Pretty much a prequel to my other fic, Trouble in Paradise, because I am lame and have a very large weakness for Tabloid-fic. I also have a very large weakness for team fluff and Tony, so hey, this is what happened.
When you're one of the wealthiest men in the United States, a financial backer to the Avengers, and a superhero on the side, you tend to end up as a media target quite often, even without copious public screw-ups to add to the mix. That said, there's no real way to become accustomed to waking up to a veritable temporary village of news crews camped outside your residence. The fact that Tony was separated from them by ninety-three floors wasn't much protection, considering there were at least three choppers circling Stark Tower.
When he woke up, there was an irritating droning inside his skull, and his head was pounding. While the noise wasn't the cause of the migraine, it certainly didn't help. He sat up, rubbing at his temples with both hands, and tried to concentrate on the massive stream of technological racket that was going on just outside of his home.
//Avengers yet to comment—//
//—an extremely shocking revelation—//
//—all over the tabloids, and although the evidence is uncertain—//
//—the nation is reeling over even the possibility—//
Tony grimaced, and not just because of the blinding headache. Shit.
He closed off all of the feeds, rolled out of bed, and dragged a pair of jeans over his boxers. The t-shirt he'd slept in could stay. In order to deal with this, he first needed to wake up.
Forgoing the Extremis, as he was more or less certain he'd pass out if he accessed it, Tony paused in the living room long enough to punch in a three-digit code on the keypad next to the bay window. Within twenty seconds, all of the non-bedroom windows on the ninety-third floor were covered by solid black blinds which slid down from small slits in the ceiling. Sure, no sunlight got into the penthouse that way, but all the cameras would be getting pictures of would be... well, black blinds.
After you've been torn apart by the media well over a dozen times, you learn to prepare for these things.
"Oh, hey, cool trick with the hidden blinds," Peter said as Tony came into the kitchen. "That'll piss off the camera guys. I mean, I've just been hiding in the kitchen for the past hour, wondering why the heck the living room doesn't have blinds. By the way, do I even want to know what we did this time?"
Tony appeared to be the third person up this morning, which was a surprise. Steve was, unsurprisingly, already up and fussing with the coffee pot on the counter. Peter was seated at the oversized island, and was eating plain Cheerios, which either meant that they were running dangerously low on cereal, or that Peter had decided that Cheerios were a healthy enough choice of breakfast that Jarvis and May would let him get away with dumping truly horrifying amounts of sugar on top. Considering the suspiciously sludge-like look of the milk, Tony was better on the latter.
Having just woken up, it took Tony a minute to process Peter's rapid-fire sentences. "Probably not," Tony admitted, running a hand through his hair and wincing when his fingers caught on a snarl. "Sorry about not mentioning the blinds, by the way; for future reference, the code is six-eight-eight."
"Hey, no problem. I don't think anyone caught a picture of me in my spidey shorts."
"I don't think we've done anything particularly newsworthy lately," Steve said, coming over and handing Tony a mug of coffee. Being one of those disgustingly energetic morning people, he was already dressed in socks, jeans, and a plain blue t-shirt. "Although we must have, considering they've been out there since six in the morning."
"You went jogging?" Tony asked, surprised. He gratefully took the mug, just about burying his nose in it and breathing in the scent before taking a drink. The human equivalent to his armor's charging jack.
"No. I got up with the intent of jogging, but decided against it."
"Ah." Tony nodded, and took another gulp of coffee. He rubbed at the stitches on his forehead with his free hand; the gash he'd received less than two full days ago wouldn't leave a scar, thanks to the Extremis if nothing else, but the Extremis didn't stop it from itching like crazy.
"Stop that." Steve batted his hand away, frowning at him disapprovingly. "You were only released from the hospital yesterday."
"Yesterday morning," Tony corrected, and made a mental note to grab some Advil only when he was sure Steve wasn't looking. "Early yesterday morning. So," he said, turning to Peter, "you didn't check the news to see what's going on?"
"Are you kidding?" Peter answered, raising his eyebrows. "They had the Channel Six news copter hovering outside the window for, like, half an hour. I am so glad I don't have to work today. They'd mob me to death."
"I checked," Steve offered. "All they said was that they were hoping for confirmation from the Avengers on a very controversial discovery."
"No idea. That's how it is on every channel. They said they'd release details at nine. If you hadn't gotten up by eight forty-five, I was going to wake you up."
"Thanks." Tony frowned. "Where is everyone else?"
"MJ's in the shower," Peter said. "Spider-Jessica's doing something with SHIELD today." He paused. "Or maybe I made that up, I'm not sure. I think I remember her saying something. Anyway, she's not here. Luke and Other-Jessica are still in their room. We got a call from Wolverine about fifteen minutes ago, and he says he's going to bail on us today unless the Kree start bombing the planet or something, and then he'll probably show up late."
"I can't imagine why," Steve said mildly.
"At least he called," Tony said. "I think May's rubbing off on him."
"I'm assumin' it's safe to come out of hiding?" Luke asked, poking his head into the kitchen and gesturing at the blackout blinds with one large hand.
"Yeah, Tony media-proofed the house," Peter said, shovelling another spoonful of liquid sugar and Cheerios into his mouth. Tony's teeth ached just from watching.
"Where's Jessica?" Steve asked; Jessica was usually up by now. "Is she feeling all right?"
"She's fine, just sleeping in," Luke said. "Was her night to stay up with Danielle."
"Ouch," Peter said.
"So, what the hell is going on?" Luke gestured at the blinds again.
"We're not really sure," Steve admitted, turning to Luke. While he wasn't looking, Tony casually opened one of the far cupboards and grabbed a bottle of Advil, downing four of the Liquid-Gel capsules at once with a large gulp of coffee. "But apparently they're going to reveal it on the news in about..." Steve checked the microwave clock, "half an hour."
Peter raised an eyebrow at Tony, grinning, and Tony made the 'cut' motion across his throat and gave him a look as he quietly replaced the bottle and shut the door. Peter grinned wider, but mimed zipping his mouth shut.
In the clear, Tony said, "I caught some of what was said over the air when I woke up—something was mentioned about it already being all over the tabloids."
"If you wanna try to go out and pick up some magazines, be my guest," Luke said, frowning. "Me, I'll wait for the news."
"Oh, come on," Peter said, shaking his head. "This is the information age. I guarantee you, within ten minutes of it hitting the newsstands, someone scanned it, posted it on the Internet somewhere, and made an entire forum dedicated to talking about it."
Tony felt like an idiot for not thinking of that earlier, and blamed the lack of coffee up 'til now along with the headache the Advil had yet to affect. Of course, using the Extremis was out of the question anyway, at least until the Advil kicked in, and the others wouldn't be able to see it in any case.
"Hold on a second," Tony said, retrieving his laptop from the living room and placing it on the oversized island. As the four of them crowded around it (Peter simply leaning over in his chair) Tony typed a quick search and hit enter. And promptly received almost three hundred thousand results.
"Um," Peter said. "Didn't these come out, like, today?"
"Yes," Tony said, clicking on the first link. In less than a second, the website (Celebrity Tracker, apparently) loaded, and splashed on the index page was a full-sized scan of the cover of the Examiner.
"Aw, hell," Luke said, with feeling, echoing the emotions around the table.
In contrast to the usual collage of celebrity photographs, there was only one image dominating the entire cover. Two black silhouettes, blending into each other at the lower torso before disappearing off the edge of the scan, made up the front page. Even the title of the magazine was pushed to the side in order to make room, and two large white question marks were stamped on each silhouette.
It was remarkably unoriginal, but, Tony reluctantly conceded, effective.
In giant, obnoxious yellow font, the front headline proclaimed, THE AVENGERS' HIDDEN ROMANCE. Then, in smaller white font beneath it, THE SECRET COUPLE: YOU WON'T BELIEVE WHO THEY ARE! And that was followed by bullet points: HUSHED DINNER DATES, LATE NIGHT WALKS, THE PHOTOS YOU HAVE TO SEE!
For a long moment, no one said anything.
"You are never," Tony said finally, glancing at Steve, "dragging me out to go jogging with you ever again."
"You're the one who refused to go in the morning."
"You get up at six, for god's sake. No one sane gets up at six in the morning."
"No one sane goes to bed at four in the morning," Steve countered. "And then gets up at eight. On a regular basis."
Tony frowned. "I meant to sleep later today. I think all of the noise outside woke me up."
"What, you can hear it?" Peter asked, sitting up. "We're ninety-three floors up; even Logan wouldn't hear it from—" Peter broke off as Tony tapped his temple. "Oh, right. Creepy computer brain. Got it."
The website boasted scans of the entire article, so Tony clicked the corresponding link, and was bombarded by another image—this one an actual photograph, dead centre of the article, of the supervillain attack on The Palm two days ago, where Steve and Tony had been eating dinner.
Aspiring supervillains should probably set their sights a little lower than Captain America for their big debut. Steve had taken out "Bombs Away" (and Tony had to agree with Peter—supervillain names were becoming less and less original) with one well-placed throw of his shield, but not before the idiot had set off one of the bombs he'd planted above the entrance.
There had been a hail of debris, which had miraculously missed everyone but Tony—who had, ironically enough, been trying to convince people to go out the back way, while looking for an opening to allow his armor to fly unnoticed from his briefcase and assemble itself out of sight so it could join the fight, at least.
Tony had been hit by a sizeable chunk of building—not large enough to kill him, thankfully, but definitely enough to knock him out, cause a major concussion (which the Extremis had reduced to simply a very, very, very bad headache by mid-afternoon yesterday), and gash open his forehead just below his hairline. And panic Steve by waking up for about two seconds, and then passing out again for around two hours, which was apparently the whole focus of the article.
The photograph managed to outshine the article in damage value by at least a few hundred percent, and that wasn't even counting the amount of drama the photographer had managed to fit into one picture. Bombs Away was lying sprawled in the upper right corner of the picture, and in the very centre, Steve was kneeling amid the rubble, his shield lying on the ground beside him and Tony's head resting on his knees as blood ran down one side of Tony's face.
"Well, that's more than a little embarrassing," Tony said after a moment. He rubbed at his forehead, but the headache was already receding as the Advil blessedly kicked in. He reached out tentatively with the Extremis for a moment, just to bring up the website in his mind's eye, and only felt a faint twinge.
"The paparazzi have caught you on film with a transvestite hanging all over you, but being unconscious on Cap is embarrassing?" Luke asked skeptically.
"No," Tony clarified, closing off the feed, "I mean the part where I was knocked out by falling debris. And the transvestite was thanking me for having Iron Man save her club from Electro."
"All that gratitude over Electro?" Peter said, raising an eyebrow. "Seriously? Anyone can beat him, you just need to put on rubber gloves and punch him a few times. I mean, this tiny little teenage girl once kicked his butt for trying to rob her parents' convenience store before I even had time to swing down. I swear, she was like five foot nothing. Granted, she had superspeed and a great right hook and took him off-guard, and he escaped through the city's electrical grid, but still. Five foot teenage girl."
"You try explaining that to Cherry next time you're down near Hunts Point."
"Is it just me, or is every flamboyant transvestite ever named Cherry?"
"Why, have you met a lot of them?" Luke asked.
"I've been a street-level hero for, like, fifteen years, so... yeah, actually," Peter admitted. "Incidentally, they tend to be way more polite than most people I save from gunshot wounds or whatever. Very little hysterical screaming or purse-hitting involved."
"Although that one woman did try to grope you through your tights," an amused voice said from behind them; MJ, her hair still damp from her shower. She was dressed in what she usually wore when she wasn't modelling or going anywhere special: worn jeans and one of what might have been Peter's t-shirts.
"We agreed not to talk about that ever again," Peter protested, turning to give her a wounded look. "My spider-sense actually went off when she did that."
"Did you have to pull me into your lap?" Tony asked Steve. "I wasn't on my deathbed."
"Oh, is that what all this racket is about?" MJ asked, leaning over Peter's shoulder to read the article. "Jerks."
"I was worried," Steve answered Tony defensively, crossing his arms over his chest. "You had a head wound and you weren't waking up."
"Ten months ago, I was dead for half an hour and I got better," Tony told him. "Which, by the way, means that I have a better turnover rate than the X-Men. Why wouldn't I have been fine?"
Steve frowned. Tony knew from experience that Steve preferred not to talk about Tony's brush with death—the joke Tony had tried to make about how Steve ought to be used to it by now hadn't gone over well.
Rather than get into that again, Tony scanned the news channels with the Extremis; it was now a quarter after nine, not that the others had noticed yet, and speculations of his and Steve's relationship had now been released all over the country.
Tony assumed they'd waited on releasing the news because it had only been in the tabloids—and with very shaky evidence, at that—which were notorious for horrifically wrong information. But something like this was big, big news, so they were apparently willing to take the risk.
He hit a station whose reporter was gathering opinions, and tilted his head, letting the physical world 'fade' until the Extremis-generated images and sounds in his mind seemed far more real.
"Well," he said dryly, his own voice far away. "That's interesting."
"What?" The word sounded distant, and Tony wasn't entirely sure who said it. He blinked once, bringing himself back from the immersion, then shifted his gaze to the TV in the living room, turning it on with a thought and ignoring Steve's frown as he did so.
"—rica sure as hell ain't gay," a blond man was saying vehemently into the microphone that a pretty, petite Asian woman was holding up to him. "Cap wouldn't be caught dead screwing another guy." He made a disgusted noise. "Not another guy, and definitely not Stark. The guy's Captain America and he's the leader of the Avengers. He's as far from gay as you can get."
"It's always me who's the problem, isn't it?" Tony asked, mock-plaintively.
"Yep. Except when it's me," Peter replied; he and Tony had bonded partially over the way they both seemed to have a giant media bullseye painted on them. Although, to be fair, Peter hadn't been responsible for most of the bad press sent his way. Or continually given the media ammunition.
On the television, the reporter asked, "What do you say to the reports of them having dinner together?"
The man shrugged. "Stark funds the Avengers, everybody knows that, and Cap leads the Avengers. Probably just a business dinner. Hell, Cap probably didn't even want to go, but when the guy's funding your team..." He shrugged again.
"I love the way people talk as if they know us," MJ said, sounding amused, as the reporter thanked the man and the broadcast cut back to the newsroom. "Have you noticed that? You'd think they lived next door to us and had coffee with us every Saturday."
"What did she say his name was?" Steve asked, turning to Tony. Tony hadn't heard, but a quick mental rewind of the broadcast showed the interviewer introducing the man.
"Garret Barker. He's from Westchester."
"Man," Luke said, shaking his head, "he's living in the wrong area for being an intolerant jackass."
"Are you seriously going to harass the guy?" Peter asked, sounding impressed. "Seriously? Way to go, Cap!"
"Making a phone call in response to slander is not harassment," Steve answered. "Tony, what's his phone number?"
"Calling someone straight is slander?" Luke smirked. "Don't hear that every day."
"Steve," Tony said dryly, "maybe we should give a press conference or something before you call up some yahoo and ask him to apologize for making rude assumptions about your lifestyle choice on national television. Besides, it's not slander; the man's right. You're not gay."
"That's not the point."
"Ooo," MJ said mischievously; she was leaning over Peter's shoulder, her index finger on the laptop's touchpad. "This is interesting."
Thankfully, that distracted Steve from Garret Barker for a moment as he turned to look at whatever it was that she'd found. 'It' was a thumbnail image on the Celebrity Tracker's website. MJ tapped the touchpad, bringing it to full size, and the day abruptly became worse.
Tony had been convinced that he'd lost the ability to feel shame over anything to do with sex, romance, or relationships, but apparently he still had some dignity left to be stomped on.
That article's photo had managed to capture the exact moment Tony's eyes had fluttered open, which, considering his position, meant that he was gazing straight up at Steve. Steve's expression was a very blatant mix of worry and relief, which wouldn't have been so bad, if Steve's fingertips hadn't been resting gently on Tony's unbloodied cheek.
"Oh, jeez," Peter said. "I'm pretty sure I saw that on the cover of a romance novel once. Except the girl was in Tony's spot."
"Thank you, Peter."
"I'm just saying."
"'Romantic dinner almost ends in tragedy,'" MJ raised her voice over them to read out the caption, smirking, "'but a happy ending prevails.'"
"I hate my life," Tony muttered. He was never going to hear the end of this from any of the former Avengers.
"Oh, that's bad," Luke said. "Who writes for them, Danielle Steel?"
Tony blinked at him, then raised an eyebrow, momentarily distracted from the humiliating picture. "You've read Danielle Steel?"
"Of course," Peter said solemnly. "Everyone reads Danielle Steel."
"My grandma read Danielle Steel," Luke corrected. "Usually out loud."
"Everyone and their grandma reads Danielle Steel," Peter amended. Luke shook his head, but didn't comment.
"You know," Steve said, frowning at the picture, "we had dinner together all the time, even before we started a relationship. Years before."
"'All the time'? And that wasn't a hint to you two that maybe something more was there?" MJ asked, raising an eyebrow at him. Steve shrugged, but his ears turned sort of pink.
"We're going to have to go out there some time," Tony interjected, deciding to save Steve from further teasing, as MJ had her best innocent face on, and that never boded well for anyone.
"I'd like to ask if they can really stay out there all day," Luke said, "but I know damn well that the answer is, 'Oh, yes they can.' So if you two would go do something about them, I'd appreciate it, since I'd rather only have to wade through a few hundred crazy media people today instead of a few thousand."
"Okay, I have to know," Peter said, eyeing Luke. "What's so important that you actually have to throw yourself through way too invasive TV cameras and crazy celebrity groupies?"
"Chocolate," Luke replied. "And diapers."
"Ah," Peter said, nodding sympathetically. "Godspeed."
"So what are you guys going to say?" MJ asked Tony and Steve curiously, propping her chin up on her hand. "I mean, you can't really deny it, can you?"
"Technically," Tony said, "we wouldn't be lying if we said that we aren't sleeping together. We're not sleeping together right now."
"For which we are all very damned thankful," Luke said.
Steve rolled his eyes, but Tony could see the hint of a smile on his face. "Somehow, Tony, I don't think the public will see it that way."
"Nope," MJ agreed. "Besides, Captain America pulling a Clinton probably doesn't fit most people's image of the All-American man."
"Neither does sleeping with another man, but point taken," Tony conceded. He looked down at himself, in old jeans he generally used in the lab and the t-shirt he'd slept in, then sighed. "I suppose if I'm going to let the media drag me through the mud for corrupting Captain America, I should at least look good for it." Not that he'd willingly stand in front of judgemental news crews in anything other than a suit anyway—whether fabric or metal.
"You look fine," Steve said automatically, then frowned and gave Tony a Look as what he'd said actually registered. "They're not going to say you corrupted me, Tony. A few bigots don't make up the whole country." Considering his tone, Tony had half expected him to end that sentence with an exasperated, "Honestly."
Steve gave the American people far too much credit sometimes, in Tony's opinion. Tony decided not to remind Steve of the picketers who'd set up at the base of Stark Tower about a year ago, just before Steve and Tony had started the new team, with the favoured chant of 'Guns don't kill people; Stark does.'
"If you say so," he said instead.
An hour later, both Steve and Tony were showered, Steve was in costume with the cowl pulled down, and Tony was in a business suit. He was also staring at the elevator with more than a little trepidation.
"It'll be fine," Steve assured him.
"Yeah," Peter agreed, standing with MJ, Luke, and Jessica (who had woken up, been filled in, and allowed to use her quota of poking fun at the two of them) in the hallway. Tony assumed it was meant to be a good luck send-off, but it came off as more of a final goodbye before an execution. "We'll be offering moral support," Peter continued. "I promise, if you need encouraging, we'll be waving at you from the ninety-third floor."
"I appreciate that," Tony muttered, and jabbed the call button for the elevator with more force than was strictly necessary. He'd been all right when they were all joking about it in the kitchen, but now that he and Steve actually had to go down into the snake pit, he was starting to feel a bit ill.
"Good luck," MJ said seriously; when Tony turned to look at her, he was mildly surprised to see that she really was being serious. "Or break a leg, considering dealing with them is pretty much a performance."
"Definitely," Jessica agreed. "I wish you both luck, broken legs, and a quick escape."
"I appreciate that," Tony said again, sincerely this time. The elevator pinged once, and the doors opened. Tony was more or less certain that he only managed to force himself to step in because Steve would have pushed him in anyway.
"Luke," Jessica said disapprovingly, whacking her husband on the arm. "Say something."
"Good luck, and try to clear most of 'em out by noon," Luke called out, and Jessica whacked him again as the doors slid shut, but she was smirking.
As soon as the elevator began its descent, Steve wrapped his arms around Tony—being careful not to wrinkle the suit, Tony noted with amusement.
"You ready for this?" Steve asked, his voice soft.
"No," Tony muttered, face pressed into Steve's shoulder. He was trying not to think about what impact this was going to have on Stark Enterprise's stock, and how much whining (disguised as professional concern) he'd have to put up with from the board over it. "But it's not like I'm ever going to be, so let's get this over with."
A dropped stock percentage wasn't what he was worried about—it seemed to happen at least once a year or so, with every new crisis that threatened to ruin his life, so he was becoming somewhat accustomed to it—but the board would start haranguing him again about putting executive control of the company in someone else's hands, and he was seriously considering redesigning the cell phone they liked so much, if only to have something new to wave in their faces. He was getting bored of repeating the same speech every time. You'd think a simple "no" would sink in after a few dozen arguments, but they appeared to have selective hearing.
The elevator pinged, signalling that it had reached the lobby, and Steve released him, taking a step back. The silver doors slid open silently, revealing an atrium full of mildly traumatized Stark Enterprises employees. The media was being held at bay by the glass doors, but most of the staff had probably had to forge their way past the onlookers, cameras, and microphone-wielding reporters in order to get into the building.
Tony sympathized, and couldn't blame them for the collective relief on their faces when they realized that the media would be harassing Tony Stark and Captain America instead of them.
Granted, the mob outside was a relatively tame mob, having been sitting for three hours with no sign of either Avenger. But glass doesn't make for good camouflage, and while Tony, in a simple (but very, very expensive) black suit could blend in well enough, Steve's costume was both very bright and unmistakable.
They had barely left the elevator when one of the vultures apparently spotted them, and in a scant few seconds, the entire mob had more or less exploded, appearing to triple in size as every single person surged to their feet as one. Even inside the building, the resulting din was almost deafening in its suddenness.
Tony glanced over at Steve. "You know, we can just lean out the door, say 'Yes,' and go back upstairs."
"I would love that," Steve replied, sounding amused, "but we can't."
"Sure we can," Tony countered. "Societal obligations dictate that we shouldn't, but we can."
"Think of Luke," Steve said solemnly. "That'll never get any of them to leave before noon."
Tony ducked his head, grinning for a moment in spite of the assortment of press and civilians who were preparing to mob the two of them over their personal life. "Well, if it's for diapers and chocolate," he said, composing his expression, "I suppose I can give a full press conference."
"That's the spirit."
"Can I mention that in the interview?"
"No," Steve denied, but he was smiling, too. Ah, the things that become funny when hell awaits on the other side of far-too-expensive glass doors.
"Spoilsport," Tony said. He glanced out the nearest pane, and was mildly surprised that no one was squished against the glass yet. However, there were already some flashbulbs going off despite the pane of glass in the way. "You really want to do this?"
"I'm ready when you are," Steve confirmed.
"Good. Let's go back upstairs."
"Now you're just stalling," Steve said. Before Tony could reply, Steve pushed open the door with his left hand and settled his right on the small of Tony's back, and stepped out with him into the blinding glare of flashbulbs.