sam_storyteller: (Alternate Universe)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2013-04-06 10:57 am
Entry tags:

The Most Amazing Things (Some Terrible Lie) 2/3

Title: The Most Amazing Things (Some Terrible Lie)
Rating: R
Summary: Tony's decision not to reveal his identity as Iron Man to the world was shrewd and calculated. Too bad it's about to backfire on him like a Jericho missile.
Warnings: None.

Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three


He had a vague dream of being in pain, struggling out of unconsciousness, and of someone feeding him something followed by cold water. If it weren't for the clean, crisp taste of the water, without the stale brackish bite from the cave, he might have thought he was back in Afghanistan, and the man looking after him was Yinsen, forcing expired and stolen antibiotics down his throat.

When he woke, his first thought was that he had to find out what he'd been drinking so that he could avoid it for the rest of his life. Even tequila didn't give a kick like this hangover.

JARVIS, mercilessly, said "Good morning, sir. Shall I alert Captain Rogers that you are awake?"

Tony tried to say "Jesus Christ no, why would you do that?" but pain lanced along his jaw, and it came out more like "Jesarrrrgh."

JARVIS must have misinterpreted it as a yes, because he said "Notifying!" crisply. The door opened almost immediately, and the whole horrifying day came rushing back at him. He clenched his hands over his face, curled up in the blankets, and whimpered.

"Painkiller," Steve said, pushing gently on his shoulder. Tony groaned and rolled onto his back, pushing himself up. He ached everywhere, and there were splotchy purple bruises on his arms. Still, he took the pill sitting in Steve's palm and downed it with a half-full glass of water sitting on the bedside table. "You want to get some more rest?"

Tony grunted, shaking his head slightly. Talking hurt, clearly, and was only going to get him into trouble anyway.

"The rest of the team has debriefed," Steve said, sitting carefully on the very edge of the bed. "The mission is technically a success. No civilian casualties. Do you remember...?"

Tony shook his head again.

"Well, there's a full report on the Avengers server," Steve told him. Tony could remember a time when Steve thought the server was an actual server, a robot that served them information -- like there was a library somewhere that all their information went into, and the robot ran around fetching it. Listening to Steve try to explain his idea of a server, it had been so hard not to laugh.

"Ms. Potts wants to see you, if you feel up to it," Steve continued. "The others too, but I think she wants first crack."

Tony nodded. "Sorry...voice is a little rusty," he managed.

"It's fine. So I should send her in?"

"Yes, please."

Steve nodded and stood up, walking to the doorway. He stepped out, and a moment later Pepper stepped inside, carrying a StarkPad under one arm.

"Hey," she said softly, coming to the bed.

"It's cosmetic," he told her.

"Sure," she replied, with her I-don't-believe-you smile. She settled down on the bed, curling up next to him and propping the StarkPad on her legs. "Steve said we shouldn't upset you," she said, "but you need to see this. I need you to tell me what you want done."

She pulled up a grainy photograph, clearly a cellphone picture. Iron Man lay in the rubble from the crash; Widow was crouched near his head and Cap was straddling his chest, shield in one hand, faceplate in the other. His head was tipped back, but his profile was clear -- that was his face, goatee and all, visible inside the suit.

"Shit," he murmured. "Where -- "

"It's on every news blog."

"Pep, I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry," she said. "We knew the risks."

"The stock -- "

"Don't worry about it."

"How far?"

She chewed on her lip before looking at him and replying. "Sixty-four points."


"It'll rebound."

"No covering this up, I guess. No claiming it's a 'shop or -- "

"If you take a picture with Iron Man now, they know it could be anyone in the suit. That's a picture of you in the armor, Tony. There's no pulling back. You're officially public."

He leaned forward, head cradled in his hands.

"I need to know if you want to issue a statement, or if we have no comment," she said gently. "If you're going to go wide, I have to start booking talk shows. Otherwise I need to get together with SHIELD and work out a party line for how to handle it. You don't have to write the spin, Tony," she added, when he groaned. "You just have to decide how you want it managed."

"I have some thoughts on that," said a new voice, and Tony looked up to see Steve in the doorway. Pepper tensed next to him.

"Now's not the time for -- "

"I'm not here to yell," Steve said calmly. "But I think -- if you want -- I can provide a distraction."

Tony glanced at Pepper, who had her eyebrows raised. He was barely following this conversation.

"Iron Man and I are the only ones with private identities, aside from Bruce," Steve continued. "If I go public in solidarity, it'll take the heat off, at least a little. And Captain America endorsing Iron Man's pilot can go a long way towards reassuring your stockholders, right?"

"You don't have to do this," Pepper said.

"I've been thinking about it anyway," Steve said.

"But you're pissed at me," Tony managed.

"Some things are more important," Steve replied evenly.

"Don't do it."

"It's not really your choice, Stark. You can't stop me if I want to. This is a courtesy, so you can factor it into your..." he gestured at the StarkPad, "...your spin. It's already set up."

"That could work," Pepper said, turning to Tony. "Strategically, it's probably the best option we're going to have."

"This isn't strategy, it's his life," Tony answered. The idea of Cap and Steve being one person was unreasonably frightening. All the walls were tumbling down, his neat divisions crumbling.

"Yeah, it's mine," Steve said. "I make my own decisions. Ms. Potts, let's speak in a little while."

"Thank you, Steve," she said softly.

"My pleasure, ma'am. Stark, get some more rest," Steve added, and shut the door with a soft click.

Tony heaved a breath and turned on his side. "JARVIS, television. You'll know which station."

"Television?" Pepper asked.

"Steve isn't the kind of guy to wait for an engraved invitation once he's made up his mind," Tony said. "Also, he's not subtle. Had the uniform on under his hoodie."

Pepper turned then too, and Tony rested his chin on her shoulder as the television flickered to life. They could see the front of Stark Tower, the tall glass-and-brass doors and the granite lobby, and a podium in front of it, microphones in a cluster on the top.

"Oh, no," Pepper said, as Captain America walked out in uniform, no hoodie now, shield slung on his shoulders.

"Oh yes," Tony said, and he couldn't help but feel a little hint of glee in all the regret. So few people really understood what they were getting into when they went toe to toe with Captain America.

"Good afternoon," Cap said, standing in front of the podium. "Everyone hear me okay?"

There was a ripple of affirmatives, but over the top of it were shouted questions, and Cap held up his hands.

"I understand SHIELD has made an official statement about the Avengers action yesterday in Norfolk," he said, as everyone settled down. "I'd like to confirm that the mission was considered a success. There were no civilian casualties that we're aware of, and the remaining alleged terrorists have been held pending a full legal inquiry. I can also confirm that Iron Man, while injured -- "

Another clamor of questions, and Cap just waited calmly until they fell quiet under his stare.

"While injured by the blast, Iron Man has been checked over by SHIELD medical and is making a full recovery. He's upstairs now, in fact," he added, jerking a thumb at the building behind him, and a few people laughed. "Now, I know you have a lot of questions. I'm going to tell you what I can. I can confirm that Anthony Stark is Iron Man."

"He called me Anthony," Tony said quietly. "In medical. Just the once."

"Doesn't know you well enough to call you Tony."

"Or he knows me too well," Tony sighed.

On the television, Cap was still talking. "I know that this is a surprise to a lot of people, but I'd like everyone to remember that Iron Man is an Avenger. We're proud to count him in our ranks, as we have and as we will continue to do. Once he gets over the concussion, anyway," he added with a little smile.

"That son of a bitch," Pepper said admiringly. "He's a natural."

"Did a lot of bond sales during the war," Tony said absently.

"I understand that some people see this as reason to lack faith," Cap continued. "Reason to mistrust Iron Man. Or to mistrust Mr. Stark. I don't see that. What I see is a man who could easily have hired someone to do the dangerous work we do, or could have simply...not done it at all. He made a choice to act as a patriot. In defense of his country."

"How long have you known?" someone called, and Cap shook his head.

"The private interactions of the Avengers have no bearing on the actions of the team," he said.

"Will Mr. Stark continue to act as Iron Man?"

"Certainly we have no intention of asking him to step down," Cap replied. "If and when he chooses to retire, we'll respect that. Frankly, I hope it's not anytime soon. We need Iron Man. Look, I know you have more questions," he added, over the voices calling them out now. "I don't want this to be a Q&A about Mr. Stark because I'm not authorized to speak on his behalf. I'm not really here to speak about him at all."

That shut them up.

"The fact that Mr. Stark didn't actively decide to have his identity as Iron Man made public has cemented, for me, something I've been considering for a long time," Cap said. "Each of us has made a choice, to fight masked or unmasked. You know Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton and Thor because they chose to show their faces, and that's something to respect. For us -- for Iron Man and myself -- we've had to choose every time whether to keep our private lives private."

He frowned and ducked his head, the first sign of hesitation Tony had seen in him.

"I think you all know the story of Captain America. A man named Steve Rogers, who wanted to fight in the war, was given an experimental treatment which allowed him to be a symbol that this country needed. Maybe that wasn't exactly what he wanted and maybe it wasn't fair to put him over the men who fought and died in that war, to put him up as a symbol, but it's what happened. The uniform..." he gestured at the star on his chest. "It's something to live up to. But the whole story is that the treatment which got Steve Rogers from a kid in Brooklyn to a soldier in Italy and Germany also allowed him to survive the crash in 1944, when he was considered lost in the arctic circle. It preserved his body during the..."

Cap shook his head. "He spent seventy years in the ice. Recently he was discovered by a Stark polar expedition. When the ice thawed, SHIELD medical were able to revive him."

A murmur went through the gathered reporters.

"Will you be stepping down as Captain America, sir?" someone called.

Cap shook his head.

"Two Captain Americas?" another reporter asked.

"No. As I said -- we've all made a choice. Mr. Stark didn't properly get his choice, so I thought it was time I made mine," Cap said, and reached up, hooking his fingers in the edge of the cowl. He pulled it up and off, and his hair fell messily in his eyes until his other hand came up to smooth it down.

"I'm not the latest Captain America. My name is Steve Rogers," he said, "and I am the only Captain America."

"Oscar-worthy performance," Tony murmured, as the reporters went nuts. "JARVIS, turn it off."

"But he's not done yet," Pepper said.

"He'll be answering questions for an hour. We saw what he wanted us to see," Tony said, shifting away from her, sliding down under the blankets. "You need anything else from me?"

"No," she said softly, stroking his hair down as she got off the bed. "The Captain and I will take it from here."

"Don't deserve either one of you," Tony said, as Pepper opened the door. He heard her laughing at him as she left.


The room was dark when Tony woke again, no light in the windows. When he moved, the illuminated clock in the wall said it was close to midnight.

He lay there for a few minutes, getting his bearings. He felt better; stiff and sore, but comfortable in his skin again, and his thoughts were clearer. He rolled out of the bed carefully.

"Good evening, sir," JARVIS said quietly.

"Privacy," Tony replied, and JARVIS obediently fell silent. Tony staggered to the bathroom and flicked the lights on.

He felt grimy, and his hair was matted where it didn't stick out crazily. He showered on autopilot, peeling the bandage off his throat when it got wet, and dripped his way to the sink, wrapping a towel around his waist.

It hurt vaguely to tilt his head up, but he stood before the mirror and studied the damage. A shallow cut on his throat led into a deeper gash on the underside of his chin, with a row of neat blue stitches. Well, maybe he'd have a dashing scar. At any rate, he'd have to rework the helmet. A shot like that was one in a million, but it could happen. He could rework the jawpiece, maybe build in a release so that if it crumpled it would automatically fall away. On the other hand, he didn't want a stray punch buckling his entire helmet. Maybe just some strategic reinforcement. He'd put JARVIS on stress-testing a few alloys.

When he lowered his head, he caught sight of himself in the mirror. His eyes were dark and huge, hair plastered down wetly. He touched his mouth, picturing the narrow, flat slit of the mask over his lips, the glowing light of the eyes over his own. Tony Stark, wastrel billionaire; not Iron Man, the polite, kind, courageous hero with the ageless gold face.

"I am Iron Man," he tried, and the words felt strange in his mouth. He hadn't ever said them without the suit.

He put on a pair of track pants that he usually reserved for wearing in the workshop, shrugging into a t-shirt and then, to cover up the bruises, an old sweater.

He had his own kitchen, of course, but it was dark and silent too; the Avengers shared one out in the common area, and he knew from Iron Man's experience that someone was bound to be up and around -- none of them kept regular schedules, and some didn't need that much sleep.

Better to get it over with, perhaps.

The living room was dark, but the kitchen was glowing yellow. When he lingered near the doorway he saw Bruce fixing coffee, and Steve sitting at the kitchen table, working on a StarkPad with a stylus. Steve looked up, fuck his super-soldier hearing, and Bruce caught the motion. Tony stayed where he was.

"Ah," Bruce said, picking up the mug of coffee. "Tony. Hi."

"Awkward," Tony murmured. "Hi."

"Feeling better?" Bruce asked.

"Yeah. Head's out of the clouds, for now," Tony replied.

"Good. Well, if you need the stitches looked at, let me know. I'm going to..." Bruce gestured at the doorway.

"You don't have to -- "

"Oh, believe me, I very much do," Bruce answered. He pressed the coffee into Tony's hand as he left. Tony looked down at it, gave a mental shrug, and sipped. Steve was still watching him. Tony sidled around the kitchen table and sat on the other side from him, wrapping his hands around the warm mug. Steve put his stylus down.

"Drawing?" Tony asked.

"Not getting very far," Steve replied, setting the StarkPad aside too. "Lot on my mind."

"I saw the press conference."

"How's your stock doing?"

"Guess I'll find out when the market opens. Doesn't matter. Pepper and I hold a controlling interest in the company." Tony sipped his coffee. "So do we talk about it now?"

"I don't know," Steve said. "I don't know how to talk to you. I barely know you."

"I could go get the helmet, if that would help."

Steve bowed his head, lacing his fingers behind his neck. "I am irrationally angry with you. My anger with what you did is out of proportion to your actual act. And I've got zero room to talk, this afternoon made that very clear."

"I'm aware there's a difference between hiding your name from the media and hiding it from your teammates," Tony said. "Just so we're clear. I'm not throwing that in your face."

"You still did it."

"Yeah, well."

"You're not sorry, are you?"

"No. I did what I felt was necessary."

"To protect us, or to protect -- " Steve broke off with a frustrated noise. "I can't do this. You're..." he let his hands fall, raising his head again. "When I look at you I see his boss. I see the guy I thought Iron Man sweet-talked into letting us stay here. I wasn't sure Iron Man liked you, to be honest. I wasn't sure you liked me." He sighed. "I don't even know what to call you."

"Well, as nice as Anthony sounds, pretty much everyone just calls me Tony," Tony said. "Unless you want to go with Stark, which does have a sort of military ring to it, kind of suits you. But I think Mr. Stark would probably be ludicrous once you get comfortable enough to really lose your shit at me."

Steve was quiet, looking down at his hands.

"My reasons were not excuses," Tony said. Silence. "You can think what you like about trust or lies or hypocrisy but the truth is I did it, and it's done. I appreciate you taking some of the heat but I'm not going to mewl for your forgiveness out of gratitude. That was your decision. I didn't ask you to. In fact, I told you not to. So we have to figure something out and if that involves yelling at me you're just going to have to get comfortable with it."

Steve rubbed his eyes.

"I'm still Iron Man," Tony said. "At least, you know, now you can be sure I'm not fighting for a paycheck. Hedonism may be one of my sins, but greed is not. Well, not anymore."

"I haven't thought that in a long time."

"I'm glad to hear it," Tony said. He took another sip of coffee, suddenly angry himself. "What exactly do you want from me, Winghead? Catharsis? Have at it. Misery? Trust me, I've got it covered. You want to go a few rounds? I'll need the suit, but I'm thinking right now you might like to take a few swings at the suit."

"You don't get it, do you?" Steve asked sharply. Ah, now they were getting somewhere.

"So explain it to me. I'm a genius, pretty sure I can follow along," Tony retorted.

"You are so infuriating -- "

"Welcome to the sideshow. Iron Man gets to be the nice guy. I don't have that luxury."

"Nice is certainly a relative term around you."

"In case you hadn't noticed, the gloves are off," Tony said, holding up his hands. "Let's go."

"Shut up!" Steve said, not loudly but certainly intensely enough that Tony closed his mouth on instinct. "Just shut up and let me think for two minutes together, for Christ's sake."

Tony fell silent, but he sipped his coffee really loudly. Steve looked up at him, eyes narrowed.

"What do you think I was trying to say to you in the workshop, before all this?" he asked finally.

"I genuinely have no idea," Tony said. "Seriously, what do you want here? Give me a clue."

"What I want," Steve snorted. "What I want -- wanted -- what I wanted from him..." he shook his head. "What I wanted from you...I just wanted to see who you were. I wanted to touch you without the armor in the way. Do you -- do you remember Chicago? When you took your gloves off. You had hands. Normal, human hands. No scars, no wires, just...hands."

He reached out, slowly, telegraphing his actions enough that Tony didn't move. He took Tony's left hand, fingers cradling the knuckles, thumb curling around to press hard into the pad of flesh below his index finger.

"I wanted to touch your hands, but you were working," he said quietly. He pressed gently on the muscle, and then traced the crease up the webbing between index and middle finger. "I wanted you to trust us enough to take off the armor, if you could survive without it. All I have wanted from you for months is to know who you are because you wanted me to, and then when I finally got that faceplate off, you were hurt. I was scared. And I didn't even know if I had a right to be scared because suddenly you weren't my friend Iron Man, you were Tony Stark. You're not the kind of man who needs -- who needs guys like us. You're not a working stiff like I thought he was. And I felt like a fool for even thinking I was..."

He shrugged, letting go of Tony's hand.

"I thought you were a guy a genius paid to be his bodyguard. If I knew you were the genius I wouldn't have presumed."

"Presumed what?" Tony asked, bewildered.

Steve let his hands fall to his lap, looking down. "Point is, we need you more than you need us."

"Wow, have you not been paying attention on an epic scale," Tony said. "I moved you into my home. I wore the uniform just to be around you. I am a needy, messed-up asshole, and this right here, what you're doing right now, is just one of many reasons I kept the faceplate down. You think I'm some kind of elite untouchable? You're Captain America. I'm short and mouthy and I dye the premature grey out of my hair."

Steve still wasn't looking at him, but his mouth curved up a little. "Premature, huh?"

"I'm thirty-seven. You try running a multibillion-dollar company and see how long you last."

"You're forty-two." Steve glanced up at him. "I looked you up on Wikipedia."

"I'm also vain. Don't know if I mentioned," Tony replied. "Look, here I am. You want to touch, you want to see if I'm real, go for it."

Steve turned, inhaling sharply, and Tony had a bare second to wonder if Captain America was about to punch him before Steve's hands came up to his face, holding him still. And then he kissed him.

Not exactly what he'd been expecting.

"That's what I wanted to do," Steve said, holding him in place effortlessly, their foreheads pressed together. "That's why I wanted to know about the armor. I didn't know if I could and I still -- "

He jerked back, and Tony almost stumbled.

"I'm sorry. I should go. You should get some more sleep."

"Cap, wait -- " Tony caught at his arm as Steve turned away, fingers fumbling in his sleeve before he got a good grip. "Cap. Steve!"

"In my day I could be arrested for what I just did," Steve said, tugging his arm away. "That's what I was willing to risk for you, and you didn't even tell me who you were."

"You think you're the only person with that problem?" Tony asked. "I kiss a man -- I kiss anyone -- and the world knows by morning. I get sick and the economy of the country shifts. I whisper a secret, and it doesn't stay secret. I've lived my entire life in front of cameras and that's a choice I make too, now. But when everyone wants a piece of me, I have to be more selfish than the average person. Otherwise I end up with nothing. For just a little while, for a fraction of a moment, I got to be the guy people liked. I got to be a hero without letting people down because I had a drink or slept with someone they thought I shouldn't. And if you don't get that, after today, you will. Because the first time you step out of line as Steve Rogers, the cameras will be there."

He let go of Steve's arm, but Steve stayed where he was.

"Don't know why I bother saying that. It's not like you've ever fucked up before. No reason to start now."

"I've done things I regret," Steve replied. "Things that would have had consequences. that situation."

"Well, hold onto your ass, because now they will."

"How do you do it?"

"A cultivated lack of shame. A suit of armor, eventually. You had to have seen that I'm different in the suit."

"I noticed," Steve said. "Iron Man didn't skedaddle whenever I walked into a room."

Tony stayed where he was, studying him for a minute, and then asked, "Do you want to see the suits?"

Steve looked up at him, a sudden movement of surprise; he had to know it was a peace offering, but there was something else in his eyes.

"Very much," he said, and then, "Suits?"

"Come on," Tony replied, starting for the stairwell to the workshop. Steve followed him, a strange repeat of two days ago, silent as Tony keyed in the code, as they walked down the stairs and Tony stood before the scanner. The door popped open, and Tony led him across the workshop, past the crates containing the damaged suit, to a second door. This one took a voiceprint password, and Tony gave it unhesitating.

The door swung open, and Tony gestured for Steve to lead the way.

Inside was a wide room full of the machines of his trade, workbenches and welding rigs and computers with which to program the suit, but Steve bypassed all of them. He went straight to the display cases built into the wall, where the old retired suits stood to attention behind glass.

He stopped at each of them, studying them carefully. The clunky Mk.1, retrieved and carefully rebuilt after being discarded in the desert, found by the Ten Rings, brought back to Malibu, and exploited by Obadiah. The Mk.2, in which Tony had taken his first controlled flight, and the Mk.3 -- still riddled with bullet scars -- in which he'd invaded Gulmira, in which he'd fought and killed Obadiah. The Mk.4 with the lightweight Mk.5 at its feet, folded up into a suitcase. The Mk.6, in which he'd fought Vanko -- and Loki and the Chitauri.

The Mk.8 lay half-built on a table at the end. He had a good feeling about the Mk.8, truth be told, if he could work a few kinks out.

"My pride and joy," he said, lingering in the doorway. Steve looked up from his contemplation of the Mk.8's unpainted faceplate.

"Nothing without the man inside them," Steve answered. "Just toys someone built."

"Thank you," Tony answered, without a hint of sarcasm.

"Why did you change the shape?" Steve asked, and Tony frowned. Steve went back to the Mk.6, pointing at the triangle set in the chest. "It's circular in the others. In this one and the one you wear now, it's a triangle."

"The reactor powers the suits," Tony said, tapping his chest. "The feed shape changed when I recalibrated it to take vibranium. Had to alter some designs."

"Vibranium, like in the shield."

"There's a chip of it in the core of the reactor. It's a superior power source." Tony stuck his hands in his pockets.

"What happens if the power goes out?"

"It won't. The reactor is designed to produce a massive amount of energy. It's not a light bulb, it doesn't burn out."

"But if it were damaged?"

"Difficult to do. Two potential results." Tony rested a hip on the edge of the worktable. "If it were wired to produce a feedback loop, you'd get a blast about the size of a moderate atomic bomb without the radiation fallout. It takes a very specific skill set I've made sure isn't widely available. There's maybe three people who know that's even possible, aside from me."

"And they are?"

"Bruce, and Jane Foster. Eric Selvig might be able to work out how, but he wouldn't think of it. The other possibility," Tony continued, because Steve looked like he was about to start another argument, "is that it's damaged so badly it can't continue to generate power at all. Anything that could do that would kill me anyway. Extreme usage could do it, but with the vibranium core that's pretty difficult."

"What happens then?"

"I die," Tony said. "The shrapnel in my chest works its way forward and into my heart. At this point, it'd take maybe five minutes before I go into cardiac arrest."

Steve looked back down at the faceplate. "I used to wonder, you know. What color your hair was."

"Brown, going grey," Tony said, and a wry smile crossed Steve's face.

"I wondered what you looked like. If you had some other life. If you came home to someone at night."

Tony gestured at the armor.

"I come home to the work," he said.

"There's nobody?"

"There's nobody. Not in that way. There was -- Pepper, but that ended. It's the cost," Tony added. "I chose to pay it. I love this work. And if you're still angry, that's a cost I'll pay too, but I won't give it up."

"No one's asking you to," Steve replied.

"But you are still angry."

Steve nodded. He circled the table, caught Tony's face in his hands, and kissed him again.

"Okay, I know you're new to this century but we have this thing, mixed signals -- " Tony began, and Steve kissed his forehead, which shocked him into silence.

"You have to have this conversation with the others," he said. "Take your time. Come find me when you're done."

Tony nodded, and Steve left, JARVIS opening the doors one by one, silently and tactfully. Tony hitched himself up on the worktable and sat, picking up one of the half-finished gauntlets for the Mk.8.

"JARVIS, is anyone else awake?" he asked, fitting his hand up into the gauntlet.

"Agent Barton and Agent Romanoff are in the gymnasium," JARVIS said.

"Think they want company?"

"Has the word 'no' ever stopped you before, sir?"

"Point," Tony slid off the table and went to the door. "Lock it all down. If anyone kills me before I get back, you know what to do."

"Blow the suits and upload myself to Google's servers, sir."

"That's my boy."


When Tony reached the gym, Natasha and Clint looked for all the world like they were trying to kill each other.

Tony knew -- Iron Man had known -- that the two of them weren't terribly good at talking things out. They were compartmentalizers. Tony could appreciate that. This was the way they fought about things: at the moment, about the fact that Natasha had known and hadn't told. Frankly he hadn't expected that. Clearly neither had Clint. It was evident in the way they moved, in the viciousness of the fight. It had been classified information, yes, but some bonds went beyond the rules and regs of SHIELD, or at least, Tony knew, Clint had thought they did. They'd be okay, but they had to do this first.

He knew they noticed him almost as soon as he arrived, so he just leaned in the doorway and watched. He'd been wary around Natasha, with good reason, but he'd come to like her, and he liked Clint enormously. Clint had taken Iron Man's side more often than not in any dispute, with SHIELD or Cap or the other Avengers. He had a wild streak in him that Iron Man appreciated.

Eventually Clint got Natasha on the mat. Tony suspected she allowed it. The end of the argument: Yes, it was wrong what I did. Yes, your anger is justified. But you don't own me, and I'm letting you have this.

Clint held her there for a few seconds, chest heaving, and then let her up. She flipped to her feet and stepped away.

Clint turned to Tony.

"Shirt," he said. Tony pulled his sweater and shirt off, dropping them to one side. He came forward, hands in his pockets, doing his best to be casual. Clint's eyes flicked down to the arc reactor and then back up.

"Always thought you had to be a little guy," Clint said, stepping back, tacitly inviting him onto the mats. Tony stepped on. Natasha stood by, watching. "Thought you had to be like a jockey. Great big powerful racehorse, small man on top just barely keeping control. I liked that about you."

"The armor's an alloy. It doesn't have to be thick."

"Guess not. You got some muscle on you," Clint said, gesturing at Tony's body. It wasn't built like Clint, lean and wiry, or like Cap, broad but tapered. Still, the thickness to his chest and waist was muscle, and Tony was proud of that.

"I work out," he said evenly. Clint wiped his nose with the back of his hand. His upper lip was bleeding from the fight with Natasha.

"Rich boy," he said, and Tony rose up on the balls of his feet as they began to circle one another. "Why'd you bother?"

"Money can't buy revenge," Tony replied. "Makes it easier, though."

"I guess so." Clint pointed at him. "You're recovering from a concussion. No head shots."


Clint's eyes dropped to the reactor. "Can I damage it?"

"No. Got some edges though, and it's hard, it'll hurt. Aim around it."

"I can work with that. Two out of three throws. You want me to spot you one?"

"Why the hell would I want that?"

Clint shrugged. "You got bounced around pretty bad. Wouldn't want you to say I cheated."

"Don't fucking spot me, Barton."

"Your funeral," Clint said, and lunged.

It didn't last long. Unlike Natasha, Tony didn't have to let Clint kick his ass; Clint was ten years younger, and while he might not be fresh he was a lot less sore than Tony. Tony had some training, but he'd never had to fight like this to save his life the way Clint had, and they both knew it. Clint threw him once; he managed to get Clint on the mats once as well, but then Clint got him in a shoulder lock and took him down handily. Not even really a competition.

Tony lay on the mats and reflected that if he was going to have to let Thor do this, he was going to die.

Clint offered him a hand up. "Not bad. I'll put you on the roster."

"Ow. What roster?"

Clint's grin was like a sunrise, fast and blinding. "Sparring. You need work outside the suit. Couple of months oughta do it."

Tony limped off the mats and sat down on a bench, groaning. "Kill me slowly, is that it?"

"Nah. I'd miss Iron Man," Clint replied, walking past him towards the showers. Natasha glanced at Tony, shrugged, and followed Clint.

"You have to admit, our way is efficient," she said over her shoulder.

"Good times, guys. Take it easy," Tony called, collapsing on the bench. He lay there for a while until he felt like he could move again.


Thor actually turned out to be pretty cool about the whole thing.

When Tony emerged from the bedroom the next morning, walking stiffly and intent on coffee, he got about three steps into his private kitchen before he realized he wasn't alone. Thor was sitting at the table in the breakfast nook.

"Coffee first," he said without looking at Thor, holding up a hand to prevent him talking. "Coffee, then recriminations."

Thor waited, looking faintly amused, until Tony had settled in at the breakfast nook and downed half the cup. "You seem weary, Iron Man."

"Yeah, well, Cap yelled at me and Clint kicked my ass around the gym last night," Tony said, around another sip of coffee. "So if you want to try your luck, can we wait until the bruises start healing?"

Thor smiled. "Hawkeye is young. Our Captain younger still. You and I are men of age, and we understand things they do not."

Tony blinked at him over the rim of the cup.

"When we came to know that you and Iron Man were one, I admit, I was unsettled," Thor said, leaning back. "I spoke to JARVIS and asked him if this was tradition on Midgard, or if this deception should be considered an insult to us, as our Captain took it. There are still so many things I don't know about Midgard," he said with a gusty sigh.

Tony looked up at the nearest camera. "JARVIS, what did you tell Thor?"

"Nothing that would be any more detrimental to your reputation than you have already been, sir," JARVIS replied.

"He told me of your fondness for myths," Thor said. Tony frowned. "You have so many stories here on Midgard. You fashion yourself after the god Lancelot, is it not so?"

Tony let his head fall to the table. "JARVIS, you liar."

"A fondness for the Arthurian legend cycle can surely only be seen as a positive character trait," JARVIS said. Asshole.

"I have been studying the story of Lancelot," Thor continued, ignoring Tony's reaction. "In the age when all men fought as you do, in heavy armor, he was the greatest of the court warriors. And he was a great breaker of hearts, this Lancelot; women died of love for him. Jealousy of another, no matter how well-earned their lauds, can grow in even the proudest of hearts," Thor added thoughtfully. "Perhaps in those most easily," and Tony could tell he was thinking of his brother. "His men would no longer do trials of arms with him, or if they did their spirits were already broken. So he attended a trial in disguise, that he might fight fairly without his reputation coloring his matches. This is commendable."

Thor was silent for a while, and Tony eventually lifted his head, sitting up to finish off his coffee.

"It being your purpose, and your faith so noble, I do not see how I could accuse you of baseness," Thor said. "We have no enmity between us, Iron Man."

"Tony's fine, you know," Tony said. "And, uh, thanks."

"So it is agreed?" Thor asked, rising and offering Tony his hand. Tony stood and took it.

"Sure. No hard feelings," he said, relieved.

Which was when Thor said "Excellent!" and grabbed him by the front of his shirt, nearly dragging him off his feet as he pulled him through the kitchen.

"Jesus Christ, are you hauling me off to kill me? Was this a cruel ruse?" Tony asked, stumbling along behind him. "Easy on the threads, big guy!"

"You will dine with us as one of our band," Thor informed him, as the door to the common rooms opened. "When you are healed, we will hold a banquet. I have already arranged for a boar to be roasted, as well as ale and cider and sweetmeats and other things. In the meantime," he continued, still dragging Tony along, "you must break bread with us."

They arrived in the kitchen to find it already full: Steve and Natasha at the table, Clint at the stove making what looked like scrambled eggs, Bruce keeping an eye on the industrial toaster and its twelve slices of toast. The Avengers did not screw around when it came to toast.

"I have brought Iron Man!" Thor said, beaming, and finally let go of Tony's shirt.

"Over strong objections," Tony added, and then looked up at the vague expression of hurt on everyone's faces. "Because of awkward. Not because I don't, you know, like you guys, or breakfast. Because it's awkward, hi, here I am...yeah. So, I can go -- " Thor shoved him into a chair. "Ow."

"Stay," Natasha said. "You can have Thor's toast."

"A small price," Thor boomed.

"No, have mine. I need to get to the lab," Bruce said, standing up.

"But breakfast -- !" Thor began.

"Sorry, timed experiment," Bruce said. "Hey, Tony," he added, and all but ran from the room. Tony twisted to watch him go.

"Guess you haven't talked to him yet," Clint said.

"No, I was busy getting my ass kicked by you and Cap and then hauled around bodily by Thor," Tony replied.

Steve, who had been silent until then, rose from the table and went to the toaster, loading up two plates with buttered toast before holding them out to Clint. Clint obediently flipped some eggs onto the plates, and Steve came back, stopping in front of Tony.

"Go talk to him," he said, holding the plates out.

Tony opened his mouth to remark that he wasn't a waiter and Steve wasn't a therapist, but Steve's eyes narrowed. Tony took the plates and stood up.

"Well, this was fun, let's do it again sometime," he said, and left.


Tony had override codes for every door in the building, of course -- or rather, JARVIS did, and Tony could access them if needed -- but when he kicked gently at the door to Bruce's lab, Bruce glanced up, saw him through the glass, visibly slumped, and mouthed, It's open.

Tony nudged the door open and elbowed his way in, setting the plates down cautiously.

"So, this avoidance," he said, as Bruce tugged one of them closer. "Is it a might-rage-out thing, a punishing-me thing, or what? 'Cause if you're going to rage out, I have an airplane, we can do this somewhere...more rural."

"It's not a problem with the Other Guy," Bruce said, taking off his glasses. "Did you bring forks?"

"Cap sort of shoved me out the door with what I had," Tony replied. Bruce nodded and scooped some egg up onto his toast with his fingers before taking a bite.

"Eat," he ordered, mouth full. Tony sat down, picking at the toast. "It's not a rage thing, and it's not a punishment thing."

"Well, that's good, because I'm not really big on punishment in general, and I had the I'm not sorry talk with Steve already," Tony replied. "So what is it? We are scientists, we can dissect this."

"Can't quantify the human soul."

"Beg to differ. Beg very much to differ. Didn't that guy do experiments with scales under the beds of dying people?"

"You know that study was discredited," Bruce said, shaking his head. "No, it's just...I don't know what I think. And I have some concerns when I go into a situation blind like that. Last night was mostly about letting you and Steve slug it out, though. How'd it go?"

"You're misdirecting. I'm kind of proud of you for that," Tony replied.

Bruce sighed. "It's not the same for me as it is for them."

"How so?"

"They all found out Iron Man was Tony Stark." Bruce set his plate aside. "I found out Tony was Iron Man. I'm just trying to process through that."

Tony tilted his head.

"Look, the Other Guy likes Iron Man fine," Bruce began.

"He knew, by the way."

Bruce frowned. "He knew?"

"Smelled me, I think. Carry on."

"He's the one who gets to know Iron Man. Not that I haven't spent time with you as Iron Man, but for me Iron Man's just a guy in a suit. Nobody else spends much time with you -- with Tony -- except me. And that's great, because I'm desensitized to you now -- "

"You wound me, Bruce, that hurts me deeply," Tony said, clutching his heart. Bruce smiled a little.

"Anyway, they have to get used to the idea that their friend is a famous, wealthy man not known for his overwhelming adherence to convention," Bruce said. "I have to get used to the idea that my friend is putting himself in danger and I can't do anything about it when the Other Guy is in charge."

"He looks after me."

"I'm sure he does, but I don't get to see that," Bruce said, a trifle bitterly. "See, it really isn't you, Tony, it's me."

"So what do you need? How do I fix this?"

"Sometimes you are such an engineer," Bruce said.

"If I can't fix it, fate clearly intended it to stay broke," Tony replied. "Bruce. Seriously. Fixing this. How?"

Bruce shrugged. "I ran because that's my instinct. Running is my default, even now. So there's nothing you can do. Here, now, we're fine, and that's good, that means I'm probably okay with you. But if I leave, I want your promise you won't follow me."

"Leave," Tony replied, heart dropping.

"Leave the room," Bruce clarified gently. "Not New York. You have very effectively anchored me here with this lab and...with everything. I'm grateful, so grateful. But I don't know how to react to this. I don't know how to behave or how I will behave. So I might need to leave a room sometimes, and for everyone's sake, that means you can't follow. Which is not your strong suit," he added, smile widening a little. "The rest of the time, just act normal, Tony."

"Don't follow when you go," Tony said. "Gotcha, boss." He hesitated, uncharacteristic, and then asked, "Can I stay now?"

Bruce laughed -- he was rusty at laughing, but Tony recognized his low hah as sincere. "Yes, you can stay now. You own the lab, you know."

"No, I own the building. The lab is yours," Tony answered.

"Well, in that case, step into my parlor. Actually I've been wanting to run some tests," Bruce said thoughtfully. "Muscle density, reaction time, neural mapping. On Iron Man. Never seemed like a good time to ask. Up for it?"

"You need the suit?"

"No, I can rig up some machinery here that can measure all that, though if you've got biometrics readings I'd love to see them."

Nobody truly understood Tony's nerd side like Bruce.


When they came up for air a few hours later, Bruce had a week's worth of data to sift through and Tony was tired of thinking; the mental aspects of the testing had been draining, and while he felt okay physically he also still felt like he could happily spend the rest of the day sitting on a couch, quietly staring at a wall. Bruce told him to eat something, so Tony drifted out of the lab and up to the penthouse on autopilot. He was just trying to decide whether to hide out in his room when the elevator opened and Steve stepped out.

"JARVIS, you are a betrayer," Tony said.

"I am only as moral as the man who programmed me," JARVIS replied.

"Hey," Steve said, ignoring them both. "You and Bruce patch things up?"

"Yep, we're mostly good," Tony replied. He glanced at Steve. "Need something?"

"I thought -- " Steve began, but they were interrupted by a third person who seemingly appearing from nowhere.

"Oh good, you're both here," she said brightly, walking into the conversation as if she owned it. Tony startled. "Well, we've had an exciting day or two, haven't we?"

Tony narrowed his eyes and pointed a finger at her. "Brianna."

"Good try," she said, grinning. "Captain Rogers, it's a pleasure. I'm Brenda -- "

"Brenda!" Tony said triumphantly.

" -- Cunningham, I'm a Stark Industries PR manager. I handle Avengers press. SHIELD was fucking it up," she added frankly.

"How come we haven't met before?" Steve asked, shaking her hand.

"Well, I didn't know who you were, for a start, and SI has a policy of keeping the Avengers low profile. I've already been doing work for Mr. Barton and Ms. Romanoff, mainly saying no when talk shows call, but Ms. Potts warned me off Captain America and Iron Man. That's changed now. Please, sit down," she said, and Steve sat, looking a little bowled over. Tony pulled up a chair as well. This should be interesting.

"The good news is that everyone wants both of you," she said. "Early Edition, Good Morning America, Today Show, 60 Minutes, Late Night, The Late Show, The Late Late Show. You," she said, turning to Steve, "are in hot demand in particular. Have you been watching The Daily Show? Or The Colbert Report?"

"I don't watch much television," Steve said.

"Well, yesterday after your unmasking, Jon Stewart publicly invited you onto his show, and Stephen Colbert got very upset about it on his," she said. "They're arranging an event they're calling Patriot Games to see who can get you on their show first. It's all good-natured, and I think we can have a lot of fun with it. They've already been in touch with me about how you want to play into it, if at all."

"Daily Show," Tony said. Steve glanced at him. "I'm not sure you're ready yet for the level of satire on Colbert Report."

"Have you been on it?" Steve asked.

"Yeah, I've been on everything at some point," Tony replied. "But you don't have to go on anything if you don't want to. Nobody else does."

"It would make the Avengers look good though, wouldn't it?" Steve asked.

"We already look good."

"Building positive social capital can't hurt," Brenda said. "But I'm happy to say no for you. That's part of my job. And before you can go on any of them we're going to need to do a little background debrief. I'm familiar with Mr. Stark's history, but we don't want anyone digging up anything nasty on you and confronting you with it on national television."

"Doesn't exist," Tony said. "Believe me, I'd know by now. Are we thinking scattergun or exclusive?"

"Well, a wide-band would probably spread focus, but if we do an exclusive it'll get more attention. And be over faster," she said.

"Less time to fuck up," Tony agreed. Steve was looking back and forth between them, a line forming between his eyebrows. "Let's go with that."

"Any preferences?"

"I wouldn't know where to start," Steve said.

"Don't do morning shows," Tony said. "I can't stand those chipper morons."

"This Daily Show...." Steve glanced at Brenda. "That's a good start, I guess."

"Okay!" she said, smiling. "Good meeting. Steve, I'll send you some episodes to watch. Tony, I'll be in touch."

Tony saluted, and she gathered up her StarkPad, vanishing back to wherever she'd come from. Stark PR agents were particularly good at ambush, Tony reflected.

"Well," Steve said finally. "That was...bewildering." He looked at Tony. "You should eat."

Tony tilted his head. "Non sequitur, but okay. That's why I came up."

"We have sandwich stuff."

"I'm sensing a conspiracy," Tony said. "If I refuse are you going to drag me around like Thor did?"

Steve looked sad. "No," he said. "Sorry, that wasn't an order. I mean -- "

"Christ, no, fine, lead the way," Tony interrupted, talking fast to try and erase the last few things he'd said. "So, welcome to fame, by the way. Have you been outside the tower since you gave the press conference?"

"No," Steve said, looking sheepish. "I don't...go out, much, I guess. I mean, everyone's here, and the gym and everything, and I used to go walking around New York but after a's so different."


"From what it used to be," Steve replied, going to the fridge. "I keep getting lost. In the war I could navigate across Europe just by the stars. I was a pretty bright kid but the Serum made everything...crisper, sharper. I could memorize maps. Still can. But when I get out on the street it just...I get so turned around. Distracted by everything." He shook his head.

"Can't see very many stars from Manhattan," Tony pointed out.

"Even in the forties you couldn't. I never saw real stars until I went to war," Steve answered, as he began to load up his arms with food. "First time I looked up and saw a true night sky, horizon to horizon, I was standing in a field full of POWs, thirty miles from base camp, trying to figure out how I was gonna get them all home safe." He gave Tony an oddly triumphant look. "I ever tell you that?"

"I don't think so," Tony said. "But you know me, I only listen to about half of what you say."

"Guess if you think that's true you don't even know you very well," Steve replied, and reached for a loaf of bread.

They made sandwiches in one of the most awkward silences Tony could ever recall experiencing. He'd learned the art of small talk young, one of the best gifts his parents could have given him, but Steve was too familiar for Tony to try charm on, and not familiar enough for Tony to actually talk to.

He was rusty at real talk anyway.

Finally, when Steve glanced at his plate and then dumped a banana on top of the roast beef sandwich and potato chips, Tony groaned.

"What is it with the entire team trying to feed me?" he asked. "Ever since the helmet came off everyone wants me to eat more."

"You've been to communal meals before. You never got to eat. It's a bonding experience," Steve said, carrying his own plate to the table.

"I do eat."

"Doesn't seem like it to us," Steve said. He was silent for a moment as Tony sat down, then asked abruptly, "Does the suit really feed you?"

"IV nutrients if I need them. Faster and more efficient than food, actually."

"Not the same, though. Chemicals only take you so far."

"Took you far enough, Winghead," Tony said, before he thought about it. He froze, sandwich in one hand, appalled at his rudeness, but Steve just smiled down at his own plate.

"Now that was Iron Man," he murmured.

Tony set his sandwich down. He could feel an adrenaline rush, like he often got in the suit, but harder and more dizzying than he'd felt in a long time.

"This may have been a misstep," he said, sitting back, affecting calm. Panic was clawing at his guts. "The point of the Avengers, the point of Iron Man, was always to do more good than harm. We're fumbling -- we are," he said, when Steve looked up, opening his mouth to object. "This is awkward, and that's going to bleed through. It's an issue of trust, I understand that. Anyway, I had Iron Man, and I had Tony Stark, and that worked," he said, holding up his hands as if he could hold the two halves of himself in them. "It worked for you and me. Letting the barrier down is fucking us up. I don't want to disrupt the team."

"Are you asking to leave the Avengers?" Steve asked tightly.

"I'm saying it might be wiser if I did. Believe it or not, the billionaire industrialist pig is interested in the greater good."

"That's never been my opinion of you, even at the start."

"It's the entire world's opinion of me."

"Not now that they know. Iron Man is a decent, honorable man who cares for people. That means either Tony Stark is too, or he's a hell of a performer. I don't think it was an act."

"And now that you know?" Tony asked.

Steve eyed him as though he might bite if provoked.

"I think you think it's easier to leave a team that likes and needs you than to push through a little awkwardness. But Iron Man's never been that much of a coward, so who am I to say?" he asked. His voice was gentler than Tony expected.

Tony picked up his sandwich and took a defiant bite. Awkward silence it was, then.

Steve smiled a little, which only annoyed him further, but when he spoke it wasn't anything that Tony expected.

"I want to ask you to do something for me," he said. "Before you try to leave the team, before we make any decisions we can't back away from. But I don't think it will be pleasant for you, so this is a favor, not an order or a demand."

Tony gestured with his sandwich. "Fine. What?"

"I want to know what happened to you. I want to know how Iron Man came to be. What's in the file I was given isn't the public story, but it still clearly doesn't fall into line with what actually happened. I know that there are parts which aren't good memories for you..." Steve's eyes dropped to the faint glow of Tony's arc reactor. "I just want you to tell me what you can. If you can. I'd like to know."


"Because you're my friend. You're..." Steve shrugged. "We -- have something. I think. Am I wrong?"

Tony shook his head. "No."

"And I'm missing a big chunk of your story."

Tony dusted off his fingers and stood up, walking into the kitchen. "Stay put, I'm coming back."

"What are you doing?" Steve called. Tony re-emerged with two tumblers and a bottle of the mid-range whiskey Clint preferred.

"This is a story that requires a drink," he said, pouring out a measure of alcohol into one glass. "I know you prefer Natasha's sipping vodka, if you'd rather have that."

"This is fine," Steve said. "Tastes all right."

"Salut," Tony said, pouring a second glass and lifting his as he sat down again. "You tell me first what the file says."

"You were taken prisoner by a terrorist cell. Several months passed. Eventually military intelligence got a tip about your location. The official SHIELD file says that Iron Man had hacked the government's intelligence network and was listening passively for any mention of you, so when they found out where you were, he got there first, blew the camp, and flew you out. But the public assumption is that Iron Man tracked you down himself. That did seem more likely to me."

"He has a reputation," Tony murmured.

"Well-earned. Once he got you out, he went back, to a town called Gulmira which was being occupied by the remains of the terrorists, and beat them into the ground. I thought he had some deep loyalty to you. I thought perhaps he was...perhaps he was a soldier who'd been injured so badly he couldn't leave the suit, and he felt gratitude towards you for building it for him. He was so adamant that he wasn't a soldier -- I thought he must be angry with the military. Sometimes veterans get that way." Steve sipped his drink. "Sometimes I get that way, and I got out whole. Mostly."

Tony took a swallow, felt the slight burn of it going down.

"The cell is known as the Ten Rings," he said, setting his drink aside. "They're one of those groups that never entirely goes away, but I go after them when I hear about them. Doesn't usually make it into any official report. They were hired by my business partner to kill me while I was on a trip to Afghanistan to demo a weapon."

"Your business partner?" Steve asked.

"Obadiah Stane."

"He tried to kill you?"

"Worse," Tony said with a grim smile. "He underpaid them to kill me. They decided if he wouldn't pay what it was worth to murder Tony Stark, they'd keep me around. They asked me to build them a Jericho missile. Ever seen a Jericho go off?"

Steve shook his head.

"That's because I scrapped them after I got home. Only one was ever used, and that was the demo. I said I wouldn't build them one; they were persuasive."

"Persuasive," Steve repeated.

"Eventually I said I would build it for them, but instead I built the Iron Man," Tony said, ignoring him. "I designed it to run on the arc reactor."

"The one in your chest."

"Pretty good for something I built in a cave, huh?" Tony said. "The idea was that I could blast -- "

He stopped, wondering if he could talk about Yinsen yet, but he felt the familiar tightness in his chest and knew it was a bad idea. He reached for his drink.

"I thought I could blast my way out and then hit the air. Worked reasonably well. The explosion from the camp going up drew attention from the US military. They found me, took me back to a base, got me back to America."

"And you shut down your defense contracts."

"Obie sure didn't like that," Tony said, finishing off the glass and pouring another. "Tried to kill me. Well, steal my reactor -- he was more interested in getting that than in my death -- but the one causes the other, so."

"He tried to take your reactor out?"

"Oh, no, he succeeded." Tony said, and then fell silent.

"What did you do?" Steve asked.

"Killed him back," Tony replied. "And yeah, that part right there, I'm not talking about."

Steve nodded.

"Anyway, the scope of what I could achieve as Iron Man became clear, particularly if he was unattached to the concept of Tony Stark in anything more than the abstract. SHIELD agreed. seemed like a natural act to preserve the status quo. The situation was working. You don't fuck with something like that if it works." He glanced at Steve. "Does that help?"

Steve nodded. "Yes. I think I understand now."

"Something you didn't before?"

"The armor was a way to be the man you were meant to be."

"I don't know that I'd go that far, this isn't fucking poetry," Tony replied.

"I would. I know how this works, Tony. How they turn men into stories," he added, when Tony gave him a curious look. "They did it to me in the forties. Suddenly your life isn't your life. It's a serial in a newspaper or a sound bite on the news. A comic book."

"They'll do it to both of us again, now that we're public," Tony replied.

"Well, good thing it isn't our first time out of the gate then, isn't it?" Steve replied. "You wanted to be a hero, not because fame is fun but because you had a genuine urge to do good in the world. You couldn't, not if you were tied to your past. They'd have made you into a symbol, and not a nice one."

"The penitent playboy," Tony said. "Or the strutting egomaniac."

"I understand it," Steve answered. "I don't hate the secret, Tony; I just hate that we weren't told either."

He stood up, bending over Tony. Tony lifted his face to keep an eye on him, but Steve caught the back of his head and kissed his forehead again. Then he lingered, bent over him, breath shifting his hair.

"Are we going to talk about what this means?" Tony asked, and Steve leaned back enough to meet his eyes. "This, the kissing thing."

"It means what you want it to mean," Steve said. "Anger doesn't negate affection. I spent a long time wrestling out the part of me that was taught what I feel is illegal with the part of me that knows it's true. I know what I'd like. What I don't know is how much of what I'd like I'm liable to get. That's up to you. You want me to stop, that's fine, I will. You don't, well, that's what we used to call courting."

Tony let him walk away, not because he didn't have a smart response for that but because for once all his prepared, glib reactions sounded cruel even in his own head.

Chapter Three