Steve fidgeted, feeling unbearably hot and stuffy as he scanned the room for a familiar face. Sure, his usual attire wasn't the height of comfort, but at least he could indiscreetly tug at the fabric to ease any unforeseen itches. No way that was happening in this armor. How did Iron Man stand this?
When Tony had shown up at the mansion at breakfast two weeks ago bearing invitations to a Maria Stark Foundation gala, he hadn't been up to his usual winsome, witty standard. In fact, he seemed almost apologetic as he passed out the envelopes.
“They figured since since hey, our head's the Avengers benefactor and we finance the team, why not have this be superhero-themed?” Tony said with a pained smile. “That gimmick alone added a couple thousand dollars for each donor in attendance,” he added, which more than explained his acquiescence to the proposal.
“Do we come as ourselves?” Hank asked, peering uncertainly at his own card. Steve could see him already formulating how to use his Pym particles to stay safely out of sight.
“You don't have to come at all!” Tony exclaimed. “Even if you do, I'm going to say right out that you can all come in your PJs if that's what you prefer. You're the ones saving the world out there, so you should get the luxury of choice.”
“We shouldn't come as ourselves,” Jan said with a glint in her eye. “It's meant to be a costume party, right? Wearing what we already use for the Avengers is just lazy. We should take this opportunity to dress up!”
Hank had shrunk in on himself while Steve studied his sesame seed bagel, contemplating who to dress up as.
To be honest, it hadn't been hard to decide. Steve smiled as he held out a gauntlet.
Steve jumped and glanced up, a bit embarrassed having been caught daydreaming. The startled greeting died on his lips, eyes widening at the man standing on front of him.
The man was a good six feet tall, with sharp blue eyes and dark hair, judging from the neatly styled mustache. Most strikingly, he was dressed in a Captain America costume. His wiry, lean build filled the suit out in a way that told Steve that those arm and leg muscles were used for more than just aesthetic appeal. Even the costume itself had to be admired; the chain mail, albeit more padded than necessary (was he wearing something underneath?), looked authentic, and the fabric stretched in a way that told of its durability. Even the makeshift shield seemed to be constructed from sturdy material. All in all, it looked nothing like the cheap outfits that Steve saw at parades or gatherings only meant to approximate Captain America's appearance. Steve wondered if he could have worn the costume for Avengering himself.
The man cleared his throat with meaning.
“Cap?” Steve finally managed in response, his voice coming out odd and tinny through the faceplate.
“Indeed.” The man's eyes twinkled. “I would expect you to recognize your fellow Avenger.” He smiled slowly, looking like he was drinking in Steve. Steve's tongue darted out to lick his lips. He immediately felt shy, although he faintly recognized that, with his armor on, the man couldn't even see Steve well enough to have his interest piqued.
Apparently for Steve, the inherent strangeness in being flirted with by someone dressed up as, well, him didn't override the other man's attractiveness and charm, obvious even with most of his face covered.
“Of course, I recognize you,” the man continued. “I figured I should say hello to the person who decided to come tonight dressed up as my bodyguard.”
Oh. Things fell into place before Steve's eyes, and he felt very, very dumb.
“Uh, Mr. Stark?”
Tony chuckled and winked at him. Now that Steve knew it was him, he had no clue how he hadn't seen it before. “That's me. It didn't take you long to uncover my secret identity,” he said lightly. “I'm obviously not very good at this superhero-ing business.”
“Mr. Stark – I mean, Tony.”
Tony frowned at him, and Steve spotted the moment Tony realized who he was talking to. Steve couldn't deny his amusement at seeing the debonair socialite, who blended into dazzling high-class society as naturally as breathing, caught off guard, his mouth hanging slightly agape.
“Cap!” Tony stopped himself, looking around to make sure of eavesdroppers before leaning in and lowering his voice, sending prickles down Steve's spine. “I mean, Steve. I hadn't realized you made it.” He smiled, pleased, and it wasn't the same smile from earlier, inviting Steve to share in his private, intimate secret, but it was genuine and warm, and that was enough to make Steve smile back.
“To be fair, I didn't exactly make it easy to tell.” Steve rapped on his armor with a satisfying clang. “I would have tried to find you when I arrived, but then I actually got here.” The thing about superheroes was that they didn't exactly flaunt their civilian identities. When Steve had entered and found himself facing more than a few of each of his teammates, not to mention himself, he'd realized this must be what the masquerade parties of the 21st century looked like. “I didn't recognize you at first even when I did meet you, for that matter,” he added with a bit of shame.
Tony just grinned at him like he was proud of that, and Steve felt a little warm around the neck. That might have just been the lack of ventilation in his costume.
“That's quite the coincidence, us showing up dressed as each – well, you as my bodyguard and me as you. ” Tony took a look down at himself. “Not exactly the suit and tie you're used to seeing me in, huh?”
It also wasn't the grease-stained tank top and ratty jeans Steve had seen him in on those rare, special occasions that only occurred late at night and would involve Tony stopping and staring at him, wide-eyed, like a deer caught in headlights. Steve didn't know whether Tony would want him to mention those times, so he just nodded, which wasn't the easiest affair with the helmet.
He swept his eyes over Tony again. Sure, Tony was attractive even on the worst days, but when he was dressed like this... Tony's suits were always tailored in a way that showcased the sleek lines of his body, but none had shown him off so – candidly. It made Steve feel more than a bit abashed, because while he'd certainly admired Tony's bare arms before, now that even more of him than usual was on display, it felt almost obscene.
“You're in good shape,” Steve offered dumbly, glad that the faceplate shielded his expression.
Tony furrowed his eyebrows before relaxing and chuckling. “Thanks – I play a lot of tennis.”
Steve raised an eyebrow before realizing Tony couldn't see it. He decided to go along with the obvious lie and laughed weakly. “So, why me?”
Tony bit his lip, which, combined with the imagery of him wearing Steve's uniform, made Steve have to resist shivering. Tony ended up shrugging.
“You're Captain America,” he said matter-of-factly. “You've always been an inspiration to me. Probably to most everyone in this room. Why not you?”
“Ah.” It was a perfectly good reason. Steve knew how people saw Captain America, and him, the man who bore the mantle, by extension. But, regardless, somehow the answer fell a bit short. “Thank you.”
“Nothing to it,” and with the way Tony acted, Steve wondered if he could make that answer to anything. “But what about you?”
“What about me?”
“Why Iron Man?” Tony's eyes turned sharp, searching.
Oh. Steve paused in his attempt to formulate the words. The appropriate words that he could say to Iron Man's boss, because he couldn't very well blurt out the first thing that came to mind. He's my friend, he's been there for me ever since I woke up from the ice, he's the one I turn to when I need someone, and even when he's not here and I'm talking to you, the man who always has everyone's eyes on him, I still can't stop thinking about Iron Man.
As Steve searched for something to say, the smile slowly slid off Tony's face. Steve swiftly scrambled for something safe.
“He's a good man,” Steve finally decided upon. “A great Avenger. I'm proud to be on the same team as him. Why not Iron Man?”
Tony pursed his lips, but seemed to perk up a bit at that. “If you say so. I'm sure he'd appreciate that. Not to mention how you came here as him, especially considering I spot no other Iron Man in this crowd.”
“Having to make this armor would be a deterrent.” Steve raised his arms to show off the handiwork. “I had to enlist Jarvis's and Jan's expertise.” He could have asked Iron Man. Iron Man would...probably have been more than happy to help, but it was more than a little awkward asking your best friend-slash-crush how to properly dress up as them.
“You could have asked me!” Somehow, Steve didn't doubt that Tony would have made him an entire working suit of armor if he'd asked.
“Oh, I couldn't have. You have so much else on your hands,” Steve said. When Tony looked about to protest that surely in-between running a Fortune 500 company and maintaining Iron Man's armor he could have fitted in building a makeshift armor for a costume party, Steve quickly added, “besides, it turned out well. I'm glad I chose this costume.” Steve smiled. “It's nice, not having all the attention on you,” he admitted in a low tone.
Tony threw his head back and laughed. “We'll see what you think about that soon enough.” Before Steve could ask, Tony nodded. “Believe me, I can relate. I think exactly that is part of the appeal for Iron Man, too.” His expression softened. “You all did a great job, by the way. Looks just like the real thing.”
“Thank you. I might have actually been Iron Man, for all you know,” Steve offered.
That seemed especially amusing to Tony for some reason. “Now that's impossible. I gave Iron Man the night off. He's out and about doing his own thing.”
“Oh.” Steve tried not to dwell on the rush of disappointment to little success. He had thought, with a faint, breathless glimmer of hope, that maybe he'd get to see Iron Man out of the armor tonight. Surely not his face, what with the secret identity (maybe he could have come as Spider-Man?), but at least be able to see the outline of his body and to see him move, and fidget, and scratch an itch, and do all of those little inconsequential things that suddenly were so important to see. Sure, even in the armor, Steve could now read his friend's body language well enough to know when he was tired, or had something on his mind, or was especially cheerful (that was Steve's favorite), but there was so much more to him that Steve didn't know. Steve didn't want to pry and make Iron Man uncomfortable – hell, he'd pledged not to – but wasn't it natural, when you liked someone, to want to know more about them? To want to spend time with them and learn more about them and like them even more than you thought possible?
“Have to say, these are cute,” Tony said, playing with the headwings on his cowl. It was surprisingly endearing. “What say you, Shellhead?”
Steve blinked, surprised at the familiar nickname rolling off Tony's tongue. “They're probably nothing compared to actual flying, Winghead.” Steve made sure to put emphasis on the last word as he held his gauntlets out in front of him and lifted up a boot. Tony flashed him a smile in response.
“Hi there, Steve! Tony!” Jan appeared from behind Tony, stepping to the side to admire Steve. “Wow, the end product looks amazing!”
“Thank you. You look great too, Jan.”
“Thank you,” Jan beamed as she did a twirl. She was dressed in a Fantastic Four uniform, her short hair smartly styled. Then again, it was little surprise – Jan was the type of person you could put in the Melter's outfit and she'd pull it off on the runway.
“Blue is quite the flattering color on you, Jan,” Tony noted.
“And the same to you, Tony.” Jan raised her eyebrows as she took Tony in. Steve shuffled from one foot to the other, awkward as he watched them, so obviously familiar with each other and this entire scene, with all of its glamour and glitz.
“Hi.” Hank stepped into their circle with a hesitant wave.
“Hank, you made it too!” Tony seemed delighted. “As...the Human Torch?”
Hank coughed and spluttered as Jan shook her head adamantly.
“Tony, he's with me,” she said. “Obviously, he's Mister Fantastic.”
“Oh, right. Fair enough.” Tony stroked his chin with his hand. “How would the Avengers feel about a team uniform?”
“Absolutely not,” Jan declared as Steve laughed and Hank smiled lopsidedly.
They fell into an easy rapport after that. Steve felt a bit guilty at first that they were monopolizing Tony's time – wasn't he the host? – but Tony didn't seem to mind. He eased into their dynamic like he'd always been there, despite the short amount of actual time he'd spent in the Avengers' company. It was like he knew exactly how they operated. Maybe that was just Tony Stark for you, able to fit in anywhere, anytime. Steve might have envied that ability.
Even if all the Avengers weren't present at the moment. Thor usually wasn't around except when they assembled, and Iron Man was...out and about doing his own thing. Steve wondered if he was lonely, but quickly shook that idea away. They'd told him about their first battle together, how the Avengers were brought together by chance, chose to cooperate, and found they were more effective as a team. They had all been superheroes before then, so they must all have lives outside of the Avengers and definitely outside of superhero-ing. Steve...didn't, and he had been brought into their lives by a freak accident anyway.
Iron Man was probably off with friends having fun, or maybe having a quiet, well-deserved evening of rest. Steve had gathered that the man didn't have a family, but that didn't rule out any romantic interests, and he tried to quell the sudden unease he felt at the thought.
“Excuse me,” Tony said, cutting short a particularly animated conversation mostly dominated by himself and Jan. An announcement was being made over the speakers. “I'm sorry to break this up, but I believe it's time for me to deliver my speech.”
After Tony excused himself, a crowd started to congregate around the stage. The Avengers made their way over, keeping to the back. Jan placed her hand in the crook of Hank's arm, making Steve a third wheel. But he didn't know anyone else in the room, so he lingered to their side.
When Tony made his way onto the stage, Steve watched as he searched the crowd. When Tony caught their eyes, he grinned before taking his place at the microphone.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.” The effect was immediate: the combination of Tony's charisma along with the reverence demanded through the borrowed Captain America persona was enthralling.
“I hope you've been enjoying your evening thus far.” He turned to sweep his eyes over the room of people. “On behalf of the Maria Stark Foundation, and on my own part, I want to thank you all for your attendance tonight. After all, with all the proceeds from this event going to support children around the world, this means that, for tonight, you are all truly the heroes we deserve.” Tony smiled at them, bright.
He was a natural showman and crowd pleaser, and Steve could see with his own eyes how much his audience liked him. His usual charm and wit were on full blast, but even more importantly, Tony lived and breathed earnestness, genuineness, and optimism as he discussed the charitable work the foundation was performing. His eyes shone the whole while, and everyone was enraptured. Steve recognized it as the mark of a good leader. It was too bad Tony couldn't be on the Avengers himself.
“You've heard me speak for long enough,” Tony finally remarked. The crowd shuffled upon hearing the speech wind down. “But now we move onto hopefully more enjoyable activities. As we get some tables cleared away for the dance floor...you should have all received an envelope upon entry and were instructed not to open it at the time, yes? Go ahead and open it up now.”
There was a shuffling and buzzing as people opened their envelopes and pulled their cards out.
Dance with each member of the Avengers for at least one song, Steve read on his own, followed by a handy checklist of the team members.
“I have to dance with everyone with the word “Man” in their alias?” He heard Hank say.
“Of course, you don't have to complete your card,” Tony was saying, “but we do have some special rewards and raffle prizes for those of you that do. For those of you on the shier side about looking for dance partners, think of it this way: at least you're not fighting off supervillains?” He grinned as the live band started playing music.
Steve looked imploringly at Hank and Jan as the crowd began to disperse. They weren't dressed up as Avengers, but they were actual Avengers – surely that counted.
“I have to dance with everyone in the Fantastic Four twice,” Jan said, scanning the room. “And there's only one Thing here.” She turned to Steve to raise an eyebrow.
Steve blinked at her, the realization slowly dawning that he was the only Iron Man in the room. That must have been what Tony was talking about, earlier.
“Here.” Jan pushed Hank toward him. “Help Hank fill out his card before you get swarmed by half the crowd. Excuse me, Mister Fantastic?” she called to a man standing a few feet away from them. “Care for a dance?”
The man accepted Jan's offer. The newly paired couple remained close-by, so at least Jan was still watching out for them.
“Do you know how to dance?” Hank asked Steve, a hopeful lilt in his voice.
Hank hung his head and sighed. “Well, I'll do my duty as an Avenger and help you out,” he said, glancing behind him, where Steve saw several people already making a beeline for them. “Ballroom dancing in superhero costumes. I don't understand rich people.”
The ensuing dance was almost a disaster. “Almost” because neither of them ended up injured, Steve being very careful with where his boots landed, lest he crush one of Hank's toes. Regardless, Hank clearly had little experience and love for this field along with two left feet. Steve couldn't compensate for his lack of experience with his dexterity, and with the costume hampering his movements, they awkwardly shuffled around each other for the entirety of the song.
“Give me a second,” Hank said as the song reached its ending notes, angling his StarkPhone to snag a photo of them. Selfies, Steve recalled they called them now. The moment Hank put his phone away, a dozen or so people pressed into them, looking at Steve intently.
“Excuse me, pardon me, getting through!” Jan emerged from between the crowd, much to Steve and Hank's relief.
“Steve, this is one of my dear friends, Julie.” Jan introduced a woman dressed up as Thor, who smiled up at Steve as they shook hands. A female Thor, Steve mused. It wasn't such a bad idea. Didn't Norse mythology have valkyries, too? “You both fulfill each other's dance cards. Aren't you lucky that you know me?” she directed to Julie, who laughed in response.
“Steve, was it?” Julie asked as they got into position for the next song. Steve gingerly placed his hand around her waist. “I usually know most of Jan's friends, so you must be new.”
“You could say that,” Steve said tentatively, watching where he placed his feet.
“You don't have to answer this,” Julie said as she eased Steve into the steps, “but Jan seemed so excited about you. But I remember she was into that scientist – I don't remember his name – ”
“Oh, no!” Steve nearly stumbled into her in his insistence. “Sorry, you all right? – No, it's nothing like that. Jan and Hank are still – ” Together? – “they're still very much interested in each other. I just happen to...work with both of them.”
Julie's eyes widened. “Oh! Sorry about that, then. I just wanted to make sure she was doing okay. I must look silly now.”
“It's fine,” Steve said, glad that Jan had friends who cared about her, and then trod on her foot. “Sorry!”
“It's fine,” Julie reassured him. “If there's something I love about these superhero outfits, it's the nice, sturdy shoes. Speaking of which, isn't it uncomfortable in that armor?”
“It must be nothing compared to the guy who has to wear this in battle,” Steve said, trying his best at a shrug.
“I guess so,” she said. “Gotta say, it looks pretty sleek. Although I'm not much for that style.” As they circled around, she leaned in. “I really, really like this cape,” she admitted in a whisper, and Steve laughed in response.
The dances after Julie weren't nearly as enjoyable. His new dance partners gave him increasingly blank looks when he introduced himself. Steve supposed this was the sort of occasion where you should have heard of everyone, at least in passing.
“You know, you're not really Iron Man, you don't have to pull off the secret identity schtick,” a bespectacled Giant-Man informed him as Steve danced around the subject of what exactly his job was.
Moreover, Julie must have been one of the better dancers on the floor. Everyone else he encountered wasn't nearly as able to accommodate an amateur Steve Rogers outfitted in a suit of armor. Nerves didn't help Steve out in that regard, either. In the end, his partners would sigh in the middle of the song and take out their phones to collect their evidence early. Steve couldn't blame them. No one wanted to dance with a distracted man they couldn't even see who did nothing but stumble to avoid stepping on their toes. Even Julie had only danced an entire song with him to check up on Jan, after all.
At some point, Steve began to wave people next to him so they could get their photograph instead of risking the welfare of their feet. When someone tapped the shoulder of the Marvel Girl posing next to him, followed by a “excuse me, may I have this dance?”, Steve stepped away.
“Yeah, of course, let me just – ” Steve stopped short as Tony stepped in front of him.
“I meant you, Iron Man.”
“You don't have to,” Steve said hurriedly. “Actually dance, if you need me for your card. I haven't been doing so well.”
That got him a raised eyebrow. “I'm going to get a complex,” Tony joked, “I haven't danced all evening, and you did just say 'yes' to me.” He ended with a gentle smile.
“That I did,” Steve conceded with a chuckle.
“Before you go any further,” Tony said, suddenly abashed as they stepped closer to each other, “since Iron Man isn't here, he asked me to wear some protection as insurance. You'll probably feel it.”
“Oh,” Steve said as he put a hand on Tony's shoulder. Yes, he could feel something there. It felt hard enough to be metal, which didn't seem like the most practical form of protection, but he supposed it must be a Starktech thing. “You lead?”
“Sure thing, Shellhead.” Steve was acutely aware of the warmth in his cheeks as Tony called him by nickname again. There was no denying the man's charm, but here the word turned Steve to more wistful thoughts, as he wondered how the real Shellhead was faring.
“So I gather you haven't exactly been having the time of your life.” To no one's surprise, Tony could dance perfectly, and some of the nerves that had been besieging Steve eased as he fell into step with him like he'd done it for years.
“I'm not really used to this type of event,” Steve admitted. “Not too familiar with dancing, either, and the suit of armor doesn't help. I have to admire Iron Man for being able to do what he does.”
“Nah,” Tony said, thoughtful as he maneuvered them smoothly past another couple. “I'm sure Iron Man would have trouble with this type of movement too. Dancing is all about restraining the strength in your movements.”
“Is that so, because then it wouldn't be so different than sparring, which means I should be way better at this.”
Tony laughed. “Maybe we should get you out of that armor before we can determine how horrible of a dancer you are.”
Steve's next step took them both off balance. He quickly apologized, still preoccupied at what just occurred. Did Tony just make a pass at him?
They didn't speak for a while after that. “How's your progress going on your card?” Tony finally asked.
Steve relaxed at the change in topic. “It's a bit unfair,” he admitted. “My card says I'm supposed to dance with all of the Avengers. But there's no Iron Man here besides me.”
Tony frowned at him, before grinning unexpectedly. “I suppose you're right,” he said. “Sorry. Maybe there should be an exception made for you.”
“No worries,” Steve said. “I'm not too worked up about it.” After a short pause, Steve smiled wryly. “Hey, you actually lasted this entire song with me.”
Tony tipped his head toward him. “Oh, I can do better than that. I actually have to dance with Iron Man twice,” he said, shooting him a large grin as the band segued into the next song.
Steve hesitated before allowing himself to be led again. Tony was great. He'd always seemed a bit distant before...tonight, really, but he was certainly the type of person Steve warmed up to easily, in friendship and in romance. The latter was allowed now, Steve knew. It was one of the first things that had made him smile about the future.
No, it was just that...Steve liked Iron Man. He liked Iron Man a lot. If it wasn't for Iron Man, then Steve would have said yes to a proposition from Tony, no doubt about it.
Even if Tony showed interest and Iron Man never had, not in all the time Steve had known him, Steve couldn't do that to Tony. That decided, Steve resolved to just enjoy this for what it was: time together with a man whose company he liked.
Of course, his life being what it was, that was soon cut short.
There was a loud crash as a window shattered. People shouted and ducked as multiple thuds followed the explosion of glass over the floor.
“Captain America!” shouted a familiar voice. “You dare to taunt us by holding a gathering celebrating the Avengers and their like? Prepare to meet your defeat at the hands of the Masters of Evil!”
With those words, Zemo, the Enchantress, and the Executioner emerged on the stage.
“Well, he's about to find out there are way more Avengers here than he ever expected.” Tony hadn't attempted to take cover himself at the Masters' appearance, instead glaring hotly in their direction.
“You imposters!” Zemo roared. “Where is the real Captain America!?”
Tony grabbed Steve's arm as he made for the stage. “Steve, don't!”
“You don't understand, Tony, that man – ”
“I know, I know, he's the one responsible for Bucky's death! I know you mean to avenge him, but we can't do that until everyone's cleared out!”
Steve paused, noticing to his shock that the crowd was actually gathering around the Masters of Evil rather than fleeing. Some of them tittered, and others began to cheer, and he realized with horror that they assumed the Masters of Evil were part of the night's festivities.
“Hey, I'm right here! I'm the real Captain America!” someone near the front shouted.
“Are you, then?” Zemo pointed at him, and the Enchantress raised his arms as someone in a Captain America costume floated into the air.
“Whoa, this is kind of – ” There was a strangled scream as the man's body began to twist in unnatural ways. Screams began to erupt through the crowd as they realized something was horribly wrong.
Steve ripped off his helmet.
“Wasp, Giant-Man!” Several people turned their heads towards Steve. “No, not – ” Steve kicked aside trays of hor d'oeuvres as he climbed atop the refreshment table. “Make your way to the exits in an orderly fashion, please!”
“Cap!” Wasp sped up into the air, shooting a bio blast at the Enchantress and breaking the spell. Giant-Man caught the man in midair.
“Keep them away from the civilians, Avengers!” Steve shouted. “Do not engage until the room is clear!”
“Tony, get to a safe location!” Steve urged down to a wild-eyed Tony staring up at him.
“Right. I'll call for Iron Man!”
“No need, he should have his card on him.” Steve had to shout as he pulled out his communicator lest he be drowned out by the crowd. “Thor! Iron Man! Come in! It's an emergency! The Masters of Evil are here!”
After a brief pause, Thor's voice crackled through the card. “I hear you, Captain, and am on my way with the greatest of haste.”
“Roger that. I'm forwarding the coordinates now. Iron Man?” Silence. “Iron Man?” Steve felt like he'd been dunked in water. “Iron Man? Please respond!”
“I should be able to get in contact with him,” Tony said in a rush. “We use different channels than the Avengers do.”
“Tony, you need to get to cover,” Steve said sharply. “Or, can you help direct people out?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I'll do that,” Tony said shakily. “What about you? Where's your shield?”
“My shield's at coat-check. I can't retrieve it right now.” Steve jumped off the table. “Get yourself out of harm's way!” he shouted as he pushed his way past the crowd running in the opposite direction, shedding the bits of armor as he went and revealing the Captain America uniform underneath.
“Zemo!” Steve shouted, and the man whirled around. His eyes narrowed.
“You thought to disguise yourself from Zemo? I should have taken Captain America for a coward!” He ducked under Steve's flying kick. Steve felt a rush by him as Zemo tried to nab him out of the air to no avail.
Steve rolled onto the stage and jumped to his feet to face Zemo.
“Where's your precious shield, Captain?” Zemo flung out a kick. Steve parried and countered with his own right straight. From the corner of his eye, he could see Giant-Man grappling with the Executioner and Wasp flitting around the Enchantress and blasting her with her stings.
The Avengers were fairly evenly matched with the Masters of Evil for the moment, but that was a scale that could tip within the instant. If they could hold them off until Thor arrived, then it'd tip in their favor. Steve dodged another punch and managed to grab Zemo's arm, launching him into a throw.
“Winghead, above you, your four o'clock!”
Steve leapt into a backflip to snatch his shield from midair, his heart singing in the midst of the chaos.
“You're late, Shellhead!” he shouted as he slid backwards on the floor.
“Sorry about that.” Iron Man landed with a thud next to him. “I tried to get here as soon as possible when Mr. Stark told me about the emergency!”
“Well, I'm not going to fault you for that!” Steve said as he launched himself into another attack. Iron Man flew right above him, and with a surge of confidence, Steve barreled shield-first into Zemo. He felt Zemo's arm crumple under the force of the shield's strike, but it quickly gave way, Steve flying by and slamming into the back of the stage. He heard the hiss of repulsor blasts nearby as he swerved around, Iron Man spinning handily out from Zemo's blows.
“Cap, the Enchantress has Wasp pinned down!” Giant-Man shouted as he hurled the Executioner face-forward into the floor. In the same instant, a green, wispy tendril seized Iron Man's foot and yanked him down, putting him right in Zemo's path.
“Iron Man!” Steve shouted. He threw the shield with all his strength at the same moment Zemo's fist met Iron Man's stomach and sent him flying. The shield struck Zemo seconds too late, hurtling him over the edge of the stage, only for Zemo to be caught by a green cloud, depositing him safely feet-first on the floor.
“You thought a little gnat could stop one of the nine realms' greatest sorceresses?” Enchantress flung a spark at the shield, halting it in midair. Wasp was next to her, encased in a clear bubble and banging furiously on the sides.
Steve gritted his teeth, pushing force into his legs as he leapt at Enchantress, intending to catch her off-guard. An explosion of pain ran up Steve's side as something slammed into him midway.
When they crashed into the floor, Zemo flung his fists out at Steve, who tossed his head from side to side to avoid the blows. Steve got the leverage to jam his foot up and toss Zemo off, who then got blasted to the side with a repulsor.
“Iron Man, you okay?” Steve said, looking up.
“I should be asking you that! That didn't look like an easy blow you took.” Iron Man swerved to shoot off blasts toward the Executioner before they were halted by the Enchantress. “Damn! We can't keep them down long enough to hold them off!” He did a loop before diving down, and Steve saw his end goal: the shield, lonely on the floor.
“Is this what you want?” The Executioner picked up the shield and flung it toward Iron Man, who barely managed to forward flip out of its trajectory. It was too high for Steve to leap for it, not when Zemo had gotten back to his feet to race back toward him. Steve steeled himself, preparing for the next encounter, when Zemo was smashed to the side by a grey blur.
“Avengers!” Thor cried, catching Mjolnir as he landed on the floor. “I have come to your aid, my friends!”
“Glad to have you!” Iron Man swerved around in an arc, Steve's shield in his hands, which he dropped when he came above Steve. Steve held his glove out, and the shield zoomed straight to his glove with the help of the inset transistors.
“Thor!” Enchantress called brightly, clapping her hands together as she looked up at him. “You've come!”
“Thor,” the Executioner roared as he sprinted toward him. “I'll make you pay, and then no one will be able to doubt my strength!”
“Away with you, cretin!” Thor shouted as he swung Mjolnir around, catching the Executioner in the middle of his leap with a solid thud. “And unhand my ally, vixen!”
“Now, that's not going to happen, Thor,” Enchantress said with a wicked grin as she raised a hand. “Oomph!”
Giant-Man held the Enchantress tightly in his grip, and Wasp, now free, swirled around to blast her a few times.
“Of course, Thor arrives to save the day,” Iron Man said, hoisting a dazed Zemo to his feet and locking his arms behind him. He gave Steve a searching gaze. “Here, you handle him. I'll call the authorities.”
“Enchantress is out for the count,” Wasp said, floating down to them and morphing into regular size as she landed lightly on the floor. “I couldn't risk leaving her conscious.”
Thor held the Executioner by the scruff of his neck as he landed beside her.
“Here,” Giant-Man said, handing Steve a pair of handcuffs, which he soon got Zemo into.
“Imprisonment? This is your so-called vengeance on me?” Zemo snarled. “Even if I'm responsible for the death of your sidekick brat?”
Steve shook his head even as a surge of anger and guilt twisted in his gut. “No. Vengeance can't blind me to the path of justice. You'll get a trial, and then you'll receive the punishment you deserve,” he gritted out, his grip tightening dangerously around Zemo's wrists.
“I heard him scream when he died. He was so helpless and useless as his body burned up in fl – ” Zemo's words were cut short.
“Zip it,” Iron Man said, two of his fingers pressed to the back of Zemo's neck. He turned to Steve. “You okay, Cap?”
“Yeah,” Steve said, wondering if it sounded more convincing than it felt.
“Here,” Giant-Man said, scooping Zemo up from Steve. “I'll take him off your hands. Thor, Jan, maybe we should head outside with them?”
Giant-Man, Thor, and Jan made their way out. Iron Man remained, still facing Steve, but Steve couldn't lift his gaze up from the floor.
“Sorry,” Iron Man said after a moment, quiet. “I figured you'd want to be the one to take him into custody.”
It took a while for Steve to gather himself. “No, I appreciate it,” Steve said. He sighed. “It's stupid. I should have known, already, that I wouldn't feel much better in the end.” He looked up at Iron Man and tried for a smile. “When I found out Zemo was still alive, I knew that I had to take him down. That was what drove me since I woke up.” He ran his finger along the edge of his shield. “I'm just wondering...what I'm supposed to do now.”
Iron Man shuffled his feet, and Steve suddenly felt awash with shame for laying this on him. All Iron Man had agreed was to battle supervillains together – Steve couldn't ask him to help fight Steve's personal demons too.
Finally, Iron Man rested a hand on Steve's shoulder. “I'm not one to believe in fate, Cap.” His voice was soft and gentle, and Steve didn't know how he was supposed to handle that right now from him.
“But,” Iron Man continued, “I truly believe you were brought to us for a reason. So all I can tell you now is...that I think it's time for your future.”
Steve opened his mouth to respond, a sudden courage taking a hold of him, before Iron Man cleared his throat, resting a hand over his chest with a frustrated grunt.
“I'm sorry to do this to you, Cap, but this is some bad timing. I need to take care of some urgent maintenance. I'll catch you at the debriefing.” He hurried off, his abrupt exit cutting Steve off from saying the first thing that had come to mind with Iron Man's earlier words.
I want my future to be with you.
The words on the page, no matter how many times he read them, refused to make any sense. Steve sighed, closing the book and setting it aside. He folded his hands behind his head and propped his feet on the ottoman, staring listlessly at the ceiling.
He couldn't sleep. He couldn't relax. He couldn't lose himself in some fantasy world, even for just a few hours. He was just...here.
There was a knock on the doorframe. Steve raised his head and saw Iron Man waving at him.
Steve sat up. “Iron Man! Here, take a seat.” He immediately felt silly for saying it. This was Iron Man's place before it was his; he didn't need Steve's permission to sit anywhere.
“I'm...I'm fine here, actually,” Iron Man said as he walked over to stand next to Steve. Steve froze. Had – he hadn't done anything that had given him away, he was sure, why didn't Iron Man want to sit with him?
“You doing all right?” Iron Man continued.
“...I'll be fine,” Steve said, and he believed that was true. He smiled up at Iron Man, and it was now that he noticed Iron Man's nervous shuffle.
“Mr. Stark told me you needed a dance from me,” Iron Man blurted. “So I was wondering if, maybe – ”
Oh. Steve was aware his jaw was agape but didn't act to close it.
“Bad idea.” Iron Man's laugh came out as a crackle. “Never mind. We had a pretty hectic day, let's just assume that Enchantress's spells are still working their magic on me – ”
“Wait!” Steve jumped up and grabbed Iron Man's arm before he could run out. He still couldn't believe this was happening. “I'd love to dance with you, Shellhead.”
“Oh, well.” Steve knew that from behind the faceplate, Iron Man must be smiling at him. Iron Man reached over with his other hand and clasped Steve's hand in his, leading them to the middle of the room.
They got into position, Iron Man taking the lead without Steve asking, the beginning notes of a waltz sifting through the room.
“This is the type of music they had at the gala, right?” Iron Man tried after Steve's silence. “It figures – you don't want to be in the same room as those type of people when they play the Top 40. We can switch to something different, if you like.”
“This is fine,” Steve said, too embarrassed to admit he simply found it hard to speak when they were standing like this, so close and...intimate. He touched Iron Man all the time in battle, even during team meetings. But in those times, he was Captain America. It had never happened like this, out of the uniform, when he was just Steve Rogers.
“Okay,” Iron Man said, and Steve thought he must be smiling. “Although, trust me, I won't be able to boogie woogie bugle in this. ”
Steve ducked his head, knowing that the flush showed up too easily on his cheeks.
“Okay, okay. C'mon, Winghead.” Iron Man urged Steve to take a step back. “You've trounced me in the training room, don't say you've finally met your match.”
“Would never dream of it,” Steve replied as they took a turn.
But, Steve had to admit, this was an area where Iron Man thoroughly outmatched him. He was an excellent dancer, even inside the armor, so Steve's earlier excuses about his costume were moot. But Steve didn't need to make any excuses now, taking to the library carpet far better than he had to the dance floor. This was easy. This felt right, somehow, and Steve was holding onto cold metal but he felt warmer than he'd had in a long time. He knew that Iron Man wouldn't feel it if he squeezed his hand, but he did it anyway.
When the song ended, Iron Man let go to take a step back. He bowed, the picture of the perfect gentlemen even in the bright red and gold armor.
“I hope you're not expecting me to curtsy,” Steve said to Iron Man's laugh. He liked Iron Man's laugh, and his answering smile must have been unbearably goofy. “You're a great teacher.”
“Well, you're a natural,” Iron Man replied as he straightened. “Our first dance of the evening was a success, wouldn't you say?”
Steve tilted his head at him. “Iron Man,” he said, “I danced with you earlier tonight.”
Maybe Steve would have felt uneasy admitting it any another time, but he was still so happy, still so sure and secure that he smiled as he said it.
Iron Man didn't respond for a long moment, and the smile slowly slid off of Steve's face.
“Iron Man?” Steve whispered. “I'm sorry, I shouldn't have assumed – ” even if he was right, who was to say he even had the right to force Iron Man to admit it?
Iron Man didn't speak as he placed his hands on the side of the helmet, tugging it off.
Tony Stark shook the hair out of his eyes.
“I should have known you could tell. I told myself it was a bad idea,” he said, his smile strained, no trace left of the easy cheerfulness from before. “That's kind of amazing, though. Captain America, able to tell who people are just through touch alone.”
“It was the last piece of the puzzle,” Steve admitted. “But I'm not surprised. The more I think about it, the more sense it makes.”
“The more sense it makes?” Tony echoed, his voice suddenly sharp, disbelieving. “It doesn't surprise you that Tony Stark, former weapons manufacturer, responsible for so much grief in the world, is also Iron Man, part of the Avengers?”
Steve stared back at him evenly, unyielding. “No, it doesn't surprise me that Tony Stark, the man who devotes so much time, money, and effort for those who need it, who gave me a home when I had nothing, is the same as Iron Man, the man who risks everything to help others, who found me when I was lost. Why should it? Either way, you're a hero to me.”
“God.” Tony was shaking his head, biting his lip. “You really are...I thought it couldn't be true.” He looked up, eyes watery, smile trembling. “You were propaganda. Yes, I admired you. Yes, you inspired me. But you were some... far-off hero in a story, some ideal to strive for but never reach.” He took a step. “But then I met you and you...weren't. You were one of the most sincere people I've ever met, and...Steve, look at me. I live half of my life under a mask, and the other half isn't too much different. Do you know what that means to me, that you were more than you were supposed to be?”
Steve gulped. “Tony, I'm just me, you know,” he said. “I'm me, and I just – ” his heart was hammering in his chest – “I want to do this with you. As ourselves.”
“It's not going to be easy.” Tony was staring at him in challenge. “There's so much more about me I haven't told you.”
“I told you the truth already. Whatever you say, that's not going to change.” Of that, Steve was certain.
It took a long moment before Tony responded with a nod. “Yeah. Okay.” He wasn't looking at Steve, nor did he make an effort to move. “Let's do that, then.”
This felt like a dream. Steve took a step forward and carefully brought his hands to the side of Tony's head, watching as Tony's eyes fluttered shut. It should have been strange, what with Tony taller than him in the armor, but it felt more right than anything had in a long time. Steve pulled a little, closing his eyes, and Tony's head tipped down until their foreheads pressed against each other.
When the two of them opened their eyes, it was as Steve Rogers and Tony Stark that they smiled at each other.