“God, Steve! Don’t move!”
Steve froze in place, alarmed by Tony’s sudden appearance in the kitchen and outburst. “What?!”
Tony inched toward him cautiously wielding a large kitchen knife he seemed to have acquired. “Don’t panic, but I think your arm is being eaten by some sort of…dough-y monster.”
Steve sighed. “Tony, that’s a cake. It’s cake batter. I’m baking a cake—Tony, put the knife down!”
Tony raised an eyebrow but complied and dropped the knife he’d been brandishing back on the counter. “Why the hell would you do that?”
“Because it’s Bruce’s birthday!” Steve grinned.
They’d been all living together in the Avengers Mansion, as Tony had dubbed it after Clint had cracked a joke about living under Stark’s name, for almost three months. They were friendly, of course. You had to be once you started living in close quarters like that, but it tended to be largely business between them. Training, briefings, even just watching a movie to unwind never lacked the presence of what they were unwinding from. Things had been…tense, in Steve’s opinion. But he was going to fix that. As team leader, he felt camaraderie among the team was important. He knows he wouldn’t have gotten through the war if it hadn’t been for the support of Bucky and the Howling Commandos, so he was going to give the Avengers the same thing.
And he was going to start by throwing Bruce a birthday party.
The doctor hadn’t said anything himself, of course, but Steve had been given the files of each of his team members. He actually hadn’t read them. SHIELD collected all sorts of information, and Steve felt it was an invasion of privacy. But he had peeked at the first page. Just for their birthdates. (Natasha’s had been blank. He’d have to come up with something to do for her instead, he thought sadly.)
“Oh,” said Tony back in the kitchen, still eyeing the pale goop with suspicion. “So?”
“So?” echoed Steve. “So, that’s what you do. When it’s someone’s birthday. You make them a cake!” He gestured to the pan. He picked up an egg and cracked it on the metal edge.
“Careful!” said Tony, backing up a step. “Is it supposed to…ooze like that?”
“Tony,” said Steve, turning to face him, “you make it sound like you’ve never seen a raw egg bef—you know what, never mind. Yes, it’s supposed to do that.” He picked up the spatula and started blending in the flour, spreading little white puffs around and onto his shirt. He stirred for a few minutes in silence. Tony had not wandered away and was watching him work intently.
“You’re getting all dirty,” Tony noted. Steve smiled.
“Can’t make an omelet without cracking a few—” He stopped. “Yeah, probably going to need a different metaphor. Uh…can’t fight off an alien invasion without smashing a few buildings in the process?” Tony nodded with understanding. He went back to staring at the bowl, brow furrowed in concentration. Here, thought Steve, was Tony Stark. Billionaire, engineer, inventor of the arc reactor, hell, Iron Man himself. And he was watching a cake being made like it was the most scientifically-complex, fascinating process he had ever seen. Maybe to Tony it was. A brave new world of food preparation for a man whose food had always fallen out of the sky cooked just for him.
“Why not just buy a cake?” Tony piped up. He’d been expecting the question.
“Because that’s cheating,” answered Steve simply. “On your birthday, you get a homemade cake. That’s the rule.”
“Why?” How old was Tony, really—five? Steve sighed.
“Because…Because I don’t know, that’s just what you do.” He frowned. “I guess…when you buy a cake, that’s easy. Like you just happened to remember that it was their birthday. But if you bake them a cake, that says that you didn’t just remember. You took time and effort to show them that you care about them. That you appreciate them and want to express that.”
Tony leaned over Steve’s shoulder, dangling his face over the bowl. “This gunk says all that?”
Steve lifted it away from Tony and began pouring it into the pan. Tony watched it slide with fascination. “Yeah, I think it does.” They were silent as he poured, and Steve found himself thinking out loud. “I really think we need that around here, you know? We’re a team. Yeah, on SHIELD’s payroll, but if we don’t run together smoothly, we can’t work. I care about you. All of you.” Steve’s ears went pink. “And, I don’t know, I just don’t want us to be so distant. Thor’s rarely here anyway, Bruce is always holed up in his room or lab, Natasha’s constantly in the gym and hates to be talked to there, Clint’ll hang around but he’s so reserved with it, you know? And you—” Tony shuffled and scratched his eye. “Heck, you don’t even like me, even if you did come up from your workshop. So, I don’t know, I thought if we all got together to celebrate Bruce’s birthday it would…” He trailed off.
“Magically make us all friends and maybe we’d sing Kumbaya?” Tony finished for him.
Steve scowled. “You didn’t have to do that, Tony. I’m just trying to help. What are you doing?”
“I’m watching you help,” said Tony smugly. He cleared his throat. “Do you even know how to use that thing?” he asked as Steve slid the cake pan into the oven. “Isn’t cooking over an open flame more your era?”
“I know what I’m doing,” he said, blinking down at the stove. “And I think I’d prefer to go back to working alone. So, if you wouldn’t mind, Tony. I’ll see you tonight for the party.” He waved a hand behind him without looking.
Tony stepped back. “Yeah,” he nodded. “Yeah, all right.” Steve heard his footsteps as they disappeared. He sighed again into the silence.
Getting Natasha on board had been the hardest. Thor had just slapped him on the back, saying it was good of him to ‘honor his fellow warrior,’ Clint had merely shrugged, asked if there’d be beer, and agreed, and he could only hope he could count on Tony. Steve had saved Natahsa for last because…no, he wasn’t afraid of her, he wouldn’t quite say that. But he wasn’t particularly keen to disturb her either. He found her, inevitably, in the gym, silently beating a punching bag. He came up behind her, and Steve was certain she knew he was there, but she said nothing. He quietly cleared his throat.
“Can I help you, Rogers?” She kept up her punches.
“Um,” said Steve over the noise, “I wanted to ask you something—”
“So do it,” said Natasha, slamming her fist into the bag and sending it up high on its chain.
Steve sighed. This is why he was doing this. Besides, he thought, if he could invade a Nazi facility near-single handed, he could handle inviting a girl to a party. He’s not even sure he should count Natasha as a girl anyway. “Today’s Bruce’s birthday. I, er, wanted to throw him a party tonight. Something small, you know, with us. The Avengers. For him."
Natasha stilled but didn’t turn around. She stood there for a moment, and Steve couldn’t see her face to read it, not that he could ever read what Natasha was thinking. “What time?” she asked.
“Eight,” he said firmly.
She nodded and went back to punching, sending the bag flying rapidly in different directions. “See you then, Rogers.”
Steve grinned and relaxed. “Great. Thanks, Natahsa.” He started to walk away before he stopped and turned back to her. “You, uh, you might want to take it easy on the punching bag.” She stilled again, grabbing the bag to stop its flight. “Only, I bust about 14 already this week, and Fury used to get pretty mad at me for going through so many. But that was before living here. I suppose Stark can afford it, yeah?” He looked at her hopefully, but she said nothing. Well, he tried. He started to walk away again.
“I guess we can’t have that, then. So you and I should spar some time. Starting tomorrow, I think.” She went back to punching.
Steve beamed. “I look forward to it.”
The party went…yes, better than expected. Steve was willing to settle on that phrase. Everyone had collectively decided that surprising Bruce might not be the best of ideas, and Clint had gone to his room to collect him, roughly shouting, “Hey, Doc! Come eat your birthday cake!” That had left them with one very confused but pleased Banner, rather than a startled-by-flames-and-Thor’s-singing-voice Banner. They still warned him about Thor, just in case. After all, as he’d proudly announced upon arriving, Thor had been practicing. In his defense, Steve reflected, no one had ever made ‘Happy Birthday’ quite so…uh, gripping. They’d eaten the cake (which Tony had deemed ‘not half bad,’ and Steve knew that was as good as it was going to get from him), drank quite a lot of beer and then quite a lot of things that were not beer, laughed, and good lord, somewhere Clint found a Karaoke machine, which had inspired a new Avengers-Mansion-Rule: Things Which Thor is Not Allowed to Have. But that night at least, they’d been true drunk to care, and only a few windows had been shattered. Tony assured them he had a contractor on speed-dial and turned the music back up in time for Natasha to leave him gaping over her belted version of “Bennie and the Jets,” a performance Steve had made a special effort to engrain in his memory for all time, especially since she had staunchly denied ever doing such a thing the next morning. They’d been acting like actual friends, and Steve was over the moon.
Leave it to Stark to ruin it all. Tony had been drunk; they all were, except Steve, who’d been politely drinking beer anyway. He’d sat down on the couch to catch his breath, and Tony flopped down next to him.
“Everything going according to plan, Captain Hugs-Not-Drugs?”
Steve just smirked. “Now I know you’re drunk. Your nicknames are getting lamer.”
Tony waved a hand. “I’m doing just fine, thanks. Although I genuinely didn’t know there was a karaoke machine around here. I bet Coulson left it here. This has him written all over it.” Another window smashed. “Er, maybe not,” slurred Tony, sighing.
Steve looked at him slumped on the couch, frowning. “You know, you could at least to pretend to be having a good time. Everyone else is.” He gestured to the room. Natasha and Clint were now tangoing across the top of the bar.
“So I should? It doesn’t matter.”
Tony sat up, spilling some of his drink. “All of…this. It wasn’t my fucking idea to have you all move in for a perpetual superhero-sleepover.”
“No,” said Steve slowly, “It was mine.”
“Exactly. Captain fucking America. You’re a god damn superhero based on the idea that ‘apple pie and wholesome families and a...a checkered tablecloth’ is enough to save the day. So you brought all these people into my home, and now you also want to force everyone on each other, to make us…friends, like that’ll make some fucking difference.”
Steve cringed but ignored the insults. “It does make a difference, Tony. I’ve seen it.”
“Right,” slurred Tony, spilling more of his drink as he gestured widely, “in World War II. Well sorry we weren’t there, Grandpa, but this world is different. Nobody plays by the rules anymore. They fight dirty, and ‘camaraderie’ and ‘spirit’ don’t scare anyone off. As long as Iron Man and Captain America can work together, the rest is…irrelevant. Being your friend isn’t an advantage—it’s a liability.” He fell back against the couch, scowling. He’d gotten pretty loud, and the others were watching them now.
Steve just looked down at his hands. “Is that really how you see things? That…that being my friend would be a liability?”
Tony knocked back what was left of his drink and shoved the empty glass onto the table. “Yeah. It is.”
Steve shut his eyes and nodded. “Fine,” he said, standing up. “Fine. Then I’m done here.” He nodded to the others and walked out of the room. He didn’t look back once.
But the next morning, he’d woken up to a silent house of sleeping, hung-over heroes, and for a minute, he’d forgotten what had happened. He rolled over and groaned when it came back to him. What had he done wrong?
He liked Tony. He’d liked Tony since they first met, despite him being an arrogant jerk. Because Tony had quickly shown Steve it was all talk, that when it came down to it, Tony was a hero and, above all, a good man. Even when he didn’t see it himself. Steve had to believe in that. He wanted to be close to Tony. He knew, first and foremost, he had to keep things professional, but he saw no reason why they shouldn’t be friends. How could Tony say that? He’d tried everything to break into Tony’s world, and he still kept him out. Maybe there was nothing he could do. Maybe they would simply never get along. But he didn’t have to shout that out to the whole team last night. That was Tony though—full of himself and destructive and solely self-interested. Steve used to believe that wasn’t true about him, but maybe, after everything, that was who Tony would always be.
He just wished, he thought as he stepped into the shower, that being wrong didn’t have to hurt so much.
He didn’t expect to see anyone until at least 2 pm, but he made sure there was a pot of coffee ready to go, and sure enough, Avengers stumbled into the kitchen one by one come the afternoon. All of them except Tony. Steve kept his voice low.
“How is everyone?” he whispered.
“Go to hell, Supersoldier,” muttered Clint as he started pouring mugs of coffee for everyone. Natasha looked more disheveled than he’d ever seen her, Thor was wearing very little and was, for once, very quiet, and Bruce was wearing sunglasses. Steve smirked.
But he didn’t see Tony all day. Not that it was a huge mystery. Steve didn’t need to ask JARVIS to know he’d be lurking in his workshop, as usual. Hiding from Steve? No, he dismissed the thought. That would mean he felt bad about hat he’d said. Which would mean he cared. And we all knew that wasn’t true. So Steve went about his day. And then his week. Without any calls for the Avengers, he had no reason to see Tony. And that was fine. Really.
He was getting ready to sleep, finally convinced that Tony was going to hide in his basement all week, when there was a soft knock at the door. Steve finished pulling on his white t-shirt before saying, “Come in?”
The door creaked open, and Steve took a step back in surprise. There was Tony Stark, standing in his doorway looking tired and disheveled. In his hands was a plate with….God, Steve didn’t know what it was. It was black and gnarled, and little bubbles were piled on top like parts of it were trying to escape. For a moment, he forgot he was angry. “Tony, what did you do?!”
Tony glanced down at the monstrosity in his hands, looking slightly hurt. “You know, for a one-of-a-kind AI, JARVIS really should be able to give better instructions,” he muttered.
Steve frowned. “What?”
Tony lifted the plate slightly. “Instructions. A recipe. For a birthday cake. Uh, for you.”
Steve blinked, making sure he’d heard Tony correctly. “A b—Tony, my birthday isn’t until July.” He looked down at it again. “And I’m not entirely certain that qualifies as cake.”
“I did try,” said Tony quietly, looking up at him.
And there it was again. That quiet sincerity he sometimes got. That had attracted Steve to him in the first place—that had shown him there was so much more to the man. And when he kept doing stuff like last night, Steve couldn’t tell which way was up with Tony. It was too much.
“Tony, what are you doing here?”
“I’m bringing you a…cake."
Tony sighed. “Because I care about you,” he said simply.
That was not the answer Steve had been expecting. “Because…what?”
“Because I care about you,” Tony repeated carefully.
Tony sighed, setting down the charred heap on the dresser. “It’s…it’s what you told me. You said that when you made someone a birthday cake, it meant that you cared about them. That’s what you said. I thought you would understand.”
Steve blinked at him. Yep. That settled it. Tony was actually five-years-old. “And you thought trying to bake a cake would make up for what you said to me that night?”
Tony winced but said, “Uh, yeah, I did.”
Steve took a step away and ran a hand through his hair. “Tony, tell me, really, what are you doing. You tell not only that we can’t be friends, but that being my friend would be an actual liability. Now you’re here with some half-assed attempt at an apology, or at least I hope it is, saying you care about me. Which is it.?”
“Both,” Tony muttered.
“I,” Tony began, starting to pace, “I do care about you, Steve, Of course I do. But that’s the problem. We’re superheroes, right? Well I don’t know about you, but since I started this damn job, the people I care about tend to get hurt. Badly. And that’s a liability. I can’t just,” he dragged his hear back from his forehead, “I can’t put people at risk like that anymore. I’ve nearly gotten Pepper and Rhodey killed half a dozen times. Can you imagine what would happen if…” He trailed off.
Steve looked up at him. “If?”
Tony took a deep breath. “If I let myself fall for you.”
Steve gaped at him for a moment. How did they get here? “Oh,” was all he could say.
“Yeah. Oh. Look, just forget about it, ok Steve? Just, can we pretend this didn’t happen, and it’ll be better for everyone. I just…I just wanted to you to understand. And that I’m sorry.” He turned for the door.
“Wait,” said Steve, biting his lip. He knew if he didn’t take it now, he’d never get this chance again. Maybe never get this Tony again. So he decided.
Tony sighed and turned back. “What?”
“That was good,” said Steve quietly. “You finally told me what you were thinking. For once. And I get it. I really do. You think people haven’t gotten hurt because of me? I know what that’s like, Tony, I really do. So I understand completely.”
“Well…great,” said Tony.
“Except you forgot one thing.”
“That I’m a superhero, too. I can handle myself. And I can make my own choices, thank you.” And with that, he stepped into Tony and pulled him in for a kiss, the cake lying completely forgotten beside them.