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At the Heart of the Matter

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Tony didn't mean to become Steve's BFF and the greatest thorn in his side at the same time, it just sort of happened. It probably had something to do with Tony's winning personality and his daddy issues a mile wide. Despite the rigorous demands placed on him to keep his secret identity as Iron Man safe - he somehow managed to make it through Obadiah trying to murder him (and Iron Man), his arc reactor putting him in imminent danger of death, and a near-fatal run in with the other side of space - Tony and Iron Man were still not known to be one and the same.

Except by Fury.

And Natasha.

And Pepper.

And Rhodey.

Really it was starting to strain the adage of 'two can keep a secret if one was dead', but it seemed to be working so far, and not even the rest of his team seemed to be in on the secret, which was great, because Tony had really been an asshole to the Capcicle on the Helicarrier, but now Cap was holding Iron Man upright, two hands around his waist, Iron Man's arm over Steve's shoulder.

"That was incredible," Steve said, grinning, hair at every different angle. "You're really something, Tin Man."

"Iron," he said, a moment later. "Or really gold-titanium alloy..." But Cap was still smiling up at him, completely buzzed on their victory, looking far more vulnerable and just... sweet. It was hard to hold a grudge, even if he had completely ruined Tony's childhood, he was still pretty great on the field. "Tin's good. I can be Tin Man."

Of course, JARVIS was all but screaming at him to seek medical attention. His chest was tight from the effort of breathing, and the suit was all but wrapped around him like a vise. Still, they managed to make it up the Tower, and capture Loki, and make their way to shawarma, which was... annoying as hell to eat in the suit, but it was a necessary evil.

By the time they were actually finished with the shawarma, Tony was definitely favoring one side, but JARVIS would have told him if he'd punctured anything vital. He gave a very long, pointed sigh at the several dozen story trip back up to the - trashed - penthouse, and seriously considered walking.

"You sure you don't need medical attention?" Steve asked, pure Cap-voice.

"Oh, sure I do," Tony answered, giving the gash in his torso a hardy poke. "Bleeding a little bit, but nothing's broken, and Mr. Stark is going to want to take a look at the suit."

"But not you?" Steve pressed. Oh, wow, yeah, Steve sounded pissed.

It actually took him a moment to realize what had him so riled up, because many horrible things could be said of Tony, but 'doesn't take care of his employees' was not among them. Iron Man was, technically, Tony's employee; Steve thought that Tony was going to leave Iron Man's medical needs high and dry.

"Stark's alright," Tony said, feeling the need to defend himself. "He's got state of the art medical for me." Tony gave a doubtful glance at his repulsors and then braced for take off. His left hand one sputtered, and he couldn't get much of any lift off the back.

"If you can get there," Steve said. "Let me help you back if you're going to insist on not going on the jet."

Tony insisted on not taking the Quinjet. It was offensive to him. Steve, the boy scout, insisted on following him, and didn't really take no for an answer as JARVIS assessed the damages to Tony's person. Thankfully, his AI was well enough developed that he didn't just out Tony, he had years of practice at this point. "Shall I forward your combat performance data to Mr. Stark?"

Tony grunted. "Yeah, he should get a kick out of it." He always enjoyed that part of the charade, just fucking around with whoever wasn't in the know, getting cute.

"Get a kick out of you almost dying?"

"Jeez, Cap, give him a little credit. The man knows weapon designs, and I don't exactly get in the suit because I enjoy living safe." Tony stretched his arms over his head, feeling the pull of too much combat in his ribs and stomach - which JARVIS again displayed were just horribly bruised. "Suit did its job, I did mine."

Steve, finally, seemed to relax a bit about Tony, which made Tony feel better, slightly. That was the weird part about the double life, getting his relationships straight. It was an entirely different problem than he used to have with relationships.

At least JARVIS let him collapse onto one of his nearby couches - reinforced for just such an arrangement - and he groaned a little, feeling his joints creak a bit as he made sure everything still worked, which it did.

"So why is it your job?" Steve asked. Tony cocked his head towards Steve. "I read your file. You're Stark's bodyguard, why are you here when he's... wherever he is now?"

"Stark's a big picture sort of guy, he happens to be part of the world, so-- world needs saving, he's writing the check," Tony said. He realized it was a mistake as soon as Steve's face fell. "What?"

"So it's a paycheck?"

"No-- I--" What the hell, it wasn't like people would put it in a newspaper article. Iron Man (metaphorically) kissed babies and helped little old ladies across the street, he didn't have to be a hipster about it. "It's not a paycheck. I know you haven't been here long, but the world's a bit fucked up. Stark's got his ways to try to balance that out, I've got mine."

Swords and plowshares; a hammer that built and knocked things down - although maybe the hammer metaphor could use some reconsidering, what with Justin Hammer and all that...

Steve, of course, gave a little chuckle. "Alright. Sorry we-- didn't get long to know each other, I guess I just wanted to know where you stood."

"Well, save the world together, be pals. It can be our thing." Tony glanced over at Steve, who was still sitting there, waiting. "You don't have to wait it out, diagnostics will take a while."

"If it's all the same, I'd like to make sure Mr. Stark's here if you're injured in some way your-- sky doctor can't see." And Steve, Steve really looked like he meant that.

Fuck. "Seriously, Cap, it's not a big deal. I'm sure Mr. Stark will be here soon."

"Then I'll wait."

Tony wondered if politeness was a sickness, and if he might catch it.

They were on round four of 'what the heck is up with the future, anyway?' - round one was cars, round two was music, round three was cell phones, and round four was, of all things, pizza - when Tony decided he really had to end this, and he picked up an internal comm line and got Black Widow to call Steve with an 'emergency' back at the Helicarrier 'no, we don't need Iron Man, just you' and then Tony finally got to get out of the damn suit, shower, tape up the abrasions over most of his body, and get to work on the suit.

If Steve now thought that 'Mr. Stark' was entirely unreliable, that was fine. He'd just learn what the higher ups in SHIELD already knew: Iron Man, yes, Tony Stark, no.

*

Steve couldn't quite let himself be comfortable with 'Mr. Stark's hospitality' until about two days in to the team moving into Stark Tower. Mr. Stark - or 'Tony' as he insisted on being called - was around a fair amount, in the kitchen, drinking coffee, talking to the computer in the sky, Jarvis, or just doodling something that struck his fancy at the moment, all engineering things.

He couldn't help it, Tony set him on edge. Part of it was that he was so used to Howard that seeing another person inhabit such similar - and different - mannerisms and features reminded him even more of what he lost in the past, but it wasn't just that. Iron Man might not think of himself as a gun for hire, but Tony seemed to think he could buy the world at a drop of a hat.

Bruce had been hired on at Stark International, Clint and Natasha were unofficially on loan since Stark had made himself 'a bigger pain than usual' in some sort of recent dust up in the wake of the invasion, and he just... grated. Maybe they got off on the wrong foot, but Tony hadn't apologized, hadn't even had much of a conversation with Steve, just seemed to expect that he would be there.

And then there was Iron Man. He knew that Howard had an impressive compliment of security whenever he went somewhere dangerous, but an armored bodyguard seemed a bit excessive. It didn't help when he'd caught a Tube video of Tony at a Senate hearing where he had loudly - and crudely - proclaimed 'you can't have it' of the armor, as though there wasn't a living, breathing human being in there who obviously thought Tony was worth protecting.

"Woolgathering?" The synthetic voice came from a few feet to his side, and he found Iron Man standing there, looking-- almost bored.

"I guess I'm just--" He shook his head. He probably shouldn't speak ill of Iron Man's employer, as hard as it was to think well of him sometimes. "Everything's so different."

Iron Man made an odd sort of humming sound. "You seeing a shrink over at S.H.I.E.L.D.?"

"Shrink what?"

Iron Man's sigh was easy to pick out amid the other noises me made. "You're just back from the front," he said. "Not the same front as most boys, but a front nonetheless. There's a lot more you can do than just sit around and let it get to you."

He sounded like he spoke from experience. "Were you in combat?" Steve asked. They all had their histories, but even Natasha didn't seem to understand the weeks of sustained combat with no breathers between.

Iron Man had no facial expressions to speak of, but the silence was telling.

"Did you lose soldiers?" Steve asked.

Again, Iron Man didn't answer right away, but he hung his head. "Some. It's harder losing the ones that aren't soldiers."

Steve swallowed the sudden lump in his throat, and even though he didn't think Iron Man could feel it, he put out a hand to his shoulder and left it there. Iron Man didn't shrug him away, but a minute or so later he gave Steve a gentle pat on the chest with his hand before heading away.

"I've got to-- Mr. Stark will want to run a few simulations."

He knew an evasion when he heard one, but Steve was surprised that Iron Man would seek out Stark, of all people, when Steve had unknowingly stirred up some sort of memory. Maybe Tony knew the full story. Steve wondered if it was so painful that Iron Man didn't trust it to anyone else.

For his own part, Steve tried to work off his energy in the gym, and then a long shower, but neither one seemed to help. A late night prowl of the common areas didn't yield any more peace, but he did find his eye drawn to the glint of red-and-gold out on the balcony, head turned up.

Steve approached, far more loudly than he could have. He caught the slight tilt of Iron Man's head when he stepped beside him, but even through whatever filters Iron Man had on his voice, Steve could hear him breathing heavily. When he tilted his own head up, he realized what Iron Man must have been thinking. Steve felt it too, sometimes, the fear of losing another soldier, but for Iron Man it had been his life.

"You made it out," Steve assured him.

A soft exhale came through the speakers. "I can still see the constellations on the other side. The portal went so many billions of light years away it's impossible for a computer simulation to get an approximate location. The stars--" Iron Man picked up a hand, and tilted his slightly-- "they've moved so much in the intervening millennia that I wouldn't have even been able to point myself in the right direction."

Steve couldn't think of a single thing to say in the wake of that.

"It's probably a good thing I would have died of hypoxia in another minute or so."

That Steve found upsetting. He put a hand on Iron Man's shoulder, trying to steer him back inside. "Warm milk?"

Iron Man laughed. "You really are sickeningly wholesome." But before Steve had a chance to take offense, Iron Man put out a hand on his shoulder and went. "Sure, let's try that."

Steve ended up making hot cocoa, rather than warm milk, and Iron Man pointed him to a secret stash of very good chocolate. Iron Man looked ridiculous, drinking the stuff through a straw, but the two of them ended up on the couch, with Steve telling a few stories of his childhood that weren't so painful, the ones that he didn't need to talk around the huge gap Bucky had left in his life.

Iron Man seemed like he might return the favor, but instead he looked down into his chocolate. "Things were-- I grew up well," Iron Man said, after a while. "I just don't think I was ever really what my father wanted."

"That'd be a hell of a dad who couldn't appreciate his son growing up to be Iron Man." Steve couldn't imagine even the coldest father not appreciating a son who grew up to save the world.

"Yeah, I-- I guess it really is the best part of me, Iron Man."

Steve didn't know the other parts, what Iron Man was like outside of the suit, but he'd made it clear that he didn't think that was the important part.

"You gonna be alright, Cap? I'm-- gonna try to catch a few winks."

It seemed impolite to point out that Iron Man was the one who'd been standing out on the balcony, in the middle of the night, looking up at what was almost his grave. "Yeah. See ya tomorrow?"

He sometimes went a day or two between actually seeing Iron Man around, Stark said he kept Iron Man hopping, but it all must have been classified because Steve never heard about the missions. "Sure. See ya tomorrow."

Iron Man came around a little more after that, not much, but-- it was always good to see him. It wasn't much, they just talked, but it always felt-- real, like Iron Man wasn't afraid of anything.

Part of it seemed odd, maybe, to find his closest friend in the modern world was a man who might have been mistaken for a robot if Steve couldn't tell how much he obviously felt under the armor. But the rest of it was just happy to have met someone who seemed... who seemed to get it.

*

Tony knew the armor thing was getting out of hand. He didn't usually walk around his own fucking house in the armor, and as much as he'd like to claim it was entirely because Cap treated Iron Man like a friend and Tony like something he scraped off his shoe, he was man enough to admit that it was easier to feel safe wrapped in metal.

Steve was a terrible enabler; Tony should know, he recognized the signs, but he was also just so damn... happy to see Iron Man. It also made Tony realize that he'd really misjudged Steve. Yes the man bled red, white, and blue, but he really was an incredible soldier, and beyond that he was a far better man than Tony was.

It made him feel safe, going around the house in the armor rather than out in the open, and he found himself working on the armors more and more, trying to get the peak performance out of them so he could be ready for anything.

Tony Stark wasn't allowed to be having trouble sleeping, but the third time Steve found Iron Man out on the balcony, he just pulled him inside and put on the milk for chocolate.

"You alright, Tin Man?" Steve asked.

Tony leaned hard against the counter, sighed. "I keep seeing the black, and the portal closing around me, whenever I close my eyes."

Steve leaned in and put a hand on Tony's shoulder, squeezing even though Tony couldn't feel it at all. It felt weak to admit it, but Steve didn't seem to judge him for it at all, just smiling, soft and a little sad.

"Mr. Stark is working on several new features for the suit, better exo-systems, better life-support, better hacking systems..." Tony hadn't gotten to work on most of them, but the ideas were there, buzzing around in his head, unwilling to quiet. He was just thinking of more ways to be safe, more ways to protect himself from that danger.

"A suit's great," Steve said, leaning in. "We couldn't have done what we did without you, but-- I know you value your privacy, but do you have someone?"

Not for a very long time. He'd realized early on that Iron Man would make Pepper a target if he let it be known that Iron Man and Tony Stark were one in the same, and he knew he was far less than she deserved. "Not how you mean it," Tony admitted.

Steve didn't ask why, just stepped back away, moving around the kitchen like he owned the place. He'd become an old hand at the making of hot chocolate, and he pulled down a pair of mugs - one with the extra huge handle for Iron Man - and a heat-resistant straw - also for Iron Man - without being asked, or Tony having to get it.

"I think with the right partner, you can do almost anything," Steve said, carefully pouring out the twin mugs of cocoa.

"A true romantic," Tony answered.

Unlike if Tony had said it... as Tony, that is, Steve seemed to immediately take it for what it was, a teasing prod, and he smiled in response. "I guess it's sort of old fashioned now."

"Well, sure, for a lot of people, but there's nothing wrong with that." He thought about his own life, feeling pulled in so many directions, and wanted by so many people, sometimes it was easier to give away a piece of yourself, if it mean a night of connecting to someone, however meaningless in the morning.

Tony fumbled with the mug slightly, letting a thin slit in the face plate accept the straw before he went about sipping.

"Excellent as always, Cap."

"Steve."

Tony tried not to make some sort of dumb sound, but he probably didn't work.

"People call me Cap, but-- my friends, they always call me Steve."

Tony was fairly certain he stopped breathing for a moment, but he caught up again, this time getting hot cocoa down the wrong pipe and coughing violently into the inside of the suit.

A few futile whacks on the back from Steve later, and a careful clearing of his throat, Tony had to laugh. "I seem to be excellent at ruining the moment. Thanks, Steve-- I've gotta admit, I think I like Tin Man."

"Shellhead?"

"Now you're just making fun of me. This suit's top of the line, best Stark Industries has to offer."

Steve gave the helmet itself a little rap. "Everyone knows it's not the plane, it's the pilot."

Tony coughed again, but he hid it a bit better. "Don't tell Mr. Stark that."

"If he doesn't already know that, he's not much of a weapons manufacturer."

Under the helmet, Tony winced, and went back to his hot chocolate a few moments later. "He doesn't really consider himself one, not anymore." Even though he knew the Steve-Tony front of the war was probably a lost cause, Tony couldn't help but defend himself. He didn't roll over for tabloids and he didn't roll over for assholes who wanted to put down what he'd accomplished or where he came from. His father had helped make Captain America, he'd been on the Manhattan Project. If his father hadn't, then they should all be speaking German.

"He's trying to power the world," he said after a moment. "We don't even know what a legitimate post-scarcity economy would even look like, much less how it would function, but arc reactor technology, refined and perfected by Mr. Stark, could power the world, clean air, clean water, a power assembly the size of a fist powers his whole Tower."

Steve actually looked impressed for a moment. "Why is it only running the Tower, then?" Unlike a few other questions about 'Mr. Stark', the tone was actually light.

"Because with the right technical knowledge and specifications you could bump up energy production, block conduits for energy release, and..." Tony made the universal hand gesture for 'and then it exploded'. "Boom. The reactor in the Tower is insulated by high tech safeguards as well as a plain old - metaphorical - lead lined bunker. Even if it exploded, we wouldn't even lose the structure of the building. You can't make that guarantee if you let it out in the wild. Mr. Stark is..." Tony considered what would be the kindest way to put it. "He's a bit of a control freak."

"I guess that makes sense..." Steve trailed off, and took a sip of cocoa. "So it's dangerous and revolutionary?"

"Pretty much all the good stuff is." And as if to make a point, Tony tapped his fingers against the chestplate of his own armor.

"Why does Mr. Stark let you have the armor, then?"

Steve was too bright, or asked too many questions. It was one of those questions that Tony didn't have the best answer for, mostly because the truth was right out and too many lies were hard to keep straight. So Tony shrugged. "Mr. Stark trusts me."

He knew it was a hollow answer, but Steve didn't need to know how much that sort of trust was in short supply from Tony. On bad days, Tony didn't even trust himself, but he was also the only person he really trusted to do what needed to be done. Rhodey had his armor, his Iron Patriot - what the hell - but Tony's messes were his alone.

*

One of the consequences of a youth spent fairly sick was that Steve found himself wrapped up in his own head far more than most people probably have. It was how he found himself considering the problem of Iron Man more and more. He knew the man valued his privacy, and didn't want to tell whatever story had gotten him here to anyone, but Steve couldn't help but wonder.

Steve had considered he might be a soldier, a pilot, maybe, like Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes, and part of that fit; Iron Man knew the jargon of combat, understood his own tactical position in a fight, and was able to lend effective support. He thought that maybe Iron Man hadn't had his life so immediately in danger, though. He was still troubled by his almost-death, that much was clear.

And he had no one, it seemed. He was friendly enough with the other Avengers, when they were around, but Iron Man wouldn't be walking around the Tower at night if he had someone... closer.

He couldn't help his disappointment when he got upstairs from training to find Tony hunched over the breakfast bar, eating waffles, tapping away at one of those tablet things. He had a bit of metal wrapped around his head that looked like it might be technology, but he didn't think on it more than that. "Morning, Cap."

"Stark." Steve went to the refrigerator and started to work on breakfast. "Iron Man around today?"

When he glanced over his shoulder, he found that Stark was smirking slightly, but the look disappeared as soon as Steve caught it. "Probably not. Mission. He's good, but he can't be in two places at once."

Steve paused over his effort to crack and whip eggs, and then looked back at Stark. "Is he alright?"

Stark blinked up at him, confused. "He's wrapped in a suit worth more than most small countries, he'd better be."

"I mean him, Stark." Steve waved a hand like he could make Tony understand that Iron Man was... going through a lot. "He almost died, and you keep sending him on missions, he--" He realized that he had no idea if Tony even knew that Iron Man was having trouble sleeping. Maybe Iron Man hadn't wanted Tony to know. Maybe Tony would replace him if he knew. Steve took a deep breath, and turned back to breakfast.

"He's--" Tony didn't answer for a few moments. "He's getting a handle on it. I know you don't think much of me, Cap, but I do give a shit about my employees, especially ones who are in charge of saving my ass."

Steve felt guilty about it afterwards, assuming that Tony didn't care about Iron Man, especially when Iron Man was so obviously loyal to Tony. There must have been something there worth seeing, even if Steve couldn't see it. He felt like he should have been able to see more, but Tony had this mask on him, Steve could see that, abrasive and charming by turns, but he couldn't actually see what was under it enough to get a feel for him. At least with Howard, Steve had gotten months to understand the man, but Tony seemed to be intent on ignoring him.

Later that day, he caught Tony up on the balcony, eyes cast upwards, but when he followed his gaze it wasn't to the hole in the sky that Iron Man often considered, but to Iron Man himself, buzzing around the Tower before landing neatly, less than a foot from Tony.

"Absolutely gorgeous," Tony said.

Steve fought down the urge to roll his eyes, because of course Tony was enamored with the suit he built, but then Tony continued.

"You've already got the maneuverability down, even with the power increases. Handling like a dream..." And then Tony reached out, hands flattened against what would have been Iron Man's abs, fingers splayed, and Steve found his throat and chest uncomfortably tight at the image. "You are a masterwork."

And that was the first moment when Steve realized that maybe Tony wasn't talking about the armor, but instead...

He cleared his throat, not pointedly, but because otherwise he wouldn't be able to breath. If Tony felt guilty at being caught, he didn't show it, and Iron Man was impossible to read.

"Let's get you downstairs," Tony said, and headed back inside. "Cap."

"Captain Rogers," Iron Man said as he passed, so much stiffer than his usual, that Steve wondered if he had been made uncomfortable.

He couldn't stop thinking about it that day, Stark's hands along Iron Man's stomach, and he wondered if Stark knew what Iron Man looked like under the armor. He obviously did, and all of Stark's talk of 'gorgeous' and 'a masterwork' had Steve find his ears and cheeks burning as he wondered if that talk had continued downstairs, if Iron Man and Stark...

"Sorry about Mr. Stark," Iron Man said, maybe summoned by the inappropriate thoughts Steve had been having. "He can be a bit... enamored with his creations."

Steve didn't think it had anything to do with the creations. "He seemed... engaged."

"He gets like that."

"So you two--?" He didn't know why he asked. It wasn't his business.

Iron Man, thankfully, laughed. "No, no-- talk about complicated. Although, I suppose if anyone would..." But Iron Man didn't finish his own thought aloud, which Steve was very thankful for.

Something about the moment, the blatant touching probably, had made Steve finally realize that there was a man under the armor. Not that this was a surprise, but the idea of Iron Man having any sort of desire had seemed odd before that moment, and now that the seed had been planted, Steve was unable to stop thinking about it.

Steve now felt guilty for not asking the obvious question. "Can you even leave the armor?"

"Oh, sure." Iron Man relaxed against the kitchen counter. "It's got life support functions, but it's not life support."

He stopped himself from asking more, it wasn't his business, and yet he was curious now, if... suddenly Iron Man and sex were in the same place in his brain, the idea of the man under the armor wanting and needing, and...

Iron Man laughed again. "You look adorable when you're trying to not be impolite. Most people these days don't even bother to stifle. I can get out of the armor, I can function." Even though the voice changer Steve could hear the innuendo. "Can't say I've had the time or inclination since becoming Iron Man, however."

"Were you hurt?"

Not even privacy could quite explain to Steve why Iron Man chose to stay in the armor, even with his teammates, with everyone but Tony.

Iron Man put a hand over his upper chest, fingers spread. "I was tortured for three months as motivation for Mr. Stark to build weapons for terrorists. I suppose the armor is... life support, but not the way you think."

Steve didn't quite know what to say, but he put an arm on Iron Man's shoulder, offering that support, at least. He couldn't imagine that, what it would be like, to withstand torture for months, knowing that you could do nothing to end that pain, that your fate was out of your own hands. But Iron Man was still strong, and Steve... found he admired Iron Man all the more for it now.

*

Tony wasn't completely unobservant, no matter what Pepper said. Steve Rogers was checking out Iron Man. It was usually surreptitious, and he was hardly drawing hearts and stars in his notepad that said 'Steven Iron Man', but the guy was cruising Iron Man as much as a hundred pound bucket of gold titanium alloy could be cruised.

Still, he was fairly certain Cap hadn't developed a sudden spate of technophilia, so it wasn't so much Steve was interested in 'Iron Man' the armor, but 'Iron Man' the man... which left Tony conflicted. He was fairly certain anyone would be gay for Steve Rogers, and certainly Tony had played for that team a time or two in his life, so that wouldn't have been a problem...

There was simply the fact that Steve looked at Tony like he was something beneath him, and Tony had no idea how Cap would reconcile that if he ever got around to it. So many people, good people, people like Cap, didn't much care for Tony; it made him even more glad that Steve didn't know that Tony was Iron Man.

That didn't keep him from flirting a little bit, nothing outlandish, just complimenting the guy, which Steve seemed to, invariably, take poorly.

Steve just kept--

"Nice drawing," Tony said, collapsing onto the couch next to Steve.

The man was in the midst of one of his doodles, Iron Man, as usual, each line of the armor rendered in painstaking detail. Steve shut the sketchpad, and sighed. "It's--"

"An attractive piece of engineering, I know."

Steve's ears turned pink. Tony could see it from where he was sitting. He wondered if the blush went all the way down.

"We didn't exactly get off on the right foot," Tony offered.

Steve didn't protest, didn't really say anything, just clenched his hands on the sketchpad and then looked over at Tony, waiting for him to continue.

"You wanna... get lunch or something? My treat, anything in the city."

It took advantage of Steve's nature, Tony knew that, but Steve did give him a warm enough smile. "Sure."

So... there was a particular sort of date, Tony didn't know it well, but he had heard about it from men who were less charming and attractive than him. Steve was not particularly subtle; the fact that he was being used to mine more pertinent information like 'what does Iron Man like' under the guise of engineering talk was almost flattering. Steve obviously really wanted in Iron Man's pants.

Tony explained the arc reactor; 'Iron Man explained it a little to me'.

He talked a little about the politics of peace; 'I heard Iron Man has helped stabilize several regional issues'.

And if hearing Steve talk about his dad was a kick to the stomach, listening to him go on about how amazing Iron Man is was almost worse. Part of him should have been able to appreciate it, to bask in the reflective glow that was Steve's admiration of him, but... Steve seemed to like that idealized Tony Stark, the mask of Iron Man, the... the useful one, not the useless playboy.

Tony was almost grateful when he was put out of his misery, back at the Tower.

"Thank your for lunch," Steve said, polite.

"Any time," Tony answered.

"I--" Steve looked down at his hands, and then back up at Tony.

"You wanna come downstairs?" Because Tony was, apparently, completely incapable of self-preservation. "Can admire some of Iron Man's old suits."

It worked like a charm, although why Tony was trying to tempt Steve to spend more time with him was beyond him. Steve was like a kid in a candy store, excited and yet also trying to keep the reaction tamped down. His dignity was truly shot, as Tony watched Steve, torn between wanting to put his hands over every inch of the armor and trying to treat them like museum pieces.

But he wasn't drawn to the slick triangles of the Mark VI, or the smooth elegance of the Mark II, or choppy modularity of the Mark V. Instead, Steve's eyes seemed drawn to the Mark I, built in a cave with a box of scraps. That was he one Steve seemed to want to touch.

"Is this the one you escaped with?"

"Yes." Tony was surprised to find his voice broke when he answered, his eyes slightly watery. The spate of hydrophobia had passed since then, but Tony found he longed for the days he woke up chill, imagining the caves; he would have given anything for a few regular hours of sleep.

Steve moved on, went back to examining the more modern armors, and finally the still-battered Mark VII. That one he put his fingers on, touching the scratched open parts that had let in the vacuum of space when Tony had flown--

He took a deep breath, hand clutched against the table, trying not to think about that dark hole that had nearly swallowed him.

"You build beautiful things," Steve said, finally.

"Th-hanks?" It was probably the first real compliment that Steve had paid him, the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, not Iron Man.

"The lines are beautiful, balanced color, they function-- perfectly."

Not talking about the armors. Tony raised an eyebrow at Steve and he blushed a fantastic red again.

"I guess I'm pretty obvious," Steve said.

Tony, at least, dignified that with a nod. "You're about as subtle as a box of rocks, Cap."

"Is that why Iron Man hasn't been around?" Steve asked, sounding more than a bit miserable.

Tony hadn't had 'Iron Man' come around because he had no fucking clue what to do with Steve Rogers, the Star Spangled Man with a Crush. Iron Man's relationship with Steve was simple: mutual admiration, physical appreciation, and bone-deep trust; Tony Stark's relationship with Steve was far more complicated: mutual antagonism, rooted in a shared history that Tony couldn't root out no matter how hard he tried.

"He's had a lot on his mind," Tony hedged. "Look, Cap, Steve. Iron Man, he's--"

I am Iron Man. He tried to imagine saying it, and what it would do to whatever it was between them.

"He's been through a lot." Tony thought that was fair. "I don't think, under the armor, he's really what you'd expect. I think-- I know he's worried about what you'll think when you--"

Steve frowned. "I'm not shallow."

Tony opened and closed his mouth, and then shook his head.

Steve waited for more, at least for a few seconds, before he nodded. "Thank you for lunch, Mr. Stark."

He found himself out on the balcony again, that night, in his armor, wishing he could just sleep, but every time he closed his eyes he was there, up, locked away from home, from everything.

"Iron Man?"

Tony turned. Steve found him most nights, not all of them, but enough, a friendly ear and some hot cocoa. "Steve."

"Are you alright?"

"Just reminding himself where I am."

Steve came up beside him. "Mr. Stark's J.A.R.V.I.S. tells me the day when I wake up."

"He does the same thing for me," Tony admitted. "Where, not when, though."

Sensors showed the arm around his shoulder, and then he allowed himself to be led back inside, sat on the couch, and had Steve sitting next to him only a moment later. They sat in silence for several minutes, and Tony felt himself calming, he knew where he was, he always slept better after talking with Steve...

On a whim, he held out his hand.

"Did Mr. Stark tell you?" Steve asked, looking down at it before sliding his hand against Tony's gloved hand.

"You're pretty obvious, Cap." He let his fingers squeeze with just a fraction of pressure.

"If you don't feel the same way, it's fine," Steve said, immediately. "You're my friend. I want you to be happy. I just-- you're incredible."

"You obviously don't know me very well," Tony answered, and he wiggled away his hand only to have Steve frown up at him. So Tony tugged off the gauntlet, and instead presented his own hand, bare skin. Steve latched onto it in a heartbeat.

Steve's hand was warm, and his fingers ran over the back of Tony's hand, stroking. It was surprisingly erotic, after so much time with Steve's arms on his metal shoulders, or a pat on his back that he couldn't feel, there was something intoxicating about having Steve, here, touching him while he could still feel the safe cocoon of the armor. It wouldn't last.

*

They sat together, fingers intertwined, and Steve couldn't help it if his heart raced, and if he pulled Iron Man's hands closer and began to explore the only flesh that had ever been made available to him. Iron Man's fingers were rough, and calloused, but neatly kept and clean. When he turned the hand over, there was a tiny little scar across the base of his index finger, white, and old; his fingers twitched while Steve ran his own against his palm, along the fingers, and against his wrist.

Finally, mind made up, he lifted Iron Man's hand and pressed a kiss to one of his knuckles. Even though the voice filters, Steve heard his voice hitch.

"You were my best friend," Steve said, quiet. "As soon as I got here, everything was so strange and alien. People were-- hard to understand, but my best friend was a man I could have mistaken for a robot."

Steve shook his head, he knew he was saying it all wrong, but he continued to leave Iron Man's hand, fingers curled gently, against his chin.

"You're not, though. You care so much."

Iron Man finally moved, his fingers stretched and ran gently along Steve's jaw, his thumb teased over his chin, and Iron Man moved so they could look each other in the eye. "You're a good man, better than me."

Steve shook his head. Maybe that was true, Steve didn't think so, but seeing how hard Iron Man fought, even though his job was to be a bodyguard, made Steve admire him all the more. "The way you put yourself on the line, the way you fight to make the world better, that's the man I respect and admire... who I..." Love might have been the right word, but he knew enough not to say that yet. He didn't doubt his feelings, and he wasn't afraid of them, but he wanted Iron Man to know it was true, and that meant not using just one word to say how much he cared. "Do you--?"

"I admire you, Steve. You're kind, your gorgeous, you're the best man I know. I-- I pale in comparison, I've always--" Iron Man trailed off, and bowed his head.

"How can you not see how incredible you are to me?" Steve asked. Iron Man put his heart and his soul into everything, he fought so hard for everyone, he fought every day to make the world a better place, and he thought... he paled in comparison to Steve. He was just a kid from Brooklyn.

"I'm not a good man." Iron Man was still looking down, although his fingers continued to hold onto Steve. "There is blood on my hands, innocent blood, blood that I'm never going to wash off."

Steve knew Iron Man had a past, Steve knew, but it was impossible for him to imagine a man that Tony Stark had willingly enlisted as a body guard doing anything that could have erased the good he'd done and the sacrifices he was willing to make. Iron Man would have gladly died for all of them, he nearly had, and every day he proved he wanted to be even better. "I don't care."

Iron Man laughed, bitter.

"You saved us all, every person on the planet. Seven billion people, Iron Man. You can't forgive yourself a little bit?"

"No."

"That's why you're a good man." Steve wished he could do something, anything, but he didn't know how. He leaned in, and pressed a soft kiss to the faceplate of Iron Man's mask.

"Steve..." Iron Man brushed his thumb over Steve's lip, and on impulse, Steve pursed his lips to kiss the pad of his thumb.

They ended up in a complicated tangle, Iron Man's forehead on Steve's shoulders, his hands playing over the interlocking metal of Iron Man's back, Steve wishing he could hug the man tight enough that he would feel it. Iron Man's ungloved hand played from the back of his neck to the base of his spine, touching every inch, and Steve wished he could memorize the expanses of skin he knew must be under the armor, but he was patient, he could wait. He knew it wasn't something he could just ask for and receive.

When Iron Man finally pulled away, Steve looked him in the visor. "Are you going to be able to sleep?"

"Probably not."

Steve sighed, and put a hand to Iron Man's face. "Is there anything I can do?" Steve knew nightmares and bad dreams, although they had lessened, slightly, with his time in the future. "I could sit with you."

He couldn't tell what Iron Man was thinking, but he let out a long sigh. "I'm going to feel like a bit of an idiot, trying to sleep in part of my armor."

Part. Not 'my armor', 'part'... Steve couldn't quite contain his nerves, or his eagerness. Mr. Stark had implied-- that Iron Man had been hurt, or that Steve might not like what he saw under the armor, but Steve was committed, he would see this through.

Iron Man stood, and put out a hand, and Steve took it, standing after him. They headed to the room that Steve knew was Iron Man's, he'd never been inside; the room itself was spartan, little more than a bed, a closet, and a bathroom. Steve opened his mouth to protest.

"There's an elevator to the lab floor and exercise facilities," Iron Man said, immediately. "My needs and wants are more than cared for."

He then stepped over to something that looked like a pair of robotic arms; Steve watched, transfixed, as they began to pull away pieces of armor, hand and forearm, tricep, chestplate and back, thighs, calves, groin, and then Iron Man stepped carefully out of the shoes. He was covered in some sort of thin, black material that hugged every line and curve. Iron Man was... fit, that much was obvious, any delusions that the suit offered a physical advantage that wasn't reflected in Iron Man's core anatomy was dismissed; even with the cover, Steve could see the definition in chest, abs, thighs...

After a moment, he realized what he was doing, and looked away flushed. "Sorry."

"Look all you want," Iron Man's voice came out of the helmet, still affixed to his face, and his tone was still light and teasing. "Like what you see?"

Steve flushed deeper, but it didn't push away the question. "What's..." He tapped his hand to his own chest, indicating the bright blue-white circle that seemed to be embedded in the undersuit.

"Yeah, that's..." Iron Man's hand spread over it, banking the light. "Life support."

"What?"

"It-- runs my heart, keeps the--" Iron Man shook his head. "I know the thing about not being a robot was a joke, but I do run on batteries. A very high tech battery--"

"It's an arc reactor," Steve realized a moment later. He didn't recognize it because it was so small. "But the one in the basement is... it has all sorts of shielding, safety protocols."

"They're for show," Iron Man tapped it again. "Runs clean, no radiation, no-- no design flaws, perfect synergy. It runs the Iron Man armor, and it runs me. Don't look at me like that."

Steve realized he must have been looking at Iron Man with concern, probably probably something else, something protective; he'd never realized that Iron Man, literally, was part machine, and it was a hard thing to grasp. "It keeps you alive."

"I'm going to shower," Iron Man said. "Make yourself comfortable."

Steve didn't quite know what to make of it, but he realized that he'd be sleeping, sharing a bed, with Iron Man. He toed off his shoes, considered keeping, and removing, his socks before he pulled them off and set them neatly atop his shoes. After that, he unbuckled, and then folded his pants neatly in half and draped them over the back of a chair. He then paced the room, before finally sitting back down on the bed when the sounds of the shower stopped.

Iron Man emerged, still in his helmet - although he'd probably taken it off to shower - wearing a dark t-shirt and a pair of boxers; he then sat, carefully, on the bed. "I don't-- don't take it personally if I'm not here when you wake up."

Steve nodded. "I just want you to get some sleep if you can."

Iron Man tucked himself in under the covers, helmet resting on one of the pillows, and Steve took the invitation to slide under as well. He wasn't that tired, the Serum meant he could go for a day or two without sleep, and so he ended up on his side, head propped up, looking at Iron Man.

"Can I--?" He gestured to Iron Man's chest.

"Yeah, knock yourself out."

Steve put a hand on the light, palm feeling the edges of it. It wasn't large, not by some objective measure, but his palm only just covered it. After a moment of hesitation he leaned in and kissed it, just in the center.

"Good night, Tin Man."

"G'night, Cap."

It took Iron Man some time to get comfortable at all, and the two of them eventually wound up with Iron Man's back pressed to Steve's chest, Steve's hand snaked under his shirt, hand resting against his heart.

Both of them pretended Steve couldn't feel the thin network of scars that branched out from the hole in Iron Man's chest, even as Steve's fingers ghosted over them. He slept easily, and he didn't take it personally when Iron Man woke sometime around 4am and slipped out of the room.

*

Tony was officially screwed, no sex required. He was more than a bit enamored, and he didn't think it was going to get any better, so his escape to his lab was well timed, and absolutely necessary. Steve was very likely in love with Iron Man; Tony... well he sure didn't hate Steve, his own feelings were more nebulous, and he'd never been one to put a word like 'love' to what he was feeling; Steve didn't like Tony at all...

He was a genius, he could figure it out. After some consideration, he decided that Iron Man would be sent on a mission, allowing for Tony to actually spend some time with Steve and hopefully prove to him that he wasn't a horrible human being, even though he sort of was.

It took some timing, and the careful observations of J.A.R.V.I.S. to get himself to corner Steve in the kitchen, and the hopeful-turned-disappointed look on Steve's face when he glanced to Tony striding in, only to have his face fall when it was Tony, not Iron Man, was a punch in the gut.

Tony didn't have to wait long for the tentative 'is Iron Man...?' from Steve.

"There's a thing with a warlord," Tony said. There was always a thing with a warlord.

Steve frowned, and when Tony glanced up from where he'd tugged out some eggs and toast from the refrigerator, the man was eyeing Tony. Tony tried to ignore the fact that Steve seemed to be considering the possibility that Tony had sent away Iron Man to punish Steve and/or Iron Man.

"Oh don't give me that look," Tony snapped. "Stark Industries had a nondiscrimination policy that included orientation before it was cool." And since, apparently, he had a motormouth on the best of days and now he found himself on a mild tear he put down the eggs and toast and turned around to look at Steve across the breakfast bar. "I don't get it. You liked my dad, at least a little bit, the only difference is I upgraded the millionaire to billionaire, and I actually perfected the hippy, green, peacenik shit that he started in the seventies."

Steve, actually, had the decency to look abashed, and he obviously didn't have anything to say to that.

"What the hell did I do that makes it so you always think the worst of me?"

Steve looked as though he was actually considering the question, and for a moment Tony was worried that this would be the moment that Steve revealed some deep-seated character flaw that would doom any relationship with 'Tony' rather than 'Iron Man' from the start. Instead, Steve blushed. "I was jealous of you."

Tony opened his mouth, gobsmacked. Captain America wasn't jealous, that wasn't something in Captain America's vocabulary. "Why?!"

"You and Iron Man were so..." Steve waved his hands in a way that Tony, apt at the language of silent hand-flailing recognized instantly as 'I thought you were fucking'. More likely Steve was jealous of the apparent closeness. "He's always down in your lab and I-- was jealous."

"Well." Tony coughed, almost enough to hide his chuckle. Steve was jealous of Tony because he was close to Tony, the smirk couldn't help but tease at his lips. "This isn't The Bodyguard. Iron Man's virtue is safe from me, or something."

Tony shoved his future breakfast fixings back into the refrigerator and looked at Steve.

"I thought you hated me for one of the billion reasons people actually hate me: former war profiteering, being a slut..."

Steve sighed. "No. It's stupid, I know, but--"

"This is dumb. You, me, breakfast, out."

Steve nodded, mutely, and the two of them headed out into the morning air. Tony considered the possibility that maybe, just maybe, this could actually work out. If Steve's huff at him had more to do with his feelings for Iron Man than because he actually thought Tony was an asshole, this whole thing might actually be salvageable.

There was a crepe place near enough to the Tower that they could walk, and it wasn't overly busy because Avengers didn't have to keep schedules, so mid-morning on a Tuesday wasn't particularly busy, and he made his way through a strawberry crepe while Steve stuck with a pile and a half of protein.

"So I've got to know, why the completely unflattering assumption on one of the few places I'm not an asshole?"

Steve took a long sip of orange juice before he blushed again. "Your-- your father. I was sweet on this gal, and your father asked her out for fondue and I--"

Tony laughed, he couldn't help it. "Fondue?"

"I didn't know what it was, and I thought--" Steve was smiling now, along with the flush, clearly able to find it humorous rather than completely embarrassing.

"Who was the gal?"

"Peggy Carter? She was in SSR--"

"Aunt Peg, sure." Tony chuckled. "She and dad could flirt like the day is long. It wasn't a thing."

Tony didn't know exactly when it had started, long before he was born, but dad and Peg seemed-- well there were always rumors, but mom had always assured him there was nothing to it. Maybe he'd been naive about it, but it had always just seemed... fun, nothing more. It did create a tantalizing question, though.

"Do you still love her?"

Steve flushed, again. "I always thought she and I might-- if I'd survived the war--" He glanced up at Tony again. "I love her, but things are different now. I--" He paused. "I'm not telling you something like that before Iron Man."

Well and truly screwed. Tony swallowed the lump in his throat under the guise of a long drink of coffee. "Well, I have to look out for the guy."

"I appreciate that. When I first met Iron Man, I thought maybe you didn't much care for him beyond him being able to do his job."

"So which one was it: I was having a torrid affair with him or I thought he was useless beyond being able to protect me?" Steve was, without a doubt, amusing when he was jealous.

"No one said it was logical," Steve mumbled under his breath.

Tony let him get away with it, because-- well-- that would probably just be what he did, let Steve get away with his stupid little adorable behavior and his smiles and his blushes and the way he looked 'aww shucks' bashful all the time, because Tony... Tony cared for Steve, a lot.

Conversation as less fraught after that, and Steve actually seemed interested in some of his projects - although his attraction to future Iron Man improvements was obvious - and they enjoyed an almost amicable breakfast. Tony wondered if, perhaps, he might have been needlessly concerned over Steve hating him, if a large part of it was simple jealousy, not some inexplicable hatred. It would be rough, but... maybe tonight... order in some dinner - as Iron Man - a little music, a little dancing, and Tony could confess. That would be good. It wasn't like they had even kissed yet.

Tony paid for breakfast, and headed outside, Cap trailing in his wake. He pulled out his phone and took a quick check of twitter - nothing interesting.

"Do you know how to go an hour without checking that thing?" Steve asked.

"Nope. Constant connectivity is the wave of the--"

He heard the shot just as he felt the kick in the chest, fire spread through it, lungs and heart both going frantically. Hit in the chest. Hit in the arc reactor. He was on the ground, head ringing even as he thumbed his phone. "J, help."

"Tony!" Steve was over him in a second, hands on his chest. Which would have maybe felt nice if his entire torso wasn't screaming from the pressure of his ribs taking the full force of a bullet, no matter how spread out the interconnected metal housing for the reactor was.

The rip of cloth didn't even register right away. His shirt, Steve had ripped his shirt, not sexy, and his hand was over Tony's heart, his reactor, a second later.

"Cover it," Tony panted. "Not bleeding, cover it."

Steve, soldier, did as he was told and pulled the shirt back across his chest, hopefully in time to avoid any of the few people on the street from catching an eyeful or - god forbid - a picture.

"Go." Tony put a hand up on Steve's shoulder. "Pickup incoming."

The Iron Man armor - piloted by the incomparable J.A.R.V.I.S. - landed scant inches from Tony and had him scooped up a half-second later. The liftoff was more delicate, thankfully, but the buzz back to the Tower was filled with the uncomfortable feeling of the arc reactor not handling the stress of the impact well, and his chest doing the same.

He came to, later, plugged into the socket he tethered with when he had to take the reactor out for longer than the capacitors allowed, his chest still throbbing. Above him, a screen floated with readouts showing the scans of his chest. Two ribs had been cracked from the force of the bullet; the brunt of the shot had been taken by the arc reactor itself, but the housing was wired into his sternum and ribs to hold the weight and that hadn't been meant to handle that sort of stress. It was always a danger, the direct hit to the chest with that sort of force, but even a punch - a human one, anyway - it could have handled, but the bullet was another story.

"HA! Not dead." But far closer than it should have been.

"Unfortunately I will have to wait on my intention of purchasing that house in Maui," J.A.R.V.I.S. answered, still circling around him in the armor.

"Aww, J," Tony answered, he tried to get up from the chair, failed. "You know I'd buy you a house if you wanted. I'd put all the sexiest hardware in it, EMP proof..."

"Of course, sir." J.A.R.V.I.S. reached out, offering the arc reactor. "Diagnostics show no internal damage of the reactor itself. Based on analysis of its performance and your current state, it appears the pressure produced a unstable power fluctuation which resulted in severe arrhythmia but no damage to the heart muscle or the electromagnetic generation potential.

The case itself was battered, with a several hairline cracks spreading out from where it had been hit. "Solid engineering though. Ow." Tony grabbed ahold of the plug into his chest and levered himself up, this time able to make it over to one of his workbenches while Dum-E trailed along after him, holding up the cable. "Let's get cracking on a new housing."

"Sir?" J.A.R.V.I.S. loomed behind him. "Captain Rogers has returned to the Tower... his heart rate is elevated and he appears distressed. He is also standing outside of the workshop."

Tony looked up.

'Distressed', more like 'pissed'. "Shit. Let him in."

The door slid open and Steve walked in, glancing between 'Iron Man' and Tony, before his eyes landed on Tony, and the power cord draped out of his chest. He opened his mouth, and then closed it again, before he frowned. "The shooter is in S.H.I.E.L.D. custody. He was rambling something about your family hiding the truth about some sort of Roswell crash."

"Of, fucking, course. J.A.R.V.I.S. get legal to do the legal thing. Survive an alien invasion only to nearly die because of a fucking conspiracy theorist." Tony growled in frustration and then went back to carefully disassembling the reactor housing.

"Stark."

Tony looked back up at Steve.

"Who is that." He was pointing at J.A.R.V.I.S. in the Iron Man suit. "Who. Did. I. Sleep. With." Every word was bit out, and angry, at the point that Tony realized that it wasn't just the adoring public who needed to not see that Tony was battery operated, no, he probably should have realized that Steve, Steve who had seen the reactor in Iron Man's chest, should probably have not seen it either.

In his defense, he had just gotten shot.

"The suit's J.A.R.V.I.S., J?" Tony made a flipping gesture over his face, and the hands reached up and pulled off the helmet to reveal nothing but empty air. "If you see us in the same place, it's J.A.R.V.I.S. running the suit. Helps with the 'no one sees Clark Kent and Superman in the same place problem. As to who you slept with? Iron Man, me, same difference."

Steve opened his mouth.

"I was going to tell you."

"What, after you'd had a laugh over it?" Steve asked, voice filled with hurt. "After you'd gotten your kicks out of 'Mr. Stark' this and 'Iron Man' that for long enough? After I-- after I-- I don't even know who you are anymore."

"Steve." Tony stood, or tried to stand, hand trying to keep himself plugged in as he stumbled. "Steve, it wasn't like that."

But Steve had already turned and walked away, unshed tears in his eyes, mouth set in a hard line. Gone.

He glanced down, but the plug was still firmly in his chest. The ache that was starting to form there was something else entirely.

*

Steve found himself down in the gym, hitting the heavy bag so hard he was splitting open cuts across his own knuckles so often that he couldn't heal. He'd been having, for the first time in months, something that felt like a friendly interaction with Tony Stark, only to find that...

He didn't even know, Tony Stark, the man who delighted in saying he was a playboy, was apparently also Iron Man, the man who Steve...

The chain holding the heavy bag up broke, and the bag went flying across the room, and Steve sighed. Steve was in love with Iron Man. Steve had been falling in love with the other man for quite some time. Stark he had gotten off on the wrong foot with, Iron Man had been there, chattering but focused, always ready with a plan, and always willing to fight for the right cause.

Iron Man had been the one he'd found late-night friendship and camaraderie with, Iron Man had been the one to explain music and the future as they curled up on the couch together, Iron Man had been the one who had sipped his cocoa through a straw, had put his hand on Steve's shoulder and squeezed just enough for him to feel it, had laughed at his jokes and stayed silent as Steve brought up hard memories.

Tony Stark was the playboy who smirked at Steve's bumbling path to understand the future or ignored him half the time. Tony Stark was the one who acted as though he was looking out for Iron Man when really he'd been trying to wiggle some sort of confession out of Steve, to get Steve to put a voice to his emotions and probably laugh.

Tony was always out with some woman or another, laughing, his mouth pressed against her jaw or her neck, giggling and worry-free. Steve wondered if the man was even interested in men so much as interested in making Steve feel like an idiot, again.

Playboy. Stark delighted in that name.

Steve had thought that he might have found something real, that the fluttering, content, happy feeling in his chest that he hadn't felt since he'd first met Peggy might have struck twice. Iron Man was the person that had made the future worthwhile, a friend, a comrade, and someone who had seemed to want more.

Stark had played him for a fool, he was a bully who obviously delighted in hurting Steve. He'd read the papers and the briefings and he'd seen the thousands of photos of Tony Stark proving that he had no intention of having anything Steve might want.

The only think he could feel good about was that he hadn't given more than his heart to Iron Man. He could... he could get over this, he could move on, he could find the right partner, not someone who thought it was funny to tease around the fact they were same person and Steve was too much of an idiot to see.

Exercise provided no catharsis, though, and Steve grabbed the heavy bag and tossed it onto the small pile that he and Thor had broken at one time or another, for the chains to be patched, and made his way to his own quarters for a shower.

"Captain Rogers?" A soft voice came from the ceiling, Jarvis. "There is a message for you from Mr. Stark."

"Delete it." Steve wasn't feeling particularly charitable towards Jarvis at the moment either.

"But, sir..."

"Delete it, and you can tell Mr. Stark that I deleted it." He glowered up at the ceiling. He knew that there were sensors or cameras or something that Jarvis used to keep track of them - mostly vitals, he'd been assured - but he didn't want anything to do with the voice in the sky today. "I don't want to hear about it unless it's an emergency."

"Acknowledged."

There wasn't anything to make the change obvious, but Steve hoped that the AI was at least honorable enough to do what he was told. He stripped out of his shirt and his pants, chucking them into the hamper and making his way to the bathroom where he turned on the water and just stared at it for a moment. He'd really thought...

He hung his head, blinking back the start of tears that were still in the corners of his eyes.

Steve stepped into the stream of the water and began to mechanically wash himself, mind wandering while his body went through the motions. He'd thought that falling for someone like Iron Man, someone where there was not a physical attraction, but feelings for the man underneath, unencumbered by attractiveness, had been a truly exceptional love. Steve had seen all too often how people fell for pretty faces with nothing underneath; he'd seen how men looked at Peggy like she was a thing to be possessed rather than the greatest dame he'd ever known.

Falling for someone, even knowing they might be hurt, or scarred, burned, perhaps, had been so easy.

He'd wanted to peel off that armor, kiss whatever scratches or scars or burns had been etched into Iron Man's body before he'd locked himself in that armor; he'd wanted that so badly.

Even with the water falling over his face he felt the tears in his eyes, blinked out and mingled with the shower water. It hurt. It hurt more than the perpetual dull ache in his chest at the loss of everyone he'd known in the past, it hurt because there were so few ghostly reminders of what he had lost, it hurt less because he thought he'd found a team, and maybe even someone to love, someone to face the future together with.

All he had found was more pain.

He gave the shower knob a violent twist before he stepped out of the shower, dried off, and crawled on top of his neatly made bed, and cried. If he was going to have to face Tony Stark, or supervillains, tomorrow, he would need to get this out of his system, stuff it back down, and move forward.

*

Tony knew he'd fucked up. He wasn't an idiot, he was, in fact, a genius. He was not a genius with things like 'feelings' and 'emotions' however, and he certainly wasn't a genius for thinking that Steve would be anything but disgusted when he found out who was under the armor.

He worked for a few minutes on he housing to the reactor before he realized he was more likely to break the thing irreparably than fix it.

"Shit."

He sighed and looked over at the armor - now neatly put away - and then up at the ceiling. "J.A.R.V.I.S., take a message."

"Of course, sir."

"Steve, ah. Look. I'm really sorry. It wasn't a joke. It wasn't... I kept my identity a secret for a lot of reasons, the big one being that I'm a huge asshole, and people see me a certain way and I needed to keep Iron Man out of it. He was the guy who was going to be my legacy. If I could do one thing right, it would be to put Iron Man out there, my last weapon."

Tony looked down at the reactor, and then looked over his hands.

"I know I'm not a good guy. I know I have blood on my hands. I know that I can never repay that. When I was with you I could be... I could be someone else, a hero, a good guy, someone who Captain America wouldn't look at like something he scraped off his shoe.

"I admire you. I-- I-- I love you. I'm just sorry I couldn't be a man who was worthy of your love."

He slashed his hand across his throat, indicating J.A.R.V.I.S. should stop recording. "Shall I deliver to Captain Rogers, sir?"

"Yeah. Whenever he's in his room. Don't... don't bother him with it." Tony sighed and looked back down at the reactor. "I'm having a moment with my broken metaphor here."

Tony picked it up, looking over at the cracked housing, running his fingers over it, and then finally prying it free. "U, don't be a clumsy little shit, put that in to get a new case fabricated and bring daddy his spare reactor."

U carefully picked up the reactor and then rolled off and out of sight.

He was such an idiot. How had he fallen for that stupid, perfect boy scout? It had been easy, though. Tony's mind and his dreams had been troubled since the invasion, Steve had been there every few nights to make the dreams less real and to remind him that he was here and now, not a bag of bones wrapped in a suit on the other side of the universe.

Steve had made him feel alive.

Tony hadn't been with anyone since Afghanistan. He'd sort of given it a go with Pepper for a bit, off and on, some kissing, something that went into what might have politely been called 'petting' if he'd been twenty-five years younger in the back seat of his dad's car.

Pepper wasn't a fan of the arc reactor, not that Tony could blame her, and Tony had been pretty much not alright with people's hands anywhere near it at the time, so they had... well it was easy to see the look on Pepper's face that said she didn't want to see it.

So, yes, he might have been a bit thrilled when Steve didn't seem to want to avoid it. It had meant that maybe Steve would have liked that part of him. Sadly he didn't like the other parts.

He was still lost in those thoughts when U rolled up to him, holding the spare reactor that he kept here under lock and key for such an occasion.

"Sir, Ms. Potts is on the line," JARVIS interrupted. "She has just become aware of the news that you were shot."

"Ug." Tony banged his head against the desk. "Put her through."

"Tony!? Oh my God, Tony are you alright?"

"Fine, Pep." Not fine, but at least in the way she meant it he was fine. "The bullet actually hit the arc reactor, over-cycled it a bit, but no lasting damage. Well, the reactor needs to be repaired, Tony Stark is fine. Are there any pictures or reports of the reactor?"

"That's what you're concerned about!?"

"Huge armor with glowy light in the center, billionaire with glowy light in the center, people are gonna put one and one together." He liked the anonymity, he liked the respect. He didn't want to give that up, Iron Man was doing too much good to be weighted down by Tony Stark.

"No reports," Pepper said. "One or two eyewitnesses decided you must have had a 'deflector shield' but that's because the bullet was recovered crumpled next to you, not in you."

"J.A.R.V.I.S., make a note: invent deflector shield."

"Not funny, Tony." But Pepper sighed, audibly. "I'm glad you're alright. I'll have them put out a press release that you weren't seriously harmed and that you are recuperating. Press conference in a day or two."

Tony whined at her.

"Iron Man getting shot: not news; Tony Stark getting shot: news. Suck it up." Pepper then disconnected the call.

"I wonder if I haven't pissed off Rhodey today," Tony muttered, under his breath, before yanking out the cord from his chest and replacing it with the older arc reactor. "J.A.R.V.I.S., shoot him a text and email that I'm not dead, thanks."

Sadly, with that taken care of, he had nothing else to distract himself from the train wreck that was his life that he'd made by pursuing Steve, or allowing himself to be pursued at all.

He should have turned Steve down, should have told him he didn't swing that way or was flattered but uninterested, but he was too selfish to give up on that look. Steve had looked at him like he was the whole fucking world in one perfect little package. That was far too good to last, and Tony should have known it.

"Whip me together some sort of 'fuck my life' playlist. I'm going to engineer some shit."

The garage was soon filled with mopey, screamy, angry chick rock, which was just a little embarrassing, but Tony couldn't find it in his heart to ask for something different.

He was about three-quarters of the way to a working prototype shield generator powered by the naked arc reactor, when J.A.R.V.I.S. politely dimmed the music. Tony gave a hopeful glance over his shoulder to the glass doors of the workshop, but no one was there.

"Captain Rogers has received your message, Sir."

"And?"

"He deleted it unplayed."

Tony knew he could have ordered J.A.R.V.I.S. to play it, against Steve's wishes if he'd wanted to, but he'd already been enough of an asshole to the guy. If he didn't want to hear an apology or an explanation, Tony wasn't going to force the issue. It was the least he could do. He would just have to respect the fact that Steve didn't want a damn thing to do with him.

*

Thankfully there were no supervillain attacks that day, or the next. Steve wasn't certain he could have gone out on the call. Instead he doodled, he kept to himself, and he found himself upset that Tony hadn't tried to contact him again.

Maybe he shouldn't have had Jarvis delete that message.

"Jarvis?"

No answer.

He wondered if he'd have to head out into a public area to get the AI's attention again. He debated the merits of doing so, before he just rolled back over in bed. He'd been out into the kitchen, mostly to get food, before retreating back to his room, or the gym, where he was exceedingly unlikely to run into Tony.

Iron Man.

Tony who was Iron Man.

Steve still wasn't able to wrap his mind around it. Tony Stark was Iron Man.

It had played around in his mind for days, but it just didn't make sense, it didn't go in. Everything he knew about Tony Stark was nothing like Iron Man. Iron Man was selfless, willing to make a sacrifice play if it was the right call, willing to put himself in the line of fire when he was the best man for the job, always ready with a fast play and a brilliant execution. Tony Stark was a selfish playboy who brought home women and had them thrown out in the morning.

Tony Stark put his life on the line every time he went out in the armor. Tony Stark had put his arms around Steve and hugged him when he cried over Bucky, over the lost past. Tony Stark drank cocoa with him late at night when he was awoken by nightmares of nearly dying in deep space. Tony Stark ran missions in the Middle East and Africa to dismantle minefields. Tony Stark ran a company that 'had an anti-discrimination policy since before it was cool'. Tony Stark was creating solutions to make energy for everyone, 'post scarcity'.

Steve had thought that perhaps when Tony had called himself a philanthropist he had meant it in that way where the various rich people of his day thought themselves benevolent when they were able to have meat for their Sunday meal in the orphanage.

When Tony said 'philanthropy' he'd apparently meant: robotics competition for young children with special funding for schools that couldn't afford it; he meant charitable organizations for victims of land mines and other machines of war; he meant a handful of scholarships so children could attend MIT for free; he meant a secure marine facility outside of the potential blast radius of Manhattan where a reactor could be housed, complete with environmental impact reports... And it wasn't new. Certainly there was more money being put to those causes now, but Stark Industries had always had philanthropic outreach.

Tony wasn't wrong about the genius, either, obviously.

Steve couldn't understand why he was so... abrasive, and why everything he said had this air that kept people away. No one was allowed close or he all but bit them until they went away. Iron Man had been nothing like that; that was how he had fallen in love with him.

So Steve couldn't quite understand how he knew these two men, and knew them to be the same man, but they were just so different. In the end, Steve decided it couldn't matter. Tony Stark had nearly died to save the entire world. He had nearly died on the off chance that things would come together just as they did. No man who would make that choice with no hesitation was a selfish, egotistical cad, no matter how much he looked like it on the outside.

Tony Stark was a good man; Iron Man was a good man; it was just harder to see the former than the latter. Steve had let himself get suckered by that mask. Steve had seen through Iron Man to the vulnerability underneath, Steve hadn't let himself see through the other mask, the thousand dollar suits instead of the million dollar gold-titanium suits.

Mind made up, he showered and changed into something casual, and then stepped out of the door into the hallway. "Jarvis?" He tried again.

"Yes, Captain Rogers?"

Not being ignored, then, just Jarvis actually giving him the requested privacy. "Is To-- Mr.-- Tony-- Is Tony busy?"

"It depends on your definition of the term, I suppose," Jarvis answered.

He sounded so sarcastic. Steve almost gave up the quest in that moment, but he did have to do this. He had to at least see Tony and talk this out. "Would I be able to see him?"

"He is in his garage, working, although his productivity is somewhat-- lacking."

Steve walked the rest of the way to an elevator, and climbed inside. "Why?"

"That is the natural consequence of an unenhanced human body operating under his forty-first hour with no sleep," Jarvis answered.

"He was shot," Steve protested. "Even if he didn't get hit with a bullet he should at least have..."

But Iron Man had nightmares about the portal, and Tony locked himself in his workshop for an entire day with alarming regularity, put the two of them together, and it almost made sense.

"You can cancel my order," he said. "The one where you weren't supposed to bother me in my room."

"Of course, Captain."

"Did Tony try to send me any more messages?"

"No."

Steve didn't know what to think of that. "Do you-- do you still have the one he sent me two days ago?"

"Mr. Stark has not deleted it."

"Could I hear it?"

Jarvis seemed to be considering. Steve knew this because Jarvis was usually very fast, and he only seemed to delay when it came to things where Jarvis, the computer person, needed to make a decision based on lots of different factors.

"Steve, ah. Look. I'm really sorry. It wasn't a joke. It wasn't..." Tony's voice filled the elevator, and Steve listened, listened to Tony say that 'Tony Stark' would have ruined 'Iron Man's image, listened to him sound entirely dejected.

Finally, the apology closed: "I admire you. I-- I-- I love you. I'm just sorry I couldn't be a man who was worthy of your love."

Steve shut his eyes, blinking away a few tears before he took a deep breath. "Wish I'd listened to that two days ago," he mumbled to himself.

"There might have been a great deal less Alanis if you had, Captain."

A quick spike of anxiety hit, wondering if Tony had called some woman to--

"She is a singer," Jarvis added, a moment later. "Her music carries a distinct theme of a jilted lover."

He probably shouldn't have, but he laughed. The door opened onto the garage level, the beautiful glass of the garage enclosure on display, Tony and his two robots moved around, a distinct manicness to their moves.

"Could you let him know I'm here?" Steve asked, feeling the need to be polite after the slight dressing down he'd been given by Jarvis.

Jarvis didn't respond, but he could see the news delivered, Tony froze in place, like a deer caught in headlights, and then he slowly turned around to see Steve standing by the door. Tony's posture said it all, his hands went over his chest instantly, guarded, and Steve saw him tilt his head up to have a quick conversation with Jarvis, before the door hissed open.

"Hey, Cap," Tony said as Steve entered.

Cap. Distance. Tony Stark.

"Hey, Tony." Steve took a few more steps into the space, looking around. He came down here only rarely, usually when Tony had a new toy for him, better armor, a slight tweak or upgrade to his suit, but even Steve could tell it was-- trashed. "Do you have a minute?"

"Hours."

It wasn't quite sarcastic, but it wasn't exactly the welcome he'd hoped for, still, he was the one who left Iron Man after he'd been shot. It was bad team leader material, even if he'd been hurting. "I want to apologize. I was upset, but that was no excuse to leave things like I did."

"Done," Tony answered. "You are, of course, forgiven." He rapped his fingers against his chest, over the place where Steve now knew an arc reactor sat, the arc reactor that had saved Tony's life at least twice over. "Good as new."

Tony was pushing him away. Steve could tell. He wasn't going for the throat the way he had on the Helicarrier a few months ago, but he was pushing.

"I love you," he said, pushing the words out before he could think better of it. Tony had said those words to him first; Steve at least owed it to him to know those feelings were returned. "I want to give us a try."

Tony looked far from happy, if anything his face fell further. "No."

Steve opened his mouth, hurt, hurt beyond words. Tony had sent him that message, a message that had been filled with hurt and sadness, and then when Steve offered that in return, it was thrown back in his face. He took a deep breath, tried to remind himself that this was the man he'd comforted at night for weeks, not the man he barely knew. "Could you tell me why? Jarvis played me your message and I thought--"

"That was a mistake," Tony interrupted. "Look, I appreciate it, but you don't love me, you love Iron Man. You fell in love with the mask that makes me feel better about the fact that I have more blood on my hands than Black Widow, and she used to kill people professionally."

"I told you that didn't matter to me," Steve said, because he had. It had only been three days ago, when Iron Man had tried to push him away.

"You told Iron Man that didn't matter."

"You're the same person!" Steve shot back.

"Then you obviously haven't been paying attention!"

I'm just sorry I couldn't be a man who was worthy of your love. "Tony, you-- yes. Iron Man's amazing, he's some of the best parts of you, he's the part I could fall in love with because I'm a soldier. Iron Man understands what it's like to lose someone; Iron Man knows what it's like to feel that guilt; Iron Man wakes up in the middle of he night because he remembers nearly dying."

Tony didn't say anything, but Steve could see his jaw clench even at a distance.

"You're saying that's not you?"

No answer.

"Yes, I had this perfect image of Iron Man; he was a soldier, captured with you in Afghanistan, tortured so you would work on weapons..." Tony flinched, and Steve stepped closer. "But that was you, a civilian, someone who never should have been there in the first place, and you didn't break, you escaped. I know you-- I know you were a certain way before that, with girls, with money, but you don't do that anymore, no matter what the tabloids say."

Steve stepped close enough that he was barely a foot from Tony, looking slightly down at him, noting, probably for the first time, that Tony Stark was an incredibly attractive man.

"Maybe I'm a bit less ostentatious about it," Tony shot back.

His only response was to sigh, and tap a finger against the barely-visible glow in the center of Tony's chest. "That isn't public knowledge."

Tony brushed his hand away, but it wasn't as heated as it could have been.

"So, yes, you're right, I love Iron Man, but if you try to tell me that you're not Iron Man, that you aren't a decent man under the rest of your armor, I don't believe you anymore." Steve looked into Tony's eyes, saw that he was staring at the center of Steve's chest rather than look into his eyes. "I'm sorry I didn't see past that armor sooner."

When Tony didn't respond, Steve reached out, slowly, and cupped Tony's chin in his hand, tilting it up until their eyes met, and then Steve leaned in to bring their lips together for his third kiss, ever.

Tony responded immediately, arms over Steve's shoulders, but he didn't press, just kept them together, mouths warm against each other. Steve's stomach gave a happy, nervous little jolt and he twined his arms around Tony's back. His breath tasted like coffee and mouthwash and a tiny bit of metal, and it probably could have been better, but to Steve it was perfect.

He'd wanted to kiss Iron Man for so long wanted to know what it was like to kiss the man he'd grown to respect and admire and want, and now that he had that, it was the best thing ever.

Tony didn't kiss like he wanted him in bed, like he just wanted sex. The kiss was soft, and sweet, and even when he tilted his head to bring them closer, it was Steve who carefully parted his lips and Tony who answered by locking their lips together tighter.

He broke the kiss, later, happy and content; Tony responded by leaning in and setting his head against Steve's chest and making a happy little humming sound. He didn't move for several seconds.

"I love you both," Steve said, ruffling the dark hair under his chin.

Tony groaned slightly. "Does that mean we can have a threesome? I bet you've had sexy thoughts about the armor."

Steve had, but the fact that this was the first place Tony's mind went, and that he'd said it, reminded him of another important detail Jarvis had told him.

"Jarvis said you haven't slept," Steve said, softly.

Tony grumbled into Steve's chest, nose pressed along his sternum, nuzzling.

"Come on, Shellhead." Steve nudged him towards the elevator, only for Tony to take him by the wrist and tugged him towards the back of the workshop.

At first, he thought Tony was tugging him to a couch, only to find that there was, in fact, an elevator that must go up to 'Iron Man's' room upstairs, and the two of them slipped inside.

"I'm gonna... shower," Tony said, softly.

"Don't fall in."

It look longer than last time, probably with Tony sluggish due to lack of sleep, and Steve had too much time to strip down and think that this, this was him spending the night with Iron Man. A few days ago he had slept with Iron Man, but this was the first time he'd know, without a doubt, that he was in love with every part of the man.

Tony came out, some time later, dressed only in boxers, the arc reactor shining like a nightlight. In his hand, he had a crumpled t-shirt. "I could..." He held it up. "If it's going to make it hard for you to sleep."

Steve shook his head. "I want to get used to it. It's part of you."

Tony still left the shirt on the end table, and slipped under the sheets, and Steve joined him, looking down at the bare chest illuminated by the glow of the reactor. The fine lines he had felt with his fingers days before he could now see as well as trace them.

"Everything you told me," Steve said, carefully running a finger around the rim of the reactor. "That was true?"

"Yes." Tony reached out and pulled Steve's hand up, kissing along the knuckles like Steve had kissed Iron Man's ungloved hand. "There were holes, so you wouldn't be able to guess, but what I told you was the truth."

"I want to hear those stories," Steve said, leaning in to capture Tony's mouth with his.

"You will."

Tony had to break their kiss to stifle a yawn against Steve's shoulder, and he gave a little chuckle after that.

"Some other time," Tony promised, giving Steve's collarbone a soft peck. "Good night, Steve."

"Good night, Tony."