Steve doesn't even realize it, at first.
Iron Man is his friend. Of course Iron Man is his friend. Iron Man was there at his side when he woke up in this new world -- and it seems like he hasn't really left his side since. He's always there when Steve needs someone to talk to, when icy dreams have woken him in the early hours of the morning and he's wandering the halls. Sometimes Iron Man will talk to him then, will tell him his own stories, so he knows he's not alone; sometimes they'll just sit in silence in each other's company, and that's good too. He's brilliant, and he always makes Steve laugh. He makes him smile. He cracks awful jokes while Steve sits there with breakfast and the newspaper, and Steve sits there grinning, and he thinks that there's something for him in the future after all. There's this.
The rest of it -- honestly, it's more than a little embarrassing, but it's happening, and it's the truth, and Steve's always been the kind of fella who owns up to the truth, even if he can only say it to himself.
Here's a thing he's never told the scientists about the serum: it did something for his libido. It really, really did. He used to be able to take it or leave it, but now? He'll take it, and he'll take it, and he'll take it. Oh, it doesn't affect his performance as an Avenger -- he's not going to die of blue balls -- but it's a regular part of his daily routine. Wake up, go for a run, shower, take care of business in the shower, go about his day, have another shower, take care of himself again, and maybe again in bed if he can't sleep. He can go without it, because there are always Avengers emergencies, but on a good day? That's what he likes to do. He tries not to think of it as perverse. It's a natural function. It's clearly a thing his body just feels better if he does, like stretching or sparring or running. It doesn't mean anything.
He tries not to think about anyone in particular, anyone real, when he's getting off. It feels dishonest somehow to picture real people; it feels exploitative. (That and -- okay, there really are telepaths in the world these days. They might actually know if he's thinking dirty thoughts about them. Or anyone else.)
So today, this morning, it's a bright June day. Steve's back from his run, he's feeling good and relaxed, and he's in the shower jerking off. This morning's fantasy is a tall, leggy brunette, and she's unbuttoning her dress for him, slow and sweet and smiling and he's close, he knows he's close--
And then there isn't a girl in his fantasy anymore. There's a blue-eyed man in a golden metal mask, and his red-gauntleted hand strokes confidently down Steve's stomach, and his voice, teasing and affectionate even through the vocal filters, says how about I show you something even better, Winghead? and Steve shuts his eyes and comes hard, nearly falling against the tiled shower wall.
What was that?
He opens his eyes and stares at the water swirling down the drain.
What the hell was that?
Sure, Iron Man is his friend. Probably his best friend. And it's not that he doesn't know he likes men like that, but he doesn't like Iron Man like that, does he? And even if he does it's still wrong to think of him like this, to use Iron Man's image for his own base gratification. He should have some self-control. He shouldn't do this again. He should stop.
He doesn't stop.
Before he never noticed, really, but now he can't stop thinking about it, he can't stop noticing Iron Man as someone physical, someone with a body, even if that body is encased in metal.
There's a team meeting over breakfast; Iron Man brought donuts he couldn't eat and is sitting there sipping orange juice through a straw, watching Wasp and Giant-Man fight each other for the last sprinkle donut as they run through last week's list of villains.
Iron Man, sitting next to Steve, picks up the last donut from the box -- a jelly donut -- and holds it out to Steve. "Got you your favorite," he says. There's a pause when Steve doesn't take it, and he imagines the man under the armor is frowning. "Those are your favorites, right?"
"Yeah. Thanks, Shellhead," Steve says, and he takes the donut.
His bare fingers brush Iron Man's gauntlets, and there's powdered sugar stuck to the metal.
He thinks about licking it off the armor.
What is wrong with him?
It's one of those hot, sticky, muggy days, the kind of day where Steve hopes all the evildoers of New York City decide to stay home, but of course he's not that lucky. Even worse, it seems like today both Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four have decided to stay home, which is why the Avengers spend about three solid hours fighting Paste-Pot Pete and then the Chameleon impersonating Paste-Pot Pete. Steve might have spent one of those hours glued upside-down to the side of a building in the Bronx until they could find a solvent. It's not one of his prouder moments.
And then, of course, the Fantastic Four show up after all and Johnny Storm ends up accidentally setting a warehouse on fire.
"Bill it all to Mr. Stark," Iron Man yells, as the Avengers troop tiredly down the street, smoke billowing behind them.
There's glue dried all down Steve's back and he is absolutely dripping sweat. Under the cowl his hair is soaked, and his uniform feels basically stuck to him.
The rest of the team is a mixed bag: Giant-Man looks a little pale, and Wasp is too tiny still for Steve to be able to discern anything. Thor is serenely divine, of course, and Iron Man... well, Iron Man could be anything.
Steve glances over at Iron Man, walking along at his side. "Are you all right in that tin can? It's awfully hot out."
Iron Man makes a reassuring noise, kind of a hissing chuckle. "Fine, Cap. Just a little banged up. There's a cooling system in the armor. It's a bit warm in here, but I'll live."
He is concerned; that's why he's asking. Of course that's why he's asking.
Iron Man throws an arm over his shoulder and pulls him close. They're friends. That's what friends do.
Steve is even hotter, everywhere Iron Man touches him.
It's evening by the time they finish dealing with the situation and get home to the mansion.
"So, uh," Iron Man says, "I'm going to go check out for the night if that's all right with you, Cap. I want to get home and get out of this suit and have a nice long shower."
Steve grins at him. "Sure, Shellhead. Have a good night."
He wastes no time heading to his own shower and finally, finally peeling out of the uniform. He doesn't know if the dried glue's ever going to come off. He'll have to ask Mr. Stark about that the next time he sees him. He feels a little guilty asking him for favors about his uniform when Mr. Stark surely has his hands full with Iron Man's armor and all of Stark Industries besides, but the man did offer. He always seems so eager around Steve, giving him equipment and more equipment as if each present is going to be the key to Steve's happiness. And, well, Mr. Stark is also intimidatingly handsome, if Steve is honest with himself. Steve gets kind of tongue-tied around him. He's a modern-day Howard Hughes with the movie-star looks of Clark Gable, and he's one of the most brilliant men in the world. Steve's still kind of in awe that Mr. Stark has any time at all for him.
He tells himself he's not thinking about Mr. Stark when he comes. He's definitely not thinking about Iron Man. He's not thinking about anyone at all.
When he finally gets to bed, he pulls the sheets over himself and luxuriates in the air conditioning. If this were 1935 he'd be out sleeping on the fire escape or maybe the rooftop in the sweltering night, but he doesn't have to and he's grateful for that.
He hopes Iron Man has air conditioning, wherever he's going.
The fantasy blindsides Steve then, like a punch he had no idea was coming. In his head Iron Man is stripping slowly out of his armor, gauntlets unlatching, sliding off over sticky, sweaty skin, finally free, bare, real. Someone who can be touched. Steve imagines his hands on Iron Man's bare skin, sliding down from metal to flesh; he imagines undoing the catches on the armor, on the helmet. He imagines Iron Man letting him, trusting him, kneeling in front of him, vulnerable but still strong even as Steve lifts every piece of armor away from him--
He realizes he is achingly hard. Again.
Just this once, he tells himself as he slides his hand past the waistband of his shorts, and in his head Iron Man is standing surrounded by the scattered pieces of his armor, the suit they've removed together. He still has the helmet on, but he's lifting it away, and Steve shuts his eyes -- even in his fantasies, he can't picture the man's face -- and then Iron Man is kissing him, pressed to him, skin against skin, and Steve gasps and comes.
This might be a problem.
In the morning Iron Man isn't there, which Steve is guiltily grateful about, because he isn't quite sure how to look him in the face without Iron Man looking back at him and somehow knowing he's been thinking about him. It's wrong, using him, and even more so because Iron Man's friendship with him -- and indeed with everyone else -- is entirely non-sexual. He doesn't flirt. He doesn't make off-color jokes. He just... doesn't engage with any of it. Steve's wondered, sometimes, if maybe there's something wrong with him, some kind of medical problem -- maybe he's injured, under the suit? -- or if he's just the kind of person who prefers not to deal with that entire realm of human interaction. Maybe that's why he stays in the suit.
But he talked about taking the suit off last night, Steve's mind points out, and he tries not to think about how that means Iron Man can go without the suit, because he already got a lot of mileage out of that particular remark during this morning's shower. Unfortunately.
Mr. Stark is sitting in the kitchen, intent on the newspaper, to the detriment of his breakfast. He's grabbed the business section out of the newspaper and has it spread out on the table in front of him. He's actually got his bowl of cereal on the paper and he's dripped milk on the ads.
Mr. Stark looks up and smiles at him; it's a nicer smile than the way he looks in the society pages. He looks real. He looks like he likes Steve. It's a friendly smile, and Steve feels just a little warmer, seeing it.
"Morning, Mr. Stark."
Mr. Stark grimaces, an exaggerated face. "Please, Captain. You remember, I told you to call me Tony." And then he smiles again.
"Tony," Steve says, experimentally, and Mr. Stark -- Tony -- nods and raises his eyebrows in encouragement.
He's damned attractive. It's not really helping Steve's morning.
"You can call me Steve," Steve offers.
"Steve, then," Tony says. His spoon scrapes at his cereal bowl. "How are you doing?"
"Fine, fine," Steve says. "Just have a bunch of Avengers reports from yesterday to fill out. I... guess you heard about that?"
Tony's grimace is real this time. "They haven't hit me with the bill yet, but yeah."
He wonders, sometimes, why Tony does this for them. He doesn't have to feed and house and fund a superhero team, after all. It's not like every billionaire has one.
Tony stretches, leaning back from his chair. He is unexpectedly graceful. A lock of hair falls rakishly across his forehead. "Hey, Cap, I was wondering... are you busy today? Other than the paperwork."
Steve shakes his head. "Nope, just that. Why?"
"I've got to rebuild one of Iron Man's gauntlets and I'd... like some company." His gaze darts away. He has very long eyelashes, Steve notes absently. "So I thought maybe if you wanted to hang out downstairs with me while you did your paperwork, it'd be nice. Otherwise I'll just talk to myself. Might as well talk to someone else, you know? And it's not like your paperwork's that interesting either, is it?"
It's a sweet offer. It reminds Steve, somehow, of sitting up at night with Iron Man, just enjoying his company.
"Sure," Steve says. "Why not?"
Tony smiles at him.
They've been sitting here working mostly in silence; Tony has surrounded himself with glue-covered armor panels, and he offers Steve help with the glue on his uniform without Steve even having to ask. Steve smiles and accepts the offer, and then turns to his work.
Three hours later Steve is through revising his reports for the team files and Tony looks up and holds a gauntlet out.
The metal gauntlet gleams, pristine and new, with the repulsor dim and powerless in the center of the palm. Steve has the oddest impulse to touch it, to run his fingers over it, to feel the little striations where the metal is built to flex, the way it curves around the wearer's fingers.
He wonders if he's developing some kind of armor passion.
He wonders if it's even worse to have a passion for the Avenger who isn't currently wearing it.
"Mmm," Steve says, finally. His mouth is dry. "Looks great. I bet Shellhead will love it."
"Oh, he will," Tony says, with a crooked grin. "Want me to model it for you?"
Before Steve can say yes or no -- or really, have any thought other than this is unexpectedly extremely arousing -- Tony is already pushing his shirtsleeve up past his elbow. The gauntlet slides onto his arm, bright red metal over tanned skin, and Tony flexes his fingers one by one, testing the fit.
Steve imagines Tony stepping closer, putting his gauntleted hand in Steve's, running his armored fingers down Steve's arm, and he shudders with need. Tony's just so... compelling, physically. It's hard to think about anything else when they're this close. He doesn't think Tony is consciously trying to affect him, but Tony is almost unbelievably handsome. It just... happens. It's only physical. It will go away when Tony leaves the room.
Unlike, clearly, his feelings for Tony's bodyguard.
Tony turns his hand over, palm up; he splays his fingers wide. He's very careful not to point the repulsor at Steve or at himself, even though it's not live; it reminds Steve of Iron Man in the armor. He makes a fist, then flattens his hand out. The gauntlet fits Tony perfectly.
Steve frowns as the observation makes its way through the sudden fog of lust. "Aren't you supposed to make that fit Iron Man and not you?"
"I--" Tony blinks a few times and seems to be at a loss for words. "It does fit Iron Man. We're... pretty much exactly the same size."
"That's some coincidence."
He is certainly not going to use this fact to inform any of the fantasies he is not going to continue to have about Iron Man. Just because he can actually see Tony, and he knows how Tony is built -- it doesn't mean he can think about Iron Man like that, a man with a slender but muscular build, just a little shorter than Steve himself is--
He would only have to tilt his head a little to kiss him.
"Not a coincidence," Tony says, jarring Steve out of the fantasy. He turns away and pulls the gauntlet off and Steve is bitterly sorry he can't see and, okay, there is something wrong with him. "I built the first version of the suit to fit me. I had to hire someone who could also fit in the suit."
"Oh." That makes sense, he supposes. "Lucky you found him, then."
"Yeah," Tony says. When he turns back, his face is unreadable. "Yeah, I guess so."
Iron Man's back at the mansion the next day. He's sitting in the library reading; the afternoon light is slanting in and making him glow red-gold, the heart of a fire. Steve watches him turn the pages of his book and thinks about how he saw the gauntlet on Tony yesterday, how there's a hand under the metal, a man in the suit.
He wonders how the gauntlet attaches to the rest of the suit, if there's a release somewhere, if it could just slide off under his hand--
Iron Man looks up. "Hey, Winghead," he says, and he sets his book aside. It's Le Morte d'Arthur, Steve notes. "Is there something I can do for you?"
Yes, Steve thinks.
"Nah," Steve says, far more casually than he feels. "I just wanted to say hi. Is that the armor Tony was repairing for you?"
"First name basis with my boss already, eh?" Iron Man says, and Steve gets the sense he's smiling under the mask. "Yeah, yeah, Mr. Stark fixed it up after the other day. There was paste in pretty much everything. It was a mess."
Now that he knows Iron Man is Tony's size, it's easier to picture how the armor fits around him. Iron Man is a few inches taller than Steve, sure, but that's the suit -- the boots probably have to have enough space to accommodate the jets, after all. And if he's got Tony's build -- well, Tony's reasonably slim, but the armor's not especially bulky. It's got to be a tight fit for whoever's in there.
"You got out of it okay, then?" Steve asks.
He almost winces when he hears himself speak; he's just been... fixated... on the idea of Iron Man shedding the armor. But it's not like Iron Man's going to notice even if he slips up and says anything that could mean anything... else. Iron Man just doesn't interact with him like that.
"Hmm?" Iron Man's hummed question sounds like a burst of static. "Yeah, I was fine. The glue didn't get in the joints. Lucky for me. I got my shower after all, don't worry."
Steve smiles. "Seems strange to think that you're a regular guy under there."
Strange how much he's been thinking about it, more precisely.
Behind the mask, Iron Man's eyes flicker shut for an instant. "I wouldn't say I'm exactly a regular guy, Cap. Aren't we all a little weird in this business?"
"Sure." Steve chuckles, acknowledging the point; Iron Man does put on a suit of armor and defend the Earth, after all. "But I mean more that you live like everyone else does, right? You go home, you leave the armor behind." He has a sudden thought. "You don't have to keep the armor on around m-- around us, I mean. It'd-- it'd be nice to see you, Shellhead. You could actually eat at team dinners."
I wish I could see you, he doesn't say.
Iron Man's sigh sounds like something's shorted out. "It's not that simple." His voice is flat and hard.
"What do you mean?" Steve thinks maybe he's missing something here.
"It's complicated." Iron Man's gaze looks almost bleak. "I can't-- I can't talk about it. I'm sorry. It's not you; it's just... personal."
"Oh." Steve feels like an idiot. There's some kind of boundary here, some line Steve's overstepped. He's not really sure what it was. Maybe Iron Man is injured, after all; maybe he's scarred like Doom and doesn't want to leave the armor. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."
It doesn't matter to Steve what Iron Man looks like under the mask, he thinks fiercely; even if he were scarred, Steve is sure he'd be wonderful, because he's Iron Man, because he's his best friend. He would never be ugly, no matter what he looked like.
"No, no," Iron Man says, quickly. "Not your fault. I just--" He looks away and doesn't finish his sentence. "I have to go."
He's up and out of his seat in a flash.
"If you ever want to talk about it," Steve tries, "I'm here for you."
He knows as he says it that it wasn't the right thing to say, but he doesn't know what the right thing is. Maybe there isn't one.
Iron Man turns in the doorway. "Yeah," he says. "I know." And then he's gone.
A couple weeks later, the Maria Stark Foundation has a gala.
Tony had dropped by one day and handed out invitations to the Avengers a little tersely, like someone was making him pass out fliers for a show. From his general attitude about it, Steve thinks Tony doesn't really expect any of them to go. He didn't even bother giving Iron Man an invitation, and Steve is privately more than a little grateful, because things have been so awkward between them since that conversation that he isn't sure how he can face him right now.
Steve thinks that it probably helps Tony, to be able to point to the Avengers as an act of good that he has made happen. Tony has changed the world for the better. Tony gave him a home. He owes Tony an appearance at least. So he's going.
He feels out of sorts standing at the edge of the fancy hotel ballroom; he's in his Avengers uniform, surrounded by men in black-tie. His civilian identity is still a secret, and since he couldn't show up as Steve Rogers he might as well show up as Captain America -- which is what Tony had probably wanted in the first place. Still, he knows he stands out.
He sees Tony not too far away from him, champagne flute in hand, moving from one little group of guests to the next. Tony has his charm on full-force, and there's more than a hint of flirtation in his actions with many of the guests. It's nothing off-putting, nothing that seems unwelcome to any of the people he's talking to; he's standing a little close, leaning in, smiling and laughing. His hand brushes briefly over a woman's lower back. Steve has the sudden sense that this is all very calculated, that this is what society expects of Tony Stark.
Steve wonders if Tony would flirt with him.
He's read the papers, of course; he's seen the breathless gossip, and he can tell by now which of the coy little blind items are meant to be referring to Tony. They think Tony likes men as well; he knows that, and he knows it's not illegal now. But they're talking about this world, fundraisers and obscene amounts of money and women in glamorous dresses hanging off Tony's arm. This isn't what Steve thinks of when he thinks of Tony; he pictures a man in a grease-stained shirt in the basement of the mansion, pieces of armor in his lap, tongue sticking out of his mouth as he works.
He thinks this Tony is an act. He wonders if the other Tony is an act too.
But he knows what they say about Tony, and at least it would be simple with Tony, unlike how things stand with Iron Man. He can't get anything right with Iron Man, these days. But Tony is someone he could touch -- also unlike Iron Man. It would be easy. All he has to do is ask. There are no hidden motives here, no secrets. He can't mess this one up.
It wouldn't have to mean anything.
He watches Tony whisper something into a woman's ear, watches her laugh. Maybe it wouldn't mean anything to Tony. Maybe the papers would be right about that.
But that's okay. Maybe even good. Maybe it means Tony would want him, just for a night.
And then Tony's walking over to him, and he's smiling. It's not the same smile he was showing the other guests. This one seems wider, more real, and Tony's eyes are bright. Like he's actually happy to see him.
"Hey, Cap," he says, cheerfully. "You made it! I didn't think you'd come."
"You did ask me," Steve points out.
"That I did," Tony agrees. "I just didn't think you'd want-- well." He seems to stumble, pause, regroup. "Thank you. I think Jan's around here somewhere if you're looking for another friendly face." He half-smiles. "A lot of people are probably friendly to you, huh? Captain America."
Not the way I want them to be, Steve thinks.
He sees Jan all the way on the far side of the room, talking to a man he doesn't know. He turns, taking in the rest of the ballroom. She's the only Avenger he sees. "None of the other Avengers took you up on it, huh?"
Tony shakes his head. "Giant-Man and Thor declined, and I gave Iron Man the night off. I can do without a superhero bodyguard for the night."
Tony is perfectly friendly with him. Tony is keeping an appropriate distance from him. Tony isn't breathing low, seductive words in his ear. Tony is a gentleman. Tony... is not going to make a move here.
It's up to Steve, then.
"Well," Steve says, and he steps in a little, and he meets Tony's eyes, "if you want one for the night, I'm available."
He holds Tony's gaze and smiles.
Tony blinks at him a few times like he can't possibly have heard him right, and he steps back from Steve, back to a reasonable distance. "I, uh," Tony says. His eyes dart away. "I'll keep that in mind if supervillains attack, thanks." He smiles weakly. "Anyway. Uh. Back in a bit, there's someone I have to-- uh-- thanks for coming, Cap."
Now Tony's stepping away from him, moving on to the next group, and Steve leans against the wall and sighs.
Tony Stark apparently will flirt with everyone in this room except him.
Can he not do anything right?
"You mean you're breaking up the Avengers?" Steve asks, and he thinks it's only Iron Man's hand on his shoulder that keeps him from falling. Iron Man's metal grip is strong, holding him up.
It can't be anything he did, he thinks, frantically. They had that one strange conversation in the library a few weeks ago, before he went to South America, but surely if Iron Man had problems with him he would tell him and not just disband the team entirely--
"Easy, old friend!" Iron Man says, and he's Steve's friend, he says Steve is his friend, so this has to be okay. "We're merely taking a leave of absence!"
Iron Man keeps talking, and behind him he thinks Rick is saying something, but he can't make out any of it over the roaring in his ears. And then Iron Man's walking out the front door -- to make the announcement, he says -- and Steve looks around the room, filled with people he doesn't know, new Avengers he doesn't know, and it's all happening so fast--
A man in a purple costume is staring at him, and-- aren't those other two from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants? What was Iron Man thinking? Why is he leaving him to deal with this?
Outside the crowd is calling for them and Iron Man steps back inside, shutting the door and leaning against it, tipping back hard, like he's run out of energy even to stand up.
"You seem downhearted, Iron Man," Steve says, and he knows he sounds desperate but he doesn't want Iron Man to go. "Perhaps you'd like to reconsider your decision?"
Iron Man meets his eyes. His gaze is clouded, regretful. "No," he says. "I must leave. I have many-- personal reasons." He sounds just like he did in the library.
Maybe it is Steve. Maybe he's noticed Steve mooning after him, maybe he's appalled, maybe this is his way of being kind about it.
Steve tells him he'll always be an Avenger.
Iron Man wishes him luck.
What else can he do?
When he comes back inside after the press conference with the new team, Iron Man is already gone.
The next time Steve sees Iron Man, it's a fake. It's a holographic projection telling him and the rest of the Avengers to admit the Swordsman to the team.
He should have been suspicious.
Hell, Hawkeye was suspicious, and then Steve had turned on him in front of the entire team for telling Iron Man he didn't decide who got to be an Avenger anymore, for calling Iron Man a has-been. No one speaks to Iron Man that way, Steve had said.
Clearly he should have listened to Hawkeye.
He's always believed in Iron Man without reservation. He thought he could atone, somehow, for whatever he's done to push them apart; he thought that if he could show Iron Man he was on his side, if he could back him up, everything would be better between them.
He feels like an idiot now.
He wonders what it means that even the Avengers' enemies know how much he trusts Iron Man. They know they can use Iron Man against him.
He wonders if Iron Man knows that.
He doesn't see Iron Man -- the real Iron Man -- for another few months; the Avengers, old and new, call a meeting to determine whether they should recruit Spider-Man. Steve doesn't quite realize how much he's missed him until he sees the familiar red and gold figure leaning against the wall. Real. Not a projection. Definitely himself. There's a knot of nervous energy somewhere under Steve's breastbone.
"Hey, Winghead," Iron Man says, and Steve wishes there were a way to tell if Iron Man was smiling. "How's it going? You handling the team okay?"
"Fine," he says, and he doesn't say I miss you. He doesn't say come back. "It's... different. You've been keeping busy?"
Iron Man laughs, that familiar crackling-static sound that Steve feels somehow intensely homesick for, like Iron Man is a place. Like being with Iron Man, the two of them on the team -- like that was his home. Of course, Iron Man doesn't live here anymore.
"Fighting all the villains a man could want," Iron Man says. "More than a man could want, actually. Definitely more."
"Yeah," Steve says, with feeling. "Tell me about it."
Iron Man holds out his hand, fingers curled into a fist -- he showed Steve this gesture, once -- and Steve very carefully bumps Iron Man's gauntlet with his own gloved fist. He knows Iron Man probably can't feel it at all, but Iron Man chuckles anyway, pleased, and Steve feels like the sun's finally coming up.
He's never going to touch Iron Man's bare hands. This is what he gets. It's enough, he tells himself. He has to make it be enough. It's a silly passion. It will fade.
After the meeting, after Spidey doesn't come back with the Hulk and doesn't become an Avenger, the rest of the team files out and it's just him and Iron Man in the room.
"Welp." Iron Man picks himself up with a creak and a clatter. "It's been fun. Time to get going."
Steve catches his breath; it feels almost like a punch. He bites his lip.
Iron Man tilts his head at him, curious. "You okay there, Winghead? You know you can always-- you can always talk to me." He pauses. "Just because I'm not on the team right now, it doesn't mean we're not friends. You know that, right?" Steve doesn't know what to say -- does Iron Man forgive him? He can't speak, and in the silence Iron Man presses his gauntlet against his face. "God, is that why you haven't called-- did you think I--?" He sighs, a staticky hiss. "It just-- it really looks like there's something eating at you."
Steve shuts his eyes. "I don't-- it's stupid, anyway."
There's a heavy pressure on his shoulder and when he opens his eyes, it's Iron Man's hand, gleaming red. He turns his head and looks back, trying reflexively to glean some clue from Iron Man's appearance; behind the mask, Iron Man's eyes are wide.
He has pretty eyes, Steve thinks.
"It isn't stupid," Iron Man says, very quietly. "But if you don't want to tell me, that's okay too. I believe in privacy."
Privacy. He'd pried, he'd tried to pry into Iron Man's life, and then Iron Man had left--
"Was it me?" Steve blurts out. He turns away, horrified. "Was it because of me that you left the team?"
There's at least a second of silence.
"God, no!" Iron Man says, and even with the filters he sounds appalled. "I don't know what you think you did, but no. Really. I just needed a break from the team for a bit. Honest truth."
Tentatively, Steve looks up. Of course, Iron Man's face is impassive metal, as always, but then Iron Man's holding out a hand.
"Come here," Iron Man says, voice gone low and scratchy, and his eyes seem a little too wet, bright, and he's blinking like he's trying not to cry.
Steve puts his hand in Iron Man's and then Iron Man is yanking him up and into a careful embrace.
"I'm lousy at hugs, so I apologize in advance," Iron Man says, and his arms go around Steve's back. Steve tries to resist the impulse to step in and brace himself on Iron Man's boots because they're not actually flying right now. It's a little uncomfortable -- the edges of the gauntlets are digging into Steve's side and his face is smashed into Iron Man's shoulder, because Iron Man is tall -- but it's the best hug Steve can ever remember having.
He thinks he's shaking.
"Is that better?" Iron Man asks.
Steve smiles, even though Iron Man can't see. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, it is."
"Don't be a stranger," Iron Man says. "I'm here, okay, Avenger?"
"Okay," Steve says. "I know. I'll remember."
"Good," Iron Man says.
Steve hopes Iron Man is smiling now.
He knows he's an awful person, because he wonders how much nicer it would be if Iron Man took the armor off.
He is gone on Iron Man.
He's not really sure when it happened, but he realizes it has happened when he's turning down dates. Sharon Carter asks him out. But it wouldn't be fair to her, not when he's so hung up on Iron Man.
Nothing could ever happen between him and Iron Man, anyway. He knows that. It's hopeless.
But that doesn't stop him wanting.
One night when he can't sleep, he's up and out of bed, walking down the hall before he remembers that Iron Man's off the team and won't be there to talk to. There's silence all down the hallway. The twins are asleep. Hawkeye, he thinks, is probably asleep. There are three more arrows embedded in the wall at the end of the hallway and he sighs and pulls them out as he heads down the stairs to the kitchen.
A cup of warm milk is better than nothing. He won't wake Jarvis up.
Steve frowns. There's a clanging noise coming from the basement.
By the time he gets downstairs the clanging stops, and there's a flickering light coming from the workshop. Tony's here? He doesn't think Tony was here before.
Tony switches off the blowtorch and pushes the goggles back on his head when he sees him. He grins. He looks more than a little tired, but the smile is real. "Hey, Cap. Welcome to the insomniacs' welding club."
Steve leans against the doorframe. "I didn't expect to see you here. Did Iron Man need an upgrade?" His heart pounds. "Is he-- is he here?"
Tony waves his gloved hand in a way that Steve thinks means both yes and no. "He's asleep but, yeah, he needed something fixed. I didn't mean to bother you."
"You didn't," Steve says, easily.
"Is there something I can help you with?"
Steve feels a little silly saying it. His tongue feels too thick for his mouth, and the last thing he needs is for Tony to know about his ridiculous crush on Iron Man. "I-- no, it's just that-- when Iron Man was on the team, when I couldn't sleep, he'd usually be up when I was and he'd sit with me--"
"Ah." Tony's gaze is far away for a second, but then he's striding across the room and clearing off a chair, with a clatter of metal. "Here," he says, and he shifts his weight awkwardly. "I know-- I know I'm nothing like Iron Man, but if you want to sit here while I work...?"
Steve smiles and takes the offered seat. "That would be swell -- thanks, Tony."
Tony's still hovering, like it's a party and he's expected to be an entertaining host. "Can I get you something else? Do you want to write or draw or something?"
He doesn't think he's drawn in a while, but suddenly that sounds like just what he needs, losing himself in the simple elegance of lines on paper, something to hold his focus. "Sure, that would be great."
Tony's got a desk drawer open and is digging through it. Eventually he comes up with a pad of graph paper and a mechanical pencil. It is absolutely nothing Steve would ever have wanted to draw with before tonight, but now it is exactly right.
"Is this okay?" Tony asks, his voice hesitant. "I can order you some art supplies--"
"No," Steve tells him. "This is wonderful, thanks. Just what I needed."
Tony grins at him. "Yell if you need me," he says, pushing the goggles back down. "This is going to get loud."
As Tony turns back to his work, Steve draws a few experimental swirls on the graph paper. The pencil is satisfying in his hand. If he does this, and then this -- the swirls start to take a shape. It's a person, he realizes.
After a few more minutes, he realizes he's drawing Tony.
He blinks and looks up when a shadow falls across the page. It's quiet in here, he realizes. Tony must be done.
"You're really into that," Tony says, admiringly. "What are you drawing?"
Steve looks up at him. "You." It occurs to him then that perhaps Tony minds; maybe he should have asked first. "I'm sorry. It just happened--"
"Definitely do not apologize," Tony says. "I am flattered." He drops the goggles on the desk and then frowns. "Do you want me to pose or something?"
"No," Steve says. "You're great the way you are."
Tony just smiles.
Steve comes back the next night. He finds he's doodling Iron Man, a little caricature of him in battle. Tony laughs when he sees it and insists on sticking it on the fridge upstairs.
Tony's not Iron Man, but he's not bad, either.
The team reforms, and reforms, and reforms, Avengers drifting in and out. Steve leaves and comes back. Iron Man leaves and comes back. Steve realizes that they've built something here, something good, something bigger than them -- even if sometimes the other Avengers, the newer ones, look to them like they're the parents of this sprawling family. Tony is, of course, their odd relative who comes by with presents. Steve likes Tony. Not as much as he likes, say, Iron Man -- but it would be hard for anyone else to live up to that. Tony's become a good friend, but Iron Man -- Iron Man is something else entirely.
It just works.
Sure, okay, he has this silly crush on Iron Man, and, yes, all right, his number one fantasy still involves getting him out of his armor, but, well -- Iron Man is one of his best friends, and he wouldn't trade fighting at his side for anything else. It's a good life. He doesn't need more than this.
And then one day, the battle's done, and Iron Man catches his shield on the rebound and flies it back to him, presenting it solemnly with both hands, like he's being knighted. Steve wonders if one of them should kneel, and he can't stop grinning as he takes it.
"Thanks, Shellhead. That was thoughtful."
"I'm always thinking of you," Iron Man agrees, and he throws his arm over Steve's shoulder, the way he always does.
Something joyful bubbles up then inside Steve, something bright and warm and perfect. God, Shellhead, I love you, he thinks, happily--
And then he stops dead, because he loves Iron Man. He loves him.
It was always something more than a passing fancy.
"Steve?" Iron Man cocks his head. "You all right there?"
Steve comes back to himself and staggers forward. Iron Man's holding him up. Of course he is.
"Yeah," Steve said. "I'm great. I just-- I just had a thought."
"Mmm," Iron Man says, a low hum, when Steve doesn't elaborate. "I hope it was a good one."
Steve smiles. "It was."
He might have thought it would be harder, having realized a thing like that, but instead it just makes the pieces of his life slot into place. It wasn't an armor passion. It wasn't because he was lonely; he has more friends now than Iron Man, even if Iron Man had been the first of them. He's just... in love with Iron Man, and that explains it. It's a fact about him now, immutable. His name is Steve Rogers, he's 6'2", he likes to draw, he's Captain America, and he loves Iron Man.
It doesn't matter to him who Iron Man is, under the armor. Sure, he might fantasize about seeing Iron Man without it, but those are just fantasies. Iron Man's secret identity is important to him, and Steve respects that. It doesn't matter what Iron Man looks like, or what his name is. It's not as if the name or the face would mean anything independent of Iron Man, anyway; Steve doesn't know most of SI's employees that well, and he doubts Iron Man hangs around Tony's factories out of his armor.
He knows who Iron Man is, anyway. He knows who Iron Man is in every way that matters. He knows that Iron Man is the man who found him, the man whose voice was the first thing Steve heard in this century. He knows that Iron Man will stay up with him at night if he's lonely, if he can't sleep; he knows Iron Man will tell him everything he needs to know about the future and never mock him. He knows Iron Man trusts him, one hundred percent. He knows Iron Man is a brilliant strategist who will fight at his side like no one else ever has, and who will catch him when he falls -- literally. He knows Iron Man would die for him, and he knows he'd do the same.
What's a name, or a face, when compared to all that?
They're safe in Molecule Man's basement -- minus his shield, the Silver Surfer's board, Thor's hammer... and Iron Man's armor.
Steve never actually wanted his fantasies to come true like this.
As he confers with the Surfer, he can see blurry movement out of the corner of his eye, a mostly-naked body, as Iron Man, turned away from him, wraps some fabric around himself. Iron Man never wanted him to know. He feels awful already. He was never meant to know this.
It's okay, he tells himself. You know Iron Man already. It's just a name. It's just a face. It won't change anything.
And then Iron Man turns toward him and it's Tony Stark who smiles.
Oh, he thinks, stupidly, and everything in his brain whites out.
He's known the man under the armor all along.
They've saved the world -- again -- and he can't stop staring at Tony. Iron Man. Tony. All through the debriefing, he can't take his eyes off him, even though he knows it's rude. Tony laughs and makes a few dry observations, and all Steve can do is stare at him and think this is Iron Man. This is what Iron Man looks like. This is what Iron Man sounds like. This is Tony staying up all night fixing their gear and then sliding into the armor in the morning, ready to take on the next foe. He funds the Avengers because he is one. The man Steve's spent years running the team with is Tony.
And then Tony catches his eye and grins and Steve thinks this is Iron Man smiling at me.
It should make him happy. It doesn't.
Steve's heart sinks, because he knows then that even though he had no chance with Iron Man, he has less than no chance with Tony. Negative chance. He couldn't-- he couldn't even flirt with Tony, the time he tried. Tony doesn't want him. He knows that. Tony dates glamorous high-society women -- or, perhaps, is seen indiscreetly with them. Tony's love life belongs to galas and the society pages and everywhere Steve doesn't. Tony doesn't date people who-- who-- who draw silly doodles of him and stick them to the fridge, or who sit in his workshop with him for hours while he puts a unibeam assembly together, or any of the things Steve has done for Tony. Or for Iron Man.
It's hopeless. It was different when he wanted Iron Man, because at least Iron Man didn't want anyone else back. But everyone knows what Tony wants, and it isn't him.
Somehow the debriefing's ended, and Tony's the only other person in the room.
"You didn't know, did you?" Tony asks, very softly, and he seems so small. Iron Man always had so much presence; he couldn't avoid having it. "Sometimes I thought maybe you guessed--"
Steve shakes his head. "I never did."
Tony breathes in. It's a very human sound; there's nothing mechanical about it. "I understand if you don't trust me, or if you're angry--"
"Not angry," Steve says, quickly, because he can't be angry at Iron Man, he can't. "It's just-- a lot to get used to."
"It's still me," Tony says. "I used to think Iron Man was better than me, but he was always me, in the end. You-- you already know me."
Steve smiles. "Yeah," he says. "I do."
That's the problem.
They're in Tony's workshop, the way they often are, the way they often have been, and Tony's doing something intricate with armor bits and Steve is doodling Tony's face. It's an ordinary Wednesday, except for the part where Steve thinks I wonder how Iron Man is, catches himself, and thinks Iron Man's right here. He's trying to act as if everything is normal, and he thinks Tony is too. But he's not sure how long he can bear this.
He didn't want anything to change between them. He didn't want to lose Iron Man, but he wonders if maybe he has. He wants to be Iron Man's friend, but now there's only Tony left, and maybe-- maybe it won't be the same between them.
Steve frowns and erases a line. Tony still continues to be intimidatingly good-looking. Mostly he managed not to think about it after Tony turned him down, but now that he knows who Iron Man is -- well, he keeps thinking about it, now that he knows who was always under the armor. It's a shallow, awful thought, even worse because he never wanted Iron Man for how he looked, and it feels like it cheapens everything to find out that he would have if he'd known.
"So," Tony says, without looking up, as he pries a panel off the gauntlet he's working on. "I was thinking about maybe asking Jan out, now that she and Hank have split. What do you think, Winghead?"
Steve opens his mouth, intending to say something good and responsible, something a friend would say, like you should probably let her know you're Iron Man first.
No words come out.
He makes a very tiny pathetic keening noise.
He can't just sit here and listen to this and be Tony's friend, not when he wants--
But he should want Tony to be happy and Tony doesn't want him--
Tony shrugs, still not looking up. "I mean, she's very nice, isn't she? Everyone loves Jan. I think we'd have fun together, don't you think?" He pauses. "You think so, right, Steve? Steve?"
And then Tony looks at him. Steve is still staring helplessly. He thinks his mouth is open. He can only imagine what his face looks like.
The screwdriver falls from Tony's hand. "Oh my God," he breathes. His eyes have gone wide. "Steve, I--"
"It's all right," Steve says, and miserable tears prick at his eyes. "I don't need--"
He can't say anything else, because the rest would be lying.
"I thought I was imagining things," Tony says, slow and shocked. "There was that one party, I thought you were flirting with me, but you couldn't have been--"
"What," Steve asks, dully, "Captain America doesn't flirt? Captain America can't like people?"
Tony smiles. It's a rueful look. "Something like that. More like 'I don't deserve Captain America,' though. Inappropriate thoughts, national hero. I'm sure you get the picture."
Steve snorts. "You want to know how many inappropriate thoughts I've had about Iron Man?"
Tony says nothing, and Steve turns away. He guesses that's a no, then.
Then something heavy taps him on the shoulder. He looks up. Tony's got one gauntlet on, and he's smiling again, easy and encouraging.
"I, uh," Tony says, and all the charm is gone and somehow it's ten thousand times more endearing, "I actually would like to know, yes." And then the grin is wicked. "Do you want me to put the armor on? I can do that."
And then Tony leans in and takes his face in his hands -- bare skin on one side, metal on the other -- and kisses him, soft and sweet and breathless.
"Good?" Tony asks, pulling away. "You want the armor?"
Steve smiles. "Yeah. Put it all on. I want to watch."
Tony laughs and reaches for the helmet, sliding it over his head.
These are facts about Steve: his name is Steve Rogers, he's 6'2", he likes to draw, and he's Captain America. He loves Iron Man, and Iron Man loves him back.
And he knows who Iron Man is in every way that matters.