Here's how it happens:
The team is sitting around the breakfast table when Tony comes in after a three day bender in his workshop. He's here for coffee, and he thinks it's a thursday, but it could be friday. He didn't really check.
They're all in a motley state of disarray, sleepy pliancy making the toughest people he's ever known look adorably ruffled. Natasha even smiles at him as he walks in, and Tony doesn't know what day it is, only knows it's almost eight thirty in the morning.
"Morning Stark," Barton grumbles, and it makes Steve's face, previously buried into the New York Times, look up.
Here's how it happens:
As soon as Steve sees him, he gives Tony a smile. It's a small thing, almost intimate in its genuine shyness and it makes Tony stop in his tracks. He's got warm blue eyes that are china plate wide, and a hint of stubble where he hasn't shaved yet, and his hair is tousled by the pillow; the same pillow that probably left that crease on his left cheek. The smile is a small thing, and it disappears into a look of deep concentration as he turns back to his economics section.
He's not sure if the fluttering in his stomach is hunger and thirst or if it's what Tony is thinking it is.
Tony is pretty sure he falls in love at around eight thirty in the morning, as Barton asks Steve to pass the sports section of the paper next to him and Steve, in his distracted concentration, passes him the comics instead.
He watches Steve laugh, chortle really, as the movie moves along from where he sits next to Bruce on the couch. Steve's hands are in Natasha's hair where it fans in his lap and her feet are in Barton's lap, and Tony can't stop staring.
Steve's a work of art, is the problem, and Tony's not an artist. He thinks Steve would appreciate poetry and sketches, sketches like the ones he's capable of producing.
Tony doesn't deal in literature and art and humanities. If he did, if he was an artist like Steve, he'd paint him in soft watercolor and Captain America in bold streaks of oil pastels.
If he played an instrument, he'd dedicate entire operas and arias and works for him. He'd write about Steve in sonnets and Captain America in epics. He'd write prose about both.
He'd describe Steve in synonyms for virtue and kind, Captain America in metaphors for victory and hope. He'd describe Steve as cool Brooklyn nights sketching the skyline against a full moon. He'd type Captain America as exhausted victory in freezing forests and a flag that is frayed by use but never torn. But he doesn't know how to do any of that.
He deals in numbers and cold hard science. He's a scientist and an engineer and Iron Man. He knows that Steve wouldn't appreciate the kind of dedications he could give him.
He wouldn't understand that Tony means 'you mean the world to me' if he types in C++ or 'I love you' as he designs hardier armor. Tony knows equations, symbols, and physics. He has genius IQ and built a suit of armor in a cave using scraps of shitty metal and gasoline for flame throwers.
He watches Steve answer a question Natasha made in a murmur and laugh after, hears the punch line to another joke in the comedy they're watching, and feels inadequate for the first time in his life.
He just has to make peace with the idea that you can't help who you fall in love with, and with the fact that Steve will never understand that every breath Tony exhales is a declaration of adoration and love for this man.
The battle is in Queens this time, close to Pepper's new apartment. It makes Tony a bit more forceful and reckless, knowing that two blocks to the left and one block down Pepper maybe just left for work or stayed over at Happy's house and left her pet fish behind. It's making him edgy, and it's noticeable, but Steve doesn't say anything. He just grits his teeth and focuses Iron Man's protective wrath into blocking her street from the villains.
Tony's thankful; Pepper's still family, even if they split less than amiably and had to work back to that point.
Steve surprises him by knocking down one of the opponents on Tony's blind side, Tony a couple seconds too late to blast him with his own repulsors. The gong clang of Steve's shield makes Tony turn and it's practically arresting, christ, the vision he gets.
Pepper once asked Tony what his favorite part of her body was, and he had responded her smile, because it truly was a beautiful smile, but this right here is why Tony honestly wouldn't be able to respond if Steve ever asked him that question.
He's extended, leg thrusted out and bent at the knee, torso stretched and arm thrown out where he tossed his shield and is waiting for its return. His face is set in concentrated, hard lines; the look of someone in battle and protecting things and people he loves. It's statuesque, and Tony dumbly watches as the shield comes back and Steve makes catching it looks effortlessly.
Maybe that's it, Tony muses as he snaps out of his trance and keeps fighting. His hands. They're powerful hands, large and calloused from holding guns and throwing shields like discuses. His fingers are long and thick and yet while they hold the raw power to squeeze a man's head flat, they're tender and gentle when it matters: holding a pencil as he sketches, peeling an orange at breakfast, typing out a text message, clapping Tony on the back or squeezing his shoulder in commendation.
They fight together, and it's a dance; it's in tandem, a telepathic bond, and Tony feels the thrill every time he hears the shield hit something at his blind spots and behind him, every time he blasts his repulsors to minimize the opponents ganging up on Cap.
People don't ask Steve if he's okay.
People look at Steve and, for years, they've seen strong and stout Captain America. It's fine; he's used to it. It's just… he bleeds too. He tries not to; he makes sure his team is taken care of first in any and every way, and makes sure they have that paragon of leadership to look up to, and if that involves not bleeding, so be it.
But he does bleed, and cry, and sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. He dreams of sinking, clawing out of his seatbelt and out of the plane only for the frigid, brackish water and the pressure compressing his lungs and it hurts and it hurts-
The workshop Tony works in is illuminated in the amber glow of a couple of single-bulb lamps, and if he's not mistaken, Billie Holiday is crooning from a single laptop speaker, which means that Tony isn't working on something hands-on. He's probably answering important emails and reading over contracts he has to sign.
As soon as Steve enters his passcode in, and the door slides open, Tony looks up and smiles. Steve knows that as long as he is in here, Tony won't get much paperwork done. He hates it; always looks for an excuse not to do it. Steve can't bring himself to regret coming down here though.
That smile quickly morphs into concern as Tony searches his face and then stands to make his way to his kitchenette. Steve treks through strewn automobile parts and sits on his futon. Tony starts the coffee maker, but takes the time to turn on the electric kettle and dig around for the chamomile lemon tea Steve is more fond of. It's steeped to perfection when Tony hands him his tea and sits next to him. His thigh is pressed against Steve's, a silent reminder that Tony's there, content to drink coffee with a trembling man suffering from PTSD-induced dreams.
"It was the water, again," Steve whispers into the silence and Tony's thigh presses a little harder into his own. Steve inhales a shuddering breath and holds his mug in between his hands like a lifeline. "It's always just…" Steve embarrassingly enough whimpers and trembles harder, "so cold. I'm tired of the cold."
Tony makes a sound and in a second, his coffee is forgotten on the floor as he wraps his arms around Steve and brings his head to the curve of Tony's neck. Steve hears his shushes as the only tether grounding him back to the present, his only anchor; and if that makes a few tears fall as Steve curls tighter into his embrace, then so be it. Captain America bleeds too.
Steve breathes in the smell of Tony's sandalwood and coconut body wash, alongside a light metallic and grease smell and his natural musk, and closes his eyes as Billie Holiday sings about Sundays and Tony hums along off-tune, finally relaxing into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Nobody asks Steve if he's okay, but Tony has never really needed to ask to ask to know what Steve has needed.
When he was twenty-three, the tabloids caught him having a few drinks with triplets at a bar and ran with the idea of Tony chatting them up. He wasn't, but the damage was done the next morning. His playboy persona started there, and was fed, mostly by Tony, stupidly.
Tony is damaged. Tony converted his Malibu infinity pool into a landing pad even though he didn't need one at the time because he panicked any time he thought of entering something deeper than a bathtub.
He has a modified body that is failing him more often than not- shrapnel in his chest, limited lung function, deformed ribs, a messed up sternum, and scars that were both from his operation and from the electrocution burns.
He drinks too much, even though he has yet to get drunk in three years and counting. He doesn't eat, or sleep, or remember that showers are something that happens until someone points it out to him if he's inspired.
He has guilt that he's carried for years, years of knowing he killed innocents and civilians and friendly American soldiers. He knows that the man in the Humvee next to him was expecting a child, right before he got gunned down by his weapons and he will never live that down.
He has a reputation that would tarnish Steve's, the second he makes his feelings known. He'd be the dirty old man corrupting a symbol of wholesomeness and apple pie and he can't help but agree.
And yet. Sometimes he catches Steve smiling at him, or singling him out in conversation, and lately Steve has been closer to him than ever before. He seeks Tony out to watch movies or take walks. He spends his time in his workshop, or invites Tony to his studio.
Steve brings Tony roast beef and cheese sandwiches with a coca cola in his workshop after Tony's been in there hours, and Tony reaches out to hand him a cup of tea, alerted by JARVIS of his walk over here. They exchange plates, smiles, and friendly hellos before Steve takes his mug and walks to the futon to pull out his sketchbook.
Tony writes love songs in cups of chamomile tea and secret smiles, and sketches all of Steve's best traits in the way he switches Dio for Sinatra just to see that small grateful twitch of lips from across the room.
They work in silence, interspersed by a comment here or there, and it's so goddamn comfortable and all Tony wants that it actually hurts his heart.
This is love, Tony thinks, mind half on what he's working on and more on the scritch-scritch of the graphite pencil sketching urban memories.
This is love, and it began at eight-thirty in the morning on a thursday, Tony thinks. He's still not sure if it was thursday or friday, but only the happiest of bittersweet people fall in love on thursdays, so it must've been thursday.
They're tired, and dirty, and pissed off, and New York is yet again in shambles. Steve is exhausted and dragging his feet, but takes the time to help set Natasha's dislocated shoulder and help brace Clint's broken leg.
Tony, he notes, dashes immediately to the bar and pours himself a drink. He'd been subdued and apart ever since battle ended, not willing to partake in conversation. Steve hears the clinking of extra tumblers and just knows this won't end with a controlled two glasses and that's it.
When they make their slow way into the common living room, Tony is already slouching on the sofa with his drink in hand, feet on the coffee table. Steve watches as Tony knocks back one shot before serving himself another, and knocking that one back, and serves himself another. He's showing no signs of stopping and Steve's heart breaks for him, it does. He had it worst in this particular fight.
He's not aware of the decision to turn back around to walk into the kitchen, only that he does, vaguely hearing Natasha and Clint murmur in tired sounding Russian.
He grabs a mug from the cabinet and starts the coffee maker. It was difficult for him today, and only Steve knows why, because Steve was there for the majority. He knows that Tony takes every loss personally and this one was particularly gruesome and heartbreaking. He only hopes that new mother survived. Her infant daughter was beautiful.
The mug is wide in its circumference and extremely tall. Tony likes big mugs, and this one is his favorite, mainly because it's heavy and made of a ceramic that keeps the liquid inside scorching hot no matter how long it's been there. Tony's own creation.
He pours the coffee into the mug and walks back to the living room, where the sight makes his eyes want to water. Natasha and Clint are asleep, holding each other up in support as they sag deeper into the couch, and Bruce is absent, but Steve can hear the entertainment system in the den playing meditation music. Thor is in Asgard, a treaty being signed with another planet needful of his presence.
It's Tony that stops him, however. Tony, who's sitting stock still, cradling his head in his hands. His eyes, when he opens them, are red and puffy, unseeing and so goddamn haunted that it takes Steve's breath away.
"Tony," he murmurs, taking his limp hands in his and wrapping them around the mug of coffee. "It's coffee, Tony."
He stirs, blinking owlishly, before staring at Steve. Steve hasn't let go of where his hands cradle Tony's, mindful of their lifelessness. Tony blinks some more, looking everywhere but Steve as he tries to contain the sob Steve knows is building in his chest.
"It's me," Steve whispers, taking the mug away and placing it on the coffee table before sitting next to the shell shocked man. "It's just me, Tony. Let go."
There's a second of stubborn silence, silence so intense that Steve can hear the fridge fan working, before Tony lets out a shuddering breath and floodgates come in. He crumples as a loud sob is wrenched from him, bringing his face back into his hands and Steve just shushes him.
He leans into Steve as he sobs, hiding his face into Steve's neck and Steve's eyes water right alongside him. "She was- she-"
"I know," Steve murmurs, thankful that Natasha and Clint have woken up and left the room without Tony noticing. "I know."
"Beautiful, and so small, Steve, she was so small and she had a dress on and so small." Tony rambles, shaking violently as Steve tries to wipe the image of a frozen Tony reaching for a lifeless tiny pink body, tries to undo the memory of Tony opening a slack mouth to scream in furious grief as he holds the smallest hand Steve's ever seen. There's nothing he could say that can take away his pain; their pain. He holds Tony to his chest and stifles sobs and this is the first time Steve has ever felt inadequate.
"I know, Tony. Hush now, sleep."
If their life was ever written down, it wouldn't be a story. It wouldn't be tainted with flowery language and wistful dialogue. They have never and will never deal in stylized fairy tales.
It'd be a mission report, a succinct debrief in a conference room with dirt on their faces and their costumes on full display.
Tony would label his final mission brief 'eighty thirty' and Steve would probably label it 'thursday' because Steve deals in days and years, whereas Tony has always dealt in minutes and hours because he's obsessed with getting the details right. Steve's the tactician who looks at the big picture.
His report would be titled 'eight thirty' for multiple reasons that always have his heart beating double-time. He'd sign it 'Anthony E. Stark' and leave a subtext of 'home'. It'd begin, I fell in love with a good man. Tony'd write, I fell in love with someone who deserves so much more than what I'm able to give him. I fell in love with a man whose got hands capable of so much damage but are only ever used to protect and create. Who drinks tea and has humor so dry it would rival a desert. I fell in love with a man not even thirty and yet will never stop holding the weight of the world on his shoulders, like a modern day Atlas. I fell in love at eight thirty, on a thursday.
He'd end it with, He's the only man I trust with everything I am. He'd sign it, and close the file and walk out of the conference room.
Steve would label his 'thursday,' because he deals in bigger pictures. His would begin, I can trust that there will always be tea in the cabinet. He's my best friend, and I feel like a better man standing next to him. I'm more confident in my surroundings now, because of him. He gave me a home to come back to after the nightmares. He's there.
I trust him with everything I am, he'd end it with, and he'd never know how much his report resembles Tony's. He'll end up leaving that to the ones who go over them, but then, that man already knows.
(Fury has always known.)
It's become a habit, for Steve.
Tony calls it his introduction into modern society and takes any excuse to take him to museums or parks or coffee shops that weren't around when he was. Tony's even arranged roadtrips and vacations to areas like Disney World and Universal and Six Flags. He's taken Steve to exotic islands like Fiji and Oahu and a cruise on the Caribbean.
His favorite nights, however, are when Tony forgoes all of that and merely holds up a DVD he's recently bought or tickets to a live jazz show.
It hits Steve then, as Tony is putting the DVD in the slot and reaching for the remote, that Tony is one of the busiest men in America. He's a CEO and owner of one of the top three leading companies in the nation, he's head of the R&D department in that company; he's involved with SHIELD as an R&D analyst and advisor, is Iron Man, and oversees most of the company's overtures.
And yet the man is here, in Steve's living room, watching a movie, eating popcorn and drinking soda, when he has just about three full time jobs.
When it comes, it's a freight train of realization: Tony's in love with him. Tony has probably been in love with him for a long time. And Steve- Steve is letting him watch movies and slack off, and is letting Tony sit there and ramble about the time he met the main actress and she had been somewhat of a bitch.
Steve has let Tony drag him up and down the country because Steve feels happier when Tony is around him. Steve opens his mouth in a little 'oh' of realization as the movie drags on and Tony leans his arm and thigh against his- his own way of letting Steve know he's there, and Christ but how did Steve miss this before?
It happens like this:
Steve Rogers realizes he's in love at eight thirty on a thursday as Tony reaches for popcorn without taking his eyes off the screen, laughing at some joke that was scripted.
It's almost three in the morning when Steve makes his way to the workshop basement, and he knows that Tony is actually working with his hands by the angry wailing riff of an electric guitar. He debates it for a split second, before entering his passcode and walking in.
Tony doesn't look up from where he's got a blowtorch on, but he does turn it off and extend his arm. Steve walks over and sees what Tony's handing him: a mug of chamomile tea, steeped to perfection, in one of those mugs he created.
He's stopped needing to make them anymore, and he's stopped needing JARVIS to alert him whenever Steve is coming in; it's almost scary the way Tony just inherently knows when Steve is going to visit him, and when that visit is a result of night terrors or just a friendly one.
He watches Tony dally around the mechanical robotic pieces he's working on, muttering to himself about some degree of rotation, as they're walking towards the futon.
He knows that whatever Tony's been working on is important, but he feels some sort of possessive glee that Tony can just put it down when Steve appears, and says, "You know exactly how long my tea needs to be steeped."
Tony looks up from where he's sat, confusion in his eyes, before that look becomes curiousity and then almost doubtful hope. He slowly smiles, and it's shy and small and Steve wants to preserve its perfection. "Yes, I do," he responds.
They kiss, and it's painfully awkward as Steve spills scorching hot tea on both their laps and Tony's neck is at an uncomfortable angle but it's divine and magnificent because they have never needed to say I love you and yet they've been saying it all their lives.