to smile and laugh. He wanted to know what it would be like to fight alongside Iron Man now that the man didn't have to hide so much from Steve. He wanted to see the sly smirk he heard in Iron Man's voice sometimes, wanted to share the amusement when Tony, as Iron Man, referred to himself in the third person. He wanted to rediscover his friend all over again, he wanted to be the one having long talks over endless dinners, he wanted...he wanted...
Steve groaned softly to himself as all the pieces fell into place. He wanted too much, was what he wanted. If there was one thing that everyone knew about Tony Stark, it was that he was an inveterate womanizer. Although...possibly not as much as most people thought, given his comment just now about having a reputation to maintain. But even if that was the case, he'd still never hinted at the slightest interest in men.
Shaking his head at himself, Steve slowly rose to his feet and climbed the stairs, heading for his own room. He paused at his door and looked down the hallway towards Tony's room. He hated to go to bed with this argument, this tension, between them. There was a faint light leaking out from beneath Tony's door.
After a brief hesitation, Steve turned down the hallway and went to Tony's door, where he knocked softly. There was a pause, just long enough for Steve to begin to worry that Tony wouldn't answer, before he called for Steve to come in. Steve turned the doorknob and stepped into the room almost nervously. His last couple of conversations with Tony had self-destructed and he desperately needed this one to go right.
"Steve," Tony acknowledged, voice cool. He was sitting up in bed, wearing a pair of pajamas and holding a book in his hands.
"Tony," Steve said. "I...came to apologize. I'm sorry. I swear to you, I don't think of you as fragile. Everything I want to say keeps coming out wrong. I just," Steve paused trying to make sure he said this right. "I worry about the people I care about," he said finally. "Sometimes more than they really need worrying about." He tried a smile. "It's just going to take me a little while to figure out how much of my mother-henning you can tolerate."
After a moment, Tony seemed to relax a little. He set the book aside and shifted over to sit on the edge of the bed. There seemed to be an implicit invitation to sit beside him, so Steve sat, too, turning his head to keep looking at Tony.
"I'm sorry about that crack about playing the hand you were dealt," Tony said.
Steve shrugged. "You were angry."
Tony snorted. "And scared," he admitted.
"Scared?" Steve asked, surprised. "Of what?"
Tony looked away from him. "Disappointing you."
Steve blinked in surprise. "How could you possibly disappoint me?"
"Let me count the ways," Tony said dryly. "But for the moment, let's just focus on the fact that Iron Man isn't as invincible as you thought he was."
"I hate to break it to you," Steve said, smiling a little. "But I never thought Iron Man was invincible, no matter who was in the armor." Tony managed a smile, but he didn't seem particularly reassured. Steve cast about for a way to get across what he felt. "Tony," he began, reaching out and placing a hand on Tony's arm, "before I knew Iron Man's identity, I didn't think discovering it could change the way I thought about him. You."
"But it did," Tony said bleakly.
Steve squeezed his arm gently. "Not the way you're thinking," he said. "I knew you were courageous, but not the depth of your courage. I knew you were dedicated, but not the depth of your dedication. I knew you were driven, but I didn't know what drove you. I knew you had vision, but not how passionate you were about it." Tony was staring at him, wide eyed. Steve hoped that was a good sign. "I knew pieces of you, but I had no idea that they could be put together to make such an...an amazing person." Steve could feel his cheeks heating a little, but he forced himself to finish. "I know I've been over protective, but it's not because I think you can't handle whatever the world throw at you. It's because I hate to think of the world without you."
"I hope you'll forgive me," Tony said, an odd light in his eyes, "if I'm reading this wrong."
Then he leaned in and kissed Steve.
Surprise stilled Steve only for a moment. He hadn't meant for Tony to read so much into his words, but he couldn't regret it. The kiss was sweet and warm and slow, each of them exploring the other. Steve let himself sink deeper into it, savoring the flush of warmth that spread through his body.
But, though Steve would have been happy for it to go on forever, they had to part eventually. Tony's eyes, he discovered as he pulled back a bit, had darkened a shade. Steve found himself momentarily breathless at the sight. "I didn't think you'd want that."
Tony smiled slightly. "I've wanted that almost since the day we met." He leaned in and kissed Steve again, quickly this time. "I've wanted more than that."
Steve could feel his heart quicken at the words. "We'll have to see what we can do about that," he said. He paused. "After you've healed."
Tony growled in frustration, but Steve could feel him smiling through the kiss that followed.