It's there from the beginning.
It's there when they first fight, when Tony hisses, “Everything special about you came out of a bottle.” It's there when he wakes up, after, when he says, “Please say nobody kissed me.” (Although, at that point he's more focused on the I'm alive, oh Jesus, I'm alive-part.)
But whatever, right? Contrary to popular belief, Tony does have something akin to self-discipline, and he can keep his attraction in check when he has to. He's not genetically disposed to sleep with everyone he meets, he just doesn't usually have a reason – a good one, anyway – not to. Hell, look at Pepper, and those 8 years they spent together before anything happened. (Actually, don't – don't do that. Pepper's a bad example.)
It's there when they move out for their second mission, against Victor von Doom (which soon becomes a common occurrence), and it's there for their third and fourth and fifth, too. Every mission makes them better, more of a unit, until Tony, with a mere glance at Steve, can fly him wherever he needs to go.
And somewhere along the line, Tony stops noticing, stops thinking about it. Besides, he definitely isn't the only one checking out Cap's ass in that tight leather, and what's a little harmless attraction between team mates? He bets STARK 3 Clint and Natasha have had kinky spy sex, at least once. (Which reminds him, he should get one of them drunk and get the filthy details surrounding that. What did happen in Budapest, anyway?)
The point is, it really isn't a problem until one day, after Tony's long lost count of the missions, Tony looks at Cap and thinks, shit. It might be mutual.
And attraction he can handle, but while he's been ignoring it, the feeling seems to have festered and grown inside him, and the thought that Steve might reciprocate makes his insides hurt.
Because Steve might be attracted to Tony, but there's no way in hell he'd go for more than that with another man – with Tony.
It's a bad idea, a horrible idea, and it would fuck up the balance of the team. Tony's not blind, he can see how Steve and he have one of the most seamless partnerships within the team – God knows how that happened – and this would unbalance that, would unbalance everything.
So Tony decides to, for once, suck it up, act like an adult, and do what he does best: pretend it isn't happening.
(Because even if, by some miracle, Steve wanted more, it still wouldn't last. Experience has taught Tony that. And when the end did come, Steve would leave, and he might take the team with him, and that – well, that's something Tony really doesn't want to dwell on.)
“Tony?” Steve's voice rings out in the sudden silence of the workshop. Tony bets he didn't even have to ask JARVIS to turn it down – his AI seems to have developed a fondness for patriotism personified.
Tony looks down at his soldering iron and, with a sigh, turns it off and wipes it on a sponge. He flips up his goggles and turns to face Steve. “Cap, hey,” Tony says, as Steve comes closer.
The New York workshop is large but comfortable – Tony planned to combine his space with Bruce's lab, but was informed that neither Bruce, nor the Hulk liked his taste in music. Or its volume.
“What are you doing?” Steve says, looking behind Tony. “It's – I thought, politics night?”
Politics night is a night when Steve and Tony – and whoever else wants to join, except Bruce, who gets scary passionate about the elderly – discuss politics. It started as a way to get Steve caught up on modern politics, which really needed to happen – Tony suspects SHIELD gave him some basic info, but it wasn't nearly enough, evidenced by when Tony joked with Rhodey about DADT and it left Steve befuddled. Now, though, it's basically devolved into Steve and Tony shouting their opinions at each other, and once in a blue moon arriving at a compromise or an agreement. What sounds terrifying is actually really, really fun, and it's refreshing to have Steve call him out on his bullshit – although Tony gives as good as he gets on that account.
However, politics night tends to get them both really fired up, and right now, Tony doesn't know if he can look at Steve's face, flushed and impassioned, and not do something stupid.
“I'm going to have to nod out, Cap,” Tony says. He flips his welding goggles back down. “I have stuff to do.”
“Like what?” Steve asks, and he looks skeptical. Tony misses the days where he could just spout technical jargon until Steve went away, but alas, such is the price of people actually knowing you.
“Need to fix Iron Man's left gauntlet,” Tony says, turning back to his work. It's true – for a relative definition of truth, anyway. The armor could always do with improvement.
“You sure?” Steve says, but Tony stands with his back to him and turns the soldering iron back on.
It's not really a conscious decision to pull away like he does over the next weeks, but Tony slowly realizes it's an inevitability. Steve and he can't continue like they have without something going wrong, and while Steve seems unaware – of Tony's attraction to him, or vice versa, or both, Tony can't say – that won't last. Steve might be old-fashioned, but he's not slow.
He thinks that maybe Steve would understand, would agree with Tony putting the integrity of the team before his own selfish wishes. However, he knows Steve, and he has a feeling Steve would say, forget about them. This is you and me, it doesn't have anything to do with them at all. Let's do this.
Or maybe he's just projecting.
“Who's on post-fight dinner today?” Tony asks over the comm. Today's villain is young, and they'd all gone easy on her in the beginning – the Iron Man armor can testify that that wasn't a good idea, as he's got more than a few scratches and bulks. (Jesus, he hates people with magnetic powers. Thank God he isn't a part of the X-Men, it would suck having to fight Magneto regularly.) However, when they'd realized the kid wanted to be taken seriously, it had been fast work getting her restrained and in specialized cuffs. After all, a teenager with newly realized powers and flaky judgment – and anyone who decides to act out by being a villain has flaky judgment, in Tony's opinion – versus five trained superheroes? Come on.
“Did this even warrant a post-fight dinner?” Natasha asks, her voice slightly hoarse after almost getting choked with a pipe. Tony can see her standing beside some rubble, shoulder to shoulder with Clint, who's putting away his bow. Bruce, who'd Hulked out in response to the Iron Man slowly compressing itself, is in a cheap pair of sweat pants and a shirt Tony's pretty sure isn't his. Thor's in Asgard, resolving some stuff with Loki and his trial – Tony didn't get the details, but it sounded terrifying. Asgardian justice is not something to kid around with. Steve's talking to the police, every once in a while looking over at the girl as she's led into a police car. Tony hopes the power dampeners do their job, or that could make for a really awkward car ride.
“You just don't want to pay,” Clint says. Post-fight dinners became somewhat of a tradition after the whole Loki business, and while some of the team members insist on making it themselves, like Bruce and Steve, others are a firm fan of eating out or buying take-out – namely, Tony and Natasha. Clint just somehow seems to weasel out whenever it's his turn, which was how they’d ended up eating sushi on Fury’s bill last time around.
“I don't see why I should pay for food when we live with a guy richer than Bruce Wayne,” Natasha says in reply. “And Steve could enter an eating competition and leave hungry.”
“Hey!” Tony cuts in, definitely not to defend Steve. That'd be ridiculous. “It's not exactly like you pay for housing, do you think a three hundred square feet apartment in Manhattan is cheap?”
“If you already own the building, yes,” she says, and Bruce breaks it up before it can get further.
“Guys, leave off it. I need to get back to change, because this shirt smells weird, and then we can figure it out there.”
Since the Iron Man armor can barely hold up Tony's weight, and Thor's in another realm, they don't have enough aerial support, so Tony has to call Happy to pick them up. It's a tight squeeze with four team mates in the back seat, especially when one of them is encased in a suit of armor – Clint claimed shotgun, because he's immature like that. (Doesn't matter that he beat Tony to it.) Tony's caught between Steve and the window. He knows, rationally, that he can't feel the heat of Steve beside him through the armor, but it still feels like it. “Shove over a bit, Cap,” he says. “I've already gotten squeezed once today, and that's quite enough, thanks.”
Steve reddens and shifts, but it's obvious he doesn't want to cling to Natasha, who's sitting on the other side of him, and so it doesn't have much effect at all. Tony would fly home if he thought he could, but even he wouldn't enjoy crash-landing in the middle of New York – not again, anyway.
Tony's in the kitchen when he's caught with his pants down. (Figuratively, although – it wouldn't be the first time.) He's just looking to get some coffee, because the one in the workshop was kidnapped by Clint. He's pretty sure it was Clint, anyway – a single arrow was left in its place, and he remembers Clint whining about how, if Tony got to do his favorite thing when caffeine was the only thing keeping him going, so should everybody else.
(The archery range lacked a coffee maker. Tony suspects it doesn't any more.)
Anyway, Tony is in the kitchen, and thinks, why not make a sandwich when he's already there. Which is why, when Steve says “Tony,” out of nowhere like some superhero ninja, Tony swears, jumps a foot into the air, and upends the bag of tomatoes he was holding all over the floor.
“Cap,” Tony says helplessly. The tomatoes roll around on the brown tile, barely visible in the tower's automatic night light settings.
Steve looks angry, and Tony's suddenly reminded that shit, this guy fought in World War II. It's not usually something you can see on his face. “Why are you avoiding me?” he asks, without preamble, eyes never leaving Tony's face.
“I.. haven't been?” It comes out a question, which really wasn't what Tony wanted at all. “I mean, I haven't been avoiding you, of course I haven't. I've just been busy, you know, Iron Man maintenance, and just because Pepper's CEO of Stark Industries now doesn't mean I don't have to do shit, unfortunately.“ He bends down to avoid Steve's stare and starts to pick up the tomatoes, until he feels Steve's large, warm hand on his shoulder. It startles him into looking up, still bent down with his hand reaching for a tomato. “Cap,” Tony says, and is absurdly proud when the name doesn't lose its warning tint.
“That's another thing, Tony,” Steve says, and his hand isn't moving, shit, “why am I Cap all of a sudden?”
“I don't know what you mean,” Tony replies, and straightens up to cover the strangled quality of his voice. It doesn't sound very convincing to him, either, so he's not surprised when Steve doesn't bite.
“Call me Steve,” he says – commands, really, and Tony is in deep shit.
“Steve,” he says, and because he's a masochist, he meets Steve's eyes as he says it. He means it to be light, breezy, but his voice catches and is burdened by emotion halfway through. He can see Steve's eyes grow darker, and the moment feels unbearably intimate in the half-light of the kitchen. Tony's acutely aware of the coldness of the kitchen tiles beneath his bare feet, of the weight of Steve's eyes on him, of every inch of space between their bodies. He feels open, stripped of all he is beneath Steve's gaze, like someone removed the arc reactor without him noticing, and he doesn't know if it's the lack of sleep or coffee, or Steve's proximity, but it's all too much. Steve's forced him into a situation he can't control, and Steve should know by now that that doesn't exactly have desirable effects.
Tony takes a ragged breath and bolts, barely avoids slipping on a tomato as he practically runs out of the room. He can feel Steve wanting to yell after him, only stopping himself to avoid waking up any of the others. Tony doesn't exactly feel like going back to inform him all the bedrooms are sound-proofed.
After meeting Steve in the kitchen, Tony doesn't see him for a while, and he firmly reminds himself that it's for the best. He stays away from the gym, gets another coffee machine for the workshop, and doesn't meet Steve's eyes over the meeting room table. It hurts, a little, but it'll pass.
Tony ends up in the workshop a lot, or Bruce's lab, or in the movie room with Natasha and Clint. There's a lot more dead time in his schedule than he thought, previously filled up by Steve – he hadn't realized how much time Steve and he spent together, but it only goes to show that this space between them is sorely needed.
Steve doesn't seek him out, either, not again, and Tony wonders if he finally saw what was going on – what could be going on – between them, and whether it disgusted him. There is only so much battering 40s morals can take, after all, and even though Steve had a positive reaction to gay marriage, it might be different when he came face to face with it like this. Or maybe he just remembered that Tony's Tony. It doesn't matter.
This is what Tony wants, after all, even if it doesn't feel like it right now.
Tony's in the workshop again, working on a new Starkphone to appease the board. Pepper's on a well-deserved vacation, and asked him to please handle anything that came up, including board meetings – either Tony's ability to handle the board has deteriorated since Pepper took over, or they've lost their tolerance to Tony's special brand of being. Tony's betting on the latter.
“Sir, Captain Rogers is requesting entrance,” JARVIS says, automatically lowering the volume of the blasting music and depriving Tony of an iconic guitar solo.
Tony sighs. “Yeah, okay, let him in.”
Steve doesn't say anything immediately. He walks towards Tony and stops not far away, standing at parade rest. It makes Tony kinda itchy, and he wonders if Steve even notices he's doing it anymore.
“I thought that you needed time to figure it out.”
Tony weighs the pros and cons of pretending he isn't hearing Steve, then gives it up as a lost cause. His fingers skitter and stop, the hologram of the disassembled phone still lighting up in front of him. He doesn't say anything.
“So I gave you space, but instead of using that space to make sense of things, you seem to just be avoiding it.”
If Steve's just here to put Tony down, he really doesn't need to – Tony has google alert for that sort of thing.
“You also seem to have some grave misconceptions about my stance on it.”
“This is a bad idea,” Tony says, finally. “I promise you, Steve, you don't want this.”
“Look at me and tell me I don't,” Steve says, but Tony won't turn, can't turn. Steve does it for him, grabs Tony by his shoulders and maneuvers him around. The tension between them grows, a low buzzing noise settling in Tony's ears. Tony shakes off Steve's grip after a moment, reluctantly.
“Steve—,” Tony sighs. “Look, it's best for you, me, everyone, that we don't do this.”
“Why?” Steve asks, and Tony meets his eyes without hesitation. Steve doesn't look uncomprehending, not exactly, but Tony can't decipher the look on his face.
“Because – well. What happens after?”
“Yes, after, don't play dumb. It won't— doesn't work out, and maybe we try to be professional about it, but that'll go to hell, because I'm the antonym of professional, and then where would we be?”
Tony waves a hand and continues, his eyes jumping between Steve's face and Dum-E, who's in his charging station behind Steve. “Anyway, in a shocking twist that surprises exactly no one, Fury will remember the whole 'Tony Stark not recommended'-thing when he sees the team not working, and then where would I be, you know? So.” The honesty of it feels crippling, like he's already showing Steve too much, but Steve has to understand. Tony doesn't know what he'll do if he doesn't.
Steve's quiet for a moment, and Tony still doesn't understand the look on his face. It looks dangerously close to pity, but Steve's too good for that. “Okay,” he says, finally.
“Okay?” Tony repeats, momentarily stupefied. Steve's stubborn as a mule on a good day, and he lets up on this with an okay? “Uh, okay then.”
“I'll leave you to your work,” Steve says, and nods at him. Tony watches him go, the arc reactor heavy in his chest.
Tony's in Bruce's lab, looking at the other man working. He does that sometimes, when the rest of the tower becomes too stifling and retreating to his workshop feels too anti-social – also, watching Bruce get his scientist on is pretty damn cool. Even though he doesn't appreciate Tony putting on a proper soundtrack to his working.
“I was lonely for a very long time,” Bruce says, out of the blue, and startles Tony.
“Shit, Bruce, did you inhale something?” he asks, to dissipate the sudden tension in his bones. Bruce's lab is supposed to be a happy place, damn it.
“I'm serious, Tony. In India, and in Russia, and in Spain – do you have any idea how lonely it is to go from place to place like that without anything tethering you? It was just me and the other guy, and he wasn't exactly company.” Bruce stays bent over his vials, writing down some results, and Tony's absurdly grateful that he has the decency not to do this face to face. It's still pretty bad that he does it at all, though.
“No, let me finish. It was a shitty time, and then Natasha came to get me, and that wasn't much fun either – but then I met you. All of you. And you've helped me. You especially, Tony, because you saw me when everyone else just saw a possible danger.” Bruce turns now, just to give Tony a look before turning back.
“Yeah, great, no problem, whatever. I hate honesty hour, is this going to become a thing?” Tony whines. He respects Bruce, but not enough to stop him belittling this awkward confession of man-pain.
“Just – we've helped each other, and we'll help you, too. If you let us,” Bruce says, and that's all that's said for the next quarter of an hour, thank God.
Tony's back in the communal kitchen. He's sitting by the table, eating a sandwich. Steve's on a meeting with Fury, and Tony's supposed to stop avoiding him now, anyway, which makes the kitchen fair game again. At least, he thinks he is. Steve seems to have gotten his point when they talked.
Natasha enters, and she barely spares Tony a glance before opening the fridge. Tony does a messy salute in greeting, then says, “Hey.” He can be civil, even if he and Natasha aren't the best match – totally not his fault, by the way, she's the one who hasn't warmed up to him. Tony was all warmed up and ready to go the first time he saw her, and Pepper can testify on that.
“Hello,” Natasha says back, and bends down to retrieve something from one of the lower shelves. Tony appreciates the view, until she briefly turns to give him a death glare.
He throws his hands up in surrender, but says, “I won't be faulted for appreciating a work of art.”
“Don't,” she says, and retrieves a spoon for her yogurt. She settles in the chair next to Tony, and he gives her a suspicious look – she usually prefers at least two chairs between them.
“What do you want?” he asks.
“I want you to stop being a dumbass,” she says, and licks the lid of her yogurt.
It takes Tony a minute to understand what she's talking about, and then Bruce's embarrassing moment makes much more sense. “Really? Is this some kind of intervention? Because I really don't need—“
“Remember when you were dying of palladium poisoning?” Natasha says, and that shuts Tony right up. He doesn't know how Natasha thinks he could forget, but for SHIELD's top spies, nearly dying is probably an everyday occurrence. But hell, he re-invented an element to stop it. That's not something you easily forget. “You did a lot of stupid shit then.”
“I still do a lot of stupid shit,” Tony says, defensive. It's something he takes a lot of pride in, after all.
“Yes, you do.” Natasha meets his eyes. “You take incredible risks, like flying a missile into space, and somehow you always come out of it unscathed. So why won't you risk this?”
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
“Don't even. We haven't gone up against anything like Loki, not yet, but we will, and who's to say we all come out of it okay? I shouldn't even have to say this to you, Stark, but any day might be our last. You'd do well to remember that.” Natasha's so brusque when she's herself – if Tony hadn't seen what she was able to do, he wouldn't have pegged her as a person who could interrogate anyone. Not without breaking a few bones, at least.
“Are you threatening me?”
“If I were, you wouldn't have to ask. Steve makes you better, Stark, and somehow you seem to make him better, too.” She leaves the kitchen with her yogurt, cementing Tony's theory that she only came to talk to him.
“I know you like me!” Tony shouts after her. “You should just admit it!”
Clint dumps down on the couch beside Tony. “Star Wars.”
“Yep.” Tony turns his head to acknowledge him, but doesn't look away from the screen.
“You're a fanboy at heart, Tony, I hope you know that.” Belying his words, Clint makes himself more comfortable, puffing up a couch pillow to place at his back.
“Please, if I were a proper fanboy I’d buy the Lucas ranch,” Tony scoffs, making Clint smirk. They sit in silence, only broken by the movie soundtrack. Still, Clint seems like he's waiting for something, and Tony glances to the side to find him staring right back.
“Oh God, are you here to give me the spiel too?”
“Nah, it's not really any of my business.”
“But I think you should remember that you're a pretty important part of this team, too.” Clint looks over at him, then seems to give up. “Hell, Tony, this is ridiculous. If there's an ego that really doesn't need inflating, it's yours, so can you just tell Steve I said you should bang? Because the unresolved sexual tension is killing everyone else.”
“Oh, like you and Natasha can talk.”
“That particular tension was resolved long ago,” Clint says, and smiles the sleazy smile of somebody having kinky spy sex – and a lot of it, too.
“I knew it! Clint, damn it, don't go – I want details!”
“Anthony! I am of the firm opinion that you and Steven should copulate! You have my utmost blessings!”
“Nay, I am Thor! And I must return to Asgard, my business is not yet resolved. Fare well!”
Tony gives up, after that. He takes the elevator to Steve's floor, and finds him on the couch watching TV. “JARVIS,” Tony says, and JARVIS dutifully pauses the match Steve's watching. Steve doesn't look as amazed as Tony thinks he ought, but a television wasn't exactly common before Steve went under.
“You've made your point,” Tony hisses at Steve. He stands in front of him. Steve looks up at him with a slight smile.
“Yes, now stop telling everyone to talk to me about it, it's absolutely ridiculous and embarrassing.”
“I didn't know you could get embarrassed. Did it work?”
“I – you made your point. But Steve, it's— would you just look at my track record with this thing? I am going to fuck it up. I'll push too hard, drive too fast – figuratively, don't think I haven't seen you on an open country road, you maniac – and it's just. You'll get fed up with me, and I know it.”
“No, you don't!” Steve seems to finally lose his composure, and Tony feels a sort of vindictive glee over it. Now they're on even ground at last, because Tony's been off his game from the beginning. “Look,” Steve continues, with an almost exasperated look in Tony's opinion. It's a good thing Tony knows Steve wouldn't condescend, because he's not far off right now. “It's obvious you can't trust yourself, but could you please, please trust me when I say that I'm not going to let that happen?”
“Steve, I'm not going to change for you. Not for anyone.” Tony's dead serious right now, his eyes rest on Steve's.
“Tony..” Steve sighs, rubs a hand over his face. “I love you.”
“Yeah, no, let's not,” Tony says, and goes to leave. Steve's up from the couch in a flash, grabbing his arm, and the contact makes Tony freeze, hyper-aware.
“Damn it, how broken are you? I'm telling you you don't have to change! Tony, I need you to trust me on this.”
“And I'm saying I can't!” Tony shouts it in Steve’s face, and the arc reactor grows heavier, and he feels like it’s going to crack open, like Steve is going to break him in half and see everything—
Steve grabs his face in his hands and kisses him. He kisses like he’s desperate, with too much enthusiasm and no finesse. Tony makes a noise and kisses him back, pressing into Steve. His arms wind up around Steve’s shoulders, and Steve’s wrap around his lower back.
It’s not a bolt of lightning, or a sudden revelation – it’s like his subconscious arrived at this conclusion days ago, and the rest of him is only now catching up.
Tony breaks the kiss with a groan, burying his face in Steve’s shoulder and reveling in the fact that he can do that now. “It’s not going to be easy,” he warns.
“I know,” Steve says, voice a little unsteady. Tony grins against his skin.
“Let me guess – it’ll be worth it?”
“It’ll be worth it,” Steve confirms, and leans back to give him a blinding grin.