Steve hadn't seen Tony in nearly 72 hours by the time he walked into the kitchen that morning. It was by no means a record, but long enough that Steve felt obligated to pressure him a little to get some sleep instead of just caffeinating up and disappearing back down the rabbit hole. He pushed his chair back and started to stand up, hoping to coerce Tony into eating something by pointing out how much food they still had on the counter, but to his surprise Tony beelined right for it.
"Food! Awesome!" Tony grabbed four pancakes and some bacon slices—with his hands—then joined them at the table.
"Tony, get a plate, don't use your hands," Steve implored because honestly, that was just unsanitary, but Tony only rolled his eyes and pulled a face.
"You're not the boss of me."
Steve sighed. Anything past the 48 hour mark, and Tony could be completely unreasonable. "Tony—"
"This is my house."
"I know, Tony, that doesn't mean you shouldn't use a plate."
"But I don't have to, because the house is mine."
"Technically, it's a Tower," Clint pointed out. Tony swiped one of his pancakes. "Hey!"
"My Tower, my pancakes." Tony wrinkled his nose at Clint.
"Technically, Steve made the pancakes," Natasha pointed out, twirling a fork.
"Not to mention you have four of your own," Bruce tried to rationalize, "What do you need with Clint's pancakes?"
"My Tower!" Tony insisted shrilly.
Clint waved a fork threateningly at Tony. "I don't care how wired you are, touch my food again and I'll—"
"My food," Tony declared, grabbing another one of Clint's pancakes and stuffing it into his mouth. Whole.
"Put your boyfriend to bed before I knock his lights out myself," Clint announced to Steve.
"He's not my—" Steve started, then shook his head and decided it wasn't worth the effort. "Tony, if you're this tired you really should go to bed."
Tony tried to argue, but the unchewed pancake in his mouth made understanding him a little touch and go. Steve glanced at Natasha.
"He said 'you're tired, you go to bed'," Natasha translated for him. Fine. If Tony was going to be unreasonable, Steve wasn't above playing dirty.
"Eat your pancakes, finish your coffee, then you're going to bed," Steve ordered in what Tony enjoyed calling his Captain America voice.
Tony's eyes went wide and he shivered a little. "I like that voice."
"I know that." Steve fought down amusement. Tony was only ever this honest when he was well and truly exhausted; he must've been up longer than Steve thought. "Are you going to listen now?"
Tony muttered something under his breath, but he ducked his head and started eating his pancakes. "I'm only eating because I want to eat and not because you told me to."
"Sure, Tony." Steve rubbed his forehead.
Tony slept for more than half the day. It was a little strange, since he never usually slept that long unless physically rendered unconscious, but God knew he needed the rest and JARVIS monitored all of their vitals just in case, so Steve didn't worry about the change in routine. It wasn't until nearly four pm that Tony rose, came padding downstairs grumbling to himself and seeking Steve out immediately.
"Steve!" Tony whined, long and emphatic. He flopped the entire upper half of his body onto the counter, going nearly boneless as he stretched his arms across and made grabby hands at where Steve was preparing the still very raw fish. "Feed me!"
Steve smacked his hand with the closest utensil. "You'll wait your turn like everyone else."
"But Steve!" Tony drew out his name again, practically turning the usually one-syllable name into a sentence all its own. "I'm hungry now."
"You're just saying that because you slept all day." Steve ignored his antics, answering pragmatically, "You ate this morning, you're fine."
"Do you want me to starve? Do you?" Tony moaned pitifully. "You hate me, that's it. This is abuse!"
Steve could only laugh. "You must need more sleep than I thought."
"I got plenty of sleep." Tony sniffed at him a touch disdainfully. "I got as much as I wanted. And now I want food."
"We all want things, Tony." Steve rolled his eyes dismissively, folding the fish over in breadcrumbs.
"You never feed me anything," Tony complained, still stretching across the counter, lazy and impatient all at once.
"Bullshit." Steve snorted. "And you can't eat this raw, regardless, it's still got to bake."
"Then give me something else to eat now."
"Do I look like your butler? Get it yourself."
"I don't want to get it myself, I want—" Tony abruptly tensed, standing up to shout at Natasha, who'd just walked into the connected living room. "That couch is mine!"
Natasha, who'd already landed on it with a soft whump and was busy making herself comfortable as she clicked on the TV, only laughed. "Yes, Tony, we know."
"She's touching my couch," Tony informed Steve, looking mildly horrified.
"She usually does."
"Nobody listens to me around here." Tony glared at the back of her head.
"Not often, no," Steve admitted, amused.
"It's because everyone hates me, isn't it?" Tony grumbled, still seeming petulant, but there was genuine note of distress to his tone Steve didn't like.
"It's because we love you and know that for all your joking, you don't really mind sharing your couch with us. Or your home." Steve smiled at him fondly. For all that Tony could seem a bit…childish like this, small doses of it was amusing. Sweet, even. He turned, retrieved the basket he'd covered with a napkin earlier to hide from sight and passed it over to Tony. "Now quit saying I never feed you anything."
Tony accepted the basket and moved the napkin, eyes lighting up when he caught sight of Bruce's famous cheesy biscuits. He dove across the counter to hug Steve tightly, nuzzling his cheek up against Steve's far more than Steve was used to. Or entirely comfortable with, for that matter.
"I love you too, thanks!" Tony told him cheerily, grabbing the basket again and disappearing off out the door.
Steve stood very, very still and tried to remind himself Tony meant that he loved the team, that he loved Steve in the familial sense, that he meant it any way at all but the way Steve's heart was rather greedily desperate to take it as.
"You look dazed," Natasha commented airily.
"I—" Steve started, then stopped. Wait. "He took the whole basket."
"There were thirty biscuits in there!"
"Should've thought of that before you handed it to him." Natasha flicked through their recorded shows, obviously seeking something in particular. "Those are never coming back."
"Great," Steve muttered.
"Want to talk about how him saying 'I love you' short-circuited your brain?" Natasha offered.
"He's just not usually so…openly affectionate," Steve hedged, "Surprised me, that's all."
"Sure." For a moment, Steve naively thought that she might let the subject lie. "So you're not ready. That's alright."
That wasn't true. He'd come a long ways. He'd…settled, he liked to think. He'd found what made him happy, found a home and a purpose and people he liked to consider family. He dated, even. Not particularly often—as it seemed would always be the case, he was very busy—and none of it so far had lasted, but it hadn't been bad or even all that uncomfortable. He was 'ready', however ready a person could be to lay their heart on the line and hope one of their closest friends didn't leave them out in the cold, anyway.
Natasha shot him an amused look over the back of the couch, and he realized he might've said that last bit out loud.
"Talk to him when he's had some more sleep. Tony would set himself on fire to keep you warm, he's hardly going to 'leave you out in the cold'." Natasha turned back to the TV, selecting Bride Wars and turning it on. "Now shush, I haven't seen this one."
It would really be nice if, just once, his clear-headedness in battle could translate to his personal life.
But the universe didn't bend to Steve's whims, so days passed and he still couldn't quite manage to find a good way to bring anything up with Tony. In all honesty, he wasn't even certain what it was he wanted to say. 'I love you' seemed very rushed, not to mention confusing for Tony who could simply think he meant as friends or teammates or whatever else. But asking him on a date seemed too simple, too small for what they'd be putting on the line. They'd known each other for so many years now, and they'd be risking a friendship that meant a lot to the both of them by trying for more. Not that Steve didn't want to, but just asking Tony on a date like he would anyone else didn't feel like enough of an effort.
Besides, Tony had disappeared into the workshop again. Sure, Steve went to keep him company a few times, brought him coffee every so often, but it just never felt like quite the right moment. When Tony did resurface he was sleep-loopy again, so Steve was reluctant to have anything resembling a serious conversation with him. It wouldn't hurt to put it off another day or two, anyway.
"Tony!" Thor greeted happily when Tony wandered in. "Come, we're watching Bride Wars. Natasha, Bruce and I believe the blonde shall succeed; Clint, Sam and Steve disagree. What say you?"
"You're on my couch," Tony hissed.
"Join us then," Steve offered, waving a hand.
Tony faltered, clearly indecisive about pushing the 'mine' issue and wanting something else. Finally, he demanded, "Natasha has to pet my hair."
"That can be arranged," Natasha agreed magnanimously, a hint of a smile curling at the corner of her lips. Steve knew full well she found a sleep-deprived Tony just as endearing as he did.
Tony wriggled his way between them on the couch, throwing his legs over Steve's lap and nuzzling his head up against Natasha's stomach insistently.
"So needy." Clint snorted, but he passed the popcorn bowl in offering. Tony swiped it, handed it to Steve.
"Is that all you think I'm around here for?" Steve rolled his eyes, but accepted the bowl being shoved against his ribs.
"You're mine so I let you take care of me," Tony told him simply and decisively, as if it were obvious. He butted up against Natasha's hands. "You said you'd pet me."
"Shush," Natasha warned him, entranced by the show, though she did start stroking his hair. Tony gave a pleased hum.
"Yours, huh?" Steve asked carefully. When Tony didn't reply, he offered him a piece or two of popcorn. Tony opened his mouth and let Steve feed it to him.
"Yes," Tony told him, making another happy little sound after he'd swallowed the popcorn, "All of you are mine."
"Was that in the Avengers contract I had to sign?" Sam glanced over at him. "Because to be honest with you, I didn't read mine."
"I did," Bruce told him, "We're fine."
"None of you are going to be fine if you don't stop talking," Clint threatened.
"I thought you hated Bride Wars." Steve raised an eyebrow at him.
"Most of it. Except for the…wait for it…" Clint paused, didn't tear his eyes away from the screen. Then, when the redhead launched herself at the brunette, Clint whooped and fist-pumped. "Cat fight! Twenty bucks on crazy eyes."
"They both have crazy eyes," Sam pointed out.
"Victorian-era dress," Clint clarified.
They all hummed various sounds of agreement.
"I like it when you pet me, Natasha." Tony smiled up at her, uncaring of the TV show. Steve stifled a entirely uncalled for flare of jealousy.
"I'll be petting your gravestone if you don't stop talking through the good parts," Natasha warned, but they all knew there was no heat to it.
"Here, have some more popcorn," Steve offered, feeding him another piece or two to distract and keep him quiet.
Tony accepted the pieces happily, swallowing them before telling Steve earnestly, "You're the best, Steve."
Steve was entirely uncertain what to do with such sincerity, especially from Tony.
"Thanks," he answered awkwardly after a beat, then fed Tony more popcorn. This seemed to be the desired response anyway, if Tony's happy humming was any indication. The man was practically purring.
"You're all fired!" Tony announced, storming into the kitchen.
"Not your call." Natasha sipped at her tea, unfazed.
"Did Clint touch your things again?" Bruce raised an amused eyebrow.
"A week!" Tony moved forward to bang his hands on the table. "An entire week!"
"What's sparky going on about now?" Clint glanced to Steve, as if he might magically know the answer. Steve shrugged. How would he know?
"Don't you 'sparky' me!" Tony waved an accusatory finger in Clint's face. "I had the brain of a cat for a fucking week and not a single one of you ungrateful bastards so much as noticed!"
Silence fell over the room.
"You had the what now?" Sam paused in the doorway, voice thick with sleep and clearly debating if he might still be dreaming.
"Brain. Of. A. Cat." Tony bit out angrily. "Someone's psycho brother thought it might be a laugh."
Thor put his head in his hands, seemingly embarrassed. Tony almost looked proud of achieving the response he wanted, until Thor's shoulders started to shake and they all realized he was really just trying to hide a laugh. "I—I apologize, Anthony, that's just—it's quite an interesting—"
And that was all Thor managed before he was laughing too hard to speak. Clint was joining him quickly enough, Natasha and Bruce hiding snickers as well. Sam just looked confused. Steve bit back a grin of his own, partially at the rage on Tony's face, partially at the realization that it seemed a cat Tony would really just be a more possessive, more affectionate regular Tony. Tony caught him hiding his grin and spun to tear into him next.
"What the hell do you think you're giggling about, huh? Villain of the week pops by, and Captain America himself doesn't even notice? What kind of superhero are you? All of you!"
"How would we know?" Clint reasoned between snickers, "You just kept reminding us shit was yours, demanding we feed and pet you, and nuzzling up to Steve every chance you got. Sounds like life as usual to me."
"Fuck you guys," Tony spat.
"What about Steve?" Sam asked innocently, moving past Tony to grab a plate. "I hear he's the best."
"Then fuck him in particular," Tony grumbled, moving away from the clearly uncaring table.
"That seems uncalled for," Steve pointed out.
"What, am I acting differently than normal?" Tony pursed his lips. "Have you deigned to notice this time?"
"I knew you were acting differently, Tony, I just thought you were tired," Steve reminded him, "You act differently when you're tired."
"And none of you realized I was getting plenty of sleep?" Tony demanded.
"You were in and out of the workshop." Bruce shrugged. "How would we know?"
"Contrary to your belief, Stark, I don't actually watch you sleep." Clint snorted.
"Besides, it was nice," Steve mumbled into his orange juice.
"What was that?" Tony turned to him sharply.
"Forget it—" Steve shook his head quickly, but Tony advanced a little closer.
"No, Steve, you like me better as a cat, is that it?"
"Of course not—"
"Sorry, just with the brain of one—"
"You were just so—so affectionate, and sweet, and you kept calling me the best and your favorite and saying you loved me, can you blame me for—" Steve stumbled over his words, hunched in a little on himself defensively. "I just, it was nice, okay?"
Tony was silent now. His lips were parted in stunned surprise, briefly, then he licked them worriedly and shut his mouth. "Oh."
"Yeah, oh." Steve turned away, putting his glass down in the sink and maneuvering around the kitchen counter to put a little space between them. "I already ate, I'm going to go."
"Enjoy your breakfast, Tony."
He got halfway down the hall and three verses into his usual you idiot why do you ever open your mouth outside of the field speech before he heard quick footsteps after him. He made a jab at the elevator button.
"JARVIS, don't open the elevator," Tony ordered. Steve stared up at the ceiling moodily, feeling oddly betrayed when the doors didn't open. "Hey."
Steve reluctantly turned around. "Hey."
"So you want me to be nicer, is that it?" Tony watched him like a puzzle.
Steve wasn't sure whether to be relieved or not that Tony didn't seem to have picked up on what he'd really meant. His gut was going with not. "That wasn't what I meant."
"I'm not a nice person, Steve." Tony shook his head. "I thought you got that message sometime around when I told you everything about you came out of a bottle within roughly half a day of meeting you."
"That was a hell of a long time ago."
"Doesn't mean I've changed much." Tony dismissed his point. "Old dogs, new tricks. I kind of thought you knew that much about me."
"I know what you think about yourself." Steve took a step forward. Maybe this wouldn't be too hard. He'd raided Nazi camps and fought aliens, after all. "I also know you're wrong. I know you like to act a certain way, know that sometimes when you're tired we get a glimpse behind whatever front it is you think you need to put on. And yes, maybe I liked having you act that way a little longer than usual. I liked having you—come to me for things, let me take care of you a little more, tell me you care about me, that I'm your…favorite, that I'm great, that I'm—"
"I don't tell you those things?" Tony seemed thoughtful. "You want, what, for me to appreciate you more? Steve, you're one of the best friends I've got, I thought you knew that."
"I do know that, I'm not saying—" Steve shook his head, frustrated, more with himself than with Tony. A strange part of him wished for some sort of attack, a mission; maybe then he could get his act together. Lay out his feelings calmly and precisely like a battle plan. "I don't want you to change, Tony. At all."
"Seems like you do."
"I don't. I'd just—I liked seeing you let us in like that. I liked being let in like that." He took another step forward, putting them nearly chest to chest. "I'd like if it could maybe happen a little more often. At least between you and me."
"I'll see what Loki can do about it next time we gab about ways to fuck with my life," Tony told him flippantly, trying to dismiss Steve's too-serious tone, but his eyes were sharp as ever, searching Steve's expression for his meaning.
There was more he'd been going to say, but something flickered in Tony's eyes, some spark as he seemed to finally realize where exactly Steve was trying to go with this. Probably had a little something to do with the way that Steve was all but hovering over his mouth now. Regardless of why, Tony tilted his head up that extra inch and they closed the space between them.
It was more chaste than Steve had imagined but all the better, chapped lips and scratchy stubble and the palpable warmth of Tony's mouth seeping through his system like a drug. His hands sought Tony's waist like it was his only instinct and pulled him closer, into some sort of half-hugging embrace. Tony had his hands on his arms, and Steve couldn't help laughing a little into the kiss when he felt Tony give them a squeeze.
"Been wanting to do that since I met you," Tony told him breathlessly. They hadn't parted far, still close enough Steve could to bring their foreheads together with barely any movement at all, if he wanted. He did.
"Kiss me, or grope me?"
"The latter." Tony tilted his head, bumped Steve's nose. "Though I suppose you're not half bad at this part, either."
Steve laughed again. "You suppose?"
"You're acceptable." Tony grinned at him.
"Funny." Steve beamed back, not caring in the least about the dopey, lovestruck look he knew full well had completely taken over his face. "Because I sort of remember you calling me the best."
"A little related. Admit it," Steve teased, "You think I'm a good kisser. I had you breathless."
"Your lung capacity exceeds mine, congratulations." Tony was trying very hard to stifle a growing smile. He was failing so horribly it was laughable. "I'll need more data before coming to any conclusions."
"Guess I'll just have to kiss you again. For science, that is."
"Of course, for sci—"
Much though Steve loved hearing Tony talk, there were times his impatience got the best of him.
Tony didn't seem to mind.