‘Good work, everyone,’ Steve breathes when last of the aliens is down. ‘Keep that up.’
There is a murmur of sure and yes and thanks that sounds like a wind in Steve’s ears. He is lightheaded and exhausted from the long battle, but it’s a good feeling, it’s knowing that his sacrifice seventy years earlier paid off, as well as all the hours he spends holed up in gym, training, trying to make himself better and better.
Iron Man doesn’t say anything, just gives Steve a slightest of nods and takes off.
Steve looks up and stares at the battered red and gold suit, sun reflecting in the shiny surface, until it disappears from view, turning into nothing more than a tiny star-like dot on the morning sky. Steve shakes his head and looks around at his teammates. They are talking, moving, laughing even; they are alive and mostly unhurt and everything is great.
They take a Quinjet lift up to Helicarrier for a debrief. Iron Man is already waiting in the room, unmoving like always.
Fury thanks them for the good job and asks them to give their individual reports orally, quick and easy so that everyone can go and finally rest. Steve appreciates the thought, even if he doesn’t think he will be able to fall asleep.
When it’s Iron Man’s turn to speak, he gives his observations and describes his contribution to the fight in exactly five precise short sentences. Steve doesn’t look at him, but he listens closely, devouring the metallic undertone and the unique way of saying vowels and the slightly too long hiss around every the s.
Future fascinates and terrifies Steve equally, but his teammate is part of the incredible and beautiful and everything that Steve has expected of the future.
He goes back to his apartment, makes himself a huge sandwich and when he’s done with it, he finds a good spot on the sofa and tries to draw the armor. There is a certain glow to it – there are so many details to include – that it feels like there is always something missing.
It takes him three months to actually ask, after yet another mission where Iron Man flies away as soon as the battle is done, giving Steve his usual curt nod.
‘Do you know who it is?’ he asks Clint as soon as the armor disappears from view and no one else in within the hearing range.
‘Iron Man? Hah. Who knows,’ Clint replies dismissively, checking his quiver for damages, never looking up.
Steve has been told that superheroes have the right to remain anonymous and keep their identity secret and Steve understands, because he opted to do that himself. The world is strange enough as it is and he doesn’t want any of the – media frenzies about himself. If he puts on right clothes, modern clothes, and doesn’t say too much as he doesn’t have a hang on modern slang yet, no one looks at him twice.
‘S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t know either?’ Steve pushes, sitting down on a piece of nearby building that has fallen off during the attack. He wishes he could take off the skin-tight costume and the face mask and let his skin breathe, let himself relax under streams of hot water and amidst a cloud of steam.
Clint is the right person to ask, because he is Coulson’s boyfriend and Coulson knows more about S.H.I.E.L.D. than anyone but Director Fury himself.
‘Nah, he didn’t give us any clue.’
‘How do you know it’s a man, then?’
‘We guessed?’ Clint replies, shrugging. ‘Height and shape of the suit match man’s body more than woman’s, and well, he calls himself Iron Man and reacts to male pronouns.’
‘Makes sense,’ Steve replies unsurely and moves his eyes to his shield. It reflects the sun the same way Iron Man’s armor does, even if the colors are wrong.
Steve reads about the first Iron Man armor. It was made by Tony – Anthony Stark, Howard’s son, apparently just as brilliant as his father – and it protected his girlfriend and his factory from a man using a similar gear.
‘Iron Man is mine,’ the man said. Steve watches the footage over and over, staring at Tony, who is so similar to Howard and so strikingly different at the same time, and at the armor behind him, unmoving and imposing like always. After those words, Anthony walked off the small stage and disappeared in a black limousine, the armor following him in the air.
For half a year after that, Stark was being what apparently was his usual self, appearing in tabloids at least once a week, usually with a girl and in various stages of drunkenness. He launched Stark Expo – Steve can’t help but shiver at the thought of that, at the memories – and hosted a birthday party that a certain clique would remember for a long time. His behavior, according to the data Steve could get hold of, was being more and more erratic at that time.
Some kind of breakdown, media speculated, after the three months in captivity. PTSD – a modern name for Shell Shock, Steve learns – or anxiety or depression or everything combined, he reads, but it’s all assumptions.
The man appeared less and less in the outside world, turning into a recluse.
The papers are torn between being vicious and overly compassionate and Steve can only wonder what it must have been like for Tony. He fancies he can understand a bit, Stark being held in a cave for three months, according to S.H.I.E.L.D., and Steve himself being frozen for seventy years; apparently neither of them was – is – able to find the world that they lost before.
Tony Stark still invents things for his company run by his ex-girlfriend, just doesn’t leave his apartment in his gigantic tower. The rumor is he does the armor maintenance – everyone thinks so, but it’s never been confirmed; Steve figures that would make sense. No one really talks with him these days, so he doesn’t ask.
During the next mission Steve focuses on Iron Man a lot more than ever before, at least whenever he can spare a glance or a bit of his attention. It’s a bittersweet reminder of Howard, of everything the futuristic man could have been dreaming of – well, Steve is quite sure that a battle armor, flying so gracefully and firing so precisely and dancing in the dark like a ballerina was something that even Howard wouldn’t have thought of.
It’s easy to ignore everything that the world has become when he finds and anchor point in the red-gold suit. He never says anything to anyone though and he is quite sure no one notices his fascination. It’s just observing and sketching and pondering, in the end. Nothing more but the three soothing activities.
Steve stares at Iron Man a bit too much sometimes, but there is no indication that whoever is in the armor realizes that.
He starts wondering if it is a human inside after all. Natasha tells him that Stark has an A.I. butler and that it probably would be possible for him to create a computer program that would run the armor. Besides – Iron Man never speaks up, unless it’s his turn in debrief or he is asked a direct question. He always walks in the very same, mechanical way, and always sits unnaturally straight. His movements are a bit too sharp, sometimes rugged, as if the mechanism was working too slow.
The idea, it’s dystopian, it’s – difficult to grasp, that a bunch of numbers, letters and punctuation marks could imitate life. And it is just sad, bone-achingly sad.
So Steve asks him outright one day, when he feels particularly maladjusted. These days leave him short-tempered and snappish, or at least much more than normally, and tired. The world now is sharp and shiny and bright, fast and ever-changing, and Steve feels like all the speed and the information just makes his mind shut off.
‘I don’t have to tell you that,’ Iron Man replies as emotionlessly as always, then he flies off, as always. He is there whenever it is needed and then stays for debrief only to disappear as soon as possible.
There is a series of aliens coming by and trying to take over the world; it’s nowhere near a war, but the frequency is surprising and Director Fury decides that he wants the team to stay together, since the possibility of more attacks is very high, and their response time would be much shorter.
Steve doesn’t mind – well, he does mind the aliens part. There have been quite a few sci-fi and fantasy authors back in his times and Steve did read the books whenever he could, but seeing things stranger than people used to imagine, happening in reality, happening all around him – it feels like setting a veil of a fuzzy fog around Steve and dragging him into a dreamscape instead of New York and vicinity.
His apartment is nice, but there is no attachment, no love, no relationship at all between Steve and the supposedly-his space. It’s just walls and windows and doors that prevent winds from bursting inside and chilling him to the bone.
When Steve is packing, he remembers that time when Thor said something about the Earth sending out a signal about being ready for a higher form of war; it seems oddly right. Steve doesn’t mind so much, the fighting, as long as there are no civilians around. It keeps him occupied, focused, it keeps his mind from taking a painful, painful stroll down the memory lane. It keeps him on the surface.
He leaves the place with one duffle and one bag filled with sketchbooks and art supplies. As soon as he gets to the headquarters – that’s where he was told to come – Natasha finds him and tells him there’s been a change of plans.
‘Iron Man told us that Tony Stark would be happy to let us stay in his tower, Avengers level, as per supporting the superhero team.’
‘So they both have something in common,’ Steve mutters, turning around and following the other agent to a black car outside.
‘Well, obviously,’ Natasha sighs and slips inside, Steve just behind her.
‘Will we get to see Mister Stark himself?’ he asks after a few minutes of the ride. The car’s windows are dark and the world outside looks as if it was twilight. It’s around noon.
‘Doubt it. I worked for his CEO for some time, undercover, we still keep in touch – she doesn’t even talk to him. They do teleconferences. Something is obviously wrong with the man.’
Oh, Natasha, Steve thinks, looking away and focusing on the buildings they are passing at almost illegal speed, if you knew how much I would like to have my own little world.
They move in, establish routines, train, spend more and more time together.
It’s two weeks before another round of the attacks happens. Those two weeks are the first during which Steve really feels – alive, it’s a bad word. He just feels like he is finally starting to learn, to understand, to belong. The place is incredible and Steve finds himself just sitting somewhere and sketching, or wandering through all the corridors that they have access to. There are as many drawings of the cityscape as of Iron Man now in his sketchbooks.
Iron Man himself is not there, but when they get information about a problem a few miles out of the city and Steve calls Avengers to assemble, the armor is there first and takes out a few dozen of aliens before rest of them can even get out of Quinjet.
‘Good work, Iron Man,’ Steve praises the man – man? – and starts barking orders. At least everyone learned to follow them, even Thor and Hulk, so the rest of the fight goes smoothly.
‘Iron Man, thanks a lot for being here first and starting to clean up the place for us,’ Steve repeats when they are all done and waiting for extraction, before the armor can take off like always.
‘Yeah, thanks for the catch, man,’ Clint adds with a grin and pats Iron Man on its back. There is a moment of half-awkward, half-exhausted silence, before they hear the familiar artificial vowels and nasals coming out of nowhere like a song, like always.
‘That’s my duty,’ he says.
Steve and Clint frown.
‘Well, being what-looks-like-everywhere at once isn’t part of your job description, but I am glad nonetheless,’ Clint counters and gets up as the extraction team approaches in a jet.
‘Thank you,’ Iron Man replies as flatly as always, but doesn’t move until they board the Quinjet.
Then Iron Man starts to appear around the Avengers floor sometimes. He doesn’t have his own apartment, he just comes in at random times, always gleaming red and gold and shining blue, always impassive and hidden. He starts to sit in the back and observe everyone interacting, doing things together, laughing, until he suddenly leaves, every single time. When Steve follows him once, he seems to have disappeared into thin air as soon as he stepped out of the room.
Steve likes his silent presence. It’s comforting and quickly becomes a constant. Steve can observe his sketching model up close and make up theories he doesn’t ever voice in his head.
One mission goes badly; it’s a win, but a difficult one.
Iron Man is tossed down to the ground, his armor battered and scratched and dented but still intact, as a whole. Steve hates himself for wishing he could see, for wishing he could know.
When Steve approaches him in small steps, the man starts to move away slowly, still on the ground, bumping into random pieces of rubble laying on the street.
‘Iron Man –’ he starts, taking a few steps ahead, but he can’t finish.
‘Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me. Don’t. Touch. Me,’ Iron Man interrupts him, repeating the words with a hint of panic in his synthetized voice.
If there was any doubt before, Steve is sure there is someone inside the armor, a real person and not an A.I., and it makes him blood freeze. He stops and puts his hands up in a pacifying gesture.
‘Okay. I won’t. I just wanted to ask if you are you okay?’
‘Stay where you are – I am,’ Iron Man replies, scrambles to his feet and flies off quickly. Steve stares at the strange that the man is on darkening sky, feeling heavy weight of worry settling down in his chest.
Iron Man doesn’t turn up in the quarters for three days and when he does, his armor looks like new and neither he nor Steve mention the incident. Steve can’t stop himself from looking at the man more than ever before. He’s a mystery, he is fascinating, like in good old-fashioned crime story, full of suspense, tension, and badly hidden emotions. Only the last part is somehow lacking, and if it isn’t, Steve doesn’t know.
The other day when Steve wakes up from a nightmare and decides not to try to fall asleep again, he puts on yoga pants and a t-shirt and sets out to sneak around the building, to stretch his legs and stare oat the magnificent views of city full with multitude of small separate lights, making it glow in the dark.
He is on floor forty four when a remote noise, almost inaudible – certainly inaudible to anyone without super-hearing – catches his attention. It’s footsteps, of course it’s footsteps, and the softest of murmurs. Steve’s heart starts beating faster on spot, he waits a moment without moving to figure out which way the noise in moving, and follows a long corridor to his left. Just when he takes another turn, he sees a dark slim figure disappearing behind a wall. He can’t make out the words, but he can tell that the person is walking, almost bouncing, all barefoot on the freezing marble floor.
Steve tries to follow the silhouette, tiptoeing, but when he reaches the turn which the person took, he is only welcome by a sight of an empty space, full of artificial greenish light. There is no one to be seen and no place where anyone could go – just a long passage with doors that couldn’t be opened and closed without making noise.
Steve takes a few breaths, trying to calm his racing heart, before turning around and going back to his usual spot. He sketches Iron Man again, but all the lights are wrong, so he just tosses the sketchbook angrily and runs down to gym. There is no one around, since it’s still early morning that gives the world a softest pink-orange glow.
He decides that he really should try to sleep more.
The attempts are futile and he finds himself wandering around the tower more and more often, not sure if it’s some primitive need of an adventure – hunger for answers – or an unconscious attempt at letting his exhausted mind come up with more hallucinations.
But then he sees the person again. Reflection in a window, he is walking through the part of tower that has lights off and a bright flash catches his attention; he turns around only to see the man disappear into a well-lit elevator – all mirrored in the floor-to-ceiling window, night light piercing the feeble image.
Then the silhouette doesn’t appear for weeks.
The Avengers fight in the meantime, with aliens, crazy criminal masterminds, gone-on-the-bad-side mutants, and they become more and more accustomed to styles and techniques of teammates. Clint knows Iron Man will catch him, no matter where the man might be and how improbably it seems. Steve knows he can count on Thor to be behind him and do the coverage from air and that Iron Man will be there to fire a repulsor blast that will bounce of his shield at the most convenient and unpredictable angle. Hulk tosses Natasha around with a beautiful grace no one would expect of such a monster. They all fit.
Steve still feels the way he did when he stepped out of the metal cocoon, when the serum was injected: unreal. He doesn’t get used to what is around. The world only get stranger and stranger, but maybe it’s his fate, probably it’s just his fate, being thrown in the middle of happenings.
Iron Man stays in the apartment more and more, never taking off his suit. He keeps in the back, like before, but sometimes he moves forward, too. He plays chess with Bruce and always wins. He goes against Clint in marksman competition and always fails. He spars with Thor and trains with Natasha. He brings Steve books about history that actually tell the truth and explain processes instead of just writing dates and facts.
‘These are from Mister Stark,’ Iron Man says one time, carrying a big metal box as if it weighted nothing.
There are better weapon, better suits, better communication devices, as well as a few bottles of high-quality bourbon and car keys with a note saying it’s not like I use them. Steve frowns a bit at the obvious tone of the information, but doesn’t say anything.
‘Tell Mister Stark that these are genius’ work and thank him for this and for his generosity and hospitality, okay?’ Steve states, having a closer look at the set of guns that is attached to his optional ammo belt; they are small, light, perfect quality and rather deadly.
‘…I will,’ Iron Man replies after a short pause.
‘Can you tell me something more about Stark? Since you worked with him – is that true, everything they write in the papers and on websites?’ Steve asks Natasha later in the evening, when they are alone in the common room, drinking probably the best bourbon of their lives.
‘What exactly do you mean? There is a lot of information , Steve.’
‘Well, I assumed the information on his schooling and work was true, but… the girls – the ladies? Was he really drinking and taking drugs and, uhm, sleeping around like that?’
‘Well, it depends on what exactly you read, but at least ninety percent of that is bound to be true.’
‘But – it’s so awful, right? It’s not something people normally do these days? The way those girls described him, it was disgusting – isn’t he a genius? Should he be smarter than that?’ Steve asks, feeling frustrated. There is this thought in his head that maybe if he could meet the man, Howard’s son – but no, that surely isn’t a good idea. Steve can feel the strange heaviness in his gut, thinking about what has become of the man – of the boy, younger than him, really. He desperately doesn’t want to think about what’s the society become through all those years.
‘Well, do you think it works like that? Of course it doesn’t, Steve. Not everyone is as good-natured as you are.’
‘Yeah, but I just don’t understand –’ he starts, but Natasha cuts in before he can finish the sentence.
‘I don’t think anyone has ever understood him, really. Or understands. Goodbye,’ she adds and takes the last gulp od the bourbon before disappearing.
Steve fancies he can see a glimpse of gold when he walks to his room to sleep, but it must be his imagination.
There is a battle the next day it goes smoothly and quicker than normally, and before the Avengers realize, they are back in the tower, after debrief.
But Iron Man isn’t there, and he doesn’t turn up for the next few days.
There is no information left as for why, but it is not really required, so Steve doesn’t have any right to be angry. He’s just grown really used to be obvious presence, with the armor’s smooth-moving joints and ever-murmuring metal. The man still doesn’t speak unless there is a direct need of communication, but Steve likes that a lot.
At night, Steve wakes up around half past two, sweaty and hot, quite sure that he would have headache if only he still could. He puts on yoga pants and one of his white t-shirts, but on a whim, he decides to go barefoot, letting his body cool down a bit.
It’s a pleasant and soothing feeling, and it makes him feel more real.
He goes up to fifty third floor, choosing to stay in a great spot with a breathtaking view on the east side, ready to sit down and stare out of the window until it’s burnt in his pupils, engraved under his eyelids. He sits down, pressing his side to the cold glass, and wonders what would Bucky or Peggy or anyone from Howling Commandos, from his previous life, in Brooklyn, all those people who laughed at him, who mocked him for being small and poor and a smartass – what would they think if they knew what his life is like now.
His breathes leave a misty cloud on the window surface, obscuring and blurring the view, and Steve just moves his hand to trace the outlines of buildings with his finger, to make a disappearing drawing of New York, when he hears a rustle and soft, soft noise of bare feet touching the stone. He turns around and notices – maybe thirty feet from him, a rough estimate in the darkness – the mysterious man. He is wearing black washed-out jeans, a dark blue hoodie with the hood pulled up, obscuring his face. Steve just sees a pair of glossy shining eyes, reflecting the colorful lights behind Steve, and an outline of the man’s jaw.
The man is medium-height, really skinny, his hands are pale and he reeks of alcohol.
Steve blinks a few times and stares at the man’s face, their eyes meet for a second and then the man is gone. Steve stares at the dark spot for a few long moments before he can tear his eyes away from that and return to the panorama, but he can’t focus.
He just wants answers.
It is easier to find out than he would have expected.
It’s only a week before he meets the man again. This time it’s four a.m. and Steve is on the highest accessible level, which is fifty nine, sketching some scenes he’s wanted to work on, from the last fight.
He notices the presence earlier than the last time, because the man is just louder. Much louder. He emerges from an elevator a few meters from Steve, passes by quickly walking down the corridor; clothes almost exactly the same like previous time. Then, suddenly, he just falls. As if his legs folded underneath the weight of his body.
Steve jumps up and runs towards him, observing in the process as the man’s body slumps down and hits the floor; the man isn’t unconscious, it seems, as he protects his head with one arm.
As an artist, Steve has a really good eye for details and form close up, he immediately knows who that is. Of course.
‘It’s – it’s you, Stark right? Anthony Stark? The man who is supposedly dead to the worl– you are drunk? Oh, you are so completely drunk,’ Steve adds, noticing the man’s unfocused eyes. Well, that could be concussion or something similar, too, that is Bruce’s area, and maybe Natasha’s, but not his. He can’t even get a concussion.
‘Fuck you,’ the man states flatly, quietly, his voice so coarse.
Steve doesn’t know how to reply to that.
‘Are you all right? You are really drunk,’ Steve adds confusedly, trying to catch the man’s eye, but he doesn’t manage that.
‘Leave me the fuck alone, Captain America,’ Stark spats, wriggles out of Steve’s grasp and leaves quickly, not quite running, stumbling a few times. Steve watches him move as if he was enchanted, with morbid fascination.
‘–‘d hate me,’ Steve catches out of Stark’s whispers to himself, before the man disappears completely. He really doesn’t know what he is supposed to think.
Steve tells Natasha. He doesn’t feel like sharing his story with anyone else.
‘I met Stark at night,’ he informs her when they are sparring, between tired breaths. ‘He was totally drunk. Came up, fell down, disappeared somewhere. It was like a minute.’
He doesn’t feel like telling Natasha that it wasn’t the first time.
‘As much as you could expect from him,’ she comments drily, not sounding surprised or anything, she rarely is, and then, Steve knows, it means something is very bad.
‘If you say so,’ Steve murmurs, takes a few sips of the water bottle and prepares for the next round of sparring.
He goes up at night. And the next day, too, and the day after. There is no sign of the man, so sign of anyone in the building. Steve’s footsteps echo hollowly in the big empty spaces and make him feel as if he was walking around in someone’s surrealistic dream.
Iron Man is there – almost always, these days. And some nights, too. Steve likes the comfort of reassurance. Steve doesn’t let himself think more about the man, because – it’s not his call to make. He just lets himself enjoy the almost silent company.
Two months of fighting and training, taking a break from the world-saving sometimes, and walking the corridors at night, Steve is rewarded for his patience with a few words he makes out of a shouting match somewhere around, maybe a floor above him or maybe on the other side of the building, it’s difficult to say with how the noise flows in the complicated space. It’s super-soldier hearing again, but it doesn’t help him understand much of the argument anyway.
‘– just a few weeks –’
‘– fucking idiot!’
‘– don’t want me! And it doesn’t even – oh!’ the first voice exclaims, someone slams a door shut and everything suddenly goes silent again, just like Steve is used to.
Just a few weeks, one of the men said, and even if it was completely out of context, Steve likes the idea of linear timeline. He likes the idea of continuity and time flowing fluently. He measures his own time from battle to battle, because it makes beautiful sense.
Then Iron Man starts to join Steve in his night wandering.
Even if it becomes less of wandering and more of finding suitable place to sit and hide. Steve has no idea why he has this need, somewhere in his gut, somewhere at the back of his brain, the need to hide and find a safe spot and just observe everything from there.
Steve tries to sleep and fails, so he dresses in his usual clothing and goes to one of his chosen spots, and somehow, Iron Man is always there in a few moments. They sit down; Steve draws most nights, or reads books, and his companion sits next to him for hours, unmoving, the slits where his eyes are shining blue, the same blue the circle in the middle of his chest does.
After a few nights like that, Steve starts to talk. He isn’t a chatty person by nature and he doesn’t want to impose his personal stories on the man, but Iron Man says he wants to listen. So Steve shares. It’s the first time when he lets himself say so much, about his life – before, his friends, the war. It’s a bit like telling a fairytales at bedtime to a child, since too many of them are hard to believe even for Steve himself, and he was there.
It’s no one’s fault that the world has just turned out to be such a strange place.
Sometimes, Iron Man asks questions. His voice is always the same and he doesn’t move; he is like a beautiful and captivating modern statue. His words are always simple and reserved, but there is something to them that Steve adores.
Steve doesn’t ask too much himself, despite the burning curiosity. It takes him a few long weeks to repeat the question from the beginning of their acquaintance.
‘There is – you are a person inside that suit, right?’ Steve finally inquires tentatively. He isn’t sure if he’s gained the right to be answered. It’s been over half a year and Steve fancies thinking that they’ve become colleagues, not just teammates, in that time. He isn’t sure, he doesn’t have much experience with being close to people, since he’s only friend was Bucky, and then all his life was teammates from Commandos, and Avengers.
Iron Man laughs. It’s a disquieting perfect sounds, hollow and deep.
‘Yes,’ he replies in the end, and Steve’s heart skips a bit.
‘I thought maybe – I’ve heard about Mister Stark’s abilities, about his A.I… I hardly know anything about now.’
‘You are doing very well, adjusting,’ Iron Man replies easily. Steve looks up, there is something in those words – but Iron Man looks exactly like he always does.
It takes Steve a few moments to realize what the man has just confirmed.
‘Wait,’ he speaks up, closing the sketchbook and putting it on the floor next to where he is sitting. ‘Wait, wait, you are living in the armor? Are – are you crazy? It can’t be healthy –’
‘I can take proper care of myself, thank you –’
‘Why are you doing this? I mean, of course, secret identity, you have the right and everything, but this – you don’t have to do that! This is insane!’ Steve exclaims, his heart racing, thoughts flashing through his head quicker than he can register.
‘Oh, so maybe I am, because I’ve been enjoying it!’ Iron Man replies, his voice emotionless like always, but the words are louder and quicker. Like shouting.
There is a long moment of ringing silence after that, before Iron Man stands up and walks away. Steve doesn’t follow.
Maybe he isn’t suited to be the team’s leader, since he just messes everything up.
The next day there is a battle. It’s some aliens again, this time with a robotic army, so double trouble in Steve’s book. That, and he can’t concentrate enough on bringing them down, because a realization that there is a man inside the Iron Man suit – even if he’s thought of that before, he’s never really thought – he can’t tear his eyes away from the figure dancing in the sky, flying between the aliens gracefully and never missing when he shoots, not even once; when the suit gets hit or tossed Steve shudders and clenches his jaw until it almost hurts.
He’s seen Iron Man doing that countless times, when he unconsciously knew it was a man but didn’t know that it was; that makes little sense even in Steve’s own mind. It’s hard to believe how incredibly brave, or reckless, the man is.
There is great tactics hidden within this madness and Steve can’t help but admire it, even if it costs him a few painful blows from the aliens that he failed to notice fast enough.
After the battle, he catches Iron Man before he flies away, and thanks him.
‘You were incredible,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry for yesterday – today –’
‘I don’t want to listen to this,’ the man replies and flies away before Steve can say anything more. A moment later he feels someone’s hand on his shoulder so he turns around, finding himself face to face with Thor.
‘What was that, comrade?’ he asks, voice booming as always, concern obvious on his face. ‘Is something wrong? You inquired about his identity yet again?’ Thor continues. Sometimes Steve forgets how perceptive the god is.
Steve nods and hangs his head down in resignation. He is all sore and stiff and he is quite sure that only the physical sensations keep him from feeling as if someone took away his mind and inserted it into a – game, or a show. He doesn’t feel like himself, he doesn’t act like himself; the old, the right Steve Rogers would not fail his friend like he did.
‘No chatting, get on the Jet and be here for debrief quickly,’ they both hear Fury’s snappish voice in comms, so Steve gives Thor and apologetic smile and moves towards the Quinjet.
Back in the Tower Iron Man is missing, but it’s something that Steve has expected. The others don’t seem to notice it, though. Maybe it’s because they actually have their lives and their own engagements to take care of while Steve doesn’t.
The space feels empty, colder and quieter than ever before. Made a friend, lost a friend, but not really. They haven’t been friends, even is Steve wishes they have.
‘You know Iron Man – he is a man, right?’ Steve asks the team when they are eating dinner. Well, five of them.
‘Mhm,’ Clint confirms, swallows the pizza bite he was chewing, and adds, ‘yeah, and? Haven’t we known that for some time?’
‘Have you known that for sure?’ Steve pushes, looking at each of the for a longer moment, studying their faces. They just – they don’t seem to realize –
‘He told me that a few days ago,’ Steve informs them flatly. ‘I asked, he replied.’
‘So, why isn’t Iron Man here, passing time with us?’ Thor asks, frowning.
‘I… I might have pushed him a bit,’ Steve admits. ‘And he must have decided that it was too much – have you really realized that he is a human inside that suit?’
‘What do you want to say, Cap?’ Clint asks, voicing everyone’s question. Steve could have expected that. Bruce doesn’t speak up too much, and Clint is Natasha’s voice far too often, when she doesn’t think she needs to bother with expressing herself.
‘You all wouldn’t know that,’ Steve begins, because he’s though about it earlier, and their ignorance makes sense this way. Or makes more sense. ‘But Iron Man has been spending a lot of time here, and by a lot, I mean almost all days. I know you are not here all the time, you come and go – Clint, Natasha, you go to S.H.I.E.L.D., Bruce, you are in your lab, Thor, you go to visit Jane – but you must have noticed that he is here in the morning and in the afternoon and in the evening and I – I’ve been meeting him at night, when I’m not sleeping, some days.’
‘So, we’ve somehow managed to overlook the fact that the someone who commands Iron Man spends what, all days, all nights in the armor?’ Bruce asks, putting away his tablet and taking off his glasses. His voice sounds tired.
Clint and Natasha share a long look; Thor’s face is pensive. Steve sighs deeply and nods.
‘Something like that? It’s my fault,’ he adds, playing nervously with is hand in his lap. ‘I’ve been seeing him most and I’m the team leader, so I should have noticed –’
‘No, Captain,’ Thor interrupts him. ‘We all should have noticed. Why would out comrade make such a decision?’
‘Why would someone close themselves in a tiny space where all the contact with real life is a HUD display and a voice synthesizer?’ Clint rephrases. ‘Sounds like someone’s kinda crazy.’
‘That, or he is hiding from something,’ Bruce counters. ‘I know a thing or two about hiding.’
‘Either way – what do we do? What can we do?’ Steve asks, crossing arms on his chest and trying not to look as lost as he is feeling. Just imagining spending months almost constantly in a suit of armor makes him feel nauseous; it’s just so – inhuman, so wrong –
Maybe Iron Mans wants to punish himself for something; that would makes sense. Steve knows something about guilt and redemption himself. Just – what for? Why?
The team doesn’t reach any conclusion or make a decision. Steve asks them to consider the problem and meet together in the morning, so that they can figure out – a plan.
Steve is the man with a plan, right? Or he used to be. It’s fuzzy. He can’t make out the frames of his old life and his new one sometimes. He is just quite sure that if he had a choice, he would be none of the two Steves.
The next few nights, Steve goes up to his favorite spot and waits, hoping that maybe, maybe Iron Man would forgive him and come by, but he doesn’t. Steve fancies he can see a remote reflection of that special shade of blue, somewhere at the edge of his vision, but when he turns his head to look closer, it’s gone, every single time.
It’s full three weeks before the next fight and Steve doesn’t see neither Iron Man nor – Stark. He breathes with relief as soon as the Quinjet reaches the battle place and notices Iron Man already in the sky, swimming between small sleek spaceships and shooting them down one by one.
Steve gives out quick orders, but the team doesn’t really need many words, since it is like one living organism, after so many battles. Everything goes nicely until it doesn’t and Steve finds himself surrounded by the spaceships, quickly losing the possibility escape, moving his shield and jumping around the small space that he has left to avoid their laser beams. The situation is really getting out of hand, he can see the colorful laser lights all around, but he feels detached, as if he was watching it from outside of his body – and then someone grabs him and pulls him up, making him snap out of the daze at once.
Of course it’s Iron Man, it’s always Iron Man to rescue everyone from distress. Whenever it’s not Hulk, at least. The man keeps Steve close to his suit with one arm and uses the other to balance the flight; something is deployed and hits in the middle of the circle of spaceships that haven’t been able to maneuver so first and it blows up, tearing at least a dozen in tiny pieces. Iron Man and Steve are high over the explosion, moving too fast to be comfortable; a few seconds later they are away from the most dangerous area, so Iron Man slows down significantly and Steve can finally take a breath.
‘Thank –’ he starts, but Iron Man interrupts him.
‘You know what everyone’s told me?’ Iron Man asks, voice lower and quieter than ever before; Steve can only imagine what can it sound like it real, behind the red and gold mask. ‘When I started my work, as superhero, everyone’s told me I can keep my identity secret and they don’t care who or what I was, as long as I do my job well.’
‘But they were right. Whoever or whatever I am, I am only useful to you – I am only wanted by you as long as I do my job. So I keep doing my job.’
‘I miss you being around,’ Steve blurts when Iron Man turn his head around, indication the end of the conversation; if that’s what will make the man listen… ‘In the apartment. Everyone lives their lives. I don’t have – there is nothing more than being a superhero that I have… here. I mean, in this place and time. I enjoyed sparring and playing chess and everything, and you know I like to just spend time when I know you are nearby, when I am not alone, I like when you stay silent –’
‘Ah,’ Iron Man laughs briefly, in his usual low hollow voice. ‘Then you would hate the rea– you’d hate me. I never shut up,’ he adds, landing gracefully, drops Steve and takes off, leaving him baffled and wondering when will he manage to not say something wrong.
‘I thought we could be friends,’ Steve tells Iron Man after the next mission, before the man can fly away. It sounds childish, but he’s willing to try. ‘Please. I won’t ask any more question.’
The shiny blue eye slits turn to look at him, head cocked.
In the morning Steve gets up and drags himself to the kitchen to make himself some food before his usual workout. Iron Man is sitting by the counter, apparently having a staring contest with coffee machine. He is unmoving and silent, as usual, and Steve remembers his words: I never shut up. It’s really hard to believe, but Steve is aware that his own story is one of the most unbelievable of all, so he is willing to try.
‘Good morning,’ he greets and moves to the fridge to take out some cheese and vegetables to make himself grilled cheese sandwiches.
That’s how everything goes back to normal.
Steve doesn’t push the man and neither does anyone from the team, since he’s asked – begged them not to. He can tell they want to do something, especially Bruce and Thor, the two secretly and not-so-much emphatic souls.
There is this one time when the whole team is sitting in the common room, eating and talking and just having some mindless relaxing fun after a tough fight. They are bruised and sore and exhausted, all of them, and it’s the best thing they can do. Iron Man stays a bit in the background, but he takes part in all the fun as much as he wants to.
Then Thor suggests they talk about their most glorious battles apart from working as Avengers team and everyone agrees. There is never enough of those tales, at least for the Asgardian prince. They all have something to share.
Steve decides to tell them the story of his first action as Captain America in field, when Peggy went with him and Howard flew them both, because it’s never come up, he’s always shared some of Howling Commandos anecdotes rather than what happened before.
When he mentions Howard’s name, everyone looks curious and expectant – while Iron Man tenses.
It’s only because Steve has had chance to observe him from up close, in various situations in and outside of battles, that lets him understand the slightest change in posture. It’s the way his head jerks up a little, his shoulders straighten and he stops moving at all, not even a slightest vibration of a single shiny plate.
And, just like that Steve figures it out. He’s been handled the answer on a silver platter.
But he continues talking, finishes the story and everyone seems awed and fascinated to hear his version of the legendary tale. Thor praises him for his courage and achievements, Clint whistles with appreciation and Natasha’s eyes shine with enjoyment.
Steve unconsciously notices all that but the only thing he can think of is not to let Iron Man run away again.
Not to let Tony Stark run away.
They’ve all been idiots. No one has ever thought it might be him, they’ve never considered the possibility, because no one would ever expect the king of irresponsibility, alcoholic, playboy, pain-in-the-ass man to be good enough. And the man has been so close, so close to them all, he probably could hear everything they said about him – why haven’t they thought about that before?
Iron Man has been around for almost three years.
This time, Steve doesn’t tell anyone because they wouldn’t believe him unless he had a proof. No one would say it’s possible without a proof, Steve can hear the comments in his head: you haven’t been around here before he’s started to hide himself and people can’t change that much and he is the most irresponsible person you can meet and so on.
One night, he just goes up to the highest level he can and finds the corridor where the man has disappeared – in his more or less drunken state – one time before. He stops in the middle and looks up, trying to find a camera or a speaker or anything, but he can’t. It feels strange, talking to a incorporeal being; at least he can remember its name from some of Natasha’s stories.
‘Jarvis? Can you hear me?’
There is a long moment of silence and Steve starts to feel his cheeks burning.
‘I need to talk with Mister Stark,’ he explains. ‘I – I need to apologize.’
‘Sir doesn’t allow unauthorized guest,’ a voice says, it seems to be everywhere around Steve at once. The tone is eerily similar to that of the armor, but it has a clear British accent.
‘I – I know Mister Stark is Iron Man. I need to talk with him,’ Steve explains forcefully, with a slightest hint of shame in his voice.
‘Is that so,’ the A.I.s states and goes silent for a few long moments again. ‘Very well, Captain.’
The sliding doors open soundlessly, revealing an elevator with the floor and one side made of glass, presenting an amazing and somehow scary view. Steve is brought up the top floor, it seems like it from the view – there are eighty one, he knows. That must be it, but there are no buttons or screens inside, just plain smooth glass and mirrored surfaces, all shiny, all multiplying Steve’s figure countless times.
As soon as he steps out of the elevator, lights are turned on automatically and he’s lead by a bright path to a staircase. Jarvis says nothing, but there is a loud music coming from down there, so Steve can guess he is led to wherever Stark might be now –
– it’s a workshop. Steve hates himself for a moment for not being able to stop himself from thinking how much Howard would love this place. It is – a maze. A Half-transparent, blue-glowing maze; there are other colors, too, but the blue makes the space look like Atlantis, hidden underwater kingdom.
And in the middle there is Iron Man.
He is kneeling over some complicated-looking device set to the floor and it looks like he is installing some wires, or maybe fixing a damage Steve can’t notice – but he is in the suit. In the armor. Gauntlets off, so that he can do all the precise handiwork that is needed – but he is in the armor.
Steve has never expected that and suddenly, he starts to panic because he has no idea what to do now, and he needs to come up with a way to handle things soon, because the man surely will turn around any moment now, notice him and threw him out, and Steve will not be able to utter a word –
Only that he doesn’t. Iron Man – Stark – remains in the same position, head moving slightly to the song’s angry rhythm, he curses under his breath and babbles a quick stream of words that Steve can’t quite make out, and even if he did, he is quite sure he wouldn’t understand them anyway. So he stands there for at least two or three minutes, feeling like a creepy stalker, guilty and inadequate, and he really, really wants to turn around and run. But he is sure that he won’t be granted another chance.
So he clears his throat and Iron Man’s head turns around quicker than it should be possible. His faceplate is on, but Steve can feel the piercing stare.
‘Jarvis, why is he here – no, actually, don’t even answer that – what?’ the man snaps and the song dies down. Steve could swear his own heartbeat is as loud as the music was.
‘You – are him,’ Steve manages, fully aware of how ridiculous the statement is.
‘I, as who, am who?’
‘You, as Iron Man, are Tony Stark,’ he clarifies, trying to find his authoritative and strong voice, or any of the self-confidence that he is full of during a battle.
‘Why would I be Tony Stark?’ the man replies, cocking his head the same way he did that one time when Steve said they could be friends, and if there was any trace of doubt before, it’s gone now.
‘It only makes sense. Well, now – besides the fact that you are in this private apartment – you’ve made the armor, you’ve disappeared form the world…’
‘Oh, logic,’ Stark snickers. ‘Observations. How sweet, Captain. You’re a smart boy. Hooray, congratulations. Now you can leave the freak show.’
‘It’s not what I –’ Steve starts, but he is ostentatiously ignored by Stark who turns back to his work and starts to attach an electronic piece to the – device.
‘Tres bien, boy scout. Now you’ve got me, you can go away. Jarvis, you can start writing a goodbye to all your readers in the web, I’m going to rewrite your code and install you in the ugliest toy pet dog as soon as out guest is out.’
‘Why are you still in the suit?’ Steve asks quickly, words almost tangled, before Stark can cut in or throw him out.
‘I like being in the suit,’ comes the answer, and it’s certainly not a joke, an evasion or a brush-off that Steve has expected. It’s straightforward and sincere and painful.
‘Is – is something wrong with you?’
‘Is there something that isn’t fucking wrong with me?’ Steve cringes at the cold hateful tone, but Stark misinterprets it. ‘What, my foul mouth squicks you? I told you, I’m not a person you’d like to have around. Now shoo. Go. And let’s go back to pretending that you don’t know who I am.’
‘Why would you – why would I want to do that?’
Stark stiffens, yet again it’s something Steve notices only because he’s been observing closely.
‘I told you,’ the man states viciously ‘I am not a good person to be around. Go away, va-t’en, idź sobie, geh weg, ukhodi, acchi ni ike, te ne vai, got it?’
Steve considers for a moment, ignoring all the languages that he doesn’t know, since the intent is very clear.
‘No, I don’t get it, Iron Man – or Stark or whatever I can call you now –’
‘Could you please go away,’ the man cuts in an it sounds somehow like a plead.
‘No, I won’t,’ Steve replies. ‘Please, I am just worried about you, is it so hard to understand? You are my teammate and I thought we were friends, or close enough, and I’ve seen you stumbling drunk and I didn’t realize it was you and no one on the earth has seen you for months, besides your one friend that you argue with every time he is here, if I’m guessing right –’
‘I’ve got enough of this shit,’ he is interrupted again. Iron Man stands up abruptly, the tools clattering as they fall to the ground, and before Steve can do or say anything, the man flies out of a suddenly-open window panel, leaving Steve alone, with the blue shining scarily all around him.
‘Oh god,’ Steve breathes, sitting down on the edge of the nearby chair. ‘Every time I try to talk to him, he just – deflects, and then runs away,’ he mutters to himself with disappointment. ‘And now…’
‘Sir is always like this,’ Jarvis offers. ‘Don’t take it personally.’
‘I am not worried about me,’ Steve snaps, damn, he wouldn’t even think about himself right now, besides accusing himself of his obvious failure. Somehow, the fact that he in conversing with an A.I. doesn’t baffle him too much. ‘I am worried about – Mister Stark. I mean, why would he do that? I asked him when he first told me that he was a man in the suit, a real man and not a machine, and he said he’s enjoying it, but… it can’t be healthy, right? It’s not – it’s not normal?’
‘Certainly, Captain. Sir has always ignored the social standards for normal.’
‘But this isn’t social – it’s his health, it’s his sanity, it’s his whole life –’
‘Sir is happier than he has been for a long time before,’ the A.I. states and goes silent; suddenly all the holograms disappear, too, with their softest buzz, and the workshop looks almost like a normal room. Steve blinks a few times to adjust to the new view.
‘Sir leaves the suit for bathing and daily workout,’ Jarvis offers after a few moments, his voice distant and reserved and it sounds like a replay. ‘Sometimes he even goes to sleep in a real bed, but he’s never been sleeping in a bed much. You shouldn’t be worried –’
That’s exactly when Steve bursts out laughing and misses the rest of the sentence.
It’s just – it’s a mix of things that the A.I. was surely orders to say and information that he was supposed never to reveal, all casually offered, and Steve can read between lines and hears the plead for help; he can imagine how terrible the incorporeal being must feel, knowing that it doesn’t have any way to interrupt. It can talk and pester and annoy his creator, but it can’t stop him from doing anything, because there are overrides and other functions, Steve knows that much.
And he’s just easily assumed that the A.I. really has feelings.
If life was strange yesterday, Steve doesn’t now a word to describe today.
He decides to stay there and ignore Jarvis’ half-hearted programmed attempt’s to discourage him, and wait for Stark to come back.
Iron Man enters the room through the same panel that he used to escape. It’s at least five hours later and Steve is doodling something on a paper that he’s found lying around on one of the desks, together with a few unused good quality pencils.
For a moment the armor stands still, but then the man ignores Steve and goes back to the mysterious piece of tech on the floor; Steve looked at it closely, but he couldn’t figure out its purpose even vaguely.
‘I don’t mind if get out of the suit,’ Steve says offhandedly, ignoring how silly it is, to order the man around in his own apartment, in his own safe space, but he guesses that the situation doesn’t matter. The words do, though.
‘I mind – you don’t get it, huh? I don’t have to wear it, I – I want to!’
Oh yes, this is the question of the day. Or the question of those long months that have passed since Steve woke up; as much as he’s been okay with getting used to things being the way they are because it’s just necessary and unchangeable, he still has trouble understanding the reasons. Why would people do things, why would they make such decision, why would they be okay with the crazy way everything around them is?
Why would someone want to live in a suit of armor?
‘Well, I can fly, be everywhere I want,’ Stark starts, his voice deceptively normal. ‘It’s the most advanced piece on tech on the earth and in at least a few universe around, it’s got everything I might need, self-sufficient and safe and perfect –’
‘No, no, no’ Steve interrupts. ‘Why really?’
‘Like I’m going to tell you,’ Stark mumbles, but Steve hears it clearly.
‘So there is a reason you think is worth what, abandoning your life – well, any real life you’ve had? I just don’t know what might force you to make such a decision.’
‘Why did you agree to super-solder program?’
‘Because I wanted to help and fight and the way I used to be, no one would let me – you know this all, I’m sure you have all the files on the program that were left,’ Steve replies promptly. That is easy.
‘There,’ is all Stark says, but it’s enough.
‘So… So you wanted to help, too,’ Steve concludes. ‘But – you are a billionaire, you could have done so many things without Iron Man – you are a philanthropist, right? Isn’t that helping? Doing good?’
‘It’s money,’ Stark says flatly, his hands still moving quickly around the installation that he seems to be fixing. Steve finds it hard to tear his eyes away from the long thin ghostly white fingers.
‘So, if Iron Man,’ Steve wonders aloud, ’couldn’t you do that as, well, yourself?’
Stark laughs. He actually does, his shoulders shaking, his voice with a slightest hysterical notion, or at least that’s how it sounds to Steve. It’s a long moment before the man stops.
‘Do you even hear yourself? Do you know what would happen if I was outed to the world, if they knew that it’s me, genius-madman-alcoholic-manslut extraordinaire, piloting the suit that keeps their fucking pathetic lives from being violently and painfully taken away? They would rip me apart and take my suit and ban me from doing what I’m doing, and whoa, I’d be closed in some kind of an elegant prison, so you know, I am like, a step ahead.’
A step ahead, the words echo in Steve’s head dully. A step ahead.
‘You seem so surprised. Must have missed a memo or a hundred, star-boy,’ Stark adds, going back to his work.
Then it’s Steve’s turn to laugh, and he is beautifully hysterical and he doesn’t care, because it’s just too much, the world is too strange and too confusing and the one man he’s been willing to call a friend is like a epitome of this age, of these times; Steve can clearly imagine what the man said, given all the articles he’s read and the videos he’s seen, and suddenly remembering what Fury said, whoever or whatever – Steve can’t believe this is what’s become of the country, of the world he’s been fighting for.
He laughs and cries at the same time, and he is quite sure those are not tears of joy.
‘Good job, you laugh at me too, I like to laugh a myself –’
‘You know what?’ It’s Steve’s turn to interrupt, because he’s not going to contribute to the gigantic misunderstanding that the world has become. ‘A step – ahead this is one of the saddest things I have ever heard anyone say,’ Steve replies quietly, wiping his eyes. Stark stops moving for a moment, but he doesn’t speak up at all.
They stay like that for hours.
‘I would take your side,’ Steve informs the man sometime mid-morning, from his place on the floor. Stark is in the armor, now sitting by one of the workbenches, typing something furiously. ‘If you decided to go public. I would take your side. The Avengers would take your side. You’ve been fighting with us for a long time and you’ve never failed us. Don’t you think it’s enough to persuade the – public, the government?’
‘Hell if I know,’ comes a strange muffled reply and Steve’s head jerks up and he realizes that the man is sitting with his faceplate up, a wire between his teeth kept from falling onto a board he is working on, attacking it with a screwdriver. ‘Why are you still here, anyway? Jarvis, why is the boy scout camping in my workspace?’
The voice without synthesizer is enchanting and terrifyingly similar to Howard’s, just a bit older, a bit rougher; Steve has known Howards when he was still in his twenties. Stark is around forty now.
‘I believe he might be trying to gain a new scout badge, sir.’
An A.I. that understands and uses sarcasm.
Steve doesn’t know the twenty first century well enough, he doesn’t think he ever will, but he knows as much as that there isn’t any other person who could make an A.I. talk back. It is absolutely, mind-blowingly brilliant.
‘You are brilliant,’ Steve voices his thoughts, eyes focused on one of the holograms on the other end of the vast room, some kind of an engine as far as he can tell, but it probably could be a teleporter or a toaster just as well.
‘Is that enough for a badge in obviousness, J?’ Stark says in Iron Man’s voice, faceplate down, before he starts welding something to the board.
‘I like you more than Iron Man,’ Steve adds, because that something he’s just realized suddenly a second earlier. Stark claims that he is a bad influence, all those epithets that he’s called themselves after the media’s words – but all that Steve can see is a witty, brilliant man who is lost, who is scared, who has given up his desperation to quiet acceptance, and Steve knows that particular feeling better than most people.
‘You can’t,’ Iron Man’s voice replies, sounding very deep and quiet. Fear.
‘Because what?’ Steve asks getting up. ‘I’m screwing with your identity issues, and yes, I can swear – I. Don’t. Care. You know – Iron Man is a good one to have around, but he’s been silent and static, and you, you are the contrary and I like it much more, the way you talk and argue with Jarvis and the way you radiate energy that a person in your situation, in your physical state shouldn’t be able to have, and yet you do. It’s anger and dedication and hope and the burning need to prove yourself, because that’s what you’ve been doing all the time, right? All that, I like it in you. I respect it. You’ve the most real person that I’ve met since I – woke up. Even if you were nothing more than a white remote ghost to me so recently.’
‘I don’t know what to do,’ Stark replies, his faceplate up again, in a soft melodic tone.
‘I didn’t know either,’ Steve informs him quickly, and a moment later a pair of brown eyes is starting at him. ‘And I still don’t know. But you are a futurist, and I’m a man from the past. Surely we will figure something out. Deal?’
‘And you – you won’t push me?’
‘No, I won’t,’ Steve confirms eagerly.
‘…deal. Tony,’ the man adds, stretching his ungloved hand. Steve takes a few long steps, shakes his hand and replies:
Steve tells the team that he knows who Iron Man is, but doesn’t say anything more, keeping his word, giving Tony time. He goes up to the penthouse every day. Iron Man is around the Avengers floor sometimes, but it’s not often; the other don’t seem to notice; they don’t have a reason to notice.
Steve knows he’s found a place where he belongs, where someone needs – wants – him, and not Captain America.
Up there, Tony still insists on wearing the suit much more often than Steve thinks is healthy, but he doesn’t push. It’s once every few days that Tony is around just as himself, not Iron Man, even if with his faceplate unused inside these days.
Sometimes Steve feels quite helpless and silly, but his presence means that at least Tony has someone else to talk to than his A.I., and other robots that Steve meets quite soon. And that someone sweet-talks Tony into eating, even if he refuses anything that isn’t liquid.
It’s three months and half dozen battles during which Steve treats Iron Man all the same, trusting him completely to do his job the best way possible even if it means contradiction his orders, before Steve finally manages to coax Tony into telling the team. It’s a real full-blown miracle that Tony agrees to go down without the suit, too, when he could just have his faceplate up and it would be enough.
The four other teammates are downstairs, eating a lunch together in the communal kitchen, when Steve comes in, Tony following him closely, his head hung down.
The first reaction is disbelieving stares from three of the four people, since Thor doesn’t know enough about Tony Stark to recognize him. But Bruce and Clint and Natasha are dumbstruck.
‘You, you are - Stark?! Are – are you okay?’ Natasha is the first to ask; she looks concerned. And she never shows emotion.
Of course Steve is well aware of how Tony looks like; he has some muscle, but he is still frighteningly skinny, looking as if he was going to break anytime; his skin almost paper white as it hasn’t been exposed to sun for years; his eyes big and shiny and hollow. His hair is cut short and he’s clean-shaven and he hardly looks like any of the photos – like himself.
‘I know everything you’ve said about me –’ Tony starts quietly but firmly. They all immediately look away.
‘I wanted to –’
‘No, Natasha. Don’t. You were right, the gossip was right,’ he adds quietly, glancing at Steve, who can only think that he doesn’t look his age, he looks more like a lost child.
‘But?’ Steve prompts, because he doesn’t want the man to back away now.
‘But – please give me a second chance,’ Tony finishes.
‘You’re joking, right?’ Clint asks, leaning over the table to look at Tony form up close. The man shudders. ‘You might have been an asshole, but you’ve done enough to redeem yourself, or whatever it is that you’re trying to do, ten times over – the question is will you give us second chances?’
‘The team,’ it’s Thor who speaks up. ‘We have failed you, Iron Man. We have erred, not realizing that you were suffering. Please let us redeem ourselves.’
‘Well, you didn’t know anything, I didn’t know anything. It’s cool.’
‘Tony Stark,’ Bruce says, getting up slowly and taking a few steps towards Steve and Tony, who is hiding a bit behind Steve’s imposing figure.
‘Bruce Banner,’ Tony replies in the same tone, his voice just a bit more guarded. Bruce smiles.
‘You don’t look like yourself,’ Bruce comments, pointing out what the others have been tactfully ignoring, and it surprisingly is the right thing to say. Push the right buttons, doctor, Steve comments in his head.
‘You don’t look like yourself either, I mean, the green one that I – Iron Man usually gets to see.’
‘Is it confusing?’ Bruce asks curiously, taking a few more steps and standing at Tony’s fingertips.
‘Yeah, at the beginning it was – and recently, since Steve here has been playing a makeshift psychologist for me, you know. Has been trying to teach me that Iron Man and me are one.’
‘Stark,’ Natasha starts again. Steve can tell she is upset, damn, ashamed even, and he knows why; Tony did tell him about the assessment, but he’s stressed that reading that he wasn’t good enough to be even considered a consultant hurt, but it wasn’t the final straw. It was just that Iron Man – he had a clean start. No past, nothing to hide. A perfect superhero material.
‘No, you were right,’ Tony says, repeating what he’s told Steve. ‘At that time, I wasn’t fit to be a consultant or anything like that. And I can’t blame you or your agency for saying yes to a random superhero that wasn’t me, but had all the superhuman tech, since you needed someone like that. My own fault for not letting you know.’
‘We shouldn’t judge –’ Thor start but Tony cuts in again, and Steve is close to naming him the king of conversations, since he can silence everyone, even the overly-talkative god.
‘Don’t start with moralizing, big guy. You shouldn’t, no one shouldn’t, we all do. For example, Hawkeye here looks like he would like to steal everyone’s pudding because he hasn’t been taught proper morals and manners in Circus High.’
‘But I would like to steal pudding,’ Clint pouts, making Tony snicker behind Steve, and Steve smile in consequence. He’s been getting Tony to smile and laugh – and not sarcastically or mockingly, mind you – more and more, and it’s amazing and rewarding.
‘I can’t eat pudding. You can have mine anyway.’
‘I wanna keep him,’ Clint giggles, gaining a half curious, half confused look from Tony.
‘You shouldn’t want to keep out poor teammate because he is cursed with inability to eat, Clinton!’ Thor exclaims, and now everyone is snickering.
‘Just, one thing,’ Tony breaks the laughter, and all eyes are trained on him. But those are friendly eyes. ‘I won’t be out of the suit all the time,’ Tony warns them; it’s still only repeating what he’s told Steve before. ‘I don’t feel… I prefer working in it. Easier to maneuver, easier to lift things, ready-to-use HUD display instead of holograms or visualizations of my work – and sparring –’
‘Just, if Tony comes around wearing his armor, leave him alone. He’s been getting better at not relying on it, but it takes time.’
‘Because I’ve been learning to trust you –’
‘Oh, than it’s good,’ Bruce quips in, ‘that we trust you already.’
Everyone nods in agreement, the movements sharp and eager and happy, so different from what it’s been like for Steve before. Tony smiles unsurely. The pieces are starting to fit.
The first time Steve kisses Tony is when the man is completely drunk, his lips taste like whiskey and he is a mess and Steve doesn’t know what to do, it just happens and it works. When Tony wakes up in the morning, he declares that Steve is a much better thing to be addicted to.
Then they just never stop.
Once, after a battle and a lot of discussion beforehand, Iron Man sits in the debrief room among his teammates with his faceplate up, finally ready to confront one of the key-points of the problem, as everyone has taken to calling it.
Fury almost flips out, Jarvis has the feed on a secure server, and Avengers sit with matching smirks. Steve, keeping a practiced grin on his face, thinks they must look like a cross between insane and stoned. Especially Bruce, whose smirk is particularly vicious, since he is backing up his newfound science bro.
The Director notices that Tony, is his now-typical manner, has the gauntlets off, too, and he is holding Steve’s hand.
‘Oh god,’ Fury breaths. ‘I really don’t want what’s happening in that tower,’ he adds and storms out of the room.
The debrief is two days later, a teleconference, and with Deputy Director Hill.
Thor and Clint take it upon themselves to make Tony transfer from the liquid food that he’s been consuming all the time he’s spent inside the suit – practical reasons, obviously – to normal. That is a slow process, but they are not in hurry.
‘A man who doesn’t want to steal someone’s pudding is not a man, Tony,’ Clint tells him in a lecturing voice, as if he was sharing the greatest wisdom of the world. Steve smirks when he hears that, knowing that his pudding is safe because he loves coconut and everyone else but Tony hates it.
So when his coconut-raspberry mousse disappears one day, he can’t even feel angry. Instead, he – a man with a plan, like Tony reminds him maybe a bit too often – orders two from now on, and everything works out. He loves when Tony’s lips taste sweet.
Sex, Steve discovers, is one of the best ways to lull Tony out of the suit when the man is feeling particularly insecure.
The day before an anniversary of the Coming Out day, Tony informs the Avengers that they have all gained a day off work and orders them to get in a helicopter that he pilots himself, and then leads them to a StarkJet that takes them to a paradisiac tropical island. Steve doesn’t even bother with worrying what could happen now when the neighborhood superhero team isn’t around, but finding himself far from New York, it’s difficult to care what happens there.
They stay for three days, eating the best sea food ever, devouring on tropical fruit, drinking rum and cola. It’s perfect and Steve almost doesn’t notice that Tony still needs to keep to a his light and mostly pureed diet.
It’s amazing to see how Tony’s skin quickly catches a perfect bit of color, starting to appear human-like, making him look like he’s glowing gold even without –
– neither Tony nor anyone else from the team mentions the conspicuous absence of the red and golden suit.
It’s five years since Tony’s last public appearance when he decides to give an interview. Go back to public. Steve’s been trying to persuade him to do that for ages, but Tony insisted that it’s not necessary. There’ve been some pretty hilarious and rather sad rumors recently and Steve says that he’s just become bored and annoyed enough with all the crazy press to throw Tony down Stark Tower without the suit nearby, just so that the world would see that he is alive and still himself.
Tony agrees for an evening show, with the most numerous audience – as if the information about it being him that’s interviewed didn’t make the show automatically most-watched – saying that if do it, than do it with a flourish.
He hasn’t changed that much, Steve muses with a smile. That’s good.
So, as soon as Tony walks on stage, there are shouts and cries and moans; when he waves at the people, it looks like everyone is going to swoon, including the host. Tony smiles at them, it’s a bit studied, a bit forced, and Steve can tell by the tension in his lover’s arms that he is nervous as hell, but he is the best at hiding. Tony looks back, spotting Steve standing off-stage, where the cameras can’t see him, and Steve blows him a kiss.
Tony sits down, in his perfect dark gray suit, with sharp blue tie – like Steve’s uniform, like the arc reactor – and shoes polished perfectly. There is a quick exchange of hellos and greetings and the host finally gets to ask the question that everyone was dying to ask:
‘So, Tony, what have you been doing during this last five years?’
‘Well,’ Tony starts, deliberately making a pause, so that everyone has to hold their breaths. ‘I’ve been playing in a secret boy band.’
The man gapes, as well as the audience, and Steve tries his hardest not to burst out laughing. They’ve been over this so many times back at home, Tony being himself and Clint playing the host, rest of the team impersonating the audience. Their faces weren’t even close to the present level of hilariousness, invisible to everyone but Tony and him as all the cameras are focused on Tony.
‘Oh. Yes,’ Tony pretends to remember something suddenly, shaking his head slightly and taking a deep breath. ‘You might not know my stage name. I,’ he says, standing up, ‘am Iron Man.’
There is a moment of shocked silence before the crowd cheers deafeningly.
Tony Stark is back.
We stood a moment so in a strange world
And then I said the truth (and we moved on)