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“Um,” Steve said, and when Tony turned around to look at him—well, when Iron Man, did, as Tony swung entirely around in the armor to get a good look at Steve’s face, and Tony registered his sensors telling him that Steve had an elevated temperature and thought, vaguely, well, it has been kind of a hot day; he was boiling in the armor—“Shellhead, can I talk to you for a second?”

Tony turned around completely to face him, rocked up on his heels in the jetboots, and made his voice the bright, vehement, firm welcome he used when he really wanted the person he was talking to to feel he wanted to talk to them when he was in the armor, because it was obvious even through the static of his purposefully modulated voice system. “You know I’ve always got time for you, Winghead,” he said, and waited. He realized he was smiling behind the armor a second later, and told himself not to be an idiot—but it was easier behind the armor; at least he didn’t have to hide his stupid sappy smiles in Steve’s presence. He was sure they were obviously besotted, and Tony Stark didn’t have any reason to be half in love with Steve Rogers. He barely even knew the man, ostensibly.

Of course, Iron Man wasn’t supposed to be falling in love with anyone, either. No one was supposed to know who Iron Man was. Iron Man wasn’t supposed to want anyone to know who he was. Tony had neatly thought rings around himself on that one. But that was okay, because he wasn’t supposed to be having feelings for Steve in the first place, and it wasn’t like Steve would ever return his goddamn stupid infatuation, anyway.

He only realized there had been a rather long pause, Steve looking at him almost?—not quite? Maybe?—uncertainly, and then Steve swallowed, then visibly called a broad, bright smile onto his face and reached up, palmed the cowl back off his forehead. It left his hair tousled, sticking up all over, his forehead pink and sweaty where it had been resting, and Tony would have given—well, a lot, if there had been any way his genius brain had been able to think of a reason that could be explained away to ever do something like pull his gauntlet off and run his bare fingers through Steve’s hair, settling it back into some kind of order.

Steve dragged a hand through his hair, tugging it back, and Tony sighed, wistfully, making sure it was quiet enough the armor’s vocal sensors wouldn’t pick up on it. Steve also let his breath out, blowing it out visibly in a way that tugged his smile lopsided. “Um,” he said, and even though that smile was obviously not quite genuine, summoned onto his face, it was so bright, so dazzling, that Tony wondered if the ambient temperature in the room had gone up two degrees or if it was just inside the suit or maybe (probably) just him. “Could we maybe talk more privately?”

Steve very rarely sounded this uncertain, Tony thought with a pang of concern. Was something wrong? Damn, what could it be? He couldn’t think of any Avengers business—maybe it was something personal—was he still seeing that Agent 13? But why would he talk to Iron Man about that? He couldn’t possibly want dating advice from him—he wasn’t Tony Stark, notorious playboy (haha, what a laugh that was).

“Sure thing, big guy,” he said. “Whatever you want.” He held open the door beside them (it was to one of the libraries on the first floor), and Steve’s smile got all bright and sunny and real, just for a second, and Tony knew it was him feeling warm now, and he didn’t care. The entire world felt like a warmer place when Steve smiled at him—no, at Iron Man, but he was the one who felt it—just like that. Tony followed him into the room, careful to close the door gently behind them.

He wondered what Steve would do if one day he just turned to face him and took his helmet off and looked at him, face to face. Would he be shocked? Disbelieving? Horrified, maybe. Maybe he wouldn’t believe Tony was really Iron Man; maybe he’d think he’d dressed up in his armor as a practical joke or something. That honestly seemed most likely. And Tony really needed to curb his self-destructive impulses. He wasn’t going to tell the team who he was. That was the whole point of Iron Man. Iron Man was a hero. Iron Man was someone who could be an Avenger.

He needed to focus. Steve wanted to tell him something. He was going to be helpful, or supportive, or whatever Steve needed. “So, big fella,” Tony said, making his voice bright and obvious again, encouraging, he hoped, even though it always felt so over the top to his own ears when he did this in the armor, “what can I do you for?”

For some reason, Steve’s whole face turned a deep, rosy shade of pink. Tony watched in fascination as even his ears turned pink, as it spread, rosy and mottled, down his neck. “Um,” he said, and gulped, so hard Tony could see his Adam’s apple move. Tony’s sensors were really registering an elevated temperature now. Was Steve running a fever? It could be heatstroke; it had been really hot out there. But did peak humans get heatstroke? Surely the serum would take care of that for him.

“Um,” Steve said, and he licked his bottom lip, then looked away, put his hands on his hips, took a deep breath, looked down, then up again and met Tony’s eyes through the armor. “I just want you to know,” he said, “Iron Man, that I truly admire you. It’s been an honor fighting alongside you, and I respect you so—a very great deal. I’m so glad you were one of the people who found me in the ice, because I couldn’t have asked for a better friend on the team.”

Tony felt a stab of terror shoot through him, ice trickle down his spine and freeze in his stomach. “You’re not leaving the team?” he said, aghast.

Steve blinked, then his flushed skin went pale. He had the tiniest little sun-kissed freckles across his cheeks, and it made them stand out. “What?” he said, sounding baffled, and then he went bright red. “No!”

“You’re,” Tony swallowed, going even colder. “You’re taking me off the team, then? Can I—can I at least hear the reasons you have for benching me?”

Steve flushed furiously, went even redder. “I am not taking you off the team!” he said, a little too loudly.

Tony blinked, felt the awkward metal hands of the armor fall in front of him, down to his sides, as he relaxed. He hadn’t even realized he’d raised them, clenched them into anxious fists. “Oh,” he said. “I, uh. Sorry? It just sounded like you were leading up to something.”

“That’s probably because I was,” Steve said, sounding rueful, and smiled a little wryly, rubbing the back of his neck. “Nothing—nothing bad though. At least—at least I don’t think it’s bad. I’m hoping you won’t . . . won’t think it’s bad. Err . . . .”

Tony blinked again. So far this conversation didn’t make any sense at all, really, but at least two of the worst outcomes he could think of had already been averted. “You could just tell me what it is?” he asked, trying to sound as patient and interested as humanly possible, because Steve seemed so nervous, and he didn’t think he’d ever actually seen Steve this nervous, about anything. His own voice came out sounding oddly soft, oddly gentle.

Steve swallowed again, then his jaw firmed and his shoulders squared and he stood up straight. “You’re right,” he said. “I, um, it’s an honor, Iron Man, to be your friend.”

“You said that already,” Tony said, and yeah, he was an idiot, but the repetition did absolutely nothing to stop the warm glow growing in his chest, so soft and warm it felt like it was filling him up from the inside out. Steve thought it was an honor to be Iron Man’s friend. Iron Man had to be doing something right. He was probably grinning like an idiot behind the mask. Tony didn’t care.

“Um,” Steve said. “Right.” He pressed his hands together in front of himself, put one of them on the table, then put it back on his hip again. He swallowed. “I absolute respect you and your secret identity,” he said, “100%. And I’d never do anything to compromise that, I promise. And I know you . . . you want us to think you’re a robot under there, but I know you’re . . . you’re not. You’re a man, and you’re warm, and funny, and—and brave, and you’re, you’re one of my best friends, and. And why can’t I ever get a speech out when it matters, God damn it!”

“You do that all the time,” Tony said, shocked by the self-directed frustration in Steve’s voice, the way his voice had twisted. “You always know just what to say in a tight spot; what the team needs to hear. I admire you for that. So much.” He swallowed. He wished he were better at inspiring people. He carefully didn’t think about what Steve had been saying, as sweet as it all was. He didn’t want to jump to conclusions, and his—his stupid malfunctioning heart really wanted to jump to conclusions, here, but that would be obviously wrong, because Steve couldn’t mean what it sounded like. Men had been a lot more obviously affectionate in his time, Tony thought to himself. That probably meant verbal affection, too. Lord knew Steve was always giving him over-the-top compliments.

“You’re right,” Steve said, taking a deep breath. His cheeks were still very, very pink, Tony noticed and immediately tried not to let himself think anything particular about that. “Those are important. I got frustrated. It’s just . . . that when it’s personal, I get so gosh-darned tongue-tied, Shellhead.”

“Yeah,” Tony said. “I know the feeling. Are you doing okay, tiger?” The nickname just slipped out before he could stop it, but at least it made Steve smile.

“Yeah,” Steve said, more breathed, really, and then looked down, and smiled a little wider. “Well, no, I’m making a total mess of this, but still.” He looked up again, and smiled, and his eyes were so bright, so blue, his cheeks flushed and his smile open and tentative and hopeful in a way that Tony didn’t think he’d ever seen before—and he made a study of Steve’s smiles, each and every one of them too precious to be ignored or disregarded. “I like you, Shellhead,” he said. “I really, really like you. I like you as . . . in a different way than I’d like a friend. I, um, I feel for you. Romantically. And I don’t care if you can’t take the suit off, I don’t care if you never do. I’m all right with that. I just want to—to tell you. Because you deserve to know someone cares about you like that. Even if you don’t feel the same way. Because uh, because.” Steve blew his breath out again, so that it lifted a lock of his sweaty, fluffy hair, blew it off his forehead before it fell back down. “Because I know what it’s like to feel lonely,” he said, finally. “You make me feel so much less lonely; you’ve done it the whole time I’ve been here, in this time, and I just—I just want to maybe, if I can, return the favor a little.”

Oh, Tony thought, and it felt like he’d been hit in the head with a piece of rebar, or maybe a building, or maybe Fin Fang Foom’s tail. He couldn’t seem to think for a long, long moment. “You,” he said, and his voice strangled, and cracked, and died in his throat, and Steve’s face fell, and some part of Tony thought no, no, no, no, because that hopeful look had been so perfect, the most perfect thing he’d ever seen, more precious than vibranium, and more pure. Part of him was flying, it felt like that, like taking off from the ground in his boot jets and going up, up, up, pure joy. The rest of him was cold terror, warring with the warm rush of elation, the joy, and a tight, impossible clench of misery. “You’re not,” he cleared his throat and tried again. “Iron Man isn’t . . . I’m not. I mean, you’re not supposed to—”

Steve frowned, and reached out with his still gloved hand, but he stopped before his hand reached Tony’s gauntleted forearm, and then he just stood there, looking at Tony, a strange, wistful, yearning but somehow determined look on his face. “What,” he said. “Not supposed to be your friend? Well, too late, Tin Man.”

Tony felt his face go hot, and he thought, vaguely, from somewhere, Well, I guess it was my turn.

“Um,” he said. “You, uh, don’t know who I am.”

Steve scoffed. “Pull the other one, fella,” he said, and then time he did step forward, this time he did rest his gloved hand on Tony’s metal-covered forearm, and it was—it was wild, because Tony could have sworn it were almost like he could actually feel the warmth of his touch through the armor, though of course he couldn’t. Steve was standing so close now. Tony’s heart stuttered in his chest, and he was almost a little worried about it, because if anything would cause his new, transplanted heart to get overworked and give out, this was way more likely than a fight in the armor was. He found himself pressing his other gauntleted hand tight to his chest, like it could do anything about it. “I know exactly who you are. How many tight spots have we been in together? How many missions have we gone on? There’s no one I’d rather save the world beside than you, and that’s a fact.”

“Steve,” Tony said, and it came out of him hoarse and husky, scratching and tangling horribly with the static-y rasp of Iron Man’s voice. “That’s no kind of thing to base a relationship on. Adrenaline’s rushing, the—bond created—we probably feel closer to each other because we, we—because of the danger—and—”

Steve smiled. “I think it’s the best thing to base it on,” he said. “Begin as you mean to go on, right, Shellhead?” He was smiling, but his jaw was still set, and when Tony looked into his big blue eyes, they were tight around the edges—he was—Steve was swallowing hard, he was afraid, and Tony was going to have to hurt him, he was going to have to let him down, as easily as he could, but still—he couldn’t—

“Steve,” Tony said. “You can’t—I can’t—”

“Is it because you can’t take the armor off?” Steve said, softly, and his eyes were fixed on Tony’s through the faceplate. “Maybe you don’t believe me when I say I don’t care about that, but I promise, I promise, fella, that I don't.”

“It’s,” Tony swallowed. “It’s, um, it’s, I, I’m lying to you, you don’t even know who I am,” oh, get it together, Stark, he could do better than that. That wouldn’t convince a fifth grade crush, let alone someone as stubborn as Steve Rogers. And then a lot of what Steve had said hit him all at once, and he said, “Wait, you—you’re—you’re—I’m a man!”

“Iron Man,” Steve said, smiling and laughing a little, “I did figure the name was probably accurate, you know? His gloved hand came up and rested on the side of the faceplate, and oh, oh no, that was—that was (wonderful, Steve liked him) bad; that was very bad, he—he had to put a stop to this, he had to. Then Steve’s face fell, and he went absolutely pale, almost the same color he’d been when they’d pulled him from the ice. “Is that it?” he said. “You, uh, you don’t like fellas? That’s . . . um, that’s okay. I’m sorry, I thought—I really, um, thought. I’m real sorry if I made you uncomfortable. That was—that was awful unprofessional of me. I should have—I wasn’t trying to abuse my position, or . . . or put pressure on you in any way. I’m sorry. I got carried away.”

Oh, shit, no. Yeah, he had to let Steve down, couldn’t let him know Tony was desperately—desperately in love wi—infatuated with him in return, but he couldn’t, he couldn’t, do it like that.

“It’s not that, gorgeous,” Tony murmured, and he could feel his voice break in his throat, so sharp it almost hurt, the twist of pain in his stomach, and now he felt like he was falling, falling too fast and hard to ever catch himself. He felt a wild swing of vertigo, almost like he’d throw up. “You’re—you’re beautiful. You’re wonderful. Anyone would be lucky to have you. And I—you’re not wrong. About me. And men. I—I’ve been with men before. In the past.”

Steve swallowed hard, and his ashen face got a bit of color back. “Before the armor, you mean?” he asked, hoarse and low, and Tony just nodded, because, well, it was true that he hadn’t been with a man since, even if he was letting Steve assume it was for particular reasons that weren’t exactly accurate.

“It’s not . . . it’s not that. It’s not you,” Tony found himself saying. “I—like I said, you’re wonderful. I—it’s—”

Steve’s gloved fingers came up, skimmed so gently, tenderly along the side of the armor. “What?” he murmured. “Is there something wrong with you? If you’re scarred all over—or hell, if you think you’re hideous, I don’t care.”

Something wrong with him. Christ. Steve had no idea. “I can’t,” Tony said, and his voice cracked like a kid's. “I can’t tell you my identity. Steve, I’d be lying to you. I—I am lying to you.”

Steve smiled at that, oddly sweet and soft. “I don’t mind that,” he said. “I told you. I respect the identity thing.”

Tony blinked, feeling like there was wind roaring in his ears, breath rasping in his throat like he’d been running. “I—I don’t understand,” he said. “What do you think we’re going to be able to do? Hold hands?”

Steve smiled a little more, ran his fingers over the top of the head of the armor, “Well, that’d be a start,” he said.

“But nothing’s in it for you,” Tony said helplessly, and then recognized the tone in his voice, and thought no, no, you stupid, selfish fuck, stop bargaining, you can’t have this. You can’t have him.

Steve’s eyes sharpened. “Whaddaya mean?” he asked, and wow, that had sounded very New York. “You’re in it for me.”

“I’m nothing,” Tony said, harshly, and put his hands on Steve’s shoulders, and he didn't push him back hard, but he did put in enough pressure that Steve, always chivalrous and respectful, stepped back a pace anyway. “Forget about me. You could do so much better, Cap. You know what? I’ll set you up with someone.  Someone else.”

No,” Steve said, and it came out of him with all the growling force he directed at their enemies, and it stopped Tony in his tracks even as he turned toward the door. “Not like that. You don’t do it like that. You don’t want me? Fine. That’s fine, Iron Man. I promise. But don’t do it like that. Don’t say you’re nothing and walk away. You’re not nothing, the farthest thing from it. You’re a hero. I might not know your real name, sure, or what you look like, though I do know you’ve got the prettiest pair of blue eyes and the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen on a fella before. But none of that matters, because I know who you are. I know your heart, Shellhead. I’ve seen it on battlefield after battlefield, I’ve seen it here, in the mansion, with the other Avengers, in how you treat me, and the others, and even Mr. Jarvis. You’re a good man and I won’t hear any of this baloney about you not being worth anything. Reject me if you don’t want me, but I don’t want someone else you think is better than you; I want you.”

“What was that about not being able to make speeches?” Tony murmured; he couldn’t help it, his mouth working with barely any input from his brain, and Steve let out a loud huff, crossed his arms across his chest, and gave Tony a disappointed look.

“Shellhead,” he said, and then his voice scratched just a little. “I—don’t make fun of me,” he said. “I think—I think if you’re gonna reject me, I deserve to know why.”

But what could Tony say to that? He clenched his hands in the gauntlets, unclenched them with an effort of will, then clenched them again and had to do it all over again. “Steve,” he said, and then he turned to go, because what else could he do but run away like the worst kind of coward.

Hey,” Steve said, hot and angry, and his gloved hand came down hard on Tony’s shoulder, “I’m talkin’ to you—” and then Tony couldn’t help it, he swung his head back to look at him, so he saw it, he saw all of it, when Steve’s voice broke and his face crumpled. “I’m sorry,” he said, and his voice was low and suddenly lifeless. “I just—wanted—I thought I outta—try—but it was stupid, and I’ve ruined it between us, haven’t I?” He slumped back on the table, and his gloved hands fell into his lap. He looked down at them, and with his cowl pushed back and his miserable expression, his tousled hair—he looked like just a man, and a young man at that. Tony’s own age. Vulnerable. Alone. His heart ached.

Tony felt so alone. So often, he felt so alone.

“You haven’t ruined anything, Winghead,” he said, softly, and his own voice came out hoarse and low. He took a tentative step toward him, and it was his turn to reach out a hand, and what was he doing; he was being an idiot, he really was going to ruin everything, that was what he was doing—“Look, Steve.” Steve shook his head, looked away. Sniffed. Raised one hand and covered his face, his eyes, with his gloved fingers. Aw, shit, was he—was he crying?

No. Just. No. No. Not on his watch. He couldn’t make Captain America fucking cry, not over him. He let the fingers of his gauntlet rest gently on Steve’s uniform, against the scale mail, and Steve dropped his hand, but didn't look at him. “Hey,” he said. “Don’t get like that, not over me.” He put both hands on Steve’s shoulders, leaned in and touched the helmet so, so gently to Steve’s forehead. “Nothing’s gonna come between Earth’s Mightiest Heroes that easy, right?”

“I just,” Steve said, then gulped, his throat working. He leaned forward, let both his hands curl around Tony’s arms, behind his elbows. “Shellhead,” he said, “I like you so . . . such an awful lot. I know it’s . . . it’s maybe a little weird, but—well, no one ever looked at me before the serum, not really. I thought maybe you felt . . . alone like that, locked up in this tin can, and I—”

Oh, God, he did not deserve Steve. He did not deserve Steve and here was proof of it right in front of him. Steve was putting himself out here like this, offering himself on a silver platter, for him, all for Tony's sake, thinking better of him than he deserved, like Tony had some kind of decent reason for lying to him, really was half the man he pretended to be.

“I just don’t know if you’d like me so much if you had me,” Tony murmured, “that’s all,” and it left him feeling terrifyingly naked, as if he’d stripped the armor off right there and stood in front of Steve in nothing more than his shirtsleeves and stocking feet.

“What kinda terrible secret do you think you’re hiding?” Steve murmured. His lips were soft, moving along the armor’s faceplate almost as if they were kissing. “It can’t be that bad, fella.”

It is that bad, Tony thought about saying, I’m Tony Stark, and almost started to laugh hysterically. It was just—it was just—

That was probably a little overdramatic, even for him.

“You can’t want a man stuck in a tin can,” Tony murmured.

“Oh, yeah?” Steve said back. “Wanna bet?” His hands came up, cradled the base of the faceplate like he was cupping Tony’s face. “Beg to differ, buster.” He took a deep breath, blew it out, and Tony felt it feathering over his own face through the mouth, the eyes of the armor.

This just wasn’t fair. Steve’s breath smelled like peppermint.

“I know you’re in there,” Steve said, and he was caressing the neck, the jawline of the armor now, really caressing it, like he was stroking Tony’s skin. Tony felt a shiver that skimmed down his spine, all the way to his toes. “That’s all I need.”

“I don’t think I’m all that great,” Tony tried again.

“Will you stop saying that?” Steve said with a little bit of a smile. He leaned forward, and he closed his eyes and then—then he was pressing his lips to the mouth of the armor, chaste and sweet, the most perfect kiss. He lingered there, pressed them again, and this time his tongue came flickering out, touched briefly to the mouth slit where Tony could see it, and God, it was so soft and pink and—God, the readouts of the sensors when Steve kissed him—

Tony had never even—never even imagined—he felt hot and cold at once, strange and shivering all over. He’d never even imagined anything that sweet, that—that good, happening to him as Iron Man. The team was enough, the team was everything he could have ever hoped for, joking and laughing and being a hero—being Steve’s friend—and now this—it was too much, it was too good, he’d been supposed to die. He was never supposed to have any of this. He felt himself falling to one knee, heavily, in front of Steve, with a loud clang, before he even thought. “Steve,” he said, and his voice came out strangled and dying in his throat. He felt like a knight kneeling in supplication for a blessing, before his king, and he didn’t even know what that blessing might be.

Steve smiled, a little sadly, Tony thought. “I wanted at least one kiss,” he said, and something inside of Tony’s chest seized up, something that had been aching and cold and tightly coiled inside him the whole time he’d had the chestplate lying against his skin, like a cold exoskeleton he could never escape, bones on the outside of his chest, except for a few seconds that left him gasping and dizzy in the shower, avoiding every touch, ducking from every warm touch, every friendly gesture, never feeling—no one—alone and—he’d thought it was going to be for the rest of his life, and he never wanted to Steve to feel anything like that, even remotely like that.

“We can do that,” he found himself breathing hoarsely through the static of the vocal filters. “We can do a kiss.”

Just one kiss? some mocking voice in the back of his mind jeered. You won’t be able to stop.

Tony told it to shut up. Steve wanted this.

“Close your eyes,” he said, and it came out a rough rasp.

Steve caught his breath. His eyes widened, that soft, wistful look changing into one of open-mouthed surprise before he sat up straight and immediately closed his eyes, like he was going to be tested on it. High spots of color burned over his cheekbones, hot and pink.

His eyelashes were so long, and his lips looked—so soft, improbably soft, really. It was probably the serum. He was beautiful, his lips parting a little as Tony watched, as if they were shaping the words Iron Man. His eyelids were soft and fragile looking, one of the only places on his whole body that actually looked fragile, aside from the softness of those lips.

He was too sweet for Tony to ever touch, and Tony knew it. But—just this once, and he’d have to pay attention, maybe this could last for his whole lifetime—so he could remember it forever—

“Keep your eyes closed,” Tony murmured.

“You can trust me,” Steve said in response, so low and soft Tony’s armor barely picked it up. His mouth barely moved.

Tony knew that.

He took a deep breath. His hands trembled as he released the catch for the helmet and pulled it off over his head. He held it against his stomach and thigh with one hand, so he could reach for Steve with the other. He switched all the power in his gauntlets to off, just in case, and then curved it, ever so gently, against Steve’s jaw, with all the delicacy in his power. Steve trembled slightly under him, then turned his head, pressed his jaw deliberately into the touch of Tony’s gauntlet.

God. Tony reached up, let the thumb brush over Steve’s bottom lip. He was going to remember that, the sight of it, forever; he was sure. And then he leaned in and pressed his lips to Steve’s, letting his palm fall to curve around the back of his neck.

He tried to keep it soft, slow and gentle, sweet, tried to kiss with all the patience, all the gentleness and skill, he’d ever acquired. He let their lips brush once, twice, then let his move back, settle over Steve’s breathe into his mouth before he sucked softly, the lightest bit of suction, on Steve’s bottom lip. Steve really did taste like peppermint breath mints, and Tony sighed and just let himself really feel it, just for a second, the feel of him, the warmth, the solidity and strength and living presence of him, the softness of his lips, and then Steve groaned and he was leaning into it. His hands came up, slid over the shoulders of the armor, as if he was trying not to touch above it where the helmet might be, running back and forth restlessly, and he leaned into Tony’s mouth like he was desperate for the taste of it, lips parting, eager and hot. Tony heard himself groan, careful, Stark, don’t get too loud, you’ll give the game away completely, and leaned further into Steve’s mouth, settling their lips more firmly together; he couldn’t help it, not the jolt of heat that leapt through him or the desire to make this last, to make it really count.

Steve moaned, swayed forward into him, and Tony found his fingers curling in just slightly in his hair. He wished he could feel the touch of his skin with a sudden ache that was so visceral, went so deep, that it made his breath hitch in his throat. Steve’s mouth was hot, open, and Tony slid his tongue along Steve’s bottom lip and Steve groaned, low and deep, and Tony couldn’t resist, he let it flick over his lip again, once, twice, then push inside Steve’s mouth, really tasting him, feeling the warmth of him, the soft pants of his breath, the heat and slickness of his own tongue under Tony’s and wow, wow, he was kissing him; he was kissing Captain America, Steve Rogers, and it was—it was—it was so good, it was as good as he’d ever dreamed, better, it was even better than the fantasy, because Steve was real and solid and eager and vivid under him, jolting into his mouth with a kind of enthusiastic breathlessness Tony doubted he could ever possibly get tired of.

He had no idea how long they spent there, kissing. Time lost all meaning for him. There was only Steve’s sweet mouth, sweet and hot and eager, and Tony’s own determination to make it as good as he could, as perfect, to use every trick he knew, but before too long he wasn’t even thinking about that, he was just kissing, his lips locked to Steve’s, panting as he drew air through his nose because pulling away long enough to catch a breath just wasn’t possible, his hand locked at the back of Steve’s neck. He had no idea how long they might have stayed there before he finally remembered the risk he was taking and, eventually, after one more kiss, and another, and another, made himself pull away, gasping for air. Steve gave a ragged gasp, his eyes still shut obediently tight, and his head sagged forward.

Tony put the helmet back on and did the seals, and that must have been the sound Steve was waiting for, because a moment later, he leaned forward, pressed his forehead against the armor’s faceplate again, curling both strong, heavy, muscular arms around Tony’s shoulders and squeezing in a hug. “See,” he mumbled. His lips were wet, swollen and shiny, reddened and looking hot with their puffy dampness. Tony swallowed. “Knew there was a person under there. And a fantastic kisser, at that. Shellhead, you’ve been holding out on me.”

“I never meant to,” Tony murmured, but that wasn’t at all true, was it? He was lying to Steve on purpose. He was—he was taking advantage of his trust. He was—God, what was he doing? He was—this was—it was reprehensible, was what it was—

Steve’s hands closed at the back of the helmet. He held him close, breathed so that his breath actually fogged up over the faceplate. Tony could smell it. God, he just wanted to lean into him, hold onto him, press his face into his shoulder and feel his warmth and never leave, and he couldn’t. He couldn’t. “Don’t do that,” Steve said. “Whatever you’re doing. I wanted you to kiss me. I asked you to, and you gave it to me and—” his voice quavered, just the minutest bit, “—and it was wonderful. Don’t regret that, Iron Man, please.”

Tony found himself reaching forward, thumbed gently at Steve’s chin, his jaw, with the gauntlet, feeling clumsy. “You’re beautiful,” he heard himself say thickly. His voice sounded wrecked, choked up. “The best. The best kisser.”

“Aww, Shellhead,” Steve said. “Just—” his voice sounded thick too. “Just give me a chance. I wouldn’t be that bad.”

“You’d be the best,” Tony murmured, feeling his throat thicken until he almost choked on it, until he could barely breathe. “I know you would.”

“Then why won’t you . . .” Steve said, and then he sighed. He sounded . . . defeated. It was just wrong to hear him sound like that. He was never supposed to sound like that. And now it was Tony's fault. “I guess I can’t understand,” he said, and his voice was sad, low, dragging. “You won’t let me.”

Tony swallowed. He really wanted this, he thought.  Steve, he really, he genuinely . . . .

Steve was an Avenger, he thought. If anyone would understand—

But if he knew Iron Man was Tony Stark, what would he think? What would he think of him? Surely he’d hate him, if he knew. Judge him. Find him wanting. He wasn’t a hero like the rest of them.

He’d wanted them to like him.

He’d wanted Steve to like him.

He almost had to laugh at that. Maybe he’d played the part a little too well.

He took a deep breath. “Steve,” he said, and the, “sweetheart,” slipped out before he could stop it. He almost winced. But—no. Steve deserved that from him, that much honesty. But it hurt how a little smile flickered onto Steve’s lips at that, and he looked up almost eagerly to meet Tony’s eyes. “It’s . . . Iron Man isn’t real.”

Steve gave him a look that pretty well showed what he thought of that.

“I mean, yeah, okay, I’m a guy who wears a metal suit and fights alongside you and calls himself Iron Man,” Tony said, with a self-deprecating laugh that caught on something in his chest, in his throat, and hurt. “But Iron Man is just a . . . a façade. A persona I put on, so that—so that I’d, uh. Uh. Fit in?” So that you’d seem like a hero, that voice sneered in the back of his mind. It sounded like Howard. He swallowed.

Steve was looking at him oddly. Tony reflected that maybe he did sound kind of insane, but that wasn’t really the look. It was a little exasperated, more than a little annoyed, but also . . . soft, almost fond. “Iron Man,” he said, “you fought the Wrecking Crew with us just last week, and you took a step in front of Yellowjacket to block Thunderball’s shot at him when none of the rest of us had noticed. That seems pretty Grade-A Heroic to me.”

Tony stared at him. That was just business as usual, for all of them, and Steve knew it. “Steve,” he said. “That wasn’t a big deal, you know that. Any of us would have done the same.”

“Yeah, Shellhead,” Steve said. “That’s exactly my point. Any of us Avengers.”

It was Tony’s turn to give him a blank, judgmental look. Steve sighed and leaned forward, knocking his knuckles gently, affectionately on the helmet. “You know, the team of heroes we’re all part of, Tinhead?” he said, but it was gentle. “Okay, try this one on for size, then. Remember the first time we fought the Masters of Evil together? Couldn't have done it without you.”

Tony thought back to that fight. They’d really come together as a team back then. He could still feel how good it had felt, fighting alongside the others, the warm glow of satisfaction in his belly. “Yeah,” he said softly, before he thought. “That wasn’t bad.”

“My point is,” Steve said, and his gloved hand was resting on the side of the helmet again, and Tony didn’t have the will to shake it off, “it can’t all be put on. You’ve been brave and self-sacrificing as much as any of us. You are an Avenger, whatever your real name is. And if you play up a persona . . .” he made a face. “Well, out there. You know you’re not the only one.”

“And that means you want to . . . to date me,” Tony said blankly, and Steve smiled.

“Somethin’ like that,” he said. “But you could try letting me make my own decisions about that, you know? I like you right now. If I’m really wrong about you, and it doesn’t work, we’ll call pax and go back to being nothing but good pals. Promise. Cross my heart.” He winked and made a crossing gesture over his chest that Tony hadn’t seen since the 4th grade.

Tony swallowed. He thought, when he finds out you’re really Tony Stark, it’s going to be all over, Shellhead.

But maybe Steve was right. It would definitely hurt less for Steve, if he was the one to call it quits, rather than Tony just shutting him down right off the bat. And then—he might—even if it was only for a while, and in the armor, the chance to be with Steve—to try to make him happy—

Maybe he had to take that chance.

And maybe, just maybe, they’d have some good times together, and this wouldn’t crash and burn right away. They’d always been good together, hadn’t they? They really had, and—

Tony took a deep breath. He closed his eyes, and opened them again. He swallowed hard, moistened a suddenly dry throat, and struggled to find something to say. This was much harder when he wasn’t being Tony Stark, Millionaire Playboy. Everyone expected a flirty line from him. What would Iron Man say? It had never come up before.

Maybe not using a line would be better. “All right, lover boy,” he said. “You’ve got yourself a deal.” He held out his hand.

Steve looked at it, then up at him. “Wait,” he said. “Wait, really? Iron Man, you—you mean it?”

“Sure do,” Tony said. “I may not be a genius like Mr. Stark, but I’m not quite as dumb as I look, Cap.” His chest felt light, suddenly. Even if this was wrong, it felt—it felt right. It felt good. Maybe that would come back to bite him later. It usually did. In that moment, he didn’t care.

The way Steve’s face just lit up was absolutely worth it. Right at that moment, it felt like it was worth everything that had ever gone wrong in his life. “Boy howdy, Shellhead, you are not going to regret this,” Steve said, and then let out a little whoop and flung his arms around Tony’s—Iron Man’s—neck. Tony grinned and curled his arms around him, lifted him off the floor and spun him around. He bet not a lot of Steve’s lovers had been able to do that.

Steve laughed delightedly, gave another little whoop, slinging his arms around Tony’s head, and then Tony was setting him down, and his arms came down around Tony’s shoulders and clasped him tightly, curling in strong against his shoulders, his neck, as he leaned in, pressed his cheek against that of the armor, and kissed where Tony’s cheek might be without it. “We’re gonna be good together,” he said. “We are, Shellhead, you’ll see.”

Well, Tony thought, raising his metal-covered fingers to trace them along the rise of Steve’s cheekbone, everything in him thrilling and going warm as Steve turned his head in toward the touch, his eyes sliding closed, I’m already in love with you. So there’s that.

Steve’s lips came in and brushed a gentle kiss over the faceplate of the armor again, and Tony felt himself smile, watching the readouts tell him that Steve was kissing him.  Kissing Iron Man.

“Yeah, Winghead,” he said. “I’m gonna show you the best time I know how.”

And he meant every single word of it.