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The first mission after Captain America’s (Captain America’s!) defrost goes swimmingly. Better than Tony could have ever dreamed. This has less to do with their victory and more to do with the fact that he’s fighting alongside Steve Rogers, one of the greatest heroes the world has ever known. And after their debrief, after they’ve patched their wounds and gone over battlefield strategy, Cap pulls him aside, taps two knuckles against the helmet, and says “Nice work, Shellhead.”

Tony’s heart soars, because, loathe though he is to admit it, there’s still that stupid little (massive) part of him that yearns for approval from on high. Clearly Howard’s out of the picture for that, but Captain America? Can’t get much better than words of praise from a childhood hero.

The next mission is messier. Jan goes down in a ball of flames, her delicate wings crumpled behind her. Tony doesn’t catch her in time. Watching her be carried away on a stretcher to Avengers’ mansion makes lead settle in the pit of his stomach.

They debrief in a murmur of hushed voices and subdued body language, slumped shoulders and bowed heads. Their brightest voice is missing and it drags at all of them with every word. But still, when they rise and adjourn to lick their wounds in private, Steve comes up behind him, raps his knuckles on the side of the helmet and says “Nice work, Shellhead.”

His gut reaction is to pull away. He’s used to underhanded sarcasm, kind words shaped as daggers wrapped in velvet. Hell, he uses his language in just the same way, to take down uppity shareholders and debutantes who just can’t take “no” for an answer. 

Turning to loosen his own quicksilver tongue, though, he catches sight of Steve’s face and freezes. The man’s eyes are tired, haunted even, but there’s nothing less than sincerity in them. Caught unawares, Tony blurts out the first thing he thinks of.

“I didn’t catch her.”

Steve’s mouth settles in a troubled line, corners down-turned. “That doesn’t mean you didn’t do good work.”

“But I didn’t catch her.”

Sighing, Steve runs his hand over his face, shoving back the cowl as he does so. “We can’t be everywhere at once, Iron Man. You were subduing a robot on the other side of the battlefield.”

“But if I’d just…”

“Iron Man,” Steve says, placing a heavy hand on the shoulder of the armor, “don’t do this to yourself. I…Well I…I have to ask you to trust me on this. You did good work out there. Asking the ‘what if’s’ now isn’t going to help you or Wasp.”

After a moment, Tony nods stiffly and steps away from Steve. “I’ll…I’ll keep that in mind, Cap.” He hurries away, the words still ringing in his ears. Nice work, Shellhead.

It becomes a mantra for Tony, almost religious in its regularity. After every mission, no matter how brilliantly or poorly executed, without fail Steve finds him and knocks the helmet. “Nice work, Shellhead,” he says, flashing that little smile, even if he’s beaten to a pulp. It’s like a balm for Tony’s failures and a bolster for his successes, because Steve is always sincere. He’s never anything less than truthful with Iron Man. And that is something Tony so rarely has from anyone.

Of course, Steve doesn’t know it’s Tony under the armor. He doesn’t know he’s heaping praise on a man who made his millions off of death and destruction. It’s better that way, he tells himself, and starts spending more time in the armor than out around the mansion.

The first time he catches Steve watching game shows on daytime TV, he has a blast teasing the other man, quizzing him like Alex Trebek incarnate. But at the end of it all, Steve hunched over his own knees, guffawing as Tony says “I’ll take modern relics for 2,000, Alex”, the super soldier reaches out and knocks the helmet.

“Nice one, Shellhead,” he murmurs, his grin wide, eyes sparkling, and Tony feels a different flutter in his heart, one that he packs away as quickly as he can. Irrelevant. It can never be. Get over yourself.

But it happens again and again. Over drinks with the team, Steve taps the helmet appreciatively when Tony manages to clean them all out at poker. (”Perfect poker face,” he says, tapping the face mask. Steve replies with, “You’ve still got your tells” and Tony decidedly does not think about that.) He thunks a wooden spoon against the side of the helmet one day when Iron Man tries to help make breakfast. (“I’ve seen you in a kitchen. You wanna help? Go set out the plates.”) Months turn into years, and Cap never shies from making the helmet ring with a good rap, and his warm smile is always quick to follow. Tony keeps his stupid heart firmly in check. It’s given him enough problems to last a lifetime, and he’d rather just this once not let his health and happiness be ruled by it.

But then Molecule Man comes along, and for the first time, Tony’s teammates seem him as he truly is. A sham. A fraud. A billionaire dressing up in costume and trying to be a better man than he really is.

He tries to play it off, and they have bigger problems to deal with, namely saving the planet. But even as they formulate a plan and fight for their lives, different words are ringing through his mind. Not “Nice work, Shellhead,” but rather “I mean, you two are the best.” Of course Steve is talking about Don. Of course he is. Tony…Tony’s just the money and not much else.

But when it’s all said and done, when he’s re-armored and they‘re wrapping up the debrief, Cap motions to him.

“Iron Man, could you hang back a second?’

The others clear the room quickly, and Tony can see the looks they trade, the smirk growing on Thor’s face. He swallows and then carefully removes his helmet, turning and giving Cap his best thousand watt smile. “What can I do for you, Steve?”

The super soldier has already pushed back his cowl, and he looks…lighter somehow. “I just wanted to say…nice work out there today.” He reaches up, hesitates, and then drops his hand to Tony’s shoulder. Only belatedly does the inventor realize he’d been going for a tap against the helmet.

He holds it out, offering Steve the faceplate. “You can still tap it if you want. Good luck, right? Or something.”

“Something like that,” Steve murmurs, eyes on the gleaming gold and red. “How did I never see it?” he says even more quietly, glancing up and meeting Tony’s eyes.

“I did work pretty hard to keep it a secret,” the inventor offers, shrugging under the weight of Steve’s palm. “It…I’m…I’m sorry about keeping it from you, but…”

“Were you ever going to tell us?”

“Maybe someday. I just…you don’t need my name attached to the Avengers as anything more than a financial backer. You don’t need the Merchant of Death on your team. No one needs that.”

“We need you, Tony,” Steve answers fiercely, fingers tightening on the armor. Tony can hear the leather of Steve’s glove squeaking in protest. “Now more than ever. I can’t even…”

He pauses, shakes his head, and takes a deep breath. “Well, in any case,” he says, smile turning warm and welcoming, “I’m glad to know. I’m glad I’ll get to know you even better.” He releases Tony’s shoulder, only to press two fingers to the inventor’s cheek. Very gently, he taps the skin once, fingers a ghost of a presence through the leather. “Nice work, Shellhead,” he offers, something shy and boyish in his smile, and then he turns and walks out the door, leaving a dumbfounded Tony in his wake.

For a long moment, the inventor merely stands, staring at the space Steve had previously occupied. Slowly, he raises his hand to his face, the cool metal of the gauntlet a stark contrast to his heated skin. He traces the line of heat left behind, shuddering as something in his heart wriggles loose of its shackles. Maybe this time…