When Tony made the decision to have a secret identity, he had several well-considered and carefully thought-out reasons.
Okay, that's a lie.
When Tony made the decision to have a secret identity, he was half an hour out of Wong Chu's captivity, grieving Ho Yinsen, and suited up for the first time in the armor he thought he'd have to wear for the rest of his life. He was covered in sweat and blood, hideously aware of the shrapnel still embedded in his chest, and above all, conscious of how narrowly his worthless life had been won for him. His life had been preserved by the sacrifice of someone who had deserved to live far more than he did, if there had been any justice in the world. But if Tony had died, Yinsen's death would have meant nothing.
So when a young Marine lieutenant named Jim Rhodes asked who he was, Tony might not have been in a state of mind to make particularly rational decisions. Looking back on it, the only thought Tony remembers having (other than oh fuck, everything hurts) is thank God, I don't have to be Tony Stark.
He told Rhodey he was Iron Man.
And later, when he decided to be Iron Man for real -- well, then he actually did think about it.
Sure, everyone was new to the superheroing business back then, but even then, that early on, it was easy to see that heroes with open identities ended up putting their loved ones in danger. And sure, Tony might have been a mostly-friendless orphan, but he didn't want anyone he might become entangled with in the future to be hurt because of him. The very thought made him sick with worry. And besides, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies just weren't superheroes. The stock would tank. And most of all -- the Avengers wouldn't want him. How could they? They'd met Tony Stark. They knew who he was. They weren't going to want him on the team. Iron Man could be a brave and noble hero, but Tony Stark just... wasn't.
He's pictured it, sometimes, during long, sleepless, anxious nights: Cap would look at him and shake his head, disappointment clouding his eyes. Sorry, Tony, he'd say, and there'd be a sad smile on his handsome face. We're kicking you off the team. You understand.
What Tony's never pictured, when he thought about having a secret identity, is this:
He's in a cabin with Steve. It's the middle of winter. It's the middle of a snowstorm. Tony thinks they're possibly still in the United States, but he can't rule out having crossed the Canadian border. He doesn't know where he is, exactly.
AIM was having an unusually lucky day, and Steve had gone down hard in the fight, fading in and out of consciousness -- and then AIM had managed to separate the two of them from the rest of the team. He'd been flying, carrying Steve in his arms, trying desperately to find Steve some shelter. He got out one distress call before AIM actually, literally shot him out of the sky, and the only upside to the day so far is that AIM must think they're dead because they haven't sent anyone else after them.
No, wait, there are two upsides: this cabin is fully-provisioned and has plenty of firewood. And blankets.
The snow's melting on the floor where Tony dragged them both inside, leaving a track of icy puddles and slushy clumps of snow, some of which are, horrifyingly, tinted red with Steve's blood.
And Tony... is covered head to toe in a suit of armor. All metal. All absolutely freezing cold.
Oh, it doesn't affect him. He has environmental systems. His own personal HVAC setup. That still works, even though his comms are fried along with his flight capability. But that's only the inside. He's absolutely positive that outside, because of the metal, he's a sheet of ice to the touch.
Which is a problem, because Steve's lips have a blue tinge, his skin is bone-white, and he's lying on the rug in front of the fire Tony started, shivering like he's going to break something with the convulsions. His fingers and toes are swollen -- Tony insisted on yanking his gloves and boots off -- but not frostbitten. Probably. That's one of the few bright spots. Dammit, Tony doesn't even have the dexterity to get the rest of Steve's frozen uniform off. Steve's eyes flicker open and he's mumbling things that aren't quite words in response to Tony's questions. That's really not good.
And there's nothing Tony can do for him, except tuck a blanket over him and watch, because Tony can't touch him without hurting him. He can't even hold his hand. Not without taking the suit off.
Oh, it's not like he physically can't take the suit off. He doesn't need the chestplate to live, not anymore. He has an artificial heart now. He could leave the suit behind.
But then Steve would know exactly who Iron Man was. His secret.
And what can Tony do for him, anyway? He's not a doctor. Even if he were out of the suit, he wouldn't be able to do anything for him. So what if it's killing him not to be able to touch him? He's done all he can do.
Steve groans, testing Tony's newfound resolve. God, he has to do something.
Steve's eyes open again, and he's looking at Tony but not quite focusing. His pupils are two different sizes. Concussion. Steve usually shakes those off fast, but either the hit was very, very hard -- which is possible -- or his body is too busy dealing with the hypothermia.
As if opening them took all his energy, his eyes promptly fall shut. No, no, no.
"Shellhead?" Steve rasps, a lonely query, and he manages to flail a hand out of the blankets like he's looking for Tony, which -- yeah, that's another shot through the heart, right there. Jesus. "Iron Man? Are you here?"
Tony hits the gauntlet release, peels the gauntlets off, and throws them across the room. He's distantly cognizant of the sound of them hitting the wall.
Steve needs him.
Besides, his hands aren't going to compromise his identity.
"Yeah," Tony says. "Yeah, Cap, I'm here. I'm right here."
He takes one of Steve's hands -- Christ, his skin is like ice -- between both of his own, with the vague idea that he can warm him up. He doesn't see how this can possibly help, but Steve sighs and it almost sounds happy. There's something that might be a smile, hovering at the corner of Steve's windburned lips. Seeing that, Tony feels a weight lifting from his chest.
Steve's happy. He's making Steve happy. If Steve's happy, he's not dying. They're going to make it.
"Nice." Steve's voice is slurred, a blend of immense fatigue and that old, old New York accent. "Y' warm." He smiles again. It's definitely a smile. "Never-- never touched ya before, Shellhead. Under th' armor, I mean." There's a noise somewhere between a cough and a laugh. "Used t' wonder if y' were a robot, y'know?"
"Not a robot," Tony promises him, torn between concern and an odd kind of tenderness. Something inside him thrills at the idea: he's holding Steve's hand. "Definitely not a robot. You're confusing me and Vizh, Winghead."
Steve's eyes are still shut, but his mouth wobbles in a smile.
"Easy mistake," Tony says, because if Steve listens to him Steve's going to stay awake. Tony dimly remembers someone telling him about the idea that concussion victims couldn't sleep. He can't remember if they said it was a myth, but he's not going to take any chances. Steve needs to keep listening. So he keeps talking. "Vision's got a lot of red and yellow going on. I see how you could mix the two of us up."
Steve's fingers squeeze his, but his grip is alarmingly weak. "Never," he whispers. "You're... you're not like anyone else in the world."
The sentiment is... well, everything Tony has ever wanted to hear, and Steve's voice is a little clearer, but he's shuddering more and more, his hand twitching between Tony's as he shakes. His teeth chatter.
Letting go of Steve's hand with one of his hands, Tony slides his hand under the blanket to the clasps of Steve's ice-encrusted mail shirt. It's dripping water onto the blanket as the ice melts. Steve doesn't even seem to notice.
"Hey," Tony murmurs. "Can you do something for me, Cap?"
"We've got to get you out of this uniform, okay? You're soaked. You have to let me help you take your gear off. I'll get you nice new warm blankets afterward, okay?"
There are, in fact, a few more blankets, closer to the fire, already warmed. Steve will like that. Steve will need that.
"Okay," Steve says, too brightly, in an obliging, compliant way that is so completely unlike his actual personality that Tony's worrying about brain damage again. "Whatever you say."
"Come here." He gets his hand on Steve's shoulders, then under his back, pushing him up to sitting.
He pushes the blankets down to Steve's hips, and as Steve starts to shiver, Tony successfully unclasps the mail of Steve's outer shirt, gets the whole thing over his head, and then lays it out flat next to him in the vain hope that the fire might dry it. Another few seconds, and Steve's sodden undershirt is next to it. His skin is pale, stippled with goosebumps, and for God's sake, Tony shouldn't pay any attention to the smooth lines of Steve's perfect musculature, to the small raised points of Steve's nipples. He's literally freezing.
Steve's shaking now. He looks even colder.
Tony can't stop himself from running his hand over Steve's back in something very like a caress, trying to imbue his touch with body heat. Steve still shivers. Tony hurriedly grabs one of the dry blankets and puts it over Steve's shoulders, like a cape; he can lie back down on that.
"Halfway there," Tony murmurs. "Lie down for me."
Steve obligingly slumps backward. He says nothing; his teeth just chatter. His eyes are shut again.
Tony tucks two fingers into the waistband of Steve's trousers and then starts undoing Steve's fly. This is the beginning of either his best or worst fantasy ever. Maybe both.
Right. He takes a shaky breath that echoes inside the helmet. Stay professional, Stark.
"Arch up, soldier." Tony taps Steve's hip with his free hand. "Time to take your pants off."
Steve's eyes are still shut, but his mouth twitches into a wickedly amused smile. "That's awfully forward," he whispers, and he shivers again in Tony's grasp. "Not even gonna buy me dinner first, Shellhead?"
Oh God. If Steve's going to make jokes about this, Tony is going to die. Knowing that Steve would joke about it makes it worse, because it's just a joke. It means it couldn't ever be real. He grits his teeth. It's okay. His feelings don't matter. This is about Steve's life. And if Steve wants to joke, if that will make him feel better, then Tony will joke about it. Steve doesn't ever joke about this kind of thing, though. Maybe it's the head injury.
"Aww, sweetheart," Tony says, and he hates the entire world so much right now. "It's been years. I thought we were going steady."
Steve's breath huffs out of him, visible in the chilly air, and his laugh is a dragging rasp. "Maybe so," he says, and he shoves his hips up so that Tony can start working his uniform trousers off him. Tony tries not to think about the powerful flexing of Steve's ass. "Always thought you were pretty special," Steve adds, continuing the joke.
Tony peels his trousers and briefs down and okay, he is being clinical and professional and a good teammate and if he'd ever shared a locker room with the rest of the Avengers like Steve does he's sure he'd have avoided looking but now he can't not look and good lord. Even with the cold, Steve is definitely. Uh. Peak human.
Well, there's a fact Tony's going to remember for the entire rest of his fantasy life.
"Just hold on a sec," he says, as Steve shakes with the strain of keeping his hips up while Tony tries not to grope Steve's perfect ass more than he actually has to. Eventually he gets the trousers down to Steve's thighs. "Okay, drop."
"Thanks, Shellhead," Steve informs him, his hips settling on the floor, as Tony keeps working on the tacky, wet leather. "You're really -- aw, fuck me." He bites his lip and whimpers, a sickening choked-off sound.
Tony's gotten to the bleeding-wound section of the program, the long icy slash down Steve's thigh. Hearing Captain America swear drives home how much pain he must be in. As Tony works the leather down, blood smears on Steve's pale skin, and Steve hisses and pants. It looks like it's mostly clotted, but it's not healing as fast as Tony would like.
When Tony finally pushes Steve's trousers off into a sodden heap -- he's not getting those back on any time soon -- he pulls another blanket over Steve's now-naked body. He knows he saw a first-aid kit around here somewhere.
"Here," he says. "I'm just going to get the gauze, get you bandaged--"
But Steve's hand shoots out from under the blankets and grabs Tony's wrist.
"Stay," he says. His eyes are clear; he knows what he's asking for. He's still biting his lip. "It'll heal without that. Please don't go. I-- I'm so cold. I-- I can't-- it's just like-- I keep thinking about--"
Of course. Tony is an idiot.
"You really don't like the cold, do you?" he asks, and the terrified, ashamed relief in Steve's eyes says it all; he does, and he doesn't think Captain America should hate it. He probably even thinks Captain America should be fearless. But Tony knows Steve's secret. He pulled him out of the ice himself.
Steve looks away, miserably. "I don't like it at all. And I know I'm not there, I know I'm not, but it feels like-- it feels just like--"
"Shh," Tony says, because good God, he knows what flashbacks are like. "It's okay. I'm here. I've got you. I'll stay." He can keep holding Steve's hand. No problem.
But Steve purses his lips. His face twists up, and he starts to draw away. "No, you're right," he says, under his breath. "It's silly. Besides, you're in armor, you can't." His voice is resigned. "You can't."
And then Tony understands exactly what Steve wants. What he needs.
Steve needs him.
That overrides everything else.
"Hey, Avenger," Tony says, in the voice that he's spent years developing for times... not quite like this. "I need you to do one more thing for me."
Steve nods firmly. Order received.
"Shut your eyes. Keep them shut."
And God bless him, he does.
And then Tony starts stripping off the rest of the armor. The arm and leg mesh retracts. He slides out of his boots. It's only when he chucks the helmet at the wall and it clangs loudly into his gauntlet pile that Steve seems to notice anything is amiss.
"Iron Man?" Steve asks. His eyes are still closed. "What are you doing?"
Tony drops the chestplate, backplate, and groin pieces in a heap. At least with his eyes closed Steve won't see his Captain America boxers, Tony thinks, and then he wants to laugh at himself because if Steve opens his eyes Tony's underwear choice is really the least compromising thing he could see in this situation.
Tony stares down at himself. He's no Captain America, that's for sure. His chest is covered in scars: old, pitted shrapnel scars left from his captivity in Vietnam, and then newer, rawer lines, the neat straight scalpel slashes of open-heart surgery. But he's warm, and he's alive, and that's what Steve needs right now. Besides, if Steve keeps his eyes shut, he isn't going to see. He isn't going to know.
And Steve is... Steve. He's not going to try to find out who Tony is. He hasn't so far, anyway. And Tony knows Steve would never dream of invading his privacy. Steve's good like that.
He crouches down next to Steve, pulls the top blanket back, and crawls into the little blanket nest Tony's made, shivering himself as his bare legs tangle with Steve's. He stretches out, pressing himself against Steve face-to-face, skin to skin, pulling Steve's frozen body into his arms.
"Iron Man?" Steve asks again.
"Yeah," Tony whispers. "That's me." He pitches his voice low. He distorts it. Without the armor's vocal filtering, Steve might recognize him. But if he keeps his voice in this range, he should be safe. "Here I am. Special for you. One hug. You can be the first to hug Iron Man. The envy of all your friends."
Steve's arms slide around him, and he squeezes his eyes shut, screwing up his expression so he can't possibly see. He tucks his face against Tony's neck like he's always, always belonged there, a key sliding into a lock.
"You didn't have to do this for me," Steve says, his breath the only point of warmth against Tony's skin, because the rest of Steve's body is still icy. He's shaking. But even as he protests, he draws Tony closer.
"We talked about this," Tony says. "It's way past our third date, right?" He says it because he thinks a joke might relax Steve, but as he says it occurs to him that cuddling naked -- or in Tony's case, mostly naked -- with your teammate might not be the best time for homoerotic jokes. He coughs. "I'm sorry. I just. I. Uh. You can pretend I'm Sharon?"
Steve's fingers dig into his shoulders. Clench and release. "We broke up."
Steve says nothing. He says nothing for so long that Tony's worried he's fallen asleep again, and dammit, he has that concussion. Shouldn't he stay awake?
"Mmm," Steve says, a little distractedly.
"Don't go to sleep on me," he says. "Need you to keep talking, okay?"
"Mmm," Steve says again. "About what?"
"Anything," Tony says, and his voice rises in desperation. He seizes on the first topic that comes to mind, the last topic they talked about, and he immediately regrets it as soon as the words leave his lips. "Got your eye on anyone else, then?"
He winces. Steve's not going to answer that, and anyway, it's not Tony's business.
But, to his surprise, Steve tucks his head tighter against Tony's neck. His cheeks are tinged with red. Hey, blood flow, that's got to be a good sign, right?
"You don't have to tell me," Tony says, quickly. "It was a stupid question."
"No," Steve insists. "I want to tell you. You're my best friend, Shellhead." And Tony feels like he could heat this whole cabin with the warm glow he feels from hearing that particular praise. "I just-- it's-- you can keep a secret, right? If I tell you."
Ha. Tony knows all about secrets. Does he ever.
"I'll take it to my grave," he says. "Cross my heart."
Steve's voice wavers a little. "And you won't laugh?"
"Of course I won't laugh." He smiles. "No matter who. I promise."
Steve mumbles a word against his skin. A name. It's so faint, Tony can't make it out.
"Pardon?" Tony asks. "I didn't catch that."
Steve lifts his head. His eyes are still shut. And when he speaks, his voice rings out. "It's Tony." He coughs. "I mean. Mr. Stark. Your boss." He falters a little, when Tony, stunned into silence, says nothing, but he finds his voice again. He's still pressing on. Bravely. He's always been brave. "It's him. I-- I-- I'm sweet on him, okay?"
Oh. Oh, fuck.
Tony had thought about the risks of having a secret identity, but he could honestly say that he had never, ever thought about this.
His heart's pounding. Steve can probably feel his heart pounding. Tony's throat is tight. He can't remember how to breathe. He has no idea what to say.
Steve likes him. Oh God. Steve likes him.
After a few seconds of agonizing silence, Steve speaks. "Shellhead?" Steve's face is twisted; his voice is uncertain. "Is it-- is it because I'm a man? Because he's a man? You don't-- you don't think I'm--"
Christ. Now Steve thinks he's homophobic.
Oh God. He has to tell him who he is. There's no way he can be this much of an asshole to Steve. He has to. He can't just let Steve think he's entrusting his secrets to... someone who isn't him.
Maybe he can put Steve off?
"It's not that," Tony rasps, hastily. "It's really not that. I just-- I can't believe it's Tony Stark."
"Why?" Steve asks, and Tony can practically feel Steve's frozen body trying to coil up in defensiveness. If he were an animal, his hackles would be raised. "Is there something wrong with Tony Stark?"
Buddy, Tony thinks, you have no idea.
Tony coughs. "Well, he's not exactly. Uh. I just think you could do a lot better."
Steve's expression is hideous; he looks even more wounded than he had when Tony was trying to tend to his actual wounds. "I don't think so." Each word is precisely enunciated, the way Steve gets when he is really, supremely angry and trying to hold onto some shred of calm. "For God's sake, you've worked for him for years! I thought you at least liked him."
Tony grits his teeth so the awful, mocking laugh that wants to come out of him can't possibly escape. "I'm not saying he's a villain," Tony says, very carefully. "But he's not... flawless."
"No one's flawless," Steve retorts. "No one's perfect. Am I only allowed to like perfect people? I like him." His hand tightens on Tony's shoulder; he's doubling down on stubbornness, the way he always does. "He's just-- he was always there for me, when I first joined the Avengers. He's so kind, and generous -- and heck, there wouldn't be an Avengers team without him, if he hadn't opened up his home to us. You all might have founded the team, but he made it possible for us to keep doing what we do. And he's not a superhero, and he doesn't have to do any of the things he does for us, but he does, because he's a good man." Tony's throat seizes up. He-- he has to tell Steve he's wrong, but Steve is nodding firmly as he continues. "And I don't know where you get off," Steve says, indignantly, "thinking he's so much lesser than I am. The way I see it, I don't see how a fella as amazing as he is would ever give me the time of day."
Tony splutters. "What?"
Steve's face scrunches up again in a way that would probably be a withering stare if he had his eyes open. "Come on, I know you've met him. He's one of the most brilliant people on the planet. I've heard all those ideas you bring back to the team from him, and they always save the day. And he's handsome. Like a star of the silver screen. Have you seen his eyes? Gorgeous. The way he looks at you." He shivers, and Tony is torn between gratified excitement and horrified misery. "And he's rich. That's-- that's the whole package, right there." Steve's voice breaks off, and when he starts talking again he sounds somehow smaller. Diminished. Like he's still a poor scrawny kid from the slums who no one ever looked at twice. "He can have anyone he wants, I bet. And me? I'm just... a relic from a bygone age. A dinosaur. A fossil. And I might be strong, and I might have a head for tactics, but he can run rings around me in every other way. He's nice enough not to try to show me up, but." Steve shrugs. "I'm just a corny old fogey in a funny costume, when it comes down to it. It's his future. I don't even belong in it. How could I deserve him?"
"That is ridiculous," Tony says, and he's pretty sure he was supposed to be talking Steve out of this but he can't just lie here and listen to Steve tell him how he'd never have a chance with someone as wonderful as Tony. Because, really. Come on. Tony sighs. "But it's not-- it's not like you think it is. He's not like you think he is. He's nowhere near as good as you think he is."
Steve tips his head forward against Tony's bare shoulder. Tony feels a long, exasperated breath hiss against his skin. "Then answer me this: why in the world do you work for him?"
Tony can't say anything. He's never had an answer for this one. Then again, he's never been put in the position of needing to defend himself.
"If it had been that he was just the team benefactor and you didn't like him, then fine." Steve's voice is clipped. Terse. He doesn't really think it's fine. "Sometimes people just don't get along. But you've been his bodyguard for all these years," Steve says, his voice twisted in confusion. "You've risked your life for him -- what, hundreds of times? Thousands? You must think he's worth it. It doesn't make sense."
Tony opens his mouth. No words come out.
And then Steve says, in the smallest, most betrayed voice Tony could ever have imagined, a man watching his dreams dashed to pieces before his eyes, "Is there something else going on here?" He pauses. "Does he have something on you? Is that why you're working for him? Is it-- is it blackmail?"
"Because if it were just about the money," Steve says, with that goddamn Captain America earnestness ringing from him, "you know we'd help you, Shellhead. We'd figure something out." His face is pale again. His mouth works. "If he's holding something over you, then we can still help, but you'd have to tell us more--"
"No," Tony says, wretched and miserable. "It's not that. Not any of that. But you should know... he's not a good man. Not at all."
"Then I don't understand," Steve says, voice rising in frustration.
Well. Time to say goodbye to his best friend.
"Steve," Tony says, firmly. He doesn't bother to try to hide his voice anymore. "Open your eyes. Look at me."
"That's an order, Avenger."
Steve brings his head up and opens his eyes. He blinks a few times; he's not quite focusing at first. And then he is, and his eyes go wide. His face drains of all color; there's nothing in him but the peaks and hollows of his face, a topography of shock and shame.
"A good man," Tony says, softly, hoarsely, "would never have lied to you."
Expression frozen in horror, Steve stares at him like the words haven't even registered. And then he shoves Tony off him.
Steve being surprised and uncoordinated is the only thing that saves Tony from being smacked against the floor with full super-soldier strength. His ears ring as his head hits the floorboards, and he's tangled in the blanket. He's dimly aware that Steve, next to him, is trying to push himself away, and for fuck's sake he has a concussion and he's going to rip that leg open again if he's not careful.
Steve's pushing himself awkwardly backwards, not moving at his usual speed, but he's skittering back like the only way he can think of to deal with this is to get as far away as possible, and Tony watches in horror as the back of Steve's head slams into the solid stone corner of the fireplace. Steve makes an awful half-voiced whimpering sound, but at least he doesn't pass out.
Tony drags himself out of the blankets, grabs Steve by the shoulders, and hauls him away from the fire. "Goddammit," Tony says, with all the bitter vehemence he can muster, "I know I'm an asshole but I did not fly you through a blizzard so you could give yourself a second concussion, all right?"
Blinking a few times, Steve eventually focuses on him. He licks his lips and nods, and Tony lets him go.
If Tony had thought it was awkward between them earlier, it's nothing compared to the awkwardness now. Steve's at least got the blankets pulled up past his hips; Tony is safely a few feet away, wearing only his unfortunate Captain America boxers. He's very aware of how cold it is even a short distance further away from the fire.
"When," Steve says, and it's not exactly a question. He's staring at the ceiling. "Why. How long."
Shivering, Tony draws his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them. He feels very, very alone. "I never meant for you to find out like this."
That earns him a look from Steve, a slow, somber stare that's terrifyingly out of place on him. "You never meant for me to find out at all," Steve corrects him. His expression twists into agony. "What, you get your kicks by sitting here, promising me you'll keep my secrets, and then listening to me going on and on about my feelings for you? And me with my eyes shut, never knowing I was already talking to you? Bet that really did it for you, huh?"
"God, no," Tony says. "How much of a bastard do you think I am?" He realizes that Steve maybe doesn't actually know enough about him to answer that. He breathes out. "I didn't know. I'm sorry. I honestly didn't know what you were going to say, and then-- and then you did-- and." He bites his lip. There's nothing he can say or do to make this better.
"It's been years." Steve sounds like he's about to cry. "Why didn't you tell us? Why didn't you trust us?" He pauses. "Or is it me?" he asks, small and quiet and wounded, and goddammit, now Tony wants to cry. "Does everyone else, do they already know--"
"No," Tony says quickly. "No one knows. Well, okay, Happy and Pepper. And now you. That's it."
Steve sighs, a drawn-out exhalation.
He knows he owes Steve an apology, but he doesn't have one to give. "It's not you." It's not you, it's me, Tony's mind suggests, and he chokes back an awful laugh. "There's nothing you could have done differently. It's me. When I said I wasn't a good man, I meant it."
"Tony," Steve says. The rebuke is hesitant, like Steve doesn't think he has the right to call him by his name -- an intimacy that he wouldn't have hesitated to assume, had Tony been only Iron Man to him. It stings.
"When I started out," Tony begins, "I told myself the secret identity was a better choice. A nobler choice. I still had that shrapnel in my chest. I used to have to wear the suit chestplate all day, every day, and keep it charged. Or my heart was going to give out." When he glances over, Steve is staring at him with a mix of pity and abject horror. "I know you didn't know," he adds. "I know. I never told anyone about that, either. I thought it would be easier. I thought I was going to die, imminently. There was no point in getting close to people. It would just mean they'd miss me. You'd miss me. I didn't want to do that to anyone I-- anyone I cared about."
He's as good as told Steve the crush is mutual. But Steve doesn't notice. He throws his arm over his eyes, breathing in and out. Tony watches his chest rise and fall, golden in the firelight.
"You can't actually control my feelings, you know," Steve says, finally, like he discarded several responses before settling on this one.
Tony feels his mouth twist. "No, but I can sure as hell try."
That startles a half-angry noise out of Steve that could be a laugh or a choked out groan of misery. "Even if you could have stopped me feeling anything for you, Tony," Steve says, "do you really think I wouldn't have missed Iron Man? You think the team would have said, oh, well, ol' Shellhead's never showing up again, no problem? You think I'd have been just fine with that?" His voice is louder, echoing in the empty cabin.
Tony doesn't take the bait; he just shrugs. It sets off another fit of shivering. He's getting colder and colder. "You weren't supposed to care about him either." He snorts. "Come on? Guy in a big metal suit? Who wants to be his friend?"
"Me," Steve says, firmly. "And a lot of other people too, but definitely me. Even if you're--" He hisses through his teeth and Tony's positive that anyone who isn't Captain America would finish that sentence with a complete asshole. His face is still flushed. "It's not your fault, but that'll teach me to tell anyone I like anyone. I can't believe that happened. I'm sorry."
He's turning away, rolling toward the fire, like he thinks he's unwelcome. Like Tony would never have wanted him. Jesus.
"You didn't know," Tony says. "I'm sorry. I was afraid, and there's no good way to explain it. There's no excuse. I didn't want to be... myself." The words are raw. "I know you look at me, you see a man who has everything. But I-- I really don't like being him. And when I'm Iron Man, I'm a hero. I'm not... Tony Stark."
Steve's turned away from him. All Tony can see is the curve of Steve's bare shoulders.
"That's a shame," Steve says, softly. "Because I like Tony Stark an awful lot."
He knows Steve told him already. He doesn't expect the words to have the effect that they do. Steve knows now. He knows his secret and he still thinks he's worth something. He doesn't remember the last time anyone had that kind of unquestioning faith in him. Sure, the Avengers have it for Iron Man, but for Tony? He's not one of them. But Steve has that same note in his voice, that unshakeable confidence.
"Even if he's not perfect?"
Steve's head moves as he nods. "Like I said. No one's perfect."
Tony somehow finds the courage to speak. Steve deserves to know. What's one last secret? "If you'd told me, if you'd wanted to tell me -- I would have said yes."
When he speaks, it's so quiet he can hardly hear himself. Steve can, though -- the fringe benefits of being a super-soldier. As Tony watches, Steve rolls back and pushes himself up. The blankets pool around his hips. His bare skin looks warmer now, almost glowing, outlined by the crackling fire.
And then Steve seems to notice that Tony is sitting there, shivering, in his underwear.
Steve holds out his hand. "You want to try this again?"
"We can sort the rest of this out when no one has any head trauma," Steve offers. "But I was a lot warmer when you were over here, and you look like you're freezing, so--" He pauses. "Is that Captain America underwear?"
Well, now Tony's face is a lot warmer. He glances down at himself. Maybe someone who wasn't Steve wouldn't have noticed the little patterned shields on the blue fabric, but of course Steve can tell. "In my defense," he says, "I didn't think you were ever going to see it. In, uh. Any circumstances." He's suddenly very aware that Steve is naked under the blanket. Christ, but he's some kind of pervert.
The smile on Steve's face is faint, but it's there. "Didn't think you'd be getting lucky, huh?"
"Uh." Tony nearly swallows his tongue. "What?"
Maybe this is one of those phrases that meant something else in the forties? It's been years since Steve screwed one of those up, though. No one is going to forget the time Steve learned that boner no longer meant mistake, if only because Clint is never, ever going to let Steve live that one down. So this has to be deliberate. But Steve doesn't say things like that.
Steve's eyes sparkle. "I know," he says, and his voice is, on one hand, amusedly dry and, on the other, so very fond that Tony finds himself smiling back. "I know. It's like Captain America knows what sex is. It's a terrible shock." His voice raises in mock outrage. "I hear sometimes Captain America even has sex. Why, I never."
Tony wonders what this man with his wicked, knowing grin did to the straitlaced Steve Rogers that Tony has known. Maybe Steve was always like this, and he never knew.
"You're making fun of me," Tony says, a little uncertainly. It's almost the kind of thing Steve might have said to Iron Man, some late night together at the mansion, when the walls between them had come down, in one of those weird in-between spaces where it was okay to say if you were afraid, to be who you were because nothing was real in the morning. It's that same level of intimacy that they always had -- but now, with sex jokes.
Steve smiles again. "Little bit, yeah." And then -- oh God -- he winks. "I highly approve of your fashion choices, though." He pats the floor next to him. "Now do you want to come back over here? It's warmer."
Crawling under the blankets is about ten thousand times more awkward the second time. It was one thing when Steve was half-conscious and desperately needing something to remind him he wasn't sinking into the icy North Atlantic waters. It was easier then to tell himself it was for Steve. It's harder to pretend now that this isn't entirely selfish.
And now that they're both aware the feeling is mutual... well, that's just an added layer of complications. Steve's quite possibly even more tense against him than he had been the first time. He's propped up on his side, a little awkwardly. Their bodies are hardly touching.
"Is it your leg?" Tony asks, and then he immediately feels guilty because Steve's been moving around because of him and he hasn't once worried. "Is it worse?"
"No, my leg's all right." Steve grimaces. "As all right as it's getting. I just." His voice trails off, and he can't be comfortable like this. "I'd say that I never thought I'd be here with you, but that sounds strange, doesn't it? Being stranded with a teammate's hardly unusual." Even as he speaks, his gaze darts all over; he can't meet Tony's eyes.
Then Tony figures out the problem. "I'm not going to try anything," he says, and Steve breathes out. "You have a head injury." Although, Steve being who he is, he seems to be recovering from it very, very fast. "We can take it slow. This is just cuddling."
With the intention of being encouraging, he wraps his arms about Steve, draws the two of them close together, and-- oh. Steve's definitely into this.
"Yeah," Steve says, his voice strangled. His cheeks are red, and Tony wonders how he has any blood left given that he knows where the rest of it is going. "Tell that to the rest of me."
"I'm flattered," Tony says, because he is, and because that's a nicer thing to say than I probably shouldn't keep fantasizing about doing something about this. "And glad that you're feeling better."
Steve's smile is a flash of teeth, quick and embarrassed. "You're very. Uh. Have you seen yourself?" He gestures vaguely and manages to bump Tony in the collarbone with an errant fingertip.
Has he what? Has Captain America even seen himself?
Tony glances down at Steve's hand, which is still on his shoulder. Steve's thumb is about an inch from where the scarring starts. "You want to actually look at me and say that again? There's a reason I try not to take my shirt off."
Steve squints like he can't even figure out what Tony's talking about at first. Like it honestly, truly doesn't matter to him. And maybe it doesn't.
"Tony," he says, reproachful, and he pauses. "Can I-- can I call you Tony?"
Tony wants to laugh, because Steve is naked and in his arms and they've known each other for years and he's going to ask that?
"You can call me whatever you want," Tony says, and for some reason that makes Steve's gaze shift away from him again. "I can provide suggestions. Just let me know if you want the filthy names or the sappy ones, cupcake," he adds, and Steve buries his face against Tony's shoulder, muffling a laugh. Excellent.
Steve lifts his head and looks at him like he's about to deliver some kind of Captain America speech, something noble about believing in himself and learning to love and accept himself and maybe about how he's beautiful the way he is. And then his eyes unfocus, his face softens, and he asks, "Can I kiss you?"
And how can Tony possibly refuse that?
Mindful of Steve's injuries, cradling Steve's head in his hands, he leans in and brushes his lips against Steve's. He keeps the kiss a light, sweet thing -- not quite a tease, but a promise. Steve kisses the way Tony always thought he would, earnestly, without artifice, like he just wants Tony to be happy.
They pause and break apart. This is the moment where they could stop. Be responsible. Say they'll pick this back up later.
Steve smiles, and then they both lean in again at the same time.
It's not like they're doing anything more important, Tony thinks, so why not make out until rescue arrives? And then somehow his mouth opens and dear God, Steve can kiss, how has he been hiding that? If Tony were standing he'd be weak in the knees.
That's all right, he thinks. Steve could lift him. Hold up. Maybe hold him against a wall and have his way with him. And suddenly that thought is supremely hot--
There's a knock on the door.
At first Tony can't even process it. There's a snowstorm outside. The path he had to dig out to be able to drag Steve inside was covered over with snow again incredibly fast. And who could be out there?
Steve jerks away. "You think that's our rescue?"
"Either that or AIM."
As he speaks, he's crawling out from under the blankets. Steve's uniform's probably not dry enough yet for him to be able to get it back on, but Tony can probably get into the suit. Most of the suit. There's another knock on the door.
"AIM doesn't knock," Steve observes.
Another knock resounds. And it's probably cold out there. Assuming they're friendly, whoever's out there needs to get in here, in a hurry.
This is how Tony ends up answering the door wearing his helmet, his left gauntlet (just in case it's AIM after all), and his Captain America boxers.
On the other side of the door are a man and woman in black and white spandex. The man stares.
"You're the Avengers who put out the distress call?" He has a fairly thick French accent. Tony supposes they're in Canada after all.
The man peers around Tony to where Steve is sitting by the fire, clutching the blanket in one hand and his shield in the other. Steve is pretty clearly not wearing anything else, and the man's gaze settles on Tony's state of dishabille.
The woman is wide-eyed, like this is all an entirely new experience for her.
"This isn't what it looks like," Tony says.
"Actually, it kind of is," Steve says, still not moving from the hearth.
"You're not helping," Tony calls back, as he frantically tries to remember what the name of the Canadian team is. Something. Maybe a Greek letter? Something flat? Flight?
The woman smiles and nudges the man next to her. "You were the one who said I should leave the convent, Jean-Paul."
The name trips something in Tony's mind. "You're Alpha Flight." The Beaubier twins. They're the speedsters. He's seen them in the Avengers files. Hell of a way to meet someone for the first time.
Jean-Paul nods. "I am Northstar. This is my sister, Aurora. The rest of our team will be along shortly, after they finish seeing to the rest of your team. Or we can fly you out to meet them, if you'd rather."
"That would be good. I think we'd rather get back to our people as soon as possible. I'm Iron Man, by the way," Tony adds. Since the suit has no power, the vocal filters are broken, so he's just going to be glad they don't know his voice. "The gentleman by the fire is Captain America."
"Nice to meet you," Steve says, and Jean-Paul smiles broadly. Yep, that Captain America charm is good for something. Or, hey, maybe he's also a big fan of Steve shirtless.
The Beaubiers politely turn away, and they manage to have a surreal, perfectly normal conversation about the weather as Steve struggles into his uniform and Tony gets the rest of his armor back on. He's still no good for powered flight, but he supposes he can suffer the indignity of being carried.
Soon enough, they're ready to head out. When Jean-Paul opens the door -- with Jeanne-Marie just behind him -- Tony sees from behind them that the storm has died down. The land is covered in a soft blanket of undisturbed snow. It doesn't even look so bad now. And Steve-- and Steve--
Steve's next to him. Steve's always been at his side.
"I really am sorry," Tony says. "I should have told you."
Steve slips his hand into Tony's.
"It's all right, Shellhead," he murmurs. "You did."
As their rescuers carry them up into the sky, toward safety, toward their team, Tony smiles behind the mask. He's Iron Man. He's Tony Stark. Everything's going to be okay.