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Man Behind the Mouth-Slit

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The sun was shining outside the cafe, a cool breeze making the sunshine the exact right temperature for late spring. At their two person table, Tony leaned on his elbows and watched Steve slurp up a strand of spaghetti, flushing and dabbing at his mouth as he spattered sauce all over it. Tony smiled harder.

“Sorry,” Steve mumbled into his napkin. He came away clean-faced, if still almost as red as the sauce itself. “I know pasta isn't supposed to be a good date meal, but...”

Tony waved one hand. “As benefactor of the Avengers, I have access to the basics of your files. You have to consume at least six thousand calories a day. Don't worry about it. Please, I think Nonna Maria is going to propose marriage to you thanks to that appetite.”

Steve laughed and glanced in the direction of the kitchen inside the cafe. A busty Italian grandmother was visible behind the counter, beaming over at Steve. He ducked his head and covered his mouth as he laughed. Tony laughed with him.

“Told you. I better look out, with all this competition I've got for you.”

Reaching across the table, Steve covered Tony's hand with his own. “You know you don't have to worry about that, Tony. I've been having a swell time with you.” His hand squeezed Tony's, prompting some decidedly uncool butterflies to flutter in Tony's stomach. That was okay: Tony was willing to be uncool if that was a requirement of dating Steve Rogers.

Turning his hand over, Tony squeezed back. “Me too, Steve. So! Tell me about your week. Do anything exciting?”

Steve laughed. “Well, there was that little incident in Times Square...”

“Oh, really? Must have missed that one. Was I out of town?” Tony leaned back in his chair, swirling a glass of wine in his palm.

“I guess so. Iron Man and Wasp and I handled it.”

“Who was it this time? Wrecking Crew? Serpent Society?”

Steve shook his head. “Graviton. He had me and Wasp pinned down pretty bad, until Iron Man figured out a way to repel his gravity fields. Still don't know what scientific mumbo-jumbo Iron Man said he did, but whatever it was, it did the trick. I thought Iron Man reported back to you with all this stuff?”

Tony smiled blandly. “He does, but I still like to hear it from you. Iron Man just gives me the facts about these skirmishes. You give me all the gory details.”

Steve rubbed the back of his head. “Aw, well. It's really not that interesting...”

“A super villain had you pinned down with variable gravity fields that he could control. Doesn't sound exactly boring ,” Tony pointed out with a smile.

Steve shrugged. “Sure, but if I wanted to talk shop, I'd date a superhero. I'm on a date with you: Tony Stark.”

“Not-so-super billionaire industrialist,” Tony said with a twist of his lips. His fingers worried at the bottom of his wineglass.

But Steve was smiling that happy, too-broad smile at him. “From what I've seen, you are a super industrialist. You do so much good with your billions: funding the Avengers, the Maria Stark Foundation... You effect change on such a large scale, it'd take me a dozen extra lifetimes to even come close, just punching guys in the face. And I wouldn't even have the opportunity to do that effectively without guys like you.”

“I'm sure you'd find a way,” Tony replied dryly. “Besides, you've got your art.”

Steve ducked his head, a shy smile spreading, unwelcome, across his face. “I do have that,” he agreed after taking a moment to be bashful.

Setting his wineglass back down on the table, Tony waved both hands in front of himself. “Enough of the self-deprecating one-upmanship. Tell me what else you crossed off your list while I was out of town.”

Steve grinned, while Tony breathed a silent sigh of relief. This was a safer topic of conversation for them: Steve's steady progress on catching up on the last sixty odd years. No need to worry about secret identities and guarding his words, lest Steve find out that his boyfriend, the genius industrialist billionaire inventor Tony Stark was in fact the pilot of the very Iron Man armor he had built.

“Well, I finally watched two thousand one,” Steve told him.

Tony made a sad noise. “Oh, damn! I was going to watch that one with you.”

Steve blushed. “Sorry.”

Tony waved his hand. "No worries. As long as I get to watch Star Wars with you. No googling!"

Steve placed one hand on his chest and held the other up, palm out. “Promise.”

“So? What'd you think? This is your first Kubrick, too.”

:Well...” There was a glimmer in Steve's eye as he leaned forward, against the table. “That Iron Man armor of yours: it has a pilot in it, right? It's not like HAL?”

Tony laughed, reaching across the table to squeeze Steve's hand. “You asshole, seriously.”

Steve tried to keep up the innocent smiling, while failing pretty spectacularly at it. “Better safe than sorry!” Glancing around the cafe, Steve turned more serious. “Where is that bodyguard of yours? You didn't give him the day off, did you?”

Tony shook his head. “He's around here somewhere, I'm sure. Skulking about, keeping an eye out for danger. Why? Expecting troub-”

They shouldn't have brought it up, was what it was. They jinxed themselves. Before Tony was finished speaking, a roar cut through the air, so loud it had Steve and Tony slapping their hands over their ears as they winced in pain.

Steve's eyes were on Tony and only Tony. “Get out of here!” he shouted over the din. “Get to safety!”

Tony didn't need telling twice. Though as he sprinted through the restaurant, suitcase in hand, his destination wasn't exactly “safety”. No, Tony was heading for the restroom, where he could reveal his Iron Man armor in his suitcase and put it on. This would transform him from the genius industrialist and all around helpless Tony Stark into the Invincible Iron Man!

Tony Stark entered the restroom, but a scant minute later it was Iron Man who flew out. He joined Captain America running down the streets of Brooklyn, heading in the direction everyone was running from.

“Coming up hot, Cap. Need a lift?”

Steve shook his head, cowl wings flapping as he ran. “I think we're just about...”

The two of them rounded a corner, only to come face-to-foot with a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

“...there,” Steve finished with a grimace. He glanced over at Iron Man. “Well, Shellhead. You think we can handle this?”

Iron Man fired up his rocket boosters. “One dinosaur versus another might be a fair fight. Lucky you, you've got the Iron Man at your side to unbalance the odds.”

Cap smirked as he tugged his shield forward at the ready. “We'll see about that, Tinman.”

The dinosaur wasn't as tough as his name suggested. If he was king of the lizards, then Iron Man and Captain America were the Magna Carta. A few swings of Cap's shield, some well-aimed repulsor blasts, and the thing was already wobbling on its feet.

With one final punch to the jaw, the T-Rex went down. Steve dusted off his palms and looked around, looking for Iron Man. When he caught sight of him he waved, red gloves shinning in the sunlight. “Hey there, Iron Man! Good job!”

Iron Man waved back. “You too, Cap!” Tony grinned inside his metal armor. What they had now was pretty perfect. Steve loved him as Tony Stark, and Tony still got to punch dinosaurs as Iron Man.

Steve was already looking over Iron Man's shoulder, back at the cafe he and Tony had been eating at. “Did Tony get to safety okay?”

Inside his metal suit, Tony grimaced. He wasn't one to be the damsel in distress, and he hated that Steve saw him like that. But there was no judgement or disappointment in Steve's tone, just genuine concern.

“Yeah,” Tony sighed, armor modulating his voice to something more robotic and neutral. “Stark's fine.”

Steve's face lit up like the first time Tony had handed him his shield out of the ice. And Tony thought, well, okay: maybe the secret identity thing was handy. Maybe it was worth Steve thinking he was a coward for his peace of mind.

“But do you have any idea how hot post-battle sex is?” Jan sighed, wrapping her arms around her torso. “Life-affirming, 'I could have lost you', adrenaline-pumping 'I just kicked his ass ' sex? Ooooo it's the best.”

Tony wrinkled up his nose as he pointedly reached for his wineglass. “Jan, if it was just you, I wouldn't mind the visual, but I know you're talking about sex with Hank. No thanks.”

Jan giggled as she dropped her arms. “I never said with Hank ...” She pointed out. Then she grinned, eyes smiling closed. “But yes it's totally with Hank. And it's hot. If you told Steve...”

Tony shook his head. “There's a million and one reasons to keep my secret identity a secret. My stock prices would plummet, everyone close to me would be in danger...”

“Now why would your stock prices do that,” Jan protested. “You'd think your investors would be happy to know you're Iron Man. No one better to keep their product safe!”

“No one a bigger target for super villainous attacks,” Tony countered. “And no one better at getting himself half killed on a day-to-day basis. Stock prices don't react well to company owners who throw themselves in harm's way. Not to mention...” Tony sighed.

“No one's going to let Tony Stark gallivant around as a superhero,” Tony explained. “Steve included, probably.”

Jan tsked. “Now what makes you think that?”

Tony twirled limp pasta around his fork and sighed. “I'm not a superhero. Not like you guys. Beneath the armor I'm just a squishy human.”

Jan poked her foot against Tony's beneath the table. “Not so squishy, don't say that. I saw your spread in Men's Health last month. And really, 'tennis'? That's what you're saying keeps you so fit?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Worked on Steve.”

“Steve, as clever as a tactician as he is, never was much in the spy game,” Jan pointed out.

“We’re happy the way we are,” Tony continued, ignoring the slight against Steve. “Steve likes me for me.”

Jan’s big doe eyes got even bigger and doe-y-er. “But if he doesn’t know about Iron Man, then he doesn’t really know you, does he? Not all of you. How can you be okay with that?”

“He knows all the parts of me I want him to know. Does Hank know everything about you?” Tony fired back.

Jan twisted her perfect bow lips and narrowed her eyes. “Keeping stupid little secrets is not exactly the same as having a whole other life. A secret identity. One that he knows about, even! That he works beside! What happens when he finds out? Because you gotta count on it happening, one of these days.”

Tony snorted. “Who says that? I’m Tony Stark. What I say, goes. And I say: Steve doesn’t need to know. Steve, and I, are happier off without him knowing.”

Jan’s eyes glimmered with that insane cunning that Tony had quickly learned to fear. It meant a plan was brewing. Tony glared back at her.

Jan …”

Jan huffed and threw up her hands, bangles tinkling noisily. “What, I didn’t say anything…”

Tony took a sip of his wine while Jan bit an olive from her martini. They stared each other down over their drinks for long, long seconds, until Jan swallowed her olive and smiled. “Did I show you the pictures from Hank and mine’s vacation in the Canaries?”

“Wasn’t it Cozumel?” Tony asked, going along with the abrupt change in topic.

Jan tsked sadly at Tony. “Oh, Tony, sweetie: Cozumel is so last season.”

Shortly after his lunch date with Jan, a pattern started to emerge.

Monday was breakfast with Steve at the mansion. Eggs and bacon and bagels (sesame seed, Tony just found out and made note of). It was staring into each other's eyes and introducing Steve to the Beatles on a tablet shared between them. It was also the Serpent Society deciding that they somehow had the wherewithal to launch an attack on Avengers Mansion itself.

Tony fled, and Iron Man helped save the day with Captain America. Wasp was there, too.

Thursday was movie night, barring out of town conferences or random acts of evil. This meant Steve and Tony, curled up on the couch of Steve's Brooklyn apartment (the Mansion had a better entertainment system, but Steve insisted they trade off. And Tony had taken the liberty of slowly buying Steve all the good stuff, anyway). A bowl of popcorn sat between them, an empty bowl already set on the coffee table and another full bowl waiting in the wings. Tony hadn't been joking about that whole six thousand calories a day thing. They had a blanket spread over their laps and Tony was running his hand absently over Steve's thigh as Steve did his best to make sense of War Games.

“But why would a computer program think that any outcome of thermonuclear war is a win scenario?”

Tony sighed and squeezed Steve's thigh. “Spoil the ending, why don't you.”

It was a good thing Steve was so clever, because an attack from the Wrecking Crew put a premature end to their movie night. As Tony locked himself in Steve's bathroom to change, he wondered how the heck those dweebs just so happened to start shit a half block from Steve's apartment.

That Sunday was church. Tony wasn't exactly a practicing anything, but Steve was. And honestly, it was one of the few quiet times in the week they could spend together. So sometimes Tony tagged along, and made up stories about the regulars who sat in front of them while Steve tried—and failed—to hide his smiles as he dutifully spoke the words of the mass.

Sunday was also the day that the Hunter decided to track Spider-Man to the building just next to Steve's church. Tony groaned and jogged away as Steve got into Captain America mode. He almost considered for once not joining in and actually being the genius in jeopardy, but an image of a wounded Steve flashed across his mind's eye. Tony settled for allowing himself a few choice words as he clicked the armor into place.

Wednesday was bad. Wednesday wasn't supposed to be bad. Wednesday was supposed to be a jog together in the park—though really, any way you sliced it that scenario was “bad” for Tony. Steve was laughing and jogging backwards as he tried to explain to Tony the cuisine of the nineteen thirties, and how an entire generation didn't die from E. coli.

“It didn't rot in the pot, you didn't keep it in their for a month,” Steve protested. “And you boiled it all at the end of the week, so that killed the germs, I guess. If sickly little me was fine eating it...”

“I'm beginning to think 'sickly' in the thirties was actually 'hardy stock' by today's standards,” Tony wheezed.

Steve's smiling face, witty retort surely on his lips, was the last thing Tony saw before the world exploded around them.

His first thought was “I have to get to the suit.” His second was “is Steve okay?” But that just cycled back to the first thought again. Struggling against the ringing in his ears and the mild concussion he had probably just sustained, Tony found a decent-sized bush to hide behind as he let the suitcase armor do its thing.

Steve was okay, of course he was. He had his shield in hand, wielding it so fast it was practically a blur.

“What's the situation, Cap?” Iron Man asked him.

Steve didn't even pause in his assault against the foe as he stepped to the side, making room for Iron Man. “Some kind of robot,” Steve observed. He spared a glance for Iron Man as he threw his shield once more. “But you might know better than me.”

Iron Man fired his repulsor blasts at the thing's head. It barely made a dent. “On first assessment, that seems as accurate as anything else,” he quipped back.

It was a robot. A robot that, at Tony's best assessment of the situation, could only be taken out with an EMP. An EMP that would kill the robot, but also Tony's armor. Not to mention the arc reactor in his chest.

Damn it. He probably should put some EMP shielding into his suit, in case of this exact scenario. Well, that was a plan for another day.

“I know how to stop him!” Iron Man shouted at Cap.

Cap struggled beneath the concussive force of the robot's blasts, feet digging into the ground as he tried to halt his slide backwards. His shield twisted in his grip as he fought to dict he robot's blasts a better direction. Somewhere besides his head, preferably.

“Then you better do it, and soon!” Cap shouted back.

Switching to internal speakers, Tony called up the number two number on his speed dial (after Jarvis, of course). “Rhodey, bud. No time to chit chat. I need you at Central Park. Now. Life and death.”

“Already on my way, chief,” Rhodey promised him.

“I'm going to need resuscitation,” Tony explained further. “I'm about to stop my heart.”

“Uh, chief? Tony? Are you sure-”

“Just trust me Rhodey. I need you to get here and get me out of here before Steve decides he needs to rip off my helmet to give me CPR. And finds out who exactly is inside this tin can.”

“Oh.” Even in that single syllable, Tony could hear that Rhodey was out of breath. Good. It meant he was trying to get to Tony faster.

“Yeah. ‘Oh.’ So get here, Rhodey.” Tony turned to the robot, never more aware than in that moment of the fact that he was just some squishy human inside a tin can. Worse than that, even: a damaged human inside a tin can. “Get here soon.”

“Cap!” Iron Man called out.

“You got a plan, Shellhead?” Cap grunted.

“Yeah! Don’t worry about me!”

Tony just had time to see Steve’s concentration flicker, his mouth open around the word ‘what?’, before he let the EMP rip.

The world didn’t exactly blank out for Tony. More like shredded through his chest, up his arm, and sat its full weight on his lungs. Iron Man collapsed to the grass beneath his rocket boots like a lead zeppelin. He fell forward, onto his chest, causing panic to start to rise in his gut, rake at his lungs, scream silently at his throat. Rhodey would get here, Rhodey would get to him, Rhodey would get here in time-

Iron Man!!”

Tony couldn’t breathe, the tin box was going to be his grave, Steve was running over to him, no, Steve couldn't run over to him, Rhodey had to get to him first-

Everything went spotty at the edges. He thought he heard the War Machine’s rocket boots, but maybe that was the blood not rushing in his ears, the vacuum of noise stilled in his body. Things started to go black. Then they went all the way black.

He awoke gasping and shaking in a bed, armor stripped from him. His hand went to his chest first, skin tingling with the feeling of blood flowing through his veins once more. Beating, beating, beating again. Tony rolled his head to the side, taking in his surroundings. He was back at the Mansion, in his private quarters.


Rhodey was there, glaring at him from the other side of the room. “You’re an idiot, chief.”

Tony sighed, dropping his head back to the pillows. “Yeah, I know.”

“Don’t pull that shit on me again.”

“No promises,” Tony croaked.

“You at least gotta tell him. Get someone else to have your back-”

“He’s got my back,” Tony interrupted Rhodey. “And so do you. It all worked, didn’t it?”

Rhodey didn’t answer. Tony pretended to fall back to sleep. Then he did, a minute later.

The following Friday Iron Man found himself lying flat on his back, staring through his eye-slits at the clouds passing over his head.

“Iron Man!” Steve shouted as he jumped down from a car. “Iron Man! Are you hurt? Is your armor down?”

Moving his head around inside his armor, Tony was just barely able to reaching a single mechanical lever with his lips. Tugging it into his teeth, Tony yanked it to the side, opening up his mouth slit manually. At the last moment Tony realized he needed to disguise his voice. He lowered it an octave. “Fine. Stay back.”

Steve hesitated, footsteps faltering on the rubbing. Straining his eyes, Tony could see him just at the edge of his vision, peering down at Tony from a few yards away.

“Is something wrong? Is the armor dangerous? I can get you out-”

“No. Fine.”

Tony couldn’t see it, but from the way Steve’s shoulders were moving, he’d bet good money that Steve was wringing his hands. “Oh. Okay. I… Okay, I trust you, Iron Man.” Silence fell between them, punctuated only by honking New Yorkers unfazed that superheroes had just taken down a baddy for them. They just wanted to get back on with their morning commute.

Steve leaned forward, then pulled himself back. “I… Is there someone I could get for you? Maybe Tony-”

“No,” Tony interrupted him.

Steve paused, then frowned. “I know you want to keep your identity a secret, but if you’re stuck in that tin can, why not let me help out? It’s not like I’m going to tell anyone-”

“No.” Tony snapped the word harder than me should have. As much as he strained his eyes, Tony couldn’t see Steve’s expression, couldn’t gauge if it was hangdog or irritated. Probably both.

Before Steve could try and offer help again, Tony reluctantly bit out: “Pepper.”

Steve nodded, shoulders slumping in relief. “Oh, Pepper’s on her way? That’s good. Okay.”

Pepper arrived ten minutes later, saving Tony from Captain America standing guard over him and trying to make polite, one-sided conversation. Cap trotted over to lift Iron Man onto a cart for her, which Pepper then had him roll into the back of the flatbed she drove down in. Tony lay through the whole thing, staring at the clouds roll by. Oh look, that one looked like his dignity, floating away, disintegrating into mist. How appropriate.

As Pepper closed up the flatbed, Steve peered down at Iron Man, frowning at him. “Sorry about this, Tin Man. Hope Tony fixes you up soon.”

Tony couldn’t feel it, but he could see that Steve patted him on one armor-covered knee. Tony dragged the mouth-slit shut with his teeth before Steve looked closer and noticed a strangely familiar goatee peering out of it.

It was the sight of Steve falling to the ground like a ton of bricks that did it.

Tony was out of his Iron Man helmet faster than you could say “quantum tunneling”, and at Steve’s side faster than the current laws of physics should have allowed. Ant Man crushed the offending villain with his fist, that asshole Titanium Man’s armor crinkling like a sardine can. Tony wanted to snap “Why didn’t you do that before?!”, but he was saving his breath for Steve. Steve, who looked white as the star on his chest. Steve, who wasn’t breathing. Tony’s gauntlets followed the way of his helmet as he dropped down next to him.

“What the fuck good is that serum!” Tony growled as he ripped off Steve’s cowl and went for his nose. He pinched it shut with one hand, gently opening Steve’s mouth with his other as he started CPR. He didn’t take his eyes off Steve’s face for one second as he counted through the chest compressions. Again he breathed into Steve’s mouth, and then again pressed both hands to his chest, mouth forming the numbers that were the only thing keeping him clear-headed, the only thing keep him grounded in surety and clarity and something like calm.

Steve’s mouth moved against Tony’s, expelling air back at him as he coughed his way to life. Tony rocked back onto his armored ass, tears falling fresh from his eyes as he pressed his hands to his face.

“Oh, thank you,” Tony choked out. “Thank you, oh.”

“Tony?” Steve coughed.

Wiping at his eyes, Tony nodded. He knew the jig was up. He knew it was up the second he tossed the helmet. The second Steve went down. It was worth it, though, to have Steve alive and looking at him, blue eyes watery and confused, but open, and aware. Leaning forward, Tony ran a hand through Steve’s hair, pushing the sweaty mess away from his face. “Yeah.” Tony’s hand dropped to Steve’s cheek, cupping it lightly. Steve leaned into the touch, still looking a little confused.

“Why are you in the Iron Man armor?”

Tony laughed and dropped his hand. “Yeah, about that…”


Tony shrugged, plastering on a crooked smile to hide the nerves gnawing at his gut. “Yeah. Sorry I didn’t tell you. Secret identity and all that.”

But now that the confusion was leaving Steve’s eyes, it was being replaced by his unfortunately perceptive intelligence. Steve might not be one for spy work and intrigue, but he understood people. And he understood Tony.

“Were you afraid to tell me?”

Afraid is a strong word…” Tony laughed, avoiding the question.

“I’m not going to stop you, Tony.”

Tony sighed, running a hand through his messy hair. “I don’t know whether to be irritated that you know me that well, or touched.”

“Go with the latter,” Steve advised him with a smile. “And stop avoiding the subject. You thought I wouldn’t approve, didn’t you?”

Tony actually considered deflecting one more time, just to see if Steve would drop it already. But they guy had just kinda halfway died there for a couple seconds, so Tony was willing to go through with this heart-to-heart. For Steve.

“You just… You always said how much you liked me being a civilian. Out of harm’s way.”

Steve nodded, like he knew that’s what Tony was going to say. “Sure, and I meant that. I don't like the idea that it’s been you in that tin can this whole time. And I bet as my head clears some, I’m going to remember more times when Iron Man— you— almost died, or worse, and I’ll be plenty upset, then. But…” Steve smiled at Tony. “Well, the way I figure it, if you're Iron Man, then you're not a civilian. And so if you have to be in harm’s way, at least Iron Man's my teammate, and I can have your back. Protect you.”

Tony grinned and reached out to cover Steve’s hand with his own. “That goes both ways, Cap.”

Steve’s eyes lit up. “Shellhead,” he said, like the connection between identities was just becoming real for him. Then he leaned forward and kissed Tony enthusiastically, and that was just the thing to convince Tony that Steve was a hundred and fifty percent on board with him being Iron Man. Really: one hundred and fifty percent. Tony did the math.

When they broke apart for air, Tony’s thumb rubbing small circles just under Steve’s ear, Tony breathed: “You know, uh. Jan might have mentioned something about post-battle sex being kind of the best.”

“Did she, now?” Steve asked with a grin.

Tony shrugged, suppressing a wince as his dinged up armor pulled at his shoulder the wrong way. “Thought we could give it a shot,” he suggested.

Seriously, Steve nodded at Tony. “You know, I think I might like that. Iron Man.”

Tony grinned. “Please. Call me Mr. Stark.”

A dozen yards away, Jan regrew to stamp on normal-sized foot on the pavement. “That's what it took? Steve getting in trouble, not Tony? I was going about it all wrong!”

Hank scratched his head as he turned away from some ants. “Sorry, what was that, dear?”

Jan sighed and grabbed his arm, leaning against it. “Never mind. All’s well that ends well, I suppose. Though really, it just goes to show why we need more girls on the team. I can’t get this stuff right all by myself.”