Once upon a time, there was a group of superheroes known as the Avengers, a courageous band known throughout the land for their daring adventures and bravery.
The first of these superheroes to gain notoriety was the Golden Avenger, Iron Man. No one saw his face. No one knew his name. He performed marvelous acts of heroism. Eventually, more heroes joined him, including the legendary Captain America, brought back to life from suspended animation. And still, no one knew Iron Man's real name.
Had this been a land of myth and magic, there might have been a prophecy to foretell the following events. Something lyrical and pretty, involving three beautiful masquerade balls, and true love's kiss, and the unmasking of a love that had been in front of our champion's eyes all along.
It probably wouldn't have gone into specifics.
There probably wasn't a beautiful way to say that everything that happened was due to one thing:
Iron Man's ridiculously attractive thighs.
Steve can't say he hears how the conversation starts.
He wishes later that he'd known, because it's bound to have been fascinating. He's too busy showing Hank McCoy how to break a hold, except suddenly McCoy goes down to the mat in a heap of blue fur way too easily.
"You space out in a real fight, you could die," Steve warns, extending a hand to help him up to his feet.
McCoy pulls a face as he bats Steve's arm away and kicks back easily to a standing position. "Yeah, sorry. It's just—distracting."
"What's distracting?" Steve asks, and turns in the direction McCoy is pointing to see one of Steve's favorite things about the twentieth century: Iron Man.
Steve's automatic Iron-Man-related smile fades as he realizes that everyone has stopped training in favor of staring at Iron Man. What's going on? Why aren't the others continuing with their exercises? Steve's stomach tightens. Is something wrong with Iron Man?
"So…you don't just step out of the armor at the end of the day?" Sam is asking as Steve listens in.
"I mean, I do, it just...collapses first," Iron Man says. "It's not like a suit of armor. It folds up."
Oh. They're talking about Iron Man's amazing armor. It folds up? Steve blinks. Well, he supposes that makes sense.
Sam squints. "Like a collapsible bike?"
Iron Man makes a low humming noise, which is his usual equivalent of a shrug. "More like a tent. The armor isn't hard until it's polarized."
"Until it's what?" Sam asks, which is a good question; Steve was thinking exactly the same thing.
"It's basically soft. You just pull it on, snap the connections, polarize it, and bam, it's solid." Iron Man actually shrugs this time. "It means I'm not exactly having to heave it on the subway."
"That's a shame because the mental image is amazing," Carol grins at him. She's right. Steve's hit by a mental image of a guy having to haul the full Iron Man armor around like it's a suit of old armor like knights wore. It is amusing to think about someone trying to explain that.
"So if it folds up flat, how come the protection parts are so sculpted?" McCoy asks, projecting his voice so they can all clearly hear him. "You know. On your arms and legs."
Iron Man tilts his mask. "Uh, the gold parts? Well, the material molds to the wearer before the polarization process, that's all. It's not sculpted, it's form-fitting?"
Sam sidles up closer to Iron Man, glancing at him contemplatively. "Does that mean under the armor, you're that jacked?"
"Jacked?" The modulator seems to filter out most of Iron Man's tones, but even in that short word, Iron Man sounds baffled.
"Your muscles," Carol clarifies, staring openly at Iron Man's arms and legs. "We always assumed Stark just formed the metal that way to look intimidating. But you're really that strong?"
"I guess so?" Iron Man's voice pitches higher than a question normally would sound.
"And when you say the armor's soft before this…polarization," Jan says, "do you mean… like fabric?"
"Sort of," Iron Man says.
Jan's eyes narrow. "You mean Tony Stark has essentially invented a new kind of fabric and hasn't talked to me about it?"
"Uh," Iron Man says. He's probably wincing behind the mask. "It's expensive, so—"
"I once sewed three million dollars' worth of diamonds into a headband," Jan says, "expensive isn't really part of the discussion here."
Steve, more distracted than he should be by the topic, realizes they're wasting time, and Iron Man's shuffling like he's embarrassed by the attention. Steve swoops in to rescue him before they make Iron Man more uncomfortable than he already is.
"How about you book a meeting with Tony later to talk about materials," Steve says, cutting through the tension with his most level voice, "and we continue training now?"
"Hmm," Jan says. "I kind of want to talk about this now. Don't you feel like it's important we know more about our own colleagues? What if Iron Man's armor got de-polarized during a battle?"
Steve frowns at Iron Man, his intent to stop the discussion wavering at the horrendous mental picture currently and vividly flashing through his mind. The armor failing, and Iron Man skewered on a villain's blade, soft material no protection against hard steel. "Is that possible?"
Iron Man pauses before answering, "I couldn't say it was impossible, but it is highly unlikely."
Steve's honestly speechless and he's not the only one.
"How about I just show you so we can go back to training," Iron Man sighs.
"Is that safe?" Steve asks, because that's more important to him than satisfying their collective curiosity. He can't deny that he is curious. Iron Man isn't exactly an open book or effusive about things, so every time Steve gets a tiny scrap of information about the technology or the pilot behind Iron Man, Steve feels like he hoovers each one up eagerly.
"It's annoying," Iron Man says, "but if it gets training back on track, I can take one for the team." He lifts up a hand and then pauses. "I won't talk while it's off. Depolarizing turns off my tech at the same time."
"I'm sure we'll survive without your dulcet tones for a hot second, Shell-head," Sam says, rolling his eyes.
"I'm sure," Iron Man mutters, and then there's a low whirring noise emitting through his speakers and the armor...sort of deflates.
Steve almost laughs in delight, because that is amazing. It really is. It's hard to remember sometimes that there's a person under that unstoppable metal, but now with the Iron Man armor soft and clinging to the body below, the shape of Iron Man's pilot is even more visible. The fabric of it rises and falls with Iron Man's breaths.
Amazing really doesn't cover it.
"Can I touch it?" Jan asks, stepping forward almost like she can't help herself before freezing, wincing at Iron Man apologetically.
Iron Man hesitates and then holds out his arm towards her. He probably means the gauntlet or forearm, but Jan grins as she steps in and squeezes his biceps.
"Woah, you're right, it is soft," Jan says. She looks at the others, still squeezing at Iron Man's arm. "He really is as muscular as he looks. The fabric must just cling to you and then—polarized, was it? Wow."
"Jan," Steve says, and when she doesn't respond, he sighs, "do I have to send you on a harassment seminar?"
Jan lets go of Iron Man's upper arm with a scowl. "Spoilsport," she mutters.
Steve ignores her, mainly because he's weirdly jealous. Iron Man's his friend. He should have been the one to—Wait, that's a weird train of thought. Iron Man is his partner in fighting, not in anything else, but seeing Jan touch him like that...huh. Jealous is the right word, apparently. Steve feels heat rising to his cheeks a little and he's glad no one's looking his way. He knew Iron Man was his favorite person in this decade, but he hadn't realized he might like him more than just as a friend or a colleague.
It's stupid, that's what it is. Steve might be brave in a fist fight, or faced with certain doom, but when it comes to taking his feelings out into the light, he clams up tighter than an oil drum. He just can't get the words out to express or act on any of those feelings at all. He swallows his jealousy away and packs it inside that box in his head that he uses for thinking about romance. It's something to look at later. Now is not the time. When is the time? a small voice asks in his head, but Steve shushes that voice away. Now is for marveling at the amazing technology that makes up the Invincible Iron Man. Getting a peek behind that miraculous curtain.
Iron Man makes a gesture and the material instantly hardens again; he raps on his head and a clanging noise rings out. "And now it's polarized," he says.
Jan gropes at Iron Man's upper arm again; Steve frowns at her but her face just lights up as she backs off. "That's much less fun to do now, Shell-head. But it's amazing. Tony Stark sure knows how to make impressive things!"
"Don't tell him you said that," Iron Man says. "His head might grow so big he can't fit through doorways."
Steve frowns. Tony Stark's been nothing but nice to them all since agreeing to fund and house the Avengers. Especially now they're relying solely on his money. He hates it when Iron Man slyly makes digs at his own employer. Shouldn't Iron Man be nicer to the person he's vowed to protect?
"Speaking of Mr. Stark," Steve says, because training seems to have been completely derailed, "he sent something down for us this morning. I was saving it for the end of the training session, but I guess we're accidentally there."
"Whoops, my bad," Jan says, not sounding sorry at all.
Steve crosses to the bench where he put the envelope down. Inside it are six smaller envelopes made of a shimmery, silvery paper that glimmers under the artificial light of the training room and on the front are their names in fancy calligraphy.
Well. Their superhero names, anyway. Steve dutifully hands them around—Falcon, Wasp, Vision, Ms. Marvel, Beast, and the last one's for him—before he realizes there isn't one for Iron Man.
"Oh, don't worry about it," Iron Man says, when Steve starts to apologize for not having one for him. "I've already had my invitation."
"Invitation?" Steve echoes, because he just took the larger envelope from Tony after breakfast without even asking about the contents, merely just with a promise to disperse them to the other Avengers after training was complete. Tony had smiled at him at that. He had a really nice smile.
"It's an invitation to a masquerade ball!" Jan shrieks. "Oh, gosh. Wow. I haven't been to one of Stark's Masquerade Balls in years. Oh, oh, I already know what costume I'm going to make."
"Wow, if I wear a mask my identity will really be hidden," McCoy grunts, but he's beaming down at the invitation anyway.
"You know what this means?" Carol smiles at Iron Man. "You can come to the ball out of the armor and your identity would still be safe."
"Ooh," Jan's attention snaps back to the room and away from her mental costume designing. "Yeah, you should. That would be so much fun. You could actually dance with us and not have to worry about crushing our feet under your iron boots."
"I would never step on someone's toes during a dance," Iron Man sniffs loudly, like he's offended. "But yeah, yeah—I guess I could do that."
"I think it'll be nice for all of us to have a night off," Vision says. "Healthy. Although I have no idea what one wears to or does at a masquerade ball."
"Oh, they're the best," Jan says, immediately looping her arm around his and leading him out of the room. "There's dancing, and Mr. Stark hosts a blind auction to raise money for his charitable foundations, and the costumes—"
Steve stares, realizing belatedly he's completely lost the Avengers. "Uh, training over, I guess," Steve says, too late by the way the others mill out of the room, excitedly chatting about the ball.
Iron Man claps an arm around Steve's shoulder as they watch the others leave. "It's nice that they're excited. How about you? You like this sort of thing?"
Steve makes a noise under his breath. "I've never done this sort of thing before. I was too busy with the war, and then I was busy getting myself deep-frozen."
Iron Man squeezes Steve's shoulder reassuringly. "Well. We rescued you, there's no world war going on now. There's plenty of time to get you caught up on everything you've missed out on." Iron Man side-eyes him. "Anything we can get started on now? Help you tick something off that bucket list?"
Steve thinks about the way the Iron Man armor went soft. How Jan squeezed the arm that's pressed up against him, and how delighted she was to feel it. His throat feels a little dry. That isn't something he can suggest. He wonders how Iron Man would respond, if Steve did ask him on a date? Steve shivers and Iron Man cocks his head in a way that makes Steve blurt something else out, before he says or does something dumb and ruins his friendship with Iron Man in the process.
"How about we spar a little, one on one, now we have the room to ourselves," Steve suggests, proud that the words don't run into one another in his hurry to say them. "The Masquerade Ball is going to be big and new enough for me this week."
"You're on," Iron Man says, and pulls away.
Steve grins. There's nothing like a good fight to get his brain back on course, and sparring with Iron Man always counts as a good fight.
The invitation card for the Annual Maria Stark Foundation Charity Masquerade Ball allows Steve to bring a guest, but he simply doesn't know anyone to ask.
The Avengers decided collectively to make their own separate ways to the event; Jan and Carol both thought it would be fun to meet up afterward to guess each other's costumes. Steve's costume is off the rack; he picked it up from Rokatanski and Co. in Brooklyn Heights, along with a mask covered in red and gold feathers that reminded him of Iron Man so much that he couldn't resist. The mask ties firmly onto his head with multiple straps; it would take a lot of work to remove it.
There's a queue through the lobby of guests waiting to have their invitations checked. As Steve joins the line, his gaze catches on a bank of mirrors lining one of the walls; Steve almost doesn't recognize the person looking back at him. Steve doesn't look like himself. Something about the cut of the fabric makes his waist looks smaller, his shoulders broader. He feels like someone else. Honestly, he feels a little dangerous. Would any of the Avengers recognize him like this? He barely recognizes himself.
Steve wonders if he'll recognize any of the other Avengers in the sea of people Tony Stark has invariably invited. Beast and Vision, probably; it's not like a mask can hide much of their distinctive physical appearances. Sam might be easy to find, not just because Stark's invitation list probably includes a sea of old white men (although, that too), but because he'll probably be tense and uncomfortable and so worried about dancing that he'll likely be sulking in a corner, arms folded, and most likely haunting the buffet table. Jan's costume will be incredibly beautiful and hand-crafted. Carol will be difficult, Steve thinks; she's graceful and beautiful and a statuesque blonde, but Steve's seen enough photos of Tony Stark's parties to know he's very good at finding lots of pretty women that fit that description to invite to these things.
He takes a lot of them home afterward, if the gossip columns are correct, and shows them a swell time. Steve feels odd thinking about that, what it must be like; Tony's pretty blue eyes, picking you out from a crowd, and then one of his large hands on your waist, that suave accent inviting you to his bed. Steve shudders and pushes the fantasy aside. Tony's been a great friend to Steve over the last couple of years, helping him adjust to modern times. He's been nothing but a gentleman and there's been no sign that Tony might be interested in Steve particularly.
But right now, like this, Steve isn't himself. He could be anyone. He could go down into that party and flirt with anyone and no one would know it was him. The thought is thrilling, even if Steve knows that he probably won't do anything with the thought. It's enough for him right now to just think about doing it.
The party is just as lavish as Steve was expecting. He's learned to expect Disney-movie levels of glamor when it comes to Tony Stark, especially anything that involves his mother's name. Tony doesn't skimp when it comes to helping support the work of the Maria Stark Foundation. His dedication is awe-inspiring.
It's taking place in the biggest ballroom Steve's ever seen. There's already what looks like nearly two hundred people milling around. There's a dance floor, a string quartet, a buffet table so loaded it's almost groaning, and an open bar in the corner. Over against the far wall is a long list of items up for blind auction; Steve stays away because his budget might be more than it's ever been, but even decades of back-pay don't come close to what some of the people in this room are worth.
Steve mills through the crowd, trying to see if he can find any of the Avengers. He finds McCoy at the bar easily, because he's wearing a highway man's coat and hat and little else, his blue fur distinctive and impossible to disguise. Vision is over by the string quartet, avidly watching them. He thinks he can see the distinctive hunch of someone with Sam's shoulders near the end of the buffet with the cakes, but he'd have to be closer to be sure.
So it's just Iron Man, Carol, and Jan left to find. Steve's eyes eagerly sweep the crowd. Of course, Tony Stark should be here too, so he mentally adds him to the list. It's like Where's Waldo? in real-time; Steve's having fun, even if he was right and he can't work up the courage to flirt with someone under the cover of his mask.
He's busy wondering who he'll find next when he sees Iron Man.
It has to be Iron Man. Steve's never been so positive about something before in his life. He's wearing a blue and silver embroidered jacket that looks like it belongs in a Disney movie too, a white ruffled shirt, and he is wearing a mask covered in outlandishly large peacock feathers. The clincher, though, is the pants. They're not even pants, really; they're so soft and they cling snugly to Iron Man's distinctive thighs.
Steve inhales, mouth weirdly dry as he takes in Iron Man's appearance. The leggings hug so tightly to those impossibly familiar thighs. Steve's spent hours admiring Iron Man's armor, dazzled by how inventive and amazing Tony's mind must be to come up with something so wonderful. Learning that the armor shaped intimately to the wearer's body shape had at first seemed incredible. Now, seeing those marvelous thighs in something other than an invincible metal coating, Steve's only just realizing how astounding Tony's technology is.
Another thought creeps in, low and hot. He'd thought it before, during their sparring session, but now seeing those thighs under a different fabric makes the thought even more impressive. Iron Man's physique is incredible. He must work out for hours. The serum turned Steve from a tall skinny beanpole into a muscular force, but Iron Man has just as impressive muscles, all from his own hard work. Steve's almost light-headed with how much he's affected by that thought.
He's moving before he's even really thinking about it. Iron Man has always been one of his most favorite things about this decade and the more he thinks about him, the more Steve's blindsided by his feelings.
Steve's close to Iron Man now, close enough to admire those muscles up close. Iron Man's not talking much, making faint noises of agreement as the woman talking to him rambles about wanting to adopt, but not wanting the responsibility, because what would happen if the kid put muddy hand-prints all over her genuine Picasso?
Steve hopes Iron Man is as disgusted as he is; he doesn't feel as bad for interrupting as he would have had he not been eavesdropping.
"Oh, there you are," Steve says, moving to stand between them. He turns to smile at who he is 99% sure is Iron Man, and the last 1% of certainty slides into place when he sees the bright blue eyes peering at him through a mask made of black leather and peacock feathers. "Finding someone in a sea of masks is quite the ordeal."
Iron Man's bright blue eyes quickly look him up and down.
"Ah, thank goodness you found me," Iron Man says. There's not much of Iron Man's face exposed under his elaborate mask, but there's enough for Steve to clock a smile under Iron Man's mustache and wow, facial hair, that was something Steve hadn't considered. Maybe Tony Stark made his employees groom like he did. Maybe Iron Man was hired as his bodyguard because at a distance he might resemble Tony Stark enough to distract bad guys. There are so many things Steve wants to know. "Please excuse me, ma'am. I have a prior engagement."
The woman makes some sort of blustering response, but Steve doesn't hear it, too thrilled by what's happening right now. Iron Man has taken hold of his arm. Iron Man. No armor, just the actual man. It's incredible.
"Thanks for the save," Iron Man says, once they've weaved their escape through the crowd.
Iron Man's navigated them to a quieter part of the floor and now Steve can hear Iron Man's actual voice and oh, it's… Lovely probably isn't the word Steve should choose to describe someone's voice, but it's what he feels. Iron Man's voice without the modulator to distort it is just lovely. Steve almost has goosebumps just from the sound of it, but it might be Iron Man's very human hand, gripping onto Steve's wrist like Steve really has just rescued him from imminent doom.
"You looked a little cornered," Steve says, smiling politely at Iron Man, because if he doesn't temper his expression into something socially reasonable, he might just end up grinning uncontrollably.
"Some people just don't have their brains connected to their mouths," Iron Man sighs. He glances over Steve's shoulder then back at Steve. "Speaking of, I know it's a dire request, but you wouldn't mind being my hero one more time, would you?"
"I'd be honored," Steve says, a little of the repressed grin seeping through.
"Great," Iron Man says and then puts one hand at Steve's waist, the other on his shoulder. "Then dance with me. There's an idiot at three o'clock, the guy in the white suit. Don't look. That's John Gamelin, the new Vice President of Roxxon. He might look like Santa Claus, but the guy's a dick. If I have to say more than one sentence to him tonight, I'll probably pop him one right in his smug bearded face."
Steve laughs. It's rather something to be able to hear one of Iron Man's rare indignant moments without the modulator rendering it monotone and flat. "Getting arrested might put a damper in tonight's celebratory tone."
"Just a little," Iron Man agrees, tugging Steve onto the dance floor.
The dance floor is crowded, so it's easy to get lost among all the other masked couples.
"You could tell who Gamelin was, even with the mask?" Steve asks, because he's curious whether he's so transparent.
"Mostly from the beard," Iron Man says. "And, I'm sad to say, the ass."
Steve pulls a face. "Do you know who I am?"
"Hmm," Iron Man says, "I can't see your ass from this angle very well. But I presume it's a nice one, or you wouldn't have bothered wearing an outfit involving tights."
"I suppose it's the same for you," Steve says. He has both of his hands on Iron Man's waist and he can feel warmth coming from his body and it's so odd. He knows there's a person inside the armor, but sometimes it's different to know something and know something.
Iron Man smiles and wow, Steve shivers just from seeing it. Even with the mask, Steve can tell he's ridiculously handsome. The idea of someone being this attractive and voluntarily covering themselves up all day is actually a little baffling; Steve would wonder whether he had the right person, except those thigh muscles are really distinctive.
"Why, Mr. Hero, did you just compliment my ass? How very forward of you."
"Uh," Steve says, his cheeks warming, "it was more of a reflective comment."
"So you don't think my ass is nice?"
"I haven't looked at it enough to make that assessment."
"Hmm," Iron Man hums low in his throat, before putting one of his hands on top of the one Steve has perched at his waist, and, his eyes fixed on Steve's, he slowly lowers Steve's hand.
Steve swallows, his throat suddenly dry as he finds himself with more than a handful of Iron Man's firm ass under his palm.
"Well?" Iron Man prompts, his eyes locked firmly on Steve's.
"Uh," Steve manages. "Yes. Very nice."
Iron Man's smirk does something to Steve that leaves him a little dizzy. "You don't have to leave your hand there, y'know."
Steve startles, realizing the hand that guided his down isn't there to stop him. He flushes and moves his hand up to Iron Man's waist. Except then he realizes he'd distractedly groped Iron Man for longer than Iron Man had intended, and what if Iron Man needs to be rescued from Steve now, as much as Steve tried to rescue him from that lady to begin with?
Iron Man makes a huffing noise and physically presses Steve's hand into his waist with a laugh.
"You blush so prettily," Iron Man murmurs. His smirk widens and his gaze flickers briefly down Steve's body and back up again. "I wonder how far down that blush goes."
Oh, god. Steve feels warm and sweaty and this is the point normally where he runs and flees from a conversation, because it's one thing wanting to flirt with someone, and another actually acting on that impulse, and he's never felt brave enough to take that step. Except… right now… he almost feels like he might be able to.
It's the mask. The whole disguise. Steve feels brave. This must be why Iron Man enjoys staying in his identity-concealing armor, because like this, Steve almost feels invincible too.
"Maybe you should find out," Steve says. Was that too much? Should he take that back?
Iron Man laughs. "You know, I don't normally enjoy these things. You might be changing my mind."
Steve smiles, pleased. Tony Stark has to attend an awful lot of these events, so it stands to reason that as his bodyguard, Iron Man would have to as well. Now they know the armor folds down so small it makes more sense; in an emergency Iron Man can find a quiet corner and rapidly emerge as an invincible hero.
"Shit, Gamelin's looking this way," Iron Man mutters.
Steve tugs Iron Man further into the dancing throng. Iron Man's arms link around Steve's neck as they swing around quickly to avoid Gamelin; Steve's other hand moves so he's gripping Iron Man's waist. Steve's dizzy and it's not just the dancing to blame. It's the heady feeling of Iron Man here, in his arms. Iron Man's the closest thing to a best friend that Steve has in this decade, as strange as that seems; Steve's spent hours enjoying his company both on the battlefield and off. Steve's heart is pounding.
The music is soft, an easy rhythm to dance to. Steve's breath stutters as the dancers around them push them even closer together; Iron Man's breath is hot on Steve's shoulder, and Steve's moving a hand before he realizes, up and down Iron Man's back, and Iron Man's shuddering a breath that Steve can feel through his fingertips.
Iron Man is so close and Steve bends closer to his ear so he can whisper above the music, "I know who you are."
Iron Man shudders, full-body, and Steve can feel that, at the points their bodies are connected. Iron Man's bright blue eyes scan Steve's face, what's visible of it, before his gaze dips down and Iron Man's smirk widens. "C'mon, let's get some fresh air, Hero."
Steve doesn't realize how much he needs the air until Iron Man leads him past a heavy set of curtains to a door that's unlocked. It leads to a small balcony that looks out over manicured gardens below. The bushes and trees are lit up with tiny fairy lights and the sky is beautiful too, a nearly full moon hanging large and bright among the stars.
The air is cold and Steve feels some of the dizziness seep away in the brightness of it. He turns to Iron Man to say something about how arresting the sight is, but his words die in his throat. Iron Man was made to stand here, in the moonlight, in that costume. The softer light does something to the silver embroidery in his tunic; those impressive muscles stand out even more alluringly in the shadows. And his smile trumps the beauty of the garden below them.
"You're beautiful," Steve says, the words shocked out of him, because he didn't know, Iron Man was always hidden away, how could he know? He flushes immediately, the heat a sharp contrast to the bite of cold air, and he panics that he's said the wrong thing, that beautiful isn't what you call someone in a moment like this one, but Iron Man's smile widens on hearing it, so maybe it's okay.
"You're not too bad yourself," Iron Man says, and Steve swallows, because maybe that means he should apologize, except then Iron Man sweeps in, confidence in his speed; he wraps a hand around Steve's waist, tugs him to him, puts his other hand on Steve's cheek, and pulls him into a kiss.
For a second, Steve is frozen, because it's a shock, how could he have been expecting something like this to happen? This isn't what he meant, was it? Iron Man's lips are soft against his and Steve opens his mouth to say something, except that's the wrong move, because Iron Man uses that to deepen their kiss and oh, maybe this is what Steve meant. Iron Man is responsive in his arms and Steve meets the kiss, cautious but then sinking in, becoming hungry for the feeling of it. His entire skull feels like it's buzzing. The feeling's almost exactly the same as when Steve falls and Iron Man catches him.
Their mouths part and Steve pants; the small bit of space allows the air in again and Steve realizes he's almost gripping Iron Man to him, desperate to keep him there, an anchor to this moment. Steve's dizzy again, dizzier than he was inside. Iron Man's mouth is hot and addictive and Steve wants to kiss him forever. Steve's not like this, he's never like this, but Iron Man's making him lose control of his senses. Iron Man's making him want to lose all kinds of control that he has.
Maybe it's not Iron Man. Maybe it's the mask. Maybe Steve's only able to be this brave because of the mask. Steve definitely hasn't felt like himself since putting the outfit on. It's the same way that Steve feels different in the Captain America uniform, even though he knows at the end of the day it's just fabric.
"Hm, I haven't done a good enough job, if you're still able to think," Iron Man says.
Steve's eyes are locked on Iron Man's kiss-swollen lips. "Huh?"
"I stand corrected," Iron Man says, and pulls Steve back into another devastating kiss. Steve's knees actually go weak, which he's almost pissed off about, because he'd assumed that was some sort of lie concocted by Hollywood, but then he's too consumed by Iron Man to even be angry for long. Iron Man kisses like he fights, control and ruination, and Steve moans, because he can't help it, he's never been so quickly turned on by a simple kiss, although what's simple about this?
"Damn, that's hot," Iron Man murmurs; he pushes forwards, and Steve whines again, something that sounds needy and pathetic to his own ears, because he hadn't realized he was aroused, not until Iron Man's hard-on is pressed up against his, and Steve thinks he can hear his heart pounding in his ears; Iron Man's hips undulate once and Steve's fingers tighten on Iron Man's shoulders, because he suddenly feels like he's holding on for dear life.
"Listen—" Iron Man starts, and then there's a loud coughing noise behind them and Steve freezes, in absolute mortification. It's almost like cold water's been thrown over them, except not enough, because Steve immediately realizes how compromising they look. It's worse when Steve lifts his heated, embarrassed gaze to realize it's Jarvis standing at the open door.
Jarvis, bless him, is looking elsewhere with a polished expression of indifference. Which means he's already seen enough of them to decide they look incriminating and he needs to affect his best impression of discretion. Oh god. Steve doesn't know whether he'll ever be able to look Edwin Jarvis in the eyes ever again.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," Jarvis says.
Steve hurriedly gulps in cool air, willing his body to calm down, but Iron Man still lingering close isn't helping, being all handsome and distracting and ridiculously hot, seriously, how come Tony Stark makes someone so attractive hide their body so entirely?
"Jarvis," Iron Man says. He steps away from Steve and his mouth twitches slightly when Steve has to hurriedly turn and face the garden, still affected by their moment.
"I do apologize," Jarvis continues, "but I'm afraid it couldn't wait. I need Mr. Stark most imminently, I'm afraid. It's the McCallister delegation, sir. They're up in the penthouse suite and waiting for your signature."
Steve looks over his shoulder and nods tensely, and then pauses. What?
"I'll be right with you, Jarvis, thank you," Iron Man says.
Jarvis nods and backs back into the building.
Iron Man glances at the doors and then back at Steve. His pretty mouth is pushed into a line. "I'm sorry to cut this moment short. And I was having such fun."
Steve nods, ready to tell Iron Man it's okay, only to suddenly feel like the entire floor has disappeared under his feet.
Because Iron Man casually pulls off his mask and runs a hand through his hair and he smiles charmingly at Steve.
Tony Stark smiles charmingly at Steve.
"I hate the McCallisters, they have no idea about the sacred space of a good party," Tony says and Steve stares at him, because what? The leggings still show those distinctive legs. Steve didn't get that wrong. He knows he couldn't get something like that so wrong; he's spent hours looking at Iron Man's legs, even more recently after knowing the real guy beneath the metal had that stunning physique.
Steve's so stunned he doesn't even react when Tony tugs him into another of those dizzying kisses. Steve kisses back, stupefied by how good he feels, even over his spinning head.
"God, this really better be a good deal to risk never seeing you again," Tony sighs, as he pulls away.
Steve's abdomen feels tight. Of course Tony's going to see Steve again. They see each other every day, what is he talking about? He doesn't know, Steve realizes, and feels dizzy all over again, even though the cool air and distance has a distinctly sobering quality to it. He has no idea who I am.
Steve kind of relates to that. He doesn't feel like himself. He's not the kind to sneak out of a party, to kiss a stranger, to give in to that long-repressed desire and kiss another man. Maybe it is the mask. He does feel invincible in it. Like he can do anything. It's so weird that it takes a mask for Steve to feel the freest he has in years. He can do anything and no one would know it was him.
Not even Iron Man. Or Tony Stark.
"You will see me again," Steve blurts out, as Tony reaches the door.
Tony sends him a last small, devastating smile before disappearing back into the party.
Steve takes advantage of the cold air to stand and gather his thoughts. The temperature also helps dampen his body's enthusiasm. Even without Iron Man's—Tony's—presence, Steve can feel something thrumming underneath his skin, brimming with potential and promise.
The more he thinks about it, the more sense it makes. Tony and Iron Man are so rarely in the same room together. Tony's rarely seen without his briefcase and now they know the Iron Man armor can be folded down, it makes sense to Steve that the briefcase contains the armor. Steve hadn't known anyone in this decade, yet Iron Man had fiercely guarded his identity; of course he was one of the very few civilian faces Steve would be able to identify, outside the mask.
There's a moment of dismay, that Tony hadn't trusted him to keep the secret, but that's quickly swept away, because Steve gets it. It's important that Tony and Iron Man are separate identities; Iron Man can do things that Tony Stark could never do. And Steve can feel it now, the thrill of being someone else, the power that gives you. Maybe Iron Man's real strength is tied to the anonymity. He can be free of the expectations of the name Stark, a name that bears a weight in modern society that Steve thinks might be a lot like the pressure of the name Captain America. There are expectations in a name and an identity, especially one so well-known.
Steve wants to wallow out in the dark with his thoughts for the rest of the night, but that's stupid. Tony wouldn't want any of his guests to wait all night out in the cold. Steve takes a deep breath and returns to the party.
The music, noise, and heat hit him like a wall. Steve blinks against the brightness of it and then sets about finding Jan. She's almost as easy to find as Beast had been. She's standing by the bar and she looks incredible, of course; her dress is based on the Queen of Hearts and it's intricately sewn. Her mask is a riot of red and black feathers and her mouth is turned up at the edges in the way she smiles when she's having fun.
"Jan," Steve greets, sidling up next to her.
Jan startles, glances at Steve, and then narrows her eyes. "You know me. I presume I know you?"
Steve blinks, but then remembers how different he looked to himself. He smiles at her. "I should hope so. Unless you rescue a lot of men who have been chiling in blocks of ice in the ocean, then maybe I might be difficult to place."
"It's my favorite hobby," Jan deadpans and then thumps him in the arm. "Steve Rogers, you scrub up well. Wow."
He beams at her. "You look absolutely lovely, Jan," he compliments.
"Of course I do," Jan dimples beneath her mask and then winks. "Thank you." She nods at the bar. "Do you want a drink?"
"Isn't it an open bar?" Steve asks.
"Hush, I was trying to sound generous," Jan says, making Steve laugh. She sips her drink, a cocktail with a fancy little umbrella perched in it. "I was talking to the bartenders, apparently Tony paid the staff not to serve him. Heaven knows how they're supposed to tell which one he is." Jan squints into the crowd. Steve feels his cheeks heat up again, which he thinks is unfair and ridiculous; he's blushed more today than he thinks he ever has. "Maybe it's mandatory when you make more than a million to grow a mustache."
"Or Tony's made them fashionable," Steve says. He thinks he's managed to say Tony's name without sounding suspicious. Jan doesn't seem to react like he's said something odd. He feels like he's passed some sort of test he hasn't realized he was taking.
"Maybe," Jan says. "Would you like to dance? I can down this if you like. Heaven knows Hank still needs some nudging to know what he's missing out on."
Steve holds out his arm to her. He hates dancing, but he'd hate to let Jan down more. "I'd love to dance," he lies.
Steve takes a quick look over to the balcony door as she leads him to the floor. He'll be able to see if Tony manages to come back to the ball. And if he doesn't, well.
Sometimes things weren't meant to be.
Tony didn't show back up to the ball, and as much as Steve tries to tell himself he's not disappointed, it's a lie. And he can't even blurt out once they're back at the mansion that Tony is Iron Man without having to untangle the reason why he knows that. Even Steve knows there's no graceful way to explain that he knows who Tony is because he's obsessed with Iron Man's thighs. And he can't say it without Tony knowing Steve was the one who kissed him like that, and Steve can't think back to that kiss without a modicum of embarrassment.
Steve had been so unreserved with his attraction. If he closes his eyes, he can remember the way Tony had drawn noises out of him, and how fast both of them had been aroused, and—
No. No. He won't let himself think about it. He knows Tony is Iron Man and he doesn't have Tony's consent to know that, so Steve vows to pretend it didn't happen.
Except the Avengers won't let him.
The Avengers collectively won't shut up about how amazing the ball was and how much fun they had. Steve hadn't realized the team had been missing that element so badly from their lives, but it's not difficult to notice that the event has brought them closer together. Their drills are going more smoothly, their training has been re-invigorated. Steve is already penciling more ideas for social events they can do together in his head, although the secret identities make things awkward. He makes a mental note to add it to the next agenda.
"I think I ate my weight in pastries," McCoy sighs during a sparring break, rubbing at his furry belly in memory. "Do you think Mr. Stark would let me know where his caterers got them, Shellhead?"
Iron Man laughs, the modulator flattening it out into a beep. "I'll ask him to get some sent here to the mansion."
Steve hides a smile. He'd always thought Iron Man was so persuasive, convincing his boss Tony to supply whatever thing Iron Man airily promised his employer could do for them. Really, it's Tony being a sneaky little shit. The lying is smooth, Steve will give Tony that for free. He thinks about what else he gave Tony and he has to focus very hard for a few minutes on punching the reinforced bag Tony set up for him, strong enough to take his best punches without having to hold back. Steve's thoughts are a mess again, because Tony puts in so many hours for the Avengers as himself, and as Iron Man, and in his company. Does Tony ever rest?
"Were you there, Iron Man?" Jan asks. "I tried my best to find you, but I don't think I did."
"Sadly I had to leave early," Iron Man sighs. "But I promise I was there! In costume, too."
"That's sad that you had to leave," Carol says. "It was a blast."
"Stark sure knows how to throw a party," Sam agrees.
"Oh, it's fine," Iron Man says. "I had a lot of fun while I was there."
Steve looks away. Otherwise he'll stare at Iron Man's thighs and honestly, there might be drool. Steve can still feel how firm Tony's ass was, underneath his fingers, and he can feel his face heat. Shit. Thank goodness everyone's staring openly at Iron Man so Steve has time to shut that train of thought away.
"Did fun have a name?" Jan asks, teasingly.
"I presume so," Iron Man says. "But sadly, I didn't quite manage to get his name."
"Oooh," Jan says, and hops down from the hanging rings, surrendering the pretense she's actually concentrating on her training in favor of walking over to Iron Man. She's not the only one; nearly everyone's paused what they're doing, except for Vision, who's placidly running around the track like he needs the exercise.
Steve swallows the swear word that nearly slips out because it's one thing internalizing all the wonderful things that happened and holding on to Tony's secret identity, but it's another thing entirely hearing parts of what happened from someone else. He keeps his face averted from the others, keeping up his punching, and tries to pretend he's not shamelessly hanging off Iron Man's every word.
"Whoever came up with the idea of a masquerade ball is annoying," Iron Man sighs. "I don't even know what he looked like, not really."
"But he was hot enough regardless, right?" Jan presses, while Steve is dying of mortification. He should leave, except maybe that would be incriminating?
"Ridiculously," Iron Man says. "And I'm, like, half in love already, I swear."
"Awww!" Jan coos. "That's so sweet. Please tell me you got his number at least."
"Apart from a hint of some impressive downstairs numbers, no." Iron Man's voice sounds genuinely annoyed, even suppressed and camouflaged by the modulator, and Steve flushes, because, oh god, Tony had noticed that?
Steve swallows and punches the bag even more firmly, trying to stave off his body trying to react to the mental images in his mind. And the implications of what Tony's saying, because Steve made this much of an impression? That he's still talking about him afterward? Half in love? It must be hyperbole. Steve's mouth is dry when he thinks about it. There's no way Tony's any amount of in love with him. Maybe there's no way he would be, if Tony knew who'd really been behind that mask.
"Cap got lucky too," Jan says loudly, and Steve resists the urge to wallop his head face first into the punching bag, because what? And now everyone's staring at him, while he desperately tries to calculate where the nearest window is so he can hurl himself out of it. She smirks at his expression. "I know what it looks like when someone's been kissed soundly, Rogers. You should have waited before you came to talk to me, if you wanted it to be a secret."
Steve narrows his eyes.
"Tell me at least you got her name?" Jan asks, beaming more widely at his obvious and open annoyance.
Steve grits his teeth. "I'm a gentleman, Wasp," Steve says, punching the bag again, trying to stick to the same rhythm in an attempt to stay in control of his emotions. "I don't kiss and tell."
"So Jan's right and there was kissing," Carol says, making an impressed whistling noise.
Steve gives into temptation and thumps his face into the punching bag. It doesn't even make himself feel any better, it just makes the Avengers laugh. He doesn't know why he's still so impossibly fond of them all, he really doesn't.
Sometimes Steve's idea of morning jars painfully with Tony Stark's idea of nighttime. On these occasions, it's not unheard of that they both cross paths at an hour of the morning that most people would probably term a disagreeable time for anyone to be awake.
For all that the Avengers have rooms at the mansion for when they need, it doesn't mean the large building is always occupied. Sometimes it's just Steve and Jarvis rattling around the place, if Tony's off on one of his international jet-setting business trips; Jarvis refuses to leave when that's the case, like he presumes Steve might lose his mind if he's left alone.
Then again, maybe Steve doesn't always make the best decisions on his own, so maybe Jarvis has a point.
When Tony appears in the kitchen this time, Steve promptly forgets how to function like a regular human being and ends up spitting coffee all over himself. Steve sags, looking at the mess. Sometimes he's so glamorous.
"Wow, I thought I lost all sense of graceful co-ordination at this time of night," Tony says, a laugh in his voice as he puts a mug under the coffee machine and deftly dispenses some.
"It's morning," Steve sighs, wiping his mouth and reaching for a cloth to wipe up the mess.
"I'm glad I'm the only one that doesn't have it together at this hour," Tony admits, settling down in a chair opposite from Steve. Steve tries not to openly stare at the expanse of neck and wrists on view thanks to Tony's rolled up sleeves and loosened tie.
"Been working on anything in particular?" Steve asks, aiming for polite.
"Ehh, this and that," Tony takes a deep drag from his mug. "The thing keeping me up tonight shouldn't even be that difficult, I'm just distracted."
"Maybe a good night's sleep would help," Steve says, glad to be able to settle into the rhythm of an old argument.
"I'll take it under advertisement," Tony says, settling into his part of the routine easily enough. He grins at Steve, because they both know it'll never happen. "Ugh, I'm just—honestly, I'm just too distracted for paperwork. Maybe I should have tried a nap."
Steve straightens. "Tony Stark, actually considering my advice? Are you feeling all right? Is it anything I can help with?"
"Ha, ha, you're hilarious. Nah, it's nothing." Tony waves a hand casually, like he's trying to affirm it's no big deal, but he stares intently into space, like something really is bothering me.
"I don't mind," Steve offers.
Tony squints. "Like Captain America wants to sit in a kitchen at ass o'clock at night and talk about a poor billionaire's love life problems."
Steve's stomach twinges. As much as there's a part of him hoping Tony means their passionate balcony kissing, he also knows Tony's reputation. Tony gets to kiss plenty of people, all the time. He's not the same sad sack as Steve is about it. He braces himself to listen and be a supportive friend. "Steve Rogers wouldn't mind sitting with a mug of coffee at a respectable hour in the morning to talk about his friend's issues," he says, slowly.
Tony side-eyes Steve. "This is not a respectable hour in anyone's morning." He sighs. "It's just—I met this guy—" And then Tony freezes, like he's said something wrong.
Steve frowns, and then realizes and stares at him. "Gay people existed in the forties, Tony." Steve should know; until he lost a few decades, he used to be one of them.
"Right," Tony says. "Well. I just. I can't stop thinking about him. I never have this problem. Ever. So...I guess I just don't know what to do."
Steve takes a deep breath and forces his expression to stay level, because it's been over a week now since the masquerade ball, so it must have been some other lucky guy grabbing Tony's attention.
"You should tell him how you feel," Steve says, hoping he doesn't sound as jealous as he feels. God, jealousy, that's exactly what's going on right now. He's jealous of someone he's never met. The universe knows he doesn't have a right to be.
"I can't," Tony says.
Steve frowns. "Are you having trouble finding the right words?" That's something he can definitely understand, because he still hasn't formulated the right way to let Tony know that Steve knows he's Iron Man. Not without having an awkward conversation he doesn't want to have. Which would be even more awkward, with Tony talking right now about his crush on someone else.
Tony puts the mug down and straightens up in his seat. He shifts so he's looking directly at Steve with a look of focused intent. "Do you promise not to laugh at me?"
"I promise," Steve says, slowly.
"I don't know who he is," Tony admits, and immediately hides his face in his hands. "It's ridiculous, but there it is." His voice is muffled. "I got the best dance I've ever had in my life, and some really damn hot kissing and he was amazing, but he was shy, I guess—he didn't take his mask off—and I should have insisted, because—Ugh. I suck. I should have told him not to leave. I should have—" Tony sighs and lifts up his face. His cheeks are a little pink. "That's it, I'm a mess, I know." Tony lets out a muted noise and buries his face in his hands again.
"You're not a mess," Steve says, gently. He's the mess. Internally. His inner self is shrieking in joy now he knows Tony's talking about him, not some faceless stranger. "What kind of person refuses to remove their mask anyway?" he adds, unable to remove the sourness from his tone.
"Masks are powerful," Tony says, his voice muffled again, and Steve can't help but think the sound is somewhat adorable. "I can understand that, probably more than most."
Steve squints at Tony, almost wanting to tell him that his Iron Man was showing. He should. This is probably the right time to tell him. If Tony's this messed up by a couple of kisses, maybe he'd be okay with the fact it was Steve all along? Steve can shuffle closer, tell Tony he knows the identity of the mystery guy, it'll be fine.
Except when Steve opens his mouth to say that, nothing comes out. Oh god. What's happening to him? Words. It's just words. Tell him the truth. That's it. It's simple. Get it together, Rogers, Steve thinks, and he takes a deep breath. Tony, the kiss you man mask was me. No, that won't do it. I think you should know, Tony, that Iron Man is sexy. What the heck? Steve frowns. Iron Man, I know who Tony Stark is. Steve wants to fire himself from his own brain. Is that possible?
"I have no way of even finding out his name," Tony sighs, unaware that Steve is mentally imploding, just a couple feet away from him. "Damn my nebulous plus one invitations. And damn my charity events needing hundreds of names to raise enough money for my projects. It would be easier with a smaller list. Although heaven knows that there are some names on that list I really hope isn't my Hero."
"Hero?" Steve questions. "Was that the costume he was wearing?"
"Ugh, no, my mystery guy was an absolute gentleman who rescued me from Mary Wintermouth's endless self-absorbed monologues," Tony sighs and lifts up his face again to stare miserably at Steve. "You must think I'm kind of awful, huh? Kissing someone and not even getting their name? Ugh."
"It sounds romantic," Steve says.
Tony's eyebrows shoot up. "I suppose it does. I wish there was an easier way to find him. I've thought about checking the security footage, trying to track down the costume, but that's—that's really invasive. And he was obviously really private. Ugh. I just gotta chalk it down to another regret in life, I guess." Tony sighs.
Steve hates how miserable Tony sounds. He wants to wipe that sadness away, but he still can't find the right words. Some other words come out, though; it's like Steve's forgotten he's a big part of this dilemma, and it's someone else suggesting the solution to this problem. "Throw another masquerade ball and invite all the same people," Steve blurts.
Tony blinks, slowly. "Huh."
Steve forges on. This might be a better idea than he thought. "Well, it's not as invasive as trying to track someone down by their costume," he says, slowly. "If your mystery man approaches you, you'll know he's interested. And if he doesn't—" Steve shrugs. "Well, he's obviously not worth it."
Tony nods. "Yeah," he says. "Thanks. That's actually a really great idea."
Steve smiles, more confidently than he feels. It is a great idea, he thinks. The Avengers really worked better after the event, and more time is just what Steve needs, to find the right words. He'll take Tony out on the balcony and confess everything, and see what happens. It's all good.
"I'm glad I talked to you," Tony beams, picking up his coffee again, and pulling a face because it's cold now. "Oh, hey, you had a thing at the ball too, right?"
Steve stares judgmentally, because Tony shouldn't know that; Iron Man was the one privy to that conversation. "Iron Man tell you that?" he asks, trying not to sound as peeved as he feels. If Tony wants to keep his identity as Iron Man secret for as long as possible, he's going to have to work much harder.
It turns out that when somewhat caught in a lie, Tony gets these small spots of pink, high on his cheeks. "Yeah, I—yeah. He tells me things, sometimes."
"Of course," Steve says, placidly, his mood settling when he realizes he can coach Tony later and help him with the task of hiding his identity. Because he's going to tell Tony the truth at the ball and everything will be great.
"I guess you're not as dumb as me and you actually know who you—" Tony frowns, failing at finding an end to that sentence he's happy with. Steve can empathize. Words are difficult. "Anyway, is that going somewhere?"
Steve hums, noncommittally. "Actually, I think it might?"
Tony likes him as he is. Tony's lied enough about his own identity, could he begrudge Steve one night of a similar lie? Yeah, Steve thinks. The chance for this working out might not be a solid century, but it's more of a maybe than a never, and Steve thrills at the idea of it.
"Good," Tony says. "You deserve to be happy."
"So do you," Steve says. "You're going to find your guy. I can tell."
Tony shakes his head fondly. "I wish I had your enthusiasm, Cap."
A few minutes later, Tony takes his coffee off to his lab, and Steve watches him go. He'll tell Tony at the ball who he is. See what happens. Yeah. It's a good plan.
In Steve's defense, he means to stick to the plan.
He definitely did not anticipate being so soundly mauled, mere inches away from the unsuspecting other revelers.
Steve gasps, unable to breathe for a moment, hands scrambling to find purchase on the wall Tony's pushed him into. His fingers grip into stone and slip.
Tony's wearing even tighter leggings this time and Steve thinks he's going to die. Cause of death: Tony Stark. God, that would be an embarrassing obituary. Thankfully the public doesn't know Captain America's real name, so at least Steve could be buried honestly, without taking the Captain America mantle down with him.
Steve's dizzy and his head is pounding. This is almost too good, somehow.
"I've been dreaming about this," Tony mutters, before kissing Steve again and yep, Steve's body is going to be found here, and Steve should be freaked out by how little he cares, as long as Tony keeps going. "You should put your hand in my hair, I like that," Tony adds, during another pause for air.
Steve slides his hand into Tony's curls and that's almost a religious experience in itself, somehow. Steve's head tilts back because he can't help it and the back of his skull connects painfully with the outside wall. He's seeing stars, metaphorical and physical, and something in his ears starts whining, high-pitched and consuming as Tony's hands slip down Steve's sides. Tony looks ridiculously proud of himself for a moment, but then the pleased smirk slides away.
"Shit," Tony breathes, and Steve's panicking, because is something wrong? Did he do something wrong? Oh god, he knew he'd fuck up kissing somehow, or maybe Steve's mask has slipped?
And then the world somehow zooms back into focus, and Steve realizes what's actually going on.
That noise. It's the noise of an Avengers identicard beeping. It's coming from both Steve and Tony, because of course it is.
Tony's fumbling at his own costume's pocket for what presumably is Iron Man's identicard; Steve would be more amused if he wasn't also fumbling quickly for his to slide it onto mute. Steve sighs quietly when he manages it, and tries not to wince guiltily. The Avengers will just have to wait a minute or two for him, that's all.
"Shoot, I have to go," Tony says, looking up from where his identicard is clutched in one hand. To his credit, he doesn't even try to explain why he has to go. He looks at Steve, truly apologetic. "I'm so sorry. Can I see you again?"
Tony's standing so close, his eyes shining in the moonlight, and Steve should just whip off his mask and just say it, but his brain is a mess of words.
"Throw one more of these," Steve says, and then freezes. What the hell? He manages a coherent sentence, and it's that? He swallows hard, his throat dry. If his subconscious wants another shot, and if Tony's willing to go that far to oblige the strange request, then Steve has to commit to it. No excuses, this time. "Throw one more of these. I promise I'll be there."
Tony's worried gaze slips from Steve to the door, clearly worried about the Avengers emergency, and then back to Steve in confusion. "A third ball?" he questions.
Steve steps closer, his eyes intently locked on Tony's for a moment, like there isn't a likely supervillain attack happening right at that moment that needed both of them.
"I hear it's traditional," Steve says, his heart pounding ridiculously, "when you want a fairytale ending."
Tony stares at him, a wondering expression crossing his face, and then he draws Steve in quickly, kissing him thoroughly.
"I have to go," Tony says, backing up, his fingers automatically going to his mouth as he does. "Look out for your invitation, Hero."
Steve nods and Tony takes one last look before dipping back inside the ballroom. Steve counts to ten, hopes that's enough time, and follows.
When Iron Man brings them all a third invitation, the following day, Steve doesn't know what possesses him to suggest that the Avengers attend in uniform, but it feels right when he says it. Jan sighs, but admits she's pleased she doesn't have to make a third dress. It means he'll be wearing a mask, but it's his usual one. No red-and-gold feathers. Just Captain America. Just Steve.
Steve vacillates back and forth for the whole week leading up to the third ball. It would be so easy to just forget it happened. Chalk it up to a wonderful dream. Tony would no doubt be able to slide it into the annals of his playboy adventures. Steve might only have been interesting to him because he was a mystery, although that makes Steve feel weird, because it turns out he never missed out on all that much not knowing Iron Man's real name until these past few weeks. It's probably because…is it really a surprise? A masked man who is good and strong and kind, removes their mask to reveal that the person behind it is good and strong and kind? What would Tony think, if Steve took his mask off? Would he think the same? Or would he be horribly disappointed? Maybe it's only the fantasy Tony liked.
By the day of the ball, Steve's made up his mind. He won't tell Tony the truth. It's fine. It's all perfectly fine. It can stay locked in Steve's memories as a wonderful time. And is he really even breaking his promise to Tony? He is going to be there. Steve sighs, frustrated with himself, because that excuse sounds flimsy, even to his own ears, but by now it's too late. The Avengers are going to attend in uniform, to help in the fundraising effort.
Steve doesn't even blink when Iron Man tries to casually say he probably won't be at the ball.
It's for the best. Tony's handsome and kind and he'll find someone better for him soon; Steve's sure of it.
Steve manages to continue to convince himself that Tony is better off without him for pretty much the full length of the ball. He's busy a lot of the time anyway, helping to convince the wealthy guests to open their wallets a third time, but eventually even he has to admit to himself he's forcing himself to stay occupied so that he doesn't spend the whole thing staring longingly in Tony's direction.
Steve's got a thousand rational reasons why this whole chapter is better squirreled away as a sweet memory when he sees Tony slipping out from the dance floor to the balcony, and Steve's resolve shatters into teeny tiny pieces.
Tony's not wearing a costume either, just a well-tailored suit. Those thighs are subtly hidden under smooth dark fabric, but Steve knows they're there, right there, and he's moving before he even thinks about it.
Steve is vaguely aware that he's wandered away from Vision mid-sentence. Oh, well. He'll apologize later. This is more important. Because Tony's out there, on the balcony Steve has terribly been thinking of as theirs for weeks now, even though they've only been out there together on it twice—but oh, what two visits they were! No, that's not important either. Tony's important, because Tony looks so sad and Steve can't bear it. Especially if he's the cause.
Tony jolts when the balcony doors open and Steve slips through. Tony's shoulders sag.
"Thought I was someone else, huh?" Steve keeps his voice gentle. His cheeks flush as he remembers what else they've done out here.
"Sort of," Tony mumbles.
"Your mystery guy," Steve says, slowly, coming to stand next to Tony, staring out at the gardens and the pretty night sky. "Did he stand you up?"
Tony's shoulders are tense. "He promised he'd be here. And it's—it's so dumb to be upset that he isn't. It's just—I don't know why I'm so upset about it." Tony makes a noise that Steve hates. "It is what it is, I guess."
Steve's heart aches. "Well. I refuse to leave here with you so sad." He leans in and solemnly offers Tony a gloved hand. "Dance with me?" He smiles a little, encouragingly. "It might cheer you up."
"I'm not sure I'm in the mood," Tony sighs.
There's something in the downturned slopes of Tony's shoulders that makes Steve heart ache in sympathy. "C'mon," he says, firmly. "I won't take no for an answer."
"Has anyone ever told you how bossy you are?" Tony huffs, but he does turn and reluctantly shuffle into Steve's arms. For a moment, Tony's stiff, awkward with it, and then after a moment he relaxes into it, settling in close against Steve's broad chest, covered as it is with the familiar star and stripes.
"Iron Man might have, once or twice," Steve says.
Tony lets out a dry chuckle, enjoying what he thinks is a private joke when he says, "Well, I suppose ol' Shell-Head knows what he's talking about."
Tony lets Steve support his whole weight and there aren't enough words to describe how much Steve likes that. How did Steve ever convince himself he could give this up? His fingers tighten with his resolve.
"Sometimes Shell-Head is a real know-it-all," Steve agrees. "I like to think I can still surprise him, once or twice, though."
This whole embrace is so easy, the way Steve's hand automatically slides around Tony's waist, like it was made to fit there. This might be only the third time Steve's held Tony like this, but it feels familiar and exciting, all at once. It feels like home.
Steve can feel when Tony starts to understand, just from the familiarity of the intimate gesture. He smiles, slow and warm. He's not scared. He thought he might be. As brave as he is on the battlefield, his love life's always been nothing but nightmares. Until now.
"Hero?" Tony's voice is a whisper.
Steve huffs a laugh into Tony's hair. "Took you long enough."
Tony pulls back, but remains within Steve's arms, so that's encouraging. He looks stunned. "Steve," he breathes.
"Only that I didn't figure it out," Tony admits. "But—a mask. Seriously. Seriously?"
Steve shrugs. "You're going to start judging someone for wearing a mask, Shell-head? You?"
Tony blinks a few times in a row, realizing Steve knows everything. He smiles ruefully. "This is probably the only time you'll ever surprise me," Tony warns him. "Make the most of it."
Steve leans across so his mouth is by Tony's ear. "I guess I haven't done a good enough job, if you're still able to think."
Tony's fingertips tighten, digging into Steve's back, his eyes widening a little before he laughs, gently. "You dick," he says, but he doesn't haul back to try and punch Steve, which is probably a good thing, seeing as Tony would probably break his fist on Steve's face if he tried.
Steve pulls back far enough that he's looking firmly at Tony. Tony's arms are still around him, anchoring him to reality. Steve lifts an eyebrow, trying to act braver than he feels, because that works for him on the battlefield, and what is this, if not a fight to see if he can earn Tony's affections?
And, as Tony leans up and kisses him again, Steve smiles into it. It is a fight, and Steve is very good at winning fights.
Eventually, Tony pulls away, shivering; Steve tugs him even closer to compensate and Tony makes a contented noise as he settles into Steve's chest.
"What gave me away?" Tony squints up at him dubiously. "How could you tell I was Iron Man?"
Steve wants to lie, because it's so shallow, the way he's totally obsessed with Iron Man's thighs, and there's nothing shallow about the way he's feeling about Tony right now. He wants to kiss him again, yes, but he also wants to dance with him more, and spar with him, and take him to bed. There have been enough lies. Steve wants Tony for keeps and honesty is the only path that will take them there.
"Your thighs," Steve admits.
"Fine," Tony sulks. "Don't tell me."