If pressed, Tony could have come up with multiple extremely plausible reasons for why he was standing outside Steve's door. They weren't even all entirely lies.
He could have been there for purely business-related reasons, an Avenger needing to talk to his team leader. That confrontation with Ghost Rider a few days ago had gotten a little hairier than any of them had expected, and it was probably a good idea to talk to Steve and try to get a sense of what was going to end up in Steve's mission report, and what areas he thought they had to work on. He did tend to expect the best of everyone; it was one of the many things Tony liked about him, and Tony had suspected for a long time that the fact that Steve managed to actually get the best out of everyone was his secret, undocumented superpower.
He could also have been there for more interpersonal Avengers reasons. Tigra was new enough that Hank's problems weren't affecting her the same way as they were affecting everyone else, but the rest of the team was the old guard, as old as they came -- founding Avengers, the lot of them -- and it was sure as hell hitting him and Steve and Thor hard. Jan was officially off the active roster as indisposed, a very polite word that masked an ugly reality. Oh, physically, she was fine, thank goodness -- but Tony could still scarcely believe that any of that had happened. So it would make sense if, in the wake of... everything, Tony had wanted to keep an eye on how his teammates were feeling these days. And that was probably even part of the truth. He was worried about Steve, after all. Steve was probably worried about him too.
But honestly, he was just here because he... liked Steve. Maybe Steve wasn't ever going to know exactly how much Tony liked him, but that was fine. He didn't need to know. It wasn't like he could ever like Tony back. But that was all right. That was just how it was. And, anyway, Steve was his friend, and that was fulfilling enough. And that was really why he was here. It had been a shitty week -- a shitty few weeks, really, if you counted Bethany leaving him three weeks ago, which Tony certainly did -- and, well, he just wanted to be around Steve. It was as simple as that. Being near Steve just... made him feel better. It was like magic, except actually good.
He knocked on the door.
Steve opened it. He was goddamn stunning, as always, and Tony was once again grateful that Steve couldn't see his face, because that would have given it all away. He wasn't sure how Steve had never figured it out when he'd seen him out of the armor, but somehow Steve hadn't. Steve was in uniform, but he was clearly hanging out in it, off-shift; the cowl was pulled back, his hair endearingly mussed, and his gloves were tucked into his belt. Bright-eyed, he grinned a heart-stoppingly beautiful grin. Heart-stopping was probably a word that someone like Tony shouldn't throw around. But Steve was gorgeous.
"Hey!" Steve said. "What's up, Iron Man?"
And that was the other thing about Steve: he didn't know. He had no idea that Tony was the man under the armor.
He ought to tell Steve someday. He really ought to tell Steve. It had been nearly ten years. But he just couldn't stop fretting about what Steve would think of him, if he knew the truth. Steve was his friend, and he didn't want to ruin that.
Rationally, he knew he was being ridiculous. It wasn't like there weren't people who knew his secret identity, after all, and mostly they were still his friends. Happy knew. Pepper knew. Marianne, of course, had read it in his mind. Beth had figured it out. Whitney knew too, but that was one of those things he tried to avoid thinking about. Hell, even Thor knew, and Thor had been fine with it -- and Tony knew who Thor was, too. And for the most part, everyone had taken it well, although Tony knew Pepper wasn't a fan of the whole superhero thing. But that obviously wouldn't be an issue with Steve.
A fair few of Tony's actual villains also knew who he was, which was a problem that occasionally kept him up nights, as if he didn't have enough to worry about. And that particular situation made the fact that he hadn't told Steve yet even more ridiculous. It wasn't like the goddamn Kraken meant more to him than Steve did.
Steve deserved to know, and Tony was a coward.
"Not much," Tony said, cheerfully, continuing to be a coward. "Just wanted to say hi."
Steve's face fell. "Oh," he said, in a considerably more morose tone. "I was-- I was just hoping you had some news about Hank or Jan." He sighed and stepped back, waving Tony in. "Well, come on in anyway, Shellhead. I'm not going to leave you standing in the hallway."
Of course he was worried. God. They all were. Tony stepped inside and shut the door behind himself.
"I do have some news," Tony said, because he always, always wanted to make Steve feel better. "Not a lot, but it's better than nothing."
The faintest smile twitched at the corners of Steve's mouth. Tony would sell everything he owned to make Steve smile again.
"Yeah." Tony nodded. "I talked to Mr. Stark this morning." If you didn't know better, you might have expected Tony to have a certain amount of cognitive dissonance about continually referring to himself in the third person. But he'd had a whole decade to get used to it, and it had stopped feeling weird a long time ago. This was who he was. He just happened to be two different people to most people he knew.
Steve's eyes shone with hope. "Has he talked to either of them, then?"
"Not as far as I know," Tony had to admit, and the light in Steve's eyes dimmed just a little. "Not recently, anyway. But he's-- he's looking into getting help for Hank. The best doctors. He told me he talked to Don Blake a few days back, and Don said he thought Hank had a good chance of getting better, with the right treatment. Mr. Stark says he'll pay for the doctors, of course. Nothing but the best for the Avengers, right?" He couldn't help but smile, even though Steve couldn't see it. "And he said he was going to offer him a job at Stark International, when he's ready to get back on his feet." Tony shrugged -- or tried to. It was always difficult in armor. "I mean, who knows if Hank will take it, but I know if he can find him Mr. Stark is at least prepared to make the offer."
Steve didn't look happy, exactly -- Tony wasn't sure when any of the team was ever going to look completely happy again -- but he did look a damn sight less miserable. Tony would take it.
"Wow," Steve breathed. "Hey, if you see Tony again before I do, will you thank him for me? Sometimes I think we should be paying him, with everything he does for us."
Behind the mask, Tony's face was hot. "Of course," he said, possibly a little too weakly. "I'll let him know. No problem."
"Thanks, Shellhead." Steve flashed a smile at him. "You're the best."
See, Tony told his chattering hindbrain, he doesn't hate you, does he? He wouldn't mind if he found out you were Tony Stark, would he?
But it wasn't like he could fight this fear with logic. He'd tried. And he was still here. In a mask.
And then, oddly, Steve's gaze darted away and back, like he was nervous, which was bizarre, because Steve didn't do nervous. Steve could save the whole damn world twice a week without so much as breaking a sweat. But here he was, refusing to meet Tony's eyes.
"Cap?" Tony asked, gently. "You all right there?"
Steve nodded, but the thing was, he still didn't look all right. He was the world's worst liar. "Fine, fine," he said. The words rattled out of him quickly, too quickly, and then stopped altogether. "I just-- I-- can I ask you a question?"
"Sure," Tony said, confused but game. It was Steve, after all. It wasn't like it was going to be something bad. "Anything. Hit me."
But whatever Steve had to ask him didn't seem to be an ordinary sort of question. Steve laid his hand on Tony's upper arm and gently chivvied him across the room, whereupon he pulled out a chair for Tony and another for himself, just opposite.
The chair didn't even creak when Tony sat in it. He'd long since ensured that all the mansion's furniture could handle both him and Thor, and sometimes even him and Thor at the same time. It was the little things that made it all worth it.
Jaw clenched, Steve was sitting ramrod-straight in his chair. He looked like he was preparing himself to withstand torture. He still wasn't quite looking at Tony. God. Maybe it was something bad after all.
"Steve?" Tony asked again. He was beginning to be concerned now, because this was very, very unlike Steve. "Everything okay, buddy?"
Steve blew out a breath and then looked him straight in the eye. "Would you like to go out with me?"
If Steve said anything else after that, the deafening roar in Tony's ears drowned it out. He was struggling to breathe. Thank God his heart was fine right now, because a shock like that could really have-- God, had Steve really just-- he couldn't think-- he couldn't think--
"What?" Tony managed to say.
How could his dreams finally be coming true? Was this Tony's lucky day? He didn't have those. There had to be a mistake. He didn't deserve this. Maybe Steve didn't mean it the way it sounded.
"I mean," Steve continued, and there was a meekness in his voice that Tony had never heard before, and he realized that Steve was scared. "I know you've never even told me if you liked men, but I-- I've always thought maybe you at least liked me and I-- I-- I know we've both been so lonely lately, and I just-- I just thought maybe now was the right time--"
Tony stared at him. "I thought you were seeing someone," he blurted out, and that was entirely the wrong move, because he hadn't said yes, and now Steve was going to think he didn't want him--
He'd told Steve when Beth had left him; oh, he hadn't been specific with names, because he hadn't wanted anything to connect Iron Man and Tony Stark, but Steve definitely knew he was single. But Steve wasn't single. Was he? Surely Tony would have remembered. Steve had been seeing-- oh, what was her name-- his neighbor, out in Brooklyn Heights-- God, he really couldn't think--
"You mean Bernie?" Steve grimaced. "I was. And she was very nice, but I just... I don't think it was ever going to work out. She doesn't know who I am. And I'm too old-fashioned for her. I took her to see Oklahoma! a few weeks ago and it wasn't-- it just wasn't what she really wanted. I wasn't what she really wanted. So we called it quits." His throat worked. "I'm probably too old-fashioned for you, aren't I?"
"Never," Tony said, fervently, the word falling from his lips without his conscious volition. No other words came to mind except the obvious. "You're-- you're perfect."
He was usually so much smoother than this. Hell, he had a reputation. But Steve clearly didn't want the reputation, or else he'd probably have asked Tony Stark.
The problem was, Steve had. He just didn't know it.
She doesn't know who I am, Steve had said. Well, Steve didn't know who his pal Iron Man was either.
Oh, God. He was going to have to tell Steve. He had to. He really had to now.
Steve's gaze now was bright with even more hope. He was starting to blink back actual tears, oh God, oh God. What was Tony supposed to do?
"Shellhead?" Steve asked, his voice trembling. "Are you saying--"
"Yeah," Tony said, hoarsely. "Yeah, that's exactly what I'm saying." He coughed. "And, for the record, I do like men. And you. I like you a hell of a lot."
Steve's smile was wavering, incredulous. "I've wanted you for so long," he murmured, and it was everything Tony had ever wanted to hear, but Steve didn't know. "Years. But every time I got up enough courage to ask, you'd mention something about seeing someone and it just seemed like we were never single at the same time, and now we are and now you're here and I can hardly believe--"
"Steve," Tony interrupted. He didn't know what to say but, God, he had to, he had to tell him right now. "Steve, I--"
From within one of his belt pouches, Steve's identicard beeped.
Inside Tony's helmet, the same beep echoed.
Yep. That was the Avengers alert. Of all the goddamn times.
Pulling his cowl back up, Steve sighed. "I'm so sorry." He tugged his gloves out of his belt and started to put them on. "Can we, uh, pick this up later?"
"Absolutely," Tony said. "Let's go save the world first."
Maybe by then he'd have thought of something to say.
Tigra had been the one on monitor duty, and for all that she was new to the team, she was actually doing a pretty good job of it.
It was just the four of them all gathered in the briefing room -- him, Steve, Thor, and Tigra. It was quite possibly the smallest team Tony had been on since they'd founded the Avengers. Smaller, actually. Still, they'd been fine with five people then, and they'd been fine with four before they'd found Steve, and they were going to be fine with four now -- and these days, they had the reserves to draw on if they needed them. It was going to be all right.
Tigra's clawed fingers tapped against the computer keys as she brought up the report.
"We've got trouble," she said.
"Right here in River City," Tony sang, under his breath. "With a capital T, and that rhymes with--" and as he spoke, one of the holographic displays flickered to life, displaying the face of their latest adversary. He faltered. "And that rhymes with, uh, B, and that stands for... um... Baron Mordo?"
Steve glared at him, but his mouth quivered like he was trying not to smile.
"Quiet, you," Tony said, with all the affection in him. "I'm still workshopping it."
It wasn't like Steve's love of classic musical theater had ever been all that subtle, and it had probably been way back in the Kooky Quartet days that Steve had actually been introduced to the film version of The Music Man, since he'd still been on ice for its Broadway premiere. He just adored all the old movies and musicals, and Tony had always been more than happy to indulge him.
And sure, it was a dumb joke, but it was a dumb joke with intent: I'll take you exactly as you are. You're not too old-fashioned for me. I'm right here with you.
Steve's face softened ever so slightly, smiling just a little more, just for him, and Tony knew that Steve had understood. Steve always understood. He was amazing. He was amazing and he wanted Tony. Or rather, Tony reminded himself, he wanted Iron Man.
"Hey, Shellhead?" Steve asked. His eyes danced with amusement.
Steve was actually grinning now. "Sit down. You're rocking the boat."
"Excuse you," Tony said, mock-offended. "That is an entirely different musical. Sheesh."
Of course Steve liked Guys and Dolls. Of course he did. He must have discovered it in the future as well, given that it too had premiered in the fifties; Tony just hadn't known he'd seen that one in particular. He wondered if there were any Steve hadn't seen yet. He could watch them with him. Steve was always great company. In any context, really.
God, what was he going to do?
No. He couldn't think about that right now. Focus. Baron Mordo. Right.
"So who's Baron Mordo?" Tigra asked.
Tony shrugged, as much of a shrug as he could ever manage in armor. "One of Doctor Strange's friends."
"Not really sure friend is the word I'd use," Steve said, quietly correcting him. "Probably enemy. Maybe even nemesis."
"Aye," Thor agreed. "He is a fearsome sorcerer, possessed of great magic, which he uses to a dire purpose."
Tigra looked more than a little afraid. Yeah, she was definitely new here.
"We'll be absolutely fine," Tony reassured her. He wasn't thrilled about magic, of course, but Mordo was only one man. It was hard to imagine much of anything going wrong. "But I think the more important question, for our purposes, is where is Baron Mordo?"
If the universe was being kind to the Avengers, then hopefully the guy was camped out in an abandoned warehouse in one of the outer boroughs. Not that Tony especially enjoyed Quinjet flights to Brooklyn at combat speed, but at least that meant that for the most part, civilians would be kept out of it. It was far better than, say, Midtown Manhattan. Even an easy fight there got about ten thousand times more difficult when they had to manage that much potential collateral damage.
Tigra looked down at the computer screen and winced. "Macy's. Herald Square."
Shit. And that right there, that was Midtown. Maybe today wasn't Tony's lucky day after all.
Steve's jaw was tight, and Tony knew Steve was thinking the same thing he was. "Whole lot of holiday shoppers there this time of year," Steve said.
"And a lot of kids," Tony added, and that was going to make it all so much worse.
Steve went several shades paler. His eyes were wide. He nodded, a curt jerk of his chin, and then he drew himself up a little straighter, and Tony watched the mantle of Captain America settle over him.
Not a lot of people knew Steve Rogers was Captain America, and not enough people knew him well enough to know that the man in the uniform and the man under the uniform were two different people, but Tony did. He was still awed every time, when Steve stood taller, shone brighter, embodied every good thing about the spirit of the country. A nation's ideals come to life. After all these years, he still didn't understand how Steve did it, and he didn't think he ever would. He was just glad Steve let him stand by his side and let a little of his light shine on him.
"All right," Steve said, a voice of pure command. "Avengers, assemble."
He was-- he was amazing. And he wanted Tony.
Well, he wanted at least one of Tony. The thing was, Tony still wasn't altogether sure of Steve's feelings about the other one, and he was, unfortunately, a package deal.
The song Steve had quoted kept rattling around Tony's brain.
And the devil will drag you under, Tony's mind chorused. With a soul so heavy you'd never float--
He shuddered. The armor creaked. Sometimes he wished he remembered that kind of information a little less well. He'd probably have been a happier man.
Shut up, Stark, he told himself. You can catastrophize later. Steve will still be there later. You can own up then. Go save New York now.
He could figure everything out later. There would be time. There was always time.
The good news was that the police had both managed to clear the building of civilians and set up a perimeter by the time the Avengers showed up on the scene.
The bad news was everything else.
After a few minutes of animated conversation with a sergeant at the barrier, Steve hefted his shield and jogged back to rejoin the rest of the team. Somewhere, in the crowd behind the barrier, a photographer's flashbulb went off. Tony tried not to cringe. Oh, Jameson was going to love this. What a way to ruin Christmas.
"Eighth floor," Steve confirmed, and Tony was so glad Steve couldn't see the face he was making. Yep, there went Christmas.
Tony's weary sigh made the vocal filters crackle with static. "Great. Anyone have any thoughts as to why Baron Mordo wants to wreck Santaland?"
Steve just shrugged. "Who even knows with this guy, Shellhead? He'll probably tell us."
"At length," Tony agreed, because by now they all knew how supervillains worked.
Honestly, Tony kind of appreciated the monologues, if only because none of the bad guys ever seemed to anticipate that Tony might start shooting while they were still talking. Plus, they gave him some time to breathe.
"Anyway," Steve said. "He's up there, and he's been messing with the electricity somehow. The escalators are all down, as well as the elevators, so it'll be a long walk up, and we're probably only getting emergency lights. But the power drain is fluctuating, so he's definitely doing something. Thor, Iron Man, maybe that's your department--"
Thor shook his head. "Nay, I fear my realm is only thunder, Captain. Methinks Iron Man would serve thee best." He gave Tony a sidelong glance -- and okay, yeah, Thor was the only one of them who knew Iron Man had a doctorate in electrical engineering.
He really should have told Steve. He really should tell Steve. When this was over, he'd tell Steve.
"I'll do what I can, Cap," Tony offered, because now was definitely not the time to explain his credentials.
Steve's gaze ranged between each of the Avengers in turn, and Tony could practically see him plotting their positions on a tactical map.
"Here's the plan," Steve said. "Iron Man, you're with me; we'll confront Mordo directly on the eighth floor. Thor and Tigra, I want you two to split up and cover the likeliest exits, in case he tries to make a run for it. Tigra, seventh floor. Thor, ninth floor."
It was a sound strategy; in Tony's experience, magicians were pretty damn slippery. And, given the fact that if the guy was going to run anywhere it was probably going to be up rather than down, it made it less likely that he was going to run into their newest Avenger while doing so. But the way Steve had phrased it, it also wasn't likely to leave Tigra feeling slighted, because he wasn't asking her to do anything he wasn't also asking a founding Avenger to do. And Steve had undoubtedly taken all of that into account. It was just another one of the ways in which Steve was the best of all of them.
"Yes, sir!" Tigra said, and she definitely sounded proud to be asked. Excellent.
Thor nodded. "Aye, Captain."
Of course, the part of the plan Tony wasn't thrilled about was the part where he, personally, was fighting another goddamn magician. It was just a few months ago that he'd been trapped with Doctor Doom in Camelot, and that had been enough magic to last him for the rest of his life.
But Steve was going to be at his side, so everything was going to be absolutely fine, and then they could get back to a very important conversation.
Tony gave Steve a thumbs-up. "With you all the way, Winghead."
Steve grinned at him. At him, specifically. "You know what I like to hear."
Tony went pleasantly tingly all over, from head to toe and including several important parts in between. It was nice to get to pay attention to his body for reasons that weren't him needing to catalog the symptoms of an impending heart attack.
It was going to be all right. Steve couldn't possibly hate the truth that much, could he? It was going to be just fine. He had a good feeling about this.
At least there was some light.
The fluorescents overhead were uniformly dim, with several of them flickering alarmingly, and several more going dark as the team passed them. Tony had the unnerving feeling of being in the cast of a horror movie, a feeling that was definitely not helped by the number of displays that were knocked over and otherwise in disarray. The evacuation had definitely not been orderly.
Another light burned out, overhead.
God, but Tony hated the dark.
The team was here, he reminded himself. Steve was here. It was stupid how much better that made him feel, but it really, really did.
Steve glanced over and smiled at him again.
So they weren't being especially discreet. The rest of the team was probably going to figure it out pretty fast, if they kept acting like this in public. Tony couldn't really bring himself to care about that. It wasn't as if Thor or Tigra were going to disapprove.
Tony smiled back, even if Steve couldn't see him, and turned to clomp his way up the broken escalator.
When they hit the fifth floor, Tony broke off from the rest of the group -- or, rather, he attempted to, but Steve followed him.
"Excuse me a second," Tony said, and then he muted himself on comms. "I have to find an electrical outlet."
That, unfortunately, really reminded him of the old days. He was so glad he didn't have to worry about keeping the chestplate charged anymore.
Steve nodded -- obviously understanding what he wanted electrical access for, good -- and held up a hand in the direction of the rest of the team. "Everyone just stay put for a minute!" he called out. "Iron Man needs to check something."
On the other side of a column about twenty feet from the escalator landing, Tony finally found an outlet. All right. He was in business. He ran a hand over the armor, frowned critically at himself and then worked at the little panel at the lower edge of the chestplate, just above where the groin plating started. It was tricky to do while wearing gauntlets -- he really ought to think about revising that design -- but eventually the clasp came undone and the panel popped open.
Tapping his earpiece off, Steve stepped up next to him and peered at the device Tony was extricating. "Is that--?"
"Yes," Tony informed him, too quietly for the rest of the team to hear. "That is a digital multimeter in my pocket, but also I'm very happy to see you."
Gratifyingly, there was a little more color in Steve's face. "Shellhead," Steve said, softly, and Tony was sure it was meant to be an admonishment but the way his mouth twitched with laughter suggested that he really didn't mind as much as he was trying to pretend that he did.
Tony started to unwind the leads of the multimeter. "I actually keep this thing around for armor repairs in the field, if you were wondering," he added. "Never thought I'd get any kind of tactical use out of it. This is a first."
"Glad to hear it," Steve said, cheerfully, with a smile that ought to have been illegal, which he then followed up with an implied proposition to commit several acts that were definitely currently illegal in slightly under half of the United States. "This is going to be a day for a lot of firsts for you, isn't it?"
"Mmm." Tony couldn't help but smile back, behind the faceplate, as he crouched down by the outlet, probes in hand. Two could play at that game. "I'm hoping to fit in a few more firsts before the day is over. If you're interested."
Yeah, like First Time Telling You My Secret Identity.
"Oh, I'm interested," Steve said, blithely unaware of Tony's inner turmoil. "Definitely looking forward to anything you might like to... fit in."
Surprised, Tony lost his balance entirely and tipped to the floor in a noisy collision of metal and linoleum. He yelped.
Steve was clearly never going to suspect him of being world-renowned playboy Tony Stark now.
"Whoa, easy there!" Steve said, from somewhere behind him, and when Tony glanced down he could see Steve's gloved hands on his shoulders, urging him back up.
"Uh," Tony said. "Sorry."
Even in the dimness, Steve's face was a little flushed. "Geez, I'm not that bad at flirting, am I?"
"You're lovely," Tony said, with a sincerity he thought he must have picked up from Steve himself, and Steve went even redder. "Don't ever change."
"Well," Steve murmured. "I suppose you know exactly what you're getting into with me, don't you?"
"I do know you." You just don't know me.
Then Steve looked down at the tangle of wires in Tony's hands. "Damn," he said, sotto voce. "Here I am keeping you from your work, aren't I? I'm sorry."
"You have absolutely nothing to apologize for," Tony replied, as he set the multimeter for voltage. "I can flirt and work at the same time. It's one of my many talents."
Steve grinned at him. "Then I'm looking forward to discovering more of your talents, and also a voltage reading on that circuit."
Right. Work. Tony offered Steve the probes with one hand. "Do you want to do the honors? You're a little less... conductive... than I am right now."
"Sure," Steve said, crouching down. "What do I do?"
"Hold them both in one hand," Tony said, and Steve carefully took them, mimicking the way Tony was holding them, and then he took the multimeter in his other hand. Good. "Keep your hand on the rubber part; don't touch the metal. Then just, uh, shove it in."
Steve made a very quiet snorting sound. "Oh, is that what you want me to do?" he asked, and it was very clear what else he had in mind.
Tony found himself laughing. "I'm better at actual dirty talk than this, trust me."
Steve looked at him with an amount of earnestness that was threatening to break Tony's heart. "I trust you."
Tony cleared his throat. "Anyway. One probe in each slot, yeah, just like that, good, good--"
There was a catch of breath, almost imperceptible, from Steve. "Is it weird if I tell you that this is really working for me?" Steve asked, in a small voice, and he was tomato-red now.
"Not weird," Tony assured him. "Very flattering, actually." Certain parts of Tony's anatomy were definitely feeling flattered, even in the armor.
Steve's smile was shy. "Good to know it's not just me." He glanced back at the probes. "Now what?"
Tony looked down at the multimeter in Steve's other hand, which was reading a suspiciously normal-looking 120 V. He distrusted this. Intensely.
"Okay," Tony said, confused, "so that actually looks completely fine, which doesn't really explain why there's clearly no power-- what the hell?"
Halfway through Tony's speech, the multimeter began to display a set of symbols that Tony not only did not recognize but also would stake his right gauntlet repulsor assembly on the fact that a standard LCD could not physically display any symbol remotely close to that.
Then the symbols turned blood-red.
Then the entire display cracked down the middle.
"Uh," Steve said, brow furrowed in concern. "Does it usually do that?"
He hated magic. He hated magic so very, very much.
"So the bad news," Tony said, "is that I'm pretty sure Mordo knows we're coming."
"Is there good news?"
Tony sighed. "I'll get back to you on that."
Every escalator from the fifth floor on up was wooden. Even with the seriousness of the mission, Steve still looked delighted to learn that some things hadn't changed. Tony supposed Steve hadn't been in here in a good forty years.
They left Tigra on the seventh floor, and then Tony, Steve, and Thor headed up one last creaky, frozen escalator to what was presumably the site of their impending battle.
Tony couldn't quite see Mordo from all the way over here, but the light being cast from the far end of the floor was distinctly unnatural, and the crackle of barely-perceptible magical energies was making the hair on the back of Tony's neck stand on end.
"Right," Steve said, and he wrapped an arm around Tony's lower back as he escorted him off the escalator landing. It was a move Steve probably would not have dared to make yesterday but which Tony was most definitely in favor of, even if he couldn't feel it. "This is our stop. Thor, you're one floor up. Keep your comms on."
"I shall heed thy command," Thor said, and he turned on the landing and started to head up one more escalator. "I wish you both good fortune in battle."
"Same to you," Tony replied, and Thor tapped his own helmet in a lazy salute before continuing on.
Steve waited until Thor was out of sight to let go of Tony's waist, at which point he unslung his shield and balanced it on his arm. "You ready, Shellhead?"
"You bet," Tony said, and he strode forward, Steve at his side.
It was easy to find Mordo. He'd left a trail of destruction in his wake. The middle of the floor should have consisted of colorful holiday-themed displays, with a long velvet-rope line to indicate the path to wait for a meeting with Santa Claus. Instead, there were splintered and shattered displays: snapped ropes here, a pile of steel stanchions in disarray there.
In fact, it was pretty much a straight shot of bare, cracked laminate flooring from the escalator to the far end of the floor where Mordo was. He'd left a makeshift barricade of light-up animals in a heap about three-quarters of the way down the floor, though, blocking their line of sight. It looked like even supervillains wanted to preserve an air of mystery.
Light was still flickering, reflecting off the ceiling in strange colors.
They made it across the floor, seemingly unobserved, and reached the tangled pile of light-up animals. Steve spun, putting his back up against the light-studded wires, and he raised his eyebrows and tilted his head to the side. His mouth moved in a silent question: Now?
Tony clicked over to the private comm line and killed the external speakers. "Sure, why not," he said, for Steve's ears only. "Besides, I hear I've got a hot date to get ready for. Maybe tonight?"
Steve just grinned.
That sounded like a yes to Tony.
The sooner they got this over with, the sooner they could get back to... everything else.
So Tony switched back to speakers, started ramping up the repulsors to combat-ready status, and stepped around the last of the obstacles, bringing Baron Mordo into view at last.
Mordo was pretty much exactly as Tony had expected, which was a feat when Tony considered the fact that he didn't think he'd ever met the man in person before. He was dressed as if Hydra had raided a magician's costume shop, although Tony figured the preference for green and yellow was probably just a coincidence. He had a patterned, high-collared green cape, and a green and yellow outfit covered in symbols that probably meant something to his fellow magicians. Tony thought he looked ridiculous, but Tony was also fully aware that most people probably wouldn't consider him, Iron Man, in a good position to judge anyone else for looking ridiculous. People still teased him about the goddamn nose armor, and he'd gotten rid of that years ago.
"Hi, Karl," Tony drawled.
Using someone's name was a tip right out of How to Win Friends and Influence People, wasn't it? People liked to hear their own name.
It didn't seem to be winning Tony any friends right now.
Mordo sneered at them. It looked even more ridiculous with the facial hair situation, although Tony was willing to concede that he was incredibly well-preserved for someone who was probably at least as old as Steve. "You're nowhere near good enough to best me, Avengers." There was a faint smile on his face.
"Doctor Strange isn't available at the moment," Steve said, coolly, coming around to stand next to Tony. "You'll have to deal with us instead."
Strange was, in fact, not in the present, or so Wong had said. He and Clea and someone named Morgana Blessing were currently trapped in 1943, apparently due to Mordo himself. The guy sure got around.
"I know he isn't available." Mordo sounded vexed. "That is my doing, Captain. Are you not at all frightened by someone who has made short work of the Sorcerer Supreme himself?"
Steve shrugged. "No, I can't say as I am."
There sure wasn't anyone else in the world like Steve.
"Say," Tony added. "While we've got you here, would you consider letting us in on what your ultimate goal here is? Did you just want to ruin Christmas?"
Sure, okay, he was stalling for time, but also his repulsors weren't quite done charging.
The sneer on Mordo's face appeared to be permanent. "I wouldn't expect someone like you to understand, Iron Man."
"Oh, yeah?" Tony said. The repulsors were at 85% charge and rising. Time to see if he could bait Mordo into a good lengthy monologue. "Try me."
Shark-like, Mordo smiled, and, yeah, he was going for it. "Naturally you are unfamiliar with the guiding principles of certain schools of black magic. Practitioners require a certain amount of... turmoil. Distress. Negative emotions. Pain." His mouth twisted, a dissatisfied moue. "At certain times of the year, it is difficult to access a sufficient quantity of disorder without... mmm... producing one's own. I've decided to be proactive."
Repulsors momentarily forgotten, Tony stared in sickened disbelief. "So you're telling me you're causing all this chaos for the sole purpose of causing all this chaos?"
Mordo's lip curled. "No," he said, scornfully, like Tony was stupid. "I'm causing all this chaos to obtain dark power. Do try to keep up."
Raising a lazy hand, Mordo pointed, and Tony knew enough about magicians to know that now would be a great time to get out of the way, and, shit, he wouldn't have full flight capability for ten more seconds--
The air in front of Mordo's midsection glowed green, and Tony hastily killed his left-hand repulsors, hooked his gauntleted fingers into the back of Steve's shield harness, and threw them both sideways, just in time.
The pile of light-up animals behind Tony disintegrated.
Note to self, Tony thought, as he crashed to the floor. This guy is definitely not fucking around.
Tony spared a precious few seconds to take in the rest of the floor and update the tactical situation. It wasn't looking good; in fact, it was looking significantly worse. Other than trapping themselves in one of the side rooms ordinarily used for pictures with Santa -- which was a bad option for several reasons mostly summed up by the use of the verb trap -- the only cover anywhere on the floor was back behind the escalators, and those weren't exactly close anymore.
In other words, they were sitting ducks.
Even worse, they were actually lying ducks, because they were still sprawled out on the damn parquet laminate.
Steve was faster than Tony, because Steve was always faster than Tony, and Tony was carrying a fair amount of additional weight. So Steve was back on his feet, shield in hand, standing between Tony and Mordo while Tony pushed himself up. Tony was grateful for the protection. He wasn't actually sure how well vibranium was going to hold up against magic, but it was a nice gesture.
And then Tony was finally standing again and -- three, two, one, oh yeah, he had full power. Things were looking up now. Repulsors were online, and he keyed into Steve's private comms.
"I've got a shot," Tony said, and Steve obligingly edged just a little to the right to make room, because after a decade, Steve knew where he was without even having to look. Tony raised his hands. "I'm taking it."
Steve was well out of the way, now running right, putting up a great distraction, as Tony fired. The shot was perfectly aimed, center of mass, enough repulsor power to take down a baseline human without much in the way of additional damage. His hands were steady. He'd made this shot a thousand times before. He could probably have made it in his sleep.
Repulsor rays lashed out-- and then stopped, about a foot in front of Mordo. A magical shield flickered to life, neatly absorbing all the energy.
Well, that was just downright unfair.
"Hey!" Tony called out, indignantly. "That's cheating!"
Mordo laughed again. "That's magic, Iron Man."
The shield surrounding him shrank in size, until it was an inch or so above his skin, and then it just sank in, like water absorbed by a sponge. Tony was just going to guess that that wasn't a good sign.
And of course, that was the moment that Steve chose to... well, be Steve. "Leave him alone!" Steve barked out. "And while you're at it, leave everyone else alone. This is your last warning. Surrender now, or you'll regret the consequences."
Naturally, Mordo was unfazed. He just kept smiling. "Regret? Oh, Captain, I don't think I will. In fact, I'm planning to enjoy the consequences. Your friend here doesn't seem to appreciate the true power of magic. I think perhaps he needs to be taught a lesson. Wouldn't you agree?"
That definitely didn't sound good. That sounded like something Tony wanted no part of whatsoever. But it didn't seem like there was much he could do about it.
Once again, Mordo pointed at Tony. And as the air in front of him began to glow, Tony decided that dodging was the better part of valor.
That wasn't exactly how the saying went, he knew. He didn't exactly have the spare brain cells for witty repartee right now.
Even worse, this time Mordo was clearly hedging his bets: the first blast of light was quickly followed up with a second, two bolts of green lightning streaking across the room in Tony's direction.
It was going to be okay. Tony could avoid them. He swerved left around the first bolt, and then hit the bootjets to get him up and over the second. With his hands up for defense, rather than down for flight stabilization, he nearly botched the landing entirely, cutting the repulsors and coming down hard, with nothing to cushion the drop. He hit the floor, wobbled, and raised his hands higher--
--and he had about half a second to realize that there was a third bolt, before it hit him.
He had armor, he told himself. He could take a hit or two. It wasn't ideal, but that was what the armor was for, right? He was going to be fine. He was going to be--
The third bolt hit low and lateral, under his guard, striping sideways just under his waist, and it passed through his armor as if it wasn't even there. Literally. The beam of light just phased right through solid metal, like it was nothing. Like magic, because it was magic. It was like an illusion.
Unfortunately, it was very, very real to the flesh beneath.
Something hot and wet sluiced down Tony's torso, underneath the armor, slick against the metal of the chestplate, and, oh shit, that was blood, that was what that was, that was blood outside his body where blood didn't belong, that was a whole lot of blood--
That was when the pain started.
"Now you have a great deal to think about, hmm?" Mordo's voice sounded like he was a very long way away. "I believe it is time for me to make my exit, Avengers. Farewell. Or perhaps... fare poorly."
Mordo began to rise. Tony was about ninety-seven percent sure he wasn't hallucinating. Mordo was actually floating. Up and up and then through the ceiling. To the next floor.
Tony probably should have had more thoughts about that.
That made him Thor's problem. Tigra's problem? No, Thor's problem. Tony couldn't think. He looked down at himself and saw that he had one gauntleted hand splayed across his stomach, metal clanking against metal, like this was the best solution his agony-dulled brain had managed to come up with.
Light-headed, woozy, he staggered. He stumbled. And then he hit the floor.
Oh, God, it hurt so much.
It was a miracle he hadn't concussed himself on the way down, really. But blood was still pouring out of him, and it looked like he was all out of miracles.
Steve's voice also sounded far away, and that definitely wasn't right, because Steve was right here, next to him. Steve was crouching next to him, rolling him onto his back. Tony could just barely make out Steve's face, pale and drawn, through the eye-slits of his helmet.
"Shellhead!" Steve repeated, urgently. "Talk to me. What's wrong?"
"You should go," Tony gritted out. "Leave me. Help Thor. I don't-- I don't have much longer."
Steve went chalk-white. "What?"
"That last energy bolt," Tony gasped. "Didn't-- didn't even touch the armor. Went right through me underneath the armor, though. I'm bleeding out."
Tony felt his arm move; he wasn't the one lifting it. That was Steve, he realized. Steve was holding his hand. He could see Steve fumbling with his belt pouch with his other hand, tapping something out on his identicard.
"Medical's on the way." Steve's voice was tight. "Just hold on, okay? Help is coming."
Help was eight floors down, and the elevators weren't working. Help wasn't going to be here in time.
This wasn't fair. None of this was fair. He was supposed to be going on a date with Steve, not bleeding to death in the middle of Macy's on 34th Street because he'd been magically shanked by a sorcerer who didn't even have the decency to obey the goddamn laws of physics.
Tony was dizzy and clammy; every inch of him that wasn't sticky with blood was damp with cold, cold sweat, but even with that, he felt hot. A paradox. He really wanted to be sick. The room was spinning.
He tried to squeeze Steve's hand. He wasn't sure he made it. It wasn't as if he could feel him through the armor.
If he was going to go, there were a few things he wanted to say first.
"Steve," Tony rasped, and Steve's gaze snapped to his in an instant. "Steve. You have to know. I love you."
Somehow Steve went even paler; his eyes went hollow and dark. "Shellhead, no," he said, softly, and Tony's poor overtaxed heart skipped a beat before he figured out why Steve was saying no to him. "We're not doing this, okay? Not like this. You're going to be all right. You're going to make it. I promise."
He could feel the blood still flowing. How did he have that much blood in him? How did anyone?
"Please," Tony said, hoarsely, and his voice broke on the word, and he was a coward twice over, he was begging, he'd done nothing to merit this, but he could see the precise moment, the anguish reflected in Steve's eyes, when Steve finally gave in.
Tears dripped down Steve's face. "I love you too," he whispered. "I've always loved you. And I'm going to keep telling you that, because you're going to live through this. You hear me? You're going to be okay. The paramedics will be here soon. You just have to stay with me a little longer."
The optimism was nice. Untrue, but nice.
Steve glanced away for a second and tapped something else out on his identicard. "Tigra's going to go on up to help Thor. They've got this. I'm going to stay right here at your side." He smiled a hesitant smile. Tears were starting to stain his cowl. "I'm not leaving, okay?"
That was also nice, but Tony was the one who was leaving. Tony was leaving, he suspected, very soon now.
He was still bleeding. His vision was blurry. Oh. Those were tears.
At the edge of Tony's increasingly-limited field of vision, something orange flickered, over by where he remembered the escalators being. That was probably Tigra, heading up to help Thor. The rest of the team had this covered. That was good. Something to be proud of. He hadn't had that bad a life, had he, all things considered?
He had to tell Steve who he was. He had to. He probably only had a few more minutes left, but Steve had to know. Just one last thing. And then he could go.
Steve was going to find out his identity anyway, when they came for his body.
He wanted it to be his decision. His choice. He should have told Steve years ago, but he only had now.
"Steve." He dropped Steve's hand, reached up, tried to touch Steve's shoulder, and missed entirely. "There's-- there's something else I want you to know."
Steve recaptured his hand, and when Tony tugged his fingers out of Steve's grasp, he instantly regretted the flash of confusion and hurt in Steve's eyes. But he had to get to his faceplate. He didn't make it. His hand sagged away. He'd just have to try again.
"It's-- it's-- it's about me," Tony said.
There wasn't enough air. His vision was darkening. But he could still see when Steve got it, understanding and disbelief spreading across his face.
"You don't have to tell me," Steve said, softly. "You don't. It's your secret to keep. I understand." But Tony could tell from the glimmer of hope in his eyes that he wanted to know. Of course he did.
Tony could feel himself trying to smile. "I know. But I want to tell you. You should know who-- who I am. I want you to know. It's important."
It was going to be the last thing he ever did. That seemed proper, somehow. Fitting. Honorable.
Steve was touching his arm. Probably. Tony couldn't really see that far anymore. "It's not going to change how I feel," Steve said, his voice full of fierce confidence, and Tony breathed out hard at the reassurance he hadn't even known he needed, and then he couldn't quite catch his breath again. "You're still you, and I'm still going to love you. No matter what."
It wasn't as if Steve could actually promise that, but it was sweet of him to try.
Tony tried to reach for his faceplate again. He didn't make it this time either. He grabbed Steve's hand and tugged feebly upwards.
"Please," he croaked out, again. He might have called it pathetic, but for the fact that he was too far gone for shame. Everything was starting to feel cold now. He really wanted to be sick.
"You want me to help--?" Steve asked, voice gone high with incredulity, and then he nodded. At least someone here was processing this fast. "Okay, okay, shh, here, I'm here, I've got you. I'll do it. Just tell me how."
Tony tugged on Steve's hand again, a little more forcefully, and only succeeded in tugging Steve's glove halfway off. Steve pulled back a little and freed his hand entirely, and then set his bare palm gingerly against Tony's faceplate. One finger curled around the edge of an eye-slit, partially obscuring his vision.
"Little bit lower." Tony managed to marshal enough energy to provide directions. "There's a hidden catch just under the jaw, on the side there, just wide enough for a couple fingers. You'll feel it. Press in and up, like you're lifting it out."
Steve obligingly slid his hand down. "You could just tell me your name, you know," he murmured. "Save your strength, Shellhead."
It was clear that Steve didn't know. That he didn't think it would mean anything to see Iron Man's face, because Iron Man couldn't possibly be someone he recognized. Well, he was about to find out how wrong he was about that. They both were.
Tony laughed and then wished he hadn't. His gut spasmed in agony and he bit back a scream. More tears trickled down his face. He was a mess. This wasn't exactly the way he'd ever dreamed Steve would find out the truth.
It was all in Steve's hands now. Literally. But that felt right, too, more right than anything had in years.
"I told you my name a long time ago," Tony whispered.
That was when Steve triggered the faceplate release.
The sudden light was blinding, and his vision smeared into an aching blur of tears, brightness, and something bluish that was probably Steve's cowl. He blinked and squinted.
Steve was... smiling? He was trembling, eyes wide in astonishment, and tears were tracing their way down his face, soaking his cowl and sliding down, but he was definitely smiling.
"Oh," he breathed. "Oh, Tony. It's really you."
Tony tried to swallow. His throat locked up. It didn't help. "Yeah," he said. "It's really me." His face was all pins and needles. His mouth was raw. "Good surprise? Bad surprise?"
"Good surprise," Steve said, instantly, like he didn't even have to think about it, and something loosened in Tony's chest, a lifetime of pressure and worry gone at last. "Best surprise," he added, more firmly. "Worst possible circumstances, though." His teeth worried at his lower lip. "Oh, God, Tony."
There were more tears welling up in Tony's eyes, coursing down his face. He couldn't see again. "I'm sorry," he rasped. "I'm so sorry. I was afraid. I was a coward. I waited too long. It shouldn't be like this. I should have-- I should have told you before--"
"Hey, no." Steve interrupted him, but the reprimand was gentle. "Nothing to feel sorry for. Nothing to feel bad about. None of that, okay, sweetheart?"
The endearment sparked something hot and soft inside Tony, and he wanted to thank Steve, but he couldn't think of the right words. And then Steve's fingertips brushed against his cheek, and that was even better. Steve's fingers were rough, callused, but so wonderfully warm against Tony's face. Steve blotted the tears from Tony's cheekbone with a delicate swipe of his thumb.
Tony's imagination had only extended as far as Steve seeing him, and no farther. He hadn't ever entertained the thought that Steve would be able to touch him. Or that Steve might want to touch him.
He took a ragged breath and found the last bit of strength within him. "I like when you touch me," he told Steve. "Feels nice."
There was probably a better way to say that. Tony couldn't call it to mind.
Steve's mouth twitched. A tear clung to his chin. "Good," he murmured. "That's good. I'm glad it feels nice. I like touching you too. Always wondered what it would be like if I did, you know?"
"And now you know."
Tony tried to smile back. He wasn't sure he'd managed it. God, it hurt so much.
"And now I know," Steve agreed. He glanced away, down the length of Tony's armored body.
It was ironic, somehow, that Tony looked perfectly fine from the outside. He was just dying on the inside, was all. Story of his life.
Steve cleared his throat. "So now that I know, would you, uh, mind if I got you out of the armor?"
Tony couldn't quite follow Steve's reasoning anymore. It probably wasn't meant to be innuendo, but Tony didn't know what it was actually meant to be. He blamed the severe trauma.
With his free hand, Steve gestured in the direction of his own waist. "I've got some medical supplies stashed away in my belt, and I can at least keep pressure on the wound until someone else shows up. It has to be better than just letting you bleed out in there."
Oh. That made sense.
Tony wasn't actually sure it was going to do any good, but at least Steve would feel like he was doing something.
The heat of Steve's hand on his face faded. Steve wasn't touching him. Steve had let go. Probably to do what he said he was going to do, if Tony let him. It was cold without Steve there. Tony thought about crying some more.
"Yeah," Tony slurred. "Yeah, okay, go for it." He didn't think he could point to the release catches anymore, so he'd have to describe them. He could do this. He had to keep it together long enough to do this. "On either side of the chestplate, there's--"
Metal scraped and crunched. The armor made a terrible groaning noise, and then somehow Steve was balancing half a twisted chestplate in one hand. It had flexed up and bent backwards as Steve had literally peeled it off him at the shoulders. The golden mesh on Tony's arms sagged and depolarized.
What the hell. Why not? It wasn't like Tony was going to be alive to use the armor for much longer. At least he was wearing clean underwear. At least he was only wearing underwear. He wouldn't have to ruin perfectly good clothing. And it was the nice underwear, too. He hadn't thought he'd die in sexy lingerie, but he supposed he should have anticipated it, given the general shape of his existence so far. Oh, well.
"Or you could do that, I guess," Tony concluded.
And then Steve ripped the chestplate all the way off and threw it to the side and, oh, shit, that was worse, that was so much worse. It had obviously been helping to seal the wound and now there was nothing there to stanch the flow.
He let his head loll to the side. That was a lot of blood smeared on the floor.
Tony heard himself sob.
"Oh, hell," Steve said, under his breath. Tony tipped his head back in Steve's direction. His eyes were very wide. "Don't look, okay? Don't look, Shellhead."
Ha. As if he could move enough to do that.
Steve was unfastening a belt pouch and fishing out a roll of something white that Tony couldn't quite see and-- oh. Gauze. That was gauze.
"This is going to hurt." Steve's voice was laden with apology. "Sorry."
Tony no longer had enough presence of mind to form the sentence that would have enabled him to tell Steve that he didn't think it could have hurt any worse anyway. This turned out to not actually be true, as Tony found out five seconds later, when Steve started applying pressure to Tony's lower abdomen.
The sound coming from Tony's mouth was a ruined, broken groan; he didn't have the breath to scream. He just laid there, passive, shuddering, letting the pain take him. It carried him along inside it, a rushing current of agony, threatening to pull him under entirely.
"It's going to be okay." Steve's tone was low, even, calming, soothing, and Tony tried as hard as he could to stay focused on the sound. "It's going to be all right. Just stay with me. I know you can. You're the strongest of all of us, Avenger." His voice softened, unexpectedly tender. "You know that? You really are. I-- I think the world of you, Tony. And every day you amaze me. So I know you can do this. You just have to hold on. Please. Just hold on. For me."
Steve sounded less calm now. Less calm, more plaintive. More desperate. He was still staring at the wound. Tony didn't blame him.
Tony's eyes were drifting shut. He forced them open again. Nothing was making sense. Steve was still talking, but Tony had no idea what he was saying. There was only the pain, and he was getting colder and colder. He was shivering.
Steve's hands must have slipped in all the blood, because he shifted position, bringing a fresh wave of terrible sensation. Everything hurt. Everything hurt so damn much. He was so very, very tired.
He couldn't hold on any longer.
Time to go.
Tony took the deepest breath he could, ragged and harsh. "Steve," he forced out, and his voice was barely more than air, and Steve looked up instantly.
"I can't," Tony breathed. His eyes were hot again. He was letting Captain America down. Hell of a way to die. He supposed he was always a disappointment. "I can't, I can't, I'm so sorry--"
A muscle in Steve's jaw twitched. "Yes, you can," he said, and if anyone in the universe was stubborn enough to try to argue with Death herself it was Steve Rogers. "You can," he repeated. "You can and you're going to."
The world around him seemed unreal, insubstantial. He couldn't hold on.
He managed one last breath. He shaped the words in his mind. He forced them out through numb lips. "Kiss me?"
He knew he didn't deserve it, but it was the only thing he wanted. The last thing he wanted. A dying man's last wish.
And Tony, unfortunately, was there to bear witness to the look on Steve's face when he realized that Tony wasn't going to make it after all. But at least Tony wouldn't have to remember it for long.
Terrified, betrayed by the universe, Steve's face went bone-white in an instant. The pressure of Steve's fingers let up, but that wasn't a problem, because Tony wasn't going to make it out alive anyway. And then Steve was scrambling, making his way up Tony's body, lifting Tony's head out of the rest of the helmet with his sticky, blood-soaked hands, cradling his head tenderly between his palms. That felt nice. That was good. Tony liked that.
Steve's whole body was curled protectively over Tony, his head bent, and hot tears dripped down onto Tony's face.
"Please," Steve whispered. A sob wracked his body. "Just stay with me."
Tony's lips parted. He couldn't form words. He guessed he wasn't getting that kiss.
But Steve's hands were warm and gentle and, honestly, he couldn't think of a better way to go than right here in Steve's arms. He wasn't alone. Steve had him.
Steve lifted him higher, sliding him out of the backplate of his armor and into Steve's lap, and, oh, yes, that was good, that was really good. Tony smiled, and Steve leaned in close.
The world faded away, and everything Tony knew was gone, into the darkness.
Consciousness was a dry mouth, a fuzzy brain, and a rhythmic beeping noise.
Hospital, Tony thought, stupidly. Not dead. Death isn't a hospital. Probably. His thoughts were very slow to come together, cushioned in a dreamy medicated haze. He was aware, distantly, that he had a body and that his body was most likely in some amount of discomfort, but he found he didn't really care to contemplate that.
Yep, he was definitely on the good drugs.
He opened his eyes. Hospital, definitely. The world was too bright to make out more details than the bland whiteness of the walls and the eye-searing intensity of the lights. He glanced down. Blanket pulled up to his chest. Hospital gown. Massive amounts of wires snaking under the neck of the gown. Those were EKG leads. Great. His favorite. He glanced right. Blood pressure cuff on his arm. Pulse oximeter on his finger. Hospital bracelet. A bag of liquid hanging next to him, dripping down the tube leading to the IV in his right arm.
That was the first piece of information that Tony found he was having a feeling about, and that feeling was: confusion. They should have done his left arm, shouldn't they? It was as if they'd found out he was left-handed, somehow, and they'd wanted to leave his good arm free when he woke up. Strange. Considerate, sure, but definitely strange.
Tony braced himself on his elbow, shifted his weight, and then promptly discovered how the hospital had known he was left-handed.
"Hey!" Steve said, sleepy and startled, from somewhere very close by on his left, like he'd just woken up in a hurry, and then Steve's hands on Tony's shoulder were gently pressing him back down to the bed. "Don't you dare try to sit up, mister." Only Steve could make a rebuke sound so affectionate. "They spent hours in surgery stitching you all back together and, uh, I'm not quite sure you have working abdominal muscles right now. And you don't want to test that and be wrong about it, Shellhead."
Steve knew. That was right. Tony tested the thought out. That wasn't a dream. That had really happened. Steve knew who he was now. Tony had-- Tony had-- they had been fighting Baron Mordo, and he had--
Oh, Christ, what had happened to the team?
"The Avengers!" Tony blurted out. "The team-- Mordo-- did he-- what happened?"
Tony snapped his head to the left, and the world spun. Something new started beeping angrily. But Steve was right there, sitting at his side.
Steve was wearing a clean uniform, devoid of bloodstains, so either Tony had been out for a while (likely) or someone had convinced Steve to take a break (unlikely). Or both. On the other hand, he did look like he'd shaved recently, so maybe it wasn't as unlikely as all that. His expression was easy and open, hopeful and gentle and a little uncertain, as if he'd only just become acquainted with the idea of happiness and didn't know what to think about it yet.
He looked like he'd been crying recently.
"Everyone is fine," Steve said. The words sounded rehearsed, like Steve had been sitting here for hours planning what to tell him. Or maybe longer than that. And then he flashed a rueful grin and departed from the script. "Everyone except you, I mean. But you're going to be fine, too. It's Tuesday morning. You've been out for six days. You didn't miss Christmas," he added, which was thoughtful of him, because Tony had no idea what date it might have been. Math was currently beyond him. "You're at Columbia-Presbyterian. I didn't know if you had a hospital preference."
"And-- and Mordo?"
"In some kind of custody," Steve said, with half a shrug. "Strange came by after it was over and took him, I'm told. I wasn't there for that part." Because I was here with you, he didn't need to say. "The battle itself turned out to be pretty, uh, anticlimactic. Apparently Thor took Mordo out before he even knew Thor was there, and then Thor left Tigra to guard him while he ran down to help me with you. He, um. He knows who you are now. Sorry. Tigra probably does too."
"Thor already knew," Tony admitted, and braced himself for the anger, for the jealousy. "He's known for a few years. A couple other people know, too. I'm-- I really am sorry I never told you before--"
But Steve just smiled, reached out, and stroked the back of Tony's hand. "Still not mad, Shellhead."
Tony couldn't find a way to put any of his thoughts into words, so he shut his mouth and just hoped Steve would keep holding his hand.
"Anyway," Steve said, tracing the shape of his hand with one inquisitive fingertip, "Thor took your armor away, so no one else would find out who you were. He got it all out of the way before the paramedics came and then took it back to the mansion. I, uh, didn't really manage to come up with the best cover story; I ended up telling them that you'd been out shopping, missed the evacuation, decided to wait for your bodyguard, and then got caught in the crossfire. And then, since your actual bodyguard couldn't be here, Thor and I have been taking turns at your bedside. Mostly me, though." He grimaced. "It doesn't make you sound very good. I know. I'm sorry."
"No, it's fine," Tony said. He couldn't really bring himself to care. People had definitely believed even flimsier stories from him. "Just let me know how many photos there are of me being strapped to a gurney in only my underwear."
"Zero," Steve said, confidently, though he was starting to blush, which was a little weird. "Because Thor loaned you his cape before the paramedics showed up. And it was, um. I thought it was very nice underwear."
Oh. Okay. Well, then. That was an extremely interesting fact that Tony was definitely going to have to remember for later. "Did you?" Tony asked, intrigued. "Little black lacy numbers do it for you, then?"
"Yes," Steve said, practically crimson, and clearly one-hundred-percent earnest. "God, yes." His laugh was strangled. "I'm sorry, I'm terrible at flirting, you probably want someone who's more--"
"I want you," Tony told him, and Steve beamed back. "You and no one else ever again in my entire life. Just you." He considered his words, now that he'd said them. "I'm incredibly high right now, aren't I?"
Steve nodded. The blush was fading. "That'd be the morphine."
And that, that was actually concerning. That was something that Tony could manage to be concerned about even while, well, on morphine. Not a lot of people knew that Tony was sober now, after the whole incident with the Carnelian ambassador. It wasn't exactly public knowledge. But Steve knew. And Steve should have known -- Steve did know, because Tony had told him -- that he didn't want to be on anything he could get addicted to, because it wasn't like his pathetic body was going to give him a choice about the matter.
"I know," Steve said, a little guiltily, before Tony even had to say it. "Believe me, I know. I do understand. They asked me about pain management. And I gave them permission. I know you don't want it. But you didn't see how bad it was." His mouth wobbled, and he looked like he was about to cry again. "It was that or-- or being dead, Tony."
No, you don't understand, Tony wanted to say. Steve hadn't been there when Tony was sobering up. Steve hadn't been the one who held him when he cried. And in the end Beth hadn't been able to handle being with him after all, had she? So what were the chances that Steve could?
Steve squeezed his hand. "It's going to be all right. I-- I asked about withdrawal. I asked Don, not any of the doctors here, just in case-- well. Just in case. And I got the impression that, if it ends up being a thing you have to deal with, it won't be the most fun you've ever had in your life, but, unlike alcohol withdrawal, opioid withdrawal can't actually kill you."
Huh. He hadn't known that. Whatever happened, he'd survive it. Yeah, that-- that did change the calculus here. And if it had been life or death, yeah, he could see why Steve had made the call.
"And I'll be here if you want me here, okay?" Steve said. "I'm not leaving. I promise."
Maybe it was because of the drugs, but Tony found it was easy to believe him. Maybe things were going to be okay. That was a weird thought. He tried thinking it again. It still seemed true. Steve took promises more seriously than anyone Tony had ever known.
"You promise?" Tony echoed.
"I promise," Steve repeated. He smiled softly. "I know what I'm getting into, eyes open, and I still want this. I want you. I do know you, you know."
And back to the elephant in the room.
"Yeah," Tony said. "So. Uh. About that."
Dropping his hand, Steve squinted at him. "Yes?"
"I know that this--" Tony attempted to gesture at himself with the arm that had the IV in and instantly regretted it-- "isn't what you thought you were getting into, so to speak, when you asked your good buddy Shellhead on a date. But you're--" he faltered-- "you're really-- how are you so okay with that?"
"Honestly," Steve said, glancing away, with a hint of an abashed smile, "right now I'm mostly just thinking that I definitely should have had a classier restaurant in mind."
Tony snorted with laughter and then also instantly regretted that. "Ow. Cap. Really. Come on."
"It's nice to know your name," Steve said, quiet, but fervent. "Though I have to say that it would have been nicer to know your blood type. None of us knew it, so you ended up getting a whole lot of O negative. More units than I can count. Saline and plasma, too." He bit his lip. "Things, uh. Things really didn't look so good for you, for a couple days there."
That was... that was a whole lot of blood. And a whole lot of time. God, Steve must have been a mess.
Tony cleared his throat. "It's A positive. For future reference."
And what with the way Tony's life usually went, Steve was definitely going to need that information at some point.
"Seriously, though," Steve said. His mouth twitched, and he was starting to redden again. "One of the things I wasn't about to tell my good buddy Shellhead while I was asking him out was the fact that I also had a massive longstanding crush on his boss. Seemed a little impolite."
"Oh," Tony said, dumbfounded. That was-- yeah, he was going to need a bit of time to process that.
"So from where I am," Steve concluded, "it's actually an immense relief to discover I only have feelings for one man. I meant it when I said it was the best surprise. I meant everything I said."
And that was nice, but-- "Why me, then?" Tony asked, and then he realized that was the world's most ambiguous question. "You, uh. You did pick Iron Man. You didn't pick Tony Stark. You must have had a reason."
He already knew what the reason was. He always knew what the reason was. In the end, no one really wanted Tony. Steve would probably have a different way to say it, of course. Some way to soften the blow. But there was only ever the same reason.
Steve bit his lip again, as if he was about to say something he hated to own up to, and, yeah, here it came.
"I thought I'd never in a million years have a chance with Tony Stark," Steve admitted, almost too quietly for Tony to hear him.
That couldn't be right. What the hell?
How could the best man Tony had ever known possibly think he wasn't good enough for Tony?
Steve swallowed hard. "I didn't know who Iron Man dated, so I thought I had a shot. But I know who Tony Stark's dated. You date rich people. Glamorous people. Sophisticated people. You take them to-- to Monaco, or the French Riviera, or, heck, probably your own private island." He wasn't meeting Tony's eyes. "I can't compete with that. I'm just an old fogey who thinks two tickets to a Rodgers and Hammerstein revival sounds like a good time."
"Hey!" Tony interjected, because someone here had to stand up for Steve and apparently it wasn't going to be Steve. "I think that sounds like a great time, actually."
Steve's laugh was small, dry, bitter. "When I took Bernie to see Oklahoma! she told me she'd rather have seen Oh! Calcutta!"
Oh, geez. Yeah, Tony could see how a nude revue wouldn't have been Steve's kind of thing at all. But the thing was, it wasn't really Tony's kind of thing either, although certainly it was the sort of thing someone with his reputation would have been expected to enjoy. The mask and the man beneath weren't the same at all.
And Steve knew that, because Steve knew him, after all. Steve was just... scared.
"Yeah, well," Tony retorted, "I'm not her. I'm me. And I think I've made it pretty clear that I know what I'm getting into, too."
Steve didn't say anything for a long time, and then he took a deep breath. "You know what the worst part of all of this was, for me?" He gestured around himself in illustration.
"You asked me to kiss you," Steve confessed. "It was what you wanted. I know. And I-- I didn't make it in time. And I wasn't about to kiss you while you were passed out. So I spent the whole ambulance ride, the whole time you were in surgery, all the days you were on a ventilator, all of it -- I couldn't stop wondering if I'd missed my chance. If you were really going to die, and I'd failed you and I-- I hadn't given you the one thing you'd wanted, and I'd never even kissed you, and now I was never going to be able to--"
Tony flailed out a hand and brushed Steve's arm. Steve grabbed his hand back like he was hanging on for dear life.
Tony smiled up at him. "Sounds like someone needs to come over here and kiss me."
Steve's answering smile was small. A secret shared between just the two of them. "Yeah? You think?"
"Yeah, Winghead," Tony told him. "I think."
He'd been expecting something mostly symbolic. Something dignified. Something chaste. Instead, Steve cupped Tony's face between his hands and kissed him, hard and heavy and desperate, not pulling away until something hooked up to Tony started to beep insistently.
Steve's hands were shaking, and his breathing was unsteady and shallow, and, God, he really was scared. Tony brought up a hand to the back of Steve's head, tugged the cowl off in his fist, and ran his fingers through Steve's hair and down his spine until Steve started to settle down.
"I'm okay," Tony whispered. That was what Steve needed to hear, and it was true. "I'm okay, I'm here, I'm safe. I'm not going anywhere without you."
"You better not," Steve murmured.
"I won't," Tony assured him, and kissed him back.