The first time Tony meets Steve Rogers, he's sitting in his room in the Avengers mansion, looking lost and alone.
It's confusing: Tony opens the door, walks in like he owns the place, (and he does) opens his mouth to demand that Cap hand over his shield so he can study it - and there's a quiet squeak from the bed, and there's Steve Rogers, hiding behind a sketchpad.
For a second Tony thinks that Steve's scared of him, but that can't be right, because he's been living and fighting with Captain America for at least a month now, and Steve's always going, always the team leader, always the brave face, always the Captain, regardless of the circumstances.
(He's joked about this, wondered if there really was a human in there under that soldier, but there's the other piece of it: Steve is real, is too intense not to be real.)
"Steve?" He asks, stopped a foot inside Steve's room, and he can read naked fear in Steve's eyes and pale face.
"You're," how does such a big man make himself look so small? "Wasn't that door locked?"
"Was it?" Tony glances back at the door, then shrugs, returning his attention to Steve.
"He said - " Steve's eyes are flicking from the door to Tony, and for a terrifying moment Tony knows this is an imposter, that someone's impersonating his teammate - then Steve straightens, lowering the sketchpad and it's him again. "What do you want, Tony?"
"What was that?" Tony asks, and Steve gets off the bed, staring him down.
"That was none of your business, Tony."
"It looked like you were someone else. Like an impersonator," Tony says, flatly. Because if it is - he can't overlook it. It's one of those awful situations where he can't trust a teammate.
"If you want to take me in for verification, we can do that." Steve says, low. "But it's me."
Tony almost demands an explanation then and there, but - and it's probably because of the naked fear he saw - he backs off. "I came to borrow your shield."
Steve stares at him for a long moment, then collects it from where it's propped against his bed, and holds it out, wordlessly.
"Thanks." Tony says.
"Don't modify it," Steve says, and Tony flashes him a grin, relaxing slightly.
"Now why would I want to make your shield better than it's ever been?"
"Right, right, I'm just going to study it." Tony waves a hand and heads out, whistling.
He doesn't forget what he saw, though.
The next time he sees something off about Steve is four days later, during a post-battle victory party. They're all gathered in a good bar, out of costume, and while Tony's staring at the bottom of his glass and can't decide how responsible he wants to be, Steve's at his elbow, engaged with his basket of wings.
"Hey," he says, turning in his seat to talk to Steve, and stops.
Steve is disassembling a wing, tearing meat from the bone, and there's a quiet air of desperation around the act. Like he's focusing on the food instead of anything around him for his own protection.
Steve looks at him with wide blue eyes, and Tony immediately thinks of last time, and he catches Steve's wrist when he moves to stand up.
"What's going on?"
"It's...he's exhausted. If he doesn't get a few minutes..."
Tony has no idea what that means. "That doesn't make sense."
"Five minutes," Steve asks, picking up another wing instead of leaving. "Everything will be okay in five minutes."
Tony stares at him, almost asks something, but Clint bumps into him and spills beer down the back of his (expensive) shirt, and it's over five minutes before he can re-focus on the Captain, and by then -
Steve shakes his head when he goes to order another drink, and sidesteps his questions with his usual ease.
Once is a mistake, twice is coincidence, but three times: he finds Steve sketching on the roof one night, but it's not Steve, it's the scared man with bright blue eyes who doesn't make sense at all.
"Who are you?" He demands the moment he realizes this.
There's a soft meep, and the sketchbook goes up like a shield.
Tony crosses his arms and does his best to look threatening. If it works for Fury, it can work for him here.
"I'm, I'm Steve."
"No, you're not."
"No," Steve pauses, then lowers the sketchpad. "I'm Steve. You spend most of your time with the Captain." There's something of a defiant air to him now, as if he's daring Tony to contradict him.
Tony has a long look at him, making sense of the facts before him. If what Steve's saying is true - assuming he's not an imposter - then he's working with a split personality. He's been working with a split personality.
"How's that work?" He asks, finally. He's not sure how split personalities work, and he's not a psychologist - or a psychiatrist - but he's out to find out how Steve works, or how he thinks he works. Then, depending on what he hears, he can decide if he's letting Fury know about this or not.
"They wanted to make sure I wouldn't lose it," Steve says, and stops. "Actually, that's classified. I think...what you need to know is that the Captain's been handling the future and it's exhausting for both of us when he's in front too much...but we haven't had time until now to stop and let me take over. There's always someone around, and we're not supposed to..." He runs a hand through his hair, looking both frustrated and uncomfortable.
Tony has a seat, processing this.
"Fury hasn't mentioned it," Steve says quietly, slumping his shoulders. He goes quiet, and Tony studies his shoes instead of Steve, still processing. It's a lot to take in. "To be honest..." since when is Steve anything but honest?, Tony thinks, but then there's this in front of him, "Neither one of us knows if anyone in command knows about the situation. It's not something we can ask about, either."
"That and it's a lot to swallow," Tony points out, looking at him again. "Captain America has...is a split personality."
"It wasn't my idea," Steve protests, and Tony tips his head back and laughs.
Oh, why not?
"I'll buy it," Tony says. "And I won't tell anyone else. I swear."
The open relief and gratitude on Steve's face almost makes Tony take back those words, but it's too late for that.
"Thank you," Steve says, completely in earnest. "I appreciate that."
"...You're welcome?" Tony tries.
Steve nods, smiling at him, awkwardly friendly, and Tony thinks he gets why the scientists of Project Rebirth did it. He can't picture this guy squashing a fly, let alone punching a Nazi, nevermind that he's built like a Norse God.
"I take it you draw," Tony asks so it doesn't turn into awkward silence hour, and that gets him a friendly smile and Steve's sketchbook.
"I was only a second year student before...before I enlisted." Steve says quietly.
"These are good," Tony says, glad he can be honest about it. Most of the sketches are still life pieces, objects he recognizes from around the mansion, but every now and then he finds bolder pieces, of people and places he doesn't know, and then he turns a page and stops.
It's a simple sketch, but the lines are clean and he recognizes who it is: Howard Stark.
He closes the sketchpad and hands it back.
"I've missed this," Steve says, gesturing to the sketchpad. "Drawing, I mean. There hasn't been much time for it until now, so what's there isn't what it could be." He looks at Tony, and ducks his head. "Do you think..."
"Think what?" Tony prompts, cautious.
"I can't..directly talk to him." Steve says, haltingly. "So...I've had some letters explaining...but..."
"You don't remember anything."
"I have flashes, but...no. I don't. So, could you help?"
Tony has trouble wrapping his head around the concept. It's not for lack of trying, but: to be out of time, to have missed all of the important moments, and the only guidance at hand are letters written by someone who's having trouble himself adjusting - Tony's taken a long time to get used to the Captain, and there are times when he wants to throttle the man, but yes. He'll help. It'd be like kicking a puppy if he didn't.
"Where do you want to start?"
"I'm hungry, actually," Steve says. "I'd sure be grateful if you could show me where the kitchen is, mister."
Exactly like kicking a puppy. Tony rises from his chair, and licks his lips.
"It's not mister," he says, and offers a hand, "I'm Tony. Tony Stark."
Steve's hand is warm, and he smiles like an innocent kid.
"I'm Steve," he says. "Steve Rogers...but I think you know that."
"We're teammates," Tony says, and he leads him to the elevator. As he waits for it, he watches Steve fumble with the sketchbook and start writing on what looks to be a half-filled page.
"What are you doing?" Tony asks, leaning over.
"I'm writing back," Steve says, focused on the paper. "I don't want him to get back and try to cover for me when I've already given up our secret."
The elevator doors open, and Steve jumps back, startled. Tony picks up his pencil and holds it out once they're in the elevator.
"Sorry, I - there's no operator in it, and that startled me."
Tony shakes his head, and taps his foot impatiently. There are a lot of thoughts going through his mind: Is he telling the truth? If yes, what's that mean for me? What should I do? Do I still need to worry about aliens? and Poor guy, he really got screwed over and Mind reading would be an interesting developmental challenge and if I cracked it, it'd help right now and I need to tweak this elevator so it goes faster and What kind of food do I show him? Were there even toasters back then?
With a ding - he'd insisted on the ding - the elevator doors open. The lights come on as Tony steps into the hallway, and the house, not to his surprise, is quiet.
"If we're lucky, they're asleep," he lets Steve know. "If we're not, we'll get ambushed in short order by Natasha. Unless she wants to eavesdrop, in which case we'll just have to assume everyone's asleep, as we're not going to see her."
"Are you serious?"
"This way to the kitchen," Tony says instead of answering that, and he stuffs his hands in his pockets along the way. Steve's following him, still scribbling on that pad, and Tony can only assume he's writing something along the lines of 'Dear Alter Ego, while I was drawing on the roof, dashing billionaire Tony Stark agreed to show me the future because the last thing I remember was being a tiny guy in the Forties. Yours, Steve Rogers.'
Something like that, anyways.
"Are you writing him a novel?" Tony asks, glancing back at Steve, and gets a sheepish smile in return.
Steve holds up the sketchpad, where he's changed pages to a blank one, and - oh, hello there.
Tony grins at Steve, far too amused to see a rough sketch of himself. It's barely started, but he'd know that face anywhere.
"I hope you don't mind?"
"Now why would I mind?" Tony asks, turning. "It's good. It looks like me. Keep doing what you're doing."
"When you're done with that, I want to see it," Tony says, and lets him into the kitchen.
It's toasters and wide-eyed wonder at microwaves from there, and Steve's halfway through his first bowl of microwaved tomato soup when things go pear-shaped.
One moment Tony's explaining - roughly - how a microwave works, the next Steve puts down his spoon and straightens in his seat and gives Tony a suspicious look.
"I know, I know, this wasn't where you left him," Tony says, and taps at the sketchpad. "If the story he was telling's true, then you should read what he wrote you before you kill me for knowing too much."
"I wouldn't kill you," Steve (he'll need to auto-correct himself from now on, this is the Captain he's talking to, not nice-guy Steve) says, picking up the sketchpad. "How much did he tell you?"
"Read it first," Tony says, and finishes his coffee.
The Captain scans it, eyes flicking over the page, then he nods. "You aren't ideal, but you're trustworthy."
"Thanks?" Tony will take that as a compliment. He puts down his empty mug, and leans forward across the table. "It's true, then."
"I'm the Captain," Cap says, and Tony knows there's an 'I'm Captain America' in there too, "He's Steve Rogers. We haven't found a balance here yet."
"You mean he doesn't know a thing about the future and hasn't seen daylight in - " He stops, frozen by Cap's glare.
"His existence is supposed to be top secret. Three people know - knew - about him. I haven't had a chance to stop and find a private place to," and he's obviously frustrated over his choice of words, "let him out. My room at SHIELD was monitored, and my room here is monitored too - don't try to defend that, Stark, all of these rooms are. So I've been running a covert operation with myself, trying to find unlikely times of day where I wouldn't be bothered or checked on - you're not paranoid enough to go over every single tape - and trying to explain what happened to him in letters."
He leans back, done with the torrent of words, and rubs his forehead.
"It's not enough," he says. "I can't find anything on any of the files relating to me that mention him, and I'm not fool enough to walk into Fury's office and explain that I'm not always Captain America."
"Then I found you out," Tony says.
"It's been a month," says Cap. "I know normal people can be on and going all the time, but I can't do that. I run down, start making mistakes - in short, I have to trade off with him eventually, and we're hitting the beginning of eventually."
"Which is why you were," Tony gestures, "At the bar."
"I didn't mean to." He sounds tired. "I probably scared him."
"You either work or sleep at this hour, as does everyone else. If Natasha's around, she's not around here playing spy. I tell Jarvis that I'm going to think, write him another letter - "
"And I decide to take a break at the wrong time."
Tony waits, watching, knowing there's an extra piece, and the Captain looks away after a minute.
"I thought he knew to call me at the first sign of anyone else."
Tony spreads his hands and grins. "I asked him who he was as a conversation starter. I think Steve figured that the jig was up."
The Captain looks across the table at him, then nods, and Tony's getting better at re-defining how he thinks of the man. Men?
"You might want to let him finish that soup." He's testing the waters, seeing what he can get away with. The warning glance Cap sends him is par for the course, and Tony can't stop the smirk. This is what he does, after all.
"If you take advantage of him," the Captain warns, stiff, "I know what you're like."
"Soup," Tony says, but he gets it. The Captain must have been told or conditioned to keep his alternate self safe, and that means he'd better be careful around Steve.
He gets up to get more coffee, and when he sits back down with a full cup, Steve's tackling the soup again.
"Thought so," Tony says before he drinks more coffee.
"When's the last time you ate? And I don't mean catching small bites, like those chicken wings, but a real meal?"
Steve stops, and puts down his spoon.
"Thought so," Tony says. "I'll probably burn them, but want some eggs?" He's thinking back: there were definitely eggs in the forties, and they were probably made in the same way, but then again: for all he knows, eggs were seen as demonic. Which would be helpful if that were true, actually: his offer would get rejected and he wouldn't have to cook eggs.
"I can make them myself, Mister St- Tony." Steve, Tony notes, is the type to carefully spoon out every last drop of soup before setting down the bowl. "Unless you have some kind of fantastic egg-cooking device?"
"I'll assume you had frying pans back then," Tony says, getting up.
"Things haven't changed that much in all these years," Steve says, collecting his bowl. "Of course we had frying pans."
"Then come here and I'll show you where the eggs are," Tony says, then stops. "Jarvis, do we even have eggs?" It's a belated thought, and if he doesn't have eggs - he won't be surprised, really. The Avengers run on coffee, cold cereal, frozen waffles and poptarts and everything else is takeout. Usually.
This is about the time a little voice pops up in the back of his mind, reminding him of the importance of a healthy diet, and it sounds like his old - original Jarvis, but he chases that thought away. He is focused. He is here and he is going to make Captain America's alter ego eggs.
"No, sir, we do not have eggs."
"Why don't we have eggs?" Tony asks, crossing his arms. "Jarvis, whether we use it or not I like having things I want at hand."
"Sir," Jarvis says, patiently, "The last time you partook of eggs in this house was over two years ago."
"They still should have been here!" Tony feels the need to raise a token protest, if only because Steve's watching.
"You were drunk, and attempted to juggle those you did not burn, sir. It seemed prudent to remove them from the premises, as you 'never eat the things anyways. The shells get everywhere', sir." Jarvis even has a voice-clip from that time, and okay, maybe the token protest was a bad idea.
"Delete that voice-clip and bring me some eggs."
Tony takes his hands off his hips and rubs his forehead, exasperated. He'd have to do something about that sarcastic streak someday but, as always, that day would not be today. He turns to Steve, offering a smile, then stops.
"What did you do?"
It's not Steve. Tony bites back a sigh.
"I had a conversation with Jarvis. About eggs."
"You looked at the ceiling and had a conversation with an invisible speaker."
"Ah...you're expecting me to apologize and explain, aren't you."
There isn't a response. There doesn't need to be.
Then Steve's back, and Tony's already deciding that he likes Steve better than the Captain. Nevermind that he's been working-and-living with the Captain for a month now.
He wonders if this is a crucial part of some alien plans or something, as there's always going to be that suspicion: that this is an elaborate trap by some supervillains.
"I'm being forced to apologize," Tony says to Steve, leaning in with a slight hunch, pretending he's sharing a secret. "The good Captain is angry that I spooked you."
"I wasn't scared," Steve says, drawing himself up. "I was surprised. You were - there's a - "
"Jarvis, say hi."
"That!" Steve says. "Is there a man in the ceiling?"
"Has he explained computers at all?" Tony asks, reminding himself to be patient.
"No," Steve says, looking curious.
Tony looks at his cup of coffee, then gets a refill. "Get a drink and sit down. This is going to take some time."
Steve gets computers. He can wrap his head around Jarvis, mostly. He's good at listening and paying attention, and Tony's half-convinced he's been taking notes in his sketchpad.
The problem, however, is how easily he spooks. Set one machine to beeping and he gets the Captain glaring at him, and by the third time he just pats Cap's arm and says, "I think that's enough for the night. The next time he goes back will be intentional. Promise."
Which leads to:
"Why are you so jumpy?" Tony asks Steve, just a little exasperated. "Nothing in here is going to bite you. Well. Except for me, but only if you ask me to."
"It's a reflex," Steve says, looking embarrassed. "Anything in the war could have been...it's saved my life a few times. He knows what to do if there's gunfire, or bombs, or..."
"Scare you, get angry Captain America, got it." Tony says. "Anyways, I need to get back to work, and I told him you'd be going back on purpose this time, so..." He makes a shooing gesture with his hands.
"I'm not going back yet. Not until I need to."
Tony looks at the stubborn set of Steve's jaw, at the defiant look in his eyes, and throws his hands up.
"Right, fine, you can watch. Unless you want to hit the roof, or...?"
"I'd like to watch you work," Steve says. "I...am right in assuming that you're talking about something I can watch?"
"Come and see," Tony says before he can think up a reason not to do this.
The Captain's been down here thrice on mission-related excursions. There hadn't been time to show off anything, and while everyone in the mansion knows that Tony spends most of his time down here, he hasn't exactly been in a very sharing and caring mood.
(Okay, he takes that back. Bruce has been down here, but that was for - not business, but a project he'd been working on. It had been nice, though nerve-wracking.)
"Wow," Steve says in an whisper, awestruck.
Tony likes Steve. He appreciates things.
"Don't touch anything," he says, making his way back to the plans he had been working on. "There's a chair there - " He points, "And if you get bored and want to go somewhere else, just ask Jarvis for directions."
"The man in the ceiling."
"Right," Tony says, but his attention is gone, lost in schematics and possibilities: he's working on a 'ghost' version of the Iron Man suit, one that would be ideal for stealth missions, and he's mostly got it, except that he can't figure out how to arm the suit without compromising the cloaking devices.
Repulsors are out, as are most conventional tools of weaponry, and from there on out he's busy.
"What is it?"
"How long are you going to be in here?"
"I'm thinking of changing the focus from offensive to defensive - some kind of acidic foam."
"Jarvis, make a note of that. That's a good idea. And I need to see the schematics for the foam defenses on the main suit."
"What is it?"
"...Are you paying attention?"
"Hm. No chance we could make this non-automatic? I'd hate to go around covered in lethal..."
"Sir," Jarvis says, and Tony only pays attention to it because Jarvis has frozen all of the available inputs, which means someone is in the kitchen upstairs and it's after dawn, which means he probably needs to at least make an appearance, so no one comes down to drag him out.
He programmed this routine in himself after Hawkeye shot him once, but that doesn't make it any less annoying.
Tony rubs his eyes and steps back from the display. He's got some designs and modifications to make to the existing defenseless Ghost Armor, but there are still tests to do and plenty of work, and he pinches himself. Coffee. Right.
There's a snore from behind him, and he whirls, instantly alert - oh.
"Steve?" He asks, cautious, taking in the sight. Steve's still sitting in that chair, (Tony knows it's moderately comfortable, he's slept in it himself, and it's got to be more comfortable if the occupant isn't using a keyboard as a pillow) head tilted to the side, arms crossed, sketchpad perched on his lap.
Tony decides then and there that he could sit and watch this for a bit, but apparently Steve's a light sleeper: he wakes at the sound of his name, blinking, and sits up.
"I wasn't asleep, was I?" Steve asks.
"It's morning, and I need to make at least a token appearance upstairs so the rest of the team doesn't decide to drag me out with drastic measures again. Care to join me?"
"It's not up to me," Steve says, smiling a bit sadly. "I appreciated this," he gestures around him, and is gone before Tony can say anything else.
"Are you sure we can't tell the rest of the team?" Tony asks the Captain immediately.
"Very," says the Captain, and he gets up. "...You haven't slept, have you?"
"It's called coffee," Tony says, making a face. He heads for the door, stretching - he'll need a shower, and maybe some sleep, but he's good to go for the day. He turns, thinking that over. "Hey, Cap, want me to jinx the day?"
"You're no fun," Tony says, and sees them both out of his workshop. "Did I mention that my latest armor might be poisonous to the touch?"
"Would the poison be rendered ineffective by water?"
"What? Yes. Probably."
"I'll wash my gloves after flight."
"You really lack a sense of humor early in the morning."
"Tony," Steve stops in the hallway, and turns to face him. "I have a lot on my mind, and you're one more complication."
Tony nods, restraining a sigh. It's not just what he discovered last night: the Captain has an almost pathological need to keep the team safe and intact, and he gets it, he does. Relations between them had improved when Tony had figured out that he'd probably turn as rabid as Steve (the Captain, he self-corrects) does if someone were threatening something he truly cared about. (The armor, Pepper, Rhodey, Stark Industries - a small list comes to mind.)
Here's another piece of it: Steve.
It's not entirely reassuring to realize that the Captain has a priority over the Avengers. It's even less reassuring to realize that he's technically a threat to that priority.
"They will notice if you stop calling me Steve," the Captain points out after a moment.
"So I'll tell them we had an argument." Tony says. "That's - "
"Not if you want to excuse spending time with me."
"I don't need to excuse anything to anyone," Tony says, but he relents. "I'll call you Steve."
Even though it feels wrong already. This isn't Steve in front of him, not anymore.
Tony usually likes how his mind works. He wakes up with ideas, lets it run free and only rarely has to chain his focus down to get work done. It's usually an eccentric thing that has good or interesting ideas, after all.
This time, however.
He's supposed to be figuring out how to integrate poisons into the ghost armor, or how to improve the design of Hawkeye's bow, or work on the thousand and one projects he's got going.
He's not supposed to find his thoughts returning to Steve, and he's not supposed to spend minutes at a stretch just sitting and thinking about Project Rebirth.
"Jarvis?" He asks, giving up on himself and leaning back in his chair. "Bring me everything you can find on Project Rebirth."
There's a pause, and Tony grits his teeth. He probably shouldn't have said everything, and here's why it's difficult to find anything important relating to projects like this: there's just too much information out there, too much speculation from the internet, and even with that pesky classified status, it's going to be an utter pain to sort through the mass of potentially useful documents.
"A more specific query would be of use, sir," Jarvis says.
"The mental stuff," Tony says, crossing his fingers. "Anything you can find relating to the psychology angle."
"Yes, sir. Working," Jarvis says, and Tony groans. That's still too broad a topic, then.
"Okay. Jarvis. Keep working on that, but put a higher priority on this: see if you can't find anything relating to Steve Rogers having some kind of mental illness. Or mental conditioning."
"Just do it," Tony snaps. "And keep your opinions to yourself."
There's silence after that, then a short list appears on his computer. Very short: there are only two files on it.
Tony waits fifteen seconds. Nothing else is added to the list.
"Is this it?"
"I am still working, sir," Jarvis says. "I suggest you read those, as they originated from the uploaded archives of Mister Stark."
He means: these have been sitting around in Tony's computers, waiting to be unearthed.
Tony remembers his father's involvement with Project Rebirth with a jolt, and leans forward, opening first one file and then the other.
"I found something you're interested in," Tony says by way of greeting. It's late afternoon, he doesn't care where the rest of the team is, and he's found Steve doing push-ups in the gym.
The Captain, he auto corrects.
"Tell me," he says, still doing push-ups.
"It's something I have to show you," Tony says. "Come downstairs." He half expects to be denied, for the Captain to ignore him, but Cap gets up and follows him out without a word.
"He didn't think you were dead," Tony says when they're halfway down the stairs. "There's a letter."
Tony doesn't stop and turn around and explain.
"Tony - "
"I said I'd show you," Tony says. "Besides, it's meant for..." He keys open the door to the workshop, and lets them in. "It was addressed to your better half," he finishes once the door is shut behind Cap.
"Then he can read it," and when Tony turns, it's Steve.
"The letter's over here," Tony says, sitting at his computer. "Half of it's an apology, would you believe that?"
"Letter?" Steve asks, and when Tony looks, he's clearly lost. "Ah...excuse me, I think..."
"No," Tony says. "You're supposed to be here. There's a letter for you."
"But who would - "
"Just read it," Tony says, and the monitor tilts itself so Steve can read it from where he's standing.
Tony watches as Steve goes through several shades of emotion, and doesn't try to decipher any of it. The gist of the letter had been 'If you're reading this, then I'm probably dead', 'I'm sorry' for a whole host of things (not finding him sooner, not getting a chance to show him places that meant nothing to Tony, for creating the Captain in the first place) and sentimental things that made Tony uncomfortable to read.
"There's another one," Tony says, once Steve's had more than enough time to read and reread it. "For Cap. Do you want to look it over - "
"No! I mean, no, that's his..." Steve trails to a stop. "You're Howard's son."
"That took you how long?" Tony asks, looking back at the screen. "I found these in some of his older files - they were originally handwritten, I probably chucked them with the rest of his things after everything was done being scanned in - what?"
"He - helped me adjust," Steve says, haltingly. "To the Captain."
"That's great," Tony says flatly. "As I was about to say, there's a third file in with these, and I can't crack it. He wrote it in a cipher of some kind, and I wanted to find out if you...it's a long shot. Maybe you'll know something that can help me decode it."
"If you can't decode it, how do you know it's related to me?"
"It was in the same file as the letters, and has the initials 'S.R.' stamped on top of it. Oh - the letters were in code, too, but nothing fancy enough to keep Jarvis out."
Tony nods, and opens up the other paper. He'd scanned everything in himself several years back out of a misplaced sense of responsibility, and had been thorough. Both sides of the paper are clear and legible, and the content is a cipher of letters and numbers. What's weird, though, is that it looks like he wrote it with colored pencils, swapping out colors every few words(?).
Steve nods, leaning in.
"I can't make heads or tails of it." Tony says, privately peeved about that. It's one thing to be presented with a puzzle that he can't solve, and another thing altogether to be outsmarted by his dad.
Steve leans in over his shoulder, putting a hand on Tony's shoulder to balance himself and Tony reaches out to flick the monitor, which jolts before tilting at the right angle for Steve again.
"Pay attention," he mutters.
"I don't know," Steve says after a minute, thoughtful. "Do you think you could make a replica of this? Something I can..."
"Print it out? Sure. Jarvis, chop off the initials and print a copy for Steve here."
"That's still spooky," Steve says quietly, grip tightening on Tony's shoulder as the printer whirs to life.
Tony doesn't respond to that, passing the paper over instead. "If you need more copies, I can make them. But don't let this start floating around. If it's - "
"I understand, Tony," Steve says, brow furrowing. "I'm ignorant, not stupid."
"I didn't say anything about that!"
"I know I've needed a lot of explanations that seem basic to you, but that doesn't extend to all areas." There's an almost eerie flash of the confident attitude of the Captain, a stubborn set to his jaw that Tony's seen before.
Tony raises his hands, turning the chair to face Steve. "I didn't say anything."
Steve gives him a level look, then returns to scanning the page.
"...Right," Tony says a minute later. "No chance you'll let Cap read the other letter?"
Steve looks at him, then nods, stiffly.
"What's it like?" Tony asks Cap, the moment it's him. It's half a stalling tactic and half genuine curiosity. He's not ready for Cap to read the other letter, and he's not eager to explain what the Captain missed.
"Switching," Tony says.
The Captain looks at the paper in his hands, looks at Tony, then reaches out and tugs at his sleeve. "Something like that. Now, what's this?"
It's ridiculous, but it helps. Tony cracks a grin, pats Cap's shoulder, and says, "That's not the letter you're supposed to read." He's getting better at blinking and having an entirely different person standing in front of him. "Here. There was a second letter, addressed to you."
He calls up the other letter, which is similar in intent but not in language to the other one, and waits, watching the Captain.
There's...genuine grief when Cap leans back from the screen. Tony has to look away for a moment, feeling awkward for all of the wrong reasons.
"He didn't read that one," Tony says, trying to keep his voice neutral. Absently he wishes that he were in the armor, so he could filter emotion out of his voice. "Refused when I offered. I assume you're going to refuse to read his?"
"Right." Tony stops, stalled for the moment.
The Captain turns the paper in his hands, then holds the cipher out. "What's this?"
"The third document he left. It was in with the others," Tony says, and shows him the original on the computer. A short explanation later, Cap's folding the paper over and thanking him, and Tony's had enough. He is done.
"Okay, out," Tony says. "Messages passed, duty done, blah blah blah. You need to leave now, before I use you for parts."
"...What was that?"
"Out!" Tony says, pointing to the door.
"Tony," Cap starts, and Tony shakes his head, getting up. From there it's a short trip to a wrench, and he ignores the Captain's call in favor of sliding under a car. There are times, he thinks, when it's just better to stick with the robots.
The next day they're fighting super-powered bank robbers, and then barely an hour later it's yet another alien invasion. Tony can't explain why it's this decade that draws conquering aliens like magnets, but it's the third attempted invasion since the Avengers formed, and they should have this routine down pat.
Fight aliens, find leaders, explain that it'd be a bad idea to invade here, the plan is always the same and almost always works (with some variants) - except that this one turns complicated. There are sleeper cells of aliens hidden in the populace, they wind up flying all over the place before figuring out the alien's plan and how to thwart it, and they're ambushed at almost every turn along the way.
Long story short, it takes nearly a week of no sleep and too many close calls before they can declare the Earth saved again, and Tony still has to wake up the next day ready for a company meeting and whatever else the world throws at him.
The roof is dimly lit when Tony walks out, and he'd been bargaining on privacy when he headed up here, wine bottle in hand.
"What are you doing he - " Tony catches himself, and has a seat, setting the bottle down on the roof. With luck Steve won't have seen it, and when Tony looks he's still sketching, tongue poking out in concentration. "What are you drawing?"
"Constellations," Steve says shortly, and it's not hard to figure out that he doesn't want to be distracted.
Tony almost gets up and leaves then and there, but - he doesn't. He slumps back in the chair and stares up at the sky.
"Jarvis, kill the lights," and the lights turn off, leaving them alone with the stars.
"Hey - "
Tony closes his eyes. "Bring up enough light for him to draw."
"...Thank you," Steve says a moment later, and Tony shifts, shooting him a glance.
Steve, he reminds himself. That business with two personalities hadn't been a dream. He'd nearly forgotten about Steve Rogers after Captain America had saved his iron hide more than once last week.
He watches as Steve continues to draw, takes in how tired he looks. There's a pinched look to Steve's face, and for an almost-absurd moment Tony tries to remember exactly how old Steve is before thinking screw it and holding out the bottle he brought up with him.
"I can't get drunk," Steve says, quiet.
"I know," Tony says, but he doesn't lower the bottle, waiting. It's better that he offer instead of drinking it himself.
Steve lowers his pencil, looks him over, then takes the bottle. He scans its label, then sets it down on the roof again.
Quietly: "He's run out."
Tony looks at him, puzzled until the pieces fall together. He, that is the Captain. Run out, that is...
"How long?" Tony asks, just as quiet.
"Too long," Steve answers, and resumes drawing.
They'd all been running on adrenaline and necessity, but now Tony thinks specifically of the slump of Cap's shoulders, the unusual exhaustion that he'd shown almost immediately after they had won. He'd chalked it up to the usual reasons at the time, but now...
"I can cover for you," Tony says, musing. It's an interesting problem: hide Steve from the rest of the team without letting on that he's doing so.
"Yes, thank you," Steve says, not looking at him. His pencil isn't moving anymore, and Tony sits up. "I saw...what you were fighting."
"I didn't see much - I'm sure it was an accident - but its eyes were glowing. I think it was a robot." Steve quietly turns pages in his sketchpad, then holds it out.
A frankly demonic version of Iron Man is depicted in rough pencil lines, and Tony drops his head in his hands.
"But I'm not evil," he groans.
Tony has another look at the sketch, then a look at the innocent confusion Steve's sporting, and taps the sketchpad.
"That's Iron Man."
"Iron...oh! Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know," the sketchpad is yanked back against his chest, and Steve looks mortified. "I really am - "
"It was the color scheme, wasn't it," Tony asks, amusement winning out over exasperation.
"No, it was the..." Steve gestures to his eyes. "And you shot lasers from your hands, and I thought...it looked like something the Red Skull would come up with. I'm sorry."
"You...thought..." This is the most surreal conversation Tony has ever had. "I am not a Nazi!"
"I didn't think that!"
"I - " Tony starts, then laughs. "I'll have to show you Iron Man in better lighting."
"I'd like that."
Tony leans back in his chair, shaking his head and grinning. "For the record? We were fighting flesh-eating aliens that wanted to use us as...something like a farm, I think. Doesn't matter, they're dead now."
"With acidic blood."
"...Are you pulling my leg?"
Tony just looks at him.
"Sorry. It's just..."
"Another week with the Avengers, I get you." Tony says. "It'll be zombies next week."
It feels like a victory when Steve laughs. Tony flashes him a grin, then waves a hand.
"Mind if I cut the lights?"
Steve shakes his head, closing his sketchpad.
The lights go off, and Tony stares up at the stars, letting himself be unsettled and amused by an outsider's perspective of what's normal for him.
Iron Man? Evil? He can't see it. He can't see himself snapping and turning traitor to not only his ideals but Yinsen's memory as well.
"Which constellations were you drawing?" Tony asks, lacing his fingers over his chest, feeling the edge of metal through his shirt.
"Orion," Steve says quietly. "I hadn't gotten very far when you interrupted me."
Tony taps his finger on the metal he can feel and wonders which stars the next aliens will come from. "They came from Cassiopeia," he murmurs.
Whatever Steve's about to ask, Tony can hear the words die on his lips. Something's surprised him, and for half a second Tony scans the skies, expecting to see a space cruiser over Queens.
"Tony?" Steve asks, voice small.
"What is it?"
"Your chest is glowing."
Tony sits up. "Lights, Jarvis."
There's fear, even if Steve hastily covers it over, and he grabs at his sketchpad, using it as a shield again as Tony sits up. "It's, I'm sorry. I don't think I should have mentioned that."
"Steve," Tony says, slowly. "Stop freaking out."
"But your chest is glowing."
Without a word Tony tugs his shirt off, baring his chest to the night sky, and grins as Steve's eyes go wide as saucer-plates.
"This is keeping me alive right now," Tony says, tapping the metal. "It's a miniature arc reactor, which doesn't mean anything to you. There are metal shards in my chest, and this keeps them from piercing my heart."
"That's a different story, Steve," Tony says, even though it's not.
For a long moment Steve just looks at the reactor, and Tony waits, grateful that it's warm out.
"Okay," Steve says finally. "You can put your shirt back on."
"Does it hurt?"
"See, now, that's what I was expecting you to say." Tony starts putting his shirt back on. "No, it doesn't hurt."
"I'm glad," Steve says as Tony pats himself down. "I wouldn't want you to suffer like that."
"Me? Suffer? I can't see it."
"I'm sure," Steve murmurs. He picks up the bottle, and presses it into Tony's hands. "You should put this back where you found it...I'm going to bed now."
And then Tony's left to puzzle over exactly what happened there as he's left alone on the roof.
"This is what you missed," Steve says, flattening the piece of paper. "The colors probably correspond to...if I had to guess? Vowels, consonants and punctuation. Can you do anything with that?"
It's obvious and simple and far too easy to dismiss out of hand and that's why it works. Tony wants to swear when Jarvis is done deciphering the message.
"Why didn't I think of that?"
"Well...you aren't exactly a color-minded person," Steve says with a sheepish smile. "What does it say?"
Tony scans the message, reads it again to be sure, then gives a low whistle.
"Steve? We're looking at the keys to Captain America."
"The Captain." Tony reads it a third time, skipping over phrases, getting the gist of it again. "Dad left you the tools needed to take your life back."
When Tony looks at him, Steve's white with shock. Possibly fear, too, so Tony nudges him.
"Read it," he says when Steve jolts. "Whatever you're thinking, read it first."
The ramifications of the message are staggering, and Tony has to grip Steve's arm to steady him when he's done reading.
"I could," Steve starts, looking at him with wide eyes, "I could remember. Everything."
"It's up to you," Tony tells him. "If you want to get rid of the Captain - "
"No!" Steve says, jerking his arm out of Tony's grip. "I could never do that to him. I meant that I could...we'd share memories. Be able to talk. I want that. I want to meet him."
"...Don't you want your life back?" It's a mistake to say it, Tony realizes. Steve tenses, face pinching, and he steps away from Tony.
"He's saved my life and yours and you want me to kill him? Just so I can - no!"
It'd be a mistake to point out that it's not technically murder because the Captain's not technically a person, but Tony thinks it anyways, and: What if he's wrong? He doesn't know nearly enough about how this works.
"Then you won't, okay? Neither will I." Tony gestures to the screen. "I'm not going to use any of those on you. I promise." He means it. A violation of that magnitude - he couldn't stomach it. The only code on the list he'd ever possibly use without consent would be the short one, the one he could run off quickly and use to trigger a personality switch.
After all, what they've been given are a series of code phrases to alter the conditioning that created the Captain in the first place, and frankly it feels uncomfortable to look at the screen and know that if he reads any of them out loud, he'll change Steve.
"It's up to you," Tony repeats.
"Then I want to be able to talk to him," Steve says without a pause. "I want to thank him."
"You're sure about this?"
"You're not a cautious man, are you?"
"What?" Tony asks, taken aback by the question.
"From what little I know about you, Tony, I don't think you're the type to stop and think things through. Are you?"
"...Well..." He can't deny that. Run, don't walk. Fly, don't run - then fly too high and nearly die from the ice and the height. A great first proper flight and a lesson all in one exhilarating experience.
Steve grips his shoulder for support as he leans in, reading the message again. He stabs a finger at one line.
"Read that for me. Please. The rest of it...I can talk to the Captain and think about it."
Tony looks at Steve, wonders at what's going on in his head, then scans the line and reads it out loud. It's a combination of letters and words and it goes on for nearly twenty seconds, and Tony knows that the length and complexity are measures set in place to be sure there won't be accidental tampering.
When he's done he's too-aware that something's going on in Steve's head: Steve's grip had been tight until halfway through the line when his hand fell away.
When Tony looks at him again, Steve's gripping his head, pained.
"Are you okay?" Tony asks, reaching out, catching himself before he touches and pulling his hands back, helpless in the face of this and hating it, "Steve?"
"He - " Steve breathes out. "He didn't know who I was, I didn't think, we should have explained what would happen before..."
"Steve?" Tony touches his shoulder before he can stop himself, and realizes he's stood up without thinking of it.
Steve's tense as piano-wire, warm under his touch, and when Steve opens his eyes, Tony can tell it's not Steve anymore.
"Hey, Captain," he greets.
"This isn't a trick," says the Captain, and Tony shakes his head. He can hear exhaustion plain in the Captain's voice, and remembers Steve's quiet words from last night: too long. The Captain shouldn't be...aware right now, for lack of a better word.
Still, he has to offer.
"You can read the message yourself. Here."
"No," repeats the Captain with exhausted surety.
But it's not the Captain who answers him next: "...don't mind," Steve blinks at him, then closes his mouth.
"Did that help?" Tony asks, hand still on Steve's shoulder.
"He believes me," Steve says, eyes bright. "We're talking now - there's so much to catch up on - "
"What is it?"
"I don't know how it is in there, but he was exhausted out here." It's strange, to tell someone else to get some rest when he evades it too often, but he's vindicated by the gratitude Steve shows him.
"You're right," Steve says, and he ducks his head. "I hadn't realized...ah. He says thank you. To you, I mean."
"That's my cue to take this, then," Tony says, snatching the printout he'd given Steve originally. "I'll lock up the information until you're ready to do something with the rest of it."
He'll burn the paper when Steve's gone, and he sits back at his computer again, moving all of the Steve-related files to a more secure location in his server. He's half tempted to tell Jarvis to delete the deciphered paper, but settles for giving that its own encryption and password. It's too valuable to leave around, after all.
Steve's still there when he finishes, which isn't too surprising, but what is are his actions.
Steve puts his hands on Tony's shoulders, gripping them tightly.
"I mean this," Steve says. "It's not just his sentiment. Thank you."
The reflexive words to turn away the gratitude die in Tony's mouth as Steve leans in, eyes meeting his.
"Even if we don't use any of the rest of it - I can talk to him. Please," Steve is looking at him, steadily, "Don't pretend it was nothing. It wasn't."
All this intensity, just to make him say 'you're welcome'?
"You're welcome," Tony says, and he cuts off whatever he would say next, caught by the warmth of Steve's smile.
"Thank you," Steve repeats before letting go, giving them space again.
Tony turns over the new urge in his mind, swallows.
"What's it like?" He asks. "You can talk, but..."
"When I'm not here," Steve gestures to the world around him, "It's a cross between sleeping and something close to meditation. There isn't time there, so you can't get bored, but it's...dark, sometimes. But now there's a voice, and I think...I think memories. I haven't had a chance to really get used to it, though."
"Limbo," Tony says.
"Don't look that way. It's been worth it. All of it. And now I can meet him."
Tony can almost take the gratitude, but it's the conviction that makes him look away.
"How can you live with that?" Tony asks, then raises a hand. "It's..."
"Like being a prisoner?"
Tony's had moments of panic while working in the Iron Man armor when it wasn't powered, and he's been penned in by circumstances too many times for the concept to sit well with him. He's been a prisoner in the literal sense, too.
"You might look at it in the sense that I've been given a way to talk to my jailer," Steve says. "But I couldn't have done half the things he has. Honestly speaking..."
"I think you're wrong." Tony says, tone tight. "Dad was wrong, too. They didn't give you a chance."
"I couldn't go into battle like he does. Like you do."
"Unless there's some history I don't know yet," Tony says, meeting his eyes. "I think you'd better hold back judgment until we have proof."
"Look at yourself," Tony says. "You benefited from the serum too. The only difference between you and Cap is experience, now." He's wondering: was the insecurity already there, or did they instill that in Steve? Or did they steal all his confidence from him in making the Captain?
"Tony - "
"The Captain still needs to rest," Tony says, tone harsh. "I can all but promise you that we'll have a crisis on our hands before he's completely back. If you want to hide anything, then this would be a good time to find a backbone."
Steve stares at him, and the silence stretches. Tony holds his gaze, then looks to the side and sighs.
"I'll help where I can," he says. "But our teammates aren't idiots. Pretending you're staying home because of a cold isn't going to work, and it'd be insulting."
"I didn't say I was going to hide!" Oh good: anger.
"I'll believe that," Tony says. "And I meant it, earlier. It's up to you. All of it."
Why are you provoking him, his mind whispers to him. All he can think of in response to that are expectations he couldn't meet, and ones he never got the chance to even try to meet.
This is a problem, Tony thinks as he watches Steve try and fail to capture the easy confidence of the Captain's movements. He's too self-conscious, probably convinced that the body's too big for him, and Tony can't help but think of a kid in too-big clothes.
"You should relax," he advises. "Own it."
"Bring some self-confidence to the table. You're," he thinks said to be but has actually seen more than enough proof, "The best combat fighter in the world. A hand-to-hand specialist. Try acting like it."
"I'm trying," Steve says.
That's the problem, Tony thinks, but how can he tell him that?
This is another problem, Tony thinks as Steve catches the shield for the first time. There's uncertain awe on his face, like he's holding something he shouldn't have. Tony thinks: Steve, you're not defiling a unicorn, stop treating it like it's a holy object.
He expects Steve's thoughts run along the lines of 'this is amazing' and 'this isn't for me.'
This is the difficult problem: the irrational anger Tony feels about the entire situation. The readiness to read Steve a string of numbers and letters that would make him whole.
There isn't a Tony Stark and Iron Man, after all - Tony Stark is Iron Man. There is no division between the two. He gets all of the credit and blame Iron Man deserves, and he gets to fly.
And Steve, sweet scared Steve who hid behind his sketchpad when he met him, who sacrificed his life to Captain America - should be Captain America too.
Tony can't find a solution and it comes down to this: "Iron Man, with me," the Captain says over the comms, and Iron Man collects him en route to the interception point, not taking the time to make it a comfortable ride.
"What are you doing here?" He asks over a private line; it's a question he's been holding back for most of the mission now, and only now has there been a less-than-frantic moment to ask.
"He can't do this," says the Captain, and it's a good thing for Iron Man's pokerface, as Tony's self-control only goes so far. "I won't let him get hurt. He's not ready for this."
Iron Man begins to reply, but then they are there, as is the hydra that they're trying to herd, and he has to shift back to the open channel.
He'll corner the Captain later, he promises himself. Then he's busy with bursts of acid and fangs and spines sharp enough to pierce his armor.
That doesn't mean Tony doesn't spot how the Cap's reflexes are seconds slower than they usually are, and he makes an effort to cover Captain America more than he usually does for compensation.
Later is Steve's bedroom with a first-aid kit and acid burns over his back. The Captain hadn't spun to block the acid with his shield quickly enough, and Tony knew that both personalities were counting on the enhanced healing to take care of the burns before they'd need to do anything more strenuous than lift a pencil.
"I gave him permission," Steve says as Tony slams the door behind him. "He was already out for the briefing, said he could do the rest of the mission. I let him. Asked him to."
Tony holds out the first-aid kit wordlessly, not trusting himself to speak without shouting.
Steve gives him a grateful smile, holding a hand out for it, but Tony shakes his head.
"Stay put," he says, setting the kit on the bed, near Steve. Steve's lying on his front, propped up on his elbows right now, and he's naked to the waist, burns an ugly red on his back.
"You're not a doctor," Steve says, but it's not much of a protest.
"It's not rocket science," Tony says, even though he could do rocket science - does it on an almost regular basis. "Hold still."
They've all been trained in basic first-aid, but this is the first time that knowledge has come in handy for Tony for anything beyond taping himself up. The members of the team most likely to get hurt are those who can take it - Thor's a god, the Hulk's, well, the Hulk, and Captain America heals fairly quickly.
It's unusual to have to treat any of them, basically.
Steve's good, though: he holds still, and if Tony aggravates any of the burns while applying the ointment and bandages, all he does is hiss into the pillow.
"Is this really how you want to live?" Tony asks, low, halfway down Steve's back.
"We're in this together," Steve says. "Why can't you accept that?"
"It's not fair to you." Tony applies a bandage, still careful not to aggravate the wounds.
"No," Steve says, and he twists in the bed, looking back at him. "You're not being fair to me."
So Tony tells him what's on his mind: "I'm Iron Man, for better or for worse. You're...Captain America's an icon now. You deserve - "
"The fame?" Steve asks, staring at him.
Tony stops. He hadn't meant it like that.
"I don't want that," Steve says. "I don't want any of that."
Tony works his jaw. "That wasn't what I meant," he says.
"I'm not Captain America," Steve says tightly. "I'm part of that, but I'm not taking what's not mine. The Captain's his own person. He's the one who risks himself - I get to help him, and that's enough for me."
The sad part is? Tony believes that. Steve's too good to be selfish here, even though he should be - and there's the other problem, yet another problem Tony can't resolve. He respects the Captain, works well with him, but - it's hard sometimes (a lot of the time) to see him as a real person.
It was that way even before Tony knew about Steve.
Steve's still staring at him, completely serious, and all Tony can do is resume bandaging him. He's nearly done.
"Why can't you accept that?" Steve asks a few minutes later.
"That I don't need or want to...'reintegrate'."
Tony can't tell him anything important. He can picture it now: 'I don't think the Captain is a real person,' and the resulting blow-up, and he likes Steve, he doesn't want that.
"I'm going to have to," Tony says after a long pause. "Accept it, I mean. I told you. Your choice."
Steve finally untwists and lies back on the bed, holding still again.
It's not what Tony wants, but - right. It's not up to him.
He finishes up the bandaging, collects the first-aid kit, and has a hand on the door when Steve speaks up.
He turns, still holding the door knob.
"Thank you," Steve says, awkward. "For," he gestures to his shoulders.
"It's nothing," Tony tells him honestly.
"Still...I appreciate it."
There, that right there: the genuine if shy gratitude. Tony likes that. He likes Steve. It's why this is difficult.
"I'll come back," Tony says. "To change those."
Steve holds his gaze, then nods.
Well then. Tony lets himself out.
When Tony comes back with some sandwiches for Steve (he'd remembered just after lunch that Steve was confined to his bed) there's a problem. Another problem.
"What are you doing here?" Tony asks, balancing a glass of water and the plate in his hands. He's not sure how he'll get the door to Steve's room open, but - priorities. Hawkeye.
"Checking on the Captain. What are you doing here?"
"Acid burns," Tony says. "He's not going anywhere." This might not be the right thing to say, Tony realizes - if Hawkeye's not already suspicious, he's going to be. It's not like Tony to be considerate, or kind, or care about his teammates. Let alone Steve.
For a moment Hawkeye gives him the fisheye - yes, Tony was right - then he opens the door and gestures. "After you, then."
Tony shrugs and heads in. He won't thank Hawkeye for holding the door, not for all the headaches this is going to cause. Steve's still where he left him, but this time he's propped up on his elbows, sketching.
He looks up, expression welcoming when he sees Tony, and Tony jerks his head. The motion isn't enough to convey the message of Hawkeye's behind me and he's suspicious and you should fake being asleep or something but it's just going to have to do.
He sets the plate and drink on the nightstand, watching Steve go from confusion to understanding to closing his sketchpad carefully as Hawkeye follows him in.
"Need those changed yet?" Tony asks, stalling for them both.
"No, they're fine," Steve says. "Are those...?"
"Turkey? Yeah." Tony wants to make frantic hand gestures 'Hawkeye is right there what are you doing, are you sure about this, Steve what are you doing' but he doesn't. It's just something else that isn't up to him, and Steve's not helping.
Which leads to...
"What happened to you?" Hawkeye asks, giving Steve a long look. He looks like he wants to ask 'where's the Captain?' and Tony wouldn't blame him in the slightest for it.
"The hydra," Steve says, shrugging his shoulders. "It winged me."
"It looks like it got a direct hit in."
"I'll be fine." Steve says. "But that's not what you were going to ask, right?"
"We've been keeping it quiet ever since I was defrosted," Steve says far too calmly, "But Captain America has two personalities, and I'm one of them. It's nice to meet you, by the way." He gives Hawkeye a shy smile, and holds out his hand. "I'm Steve Rogers."
Which is to say.
"Are you shitting me?" Hawkeye asks.
"He's not," Tony says.
"I'm not!" Steve protests barely seconds later.
"That was my reaction, though," Tony says. "When I found out."
Hawkeye continues to look flabbergasted. And suspicious. Tony gets that too.
Steve continues: "The Captain's resting now, so I'm out in front. He's who you usually work with."
"Long story short," Tony decides to simplify matters, "There was Steve, then the scientists who dosed him with the super-serum decided that he should get a...braver personality to handle the soldiering business. Makes perfect sense, right?"
Just one more issue he'll have to take up with his Dad, whenever they meet in the afterlife. (Tony doesn't say that part out loud.)
"We're absolutely sure he's not an alien spy?"
"Yeah," Tony says. "I thought that too."
"I'm not an alien," Steve says. "...I know you have reason to be suspicious, but I'm telling the truth. I swear."
"How long have you known about this?" Hawkeye asks Tony.
"That sandwich will expire in five minutes," Tony tells Steve, then steps out, gesturing for Hawkeye to follow.
"It's been at least a week now," Tony says. "Apparently the Cap's batteries have been running out, so to speak, so we've been getting more Steve while he rests. Yes, I've had him checked over and there's nothing odd."
"And you didn't tell the team because...?"
"Since when are you the responsible one - okay, fine. It's his secret, it's fairly harmless, and..." Tony shrugs. There hadn't been a pressing reason to reveal it, after all. That and (he admitted this only to himself) this way he had Steve all to himself.
"Your funeral," Hawkeye says, shrugging. "If he turns evil on us, I didn't know anything about this."
"And if he doesn't, you were in on it from the start, I got it." Tony flashes him a grin. "Thanks."
"Like I said - your funeral," Hawkeye says as he walks away.
"You told me that sandwich would expire, when we both know sandwiches don't..."
"If you'd let it sit there for five minutes, it would have been mine. See? Your sandwich window of opportunity expired then."
"Tony, that's confusing."
"Deal with it." Tony sits on the edge of the bed, glad to see that the plate is empty. "Hawkeye'll cover for us."
"Oh. That's good."
Tony nods, looking at the bandages, thinking.
"I have a backbone," Steve tells him. "And I'm not hiding anymore."
"I can see that," Tony says dryly, pulling his hand back with a start. He can see the curve of Steve's spine where the bandages aren't covering his back, and he scolds his errant hand, putting it in his lap.
"Thank you for the sandwich," Steve says. "And the company."
"You don't need to thank me for everything," Tony says with a sigh. "Steve - " He bites his tongue as Steve twists to look at him.
"What is it?"
"You almost died today." Tony tells him. "More than once. His reflexes were...you're lucky you got away with just some burns."
"He's tired," Steve says quietly.
"I had to shadow you to make sure you weren't hurt, and that wasn't enough."
"Tony, please say whatever you're going to say." Straight and to the point. Tony has to look away.
"No," Tony says, because he can't do more than hint at it, he can't just say it out loud. He looks at Steve, then stops. He has to say something, doesn't he? "This isn't safe," he says after a pause. "More than usual. He's going to get you killed."
"He wouldn't," Steve says with unshakable conviction, and Tony's heart sinks. "Why can't you trust him? You work with him, you know how he is - "
"I know how stubborn he can be," Tony says, voice tight. "That trait led to these today." He gestures to the burns. "If he had let you - "
"I would be dead," Steve says, staring him down. "I couldn't have worked with the team effectively, and I'd fumble the shield - why can't you realize that? I'm not trained to be Captain America, and right now pushing me to be that won't help. I wouldn't have known to even try to block the acid."
Tony says nothing. He's right, damn it.
"I know you want me to reintegrate, like Howard's letter advised," Steve says gently, "And I know you're worried about me, but this isn't the way to help."
Tony looks at him, then gets up from the bed. "Steve?"
He doesn't want to say it. It's an effort to say them: "You're right."
"...Thank you," Steve says, and Tony jerks his head.
"No," Tony steps closer, bends down. "Don't thank me."
"Why not?" Steve tips his head to the side, and Tony gives in. Steve's too innocent, too good, too understanding. He shouldn't be thanking Tony, he should be sending him away, out of the room. He hasn't even noticed - Tony gives in.
He kisses Steve, quick and dirtier than it has any right to be, savors how Steve's eyes widen in shock, then bolts.
The roof's cold and windy and it's the perfect place for him to think. He leans against the railing, looking up at the stars, and sighs.
It's a crush, he's decided. Persistent attraction, the ongoing frustration with Captain America the man - the problem is, he genuinely likes Steve.
He wants to forget the Captain, forget every argument and encounter they've ever had. He wants to take Steve and throw away the Captain like an unwanted peanut shell. It's too much to hope that Steve will throw away the Captain like he wants him to.
(His motives have not been entirely pure.)
There was a time when the Captain (before he thought of him like that, just called him Steve or Rogers depending on his mood because he didn't know better) offered to train him in hand-to-hand combat. For all of the strength of the Iron Man suit, Tony had never been trained, and it could only help to learn, so - he remembers accepting.
Tony remembers a frustrated moment of realization after four sessions (good lessons, all of them) of Cap in a tight white shirt teaching him to throw and grapple and well. It would be impossible to hide his arousal, and while he'd been lucky so far (Cap was oblivious, thank god) he wouldn't be forever, and wouldn't that be fun to explain.
The Captain had been genuinely disappointed when he straight up told that the lessons would need to be canceled. (Tony knows most of the disappointment was due to how much fun the lessons had been, but - he didn't miss that look of 'these lessons may save your life someday, why are you suddenly changing your mind' judgment. He didn't regret anything after that.)
Then chance intervened and Tony discovered that Cap wasn't real in the first place - wasn't obtainable anyways, and Steve - Steve was never disappointed with him, thanked him for everything, reached out even now when Tony wasn't - Tony knew part of this was simply because Steve didn't know him, but he had a feeling, a strong suspicion that even when Steve wasn't as innocent anymore, he'd still reach out. More than could be said of Cap.
'I don't like half of you,' sounds worse than 'he's not real. He was made for you, out of bits of you - like Frankenstein.'
But neither one sounds good at all, which is why Tony is up here and not back downstairs, facing Steve.
Don't tell: Tony's also on the roof to test his bruises unobserved.
The hydra had been dangerous, after all, and while he's not bleeding, and nothing feels broken or worse, he still needs to check himself out. He's already done this, went through it as he took off the armor, but now he needs to recheck everything.
Tony reaches for the first-aid kit he should have been carrying, then sighs. He left that behind, and there's no way he's going back for it. Bandages will have to wait, and he'd rather not make the trip to the kitchen to get an icepack.
He pushes his undershirt back down, buttons the front of his shirt, and sinks into one of the chairs with a sigh.
"Miserable," he answers, before jolting in his chair and twisting to see who - "What are you doing here?"
It's the Captain.
"We need to talk," he says, seating himself down, leaning forward in the chair. He's gotten a shirt on, which must have been sore to do, but - Tony looks away.
"You should be resting."
"I agree." A pause. "Tony."
"Yeah?" Cap's probably here to talk to him about the ill-advised kiss, and Tony wonders if he should order the lights down, except that the dark isn't going to hide him, not when he has a flashlight in his chest and it's the Captain he'd be trying to hide from -
"I told you not to take advantage of him."
Tony thinks back. Had Cap said that? Probably. It sounded likely. "Okay."
"Pull that stunt again and I'll break your fingers," says the Captain, completely calm.
Tony looks at him. He's completely serious, too.
"A friendly kiss," he says, but the Captain leans in, and that's a glare that could rival Fury's in intensity.
"We're not like that."
That. That right there. Tony sits up straight, furious.
"No," Tony snaps. "I don't care which way you swing, or if you're homophobic or not. I didn't kiss you. I kissed Steve. He gets to tell me this."
The Captain's lips are a thin line, and Tony glares right back at him.
"If," Tony says, "He wants to kiss me, or kiss anyone, I'm not going to let you stop him. Not unless it's obviously a bad idea - like kissing a zombie. This isn't an area you get a say in." He pauses, still holding Cap's gaze but anger draining out of him. He's nearly done. "If he got into a relationship and that person screwed him over and broke his heart, break their kneecaps. But you don't get to pick who he sleeps with."
There's a chance he's misjudged, and that he's just shot the messenger. Tony doesn't care.
"I don't like what you're implying," says the Captain.
"Good," Tony says. "I don't like it either. Go ahead: prove me wrong and let him out now."
A blink and he's gone. Tony exhales, unsure if he's relieved or not.
"Did you get all that?"
Steve shakes his head, eyes wide. "I told you, I don't see what happens out there - "
"Is that the same for him?"
"Yes," Steve says.
"You told him I kissed you." Tony says. "Then he stormed up here and told me that you're not gay. Well?" Tony pauses, watches Steve's expression go through panic, then worry, then embarrassment(?) and he holds up a hand. "Actually? I don't care if you're gay or not. More to the point: can I kiss you again, or is that going to get me some broken fingers?"
Steve's blushing. Tony will take that as a good sign.
"I...I'm not sure what to tell you."
Tony thinks: doesn't know a thing about the future and nods. He can fix this part.
"Same-sex marriages are legal in some states, and New York is one of them." He points out with a grin.
"Would I lie to you?"
Steve shakes his head, and shifts in his chair. "I've relayed that to him. He's...you accused him of..."
"And he proved me wrong," Tony says. "I can appreciate that. If you're going to shoot me down, do it in person, after all."
"I'm not going to - "
Tony closes his eyes. "Let me guess. You panicked, told Cap I kissed you, and he stormed up here on his own."
"You kissed me."
"I was there, I remember."
Honestly? Tony likes that he's derailed their ongoing issue with this new issue. It's a lot nicer to (kind of) argue about. Because - kissing? He can do kissing. He can do sex too. The relationship bit would be tricky, but that's always the trouble with wanting to have more than one fuck.
"I - " Steve shakes his head. "We barely know each other..."
"It was a kiss, not a proposal."
"Tony!" Steve's flustered now, blushing a brighter red, and he's always looked good in red and white and blue, so Tony just leans in and kisses him again.
Steve squeaks and grabs at his arms, but he's not pushing him away, so Tony deepens the kiss, mouthing at his lips until, right, Steve's probably never done this before, he should let him adjust.
Tony gives him a few inches of space, breathing, hoping for the best.
"I'm not - I don't - "
"Steve? I'm probably going to regret this, but what happens next is up to you." Which is going to drive him nuts, but it's Steve, and if there's a chance he can do this right...
"Don't do that," Steve says, then looks surprised at his own boldness. "You're going to kiss me again, aren't you?"
"I - "
Steve kisses him, clumsy and good, and Tony's mouth opens more out of surprise than anything else.
"I want you to show me more," Steve murmurs, flushed, and well. Tony can do that.
"You pull out a backbone at the weirdest times," Tony tells him before he's kissing him again, catching Steve's shirt in his hands and tugging - that gets him a low hiss, and he needs to remember that Steve's back is still sore - but Steve moves forward, straddling Tony's lap as they keep kissing.
He's eager; Tony's hands skate across his crotch as he's finding better handholds and that's interest, that's definitely interest.
"Tony - " Steve bites his lip, hips jerking forward.
Tony shakes his head, unfastening Steve's belt. "Breathe," he advises. "You can hold onto me, if it helps."
"This," Tony says, pressing his palm against Steve's cock through the pants, and he leans forward to kiss Steve as he moans.
"Oh," Steve says when Tony pulls his hand back and gets back to finally unfastening that belt. "I didn't know."
"First time?" Tony asks, sliding the belt out of its loops, hanging it over his neck as he finally frees Steve's cock.
"Oh - "
Tony grips Steve lightly, and grins at him. "Like that?"
"Yes!" Steve is flushed, hands gripping at the arms of the chair for support as he breathes, hips jerking in short motions as Tony fits his hand around Steve and drags his hand up and down.
"Gorgeous," Tony breathes out, leaning in to kiss him again. "Steve, you're - "
"I'm not a dame," Steve protests, and Tony laughs into his mouth.
"Believe me," Tony says, squeezing his cock. "I know."
Tony licks his way into Steve's mouth, pumping him in earnest now, resting his other hand on Steve's side to steady him, paying attention to how Steve's mouth drops open and to how his eyes are dark with lust and how good to feels to have Captain-fucking-America writhing in his lap (nevermind that it's not the Captain, forget that) and how good it feels to have a warm body in his lap, rubbing against him and there's nothing sophisticated in this sex, but Tony knows that sometimes you have to step back and let lust take over -
And sometimes you have to start small. Steve will fall apart if he does anything more complicated than a handjob right now, and Tony moans into his mouth at the thought of undoing his pants and popping that cherry, but no he will be responsible.
He will accept the writhing mess in his lap and he will love it, damn it.
"Too much thinking," Tony whispers into Steve's lips, and then he's pumping Steve hard and fast and rolling his hips, groaning. He'll have to - have to -
Steve's gotten a hand off the arm of the chair and onto the front of Tony's pants and he's just - just rubbing and squeezing through the fabric and ohgod.
"Steve," Tony gasps, surprised at how eagerly his body responds, not surprised in the least by the fact that Steve would reciprocate, virgin or not, and thought leaves him then as Steve kisses him now, hard and frantic and desperate and close.
"God," Tony says into Steve's neck a lot of sensations later. "Steve."
Eloquent, he thinks.
Steve just shudders in response, draped over him, and Tony pats his hip, looking up at the stars.
Not bad, he thinks, and that's an understatement.
(Steve is warm and comforting on him, in his arms, and that's something he acknowledges but doesn't face yet.)
"No, no, don't you dare thank me for that."
"But Tony - "
"How do you...ah...turn on the water?"
"Voice-activated," Tony calls, and resumes chasing his thoughts in a circle. He's sprawled on Steve's bed, waiting for Steve to finish showering, and it's unlikely that they'll do anything more than lie together, so he really should make a break for his room.
Steve's bed is comfortable though. And he doesn't exactly want to put on pants that he's come in.
Right, more important thoughts: Steve. The Captain who's not great but proved that he wasn't a monster like Tony had begun to think, and maybe he needs to spend more time with Cap, because distance isn't following that old saying.
The more time away from Cap he gets, the less he likes him. The more flaws and problems he can pick out, and that's...he wants Steve. (But the Captain's saved his life, and may actually care, and is overprotective of Steve and Tony still wants him dead. Gone. He meant gone.)
Tony groans into a pillow, and not in the nice way either.
He can hear water running, which is a good sign. Probably. Steve's wounds must sting under the spray.
"I'm not going in there," Tony tells himself, then flicks at a pillow. Steve needs to come back soon, so he can stop thinking and stressing and instead resign himself to a night in the bed of Captain America.
Ha, he thinks with a smile. Funny. He's very funny. Tired, too.
(And sore, but his bruises are just bruises and they're healing fine, Steve had checked them over himself when he had seen them.)
He thinks about moving, or rolling over, then sighs and closes his eyes. It's a comfortable bed and he should wait.
Morning is hot and heavy and Tony's pinned under Steve and unable to move him for fear of aggravating the wounds on his back.
"Steve?" Tony says after about forty-five seconds of waiting impatiently for him to notice gentle nudges. "Steve. Steve!"
For a second it's Steve blinking his eyes, then it's the tired and annoyed gaze of the Captain.
"Good morning," he says dryly, and to Tony's complete and utter shock: "Would you like me to move?" is asked with a smirk.
"You have a sense of humor," Tony says, and he knows this, but it's so rare to see it, let alone suffer from it - "My god, you have a sense of humor. Am I dreaming?"
"Ask that again and I will knock you out and drop you off in your bed," Cap says, eyes narrowed. "And both Steve and I will pretend that tonight never happened."
Tony closes his mouth, because that's something the Captain could do.
"Good," Cap says, and he closes his eyes, tension running out of his body again as he slumps comfortably on Tony again.
Tony opens his mouth to ask if he'll move, but Cap shifts, covering his mouth with his big hand, and that's not fair.
"Mmp," Tony tells Cap's palm before he licks it. Childish, but it gets the Cap to twitch and he does it again.
(Oh damn it, he thinks as the Cap gives him a friendly glare over that, this is the Captain and he's - he's teasing, he's real, he's - )
"I'm not interested in your games," Cap says, hand staying put over his mouth. "But Steve likes you, and you're not completely terrible, so I will put up with you for his sake."
( - that makes things easier again. Tony would bare his teeth at Cap's statement, but hand.)
"We'll talk later," Cap promises, and, "Hurt him and I'll kill you."
His hand stays put for far too long, and Tony can't dislodge it (for a long time he can't dare to try) and Tony's squirming from the heat and need to get up when Steve blinks awake. (Who apologizes and says 'gosh' and turns red when Tony teases him in the moments before Tony makes a break for his own bedroom, because clean clothes.)
"How much rest does he need?" Tony asks later. "This seems excessive."
"When we're both rested," Steve says as he sketches, "He does best with at least four hours resting in addition to the sleep the body needs. We both get weird if we don't get enough sleep."
"Then he should be caught up by now," Tony says, frowning.
"No," this time Steve lowers his pencil. "He's been going for over a month with infrequent breaks, and I wouldn't be surprised if he needs a week or more of me being out most of the time."
"That long," Tony says. If he flattens his voice properly, he can hide the relief he's feeling.
"He won't need to rest as much," Steve says, glancing at him. "We'll be able to talk more frequently, but it takes effort to be here."
"I see." Tony says.
"Why don't you like him?" Steve asks, and Tony has to look away.
"Am I that obvious?"
Tony doesn't say anything to that, thinking. He may have liked the Captain before he knew Steve. May have. Probably.
"He's not real," Tony says after a long pause. When he looks at Steve he is turning the pages in his sketchpad, finding a half-filled page and stopping there. Tony watches as he begins to write.
A mistake, Tony thinks. That was a mistake.
"Do you really believe that?"
Tony gets up.
"Tony?" Steve looks at him, still writing. "I might have believed you a long time ago, but he's real. There's no way he's not real."
Tony says nothing.
"He wrote to me about you more than anyone else," Steve says.
"What am I supposed to say to that?" Tony asks, reminding himself that the Captain probably wrote complaints about him.
"Will you tell me why you don't like him?"
Tony almost raises a protest, but - the crux of the matter is, he can't. Steve won't get rid of the Captain, so he's going to have to live with the third wheel, especially if he wants to keep Steve.
(There's another issue entirely, one he should stop and confront, sooner rather than later: his like of Steve, his want to have a relationship with the man.)
He opens his mouth to explain why he doesn't like the Captain and immediately runs into a problem.
He's too uptight isn't a valid complaint, and neither is arrogant bastard. Steve will ask him why and he won't be able to come up with answers, and - can't he just not like someone in peace?
"That's complicated," Tony says stiffly.
"He worries about you."
"He didn't...hasn't said anything directly, but the only other person he shared this much about was Bucky."
"Steve," Tony says carefully, "How much do you know about me?"
Steve offers a smile at that, turning pages in the sketchpad again. "I know you overwork, you're reckless in battle, and - " He holds out his sketchpad. "We think you're a better person than you make yourself out to be."
It's a drawing of him. It's several sketches of him, and the one that catches Tony's eye is the one of himself: it's a simpler drawing than the rest of them, a basic portrait of himself, and after a moment it clicks. The blunter lines, the sketchier quality...
"It's very rare for him to draw anyone," Steve says quietly. "Paper is precious, and he prefers to save the space for me and for letters, even now."
Tony hands the sketchpad back to him.
"I'd like it if you got along with him," Steve says, taking it back. "It's selfish of me, but..." He closes the sketchpad. "Think about it. Please."
Tony can't tell him no: "Okay."
"Thank you," Steve says, and he means it. He always means it.
Tony doesn't answer.
Hurt him and I'll kill you comes back to haunt him.
The burns are completely healed two days later, and by that time Tony's gotten to know what Steve's boundaries are. He's comfortable with telling him no, even if he apologizes for it minutes later, and what's worse is that he's not demanding, not in the slightest. Steve's too sweet for that.
Instead, he mentions that he'd like to fill in the rest of the team on his personality switching, that he'd like it if they held off from doing anything more than handjobs and cuddling for now, that no, they're not sparring or otherwise trying to teach him to fight (not yet, he claims) and it's...frustrating.
It's frustrating mostly because Tony can't seem to bring himself to override any of those, and if Pepper ever learns to duplicate that wounded-puppy look with the sincerity Steve has, he'll be utterly screwed in all corners.
"I want to see the city," Steve tells him one afternoon. "Can you take me to Central Park?"
"Sure," Tony says unthinkingly. "Sure, why not?"
Which is to say: Steve learns what cellphones (and a whole lot of other things) are, what happened to the Dodgers, spends most of the trip shivering, and Tony is forced to pull him into an alleyway at one point so Steve can fall apart from futureshock in peace.
"It's still the same city," Tony tells him, a hand on his shoulder. He thinks Steve's nearly done, he's listened to a quiet, shaky story of what Steve's Central Park was like, and it's...he'd like to go. It's not a sterling example of alleyways that they're standing in, and he's seen at least four rats while listening to Steve.
"Just older," Steve says, and if he wipes his eyes Tony didn't see.
"Yeah," Tony says. "Want to go home?"
Steve looks at him with a shaky smile, and nods. He straightens, shivering again, and takes a deep breath and winces.
Tony has to laugh at that even as he makes a beeline for the sidewalk again.
The moment Tony says 'see, the future's not so bad', he knows that he's jinxed them. There's still a fair wait before Happy'll arrive with the car, after all, and anything could go wrong -
Steve grabs the wrist of a pedestrian and glares at them, in full 'I am Captain America and I disapprove of your actions' mode, and a moment later he holds his hand out.
"His wallet, please," Steve says, and there's a look of faint surprise on his face, as if he can't believe what he's just done.
"That's mine," Tony says as the wallet is produced, and okay, okay, he can deal with being pick-pocketed. He snatches it back, and watches the guy run as soon as Steve lets go of him, and -
"Hey," Tony says, "Breathe."
Steve swallows, and nods, breathing. "I don't...usually come out of those kind of encounters intact," he says.
"That was good," Tony says, checking his wallet - it is his. He looks back at Steve. "I owe you."
Steve shakes his head; gives him a shy smile. "It's nothing."
"You're too good sometimes," Tony tells him, "You should be more selfish."
"I'm not sure that's very good advice."
"You would think that," Tony says with a sigh. Steve really is too good: the entire reason he's here is because he's not selfish - if he is, it's for the wrong reasons.
He puts his wallet away, not too bothered by almost losing it - if the man had kept it, and tried to use anything in it, he'd be in jail before he had time to enjoy even one of the credit cards.
That, and the Avengers communicator in there would have summoned more than the police if the would-be criminal had tried to use it.
"You've tried to stop thieves before?" Tony asks about a minute later, brain finally kicking in with the obvious question.
"I don't like bullies," Steve says, and interesting: he's not looking at him.
Tony opens his mouth to say something, then there's a honk he knows, and Happy's there, the car waiting for them. Time to go home.
The facts of Captain America, according to Tony Stark: legendary hero from World War II, super-soldier created in Project Rebirth. (Two significant names come to mind: Dr. Erskine and Howard Stark. Tony doesn't add either name to the document.)
He pauses, runs fingers over the keyboard, reminds himself that no one will ever see this, then resumes typing: Steve Rogers was given an alternate personality during Project Rebirth, one that would supposedly handle all of the soldiering.
Tony sighs under his breath and deletes all of it. It's useless to go over the subject of Steve Rogers like this. Even with everything laid out - this isn't his first attempt at treating Steve Rogers like a mathematical problem to be solved.
There's work to be done, of course. He should let the problem go and think about Steve later, when he's pressed up against Steve's back and under the covers, too far gone to worry about what this all means.
That's what he did last night, and the night before.
There's a silent countdown running, and he's far too aware of it: every day is another day closer to when the Captain will be fully rested, and then - Tony doesn't know. He likes what they have now, mostly. Glimpses of the Captain when circumstances call for him, and the rest of the time is learning how to kiss and be kissed by Steve, teaching him how television works, watching him draw in that sketchpad.
The team is understandably wary of Steve, but they're coming around to like him. That's not surprising, in Tony's opinion.
The point is: when the Captain's rested, exactly how will the status quo change? There's no chance it'll go back to how it was before, but Tony's afraid...absolutely certain that one morning he will wake up to find the Captain in charge for most of the time.
Which leads right back around to his general dislike(?) of the Captain. That's a sticking point he hasn't figured out yet either.
Tony groans and drops his head into his hands.
If it's not aliens, it's something else entirely, and for a long moment he almost wishes that they were facing mutants or dimension-destroying entities or anything he could destroy and be done with instead of what he's got.
The fateful morning comes, and Tony wakes up to the Captain and the full weight of his body pinning him to the bed.
"We need to talk."
"I can't talk before coffee," Tony says after a confused moment - Steve wouldn't do this, who's the strange man wearing his face? - and he squints up at the Captain. "What time is it, anyways?" Whatever hour it is, it's too early for this.
"You can call me Rogers," the Captain says quietly. "If you need something more personal to call me."
The Captain looks down at him, gaze intent. "I agree with your assessment: he isn't selfish."
Tony blinks, staring back up at him, confused still. Where is the Captain going with this?
"My mission is to protect and serve," the Captain continues, "Protecting him isn't just the physical - when he is selfish, I pay attention. He likes you."
"He wants us to be friends," Tony says without thinking.
"Yes," says the Captain. "We've talked about that." He shifts on top of Tony; leans closer. "My first impression of you was wrong."
"Of course it was," Tony says. He remembers that scene all too well - partly from the burn of the insult, partly from how pleased he was with his rebuttal.
"As was my second impression."
"Oh?" It's almost too easy to settle under him, talk as if they're not in this intimate-cross-compromising position. Tony can feel each of Cap's fingers on his shoulders; is overly aware of the steel-strong grip Cap has on him. (That is: the Captain is strong, and most importantly he's aware of that in a way that Steve isn't.)
"There's a good man in you," Cap says.
"I like to think so," Tony says, but he's thinking, and not about the topic: 'hurt him and I'll kill you', 'I'd like it if you got along with him' and he raises a hand, gripping at the Captain's wrist.
"You drew a picture of me."
"He showed you?"
Tony nods, wonders if he's judging the situation rightly, and raises his other hand to touch the line of the Captain's jaw with his fingers. It's early enough that the glow of his arc reactor is what illuminates the Captain's face in shades of blue and white, and Tony turns thoughts over in his head again.
This isn't for Steve, he decides.
"Don't look so surprised," Tony says, rubbing his thumb over the Captain's lips.
"Are - " Abruptly the Captain's expression darkens, and he grabs Tony's wrists, pinning them down. "No."
Tony hates gambling. He says it anyways: "Both of you, or not at all. Talk to him. I can wait."
If he's read Steve right - if he's read any of this right -
Tony doesn't struggle in the Captain's hold, and he doesn't try to read the Captain's expression. He waits for the internal conference to end instead, and hopes that he hasn't just made a fatal mistake.
(panic attempts to set in, despite Tony's calm)
Then someone - Cap? Steve? he can't tell - is leaning down and kissing him, and it's not a gentle kiss, either. He decides that it's the Captain by how intense it is, by how deep and hot it is - the Captain kisses with his tongue and his teeth and Tony is panting by the time they come up for air.
There's wonder in the Captain's voice: "This is what he wanted for us."
"All of us," Tony says, and tries to lean up to kiss the Captain again, but he's still pinned.
"We're not done talking."
"Ste - Cap." Tony says, because how do you kiss someone like that and then decide to keep talking.
"That's something you need to understand, Stark," but he's smiling, "I have more restraint that he does."
"That doesn't translate to experience, does it?" Tony asks, smiling back.
"Not yet, no," the Captain has no shame, and Tony has to stop for a moment: he's getting involved with not one but two virgins? "Lose the smirk, Tony," Cap says, and then he's kissing him again.
A moment later, between gasps: "Can I take it that we're done talking?"
"Yes," says the Captain, and they are.
Tony learns that the Captain likes to be in control, that he will not hesitate to restrain Tony, and that beyond all the manhandling, he doesn't know what to do. Tony shows him where to touch, how to touch, and for a man who could kill him with his bare hands, he's clueless when it comes to the little death.
Finding that out about the Captain is about the point where Tony decides he might love him a little bit.
Love's new, but not unexpected. Tony can deal with it. Tony can even admit that he likes the idea of it, the idea of loving two people and the same person at the same time.
He can also admit that okay, fine, the Captain is real, he likes him, and he'll never like that attitude the Captain has but sacrifices can be made in the name of getting the rest of the man.
"If you want to draw me again, I can pose," Tony offers later. They're back where everything started, with Steve on the bed with his sketchbook and Tony just inside the doorway.
It's a funny thing to notice, but Tony grins it off as Steve blushes, glad to think back and realize that it's been a long time since he saw that naked fear on Steve's face.
"You don't need to pose," Steve says, and sits up. "I had a favor to ask, actually."
"Oh?" Tony abandons the question of 'does this mean you won't draw me naked' rather quickly, as:
"You promised to show me the Iron Man armor in better lighting," and that's right, he did, and Iron Man is better than naked pictures of himself.
Tony offers a hand as Steve gets off the bed, grinning. "Come with me, then," he says, sliding an arm around his waist. "I can model for you later," he promises, stealing a quick kiss.
There'll be time later, after all, for (finally) filling Fury in, for fighting super-villains, for figuring out the best way to balance the time-share between Steve and the Captain, for everything. Tony's sure of it.
"I'm glad you exist," Tony says as they enter the lab.
"I'd still be arguing with the Captain now if not for you," Tony says with a shrug.
"I don't think so," Steve says, watching him as he changes into the bodysuit. There's a smile on his lips, like he knows something Tony doesn't know.
"He spent a lot of time worried about me, remember?"
Tony looks at him, then fakes a glare. "Cockblocker."
"Slang," Tony says, and laughs. "I'll explain later. Check this out - " He steps into the boots, and then he's Iron Man. (And Steve is not Captain America, and that is okay.)