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“Just so I know what I’m working with,” Tony starts one night. They’re lying in Steve’s bed, sweaty and a little sticky and it’s absolutely perfect. He adores Steve’s bed, mostly because it’s a lot smaller than his and gives Tony an excuse to press right up against him. “Is there any particular reason why your ass is off limits?”

Apparently, that’s the wrong question ask. Steve sits up, tension apparent in his entire body. “It’s not off limits,” he mutters.

“Could have fooled me,” Tony says. Part of him tells him to drop it, that maybe it’s not necessary to poke and prod at every uncomfortable topic, but Tony’s not good at listening to anyone, not even himself. “I’ve noticed you freezing up—don’t give me that look, you totally do.”

Steve does that thing that he does when he’s feeling guilty, where his shoulders slump and his brows are knit. “I… You know that back in my day, two guys together, that wasn’t accepted either way, but…” he swallows once, twice. “But being on the bottom? It is—was—just plain funny.”

“I hope that’s ‘funny ha-ha’.”

Steve shakes his head. “It, uh, wasn’t seen as right, letting another man do that to you. It wasn’t what real men did.”

“Well,” Tony says, giving Steve a flat look, the one that he learned from Pepper. “That was then, right?”

Steve looks down, not quite meeting Tony’s eyes. “Yeah, but…”

“Is that how you feel about me?” he asks pointedly, and Jesus, this isn’t going where Tony thought it would.

“No!” Steve almost shouts, his face flushed. “Tony, no. You know that I respect you, I respect you a lot—“

“But not enough to risk your masculinity.” He feels exhausted, too exhausted to deal with this. Tony stumbles out of bed and searches for his discarded clothing, trying to dress with as much dignity as possible, acutely aware of Steve’s eyes on him.

“Tony, you don’t have to go,” Steve says weakly. And the thing is, Tony doesn’t want to go, not really. All he wants to do is crawl back into Steve’s warm bed, let him hold him; it would be easy, but he can’t bring himself to just give in.

“Look, Steve, I—“ love “—like you. I really do. And maybe, if this was a fling, I’d let it go, but it isn’t and I can’t.”

He leaves and doesn’t look back.

--

Tony doesn’t acually try to avoid Steve, but he’s a busy man. In between board meetings, picking up the slack from R&D, a gala for some non-profit, and a general lack of superhero business, it takes virtually no effort not to see him until three days later, when Steve corners him in his workshop.

“I really need to talk to you,” Steve says, resolutely enough that Tony knows that there’s no avoiding this conversation.

Tony sends him a bland smile, pushing his goggles up to his forehead. “Sure thing, Cap. What about?”

“Tony, you know." He’s staring at him with those wide, earnest eyes, and Tony sighs as he decides to maybe hear him out. "I'm sorry about the other night. I didn't mean—I want this to work out."

"I want this to work out too," Tony says. "But—"

“So, I… I want you to fuck me.” Steve’s face is red as he sets his mouth into a determined line.

Tony has been expecting it; there are only so many places that this conversation can go, really. A heat unfurls low in his belly at the words, but he wills himself to ignore it, to be rational. “Steve, that’s not going to fix this.”

“I thought it’s what you wanted,” he says, his voice going soft, and maybe a little sad.

“I want it,” Tony admits, and oh God, it’s true. He’s been thinking about it since their first time, about taking him slow and easy, making Steve feel as good as he makes Tony feel, but this isn’t how he wants it. “But if you really feel that bottoming makes you less of a man, if this is going to be a chore for you, this isn’t going to work. It’s not going to magically make those feelings go away. Hell, it might make things worse.”

"It won't! Tony, I want to do this.” And he grabs Tony’s hands and holds them in his own, grip reassuring and warm. “I want this.”

Tony can accept this at face value. He can let it go and hope that Steve means it, that he wants it as much as Tony wants it. It would be easy and Tony likes taking the easy way out. The words are on the tip of his tongue, but instead he says, "Okay, okay, how about this: I’ve been bottoming for you, and you know, clearly I don’t mind it, I like it." He takes a deep breath; gets ready for the million-dollar question. "So, how do you feel about me?"

Steve goes quiet, but doesn’t look away, doesn’t let go of Tony. “I… told you before, I have so much respect for you. You’re one of the best men I know,“ he takes one of Tony’s hands to his lips, pressing a soft kiss to the knuckles. “Even if we don’t always see eye to eye. You’re as stubborn as a mule, and it can be incredibly frustrating sometimes—well, a lot of the time—but you stand your ground, and I love that about you. I don’t… there’s this disconnect, between how I feel about you, for you, and—“

He breaks off for a moment, taking a shaky breath. "See, the thing is, when I rationalize it, I know none of that stuff I used to hear is true, but…”

“But?”

“Well, I grew up hearing it. And it always felt like those comments were directed at me. Hell, half the time they were.” Now, they’re standing so close that Tony can feel the warmth radiating from Steve’s body, can feel the way he’s shaking slightly. “I was such a tiny guy, before Rebirth, and I guess they just assumed. They’d call me a nancy or fairy, or worse, an awful lot. I brushed it off, I had to, but some of it stuck, I guess.”

“Jesus, Steve,” he breathes, and well, that explains a lot.

“I’m sorry,” Steve mutters into his shoulder, letting Tony lead him to the futon in the corner of his lab. “For not being able to say anything the first time. I didn’t know what to say. It’s dumb of me, but when I remember what some of those guys would say, I don’t know, I freak out a little.”

“It’s not dumb,” he says, running soothing fingers through his hair. “I mean, I’m betting it’s not easy to walk away from that without letting it get to you, I understand that. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not totally heartless, but I’m not letting you off the hook. We’re going to work on this, okay?”

“Of course. I want to, Tony, I do,” Steve says and sinks further into Tony’s arms.