It starts, of all things, after a doctor's appointment.
Dr Goldstein is a New York institution. He's pushing eighty-five and he has a magnificent Bronx accent, plus a black leather doctor's bag, ear hair, a cranky attitude, the works. He was Tony’s father's doctor, and Tony's mother's doctor, and Tony's cousin Morgan's doctor, and old Jarvis the butler's doctor, and he's doctor to half the little old ladies on the Upper East Side -- and, when Tony is in New York, he is Tony's doctor.
Tony hasn't been back to New York since before the whole Iron Man thing, so this is the first time Dr Goldstein has seen the arc reactor. When Tony takes his shirt off, Dr Goldstein's intensely bushy eyebrows go up, up, up.
"Why on Earth would you do that to yourself?" he asks, tapping the safety glass with the earpiece of his stethoscope.
Tony shrugs. "It seemed like the thing to do at the time," he says. He's never gotten to use that line before.
Dr Goldstein scowls. "If you want to save your heart, mister, try eating more vegetables. Now take a deep breath, there we go."
It's indescribably comforting to be fussed over by an old Jewish curmudgeon, and be called 'mister', and have his wrist held and his pulse taken by someone who saw him grow up instead of the prim, faceless strangers at SHIELD or the asshole he sees in Malibu. He says, "Doc, I missed you."
"If that were true, you would have remembered to send me a birthday card," Dr Goldstein says without looking up. Tony loves him so much.
Afterwards, Tony buttons his shirt and ties his tie all in a rush, and runs out into the lobby without buttoning his jacket. He finds Steve near the door of the building, body angled like he wants to make a break for it. Steve is staring around the lobby at the deep brown sheen of the wood paneling, and the brass fixtures, and the mirrored walls and the yellow lights, and he turns to Tony with a relieved look on his face and says, "There you are. I was wondering if I had the right place."
"Honestly," Tony says, "you could just close your eyes and walk towards the smell of money, and you'd find me." He can joke about this, now. Their friendship is still new, but he can make these jokes.
Steve smiles, and then stops smiling, and then sort of half-smiles awkwardly, and hmmm. Maybe Tony can’t make these jokes yet.
"Anyway," he says, "you hungry? We’re close to the place."
They’re going to Petrossian, because if Tony has to put up with East Coast winters and New Yorkers then by God he's going to treat himself to some caviar. Also, Petrossian is one of the few places that have been around since Steve was younger, even though Steve never went. They're a couple blocks away, and Tony takes a minute to enjoy the tall, gunmetal-gray buildings all around them and the burgundy awnings, the old women in wool coats and the steam rising out of the sewer grates. They turn the corner onto Seventh Avenue, walking past Carnegie Hall, and Tony automatically looks up at the elaborately carved stonework of that one building on Seventh and 58th, like the doorway of a cathedral. So, he doesn't notice that Steve has stopped walking until he hears Steve say, "What in the world is that?"
Tony looks down, and -- "Oh," he says. "That's Scabby the Union Rat."
Someone set it up in front of an anonymous apartment building at the corner of 57th. It sits perched on the back of a black pick-up truck, with a little sign hanging off the back bumper that says, "LIVE UNION OR DIE HARD" -- a sentiment that's both baffling and a little worrisome.
Tony has never really known how to feel about Scabby. When he was younger it scared the bejeesus out of him, with its huge and nasty sharp-fanged scowl and the way it teetered in the wind. As a businessman, he doesn't like anyone telling him what to do. But, as an asshole, he firmly believes that anyone should be able to hassle anyone at any time, and he loves the wackiness of the whole thing. He supposes that makes him solidly neutral. Steve is staring at the giant blow-up rat like he's never fought crime before.
"Is it like a -- no, you should tell me, what does it do?" Steve asks.
Tony says, "It annoys people, is what it does."
"What?" Steve turns to him and frowns, and Tony remembers for the millionth time that, oh right, Steve grew up in the same era as Tony’s grandma, and sarcasm doesn't work on him.
Tony says, "Okay. I'm telling you this because it might save you one day: the welder's union and the nurse's union and the costumer's union are serious shit, and you don’t want to cross them."
"I know that," Steve says, raising his eyebrows. "No, what does it do? How does it replace -- where's the picket line?"
Tony shrugs. "I don't know, back at their houses? We do this now."
Steve looks over at the rat, and says, "This can't be enough."
Tony rises his eyebrows. "A giant rubber monster that shames businessfolk can't be enough? What would be, then?"
Steve shakes his head. "It doesn't seem like anyone cares." He sounds sad, and Tony cannot allow that, no sir.
"Look, someone had to put it there in the first place," he says lightly, and then grabs the sleeve of Steve's jacket and pulls him down the street. "Come on, we can talk labor and ethics later, I want a lox bagel with capers."
They walk inside the restaurant and Tony takes in the beauty of it: the linen place settings, the bronze art deco statue by the door, the smell of good food. Behind him, Steve hisses, "I thought you said this was a deli," and Tony smiles.
The second time it happens, they've just finished fighting crime. The cleanup trucks have come and gone, and Fury's reamed them for sloppy fighting and property damage. All Tony wants to do, all he wants to do, is go home and take the suit off and bang the dents out of the chest plate and the helmet, and then take a shower and sleep for five years. Instead, Steve comes up to him while he's still catching his breath and says, "I want to go back to that place, with the rat." The way Steve says 'the rat' is mild and wry, the first sign of humor Tony has seen from him. Tony stares. "Would you like to come with me?"
It's the invitation that’s his undoing. Tony says, "Sure I would."
Scabby is still set up in front of that apartment building on 57th, squashed into the bed of the pickup and listing slightly to the side. The first thing Steve does is walks over to the truck and looks into the driver's side window. Then he knocks on it as if that'll make any difference. Tony stands back and lets him do his thing.
A couple people turn to look as they walk past. Tony and Steve are pretty obvious in their bright gold-alloy armor and flag-themed costume. But the glorious thing about New Yorkers is that they don't care, ever, so mostly people walk right by them like they’re wallpaper. After a minute of staring hopefully into the cabin of the pickup, Steve turns to Tony and says, "I guess we better go."
Tony thinks, 'thank Christ' and turns to leave, when two things happen. First, out of the corner of his eye, he sees a tiny "Plumber's Local 1" bumper sticker on the truck. Second, Steve walks to the door of the apartment building, pulls it open, and turns to look at him expectantly.
Wait, wait, wait. "You meant 'go inside'?" Tony asks. That is a terrible plan.
"How else will we find out what’s going on?" Steve asks, like this is obvious.
"I could ask Jarvis to do the research for us," he says hopefully. From inside the suit, he hears a faint huff, as if Jarvis had just muffled vicious laughter. "Or we could leave it alone because it’s none of our business."
Steve gives him a look, and holds the door open, and for fuck sake, what even is this day?
Tony braces himself, and walks inside.
They walk through a long hallway covered in beautiful mosaic tile work. At the end of the hallway, a young man in a green polyester uniform scrambles up from his slouch behind the desk and says, "Can I help you, sirs?"
Steve says, "Yes, thank you. We were walking by and we noticed the rat you have outside." There’s no wryness here. Tony may have imagined it before.
The deskman’s expression shuts down, and he slouches back into his chair and says, "I don’t know nothing." Everything about him, even his accent, has gotten surlier.
"You must know something," Steve says.
The man behind the desk frowns and says, "Listen, man --" and Tony does not want to witness a fistfight between Captain America and Mr Mall Cop, so he says:
"Hey, uh, Captain," and Steve turns to him. "Maybe we can go back to the mansion and do some research."
He's hoping if he distracts Steve enough Steve will let it drop, but instead Steve says, "Actually, that's a great idea." He turns back to the man at the desk. "May I have the building manager's number?"
"No," the man says. Steve’s eyes narrow.
Tony says quickly, "I can find it." He regrets it deeply a second later, when Steve looks at him like, 'Well?' Tony opens his mouth but before he can reply, Jarvis pipes up from the speaker on the outside of his suit.
"I have the number you’re looking for, Sir."
The fucking, fucking traitor.
Steve fumbles for the tiny Stark Phone he keeps in a pouch at his waist, the one that Tony specially engineered to withstand fire, over 500 pounds of concussive force, and a drop to the bottom of the Hudson, and slowly pokes at the keys with his gloved fingers. What follows is, in Tony's vast experience, the most surreal phone conversation he has ever overheard in his entire life.
"Hello, ma'am? This is Captain America calling. Actually, I really am Captain America. I can assure you I -- yes, I have the City of New York’s complete confidence."
Tony raises his eyebrows, because wait just a minute, but Steve ignores him.
"Are you the manager for two oh . . . yes. Yes, ma'am. I'm glad I have this opportunity to speak with you. Now, I'm standing in the lobby of the building you manage, and from here I can see that a Scabby the Union Rat has been set up outside. I think that -- your plumbers?" Steve frowns. "But why wouldn't you . . . ma’am, ma’am, please, I think it is my business. Ma'am, the work of these men is what allows you to live comfortably in your fancy apartment building. Excuse me?" Steve scowls, and Tony would pay cold hard cash to know what exactly the woman said to put that look on Steve's face. "Ma'am, I don't know if you realize -- well, for starters, the Journeyman Plumbers of New York City are the men who kept your grandparents from dying of cholera before you even --" Steve takes his phone away from his ear and stares down at it. "She hung up on me."
The man at the desk, who up until now has been watching with bemusement, turns to Tony and mouths, 'cholera?'
Tony can't even.
Steve turns to the man at the desk and says, "I hope you won’t get in trouble for this."
The man says, "I better not. It’s not my fault you waltzed in here and --"
"Okay," Tony says, "I think that’s enough for everyone for today." He grabs hold of Steve's arm and begins walking back toward the door. "Thanks for your complete lack of help, man," he calls back to the man at the desk.
"Anytime, asshole," he hears before they walk out into the noise and the chaos of the city.
They get about half a block away before Steve turns to him and says, "Listen, I appreciate your help today. Although it could have gone better."
Tony opens his mouth to say, 'Actually, this sucked because I think you're really sanctimonious and also sort of crazy,' but instead he says, "Better luck next time. You want some pizza?"
Steve's frown dissolves and Tony has the same feeling he got when Jarvis first came on-line, that great swooping terror and the knowledge that he was responsible for some kind of monster, and then Steve says, "Next time."
Oh, no no no.
Tony doesn't get to sleep for five years like he planned. He doesn't even get to have a shower (although he does get to fix the dents in the suit) before Fury's got them all on comms and has them going out to Staten Island.
"Why would anyone want to take over Staten Island?" He asks Fury. "That's like trying to take over a bowl of pudding."
"You are a disgrace to the city of New York," Fury tells him, and Tony grins. The abuse is a sign of love, really. "Get the hell out of your fancy house and go fight some bad guys."
So Tony puts together a flight plan and communicates with air traffic control at JFK and LaGuardia, and he offers a ride to Natasha (and then to Hawkeye when she refuses) and away they go.
After they're done cleaning up, Thor holds out a hand for Steve like the true gentleman that he is. He's dripping wet from where he got dunked in the Hudson, and covered in slime from when he got swallowed, and he's grinning madly. "Shall we fly?" he asks.
Steve looks at the offered hand, and the slimy, dripping, crazyface man attached to it, and says, "Actually, I thought maybe we could take the ferry. Since we're here and all."
"Huh. It's been a while since I saw the Statue of Liberty," Natasha says, smacking a gauntleted glove against her hip to shake off the dirt.
Thor says, "I have never heard of this Statue, or this Ferry. I believe it will be a fine adventure."
Bruce says, "I've always found it soothing."
Tony and Hawkeye turn to look at each other, and there's an obvious wavelength of, 'I'm not gonna miss this hilarity if you're not,' and so that's how they all end up riding the Staten Island Ferry back to Manhattan during rush hour.
Things calm down for about a week after that. In Tony's life, that means no super villains try to take over the city, and no tech competitors try to horn in on his market, and only the bare minimum of furniture at the Avengers Mansion is broken due to accident, training exercise, or both. He's starting to relax and plan some new upgrades for the suit that he'd been putting off, when Steve comes down to the garage one morning and says, "So, the Union Rat's been spotted on the Lower East Side."
Tony puts down his wrench. "I don’t even know where to start with that," he says.
Steve turns slightly pink and rubs the back of his neck. "I, ah, I asked Jarvis to set up, I think it's called a Google Alert?"
Tony looks up at the ceiling and yells, "You're an unbelievable fucking traitor!" When he looks back, Steve is staring at him, wide-eyed.
"So I was wondering if you'd like to go with me, but it seems like you don't . . ." Steve trails off, looking tentative for the first time since Tony's met him.
Tony opens his mouth to say, 'Yes, you're exactly right, I have no desire to go shill for the plumbers union with you on my day off,' but he stops, and instead he says, "Yeah, uh, just let me get my suit."
This time, the perpetrator is a tiny pizzeria near Cooper Union. Scabby is almost as wide as the shop front. They've set the rat down on the sidewalk this time -- maybe to make it seem more personable? -- and every once in a while a pedestrian will brush against it as they walk past, and it will tip dangerously.
The owner of the pizzeria isn't any more interested in Steve's pro-union message than the building manager was the other week.
"Look, I appreciate you saving the harbor last week from those robot sharks like that, but nobody comes into my shop and tells me what to do."
Steve says, "Sir, I wouldn't ever try to tell you what to do," which is such a lie, Tony almost laughs.
"That's exactly what you're doing, and you can go do it somewhere else. I got a business to run."
Tony leans against the counter and says pleasantly, "That's a good word, business. I wonder how much business you'll get once everyone found out that Captain America hates your pizza."
The man folds like a bad poker hand.
Outside, Steve takes a moment to scribble a note and tape it to Scabby’s lapel: "Dear Union, my friend Iron Man and I have spoken with the proprietor of this establishment, and he is interested in negotiating with you. Please see him at your earliest convenience. Sincerely, Captain America."
Tony tips his head back to look up at the street lamps. "I feel like I just set up a protection racket," he confesses.
Steve twitches violently. "What?" he asks.
"Nothing, just. Trying to make people hire whoever or pay whatever or run their business however -- it just feels weird."
There's silence for a long moment, and Tony looks away from the street lamp to see Steve staring at him, visibly shaken.
"Tony," Steve says, "Unions help people live better lives. We're doing a good thing." But he sounds like he's trying to convince himself.
Tony says, "Yeah, well, anyway, we should probably --"
"Oh, yeah," Steve says, "Yeah, I think I’m gonna --"
"I mean we could -- not pizza, um," Tony says.
"No," Steve says, "No, I'm going to just. Go. Walk. By myself for a little while." He starts walking backwards down the street away from Tony, and Tony should feel happy, this is a valuable lesson learned by someone who isn't him, they can all go home and stop shoving their noses in other people's business. But he feels, suddenly, really awful, and like he did something wrong, and he doesn’t want to let Steve out of his sight. He stays where he is, though, and after Steve turns the corner and disappears Tony turns to bonk his head against Scabby's inflated rubber side.
For two glorious weeks, Steve doesn't invite him out to put pressure on any more small business owners. But, he also doesn’t chat with Tony over breakfast. He doesn't go out with Tony to get caviar and lox bagels. He doesn't trade jokes with Tony on the comm while they're fighting crime. So it should be glorious and it should be a relief, and Tony is going crazy.
One night, he marches into the living room, puts his hands on his hips, and announces, "It’s team bonding night. Everybody get ready to go out."
Natasha flicks an eyebrow at him, and doesn’t move from her lazy sprawl on the couch. "You can't order everybody to bond."
Tony says, "We're going to Employees Only, and I'm paying."
Natasha jumps up, and yanks on Clint's arm. "Come on, we have to get ready, let's go."
Employees Only has been Tony's favorite ever since it opened. It's easier to find than The Back Room, and the drinks are better. Plus he can go when it's crowded so he can be seen, or when it's nearly empty to just take in the speakeasy atmosphere. It's weird, maybe he has the 1920s on the brain since his last conversation with Steve, but that's where he really wants to go. It seems like Natasha is getting Thor, Hawkeye and Bruce interested.
Steve stays where he is on the loveseat near the television. "I don’t know," he says.
"Come on," Tony says. "It's team-building. You can have an egg cream."
Steve gives him a dry look, and gets up to put on a jacket.
The whole thing starts to seem like less of a great idea when they get there. Steve looks confused by the lady reading Tarot in the window, and when they push past her into the noise and the crowd he visibly recoils. But, whatever, they’re here and Tony has massive amounts of alcohol to buy. He leans over to Steve and says, "I always go over there if I want a little space," and he points to a shadowed, nearly empty corner of the room, one of his favorite people-watching spots. Steve smiles gratefully and goes to plant himself there.
Tony gets a fancy sweet cocktail and a fancy smoky cocktail and double-fists them through the first part of the evening. Natasha can match him drink for drink, and she's adventurous, too, making up strange drinks with jalapeños and wedges of raw garlic and, God help him, oysters, and they should taste disgusting but instead they're made of magic. He is feeling no pain by the time he makes it over to Steve's corner. He's even magnanimous enough to forgive Steve for completely freezing him out for the past two weeks.
"I like you," he says cheerfully. "Even though you ignore me. I think you're a swell guy."
Steve smiles, and then looks sad, and then looks fond, and Tony pats his arm.
"I'm sorry I ignored you," Steve says. "I was -- well, anyway, I'm sorry."
"That's okay," Tony says. "I'm an amazing person, so I forgive you."
Steve laughs softly, and Tony watches him laugh, because he's lovely when he's happy. They stand there for a few minutes, just smiling dopily at each other, until Tony forgets what they were even talking about and turns to lean heavily against the wall next to Steve. He says, "I thought you hated me when we first met."
Steve says, "I thought you were a gangster when we first met."
Tony bolts up out of his slouch, spilling his drink all over his suit and almost knocking his head against a light fixture. "You what?"
"Well," Steve looks uncomfortable. "You were so proud of being outside the law, and you didn't seem to care about anything." Tony keeps staring at him, and he looks down at his shoes and says, "Just, nevermind."
"No, no, no, you don't get to nevermind me when you've just accused me of being a mob boss. And hey." He pokes Steve in the chest. "Hey. Hey! What about those shop owners we threatened? Together? You are such an unbelievable hypocrite."
"I know!" Steve says. "You think I don't know that? Why do you think I got upset when you said --"
Oh. "That it felt like I was setting up a protection racket," Tony says slowly.
"Yeah," Steve says. "I mean." He scrubs a hand over his head, mussing his hair. "When I first met Bucky, it was because Clutch Hand Morello burned down his tenement building, and he came to stay with his aunt in the apartment next door to mine. My mom treated Frank Scalise at the hospital where she worked. So I grew up feeling a certain way about men who think they're outside the law." He slumps. "But everything is different now. I just thought I was doing the right thing."
Tony wonders, for a moment, if Steve has ever felt like this before, has ever had something he put his whole self into that turned out to be rotten on the inside. The thought makes him ache.
"Well," he says slowly, an idea starting to unfurl in his mind. "It wouldn't be extortion if there was, say, a partnership program. A program where small businesses could work with high-level executives at, oh, Stark Industries, to give a completely random example, and they'd partner to improve their, whatever, thing. Maybe they could get shadowed by high school kids? Everybody loves telling high school kids what to do."
Steve looks at him, and Tony feels hot all over and wants to hide, and he also wants to bask. "Yeah," Steve says, "That could be really good."
The next morning when he wakes up, there is an email from Rhodey in his inbox marked extra-extra important, with the subject heading, "You are a real boy!" Tony has a moment of terror, wondering if Rhodey had him bugged last night. But instead, when he opens it, there's a link to something called averageavengers.com. Tony opens it, and gapes.
The blog is called "Average Avengers" with the subheading, "I'm just your average Avenger", and the entire thing is just pictures and posts of sightings of him and his teammates doing everyday stuff -- like eating hot dogs, buying groceries, and walking down the sidewalk.
There are pictures of Hulk crouching down and delicately petting a stranger's dog. There's a picture of Natasha at the hairdresser, putting money in one of those little tip envelopes and smiling at the lady behind the counter. There's a picture of Thor at Costco, wheeling a shopping cart piled high with nothing but toilet paper and pop tarts.
The very first picture on the blog, in a post entitled "The one that started it all," is from when they all rode the Staten Island Ferry together. Thor and Bruce are glued to the railing, staring at the Statue of Liberty. Tony has his helmet off and is leaning back with his elbows propped up on the rail. Next to him, Clint is grinning and Natasha is waving her hands, mouth open -- he can almost remember what she was talking about. But it's his own face that makes him stop. He is looking right at Steve and he looks so happy, and relaxed, and affectionate, and oh fuck. That was weeks ago, before the union stuff and the arguing and the mobsters. How could he not have noticed?
"Fuck, fuck, fuck," he says. "Jarvis, how long has this been happening?"
Jarvis knows exactly what he's talking about, which is another sign that he’s completely doomed. "Since you first met him, Sir."
Tony decides, screw it, and lies back down and pulls the covers over his head.
He wakes up a few hours later to a soft knocking on his door. When he opens it, Steve is standing on the other side, rubbing the back of his neck and looking sheepish. "There's been a sighting . . ." Steve says.
Tony should really beg off, put some distance between them, let his crush die out as quickly as possible, but instead he says, "Yeah, just let me," and trips over himself to get dressed.
Today Scabby is up near Fort Tryon Park, and this time they speak to an office administrator who can't afford to hire from the Cleaners Union, Chapter 38 of New York City.
"It's fine, whatever, everybody should have a thing," she says, waving at the window and the twelve foot tall blow-up rat outside. Today someone's drawn blood on Scabby's teeth, which is freaky as shit. "It's just not in my budget, and it's not ever going to be, and they're just going to have to deal with it."
Tony takes off his sunglasses and hooks them on the edge of his helmet where his faceplate retracts, and tells her, "Funny enough, I own a business, and sometimes we create budgets. I'm sure one of my people would be happy to consult with your manager.”
The woman gets an evil smile on her face, and says, "Oh, god, please do that." Tony wonders exactly how much of a horror her boss is, but there’s no help for it now.
Scabby shows up again at a construction site in midtown, and then again at another pizza place. Tony starts to wonder if everybody in the city is just playing a huge joke on him or something.
"Really," he says. "I think we’re getting Punk'd."
Steve doesn't even look at him. "Whatever that is, it makes no sense," he says.
"I'm serious. There is no way Scabby got this much action before we moved back to New York."
The thing of it is, Steve keeps inviting Tony along, and Tony keeps going. He talks to Pepper about setting up that partnership program, and for a while all her emails to him have subject lines like, "TONY STARK DON'T MAKE ME COME OVER THERE I KNOW WHERE YOU SLEEP." But it gets Stark Industries good press and it's actually easier to walk into a business and say, "Hey, you should start using union labor," when there’s some kind of official, legal, aboveboard incentive. Also, it makes him feel less like Al Capone.
So: they're out fighting crime, and they're out shilling for the working man, and sometimes when they get back Steve turns to him and says, "Would you like to watch a movie?" and so Tony ends up sitting down in front of his giant plasma screen TV, and he'll fidget and work on schematics while Steve watches Some Like It Hot in complete, respectful silence. If Tony tries to make conversation, Steve flaps shushing hands violently in front of his face. Tony gets up once to make popcorn, hoping that at least Steve will do the polite Steve-thing and thank him. But Steve doesn't even notice, just starts shoveling popcorn into his mouth with one hand, eyes glued to the action.
They watch Ball of Fire and Sabrina and Born Yesterday. They watch Bachelor Mother and The Shop Around The Corner and Philadelphia Story. There’s no rhyme or reason to Steve's picks except that they're all in black and white, they're all romantic, and they all have obnoxiously happy endings.
Tony tries to suggest something in color, hey, Technicolor! Steve looks completely underwhelmed. Tony brings The Man Who Came To Dinner, and Duck Soup, and I Was A Male War Bride, because he can fit himself to other people's expectations, yes he can. Steve actually turns and looks at Tony during the first few minutes of The Man Who Came To Dinner, and Tony stops the film right there.
"Okay," he says, "I'm not really feeling this, why don't you pick something."
So, it's fine, that he spends all his free time following Steve around the city. It's fine that they sit in his house together, alone, watching romantic movies from the golden age of Hollywood, like they're dating -- only Steve would never and it's fine, it's all totally, totally fine, whatever, apparently this is his life now. He leans back on the couch, covers his erection with his jacket, and steals some of Steve’s popcorn.
They're at a press conference, because someone sent Fury the Average Avengers blog as a joke and now he wants to control their PR. Oh, and he may have found out about Steve’s little union-mongering project and the Stark Industries Entrepreneurial Partnership Program, but that's not so important, really.
It's the first time they're talked to the press as a team. Tony's been wrangling reporters since he was old enough to get drunk and crash a board meeting, and Fury and Coulson have a solid relationship with New York City's press, but everyone else has so far managed to stay firmly under the radar. It's a good thing, too.
Coulson stops them before they go out to their table. "I just want to make sure that everyone is clear on what subjects are and are not appropriate for this meeting. I can bring back the flashcards if you need me to."
Bruce says, "Please, no, those were really upsetting," and Coulson looks faintly alarmed. Hulk didn't like the flashcards.
"I don't understand this ritual," Thor says, "But I will refrain from mentioning the many warriors I have killed, and tell instead of my love for Jane, and how I am kind to children and little animals."
Natasha nods and puts on her Natalie persona like slipping on a jacket. "All good here," she says, and smiles. Now that Tony knows her better, this seems terrifying and wrong.
Clint says, "Sir, I’m fine as long as they don’t ask me anything." Coulson gives him a look, and he says, "I'm kidding."
Tony says, "I'm all set." And then, "What?" when everyone turns to stare at him.
Steve says, "I'm happy for this opportunity, sir." Later, Tony could kick himself for not getting it.
Fury's got them on the third floor of the Javits Center, in one of the exhibition halls. They're set up with a couple lights in their faces but most of the lights on the sea of reporters in front of them -- a bit of psychological intimidation that Tony can deeply appreciate. He has a moment of panic when he sees Christine Everheart sitting in the front row, and wishes he could hide his penis somewhere safe.
The reporters start out easy. Maybe they're hoping to lull the team into a false sense that they're not the devil. Or maybe Fury put the fear of himself into them. Either way, it's hilarious.
"Ms Romanov, how does it feel to be named one of People's 50 Most Beautiful People?"
"Mr Odinson, how are you liking Earth so far?"
"Mr Stark, what's it like to be part of a team instead of flying solo?"
"What's your favorite thing to do in your free time?"
To which the answers are,
Thor: "Visit my wonderful Jane."
Hawkeye: "Go see a Mets game."
Steve: "I support my local union."
Tony coughs until his eyes water.
The reporter who asked the question looks like he's just been handed a pile of money. He says, "Can you talk about that a little bit more, Mr Rogers?"
Steve says, "I want to encourage all the business owners in New York City to use union labor instead of non-union whenever they have the opportunity. It's the right thing to do." He sounds like an election platform.
Someone at the back of the audience pipes up. "The right thing gets really boring after a while," the guy says, and Steve gets this look on his face, the one that always makes Tony ashamed of eating the last slice of bread without buying a new loaf.
"You’re wrong," he says in his heavy, calm Captain voice. "The right thing is always the scariest, and the weirdest, and the saddest thing you'll ever have to do. If you're bored, it's because you've stopped doing it and you didn't even notice. Write that down. I can repeat myself if you need me to."
Next to him, Natasha sits back with a tiny, satisfied smile. Hawkeye says, "Here, here," into the microphone, and Thor bangs his fist on the flimsy plastic table, making it shudder. Fury puts his face in his hands, and Coulson interrupts to remind everyone that he wants to answer their questions, too. Tony doesn't do anything, because he’s busy falling completely in love.
It's not really a thing, but it's kind of a thing. The New Yorker runs a cartoon of Steve standing in front of Scabby the Rat and shaking his finger, with a caption underneath that says, "You should listen to Captain Union." Christine Everheart write an op-ed titled, "Does My Head Look Big In This?" The clip of Steve schooling the reporter gets tweeted and re-tweeted, shown on Tosh.0, and posted on the Average Avengers blog.
Fury decides not to let Steve talk to any reporters for a while, but he still wants to build up some positive press so he sends Tony and Natasha to I-Con. It's insane.
When Tony was younger, he would sometimes follow his father to the physics lab at Stony Brook, but it's been a long time since he set foot on Long Island and he really didn't miss it. He and Natasha are scheduled for events on all three days, damn Fury's hide, and each day it's pouring down rain and the entire ugly campus is filled with cosplayers and D&D nerds, and everybody likes Natasha better than him. She seems to have an infinite amount of patience for any fans, and she especially likes talking to women about how to be better than men in a man's field, or even talking about their homework or the weather. Tony, on the other hand, gets followed around by kids from the Business department who like him for all the shit he pulled with Stark Industries before he met Yinsen and became a better person, and Tony is reminded yet again how little he likes himself sometimes.
He starts to notice, a little into the first day, that there are some people walking around wearing "Average Avenger Local Chapter" T-shirts on, usually accompanied by "I-Con Volunteer" buttons and an incredibly creepy desire to genuinely be of service. He's offered water by six of them at different times, and none of them want to fawn over him or annoy him with questions, they just ask him if he's comfortable and if there's anything they can do, and then they go off to help somebody else.
That night at their hotel, Tony stops Natasha before she can go into her room and says, "Did you notice any . . . Average Avengers, today?" He feels so weird saying it.
She makes a face and says, "Yeah, they were . . ."
"Weirdly helpful," he says.
"Yeah," she says, looking just as freaked out as he is. "Maybe it's a con thing."
"It's probably a con thing," Tony says.
"I'm sure they're not trying to lull us into a false sense of security or anything," she says.
"Yeah, there's no way," Tony says, and makes himself chuckle.
"Yeah," she says. "Uh, I'm going to go --"
"Check my knives."
Tony breathes a sigh of relief. "Okay," he says. "I'm going to go drink some whiskey."
He's pretty drunk by the time he checks the Average Avengers blog. It looks completely different now -- new fancy design, lots of text, a picture of a cat wearing an American flag shirt and looking disgruntled. At first he thinks the old one was taken down and someone else bought the domain name. But no, there's a picture of Bruce buying coffee. He has to go back weeks to find the change, but he finds it.
First is the video clip of Steve saying, "It's the scariest, weirdest and saddest thing you'll ever have to do." Watching it, Tony aches for him, and for every right thing he did that scared and hurt. He wipes a hand across his mouth and keeps clicking through posts.
A few days after the video, the blog links to a comment that says, "I don't want to be bored."
A few days after that, the blog starts posting pictures of regular people doing cool things, along with the pictures of Tony and his team doing regular things. High school students helping old ladies carry their groceries home. Men in business suits giving homeless people jackets. Huge lines of people at blood drives. Bins at food drives overflowing with donations.
After that come the comments from people who want to rally some help.
"Hey, there was a fire in my friend's apartment last week, and she lost all her clothes . . ."
"So there have been some muggings in my neighborhood, mostly women out walking from the subway at night. My friends and I want to figure out a way to . . ."
"If anybody needs a ride anywhere, I'm out driving around today in Gerritsen Beach, text me at . . ."
"The ice cream shop where I work gives discounts to people in the Big Brother and Big Sister programs, but nobody ever asks for it. If you know a Big Brother or a Big Sister, tell them where they can get some good ice cream for cheap . . ."
"I've got a wheelchair in perfect condition . . ."
"I'm moving next month, and I won't be able to keep up my volunteer work at the nursing home near my house. Does anybody want to make some new friends . . ."
One day, somebody posts a picture of a shirt he made that says, "Average Avengers Local Chapter 28 of Chicago", and then suddenly there's a URL to a design on Woot, and then to a design on Threadless.
The next post is a link to a comment that says, "You guys, I just love this. I wish there was an Average Avengers chapter in my city. I would . . ."
A few posts later there's a link to a comment that says: "Here’s a picture of a candlelight memorial in Fishtown for victims of the recent shootings. You can see three people in the crowd wearing Average Avenger shirts. I had never met any of them before, but we got together after the memorial and we want to meet again soon."
There's a meeting of Average Avengers in Emeryville. There's a meeting in Albany. There are meetings in New York and Peoria. Mostly it's just people getting together and saying, "Where can we help?" Sometimes somebody brings an idea, and people say, "How can we help?"
By the time he gets to the most recent post, he's close to sober and he's watched a full-on movement blossom. Before he goes to sleep, he sends Steve an email with the link to the Average Avengers blog and tells him, "Look how you're changing the world."
One morning in late April, Tony wakes up to find Steve sitting on the corner of his bed, head bowed. Tony, who is always befuddled before his third cup of coffee, frowns and says, "Huh," and rolls over with his back to Steve.
Then it hits him that Steve is in his room, and he rolls back and stares. "You're in my room," he says blankly.
Steve looks up, and his eyes are red. "Tony," he says, soft and helpless.
Jesus. Tony scrambles up to sitting and puts a hand on Steve's arm. His heart starts pounding. "What happened? Are you all right? What do you need?"
Steve shakes his head. "Yesterday a young man. A boy. He killed himself. It was on the news this morning."
That's -- not what he was expecting.
Steve says, "They said . . . kids at school were bullying him, and he just killed himself. He lived in Davenport, Iowa. He loved other boys."
Tony has no idea how to fix this. "What can I do?" he asks again.
Steve looks up, and seems to notice Tony for the first time: half-awake, shirtless, hair no doubt sticking everywhere. He reaches over and presses a thumb to the safety glass of the arc reactor. Tony has a moment of 'wait, what,' along with a rush of heat, and a desperate wish that he still had nerve endings and skin in that exact spot.
"I keep thinking, if he had had a role model, someone like him, would it have made a difference?"
"I don't know," Tony says, breathless. He can't even think. Then,
"How come you haven't told anyone you like men?" Steve asks.
Tony backs away from Steve's hand before it even registers. He suddenly feels too exposed. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"There must be a reason. You sleep with women and it's all over the news, but you sleep with a man and --"
"Get out," Tony says. He wishes to God he had a shirt. "Out of my room, right now."
Steve says, "I need to know why, Tony. This is important."
"You getting out of my room is important."
Steve says, "I know, when I was in the Army it was different, but now . . . Tony, if that boy had had one person --" and Tony feels the breath rush out of him, the recoil like he's been hit. Just the tone of Steve's voice makes him want to break something.
"You think," he says fiercely, "you think that if I tell the whole world who I fuck that somehow --" Steve looks away. "No, you know what, we're not even having this discussion."
"But I don't understand why," Steve says. He stands up and looms over Tony, and looks down at him, and says, "You could really make a difference for people, you know that? I see you, all the time, you stand for things and fight for things, and then you back away like it doesn’t even matter."
Tony has a moment of burning rage, and then a cold blankness and the need to tear something apart. "It won’t bring them back," he says. He relishes the confused, hurt look Steve gets, and says, "No matter what you do, no matter how many people you help, they're never coming back. None of them."
Steve goes wide-eyed and angry, and before he can even think Steve lurches forward and punches a hole in the headboard, right next to his face. Tony flinches and raises an arm to protect himself, and they stay like that for long seconds, just looking at each other.
"Get the fuck out of my room," Tony says, and Steve goes.
After that, he figures, why not drink? He finds a shirt and goes down to his garage with a bottle of scotch and starts whacking things with hammers, since he can't whack his own self or Steve's awful, perfect face. Sometime around noon, he's drunk enough that he thinks it's a great idea to watch old videos of Steve from the war. It's not.
The first video is a terrible movie of the Star Spangled Man fighting Nazis. Steve is very obviously uncomfortable, and the Austrian castle they invade looks like it was slapped together in a day by bored stage hands on the back lot.
The next movie, though, the next one is video taken of the Howling Commandos. Tony watches Morita checking the radio, and sees Dugan chew on the ends of his moustache. He sees Bucky watch Steve like Steve is the center of the world, and he sees Steve look completely focused and comfortable -- and happy. It's the saddest thing Tony's ever seen, sadder than his parents' memorial service or Pepper's face when he's hurt her, so he tells Jarvis to shut the whole thing off and get rid of the files, and he loses himself in blueprints.
At some point he realizes he's hungry, and when he gets upstairs it's dark out. Natasha and Bruce are watching Jon Stewart in the living room. They've started watching Stewart and Colbert together in the evenings, which Tony finds hilarious. Sometimes he'll sit with them, and it's the highlight of his day.
Natasha is cleaning her guns on the coffee table while she watches. When she sees Tony, she gestures at the television with the barrel of her semi-automatic. "Steve's on next."
"Well, yeah," Tony says, nonplussed.
"No, Steve Rogers is on next."
"You're fucking with me."
Natasha gives him a look. "I promise I don't care about you that much."
"You love me and you know it," Tony says automatically. Then it really sinks in. "Wow. I thought he was banned from talking to reporters."
"Yeah, I don't know how he got past the boss, but Fury is pissed. I think Steve's been hiding out at the studio all day."
Tony whistles. Fury must be catatonic.
He sits down on the couch next to Bruce and watches the rest of the Jon Stewart Show, trying not to fidget with insane curiosity. The earlier hurt has settled somewhere down in his chest, covered by a later of pity, another of booze, and another of just simply hating to fight with his friends. When Colbert introduces Steve, Tony leans forward on the couch, gripping his knees tightly with his fingers.
"So, Captain America, can I call you Captain?"
Steve, who is wearing a suit and not the costume, nods and says, "Yes."
"Captain America, you are -- a hero, you have saved the world many, many times. How many times have you saved the world?"
Steve says, "Maybe . . . five so far."
Colbert says, "I don’t think that’s enough," and the audience laughs.
It's great. Steve has the kind of earnestness that works really well on that show, and he doesn't mind replying to incredibly stupid questions with perfectly serious, somewhat goofy answers. Tony has three and a half minutes to wonder why Fury is so upset when it happens.
"So," Colbert is saying, "You've heard about the Average Avengers movement. Doesn't that seem a little weird to you, ordinary people trying to act like heroes? I mean, why don't they just stay in their houses when the robot sharks invade New York Harbor? Let the real heroes take care of it."
Steve leans back in his chair and says, "I think it’s incredible, actually."
"It's not incredible, it's average. They're not going to change the name now."
Steve smiles a little. "I think it's incredible that people are trying to live their lives doing good work. That's what I want to do -- I'm alive, so I want to live good work."
"So you, they brought you back from the dead, basically, and instead of sitting back and letting somebody else take care of it like any self-respecting American -- you want to spend every second of the day fighting crime, is that what you’re saying?"
Something in Steve’s face changes, and Tony has that feeling he’s come to associate with him: the sure and certain knowledge that they're going to need a bigger boat.
Steve takes a breath. "No. I'm saying I have a second chance, and I want to do it right. I'm saying," he pauses for excruciating seconds, and then says: "I love men."
Colbert is completely silent. Someone in the audience shrieks with delight.
"I loved a woman," Steve says. "Peggy Carter, she was amazing and I loved her. But, I love men. I could fall in love with a man."
Colbert opens his mouth, and then shakes his head and closes it again.
Steve says, "Do you know, I slept through Peggy's death? My cousins, my friends, everyone I knew is gone. I sacrificed so much." He speaks slowly and haltingly, and Tony hangs on every word. "A friend of mine told me about the Average Avengers -- he showed me how it started. People watched our press conference and they listened to us. The work I did helped these people realize how brave and capable and amazing they are. That's something that I need, I think. I need to know that I'm alive for a reason."
He stops, and takes a breath. There is complete silence in the studio.
"Yesterday, a boy killed himself. He loved other boys, and he was bullied for it, and he took his own life. When I learned about him, I thought, this is something I can do. I can tell people who I am, that I'm a hero and I love men and it's not wrong. I can make them listen, and maybe I can make it easier for somebody else. So Mr Colbert, I want you to do something for me. If you know somebody who's gay, you tell them about me, and maybe it will make their lives easier. You'll be helping me a lot." He puts his hands in his lap, and looks straight at the camera. "That’s really all I wanted to say. Thank you for having me on your show."
They go to a commercial pretty quickly after that, and Tony’s left watching a cat drive a Mitsubishi and trying to master his whirling thoughts. Natasha and Bruce turn to stare at him, shocked. Bruce says, "What did you do to him?"
Tony says, "I have to, uh -- Jarvis!"
"The car is already turned on and waiting for you in the garage, Sir," Jarvis says, and Tony takes off.
He sends Steve six different texts messages while he’s driving to 54th Street.
"Where are you, are you still at the studio?"
"I'm driving to you."
"Don't go anywhere."
'If you're not at the studio, tell me where you are."
"Don't come out as anything else before I get there."
"Please tell me where you are."
He gets one message back, which says, "I am still at the studio."
The Henry Hudson Parkway is mercifully empty, and Tony guns it all the way up and takes the off-ramp at 60 miles an hour, because he has to see Steve, he has to.
When he gets to the studio, it's madness outside. What seems like half the people in the neighborhood are camped out in front of the stage doors. A lot of them are wearing Average Avenger T-shirts and huge foamy Captain America helmets. Someone at the back sees Tony and says, "Hey, it's Tony Stark!"
The people in the Average Avengers T-shirts try to back away and give him some space, and some of the other people in the crowd try to rush forward and talk to him, and still others hold their ground, looking mulish, and so really nobody gets much of anywhere. But it means that Tony can't get through to the entrance. He texts Steve, "I'm outside, but I can't get to you." He taps his foot and digs his fingernails into his palms. He waits and waits, and then finally he sees Steve leaving by the relatively uncrowded main studio entrance, and he runs over before anyone else can spot Steve and rush at him.
When he's a few feet away, he stops. Steve is staring at him, wide-eyed, vulnerable-looking. His hair is sticking up in tufts like he’s been yanking on it for hours. He says, "Tony?" softly, sounding unsure, and no, sir, that will just not stand.
Tony closes the distance between them and leans up and pulls on the back of Steve's neck until Steve leans down, and Tony kisses him in front of half the neighborhood and the crew of the Colbert Report and a bunch of do-gooders in foamy hats and God and everybody.
Steve breathes against his lips, and then kisses him back, bending him backwards like a cinema heroine. He lets Tony's tongue slip into his mouth, kissing and kissing, and it's the best thing that's ever happened.
When Steve pulls back he has this small, incredulous, beautiful smile on his face. He reaches up a hand and places it over Tony's arc reactor, over his heart, and Tony hears the crowd around them screaming and yelling, "Hooray!"
Tony says softly, "Hooray."
A video of the kiss gets posted on the Average Avengers blog. Over the next five years, through the growth of the Average Avengers into a successful, national populist movement and then a political party, it gets the second-highest number of hits in the blog's history. When the blog is finally closed and archived, the post with the highest number of hits is the picture of Thor, at Costco, buying pop tarts.