For once, it's not the shaking ground that's making Steve's knees feel weak. Though that's not helping: he nearly falls on his face half a dozen times until it stops, and even then his pace is uneven as he makes his way over and around the debris littering the room, coughing from the smoke. His lungs ache and his eyes are smarting, making it impossible to see, so he literally trips over his target.
"Iron Man," he rasps, groping blindly until his ungloved hands find the armor. It feels thin beneath his fingers, but it's strong enough for him to get a decent grip and pull. Steve hauls the body towards the hole blasted in the side of the building, then heaves Iron Man over his shoulder in a fireman's carry and stumbles out into the biting wind. It's freezing, but he barely notices the cold as he kneels down right there in the street.
He has no idea where the others are. Their home is burning and his communicator is long destroyed. He sets Iron Man down, stomach flipping over at the sight of that missing mask, at the face underneath, and how much sense it all makes, even when it shouldn't make any sense at all. He touches trembling fingers to Iron Man's cheek, then down to his throat, but it's impossible to tell whether or not there's a pulse.
The wound in Iron Man's chest is still bleeding sluggishly, and that has to be a positive sign, right? It has to be. He can’t have nearly lost Iron Man twice in as many days. Steve swallows hard, throat aching, shivering for reasons that have nothing to do with the wind. How did it come to this? He rips at his own armor, tearing a strip off, and balls up the filthy fabric to press against the wound.
"Come on," he says lowly. "Come on, Stark. Tony, don't do this to me."
The first person that Steve met was the infamous Pepper Potts. She was just as striking as Bucky had described, cutting an imposing figure as she walked down the staircase, expression severe. Steve fought against the urge to fidget, though he was relieved to see that Peggy was barely a step behind Pepper. Peggy, at least, shot him a hint of a smile, her red lips curving upwards.
"Steven Rogers?" Pepper demanded, as though she didn't already know, as though the tablet in her hands didn't have every inch of Steve's life written out for her perusal. It was a shamefully boring story. Father took off, single mother left behind, mother got sick so he'd joined the military to pay bills, mother died, got discharged, now broke and floundering.
"Yes," Steve said, biting back the 'ma'am' at the last second. He didn't think Pepper would appreciate it.
Pepper openly looked him up and down. "Peggy and Bucky speak highly of you."
"I've worked closely with them both over the years."
"You've done more than that," said Pepper, arching an eyebrow, and Steve met her gaze evenly.
"Bucky and I have been best friends since we were kids," he said calmly. There was no doubt in his mind that Pepper knew all about what had never been between him and Peggy, but that was alright. Steve had moved on. He could look at Peggy now and appreciate her for the hell of a woman she was, rather than mourning over a bunch of empty dreams.
"You've been briefed on what we do here," she said, switching topics abruptly. "You'll be working for the Stark family. For Tony Stark in particular. Rest assured, you won't see him very often. He's a very busy man. He has bodyguards already. The Enforcers are occasionally called upon to act as extra bodyguards, but for the most part you'll be carrying out missions. Not everyone is comfortable with that kind of thing. I assume you know that's something you can handle." Her tone strongly suggested that the answer had better be 'yes', or he would regret wasting her time.
"It is," said Steve. It wasn't.
Peggy looked at him knowingly, but all she said was, "He'll be fine, Pep. You know that I don't let my friendships cloud my judgment. I wouldn't have brought Steve on if I didn't think he was fully capable."
"Fine," Pepper said. "Take him up to meet Tony, then."
"You don't want to?"
"If I see that man again today, I'm going to introduce my heels to his balls."
Peggy snorted and beckoned to Steve with two fingers. He followed her up the staircase, leaving Pepper below. As they neared the top, Peggy said in an undertone, "Good job. You managed to impress Pepper Potts. That's the hardest thing you'll ever do in this job."
"It is?" Steve said doubtfully.
"Well, that and blowing out a kneecap or two."
"Relax, Steve," Peggy said, gripping his arm. "You're okay. I wouldn't have suggested this if I didn't think you could handle it. I know that right now, this is going against that conscience of yours like whoa. But Tony's not as bad of a person as his reputation makes him out to be. There's a lot more going on behind the scenes than you've been told. Just give him a chance."
Steve frowned. "I'll try."
"Try harder," she said wryly, squeezing his arm hard.
"I will," he said, and he really did mean it right up until Peggy opened the doors to Tony Stark's office. Right away, all Steve could see was extravagance. The paintings on the walls alone cost millions of dollars, and he was 100% positive that the guy behind the desk didn't appreciate them one bit. The solid gold doorknobs, the plush carpet, the heavy curtains, the fine detailing on the desk, not to mention the suit the guy was wearing. It all spoke of serious money gained through illegal means, and it made Steve's skin crawl.
"I said - yeah, I know what I said last week, I changed my mind. What, is that a crime?" the guy - presumably Stark - was saying into his phone. "And don't you dare say what I think you're about to say, Widow. Just do it, okay? I want the whole block under our control by this time tomorrow, or I'll know who to blame." He hung up without another word, head tilted in Peggy's and Steve's direction.
"Mr. Stark, this is Steve Rogers. He's your new Enforcer," said Peggy.
"Rogers, huh?" Stark said, sitting up straight and pulling his sunglasses down. He had brown eyes, and in any other situation, Steve would've called him handsome. "Looks like more dumb blonde muscle."
"Yeah, sure. Iron Man's out of town and Black Widow and Winter Soldier are on a mission right now, but the rest of them should be around." Stark pulled out his phone, thumbs tapping away as he spoke. It wasn't an outright dismissal, but more like he'd lost interest in speaking to them. As if they weren't important enough to register on his radar anymore. Steve scowled deeper.
"I'll take his measurements, too, and forward them to you," Peggy said. "Thank you, Mr. Stark."
Stark grunted in response as Peggy pulled him out of the room. Steve didn't know whether he should be pissed off or shocked at the sheer rudeness. If he'd ever acted like that, his ma would've pulled him over her knee and given him a good tanning until he remembered his manners.
Peggy sighed as they walked back down the hall. "He really is a good guy, Steve."
"I can tell. Between the obscene amount of money, his reputation as a slut and as a sleazy arms dealer riding on daddy's coattails, he's a gem of a guy," Steve said sarcastically. "Maybe it's a good thing I'm not expected to guard him. I'm honestly not sure that I wouldn't step aside and let any potentials assassins have him."
"Steve," she said sternly. "That's enough. This is your job now, like it or not. Tony hired you and you work for him; that means you have to treat him and his family with respect. Especially when you're in this building. If Pepper hears you talking like that, she'll make you regret it. She wasn't kidding about her heels."
He winced at the thought. "Fine. You did say I won't be around him much, right?"
She nodded. "That's right. Tony spends most of his time in this building, usually inventing. He comes out for business meetings and things like that, but even that's rare. And honestly, I think everyone prefers it that way. He's got the Enforcers to follow out his orders -"
"Do his dirty work, you mean."
"- and a small team led by Pepper that takes care of everything else," she finished, pinching him hard to let him know she'd heard and didn't appreciate his remark. "Before Tony came alone, the Stark's didn't have much of a hold in New York. Now they own over half the city. Tony's done very well. His system works. Luckily for you, that means you just have to focus on following orders. It's not that different from the military."
Steve looked at her in disbelief. "The military never ordered me to take bribes from a store owner in exchange for not burning his building down."
"Yeah, well, the military dumped you on your ass and didn't look back. So the least you can do is be grateful Tony gave you a job."
She had a point, much as Steve hated to admit it. He sighed. "Okay. Now where's this team I'm supposed to meet?"
Peggy eyed him for a moment longer before, apparently, deciding to let the matter drop. She led Steve down two levels to what was a very nice floor, where she introduced him to the rest of the Enforcers. There was Clint, code name Hawkeye, who, along with Bucky, was an expert-level marksman. Thor and Loki, brothers who looked nothing alike; Steve got what Tony meant what he said ‘dumb blonde muscle’ when Thor shook his hand, though nothing about Thor seemed dumb.
Loki was aloof, and Steve didn’t really get an answer when he asked what Loki gave to the team, just a cool glance and stoic silence. Then there was Bruce, codename Hulk, who was easily the friendliest of them all next to Thor, shaking Steve’s hand and welcoming him in a quiet voice. Bruce was a scientist according to Peggy, and also capable of emergency medical treatments.
The missing team members – Iron Man, Black Widow, and Winter Solider – didn’t show up for another day. Steve already knew Winter Soldier, of course. Black Widow – Natasha – was in the same class as Peggy and Pepper: the kind of woman people would take for granted as not a threat until she slit their throat. He shook her hand very carefully while she smirked at him and Bucky, the asshole, hung around in the background visibly trying not to laugh.
Iron Man was the anomaly of the group. He came sulking in behind Bucky and Natasha, muttered a greeting to Steve, and instantly set to work fiddling around with Natasha’s taser. Clint pulled Steve aside and told him that no one knew who Iron Man was. He’d been thoroughly vetted by Coulson, but that was all they’d been told. He had the same armor as the rest of them, including a mask, but he wore it constantly. According to Clint, he was the brains behind most of their weapons and the armor itself, which was lightweight but durable enough that the military would’ve wept tears of joy to gets their hands on even a fragment.
It was odd, made Steve feel like Iron Man had something to hide, but the rest of the crew was clearly at ease with their shy(?) teammate. And after their first mission together, Steve could see why.
It happened like this:
“Hey Cap,” Iron Man called to him. “We’re up.”
“Cap?” Steve said, raising his eyebrows. He could see movement beneath the mask that he associated with a smirk or a smile; the mask’s white eyes gave nothing away, but he was certain that Iron Man was laughing on the inside.
“That’s your new codename. Captain America,” said Iron Man. Clint and Bucky started snickering. “Goes along with the wholesome thing, don’t you think?”
Steve just rolled his eyes. “Let’s go.”
“Hang on. You need to get outfitted first.”
That was when Steve got armor of his own. The dark blue cloth fit perfectly, which shouldn’t have surprised him considering that Peggy had been very thorough in collecting measurements, and included a mask for his face. Iron Man looked him over, nodded once, and said, “I’ve been working on some weapons for you. Try not to lose and/or break anything.”
“Sounds like a challenge,” said Steve, and in spite of himself he could feel the familiar burn of adrenaline starting. He followed Iron Man down several floors, where they slipped into a non-descript black car.
The mission really wasn’t much. Steve could’ve done it alone, and he had the sense that Iron Man was more there to monitor him than anything else. There was a small restaurant in the depths of Brooklyn that was under fire for ‘suspicious activity’; the rival group they walked in on was up to more than just a little activity, and Steve felt little to no remorse for opening fire on them before they even knew what was going on.
As he surveyed the downed bodies, Iron Man marched over the owner of the restaurant. He was tall, thin man who spat at Iron Man and received a clean bullet through the forehead for his insolence. No torture, just a simple kill, and Steve’s level of respect lifted a notch. He thought that maybe he could do this if it meant that they weren’t prolonging kills, or torturing innocent people, or any of the other numerous scenarios that had gone through his mind since Peggy first brought him to Coulson.
“Idiot,” Iron Man said, voice full of contempt. “The Starks treated him well, and he decided to go behind their backs and for what… money?” He shook his head, and that’s when they both heard it. The crying of a child.
Steve froze. Iron Man was the one who moved, leaving the room and coming back with a child no older than five or six. She watched them with wide, frightened eyes, and for a few seconds Steve felt sick as he watched Iron Man’s nimble fingers toy with the gun he was holding. He was pretty sure that if Iron Man tried to shoot this kid, he was going to have to kill him and then go on the run with her. And Steve didn’t even like kids.
Iron Man didn’t look at him, just said, “Clear for clean-up, Hill. One package.”
“Roger,” Hill said crisply, and the sound of her voice in Steve’s ear was still enough to startle him.
“Package?” he asked.
“Kid,” Iron Man said, jerking a thumb at her. She was looking around, still crying, but quiet.
“You don’t –”
Iron Man’s mask turned in his direction. “What, kill a kid that could very well turn out to be a great addition to the Starks?” he asked. “They have some of the best psychologists in the world working for them. They’ll be able to talk to the kid and figure out if she’s worthwhile or not.”
“And if not?”
“Take her somewhere else. Fresh start. I don’t know, Cap.”
Hill came in then, and Iron Man and Steve took the opportunity to slip away while she was directing the clean-up. As they were riding back to the house, Steve couldn’t resist saying, “I didn’t know the Starks wouldn’t kill children. Seems like a lot of loose ends to leave around.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not Stark policy. It’s my policy,” Iron Man said. “I’m the one with the gun and I’m not going to off some poor kid whose only mistake in life was being born to shitty parents who make dumb decisions.” He sounded, Steve thought, very bitter. There was a story there, not that Steve dared to ask for it.
He glanced at Iron Man out of the corner of his eye and figured that he could work with someone like that if he had to. “Maybe you should talk to Tony Stark about it. Everyone says he’s not that bad.”
Iron Man snorted. “Everyone lies. That Stark is the worst of the bunch.”
Steve frowned. “You talk that way about your employer?”
“Just telling it like it is, Cap. If you’re wise, you’d steer clear of him. Tony Stark is nothing but trouble. Everyone around him dies.”
But it seemed like Iron Man was the only one who thought that way. Steve asked around over the next couple of months, just casually, and learned that his fellow crew thought Tony Stark was a spoiled, slutty, sarcastic little rich kid who had never bothered to grow up, but none of them had anything genuinely bad to say about him. Though, Natasha pointed out, Stark’s reputation proceeded him for a reason. He was not a man to cross.
Only Iron Man had a problem with Stark, and Steve wasn’t sure why. He was okay with not knowing Iron Man’s identity; Iron Man was a solid fighter and loyal to a fault, refusing to leave Hawkeye behind even when it meant that they both nearly died. And, as Steve learned more and was able to put his military-trained tactician mind to work, for the most part he followed Steve’s orders without (too much) complaint.
They all had their own problems, though, and eventually Steve chalked it up to a quirk of Iron Man’s: bad blood, maybe, and let it go at that. It didn’t affect how they worked as a team, and he even managed to earn himself a smile and a nod from Pepper so he felt like he was doing something right. His interactions with Stark were few and far between – Peggy hadn’t been kidding when she said Stark was a busy man – but he was with Iron Man practically every day, whether it was for a mission or just wasting time in between. If push came to shove, not that Steve would admit it for the sake of his job, he knew who he’d pick.
Apparently it was blatantly obvious to the others, too, because one day when Steve was sitting in the living room, paying very little attention to the movie on the television, Clint walked by and said, “Don’t worry, your boyfriend should be back any minute.”
“What?” Steve said, baffled.
“Don’t lie to him. Iron Man’s not due back for another two days,” Bucky said, coming in behind Clint. “Natalia just got word. His mission was extended.”
“Extended why?” Steve asked, and then his brain caught up with the moment and he turned back to Clint. “Wait, what?”
“What?” Clint said back, blinking.
“Iron Man’s not my boyfriend.”
Clint started smirking, and Bucky just looked at him. Steve stared back, even though his ears were getting hot, and said, “He’s not!”
“If you guys aren’t dating, then I’m not sure what the hell you’re doing. You flirt with each other more than I did with my last girlfriend,” Clint said, casually tossing an apple into the air. He caught it deftly before it could hit the ground.
“I – we do not.”
“Yeah, you kind of do,” said Bucky.
“We do not,” Steve said lamely, caught in a sudden moment of self-doubt. He cast his mind back over his interactions with Iron Man. Sure, Iron Man had been spending more time with the team than before. And he and Steve always gravitated towards each other on missions, but that was just because Iron Man delighted in acting like he was the brains and Steve was just the brawn. And so what if Steve felt the most comfortable with Iron Man, regardless of the mask?
“You have it bad,” Bucky said with a knowing grin, clapping Steve on the shoulder. “If it’s any consolation, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have any clue that he likes you just as much.”
“Hell yeah,” said Clint, pouting when Natasha stole the apple on his next toss. Steve hadn’t even noticed her come into the room. “We barely saw him before you came around. Now he’s here all the time. And don’t think we didn’t notice just how tight your last armor was.”
Steve flushed. “That was a miscalculation,” he said, though he couldn’t deny that Steve was the one who most frequently benefitted from Iron Man’s creations. The whole crew was still receiving upgrades on a pretty steady basis – a necessity when Stark’s hold on his portion of New York was being threatened more by the day – but Steve was usually the one to get anything brand new first.
“Sure it was,” Natasha said, rolling her eyes. “The fact that Iron Man couldn’t take his eyes off your butt was just a miscalculation too.”
“It is a pretty nice butt,” Clint said.
“Oh god, please stop,” Bucky said before Steve could, holding up a hand and wearing a pained expression.
Clint smiled wickedly. “Worried it’s nicer than yours?” he teased.
“Okay, I’m cutting this off before it turns into a competition. Not that I wouldn’t like spending fifteen minutes ogling both you and Steve, but Peggy would get mad at me for not doing it when she was here,” Natasha said. “And I don’t feel like being given the worst missions for the next month and a half.”
“Thank you,” Steve muttered.
She smirked at him. “Don’t worry, Steve, once your boyfriend gets back I’m sure he’ll ogle you plenty.”
Steve threw his hands up and stormed out to the sound of laughter. Normally he could take teasing as well as the next guy, but there was just something about this topic that seemed too sensitive. He’d admired Iron Man before – it was hard not to when the armor they all wore was tightly fitting – and okay, yes, Iron Man was brilliant and generous and Steve enjoyed spending time with him, but that didn’t mean anything.
He couldn’t tell anymore, and that bothered him. Maybe he was flirting without even realizing it. It wasn’t like he had a lot of practice with flirting. He’d been so scrawny and sickly as a kid that no one was willing to take a second look at him, and then, by the time he’d grown enough to generate some interest, he’d gone into the army. Peggy was the first person to ever show genuine interest in him, and Steve couldn’t really call the months of fumbled conversations flirting.
Although… now that he thought about it, what he had felt for Peggy wasn’t so different for what he currently felt for Iron Man. That same bright, bubbly feeling in his stomach, the urge to smile whenever they were in the room, the desire to keep them safe. He dropped his head into his hands and groaned. Bucky had always told him that he could be oblivious, but this was an all new low.
It bothered him for the next two days straight, right up until Iron Man came back. Mask or no, Steve could tell that the man underneath was exhausted. It was written in the slump of Iron Man’s shoulders when he sat down on the couch. Steve wanted nothing more in that moment than to sweep his friend away for a few night’s of sleeping. He’d sit on Iron Man if that’s what it took, or lay down in the bed next to him.
Yeah, he had it bad.
He ignored Bruce’s knowing smile and did his level best to pretend that nothing was different, which was both easier and harder than he was expecting. Especially when Pepper showed up and announced that Stark had been asked to attend a very high profile event. Due to the high number of threats against Stark’s life recently, it had been decided that the Enforcers would serve as bodyguards for the event. Because no one had ever seen their faces, they could mingle with the crowd easily.
It sounded like a recipe for disaster to Steve, but he didn’t have much choice. He felt incredibly awkward in the tuxedo that Pepper provided for him, but the rest of the crew had no trouble fitting in – or standing out. Natasha looked particularly glamorous in a slinky green gown with Bucky and Clint on either arm, and Steve noticed several pairs of envious eyes following their progress around the room.
Bruce slunk off to join a quiet group of scientists standing at the back of the room. Thor stationed himself near an attractive group of young women, Loki sulking along behind him. Steve was the only one who actually bothered to put himself anywhere near Tony Stark, and it wasn’t easy. Stark seemed to have a constant group of people around him, all of them vying for his attention in some way. Once or twice, Stark looked Steve’s way, but Steve told himself that it was his imagination that Stark looked a little desperate, maybe even a little wistful.
“Are you enjoying yourself?” Peggy asked, coming up behind Steve and sliding her hand through his elbow. She wasn’t often around; she was in charge of Stark’s something-or-other, information that Steve wasn’t cleared to know. Tonight, she was even more beautiful than Natasha, dressed in a pink gown with her hair swept off her neck in curls.
“No,” Steve said honestly.
Peggy smiled. “I didn’t think this would be to your taste. It’s not really to mine either. I can pick out at least a dozen security issues in this room alone,” she said, her eyes scanning the room. Steve had noticed Bucky, Clint and Natasha doing the same thing, and suddenly understood why the three of them had been moving from group to group.
“I guess that’s why we’re here. Just in case something happens.”
“With Tony, it’s more of a when something happens,” Peggy said dryly. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “I suppose you’re a little upset that Iron Man isn’t here. I bet you’d love to dance with him.”
“For god’s sake,” Steve muttered, embarrassed.
She laughed at him, though kindly. “Nothing stays secret for long. It’s alright. I think it’s sweet. But Steve, just remember, you don’t actually know who he is.”
“I know that.”
“No, you don’t. It could be anyone. Not even I’m privy to that kind of information, and that worries me a little. I just don’t want you to get your heart broken.”
Her genuine concern warmed Steve to the core. If this was what he now had with Peggy, he was even more grateful that they had never actually gotten around to dating. He wouldn’t have wanted to lose this. He squeezed her hand. “I’m a big boy, Peggy.”
“These muscles make your heart no less vulnerable,” she pointed out, but she was smiling again. Steve smiled back and glanced around the room, realizing that Stark was looking in their direction again. This time, it definitely wasn’t his imagination: Stark looked upset.
“Did you want to dance?” Steve asked her. He wasn’t very good at it, but for her sake he would try.
“You’re a darling, but I think –”
The unmistakable crack of a gun cut her off. Steve swung around just as someone in the middle of the crowd around Stark collapsed and the screaming started. It was pure pandemonium for the next several minutes as the gunshots continued. Steve lost track of both Peggy and the rest of the crew as he shoved his way closer to where he’d last seen Stark.
Something – a bomb, most likely – blew a hole in the wall. Steve and several other people were blasted off their feet by the force of the impact. His head ached, but he scrambled back to his feet just in time to see a very familiar figure stepping through the hole. The sleek red and gold colors were unmistakable.
“Iron Man?” Steve said in disbelief.
Iron Man didn’t look at him. Of course he didn’t. He was more preoccupied with the gun in his hands and his intended target: Tony Stark. Stark was on his knees beside a couple of people - it looked like he was trying to administer first aid to them - but he held his hands up and stood when he realized Iron Man was pointing the gun at him.
“What are you doing?” Stark said, his low voice carrying well over the cries of the injured.
“I think it’s time you got your comeuppance,” Iron Man said. “The way you treat people, like they’re disposable, it sickens me.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve noticed Natasha. She was creeping closer, and there was a glint of metal in her hands. He knew instantly that the only reason she hadn’t thrown the knife yet was that she wasn’t close enough. The armor was too durable for the knife to make any sort of impact unless it was thrown from a very close distance. There was no way she’d get close enough; Iron Man knew them. He knew them all.
"This doesn't have to happen here," said Stark. "There's a lot of innocent people here."
Iron Man laughed. It was a crazy sound. "That never stopped you before. When did you ever care about innocent people? When you were waging a war against the lower east side? When you were bringing in shipments of drugs and weaponry? When you decided that you were gonna take all of New York, damn the people in the way?" He waved the gun in the air and there was a shot.
At first Steve thought Iron Man's gun had gone off. He was looking around for the victim, pulse racing, before he heard a body hitting the ground. He turned his head. Iron Man was lying in a heap, blood seeping under his body, and Tony was holding a gun. His tuxedo jacket was open now, revealing the holster that had been strapped to his waist. He'd been armed all along.
Steve couldn't move. He couldn't take his eyes off Iron Man.
He didn't know how long he stood there for before Bucky barreled into him, hard enough that Steve staggered. Bucky grabbed his arm and hauled him along; put him to work helping some of the wounded, helping them outside to where ambulances were pulling up. Steve helped on autopilot, and had no idea how much time had passed when Loki motioned to him later. He followed Loki silently, meeting up with the rest of the crew. When he looked back, Iron Man's body was gone.
Coulson met them back at the house. He said, “I want to know what happened.”
“All of Stark’s security should be fired, that’s what,” said Clint. “We didn’t hear a damn thing until they had already infiltrated the room. You didn’t tell us we were supposed to be watching the perimeter of the space, too.” He was bristling, holding a wad of gauze to his shoulder, and filthy, streaked with soot.
“We’re looking into it,” Coulson said calmly. “For now, I need your version of events.”
“There were four sharpshooters lining the upper levels. I picked off two of them. Clint got the third before he was shot. Bruce was fighting with the fourth,” Bucky said.
“I threw him over the side of the balcony,” Bruce said serenely. “He’s dead now.”
“Shots were fired into the crowd,” Thor offered. “Loki and I were trying to get as many people out of the room as possible. It was very difficult to see what was going on. We lost sight of Stark pretty much immediately.” Various heads around the room nodded in agreement at that, except for Steve.
Coulson zeroed in on him. “You had sight of him?”
“Yeah,” Steve croaked. His head still hurt. “I was trying to get to him when the bomb went off. Stark went down. Then –”
“It was Iron Man,” said Natasha, covering for him. Her expression was grave. “I’m not sure what was going on, but he appeared in the hole and started yelling at Stark. He was wearing the armor, and I was trying to get close enough to throw a knife. I wanted to make him drop the gun.” She looked down, clenching her fists in an unexpected show of emotion. “Stark was armed. He shot Iron Man.”
“I know.” Coulson sighed, sinking down into a chair and rubbing at his face. “This whole situation has been a shit show,” he muttered to himself.
“Sir,” Bucky said, shooting a glance at Steve. “Is Iron Man…?”
Coulson shook his head. “He was pronounced dead on the scene.”
Everything that was said after that was a blur to Steve. He didn’t process a single word. When it was over, Bucky pulled him up and out of the room. Steve followed on legs that were numb. He somehow found himself sitting in the med bay. The attentions of Dr. Foster and Dr. Ross were mercifully brief; he had plenty of scratches, a sprained shoulder, a mild concussion, and would be bruised to hell by tomorrow morning, but nothing overly serious that required their intervention.
“I’m sorry, Stevie,” Bucky said quietly, when Nurse Lewis had stepped away to gather what she needed for stitches. Clint wasn’t the only one who’d been shot, it turned out. “I know you liked him.”
“I just don’t understand,” Steve whispered. “I don’t get it, Buck. Iron Man was… he never once mentioned that he didn’t like being a part of the crew. I knew he didn’t like Stark, but I never thought he’d go this far. And to do it in a crowd full of people!” He needed to move, but the room was too small. He started bouncing his knee restlessly.
Bucky sighed. “I didn’t know the guy that well. Maybe… maybe that’s why he kept his identity a secret. He might’ve been planning this from the start.”
Steve thought back to the man he’d spent so much time with in the past six months and shook his head. “I don’t believe that.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. I wish I did.”
“It just wasn’t like him,” Steve said, a little helplessly. Iron Man was good at his job. He was never afraid to pull a trigger or rough someone up. But he was also protective of innocent people. He wasn’t like most of the people who worked with mafia families, who weren’t above doing every underhanded and nasty thing possible to get their way. Iron Man had standards. He’d made Steve feel better about the job they were doing: made Steve feel like maybe what they were doing was for the best, because at least the Starks had some morals.
He stood up.
“Hey, where are you going?” Bucky demanded. When Steve ignored and walked out of the room, Bucky lurched to his feet. “Steve, get back here!”
“Oh no you don’t,” Nurse Lewis said, appearing as though by magic, her hand clamping down onto Bucky’s uninjured shoulder. “You stay here. The last time you went traipsing around the halls bleeding everywhere, Pepper was mad at us for weeks.”
Steve hadn’t been back to the upper levels of the mansion since that first day with Peggy. He went up the stairs more confidently now, making his way back to Stark’s office. He didn’t bother to knock, just pushed the doors open hard enough to make them bounce off the walls. On the opposite of the office, another door swung open. Stark appeared, a little wild-eyed, blood on his face and shirt and hands. He was holding a towel, wiping somewhat ineffectually at the blood.
“Who was he?” Steve said, and he hadn’t known until this moment that that was what he had come to find out. He needed to know who Iron Man was. He needed to know the man behind the mask.
“Who – Iron Man?”
“No one else betrayed us tonight,” Steve said coldly. “Who was he? Why did he do this? They say you’re the only person who knew his identity. So that means you’re the only person who can explain why this happened. What did you do to push him over the edge? He was after you, so it had to be something you did.”
Stark winced, licking his cracked lips. “You don’t understand.”
“I think I understand too well. Did Iron Man find something out he wasn’t supposed to?”
“No. Steve –”
“Tell me!” Steve barked, and somehow he was across the room, looming over Stark. His eyes focused on the blood on Stark’s face and he felt sick all over again, because maybe that was Iron Man’s blood. “Tell me his name.”
“No,” Stark said again. There was a strange look in his eyes as he looked up at Steve. He wasn’t frightened, wasn’t defiant, just… just tired.
The anger left Steve in a rush, leaving him deflated. His eyes started to burn. “Why?”
“Because it’s better you don’t know,” Stark said quietly. “He’s not dead.”
“He’s not dead. Someone stole the armor. You couldn’t tell because of the voice modulator, but it wasn’t him.” Stark spoke in a low rush, words tumbling over each other.
Steve stared at him, hoping and disbelief warring inside of him. “You better not be lying, Stark.”
“I’m not, I swear. Iron Man was never supposed to be there tonight. He had a thing that he couldn’t get out of and I gave him permission to skip it and – it was dumb on my part, I’ve been so preoccupied building –” Stark stopped suddenly, his eyes flicking up towards Steve and then away. “Well. I’ve been preoccupied. I let the security around the mansion slack a little, and someone figured they saw the perfect opportunity to see Tony Stark get his comeuppance from the very people meant to protect him.” He sounded very bitter, and it was familiar, but Steve couldn’t focus on that right now.
Iron Man was alive.
“Can I see him?” he blurted out. “Iron Man?”
Stark tensed. “He’s not here right now. He’s… away.”
It sounded like a flimsy excuse. Steve scowled. “Then I’ll take his phone number.”
“I can’t – look, I’ll text him and tell him to call you, okay? It might not happen until tomorrow.”
Part of Steve wanted to keep pushing, wanted to demand the number right now, but he was also highly aware that he was skating on thin ice. This was not only his boss, but one of the most dangerous men in New York. Stark could fire him or worse right now. And while Steve wouldn’t give a damn as long as he got to talk to Iron Man, he was pretty sure Iron Man would be disappointed in him. That was the only thing that kept him from shoving Stark against the wall and demanding more information.
“Fine,” he said. “But I’m holding you to it, Stark. If I don’t get a call by noon tomorrow –”
“You will,” Stark promised.
Steve nodded but didn’t leave. He dropped his gaze to the blood on Stark’s shirt, which had grown darker during their conversation. Before the moment could get too awkward, he said, “You should get that looked at.”
“Tryin’ to protect me, Cap?” Stark asked, a funny smile on his face. “You don’t have to pretend that you care. I’m fine. And if you’re finished, I’d like you to go now.”
“Right,” Steve said shortly, unsure whether he should be mad or not about the abrupt dismissal. At least he’d gotten what he came for. He left the room, not bothering to shut the doors behind him. His tuxedo was a mess, but he still had his phone in his pocket. He pulled it out, looking at the dark screen, half-hoping that Iron Man’s call would come through immediately.
He didn’t know it then, but the call would never come.
The hospital is white and sterile and the strong smell of cleaning fluids burns at Steve’s throat. Once again, though, he managed to escape with minimal injuries. The same can’t be said for the rest of the team: Natasha’s in surgery, Clint’s just come out of surgery, Bucky’s got a broken leg, Bruce has some pretty bad burns, Loki broke both arms, and Thor has a severe concussion. All of them will survive with no lasting damage.
Then there’s Iron Man - Tony.
Steve swallows hard, looking down at the pale body in the bed. The doctors removed the shrapnel from Tony’s chest, but it was touch-and-go for a while. The untreated bullet wound from the event hadn’t helped matters, either. Not for the first time since he’s taken up vigilance by Tony’s bedside, Steve berates himself for not pressing Stark – Tony – harder when he saw the blood on Tony’s shirt. Maybe all of this could have been avoided if he had.
Well, probably not, knowing how stubborn Iron Man – Tony, damnit – is. No wonder Tony was so certain that Iron Man was okay. And no wonder he didn’t want Steve calling Iron Man, since it would have been Tony’s own phone that would ring. Not to mention, the voice modulator would’ve been out of Tony’s hands unless he had access to a spare. Suddenly a lot of the strange conversations that Steve’s had over the past several months are starting to make sense.
Like what was preoccupying Tony to the point where he let the security around the mansion lapse, or why Iron Man didn’t seem to like their boss, or why Steve has never actually seen Iron Man and Tony Stark in the same place. He’s not sure why that didn’t occur to him before, but then again Tony was smart about it: none of the crew saw him very much, so there was no reason to even notice any similarities between the two. And he knows for a fact that Natasha, at least, would have noticed.
The door opens behind him and a nurse comes in. Steve is relegated to the hallway with the two bodyguards who are guarding Tony’s room. They’re still not sure who is behind this; considering that the fake Iron Man is dead and the mansion was still attacked, he clearly wasn’t working alone. Tony’s in danger until they catch whoever it is, but Steve is resolved that nothing will happen on his watch.
The nurse steps out of Tony’s room and smiles when Steve spins towards her. “He’s awake,” she says, holding up a hand to forestall any questions. “The doctor is trying him on a lighter dose of pain medication. Call me if he’s in too much pain.”
“Thank you,” Steve says, hurrying past her.
Tony freezes when he sees Steve, eyes opening wide. Which definitely means he remembers everything. Steve wastes no time in taking back his chair, though he doesn’t reach for Tony’s hand. Not yet. It’s still hard to resolve Iron Man and Tony Stark in his head, even though he’s had almost a week to get used to the idea.
“What are you doing here?” Tony says, breaking the silence.
“I was worried about you.”
“Bullshit. You hate me.”
“You seem to hate you,” Steve says patiently, and there’s definitely a story there that he needs to hear someday. He hopes he gets the chance. “I don’t hate you. I like Iron Man.” Too much. “And I don’t really know Tony Stark, so it’s pretty hard for me to hate him.”
“I lied to you. To all of you. For months.”
“Yeah, you did. I can’t say I’m thrilled, but I thought maybe you would be willing to tell me why.”
For a moment, Steve thinks that won’t happen. For a man who's been unconscious for days, Tony's puffed up with anger and defiance. He's looking at Steve like he thinks Steve might attack him or hug him and he's not sure which one would be worse, like he wants nothing more than to get on the phone with Pepper and have Steve banned from the room just in case.
But then - miraculously - all of the fight seems to leave Tony in a rush, leaving him small in the hospital bed. “It was a way to stop being so suffocated at first,” he mutters to the bed. “No one knew who I was. I could actually do something. Learn about the inner workings of what we did. That’s how it started. I realized pretty fast I had no idea what the fuck was going on. There was a lot of value in being on the front. People are a lot more honest when they don’t know it’s me they’re talking to.”
Tony sighs heavily, rubbing at his chest. “I spent more time with the Enforcers after you came around,” he admits, still not looking at Steve. “Pep and Rhodey are the only ones who know. Pep wanted me to go along with the idea that Iron Man was dead after what happened. She said it was the perfect way for Iron Man to just fade away, and that meant I wouldn’t be in so much danger.”
“Why didn’t you?” Steve asks, even though he’s pretty sure he knows the answer, and Tony snorts.
“Why? Because of you, that’s why. I couldn’t lie to you when you looked like a kicked puppy dog. I just wanted to see you smile again.” He stops, head whipping up to stare at Steve in horror, cheeks turning pink. “I mean –”
Steve takes Tony’s hand then, watching Tony’s incredulous expression when he lifts that hand and kisses the back of it. Somehow, it makes the words a little easier to say. “I was terrified when I thought Iron Man was dead. I thought, I never even got the chance to ask that dumbass out on a date.”
“Well, yes. But I’d kind of like to get to know the guy underneath too. If he’ll let me.”
“I’m not a good person, Steve.”
"None of us are good people," Steve points out.
"Believe me, I'm worst than most."
"Do you even want to go out on a date with me?"
"Yes!" Tony blurts out, so quickly that Steve has to believe it's true.
"Then we'll go out on a date," says Steve. "I don't need anyone deciding who is good enough for me, Tony. Not even you."
Tony looks at him for a long time and then asks, "Do I have to wear the mask?" with this little smirk, and it's so perfectly Iron Man that Steve can't help laughing. It feels good, and he squeezes Tony's hand tightly.
"No. No masks. This time, just you and me."