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Iron Man: Unavailable, Tony Stark: In Trouble

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An explosion rippled through the building and somewhere down the corridor the Hulk roared. Steve knew that this wasn't going to be a good combination. They had to act, and act quickly. The last thing they needed would be SHIELD involvement now that New York's police force had for the first time officially asked for the Avengers to handle this situation and they were acting on their own.

“Widow?” he asked, pressing the comm in his ear. “Hawkeye?”

“Civilians are out,” the voice of Natasha Romanoff informed him. “Clint is moving back up to make sure everyone is clear.”

He didn't even have time for a sigh of relief, sprinting up the stairs towards the fight. They had been called in, because a group of armed men had stormed the Roxxon headquarters and had threatened to set off a bomb if their demands weren't met, but the moment they'd appeared on the scene things had started to go wrong. Apparently whoever was behind this had their sights on Banner and all of this had just been a set-up.

Hulk had been acting strangely the moment he'd emerged back on the scene after engaging the first wave of their paramilitary adversaries.

Steve had a bad feeling about this. He needed to find Hulk and make sure things wouldn’t get out of hand.

“Where is Iron Man?” he shouted into the comm, while jumping into an open door, protecting himself against bullets with his shield. “We need him here. Where is he?”

“On his way from the west coast,” Natasha stated calmly. “He checked in some minutes ago. He’s close-by.”

“We need him right here,” Steve repeated. With Thor in Asgard it was obvious that they needed the backup of their armored Avenger more than usual. “Tell him to hurry. We need to make sure the Hulk isn’t in trouble.”

Clint snorted and quipped: “You’re just afraid he won’t be in time to take over in case Hulk is trouble, Cap. We should think of setting up a roster. With how often Stark takes Iron Man away to California, maybe we should maintain two teams to cover the whole country. I’d not say no to leading a West Coast Avengers team.”

“Sounds more fun than it would be, Clint. If aliens attack it doesn’t matter where they’ll hit. You won’t have time to care about your tan,” Natasha reminded him.

“Spoilsport,” Clint chided. “You’re just sour because you don’t like wearing bikinis.”

“Right back at you, Hawkeye.”

Steve bit his lip, leaving his team to their banter for the moment, running down a corridor as fast as he could. He could hear the Hulk close-by now, but that wasn't his main concern, as another bomb set off, the explosion rocking the building and throwing him forward. He hit a wall, managed to pull himself into position and duck behind the shield just in time to block the glass and debris raining down on him.

At this rate the building wasn't going to last long.

“Cap?” Natasha called. “You need to get out of there.”

“Not without Banner,” he said between his teeth.

He could see him now. The Hulk was fighting off what looked like a whole army of guys in heavy body armor.

“Take him out,” one of them shouted, pointing at Steve who was just now staggering to his feet, ready to attack if he had to. Something was still wrong with the Hulk, whose eyes settled on him as if he was seeing him for the first time, full of rage and something unpredictable and dangerous. Steve braced himself for an unpleasant fight ahead, ducking behind the protective metal as a heavy desk was flung his way.

He fully expected to be thrown back by the impact, to take the hit head on and then crash into the wall, to hear splintering wood or screeching metal.

Instead here was the sound of more breaking glass and a crash and a clank as the desk hit something, but there was no shock of impact. He immediately looked up over his shield to get a look at the situation when he heard the Hulk's enraged roar and saw nothing in front of him, but a red and gold metal back. Iron Man threw the remnants of the desk-turned-projectile to one side and looked at him over one shoulder.

“Hello, Cap,” he said in his deep, modulated voice that always managed to carry some very natural un-machine-like humor, “Couldn't wait for me?”

“Sorry.” He shrugged and smiled, calm in the face of the enemy now that the team was back at nearly full strength. “These paramilitary goons forced our hand. But you can join in any time you want. I left you some.”

“Hn-hmm,” Iron Man hummed. Steve always wondered how close the voice he was hearing was to the actual voice of the man inside that armor, because he couldn't imagine Iron Man with any other voice. Surely the voice wouldn’t carry so many emotions if it was far away from a real voice. “I see that someone couldn't wait to start trouble,” said, pulling him from his thoughts.

Hulk was watching both of them now intently, his eyes roaming over the armor. Steve again got the feeling like Hulk was studying them like he didn't recognize them at all. It made him uneasy. They'd come such a long way with Banner's green alter ego that being thrown back onto square one in the middle of a crisis wasn't only just disconcerting, it was worrying. Something was seriously wrong.

“Metal man,” the Hulk muttered, but didn't move. Neither did the armed thugs that were surrounding him. They were just waiting. And Steve knew what that meant. They were waiting for Hulk to do their dirty work, had been waiting for exactly that since Steve had appeared on the scene.

He was about to tell Iron Man about what he thought was going on here, when his friend moved out of a combat ready stance and shrugged. “Clever, that,” he said. “How did you get it on him?”

“We've been planning for this,” one of the terrorists said and smirked at Iron Man.

“Obviously,” he replied and made a shrugging motion and Steve was standing close enough to hear the hydraulics move the joints.

But it wasn’t the time to admire his friend’s armor or his calm in the face of another bunch of power hungry goons. So Steve focused back on the Hulk, looked for whatever it was that Iron Man had seen right away with the help of his superior sensors. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary to him, but when the Hulk made an impatient shrugging motion, something blinked at the side of his throat, a small metal plate with red blinking nodes.

“Mind control?” he asked under his breath.

Iron Man nodded immediately. “Something like that.”

“So was this whole set-up just to get us here and get control of our friend, or was this a lucky coincidence for you?”

The man who had spoken and was apparently in charge made a snappy motion with his hand. His men moved back immediately. “Call this a test run,” he said and fixed his cruel smile on Steve, just as the Hulk moved to strike.

“Hey, buddy,” Iron Man said, not moving out of the way, but catching Hulk's fist in his own grip. “Not your day, huh?”

He was flung aside like a rag doll and Steve barely had time to jump to the other side and out of the way, as Iron Man crashed through a wall. He didn't look back even when he heard more crashing, the worrying sound of crumbling concrete and the floor under his feet giving a distinct shudder. His eyes only focused on the fleeing men. He had to get to them, find a way to make the mind control stop.

“Cap?” Hawkeye's voice sounded in his ear. “You need to get out of there now.”

“On it,” he said, panting, as some of the fleeing thugs shot at him and he jumped out of the way, using his shield to knock one of them down as he went.

“I mean right now,” Hawkeye urged. “There are at least two more bombs on the third floor and I'm not sure I can defuse them in time.”

They were at least 12 stories up and he didn't need to be a master strategist to know that the building couldn't take another hit. He didn't stop running. In front of the windows on the other side of the floor the first men were throwing themselves out into a helicopter. He knew he could make it, saw the last of the group reach the window. He’d get them as long as he didn’t slow down.

“They're abandoning their mission.” This time it was Natasha's voice in his ear. She sounded calm and in control. But he could hear shots being fired around her.

He was still running and he didn't have time to plan his next move, just knew that he had to try to go after them, jump and get onto that copper when he reached the window. But behind him the Hulk was smashing in another wall, screaming his rage at all of them, and part of the ceiling caved in, making the floor shake and tremble violently beneath his feet.

Before he ever got to taking the jump he heard Iron Man say behind him: “You go on ahead. I’ll get him.” Then he stumbled as the floor beneath swayed and another dull explosion could be heard, then a loud crash. Hawkeye hadn’t made it in time and Steve could only hope that he’d made it out. He couldn’t keep running, stopped, concrete and dust raining down on him.

“Hawkeye?” he asked, watching the chopper rise and get away, and realized that the building would finally give out and he had nowhere to go. He whirled around to look for another way out, calculated the chances of taking a jump to a nearby building when he heard the sound of Iron Man's repulsors close to his left and metal hands settled on his shoulders. The next moment they were already out the window, his arms wrapped around the armored shoulders like in an embrace, and Iron Man was flying them out of harm's way.

“All clear,” Hawkeye informed them and Steve was simply relieved that their archer was alright.

“Hulk?” Steve asked, because he hadn't kept track of what had been going on behind him.

“With me,” Natasha said.

“I got those things off of him with a sonic blast and he jumped out before I came for you.”

He nodded at Iron Man, grateful that his teammate had made it in time, even though he’d been in Los Angeles with his boss when the emergency call had gone out. “Good. But this was a trap and they went for Hulk specifically. That’s not good at all.”

“All things point that way, yes. But: we still have a Hulk and that’s what counts. An angry Hulk. Angrier than usual, I mean,” Iron Man said as they heard Hulk growl his displeasure as he punched at blocks of concrete and whatever else got in his way and then slowly set him down on the ground a safe distance away from the damaged office building.

Around them it looked like they were in a disaster zone once again. Police cars were warding off the area and firefighters were on the move. Natasha was walking towards them, unfazed. Her face was dirty and there was blood on the corner of her lips, but she didn't seem seriously hurt. “Good to see you in one piece,” she said towards Steve and grinned. Then she winked at Iron Man. “Glad you made it in time. We were beginning to think you didn’t want to join the party.”

Iron Man gave a mock salute. “As if I’d ever turn down one of your invitations, Agent Romanoff.”

Steve had to smile. They always ended up teasing each other, bantering and joking, when the stress of battle subsided, sometimes even in the middle of it all. He never said so, but he loved it, remembered what it had been like with Bucky, Peggy and the Commandos. They were all professionals, but it was always so gratifying to know that the team got along well. “Thanks for the save, by the way,” he said and grinned at Iron Man. “You come in handy in a fight.”

His friend waved him away and it shouldn’t have looked so incredibly normal and human doing it in a red and gold suit of heavy armor. “You would have done the same for any of us, Cap.”

The conviction in his words warmed Steve’s heart. He had never even seen the man beneath the armor, but Iron Man had fast become one of his closest friends. It was so good to feel this sort of connection again, to no longer feel displaced and alone, without a home or purpose.

But there were more pressing matters occupying his mind at that moment. The Hulk, who really looked much angrier than usual, screamed in renewed rage suddenly. His gaze was focused upwards. Some of the choppers were still in close range and even as the building was shuddering like it would completely give out now, two of them were still circling close enough. Perhaps they were still waiting for someone, or something.

“Team? We’re not done here,” Steve said out loud. “We need to get them down. Do not let them get away.”

“Far ahead of you, Cap,” Clint told them over the open connection. Steve still had no idea where he was, hadn’t caught sight of him since very early in battle.

It was easy to see what would happen next. Never one to ask questions first, the Hulk jumped, higher than a being of his mass should be able to and held on to the chopper he could grab easily. The machine spun around, dropping with the Hulk's added weight.

“Iron Man? Can you make sure the other one doesn’t get away?”

His teammate gave him a silent thumbs up and lifted off in one quick and graceful motion that made his suit seem light.

There was no telling how many of their enemies had already gotten away, but it didn’t matter if they at least stopped as many as they could. In the distance he could see another helicopter moving away, but a small hovering aircraft - their new Quinjet - intercepted them.

So that was where Hawkeye was now. Good.

Iron Man had reached his own target, but didn’t get in close enough to grab it, before a compartment on the side of the machine opened and three small missiles were fired. There was only a split second for Iron Man to swoop to the side, but the projectiles practically turned mid air to follow. “Oh boy,” Iron Man was saying, although Steve couldn't tell if he was aware that the channel was still open. He was sprinting towards where the Hulk was by now successfully battling the other chopper to the ground. Their green teammate was grinning, visibly satisfied with this outcome, and Steve couldn't fault him for that.

He reached the chopper before it even completely touched the ground, rotors still spinning and metal groaning under the the strain of being pulled up and pushed down at the same time. Two men wearing the armored uniforms opened fire and Steve didn't even bother to use the shield for protection. With one practiced twist and a lot if force he aimed and threw it, catching both men in their mid sections hard, and jumping up mid run to catch the shield as it bounced back towards him without losing his forward momentum. “Good work, Hulk,” he shouted and pushed into the chopper to get at the pilot.

Behind him Natasha was shouting, before the noise of an impact drowned out everything, but he didn't have time to look away from the armed men in front of him to confirm what was going on. He needed to end this and quickly, before these people could cause even more destruction.

It took him less than a minute to knock out the pilot and get at the controls, see to it that the chopper would not cause any more damage on the ground. The dazed guys he'd knocked out were staring at the Hulk with unmasked fear on their faces. Steve grinned.

Then the other chopper crashed. Or at least it looked a bit like it was crashing.

“Iron Man!” Natasha was shouting.

Only then did Steve realize that Iron Man was stuck in between the crashing machine and the ground. There were flames engulfing them, when the pilot and his companions were making it out, but Iron Man was holding the carcass of the destroyed helicopter steady right in the middle of the fire. He shot a beam from his hands to take out the rotors, but not before he got hit by one of them, straining against it and ripping it off before it could do more damage. The screeching sound of the metal was ringing in Steve’s ears, but he was glad to see his friend moving, even as he was down on his knees and pushing the chopper away so he could get out.

Natasha was apparently already back to organizing the rescue efforts on the scene, firemen gathered around the crashed chopper to put out the flames, when Steve had left the men he'd just brought down with the Hulk with a group of police officers to walk over to Iron Man. Out of all of them only the Hulk could claim to be nearly indestructible, but their armored teammate sometimes acted as if he was, too. “Hey, Iron Man,” he called, as his friend shoved away the final parts of debris, slowly stood and stepped from the now dying flames. The normally shiny red and gold armor looked scratched and worn, but he couldn't make out any actual damages to the armored suit. So there was a chance that the man beneath the armor hadn't been injured, or hadn't been injured too badly at least.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m hot, but that’s just me,” he joked, then reassured them: “I’m okay. It's mostly my pride that's taken a little hit.”

“Why? This could have ended much worse. You got them down and nobody got hurt,” Natasha pointed out with a grim face.

“Nobody, but you,” Steve added and, as they watched the remaining goons be taken in by the local police forces. He gave him another careful once-over and patted his armored back. He always wondered if the man inside the metal suit even felt or registered it, or if he could only guess when someone touched him like this. Touch was one connection the armor made impossible. Steve missed it, the sheer physical connection he’d had with the Howling Commandos, with Bucky who had just flung an arm over his shoulder after battle and walked with him sometimes.

“Sometimes someone needs to take one for the team and we're a team and apparently today I was the one,” Iron Man told him, looking at him sideways. The mask had no expression, but Steve could imagine the man beneath grinning.

“And we’re a damn good team,” Hawkeye said as he walked up to them, the Hulk trailing behind him, keeping an eye on the police forces surrounding them. He came to stand uneasily beside Iron Man who looked up at him and gave him a thumbs up. Then a bit off debris fell to the ground behind them with a loud noise and Steve grimaced.

But Clint shrugged. “Come on, that’s not so bad. The days where nothing gets dented are few and far between anyway.”

“Someone has to clean up this mess,” Steve reminded him.

“We're handling that,” Iron Man said. “Mr. Stark is on his way back. He has people on stand-by who’ll help.”

Natasha nodded. “Pepper mentioned that he made some emergency plans for this.”

“Technically not our mess,” Hawkeye quipped and then glared over at the people that were taken in.

“Do you want to ask them to do it before going to prison?” Natasha asked.

Iron Man shrugged. “The Avengers are going to have a future no matter what. And that includes cleaning up after their messes. Mr. Stark has taken it into account.”

They would probably have to talk about that soon, perhaps when Stark arrived back in New York. They were all living in the Stark Tower building in apartments the man had provided them with, were taking advantage of the technology Stark provided them with, and so far there hadn’t been any demands on his part. The man was talking about his funding of the team, like he was seeing it as his civic duty. Howard had been like that too, but for all the good he’d readily done because he wanted to, there had always been a business man beneath the philanthropist exterior. It was hard to imagine his son to be any different. But they’d take help where they could get it as long as the team would go on. “Good,” Steve said and grinned towards Iron Man. “Because we've helped create this mess and it would be a right shame if we weren't around when it got cleaned up. Bad for our rep.”

“Avengers?” Natasha asked and gestured at the ruined office building. “You heard the man: This mess needs to be cleaned-up.”

Clint groaned and Steve laughed at him. “I wish Thor was around,” he mumbled, darkly staring at Steve as if he was the dad that was making him tidy up his room.

But Iron Man was already joining the firefighters in their efforts as if nothing had happened and Natasha had gone back to the Hulk to make sure he was fine now, calming down.

Steve couldn’t stop grinning. This was a routine he could get used to.

* * *

He woke up the moment the hand his chin had been resting on slipped and his body fell forward. Just in time he startled and caught himself, before his head could hit the table or worse. “Could have warned me,” he mumbled.

“I repeatedly reminded you that you've been awake for 22 hours now, sir,” the modulated voice of JARVIS informed him.

“Fair enough,” he admitted and yawned. “Is Mark 36 ready?”

“Ready, sir?” JARVIS asked as if he didn't know what Tony was talking about. Tony sometimes regretted giving him too much of a personality. Most of the time he saw it as one of his greatest achievements and it was only when JARVIS was beginning to sound like Pepper that Tony’s feelings changed a little in that regard. “You do not want to take it out for a test flight today.”

It was a statement more than a question. “No,” he said, stifling another yawn. But he had feeling that knowing it was ready would be the only thing to help him catch some actual sleep.

“You should go to bed, sir,” JARVIS stated. “Ms. Potts will meet you in 2 hours to talk about the legal documents for the Maria Stark Foundation.”

He smiled at the thought. His mother would have liked the sentiment: Her name on a foundation that would help New York come back from the destruction an alien invasion wrought and fund the team that had averted the crisis for a long time to come.

“So, JARVIS, make my day. Is Mark 36 ready?”

“No, sir. It will take approximately another 4 ½ hours to manufacture.”

A sigh escaped him: The sorrow of knowing that there was nothing he could do to speed up the process at this point combined with the realization that there was nothing more for him to do here. But nothing seemed more scary than to go up to his bed and wait for the nightmares to come. There was that enhancement for the Quinjet that he’d been thinking about. And there were the remains of the disks that their recent trouble makers had used to control the Hulk.

He’d taken one of them apart and put it together again, had run an analysis of the whole thing, but hadn’t found the time yet to actually look at any of it. And he was here and awake, maybe right now was the time. He looked at the holographic screen in front of him, saw the little digital time stamp and thought about his options. When he first got on it he had pondered asking Dr. Banner down to look at this together, but had thought better of it. The Avengers had stayed together for a while after battle yesterday to talk things through and “Iron Man” had conveniently claimed that Tony Stark wouldn’t arrive until later that night to make it less obvious that he was already here.

But maybe now was the time to get up and get the opinion of an esteemed colleague. Right now - before he would be too busy with other things. Pepper would arrive at around 9 o’clock to have him look at all the paperwork for the foundation and then things would finally move forward at a much faster pace. They were already setting up a press conference for later that week, when they wanted to go public with their plans for the official “Avengers Charter” that would irrevocably establish the Avengers as an official and independent force to be reckoned with.

It had been Steve’s idea and he and Iron Man had talked about it in detail before Tony had decided to take action. The talks had started the moment Steve had taken “them” up on their invitation to live in Stark Tower to take some time to find out what he wanted to do with his life in the here and now. After the near disaster of having New York nuked, all Avengers had easily agreed that maybe the “Avengers Initiative” was a good idea, but the control should be taken out of the hands of people who were ready to level the island of Manhattan to get rid of an alien army - while the resident population was still trapped in the war zone. The Avengers wanted to be a force for good and they needed room to make their own decisions to do that.

And Tony had jumped at the chance to make it all work.

His life had been anything but boring since then - not that it had been particularly boring before that. He hated boring. The team was important to him and this was something he could easily provide: the money and connections to get them off to a good start and legal security. This much he could do for the team when he wasn’t Iron Man.

But he needed to also think about the more immediate threats they faced. Like the possibility of a terrorist controlled Hulk.

“Let me know when the suit is ready, JARVIS,” he said and got up. “I’ll take a shower.”

He got up, stretching his arms, and only remembered why that was a bad idea when a searing pain shot through his body and he winced. He'd hurt his shoulder when breaking that chopper's fall yesterday. Right then he'd still been running on enough adrenaline to simply push through the pain, but that had worn off sometime before he'd nearly fallen asleep. Something needed to be done about that, before he went out to meet anyone. Tony Stark had no reason to walk around with injuries after Iron Man had been in a fight.

“Too bad you're no good for patching me up, JARVIS,” he muttered.

“An oversight on your part, sir.”

He smirked. “I gave you sass. I feel quite accomplished anyway.”

There was no question of leaving the workshop to take the shower upstairs in the luxurious bathroom he'd never even used once yet. He'd had a little shower stall installed down here for a reason. And not only because he tended to spend more time in his workshop than anywhere else anyway, but also because Iron Man and Tony Stark were supposed to be different people and so he did most of his after battle clean-up down here - when he was in New York and had a bunch of smart and observant people around who would notice this kind of injury or the fact that Tony Stark didn’t look clean and rested every time Iron Man had been punched into the ground. Better to stay completely out of sight.

Awkwardly he slipped out of the black muscle shirt first and then shrugged off his jeans, dropping them messily on the floor where he was standing in front of the shower stall. “When is Pepper coming again?”

“In two hours, sir,” JARVIS informed him as he stepped into the shower.

The hot spray of water was relief for his tense body, but the shoulder ached even more, as if every slight prick caused by the water on his skin registered with the sore area. Perfunctorily he lathered his hair with shampoo, took care to rinse the cuts and grimy stains on his hands. Before he went up he needed to make sure to look his best. Nobody was supposed to know he had been here all night.

His mind wandered back to the mind-control device lying on his workbench.

He really wanted Bruce Banner to look at that; another pair of eyes, another brilliant mind to catch what he might be missing.

The sooner they figured out a way to neutralize devices like it in the future the better.

Team safety was still top priority.

* * *

Steve hadn’t yet gotten used to living in Stark Tower, but he was beginning to like it here. Initially he hadn’t been fond of the idea. But there was something comforting in the way the morning staff nodded and smiled at him when he entered the lobby in his track pants and t-shirt, like he was just one of their favorite tenants, all professional and glad to see him, but never making him feel like he was someone to be gawked at. The few month he’d spent on his own and on SHIELD bases had been enough of people watching his every move like he was either a potential threat to be monitored or a legend to be in awe of.

It set him apart and he hated it.

None of the Avengers were in awe of him like that and he was glad about it. They were all equals here and he had missed that feeling of living with people he respected and cared for.

He’d earned their respect, too, but none of them were treating him like he was any different.

It was like he’d finally come home.

“Good morning,” he greeted, as he passed the receptionist and made his way to the elevators on the other side that lead up to their private levels on top of the tower. He had called this building ugly once, when he’d met the man whose name was on it for the first time and hadn’t been impressed. Now he’d rather be here than anywhere else.

Even the short elevator ride up to his apartment was soothing. He’d taken up listening to music while running and although it was just a short ride up, he leaned back and enjoyed the final notes of the song. There was so much to catch up with, so much he'd missed while he’d slept in the ice, and now that he had a little more time on his hands between missions he relished the chance to rectify that.

He went up to his floor, took a quick shower and barely dried his hair before dressing. He was in a good mood today and he hummed to himself as he quickly made his way up the stairs to the floor that Clint was jokingly calling “Avengers Clubhouse”. Steve had asked Iron Man once in the beginning whose idea it had been to have them share a floor, with a big kitchen and a spacious and open living room with enough room on the big sofa for all of them at the same time. Iron Man had simply shrugged and said: “Mr. Stark thought it was a good idea.” He hadn't said any more about it after, like he often did when it came to Stark's projects. Steve suspected that their armored friend had had a say in all of it, had at least given some advice on the designs for their living quarters. There were too many small details that showed a deeper knowledge of the people who had been invited to live here, the sort of insight that only Iron Man could actually have about them.

The cupboards had even been filled with Natasha's favorite brand of tea and Steve remembered very clearly how Natasha had told Iron Man about that particular preference. It only convinced Steve even more of something that he had already thought was the case: Iron Man cared about this team just as much as he did.

It made sense to Steve, of course, to see the team as a sort of extended family, not just comrades in arms. Since he'd woken up, he'd felt adrift and alone, but his work and life with the Avengers had grounded him and given him what he needed to find himself again. And although he didn't know anything about Iron Man's life outside the armor, some of the things he said and did implied that he had a very good understanding of the situation Steve was in. From the very beginning it had been easy to talk to him, to connect. Maybe, because at the heart of it Iron Man was just as committed to this team as he was, perhaps because he also had needed to connect with someone and find his place in this world.

He could only guess at Iron Man's reasons, of course, but the readiness with which Iron Man had taken to him, the readiness with which he’d offered friendship and offered him a place here with him and Stark was telling.

Steve really wanted to ask, wanted to know and understand. But Iron Man’s  identity status seemed important enough to him for Steve not to push too hard, afraid to drive his friend away. He was a patient man when he needed to be and he would take whatever details Iron Man felt comfortable sharing, making sure to never let any of it get back to his employer in case it would get him in trouble.

When he arrived Natasha sat at the broad kitchen counter that was big enough to also serve as a kitchen table. She looked at him with a curious expression. “Did you break your hair dryer?”

“No,” he said and grinned. Everyone was making jokes about him being the “old man on the team” and supposedly still confused about today's technology. They all knew better, of course. Catching up had been confusing and overwhelming for a while, but it came much easier when you had accepted your place in the future that you had never expected to be part of.

“Huh,” she said. “So this is a choice, yes? Wet hair? Trying to start a trend? I'm not saying it doesn’t look good on you. But are you trying to give Stark a run for his money.”

“Stark?”

“With the slightly disheveled look.” She grinned at him. “The media loves his disheveled look.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen him anything but well groomed and conscious of it,” he said, trying to think of a single time that Stark hadn’t been dressed to go out. Even when he came to pick up Banner for some shared time in the labs, he was wearing dark jackets or stylish shirts. It was hard to miss. He was an attractive man after all, and he obviously knew it, too. It made Steve quite determined to not notice it.

Natasha laughed. “Strange,” she admitted. “I saw him quite out of sorts a few times when I was working for him, but you’re right, he’s always looking especially good when he comes to meet us here.”

Only when Steve got around the corner and closer to the counter did he notice Bruce at the kitchen sink, apparently just preparing a cup of tea for himself.

“Good morning, Steve,” he greeted when Steve got closer. “You were out running?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I like my routine.”

“All old people do,” Natasha supplied helpfully and grinned at him over her own steaming cup.

“So I'm often told.” He looked around, couldn't see hide nor hair of either Clint or Iron Man and turned back to his friends. “It's only us? Rest of the team not around?”

“Clint is going to be around whenever he's around. He does have a complicated life,” Natasha explained. “And I suppose Iron Man would rather have breakfast somewhere where he can lift his mask without giving away his secret. Makes eating less of a pain, I imagine.”

Steve nodded. “Makes sense.” He would have liked things to be different. It would have been great to have breakfast together and talk to his friend, make sure he was alright after the thrashing he'd taken last night. But he understood the need for privacy, especially with someone who had to be careful about not tripping up, with someone who couldn’t share everything with you.

That very moment Clint was rounding the corner, like a starved man in search of breakfast. “It's a shame, isn't it?” he asked, before joining them in the kitchen and opening the fridge and surveying the food inside.

“What do you mean?” Steve asked, watching him with an amused grin.

“Shellhead. Would be cool if he could be around for team breakfast.”

Natasha raised an eyebrow at him and asked: “We do team breakfast? Must have missed that memo.”

“You know what I mean.”

“He needs to protect his secrets,” she said calmly and gave Clint a long intense look, as if in warning. “I can respect that. So should you.”

Bruce was nodding, too.

Steve, who had worked with agents of all kinds, understood the need for secrecy. “It would be nice if he could be around more, but for all we know he has a family somewhere and wants to have breakfast with wife and kids instead of hanging out with us all the time. And he has responsibilities that we might not know about.” The possibility of Iron Man living a happy family life outside the Avengers amused him, but he didn’t actually believe it was true. The man was around too often, was always here for some reason or other, accompanied Tony Stark across the globe at a minutes notice and was back here sitting on the sofa in the middle of the night to listen to Steve talk about his life before the ice, or his new life here.

“I don’t know, Cap,” Clint said with a snort. “I think he’d rather have breakfast with you if given the choice. You two are always together like an old married couple anyway.” Clint was looking at Steve over his shoulder, fishing a container of milk from the fridge. “Do you think this is his choice? Keeping his identity from us?”

Steve shrugged. How was he supposed to know? It wasn’t like any of them had ever even asked the question. “He's under contract. It may or may not be. Doesn't matter. Just the way it is.”

“So you do think Stark has a say in it.”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “Of course, he has a say in this. It's his suit of armor. Not the cheapest piece of equipment to entrust someone with. Iron Man is his employee, his bodyguard. And after Stark spent three month in captivity I can't fault him for coming up with the idea in the first place. He has his reasons to only trust a few people with his technology and I’m sure Iron Man understands that need for trust. His job very likely depends on it.”

“It’s a wonder Stark trusts anyone enough to let them be Iron Man.” Clint chuckled at the thought.

“So you don't still think he's a robot then?” Bruce smirked at Steve, wry amusement sounding in his voice.

It was Steve's turn to roll his eyes and then grin a bit. “I'd know if my best friend was a robot, thank you very much.”

Hawkeye widened his eyes comically and gasped. “Cap! You're playing favorites! I'm wounded.”

“He's not a robot,” Natasha agreed. While it seemed that Bruce and Steve were the two of them who spent the most time with Iron Man outside of situations that made their intervention as a team necessary, Natasha had been working well with Iron Man from the very beginning, maybe because they had an understanding since the time that she'd been sent by SHIELD to observe the situation at Stark International a few years ago.

Steve had read all about it in the mission file and had taken note of Natasha's assessment of the situation back then and he knew it had tinged the way he saw both Iron Man and his employer. She had stressed very firmly that she recommended Iron Man for the Avengers Initiative. In her words he was an asset to any team, and maybe the most powerwulf player on the board at the time. But she had also been very clear about what she thought about his ties to Tony Stark and Stark Industries. Tony Stark was a very egocentric and at times troubled man, who could not be trusted with a weapon like the Iron Man suit and whose own sense of power and whose trust issues might lead to utter disaster. After meeting the man for the first time on the Helicarrier right after he’d met Iron Man in Stuttgart, Steve had no problem to agree with her assessment. Stark was a man used to getting his way, had a clear vision of how the world was supposed to work, the conviction that he was the smartest man in the room and the arrogance that came with all of that. He was infuriating and confrontational and didn’t like SHIELD any better than SHIELD operatives liked him.

Still, Iron Man trusted him and he’d been kind enough to offer the Avengers a place with them outside of SHIELD, and that was a nice enough gesture for Steve to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“Rhodes is flying one of the suits, remember? Stark has some kind of agreement with the military about that one, and he was very insistent that it’ll be called off if anyone but Rhodes is to pilot it. Iron Man’s not a robot. There’s a pilot inside the armor.”

Hawkeye waved a hand in front of his face. “Of course, shellhead is no robot. But do you think he would tell us who he is if keeping it secret wasn’t part of his contract or something?”

“You really think it's part of his contract?” Steve asked. He tried to think of all the times that Iron Man had actually talked about his bodyguard job or the relationship he had with Tony Stark and couldn't remember an arrangement like this ever being mentioned.

Bruce took a sip of his tea, before he looked at Steve slowly. “It's likely. But he might have other reasons to prefer us to see Iron Man when we look at him.”

Steve had never right out asked the questions, accepting Iron Man's need for privacy, but he couldn't stop mulling things over now. Was the suit a way for him to go on living, hold a job without anyone recognizing him, a way for him to work where otherwise he couldn't or shouldn’t? What if Iron Man needed the armor for more than just the obvious reasons? What did they really know about the armor and all it could do?

“I just never thought about it possibly being part of his contract.” He tried to grin, a tiny part of him glad that this could mean that Iron Man didn't just keep his identity a secret because he didn't trust them with it. It also made him a little sad, because that meant the situation wasn't likely to change any time soon.

“We are obligated not to tell you all about any SHIELD secrets that you don’t have clearance for. That’s why they’re secrets. And who knows if it's even always the same person we're dealing with? Ever thought about that? Iron Man could be more than one person,” Clint said. “Nat was sure that Rhodes was inside that armor for a while, taking over for the original pilot. You said so? Remember? During that time when Stark was attacked by the drones...”

Steve had never heard her speak of that before. Hearing it now for the first time was like a punch to the gut. That possibility had never even occurred to him. Even the possibility felt like betrayal. “It's been the same man ever since we worked together. I'm sure of that,” he said out loud and believed it. He knew he needed to believe it or he would never be able to trust himself around Iron Man in the way he did now.

Natasha studied him, her hands folded around her cup and then slowly nodded. “I think so, too. There could have been reasons for someone to take over for a short time back then. Maybe the real Iron Man was hurt and couldn't pilot the suit. I know something was going on. But after that he was just like he’d been before.”

“His ears must be ringing by now, wherever he is, with all the speculating we’re doing,” Steve said wryly. “I hope he wasn't hurt yesterday. He took quite the beating.”

Bruce winced. “The green guy punched him through a wall, didn't he?”

“Ah,” Clint interjected. “Don't worry, Doc. Iron Man is tough. And he's shielded by that armor of his. I’m sure he’s Hulk-proof by now.”

“Still must have hurt.”

“I hope he's around later,” Steve said. “I really want to make sure he's okay.”

“He'll be so glad to hear you're worried for him, Captain,” someone said from the direction of the elevators. “He has the day off though. The armor took most of the abuse and we need to see to that before he can go back to work.” Tony Stark was standing in their space, a small, self-confident smile playing on his lips as if he was amused, but there was something else in his blue eyes and Steve couldn't really place it.

“Is he really okay?” he asked reflexively. He hadn’t been worried this morning, mostly because Iron Man had stayed with them yesterday evening, but it always left him a little uneasy when the man didn’t turn up again the day after a fight. There was simply no way of telling how many injuries the body inside the armor had sustained.

Stark waved his hand around in a grand gesture, as if it was nothing. “He's fine. Tough guy. Can take being knocked around a little. Some might say that he needs it sometimes. That’s why he has the job. But that's not what I'm here to talk about...” His eyes fixed on Bruce then and he took a small tablet from his suit jacket, activating it. A holographic display sprang up, some technical illustration of a device that looked like flat round disks. Steve knew what it was without anyone having to point it out.

And so did Banner. He gasped as his eyes fell on it. “That's what...?”

“I thought you might want in on this one. After what it nearly made you do. The Hulk under anyone’s control is a scary thought.” The matter of fact tone made Stark sound cold and maybe a little cruel for reminding Bruce of what had happened, of what might have happened if Iron Man hadn’t been around. But the doctor didn't even flinch, stepping around the counter to get a closer look at it.

“Took it apart to make it give up all its secrets and to get the 3D model as accurate as possible.” Stark grinned at Bruce, like he'd just presented him with an awesome present.

His teammate reacted with immediate excitement – and that was something he rarely allowed himself. “Fascinating. I've never seen anything like it. But you're the engineer, Tony.”

“Haven't figured it out yet, Doc. And I hate that feeling. So want to help me crack it?”

Steve hadn't realized that Bruce was on a first name basis with Stark now. It made sense though, with them spending quite a bit of time working together when Stark was actually around for once.

“What is it exactly?” Steve asked and looked from the 3D representation back to Stark who met his eyes with a piercing stare. He half-expected Stark to make a joke about Steve’s inability to even grasp the concept. But he just shrugged, smiled at him and explained: “I'm calling them control discs for a lack of a better name. That's what they do after all. Never seen anything like it before either. But I can tell you it's the nightmare of every human rights organization I can think off. Whoever built it must have money to back up that kind of research and put something this advanced on terrorist market. Obviously whoever they are they have their eyes on the Avengers.”

Banner nodded with a grim expression. “I want in.”

Stark handed him the tablet and nodded. “Welcome aboard then.” He gestured towards the door, smiled at Natasha before turning around to leave, Bruce now hot on his heels. Abruptly he stopped and turned back. “Oh, Captain Rogers. Check your email. We're going to need a press conference soon. The Avengers are here to stay. Barton if you don't fetch those arrows from my workshop I'll assume you don't want them,” he fired off at an astounding speed. “Agent Romanoff?”

Natasha turned to look at him with a blank face.

“Carry on.”

Her lips curved a little, and she smiled even more as Stark spun around and vanished down the hallway without another word to anyone.

Clint saluted after him and then shrugged at Steve. “Check your email now. I want to know what we're in for.”

They scanned the documents together. It seemed that Stark's legal team was worth the undoubtedly insane amount of money they were paid. There was a founding charter that included all the points that they'd previously agreed upon, and documents that explained the matter in more detail. There was a whole document pertaining to a special foundation Stark was setting up to pay for all of them - their equipment, their expenses, their lives - and that would take care of and pay for damage control and clean up. But most importantly it seemed that Tony Stark's influence was winning people over and Captain America would be allowed to speak in front of congress and in front of the UN to make their case.

The Avengers would go on. A force to be reckoned with. A force for good.

Independently.

Stark was infuriating and hard to deal with sometimes, but underneath it all it seemed he really was a better man than Steve would have given him credit for just months ago. Or at least he and his company were getting enough positive attention out of their connection with Iron Man and the Avengers that it made doing the right thing worth his while.

Whatever the case, Steve knew that he was grateful for all that he’d done for them.

* * *

It all went perfectly.

The announcement of the Maria Stark Foundation went as planned and the media was all over the news that they were readily giving out money that was still needed for the rebuilding of the city even a year after the Chitauri attack. Pepper organized a wonderful reception and both she and Tony spent a whole evening shaking hands and getting some important people on board with their newest project.

The press conference that announced the new status of the Avengers just a day later was the even bigger news though. And although Steve had repeatedly pointed out that he was bad at handling the media, Captain America made all the difference, explaining to the world exactly why the Avengers were important, why they needed to be independent, why they could be trusted. They were heroes. The city already loved them - for being theirs, for having saved them, for living among them. But it wasn’t only New York. People all around the world were looking to them and the excited responses were overwhelming. Not all reactions were positive, far from it, but there wasn't as much push-back as their legal department had expected.

Tony wasn’t surprised. The world had watched the alien invasion on live television. The Avengers hadn't just saved one city. And the people of the world seemed to understand that.

What surprised him was that there hadn’t been more trouble with SHIELD, more government interference. Instead it all went smoothly. The president even called him to personally thank him for the effort he'd put into this, to thank him for agreeing to let the military keep War Machine, and then asked to personally meet Captain America to talk about the team and their plans for the future. They held another press conference to introduce their line-up, although there was still no sign of Thor.

For a while Steve's picture was on all the major magazines and it gave Tony a quiet thrill every time he saw a new cover pop up.

But it wasn't only Steve.

Stark International stock was on the rise. Iron Man received more fan mail than ever. And Tony felt good about it all. But the constant media events made it necessary for both Tony and Iron Man be around so much of the time, that he was exhausted.

Opting to give in to Pepper and use the quiet to get some papers signed and his head clear before he needed to meet people again, he was sitting in his Stark Tower office. His mind was already back in the workshop and on all the armor upgrades he needed to get to, when Happy brought in a whole stack of letters to Iron Man that Pepper had personally picked out for him to look at. “Aww,” he said and gave Happy a crooked smile. “Kids just love Iron Man, don't they?”

“Everyone loves Iron Man and the Avengers, boss.”

They grinned at each other. “Aren't you supposed to be on your way to pick up Pepper from the airport?”

“You seemed stressed in the last few days and things are going well for once, so Pepper thought you should have some appreciation.”

He laughed. “She didn't say that. What happened to my ego being too big for this building?”

“As long as it keeps you going...”

“You just don't want to upset the person who pays you.”

“You’re both paying me.” Happy waved at him with a grin and left the door open as he went. Tony ignored it.

Instead he looked at the first few letters, finding a drawing of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America in the third, when someone knocked at the door frame. He looked up, sure he was going to see Happy who'd forgotten something or his assistant who had returned from the errand run he'd sent her on, but instead found Steve standing in his doorway, wearing surprisingly casual clothes, watching him cautiously.

“I'm sorry, Mr. Stark. I'm not disturbing you?” Then he spotted the brightly colored drawing Tony was still holding. “Does Iron Man know you're going through his mail?”

He didn't sound hostile as much as carefully disapproving, and Tony had to keep from smiling, hiding it by coughing into one hand. Steve had become strangely protective of Iron Man lately and Tony knew he shouldn't feel so happy and flattered about that. It wasn’t like Steve had any idea who he was dealing with. But loyalty was always a good look on Steve Rogers and Tony could indulge the childish feeling of glee that Captain America was his friend - at last half it the time. Steve was important to him, too. “We have people looking at these and answering. You know that's how we're dealing with yours, too, right?”

“I know, just... I'm getting to see mine. He's getting them, right? It's not just someone answering and he never actually sees them?”

“Cute. Always looking out for your friends. That's so admirable. Don’t worry. He sees them. Usually as soon as I do. Promise.”

Steve cleared his throat, leaning inside the doorway his hands in his pockets and watching him with a slight frown as if he was considering something. Then his features smoothed out and he cocked his head to the side with a neutral smile. “That's what I wanted to talk to you about. Iron Man. We... the team... want to celebrate our new official status tonight and Iron Man isn't around. You know where he is, don't you?”

“You said Iron Man, right? Yeah, I think I know where he is,” he grinned, but Steve only watched him attentively. “He's at our new facility in Jersey, making sure of some security detail. He'll be back soon,” Tony lied without blinking. Part of him wanted to laugh, but he was too good at this whole game to give himself away that easily.

“Good,” Steve said with a nod, but didn't move away. “There is... I know he's your employee. But he's also part of the team.” He let that hang in the air between them like a warning and Tony felt equal parts annoyed and excited about that. Obviously he had been a bit too confident about his own ability to play this game. His double life was getting to him a bit where Cap was concerned. “But we're grateful for all you've done for the Avengers… what you’re still doing,” Steve continued. It looked like he was biting his lip, choosing his words very carefully. “We wouldn’t be here if not for you. You’ve put a lot of work into this, too. So... Do you maybe want to come up and celebrate with us?”

In moments like these Tony was always glad that he'd dealt with the media and public interest in his person for as long as he could remember, because his public persona immediately took over. He really wanted to say “yes”, but how was he supposed to do that? It was so rare that Steve wanted to have Tony around as Tony, but he couldn’t make it too obvious that Iron Man could still only be around, socializing with his friends, when Tony Stark wasn’t there in the same room. “I'm flattered. But I'm sorry, Rogers. I'm very busy. And most of that work wasn’t done by me. I pay people for that. Like Iron Man. He’s the one who is an Avenger.”

Steve nodded as if he'd expected as much. He didn't look especially sad about his refusal and Tony wanted to sigh, disappointed. “Bruce and Natasha thought we should at least extend the invitation,” he said and shrugged as if it was no big deal.

And to him it probably wasn't.

Tony felt the urge to say something flirty, because Steve’s indifferent demeanor just asked for it, and then remembered himself and instead gave his best cocky PR smile. “I'm not an Avenger and there are some society girls who expect me to make an appearance at a different party this evening. Have a good celebration with your team, Captain Rogers. I'll send Iron Man your way as soon as his work is done.”

“Thank you,” Steve said neutrally. When they'd met for the first time they'd been at each other's throats in minutes and although Captain America and Iron Man had worked together perfectly from the very beginning and had by now become friends, the tension between Steve and Tony remained. It had amused Tony for a time, and the tension had been making it easier to keep his distance from the team when they'd still been under the thumb of SHIELD, giving Tony a reason to watch his every step around them. Even now it was making it easy to play two different people, using his own public persona and just being a secretive version of himself when he wore the mask of Iron Man especially around Steve. It was also something he regretted.

He was still not sure about Romanoff and Barton and their status as SHIELD agents, but there was no doubt in his mind that Steve and Bruce could be trusted without question. But even if he would tell one of them his secret now after all this time, wouldn't they just feel played? And wouldn't they be right? He'd rather have their friendship than their contempt.

Or even worse – their pity, when they found out all there was to know about him. How could they trust Iron Man to do his job once they learned that he was just a messed up man with a heart problem inside a metal suit?

“No problem,” he said in a deceptively light tone, as Steve turned away to leave. “Have fun.”

His newest secretary had just returned with two coffees in her hands and was smiling at Steve with a dreamy smile as he passed her. Steve, always the nice person, smiled back at her and nodded a brief greeting, and Tony realized with a pang that there would never be pleasantries like this for Tony Stark, who Steve appreciated and respected as the Avenger's backer, but still judged to be a person who he didn't especially like personally.

The report Agent Romanoff had filed on Iron Man's possible role in the Avengers Initiative still influenced how the team was seeing him even without SHIELD calling the shots right now: Iron Man was a welcome asset, but Tony Stark’s involvement was something to be watched carefully. To SHIELD he was an arrogant socialite who just happened to be a brilliant inventor and formerly useful weapons manufacturer; a businessman with his own agenda and not to be trusted. In the early days SHIELD and Nick Fury had tried to push him into building tech - which very decidedly meant weapons - in exchange for them staying out of the Iron Man business, later they had tried to pressure him into giving up Iron Man's identity and terminate his contract with Stark Industries, so that Iron Man could become a full time SHIELD agent and a useful weapon in their arsenal. They had wanted him to become a part of SHIELD with Tony himself nothing but the “consulting” engineer who took care of the technical side of things and preferably also payed for it out of the goodness of his heart. “Think of the good press, you’d get,” Fury had told him with a stern face. “People’ll know who built the suit.”

“They will also know what he’s being used for,” he said with a sneer. “Iron Man is already doing a good job without you.” None of the posturing had impressed him. So Nick had tried to go to Iron Man directly and make him see things his way. Tony still bristled even thinking about it. He couldn’t fault Nick for trying though.

If Rhodey hadn't at the right time forced his hand with War Machine and the government now had a very good reason to be very grateful to Tony and his company, SHIELD would have pressed the issue to the breaking point, no doubt. But by then Tony had become quite good at watching his own back at all times and he’d be damned if he’d give in to the demands of an organization that had allowed the Tesseract incident to escalate like it had. He didn't even blame Fury for any of it, but it had confirmed his fears about the organization as a whole. In the end even Nick Fury himself couldn't guarantee what a weapon in the SHIELD arsenal would be used for – even if he was convinced that he'd do what was necessary to protect humanity.

Small wonder Tony couldn't stop watching his back even now. Trust had never come easy for him, but even with the few people he let into his life, he'd ended up with an arc reactor in his chest as a constant reminder that even people you trusted could turn on you.

When he finally finished up his work, messaging Pepper that he would spend the evening with the Avengers, he took the new suit for a spin to clear his mind, before going up to meet the team. Steve shoved a soda with a straw at Iron Man the moment he stepped out of the elevator. “Glad you could make it, shellhead,” he said and his smile was so open and sincere that Tony felt his heart skip a beat. It was so different from the way Steve had reacted to him in the office it was heartbreaking. But it was also breathtaking. Sometimes it was good that had the armor to keep the world at bay, because otherwise he'd be giving himself away all the time; around Steve at least.

“A straw?” he asked, inspecting the soda, knowing that he wouldn't be able to drink or eat anything through the mask in any case.

Steve shrugged. “I'd hoped it would help? No slits? Can't you lift the mask a little?”

“Sorry, no can do.”

“Hmm.” Steve's face turned serious immediately and Tony longed to bring the smile back somehow. “That's too bad.”

Tony patted him on the back and handed the soda back. “I'm glad to spend time with the team. Everything else isn't really a problem. Don't worry about me.”

“We were going to order pizza,” Clint said from across the room where he was lounging on their armchair. “It's a bit awkward if you're the only one who can't join in.”

“Pretend I’m a robot.” Tony shrugged, not sure really how to deal with something like this. When he'd started out as Iron Man it had been a one man job. Afghanistan had been fresh in his mind and Obie's betrayal had been hanging over his head. Iron Man had been a means to an end, just as much as an armor to shield himself with. His priorities had been easy: Protect people, make a difference, don't allow people to get hurt by the things he’d created and make sure that the few people that were actually close to him were safe. Then SHIELD had taken an interest and suddenly Tony had found a whole bunch of new and unexpected threats hanging over his head. Iron Man eating pizza in front of other people without compromising his identity hadn't been at the top of his list of concerns during any of it.

“You should ask Tony to build you an armor for occasions like this.” Banner was sipping tea and crookedly smiling at him. He loved the man's wry humor that only came through when he was this relaxed. “After all you're wearing a new armor again anyway. How many has he given you by now? Is that number twelve?”

“Something like that...”

“So I assume he wouldn't have a problem with building you yet another one from scratch.”

“I'll put that idea past him,” he said, finding that he was even actually considering it.

“He’ll probably jump at the chance. He’s a party animal. He'll understand the need for a party armor,” Clint remarked.

Tony had nothing to say to that. He’d done a lot to build up this image of himself . And it wasn't like it was a complete lie either. Very few people knew the other side of him and it had served him well when he’d needed to conceal that he didn't have as much time for parties as he'd once had.

Steve trailed after him as he walked farther into the room. “Would he do that? Build you a new armor? If you asked, I mean?”

He shrugged and Natasha smiled at him with an amused glint. She often did it when he tried to convey normal body language in the armor. Supposedly for someone with her skill of reading and pretending to be other people, watching a man who seemed like a robot while behaving like a human was another interesting case study. So he made a point of sitting down beside her, one arm stretching out along the back of the sofa as if he was going to put the moves on her. She just raised an eyebrow at him, quietly amused.

Steve, either completely oblivious to what he and Natasha were playing at, or purposefully ignoring it, sat down beside him, still watching him as if he was pondering something. He was still waiting for an answer apparently. “Mr. Stark likes challenges. Maybe a socializing armor will be an interesting project when he's less busy.” Pepper would roll his eyes at him if he ever attempted it and that alone was making it worth it.

It was a hilarious and ill advised thought, but at least it seemed to comfort Steve somewhat.

They had fun, bantering, wondering when they would see Thor again. Steve stayed right beside him even as Natasha moved over to sit between Banner and Barton. He watched his team have fun, and eat and joke around, glad that he’d made it possible for them to stay together.

They all got along wonderfully. Steve was laughing, relaxed and as open as Tony had never seen him. He also ate like he'd expected someone with a high metabolisms to eat, nearly breathing in the food, but at the same time like someone who knew to savor food when it was on the table. He scrunched up his nose when Clint just put away the crusts of the pizza slices he'd eaten. And then halfway through eating Steve started putting away a slice of every pizza they’d ordered into a separate box. “Putting away a midnight snack, old man?” Clint quipped.

But Steve's earnest expression was all for Iron Man. “That's for you. You can at least eat something later. Hope you don't mind cold pizza.”

It wasn't necessary, and he really wanted to point it out, but his voice caught in his throat and he just couldn't deny Steve.

“You could eat outside,” Bruce pointed out and nodded towards their small roofed terrace, the one that was beneath the one that belonged to Tony's private level. “I swear I and the green guy are going to make sure nobody is going to sneak a peak.”

“I'm going to make sure of it, too,” Steve promised, immediately warming to the idea. “Count on us.”

Natasha watched him, too. “We're not going to rat you out to your boss if that’s a problem.”

He smiled, knowing that nobody could see it. Rhodey would laugh at him, when he told this story. “It's really fine guys. I work for Stark Industries and they pay well. I promise I have food at home. I'm not starving.”

But he realized that this was more important to his friends than it was to him, so he thanked them for the sentiment and promised to take the pizza with him, when he went down to his level. Not that he ever really used that level, only keeping up the pretense for the team.

They ended their evening in a good mood, when Clint received a summons from SHIELD and they broke up their little get-together. Tony stepped out onto the porch when it was only him and Cap left, lifting up to hover a little in the night air in front of Stark Tower. Steve trailed after him, putting his arms on the railing and watching him fly. “Your pizza is still sitting on the table.”

“I know, mother hen.”

Steve chuckled at that, his eyes twinkling with mirth and he looked down at the city, his face growing wistful. “I come up here sometimes to just watch the city. It’s so different.”

“It's beautiful,” Tony offered.

“Yeah, and resilient.”

“Still missing how things were once upon a time?” Steve rarely talked about it these days, but it must still be hard to look back at a far removed past that had been his present for so long.

“Sometimes,” he admitted. Then his blue gaze focused back on him, as Tony swooped up a little, letting himself fall and catching himself, one leg drawn up, and hovering suddenly right in front of Cap. He knew he was showing off. It wasn't in his nature not to. “Flying like that must be amazing,” Steve said and grinned.

He did a half-shrug in mid air. “I've carried you before. If you want to we can go flying together sometime, you know, when there's no explosions going on all around? How about that?”

“I'd like that,” Steve said softly, like it was something he'd been thinking about. Then his face sobered up. “Can I ask you something? You don't have to answer.”

“Of course. Shoot, Cap.”

“Would you tell me your name, if you could? If you weren't required to keep it a secret?”

He'd been afraid of this line of questioning since he'd overheard the team speculating about this. But this was more personal than he'd expected.

“I mean,” Steve immediately qualified. “I respect your need for secrecy. And maybe the armor is important to you for other reasons than just keeping your private life private. I realize that's none of my business. But would you tell me your name, if you could? Just a name other than Iron Man?”

“I can't,” he said, his voice strained, and even he realized that it was easy to catch that even through the voice scrambler. It would be so easy to just give Steve a random made up name. But he hated the thought of a fake name coming from Steve's lips, reminding Tony every single time that he was lying, that they weren't really as close as it seemed, because he couldn't allow it. “It's not because I don't trust you, Steve. Because I do trust you. You don’t know how much I trust you.”

The tension in Steve's shoulders didn't vanish, but he smiled softly. “Good,” he said. “Because I trust you too. You always have my back and you’re my friend and… It doesn’t matter. I understand. I just wondered.” He pushed himself back from the railing. “Don't forget the pizza,” he reminded as he walked back inside.

Tony hovered in the air for a while longer, vividly remembering the morning he'd overheard the team talking about Iron Man and his possible reasons to keep his identity secret. With a pang he realized that it still all came down to Iron Man being their friend and Tony Stark being the unreadable backer with his own agenda. He breathed deeply and banished all these thoughts, before he shot up into the sky, Steve's smile the only thing on his mind now. For a while he could even forget how the starlight night reminded him of the depth and silence of space.

* * *

He woke up from a particularly nasty nightmare, wrestling with his blanket for seconds that felt like unbearable minutes. “Lights,” he nearly shouted. His heart was pounding hard in his chest and he gasped for air. His first impulse was to get up and out of bed. He needed fresh air, needed to be somewhere that wasn't so dark and oppressing.

When the lights flooded in he realized that he was on the creaky cot down in his lab, that maybe tonight for once it would have been a better idea to go up to his bed. But it had been a busy week with Cap having his rousing speeches to win over the public and governments, and he'd wanted to get the analysis of the mind control technology done, wanted to be sure that his team was safe from more attempts like this. Just imagining how Bruce might suffer if someone used him against them or against innocent bystanders, after all he'd done to stay in control.

Although he was dressed in nothing more than a black t-shirt and his underwear, he was feeling incredibly warm and sweaty. The last remnants of the nightmare were clinging to his mind.

His first thought was to take the new suit and go upstairs to meet the others, see if maybe Steve was around, as he also was spending the occasional sleepless night in their shared living room, watching New York from up above or catching up on movies. And with Iron Man he never had trouble connecting... It was just Tony Stark who people were not sure about and usually Tony was using that deliberately to keep everyone at arm's length. But he could use some company tonight and neither Rhodey nor Pepper were around.

Just thinking about spending another night with Steve, talking and just spending time together as friends and teammates, made his breathing calm down, his heartbeat slowing to a more normal pace.

That was so much better.

Slowly he got up.

There was another project to work on. He was building an interface that would allow him to remote control the armor, as another means of keeping his identity safe. It would make it easier for Tony Stark to interact with the Avengers without giving himself away. And the new set-up with the Maria Stark Foundation would make it necessary for Tony and Iron Man to appear in public together at some point. Rhodey wouldn't always be conveniently available to fill in when Tony needed him. He had his own job to do.

He'd jokingly proposed to Pepper that she could fill in for him occasionally, but she hadn't even laughed at the joke, had looked at him like he had finally lost his mind completely.

Even remembering it made him chuckle, the noise much louder in the silence of the workshop.

His breathing now calmer, he sat down on the workbench. He didn't expect to have a working model for this remote control before maybe Mark 40.

Clearly, he had his work cut out for him.

And this was exactly where Pepper found him in the morning, tinkering in a still half-undressed state.

“Tony,” she said. “You look terrible. Did you go to bed at all? Have you seen the bags under your eyes.”

“He did not leave the workshop in 13 hours,” JARVIS supplied helpfully.

“I slept very well. Thank you, sunshine. I was going for the slightly grungy look today,” he said, as if he hadn't heard JARVIS. “You know you love it. The media does.” He blew Pepper a kiss.

“Well, they don’t know you. It worries me, Tony. You're burying yourself down here again.”

“You know how I get sometimes. Down here.”

“It's usually the Malibu 'down here' and I have a feeling things are worse when you're in the New York 'down here'.” She sighed, slowly, very slowly releasing a breath and closing her eyes, pressing the back of her nose with the fingers of one hand.

The whole body language immediately got his attention and he swiveled around. “Pepper? Pep? I'm sorry, okay? I'm really sorry. But I am who I am and that's never going to be a smooth ride for anyone involved with my life. You know that. You know me.”

The sad way she looked at him was like another punch to the gut. “You're worrying me, Tony. Ever since the Avengers saved New York, thing are different. I thought that was a good thing. You're not alone anymore. You have people up there living with you who can protect you in ways that neither Rhodey or I can. You can't blame me for being worried, though. You are stretching yourself thin. Last time...”

“You do part of the work. The Foundation is practically your baby.”

“Oh? Like Stark Tower? I had the impression that you came up with the idea to fund the Avengers.”

“But you fought the lawyers. You know how I hate to do that.”

She snorted. “You represented yourself in court not so long ago.”

He sighed. “That wasn't about lawyers. That was about keeping my suit out of the hands of power hungry idiots.”

“I remember,” she said and looked at him hard. “And that's why I'm worried. You wouldn't tell me what was wrong then, you won't tell me now. I hoped the Avengers would ground you a little. But it only brought on more problems with your secret identity game. It doesn't bring you any relief, does it?”

He went quiet and contemplated that. “What are you saying, Pepper? Spell it out for me. Because I don't see a problem.”

“I had hoped you'd just come out and tell them at some point. But you're going to keep this up. I should have seen it coming. You can’t even trust them.”

He leaned back in his chair to study her. “I appreciate the worry, Pepper. But that is something I'll not take lightly.”

“Why? Why don't you trust them? Because when I look at you make passionate speeches to possible backers for the Maria Stark Foundation or when you speak about them at press conferences, it sounds like you actually do. You love them. In fact, it seems Iron Man has made some pretty tight friends. So, what's the problem? Why are you compartmentalizing.”

He didn't even know where to get started with an explanation. “It seems like an unnecessary danger.”

“You're still worried SHIELD will swoop in and force the Avengers back in line?”

It was hard not to flinch at the thought. “Something will happen and I just want us to be prepared.”

“You do have two SHIELD agents on the roster. You do realize that?”

“Not my roster. Cap is in charge. Of course, I do realize that. I also know that Fury has extended another invitation to join SHIELD as active agent to our very own Captain America.”

“And you're afraid them knowing would mean SHIELD would know, too?” Pepper sounded much less stern than he'd expected. “Are you sure Natasha doesn't already know, Tony? How long can this even go on without anyone putting two and two together?”

His eyes narrowed. It was the first time that Pepper had posed the question directly, although they'd been dancing around it ever since Natalie Rushman had revealed herself to be the Black Widow. “If she knows or has her suspicions, then she hasn't told SHIELD. Or at least they haven't put it into any of the obvious files.”

“You didn't?”

“I have trust issues! Can you blame me? The Tesseract thing just told me I'm not wrong about not trusting these people.”

“You hacked into your SHIELD file,” Pepper acknowledged. It was hard to tell if she was worried or angry at him for taking the risk.

“Technically I just invented the AI that did...”

“JARVIS!”

“I accessed the files as ordered, Ms. Potts,” the computerized voice conceded, unapologetically. Tony grinned.

“And we both made sure to cover our tracks. But they do know we did it. And there was something that we couldn't access. Like a whole separate system embedded in their system. It was so elegant that I'm still wondering who SHIELD had working on that one. We need to make them a better offer.” He and JARVIS hadn't been in the SHIELD system long enough to ever figure out what it was that was so deeply embedded in the SHIELD system that even they couldn’t easily access it. At the time Tony had still been busy keeping up appearances, making sure not to give SHIELD a reason to come after him and make the Avengers come back play superhero at an officially sanctioned base. He had left a little surprise behind though. A little virus that would stay undetected and dormant until he gave the command. If Tony ever got into real trouble with them he'd make use of it and then JARVIS would have direct access to it all and they'd crack it, figure out whatever it was they were hiding.

“So, it could be that the information they have on you is open knowledge in their ranks and it just wasn't stored where you could hack into it.”

He shrugged. “Possible. Unlikely, but possible.”

“I think you're paranoid and crazy sometimes. But this is a spy organization that has already tried to get one up on you by embedding one of their own in our company, so I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt here.” She started walking up and down, her arms crossed in front of herself. “But you're stretching yourself thin like this. I wish you could at least trust the Avengers with your secret, just to give you a bit more room to be yourself, to make it okay for Tony Stark to be in his workshop all night without there being suspicions about Iron Man's whereabouts. You trusted me with it. You trusted Rhodey.”

“I made this choice, Pepper, and I'm going to see it through.”

She must have recognized something of what was under the surface by looking at his eyes, his expression or simply the way he was holding himself, because she stopped her pacing and came to stand right in front of him. “You'd tell me if something more would be going on, right? You wouldn't put me through dying but not telling me again? Because if you are and this is what it is, then I'm going to kill you before you get the chance to die.”

“I wouldn't. I'm not dying. This time.” Her stern face didn't change, so he held up his hands and said: “I swear. Honestly.”

“But it's hard to build real relationships because of your secret, is it?”

“It's strange being friends and not being friends with people you'd trust with your life,” he admitted with a sigh. “But it beats having friends who stab you in the back and send terrorists to kill you.”

“Point taken.” She still studied him carefully. He was surprised when she bent forward to hug him. “You're doing good. The foundation will do so much good and so will the Avengers. I'm proud of you. But I'd like to see a little more stability in your life. Don't close yourself off from the world by hiding inside that armor. Tony Stark is allowed to be happy, too.”

He nodded, because it was the easiest way not to answer.

Then she grinned and asked: “So who is it then? Natasha? Or Steve?” When he looked at her blankly she added. “For a while there I had a bet going with Rhodey. He was convinced that you had a very sciency romance going on with Dr. Banner.”

The fact that his friends were betting on his love life wasn't what came as a surprise. “What makes you think that…?”

“You need to see yourself when you look at media reports of your team. Your eyes are shining and you - smile. Not your usual smile. It's something special.”

He hadn't thought about it in these terms yet, hadn't for a moment considered more than flirting with the idea, but he knew exactly who the person was that made him smile the most. Too bad that he had no interest in Tony Stark. So there would never be a reason to ever pursue that.

“Tell Rhodey I'm not telling, but Dr. Banner is a wonderful lab partner. Make of that what you will.”

* * *

Keeping Stark Industries safe was Iron Man's job. And so the Avengers weren't immediately called in when the incident at Stark Industries happened that evening.

In fact they weren’t officially called in by Iron Man or Stark Industries at all. They only learned what had gone down when Iron Man was already on the way to a nearby hospital. Steve and Natasha, the only two Avengers around, rushed over as fast as they could.

“How can they even get to him with the armor?” Steve asked, when he jumped of his motorcycle after Natasha.

She looked grim. “This is not the first time he got hurt. There must be some way of dealing with it. Stark plans for everything.”

He remembered that there had been things about that in the file, that Stark had been attacked during a car race once, and Iron Man had arrived to save the day, but had been hurt in the process. SHIELD had never exactly learned what happened that day though or had any idea on how the injuries had been dealt with.

Steve just hoped Natasha was right, because Stark seemed like a person who did plan ahead, but already had too much on his mind.

“He's not here anymore,” the nurse at the reception, a slight African-American woman, told them, looking Steve up and down as if she was making sure that this was really the Captain America uniform he was wearing.

“What? We were told he was...”

“Apparently Tony Stark gave the order to have him treated somewhere else. The doctors advised against it, but they couldn’t get him out of that steel contraption.”

Natasha's eyes narrowed. “Tony gave the order? He was here?”

“I really don't know, ma'am,” she replied. “I just know that he isn't here anymore and that there was a lot of fuss about it.”

A feeling of dread was flooding him and Steve looked at Natasha. They shared a worried glance and reluctantly made their way home, Natasha trying to get a hold of Stark all the way back. “He's not picking up,” she said grimly.

“How convenient.”

“He's at the the Maria Stark Foundation, Ms. Romanoff,” JARVIS informed them back at the Tower. “All of you were invited to the gala.”

“I remember. We were about to get ready when we got the call.” Natasha looked at Steve for a long moment and they nodded at each other, sure that this was their best bet to find out what exactly had happened. They were both bad at just sitting around and waiting for news – and if Stark wasn't giving them any information, then they would have to get it.

“JARVIS,” Natasha addressed the AI. “Do you know where Iron Man is?”

“I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to discuss Iron Man's current whereabouts.”

“I see. Is there something you're at liberty to tell us about what happened?”

“Iron Man was injured during a scuffle on the Stark International company grounds.” He opened up holographic windows to show them the news footage of the incident. Their friend had been attacked by at least three people in blue uniforms, using some kind of tech that could attach itself to the suit. “He took some damage when he was pushed through the wall of the construction hall on the grounds. After the attackers used a magnetic pulse on him and incapacitated most of his systems. According to information of our medical staff he sustained injury to his left arm, and there was some significant problem with important equipment.” The information hang in the air like something that needed to be questioned, but Steve had no idea what important equipment had been damaged and what that actually meant for Iron Man's condition.

“Was he conscious, when...?”

“He is conscious,” the AI informed him. “Mr. Stark has made sure that he'll stay in an observed environment. He will rest and meet with all of you tomorrow morning.”

Steve was keeping his eyes on the news that was still playing. There was some footage of the moment that Iron Man had been taken down, knocked out by the magnetic pulse. He'd crashed to the earth like a rag doll, just like that time he'd fallen out of the sky and Steve had thought he was dead for sure. And there it was, the distinctive blue light in Iron Man's chest, blinking and going out, making the whole armor seem dead.

The camera man hadn't been close enough to get any details of Iron Man's arm. Steve was determinedly staring at the footage, but it was too blurry to make out how bad the damage really was. War Machine arrived on the scene, pulling his friend from the rubble.

Employees gathered to shield them from the media.

The footage wouldn't tell him anything more.

“I'm going to the gala,” he announced.

Natasha just nodded. “That was the plan, wasn't it? There's nothing more we can do here anyway.” Her eyes were positively flashing, and Steve nodded, understanding her anger. She hated not knowing what exactly had happened to a teammate. In the beginning the only one she'd had a connection with had been Clint, but now they were all her team and she could be fiercely protective.

“I'm going,” he said, worry and anger about his own inability to help his friend gripping him, but trying to stay calm. “Someone should be here in case Iron Man turns up early.”

She was about to protest when their eyes met and whatever she saw in his was all she needed to know. Grudgingly she nodded her acceptance and Steve smiled back at her grimly.

“Don't rip Stark's head off, Steve. You're angry and we might still need him.”

“I'm going to demand some information, Tasha. We have a right to know what's going on.”

“You really don't like him very much? Stark?”

“I'm not sure I can trust him to always do the right thing. Especially not when he prioritizes Stark Industries over Iron Man's well being.” Which he had a strong feeling was what was happening.

Natasha didn't contradict him, so she probably didn't disagree.

He got dressed in a light gray suit in record time. The gala was in full swing when he arrived. People looked at him, taking note of the new arrival, appraising, in awe. Who was ready to give money so the Avengers could keep going had probably seen a picture of Captain America without his mask somewhere, too. People recognized him. But Steve, keeping a neutral smile on his face as he made his way through the crowd, was looking for one person in particular.

Pepper Potts spotted him first. She looked brilliant in her long blue dress, but when she turned to look him in the eye, her eyes were pinched. She too looked like she was worried and it only fueled the bad feeling that Steve hadn’t been able to shake yet. But she smiled and waved at him, inviting him to come over. “Mr. Rogers, Captain, we were wondering when one of the Avengers would show themselves, ” she greeted and shortly introduced him to the fawning guests she had just been talking to.

The small talk just went past him and at the first opportunity he leaned over to whisper: “Where is Mr. Stark?”

A worried look passed over her face and she whispered back. “He's around.” She actually turned a little to look around the room herself and he followed her line of sight with his eyes, settling on Stark, standing on the far side of the room, laughing at something. There was a flute of champagne in one of his hands and Colonel Rhodes was standing on his other, smiling business-like.

It made his insides boil with rage.

He didn't give Ms. Potts more than a nod, before determinedly marching over to Stark and Rhodes.

“I have to refer you to Pepper for that. She's CEO,” the man was saying jovially, still smiling. He handed Rhodes the flute before shaking hands. Then Tony spotted Steve, just as the couple he'd been talking to was walking away. His smile turned a tiny bit more sincere, but Steve couldn't let himself be deterred by that fact. “Captain Rogers,” he said in greeting.

“Stark,” he nearly barked at him. Aware that this was a private matter, even in the middle of all these people, he added: “Can I talk to you for a moment, please?”

Stark's eye widened in surprise and there was something nervous in the way his eyes were moving around. “Tony,” Rhodes started, cautioning,, but Stark waved him away with one dismissive hand gesture and nodded at Steve. “Sure, thing Captain. Let's walk.”

He followed Stark's slow steps as he made his way through the crowd smiling and nodding occasionally, but avoiding anyone who tried to keep them with the surety of practice. Steve controlled his anger until they finally reached an empty hallway. Stark looked up at him with another small smile then, and was about to say something, a joke, a funny remark, something that Stark was prone to say. But Steve had no patience for that now. “Where is Iron Man?” he demanded.

The smile immediately dimmed. “We had a bit of a scare there, but he'll be fine.”

“What happened?” Steve asked, trying not to sound too sharp, but sure he was failing.

“We think it was an attempt to sabotage the design for the new plane...”

“Sabotage? Only sabotage? They had the kind of tech that can take down Iron Man... It's not that simple, is it?”

“It never is,” Stark ground out between his teeth.

“Look, I get it. You're a target. That's why you hired a bodyguard. That is why you started investing money into developing the armor. But there is a man inside that contraption of yours. And he's more than just a bodyguard now. He's part of my team, an Avenger. And he's my friend. You have no right to keep procedures in place that might risk his life.”

“His arm was hurt,” Stark said, his voice rising slightly, one hand clenching into a fist. “He got knocked out for a moment. Worse things have happened to him. He’ll live!”

“That's easy for you to say. You're not the one risking your life out there!” He knew he shouldn't be shouting, knew that Stark was doing a lot for them, that without him the team would be nowhere. So he tried to soften his voice as he continued, while Stark stared at him with a pinched expression. “We're grateful for all that you're doing. But he's an Avenger and we have the right to know what's going on. He’s our responsibility, too.”

“I just told you,” Stark shot back, clearly irritated now. “He's fine.”

“It's not just about this time! I need to know my friend isn't going to bleed out inside his armor just because we're not allowed to get him out of it.”

“It's about that again? Your identity wasn't always common knowledge either, Rogers. And you know there were reasons for that! We do have procedures in place to keep him safe. But it’s a dangerous job sometimes, even when there are no extraterrestrials involved. Don’t tell me, you’re not aware of the dangers, Captain America.”

Steve nodded with narrowed eyes, conceding the point, but still angry. “Where is he now?” he asked, nearly hissing.

Stark stared at him and Steve only now noticed how pale he was. The man didn’t look as perfectly made up as he usually did when he came to see the Avengers either. His hair looked much sleeker than usual as if he’d had to battle it into submission with products instead of a hair dryer. Maybe he had been worried much more than Steve had given him credit for. “He’s safe. He's going to rest. You'll see him tomorrow,” he said in a clipped tone as if he was running through a list of things that he was used to saying. “He’s fine.

He nodded his understanding, his lips still forming a thin line, deliberately letting Stark see how unhappy he still was with the whole situation.. Stark still thought that this was all his problem and not theirs, but he knew that he’d made a point. “I’m going to take your word for it today,” Steve said sharply. “But I better see Iron Man telling me he’s fine himself tomorrow.”

“Tony?” Rhodes called his name from the doorway they'd come through and Stark immediately straightened himself, his face a frozen mask now.

Although he nodded at Steve shortly, before turning his back and stomping away towards his friend, it was clear that Stark was angry.

But so was Steve. He'd nearly lost this teammate before and he wasn't sure he wanted come so close again. He gave himself a few minutes to cool off, before following Stark and Rhodes back to the party. Stark was deep in conversation again, knocking back a drink, Rhodes by his side, a shimmer of unconcealed worry on his face this time. Maybe Stark had been rattled by whatever had happened today and was just better at hiding things.

For the rest of the night, Steve was keeping an eye on his phone for messages from Natasha, but there were none. He leaned against a wall, trying to keep an eye on what was going on around him, letting Ms. Potts introduce him to important guests or fans. His mind wasn't in it, but he could play his part if he had to. After all he'd been part of the propaganda machine for longer than he cared to remember.

Not even an hour later Tony Stark left the party with two young blondes, one on each arm. Nobody had any doubt about what he was up to. Rhodes, who had been a quiet, protective presence throughout the evening, didn't seem to mind, although he too looked worried. War Machine had been at the scene when Iron Man got hurt, so maybe he knew more than Stark had been telling Steve. He considered asking him, but when their eyes met Rhodey eyes narrowed dangerously.

Apparently he, too, was protective of Stark.

When Steve finally arrived back at the Tower Natasha was still waiting for him, but before he could even ask, she only shook her head. “That probably means he's fine,” he reassured her. “Stark certainly acted like there was nothing to worry about.”

She threw him a questioning look and he knew she could piece together some of what had gone down from his tone alone. “Don't go off on Stark when you're frustrated. He's maybe not exactly a good man, but he's not a bad man either. And Clint will hunt you down if he doesn't get any more Stark designed arrows, just because you couldn't play nice.”

Steve shrugged. “I know. It's all so irritating. He's so full of himself.”

“He's irritating sometimes. But believe me, he's been making an effort with us.”

It wasn't much of a comfort, thinking of an injured friend whose boss was entertaining himself with not one, but two women at the moment.

Distasteful and uncaring.

He poured himself a glass of milk and sipped at it slowly, trying very hard to calm himself, clear his mind. Then was ready to call it a night and wait for the morning and more news. But when he stepped into the hallway of his own dark living quarters his eyes immediately fell on the shape of a red and gold armor, casually leaning against the wall beside his door. “You could have waited for me downstairs,” he pointed out amused.

“Hi. Mr. Stark mentioned that you were upset and wanted to make sure I was still in one piece before morning.”

“I didn't drag you out of bed?” he asked, horrified at the idea. Had Stark ordered him to come maybe to make his own point?

“Not exactly, no.”

That was only a small relief. “Are you okay? Looked really bad on TV.”

“I'm fine, Steve. There are things about me and this armor that can be a bit of a handicap sometimes. But it's not going to be a problem. I promise. Not for the team.”

“Handicap? Like what?”

“Let's say what these people did, made me run out of juice and it took me a while to... recharge.”

The lights went on and he noticed that this wasn't the armor he'd seen Iron Man wearing in the last few days, in the news. “New armor again?”

“An alternate,” Iron Man replied quickly, in his . “The other one needs to be repaired first. Or discarded. Not sure yet.”

“How's your arm?”

“I'm fine, Steve.”

He motioned for Iron Man to step inside what was basically one oversized apartment that had been renovated to meet all his needs. The man pushed himself away from the wall and took him up on his unspoken invitation, following him slowly. They ended up in the living room, once again looking out into the night together.

“You don't need to flip out at people when I get hurt,” Iron Man said. “We do have procedures in place, to make sure I get treatment and my secret stays safe.”

He nodded. It all still felt wrong even now, but the fact that Iron Man was here, alive, and not as badly hurt as he had suspected was enough for today.

“I’m just worried about my friends. That’s part of who I am.” Not for the first time he wished he’d have some expression to go on when the mask turned towards him. “I’m not sure I’m going to be here all the time and I want to make sure that even when I’m not around nobody gets hurt or worse because of something that could have easily been prevented.”

“You’re not sure…?”

He hadn’t yet told anyone. But he’d been pondering it for weeks and made a decision today, perhaps reinforced by his unpleasant confrontation with Stark. “I’ll go to Washington for a few days. Fury wants me to take an official position with SHIELD. I’m not sure yet, but all of you have something to do when you’re not Avengers. Even Bruce is busy, working in his lab or finding a way to help people. I’m just not good at doing nothing.”

“You’re not…” Iron Man started, but then seemed to think better of it. “I understand. But we’re going to be needed here, too. The team is finally recognized.”

He nodded and then smiled. He was feeling better now that he had voiced his plans. “Don’t worry. The Avengers will be my priority and I’m going to talk about that to Fury, too. I'm not going to abandon you.” He emphasized the last part to make sure Iron Man knew he was included in that.

“Good,” Iron Man said.

“I mean it. The Avengers are my family. The only one I have left and this may sound corny and a bit stupid, I know. But you are important to me. You call and I'll be there. Next time you need help, you call me.”

Iron Man inclined his head, but didn't say anything more. Steve couldn't be sure of the effects his words were having on his friend, but he had spent a lot of time with this man and it was rare for him to not have a quick comeback to whatever anyone said to him. There could be a number of reasons for that, and not least among them that he had been hurt.

“Try to stay in one piece. When I’m not around all the time, I’ll need someone to keep the team in order. Someone who can call the shots when I’m not around.”

“You’re talking about Natasha, of course,” Iron Man said. “She’s a good choice.”

He patted Iron Man on the back in the way he would have Bucky once upon a time, missing the warm feeling of a human body beneath his hand, grinning. “You know who I’m talking about. I've lost too many friends, too many people close to me. I just don't know what I would do without you, shellhead.”

“Don't go soft on me, Capsicle. The old age must be getting to you.”

He laughed out loud, happy that everything had turned out for the best once again.

* * *

He wasn't surprised when Rhodey strode into his workshop, his arms crossed over his chest the next day.

“JARVIS?” he asked and reached up to put away the protective goggles. “What happened to not wanting to be disturbed?”

“You said explicitly that you didn't want to be disturbed for the rest of the night, sir.”

“And it's almost noon, Tony. I'll have to get back in a few hours. Don't blame this one on JARVIS.”

Tony streaked the fingers of his right hand through his hair, remembering that he needed to wash them, then turned and jarred the wound on his left arm and hissed. For most of the night he’d had an ice pack taped to the shoulder, but it was the wound lower on the upper arm that was causing him discomfort, where his armor had been compromised enough for edges to cause a flesh wound.

“You need to get that cleaned,” Rhodey said after he'd frowned at the bandage. “Do we know what they wanted, yet?”

“I think so.” He had been pondering it for most of the night in fact. “Stark International stock is rising. Our competition is getting nervous.” He shrugged. “There’s a bigger picture, but for some people that’s what it boils down to.”

“Pepper says there have been threats.”

“There have always been threats. I'm Tony Stark. You know what that means. If I remember correctly there have been threats made by you. Quite frequently.” He threw up his hands, before Rhodey could say something. “Don't get defensive. You had your reasons.”

Rhodey wasn’t impressed by the joke. He knew Tony long enough to know when he was stalling or deflecting and the only way to get him off track was to make him angry enough to leave. And after all that happened yesterday Tony wasn’t feeling up to that task. So he waited for Rhodey to finish his scrutinizing and speak again. “I get it, Tony. You give people reasons to not like you. It's what you do. That why're you burying yourself in work? Because it's nothing? What is it you’re working on this time?”

He looked back at what he’d been doing just now, glad that JARVIS had not allowed Rhodey to walk in on him while he was working on his newest suit. The Avengers had already picked up on the number for changing suits Iron Man was sporting on different occasions, but hadn’t actually made a connection yet. Pepper he’d managed so far to keep in the dark by providing her with improvements for their Stark International projects, but Rhodey wouldn’t be so easily fooled while looking over his shoulder. “This?” he asked, managing to sound both enthusiastic and not too innocent, holding up the darkly colored bracelet. “It’s Natasha’s actually.”

“What are you doing with it?”

“Making it better. It’s junk.”

“Enhancement to what? What does it do?”

“Well up until now it protected her wrists. I think. Seemed a bit useless.”

Rhodey just raised an eyebrow and stepped closer to look. “And now?”

He gave him a half-grin and admitted self-consciously: “It shoots electro-static energy blasts.”

Obviously Rhodey knew him too well, because there wasn’t any change in his expression, just an amused quirk of the lips.

“Think adding a grappling hook will be overkill?”

Finally Jim laughed at him. “Oh, Tony. Overkill is kind of what you do. What other things are you working on? Exploding arrows? A new shield for Captain America?”

Well, there was the fact that he’d built himself at least 20 new suits that nobody even knew about yet. “Hawkeye already has exploding arrows. But SHIELD made them, so they’re crap, of course. And Cap’s shield is already perfect… The uniform could use some work at some point.”

“You really like them, huh?”

“What? Arrows? Not really my style.”

“The Avengers. You like them.”

He had been closely inspecting his work while talking to Rhodey, his mind already making notes about how a grapple line could fit in and what kind of material would be durable enough without making it unwieldy, but now he looked up, startled, gauging Rhodey’s expression. “Of course I like them. Everyone likes them.”

“As icons maybe. I can’t imagine the two SHIELD agents are the most sociable bunch of people. And how many people would take the risk of keeping the Hulk around?”

“Most of the time he’s a very mild-mannered, if angry-under-the-surface person. And smart. Bruce is really good company.” Tony knew he was walking into a trap here, when Rhodey’s mild smile changed into a grin. So he rolled his eyes at him and turned away again to determinedly stare at his work and get his hands busy. “What are we? Twelve?”

“Well I’m an adult. Not sure about you.”

To make his point about being the responsible and mature person he’d recently become he stuck out his tongue at Rhodey and decided that was all the answer this claim deserved. He waved his friend off and reached for the safety goggles.

“It’s not Bruce Banner,” Rhodey said, as if he was agreeing with something Tony had said. “That's been very clear to me since yesterday evening.”

He glared over his shoulder, his hand hovering over the goggles.

“I'm right then? You have a crush on Captain America?”

“We really are twelve, aren't we? It's okay. I can be a big kid and play along.”

“Come on, Tones, you don't need to lie to me. I get it. He's hot. Half the world probably has a crush on him or Thor or...”

“Or me,” Tony said sourly.

“I was going to say Natasha.” He leaned against Tony's work bench with his arms crossed in front of his chest, probably to make sure he wouldn't just be ignored. Obviously he just knew Tony too well. “Beside the point though. Because apparently he thinks he needs to be angry with Tony Stark, because he was really worried for Iron Man. And isn’t that just the funniest thing? Because here I was thinking they were one and the same.”

“Are you going to be an ass about this? Because I feel you’re going to be an ass about it.” He’d rather change the subject entirely.

“No, that’s usually your job. I’m the highly responsible, understanding friend and I’m just trying to figure out what’s wrong with you this time. And don’t deny it. You’re avoiding something, I just haven’t figured out what it is yet. If it’s not Captain America, that is.”

It was high time to change the way this questioning was going. He knew Rhodey meant well. He and Pepper were the two people he knew he could trust unconditionally, the two people he could always count on. But even knowing that it didn’t mean he was going to burden them with all that was going on in his head. He didn’t want them to think he was losing control again because of some nightmares.

The Avengers were a good thing, the best thing that happened to him since he’d found a new purpose in life and he was going to make this work. He was not going to let Pepper and Rhodey decide that he needed to step down for a while. Iron Man and the Avengers were their only defense line - and that knowledge, that they could make a difference, was what he needed to keep himself sane. He couldn’t allow himself to slip.

He and Rhodey were still staring at each other, Rhodey now with a frown and he with what he hoped was a mostly neutral expression. He needed to give him something, one small truth at least. “So, yeah, Cap is hot. What else is new? I’m not blind. And I like hot.”

“It’s more than that.”

“I like him, Rhodey. But he’s Captain America and he works with me when I’m Iron Man and he can’t know I’m Tony Stark.”

“Why not?”

“He’s going to work for SHIELD for one and I don’t trust them.”

“But you trust him?”

“Does it matter? Conflicting loyalties aren’t easy to bear.”

“I know,” Rhodey admitted. “From experience. But he seems like someone who can keep his priorities straight.”

“Can we just drop it? Since when is my love life up for debate?”

“Since you stopped having one.”

That shut him up effectively, because it hit too close to home and Rhodey knew it. “The press would disagree,” he hissed.

“Because they don’t actually see through you. I know what happened yesterday, Iron Man. I’m pretty sure the girls didn’t realize they were leaving with Tony Stark to give Iron Man the chance to talk to Captain America, did they? They are probably still wondering how you just dropped them off somewhere and moved along. Am I wrong?”

“There is a piece of very visible evidence stuck in my chest. People expect the clothes to come off at least occasionally during sex, so yeah, I’m using my reputation to pretend that I’m still the playboy everyone expects me to be. Sue me. It’s what people expect. It’s what they want to see. That’s why they make it easy. And, do I need to remind you, that it was you who insisted that I should leave early?”

“You also made Captain America think even worse of you. You realize that?”

“I don’t care. You can stop this now. This is not going to happen. I admit it. I find him attractive. If he’d ask for a round between the sheets, I’d be the last person on this planet to say no to him. I’d jump at the chance, actually. But he’s also my friend and I can’t start something with someone I respect when he doesn’t even know who I am.” He knew he sounded angrier now. He’d not wanted to give away as much, especially because he hadn’t even examined his own thoughts and feelings about the whole complex entanglement yet. In fact he’d had intentionally tried not to. “This is just attraction. And let’s be realistic he sure as hell feels nothing of the like for me. And even if I wanted to, I couldn’t start anything with anyone without giving myself away. Arc reactor and all. So, that’s how it is.”

Rhodey silently stared at him without giving a visible reaction to it all. “So it’s not just him, huh?”

“I’m desperate, Rhodey. You know me. I’d do Natasha if she asked, but she’d sooner kill me than do that.” It rang true and his friend nodded as if he believed it. Only Tony knew that he was just playing the role. He loved Natasha, had discovered that she was a funny intelligent person somewhere under the cold exterior of the agent. They got along great whether he was Iron Man or Tony Stark, but he had never seriously considered sleeping with her once.

“Your life would be so much easier if people knew,” Rhodey finally said. He’d heard it from Pepper before.

“Or lots of people would figure out how easy it is to kill me and do so the first chance they get. That sounds like a party.” He tapped a finger against the spot where the arc reactor was lodged in his chest, hidden by layers of fabric. “Or someone would rig my office, or my home, make Pepper a target - or who knows what else. They tried to take the suit from me once before. What will they make me do when they figure out that it’s actually me inside?”

“Nobody can enter your office undetected, sir,” JARVIS announced tartly.

But Rhodey nodded. “There are risks. But your life isn’t exactly risk free now. But yeah, I get it. Would open up a whole new can of worms that you’d rather leave closed.”

“Thank you. Can we drop this now?”

“Maybe Pepper is right. You’re driving yourself too hard to make this Avengers thing work. Go to Malibu. Change of scenery will do you good. You can still work. Everyone’s happy. You get some rest. Captain America can't hiss at you when you're you, you can't swoon at him behind the mask. Problem solved. ”

“I love you, Rhodey, but Iron Man. Does. Not. Swoon.” He’d been to Malibu for business and to meet a senator recently, but then he’d had to return for the Avengers emergency call and all the pressing matters surrounding the establishment of the team and the Maria Stark Foundation had kept him here for now. He missed his home overlooking the sea. As much as New York was an important part of who he was, the house in Malibu was him. Stark Tower was a symbol and he loved it, but it was essentially a place he shared with other people. Malibu… It was still just his. And maybe there was something to it. Perhaps he needed some time on his own, without switching between Tony Stark and Iron Man all the time. A place where he could just be himself, the person somewhere in between the two. “I’ll think about it,” he said and looked Rhodey in the eyes to make it clear that he wasn't just deflecting. “Don’t dent my armor when you get blown up in the newest war zone. The army is very peculiar about paying for repairs after destroying my equipment.”

“I’ll do my best.” Rhodey smiled. “Stay safe and as sane as you'll ever be, I’ll be around when you need me.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. There are all these Avengers around. I’m pretty sure they’ll be of help if it comes to that.”

“Let's hope they won't have to.”

* * *

Pepper would stay another few days to make sure the Foundation business ran smoothly before returning to her office in California. Tony saw no need to put off his own plans when Steve left for Washington, leaving the tower empty but for Bruce.

“You’re going to be fine, right?” He was dressed in a dark suit and a red contrasting shirt that he’d chosen specifically because it hid the arc reactor perfectly and was leaning inside the door of the lab where Bruce Banner was working today. “On your own I mean.”

The man looked up wryly smiling. “Nobody around to make me angry? Sounds about right.”

“Well, don’t break Harlem while I’m gone.”

“Why, because you’ll take Iron Man and there’s nobody to stop me - or because you think I need your intelligent conversation to keep me grounded?”

“The later, of course. Who doesn’t? But, no, let's be truthful here, I'd simply hate to miss that. Again.” Bruce’s warm laughter followed him all the way to the elevator.

“JARVIS?” he addressed the AI directly to make him pick up his next command. “Make sure Banner has whatever he needs. Inform everyone that Iron Man is accompanying me to the West Coast for some business. As long as I’m not here all standard protocols are in effect.”

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“Speak to you in a few hours, darling,” he joked as he left the building. Happy was with Pepper today and he’d decided to take out one of the cars for a short spin at least. He carried nothing with him but a duffel bag full of clothes he loved and a Stark Pad. Everything else he wouldn’t need in the next few hours. An oversized briefcase was already waiting inside the car, hiding one of the emergency armor models.

He was sure he wouldn’t need it, or so he was telling himself frequently, but the world expected Iron Man to be his bodyguard, accompanying him everywhere, and this way he wouldn’t even be lying about it.

* * *

For three days he worked on the possibility of better remote control, of sturdier armor, of wiring the armor to him in a way that would allow him to call it to him wherever he went without carrying around a briefcase or a backpack, a possibility that he’d already discarded as being too visible. While he was concentrating on his work it was easy not to overthink any of what Rhodey and Pepper had said to him.

Because he had not been lying to Rhodey: Steve was distractingly attractive and he liked spending time with him, talking to him, but whatever he was feeling for his friend didn't matter. He was a man who looked at the bigger picture. And Iron Man was the only key to the bigger picture for him.

He still dreamed of an alien army hovering in silence between the stars. One massive army ready to strike at humanity. And he didn't need to be Tony Stark to know that this planet, despite the Avengers, was an easy fruit to pick for that kind of power. Perhaps he'd managed to throw them off, perhaps the nuclear warhead had been a warning that would keep these aliens away. But who knew what else was lurking out there in the darkness?

And everything paled in comparison to a possible threat they weren't ready for.

He simply couldn't live with the thought of a future that meant destruction, or worse, meant that he'd be losing the people he cared about most, left alone on a devastated planet.

That was why he needed to make sure he was ready, that when it counted and he wasn't enough,the Avengers would be ready and better than they had before, and they were already getting there. Step by step they were becoming better; together. Already they were a team and no longer simply people brought together by necessity and coincidence.

He emerged from his workshop in the early morning hours to eat some cold pizza alone in his kitchen. Pepper had been right: New York was his home just as much as anywhere else was, but here he could be himself, without watching his every step around the Avengers. He could run around the house shirtless, could wear whatever he wanted without fear of anyone noticing the arc reactor. Up until now he hadn't even noticed how hard that had been on him.

That day he fell into his bed exhausted right after eating, asleep instantly and too exhausted for the nightmares to have a chance.

When he woke up in the afternoon he felt actually rested and ready to jump right back into work.

“You do have a charity gala to attend to this evening.”

“I know, JARVIS, don't remind me.” He grimaced. Pepper, not ready to trust his ability and willingness to leave his work voluntarily and go out meet the world, had decided on a whole schedule of social events and Stark International related meetings for him. As she wouldn't return to the west coast before the end of the week and they had a need to remain popular with the media if they wanted the Maria Stark Foundation and the company to succeed, he understood the necessity and had already decided that this once he would not make her life any harder, just because Iron Man had taken up his life. But he'd find a way to let Tony Stark be outrageous and unhelpful if this dragged on too long.

Because he was good at being charming or the annoying heart of the party, but today he wasn't looking forward to playing the part, press the flesh and dance with pretty daughters of politicians and industrialists.

He got dressed anyway, carefully choosing a white muscle shirt and dark T-Shirt to wear under the dark burgundy dress shirt to make sure the arc reactor would be properly covered.

“Ms. Potts will be glad to know you're making an effort to be on time,” JARVIS told him, as he quickly descended the stairs.

“I'm just making sure I'll make a big enough entrance to then make my slipping away early less of a surprise.”

“Of course, you are.”

He smiled as he entered the workshop on his way to the garage. He patted one red and gold armor that was standing in the middle of the place on the arm as he passed.

“Sorry, not today, Shellhead,” he muttered. “Daddy can't fly today.”

The truth was he loved flying most of all, zipping from one coast to the other, hovering over the sea just to think. It was exhilarating and freeing, better than anything else in his life. But he loved the cars just as much as he'd ever loved them. He chose the Audi just because it was one of his favorite and by the time he was speeding towards L.A. he was in a good mood, the music turned up to the max, enjoying the wind in his hair and on his face in a way that was never possible in the suit. He was humming along with the music and felt a little more like his old self. Even if undoubtedly he'd have to deal with unpleasant people like Sunset Bain tonight, it wouldn't faze him. Half his mind was on a new design for body armor that he wanted to integrate into Steve's new uniform. With the thought of Steve and the figure he would cut in a Tony Stark enhanced uniform came a smile.

That smile was still on his face when he arrived, waving at the crowd even before he had properly stopped his car. The world may not be aware of the fact that he was Iron Man, but they knew that he was the genius behind the suit, a friend and financier of the Avengers. People had always been fascinated by the rich, cocky genius persona, but now he was the handsome billionaire who knew superheros.

It hadn't served to make him fewer enemies, but it had changed his relationship with the media in some significant ways. He wasn't just the story anymore, he was a means to a much greater story.

He shook a few hands, kept the smile on his face. His mind was still walking through possible solutions to the problems he'd left behind at home, but he was attentive enough to greet and avoid people as he saw fit. It didn't even take minutes until the first person had asked him the first question about Iron Man.

“What's he wearing under that armor?” Mr. Excelsior joked jovially, winking at his aging wife, who giggled like she was twelve again. “You must know?”

“Oh, I know,” Tony said and tried to grin. “I'm glad to report he's not naked underneath. Would be awkward for both of us. I have to watch him put that thing on and off after all.”

A guy he’d never seen before made some unpleasant jokes about Natasha’s outfit. “I expect you know her intimately?” he said, leering. Tony brushed him off: “Don’t get your hopes up, pal. The lady has better taste.”

“Could you get me Captain America’s autograph?” a cute, long legged blonde who was here with a nerdy looking start-up millionaire asked him next over a martini, and he knew he shouldn't feel annoyed by the question. In fact it was amusing how many women were asking about Steve and his perfect body at display in his tight Captain America suit.

He couldn't blame them.

“I could get you the Hulk's sweetheart,” he joked, sure he wouldn't ever see her again on any event like this, if the murderous look her companion was throwing them was any indication.

Most of the corporate hotshots knew Tony personally. Finally some talk turned towards business and although he often pretended he didn't care for that side of things at all, he was actually very good at it when he wanted to. Today he had his own projects to sell and he was actually feeling very passionate about all of them.

He trailed away to the bar after he'd talked about the Foundation and all the good it was doing for what felt like hours. Social events had always been so much easier to bear with alcohol, but he was trying to be responsible tonight.

“So, had enough of living in the superhero clubhouse you've built?” He looked up to see Christine Everheart stand only feet away. The situation was terribly familiar and he knew she knew it, too. So he gave her a slightly bemused smile, blinking at her as if he had trouble coming up with a name for the face.

“Ms. Everett, right?”

“Everheart,” she said and her lips quirked into something that wasn’t exactly amused, but also not angry. They both knew he was faking indifference and she was playing along because she wanted to know what was going on.

“Stark Tower is a beacon of clean-energy. And it's just the beginning. The fact that we gave some floors over to the Avengers doesn't make it less of an achievement.”

Her expression didn't change and she slowly took a sip of her drink, considering his words. “Your bodyguard is living there too? Is that how it is now? Living with a bodyguard?”

It was obviously meant as a jibe, but she didn’t look half as confrontational or unfriendly as he would have expected, merely amused. So he took it in stride and looked her up and down, grinning. “Are you trying to get his telephone number or an exclusive?”

“I was just wondering,” she said. “You life has changed dramatically. And now you’re maybe more in need of protection than you were before.” She frowned as if that hadn’t been what she was about to say and added: “It was a great thing they did for the world, your hero friends. And it's a generous thing your foundation is still doing for New York and the world. Aren’t you afraid it’s making you a target again?”

If Afghanistan had taught him one valuable lesson then it was that he had really always been a target, and that making the world a better, safer place wasn’t just a matter of superior firepower. If it were, he would have already won this war.  “That sounds awfully like praise, Christine.” He reached for the cider that was pushed his way across the bar.

She raised an eyebrow at him and smiled more sincerely this time. “I see, the heroes are a good influence on you.”

“Iron Man is,” he admitted truthfully and turned away.

A woman in a blue dress and with fascinating olive eyes was trying to get his attention, by showing off her cleavage, but he was surprised that he was only interested on a very superficial level. He remembered Steve's disapproving look from only a few nights before. Rhodey would laugh at him if he ever told him. Which obviously he wouldn’t.

In any case his other new, best friend was beginning to rub off on him to a worrying degree. Tony Stark hadn't cared about what people thought of him in a long time – at least not when he didn't personally care for the people in question.

Which reminded him of all the urgent reasons he had for wanting to be at home where he could work.

“Mr. Stark,” someone said to his left and he turned towards the voice automatically. A tall man in his forties was looking at him with narrowed eyes. Tony couldn't remember the face, could immediately interpret the unpleasant smile though. Something was wrong here. “Walk with me,” he said. “And don't make a fuss.” Tony's eyes caught the heavy coat that the man for some unfathomable reason was carrying folded over his arm. As he motioned with it, a gun peaked out at it and his reasons for carrying it became uncomfortably clear.

This wasn't good. His eyes narrowed and he met the stranger's, his mind already analyzing the situation. “Honestly, here? You do realize that’s a bad idea.”

“Don't talk, don't make any rash moves, walk with me.” He nodded towards the closest door, only steps away from where they were standing. “Don't play the hero, leave that to your famous bodyguard,” the man continued.

Oh, he would. “Or what?”

The man nodded to someone and suddenly the well dressed security people who were covering all the doors moved their right hands inside their jackets and with a bad start Tony realized they were reaching for guns that they weren't even supposed to carry. That this was an open threat not to him, but to all the flimsy celebrities and high society people fluttering around them like glittery and carefree butterflies. He was staring over the man's shoulder trying to come up with something, anything, that could get him out of this situation before someone got hurt, but he came up blank.

The emergency suit was stored in the car. The remote control wasn't even half-way to finished yet and the only suit that he'd been planning to test it on was in his workshop.

So when the man nodded towards the door once more and the smile vanished, Tony slowly stepped forward, allowing himself to be slowly guided out of the room where he knew the crowd wouldn't give him any kind of protection. “It's so nice to finally meet you, you know? I've been following most of your career actually.”

“That's flattering,” he said tensely. Nobody was even paying attention to them and Tony was frantically trying to think his way out of this predicament.

“Keep smiling,” the man ordered. “You have no idea, Mr. Stark. You've been on our mind for a long time.”

They had reached the door and one of the ominously looking security guys all so politely opened the door in front of Tony who watched him stonily, trying to put all the faces to memory so he'd know whose ass to kick the moment he got the chance. As he very slowly stepped out into the hallway he realized that this was not just your average “take the rich guy for ransom” situation. Five people in matching dark black uniforms and body armor he recognized instantly from their fight at the Roxxon facility in New York were waiting for them like they fucking belonged there. In the middle of an event like this that shouldn't have been possible.

But the questions that circumstance brought to mind weren't the most pressing matter. The four additional men and one woman meant that this wasn't just the problem of Tony against a guy with a handgun any more. Actual combat rifles had become part of the equation. The odds weren't looking good at all.

Steve or Natasha could have come out of a fight like this on top. Surely Bruce and Thor. And probably Barton. Iron Man, too, but he wasn't here now. Here and now he was only Tony Stark and he knew his limits.

The sound of the door falling shut behind them was like a final verdict. The calm that settled over him was terrifying. But he'd been in worse situations and if he'd learned something about them it was that panic would not be helpful. So he tried to quench the panic that was slowly crawling up his back, tried to keep his breathing even and focus. He needed to keep his thoughts together and get to his suit.

His hand shut out towards his watch and he managed to press one button, before strong hands shot out and pressed his arms back apart violently. The new thug looked at him coldly, not releasing his arms. “Take his watch,” the man ordered and his well dressed “friend” with the coat reacted immediately. “We don't know how he usually contacts Iron Man, so let's make sure we have as much time as possible, before the armored menace turns up and makes this even harder.”

“So you do realize that this is a very bad idea,” Tony said, as his watch was thrown down and with a sickening crunch ended its life under a heavy boot. Where had he seen these boots before? At Roxxon? He looked at the remains of the watch without even blinking, having counted the seconds since he'd managed to send the signal that indicated a “Protocol 3” to Jarvis. It was all out of his hands now, but at least the signal got out.

“Quickly now. Cuff him,” the guy who was apparently giving the orders now nearly barked and his arms were pulled behind his back roughly, handcuffs snapped into place, further tipping the odds against him. His eyes met those of his kidnapper and he knew he was bristling. He hated being at a disadvantage. He hated it even more when he was vulnerable.

“Don't put up a fight.”

But he already was straining against the hands that were pulling him along the suspiciously empty hallway to frog-march him out of the building.

“This was a trap,” he hissed. “The whole event?”

“No,” he was told sharply, getting the air knocked out of his lungs by a sharp jab of an elbow to his ribs when he tried to pull his arms free. “But the news that you'd be attending played well into our hands.”

“Now move, Stark,” one of the others ordered and pushed him forward.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” And a part of him really hoped it was all a joke, because otherwise he was well and truly fucked. Without his suit the odds weren’t looking too good.

A hit struck his back and the pain shot up his spine, as he stumbled forward.

“He's stalling so his bodyguard has more time.”

“Can't give it to him,” the leader guy ground out. “We need to go now.” Without much more prompting he pulled his fist back and punched Tony right in the stomach.

He hissed, trying not to howl, and doubled over in pain, but rough hands were holding him up even as his legs gave out.

The leader guy grabbed his hair and pulled his head back so that their eyes met and said slowly: “Just play along and everything will be fine. Don’t make this harder on yourself than necessary.”

Ransom, he thought, maybe they are doing this for ransom after all. But somehow the way they were handling it seemed like overkill.

“You just threatened a room full of people just to get to me,” Tony ground out, straining against the hands holding him, the hand keeping a painful grip on his hair. “You can fuck right off.”

And apparently that wasn’t what his would-be kidnappers expected from him, because the eyes in front of him narrowed dangerously. The man nodded, not to Tony, but one of his men. His whole body was rocked painfully to the side as a fist connected with the side of his temple and he crumbled, there was only pain… and then everything went dark.

When he became aware again they were moving. His head was throbbing and his cheek felt bruised. He was lying uncomfortably, could feel every bone in his body. His neck was stiff and it was dark and moving seemed like a bad idea. But he could hear the car, the traffic, could feel the uncomfortable hard surface beneath him and make the connection. “Just stay down, Stark,” a gruff voice ordered and a foot settled on his back hard. He didn’t move again. His arc reactor was lodged uncomfortably against the hard surface and putting pressure on his chest, making it hard to breathe. It hurt and it only served to make him more angry.

“Any sign of Iron Man?” the voice above him asked the driver of the van that Tony couldn’t see.

“No.”

Tony wanted to scream in frustration, but that would only have made these idiots focus back on him and that was the last thing he wanted.

He was sure his order for the emergency protocol had gone through and JARVIS was already acting on his behalf. JARVIS could probably triangulate his location if these goons hadn’t yet taken his phone away. The nausea threatened to overwhelm him and he pressed his cheek down trying to get his breathing under control.

It wasn’t like he had never experienced anything like this before.

He’d get through it somehow.

And he’d kick their asses doing it.

Gritting his teeth he stayed down, imagining taking the car apart with his the armor's superior strength.

But he was cut off from the armor.

He could only hope that help was already on its way.

“We’re here.” It sounded like a death sentence to Tony’s ears, panic slowly rising up and hard to quench this time.

He had no intention of again spending any length of time in the hands of terrorists. But he had no intention to be killed either.

They pull him up and out of the van. It was dark outside, but he could smell the sea, see a ship that looked too much like a war ship. How the hell could terrorists sneak a ship like that to their shores? Who were these people?

And in how much trouble was he this time?

“Idiots,” a woman said out loud and when he looked up he recognized the woman who had been trying to flirt with him back at the gala. She was wearing a dark green bodysuit now. “I told you to get rid of his things before you brought him here.”

If someone was going to barge in to help him, right about now would have been a good time.

But it seemed he was still on his own.

It was all like a strange repetition of things that had happened to him before. The people looked decidedly different, the props had changed and so had the place. He mulled it over, careful to pay attention as he was marched through long, dimly lit metal hallways that were a far way off from the dirty cave he’d been held in before. He’d already put two and two together and realized that these people were connected to what had happened at Roxxon in New York. Their gear was a dead giveaway. But what kind of organization would have the money for an HQ like this. As he was dragged along, watching covertly as guards and operative passed them or stepped out of their way, he felt like he had ended up in SHIELD custody, more than being kidnapped by terrorists so far, but that was probably a sign for how bad the situation was really.

They pushed him into a nearly empty room.

The lady who had donned a lab coat over the bodysuit was watching him like he was prey. He hated it, hated that he was stuck like this again.

“You should think about hiring a better bodyguard, Mr. Stark,” the man who had been responsible for his kidnapping said coldly. “He’s not doing a very good job today. Hasn’t even shown himself.”

“He’s only human,” Tony ground out, appreciating the irony of admitting his own imperfection without anyone knowing. He knew there was no way to fight this at these odds, and he couldn’t be sure help was on the way yet. It all reminded him too much of nearly dying in the desert. “So what’s this about? Money?”

“The Avengers,” the woman spat. “We had hoped to stop this situation before it ever got so far out of hand, but you’ve been pushing and lobbying very hard to get them to where they are now. It’s a threat to our… organization.”

“Which,” Tony pointed out, “was kind of the point. Being a threat to shady, evil organizations.” It earned him another fist in the stomach and the nausea and the sharp pain in his head were enough to keep him down. Protect yourself, he thought. Keep them talking. “So what? You want me to break up the band? I’m not even in charge. Talk to the band leader.”

“You’re just their main source of money,” she said. “They would have nothing without you. We know, Mr. Stark. But you’re also who you are. You’ve built Iron Man. But he’s only the last formidable weapon you created. We can put you to use while you’re here.”

“Not going to happen,” he hissed. He was still slumped forward only held up by whatever thug had a grip on his arms now, but he laughed, a painful and throaty laugh. It really was just like old times. When it came down to it, his old life would always catch up with him.

“Strip him,” the woman ordered and for the first time he was really scared. He had no idea who they were, had no idea what to expect from an organization that had access to the money needed for their equipment and the research - and that number of operatives. But he knew that they couldn’t be allowed to see the arc reactor. And it wasn’t about the consequences of them putting two and two together about Iron Man this time. Primal fear was taking over, screaming at him that his survival depended on this. With a jolt of panic he remembered Obadiah taking him out, his hands on the arc reactor, taking his life away with an easy smile.

He hadn’t even been aware that his body had already started acting on its own, struggling against his captors, but he was easily manhandled to the center of the room.

But the moment one of them removed the cuffs and his hands were free he pushed back hard, the back of his head connecting with the goons jaw and he pushed away, taking the next one by surprise with a right hook. Without the suit he only had his own strength. He wasn’t Cap or Natasha or Thor, but he had picked up a few things about fighting.

A hard fist connected with his face, knocking all the air out of him. His heart was racing again, and there was a burning uncomfortable feeling in his nose. He hoped it wasn't broken, the pain finally making even the panic seem inconsequential. He spat blood on the floor, going down on his knees.

“He’s fit for a billionaire,” someone remarked snidely, and he hadn’t been this angry for a long, long time. He hated the feeling of being weak in the face of these criminals. Scratch that, he hated losing. And he hated that he wouldn’t be able to stop these people in time.

“Some people have to think of their public image,” she sneered. He’d always been fit, but he knew that he would never have been able to take this much abuse without completely crumbling before he’d become Iron Man. Personal fitness had become a necessity for a whole new reason since then.

The woman went down to one knee to be on one level with him. “Mr. Stark, it’s really an honor to have you here. You could make it much easier on yourself if you’d just cooperate. You’re playing for time, which tells me that you’re carrying some device that will allow your famous bodyguard to find you.” She smirked. “Of course, I can’t allow this.”

“What makes you think he doesn’t know where was are?” he asked, focusing on that to keep himself from giving in to his own fear.

She drew back her arm to strike him across the face and his arm shot up in reflex, catching her wrist in a strong grip. He’d really had enough of this for today. It earned him an appraising look and a cruel smile. To her he wasn’t much more than the mouse caught in a trap she had plans for, but now he’d surprised her at least a little. “Figures,” she said. “Men like you don’t like being pushed around. But we’re calling the shots here, Mr. Stark.”

Her smile turned friendly and he’d seen that one before on the lips of terrorists and murderers. His arms were grabbed hard, his head pushed to the side roughly and she nodded to someone behind him. A sharp sting on his neck and he knew he was screwed.

“I really enjoyed our conversation. But we can continue it later.” She patted his cheek, his head still trapped in an iron grip. “We don't want you to get hurt before it's really necessary.”

He spit in her face, because that was the least he could do, before his consciousness slipped away.

She laughed. “This is going to be fun.”

At least that meant there would be torture and they wouldn't just slit his throat now and never let him wake up again.

* * *

It was late and he was tired when he walked into the lobby. He mustered a smile for the people at the front desk out of habit and because it was just polite, but the only thing he really wanted to do was to be alone and mull things over. Fury had made some compelling arguments and given him lots to think about. He was clad in jeans, a white t-shirt and a brown leather jacket, but he was carrying his shield inside a special bag that was slung over his shoulder and he ached to take it out and just work off some of the frustration and uncertainty. He hated feeling this way.

But returning to the Tower already made him feel a little better. It was like coming home. At least here he was Steve Rogers first, a man among friends.

Maybe Bruce would be around. Perhaps he could find Iron Man or Natasha and get them to spar with him.

He stepped out the elevator on his level, setting down the bag carefully and throwing his jacket down on the first chair he came across. “JARVIS,” he said out loud. “Someone around for me to speak to?” The chances weren't good at this late hour.

“Doctor Banner has enforced a lock-down on his lab for an experiment. He is currently the only Avenger in Stark Tower.”

“I see,” he threw himself down into the armchair and sighed. On the small table beside him was one of the many books that people had urged him to read and he considered going back to reading it. He'd read The Lord of the Rings trilogy twice already, after Iron Man had shoved it at him, instead of moving on to something new.

But he wasn't in the mood to read today.

The way his meeting at SHIELD had gone he felt like he'd been thrown back to a time before the Avengers. He made his way up the stairs to their training area, because the one thing that had always helped him work off his frustration had been destroying sandbags, or sometimes seeing how long he could hold back and not destroy them.

He went at it for an hour, careful to not actually destroy all their equipment. He wasn't keen on using money of the Maria Stark Foundation, which at this point still meant Tony Stark's money first and foremost, to replace things he'd destroyed during training. He didn't want the man to think he was going out of his way to be annoying. Although... In truth he wasn't sure Stark spent a lot of time thinking about him at all. He was like Howard in some ways; it was terribly familiar. He could be callous, eccentric and charming all at the same time. He was in love with his own smarts and charm.

Just like Howard he was too sure of himself sometimes.

“Sir,” JARVIS addressed him. Steve knew the AI was not monitoring them when they weren't calling for his attention, so the fact that JARVIS had spoken up meant, that someone had instructed him to.

“Yes? Someone ready to pose a real challenge for me?” he asked with a grunt, placing another well placed hit.

“I received an emergency call.”

“Emergency?” He stopped mid motion. “What happened? Is someone blowing up buildings again?”

“Mr. Stark has been forcefully taken at a high society even in LA.”

His arms dropped to his side and he frowned. “Kidnapped? What happened? Is this..?”

“Protocol 3 is in effect.”

“What does that mean?”

“In case of Iron Man not being able to step in I'm supposed to alert you of the problem,” the computerized voice recited.

“Me?” It took him a moment to digest all that: Stark was in danger, he was somehow part of his safety protocols – and Iron Man wasn't able to step in? “Where is Iron Man?”

“There are urgent circumstances that are keeping him from resolving this situation.”

“Which are?”

The AI took a moment longer to answer than it usually did. Steve could only imagine that it took time for JARVIS to process his request and find an answer inside his given parameters. That in itself was worrying. “Iron Man is currently unavailable.”

“Unavailable?” he repeated. Only days ago his friend had been hurt and now he was “unavailable”. But there was a situation that needed dealing with right now and if he wanted to know about Iron Man than usually Tony Stark was the person to go to... “Your programming doesn't allow you to be more specific?”

“Correct,” JARVIS stated promptly.

Kidnapping. Safety protocols involving the Avengers. Iron Man out of reach or incapacitated. The person who was in fact their official backer in danger.

There was really no other course of action.

“Where do we start? What can you tell me?”

“Would you please proceed to the Avengers meeting room, sir?”

He nodded. They hadn't really used their official meeting room for mission briefings or any real business yet. Mostly because emergency calls found all of them scattered about the globe more often than not and none of the situations had allowed for much planning, but had called for immediate and decisive action. “Alright. Alert Dr. Banner when it's possible.”

It took him only a few minutes to find his way to the meeting room. It looked clean and pristine, like unused rooms often did. The moment he opened the door, holographic images sprung up and JARVIS voice recited. “Mr. Stark informed me that he would be leaving the party early that night, because he had work waiting for him. At approximately 10:14 pm local time he activated the stated safety protocol using the transmitter in his watch. Mr. Stark's car never left the parking lot.”

“That was an hour ago.” A lot could happen in an hour. “What tells us that he actually left the building. And what tells us that Stark is still alive?” he asked, because that was his first concern in this situation. Once again he felt a pang of regret at the thought that his last actual face to face meeting with Stark hadn't gone well. Now the man had been taken by someone. He hoped they weren't already too late.

“We received this twelve minutes ago.”

It was a short voice message. The voice had obviously been changed by technical means that Steve wasn't exactly clear about. He'd seen devices used on television and in a few movies, but he hadn't encountered the technology in real life before this. “We have Stark. If you want him to live the Avengers need to step down. Don’t try to find us or Stark will pay the price.”

“What do they want us to do? We are UN sanctioned now,” Steve said out loud. He, just like all of the others, took pride in the fact that they actually had official status now. “They took Stark to get to us. Why?”

He stepped closer to the table. JARVIS had pulled up all the available data for him to the front. He knew how to use the holographic interface and moved through some of the opened files to get a better look. A map was at the center of it all and he pulled it up to more closely look at it. “We have a location?”

“I tracked Mr. Stark's phone. This is where the signal was lost.”

“Harbor,” Steve muttered. “Give me all you have. Security footage, suspicious reports from the area.”

In an attempt to give Steve a point to start from JARVIS pulled videos from Stark's arrival at the gala, security footage from the party itself. The pictures were grainy and black and white, but he could see that Stark had been in his element, moving through the crowd and making use of his natural charm.

Steve gritted his teeth, remembering their last encounter. The man had probably planned to find someone to have fun with and instead his evening plans had changed drastically.

There was no sign of Stark leaving.

“Some footage is missing.”

“There was a malfunction.”

“Sabotage?”

“It seems likely, sir.”

It had been planned. That much was obvious. The note, the way they had stopped Stark from transmitting his location. They had been prepared. They'd even been prepared to face down Iron Man to get to Stark or they wouldn't have made their move at all. The events of the last weeks were still at the forefront of his mind and made him feel even more uneasy about this. Iron Man had been nearly taken down by unknown assailants who had tried to sabotage some Stark invention. Had it been a ruse to test their armored compatriot? To test how well they could deal with him?

He flicked through tidbits of information. He wasn't a detective, but he'd been good at interpreting reports about suspicious enemy movements and making the right calls about it during the war.

“Call in Natasha and Clint. Avengers alert. Priority 1.”

“Yes, sir. I've also alerted Ms. Potts to the situation.”

Steve nodded, although he wasn't sure that it had been the right time to tell her in the middle of the night and without a clue what had actually gone down. Without them having real leads on Stark's whereabouts there wasn't much he could tell her that would be reassuring.

“Why me?”

“Captain?”

“Why did Stark designate me to be the one to be informed first? Why not Natasha or Bruce?”

“Because he trusts your judgment.”

Steve frowned. He wasn't surprised that Iron Man trusted his judgment, but Stark had reason to find Steve uncomfortably judgmental, disapproving. He would have freely admitted that he was all of those things where Stark was concerned. He couldn't believe that Stark really trusted him. It seemed too much like he trusted nobody but himself, with the notable exception of Iron Man maybe. And that was maybe the thing he and Stark had in common. They trusted Iron Man. And Iron Man trusted Steve.

And apparently both Iron Man and Stark were in trouble - and in that case Iron Man would opt to call in Steve. Steve had even told him to do so himself. Could he make the conclusion that Iron Man had been involved and was also in need of help? It didn’t seem at all unlikely.

“Another message has arrived,” Jarvis announced.

“What is it?”

A green symbol that Steve had seen before, more often than he cared to count, sprung up and it was like the floor was being pulled out from beneath his feet like a rug. Just like that this was personal. Cold anger was rising inside of him and he hit a fist against the desk. Someone was mocking him. Maybe all of them.

He was leaning forward to get a better look.

“Tell me again why Iron Man isn't here to help rescue his boss.”

“I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to discuss Iron Man's current whereabouts, Captain.”

“I heard that one before,” he said grimly. And the last time he'd heard it Iron Man had been injured. The argument he’d had with Stark about him taking care of Iron Man when he was down was still fresh in his mind. But this time all things pointed to Steve being right on this one: Stark's rigid policy where his bodyguard was concerned might be exactly why Steve couldn’t get to them now.

Too many things didn't add up and he had no intention to go into any of it blindly. The Hydra sigil was hanging in the air before him like a sign of coming doom, bringing up too many bad memories.

He'd get Stark out of there alive.

He would not be the one to tell Iron Man that his boss had died because he had been incapacitated or worse.

And not only for Iron Man. They needed Stark to be alright for the Avengers’ sakes too. However strained his personal relationship was with the man: they couldn't lose Stark. He'd given them a home, he'd provided them with equipment and a legal basis for doing what they needed to do. Allowing anything to happen to him was out of the question. He wasn't an Avenger, but he was in many ways part of this.

Steve wasn't about to let one of their own get hurt.

* * *

Tony woke up feeling cold and uncomfortable. His arms and legs were freezing and he tried to curl in on himself and get the blanket back over him when he startled awake with the sudden realization that there was no blanket. There wasn't a mattress even, just a cold surface.

He sat up slowly on what he supposed was his prison bed to survey the dark cell. A soft blue-white glow was the only source of light. And although he was icy cold, sweat was breaking out on his skin and he gasped, his fingernails clawing at his knees, leaving red, angry marks. He desperately tried to slow down his breathing.

His arc reactor had been exposed. They knew.

They could probably guess the rest.

It gave them more than an easy way to kill him. It put all of his life in their hands. Pepper, Rhodey, Happy. They were all in danger because of him.

His breathing hitched. He pressed a hand across his mouth, suppressing a scream.

The dark didn't make it easier.

Slowly, in and out. He forced his breathing to slow. But even now his heart was racing and it was hard to draw a breath..

“Mr. Stark,” the female voice he recognized from earlier said, her voice echoing loudly in his small prison via hidden speakers. “Iron Man.”

He gritted his teeth, breathing in and out, concentrating on nothing but his own heartbeat.

“What a pleasant surprise for us to learn that we managed to neutralize a threat of that magnitude when we got our hands on you. You really are a valuable asset.”

“Who the hell are you people?” he asked, focusing on his anger, pushing the fear back into the back of his mind. He was sure she could hear him, that the monitoring system was meant to allow communication.

“Doesn't matter, yet. We'll get to that eventually.” She chuckled and the sound chilled him to the core. “Iron Man - who would've thought. Such a hard shell and such a vulnerable, broken human being inside of it. Must be hard to live on borrowed time, knowing that only your own ingenuity is keeping you alive for now.”

He swallowed down the bile rising in his throat. His nightmares had been filled with alien armies and cosmic threats for so long that he'd overlooked that this was the worst case scenario he'd been afraid of the most. They knew and nothing could take back that knowledge now. They knew how to kill him, knew how vulnerable he was. Even more importantly they had discovered that the biggest flaw in the Iron Man design was in fact the pilot. They knew everything and could make it public, use it against him, us him to tear down the Avengers, set others out for revenge on his friends.

His first and most pressing thought was that he needed to warn Pepper; that her safety was priority after all she'd done for him over the years. He owed her that, to not let her pay for his choices.

“What do you want?”

“Oh,” the voice said. “We'll get to that. We always knew we could use someone of your talent, but now... This changes everything.”

“So what is this? You want me to work for you now? Lady, I had a feeling you were a bit crazy.”

“Not right away, of course.” She chuckled, never anything but amused. “Re-education takes time after all. At the moment let’s focus on what’s important. You're leverage. We need the security that the Avengers won't become a threat. And now that we have one of their own, they’re in no position to come against us.”

“You're shit out of luck then,” he grit out. “They're coming. And you're not going to know what hit you, lady.”

A small noise told him that she'd closed the connection, leaving him alone in the dark and cold with nothing but his thoughts and nightmares. He didn't wish for her to come back, forced himself not to. He could get through this. He had gone through worse. And if they were stupid enough to want to force him into their ranks, then they would make the same mistakes the Ten Rings had made. It was just a matter of time.

He just hoped it would give him a chance before someone ripped the arc reactor from his chest to test how long he could live without it.

There was nothing he could do for now but wait.

Wait for someone to come and find him.

Wait for them to give him an opening and help himself.

He'd done it before and survived.

He sat in the darkness, staring straight ahead, and tried to keep it together.

If he survived this he'd ask Steve to give him lessons in hand-to-hand combat. Hell, he'd ask Natasha to teach him how to take them out for good. And then he'd take these goons apart one after another, just because he could.

* * *

Natasha looked serious as she stared at the symbol and then back at Steve. “Someone is trying to make this personal.”

“The question is why?” Steve asked back. “Why Hydra, I mean?”

“Maybe they want to get to you?”

“To me? They’ve taken Stark. We have no idea where Iron Man even is and you think they’re doing this just to get to me?”

She shook her head. “To us. You think there’s a connection between Stark’s disappearance and the fact that we’re unable to contact Iron Man?”

“I think that Iron Man was taken out before they ever put a move on Stark. And Stark probably knew it. That’s when he put out the alert. When Iron Man went down. The question is who would do that and why?”

“We knew about threats.”

Steve’s head snapped up and he found Pepper Potts standing in their meeting room doorway. Her eyes were red and it was obvious she was upset, but she was holding it together. So far Steve’s only contact with her had been in a professional setting, at press conferences, at galas and official events. He hadn’t been aware that she had been granted access to the facilities meant for the Avengers. She sat down at the meeting table without prompting. Her shoulders slumped a little and Steve realized how badly this was affecting her. Were the rumors about a romantic involvement with Stark true then?

“Thank you for coming, Pepper,” Natasha said calmly and then looked slowly from Pepper to Steve, making it very clear that Pepper was here by her invitation. “We need to know anything that might be relevant.”

Pepper nearly sobbed and pressed a hand to her mouth, took a visible moment to straighten herself. “That’s just it… I went through everything. It’s all the same kinds of threats he always gets. It’s all relevant or not. I can’t tell. It’s not like last time when he went into a war zone and never came back.”

“Any threats about the Avengers especially?”

She shrugged. “A fair number. But there’s nothing that actually makes those different.” Her mouth set into a thin line and she looked away. “It’s hard to tell with all the threats that are made against the company, against Tony personally and against the Avengers project.”

“We’re not a project,” Steve stressed tersely and Natasha looked at him with a furrowed brow. To him they were family, the group of people who had given him a home and connection after losing everything. He knew he was tense and that Ms. Potts hadn’t meant to put him on the offensive. But they were two important team members short and Steve couldn't take the uneasy feeling that Iron Man might be in real trouble, and their very visible financial backer might not survive the day. “We're not a project. We're much more than that. And we protect our own or we'll not convince anyone that we can protect them. We have this. That’s what we’re here for, so that people like them don’t get their way.”

Natasha nodded tersely. “That's why they took Stark. To make us look like we’re not up for this.”

“To show the world we can't even protect the one man who is standing beside us.”

“Do we know..?” Pepper's voice faltered.

“It's a fair question,” Natasha immediately picked up. “Do we know he's still alive?”

“We know he's been taken. We know his last location. We do have to expect they want to use him as leverage, which implies he's still alive. But they may just be after money and this is how they are keeping us guessing. We need to be prepared for the worst.” They needed a strategy and Steve was already making a plan. It was so much better to act than sit around wondering why the complete radio silence from Iron Man was worrying him enough to be distracting.

“Captain,” JARVIS said. The AI hadn't been part of the conversation for so long that Steve had been about to ask him something just to make sure that with both Tony and Iron Man gone the AI was still working. “This has been sent to Mr. Stark's personal Stark International email address.”

“Stark's address?” he repeated with a frown, just as the footage sprang up. It was the missing security footage. A group of armed guys were cornering Stark in a hallway. There was no sound, but it was clear what was going on. Ms. Potts jumped up from her chair.

“We met them before,” Natasha said.

“Seems like it.”

Steve was pointing at the projections that JARVIS had kept open for them. “We need to find out where they are holding him. This is where we start.”

With a forlorn expression Pepper walked around the desk. “I need to keep an eye on things. If this gets out the press is going to be all over it. And next thing we know our stocks will be in free fall.”

He exchanged an uneasy look with Natasha. “Ms. Potts, where is Iron Man? Is there something you're not telling us?”

Pepper looked up to the ceiling as if she was contemplating something and then slowly back at Natasha, but not Steve who was still waiting for an answer to his question. “JARVIS?” she asked.

“Protocol 3 is in place. Iron Man is unavailable,” the voice from the ceiling recited dutifully. “Mr. Stark left detailed instructions.”

Pepper nodded, but she looked very angry. “I can't tell you anything about what happened to Iron Man. Tony doesn’t share everything. But Tony built the suit so that things like this wouldn't happen ever again.” She moved slowly towards the exit. “If he gets out of this alive Tony needs someone who can actually keep him safe.”

The only reason Steve didn’t argue with her was that she was upset. She was lashing out and the circumstances of Iron Man’s disappearance were still a mystery. He knew Iron Man hadn’t abandoned his mission. His friend would never do that. “We just need to know what has happened, Ms. Potts. Iron Man isn’t here. JARVIS isn’t at liberty to divulge information that might be important. We need all the details to save both Mr. Stark and Iron Man if he’s in trouble.”

“I get it,” Pepper said sharply. “You care for your friend. I get it. But I care for Tony. And it’s not Iron Man they’re going to kill if you don’t do what they want.” Her eyes were blazing with anger, but her pose was rigid. “Do what you Avengers are supposed to do before he gets hurt - or before this gets out. This would be a nightmare.”

She didn’t need to remind him of the fact. They watched her go, Steve's own worry intensifying by the minute.

Natasha stepped up to him and touched his arm. “She has a point. Where is Iron Man? It's strange that he didn't even show up... Unless you’re right and they did get to him before...”

“We need to get the rest of the team. Split up. Let's take a look at what Stark was working on before he got taken, for any signs of what mission he gave to Iron Man, see if there’s a connection, check out that place where the signal was lost, see if we can get a trace on his kidnappers. And let's do it fast.” He was leaning forward on the table. “We could use some help with that. We need to tell Banner.”

“You need to tell me what?” Bruce asked as he was rounding the corner, his eyes immediately falling on the projected data in front of them. “Oh,” he said. “I was just here to tell you, Thor has resurfaced. You haven't watched the news, right? He's on his way back from England now.” His eyes were darting over what was there in front of him, ended up glued to the frozen still of the security footage. “Is that Tony?”

“Dr. Banner,” Natasha stated calmly. “It seems we have a situation.”

Steve felt like that was an understatement. But they had work to do and they needed to act fast. Better not get Banner riled up and make things more complicated than they already were.

In front of him the security footage was playing in a loop of Stark trying to hold his own against a group of armed kidnappers. He forced himself to watch closely, to not let any detail escape him. He’d been angry at Stark for the casual way he’d dealt with the Iron Man situation last time they’d seen each other.

Once again Steve was worried about his friend's unexplained disappearance.

But this time he was also worried for Stark.

* * *

He'd been holding out for so long that he couldn't even remember why he was trying so hard. Pain was shooting up his spine and he screamed.

“Come on, Tony – or do you want to be called Iron Man?” It was still the lady-thug doing all the talking. At the gala he’d not taken much notice of her, a conventionally attractive brunette in what he vaguely remembered had been a glittery, dark green dress. Now he was sure he’d never forget her face. “You need to give us something.”

“What do you even want?” he asked, because there had been a lot of blathering about making him work with them, about taking his secrets and using them, about breaking him. He knew his PR speak and what he was hearing was all buzzwords and no substance. His arms were hurting from the uncomfortable angle, and he was considering the option of making them angry enough to knock him out, just to get it over with. “You think you push me around a little and I, what? Declare the Avengers founding null and void? That’s not going to happen.”

“You won’t do it. They might. Otherwise they can deal with the media storm that’ll break when they can’t even protect one of their own, Iron Man. Who is going to trust them then? Do they know, Tony? Do they know you’re Iron Man? They don’t, do they? Because you don’t trust them either. Isn't that cute?”

“What makes you think that?” he asked back coldly, although he felt a pang of guilt at her words.

“Because we’d know,” she answered ominously.

He remembered the SHIELD data he’d unsuccessfully tried to hack into and frowned.

“Who the hell are you people?”

She shrugged. “Concerned citizens.”

“Uh-huh.”

“We don’t need to rush this,” she addressed his tormentor over his shoulder, her hand still resting against Tony’s cheek as if he was a favorite pet. “We can take him apart slowly.”

“That sounds nice,” Tony sneered. “You seem to think that this is my first rodeo.”

“Oh, we know it’s not,” she said. “Just how important is that little device you’re hiding from the world?” Her expression turned cruel. “Do you want us to find out now?”

His eyes narrowed.

So did hers. “I just want you to know who has the upper hand here.”

He barely kept himself from rolling his eyes. It was always the same with these people: Terrorists in the desert, Hammer building Iron Man knock off drones, secret scientist organizations on a ship. They all just wanted to show him who was on top.

The door opened and a tall, blonde man in uniform stepped inside. She moved to meet him halfway as he whispered something. Tony couldn’t catch the conversation, just tried to glean what he could from their body language. Was help on the way?

And what would he do if it wasn’t? And what would the help do if they found him like this?

He needed a back-up plan.

Which was when he noticed the weapon the new-comer was carrying, only half covered by his dark green colored uniform jacket. You didn't spend all your life developing weapons without knowing what was what. That was the SHIELD standard issue. The boots he was wearing also looked awfully familiar. Did these people have double agents working for them on the inside? Had SHIELD been infiltrated?

“We could just stick the spheres on him and make him do what we want,” the new guy proposed, after giving Tony the once over and meeting his eyes.

She shook her head. “Not an option. He’d take orders fine, but the genius brain of his would be on hold. No, let’s try it the old fashioned way.”

He hated the sound of that. “Actually, lady, your man has a point. You want to put me to work? Do it. You want to be all talk talk talk? Don't waste my time and just kill me.”

He had a plan now. Even as her eyes settled back on him and fell back on the arc reactor with an interested gleam, he only thought of the new theory that was forming in his mind.

Who were these people?

Why was it the set-up of the Maria Stark Foundation and the Avengers’ independence that had pushed them to move against him?

She stared at him hard. Finally he had managed to make her angry. “Do it then,” she said. “Let's see how far we can push him.”

Do your worst, he thought, silently praying that they would try and get as his most precious secrets first. He knew it was a gamble, but if it brought him closer to a computer, he wanted to try it, wanted to get all the information he could gather about these people before the Avengers arrived.

* * *

Natasha went inside to talk to the charity’s organizers and survey the place, to make sure they had asked all the right questions without making anyone notice.

Steve and Clint went straight to the car that Ms. Potts had identified as Stark’s. It was the kind of car Steve would have expected from someone like him. Clint whistled through his teeth. “Think he’ll let me take this baby out for a spin if we get him out in one piece?”

“He already lets you take the Quinjet.”

“So not the same thing,” Clint said with a laugh. “But, yeah, wouldn’t give up the Quinjet for anything.”

Steve wasn’t really in the mood to joke around, but he knew that Clint usually used humor and banter in a crisis, as a way of keeping up the routine. He tried to smile, but failed.

They had retrieved the key, claiming that Stark hadn’t picked up his car himself because he’d had too much to drink and had been picked up by his driver instead. They had neat Stark Industries badges and a permit that Pepper had given to them, but really nobody had asked too many questions after Natasha had smiled at them and explained what they wanted. There was nothing in the car that gave any clue about what Stark had been working on before he’d been kidnapped. Steve had hoped to find something that would give them a hint about Iron Man’s whereabouts, but he found nothing of interest.

Tensely sitting in the front seat, not sure where to look next, he stared at a little Iron Man figure dangling from the rear-view mirror. When he saw the man again he would take him aside and explain to him that his asking for a name had nothing to do with him not accepting his secret, that it had everything to do with Steve feeling like Iron Man was the person in his life that mattered most. He wanted to go flying together, but he also wanted to have team breakfast, wanted to go out together and get to know whoever it was inside the armor. He knew that feeling, knew what it was like to have people around who you could trust with your life, but this was more. He'd felt that way about Peggy. And he'd missed his chance with her quite spectacularly.

“There is a briefcase in the trunk,” Clint called, startling him from his thoughts. The little Iron Man figure was still swinging in front of his eyes, like a little red and gold reminder that he shouldn't allow himself to be distracted, that he couldn't fail his friend on this. “It’s pretty heavy. Can’t open it, Cap.”

There was a list of possible things that could be in the briefcase. They were talking about Stark here after all. It might be a weapon, any type of technology, plans or specs. It wouldn’t have surprised him if it were a briefcase full of money, although it seemed to heavy for that. It could be anything. Documents, medication, medical equipment, something. He realized with a pang that he did know next to nothing beyond the obvious about Stark and that he'd never even tried to get closer to him. Perhaps if he had Iron Man and Stark wouldn't be in so much trouble now.

“Let’s take it and let Banner have a look.”

They picked up Natasha, dropped off the car at Stark Industries where the Quinjet was waiting for them. Banner took the briefcase and scanned it, looking pretty befuddled when the scan wasn't conclusive. “It's shielded. What the hell is Tony carrying around in this?”

Thor was leaning over it carefully, touching the surface. “Would it be dangerous to open the contraption?”

“By force? Knowing what Tony used to do for living? Most certainly, yes.”

“We're not even sure it's important.” Steve let himself fall into the co-pilot seat beside Clint. “What now?”

“Rhodes says he's on his way over from the Middle East. He hasn't mentioned anything about Iron Man, but he was more worried about Stark to begin with.” Natasha had been on the phone with Pepper just now. “We have access to the SHIELD satellite data. Maria Hill and her team are looking at all of it now and will let us know if something comes up.”

“Fury gave you access to the satellites?” Steve asked.

Clint shrugged. “Whatever he will tell Stark when he sees him, I think he’s actually quite fond of the guy.”

“Fond?” Steve couldn’t come up with a less likely word to describe whatever relationship Nick Fury shared with Tony Stark.

“He likes a bit of adversity,” Clint explained with a grin.

“He chose the right job for that.”

They took the Quinjet out to the coordinates of Stark's last know location and found nothing. The coastline was clear. There were car tracks going in all kinds of directions and there was no trace of a boat. Thor went out surveying the area from above. Usually Steve would also send out Iron Man to do as scan and he felt his absence even more because of it.

“Maria says there was a SHIELD ship cruising these waters a few hours ago. They didn't pick up anything,” Natasha explained.

Another dead end then. They were being played and he hated it. “They could have changed cars here. They could have taken him god knows where. What's our best option?”

“Search,” Clint said his jaw set.

“Then that's what we'll do until we find a better lead.”

War Machine was on his way and Steve still hoped that someone had been privy to information about Iron Man's current location. There was no way that the two disappearances weren't connected.

Natasha came up behind his seat leaning over to look at their instruments. “Cap, stop sulking. We'll find them. Iron Man is a big boy. If Tony and Iron Man are in this together their chances of getting out aren't so bad.”

He nodded. That was a thought he needed to hold on to until they knew more.

“Captain,” Jarvis voice sounded through the craft. “Someone attempted to access my servers approximately two minutes ago. Triangulating location now.”

Bruce practically jumped up to take a look. There had been a worryingly green tinge to his skin every since they’d arrived in California. “Could be them.”

“Let’s hope for the best,” Steve said grimly.

“Why would they try and access JARVIS?” Clint pondered. “They must know that he’s Stark’s baby and protected.”

“They were probably trying to get into our systems,” Bruce speculated. “Know the enemy’s movements and be on the safe side.”

Finally it seemed they had a lead. A real one.

Steve punched in the new coordinates himself.

* * *

He was trying to fight off the control. Since they'd put the disk on him the world was a blur, like voices were coming from far away, like nothing really mattered.

His fingers were typing away at a keyboard. He didn't even need to look. It came so easily to him.

“See, ma'am. It's working just fine.” He didn't recognize the voice, knew that he wasn't supposed to listen to it and nothing else.

“I hope you're right,” a female voice answered from across the room. “We can't do this more than a few minutes at a time. We don't want to fry his precious brain.”

“As long as he gets us into the Avengers' own system... We need to make sure none of the costumed freaks turns up before we reached Strucker.”

She nodded, catching Tony's eye with a frown. He was still typing dutifully, like she had told him to. But something about her stirred something in his mind. “I just don't want Captain America to come waltzing in here and ruin this before we could shake them,” she said and patted his head.

He didn't react to the touch. Captain America. The name registered with Tony and his fingers faltered for the shortest moment, Steve's smiling face the only tangible thing on his mind.

Emergency Code: 44-55-23-44-81-43-75-01-84-76, he typed without thinking.

“Something is wrong,” a male voice said. “What did he just do?”

His arms were grabbed forcefully, and he screamed, the pain in his head sudden and unbearable, the only real thing in this slightly phased-out existence.

“Get it off him!” she ordered.

Hands at his neck, his wrists, hard surface against his face, screams ringing in his ears. He couldn't take it.

“I told you using the disk was a bad idea!”

A jab at his neck was the last thing he knew.

* * *

“We do have a conclusive location,” Bruce announced. “Apparently one of our boys hacked them. How could they have been stupid enough to let either of them near a computer?”

“They probably didn’t let them,” Steve said, afraid that things were escalating for the prisoners, that this had been an escape attempt that might cost them dearly. Still with a calm he didn’t feel he watched Clint adjust their course slightly. “Let’s hope nothing is getting out of hand. Speeds things up.”

They were minutes away now and there was no telling what exactly was waiting for them.

Thor swung himself out of the Quintet and took to the skies again.

Natasha was frowning, watching the dark water beneath them. “I hope this doesn't mean Stark got reckless. Who knows what they'll do to retaliate.”

Steve silently agreed with her. He really hoped they'd get there in time.

* * *

The cell was cold, but his body was burning up. His head was hurting like he had a concussion, and every movement made it worse. The drugs were coursing through his veins like acid, burning like fire. His neck felt like an open wound.

Just for a moment he was glad for the darkness, before panic gripped him.

Darkness.

Cold.

Night.

Space.

He struggled, but his hands were secured on his back and he had been carelessly dropped on his prison cell bed, face down. He nearly fell, moving around, but caught himself, barely.

He couldn't stop the panting.

“They are coming for me now,” he whispered. It wasn't exactly clear to him what had happened, the memory of what they'd done to him, had made him do, blurry and indistinct. But he remembered accessing his own systems, alerting JARVIS to his presence.

“The Avengers are coming,” he repeated to himself. He clung to that knowledge, assumption really, and tried to quiet down his racing heartbeat.

Steve was coming. He'd never abandon a teammate. Even if he was a weak and useless liar like Tony Stark.

* * *

Banner opted to remain on the Quinjet after seeing the ship. “I'm not going to be of much help if I sink the ship before you have Tony.”

Thor was already engaging and he and Natasha were getting ready for the drop. Thunder roared and lightning lit up the sky dangerously as Thor attacked and the first shots were fired. Clint remained firmly lodged in the pilot seat, returning the fire in kind and keeping the Quinjet out of reach. Natasha waved as she jumped out, her parachute securely fastened to her back.

“Cap!” Bruce held him back. “He's here. I'm picking up low levels of Iron Man's energy signature.”

He froze in his tracks, the wind on his face already beckoning him to join the fight. But he stopped right there in the open hatch to look back. “How low?”

“Just hard to detect, but I'd know that energy source anywhere.”

It was all he needed to hear.

He had friends to save. He'd bring them home safely. Both of them.

He made the drop without parachute, breaking his fall and coming to his feet easily. Natasha was already ahead of him, firing her gun and making her way towards the lower decks. And Steve's own instincts kicked in. He had a job to do. Finally he could use his skills to make a difference. The uncertainty and nervousness he'd been feeling all day finally dropping away. Iron Man's presence on board this ship was confirmed. Now it was just a matter of finding him and Stark and getting them out.

With the shield he knocked a door down and made his way down.

“Seems like their numbers aren't as amazing as the size of the ship would make you believe,” Natasha's voice spoke up in his ear.

Steve smiled grimly and then instructed: “Don't let your guard down. We have a job to do.”

The guards were standing in his way and it took him just one hard throw to knock them all down, his shield bouncing against the wall and back into his hand. “Where are they?” he asked, grabbing one of them by the collar and knocking him against the wall. He received no answer.

Gunfire made him jump around the next corner.

He ran along hallways, leading his pursuers on. Found his way further into the ship. “Any sign?” he asked, jumping down the stairs and out of the way of bullets, using the shield for cover.

“No,” Natasha said firmly, just as Thor said: “Continue your search, Captain. We will give these men something to do until you find our friends.”

“Thanks.”

A loud noise like something was crashing through metal shook the ship. Men were shouting behind him somewhere, but he couldn't see anyone on his heels. Apparently he'd taken out all of the ones who had been after him and Thor was keeping everyone else busy upstairs. If Natasha was following the plan, then she should be halfway to taking control of the ship now.

He rounded a corner and took a moment to take a deep breath. The corridors were empty and dark here and for the first time since this had started he had the time to think this through. A systematic search was impossible maybe, but he could get the lay of the land and figure out where their friends where, as long as Thor and Clint made sure that nobody got off this ship.

“Some of them are trying to get off the ship, Cap,” Clint informed him just as he was thinking it.

“Don't let them get away. Call in SHIELD if you need to.”

“Signal is jammed.”

“Why are the comms working then? Make it work, Hawkeye.”

“I’m not Iron Man,” Clint hissed.

“I’m not asking you to be. You have Bruce with you.”

He etched down another corridor slowly, opening doors as he moved forward. An empty control room, a bare room with only a chair in it. He didn't stop, rounding another corner slowly. Two guards were standing in front of a door, moving the moment they realized he was there. Steve was faster.

“Cap?” Banner's voice asked from far away.

“I'm kind of busy,” he ground out, catching a fist in his own and throwing a man across the hallway.

“There is something about the briefcase...”

He jumped back before another fist could connect with his jaw, kicking the man in his stomach before he could come at him again. “Sorry, Bruce, I'm in the middle of something. Give me a moment.”

Two men guarding a door in an empty hallway. Maybe he'd found what he was looking for. He knocked the first one out with his fist, ducking behind his shield, before the other got a chance to graze him with his bullets and jumped forward to pummel him against a wall, knocking him out. The hall was clear. There was a slit for a key-card at the door and he searched the guard's pockets, finding something and pulling it out with his stiffly gloved fingers. “I might have found Stark or Iron Man,” he reported, as he slid the key-card in and watched the door swish open.

“Cap,” Bruce said urgently. “That's just it...”

Inside the room it was dark, but a soft blueish glow was coming from the back of the room. Steve recognized it instantly, had seen that sort of glow go out once, when Iron Man had fallen to earth from a wormhole. But it was Tony Stark who sat huddled on an uncomfortable prison bed, eyes turning away as if the light was causing him pain. He looked awful, pale and bruised. His lip was split and his cheek was swollen, and he was wearing nothing but his trunks and a white tank... And only now did Steve realize that the soft blue glow was coming from his chest. He was used to seeing it in Iron Man's armored chest...

There was the hard metal edge of a device embedded in the man's body, barely visible over the line of his tank and the light was easily visible even through the fabric.

He stared, couldn’t look away.

“Steve,” the man whispered as if it took him some effort and Steve felt everything fall into place the moment he heard his own name coming from those lips.

“The briefcase,” Bruce insisted. “I've cracked it. It's the armor, Cap. It's Iron Man armor. I think...”

He swallowed and edged closer towards Tony. “It's okay, Bruce. I found Stark. I think I know already. I've found him. I’m looking at Tony now.” His eyes were still glued to the light in his chest, the one that belonged in the chest of Iron Man. “He’s Iron Man,” he finally said out loud.

“Cap?” Tony's eyes were half closed and his lips were dry, his voice rough. “You’re here.”

“Yeah, it's fine. I'm here,” he whispered as he approached him, disconnecting the channel for the moment. Apparently Tony's arms were secured behind his back, and he was rocking slightly where he was sitting, unable to completely free himself.

“Gave me something,” he said, his voice slurred, and as Steve finally got close enough to touch he saw the full extent of the bruises that were covering his face and arms,, took in the unnaturally wide pupils and the sickly skin color. Momentarily it was enough to distract him from the device that was apparently attached to Tony’s body.

“We'll get you out of here now, Mr. Stark.”

“Need to tell you...”

“You're Iron Man,” he said as he slowly bent forward to reach around the man and pull the handcuffs apart with one angry pull. Stark jumped at the sudden motion, but didn't pull away from him. His hands coming up to grasp at Steve's shoulders with a faltering grip. He was shivering.

They know, Steve,” he said urgently. “They know.”

The confusion, the anger, the worry all that he had been feeling for days, perhaps since Iron Man had been hurt during that last fight, came crashing down. Steve realized that he’d been angry at Tony for something that had happened to the man himself. His own words were ringing in his head: You’re not the one who gets hurt.

Impulsively he reached forward wrapped the man - his friend - in an embrace. “It’s okay. I know now, too. It’s okay.”

Tony practically froze up against him, didn’t try to get out of his arms though. He was breathing too fast and, recognizing the signs from another time and place, Steve softly stroked a hand over his back, patted his head soothingly. “It’s okay. I’ve got you now. Now I’m getting you out of here. Trust me.”

“Okay,” Tony agreed, a broken sigh echoing back of them in the cold metal confinement of the cell.

The shivering stopped and when he raised his head to peer up at Steve he seemed a bit calmer. “Okay,” he breathed again.

Steve took Tony's hand in his and squeezed lightly. He had the urge to just swoop him up and carry him out, but held back for the moment, giving Tony room to breathe and come back to his feet on his own.

“I have Tony,” he spoke into the comm. “I'll get him outside. Cover me if you can, Hawkeye.” He was already pulling a slightly swaying Tony towards the doors as he said it, watched as the man stumbled against him with a worried frown. “Can you walk?” he asked.

“Think so. Give me a moment, Steve, I... My head hurts. Everything’s a bit blurry.”

“You were drugged,” Steve said softly, remembering Tony’s jumbled words. Tony didn't let go of his arm. When his slightly foggy gaze settled on his face, Steve tried to remain calm and nonthreatening. “Hi, Shellhead. I need you to work with me. Can you do that?” he whispered.

“Yeah,” Tony said immediately, but with slightly confused frown. “Of course.”

And Steve smiled. This wasn't how he'd expected to learn about Iron Man's identity, but the important thing was that his friend hadn't just disappeared, wasn't lying dead somewhere in some cell. He'd been right here all this time.

And even now he trusted Steve to do the right thing.

“They scanned the arc reactor,” Tony said urgently, pulling on his arm.

He had no idea what that was, looked down and remembered the faint glow, nodded. “We need to get you out and then we'll take them down. Don't worry. Now that you’re safe we don’t need to hold back.”

* * *

Coordinating the team was easy. Natasha made a backup of all their data and then Thor was the one who fried all of their equipment; computers going up in smoke, to make sure that nothing could get out if it hadn't already done so. Maria Hill and a number of SHIELD agents arrived to take care of the situation. Their faces were grim. All of this seemed to unsettle them even more than it unsettled the Avengers.

As Steve stepped outside with Tony the man shivered, stumbling. Natasha appeared out of nowhere with a dark overcoat that had apparently belonged to one of the goons here and put it around Tony's shoulders. The wind outside was biting and Tony had already been freezing to begin with, his hands deathly cold. Steve was grateful for her quick thinking and nodded at her gratefully, when Tony just stared at her as if he was seeing her for the first time.

“They were stealing from SHIELD,” Maria said grimly, giving him and Tony the once-over, but not commenting on Tony's state. “I can't say how, but believe me I'm going to find out.”

Natasha looked just as grim. “We are going to find out.” The women nodded at each other and Steve nodded along, but his mind was on his shivering teammate. So many questions had suddenly been answered, but there were so many more he wanted to ask. Details were suddenly fitting together to form a completely new picture. But Tony was swaying and he caught him by the arm. “Are you okay?” he asked, wondering how easy it was to accept that this man had always been Iron Man, now that he knew. It had been obvious. Who would Stark trust with a weaponized suit like that?

Nobody.

“No,” Tony answered immediately. “No.” He was pressing a hand to his temple, his face scrunched up and still much too pale. “Can we go home now? I don’t feel so good. I can just sit down here. That's okay, too.”

Steve caught him by the arm, holding him upright, giving the other Avengers a worried glance.

“The lady Natasha and I will stay behind until the situation is fully resolved,” Thor announced, landing beside them. “It's good to have you back, Iron Man,” he said as if the identity of Iron Man had always been an open secrets to him and patted Stark on the back in a friendly manner. Tony stumbled forward a bit, still unsteady on his feet.

“Thanks, Thor, it's good to see you, too,” he mumbled, but he was actually smiling for the first time.

He hadn't smiled at Steve even once, looking worried and slightly shell-shocked while they'd made their way out of the ships guts, distressed as he had tried to explain the secrets that had been taken. And Steve hadn't allowed himself to smile either, although he'd been so glad and relieved to find Tony alive and in one piece and figuring out that this meant his best friend was also safe. The mission hadn't been over then.

It still wasn't, but the priority was to get Tony some medical attention now.

“Go then,” Thor said and nodded at Steve, who lay a gentle hand on Tony's shoulder and guided him towards the Quinjet.

“Let's go, Tony. Come on.”

Bruce was looking out towards them as they approached slowly.

“Are you sure their computers were all destroyed before they got anything out?”

“Natasha cleaned out their systems. It's all here, Tony. You can look at it yourself. But we’re sure they hadn't transmitted anything yet for fear of leading us to their home base.”

It was clear that Bruce wanted to calm Tony down and make sure he was alright, but was waiting for the man to make a statement that it was okay. But Tony just looked away to the back of the Quinjet, slowly moved away from both Bruce and Steve and sat down, hiding his face in his hands and sighing heavily. He was still barefoot and pale, but the nervousness that was seeping into his frame now had nothing to do with that.

Bruce and Steve exchanged a look, unsure of how exactly to proceed.

“Hey, Shellhead,” Clint called over his shoulder. “It's good to have you back. Cap and your sciencebro over there where getting a bit antsy about you. No fun, believe me. Prefer it when someone is around to snark at.”

Tony looked over his hands suspiciously. “You just don't poke them the right way if you can’t make them snark.”

Clint laughed. “I'm not suicidal enough to poke a Hulk.”

“Usually I wear armor to make it less of a risk,” Tony grumbled. His shoulders had relaxed a bit, but the signs of exhaustion were even more visible. Steve stepped towards him and Tony watched him warily as he sat down beside him. There was so much they needed to talk about, so much he wanted to ask, but first he just wanted to make sure his friend was okay.

Bruce was also finally stepping closer, a small flashlight in his hands. He didn't wait for permission any longer, but started his examination, examining Tony's eyes first. Both Iron Man and Tony Stark were usually perfect at deflecting people, but now the man just let it happen with an unhappy frown. “Not feeling so good,” he admitted.

“That's because they put you on sedation.”

“Messed with my brain, too.”

His arms were protectively wrapped in front of his chest now, drawing Steve's attention back to the light that was shining through the shirt. He wanted to ask, wanted to know exactly what it was, had the urge to reach out and touch, could see from Bruce's frown that the same questions were running through his head. But Tony was uneasy enough and exhausted, so Steve held his tongue. None of it needed to be asked right now. It could wait, until Tony had rested.

“Take us home, Hawkeye,” he ordered, and for the first time since he'd found him in his cell Tony's eyes met his own, grateful and tired, but clear.

He stayed beside him, unwilling to go too far away now that he'd finally found him.

“Need to call Pepper,” Tony mumbled. “Need to make sure they can't use this against us.”

Steve realized he was talking about Iron Man's secret and reached for his hand, squeezing it softly. It felt so good and natural to give physical comfort now that he finally could. “One step at a time, Tony. Rest and we can take on the world again tomorrow. Together.” Tony looked startled, his pupils still blown a little wider than usual, giving him a slightly panicked expression and Steve realized with a start that he'd probably never actually called him “Tony” before today. “Just rest, Shellhead, he added softly. “We're taking care of this. You just get better.”

Tony nodded and virtually folded in on himself, his arms still protectively lodged against his chest as if he needed to protect the device there. He fell asleep like that half an hour later, his head falling to the side against Steve's shoulder. He settled back, glad for the weight against his shoulder, reminding him that his friend was safe, and listened to Tony's slow breathing.

All the worry and anger and confusion was slowly falling away, giving him time to examine his own thoughts at what he'd learned today.

By the time that they arrived back in New York Steve was still holding Tony's hand in a firm grip, softly stroking a thumb against the back of it. He'd made up his mind. He'd hold on and never let this man slip away behind his walls again.

Steve knew what he wanted for both of them now.

* * *

Steve helped him out of the Quinjet, Hawkeye hovering behind them and then staying at his side like a silent, supportive presence. Bruce worried about any adverse affects the control disk might have had on his “normal human physiology”. He allowed for scans and examinations, but Tony was glad that even now his friends weren't asking the hard questions, keeping their talk about the medical, about the science of it all. “What's this,” Bruce asked tentatively and pointed at Tony's chest. “You don't have it locked in your chest, just because it powers the Iron Man suit, I assume.”

“No,” he admitted. “Keeps my heart beating.” Because of the slightly startled look he got he added: “Runs a magnet that's keeping some shrapnel out of my heart.”

There was no need to explain how that had gotten in there or what had happened to him. Bruce could do the math himself.

Even admitting it made Tony feel like a liability.

But when he looked at Steve he could see something else in his eyes. It was like he was seeing Tony Stark for the first time – and there was something like amazement there, realization.

He looked away quickly, scared that this would be where everything changed on him.

When Pepper and Rhodey arrived to take charge he was quietly relieved. He didn't need to hide anything from them. These people already knew all there was to know about him. He didn't need to hide with them, didn't need to fear their reactions.

“SHIELD wants to debrief us,” Steve reminded him. “There is something about the group that took you...”

“They were connected to SHIELD,” Tony acknowledged.

“Fury wants our help on this.”

That was unexpected. So Tony nodded, while Pepper was practically pulling him from the room, up to his own place.

“You know where to find me, Shellhead,” Steve called after him. “If you want to talk, just come and finde me, Tony.”

But talking was the last thing he wanted to do. Pepper and Rhodey fussed about him and his mind was miles away. The first chance he got he escaped down to the workshop, back to work, back to the place where he could just leave the world locked out for a while.

His secret was out and he'd never before felt so vulnerable.

* * *

“Don't rush me now,” Tony mumbled at JARVIS when he opened a new screen to show him the time. He was leaning over the gauntlet he'd been working on. The hands-on feel of working on the armor had helped him get his mind off all the uncomfortable thoughts that he couldn't seem to put a lid on now.

“Sir, Captain Rogers requests to see you. He is waiting outside.”

Here it comes, he thought and muttered: “Of course, he is.” Steve had never before come down to the workshop, had asked Iron Man about it only once, but had always respected the workshop to be a place where Tony Stark and Iron Man were sharing their secrets with nobody but each other.

The most important secret was out though and they needed to talk, even if part of him wanted to push all his little secrets back into a dark box and just not deal with this now. With nothing more to hide he felt naked, uneasy, vulnerable. He still wasn't sure how Steve was taking any of this, how the others were actually feeling about it.

He wasn't in a hurry to find out.

He'd know soon enough.

For now he still had a choice. He could put it off by just not letting Steve in, avoid him and the other Avengers until it couldn't be put off any longer.

But they knew now and he owed them answers. It was just a matter of time.

Looking around the space, at all the red and gold armor parts strewn across the place, the new armor propped up only feet away, he realized something important. He had no intention of giving up being Iron Man. It was too much a part of who he was now, of who he had become in recent years. And nothing had changed about the Avengers. He wanted the team to succeed. He wanted to be part of that. He didn’t want things to change, just because now they knew he was Tony Stark.

He needed to make that clear.

“The data transfer from the SHIELD systems is progressing as planned,” JARVIS informed him.

“Anything on that shadow system we came up against last time?”

“Highly protected. It will take another few minutes, sir.”

“Thanks, JARVIS. You really are my favorite.”

“Captain Rogers is still waiting outside, sir.”

No need to drag it out, even if that would be easier for him in the short term. Steve had things to say to him and after he'd come to save his ass, facing him was really the least Tony could do to show his gratitude. He turned on his chair to look towards the heavy metal door. Better to face this head on. “Let him in, JARVIS.”

The door slid open and revealed Steve, once again in casual clothes, hands buried in the pockets of his jeans and looking surprised. “Hi,” Tony said and waved. “You wanted to see me?”

Steve was still staring at the receding door as if he hadn't expected to be let in at all and then slowly stepped inside, taking a slow look around as he walked closer. He carefully stroked along one disconnected suit arm, that was lying on a table to one side. When he met Tony's eyes he smiled. “Upgrades?” he asked amused.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “New armor.”

Steve seemed to think that was funny.

“Something wrong?” Tony asked in a deceptively light tone.

“It was just... Iron Man was always so excited for the new suits. And now I know that it was you enjoying yourself, building and piloting them.”

Tony swallowed. “Uh, yeah, that...”

Steve grinned. “It makes so much sense. Now that I know, that is.”

“Oh?” he said and looked away.

“I just wanted to make sure how you're doing. Now that I can, you know? How are you? You had a rough day and I like to know my team is okay, Tony.”

The intense stare made him uncomfortable, but Steve seemed to be anything but. He sat down on the workbench without prompting, smiling at Tony reassuringly. These smiles had never been for him before, always for Iron Man, and he couldn't help it, he stared, unable to deal with it, not sure how to take it. Steve also seemed to be quite aware of the fact that he was staring and didn't seem to mind, exuding an air of quiet amusement, but nothing more. After a while he extended a hand. “Hi,” he said. “I think we've never been properly introduced. I'm Steve. And I'm Captain America.”

Not sure how else to react he slowly extended his hand, feeling his own gripped immediately by Steve's strong and sure fingers. “Hi,” he said, fighting his suddenly dry throat to get this out properly. “I'm Tony. And I'm Iron Man.”

“It's good to finally properly meet you, Iron Man.” Steve's smile was so brilliant it was blidning. “I'm glad you're okay.” Then he laughed. “It's kind of funny. I raged at you for the way you didn’t care about what happened to your bodyguard. I was really harsh and so angry at you. Now that I know that I was angry at you for not taking better care of yourself it's really funny.”

“Oh?” Tony was quietly relieved that Steve found it funny in hindsight. He’d expected a different reaction altogether.

“Get used to it,” Steve said, his voice equal parts laughter and warning. “I want you to take better care of yourself from now on, mister. Or I’ll be very disappointed in you. And I'll chew you out even worse next time. Understood?”

“That's... reassuring.” Tony was too flabbergasted to even smile. “You're not angry at all?”

“You had your reasons for keeping this charade up. I can guess at some of them. And looking back on how we insulted each other the first time we met, I can't blame you for being a bit cautious around me.”

“That wasn't why...”

“I can guess,” Steve repeated. “It's okay. You don't need to justify yourself. But if you want to tell me, you can. I won’t judge you. This time. Promise.”

A heavy weight lifted from his shoulders and he nodded, breathing easier for the first time since this whole mess had started. Then Steve's gaze found the point where the bright light of the arc reactor was clearly shining through the fabric of his Black Sabbath t-shirt. Tony startled as he extended a hand and carefully lay it against it. He didn't like people touching the reactor, was so used to hiding it, too afraid of the consequences of anyone getting too close. But this was Steve and he trusted him without question.

“I knew this was important,” Steve whispered. “When you fell that one time, the light was gone and I thought you were dead.”

He didn't want to point out how close he'd come that day and ruin the mood. “Yeah, happens. Power drain,” he said, making light of it, not sure he wanted to go into the details of that now. This was so not the right time for a panic attack.

“And now I know. It keeps you alive. Protects your heart.”

“It's... complicated,” he admitted, just to say anything. He didn't think that now was a good time to go into the details of how once upon a time the thing that kept him alive had been slowly poisoning him. Surely Steve didn't need to know that at all.

“It's ingenious. Bruce says he's never seen anything like it. I know it's what powers the tower, but this one is so small...” There was a slight pause and Steve pulled his hand away slowly, his smile growing softer. “Is it... okay? I mean, can I see it?”

“See it?” Tony asked his breath catching in his throat. He understood Bruce's need for understanding the science behind it, to understand the workings of this thing, his questions about the medical side of it all. But this wasn't Bruce, but Steve asking. He felt his cheeks warm, wasn't sure if he hadn't turned pale, although it was like he was heating up at the same time. It was Steve, who was just perfect and looking at him with quiet expectation and something like... longing? He couldn't really say no, but he wasn't sure if he wanted to say yes.

So much secrecy surrounded the device in his chest that he was by now very self-conscious about it. He knew that he was still an attractive person, had nothing to be ashamed of, but that the thing in his chest surrounded by heavy scar tissue wasn't exactly something he wanted to show off to Captain America, just to in the end see pity in his eyes.

“Please?” Steve asked, the note of hope unmistakable.

He stood up, taking a few staggering steps away from Steve, thinking things through. “You're not just saying it to get me out of my clothes?”

“If I thought that this was all it took, I would have put the moves on Iron Man months before just to get him out of the armor.” Steve grinned, his eyes suddenly so full of emotion that Tony had to look away, not sure what to make of it. None of this was what he'd expected.

“Touché.,” he mumbled.

This whole mess... Maybe he owed Steve a bit of openness and truth after all the secrets. He bit his lip as he pulled up the shirt in one fluid motion and threw it over onto one of the tables, before he had time to change his mind about this.

Steve had followed him slowly, getting up to stand in front of him. He was staring at him, at it now. Trying hard not to show how uncomfortable he was Tony did his best to keep still, turning his face away to not directly meet Steve's eyes, letting him approach silently. It was hard enough to see a flicker of sadness pass over Steve's face and Tony braced himself for the pity. Instead Steve's hand rose up again, carefully touching the rim of the reactor, the rounded edges, feeling along the side of it and then it moved over to the left, along the scars and his exposed skin. It took all of his willpower not to shiver and pull away. “Tony?” Steve asked and finally looked up to look him in the eyes, so much understanding there, respect, realization, perhaps something else, but Tony very firmly kept his head turned away. It was like Steve was finally seeing all of him for the first time and he wasn't sure he could take it. “Afghanistan?” Steve asked softly.

He nodded. A big lump had formed in his throat and he couldn't trust himself to speak, as Steve's fingers continued the soft exploration of his skin. Nobody had touched him like this since it had happened. Pepper had come close, helping him when he needed it, but this was so different. He'd never felt as exposed and vulnerable in his life, not even when he'd been laid bare in front of terrorists.

But he also felt safe.

And Steve was too close, just too close. Close enough for kissing, close enough that Tony could feel his breath ghost over his face. He licked his lips and Steve's gaze settled on them, following the motion. Suddenly his heart was beating so loudly that there was just no way that Steve wouldn't be able to hear it,feel it.

“You're a brave man,” Steve finally said, feeling his way along the scars like he was committing them to memory.

Tony stared, finally turning to look at Steve and he stopped breathing. They really were standing too close for comfort, nearly nose to nose and Steve wasn't pulling away even an inch. It was hard to think about anything but their lips being only the smallest touch away.

He stared at those lips, trying to hold his breath and tried to shove it all back into that secret compartment of his mind, where he was hiding the size of this crush.

“You nearly died and you came back from it a hero.” Steve nodded towards the armor and the armor parts lying around the room. “You reinvented yourself, Tony.”

Nearly dying had been a turning point, yes, but even more so had been discovering how much bad his own inventions had brought to the world. He'd learned to care again, to want to be better. He wasn't a hero like Steve. He knew that. But the respect in Steve's words really took his breath away.

“This was like your Project: Rebirth,” Steve said and finally, grinning, he very, very slowly pulled away. Part of Tony was sad to lose the moment, to lose the precious contact. Another was glad that he hadn't given himself away. “Explains a lot about you, Tony. Will you tell me the whole story one day?”

He still didn't know if he could trust his voice, but croaked out: “Yeah, sure. It's not that great a story.”

And Steve smiled even more brightly. “Doubt that. Want to come with me upstairs? We could talk a bit, Shellhead. Man to man. I've been waiting for a long time to know the man inside the armor better.”

And he nodded, like he was in a daze. “Yeah, why not? Sure. Let me put on my shirt. I'm feeling a bit self-conscious here standing half naked in front of Captain America.”

Steve's soft smile turned into an amused grin. “Don't put it on on my account, Tony. Natasha was right, disheveled is a good look on you.”

Tony froze, his arm already halfway to reaching for the t-shirt, only slowly recovering from the shock of Steve making a comment like that. He cleared his throat. “It makes me a tad self-conscious.” He tapped the arc reactor to make his point.

“It's beautiful,” Steve said earnestly and Tony was just floored, too amazed to even protest. There was a good chance that he was still a captive, held in a cell somewhere, that someone had hit his head so hard that he was in a coma or that he'd been so doped up that all of this, the rescue, coming home, Steve in his workshop were only fabrications made up by his unhinged mind. Steve flirting with him couldn't be real, could it?

But Steve was still smiling, this time looking a bit sheepish. “Sorry, I was just... I'm just glad that I finally have a real name to call you by, Tony. You're my friend and... It's really good to finally know you. All of you. And I want to know you better, much, much better.”

They were finally on the same page here. If Steve hadn't hated him for being Tony Stark, that would already have been much more than he would have hoped for. This was simply unexpected and scary. He drew a deep breath, ready to follow Steve wherever he wanted to go, telling himself that he really needed to stop this, take a step back and look at what they were doing, but Steve was looking at him expectantly, looking all clean and proper – and just too good. He couldn't make speech work for himself just now, not like this, his genius mind coming up blank.

“Sir?” The voice of JARVIS nearly made him jump out of his skin.

“JARVIS,” he prompted, watching Steve as he calmly and all too comfortable leaned casually against a table as if he was long used to being in Tony's workshop and surveyed the armor parts that were lying there.

“We successfully broke into the part of the SHIELD systems that had been closed off to us. There is something you might want to see.”

He turned with a frown, not sure he was ready to think straight this very moment, as JARVIS opened a screen for him over the worktable.

“Oh,” he said, pieces falling into place, connections just suddenly standing out and making sense, and he could feel Steve growing still across the room.

A round logo had appeared, a green skull with kraken-like arms protruding from it. “Hydra,” Steve hissed and all the warmth that had been there moments before seeped from his voice.

It seemed they had their work cut out for them. “Maybe we should ask Nick and Maria Hill to debrief us here. Right now,” Tony suggested, as string of data sprung up in front of his eyes, laying all the secrets hidden inside of SHIELD's guts bare in front of him. But his mind was already jumping ahead. He had no time for moping around, no time to see what Steve had in store for him. He needed to call the shots before these thugs could use his secret against him.

And he needed to do it right now.

Then he could turn this around and use every little tiny bit of information he had on them against them and make it hurt. Nobody fucked with Iron Man.

Scratch that. Nobody in their right mind fucked with Tony Stark.

They nodded at each other, both shoving what had just transpired between them aside for the moment; professional and focused. “We need to call in the Avengers first. This is big,” Steve said and pulled out a communicator.

“Let me call in Pepper,” he replied darkly. “There is something I need to do. And I have a feeling it can't wait.”

He made his call, telling Pepper very clearly that they needed another press conference, that things had to happen fast, that this was not the time for him to sit down and wait this out. “Have you sat down to rest at all?” she asked with no small hint of disapproval.

“I caught a few hours of shut-eye. Stop nagging, mom,” he told her, because he knew it was what she needed to hear, but it was also true. He'd slept on the Quinjet and he'd napped for a few hours after she'd forced him into bed. And he'd not felt this full of energy for a long time, maybe nor since their battle against aliens. “I'm fine. Don't worry.”

Steve was walking beside him towards the elevator and looked at him with a stern face.“You say that an awful lot, Tony. Not sure it means anything coming from you.”

“Is that Steve?” Pepper asked. “Tell him he's right.”

“No,” he said immediately. “He already thinks he's always right.”

Steve motioned for him to step in the elevator first like the gentleman he was and then threw him a dirty look. Apparently he knew exactly who Tony was talking about. “You do say it too often,” he insisted, but let it drop, getting out at his own level to change into his uniform. “You're not fine. Don't pretend with me,” he said as parting shot, before the elevator doors closed between them.

Tony pondered that, not sure how much more of himself he could give Steve after all his secrets had been lain bare.

Clint, Bruce and Steve were already waiting in their meeting room, when Tony arrived back down there, dressed in a suit, determined not to let the revelation of his secret identity change the way they would handle this situation as a team. “When did we start using the meeting room for real?”

The three of them just stared at him with slightly amused expressions.

“Ah,” he said. “Will it get you to use the pool, if I go missing again?”

Clint chuckled and it set Tony's mind at ease a bit. The armor had been a wall around himself, but it had also made interacting with the team easier for him in some ways. It was good to know that he could still be their friend without the metal walls around him.

Natasha arrived with Fury and Hill minutes later. Tony expected some outward signs of hostility directed towards him, but Fury only inclined his head in greeting, giving him a careful once-over before turning to Cap.

“We have something to tell all of you,” Steve started and then nodded at Tony.

“JARVIS,” he said and the data sprang up for all of them to see.

“It seems we have bigger problems than just a few double agents.”

Their meeting lasted for hours. By the end of it Tony was actually exhausted.

Maria Hill had looked at him half-way through the talk as if she wanted to say something, but it was Natasha who finally asked: “Are you sure you're okay?”

“He's fine,” Steve said, before Tony could answer and when Tony threw him a dirty look in reply he gave him a mocking half-smile. “You were about to say that anyway.”

“Tired,” he admitted. “We're not all super-soldiers here.”

“Apparently you're also not made out of iron,” Maria Hill commented, but it wasn't said in a scathing tone, so Tony just gave her an exaggerated sarcastic shit-eating grin and went back to type on his tablet. As always Pepper was doing a perfect job. He'd get his press conference tomorrow morning. And everything would change.

He caught a few hours sleep after, when Steve had gone with Fury to work out a strategy and everyone but Bruce had left Stark Tower. For once he even did so in his own bed. That night instead of hiding in his workshop when the nightmares woke him, he made his way down the stairs and quietly knocked on Steve's door.

“Hey, Shellhead, can't sleep?”

“No,” he admitted. “Woke up, didn't think I would be able to go back to sleep.” Self-consciously he added: “Woke up and thought of you.”

“Ah. We were interrupted before.” Steve just grinned and opened the door a little wider for him and motioned for him to come inside. “I'm not in the habit of sending good-looking fellas away when they want to visit me at night. Even if they are wearing t-shirts this time.”

It was possibly the most unexpected and most flirty thing that had come out of Steve's mouth since they'd met. “What about annoying, rich guys? Can they come in, too?”

Steve looked around him as if he was checking the hallway. “Only the attractive ones. You're good.”

Tony just raised an eyebrow at him. “Don't say any of that where the press can hear it or you'll cause a riot in front of the building.” He walked past Steve slowly, suddenly unsure of this being a good idea. The way this revelation was rapidly changing the parameters of their friendship was still so new and he felt like he was walking on thin ice.

“Want to talk now?” Steve asked and nodded towards the couch, making no move to touch or crowd him and for the moment Tony was glad for that, knew he wouldn't be able to think straight if Steve came too close again.

“I think I owe you a story.” He sat down on the comfortable couch that he'd chosen for Steve when he'd furnished the team's apartments.

Steve picked up a soda from the fridge and set it down on the table in front of him, then settled down beside him. “I always have an open ear for you, Iron Man,” he said and grinned. “Talk.”

Tony knew he was ready to tell him the real story this time, from beginning to end. There was no need to hold anything back, because Steve was seeing all of him now and apparently didn't hate it. By tomorrow the whole world would know his secret and his life would change forever.

It was exhilarating and scary, but he knew he could trust Steve with the whole truth at least, wanted him to know before he made statement in front of the cameras, wanted him to know before Steve could initiate something he'd regret later.

“I hope you have some time, Cap, because I don't even know where to start.”

“All the time in the world, Tony. Start at the beginning.”

And he did.

* * *

They woke up together, cuddled up against each other on Steve's sofa. His hand was protectively pressed against the arc reactor and Tony, still unsure and maybe little nervous about how things were progressing, had even held his hand there before he could pull it away. It was humbling how such a small gesture could express a world of trust.

He knew they needed to talk this through. He had never been good with this kind of talk, though. Apparently neither had Tony if any of the hints he'd been given were correct.

It really didn't matter. He knew they could figure it out together, one step at a time.

But today wouldn't be about that. Today was all about what Tony had to do. They got up together, Tony slinking away to his own quarters to take a shower. Steve smiled at that, realizing they're not quite there yet. But he made his way to Tony's door to pick him up and make him come down for team breakfast.

Nobody commented on this being the first time that Tony just sat with them, wearing an old t-shirt that does nothing to hide the arc reactor, his hair disheveled and still wet from the shower. Only Natasha grinned at Steve over her cup of tea, as if she knew this had been coming.

But then Ms. Potts and Colonel Rhodes took charge the moment they arrived at the Tower. Steve felt it wasn't his place to intrude on their discussions and the plans they were making for both Tony and his company, realized that for the two of them the “secret” hadn't been a secret from the start, that these were the people Tony had trusted from the very beginning. He was even glad that Tony hadn't gone through all of it alone until the Avengers had come along. It hadn't been an easy story to listen to, had revealed much about the man that he'd never even guessed at, despite his knowledge of Tony's abduction and escape in Afghanistan. It was easier now to recognize Tony's behavior for what it was.

“I'm already in charge of SI,” Pepper reminded Tony, when he fidgeted. “Maybe it was just time. Now you can focus on your little superhero hobby without keeping up the pretense.”

“A hobby is what you do in your spare time. Not sure Iron Man qualifies. We need to do this before SHIELD or Hydra or whoever they are get a chance to do it and spin it to their advantage,” Tony decided and looked over at Steve as if he was asking for permission.

He inclined his head, fully agreeing with Tony's assessment of the situation. “We'll back you up whatever decision you make about this. It's your life.”

Of course, he also realized that Tony Stark being Iron Man had serious repercussions for Stark Industries. Investors liked Iron Man for the amazing publicity he was bringing to the table, but they also liked stability. And the genius behind Stark Industries putting his life on the line wasn't what business people would see as a sign of stability. There would be controversy. There would be push back.

But there were good sides to this, too. All of them knew now that Tony Stark had been a part of the Avengers from the very beginning, knew that he had a personal stake in this team that went beyond philanthropic interest or publicity schemes.

He was proud to call him his friend. And maybe now, finally, he would get to know him better.

Tony nodded, his face unreadable.

Later he watched as Ms. Potts dabbed makeup on one of Tony's more visible bruises. “Are you ready for this?” she asked.

“For what? People talking about me? Kind of been there before.”

“No kidding, Mr. Stark.” She rolled her eyes and then softly smiled at Steve.

Steve grinned back, feeling like he was finally part of this too.

Maybe the return of Hydra was the biggest threat he’d ever faced, but this time he wouldn’t have to face it alone. In any case it had already had the positive effect of bringing the team closer together. They had tried to break them by attacking one of their own. Instead they had helped Steve to finally see beyond the secrets and see Tony for who he was.

Whatever came next, he would always be grateful for that.

Together they stood in front of a crowd of reporters as Iron Man pulled away his helmet in public for the first time. An astonished murmur went through the room and Steve put a supportive hand on the armor's shoulder, smiling towards the room.

“The truth is, I am Iron Man,” Tony said clearly, no hesitation or second thoughts and looked at Steve sideways. “And I am an Avenger.”

Reporters jumped up from their chairs to get in the first question, to get the first picture.

Iron Man had a name and a face now.

But only a few people knew the real man. And Steve was proud to say that now he was among them.