The one thing they could all agree on, when it was over, was that it had been Peter's fault.
(And Jan's fault, Peter had insisted. But it had been mostly Peter's fault.)
The Avengers had found themselves with some all-too-rare downtime, and they partied as hard as they fought. Here, finally, was a Saturday night where the knock on the front door of the tower was the pizza delivery guy -- and not Skrulls, or Mandroids, or Ultron, or the Melter, or anyone nefarious at all. They could relax, and so they definitely had. It was getting on to the early hours of Sunday morning. The coffee tables and kitchen counters were piled high with demolished, grease-stained pizza boxes and half-crushed empty soda cans.
Tony yawned and glanced speculatively at the other Avengers. Ororo was solidly asleep, curled up on the farthest armchair, cape pulled over herself. Steve had levered himself up from the seat next to Tony and was starting to collect the stray cans from around the room. Peter hung upside-down from the ceiling, swaying slightly on a web line; Tony wasn't sure whether he was actually asleep, what with the mask, but he didn't seem to be in imminent danger of falling. Good enough. Bruce had excused himself a few hours ago and was undoubtedly asleep now.
Jan, of course, was as energetic as ever. Logan, on the other side of the coffee table from her (and Tony), was as energetic as he ever got, which was to say that he was his usual terse, gruff and laconic self. Lovely.
Logan was indeed awake, though. Awake and talking. Something something second world war. Tony wasn't really following.
"So that's the story, bub," Logan said to Jan, finishing the anecdote, and he raised his half-empty bottle in a lazy toast before slugging back most of it.
"Mmph," Peter said, sleepily, and Tony supposed he was awake after all. "Hey, how come you call her bub?"
Logan glared upwards, which had the effect of making him roll his eyes. "I call everyone bub, bub. It ain't personal."
"I'm not offended," Jan assured him.
"Bet you you couldn't stop calling us bub, if you had to." Peter's voice was bright, cheerful. Daring. It was a dare.
Logan took a long, contemplative sip of his beer. "Could if I had to." He shrugged. "Not really seeing why I have to."
"Same reason people climb Everest. Same reason you're a superhero." Peter's hands came off the web line, and he drew out a wide stripe in front of his masked face like he was showing off a grand vision. "Because you can."
And then Jan leaned forward, animated. Her eyes sparkled. "No," she said, and she had a expression on her face that Tony recognized. He'd seen it... in the mirror. Bright-eyed and in the grip of genius. It was the look that usually earned him a goddammit, Tony, whatever you're thinking of is going to be incredibly foolhardy from Steve. "Not just because you can. Because of your pride. Because of your honor." Her voice lowered, conspiratorially. "Because of the money."
Raising an eyebrow, Tony sat up. He was definitely curious about where this was going now.
"Oh?" Logan set his bottle down with a clunk. "The money?"
"The money!" Jan said, eagerly. "We'll put a jar on the kitchen counter." Her hand flailed out, pointing, in the direction of where Steve was standing in the kitchen, a pile of empty pizza boxes in his arms. "Like a swear jar, but for nicknames. And it isn't fair if it's just you, of course, so we'll do it too. All of us."
She looked around the room to gauge the impact of her suggestion.
Ororo stuck her head up. Her hair was mussed. "This is agreeable."
"Wait, wait, wait." Peter was holding up -- or down, Tony supposed -- his hands. "I'm gonna need some more details before I decide."
Jan pursed her lips. "Let's make it a week. Let's start tomorrow. To make it extra fun, we can tally up how much each person contributes. All money collected goes toward the next team pizza party."
"Yeah," Peter said. "About that. I think we can all agree that we have disparate levels of funds--" he tilted his head at Tony-- "so a bet that makes us all pay out the same for each infraction is going to hit some of us harder than others. Financially speaking."
"Good point." Jan tucked her hair behind her ear as she thought. "All right. Penalties are commensurate with individual wealth. So, Peter, you pay a quarter, or even a dime, or whatever you think is fair -- but Tony, you better not cough up anything less than a dollar. Possibly more. Depends on the severity of the offense."
"Hey!" Tony said.
"Fair's fair, billionaire."
Logan leaned back and grinned. "Now we're gettin' interesting."
"So you're in?" she asked.
"I'm in," Peter said.
Well, if everyone else was in, far be it for Tony not to play, and play to win. He was an Avenger, after all. A healthy streak of competitiveness was practically a team requirement. But there were a few things he wanted to know first.
"I'm going to need some more clarification," Tony said. "What exactly counts as a nickname? Because I love you all dearly, but if you're going to call me Anthony for a whole week, I will not be a happy man." He grimaced at the mere thought of it.
Jan frowned. "Hmm. How about this?" she offered. "The names that are allowed are code names, first, middle, or last names, and nicknames that people would consider reasonable shortenings of first names. No nicknames of code names allowed. So you can call me Giant-Girl, Janet, Jan, or even Van Dyne. But you cannot, for example, call me Jan Van Divine." Her mouth twitched, like she was trying to be stern but wanted to burst out laughing.
"Hush," Tony said, and he turned to Jan, betrayed. "One time! It was one time! Come on, you'd just saved New York from rampaging gelatinous cubes! I was-- I was ebullient!"
She giggled. "You were indeed." And then she straightened up. "So: first names, normal first-name nicknames, middle names, last names, code names. All other forms of address or reference are unacceptable." Her pronouncement was mock-dire, threatening. "And that includes 'bub,' bub," she added, in Logan's direction.
"Hmph." Logan nodded. "All right. But my name's still Logan, then," he added, and Tony suddenly remembered how he'd actually signed the Avengers forms and guessed he didn't want to be James Howlett this week, in much the same way as Tony did not want to be Anthony.
Peter's mask scrunched up like he was squinting. "Wait, what's your name if it's not Logan?"
Logan scowled. "I have to explain secret identities to you?"
"Okay." Peter held up his hands, as he continued to dangle upside-down. "Never mind."
"Steve!" Tony called across the room, and Steve turned around to look at him.
"What do you think of this?"
"I think it's good for team morale," he called back, without missing a beat, and, wow, that was definitely one of those phrases on Tony's top ten list of The Most Captain-America Things That Captain America Could Say. Tony smiled to hear it. "I'm in," Steve added.
But he sounded a little hesitant when he agreed. Strange. He was probably just worried about winning, Tony told himself. It wasn't like Steve wasn't exactly as competitive as the rest of the team.
"What?" Tony asked, smirking. "Oh, you know you're gonna lose, huh, Cap?"
Steve dropped the last of the pizza boxes in the pile with the rest of the cardboard for recycling, stood up, and turned around again. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his grin was all astonishment. "Tony, don't tell me you don't know who this is going to hit hardest."
Steve stared at him. His mouth was open a little, slackly, in disbelief.
Tony glanced around the room. Every single Avenger was staring at him.
Oh, no, no, no. No. Nuh-uh. Nope. No way.
A smile twitched at the corner of Steve's mouth. "Tony, have you ever listened to yourself? Did you hear what you just called me? You nickname everyone. Constantly."
"I do not."
"Yeah, you kind of do," said Jan, the utter traitor, and Tony glared. "It's sweet."
Tony glared again.
"It's not a bad thing," Steve started to say, holding up his hands, placating, but Tony cut him off.
"I'll show you!" Tony shot back. "I'll show you all. I am going to win this. You just watch me."
Jan leaned over and patted his hand. "Yes, Tony."
"We'll definitely watch you," Steve added, grinning.
He was a genius. A genius. So maybe he liked to call people by nicknames every so often. It certainly wasn't as much as they were making it sound like. It couldn't be. But he could stop for a week. This was mind over matter, and he had plenty of mind to go around. All he had to do was apply himself, and he'd win. He'd obviously win.
It would be easy.
The next morning, there was a huge glass jar in the middle of the kitchen counter. A piece of paper that read NICKNAME JAR (in Jan's swirly handwriting) was taped to it. Little pink hearts and flowers adorned the edges. A few coins sparkled at the bottom of the jar already. It was exceedingly cheerful, Tony thought, and that was about all the enthusiasm he could muster up for it before coffee. There was a legal pad and a pencil sitting next to the jar, like an Avenger had abandoned it there; unusual, because Steve was usually tidier than that. Someone had to be, in a tower with seven people.
The only two people in the kitchen were Steve and Jan; Jan was at the table polishing off a piece of toast, and Steve was standing next to the door, leaning against the wall, arms folded. His lips were pursed and his eyes sparkled with some kind of suppressed emotion as he regarded Tony. Like he was waiting for Tony to do something -- though what it was, Tony had no idea.
Whatever. It would all make sense after coffee, Tony told himself, and he headed to the carafe, greeting his teammates. "Morning, Jan. Morning, Cap."
"Yessssss," Jan said, pumping her fist in the air, a triumphant grin breaking across her face. "I told you."
The look in Steve's eyes was definitely amusement now, and a smile finally flitted across his lips. Still leaning against the wall, he raised a lazy hand, pointing at the jar. "Pay up, Tony."
"Pay up," Steve repeated, still smiling. "That's not my name."
Tony rewound the past ten seconds in his head while pouring himself coffee. Oh. Huh.
"It's like your name?" Tony tried, but he knew somehow that he wasn't going to have a lot of luck with this particular line of argument.
"It's not my name," Steve repeated.
"It's a title," Tony said, determined. "It's a rank. Honorably earned."
Steve shook his head. "Captain is a rank. You can call me that if you really want to. But Cap is a nickname. Not allowed." He was still grinning, damn him; he was clearly delighting in one-upping Tony.
"Fine," Tony said, slurping his coffee, mug cradled in his left hand. "You win, Captain." His other hand went to his hip and encountered only fuzzy flannel. "But I left my wallet in my actual pants."
"Oh, that's no problem," Steve said, still looking inestimably pleased with himself. He had a lovely smile, Tony thought. Tony always enjoyed when Steve was happy, although he kind of wished it weren't at his expense.
Jan washed her toast down with orange juice and smiled a bright smile. "That's what the list is for." She stood up and headed across the kitchen to the jar.
The list? Bewildered, Tony followed.
The top sheet of the paper was divided into sections, each box bearing an Avenger's name and a total: Jan, $0.25. Ororo, $0.25. Logan, $0.50. The two women of the team had one tally mark each; Logan had two. The sections for Peter, Bruce, Steve, and Tony himself were blank.
"We're keeping a running tab," Jan said. "As well as a numerical score. Best way to handle the accounting. Peter's not up yet. And Bruce said he'd participate too, when he came down for breakfast, but it didn't seem fair to penalize him for anything he'd said before he started playing."
Tony sighed. "Okay. Put me down for a dollar. I'm a man of my word."
Jan made a neat tally mark under Tony's name in the box and wrote "$1.00 - owed" underneath it.
"Logan called me bub as well as Cap," Steve volunteered from across the room. "That's why he's up to fifty cents already."
Realization dawned suddenly. "Steve. You get up at six."
"Yeah," Steve agreed, a little warily.
"It's eight," Tony said.
"Yes," Steve said, with more certainty this time. "What about it?"
"You've been standing in the kitchen since six o'clock," Tony said, incredulous, "waiting for your hapless teammates to come by and call you 'Cap' so they can put a quarter in the jar just because they said good morning to you."
A wide, wide grin split Steve's face, and his eyes lit up with delighted amusement. "Mmmmmaybe." He paused. "Might have been more like seven. I went for a run first."
"You conniving bastard," Tony said, annoyance, affection, and admiration mixing together and blooming bright, somewhere beneath his ribcage.
There was about five seconds of dead silence, and then Steve said, "That'll be another dollar."
"What the hell?" Tony said. "That's not even a nickname."
"It's not my name," Steve said, his voice firm. "And the rules said all other forms of address were unacceptable. That includes insults."
Tony's gaze went to Jan, desperately. Jan's mouth was a wavering line, like she was trying not to giggle. Well, Tony thought, at least someone thinks this is funny.
"Jan," Tony pleaded. "I need you to adjudicate here."
Jan patted him on the shoulder. "Sorry, Tony," she said. "I think Steve's got a point. Those were the rules."
"Fine," Tony said, a little more sourly this time. "Put another dollar on my tab."
Grinning cheerfully, Jan added another tally mark and changed the 1 into a 2.
Okay, so he'd gotten off to a rough start, but there was plenty of room for improvement, right? He had the whole week. He'd just have to be extra-vigilant, that was all. He could remember not to call Steve Cap. He could definitely do that. He was a genius.
There were loud, fast footsteps on the stairs, and then Peter came clattering into the kitchen, a messenger bag slung across his shoulder, obviously out of breath.
"I'm late, I'm late, I'm late," Peter was chanting. "Gotta run, just want to grab a granola bar -- oh, hi, Jan, Tony, Cap -- gotta go, gotta go, gotta swing--"
"Put a nickel in the jar before you go," Steve said, and Tony watched as Peter's face fell.
"Dammit," Peter said, and fished a coin out of his pocket, lobbing it at the nickname jar from across the room. Of course it landed inside. The Avengers, generally speaking, had excellent aim. It came with the job. "I guess that isn't your name, huh?" His mouth was twisted, his expression rueful.
"Nope," Steve agreed, with the same cheerful air he'd displayed at Tony's mistake.
"We should have done a swear jar at the same time," Jan said, contemplatively, as she scrawled down a tally mark for Peter. "We could have made so much more money, if we're going to swear every time we mess up."
Tony grinned. It was a good idea, but-- "Not sure we'd all be up for even more payouts." He glanced at Peter; Peter was the one who'd objected to the cost, after all. "Isn't that right, Spidey?"
Peter, Jan, and Steve all stared back, and Tony realized what he'd just said. Steve pointed silently at the jar again, and somehow the silence was the worst of the indignities.
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Tony said, as he watched Jan update his entry while Peter ducked back out of the room, granola bar acquired. How in the world was he going to remember that one?
Jan put the pencil down. Tony was up to three dollars now and he'd been out of bed for fifteen minutes.
"We definitely needed a swear jar," Jan said.
Tony spun back and forth in his office chair, animated by the general unfairness of the universe.
"--and I'm asking you, Pep," Tony said, holding out his hands, imploring. "How is that even fair, Pepper? I mean, Cap is practically his name anyway!"
Pepper looked at him in silence. Then she tilted her head. "That's two more dollars, Tony."
Tony contemplated this remark for a few seconds, as the true horror of it filtered into his brain.
"Oh my God, no," he said. "You're not even playing, Pep! Pepper! Come on."
"That's another two. Jan warned me before you showed up," she said, with a grin. "I'd just like to inform you that Pep is a nickname of a nickname, Tony. Do you even know my name? What about the rest of your friends? How about Happy? Or Rhodey?"
"Your name is Virginia," Tony said, obstinately, "and you don't even like it. And that would be my friends Harold and James you're referring to." He paused to savor his victory. "See? See? I can do this."
It had taken him maybe longer than was reasonable to come up with Happy's actual name.
Okay, so maybe he had a lot of nicknames for his friends.
That didn't mean that he couldn't win this, though. He was just... starting with a disadvantage. Yeah. That was the way to think about this. He could overcome the odds. Come from behind. Win this silly team contest.
"If you say so." She dropped a small stack of papers on his desk. "Read and review, boss."
"That's not my name, Pep."
She grinned. "Oh, I'm not playing. That's you. And that's another dollar."
"Goddammit," Tony said, as Pepper smiled sweetly and left.
This was going to be harder than he'd thought.
At the end of the first day, everyone except Steve had fucked up a few times on "Cap" and "Spidey," Logan had accumulated two dollars in quarter penalties inadvertently calling everyone bub at least once... and Tony was up to forty bucks, easy. He'd waited until the end of the day to settle up so he could use larger bills. He'd had a feeling that was probably what was going to be called for, after he'd racked up ten dollars talking to Pepper alone.
The worst thing about it was that the overwhelming majority of Tony's failures had been due to Steve, Steve whose box on the tally sheet in the kitchen was still perfectly blank, mocking him. Steve hadn't even messed up with Spider-Man's nicknames, and that had gotten literally everyone else on the team. Even Peter had accidentally called himself Spidey over dinner.
Oh, Steve himself hadn't mocked him. Other than the incident this morning where he'd waited for everyone -- which seemed in retrospect like it had been a test, Captain America wanting to know how his team responded -- Steve hadn't tried to trap him into it. He had, in fact, been unfailingly kind to him about it. Which was maybe worse, because this meant that Tony's disgraceful score was entirely his own doing.
The problem was Steve. The problem was that he just had too damn many nicknames for Steve. It wasn't just "Cap," it was "Winghead," and it was "old man" and -- weirdly enough -- "apple pie," and any of a dozen other names that had come out of Tony's mouth just today, invented on the fly. He didn't have this problem with the others -- well, okay, he did a little -- but with Steve it was a goddamn endless font of creative nomenclature. It was like he couldn't stop inventing names for Steve.
So here it was, ten p.m., and Steve was now the only other person in the kitchen, silently watching as Tony opened his wallet, peeled off forty-three dollars and dropped it into the nickname jar.
"I don't even want to hear it," Tony said, as he left the "$43.00" on his square but erased the line that said "owed."
Steve raised his hands. "I'm not saying anything."
"It's brutal," Tony said, on a sigh. He looked enviously at Steve's entry, which was still empty. $0.00. "You have any tips, C-- Captain?"
Steve's mouth twitched, and it was obvious he knew what Tony had been about to say. "Constant vigilance." He pronounced the words with grave authority, as if he were issuing orders in the field. And then he looked dubiously at the jar. "Also maybe not talking to whoever it is who's causing you to make so many mistakes."
"Not an option," Tony said, instantly. "I like you too much."
He... hadn't quite meant to say that.
"Uh," Tony said. "I mean." But there wasn't really anything else he did mean, was there? He meant the sentiment. He just hadn't meant to give voice to it. You didn't just-- you didn't just tell people you cared about them, just like that. They'd find some way to use it against you. Okay, maybe not Steve, but someone would.
Steve's smile now was a little awkward, but still bright and earnest, because he was Steve Rogers and he was nothing if not completely earnest. "No, no, it's okay." Steve's voice was gentle. "Thanks, Tony. That means a lot." And then his gaze darted away. "Well, uh, it's late, so I'm going to--"
"Yeah," Tony agreed, relieved, as Steve turned and headed for the door. "Sleep well. Night, Cap!" he called after him.
Then he rewound the last few seconds of the conversation.
"Fuck," Tony said, very precisely, and he reached for his wallet again.
It turned out to be excellent that he'd gone to bed early, because a call to assemble went out at eight a.m. sharp. Tony was the last one into the briefing room, after he'd armored up, and he already knew it wasn't going to be good.
"--so, like, a dragon-dragon?" Peter was asking. "Or--"
"How many kinds of dragons are there, bub?" came Logan's unenthused answer.
The laughter now was from -- Bruce, maybe? "That's a quarter for you, Wolverine."
The gaze Steve turned on Tony as Tony entered, faceplate still pushed up, was a combination of get me the hell out of here and can you believe that this is what I have to work with?
Tony tossed off a mock-salute and leaned back against the doorway, shoulder plating solidly planted against the doorframe, and he watched as Steve rose to his feet and every eye in the room turned toward him. It was that Captain America magic. He just-- made you want to follow him.
"Listen up, Avengers," Steve said. "Yes, it's a dragon. From space. A space dragon. Nothing we haven't dealt with before, right? Stay cool, stay calm, don't get carried away. It's at the north end of Central Park; the priority is keeping civilians clear and hopefully preventing the dragon from causing too much damage."
"You mean setting things on fire," Tony said.
Steve nodded. "Exactly." He gestured to Ororo, who inclined her head in return. "Luckily, that shouldn't be much of a problem, with the water-related talent at our disposal."
Ororo smiled. "Of course I will call rain, Captain."
"The goal," Steve said, looking at the rest of the team again, "is non-lethal containment. Bruce, I'd like you out of this one; the Fantastic Four are already working on some kind of dimensional solution to get the dragon out of the city, and I think we're better served if you liaise with Reed, rather than, uh."
"Smash things," Bruce supplied, with a faint smile.
"Right. That." Steve looked around the room. "There are also space rocks today in Central Park, in a more southerly location. The scientists are still working on those, so the secondary goal is also to keep the dragon clear of them. We'll run a standard pattern. Spider-Man on infrastructure and crowd control as necessary, all other ground fighters -- Giant-Girl, Wolverine, that's you -- with me on direct ground assault. Storm, as I said, on fire watch." He glanced at Tony. "Iron Man, that means we're counting on you for aerial back-up. If this creature goes airborne--"
It was just a dragon. He could do this. Of course he could.
"You can always count on me," Tony said, and he remembered just in time not to add a nickname to the end of the sentence.
This was going to be easy -- not like the silly nickname thing. This was his job. His avocation. His calling. He could definitely handle this.
On the plus side, they could tell where the dragon was right away.
On the minus side, this was because a large number of trees were already on fire when they got there.
And then, of course, there was the nickname thing.
Steve hefted his shield. "Giant-Girl, Wolverine, with me! Iron Man and Storm, you're airborne. Spider-Man, hit the perimeter," he added, as Bruce headed south to the scientists.
"Aye-aye, Cap," Jan said, and then, "Dammit."
"That's a quarter!" Peter whooped over the comms.
The dragon was what Tony liked to think of as your classic type of dragon -- big, green, and scaly. It had wings, but they were pinned to its sides, mostly. It tried to flap a few times but obviously didn't have the space for takeoff, although its strategy for remedying that appeared to be to burn and then to knock over all of the trees that might possibly get in its way.
As Tony rose into the air, he could see Steve, Logan and the rapidly-growing Jan trying to keep the dragon penned in, which was harder than it looked, as the dragon seemed to be determined to stomp its way across Central Park, surrounded by its own firestorm.
Logan swore. "We're gonna need some rain, Stormy."
"Another quarter!" Peter yelled, cheerfully.
"Shut up, kid!" Logan snarled, as he leapt forward, claws out, and slashed a shallow cut down the dragon's thigh. It seemed to have no effect on the dragon's forward progress in general.
Above him, it started to rain, and the dragon snarled. Its lashing tail broke a few more trees.
"That's a nickname too," Peter said, still cheerful.
Logan's reply was an anatomically-improbable suggestion, and Tony suspected that Jan really had been right about a swear jar being a good idea.
And then a burning tree nearly fell on Tony.
"Whoa!" Tony called out over the open comms and threw himself backwards a few feet in the air. Not that he couldn't take the hit in the suit, but-- he didn't really want to take the hit at all.
Below him, the interplay of Jan, Logan, and Steve trading off blows on the ground stuttered to a halt, as Steve stared upwards and missed catching his shield entirely.
"Tony?" Steve's voice in his ear was all concern. "You all right there, Shellhead?"
"I'm fine," Tony said, automatically, because he was, and besides, Steve had no call to be getting protective like that. He was totally fine. And then he realized what Steve had said, and he grinned jubilantly behind the mask, taking his gaze away from the boring readouts of his projected flight path. "Oh my God. That was a nickname. You finally used a nickname! You finally-- oh, fuck, timber, look out below--"
That was when Tony actually smacked into the second falling, burning tree face-first.
"Tony!" Steve's yell of distress echoed over the comms.
He twisted in midair, blinked away the stars in his vision, and tried to ignore the ringing in his ears from his head rattling around the helmet. IMPACT ALERT, the HUD said. Yeah. Real helpful.
Luckily, the tree didn't land on anyone else, and Ororo helpfully extended her rainstorm to cover it.
He soared up above the trees and pulled up, straight up, to floating -- wavering, but upright. "I'm good, I'm good," he rasped, coughing. "Just an idiot sometimes."
"You're not an idiot," Steve said, and the HUD indicated that Steve had switched to private comms. "Just -- straighten up and fly right, hey, Tony?"
"Got it," Tony said, and he cut the boot jets, dove back in, and flipped the comms back to allcall. "Hey, team, maybe I could get some help with the falling trees, yeah? Want to come web them so they don't hit anyone, Spidey?"
"Nickname!" Jan yelled -- not even over the comms, because she was approximately twenty feet tall and very, very audible.
"Fuck," Tony said. "Okay, Peter, want to come play lumberjack?"
"Don't use my name!" Peter yelped, panicked.
"He's sorry, Webhead," Jan said, at full Giant-Girl volume.
Logan tilted his head up at her. "Nickname!"
Tony was briefly very grateful for the fact that no one else had access to Avengers comm channels, because this-- this was a mess of epic proportions.
Below him, Steve punched the dragon right in the face with his shield.
It didn't seem to do anything. In fact, the dragon seemed even more determined to keep moving, pushing its way south through the park.
"Avengers!" Steve yelled, in his seriously-pissed, done-taking-all-your-shit, scary-team-leader voice. "We are fighting a battle and if you could just lay off the nickname thing for one goddamn second, for God's sake. Just until the end of this mission. Call anyone whatever you like, and I will put fifty dollars in the goddamn jar myself if it will get you all to shut up and fight."
There was nothing on the comms but stunned silence.
"Wow," Peter said, because of course he was the first to speak. "On my way, Captain Angry."
"The dragon's angrier," Tony observed, watching the creature push past Logan and Jan again.
Tony could just barely see Peter swinging in, web lines dangling from the trees, a red and blue blur of motion.
"Yeah, well, Smaug's probably just mad someone took his ring," Peter retorted, and clearly he was going to win Nerdy References Bingo for the day.
"Are you even allowed to nickname the dragon?" Tony asked, watching the dragon stomp southward.
"Yes," Ororo put in, unexpectedly. "The dragon is not a participant."
"Tony." Steve's voice crackled with dire warning.
"Hey, that one wasn't even my fault."
"Don't encourage him."
"You all know I'm actually a legal adult, right?" Peter asked, as he ineffectually shot a few webs at the still-rampaging dragon.
Tony was only half paying attention to the banter as he watched the dragon's progress. The dragon was still heading south, like the Avengers just kept getting in its way, pesky annoyances. South. South. What was south? Well, today, space rocks, apparently.
Space rocks. Space dragon.
"Hey, Steve?" Tony asked, keying into the private line again. "Those space rocks that Bruce and everyone are working on -- what did they look like? Do you know?"
Confused, Steve tilted his head way back and frowned up at him. "I saw a couple pictures. Round-ish. Big. Kind of glittery. Why?"
Yep. That was it.
"Would you say," Tony said, drawing the question out, "that they looked like eggs?"
Steve stopped dead and grinned up at him. "You're a genius."
Tony smiled down at him, behind the mask, glowing warm with the praise. "I try."
"Avengers!" Steve yelled. "Let the dragon go! Someone tell the scientists to get out of her way!"
"What the hell?" Logan said.
Steve lowered his shield and stepped back from the dragon. "She doesn't want to hurt us! We're keeping her from her eggs!"
The dragon's roar now, as she headed south unimpeded, sounded like gratitude.
The dragon had been quickly reunited with her eggs. She was curled happily around them, harming no one, and the Avengers were now -- as always -- smiling for the camera. Tony pushed his faceplate up, grinned and waved at the reporters... and then he stepped back with the rest of the team and let Steve field the questions. Steve was the team leader, after all. Everyone always wanted to talk to Captain America.
And besides, Steve liked it. Tony -- well, Tony had had to learn public speaking from an early age, but Steve had clearly been born with the raw talent. He was a natural orator, and he could always be counted on for a crowd-pleasing speech. Something that played well in the papers, too, no matter how much J. Jonah Jameson tried to twist it.
They were just about done, thank God. Tony could get out of the suit and take a shower. He was looking forward to it. Steve had explained what they'd done to the gathering of reporters, and well -- there wasn't much more any of them could say, was there? It had been an easy morning. All in a day's work for Earth's mightiest heroes.
"Cap! Cap!" one of the reporters shouted. "Over here!"
Steve nodded at him and adjusted the mic clipped to the neck of his uniform. "Yes?"
"But how did it occur to you," the reporter asked, "that the dragon was merely protecting her eggs?"
"Oh, that?" Steve favored the crowd with his best innocent look. "That was all Iron Man. Entirely due to his genius." And he turned back to Tony and smiled a wide, wide smile, brilliant and happy, a smile that made something go funny somewhere in Tony's stomach. "My best friend. Couldn't have done it without him. So, really, I owe it all to good ol' Shellhead."
He stepped back, next to Tony, and slung an arm around his shoulder, smiling.
Tony smiled back, feeling like he was still flying, and then he remembered--
"Hey, Steve," he murmured. "Mission's over."
"Yeah." Steve squinted at him, but he kept smiling, easy and fond and warm. "What about it?"
His grin now turned triumphant, Tony held out a hand, palm-up. "My name's not Shellhead. Pay up."
He watched as Steve's face fell, the smile wiped off it completely, his expression twisted into something like anger or maybe sadness. Tony had no clue what was going on here. It was just the bet. What had he said wrong?
"God fucking dammit, Tony," Steve snarled, low and miserable.
And that was how they all found out that Steve's mic was still live.
When Tony came upstairs to the common area, there wasn't anyone else in the kitchen, and the nickname jar now contained a crisp fifty; Steve had, of course, been dead serious, because Captain America didn't just say things like that lightly. But, hey -- at least that meant Tony was no longer losing the bet. He glanced around the common area; he could see from here that the television was blaring away, on the far side of the room, tuned to one of those twenty-four hour news channels. The banner along the bottom read CAPTAIN AMERICA... OR CAPTAIN POTTYMOUTH?
Tony cackled and dropped five bucks in the jar preemptively, because, God, it would so be worth it to get to call Steve Captain Pottymouth. That was a good one. That was worth at least five dollars, definitely. Maybe ten.
He saw the tips of Steve's headwings sticking up, over on the couch by the TV, and there was someone sitting next to him, though he couldn't quite tell who it was from the back of their head.
"Hey, Captain Pottymouth!" Tony called out, heading closer. Steve didn't even put his head up. "Don't worry," he added, "I already paid to call you that-- oh."
Jan was sitting next to Steve, turned toward him, concern writ on her face. She'd been leaning over and holding Steve's hand, comfortingly. And Steve -- God, Steve looked awful. His face was pale and drawn, and his eyes were red-rimmed, like he'd been crying. Crying? About this?
"Look," Tony said, awkwardly. "It's okay. It's a silly bet. Everyone makes mistakes."
But this hadn't been the right thing to say, apparently, because Steve's face just went still and cold, remote, a thousand miles away. What the hell?
"I'll have to put out a press release," Steve said, and he didn't even meet Tony's eyes. "Issue an apology right away, for my unprofessional language. I should-- I should get started on that. Bye, Jan. Bye, Tony."
And then he was practically running out the door.
Steve had hardly looked at him. Steve hadn't even said hello to him.
Tony glanced at Jan, who looked up at him, wide-eyed and stricken.
"Okay," Tony said, completely adrift, "did I miss something here?"
Jan just looked at him. "Tony, you were right there. He called you Shellhead."
"Yeah," Tony said, still confused. "So he messed up. Used a few nicknames. He did during the fight as well. It's not a big deal. It's just a stupid bet. Hell, I've fucked up a ridiculous number of times and we're only on day two."
Jan stared at him like he'd given an answer so wrong that she didn't even know how to begin to address it. "You really don't see it, do you?"
"Tony," she said, patiently. "Which of us did Steve nickname, during the interview?"
He had no idea where she was going with this. "Me."
"And which of us did he nickname during the fight?"
"Well, at least me." Tony shrugged. "Probably other people too, I mean, why are you even--"
Jan held up her hand. "It's just you, Tony."
"It's just you," she repeated. "Steve is only nicknaming you. Didn't you notice that?"
Bewildered, Tony shook his head. "No. I didn't. But why in the world would he--"
Jan interrupted him again. "Because he likes you." Her mouth twisted. "He cares about you, okay, Tony? And even though it is a silly bet, right now he's listening to you mock him and tell him that what he said -- which he said because he cares about you -- was a mistake, and he thinks you want to make him feel like dirt for it."
Tony stared back at her, wordless in sheer surprise. He thought maybe his mouth was hanging open.
What the hell was he supposed to do with that?
He knew what a better man would have done: find Steve and apologize.
But what was he supposed to say to him? They didn't talk about their feelings. They just didn't do that. And Steve was his friend, of course, his best friend -- and didn't Steve know that? Of course he knew that. What were they supposed to do, hug it out? They didn't do that either, really.
Not that Tony would object.
God, now where had that thought come from?
Anyway, he needed time to think of what to say. Some way to apologize that didn't involve discussing whatever it was they felt for each other, and it wasn't like Steve was going to blame Tony for what was clearly his fault, for what he deserved to take the blame for, so it was just going to be awkward all around.
Sometimes Tony wondered if he would have been better at this kind of thing if his father hadn't walked out on them.
And, wow, that was a depressing thought, even now that Tony had found his father again.
Besides, Tony had been busy, anyway. He'd consulted with Bruce about the dragon eggs, and then he'd had to spend some quality time in the workshop tearing down his current suit and checking for impact damage, because there was only so much he was willing to trust to the onboard diagnostics. So here he was, pulling the suit torso apart in pieces, a pauldron in each hand.
And that was, of course, when he looked up to find Steve leaning on the workshop door, dressed in civvies, hands fisted in his pockets, hunched over like that was going to make him look smaller.
"Hey," Steve said, so softly Tony almost couldn't hear him. "Are you busy? Can I come in?"
Armor pieces still in his hands, Tony spread his arms wide. "I'm all yours."
What? he wondered. Where did that come from?
"Listen," Steve began to say, "I just wanted--"
But Tony was already talking. "Steve, I should have told you--"
They stopped at the same time as well, and Steve smiled faintly at him.
"No," he said. "You first, Tony."
Tony cleared his throat. "Well. Uh. I wanted to apologize for... making you feel uncomfortable. I hadn't realized, and it's entirely my fault, and I'm sorry."
"You didn't do anything you need to apologize for," Steve said, his voice firm. Like he hadn't even had to think about it.
"We can cancel the nickname bet, if you want," Tony offered. He smiled. "Honestly, I'm looking forward to it being over. I-- I really like when you call me Shellhead."
He had no idea where that had come from, either. Apparently he was just going to open his mouth and bizarre truths were going to fall out.
Steve's smile now had turned shy. "I'm glad. And it's kind of you to offer, but I think we can keep the bet going. I wouldn't want to disappoint the rest of the team."
"Well, if you're sure," Tony said, tossing the pauldrons on the nearest workbench and turning his focus to the suit backplate. "No nicknames for the rest of the week. Got it. And then we can return to nicknaming the hell out of each other. Hey, what was it that you wanted to tell me?"
He needed a screwdriver to get the plate off. Dammit. Where had he put that?
"Oh, uh," Steve said. "Nothing. It's not important." He started to edge toward the door, at which point Tony noticed that the bench on Steve's right had the very screwdriver he'd been looking for.
Tony extended a hand. "Before you go, would you hand me that screwdriver there, sweetheart?"
Steve's mouth had fallen open, tilted at the edges, like he wanted to smile but wasn't sure whether he should get his hopes up. There were two bright spots of color high in his cheeks.
Tony's mind was fuzzy noise, a haze of panic, and the words what sweetheart what what what on a feedback loop.
"I, uh," Tony said. "I have no idea why I said that. Oh, God. I'm so sorry."
Steve swallowed hard and smiled a closed-mouth smile. "It's okay, Tony. Sometimes these things happen. Everyone makes mistakes." He picked up the screwdriver, practically darted forward to set it within Tony's reach, and darted back like it had been a live grenade. "I-- I'll just go."
He turned and left, and Tony could hear Steve's footsteps pounding up the stairs.
Tony shoved the armor aside, leaned forward, and dropped his head on the workbench. What the hell was wrong with him?
It was a mistake, he told himself. Just like Steve had said. An honest mistake. An aberration.
He couldn't focus at all for the rest of the afternoon. He just kept hearing what he'd called Steve, echoing in his head.
He scrubbed up and put on a clean shirt for dinner. A nice shirt. Not for Steve. Of course not. He just wanted to look presentable. It was a team thing. A whole-team thing. Definitely.
He was going to keep his mouth shut. He wasn't going to say anything... ill-advised.
And, then, of course, he got upstairs and sat down to dinner with the rest of the team -- Steve and Jan on either side of him, Bruce across from him, and settled in as the rest of the team chattered away. Steve was busily buttering what was probably the first of at least four rolls; if you wanted one at all, it was best to get there before Steve did. Tony shrugged and grabbed one of the rolls Steve hadn't eaten yet off his plate. It wasn't like Steve minded him doing it.
"Steve, honey, can I have the butter when you're done with it?"
Oh God. Not again.
The table went silent.
Wide-eyed, Steve wordlessly set the butter dish down next to Tony's hand.
"Sorry." Not that apologies would ever be enough to cover this. "I'm just not going to say anything else," Tony said, ashamed. "Maybe ever again."
Logan smirked. "That would be refreshingly different," he said. And then there was a thud like someone had kicked him under the table. "Ow."
Ororo smiled serenely.
Dinner was excellent, perfectly-cooked, but Tony ate almost none of it, after that. He just sat there, terrified that if he opened his mouth, who knew what would come out? What if it were worse? What was he even doing?
Oddly, Steve didn't eat much, either.
The thing was, Tony's brain had clearly come up with the wrong solution to the nickname problem. He couldn't use any of the nicknames he usually did, but instead of using none whatsoever, somehow he'd... rerouted. Somehow his brain had interpreted "do not use any existing nicknames for Steve" as "come up with all-new nicknames for Steve." And they were all... well. They were definitely something, all right.
He'd managed to call Steve darling and, unbelievably, sugar, while bidding him good night.
And Steve had just stared back at him, quiet and surprised, the same way he'd been looking at him. It wasn't horror, at least; it was just surprise. Like he'd never expected this. Well, that made two of them.
And, okay, it was odd that everything he was apparently trying to call Steve was so... affectionate. Romantic, one could say. He didn't even think about Steve like that. Steve was his friend. Only his friend. No attraction whatsoever.
Well, that wasn't strictly true -- it wasn't like he didn't know Steve was attractive. But he was Steve. He was Captain America, for God's sake. Surely everyone thought Steve was handsome. Nice to look at. That didn't mean anything. That was completely normal. It had to be.
It still didn't explain the nickname thing, though.
Tony cornered Bruce over breakfast as he was fishing his English muffin out of the toaster. "Hey, can I ask you a question?"
"Go for it." Bruce took a sip of his coffee.
"Do you think Steve is hot?"
The noise Bruce made was a distressing, choking splutter. Tony decided that he had possibly timed this badly.
"Personally?" Bruce asked. His voice was a little raspy. He coughed.
Tony motioned him to continue.
"Well, he's not really my type," Bruce said, sounding a little apologetic, like he was sure this was letting Tony down. "He's a lot more, uh, manly. Than I generally prefer. So I'm going to have to go with no. Not hot."
"Ooh," Peter said, from the doorway. "Are we playing Hot or Not?"
"Morning, Spidey," Bruce said, and then he grimaced and lobbed a quarter into the nickname jar. "I have no idea what we're playing. Ask Tin Man here." And then he grimaced again and threw another quarter. "This is clearly not my morning."
"I wanted to know if Steve was hot."
Bruce was still looking at Tony like he thought it was really strange that Tony was asking, but Peter just shrugged. "Sure, he's hot."
Bruce stared at Peter.
"What?" Peter said. "I'm flexible. He's got great shoulders."
"Yeah," Tony agreed, because if Peter agreed with him, then it wasn't a thing, right? It didn't have to be weird, if they were just two normal guys who agreed that Steve was hot. "He definitely has great shoulders."
Bruce was staring at both of them.
"Who's got great shoulders?" Jan asked. Somehow she'd come in behind him, and Tony turned around to wave at her.
Peter webbed a can of Coke out of the open fridge and lifted it in Jan's direction. "We're talking about Cap's smoking bod. Join us."
Jan grinned. "Sure thing, but that's more money in the jar for you, Peter."
"Fine." Peter threw a dime in. "Tony just wants to know if Steve's hot."
Jan patted Tony on the arm. "You're definitely good enough for him, Tony. You're both very pretty. Just ask him out already."
"What?" Tony said. "No, I-- no, it's not like that. I just wanted to know if other people thought so. You know, like a poll." He looked wildly around the kitchen. "Where is Steve, anyway?"
"Out and about," Bruce said, crunching through his breakfast. "You just missed him. He said he was going to be busy all day. Community service. Local elementary school. He said he'd be back maybe by dinner, but not to wait on his account. Said he could eat by himself."
Tony blinked. "But we had plans. It's Tuesday. We always go out on Tuesdays. We were going to go for lunch in the park and there was that movie he said he wanted to see--"
Bruce shrugged. "I guess he changed his mind."
He didn't see Steve again until well after dinner. It wasn't like he'd been skulking around the common area waiting for him -- he just had a pile of engineering articles to read. He might as well read them with people around. All right, maybe he'd been waiting for Steve. Just a little. But it wasn't like that was a crime. Or weird. He could wait for a friend if he wanted.
A familiar figure in red, white, and blue padded through the doorway, and Tony lifted his head and smiled. Steve smiled back.
"Hey, where'd you go today, big guy?" Tony asked, setting the articles down. So far, so good. No embarrassing nicknames. Check. Okay, so it was a nickname and he now owed the team another dollar, but at least this one wasn't... sweet. He could handle that.
Steve gave a little self-effacing shrug. "Reading books to schoolkids. You know, the usual. Then someone from Damage Control caught me on the way out; they were across the street and they needed some help lifting I-beams."
"But it's Tuesday," Tony said, betrayed, because Steve was making it sound like he'd just scheduled his community service, like the Avengers charter had mandated, without even thinking about their regular... outing. Maybe Steve had forgotten? "I thought we-- I thought it was a thing. Our thing."
Steve glanced away. "I know, but I thought-- I just didn't want to do anything that would make you uncomfortable. And right now that seems to be... everything about my presence."
"No!" Tony said, instantly, because God, it wasn't Steve, it was him, it was all his fault. He hated to think of Steve staying away from him purposefully. "If you really don't mind everything I keep saying, then don't go." Inwardly, he winced, because that was possibly the neediest thing he'd ever said.
Steve smiled a small, slight smile. "Well, then, I'd much rather stay with you. I'm sorry for making you think I didn't want to. We can go catch that movie tomorrow?"
Tony's response was more eager than he'd expected of himself. "Sure, of course, sunshine."
Well. That one could have been better. He resisted the urge to cover his face with his hands.
He watched Steve mouth sunshine? quizzically to himself. Tony would have explained if he'd had any clue where it had come from. But, hey, Steve was still smiling; it couldn't have been that bad.
"Okay," Steve said. "I think I'm going to turn in for the night." He headed for the door.
"Night, beloved!" Tony called after him.
There was dead silence.
Steve turned around. His face was flushed.
"Look," Tony said, desperately, "I think maybe for the rest of the week it would be a good idea if you stopped paying attention to, oh, anything that comes out of my mouth. Good plan? Right? Right."
Steve looked back almost guiltily, still blushing. He scuffed a toe against the floor. Almost too quietly for Tony to hear him, he said, "But I like the words that come out of your mouth."
And then he shot out the door at basically a dead run.
Well. At least they were both going to be bad at feelings.
The next few days were almost normal, except for the names. They went to the movies. They fought the Wrecking Crew. Twice. They finally did get to go out for lunch. And Tony just... couldn't stop with the names. Champ. Kitten. Sweetie. Babe. Pumpkin. Cupcake.
It was... well, at least Steve didn't seem to mind. But he didn't comment on it either; he hadn't since that night. He just went right on like this was what Tony called him, and Tony tiredly dropped a few twenties into the damn nickname jar every night.
And then even those nicknames started to shift, more obviously signifying... something. They were punching MODOC in the face, just like usual, when Tony called out for "tall, blond, and handsome."
Logan, who was standing next to Tony and carving up AIM beekeepers with a snikt-snikt of his claws, hadn't so much as blinked. He turned around and yelled, "Hey, Cap, your Shellhead needs you!"
"Quarter!" Peter yelled, and was resoundingly ignored.
"What?" Tony said, and then rewound the last several sentences of the conversation. "Hey, how do you know I meant Steve?"
"Well, 'tall, blond, and handsome' sure ain't me," Logan said, which, fair enough, he might not even have made five-five in heels, and wow, that wasn't an image Tony had ever needed in his head. "Pretty sure I'm 'short, dark, and ugly.'"
"Also your crush is visible from space," Jan sang out, as she kicked a wall down with one giant foot.
"I don't have a crush," Tony said, automatically, because that was ridiculous. Wasn't it?
Steve froze, and he nearly hit himself in the face with his shield on the rebound.
It was probably a coincidence.
During the debriefing Tony managed to call Steve beautiful and hot stuff without actually trying. Afterwards, they'd all gotten changed and once again Tony had ended up in the kitchen alone with Steve, and Tony called Steve darling three more times while trying to put together sandwiches.
Jesus. It was like he really was attracted to Steve. It was like he liked Steve.
It was like he... liked Steve?
He couldn't, he thought, frantically, and he realized he was still staring at Steve's face. It wasn't-- well, it clearly wasn't normal, was it? It wasn't a normal thing, to be attracted to Steve.
But he wasn't exactly normal either, was he? He was a billionaire engineer who'd designed his own combat armor and flew it into battle with his friends. He wasn't ever going to be normal. And his brain was clearly trying to tell him he was in love with Steve. Hell, given what his brain was coming up with, it was like he was desperately in love with him.
Maybe he should just... go with it. This was who he was.
He liked Steve.
He tested the thought out in his head. He liked Steve. He could do that.
He could definitely do that. It didn't feel weird, or hard to accept, or any of that -- it felt like something he'd known all along. Something that made so much about his life make sense. He liked Steve.
And Steve liked him. Steve had to like him, right?
They were best friends. They did everything together. They went out to movies together. They had a standing date every week -- that wasn't really a date... except maybe it was. And Tony already clearly had the pet name thing down pat. They loved each other. Of course they loved each other. Maybe they'd already been dating for years.
Maybe now was the time to get around to the rest of it.
Steve was staring at him like he was seriously concerned for Tony's welfare. Tony could only imagine what his own face looked like.
"Tony, are you okay?"
"Fine," Tony said. "Peachy keen. I... I had a thought. Going to need to pay up first. One second."
He pushed his plate away, stood up, and walked, very deliberately, over to the nickname jar. Steve was already standing a few feet away from it, and watched him, his gaze curious, but he said nothing.
Tony took out his wallet, peeled off two hundred-dollar bills, and dropped them in the jar, still holding Steve's gaze.
Steve's eyes went wide.
"Hey, Captain Handsome," Tony said, smiling, leaning back against the edge of the counter, "do you want to go out with me?"
His heart was pounding. Oh, he'd asked people out before, but suddenly it seemed like everything was on the line, like he'd never wanted anything or anyone as much as he wanted this, and Steve had to say yes, he had to.
Steve said nothing.
Tony's stomach twisted up.
"Oh," he said, softly. "Oh, I-- I misread the situation. Sorry. My mistake."
And then Steve pulled out a battered leather wallet, grabbed a fistful of cash, and dumped every single bill he had into the jar. He was grinning, a huge beautiful smile, and it was the best thing Tony had ever seen.
"Sure thing, gorgeous," Steve said, like he'd been waiting for months, maybe years. Like he'd just been waiting for Tony to ask. "Let's go out." Then he glanced down at his wallet. "But, uh, you're paying."
"Can do." Tony laughed, stepped close, and dragged their mouths together. Their first kiss, and it was lovely.
"Mmm," Steve murmured, his voice gone low and husky, when they'd broken apart. "I have to confess I'm wondering what you'll call me after the date." His smile was sharp, and it left no doubt as to the circumstances he was envisioning.
Tony knew he'd always loved Steve for his optimism.
"I don't know," Tony said, still grinning, "but let's find out, shall we?"