Tony is forty-two years old when he realizes he isn’t broken.
Before that, he figured there was something wrong with him, apart from the obvious- at fourteen, a girl had looked at him from under her eyelashes and pushed him back down on the bed, and Tony had gone with it, because it felt nice and he couldn’t remember the last time he had gotten hugged, much less touch him as much as the girl was doing. It felt nice, to be touched at last.
He remembers thinking that she was attractive, he could at least tell that- he had no problem seeing that some people are hot, it’s just that he doesn’t react the same way as he’s told he’s supposed to.
He fell into it: people were practically queuing up to have sex with Tony as the years passed, he was rich and smart and successful and the rumours built up about him going to bed with people most nights of the week. He enjoyed it, mostly, though sometimes he had to close his eyes and block out the person and instead focus on how they felt around him, inside him, against him. Sometimes he didn’t come, but he used his fingers and tongue to make sure they didn’t notice.
It became a routine, and he kept it under wraps the real reason why he kept doing it, that it wasn’t because he was a sex addict, it wasn’t because he wanted everyone in his bed, it was to keep up a reputation. And, in the quiet, locked-away part of Tony’s mind, he admitted that it was the only time people touched him so much, the easiest and least embarrassing way to con his way into getting intimacy.
It was nice, having someone touch him for a while before he stole away to his workshop. He supposed cuddling would be something he’d like, but he tried it once and couldn’t hope with the surprised and then mildly pitying looks he got. So he didn’t cuddle, he had sex and left and pretended it was what he wanted.
Things started to change after hiring Pepper Potts.
It took a few years, but eventually Tony started getting pangs in his gut when he looked at her sometimes, when she bent over or smiled at him a certain way, and every time Tony felt the stir in his stomach he hoped, for a second, that he was becoming normal.
The hope solidified when he kissed her on a rooftop, and his stomach swooped and the heat intensified and Tony thought distantly, oh, so this is what it feels like.
When Pepper and Tony had sex for the first time, Tony finally understood those scenes on TV when the two characters rushed into each others’ arms and started tearing off each others’ clothes, understood the heated looks he saw people give him too often, the ones he had perfected faking.
For almost a year, Tony had rejoiced: he was finally normal, he was attracted to his girlfriend like he should be, and when they broke up Tony resigned himself to losing whatever he had with her. Pepper, he reasoned, was his one exception.
Another year passed, and Tony buried himself in his work before he began to recognize the rare feelings returning occasionally, always when he was around Steve. For a while he thought they were a fluke, didn’t act on them in case they went away and he had to fake it with Steve, because he didn’t want to fake it with Steve, he would hate to have to do that to him.
But the feelings stuck around, got more tangible until when Steve finally kissed him, Tony all but jumped the man.
Tony is forty-two when Steve comes out as bisexual to a shocked newsroom, and he’s forty-two when he goes along with Steve to a Pride parade.
Originally, Tony had thought it was just about the people in the LGBT acronym, but then he spots several different groups in colours that don’t fit, and Steve points him towards labels that Tony didn’t even knew existed.
Tony listens as Steve, cheek coloured in pink, purple and blue, rattles off definitions, stopping to consult google every once so often.
When Steve points at the people wearing black, grey, white and purple and explains what demisexuality is, Tony goes tense.
Steve notices, glancing over at him and frowning. “Tony? You okay?”
“One more time,” Tony croaks, and when Steve raises his eyebrows, Tony waves his hand in a circle. “Explain that one more time, the demi- thing.”
“Demisexuality,” Steve corrects, and then scrolls down a page on his phone. “A demisexual is a person who does not experience sexual attraction unless they form a strong emotional connection with someone,” he reads out, and Tony is on a whole other world.
“I’m fine,” Tony says, and clears his throat. “I’m- I didn’t know it was, uh. A thing. I’m- gonna go over there for a second,” he says, and leaves a confused Steve standing in the crowd, making his way through the people until he reaches the ones clad in the colours of the demisexual flag.
He taps one of them on the shoulder- a black woman with a timid smile that turns suspicious when she sees who it is. “Um, hello.”
“Hi,” Tony says, and something about his voice, a raw desperation- his mind is looping over and over, they’re like me, they’re like me, this is something that exists, I’m not the only one- makes the woman’s eyes go wide. “I just got the demi thing explained to me by google, but it’s the internet, which is known to be suspect about some things, so I thought I could. Come ask you. If you want to explain things to me. About your thing.”
The woman stares at him, expression wavering between defensive and suspicious before explaining pretty much what Steve said, and then she pauses. “Hey, sorry, but you’re Iron Man, right?”
“Tony Stark at the moment,” Tony says, and smiles. Laughs a little, probably hysterically, because it comes out sounding strange and he’s attracting more stares. “And you are?”
“Marjorie,” she replies, like she’s slowly getting it. Her hand comes up to cover his, and Tony realizes he never took it off her shoulder. He hastily does, apologizing, and she shakes her head. “It’s fine. You need something else, Mr- uh, Tony?”
“I,” Tony says. He swallows. “You guys do the paint thing, right? My boyfriend got the bi pride colours on his cheek, apparently it’s a thing people do to- show they’re proud of who they are.”
“We do the paint thing, yeah,” Marjorie says, smiling. “My friend Kal is doing them over there, if you want him to do you.”
She leads him over to a thin, broad guy whose smile stutters when he sees Tony. He looks expectantly at Marjorie, who shrugs. “He wants the colours. Show he’s proud of who he is.”
“Ooookay,” Kal says, and Marjorie slaps his shoulder.
“Don’t be a dick, Kal, you remember how it was for you. And you know a bunch of people who slept with people before they realized, they have their reasons, I bet Tony has his.”
Kal mumbles something Tony doesn’t catch, but then he’s turning to Tony with a paintbrush. “Where do you want it, man?”
“On my cheek,” Tony says, and Kal nods. He does it slowly and steadily, firm brushes against Tony’s cheek with different paintbrushes, and then he shows Tony his cheek with a mirror. “You like?”
“It’s no red and gold, but it’ll do,” Tony says, and he gets a laugh from both of them.
He catches up to Steve half an hour later, and Steve grins when he sees Tony grinning. “Had fun?”
“Yeah,” Tony says, and Steve’s eyes go to the paint on his cheek. “Demisexual pride colours,” Tony supplies, and Steve’s eyebrows go up.
“I know, people are going to be really confused,” Tony says, waving a hand. “And- sorry I didn’t tell you before, but I just found out less than an hour ago.”
“It’s okay,” Steve says, and then hesitates, his smile less solid now. “I, um. Did-”
“Steve, I can honestly say I have never, ever done anything with you I haven’t one hundred percent wanted to do,” Tony says, and Steve’s shoulders sag in relief.
“Thank god,” Steve says, cupping the cheek that isn’t painted. His thumb strokes lightly before he says, “You look really happy.”
Tony laughs. “I am! I am. It’s- it’s good, knowing I’m not, y’know, broken or whatever. I feel good.”
Steve’s expression goes a little sad, and Tony kisses him, because he’s always enjoyed kissing Steve and he’s never had to fake it with him, not once, and he finally knows he isn’t something that needs to be fixed.
There’s a photo in the New York Times the next day with a photo of them in the middle of that kiss, their eyes closed, paint clear on both of their cheeks.