"Head shot!" Extremis_IronMan shouted as he used one of the repulsor stones to shoot down another yellow-suited AIM foot soldier.
Steve Rogers, aka StarShieldCaptain44, couldn't help smiling. He watched the screen as his character flung his shield to take out three low-level goons. "This isn't an FPS, Shellhead," he said into the blue and black headset Peggy had bought him when he'd been accepted into the army. He watched as Iron tackled the area boss, his health falling when he failed to block. "Need some help there?"
"I got this," Iron said, the mechanized voice coming clearly through the earpiece. Steve always wondered if Iron had paid extra for that feature or if it was one of those 'mods' he kept on about.
Steve watched as Iron's health continued to fall. "There was a plan, you know, where the two of us would take the boss on together after we'd defeated the mob," Steve said conversationally as he took out another yellow suit. He was too far away to give Iron any support other than to pull the aggro of some of the AIM swarm. Iron was supposed to be back here with Steve. But that plan had lasted a total of five seconds before Iron barreled through like usual. Iron occasionally liked to give Leroy Jenkins a run for his money.
He kept an eye on Iron's health as he pushed forward. It was their first time in this area since hitting level thirty-two yesterday, and Iron always thought he was invincible after a level-up. Steve would wait a few days before saying something if Iron kept this up. Or maybe he'd learn the hard way and stop being an ass sooner. As Iron's health dropped below forty percent, Steve figured it was even odds either way. Besides, Iron had been a little stressed recently, so he figured it was a good way for him to let off steam.
"You sure you don't need help?" Steve said, not moving closer. Once his immediate area was cleared, he started to pick off enemies from a distance to raise his dex stat.
"I said I got this," Iron said with a grunt as he got knocked back. "Bastard, you are so mine..."
Thirty percent health. Steve shrugged, even though Iron wouldn't see it. "You're the one who changed the plan. Your call."
Iron swore as one bad hit knocked him down to fifteen percent. "Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?" Steve asked, earning a few curses aimed at him, instead of the boss. "There are kids who play this game."
"I'm concentrating, Spangles, and you know they curse more than I do," Tony said as he fell to ten percent. "Die, asshole!"
"You babble an awful lot for concentrating," Steve said, watching as Iron started to power up the big stone centered on his chest. It left him defenseless as the minions and area boss pounded away at him. Steve sat his avatar down, letting his health and energy replenish quicker as he watched.
As Iron's health reached five percent, he released a beam from the stone he'd powered up. It hit the boss head-on, and Steve applauded as the boss fell to the ground in defeat. It dropped the rare energy stone Iron had been after, and Steve heard the whoop of triumph on the other end of the line. "Eat that, douchebag! See, Cap? No problem," Iron said in a cocky tone.
"I see enemies on your six," Steve replied calmly.
"What? Shit!" Iron fired from the stones in his palms as more AIM minions converged on him. "A little help, Cap!"
"I thought you had this," Steve said innocently as he had his game sprite stand. "After all, who needs a plan when you're the invincible Ironman at level thirty-two?"
"Haha, very funny Captain Ass. Are you going to help or not?" There was a small bit of panic in the mechanized voice that made Steve grin.
"I'll see if I can get to you in time," Steve said as he let his shield fly.
"A little faster!"
"I'm going as faster as I can," Steve grumbled good-naturedly. In the end, Steve did not make it in time. He watched as Iron's corpse fell to the ground, leaving all of his inventory up for grabs as he was stabbed by a yellow AIM minion. Steve avenged Iron's death as the man implied rather nasty things about his mother. One of these days, he'd learn how to take a screen cap. Because that would have made him a mint in blackmail.
"You are a son of a bitch, Cap," Iron shouted as Steve finished off the last of the minions.
"The son of the bitch that's standing guard over your stuff so you won't lose anything," Steve said. "So maybe you should be nicer to him. Or just follow the plan in the first place so that he doesn't have to wait on you."
"Whatever. I totally killed that guy by myself," Iron said, obviously sulking on the other end of the line.
Steve just smiled. Despite how deep the mechanized voice made him sound, Steve always figured Iron was a few years younger than himself. He sometimes liked to imagine what Iron looked like in real life. He always got the image of a painfully awkward nerd with glasses and a sweet smile when he wasn't trying too hard to be cocky. "You did," Steve agreed. "You vanquished the foe bravely, but next time you should look out for the minion that killed you."
"Touché," Iron said with a scowl.
"Have you respawned yet?" Steve asked. He looked over the loot, finding the rare stone Iron needed for the next upgrade, a plan forming in his mind.
"Yeah, yeah. Hold your horses," Iron said. Steve could see the red and gold dot that was Iron on the map, all the way back in town. He picked up the stone. This could take awhile.
"So why don't you play First Person Shooters, Cap?" Iron asked. "I thought it was a requirement for all army grunts to love Call of Duty."
"I see enough guns in my day job," Steve replied, shaking his head. "I prefer superhero games. They're more colorful, and I don't have to jump for cover every time I hear a gunshot. What about you? Why do you play the cheap City of Heroes knock-off? I know you can afford better games."
The last question was testing the water. Iron went quiet for a moment, and Steve wondered if he had pushed too far. Iron never really said he was wealthy, but Steve had heard him complaining/bragging about his Stark phone, two computers, and a sports car, so Steve had assumed... But Iron was always prickly when it came to personal details. "The code," Iron said finally.
"Yeah," Iron said. "Avengers Town is a cheap City of Heroes knock-off, sure, but the group who codes this sucker was elegant. They really loved doing it, and you can tell. It's not often I see someone else who can code as well as me. Plus, it's fun to mod."
Steve took that as a good sign. He looked at the stone in his inventory, debating his plan. He had to go about this carefully, or Iron would only freeze up. "Sounds like a fair reason," Steve replied. He killed a straggler AIM minion and sat his character down.
"Hey, what happened with that bigwig that was supposed to be visiting your base yesterday?" Iron asked, an obvious ploy to change the subject, but Steve didn't mind. "Or is it classified with all the other secret stuff you do?"
"Not classified," Steve said, sighing. "Not even someone from the military. Just a stuck-up civilian."
"Oh, yeah?" Iron asked. "Who's out visiting the poor grunts now? Brangelina? Football players?"
"Tony Stark," Steve said, not bothering to hide his disgust.
Instead of the usual commiserating Steve was expecting, the other side of the line went oddly quiet. "Hey, Iron, you still there? I thought lagging was for losers with old computers."
"Yeah, I'm still here," Iron said, his voice lacking the usual emotion that came through even with the voice modulator. Then he pushed a forced-sounding cheer into his voice. "So what did the infamous Tony Stark do at a military base? I thought you grunts liked the weapons he made."
"Haven't you been following the news about it?" Steve asked, before shaking off his agitation and leaning back in his chair. He couldn't let Iron distract him when something was wrong. "Are you alright?"
"Fine. What news?" Iron asked tersely.
Steve bit his lip. He knew pushing would only make Iron more defensive, and defensive Iron meant an Argument, which Steve couldn't afford if he wanted his plan to work. He'd drop it for now, in a strategic retreat. He could ask again later. "About the double-dealing of his weapons to terrorists! That aside, Tony Stark is a narcissistic rich kid."
"I'm a narcissistic ass too."
Steve smiled, thinking back to last week's raid and the level twenty player who'd been harassing some lower levels. The bully had finally gotten the rare quest gem off of them by hacking them, then signing off with a code-version of the middle finger. Iron had given the lower levels an extra gem he'd picked up on the sly, and Steve was fairly certain the other hacker had had an unpleasant surprise the next time he'd logged in. Steve normally didn't condone hacking, but Iron always pointed out that 'what was the point of playing a game about masked vigilantes if they couldn't dish out justice?' After a few of the things the lower level players had said the bully had done, Steve was inclined to look the other way.
“Yeah, you are, but you’re nice when no one’s looking,” Steve said.
"Am not," Iron denied.
"I'm not starting that fight with you," Steve said. "Cause it's true regardless, and I'm not a five-year-old." He sighed, thinking back to the earlier conversation. "But Stark just... All he cared about was how he looked for the press. You should have seen him soaking up the praise from the younger recruits. My C.O. thinks his visit was fishy too. There's talk that he was just here to find the leak in his network of dealing weapons under the table. How can a man who claims to want to protect America just turn around and sell weapons to terrorists? It's disgusting!"
"Yeah, it is," Iron said blankly. "So you think he's behind it?"
"I think those photos the Times published were fairly damning. Not that someone as rich as Stark couldn't afford a lawyer good enough to get him off." The bitterness Steve felt at that was the same reason he'd never had the heart to report Iron's hacks. There were times he wished superheroes really did exist. At least in the comics, the bad guys always lose.
"I suppose so. Stark's definitely at fault for negligence, if nothing else. He deserves a lot of the blame."
There was something in Iron's voice that made Steve rethink his decision about the earlier retreat. "Shellhead, are you sure you're alright?"
"I'm on level now. I'll meet you in a few seconds."
Steve watched the red and gold dot on his map getting closer, unable for the life of him to think of what had happened to his friend. It couldn't be the topic, could it? Maybe one of his RL friends had said something during the pause. Iron muted sometimes when the two he called P. and R. came in the same room. "Look, I know you don't like emotions, but I'll listen if you ever want to talk," Steve said, thinking back to the night Iron had logged on after his parents had died in a car accident. He'd only been able to stay online while Iron got steadily drunker, but Steve had at least been there to listen.
Iron was quiet again, but before Steve could say something else, he spoke. "I know. I... Thanks, Cap. I mean that. Just not right now, okay? Can we drop it?"
"We can drop it for now," Steve agreed, cursing the fact that he'd never actually met Iron. Meeting people online was really fantastic and he loved being able to talk to people from half-way across the world, but it made him feel so useless in situations like this. There was no such thing as a long-distance hug.
Iron's avatar flew up - a red and gold suit of armor that didn't even show his face. A full mask against the rest of the world. Sometimes, Steve wondered if that was intentional, or if Iron just liked the look. Steve's own red, white, and blue character had a cowl and a shield to fight.
"Took you long enough," Steve said, rather than admitting how useless he felt.
"You can't rush genius," Iron said, some of his usual cheekiness returning.
"Is that why you took so long to kill Aldrich Killian?" Steve asked. "Here I thought you needed help defeating him."
"First, what kind of a name is Aldrich Killian for an area boss, anyway? It sucks. The AIM acronym is even worse. I mean, Advanced Idea Mechanics? Lame. Seriously, the coding is genius, but whoever they let name things needs to be replaced. Second, I defeated him, not you, and you were completely useless getting over here. Not my fault. Third... where the hell is the vibranium core?"
"You mean this vibranium core?" Steve said teasingly. He was relieved at Iron's babbling, because it meant he was feeling better. "It looked shiny, so I picked it up."
"Hey! You can't even use that!" Iron's voice was sulky again, but still playful.
"I..." Steve cut himself off, wondering if he should go through with this after all. But he was shipping out next week and he might not get another chance for a while... "I'll give it back if you tell me your name," Steve said, breaking his own rule not to push Iron about his identity.
"What?" There was fear in Iron's mechanical voice. Fear and panic. "Look, just keep it then. J. is calling and I have to go-"
"Iron, wait." A tactical mistake after all. Steve had to backtrack before Iron logged off completely. "I'm bluffing about the stone. You can have it."
He started the trade to show he was serious, rushing on before Iron could say anything. "It's just that I'm leaving next week and they've told us Internet will be pretty scarce because of security and..."
"And what, Cap?"
"And I'll miss you," Steve admitted. "I wanted... You're my friend, Shellhead. You know my real name and lots of other things I haven't told anyone else, but I barely know anything about you."
"That's a good thing, Cap," Iron replied. "Trust me, you don't want to know more."
"Iron, that's not-"
"Why bring it up now, anyway?" Iron asked, steamrolling over Steve's reassurances. "You've shipped off before without needing to know."
Steve sighed, once again feeling inadequate when he couldn't even reassure his friend. "I was going to ask if you'd write."
"Emails? We do that all the time anyway so-"
"I meant letters," Steve said, flushing. He waited for Iron to laugh like he usually did when Steve admitted he liked record players better than CDs or that he washed his dishes by hand, but none came.
"You want me to write letters to you?" Iron asked. Steve could hear the confusion in his voice.
"Yeah," Steve said, breathing out. "I used to write Bucky a lot before he..."
Steve swallowed, closing his eyes a moment before continuing. "I'm okay. I just need a second. There was just... It was comforting, having letters that I could hold and to have someone to write back to. I mean, Peggy's already promised to write as well, so you don't have to if you don't want to."
Silence was never a good sign when Iron was involved, and Steve bit back the sharp disappointment. "Forget I asked. Emails will be-"
"No, I... I'd like to write you."
Steve felt a broad smile stretching across his face at the words. "Really? It's not too low-tech for you?"
"It's so low tech it's beneath me, and I'll have you know the postal system sucks, but... I want to keep in touch too."
"And is there a name I can put on the return envelope or should I just leave that blank?"
"I - well, you could..." This time the disappointment wasn't as sharp. Steve knew Iron had problems in the past when other people had found out too much, and he'd even shown Steve some of the harassing emails he'd received with some details missing. Steve had killed a few punching bags at the gym after reading those. He'd promised himself not to push Iron for details until he was ready, because he knew the level of trust involved wasn't a reflection on himself. He just had to take what he could get for now, and letters were much better than he'd hoped for.
"Marc. That's with a c and not a k. Like Marc Anthony. A friend used to call... You could write that. I'll set up a PO box tomorrow and email it to you," Iron said in a rush.
"Thanks, Iron. It means a lot to me." Even a fake name was better than nothing. Besides, if it was an old nickname, 'Marc' might not be too far from the truth. It was a step in the right direction.
"You're out there protecting us. Least I could do," Iron said dismissively, though Steve could hear an underlying fondness and embarrassment there. "Now, enough with the feels. I'm getting hives and I need more vibranium cores to make the armor's upgrade. Chop chop!"
"I thought you were upgrading my shield next?"
"That was before you made fun of me for dying by minion. I'm only reconsidering if you promise to never mention it again."
"My lips are sealed," Steve said with a laugh.
* * *
"Captain, care to explain why my soldiers are playing with sandbox toys?"
Steve looked up from his drawing, pushing it aside to stand and salute as he saw the stern face of Colonel Phillips glaring at him. "It's good for morale, Sir," Steve said, attempting to hide his grin.
"Not when they're supposed to be standing guard, it's not."
It was hardly his fault what Dum Dum and the others did with the toys he'd gotten in the latest package from Iron. He could see why this would be a problem though. "I'll talk to them about it, Sir," Steve said sheepishly. "I'll make sure it won't happen again."
"It better not, Rogers, or I'm going to start screening these packages of yours and it won't be pretty."
"Yes, sir." Steve refused to blush at the threat, because that would only make the Col. torment him more and Steve wasn't sure he could take that. The toys had been innocent enough, but some of Iron's other 'gifts' were things he'd rather no one else saw. Iron had a rather strange and sometimes crude sense of humor when it came to care packages, and some things he considered important to mental and physical health were things Steve could do without.
Phillips left after a few more strong words and Steve was glad when he could go back to his drawing. He smiled at the little dump truck Iron had sent after Steve had complained about the sand. He pulled out Iron's last letter from his locker instead of continuing the drawing, feeling warm at the sight of it.
The letter was handwritten in small, precise cursive that made every letter legible, as though Iron had been drilled so often when he'd been younger and just couldn't waste the energy to write it bigger. It was different from Peggy's sloppy, but elegant loops, and Steve would never have pegged Iron for writing in cursive (and he called Steve old-fashioned), but the handwriting was comforting in a way that Steve couldn't explain.
You've been complaining about the sand, so I've decided to send you something to make the sand more fun. No need to thank me. I'm awesome, I know. P. and R. totally won't admit it, but you appreciate me, right? R. is being a spoilsport and won't let me send him some too. Not that I haven't already sent his package anyway, so that's his problem.
Missed you last night on Avengers. I've been getting Hulkster leveled so he can join us on the next raid, which is even more awesome, cause he's a total tank. I've gotten enough vibranium cores to make lots of cool fun stuffs. We'll be getting our science on and running circles around army grunts who sit around instead of saving their friends in boss fights. No, I still haven't forgiven you for that. You mentioned it to Widow, of all people. And now she and Marvel 87 mock me constantly. It's all your fault.
We need to set up a Skype call or something, because this whole not talking thing sucks. Seriously, I have to write this shit out just for you. It's inefficient and it takes too long.
And see? Now J. is nagging at me to get to work. I could have dictated this to my computer and you'd have gotten a letter that would be twice as long, but no. Short letters are all you get, because you're old-fashioned.
Still waiting on your letter, asshole. So get to writing. I'm not sending any more chocolate until you write, okay?
Ugh, now Obie is nagging. I better go. I'll write again later.
Steve ran his fingers over the ink, smiling faintly. He'd never read anyone else who wrote exactly the way they talked. Steve could almost hear Iron's voice as he read the letter. Steve's own letters read more like a status report, but Iron didn't seem to mind.
He looked down at the reason he hadn't written last week. Steve wanted to send the drawing of Iron's character with the next letter, and it was almost finished. He traced the shaded mask carefully so as not to smudge it. Iron would like that, he hoped. It was thanks for all the packages and letters that never failed to arrive at least once a week. Not even Peggy wrote that often.
He folded Iron's letter, putting it back with the others he collected to look over when he felt homesick. He'd finish the drawing tonight, then write tomorrow.
Chocolate was good for morale, after all.
* * *
Steve was floating. At least, that was what it felt like. He was vaguely aware that he should be in pain, but whatever drugs they had him on were good. Steve tried to remember what had happened, but this mind was too jumbled and a callused hand holding his was warm and comforting. It wasn't Peggy or Bucky, because the calluses were in all the wrong places, and there were little nicks and scars along the fingers, but Steve felt a strange sense of peace with the hand in his. He slipped back into unconsciousness.
He nearly woke a couple of times, fading in and out of consciousness before he could make sense of it. Steve didn't know how long it was before he finally opened his eyes, but when he did, he wished he hadn't. With opening his eyes came the pain that told him he'd been weaned off the good drugs.
"Peg..." he coughed, which hurt. Steve closed his eyes again, and a few moments later he felt something cold and hard against his lips. Ice chips. That was never a good sign, that he couldn't just have water.
The ice melted slowly, soothing his dry throat as Peggy spoke. "You're awake! They said you wouldn't... God, Steve, I was about to tell them to turn the machines off. Steve..."
"I didn't miss our date again, did I?" Steve croaked out after the ice melted. "'Sides, I thought we weren't dating anymore."
He opened his eyes to see Peggy in tears, just like she'd been after the accident and Bucky's death. She managed to be completely composed and falling apart at the same time, which was something Steve always admired about her. "You did," she said, her soft voice only wobbling a little as she got herself under control. "And you owe me a dance, Steven Rogers. This time I expect you to practice so you won't trip over me."
"Course," Steve replied, smiling as best he could. He'd do anything Peggy asked. She was the one who got him through the accident and Bucky's death, a straight-laced but fiery British exchange student who didn't allow Steve to feel sorry for himself while still sympathizing with a poor kid from Brooklyn. She put up with Steve's fumbling attempts at courting, and that was amazing in itself.
"Sorry to worry you," he said, drifting back to sleep.
When he woke again, Peggy was still sitting beside his bed and cutting apples in halves. She ran a hand through his hair when she noticed he was awake, no tears or any sign she'd been worried this time. "Hey," he said, gratefully accepting more ice chips.
"I'm holding you to that dance," was all she said as she went back to cutting her apple.
"What happened? The others..." Steve asked, ignoring how stiff his leg felt. The pain had faded, but he felt like he ached all over.
"Your men are fine, coming out with only a few scraps. Your squad was ambushed," Peggy explained as Steve relaxed as the relief flooded through him. The others were safe. Steve tried to place his memories, but they were still jumbled. He remembered driving out on patrol, laughing at one of Morita's jokes, but not much past that. "There was a bomb, and you drove forward to protect the others. They'd all have died if you hadn't... It's a miracle you survived. There's even been talk of you receiving the Medal of Honor." Steve took that in with a stunned silence as Peggy continued talking. A Medal of Honor? He couldn't have earned that, surely... "Your leg was hit the worst, and your head... You've been in a coma for about a month, but you saved everyone else."
A month? Steve's eyes went wide at that. He looked around for the first time, noticing that this wasn't the VA. It was a lot nicer, plush almost. This was the kind of hospital rich people came to. "Peggy, where... Tricare wouldn't pay for this!"
"Don't worry about the money, Steve," Peggy said, as if reading his mind. "It's been covered by Stark, along with everyone else in your squad. He made sure the best doctors saw to you. It's the reason I've left the machines on for so long..."
"I'd rather pay it myself than accept blood money," Steve spat, trying to sit up.
"Steve, don't try to get up," she ordered, fixing him with the same glare she'd given him when he'd made the mistake of jealously suggesting she'd been seeing someone else. He lay back down. "You've been out of it, so you haven't heard the news. It's not blood money, at least not when it's coming from Stark himself."
"It's not?" Steve looked down at his leg the best he could while still lying down. It was covered in a cast. Well, that would be why it hurt. He couldn't bring himself to ask about how bad it was though.
"It was the former C.E.O. Obadiah Stane trying to frame Stark. There was an assassination attempt when Stark managed to get some proof, but the feds got to him in time to save him. Stane's waiting trial now, and Stark has stopped making weapons completely," Peggy explained. "So just this once, you are going to accept the help, or I'll shoot you outside of the video games this time."
"Yes, Ma'am." Charity of any kind grated at Steve's nerves, but she had a point. He also knew better than to try to argue with her, not after what he'd just put her through. He'd look into this more later when he had more of the facts and decide then. But the main question was... "Why? Why's he paying for this?"
Peggy was quiet for a few moments before responding. "Supposedly it was one of the weapons Stane had sold that hit you." Steve took that in with a chill down his spine, knowing he could have been hit a lot worse with one of Stark's weapons. A coma could have been the least of his problems. "He's even been down to visit you personally a few times."
"His line about just wanting to protect U.S. soldiers wasn't just a business ploy," Peggy said with a shrug. There was something else that she knew and was hiding from him. He could see it in her eyes, but she moved on before he could push. "I've had a few long talks with his P.A. He's been taking this whole thing pretty hard, and he even flew me out here."
"And you let him?" Steve asked, hating the feeling of being indebted to someone he barely knew.
"Unlike you, I'm willing to accept financial aid when it comes to seeing my best friend again before he..." Peggy blinked a few times before continuing on with a stronger voice, her hand slipping into his. "Don't do that to me again."
"I'll try not to," Steve said, grinning weakly.
"Just give Stark a chance, alright?" Peggy said after a short nod, accepting his promise.
"You're awfully keen on making his case for him."
There it was again, that faint gleam of elusive knowledge. Peggy knew something, and wasn't telling him. "I just don't want you making an ass of yourself by refusing his help," she said.
It did seem like he'd misjudged Tony Stark. What was it Iron had said? Negligence. It was a pretty steep crime, but not as bad as treason, and Stark appeared to be trying to make up for the mistakes. He nodded, resolving to catch up on the news as soon as he could.
"Just get better so you can give me that dance," Peggy said, a small smile around her lips.
That was one order he'd be glad to follow. "Yes, Ma'am."
* * *
A month later, Steve hobbled into the lobby of Stark Tower. It was a big, ugly building in the middle of his city, but since it wasn't mucking up Brooklyn, Steve supposed he could forgive it. Iron would have liked it, the sleek lines and tech (even in the lobby!). Iron hadn't been online in the past two months though, so Steve pushed that thought aside with no small amount of worry and hurt. He had to deal with Stark Industries now. Worrying about Iron could come later.
The receptionist smiled warmly at him as he came in. "Captain Rogers?" he asked, waiting until he had a nod from Steve to continue. "Ms. Potts is waiting for you. Just take the elevator up to the penthouse, and she'll meet you there."
"Ah, thanks," Steve said, surprised at how quickly this was going. He'd expected to have to wait a while. He used his crutches to slowly make his way up. The elevator ride was quick for a skyscraper, and Steve found himself facing a smiling woman with strawberry blond hair a lot sooner than he'd expected.
"You must be Captain Rogers," the woman said, ushering him forward before he could stutter out a hello. "Thank you for coming. I'm Virginia Potts, Tony Stark's personal secretary. It's good to see how you've recovered. Please take a seat."
"Thank you, Ma'am," Steve managed as she pulled out a chair for him. Which was awkward, because he felt like he should be pulling a chair out for her. But she was already taking a seat of her own before he could consider the logistics of pulling out a chair while on crutches, so he accepted the offered seat.
"Call me Pepper, please."
Considering what Peggy had told him about how Pepper Potts basically ran Stark Industries now and was probably one of the world's most powerful women, Steve wondered how his life had become so crazy that he was on first name basis with her. "I-ah. I wanted to say thanks for helping with the hospital costs. It's helped a lot more than you'll ever know," Steve said, setting his crutches down within reach. Peggy had given him a long lecture on why he was going to accept the help and wore down his pride enough to admit it. "If there's anything I can do to repay-"
"Mr. Stark handled that one personally, so you'll have to save your thanks for him. And don't worry about repayment, Captain. Tony wouldn't hear of it," Pepper said with another warm smile. "Can I get you anything? Something to drink?"
"No, thank you," Steve said, trying not to fidget. When Ms. Potts... When Pepper invited him to the Tower, she hadn't given him much of a reason. She'd just said to drop by when he had the chance. It had taken him two days and several chats with Peggy to decide to come by, and the last thing he'd expected was to be rushed in without an appointment and greeted personally.
"Then I'll be frank with you," Pepper said as she folded her hands in her lap. "Officially, you're here to be congratulated on your recovery and your soon-to-be-awarded Medal of Honor."
"And unofficially?" Steve asked suspiciously. Stark Industries had been compromised once. If she thought that she could use him because of the medical bills...
"Unofficially, I have a personal favor to ask you," Pepper said, holding her hands up in surrender. "Perfectly legal and nothing to do with weapons, I promise. I just... the situation has gone beyond my control, and I need your help regarding Mr. Stark."
Steve blinked. He hadn't expected that. "You need my help with Mr. Stark? Why me? I've never met him beyond seeing him on the base once or twice."
"So you think," Pepper muttered under her breath. Only he had to have misheard her, because that didn't make sense at all. "I don't know how much you've been following the news, but Tony has taken Stane's betrayal really hard. The man's been a friend of the family for years and... Well, you probably don't care about all of that, not when Obadiah was the reason you got hurt."
Steve winced and nodded, wondering where this conversation was going. "What do you want me to do then?"
"Would you mind talking with Tony for a while?" Pepper asked, her eyes pleading. "I think it would help him move on. He's been working himself to the bone trying to root out Obadiah's network and I'm afraid he'll collapse soon if he keeps going at this rate. Seeing you alive and recovering might help relieve some of the guilt he's pushing on himself."
"You just want me to talk to him?" Steve thought about what little he knew of Tony Stark. He was an ass, no question about that, but like Iron, he cared enough to pay the best doctors to come out and see to Steve and the rest of his squad, along with all the other soldiers who had been killed by Stark tech. It wasn't even a well known fact, just something Stark had done to atone for sins he hadn't even committed.
Iron was still too sore a point to think about though. His last log-on was two days after Steve had tried to stop the bomb, and none of their other online friends had seen or heard from him since. Emails had started to bounce back last week, and Steve's attempt to send a letter was returned with a note saying that P.O. box was no longer in use. But worrying about Iron wouldn't do much good right now. "I guess that sounds easy enough. Talking shouldn't be too hard."
"Don't jinx it," Pepper said, rubbing her temples. "Tony Stark is anything but 'easy'. He'll be defensive and pick a fight just because he feels guilty and scared, and that's never a good combination for him. I wouldn't blame you if you walked out after five minutes with him. And everything you've heard about him in the tabloids about being an ass? It's all true. You might wish I'd asked you about weapons instead by the time you're through."
At this, Steve smiled sadly. "I think I can handle that. I... I have a friend who's a lot like that too, and it's the least I can do after all he's done for me." Still had a friend like that. Steve refused to think Iron was gone completely.
"You have no idea," Pepper said. She shook her head then smiled ruefully. "Then do you mind if I bring him up now? Will you be okay here by yourself a few moments?"
"That's no problem," he answered for both of her questions, still puzzling over her earlier statement. "What did you mean by-"
Pepper checked her phone, holding up a hand. "Great. JARVIS says he's coming out of the workshop now, which means he won't have to be dragged. I'll be back in a moment. I need to catch him before he gets to the office and locks himself in."
With a few clicks of her stilettos, Pepper Potts left the room. That left Steve alone with his thoughts, wondering how the heck he was supposed to help a billionaire by talking. The room itself was nice, sleek like the rest of the tower. Steve was pretty sure the dark panels on the walls could come up with a touch screen, and wouldn't Iron like that?
He had about ten minutes stop himself from thinking about Iron and wonder the amount of trust shown him by leaving him in what appeared to be Tony Stark's living quarters by himself when Steve heard voices. He still hadn't come up with a good plan of attack. "-it off, Pep. I don't have time for another meeting."
"You can't skip this one, Tony. You need to-"
"I need to find the rest of his network! Board meetings, share holders, R&D, they don't matter as long as our weapons are being sold under the counter and killing innocent people!"
"Tony, you have a company to run now that Obadiah isn't in charge. It's your responsibility to-"
"It's my responsibility to make sure no one else gets hurt like..." Steve looked up as Tony Stark and Pepper entered the room, seeing the look of shock on Stark's face. "Steve?" he asked in a way that sounded all too familiar and vulnerable, though Steve couldn't place it.
The moment only lasted a second before a mask shuttered down around Stark's eyes. A pleasant, charismatic smile replaced the anger and vulnerability. "Captain Rogers. I'm glad to see you up and about again," the man said, holding out a hand.
Steve shook it, feeling like he was missing something. He took in Tony Stark's appearance. The man was in a black tank top with grease stains on his shoulders and arms, his hair tousled in what might have been fashionable at the start of the day, but was now just a mess. There were dark bruises under his eyes like he hadn't slept in months and a strong air of tension about him that reminded Steve of a soldier who has been out on the front lines for too long. He was much, much too young to have that sort of tension. He looked too young to even be running the company. "It's good to meet you at last, Mr. Stark," Steve said, mustering up a smile of his own. "Sorry for not standing to greet you, but..." he gestured to his leg and Stark nodded.
"Not at all. No reason to get up on my account," Stark said as he glared at Pepper, who was walking to the door.
"Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
"That's more than I needed, Ms. Potts," Stark said acidly.
Oh, boy. How did he get himself in this mess? Steve sighed internally, before putting on a bright smile. "I wanted to thank you on behalf of my squad and I for-"
"For nearly killing them?" Stark said scathingly, all attempt at being pleasant gone.
"For helping when the weapons Stane sold nearly killed them," Steve finished, a hint of reprimand in his voice.
Stark shoulders dropped, but he didn't give up. "You saved them, not me. And it was the same thing in the end. So you're welcome. Great. Now you can go and-"
"Wait, just let me-"
"Mr. Stark, I need you to sign this," Pepper said as she reentered the room. Steve counted it as a blessing, since Stark had been ready to turn tail and run.
"No, this was your doing." Stark turned his anger on Pepper, waving his hands about in fury. "Don't think I don't know that-"
"You have to sign it. It's important and I need it for the board-"
"-this is your doing. It's not going to work and-"
"-meeting. It is going to work, Tony, and I'm not letting you ruin-"
"Already ruined, Pep, so why don't you-"
"-this, so sign the paper!" Pepper said, opening the folder at an angle that had to have been planned, because Steve could see it as well.
He only got a brief glance at it before Stark snatched it out of her hands, his knuckles white against the folder. "That's private, Ms. Potts."
It was too late, because Steve would recognize a glance of that picture anywhere. "Let me see that." Steve reached out for Stark's wrist, but Stark jolted. "Mr. Stark, there's only one copy of that picture and it belonged to a friend of mine," Steve said, growing angry.
"And now it belongs to me," Stark replied, clutching the folder against him like a lifeline.
"Tony," Pepper said softly, cutting through Steve's anger as she took one of Stark's hands. "Why don't you tell him the truth?"
"You want the truth?" Stark asked, looking Steve in the eye for the first time since the mask had come down. Steve hadn't even been aware he'd been lacking the contact until then. Stark was good at faking it. "The whole fucking truth?"
"That language isn't-"
"I think it is fucking necessary, Captain Spangles."
Steve was brought up short by the name. Iron called him that sometimes; he could never turn down an opportunity to tease Steve about his red, white, and blue superhero. How many times had he gotten on to Iron for language while playing a game that kids signed on to as well? Steve should have felt mortified at scolding a stranger for cursing, but with Stark it was an automatic response. Familiar. "Why don't you tell me what's going on?" Steve growled.
"I am Ironman," Stark said, not dropping Steve's gaze.
"What?" Steve's eyes widened as he couldn't look anywhere but the blue eyes of the young man in front of him.
"I'm Extremis_Ironman," Stark repeated softly, finally breaking eye contact. "Told you that you wouldn't like me if you knew."
Steve stared in shock. Pepper squeezed Tony Stark’s hand and kissed him on the cheek. "Traitor," Stark - Iron - said without any real heat to it.
"I'll be in the other room if you need me, Mr. Stark," she said, before turning to Steve. The glare she sent him promised pain if he hurt her boss. Steve was reminded briefly of Peggy and decided it was best not to cross this woman even if she couldn't sock him like Peggy could.
As she left the room, Steve swallowed and looked back to Stark. He was shorter than Steve had imagined. More built too. Steve wouldn't have thought his Shellhead to be muscular, but the tank top Stark was wearing exposed finely toned arms. He remembered something about Stark blacksmithing in his free time from one of his articles he'd read to research Stark, and he supposed that accounted for it. Steve would never have pictured the goatee in a million years. And... "I thought for sure you'd wear glasses," Steve blurted out, unable to take the silence any longer.
"That's all you can think to say?" Stark... It felt wrong, calling someone he knew this well so impersonally - Iron said. He looked awful, like he was waiting for rejection. Steve took in all the details he'd noticed before as a stranger, now appalled by them as a friend. Iron was a few years younger than him, but the bags under his eyes spoke of too many hours with no sleep. The grease stains were rather endearing, and Steve could get used to the rumpled look, but he didn't like the slumped shoulders, the obvious stress and the tension that hung over Iron like the sword of Damocles. He'd known Iron was having problems at work, but he'd never guessed...
It was Iron - his Iron, in the flesh at last and wasn't that something? - who broke the silence this time. "Look, you don't have to pretend. You've told me what you think of me already, and I'd prefer to just skip the pretenses."
Steve felt his gut twist as he realized what Iron was talking about. Iron's sudden silences when Tony Stark was mentioned hadn't been because R. or P. had interrupted – and P. had to be for Pepper, and Iron always complained that she talked over him when she wanted him to do something. Steve had been accusing one of his best friends of treason without bothering to hide his disgust. And how much guilt was Iron feeling that he hadn't even tried to deny it?
"Iron... Shellhead, I didn't-"
"You did mean it. Don't try to deny that," Iron said, and this time it was Steve's turn to look away.
"You're right, I did," Steve admitted. "But that was wrong. I didn't know Tony Stark, and I didn't give my friend a chance to defend himself and tell me his side of the story."
"Your friend was the reason you nearly got killed! Do you think that bomb was a coincidence? Obie was targeting you to get to me!"
It was one thing to be told a friend of the family betrayed Tony Stark. It made Steve sick to think of Obie betraying Iron. God, there'd been something in the news about an assassination attempt, hadn't there? Iron talked about four people: P., R., J., and Obie. Obie, who'd taught Iron to ride a bike when his father had been too busy. Who brought pizza when Iron needed to be cheered up. Who sounded more like a father than Iron's real dad and had stood beside Tony during the funeral.
And that same Obie had targeted Steve just to get at Iron and make him accept the fall for the double dealing. Steve was really glad that he'd been too nervous to eat before coming, because it was hard to swallow down the bile that that thought brought up. "Is that why you haven't logged on recently? Guilt?" Steve asked, his voice soft as it broke the quiet.
"I nearly killed you. I figured it'd be better if 'Iron' just disappeared," Iron said, clutching at the folder. At the picture of his character flying through the air that Steve had drawn. A thank you to the person who had still written him every week, despite everything Steve had said about Tony Stark.
"Right. I guess that settles it. Sorry about the whole..." Iron wiggled the hand that wasn't clutching at the picture, and how many times had Steve imagined Iron talking with his hands like how he used smilies? "...nearly killing you thing. So I should probably leave now and save us both the awkward that this is becoming."
"You babble too much," Steve said, thinking about how Iron never shut up during a raid. About all those times he'd felt inadequate with not being able to see Iron face to face. He'd never seen Tony.
And now Tony looked hurt, his eyes open wounds that were kept from bleeding by sheer force of will. "So you've said," Tony agreed, turning to leave.
All those times Steve felt like an inadequate friend due to the distance between them, and now here was his chance to change all of that. Pushing away his hesitation, Steve stood up and ignored the pain in his leg as he walked without his crutches, cast be damned. He grabbed Tony's hand before he could leave, pulling the young man into a tight hug.
"Steve?" Tony asked, with no mechanized voice modulator to hide the vulnerability this time. Steve could feel the faint trembles in Tony's body that he'd managed to hide to anyone who was watching, but were impossible to hide while being this close.
"I've wanted to do this since the night your parents died," Steve admitted, and he felt Tony freeze in his arms. "I always felt like I wasn't enough, only being able to listen to you break down and trying to hold it together. And no matter where in the world you've been, you've always sat and listened to me on the anniversary of Bucky's death. You kept writing, even after everything I said."
"It's my fault you nearly died," Tony said against Steve's shoulder.
"It's not your fault someone abused your trust and tried to hurt me," Steve said, resting his cheek against Tony's tousled hair. "And I'll let you leave, if that's what you want. But please... You've known so much about me over the years. I want to get the chance to know Tony Stark. Don't run away again."
"You won't like him," Tony said simply.
"Why don't you let me decide that, Shellhead?" Steve said, hiding a grin.
Steve felt hesitant hands circling around his back, one of them still holding the picture. He decided he needed to draw another one - this time of Steve and Tony.
When Tony pulled back this time, his knuckles weren't white around the folder and the air of fatalism had dispersed. Steve's eyes traced Tony's fingers, glad that the picture meant so much to his friend. On impulse, Steve stuck out his hand. Tony blinked at it for a moment, before taking it with a warm callused hand that Steve couldn't help thinking felt familiar.
"Hi," Steve said as they shook hands again. "My name is Steven Rogers."
"Anthony Stark," Tony said, a smile spreading and soothing the anxiety away. This smile was real - small and sweet, open in ways that he'd never seen in any of the photos of Stark in his research. It was exactly how Steve had imagined it, even if he hadn't pictured the Van Dyke that framed it.
"Anthony," Steve repeated. Of course he'd focused on the wrong part of the fake name Iron had given him. Though he'd never have guessed Tony Stark from any other Anthony even if he had. "It's good to meet you, Tony. I've been waiting a long time."
"Yeah," Tony said, looking down at the hand Steve had just released, the small smile growing. "Me too, Cap."