Tony Stark is born in 1940.
(Later, much later, he and his friends will define their lives by the wars they've lived through. Korea. Vietnam. Kree-Skrull. All of the times Kang -- or Immortus, or Iron Lad, or whoever he is today -- has tried to conquer Earth. The rest of the world, the non-superheroes who haven't personally fought quite so many wars for the fate of the planet -- they'll define their lives by naming their generation. If anyone asks Tony, he'll laugh and point out that he's not one of those Baby Boomers, for all that he's only a few years older than the oldest of them. Tony's part of the Silent Generation. He was born in the war, he'll say. Never mind that it wasn't America's war then. He was born into a war, and he thinks sometimes he'll never know anything different.)
Tony met Captain America, once. In 1942.
During one of his visits Stateside, Captain America attended a party. The usual sort of party for him, meeting and chatting with businessmen, persuading them, these captains of industry, to do all they could for the war. There were handshakes. There were photos. And Howard Stark, the famed engineer and weapons manufacturer, thought it would be a grand thing to have Captain America pose with his son.
(Tony will wonder why Howard bothered. He'll think now that he was too young to be a disappointment already. Maybe then his father still hoped for better.)
In the photograph, Captain America's smile is practically pasted on. He holds Tony in his arms, the same way he's held a thousand other children for this very picture. Captain America is of course smiling at the camera, professional, rehearsed. Tony is twisted around in Captain America's grasp, mesmerized by the shiny scale mail of his outfit. He's reaching out a chubby, slightly blurry hand, and his mouth, just barely visible in profile, is half-open in awe. There's a bright inquisitiveness in his gaze that anyone who's ever met Tony as an adult will instantly recognize.
Tony won't remember this, of course. He's too young.
Steve won't remember it either. To him, it's not important.
This doesn't mean anything. It can't.
But this is where their lives first come together.
The first thing Tony remembers, as a child, is Captain America's death. Not V-E Day or V-J Day, like a lot of other kids his age might. No, for Tony it's always and forever Captain America.
The memory now is so old and faded that he isn't sure if he remembers the real memory, or if he merely remembers the remembering and has let his mind fill in the gaps. He's not quite five years old. He remembers lying on the floor, playing with a toy wind-up robot, watching it march across the floor, making pew-pew-pew noises, dreaming glorious dreams.
He remembers Jarvis shushing him, urgently, and turning the volume up on the radio. Tony knows the radio is real; he remembers how large it was when he was small, and he remembers the hum and crackle of the vacuum tubes. (Tony's beloved transistors haven't been invented yet.)
He doesn't remember the news itself, the announcement that Cap has been officially declared missing in action. There were probably statements from the rest of the Invaders. Top brass. The president. Thinking back on it now, he knows Captain America and Bucky must have been lost long before the public announcement. Maybe his father already knew. His father wasn't there, that day. But Jarvis hadn't known. He still remembers Jarvis' face. That's the only thing he really remembers.
They've lost a true hero, Jarvis tells him. His face is serious and solemn, grief-stricken, and it's the voice he uses to tell Tony the most important things.
Tony doesn't understand, then. He's five. Lots of people are heroes to a five-year-old.
The thing he figures out later, the thing about Captain America, is that not a lot of people are heroes to everyone.
Tony demands tales of Captain America from Jarvis every night thereafter for a long time. Tales of Captain America and Bucky and the Invaders. Bedtime stories.
One night, Jarvis tells Tony about the party and the picture. Tony doesn't get to see the picture; it's with his father's things, and even this young, he already knows his father disapproves of how taken he is with Captain America. But Jarvis says it exists, and that's enough for Tony.
It's like Tony has some small part of Captain America. They met.
If Captain America were alive, Tony thinks, with all the perfect self-centeredness of a child, if he could meet him again, just once, he'd ask him if he remembers him.
At boarding school, he has a poster of Captain America next to his bed. He sent away for it specially, from the comics' fan club.
Ty, as always, snorts out a disapproving laugh when he sees it. Like it's quaint to have heroes.
"Only you, Tony," he says, shoving Tony's copy of Le Morte d'Arthur disdainfully to the floor, as he settles down on Tony's bed where the book had sat.
Tony knows he's not the only person in the world who thinks Captain America was worth something, but it's sure hard to remember that when Ty's around. When the other boys want to play Cowboys and Indians, Tony wants to play Captain America. Even in his fantasies, Tony doesn't actually want to be Captain America. Not anymore.
He'd tried once. He had a little shield, and a little winged cowl, and he'd pretended. But Ty had laughed when he'd seen them, and Tony had quietly given them away.
Tony picks the book up from the floor. The pages are dog-eared. The spine cracked when it hit the floor. (It will only occur to Tony much later that Ty breaks what he touches.)
Ty came over to study with him -- or rather, to race him to the solutions for their math homework -- because with Ty it's always a competition. To be honest, Tony enjoys that. He enjoys striving, winning, even as something about Ty sets him on edge and he doesn't quite know why. There's a feeling a little past his understanding of it, like if he only knew, if he only had words--
Ty laughs, runs his graphite-smeared hand through his hair and shoves a partial differential equation triumphantly in Tony's face, and something flips over in Tony's stomach that isn't entirely unpleasant.
"Points to me again," Ty crows, a little nastily. "Pay attention, Antony!"
"Oh, yeah, Caesar." Tony wishes Ty would quit it with the nickname, but he thinks Ty might actually be enjoying the one Tony came up with for him in response. "I'm watching you."
He is, though. That's the thing.
At night, Tony's Cap poster watches him too, looking down on him benevolently, the way someone else might display a crucifix. Oh, the image itself isn't benevolent -- it's one of the usual paintings, Captain America with his head held high, shield on his arm, a flag waving in the background. But for Tony, it feels like protection. Like Cap's shield is in front of him.
Tony wonders sometimes, what Captain America would think of the world.
He's thirteen now. The Korean War is in full swing. He knows, from his rare visits home, that what people like his father know about the war is different from what's being reported. He wonders if it was like this for Captain America. He was brave and noble and strong and fought for America, for the Allies. Tony's seen the newsreels. Everything looked so simple. Black and white -- literally and figuratively. But Tony wonders if it was really that easy. If Cap always believed he was doing the right thing. If he had to hurt people, or kill people -- people who were just like him, or Tony, but who happened to be on the wrong side. Maybe all wars are like that, and it's a matter of reporting. Maybe they're just the side who won.
That's not the sort of thing you're supposed to question. Not with the specter of Communism looming over the free world. There are a heck of a lot of people being named un-American, their sympathies rooted out, just for singing songs or making movies. Tony's not exactly sure how he feels about that one. He's the scion of Stark Industries, but even he's not willing to join the Communist Party just to piss off his father.
Would Cap have been right there on the Committee? Would he be smashing the Reds? Would he be in Korea now? Tony supposes he'll never know.
(Much later, Tony will learn that Steve's love for America is emphatically not the same as his feelings about its government.)
It's a cold but bright winter day, the middle of December. Tony's at home for Christmas break. He hasn't seen his father. The war in Korea ended a few months ago, and Tony's pretty sure his father is in meetings with the SI board, trying to determine the future of the company. They always do better in wartime. There's money for them there. Tony knows this. At least his father isn't home. He thinks his mother is still asleep.
So what if there's not a big happy family Christmas, like other kids have? That just means he'll see as little of his father as possible. Tony's more than fine with that.
And Tony, for his part, is bolting down cereal, as fast as he can possibly eat it; if his father's not home Tony might have hours in the workshop before his father gets back and kicks him out, and whatever he has to endure will be worth it.
At Tony's elbow, Jarvis coughs. "Master Tony," he says, and he sounds... happy? "I believe there is an item in the morning paper that will be of interest to you."
He sets the Daily Bugle down, and Tony gapes at the headline: CAPTAIN AMERICA ALIVE.
Breakfast forgotten, he draws the paper closer with shaking hands. He reads the first paragraph. There was a hostage situation at the UN. The Red Skull -- allied with the Soviets, of course -- had taken control of the building. And then Captain America and Bucky had just... leaped in through a window, and fought him. It sounds just like one of Tony's comics, but it really happened.
"He's alive," Tony says, and he thinks this is the best Christmas ever.
The article doesn't mention what happened to Cap and Bucky. It doesn't say how they could be alive when they were declared MIA almost a decade ago. Maybe, Tony thinks, maybe they swam to shore. And that's why no one ever found their bodies. And then... hmm. Tony can't picture them living in the wild, or under assumed names, for years, only coming back right now. But that's what they have to have done, isn't it?
Jarvis is beaming; Tony thinks maybe Jarvis likes it when Tony's happy. "If you'd like to come watch television with me," Jarvis says, "I am given to understand there will be a special news broadcast."
The news is usually on in the evenings, of course, but now there's a press conference, a live broadcast, and Tony perches on the edge of the sofa next to Jarvis, leaning forward in excitement, eyes focused on the flickering black and white screen.
At the front of the crowded room of reporters are the mayor of New York, the UN secretary general... and Captain America and Bucky, in full costume, smiling.
It's real. They're alive. Tony could meet them, maybe, he thinks, a little dreamily. He's sure his father has enough pull with the military for that. Tony could finally tell Captain America how much he means to him.
The secretary general finishes the speech he was making -- Tony wasn't really paying attention -- and then holds out a hand. Captain America steps up to the microphone, and he's alive and Tony thinks maybe he's never been this happy in his entire life. Captain America looks just like he does in all the pictures, in all the newsreels.
And then Captain America opens his mouth, and it's just... wrong.
It isn't him.
Tony can't explain it. He can't put words to it. But there's something creeping and awful curling up his spine. Tony wonders if this is what people feel like when they're going crazy, if they feel like people they know have been replaced by exact copies of themselves.
It's something about this man's eyes, maybe. Maybe the way he holds himself. Maybe his voice. But he's not... he's not kind, like Captain America looks in the pictures, like he sounds like he should be from the way the surviving Invaders talk about him in interviews. This man wears patriotism like a mask and there's only darkness underneath.
Betrayed, Tony is on his feet in an instant, pointing at the screen.
"What's wrong?" Jarvis asks. If he doesn't see it, maybe Tony's going crazy after all.
Tony's eyes go hot and he's so glad his father's not here to see him starting to cry. Starks don't cry. He chokes back the tears. "That's not Captain America."
"What do you mean?"
"It isn't him," Tony repeats, and then he's horrified as a sob bursts out of him. How could they do this? How could they make a new Captain America? How could they put someone else in his costume and expect no one to notice? Why are they lying?
He's running up the stairs as fast as he can. He runs into his room, slams the door, and flings himself down on the bed. He's sobbing into his pillow, and he knows he's weak and pathetic and everything his father says he is and he knows he shouldn't cry, and he shouldn't cry--
When he rolls over and looks up, the first thing his blurry gaze can focus on is one of his Cap posters. Cap smiles down at him.
Tony claws it off the wall.
There are some more news stories of Cap and Bucky battling villains, over the next year or two. And then the stories just get weird, because the official news about them stops entirely. There are rumors, unconfirmed, about Cap and Bucky in Harlem, beating up innocent people, with witnesses swearing that Cap said they were Communists, that everyone was a Communist, that there were Reds everywhere, that no one could be trusted.
Then there's just... nothing.
Whatever they'd done to make the new Captain America, something had gone seriously wrong.
And then an even worse possibility comes to Tony, one night, as he lies awake in bed, waiting for sleep to find him amidst his worries: maybe that had been the real Captain America. Maybe that was all that was left of him.
Everyone wants to pretend there are still heroes, just like there used to be, but Tony thinks there aren't any, anymore. The good men are long gone, and only liars are left.
One day, after Captain America has disappeared from the news again, Tony takes down all his Cap posters.
It's not real, he tells himself. Cap's a fake. Maybe he was never real anyway. He couldn't have been as perfect as everyone says he was. No one is that good. He's just... a fantasy, that's all. The real Captain America was probably broken by the war, bitter and cruel and awful, and he probably put on that mask and smiled and you were just supposed to be taken in.
He rolls up the last of the posters even as he wonders why he's not crumpling it and throwing it away.
It doesn't, of course, make the feelings go away.
It had started with hero worship and daydreams of going on adventures with Cap and Bucky and the Invaders, of course, the kind of thing every boy wanted to do. Tony was supposed to outgrow it. Not only did he not outgrow it, the feelings... mutated, into the sort of thing Tony is positive he's not supposed to admit to anyone. It's not like he's unaware of what the other boys get up to at school -- he has the feeling that Ty would be more than willing -- but he thinks that for most of them it's a combination of puberty, sheer curiosity, and there being neither girls nor privacy.
Tony's going to inherit SI one day. He has the general idea that a little bit of fooling around in these circumstances will be politely ignored if he grows up and does what everyone expects of him. If he gets married like he's supposed to. Probably his parents will even arrange it.
He can't have anything more. More is bad. More is asylums and electroshock therapy and icepick lobotomies, and Tony's very attached to his prefrontal cortex, thank you very much.
The night he takes the posters down, he dreams about Captain America. It's a grand, romantic dream, just like the adventures he used to fantasize about, and at the end of the dream, after they've saved the day, at the part of the dream where Cap always congratulates him, Captain America instead sweeps Tony into his arms, bending him backwards in a huge, ridiculously overblown kiss, just like a movie would do if they ever made movies about queers.
"Tony," Cap breathes, and Tony smiles--
In the dream, Tony is so happy, and that's maybe the worst part.
Then he wakes up.
It's not real, he thinks, and he stares at the ceiling and wants to cry, but it would wake his roommate up, and he's not a sissy and he's not a fairy and he can't cry and anyway Captain America is dead and gone and broken.
Tony's seventeen now. He's been coaxed home on summer vacation from MIT, even though he'd have been perfectly happy to stay there. He'll pick his studies over good old Dad any day. But it was his mother who'd told him he might want to come to this party. His sort of people, she'd said. And, unlike Dad, she might actually be right.
So he takes the brand new I-95 south to New York, tapping on the dashboard to the staticky strains of any rock and roll station he can find on the radio. It's his own private rebellion. He's not-so-secretly hoping Howard will be annoyed.
When Jarvis opens the door at Stark Mansion... well, it turns out his mother might be right about the party. It's all scientists.
Yeah, Tony can dig this.
He's introduced in short order to a Dr. Henry Pym -- "call me Hank!" -- a grinning blond biologist barely a few years older than Tony is, then Dr. Vernon Van Dyne, who's really more Tony's father's age. In the corner of the room are two men whom Van Dyne dismissively calls "the geniuses over at Empire State." The gangling young man Dr. Van Dyne introduces as Reed Richards barely looks up from his impassioned physics discussion with a strikingly handsome young man whose last name Tony doesn't catch. Victor something-or-other. He has a heavy eastern European accent. Maybe Latverian. Tony's a little surprised that, politics being what they are, the man would have chosen to come here to study, but he supposes that anything's better than Latveria.
And then, sitting on the sofa and looking cheerfully pleased and entirely out of place among all these distracted scientists, is a pretty girl, maybe eighteen or nineteen, wearing a gold and black dress. She's clutching her handbag in her lap. Her hair is done up the way all the girls wear it, straight with a little curl at the end.
Dr. Van Dyne holds out a hand. "And I think, Anthony, perhaps you might like to meet my daughter, Janet."
Oh. This is why his mother wanted him to come. All scientists... and one eligible young lady.
It's not that Tony's opposed to the idea -- he does like girls, he's not one of those fairies -- but he wants someone smart. Not vapid. Someone who won't just try to conform to whatever he wants like clay. And that's not something that's highly prized in this set.
"Hi," Tony says, sitting down awkwardly next to the girl. "I'm Tony."
Dr. Van Dyne has of course excused himself.
The girl's whole face transforms, and she flashes him a devilish, conspiratorial grin, and Tony thinks, oh, I'm gonna like you. "Hi," she says. "I'm Jan. And this is terribly awkward, but I have a feeling our parents are trying to set us up. I thought we could get the heartbreak out of the way first. I mean, I'm sure you're nice, but--"
"Yeah," Tony agrees. "Same."
"So you can just talk to me for a bit," Jan says, "just enough to make my dad happy, and then you can go talk to everyone else about special relativity and whatnot." She gestures as she says it, and her tone is droll, like she knows exactly what she's talking about, actually knows the word relativity, but no one's ever asked her if she wanted to be a scientist. "I hear you're all going to change the world." She says it like she knows she's not included.
Tony knows a little bit about disappointment. Maybe not as much, but, well, he has the bruises to prove it.
Tony's going to grow up and run a business. He's going to go into industry. He won't be discovering things for the sake of pure knowledge. It's not exactly what he wants, it's not all of what he wants, and he knows he's been born into money and power and he has it so much better than so many people that it's not even funny. He shouldn't be unhappy, but he wants--
He wants to change the world. He wants-- he wants to be a hero. A knight in shining armor. He wants to help people.
It's silly. There are no heroes. Knights are for fairy tales, Captain America's a fraud, and the rest of the Invaders are all dead or gone. The world doesn't have heroes. Not like that. Not anymore.
And anyway, he's not a hero. Heroes are noble and brave and strong and sure and he's... just Tony Stark.
"Well, I'd like to," he says. "We'll see. And what are you going to do?" He finds he honestly wants to know.
She gestures at herself. At her dress. "Fashion design."
"I like it," Tony says, and Jan grins.
He designs things too, he supposes. Computer architecture. Electrical systems. He thinks maybe it's not that different. So he tells Jan a little more about transistors, and Jan tells him about bias-cut fabrics, and they're getting on really well. They ought to have nothing in common, but she's smart and she's determined and she's no pushover and... those are all traits Tony really likes, in anyone. When Tony realizes the party is winding down and he's hardly talked to anyone who isn't Jan, he can't even be disappointed. She's great.
"I'd better let you get on with changing the world," Jan says. "But if you ever need clothes, call me!" She mimes a telephone.
"Clothes to change the world in," Tony says. "And, hey, maybe you can change the world too, huh?"
Jan's eyes shine, and she opens her mouth and is about to reply when her father walks by, takes in the sight of Jan and Tony talking, and smiles broadly.
"Nice to see you're getting along so well with Anthony, Janet!" he says, and he heads back over to the still-ongoing physics discussion, because apparently Reed Richards and Victor what's-his-face don't know how to quit. Reed's going on about space travel and cosmic rays and Victor is saying something about other dimensions and either of those topics are better than this one.
And then Tony and Jan are left staring awkwardly at each other because, oh, yeah, romance. No.
"You're wonderful," Tony says, gamely. "I just-- I'm not really-- it's not you-- I'm--"
Tony can't really find a way to convey about three-quarters gay and mostly embarrassingly sweet on a phony dead hero.
"It's all right," Jan says, a little too quickly, and Tony wonders if she's figured it out. Then she sighs. "It's complicated for me too."
There's a hint of wistful longing in her eyes that Tony is all too familiar with. "You like someone," he says.
Jan's gaze darts across the room toward... Hank Pym. Huh.
"Not anyone who knows I exist," she says, very quietly.
"Yeah," Tony agrees. "I know exactly what you mean."
Tony's twenty-one, and he inherits SI much, much sooner than anyone thought he would.
The funeral is hell. One of the photographers gets a picture of him and Jarvis at the grave, Jarvis' arm over Tony's shoulders. Tony's crying.
Take that, Dad, he thinks, when he sees the photo in the papers, and he starts crying again.
He knows that the board, the press, everyone -- they're going to say he's not ready. That he's too young. But there are no other options. He has to do this.
The car accident, the inquest determines, is the result of faulty design in the braking system. Tony works for forty hours straight and designs all-new brakes for the model of car his father had been driving. The next morning, still bleary-eyed, he goes to SI. He sits at his father's desk. His desk, now. And then he buys the car company.
He shows up at their doors with blueprints in hand.
No one else should have to die like this.
(His friends will try to tell him later that even then, even before Vietnam, even before Iron Man, Tony was a hero. They'll tell him he always was a hero. He always wanted to help people. Tony will never see it. It was the right thing to do, he'll say. He was an engineer and he had the money and he could do it, so he did it. Heroes are people like Steve. He's just doing what needs to be done. He shouldn't get accolades for doing the right thing. He doesn't deserve praise. It's nothing special.)
(It won't take Steve long to figure out that Tony is unfairly hard on himself.)
Stark Industries still manufactures weapons, of course. That's what keeps the doors open and the lights on. It's 1962, and troop levels in Vietnam have tripled every year for the past two years. The defense contracts keep coming and coming. (It'll be a few years before Tony stops making weapons. The war will get a hell of a lot more unpopular first.)
He's going as an advisor. He's been doing amazing work with miniaturized transistors, and he's got a theory he calls reverse magnetism. He's planning to test out his weapons prototypes. All-new ordnance. He wants to revolutionize warfare.
It was supposed to be routine. It was supposed to be safe.
Of course, there's a Viet Cong land mine.
Tony doesn't actually remember much, thank God. Chalk it up to shock, or to the pain itself. He remembers dazedly looking down at his chest, rent and bloody, run through with shrapnel, looking at it like it belonged to someone else, and thinking oh, that's not good. But he's an engineer, and even half-dead, he can still build.
He remembers the equations, the design, everything that went into that first Iron Man suit. He remembers Yinsen helping him shape the chestplate to keep his heart beating. He remembers the muggy, sticky heat, and his wounds opening again and again as he molded the steel that would become his new self, his favorite self. He remembers smearing blood on the blueprints. A bloody thumbprint on the metal.
They'd needed more time.
Yinsen had died to buy him time.
Tony's never had anyone die for him before. (It won't be the last time.)
He can't think about anything. He can't process any of it. He doesn't think about being a hero.
He just wants to go home.
There are hundreds of miles of jungle between him and safety, and he doesn't know the way. Luckily for him, half an hour into his trek he comes upon a downed American chopper and its pilot, Lieutenant James Rhodes. The bird's unfixable, but thankfully it has just enough juice to keep Tony's heart beating. They have to get out of here. Rhodes has a leg wound.
No problem. Tony can carry him.
"If we're gonna be this intimate," he says, as he hops onto Tony's back, "you'd better start calling me Rhodey. My friends do."
Oh. Introductions. This is where Tony ought to take the helmet off. Show his face. Say hello. He's not quite sure if he can take it off. He doesn't have a lot of dexterity in this thing. Rhodes would do it for him if he asked. But Tony wants the helmet on for safety, at least. And he's protected. He's armored. He might have shrapnel about to pierce his heart, but inside the suit he feels... safe.
He can keep the suit on, he supposes, but he should tell this guy who he is.
And then he realizes... he doesn't have to. Rhodes can't see his face. Rhodes doesn't know who he is. He doesn't have to be Tony Stark of Stark Industries.
He can be anyone. Anyone at all. Anyone he wants to be.
"All right, Rhodey," Tony says. "And you can call me Iron Man."
Iron Man. He likes the sound of that.
If this were a movie, this would be the hero's call to action. Tony would go home, put on the Iron Man suit, and save the day. He'd become a superhero.
Instead, Tony locks the suit away and slides down into depression.
SI's stocks drop. There's a week where Tony essentially doesn't leave his bed. Why should he? He's got an electrical cord right here.
There are superheroes now, again. Last year, Reed Richards went to space after all, and an encounter with cosmic rays left him and his friends irrevocably altered. They're calling themselves the Fantastic Four, the newspapers say. The headlines report them saving the world from madmen and monsters, each villain worse than the last. Mole Man. The Skrulls. Miracle Man. Victor von -- hey, that guy Tony met at that party. The armor is a new look for him.
And Namor. Namor the Sub-Mariner. Atlantean royalty, last of the Invaders, first of the mutants. That's a thing now, mutants. There are teenagers claiming to have these "mutant powers." The newspapers don't seem sure what to make of them. Tony's not quite sure either, honestly.
So maybe there are heroes in the world again. Tony's not one of them.
How could he be? He's a cripple. He has to wear a giant metal chestplate for the rest of his life. He's going to be chained to an electrical outlet. No one can know about this. He can't ever be close to anyone. No one's going to want to be, once they know the truth.
Oh, sure, he can put on the suit, but saving lives? He hasn't got it in him. He couldn't even save Yinsen. He only escaped with his own sorry hide.
Heroes are strong and brave and handsome, like-- like someone who doesn't exist anymore. Like someone who never really existed.
And then it gets worse.
It's October, and all Tony can do is sit and watch the news and wait to find out if they're all going to die. The Soviets have nuclear missiles in Cuba. Tony watches President Kennedy's address on television. If missiles are launched, there will be a "full retaliatory response."
There's nothing he can do. It's up to the diplomats now.
The world might end, and there's absolutely nothing he can do about it.
Tony curls up on his bed, once again tethered to the wall by an electrical cord, and he wonders why he thinks he should be able to do anything.
He wants to do something.
He has the Iron Man suit. He could rebuild it. Improve it. Give it a better chestplate battery. Fill it with all his miniaturized transistors. Make it the pinnacle of modern technology. Hell, maybe even give it a paint job.
If there were people to save, if there were people who needed help, he could--
Why is he even thinking like this? He's not a hero. But maybe... maybe he doesn't have to be a hero. He just wants to help people. He can do that.
Maybe heroes don't feel like heroes either. Maybe they just do what's right.
He doesn't want to sit in this room, powerless, while the world burns. He wants to get up and fight.
It turns out there are a lot of people who want to wreak havoc. And it turns out that Iron Man does a pretty good job stopping them. The Red Barbarian. Kala, Queen of the Netherworld. Jack Frost. The Crimson Dynamo. A whole heap of mostly-Communists with brand-new superpowers. Iron Man can take them all down.
He's starting to almost feel good about this Iron Man gig.
Tony's alone in his office when the message that will change his life comes in.
The radio is hissing empty static until it isn't. It's one of the ham radio frequencies, and the voice that comes on doesn't give a callsign. It sounds like a kid. Maybe a teenager.
"Calling the Fantastic Four!" the voice says. "Condition Red! Contact Teen Brigade! Hulk must be found! Do you read me?"
Tony's been hearing rumors about the Hulk for a few months now. Before he started in the superhero business, a huge green fella on a rampage would have sounded like nonsense, but now Tony's not so sure. If this guy exists, he wants to meet him -- and find out if the Iron Man suit can stand up to his strength, of course. If it can't, well, he's been looking for an excuse to redesign the suit anyway.
Reed won't mind him showing up. Surely the FF can use all the help they can get against the Hulk.
Tony suits up and is in flight in minutes, heading halfway across the country.
When he gets to the Teen Brigade's HQ, he finds an armored, caped man with a huge hammer, who smiles and introduces himself as Thor. And then, swooping in behind Tony--
It's Jan Van Dyne, dressed in red and black, next to a man in a red costume whose face is half-masked. And they're both about six inches tall. Tony's jaw drops, and he's not sure whether it's at the size or at the fact that it's Jan--
She found a way to change the world after all.
"I'm the Wasp," Jan says, proudly, and that's when Tony remembers that Jan doesn't know who he is under the helmet. "This is Ant-Man. You must be Iron Man."
"How'd you guess?" Tony says, and Jan laughs.
"Pleasure to meet you," Ant-Man says, and Tony's almost positive that's Hank Pym's voice. Well. That's interesting.
So it turns out that the Hulk's been causing some property damage, and Rick Jones, leader of the brigade, wants him found so they can prove his innocence. When they eventually catch up to him -- long story there, and Tony is definitely going to need better armor -- it's in a factory in Detroit, and working together they manage to immobilize Thor's brother Loki, who was of course responsible for the entire mess.
Tony's never actually fought with other superheroes before. They work well together, and everyone else must be thinking the same thing, because Hank looks speculatively at the rest of them, when the battle's done.
"Each of us has a different power," Hank says. "If we combined forces, we could be almost unbeatable."
Tony still has to wear the damned chestplate to survive. He doesn't have much of a social life. Not many friends, anymore. But they're offering him this. Something greater than friendship. Together, they can save the world.
"Work as a team?" Tony asks. "Why not? I'm for it!"
And Jan, of course, has the perfect name. They're the Avengers.
The Avengers move in with him. He has a mansion. Why not use it?
He tells them the same thing he told Rhodey in Vietnam -- that Tony Stark is Iron Man's boss. And Tony Stark, apparently, is just the kind of guy who gets his kicks funding superhero teams. It ought to sound ridiculous, but they buy it.
It's not just him and Jarvis rattling around the place anymore. There hasn't been anyone else living here in two years, and even when his parents were alive, it was never like this. The Avengers are his friends. They're friends like he's never had before. They don't want anything from him, and Tony can't even figure it out at first. They don't want his money. They don't want favors. They don't want to use him. They just... want to be his friend. And they're all ridiculously grateful for everything he does for them, how he remodels the place and turns it into superhero headquarters. They're as kind to Tony Stark as they are to Iron Man, and Tony isn't even their teammate.
He thinks at first it must be a trap, a trick waiting to be played on him, but it isn't. They just... like him.
They're his family. This is their home. And they save the world together.
Maybe this is what his life was supposed to be like.
Two months later, the president is assassinated.
Some things, not even the Avengers can stop.
But Jan cuddles up to Iron Man and cries on his metal shoulder, and behind the mask Tony is a little misty-eyed. No one will know. But it feels better, to get it out. Thor insists on a proper Asgardian wake, and it actually helps. The comfort of ritual, even if it's not Tony's.
They're there for each other. It helps.
A few months later, in the spring of 1964, the team is awkwardly settling into place again after Hulk's unexpected departure. Going to find him again seems like a good idea. After all, it's how they got their start.
Of course, what they find is a dead guy in an iceberg. Tony thinks "dead" is a fairly safe assumption, at least. But they haul the body in anyway. They can at least give him a decent funeral.
The ice melts to reveal a man clad in red, white, and blue. Tony can't put it together, at first -- in fact, Jan is the one who notices the outfit and the shield. This is Captain America, she says, and she's right, Tony realizes. Tony would know that costume anywhere. Inside the armor, Tony's shaking. He can't think. He spent so many years obsessed with this man, and now he's here, in front of them. Not just stories. A real person. Dead, but real. Tony's broken heart skips a beat, clenches, and twists.
His hero, still his hero after all these years, is lying there on the deck, cold and motionless. Water drips off him as he melts. Maybe they should put him in the damn freezer so he won't decay.
Captain America fell. He fell into the water and he froze. Tony knows that Captain America is a persona, a myth, a legend. Tony knows Captain America can't have been perfect, like he used to think. There was a real man under the mask, only a man, flawed like the rest of humanity. Just a man. But he died cold and alone as the dark water closed over him, and -- it's a hell of a way to go.
Then Captain America's eyelashes flicker. At first Tony thinks he's seeing things. But then--
"He's alive!" Jan says. "He's breathing!"
They're all seeing it too.
Is this a trick? The government tried to trick them before. Maybe this is another fake. Maybe this is a Skrull or some kind of robot. But it feels real. Tony tries to believe his head over his heart, tries to tell himself to be cautious, but as he looks down at Captain America's face, he can't shake the feeling: this is right. This is the real one.
And he's alive. He's really, truly, alive, two decades later.
He's not wearing the mask -- Tony's never seen him without the mask -- and he's... well, he's very good-looking. Now is really not the time for that.
Tony doesn't know what to do. He doesn't know what to say.
Captain America's eyes open. He's in shock. He's confused. The last thing he remembers is Bucky dying. He takes a few swings and then subsides, and now he's staring at Tony in his armor. Of course he's confused. He can't have seen anything like Iron Man before.
"Where am I?" he asks. "How did I get here? Who are you?"
"That's what we were about to ask you," Tony retorts.
Captain America seems to take it as some kind of philosophical question. He strides across the room to where the team put his shield, weighing it in his hand as he pulls the cowl up over his head. His movements are brisk and efficient, like he does this every day.
"Who am I?" he murmurs. "For a moment, I had almost forgotten myself! But I am not lucky enough to forget forever."
He draws himself up, shield in hand -- the pose from hundreds of Tony's comic books. He's Captain America, all right. But Tony sees his eyes. Captain America is barely older than Tony, and he looks... sad. Sad and scared and confused and lonely. He's slept twenty years in the ice. America is fighting a new war. He's alone.
Don't be alone, Tony wants to say. Come home with me. Come home with us. I've made somewhere for us to live. We're here for you. We'll be here. I'll be here.
Those aren't the exact words he ends up saying, a couple days later, but the important part is that Captain America says yes.
By the time Captain America moves in, Tony's figured out that he's the real thing. Tony had been wrong when he'd thought that no one could be as good as everyone says Captain America was. He is. There's no way to explain it. He's everything everyone says. He's more. Tony knows, just looking at him, that he's the best man Tony's ever going to meet.
All right, so Tony might still have a crush on him.
Captain America is looking around the mansion, wide-eyed, when Tony holds out his hand.
"Hi," he says. "I'm Tony Stark. Avengers benefactor. Call me Tony," he offers.
Captain America's hand is surprisingly warm. "I'm Steve," he says. "Steve Rogers."
Steve. He has a name after all. Obviously he has a name, but Tony never knew it.
God. Captain America is real.
Steve's expression is a little dazed, and he keeps staring around the mansion like he's trying to find something familiar. Tony wonders how he's adjusting. He'd taken the news of his twenty-year nap well enough, or so it seemed, but it has to be hard. Everyone he knew is either dead or has moved on. They have their own lives now, without him.
That's all the more reason for Tony to want to include Steve in his life. He has plenty of room.
"I met you once," Tony blurts out. "During the war."
All of his charm has left him. He vaguely remembers thinking that he'd ask Captain America if he remembered him, when he used to dream about what he'd do if Captain America could somehow be alive. It's all he can think of now. He is a tongue-tied idiot.
(It's something people will say to Steve again and again over the years. Tony will joke that if he had a dollar for every vet who claimed to be on Omaha Beach with Cap, he'd be able to rebuild every shattered company he's ever owned.)
But Steve's eyes widen and an unexpected, brilliantly-dazzling smile bursts across his face; he's seizing on the information like a life preserver. It's a link to the past. "You did?"
"Yeah," Tony says, awkwardly. "I, uh. I was two years old. Took a picture with you. You probably don't remember--"
Steve snaps his fingers. "Stark! I do remember you. Your family. I remember your--"
Tony's heart soars even as something within him twists, because he doesn't want to hear about Howard, God, he never wants to hear about Howard again.
"Your mother," Steve says, and Tony breathes out. "She told me you were going to do great things someday. She kept apologizing while I was holding you, because you were fascinated by my uniform. You kept trying to grab it while they were trying to get a good picture, and I kept telling her, no, really, it was all right." He looks around. He's smiling a little at the memory. Maybe Tony made him happy. "Do your parents live here?"
"No," Tony says. The familiar grief is a little closer. "They passed away a few years ago."
"I'm sorry." Steve honestly is, too; he winces a little, his gaze downcast, his shoulders hunched. A guy as big as him can't really hide, but he's making a good attempt.
"It's all right," Tony tells him, and he tries to smile, to make Steve feel better. "Hey, I still like the uniform, by the way."
Grinning, Steve brushes a bit of dirt off one of the shining scales of his shirt, like he's showing it off for Tony's benefit. "Glad to hear it." He looks around the room again. "I think this was where I met you, actually." He stands up straight now and looks a good deal brighter. He's found something he knows. "Nice to see some things haven't changed."
"Well, I don't know about that," Tony says, with a laugh. "I'm older, for one thing."
Tony smiles a little, and he doesn't mean anything by it, because he can't be flirting with Captain America, because he's Captain America, for God's sake, but there's a flicker of something in response in Steve's eyes, in the way he's turned toward him, palms turned up and arms held open, like an invitation to an embrace. It's a response that might be-- that might be--
Tony can't be imagining it. Can he?
An answering smile twitches across Steve's mouth. "I happen to think that's a plus. Not that you weren't a cute kid." He makes a face, like he's figured out how odd that sounds. "Three years ago. Twenty years ago."
Tony turns his hands palms up. An offer. Everything, open to him. He'd give Steve the world if he could.
"You want to hear about everything you've missed?"
"Of course." Steve's voice is warm and eager.
Steve smiles again, and Tony knows, he just knows, the way he sees the future coming on, that this man is going to be one of the best things about his entire life.
(And he'll be right.)