It was the last town where they could get decent supplies to last them the remainder of the trek to their final destination. They were only supposed to be there for a night, two at most, to refresh themselves and make the final preparations for their end goal. It was meant to be trouble-free and it was, until it wasn't.
"I knew it! Tony Stark! It's been so long since we last met!" a feminine voice suddenly cried out.
The next thing Tony knew, he had an armful of Janet van Dyne. Janet was the daughter of another aristocratic clan in Mainheim who had dealings with the Starks, and being only a year younger than Tony, they'd played together whenever the van Dynes visited. Normally, Tony wouldn't have minded meeting Janet again (she was one of the few people from his past that he actually liked), but right now, his stomach felt like lead.
He had forgotten that though this particular town wasn't all that large and almost too far up north to be hospitable to people not born in its climes, a rather prominent noble family – that boasted a decent number of wizards – dwelled here. Of course, with his luck, his party had to have arrived in town just when there was some sort of event being held. It was the only reason he could think of for why Janet was here and not back in Mainheim.
Mentally, he sighed, lamenting the fact that he could never seem to catch a break. It was barely a week ago when the team found out about Bruce's lycanthropy. It sometimes seemed like every time he had something remotely good happen to him, something unpleasant was bound to catch up to him in the near future. Meeting Jan herself was not unpleasant but he would have much preferred it be not in front of the rest of his party because this meeting would surely dredge up things that he hadn't wanted the others to know. Not yet, at least.
"Hey, Jan. It's been awhile."
Letting go of him, Jan stepped back to give him a thorough onceover before replying. "It's been years, Tony! Seven years! Nobody knew where you disappeared to and the favorite gossip was that you'd died. I never did believe that though. Tony Stark's not that easy to kill!"
"Huh, I guess I'm not. So… What are you doing so far away from home?"
Tony did his best to divert Jan away from the matter of his family by asking questions that was probably expected of him, though he feared it was already too late. Janet had mentioned his family name twice now and the rest of his traveling party had all been close by when she'd first appeared.
"Oh, there's a ball in town tomorrow evening and my family was invited. Hmm… I think yours was too, though nobody knows for sure if your father's coming. He hasn't been in the habit of showing up at balls and galas since a few years back."
And there went his attempt to change the topic. He wished he could blame Janet but he couldn't. It wasn't her fault she unwittingly revealed his identity; she didn't even know that he was more well-known as Lord Antonius (the Death-Dealer) instead of Lord Anthony Stark these days. Then there was the fact that he may or may not have a sudden reunion with dear old dad in the near future to (not) look forward to.
Could his day get any worse?
Then Janet caught sight of his traveling party. "Oh hello! Are you all Tony's friends? I'm Janet van Dyne! Nice to meet you!"
As the others murmured introductions and pleasantries, Tony's mind whirred, trying to find a way to make Janet leave without it being suspicious. Well, without it being suspicious to Janet anyway. It was too late for the rest of them.
"Jan, it was great seeing you again," he said with a smile. "We've been traveling for quite a bit though, do you mind if we retire to rest? I'll catch up with you later?"
Tony hadn't wanted to add the last part but knowing Janet, she would insist on it anyway. Hopefully, he could find a way out of meeting her again afterwards. He didn't think he'd have the energy to deal with it. Not after the little fiasco that was going to happen soon. Or maybe it would be good to meet with Jan, so he could escape whatever backlash that was going to occur just for a little while.
"Oh, alright then! I still have some shopping to do anyway. My family has a cottage here, look for me there! See you later, Tony!" Then with a wave to everyone, Janet flitted away into the crowd.
"That, was Janet van Dyne. As in heiress to the van Dynes of Mainheim," Clint said, breaking the awkward lull caused by Janet's departure.
Tony finally turned to look at his friends, most of them wearing expressions that said they were still trying to figure out what had just happened.
"Yes," he answered.
"And she's your childhood friend."
"…yes." There was no point in denying it anymore.
Clint opened his mouth to speak again but Tony quickly cut in, "Look, I'll explain everything. But not out here on the streets, okay?"
"That's fine. Let's return to the inn now."
Tony fought not to flinch at Steve's tone. He hadn't heard the paladin sound like this in a while. Steve was speaking in distantly polite tones, conveying civility when beneath it, the blond was hiding some other emotion. Usually an explosive one.
"Sure, let's go," Tony echoed.
The ensuing walk to the inn was the most painful one he'd experienced. It was awkwardly quiet, and Tony felt like he was walking to his execution. When they reached their destination, Tony headed for the room he was sharing with Bruce, knowing the others would follow. He was just minutely relieved he'd chosen to room with Bruce instead of Steve this time.
When everyone had settled into the room, sitting or leaning against various pieces of furniture, the door securely shut and the place soundproofed by Bruce, Tony took a quick moment to catalogue everyone's expressions as he sat on a chair that felt more uncomfortable than it probably actually was. Bruce was sympathetic, Natasha's impassive as usual but the fact she was on his other side – the side not occupied by Bruce – said everything. Clint was looking expectant, Peggy was also mostly impassive and Steve… Steve's face was so carefully blank. Like he was trying his best to remain neutral.
"So… Let me introduce myself again," he said. "I am Anthony Edward Stark, sole heir to the Starks of Mainheim. The van Dynes and the Starks have always had dealings, so that's how I met Janet."
"Why did you keep your identity as secret? The Starks never mentioned their heir was a warlock either," Peggy commented neutrally.
A sardonic smirk formed on Tony's face; he couldn't help it. "You all know the Starks are a clan of wizard geniuses, with the odd sorcerer in the bloodline. Either way, Starks are supposed to be masters in the arcane arts. Then there's me, born without the slightest bit of magical aptitude, which was embarrassing enough as it was without having warlock powers manifesting when I turned fifteen. Do you really think they'd let all of that become public knowledge?"
"It still doesn't explain why you chose to hide your identity."
"Because I want nothing to do with the Starks. I was all but disowned when my powers awakened; my own father couldn't even bear to look at me after that. Not that he ever did a fantastic job of looking after me, I mean, failure of a son since birth you're looking at here.
"I couldn't stand it anymore after almost two years. So I thought, since warlocks had such a bad name and I was Bad just because of that, then I should actually do something to warrant my apparent infamy and evilness. Then my mother passed away," his voice caught just a little when he mentioned his mother. After all this time, there was still a dull ache when he thought of her. "And there went one of the people who still loved me, so I just couldn't be bothered to care anymore. I ran away from home, changed my name, cut all ties with the Starks and then made a name of myself in war and battles.
"I haven't thought about myself as Howard Stark's son in so long, it's second nature to "keep it a secret" as you say. The Starks haven't even bothered to look for me since I disappeared seven years ago and I plan to keep it that way. They'd look for me if my identity got leaked, if only to keep up appearances."
"Wait a minute, you're only twenty-four now?" Clint suddenly said, eyes wide with surprise. "You're younger than all of us?"
Despite himself, Tony found some measure of delight in hearing the "oh-my-god-I'm-older-than-him" that went unsaid just by the tone of Clint's voice. "The goatee makes me look older, which was sort of the point. People tend to believe you have more experience because of your age and it was also another way to make it seem like I have no connection to the Stark heir."
"Even when it makes you look like a younger version of Howard Stark?"
It was the first time Steve had spoken since Tony started his sordid little tale. Steve didn't sound at all happy and though a part of him shriveled and died inside, Tony had sort of expected it.
"See Captain, the human mind works in strange ways. No one expects a warlock to come from the great, noble house of Stark, so nobody's going to question why I resemble the current head of house. Most of you hail from Mainheim. Did it ever cross your minds that I could possibly be a Stark all this time?"
The resulting silence was answer enough for Tony.
"Well," he still felt obliged to put it out clearly and in the open, "There's your answer to that question. Are there anymore?"
"Does anybody else know about your true identity?" Peggy asked.
"Rhodey, Pepper, Natasha and Bruce. The first three all agreed with me on keeping my identity a secret."
"But for different reasons," Natasha interjected smoothly. "Tony's already rather notorious as the warlock Antonius. If it were known that he was actually Anthony Stark, the number of people after him for his life or wealth would exponentially increase."
"Why were we invited to your mansion that day?" Steve asked quietly.
It was Natasha who answered yet again in a matter-of-fact tone. "Threat watch. Rhodes and I are in charge of the town and Tony's safety and security. A paladin and a cleric travelling through together is extremely rare and hence suspicious. We both agreed that we needed to determine if you had any agenda."
"Like if we were sent to capture Tony," Peggy deduced.
"Or kill him," Natasha agreed with a curt nod. "Normally we don't invite potential threats into the mansion; we send someone out to interact with them, investigate and determine if they're really dangerous. I tend to be the one who does that job, which posed a problem because there was a chance that Clint would recognize me and blow my cover.
"So Pepper suggested to invite you to the mansion, regardless of whether my cover was blown or not. She thought it would be a good idea to start clearing up some of the erroneous rumors about Tony. It could even make it a little less likely for paladins and clerics from other churches to turn up with intentions to harm Tony. Besides, if you were threats, we could neutralize you from inside the mansion. Either way, Tony knew nothing of the plan until the very last minute."
There was a long silence as Natasha's revelation was absorbed and digested. Tony had long suspected that he had masochistic tendencies and that was clearly evident in the way he was watching Steve while trying to make it seem like he wasn't. Steve's previously blank expression had morphed into furrowed eyebrows and a slight frown as Natasha's explanations had continued. He wondered what Steve thought of him now.
Tony had lied about so much to Steve. Everything that was being revealed to the paladin at this point was sure to strain, if not break, the still tender bonds of their friendship… and the mere thought of that made a sharp pain lance through his heart. Somewhere along the way, he'd gone from hating Steve to liking him enough that Tony actually treasured this new friendship. Now, he dreaded whether there was anything salvageable left.
"We really are a bunch of people with trust issues, huh?" Clint finally said. "I mean, most of it is reasonable and understandable. But it's kind of a wonder that we make such a good team. How many more secrets are going to come out?"
Clint's question was probably rhetorical but to Tony's surprise, Natasha spoke up. "I used to be a spy and assassin. It is not something I like to talk about but I have a lot of red in my ledger."
"Well, uh… 'Tasha, I…"
The redhead shrugged, still looking like the epitome of calm. "I thought that we should get it all out of the way."
Tony honestly doubted that Natasha was really all that cool about telling the rest of the group even the slightest bit of her past, but he appreciated her indirect show of support. He had never specifically asked her about what kind of life she'd led prior to stumbling across her bleeding out in an alley and deciding to take her in to patch her up. It had somehow led to Natasha deciding to stay. The way he had found her and subsequently witnessing her skills had already given him good enough conclusions to draw about Natasha's life.
"We all have our secrets, some more than others. We're entering the last leg of this journey, so I hope that this won't affect our end goal," Natasha added.
"It won't," Steve finally said, but he still wouldn't look at Tony.
Tony didn't know he could even feel this crushed by that little non-reaction.
"Are you okay?" Bruce asked tentatively, sometime after everyone else had vacated the room.
Tony considered the question and then considered lying. But he doubted Bruce would believe him, even if he had the energy to muster a convincing reply.
"They hate me, don't they?" he said instead.
"I doubt that they'd hate you for what you did…"
"But? I sense a "but" coming up."
"They will take time to come to terms with it. Steve will."
Bruce going for the jugular figuratively wasn't something that Tony liked. The wizard was a great observer, and the fact that he was normally unassuming and unobtrusive made it such that people tended to let their guard down around him. That made Bruce an even more proficient observer. Tony was a little annoyed, but not surprised, that Bruce knew what was the crux of Tony's worries. Still, there was no harm in playing dumb.
"Who said anything about the Captain?"
Bruce sighed. "Nobody had to say anything. I have eyes, Tony. Remember, I was the one who saw Steve's reaction to you falling from the sky the first time we met. You and Steve have been dancing around each other since I joined your group, possibly even earlier. You care the most about Steve's opinion of you at this point."
"We hated each other in the beginning, you know. But it was mostly my fault. My father was his mentor and I could tell that there was familiarity between them. I got upset and annoyed because I didn't know this great wizard he and everyone else in the world held in esteem and… Steve was a reminder that I was a failure in Howard Stark's eyes, such that he never even bothered with me. So I lashed out at Steve and he didn't really react until I started insulting my dad. Steve actually punched me."
"And you just took it?"
"Well, I didn't see it coming. Literally and figuratively. I knew I deserved it, but I couldn't help but feel vindictive. Steve wasn't perfect after all; he threw the first punch. But after traveling with them and getting into skirmishes, we realized that we clicked in combat situations. Then slowly, it started to improve from there and I could finally admit to myself that Steve really was a good guy." Tony sighed, "I just don't get why he decided to befriend me. I mean, we worked well enough on the field, it wasn't as if we really had to get along in other situations."
"I'm sure Steve had the same realization that you had. That you're not the person he thought you were.
"I'm not a good man, Bruce. Not like Steve."
"You are a good person, Tony. You have Natasha's loyalty and I believe that's an extremely rare thing. You built a town for people who have nowhere to go, who were discriminated and outcasts but hadn't done anything morally reprehensible. And that's without even going into how you kept my secret and stood up for me when it came out."
"Tony. Just listen to me. You gained my trust instantly after you destroyed that silver case. Do you know how long it's been that I've really trusted someone? You're my closest friend right now."
Tony couldn't help it. He blushed. Bruce had never been particularly chatty about personal feelings throughout the time they'd gotten to know each other and to hear all that the other man had said… It made Tony want to believe him.
"Uh well… thanks, Bruce."
"Don't worry about it too much, okay? You probably should get some rest, you look exhausted."
"Not now," he said, as he stood up from where he was slumped on a chair. "I probably should find Jan and catch up a bit or she'd be liable to come search for me. It's been a long while since I've seen her and… and it could be good I guess."
He had been running away from his past for so long but maybe it was time to stop. He wasn't going to go running back to his clan anytime soon, if ever. But he could start by reconnecting with some old friends and his memories of Jan were all good. At the very least, it would stop him from running himself ragged with worry about how the rest of his new friends (Steve) were handling the truth for the moment.
Tony was Anthony Stark. He was a Stark, and more specifically, Howard Stark's son. His mentor's son.
Before he'd known Tony's true identity, Tony had told Steve about how his family had treated him. How his father had treated him.
He had been mostly silent when Tony was relaying the story of his past and how he came to be the man he was today. He was silent because he had been shocked and then Steve just could not find any words to say because he was feeling horrified that such a thing had happened to Tony, remembered feeling that it wasn't what family should do. He had once wondered what kind of a man would do that to a young boy, to neglect him so much that Tony still bore the scars, hidden but nonetheless still there. To find out that the mentor he respected had been the cause of a good number of Tony's issues… It was akin to having his world turned upside down.
The Howard Stark that Steve knew wasn't a man prone to overt displays of emotion but nonetheless, he had still shown approval and concern when it'd been needed. He'd seen Howard when he was in the manic phase of discovery, invention and creation (and now he saw how that was similar to when Tony nattered on excitedly with Bruce about magic and science and just, how had he not seen it?), but Howard had somehow managed to take out some time to talk to Steve. The man that Tony described as his father didn't match with Steve's knowledge of his mentor. Then again, he hadn't even known that Howard had a son. His mentor didn't speak much of his personal life and Steve had never found the need to ask.
As for the fact that Tony had been hiding his identity for so long, even after Steve had hoped that they could all begin trusting each other… He didn't know what to make of that. Or rather, he had different emotions roiling around in him – anger, sadness, betrayal, confusion – that it was hard to discern what was causing which emotion. If a single cause could even be prescribed to each emotion.
Now though, Steve finally had his answer as to why Tony hated Howard so much. In fact, Tony's sudden change in demeanor that night in the workshop was starting to make some sense.
Tony had of course been able to identify his shield as Howard Stark's personal work. Then there was the complete and utter fascination that Tony had for the shield, not to mention the odd moment of hesitance on the warlock's part when he'd been reaching out to touch it. Tony had only proceeded after he'd given… A couple of things slid into place and Steve hoped, really hoped that he was jumping to the wrong conclusions. If he wasn't, he was very likely going to be sick.
Steve covered his face with his hands. This was such a mess. He was a mess right now and he was utterly grateful that Clint had left to finish sorting out their supplies for the rest of the journey. Steve had the suspicion that Clint had consciously decided to give Steve some space to sort through today's revelations.
It would do them all a lot of good if he could sort this out but he couldn't. Not now. Now, all he felt like doing was sleep, despite the early hour. It wouldn't hurt to indulge in some escapism for a short while, would it? Steve sighed. No, he probably should not sleep as it would mess up his entire sleep cycle, which hadn't always been the best since Bucky. Now that they were entering the last leg of the journey, he would need a good amount of rest to keep himself fit and alert. Instead, he decided that he should take a walk around town and hopefully clear his mind since brooding in the room wasn't doing wonders for him.
The fresh air was doing well for him and the snacks he'd bought were delicious. So he did not expect to round a corner into the town square to catch sight of Tony and Janet van Dyne chatting away amicably on one of the benches. Tony looked really happy, carefree, and he was even laughing at something that Janet had said. Something twisted in Steve's gut. Maybe some of the food he ate had gone bad.
Without going by to say hello, Steve left, heading back to the inn. Whatever calm he had gotten from his walk around town had been disturbed once more. He couldn't quite understand why the sight of Tony and his lady friend affected him so and resolved to figure it out before unconsciously hurting Tony again.
Surprisingly, his meeting with Jan did him some good. Jan asked him questions that he had expected and Tony answered them all as honestly as he could, and was glad to find out that he hadn't been wrong about her. Jan took everything in stride, told him that his father was not in town (to which he had breathed a mental sigh of relief, because, with the new resolve to face down his past or not, coming face-to-face with Howard Stark was a whole different matter) and then segued into sharing what was going on in her life. Tony's main take away from that was that Henry Pym needed to get his eyes checked if he couldn't see how smitten Jan was for him. He had fun teasing Jan about it.
It took his mind off of his teammates and it hadn't actually hurt as much when he heard about the things that he had missed since he cut ties with the Starks and everyone related to them. When he finally parted ways with Jan, Tony realized that he was going to miss her and resolved to keep in contact.
Later that night, after a quiet dinner with Bruce and Natasha, Tony found himself unable to sleep despite his exhaustion. While catching up with Jan had done him good, he was still mentally tired over dealing with his friends finding out about his true identity. Now that he could and should rest, sleep was evading him. It wasn't an unusual occurrence but it was annoying nonetheless.
His mind was still running on high gear, as it always was. But tonight, it was looping in circles around the issue of Steve. Although both Clint and Peggy hadn't showed up for dinner as well, he found himself fixating on the paladin and there was just a bit of hurt mixed in with the memory of tonight's dinner. Why?
Deciding to start from the top, Tony made a chronological mental list of his interactions with Steve and the accompanying feelings they stirred in him. There was the initial physical attraction, because Tony wasn't blind and he was allowed to find the blond handsome, and that attraction hadn't waned in the slightest even after the disastrous encounter in his workshop. Then there was their harmony in combat. Even when tensions were still high between them, it had still left him riding on a high that he'd initially attributed to adrenaline, but on hindsight, Tony thought that it might not entirely be due to that. The real mess of feelings had started on the day they'd met Bruce, when Steve had almost killed himself healing him and after that, they finally started properly behaving like friends did…
No. No way.
But if he factored in how worried he'd been about Steve, and truthfully how only Steve's potential reactions had mattered upon discovering his identity as Howard Stark's son, and how hurt he still keenly felt when Steve hadn't showed much of a response to the said revelation… And Bruce – observant, perceptive Bruce – had recognized it before Tony had…
Oh hell no.
"Of course," he muttered to himself, burying his face into the pillows. "Of course Tony Stark would fall for the one person least likely to love him back and realize it only after things have gone to hell. Again."
The next morning and the days after that only seemed to further prove his realizations right. He couldn't even deny how much pain it caused him when Steve found ways to put off being around him alone for extended periods of time. It wasn't too obvious because now that there was barely any proper civilization between them and the fortress, there wasn't that much privacy to speak of when everyone was camping together in the outdoors. Still, Tony could read awkwardness in Steve's words and the tension in his body (and wasn't that just another sign of how attuned he now was to the other man), so he just stopped seeking the paladin out. He didn't even realize that there was a part of him that had hoped that Steve would notice and then seek him out instead, until Steve never did.
It became slightly more obvious to Tony that Steve was deliberately distancing himself when even Peggy and Clint were being normal around Tony, not seeming to care about the lies he'd told them. Of course, they could just be better at compartmentalization but he would never be sure. He supposed that at least Steve's distance wasn't affecting battle situations. Instead, it was now even starker (ha, what was his life when even an unintentional pun hurt?) that whatever closeness and camaraderie shared on the field fled nigh instantly once it was over, leaving him feeling even emptier than when they'd first started out.
Tony hadn't wished for the contents of the wine cellars he had in his mansion this hard in ages.