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It's All in the Mind

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The first time it happened, Tony was thirteen and about to be beaten up by the football team. He hadn’t meant to do anything, but it just happened.

One moment Billy was swinging at him and the next he was flying backwards into the dumpster. Tony had all of five seconds to stare in utter confusion after him, wondering what the hell had just happened, before the rest of Billy’s friends began to crowd in on him.

This time it was significantly more noticeable as Tony threw his arms up in self-defense, and all of them flew up and backwards to join Billy in comatose land as they hit their heads or landed on top of another.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Tony scrammed.

The second time was only a short time after the first.

Tony was in the kitchen tinkering with the fridge, as Howard had been complaining about it not cooling properly. That had only been five minutes ago and he’d gone to fetch some tools, but Tony was capable enough of seeing what the problem was and fixing it without the help of conventional tools.

It led to him pushing the fridge away from the wall so he could get to the back. He’d just isolated the problem and was about to fix it when he heard a strangled gasp. Startled, Tony jerked and looked up, seeing Howard’s white face gaping at him at the same time that something crashed to the floor directly in front of his face.

It was the potted plant that had been on top of the fridge. He must have dislodged it when moving the fridge and it had toppled over.

But why was Howard staring at him like that?

Ten minutes later, Tony had run off and hidden in his room, desperately wishing that he hadn’t just heard what he had from his father. He was a mutant. He could move objects. He had been levitating the plant above his head until Howard had startled him.

The potted plant… If he hadn’t unconsciously levitated it, then he would probably be out cold or worse, bleeding from a head wound. He also had his subconscious to thank for that save back there at school.

Howard had warned him to keep the ability hidden as it was freakish, and had looked frightened when doing so. As far as Tony knew, his parents were normal. Even so, he couldn’t understand why Howard would be warning him to be careful, and why he’d called the ability freakish. He’d worked with Captain America, and the guy wasn’t exactly within normal human limits.

Besides, telekinesis? There was a world of fun to be had…

Tony Stark was a genius. Anyone could say that. Graduating high school at age thirteen? Building his first circuit board at four? Yes, he was a bona fide genius, and not just when it came to engineering, electronics, math, you name it. (Except for social interaction. Tony was a little lacking there. But who cared? Robots were so much cooler!) So when a genius like Tony put his mind to something, it got done. Even when dealing with something unknown like a genetic mutation that gave him the power of telekinesis, Tony was determined to figure it out. It was his body and he would know how it worked.

Thus was the attitude that he went into MIT with. So on top of his career path (which was insanely easy as he’d tell anyone who asked), he explored his new abilities. But in secret, always in secret. Tony knew better than anyone what it was like to be different. Being a socially awkward genius was an entirely different thing than being a mutant, but Tony wasn’t about to write an essay on the differences of how much more estranged it would make him if he were outed to be one. For one thing, he disliked writing. For another, he knew people abhorred anything that was different. He’d sped through high school for that reason (that and to make his father proud, which hadn’t worked at all, but that was an entirely different story altogether).

Back to the point… Tony Stark was a freaking genius, which meant that he could work on his degree plan and work on his new abilities. And so he did.

He learned what worked and what didn’t. Drinking was a total no no after the first time he tried, got totally wasted, and blew up the fountain in the courtyard. The morning after had resulted in a horrible hangover and even more loss of control as he destroyed the plumbing, caused a campus wide blackout (he didn’t know how he’d managed that and could never replicate it when sober and hangover-free), and tore apart the computer labs (and he hadn’t even been consciously using his telekinesis!). So yes…no more drinking.

By the time he graduated at seventeen, Tony had built an AI that he was calling Dummy and was relatively confident in his usage of telekinesis.

He’d gone home, and while in the safety of his room had begun to build something using only telekinesis. Howard walked in, and practically exploded. They’d fought a lot over the last few years, but this was by far the absolute worst. From Tony’s ease at using his power now, Howard knew that Tony had been using his “freakish ability” at MIT, and demanded that he stop because it wasn’t normal. Tony couldn’t believe his hypocritical nature, as he’d worked with Captain America.

And his father’s reply had been so full of poison that it made Tony flinch back: “Captain America was a human. Not a mutant!”

The fight was never settled, as Maria came in. Since she had never been told of Tony’s abilities, Howard let the subject drop, but not without one last warning look.

The argument was never finished, as his parents died, suddenly and unexpectedly, in a plane crash only days afterward, leaving Tony as sole heir to Stark Industries.

He left it to Obadiah, not interested in running a giant corporation so young in his life. Besides, he had to figure out what was wrong with him, as he could no longer call on his telekinesis. He refused to think that it was because of his father. He’d long since grown out of listening to the man. Since he was thirteen in fact, as he’d gone against Howard’s “advice” not to use his abilities. Eventually, he settled on shock and emotional turmoil as a plausible explanation.

When Tony took control of Stark Industries at age twenty-one, his mutant power still hadn’t come back, and he resigned himself to being mostly normal.

As if being a genius would ever make him normal.

Tony didn’t see a peek out of his mutant ability until he built the armor in a cave with the help of Yinsen and was unable to move as it powered up. He was desperate to go after Yinsen and the progress bar hadn’t yet reached the three-quarters mark when the armor suddenly lifted and he was able to move.

He thanked the higher power he’d had almost no cause to believe in for this good piece of fortune as he began to march out of there. He didn’t know when his mind shifted from lifting the armor to the armor being fully powered on its own, but all he did know was that his telekinesis was finally working again.

Then he saw that he was too late to save Yinsen, even with this ability, and the power was once again unreachable. When Rhodey finally found him in the middle of the desert, Tony was nothing but glad to be going back home. He might not have telekinesis anymore, but he had the armor and a new purpose in life.

Tony thought that his telekinesis would come out during times when his life was in extreme danger. Obadiah stealing the reactor from his chest and his failure to get to the old one without Dummy’s help smashed that theory to bits.

Maybe, Tony thought morbidly, he hates himself too much for his power to come back when he’s the only person in danger.

The next incidence where Tony’s telekinesis came back with a bang was during his birthday party in the middle of the palladium poisoning. He was stone drunk and in a fight with Rhodey. He didn’t expect the wall behind Rhodey to suddenly blow outward as he threw his hands forward; he hadn’t even fired his repulsors. There were several more explosions that night that couldn’t be explained away by the fight, including some shattered windows that weren’t anywhere near repulsor fire.

The next day he had a killer hangover the likes of which he hadn’t experienced since his first and last time drinking in college. When he went down into his workshop, it was with almost no surprise that he saw the sink blow up in a truly magnificent geyser. Dummy spent half an hour running around in a fright while he laughed helplessly at his luck. His laughter eventually turned into wracking sobs, and he used the opportunity to dive into fixing the sink.

If there was water on his face, it was because of the sink, not because he couldn’t stop feeling sorry for himself.

Tony didn’t think anymore of his telekinesis in the time after his near death scare. There was no need to, as he was happier than he had ever been before. He was together with Pepper, the company was running well (and he wasn’t the CEO!), and he could invent to his heart’s content.

When the Avengers Initiative finally got put into play, Tony was at first shocked to be put on it, and then was sent on an emotional roller coaster when he realized that Captain America was on it.

“Captain America was a human. Not a mutant!”

Logically he knew he shouldn’t blame Steve Rogers for what Howard had told him so many years ago. Logically he knew that Rogers – being the all-around genuinely nice guy he is – would probably have jumped to Tony’s defense. But emotionally…emotionally he couldn’t separate Rogers from Captain America, the man that Howard had been obsessed with. Rogers was everything that Tony had never been and never could be, and he hated him for that.

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

“Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist.”

And Tony couldn’t find it in himself to lie.

He’d almost died, Tony thought numbly, thinking back to that ice cold void of space he had been suspended in. He’d almost died.

He was sitting on the edge of the ruined penthouse of Stark Tower, legs dangling out into empty space. He had a glass of scotch by him that hadn’t been touched. Although he desperately desired the oblivion of being drunk, he didn’t want the destruction that would result when his telekinesis began acting up again.

But who knew? Maybe it wouldn’t do anything this time. It’d been silent for the last so many years.

But he wouldn’t risk it. There was too much of a chance that something would happen and he’d blow up the entire top half of the tower. Maybe he should get drunk before fighting; it’d be a way of taking care of the bad guys.


Knowing his luck, it’d probably backfire on him so that he’d get himself in trouble, though he didn’t think his sense of self-preservation was so bad that his subconscious would do that.


But maybe it was after all. He hadn’t been able to defend himself against Obadiah, and nothing had happened against Vanko. Maybe he should just give up now and just throw himself—

Tony, what are you doing?”

The loud, panicked voice snapped Tony out of his thoughts, and he jolted backward from where he’d been leaning over the tantalizing edge. Actually, it wasn’t looking half as tantalizing now…

Then he looked back, saw Rogers, and reconsidered. “Hey, Cap.” He gave a crooked grin, raising his untouched scotch glass in a salute. Thinking that he’d need the fortification, and that one glass wouldn’t get him drunk, Tony downed the whole thing in a gulp before getting up.

“Are you drunk?” Rogers demanded, taking a step toward Tony.

“No.” Tony walked by him into the penthouse. He considered the bar for a moment before deciding against another glass. His alcohol tolerance was low enough as it was. “What do you want, Rogers? Is there a problem with your room?”

“What? No, the room’s fine.”

“Then I can’t see why you’re bothering me.”

Rogers sighed, folding his arms across his chest and shifting uneasily. “Tony”—the use of his first name instantly put Tony on guard—“I owe you an apology.”

There were several things Rogers could owe Tony an apology for. One of which was being a point of obsession for Howard. Another was for being too perfect to be real. And the last was for the incident on the Helicarrier. And if the last was the reason, then Tony also owed Rogers an apology, as there were several things he had said that weren’t all that nice either.

“For what?” Tony asked, deciding to go for stupid and pretend he didn’t know what Rogers was apologizing for.

“For what I told you on the Helicarrier. It wasn’t true.”

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

“Who says it wasn’t?”

“Because you’re more than the suit. I made an assumption before I should have, and I’m sorry about that.”

Tony smirked wryly. “How do you know it isn’t true? We’ve just met, Rogers. One battle doesn’t give you enough data to form a proper conclusion.”

“It isn’t human!”

“I’d like to think that my judgment is better than that,” Rogers replied evenly. “I’m sorry.”

Rogers probably didn’t expect Tony’s swift response, which was delivered so rapidly the man had no time to respond. “Why are you apologizing? Is it because I almost died? Would you still think that I deserve that apology if the nuke had never been fired? What would you say if I told you I was a selfish bastard and only diverted it because I didn’t want to die? How do you know I’m not Iron Man just to feed my own ego?”

To his credit, Rogers recovered quickly from the verbal onslaught. “None of that,” he snapped. “I’m apologizing because it’s the right thing to do!”

Tony leaned back against the bar, raising an eyebrow. “And not because I proved you wrong? Just because you feel guilty for throwing around some insults?”

“No, Tony, you almost died diverting a bomb! I think that proves me wrong—”

“It only tells you that I like my skin where it is, and not melted off my bones,” Tony interrupted. “Apologize when you mean it, Rogers, and not because it’s ‘the right thing to do,’ ” he quoted mockingly. “Good night.”


“I said good night, Rogers.”

Tony turned his back to Rogers, picking up his glass and pouring another scotch despite his better judgment saying otherwise. He could feel Rogers boring a hole into his back with his gaze for several minutes until he finally left, the whoosh of the elevator doors signaling his departure.

With a heavy sigh, Tony swallowed his second glass of scotch, closing his eyes.

“You worked with Captain America! Don’t tell me he was human!”

“Captain America was a human. Not a mutant!”

“And what am I?”

The Avengers separated shortly after Rogers’s attempted apology. Bruce went back with Tony, as Tony refused to let go of the only genius who was even remotely capable of understanding his lingo. Besides, Tony was totally capable of keeping Bruce out of the hands of the military and any other unsavory individuals who might want to have him.

So while he and Bruce geeked out in the tower, which was undergoing extensive renovations after the damage caused by Hulk, Loki, and the Chitauri, he was also quietly renovating his family’s old mansion in New York, making it habitable for the Avengers. Because despite whatever impression he’d given Rogers, he did think that the Avengers Initiative was a damn good idea. And if it came down to it again, the team would need somewhere to stay that wasn’t S.H.I.E.L.D. (Have you seen the living quarters there? It was so sad Tony felt like crying.)

At the moment, though, those plans were still in the future. For now, Tony was explaining the technology behind the arc reactor to Bruce, repairing the Mark VII suit as he did.

Then they were interrupted by JARVIS’s smooth British accent. “Ms. Potts is here, sir.”

Tony looked up. “Already? I thought she had that conference.”

“I believe the news regarding the battle incited her to finish quickly, sir,” JARVIS replied.

“She’s worried about you,” Bruce said.

“Seems to be unnecessary, doesn’t it?” Tony said, putting his tools down. He almost lifted a hand to cover the arc reactor before realizing what he was doing and putting it back down. It was a nervous tic that he had gotten rid of following Obadiah’s betrayal, and which had returned with a vengeance after his near death experience.

Bruce shot him a knowing look. “I’ll go,” he said.

“You don’t have to,” Tony told him.

“Some things are better said in private,” Bruce said, exiting the workshop just as Pepper entered it.

She didn’t give Bruce any notice, instead making a direct beeline toward Tony and capturing him in a fierce hug. “Tony,” she whispered frantically.

“Hey, Pep,” Tony said softly, hugging her back just a bit more loosely.

Pepper gave a choked laugh. “Is that all you have to say?” She drew back, her eyes slightly red but otherwise relatively dry.

“I’m all right?”

Pepper smoothed a thumb over the blue light of the arc reactor in Tony’s chest, rubbing it absentmindedly. “Do you have any idea what it was like seeing you go through that portal carrying the nuke?”

Tony swallowed, feeling his chest tighten as he thought about the utter isolation, darkness, and cold of that area of space. “I can guess,” he said.

“I’m sorry I missed your call.”

“I thought we already talked about this?”

“Over the phone.” Pepper sighed softly, moving her hand so that her index and middle fingers rested over the arc reactor. “It’s not the same, Tony. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the missed call notice.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony said.

Pepper smiled sadly. “Don’t be. It’s just…can you maybe not do that next time?”

“There was no choice,” Tony said apologetically, rubbing soothing hands over Pepper’s shoulders. “If there had been any other way—”

“I know,” she interrupted. “Tony…”

Their lips met slowly, the kiss meant to reassure each other. They spent several minutes like that in silence, until they were interrupted by JARVIS.

“I’m sorry, sir,” JARVIS said quietly, “but Dr. Banner has apparently run into some sort of malfunction with the elevator.”

Tony drew back, exhaling slowly. “What’s the problem?”

“It would seem that the doors will not open.”

“Run an analysis on it. I’ll take a look. Tell Bruce I’ll have it fixed as quickly as possible.” Tony rested his forehead against Pepper’s. “Sorry, Pep.”

Pepper smiled. “It’s fine, Tony. Go rescue that poor man before the elevator takes a beating.”

With a short laugh, Tony kissed Pepper goodbye before going over JARVIS’s analysis of the elevator, talking reassuringly with Bruce over the communications network as he did.

And if there was a dark voice in the back of his head pessimistically commenting on his relationship with Pepper, he ignored it.

It was another six months before the Avenger were reassembled again, and this time over something that some nefarious villain calling himself Doctor Doom did. Ordinarily he’d be the job of the Fantastic Four, but they were out of commission due to something that the good doctor (puh-lease; Doctor Doom actually being a doctor?) had done only a few days earlier.

That left the Avengers to deal with the mess of Doombots that were running rampant all over New York City. Tony and Bruce, having been living in New York for the last six months, were first on the scene. It was several hours before they were joined by Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Widow. Thor was still in Asgard, and Tony doubted that they’d hear from him again since – you know – he was a god and beyond the affairs of puny mortals.

It wasn’t until backup arrived that Tony was able to use JARVIS’s analysis of the bots and his own brains to find a way of dismantling the Doombots by releasing some sort of pulse. Once that was done, the Avengers had to find Doctor Doom, only to be thwarted when the villain disappeared.

After the cleanup – which Tony complained about because he did have other things to be doing other than just cleaning up the mess villains left behind – the Avengers were about to split up again when Tony offered the use of his newly renovated mansion as a home for the team.

The offer was reluctantly accepted after some consideration (the reluctance came more on the part of Fury, but Tony could care less about what that guy thought). And if Rogers was eyeing Tony speculatively…well, it didn’t matter, did it?

See, the thing is, Tony hadn’t actually been planning on staying in the mansion. That had been more for the others than for himself, since he did have a tower in the city that he could stay in. But apparently, in order to be part of a team you had to be living with the team. Who knew, right? Especially after the last six months of hearing practically nothing from anyone else other than Bruce – who didn’t count since he had been living with Tony anyway.

It was Pepper who gave him the final shove into moving into the Avengers Mansion with the rest. “Get to know them, Tony,” she told him firmly. “You’re going to be working with them again, and it’ll be easier if you’ve developed a rapport.”

“I’ve already got a rapport with Bruce.”

Pepper simply sighed and continued to bug him until Tony moved into the mansion, thankful that he had at least thought to outfit it with a workshop as a backup. That, and JARVIS was also available.

That meant that the house in Malibu was pretty much relegated to being a vacation getaway now, as Tony was rarely ever in California with all the Avenger business going on. Even if he was now part of a team, he still went out on his own to take care of any rogue weapons from Stark Industries. There had been a period of low activity on that front, but it was picking up again, as if the people thought that since Iron Man was now part of a team he would no longer be able to go after them. Ha, showed what they knew, right?

Typically, though, he’d go running off on short notice to take care of the problem. And if Pepper’s face became more and more strained every time he came back, Tony tried not to think about it. He especially tried not to think about how Rogers always looked at him after one of those missions.

It was strange to be sharing a house with several different people all of varying personalities. Natasha, to be quite frank, still scared the shit out of him. Clint was cool, once you got past the “Oh my God, what the hell are you doing up there?” thing he had going on. Bruce was as Zen as always, and still hung out with Tony in the lab or workshop depending on what was going on. It was Rogers that continued to be a proverbial stick in the ass, as Tony still couldn’t get himself to actually like the guy.

All right, so that was a lie. The problem was that Rogers was too likeable. And honestly, how many people did Tony know that were too likeable? Once he got past the whole argument thing they’d had on the Helicarrier, there really wasn’t anything he could find wrong with Rogers.

Other than the punching bag thing. Rogers had gone through about fifty before Tony finally designed something that would last, and actually float around and give the good captain a proper workout. Tony had never said anything, but he suspected that Rogers knew it had been him judging from the looks he received for a short time afterward.

It was all good, and Tony couldn’t even be bothered that his telekinesis was nonexistent until Doctor Doom showed up again, two months after the last time the Avengers had seen him.

Doom had gone after Tony first because he’d been alone since he was attending a short conference in New York (just because he wasn’t CEO of Stark Industries didn’t mean he was scot free with some of the meetings; he was still primary share holder after all). At that point all Tony had was the suitcase armor and the bracelets for the Mark VII armor, which wasn’t exactly in easy reach.

The suitcase armor had worked fine against Doom, as the other Avengers showed up quickly to join the fight. The problem was that Doom had hit Tony with something as he was doing air recon, doing something magical (had Tony mentioned how much he hated magic? No? Well, consider yourself informed.) that shorted the suit out and left him at the mercy of a bunch of Doombots.

It had taken far too long for Hulk to get through the bots and pick Tony out. At that point Tony had a broken leg, multiple cuts and bruises all over his body, and was bleeding from a head wound.

On the plus side, Thor had shown up in the middle of the fight with the Fantastic Four in tow. Apparently using the Bifrost so close to Doctor Doom did something that pulled the four superheroes back from wherever they had been deposited. With them in the fight, Doom was soon contained.

The problem wasn’t Doctor Doom or the fight. The problem came afterward.

Tony had checked himself out AMA, as all he had was a broken leg which had been put into a cast and cuts and bruises that would heal on their own. And the head wound which thankfully hadn’t turned out to be a concussion, but was giving him a headache. Bruce would make sure that Tony wouldn’t overdose on painkillers.

Yet Tony’s mind wasn’t on his medical problems. It was on the fact that Pepper had come to see him in the hospital, face pinched, and not left his side since. It wasn’t until the two were alone in his room that she spoke.

“I can’t do this.”

Surely that wasn’t his heart squeezing in his chest, was it? Maybe the arc reactor was malfunctioning. “Can’t do what?” Oh, but he’d seen this coming for months. Months of seeing Pepper’s strained face after his lone missions to take care of rogue Stark weapons, and that time after the Chitauri invasion with her request.

Pepper sat down on the bed next to him, almost reaching out to take his hand but seeming to think the better of it. “I’m sorry, Tony, but I can’t do this anymore. I thought I could at first. Do you know what it’s like? Sitting on the sidelines and hoping and praying that you’ll be all right? I never know if the next mission will be the last. If one day S.H.I.E.L.D. will come and tell me that Tony Stark died on some mission in the Middle East or Asia taking care of what happened years ago.”

Tony swallowed heavily. “It’s my responsibility.” His voice wasn’t hoarse. It wasn’t.

Pepper smiled sadly. “I know you think it is. And that’s why I love you. But, Tony…I can’t. You’re all I have, and I’m…I’m too close to you for this to really work out for me.”

“Pepper…you’re all I have, too.”

“No…no, I’m not,” she said quietly. She reached out and gave his hand a squeeze when he opened his mouth to protest. “No, listen to me, Tony. You have a team here. A team that relies on you to be brilliant, maniac, and just generally you. And you rely on them, no matter how much you try to deny it. I’m not the only one you have anymore, Tony. You have Bruce, you have Clint, you have Natasha, you have Thor, and – no matter how much you deny this – you even have Steve. I might have been all you had once, Tony, but I’m not anymore.”

“Pepper…” Tony turned his hand to link his fingers through Pepper’s. With that same sense that had warned him all those months ago after the invasion, he knew it was useless to argue. Pepper had made up her mind, and no matter his reputation in the past, he had never been a man to force or coax a woman into staying with him when she didn’t want to. And Pepper did, he could see that. But he could also see what she was terrified about. He was terrified about the same thing himself. And if Pepper was taking this step to protect herself, he couldn’t stop her. Maybe one day they could work it out again, but for now, he would have to let it rest. “You know I love you, don’t you?”

“Of course I do,” Pepper whispered. She pulled Tony into a hug. “And I love you. Don’t forget that, Tony. This isn’t because of you.”

Tony couldn’t stop himself from skeptically raising his eyebrows.

“You’re a brilliant man, Tony. You’re brave, insane, stubborn, don’t know when to stop—”

“Stop, you’re going to give me a complex,” Tony joked weakly.

“—and you have the kindest heart I know of,” Pepper continued. “You’re you, Tony. Don’t ever stop being that. You and me…it isn’t because of you. I love what you do, Tony, even if it terrifies me, but I can’t deal with being so close to that.”

“I understand,” Tony murmured, taking Pepper’s hands from his shoulders and squeezing lightly. He was about to let them go when she interlaced her fingers through his, smiling sadly.

“I know you do, and I wish I could be as brave as you,” Pepper said softly. “But even if we’re not together, Tony, we’ll still be friends.”

“Yeah.” Tony couldn’t stop a lump from forming in his throat. “Yeah, we will. You’ll still be the brilliant CEO of Stark Industries, and will bug me whenever I have papers I need to sign or if I’m behind on submitting the latest invention.”

“Yes.” Pepper leaned in to give Tony one last kiss on the lips, lingering to also kiss his cheek before drawing back and standing up, straightening her skirt. “I’ll see you later. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”

Tony managed a weak grin at the familiar banter. “That will be all, Ms. Potts.”

It wasn’t until Pepper closed the door behind her that Tony’s face fell into his hands, his mask crumbling now that he was in private. There was a brief moment of silence before the door opened again, and he felt Bruce’s hand on his shoulder.

The man didn’t say anything, simply offering silent support and comfort. Then something exploded in the bathroom, dousing the entire bathroom and flooding the bedroom in ten seconds flat.


Tony couldn’t even muster up a witty remark for Bruce’s newfound potty mouth as he was being hustled up and out of the room, a foul stink in the air behind them.

“JARVIS,” Bruce called.

“I have already called the proper authorities,” JARVIS assured the two of them.

Bruce led Tony to the living room, depositing him on the sofa and ordering him to stay there as he went to see what he could do about the bathroom that Tony had inadvertently exploded in a fit of emotion.

He’d barely pulled himself together when Clint entered the living room, doing a double take when he saw Tony sitting on the couch, his feet wet and his face suspiciously blank. “What happened? You look like someone stole your suit.”

“My bathroom exploded.”

Clint’s eyebrows flew up. “Whoa, was not expecting that. Everything cool?”

Tony slumped back against the couch. “Aside from the fact that I’ll have to wait for it to get fixed? Just peachy.”

Clint considered him for a long moment before coming over and leaning against the arm rest. “Wanna get drunk?” he offered with all the wisdom of a man who had gotten dumped multiple times before and knew exactly how to get over it.

Tony couldn’t repress a snort. “I’m a horrible drunk.”

Clint eyed him speculatively. “Horrible how?”

Tony shrugged. “Things tend to explode around me. The last time I got drunk, I blew up the house. I’m not doing it again.”

“I won’t let you into your lab of doom,” Clint said, leaning down toward Tony. “You can’t explode anything then.” He seemed to run that statement over in his head. “Actually, I won’t let you near anything technological.”

Tony wished it was that simple. “Nope.”

Whatever Clint was going to say next was interrupted by the arrival of Thor, who sat down heavily on the couch next to Tony. “I am sorry about your loss,” the god of thunder said, resting a hand on Tony’s shoulder and squeezing.

“I didn’t lose anything,” Tony muttered, sliding down further on the couch.

“It is always sad when love falls through,” Thor continued obliviously. “But there is no need to grieve, Anthony, for we shall celebrate the continuation of life and the possibility of finding new joy!”

“And…what exactly does that entail?”

This was how, despite Tony’s better judgment, he ended up with two drinking buddies and a glass of whiskey in his hand. Before he knew it, he’d downed several glasses and was already leaning toward the side of the scale of extremely tipsy.

“You, my friend,” Clint said, grinning lasciviously and leaning his chin on Tony’s shoulder, “have a horrible alcohol tolerance. Three glasses and already tipsy?”

“I told you,” Tony said, slurring his words slightly. “I don’t get drunk. Things…’splode around me.”

Clint waved his glass around, almost spilling part of his drink. “Not letting you out of our sight, bud,” he assured Tony, gulping his whiskey down.

“Have another!” Thor pressed a shot into Tony’s hand. The god was more sober than the two mortals combined, but that might have been because he was more used to drinking mead than human alcohol.

Half an hour later, Tony was no longer tipsy, but extremely drunk. Bruce had come back by this point to report on the progress of the bathroom, seen the state of Clint and Tony (extremely drunk) and Thor (still largely sober but booming more loudly now), and assigned himself to being the monitor and making sure no one hurt themselves. Tony thought he heard something about being irresponsible and drinking while supposed to be on pain medication, but it was a bit late to worry about it now.

“I get why she left me,” Tony said morbidly, staring down into his full glass, which consisted of an amber liquid he couldn’t remember the name of. “Too dangerous. Too freakish.”

“That’s not true, Tony,” Bruce said sharply. Apparently he’d gone from being a monitor to being a pep talker.

“She told me I shouldn’t change, but that’s always a lie.” Tony considered the glass, wondering if he should finish it. With the acute judgment of someone who was beyond drunk, he figured it was a great idea and downed it. “Dad told me I should.”

“Screw your dad,” Clint said, knocking back a shot that Thor had made, which was extremely potent stuff.

“Change because I’m not good enough.” Tony clenched his hand around his glass. “Nothing I did was good enough.” He slammed the glass down on the table, which collapsed downward in a bunch of splinters as if someone had punched it.

Clint barely reeled back, but Bruce jumped to his feet in alarm. “Tony—”

“Sometimes I wonder why I bother.” Tony ran a hand over his face, some small part of him screaming that he was being entirely too honest here. “If I should just give up—”

“Don’t talk like that, Tony.” Bruce came over to take Tony’s hand from his face, curling a hand around the restless fingers.

Tony stared blearily at the man. “You care, don’t you? Why do you?”

“Because you’re my friend,” Bruce said, something in his eyes that Tony couldn’t read. “And I do love you, even if you behave like an idiot most of the time.”

“Too many feelings,” Clint said, earning himself a glare from the usually mild-mannered man. The archer flinched backward, enough self-preservation still present for him to realize that he was poking a sleeping dragon. “Shutting up…”

Tony felt unexpectedly warm and fuzzy from Bruce’s declaration. “Do you?”

Bruce opened his mouth to reply, but it was at that moment that the TV chose to explode in a shower of glass, and all the lights in the entire mansion went out.

There was a loud thud as Thor, coming back from the bar Tony had put somewhere in the mansion to appease the drinking habits of some of the Avengers, tripped over something in the dark.

Tony barely had enough time to regret drinking when his head gave a sharp pulse of pain, and he blacked out.

Tony woke the next day with a splitting headache, regretting letting Clint and Thor ever talk him into drinking. He was thankful there was no light and no sound, as his skull was already giving an accurate representation of the seven dwarfs mining for diamonds.

Blearily opening his eyes, Tony barely rolled over before falling onto the ground. Groaning as the movement jostled his already pounding head and broken leg and poked at the bruises and cuts over his body, Tony took in the fact that he had somehow made it to Rogers’s bedroom.

He let that mystifying fact stew for a moment before pulling himself to his feet, finding that someone either incredibly thoughtful or stupid had left him a pair of crutches.

“JARVIS,” he said softly, taking the crutches, “what time is it?”

JARVIS’s voice was appropriately pitched for Tony’s hangover. “It is currently nine in the morning, sir. May I suggest the Advil and glass of water?”

Caught off guard, Tony glanced at the bedside table to check that there was indeed some Advil and even a glass of water. He chugged them down, wincing as the throat movement jostled his headache. “What happened?”

Tony opened the door and poked his head out into the hallway as JARVIS answered, “There was a blackout in the mansion after the television was destroyed. The breakers were vaporized.”

Seeing that it was clear, Tony began hobbling his way to the kitchen. He wasn’t doing anything else until he got some caffeine into him. “Have they been fixed?”

JARVIS didn’t answer, but Tony thought that was more because he could see for himself rather than any fault in the AI’s programming, as Rogers was utilizing the kitchen for his own nefarious purposes. In fact, the man was just turning around to grab a jar of spice when he saw Tony standing (or leaning) on his crutches, probably with a disbelieving expression plastered on his face – Tony couldn’t really tell, but he kind of thought he might be gaping.

“Tony.” Rogers sounded surprised. “I thought you’d still be sleeping.”

“Sleep? Who needs sleep?” Tony shuffled over to a chair, slid it back from the table with a crutch, and gingerly sat down. There was a cup of coffee on the table and he grabbed it, inhaling the savory aroma before taking a long fortifying swallow.

“That was for you anyway,” Rogers muttered, turning back to the stove.

The comment made Tony pause and put the mug down. Why would Rogers be making him coffee? In fact, why had he even woken up in Rogers’s room to begin with?

His hangover was too bad for him to be thinking clearly at this time. He was about to ask Rogers what the deal was when Natasha walked in.

“Oh good, you’re up,” she said loudly with absolutely no sympathy for Tony’s pounding head. “Maybe you can explain why Clint was completely wasted, Thor was lying in a puddle of alcohol in front of the living room, and the television is destroyed?”

In lieu of giving an answer, Tony slumped down to hide his face in the table. He could tell her, but it’d be wrong thing to say. The team knew him as human billionaire Tony Stark, not mutant billionaire Tony Stark. Besides, there’d be paper work. Lots of paper work.

He groped in front of him for the coffee, but apparently Natasha had filched it as she was saying, “You get this back when you’ve answered.”

Tony’s dismay coincided with a particularly vicious throb in his head, and the next thing he knew was that there was a yelp from Rogers and the sound of a fiery explosion. He had no time to react as someone grabbed him and pulled him out of the kitchen. He’d just been set up against the wall – by Rogers he belatedly noticed – when every other appliance in the kitchen either spontaneously combusted, erupted in a geyser, or flew apart in a shower of splinters.

Rogers and Natasha stared wordlessly into the ruined kitchen before turning to look at Tony. Rogers was looking a little singed in the front, and Tony felt slightly guilty for apparently blowing up the stove first.

“JARVIS?” he tried, really not wanting to get interrogated.

“I would alert the fire department,” JARVIS said in a long-suffering tone, “but the sink doused the stove and the ice from the fridge took care of the rest. Additionally, the communication lines are down. “

“What the fuck just happened?” Natasha demanded.

Tony half-expected Rogers to look scandalized at the swear word and was disappointed when the man didn’t even blink.

“The kitchen exploded,” Tony answered, not quite sure how he’d done it either.

“The kitchen exploded,” Natasha repeated slowly, “but I would like to know how. Did you install bombs in the appliances without telling us?”

Tony opened his mouth to reply, but JARVIS beat him to the punch. “All potential explosives are relegated to Mr. Stark’s workshop.”

“Thanks, JARVIS.” Tony didn’t mention that he could still form a bomb out of a microwave and a screwdriver. Not that he had…but the possibility was still there.

Further conversation was cut off as Bruce joined them. “Steve, I can’t find Tony and I heard something explode – oh… Is that…the kitchen?” He peered into the smoke that was billowing out of the room. “What happened?”

Rogers, Natasha, and Bruce turned to face Tony.

“I told you,” he said petulantly, “I’m a horrible drunk.”

“You’re not drunk now,” Bruce pointed out.

“I’m horribly bad at hangovers.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.” Natasha’s eyes were narrowed, scrutinizing Tony closely.

Tony made a wiggling motion with his fingers. “I don’t know. All I know is that when I drink, things explode!”

“We didn’t let you near your workshop,” Bruce said. “Why did the television blow up?”

“If I may, sir,” JARVIS interjected, “perhaps you should tell them?”

Rogers pounced on that. “Tell us what?”

Tony rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. “Thanks for that, JARVIS. What did I tell you all those years ago?”

A voice clip of Tony played. “Once this gets online, I’ll have an automated butler.” JARVIS spoke next: “From my research, butlers are supposed to take care of their charges.”

“They aren’t supposed to out them,” Tony groused.

“You know we don’t care if you’re gay, Tony, don’t you?” Bruce asked.

Tony felt like crying at the misunderstanding, which was unusual as he didn’t really cry. It was probably the hangover making him overemotional.

“Mr. Stark—” JARVIS began.

“I have a telepathic connection to everything in this house,” Tony interrupted. “It’s why everything explodes when I get drunk or hungover. Essentially, you’re all at my mercy.”

There was a brief silence as the other three absorbed this statement.

JARVIS gave a long-suffering sigh. “It’s telekinesis, sir, not telepathy.”

Tony flipped one of the invisible cameras in the hallway the bird. “You’re no fun.” Tired of leaning against the wall, he slid down it until he was sitting, the broken leg stretched out in front of him with the other curled to his chest.

“You’re saying you have telekinesis,” Rogers said carefully.

“That would explain the table,” Bruce said. “But the television and kitchen?”

Tony gave a noncommittal shrug. “Like I said, I’m a horrible drunk.”

“Why didn’t you tell us you were a mutant?” Natasha demanded.

“I’m sorry, was this something you had to know?” Tony snapped, making the others reel back in alarm. “Have you ever seen me use it? There’s a reason I haven’t let anyone know, and that’s because it doesn’t work!”

“You’re blowing things up!”

“That only happens when I get drunk.” Tony struggled to his feet, shaking off Rogers’s attempt to help. “For all appearances, I’m human.”

“Because you haven’t used your abilities,” Natasha said, staring Tony down.

“Because I can’t,” Tony corrected viciously. “Do you think I would have been stuck in Afghanistan for that long if I could use them? Would I even have been captured at all? I’m human because I can’t use them, not because I don’t want to.”

“If you don’t know how to use them—”

Tony’s reply was scathing. “I’m a genius. I’ve known about them since I was thirteen and dear old Dad said I shouldn’t use them. Of course I didn’t listen.” Tony offered a shrug, giving a twisted smirk. “Not that it really mattered in the long run, considering nothing listens to me, not even my own AI.”

In the ringing silence that followed, JARVIS said quietly, “I do what is best for you, sir.”

Sighing, Tony reached for the crutches, only to note that they were probably still inside the ruined kitchen. He had the suspicion that the fumes billowing out from it were poisonous, given that the stove had exploded and the microwave – which emitted radiation – was doubtlessly a goner as well. “I know, JARVIS.”

“Tony—” Rogers started.

“This discussion is benched,” Tony said firmly. “Unless you want me to blow up the entire mansion – which would be totally awesome but also bad because we’re living here and Fury would have my head—”

“Sir,” JARVIS interjected, alerting Tony to the fact that he’d gone off topic.

“We’re not talking about this anymore until my head is good to go,” Tony continued. “Because, like I said, I’m liable to blow something else up. I told you I’m a horrible drunk…or horrible hungover. Whichever works.”

He pushed off the wall this time to start shuffling back to a room – not his own because he suspected it was still in a horrible state. But before he could take a step, Rogers had picked him up.

Tony yelped, nearly hitting Rogers in the face with a flailing arm. “What are you doing?”

“Your crutches are melted and you can’t walk with the cast,” Rogers said matter-of-factly, not even giving Natasha and Bruce an embarrassed blush. Good Lord…where had the shy Captain America gone? The one who didn’t know a thing about the modern world?

“I can walk!”

“You didn’t have any complaints last night.”

That statement shut Tony up. Rogers had carried him to his room last night? In his hungover-induced state, he’d thought that it had been an accident on the part of someone else – Clint, perhaps, as he’d been stone drunk – but he’d never thought that Rogers had willingly carried Tony to his room. For Pete’s sake, they weren’t even friends!

“You realize that I have a dozen other guest bedrooms in this mansion,” Tony said, folding his arms across his chest. He was not pouting – he wasn’t. “Aside from that, I would’ve been fine on the couch.”

“No, you wouldn’t have.” Rogers nudged open the door to his room and set Tony gently down on the bed. He quickly scuttled backwards to lean against the bed frame. “Tony—”

“I notice you didn’t say anything about the guest bedrooms,” Tony interrupted, tapping his fingers against his cast. “I had no idea you were such a forward guy, Rogers.”

“Steve,” Rogers sighed, reaching out to still Tony’s fingers. “I think we’ve known each other long enough for you to drop calling me by my last name.”

Biting back the sharp-witted retort he’d been about to make, Tony considered what R-Steve had requested. Considering that he’d just slept in R-Steve’s room last night (where’d Rogers – damn it, all rightSteve slept then?), he supposed he owed Steve that much. Besides, it’d just seem petty if Steve called him Tony while he insisted on Rogers.

Tony looked down on his trapped fingers, which Steve still hadn’t released. Then he looked up, meeting Steve’s eyes. Flushing slightly – there was the Captain America he knew and loved! – okay, scratch the loved part – Steve drew his hand back.

Setting his jaw, Steve opened his mouth and said, “Tony—”

“What did I say earlier?” Tony retracted his hand and folded his arms across his chest to clearly indicate that he was in no mood to talk. The Advil had worked its magic to alleviate the worst of the hangover, but there was still a slight headache pounding at his temples. “No talking until my hangover is gone. And maybe no talking after that either.”

For some reason, Steve’s lips twitched. “You’re not getting out of this that easily.”

Tony stared Steve down for as long as he could, only to have to look away when those steady blue eyes made him increasingly nervous. “Fine,” he groused, obstinately looking at a painting Steve had on his wall. It looked like Central Park. “Just…make sure that Natasha doesn’t tell Fury.”

Steve was silent for a moment before he moved, reaching out a hand as if to touch Tony reassuringly. He seemed to rethink that gesture as the hand stilled and dropped, clenching into a fist at Steve’s side. “Okay,” he said quietly. “I’ll do that.” There was another pause before Steve added rather hesitantly, “You can trust us, Tony.”

With that said, Steve left, closing the door to give Tony some privacy.

As the door clicked shut, Tony leaned his head back against the wall, sighing softly. And he thought he could trust his dad, and look what had happened there.

With all that had taken place, Tony honestly hadn’t expected to fall asleep. It wasn’t until someone was gently shaking his shoulder that he startled awake, his heartbeat spiking in alarm.

Trying to keep his breathing calm and steady, Tony turned his head to see Steve looking down at him, his hand still on his shoulder. “It’s one,” he said, pretending like he hadn’t seen Tony just jerk awake as if someone was about to attack him. “I thought you might be hungry.”

Tony rolled onto his back, dislodging Steve’s hand as he did. He slid up to rest against the bed frame, plastering a lazy grin on his face. “Who needs food?”

Steve didn’t seem impressed. “You do. When’s the last time you’ve eaten?”

Rolling his mind back over the days didn’t bring anything up immediately. Before Doom had attacked, Tony had been working down in his workshop, fiddling around with some sort of gizmo that he should probably get back to and check on to make sure he hadn’t accidentally installed an AI in it. And when he was in his workshop, he normally forgot to eat. He’d been down there for approximately twenty-four hours so…

“Mr. Stark ate approximately forty-eight hours ago,” JARVIS said when Tony still hadn’t answered.

Steve was alarmed. “Tony!”

“I’ve gone longer without!” Tony snapped defensively. “Besides, what do you care?”

There was a slow exhale from Steve; his jaw tensed. “You’re my friend, Tony,” Steve said evenly, leaning forward into Tony’s space. “I care about your health. And right now? You’re going to eat something. And then we’re going to talk.”

“The other Avengers are currently in the undamaged living room,” JARVIS said. “I have already called for Chinese.”

Steve closed his eyes briefly, shaking his head slightly. “Right. I forgot about the kitchen.”

“I’d say sorry, but I’m really not,” Tony said, lifting one shoulder in a shrug when Steve met his eyes.

“Of course.” Steve didn’t sound surprised at all and he moved back out of Tony’s space. Tony immediately seemed to be able to breathe easier.

Then without any prior warning, Steve picked Tony up, easily compensating for his surprised struggle. “We’re going.”

“Still don’t have any crutches?” Tony sniped.

Steve didn’t bother answering that beyond ruffling Tony’s black hair with a small sigh. He carted Tony through the mansion to the living room on the opposite edge of the building. Sure enough, the other Avengers were sitting either on a cabinet (Clint), on the couch (Bruce), or standing (Thor and Natasha). Steve set Tony down on a loveseat (why the hell did he have a loveseat?) and sat on the couch next to Bruce, as it was directly opposite Tony.

Tony shot Natasha a look, unsure as to whether she had agreed to not tell Fury.

Natasha interpreted his look and rolled her eyes. “JARVIS already got on my case. Despite my better judgment, I’ll keep quiet.”

Tony cocked his head, surprised. “JARVIS?”

“I do my best, sir,” was all the AI said, sounding faintly smug.

Clint shifted in his position. He was looking kind of pasty. “What are we doing here?”

“The magic box was not destroyed through my means,” Thor said quickly.

“No one’s blaming anyone for anything,” Steve said, quieting everyone. “It was all accidental.”

“What he said,” Tony said.

“But it was Tony who did it,” Steve continued, garnering an outraged “Hey!” from the man in question. “What we’re going to discuss here has to be kept quiet, understand? Unless Tony gives his permission, you don’t tell anybody else. It stays in the Avengers.”

“Is this about the kitchen?” Clint asked. “I swear, I didn’t know the microwave was that sensitive.”

Tony narrowed his eyes. “Clint, what did you do? Actually, no, don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.”

“It’s about Tony,” Steve said, forcing the conversation back on track, shooting Tony a quelling look.

“He is an excellent shield brother!” Thor proclaimed. “Though unable to hold his liquor—”

“I told you, I’m a rotten drunk!” Tony said exasperatedly. “Things explode around me!”

“You weren’t anywhere near your stuff!” Clint pointed out. “How did that happen anyway?”

There was a heavy silence as Steve, Bruce, and Natasha looked at Tony, who stared stubbornly at the carpet.

“Tony,” Steve bade quietly.

It was that tone that did Tony in. Had he mentioned how much he didn’t like Steve? Well, if he hadn’t, he was mentioning it now.

Making sure that his face was impassive even as his heartbeat spiked in worry, Tony said evenly, “I’m a mutant.”

No one spoke for what seemed to be an eternity. The only thing Tony could hear was his own breathing and the humming of the arc reactor in his chest. He resisted the urge to swallow, feeling incredibly nervous.

Thor spoke first. “What exactly is a mutant?”

“Mutants have a genetic abnormality that give them certain abilities,” Natasha answered. “It varies from person to person. It can be invisibility, the power of flight, telekinesis, telepathy, the ability to manipulate fire, shape shift…”

“What do you have?” Clint asked Tony, solemnly studying Tony’s stiff visage.

“Telekinesis,” Tony said. He shrugged lightly. “Though lately it’s just been exploding things.”

“I do not understand,” Thor said, confused. “Why did you not tell us of this power?”

Tony sat up stiffly in the seat, clenching his hands into fists on his legs. “I saw no reason to, as it doesn’t work. For all the good it does me, I’m essentially human.”

“You exploded the TV and the kitchen,” Clint said casually.

“It’s the alcohol, Barton,” Tony said snappishly. “It did the same thing the first time I got drunk.”

“Who else knows?” Bruce asked. “We do now, but—”

“Howard’s dead, and he was the only other person to know,” Tony said, not at all thinking about that final argument they’d had.

“Captain America was a human. Not a mutant!”

“And what am I?”

“Your mother didn’t?” Steve said.

Tony gave a twisted smile. “Why would Howard tell his wife that their only child was an abnormality? Besides,” he continued before anyone could get a word in to comment on his daddy issues, “there was no need to tell anyone else. It all handled itself.”

“You explode things when you get drunk,” Natasha pointed out. “That’s not handling it.”

“Which is why I don’t get drunk,” Tony said curtly, giving a brittle smile. “Last night was a one off.”

“You got drunk before—”

“I thought I was going to die – forgive me for wanting to drown my sorrows in alcohol.”

“The Chinese has arrived,” JARVIS announced before the spat could get any more heated.

Suppressing a relieved sigh, Tony silently thanked JARVIS for his timing as Bruce got up to get the takeout.

Thor still looked a bit confused, Clint didn’t really seem to care beyond a faint gleam of interest in his eyes, Natasha was pursing her lips disapprovingly and he wasn’t sure why, and Steve…Steve was looking at him with one of the most perplexing expressions Tony had ever seen. He couldn’t determine whether it was sad, disappointed (and if so, disappointed in whom?), disgusted (…nah, it didn’t look disgusted), or a mixture of the three. And that was a problem, since Tony had made a living off being able to read other people’s expressions and giving appropriately tailored news clips.

Before he could make up his mind, the expression was gone and Bruce was back, multiple bags of takeout with him. For some reason, he handed two to Tony after Steve gave him this other unreadable look. For his part, Tony was staring in befuddlement at the two bags. Two? How much was he expected to eat?

Thor got his usual three bags, while Clint and Natasha each got one. Steve received two as well, and Bruce sat down with his one bag.

“Is that it?” Tony asked, not diving into his food the way Clint was.

“You have to train,” Natasha said before Steve could say anything.

“Oh, honey”—he ignored the death glare shot his way at the endearment—“I don’t have to do anything.”

“It’s dangerous,” Natasha said. “You can’t be out on the field like this.”

And just like that, Tony snapped.

The thing was, his rage wasn’t fiery like Bruce’s. It didn’t just explode and then vanish like a volcano. No, his rage was cold. It was slow and deadly, and it was the reason he didn’t go after all his illegally sold weapons immediately when he first became Iron Man. His enemies could tell anyone who asked, “Don’t piss off Tony Stark, because he will make you regret it.”

And right now, Tony was mad as hell. He smiled slowly, the gesture seemingly sincere if it weren’t for his eyes. “In case you haven’t noticed,” he said gently, with that same smile on his face, “I’ve been fighting besides you since I joined the Avengers. And look, nothing’s happened. Does it change now that you know what I am? Does me being a mutant make me untrustworthy, Natalie Rushman?” The use of her former alias didn’t make Natasha flinch, though it seemed to be a close call. “Take it from someone who’s been living with this for most of his life…I know what I’m doing. Just because you know now doesn’t mean you can dictate what I do. The day I endanger a teammate in a fight because my human abilities don’t work is the day I might listen to you.”

Then, with that same almost serene smile on his face, Tony picked up his Chinese, cracked it open, and started eating, his eyes daring anyone else to continue the discussion.

Wisely, no one did.

It was a day after the discussion and Tony was repairing the damage done to his suit. He ignored the arrival of Natasha, instead chiding Dummy.

“Hand me that wrench – no, no, no! The other wrench! …Okay, you know what? Take care of the sink.”

As Dummy skulked off, Tony dug around in the boot he was repairing, not giving Natasha any acknowledgment.

She moved around the table and directly into Tony’s line of sight, simply standing there while she waited for him to give her his attention.

“JARVIS, why isn’t the music on?” Tony asked, swapping the wrench he’d taken out for some fine wire-picking tools.

The dismissive question spurred Natasha to say, “I wanted to apologize.”

Tony flicked his eyes upward to meet hers before turning back to the boot. “For what?”

Natasha gave a short sigh of aggravation. “For what I said yesterday.”

“You said a lot of things yesterday. You’re going to have to be a bit more specific.” He examined the boot, considered it done for right now minus any future modifications he wanted to make, and moved on to an arm gauntlet.

“I didn’t have any right to tell you what you should do.” Natasha sounded frustrated.

Tony gave her a bland smile, popping off the centerpiece of the gauntlet as he did. “No, you didn’t.”

“I still think you should get training,” Natasha said hurriedly. “Just to fine-tune what you can do—”

“Let me ask you something,” Tony interrupted, leaning back in his seat to give her his full attention. “Have you ever actually seen me use this ability? No? Maybe that’s because it’s not because I don’t know how to, it’s because I can’t. Some things just aren’t meant to be controlled.”

“I realize I don’t have the right to tell you to train,” Natasha repeated, meeting Tony’s eyes. “I’ll also apologize for implying you’ll be a danger in the field, as long as you tell me you’ll keep that promise you made yesterday.”

Tony thought back to the statement he’d made yesterday. “The day I endanger a teammate in a fight because my human abilities don’t work is the day I might listen to you.”

“Fair’s fair, I suppose,” Tony said lightly, inclining his head slightly. The movement brought his attention back to his gauntlet.

Natasha might have wanted to say something else – Tony wasn’t sure since he wasn’t looking at her – but she seemed to recognize that his attention was fully taken up by the task of repairing his suit. With the tapping of her shoes – which weren’t quite heels but weren’t quite flats either – she vacated the workshop.

As soon as she left, JARVIS turned the music back on, allowing Tony to get lost in his work.

It was several hours later when the music turned off again, and the event was unexpected enough that Tony looked up to see Steve walking over to him, a plate of sandwiches in hand along with a glass of water.

“It’s evening and you haven’t eaten,” he explained, setting the plate and glass by Tony’s elbow.

“Oh, well…thanks.” Tony eyed the sandwiches, noting that there seemed to be a variety of flavors.

As Tony was debating whether or not he should stop working on the torso of the Iron Man armor to snag a sandwich, Steve was shifting his weight nervously.

Tony had just decided to take the top sandwich when Steve blurted out, “You know you’re not an abnormality, right?”

Blinking perplexedly, Tony opened his mouth to reply, only to be bowled over by Steve, who seemed to be rambling, “No, really, you’re not. You’re normal, Tony…normal for you, that is. Just because you have something extra doesn’t mean you’re abnormal. I don’t know why Howard would tell you something like that”—and Tony didn’t know how Steve guessed that it was Howard calling him that and not Tony himself—“but it’s wrong. It’s so wrong—”

“It’s not really all that wrong when you think about it, Cap,” Tony said, causing Steve to stare at him. “No, really. How many people do you know who’re able to do ‘something extra’?” Oh, wait, damn it – that would include Bruce, Thor… “Don’t answer that. Look, my point is, how many people do you know who were born like this? You got pumped full of a serum, Bruce had an accident with gamma rays, Thor is a virtual god, Natasha had stuff going on I don’t know about, and Clint is human. Me? I was born like this.” Great, he was quoting the title of a Lady Gaga song…

“That still doesn’t make it right,” Steve said. “He was your father.” He paused, seeming to think over what he was going to say next. “I thought I knew him,” he admitted quietly. “But it seems I never did.”

And, no, Tony’s intention hadn’t been to make Steve feel awful about Howard being a crappy father. “He changed,” he said, twisting the screwdriver he was holding around in circles. “He never approved of me being a mutant. The last time we talked about it was also the last time I ever saw him again, as he died a few days later. You know what he told me when I said he’d worked with you? That Captain America was human. And, well…no offense, Cap, but who else is like you? The serum brought you to the peak of human physical fitness, but no one else has ever been able to replicate that naturally or artificially.”

Steve didn’t seem insulted. “And what are you?”

“Aside from being a mutant?” Tony shrugged. “I meant what I said when you asked me what I am without the armor.” He tapped the portion of the suit he had in front of him with the screwdriver. “But I forgot to mention self-destructive, narcissistic, not a team player, playboy, stubborn, selfish—”

Stop it.” Steve slammed his hands down on the table, jostling the suit and making Tony flinch back. “Don’t say that. Don’t.”

“You asked me what I am—”

“But none of it is true!” Steve snapped. “Self-destructive? You don’t sleep enough, forget to eat, and push yourself too hard. So, yeah, I guess you could say that you’re careless with your own safety, but self-destructive? You’re a genius, Tony. If you were self-destructive, you wouldn’t even be here.

“I don’t know who pegged you as narcissistic but they were so wrong—”

“Not really—”

“—because it’s just a mask”—Tony shut up—“and it’s a mask that’s supposed to protect you, because if you pretend that you’re a self-absorbed bastard, then no one can get close enough to hurt you. It’s a shield to protect you against the world, and it’s one that’s fooled even the best of us.

“Not a team player?” Steve gave a short laugh. “Geez, Tony, if you weren’t a team player, do you think you would’ve lasted this long? Sometimes you don’t listen, but that’s because you end up having a better plan that wipes our enemy off the floor. But when it really matters, you know how to listen and you do what’s asked of you. You care about your teammates. If you didn’t, then you wouldn’t be an Avenger, because a team player? A team player has to care about his teammates. A team player has to know when to listen and when to buck orders because they don’t work.

“And playboy? That might’ve been true once, Tony, but I haven’t seen you with any women on your arms since I’ve met you.”

“I was with Pepper,” Tony said, and damn if it didn’t hurt that it was past tense.

“But now? I know you’re not together with her anymore, but I haven’t seen you go out and try and get a dozen different dates.” Steve took a breath and continued, his tone of voice forbidding Tony from interjecting. “You say stubborn like it’s a bad trait. But it’s that stubbornness that gets us through the worst of fights. You don’t know when to quit. If you weren’t stubborn, you wouldn’t be here with us now because that”—his eyes flickered towards the arc reactor—“wouldn’t have been invented. You wouldn’t have invented a new element”—and when had Steve heard about that?—“if you hadn’t been stubborn. So don’t go and say that trait’s bad, because if you weren’t stubborn, then I would never have met you.”

“If you’re done—”

Where did you get selfish from? God, Tony…you’re the most selfless person I know. You told me you were a genius billionaire philanthropist playboy. You’re a genius, you’re a billionaire, and you’re a philanthropist. But you don’t just donate to orphanages or charitable organizations, you help us. You go down into your workshop and don’t come out until days later with some crazy new gadgets to help us out. Clint’s been talking about a new brand of explosive arrows? It’ll only be a day and oh, I’ve made you a new bow, too, that’s much faster on the draw. Natasha’s pissed over something? I’ll come up with something that’ll bring her enemies down even faster. Bruce’s clothes keep ripping and he’s accidentally shattered all his lab beakers? I’ve made a new stretchy material that’s Hulk-proof and ordered a batch of shatter-proof beakers. Thor can’t get drunk on human alcohol? Let me mix something up. Captain America’s uniform gets dissipated with venom? It’ll take me two days to come up with something better.”

Steve was still talking, even though it looked like he hadn’t taken a breath since he’d started the rant. “You keep going out on these solo missions to take care of what happened several years ago. I don’t know anyone else who takes that kind of responsibility on their shoulders. You’ve already done so much, and you keep doing more because you say it’s your responsibility to take care of what happened before you became Iron Man. That’s not selfish, Tony.”

Now, finally, Steve drew a deep breath, eyes not leaving a stunned Tony’s. He wasn’t done yet. “You told me that I shouldn’t apologize if I didn’t know what I was apologizing for. I didn’t understand it then, but I understand it now. I didn’t know you well enough to apologize for the things I said when we met. But now? I can see I was wrong, Tony. And I want to apologize. You’re so much more than a man in a suit of armor, and it doesn’t make a difference whether you’re a human or a mutant or even a god.” He drew back slightly, though his hands were still on the table. “I’m not apologizing this time because it’s the right thing to do. I’m apologizing because I want to, and because I was wrong.”

Tony wasn’t slack-jawed, he wasn’t, but it was a very close call. Instead, he had a stunned expression on his face that wasn’t really helping his claim of being a genius. He couldn’t even begin to get into all the issues Steve brought up, but he could address the apology Steve had given him.

“Yeah, okay,” he said finally, swallowing dryly. “Apology… Yeah, that’s good.”

Steve gave a small smile, his shoulders relaxing. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Damn, he sounded dazed. “So, um…you should think about going into teaching. Because that lecture? It was the bomb.”

“I’m not quite sure what that means,” Steve said, “but I’ll take it as a compliment. And, Tony, I don’t know why you don’t want to use your telekinesis – if it’s because you don’t want to or because you can’t, but I’m telling you that it doesn’t matter. We…I care about you as a person. Not for what you bring to the team, but because of who you are. You’re you, and you shouldn’t ever change that because of something Howard said.”

For the life of him, Tony couldn’t figure out why Steve cared. He hadn’t gone out of his way to act friendly toward the guy. In fact, he’d probably been downright antagonistic. But for whatever reason, Steve cared. Bruce cared, but Tony had been science bros with him since day one. He and Steve had gotten off on the wrong foot and stayed on the wrong foot until some indiscernible point that Tony couldn’t pick out.

When had Steve started considering Tony a friend? Tony had still been keeping Steve firmly in the “Keep away” camp until two (three?) days ago, when Steve had brought him into his bedroom to sleep. And where had that come from? Why would Steve Rogers – Captain America – bring Tony Stark into his bedroom to sleep when there were other good bedrooms to use?

Tony didn’t know, and it scared the shit out of him.

Weirdly enough, telling the Avengers that he was a mutant didn’t change much. They still treated him as their second resident genius (Bruce was the other) and he was still expected to be brilliant and eccentric. And if Natasha occasionally threw knives in his direction and Clint pretended to drop bowls, then Tony ignored them. It was great (or stupid, considering that their introduction to his ability was the kitchen exploding) that they wanted to help, but his telekinesis was still as shy as ever.

The one thing that wasn’t normal was Steve’s treatment of him. For some reason, the guy had it in his mind that Tony needed a friend. And not a science buddy like Bruce, but a genuine bona fide friend.

To be honest, Tony couldn’t blame Steve, because he hadn’t exactly gotten introduced to Rhodey yet. Rhodey was always busy, so he hadn’t gotten the chance to meet Tony’s newest teammates.

The subject came up one day in Tony’s workshop, as Tony went over the newest specs for the Quinjet.

“You know I don’t exactly need a babysitter, right?” Tony didn’t look up from the holographs he’s manipulating.

“I’m not being a babysitter. I’m being a friend.” Something in the way Steve said the word “friend” made Tony think he wasn’t exactly thinking of the same thing Tony was.

“From my experience,” Tony said, “friends don’t watch their friends’ every move.”

“I’m concerned over your well being,” Steve said. “That’s being a friend.”

“In that case, I’ve got JARVIS, Dummy, Pepper, Rhodey—”

“You mean the guy who stole your suit?”

How’d he hear about that? Tony made a note to check his S.H.I.E.L.D. file again. “Actually, it’s more like borrowing—”

“He hasn’t given it back, has he?”

“Well, no, but it was a deal to get the military off my back—”

“They shouldn’t have been on your back to begin with,” Steve said disapprovingly. “It was your invention, and you’d already said that you were going to shut down all weapons manufacturing.”

Tony looked up from the Quinjet designs, a small frown on his face. “Not that I’m not flattered, Steve, since you clearly know your stuff when it comes to me, but how do you even know this?”

Steve flushed lightly, which intrigued Tony. “I’ve been catching up on modern day news, since it’s a bit more current than what happened before. Not that what happened while I was frozen isn’t important, but I’ve already read all I could before I moved in here. And you’re kind of in the middle of most of the important news stuff.”

So that explained why Steve knew about his decision to shut down weapons manufacturing, but what about the other stuff? Tony was pretty sure that information was classified. And he didn’t think Fury was in the habit of handing out classified documents regarding his underlings’ lives like they were candy, even if the guy asking was the legendary Captain America.

“Yeah, well,” Tony said, getting his mind back on track, “like I said, it was a deal. The military’s tough to deal with, especially after a long partnership like the one between them and Stark Industries.”

Steve was also frowning slightly. “You call Rhodey a friend?”

One had to wonder where Steve was going with this. “We’ve known each other for years. He’s always had my back.”

“Wasn’t he against you stopping weapons manufacturing?”

Tony’s eyebrows disappeared into his hairline. Okay, how had he known that?

“It was in his body language at the press conferences you had,” Steve explained, reading Tony’s confusion in his face. “He didn’t particularly like it.”

“I got it,” Tony said, deciding he was going to wait and open up the can of worms of why Steve knew so much about him at a later date. “He’s military. It’s understandable that he was unhappy that one of the most innovative designers of weaponry backed out without any prior warning.”

“My point is that you shouldn’t have to worry about your friends not having your back,” Steve said, bringing the conversation back onto its original track.

“And I suppose you’ll have my back?” Tony asked half-jokingly.

Steve was completely serious as he answered, “Always.”

“Steve, you can’t know that—”

“Tony, no matter what, I will always, always have your back. And not because you’re an Avenger. It’s because you’re my friend. I…I accept you for who you are.” The brief hesitation told Tony that Steve had been about to say something else.

“If this is about you getting me to accept me as I am, flaws and all,” Tony said, “I’ve gotta tell you that several people have already beaten you to the punch line.”

“And haven’t succeeded.” Steve smiled wryly. “You’re you, Tony.”

Two phrases from completely different years echoed in his mind.

“And what am I?”

“You’re you, Tony. Don’t ever stop being that.”

It was another month until Tony’s cast came off, and he was promptly carted onto his private plane to Japan for an important inspection of one of his factories there, as it was barely meeting safety requirements. Pepper was insanely busy with some lame board member that was kicking a fuss over one of the newest inventions Tony had brought in.

The two hadn’t seen each other much after the breakup, as Pepper seemed to want to give Tony space, and Tony was too busy with the Avengers. Plus, for some reason or another that Tony couldn’t figure out, Steve was taking up most of Tony’s time. Whenever Pepper did show up, it was inevitably to find Steve hanging out in Tony’s workshop as the older (younger? Tony didn’t have a clue how old Steve considered himself to be and it wasn’t something he’d ask) man worked on something so technologically advanced that sometimes even Bruce’s eyes glazed over when Tony talked about it. Even when Tony wasn’t in his workshop, Steve tended to drag him out to eat something or do something else with the team (or just with Steve, and that confused Tony more than if Steve had him do something with the rest of the Avengers. Because, honestly? Tony wasn’t the kind of guy people looked to hang out with casually on a one-and-one basis).

But that wasn’t the point (or maybe it was, but Tony was in no mood to discuss with himself the fine details of his relationship with Steve). The point was that Tony was currently sitting in his private plane on the way to Japan with Clint Barton in tow.

So maybe the question should be why Clint was even with him in the first place, considering that the guy had nothing to do with Stark Industries. Natasha would make more sense, since she had a short stint as Tony’s PA. But Natasha was busy with something S.H.I.E.L.D. related, Steve couldn’t come (and he’d really wanted to for some reason Tony couldn’t decipher, but then he’d gotten a strange look on his face and said he had something else to do) because Japan didn’t want Captain America on their soil, Bruce wasn’t allowed anywhere near Japan because they were just a tad freaked out by Hulk, and Thor was a god and it wouldn’t make any sense to bring a god on a business trip.

Yet the argument could be made that Tony was a big boy and fully capable of taking care of himself. As it was, Clint was tagging along both as backup in case something happened to a core member of the Avengers and because he was, for some strange reason, insanely interested in Japan.

Tony, being the genuinely nice guy he is, didn’t protest much when Clint brought those reasons to the table for why he should go with Tony Stark to Japan. Unfortunately, he didn’t consider that it would mean being put in close proximity with a known prankster and someone who was just as sharp-tongued as Tony himself for a prolonged period time. Tony was good, but he wasn’t good enough to invent an engine that would get him from California to Japan in just half an hour. The suit was a possibility, but Clint couldn’t go supersonic.

So…that left him stuck in a private plane with Clint Barton, who seemed insanely interested in conversing with Tony.

“Considering that we have several hours of flying ahead of us,” Clint said after the plane had gotten into the air, “what exactly are we looking at here?”

Tony didn’t even bother to hide his exasperation. “I thought you were briefed on this before volunteering to bug me on this super important mission?”

“Yeah, but I want to hear it from you.”

“I have factories in Japan. I like having good factories. These factories in Japan aren’t meeting the safety requirements needed to be good factories. Pepper is busy dealing with an ass that should never have been let onto the board. That means I’m going to Japan to make sure that the factories are up to snuff.” So maybe that could have been a tad bit more eloquent than explaining math to a second grader, but Tony was slightly peeved that this couldn’t have waited until a couple weeks after his cast had gotten taken off. He’d just gotten a new prototype of the suit made and hadn’t even been able to test it because of his injury.

Clint raised an eyebrow at Tony’s stilted reply. “Wow, that was amazingly concise. You sure you don’t want a drink?” And for some reason Tony really couldn’t figure out (yes, that was sarcasm) Clint was constantly trying to get Tony drunk. Clint insisted he just wanted to get Tony to relax; Tony suspected he just wanted to see something explode.

“Yes.” Tony rapped his fingers against his suitcase armor. “Unless you’ve smuggled a case of alcohol on board, you’re out of luck. I don’t stock alcohol because I don’t drink.”

Clint made a small face, but didn’t argue against that statement. He was silent for a few more moments.

Tony was just beginning to think that this wouldn’t be so bad after all when he spoke again and that notion went flying out the window. “So what’s up between you and Steve?”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry… This is your business how?”

“I’m just saying, you guys seem to be spending a lot of time together.”

“I’m not saying to be an expert in human relationships, but this seems like a question should be asking him, not me.”

“I’m asking one half of the equation.”

Tony had the suspicion that Clint was implying something else other than friendship with that. “Ask the other guy, not me. I’m just putting up with him.”

“I’m not asking Hulk,” Clint said, purposefully misconstruing Tony’s response.

“Ask Steve,” Tony snapped, shifting the suitcase armor in his lap.

Clint put up his hands in a mockery of protesting his innocence. “I don’t have anything against you guys being really good friends. I’m just curious, since it was only like two months ago when you couldn’t seem to stand the sight of his face and now you’re all like ‘ooh, want to paint my toenails while I do your hair?’ “

“For the record, that was a pathetic impersonation of a teenage girl. Also, neither of us paint our toenails or do each other’s hair. Additionally, it’s Steve who keeps coming into my workshop. I don’t invite him. JARVIS gave him a pass code without telling me, and hasn’t retracted it.” And actually, that should be rather telling, shouldn’t it? Tony was beginning to get a suspicion as to where Steve was getting most of his inside information on Tony’s life.

“I’m just saying,” Clint repeated, “that it’s strange.”

“I don’t think Steve would approve of what you’re implying,” Tony said, because Clint was implying something other than friendship. “He’s from an earlier era, you know. They didn’t do stuff like that.”

Clint had far too innocent of an expression on his face. “Be really good buds?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Oh, for the love of God… If you’re not going to say it, I will. Steve comes from an era where two guys don’t get into romantic entanglements. Or if they did, they were horribly ashamed about it because it was illegal, wrong, a crime against humanity, and whatever else they were calling it back then.”

“He’s been in the twenty-first century for about a year,” Clint pointed out. “I’m pretty sure that the nature of gay relationships was one of the first things he was briefed on.”

“Being briefed on it is one thing. Accepting it is another.”

Clint seemed to have a rather strange expression on his face. “Yeah, well… Steve doesn’t exactly resemble the typical male guy from the forties.” There was something there that Clint wasn’t telling Tony.

“Spit it out, Barton. What is it?”

“Nothing,” Clint said not too believingly. “I’ll drop it, okay? You’re obviously fine with being in the closet and just being friends with our esteemed captain.”

“Oh, for the love of – I am not in the closet.” Tony glared at Clint. He was not ashamed of who he liked.

“No, you’re sitting in a small confined place that in no way resembles a closet. You don’t exactly act straight, Tony.”

“And that means I’m in the closet?” Tony let the suitcase armor slide down so it was just resting in his lap and he leaned over it. “I’m a really public figure. Do you honestly think I could just have relationships with guys in the open? I know I look like I don’t give a damn about public opinion – and for the most part I don’t – but I will not have the company’s name dragged through the mud because people can’t deal with me being bisexual. It’s more openly accepted now, but it wasn’t before.”

“So being a playboy was a way of establishing a straight man reputation. Got it.”

“I don’t like your attitude.” Tony leaned back in his seat and continued, “I experimented in college and decided I liked both ends of the scale. It’s never really come up again since all the guys I knew were total sleazes and women were just easier to deal with in the aftermath. And if you tell Natasha or Pepper I said that, I will make your life a living hell.”

“Lips are sealed shut, I swear.” Clint was completely serious. “But what about now?”

“I broke up with Pepper a couple months ago,” Tony said, casually shrugging. “I’m not really looking for another relationship.”

He wasn’t looking for a relationship now or even in the far future. Love was too complicated and hurt too much. Just look at Pepper. Even though she’d said it wasn’t his fault, it kind of was. She couldn’t deal with him being Iron Man, and that was his fault because he was Iron Man. And he couldn’t stop being Iron Man.

So, ergo, it was his fault that Pepper broke up with him, regardless of what she’d said at the time.

“Okay then,” Clint said easily. “So now that your love life is out of the way—”

“What about yours?”

“—let’s talk about why you can’t get drunk.”

“For the last time, I’m a horrible drunk.”

“Yeah, I know.” Clint grinned at Tony’s scowling face. “But euphemisms aside, do you know why your telekinesis doesn’t work?”

“What is this – analyze Tony Stark Day?” Tony demanded. “When you asked to get into the same plane as me, I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.”

“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition,” Clint retorted. “And I’m not analyzing you. I’m talking. It’s what friends do, right?”

Unlike when Steve said friends, Tony had the impression that Clint actually meant friends. And what that implied he didn’t even want to think about.

“Right,” Tony said suspiciously.

“Seriously, Tony. It’s not normal. Natasha must’ve thrown like a hundred knives at you the last month alone, and you didn’t even flinch. Are your self-preservation instincts that bad?”

“It’s not my self-preservation instincts. I care about my own skin just fine.”

“This is coming from the guy who set himself on fire the other day.”

“I was trying out a new material!”

“Yeah, for Steve. Who, incidentally, didn’t like that you set yourself on fire.”

Okay, the conversation had to get off the topic of Steve. Like, pronto.

“It worked fine until I turned seventeen,” Tony said, not able to believe that he was actually confessing his sorry history to Clint Barton. “And if you’d looked at my file, you’d know that’s when the plane crash happened. I put it down to shock and emotional turmoil.”

“But that was years ago,” Clint pointed out. “You can’t honestly still be in emotional turmoil over something that happened when you were seventeen? If you were that sensitive, you wouldn’t even be sitting here!”

Damn, Clint had just hit upon the heart of the matter that Tony had been avoiding. “Who knows what the mind does? I don’t have a psychology degree.”

“Neither do I, and even I know there’s something seriously fishy about that diagnosis.”

“Your point being?”

“My point being that you shouldn’t let whatever your asshole of a father told you stop you from being you,” Clint said sharply.

“I’m me,” Tony said defensively.

“No, you’re not. Because if you were you, you’d probably be whacking me over the head with something and not touching it because you’re using your telekinesis. You’re half of you.”

This was reminding Tony of something Thor had told him a month ago when the god had been feeling maudlin. The guy had gotten stone drunk on this concoction Tony had specifically made for him and told him all about Loki’s sad story. Then he’d told Tony that he regretted not being there for Loki when he’d found out what he was, because the trickster god was still trying to be only half of what he was, and not accepting himself fully.

“I do not wish to see another shield brother fall to the same fate. Accept yourself wholly, Anthony.”

And then there was Bruce, who still didn’t see Hulk as another extension of himself. He’d gotten closer to accepting “the other guy”, especially since Hulk had taken a liking to Tony, but he still saw himself as being separated into two.

He hadn’t talked to Tony about being a mutant, beyond telling him that it didn’t really matter what Tony was, since he was still obnoxious, smart, and could you please check this latest experiment before it explodes?

“You’re all ganging up on me, aren’t you?” Tony muttered, sliding down petulantly in his seat.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Clint said. “This is me talking to you.”

And the scary thing was, Clint was actually telling the truth.

Tony opened his mouth to say something – he had no idea what – when the whole plane suddenly rattled as if hitting a bad bout of turbulence.

I apologize, Mr. Stark,” the captain spoke over the intercom, “but something seems to be interfering—” It broke off with a loud crackle.

“Please tell me this is one of your random jokes,” Clint said, holding onto his seat for dear life.

“It’s not one of yours?” Tony struggled to get to the cockpit, nearly being flung forward as the plane hit another pocket of turbulence. Was it even turbulence? If it wasn’t, how the hell did someone break into the plane’s computer system? Of course, he hadn’t used this plane in forever, so it was technically possible that someone could have planted a bug in it, and if that was the case then someone was going to get his ass fired—

Tony’s thoughts broke off as he nearly slammed into the door leading to the cockpit. He prevented a painful head slam at the last moment and scrabbled at the handle, trying to open it. It twisted but for some reason the lock wasn’t giving.

And, of course, the cockpit was soundproofed because Tony usually had some sort of fling going on the main cabin. He hadn’t done anything of the sort since Afghanistan, but that didn’t mean the design had changed.

“Okay, there’s no need to panic,” he told Clint, turning around. “Just buckle in. I’ll get JARVIS—” The plane literally dropped in the air, leaving Tony suspended in midair for a split second until his feet hit the floor and he almost face-planted. Now he was sliding forward as the floor continued to vibrate under his smarting body.

“Next time we’re taking the Quinjet,” Clint snapped, watching as Tony managed to haul himself into his seat, snag his suitcase armor, and then buckle himself in. “Can you fly us out of here?”

“I’m still working on a prototype that can take more than just my weight,” Tony said, gritting his teeth as the plane jumped again. “So unless you approve of me leaving you behind, nothing is going to happen.”

Just as he said that, there was a hissing noise as some kind of gas filled the cabin.

“Oh fuck…” Clint groaned, instantly slamming a hand over his nose.

Tony covered his nose with an arm, hoping the cloth of his suit would prevent whatever it was from kicking in too soon.

It was scarcely seconds later when he succumbed to the growing blackness at the edges of his vision.


Urgh… He was feeling so woozy it was ridiculous. What knocked him out?


He couldn’t remember taking anything that would knock him out like this. If he got hit on the head, then he would have a headache. Since he didn’t have one, it meant that nothing had hit him on the head. That only left drugs. But he didn’t take drugs since that would probably lead to him exploding things…

“Tony, I swear that if you don’t open your eyes in the next ten seconds, I’m going to kiss you.”

Tony’s eyes flew open and he threw up a hand, slapping Clint’s face as he did.

Clint gave a small grunt and leaned back from where he was kneeling besides Tony. He covered his nose, scowling down at the blinking billionaire. “There was no need to hit me.”

“No kissing,” Tony snapped, sitting up, only to nearly fall over when his head began spinning.

He was steadied with a hand to his shoulder. “Careful. Whatever they knocked us out with was pretty powerful.”

Tony would forever deny that he whimpered, though he would admit that he had to stick his head between his knees to equalize his blood pressure.

“I’m not sure where we are,” Clint continued, rubbing small circles in-between Tony’s shoulder blades, “but it looks like a small sort of cell.”

“Why are you petting me like some sort of cat?” Tony muttered, chancing a quick head lift to confirm what Clint had just said.

Clint retracted his hand. “Fine. Be that way.”

“You know I love you,” Tony said, eyes scanning over the rest of their small cell. It was dark except for a small light bulb screwed into the ceiling. They were sitting on the ground, which was grimy cement. The door was reinforced steel.

All in all, it didn’t look very promising.

“God, I hope you don’t,” Clint said, shuffling around so he was sitting right next to Tony. “Steve would never forgive me.”

The statement was odd enough that it made Tony think for a moment. Then he decided that it really wasn’t the time to get into that. “When did you wake up?”

“A little before you did,” Clint said, watching as Tony carefully straightened out. “I inspected the cell, and there’s nothing we can do unless you’re carrying some sort of bomb on you.”

Tony patted the pockets of his suit, only to find that everything electronic had been taken. “Yeah, tough luck. I’m good but not that good.” His thumb rubbed over the cover of the arc reactor, which was hidden under the black cloth of his suit. “On a scale of one to ten, how fucked are we?”

“Hulk-decided-to-go-on-a-mass-murdering-spree-fucked,” Clint promptly answered.

Tony whistled lowly. “That’s…pretty bad.”

“They took your suitcase and my arrows. I’d say we’re fucked.”

Tony shook his head. “The suit’s programmed to self-destruct if anyone who isn’t biologically coded into the hardware tries to open it. It’s something I did after the fiasco with Vanko.” He grinned ruefully. “I can’t have anyone getting into the tech.”

“Well, that’s awesome,” Clint drawled. “Any chance of JARVIS getting a lock on us?”

“He’s keyed into all of the suits. If that one self-destructs, he’ll know.”

“So we’re looking at a good few hours here,” Clint said. “Maybe less, depending on how long we were out for.”

“I’d look at my watch, but they took that, too,” Tony said. “I don’t think they trust me.”

Clint snorted. “No one trusts you with technology. That’s just asking for trouble. I still haven’t forgotten the sentient stove you made.”

“I was running on three hours of sleep.”

“That normally means you don’t install an AI into a stove! Especially one that doesn’t even like pizza!”

“One word: Thor.”

“Yeah, okay, so the pizza exploded the first time he put it in there. Maybe you shouldn’t have a put a dial on it with an ‘extra fast cooking’ setting.”

“It was for Steve,” Tony said peevishly.

“He’s not that slow when it comes to modern technology,” Clint said long-sufferingly. “In fact, your stove is too advanced. Even Bruce doesn’t want to touch it.”

“You’ll all regret this when I get that stove to cook meals by himself,” Tony proclaimed. He doubted that he would, as the stove was particularly obstinate about cooking anything. In fact, he (the stove, that is, because it did have a gender of sorts since he was an AI) seemed to think that the only thing that he should make were sweets. Tony blamed Natasha.

“I don’t know how this happens,” Clint said, “but I always get sidetracked when I’m talking to you.” He looked up at the light bulb. “What about that?”

Tony glanced up at it. “Given that the only thing of use on me are some buttons and a zipper, I wouldn’t hold out hope. Besides, I presume you’d like to be able to see something?”

“You have a built in flashlight.”

Tony gave him a shifty-eyed glare as he protectively covered the reactor, making it seem like he was pretending to be shot in the heart. “At home in the mansion is one thing. Here in the dark with unknown enemies probably watching our every move is another.”

Clint gave a short laugh. “They probably think we’re completely bat shit insane, don’t they?”

Tony grinned, his teeth glinting in the dim light. “Probably.”

The two shared a mutual grin at that thought before rearranging themselves to wait for something to happen.

Tony was just bored enough to consider taking the light bulb out when there was a clattering noise from outside.

The two men jumped to their feet, only to put their hands up when the muzzle of a gun poked its head through the door.

A man who was clearly of Japanese ethnicity edged his way into the room, giving both of them suspicious glances. Tony rolled his shoulders lightly, raising his eyebrows as the man met his eyes.

There was a short burst of rapid Japanese that neither understood before another man came in and grabbed Tony, taking his hands and cuffing them behind his back.

“Any chance either of you speaks English?” Tony asked, ignoring the way Clint was practically vibrating behind him. “No?”

“Steve is going to kill me if something happens to you,” Clint said through gritted teeth, eyes on the gun that was still turned on him.

“Nothing is going to happen to me,” Tony assured him.

There was a disbelieving “Sure” as Tony was hauled out of the small cell and the door locked behind him again. His captors didn’t even bother putting a sack over his head as they pulled him through what looked like some sort of abandoned bunker.

Tony had enough time to curse Japanese ingenuity when it came to designing bomb proof bunkers even as he was counting his steps and making a mental map of the place before he was pulled into another small room and pushed into a chair.

The first guy with the gun stood behind him, the gun edging into the nape of his neck. The cold metal against his skin made Tony’s skin crawl. Not for the first time, he was glad to have stopped manufacturing weapons for mass market sale.

Then that train of thought was effectively derailed as a smart-suited Japanese man walked in, giving a slow satisfied smile when he saw the situation Tony was in.

“Tony Stark,” the man said in accented English. “It is an honor to finally meet you.”

“I’d say the same,” Tony said, “but I have no clue who you are.”

“Who I am does not concern you,” the man said.

“Bullshit,” Tony said, repressing a flinch as the gun pressed into his neck. “You kidnapped my friend and me. I’d say it does concern me.”

“You manufacture weapons,” the man said, ignoring what Tony had said.

“Not anymore, and you’ll have to try a little harder to intimidate me because I’m just not feeling it.” The gun dug even more sharply into his skin.

“You are the Iron Man.” The Japanese man studied Tony through dark eyes. “Your suit is destroyed. What can you do?”

Tony flashed a grin. “That was intentional. You shouldn’t try to mess with things that aren’t yours. ’Sides, in case you missed the memo, Iron Man is part of a team. And that team gets kind of pissed if two of their own are in danger.”

“You are currently in an undetectable facility in the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” the man said, smiling mildly in that way that generally crept Tony out. “Do you really think your team will find you?”

Tony smiled tightly back. “I’m a genius. Do you think I’d be hanging out with a bunch of bimbos?”

He looked down at Tony’s chest, eyes lingering over where the arc reactor sat. “We have brilliant minds capable of reverse engineering your miraculous feat,” he said softly. “Unless you are willing to work with us?”

For the record, Tony was tired of villains always being after his tech. And for the record, Tony was pissed.

“Yeah, uh…the last guy who asked me that isn’t exactly a happy camper, you know?” Tony shrugged as best as he could with a gun digging into the back of his neck.

The man didn’t move.

“In case you didn’t get the message, that means no.”

“I was hoping, Mr. Stark”—the man stood up and the door to the room opened—“that you would not leave us to resort to these measures.”

Tony’s eyes barely had time to widen before he felt a sharp prick in his neck and the drugs knocked him out.

“You’re a real asshole, you know.”

Tony blinked, looking down at a younger version of what looked to be himself. If he had to hazard a guess, it looked to be him at seventeen. “Sorry?”

“Whatever happened to not listening to Howard?” seventeen-year-old him bit out. “I thought we decided to fuck him when he told us the first time to leave it alone.”

“That’s really gross,” Tony said, not entirely sure what was going on here. Hadn’t he just been pricked with a syringe of unidentifiable drugs? Why was he in his dorm room at MIT? “I wouldn’t want to fuck my dad.”

“You’re cute,” the younger him said, “but not that cute. Who cares what he said? You’re going to get us both killed at this rate.”

“I don’t know about you, but I know there’s just one of me and that’s how I like it.”

“You locked me up!” the younger him exploded, inadvertently causing Tony to take a cautious step back. “You locked me up because you thought somewhere in that genius mind of yours that he was right! That we’re freaks!”

“I don’t know who you are,” Tony said quickly, holding his ground even though the rage coming off his young self was almost choking him, “but I’ve never locked myself up in my life. So if we’re done now—”

“Can’t you accept yourself for who you are?” his younger self demanded fiercely. His words made Tony freeze. “I’m a part of you! Just because dear old dad didn’t like it doesn’t mean you have to listen to him! Because face it, when have you ever decided to listen to him?”

Tony’s eyes narrowed. “Are you that piece of DNA that gives me telekinesis? If you are, I’ve got a bone to pick with you.”

I’m not the one who decided to be normal.”

“I’m not normal!” Tony snapped, stung.

“No, you’re not.” His younger self smirked. “Get with the times. You’re me, I’m you, and you can’t just be half of a whole. It doesn’t work like that.”

Tony folded his arms, glaring down at the impertinent kid – who was himself. “And your brilliant solution is?”

“It’s up to you,” his younger self said, annoyed. “Either you want to be yourself or you don’t. But I’d make up my mind, since we’re going to die if we don’t.”

The POV changes were getting on Tony’s nerves. “Either we’re one and the same or we’re not. Make up your mind.”

The kid smirked, cocking his head to the side. “Now you know how I feel.”

“What—” Tony was cut off with a gasp as his chest suddenly stung with a fiery pain. His environment disappeared into black smoke.

His mind was a whirling mass of chaos. Since when had he listened to Howard? Why had he let the words of a man who had been dead for decades influence his waking life for every moment since then?

“Captain America was a human. Not a mutant!”

“And what am I?”

“You’re you, Tony. Don’t ever stop being that.”

“I accept you for who you are.”

“I do not wish to see another shield brother fall to the same fate. Accept yourself wholly, Anthony.”

“It doesn’t really matter what you are. You’re still kind of annoying, kind of brilliant… Can you check on that experiment? I think it’s gonna explode.”

It didn’t matter, it didn’t matter. He was Tony Stark of Stark Industries; he was Tony Stark, Iron Man; he was Tony Stark, mutant.

Tony woke with a strangled cry as something seemed to be cutting into his chest. His eyes flew open, and he struggled for a second before realizing that he was completely strapped down and some guy was cutting into his chest with a nasty scalpel and oh my fucking God, stop touching that!

It was as if a door had opened in him. Whereas before he’d only felt like half of himself (how had he never noticed this?) now he was whole. The surgeon cutting into the skin around the arc reactor (it made him kind of proud that the guy’s brilliant minds couldn’t figure out how to take out a simple arc reactor) flew backwards, impacting the wall with a loud thud.

Everything happened so quickly after that that Tony had trouble remembering what had transpired.

There was a short rapid burst of gunfire, but the bullets aimed his way halted midair and reverted course, hitting the gunman and a few others that were also standing guard. Then one of the surgeon’s aides came at him with a knife that was yanked out of his hand and stabbed into his stomach. He fell to the floor, a strangled gasp of pain escaping his lips.

And Tony was breathing rapidly, trying to calm his racing heartbeat and trying not to freak out at the blood that was crawling down his stomach from the cuts the surgeon had already made. Steeling his mind, he inhaled deeply, closing his eyes as he focused on undoing the straps that were holding him down.

They were Velcro, which made it ridiculously easy to undo them. Once he was free, Tony sat up, grabbing the nearest roll of bandages he could find and holding them to his chest. He kept the pressure on as he rummaged around for some tape. He’d just gotten some when a noise at the door made him startle.

He looked up to see more people standing there and oh crap there were guns!

Tony threw up a hand, pushing all the guns’ muzzles toward the ceiling to divert any shots. Then he pulled back, yanking them out the men’s hands and throwing them behind him. Running purely on instinct now, he pulled all of them into the room, letting them either hit the doorframe because of lack of space or the wall behind him because he used too much force. He padded the bandages to his chest and taped them on as he stumbled to the door, the drugs in his system making him slightly clumsy.

He couldn’t figure out why he’d woken in the middle of the surgery. Had they miscalculated with the dosage? That was unlikely, as he didn’t have a superfast metabolism like Steve or Thor. He was just an average guy who also happened to be a mutant.

Maybe it was because he was a mutant that the dosage didn’t work on him. Whatever the reason, Tony had never been so thankful.

Now he had to find Clint. Tony was just out of the surgery room from his worst nightmares when he ran into the guy who’d been interrogating him earlier. The man barely had time to blink before Tony slammed him into the wall with a move Steve had taught him.

“I’m generally a nice guy,” Tony breathed into the man’s face, “but you’ve just pissed me off. And anyone you ask will tell you that you do not want to piss me off. You know why?” He leaned in close, whispering into the shivering man’s ear, “Because I will make your life a living hell.”

Tony dug his elbow into the man’s windpipe. “Now, I’m going to ask you nicely, and I expect an answer from you. Where is my friend?”

He relieved the pressure on the man’s windpipe so he could talk. There was a rapid gulp of air before the man was blabbering directions. Having gotten what he needed, Tony slammed his head into the wall to knock him unconscious before leaving him lying there.

He practically sprinted through the bunker, thinking that he might want to reevaluate the term “bunker” because no bunker should be made up of so many winding corridors. He didn’t really run into any opposition on the way there, but he thought that might have been because the bulk of the force was around the surgery, and any backup might have headed there as well.

That left him a small window of opportunity to get Clint out and then get the hell away from here.

There were two guards standing outside the door where Clint was stashed behind. Both barely had time to startle upon seeing him before he’d yanked their guns out of their hands and knocked them both unconscious with the butts. Letting the weapons drop to the floor, he unlocked the door with his hands before pulling it open, nearly getting clocked in the face by Clint.

The archer hadn’t pulled his punch; Tony had subconsciously stopped it before he’d gone into lala land.

“Tony?” Clint didn’t let the shock of his punch stopping midair deter him. “What happened?”

Tony looked down at himself. He was bare-chested except for the wad of bandages over the reactor. He still had his pants and shoes on. He thought that most of Clint’s alarm came from the fact that there was blood smeared over his hands and his stomach.

“I had an appointment with a surgeon,” Tony said, stepping aside so Clint could get out. He picked up a gun and handed it to him. “Look, we’ve gotta get going. I think most everyone’s gone to the area where I was getting operated on”—Clint made an alarmed noise—“so we’ve got a small window of opportunity before they figure out that we’re getting out of here.”

There was a short exhale, and then Hawkeye was standing there, calmly checking the weight of the gun in his hands. “Do you know the way out of here?”

Tony stared at him for a second before swearing, “Damn.”

“No, it’s okay.” Clint nudged one of the bodies at their feet. “We’ll figure it out. It can’t be too complicated.”

Famous last words, as a group of five men ran down the hall toward them, having guessed that Tony would be getting Clint out first.

“Don’t waste ammo,” Tony said quickly, stepping in front of Clint. He focused on their legs and swept his arm through the air. As if someone had hit their kneecaps, they collapsed. Tony yanked their weapons out of their grip.

Clint blinked slightly, disconcerted. “Okay. You’re going to have to explain that.”

“Later,” Tony promised. He pulled one of the men toward him, slamming him into the wall opposite Clint before turning back to the other four. “Go ahead and ask where we have to go.”

The other guys attempted to leave, but Tony quickly knocked them into the wall in such a way that they wouldn’t be getting up again. He blinked as he finished with them, turning back to Clint. A small headache was beginning to pound at his temples, the likes of which he hadn’t experienced since his first year at MIT and he’d been experimenting with his telekinesis.

“We’re good to go,” Clint said, letting his unconscious prisoner slump to the ground. “Follow me.”

They moved quickly through the facility. Clint led them down a hall and up stairs that Tony would bet his phone – he wasn’t going to wager his suit or the arc reactor – on the fact that they led to a helicopter pad or the roof of this accursed place.

“If I had to guess,” Clint said, breath coming slightly harder from running up the stairs, “we’re going to be ambushed up there.”

“If I had to guess, I’d say we’re going to get rescued any second now,” Tony shot back, his heart pounding in his ears and his breathing ragged. His chest was hurting and he suspected that he was bleeding again, but he wasn’t going to bring that up.

“You’ll cover me, yeah?” Clint looked back at Tony, gaze steady and sure.

Tony’s breath caught in his chest, and he deliberately did not think about the fact that he was decades out of practice and that he was probably going to end up with a migraine in the middle of the fight, since that would be his luck. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll cover you.”

They stumbled out into absolute calamity. Somehow, the Avengers had fulfilled Tony’s half-assed “guess” and actually appeared. There was a loud roar and both Clint and Tony dove to opposite sides as a helicopter slammed into the door they’d just exited, having been thrown by a furious Hulk.

Tony scrambled to his feet, half turning his head to keep an eye on Clint since he’d promised and he didn’t think the other Avengers were aware that they’d also joined the melee.

Even though his attention was split between Clint and himself, Tony was a genius and fully capable of seeing what was going on outside of that small bubble. He could see Captain America’s shield whirling through the air, Hulk smashing almost every flying vehicle to bits and not caring about whether there were humans in the near vicinity, and Thor’s thunderclouds forming in the air above him. He was sure Natasha was also somewhere in the fray, but she wasn’t anywhere near as flashy as the others.

Then Tony saw one guy struggling to something that would be very bad to explode. It looked like a giant super tank that was most likely filled with some sort of combustible liquid. He reached out and grabbed the man, eliciting a loud scream from him that was cut off as he was flung into the chaos caused by Hulk’s destruction.

“You and I, we have to talk,” Clint said, suddenly popping up next to Tony. “Seriously, it’s cool but really freaky to see you move and then see something else move when it’s not even next to you.”

“I’m not talking right now,” Tony said, blinking through the headache that was blooming. “You know why? Because I’m busy focusing on not getting killed.” He blindly threw up a hand when something that Hulk threw their way – it looked like the tail end of a helicopter – was about to squash them. The object obligingly reversed course and smashed into something else.

“The Quinjet’s gotta be around here,” Clint said, aiming and shooting with his gun.

And, yeah, Tony could see the point of that. But it wasn’t like they could get anywhere. A gun was great in the hands of Hawkeye but it had limited ammo. Plus, while Tony was able to use his telekinesis, it was only good for a few more tricks before he would be suffering from a severe migraine. Then he’d be free pickings as he didn’t have his suit.

Captain America’s shield flew over their heads, arcing back to the person who’d thrown it. Tony’s eyes tracked it, only to get caught on someone in the distance on another building opposite of the one they were standing on. The person was maneuvering what looked to be a gigantic gun.

“That isn’t standard fare,” Tony muttered, catching Clint’s attention.

Clint’s sharper eyes probably caught what Tony couldn’t. “Oh shit. I knew something was up. Fucking HYDRA.”

HYDRA? Okay, yeah, that let loose a bunch of expletives in Tony’s head. From what he’d gotten from Fury’s classified files, HYDRA was a pain in the ass and something that should’ve been dealt with long ago. But he’d gotten the impression that HYDRA was more organized than this. Maybe it was a smaller branch?

“Can you get him from here?” Clint asked. “This gun won’t cut it.”

“I don’t know…” Tony was thinking furiously. He’d never used his ability like this. This was a first and he’d been running purely on what he’d experimented with during his years at MIT.

But, oh fuck, Tony didn’t have any time to think. He could hear the loud explosion as the gun fired, and the world seemed to slow down.

His entire focus was on the ammo the gun had shot, and he thought he understood why he exploded things when he got drunk. He’d built bombs for years; it would make sense that he’d explode things the moment his mind was under some sort of influence.

Small bullets were one thing, but this gigantic mass was something else. Yet there was no room for thought. It was technology and Tony was a genius with technology. His mind latched onto it and it was all Tony could do to hold it there, quivering with the energy that had let it loose.

The explosion had alerted everyone else to what was happening, but all Tony was focused on was the mini-bomb – because that was what it was – and throwing it back at whoever had fired it. Destroying part of the compound would be a simple bonus.

It was a heavy mass, and Tony had stopped all momentum in stopping it in its tracks. It took a second for him to gain enough mental energy to fling it back, and the last thing he heard as unconsciousness claimed his senses was an enormous explosion.

There was a hand in Tony’s when he came back to consciousness. His mind ran over what happened before, and he dimly remembered that he’d just been about to succumb to a splitting migraine from overusing his telekinesis before blessed unconsciousness had taken him into her waiting arms.

And, yes, that was probably a bit sappier than he should’ve made it.

Regardless, he was focusing on the hand that was holding his, since this was a very strange occurrence. It was warm, larger than usual so it obviously wasn’t Pepper’s, and callused as if it carried something heavy around on a regular basis. Also, it was gently stroking Tony’s knuckles.

This was getting too much into romantic territory here for Tony’s liking. He couldn’t think of anyone who’d do something like that for him since he’d broken up with Pepper, and she was probably cleaning up the cluster fuck that had resulted from him being kidnapped again.

Thinking that he’d gotten all he could from keeping his eyes closed, Tony worked on opening them. It took a moment longer than it should have, and then he was blinking in the bright sterilized lights of hospital rooms and looking over to see that it was – oh my GodSteve Rogers who was holding his hand.

Tony closed his eyes, counted to three, and opened them again. Nope, Steve was still holding his hand and was now gazing anxiously into his eyes.

“Tony”—his voice was low—“how are you feeling?”

Tony licked his lips, noting that his throat was really dry. “Muggy,” he managed to say hoarsely.

Steve didn’t let go of his hand but did give Tony some water. “You’ve been out for two days,” he said quietly as Tony drank through a straw.

“Awesome,” Tony said, drawing back from the glass. “Explains why I feel like shit. Why’s my chest so numb?”

“They had to bandage it,” Steve said. “You were bleeding from a bunch of incisions.”

Tony blinked, remembering what had happened to cause that. “Yeah…that’d explain it.” He looked down at his hand, still clasped in Steve’s. “So…is there something I missed? I don’t have amnesia, do I? Are you going to tell me that we’ve been together for the last five years like that couple from The Vow?”

“I’m not sure what that is,” Steve said, blushing lightly even as he squeezed Tony’s hand, “but you don’t have amnesia. Unless you don’t remember what happened?”

“Clint and I got kidnapped in midair, were held by a bunch of crazy Japanese that wanted me to build weapons, and I exploded a bomb with my mind.”

“That’s about right,” Steve confirmed, smiling softly.

“But this?” Tony waggled his eyebrows and pointed to his hand. “I’m missing something.”

Steve opened his mouth, but was cut off as Fury swept into the room, his one eye immediately seeming to pin Tony to the bed.

“Stark,” Fury rumbled ominously, “you have some explaining to do.”

“I was kidnapped,” Tony said. “I have nothing to explain. What about Clint?”

“Why didn’t you tell us you were a mutant?”

“Oh, that.” Tony flapped a dismissive hand, only to have to use his nondominant one when he realized Steve still hadn’t let go of his right. “New development.”

“You don’t just become a mutant,” Fury said, towering over him. “Why didn’t you report it?”

Tony sighed exasperatedly. “Because it’s none of your business.”

Fury’s eye narrowed. “You’re part of the Avengers, Stark; that makes it my business.”

“If I’d told you two days ago that I was a mutant and you told me to prove it, it wouldn’t have worked. I had a mental block that I got through when I was being operated on.” Tony winced slightly as Steve’s grip suddenly became alarmingly tight. It slackened a second later as if Steve had realized what he’d done; there was an apologetic squeeze. And, yes, this was getting too sappy for his tastes.

“Funnily enough,” Fury said, his voice deadly even, “your teammates weren’t very surprised at your miraculous feat the other day.”

Tony beamed. “Well, that’s because they’re awesome! Expect the unexpected and all that, you know?”

Fury glared, opened his mouth, and probably would’ve chewed Tony out some more if it weren’t for the fact that the other Avengers suddenly piled into the room as if summoned by some higher force.

“Anthony!” Thor boomed, beaming as he saw him. Was he beaming at the sight of his and Steve’s locked hands? “It is good to see that you are conscious!”

“I offered to kiss you again,” Clint said, grinning slyly as he reminded Tony of his earlier wakeup call in the cell, “but Steve didn’t allow it.”

“It’s appropriate that you’re in one piece,” Natasha said, implying that since he was, she would be able to make him pay for making her worry.

“Sorry about the helicopter,” Bruce said, referring to the incident right after Clint and Tony had gotten onto the roof. “I don’t think the other guy saw you.”

“What are you doing here?” Fury asked. “Stark isn’t done yet.”

“He isn’t?” Steve said, turning those innocent blue eyes on the dour man. “But I thought Clint clarified everything for you.”

“The paperwork’s filled out,” Bruce added, and damn if that didn’t make Tony love him.

“Anthony has proven his merit as a warrior!” Thor interjected.

“I still approve of him as Iron Man,” Natasha said.

“He kicked ass!” Clint announced.

“He withheld valuable information—”

“Yeah, and I’ll continue doing that if it isn’t S.H.I.E.L.D. business,” Tony interrupted. “Because my private issues are my private issues. Since my telekinesis is no longer private, I’d say that makes it public.”

Fury’s lips thinned, but he eyed the room’s silent occupants one more time before saying, “You’re expected for testing as to your new abilities.” Then he was gone.

And even though Fury was gone, Tony could no longer ask Steve about why the hell he was still holding hands with Tony, as the other Avengers refused to leave.

Well, he’d hunt the guy down in the mansion. It wasn’t like he didn’t know where the other guy lived.

Tony’s plan to hunt down Steve was put to a steaming halt when Rhodey – what was he doing here? – sought him out immediately after he was back in the mansion. His friend pinned him down in his book room, which was a shame as Tony didn’t really like books and was only here since he was looking for Steve.

“I’m sorry, man,” Rhodey said, causing Tony to blink.

“For what?” Tony rapidly ran over all the reasons Rhodey would have to apologize, only to come up with absolutely nothing. “Did you wreck the armor?”

“No.” Rhodey shifted uncomfortably. “Look, the day you left you know who showed up on my doorstep?” He barreled on, clearly not expecting an answer. “Captain America. And you know why? To chew me out for taking my best friend’s armor and not stopping the military for getting on your back.”

“Oh.” Tony remembered Steve’s face when the guy had backed off on wanting to go to Japan with him. Now he knew why he’d looked like that. “I didn’t expect for him to do that.”

That made Rhodey pause. “You were expecting him to do something?”

“No.” Tony shrugged, sitting back on the armrest of the seat that was next to a reading table. “But he had a weird look on his face before I left.”

“He also chewed me out for not backing you up when you first shut down weapons manufacturing,” Rhodey said, further sending Tony for a loop.

“Yeah, okay… I’ll talk to him about that…”

“No, don’t.” Rhodey gave a small smile, clapping Tony on the shoulder. “It’s good to know he’s got your back. You deserve him, you know?”

And, really, there was nothing Tony could say to that because it didn’t make any sense.

“I’d ordinarily threaten to hurt him if he hurts you,” Rhodey continued, catching Tony’s attention again, “but I don’t think he’ll do that. He seems to be in it for the long haul.”

What Rhodey was implying didn’t seem to be possible, because things like that didn’t just happen to Tony. They didn’t.

“Rhodey,” Tony said slowly, “are you telling me that Steve Rogers – Captain America – is in a relationship with me?”

Rhodey shot Tony a weird look. “You guys aren’t just friends, are you? Because I don’t think I’m misreading this. There’s no way I’m misreading this. Not with the way the guy panicked when he heard you were kidnapped, and then practically camped out by your bedside when you were out.”

“I’m in a dream,” Tony said, sinking back into the seat. He fumbled for a moment since he wasn’t in a good position to do so, but then he adjusted and it was good. “No, a nightmare. This doesn’t make any sense.”

Rhodey hovered over him. “I think you two need to talk.”

Talk about an understatement of epic proportions. When Tony found Steve, they weren’t leaving whatever room they were in until the whole thing was hashed out and Steve realized what a horrible, horrible mistake he was making.

Tony managed to corner Steve in the kitchen that night, where the man was gently coaxing the stove into accepting the offering of pizza. Unfortunately, as the stove really hated pizza, he wasn’t having much luck. He had just given Steve what was the stove equivalent of a raspberry when Tony made his presence known by clearing his throat.

“So,” he began lightly once he had Steve’s attention, “I think we need to talk.”

“I got that,” Steve said, leaning away from the stove when he gave an ominous hiss of disapproval. The pizza was dumped on the counter.

“Because everyone seems to be under the impression that we’re, like, a thing,” Tony continued, his arms folded across his chest. He was half sitting on the table. “And that doesn’t make any sense, because I’d know if we were a thing.”

Steve had a patient look on his face. “Tony…I’m not actually sure how to break this to you.”

“How about by telling everyone else that they’re wrong?”

There was an exasperated sigh as Steve shook his head. “They’re not actually wrong. Because, Tony? While I first tried to get us to be friends, it didn’t really work out that way. And that’s because friends don’t really feel like this toward their friends.”

“See? I told you that – wait, what?”

“We’re not actually friends,” Steve repeated patiently (and was he slowly approaching Tony like he was a scared animal?), “because I like you as more than a friend. Tony…” He exhaled slowly, slowing reaching a hand out to take one of Tony’s. “…I’ve almost said this multiple times before, but it was never the right time. And you know what I’ve realized? There’s never going to be a right time. I almost lost you, and I’m not going to risk having that happen again without telling you first. So, Tony? I love you.”

Tony opened his mouth to deny that, but then Steve was kissing him. And it was a surprise because Captain America shouldn’t be so good at kissing. It was gentle and chaste, but it told Tony volumes about what the other man was feeling.

When Steve finally drew back, Tony was breathing heavily and his face felt flushed. “Er…wow. I…you’re not kidding, are you?”

Steve laughed lowly, resting his forehead against Tony’s. He breathed gently into Tony’s mouth. “No, I’m not.”

“Okay, because I’m seriously checking the urge to pinch myself here.”

“You’re not dreaming,” Steve said softly, tracing a hand up Tony’s side to cup the back of his head. “Because if you are, then so am I.”

“Not dreaming?” Tony licked his lips nervously. “Okay, that’s…that’s good. I can live with that. But…you’re sure?”

“We’re both superheroes, Tony.” Steve’s thumb was gently rubbing circles into Tony’s neck. “I think we know what the possibilities are.”

“I don’t blame Pepper.” Tony’s words came out in a rush. “Because I would’ve done the same thing. I’m—”

“If you’re going to finish that with a self-derogatory remark, just remember what I told you the first time,” Steve said chidingly, squeezing Tony’s hand warningly. “I’m told it was quite the lecture.”

Tony remembered what he’d said the first time. It was kind of hard to forget such a passionate rant.

He remembered all the times Steve had stayed with him in the workshop, watching Tony work on something he had no hope at understanding. He remembered how Steve would either bring him something to eat or drag him out for something that he now realized was a date. At first it had been under the guise of team outings, but as time passed it really became more of a one-and-one thing. Steve had always been there and had always said—

“Tony, no matter what, I will always, always have your back. And not because you’re an Avenger. It’s because you’re my friend. I…I accept you for who you are.”

That one time, Steve had been about to say something else. Something that hadn’t been as mild a word as “accept”.

“Holy shit,” Tony breathed. “You really do love me.”

Steve smiled, and it was a brilliant sight that Tony would never want to forsake. “For someone so brilliant, you really can be incredibly dense.”

Dense? Maybe he was, but Tony had never done a good job of examining his feelings. Being ignorant meant that he couldn’t get hurt, as then he wouldn’t know what he was feeling. In general this didn’t really work for negative emotions (when he gets pissed, he gets pissed), but it worked for emotions like love, and even not-emotions like friendship.

Tony had long since learned not to make assumptions, so he couldn’t get hurt. Mostly. Pepper had been a one-off that had been a long time in coming. And now?

Nice things didn’t happen to Tony Stark. They didn’t. Or if they did, it was normally with a price tag.

But this seemed to be the real deal. And when Tony inspected his feelings, he realized that this had snuck up on him without him noticing. Not too surprising considering he’d been doing his best to ignore this growing thing between the two of them for fear of something happening that would leave him hurting.

Steve had an indiscernible expression on his face. “Tony, it’s okay if you don’t—”

He was drawing away and that wasn’t right. He’d gotten the wrong message. Grabbing Steve by the shirt, Tony pulled him back to him and down, slamming their mouths together. He hummed as Steve didn’t flinch and returned the kiss, coaxing it to something gentler, leaving Tony practically melting against the table.

There was a small chime from the stove that made him sound like he was actually happy to be viewing this. The sound caused the two to break apart.

Steve breathed heavily, laughing quietly. He looked over his shoulder to the stove, who was lighted up. “Does this mean I can pop that pizza in you?”

The stove gave an affronted noise and promptly shut himself off.

Grinning, Tony slid his hand up into the nape of Steve’s neck and pulled him back down for another kiss. This time, when Steve slid his arms down and around Tony to pull him closer and into a deeper kiss, Tony didn’t stop the burst of emotion from swelling in his chest and exploding through his body.

As he did, the lights in the kitchen flickered off, and there were outraged cries from the rest of the occupants in the mansion.

Steve broke away from Tony, his face glowing eerily in the light of the arc reactor. He rubbed his nose gently against Tony’s. “Tony?”

Tony grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, I’ll work on it.”

He pulled Steve down again, tuning out the shouts of the rest of the Avengers as they tried to figure out what had happened.

For the first time in a long time, Tony was whole and fully himself. And damn if he was going to let a small malfunction ruin that for him.