It was a sign for how messed up his life was sometimes, Steve thought, that he would only realize that he'd been in love with Tony Stark for some time when the man in question had decided to leave the team for a while - and had very suddenly made him leader of the Avengers. Devastated and still confused about how he was going to deal with his new role on the team, he'd expected Tony to drop quietly out of his life at this point, all his chances of bringing it up vanishing into thin air suddenly and before he had really even come to grips with what he was feeling. He tried not to think about himself, but about what was best for the team and Tony though.
He needed a plan.
Only a few days later he discovered to his astonishment that he was lucky that Tony's life was equally strange at the best of times - and that was why Tony had come to realize that he actually liked being part of their team enough to move back into the mansion that was after all still his house only two weeks after he'd asked to be taken off the roster to concentrate on Stark Industries business and get his life and priorities back in order.
Maybe fate, if there was such a thing, was trying to tell him something.
“I'm still Iron Man,” he told Steve. “And Pepper thinks if I actually spend all of my time at Stark Industries working I'll crack. Or crack more. She might have a point. I miss being around people who understand crazy, you know?”
“I knew you'd get it, Man out of Time.” Tony laughed, one hand coming up to stroke through his hair, nervously.
He tried not to sound too eager. “It's your house, Tony. It's not like you need my permission. Just bring your things and move back in.”
“Even if I'm not back on the team? Nothing has changed about the priorities. I'll need some time to sort things out. I'll just be living here. Pepper'll make sure I'm busy the rest of the day.”
“You'll always be an Avenger. And we're friends. This is our home, not a club house. It's your home.”
And that settled that. It was clear by the way Tony was smiling at him, relieved and as if this had been exactly what he needed to hear.
Now he and Jan were watching Tony set up his things in the armory again and Steve had a hard time not smiling, no, grinning all through it. It was hard not to show just how pleased he was with this development. But he was lucky again, because Tony wasn't in any way put off by it, grinning right back at him without a sign of awkwardness.
“So, you're here, but you're still off the roster?” Jan asked, frowning and looking like she wasn't sure whether to be happy or sad. “Last week we had to team up with the Fantastic Four just to keep the city from falling apart. We could use Iron Man's help around here now and again, you know?”
“When you say here, you don't actually mean the mansion - and when you say now and again, you don't really mean every single day of the week, do you? You guys know I'll always be there when you need me. Just give me a call. I do carry my Avengers ID around. But at the moment I need some time to take care of the company and make sure there's enough money to keep us all going here without S.H.I.E.L.D. stepping in, Jan.”
Steve was glad to note that Tony didn't sound too worried, so he supposed things at Stark Industries weren't actually dire. After all it was Tony's money that payed for the mansion and most of their equipment, and recently Tony had even taken up paying for damages to both public and private property that happened with their team's direct involvement, so all of them depended on him and Stark Industries in all ways that counted. Apparently Tony had been thinking about this, too, and had talked to Pepper about setting up a foundation to take care of some of that in the future. But Steve thought that maybe they should all sit down and talk about this to make sure the Avengers had a future whatever was to come.
“You've said that before,” Janet told Tony, but didn't stop frowning and worrying her lower lip. “I just don't understand what's going on. You build this team and then we nearly get broken up by the Skrull and now you're leaving all of it to Cap, as if...”
“Are you complaining about Cap's skills as a team leader already?” Tony asked. “Because I don't think that's really it, Jan. He's an amazing leader and we both know it.”
Janet gave Steve a crooked, slightly apologetic smile, but he knew she hadn't actually been talking about him. “I just feel like things are changing too fast and I don't want this team to fall apart. We're still all friends, right?”
Tony nodded, his smile not as bright as it had been before. “Of course.” He was wearing a white, slightly rumpled shirt and suit pants that looked out of place in the armory, and seemed full of pent up energy, constantly moving and always keeping his hands busy. Even now while he was smiling reassuringly in Jan's direction he was unpacking some pieces from a box, as if pausing to have this conversation was just not an option. The nervous energy was the only hint that he wasn't entirely comfortable.
“Okay,” she said finally. “As long as you don't just leave us behind again, it's okay. I'm glad you're here, but it would be even better if you'd make room to spend more time with us. Right, Cap? You'd like that, too, wouldn't you?”
She nudged him in the ribs with one elbow. When she looked at him he only smiled in answer, not inclining his head or nodding. This was her moment with Tony and he didn't want to hijack it by letting Tony know exactly how much he'd prefer Tony to spend more time with him specifically. Because Jan had a point: This was about them as friends and team mates and about making it work for the Avengers, even when one of them needed to be off the team for a while.
“Just don't be a stranger,” Jan said. “This is your home, too, not just the place where you crash when you're not working.” With a little jump she pulled herself up into the air, shrinking enough to let her hover above the ground between them and threw her arms around Tony to give him a quick hug, then shrank even more and zipped out of the room, her little wings moving fast enough to make them nearly invisible.
“Well, that was teary. I'm moving back in and not out again...” Tony complained, staring after her.
“Jan takes the Avengers very seriously,” Steve told him in level tone. “We're her family. I understand the feeling.” He deliberately stopped speaking. Tony was watching him in that unblinkingly focused way of his, suddenly still and completely focused on studying him, probably coming to his own conclusions about Jan's troubles with Hank and about how Steve felt about finding a place to belong to in the here and now – especially after his recent, complicated attempts to reconnect with Bucky – James, Winter Soldier – who was still reluctant to spend any time with him outside of sudden and unannounced appearances during battles; who as a matter of fact simply vanished without a word or trace, when he felt he wasn't needed.
Steve could admit to himself that he was a little afraid that this was exactly where he and Tony where heading now: to a place where they were drifting apart, unable to reconnect. And he really didn't want to lose any more friends, didn't want to see Tony drop out of his life to become just a passing acquaintance. Not now that he had finally come to grips with what he was feeling for him.
“Go out with me,” he said, before he could make up his mind and stop himself. Steve had always been a strategist, and he knew that sometimes the best strategy was just to seize the moment and go for it.
“I'm sorry? Go out where?” Tony asked with a confused frown.
“Wherever you want.”
Tony, who by now had his hands back in the box he was unpacking, blinked once. “Wherever I want? I just got here.” Only when he looked up and met his eyes, did he freeze mid-motion and said: “Oh.”
It wasn't like Steve had ever had much time for things like dating and figuring out how best to break it to someone that you had a romantic interest in them, even though he'd had a string of offers after he'd been turned into a super soldier. From his limited amount of experience he'd still be confident to say that Tony's reaction wasn't exactly promising. He could feel a flush creep up his neck, his cheeks warming.
Tony got up and stood in front of him, hands on his hips, looking him over seriously and as if he wasn't sure how to best let him off. Desperately Steve wished, he'd not chosen to come down here wearing his old and battered uniform.
“Are you asking me out on a date?” Tony finally asked.
He'd faced armies, aliens, even Tony when he'd had to, and this was certainly no time to forget who he was and shy back from what he wanted most. “Yes,” he said firmly, holding Tony's gaze.
What he didn't expect was Tony stepping forward and kissing him; not just a sloppy pressing together of lips, but a real kiss. Caught of balance, Steve simply acted on instinct, his hands coming up to grasp Tony by the shoulders and pull him closer, deepening the kiss, and reveling in the feel and taste of it: The burn of Tony's beard against his skin and his mouth tasting of coffee, bitter and musky. When they pulled apart, Tony looked ruffled, panting slightly and his lips redder than before. “If I had known...” he started, but broke off. “God, Cap, I think you just melted my brain. I have no idea what to say.”
“I hope not. We might still need that genius brain of yours,” he said, happy that it was easy for him to control his breathing although his heart was pounding in his chest, while Tony still stared at him with red cheeks and breathing faster than normal. It felt good to know that he was the one at least partially responsible for that look on his face. “If I had known this was how you'd react I'd asked sooner,” Steve said with a grin. “I'll take that as a yes, then?”
“Yes, of course, it's a yes. I spent weeks thinking about how best to figure out if you even liked...”
“That, too. Me. I tried to figure out if you liked me. Like that. In the like sense.”
His heart was fluttering in his chest, which was all the wrong moment for it. He'd tried to form a plan since Tony had announced he was moving back in, had been thinking about it actually since Tony had moved out, but he'd never even thought of Tony thinking about it, too. But he couldn't help it. He grinned.
And on Tony's face formed an answering grin.
“We can't do anything like other people, huh?” Tony asked and Steve just knew his own grin was growing wider. “We could forget about dating and go right to making out.”
That was exactly what he'd expected from Tony Stark's public persona, so he just kept grinning, but didn't actually say anything.
Finally Tony looked away and chuckled. “That's not going to happen is it?” He bent down to go back to the work he had been doing, unpacking his boxes.
“No,” Steve said calmly. “We are going to date. Like other people. And it will be perfect.”
Tony shook his head and huffed. “Trust me of all people to date someone from the forties.”
“It'll do you some good. You live too fast.”
The lights in the room changed when Tony pressed a button, growing a little darker. The armory shedding some soft blue light on the both of them, so that all the edges were suddenly softer and slightly blurry. “I'll be glad to teach you, Cap,” he said. “But for now lets try this your way.”
* * *
Jan smiled sweetly at him over breakfast and then crooned: “I'm so proud of you, Cap. Go get him.”
She had been in an awfully good mood for the whole week, which was a hint of how Hank was doing, and even better now that Carol had agreed to come along for a shopping spree.
“Tell Tony we need him,” Carol said with an expression of suffering. It was probably her hope that Tony would bring back some form of balance into the movie night situation that had been slightly escalating since Hawkeye and Hulk had teamed up against her and Thor in the decision making department.
“Stand your ground, Carol,” he said lightly.
She looked back at him and stuck out her tongue. “Just bring back Iron Man.”
“He lives here.”
“Or so he says.” She shrugged. “Might convince me, if he actually hangs around one of these days.”
* * *
It was so remarkably Tony that he could have watched it all day.
“This is about you being an old fashioned dinosaur for some reason, isn't it?” Tony asked.
He was about to make a remark about wanting to give his date a reason to cling to him, when he noticed Thor and Carol watching them. He smiled at them and nodded in greeting.
“Is something amiss?” Thor asked cautiously.
“Cap just has no sense at all when it comes to the elegance of transportation.”
“You just want to show off,” Steve told him with a smirk.
“Comes with the brand.”
Carol looked between them with a frown.
But Steve was too happy to think about it.
* * *
She shrugged. It seemed that everybody was listening to their conversation, but Janet didn't seem concerned, smiling a very amused smile instead. “I have no idea. Leadership?”
Steve smiled back. “Not likely.”
Leave it to Janet to read the signs correctly.
* * *
“Your Avengers are no match for us today, Captain,” Zemo hissed in his heavily accented English.
A second explosion shook the mansion and Steve winced. This was the only home he had. It was very likely that this had occurred to Zemo too and that was why he chose to attack him here – again. Right where it hurt.
In a split second he decided to kick at Zemo's legs and then quickly rolled to his side and out of the way. A Hydra agent saw it from a few feet away and fired. He ignored the sharp pain in his shoulder and pressed on, trying to reach his shield, before he could take aim again. An arrow whirred over his head, missing his target, and somewhere out of sight Hawkeye was screaming in pain. Madame Viper reached his shield first aiming another gun at him, pulling the trigger.
He fully expected the burning pain of being hit - or worse, but there was a loud bang and suddenly she was just gone from his line of sight, knocked down, and panting on the floor. He looked up, expecting Carol, but looked directly at Iron Man hovering in the huge hole that one of the explosions had ripped into the side of the building.
“Tony,” Janet gasped, trying to flutter up from the heap of rubble she had fallen into.
“I've brought backup,” Iron Man said, and only then did Steve notice the Black Widow already standing over Zemo. “I called in some favors from Maria Hill.”
“Some favors?” Steve asked.
“Okay, maybe she's going to call in a few favors from me now. But Hydra is outnumbered here.” Behind him the sound of helicopters could be heard. The first enemies were sneaking toward possible escape routes.
Iron Man dropped down between Cap and another young agent with a gun, protecting him from another bullet. “Does this mean date night is canceled?” he asked, helping Steve up.
Under other circumstances Steve would have been delighted that Tony was mentioning date night in a place where all of their friends could hear his words. “It means it would be appreciated if Iron Man could be a full-time member of the Avengers again. Thor is in Asgard and T'Challa is in Wakanda. We need a full team to work stuff like this.”
The armored head nodded. “I'll see what I can do, Cap.”
Behind them Carol groaned: “Finally.”
“And it only took a little redecoration,” Hawkeye quipped before he broke down coughing and holding his ribs.
* * *
Steve didn't say anything about it, all of them busy with clean up and trying to live and work around the rubble in the mansion. In fact when Tony showed his face in the kitchen the next morning he wasn't even fully awake yet. Steve could see the signs in the way he walked and didn't focus on anything around him. So it wasn't the right moment to talk about it now. He'd have to get Tony's attention first.
“I have some orange juice here,” he said and held out the glass.
Tony stumbled towards him. “Coffee,” he said in a pitiful voice. “Please, Steve, tell me there's coffee.”
He laughed and was just about to turn around and fish a cup from the nearest cupboard to get Tony his life saving elixir when the man in question just walked up to him, stumbling right into his arms. Their lips met and he couldn't stop himself from taking full advantage of it. They hadn't been alone for days and evidently Tony had missed that just as much as he had.
“Finally,” a voice from the doorway said. He pulled away to see Clint standing in the door frame grinning.
“Finally what?” Tony asked, sounding even more drowsy than before.
“Nothing,” Clint said, but smirked at Steve. “Welcome home,” he said and left them alone, surely slinking off to tell Jan what had just happened.
Tony just hummed his agreement, stumbling off to get his cup of coffee himself.
“Do you have plans for today?” Steve asked.
“You make the plans.”
“Good,” he said. “Because I have a plan.”
Tony took a sip of his coffee, looking at him questioningly. “Okay,” he said. “I'm game.”
“You don't know what I have planned yet.”
He shrugged and smiled. “Does it involve you and me?”
“Yes,” he said and laughed.
“Then it's all good.”
“You know, I think you've had the right idea in the beginning. You said we should skip dating,” he said slowly waiting for Tony to catch up, “and go right to making out. Who knows what'll happen next and it would be a shame to have waited too long... I could do with living fast today.”
Tony stared at him for a moment as if he hadn't heard him right. But then he nodded, sitting down at the table calmly, waiting for the rest of the team to arrive, reading messages on his tablet. The smile never left his face.
And Steve was determined to keep it there.
“You're officially back then?” Carol asked, entering the kitchen with Jan and Clint, fully awake and ready to start, but looking at Steve suspiciously.
“Yes, yes, all official and at least most of the time.” Tony waved them away as Steve set half of his sandwich in front of him, insisting that coffee wasn't a suitable breakfast. “Neither is pizza,” Tony complained, “but we have left over pizza breakfast all the time.”
“Who is our leader then?” Clint asked. “Mum or Dad?”
Tony glared at him then said through his teeth: “Nothing has changed. I'm just back on the team.”
But Steve had already started speaking too: “We're both leading the team.” Everyone was staring at him then, even Tony, and he shrugged, having made up his mind about this days ago.
Janet let out a whoop, jumping up from her chair to hug hum. “That is a brilliant idea.”
“Is it?” Tony asked faintly. Steve knew he was reluctant to even consider taking back leadership since what had happened with the Skrull and later with the Purple Man, not trusting himself near that kind of power anymore.
“We're best together,” Steve said firmly. There was no need to say that he knew Tony's doubts, had many reasons to have his own, knew that other people were doubting him after a Skrull had used his face to nearly enslave humanity. But that made it exactly the right choice to have him and Tony here together - even beyond his personal feelings. He was in love, but he was also smart. The public still loved Tony and Steve was only now repairing the damage that had been done to his own reputation. Not having to deal with leading the team on his own would give Tony the room to rebuild his trust in himself and the choices he made, give him room to take care of business with Pepper when he was needed. Things would be much easier for everyone.
Tony nodded once and turned back to his reading as if he'd rather postpone this discussion. The futurist had probably come to the same conclusions, but the man would need a little more convincing.
“One happy little family, are we now?” Clint asked and winked at Tony insolently and snagged the sandwich from his plate.
“Let's try to remain one.” Janet smiled. “The world needs us.”
And in truth they all needed a place to belong.
Hulk entered the kitchen and a minute later he and Clint were trading insults in what for the Hulk passed as a friendly fashion. Janet swished out, telling them that she had to look after Hank, who couldn't be left alone for long stretches theses days, but was getting back to his old self. Thor had returned sometime in the night and his voice carried loudly through the room.
Tony was watching him over the rim of his cup.
Considering how crazy their lives were at the best of times, it seemed they'd found all they needed to be happy right here.