“So, listen,” Tony Stark was saying. “I could really use some hand-to-hand training. Just in case Iron Man can’t get to me in time, you know. Plus I think it would be good for my fitness.”
“Couldn’t you have asked Iron Man?”
“That might be a bit difficult,” Tony said, a little guiltily.
“Ah,” said Steve. “I think I understand what you mean.” Tony shot him a startled look, and Steve made a zipping motion across his lips.
He’d first noticed it when he’d had one of his meetings with Stark about the allocation of funds, and had seen that his desktop wallpaper was a stylised “pop-art” representation of the Iron Man helmet. He knew Stark had designed the suit, of course, but he’d designed a lot of things, surely? It seemed a little odd. And why build the suit and not wear it himself? Once the idea was in his head, he’d started picking up on all kinds of things, like the way Stark talked about Iron Man with such affection, and seemed to share so many of his mannerisms, and was constantly working on ways of improving the suit. It was obvious.
Tony Stark was in love with Iron Man.
The only problem was, Iron Man didn’t seem to reciprocate. He’d tested the waters a little:
“So, I had a meeting with your boss today.”
“Oh, yeah?” Iron Man had said without enthusiasm (Steve had figured out Iron Man’s tones of voice, despite the distortion. The others kept having to ask him whether Iron Man was being sarcastic or not).
Steve had thought the idea over a little more, and the more he thought about it, the more it intrigued him. He considered Iron Man his closest friend, now, but could he imagine having any kind of physical attraction to him? It was difficult; he saw Iron Man as asexual. Then again, the man inside probably wasn’t. He thought about that for a second. He’d never really given much thought to what the guy might look like, underneath the armour. He’d always just been Iron Man. But maybe Tony Stark knew - well, he’d hired the guy, right? More likely, he’d recruited someone he already knew. Maybe he’d had feelings for the guy before the Iron Man suit even existed. Maybe... maybe he’d even built the suit as a gesture? Some sort of love token? Steve felt his heart break for Tony Stark, a little, at that. He tried again, with Iron Man.
“So, you’ve known Tony Stark for a while, huh?”
“Why are you so interested in Tony Stark all of a sudden?” - Steve thought Iron Man sounded amused, but it was unusually hard to tell.
“Uh,” said Steve, “no reason.” He could feel himself going pink, and mentally shook himself. This wasn’t his secret to reveal. “So... I guess he knows your secret identity, right?”
Iron Man just turned his faceplate towards him, saying nothing. He used it as a method of intimidation, sometimes, but with Steve it was more like the equivalent of raised eyebrows.
“Sorry, sorry,” said Steve. “Didn’t mean to pry. Just curious.”
He’d made a few overtures towards Stark, after that. He felt sorry for him. He was still going to try and drop hints to Iron Man about it, but he didn’t hold out much hope. Of course, he respected Iron Man’s choice, and Iron Man clearly knew Stark much better than Steve did, but he didn’t really understand. He was pretty sure that, in Iron Man’s shoes, he would at least consider it. Stark was matinee idol good-looking, rich, and, it turned out, pretty pleasant to spend time with. He started out just casually mentioning that he was getting lunch after one of their meetings, and inviting him to come along, and it gradually became a more and more regular thing, and now they were in the middle of their first hand-to-hand session.
Tony still seemed a little perturbed at what Steve had said earlier, but they’d dropped the subject, and now Steve was watching him weave. His form was bad, but he was fit, and he had a kind of innate grace. And he was definitely... flexible. Steve looked at the play of muscles under Tony’s skin. Iron Man was really missing out. Of course, maybe Iron Man was just heterosexual, but Steve had got the impression that people these days were a lot more open about being sexually fluid. Steve always had been, and he assumed he wasn’t so unusual - he knew plenty of guys in the army who fooled around with each other but had girls back home. No accounting for taste, he thought idly, as he easily dodged another of Tony’s punches.
“So,” he said to Iron Man that evening. “I had a sparring session with Tony Stark earlier today.”
“Okay, Cap, we can stop playing this game now,” said Iron Man.
“You... you know?”
“You weren’t exactly subtle about it,” said Iron Man.
“Oh,” said Steve, “sorry,” and then, “so, what do you think?”
Iron Man gave the vague impression of shrugging. “No harm done, I guess,” he said cryptically. Well, Steve knew a deflection when he heard one. It was probably time to let the matter drop.
If anything, Tony got friendlier with him after that - invited him to play basketball and tennis with him, which Steve gladly accepted. Not much of a challenge, but it was always good to have another outlet for his energy, otherwise he tended to get restless. They carried on getting lunch together, and then it just seemed to branch out into catching a movie here, wandering around a record store there. They’d take it in turns to pick movies - Tony would go online to find out which arthouse cinemas were screening the old classics, and Steve would read the film pages to find out what the next special-effects-laden explosion-fest was going to be. Tony would try to educate him on modern music - it was hard going at first, but one day he finally got him into The Ramones by playing him ‘Rockaway Beach’, and from there he managed to introduce him to The Clash, and then he used that to teach him about reggae, and so on until he’d installed a thematic and chronological map in Steve’s head of how different musical styles fit together, and Steve found that, once he’d figured out where they stemmed from, it was a lot easier to appreciate genres that had alienated him at first. It didn’t seem to work for electronica, though.
Steve avoided talking about Iron Man. He told himself it was because he didn’t want to make things any harder on Tony, but maybe, if he was completely honest with himself, there was another reason. He resolved not to be completely honest with himself.
They carried on sparring, too - it was great for Steve to be able to see how much progress Tony was making from one session to another, and Tony seemed to get a kick out of it - at the end of a bout he’d stand there grinning, hands resting on his thighs, panting hard, sweat dripping off him. And, okay, Steve couldn’t pretend he got nothing out of that. He had to be stern with himself, though. Tony was in love with somebody else.
If Iron Man noticed anything different, he didn’t remark on it, but Steve felt himself gravitating more and more towards Tony. It wasn’t that he didn’t value Iron Man’s friendship, but every time he made a crack in front of the team about how unreliable or superficial his boss was, it got Steve’s back up. Even aside from knowing what he did about Tony’s feelings for Iron Man, the more he got to know Tony, the more he admired him. Tony was smart and funny and did things like “develop green energy solutions” and “practice a results-only work environment”. Tony let Steve drive his classic Cadillac. Tony preferred salted popcorn, but he always bought sweet without a second thought because he knew Steve liked it. Tony said he hated Barry Manilow, but sometimes he absent-mindedly hummed ‘Copacabana’ when he was working on something. Tony had an easy way about him that made Steve feel like there was nothing to worry about. Tony made the future seem full of possibilities, rather than fraught with confusion. Tony looked up at Steve sometimes, toying with a screwdriver or wiping his hands on a rag or across a rack of records, eyes full of amusement and something else, as though there might be a chance... but Steve couldn’t think about that. What Tony needed was a friend, not more romantic complications.
It got a little harder to keep in mind when Tony pinned him against the wall.
“Uh,” he said, “Tony, listen, it’s not that I’m not” incredibly turned on “flattered, but you know that I’m not -”
“- like that,” Tony finished for him, bowing his head. “I’m sorry. I just thought - sorry.”
“Uh, no, I was going to say I’m not the one you really want.”
“What?” said Tony. “Who else would I want?”
Steve gave him a knowing look. “Iron Man?” he said gently.
“Yeah?” said Tony.
“Come on. You know I know.”
“Yeah, I know you know. I’m Iron Man. I thought we -”
“Wait,” said Steve. “Wait. You’re Iron Man.”
“Yes...” said Tony slowly.
“You are Iron Man. And you like me. Like that.”
“Um,” said Tony.
“I think I need to sit down.” Steve slid down the wall. “Don’t go anywhere.” He put his hand out towards Tony’s ankle as if to hold him there. Tony gave him a strange look.
“Uh,” Steve continued intelligently. “That’s...” really unexpectedly hot.
“Okay,” said Tony. “I genuinely have no idea what’s going on here.”
“I thought you were in love with yourself!” said Steve, a little hysterically.
“Have you been talking to Pepper? Because -”
“I thought Tony Stark was in love with Iron Man.”
It actually took Tony less time than Steve expected to get it. “So... you thought you were pursuing two entirely separate friendships, here?”
“Okay, can we please not focus on the part where I’m an idiot -” Steve scowled up at him.
“And - hey, you’ve been avoiding Iron Man!” said Tony indignantly. “I thought it was just because we could hang out without the suit now, but you didn’t know you were with me! I mean, him.”
“Well,” said Steve, “he kept making snide comments about you. And what did I just say ? And why do you do that, anyway?”
Tony rocked on the balls of his feet for a second, then crouched down next to Steve. “Were you at least a little bit jealous?” he asked.
“I was trying not to think about it,” said Steve in a small voice. Tony sighed and moved until he was sitting next to Steve, back against the wall, legs stretched out in front of him.
“Hey Steve,” he said, “would you like to go out on a date some time?”
“Yes,” said Steve ruefully, “but I think we’ve been on at least twenty already.”
“Does that mean I can kiss you? Or do you have, like, a twenty-one date rule?”
“Usually,” said Steve dryly, “but I guess for you I can make an exception.” Tony cupped his cheek and kissed him tenderly, and Steve felt dizzy, his fingers tingled, his pulse pounded. He tried to hold on, he didn’t want it to stop, but Tony pulled away. He grinned.
“Wait until I tell Iron Man about this.”
“Shut up,” said Steve.