It was nothing like this when he fell for Peggy.
That had been like wading into a clear pool, creeping over him inch by inch and he'd been aware of it happening; he'd welcomed it.
This time around, it's more like being thrown in to the deep end and being dragged under by the current.
One day Tony is just...Tony, and the next Steve is watching a smile crinkle the skin around his eyes, and a winch in his chest winds up.
After that, every little thing Tony does cranks it tighter.
The way his hands move, easy and languid when he's working with the holograms in his workshop, the way his hips cock when he stands still, the meticulous line of his ridiculous goatee—God help him, Steve loves that stupid goatee. It's completely ridiculous and Steve can't stop staring at it.
For awhile it's bliss. Steve soaks in every amazing thing Tony does and is and can't believe how lucky he is just to know him.
But the months creep by and all he thinks about is how it would feel to have Tony's mouth against his, what it would be like to thread their fingers together...to feel Tony's hands working the zipper of his slacks.
It's the stupidest things that bring it on, too.
Like Tony standing next to the god-damned fridge at three o'clock in the morning, bare-footed and wearing one of the black tanks that make Steve's mouth go dry, drinking milk straight out of the carton. Something like that shouldn't make Steve's whole chest clench, shouldn't make him want so bad that it hurts. Physically hurts.
Tony's hair is a greasy mess and there are droplets of milk hanging from the stubble around his mouth, but still Steve wants him so much he can hardly breathe.
Tony catches him looking and wipes his mouth with the back of his wrist. “Cap? You okay there?”
Steve makes himself smile even though he feels like crying. How could he be stupid enough to fall in love with Tony? “Yeah,” he says. “I'm fine.”
Tony squints at him, clearly not buying it. “You sure? Is it nightmares? You know we all get them. If you need to talk—”
“No,” Steve says, and pulls his eyes away because it hurts to keep looking at the perfect curve of Tony's lower lip. “It's not nightmares. Really, I'm fine, Tony.”
It's just that I'm in love with you and you don't feel the same.
Waving a hand to indicate all of Steve, Tony says, “If this is you looking fine, I'm deeply unsettled by the mental picture I'm conjuring of you looking wrecked.”
Steve's throat burns, because this, this is exactly why he's so gone over Tony. He cares so much.
Steve swallows until the tightness in his throat eases and then looks up and meets the warm brown of Tony's eyes, making himself smile. “Honestly, Tony. I'm okay.”
Tony takes another swig out of the carton, eyes on Steve the whole time. “Uh huh,” he says, but he doesn't press and Steve feels even more wretched than he did before.
As he leaves, Tony reaches out and flicks his bicep, hard enough to sting. “You decide you wanna talk, you know where to find me.”
After that, all the bliss is gone. Steve still can't help how the sweep of Tony's eyelashes, or the crookedness of his surprised smiles affect him, but instead of buoying him the way they used to, the little things he loves sour inside him, leaving a yawning chasm in his gut. Every good thing Tony does feels like salt in the wound. He can't stand it, but he can't stand the idea of staying away from Tony either. It's the worst kind of catch-22.
The others have started to notice and express their concern—Natasha in particular keeps yelling at him, demanding to know whose ass she has to kick, and Sam keeps watching him with sad, worried eyes. But it's Tony—of course it is—who proves to be the breaking point.
Steve should be the first to show up for the briefing, he usually is, but today when he goes inside, Tony is already there, leaning on the table with one hand while he flicks through images on its surface.
The winch in Steve's chest constricts and he stops, the ache coming over him in a wave as he catches a glimpse down the neck of Tony's shirt, the loose end of his tie tucked into his belt to keep it off the table.
Tony looks up and all at once his expression grows tired. He straightens, like it costs him to do so, and crosses his arms, shoulders hunching inward slightly. “All right, out with it. What did I do?”
Steve blinks at him and frowns. “I don't—what do you mean?”
Tony glares at him, sullen. “I can see it, you know,” he says, mouth a sharp slash across his face. His eyes gleam, overbright. “The way your fucking face just—falls every goddamn time you see me. I'm not great at relationships, but I can see that much, all right, so what is it? What did I do that you can't even stand to look at me?”
The bottom drops out of Steve's stomach. “That's not— Tony, no.”
“Bullshit!” Tony snarls, slamming his palms down on the table. To Steve's horror, Tony's chin starts to tremble. “I thought I was doing okay!” he goes on, voice rising to a pleading note. “I made you laugh, didn't I? And listened, I tried to understand what it was like for you, to—to give you space or whatever, but then you just started looking fucking miserable anytime you got near me and goddammit, what did I do?”
“Tony,” Steve says fervently, “you didn't do anything.” His heart is in his throat, throbbing, and it feels like he's going to choke on it.
Tony growls in frustration, and turns away, scrubbing at his face. “Fine. Don't tell me. Whatever. I just—whatever.”
He looks defeated, and Steve can't let that stand.
He closes his eyes. Whispers, “Tony, I'm in love with you.”
He wants to curl up in shame, but he makes himself stand his ground and wait for whatever Tony's reply is. He'd kept his feelings to himself to protect what they had and had wound up destroying it anyhow. He deserves this.
The silence stretches on. Finally, in a small voice, Tony says, “You—what?”
Steve swallows, but it's almost a relief to say it again, to have it out there finally. “I'm in love with you.”
When Tony turns around, he does it slowly, warily, like he's expecting Steve to lash out at him. His dark eyes are huge and disbelieving.
“I have been for months,” Steve admits. “I'm trying, I swear I am, Tony. But trying to stop wanting you is like trying to stop breathing.”
The expression on Tony's face is morphing into something else, something wondering. “You—you mean that, don't you?”
Steve laughs, a little raw. “Do I.”
Tony comes around the table, runs into one of the chairs doing it, and Steve feels the muscles in his legs twitch with the urge to get away. “Fuck,” Tony says, “all this time—” Then his hands are taking hold of Steve's shirt, fisting around the fabric and dragging him down and Steve's mouth opens on a gasp as Tony kisses him.
Steve whimpers, hands curling so lightly around Tony's arm, around his waist.
Then Tony pulls back and Steve chases his mouth helplessly, so when Tony breathes, “Me too, god, me too, Steve. I thought—” it's into Steve's mouth.
Steve cuts him off with more kissing and it's better than he imagined, so much better; Tony's mouth is hot and wet and the hairs of his goatee scrape Steve's cheek and it feels so good to finally touch, to run his hands down the line of Tony's back, which he's followed a million times with his eyes.
They're practically laying on the table, still pressed together from knee to lip, when Natasha comes in and says, “Oh, you idiot.”