May 30, 1963: Interstate-65 Southbound, north of Indianapolis, Indiana
The day was still. The slight dryness was all that hinted at the approaching summer. The only sign of life between the corn and bean fields was the fain buzz of traffic along I-65. The fresh black asphalt was already fading in the sun, but the white and yellow lines on the pavement were still bright. There was a grogginess to the commuters in their Studebakers, the dullness that prolonged car travel caused. People jumped into alertness as a pair of state troopers passed on their motorbikes, but aside from that the interstate was lethargic.
That is, until Iron Man buzzed past on his jet powered roller skates.
As the golden armor passed the state troopers, they set their sirens on for about five seconds before shutting them off and waving the man away with laughter. They paused on the shoulder, watching Iron Man slip away into the sunrise, probably remarking on how good Iron Man was, how important he was, how glad they were that he was on their side.
It was a ridiculous thought, but Tony couldn’t find it in himself to care.
He did feel the teensiest amount bad for speeding, and probably giving the officers the illusion that he was on his way to stop a criminal rather than on the way back from it. But being Iron Man did have its perks, and no one questioning your actions was one of them.
He’s been in Indianapolis, getting ready for the Indy 500, when the call came in from the FBI, requesting Iron Man’s help with busting up a spy ring in Chicago. It had taken longer than expected, so now he was running late.
Let’s just hope this tin can will get me there on time.
The country slowly bled into suburbs, and the cars on the road thickened. Spying a familiar ridge, Tony engaged the jets and retracted the wheels, allowing him to take to the air. People leaned out of their cars and pointed. Iron Man gave them a vacant wave before disappearing into the brush on the side of the rise.
The pristine sports car waited in the scraggly bushes. Tony landed as softly as he could, which was to say, rather harshly, jarring his kneecaps. Redesigned schematics floated through his head as he disassembled the armor into his attaché case. It was time for new armor, not that this armor hadn’t served him well. But there were so many new ideas to improve, to better, and Iron Man needed to be the best it was possible to be.
Iron Man safely tucked away, Tony Stark jumped into the driver’s seat and sped away.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
He could hear the crowds from the road. People recognized him, waving and cheering even while wearing another racer’s colors. Tony made sure to give a jaunty wave before slipping into the tunnel towards the pits.
“We were just about to start worrying!”
Tony double parked, and leapt over the unopened door. His Italian loafers seemed to squeak with joy to be back on grease-stained concrete. “I got a little caught up! But, hey, I’m here now!”
“What held you?” Tim, who was holding his racing suit and boots, asked.
My secret life as Iron Man. He laughed. “Nothing that would interest you boys! How’s she doing?”
They were doing final checks on his racer. Sleek lines, of course, because Tony designed this car himself. “She’s purrin’ like a Persian cat, boss! The Stark Special is ready for action!”
“You’re gonna win this for sure!”
“Don’t jinx it!” Tony called, unable to keep the grin off his face as he pulled his racing gear on. He grabbed his helmet, accepted the whoops and claps on the back from the pit crew as he approached the automobile to be strapped in.
“Oh Tony!” a feminine voice called, at odds with the grit and grease of the track. The pit crew puffed up their chests and attempted to wipe the black smudges from their faces, but the pristine woman in white linen and a red head scarf only had eyes for Tony as she rushed into his arms.
“Lorraine!” he remembered after a minute, hugging her back. “What brings you here?”
“Oh, I was just in the neighborhood,” she fluttered her lashes. “Thought I’d stop by to see my favorite fella win!”
“That was very kind of you, Lorraine. It’ll be nice knowing that someone’s cheering for –“
Quite suddenly, she gasped dramatically, and dug her nail sharply into his biceps. “Oh, darling, but did you have to pick car number thirteen?”
Tony bit his lip, trying not to just shove her away, but the possessive clench of her fingers would likely soon draw blood. He turned his torso, breaking her hold. “It’s just a number! Superstition and magic lie only in fairy tales! Everything can be explained in this day and age, with science and technology at everyone’s fingertips –“
“That’s wonderful, doll. Win this for me.” She placed a wet, smacking kiss an inch from his mouth, no doubt leaving red tracks on his cheek. “We’ll be sure to celebrate later, yeah?”
Not in the way you would prefer. “Will do, honey. But gotta let me win the race first.”
She threw her head back and cackled, like he was the funniest man on Earth. “Oh, Tony, you do kill me! There’s a better kiss in it for you when you win!” She waved flirtily, the scampered away, dragging the eyes of the pit crew to her pert derrière.
Tony cleared his throat. “Fellas? The race?”
They scrambled back into action, helping him settle into the Stark Special, strapping him in and performing any last minute tasks he needed, handing him a rag to wipe the lipstick from his face, allowing him to clear his head from the distraction Lorraine has caused. She was nice enough, but she was one of the more determined ones after his ring. He wasn’t opposed to marriage necessarily, but with someone who was more . . . genuine. But unfortunately, in the circles he ran in, the brilliant women he met had ulterior motives or weren’t interested, and the men didn’t usually go for other men. But that really didn’t matter anymore.
It’s not like I could ever let anyone know about the chest plate or, god forbid, Iron Man.
Though, it did appeal to him, the idea of a person who knew, who understood. A person who would touch the metal on his chest like flesh, and delight in the subtleties of the mechanism as people used to kiss over the creases of his skin.
He put his loneliness from his mind. There was a race to win.
“With this new engine you oughta pass them other crates like they was standin’ still! How you feelin’ ‘bout the long haul?” Mike grunted around his cigarette.
“I’ll put it this way. Iron Man himself couldn’t be in better shape!”
Mike’s laughter and the pit crew’s cheers followed him as he peeled out into line with the other racers.
“Stark enters lap 300 just as the others start lap 275! Boy, that Stark Special is one hell of an automobile!” the announcer thundered over the din of the crowd. “If he keeps this up, he’s gonna set the world record!”
Tony grinned in satisfaction. The new engine was working like a charm, thrumming strong and smooth, just like a good engine should. No bad vibrations, no strange noises, no signs of overheating. Bit of a gas guzzler, but he was pushing it. No engine was built to run at 150 mph for 500 miles, so milder road testing was still in order, but Tony was very pleased with its performance thus far.
The fact that he was winning was just icing on the cake.
But of course, if had learned anything in his time, it was that complacency when one hasn’t dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s was just asking for trouble.
He was turning into lap 313 when the unwelcome but unfortunately familiar vice-like squeezing clamped down on his chest. It was sharp and twisting, like a deadweight on his torso, numbness spider-webbing from his core. The rhythmic pumping of his heart slowed a few increments despite the sudden lurch of adrenalin in his system.
He hadn’t bothered to charge the chest plate before rushing to the track. The electrical charge would be lost and he would die of heart failure in the middle of the road.
Or maybe not. He had started swerving as he convulsed. The cheers of the crowd turned to screams. With a split second decision, Tony pulled the car sharply left, directly towards the guardrail.
“Stark’s losing control of the car! It’s skidding up the embankment!”
With an almighty crash, the Stark Special snapped the guardrail and spiraled, skidding on its nose for a few meters before landing in a twisted pile with a groan. Additional pain ratcheted through him as the steering column rammed into the chest plate. He tore off his restraining harness, but to no use. The sides of the vehicle were crushed, the wheel bent and pinning his torso to the seat.
I shouldn’t have picked 13 he thought deliriously.
The dust wasn’t clearing. No, the dust had fallen, but smoke was rising from the engine compartment. The heat was spreading, and the crack of fire on metal sounded.
Tony was going to die. On a race track in Indiana, of all places.
Maybe he should have raced in the armor.
The screams of the crowd were dulled by the lack of oxygen as the smoke built. Tony tried wiggling, but to no effect. He was pinned in place, couldn’t even move his arms.
There were worse deaths, he supposed. The acrid tarry smoke making everything blurry, dulling the omnipresent pain of existence. The fire was spreading, quickly, and all there was to do was wait for the fire to spread to the fuel tank.
His otherwise peaceful death was interrupted as the shouts got closer. “ – can’t just leave him in there! Maybe I can pull him out!”
Just leave me here to die was all Tony could think as people shouted for the man to stop or be careful.
A chuck of metal paneling was ripped away, revealing blond-haired blue-eyed face. In his delirium, Tony had to admit it was probably the most handsome face he’d ever seen. “No,” he rasped, coughing, “I’m pinned by the wheel. Just get – get back.”
The man reached in, bending the wheel back like the steering column was made of cardboard. He wrapped his hands under Tony’s armpits and hauled him out of his seat like a child, swiftly but gently rolling him to the ground, patting the smoldering patches on his jumpsuit.
Phlegm was clogging his throat. “But – but when the flames hit the gas tank –“
The man cut him off. “Look, I’m scared enough without any help from you! Just – work with me here? Can you stand?”
Wheezing, Tony shook his head.
“Alright,” the man huffed and – good Lord – just knelt right down and scooped Tony up in a bridal carry. Maybe it was the oxygen deprivation or maybe it was his failing heart, but it was the hottest thing he’d ever had done to him. Which was saying something. “Mister, we’ve got to get you to a hospital!”
“No, just get me to the nearest motel! Lock me in the room alone and don’t ask questions!”
The man looked down at him in incredulity. “You’re kidding, right?”
Before Tony could answer, the air seized up in a tremendous gust, rolling and expanding in a wall of heat as the flames hit the fuel tank. The man folded Tony closer to his chest and fell forward, placing his not inconsiderable weight on him, as fire licked at his back of his jacket.
When the blast died down, the man untucked his chin from where it was hooked over Tony’s shoulder and glanced behind them. The track’s fire crew was approaching carefully, wary of sudden flares and hotspots, and as quickly as possible, began spraying powdered fire suppressants.
The man turned back to Tony, and their noses were quite suddenly an inch apart. It became even more difficult to breathe and the heat rose again, but Tony was sure it had nothing to do with the fire, and the tightness in his chest increased.
There was concern in the man’s eyes. “You’re getting very pale. And it’s not because of the crash or the fire.”
“Just – get me to a hotel. No questions asked. I’ll make it worth your while.”
The man hoisted them up again. “You don’t need to pay me. But let’s get you out of here.”
Oh, money isn’t the only thing I’d give you. He told himself to tamp down on his libido, he was dying for chrissakes.
People stared as the man carried Tony away, but no one tried to stop them. They had to fight against the press of the crowd to get away from people craning their necks to get a load of the wreckage. But the man obviously knew how to navigate a crowd, and a few minutes later Tony was laid out in the front seat of a 1945 Mustang, covered in the man’s jacket as he peeled away from the Speedway.
A nearby hotel
The front desk gave the man a set of keys for a first-floor room as soon as he said “Tony Stark”, and they quickly got him inside the blessedly dark and cool room. The man tried to deposit Tony on the bed, but he just waved the man off. Eyebrows twisted in confusion, the man bowed out. Tony heard the lock snick from the other side.
Thanking whatever good luck had blessed him with a handsome stranger with Herculean strength and tight (if full) lips, Tony fell to the floor and crawled the last several feet to the outlet. He ripped his shirt open and with trembling fingers, plugged the retractable power cord into the socket, and collapsed with a groan against the wall.
He might have blacked out for a minute, but when he was back in his mind, he could feel the flow of electricity into the battery and firing up the chest plate, his heart once again pumping a strong steady rhythm. He gave himself a moment to just breathe, slumped against the wall, savoring the cool and the flood of energy back into his body.
He wasn’t going to die. Today, at least. Which was good, as there was still so much he had to accomplish, as Tony Stark and Iron Man. It was at moments like this that it hit him how ridiculously young he was. And, as he glanced around the cold room, how alone.
Tony toyed with the idea of calling the man into the room. Something deep in his gut, lodged somewhere near his liver, told him the man would not judge him or consider him any less for the chest plate. From the way the man’s eyebrows had creased in worry, Tony knew in his bones that the man wouldn’t care, and could probably be trusted to keep his secret.
But no. That wouldn’t do. He couldn’t reveal Iron Man to anyone, and as much as he might trust the stranger, it wouldn’t be safe to tell.
The realization left a cold feeling in his chest that had nothing to do with lack of power to the chest plate.
“To – Mister Stark?” the man called out cautiously from the other side of the door.
“You okay in there?”
“Yeah, I’m – getting’ better. You can call me Tony. What’s your name?”
“Cap – Steve Rogers.”
Tony shifted and sat up a bit straighter against the wall. He prodded the socket on his chest. “Captain? You military? Discharged?”
Steve pulled in a deep breath and let it out in a huff. “I was military. I don’t really know if I am anymore.”
“You have no idea.”
“C’mon, Steve. You can tell me.”
“You gonna tell me what’s wrong with you?”
Tony had to bite back a grin. “Point taken. You know, you don’t have to stand sentry. I can handle this. Is there a lounge at this place?”
“There is,” Steve responded dubiously.
“Get yourself something to eat. Or drink, I don’t care. On me. I’ll be down in a bit.”
“Are you sure?”
No, come in here and hold me. “I’m sure.”
“Alright.” Steve still sounded reluctant, but the drag of his footsteps started. “Wait. What do you want me to do with the key?”
“Just wedge it under the door. I’ll get it in a minute.”
“You owe me at least part of an explanation,” Steve told him as he wedged the key into the crack under the door and walked away without waiting for Tony to answer.
Tony dozed a bit while he waited for the battery to charge itself enough to keep him good for a few hours. Once he deemed the power at an acceptable level, he retrieved the key and used the room phone to call the hotel he and Happy were staying at. It took a while for the switchboard operators to push him through, but eventually he was able to speak with an irate Happy, to whom he gave the address of the hotel he was currently in and asked for some new clothes.
Happy was there in less than ten minutes. Tony pulled his shirt to cover the chest plate, accepted the bag Happy passed him, and slammed the door on Happy’s complaints that Pepper was getting calls asking if he was dead, so she had called Happy and had yelled at him. “What the hell went wrong out there, boss?”
“Equipment malfunction.” True enough. “Don’t worry about it.”
He told Happy to pick up his sports car at the track and to take special care of the attaché case, then took a rapid shower and pulled on the black turtleneck and sport coat Happy had packed him. It was nice to get the dirt and smoke of the track off his skin, and the hot water relaxed something he didn’t know had been clenched in his body. And if he slapped a bit of aftershave on, well, who was going to question why?
He made his way down to the hotel lounge. It was empty save for the barkeep, a waitress, some guy getting drunk for lunch, and Steve sitting alone in a circular booth, poking sullenly at a bowl of peanuts. He looked up, and for a second, his smile was so brilliant it was blinding.
Now that he was fully in control of his body and had time to appreciate the man in front of him, Tony couldn’t help appreciating. His suit was cheap and ill-fitting, and maybe twenty years out of date, but still, Steve was . . . beautiful. Handsome of course, but somewhere in the strong yet strangely delicate curve of his brow and jaw, and the plush pink lips, and the cropped pale blond hair, there was a beauty to him. He looked torn between slumping and sitting up ramrod straight, like he was still slightly at unease in his body. But what a body it was. Thickly corded muscle and flushed Irish skin, broad hands and broader shoulders, but something about his poise implied that in a fight he would rely on his dexterity more than his brute strength, which Tony had already seen was not inconsiderable.
He was young, but not. Tony wouldn’t peg him for being more than a couple years older than him, but something in his eyes was old, or better put, highly experienced. If Steve had been in the military, he’d obviously seen active combat, but there hadn’t been much in the way of any major wars in the past ten years. Vietnam was coming, Tony had seen that with his own eyes, but they were still easing in. Steve looked . . . war weary. Like a solider just come home to find the life they once knew gone, and floundering without something to fight.
Steve stood up as Tony approached, and some little part of him made an annoyed noise that Steve was maybe an inch taller than him. “How about some appropriate introductions? Tony Stark.”
Steve shook Tony’s offered hand, warm and dry with a strong grip, but his palm was oddly soft. “Steve Rogers. Well, technically Steven Grant, but I can’t see you caring. Former US Army.”
“Former? How long were you in and when did you get out?” Tony slid into the booth and flagged down the waitress.
“Well,” Steve looked vaguely uncomfortable. He chose his words carefully. “I was in for about four years. Just was – ah – released, you could say, a few weeks ago.”
“Where were you stationed?”
Steve chuckled, low in his chest but somehow hollow. “Not covert in the slightest. But special ops, sure.”
“What, don’t trust me?” Tony teased.
Steve’s eyes glimmered, but he kept a lid on it as the waitress finally approached, fresh coating of lipstick and mascara applied.
“What can I get you, Mister Stark? And you, sir?” she simpered.
“Whiskey on the rocks. Steve?”
“Uh, just soda water.”
The waitress fluttered he eyes and leaned closer. “That all?”
Steve coughed, obviously uncomfortable.
Tony winked. “We’re good, doll.” She bustled off to get their drinks, fanning herself slightly with her notepad. “You alright, Steve?”
“Yeah,” he sounded distracted, and was staring at the table. “Just not used to . . . that sort of attention. I didn’t always look like this.” He grimaced and gestured down at his musculature.
“Well, I’d get used to it.” Tony indulged himself, letting his eyes rake over the places where his suit pulled taunt over his biceps and hips. “She didn’t look like she cared which of us took a shine to her.”
Steve continued to let his gaze bore a hole in the table. “I’m sure she was after you, Mister St – Tony. You’re a rakishly handsome genius millionaire. And I’m . . . me.” A slight blush tinged his cheeks.
Tony filed rakishly handsome away for future exploration. “Hey.” He reached over and nudged Steve’s upper arm, feeling the rock-hard muscle beneath the fabric. “Don’t sell yourself short.”
Steve swallowed several times, giving Tony a wonderful demonstration on how his throat worked, breathed deep, and sat up straight in time for the waitress to return with their drinks.
Steve thanked the woman, and after she left, spent a moment toying with the spiral of lemon rind on the rim of his glass. Tony swallowed maybe half the whiskey, made a face at the poor quality, then pulled his checkbook and pipe from the blazer pocket. He lit the pipe, flipped open the checkbook, and began to write.
“Hey, what’re you doing?” Tony just handed him the check in lieu of answer. “Fifty thousand?” He stared at Tony in incredulity. “Is that how much you think your life is worth?”
“I can double it if you’re dissatisfied.”
“No, it’s just – “
“Look,” Tony darted out a hand, pressing the check to the Formica tabletop to stop Steve from fiddling with it. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you stepping in. Anything you want, it’s yours.”
Steve held his gaze for the longest moment. The air seemed to turn turgid, like molasses, but also crystalline like ice. Slow and brittle and beautiful, all because of Steve’s eyes.
Oh god, he was waxing poetic about Steve’s eyes. Already.
The moment shattered as Steve deftly pulled the check from beneath Tony’s fingers and began to shred it. “I’m not accepting your money. I could, but I can’t. I didn’t save you in the hopes of a payday. It’s just what I do. What I used to do. What I’m supposed to be doing. I just save people, I guess.” Steve’s eyes got very far away. “It’s all I have left,” he said quietly.
Tony shifted uncomfortably. “Got a bit of a hero’s complex, do you?”
Steve laughed bitterly. “You have no idea.”
Tony twisted his pipe as he gritted his teeth. “You and me both, pal.”
The suddenly tense silence weighed between them. “You still haven’t said what went wrong out there.”
“Oh.” Tony scrambled for a decent answer. Something about Steve said he wouldn’t accept a full out lie, but might be okay a partial truth. Steve didn’t seem to want to share too much, either. “Don’t tell the papers, but I have a bit of heart trouble in stressful situations. I had an – er – mechanical failure of sorts, and needed to get some peace. A bit of a nap, the power comes flooding right back.”
Steve nodded vacantly. “Heart trouble, I can understand. Had quite a few medical troubles when I was younger. I’m better now.” His eyes darted up accompanied by a warm grin at Tony’s burst of laughter, then his face turned thoughtful. “Do you get these, um, episodes often?”
Literally every day I am lying on the floor bemoaning the end of Iron Man and Tony Stark. “Often enough. Why?”
Steve was running his finger around the rim of his glass. “It might be good if you could have someone around to look out for you, and your health, you know? I’m sure you have lots of employees, but do you have any that, I don’t know, take care of you?”
It was an odd question, and oddly pointed. “Well, I have my secretary who runs my life and nags me. My chauffer who is also a sort of personal assistant. Oh, and a butler who takes care of my parents' old house, but it’s not very often that I’m there.”
Steve looked strangely crestfallen. “Oh. So – so you have people.”
The idea blossomed like a morning glory. “I don’t have a bodyguard.”
The cautiously hopeful smile on Steve’s face was all the answer he needed.
The logical part of him said it was a good idea. Steve had proved himself trustworthy, and even better, reluctant to pry, which would be nice in the face of Pepper and Happy’s constant questions. Steve was strong enough to carry him around like he weighed nothing, which would be good in emergency situations. He also didn’t let on very much, but something about Steve’s poise said he was permanently ready for a fight, which would come in handy in the case of someone holding the villain of the week off while he got the suit on.
But there was another part of him, the stronger part, that didn’t want to let Steve go. In the place of a couple hours he’d screwed himself into the tender tissue still beneath the metal of the chest plate. Steve was handsome and brave and loyal and respectful, kind and oddly inspiring. Something about him oozed righteousness and betterment, and Tony knew in his marrow that if Steve asked, he would follow him to the end of the world.
And if he just gave Steve a check, that would be it. He could very well track him down, but Steve was sitting right there looking lost but full of hope at a new life after the last one undoubtedly fell apart. And Tony could give him that. Steve looked to be the kind of guy in need of purpose in his life. He needed to be doing something good, for the betterment of humanity. And Tony worked in that field already.
And maybe, just maybe, Steve was just in need of someone to share his secrets with as Tony was.
“I’m not trained in personal protection.”
“Don’t need to be. The title of bodyguard is . . . honorary. Or just something for the accounting people to write down. I get . . . caught up in Iron Man’s exploits often enough. You’d be more . . . doing whatever is needed. Accompanying me on trips. That sort of thing. Does that appeal to you at all?”
Something lit up behind Steve’s eyes. “You live a, well, exciting life. You have lots of opportunities to do something good in the world. I – I don’t know if my previous occupation is in demand anymore, but the military is not where I’m going to find my place – now. If I’m going to – if I’m going to move forward, it’ll be in the types of circles you move in. I think. I don’t know, but what I do – what I’ve done – it’s a pretty exclusive niche. But it’s pretty important, I’d say. And it might not be a fully realized niche, but the potential is damn well there.” And then Steve asked the question that sealed the deal. “You work with Iron Man, don’t you?”
Tony couldn’t hide his smile. “I do. If you want the job, it’s yours.”
“Well then, are you gonna need any time to sort out your affairs or anything?”
“Everything I own is in my car. I was road tripping with no destination.”
“New York. But I haven’t lived there in years.”
“Well, my main base is in Queens. That acceptable?”
A vigorous nod.
“Good. You’ll need a new wardrobe. This,” he gestured at the tightness of Steve’s jacket, “is not going to fly.”
“Tony, you don’t have to –“
“I insist. Really. Does no good in arguing. But for right now,” Tony extinguished his pipe and swung his feet out from the booth. “I’m famished. Wanna try and find a decent burger?”
Steve immediately pushed the bowl of peanuts away. “It’s like you read my mind.”
A few days later, Stark Industries’ International Headquarters, Flushing, New York
In his usual grumbling way, Happy spent the entire ride from Penn Station quietly bemoaning the dressing down Pepper was going to give him when they returned, because apparently she blamed him for Tony crashing and going MIA for an hour. She was also likely to be upset that Tony had just hired Steve without consulting her, but Tony wasn’t too worried about that. Steve had already won over Happy, which was a pretty awesome feat. Happy had sort of considered himself Tony’s bodyguard in a way, but as soon as Tony had mentioned Happy had once been a professional boxer, Steve had eagerly started asking about his record. He’d been vaguely self-conscious over his history of losses, but Steve had made an approving noise when Happy said it was because of the lack of desire to finish anyone off. Happy had started grilling Steve for his favorite boxers, but Steve had laughed uncomfortably, citing he was very out of date.
Tony had yet to find any reason why hiring Steve was a bad idea. Steve was witty and friendly, and everyone was obviously very charmed when they met him (maybe not as charmed as Tony, but still), and had already proved himself unobtrusive. He knocked, for goodness sakes. Happy just barreled into rooms and yelled at him. There was something holding a pall over the full brunt of Steve’s bright disposition though. Tony wanted nothing more than to figure it out what it was and make it go away, because nothing should hurt someone like Steve.
(They had stopped in Cleveland for a meeting with steel distributor from Detroit on the way back to New York, and Tony had spent the entire evening chatting with Steve in the lounge. The look Happy had given him after Steve called it a night told him the man had figured out everything.)
Happy was driving, Steve was in the passenger seat, and Tony was leaning in between the headrests because he didn’t want to be left out of the conversation. Which wasn’t really happening. Happy was talking (largely to himself), and Steve was staring vacantly out of the window.
As they had gotten closer to New York, Steve had gotten more and more subdued. By the time they pulled into the station he’d been positively morose. He’s barely uttered a word beyond “Sure” and a noncommittal “Mmm”.
Tony reached out and prodded his bicep. “Something wrong?”
Steve jumped like he had been caught. “Um, no,” he muttered distractedly. “Things have just – I hadn’t realized how much had changed.”
“When was the last time you were here?”
“Oh, years ago. A lot longer than it feels. But it also feels like no time, so that’s why it’s . . . .”
Steve let out a heavy breath. “Yeah.”
“Do you want to . . . talk about it?”
Happy shot him a glare in the rearview mirror. Tony elected to ignore it. Steve didn’t notice.
“No, not really. I’m sorry, I’m putting a bit of a damper on you guys, aren’t I?”
Tony said “Not as all,” simultaneously with Happy’s “Yes.”
Tony continued. “Happy, you have been complaining the entire time. Not particularly cheerful. Steve, don’t worry about it.”
Steve nodded a few times. He glanced out the window and his eyes widened. “Is that the site of the World’s Fair?”
Eager to change the subject, Tony latched on. “Yeah, pretty important neighbor moving in for next year. Happy, turn here.”
“You act like I don’t know,” Happy groused as he merged right.
“Well, Steve doesn’t know.”
Steve’s laugh, bright like sunlight, burst forth. “I think I can pay attention to Happy’s turns. So, what do I need to know about . . . well, SI?”
“Well, we’re global, so I’m visiting plants and facilities on every continent all the time. But Flushing is my base.”
“Every continent?” Steve raised an eyebrow. “You have one in Antarctica?”
“Shh, don’t tell the feds, and it’s for things we can’t do near major populations and also cold weather testing in case we need to invade the Russians for some reason. And don’t think your cheek is going to get you anywhere, I’m onto you. But I travel around a lot, doing demos and such. You’re gonna see the world on my dime, Steve Rogers.”
There was something secret about the smile that spread across Steve’s face, like that comment pleased him or something. Whatever it was sent a warm flush through Tony’s system. Happy made a gagging noise.
“And, we’re here,” Tony nearly shouted.
They pulled into the circle, and Happy stopped short in front of the main doors. Steve leapt out as soon as the car stopped, spinning around as he eagerly took in his surroundings, the new blue suit he’s had rush ordered for Steve pulling in at all the right places. Tony pulled at the door handle to join him, but found it locked.
“Your flirting is painful to watch. I just hope you know that.”
“What? I’m not –“ Happy stared him down in the rearview mirror. “I don’t have to explain myself to you. Let me out.” He plucked ineffectively at the door.
“Boss, I don’t care. You know I don’t care about, you know, that.” Happy shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably. “That’s not the issue.”
“Then what is?” Tony snapped.
“Boss, just be honest: when was your last serious relationship?” Tony wracked his brains, but he couldn’t remember. “That’s my point. Boss, I mean, I’d love to see you settle down with someone. You need that, especially after . . . . “ Vietnam hung unsaid. “But you just met the guy. He seems like good people, but how can you know?”
Tony slumped against the seat. “I just can tell, Happy. He doesn’t have anywhere to go, and I just couldn’t let him get away. I can’t explain it, but I know I need him next to me.”
Happy just sighed. “You’re good at hiding that hopeless romantic that lurks inside, but I ain’t buyin’ it.”
“Tony?” Steve called. “You coming?”
“Don’t give him any ideas,” Happy muttered darkly as he unlocked the doors.
Tony decided to guide Steve on a tour around the plant before meeting Pepper. Happy had already set off to “meet his doom”, grumbling about deadly secretaries.
“I couldn’t help but notice,” Steve whispered behind Happy’s retreating back, “but he goes on about - Pepper, is it? - quite a bit. She’s your secretary, right?”
“Well,” Tony cupped a hand around Steve’s arm and pulled him in the opposite direction, “that’s her title, but just like Happy being my chauffer, they act mainly as personal assistants. But whereas Happy is the one who picks up my lunch, Pepper is the one to shove the papers I need to sign into my face. I guess you could say she’s the one who handles the business aspects. She’s also very good at nagging, so if you were wondering why Happy’s complaining . . . .”
“You probably shouldn’t call her a nag.”
“Well, what should I call her? It’s part of her job, and frankly, she does it very well. I love her to bits, and besides, it’s why she’s lasted so long. She and Happy aren’t afraid of me. They’ll both rope you into their circle, mark my words.”
A shadow crossed Steve’s face. “Right.”
“Hey!” Tony clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. She’ll love you. We just have to give those two some space. Honestly, I have just about had it with their dancing around each other.”
“Wait. Happy likes Pepper?”
“And Pepper likes Happy but she won’t admit it. What’s this about?”
Steve stifled his slightly-manic grin. “It’s nothing. Stupid. I’m being ridiculous. Been riding high on adrenalin or something the past few days. Forgive me.”
“I’ll always forgive you, Steve. Now, if adrenalin is what you like, you ain’t seen nothing yet . . . .”
Steve loved the plant. His face was in a permanent state of shock and awe with a little bit of wonder thrown in, especially when Tony showed him their NASA contracted aeronautics divisions. He asked fairly intelligent questions as well, ones that would sound out of place in a civilian’s mouth, but betrayed an experienced military officer, albeit one with rather colorful experience. Tony spent twenty minutes watching Steve argue with one of his top military aircraft designers over having an emergency parachute for every single passenger. (The designer argued it would weigh the plane down. Steve argued it was a small price to pay for insuring as many lives as possible were saved.) The engineer was just beginning to condescendingly explain about the necessity of passenger comfort when Steve just raised an eyebrow and asked the man if he’d ever actually met anyone who worked in the military. “Actually works. Not just sitting on their ass.”
Tony, for his part, tried his best to keep his touches to a minimum. Easier said than done.
It was more fun than a regular factory tour, not just because he was with handsome company, but because he was with . . . good company. Steve was shockingly easy to talk to, if you put aside the awkward pauses and vague answers about Steve’s past, but then Tony wasn’t any better than when it came to skirting anywhere near Iron Man. But it wasn’t just that Steve was easy to talk to, but Tony found himself wanting to talk to him. He wanted to hear every one of Steve’s thoughts, he wanted to know if Steve agreed with him, he wanted to know if Steve thought he was doing the right thing.
It was unreal, being this affected by another person. But then, Steve wasn’t just any other person.
Steve was less impressed by the corporate offices, but Tony could barely blame him. There was less innovation, more paper pushing, less respect of intelligence, more ass-kissing. When Tony introduced Steve as his new bodyguard, he just nodded mutely at whoever it was. Playing dumb, no one would believe that a man of Steve’s stature had more intelligence than a brick, but it was a smart move on Steve’s part.
Once they reached Tony’s office suite, Steve just made a face. “Now, that’s something I don’t think I’ll enjoy.”
“No one does. But hey, at least you don’t need to pretend to like them like I have to.”
Steve laughed, his melancholy from the ride to the plant miles away. His eyes lit up when he saw the painting displayed in pride of place. “Is that Iron Man?”
Tony had the painting commissioned to hang in his offices to remind those who entered of his “close relationship” with the man in golden armor. “Yes! He . . . uh . . . happens to be a very good friend of mine. You might see him on occasion. He drops by frequently.”
“Iron Man is incredible,” Steve murmured, eyes still on the painting, and Tony’s heart stuttered a bit at Steve’s words. “He’s doing such . . . good in the world. I do hope he continues what he’s doing.” Steve turned and beamed at Tony. “You designed the armor, right?”
And I pilot it too. I’m Iron Man. “Yeah. Um, captivity in Vietnam.” Steve’s eyes grew soft in understanding. “I built the armor to escape, but I lost a friend in the process. Decided I needed Iron Man to continue work after all I saw, so . . . there he is.” He gestured at the painting with the hand holding the attaché case where the armor was tucked away.
A warm hand clasped his shoulder. “Iron Man is a good thing, Tony. I’m so glad you decided to keep him active.” His expression turned wistful, before shifting to confusion. “But I’ve read that Iron Man was your bodyguard. Does that mean . . . ?”
“Heresy,” Tony amended quickly. “I keep Iron Man funded and running, but he has more important things to do than looking after little old me. Anyway, I can have two bodyguards.”
A flash of something that looked like self disappointment flooded Steve’s face at the words “more important things to do” but he covered it quickly. “So, these are your main offices?”
“Yes. I kind of live here as well. I have other houses and apartments around the city, but as I tend to fall asleep on a workbench or at my desk, I have a bit of a private apartment here. I’ll have a suite set up for you, until we can find you your own apartment. If you want.”
“No, no, it makes sense that I live at least near you if I’m your bodyguard, so I can keep an eye on you. I honestly don’t know how well I would do in my own place right now.”
“Good, really wonderful,” Tony tried to keep the eagerness at having Steve constantly within reach out of his voice, but failed miserably. “I do hope you like it here.”
As he walked forward, he caught Steve’s tiny “I already do.”
Pepper and Happy’s angry whispers were silenced by Steve and Tony’s entrance into the ante-office. It was largely Pepper’s domain, so her taste reigned. But, if she was willing to keep all the midget plants alive, Tony wasn’t going to say anything.
“Tony!” For a moment, she looked relieved, but soon enough it was replaced by annoyance. “So you are alive. Good to at least see it with my own eyes. I’ve had the papers ringing me non-stop, asking if it was true that you were dead. At least now I have more proof than Happy’s word.” She turned her glare on Happy, who shrugged meekly.
“Not that easy to get rid of me,” he stepped fully into the room, ushering Steve to join him. “Pepper, meet Steve Rogers. From now on he’ll be my personal bodyguard.”
“Nice to meet you, miss,” Steve said with awkward formality.
Pepper raised her eyebrows and looked at Happy out of the corner of her eye. He shrugged helplessly and gestured for her to continue. “Pepper’s fine, Steve. We don’t stand on much formality here. I suppose I might have expected to meet you before Tony officially hired you,” she turned her glare on Tony. “But you seem very nice.”
“Thank you?” Steve stepped forward, offering a hand. Pepper shook it vacantly, staring intently at his face, every so often looking back at Tony. So, either Happy had told her, or she had deduced it for herself. “It was rather unexpected.”
“Mmm,” she nodded. “Tony, I’m sure you’ve filled out the appropriate paperwork?” She smiled tightly and blinked too many times. “Is your silence a no? Of course it is. Well, we should get right on that.” She returned to her desk, loading a fresh sheet into her typewriter. “I’ll get this ready for you two to sign later, alright? Any special provisions?”
“As Steve will be part of my personal staff, he’ll be traveling with me most of the time. You have a valid US passport?” Steve nodded jerkily. “Good. One less thing to take care of. No aversion to air or sea travel? Three week’s vacation, pension, the works. For the time being, he’ll be bunking here. Happy’s old quarters, before you moved out on me, you bastard. Can we get someone on that?” Pepper nodded. “Alright. I need to take care of a few things privately in my office, so use the intercom if you need me.” Still nodding, she jotted it all down on a yellow legal pad while Steve hovered awkwardly near her desk. Happy had lit a cigarette and was hacking and snickering in the corner. “Oh, and Pepper, have Steve given all the authorizations and accesses he’ll need.”
“Same as Happy’s.”
She blinked at him, then when back to writing. “That it?”
“All that I can think of right now.”
Pepper nodded once again, pulling out her handwritten telephone directory, consisting of all the people that were “involved in taking care of Tony Stark in some way or another”. She flipped it to “Interior Design” and picked up the receiver. “I’ve got it from here, boss. Steve, once I get a hold of Brenda, I’ll have you speak with her in regards to what you’d like your rooms to be like.”
Steve frowned. “You don’t have to go through so much trouble. I slept on camp beds or damp ground for years. I don’t need anything fancy.”
Pepper stared up at him from beneath her eyelashes, then turned to Tony in askance.
“Steve, it’s no trouble at all. I want you to be comfortable while you’re here.” He probably looked ridiculous, but in the face of Steve’s appreciative crooked smile, Tony couldn’t help the look of adoration that covered his face. Pepper was discreetly murmuring to the operator while Happy chuckled meanly.
“Thank you, Tony,” Steve said breathlessly. And he meant it.
Anything for you. It shocked him to the core how much meant it.
He had to get out of there.
“Um, I think you’re set.” Pepper nodded impatiently as she described the unexpected situation to Brenda’s receptionist. “Well then, I should get going.”
“Papers you need to look over and sign are on your desk,” Pepper interjected seamlessly. “No, he’s military, he’s not a picky one –“
“Have fun with your ‘private time’, boss!” Happy called after Tony’s swiftly retreating back, smoky coughs taunting him until the door was shut and dead bolted behind him.
Tony cleared the mounds of paperwork from his desk without a second glance. He’d get to them eventually, he mused, and besides, there were more important things to deal with, weren’t there? Like the fate of the world? He plunked his attaché case down in the middle of the desk.
There hadn’t been a chance to look it over since he had packed it away after he returned to Indianapolis from Chicago, with the new situation with Steve and Happy being perpetually underfoot. It had been difficult to find time enough to charge the chest plate, but thankfully Steve quickly picked up that Tony needed maybe half an hour to himself every day, and had distracted Happy accordingly. That was reason enough to hire him.
But time to put Steve out of his mind for a while. He had to check Iron Man out.
The attaché case popped open with a simple touch, as it had been coded to only open for Tony. Folded sheets of golden metal lay innocently in the red velvet interior. Tony unbuttoned his shirt with one hand, letting the chest plate glint in the low light of the office.
Tony went through his checks, losing himself in testing every piece of equipment, donning the armor and doing stretches to insure maximum mobility. He was wrapping up his examination when the klaxon blared.
He swung around to see the alarm’s light blinking steadily. The pattern of flashes – long short long short pause – indicated a Code C, a person attempting to access a secure area that was not accessible without Tony’s presence and permission, likely one of the vaults beneath him. Tony was about to lurch over to the attaché case when he noticed the golden gauntlets already covering his arms.
Talk about convenient timing.
He triggered the trapdoor, revealing the hidden staircase down into the labyrinth beneath him – so what if it was cliché? – and, making sure the light in his chest was at a high beam, he stole down the stairs.
It was funny, he pondered as he crashed through the dark corridors towards the vault block, heat from the chest lamp warming the entire chest plate, how needed Iron Man was despite the loneliness and thanklessness.
Maybe Iron Man needs to be part of a team a tiny voice whispered in the back of his head.
Gunfire and muffled shouts distracted him from any further thought on that topic.
He peeled around the final corner to get a perfect view of a man in a lab coat who had just abandoned a blowtorch for a pistol. He was exchanging gunfire with someone else further down the corridor. He recognized Happy’s hoarse shout and Steve’s raised voice.
He sounded almost excited.
The man who had been breaking into the vault before Steve and Happy had intervened ducked just as a bullet rocketed into the metal door of the vault an inch for where the man’s hand once was, and Tony was able to see his face. He felt the momentary pang of betrayal: Professor Shapanka, one Tony’s most trusted scientists, a genius in the field of cryogenics. He’d just returned from a prolonged contract for a top-secret military project, the details of which Tony hadn’t even been trusted with.
Shapanka’s eyes widened. “Iron Man!” He reloaded with fumbling fingers. “Stay back!”
He shot one, two, three rounds. They bounced harmlessly against the chest plate. Tony glanced down as the bullets clattered to the floor. He lunged forward, grabbing the pistol and crumpling it like paper. “What the hell were you after in that vault?”
A click echoed behind them. Shapanka gulped. Tony turned enough to see Steve, holding a .45 ACP semi-automatic like a seasoned professional, aimed between Shapanka’s eyebrows. “You heard the man. Start talking. What were you after?”
Tony was startled out of his shock at Shapanka’s sneer. “The blue prints for Stark’s transistors, Captain. I could sell them and make a fortune.” Steve’s hands shook for a moment before stabilizing.
“Shapanka, you work for SI. I’m sure you make plenty and your research is well funded. Why’d you need to steal to get more?” Tony asked him.
“Stark refused to allow me to peruse my true calling: finding the secret of human immortality! So while he was away, I decided to take my chances. If the bumbling bodyguard, if that’s what you’re selling yourself as, hadn’t been down here, I’d already be long gone!”
Shapanka was a genius, even if he was twisted. He’d come to Tony, blathering about immortality and cryogenics, but Tony had hired him to keep an eye on him and direct his genius towards different pursuits. Obviously it hadn’t worked.
He looked towards Steve, who nodded. In one motion, Steve reached out and pulled Shapanka away from the wall with no obvious exertion. Iron Man wrenched the mutilated remains of the vault door open, and Steve swiftly threw the man in like he was nothing more than a sack of flour or potatoes. Shapanka collided with a shelving unit full of cash. Together, Steve and Iron Man pulled the door closed.
They paused to catch their breath, listening to Shapanka’s groans and curses in Hungarian. Steve was grinning at him like he was the sun. “Iron Man! To – Mister Stark said I might see you around. I hadn’t guessed it would be today!” A look of concern crossed his face. “Everything’s alright?”
“Oh, yes. Just checking in with Mister Stark when the alarm sounded. He mentioned something about hiring a new bodyguard.” Steve glowed. “I have to go now, but can you keep Shapanka secured until the guards show up?”
“I already sent Happy to get them. Shit, is Tony okay? I completely forgot. Happy was showing me some the exit routes through the basement, and we came across him, but I’m supposed to be guarding Tony – “
“Steve, breathe. Mister Stark should be fine. He should still be in his office. He’ll be glad to hear you took the initiative. If he had come across it, he would have tried the same thing. Albeit to less effective ends.” Steve had a lovely blush. Really, really lovely. “Stay here, the guards will be here before you know it. I’ll send Mister Stark down straight away.”
“It was nice to meet you, Iron Man!” Steve called after him.
Pepper pounced on him the second he re-emerged from his office, Tony Stark once again. “They need you down in the vault block! You’ll never guess who was breaking in!”
She rolled her eyes. “Shapanka. I told you he was bad news. Steve and Happy were already down there, and were able to stall him until Iron Man showed up!” She narrowed her eyes. “I didn’t have a meeting with Iron Man scheduled in your books.”
“Pepper, since when have I scheduled my meetings with Iron Man?”
She just hummed non-committaly. “You should probably go.”
He followed the trail of security guards back down into the basement labyrinth, this time through the public access stairs. Happy was leaning against the wall, glowering, as Steve helped the guards secure Shapanka. Happy was the first to notice him.
“Boss!” Immediately, everyone’s eyes were on him. “This traitor Shapanka was tryin’ to break into one of the vaults.”
Tony coolly stared the paling Shapanka down, then glanced disinterestedly at the mangled vault door. “Don’t worry, Happy. He was just breaking into the cash vault, thankfully. Nothing important in there.”
Steve relinquished his hold on Shapanka and moved over to stand at Tony’s shoulder. “He told Iron Man and myself he was after your transistors.”
He turned back to Shapanka. “Is this true?”
Shapanka’s nostrils were dilated in rage. “So it’s true,” he spat. “Gonna call the cops now, eh?”
“No.” The guards and Happy all stared at him in disbelief. Steve just raised his eyebrows. “Perhaps I should, but I won’t. Release him.”
They did as he ordered. Shapanka stood there, rubbing his wrists and looking very small.
“I’m letting you go because of the brilliant work you did in the past,” Tony informed him. “But as I can no longer trust you with government secrets or anything of the sort, I’m going to have to ask you to vacate the premises. Empty your desk and get out. And you would do well never to show your face here again.”
Shapanka snorted. “Oh how noble of you. Big-hearted Stark, tossing a crumb of freedom to a lowly crook.” He hooked a finger over his shoulder back towards the vault. “How about adding a few crumbs of severance pay? You have more money than you know what to do with!”
“You bastard –“ Steve lunged forward, but Tony caught him around the chest.
Shapanka just grinned manically. “Careful, Captain. We should keep ourselves cool shouldn’t we?”
“Shapanka,” Tony growled, “better leave now before I get cold feet about releasing you.”
“Cold feet. Cold feet!” The manic glint in Shapanka’s eyes went ablaze. “I wanted money, but here you are, giving he a million dollar solution for nothing!” Shapanka lurched forward, grabbing Tony by the lapels. “Thank you, Stark! And you, Captain! And I’ll be sure to demonstrate my gratitude soon enough!”
Steve lifted Shapanka off of Tony and hurled him down the hallway. The man stumbled but managed to catch his feet. “You heard Mister Stark,” Steve said through bared teeth, “get out.”
“Remember your confidentiality agreements, Shapanka! And be sure to stop off at a psychiatrist on your way home!” Tony called after Shapanka’s retreating form. The man showed no sign of hearing him, rating about “cold feet” and “eternal life” and “the world will remember” as a pair of guards escorted him out.
The guards disassembled to examine the vault door and make their reports, or else returned to their stations, giddy to share new gossip with other employees. Happy slid up beside Steve and Tony. “Boss, I swear you’re as nutty as him for lettin’ him go.”
“Maybe I am. That ranting doesn’t bode well. Steve, you okay?”
The tendons on his neck were still standing out in sharp relief, his knuckles white where he curled his fingers into fists. “You should have someone keep an eye on him,” he said through clenched teeth.
“Steve,” Tony said gently, laying a hand on Steve’s bicep. He unfroze, but still looked very troubled. “Iron Man has left, but I can ask him to keep Shapanka on his radar, okay?”
Steve nodded and breathed through his nose. “Okay. Okay.”
“Um, boss?” Happy piped in. “Does . . . this mean we can break out the good whiskey? In celebration of . . . catching a crook?”
Steve let out a shaky laugh. Tony hid his relief. “If by ‘the good whiskey’ you mean ‘my good whiskey’ . . . maybe.”
“I’m takin’ that as a yes.”
A few weeks later
Things settled down. Summer had officially begun, so people began taking their vacations. There were a few short trips for demos, and of course missions for Iron Man, but most major business would be waiting for the fall. Tony took advantage of the ceasing of interruptions to devote time to some major projects that needed both time and close attention to gain the best results, including the idea for a new Iron Man armor, one more comfortable, less clunky, and a fair bit more stylish. He turned down invitations to Monte Carlo and Nice, and threw himself into his work.
One week when it was going to be particularly slow, Pepper bought a new bathing suit with her company checking account and took a spontaneous trip to the Bahamas (also on the company checking account). She came back the color of a boiled lobster. Happy and Tony snuck into his office to have a quick laugh while Steve stayed with her, giving her tips on how best to treat the sunburn. (“My family is immigrant Irish, and we couldn’t afford most medicines, so my mother was quite skilled in home remedies. So yeah, I know a bit about treatment for a sunburn.”) He told her to soak in milk to soothe the heat and scrounged up a bottle of lavender oil to ease the pain. A few days after her return, he brought her a few tiny aloe vera plants, “for future use”.
It was just so thoughtful.
Pepper was suitably touched, and Steve rose to be cemented as her favorite (something Happy was endlessly bitter about), but Tony couldn’t begrudge her. Steve was his favorite, too.
He’d heard the whispers at the few social events he’s attended, and rumors got around. People had complained of his “erratic” behavior since Vietnam, mainly consisting of his apparent refusal to sleep with anyone. It had initially encouraged many a lady, thinking the great Tony Stark was ready to settle down, finally. Only to be disappointed that Tony wasn’t nibbling at their persuasive charms. And now, he only had eyes for the bodyguard lurking in the corner of the room.
Happy just called it “mooning”. Tony really couldn’t argue with him.
It was only whispers, thankfully; no one had gone to the gossip columns, yet. It wouldn’t likely be published anyhow. There was the worry that some government official could catch wind of it, but Tony would be able to say with absolute honesty that nothing was going on between him and Steve.
As for him wanting for it to be true, well, hopefully they wouldn’t ask him that.
Steve didn’t fit in well with the social set, but he didn’t try. He stood, unobtrusively as possible for someone of his stature, off to the side while Tony mingled and accepted praise and kisses, but Tony could never look away. Steve was always one of the most beautiful people in the room, and always the most handsome man, so Tony wasn’t the only one looking. Many men looked on in jealously as ladies drifted over towards him. Steve would shift awkwardly under the attention, before he quickly found out that they dispersed as soon as he dropped “my employer, Mister Stark”. And for the rest of the night, Steve would watch Tony, and Tony would watch Steve, wishing Steve was looking at him because he wanted to, not because it was his job, before Tony would tire and tell Steve to have Happy pull the car around.
He enjoyed his time with Steve entirely too much. It was difficult to put a finger on just what held so much appeal, but it was something in the purity of Steve’s sight, there was he perceived the world, realistic and idealistic at the same time. Knowing how the world worked but constantly hoping for something better. Doing what he could to make things better. Making the world into something worthwhile.
He was inspiring, which might be odd to say of a bodyguard, but it was more difficult pretending it wasn’t true. Steve inspired Tony, and while he might not admit it aloud, he knew it intrinsically. Steve had a way of keeping Tony on track, if that was the way to put it, keeping Tony focused on what was real, what was important, what he needed to be doing. Steve would stand there and tell Tony he believed in him, and would remind him that Tony needed to be working on those problems only he could solve.
“You were given an amazing mind for a reason, Tony. You can change the world. If you can, that’s what you should be doing.”
Then Steve would smile bitterly, and Tony would wish things could be different between them.
It wasn’t just the first flush of “oh, he’s attractive”. Tony couldn’t understand why he wanted Steve so much, but in a way he could: it all boiled down to Steve being so different from anything Tony had ever seen before. It wasn’t just the easy “he’s handsome” or “he’s smart” or “he makes me laugh.” All of these things were true, but they could be true for any number of people. It was how Steve’s brand of humor was just something that made Tony roar with laughter, and how his intelligence filled the gaps in Tony’s own knowledge. They fit tighter well, evening out the lacking bits. Sure, they argued, be thus far it was simply debate that left Tony uplifted and sparkling, mind whizzing with new possibilities. Steve did not accept defeat easily, he fought, tooth and nail, and supported the things he believed in with such fervor that it left Tony breathless. But he wasn’t sore or bitter about loss; Steve accepted it with aplomb and a thoughtful expression. And the conversation would not be over yet, because if Tony was to change Steve’s way of thinking, he had to prove why it was the right way.
Steve’s actions made it really difficult to remind himself that Steve wasn’t interested.
There was something . . . soft in the way that Steve watched him, lips falling open and head tilted slightly to the right. He blushed whenever Tony complemented him, stuttered when Tony was overly generous, and always stared into his eyes. Steve only called him Mister Stark when they were in the company of others. When it was Pepper or Happy, or just the two of them, he was just “Tony”. And it never ceased to send a thrill through him at the gentle way Steve shaped his name in his mouth.
Like he was now.
“Tony?” Steve’s gentle knock, rather than Pepper’s sharp raps or Happy’s open-palmed slam, rattled the locked door. “Can I come in?”
“Just a second.” He pulled the plug from the wall socket and buttoned his shirt over the chest plate, folding the paper with the headline ‘JACK FROST STRIKES AGAIN’ away. His hands shook as he unlocked the dead bolt. “Fuck, I’m tired. Something going – oh, pizza.”
Steve just chuckled as Tony stole the box from him and followed him into the darkened office. “Pepper said you probably hadn’t eaten, and I was hankering for a slice – or three.” He shrugged. “So I thought we could share.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Tony said through a mouth full of Giuseppe’s cheese and tomato. “ ‘as ‘onna justh eat sumthin’ out ov’a can, or ah TV dinna or sumthin’.” He swallowed, and the cheese burned his throat. “Thank you.”
“Just don’t eat it all,” Steve scolded playfully as he pulled off his suit jacket and hung it by the door, and rolled up his sleeves around his bulging forearms.
“You want a drink?” Tony asked, throat dry.
“Do you want a Shirley Temple?” Tony taunted with a shit-eating grin.
Steve just sat down and straightened his suit. “There’s nothing wrong with liking a Shirley Temple,” he said, almost primly, before snatching up a piece of pizza and shoving half of it in his mouth.
“Jack and Coke?”
Steve nodded, cheeks puffed up like a squirrel’s. Tony hid his grin and turned to mix their drinks.
“Thank you,” Steve said with the slightly breathless way of someone who was in the middle of stuffing their face and had been interrupted. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“And you didn’t have to bring me pizza, yet here we are,” Tony plopped back down and raised his glass. Steve just laughed and raised his own.
They polished off three-quarters of the pie in companionable silence.
“How are you settling in?” Tony asked eventually, voice quiet. There was no one to hear him, but he liked the feeling of secrecy and intimacy.
Steve sighed and fiddled with his left cufflink. “Alright. Happy and Pepper are nice, once you get past their . . . bluntness. I still feel like a fish out of water, but that’s nothing you can really fix.”
Try me. Tony wanted nothing more than to fix Steve’s problems, each and every one of them, until he was happy and content to say by Tony’s side forever. “Steve, I’d do anything to help you. You know that.”
“Tony,” Steve sighed. “It’s . . . I can’t tell you. I’m under orders not to share. It’s top secret. I’d love to share, but I can’t. Otherwise, I’d tell you in a heartbeat.”
Tony sat in awe of the firm trust Steve placed it him. It was as gratifying as it was terrifying. “You really mean that, don’t you?”
Steve looked at him, eyes soft. “Of course.”
“Well,” Tony leaned back in his chair and sipped his whiskey, “I’m not going to stop guessing. Or trying to figure it out. Hope you know that.”
Steve’s fingers flexed momentarily on the armrest. “Well,” he started slowly. “It’s a military operation . . . and you’re one of the nation’s leading contractors. Maybe . . . you could be brought in?”
Warmth flooded him. “I’d love that.”
“There was some talk . . . you as Iron Man’s financer, that maybe . . . ugh, this is difficult.” Steve slumped back in his chair and rubbed his temples.
“Steve, don’t stress about it. You talk to whoever you need to, and we’ll take it from there, alright?”
Steve nodded. “But . . . if I went back to my . . . previous profession, I’d have to leave you – uh, leave here, or – or this job.”
The dough and cheese seemed to curdle in his stomach, but Tony forced himself to stay calm. “Steve, would it make you happy to continue your old job?”
He nodded miserably. “But.” Steve’s voice was impossibly small.
“But,” Steve looked down and wet his lips, then looked at Tony, eyes searing. “I couldn’t work for you anymore. I wouldn’t get to see you. As much.”
Tony enjoyed Steve’s company entirely too much. They had slid into friendliness and intimacy almost instantly, but the easy slide wasn’t easy. Steve challenged him, far more than any other person he’d ever met. Steve had an idea on what to do to make the world a better place, and he knew Tony had the resources and connections to make those ideas a reality. He wasn’t a man to take the world as it is, and Tony found it to be the most spectacular thing he’d ever seen.
And they had only known each other for a few weeks.
But knowing the realities of what Steve thought was also terrible, because Tony was selfish, and Steve had made it clear through action that if he felt he could be doing more good elsewhere, he would leave. No amount of fussing or cash would sway Steve from doing the right thing. And as much as Tony hated it, it was part of why he cared for Steve the way he did. Because Steve was true to himself, and didn’t bow for anyone.
It made the desire to share the secret of Iron Man almost too much. Because Steve idolized Iron Man. If Steve knew he was helping Iron Man directly, he would be sure to stay. But as much as Tony wanted Steve to share his secret, to be there for him, to be his, Tony knew that Steve would never be content to just be a helper/sidekick/bodyguard.
If he loved Steve as much as he though he did, they would need to be on equal footing if he wanted to convince Steve to stay forever.
But they couldn’t be. And that was where the heartache lie.
So all Tony could do is point Steve in the right direction and hope he wasn’t forgotten. Because Steve was to be great, there was no doubting it. Steve was destined to change the world, and soon enough he would leave. Tony hoped to change the world, and doing it in tandem with Steve would be more than he could ever ask for, but it couldn’t always be like this, sharing pizza on a slow afternoon.
Maybe that was why he hoarded his time with Steve. Because he knew there was a time limit on it. And soon enough, all he would be left with is fond memories and an empty metal heart.
“Steve,” it was tearing him in two, but if it was Steve wanted, he didn’t care. “You can’t tell me about it, but from the little I have gotten, you did some top secret work for the military. It was good and necessary work, but for some reason, they don’t want you continuing it. Funding or something else?”
“Sustainability. Legality. When I started out, circumstances were different, but circumstances change. They think the government would be in trouble if I continued under their banner. And right now, it would just be me.” Steve bit his lip and considered his words. “There are others out there, who do what I did, but none of them are publicly connected to any government organization. So, maybe I could go rouge and start again, but I’m most comfortable working with a partner or team. And there aren’t any teams out there right now.”
“Okay. Maybe you could start you own team?”
“I’ve only met one person who would even qualify. And that was only for a few minutes.” He shifted and looked behind him. “Can we drop this for right now? I need to sort myself out.”
“Yeah, sure. What do you want to talk about then?”
“Umm, how’s Iron Man?”
It was rather abrupt, but Tony was always game to talk about Iron Man. “He’s doing well. Hasn’t needed to be here in a while. Nothing too major since the whole deal with Shapanka. He’s doing just as well was a man with an iron heart can.” Something occurred to him. “Shapanka seemed to know you. Where did you two meet?”
Steve stiffened, then rubbed his palms together unconsciously, like a phantom cold had overtaken him. “Yeah. He was involved in the . . . erm, testing that had my . . . program shut down.”
“I did contract him out to the military a few weeks before he tried to break into my vault. You didn’t trust him then, did you?”
“No. Rightfully so. Has Iron Man been able to keep an eye on him?”
“Sadly, nothing interesting. He’s been locked up in his house most of the time. Iron Man’s been a bit more concerned with this whole Jack Frost business.”
“He’s a nasty piece of work.”
“Nasty, but fascinating. I wanna know how he figured out how to freeze himself and everyone else like that –“ The klaxon sounded. “What the hell is it now?” Tony ranted, a little bitterly, for having his precious Steve time interrupted.
Steve was already halfway out of his chair. “Stay here and lock the door!” The heavy oak slammed behind him.
Tony turned to the light on the wall. Long short short short pause. Code B. Armed intruders. Better than Code A, nuclear threat, but still unwelcome. The intercom buzzed, ringing out with Pepper’s voice, made rough by the transmission. “Mister Stark! Tony, it’s Jack Frost! That menace the papers keep going on about! He’s after you personally!”
Tony jabbed the intercom. “Pep, get to safety! Don’t worry about me! Help is incoming!” He switched it off and ran for the attaché case.
From outside there were raised voices, shouting, gunfire. Pepper was yelling at Happy, but that wasn’t unusual. There was also a strange hissing sound, and an icy crackle that was probably Jack Frost freezing the guards where they stood.
Tony was just securing the gauntlets when Steve and Happy’s voices rose in shock. Pepper was close to screeching, but fell silent abruptly, the crackle of ice directly on the other side of the door. Happy yelled in rage, before he was silenced too. Tony pulled the helmet on just as the door flew open with such force the knob was driven into the sheetrock. Steve, jaw clenched and gun raised, muscles bulging through his rolled-up shirtsleeves, looking glorious with the glow of battle, screamed “Tony?” and slammed to a halt. “Iron Man?”
An icy crackle sounded from behind him, and they both whirled around. Jack Frost lowered the hose he was using to ice the doorway closed. “So nice to see you again, Captain. And Iron Man too, wonderful! Just add in Tony Stark and this would be perfect!”
The voice was Shapanka’s.
Steve – brave, beautiful, stupid Steve – stepped forward, blocking Tony with his body. Steve’s teeth were chattering. “Shapanka, you know what I’m capable of. I wouldn’t if I were you.”
Shapanka seemed to consider it. “Mmm, nice offer, Captain, but my, what will you use as your shield?” The man laughed, sending icy tendrils up Tony’s back. “Out of my way, fool! You’re used to being on ice? Well, back you will go!”
Tony barely had time to shout “No” before Shapanka aimed the hose directly act Steve, encasing him in a perfectly transparent block of ice.
Tony forced himself to stay calm. Everyone Jack Frost – apparently Shapanka – had frozen had been revived after the ice was melted. He wasn’t going to lose Steve. Or Happy or Pepper, he reminded himself somewhat ashamedly.
“Don’t come any closer,” Tony called as he back up towards the wall, searching for some way, any way, to catch or stall Shapanka long enough for Tony to figure out how to disable the ice maker. Shapanka, crossing a section of floor that disguised the trapdoor for the stairs down into the basement labyrinth. “I’m warning you . . . . “
“Why should I stay back? Even the mighty Iron Man cowers before me!”
“Um, actually, no, but keep thinking that.” The armor clanged against the wall and he groped for the switch that triggered the trapdoor. Despite the clumsy fingers of the armor, he managed to grip it and pull. The door’s hydraulics engaged, and Shapanka fell with a clatter. It took a minute to fumble the switch in the opposite direction, and in that time, the motor whined and groaned to a halt, ice coating the interior workings.
Shit shit shit. Shapanka’s icy fingers were curling around the ledge, working on pulling himself up. With lack of anything better to do, Tony stomped down on the frozen hands.
Shapanka let out a muffled noise of pain, before arches of ice shot from the hole, tipped in gross exaggerations of fingers. They trapped him, in the likes of a cage and wrapped around his ankles. Tony was able to smash through the ice, but numbness was already spreading through the armor.
Steve was staring at him. Eyes wide and blue, body pulled into a slight crouch, as if he had been in the middle of hurling something at his attacker. Tony just wanted to peel off the armor and wrap his arms around Steve until he returned to full warmth.
It was risky, would destroy his office in the process, but it might be his only chance. He dug through his belt, immediately finding the necessary components. Behind him, Shapanka huffed as he clawed his way out of the trapdoor. Tony was just sliding the last piece into place as Shapanka finally rose from the hole. “And now, Iron Man . . . .”
Tony turned his chest light to full beam.
Shapanka shuddered, droplets of water forming puddles on the carpet from the heat. “Turn it off! Turn it off!” he spluttered.
“Nah, I think it’s time you took the heat for your actions!” (Say what you will, but the puns were half the fun of being a superhero.) Tony triggered the tiny device he’s crafted, a miniature furnace, and threw it toward Shapanka’s feet. Ripples of heat spread out from the device, causing the metal of the armor to superheat and Shapanka to crumple.
The block of ice containing Steve was already melting, so it only took some labored pushing to get him out of the office, sliding him across the carpet. The ice covering the doorway was only a thin sheet now, and all it took was a swift punch to shatter it.
“Get back!” Tony called to the unfrozen guards and police who were slowly approaching the door. Flames were already licking at the curtains inside the office.
Shapanka stumbled out, coughing and slightly singed, revealing the shiny under suit he wore beneath the layer of ice. Tony heard the sprinklers engage, and turned to look in on the wet and smoldering remains of his office. Nothing of consequence looked damaged. He turned back to the sweating ice figures at his side.
Pepper had been frozen mid-rant, probably telling Shapanka off for daring to invade her domain. Happy’s body had seized up, pushing his shoulders up to his ears. His pose would have been funny if not for the fact the two were far more quiet than he’d ever seen them.
A couple of policemen were handcuffing Shapanka, the rest were staring uneasily at the ice blocks of the several guards who’d been blasted. “Listen up! There’s a heating chamber in the automotive division! Find some trolleys and get these people down there! I’ll send Stark to meet you there!”
The cops nodded to him as he sped away.
He showered quickly, scrubbing the soot and sweat from his body, but there were burns where the heated metal had touched his skin. Remembering Steve’s advice, Tony dabbed lavender oil at the burns and bandaged them. Hopefully no one would notice.
The heat chamber was used to test how well vehicles would respond to extreme temperatures in the natural environment, so the room wouldn’t get too dangerously hot if one limited their time inside. By the time Tony arrived, limbs and heads were steadily emerging from the ice. He would have to request to see Shapanka’s ice-making blaster, but it wasn’t likely he was using liquid nitrogen. He mentally kicked himself for not keeping a better eye on Shapanka, but what happened had happened, with no major damage. The man hadn’t killed anyone, and most of what he had stolen would likely be recovered soon enough.
Tony stepped inside despite the requests for him to stay put. Helpers were hovering over the icy figures with towels and hand-dryers, attempting to revive the people trapped within. The uncovering of the face and mouth seemed to be what brought those frozen back to consciousness. Steve was laid out a platform, a thin sheet of ice on his face and upper body. Happy’s arms were beginning to emerge, but Pepper’s head and shoulders were out. “Tony!” she called in distress.
He rushed over to her. “How are you doing?”
“Not well, if you couldn’t tell. Careful!” she snapped at the man who was gingerly patting at her hair. “This feels disgusting!” She narrowed her eyes. “He didn’t get you?”
“Uh, no. Got out just in time. Iron Man took care of Shapanka. He’s in custody now.”
“How convenient that Iron Man just pops whenever you get into trouble!” She fluttered her eyelashes at him, drops of water clinging to them. “Isn’t just so convenient, Tony? Did you use the ‘secret’ staircase to ‘get away’?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Pep. And there is no secret staircase that I’ve ever come across.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re not as secretive as you think.”
A groan and creak echoed from the direction of Steve. Tony glanced at Pepper, who gave a long suffering nod.
Tony rushed over and cleared a couple of attendants away. He placed a hand on Steve’s wet and chilly cheek, and rubbed a thumb over his eyelids. Steve’s straw-colored hair was plastered to his face, and was still half-encased in ice.
His eyes flickered open. Tony only had a second to register the absence of recognition before Steve wrenched himself from the ice.
It was a marvelous feat, or it would have been, if Tony hadn’t been so terrified. It was inhuman, the way Steve shattered the rest of the ice with nothing more than the power of his own body. His nostrils were dilated, and his eyes were filled with a crazed light, like that of a cornered animal. He spiraled through the air and landed on his feet, sticking the landing then immediately falling into a protective battle stance. His voice sounded terrified and lost, but rang with authority:
“Where am I? How did I get here? Who are you?”
“Steve, it’s just me! It’s Tony!” He held his hands up, indicating he was unarmed.
Steve blinked. “Tony . . . ? Tony! Oh my god –“ Steve trembled and fell to his knees. “What – what happened?”
“Jack Frost froze you,” Tony said as he approached slowly. Steve was staring at his hands. “Do you remember?”
“I – “ Steve gulped. “Yes. Pepper got frozen, then Happy. I went to get you, but you weren’t there. But Iron Man was.” He looked up, his eyes like heat-seeking missiles. “How did Iron Man get there so fast?”
“Trap door,” Tony reeled off. “He was down in the labyrinth, waiting for me to give him a tune-up. I went down, he came up.”
“Why was he waiting?”
“He didn’t want to interrupt us.”
Steve still looked dubious, but shook it off, curling in on himself and cradling his head in his hands. Tony took a blanket from one of the helpers and shooed them away. He carefully draped it over Steve’s shoulders. “Thank you for going out there to stall him. It gave me and Iron Man just enough time to trade places.”
Steve nodded morosely. “Don’t mention it.”
It was unreal seeing Steve like this, haunted and defeated. Steve was . . . not solid, not yet. He was even-keeled, and had the potential to be solid. Something was holding him back, a combination of the past and whatever disappointment he felt in himself for not doing what he felt he should. But it was plain wrong seeing Steve Rogers, crumpled and broken.
Steve didn’t seem to be up for much discussion, so Tony carefully sat down next to him and draped an arm around him, and very gently, began massaging his upper arm. Happy’s face had melted, if his disgruntled shouts were anything to go by.
Steve was shivering. “You alright?”
“Just – don’t like ice.”
“Ah. Do you . . . wanna get out of here?” Tony asked, wincing at his awkwardness.
“Just – can I have a moment?”
“Take all the time you need.”
Steve made a pitiful noise when Tony took his arm away, so Tony took the opportunity to wrap himself around Steve’s side, rubbing both hands along Steve’s arm. Trying to warm him up, or so he told himself.
He knew that Steve wasn’t going to let this rest. He was smart, far smarter than some might give him credit for. Happy didn’t suspect a thing, and Pepper was happy enough playing ignorant, but Steve would never let it lie and take Tony’s bullshit excuses. He would try and get to the bottom of this, and as long as Tony wanted to keep his secrets, he would have to keep himself from making any more mistakes. But in his gut, Tony knew: Steve would figure it out, someday, one way or another. It was only a matter of time.
Hopefully he would find out about Tony being Iron Man before he found out how Tony felt about him.
Steve let out a broken laugh out of nowhere. “What’s funny?”
“Oh, nothing. Just remembering how you said you got caught up in Iron Man’s business plenty. You weren’t kidding.” Steve smiled at him, indulgent and maybe a little longing.
“Mmm,” Steve murmured drowsily. “You smell like lavender.”
Most definitely screwed.