Tony had found, especially over the past few years, that the term supervillain got tossed around much too liberally. Of course, sure, he had built a military grade suit of armour that he flew around in, and technically he was classed as an enemy of the state because he blew up the occasional thing or two, but he wasn’t asupervillain. A genius ex-playboy that didn’t play well with others, maybe, but not a supervillain.
He never risked human life, for one thing; it was actually amazing how people seemed to forget that when they were sullying the very name of Iron Man on the news. There was no denying that he caused a lot of property damage, but it was only ever sketchy and or/morally ambiguous companies and individuals who came under fire.
Really, he was doing a public service.
The general masses didn’t seem to agree with him, however, because there was a warrant out for Iron Man’s arrest these days. Tony was just glad his identity was secret, because even the Avengers had been deployed to try and take him out on more than one occasion. He always got himself straight out of dodge whenever he spotted them, because he was cool, sure, but he didn’t fancy himself in a fight against all five of them.
But despite the confusion over Iron Man’s motives, he had a pretty good life. He was a rich, eligible bachelor who could have his pick of anyone he wanted, he owned a multi-billion dollar company that was at the forefront of clean energy, and he got to secretly atone for all the trouble he had caused, no matter what the news and the government and the whole damn world thought of Iron Man.
It wasn’t even like he was going to be doing this for the rest of his life. He had started all this trying to get rid of all the weapons he had made, the weapons being used by terrorists; he had gotten a little side-tracked along the way, sure, but now there were only a handful of distributors left. Once he had taken them all out, and dragged Obadiah Stane’s name through the mud for his betrayal and underhandedness, he was going to retire the Iron Man suit and go back to the nine-to-five grind.
Or so he kept telling himself.
Because sometimes he saw footage of the Avengers kicking ass, of them working together as a team, and he lamented the fact that he didn’t get the same treatment. They were basically doing the same thing, after all – Tony might have been a little more heavy handed than the Avengers, but they were chasing the same endgame. Why were they heralded as heroes while he was branded a dangerous vigilante, a constitution hating hippie, even, on more than on occasion, a potential terrorist?
But even if he did have the occasional thought about joining the Avengers, rebranding himself, he was pretty sure they wouldn’t take him. He was fairly certain that Captain America guy had a stick so far up his ass it was physically visible every time he opened his patriotic mouth; there was no way he’d let someone like Tony on the team.
He wasn’t bitter. He wasn’t. Why would he want to be a part of the nerd gang? Rules, regulations, government intervention? Ha, not for him, no sir. He didn’t need any more friends, either – he had Rhodey and Pepper, and JARVIS, too. He had more friends than a guy knew what to do with.
“I have friends, right?” he asked, pulling a bag of peas out of the freezer to ice his shoulder.
He had just gotten back from destroying one of the last remaining warehouses storing his discontinued weapons. The Avengers had showed up before he’d managed to blow it all to hell, so it had turned into a bit of a to-do. Tony assumed they had thought the explosions would cause some damage to the populated buildings surrounding the warehouse, as though Tony hadn’t calculated the amount of fire power needed to just take out his weapons.
The bastards always forgot he didn’t ever kill people.
“Define friend,” Pepper replied, not even watching him as she flicked through the morning papers at the kitchen island. Rhodey was sat beside her, having been rewarded a rare two weeks paid leave, eating his breakfast.
“There’s blood on your neck,” Rhodey hummed, as though it were the most normal thing in the world. “And… all over your face.”
Tony had already told them he was Iron Man with complete faith that they would keep his secret. Hell, it had got to the point where the military were riding Iron Man’s ass so hard that he’d had to tell Rhodey, if for no other reason than the fact that it was starting to get weird watching his best friend constantly out for his blood. He’d told Pepper in the same day, aware that she would be even angrier with him if she heard it from Rhodey.
She had been pretty angry regardless.
They were both still pretty mad, if the luke-warm shoulders they were giving him was anything to go by.
“It looks worse than it actually is,” he reassured, snatching up a dish towel to mop up the worst of it. “I got hit in the face with Captain America’s shield. Even with the helmet on, it still packed a punch.”
He watched as Rhodey’s face twitched, as though he was about to gush about how cool that was, before he tampered it down and took another bite of cereal. Tony would never understand the weird, respectful work boner Rhodey seemed to have for Captain America, but then again, Tony had never actually met the guy. His dad had talked about him non-stop when Tony was a kid, had the same kind of respect-boner for him that Rhodey did, but Tony had always just tuned it out and carried on playing with his toy robots.
“There’s a first aid kit in the top cupboard,” Pepper told him, a little concern coming through like it always did, no matter how much she tried to hide it.
God, Tony loved them both so much.
“You never actually answered my question,” he hummed, reaching up with a grimace to pull the first aid kit down. He carried it over to the island and Pepper dutifully opened it while he sat next to her. “I have friends, right?”
“I don’t understand the question,” Rhodey replied, wincing in sympathy as Pepper applied some antibacterial cream to Tony’s face. “Is this some weird guilt trip? Because you’re not allowed to do that – not after lying to us -”
“I don’t mean you guys,” Tony rolled his eyes, trying not to fidget as Pepper started applying butterfly bandages. “I know you guys are my friends. I mean… well…”
But honestly, he didn’t know what he meant. He didn’t even really know where these weird feelings were coming from. He had always been isolated, had isolatedhimself, because most of the time it was just easier. He had Rhodey, and he had Pepper, and they were more than enough for him. He wasn’t unfulfilled in terms of sex, either, and he definitely wasn’t unfulfilled, work wise.
It was the stupid Avengers getting in his head, is what it was. Nothing more. There had been a moment in that fight, right before he’d thrown his shield at him, where Captain America had looked Tony right in the eye. Cap’s helmet had come off at some point in the fighting, and he couldn’t have really known he was looking right at Tony because he was in the suit, but there had been a moment where… his expression had softened. Just for a moment, Tony had felt like Cap was staring right into his soul, and it had left him feeling off-kilter.
“I guess I don’t know what I mean,” he sighed, running a hand through his hair. Pepper slapped it away before he could mess up any of her handiwork. “Yeah, just a little frazzled after the fight, I suppose.”
He tried to ignore the worried glance Pepper and Rhodey shared.
Tony was in trouble. Shit, fuck, he was in so much trouble. Never had a person in the history of the world been in more trouble than he -
Something exploded on his left, warning censors in his helmet screaming at him, and he had to throw himself through a closed door to avoid melting alive in his suit. The door shattered under his weight and he fell through into the office beyond. Using his hand repulsors, he stopped himself from face planting, though it took him a moment to totally regain his balance; his ears were ringing and he was almost choking on his own rage, burning from the inside out with a sense of devastating betrayal.
His own R&D department. Stane had paid off people on Tony’s bankroll to keep making weapons right under Tony’s – under Pepper’s – nose at the New York branch. They had come into Tony’s house and ripped the rug right from under him. No more. This had to end, even if it meant burning everything to the ground and starting again. He would eradicate this disease if it killed him -
There was another explosion from somewhere nearby that rocked the whole building, and Tony staggered. Stane was close.
“Sir, the Avengers are on site,” JARVIS told him through his earpiece. “What few employees that remained in the building are now in safe hands.”
He never thought he’d say it, but thank God. That meant that the likelihood of someone getting caught in the crossfire that was sure to unfold here had dropped exponentially, at least. His employees – the loyal ones, at least – were safe and alive… and would be receiving big, fat bonus checks in the mail tomorrow.
“Do we have a lock on Stane?” Tony asked, a little breathless. He scanned the wall adjacent to the corridor outside and immediately came up with a heat signature carrying something big.
Looked like Obadiah had brought weapons to a fist fight.
“JARVIS, have Pepper get the ice packs ready back in Malibu,” he sighed, bouncing from foot to armoured foot to get himself pumped up. “I’m definitely gonna need them.”
He thought about going back out through the door, but where was the showmanship in that? He was already going to have to remodel the building – might as well go out in style. With that in mind, he kicked his foot repulsors to life and went smashing through the wall, sending plaster and debris everywhere.
Out in the corridor, Stane yelled, visibly startled, and swung around to face him. With only a split second to spare, Tony realised he was wielding a rocket launcher, of all things, and was quickly getting himself together fast enough to point it right at the armour. Running on instinct, Tony brought a hand repulsor up and fired two shots in succession, one first to Stane’s hands to get him to drop the bazooka, and then another to his chest to propel him backwards, away from the weapon.
“You son of a bitch,” he snarled, taking momentary comfort in the look of terror gracing Stane’s face from the floor. He took a menacing step forwards, then another. “You piece of cowardly, traitorous shit -”
“Why do you even care?” Stane rolled his eyes, shuffling backwards to prop himself up against the opposite wall. “Who do you work for? Did Raul send you -?”
Before he could finish his sentence, Tony swung his armoured leg back and kicked him firmly in the side. Stane wheezed, words clogging in his throat, and doubled in on himself. Tony kicked him again, harder, and then again, channelling all his hurt, all his anger into swiftly beating the shit out of Stane. He wanted to hurt him like he’d wanted to hurt no other person before; he wanted Stane to hurt, to know how much he had hurt and betrayed Tony. He wanted Stane to bleed like Tony had bled in that damn cave in Afghanistan.
He was on his knees, punching Stane square in the face, when his proximity censors went off. Approximately three seconds later, faster than he could even turn, a rock-solid mass smashed into his side and sent him sprawling away from Stane.
Captain America, of all people, had arrived. As he stood, panting, over Tony, light pouring through the hole Tony had made in the wall backlit him, giving him an almost ethereal, angelic presence. Tony was momentarily struck breathless by the sight.
“You don’t kill people,” Cap murmured firmly a moment later, as Tony was trying to haul himself to his feet, and that sentence was so unexpected that he slipped a little bit and wobbled in shock.
“I don’t…” Tony really didn’t know what to say, how to say in words what he was feeling in his chest. “He – he’s been selling discontinued weapons to terrorists!”
“He’s…?” That, at least, seemed to catch Cap off guard. His shield dropped to his side as he glanced back at Stane, who was wheezing and groaning softly in his bloodied state. “Is that why you’ve been targeting all those warehouses? Why…shit -”
“Language,” Tony murmured weakly, still not totally over the fact that Captain America had noticed he didn’t kill people.
“Who are you working for?” Cap asked urgently, taking a step towards him. Tony instinctively put a repulsor up, remembering all too well how much it had smarted to get that shield to the head. Cap paused, glancing between Tony’s hand and then his face plate. “Why are you doing this? All this time… all this time you’ve been branded a villain, a terrorist, but -”
There was a loud clank from behind them, and Tony had just enough presence of mind to yank Cap down and under him before Stane tugged the discarded bazooka towards him and fired.
The whole world lit up, and then everything went black.
His head was a mess of pain and confusion when he woke up. His whole body was on fire, tearing him apart from the inside out, and he managed to get a burnt hand up to make sure his helmet was still on, still protecting his identity, before he passed out again.
His mind was a lot clearer when he next woke up. He took a moment before opening his eyes to just take in his surroundings via touch and hearing. There was a soft, thin blanket over his body, and the way it felt told him he was naked underneath it. Warning bells went off in his head and his eyes snapped open; his helmet was still firmly in place, though it appeared to be broken.
Well and truly confused, he looked around. He was propped up in a bed, that much became clear pretty quickly; his arms and chest, when he peered down, looked a little pink in places, but he didn’t appear to be hurt. There certainly wasn’t an explanation for the burning, agonising pain he blearily remembered from before.
The room was pretty bare. There were a few machines hooked up to him, but the gentle beeping told him they were checking his vitals, so that was fine. Other than that, however, there was a window off to one side with an unrecognisable view outside, a door on the opposite wall, and that was about it.
Huffing a little as his body ached in protest, Tony sat up properly, pulled all the needles and pads away from his arms, and then threw the linen sheet covering him back, swinging his legs over the side of the bed before pushing up to stand. It was the strangest thing – his body didn’t hurt, not really, but it felt like it should. Looking down at his naked body, he realised he was covered in pink patches all over, as though the skin was new. He took a step forwards, then another, moving across the room towards the window -
Someone cleared their throat behind him. “You’re, um… you’re awake.”
Tony startled and turned, only remembering he was completely nude as he came to a stop right in front of Captain America, of all people. He was still dressed in the uniform, though his helmet had come off, and a light spattering of pink coloured his cheeks as he very firmly didn’t look anywhere lower than the arc reactor.
“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” was out of Tony’s mouth before he could stop himself, and then he had to keep from smacking himself in the faceplate.
Cap, to his credit, kept his eyes firmly on the helmet, still not letting his eyes wander. Tony put his hands on his hips, framing his midriff, and watched with a strange fascination as Cap seemed to swallow thickly.
“Want to tell me what the hell is going on here?” he asked, taking pity on the poor guy. He looked like he was five seconds away from spontaneously combusting. “Wanna tell me where the rest of my armour is? And why I look like a patchwork quilt? And, for that matter, where the hell I am -”
“You, uh, you saved my life,” Cap cleared his throat again, reaching up to scratch the back of his head earnestly. “When Stane fired the rocket launcher, you pulled me under you. I would have melted alive if you hadn’t.”
“Yeah, well,” Tony shrugged as the memory came back to him. “What can I say? I’m a supervillain, sure, but I didn’t want to be responsible for killing Captain America. Shit, can you imagine -?”
“But that’s just the thing,” Cap frowned, azure eyes sparkling a little in the artificial light. “You’re not like the other villains we’ve fought before. You don’t kill people, for one thing.”
“I… I don’t,” Tony agreed quietly.
“Why?” Cap asked. “Who are you working for?”
“Myself,” Tony replied, and then sighed. “We’re on the same side, Cap.”
Cap seemed a little startled by the nick-name, but recovered quickly. “We aren’t on the same side. You’re a bully – you terrorise people -”
“The news tells people I terrorise people,” Tony replied with a shake of his head. “My beef isn’t with the American people. I only ever wanted to make amends, I -”
“Amends for what?” Cap asked, exasperated.
“For all the hurt I caused before Iron Man was even conceived!” Tony yelled, and then immediately stopped, heart hammering in his chest, as all the fight left him. “We’re not all born perfect like you.”
“I’m not perfect,” Cap shook his head softly, a gentle, almost pitying expression on his face. Tony hated that expression. “Nobody is perfect. You… I don’t understand your motives. I don’t understand what your endgame is, but… but you’re not evil, are you? Not really.”
“Some might disagree with you,” Tony huffed bitterly, and then sighed when Cap sent him a pointed look. “I’m… trying to be better.”
Cap nodded, taking a deep breath, and let it out as a sigh of what Tony thought was relief. “Hawkeye owes me fifty bucks.”
That, at least, startled a chuckle out of Tony. “You bet on whether I was evil?”
“Ever since that fight a few weeks ago,” Cap shrugged, “the one where I hit you in the face with my shield -”
“Which hurt like a bitch, by the way -”
“- it just sort of hit me,” he continued over Tony. “You’re smart. You’re tactical. You have a weaponised suit of armour - you could kill whoever you want, but you… don’t. You leave your opponents debilitated, but you never kill them.
“And you always, always wait until the Avengers are there to take care of civilians before the real fights begin,” he finished. “You could have let me die back there, when Stane set the rocket launcher off, but your first instinct was to protect me. There wasn’t time for you to think about it – you just did it. You… you nearly melted in that tin can of yours – Doctor Banner and Cho had to use the Cradle to produce new tissue for you -”
So that’s why Tony looked like a patchwork quilt.
“You could have died,” Cap reiterated. “You would have died if not for their quick thinking, but you did it anyway. You’re not a bad person, Iron Man.”
Tony didn’t really know how to respond to that. He wasn’t even really sure if he agreed with the guy. Cap didn’t know what Tony had done in his past – the kind of person he had been when he was younger. He was trying to atone, sure, but it was going to take a hell of a long time before he even considered himself halfwayto making up for what he had done.
“Well, thanks, Cap, but I think I’m gonna reserve judgement until you tell me that when I have my clothes on,” he hummed, and watched as Cap’s face lit up all over again. “You could be trying to seduce me, for all I know.”
“I – you had to heal… Doctor Banner said -” Cap seemed to realise halfway through stuttering that Tony was playing with him. “You’re making fun of me.”
“It’s just so easy,” Tony replied. “And the situation kind of calls for it. I wake up naked and alone in a strange room – if I don’t joke, I might cry.”
“We, um, we snuck you into SHIELD,” Cap told him. “Our Director kind of has a reward on your head, so we had to be careful, but you saved my life, and you needed help, so… we’re keeping it amongst the Avengers.”
“You’d do that for little old me?” Tony asked. “Captain America is prepared to break the rules?”
“Told you I wasn’t perfect,” Cap replied with a smile that made Tony’s heart beat weirdly in his chest. “I’m, um, I should go. You’re not a prisoner – you’re free to go – but… maybe wait until I can get you some clothes and a way to sneak you out without raising suspicion.”
“Can I get a cellphone, too?” Tony asked, thinking about how Pepper and Rhodey were probably worrying. “And my armour? Where’s my armour?”
“Oh,” Cap looked a little guilty. “It wouldn’t let us in when we tried to get you out, so I… I had to tear it apart. We hid the parts under your bed.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” Tony waved away his concern. Honestly, he had been more worried about them trying to steal the design. “I need to take a look at the cooling systems anyway – I’ll just make a new one.”
“You… you made it yourself?” Cap asked, seeming genuinely impressed.
“More than just a pretty face,” Tony grinned, though he knew Cap couldn’t see it.
Cap huffed out a laugh, and then turned to the door. “You sure are something, Iron Man. I’ll get that cellphone for you.”
Tony nodded, and was about to turn back to the bed to make sure the remains of his armour was actually under there, when a thought came to him.
“Wait,” he called softly, and Cap paused in the doorway. “You… you didn’t take my helmet off.”
Cap’s expression softened, and he gave Tony a gentle smirk. “It’s always sexier when a stranger saves your life.”
In an act of boldness that Tony really hadn’t been expecting, Cap took a long, unashamed look much further down than his arc reactor, and then, without another word, left the room.
Well… that was that, then.
True to his word, Cap came back around twenty minutes later with a pile of clothes and an ancient looking cellphone. Tony had to hold in the urge to tut at it and promise him a state of the art Stark Phone, because he had managed to nearly roast alive and not have his secret identity revealed; he wasn’t about to do it himself by letting something stupid slip out.
He thought about calling Pepper directly, but decided against it; the number could be traced back to him. He decided to call JARVIS instead.
“J, buddy, hi,” he greeted, watching as Cap left the room again.
“Mister Stark, are you all right -?”
“I’m just fine, J, okay, but I need you to put me through to Pepper,” he replied, grabbing the pair of pants Cap had left for him. He began tugging them on one handed. “On a private line, if you would, dear.”
The phone rang exactly twice before a frantic Pepper answered it. “Tony? Tony, where the hell are you? Are you okay? We saw the New York office go down -”
“Pepper,” he called, trying to get her attention. “Pepper -”
“- yes, it’s him. No, I don’t know where he is -” Ah, so Rhodey was with her, too.
“Pepper, honey, you need to calm down,” he insisted, and was met with silence on the other side of the phone. “Are you listening to me?”
“Good,” he grinned. “Okay, so that had to be a little scary there; I’ll admit that things didn’t go exactly to plan -”
“Yep, okay, I’m sorry,” he grimaced. “I’m okay, though. The Avengers picked me up -”
“What?” Pepper screeched. “Do you need me to scramble the lawyers? How much more trouble is the company in? I can get Rhodey to come get you -”
“No, Pepper, it’s fine,” Tony sighed. “It’s all good, okay? They don’t know who I am. They patched me up on the sly, okay, and they didn’t take my helmet off. Everything’s good.”
That was met with complete silence, then, “You… they don’t know who you are?”
“They do not,” Tony confirmed, grunting as his foot got caught in his pants leg. “I’ve just got to pack up the armour, wait until the coast is clear, and then I’m getting the hell out of dodge. I’ll be back in Malibu… well, I dunno. Can you send the plane over?”
“Of course,” Pepper agreed immediately. “I – me and Rhodey will come pick you up.”
“And nobody was hurt in the New York office, right?” he asked. “Because we’re gonna have to pay out enough as it is.”
“Everyone’s fine,” Pepper sighed, though her tone seemed a little strange.
“It’s… well, Stane is dead,” Pepper murmured. “He… the explosion – they found what was left of his body a few hours ago.”
Tony felt a little sick, and then angry that he felt that way. Stane had betrayed him – had tried to kill him more than once; he shouldn’t have felt any sort of sadness for him.
“They’re…” He had to clear his throat before he spoke. “They’re sure it’s him?”
He hated that he had to ask, but he wouldn’t put it past Stane to fake his death.
“They’re sure,” Pepper replied quietly. “So I guess it’s over.”
“I guess so,” Tony agreed, chest feeling a little tight even as he said the words. “So, uh… yeah. I’ll meet you at the airport later.”
“Okay,” Pepper agreed. “We’re glad you’re safe, Tony.”
“Same here,” Tony replied.
He wasn’t sure how they quite managed it, but somehow the Avengers managed to get Tony out of SHIELD. Seriously, it wasn’t like the Avengers on their own were the most inconspicuous of people – add onto that Tony, dressed in a pair of standard issue blacks and the Iron Man helmet, and he honestly didn’t know how they managed to pull it off.
“Cannot believe we just did that,” Hawkeye muttered, as though he had been reading Tony’s mind.
“No need to be bitter,” Cap replied with a smirk. “Just because you’re down fifty bucks.”
“I am yet to see evidence that he’s not evil,” Hawkeye grumbled. “Just because he’s not killed us yet doesn’t mean he’s not evil.”
“I don’t kill people,” Tony rolled his eyes. “Though, in your case, maybe I’d be doing the world a favour -”
“Boys,” Cap hummed, and they both fell silent. He turned to Tony, expression going a little softer, and handed him the duffel bag holding the remains of his armour. “There’s an alley just around the corner – you can take the helmet off and blend in there.”
“Um, thanks, I guess,” Tony nodded, and then glanced around at them all. He kind of didn’t want to leave, all of a sudden; he felt weirdly good, standing amongst them. It kinda felt that maybe he wasn’t as bad a person as he had always thought. “I – yeah, I’m going.”
He forced himself to move, knowing if he didn’t he might do something stupid like hug one of them.
“Wait,” Cap called, grabbing his arm before he could get out of reach. Tony turned, surprised, and then watched as Cap pulled a scrap of paper out of his pocket and held it out to him. “If you ever need help, just… give us a call.”
They had given him the official Avengers number, from what it looked like. Cap had even sighed it underneath. And underneath that… there was another number. A cellphone number, it looked like, and this one was sighed Steve instead of Cap.
Maybe Tony wasn’t quite done being Iron Man yet, after all.