Tony tries not to sexualize Steve, because Steve is twenty-five and Tony is turning forty in a few weeks’ time. Steve is far from a child, of course, but that really never was the point of it all. Tony has a hard enough time controlling his feelings, which for some reason become ardent and all-consuming when Steve is around. It’s not just the anger, or the annoyance, not even just the joy and giddiness of meeting a childhood hero. It is always all of it, all at once.
So Tony tries not to sexualize a man who is nearly half his age while also being over twice his age. It’s not easy. They spend a lot of time together these days in between missions. Tony has gotten to know Steve outside of his uniform and in street clothes, workout clothes, and formal clothes. He has seen him in things that are just a bit too tight and things that fall just a bit too loose, but he’s never seen him in anything that didn’t look good.
They’re friends now. Or at least they try to be. A tipping point for Tony was when he saw Steve almost get executed on national television. In that moment Tony realized that if there was no Captain America, there sure as hell would be no Avengers, and Tony would not be able to take on the world by himself as he had claimed years before. That feeling is only validated every single time they’re neck deep in shit and all eyes on the team turn to the Captain, willing him to say something, do something, think of something.
Steven Rogers is their Sun, and all they can do is turn around him in circles, absorb his heat, and hope he doesn’t explode during their lifetime.
That doesn’t mean that annoying the hell out of the guy hasn’t become Tony’s number one hobby. He’s even made a bad habit out of passing the stairs to his lab in favor of knocking on Steve’s door which is only a few feet down the hall, just to tell him useless things. Like that Macklemore mentioned Captain America in an interview as his idol, just to hear Steve say: “What’s Mackle- Is that a person?”
The truth is that it’s hard to think of Captain America as a twenty-five year-old most of the time, but sometimes is just so painfully clear that Tony can’t look straight at him without vomiting a ton of contradicting feelings in his direction. Steve – don’t even get Tony started on how much effort it takes to call him Steve – has big blue eyes that shine bright and earnest whenever he’s not in the middle of battling the monster of the week. Sometimes that monster of the week is a team mate, sometimes his best friend, and sometimes it’s Tony.
“Can I help you with something?” Steve asks one morning when he catches Tony staring longer than usual. There is a draft in the kitchen and Steve’s nipples are reacting to it. Tony wants to tell him to put on a sweater if he’s cold and then remembers that the man spent seventy years as an ice statue; he can handle a little draft.
“Peter is coming in this afternoon and I don’t know what to show him that’s not extremely classified or extremely boring,” he says instead.
“Peter Parker?” Steve asks. “I didn’t know he was coming over today. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him.”
“You should join us in the lab after your meeting,” Tony suggests, despite Peter pointedly scheduling this appointment at a time that Steve wasn’t going to be at the Tower. “I can’t focus when he’s around,” Peter had said. “I can’t even think at all. I even drooled a little bit, last time. So please, please, if it could be just the two of us, that would be great.” Tony is still somewhat offended that Peter is so freakishly impressed by Captain America and not by Tony Stark or Iron Man – but whatever. Tony is going to enjoy watching Peter embarrass himself in front of Steve as a reliever.
And that’s exactly what happens.
Steve wanders in around five pm, just after Tony shows Peter something he probably shouldn’t have shown him and is now entranced with the ball of Asgardian magnetic light that Thor brought back for Tony a few weeks ago. It’s completely harmless, even though it scorched a few of Tony’s arm hairs when he tried to set it on fire just to see what it would do. It catches on fire, that’s what it does.
Peter is seated behind the wheel of one of Tony’s roofless cars, bouncing the ball of matter from one hand to another, when Steve steps into his line of vision. The priceless otherworldly artifact slips out of his fingers, lands onto the ground and rolls under another car. A faint light shows where it comes to a standstill.
“Oh my god,” Peter gasps.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to play with that,” Steve says mildly. “It set Tony on fire the other day.”
“I set it on fire, actually.”
“Yeah, you were the real winner,” Steve hums.
“I’m so sorry, he said I could look at it and I- I’m sorry, I’ll find it-” Peter babbles as he awkwardly tries to get out of the car, clearly not sure whether he should climb over the door or open it.
“Oh, no, don’t worry about it,” Steve then assures him. “Thor says it’s harmless,”
“Thor – Is it true that you – I’m probably not even supposed to know – I can’t believe you did this to me, Tony,” the boy finally sighs and climbs out of the car. “I have to go. I’m really sorry, really.”
“For what?” Steve asks, by the looks of it confused at this turn of events. “Hey, don’t you want to stay for dinner?”
“Oh my god,” Peter sighs one last time and then runs for the exit. Jarvis lets him out of the lab without needing to be asked.
“What did I do?” Steve asks Tony when it’s just the two of them.
“Nothing,” Tony grins. “He’s nervous around you, that’s all. I thought it would be funny to see him eat himself up in front of you. I was wrong. It was absolutely hilarious. The best thing I’ve seen all month.”
“Since when is he nervous around me? He’s been completely fine with me on the field.”
“Yeah, well, Spiderman and Peter Parker are practically two different people. He’s a lot more confident when he’s in that suit. I don’t know why. He’s a great kid and all.”
“Why is he nervous around me?”
“Oh, come on.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Nothing. It’s because you’re you, that’s all. People get star struck meeting Avengers.”
“He doesn’t seem star struck by you.”
“And that’s the end of this pleasant conversation. Please get your rude ass out of my workspace.”
“Fine. But be upstairs at eight. Nat is cooking,” he tells Tony before passing him with a pat on the shoulder.
“Give me one good reason not to blast you into another dimension right now,” Natasha says when she catches him snooping around her room that night.
“It’s not very good for team morale,” he says, putting her pillows back to where they were. “I’m not looking for signs of your betrayal, relax.”
“Then what the hell are you doing in my room? We’ve talked about this. Steve said you’re not allowed in –”
“Steve said? Please, what is he going to do? Ground me?”
She looks at him, pure malice in her eyes, before turning on her heels and leaving the room. She slams the door shut behind her and Tony hears he call Steve’s name in the hallway. For some reason, this fills him with real dread.
“I was just looking for my watch!” he wails, rushing after her. “You took it in the first place!”
“I won it,” she bites back.
“In a bet you clearly rigged!”
“Buy a new one.”
“It was a gift.”
“Why are you betting on gifts to begin with?”
“I heard my name,” Steve says, appearing at the end of the hallway. “Why are you arguing?”
“Stark was in my room,” she says, crossing her arms.
“She swindled me out of a Bulgari. One I got from Pepper, by the way.”
Steve looks from Tony to Natasha and then back to Tony. And then he looks past them and stares at the wall for a good five seconds. “Is this really something you need me for?”
“You said rooms were private and no one was to enter each other’s rooms uninvited. We agreed-”
“We also agreed not to steal precious personal items from each other,” Tony reminds her. “Literally the law.”
“I won it. You were dumb enough to lay it on the table. It wasn’t like you were short on cash or anything. You purposefully put it in the pot and I won it. It’s mine now.”
“Guys, I still don’t see why I’m here.”
“Tell him he’s not supposed to be in my room. Ever.”
“He knows that,” Steve sighs. “You know that, Tony. Why didn’t you just – okay, no. You two need to figure this one out on your own. You’re both grown, you’re both supposed to be smart. Talk this one out.”
“What the hell? You can’t just make up a bunch of rules and then not enforce them with an iron fist, Steve,” Natasha complains.
“I didn’t make up that rule, though. We agreed on it as a team.”
“Team captain says what?”
“I’m not falling for that again. Talk it out. For the record: you shouldn’t have been in her room,” he tells Tony and then turns to Natasha and says: “And you should have known better than to have accepted that watch knowing where it came from.”
“I thought he wanted-”
“No, talk to him,” is the last thing he says, before putting his hands up and walking back down the hallway and turning a corner.
“You thought I wanted what?” Tony then asks her, after a moment of stifling silence. He hopes she’ll drop it, maybe suggest he buys it back from her or something.
“I thought you wanted to get rid of it, because of what happened between you and Virginia. And if you didn’t want to get rid of it, then you made a horrible choice and I don’t see why you should be rewarded for it. Betting against me is a horrible choice in general.”
“So first you rat me out. What, Steve is your dad now? And now you’re just going to call me out, in the middle of my hallway, about some break up that happened almost a year ago?”
“You’re the one putting your life on the line by breaking into my room. Calling Steve was me trying to save myself an evening of cleaning your brain matter off of my sheets.”
“Guys,” Steve calls at them form the kitchen. “Take this somewhere private, maybe.”
Natasha rolls her eyes, but then nods at her bedroom door. Tony follows her inside, all the while wondering why he’s following her inside, and crosses his arms when the door shuts behind him. “I don’t know why you’re making such a huge deal out of me being in your room anyway. The way you’re acting you’d think you’re hiding state secrets here. But I didn’t find any.”
“So what? The only way I can want some privacy is if I have something to hide? Running around in the middle of this sausage fest isn’t enough for me to need a place for myself?”
“That’s – look, I won’t do it again. I just need that watch back.”
“It was a gift.”
“From your ex-girlfriend.”
“So? She’s still my friend.”
“Barely. I thought you wanted to get rid of it on purpose. Now that you’re all into Steve and all.”
And has Tony wondering what exactly he walked into. Pepper isn’t his friend? He’s all into Steve?
What he knows for sure is that he did put that watch in the pot on purpose. He also knew then that his chances of winning were smaller than the chance that the game would be interrupted by an interstellar crisis. There were a lot of things that reminded Tony of Pepper, but it had always felt like that watch was burning a hole through his dresser. He had wanted to get rid of it, only to feel like an asshole for betting away something Pepper had once spent time and money on to get for him specifically. His name was engraved on the back, together with the date of last year’s birthday.
“What does Steve have to do with this?” he finally sighs.
“You’re trying to get on that.”
“He’s a child and a grandfather. How would I even begin to get on that? Besides he’s like an extremely obnoxious little brother to me. Dad’s favorite little jerkface.”
“You’ve convinced me,” Natasha says with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “You can earn the watch back by calling Pepper and talking to her like a normal person, instead of pretending that the fact that you haven’t spoken to her in three months isn’t eating away at your reasoning skills.”
“Why the hell do you even care?”
“You broke into my room as a result of this. Also, if you’re trying to stay on Steve’s good side, you can’t be this unstable.”
“You think I’m on Steve’s good side, now?”
“You usually are.”
“I’ll call her,” Tony says. “And you’re giving it back. And then I’m never entering your room again, so that you can enjoy reading that entire stack of children’s books by yourself.”
“Don’t try to burn me, Stark. You’re bad at it,” she says, but the second of hesitation in her voice gives her away.
There is no way he can casually call Pepper up. She’ll undoubtedly think he’s in the middle of his final breath or worse, drunk, if she sees his name flashing on her screen. That’s why he tells Jarvis to shoot her a warning text, telling her that he will be calling her sometime in the coming week.
“Do you want to get back together with her?” Steve asks when Tony unloads the events of the evening onto him, at the end of the night. It’s past midnight and somewhere on the floor Clint is still stirring, but he’s usually less interested in them than they are in him when it comes to these things. The room is barely lit and Steve is looking crisp and smelling sweet, twirling their main light source between his fingers. Tony had fetched the magnetic ball out from under his car that afternoon and made the mistake to take it up to the loft. Clint had played hacky sack with it for hours. Now Steve has it, and the light coming off of it seems to be brighter than it has been all afternoon. It might be because it’s light travels further in the mostly dark room. It might also be because Asgardian items – and people – tend to have a certain reaction to Steve that they don’t have to anyone else.
“No,” Tony hears himself answer. “That ship has sailed, capsized and sank to the bottom of the ocean a long time ago.”
“But you have feelings for her,” Steve says, catching the ball in one hand. “I think Natasha has a point. It might be good to talk to her.”
“Isn’t there someone out there you would rather have thousands of miles away from the mess that is our life?”
“There is. But it’s not the same. Bucky is a fighter, this is his life as much as it is yours and mine.”
“Barnes is to you what Pepper is to me, huh?”
“I don’t know,” Steve shrugs. “I don’t know how you feel about her.”
“How do you feel about him?” Tony asks, not really knowing if he truly wants to hear the answer or not. Barnes hasn’t come around the Tower for a few weeks, but Steve has regular contact with him outside of the Tower. It’s something that Tony tries not to make his business; Barnes stopped trying to assassinate all of them a while ago now, and if Steve trusts this man, then Tony can do nothing but pretend he trusts him too.
“He’s my brother,” Steve then says, and Tony lets out a breath he didn’t known he was holding. “And I’ll never forgive myself for what happened to him. For what will happen to him, eventually, if we keep this up. But I also know that there is very little I can do about it now. Can’t go back, can’t control his actions.”
Steve puts the ball down on the table in front of them and the light significantly dims. Tony isn’t the only one to notice, because next to him Steve lets out a: “Huh,” and reaches for it again. The intensity of the light increases the second the ball touches Steve’s skin.
“I didn’t know it did that,” Steve says.
“Neither did I,” Tony frowns. He holds out his hand and Steve puts the ball in the middle of Tony’s palm. The light dims. “Of course. Mister Perfect does it once again.”
After a week of full time testing, all they’ve been able to conclude is that the magnetic field doesn’t react to anyone, not even Thor, the same way it reacts to Steve. They’ve gone as far as taking six vials of Steve’s blood, emptying them in a bowl and throwing the ball into it, to see if it reacts. It would mean that it might be reacting to the serum, and not to Steve, but the results were inconclusive. They’ve even tried talking to the thing, but without result.
“I guess this is one Asgardian mystery we’ll have to wait out,” Tony sighs by the end of the week. “Sorry your blood went to waste.” Steve is sitting next to him, the ball of light balancing on his knee.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s kind of cute, though, isn’t it?” Steve says with a smile. Right, about halfway into the week the ball started to actually recognize Steve, and gravitate towards him when Steve and the ball were in the same room together and no one was holding the thing. It would roll off of tables and stop at Steve’s feet. It would roll of off Natasha’s lap and come to rest against Steve’s thigh. Like a pet with a favorite human.
“Maybe we should lock the thing up for a while and see how it reacts to not being around you for long periods of time. Maybe it’ll go back to the way it was. Or maybe it’ll implode in on itself and we’ll be rid of it once and for all.”
“We’re not going to torture it, Tony.”
“What if it grows because you give it too much attention? What if its magnetic field becomes too big and you get trapped inside of it – what if this was a trick all along. Loki’s never dying ass could be behind this.”
“Mister Stark,” Jarvis suddenly pipes up. “I must inform you that the text message that was sent to Miss Potts, warning her that you will call within a week, was sent exactly 8 days ago.”
“Oh, shit. I’ve been distracted by this mess – I’ll call her Jarvis. Give me a reminder tonight.”
“Will do, sir.”
“What are you calling Pepper for?” Steve asks, absently running his fingers through what look like electric currents, but if they were electric currents he’d be fried by now. Tony can’t get close enough to the thing to get the same affect.
“The watch, remember?” he sighs.
“Oh – oh, the thing with Nat. I almost forgot about that. You should call her. We’ll leave you alone.”
Tony wants to object, and tell him to stay so that he can observe Steve’s interacting with that thing again – but the words die in his throat. Did Steve just say we?
“Sir, a reminder to call Miss Potts.”
“Remind me again in the morning.”
In the morning, the thing is flying. Well, it hovers, and only ever right above Steve’s shoulder. “It’s warm,” Steve tells Tony over breakfast. “Like a heater.”
“That sounds very dangerous,” Tony says. “Did it do that when you woke up or did it start after you touched it?”
“It was sort of hovering over me when I woke up,” Steve admits. “I don’t remember taking it to my room with me. I’m sure I left it in the front room, on the table. And I shut the door when I left. The door to my room was closed too.”
“Let me tell you,” Tony then sighs into his coffee. “I’ve learnt to start days expecting that anything could happen, but I definitely did not start this Tuesday thinking that Captain America would tell me that he’s getting haunted by a ball of glitter.” He doesn’t say that the ball hanging around Steve’s shoulder makes his hair kind of look even more golden than it usually does, that his eyes are cast in sort of the perfect light and that ‘angelic’ does not even come close to covering it.
“I mean, weirder things have happened,” Steve says, and then adds with a little smile: “I’m not worried.”
The ball of light spins around on its axis and it reminds Tony of a dog wagging its tail. As much as it seems to be harmless and Steve even seems to like it, all it manages to do for Tony is make him severely uncomfortable. He’s not even sure why. He is long past being envious of Steve’s forever Chosen One way of living. It’s something else, something Tony can’t put his finger on. “Come on,” Tony then sighs. “Back down to the lab.”
In another week’s time, the thing has managed to evolve into something that is near sentient. It recognizes Steve’s voice now, can follow simple orders like ‘stay’, ‘come’ and ‘change color’. Steve has gotten worryingly attached to it, and Tony hasn’t come any closer to figuring out what the hell it’s even supposed to be. Thor is no help at all.
“It’s an incandescence,” he says with a shrug. “When heat is put onto it, it will emit heat back towards the source. It becomes stronger with need, and weaker with satisfaction.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. I was the one who burned it, but it is stalking Steve.”
“A heat source like this is usually used in the colder lands of Asgard, but it is not unheard of for its effects to take place based upon less physically hard conditions. It reacts to emotional distress as well.”
“You think Steve is emotionally distressed? Or… Me?’
Thor opens his mouth halfway to say something and then just smiles. “Not all magic from Asgard is logical, but it is always powerful. The Captain is in no danger and neither are you.”
“I’ll let you know if I think of something,” Thor then says, lifting his hammer off the stool next to him. “Should I let Steven know what we talked about?”
“No,” Tony blurts hurriedly. “No, I’ll talk to him. I need more tests anyway.”
“I get it. You don’t have to spell it out,” Tony sighs. “Don’t tell him.”
Thor gives him a short nod before leaving the lab and Tony stares at the wall across from his work table for a good twenty minutes trying to come up with the next logical step. It doesn’t come, so he decides to do something he’s been putting off.
“Jarvis, give me Miss Potts, please.”
“And you want my blessing?”
“Just telling you what’s going on with me. Your turn.”
“No, Tony. You can’t just give me this pile of information and gloss over it. So, Steve – Captain America – is getting harassed by your… ball of love? Is that – ball of feelings? Ball of – ”
“Let’s call it a sphere. A sphere of… affection. A sphere of warmth, maybe. I don’t know, I’m not the space alien who came up with this shit. I wasn’t going to – I mean, I know it’s not right. He is… who he is. And the more I’m around him the more that thing does. It vibrated him awake this morning. Like what the fuck is that? But anyway, what’s going on with you?”
“I don’t want your blessing, Jesus. I want to know how to nip this in the bud. How do I make the thing disappear?”
“What is there to do? I know it may be hard, but you should probably just… talk to him? From what I hear the two of you are very close.”
“From what you hear, huh. I can’t believe I let that she-demon live in my house.”
“Don’t talk about her like that. She’s only ever fair. Listen, Tony, I’m really happy you decided to call and I’m happy to hear you and Captain America are getting along. The feelings-ball thing just seems like a bit of an inconvenience, but it also seems like a great way for you to get your feelings for him out in the open.”
“He’s fifteen years younger than I am. Or fifty-five years older, depending on how you – hey, is that my watch on your wrist?”
Steve doesn’t seem at all bothered by the strange pet he’s suddenly gained, but when Barnes comes around for the first time in god knows how long, he stares at the ball of light like it offended his mother.
“What if it’s radioactive?” he asks.
“It’s not,” Tony answers.
“What if it’s poisonous?”
“What if it’s feeding off of his soul or something?”
“You’ve got a great imagination, but it’s not,” Tony says. “It’s harmless. It’s a ball of Asgardian light with a crush on a human prince. It’s not that weird these days.”
“Last time I checked you didn’t have blue blood just yet,” Barnes says, knocking his shoulder against Steve’s. Steve is dead focused on stack of files that he’s been filtering through since early that morning. Barnes had apparently offered to help, and so had Tony. Up until now they haven’t been much help at all.
Barnes reaches over Steve’s shoulder then and takes the ball of Tony’s feelings into his hand. The light dims immediately, becomes cold and grey. Tony feels it, feels the chill all the way down to his bones. It’s almost as though Barnes has a cold metal hand wrapped around his heart.
Tony immediately feels bad at the way Barnes’ face crumbles and he drops the ball back into Steve’s lap where it comes to life again. “I guess there’s only one prince here after all,” he says with a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. Before Steve can say anything, Barnes reaches for a stack of files and takes them with him as he leaves the room.
“It’s never done that before,” Steve says. “Why would it do that?”
“I don’t know,” Tony lies through his teeth. “Maybe it’s mad he accused it of being poisonous?”
Steve gets up then, tells the ball to stay and follows Bucky out of the room. The ball hovers in place, and Tony grabs it. “You’re too real,” he whispers, like an idiot. “Please calm down a little bit. Be nice to that one, he’s just a friend but he’s important to him.”
It’s not like the thing had proven to listen to Tony before so he doesn’t know why he thinks it’ll react to him now, because it doesn’t. It just sits passively in his hand, golden in color while the edges are wired with what look like crackling bronze veins. It’s beautiful. Are Tony’s feelings for Steve this pure, this sincere? Is that what this thing is trying to tell him? He then thinks of how it dropped cold and with the weight of a brick in Bucky’s hand and rejects the idea. He’s not prepared to step into something with Steve when he can’t even accept his best friend’s presence in the same room.
“You need to get your act together,” he hisses at it, before throwing it onto the couch next to him and starting on the next file.
Peter Parker is back for an afternoon of fun and this time Tony isn’t planning on breaking his promise of keeping Steve away. “He’s out, don’t worry,” Tony says when Peter looks around the lab anxiously before entering. “You really need to just sit down with the guy. You might even learn a thing or two.”
“I thought I was learning from you,” Peter says, dropping his bag on the worktable before sitting down.
“There is only so much I can do for you. He’s the one with the actual integrity and justice running through his veins.”
“That’s the whole point. What if he tells me I suck, then what? How do you recover from that?”
“He’s not going to tell you that you suck unless you actually suck. I don’t think you have to worry about it just yet. Stay on your toes, though,” Tony grins at him. “So where did we leave off last time? It’s been over a month so you might have to freshen my memory.”
“I wouldn’t mind looking at that flashy light thing again. Do you still have it?” Peter then asks.
“Flashy light – oh, that thing. Well, that thing is a bit… I don’t even know where it is. It must be somewhere around the Tower, unless Steve took it with him. He doesn’t, usually, but I think Sam wanted to see it so he might have snuck it out today –”
“It is located under the couch in the loft, Sir,” Jarvis says, helpfully. “There has been development in its behavior.”
“Great, adventure awaits us in the loft, Spiderboy,” Tony sighs.
What they find in the loft are four Avengers on their knees, huddled around the sofa and peering under it. Tony takes a picture before coming closer.
“It refuses to come out,” Bruce explains. “And it completely freaks out when we try to lift the couch.”
“How did it end up here?” Tony asks, getting to his knees to take a peek under the couch for himself. The dull light of it is flickering and he doesn’t really understand. He feels okay.
“We don’t know. Steve left early this morning. We thought that maybe something happened to him and that’s why it was acting out, but we called and he’s with Bucky at Sam’s,” Natasha says. “It might just miss him or something. It’s been almost twelve hours, and we know he’s not coming back until tomorrow. Maybe it knows, too.”
Does Tony miss Steve? It’s been a few days since they actually spend time together other than a quick chat in the hallway. Steve has his missions, Tony has his things.
“Maybe,” Tony says. When he sits up straight, it’s Thor who is looking at him, unconvinced. He opens his mouth to speak, and then all the sirens go off.
Steve is the only one close enough to initiate the self-destruct system. Tony watches it happen in a split second; too fast for anyone to react. Steve straps his shield to his chest, wraps his arms around the bionic demon’s body and rams his fist into its throat. He is thrown like a ragdoll, first two hundred feet into the air, before he comes slamming down into the concrete below. No one is there to catch him before he hits the ground. Natasha is caught in the blast, unconscious at first contact and a quick scan tells Tony that she has broken a few ribs, and has a nonfatal head wound.
Steve, Steve – he doesn’t scan Steve.
He’s startled awake by cold metal pressing to his neck. It almost feels like it could be the barrel of a gun, if not for the way it curls around his neck for a second and then unwinds again.
“You need to go,” Barnes tells him before taking the empty chair next to Tony’s and handing him a bottle of water.
“Why?” he asks, unscrewing the cap and gulping down half of it in one go.
Barnes stays silent for a moment after that and Tony doesn’t know why he asked. He knows he’s only wasting his time there. Steve has been out for almost forty-eight hours now, with no sign of him waking up any time soon. Tony has barely left the room since then, because he doesn’t know what to do out there. What is there for him to do out there, when Steve is in here? It doesn’t make sense for him to go. Natasha is in the room across the hall, awake and on her feet but not discharged just yet. She spends most of her time with Tony, and doesn’t talk much. When she’s not here, Barnes is across the hall with her. That’s a strange and terrifying development that Tony can’t quite wrap his head around just yet. When he looks up, he sees that Natasha has slipped into the room as well, and is sitting on the other side of Steve’s bed stiffly, looking intently at Steve’s face.
“Barton brought clothes. There is a shower in Romanoff’s room,” Barnes then tells him.
Tony doesn’t argue. He finds the bag with everything he needs on Natasha’s hospital bed. He washes off the grime that he has been accumulating ever since the battle and changes into crisp clothes that in no way represent how he feels at the moment. He doesn’t know for how long he slept just now, doesn’t know when he last ate. He doesn’t know why he even bothers being here. Steve is going to wake up eventually, maybe tomorrow or the day after, maybe in an hour from now. The Captain is going to be fine. He knows that, rationally. But it doesn’t change the fact that a pit of dread and despair had opened up in Tony’s chest when he finally reached Steve on the ground and Jarvis let Tony know, without being prompted, that his heartbeat was slow, but steady.
Steve had opened his eyes on the way to the hospital, his wounds are already beginning to heal and before anyone knows it, things will be back to the way they were.
“You need to be in bed,” he tells Natasha when he comes back to Steve’s room, not more than fifteen minutes later. She’s taken over Tony’s chair, leaving the one on the other side of Steve’s bed empty. “You can’t keep moving around like that. You won’t heal properly.”
“We can’t all hibernate until broken bones heal themselves,” Natasha says with a slight wheeze in her voice, nodding towards Steve. He’s already got some color back in his face and the burns and deepest cuts have disappeared.
She doesn’t last for much longer though, and when Barnes helps her back to her room Tony gets out of his chair. He leans over Steve’s form, examines his face for a second but avoids getting hung up on eyelashes and lips and –
“Hey,” he says, shoving at the man’s shoulder. “Hey, get up. Enough of that.” He shakes him a few more times before Steve’s eyes finally flutter open.
“My name is Edward Stark, grandson of an old friend of yours. It’s been fifty years since you fell asleep.”
“You look old enough to be someone’s grandpa yourself,” Steve says with a hint of a smile. “How is everyone?”
“Safe and sound. Nat is cracked here and there but nothing she can’t handle.”
“What about you? I remember the magnets –”
“I’m fine. I’m – Jesus, Steve. You’re the one in a damn hospital bed.”
“I know, and I feel stupid. But I’m alright,” he says, sitting up for emphasis. Tony puts a hand to his shoulder, ready to push him back down – how futile his attempt might be. But Steve covers Tony’s hand with his own and Tony loses track of what he was trying to do altogether.
There are blue eyes looking up at him, leaving him stuck. Stuck where he’s standing and stuck where he’s thinking. “You should know that-” he starts, and he’s got a clear picture of what he’s going to say despite knowing that this is not the time. Near death experiences followed by confessions of love are outdated and somewhat cruel, in Tony’s opinion. He’s only sort of annoyed when Barnes comes through the door in the middle of his sentence.
“Hey, look who’s awake. It’s only been about twenty years this time. You should meet my kids,” Barnes grins.
It gives Tony a new perspective on the situation, when Sam shows up at the hospital and immediately suggests that Steve stays at his place until he’s fully healed. Steve agrees immediately.
And just like that Steve is gone for a week and Tony’s hands have never felt so empty while his heart was so full. The ball of light is back to the way it was when Thor had brought it from Asgard with him. Silver and inanimate. Its effects have worn off, probably due to lack of exposure. Lack of exposure to Steve. And how Tony wishes it was that easy for him too.
Instead he sulks over the remnants of Steve’s shattered shield, wondering if he will ever manage to make one that will stand the test of whatever the fuck Steve puts it through next. He’s still angry that he never managed to replicate Steve’s first shield, the vibranium alloy that Howard drunkenly confessed to having produced accidentally.
So Tony does the best he can, experiments and fucks up, burns his hands and singes some more of his arm hair. He’s nowhere near done with the thing when Jarvis startles him out of a greasy daze.
“Sir, you have visitor.”
“No time for visitors,” he answers shortly, annoyed that he’d let himself get startled like that. He turns back to his table and expects silence, but Jarvis speaks up again.
“It’s Captain Rogers, Sir,” as though he knows that it makes a difference. Because it does.
“Let him in,” Tony says, and shoots out of his stool towards the sink in the corner to wash the soot and grease off of his hands and face. He looks around for a shirt or something that doesn’t reek of his sweat and oil, but comes up short. He’s still drying his face when Steve casually walks through the door. He is walking straight up, looking like he never almost exploded together with a biomechanical monster. He looks better than Tony feels, but the sight of him sends a spike of energy through him.
“When did you get discharged from Wilson’s home for wayward supersoldiers?” Tony asks, throwing the towel onto the nearest surface.
“I’m not coming back just yet,” he says with a little shrug. “I was actually wondering about –” he points his thumb towards the worktable that has seventy percent of a proper shield on it, unpainted and not yet plated. “I know there is a spare one here somewhere.”
“I’m making you a better one,” Tony tells him, a bit miffed that the shield is apparently the only thing Steve is here for. “Can you wait a day or two?”
“Not really. Jet is leaving in an hour.”
“You’re not going on a mission already.”
“Bucky needs back up, Nat is still benched –”
“I was looking right through your ribcage four days ago, Steve. Barnes can take the God of Thunder, or one of the seventy other super douchebags running around here. You’ve got absolutely no business getting on jets with your comrade – Listen, I’ll even go in your place if you want –”
“Tony, I’m fine. Completely healed. Good to go. You on the other hand look pretty dead on your feet.”
“Don’t even start. I’m doing this for you, because your sorry ass can’t stay alive without that damn shield strapped to your back, like some damn turtle – Jarvis, where is the spare shield?”
“No records of a spare shield, sir.”
Steve’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise and Tony can’t think for a second. “No records of…”
“Captain America’s original shield was left in the Dead Zone, after which the Captain used the spare that was designed in this lab. There is no record of any other shield.”
“I didn’t make another spare?”
“How did I not –”
“It’s fine. I’ll figure something else out,” Steve then says, already inching back towards the door. “Tony, you need to go lie down. I’ll be back within a few days. I’ll send you the mission brief.”
“What are you going to do without a shield?”
He doesn’t like the wry smile Steve gives him. “I’m not completely useless without a shield, Tony.”
It turns out to be a routine intelligence mission, but as Tony reads through the brief hours later – he decided to go to sleep after writing down the wrong formula twice in a row – he can’t help but hate himself for sending Steve out unarmed. It’s Tony’s job to provide his team with everything they need to get their jobs done, and to think that he failed the simplest task he’s got – yeah. And Steve’s shield, of all things. He knows that what Jarvis said wasn’t completely true. There are about ten to fifteen prototype shields lying in the armory, but none of them are strong enough to be trusted in Steve’s hands. The man is known to run through brick walls and jump off seventy story buildings.
But Steve is back again after three days and Tony has a shield ready for him then. He makes two from the same alloy as he had made the last one with, but he figures that now is as good a time as any to try and figure out how the replicate the first shield.
“My dad said you had picked it out yourself out of a pile of other trash. What was it about that one?”
“It was the shiniest one.”
“It was the perfect size for my torso, easy to carry. That’s all.”
“No magical calling? That’s disappointing.”
“It’s just a shield, Tony.”
“You’re just saying that because you know I’m obsessing over it. I know how much that thing meant to you. God knows seeing you without it is unnerving, so I can’t imagine how it must feel for you to walk around bare like that.”
Steve is quiet for a moment and then he takes a few steps to stand closer to Tony who hasn’t really looked up at Steve since he came down to ‘help’. Tony asked him to come down, god only knows why.
“Look at me,” Steve says when Tony pointedly keeps his eyes on his workbench. “Please.”
“What is it, Steve?”
“I want to explain to you what my shield means to me and I need you to listen very carefully. It’s good, it’s my favorite weapon. It makes me feel safe to a degree. But at the end of the day it’s still just a weapon and it can be replaced. It’s not worth the headache you’re giving yourself.”
“Your safety is worth a few headaches, buddy,” Tony says, but he does feel a bit lighter in the chest. Maybe it’s Steve’s hand on his shoulder, or the blue eyes trying so hard to convey that everything is okay.
“That’s very nice, Tony, but please remember what I said.”
“I love you.”
It rings around the basement, bounces of the concrete walls and glass doors, and hangs heavily between them. Steve stares at him for a few seconds, visibly processing Tony’s words. It’s too late to backtrack now, and Tony doesn’t think he would have if he could. It’s time. It was time two months ago, but Tony finds the words in this moment. “I’m in love with you, and I have to do anything I can to help you. That’s it. It’s important to me, that’s why I do it.”
“I thought it was over,” Steve says. “They said the ball had lost power. Thor said… I thought it meant that you didn’t…”
Now it’s Tony’s turn to stare. “You knew?”
“Thor told me, sort of. After what happened with Bucky, he wanted to help. But when I came back from Sam’s the thing had stopped reacting to me completely so I figured you were… done.”
“No, well. Look, I was going to tell you how I felt eventually. It’s just that I thought I lost my chance and you had moved on. Which is fine, of course. I can’t force you to love me back, but – I should have asked, you know? Logically. But you know, I wasn’t thinking very logically and-”
“Shut up for a second. I don’t know what I’m hearing right now. You’re – what? Returning my feelings?”
“Of course. I mean… I thought you knew.”
“How crazy I am about you.”
Tony can truly only gape at him now.
“Oh come on, you can’t be that clueless. I’ve spent so many pointless hours down here. That’s embarrassing.”
“Pointless hours? Every second down here is amazing.”
“I’m only ever down here for one reason, Tony. For you.”
“The ball is just a toy,” Tony then says, in an exhale. “It ran out of juice. If I lit it on fire again, it’d be screwing your brains out right now. Metaphorically. Probably. I don’t know how far those Asgardian things will go.”
“Same here,” Steve shrugs.
Tony looks at his face. He could just go for, right? He could kiss Steve and just see what happens. He could just go with this turn of event, like he did with Pepper. Only that did not end that well, and even just the thought of starting something with Steve and it ending gives him anxiety.
“Look, it’s not like it never crossed my mind that you might have feelings for me, too. But every time I think that, I look up and I see you talk to someone else pretty much the exact same way you talk to me and treating people the same way you treat me, if not with more affection. So you can’t blame me for being a little blindsided here.”
“I don’t blame you for anything,” Steve then says. “And I’m sorry I made you feel that way. Obviously my feelings for you are different than for the rest of the team, but I’m also in a position where you guys come to me with the most petty disputes almost every single day, no matter how often I tell you not to. Maybe I feel pressured to stay neutral towards all of you most of the time.”
“As a good team leader should,” Tony sighs at the most perfect answer anyone could come up with. And then it hits him. Steve is telling him that he is in love with Tony. Steven Rogers, Captain America, leader of the Avengers, is putting the team aside at the moment, risking their dynamic, just to tell Tony that he has feelings for him. Neither of them is just going with the flow here. “Is that why you stayed at Sam’s this week? You can’t really relax here, can you?”
“Barton came all the way to the hospital to tell me that Thor hid his arrows after he blasted the hammer with it during a training session. I was still on an IV.”
“I’ve been telling you to put Thor and Barton on a leash.”
“And I’ve been telling you to keep an eye out on the team when I’m not around.”
“I’ve been kind of busy, remember?” Tony says, knocking his knuckles onto the plate of the new shield. “And I am not your guy when it comes to calming these people down. Even now I hate myself for not being there to see Barton and Thor piss each other off. I instigate. You dissuade. But I guess I can try to keep them out of your hair the next time someone blows a hole through your chest. That warrants a day off.”
“Next time,” Steve nods and reaches over the desk, grabbing the only painted shield there.
“I’m still working on the vibranium alloy. We don’t have much of it left, so I’m trying to be as careful with it as I can. Give me another week or so.”
“Take your time,” he says a bit absently, more focused on the shield in his hands than Tony’s words. He slides his hand through the straps and something clenches in Tony’s chest. It is picture perfect, even when he is in jeans and a grey t-shirt. “Did you talk to Pepper?” Steve asks suddenly, shaking Tony out of his reverie.
“About you, mostly,” Tony admits. “The embarrassing thing with the watch is solved and I don’t want to think about it anymore.”
Steve nods at that and puts the shield back on Tony’s work desk. “Where do we go from here?”
“Oh, I’m waiting for you to make the call,” Tony says.
“I guess we’re dating then,” Steve says without hesitation.
“You were supposed to fight me on that and tell me we need to come to a mutual decision,” Tony objects weakly.
“We have talked about this, Tony. You can’t ask me to decide and then object the decision.”
“I’m not objecting the decision, just the process.”
“You came up with the process.”
“You’re supposed to come up with a better one.”
“Alright, I’ll go. I’ll go and think of a better decision making process that will result in us dating.”
“Go,” Tony says. “And this time make sure there are more actions involved in that process and a lot less words.”
The sly smile that appears on Steve’s face lets Tony know that Steve knows exactly what he means. There is barely any hesitation in his movements as he steps around the desk and puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder. That’s where he hesitates, where he digs his fingers into Tony’s shoulders as if to confirm his assumptions.
“Do I have to do everything myself around here?” Tony sighs and pulls Steve down.