They never told each other those corny little assurances of love, no little love lies, no big admissions of actual feelings. The only time Steve spoke of his emotions was when he spoke of missing the past, missing friends that were long dead and gone although for him they'd been around just yesterday. Sometimes, he spoke of righteous anger or how proud he felt of what the Avengers accomplished. He never put a name to that thing they were doing here. And Tony was careful not to slip up either, admit to anything that was there right under the surface. He knew his own feelings, but knew to keep them to himself.
For Steve this was like a rebound. Feelings were involved no doubt, but one day he'd come to his senses and realize that he was better now, that he had arrived in this new life he had now and move on. Tony had anticipated it since before this had started and was planning ahead for both of them.
Tony Stark was the convenient lover now, but Iron Man would be the fellow Avenger even when all of this was over.
By now Tony had a lot of practice in keeping people at arm's length. He'd even developed strategies to have sex without ever having to take of his shirt. Although the safest strategy was to not have anyone come that close at all, that had stopped being an option with Steve. It was hard to hide the solid metal of the chestplate when you were losing yourself in the sensations and the rush of bodies sliding together, when someone was trying to touch you.
Just like Steve was trying to touch him now.
He grabbed the hand before it could reach his chest and instead pulled it up, pressed his face into it. Steve cupped it, stroking softly, as Tony kept up a steady rhythm, thrusting into him, wringing ecstatic noises from hist throat with every move. His own breath was coming faster, too. He was close.
With effort he grabbed the headboard somewhere over Steve's head, careful not to give in to his own body and let himself rest against Steve's broad, naked chest. There was no way to hide the plate without some distance.
“Tony,” Steve shouted, meeting his thrusts. He made a delicious picture, writhing on the sheets beneath him, his face flushed and his mouth slightly open, breath coming in little pants in huffs. It was enough to make Tony come just from the sight of it.
His hips jerked forward hard, Steve gasped, making a muffled keening noise. It was like they were locked together in their pleasure, in release. He had a hard time catching his breath, an even harder time to hold himself upright as he was riding it out.
He leaned his face against his cotton covered arm, still holding on to the headboard. His white dress shirt was hopelessly rumpled and sweat soaked now. “God, Steve,” he moaned, “you undo me.”
Steve, whose cheeks were still flushed and who looked satisfied and happy now, gazed up at him with a smile. Then he leaned up to pull Tony into a short kiss, just a peck of the lips. “You're doing quite a good job of that yourself there, mister.”
He smiled, allowed himself to rest his sweaty brow against Steve's, just for a moment, just before it got too hot and too inviting, just before the temptation to fall into an impossible embrace got too much.
This had never been part of the plan. He'd hoped to help Steve feel at home at the mansion in this time with the Avengers, and had realized that it might need a more human touch than he would ever be able to offer as Iron Man. And when Steve had looked at him with interest and then with desire, how could he have resisted? How many people out there would have managed to resist when Captain America looked at them with want?
Tony was not that strong, never had been.
But he wasn't a fool either, he thought, as he reluctantly pulled away. He smiled at Steve in apology. “Sorry, no rest for the wicked. I need to get back to the lab.”
Steve looked at him with some regret, a light frown marring his forehead, but nodded. “Always working,” he said and then smiled, full of fondness and understanding. He returned the smile, and padded to the bathroom, leaving Steve lying naked on the bed, barely covered by the sheets, a stunning sight that tempted him to stay. But he knew he couldn't.
He closed the door behind himself and watched his own sweaty face in the bathroom mirror with a frown.
When they had found Steve in the ice it had been a miracle, but for the man himself it had been a traumatic experience. Captain America was physically alive and well and the side he'd been fighting for had won the war – but he had lost everything. His life and friends, even in some major ways the city he grew up in. For a time in the beginning Tony had been afraid it would be too much for him, had watched him sit in the dark library at night, staring out of the window at the black sky, had offered conversation and distractions as Iron Man until he realized it just wasn't enough.
So he'd gone about it another way and took Steve out to see the city and experience life as it was now as Tony Stark. He'd never expected them to become this close, had never expected Steve to initiate something more between them. And when it had happened it had been very clear to him that Steve was intensely lonely and that Tony needed to tread carefully, not to take advantage of a man who had already lost so much.
At the time Steve barely knew anyone but the Avengers. For him there had basically been no life outside the superhero persona. But he was a young man with needs. The attraction hadn't come as surprise.
Surprised he was only by the fact that they were still doing this more than a year later, that small touches had first led to kissing and after a long while to sex and now to this.
This was beginning to feel serious. Most of his relationships before his little “accident” hadn't ever lasted this long.
And Tony knew he loved Steve, knew that it wasn't just hero worship or infatuation, knew that Steve was one of the best men he'd ever met, the best, and made sure to offer him all he could, friendship, love, a place to live, as both Tony Stark and Iron Man. But Steve wasn't new around here anymore and Tony had expected him to move on a long, long time ago, had been prepared to let him go easily, to not stand in the way of his happiness.
He'd even taken precautions on Steve's behalf, insisting that they not make their involvement public, to spare Steve the slandering campaigns that would happen the moment he found someone to fall in love with and it came to light he had previously been seduced by known playboy Tony Stark. He'd made sure Iron Man was still his own little secret, to make sure they would be able to work together even after they'd split up without any awkwardness, without anyone seeing Iron Man as a liability because of his health issues.
What he hadn't counted on it seemed was loyalty.
Steve probably thought he owed him something and wasn't looking beyond what he and Tony had at the moment.
Maybe this had all been a huge miscalculation and now he was standing in the way of Steve finding the happiness he deserved in the here and now.
He splashed cold water into his face and went back to staring at himself darkly in the mirror.
Someone needed to set Steve straight and make sure that he wasn't just staying with Tony because he had no better options.
Even if it broke his own heart.
It wasn't like said heart had been working very well for a while now.
He stepped out of the bathroom, fully dressed, if still looking a bit rumpled. It would be fine for what he had planned, because nobody was going to notice a rumpled suit when he was wearing the red and gold armor of his “bodyguard”.
Steve was sitting on the foot of the bed, watching him emerge from the bathroom. He too had started to dress, but was still missing a shirt, giving Tony a perfect look of his perfectly defined chest. But what he was feeling when Steve smiled up at him, wasn't just lust.
It was something much more intense.
Damn, he really was in trouble.
“You never take off your shirt,” Steve said and stood up to meet him in the middle of the room, hitting the mark right were it hurt without knowing it. “You never let me touch.”
Tony tried to smile. “We all have our vices.”
“Hmm,” Steve said and stroked two fingers along his arm like a promise for more, letting electric sparks run up through Tony's body like lightning strikes. He craved the touch, wanted nothing more than this touch. But what was he supposed to do? Give up his secret now and ruin his well laid plans?
Surely if this was meant to be, they would have talked about it by now, would have spoken soft words of love, or discussed plans for the future over dinner. Steve wasn't the kind of man to not show affection like that, wasn't he?
And still even without Steve loving him that deeply, this was all he'd ever wanted. He was in love, really head over heals in love like he'd never been before. And while it had been all painstakingly obvious that this was the case, it was like a punch to the gut now, when he was slowly realizing that this was all going to end soon.
He'd lived in bliss for as long as Steve had needed him, but perhaps it was time for him to let him go, to allow him to move on before all of it got too serious, too messed up, too complicated. Before Steve or his reputation could get hurt. Before the Avengers could get hurt by the revelation of his secrets. Before Tony dragged Steve down into the mess that was his hidden life. What would Steve even say if he knew that his heart was giving out, that it was only an ingenious, but vulnerable piece of equipment keeping him alive?
But how was he supposed to let him go?
The thought of ending things between them when he was feeling so whole with him at his side was too painful. Not even the shrapnel that pierced his heart and had left ugly scars all over his chest and forever ruined his health could compare to the pain that ending this thing between them would bring.
He couldn't do it.
He needed Steve to come to his senses and leave before it was too late. Because Tony was king of self-denial, but nobody could ask this of him. He could not be the one to walk away from this relationship. Steve had to be the one to end it.
* * *
By now he only occasionally felt like a traitor when he pretended to be two different people. It had become a well rehearsed routine. He was a smart man and he'd learned to compartmentalize pretty early in life. Iron Man was part of him, but it was also a personality of its own.
Steve smiled at him as he took him aside after the Avengers meeting. They were friends. They could talk about everything and nobody needed to get hurt.
And wasn't it easier to have Steve admit he had only settled for Tony, while he was wearing an unmovable mask of not-exactly-iron? He would be able to digest what he heard for a while before he would have to face Steve without the mask and by then he would be able to hide his feelings under the less visible mask he'd cultivated.
“You're getting pretty serious about Mr Stark, aren't you?” he asked, because he had no idea how to put it delicately and he needed to start somewhere.
What surprised him was the exasperated look that immediately passed over Steve's face and the defensiveness that crept into his voice, as he basically told Iron Man to stay out of this. Apparently Pepper had already gotten to him – to warn him not to hurt Tony Stark. It took a moment for Tony to let that sink in, and he stumbled a bit over the realization that Pepper, wonderful, observant woman that she was had seen right through Tony once again.
“Mr Stark can take care of himself,” he deflected, trying to get the conversation back on point, not surprised when Steve demanded in a slightly annoyed tone to know what this was about then.
I'm worried about you, he thought desperately and finally voiced it, too. He didn't say: “Tony Stark is bad for you,” but he said all the things he'd been worried about under the guise of the worried friend and by-stander. Steve's eyes narrowed when he told him what he thought was going on: That Cap had been lonely and had needed someone to hold on to and feel alive with, a warm bed and body to help him forget the loneliness and cold. Half his genius mind was still expecting an embarrassed confession, that, yes, this was exactly what was going on.
Instead Steve surprised him again by asking quietly and with a painfully closed off expression: “Did Tony say he didn't want to be with me any more?”
It was so utterly unthinkable that he could only stutter: “What? No!” How could Steve even think it would be possible? Even as he explained that he was worried about what being with Tony could mean for Steve in the future, how his reputation could seriously hurt Steve, he thought about their recent phone calls, the flirting just this morning, the dates and intimacy over the last few weeks. Hadn't he been attentive enough? Had he ignored Steve's wishes... and finally he made the connection, his throat suddenly going painfully dry.
“Thanks for the advice," Steve said coolly, "but I'm not giving up on Tony unless he gives up on me, and probably not even then.”
He'd never been so glad for the armor, because his knees felt weak and he would have stumbled, if the armor hadn't been holding him up, standing like a rock against Steve's sudden cold anger and disgust. His breath caught in his throat as Steve stood up for him, defending what they had.
“Don't complain that nobody warned you,” he said softly, not sure the voice modulation carried the note of surprised awe. It was probably better that way.
Steve gave him a last cold look and stomped out.
And that was that.
Steve was going to walk out on Iron Man, rather than Tony Stark. And Tony was too shocked and too overwhelmed to even move.
* * *
“Hey,” Steve said an walked closer, slowly.
Tony smiled at him. “Hey.” His heart missed a beat right there and he felt a little light-headed. There were truths that needed to be told now, secrets that were still standing between them, but he had no idea what would happen if he did.
It didn't help him with coming to a decision when Steve's eyes suddenly fixed on him as if he was trying to gauge his mood. “There is something I need to say,” Steve said, and Tony swallowed, still expecting that what he had heard before was too good to be true. “Iron Man said something today and – he had no place saying it and...”
Tony wished there was something to drink, some water to moisten his dry throat, something that would give him an excuse to look away from Steve's intense gaze.
“What is going on between you two?”
“I though you were friends and instead... I... don't know.”
“I... There is something...”
“Never mind,” Steve cut him off. “I realized I never said... never told you. You're a good man. You're doing so much good with your company, with the work you put into the Avengers, with this.” He indicated his work on the Iron Man armor and Tony stared at it flabbergasted, thinking for a moment that his secret had been uncovered, before he had ever managed to come clean. “You did so much for me,” Steve added. “But that's not why I'm with you.”
Tony's eyes widened. He was holding his breath now, completely unsure of what to expect. This could easily be where Steve finally ended things
“You're a good man. You're funny. You listen to me. You take me out when you know I'm stuck with only my memories. You're good for me.”
He was staring, plain and simple.
“Whatever you or anybody else thinks about this: I'm not just with you, because I was in need of some affection and you were willing to offer it. Maybe in the beginning I wasn't sure about it, but I'm with you because you're you. And I wanted you to be clear on this.”
Tony was about to say something, shout out all these conflicting, complicated feelings that were bubbling up, the elation, the fear, but Steve wasn't finished.
“I know you're keeping something from me.” He held up his hand when Tony started opening his mouth. “You don't need to explain now. I can wait for you to be ready. And I'm going to. Wait, that is. I'm going to wait until you're ready, until you feel like you can tell me. And I'm not going to walk out on you. I want this and I can be patient.”
He was stills struggling with words, with the sudden warmth in his his cheeks, the frozen shock of Steve standing there and saying all those things. “Steve,” he said, like plea.
Steve immediately moved forward bending down to embrace Tony where he was sitting in his chair and Tony caught his arms on his chest out of reflex, keeping his arms between them to keep a gap between Steve and the armor's chestplate. “It's okay. I don't care about what people say. I know someone hurt you,” he said. “Ms Potts gave me the first hint, and then I realized you were hiding from me.”
“Hiding?” he asked feeling weak.
“I want to see you, Tony,” Steve whispered against his ear. “All of you. Touch you. All of you. When you're ready.”
It sounded like the sweetest and most dangerous promise and he could barely breathe with anticipation. He wanted that, wanted it too. But after all this he needed to give up something, too. He let his hands travel up, caught Steve's face in his hands and kissed him, not a tentative, slow loving kiss; a kiss full of heat and longing, open-mouthed and full of tongue.
Steve did not need prodding, he sank down on his knees to have a better angle and met Tony's fervor, letting him plunder his mouth and biting his lip. It went on for so long that Tony was growing even more light-headed. He needed air, but he needed Steve more. Finally an embarrassingly needy noise escaped his throat and suddenly Steve stilled and he felt him freeze up against him, when he noticed the hard metal hidden underneath his shirt.
“I'm Iron Man,” Tony whispered. “I'm Iron Man.”
Steve sat back a little, face frozen in confusion, met his eyes, questioning, and... stared.
“What are you...?”
“I am Iron Man,” he repeated and pulled open his shirt.
Steve's eyes followed the motion, caught on the red metal suddenly exposed to his gaze. Tony waited, holding his breath in trepidation.
“You are... why would you...?” Steve sat back even more. “Why are you wearing...?”
And that was where the hard questions would start. Tony bent forward to lean his head against Steve's shoulder and he was ready to take it as a good sign that Steve didn't pull away. “It keeps my heart going,” he said softly. “It keeps me alive.”
They sat there in silence; him waiting for Steve to react to his words, and Steve taking in all the implications. Then arms came up again, encircling him, a kiss was pressed against his throat, tentatively. “That was not the kind of secret, I expected,” Steve admitted. “Are you...?” He touched the chestplate carefully, running his fingers up towards the shoulders. Then his expression turned dark, really, dangerously dark. Tony was glad he had left the shield behind when coming down to see him. He fixed Tony with his best glare and said: “You lied to me.” He drew out every word slightly.
“I do that,” Tony admitted. “A lot.”
“We all do,” Steve said and frowned. “But you lied to me.”
Tony was aware of the fact. “I did,” he admitted.
“You said all those things about yourself.” Impossibly Steve's expression darkened even further. “Why would you do that..?” Tony could see the exact moment when Steve realized the truth. “You were trying to push me away, Tony.”
He looked away, unable to meet Steve's eyes any longer. There was nothing he could say to take it back. He had lied. He had used his later ego deliberately.
“I knew it,” Steve said. “I knew something was wrong.” His hand settled against his chestplate and the other caught Tony's chin, making him look him in the eyes. “You're a very smart man. But you're also an idiot.”
The kiss nearly took his breath away. His hands clung to Steve's shoulders as relief and elation were about to overwhelm him. Steve was kissing him. Steve was still willing to kiss him.
When Steve finally let him go, his lips glistening with saliva and slightly swollen, Tony nearly gasped for air. It drew Steve's worried gaze to him. “You're okay?” he asked, watching him fall back in his chair, nearly panting. His hand went back to the chestplate. “How does it work?”
“You kiss me like that Steve and it takes my breath away. It's only human. I'm not dying,” Tony said vehemently. He banged a hand against the chest plate. “I'm not having a heart attack. As long as I wear it and keep it charged, I'll be fine.”
“Okay,” Steve said slowly. “That's a relief.” Then he met Tony's eyes and quirked his lips. “So taking it off in bed is out of the question then, yes?”
A big rock of trepidation finally lifted from Tony's shoulders and he laughed, kissing Steve again for all that it was worth.
* * *
“We'll need to talk about this at some point,” Steve whispered and stroked a hand along the side of his leg, “Shellhead.”
The familiar nickname made him smile. Steve knew all of him now and it made him feel for the first time in years like he knew who he was, too.
“Yes,” he said. “in the morning.” When he finally got to grips with all this. When he truly understood he was with Steve now and it wasn't temporary. That he was allowed to dream of a future that involved the things he wanted most.
“You're still an idiot, Mr. Stark,” Steve told him and pressed a kiss to the top of his head.
He wasn't going to argue with Steve. Not now.
He was still convinced he was the lucky one here.