As soon as Tony had given the team their invitations to the superhero-themed gala, as soon as Jan had proclaimed that wearing their own uniforms was lazy and they should dress up as other superheroes -- well, Steve knew exactly who he wanted to be for the night.
It wasn't even a question.
They were done with breakfast and filing out of the room, and it was just him and Jan left. Tony and the rest of the team (minus Iron Man, who was apparently busy this morning) were already halfway down the hall; he could hear Thor's booming voice from here.
Jan turned, laid a hand on Steve's arm, and grinned. "Only two weeks until the gala, Cap. Make sure to ask Tony soon. He might be busy, but I bet he can free up some time for you."
Steve blinked. "What?"
It wasn't like he was asking Tony as a date, he thought, although that was his instant interpretation of Jan's words, and he went a little hot at the thought of it. Tony had asked them all to come. It wasn't like that.
"For help with your costume, silly," Jan said. "I mean, I'll help you if you want, of course, but that kind of metalwork isn't really my forte. Besides, Tony already has your measurements and the suit specs."
"What?" Steve asked again, totally at sea.
Jan frowned. "Are you trying to tell me you're not dressing up as Iron Man?"
He knew he wasn't any kind of liar, and he wasn't ashamed of his admiration of Iron Man, but at the same time he hadn't thought he was quite so... transparent. How did Jan know? Was it that obvious? What if all of his feelings were just as obvious?
"I," Steve said, stammering. "I, I mean, uh, yes, I-- I wanted to, but. You think I should ask Tony?"
There was a certain kind of sense in it; Tony did make the armor, after all, and if anyone was the authority on outfitting people with an Iron Man suit, it was unquestionably him. Besides, Steve got a little weak in the knees at the thought of going right up to Iron Man and asking for his help pretending to be him for a costume party. Iron Man -- geez, had Tony even invited Iron Man? -- would want to know why. And Steve wasn't at all certain he could look him in the eye and tell him it was because he was Steve's hero, the best person he'd known in this century, and... well, there were maybe a few other feelings there, besides.
Not that asking Tony didn't have its own challenges; Tony had that rare and perfect combination of intelligence, attractiveness and personal magnetism that sometimes made it difficult for Steve to put sentences together when Tony smiled at him. But at least it wasn't like asking Iron Man.
"Sure," Jan said, cheerfully. "Why not? I'm sure he'd be thrilled to help."
"Isn't he busy?" Steve asked. "I mean, he helps out the Avengers, and he fixes up Iron Man, and he runs SI. His schedule is probably booked months in advance. I can't just ask him to drop everything and... help me make a costume for a party."
It was ridiculous, really. An absolutely ridiculous idea, he told himself, even as much less noble parts of him were picturing the rare times he'd seen Tony in his workshop, stripped to his undershirt, threadbare old jeans hanging off his hips--
He coughed and drew himself up.
Jan's hand tightened on Steve's arm, and when she looked up at him, her eyes were wide and earnest. "It's not like that, Cap. Look, I've known Tony for years. He's good people, and I know he likes spending time with you, and--" She stopped and bit her lip, like she wasn't sure if she was betraying a confidence. "Ever since you showed up in our lives, all he wants to do is make you happy. You've always meant a lot to him. He wants you to be happy here, with us. I think he feels like he could do more for you; I know he worries that you don't like it here because you haven't really... asked him for much, other than room and board."
"I don't want to presume, or impose--" Steve began.
"It's not imposing," Jan said. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. Tony likes to do things for people. For his friends. It's what he does. He likes to help people. And if you go to him, and you tell him that there's something that would make you happy, and that it's something he can do for you? That only he can do? He'll be over the moon."
The voices had faded away, down the hall.
"You think so?"
"I know so," Jan said, very firmly. "You go talk to him, okay? I've got to get to the fabric store for my costume."
She darted out the door ahead of him.
"Hey!" Steve called. "Who are you going as?"
"It's a secret!" Jan yelled back, laughing. "But I'm going to need a lot of blue spandex!"
She hadn't mentioned scale mail, so it probably wasn't him. That was a strange thought: another Captain America at the party. He couldn't even imagine running into himself.
It took him until the afternoon to muster up enough courage to talk to Tony; when he did, he finally found Tony in his workshop. Tony's sleeves were rolled up, exposing the elegant wiry musculature of his arms. He was leaning back in his chair gazing thoughtfully at a screen that displayed a spinning schematic Steve didn't recognize.
He took a breath. This was all too silly, wasn't it?
Before he could step away, Tony looked up and smiled, a broad grin that mixed surprise and honest pleasure. "Hey, Cap. Steve, I mean. Hardly ever see you down here.
"Am I interrupting something?" Steve asked, as Tony hit a few keys and the schematic blinked out.
Tony grinned again. "Nothing important, and besides, I've always got time for you." He spread his hands wide. "What can I do for you?"
Steve shifted his weight a little. "I, uh. I had a question. About your superhero gala."
For an instant Tony's face froze, still and sad, and then the smile was back, but somehow less bright. It didn't reach his eyes. "I understand completely. You definitely don't have to come. No worries."
"What? No!" Steve said, dismayed. How could Tony think he didn't want to? "I'll be there. I just, well, I was wondering if you could help me make a costume for it?"
Tony stared at him.
"I mean, only if you're not busy," Steve said, and then he realized how ridiculous that sounded, because of course Tony was busy. "I don't mean to-- I'll just go--"
Tony pushed himself out of his chair and held out a hand. "No, don't go. Of course I'll help. You really want my help?"
Steve nodded. There was a small disbelieving smile on Tony's face.
"Okay. What are you thinking of? Need me to make you Thor's hammer? I don't have uru, of course, but -- oh, or is it Hank's helmet?"
Could Tony really not guess?
Well, Steve told himself, maybe that was good. Maybe that meant his feelings weren't as obvious as he'd thought.
"Iron Man," he said. "I want to be Iron Man."
"Iron Man?" Tony's voice was possibly the most doubtful thing Steve had ever heard. Like he couldn't figure out why in the world Steve would want to dress up as his best friend and favorite Avenger. Like he might have even thought Iron Man wasn't deserving of this.
Steve had honestly thought Tony had a better opinion of his own bodyguard than that.
"Yes," Steve said, firmly, planting his feet and tilting his head up. "Iron Man."
"But... why?" Now Tony just sounded perplexed.
"Because," Steve said. He took a deep breath. "Because he's my hero."
Tony was silent for a long while and didn't meet his eyes. He licked his lips. "I-- okay. Okay. Sure. I'll help. Of course I'll help."
"If it's a problem--" Steve began, but Tony didn't let him finish.
"It's absolutely not a problem," Tony said. He looked a little more sure of himself now, as he relaxed into talking about the technicalities. "I have your measurements from the last time I redid the armoring on your uniform. The mesh on the limbs is the easy part, that'll stretch, and the way the boots and gauntlets fit, they'll stretch too. I have a couple old suits I can part out. The hardest part will be molding and fitting the chestplate; that'll have to be entirely new work. You won't fit m-- Iron Man's. Not with those muscles." He gave Steve's torso a long, considering look, and Steve flushed. "If you don't need it to be combat-ready, I can swap out the usual alloy for something a little lighter." Tony's grin was all delight. "You want repulsors?"
Steve blinked. "You want to build me a working Iron Man suit?"
"Well, yeah." Tony stared. "Isn't that what you wanted me for? That's what I do."
"You really don't have to go to that much trouble for me," Steve said. "I just-- I thought maybe some advice or patterns-- I know you're a busy man, you can't possibly--"
"Steve," Tony said, very patiently. "I like building things, and I'm glad you asked me. I want to do this. It's no trouble. Give me a few days and I'll see what I can come up with. You are going to be the best Iron Man at the gala."
He was probably going to be the only Iron Man at the gala. He couldn't imagine anyone else wanted to show up in armor.
"Okay," he said. "Okay. Thank you. But no repulsors."
Tony mock-pouted at him, and Steve grinned back and left.
It was going to be all right, he told himself. Tony didn't mind. Tony was kind and generous and going to help him. He could work with Tony.
He wondered if Tony was going to have to put his hands all over him to fit the armor, and he shivered.
Four days later, Tony, looking like he'd barely slept for days and had gone ten rounds in the ring, cornered him in the library a little after the Avengers' latest post-battle debriefing. His hair was mussed, there were odd bruises on his face, but he was bright-eyed and grinning.
Jan waved, Hank was absorbed in his books, and Iron Man... huh. Iron Man had been right here a couple minutes ago.
"You should come on by the workshop, Cap," Tony told him. "I've got something for you!"
Hank, in the corner with the biology journals, turned around and lifted his head. "More Avengers gear?"
Tony shook his head. "No, Steve wanted my help with a costume for the gala."
"Oh? What's he being?" Hank asked.
"A pretty pretty princess," Tony said, deadpan, at the same time as Steve said, "Iron Man."
Steve gave Tony his best and sternest Captain America look, folding his arms over his chest.
"The prettiest Iron Man." Tony amended his statement with a grin. Steve couldn't quite tell if it was meant to be flirtatious. "Far prettier than the existing Iron Man."
It occurred to Steve just then that Tony was the only person in the room who knew what Iron Man really looked like, under the mask. Was this his way of warning Steve away? It didn't matter to him what Iron Man looked like.
Jan closed her book and squinted suspiciously at Tony.
"Careful, Tony," Jan said. "You'll break poor Shellhead's heart if you talk about him like that."
It seemed that Tony's smile was, for just an instant, tinged with sadness.
"He can take it," Tony said. "He's had worse."
Steve didn't know what Iron Man's armor looked like when he wasn't wearing it, but he'd always pictured some kind of dignified standing pose, like the medieval armor on display at the Met. Instead, Tony's workshop had a half-cleared desk surrounded by a few half-drunk coffee cups; in the middle of the cleared space sat a chestplate, a backplate, the front of Iron Man's helmet, and what looked to Steve like miscellaneous pieces of the boots and gauntlets. It looked like Tony -- or maybe Iron Man --had just dropped them there and wandered off.
Tony led him to the desk and tapped one finger against the metal of the chestplate. "One Iron Man suit, customized for your particular physique." He stressed the last word with a grin. "The metal itself is a little lighter, but I couldn't go too light; I didn't want to risk you denting it with your super-strength. It's wired up, cosmetic only. There are lights where the unibeam and repulsors would go. You know, the usual. You'll look just like him, only a little taller and broader."
Awed, Steve stared at the desk. "You did all this? Thank you so much."
"It was really nothing." Tony picked up one of the coffee mugs, seemingly at random, took a swig, and grimaced. "Ecch. Cold. And don't thank me until you try it on. Which you should do now, by the way, so I can adjust it."
"Okay." Steve looked at the table again and realized he didn't have the faintest idea where to start. "You're going to have to walk me through this."
Tony stepped back and gave him a considering look; there was an odd flush high on his cheekbones. "Well, you're going to have to get your clothes off."
"You think Iron Man wears anything under that?" Tony asked, and then, like he was doing him a favor, added, "You can keep your underwear on. Otherwise the chafing is just-- well, Iron Man says it's not fun," he added, hastily.
"Good to know," Steve said, and skinned out of his uniform. Life in the Army had meant he'd essentially had any modesty removed, but still, there was something about being here with Tony--
He bit his lip and concentrated on getting his pants off.
When he was down to his underwear, he looked up and Tony looked away a little guiltily, like he'd been-- but he couldn't have been, could he?
"Okay," Tony said, handing him some armor pieces. "Step one, shiny metal underwear. It's a tight fit, and there's not a lot of give, so try not to, uh." He coughed. "Try to stay unmoved. If you know what I mean."
After Steve had gotten it on, he figured out what Tony meant. Oh.
He imagined Tony telling Iron Man these things, going through this process. He wondered, not for the first time, what Iron Man looked like. He was muscular, of course -- the way the armor clung to his arms and legs revealed that much. But that wasn't much to go on. He could still picture, though, the way Iron Man looked underneath.
The armor was perhaps getting a little uncomfortable. Right. Unmoved. Stay unmoved.
When he looked up, Tony was holding out the backplate. "This is where it gets unfun," he said, and there was a strange faraway pain glimmering in his eyes. "If you want to nope out of basically wearing a giant metal plate, let me know."
"I'm good," he said, and Tony smiled weakly. "Besides, if Iron Man can do it, so can I."
"That's the spirit." Tony's voice was oddly strained.
After he got the chestplate on, Steve was beginning to wonder how Iron Man managed. It settled heavily on his shoulders, constricting, and it was already a little warm. But Iron Man did this. He could do it.
"Sit down for a sec," Tony said, and he could see that Tony had his hand on his shoulder but couldn't feel even a hint of the pressure. How did Iron Man do this? "We'll get the boots and gauntlets on."
The boots and gauntlets -- and everything else on the arms and legs, it turned out -- were flexible mesh that came out of the cuffs, and hooked to the soles of the boots and the palms of the gauntlets. Tony gave a deft little tug on one of the cuffs, and then there was more mesh, gold this time, sliding up Steve's leg all by itself.
"Magnets!" Tony said, proudly, and he ran a finger over Steve's calf, another touch he couldn't feel. He nodded. "Looking good, Cap."
Tony repeated the process on Steve's other leg and his wrists, and then he leaned in close, so close Steve could feel Tony's breath against his face, to unhook something at Steve's neck. Part of the helmet, Steve realized, as Tony pulled it up over Steve's head. Tony then hooked the faceplate on but didn't pull it down.
"You want to stand up?" Tony asked. "Careful, your balance is going to be a little funny--"
Wobbling, Steve pushed himself up, and he saw what Tony had meant -- the boots were heavy, and his torso didn't bend, at all.
"You'll want to be careful with the faceplate." Tony's voice was calm. "Your peripheral vision will be lousy. Iron Man's got local sensors, but this is basically dummy armor, so you don't."
Steve lifted his foot again, experimentally. "This is heavy."
Tony sighed. "Yeah. It is." He smiled, closed-mouthed. "The actual metal is lighter than Iron Man's, and you're wearing much less gear than he does, but you're also using your own strength. With the actual repulsors there's more lift in it, and some of the motion is servo-actuated. It helps." He shrugged. It seemed somehow fatalistic.
"How does he do it?" Steve wondered. He'd been in this suit for under five minutes and already he was looking forward to taking it off. It wasn't the weight or the balance so much as the isolation. It felt... lonely. Remote. Tony had touched him, and he hadn't even felt it. "How does he wear this around us all the time?"
Tony looked at him for a few long seconds, and then dropped his gaze. "He doesn't have a lot of choice."
Steve frowned, because that made it sound like-- "He doesn't want to wear the armor?"
"It's complicated," Tony said, after another pause, and that sounded like all Tony was going to say on the matter.
"Say," Steve asked, "are you inviting him to the gala? He wasn't there when you gave us the invitations, and it would be nice to get to see him, even if he's coming as someone else."
He wondered who Iron Man would want to be. Someone with a mask, of course. Maybe Spider-Man.
But Tony shook his head. "It won't be possible. He-- he couldn't come as anyone else." A faint smile curled across Tony's mouth. "Well, maybe if I stripped the paint off the armor and bought him a big green cloak, but Doctor Doom's not exactly a hero and I don't exactly want to offend him by infringing on his outfit." He winced. "Could get nasty." He grinned again.
It was clearly meant to be a joke, but the example Tony had given made a few more connections spark in Steve's mind. Oh. Oh, geez.
"Can he not take the armor off?" Steve asked.
There was silence for a long time and Steve was about to take the question back and wave it off when Tony finally spoke.
Tony bit his lip. "I-- he-- no, but it's not like you're thinking," he added, quickly, his voice tense and awkward. "Some of it comes off. The rest... it doesn't. It's... life support. You won't see him out of it."
"I won't tell him you told me," Steve said, but this didn't seem to reassure Tony. Good God. Iron Man was... hurt. Wounded. And he hadn't known. "Is it-- is he--" Was he in pain? Steve wanted to ask. Was it going to get worse? How did he feel, locked in the armor like it was some movable iron lung?
"He'll be fine in the field. Don't worry," Tony said hastily, looking stricken, and it was so far from what Steve had wanted to ask that Steve stared back at him in horror. "What?"
"Is he okay, like that?" Steve asked. The question wasn't quite right. "Is he... happy?"
Tony's gaze went somewhere beyond Steve, off into the distance. "Hell of a question, Cap. Is anyone?" Then he shook himself a little. "He likes doing what he does. He likes being an Avenger. He likes you."
"Me?" Steve asked, surprised. Iron Man was his friend, but Iron Man didn't just say these things.
"The team," Tony said, with a wave of his hand. "You. You know." It sounded like he was backtracking. Like maybe he'd meant Steve. No, Steve told himself; that was just wishful thinking.
Steve pushed the faceplate down and looked down at Tony through the cut-out eyes.
"How do I look?" Steve asked.
Tony smiled, and Steve pushed the faceplate back up.
"Spitting image," Tony said. There was pride in his eyes now.
"You'll confuse me for Iron Man, won't you?" Steve asked, with a grin. "You'll forget which one of us is there."
But Tony shook his head. "No chance of that."
"Thanks so much for the suit," Steve said. He wondered if Iron Man was going to be around. Maybe he could show him it. "I know it must have been a lot of work."
And Tony's smile was real, wide and honest and delighted, just like Jan had said he would be. "It's really no problem. Anything I can do for you, Steve, just let me know. I'm looking forward to seeing you at the gala."
"Same," Steve said, and then a thought occurred to him. "Who are you going to dress up as?"
Tony's smile was even wider. "That," he said, "would be a secret." He sounded immensely pleased with himself.
"Aww." Steve undid one of the gauntlets and watched the metal peel back from his hand. "I don't even get a hint?"
Tony was still grinning. "Let's just say you'll have no trouble recognizing me."
After the gala, after he'd danced with Tony (who'd come as Captain America), after they'd foiled Baron Zemo's plans--
Iron Man came to Steve's room and asked for a dance. Iron Man was as good a dancer as Tony had been, and Steve looked into Iron Man's eyes, a familiar dark blue, and he remembered how Tony had looked when he'd asked him if Iron Man was happy.
No trouble recognizing me, Tony had said.
Steve took a breath. "I danced with you earlier tonight."
Iron Man pushed the helmet up, and Tony's smile was bleak and fearful.
They wanted this. They both wanted this. And yet Tony was still looking at him like he thought Steve would tell him no.
"I want to do this with you," Steve said. "As ourselves."
"It's not going to be easy," Tony said, as if anything they ever did was easy. "There's so much more about me I haven't told you."
Steve remembered what Tony had told him about Iron Man's life support. Maybe it was related to that? Maybe that was what Tony had been wearing under the costume? Well, it wasn't like that was going to stop him from caring.
Steve smiled. "I told you the truth already. Whatever you say, that's not going to change."
A long moment of silence stretched between them.
"Yeah, okay," Tony said, the way Iron Man would have agreed with him about some tactic. "Let's do this."
Very slowly, Steve reached up and tilted Tony's head down, and pressed their lips together. He was kissing Tony. He was kissing Iron Man. And it was all wonderful.
"So," Steve murmured, "is Iron Man happy now?"
He could feel Tony's mustache scratch against his skin; he was smiling. They were touching, they were touching, they would never be alone, Tony wouldn't have to live inside that armor, holding himself apart--
"Yeah, I think he is," Tony said, and he kissed him again.