orbiter dictum: said by the way
Steve is at the sink, washing the few dishes that pizza for two generates, when he realizes that Tony is in love with him. Hands half in the now-dirty water, one holding a sponge, the other desperately holding onto a plate; Steve freezes, for the moment completely unable to get past this thought.
Tony is in love with him.
The man in question is behind him, tapping quietly on his laptop; sitting at Steve's kitchen table, as if there aren't a dozen meetings with product designers, marketers and four-star generals he should be attending.
Steve stares resolutely at the plate, between his frozen hands, but he can still see Tony - the line of back, his eyes green in the glow from his computer, the tomato sauce at the corner of his mouth that Steve hadn't bothered to tell him about. And probably won't, because it's more fun to wait for Tony to discover it himself, and flash that look of pure wounded vanity at Steve.
Steve loves that look. How it's soft and dangerous at once; how Tony pouts like a thwarted child, and his eyes go dark and narrow.
Steve's hands want to clench hard around the plate and the sponge, but he relaxes and very deliberately, sets them down in the water. He'd bent a few army-issue tin cups and some cutlery, before he'd learned the limits of his new strength. Even now, years - decades - later, his body could surprise him. Along with so many other things.
Steve rests his forehead against the cupboards, and his wet hands on the counter by the sink. Behind him, the tapping stops. For a moment the kitchen is all but silent - would be, if not for the faint city sounds from outside.
Steve doesn't have anything to say to this. He finds that whatever his mouth could have found to say, without the involvement of his frozen brain, is caught in his throat. Because although the majority of Steve's brain is still examining his big discovery, another is dealing with the sudden influx of the really dirty pictures that Tony's words conjure.
A flush races over his face and down his neck. Not from embarrassment but Steve is still glad to have his back to Tony. He's a little appalled that he's jumped so quickly from Tony-is-in-love-with-me to sex, but only a little, because it's not as if he hasn't been getting off to Tony's eyes - Tony's hands, his lips - for months. It's not as he hasn't wanted him, guiltily, for longer than that.
The shriek of the chair scraping across the kitchen floor is loud. Steve jumps, glad that he's got his back to Tony. What isn't loud is Tony padding towards him in socked feet. He isn't quite ninja-quiet, but he's getting there. Steve tracks every footstep, gauging Tony's progress as best he can, trying to get the theme to Jaws out of his head. It shouldn't be a surprise when Tony's voice comes from right behind him. Somehow, senses concentrated as a peak human's can be, it still is. He doesn't startle visibly, but his hair stands on end and he feels Tony's arrival, like something shifts inside of him.
"Are you ok?"
Tony sounds worried, but not willing to admit it- the kind of removed concern you put on, in order to conceal your deeper worry. Just like he had when he showed up on Steve's doorstep, gourmet pizza in hand, fresh from a transatlantic flight. Crossing half the world, abandoning an overseas business meeting, to hang out in Steve's barely furnished loft. To sit on the floor, because Steve doesn't have chairs yet, aside from the ones in the kitchen, at the living room table, eating pizza and talking. As if they were just a couple of friends, like any other friends, enjoying a quiet night together.
Clint always had to have the game on, and at least a six pack of beer to work through. Sam though, was a radio man, like Bucky. Steve imagined Bucky's probably horrified reaction to the kinds of things Sam considered great music. At least, that's how the Bucky he'd known would have reacted. Who knows what he would think now, does think, somewhere?
The bitterness that shoots through him at that thought has nowhere to go. What is there left to say? So it just stays inside him, fresh fuel for the thing that's been growing, despite his efforts, since he found out Bucky hadn't died. That Steve had been waking up - not every night, but enough - because he couldn't stop dreaming of the explosion, for years now. For nothing. Because there were other, worse things he should have had nightmares about.
Tony's hand, warm on his shoulder, brings him back. Steve turns to him. Tony's face is close and wide open.
Tony looks worried. Beyond that Steve doesn't know what he's thinking. Does he know that Steve knows? Knows and feels the same? He can feel the already comfortable heat of Tony's body from here.
Steve's grateful that at some point, they'd learned how to just be together, that he can stand here, silent in the presence of this man - not have to say anything, and Tony will still try to be with him. He's grateful he doesn't have to say anything, because how do you ask the kinds of questions he needs to? How do you get past your country betraying you again?
He shouldn't dwell. He knows this. It's not as if it was personal. He doesn't really have the right to be so self-indulgent, when there's so much else that he should be focusing on. Whatever super-villain is threatening the world that week, getting Bucky home; these are more important than how Steve is feeling. And yet.
And yet he finds it impossible not to feel, to keep it tamped down, somewhere. This time he can't stop his hands from clenching, fingers white on the edge of the counter.
Tony pushes at him. Steve lets go of the counter and lets him. Tony turns him until they're facing each other, hands on Steve's shoulders in a kind of half-embrace. Like Steve's father used to, when he had something important to say. Tony's fingers knead his tense muscles, and that's all the excuse Steve's body needs to melt, to turn to liquid under Tony's hands.
Steve is- it's like he's being governed by conflicted traffic signals. Stop, go. Stop, go. He hates it, feeling so out of control. It can't be showing on his face though, or Tony would look more concerned than he does.
"Steve," he says again, as if he doesn't know what else to say. Tony is usually the one who's good with words, who knows exactly what to say to spin straw into gold. Right now though, he just looks confused. And it would be so easy to lean down into him, to kiss him until all the raw edges of this were rubbed off.
The old alarms - Tony is your friend, Tony doesn't like you that way, Tony doesn't like men - are still going off, but Steve remembers every scrap of evidence and he knows that he's right. That when Tony drops everything to just sit with him, it isn't because he loves Steve like a brother. And that when Steve says there are other, more important things that should take up the CEO of Stark Industries time, and Tony says, there's nothing, that he really means it.
Steve has been in love with Tony for, God, years - so long that he can't see the start of it. But there was also Bernie, Sharon, Rachel. Steve has never felt like he needed Tony. At least he's never felt like he needed Tony to feel the same. But now that he does, Steve can't stop the surge of something - too many different feelings to sort them all out, but need is one of them. Right now he does need Tony.
Tony waits, unusually patient. Not pushing him to speak. Not pushing him at all, his forehead creased in a frown - Tony wants to know, but he's not going to ask. And somehow that's what does it for Steve, what breaks his will to hold back, just in case he's wrong, in case things change between them, and not for the better.
He leans in. Tony's shock-still while Steve is moving, and stays that way right up until Steve stops, their foreheads pressed together, noses barely touching.
Steve thinks, I should say something. Because he's never been the kind of guy who rushes in and does things like this. He opens his mouth to say something, but before he can, something changes in Tony; mercury-fast and his lips are crashing roughly into Steve's.
Tony is between meetings when Steve calls him. He's got fifteen minutes until he's supposed to be schmoozing it up in a London boardroom, with German investment bankers and a promising Russian biotech firm, but he puts aside his falafel wrap and grabs his phone.
"Hey, what's up?"
There's a pause before Steve answers. "I... wanted to confirm the Tuesday training session."
"Yeah, we're still on." It's way too early for even Steve to be up, and he sounds a little rough. Maybe from sleep. He signals to the driver to pull over.
"Good. I wanted to be sure, so I could make the exercise challenging for everyone."
"So ninjas and mecha?"
There's another pause. A catch in Steve's breathing. Maybe a laugh. "I don't know where I can find enough friendly ninjas and mecha on such short notice, but I'll do my best." Which should be amusing - Captain America soliciting ninjas - but falls as flat as Steve's voice.
Steve isn't exactly good at taking a break when he needs it- not that Tony's any better, but Steve hasn't been sleeping well. It doesn't show on Steve like it does on other people - he never gets bags under his eyes - but it's obvious. Steve's been a weird mix of hyper-aware and dull for about a week now.
"So listen, I have this meeting with investment bankers in-" Tony checks his watch. "-seven minutes, and you know how I feel about investment bankers. Want to get a pizza and discuss matters of world-shaking importance, like who would win in a fight: Picasso or Klimpt?"
"It's four in the morning." That Steve doesn't actually protest that Tony should go the meeting - what kind of CEO blows off his own meetings? - is surprising.
"But by the time I get there, it will be prime pizza time."
"Great, I'll see you in a few hours. Andratti's ok?"
Tony directs the driver to the private airport where his jet waits and calls the pilot. Half an hour's notice will have to do. There's been some press about his meetings in London, mostly in the financial papers, but it doesn't hurt to exercise some caution. He decides to pass the half hour ride to the airport checking up on various SI projects he's running or supervising and not thinking about Steve. Which is harder than it should be.
It's next to impossible for even the most disciplined mind to not think about the pink elephant, but Tony can't quite wrap his mind around how today, his mind is managing to connect everything from architectural drawings, to press releases, back to Steve. How he keeps thinking of things he wants to ask him, or tell him, or things that would make him laugh. Like, for example, Van Steendelaar's idea of passable commercial art.
London traffic is heinous, even with the rush hour traffic laws, so Tony keeps his eyes glued to his black berry. Outside, the foot traffic is moving faster.
He's jerked out of his email-haze when he's thrown against the door. In the commotion, he drops his black berry somewhere in the recesses of the back seat.
"Sorry sir," the driver apologizes immediately.
Tony responds automatically, assuring the driver that it's fine, and suppresses his annoyance. If it were Happy, he could have teased him about his reflexes, but the pale, watery-eyed man is an anonymous company man, loaned to Tony by the head of the bank.
"What's going on?"
"Collision, sir." The diver's unflappable Britishness never wavers.
Tony leans forward, trying to see between the seats, through the windshield. Up ahead the usual snarl of traffic has turned into a Gordian knot of crumpled vehicles. A fine layer of glass glitters on the pavement. The drivers are already out and exchanging insurance info; the spike of adrenaline that hit him at the first swerve mostly subsides.
The cops are probably already on the way, so there's nothing to do but wait for their turn to pull out around the accident - collision, they don't call them accidents anymore - and get on their way.
Trapped in traffic with a humorless driver-bot, Tony can see what should be a half hour ride, drag out longer and longer. He's seriously tempted to walk. If he jogged part of it, he could probably make it to the airport faster. Still, one kind of strange phone call from Steve doesn't really merit emergency procedures. Since he's only going over to hang out, he should wait. Practice patience, as the guru of one of his exes liked to say. Tony, he'd said, was obviously unfamiliar with the concept. He can't really argue with that.
"So listen-" Tony scrambles for the driver-bot's name. James? Jeeves? Jason? "Justin. Is there anyway we can speed this up? My pilot is expecting to take off in fifteen."
Justin the driver-bot - Tony's still not convinced he's entirely human, but if he's an LMD, he's a damn good one - raises one very British, unflappable eyebrow. "I will certainly do my best, sir." He says this with the air of someone who's used to the reality-defying requests of the super-rich.
Riiight, Tony thinks.
A moment later Justin's jerking out into traffic, way ahead of his turn and leaving a cacophony of squealing tires and horns behind him. At the first turn, he zips out, away from the snail-like pack of cars, down one side street and then another.
"Justin, I'm impressed."
"Sir." He sounds smug. Tony's totally ok with that.
Justin squeals to a stop at the gate to the airport. "Hey, I'll walk from here."
Justin raises an eyebrow again- the other one, for variety maybe. "As you say."
Tony gets out and gives Justin a jaunty wave. He passes the security desk without trouble and heads toward where his jet is waiting, already bringing up his pilot's number. He's absentmindedly calculating flight times when he has an idea, and ducks behind a convenient shipping container.
Tony makes a quick call and waits. The muted rumble of his latest model jet engine starts up, slow at first but soon it's rattling in his chest. Still quieter than a regular engine though. He watches the jet - which he designed himself, stem to stern - take off. Beautiful piece of machinery, if he doesn't say so himself.
As far as the pilot knows, he's heading back to NY to pick up a starlet who's late getting back to her set. Which is true. Tony's not worried about any discrepancies in his story. The pilot probably won't talk - Tony pays him enough, and has him wrapped in enough confidentiality agreements to make it extremely unlikely. And as far as he's concerned, he's probably covering his boss's ass so he can secretly make it with some hot French woman.
Tony heads off for better, less public cover and when he finds it, armors up and shoots off toward New York. With enough altitude for it to be safe, he punches it, leaving a sonic boom or two behind him. The armor may not be as comfortable as the private jet, but it's so much faster. And so much more fun. He'd love to fly over the water, skim the gauntlets through the waves, but even with the armor's multiple sat-feeds and sensory capabilities, it's not a good idea.
At the speed the armor's capable of, it's still going to be a long flight, so Tony settles in. With no traffic to occupy his attention, he settles on distracting himself by dreaming about Andratti's vegan pizza, morosely remembering the wrap he'd left in the car.
A double tone in his right ear warns him of an incoming call. He glances at the display and opens the call.
"Tony!" He winces a little at her tone - it's like she's right there with him.
"Pepper, hey. How are-"
"Where are you?" Pepper keeps it short, saving her anger for many small explosions, rather than one big one. Also she's learned not to distract him, when he could, for all she knows, be fighting Killer Shrike or Stilt-Man. Not that anything could distract him enough that they'd win.
"I'm currently over the Atlantic ocean - it's a beautiful day, by the way - heading back to New York."
"Don't try to be charming. It's taken months to set this up. Tell me you're fighting space monsters from Shi-Gar, or something."
"Uh, unless there's a surge of super-villain activity in New York pizzerias, I don't think Iron Man will be needed today." Generously, Tony decides not to comment on 'Shi-Gar'. It's entirely possible there is a planet called Shi-Gar.
"...what's going on?"
"I'm going to have pizza with Steve."
"Ok," Pepper says slowly. "Is something going on?"
"Maybe?" Tony doesn't give her more than that. Partly because he doesn't know, and partly because he finds that he doesn't want to. Pepper doesn't ask.
"Well, be safe," she says, folding surprisingly easily. "I'll try to deflect some of their anger."
"Hey, try to reschedule. I really want to get a look at their prostheses."
"I'll do my best." The connection goes silent. Now it's just Tony, the armor and the ocean for the next three thousand miles.
Tony flies silently for a while. When he can't stand it anymore, he puts his playlist on shuffle and it's hair metal all the way home. Or at least, all the way to Steve's place.
Tony had been so used to Steve's old, too-small apartment. It was weird to think that Steve now had a loft. When had Steve and Fury, who gave it to him, become part of the hipster vanguard? Even more unsettling than the thought of Nick Fury in skinny jeans, was the loft itself- still mostly empty weeks later. Steve had never been a minimalist kind of guy. He didn't accumulate a lot of junk, but his spaces were always full of things, and felt homey, even if they bore no resemblance to Tony's actual childhood home.
But everything Steve owned that had meaning had been destroyed twice over; first when the mansion was destroyed, and then when his apartment burned down. Steve didn't have things anymore, and he didn't seem to want to start finding new ones.
Usually, Steve headed you off at the pass - preventing all forms of worry, concern and offers of baked goods by stoically shouldering whatever new burden life gave him. It's not that he brushed off the concerns of his friends, it's just that he was Steve, and there was something about him that discouraged normal kinds of worry. Like when you really knew him - Steve Rogers and not just Cap - you believed more than ever that he was capable of taking on anything. Which made really worrying about Steve a strange experience, not that Tony hadn't indulged before.
Tony's been worried about Steve's physical safety plenty of times. He's been worried about his 'spirit' or 'soul' - whatever the lingo is - when they've faced down magicians and demons and mind-controlling Nazis. A couple of times he's even been worried about Steve's heart. I mean, Diamondback?
Still, it was a strange thing, worrying about Steve, when usually he was the one in trouble. He's self-aware enough to admit that he doesn't exactly have a great batting average when it comes to the whole supportive friend thing. Or really, a lot of things. But he's trying to be better. Not least because Steve - and Pepper and Happy, Rhodey, everyone in his life - deserved better.
Tony touches down in an alleyway so barren it doesn't even have rats. It's a nice break from some of the no-doubt highly infectious places he's changed in and out of the armor. He makes a note to send Giuliani, or Bloomberg an anonymous thank you card- anything with his name on it would hint at a financial relationship he doesn't want to encourage.
Tony makes a cursory adjustment to his rumpled suit, runs a hand through his hair - not that that will make it any neater - slips on his sunglasses. Briefcase in hand, he strides out of the alley, confident as hell. Confidence is probably the only thing that holds his admittedly flimsy excuse for a secret identity together.
It's a short walk to the pizzeria, and in Steve's neighborhood there aren't too many people who would recognize Tony Stark in a crumpled suit and sunglasses. So he walks it, enjoying the temporary quasi-anonymity. The feeling of almost-normality.
The chime over the door is still jingling when he's bowled over by a shouted greeting, and then a stream of Sicilian-Italian that he only half follows. "Tomaso, how are you?" Tomaso replies, still in Italian. Tomaso does in fact speak English, but once he'd learned that Tony could string together three words in Italian, he insisted on pretending otherwise.
He puts in an order for a large spicy vegan and a large classic, and settles at a table with an espresso. As usual Tomaso insists it's on the house. As usual Tony insists otherwise. It's good for business, Tomaso always says, to have the famous Tony Stark in my restaurant. Tony pays anyway - a kind of just-in-case policy, in the event of assassins, super-villains or the general bad luck that follows capes (and armored folk).
Tony watches the scant, but stylish foot traffic, his fingers finding Steve's number without his having to look.
"Hi." Steve sounds more awake. Less... ragged.
"I should be there in fifteen minutes. Pizza's in the oven."
"Should I pick up anything else?"
"Well." Tony hears Steve moving around, the fridge open. "If you want mustard or hot sauce, I've got that covered." Tony imagines the look of puzzled betrayal. How had he forgotten to get groceries again?
"Sorry," Steve adds sheepishly.
"I'll pick something up."
After a short detour to the neighborhood market, he finally arrives at Steve's place, two pizza's, Perrier for him and soda for Steve in hand.
Steve's waiting for him when the freight elevator stops. He flashes Tony an easy smile, and relieves him of the bottles. He seems ok, Tony thinks. He catches himself watching Steve walk away and can't really find the willpower to stop. It's not his fault Steve decided to wear low-slung work out pants and rumpled t-shirt. He files that in the big box of things he doesn't think about in Steve's presence.
"Sorry," Steve says, sheepish again.
"I didn't change. I should have put on something more presentable."
Steve's wearing his pajamas in the middle of the day.
"But I knew you were coming over, and I didn't really have anything..."
"Steve, I've seen you naked, covered in the excretions of a giant snail." Tony says it like it's not a big deal, but it's the afternoon and Steve still hasn't changed out of his pajamas. You could set your watch by him- he's up at five, every day that he's not on a mission, and taking a 'brisk' run. He was the definition of morning person, honed to even greater heights of bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed by the army.
It's not that Tony minds Steve being in his pajamas. He really, truly and deeply does not mind at all. It's just... weird.
Steve lets it go, and turns to take down two mismatched cups and two actually matching plates. His profile, in the afternoon light is the same Steve, but his jaw is covered in a day's worth of beard growth. It's something Tony hasn't seen very often.
"Everyone needs a day off."
"We could sit in the living room, if you don't mind the floor."
"The floor's fine," Tony says, pretty much willing to go along with whatever Steve wants right now.
They eat quietly, talking about inconsequentialities. Picasso vs. Klimpt takes a good ten minutes and even then, the issue's not settled.
"Are you sure you don't have anything important to take care of?" He's been waiting for this question. Steve's held out longer than Tony expected.
"I'm the boss, I decide what's important."
"Really? I thought that was Pepper."
"Oh no, you did not."
Steve chokes, pizza slice half in, half out of his mouth. "Jesus," he coughs out. "Did you really just say that?"
"Well, did you say what you just said?"
"Yeah, I really did," he says, snickering.
"Are you saying I'm incapable of making priorities?"
"No but is that what Pepper says?"
"She's been known to make that kind of utterly baseless accusation. Hey are you laughing at me?"
"Oh, I love how you don't even try to lie to me."
"Why would I do that?" Steve stares at the remains of his dinner, his smile slowly fading. He doesn't look like anything - just blank. Suddenly everything is uncomfortable. He shouldn't have said that. He'd decided not to talk about anything like that, and yet somehow he's managed to remind Steve of exactly what he doesn't want to remind him of.
Tony isn't really good at comforting. Rhodey's never really needed Tony that way. Neither has Hank or Reed. The only guys he's had this kind of experience with are Happy and Steve himself, neither of whom gave him much opportunity. Is he supposed to offer condolences? Steve, I'm sorry the government is peopled by corrupt, self-serving megalomaniacs, but that's politics. Tell him that's he's there for him? Hey Steve listen, if you want to talk about how your little brother's death was faked, and he was kidnapped, I'm available, despite the fact that I've never had a little brother, and can't really know what you're going through.
Of all of his friends, Steve is most like Carol, who you could only push so far, so hard before she pushed back; and so good at keeping everything to herself, keeping up that perfect front - perfect solider - until it became impossible to keep doing it. After a lot of trial and error and downed commercial jets, he'd figured out how to be who Carol needed.
It's always been easier with Steve, like even when they were talking past each other, they were still talking on some other level. Steve isn't just one among many of friends. In so many ways Steve is unique. An indefinable connection isn't enough. Tony has no idea what he can do for him, but he can't do nothing.
He settles for just being there.
The math, as Steve sees it:
All through dinner, Tony keeps sneaking glances at Steve. He looks like Sharon, whenever she thinks Steve is holding something back. If it's possible for him to look like Sharon. Or Bernie, when she noticed his fast-healing bruises and cuts - there was always something - and Steve pretended not to notice.
When Steve asks him again, for the third time, if he has something else to take care of - in fairness, Tony never stops checking his black berry - Tony says "There's nothing," with the kind of conviction only recent converts can muster.
A while ago, before Wanda, Tony started to look at him differently. Like he looked at Jan, Carol or Jen - with barely concealed casual interest. Steve only noticed because Sam did. Not that Sam said anything.
Steve usually isn't as clueless about sex as people seem to think he is - as if sexual reproduction was invented in the '70s - but Tony is almost ridiculously heterosexual. He's even said, within Steve's hearing, that he doesn't like to be touched by men. So whenever he thinks he's caught Tony looking at him - like that - he figures it's another one of his absentminded, stares into the middle distance, while calculating Pi to one hundred more places.
Until he catches Sam, looking at Tony, startled and for all the world like he's been trying to convince Sam that the sky is in fact yellow. He tracks Sam's' gaze back to Tony and Tony's back to him - Steve, that is. Tony's not looking at him absentmindedly and he's not looking through Steve into the middle distance. Steve suspects pretty strongly that he's not calculating Pi.
"-then Hank will coat the surface of the crab with the modified Pym Particles. The effect should be immediate. Once the crab has reached-" Tony keeps talking, never missing a beat. The rest of the team is concentrating on the briefing. Jan, Hank, Leroy, Wanda and Carol don't seem to notice anything strange. But Sam does, and now Steve does too.
While Tony continues to explain the strategy that he and Hank have devised to defeat the horde of giant crabs, lead by an even larger crab robot, he's looking at Steve. Not just looking at him, because there's nothing strange about Tony looking at him during a briefing. Steve is still the field leader, so he needs to be clear on the details of any plan.
Tony is looking at him. Steve is scrambling for some adjectives, or even adverbs to describe the way that Tony is really looking at him, and no one else. Fondly, definitely, but there's nothing new in that. They've been friends for years. Aside from some mutual suspicion in the beginning and some disagreements, they've always had an easy friendship. Steve is fond of Tony too.
Focused, too. Tony is very focused on Steve, and that's also understandable. It's very important that the field leader understand the plan. But he's a little more focused than he usually is. Honestly, more than a little.
Steve's gut has already arrived at a conclusion but his head doesn't agree. He is as capable as Alice, of believing six impossible things before breakfast, but some impossibilities are easier to swallow than others.
Hungry, he thinks. It sends a wave of heat through him.
Steve shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Carol catches his eye, curious. He shakes his head and coughs into his hand, thanking god that the army prepares you for most of life's embarrassments. Carol stares at him a few seconds longer. Steve does his best to look as innocent and utterly boring as he can. Finally she turns back to Tony. Who is still, when Steve checks, staring at him.
"-Triathlon and Cap will head for the control centre, while Hank and Wanda provide-"
That's when Steve starts to track Tony's looks. And everyone else's reactions to his looks. As a scientist, Tony would have to approve his methods- verifying his results with a variety of subjects.
The results, painstakingly compiled from Sam, Clint, Hanks Pym and McCoy, Jan, Leroy, Kelsey and even Professor Xavier - who while usually inscrutable is momentarily poleaxed after one day, Tony stares a little too long at Steve's ass - are unmistakable. Tony is attracted to Steve. Which is flattering, in a way, but also frustrating as all hell, because Steve isn't just attracted to Tony. And Tony, never shows any sign of wanting to do something about it.
Steve buries the idea of it, that Tony might want more than friendship, because sexual attraction doesn't necessarily mean anything, especially when it comes from someone who's had as many partners as Tony. But not too deeply. He thinks of it as defcon four - slightly less stable than peacetime, with a heightened level of intelligence gathering.
That's only the first piece.
There are others. Not all of them as easy to remember, or as strangely sweet. Waking up to Tony collapsed across his chest, having almost died to save him. How it sounds like part of him is breaking when they fight - Steve recognizes it because it's the same for him - but he does what he thinks is right anyway. That he remembers Steve's favourite brand of pencil, and knows the lyrics to his favourite song, despite utterly loathing it.
A million other things said or done by the way - and today pizza. And finally, Steve is washing dishing in his kitchen, Tony at the table, checking on some things for work, still putting up with Steve's - well, admit it - moping, when he realizes that Tony is in love with him.
Tony's hip is going to be covered in bruises tomorrow. It's already raw from rubbing against the sharp edge of Steve's counter for five minutes. Steve shows no sign of letting go of him, and there's no way in hell Tony's going to let him. Still, he thinks, they can do better than making out beside a sink full of dirty dishes, and since Steve is just, fuck, gone - his eyes, when Tony can see them all black, and seemingly completely given over to kissing Tony, like he's giving a master class in doing it - Tony figures he should take the lead on this one.
He walks Steve backwards, and being Steve, he doesn't stumble once as he's pushed back against the wall of his kitchen. Right beside the window that doesn't have curtains yet. It's afternoon and anyone walking by could see them, but Steve doesn't care - which is perfect because Tony wouldn't answer the door right now if it was Galactus looking for dinner. Steve just holds him harder.
His legs part for Tony without his prompting, for all the world like Steve has been expecting him. Tony though, never expected this. Seriously, never.
He pulls back because, Jesus, he wants to look at him - Steve's mouth, wet and red.
Steve makes this sound, not even embarrassed, this needy kind of growl as Tony pulls away. He leans in toward Tony, trying to follow his lips, but Tony pushes him back, so he can see him. And there's Steve, his pupils blown wide and his mouth open, like in his best fantasies, and looking at Tony like he needs him.
Tony's single-minded focus on keeping Steve as close to him as humanly possible, while still removing all of his clothing, melts.
Weirder than Steve deciding to take a lazy day, weirder than the most balanced person Tony knows being unbalanced, is this - Steve's eyes, like twin black holes, locked on his face, as if he might otherwise disappear.
"Steve, I-" Tony stops. Is he really going to tell Steve Rogers that it's not him, it's Tony? That Steve is in a vulnerable place right now, and this isn't a good idea? That Tony would be taking advantage of him? All of these are technically true, in one or another sense, but also not. Because nothing with them is ever so simple. "-can't do this."
Steve blinks at him, incredulous, then he drops his head back against the wall. His eyes fall shut. He sighs, so light it's almost not a sigh; barely audible, but Tony can feel Steve's chest move. He's there, close in Tony's arms, he can smell Steve's sweat, but it's like he just took three steps away from him. It feels like he took the ground with him.
"That's... not really the reaction I was expecting," Tony says without thinking. Almost like speaking is a compulsion, a bodily need to fill the space between them.
"It's fine, Tony." Steve sounds so completely tired and Tony just, he just wants to know that Steve is ok, and he's lost here. Like everything he does makes things worse.
Steve's eyes, blue again, turn back to Tony. He looks so infinitely weary for a moment, until he looks away. His eyelashes are very pale, in what's left of the afternoon light. Tony can't not track every twitch of Steve's muscles, every detail of him, because he's waiting for Steve to tell or show him what comes next. What he needs, not what Tony does.
This close though, his senses are filled with Steve in a way they've never been before. He has nothing to do for three seconds but study Steve. What he wants is getting clearer and clearer, and the possibility of it is intoxicating.
Steve lets go of him. Tony forces his hands to let go of Steve too, but before he can take a step back, Steve reaches out and curls one broad palm around the back of his neck. Tony goes still, waiting.
Steve rubs his hand over the short hairs at his nape. Tony can't quite stop the involuntary shiver, which Steve can feel, has to feel, because he his mouth forms a little smile, kind of absentminded. Fond, Tony thinks. It's a fond smile, comfortable. As if Steve is already used to Tony this way.
"You don't have to do anything," Steve says then, soft and comforting. He watches Tony intently, trying to make sure that Tony is alright, maybe. That would be so Steve of him, trying to make things ok for Tony. But Tony is just fine, ground or no ground - he's never needed a manual before, and looking into Steve's so-concerned face, he has this perfect eureka moment, equal parts mental and adrenal.
It hits him, like a tidal wave under his skin, like too many gees the first time he took the mark two out for a spin. It hits him, like his heart is getting ready to pound right out of his chest, with how much he, Jesus, loves him. Watching him, Steve just looks at him, fond and still tired - and finally Tony knows what he's going to do for him.
He wants to give Steve one good thing.
Tony looks down the length of Steve's body and back up, settling finally at his waist. Steve's t-shirt hangs loosely on him, one bit stuck in the waist of his workout pants. Maybe from earlier. Tony reaches out and tugs it free. Takes the opportunity to skim his hands under the fabric, and across Steve's belly. The briefest of touches. Tony keeps his hands under Steve's shirt though, not quite touching Steve.
"Tony," he says again. Like a sigh, low and kind of gentle.
He flattens his hands out, palms just shy of Steve's skin. Steve stands there, not even like he's waiting for something, but his muscles are taught.
Tony moves in, pressing his hands into the hot skin of Steve's belly and a kiss his jawline, just under his ear. It turns into two faint touches of his lips, then three and he barely stops at that.
Steve startles, lets go of him completely. "You want- I..."
"Shut up." Steve does. Shuts his mouth and doesn't protest when Tony drops to his knees. He keeps quiet while Tony reaches up and unties the knot of his workout pants. While Tony hooks his fingers in the waistband, and pulls them down far enough to expose a band of skin. While he paints open-mouthed kisses across Steve's belly.
He stays quiet and pliant, right up until Tony mouths him through his pants.
"Jesus fu-" Steve doesn't have a chance to finish the curse. Tony doesn't let him.
It's still dark when Steve wakes up. He's sweating, though it isn't hot, and it takes him a few seconds to remember where he is. New apartment, new bed. Everything is new, even the body beside him. Everything but the dreams.
He doesn't have to wait long for the too-familiar images to fade.
He peels the sheets off of his body, careful to keep from waking Tony, and slides out of bed. In the bathroom he runs the water without turning on the light. There's a window in the bathroom, but no curtains, and his half-inhabited neighborhood provides enough light.
When he comes up from scrubbing the sweat from his face, he automatically looks for his reflection. Hair mussed, face sleepy - Steve doesn't look like a man who's just come from a bed that still holds his best friend. A bed where he had sex with his best friend. Not to mention the kitchen.
He's still smiling at himself when something behind him moves, a shadow-reflection in the mirror. Steve pushes away from the counter, spinning toward the shadow, into a less-than-defensive stance.
The shadow stumbles backwards into the doorway. Yelps.
Steve isn't sure if he should blush or laugh. He reaches out to steady Tony. "Are you ok?"
"Oh, great. First you wake me up, then you attack me."
"I'll forgive you, if you let me get into the bathroom."
"Well, by all means. I wouldn't want you to hold a grudge."
"You wouldn't like me when I'm pouting."
"I don't know about that."
Steve sort of hangs around, not wanting to go back to bed just yet. Tony doesn't seem to mind his presence while he empties his bladder. When Tony leans in to wash his hands, Steve looks at their reflections, side by side. Tony looks up, catches his eye in the mirror, and smiles. This little ordinary smile. Like they're any two people.
It's too soon. Definitely a bad idea. Steve says it anyway, before he can convince himself not to. "I love you."
Tony stares at him, wide-eyed, and doesn't turn from the mirror. For a second, and another, he's sure he's made a mess of things. Then Tony, hands tight on the counter, like it surprises even him, says, "I love you too."
Steve steps forward and Tony turns. He looks as dazed as Steve feels, not sure what to do with himself. Like before, they're standing together, breathing in each other's air, until Steve takes the last step into Tony's space.
There's nothing urgent about their kiss. Straight out of bed, Tony's never quite up to urgent. Steve licks at Tony's bottom lip until his mouth opens, and then it's just wet and slow and perfect.
It's a small bathroom, and smaller with two people in it. Tony leans back against the counter, taking Steve's weight, and pulls him into a loose embrace. Steve presses kisses to his cheek, the corner of his mouth, the underside of his jaw, while Tony slides his arms up Steve's back. When his hands reach Steve's shoulders, they rub tiny, hard circles into muscles Steve didn't actually know were tense. He leans in, presses his face into Tony's neck, and lets out a sigh of relief.
"What?" he asks into Tony's skin.
"I was expecting, I don't know, Sabertooth to burst through the door."
Steve laughs. "Why Sabertooth?"
"I don't know, the breath? He's one of the least sexy things I can imagine." He can't really argue with that logic. Steve isn't superstitious but somehow he had imagined that saying those words would call down the combined fury of Dr. Doom and Ultron. Or just Tony running out of his apartment, terrified.
"Making out in the bathroom is sexy?"
"God yes," Tony says with utter conviction and seriousness that's marred only by a huge yawn that has him arching backwards in Steve's arms.
"You'll have to explain it to me sometime, but right now, I think we could both do with some more rest."
"Yes sir, Captain sir. I'll be happy to provide a practical demonstration. Later" Tony grabs his hand and pulls him to the bedroom, as if it wasn't Steve who suggested bed.
Tony lies down, already comfortable in Steve's bed, and falls asleep right away. Steve fidgets, trying to figure out where to put all his limbs.
After a few minutes of this, Tony, not asleep after all, pulls Steve down to his chest. One sleepy eye stares at him balefully until he settles. Tony, he finds, makes a surprisingly nice pillow.
Steve throws an arm across Tony's chest and does.