There were a lot of unexpected side effects that came along with the serum. Not being able to get drunk, that was the very first one, but that was normal next to stuff like his fingernails growing an inch a week or his skin being unable to tan. Steve was still getting used to some of them, but generally he'd learned to handle himself. This newest one, though- he wasn't sure he could blame it on the serum, but he was very willing to.
Steve had developed the uncanny ability to walk in on people.
He asked for the first one; he went to Stark Tower unannounced for the very first time, something he'd been assured he could do- been encouraged to do- whenever he felt like it. And Steve had spoken to Jarvis, who'd spoken to Tony, and Jarvis told him to go right on up.
When he reached the floor to Tony's lounge, Tony was leaning against the bar, a drink in his hand; he was wearing a pair of black drawstring pants, no shirt, the arc reactor shining brightly in the slightly-dim room. "How's tricks, Cap?"
"I just thought I'd come by and-" he lost the rest of what he was going to say when he glanced over to the couch. Pepper was sitting there, facing him; she had her feet on the couch, knees drawn up to her chest.
And she was not wearing a single stitch of clothing.
She was very lovely, of course, lots of smooth, pale skin, and it was very, very hard not to look at her. If it weren't for a very strategically placed pillow, well, he'd pretty much be looking at all of her; as long as she didn't mind, Steve thought that would be a great thing to do.
Suddenly his brain snapped together; she was naked and Tony was half-naked and oh no.
"You want a drink?" Tony asked, holding up his decanter and shaking it a little.
Steve wasn't rightly sure whether Tony was genuinely unconcerned or getting back at him, but either way, his face grew hot instantly. "Uh, um, I," he stammered, backing up, trying to get to the elevator as quickly as possible. "I- I shouldn't have- sorry I-"
"Why don't you stick around?" Tony said, and he was almost definitely messing with Steve now, despite the fact that Steve really didn't mean any harm, none at all.
"I, I'll-" Steve said; he was not getting more articulate as time passed. "Going. I'll- going." He retreated to the elevator, getting in just as fast as he could.
He was so anxious to leave that he forgot to even press a floor button; the elevator sat there for a moment, and much to Steve's horror, the doors slid open again. Tony was still standing in front of the elevator, waiting. "Change your mind?"
Steve just frantically pounded on the lobby button, wanting to get out of there was fast as he could.
So that was mortifying.
The second time was not his fault; that time he'd been invited. Maria had a little place, the kind they all did, tucked away in a nondescript neighborhood, definitely watched but not blatantly so, a respite from SHIELD and the Initiative.
Steve was a little late, late enough that he was nervous about it, going faster than he should have been. He pulled up in front of Maria's, carefully propping his bike up and climbing off, taking off his helmet and combing his fingers through his hair.
There was a noise from the side of the house; Steve carefully looked, past the bushes and into the darkness, deep enough that anyone with regular eyes wouldn't be able to see.
Steve wasn't sure if he wanted to see or didn't. Phil had Barton against the wall, kissing him; they had clothes on, but whatever they were doing looked more sexy than a whole lot of the things he'd seen- mostly at Tony's provocation- on the internet.
Steve gulped, trying to remember how to make his feet move; the best idea was to act like he didn't hear anything at all, just go to the door and ring the bell. He cleared his throat, just in case, walking up the front steps, and there was another noise, louder this time.
"Shit, did he see us?" Barton hissed.
"Talking won't help," Phil whispered.
"Let's just go inside and act like nothing happened."
"You really want to go in and face everybody with this-"
"Ah! Ah, okay, okay, you have a point, but-"
Just then the door opened, and Maria welcomed him in, taking his helmet and jacket; when Phil and Barton came in a while later, Steve pretended he hadn't seen a single thing, though all of them had a little trouble meeting each other's eyes.
Steve thought it would be over then- twice was surely enough for anyone to have to handle. It was just bad luck that they'd been so close together, that was it.
The third time was when it got uncomfortable.
This one was maybe his fault, maybe not, but he thought conference rooms were for conferencing, the kind that happened with clothing on. He had a completely legitimate reason to be there, despite the fact that it was night; he didn't have a very good reason for standing at the blinds and watching, but he was pretty weak to the sight of two people making love right in front of him.
It was a man and a woman; he was sitting in the oversized chair at the head of the conference table, and she was moving slowly up and down on him. He had his hands on her backside, helping her along, and she gasped as he leaned forward and mouthed at her breasts.
The primary problem was that it was Barton and Pepper.
He was paralyzed, pulled in too many different directions to function. He really wanted to stand here and just watch and watch, watch as they moved, their bodies fitting perfectly together. On the other hand, it was Barton and Pepper; it would be horrible of him to let it go on, to let them betray Tony and Phil like that- that would be like betraying them himself. Maybe he should even go in there and break it up; he thought about that one for about fifteen seconds before remembering that discretion was the better part of valor- and also that it would be horrible for everyone involved.
He finally tore himself away, getting the hell out of there as fast as he could. The first thing to do was to tell Tony- before Phil, but only because he actually knew where Tony was- exactly what he'd seen; there was no keeping a secret like that, not if he wanted to sleep tonight.
Except that when he got to the lab, Bruce was leaning against one of the tables with Tony at his feet. That was an interesting one, for certain values of the word 'interesting,' but everything was getting more 'interesting' by the minute around here. What he actually saw, when he stopped boggling, was sweet, kind of lovely; Bruce had his hand on the back of Tony's head, and he was stroking Tony's hair, swirling his fingertips through it. Steve almost wanted to stay and watch that one too, but that would mean announcing his presence, which certainly would have startled at least one of them, and in this situation with these people, it was crucial that neither of them be startled.
It took every bit of Steve's training and ingenuity to get away unnoticed from a room with no walls to speak of; it only went so well, because when he saw Tony next, Tony clapped him on the shoulder and said, "A for effort, big guy," and walked off.
He, officially, had no idea what was going on.
It just kept on happening, with various degrees of fault on his part and awareness on everybody else's. There was once where it was Natasha and Phil in the middle of the weapons cache; there was the time with Maria and Pepper with the champagne and the hot tub; there was the very memorable occasion where Thor, Natasha, and Barton were doing something complicated-looking in the gym, right in front of God and everybody- and also Bruce, who was drinking a cup of tea and observing with interest.
He couldn't make it fit into his brain, not into anywhere he had spaces. It should have been seedy, dark, shameful, but everybody looked so happy. They fought and bickered and annoyed the hell out of each other, but they also had good times, times to work it out, to come back together; Steve had had no idea that sex even worked like that, that it wasn't something that was necessary, dirty, shameful, or all three.
When he couldn't take any more of it, it was Pepper he went to; they never spoke enough, him and Pepper, but Steve liked her, the way she was efficient but soothing, warm.
The fact that he'd seen her naked was a bit of a hindrance, but at this point he'd seen everybody naked, so he was kind of getting used to it.
"I don't know how to say this," Steve said, once they'd sat down, once she'd given him tea and let him get over his introductory, probably excessive thanks for seeing him. He'd been thinking about how to ask his questions over and over, and he realized there was no good way to say it. "Everyone here is having sex."
"Steve, it's okay," she said gently. "I know you like to watch, and it's not a big deal. You can just ask."
"What?" Steve said, shocked. "I swear it's accidental, I don't- I mean, it's not bad, but I like- I think I'd like, um, having." He put his tea cup down, feeling frustrated. "I don't understand what's going on."
Pepper looked weary. "You don't have to approve," she said, sounding like she'd given this speech before. "I know you come from a different time-"
"Pepper," he said, "I can't disapprove or approve when I have no idea what's going on at all." She frowned. "Look, pretend I don't know anything about anything," he told her. "If you want a blank slate, then let me be one."
She looked at him for a long time. "You are really something else."
"Thank you, ma'am," he said, hoping that was a good thing. "Now, talk me through this."
"Here it goes," Pepper said, taking a breath and starting to explain. She used some words that he didn't know and made some references he didn't get and kinda looked like she'd like to have a diagram for this presentation, but the message seemed pretty clear.
"So, it's okay for you to sleep with each other, because you all care about each other," Steve said, rolling it around in his head.
She smiled. "That's a lot faster than what I had."
"And everybody is like this now?" he asked; it seemed awfully complicated. They had a whole tower to run around in, but people who didn't, how did they even deal with it?
Pepper was still smiling, but now she looked sad. "No," she told him. "Most people think it's wrong."
Steve frowned. To be perfectly honest, coming from where he did, it didn't seem right at all. It was just that Steve was almost a hundred, and he'd missed a solid seventy years of progress; if you could download enough naked pictures for every boy in New York in half a night, it seemed more than a little ridiculous that a handful of people who loved each other couldn't be together.
"What do I need to do?" Steve asked.
Pepper looked a little thrown by the question. "What do you want to do?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "That's why I asked you."
She smiled softly. "You should do what you want," she told him, putting her hand over his. "You've got a standing invitation, but if it doesn't seem right to you, then don't do it."
He turned his hand over, curling his fingers around hers. "I know it's not right to have sex unless it's in a bed," he said resolutely.
She laughed. "Not even in the shower?"
"Never the shower," he said. "It's slippery in there."
"Up against the wall?" she offered.
"Maybe," he allowed. "But there's still plenty of risk involved. Bed's the place to be."
She shook her head; before he could lose his nerve, he leaned over and kissed her. It was brief, chaste, but she beamed. "I can't promise anything," he said. "I'm an old man. I'm not good with change."
"Nobody is," she told him, leaning over and kissing him again. "But between us, we get by."