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the secret to love is (secrets plus trust)

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Steve’s sure Tony means for it to be a secret, which is why he keeps his mouth shut about it when he figures out, about a year into being an Avenger, that it’s Tony wearing the Iron Man suit.

The first clue is rather innocuous, and on its own it’s not something he would cite as irrefutable proof, but it starts him wondering one day when he’s chatting with Iron Man and he mentions a comment Steve made to Tony a couple of days ago, about how movie theater popcorn doesn’t taste the same as it used to. The only reason it’s remarkable is because it was made in passing, and he can’t think of a reason for Tony to have told Iron Man about it, unless he relates all his conversations back to his bodyguard, which Steve doubts.

But it makes him start paying attention, and he does it on purpose a couple of times, dropping comments into a conversation with one of them and referencing them later with another, and they both respond as if they were present for the original conversation as well as whichever one they’re in.

Again, it’s not proof on its own, but Steve wonders. So he pays more attention, and it hits him, the first time he sees Tony and Iron Man next to each other, that he’s never seen them in the same room before. That , he knows, is odd, considering Iron Man is meant to be Tony’s bodyguard, and Steve figures a bodyguard ought to be around more often than “seemingly never,” if he’s meant to be protecting Tony. You can’t exactly guard a body you’re not around, at any rate.

But they’re both here now , Steve thinks to himself, and figures that’s that, except that when he goes up to Iron Man to tell him that funny thought he had- that maybe Tony was Iron Man, how ridiculous, right?- Iron Man ignores him. Well, he doesn’t ignore him, but he dismisses himself quickly, coldly, from the conversation, with a curt, “Sorry, Mr. Stark needs me,” and Steve suddenly feels less ridiculous.

After that he occasionally steps back from his behavior and thought processes and wonders if he’s being paranoid, seeing proof where there is none, inventing an identity for Iron Man that’s convenient, because he wants to know who his friend is, and maybe he just really, really wants Tony to be Iron Man.

Because, well. He likes Tony. And he likes Iron Man. And he may just like them both the same way, and that way may just be as more-than-friends, and it would be awfully convenient, wouldn’t it, if the man he was heart-thudding, dry-mouth, stutter-and-fumble attracted to could just put on a metal suit and become the man he trusted with his life, the man he stood next to in battle, the man he would without hesitation call his best friend. So he has his reasons to doubt his suspicions, but once he’s paying attention, really paying attention- which is easy, considering how much attention he would pay to each of them even if he wasn’t trying to puzzle out whether they were secretly the same man- things start to become clear.

Tony and Iron Man are never in the same room, and on the rare, rare occasion they are, there’s always something off about Iron Man. He avoids the team, and he doesn’t seem to move with his usual ease and comfort, as if suddenly he’s not used to wearing the armor that he ostensibly can never take off.

(That’s the other thing that makes Steve doubt Iron Man is telling them much of the truth about himself- the idea of never being able to remove the suit is almost unbelievable to Steve, and he definitely can’t believe that Tony Stark, being the good and generous and kindhearted man Steve knows him to be, wouldn’t spend every spare second trying to find a way to alter the suit or help Iron Man so that he could need it less, at the very least. The idea that Tony would simply accept that limitation with a shrug and a that’s-that is inconceivable to Steve. The Tony he knows never met a challenge he wasn’t immediately raring to conquer, never met a limit he didn’t put his whole self towards surpassing. If there’s a brick wall to be had, Tony Stark is there, bashing his head against it till it falls down and then finding a new one. So Steve sincerely doubts that Iron Man really needs to be wearing all of the suit, all of the time.)

What convinces him, finally, is that Iron Man has this habit, in the field, of calling Steve by silly romantic pet names- Steve will get an enemy off his tail and he’ll say thanks, pumpkin , Steve will call out a two-man maneuver and Iron Man will get in position and say whenever you’re ready, turtledove , Iron Man will grab Steve around the waist and fly him somewhere and when Steve thanks him, reflexively, he’ll say anytime, honeybear . Steve’s sure it doesn’t mean anything, that it’s just more of Iron Man being Iron Man, the way he calls him Cap or ice pop or spangles the rest of the time, but Steve always notices , always feels his heart stumble a little bit, so he can’t forget about it.

Then, one day, they’re fighting the latest batch of crash-landed aliens, and Steve sends about a dozen of them running towards Iron Man, and says into the comms, “Ten hostiles headed your way, Iron Man.”

“For me?” Iron Man says, and Steve hears the distant sound of a repulsor blast replicated in his ear. “Aww, sweetie-pie, you shouldn’t have.”

They beat the aliens, obviously, and then it’s two days later, and Steve brings a cup of coffee down to Tony in the workshop, who looks up at him, bags under his eyes speaking to another all-nighter, and grins, sleepily, and, with the exact same tone and inflection as Iron Man had that day in the field, says, “For me? Aww, sweetie-pie, you shouldn’t have.”

Steve thinks he would have dropped the mugs if he hadn’t been about ninety percent of the way to knowing already.

“Actually,” he says, smoothly, “if you’ve been up all night, I change my mind, you should go get some rest.”

Tony pouts. “Ingrate,”  he says, without any heat. “All I do for you and you won’t even give me coffee.”

“I’m very grateful,” Steve tells him, suppressing a smile, “which is why I would much rather you slept, because you’re well on your way to running yourself into the ground at this rate.”

Tony grumbles, but eventually lets himself be bargained into a nap, as long as Steve promises to wake him in an hour, which they both know he won’t actually do, so Tony sets an alarm anyway, and Steve takes his coffee back up to the kitchen and drinks it slowly, staring out the window and thinking about the fact that Iron Man and Tony are almost definitely the same person.

His first reaction is relief, if he’s being honest, because he hadn’t realized until he was certain how much it was weighing on him to be suspicious but not yet sure, and then a giddy sort of delight, because he’s realizing now how much he wanted them to be the same person, and he hides a smile in his coffee as he realizes that he knows what Iron Man looks like, now, knows that he’s lovely underneath the helmet.

(He wonders, not for the first time, what it would be like to kiss Tony, and decides he has to revisit his conclusions now that he knows Tony is Iron Man, in case that changes anything.)

Jan wanders into the kitchen at some point in his musings and bids him a cheerful good morning, asks him about his plans, and they chat for a bit, before he finally asks, “Do you ever wonder who Iron Man is? Under the mask?”

“He doesn’t want us to know,” Jan answers easily, “so I try not to, no.”

“What if he was someone you knew?” Steve presses.

She smiles, amused. “I feel like I’d notice if I knew someone who had to wear a metal suit all the time. It seems like a dead giveaway, to me.” Steve hums in agreement, and Jan shrugs. “I don’t know,” she says, “I like Iron Man, obviously, and I’d be thrilled to be able to know  who he is, if only because keeping secrets like that has to be awfully lonely, having to separate parts of your life and never let them come together.” Steve almost snorts at that, but manages to suppress it, because Tony definitely doesn’t do that. He’s an avenger through and through, in the suit or out. “But I figure he has to have his reasons, and I ought to respect that. I don’t have to know his middle name to be his friend, and I’d feel awfully rude trying to make his secret identity my business.”

And that hits Steve like a bucket of cold water. Iron Man’s secret identity isn’t his business, and he would probably be furious with Steve for putting his nose where it doesn’t belong and refusing to respect his privacy. So Steve can never let him know that he knows.

So he nods, thoughtfully, and puts his coffee cup in the dishwasher, and takes all his fantasies of telling Iron Man he figured it out, of having Tony call him “winghead,” of pulling the helmet off and kissing him and reaching for the release clasps on the armor and-

He takes all those dumb little daydreams and crushes them and goes to the gym to punch things until he feels a little less devastated about it.

 

Life goes on. Steve knows Iron Man’s secret now, and it’s Herculean, sometimes, to keep his mouth shut about it, like when Iron Man takes a hit in the field and just tells Steve he doesn’t need to see medical, he’ll be fine, “Mr. Stark has arrangements for me.”

I’m sure he does , Steve doesn’t say, picturing Tony in his bathroom putting an array of Avengers-themed band-aids on injuries that really ought to have stitches, because he’s cute and irreverent and completely without regard for his personal safety like that.

Sometimes Steve just wants to shake him, because he doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand why Tony has to go through all this trouble keeping his secret. It’s not as if they don’t all know who Jan is without her mask on, and Steve can’t think of a reason why Tony would feel it so desperately important to keep himself and Iron Man separate. Iron Man is his best friend, and Tony isn’t, and he gets so tired sometimes of having to act as if he likes Tony less when he’s out of the suit.

Tony has his reasons , he tells himself, over and over, till it becomes a mantra. It’s not his business, and he has to respect his friend.

Other times, it’s easier, though. Like when Tony wanders into the mansion kitchen in one of his business suits at the end of the day, tie loose, top button undone and exposing his collarbones, looking rumpled and worn-down but giving Steve a bright smile anyway and making his heart stumble and stutter like it’s giving a speech in a language it barely knows. Steve’s fairly sure he manages to have a conversation, but it’s not until the next day, hanging out with Iron Man and doubled over laughing so hard he might cry, that it occurs to him to be profoundly grateful that Tony’s distant when he’s out of the suit, polite, a step back from the easy friendship Steve shares with Iron Man, because suddenly Steve isn’t sure he could survive his best friend also being heart-stoppingly beautiful.

So the separation is helpful, at times. It makes Steve’s feelings… well, not manageable, but bearable. Because second on the list of things Iron Man can absolutely never know about is the way Steve feels about him. Knowing that Steve knew his secret would end their friendship, most likely, but knowing that Steve’s had more than a few daydreams about stripping him out of the armor and littering the exposed skin with hickeys till Tony is-

(Steve knows it’s different these days, knows that times changed while he was in the ice, but he always remembers the time he was nine and kissing was suddenly okay and not gross anymore, so when he found himself alone with Josh Thomas he gathered all his courage up, and only got a black eye for his troubles.)

Well. Tony’d never look at Steve the same way again, for sure.

 

So for a long time, that’s how it is. Steve gets better at pretending he has no idea who Iron Man is under the mask, they fight crime, they bond as a team. The roster changes, here and there, members taking leave, new Avengers joining up. And it’s good, it’s so good, Steve starts to feel like this century is his, too, like it’s not just a place he could belong, but one he does .

That is, of course, precisely where it has to all go wrong.

“Doesn’t disintegrating things get tiring?” Iron Man says over the comms. “This is, what, the sixth chucklefu-”

“Language,” Steve chides automatically, hurling his shield at the member of this new supervillain team who seems to be able to… turn to stone, which sends Steve’s shield ricocheting back at him faster than he anticipated.

Clown ,” Iron Man corrects, very deliberately. “The sixth clown we’ve fought with a weapon that disintegrated things?”

“Are we including melting in our definition of disintegrate?” Hawkeye asks. “Cause I think that might bump the number up a bit.”

“Precisely!” Iron Man says emphatically. “It’s passe at this point! I’m tired! Get creative!”

Steve kicks the Marble Man- if that’s not his name, it’s going to be, because it’s damn good, in Steve’s opinion- soundly in the chest, cracking it, and the guy stumbles backwards, face turning back to flesh in order to grimace in pain. He falls to his knees, the stone falling away from the rest of him, hands clutching at his chest, and Steve doesn’t waste much time in securing him with the adamantium handcuffs they all keep.

“I’m not sure you should be encouraging our enemies’ creativity, Iron Man,” he says with a roll of the eyes. “One down.”

Steve looks up then, to see how everyone else is faring, and part of him wishes he hadn’t, wishes he’d hesitated just another second, because he glances up just in time to see Iron Man turn in midair, raise his hand to fire on the girl shooting ice from her hands-

And take a disintegrating bolt straight to the chest from the direction he wasn’t looking.

“It’s life support,” Iron Man says, tapping one metal finger on the soft blue light in the middle of his chest. “Part of why I’m never out of the suit.”

“What does it do?” Steve asks, reaching out reflexively and then stopping himself. Iron Man gestures towards himself, indicating permission, and Steve completes the motion, tracing his fingers over the light. It’s warm, like he thought it’d be, but not hot- warm like the way a person is warm. It feels comforting.

“Couple of things,” Iron Man says. “There’s, uh. It’s a long story, and obviously it’s… secret, cause of. You know.” He waves a hand in front of the mask. “But I stepped on a landmine, and there’s shrapnel in my chest. The arc reactor is a magnet that keeps all the shrapnel, well, where it’s supposed to be.” Steve wants to gape, wants to ask a hundred questions, but he knows he wouldn’t get any answers, so he settles for just riding out the wave of emotion that comes through him- concern, and fear, for what he went through; wonder, for what Tony built, how he saved himself; an intense desire to protect him, keep him tucked away safe somewhere he can’t ever get hurt like that again.

“It’s also a power source,” Iron Man continues, “the suit’s battery. So it, uh. Without it, shrapnel in the heart. No good.”

Steve lifts an eyebrow at him in response to the understatement. “Yeah,” he says, dryly, but he’s sure some of the feeling still sits at the edge of his voice. “No good.”

Iron Man tumbles through the sky.

Life support , Steve thinks.

“Tony, no !” he shouts.

 

Iron Man is fine, incidentally. The disintegrator hit him just to the right of his arc reactor, burned through a couple of layers of armor, shorted out the circuitry, briefly, but he was back in the sky almost as soon as Steve had finished shouting-

Oh.

Oh, no.

Steve shouted his name . Out loud. Over the comms. For everyone and God to hear.

The rest of the fight passes in a dull blur of action, Steve throwing his shield as if in a trance, his mind occupied with thoughts of What have I done?

They get the four villains squared away and in a police car, and Steve manages to avoid Iron Man until they’re back at the mansion, and then he disappears. They debrief without him, and it’s the elephant in the room, nobody quite looking straight at Steve the whole meeting. It’s horrendously unproductive, and he ends it as quickly as possible, watching the Avengers scatter to their own corners.

And then, well, it’s time for him to face the music, he supposes.

Steve knocks on the door of Tony’s workshop, and Tony’s standing at one of his shelves picking through a toolbox when he takes a half-step in. He doesn’t miss the way Tony’s back goes stiff for a split second before he turns, grinning that bright, pasted-on Tony Stark grin that he uses on TV, and says, “Hey Cap, heard you had a senior moment in the field today.”

Steve sees it for what it is immediately- an out. He can pretend it was just a mistake, and Tony can pretend he still has his secrets, and they can carry on as before. And he appreciates the olive branch Tony is offering, but… he can’t. He can’t keep lying now that the gig is up.

“We both know it wasn’t a mistake, Tony,” he says, quietly.

Tony’s face falls and he wanders over to his workbench and sits down hard, staring at Steve. “You knew ,” he says, and he sounds stricken, which isn’t what Steve expected. He’d anticipated… anger? Betrayal? But not this, not this wide-eyed sadness, like the rug’s just been yanked out from under him in the worst way.

“I mean,” Steve defends, weakly, “I always- I assumed there was a possibility I was wrong, that it was just coincidence, but, um. I suspected.”

Tony scrubs a hand over his face. “How long?” he asks.

“Since about a year in,” Steve mumbles.

“Since- and you didn’t say anything?” He sounds completely baffled, and this really isn’t how Steve thought this reveal was going to go.

“You had your reasons for keeping a secret,” he says, with a shrug. “It wasn’t my right to know, and for that I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have been- I put my nose where it didn’t belong, and trust me if I could have un-known it somehow I would have. I never set out to disrespect your privacy, but I did anyway, and that's unacceptable.”

Tony laughs, short and humorless, and says, “You sound like you’re expecting me to be mad or something.”

Steve averts his eyes, fidgeting with the cowl in his hands. “Well… aren’t you?”

“Jesus, Steve, of course I’m not mad!” He shakes his head, almost violently. “If anything you should be pissed, I’ve been lying to you for years, to all my friends, to people who live in my house and trust me with their lives, what right do I have to be angry?”

“You didn’t want anyone to know,” Steve says, still heavy with guilt, “and I did.”

Tony shrugs, as if it doesn’t matter, as if years of secret keeping are just… inconsequential. “If you’re not upset with me for lying, I don’t see why I would be upset with you for figuring it out.” He hesitates, glances at Steve, then looks at the floor. “Does this, uh. I mean. Do I get to stay on the team?”

“Of course you do,” Steve tells him, immediately. “I wouldn’t dream of asking you to- but I’ll resign, of course,” he says, realizing as he says it that he didn’t just violate Iron Man’s- violate Tony’s trust- but also the Avengers charter. “The charter protects our identities and-”

Tony snorts. “No way, who cares about that clause, not me, I’ll run naked through the streets telling the world I’m Iron Man before I let you resign over this.”

Steve tries, valiantly, not to think about it, and then tries, even more valiantly, not to blush.

Tony, fortunately, is now too busy frowning at the floor to notice. “Do you think anyone else knew?” he asks. “Before today? If you figured it out, probably someone else did, right?”

“I doubt it,” says Steve. “You, uh. The secret was actually very well kept.”

“Not that well, if you’ve known this long,” Tony says, sardonically.

“No, trust me, it was- I wouldn’t have figured it out if I wasn’t…” hopelessly in love with you, hanging on your every move, replaying all our conversations in my head, completely unable to tear my eyes off you every time you walked in a room “...paying attention,” he finishes lamely.

Tony frowns, like he doesn’t quite accept that, but he lets it go with a sigh. “Well, I suppose everyone knows now, at least,” he says. “I guess it’ll be nice not to have to sneak around anymore.” He tries for a smile, but it’s weak and half-formed, and Steve feels awful .

“They don’t have to know,” he protests. “You don’t have to tell them, it- if it’s not safe for people to know, you shouldn’t tell them, I’ll be more careful, I swear, I can-“

“It was never about safety,” Tony says, soft, still not looking at Steve. “Well, it was a little about safety, at first, when I was alone, but- Tony Stark became a target the second he got involved with the Avengers. When most of your- most of the people you care about are metahumans, or hardly ever away from metahumans, it becomes kind of… I’m not more afraid of my enemies than I was before, you know? Anyone who hated the Avengers could easily have gone after Tony Stark even if Iron Man really was just my bodyguard.”

“Then why?” Steve asks, and then wishes he hadn’t. “I mean, it’s not my business, I’m sorry, I-“

“No, it is,” Tony says. “I owe you the truth, don’t I? You more than anyone.” His mouth twists in a sardonic smile, and Steve doesn’t know what he means by that- is it because they’re friends? But it’s not as if Steve is special in that regard, Jan is his friend too, and Clint, and the rest of the Avengers. “I kept the secret because I thought- I wanted you to like me. I wanted to be someone you could be friends with, be proud to be friends with. As long as I could be Iron Man, and not be Tony Stark, in your eyes, I had that, you know? There was… it was awful, and selfish of me, and I’m ashamed of it, but I wanted you to like me so badly, I always have, and I knew that- well, Tony Stark is the very soul of violent hedonism, isn’t he? Blood money and sex and every form of public disgrace you can imagine and then some that I invented. How could you ever look at me with anything but shame if you knew? So I needed Iron Man to be… not Tony Stark.” He’s slumped in on himself, voice gone rough and awful with self-loathing, and Steve itches to reach out, touch him, hold him, anything - “I’m sorry,” Tony says, small. “I’m sorry for lying to you, Steve, you deserved it less than anyone.”

Steve’s hands flex absently at his sides, one playing with the cowl still. “We like you,” he says, carefully, “we like you as Iron Man, and we like you as Tony, and we always have. I don’t know why you think you suddenly become some sort of monster the second you take off the suit, but even if you weren’t also a superhero, even if the things you did as Iron Man didn’t matter when you weren’t him, which they do , you’re still a good man, Tony, all on your own, the- the weapons, and the wildness, and- god, Tony, none of it matters, that’s not who you are , I know you, I know you better than I know anyone, and I wouldn’t stand for anybody else to talk about you this way, so I won’t stand for you to do it, either.” Steve squares his shoulders, in full swing of what Tony always calls his Captain America is Giving a Speech So You Better Listen mode, and Tony is just staring at him, mouth slightly open, eyes wide like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. “You’re a good man, Tony Stark. You’re brave and kind and generous, you gave me a home when I had nothing. The Avengers wouldn’t be what they are without you, and I’m not just talking about the money, either. You built weapons, yes, but what matters more is that you saw it was wrong and you stopped, and everything you’ve done since has been- wonderful, Tony, I can barely wrap my head around the things you build, sometimes, the good you do….” Steve shakes his head. “You’re so hard on yourself, and as much as I admire the way it drives you to keep trying, to do better, I want- I wish you could just step back and see you the way I do.” He realizes he’s cut too close to his own heart, and thinks now is as good a place as any to stop talking before he reveals anything he doesn’t want Tony to know. “No matter who you are, Iron Man or Tony Stark, you’re a good friend and I’m honored to know you.”

Tony is still staring at him, gaping, really, frozen in his seat, and Steve can practically see him struggling to find a response, and as he replays his own words in his head, he thinks yeah, okay, maybe a little much, your crush can only be seen from fucking space, Rogers . “Sorry if that was, um,” he says, ducking his head, “I know I can get-“

But he never does say how he can get, because that’s when Tony shoots out of his chair like it’s electrified, fists a hand in the collar of Steve’s uniform, and pulls him down into a kiss.

Oh , Steve thinks, and he’s half tempted to pinch himself to make sure this is really happening, and then the same part of his brain that always wondered what this would be like is going through the checklist- Tony tastes like that vaguely spicy cherry lip balm, Steve notices, and the beard tickles in a really nice way, which is good, he was worried it would itch- and then the rest of his mind catches up and realizes he’s not fucking doing anything , just standing there like a putz while Tony Stark kisses him . But just as he moves to put his arms around Tony, pull him in closer, see just how right his fantasies were, Tony is breaking away, stumbling back, hand clapping over his mouth.

“Oh, god,” he says, strangled, and are those tears in his eyes? “Oh, fuck, I- sorry, Steve, I’m so sorry, I wasn’t- I shouldn’t-“

And then he’s gone, hurrying out of the room like it’s on fire, and Steve is left staring after him, dumbfounded and completely unable to find his feet in a world that’s flipped upside-down about eight times since this morning.

 

Jan is sitting in the kitchen with two steaming mugs when Steve wanders up there, still probably looking like he’s just been punched. She holds one up to him in offering and he takes it, mumbling something he hopes is thanks.

“I saw Tony tearing out of here like the devil was on his heels,” Jan says mildly. Steve winces, and she pats him consolingly on the shoulder. “It’s not your fault, Cap.”

“You weren’t there,” Steve says, miserable, and takes a long drink of- cocoa, apparently, the fancy kind Tony insists on because we’re not savages, if I’m in need of comfort I want to be comforted, and that store brand bullshit is just distressing.

“So,” Jan says. “Tony is Iron Man.”

Steve didn’t think he could slouch any lower without hitting the floor, but he manages it. “I didn’t mean to,” he tells her, quiet.

“We know,” she says. “If I’m honest, I suspected- not that he was Tony , but at least that he was somebody we knew. He was always so careful about the secret, which only makes sense if we could have potentially guessed it.” She grimaces. “But now that I see it, it’s kinda obvious. Have they ever even been in the same room together?”

“Once or twice,” says Steve, “but I don’t think it was Tony in the armor those times.”

“But you knew,” Jan says, giving him a look that speaks volumes.

“Yeah. I knew.”

Jan sighs and sips her cocoa in silence for a minute. “I’ve known Tony for a while,” she says. “And he doesn’t run when he’s angry, if that helps.”

“He wasn’t angry,” Steve assures her. “I just- I don’t know how to fix it. It was… he’s upset about it, and he’s probably avoiding me now, and I want to sort it out but god knows he’s just going to pretend nothing happened.”

Jan leans her head on his shoulder sympathetically. “It’ll work out,” she says. “If he really is Iron Man, then you’re his all time favorite, no contest. He’ll at least try.”

As warm as the sentiment makes him feel, it’s somehow not comforting.

 

Steve strips out of his uniform and showers, sends a text to Tony that says I’d like to try and talk, if you can (and that one only on the sixteenth draft) and settles in with a book.

He’s managed to stare at the same page for a solid ten minutes without reading a single word when there’s a knock on the open door, and he looks up maybe a little too quickly to see Tony standing there, in the same grease-stained layers he always wears in the shop, leaning too casually on the doorframe, strained smile pasted on his face.

“I got your text,” he says, weakly, waving his phone in the air.

“Yeah, of course, come in,” Steve says, hurrying to his feet and dropping the book on his table and stopping a couple of feet away from Tony, unsure how close he’s allowed to be.

Tony closes the door and leans back against it, hands tucked behind him like a guilty child, eyes fixed on the floor. “I thought I should-“ he starts, at the same time as Steve says, “Listen, Tony, I-“

They both hesitate, and then Steve says, “Um, you first.”

Tony takes a deep breath. “I thought I should apologize,” he starts again.

“There’s nothing to apologize for.” Tony always makes fun of him for being too earnest, and Steve hopes there’s more to mock here than ever.

“No, there is.” He sighs again, closing his eyes and opening them back up, fixing his gaze on the floor. “I shouldn’t have kissed you. It was- inappropriate.”

“Tony-“

“No, stop, just, let me- I'm sorry,” Tony says, voice wavering a little, “the things you were saying were just- you were being so kind, and you always are, but I was just- and I forgot myself, and it'll never happen again, I swear, so we can- can we just forget it?” he asks, almost wretched, and his face is so beseeching, wide brown eyes boring into Steve’s, it nearly breaks his heart.

Yes , Steve almost wants to say, of course, anything, whatever it takes to keep my friend . But he thinks about how much he wants this, has wanted it for so long, and he thinks about the fact that he's Captain America, he's supposed to be brave , goddammit, so he takes a deep breath and says, “No, I can't just forget it.”

Tony’s face crumples, and he pushes off the door, already turning to leave. “Right,” he says, “of course, it was stupid of me to-”

“Christ, Shellhead,” Steve says, rushing to catch him by the arm. “Would you let me finish a thought?”

“You don't have to,” Tony protests, “I get it, you aren't-”

“I can't forget that you kissed me,” Steve says, barreling on with now-or-never determination, “for the same reasons I figured out your secret. I'm- I think about you all the time , Tony, I couldn't put you out of my mind if I tried, whenever you're around I can barely see anyone else, I just- god, how can you still not know? I'm- I've always-”

Love is on the tip of his tongue, but he doesn't know if he can say it, Tony already looks half panicked, half hopeful, and Steve doesn't know whether he'll run if he says that tiny, impossibly big word, no matter how true it is, so instead he tugs him closer, reaches up to hold his face, brushing a thumb across the line of his jaw, leans in, and kisses him.

Steve doesn't have a lot of experience with this, and every bit of advice he ever got from his friends flies out of his head the moment his mouth touches Tony’s, but he puts his whole heart into the soft press of lips and just prays Tony understands. For a moment that’s all it is, chaste and light, a gentle question, and then Tony makes the breathiest little whimper, and he’s pushing up and forward, one hand tangling in Steve’s hair, turning his head so they fit better, and all of a sudden it’s hot and hard and needy, and Steve feels a full-body shiver run through him, his hands coming to rest on Tony’s waist, overwhelmed and unsure. Tony pulls back for a breath, and somehow the next kiss is even more intense, Tony’s body flush against his, steering Steve back towards the bed, and the next thing he knows Tony is guiding him back and crowding on top of him, just as bossy and eager as Steve always thought he would be, leaving Steve’s mouth to press wet kisses into his jaw, his neck, just a flash of teeth making Steve’s breath catch, and then moving back up to his mouth, licking into Steve’s mouth, and god, that’s positively dirty , the way Tony is sucking on his tongue, and Steve hasn’t ever done this before and he never wants to stop, hips canting up into the arch of Tony’s legs where he’s straddling him, but Steve hears someone say, “Wait, wait, Tony-“

Tony pulls back abruptly, eyes wide, hair messy, mouth kiss-swollen, and Steve realizes that he was the one who spoke, but he can’t for the love of god remember what he wanted to say, cause all he can think about is bringing Tony back in, kissing him silly, more more more -

“Did I misunderstand?” Tony asks, cautiously, and it sounds almost caustic but Steve can see clearly that Tony is terrified and trying to hide it, so Steve sits up, wrapping one arm around Tony’s waist to keep him from moving, resettles him in his lap.

“No,” Steve says. “No, believe me, that was, um.” He can feel his cheeks coloring, and Tony grins, wicked.

“Well there’s more um where that came from,” he says, running his hands up Steve’s chest and to his shoulders, and then he stops. “Unless that was too fast. In which case I can scale it back about 75%. But probably not more than that, cause, god ,” he says, leaning back so he can cast appreciative eyes over Steve’s body.

Steve blushes, impossibly, redder, and Tony’s smile widens. “I just,” Steve tries, “I-“

“Got it,” says Tony, kissing softly at the corner of Steve’s jaw. “Slow down.”

“We don’t have to do everything right now,” Steve says, venturing a hand up under Tony’s shirt to trace at the skin of his back, making him shudder a little. “We’ve got time.”

Tony pauses. “We do?” he asks, and Steve pulls back, tipping Tony’s chin up to kiss him again.

“All the time in the world,” Steve says, and smiles.