Steve had never really decided what to do about living space. Since the Avengers had saved him from his cold sleep, he’d taken advantage of Tony’s hospitality and lived right here in the mansion. For someone who was suddenly all alone in the world it had been an easy choice because here at least he wouldn’t feel alone. The other Avengers were always coming and going and Tony Stark, their benefactor, was actually living here when he was in town and that meant Iron Man was also around more often than not. He liked Iron Man to be around and he liked not being truly alone.
Today Steve had spent half the day sparring with Thor, before the Asgardian had excused himself. Thor would have an easy time beating Steve - SHIELD or not - if he called down the thunder as he so often did in a fight against villains, but instead they had tested each other in some hand to hand combat, their styles different enough to make it unpredictable and interesting.
Now he was happy enough to find Tony sitting in the kitchen, chatting amiably with Jarvis.
“Tony,” he greeted. “When did you get back in?”
“Ah,” he said, “I flew in an hour or so ago. The California business went smoothly.” He smiled a bit, his cheeks a little red with lingering excitement.
“It’s very practical to own your own jet, I imagine.”
Tony blinked up at him and then with a smile that had a slightly impish edge to it and said: “Yes, yes, it does. Let’s you zip around the world in a heartbeat.”
Steve chuckled. “You make it sound like you have Iron Man zip you around the world in his arms.” It left him imagining the man in the pristine business suit carried in the armor's arms like Captain America had already been carried countless times before.
Taking a sip from his coffee cup, Tony only barely hid his widening grin. “He comes in handy sometimes.” His eyes were twinkling with mirth and Steve so rarely saw an expression like that on his face that he felt a smile form on his own in answer.
For a press conference on Stark Industries premises two weeks ago, Tony had actually been flown in by Iron Man. When Steve had asked about it later, Iron Man had seemed amused by the whole thing, although he had implied at least that it had actually been about some security concerns and not just the public display.
“He comes in handy very often,” Steve agreed, remembering the last time Iron Man had taken him by the arm during a fight and lifted him right out of danger, simultaneously giving him an opportunity to aim his shield and take out not one but two thugs in the process. They made a good team.
“He does, huh?” Tony asked, obviously a little amused and sounding very fond.
It made a lot of sense. Iron Man had implied a couple of times, that Tony was a cautious man. He had a bodyguard for a reason. The fact that he had given this bodyguard the armor spoke of trust. And with Iron Man's identity being the necessary secret it was to protect the man and everyone close to him when he got to live a normal life, the trust must go both ways.
“I can always trust him to have my back.”
Tony's expression turned more serious when he nodded. “Yes, you can, Cap. He'll always be there for you.”
Recently, Steve had noticed it more and more – the way both Tony and Iron Man were able to speak for each other with confidence. Over his life Steve only had met a handful of people who he could have let close enough to ever develop that kind of connection with. Perhaps Bucky had been the only one to ever read him well enough for anything close to it. Now he was developing a similar connection with Iron Man.
“I know. I hope he and I can trust each other as much as the two of you do.”
Tony looked surprised. Steve had finally spent enough time with his elusive host to realize his eyes went a bit wider when he was surprised. There was a hint of gray in the blue. It was fascinating and Steve had a hard time pulling his gaze away.
“I hope so,” Tony said and for some reason his voice was thick with some emotion Steve could not identify. When Tony finally pushed back his chair, smiled at him apologetically and excused himself, Steve was not at all surprised. Tony was so busy that they rarely got to talk for more than a few minutes. And while Steve really did not want to impose, he felt a spark of regret when he watched him go.
He liked Tony.
He thought he was one of the most interesting men he’d ever met.
And he was not stupid enough to lie to himself about what that meant.
He liked Tony.
* * *
He enjoyed that he could just be Steve Rogers, sitting in the living room in comfortable track pants and a t-shirt.
“It’s nice when the world isn’t ending.” He looked up surprised. Up until now he had been sure he was alone.
“Isn’t it just?” He grinned at Jan who was leaning in the door.
“Why are you alone, Steve? Getting some rest?”
“I was just enjoying a bit of downtime. Thought of reading for a bit.”
Janet sauntered over. “You usually read in the evening when Iron Man is around, falling asleep in his armor where he's sitting.”
“He’s been really tired recently. Can’t be easy being a superhero and the bodyguard of Tony Stark.”
“Tony has a lot of enemies and enviers,” Janet agreed. She sat down on the couch and tapped er finger to her lips while she grinned at him. “I’m glad he’s smart enough to have someone around to protect him.”
“Doesn’t it get lonely?” Janet asked. She sounded a little wistful.
“Lonely?” He couldn’t quite picture Tony, with his charming smile and infectious laugh, as someone who ever had the time to grow lonely. He was meeting people all day and apparently his love life was interesting enough to fill tabloids and blogs, and although Steve didn’t know much about his friends outside the controlled environment of the mansion, knew nothing about his co-workers, he knew Tony had Iron Man. And Iron Man was Steve’s closest friend. “Why would Tony be lonely?”
Jan’s smile softened. “I mean you, sweetie, sitting here all alone when the rest of us are out. You should make friends, build a life outside of costume. Find someone.”
He blinked, let the words to sink in. “Oh.” He mulled it over. “I'm making friends. I…”
“Not sure running around with SHIELD agents is making friends, really,” Jan said with a tilt of her head and a only slightly raised eyebrow. Jan cared. She cared about all of them and Steve loved her for it. They all did. "Sounds like work to me."
“I have you. And Iron Man. And all the Avengers.”
“Not the same,” she said and waved a finger in front of his nose. “Allow yourself to live a little, Steve. No human being wants to be alone. You don’t want to be alone forever either. Think about it.”
“I don’t,” he agreed. “It just… hasn’t been priority.”
She grinned. “Perhaps it should be higher on your list of things.”
He could see the thoughts running through her mind at light speed. He was half-afraid that she was going to set him up with one of her friends if he couldn't tell her about a new friend or romantic interest in the next few days. It would be like Jan, always trying to make things work for everyone.
Tony interrupted them by stepping into the room, dropping a black business case beside the living room table. “What are you two beautiful people doing here on this fine day?” He grinned at Jan and then winked at Steve.
He could feel heat crawl up his neck. He was hoping that he wasn’t blushing.
Perhaps he unconsciously had changed priorities already, before Jan had ever said anything.
* * *
“Isn’t he working too much?”
He liked it when Iron Man chuckled behind the mask. The metallic sound the modulators created was soft and closer to a cough than a laugh, but Steve imagined inside the mask it was a warm sound full of amusement. “Everyone keeps telling him that.”
“Then he is.”
“He’s good at what he does and he loves his work.” Iron Man sounded defensive.
Steve tried not to smile. “We’re all not good at taking our regular downtime.”
“Yeah, if someone can relate it’s the Avengers.”
There was the chuckling sound again.
Perhaps that was a good sign. Perhaps Tony would understand what it meant for him to just run out from a date, because Tony knew why he was doing it. But he was getting ahead of himself.
He hadn't even had an opportunity to find out if Tony would be interested in any of that with him.
* * *
“We were lucky that Hulk helped out,” Jan mused.
“Self-preservation,” Hank said.
“Doesn't matter. He helped.” Iron Man also looked extremely banged up. One of the boot repulsors was smashed and the armor's usually shiny color was dimmed with all the dirt that stuck to it, but even through it Steve could see that the color was missing in places where scratches and hits had landed. Thor and Iron Man had been perceived as the biggest threats and had taken most of the damage right from the start.
Steve had been watching his friend carefully for any signs of injury, but with the armor it was always hard to tell. At times it could be frustrating how little Iron Man would give away when he chose to. “You should probably make sure you get a medical check. You took a few heavy blows there.”
“Readings say I'm fine,” the man immediately countered. But then he looked down at his boot. “But Tony will have to fix that.”
“Not tonight. He's probably fast asleep already.”
He was glad when Iron Man nodded, agreeing reluctantly. “I'll see if there's a spare in the lab.”
“Mission debriefing first,” Jan said in a stern voice that imitated Steve's own usual request and threw him a little smile.
“If you want to rather go get some rest...” He left the sentence open, still not sure if Iron Man was okay. Although he was wearing sophisticated armor that protected him from a lot, there was only a normal, breakable human being inside.
Iron Man shrugged and went along with them.
They went through the important data and made all the important mission notes before disbanding. Thor immediately excused himself, but Jan and Hank retired to their respective rooms inside the mansion. Steve went to the library to get something to read. He was tired, but his thoughts were still racing and he wasn't sure he would be able to sleep without the distraction.
It was the middle of the night though, working its way towards early morning, so he quietly made his way up the stairs, not wanting to wake the people who were slumbering already. He would have to pass Tony's room to get to his own, and the man had been in nearly every night during the last weeks, so Steve wanted to make especially sure he wouldn't wake him.
He was surprised to catch a short glimpse of Iron Man, when he was finally able to peek across the floor. His friend seemed to look down the hallway as if he wanted to make sure nobody was there, missed Steve just peeking over the the top of the stairs. From someone who had powerful scanning capabilities it was a strange thing to do and Steve had to wonder if the armor systems hadn't taken more damage than Iron Man was letting on.
But right now, that wasn't what he was thinking about.
Iron Man's gauntlet settled on the door handle of Tony's door and he quietly, as not to wake anyone or attract attention, pushed open the door, slipped in and left an empty hallways behind.
Stunned Steve remained rooted to the spot, staring at the door. He couldn't hear anything but his own breathing and the suddenly agitated thump of his own heartbeat, so loud in his ears. He must have stared for minutes. Nobody came back out. Iron Man had not fetched Tony from his well earned night of sleep to do armor repairs.
He had been so focused on his own feelings that he'd missed the obvious.
There was more between those two men than simple trust and friendship.
Quietly he walked to his own room, feeling stupid and embarrassed. He wasn't allowing himself to examine the pangs of disappointment and sadness. The book in his hand had lost all appeal, but now more than ever he was sure he would need it to get through to morning.
* * *
For the first time since that talk with Jan, Steve actually felt lonely.
“Iron Man alright?”
“Nothing we can't fix,” Tony said absentmindedly, fueling Steve's suspicion that the man in question was actually still upstairs and sleeping.
“Good,” Steve said and hoped his smile did not give away his sadness. He had always imagined Iron Man to have a life outside the armor, a family perhaps. Now he couldn't begrudge him that he had found love much closer to his secret life, couldn't be mad about the fact that the man who had given him a home and was paying for nearly all the Avengers were doing had someone close-by to protect him who saw more in him than an employer.
He just needed to get used to the thought and move on.
* * *
He understood that kind of protectiveness and he really hated the thought of coming between them. Even now he couldn’t claim he understood all the agreements their relationship entailed or that he was privy to what was going on, but a lot of things he’d observed suddenly made more sense.
A few nights later Iron Man joined him in the library.
“Ray Bradbury?” he asked and his modulated voice had no right to carry that much amusement.
“I like him, I think.” He considered his copy of the Illustrated Man for a moment.
Iron Man shrugged. “You’re not usually one for short stories. Or at least I didn’t think so until now.”
“Have you read all the books in this library?” He grinned. They ended up discussing books and their tastes in literature whenever they sat together in this room for long enough to have a non-Avengers conversation and with what Steve knew now he had a feeling Iron Man had had a lot of time here alone, before Steve had moved in. Tony was a busy man after all.
“Not all of them,” the man said warmly. “I used to have more time for the simple diversions.”
Steve laughed. He had to wonder if Iron Man had been around before Tony had needed a bodyguard. It would make sense. If Steve had developed a tool as powerful as the Iron Man armor then he would have wanted only a trusted person to pilot it, someone he knew very well. And Tony was smart.
When Steve asked for a few more recommendations, they fell back into one of their earlier discussions about the impact of Tolkien on the current strain of fantastic literature. Before he knew it, hours had passed and he looked at the clock guiltily. It was close to midnight.
“I’m not keeping you, am I? Tony must have gotten home by now.”
“He usually gets in at late hours, I know.” He grinned. “But I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you, before he falls asleep.”
Because of the armor Iron Man was always hard to read, but Steve fancied himself on being an expert by now. Iron Man went still. Sometimes it was like all life had left the machine and usually it was the only outward sign of the man inside the metal suit taking a moment to think. Perhaps he shouldn’t have said anything.
The two men had a right to their secrets.
“You spend a lot of time together,” Steve added lamely.
“You could say that.” The armor went silent again. The mask was tipped towards him, as if Iron man was studying him.
“I’m okay with it,” Steve blurted out, even as his brain said: “No, you are not okay, you were just ready to admit you had a crush on your best friend’s boyfriend.”
The head in the red and gold helmet cocked a little more to the side. “You’re okay with… it?”
“You know… You and Tony… That the two of you are...” He must be beet red by now. Instead of finishing the sentence he motioned vaguely between himself and Iron Man. “You went to his room after that mission. I’m not… I’m sorry, it’s none of my business. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
Iron Man was still - probably - staring. Then he suddenly moved and sat back in the reinforced armchair like he had come to a conclusion. “I’m glad, it’s no problem for you.”
It cleared the air and it also firmly closed the topic for that evening.
Steve was kind of glad about that. He was not in the mood to make even more of a fool of himself by giving away that he was okay with the idea of two men being together, because he’d been about to become Iron Man’s rival.
* * *
Tony stopped, blinked, looked uncertain and then smiled in such fast order that Steve didn’t even have the time to hold his breath, before Tony said: “Steve, it’s good to see you.”
Trying to not react flustered he nodded. “It’s always good to see you? Iron Man still in there?”
“Did you need him for something? I can get him for you.”
“No, no. I just wondered.”
“He’ll be out for a while, I guess. I’m keeping him busy. Want to eat something? I’m starving…” With confident strides he had already moved to the stairs that led upstairs and to the kitchen.
Staring at the door and feeling like a traitor, because he really did not want to say no to Tony, he followed.
* * *
He had no idea what to say to that.
“You like him.”
There was no use in lying. Reluctantly he settled on telling part of the truth. “I do. I also like you.”
When Iron Man laughed his whole body shook and the armor leaned forward slightly. It sounded sincere, not forced at all. “That’s convenient. We like you too.” The cold metal of the hand clapped him on the shoulder.
He hoped his own smile wasn’t as pained as it felt. Jan’s words came back to him. Perhaps it was time to look for someone outside of the confines of his new home.
* * *
“Hi,” someone said and he would know the voice anywhere, so he wasn’t surprised when his eyes met Tony’s over the table as the man slid into a chair. He was dressed in a suit, hair and beard groomed perfectly.
“Hi,” he echoed.
“Not the place I’m used to finding you.”
“Jan dragged me out. She thinks Steve Rogers needs to get a chance to live a little.”
“She’s not wrong there.”
He crooked a smile. “I have no idea what I’m doing here.”
“Don’t ask me. I come here to shake hands. You’re the most interesting person I’ve met all evening.”
He laughed. “Good to know.”
“So,” Tony said and he let his fingers play nervously across the pristine white tablecloth, “I hear you like me?”
The breath he’d been taking got stuck in his throat and his heart stopped and then beat again - hard. “You’ve done so much for me.”
“I didn’t do anything…” Tony said and trailed off. “You do know I trust you? I would trust you with anything.”
He had a feeling he knew where this was going. “You can trust me. I can keep a secret. Don’t worry.”
“I know that, Steve. I know. And I trust you. I trust you… Just… the secret. It’s not exactly the secret that you’ve been thinking of.”
“Not the…?” His brain stumbled over the implication, couldn’t even think up other possibilities and then Tony’s hand was on his and he thought of Iron Man, wanted to pull away more than anything, but Tony looked so vulnerable and nervous and he didn't really have the strength to pull away. “Tony?”
Tony pulled. His hand connected with Tony’s chest, but there was no warmth, no muscle beneath the shirt, only the hard surface of metal.
He looked up questioningly, confused. “What is that?”
Tony looked uncomfortable, looked over his shoulder around the room to make sure they weren’t watched then let his own fingers glide own to a random button and opened it just a bit, just enough for a flash of shimmering red to peek out. Then he leaned forward and mouthed: “I am Iron Man.” And then, no longer just mouthing it, he whispered: “And I like you too.”
* * *
At least all had worked out in the end.