"I'm in love with you."
It comes as a shock, and when the words sink in they make Tony's chest hurt a little and his head spin. He knew that the conversation had been heading in this direction for a while now -- the fumbling, stuttering and blushing had been a great clue-in -- but that did not make him any more prepared. These things don't happen to him.
"No, you're not," is his instant reply; that is ridiculous, no one falls in love with me, is what he wants to say, but that sounds a bit too self-depricating for his tastes, so he refrains.
Steve, who just a few seconds ago had this whole -- blushing school boy going on, raises an eyebrow. Frowns, looks unsure for a moment or two, then sceptical. Not nervous any longer, at least.
"Yes, I am," he replies.
"Nope." Tony shoots back and turns around, turns back, glances at his hands and realises that they're unoccupied and they just can't have that, can they, so he picks up his tablet, but he's in the middle of something that requires at least two thirds of his brain, so he puts it back down again and picks up the robotic Rubik's cube he built the other day.
"I'm pretty sure that I am," Steve says, looking torn between amusement and worry.
"No, you see, no," Tony keeps his eyes trained on the cube -- had he installed an AI in it? Huh, apparently he had, because it was chattering to itself and rearranging itself constantly, twisting around, lines of blue switching places with green and red -- and tries to ignore his chest. There's not actual pain there, he tells himself, because he doesn't have any broken ribs and the reactor is doing its job just fine, so his chest shouldn't feel so constricting. He's fine, the pain is only in his head and it's there because Steve is delusional, right. Right.
"You are most definitely not in love with me, Cap, what you are experiencing is called cabin pressure," Tony explains, because he has a rational train of thought and he's met enough shrinks to have figured out their tactics by now. "And possibly, you know, sexual frustration, because it doesn't matter at all that you're, like, America's national icon, Fury still won't let you out. I know that, I see that, I acknowledge your pain, I feel with you, Cap, believe me, I do. And I get it, because I am a very good-looking fellow and we spend a lot of time together, stuck in this tower, and it's easy to--"
"I am," Steve cuts off, equal parts amused and frustrated and concerned. "In love. With you. Tony, I'm in love with you. There's a lot of stuff I don't know about this time and place, but I do know that I'm in-- that I love you, okay, I know that much. I've never been more sure about anything in my life."
The Rubik's cube bites Tony's thumb; Tony yelps and lets go off it, curses wildly as it moves -- it doesn't roll, it doesn't walk: it trudges around by switching around different sides, it's incredibly fascinating, actually -- down the table and then falls to the floor. He puts his injured thumb in his mouth and glares after the cube.
"You're not in love with me," Tony tells Steve, finally, with a tone that clearly states that this conversation is over, so he adds, "This conversation is over."
"Okay," Steve replies, but he doesn't look particularly down-hearted or dissuaded. More like challenged, like he has an interesting mission ahead that he can't wait to dive into. It's slightly disconcerting. "I am still in love with you, though."
"Nope, you're not," Tony says, even as Steve leans forward and kisses his cheek softly, before turning around and leaving the workshop. Tony's chest hurts and there's something in there that resounds with the beat of Steve's steps, that aches after the smell of Steve. "So totally not in love with me."
Steve is not a quitter, he is the most stubborn guy Tony has ever met, so Tony should have expected Steve to... well, not give up.
Tony has been awake all night -- since the Rubik's cube, he's been kind of curious about moving patterns of somewhat unconventional shapes and he couldn't just stop testing things and theories and when he'd started he just came up with more ideas, it was a bit of a vicious circle, so, well -- and he's been in his own little world, so he hasn't noticed anyone stopping by.
But when he's heading to the kitchen, he stops by the door to his workshop, with a hand on the handle; there's a note taped taped to the glass on the other side of the door, faced so that Tony can see the text and there's no way he can miss it. It says:
Clint locked my phone and I can't figure out how to unlock it, so I couldn't text you.
Do you want to go out to dinner with me tonight? Or breakfast, or lunch, if that better suits your fancy.
The letters are tall and in cursive; the writing is fine and looks weirdly out of place on a neon pink post-it note. Who wrote it would be pretty obvious even without the signature at the end; Tony buries his face on one hand, places the other hand over the arc reactor.
Steve is still young, in a sense, Tony tells himself; Steve hasn't had time to fall in love and be silly yet. (Which is a lie and Tony knows it; he's done his reading and the one thing Howard would talk to him about was Captain America, so Tony knows about Peggy, about Bucky). Steve is probably... projecting on Tony, somehow, that must be it, right.
Tony takes down the note and puts it in his pocket.
He sort of feels like he needs something stronger than coffee now.
Bruce is hanging out in Tony's workshop -- because he has his own little lab there, set up in a corner, because they are the best of lab partners and totally not each other's guinea pigs on occasion -- when Clint proudly, over the comm, informs everyone that Steve has officially ordered pizza, via phone, by himself, for the first time.
Naturally, that gets them talking about Steve -- they take some time to compare him to Thor and each hero's adjustments to the modern society; Thor has a lot of cultural aspects down, eats about as much and healthily as a teenage boy and quotes random TV shows every now and then, while Steve has actually learned to use most technological appliances. He doesn't even smash them or blow them up any longer, which is a big step and not something Thor has mastered yet -- and then Bruce says something Tony did not expect to hear from him.
"I heard that Steve finally told you how he feels about you," Bruce starts and Tony lowers his blow torch long enough to raise his eyebrows. "And apparently you said that he isn't in love with you."
"He's not," Tony confirms, nodding. "But who told you about that? Who could possibly have known, because Steve doesn't tattle and I didn't tell anyone -- I didn't want to make this any more embarrassing for him than it already is -- and I know JARVIS didn't say anything, because while he is snarky, he does respect our dear Cap. So. Unless Barton was hiding in the vents again, or something, I do not see how you could possibly have heard about that already."
It's Bruce's turn to raise his eyebrows, "Do you just-- not see the way he looks at you? No one had to tell me how he feels, Tony, I knew. We all do. And after your last stunt with Dr Doom, it was only a matter of time," Tony snorts and Bruce shakes his head, adds, "No pun intended."
"He's not in love with me, Bruce," Tony says with as much finality as he can muster, because he can't talk about this. He's thought about it too much already, the subject makes his brain want to scream, that's how much he's thought about it. "Let's face it: Captain America, in love with Tony Stark? Captain America, national icon, loved hero, the most moral man in history, brought up in the forties. Hear that? That's the sound of how impossibly impossible that it, it's so impossible it's not even on the Map of Remotely Possible Things."
Bruce stares at him for a couple of seconds and then looks down. Tony counts it like a small victory and goes back to his own work; only to, just a few minutes later, be interrupted again.
"Why?" Bruce looks honestly curious.
"Why what, big guy? You're going to have to be a little more specific than that." Tony replies without looking up; the Rubik's cube is back, somehow, and seems to be trying to figure out how to climb up the side of Tony's laptop screen.
"Why don't you believe that he loves you?"
Tony flounders for a moment -- it's perfectly obvious in his head, okay, he knows all of it perfectly well, he has arguments and they are solid but maybe not solid enough to say aloud -- before clearing his throat and, well. He doesn't quite snap, but it's a close thing, "Because. Because-- because."
"Just because." Tony nods. "Because it's ridiculous and bizarre and you know that Cap and I always fight, it's what we do. He has a crush, tops, that's it."
Bruce tries to stare Tony down, but Tony is unswayed, he is an immovable force, he doesn't give an inch, that is how much he will not back down on this, despite the fact that Bruce knows his weak spots. (At least he doesn't bring out the puppy eyes; while it's very rare that Bruce sinks that low, the puppy eyes are very lethal and he knows it -- Tony can't ever say no to them).
Neither one backs down, for a tense, few minutes; in the end it's Bruce who shakes his head and sighs. They're both quiet until Clint announces that the pizza's arrived.
"Denial," Clint says over the comm, in the middle of a fight. "Is just not a river in Egypt."
"Wow, Barton, I have never heard that saying before," Tony replies and aims a hand at a huge, not-the-right-kind-of-mutated-rat, shoots, and lets out a whoops of victory when it falls down. "Tell me more, tell me more, like are you going to tell us the one about potts and kettles, too?"
"I actually have a point with this," Clint explains and curses at one of the mutant rats. They can climb really well and it is not only super weird to shoot giant rats down from skyscrapers, but also very disgusting. Because gigantic rats. Not even the cool, sensei Splinter-kind. "But you're the only one who doesn't get it, Stark."
"Chatter," Steve reminds them distractedly. There are a lot of rats on ground level: he, Natasha and Thor are plenty busy wrestling, shooting and fighting them in any way they can. Hulk is running around smashing rats here and there; he is the only one that seems to enjoy this.
"But, like, no," Clint starts.
"Eloquent," Natasha pipes in.
Clint ignores her. "We know that our dear Captain finally spewed his feelings at you, Stark -- I'm sorry, Iron Man -- Widow, duck now -- and it's not that I want to see two you being all lovey-dovey, and I do not look forward to hearing you two passionately dance the vertical tango through the walls or anything, but. Nothing's happened yet, which is weird, you are both men of action -- and then I hear that you're denying it? What is up that?"
"Chatter," Steve repeats. He sounds like he's blushing. "Also, I don't think that is the appropriate forum for this discussion, Hawkeye."
"How has everyone heard about that?" Tony exclaims and almost misses the rat he was aiming for. They need to figure out where the rats are coming from, because they are vile and for every rat they take down, there seems to be three new ones waiting to take its place.
"We didn't hear anything," Clint says and Tony already knows how that sentence is going to end, because it is eerily reminiscent of what Bruce said. "We saw, Iron Man -- you two are so unsubtle."
"Hawkeye is correct!" Thor booms, because he booms most things. "Your love is--"
"Chatter," Steve says again, but his voice is tighter this time. "The relationship between me and Iron Man is no one's business but our own and this is not the time nor place to talk about this. Do I need to remind you all that we are on speaker in the HQ?"
"Thank you for that, Captain," Fury says and his voice is strained. In the background, someone who sounds suspiciously like Maria Hill gives a sigh of relief; someone else attempts to disguise a choked giggle on a cough.
It's silent for a beat, then Clint carefully adds, "I rest my case."
No has time to comment on that, because Tony finally locates the source of the rats (which he hadn't desperately been looking for, because he hadn't been looking for a distraction or something to get them all to stop talking about this, nope, not at all, he is just the only hero here that has a mission and sticks to it, that is it).
Steve starts leaving post-notes in places he knows only Tony will find them; in his jeans pocket, in his jacket, all over the workshop, in Tony's room. He left one in Tony's shoe once, taped a few of them to Dummy another time.
They're always teeth-achingly sweet; I like your hair in the morning, You're pretty stupid for a genius, You make sense of technology for me, and I tried to E-mail you but I kept clicking on adds, so I wrote a note instead.
After they save the world on a Wednesday -- well, technically, the world is saved on Wednesday, but they'd fought since Tuesday afternoon -- he leaves one under the door to Tony's room that says: You gave me a home and make me feel less lost.
Sometimes Steve attempts to ask Tony out -- to dinner, breakfast, lunch, brunch, a picnic or any place where they digest food, mostly, because he thinks that Tony doesn't eat properly -- and he always ends the notes with love you, sincerely or yours truly, Steve.
It's disarmingly charming and sweet and adorable, and, well. Disgustingly romantic, really, Tony didn't know that Steve had it in him and Tony would totally let himself be seduced, if he belived that Steve is actually in love with him, but he isn't, so there.
(But it doesn't really hurt anyone if Tony keeps the notes, though, right? Right.)
Pepper hears about it, because of course she does.
She's very over Tony, apparently, and when she hears -- probably from Bruce -- that Tony is "in denial" she hits him over the head and rants up a storm. She, like Tony, can't really understand what Steve could possibly see in Tony -- but she says it kindly, sympathetically, because she still loves Tony, in a way, but he's difficult and that is no secret -- but at the same time, if the mighty has fallen, Tony should not be denying it. He shouldn't be avoiding it, because it's disrespectful to Steve and also, this is a good thing, love is a good thing. Because Steve is a very good man.
(He can be good to Tony and be what Pepper couldn't be, in the same way that Tony couldn't be right for her. They tried and they had a good time -- great, even -- but it didn't work out. But Pepper wants Tony to be happy and if anyone, Captain America would be able to do that. It is, after all, historically proven that he is good to and for Starks.)
"That all sounds just adorable, Pepper, it does, and I appreciate that you care so, so deeply for me," Tony says and he doesn't even sound that sarcastic. He's fiddling with the Rubik's cube, but it's harder than normal to solve, because it keeps trying to break free from his grasp. "I always knew that you were a romantic at heart. But it's fine, you know, I'm fine. Steve is a good man, you're right, he is probably the best one out there, but he's not actually in love with me, Pep. Do you even hear how that sounds? You know him, you know me. I'm impossible, you've said it yourself."
"Oh my god, Tony, how can you be so thick?" Pepper groans and hides her face in her hands.
"That," Tony states after a long moment. "Is what she said."
Pepper confiscates his coffee mug and throws a pencil at him.
Steve's made it a thing to always kiss Tony on the cheek whenever he's going somewhere and they're alone enough that Steve doesn't blush too much. It's always chaste, but weirdly romantic, and he always lingers close for a moment or two and radiates warmth and safety and comfort.
When Steve doesn't kiss Tony on the cheek -- or the forehead or the hand or the nose, because he did that once; it was digustingly, bizarrely adorable: where does he even get these ideas from? -- he hugs Tony.
And, just-- there is definitely something to be said about hugs from Captain America. Captain America is adorable and cuddly and safe, strong. Steve Rogers is all those things and more, and his hugs are never awkward and always warm; he's built like a mountain, anyone smaller than Clint disappears in his gentle embrace.
(It's hilarious and heart-warming and terrifying all at once, to see him and Thor hug, because it's like the happy, loving, good, family-friendly version of Clash of the Titans. They are both very loving and their hugs are very brotherly and they just love each other so much, that their hugs last forever and at least one of them almost sheds a tear before it's over. Also, they are both freaking huge and they make up a huge wall of muscle and as ridiculous as it looks, it does show off how tiny everyone else are in comparison to them quite well.)
Point: Steve hugs like he does everything else -- with all the care he has to offer. He is not sparse with his love, but he does hug Tony more than he hugs anyone else and. Well. Steve is not in love with Tony, that is still a fact, but that doesn't mean that Tony can't enjoy a hug he can't say no to, from a friend. Right? Right.
Tony is not avoiding Steve, because that would not only be very immature, but also rather difficult when they live in relatively close quarters. Tony is a grown man, he can face Steve without wringing his hands or stuttering like a school girl.
Tony is avoiding Bruce, though, and Pepper. Possibly Clint as well, and Thor, because if Thor starts booming odes to Steve and Tony's legendary love again, Tony will not hesitate to either put the suit on and push Thor our a window or just jump out, un-suited, himself.
Tony is avoiding Natasha, too, on principle, because she is scary enough when she's not talking about feelings and love, really. Same goes for Coulson, except Coulson has taken on the role of Steve's overprotective father -- because obviously Captain America needs one of those -- and is just a few steps from threatening Tony with a shotgun. It's incredibly intimidating, is what it is.
So since Tony is avoiding everyone except Steve and Steve interacts a lot with the others, Tony hasn't really seen anyone -- "seen" as in "for longer than five seconds", as in "hasn't interacted socially with fellow human beings" -- in days.
Of course, that doesn't mean that they haven't been on him about being "in denial"; it's plenty obvious in the way they always make Steve bring him food when he's lost track of time down in the workshop and how, on their movie nights, the seat next to Steve is, conveniently enough, the only free one. It's obvious in how they are never subtle when they allude to romantic outings and the two-headed love beast and, just -- generally bad sex references.
(Clint, in particular, has taken to humming The Bad Touch whenever Steve and Tony are around each other. Tony is just happy that he wasn't the one who had to explain to Steve why Clint kept singing that they're nothing but mammals; Coulson had to clarify that one. It had certainly been an... experience. For all of them.)
But Tony can only stay away from the rest of the Avengers for so long, because they are his friends and they have, somehow, become his family; also, it's kind of nice to have Bruce down in the worshop to talk at, and it really is sort of nice to have Bruce there, even if they don't talk. So the whole -- avoidance thing has to end.
What Tony doesn't count on, is to find the rest of the Avengers assembled in the kitchen, clearly in the middle of something. He hears their voices as soon as he's on the recreational floor and maybe stops outside, instead of joining them. Because clearly Tony can't be eavesdropping in his own tower, right.
At first, he feels strangely stumped and left out -- they're all gathered together and he didn't even know that was a thing they did, no one told him and they are getting along greatly without him there; do they even notice that he's missing? They don't even really need him like he needs them, do they -- and then he makes out what they're talking about.
Him, obviously. Go figure.
"--it's just, his head is stuck so far up his ass that he can't see reality for what it is," Clint says, matter-of-factl-y. "He is smart, I will give him that -- and, okay, he's always smart, we'll all give him that, there's no need to raise your hand, Bruce -- but he's also an idiot."
"I must agree with you on this one, young Clint," Thor booms -- because he always booms or bellows or recites dramatically, he doesn't mutter or stutter or communicate like normal people do. "I have never met a midgardian with that level of intellect, that still manages to act so idiotically. But, I must remind you all, that there are different types of genius and different types of stupidity: our dear friend suffers from a particular kind of stupidity."
"The head-up-his-ass type, yeah," Clint agrees. Steve makes an uncomfortable noise and Tony assumes that he's blushing and giving them all the Disapproving Stare. But he doesn't say anything.
The others keep talking, but Tony can make out Bruce quietly saying, "He'll come around, Steve, I promise. I don't understand why he keeps running away from this," he sounds surprisingly irriated for a short second. "And he won't tell me, but... I know Tony, he'll see the light eventually."
"And as for that other thing," Bruce continues and Tony is so focused on him and Steve that the others' voices are mostly just a blurry background noise. "We're... all sort of involved in this now and I get what you said earlier -- that we have nothing to do with this -- but it's because we care," he pauses briefly and probably makes some gesture or pulls a face or something. "And because some of us are very immature. Phil and I are trying to stop the betting that's going on, I swear, but it's hard when Nat is on their side."
"I just--" Steve makes a frustrated noise and sighs. "He's such a-- I just wish he would take me seriously."
Tony doesn't hear the rest, because he quietly backs away and returns to his workshop; he can stop doing the whole avoidance thing later.
It's a sunny Sunday afternoon and they're saving the world again and Steve does something incredibly idiotic that almost makes Tony's reactor stop glowing and working there.
Tony tells Steve as much, in between curses, as he hold Captain America up with one arm and keeps the other one over a bleeding wound in Steve's side.
"It's okay," Steve fucking laughs. "It'll heal in a couple of hours, don't worry. At least we got the bad guys, right?"
"Hell yes, we did, but that does not mean that you can just-- throw yourself at something like that-- what the hell where you even thinking, Cap? We can't lose you -- stop laughing! This is not funny, okay, I am the king of funny, I know what's funny, I decide what's funny and this is not it," Tony hisses.
"I love you," Steve says and he must be light-headed, he's losing blood and he's wasting energy laughing, the fool. He lifts his head high enough to kiss Tony's chin -- because apparently his cheeks are too far away -- and, well, he kisses Tony's chin again and then again, for good measure, before his head falls back down.
"No, you don't, and hey, no sleeping yet, princess, we haven't even been debriefed yet and you need to get your head checked over, because you're acting like a basket case full of crazy, crazy kittens," Tony lowers his voice and the ambulances are nearing; he knows, in the back of his mind somewhere, that Steve is healing too quickly for this wound to actually be fatal. But that doesn't make him feel better, not really, because Steve is still bleeding. "Stay with me, Rogers, no sleeping on the job."
"I am not even tired," Steve lies, because his eyelids are drooping. "And I am in love with you."
"The paramedics are here now," Tony murmurs and lets them take Steve away.
His chest is not hurting at all, okay, and if it is, it's because he got knocked around a bit during the fight. There is nothing in his chest that resounds with the sound and feel of Steve's calm breaths against his face, nothing that wants to break when the ambulance drives Steve away, nope, nothing it all.
Here's the thing: Tony is long over being in denial about his own feelings. He knows himself almost a little too well; he knows his strengths and weaknesses and fuck-ups and feelings toward other people, however mixed they may be. Tony knows that he's independent, mostly, but still ridiculously dependent on Pepper and Rhodey and maybe Bruce.
(And possibly, you know, his whole team; he even has a soft spot for Coulson, okay, Tony knows that. Almost-dying on a freakishly regular basis has done that to him, he's realised that it's no use not facing his feelings.)
That doesn't mean that he can't doubt others' feelings, though, because experience has taught him that people never love him as much as he loves them; that he can't ever know for sure that they're sure and even if they are sure, there's no saying that their feelings will remain the same for a longer period of time.
But Tony doesn't deny himself, okay, he doesn't. And he needs someone to know that, to understand, because he is a genius and he is stupid, but why does everyone keep saying that he is dumb? He's not that stupid.
Tony decides that he's going to talk to someone, so that someone other than him can see his reasoning. But maybe just... not now, he'll talk to someone soon. Probably.
It takes him three days to kick himself out the workshop -- maybe with some assistance from JARVIS -- and find someone to talk to.
God knows where Rhodey is, Pepper is busy doing important things or unnameable things with Natasha -- definitely one of the two -- and most of the Avengers are crossed off the list instantly, because there is no way they won't be dicks about this. So. His final choice is really the most obvious one.
Now Tony just has to find him.
"It's because people don't fall in love with me," Tony states, out of nowhere, as he sits down beside Bruce. They're out on the roof -- which is why it took a little longer than expected to locate Bruce -- sitting quite close to the edge; it's windy, but not particularly cold. Tony hands Bruce a cup of that herbal tea he loves, and wraps his hand around his own mug of hot chocolate. He's not good at cooking and he has a coffee machine for a reason, but he can make hot chocolate, if nothing else. And tea, if he tries hard enough and it's always worth it to try hard enough for Bruce.
"What?" Bruce asks, voice soft and gentle. It's late -- or early, depending on who you ask -- and the sun is about to rise. The sky is still relatively dark, but it's slowly getting clearer and brighter on the horizon.
"You asked why I don't believe that Steve is in love with me," Tony clarifies. Bruce makes an aha-kind of noise and urges his friend to keep talking.
"My track record with serious relationships is awful," Tony admits quietly. "Ask anyone. Pepper, Rhodey -- they've been the only constants in my life, and god knows I've screwed it up with them enough times. And I just-- I really thought Pepper was the real deal, you know? That it would work out, that I could be good for her, 'cause it felt like that was it. Surely I couldn't fuck it up with her, of all people," he sighs, feels tired and small. "I was wrong."
"You can't have fucked it up with her, though," Bruce tries. "I would have heard more of the fallout, and I didn't. From where I was, it seemed like it was just... time for you to let go off each other. She's still your Pepper, after all."
"And I'm her Tony," Tony agrees, quietly, and leans his head on Bruce's shoulder. "Yeah, okay, I see your point, but -- I should have been better, I should have made it last, somehow. Now I've just taken time from her life that she won't get back and-- anyway. No, yeah, back to love and me. I know that I'm attractive -- don't give me that look, Banner, it's not narcissistic if it's true and you know it -- and people like me. I'm charming, because I need to be charming. It's easy-piecy to get people to sleep with me, I know how to make them blush and giggle; I know how to make them want me, but that's where it stops. It's not real, it never lasts and I-- don't want it to. Because nothing actually lasts." He sighs.
Bruce doesn't say a word, because there's more and he knows as much.
"I'm a pretty face, douchy enough for it to be hot and rich. That's why people like me. Steve -- Steve is fucking Captain America, he is young and gorgeous and he can have anyone he wants. He's nice and he cares about people and he saves kittens from trees, okay, he helps old ladies across the street -- that's the kind of guy he is. He saves people, believes in humanity; he's optimistic and he... he is just such a good person, Bruce. I couldn't ruin him, ever, just because he has me confused with my dad and has a little crush on me."
"Even you can't believe that last part," Bruce points out, carefully. "He confused you for Howard in the beginning, maybe, but he knows better now. And you said it yourself -- he's Captain America; he wouldn't pursue you if he wasn't entirely sure, don't you think?"
Tony doesn't answer; he just takes a sip of his hot chocolate and burrows his face in Bruce's neck.
"Hey, don't fall asleep on me, Stark." Bruce murmurs, half-heartedly trying to shrug Tony's head off.
"I'm not." Tony replies, but he's already dozing off.
Bruce sighs and silently watches the sun rise over New York. He glances at his friend and sighs again, rolls his eyes, because of course a successful billionaire, genius, philantrophist, hero has a inferiority complex.
He sort of regrets not saying it earlier, but on the other hand, Tony probably wouldn't have believed him anyway; so Burce just sighs, again, and whispers, "You do deserve him, Tony."
It's in the middle of the night again and Steve has been working out; that much is obvious from the way his hair is lying over his forehead and the fact that his white t-shirt is clinging to his chest more than usual. Not that Tony has been looking or anything, nope, no, that is definitely not the case.
Tony, on the other hand... maybe tried to sleep and he managed to get a few hours, at least, but then he woke up and his room looked too much like a cave and the walls were closing in and he smelled like cold and car batteries and failure.
So, well, he's gone without sleep for days before. This time he has at least a couple of hours, so he can totally do it again.
That's why he's in the kitchen, drinking lots and lots of coffee and making an obstacle course for the Rubik's cube when Steve arrives.
They stare at each other for a couple of long seconds, before Tony takes the spork out of his mouth and puts down the canned ravioli; he was maybe using that, along with some spaghetti, to make a ramp. Maybe.
"What are you going?" Steve asks, softly, because it's that time of night and he knows better than to ask why Tony is awake in the first place.
"Um," Tony stalls and considers the pros versus the cons in explaining why and how he's building an obstacle course for a Rubik's cube. The decision is made for him when the Rubik's cube manages to climb out of the bowl Tony's kept him in and scampers away, blue and red and green and yellow switching places as it scurries away as quickly as it can.
Tony clears his throat and gestures vaguely toward the cube, "It was a thing. A thing that is no longer, I'm afraid, but anyway -- Capsicle, what brings you here at this spectacular time of night?"
"I was-- just thirsty," Steve explains and it comes out sounding extremely lame, because a thought struck him halfway through, it's clear in the way his eyes very suddenly changes focus and his posture loses some of it's certainty for a second. Suddenly, Steve seems strangely nervous, not unlike that time he confessed his feelings in the workshop. That, in turn, only serves to make Tony on edge.
So, logically, Tony does a sudden spin, turns on the tap and opens cupboards in search for glasses; he only knows where they store mugs and champagne glasses, not normal ones, and when he finally finds them, he has to stand on the tip of his toes to reach them, and whose idea was it to put them that high up, that is just not fair--
"What are you doing?" Steve -- who is suddenly crowded up close, right behind Tony -- asks as he turns off the water. He takes down two glasses without even the hint of a strain, that is not fair, normal people are not that tall.
"Glasses, water, you were thirsty and who am I to let you remain parched? That is only logical, Captain, and -- wow, did I just become Spock or what--" Tony rambles, he knows he's rambling, but. No. He can't do feelings and Steve is going to try to throw feelings at him again, isn't he.
"Are you... do you-- like me?" Steve murmurs, quietly; it's little more than a whisper, but it's enough to get Tony to stop talking. Steve sounds uncharacteristically uncertain, maybe a little afraid, but his eyes don't betray any hesitation.
"Do you like me?" Steve repeats and he rushes the words out urgently, as if scared to say them; he takes one of Tony's hands in both of his own, almost hesitantly. "It's just-- it hit me, the other day, that I have been forcing my feelings on you all this time -- and you, you never even said that you care for me in that sense. And I am not the only one, I've know that the others keep pressuring you into this... and I'm sorry, Tony--"
"You have nothing to apologise for, Cap," Tony says, before he can even think it through. "It's-- the others are asses, yeah, sure, I am very ready to agree with you there; but it's becuse they care," he realises that he echoes Bruce, which is weird, because he didn't even know that this is his opinion on the matter until now, huh. "And what they do is not your fault anyway, you know, and it's not like they're being completely obnoxious. Not more than usual, anyway."
Steve smiles slightly; Tony is not sure what is so amusing.
"But the question remains," Steve picks up valiantly. "Because no one asked you. How do you feel about me?"
Tony opens his mouth and closes it again, looks away; if there ever was a chance for him to end this, it's now. Steve is not in love with him, okay -- if he repeats it enough he can make all of them believe that -- and he can just put an end to-- to all of the silly notes and the hugs and the chaste kisses on his face; Steve can get over his crush and find someone proper to love--
Tony chest hurts again, right by the arc reactor.
"It's okay, I understand," Steve says suddenly and takes a step back. He does absolutely not look a little heart-broken in the least, nope. "It was presumptuous of me to assume that you felt similarly about me, but I hope that we can still be friends," he keeps backing. "Or at least keep up the professionalism during missions. I am really sorry, Tony, I never wanted to make you uncomfortable. I'll just, I'll be going now--"
That sounds awfully wrong and does not resound as it should with Tony's inner workings, so he shouts, "No!" before he can even think about it, reaches out and grabs Steve's hand.
Then he drops it, and half-reaches out again before lowering his hands.
At least that made Steve stop backing away. He just looms hesitantly by the door, ready to make a run for it if he has to instead.
"I-- no, I, Steve," Tony leans on the counter and hides his face in his hands. He cannot -- look at Steve while doing this, he'll just change his mind. "Steve. I-- am a complete jackass, okay, I am stupid and ridiculous. You're not-- you can't be, okay, because that would screw up my karma forever and I'll get run over by a car or something, and I'll survive long enough to get run over again and then get hit by a flying boat or something; I'd have the worst of fucking luck, because you're too much good for-- a person of my calibre."
Tony leans more heavily on the counter. He drops his hands but keeps his eye downcast; Steve's feet slowly enter his line of sight.
"I never said that I love you or like you or anything," Tony mutters. "But I never said that I don't, either, alright. There you have it. I am so not in denial any longer, yee-ha."
"You are, though," Steve murmurs and now he's really close, a hand under Tony's chin to bring his face up. "I am in love with you, you stubborn-- tin man, I have been for a really long time now. I'm not too good for you or anything like that, you're not undeserving of my love or whatever you think you are--"
"Bruce told you that, didn't he, that sounds like something he'd say," Tony cuts in.
"He did, maybe," Steve admits, shortly, before continuing. "You... you are such a good person, Tony. Maybe not the most... conventional guy around, I will give you that, but you're so-- you. You're beautiful."
"Alright, okay, I am an idiot, fine, fine," Tony finally looks up and his heart does not stutter because of Steve's soft, private smile. His chest does not resound with the feeling of Steve so close, nope, no way.
"Now, I promise I am no longer in denial, I'm super duper un-in-denial," because Steve looks pretty in love, okay, and he's looking at Tony right now -- perhaps he's looked like that all along and Tony just didn't see, didn't notice -- and if that's not hard evidence, Tony's not sure what is. "So ravage me, you beast, I am yours for the taking."
Steve snorts and shakes his head. His eyes are bright and he looks happier than Tony's ever seen him, so maybe this is okay, maybe it's real. There is no saying that it will last, but-- here is a person who is in love with Tony Stark and that is a first. Pepper doesn't count, because they were best friends before and their friendship sort of melted into love and then back into friendship; this is different. This is Steve Rogers, in love with Tony Stark for being Tony and that's it. Fellow heroes, saving the world and falling in love, the media will have a field day if they find out.
That is unbelieveably far from Tony's mind right now, though, because Steve is close and warm and he has typical, half-chapped boys' lips, but it's sort of glorious.
Tony is not awoken by Clint's victory whoop or the whacking noise Natasha's hair brush does when it collides with the back of Clint's head. Tony doesn't hear Thor rhyming about the everlasting love of two, brave warriors; he doesn't even pick up on the fond, tutting noises that Pepper makes, so he's not awake to see the warm, happy smile Bruce is directing at him.
What wakes Tony, in the end, is the Rubik's cube. He comes to slowly, when he feels something climbing up his right arm and is almost, totally, practically awake by the time it's reached his face; he opens his eyes and the first thing he sees is the cube; it's so close that his eyes cross.
He feels, before he hears, chuckles rumbling beneath him. The cube is picked up and placed on the table by Steve, who looks like he's just woken up and is really happy despite it.
"G'morning," Steve murmurs. "I'm in love with you. We fell asleep on the couch."
Tony rubs a hand over his eyes, before looking around and affirming that, yes, they're on the couch. In the living room. He's lying almost entirely on Steve and they are both wrapped around each other in a very possessive-squid-like manner. It should be too hot or uncomfortable -- anything -- but it's really not.
"Hmfnmhuh," which means good morning to you, too, sweetheart, and judging by the smile on Steve's face, he understood that. "Me too. On couch. Love you."
Steve's smile turns blinding and Tony half-expects light bulbs to start exploding, because Steve must have stolen their light and energy to be this bright.
"Let's get some coffee into you--" Steve begins, but is interrupted by Natasha and Pepper, who come bearing gifts. Or, rather, breakfast and most importantly: coffee.
"Courtesy of the house," Natasha says with a small smile.
"Thank you," Steve nods.
Pepper leans down and kisses Tony's forehead and whispers something that sounds suspiciously like finally under her breath.
"Would that be all, Mr Stark?" she murmurs, helping Tony reach his coffee mug.
"That would be all, Miss Potts," he manages just before he yawns. Pepper smiles, takes Natasha's hand and wanders back to the kitchen.
"I--" Tony starts when he's inhaled almost all of his coffee. "Thank you. For holding out and not just giving up on me."
"I would never," Steve replies, instantly, and kisses Tony's temple. "I love you, Tony, so, so much."
Tony shifts around until he's facing Steve properly; he kisses Steve softly, once, twice, three times, before he leans his forehead against Steve's and whispers, "I know."